High Holy Days: Working for happiness


Did you know that many people actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work? Although many people also find their work stressful, boring or meaningless, success doesn’t make people happy either. 

“More than a decade of groundbreaking research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience has proven in no uncertain terms that the relationship between success and happiness works the other way around,” writes Shawn Achor, one of the designers and teachers of Harvard’s famous Happiness course, in “The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.” Research shows that happiness is the precursor to success, not the result, and that, together with optimism, it fuel success. This is what Achor means by the competitive edge he calls the “happiness advantage.” 

But can unhappy people – or even mildly content people – become happy? If so, how? And is it possible to be happy even at work?

Achor believes so. As the CEO of Good Think Inc., a global positive-psychology consulting company, Achor uses the latest in research to give practical steps to increase happiness in our daily lives. His TED talks on the subject have garnered millions of views. 

The Texan got a taste of happiness when he unexpectedly got into Harvard after applying on a dare. He then stayed in the dorms for the next 12 years, first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student and live-in resident to help students with academic and personal success. There he witnessed a pattern of students getting worried, overwhelmed, depressed and even failing. 

It was only after he went to visit a shantytown school in Soweto, South Africa, that he began to understand the answer. When he asked the kids if they like to do schoolwork,  most of the kids raised their hands. And they weren’t lying. A CEO from South Africa told him, “They see schoolwork as a privilege, one their parents did not have.”

When he returned to Harvard and saw people complaining about the very thing Soweto students saw as a privilege, “I started to realize just how much our interpretation of reality changes our experience of that reality.” Students who saw learning as a chore missed out on the opportunities in front of them, but those who saw Harvard as an opportunity shined.

The seven principles in “The Happiness Advantage” are not about putting on a happy face, Achor believes. It’s not about using positive thinking to pretend problems don’t exist, or that everything will always be great. It’s about harnessing our neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change and rewire itself. 

“The hardest part about happiness is remembering that we can choose it,” he says. 

Achor talked about the seven principles of “The Happiness Advantage.”

Principle No. 1 The Happiness Advantage Happiness, Achor says, is “the joy we feel striving toward our potential.” This definition links positive emotion with a cognitive awareness of growth. Positive emotion without growth is pleasure, which is fleeting. Growth without positive emotion is equally short-lived and leads to depression.

“Your brain works significantly better at positive than it does when neutral or negative,” Achor says, noting that when positive, the brain has triple the creativity, 31 percent higher levels of productivity, 23 percent fewer fatigue-related symptoms, 37 percent higher levels of sales — all resulting in higher profit and lower burnout. 

Principle No. 2: The Fulcrum and the Lever Achor learned at an early age that our brain can be thought of as “single processors capable of devoting only a finite amount of resources to experiencing the world.” You can use those resources to see the world through a lens of negativity, stress, pain and uncertainty, he says, or through a lens of gratitude, hope, resilience and optimism. 

“Happiness is not about lying to ourselves, or turning a blind eye to the negative, but about adjusting our brain so that we see the ways to rise above our circumstances.”

According to Yale psychologist Amy Wrzeniewski, a crucial part in work satisfaction is whether you view your work as a job (a means to a paycheck), a career (necessary to advance and succeed) or a calling (work as an end in itself contributing to a greater good). It doesn’t matter the work one does, it can always  be connected to one’s higher calling, Achor says. 

Principle No. 3 The Tetris Effect 

The brains of people who repeatedly play video games (like Tetris, where blocks have to fit geometrically) became stuck in a ‘cognitive after-image,’ which causes them to see the game wherever they go. People can also get stuck that way, especially accountants, lawyers and other professionals trained to be critical. Lawyers depose their children while accountants make spreadsheets of their wives’ faults. 

But you can create a ‘Positive Tetris Effect,’ i.e. train your brain to get stuck in a positive afterimage using happiness, gratitude and optimism. Make a list of three positive things at the end of the day, and your brain will have to scan for positive events. 

“This trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them,” he says. 

Principle No. 4 Falling Up 

The human brain has been wired to create mental maps to survive and navigate the world. After a failure, we create a map with three possible outcomes:  1. Circling in the same spot.  2.  Getting further lost (going down a more negative path).  3.  Getting to a place stronger than before.

The third way “is the difference between those who are crippled by failure and those who rise above it.” After repeated setbacks, some people learn helplessness and believe their actions are futile, while others have what psychologists call “adversarial growth” success after traumas or failures because of their positive mindset. 

Principle No. 5 The Zorro Circle 

Before he could become a hero, the fictional character Zorro had to learn to control his impulsiveness and master his skills one by one, first within a small circle. Often, Achor says, we feel out of control, especially when we try to tackle too many things at once. In a study of 7,400 employees published in The Lancet in 2007, people who felt they had little control over their deadlines had a 50 percent higher risk of heart disease. 

In times of stress, Achor says, it’s important to identify your feelings (whether in writing or in words), find out which parts of the situation you can control, then try to accomplish one small goal. Then another, and another. 

Principle No. 6: The 20-Second Rule

Neuroplasticity tells us that we can change our brains: bad habits wire them that way as do good habits. Achor works with people to replace a negative habit with a positive one “so that the brain’s resources are being allocated appropriately” toward change, he says. 

But to form a new habit, you have to create the path of least resistance (i.e., it needs to be easy). Achor found that committing to playing the guitar every day wasn’t enough when his guitar was stored in the closet. Once he moved it outside (“lower the barrier”), he incorporated guitar playing into his daily routine. 

Principle No. 7 Social Investment

In times of stress and crisis, many people retreat into their shells and cut off communication with their friends and loved ones. But happy, successful people do the opposite. “Instead of turning inward, they actually hold tighter to their social circle,” Achor says. Forming social bonds increases Oxytocin, reducing anxiety and improving concentration and focus.

In the end, Achor believes we can always be happy at work by creating positive habits and sticking with them. “But if you feel like you could grow more in another job, then optimism should fuel the belief that you can make that change successfully,” he says. But if change is not possible for some reason, “making the best of the current situation only makes good sense.”

Happiness is a moral obligation


Readers who think I am preoccupied with political issues may find it interesting to learn that I lecture on the subject of happiness more than any other single topic. And, every Friday for the past 12 years, I have devoted an hour of my radio show to this subject.

I do so because I have concluded that the happy make the world better, and the unhappy make the world worse. Therefore, happiness is a moral obligation.

For the first half of my life, like most people, I regarded happiness as essentially a feeling – “I feel happy,” “I feel unhappy.” I regarded the pursuit of happiness as a selfish endeavor.

I was very wrong. Happiness — or to be more precise, a happy disposition — is actually a moral virtue. Whenever I meet an individual with a cheerful disposition, I admire that person. I have come to regard people who maintain cheerful dispositions in the same way I regard those are kind, honest, etc.

If you want to understand why happiness is a moral virtue that we are obliged to pursue, ask anyone raised by an unhappy parent — or who is married to an unhappy spouse, or who has an unhappy child — what that is like.

The unhappy — or those who act unhappy, such as the moody, the chronic complainers, the drama kings and queens — frequently ruin the lives of those around them. They cast a pall over their son or daughter’s childhood, they ruin their marriages, and they can make their parents despondent.

And that’s only the damage they do in the micro realm. In the macro realm, the unhappy often do even more damage. Those who became Nazis or communists were not happy people. Happy Muslims don’t become suicide bombers — the very fact that they want to murder and die in order to be rewarded in the afterlife is a testament to how little joy they experience in this life.

Given, then, how much damage they do, why do the moody and miserable act this way?

One reason is that they believe that they have suffered more than those who act happy.

But this is false. Most of those who walk around with a cheerful disposition have suffered at least as much as have the moody and miserable. There is rarely a correlation between suffering and disposition.

Another is that often they have been rewarded for their chronic complaining and bad moods. This typically begins in childhood, during which the moody child gets more attention than the easygoing child. And it continues into adulthood – the moody are often placated, and others frequently try to “make” the unhappy happy. So why change, when your miserable moods have only been rewarded?

People should regard bad moods in the same way they regard bad breath or bad body odor: Inflicting bad moods on others is just as obnoxious as inflicting bad breath or body odor on others. Just as we try to brush away bad breath and wash away body odor, we should try to brush and wash away bad moods.

A third reason is that we live in the Age of Feelings. Feelings have replaced standards (for example, “How do you feel about it?” has replaced “Is it right or wrong?”), and feelings have been elevated above behavior. The idea that one should not act in accord with one’s feelings, or, heaven forbid, not express one’s feelings is regarded as sinful.

Young people in particular recoil at the thought of acting contrary to how they feel. It is “inauthentic,” they say. But, of course, nice-smelling breath and bodies are also inauthentic. What is authentic about mouthwash or deodorant?

The fact is that we owe it to everyone with whom we come into contact to act in as upbeat a manner as possible. I suspect that more marriages survive a spouse’s infidelity than survive a spouse’s chronic bad moods. Indeed, regularly inflicting bad moods on a spouse should be regarded as a form of spousal abuse.

This rule applies everywhere. As one who flies hundreds of times a year, I can testify to how much more pleasant a flight is when the flight attendant is a cheerful person rather than a dour one. And in the workplace, it is simply vital. The constant good humor of my engineer, Sean McConnell, has had a measurable impact on the quality of my show.

And acting happy not only affects everyone in our lives; it affects us just as much. Our own behavior changes us. As the 12-step programs — perhaps the wisest programs in our society — put it: “Fake it till you make it.” Act happy, and you’ll be happier.

None of this suggests that we should hide our unhappy feelings from our closest friends, one of whom, hopefully, is our spouse. But it does mean that whatever we are feeling, we still need to try to be, or at least to act, happy. That is certainly the message of Judaism, from which I learned this insight. Even during the week following the death of an immediate family member, we are forbidden to mourn when Shabbat comes.

Behavior over feelings is one of Judaism’s greatest teachings.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Taking seven steps to ‘Sukkot happiness’


But are you happy? 

No, this isn’t your mother wanting another update on your life. It’s not Dr. Phil’s provocative question through your TV/computer screen as you sit (safely) on your couch. And it isn’t someone reading you the Declaration of Independence wondering if you have really pursued this inalienable right enough.

It’s the holiday of Sukkot speaking.

The Rabbis nicknamed the harvest festival “Zman Simchateinu,” the “time of our happiness.” How, exactly, does a holiday that invites us to eat all of our meals in a small hut al fresco—often in the chilly, windy days of late fall—have to do with being happy?

“Sukkot happy” is a bit different from the kind of happy that our post-modern culture espouses. A quick search on Amazon.com reveals scores of books that aim to help readers embody this elusive ideal. The Buddhist variety extols striving for inner peace. Positive psychologists understand attaining happiness as a key component to mental health. And happiness in the self-help movement embraces happiness “plans” like Seven Steps to Being Happy.

The happiness that Sukkot encourages can be found when one peruses the pages of a book buried deep within the Amazon website. It is Ecclesiastes, which we read during Sukkot. The festival falls this year on the evening of Oct. 12.

Ecclesiastes wouldn’t strike you as a get-happy-quick piece of literature. It is pessimistic and cynical—just count the number of times the word “vanity” is used. Nor is it the most popular book in the Bible. In fact, the Talmud relates that the Rabbis wanted to hide the work in part because of how some statements contradict the Torah itself.

It does, however, contain deep wisdom about what gets in the way of true happiness. Ecclesiastes offers us perspective and manages our expectations. To the question “Am I rich enough?” Ecclesiastes answers, “A lover of money never has his fill of money, nor a lover of wealth his fill of income, that too is futile. As his substance increases, so do those who consume it. This also is vanity.”

To the question “Am I smart/wise enough?” it comments, “Much study is a weariness of the flesh.” And to the issue “Am I popular enough?” Ecclesiastes responds, “A good name is better than precious oil.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is keenly aware that death will come in the end for all mortals, so it trumpets robust relationships, saying that “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun … For that alone is what you can get out of life.”

Ecclesiastes ends by offering an even greater perspective. What’s most important is to “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”

While all pursuits under the sun might be short-lived, the one thing that is enduring, according to Ecclesiastes, is that which exists above the sun. The book speaks about cultivating a relationship with God, but more generally it is the cultivation of relationships that lie beyond the self, which endures and leads to happiness.

According to Ecclesiastes, being in service to God—and interpreted more broadly, being of service to others—might be a key to what leads us to joy.

I think to myself, when am I really happy?  While I do love kicking back on the beach and reading a good book, I find this kind of activity relaxing—but I’m not sure it leads to deep happiness. A sense of joy surfaces when I reflect on ways that my life is in service to others, whether it is by nursing my child, teaching others, or volunteering my time and skills to an organization in the community.

For this Sukkot, consider what makes you happy. Try out this plan: Seven Steps to True Happiness: Sukkot Style.

* Build a sukkah. Even if you don’t have a backyard or garden, ask about the roof of your building. Or find someone who has one and have a meal there. Does the food taste any different to you outside? How does eating in a temporary structure make you appreciate the permanence of your home?  What other new perspectives do you gain?

* Invite wisdom into your sukkah. In the spirit of “ushpizin,” inviting guests into your sukkah, invite the wisdom of friends and relatives (living or dead) who cannot join you this Sukkot. Write down a saying or phrase from them that inspires you and turn it into a piece that can decorate your sukkah, or share it aloud at your next meal.

* Invite a guest to your table. In the spirit of repairing relationships—something we focus on greatly during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—make time to share a meal together with a friend you haven’t seen in awhile or from whom you have grown distant.

* Enjoy the harvest. Wave the lulav and etrog (especially fun to do with kids!), symbols of the fall harvest. Learn about what produce is harvested in your area and even go to a farm stand or a farm. Speak to the farmers and ask them about when they are the most “happy” in the work they do.

* Read the book of Ecclesiastes. Pick one or two phrases that strike you and consider how they might relate to your own life.

* Learn about homelessness in your community. While a sukkah is a makeshift dwelling place that will last seven days for us, there are others in our community, without homes, who live outdoors in makeshift dwellings year round.

* Help others. Think about a way that you can serve one person inside your intimate circle and one person outside of it, including a stranger.

The holiday of Sukkot falls immediately after the long process of introspection we engage in during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We move from the conceptual world of fasting and prayer to the practical one of harvested fruits and sukkah building. We have time to think about how to live a life of service—to God, Torah, friends, family and our communities).

If there is a “season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven,” then let this season be one of genuine rejoicing.

Israel ranks seventh in happiness level, poll finds


Israel ranked seventh worldwide in the happiness level of its residents, according to a survey conducted by the Gallup Institute.

Some 63 percent of Israelis are satisfied with their lives, Gallup’s global wellbeing surveys in 2010 found. Israel was ranked higher than the United States, which came in 12th place—59 percent of Americans said they were thriving, the indicator of happiness. Thirty-four percent of Israelis said they were struggling and 2 percent said they were suffering, according to the survey.

New Zealand also ranked seventh among the 124 countries surveyed. Denmark ranked first with 73 percent of respondents saying they were thriving.

Among the countries where fewer than 25 percent of citizens said they were thriving were Russia, China and Lebanon.

Some 14 percent of the residents of what the survey calls the “Palestinian territories” said they were thriving, according to the survey.

Results were based on face-to-face and telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 adults per country, aged 15 and older, conducted in 2010.

Settle down


When it comes to dating, even Tobey Maguire is interested in the concept of settling.

Now, I have no idea about Spidey’s love life — last I heard he was with Lois Lane, wait, no, that’s Superman, not Spider-Man, and this just in — the real Maguire is married and expecting his second child.

But I don’t want to talk about his personal life, I want to talk about his professional one.

Maguire has just signed on to develop a feature film from essayist and occasional Jewish Journal columnist Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough.”

In a 5,500-word piece published in March in the Atlantic Monthly, Gottlieb, a 40-year-old single mother who chose to have a baby on her own asked a poignant question: “Is it better to be alone, or to settle?”

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Gottlieb quickly answers her own question:

“My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year.”

Gottlieb’s stance caused quite a brouhaha on the blogosphere (read: rantosphere), where people called her everything from “immature” to “desperate” to “tragic” to “crazy,” labeling her a narcissist, anti-feminist, crackpot journalist. She has also been told “she needs a shrink, pronto.”

Gottlieb tells me she was a bit taken aback by the harsh reaction, but said that in addition to the 700 letters of support she also received, a number of rabbis have used her piece in their sermons. (She even spoke last month at Sinai Temple.)

I’m not surprised by the rabbis’ support. Gottlieb’s message is something I’ve heard many, many times before. Since the beginning of my illustrious dating career at age 19 (for marriage purposes!), rabbis, educators, teachers and other religious married people have been telling me the same thing: Find someone with shared values, someone you respect, someone you can build a life with. A good husband, a good father, a good partner.

Nothing new here.

In traditional Jewish communities, the notion of “Hollywood Love,” of “Love at First Sight,” of a “Love of Everlasting Passion,” has long been viewed as a myth. The problem in those communities is not whether or not to believe Hollywood love myth, it’s whether to believe love and attraction should play any part at all in the choice of a mate.

That was the message I got, anyway.

When I was in my early 20s, I went to dozens of weddings (to this day, the words “bridal shower” make me break out in hives). The ceremonies were solemn and the parties leibadik (festive), and the “salmon-chicken-or-prime rib” menus were delectable, if indiscernible, but to me it seemed like something essential was lacking: love. Back then, in my world, it seemed people settled too easily. They married — young — to have a partner, to not be alone, to fit into the community, to have kids, to be part of what Gottlieb calls “a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane and often boring nonprofit business.”

If one could chart my own “why isn’t she married?” trajectory (and believe me, there are many who do) it might be the result of this kind of advice: I’ve seen too many loveless marriages hastily entered into for anything but love.

Now, of course, Gottlieb isn’t advocating marrying a man who repulses you or puts you to sleep every time he answers the question, “How was your day, dear?”

But it would seem that once you enter the slippery slope of settling, it would be hard to know when to stop. What exactly is the right thing to compromise on? If he is a nice guy, but he goes on and on at dinner parties until you hope someone will drop a plate of hot soup on his lap, is that settling?

See, the other side of the “too picky” see-saw is the “not selective enough” category. Most (married) people who watch their friends/children/congregants date are not familiar with this second category until it’s too late. For example, if a single person regales a married person about her date, saying, “he made me pick up the tab and then just hopped in a cab home!” the married friend will reply, “Well, maybe he’s just low on cash this week and got an emergency call, and you should really give him another chance.”

No, the message to Jewish singles is and always has been Gottlieb’s message: Why can’t you all just settle down?

Now that I’m in my 30s, I wonder if there is something in between musical chairs (grabbing the last man standing) and “The Notebook” (holding out for perfection).

And I suppose that is the beauty of a different kind of Judaism, one that mingles with the mainstream world — even Hollywood, believe it or not. Yes, there should be sparks and chemistry and love and happiness and laughter — together with shared values, common goals and mutual interests.

Because if I’ve learned anything from 15 years (!!!) of dating, it’s that whether you run into a marriage with someone you don’t love, or you hold out for a hero who never comes, either way, you’ll end up all alone.

Leave the house


There’s nothing more smug and insidious than a girl who has finally fallen in love and thinks she now has all the answers. She can save you from your sad, pathetic, damaged love life and cure you of your nasty man-repellant habits. No matter what condescending tip she’s giving you, it always drips with the self-satisfied knowledge that the spinster bullet she so artfully dodged is headed straight for you.

I hate that girl.

I can’t turn into her, and maybe that’s why I haven’t written for the past nine months, since I met and fell in love with the first man I’ve ever been sure about. When it finally happened, it felt much more like dumb luck than brilliant man maneuvering. More dice than poker. I can’t be gloating all the way to the altar because the fact is, I’m just a girl who left the house one Saturday night to have dinner with her girlfriends, saw a cute guy across the room and hit the jackpot.

The only magical insight I can share with you has to do with the leaving the house part. Even Eli Manning can’t throw a touchdown if he doesn’t break out of the huddle. That’s really all I can tell you for sure.

There’s always been a special place in my grudge greenhouse for those who peddle the idea that finding love is a skill that can be graphed, taught and sold. Books about love seem like a whole lot of mess to me, written largely by groovy grifters.

Take for example author John Gray — you know, the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” guy? The guy who has sold more than 30 million books doling out relationship advice? Well, he married fellow self-help writer Barbara De Angelis, who penned “Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know.”

Between the two of them, you have to imagine this was the most blissful, evolved marriage ever. Too bad they’re divorced. Yet somehow, both still hawk their wares. A special hats off to Gray for combining two brilliant swindles in his latest work, “The Mars & Venus Diet & Exercise Solution.” I couldn’t make up tripe like that.

So, when I ask myself how I finally stopped screwing up my love life, the only answer that comes to mind is the same one famously used by one of Ernest Hemingway’s characters to explain how he went bankrupt: “Two ways, first gradually then suddenly.”

The gradual part was the usual therapy in Tarzana with a nice lady who lets me joke about the therapist next door, Dr. Harsher. Seriously, that’s his name. The suddenly part was meeting a guy who is so boundlessly good-natured and patient that he makes me want to bake him cakes and write syrupy e-mails. For the most part, I stopped being a subpar girlfriend and self-involved jerk, first gradually then suddenly.

In any case, I could have had all of the personal epiphanies in the world and still turned up snake eyes. Some of the most together people I know are alone, and some of the real doozies are paired up. It really does come down mainly to luck. Luck and leaving the house.

Aside from being self-conscious that I would come across unctuous and all-knowing about falling in love, there’s another reason that for the first time in 10 years I haven’t written a darn thing.

I’m … happy? And happy people can be a bit dull, or at least that’s the notion that’s been dogging me. I introduced this concept out in Tarzana.

My Therapist: “Not all happy people are boring.”

Me: “Name one happy person who isn’t boring.”

My Therapist: “The Dalai Lama.”

Me: “Really? Have you read ‘The Art of Happiness?'”

My Therapist: “You got me there.”

Perhaps she should have suggested I set up a session with Dr. Harsher.

Since falling in love and losing what I perceive to be my “edge,” I sometimes worry about being one quaint, self-deprecating tale away from being Erma Bombeck, and I loved Erma, but you know what I mean.

Oddly enough, the answer came from a co-worker. He told me that I was so deeply troubled that even if one part of my life was gelling, the nuttiness runs deep. He said I was like Mike Tyson, I wouldn’t run out of crazy. And that was comforting, and the fact that it was a salve proved it true. I’ve got a backup generator of crazy in case the mishegoss goes out.

So, hopefully, despite the fact that I’m not suffocatingly lonely or in a relationship laced with toxic levels of resentment, I still have a fertile patch of pain from which insights can grow, like that brilliant one I had earlier about leaving the house. What a relief.

Teresa Strasser is co-host of “The Adam Carolla Show,” on KLSX-FM. Three days after writing this column, she got engaged. She is very happy — hopefully, not too happy. Her book, “101 Ways to Win a Coin Toss,” will be out this fall.

Serenity now — inside and out


Breathe.

Yes, take a breath.

“One, long deliberate breath that you feel from the very beginning of it until the end of it. Try it, really. You can do it with your eyes open. You can do it while reading these instructions. Do you notice that you can feel your body, and especially your chest expanding and relaxing to accommodate the air flowing in and out, without stopping reading?”

This is the advice of Sylvia Boorstein in her new book, “Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life” (Ballantine Books). It’s the latest contribution to the ever-popular and growing happiness library — books by religious leaders, self-help gurus, psychologists and doctors — on how to live a more fulfilling life.

Every book seems to have its own prescription for the ways to lead a happier life, and for Boorstein — a practicing psychotherapist, the co-founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre and author of the previous “Pay Attention for Goodness Sake,” “It’s Easier than You Think,” and “Don’t Just Do Something: Sit There!” — it’s Buddhism.

“Inside Job,” like most happiness guides, advises practicing meditation, expressing gratitude and mindfulness as ways to happier life, but for Boorstein, it’s the central tenet. Her book focuses on three Buddhist teachings to focus the mind and lead readers away from confusion, anger and anxiety into calmness and clarity:

* Wise Effort — when you intentionally choose to rid your mind of painful thoughts so that you can focus on positive thoughts which generates positive feelings;

* Wise Mindfulness — when you watch your mind’s reactions to the events around it, thereby restoring balance, and

* Wise Concentration — when you focus on one thing (like breathing) to establish composure.

Unlike many of the recent offerings on happiness, which advise avoiding unpleasant situations or people so as not to bring yourself down, Boorstein’s main focus, through telling stories that happened to her and at her seminars, is compassion and connectedness. Indifference, pity, envy and jealousy are all “near-enemies” of this, but if you are compassionate to yourself and to the world around you, you can deal with any problems that come your way. In any case, she said, “You never really know what the next minute is going to bring, so living fully in this moment is the only constantly reappearing option for happiness.”

Dr. Sylvia Boorstein will be speaking on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 7 and 8, at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills and on Friday, Dec. 14, at Kehilat Israel in the Palisades.

Hindu widows, remembering Marcy, Conservatives are dishy, Oh! Happy Day!


Our Jewish Spinsters

Rob Eshman’s piece, “Our Hindu Widows” is literally unbelievable (Aug. 10). I am a marriage-minded 52-year-old SJM. I have never been married and want to find my match and start a family. The only really practical advice I have ever heard is “Buy a mansion in Potomac, Md!” It is incredibly difficult to find a marriage-minded SJF young enough to have children; who is attractive, relocatable and willing to marry a nice, but not perfect, man.

I am healthy, fit, reasonably cute, well-educated, professionally successful, prosperous, considerate, great with kids, come from a well-respected family and am a dues-paying member of two Orthodox congregations. I am picky, but less so than most SJFs.

Paul Ackman
Richmond, Va.

A New Dish

The Industrial Revolution brought with it unprecedented societal changes (“Conservatives’ New Dish,” Sept. 21). Leaders of the Conservative movement, fearing that the faithful might be unable to fulfill their religious obligations, chose to relax some rules in response to the new social order. Judaism, they reasoned, is a living religion, and what better way to prove it than to adjust it to the demands of modern life?

For example, during the past century, limited driving has been permitted on Shabbat, the restrictions of kashrut have been relaxed and women have been invited to fully participate on the bimah. Much to the chagrin of our leaders, these changes have resulted in unintended consequences.

Those who enjoy the liberalization, and especially their progeny, find comfort in the Reform Movement, where halacha is less of an issue. On the other hand, those wishing to stay more closely aligned with our customs and rituals have discovered Modern Orthodoxy. They seemingly abide by our ancient laws, while coexisting successfully in the modern business world.

There are two groups for whom the Conservative movement is still a big draw. The first are observant women who want equity on the bimah. The second are homosexuals, who crave adherence to halacha. Although Conservative Judaism still does not fully embrace this demographic group, the only question is when, not if, the rules will be changed.

Whether these two groups, and those of us who concur with them, are adequate to sustain the Conservative movement, remains to be seen. For now, as David Suissa notes, we will continue to engage in “more debate.”

Leonard Solomon
Los Angeles

Oh Happy Day!

Thank you so much for your thoughtful, and meaningful article (“Can Happiness Be Taught?” Sept. 14).

I hope you receive lots and lots of letters from totally ordinary people like me who are just plain happy and grateful just about all of the time. It’s true … I’ve “had it easy” relatively speaking. Thank God no child of mine has been stricken with some dreaded disease. I’ve managed to become 91 years old without needing to deal with an unusual personal catastrophe. Of course, I’ve had my share of the so-called “ups and downs,”… but that’s what being alive is all about. Managing the downs and appreciating the ups (plus the times in between).

And being glad that the downs have been manageable.

Alyse Laemmle
Hermosa Beach

Temple Mount
Please continue your coverage of the desecration of Har-Habayit, the Temple Mount, by the Muslim Waqf (“No One Cares About Ravaging of Temple Mount,” Sept. 21).

The question remains: what will it take for the Jewish people to wake up and stand up for this holy piece of land that was stolen by the Muslims? It is the ultimate chutzpah that they would steal a sacred place, build a shrine and then desecrate the foundation.

J. Sand
Los Angeles

Who Shall Die

The piece “Who Shall Die” about Marcy Asher was very moving (Sept. 14). This woman was unknown to me but it showed how we usually never know what the people we meet in our daily life are going through and therefore we need to make allowances for others. May her family and friends be comforted.

Bob Kirk
Los Angeles

As I’m not Jewish nor a denizen of California, I have not to date read your publication. While waiting at the nail salon this morning I picked it up and read with interest Ms. Asher’s remembrance. I must say that it was rather surprising to read the underlying theme and apparent reason for the article was a forum for the gentleman to boast of his lascivious conquest of a young lady.

Odd to take a young woman who was schizophrenic and use that to his own sexual advantage. One often thinks the Jewish people have higher ideals. Apparent misconception since this publication is titled The Jewish Journal.

Quite surprising, this article. Quite sad, the editor. A tragedy for this girl to be remembered with prurience.

Wendy Lofts-Millington
New York, N.Y.

UC Irvine

In your article about the UC Irvine fiasco (“Chemerinsky Affair Reflects UCI-Jewish Conflicts,” Sept. 21), you noted the ZOA’s federal civil rights complaint on behalf of Jewish students there, which alleges the university’s unlawful failure to respond to anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation on the campus.

Your readers should also know that the complaint triggered a government investigation into the university’s conduct, which is still ongoing. Also, while noting that UC Irvine’s chancellor has been criticized for failing to respond effectively to the harassment of Jewish students, you seemingly suggest that he is somehow redeemed by having condemned the British boycott of Israeli universities. The chancellor’s protest is commendable, but where has he been when it comes to speaking out against anti-Semitism on his own campus? UC Irvine routinely hosts events at which speakers inaccurately call Israel an apartheid state, blame “the Zionist Jews” for the Sept. 11 terror attacks and other problems in the world, and accuse “the Zionist Jews” of bullying, conspiratorial conduct, and trickery. It is this kind of hateful bigotry that leads to a British academic boycott, and Chancellor Drake should stop remaining silent and start clearly and forcefully condemning it.

Susan B. Tuchman
Director
Center for Law and Justice
Zionist Organization of America

Pro-Israel Lobby

I am totally bemused by the Walt-Mearsheimer, Jewish/Israeli lobby, brouhaha.

12 thoughts on happiness for the 10 Days of Awe


“It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy.”
— Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

1. Happiness is not always easy: You work out to be fit, and you have to work to be happy. It’s also easier to be unhappy (stuck) than happy.

2. Happiness is a choice: Anyone, from prisoners to paraplegics, can become happy. It’s a state of mind, having a sense of mastery over your life.

3. Happiness has little to do with external factors: Money, power and fame rarely bring happiness. If you choose your goals based on internal values, not external, they can bring you happiness.

4. Happiness does not come from doing nothing: We all have control of our leisure time. Use it to engage in challenging things you love: gardening, creating, exercising, being with loved ones. Sloth usually brings unhappiness.

5. Happiness doesn’t mean avoidance of pain: Everyone in life will have pain. But, to quote the Dalai Lama, don’t add suffering to the pain.

6. Perspective is the key to happiness: Rabbi Nachman Gamzu said, “Gam zu l’tovah: “This is all for the best.” In the game of life, if you learn life lessons from painful situations, you get to move one step further.

7. Practice gratitude: It’s hard to be thankful and unhappy at the same time. “Abi gezunt,” is the Yiddish phrase of old: “At least you have your health.” Everyone has something to be grateful for.

8. Happiness doesn’t mean the end of achievement: You can be dissatisfied with somethin and not let it make you miserable. You can be happy and still want more. You will probably always want more.

9. Be engaged in the world: Relationships, true connectedness, bring lasting joy.

10. To thine own self be true: Our sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Take care of yourself: your body, your health, your mind, your spirit.

11. Give to the world: “And If I am only for myself, what am I?” — that crucial component of Hillel’s famous three-part quote. President Bill Clinton, in his new book, “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World,” presents many reasons to give, one of them being it is the best way to make yourself happy.

12. Decide to be happy now: As Hillel said, “If not now, then when?”

— AK

10 books about happiness


1. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” by Tal Ben-Shahar (McGraw-Hill, 2007).

2. “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment” by Martin Seligman (Free Press, 2004).

3. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Harper Perennial, 1999).

4. “The Psychology of Happiness” by Michael Argyle (Routeledge, 2001; first edition, 1987)

5. “The Pursuit of Happiness: Discovering Pathways to Fulfillment, Well-Being, and Enduring Personal Joy” by David G Myers (Quill, 1992)

6. “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage Books, 2005)

7. “The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong,” by Jennifer Michael (Hecht Harper, 2007).

8. “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” by Dennis Prager (Harper Paperbacks, 1999).

9. “Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Joyous Practice” by Rabbi David Aaron (Trumpeter Books, 2007).

10. “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be” by Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (Jewish Lights, 2007).

Can happiness be taught?


Are you happy?

No, seriously.

Are. You. Happy?

You can’t answer that question, can you? You know what the first two words mean, but you’re not exactly sure what that third word is, even though you use it all the time. “This makes me happy”; “She seems happy”; “Happy Birthday”; “There! Are you [un]happy now?”

And does “Are you happy?” mean are you happy right in this very moment that you are reading this sentence? Or, happy with your entire life? Anyway, what does it mean to be happy? Does it mean to experience constant pleasure? Bouts of joy? Moments of ecstasy? Does it mean to suffer no pain? Never be sad? Never struggle with challenges? Whatever it is, how does one get happy?

It’s a High Holy Days challenge if ever there were one, since if we all lived happier lives, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

So. Are you happy? Or are all these questions making you miserable?

Happiness. It’s the new black.

Actually, the quest is not new. From Adam to Aristotle, Tony Robbins to Tony Soprano, from the Bible to the best-seller lists, philosophers, religious leaders, theologians, politicians — all have dealt in one way or another with what it takes to live a happy life. America, in fact, is the only nation founded upon this: The pursuit of happiness is our inalienable right.

And pursue it we do, with vigor.

Now more than ever before, it seems. If the ’60s were about “Freedom,” the ’70s about “Me,” the ’80s about “Money,” the ’90s about “Power,” in the new millennium we’re recognizing something essential: None of the above, by themselves, can bring about happiness.

Think about it: Anything anyone has ever wanted in life — to be free, to be king, to be rich, to be slim, to be loved — can be boiled down to “one thing,” to quote Curly in “City Slickers”: To be happy.

And never before has the word happiness appeared in so many popular book titles. “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” by Tal Ben-Shahar; “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Becoming the Best You Can Be,” by Abraham J. Twerski; and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” by Chris Gardner and Quincy Troupe, upon which the Will Smith movie is based, to name a few.

Even the world of psychology — which has long studied human suffering — has joined the fray. With the recent founding of “positive psychology,” a new branch devoted to applying empirical methods to studying and creating happiness, it seems everyone — from rabbis to doctors to teachers to coaches — is involved in the quest once dominated by self-help gurus.

But what does it mean to be happy? And how do we get there?

Here is some of what a wide range of writers, psychologists, rabbis and happiness gurus have to say on the subject:

What is happiness?

“Most people have a very fragmented idea of what happiness is,” said Dr. John Drimmer, who co-founded of The Positive Psychology Center of California last year, which offers individual and group psychotherapy, professional training and corporate consulting to help people live lives of purpose and joy and fulfillment. Drimmer said Americans equate happiness with self-esteem — but that’s only a part of it; self-esteem alone doesn’t lead to happiness.

“Let’s say you put all your emphasis into developing oneself. Ultimately, the truth is we’re all going to die,” he said, adding, “Sorry to sound like an existential Jew.”

Instead of happiness, he said, “Well-being is a better word. That’s what I think we can expect, and want, out of life.”

Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar puts it quite simply: “Happiness is the overall experience of pleasure and meaning,” the Israeli-born author writes. In a phone conversation from his home in Israel — he will commute to Boston to continue to teach his positive psychology class next semester — Ben-Shahar said that we tend to confuse pleasure with happiness.

“Pleasure is an important component, but not the only one … we also need our behavior to be personally meaningful, to be personally significant,” Ben-Shahar said.

True happiness lies somewhere between the hedonist’s indulgent lifestyle (live only for today) and the religious ascetic’s lifestyle (live only for the world to come). The Hebrew word for happiness is osher.

“In Hebrew osher means approved — I live a life of which I approve, an authentic life,” Ben-Shahar said.

“Authentic Happiness” is the name of another book, this one by Dr. Martin Seligman, who in 1998 founded the field of positive psychology, which “focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character and healthy institutions,” according to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. Seligman’s research, the center’s Web site says, “has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances.” (At www.authentichappiness.com, you can find tests to take using positive psychology.)

One of the best scientific explanations of what it feels like to be happy comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the “Flow” series that began with the 1990 “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Steps Toward Enhancing the Quality of Life)”: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

These moments of flow, or optimal experience, can occur while working; socializing; exercising; reading; being with family, friends, lovers or alone (but probably not while watching TV, which, according to his scientific monitoring, actually produces lower levels of flow). Here’s how he breaks down the phenomenology of enjoyment:

  • We take on tasks we have a chance of completing.
  • We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • The task has clear goals and immediate feedback.
  • We have a deep and effortless involvement and are separated from everyday worries;
  • We have a sense of control over our actions during the experience.
  • Our concern for self disappears, but emerges stronger after the flow experience.
  • Our sense of time is altered during the experience.

But why are we so concerned with happiness at this particular time — are we so very unhappy now?

Some people would argue that we are not any more unhappy than our grandparents were.

“Nothing changes, because the human condition is eternal,” said Dennis Prager, radio host and author of “Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual” (Harper Perennial, 1999). “If you would have asked your grandmother if she was happy, she would have looked askance at your question.”

He said her response might have been, “If I had lunch and are my kids well,” then that’s happiness.

Others might say that we think about these questions only because we have the time and leisure now to think about them.

“In a way, there’s never been a time or place in the history of the world in which you have so many people who didn’t have to worry about meeting their basic needs,” Drimmer said. If you’re running for your life, trying to feed your family, evade natural disasters or political terrors, you might not have the wherewithal to ponder, “Am I happy?”

But now — for better or for worse — we do.

And perhaps it used to be that people — people like our grandparents, and their grandparents — thought that if they just had this one thing (food, freedom, wealth, kids, security, their daughter marrying a doctor) then they would be happy.

“Traditionally, people looked for it in more money and prestige, but they [now] realize it hasn’t worked,” Ben-Shahar said.

In other words, some of us have gotten everything we ever wanted, and we are still not happy.

“Jealousy, desire and the pursuit of honor are the three biggies that will take you out of your life,” Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, a post-denominational spiritual community in Los Angeles, said, quoting “Pirkei Avot” (Ethics of Our Fathers, 4:28). “They will destroy your life. I counsel people all the time who have spent so much time pursuing things that don’t make them happy, and they don’t understand why they’re not happy. We spend our whole lives thinking that this next thing will make us happy — whatever the next thing is — it’s very easy for us to fall into that pattern.”

Many rabbis and spiritual leaders believe that unhappiness is the modern plague because we are so disconnected from religion.

“When a man has a path, he is happy,” said Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, author and speaker from the RazOt, The Lev Eliyahu Institute, who recently lectured on joy at The Happy Minyan in Los Angeles. “There is no happiness like the closing off of doubt.”

“To be truly happy, we need to live as spiritual beings,” writes Twerski, a doctor and rabbi, in “Happiness and the Human Spirit: The Spirituality of Being the Best You Can Be.”
He’s not talking about being religious.

“Every person can be spiritual, regardless of the degree or even presence of formal religion, by being the best person he or she can be,” he said.

Even scientists agree that our general disconnect from religion might be what has gotten us to this search for happiness, because religion and religious institutions provide many of the essential ingredients needed to be happy: interconnectedness, community, family, meaning, uplifting experiences, a sense of purpose. But many scientists, who pride themselves on intellectual rigor, say the days of formalized religion are over, despite those benefits.

“The shields that have worked in the past — the order that religion, patriotism, ethnic traditions and habits instilled by social classes used to profit — are no longer effective for [the] increasing number of people who feel exposed to the harsh winds of chaos,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “Today it is more difficult to accept their world view as definitive. The forms in which religions have presented their truths — myths, revelations, holy texts — no longer compels life in an era of scientific rationality, even though the substance of the truth may have remained unchanged,” he said.

Maybe a new, intellectually satisfying religion will arise, he said, but “in the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

Others see our era in more dire terms: It could be, they argue, that ours is an apocalyptic time. “We are on the verge of the messianic era,” said Arjang Zendehdel, head of Dreamality Education & Coaching a center that uses 14 different disciplines, including positive psychology, to support people in discovering their full potential. Zen-dehdel, who was also a host of a weekly radio show in English and Farsi, said the messianic era means intense divine consciousness and awareness.

“People are becoming more and more thirsty, and they’re not satisfied with the way things were,” Zendehdel said.

Is it possible to become happy?

First, scholars in the field argue, happiness is not a static or definitive state of being, it’s actually a process. The question, Ben-Shahar writes, should not be “Am I happy?” but “How can I be happier?”

“The question acknowledges the nature of happiness and the fact that its pursuit is an ongoing process best represented by an infinite continuum, not by a finite point,” Ben-Shahar writes. “We can always be happier; no person experiences perfect bliss at all times and has nothing more to which he can aspire.”

And that is the whole point of psychology — or at least positive psychology.

“It’s the empirical study of how people can live rich, rewarding, wonderful lives,” Drimmer said. “Not just individually. How can we create families that are like that and even countries that are like that?”

It’s true that there are some genetic and environmental factors. Some people are born with better temperaments, better parents, better living conditions, better lives. But almost all the happiness research has shown that happiness has little to do with outside conditions.

Viktor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Mass Market Paperback, 1997), catalogued Holocaust survivors who found meaning in their lives, and even Alexander Solzhenitsyn was at times in “flow” in prison. Twerski found conjoined twins who didn’t want to separate because they were happy. On the other hand, every day we read about celebrities — who would seem to have reached the epitome of what we’re striving for — who nevertheless are on drugs, in rehab or on the verge of suicide.

“Many people assume that money is the key to greater happiness. In fact for most people, money has a very small effect on happiness, because their basic needs are satisfied already, and there are much more important causes of happiness,” writes Michael Argyle in “The Psychology of Happiness” (Routledge, 2002).

“Ultimately, happiness is not based on what we have,” Zendehdel said in an interview. “Ultimately, happiness comes from within.”

Levy said she pays close attention to the Torah verse, “V’samachta b’chagecha” (and you shall be happy on your holidays).

“Can you command joy? If you can command it, it must be that joy is an option, that it’s within your strengths to achieve it,” she said. “There’s an aspect to happiness that’s in our power, ‘Sameich Bechelko,’ [Who is happy? He who is happy with his lot].”

Prager takes it one step further. Not only is attaining happiness possible, it is a person’s duty to be happy.

“We’re morally obligated to act as happy as possible,” he said. “I have increasingly less patience for the chronically unhappy. Because almost everybody alive has a reason to be unhappy.”

How can we become happier?

Even though most happiness guides say that they cannot simply “give recipes for how to be happy” (“Flow”), most offer steps toward a well-lived life.

Twerski offers 10: Be humble, compassionate, patient, open to change, choose wisely, make the most of all situations, improve yourself, have perspective, purpose and search for truth.

Prager offers five: Express gratitude, let go of our images, act happy, don’t rely on children for your happiness and practice self-control.

Ben-Shahar offers six: Accept emotion, engage in enjoyable and pleasurable activities, have perspective, simplify, take care of your body and express gratitude.

Zendehdel offers five: Gratitude, perspective, faith that everything happens for the good, spirituality and growth.

All of the lists stress gratitude and perspective, which brings to mind the parable of rabbi Nachum Gam Zu, who always said, despite his misfortune, “Gam Zu Le’Tovah” — it’s all for the best.

To acquire these traits, though, is not as easy as reading a book, taking a class, making a resolution. They must be practiced.

For example, Drimmer explained in an interview three exercises he has his UCLA medical students do.

  • For gratitude: Every night for a month, students must take five minutes to go through their day and think of three things that made them happy.
    “And what we know is that over a period of a month the neural pathways begin to shift,” Drimmer said. “The reason to do it at the end of the day is we know about the nature of memory, and the last thing reflected on before we go to bed is very powerful.”

  • For meaning: The students meditate in class on their week, to find what it was that was most personally meaningful.
    “Why did that matter to you?” He keeps asking them to get it down to an irreversible word: “Invariably the words are different aspects of the same irreducible gem — they are all words about connection and caring and unity.

  • For purpose and using strengths: Each student must ask five classmates to identify their five top positive characteristics from a 24 “Character Strengths” list, and then pick the most common occurrences and see if they can use those strengths the next day.
    Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t offer exercises, but he does advise people to become involved in auto-telic pursuits: “a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”

Which is what they say about mitzvot, or positive commandments: they are a reward in themselves.

So where does Judaism fit into this? Does God want us to be happy? Can a religious person be happy?

There has long been a debate as to whether it is an actual mitzvah to be happy. “Mitzvah Gedolah Lehiyot B’simcha,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, meaning, it’s a great mitzvah to be happy.

But many debate whether this is a positive commandment in itself, as it comes from the Psalms, “Ivdu et Hashem B’simcha” (worship God with joy). Some say the words simply mean one should be happy when performing a mitzvah, especially since being happy is not counted as one of the 613 commandments.

But Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, one of the early Chasidic leaders, reportedly said, “There is no mitzvah to be joyous, but joy can bring on the greatest mitzvot.” It is also true, he said, that “it is not a sin to be sad, but sadness can bring on the greatest sins.”

Some say the Eskimos have 100 words for snow, but the Torah has many different words for happiness. “Simcha” is the generic word for happiness; “aliz” means joy.

According to Glazerson, who wrote “Letters of Fire: Mystical Insights Into the Hebrew Language” (Feldheim, 1991), many of the words for happiness kabbalistically refer to a certain type of happiness: “Sasson is a sudden unexpected happiness, gila is the happiness of discovery, rina is a refreshing happiness, ditza is a sublime joy, chedva is the happiness of togetherness and tzahala is dancing and rejoicing.”

Hebrew’s Osher, for happiness, has the same root as the Hebrew word for head, rosh. Simcha has the same letters as thought, or machshava. “There is no happiness without the head. It’s all in a person’s mind,” Glazerson said. “If the head is straight, you will be happy.”

In fact, the advent of the Chasidic movement in the 17th century sought to bring a mystic joy — with singing, dancing and prayer — a reaction to what they saw as an overly ritualistic, intellectual Judaism among those who came to be known as “mitnagdim,” or opponents.

The popularity of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in the 20th century, again, has sought to bring that primal joy of song back to Judaism.

Joy is “what Judaism is all about,” Glazerson said. “How can a person be unhappy if he truly believes in God?”

In “Living a Joyous Life: the True Spirit of Joyous Practice” (Trumpeter Books, 2007), Rabbi David Aaron talks about a prediction from the Zohar mystical text: “It said there will come a time when the Jews will relate to Jewish tradition like cows eating grass, and that this generation will bring ruin upon itself.”

“The Talmud said that when people accept the Torah with joy and happiness, these feelings are guaranteed to be long lasting,” he added. “But when people accept the Torah with anger or feelings of coercion, though they may observe its commandments for a while, eventually they reject them and everything breaks down.”

It’s easy to lose the point in whatever we are doing, Levy said.

“It’s easy to practice a Judaism that’s rigid, it’s also easy to practice in a way that’s mindless, to just get out of bed and not be aware of anything. It’s easy to lose all of it,” she said. “The more mindless we are, the more we act out of fear, or the more we don’t learn that we can’t just show up and expect something to happen. The more passive we are as Jews, the less we’re going to get out of it.”

The question of how to make Judaism more meaningful and relevant is a different story, but everyone agrees that it must be practiced voluntarily and with … happiness.

“For those who subscribe to the morality of duty, finding meaning — leading a moral life — necessitates sacrifice,” Ben-Shahar writes. “Sacrifice, by definition, is not pleasurable (if it were, it would not be sacrifice). The morality of duty, therefore, puts meaning and pleasure against each other.”

Most theologians and scientists agree that religion does provide a structure and opportunity for happiness.

“Religion can provide standards of right and wrong that are not altered by expedience. While it is true that people may distort religion for their own needs, religion can still provide guidelines that help us know how to be more considerate, more compassionate, more spiritual,” Twerski writes.

Both Prager and Ben-Shahar were raised in Orthodox homes and still ascribe to many of the strictures, although they do not call themselves Orthodox.

“Many of the habits that I was taught, or that I practiced as a child, when I was Orthodox, I still keep today,” Ben-Shahar said. “I value them today on a much more conscious level than I did then.”

“The best advertisement for religiosity is a happy religious person; the worst is an unhappy one,” Prager said. “So I make this appeal to religious Jews who walk around unhappy: Either walk around happy, or stop being religious.”

But can an atheist achieve happiness? (Duh!)

Prager doesn’t think so: “If you believe that there is no God, there is no ultimate justice, then everything is pointless. I don’t understand how you can be happy with those beliefs. I just don’t understand it,” he said. But he’s in the minority.

Every person can acquire a spiritual side that is necessary to achieve a state of happiness.

“You don’t have to believe in God or be a religious person to be appreciative or to have great things in your life,” Levy said. “Judaism is just one way to happiness, not the way.” What makes a spiritual person is an “expansive” outlook, she said. “It’s the ability to be aware of your surroundings, it’s the ability to find some kind of connection, to feel connected — whether you’re a person of faith or not.”

For believers and nonbelievers alike, happiness should be a priority. Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

Ben-Shahar said, “If we do not make the pursuit of our own happiness a priority, we are hurting ourselves and, by extension, our inclination to help others.”

Are we there yet?

Since happiness is not a destination but a lifelong process, it is not possible to achieve Curly’s “One Thing” and then rest on our laurels forever. “I think it’s in our DNA to want more,” Zendehdel said.

Or, to quote Al Pacino’s character in “The Scent of a Woman”: “The day we stop lookin’, Charlie, is the day we die.”



Reb Shlomo Carlebach teaches and sings about the mitzvah of joy in this streaming MP3 audio file.


Tal Ben-Shahar will be speaking in Los Angeles at the Professional Leaders Project Think Tank on Oct. 29.

Silver screen love life


When I was 12 years old, I spent a steamy L.A. summer cooling off at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills watching old Oscar Best Picture

Award movies, including “How Green Was My Valley,” “Mrs. Miniver” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.”

That was the first time I saw “Gone with the Wind.” As a pre-adolescent Jewish girl living in the middle of Los Angeles in the 1970s, I had absolutely nothing in common with Southern belles living through the Civil War era, however I was transfixed by the images of romance and drama. When I closed my eyes, I saw the movie image of Rhett and Scarlett standing at the bottom of Tara’s red-carpeted staircase as Rhett reached down to sweep Scarlett into his arms and carry her up into the darkness. To my innocent mind, it seemed the height of sexual passion.

But their ardor was short-lived. Gradually, Rhett became increasingly disengaged from Scarlett, frustrated by her refusal to stop taking him for granted and her inability to acknowledge any feelings of intimacy towards him. And for her part, Scarlett had never stopped pining away for the married, and very cool, Ashley Wilkes.

Of course, when I first saw the movie, I was positive that Rhett would return to her. Although he can’t be accused of giving mixed messages. I mean, how much more direct can someone be than, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” But this was Hollywood. Didn’t movies always have to end happily? Wasn’t that the rule? Obviously, I was still too young to realize that there are consequences for one’s actions, and that taking someone for granted is never a good idea — Hollywood or not.

It has always been easy for me to get caught up in the world of fantasy through movies. However, the problem with that is that it is easy to stay in a place of denial. In the world of Hollywood, time doesn’t move forward. People don’t age. Scarlett could take all the time in the world to figure out a way to get Rhett to fall back in love with her.

Unfortunately, in the real world, time passes whether we are ready or not. And we are sometimes stuck in a particular stage while others move on around us. This all reminds me of Internet dating. Single people are all too familiar with the pitfalls of the online dating experience. Internet dating creates the perfect backdrop to hold onto our fantasies of perfect mates, as well as project perfected images of ourselves. We airbrush photos. We subtract a few years. We refuse to see flaws, or we project them onto other people.

The entire process can become addictive. After all, most single people crave companionship. Yet while staring at the computer screen, it seems so hard to settle on one profile, when, with the click of a finger, you can move on to the next one. It’s like finding a new snack at Trader Joe’s. There is always the potential that the next profile will be better than the previous one.

However, the good news is that I am less likely to engage in this “grass is greener” phenomenon these days. Most of us assume that someone else is happier than we are. This way of thinking is rapidly becoming one of our favorite national pastimes.

I don’t know — maybe it is part of being a psychotherapist, but it is so easy to idealize others, until you actually hear the personal struggles of individuals who are sitting across from you in your office. It is the old adage about how we see people’s outsides, but we rarely have access to their insides. And I am grateful for, and humbled by, my clients’ willingness to share their pain with me.

The hardest challenge for me is staying open to possibilities and not shutting off my desires, even though they haven’t yet come to fruition.

On my good days, which are most of the time, I realize that I have succeeded in moving forward and achieving some of my goals. A while ago, I had an epiphany. I wasn’t going to wait until my honeymoon to travel to Italy. So I didn’t. I was standing in my darkened apartment when I heard the taxi honking its horn to take me to the airport, and I began to cry. In that moment, I felt an incredible sense of exhilaration that I was not waiting any longer to begin my life.

That experience helped me realize that there is no “perfect” moment, just like I have realized I don’t have to maintain the fantasy of being perfect for other people. A few years after my trip, I returned to graduate school to get my master’s in social work, and I now have a career that fulfills me completely.

I took a trip to Club Med Cancun and had a romantic fling with a Mexican aerospace engineer. I became a doting aunt. I went to the pound and found the perfect dog to help disarm typically wary Angelenos into spontaneously reaching down to pet him. (He is also the perfect icebreaker for approaching cute men.) I hike and work out regularly with a personal trainer. I have recently become involved in a growing synagogue community and have begun to discover the value of becoming a participant, rather than an observer, in most aspects of my life.

I’ve become increasingly grateful for my dear friends, family and health. For nontoxic hair coloring. For the 2006 mid-term elections.

I have managed, if not mastered, the art of single life in a major metropolitan city in the 21st century.

Now I am more ready than ever to have a relationship with a real, flawed, man — not with the idealized fantasy of perfection epitomized by Ashley Wilkes.

I just hope he speaks English.


Roni Blau is a psychotherapist living in Los Angeles.

Is everyone weird?


After three months of a hopeful re-entry into dating life — Internet, setups, chance meetings — I had to hang it up. It had started out just fine. Possibilities were popping up
with flash-frame, Internet-inspired regularity and, suddenly, my 40s had seemed inspired by the twinkling of new romance opportunities.


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There was the crazy writer and father of two who adored his sons, the straight-but-cute doctor who loved his work, the music producer who was quirky, brilliant and charming, and the extreme sports guy who pursued like a prince.

But just 12 weeks after starting down these promising paths, I had crawled back into the wallflower-solitude of my I’m-not-dating-anymore closet.

What sent me into high-security hiding was not the effort of dating.

I actually like that part. (Though, God knows, Internet dating can be a black hole of a cottage industry that consumes hours, the way “The Blob” consumed whole towns.) Time vortex noted, I still enjoy the newness of trying on new energies and the grace-filled possibilities inherent in dating new men.

But the problem is — truly from my heart I have to say this — everybody’s weird. Everyone seems to have issues. And not just little issues, either.

And though I suppose we’re all weird or skewed or tweaked or somewhat bent in some way or other — especially after 40 — it’s still not a wise dating strategy to mistake those fabulously flowing bright-red-flags for a welcome parade.

So when the 40-ish, cha-cha-cha writer introduced me to his son, told me he was “playing for keeps,” then casually mentioned that he was already sleeping with a woman in San Francisco, I felt it best to run for the hills.

When the cute-but-straight-looking doctor (Dr. Drag-His-Feet, my girlfriends dubbed him) picked me up in his Ferrari, told me for the ninth unsolicited time that he wasn’t gay and announced that he was looking for a woman who looked like Kate Beckinsale, I felt it best to stop going to the hardware store for milk. The boy didn’t have the goods.

When the music producer, the extreme sports guy, the guy from my friend’s softball game and the date who said he was 5- foot-10 but was really 5-foot-5 each in turn revealed what was weird enough to read “STOP! WARNING!” — I just lost my will to work at this, threw in the towel and gave up.

I’m not saying (and how dull to take such a stance at this point, anyway?) that every man in L.A. is weird. I could certainly make a case for royally weird and skewed women in this town, too. But what happens when I’m drawing one slightly awry (all right, bent) experience after the other? Is it me? Is it them? Is it just that one has to sift through a lot of dross to get to the one gleaming, precious stone?

I’d love to say that this is an L.A. thing. But who cares? This is where I live. I’m not one to denigrate my town (which I like for the most part), nor one to take the God-looking-down stance of “Yes, my child, there’s partnering available for everyone — but not for you fools that try to date in L.A.”

But here’s the rub: If I’m drawing man after man with twisted little “isms,” I have to stop and ask myself why I keep attracting them. Damn them, but all of those seminar-inspired relationship books have actually made some impact on my psyche, and that well-themed what-you’re-drawing-is-a-reflection-of-where-you’re-at idea is totally haunting me.

So in the midst of the dating pool, I’ve had to step out, dry off, re-evaluate what I’m looking for, where I might find that and take a long, hard look at the messages I’m putting out.

It’s my opinion that none of us who are single at 40 are rocket scientists at love (or we wouldn’t be so uncomfortably solitary in the first place), so drawing the weird requires a little seaside introspection, a new charting of the waves and a definite refocusing of the ship’s trajectory.

My ex-husband, when asked, will say that the reason he doesn’t date is “everybody’s got so much baggage that I just can’t take it.” And though that may be a middle-age, 21st-century realism that probably includes all of us, I still believe in love after 40.

My wise girlfriend likes to say, “We late bloomers get to have happy endings, too.”

So as I prepare to check my own baggage on the shore and dive into the deep seas one more time, I pray for the courage (in a world of imminent land mines) to avoid the weird, and to believe that possibly in the process, I can find peace and happiness in the arms of the true, the solid, the faith-filled and the devoted.

May my late-bloomer happy-ending find me — and find me soon.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and her folk-pop CD, “I Burn,” is online at www.cdbaby.com.

War enhances intensity of Israel trip


The siren went on for at least a minute.

It was a Friday evening in early July 2006, during the war with Hezbollah, and I was sitting on a hill overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem, getting ready to welcome in the Shabbat with the Kabbalat Shabbat prayers.

Unlike the previous week, when we quickly evacuated the north, the siren we were hearing now was not an air strike or emergency alarm. It was the customary siren sounding the start of Shabbat, unique to Jerusalem.

Along with 44 other teenagers and six staffers, I was on the Eastern Europe-Israel Pilgrimage, sponsored by the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth. We had arrived in Israel that week after spending two weeks traveling through Prague, Warsaw, Lublin, Krakow and Budapest, and everyone was so enthusiastic and completely ecstatic that the air was charged with happiness and excitement. As we sat there, we had a moment of silence listening to the alarm.

We had been supposed to spend our first week on the banks of the Kinneret, but the plans were canceled after five rockets hit a town 15 minutes from our hostel. Even though it was Shabbat, we were immediately evacuated back to Jerusalem. Later, our free time in public places was suspended because a suicide bomber was caught right before entering the Old City through Jaffa Gate, which we used regularly.

While our family and friends back home voiced concerns for our safety when we called them, nobody in our group felt in danger or unsafe. Nobody wanted to go home. Instead of fear, I felt anger that there was a war and anger that Israel still has to fight for her existence.

Being at that hilltop as we welcomed the Shabbat and listening to the siren and watching the Old City’s walls as the Holy City went dark, I felt so many emotions. Though we had been there a week, the realization that I was in Israel — the country of the Jewish people — our land — hit me hardest at that moment. I held back tears of gratitude, joy and happiness as we went around the circle we were sitting in, discussing our favorite part of the week. Mine was that moment.
The strong feelings I had came not only from the realization that we were in Israel. It was the magic of the moment or the magic of the city — the lights were so astoundingly beautiful, the walls gave off an air of age, history and religiousness and the view could not have been more perfect. The breeze ruffled the treetops, and I felt that God was hovering over us, watching.

What made this unforgettable experience even more irreplaceable was the two weeks that came before renewed my understanding of how much Israel means.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, our close-knit group visited the concentration camps, sites of mass murder and mass graves, the ghettos and places of resistance. Viewing all these places where history made its horrific mark was actually proof of what we had been learning since elementary school. We saw the gas chambers, the crematoria, the indentations in the earth that formed years after a mass grave was filled.

We saw what happened, and it became real in our eyes. It was no longer something we read about in textbooks — the ashes kept at Majdanek were once people, Jewish people; at Mila 18 in Krakow, the bunkers where the partisans of the Krakow ghetto had once fought. I understood more about the Holocaust and the resistance. I also understood how much Israel means to our people and to me.

I looked at the partisans, the resistance fighters, the Zionists, the Haganah fighters, the early halutzim or pioneers, and I saw the determination and love they had for Israel. I understand now that Israel is not just the place toward which we face when we pray daily, or the distant homeland, or the place where our forefathers lived but our haven and our land. It is the place where Jews from all over the world look to for hope in seemingly hopeless times.

Especially the week after being in Krakow, when the war started, I felt so lucky to be there, so lucky to actually have an established Jewish state.

Instead of making me feel cautious and insecure, being there during a time of war allowed me to connect more with Israel. I only realized with stronger effect that Israel truly is my homeland and haven — the one place in the world I can be a Jew in the land of my forefathers.

While I was in Jerusalem, I bought a ring that I hope to wear at least until I return. On it is engraved a passage describing my sentiments exactly: “Libi be’mizrach, veanochi b’sof ma’arav,” meaning, “My heart lies in the east while I am far to the west.” Especially after my journey, Israel will never be far from my heart.

Daniela Bernstein is an 11th grader at the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy.

Amy Klein’s bibliographical guide for the perplexed


“To the best of our understanding, God created the universe as an act of love. It was an act of love so immense that the human mind cannot even begin to fathom it. God created the world basically as a vehicle upon which He could bestow His good. But God’s love is so great that any good that He bestows must be in the greatest good possible. Anything less would simply not be enough…. God therefore gave man free will.” — “If You Were God” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (Mesorah, 1983)
 
“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: You have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run — in the long run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” — “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl (Pocket Books, 1984)
 
“When we open ourselves to our creativity, we open ourselves to the creator’s creativity within us and our lives; We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, our meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves; creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is our gift back to God.” — “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” by Julia Cameron (Tarcher, 2002)
 
“Knowing your purpose gives meaning to your life. We were made to have meaning. This is why people try dubious methods, like astrology or psychics to discover it…. When life has meaning, you can bear almost anything; without it, nothing is bearable.” — “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” (Rick Warren, Zondervan 2002)
 
“Tradition teaches us that the soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination. I understand therapy as nothing more than bringing imagination to areas that are devoid of it, which then must express themselves by becoming symptiomatic.” — “Care of the Soul: A guide for cultivating depth and sacredness in everyday life” by Thomas A. Moore (HarperCollins, 2002).
 
“Many of us go through the rituals of survival with a deeper sense of something greater, or even something smaller. We may crave spiritual insight, or perhaps we yearn for simple pleasures, such as the time to close our eyes and take in the smells of a flower garden, feel the sun shining warmly on our faces, or to relish the comfort of a cozy oversized robe and good novel…. Indulge yourself by prioritizing self-nourishment — everyone benefits when you feel good.” — “The Book of Small Pleasures: 32 Inspiring Ways to Feed Your Body, Soul and Spirit” by Matthew McKay, Catherine Sutker, Kristin Beck (Barnes & Noble, 2001)
 
“God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience…. If we could not temporarily put out of our minds some of the painful moments of our past, how would we find the courage to go on? … But if we would not remember, would we still be us? Those painful moments are such a large part of making us who we are….” — “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf, 2006)
 
“It is a fact that everybody wants happiness and does not want suffering; there is no argument about this. But there is disagreement about how to achieve happiness and how to overcome problems. There are many types of happiness and many ways to achieve them, and there are also many types of sufferings and ways to overcome them. As Buddhists, however, we aim not merely for temporary relief and temporary benefit but for long-term results. Buddhists are concerned not only for this life but for life after life, on and on. We count not weeks or months or even years, but lives and eons.” — “The Meaning of Life” by The Dalai Lama (Wisdom Publications, 1992)
 
“Human beings best qualify themselves for the world to come through a combination of studying Torah and good deeds…. Thus even the belief in the world to come is, in Judaism, a motivator to study Torah and to perform good deeds in this world.” — “To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff (The Jewish Publication Society of Philadelphia,
 
2002)
“We’ve forgotten that as mere mortals we are meant to search as much as to find. After all, each of us has had only a few decades of what has been a 14-billion-year evolution. We are finite creatures. How could we possibly have access to what is infinite: some all-encompassing Truth about the world or even our True selves? The fact is, there is no issue, large or small, that we can understand fully. When we think we’ve found the final truth, we’re a little less alive, a little less awake, and the world itself is diminished.” — “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” by Rabbi Irwin Kula with Linda Lowenthal (Hyperion, 2006)
 
“Judaism has survived 4,000 years, including 2,000 years without a homeland, without the Temple in Jerusalem, without any common geographical location, without support from the outside. Judaism and Jews survived because of the Torah. No matter where they lived, no matter what historical horrors or joys they experienced, the heart of their faith was carried and communicated through the way, the path and the teachings of the Torah.”

God Is Gray


“This is heaven,” I announced Sunday afternoon.

Cruising the city (the absence of traffic in itself celestial), sunroof open, exposed shoulders browning. Wild poppies glistening, swaying in a soft breeze scented by orange blossoms; singing along to KOST 103.5 FM:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone,

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiney day.

“Heaven,” I said. “Yep,” everyone agreed, celebrating under flawless sapphire sky — free from even the teeniest speck of a cloud — “this is paradise.”

Heaven, paradise — choose a synonym: ecstasy, bliss, rapture. We use such words to describe experiences of perfect, supreme happiness, God on earth. The conditions on Sunday merited all such descriptions, especially that immaculately blue sky. Skies like that burn gloom away.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Gray days certainly have a subtle beauty. But no one calls Seattle paradise, and if Fritz Coleman reported that a cloud was going to remain interminably over Los Angeles, a mass exodus to South Beach would certainly ensue.

I’d probably go, too. I mean, who wants to live under a cloud forever?

How dull. How boring.

Those are the synonyms for “cloudy,” along with: hazy, murky, gray, obscure — not the ideal forecast, to say the least.

What would inspire my sermons in such weather? How would I instill faith in God if I were denied its experience? Because the experience of the Divine is an ecstatic one, right? It is the feeling of rapture, bright, glorious bliss, isn’t it? I mean, no one prays in hopes of reaching an enhanced state of hazy obscurity.

And yet, this week’s parsha tells us that from the day the Israelites erected the tabernacle (the place of Divine presence made manifest on earth) a cloud covered it. Seems they weren’t singing much about sunshiny days, for, “so it was always: The cloud covered [the tabernacle] by day and the appearance of fire by night” (Numbers 9:16).

No need for sunglasses or flashlights near God’s house. More like a mobile home than an estate, the cloud was the original built-in navigation system: When it moved, the people picked up the tabernacle and followed it, “and in the place where the cloud abode, there [they] encamped.”

Meaning, the closer we get to the experience of God on earth, the more overcast it is, and if it starts to clear up, we should move away from the brightness and follow the clouds. Always.

And so I must ask: Are you kidding? What, so heaven is hazy? God is gray?

Maybe. At least, the ultimate experience of God is gray. As in not black nor white, not agony nor ecstasy, not seasonal affective disorder nor carcinoma from sun overexposure; it is the subtle obscurity at the nexus of all those extremes.

According to the portion, God’s presence is made manifest in the middle. We call that dull, murky or boring — or, we can call it balance. See, the ultimate Los Angeles Sunday might be our human definition of heaven, but it is one that is inherently dependent on a day of equivalently dismal, mud-sliding gloom.

Here on earth, that’s how we see things: in terms of their polarities. The big Chief set that up in Genesis: light opposed darkness, day defined night, man contrasted woman. God created all the highs and lows in precise opposition to one another as the essence of our human experience — to be tempered with our spiritual experience. But we lost our way and got stuck in the duality, where our delusional aspirations for perfection and delight led to swings toward equal and opposite desperation. Lost in the realm of heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, we still think that bad feelings will disappear when bright, sunny days come back around.

From this human perspective, it makes sense that we would equate a Divine day with dazzling, untainted perfection. But God is beyond our mundane experience. He is the source of it. She is the containment of it all. And in recognizing that God is One, we head for the clouds — we welcome the haze.

A cloud sheltered the Divine’s residence among the Israelites every day, and fire illuminated it by night; it is never fully dark nor light in the presence of what is most holy. Always a bit obscured, for how could we possibly apprehend everything or nothing?

God is gray. God is the opaque place in between all of our yearnings for some ultimate and definitive extreme. And while I am still “in heaven” that summer has finally descended upon La La Land, I am well aware that it is only as glorious as it is because it contrasts the nasty cold I kvetched about all winter.

Sunday was a temporary ecstasy for which I will pay with my grief in the fall. But if I can remember to set my sights on the clouds, as few or many as they may be, I will be sheltered by their subtle and eternal protection, predictably guided back to my own center. It may not be rapture, but it will certainly be peace. Wholeness. Shalom. That is paradise. A cloudy day.

Karen Deitsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

 

Singles – Walk Out the Door


Mr. Chauvinist. Mr. Cheapskate. Mr. Paranoid. Mr. Habitually Late. Mr. Whiner. The parallel universe of “Little Men” of the 21st century are alive and well and living in Los Angeles — and my friends have, unfortunately, dated them all.

The friends I refer to (I’ll call them, “The Crew”) are all funny, attractive, nice, well-rounded, educated — who’ve stayed with Mr. Wrong far longer than they should have.

During a recent car trip, my sweet, insightful boyfriend of five months commented that it wasn’t fair that a girl he knows — cynical, sarcastic, not very personable — has a boyfriend, while the girls in The Crew don’t.

“Yeah, but look what’s she’s got,” I told him, referring to a guy so nebbishy that he makes Woody Allen look hip and so socially inept that even the guys from “Queer Eye” would throw up their hands. “Who wants that?”

Before I found my incredible guy, I was engaged to someone whom I went out with for two and half years — probably two years too long. Of course, after we broke up, everyone I knew said that he was just “OK” and that I deserved someone better.

My friends asked me why I stayed with him as long as I did when I knew I shouldn’t have. I told them that in this crazy, mixed-up world, perfectly smart girls stay in relationships they know they shouldn’t because it is easier to be a couple than solo — and to have to endure the dreaded dating game.

During silent prayer at Shabbat services, after I’ve prayed for the well-being of my family, I pray that all of my friends find love and happiness (if you ask that for yourself it is considered selfish for some reason, but I think it works if you delegate the good thoughts to a friend). And boy, could my friends use all the prayers they can get.

One of my L.A. Crew members went out on several dates with a guy — and things were looking good: He called her every day to see how she was and took her out on several fun dates during the week and on the weekend. Seemed like a prince until he turned into Mr. Paranoid and accused her of lying to him about everything and dating guys who had been her friends for years (which she didn’t do).

He then morphed into Mr. Stalker, calling her multiple times after she informed him that it wasn’t going to work. But before she pulled the plug, she asked me if she was doing the right thing.

This incredibly smart girl was second-guessing her gut reaction because of a larger nagging fear about being a single in a land of couples.

Another L.A. Crew member met Mr. Omission on JDate — he lied about being a smoker, then covered up by saying he was only an occasional smoker. She was so wrapped up in the idea that she needed a guy that she was willing to settle for this walking ashtray — until she met the guy she’s with now (we’ll call him Mr. Thank God, because he’s so much better than what she had).

My best friend dated a guy who was incredibly sweet, but she felt no chemistry. She told me that when they were alone he was fine — but she felt no sparks; when they went out with friends, he barely said anything. She broke up with him after several months of rationalizing.

This isn’t just a problem for the girls, either. How many guys out there have dated Ms. Clingy, Ms. Critical, Ms. Stalker, Ms. Shopaholic or Ms. Whiner — and stayed with them far too long? (I think my boyfriend’s exes fall under four of those categories, from what he’s told me.)

Think about it: The networks spend millions of dollars on new shows every year, but are perfectly OK with canceling something that isn’t pulling the ratings. If they don’t feel bad about canceling “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” surely we shouldn’t feel bad about the time and money we lost on a bad relationship, when in the long run a better show will come along.

The key is knowing when to say adios — and sometimes it takes a nasty wake-up call.

Think Chris Parker in “Adventures in Babysitting,” who discovers her boyfriend at a romantic restaurant with the school slut — on their anniversary. Or Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,” who let Mr. Big toy with her heart for years, much to the chagrin of her friends. Luckily, after several years, their relationship ended up working out — maybe because Aleksandr Petrovsky was so much worse.

I’m not a matchmaker, but the Dolly Levi in me thinks everyone should have someone — just make sure you aren’t settling for Mr. OK when you deserve Mr. Wonderful.

No Small Actors, Only Fake Parts


“Le Grand Role” has laughter, pathos, in-jokes, heartburn, self-caricature — in other words, it’s a really, really Jewish film, even though the characters insist on speaking French.

The film’s concept is cute, although it could have gone astray in less-skilled hands.

Maurice (Stephane Freiss) is one of four good buddies in Paris, all Jewish, all in their late 30s, and all actors who scrape by on commercials, dubbings and bit parts.

The big chance comes for Maurice when legendary American director Rudolph Grishenberg (Peter Coyote doing a takeoff on Steven Spielberg) comes to town with his latest project: an all-Yiddish movie version of “The Merchant of Venice.”

After his buddies ambush the director in shul, Maurice gets a tryout for the role of Shylock. He does a curiously moving rendition of the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue in Yiddish and gets the nod from Grishenberg.

The actor rushes home to break the life-changing news to his beautiful wife Perla (Berenice Bojo). The two are crazy about each other, to the point where Maurice surreptitiously takes photos of his wife at work in a clothing store.

Perla stuns her husband with some news of her own. She has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and has only a few weeks to live.

A couple of days later, Grishenberg finds a name star to play Shylock and dumps Maurice. But how can the actor tell Perla, when only the belief that her husband has finally made it brings her some last bit of happiness.

So the four buddies concoct a scheme pretending that Maurice still has the part and is doing just great. Every morning, a limousine picks up Maurice to take him to the “studio,” he poses for fake photo shoots and interviews, and when Perla phones Maurice on the “set,” the buddies provide the necessary background sounds.

In a final desperate move, the friends kidnap Grishenberg and convince him to visit Perla’s bedside and tell her what a great actor her husband is.

To get the director to that point takes some doing, and when his kidnappers ask him to lie about Maurice for the greater good, Grishenberg delivers the movie’s top laugh line, “I can’t lie. I am an American and Americans don’t lie.”

The bittersweet ending is honest, if not entirely satisfactory, but director Steve Suissa, working off Daniel Goldenberg’s novel, maintains an unforced balance to create an appealing slice of life, French Jewish style.

“Le Grand Role” opens this Friday (9/30) at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.

 

You Are Not Alone


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read the opening words of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” I closed the book to wonder if it was true. Were all happy families alike and unhappy families unique? So many years later, as a pulpit rabbi, I still disagree.

In parshat Naso, we are introduced to the rituals concerning the sotah, a wife who is suspected of adultery. If a husband becomes jealous and suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, he is to bring her to the priest who concocts a truth serum mixing dust from the sanctuary floor, water and a few dissolved curses. If the wife is innocent, she remains healthy after drinking the bitter water. If she is guilty, she suffers a miscarriage.

At first, the practice seems uncomfortably similar to the trials of seventeenth century Salem. However, one wonders if the ritual, which appears to humiliate a woman publicly, is also in a quiet way trying to protect her. Reading it, I cannot help but think of Tolstoy’s myth that all happy families are alike, while unhappy families are each desperately lost and alone.

The sotah ritual takes an unhappy family, one where there is great potential for anger and abuse, and draws them out of their private homes into a sacred and safe space. The message is that the husband is not to take matters into his own hands. In verse 12 we read: “If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him….”

Rashi understands the “him” in this verse to refer to God. With this insight, suddenly, the infidelity becomes a crisis between the adulterer and God as opposed to husband and wife. It is not about the spouse.

In verse 14 it is written that a spirit of jealousy comes over the husband, as if the jealousy came from an outside source, and is out of his control. Rather than allow the situation to escalate more and more out of control within the walls of their home, the husband’s suspicions become a public concern, and how it is handled becomes a priestly matter. Their pain is taken out of their house, and brought into God’s. The husband is not alone in his jealousy.

The wife, also, is not alone. The Talmud explains that before giving her the waters to drink, the priest tries to find excuses for her, saying: “Wine can be responsible for much, or frivolity can be responsible for much, or childishness can be responsible for much…. He tells her of the affair of Reuben with Bilhah, and the affair of Judah with Tamar. Both of them, he tells her, had confessed their deeds and were not ashamed. What happened to them in the end? They inherited life in the next world” (Midrash Raba).

Often a congregant comes to me when their family is in crisis. Perhaps there is jealousy, anger, sickness, infidelity, and/or abuse. I find that so much time and energy is spent being stunned that this could happen. Little if any strength is left for building a healthy future. I find people have more trouble forgiving their partner for breaking the illusion of happiness than forgiving for whatever actually happened. When sadness strikes, people feel as if it is only happening to them, when, in truth, a rabbi may have heard similar stories from a number of families — each traveling with their own private well of deep, deep pain.

On Friday nights, the bimah is often filled with people receiving blessings for a wedding, a birth, birthdays or anniversaries. However, never would a couple come before the ark, in front of their congregation, to receive a blessing of guidance when their marriage is suffering. How humiliating. We rarely ritualize bringing our pain to God. We bring our families’ happiness, but pain is kept dangerously to ourselves.

In Jewish Women International’s Needs Assessment: A Portrait of Domestic Abuse in the Jewish Community, it is written: “The myth that Jewish families are immune from abuse enables a system of missed cues, thereby preventing appropriate intervention. Jewish women themselves often delay seeking help or more often never seek help at all.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that 25 percent of women have been raped or abused. The American Journal of Public Health said that one-third of all teens report experiencing some type of abuse in their romantic relationships including verbal and emotional. The Jewish community invests so much into the making or wanting shidduchs, however we invest terribly little in infusing holiness into the daily labor of maintaining those coveted relationships. It is true that we cannot go into people’s houses like the priests of old who would be invited to inspect plagues on the walls. However, we can invite people into our house, into the synagogue, by acknowledging that pain exists, and by creating avenues by which families can bring not only their joy, but also their most burdensome sorrow.

All happy families are not alike, living in Camp Happy, while the rest are on the outside all alone. Pain is inevitable to every family, and so to remain healthy, try to stop being surprised by your sadness. Stop thinking, “Why did this happen to me?” and instead think, “I guess now is when this happens to me.”

Use that same energy to think creatively. Use that same strength to invite God to turn your bitter waters sweet and curses into blessings.

Zoë Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.

 

When Sad Things Happen to Good Kids


“The Boy Who Didn’t Want To Be Sad” by Dr. Rob Goldblatt (American Psychological Magination Press, 2004).

After taking his children to see a pleasant Disney cartoon, Dr. Rob Goldblatt thought there would some animated chatter about the film during the drive home.

Instead, there was silence, and tears.

“My kids started crying and said they never wanted to see the movie again,” said Goldblatt, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and father of three. “All they could remember about it was that the hero’s father had died.”

At that moment, Goldblatt, was torn. As a father, he wanted to protect his children from grief. As a psychologist, he realized that running away from unpleasant feelings only serves to inure you from pleasant ones to come.

Instead of dwelling on the lachrymose movie, Goldblatt started telling his children a story which he made up on the spot, about a boy who tried everything possible to never be sad, only to find that the best way to deal with sadness is to acknowledge it and live through it.

Inspired by the moment, Goldblatt turned the story into a children’s book, “The Boy Who Didn’t Want To Be Sad” (American Psychological Magination Press, 2004), which he illustrated as well.

In the book, the boy decides that he wants to rid his life of everything that makes him sad. So he goes away to his secret place in the shade of the trees, and is happy. But then he’s struck by the thought that the trees will lose their leaves, and that makes him sad. He leaves the trees, and retreats to his room, where he watches videos and makes a huge tower with his blocks. “But every story has sad parts,” Goldblatt writes. “Blocks fall, toys break, game pieces get lost. He’d had it with everything.”

The boy continues to shut himself off from the world so that he never comes into contact with anything that could possibly make him unhappy. And, ironically, what he finds is that running away from sadness makes him terribly sad. The book ends with the boy embracing everything that he rejected, and riding the waves of emotion that are part and parcel of human existence.

Although the book is written for children, Goldblatt asserts that its message is crucial to healthy emotional development in adults as well.

“If we learn to be scared of feelings and run, we keep running because the feelings keep coming,” Goldblatt said. “This is the very thing that causes or worsens every psychological and relationship problem I treat in my office. Feelings are brief, but the problems we develop to escape them last a lifetime.”

Goldblatt, who in his practice treats everyone from “celebrities to soccer moms,” said that the secret to happiness is not to feel disconnected from sadness. Society places too much emphasis on the material keys to happiness (i.e., getting good grades, going to a good college, having a lucrative profession) and not nearly enough on the emotional ones. And it is the emotional equilibrium, according to Goldblatt, that makes the difference between a satisfying life, and an unhappy one.

“Unfortunately, feelings come as a set. You don’t get to choose to just have one,” Goldblatt said. “What most of us learn to do as a kid is, when we feel bad, to just push those feelings away. Parents are often annoyed with displays of emotion, and [tell kids] to walk it off. Parents think they are teaching their kids to cope with it, but what they end up doing is teaching them how to push away their feelings. And in order to have happiness, you have to feel. You have to stay with the emotion [and realize] that feelings are temporary. They come and go like a wave. They grow in intensity and then they come down all by themselves.”

For parents, helping children deal with their tears is a three-step process.

“First, you look at [the situation] and make sure there is no major damage,” Goldblatt said. “Then you tell them that it must hurt, and then you kiss it and make it better. And then pat them on the butt and send them out to play. Staying with them when they are feeling something uncomfortable is a very powerful experience. They don’t have to throw a tantrum because they have your sympathy, and what you teach them is courage.”

But even if you didn’t get that nurturing as a child, it’s never too late to mend one’s approach to processing emotions.

“It is less important what you feel than it is that you feel. Be as intensely engaged with life as you can,” Goldblatt said. “The more you feel the richer your life is going to be.”

 

Baker Finds Right Recipe for Success


At 3 a.m., when most Orange County residents are halfway through their slumber, Solomon Dueñas leaves Aliso Viejo and begins the 15-minute commute he’s made nearly every morning since 1988.

The 54-year-old arrives at Solomon’s Bakery and immediately relieves the three bakers who have worked through the night producing loaves of rye and challah, trays of delicate cookies and batches of heavily frosted cupcakes. Dueñas ensures that all pending orders for the bakery he owns are complete, then fills out accounting forms through the sunrise, until the first of four vans arrives at 6 a.m.

He helps load the vans that will distribute pastries throughout the county until Solomon’s 5 p.m. closing. But his work is still not done, and Dueñas remains to prep the returning bakers for another long night of work, not leaving until around 8 p.m.

Somewhere between the baking, supervising, manning the counter, visiting clientele at their homes and buying supplies, Dueñas takes a short midafternoon nap.

"I have to recharge the batteries, you know," apologized Dueñas, who always sports a sparkling golden necklace with the Hebrew word chai (life). "But I love working 18-hour days. I’m happy at my work, and happiness keeps me alive one more day. There are no successful men who work part time."

This intense dedication to his work belies the otherwise soft-spoken nature of Dueñas, a Salvadoran Jew who operates one of the county’s few full-fledged Jewish bakeries, which is located in an unremarkable Laguna Hills industrial park. His story is much like that of any successful immigrant’s, marbled with unexpected but fortuitous incidents, sleepless nights and ever-present charm.

He originally immigrated to Los Angeles in 1969, hoping to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science.

"But life’s realities forced me to get a job," Dueñas joked, and he joined the invisible immigrant workforce for a couple of years. One day while visiting the Salvadoran consulate with a visa question, an official suggested that Dueñas enroll in a pastry program at a local college.

It turned out that the consulate knew about the delicious breads Dueñas baked privately for friends. It was a hobby he picked up in El Salvador as a youth, while practicing his Judaism in accordance with Marrano customs, a secretive way of life adopted by Jews who hid their religion under a veneer of Catholicism after the Spanish Inquisition.

Dueñas followed the consulate’s advice and enrolled in a baker’s college as a pastry chef. He soon parlayed the degree he received into a baker’s position at a Los Angeles-area Safeway. Safeway management was so impressed with Dueñas’ creations and attentiveness, that they asked him in 1986 to help open a new branch in Newport Beach.

However, Dueñas had bigger ambitions. Throughout the years, Dueñas studied the mystery of Jewish baking under the legendary Abraham Kaplan of Costa Mesa’s Kaplan’s Deli fame. Finding Orange County "lacking in Jewish food" and with Kaplan’s guidance and blessing, Dueñas opened Solomon’s Bakery in 1988.

"Mr. Kaplan told me that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to go out on my own," explained Dueñas, his voice dropping in respectful awe. "When I started Solomon’s Bakery, he helped with the baking, design scheme, everything."

"He insisted that I hire his best employee from him," Dueñas continued. "And he helped me find loans that allowed me to open. That’s something I’ll never forget."

Business was tough at first. There wasn’t much to Jewish life in Orange County during the late 1980s — in fact, Dueñas was a founding member of one of South County’s first synagogues, Mission Viejo’s Congregation Eilat. He remembers working 18-hour shifts and sleeping at the bakery during that rough first year and switching shifts with his wife, Sue, at the register and ovens.

But revenue rose exponentially for Dueñas through word of mouth, the development of South County and the arrival of Jews in the area — it’s estimated there are now more than 60,000 throughout Orange County, with a majority south of the 55 Freeway. Solomon’s was their manna in the Sinai that is South County. His staff grew from two to seven, and Dueñas expanded into catering, a full-stocked deli and cake decorations.

Dueñas keeps Solomon’s bustling primarily because of his care for customer and craft alike. Glass displays at Solomon’s are clean, highlighting all the favorites of the Jewish-pastry galaxy — stomach-stuffing babkas, fruity hamantaschen, crumbly rugelah. Even better is a Dueñas original that he calls an apple-raisin bran, a block of caramelized flour so decadent that customers drive in from San Diego and even Washington state just for a sniff.

Dueñas admits to being a workaholic, but he relishes returning home to spend time with his three teenage daughters, each of whom has a sandwich named after her.

"But I better be in bed by 10 every night," Dueñas said. "After all, the alarm goes off at 2:45 a.m."

Solomon’s Bakery is located at 23020 Lake Forest Drive., Suite. 170, Laguna Hills. For more information, call (949) 586-4718.

Pariah or Trendy?


I was born into a world of one-size-fits-all lifestyles: either I’d marry and have children or be a subject of gossip and humiliation.

In 1970, just before the women’s movement came into full swing, I married. At 20 I was a child, struggling to make a marriage work and separate from my Holocaust survivor parents. Education, career and independence hadn’t figured into my upbringing, but I often daydreamed about what my life would’ve been like if I’d had choices. My husband also questioned our traditional life and eventually we parted. At 27, I was terrified when my fantasies became a viable reality. But as I got my footing, I exploded into the new world of choice, greater opportunities for women, more tolerance for divorce and a growing awareness that happiness wasn’t about fulfilling my parents’ dreams. My late 20s through my 30s were an exciting time as I developed from a blurry image into a vibrant, four-color photograph.

Fast forward to 2004. I’m still single. Not immune from the expectations of family, society and my own biological and emotional pulls, I’ve moved in and out of deep longings to marry, have children or become a single parent. I’ve also experienced being single with no children as a liberating license to focus on me in a way my childhood hadn’t allowed.

A generation ago I might have been seen as a pariah. Now it appears that I’m part of a trend. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau Statistics, 43 percent of all Americans 18 and older are single. Since 1980, there’s been a 13 percent increase in the number of single adults, and that number isn’t expected to decline.

The reasons are numerous. Economic freedom of women has created large numbers of women in no rush to marry. Men, long socialized to look to women to care for them, have the conveniences of technology to help them care for themselves in the most basic ways. In addition, with nearly one out of two marriages ending in divorce, the age of first-time marriages has risen. Longer life spans have created a large number of adults who live long after the death of a spouse, or whose marriages end after 20 or 30 years. Many will marry again, while others will remain single. And then there are those who might be like me, who later in life find themselves and discover a stunning release from external expectations.

The fact that activist and author Gloria Steinem waited until she was 66 to marry should prove that single adults are vital, intelligent and responsible. But as a society — we’re not there yet — single people still get a hard time of it.

Karen Gail Lewis, a Maryland-based pscyhotherapist and author of "With or Without a Man" (Bull Publishing, 2000), blames this on what she terms, "the cultural trance." Simply put, while statistics tell us otherwise, we have a deeply ingrained belief that only marriage will make us whole.

Colorado-based Daphne Rose Kingma, psychotherapist and author of "The Future of Love" (Doubleday, 1998), says this idea comes from our collective unconscious. We know that marriage isn’t working for many of us, but our unconscious is like a warehouse of primal needs and beliefs, hearkening back to a time when men and women needed each other for survival.

In the Jewish community where marriage and family are so highly valued, the single, happy adult is a relatively new concept. As it takes hold, what will become of the stereotypical Jewish parents, worrying about their child being single at 30 or 40 or 50? Especially when it turns out that this child isn’t commitment-phobic, selfish or in some other way damaged.

On the contrary, the correct adjective might be lucky. Not to be unmarried necessarily, but to be living at a time when there are so many choices.

So, here I am, living out my life in a way I hadn’t expected: Single, 53, not apologizing.


Sandra Hurtes is a Brooklyn-based writer whose essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, The Forward and other publications.

No Half Love!


Will I fall in love again?

After 17 years of marriage? At 42?

Will I even recognize the feeling? How soon will I allow myself to feel that vulnerable? That trusting?

Here’s a shocker: I’m cynical. I tend to regard women who come into my life with the narrow-eyed acuity of a fact checker. I have quickly become an instant documentarian, a sharp-eared debriefer in the Guantanamo Bay of the heart.

An astute interviewer, I listen for instant disqualifiers — gross insecurities, knee-jerk judgmentalism, debt, uncontrollable recoiling at the mention of sex.

Call this the Yiddish model of wary romance. At best, this model is worldly and practical.

"Love is a fine thing," the Yiddish saying goes, "but love with noodles is even tastier."

At its worst, this model is as despairing as Kafka, who let us know that "there is infinite hope — just not for us."

My Yiddish model admits that there is indeed infinite love between men and women, but that I’m destined for membership in the other 99.8 percent of the population.

It’s a seductively comfortable working model for dating. Why? Because it begins in fear, and so keeps me armored, garrisoned, provisioned and snugly out of the range of fire.

But, as Goethe’s Faust famously cried, "Two souls dwell, alas, in my breast."

And so my Yiddishe kop rides atop a body suffused with a Hebraic soul. Built of love, not fear, it belts out the Hebrew of the Song of Songs — "Love is stronger than death," and "Let me lean against the stout trunks, let me couch among the apple trees, for I am sick with love."

My Hebraic heart doesn’t fact check women, it listens optimistically for a singing partner — for spontaneous appreciation of beauty, for playful verbal dexterity, affection, exuberance, sensuality, beneficence.

This Hebrew model of love is far more uncomfortable. It pounds at the ribs. It is a ready conflagration under the skin. It is a psycho inner-puppy that persistently leaps to imagine a future of conjugal bliss. Hebraic love, as the Song of Songs reminds us, is a promise of love that, in its fullness of heart, is so expansive, so complete, that it can serve as nothing less than a metaphor for God’s love of us and for the human love of God.

Whoa. Yeah. I want love like that. And outsinging Kafka, there’s an optimistic voice in me that believes I, single, unfettered, can have it.

Because the great thing about starting out fresh at this point in my life is that, past the anxieties of youth, and before the frailties of age, I’m at full power.

For the first time in almost 20 years, unable to blame someone else, unburdened of the need to please someone else, I get to create the life I want. As ideal as I want to it to be.

And so, when I met a woman with an inspiringly buoyant, happy heart, I found myself blurting to her, "No half love." I was spontaneously striking a deal right from the start. A veteran of an increasingly listless marriage herself, her whole face lit up.

"No half love," she repeated. We weren’t in love yet, but if we were going to be, we were pledging ourselves at this important threshold to an idealism of, well, biblical proportions. What does that translate to in everyday life? To me, it means drawing from a bottomless well of generosity; it means kindness under stress, patience when gloom visits, quiet amid chaos and an almost giddy joy in the other’s happiness. All in all, it means maintaining a steadfast X-ray vision through the inevitable husks of daily imperfection to the divine creamy filling within.

Will I fall in love again? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that though I crack wise in Yiddish, my heart soars with a more ancient yearning…

Set me as a seal upon thy heart

As a seal upon thy arm

For love is as strong as death…

Many waters cannot quench love,

nor can the floods drown it.

Undrownable. Amen.


Adam Gilad is a writer, producer and CEO of Rogue Direct, LLP. He also
teaches creative writing based on Jewish texts at the UJ and privately. He can
be reached at adamgilad@yahoo.com

Exit Strategy


After 10 extremely passionate months together, Amanda decided to end our relationship. She thought it through very carefully and took the steps she felt were necessary to break things off. There was just one small step she overlooked — telling me.

So here’s how I found out: Coming home after work one night, I noticed that the clothes Amanda usually kept hanging in my closet were gone; just the empty hangers remained. The stuff she kept in the bathroom — also gone. I was expecting her that night and she never appeared.

My phone message to her was not returned. No word from her for the next two days. Had she been kidnapped? Been in an accident? Spoken to one of my old girlfriends about me? I called her sister and left a message, but never heard back from her either.

Finally, after two days, there was a message from Amanda on my answering machine: “I’m out of town for a few days. I needed to get away to think about our relationship.”

Which, as it turns out, is woman-speak for: “You’ll see me naked again when Osama bin Laden becomes a rabbi.”

I finally reached her by phone. What followed was a half-hour conversation, in which Amanda told me she was leaving because, basically, she wanted a different kind of guy.

“But you seemed so happy with the guy you had during our 10 extremely passionate months together,” I reminded her. And I pointed out things she had said to me frequently; little things like, “I love you,” “You’re the man I’ve been waiting for all my life,” and “This is the most incredible relationship I’ve ever had.”

But none of that mattered now. Her mind was made up, her heart was closed down, the security systems were activated and that was the last time we communicated.

As psychiatrists are fond of saying, “And how did that make you feel?” Well, Dr. Melfi, I felt shocked, depressed, angry, abused, mislead, hurt and abandoned — which, incidentally, were the actual names of the Seven Dwarves before Disney started fiddling with them.

But then I got to wondering why Amanda chose to dump me in such a cold fashion when what preceded it was 10 months of passion. And the only thing I could come up with was that Amanda chose to take the easy way out — for her. She didn’t want a confrontation, an argument or the pain of raw, exposed emotion; she simply left — and left me holding the big, unopened Pandora’s box of sudden loss.

But painful experiences are invariably learning experiences, and what I learned from Amanda’s emotional cowardice is that there is an art, if you will, to breaking off a relationship. That is assuming, of course, that your intention is to behave like a human being, to honor the relationship and to be considerate and respectful of your partner’s feelings. Think of it as a farewell gift to your partner. Or think of it simply as the right thing to do.

For the love of God, don’t just suddenly vanish. Nor should you do it via phone, e-mail, letter or through a third-party intervention. All of those techniques are simply wimping out, hurtful and just plain wrong. You know it, I know it, Dr. Phil knows it.

The only way to end a relationship is face to face. Raise the issues. See if there’s a chance to work them out or get help to do so. If not, tell him or her the honest reasons, and acknowledge all the good in the relationship. If you sense there’s a mutual desire to stay friends, discuss that. If not, wish your partner happiness and good luck, give him or her a hug and leave.

Remember how kind and gentle, thoughtful and respectful you were going into the relationship? Well, your exit strategy should involve those identical qualities. But be forewarned — if you don’t use those qualities, I sincerely hope that the giant, angry Karma Monster tracks you down and torments you in the Extreme Punishment Room for all eternity. Oh, by the way, if you see Amanda there, give her my regards, won’t you?


Mark Miller is a comedy writer who has written for TV,
movies and many celebrities, been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times
Syndicate, contributed to numerous national publications and produced a weekly
comedic relationships feature for America Online. He can be reached at markmiller2000@attbi.com

.

Happiness Happens


Behind every meaningful practice stands its theory. This Shabbat we begin Sukkot, our eight-day festival of booths and thanksgiving during which we celebrate the wandering and journey of our ancestors from slavery to freedom.

Sukkot’s bounty includes ecological sensitivities as we honor the interdependence of humanity and nature. Following Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Sukkot represents the laboratory of our best intentions and goals for the coming year. It offers a vision we can see more clearly from outside the walls of our homes. We dwell in temporary booths instead of in the midst of our hectic and disheveled living rooms. We see our lives from a different perspective. This festival week is a time of peace and compassion, a holiday of hospitality as we welcome family and friends into our sukkot and as we give of our own harvests to others in need.

There is another image of Sukkot that I appreciate in theory, but this is the one I find a challenge to put into practice.

“And you shall be completely happy,” declares the Book of Deuteronomy in its reference to Sukkot. Sukkot is subtitled z’man simchateinu (the season of our joy). The Zohar, Judaism’s mystical interpretation of the Torah, states, “It is necessary for you to rejoice within the sukkah and to show a cheerful countenance to guests. It is forbidden to harbor thoughts of gloom, and how much more so feelings of anger within the Sukkah, the symbol of joy.”

Easier said than done. In routine times, we can’t always control our mood, or feel as we might wish to. These days, for sure, we carry with us a variety of necessary and very mixed emotions. How wonderful is the premise of this holiday, the imperative of happiness? A theory we can truly understand and, at the same time, find difficult to put into practice.

We are all exposed to moments of sadness, trouble, anger or upset. We are all distressed by the illness or struggle of dear ones and friends. We are all concerned about events in the world around us. Even at moments of complete joy in our lives, how can we not be sensitive to the different experiences of others? At end of a Jewish wedding ceremony, the groom breaks glass demonstrating this important awareness and perspective.

“And you shall be completely happy.” Really? As individuals who know the full variety of life’s blessing and burden, this can be a difficult mitzvah to fulfill. And yet, it might also be among the most important of our tradition’s imperatives for living.

Happiness, at least as Judaism understands it, is a state of mind. It doesn’t come from pleasure, wealth or even health. Happiness reflects satisfaction. It results from gratitude and appreciation for the gift and mystery of our lives. Even when we hurt, we can impose onto our day a moment of contentment, or maybe delight. All we have to do is see it either around us or within us. I always counsel those who face a personal challenge to look for such moments. It’s a better way to cope.

The Talmud speaks about this type of happiness. Since the Torah teaches that everyone should rejoice, the rabbis wonder, “How can someone be made to be happy?” Their answer: “With what is suitable for them.” For some, it may be a physical comfort. For others, happiness might derive from the people with whom they are spending time. For those of us who are comfortable today, happiness may be the result of our achievements. For those of us who are in need or who know pain, our happiness may simply lie in the memory of — and hope for — better times.

The Psalms also seek this frame of mind. “I am ever mindful of God’s presence … so my heart rejoices, my whole being exults…. In Your presence is perfect happiness.” (In traditional Jewish practice, most often we recite these words during the Yizkor service.)

Rashi explained that the happiness spoken of is timeless, not bound to any season or particular situation. “It is the happiness now before you, closest to you,” he taught.

That’s the answer to my Sukkot problem. We don’t have to find happiness in all that happens — it’s just not possible or even right. But during this beautiful festival of Sukkot, we can gather with those closest to us and celebrate the goodness and dignity of our lives. We can find happiness by giving thanks for all that sustains us: shelter and food, faith and morality, the caring of our friends and the love of our families. In these most basic of joys, even if we struggle some, we can be satisfied. They are the reasons we can consider ourselves “completely happy.”

Shabbat shalom! Chag sameach!

Unhappily Ever After?


Much ado has been made over “Life is Beautiful,” just released on video this week. Personally, I’m glad that it won Oscar gold. Deftly balancing humor and pathos, Roberto Benigni’s fable seamlessly wove a rich tapestry of themes — the celebration of the individual; the sanctity of family; the power of the imagination; the indomitable human spirit in the face of tragedy. And, at its heart, a poignant love story — without the crutch of a traditional Hollywood happy ending. I wouldn’t change a single frame.

But several weeks after I saw the film, it occurred to me that, historically, overtly Jewish characters in cinema (all six of them…) seem perpetually shortchanged in relationships. Something always prevents a Jew from living “happily ever after.” So where are our happy endings?

Since the days of Chaplin and Keaton, Hollywood has been on a tear to force feed us the concept that true love conquers all, no matter how improbable the pairing, how vast a couple’s differences, how all-encompassing their obstacles. Ernst Lubitsch’s “Shop Around The Corner” united two thoroughly incompatible characters, who loathed each other, through correspondence. Billy Wilder’s “Sabrina” coupled an aging curmudgeon tycoon with his chauffeur’s nubile daughter despite bumpy chemistry.

“As Good As It Gets” actually attempted to manipulate us into believing that a young svelte waitress would fall for a crusty, paunchy, balding, obsessive-compulsive bigot who was nine times her age. And what about the classic “Wuthering Heights,” which had the gall to escalate from epic love to eternal love to supernatural love — all within the same story!

Naturally, films have deviated from the happy ending scenario. Take Academy Award magnet, “Titanic,” to which we all swarmed. Yet curiously, many of the aberrations that stand out in my mind involve Jewish characters. And the questions they raise are sobering.

In “The Way We Were,” Robert Redford courts Barbra Streisand right up until the climax, where they realize that they are not meant to be and make the mutual, painful decision to separate. If a matinee idol like Redford can’t win over his ideal Jewess, what chance do the rest of us have? And can Jewish women really be that high maintenance?

“The Heartbreak Kid” seems to suggest so. Charles Grodin dumps his pain-in-the-kishkas wife to woo, win, and wed Cybill Shepherd, the blond, non-Jewish woman of his dreams. But the ending implies that Grodin’s is a hollow victory. Can Jewish men really be that jaded and detached?

People I know were charmed by the Jewish fairy tale, “Crossing Delancy,” but frankly, I found Amy Irving horrendously unappreciative of her suitor. The Pickle Man definitely deserved better than this Fickle Woman. And Irving’s character should’ve spent the rest of her life celibate and pickleless.

Remember “Sophie’s Choice,” where the Jewish Nathan (Kevin Kline), turns out to be a certified lunatic engaging his lover, Catholic Holocaust survivor Sophie (Meryl Streep), in a twisted, psychologically-manipulative relationship? And how about the aforementioned “As Good As It Gets,” where a young Jewish couple are shown arguing in a diner (that is, until Nicholson’s character disperses them with an anti-Semitic remark). Is this the only way we are to be perceived — neurotic, bickering, unattractive? (I don’t even have time to get into “A Price Above Rubies.” That one you have to see for yourself to believe! ).

Of course, everyone knows that Hollywood endings are the ultimate cheat since the stories always end at the beginning. The moment Boy finally wins Girl is the second before the final credits crawl. We never see what happens next — whether the blissful note we leave the theater on sours; whether they’ll weather the discord that leads to relationship wreckage. Like how he hogs the remote. Or the way she snores at night.

Living in Hollywood, you can’t help but notice how thoroughly the entertainment and advertising industries have pounded the myth of perfect love into our collective conscience. And I wonder if the lack of credible Jewish relationships on-screen figures into the equation of how we singles view our relationships. No union is simple anymore, it seems. Anyone short of perfection gets the vaudeville cane. Everything must fall precisely into place, like one of those impossible palm-held plastic puzzles where you must get the tiny metallic balls into their little holes.

From “The Blue Lagoon” to “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the pursuit of perfect love has been cinema’s driving engine. And like the former’s Brooke Shields and the latter’s Gill-Man, the concept will — for better or for worst — resurface again and again. Now that we’ve finally moved past the stage where externally-Jewish characters are presented as second class citizens to be protected from anti-Semitism by the Great White Hope (“Crossfire,” “The Young Lions,” “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” “Schindler’s List”), it would be nice to view some Jews portrayed in healthy romantic relationships. We’ve seen kvetching Jewish males pursuing gentile ice queens. Is the idea of a Jewish couple in love so unappetizing to mainstream Americans that they will not buy it? I don’t think so. After all, until recently, I never would have thought that a romantic tragicomedy set in a concentration camp could have worked either.