WHY BE NORMAL
Although we never officially assigned the seats around our dinner table, we always knew our places on Friday nights. My dad sat at the head, with my brother and me to his right, my sister and my mom to his left. We usually had a few friends and extended family who joined too. Every week the cast of characters changed slightly, but the fervor of debate always remained the same. And more often than not, the heat came directly from the head of the table.
My father was known in my hometown as the intimidating dad. He coached and played nearly every sport with unmatched intensity: basketball, baseball, football—he dominated them all. He felt that kids in our town were coddled, and he would make sure they knew it: “Stop being such lily-white-bread pussies!” he’d scream at the twelve-year-olds on my basketball team. When he gave us praise, it was carefully delivered, and it meant something. He wanted us to earn it—through mental toughness and a tenacious
work ethic. Because of this, most kids both loved and feared him. He was an old-school disciplinarian and didn’t mind letting people know it.
As my siblings and I entered adolescence, he developed code words for us, which he would use to warn us that we were about to go over a line we did not want to cross. He’d use these code words in conversation, at the dinner table, or in public to say, “This is your last warning, do not push my buttons anymore.” My older brother, Scott, is a typical firstborn son; he loved to challenge my dad’s authority. His code word was Cream. Mine was Ice, and my younger sister, Liza, was Sundae. If we were all misbehaving, upsetting my mother and about to catch a spanking, my dad just had to yell “Ice Cream Sundae!” and we would stop right away. But as I look back on it, being the guy furiously screaming “Ice Cream Sundae!” probably didn’t help to rid my father of his reputation among my friends of being “the scary dad.”
Even back then, we knew his crazy temper and strict discipline were just forms of tough love. He wanted to get the best from each of us—and he got it. As a coach, no one pushed me harder. He had me play three games on the final day of the 14-Year-Old State Championships with a raging fever because he knew how badly I wanted to win the tournament. He’d set up cones in the basement so that after dinner I could do dribbling drills in the dark. But the result was worth it. And when I consider what motivated my siblings and me most, it all boiled down to one phrase that my dad used constantly that gave us the permission and the directive to stand out. He loved to remind us, “Brauns are different.”
* * *
My siblings and I knew that some of the parents in town rewarded their kids for good grades. This could mean up to $100 for an A,
$75 for a B, $50 for a C, and so forth. When I asked my parents for some form of compensation for my academic performance, my request was shot down immediately.
“Paul Mazza just got one hundred and fifty dollars for good grades. Can I get something?” I’d ask.
“Brauns are different. You have our gratitude,” they’d say.
During Hanukkah, rather than receiving eight nights of gifts, we received gifts on only four nights, and the alternate four nights we selected a charity that my parents donated to in our names. When we’d ask why half of our Hanukkah gifts were charitable donations instead of presents, my parents would simply respond, “Because Brauns are different.”
Most of our friends had high-tech toys and video games, but my siblings and I were told to go read books or play outside. Our pleas and arguments were always met with the same response: “Brauns are different.” My dad didn’t think we were superior, he wanted us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
This phrase was not only used to justify my mom and dad’s different approach to parenting, but to celebrate us when we displayed courage by taking the path less traveled. If we stood up for a classmate who was being bullied, they would applaud us by saying, “You know why you did that? Because Brauns are different.” Children want nothing more than their parents’ approval, and pretty soon we developed an inherent drive to live into the ideals they had defined for us.
Every night before we went out to parties in middle and high school, my dad would say, “Remember Dad’s Rules.” Dad’s Rules meant “Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do if Dad were watching. Choose your actions as if Dad were next to you the whole time.”
These expectations of excellence became the tent poles that formed our values, and our values then guided the choices we
made. They served as a constant reminder that to achieve exceptional things, you must hold yourself to exceptional standards, regardless of what others may think. My dad even went so far as to order license plates that read YBNML
, which my scared middle school friends always assumed meant “why be an animal.” The real meaning was much more apt: “why be normal.”
* * *
My dad’s intensity and belief in the power of nonconformity no doubt were born from his parents’ experiences. When she was fourteen, my grandmother Eva (known to us as Ma) and twenty-seven family members including her mother and twelve-year-old sister were forced from their home in Hungary and placed in a ghetto with the other Jews from their town. From there, they were transported in cattle cars to the most feared of concentration camps, Auschwitz. Upon their arrival, people were lined up before camp doctors and ordered to go left or right. Ma’s entire family was ordered to go left, but because she was of working age, the doctor insisted that she walk to the right. As a scared young girl, she cried and refused to leave her mother and sister’s side. The Nazi guards beat her until she was unconscious. When she woke up, she pleaded with the other camp prisoners to tell her where she could find her family. With grim faces, they pointed to the smokestacks. Her entire family were sent to the gas chambers, killed, and cremated the day of their arrival in Auschwitz.
After six months in the camp, surviving brutal conditions and watching countless others die next to her each day, Ma was transported to a new concentration camp. In her words, “Bergen-Belsen camp was even worse than Auschwitz. You were only there to die.” But Ma believed that her father would be waiting for her when the war was over, and the belief that she needed to survive to make
sure he had at least one other family member kept her spirit strong enough to go on each day. That sense of purpose enabled her to survive through conditions in which many others perished.
After she spent eight months in Bergen-Belsen, the war ended and British GIs liberated her from the camp. She was so weak that she could not feed herself, which ultimately saved her life because others fed her slowly enough to allow her stomach to readjust to solid foods. She had nearly starved to death, and she would not allow that fate for her grandchildren. Later she became almost obsessed with watching us eat. She often spent days preparing chicken-noodle soup, brisket, ice-cream sandwiches, and chocolates for us to fill our bellies with on Friday nights. As soon as one plate was finished, another whopping portion appeared. “There’s dessert too, my angels,” she would say, nodding with approval.
Once recovered, Ma took that long-awaited ride back to Hungary to find her father. While others reunited with loved ones in tears of joy, she found herself alone at the train station in Budapest. Her father never came. He had been killed at a work camp in Russia. No one came. Devastated, she phoned the only other relative she thought might be alive, her uncle, and he offered to take her in.
A few years later, Ma’s uncle offered to introduce her to a friend of his, Joseph, who was also a Holocaust survivor. He had lived through a year at the Dachau concentration camp, where both of his younger brothers and his father were killed. Through his persuasion, persistence, and a shared understanding of loss, they created a profound bond. Joseph Braun soon asked Eva to marry him, and after they were married, she gave birth to a girl and a boy. The boy, Ervin Braun, is my father. When the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956, they planned an escape across international borders to the safety of the United States. My grandfather (whom we called Apu) tested the route first, fleeing alone across the Hungarian
border at night and then returning to gather his mother, sisters, wife, and children.
After they stowed away in a packed boat of immigrants, traveling thirteen days across the Atlantic Ocean to arrive in New York City, my father and his family spent their first nights on American soil in a Jewish refugee camp. With the assistance of a relief organization, they found a one-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. My grandfather worked as a dental technician making fake teeth, and my grandmother worked in a sweatshop. For ten years she worked for just $1 per day, knitting garments in horrific conditions so that her children and future grandchildren could live a better life.
* * *
My dad learned to speak English without an accent by diligently studying the way Americans pronounced words on television shows such as The Lone Ranger and The Little Rascals. He was a star student, skipping eighth grade and attending Bronx High School of Science. His parents were so fearful of their only son’s getting hurt, they wouldn’t sign the permission slips to let him play on any local sports teams. Instead, he waited for his parents to go to work and then snuck out to play basketball and football on the city playgrounds.
For as long as my dad could remember, his parents wanted him to become a successful dentist. After completing college in three years, he chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania for dental school, where he’d meet a woman who would change the trajectory of his life: my mother, Susan, a country girl from a humble town in the Catskills. Her father, Sam, had escaped Poland to avoid persecution just before the Holocaust began, but passed away when my mom was eleven years old. Her mother, Dorothy, raised her with an
emphasis on morality and civic responsibility. My mother’s favorite word is integrity
, as it’s the quality she was raised to value most.
During the first weekend of my mother’s freshman year at UPenn, my dad went to a college party where he met her older sister, Lynn. The next day he thought he saw Lynn walking down some stairs and called her out by name. But it wasn’t Lynn; it was my mother, Susan. She blew him off completely, which of course piqued his interest. He began to pursue her, and after their first date he told his friends, “I’m going to marry that girl.” He even went so far as to write it on a piece of paper and place the message in an empty bottle on his mantel, where it stayed until he revealed it to her at their wedding.
Once my parents were ready to start their own practices as a dentist and an orthodontist, they put together a list of what they wanted most and rated each of the surrounding communities accordingly. Education was the most important criterion, and Greenwich, Connecticut, had the best public schools. The town also had a culture of volunteerism that my mother craved and a growing diversity that my father wanted his children exposed to. They got a loan to buy a property in Cos Cob, the historically blue-collar, Italian part of town that was inhabited by the service workers who built the town’s mansions in the 1950s. We moved there when I was a young boy, and that’s where my earliest memories were formed.
* * *
By the time I reached high school, I played basketball year-round. One weekend, two tall African boys joined my team for a summer tournament in Albany. They towered over the others—Sam was six feet six inches and Cornelio six feet nine inches—but I immediately sensed their warmth and kindness. They were childhood
friends from Mozambique who found themselves bound together on a journey to the States in search of education.
During the weekend tournament, we became fast friends. On the drive home from Albany, Sam and Cornelio asked if they could stay with my family for the five days until the following weekend’s tournament. We readily agreed, considering we were always hosting teammates, friends, and family. But when the second tournament ended, they asked my dad, “Can we stay next week too?”
Sam and Cornelio were supposed to be living in Philadelphia, where they had been for the past eight months. But they were vehement about not going back—not even to pick up their stuff. When we asked why, they told us how they had been lured to America under the false promise of a fantastic education. Their families put $1,000 toward their flights, yet upon arrival in the United States, they were ushered into a makeshift apartment in the slums of South Philadelphia. The “school” they were supposed to be attending was a single classroom in the back of a run-down church. A teacher came in at the start of the day, passed out textbooks to the twenty-five boys there, and left. The school was simply a front for a scam-artist-turned-basketball-coach to recruit players. He lured them to the States and then sent them to colleges that were affiliated with shoe companies, based on whichever shoe company paid him more. If one of these players made it to the NBA, the sponsoring shoe company would have the inside track, but none of these kids received a real secondary education along the way.
In their second week staying at our house, my brother was home from college and drove Sam and Cornelio to Greenwich High School, the public school I now attended. Their eyes lit up. They had traveled thousands of miles to attend a great school. They saw the chance to realize their American dream and asked us
to take them in as their legal guardians within the United States so they could attend our local public high school.
Given my dad’s background as an immigrant, the boys’ story resonated with him deeply. We had hosted hundreds of kids overnight at our house, but something about Sam and Cornelio was unique. They were both so genuine and humble, and they embodied the kind of integrity my family valued so much. My mother and my sister were completely won over by them, and Scott, who was scheduled to return to Emory in Atlanta that fall, was especially hyped about the idea.
One night, my parents asked to speak with me privately. They told me about the boys’ request for us to take them into our family and informed me that the final decision was up to me. “It’s going to fall on you to chaperone them, tutor them, and assimilate them into school. You’re also applying to colleges this fall, so we know you’re under a lot of stress, and this decision is going to impact you the most right now. The rest of us are willing to take them in, but it’s your choice.”
When you come from a lineage of Holocaust survivors, you grow up with an understanding that everything was once taken away from your family. The only things that enabled them to survive and then radically change their lot in life were the strength of their willpower, the help of others, and a commitment to education. Sam and Cornelio had demonstrated willpower and a hunger for education in abundance. They just needed a little bit of help. People with nothing to gain had once stepped in to help my family, and now I had the opportunity to pay it forward.
Later that night I told my parents that I wanted us to take in the boys as well. My parents soon became Sam and Cornelio’s legal guardians within the United States. They enrolled in Greenwich High School with my sister and me—and became our two new brothers.
Our Shabbat dinners on Friday nights looked a little different with two huge African kids towering over the table, but the real transformation that took place within our family was much more profound. While my parents gave these boys an incredible opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives, what they gave us was much more. They changed us. They certainly changed me.
For the first time, I began to fully understand that there was a vast world outside of the towns and neighborhoods I had come to know. I started to think about what it would be like if our roles had been reversed and I had grown up in Mozambique rather than them. I wondered if I would have had their same courage to leave home and venture into unknown lands.
The more I learned about the challenges they had overcome, the more I grasped the qualities necessary to change one’s path. Sam and Cornelio were the only ones among their friends and family to depart from the life that was expected of them. They did not follow the norms of their peers. They chose to be different. And in doing so, they proved that through struggle, sacrifice, and service, staggering personal transformation is possible.
GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
Wherever you grow up, your surroundings are your measuring stick. Although my parents were a dentist and an orthodontist, many of my friends’ parents were investment bankers, hedge-fund managers, and CEOs. We knew as kids that among the parents in the crowd at our local football games, a handful of multimillionaires usually could be counted. Once I fully grasped that some of my friends’ parents made tremendous amounts of money while others made very little, my love of competition and numbers soon morphed into a new obsession—Wall Street. By the time I was in middle school I was fixated on working in finance and becoming a billionaire.
In middle school I opened an E*TRADE account to buy and sell shares of Gap and Nike. By the time I was sixteen I started working at a hedge fund during my summer break, trying to learn everything I could about the financial markets. When I was nineteen,
I worked at a fund of funds and went to New York City, not to see a show or buy knockoff watches on St. Mark’s Place, but to visit the New York Stock Exchange and sp...