Study: Nazi propaganda had lifelong effect on many Germans


Germans who grew up during the 1930s are far more likely than their younger countrymen to have negative attitudes about Jews, according to a new study of anti-Semitism in Germany.

The study, released Monday by American and Swiss researchers, found that anti-Semitic views were particularly strong among Germans raised in regions of the country that were known for anti-Semitism even before Hitler came to power, The Associated Press reported.

According to the researchers, who analyzed surveys conducted in 1996 and 2006, the findings indicated that Nazi propaganda was highly effective, especially when it confirmed existing beliefs.

“It’s not just that Nazi schooling worked, that if you subject people to a totalitarian regime during their formative years it will influence the way their mind works,” Hans-Joachim Voth of the University of Zurich, one of the study’s authors, told AP. “The striking thing is that it doesn’t go away afterward.”

Voth added that the propaganda was particularly effective when “the overall environment where children grew up was already a bit anti-Semitic. It tells you that indoctrination can work, it can last to a surprising extent, but the way it works has to be compatible to something people already believe.”

Self Esteem


I will use my old friend Richard Gunther’s accompanying letter as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the self-esteem movement.

First to some specifics in his letter, which can be read in full on page 7.

“True self-esteem comes from a personal recognition of a job well done — of a life well lived.”

Agreed. But the self-esteem movement is about self-esteem that has nothing to do with “a job well done.” Kids are given sports trophies for merely playing, not for a job well done. That is phony and unearned self-esteem. And self-esteem that is unearned is as worthless as happiness that is unearned (people who earn $60,000 a year are happier than people who win millions in a lottery).

“This aim of doing good works is the goal (of the self-esteem movement).”

That was the announced goal of the self-esteem movement. It is also its key fallacy. The movement is based on the false premise that self-esteem leads to good works. It doesn’t. 

If you don’t believe me, here are some experts.

Writing in The New York Times, one of its science writers, Erica Goode, wrote: 

“ ‘D’ students, it turns out, think as highly of themselves as valedictorians, and serial rapists are no more likely to ooze with insecurities than doctors or bank managers.”

Goode further notes: “Jennifer Crocker, a psychologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, argues that … ‘The pursuit of self-esteem … ultimately divert[s] people from fulfilling their fundamental human needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy and lead[s] to poor self-regulation and mental and physical health.’ ”

Self-esteem not only doesn’t lead to good acts, it often leads to bad ones. Roy Baumeister, a Florida State University professor of psychology who has devoted much of his professional life to studying violent criminals, told me on my radio show, and has written repeatedly, that violent criminals have particularly high self-esteem.

And in an extensive review of relevant studies, Nicholas Emler, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics, found that high self-esteem, “was positively correlated with racist attitudes, drunken driving and other risky behaviors.” 

In short, the self-esteem movement is based on nonsense when it posits that self-esteem leads to responsible behavior. On the contrary, thanks to it, we are producing a generation of self-satisfied, unproductive narcissists.

I suspect none of this will matter to Richard Gunther or to any of the millions of others who believe in the importance of self-esteem. But those who believe in the importance of self-esteem might want to engage in this experiment: Ask the individuals whose ethical and moral character you most respect, the people you most admire for their integrity and goodness, if they had high self-esteem when they were children. When virtually none of them answers “yes,” will you still believe that self-esteem in children is morally significant?

Based on the scientific evidence and on my own experiences in life, I have become convinced that self-esteem in children is actually a bad sign. When I meet a child or a teenager with high self-esteem, I worry for them and, more importantly, I worry for those who will come into contact with them.

In this regard I will briefly — and, admittedly, self-consciously — respond to Richard Gunther’s assessment of me: “I have known Dennis for many years, and he has an ample supply of self-esteem.”

The truth is that I never suffered from high self-esteem. I have long had self-confidence with regard to specific abilities. But I had little self-esteem as a child, and as an adult, I have earned whatever self-esteem I have. Moreover, in the depths of my soul I believe that the janitors in my building are not one whit less worthy or valuable than me. From the earliest age, I assimilated the Jewish view that we are all created in God’s image, all infinitely precious. And I see myself as being as answerable to the same God and to the same Torah as any of my fellow Jews. 

The Torah describes Moses as “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Clearly Moses had the self-confidence needed to confront the Pharaoh, and lead the Jewish people. But, as the verse suggests, it is doubtful that he had high self-esteem.

The self-esteem movement has caused great damage. It has been just one more expression of an age that values feelings more than behavior. And, yes, just one more example of another naïve and therefore destructive progressive idea.

If you want to make good human beings, ignore their self-esteem and be preoccupied with their self-control. Another good Jewish and conservative idea. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Natalie Portman and the psychology behind ‘Black Swan’


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Theater: De-fusing ‘Random Sharp Objects’


In the semi-autobiographical play “Random Sharp Objects,” two Jewish women engage in a kind of impromptu psychoanalysis session. Hali (Hali Morell) describes growing up with a hippie-therapist Dad who talked too frankly about sex. As an adult, she says, she was drawn to a series of disturbed men she hoped she could “save,” including homeless men and a skinhead who taped quarters to her floor.

Esther (Esther Friedman), who is half black and half Jewish, recounts how her mother once beat her for playing house with an African American classmate and advised her to spurn black men because they “only want to get into your pants.” Esther felt frightened by black men who called out to her in the street: “I built a white picket fence around myself,” she says in the play. “I’ll be walking to my car, and they yell out at me. And I’ll flash back my ‘look.’ It’s called, ‘Back the f— up. Don’t come any closer. Don’t even ask me my name because I will cut your b– — off.”

“Objects” began four years ago when Friedman, who is in her 30s, wrote a solo show to explore why she wouldn’t even speak to black men, much less date them. When she brought her work-in-progress to director Frank Megna at the Working Stage Theater, he suggested she develop extra scenes with Morell.

“I thought both women had a similar dynamic about how their pasts had influenced their relationships,” he says.

The artists talked frankly about themselves as they improvised parts of the show. Morell — now happily married — remembered how she’d seek out “the troubled guys and try to be that ‘special’ person who could make them come around.” Although she never dated a homeless man, she was drawn to “bums who looked kind of attractive, like they could have been from the 1960s. I found myself wondering, ‘How did they get there,’ and I’d want to get to know that person.”

Friedman described how confused she felt about her diverse identities. On the one hand, her grandmother encouraged her to “pass” as white; on the other, she was perceived as black (and thus, alien) at Hebrew school. Her mother forced her to attend, stating that “Jesus was Jewish, and so are you.”

“All the kids and their moms would stare at us when we arrived,” Esther says in the play. “I asked, ‘Mommy, why are they looking at us like that?’…. The kids made fun of me and said I wasn’t a real Jew.”

The play has proved cathartic for both actresses. “I kept many of these stories secret for years, because they were so painful,” Friedman says. “But keeping secrets can kill your spirit.”

“Random Sharp Objects” runs through Oct. 20 at the Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 851-2603.

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.

Affluent Teens: Do polished exteriors hide impoverished interiors?


Adolescence.

The mere thought of it strikes fear in the heart of many a parent.
A tumultuous time of intellectual, physical and moral growth, adolescence can be wondrous, exciting … and terrifying. Teens and their parents find themselves negotiating every rule — “Sara’s mother lets her stay out until midnight on school nights!” — each desperately trying to decipher the other’s actions, a futile endeavor that often ends when the teen shouts: “You just don’t understand me!”

Yet these interactions, parents are told, are part of the normal struggle for autonomy and independence inherent in the teen years. While some of this angst can become fodder for entertainment — dramatic and/or comic — this “developmentally appropriate” stage can also trigger a host of psychological problems, particularly depression, substance abuse, aggression and anxiety.

The incidence of psychological problems in teens has been increasing at an alarming rate over the last decade, recent research suggests, especially in a specific — and some say surprising — segment of the population.

Nationwide studies of teens from upper-middle-class, well-educated families show they have some of the highest rates of substance abuse, anxiety disorders, depression and psychosomatic complaints of any group of adolescents.

In her recent book, “The Price of Privilege,” psychologist Madeline Levine explores these problems through the lens of her clinical practice and a rich body of research, offering sound guidance for both individual and cultural change. The result is a deeply compassionate, insightful, alarming yet hopeful exploration of what Levine defines as “a growing public health concern.”

Not surprisingly, in her 25 years of clinical practice Levine has always seen what she calls “a lot of unhappy kids.” But in the mid-1990s she noticed changes in her clients’ presentation. Instead of showing classic signs of depression — disregard for personal appearance, a drop in grades, a change in or loss of friends — her new patients were “well-groomed, popular, played sports and often maintained their grades, but they had a vacant, bland, anhedonic quality,” Levine said in an interview. In short, these kids took no joy from their lives.

A number of factors came together in the 1990s that set the stage for this change, Levine said, among them baby boomers having families of their own, creating a new “boomlet” of kids competing for limited space at elite schools — both public and private. And although research shows no correlation between the particular college one attends and life-long happiness or earning power, Levine said, parents developed a heightened sense that a successful life is dependent upon early achievement and the advantages of a status education.

Parenting styles had changed, as well. Baby boomers who grew up in the “do your own thing” 1960s have “more ambivalence about discipline,” Levine said. “Parents want to be friends with their kids; they can’t tolerate the rupture with their children that occurs with discipline and limit-setting.”

In addition, the heady financial years of the 1980s ushered in an era of unprecedented national wealth and a culture that glorifies materialism, which, Levine said, “encourages people to believe that happiness can be bought.” Add to this the “hand of capitalism,” seen in the developing industry that feeds on parent’s anxieties by publicizing college rankings and packaging test prep courses, college tours and counseling, and you’ve got what Levine refers to as “a perfect storm.”

In 2002, Levine had a particularly revelatory experience with one client: A teenage girl arrived at Levine’s office wearing a typical “cutter T-shirt” — long sleeves pulled down over her wrists, holes cut out for the thumbs. She spoke for a while, then pulled back her sleeve to reveal the word “empty” incised in her forearm. Naturally the girl’s self-mutilation disturbed Levine; it also, she said, “epitomized the dangerous shift I’d seen taking place, in which kids look incredibly good on the surface, but roll back their sleeve — metaphorically — and you see they’re bleeding.”

At around the same time, a number of researchers were examining thousands of affluent families across the country. Columbia University’s Dr. Suniya Luthar, in particular, quantified the very phenomena Levine and others had been observing with their own clients. As cited in Levine’s book, Luthar’s research was startling: Among teens in affluent families, girls are three times more likely to suffer clinical depression than girls from any other socioeconomic group, and boys, who tend to externalize their discontent, have substantially higher rates of substance abuse than any other group of teens. In addition, both girls and boys experience anxiety disorders at twice the rate of the general population, and approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of teens from affluent homes exhibit symptoms of “significant emotional impairment.”

The confluence of her client’s disturbing revelation and the new research “helped crystallize my thoughts,” said Levine, prompting her to explore a series of related questions: Why would affluent teens — the very kids who seem to “have it all” — be more prone to emotional problems than kids from other socioeconomic groups? What are we doing as parents, and as a culture, that drives our kids to such desperate behaviors? And perhaps most importantly, what can we do to reverse the trend?

Affluent parents often “pay a lopsided attention to two facets of development — academics and athletics — while underemphasizing other areas of growth such as social skills, altruism, self-management skills and creativity,” Levine said. Without the freedom to explore a range of their interests and abilities, teens are deprived of crucial steps necessary to develop a healthy, authentic identity.

By offering material goods to assuage problems — a practice Levine said is common among busy, often guilt-ridden parents — parents prevent their children from developing “their own inner resources for managing distress, which will provide a safety net when they are struggling.”

Without these resources in self-management, teens become anxious and therefore are more likely to resort to self-destructive behaviors — often progressing from excessive perfectionism and depression to drug use and cutting — when faced with life’s inevitable disappointments and frustrations.

I challenged karma, but did the karma win?


Contrary to what the polls say, California must be the most religious state in the union. Now that Pluto’s gone, it should be classified as its own planet.

I remember when I first realized this. I’d been living here for less than a year, and I was in a car with three other women.


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Jewish Singles Cruises

“So who were you in your past life?” one said matter-of-factly as she drove, as if she were asking us where we wanted to go for dinner.

The other women answered right away: Marie Antoinette, or a man, or something indubitably better than their current commonplace existence, although I can’t exactly recall what. What I do remember is that in answering, they didn’t lose a beat; they didn’t even have to think about the question. It was ready, there, waiting, like the answer to “what’s your name?” or “what do you do?”

“Who were you?”

Then they waited for my answer.

See, I’m the type of person who’s hardly sure some days of who I am, and I spend much of my time contemplating who I’m going to be (somebody, please!), so until that point, I’d never considered who I was, unless it was in the context of the ’90s or ’80s or some other bad hair decade, when I was actually alive, i.e. this time around.

“Uh, I don’t know if I believe in past lives” is what I said after a few moments.

Silence. There was incredulity while they paused to think about how, if I’m confined only to modern, Western psychology then this thing I’m living right here and now — ignominious and penurious — this life is all there is for me, I must be a pathetic and pitiable creature.

I’ve now have been living in Los Angeles for five years, and the hippie-dippie-yoga-Pilates-karma-kabbalah-astrology-Burning Man-surfer-superstitious-psychic-feng shui-acupuncturist-vegetarian ethos has invaded my life. (I’m embarrassed to say I practice some of the above now.)

These days, I barely blink when someone tosses off a New-Ageism like, “This world is just practice to repair your soul,” which would be a conversational bomb anywhere else in the country. I hardly react to the fact that the moon is in retrograde (why I lose money), that my chakras are off (why I’m sad) and that my adrenals are low (why I’m not sleeping).

Yet when it comes to dating, sometimes the New Age is hard to swallow.

Consider the latest buzzword on the New Age scene: “manifest.” Not the adjective that modifies “destiny” and the very prescient concept of American conquest of others’ lands, but a retooling of the transitive verb: “You manifest what comes to you.” If you put it out there in the universe, the universe will “answer.

You want success? You must manifest it. You simply must ask the universe for it, open your soul to it, and it will come. (I think you might have to work for it, too, but I’m not sure how much.) You want a boyfriend? You have to manifest it.

Is this philosophy just another excuse for blaming the victim? Am I single because I’m not open to dating? Am I not manifesting enough?

And yet it’s hard to resist the New Age, the principle that I get what I deserve, that bad karma smacks you in the face like a boomerang, that the guy I never called back means there will be another guy who’s not going to call me back someday, and it will be directly related. That you get what you put out there.

Maybe it’s my fault then that I recently manifested a hippie. I put it out there in the universe that I wasn’t very interested in all the traditional (boring) career-minded guys. That I didn’t care much for being settled, for wealth or material goods. And poof! Like a wish from a genie bottle, I meet a traveling Jewish hippie. He’s kind and loving, romantic — in a Hollywood-lead type of way, just not as clean. Oh, and also a little flaky.
Wait, that’s a judgment, my hippie would say. He prefers to see himself as spontaneous and unplanned.

“I have to see what tomorrow will feel like,” he’ll say if I ask him what he’s doing.

I nod sagely, but this is the point where the New Age leaves me wanting. Why does everything have to be so mysterious? For example: My hippie can leave when he makes his ticket out of here; he’ll have children if he decides to impregnate someone, and in five years, he’ll be exactly where he directs himself.

I hate to sound the cynic, like a friend’s father who once bellowed: “You want to find yourself? You’re right here!” And yet there’s something about this New Ageism that sounds strangely familiar to me: “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”; “All things happen for a reason….”

Wait a minute! Didn’t Rabbi Akiba say that? Gam zu l’tova — this, too, is for the best? Isn’t the idea that your soul is repaired through this world a Jewish concept?

That’s what bothers me. New Ageism is comforting because it’s a religion. It’s a way to exert control over a life that is, for the most part, uncontrollable.

The problem with New Ageism is it’s religion-lite. It tries to provide a superficial panacea to deeper, more painful problems. It’s a Band-Aid for open-heart surgery.

When it comes to dating — to life, really — there are no easy answers. Our own prophet, Job, knew that sometimes suffering had no purpose, that not everything happens for a reason. I can’t say that the Torah is the first place I look when it comes to dating advice, but I’d rather rely on my own religious upbringing than on one that’s been cobbled together by a bunch of peripatetic Angelenos searching for an easy out.

I know the New Age is popular right now, and if I’m not open to it, the universe won’t be open to me. But that’s one chance I’m willing to take.

Manifest that!

Playing Those ‘Mind Games’


Marc Salem can “read” the serial numbers on a bill in your wallet, stop his own pulse and guess a word you’ve picked from a book.

Striding about the stage with a mischievous smile, eyebrows waggling, he seems to pluck audience members’ names and personal information out of thin air. He knows your dog’s name, where you’ve been on vacation and exactly the sights you’ve seen. With large coins and four layers of surgical tape shielding his eyes (plus a blindfold thrown in for good measure), he identifies items audience members hold under his hands.

One elderly man gaped when the performer guessed he was visualizing his fancy new cane.

“Salem is able … not only to identify an object as someone’s driver’s license or business card, but correctly identify the owner’s address,” The New York Times said in a review of his show, “Mind Games,” which comes to Thousand Oaks on June 14. “The audience gasps in astonishment. The whispers of ‘How, How?’ bounce off the walls.”

What sets him apart from fellow mental conjurers such as Derren Brown, other critics have noted, is his unassuming manner, his ability to deflect errors with a joke and his sense of humor. (“Focus on the middle of my forehead,” the portly artist tells a woman during a recent show. “It’s connected to the back of my neck.”)

Avuncular and balding, he seems more like your favorite Jewish uncle than, say, a flashy magician like David Copperfield. But his confidence is unabashed as he offers $100,000 to anyone who can prove he “cheats” by using hidden cameras or audience plants.

So far, not even “60 Minutes” host Mike Wallace — America’s Grand Inquisitor — has snagged the cash. On a 2005 segment of that show, Wallace appeared chagrined, then amazed, as Salem moved the newsman’s watch forward a half hour.

“Damn, you got me!” Wallace blurted.

A physician from the audience appeared befuddled while checking Salem’s pulse: “You’ve just passed away,” he said.

Wallace finally concedes that Salem’s tricks are “mind-boggling,” a description that has been used by critics from the Daily Telegraph to the Washington Post.

Just don’t call the performer, who is an observant Jew, a “mind-reader.”

“That implies what I do falls in the realm of the supernatural or the occult,” Salem told Jewish Family from his Manhattan home, sounding more serious than his stage persona. “But my primary goal is to entertain. I’m not a psychic or seer. I don’t levitate, hypnotize or go to the dark side. I don’t predict the future or talk to the dead. I don’t think those things even exist.”

Has he ever worried that his act ventures into the realm of ruach hatumah (evil spirits)?

“I neither place it in the realm of good or bad spirits, but in the arena of science and psychology,” he says. “So the question is irrelevant.”

Salem can’t pry secrets from one’s unconscious, but he can focus on a thought a person is having, and even manipulate that thought using natural means, he says.

The 50-something performer is a trained psychologist with a doctorate focusing on nonverbal communication. He’s so good at it he trains police and FBI agents how to tell when a suspect is lying.

“Every thought has some kind of physical manifestation, such as gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, the silences between words,” he says.

His skills are hardly magic, given that just 7 percent of human communication is accomplished through words (body language and characteristics of the voice constitute the other 93 percent, Mele Koneya and Alton Barbour wrote in 1976’s “Louder Than Words: Nonverbal Communication”). Salem says he can pick up an expression that lasts just a fraction of a second. “But there’s nothing I do that can’t be accomplished by a 10-year-old with 30 years’ training,” he says in his show.

It was this disclaimer, in part, that led Rabbi Moshe Bryski to hire the artist to perform at Chabad of the Conejo’s benefit at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza June 14. But Bryski was initially wary when a colleague recommended Salem in fall 2005. Bryski says he assumed the performer was a magician, and Chabad rabbis aren’t particularly fond of adult magic shows.

“Magic existed in biblical times,” Bryski says, citing how Pharaoh’s magicians turned staffs into snakes in the book of Exodus. “But the Torah outlaws it [because] it can lead to idol worship — idolizing the person who performs the magic.”

He changed his mind — and found his Jewish connection to Salem — after watching the artist on “60 Minutes.” “Chasidism teaches that thoughts are one of the garments of the soul, and that they are tangible, creating a certain kind of energy,” the rabbi says. “What Marc is able to do is to tune into this aspect of thought; to use his skills to entertain and to teach.”

Salem (born Moshe Botwinick) has been tuning in since he was a yeshiva bocher, the son of an Orthodox rabbi who led a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia. He says he always knew where the afikomen was hidden on Passover and the contents of Chanukah gifts before he unwrapped them. He once found his mother’s red hat amid piles of boxes when the family moved to a new house on the shul’s property: “She subconsciously knew where it was, and she must have given off a nonverbal cue when I touched the right box,” he explains.

Salem believes his father used the same hypersensitivity to counsel the congregants who streamed in and out of the family home. “But he couldn’t shut it off,” Salem recalls. “He constantly felt other people’s pain, and ultimately it killed him.”

Rabbi Botwinick died after suffering his third heart attack at 41, when Moshe was just 16.

A red flag went up for the teenager. He says he, too, had been exquisitely aware of others’ angst and felt exhausted by his sensitivities, which “created this buzzing, blooming universe, perhaps not unlike the discomfort experienced by people with attention deficit disorder. I knew I had to learn to tune out or I would get sick or go insane.”

Rather than following his own calling to become a rabbi, he decided to channel his skills — and his fascination with the human mind — into the less personal arenas of theater and academia. (He is still an observant Jew who keeps kosher and attends an Orthodox synagogue.)

He worked his way through graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and New York University by performing at parties.

“I changed my name because I didn’t want people asking me to find their lost husbands or lost dogs,” he says. “I became a psychologist, but I’ve never taken a patient. I do no guidance or counseling.”

Instead, he served as a research director for “Sesame Street,” taught at several universities and continued to perform at private and corporate gigs. It was at one such event that he was “discovered” by a producer who brought his show, “Mind Games,” off-Broadway in 1997, to critical and popular acclaim. When a New York City police commissioner saw the act, he hired Salem as a consultant.

The performer went on to serve as a human lie detector for legal firms, the FBI, police and media outlets, between theatrical appearances. While consulting on the O.J. Simpson case, he noted that the accused murderer closed his eyes while stating he was “1,000 percent not guilty.”

“That’s an infantile response to lying,” Salem says. “The tell-tale shuttering of the eyes is not unlike the child who often feels if he can’t see you, you can’t see him, either.

“With even the most practiced liar, there is going to be some nonverbal leakage,” he adds. “But the cues must be read together, as a language. Placing a hand over one’s mouth could mean someone is lying, or it could mean he feels he has bad breath.”

Salem easily caught Wallace in a lie on “60 Minutes.” He had asked the host and five other audience members to draw a picture and to shuffle them, as he turned his back and merrily said, “mix, mix, mix, mix.” He then selected one of the images, a nuclear explosion, and asked each participant to deny having drawn it. When Wallace looked about and said “uh-uh” instead of “no,” Salem declared him the artist.

The nonverbal communication expert also found an envelope the newsman had hidden in Central Park, in part by feeling the resistance in Wallace’s hand as they traversed the area.

“Whoa,” Wallace said.

“You helped more than you wanted to,” Salem replied.

 

10 Ways to Pick a Liar

1. Know what to pay attention to. Liars will often look away from you as soon as they finish speaking.

2. Most liars appear to make eye contact, but are really looking at your nose or cheek. You can tell the difference but they don’t know it. Some over do it by constantly staring at you.

3. Normally, while lying, they will scratch their chin, ear or side of the nose or jaw.

4. Listen for a rise or fall in pitch or register, especially if it is quickly corrected. When a voice changes from low to high and then back to low, something is probably wrong with what is being said.

5. People who are uncomfortable will often ask to hear the question again, as they try to formulate a false answer. The truth does not require much thought.

6. Quite often a person who is lying will keep their fist closed and/or their arms crossed.

7. Sometimes the pupils of the eyes contract during a lie, due to stress.

8. To detect a lie, watch the skin around the eyes. If the skin tightens (with tension) there is a good chance the speaker is lying.

9. Liars will often shift their weight from foot to foot, if standing.

10. Watch for hand gestures that seem to be more or less animated than normal.

Presented by Chabad of the Conejo and The Friendship Circle (tickets $25-$150), visit www.SalemMindGames.com.

 

The Best Presents: Ritual and Repetition


During my family’s annual Thanksgiving beach road trip this year, my kids showed remarkable stamina for tolerating monotony as they watched the “Rugrats’ Chanukah” video 12 times in a row. I was about to inquire how they could manage to consistently laugh like fiends each time they saw Stu dress up like Latke Man, but stopped short upon realizing that they could easily turn the question back on me. You see, I’m no stranger to repetition myself, having managed to spend Thanksgiving on Hilton Head Island every year since I was in first grade.

My family always looks forward to our November return to South Carolina — where we unfailingly celebrate the holiday on Friday rather than Thursday — and to having fishing and sandcastle competitions and playing charades late into the night. But this annual pilgrimage represents far more to my kids than just fun. It is the makings of their greatest memories, the links between past, present and future, and the safety net that is woven out of knowing that no matter how crazy their world may feel the other 51 weeks of the year, they will spend that one glorious week, which happens to include the third Thursday in November, embedded in the familiar, the mundane, the beautiful traditions that weave our lives together year in and year out.

No wonder many psychologists believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not the grand black-tie events — that our children find the sense of stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. In other words, even if your kid is convinced that the only present he wants for Chanukah is a new, updated video-game system to replace the his old new, updated video-game system, you can rest assured that he really wants something else. This Chanukah, give your kids an extra present — one that will last far longer than the batteries in their hot new toys. Here are ideas for eight nights of rituals to help you begin to weave a lasting emotional safety net for your families, leaving them feeling as warm as the menorah’s glowing flames and strong as the courageous Maccabees for many Chanukahs to come.

Treasure Hunt Night: Make a treasure map for your kids to follow in order to find their loot for the night.

Tzedakah Night: Give your children a set amount to spend and take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child. Let them personally deliver it to a children’s hospital, homeless shelter or charity drop-off point.

Latke-Making Night: Whether it is peeling, washing or frying, making latkes is almost as much fun for kids as eating them.

Homemade Present Night: By stocking up on art supplies, having each family member draw a name and proceed to make a special gift for that person, you create a tradition as meaningful as it is messy.

Dreidel Showdown Night: Your family will have a “geltload” of fun taking part in an annual family dreidel tournament.

Big Present Night: OK, I may catch some flack on this one, but I support this unabashedly materialistic ritual, nonetheless.

Book Night: Reserve this night for exchanging hot reads and follow up with family reading time.

Friends and Family Night: The stories and memories swapped on this night will ultimately mean far more to your kids than the presents that will undoubtedly swapped, as well.

Sharon Estroff is a nationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist. She is a mother of four and an award-winning teacher with degrees in education and psychology. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?: The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids,” will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, in 2007.

 

PhD on the Flying Trapeze


You’re on the flying trapeze, gliding fearlessly through the air. Keeping you aloft, 30 feet above gaping spectators, are your trusted teammates. Today, your welfare is in their hands. Tomorrow they’ll go back to being — the guys from accounting?

On that premise, Edy Greenblatt has built a new Southern California-based business.

Greenblatt is best known in Los Angeles as an energetic, knowledgeable folk dance teacher. But in search of a more stable career, she studied organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, in a joint doctoral program involving Harvard’s graduate schools of psychology and sociology. Her doctoral research on stress in the workplace took her to a string of Club Meds — the better to investigate worker burnout.

At a Club Med in Florida, she first caught glimpse of a flying trapeze. It was love at first flight.

The 30-something Greenblatt saw “the most powerful tool for professional and personal transformation.” Now, as president and “chief flying officer” of five-year-old Execu-Care Coaching and Consulting, she helps corporate managers hone communication and leadership skills by teaching them the knee-hang and the back-flip dismount from a bar swinging 30 feet off the ground.

It’s not as terrifying as it sounds. Everyone wears a safety harness, and there’s a net below. Greenblatt’s staffers, who do the actual catching each time you fly through the air, have logged 10,000 hours of training and coaching time.

The trapeze requires intense collaboration, so the corporate execs build trust and self-confidence, which makes them more effective at work. That’s the theory anyway.

At the very least, the experience fulfills many a childhood circus fantasy, and it’s a deductible business expense.

The Chicago-born Greenblatt originally came to Los Angeles at 17 to pursue her passion for international folkdance, studying dance ethnology at UCLA and teaching dance all over the place. But eventually it dawned on her that leading novices through “Dodi Li” was no way for a nice Jewish girl to make a living. She also recognized that, as a dance leader, “I was spending my life fixing the damage caused by work and life.” Rather than struggling to restore people’s psyches through dance, she vowed to help transform the workplace that saps so many souls.

That led her to Harvard for her academic credentials and eventually to the trapeze.

In a way, she’s come full circle. In high school, she sold peanuts and Cokes when Ringling Bros. came to town. When they moved on, she was sorely tempted to go with them. Now she uses circus tricks to teach the desk-bound how to soar.

For information, call (626) 644-7745 or edy@execu-care.com.

 

The Love Impaired


 

You remember the famous line from “Forrest Gump”? “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

The other day, it suddenly hit me. I’m the anti-Forrest Gump. I am a smart man (or at least I test well) but I don’t think I know what love is at all. There is nothing I find as confusing. Programming my VCR is child’s play by comparison.

Recently, I was thinking of a former girlfriend, so I called her up. We had a great conversation, and after I got off the phone, I was really wondering, “Now why did we break up again?” And then I remembered. “Ohhhhhhhhh — yeah, that was a good reason.”

But it really got me to thinking, what is love anyway?

I bet you thought I was going to answer that question, didn’t you? Well, I can’t. That’s the point. I don’t know. I’m 37 and single. I’m a relationship moron. I’m romantically impaired. I don’t know what I’m doing — at all.

And it’s not just me. No sirree Bob. We are an entire generation of the love impaired. It seems especially bad for folks in their 30s and 40s, and even worse if you’re Jewish. I’m not quite sure why this is, but I have seen polls on the subject. In this epidemic of unmarried singles, it seems Jews have caught the bug worse than other ethnic groups.

And it extends to the observant world, too. Sure, plenty of them are married at 22 and have 18 kids by the time they’re 30, but there are also others who are having the same problems their secular brethren are having. This epidemic goes across the entire religious spectrum. Believe me, it’s not just your mom, who’s noticed. The rabbis have, too.

I went to a singles event a few weeks ago at a synagogue that illustrated this problem really well. The rabbi was asking why young people (and not-so-young people) were having such a problem getting married. He was really mystified. It seemed pretty simple to him:

You meet a girl you like and you marry her. One guy stood up and gave such a perfect answer, it seared into my memory, perhaps permanently: “Well, I meet a girl and like her and she doesn’t like me. Or a girl likes me and I don’t like her. Or we go out and it doesn’t work.”

It’s almost poetry, isn’t it? Well maybe not, but it does seem to sum up the state of things pretty well.

I wonder if we could get this problem classified as a real disability. Maybe it’s like a learning disability. After all, learning to love someone besides yourself is something that people are supposed to learn in adulthood. You can check. It’s in developmental psychology. I took a course.

If not being able to sit still and concentrate is called Attention Deficit Disorder, and not being able to read is called dyslexia, what would you call not being able to love? LDD: Love Deficit Disorder? No, that sounds like a shortage. How about the same initials but different words: Love Development Disorder. That might be it, except it probably sounds too similar to learning disabled. I don’t know.

But, before we go looking for solutions to this problem, maybe it would be worthwhile to take a look at past generations. Why was it so easy for them anyway? Maybe it was because they had matchmakers and arranged marriages. It used to be that your parents would arrange a match for you and, unless you found your intended completely repulsive, you married them. Boom. Just like that.

This brings me to my grandparents. After fighting in World War I, my grandpa, Danny, stayed in Europe to try to get his family out of Russia. Not surprisingly, however, he couldn’t even get in the country, because the Russian Revolution was going on full steam. Here’s where it gets romantic: Poor Danny, stuck in Warsaw, met my grandma, Ina, and was struck by a thunderbolt. Times being the way they were, instead of having a tempestuous affair, they were quickly married and Danny brought her back to New York.

Now, this should be where they live happily ever after, right? Wrong. After a few months, Danny must have done something pretty bad, because according to family lore, Ina got ticked off, packed up and went back to Warsaw. So how is it that I’m telling this story? Because instead of welcoming her back home with open arms and soothing words, my great-grandmother wouldn’t let her in.

“Go back to your husband. Stop behaving like a child. You’re married now!” she yelled as she slammed the door in Ina’s face (or so the family legend goes).

What does this tell us about love? I don’t know. I’m the love moron, remember? But from both these stories, it seems the emphasis was much more on keeping the family together, than on being in love. That, and once you were married, that was it. At least, that’s how it sounds.

But how does this help me, The Love Idiot? Should I call my mother, ask her to find a girl for me and marry her if she doesn’t make me puke at the first meeting? You know, I’m actually starting to consider it.

 

Playing at Pollard


Playwright Martin Blank confesses he has an affinity for spy
stories. It was this attraction that drew him to a book about great American
espionage cases a few years ago — and to the story of Jonathan Pollard, an
American Jew who received a life sentence in 1987 for passing documents to Israel.

“I immediately thought … this was a play,” he said. Six
months later, he said he had “this massive attack of realization that I had a
real responsibility toward telling this story.”

Blank spent about two years researching and writing “The
11th Hour,” based on true events. While the world premiere is scheduled for the
Center Stage Theatre in Jerusalem in late May, the play is now being read
locally at Valley Cities and Westside JCCs on Feb. 8 and 9, respectively. The
JCC readings star Edward Asner, Bruce Nozick and Allen Williams, and are
produced and directed by Alexandra More, artistic producing director of the
Celebrity Staged Play Reading Series.

Asner knows the Pollard story well. He’s also performed
readings of “Bitter Friends,” a Pollard-based play in which pseudonyms were
used. In comparing the two, Asner praised Blank’s more straightforward version.
“I think it’s a much braver position that the author has taken in this one,” he
said.

“The 11th Hour” presents an analysis of Pollard’s
psychology, focusing on Pollard’s point of view from the time he decides to spy
for Israel, culminating in his capture and confession. It’s an approach that
steers away from much of the controversy — what some call Pollard’s harsh
sentencing given the circumstances — and yet it may not avoid it completely.

By humanizing Pollard, Blank’s play may draw some criticism
from those who feel he should be viewed simply as a traitor.

“Everyone has an almost irrational response to the guy,”
Blank said, admitting to being sympathetic toward Pollard. “Jay Pollard is a
tragic character and the play is a tragedy. It cannot be anything but. Whether
you sympathize with him or you don’t, he’s a tragic character.”