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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 2/23/21

Greetings, Last week I received a call from my friend Rabbi Ron Stern regarding the Shabbat service preceding Presidents Day weekend. He suggested we record a conversation for Stephen Wise Temple’s streamed Shabbat service, centered around American presidents and their relationship to the Jewish people. One of the president we discussed was Ulysses Grant, particularly his ignominious issuance of General Order No. 11, expelling Jews from the Tennessee District during the hard-fought western campaign of the Civil War. The argument for the Order was that merchants were trading with the South and that many merchants were Jewish. And while many merchants may well have been Jewish, few Jews were actually merchants! President Lincoln quickly rescinded this order after learning about it. There are two things we tend to overlook regarding Grant and his years after the war:

  • First, people forget that when Grant was president, he did what few American presidents do (or, for that matter, any politicians does)—he apologized for the General Order, admitted his mistake and did acts indicative of a change in perspective. He appointed more Jews to government positions than any president before him, helped dedicate (and contributed money to) a synagogue in Washington D.C., and developed friendships with numerous Jewish leaders. For a marvelous story of his relationship with the Jews post-General Order 11, Joseph Sarna wrote the masterful When General Grant Expelled the Jews,

  • He wrote a memoir in his declining years, as he was dying of throat cancer, describing his support of reconstruction (a support which accounts for much of the negative historiography of the 20th century, often propounded by pro-Southern historians). His memoirs serves as a model of the open, frank political memoir. Grant had to fight through pain to finish these memoirs before he died, as he wanted the royalties to provide for his family when he was gone (he was not the best at finances). It was published by Mark Twain and became one of the most purchased and read American books of the 19th century.

Much has been written about Grant’s failures in business and his general mediocrity prior to leading the Union army to victory in the Civil War. His presidency, while nobly supportive of reconstruction and reconciliation (a tough balance to maintain), was riven with scandal, as he was not the greatest judge of the character of some people around him. Grant would seem to be the proverbial “hedgehog” in the comparison to the fox. As you may recall, the fox is pretty good at a great many things, while the hedgehog is very good at only one thing or two (like winning a war and being a champion of the cause of reconstruction and civil rights).


I think about whether it is better to be an expert at one thing or a polymath who has a serviceable knowledge and aptitude in a number of areas. My tentative conclusion is that there are precious few people who can be very, very good at a single thing (Fauci at epidemiology, Yo-Yo Ma at cello, Trevor Bauer throwing a baseball). There are lots of people who are good at a singular talent and that can be great for them. There are many scientists pursuing studies in obscurity, cellists in community orchestras and ballplayers bouncing around the minor leagues.

But it seems to me that the key to success in life is to strive for the top quartile in all things. Breadth is far too undervalued but perspective, context and reasoning by analogy may be what allows an individual the ability to navigate a complex world (and career). And it might be just what is needed to keep the mind and body vigorous.

So here is the plan—strive for the top quartile! One can get there in most things with concerted effort and commitment. But the upside to the investment of time and effort trying to get to the top one percent in anything is not worth the effort. Think about the five year-old gymnast who pushes and pushes for the chance to enter the elites who participate in the Olympics. Such single-minded ambition almost by necessity will crowd out the ability to enjoy very many other things. This is in some ways supportive of the “work/life balance” we hear so much about. Too much focus on a single ability or a single cause limits a person’s ability to experience life more broadly and, perhaps, even contribute more meaningfully to their family, community, and society.

I took up skiing relatively late, in my 30s. I’m never going to be a Bode Miller or Jean-Claude Killy, but I’d like to think I’m in the top 25% on Aspen Mountain. Jake and I went to Big Bear a couple of years ago. The quality of skiing there is not the same. I commented to him that he might be the best skiers on the mountain that day. He responded, a little snarkily, “well, Dad, you’re one of the best skiers on this mountain.” (I don’t think he meant that as a compliment)

I think we all should try to be good at everything we do—better than most, but not necessarily top of the heap in any single thing. It works more than it doesn’t. That said, it doesn’t work at golf…


As I’m in the midst of New York Times top 10 War: How Conflict Shaped Us, I thought a few books about wars, I began to list the books about war that I found informative, enlightening and entertaining:

  • The First World War, by John Keegan. Britain’s definitive scholar of conflict. Quite a book.

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 13th Century, by Barbara Tuchman. It’s not all about war, but it includes the Hundred Years War and the Plague. I never thought I could be so enthralled for so many pages by a book set in the 1200s.

  • The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman. Arguably the best book to describe the march up to World War I. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was merely the spark that set off the explosion. The assassination was not inevitable; the war became so because of a series of missteps, both before and after.

  • April 1965, by Jay Winik. Really a book about the end of war. Appomattox wasn’t really the end. That month saw the war’s end and the assassination of President Lincoln. These two events marked the beginning of the battle to reconstruct the South and the challenges that lie ahead.

  • D Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II, by Stephen E. Ambrose. The battle is presented in the story of the lead-up, the strategic decisions, the military and human stories of the battle and its ramifications. The stories of individual heroism and humanity jump from the pages. Eisenhower was a genius; the German army was out-gunned, out-manned and out-strategized. Read this book and, when the pandemic is over, visit Omaha Beach.

  • The Second World War, by Martin Gilbert. By the definitive biographer of Churchill, this is the one-volume masterful tome on the war.

  • The Man Who Saved the Union, Ulysses Grant in War and Peace, H.W. Brands. Okay, so it’s another Grant biography, but much is about Grant and the war. Belongs alongside Smith’s and Chernow’s biographies.

Happy day, Glenn

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