God Is in the Crowd

Twenty-First-Century Judaism

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“Enthralling, searching, profound, an extraordinarily powerful work on Jewish identity in the twenty-first century.”—Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

A bold proposal for discovering relevance in Judaism and ensuring its survival, from a pioneering social activist, business leader, and fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force


God Is in the Crowd is an original and provocative blueprint for Judaism in the twenty-first century. Presented through the lens of Tal Keinan’s unusual personal story, it a sobering analysis of the threat to Jewish continuity. As the Jewish people has become concentrated in just two hubs—America and Israel—it has lost the subtle code of governance that endowed Judaism with dynamism and relevance in the age of Diaspora. This code, as Keinan explains, is derived from Francis Galton’s “wisdom of crowds,” in which a group’s collective intelligence, memory, and even spirituality can be dramatically different from, and often stronger than, that of any individual member’s. He argues that without this code, this ancient people—and the civilization that it spawned—will soon be extinct. Finally, Keinan puts forward a bold and original plan to rewrite the Jewish code, proposing a new model for Judaism and for community in general.

Keinan was born to a secular Jewish family in Florida. His interest in Judaism was ignited by a Christian minister at his New England prep school and led him down the unlikely path to enlistment in the Israel Air Force. Using his own dramatic experiences as a backdrop, and applying lessons from his life as a business leader and social activist, Keinan takes the reader on a riveting adventure, weaving between past, present, and future, and fusing narrative with theory to demonstrate Judaism’s value to humanity and chart its path into the future.

Advance praise for God Is in the Crowd

“Beautifully written, brilliantly argued, this is a unique contribution to the conversation and a must read for anyone concerned with Jewish continuity.”—Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor

God Is in the Crowd blends social science, economics, religion, and national identity to help us see more clearly who we are as individuals, people, and a society.”—Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality

“American, Israeli, entrepreneur, fighter pilot, and investor: Keinan’s diagnosis of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora is provided through the lens of a rich and gripping life story. Keinan’s contribution is indispensable to the debate about the future of the Jewish people.”—Dan Senor, co-author of Start-up Nation

Under the Cover

An excerpt from God Is in the Crowd

1

False Peaks

I awoke to the smell of ammonia. I was on my feet, but couldn’t remember where. It was quiet and dark. I exhaled instinctively, to expel the fumes burning my throat, and held my breath for as long as I could. When the air rushed back in, the wet burlap hood fastened around my neck pressed against my cracked lips. I tasted urine, and the reality began flooding back. I was hunched low, in an underground cell, my shaved head scraping through the burlap against a jagged stone ceiling. My wrists were bound behind me with a thin cable. A metal rod wedged between my arms and my back, its ends grating inside grooves in the walls, prevented me from turning. I was barefoot, confined to one spot on a floor embedded with studs. I could straighten either my back or my legs, but not both. The silence around me was periodically pierced by a heavy water drop striking the floor somewhere outside my cell, its impact echoing against distant walls. During the interludes, the pulse throbbed in my ears. My feet were swollen. I slid my soles along the wet stone in search of a smooth spot, but the studs were positioned too densely.

As the fog in my mind gradually dissipated, I began to take stock of my situation. I sensed the height of my cell. I could roughly judge its width but not its length. I could somehow picture chipped white paint on the iron bars at its entrance. I tried to remember when I might actually have seen those bars. I had no memory of being here without my blindfold and hood. It was possible I had imagined them. Memory and imagination had become fused together over the past few days. Old friends, from another universe, had visited me here several times. Their impressions were so distinct that I struggled to convince myself they were not real.

A quiver in my thighs signaled muscle spasms. The last time my legs seized up, I had gashed my head on the ceiling. That was real. I could taste the blood. Wide awake now, I felt a wave of dread beginning to break over me. I was alert enough to recognize the value in my awareness of the approaching panic. I knew how to use that awareness as a weapon in my battle for self-control. There were two fronts in that battle. On one, the external front, I fought for a sense of my surroundings. I would count my steps when I was hauled from room to room, trying to keep a mental map of the underground facility. I would try to identify the voices of different guards, and to monitor the passage of time by noting the rotations of their shifts. I would review a mental task list in a constant loop. It included debriefing recent interrogations, recalling and memorizing details of the stories I was manufacturing, planning strategy for approaching interrogations, taking stock of my body and my mental state. Holding the line on the external front was vital when the pace of events was fast. The fight provided orientation. It was my interlocutor and companion in the hostile void. It helped me to resist emotional engagement with my interrogators, who baited me with occasional poisoned kindness, dangling in front of me the dangerous illusion of a life raft.

The battle lines on the internal front were ambiguous, but their vulnerability was frighteningly clear in periods like this, when the pace of events was slow, during breaks between manipulative skirmishes with interrogators or guards, or with the occasional doctor. Here, the adversary was my own wandering thoughts. Uncontrolled, they would lead me through helplessness and panic to total and permanent defeat.

I returned to an exercise that had been successful before. I closed my eyes. I had not seen light through the hood for hours, maybe days, but my eyes were now shut by choice. I had to control those aspects of my reality that I could, even though they were small. I began narrowing my thoughts to my own breathing, gradually peeling through layers of distraction. I descended through the sting in my nostrils and the burning skin on my lacerated back, irritated by the swell of each breath I took. My breathing slowed. The muscles in my legs and back gradually relaxed. I was still conscious of physical pain, but it was becoming distant. My racing thoughts were quieting. Questions that had earlier undermined my confidence in my own narrative now faded in significance. How had I arrived here? How long had I been here? Was this still a training exercise, or had the missing links in the chain of my recent memory somehow obscured a grimmer reality? As I reached the zone I was seeking, even the present shrank to nothing. I lapsed into unconsciousness.

I awoke on my back. I could feel a needle in my arm and a pleasant cold running up my vein. My breathing was calm, my burning back soothed by the cool stone floor. My feet no longer ached. I must have been in this position for some time. It occurred to me to remain still beneath the damp hood. That might prolong the hiatus. I restarted my checklist. Orientation: I remembered that my dungeon cell was four stories underground. I had counted my steps over the days. I could faintly hear the echoes of angry curses issued in Arabic, iron doors slamming, beatings, and cries. They were likely coming from minus two, where I believed my teammates were being held. This was almost certainly minus three, where my previous interrogations had been conducted. I realized I was in line for a session. I moved to strategy. I refreshed my story, reviewing the last iteration of details as I remembered them. I imagined the ruses and traps that might be in store. They would insinuate that I had been betrayed by my teammates. One interrogator would beat me without restraint. Another, posing as his superior, might interrupt the beating with a kindly worded invitation to betray my comrades in return. I steeled myself for the battle of wits and finished my checklist with time to spare. I felt lucid. I was ready, but as far as the guards knew, I was still unconscious. I continued lying motionless.

As I savored my remaining moments of autonomy, I noticed that I was not defeated. As unlikely as it now seemed, I had reserves. My parents and siblings were half a world away. Not a single member of the community that had raised me to adulthood knew where I was. I was more alone than I had ever been, but driven by a conviction that eclipsed my solitude. I could summon its energy almost effortlessly. I felt it now, throbbing in my limbs, firing my optimism. More trials lay ahead, but I welcomed them. This was the right place for me. This is what I was meant to be doing. I took a moment to recognize the absurdity of my gratitude at the threshold of the interrogation chamber, and caught myself smiling softly under the hood.

That conviction was born in high school. I was a junior, an “upper,” at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1986. Exeter is an icon within the storied league of New England prep schools founded at the time of the American Revolution. John Phillips established Exeter and its sister school, Andover, in the tradition of the Congregational Church, the American colonial brand of Calvinism that originally took root in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies in the 1620s. Having fled persecution in Europe, the Congregationalists celebrated the virtue of tolerance, an ideal that took root in much of colonial New England, and extended it to its Jewish population at the time. The academy, however, was a Christian institution, and it had remained closed to Jewish students during most of its first two centuries. It became a citadel of America’s white Protestant elite, a link in the chain of exclusive institutions that shepherded bright young men through life, to Harvard and Yale and on to the prestigious banks and law firms of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, or to careers in the officers’ corps and the nation’s political leadership.

My father had taken me on a visit for prospective students one year earlier. I was the sheltered product of a sleepy high school in Florida, provincial and naïve. I would have stayed in Florida had there been somewhere for me to stay, but my family had disintegrated. My father was newly married for the fourth time, and his efforts at building another life would have failed had he clung too closely to his previous one. My younger brother and I would willingly have stayed with him but understood there was no place for us in his new home. My mother was weathering a series of unsuccessful relationships. She struggled to find her own footing, and our presence kept her perpetually off balance. Ron and I took the initiative to apply to prep schools ourselves. We already knew that life. Our parents had sent us to elementary boarding schools several years earlier, during their divorce. We had come back to Florida for high school, but as our lives there became untenable, we began to see boarding school as our best alternative.

I had not appreciated the provinciality of my life in Florida until a magazine article about Exeter provided a comparison. The Exeter kids interviewed in the article viewed life from a higher vantage point than I did. Their world was bigger, wiser, and more pertinent. The smallness of my own unexamined life suddenly became apparent. The ignorance that confined me to it was suddenly unjustifiable. I was ashamed of it. Oblivious to the newness of my own eligibility as a Jew, I wanted in.

I brought up the rear on the campus tour. I stopped to read the flyers on message boards, advertising student-run events and club meetings. Their names suggested sophisticated members, with knowledge and skills that were foreign to me. The Buddhist Meditation Society. The Fencing Club. The Squash Team. The Lamont Art Gallery. I knew I was out of my depth, but I understood the deal I could strike. Exeter was a privilege into which I could grow, but my transformation would have to be fundamental. The boy I was on the day of the tour would never be at home here. I would have to leave him behind. As we dispersed at the school bookstore and some of the other applicants crowded in to buy sweatshirts and hats, I stood to the side, drawing in the cold New England air, focusing my thoughts on the admissions interview scheduled to begin soon.

My father watched me from a deliberate distance, chatting with the student who had led the tour. LeRoy Wiener’s generation had not had access to opportunities like Exeter. He had clawed his own way to every milestone he had ever achieved, without guidance from seasoned insiders. He could only imagine the dedicated teachers and expert coaches who would now escort me down the path to privilege. He had always been conscious of a line beyond which talent and grit could never take him. Screened out of the Ivy League by quotas and tuition, he went to City College. He shuttled across town four times a day, to predawn and late-night workouts, winning national swimming titles for the school. He climbed to the top of his class as a chemical engineer, landing a coveted spot as a member of Edward Teller’s enrichment team on the Manhattan Project at the age of twenty. During the war, the heady urgency of that team’s mission had endowed its members with resources and attention they had never known. LeRoy received a personal citation from Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

My father and I never discussed his relationship with his Jewishness, but I pieced it together on my own. It was clearly the motivation for his vicarious ambitions for me. His achievements early in life had been remarkable, but always within the context of a Jewish world. City College’s engineering programs were probably 90 percent Jewish. Edward Teller’s team on the Manhattan Project was also predominantly Jewish. My father’s early social life, capped by a youthful romance with Bess Myerson, the beauty queen, was almost exclusively Jewish. He spent his first twenty-five years riding high enough to push against the Jewish glass ceiling, but never accumulated enough momentum to crash through it.

His entire generation knew that ceiling. When the war ended, the engineering team dissolved into a job market saturated with surplus defense industry employees and veterans coming home from the front. The prestige that had accompanied the team’s successes suddenly evaporated, and LeRoy found himself kicked back to the streets of his childhood, facing the professional and social barriers he had almost succeeded in forgetting. He watched as cousins and classmates, returning from Europe and the Pacific, gradually corrected their own heady ambitions. Turned away from the prestigious Manhattan firms in which they would have been qualified to serve but for one wrinkle in their résumés, they founded neighborhood law practices or applied for government posts. LeRoy’s once steady course began to meander, the professional path of least resistance forcing unlikely turns through Boston, Denver, and finally Miami. Having run uphill at full tilt since childhood, he was permanently spent by midlife. He never recovered the fight of his youth. The sons of his first three marriages would pick up where he had left off, becoming his vicarious shot at full admission to Club America.

To his sons’ generation, however, membership was suddenly, finally, within reach. We were the first to have arrived, though we felt we had been here forever. Full membership came with the privilege of ignorance. We cruised the paved roads my father had never traveled, with oblivious nonchalance that he must have found at once gratifying and gallingly alien. Exeter was the smoothest of those roads. My talented father had missed it by just a generation. Fully aware of his timing, and inescapably mindful of his own parents’ starting blocks, set even farther back than his own, he attached deep significance to his son’s arrival. He wanted this opportunity for me, and I was determined to seize it.

My mother, Zipora, the third of my father’s four wives, was the daughter of Central European Jews who had met and married in prestate Palestine. She was born on September 1, 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland. Built on the shifting sands of those turbulent years, her parents’ marriage did not survive the war. Zipora was placed in an orphanage as an infant and was eventually sent to England to be raised by an adoptive family. Years later, she reestablished contact with her parents. We would visit my grandfather Julius Speier in Haifa when I was a child. He and I would go for walks in the hills overlooking the port. I remember the stale pretense of his dress shirt and jacket, so conspicuously out of place in the hot Carmel afternoons. He was European. He had never become an Israeli. Even a six-year-old could sympathize with his bitter and hopeless embrace of exile. He had no close friends. He had come to Israel with a degree in engineering, but he lost his job years before I knew him. He was estranged from his neighbors.

- About the author -

Tal Keinan is an American-born entrepreneur and social activist. He is a co-founder of Clarity Capital, a global asset-management firm, and chairman of Koret Israel Economic Development Funds, Israel’s largest nonprofit lender to small and micro businesses. He serves on the boards of directors of the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and the HESEG Foundation, is a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, and is chairman of the YPO Intercontinental Chapter. He holds a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School and is a graduate of Israel’s Air Force Academy.

More from Tal Keinan

God Is in the Crowd

Twenty-First-Century Judaism

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God Is in the Crowd

— Published by Spiegel & Grau —