Steve Jobs, My Father, and Yom Kippur

Steve Jobs, the legendary co-founder of Apple passed away this week, and the internet exploded with admirers reflecting on how his vision impacted their lives.

Some talked about their first Mac, iPod, or iPhone, and how it transformed the way they communicated or listened to music.

Others sought meaning in Jobs’ passing, musing on death, accomplishment, originality, and vision. I poked a little fun at this hero worship on Twitter, writing:

“There is something odd seeing so many quotes about “being original” and “not living the life of others” being re-tweeted 1000x on Twitter.”

One short post about Jobs struck a nerve with me, written by a blogging friend, “Stay at Home Babe,” and titled “Why I Would Want to Die Young.”

I’ve already heard so much talk about how sad it is that Steve Jobs died at such a young age. I won’t argue with the sentiment, but it certainly got me thinking.

I don’t necessarily want to live until I’m as old as humanly possible. I don’t think I have to hang on until my hips are both replaced and I’m on a hundred medications and my brain has turned to mush.

I want to live a life worth admiring. In whatever capacity that is, for however long that is. I don’t want to waste it. I don’t want to find myself unexpectedly on my death bed, knowing that I didn’t do what I wanted or did less than the best I could with the time I had.

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It is customary during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Jews to visit family members at the cemetery. My mother and I took the Long Island Railroad to visit the final resting place of my father at a Jewish cemetery in Nassau County.

It was two days before the death of Steve Jobs in California.

It was nice visiting my father on a crisp fall day. I was wearing a red sweatshirt. When I first saw my father’s tombstone I laughed, because as long-time readers of this blog might remember, I “crowdsourced” the epitaph on his stone after he passed away in 2005, until we collectively convinced my mother to include his favorite saying, “Be of Good Cheer” on the stone. My father might go down in history as the first person to have the saying on his tombstone voted upon by the Internet.

Another Jewish custom is to place a stone on the top of the tombstone; it signifies that “you were there.” I picked out two shapely and clean gray stones from the gravel road, and my mother and I placed them on top of the marble slat that marked my father’s final resting place.

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I think about my father. I wonder about the dreams and goals that he had as a younger man. Did he do what he wanted? Did he do less than the best he did with the time he had on Earth?

I have no idea.

He worked as a physical therapist at a New York City hospital. He liked his job, but he complained about it during dinner time, especially about the internal politics of a city-run hospital. I think he might have preferred a cushier job at a private hospital, although he probably had more of an impact on the lives of the less-privileged by working at Queens General Hospital.

I assume that “Stay at Home Babe” was being honest in her views about dying young, but I suspect that she is in her late twenties, so she feels that she has plenty of time to accomplish everything in her iPhone scheduler. I think once you reach 35, you are pretty happy if you reached 1/3 of the goals you had in college.

Should we just kill ourselves if we don’t become multi-milionaires by 40?

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It is easy to read the obituary of Steve Jobs and see it as a referendum on individuality, focus, and a life-well lived, but I think it is a mistake to think that success in life involves having a specific goal in mind and reaching it. Under that criteria, most of us end up miserable failures. The reality is that our real impact on others is not always easily noticed, or even appreciated. Not every worthwhile life is built upon achieving personal goals. We are all interrelated in so many different ways, that you can never be sure how your actions are affecting others.

On paper, my father will never match the accomplishments of Steve Jobs. Perhaps he didn’t achieve exactly what he wanted in life. But he had an impact on me. And his family. On his patients. In the way that he treated his friends and neighbors.

In social media, we speak a lot about influence. We consider someone with many followers as “influential.” But I have heard stories of strangers talking down someone on Twitter from committing suicide that night. No one remembers the names of those people. But that is real influence!

On Yom Kippur, in temple, a special prayer is added to the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah), in which the community confesses their sins. All the sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sinning. So even if you haven’t murdered anyone this year, you still say “We have murdered.”

When I was younger, I used to think this Yom Kippur tradition was bizarre and unfair, but now I appreciate the sentiment. The point is not to diminish personal responsibility, but to remind ourselves that human sins are frequently a by-product of the social bond gone sour. We are all at fault.

But this communal responsibility also has a positive side. We can all take pride when things turn out well.

Did you read Steve Jobs’ obituary? Did you come away thinking only about Steve Jobs? Read the obituary again, this time focusing on the community who helped mold him.

Steve Jobs was adopted:

Steven Paul Jobs was born in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 1955, and surrendered for adoption by his biological parents, Joanne Carole Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali, a graduate student from Syria who became a political science professor. He was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs.

Steve Jobs was mentored by a nameless neighbor:

Mr. Jobs developed an early interest in electronics. He was mentored by a neighbor, an electronics hobbyist, who built Heathkit do-it-yourself electronics projects.

Steve Wozniak’s mother brings her son and Steve Jobs together as business partners.

The spark that ignited their partnership was provided by Mr. Wozniak’s mother. Mr. Wozniak had graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, when she sent him an article from the October 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. The article, “Secrets of the Little Blue Box,” by Ron Rosenbaum, detailed an underground hobbyist culture of young men known as phone phreaks who were illicitly exploring the nation’s phone system.

A mysterious hacker teaches Steve Jobs his tricks.

Captain Crunch was John Draper, a former Air Force electronic technician, and finding him took several weeks. Learning that the two young hobbyists were searching for him, Mr. Draper had arranged to come to Mr. Wozniak’s Berkeley dormitory room.

An Intel executive backs Apple with $250,000.

In early 1976, he and Mr. Wozniak, using their own money, began Apple with an initial investment of $1,300; they later gained the backing of a former Intel executive, A. C. Markkula, who lent them $250,000.

Did any of these individuals achieve their own personal goals? We don’t know. But there is reason to believe that without these people crossing the paths of Steve Jobs, that he wouldn’t have achieved HIS goals. Again, we don’t know for sure, but would you now want to tell that dorky hobbyist neighbor who mentored Steve Jobs that he would have been better off dead since he didn’t achieve his goal of building a spaceship for NASA? You never know when your action can have an earth-shattering effect on another. It is quite possible that a friendly hello in a supermarket can change the life of the other person. You just don’t know.

Not everything is about YOUR goals.

My father was a loved man. He didn’t make that much money. I’m sure he wished he did better financially. He didn’t get any obituaries written about him in the newspaper. But I know he helped many people with disabilities to walk, and perhaps they went on to do great things spurred on by the care that they received from my father.

I am super-impressed by the vision of Steve Jobs and what he achieved in his short life. But I am just as impressed with someone who lives life, perhaps NOT achieving every single one of their dreams, but loves life itself, and sees it as special. Being kind to others may not get you a mention in the New York Times, but it is a quality that is as essential to the well-being of the community as an iPad. And that it something I try to remember as I live my own life. Thanks, Dad, for teaching me that lesson.

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31 Responses to Steve Jobs, My Father, and Yom Kippur

  1. Jennifer says:

    I’ve always loved the idea of a person’s (or group’s) actions spreading out in ever-widening circles and have thought about that a lot in this last week.

    This just became one of my favorite posts of yours.
    Jennifer posted Through

  2. Barnmaven says:

    I love this post so much.

    I think anyone who spends (wastes) their time focusing on certain achievements as a measure of life’s success misses out completely on the moment at hand, which is truly what our time in this world is about.
    Barnmaven posted Earplugs. Or something.

  3. Jack says:

    G’mar Chatima Tova. Have an easy fast Neil.
    Jack posted A Good Life

  4. Awe, you quoted me in paragraphs and everything :). I’m not in my late twenties. I turned thirty a whole month ago.

    In a perfect world–I would rather live a very long, very accomplished life. It’s just that if I had to choose between a great life or a long life… I’d rather it be brief and wonderful. If it ended tomorrow, I would feel cheated. My children are young, my experiences too limited. As of today, I would like more time. I hope that isn’t the case when it actually comes to an end.

  5. Once again, you delivered. There is a reason why you are one of my favorite writers and thinkers. There I said it. I am one of those people who’s been busy tweeting Facebooking tumblring Steve Jobs’ inspirational quotes. While I was doing it, I felt a bit like a hypocrite because I have not done any of that, and I am not sure I will. I don’t think I will. I do hope the others follow his words to the extent that they could. I don’t think I will ever be able to conduct my life as if I were to die tomorrow. Maybe I am not brave enough. Reading and sharing his words invoked very complicated feelings for me – I was at the same time inspired and depressed…

    I love the epitaph you have chosen, ok, The Internet has chosen for your father. And I LOVE the tradition of putting rocks on gravestones, reminding me of how the Japanese stack rocks as a form of prayer (or acknowledgement of the surroundings and the spirits that live in them — not in a superstitious way. I don’t know how to explain this. It’s probably easier to understand by watching lots of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies…)

    Have a wonderful, peaceful holiday!

  6. Juli says:

    I like the idea of acting locally in whatever small way we can to make a difference. Your dad was a healer who served his community, and he made something great in you. I see you performing a similar service to your readership. You are a healing presence in our community. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us over the last year. xo
    Juli posted Sheela na gig

  7. We have surrendered our humanity to fame and fortune, have we not? Nowadays, it seems to be how we measure a man. No wonder we are miserable. Love to your family for the holidays.
    The Honourable Husband posted My Favourite Blasphemy

  8. MaryLUE says:

    Wow, Neil. This is great. Really great.
    MaryLUE posted Procrastination: Periadolescence and Stereo Projects

  9. abigailroad says:

    This is an amazing post, Neil. Totally made my day.
    abigailroad posted Grace in Small Things #70

  10. Without conferring or intending to, we channeled the same basic idea in different ways. My post today was about what I have accomplished, how it is measured.
    V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios posted Epiphany number one: Intangible

  11. Lovely tribute to your Dad. And I like all your thoughts in this post about… everything.

    As much as I love being a mom, one of the unfortunate consequences of having kids is that Yom Kippur is much less spiritual for me and now all about managing my kids behavior in synagogue, and seeing as how one of my kids in autistic, that ain’t gonna change any time soon.

    L’shana Tova, my friend.
    Varda (SquashedMom) posted Dream City

  12. Karl says:

    Great post, Neil. We never know how we impact those around us. Have a good holiday.
    Karl posted RIP Steve

  13. Bon says:

    i like. i especially like the community responsibility piece. to speak it, to atone for what you are part of, even if you yourself may be cleaner than some.
    Bon posted the death of purity

  14. I love the reminder that all those “individuals” who “made it their way” had help. Parents, friends, neighbors, lovers…The myth of the solitary achiever can be–has been–destructive because it leads people to behave as if they don’t need the community around them, as if all that matters is the shining gold ring at the end. Even Jobs, though, didn’t really know where he was going, at least at first, did he? Treks in India, LSD (which may explain the goddamn hopping-up-and-down Mac icons), hirings, firings…I think he would applaud what you’ve written here. Even more importantly than that, though, is what you say about your dad: to touch lives, to die knowing you are well-loved, there is the measure of a life.
    Beautifully said. Thank you.

  15. slouchy says:

    good stuff, my friend.
    slouchy posted The Man in the Mirror

  16. Kelly says:

    I loved hearing about your father. It might have been more accurate if Steve Jobs–in his Stanford speech– mentioned all those who supported him (as you have done here).
    Funny how with all the recent veneration of Mr. Jobs it almost feels like heresy to say something a tad bit critical about him.
    Kelly posted Amanda Knox Article Roundup

  17. alejna says:

    Wow, Neil. This was really beautiful. It really moved me. (And, admittedly, it made me feel better about myself. Thank you for that.)
    alejna posted teachable moments

  18. René says:

    Thank you, Neil. Again.
    René posted breadcrumb trails

  19. Megan says:

    Not every worthwhile life is built upon achieving personal goals. We are all interrelated in so many different ways, that you can never be sure how your actions are affecting others.

    You never know when your action can have an earth-shattering effect on another. It is quite possible that a friendly hello in a supermarket can change the life of the other person. You just don’t know.

    You just don’t.

    For most of us, our legacy will be confined to a small circle of individuals and, if we’re lucky, we’ll make a positive difference in all of those lives. If we’re extraordinarily lucky, we’ll do the same in the life a single stranger.
    Megan posted Above

  20. Nat says:

    I was talking to a councillor/friend/mentor (I’m not sure what to call her) the other day. Bemusing that perhaps I wasn’t fulfilling my life’s purpose doing what I’m doing. She said the point is to find make it purposeful, to find the meaning within it, and that all these great big life goals often aren’t the most important thing at all. It’s creating these strong ties with others and building relationships, helping others in need… all that stuff.

    Fabulous post Neil, one of my favourites.
    Nat posted Abundance…

  21. Luda says:

    “Not everything is about YOUR goals.”

    This is such a great sentiment. If only people would take this to heart.
    Luda posted Let’s talk about sex, baby.

  22. snozma says:

    This raises an incredibly interesting question: Would you rather be an arrogant bastard who accomplishes all sorts of goals praised by others or would you rather be a mensch who doesn’t do anything publicly noteworthy?

    I am going for mensch.

    Yes, not everything is about your goals. What are we here for? It’s nice if you can do both but to me, being a good person is necessary, not optional. Public success is icing on the cake but what does it mean if you treat others badly?

    Better to be your dad than almost anything, I think.
    snozma posted Role Model of the Month: Angela at Fluid Pudding

  23. Danny says:

    While I admired Steve Jobs and what he created, I so agree with many of your points here. My current definition of an “accomplished” life is light years away from what it was twenty years ago. And, by the way, in my definition, your father’s life was at the highest level of accomplishment. It just ain’t about the money or worldly success, it’s about the people. I have a hunch Jobs himself would agree with that–which is why he was never a typical “success story” like so many other rich guys who died.
    Danny posted Thanks, Steve Jobs

  24. agree with all here, and all the more so after reading the gawker piece about jobs’ personal life that was not nearly as gleamy perfect as his professional one.

    sounds like your father was truly special, especially in his son’s eyes, and for me, that is the real measure of a life well-lived.
    anna ~ random handprints posted Creepy Pumpkins and Jack O’ Lanterns – Halloween Gone Good

  25. magpie says:

    This is lovely, and true, Neil.

  26. this piece is so phenomenal in many ways. i especially loved the kind tribute to your father and this line: “Not everything is about YOUR goals.”

    beautiful, neil. well done.
    hello haha narf posted Still So Much

  27. Pingback: Yael’s Variety Hour: Steve Jobs, PR Fail & Some Tips for Freelancers | Yael Writes

  28. Michael says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only person to make this connection. Jobs’ death somehow made me miss my Dad so much, because it is something we would have talked about.

  29. Your father was a good father to you. He didn’t (despite being a millionaire by age 25) refuse to acknowledge his paternity of his illegitimate first child with his high school girlfriend, thereby leaving her and the child to rely on welfare. In that respect (and that’s a HUGE thing), he was much more successful than Steve Jobs.

  30. Ned says:

    Incredibly moving, Neil. Since I’m just now hearing about it, I mourn his loss and drink a toast in his honor.

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