Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Norman Lear and Starbucks

With the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike meaning no Daily Show with Jon Stewart or Colbert Report (although the writers are putting funny stuff on YouTube), I've been forced to find other TV shows to watch.

One of my favorites has been the Iconoclasts series on the Sundance Channel. I first saw one of these programs several months ago when they featured Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and surfing icon Laird Hamilton. The other day I watched the Iconoclasts episode matching Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz (with me at below) and Norman Lear. The two men are very fond of each other, have much more in common than anyone would imagine, and have teamed up in some very lucrative ways. The combination made this a very Jewish episode.

Howard Schultz and Rabbi Jason Miller
I actually knew a great deal about Howard Schultz before I saw this program. I heard him speak about his upbringing, influences, and vision at a Jewish Federation event in Ann Arbor a few years ago. Earlier in the day of the event, I happened to be at a local Ann Arbor Starbucks having a meeting with a Hillel donor and Howard Schultz walked in. I observed him doing exactly what he says he does and what is portrayed in the Iconoclasts episode about him. He walked up to each worker ("partner") in the Starbucks store, shook their hand, patted them on the back, and told them that he genuinely was proud of their hard work. He then made his way over to our table, sat down, and shmoozed for a few minutes as if he wasn't the busy executive running a billion-dollar corporation that opens eight new stores per day. At the Jewish Federation event later that evening he remembered our conversation without any prompting.

Howard Schultz and Norman Lear

Schultz speaks openly that his Judaism influences his code of business principles and I have used him as an example many times when teaching about Jewish business ethics. Our nanny, who has become a part of our family, moonlights as a part-time Starbucks manager and has confirmed to me that it really is a great place to work (full health care benefits for all part-time staff).

How much I knew about Howard Schultz is how little I knew about Norman Lear, the Jewish creator of all those 70's TV shows (All in the Family, Good Times, the Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, etc.). As Norman Lear describes in an online interview with, Judaism has infused his life's work. In the interview, as in the Iconoclasts presentation, Lear explains the Talmudic story that he loves and and lives by:

There's a Talmudic story that I love, that seems to cover everything to me. A man should have a jacket with two pockets. In the first pocket there should be a piece of paper on which is written, "I am but dust and ashes." In the second, a piece of paper on which it is written "For me the world was created." That's mama loshon to me, real common sense. The person who can live between that ying and yang has it made.

The two men appear like a loving father and son that had been separated for years. They share similar ethics and have each revolutionized their own trade (Schultz by selling coffee in new ways and treating his workers in better ways, and Lear with racy TV characters like Archie Bunker to get Americans to think about racial and religious tolerance in new ways). Together, they have teamed up on entrepreneurial initiatives like selling music at Starbucks (the award-winning Ray Charles CD -- the last of his life -- being their first attempt) and on social and political issues (getting young people to vote).

The highlights of the presentation are in Lear's home, where he shows his original copy of the Declaration of Independence to Howard Schultz, and in their tour of the Seattle warehouse where Starbucks coffee is produced. Each man shows remarkable pride in the other and the Jewish people should take great pride in these men. It is their Judaism that has made them who they are.

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