It’s that time of year again – end of the year for every level of academic pursuit, from nursery schools to PhD programs. Israeli society has a curious take on ceremonial passages, as seen through the eyes of the newcomer. By newcomer I mean me, one who will be celebrating 33 years of life in Israel next month.
When it comes to the tender years, the rites of passage are formal and obligatory. No working mother would consider missing a gan party without pangs of conscience playing heavily upon her, fears of intensive psycho-therapy looming large in her child’s future. (Although, my informal, unscientific survey indicates that the male of the species seems less afflicted).
So barring the rare excuse of “bed rest” under doctor’s orders, I was there. Every tekes for a new Chumash, every Chanukah party, every end of the year play, I came and despite my inner cynic trying to subdue maternal instincts, I kvelled with the best of them.
Oddly, as the children grew, the bigger the ceremony seemed to be accompanied by a more lax attitude as to the necessity of attendance. The formality of the occasion seemed in reverse ratio to the stature of the institution, both in the program created, and the importance it played in the minds of the parents and especially the graduates.
One master’s degree ceremony at Tel Aviv University had the atmosphere of a worker’s committee outing, with lawn chairs sprawled out haphazardly on the lawn, and people filtering in nonchalantly throughout the program. An honored professor on the stage for the main ceremony took his place wearing cut- off shorts, a t-shirt and, of course, sandals. Let’s not even discuss formal academic robes (which would at least have hidden the shorts).
The beautiful amphitheater at Hebrew University, with its pastoral view of the Judean Hills and Moab on a clear day, is one of the most beautiful settings imaginable for a graduation. Yet, the audience needs to be admonished that they should remain for the graduates at the end of the alphabet to receive their degrees before leaving. To no avail – nobody wants to be a freier.
After arriving at a Hebrew University’s law school graduation, we searched out the crowd to find our friends who should have been there. But they were nowhere to be found – their graduate (with honors, yet) had not even mentioned that it was taking place.
All of this I still find to be in stark contrast to the world I left behind. I am reminded of this every June, now in the age of You Tube, when we can all be voyeurs as we watch other people’s children get their due. (Never mind what is still due on their loans). The strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” are less trite than they used to sound. The big plus, though, is when a commencement speech that is truly inspiring rises above the empty words most graduates hear.
Firstly, in terms of the cultural gap I have traversed, I look at these clips with no small amount of fascination. The capped and gowned graduates are seated front and center with their peers, the parents and other proud well-wishers line the stadium or field house or whatever building is large enough to house the crowd. Tickets are limited for each graduate and not taken for granted- large families cannot all be accommodated. People dress up – the grads, the parents, and especially the honorees on the stage. And the gowns - impressive arrays of colors and traditions as the various hoods from different academic institutions are worn proudly. There is something to be said for recognition of accomplishment.
I can already hear the grumblings. I am well aware how hot it is in Israel in the summer. Okay, so forget the gowns. I know that Israeli society is loathe to follow ceremonial formality. A residue of living under the British Mandate, it is said. Ties with suits were rarely seen in the Knesset for many years, instead we saw widely spread collars over jackets for such formal occasions. Yet, those years are long gone, as gone as the leisure suit. And, anyone who has had children in the army knows that when it is desired, Israeli culture can pull off formal ceremonies to compete well with the best of event planners anywhere.
Secondly, occasionally these clips bring a much-needed shot of re-enforcement of core values. Not my hard-earned Israeli values gained through an ongoing climb up the hill of Cultural Absorption. No, I mean the values I was raised in, which are now co-mingled with the values of where I choose to live.
I have no re-collection of any on my own commencement speeches. So it is all the more special when words of real wisdom cross through this barrier of the trite and predictable. A few years ago, Steve Jobs took the honors for a speech that would stay with the graduates long after his own early demise. It went viral within days of his passing.
But this year, I have a nominee for most inspiring commencement address. It is not always the singularly famous, like Jobs, that can give us a much needed spark. We can get inspiration from the unknown as well.
Ever hear of Steve Karmen? I didn’t think so. But you know his work. A composer of music for commercials, movie soundtracks, and so on – the background music of the economic life of America; the jingles. Not only was he a successful composer, he was an astute businessman, insisting on royalties for the repeated usage of his efforts. He might not be a Steve Jobs, but I suspect he is long from being a starving musician.
His success was recognized by Binghamton University SUNY in upstate New York where he was given an honorary doctorate degree last month. So, on a warm spring day, like at many other similar ceremonies across America, the captive audience of parents and graduates listened to his commencement speech to close the significant journey each student took and the sacrifices each family took to be there.
What does all this have to do with art, my readers, by now exasperated, are probably wondering. Everything. Karmen describes in great detail what it is like to be the kid that somehow took a wrong turn in life. He didn’t follow the path carved out, sensibly, and with great love and wisdom, by the parents. He picked his own path, despite clear messages, if not obstructions, set before him to discourage him. He didn’t choose the safe path, he didn’t choose the one that would earn him approval by society or his family. Though wildly successful, he retains the niggling sense of never having achieved the ultimate reward: parental approval.
The path he chose was to do “something that I love.” This is a hard piece of advice in all times. It is an especially gutsy piece of advice to give in an economy plagued by insecurity and high unemployment.
For creative people who have dedicated themselves to pursuing their thing that they love, it is more often than not a path fraught with difficulties, risky in every possible way, and only a very few will achieve financial independence or recognition. Yes, there is a lot to be said for a steady paycheck. There is also a lot to be said for being true to oneself. Two traditional stories in Judaism touch on these universal dilemmas, those of Moses (Moshe) and of Zusha, discussed here.
In the end, it is not easy to develop natural talents and still pay the bills. A lot of people are talented, yet circumstances do not allow for everyone to “follow their dreams.” Not everyone can depend on family support, emotional or monetary. “Job satisfaction” is often a luxury, not as high a priority as the basics of living life. Not every family can afford to encourage their talented offspring- knowing full well what a rude awakening awaits them when looking for jobs, supporting families, and especially in Israel, when trying to purchase a modest home to start life.
No one knows this better than Karmen, who despite it all, stuck to his own path, and even now, having achieved success and being recognized for it, can appreciate his own accomplishments from both the perspective of the square-peg-in–the-round-hole gifted child and from the perspective of the all-responsible single father of three. And now, perhaps, he can feel that maybe, just maybe, he has not disappointed his mother.
I guess this leads me to the not so surprising conclusion for the parents that the difficult and scary realization is that children are not One Size Fits All. That should be a best-selling record on the top of the charts, but, it is unlikely to be a big hit. The flip side of this record is written by the children: when growing up, children must be excruciatingly astute as well as stubbornly aware as to what it is that makes them special, what it is that sets them apart from their friends, and how to cling to it as a map to their own path to happiness. And that, makes all the difference.
Please click here to watch Steve Karmen’s speech. You won’t be sorry.