My Annotated Graduation Speech to the WYHS Class of 2015

Graduation tonight was really terrific. I really love having different teachers speak about each graduate. It’s great for the individual students and it’s great for staff. Below is the speech I delivered. The text of my remarks is in black. My comments on on my remarks are in red. Thank you to my colleague Mrs. Amy Horowitz for helping me edit my remarks.

Preserving Revolution

Dear Graduates,

I’m going to miss you very much. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I appreciate about you individually and as a grade. I loved learning with many of you last year and with all of you this year in our Jewish History class. I’ve enjoyed watching you dazzle us with your extracurricular accomplishments and I just had great fun spending time with you on your senior trip. I’d like to focus on one characteristic that I think really defines you as a grade and that makes you so endearing and that makes me realize how much we’ll miss you next year.  Creativity. Whether in the classroom, on the athletic field, in art, computers, in music or in acting, creativity is the characteristic that best captures your complexion. (This alliteration was probably a bit too forced, but I couldn’t resist.)  And creativity is that thing that I want to explore with you for just a few minutes tonight.

I used to have a laptop that ran windows and thought I would forever. But eventually I switched to a macbook. ( That toshiba satelite that I got in 1996 as a gift from my parents when I finished semicha was great. You can get it on ebay if you’d like.) At home, we had a desktop pc, but that too was replaced by a mac. (Actually one night at midnight when I became enraged by the viruses and spyware plaguing my IBM, I got into my car, drove to the Apple Store on 59th street and bought my first mac.) I had a zune that become an ipod. My blackberry became an iphone. I didn’t know that I needed an ipad, but if the ninth graders were getting them I figured I’d need one too, and now I can’t remember life before the iPad. I don’t have an apple watch…yet.

What is it about Apple products that make them so singularly popular? What was Steve Jobs’s creative genius? As Steve Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson points out, Steve Jobs didn’t really invent anything from scratch.

The basic features of the Macintosh,  the mouse and icons, were basically stolen and adapted from Xerox in 1979.Portable digital music players came on the market in 1996, but in 2001, Jobs “invented” the ipod because, as Isaacson tells us, Jobs said the the players on the market–and I’m paraphrasing–were really terrible. (The actual quote was that they really sucked. I thought it would be better to not say “sucked” at graduation.)

Smartphones came out in the 1990s, but the iphone didn’t come out until 2007.

What about the iPad?  Jobs describes his conversation with a friend who was a microsoft engineer.

“This guy badgered me about how Microsoft was going to completely change the world with this tablet PC software and eliminate all notebook computers, and Apple ought to license his Microsoft software. But he was doing the device all wrong. It had a stylus. As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead. This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said and I’m paraphrasing again-  “To heck with this, (actual quote used an expletive, that again I thought was better to avoid in my speech.) let’s show him what a tablet can really be.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in an article published in The New Yorker, aptly characterized Jobs not as a creative visionary but as a tweaker. He took ideas that existed and made them his own by making them great. He took previous inventions and made them beautiful and efficient. This form of creativity is what I’d like to talk about. (All of the information about Jobs in this speech comes from the Gladwell article. Thank you to Rabbi Josh Grajower for directing me to the article. Not everyone agreed with Gladwell’s analysis. I think the critics of Gladwell are more sensitive to the term tweaker than to the substance of his analysis. Tweaker does sound like a diminshment of his accomplishments. Speaking of tweaker, I confess that I was a bit worried that seniors would giggle when I said the word tweak, thinking it sounds like twerk.)

My friends, I think we sometimes give you a confusing message. On the one hand we want you to be just like us. Your parents and your teachers–we want you to follow in our ways–committed to Torah and Mitzvot, leading a life that in large measure conforms to our community’s norms. We, the grown-ups, very much want to preserve our community, our traditions, and our values. But here’s where it gets confusing, I think we also want you to transform, to revolutionize our community. In our interest of making sure that you’re going to turn out as fine young men and women who will be educated and proficient shomrei mitzvot, we may not emphasize enough the revolutionary role and the creativity that we hope you’ll take on. I think we fear that if we talk too much about iconoclasm and revolution, you’ll take aim at those values we cherish and hold dear. That’s why the Steve Jobs version of creativity is the one that I want to share with you and show you why I think this type of creativity is Jewish at its core.

Guys, I know that sometimes I got a little more excited than you about some of the figures we explored in our course on Revolutionary Jewish Thinkers, but I hope you understand that I just loved learning with you and figuring things out with you as went along. As we studied, we discovered what it was that made the thinkers revolutionary while still remaining loyal to tradition. What was it about their creativity that was constructive, not rejectionist? When Chazal developed the Torah Shebaal Peh and compiled the Gemara they were tweaking what preceded them. They were building upon the foundation of the Torah and the Oral tradition. When the Rif looked at the unwieldy Gemara and condensed it so that it would be easier to learn the halacha, he was tweaking what preceded him. When the Rambam reorganized the Gemara in a systematic way, he was tweaking what preceded him. When the Shulchan Aruch further refined the halachic code, he too was tweaking the system. Revolutionary thinking has been fundamental to the Jewish spirit from the very beginning. We need to recover our mission. (I wanted to keep the speech short, but I could’ve inserted a discussion about Avraham Avinu being a revolutionary and about the entire Torah being a revolutionary book when it came onto the world scene.)

Seniors, Graduates, you guys are famous for your boundless creativity. I urge you to take your creativity and be bold. In the words of Steve Jobs, “Think Different.” If you love our Jewish community and our Torah, I urge you to preserve it and to also revolutionize it. The Steve Jobs model of creativity is a very Jewish way of effecting change and making great progress. Steve Jobs may have only been a tweaker but his vision of what was possible made him a revolutionary. In the words of the Victorian poet, Robert Browning, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” I urge you to recognize what you have learned and begin to reach for more. We don’t want you to be us; we want you to be better than us. Reach. Challenge. Aspire. Steve Jobs showed us how to do this in the world at large. I hope you’ll embrace this mission and use your unique creativity to shape our world.

Thank you for listening and congratulations.

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