Everyman a Handyman !

I think that all youngsters should have instruction — formal and informal — in basic carpentry, plumbing, electricity, auto mechanics, and similar subjects, and I think that such instruction should be consistent and prolonged. My reasons here are only partially practical.

Young children do get training in soccer, in dancing, sometimes in chess, often in music, and sometimes even in cooking. But training with basic tools ? I have never heard of it. I suppose that farm children, or at least the boys, do get such training early on. But this does not seem to happen anywhere off the farm.

The practical need for such skills is obvious. When something goes wrong around the house or apartment, or in the car, those with basic handyman skills can take care of it more often than not. Obviously, anything serious needs a serious specialist, but, in my experience, most problems of life do not rise to that degree of difficulty.

Beyond the obvious convenience of being able to solve many of life’s little problems, I believe that a habit of problem solving by the use of manual skills will help develop the practical aspects of intelligence. I would think that this is the case even though I have not looked into the technical literature on the subject, if any.

So much for the utilitarian considerations. There is also an ethical, moral, and philosophical side, which is not free of problems but which, in the end, is the decisive consideration for me.

Various movements in Europe, beginning roughly in the middle of the 19th century, spoke of an ethical, redeeming value of manual labor. A. D. Gordon (1856-1922) represented this strain in the early Zionist movement, and there is no doubt his thought and life had an important influence on the kibbutzim and continue to influence aspects of Israeli thought today. Elsewhere, very similar ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Marx, the anarchists, and many others, constitute one of the living legacies in Western thought.

Much of this legacy is shoddy or worse. The totalitarian movements, both Nazi and Communist, adapted snippets of manual-labor worship as part of their propaganda (consider, for instance, the “proletarian art” of the Stalin era, and the similar esthetic of the Nazi art scene). And, at least since Marx’s 1844 essay “The Jewish Question,” it became a staple of certain left-wing (and later Nazi) propaganda to accuse the Jews of being “parasites” because Jewish occupations were seldom manual.

So the broad “religion of [manual] labor” (a phrase associated with the thought of A. D. Gordon) had connections with all the horrors of the last two centuries. Nevertheless, I would maintain, the notion of manual work as an ethically positive should not be dismissed on account of the perversions of this idea by the totalitarians.

I do get uneasy when some of the young people that I encounter are too exclusively engrossed by techniques of amassing money and status — the study of business administration, for example. Obviously not all bookish work in schools of business administration — and certainly not the bookish work required for mastery in other branches of scholarship — is to be suspected on ethical grounds. But I would like to see more of a general appreciation of manual skills to be acquired for their own sake, or at least for practical ends that are separate from those of advancing in the eyes of the world.

I cannot prove that effort and time spent on developing manual skills will make people better human beings. I cannot prove it, but I believe it nonetheless.

So — everyman, every girl and every boy — a handyman !

Yivo’s Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe

A few months ago there occurred an event in Jewish scholarship that was not marked as it should have been: the publication of “The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,” edited in two volumes by Gershon Hundert.

A great review of this work by Professor Bernard Wasserstein, in itself a monument to Jewish scholarship, appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of December 18-25, 2009. Click here for this review-article.

And here is the best part: the whole of this important work is available on-line to the public, free of charge, courtesy of YIVO. Our profound thanks must go to these folks on West 16th Street. Click here to consult the book.

Archives of Medical Ethics

One day, she confronted a woman and her mother, who were getting into an illegally parked black sedan with medical license plates, which often had a placard in the window. “I said, ‘How do you like your parking space?'” the executive recalled. “And she said, ‘I went to school for many years and worked very hard for this.’ And I said, ‘For a parking space?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And her mother said to her, ‘Close the window!'”
—Lizzi Widdicombe, The New Yorker, Jan. 18, 2010