Embrace your inner geek and solve traffic jams
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