Serenity now — inside and out


Breathe.

Yes, take a breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Variety of books pave way for understanding kabbalah


Historically, rabbis have proclaimed that in order to study kabbalah, one has to be a learned Jewish man older than of 40. So imagine how surprised those rabbis would be today if they could peruse a modern bookstore: There are now a plethora of tomes on the subject, making kabbalah available to the layperson — male, female, Jew and non-Jew — the dummy and idiot alike (which is it better to be?).

The orange “Complete Idiot’s Guide,” the yellow “For Dummies” and the white “Everything” series all have come out with guides to Kabbalah, contributing to the pop phenomenon of making the topic as ubiquitous as the Ten Commandments.

Four new books (certainly more are on the way) all promote the idea that Kabbalah is now ready for mass consumption, and the old prohibition against the layman’s studying is past its prime. The books, each with their own graphic elements — illustrations, pull quotes, diagrams, glossaries, cartoons, etc. — attempt to explain kabbalah to the novice:

  • “More and more people are reaching out in search of something on the spiritual and emotional level that will make real and permanent difference in their lives,” writes Gabriella Samuel in “The Kabbalah Handbook: A Concise Encyclopedia of Terms and Concepts in Jewish Mysticism” (Penguin, 2007). The handbook, a more than 400-page tome, defines kabbalistic terms to serve as a reference book for those studying and practicing kabbalah.

    The alphabetized encyclopedia provides English, Hebrew and transliterated terms, from “Aaronic priesthood” (one priestly family line) through “The Zohar,” (a holy radiance and the title of the principle text of Kabbalah, circulated in the 13th century by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who claimed it was an ancient manuscript. Author Samuel is a teacher, artist, musician, clinical psychologist and the founder of the Asheville School of Kabbalah in South Carolina; she has studied kabbalah for more than four decades with her Chabad rabbi.

    While it is intended as a supplemental text, maybe, like the new “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” this encyclopedia can serve as crib notes for those hot kabbalah parties you’ve never attended. Or, conversely, it can help you with actual study of kabbalah.

  • “All of this concern about who should study Kabbalah and who should not arose because people feared that mystical studies could pose a danger to a person, emotionally, psychologically and even physically,” says Mark Elber’s “The Everything Kabbalah Book: Explore This Mystical Tradition — From Ancient Rituals to Modern-Day Practices,” which also includes a technical review by Rabbi Max Weiman. “Since the study of Talmud is a rigorous mental activity, the restrictions mentioned here were essentially ways of ensuring that those engaged in kabbalah studies came to them with a lot of stability in their lives (and being married and 40 years of age might ensure a certain emotional groundedness in the student).”
    This book has 20 chapters, covering topics including the history of early Jewish mysticism, as well as reincarnation (“[Rabbi Issac] Luria [a famous kabbalist from the 16th century known as the “Ari”] believed … a soul would keep reincarnating until it has fulfilled this mission for which it had been brought into the physical realm in the first place”) to (“the sublime holiness doesn’t rest on a person if he’s too attached to the physical”) to Kabbalah in the 21st century. And has graphic elements such as facts (important sound bytes of information), essentials (quick handy tips), alerts (urgent warnings) and questions (solutions to common problems).

    One of the best parts is at the beginning, the “Top Ten Kabbalistic Insights,” such as, “There is no place where God is not. God fills and transcends all universes (No. 1)” to “Where your consciousness is, there you are. Your consciousness (kavana) makes all the difference (No. 5).” These are kabbalah’s equivalent of the Ten Commandments, though we probably won’t find them posted on the wall of any courtroom any time soon — no matter how popular kabbalah becomes.

  • It’s not often you hear someone defending Madonna, especially not for her front-and-center Kabbalah Centre advocacy (and there are many who would link her career’s downfall to her religious transformation as Esther), but Rabbi Arthur Kurzweil includes a boxed-off paragraph near the end of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” one of the best of the introductory books. “She certainly isn’t one of the greatest kabbalists in history, but Madonna, the enormously gifted singer, actress and show business personality, has probably done more than anyone in the world in recent times to make the word ‘Kabbalah’ a familiar one,” he writes. “Madonna doesn’t represent herself as a master of Kabbalah — she’s never claimed that. What she has claimed, however, and what I respect her for, is that she’s interested in Kabbalah.”
    Kurzweil, a kabbalah teacher and author, is a descendant of three revered kabbalah teachers: Rabbi Chaim Yoseft Gottlieb (1790-1867), Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1555-1630) and Rabbi Moses Isserles (1530-1572).The “Dummies” book is divided into five basic parts: kabbalah basics, the core of kabbalah (the world is in need of repair and the human soul is eternal), the practice of kabbalah, essential skills (study and prayer) and important figures, historical moments and myths in kabbalah. (It’s quite smart to put these factoids at the end, instead of weighing down the opening of the book with all the factual information.) This book has a sense of humor: Each section is prefaced with a humorous cartoon (“Who barbeques in a succah?” a woman yells at her husband near the charred remains).

  • The goal of kabbalah is “to help you make, and sustain, direct contact with the Creator,” writes Rabbi Michael Laitman in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Kabbalah,” co-authored with Collin Canright, (Alpha, 2007). “Kabbalah states very simply that when you know how to connect to the Creator directly, without any go-betweens, you will find the inner compass, a guiding light that shines no matter where you are,” he writes. When you do master it, “you will need no further guidance.”
    The “Idiot’s Guide” is divided into four parts: the history, the principles, your personal life and Kabbalah in today’s world. It highlights factoids using “definitions,” “words of heart” and quotes: “You have not a blade of grass below that has not a sign above, which strikes it and tells it, ‘grow,’ Midrash Raba.” “On Track” provides practical tips: “Don’t bother with your next spiritual degree, the Creator has prepared it for you. Work on completing your work at your present degree and the Creator will take you to the next level.”
    There’s also fun “Kab-trivia”: One of the most famous groups of kabbalists, the Kotz group of Poland, led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel, once tried switching the days to see how it feels. They “moved” the Sabbath (Saturday) to Tuesday and behaved accordingly. They decided that it made no difference, as long as they all did it together.
    “Red Alert” cautions: “The teacher’s role in kabbalah is very subtle. The teacher must direct the student away from him and toward the Creator. There is no way a person can avoid the attention and admiration students shower on a teacher, unless the teacher has already transcended the ego and entered the Upper World.”

Most of the intro books take pains to debunk many of the myths about kabbalah, such as the use of “holy water,” buying an expensive Zohar set for good luck, the need to wear a red string — practices popularized by the Kabbalah Centre, the Los Angeles institute that is largely responsible for taking kabbalah mainstream.

But here’s the thing about kabbalah for the layman. Even if Kabbalah is packaged for “Dummies,” “Idiots” or “Everyone,” even if these books use cute comics and graphics and sidebars and subheads and catchy chapter heads, they all are trying to explain a very difficult subject. What kabbalists call senior — the 10 essential essences, the soul, the world to come, our relationship to the Creator, the Creator’s relationship to the world — all are heady subjects, challenging to comprehend, no matter how pretty the package.

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.

Battle of the sexes along the Y-Divide


“Ladies and gentlemen, Rabbi Aryeh Pamensky holds the secret to your incredible, unbelievable and unparalleled happiness,” announces the emcee in a dimly lit nightspot where hundreds of Jews are gathered, each hoping to attain what half of Americans find unattainable: a happy marriage.”

A happy wife is a happy life,” the rabbi says, and so begins the popular one-man interactive show, “Pamensky Live,” which makes its rounds throughout the United States and Canada.

Pamensky spoke to a reporter in Philadelphia after one of his shows.

Pamensky believes he can eradicate divorce and is on a mission to prove he can make marriage into a heaven on earth for both genders. To that end he has created “Y-Divide Marriage Kit,” which includes a DVD and six CDs.

And he has written two books: “Marrying The Y-Divide: Bridging the Gender Gap” and “Ten Top Amazing Marriage Tips.” He is also on the road throughout the year, garnering rave reviews at scores of comedy clubs and other trendy locales. It is not just the married folks he addresses; the 42-year old South African native raised in Toronto targets single audiences nationwide for comparable dating seminars, though his advice differs pre- and post-marriage.

“Pamensky Live,” known as the Jewish version of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” gives the men in the crowd a job. Recognizing that men are not innately what he terms “relationship beings,” Pamensky offers a job description for men looking to transform their existing relationship into one that fulfills their every dream. In an entertaining presentation, the rabbi assures men that they will not have to go through massive personal and interpersonal changes: “I say, ‘You’re a guy and you don’t have to change. Who you are right now can satisfy your wife,’ and they feel a weight lifted off their shoulders.”

According to Pamensky, their eyes open wide and they are baffled that he is not urging them to become sensitive, communicative beings.

Pamensky responds, “If you become that, your wife won’t be happy anyway. She wants to be married to you as a man. So now, you, as a man, can fulfill her. I have tools to teach you how to make it work where you’re at. Now this is how you do it….”

Pamesky believes women are incredibly complicated, but they all need the three As: attention, affection and appreciation, and once they receive this from their husbands, they channel their energy into creating a loving and adventurous affair with their spouse. On this premise, as a woman grows more content and pleased in her marital relationship, her reservations melt away and she opens herself up to pampering her husband. Pamensky’s presentation humorously depicts just what kind of attention and affection he is referring to.

He advises the men to drop whatever they are doing and give their wives undivided attention.

“Don’t tune out,” he warns, recommending eye contact and attentively listening to everything she is saying. By affection, the rabbi is referring to affectionate tones and nonsexual touch. Appreciation generally speaks for itself.

Addressing the women, Pamensky says, “Take a look at your man now, and you will forever look at him entirely different. He is a huge ego with legs. When he does his job [making you happy], stroke his ego over the top. Men live for this. The greatest way to bolster his ego is letting him know how his gestures made you feel for the good.”

He jokes, “We always hear about it for the bad.”

“The Amazing Marriage Seminar,” portions of which are included in the “Live” performance, is the culmination of many years of rabbinical study of the Torah and other Jewish texts, in conjunction with Pamensky’s work as a marriage counselor and personal coach.

“The self-help business is a gazillion dollar business, and so many people who attend are Jewish, so I always wondered, ‘Why don’t they go to Judaism for this stuff?'” he said. “I always had a dream of taking the wisdom of Judaism and putting it in self-help language that is palatable to people who don’t have access to the texts themselves. There is a tremendous 3,500-year-old tradition that’s been passed down concerning wisdom for understanding marriage.”

According to the Pamensky plan, “make your wife feel that she is the most important person in your life; that nothing going on in your life is more important than her.”

In a tone that implies, “Hey, I’m one of you, just a regular guy,” he cautions, “Gentlemen, you’ve got to appreciate that every time you make your wife feel less important than something else in your life, be it work, children, sports, parents, television or hobbies, that thing becomes a mistress, and your wife will fight you on everything that has to do with that mistress.”

At each performance, Pamensky reminds men that their wives will support them on their every endeavor so long as she feels she is more important than any other person or thing.

For singles, he takes a different approach.

“Dating sets you up for a bad marriage,” Pamensky said at one of his packed singles events, which was sponsored by Discovery Productions, a New York-based nonprofit Jewish outreach organization. The dynamic is all faulty from the get-go, he maintains, since dating is always on a man’s terms. “That’s how you begin the relationship, and women think that once they get married, it is going to switch, but you have already set precedents. The skill set for dating,” he continues, “when applied to marriage causes bad marriages.”

“Most of marriage is about fulfilling the other person’s needs, and this is why dating is not a good training ground for marriage,” Pamensky says. He adds that since there is no alternative, “you just need to learn how to date smart.”

He says one of his most rewarding moments came when a woman ran up to him in gratitude after one of his performances, tearfully exclaiming, “How do I thank the man who saved my life?”

With a chuckle, Pamensky says, “You see, that’s how women speak about relationships!”

For more information, visit

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life


In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.

 

Hopeful Romantics


When you’re still “flying solo” and your 35thbirthday comes a-knocking, suddenly, the pitifully comic titlescrowding the self-help shelves of your bookstore seem less like jokebooks and more like required reading.

I should know. Just days away, that landmarkbirthday is feeling more like a land mine. It makes me want to smackthe characters of single women portrayed by the likes of JuliaRoberts, Jennifer Aniston and Calista Flockhart, who stressuncontrollably about being over-the-hill at 28. With concerns aboutcareer and life experience taking priority, many women do not feelthe panic of aloneness setting in until well into their 30s.

These, it seems, are also the observations of author andrelationship consultant Helena Hacker Rosenberg (pictured at left) inher book “How to Get Married After 35: A Game Plan for Love”(HarperCollins Publishers, 1998). Having finally met and married hertrue love in her early 40s, Rosenberg serves up a didactic recipe formidlife marriage, based on her own romantic trials and tribulations.She uses her experiences to blaze a trail for others who are tired ofbeating their heads against their proverbial walls — and are readyto resort to practical action.

Geared for women (although applicable to men), thebook explores why women remain single into their late 30s, 40s andbeyond, while also acknowledging the divorcée or widow who isre-entering the dating scene after 35.

Rosenberg outlines unconscious behavior patternsthat run rampant in these women and lead to long-term singlehood. Sheshrewdly points out how some of us unwittingly sabotage ourrelationships due to underlying fears of intimacy and commitment, andhow unrealistic hopes and fantasies compel us to choose capriciousexcitement over lasting fulfillment.

“Our Own Little Pharaohs Keep Us in Bondage,” achapter that includes a personal profile for the reader to fill out,aims to help women become aware of how old habits and behaviors canrestrict social opportunities. At first, advice about stretching outof your “comfort zone” and adopting a new mind-set may make youwince, but like a spoonful of medicine, you’ll want to take itbecause you know it’s good for you.

“The Velvet Web” charges “cozy attachments,” likethose we have with parents, friends and even pets, with keeping usfrom making romantic relationships a priority. Having had more thanone ex-boyfriend declare his jealousy of my cat, I am prepared toadmit the validity of this chapter. However, Rosenberg overlooks howsuch a “competition” can bring a woman perspective about herfeelings. Sometimes, measuring up to a favorite pet can meanbeshertstatus.

Or maybe you are cavorting with one of the endlessvariety of “Nowhere Men,” on whom, Rosenberg suggests, we often wasteall our child-bearing years. From the “Reluctant Adult” to the “PhonyManipulator” to the “Casanova,” this chapter is a loser-friendlyguide for evading Mr. Wrong.

As a thinking-woman’s “Rules” book, “How to GetMarried After 35” presupposes that its readers are self-respectingwomen who want to cultivate healthy relationships (rather thaninsecure manipulators who need game-playing antics to “land” ahusband). The book includes time-saving tips and insights, such ashow to read between the lines of personal ads and how to decipher ifa man is a prospect in only 15 minutes. If you have misgivings aboutthe practicality of such short cuts, know that such guidance isgeared for the woman who no longer feels that time is on her side andwho wants to make sure she’s using it productively.

Some of the advice outlined in the book isn’t newrevelation, and may seem familiar if you’re up on the current datingdogma or find yourself a frequent visitor to the self-help shelf. ButRosenberg does succeed in providing an impetus and a road map forwomen who are ready to emerge from an emotional or social rut andfind a spouse, as she jokes, “while they are stillambulatory.”

Using true, inspirational stories of courtshipending in nuptial bliss, Rosenberg offers hope, but reminds us thatwe have our work cut out, and we shouldn’t expect the right partner– like a 35th birthday — to just come knocking at our door.

Finding Love, Marriage and Judaism

At about the time Helena Hacker Rosenberg made thedecision to change her dating ways and find a marriageable man, shealso found herself rediscovering Judaism. The wish to feel more”connected” by seeking a mate who shared her values and desire forchildren, also impelled her to find deeper spiritual meaning throughthe teachings of the Torah. She explored that need in classes at AishHaTorah.

“I started getting much more in touch with thepart of me that had always been there, but hadn’t been nourished inyears,” says Rosenberg. “I got back to a values-based way of lookingat life.” She also found herself getting in touch with the things shetruly needed, instead of focusing on the things she thought shewanted.

This learning experience and many others gleanedfrom her Jewish studies, helped give the book its foundation. “Inever call it a ‘Jewish book’ since it was written for a secularaudience, but the truth is there’s a lot of hidden Torah in it,”admits Rosenberg.

The book proposes some of the same solid valuesthat religion strives to teach, like evaluating a marriage prospectby his inner worth, rather than superficial concerns, and not playingthe victim, giving up, or blaming society for the lack of fulfillmentin our lives. Also acknowledged, is the spiritual importance ofreflecting more and doing less — something that isn’t always easy inour busy lives. “I learned to be in the moment and appreciate thesanctity of time,” says Rosenberg. She suggests slowing down to giveourselves those moments of reflection that allow us to make gooddecisions, and help us find our beshert.

It was on her way to holiday services at AishHaTorah, that Rosenberg finally found hers. — B. T.

Bonnie Trachtenberg is a free-lance writer inNew York City.