(Today’s Post is an Excerpt from THE ISRAEL TEST, by George Gilder, 2009, Richard Vigilante Books)
As a youth I learned first hand the temptations of anti-Semitism.
Attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, I devoted nearly all my efforts as a junior at the school to writing for the Exonian, the school’s daily newspaper, and managed to scrape by in my classes. I expected to be named editor of the school paper for my senior year. For generations, my forebears had been editors. I was entitled. Since virtually no other undergraduate had written as many stories, features, reviews, and editorials, I thought my ascension was assured.
When the next editorial board was announced, I was shocked to discover that the editor-in-chief was to be a student named Peter Sobol, whom I had scarcely met and who had contributed nothing notable to the paper. I found that most of the other prospective new editors were also only occasional contributors. Three of them were “New York Jews,” as I invidiously observed, who unlike me had achieved high grades, almost effortlessly as it seemed, while I struggled to eke out Cs. If truth be known, at the time, they were also more accomplished writers than I.
That summer, in a parental campaign to help me catch up on my studies, I was assigned a Radcliffe student as a tutor in the classical languages. In an effort to avoid famously demanding Exeter courses such as American history and calculus, I was aiming for a Classics diploma. The Radcliffe girl (in those times of atavistic “sexism,” we still called college students “girls”) was named Valerie Ann Leval. The name still can diffuse my brain with remembered effervescence and longing.
Hired to teach me the Greek language so I could qualify for second-year Greek in my senior year at Exeter, she was a tall, willowy creature, both intelligent and beautiful. On long walks through the fields and over the hills of Tyringham Valley, Massachusetts, I accompanied her in besotted bliss as we recited Greek phrases and conjugated polymorphous Greek verbs from a textbook coauthored by my Exeter teacher.
One day toward the end of the summer, as we made our way up a sylvan dirt road by the Gilder Farm in the late afternoon, en route to a hilltop field spread out with mosses and tufted with blueberry bushes and reaching out toward rolling horizons and wide sunset vistas, she asked me how I liked Exeter.
How I ached to impress her! I knew that she would not be taken with callow effusions about the virtues of this famous preparatory school, its oval tables, its fabled teachers, its austere standards. I hesitated to tout Exeter’s athletic exploits, my true enthusiasm, to this refined intellectual girl. What to say? We beat Andover 36 to 0? I chose what seemed to me at the time a path of seductive candor and salty sophistication. Echoing sentiments I had heard both at home and at school, I responded, “Exeter’s fine, except that there are too many New York Jews.”
At first, Valerie did not reply. We continued crunching up the dirt road. I sensed there was something wrong. My hopes for the evening seemed to be slipping fast away while Valerie contemplated how to respond. Then she commented dryly: “You know, of course, that I am a New York Jew myself.”
My stomach turned over like a cement mixer. I gasped and blathered. I cannot remember exactly what it was I said. I suppose I prattled something about all my Jewish friends and my well-known offbeat sense of humor.
To this day I recall the moment as a supreme mortification and as a turning point. Rather than recognizing my shortcomings and inferiority and resolving to overcome them in the future, I had blamed the people who outperformed me. I had let envy rush in and usurp understanding and admiration. I had succumbed to the lamest of all the world’s excuses for failure – blame the victor. I would pay by losing the respect of this woman I then cared about more than any other. I had flunked my own Israel test.
But I had learned my lesson.
George Gilder is the author of 15 books including The Israel Test, Men and Marriage, Wealth and Poverty, The Spirit of Enterprise, and Life After Television. Mr. Gilder is a contributing editor of Forbes magazine and a frequent writer for The Economist, American Spectator, Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, and other publications. He is currently involved in venture capital and other investments.