01/21/2014 10:27 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Of Bonshe and Belfort

I first heard the story "Bonshe the Silent" from my grandmother, who would weep every time she told it. "Bonshe is a short story by the Yiddish written I.L. Peretz and is the tale of a man who endured a life of silent suffering. Bonshe experiences every possible misfortune, is mistreated by everyone he meets, and dies forgotten, penniless, and unmourned. When he approaches the throne of heaven, the angels rejoice at the arrival of this saintly man. God Himself offers Bonshe literally anything in the universe, as a reward for his silent suffering.

With halting words, Bonshe asks only for a cup of hot tea and a buttered roll. My grandmother was well acquainted with suffering, and hence her copious tears. It was only years later, when I read the actual short story, that I realized that Peretz was being both ironic and scathing in his denunciation of humanity. Bonshe was no hero, rather a humbug who has abdicated every shred of self respect. For Peretz, Bonshe represented a humanity that has sacrificed its sense of dignity and value.

Contrast Bonshe with another Jewish man, Jordan Belfort, depicted so brilliantly by Leonardo Di Caprio in the Wolf of Wall Street. Belfort is the anti-Bonshe. There is no pleasure he denies himself, no luxury he eschews. He betrays everyone and anyone to enrich himself and increase his pleasures. According to news accounts, the real life Belfort is even worse. He served less than two years for his crimes, and now lives once again in luxury in Los Angeles. He receives 30,000 for his "motivational speeches" and while he is forced by law to give part of his income to his victims, he still lives well. He is reveling in his new found fame and Hollywood friendships.

The contrast of Bonshe and Belfort is instructive as we grapple with the dysfunction in American society. We claim to revere the saintly sacrifice of Bonshe while we secretly (and not so secretly) envy the hedonistic narcissism of Belfort. We extol Bonshe, we ogle the lifestyle of Belfort as an exemplar of success. The truth is that neither model is good. A healthy self esteem and self regard coupled with compassion and concern for the wellbeing of others is the path to a well balanced and worthwhile life.