by Joey Perr

IN THIS SUNDAY’S TIMES, “Tiger Couple” Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld ask: “What Drives Success?” The two Yale Law School professors look at new research to explain greater success among certain ethnic and cultural groups in America:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control….  It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.

This hit home, as I imagine it would for many of my fellow Jewish neurotics. I also knew I’d read something like this before. Then it hit me:

Doctor Spielvogel, it alleviates nothing fixing the blame — blaming is still ailing, of course, of course — but nonetheless, what was it with these Jewish parents, what, that they were able to make us little Jewish boys believe ourselves to be princes on the one hand, unique as unicorns on the one hand, geniuses and brilliant like nobody has ever been brilliant and beautiful before in the history of childhood — saviors and sheer perfection on the one hand, and such bumbling, incompetent, thoughtless, helpless, selfish, evil little shits, little ingrates, on the other!


Given his enormous ego and seemingly endless wellspring of insecurities, why does Portnoy fail to succeed in his endeavors? Perhaps we can blame his lack of impulse control. “Liver,” anyone?

Chua and Rubenfeld stress that “groups rise and fall over time,” which “punctures the whole idea of ‘model minorities’ or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.” What makes Roth’s work so universal and compelling is his obsessive exploration of such cultural forces and the rise and fall of American Jewish families, as well as of the emotional cost of such success. Philip Roth: one step ahead — at least — of the sociologists.


Joey Perr is a reader, writer, illustrator, and public school history teacher born, raised, and based in New York City.