david berkowitz bingamton university

What Are You Making of Yourself? Serially Sporadic Wants to Know

In the latest edition of the Serially Sporadic newsletter, I share some of the usual links and events while reflecting on a surprising email I received. I’ll include the full introductory write-up here; you can view the newsletter for the other links.

I received a surprising email a week ago – one of those rare missives that floored me. I couldn’t even respond to it for several days.

First, though, some context…

In December 2013, six months into my tenure at the agency MRY and two months before becoming a father, I delivered the fall commencement address at Binghamton University, my alma mater. The talk is dedicated to the late Professor Jack Weinstein, whose Yiddish classes inspired the address.

The note I just received came from one of Jack’s eight children who had just discovered the talk, presumably the version posted on SlideShare, as that is where the text explicitly mentions the dedication. (It’s one reason I love SlideShare; its real impact often occurs months or years later.)

The speech practically wrote itself in one sitting. I had been pacing around my apartment thinking about what I could possibly say, and I picked up the volume of Moby Dick that Jack had given me 15 years earlier. It’s a hefty, leather-bound hardback with gold-edged pages. When Jack had heard that I never read Melville, he felt compelled to give me the book; he was a consummate educator who was never confining himself to the day’s curriculum. As I picked up the novel and thought of Jack, one memory in particular came back to me.

In one of his first lessons, if not his very first, Jack taught us how to say “how are you” in Yiddish – a hearty brew of a phrase transliterated as “voss makhstu.” It’s a phrase thrown about like any other, and the typical way to respond is how you’d expect – “I’m good.” “I’m fine.”

Yet Jack made us pay attention to the words. “Voss” is simply “what.” But then comes the “makhstu,” and it means in full, “What are you making of yourself?”

What are you making of yourself?

To give a talk to a stadium full of new graduates, there was hardly better wisdom I could impart. By tying together a turn of phrase from a language more than a thousand years old with a glimpse into the maker movement, it was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything. Even having written and delivered the address though, I’m still trying to process it. It’s much easier to give advice than follow it, and inspiration is easier than internalization.

Four years later, Jack’s son wrote in that email that he just sent me, “The message you transmitted is an eternal and universal message, one that everyone of all ages should incorporate into their very being. We wake up in the morning and rarely think about what we will make of ourselves that day. We retire late at night, and it is the rare individual who does an accounting of what we did make of ourselves that day. It is unfortunate and sad that too many of us near the end of our lives finally awaken from our lifelong slumber realizing that we are ‘guilty’ of not making much of ourselves during long stretches of our lives.”

I noted in a previous newsletter that I didn’t know how to close this introductory section, which is increasingly becoming the focus here (‘the rest,’ as they say, ‘is commentary’). Closing with a question seems appropriate. That it’s not just a reminder but a call to action seems even more fitting. And so be it if it’s a reminder I need for myself perhaps more than you do; I hope you’ll indulge me that much. Most importantly though, it’s a question I would love to hear your answer to. The answer’s not to quote in a newsletter. It’s because I care about it when it comes to anyone who takes the time to read this. I’d love to know anytime you’d care to share it:

What are you making of yourself?