What is the secret of Jews' success?
In the first episode of "Fargo," the American television series based on the Coen brothers' film of the same name, Lester Nygaard (played by the wonderful Martin Freeman), an insurance salesman with an incredibly boring life, gets into trouble. He decides (sorry about the spoiler) to bang his head against the wall and knock himself out in order to get himself an alibi.
Mordechai (Max) Shatner, the author of "The Success of the Storytellers" (published by Yedioth Books), is convinced that this brilliant idea by the show's scriptwriters embodies the essence of Jews' success in the world. It's not just because the Coen brothers are Jewish, as is "Fargo" scriptwriter Noah Hawley, but because the act of banging one's head against the wall reminds Shatner of the way King David saved himself from Saul by pretending to be insane.
Shatner believes that this small story demonstrate wonderfully the difference between Judaism, Christianity and Islam: A few stories of miracles and a lot of logical solutions characterizing the Bible heroes. He is convinced that the Jewish culture has developed and improved the ancient art of creating stories, and is the real and direct cause of Jews' phenomenal success in the world.
A nation of storytellers
In a comprehensive interdisciplinary study, Shatner outlines similarities between the successes of different Jewish prodigies over different and distant periods and continents. For example, poets Judah Halevi and Hayim Nahman Bialik, who are almost 1,000 years apart, and yet both fly on a bird's wings to the Holy Land in their poems.
What makes Einstein so special? 'He takes a collection of facts and creates a new story out of them, which changes the way we look at the world' (Photo: Gettyimages)
"Seemingly, this is a simple product of education," says Shatner. "They were both educated to yearn for the lost Holy Land. But the similarity between the poets is much deeper, and is expressed in the way they perceived the world, in the motivation which made them write and in the way they expressed their thoughts."
The fact that there is such a large number of successful Jews in different and even seemingly conflicting fields, like science and culture, led Shatner to the conclusion that success does only depend on hereditary intelligence, and he began searching for skills in the Jewish culture which are shared by all generations, continents and areas of success.
"The deeper we delved into the culture," Shatner says, "we rediscovered one skill whose characteristics in the Jewish culture are different and unique compared to other cultures: The skill of creating stories.
"In fact, all human beings were born 'storytellers.' Everything we say or hear is a short story: We take a few facts and spice them up with a bit of emotion. But among Jews the stories are built slightly differently. They are very similar to what you see in Hollywood films. People who grow up inside the Jewish culture absorb this skill and can use it later on in their life to achieve success.
A pivotal Hollywood film in the Jewish consciousness. The Exodus (Photo: Shutterstock)
"For example, the Passover holiday in Judaism is in fact a Hollywood film. The Plagues of Egypt and Moses' indecision are just the beginning of the catharsis which appears in the end – the Egyptian army nearly reaches the fleeing slaves, and at the last moment they cross the Red Sea.
"Other festivals in Judaism look like a movie too: In Hanukkah, the Maccabees defeat the Greeks, and in Purim, Mordechai and Esther overpower Haman. The holidays in Islam and Christianity look completely different, lacking 'Hollywood' elements."
So you're saying that the holidays create the skill among the Jews?
"Not just the holidays. This skill encircles us everywhere. We all know the Bible story about David and Goliath. It's a long story (58 verses) with Hollywood elements. In the Koran, on the other hand, the story is much more focused, and David kills Goliath within three verses, and we can't understand how David even managed to deal with the huge Philistine. Seemingly, it’s the same story. In fact, these are two different stories, and they shape the personality in a different manner."
Integration into Western culture
The story creation ability, which was built and shaped throughout hundreds and even thousands of years, made it possible for so many Jews to succeed the moment they started integrating into the Western culture as education began flourishing among Europe's Jews.
Shatner reached this conclusion after analyzing studies which looked into a possible link between intelligence and success, and whether an intelligent Jew with perfect knowledge of the Talmud could necessarily become a prodigy in medicine or business.
"Albert Einstein invented modern physics, Sigmund Freud invented psychoanalysis, Robert Oppenheimer is the atom bomb pioneer, Isaac Asimov defined the laws of robotics, and in the field of computers and Internet there are many entrepreneurs, for example the founders of Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Intel," he elaborates.
"In the field of culture, six of the eight big studios in Hollywood were founded by Jews, Harry Houdini was the king of magic shows, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel invented Superman and Brian Epstein was The Beatles' manager, and in the field of humor, the pioneers were Groucho Marx, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld."
'Knowing how to tell a good story is not simple'
Shatner, 43, was born in Jerusalem. He is a secular Jew who studied philosophy, mathematics and neuroscience and a startup founder who uses his expertise to build models and artificial intelligence.
The inspiration for his new book, which analyses Jews' success in the world, came from Hanukkah party at his daughter's kindergarten. When he saw how the kindergarten children present the Hanukkah story, Shatner reached the conclusion that the way Jews tell their history – from the days of the Bible to modern times – developed a skill in them which made them so talented and successful.
Twenty-five percent of Nobel Prize laureates in physics, 42% of Nobel laureates in economics and about 40% of Oscar winners are Jewish, although the number of Jewish people is less than 0.25% of the world's population, he notes.
"When you see the numbers, which show that 27% of the winners of the Turing Award – the world's leading prize in the field of computer science – are Jewish, you wonder if we're all geniuses."
Asked about the link between success and storytellers, Shatner responds – like any other Jew – with a question: "What makes a startup founder successful? He tells such a good story that someone is willing to invest $1 million in him without receiving something concrete in return. And what makes an outstanding scientist like Einstein so special? He takes a collection of facts and creates a new story out of them, which changes the way we look at the world.
"This is also the secret of the success of bankers, who have to convince their clients to give them their money, or lawyers who try to convince the judge. These are all fields in which we find unusual success by Jews. In the past 200 years, whoever knows how to tell a good story will reach great success. Among Jews, this skill is already acquired during childhood.
"Telling a 'good' story is not at all simple – a story which will convince the listeners, which will present the facts in a logical sequence, which will add some emotion, but not too much. By the way, some international companies have started in recent years to teach their managers how to 'tell stories' in order to improve their persuasion ability."
How did you reach the conclusion that it was this skill which led Jews to succeed?
"I analyzed the Jewish history and culture since the Bible period to our times. Instead of focusing, as usual, on the disasters which struck the Jewish people, I show the ways of thinking which developed in the culture and compare them to what appeared in nearby cultures, led by Christianity and Islam.
"In such an analysis you see a significant difference between the cultures. This difference is what led to success in those fields which hold an advantage for those who know how to 'tell stories.'"
The Jewish mind
In his book, Shatner analyzes the development of Judaism. He elaborates and breaks down important sections in Jewish history: The forefathers' era, the Exodus, David and Solomon, the destruction of the first and second temples, the composition of the Mishna and Talmud, the development of Jewish literature, the Middle Ages and the first days of Zionism, up to Jews' phenomenal success in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Throughout the book, the author demonstrates how the Jewish way of thinking, and particularly the narration ability, trained the Jews to succeed in modern times.
"The book is based on my knowledge in the field of neuroscience," Shatner says. "How people think and how they make decisions. After the book was published, a study which supports my claims was published. As part of the study, they had two people listen to the same story and created a simulation of their brain. The two brains responded similarly. The brains are in fact in correlation, and this demonstrates the power of the story."
Referring to the inherent tensions between Jewishness and religiosity, he says: "Religion is also faith, also a lifestyle and also identity. My identity is that I'm Jewish. In the book I define Jewish identity which is beyond a certain religious denomination, and in terms of lifestyle and faith, everyone should do what they want.
"I am interested in religion because I belong to it, and I am happy with this affiliation. Because I have been working in fields of models and complex systems for many years, I analyze Judaism which is a complex system, the Babylonian and Greek influences on it, and the way it has been preserved.
"I also elaborate on the success of many Jews throughout the generations and analyze it, as well as the reason for the fact that there are ancient cultures, like the Druids who lived in the Roman period, whose culture was completely erased."