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The Value Of A Man - 9/10/2009

It never ceases to amaze me.  If something is going to go wrong, it inevitably occurs in the dead of night, on a weekend, or when you’ve left home for a period of time.  We returned  home to find a cascade of water falling from the upper balcony to the front of the garage doors.  It wasn’t the first time, so we knew what it likely was.  Either the hot water heater had malfunctioned and the water overflowed the holding pan, or the pipes taking the condensation from the air conditioners had corroded for the third time.  We immediately called several plumbers, none of whom were available because it was the weekend.  

Finally, I recalled that a friend had touted the virtues of a new plumber he discovered.  I called him, he gave me the plumber’s phone number and lo and behold, the plumber answered!  He agreed to be at our home within the hour.   To my surprise, he was.  The work was completed efficiently and effectively.  I felt I had discovered a gem of a human being.  Someone I could rely on, who was dependable, available and, obviously, dedicated and proficient at his job.

Needless to say, I took his card and looked at the name.  For this article’s purpose, I’ll call him Mark Davis.  “Mr. Davis,” I said, “I am very appreciative of your efforts, your time and what you did for me.  There’s another job I’d like done and I wonder if it’s possible for you to do it?”  He agreed.  I suggested the work be completed the following Thursday.  He checked his blackberry and said, “I’d love to but, unfortunately, I can’t, it’s a Jewish holiday.”  For a moment, I was startled.  First of all, Mark Davis wasn’t, to my way of thinking, a typically Jewish name.  Second, he was tall, thin and appeared to be of Swedish or Norwegian origin.  Third, Jews aren’t plumbers, are they?  The amazement must have showed on my face, because he looked at me and said, “You’re surprised?”  I confessed. To my chagrin, I had obviously stereotyped him and defined him by his name and appearance.   After overcoming that obstacle, we agreed on another date for the additional work and parted on good terms.  The incident was over, but not in my mind.

For a while, I thought about my reaction.  I concluded that it was an error anyone could have made and attempted to dismiss it.  But something nagged at me.  I thought, generations ago in little shtels in Poland, Russia and Germany, there were towns that were made up primarily of Jews.  They were, for the most part, farming communities comprised of people of the land who raised crops and had livestock. Very likely, all the plumbers, electricians and laborers were also Jewish.  

I then thought back to my childhood in Atlantic City, N.J.  Sure, many of the doctors and lawyers, bank presidents and CPA’s were Jewish.  But I recall that the plumbers, electricians and many of the repairmen were people who went to the same synagogue my family attended.  It made me think about their status, their reputations and the way we perceived them.  I don’t recall them being looked down upon.  They weren’t lesser human beings because they hadn’t gone to private school, been in advanced classes, or completed a college degree.  They were well respected, valued members of our community.  

It took some time for me to collate this information and to realize that something has changed.  Nowadays, you listen to your friends and acquaintances and hear how one son went to Harvard, another to MIT  and their daughter to Cornell and you shamefully hang your head, or attempt to hide the fact that your child or grandchild only went to Emory, Indiana, the University of Arizona, or, God  forbid, North Texas State.  If your daughter or granddaughter came home saying, “I have found the right man.  He’s wonderful.  He’s so good to me.  He’s kind, considerate and dependable”, your first question would probably be, “What does he do?”  Sadly, if her answer was, “he’s a plumber, a journeyman electrician, or a carpenter”, I can visualize myself feigning a smile, being polite and accepting, but inwardly feeling a little sick to my stomach.  Probably my thought would be, “She could do better.”  But you know something?   I view that as a shortcoming in me.  I see it as another example of myself and, in far too many instances, most of the members of the Jewish community, forgetting that all the world isn’t a doctor, lawyer, CPA or businessman.   That building a community requires constructing it from the ground up.  I have many friends who are MD’s, PhD’s, LLB’s, etc., who have all kinds of initials after their names, but they’re incapable of using a screwdriver or hammer, or knowing how to put together a barbecue or bookshelf that comes unassembled.  Of course, that isn’t looked down upon, it’s usually accompanied by the thought, “why would anyone want to get callouses on their lily-white hands?”   It’s sad that people forget their origins and too often judge others by their appearance, their dress and  their credentials.  Susan Boyle, the 2009 singing sensation on BBC’s “Britain’s Got Talent”, is one example of that, but there are countless others.  

It’s ironic that my wife recently informed me that in these hard-pressed economic times, there are numerous graduate attorneys and engineers without employment who are desperately vying for an opportunity to substitute teach at her school.  Interestingly, however, there aren’t any electricians, carpenters or plumbers competing with them.  The reason? They’re all busier than ever and substitute teaching doesn’t pay them enough.  The irony is that numerous people who work with their hands or have mechanical ability are still out there making a living, while many of those who have passed the litmus test of “acceptability”, educationally or professionally, are seeing rough times.  All of which brings home the fact that you cannot and should not judge a (person) book by its cover.  That human beings need to be valued who they are, instead of how much they earn, their college education, or the public esteem their position elicits.  Interestingly, when hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, most of you, fortunately, weren’t in need of a physician or an attorney, but would have given your right arms for an electrician who could turn on your air conditioners, refrigerators and freezers!   In the storm’s aftermath, those individuals were at a premium.  Perhaps they deserve the same status and respect without a catastrophe.  It’s another example that points out the fact that it requires the hard work, skill, knowledge and coordinated efforts of everyone who makes up a community, from the laborer to the elected official, to help make it run.

The moral is that (even though you’re Jewish), you shouldn’t be embarrassed if your child decides not to go to college, to seek another avenue as his destiny, or to approach the world in a way that has true meaning and value only to him or her.  So, this Rosh Hashanah, try to remember that the value of every living being isn’t determined by his/her salary or educational degree but, instead, by the size of his heart, the goodness of his person and the degree to which he contributes to his fellow man.

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