Monday, September 14, 2009

Sam Antar and an Ancient Spanking: Lessons in Parenting

My father (ob"m) passed away over twenty-five years ago, when I was nine. I remember many things about him: his seriousness; his devotion to Torah study; his honest and integrity. He was the kind of father that you feared. At least I did - but you wanted to please him and fulfill his expectations. Worst, of course, was to upset him. There was nothing worse for my mother to say than, "Wait until your father gets home." No mom, let's not wait. Punish me now!
It was a long time ago, and I'm sure he spanked me more than once. But he didn't do it often, and I really only remember one spanking well: the time I stole a candy from the grocery store.
My mom was obviously distracted doing something silly like "paying", and the candy was right there, at my eye level, ripe for the taking. (Giant Foods should take some of the blame.) I slipped the bag of candy into my pocket and after arriving home, quickly moved the contraband into a great spot: my underwear drawer. (Note to would-be thieves: Don't put stolen goods in your underwear drawer if you don't put away your own laundry. Not too smart.) In any case, when my mother found the candy (worth all of $.25) she said those dreaded words, and that was it. I knew I was dead, and I was right. It was the spanking of the century, at least for me, because to this day I still remember it. But it wasn't just the physical pain; he was truly, truly upset. I had done something so totally against his set of values and principles, and that just came out.
And I never once had the desire to steal anything ever again.
I thought of my father and that potch after speaking to Sam Antar, the convicted felon I've written about recently. In my follow-up email to him, I told him that I wanted to ask Sam a couple of questions, so later that morning we spoke. (Sam apparently doesn't sleep much, as it was in the middle of the night in New York.)
I wanted to know two things:
1. Didn't he ever feel internally that stealing was wrong? Didn't some internal moral compass ever go off pointing out the fact that stealing is wrong?
2. What about his parents? Did they know what he was doing? Why didn't they stop him from committing such terrible crimes?
Sam said that while he knew what he was doing was "wrong", it really didn't bother him that much - or at least not enough to change and stop. He only changed when he got caught (and abandoned by his uncle), and decided to save himself and testify for the government. But what about his parents? Did they know what he was doing? Why didn't they stop him?
His parents knew - at least in the beginning. And they didn't stop him at that point, after which it was too late.
He explained to me that in the culture in which he grew up, many people took stealing small amounts for granted. It's the way to conduct business. Everyone cheats by skimming taxes from the government. That's what they did in Sam's uncle's store, and no one thought anything of it. But morally (and parentally), it's difficult to distinguish between "small" theft and large theft; between improperly filling out a tax form and falsifying an income statement to increase stock value. Stealing is stealing, and if it's OK to steal a little, then why not steal a lot?
The answer, of course, is that it's not OK to steal, even a little. Sam actually referenced a Midrash about the generation of the flood. The Midrash teaches us that the people used to steal "less than the value of a perutah" - less than the smallest amount for which a person could be held legally responsible. Petty theft was common, even accepted. The Midrash obviously teaches us that accepting and allowing small corruption clearly leads to more sophisticated and serious corruption down the road.
This got me thinking about the crisis of ethics that has recently plagued the Jewish world; the Orthodox perp walks, and the stigmas and stereotyping that affects us all.
I got to New York City for yeshiva in 1991 - before the big clean up of the city by Rudy Giuliani. They stopped the big crime - the murders (lowering the murder rate from about 2200 a year to about 500 yearly) by going first after smaller criminals, the squeegie men and turnstile jumpers. Calling their method of crime prevention the "broken window" theory, they realized that stopping petty criminals prevents them from growing into bigger criminals later on, and creates an environment where people want clean neighborhoods, and don't tolerate graffiti, crime or broken windows.
Perhaps we in the Jewish community need a "broken windows" theory of our own. We need to stop turning the other cheek when someone brags about cheating on his insurance claim. We need to declare loudly and with pride that our community will neither tolerate nor venerate people who don't pay their taxes. We need to stop the "small crime" from being an accepted part of ethnic community life.
And as parents, we need to ensure that our children get the message as well. I'm not advocating spanking - although a well-placed spank (used almost never) can certainly convey a powerful message. But do we communicate to our kids the critical importance of honesty and ethical behavior? Do we share with them the difficult choices that we make, when we do the right thing? Do we demonstrate just how important the values of honesty in business and ethical living are to each of us?
That's our job as parent; teaching our children how to make the right choices, from the beginning, at each and every stage of life.