Em­brace your in­ner geek and solve traf­fic jams

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HIS­TORY YE­HUDA BAUER

WHEN I was at sec­ondary school, the com­puter room was my favourite place. I re­mem­ber stand­ing out­side the door at lunch-time wait­ing for com­puter club to start, feel­ing a tin­gle of an­tic­i­pa­tion at the thought of get­ting back to the pro­gram I was in the mid­dle of writ­ing. The process of learn­ing to speak to a com­puter in its own lan­guage — tweak­ing and cor­rect­ing the code bit by bit un­til fi­nally the ma­chine un­der­stood what you were telling it to do — seemed like a kind of magic to me. I know — not ex­actly cool, was I? Ex­cept…I have a real prob­lem with that last sen­tence. Why, after declar­ing an in­ter­est in some­thing like com­puter pro­gram­ming, do I feel the need to make a joke about how un­cool I was? How can I not have got past that yet? I am not a teenager any more. I haven’t been one for nearly 23 years.

Sec­ondary school can be an over­whelm­ingly tribal place. Sta­tus is ev­ery­thing, and the mak­ing of friends is a po­lit­i­cal process where your so­cial stand­ing de­pends on who you hang out with.

I went to an all-girls school — a cru­cible of gos­sip and ri­valry, fleet­ing al­liances and dra­matic fallings-out. I didn’t re­ally en­gage with much of this, and at the time I def­i­nitely thought less of my­self for it. Th­ese days, though, I ac­tu­ally feel quite proud of how faith­fully I pur­sued my own hob­bies there — com­put­ers, books, mu­sic — and made my own like-minded friends who en­joyed that stuff, too. I knew I wasn’t pop­u­lar and I cer­tainly didn’t love that fact, but nor did

I try to get in with the ‘in’ crowd. Those girls held no ap­peal for me — I didn’t want to spend time with them.

In the adult world, th­ese pre­oc­cu­pa­tions be­come hugely di­luted, but there’s still an en­dur­ing sense that some in­ter­ests have a higher sta­tus than oth­ers. Last year, an ar­ti­cle went around on so­cial me­dia. Writ­ten by David Hop­kins, it was called How a TV Sit­com Trig­gered the Down­fall of Western Civ­i­liza­tion. It was about Ross from Friends — the ar­che­typal Jewish geek. The au­thor ar­gued that the way he was treated by the other five was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the anti-in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism in mod­ern so­ci­ety:

“Any time Ross would say any­thing about his in­ter­ests, his stud­ies, his ideas, when­ever he was mid-sen­tence, one of his “friends” was sure to groan and say how bor­ing Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that no­body cares.”

Since the days of Friends, be­ing a geek has ac­quired a new so­cial ac­cept­abil­ity — just see The Big Bang The­ory — but there’s still a sense of judg­ment im­plied there that I find wholly in­ap­pro­pri­ate: an idea that you’re now “al­lowed” to be geeky. What pos­si­ble busi­ness is it of any­one else what an in­di­vid­ual’s en­thu­si­asms are?

By the time we are prop­erly adults, and have moved be­yond the des­per­ate in­se­cu­ri­ties of ado­les­cence, it should be pos­si­ble to pur­sue the things we en­joy with­out that say­ing any­thing what­so­ever about our so­cial sta­tus. But more than that — if, in­stead of mock­ing peo­ple for their in­ter­ests, we stop for a mo­ment and lis­ten to what they have to say, then we can find out some fas­ci­nat­ing things. When peo­ple are pas­sion­ate about a sub­ject, that pas­sion is con­ta­gious: we can catch it too, even if just for the few min­utes we are talk­ing to them.

To prove this point to my­self, I de­cided to watch the most bor­ing­sound­ing TED talk I could find. TED is a col­lec­tion of speeches by peo­ple who are lead­ers in their field, are hugely en­thu­si­as­tic about what they do and are ex­perts in com­mu­ni­cat­ing that en­thu­si­asm. My rea­son­ing was that it should be pos­si­ble to watch a TED talk about any­thing at all and find that it keeps my at­ten­tion at least on some level. Brows­ing the TED web­site, it was cu­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to force my eye to skip over the many en­tic­ing topics and alight on what sounded (to me) like the dullest sub­ject pos­si­ble. In the end, I chose Jonas Elias­son’s How to Solve Traf­fic Jams.

My the­ory was vin­di­cated. In 10 min­utes, I laughed out loud once, noted down a sen­tence that I felt had a wider rel­e­vance in life, and was ab­sorbed through­out. And I now know how to solve traf­fic jams! Ap­par­ently, if you in­tro­duce a con­ges­tion charge dur­ing rush hour, peo­ple make small changes to the time they drive, with­out even notic­ing. By dip­ping my toe briefly into an un­fa­mil­iar world, my day was en­riched.

So, what­ever you like do­ing — whether it’s col­lect­ing min­er­als or hav­ing man­i­cures, hon­ing your backgam­mon skills or play­ing the bal­alaika — it’s all good. There is no need to apol­o­gise.

Let’s try the be­gin­ning of my col­umn again: When I was at sec­ondary school, the com­puter room was my favourite place. And that’s com­pletely fine. Why do I feel the need to joke about be­ing un­cool?


SO, WHAT else is new? The amount of po­lit­i­cal speeches about the Ghetto Up­ris­ing in War­saw, which started on April 19, 1943 — the eve of Pe­sach — and lasted for a num­ber of weeks at least, prob­a­bly more, is le­gion. No self-re­spect­ing Jewish Is­raeli politi­cian of what­ever hue can re­sist talk­ing about “Never Again”, and “We Shall Al­ways Re­mem­ber.” We then hear about the so-called ‘lessons’ of the re­bel­lion, which are al­ways in­ter­preted as re­lat­ing to con­tem­po­rary is­sues — Iran, Ji­hadism, Jewish strength (or weakness, de­pend­ing on one’s pol­i­tics), usu­ally end­ing with a call for Jewish unity, in the name of the 1943 rebels.

Non­sense. True, the past does, up to a point, in­form the pre­sent and, pre­sum­ably, the fu­ture, but the in­stru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of the Holo­caust gen­er­ally, and of the War­saw Ghetto up­ris­ing specif­i­cally, is a dis­tor­tion of both the past and the pre­sent.

New re­searches have cor­rected, though not changed, our un­der­stand­ing of the re­bel­lion. The story we told is of per­haps some 750 fight­ers, poorly armed, fight­ing for the hon­our of the Jewish peo­ple against im­pos­si­ble odds. The charis­matic leader was Mordechai Anielewicz who stood at the head of a coali­tion of all non-re­li­gious po­lit­i­cal group­ings in the ghetto with the ex­cep­tion of the Rightwing Zion­ist Re­vi­sion­ists and their Be­tar youth move­ment (no re­li­gious Zion­ist groups ex­isted in the un­der­ground, and the ul­tra-ortho­dox Agu­dah op­posed armed re­sis­tance). The move­ment was called the Jewish Fight­ers’ Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Zy­dowska Or­gan­isacja Bo­jowa or ZOB). After the first few days of a suc­cess­ful fight against im­pos­si­ble odds, by about April 23-24, the Ger­mans be­gan set­ting fire to the ghetto, forc­ing the re­sisters to re­sort to night-time guerilla tac­tics. Orig­i­nally, no un­der­ground bunkers had been pre­pared, be­cause the as­sump­tion was that the fight­ing would take place in the houses. Now they needed the bunkers. The ghetto pop­u­la­tion, prob­a­bly some 50,000 or so, sup­ported the fight­ers, and this is a cen­tral fac­tor in the re­bel­lion. The Jewish un­der­world, the smug­glers, thieves, and crim­i­nals, who had the best-equipped bunkers, opened them to the fight­ers.

There was a sec­ond, smaller, armed group: the Jewish Mil­i­tary Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Zy­dowski Zwiazek Wo­jskowy or ZZW), most prob­a­bly founded two or three months after the ZOB. The ZZW would join the ZOB only if the com­mand of the united group would be in the hands of the ZZW. The ZZW also ob­jected to the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Com­mu­nists and the Bundists (the All­ge­meyner Yid­disher Ar­beter­bund, the ma­jor Jewish po­lit­i­cal party on the eve of the war, with its anti-Zion­ist and anti-re­li­gious plat­form); by late Oc­to­ber, 1942, both were part of the ZOB struc­ture.

The ZZW had ob­tained more and bet­ter arms, which of course they would not share with oth­ers. The ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences were deep: the ZOB, or at least most leading per­son­al­i­ties in it, saw the ZZW as fas­cists; the ZZW saw the ZOB as a hap­haz­ard group of politi­cos who Thieves and crooks opened bunkers to the »PQ]N[\ could not rep­re­sent a fight­ing Jewish peo­ple. At the last mo­ment, be­fore the ac­tual fight­ing be­gan, the two groups agreed on sep­a­rate, but loosely co­or­di­nated ef­forts. ZZW con­cen­trated their main ac­tion on Mu­ra­nowska Square in the main ghetto, and had two small groups in two other parts of the ghetto. The ZOB acted in all ar­eas.

In the post-war era, most of the writ­ing about the re­bel­lion was about the ZOB. The ZZW was oc­ca­sion­ally men­tioned, but the prob­lem was that whereas rem­nants of the ZOB, in­clud­ing some of its lead­ers, had man­aged to es­cape through the sew­ers, led by ‘Kazik’ (Sim­cha Rotem), who man­aged to do so with the help of some Pol­ish sewage work­ers. There were almost no sur­vivors of the ZZW, and no one that had taken part in the fight­ing at Mu­ra­nowska Square. Today, Kazik, a won­der­ful man, is old and frail, the only sur­vivor of that group still alive.

The ide­o­log­i­cal heirs of the ZZW are the right-wing Zion­ists of today’s Likud. From the early six­ties, some of their ad­her­ents, and, later, mainly politi­cians (such as for­mer Cabi­net Min­is­ter Moshe Arens) took up the cud­gels in sup­port of the ZZW story, ar­gu­ing that it had been dis­re­garded by the left­ist heirs of the ZOB for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. This does not quite hold wa­ter: for in­stance, Yad Vashem, in 1964, rec­og­nized a Pole, Hen­ryk Iwan­ski, as a Right­eous

Sim­cha ‘Kazik’ Rotem, who led the last fight­ers to free­dom through the sew­ers

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