One more time with nachas — gift that keeps on giving


Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives.

Anyone who has planned a bar mitzvah can easily recall the stress of preparing for that milestone, not only for the boy who is constantly reminded to practice his parsha, but also for the mom who is usually behind the scenes, negotiating with the caterer, revising guest lists and hoping the balloons don’t drop too early in the evening. As a mom who has gone through her own case of pre- and post-bar mitzvah stress disorder three times, I hope to offer some comfort and reassurance that after all these efforts and antacids, the bar mitzvah anniversaries are a piece of cake.

That’s right, I said anniversaries. Don’t panic: These do not involve any ostentatious table centerpieces, party favors or the cha-cha slide. They only require an annual reprisal of the role of Torah reader, while the parents sit back and kvell. It only took a small bit of encouragement by my husband to convince each of our sons to agree to do this. Why not get our money’s worth out of all those lessons, after all? For us, this practice has made the original bar mitzvah an unexpected gift that keeps on giving.

Our sons are now 16, 18 and 20, and watching them step up to the bimah for their annual readings has given us major infusions of good old-fashioned Yiddishe nachas. Each year, we watch them stand a little taller, more confident in who they are, more firmly rooted as young men in the Jewish community. We are awed by their continued growth physically, spiritually and emotionally. And frankly, some years we are simply relieved that we have survived another year of their adolescence.

In our experience, the minute a boy becomes a bar mitzvah, he grows faster than bamboo. The growth seems unstoppable, even frightening. This makes the first anniversary, at 14, the most physically striking. Each boy required a much larger suit and impossibly larger shoes. Their faces were also losing any residual boyish plumpness. And none of us worried about a potentially embarrassing high note cracking through the baritone that had in one year settled in for the long run.

More than that, these anniversaries allow us to sit back and mark our sons’ personal achievements, as we quietly reflect on their singular paths to adulthood. While we have sent them to Orthodox Jewish schools for their entire lives, they have each made it clear that they are individuals and will make their own choices about the way in which they will manifest Jewish values in their own lives. Like all kids, they’re a little bit like Frank Sinatra, insisting they do it “my way.”

And like nearly all parents, we’ve endured the confusion, commotion and occasional turbulence of the teen years. We’ve worried about them, argued with them, lost sleep over them. We easily remember our own teen years and the aggravation we caused our parents, although our kids don’t seem to believe us when we tell them that we were once teenagers, too. (How could anyone remember such ancient history, like before the Internet was invented?) Despite their skepticism, we really do understand that they need to carve their own paths in life. Our job is to keep loving them, encouraging them and even disciplining them, while praying that they will find a comfortable and purposeful place in the world. We pray that they will hold our values dear, even if their adolescent psyches are wired to fight us from time to time.

Our boys have surprised us by some of the choices they have made, and while we might not have made the same choices for them, we are proud of their growing commitment to living wholly, and holy, Jewish lives. We do not alone take credit for this. Each has benefited from caring, committed and wise teachers who have helped them see the enduring truth of Judaism in a way that kids sometimes need to get from someone not named “Mom” or “Dad.”

Too often, the bar or bat mitzvah seems an end point or culmination of Jewish education. This is a profound loss, because teens absolutely must find ways to feel independent and distinct from their parents. Too often, they can get in trouble during that search, and this is exactly the time when they need to have their essential Jewish values anchored in place through ongoing involvement with Jewish education, values and community life.

We know we’ve been blessed with kids who have chosen to make Jewish values their own. In fact, because my husband and I came to Jewish observance only as young adults, our kids are light years ahead of us in Jewish knowledge. (Sometimes, I need to ask for translations during dinner discussions. Alas, my public high school didn’t offer Aramaic as a foreign language.) And I know our special anniversary “celebrations” won’t last forever, since kids have this maddening habit of growing up and moving away. So I have to savor these opportunities while I can, watching my young men stand up and lead the congregation, while I sit back and smile in gratitude and wonder.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement.” Read more of her work at www.judygruen.com.

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.

Happiness — maybe it’s not ‘out there’


It all started with the phone call from my Jewish mother in the Philadelphia suburbs about five years ago: “My friend’s son is moving to L.A. I think he has an on-again-off-again girlfriend. But, he’s cute and nice. Anyway, he’s going to call you for coffee.” Innocent enough, or so I thought. Then, as the hours flew by and the age of 28 approached from around the corner, a cold sweat bathed my East Coast family. My 24-year-old first cousin announced her engagement to a nice lawyer from George Washington University.

Here I was across the country, no family, in grad school, living on loans, virtually dateless and in emotional recovery from a Beverly Hills player who thought marriage proposals were a game.

We were entering the danger zone, ladies and gentleman.

It was time to call in the big guns. The yentas held a conference, and mission “marry my Jewish daughter before age 30” began. My cousin’s friend, the pediatrician, was going to call; my dad paid for me to go wine tasting in Malibu; and my Pilates teacher knew a great single Jewish tow-truck driver.

That was around the time I had a nervous breakdown. I knew I didn’t need any help or handouts. I was a smart, attractive, independent woman, and I knew I could find my true love online in a week if I were really serious about it. I posted a profile.

The concept that even Frankenstein got married would often dance through my sleepless head after each grueling online date or night out at a bar. When the 5-foot-tall doctor who had posted a picture of his 6-foot-tall brother asked me to split the bill for coffee, I knew it was time to take a break. Why was there so much pressure? Thirty is just a number. Who really cares? Madonna had kids in her 40s, and look at Demi Moore.

My friends and therapist told me it was “them,” not me. There was nothing wrong with me. I just needed to get out there. That was when it dawned on me, after a yoga class, that maybe “out there” was really just a reflection of what was “in here.” Maybe my frenetic coffee shop drive-bys, obsessively long elliptical workouts by my gym’s basketball court and late-night strolls down the produce aisle weren’t going to help me find what I was searching for “out there.”

That was when something miraculous happened.

Nope. I’m not going to tell some Pollyanna story about how I stopped looking and then found my soul mate at the gas station. The truth is simple. I gave up searching outside myself and committed to my passion.

It was like I had some sort of biblical experience. I was on the plane returning to Los Angeles when it hit me. I knew exactly what I had to do. I was just a couple classes shy of my master’s degree in psychology and had been counseling individuals and couples in a local Jewish agency for about a year.

I had been on more than 200 first dates in Los Angeles.

I’d learned exactly what I was not looking for.

My experience skimming through online profiles helped me master the art and science of weeding out Mr. Wrong with one questionable sentence or phone message. I helped a bunch of my guy friends write profiles and watched as they single-handedly, consistently met girls and got engaged.

All my friends already had been calling me for relationship advice every day since high school. With my background in psychology and the positive growth I saw from working with my clients, I realized that I had what it took to help singles out there save their Jewish mothers from the schpilkes that kept mine up at night. I focused on helping other singles in my psychotherapy practice.

Over the years I have helped young, shy guys find their inner chutzpah, those with poor self-images gain the self confidence to write delete-proof profiles, and I realized that so many of us just want to find the same thing, but our own fear and self-doubt makes us question the ones who see our true inner beauty. As I have helped my clients get past their emotional blocks, I have seen them find what they want. It was like clockwork.

I began to wake up each morning like a woman in love.

That was when the words my grandmother always spoke came true. Yup. This one annoying doctor who kept calling finally met me for coffee one morning. My grandmother said I’d find him when I was not looking. I couldn’t stand this guy over the phone, and I had little to no faith in online matchmaking. But something magical happened that day as our morning coffee turned into a ride up the coast and a lovely dinner in Malibu.

I was skeptical when he told me at the end of the night that he had a feeling we would be spending a lot of time together. Yet, somehow we have been talking every day since. And the love I sought from outside for so long, grew and grew as my commitment to my own success and joy filled up any emptiness or lacking.

Yes, I found my soul mate when I fell in love with my own life – although it happened several months after turning 30.

The moral of my story can best be summed up in my yoga revelation. Stop looking “out there” for the life you want. The happiness you seek is already “in here.”

Live passionately while you are single and life will have a funny way of delivering your heart’s desire – when your heart is already full.


Alisa Ruby is a psychotherapist, a part-time school counselor at Malibu High School and a freelance writer.

The Heart of Jewish Joy


A modest proposal: As a reward to the Jewish people for having survived the 20th century, let’s make Purim our High Holiday.

Not that there’s anything really
wrong with our current High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are compelling days of personal introspection, reflection and evaluation. But after withstanding a century of pogroms, mass dislocation and Holocaust, claiming a tiny sliver of a homeland only to attract the rage of a billion Muslims and the resentment of the rest of the world, we’ve earned a holy day of unconditional joy.

If Jews the world over, including the most alienated and unidentified, are going to find their way to synagogue just once a year, let it be a day we hand them a mask and a grogger and share the jubilant story of a courageous Jewish princess and her triumph over evil. Let it be a holiday celebrating the victory of life over death. Let it be a day of unmitigated Jewish joy. We’ve earned it.

And we need it. The long career of Jewish suffering has twisted the Jewish soul.

I taught Hebrew school years ago, and one Sunday morning I overheard a conversation between a father and his child.

“Dad, I hate Hebrew school,” the kid said. “It’s boring, it’s stupid, the teachers are mean, the kids aren’t nice. I hate it and I don’t want to go any more.”

The father pushed his child up against the wall and said to him: “Look, kid, I went to Hebrew school when I was your age, and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’t nice, but they made me go. And now you’re going to go to Hebrew school just like I did.”

What a tragedy, what a catastrophe to raise generations who know only a twisted Judaism, a Judaism of coercion, boredom and emptiness.
My grandfather would read the Yiddish papers and mutter, “Shver tzu zeiner Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). For my grandfather, being a Jew was an unquestioned destiny, but the world made it so difficult, so painful.

In our time, we’ve twisted this around. It’s no longer a description.

It’s become prescriptive: “Shver Tzu Zeiner Yid.”

We’ve come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.

A friend — a truly beautiful soul — converted to Judaism. She came back to see me in deep sadness. Her Christian friends and co-workers congratulated her on her new faith. They bought her gifts to celebrate. Her Jewish friends were openly derisive: Why on earth would you want to be Jewish? What’s wrong with you?

The greatest book on American Judaism is Mordecai Menahem Kaplan’s classic, “Judaism as a Civilization.” The first line of that book reads: “Before the beginning of the 19th century, all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”

To heal the twisted soul of the Jewish people we need unequivocal expression of Jewish joy. So let’s make Purim our High Holiday.
Purim is a deceptively simple holiday. Its merriment masks a complex set of issues: the power politics of Diaspora, the multiple identities engendered by assimilation, the single-mindedness of evil, the conflicted conscience of the righteous. It is a story of secrets, hidden truths and concealed realities. And somehow we sense the Presence of God in the story’s shadows. But it ends in a flash of light, of truth and of celebration. It is thus a remarkable treatise on the nature of Jewish joy.

Jewish joy is not escapist or delusional. Who knows the world’s darkness and brokenness better than we do? But standing before light and darkness, blessing and curse, life and death, we choose life. It may be the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah to fulfill. But we choose life. That is the heart of Jewish joy.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16). And so may it be for us.

Happy Purim.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition


When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot


During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
 
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
 
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
 
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
 
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
 
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
 
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
 
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
 
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
 
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
 
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
 
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
 
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
 
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
 
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
 
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
 
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
 
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

Perfectly Imperfect


Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

 

Summertime and the Livin’ Is Costly


Day schools are fine for school days. Synagogue is great for Shabbat and High Holidays. But for those weeks when children are in cabins, singing and laughing with friends, Jewish camp is a singular experience of 24/7, full-tilt boogie Judaism.

“Although I attended religious school, summer camp is where I first became connected with being Jewish,” said Fred Reisz, a Brentwood attorney and father of two toddlers who was a Camp Hess Kramer camper from 1975 to 1979, then a camp staffer from 1980 to 1985. “I think it’s important to realize that these summer camps are ‘Jewish summer camps’ as opposed to summer camps for Jews; you get a sense of your heritage and it instills a pride and joy in being Jewish.”

Howard Kaplan, director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp, said Jewish summer camps are, “probably the most powerful engine for Jewish continuity that the community has. They’re living in a Jewish environment. Even if they play basketball, it’s in a Jewish environment. What I tell parents is, ‘It’s where it gets in their bones.'”

“For a certain number of kids, especially post-bar mitzvah, this is their Jewish life,” he said. “Here’s the reality; it’s not inexpensive, but you know going in that it’s value.”

But all the costs of Jewish community life, including camp fees, can be burdensome. Jewish summer camp fees in Southern California now average almost $3,000 for four weeks at places such as Malibu’s Camp Hess Kramer or Camp Ramah in Ojai, similar to weekly fees at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s Camp Alonim in Simi Valley.

“Even an upper-middle-class family with two kids struggles to put kids through the system,” said Ron Wolfson, a University of Judaism (UJ) vice president and director of the UJ’s Whizin Center for the Jewish Future. “I think people would have more children if they can afford more of these things.”

“Trying to send my kids to a Jewish summer camp will be an expensive proposition but I think it has so many rewards with it,” Reisz said. “Choosing to send my kid to camp is something that is always contemplated and that is saved for.”

According to the Foundation for Jewish Camping in New York, there are about 110 “not-for-profit sleep-away” camps near Jewish urban populations in the United States and Canada. While Jewish camp can be a character-building chapter in many lives, the foundation’s Web site states that a total of 50,000 kids attend Jewish camps each summer — “less than 8 percent of the 650,000 Jewish children believed to be of camp age.” Most of these camps nationwide are at full capacity this summer, with long waiting lists

Gina Gross, a licensing consultant in Beverlywood, will have her two young daughters in summer activities such as day camp and art school for the older one, and swimming and ballet classes for her younger one. It’s affordable and within the budget she and husband have set, but Gross knows that many Jewish parents fret over being able to give their children meaningful summer memories.

“There are tons of people who have struggles with it,” Gross said. “What do you do with your kids for the summer? I think the struggle is for those parents who are not as well off. What can you do that doesn’t break the bank?”

More parents, slogging through California’s slow pull out of the nation’s economic slump, are applying for camp financial aid.

“It’s getting to be a stretch for more families. Our scholarship requests, like everybody else’s, have grown,” said Rabbi Daniel Greyber, executive director of the UJ’s Camp Ramah. “Fifteen, 20 years ago, summer camp had a certain Wild West feeling, it was fairly unregulated. And summer camps have been forced to conform, but there are costs associated with that.”

Like many synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple has a camp fund that distributes need-based scholarships selected by a committee, of which Reisz was a member.

Consider also an increased camp cost; while many businesses saw post-Sept. 11 insurance spikes, the cost of running summer camps jumped further in 2002 when insurance for all summer camps rose as a ripple effect of the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex scandal.

“It did not help us with our liability,” Kaplan said.

But if kids really want to go to Jewish summer camp, there is assistance.

“Parents are usually doing something with their kids [during summer], and it usually costs money,” Kaplan said. “It’s very rare that a kid doesn’t get to camp because of our not being able to meet the needs and scholarships.”

The Big Question


We’re now in the midst of a period called Bein HaMetzarim, a three-week period of national mourning for tragedies throughout Jewish history.

The most powerful of these tragedies was the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem; these three weeks culminate with Tisha B’Av, the day that commemorates this tragedy.

While growing up, I resented that the Bein HaMetzarim fell during summer vacation. The summer was when we were out of school, unfettered by school rules and homework. Why did the rabbis have to put a damper on a kid’s summer by sticking such a sorrowful period of three weeks smack in the middle? I especially disliked the rabbis for their ban on swimming during the nine days between the first of Av and Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av). You want to restrict my swimming? Do it in February — not during a searing August!

Part of the mourning process is the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) on the evening of Tisha B’Av (Aug. 6). This five-chapter dirge is Jeremiah’s moving account of the First Temple’s destruction. Eicha — how? — was the first word that Jeremiah used to describe the devastation. It expresses the horrified bewilderment of a person who has witnessed his entire world crumble all around him.

The Midrash (Torah commentary) introduces Eicha by noting that three prophets used the word: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance?” (Deuteronomy 1:12); Isaiah said, “Howhas the faithful city become a harlot?” (Isaiah 1:21); and Jeremiah said, “How does the city sit solitary?” (Lamentations 1:1).

Rabbi Levi said, “It may be likened to a matron who had three groomsmen: one beheld her in her happiness, a second beheld her in her infidelity and the third beheld her in her disgrace. Similarly, Moses beheld Israel in their glory and happiness … Isaiah beheld them in their infidelity … Jeremiah beheld them in their disgrace; and all three exclaimed, ‘eicha!'”

We can understand the connection between Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s “hows.” Isaiah was lamenting the Jews’ spiritual nadir shortly before the destruction of the Temple, while Jeremiah was lamenting the consequent destruction. But when Moses exclaimed “eicha,” he wasn’t lamenting at all. He led the Jews during their spiritual apex, hundreds of years before the Temple era. He was saying, “Wow! What a colossal people. How can I, humble Moses, possibly bear the brunt of this massive nation?”

He was a doting parent, kvelling at the spiritual, emotional and physical growth of his children over the course of 40 years in the desert. Why, then, does the Midrash tie his “how” with the other two?

The fact that Tisha B’Av falls in the summer is not just a stroke of bad luck. God deliberately destroyed the Temple in the summer. Summer, when the world is outside their closed homes and offices, taking vacations, having fun. Summer, when there is the greatest propensity for calamity, because of our carefree attitudes. This is why it’s worthwhile to take some time amid all the fun to contemplate our sad history; to remember that it was these good times that precipitated a carelessness in our spiritual devotion that escalated into the ultimate destruction.

What’s the last thing we do at a Jewish wedding, under the chuppah? Break the glass. We deliberately put a damper on our simcha (celebration), to remind ourselves that our intense happiness should be channeled toward productive spirituality, instead of the narcissistic gratification — prevalent in too many marriages today — that leads to so much destruction. One thought of the Temple is all it takes to put our joy in the proper perspective. God, then, is not being a killjoy; He’s just reminding us that our “summer fun” should be integrated with spirituality, not estranged from it. And that’s precisely why Moses shouted “eicha.” Remember, says Moses, use your joy and prosperity as tools in the service of God instead of tools for self-destruction.

I know it may be inconvenient to have Tisha B’Av during summer. It may interfere with your summer plans, be it a cruise, family getaway or just a day at the beach. But try to take some time to appreciate all the divine blessings in your life, and connect them to the tragedies that have occurred throughout history and still continue. Connect the “how” of a prosperous today to the “how” of yesterday’s persecutions. Break the proverbial glass this year on Tisha B’Av. Appreciate that our heaven-sent blessings are tools for coming closer to our Maker. If we do our job correctly, next summer we’ll get to swim on Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem.


Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehila at Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park.

For These Things, I Do Weep


This coming week begins “the nine days,” the period of intense mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, the fast of Av, which takes place on the following Thursday, July 18.

It is said that throughout history, during the nine days (and the current “three weeks” between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’av), terrible events befell the Jewish people. On the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the “three weeks,” for example, Moses smashed the tablets because he discovered Israel worshipping the Golden Calf; on that day years later, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, first by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. and then again by Titus in 70 C.E., resulting in the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Tisha B’av. Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’av: The nation was sentenced to wander the desert for 40 years because of the spies’ negative report on Israel; and the city of Beitar was conquered and destroyed by the Romans, an event considered “as great a tragedy as the destruction of the Temple,” according to commentators.

Tragic events also occurred in more modern times on Tisha B’av: In 1492 the Jews of Spain had to convert, leave the country or face torture; World War I also began on Tisha B’av.

For this reason, during the nine days, it is customary not to take unnecessary risks, such as swimming or boating, and as a symbol of mourning, cutting hair, shaving, eating meat, drinking wine, listening to music and other festive actions are forbidden as well.

I have spent most of my childhood summers in camp hearing terrible stories of what happened to people who took risks throughout the nine days, and still today, it is hard for me to shake the “Friday the 13th” foreboding feeling that something terrible will happen during this period.

It could be anything — another suicide bombing, a failed military operation, a synagogue torched, a guy lighting his shoe on fire. Even the horrors unnamed now seem possible, particularly after reading last month’s New York Times Magazine article “Nuclear Nightmare” laying out the scenarios for nuclear attacks.

Looking at the state of affairs today, many would agree that this is the worst period in the Jews’ recent history, and America’s as well. Certainly, during my lifetime, it seems that we are in the “nine days” of our times. Anti-Semitism is spreading like a virus in Europe, anti-Israel sentiments are growing in America (if college campuses are any indication as noted on the story on page 11), the Middle East situation is deteriorating with no real end in sight and democracy is seemingly losing the battle throughout the world. It is hard to shake an apocalyptic apprehension that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Al eileh, ani bochiya. “For these things, I do weep” (1:16) laments the verse in Eichah (the book of Lamentations), which we read on Tisha B’av while sitting on the floor, or, as we used to do in camp, marching somberly down to the lake, guided by torchlight, to hear the sad, plaintive melody of the book’s description of the destruction of Jerusalem:


Eichah yashvah badad
ha’ir rabati am haytah k’almanah
rabati bagoyim sarati ba’medinot
hayta lamas.

“How lonely sits the city, one so full of people, one great among nations has become like a widow, one’s princess among states has become like a vassal [slave].” (1:1)

Even if you don’t believe, it is hard to deny the aptness of the verses:


Bacho tivkeh balaylah
v’dimatah al lechiah
ayn lah menachem mikol ohavehah
kol re’ehah bagdu bah
hayu lah le’oyvim.

“Bitterly she [Jerusalem] weeps in the night, tears upon her cheeks, she has no one to comfort her out of all her friends, all her friends have betrayed her and become her foes.” (1:2)

As a people — and we still are a people, no matter how fractious and disparate we have become — it seems that at times like these, we will gather, fast, and pray, collectively reciting the last verse of Lamentations (which is not, as my father jokes, is, “The fast will be over at 9:15,”) but the poignant prayer:

Hashiveynu hashem eilecha v’nashuva chadesh yameinu kikedem.

Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. (5:21)

Here’s the good news: The Talmud states that after the coming of the Messiah, during the period of redemption, Tisha B’av, once a day of intense mourning, will be a day of intense celebration and joy, the happiest in the Jewish calendar because the Temple will be restored. With the state of Israel’s creation and fruition, some have said that that era is now, and Tisha B’av should already be made a day of celebration. Yet given the current situation in Israel, that belief seems premature.

But perhaps one day soon it will be so, for even though we have many things upon which to weep, we pray for redemption:

“Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. ”

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