Interviews

Avi Flombaum


July 29, 2016

When was the last time a teacher told you a dirty joke? It happened to us when we interviewed native New Yorker and serial entrepreneur Avi Flombaum, the founder and Dean of Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp. Aside from his favorite Jewish knee-slapper, Avi shared the quirks of growing up with immigrant parents, his conflicting feelings about religious observance and (not) graduating from college, the power of positivity, and the promise of nuclear energy.

What is your earliest memory?

I remember coming home one day with my parents, I must have been 4 or 5, and I opened the door into the house and the alarm went off. I was really freaked out, because I didn’t know the alarm code, and, if the alarm goes off for more than 60 seconds, the police come. My dad did not get upstairs to shut off the alarm fast enough, the cops came, and they had to do the whole, “Do you really live here?” thing.

My dad is terrified of police, because he grew up in Argentina and was a Communist and a Zionist during the Perón era with the junta, who were beating up Communists and Jews. Any interaction with authority to him is like, “OK, If I don’t play this right, I might end up in jail.”

How was Judaism a part of your childhood?

While I went to a Modern Orthodox school, we weren’t super strict about being shomer Shabbos. We ate pizza that wasn’t technically kosher. I would watch Saturday morning cartoons, then go to shul, then come back and play on my computer.

I remember having this fear that I would say something in class that was anti-Jewish or anti-religious and then get caught for it. I’d say, “I had a bacon egg and cheese sandwich,” only to have the whole class respond, “Ooooh, bacon’s not kosher,” and then I’d have to be like, “Oh my God! I didn’t know that!,” but you couldn’t say that, because then you were admitting that your whole family is a fraud.

I was worried that I would be ostracized or judged for not being as religious as everyone else, which is ultimately a fear that all Jews have at some level.

My parents have gotten more religious in their old age. I’m not religious. I think they get that I’m culturally Jewish. I value the fact that I am Jewish, and that’s enough for them. My mom told me one Passover when I renounced my Judaism that, if I’m good enough for Hitler, I’m good enough for her.

Did you know what you wanted to be when you were a kid?

I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I loved programming, and I loved the internet. I knew I wanted to do that. I didn’t know in what capacity. I also remember liking writing and movies. Eventually, I realized that I could exercise all those ideas and creativity through the internet and programming and starting companies.

Looking back, what advice would you give your teenage self?

I would tell myself to be more patient. To not worry. Life is long, and it moves slow, and you don’t have to have it figured out all at once.

People would tell me growing up, “You work hard, you get good grades, you go to a good college, you do well in college, you get a good job, you get married, you have a family, and you’re happy.” I remember thinking, “I’m not buying that. My life isn’t going to be that simple.”

What’s a typical day like for you?

I wake up pretty early, between 5:30 and 6. I like to go running or work out first thing in the morning. As tired as I am, 15 minutes into it, I’m more awake than I would have been if I had slept. Some days, I just let myself sleep, because I literally, physically cannot get out of bed at that moment.

Then, I go to this Israeli coffee shop on 23rd St. called myWayCup with Gili and Shai and Miri. They’re all expats, and we speak Hebrew but don’t like speaking it to each other – I don’t know why – and I’m happy about that, because I can understand Hebrew way better than I can speak it. I get a red eye every morning. They know my drink, and they’re really fun. I’m a real creature of habit. I love routine.

Then, I get on the subway and get off early on Wall Street, because I like a little bit of a walk to work. I love riding the subway, even when it’s crowded and hot and smelly and disgusting and someone is touching you.

We’re all in this together.

I’m reminded every day in New York that there is the fellowship of mankind, all going to work together, all dealing with the same sweatiness and disgustingness. I also like the singing on the subway. It’s kind of meditative for me. I think about the day, where I’m at, what I have to focus on.

I get to work and try to do all of my 1-on-1s as early as possible. I don’t really like meetings; I remember reading advice to do the things you hate most first in the day, just get them out of the way, so I try to do that. I find and identify the problems at the company that I can be most useful for and try to tackle them in 3-month rotations. I’ll teach for 3 months, or I’ll work on curriculum development for 3 months, or I’ll work on an entirely new product for 3 months. That’s generally what my afternoons are like.

I leave work around 6. One of my favorite feelings is lying in bed and falling asleep instantly. I want to go to bed every night exhausted, because I used to have a really hard time falling asleep. Now, between waking up really early and working hard all day, it takes me 30 seconds to fall asleep, and I love it, I love it.

What is something you learned today?

I was reminded about the power of positivity. It’s been a pretty long week, and I refused to let it get to me. I just have to wake up every morning and consciously meditate on coming into work happy and excited and positive.

I think back to Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning and the experience of being in a concentration camp. Even in that most abject, torturous situation, there is an attitude and perspective you can adopt that makes it survivable. If he can adopt that attitude in that situation, I should be able to adopt it in my awesome, New York City, modern, 21st century life. It’s hard and it requires effort. Verbalize what you’re grateful for. No matter how stressed out you are, be energized by it, don’t be upset about it.

What does it mean to you to be Jewish?

It’s a very personal thing that I don’t think anyone else gets to judge.

I am Jewish, and I don’t care if that meets anyone else’s criteria or definition of Judaism.

I think it’s so ridiculous that, given how few Jews there are on the planet, you have all these Jews telling each other they’re not Jewish enough. Like, why would you divide something so small? I don’t pray, I live my life, I reflect and try to be thoughtful, and, to me, that is enough of a connection with the Universe and mysticism. I think this idea that there’s one way to worship is so myopic.

How does Judaism play a role in your daily life?

I make a lot of Jewish jokes.

Do you have a really good Jewish joke for us?

One of my favorite ones is a somewhat dirty one.

So, there’s a rabbi who is having a really hard time pleasuring his wife in bed. Part of being a Jewish man and a Jewish husband is that you’re supposed to, on Friday nights, make love to your wife and try to please her. Every time he does his best. He reads books, he does Kama Sutra, but she just lies there like a deer in headlights. She puts up with it, but he feels like he’s not fulfilling his obligation as a man. He’s really stressed out about it, he doesn’t know what to do, so he goes to the yeshiva and says, “Rabbi, I’m trying to please my wife, but I don’t think it’s working. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I feel like I’m not honoring my commitment to her as a husband. I don’t know what to do.”

The rabbi says, “Don’t worry, I’ve seen this before. Here’s what you need to do: go down to the beis medrash, find the most handsome, strapping yeshiva bochur you can find, tell him about your problem, then bring him home with you tonight, and, while you’re making love to your wife, he should stand on top of you naked, waving a towel like this in a circular motion on top of his head, and that will work.”

He finds a strapping, broad shouldered, handsome Jew, tells him the problem, and the student says, “Sure, Rabbi, anything for you. I’m happy to help.” The rabbi brings him home, the rabbi’s having sex with his wife, the student is standing on top of him waving his towel ferociously above his head and…nothing. The wife’s a deer in headlights. He doesn’t know what’s wrong.

The rabbi goes back to the yeshiva and says, “Rabbi, I tried what you said and it didn’t work.” The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “Don’t worry, I was afraid of this. Here’s what I want you to do. Tonight, go back, get the same yeshiva bochur. Tonight, while he’s having sex with your wife, you stand on top of them naked waving a towel.” He respond, “Alright, I’ll try anything.”

He tells the yeshiva bochur, and he says, “Sure, Rabbi, anything you need. No problem.” The rabbi brings him home, the yeshiva bochur is having sex with the rabbi’s’ wife, the rabbi is standing on top naked, waving the towel ferociously around his head, and the wife is having orgasm after orgasm. It’s like nothing she’s ever felt. She had no idea she could have these feelings. A river of emotions are unlocked, and she’s a different person afterwards.

They’re all getting dressed, and the rabbi says to the yeshiva bochur, “You see, schmuck, that’s how you wave a towel.”

What’s something you are curious about right now?

Nuclear energy is really awesome. I think that most important problem facing humanity is energy and global warming. We can become a sustainable energy society, we just need to get there.

The problem with nuclear energy is that there are tremendously low volumes of uranium in the world, plus uranium creates nuclear proliferation. The design of uranium plants have a lot of flaws that allow for meltdowns and things like that to happen. There’s another element called thorium that also can be radioactive and can be broken apart and there are two nuclear plant designs that are being worked on right now. We’ve got a lot, a lot of thorium. When thorium breaks down, it does not break down to isotopes and compounds that are used in bombs, so there’s no danger of nuclear proliferation. The design of the thorium plants would fix a lot of problems. If we can make cheap energy from thorium until we can figure out how to harness the sun, that would be great.

Where do you learn about all of this?

The internet. Occasionally, I’m at a dinner with a physicist and I ask them a bunch of questions and they’re really condescending.

Best Jewish food?

I love my mom’s burekas.

Will she let us publish her recipe?

Yeah, but it’s not gonna make sense, because I’m like, “Hey Mom, how do you make that chicken with olives?” and she’ll say, “You buy some chicken, you buy some olives, you put them in a pot, you put a little oil, some harissa, and that’s it!” And you’re thinking, “OK, that’s not it. There are so many more steps involved, can you please articulate them?”

It’s like asking an Israeli for directions. “Telech yashar, yashar, yashar. Habayit shel Shmulie, smola shamah, tireh et hakinyon, al tamsheech hakinyon, tifneh yaminah, v’az…” It’s so vague! I don’t know where Shmulie lives, I don’t know who you’re talking about, and which kinyon? There’s a kinyon every four blocks! Israelis and directions are a funny thing. But it makes sense! We were lost in the desert for 40 years. Jews are good at a lot of things. A sense of direction is not our strong suit. When you get lost, it’s like, “We’re here, let’s make the best of it.”

What’s your favorite Jewish holiday?

Judaism is the only religion I know of that celebrates all the times in which God was so pissed at us that we almost died but then he saved us. It’s Purim, it’s Hanukkah, it’s Pesach. We were close to the end. My favorite Jewish holiday is Rosh Hashanah, and all the other ones are very stressful. Rosh Hashanah is one dinner, it’s a good night, it’s fun, there’s not a lot of shul, you get some challah with some honey. Passover is like, phewf, you feel it.

Did you have a bar mitzvah theme?

Yes, I did. It was the FlomBomb. The theme was that it was gonna be a bomb of a party. Like, awesome.

Photos by Jake Fromm

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