Jerry Seinfeld’s Profundity (circa 1992)

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Jerry Seinfeld has a great bit about how the #2 fear in America is death and the #1 fear is public speaking. I watched it when Seinfeld was on NBC every Thursday night and my parents and sister sat around the television together with me- a family tradition. This particular 30 second bit was good enough to search youtube and dredge up.

I verified Jerry’s statistic with this webmd article– and if I was willing to spend more time on this, I’m sure I’d come up with more evidence that people do, in fact, fear public speaking over death. What’s so awesome about this observation is that death makes perfect sense as a top fear. After all, no matter what your belief system, the element of the unknown and the foreign make one’s own death a topic that can minimally create anxiety! The knowledge that death is an absolute does have a silver lining of sorts. (Am I being morbid?) When we know we’re only here for a finite amount of time, we’re more compelled to maximize and appreciate that time. If I was told (by a credible source) that I’d live forever, I think I’d go about my life with a much more laissez-faire attitude. On some level, I’d understand that I have an infinite amount of time to correct any wrongdoings and the concept of “wasting” time would also cease to exist. Death lights a fire under those of us that consider it.  We know, if we’re gonna act, it better be now.

That leads me to the#2 fear: public speaking. It’s not that I don’t get it. I’ve certainly been nervous when getting up to speak in front of a large crowd. I’m comfortable if the audience is somewhat familiar to me but a group of new people can definitely make me unsettled. But fearing the spotlight to the point that death sounds more appealing? My best guess of this fear’s roots is our obsession with what our peers think of us- we know how powerful peer pressure can be. Our peers can make us or break us and we need to be really careful with who we choose to spend time and call a friend. The fear of being judged is also fair. Who of us can confidently state that we truly do not care what a single person has to say about us? I don’t know about you, but I like being told I’m doing a good job at work. There are many things I do that are tinged with the motivation to gain approval.

This desire to be approved or judged favorably makes thinking and acting unusually all the more difficult. When choosing the “right” thing despite others condemning us or misunderstanding, I believe we make ourselves different. Being different is either a source of pride or of shame. I heard that from Rabbi Noach Orlowek, a parenting/education expert, who describes how Jewish kids will feel either proud or ashamed of their heritage. My husband and I experienced this phenomenon first-hand at USC when we were told by a Jewish person (not a USC staff member) to refrain from asking students if they’re Jewish out of concern that they may be embarrassed in front of their non-Jewish friends.

Why should a young Jewish person be ashamed of their religion, though? What about Judaism is so unpalatable? This question spills into many issues that plague the modern Jew living in the Western world. I’d love to hear what you think, but my theory is ignorance. Jewish people today are simply unaware of what it means to be Jewish to the point that we’ve stripped down to bagels with lox and Temple once a year. Jews are these nerdy chubby guys with glasses, curly hair, and a schnoz. Who’d want to be in that club?

There are those that propose we need to make Judaism edgier to be more relevant which, to me, is even worse. There are plenty of “cool” celebrities with shiny outsides and twisted insides. Judaism will lose the war if we’re fighting to be the coolest. Fa sho’ (see?). The goal for me is to shatter the misconceptions of Judaism that exist for us all – religious and not. Is there a God? Who is God? If we’re expecting Santa, we’ll be sorely disappointed and disillusioned. If we ask questions, though, and never stop searching for answers that appeal because they’re authentic and make sense, Judaism will get richer and richer and our pride will grow accordingly. No wonder so many want to change Judaism or leave it altogether. Why walk into Baskin Robbins if we don’t even understand ice cream?

When we choose to be different, we walk into the spotlight with confidence. When we’re born being different and don’t begin to understand what we’ve been born into, we reject the spotlight thrust upon us. Jerry Seinfeld had it right. Public speaking can be far worse. Being center stage with no idea why we’re there or what to say is more tragic – perhaps- than death.

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