As a young man, like many young Jewish men, I wanted recognition and respect. My wise Uncle Martin told me that what I was after was kavod, not just recognition, but honor. I began to think even then about what honor meant, what was and wasn’t honorable. But at that age, mostly I was after recognition and respect, and I pursued them in conventional teenage boy ways. In high school, that meant getting onto sports teams and joining a club of guys who had a well-deserved reputation as wild bad boys but who also had in their ranks members who were cool and popular, including a few outstanding athletes. These were the guys I wanted to be identified with.
We called our mostly-Jewish high school fraternity “PDG” (for Pretty Damn Good). Being recognized and respected as a member, despite the crazy stunts I had to put up with as a pledge and the ill-conceived panty raid of an all-girl’s school by a band of the brothers, was worth it to me, if only just to wear the PDG club pendant on a silver chain around my neck and hang out with the seniors in the club. Of course, much of this seeking of recognition and respect, if not kavod as Uncle Martin defined it, was also tied to wanting to appeal to girls. Winning over or even dating pretty and popular girls, I felt, also brought me kavod—their attention was a form of honoring me.
In college, I joined a Jewish fraternity and agreed to run as its candidate for campus king, even though I knew, as a foregone conclusion, that I would never be crowned. Nearly every non-Jewish fraternity barred Jews and Blacks, and a Jew or a Black had never been crowned campus king. My girlfriend was Catholic, a lovely military ball queen from a social register family. Along with the kavod in that came a late-night anonymous antisemitic phone call commanding me to “stick with Jewish girls.”
I became a serious student of literature and identified strongly as a budding intellectual. I read books by Jewish authors like Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, Canadian author Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run, all focusing on young Jewish men driven toward success, fame, money and power. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day were poignant portrayals by Jewish authors of the powerful suffering that accompanies failure to achieve success. But success, money and power were not my personal driver-demons. Fame, a form of recognition, drew me, though I absorbed the wisdom of Emily Dickinson’s line about it being a fickle food which men eat of and die. What I really wanted, above all, was kavod, though more in that superficial sense of recognition and respect than the word’s essential identification with honor.
NPR’s Ira Glass once told me he believed there are money Jews and book Jews, a pretty simplistic binary, but I can relate. I was always a book Jew and I knew, early on, if I were to receive the kind of kavod I was after it would be tied to books and literature and intellectual endeavors, rather than to what many Jewish young men thought of as the more highly valued, sought-after career recognition and respect afforded by medicine or law or simply making of a lot of money. Still, scholarship and learning, like the rabbinic yiches from the old Judaic shtetl world, sometimes brought even more than modicums of recognition and respect. At a young age, I was well on my way to becoming a recognized scholar and academic, though I also longed to be the next great American Jewish novelist after the three that Saul Bellow called the “Hart-Schaffner-Marx trio of Jewish novelists”—Bellow himself, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth. Unfortunately, I had the drive but not the talent. When distinguishing myself instead as a teacher and scholar proved not to be enough for the hunger and drive in me for recognition and respect (“My devils are my angels,” the poet Rilke said), I invented myself as a talk show host, pundit and public intellectual.
I’m not sure when the shift in me regarding kavod took place. But a decided shift more toward its real meaning of honor in my view did occur. It may have been the influence of Bellow and his repeated asking of a question that grabbed hold of me: “How should a good man live?” Or it could have been when I was a serious student of Shakespeare trying to reckon with the ubiquity of honor and its meaning, present in much of his drama—the history plays as well as the tragedies and comedies. Or was it, more likely, later on, when I made the shift from working for ABC to being a public radio host for KQED, the NPR affiliate in Northern California? In my KQED role, as the morning interlocutor and interpreter of news, as well as of literary and cultural writings and events, I received more recognition and respect than I ever dreamed of and a host of prestigious awards and honors, as well as becoming a ratings leader and a best-selling author of non-fiction. Whatever the aggregate that accounted for the shift, I turned the corner from wanting the recognition and respect and honor of kavod to a singular quest for what I began to call true honor.
Kavod is a tough word to translate definitively in all of its rich connotative power. Most Jews are used to hearing the phrase kol hakavod as recognition for an accomplishment, a good deed or a job well done, an extending of honor. The Hebrew originates from the Bible with the word tied etymologically to weight and battle armaments and ultimately to the honor and glory we give to God or our parents, as was commanded on Sinai. Or, it means the honor one gives to others which often, in turn, is honor one gives to oneself and God since all of us are, by light of scripture and religious precepts, made in God’s likeness or image. The word has come to be associated with tributes and testimonials, often for largesse or philanthropy or for the hard and often underpaid or pro bono work done in the world of nonprofits. If you have kavod, you merit respect, you are a person of weight and influence. You are a somebody. Even if, as is so often the case, it is evanescent.
The Yiddishist Leo Rosten calls kavod by the folk Yiddish name koved (sounding frightfully like covid!). In The Joys of Yiddish, Rosten pairs it with not only honor but glory, although the connotative meaning or understanding in either Hebrew or Yiddish can evoke dignity, gravitas, even adulation or veneration. Rosten takes his readers to the Talmud, where it is written: “A man who pursues koved, from him glory runs away.” He then brings to our attention the Talmudic corollary: “But he who does good and does not pursue koved, him koved overtakes.”
Despite pronouncements of its decline and even demise, honor remains in the marrow of cultures and civilizations. Most human beings and the tribes and nation states they create and build have sought it for centuries. It can be seen, too, as a chief motivator of human action in what the Greeks, Plato and Socrates especially, spoke of as thumos, the spirit or passion for recognition, reputation and self-respect; or love of fame that, for the civic and public good, had to be, the Greek philosophers believed, reined in. Thumos needed to be governed by self-control and reason. Honor is honour in Latin, which translates to respect and esteem but also deference, which must be extended to those of nobility of character or merit but also to those of strength, courage or authority.
Honor, too, is a virtue identifiable with doing good, though a toxic or underbelly form of it can be seen in, say, a hit man receiving honor from his peers or participants in a gang rape admiring and honoring each other. The Ku Klux Klan has an honor code and so did La Cosa Nostra. There are honor killings and, so the cliché goes, there is honor among thieves.
But let us consider honor tied to the highest ideals of the nation, embedded in the Declaration of Independence. The signatories and founders of the newly formed republic of the United States pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Consider the words. If captured, they would have been hanged as traitors, their wealth and property seized and their place in British history reviled.
The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson, now condemned as a slave owner by the “woke.” How sacred can honor, or one’s pledge or word of honor be in today’s world? Or, as is now argued by many of America’s young, how can honor be sacred when those who pledged it owned slaves or mistreated and had the blood of indigenous people on their hands?
Wokeness has attempted to eviscerate honor tied to individual presidents, including founding fathers like Washington and Jefferson and a host of other once prominent and hallowed historical figures. Besides slavery and mistreatment of Native peoples, they cite the ties to racial prejudice and misogyny. The honor we saw with the Greeks or the ancient Hebrews, or in the work of Shakespeare, has seemingly run its course. Honor, and the meaning we accord it, has irrevocably changed in America and across the western world.
Many Americans, nevertheless, felt honor was restored to the presidency when Joseph Biden was elected the nation’s 46th president, replacing a president who many of those same Americans viewed as dishonorable. Yes, Trump had those who loved and admired him, millions who voted for him, many who fought for him on different fronts, including an insurrection, and many who still believe his lies that the 2020 election was stolen. But Biden appeared to many, even some of his most reluctant supporters, as a man of decency and kindness—character traits that Trump, even some of his followers would acknowledge, never appeared to possess.
Honor and how it is sought, interpreted and lived remains an elusive concept among Americans and throughout the world. How much can or should honor be tied to character, to virtue and goodness, to integrity and honesty, kindness and decency, to good deeds and mitzvahs?
As a young Boy Scout, I wanted to do good deeds to amass enough merit badges to win the Ner Tamid Jewish scouting award or make my way, via those badges, to become an Eagle Scout. What if, as a child, “father of the man,” as Wordsworth said, those good deeds I did had been for their own sake, rather than for awards I never won or rewards from a Ha Shem on high I could only imagine? Is honor, more than good deeds, vested, too, in willingness to put one’s life on the line for a perceived higher goal or a patriotic principle (as some who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 no doubt believed they were doing)? Is it not, as some now argue, a word to redefine, especially when linked to violence, such as occurred for centuries in wars and the honor once sought in duels? Codes of honor hang on, even if vestigial. There are still honor codes in the military, in sports and at universities, and there is a never snitch honor code among many groups, not only outlaws and transgressors.
And what of stolen honor? In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, in a 6 to 3 decision, the Stolen Valor Act. The Act, passed during the George W. Bush presidential administration, criminalized lying about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor or other major military awards such as the Purple Heart or the Bronze or Silver Stars. The precedent for punishing those who lie about receiving the nation’s highest military decorations goes back to George Washington. In establishing the forerunner for the Purple Heart, Washington set into law punishment for those who lied about military medals of honor. In Washington’s words, “Should any who are not entitled to these honors have the insolence to assume them, they shall be severely punished.” Though the high court found such lying “contemptible,” the majority of the justices ruled the Act unconstitutional because of the severe limitations it placed on the First Amendment. (The case concerned a former Southern California elected official named Xavier Alvarez who had falsely claimed he was a decorated war veteran.)
Vietnam War veteran B.J. “Jug” Burkett, in his book Stolen Valor, highlights many cases of men who claimed to have been honored with military decorations, including the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is rarely received by anyone living. Like many others, Burkett was upset by the Court’s decision to overturn the punishment for those who falsely claimed military honors. The major figure behind the Stolen Valor Act’s congressional passage was a Vietnam War veteran and military historian from Alexandria, Virginia, named Doug Sterner. Twice a Bronze Star recipient, he understandably felt such lying diminished the honor of those who, like him, had legitimately earned it. Sterner did a great deal of research and discovered that, despite the fact that though many military files were difficult to come by or no longer existed, thousands throughout the United States had lied about receiving military decorations but only 45 cases were prosecuted between 2006, when the Act was passed, and 2012 when it was overturned.
Not surprisingly, it turns out, such cases exist throughout the world; instances of lying about honors go back centuries. Some of the imposters served and even saw combat and some had been awarded medals or awards of lesser prestige than those they claimed. But many never wore a uniform or served in the military. The real question, of course, is what drove them to lie?
“Getting elected or getting girls or all kinds of reasons,” Doug Sterner offered in an interview on CBS following the Court’s decision to overturn the Stolen Valor Act. Yet I can’t help wondering if perhaps the vast majority simply wanted to be seen, in the eyes of others, as men of high bravery, to be admired, respected, given koved, honored. Basically, they were thieves of honor. Citing Xavier Alvarez’s propensity to lie about many things, including playing hockey for the Detroit Redwings and having dated a Mexican starlet, Justice Anthony Kennedy characterized his actions as “a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him.” Yet many of the imposters were anything but pathetic in what they had truly accomplished.
The need for self-inflating honor is apt to be as true for genuine overachievers as it is for strivers. The Veterans of Foreign Wars put out a list of “pretenders” that included a U.S. Attorney, a member of congress, an ambassador, a judge, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and best-selling author, the manager of a Major League Baseball team, a Navy Captain, a police chief, a top executive at a world-famous research laboratory, mayors and physicians.
In my own community in Northern California, Gregory Bruce Allen, 68, was charged in 2016 with fraudulent representation, a misdemeanor, for saying he had received a purple heart and a bronze star as a Marine. Allen ran fitness gyms and held fundraisers for businesses while dressed in a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant’s uniform. He received thousands of dollars in donations, which he deposited in three bank accounts he controlled. He served a number of times as local president of the Military Officers Association of America but his only real time served in the military was eight months in the Navy in the 1960s, likely as a non-combatant, with an honorable discharge for a knee injury.
Allen was a con man who managed to pad his business and personal checking accounts with his false valor lies. But many of the acts of the legion number of false honor seekers seem inexplicable. At least until you realize that even high achievers can be so fueled by the need for recognition, respect or honor that they inflate or invent what else they could have achieved— “accomplishments” that they think will give more weight and value to who they are or who or what they would like to have been but didn’t or couldn’t achieve. It is often a complex inner sense of insufficiency that drives them to lie as well as to accomplish. Psychology does not give us adequate answers.
Why did Joe Biden claim in 1987 that he’d graduated from college with three degrees and was in the top half of his law school class only to confess, after exposure, that he had but one B.A. degree and was 78th in a class of 87 at Syracuse Law School? His predecessor, Donald Trump, repeatedly claimed he was one of the top students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton’s School of Finance, even though he was not honored at commencement and his name never appeared on a Dean’s list. For reasons still unknown, we have not seen Trump’s college transcripts and likely never will.
True honor, at every stage of life, is in truth telling. It is also tied to honoring one’s word, keeping promises and living ethically. President Biden promised to bring decency back to the White House and to put an end to the chaos of the Trump years. He also promised to restore the nation’s honor in the world. One can argue that, of those three promises, he was able only to succeed, at least so far, in bringing back a degree of decency. We’ll have a better sense of his accomplishments as current situations like Russia’s military threat to Ukraine and NATO’s response to it unfold. While we don’t know how that—or the repercussions of killing an ISIS leader early this year—will turn out, we do know about our pull-out from Afghanistan. After falsely claiming that he received no military advice on maintaining a troop presence and declaring that Al Qaeda was gone from there, can President Biden still be seen as honorable? Similarly, who, even among the legion of Trump supporters and the millions who voted for him and adore him would, knowing he stiffed innumerable people in business, downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic and launched a tsunami of lies, call him a man of honor? Regarding political strategies, the surprise victory of Olaf Scholz to replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany followed a campaign rooted in the importance of respect. Yet the sad truth is that honor does not sit on the heads of many of the world’s most respected and celebrated leaders.
Honor does not flow from power, money or fame. Or from awards and medals and tribute dinners (although often such accolades are well-deserved and recognize important achievements). I have no regrets for having sought koved. But true honor is, most of all, less in the seeking and more in the fabric of our everyday lives and the choices we make to honor what is best and true in ourselves and others. True honor is what we contribute, regardless of being recognized, respected or celebrated. It is what we give to those we care about, friends and family, but also to community and country, those in need and those worthy, both the living and the dead.
Life has taken me from the hunger for recognition and respect as a boy and young man to fame as an adult media personality to the wisdom which is often alleged to arrive with age—an understanding of what truly matters, what I call true honor.
True honor is and always will be in strength of character and the high-minded and heartfelt deeds that come from it.
A homily to conclude:
Honor what is human, good, best and true in yourself and others, especially those you love.
Michael Krasny is a professor emeritus of English at San Francisco State University. From 1993 to 2021 he was host of Forum on the San Francisco public radio station KQED. He is the author of Off Mike, Spiritual Envy and Let There Be Laughter.