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Friday, February 25, 2011

Honesty and The Jewish Community I: Honest Ben

Grandma & Grandpa's matzeivos (headstones)
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, just like my father before me. His father was born in Lacrosse, Wisconsin before moving to Marietta, Ohio, if I'm remembering the family history right.

In the 1920s, my grandfather decided to pursue a legal career, and attended Harvard Law School, where he received his law degree - at around the time when Harvard was trying to limit Jewish enrollment.

In the 1960s, my father attended Western Reserve University in Cleveland (which later merged and became Case Western University), where he majored in finance, and became a CFA.

It is fair to say that despite stellar educations and brilliant minds, neither my grandfather nor my father (to date) were particularly successful. My grandfather, who passed away when I was 6 years old, had a reputation for utter honesty and being too forgiving - working with many minority clients and not taking much pay. He earned himself the nickname "Honest Ben", and his gravestone reads "Holeich tamim u'foel tzedek, v'dover emes bilvavo" ([One who] goes straight and works righteously, and speaks truth in his heart). A few years ago, I had a conversation with my father where I asked him why he never seemed to get over that hump, and he told me it was because he simply couldn't do things that way. When I asked what he meant, he explained that in his line of work, there are lots of (financial/insurance) products to sell, but he would always recommend to people that they only get what was best for their situations - and that unfortunately, those were the ones which did not give him a particularly large commission if at all. He noted that some people recommend other products, which are good products, but also earn nice commissions for the brokers. While he seemed to feel that what others did was not unethical (since arguments could be made for those products over the others), he felt that it was more proper to recommend what he thought was absolutely best for the person regardless of commission.

Growing up, I was always good at math - 2nd in the state of Ohio in junior high, an advanced track for math from 8th grade until finishing calculus in 10th, and an easy 800 on the Math portion of the SATs. My calculus teacher, a young college student at UW-Milwaukee with a baseball scholarship offer from UCLA, yet a lover of all things math, recommended I pursue an actuarial career. When I called and asked my father what he thought, he said not to do it - that it's the most boring job in the world, and that I was far too social to do that without going crazy. I said, "But Dad, you sell insurance out of our basement," to which he replied, "...and I'm telling you, it's the most boring job in the world." After spending a couple of years studying abroad in Israel, I got to college, and originally contemplated a double major in economics and political science to be followed by law school - but due to the limitations at my smaller religious college, determined that majoring in Accounting was a much better decision for me. It would give me the strongest base to understanding how any business needs to function, and there's an innate logic and honesty to numbers in accounting, as opposed to (say) finance, which is often more about projections than data. Or, perhaps better put: The numbers don't - can't - lie.

(to be continued)

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