High Holy Days: Working for happiness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principle No. 3 The Tetris Effect 

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

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

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

Principle No. 4 Falling Up 

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

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

Principle No. 5 The Zorro Circle 

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

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

Principle No. 6: The 20-Second Rule

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

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

Principle No. 7 Social Investment

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

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

An accidental theologist tackles Muhammad bio


In 2010, Lesley Hazleton was asked to give a brief talk about the Quran. 

“As far as I was concerned, I was talking to those several hundred people in the hall,” Hazleton said in a recent phone interview. “I certainly had no idea that a nine-minute video about reading the Quran would go viral. … I mean, I’m in my 60s, so the words ‘Lesley’ and ‘viral’ don’t even belong in the same sentence.”

Hazleton said that if you total up all the places where her lecture about the Quran subsequently appeared — TED, YouTube, etc. — it’s gotten about a million hits.

The main reason for the wide dissemination of Hazleton’s lively and informative lecture is that it raised alarm bells: She mentioned that her delving deeply into the Quran was prep work for a book she was working on: a biography of Muhammad. 

That’s right: the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. 

A decade earlier, Hazleton had written a historical exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, based on what life would have been like for a Jewish peasant woman in the Galilee 2,000 years ago, so she’s used to writing about a revered figure who — like Muhammad — has a billion people deeply concerned about the portrayal. 

But nothing prepared her for the barrage of messages she received after it became known that an agnostic Jewish woman was now writing about Muhammad.

“Suddenly, it’s as if there were a million Muslims looking over my shoulder wanting to make sure I got it right,” Hazleton said. 

“Every morning I’d get messages — through e-mail, Facebook, on my blog — and I’d answer back: ‘Thank you for your concern. It will probably not be the biography you want — it will be a historical one, not a devotional one, so all I can do is ask you to trust me to find my own way.’ ”

Writing an accurate, credible biography of Muhammad is a tricky challenge for anyone, but the difficulties are compounded if you’re a woman, Jewish, and have lived in Israel for many years. 

Hazleton is used to taking on tough challenges and facing them with a quick wit and self-deprecating humor: she named her blog — which deals with the interface of religion, society and politics — “The Accidental Theologist.”

In her early 20s, she left her native England and moved to Jerusalem, where she lived for 13 years, studying psychology and later becoming a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine. While living there, she wrote books about Israeli women, about the Negev and the Sinai, and about Jerusalem.  

From 1979 to 1992, she lived in New York and wrote on a variety of subjects, including cars and race-driving, which led to a book with the captivating title “Confessions of a Fast Woman.” Then she moved to Seattle, got her pilot’s license — her “hardest-earned possession” — and has remained there, living on a houseboat.

Psychologist by training, journalist by experience, for more than a decade Hazleton has been writing about figures and events important to the world’s monotheisms.

After her biography of Mary, Hazleton wrote a book about the biblical character Jezebel, digging into the struggle between the “harlot queen” and the prophet Elijah. After that, she delved into the origins of the Shi’a-Sunni split in early Islam.

“The First Muslim” is full of great, accessible stories. And it introduces non-Muslims to an extraordinary life with which they’re probably unfamiliar.

“Here’s a man [Muhammad] who carved a huge profile in history,” Hazleton said, “a man who radically changed his world and, in a sense, is still changing ours — and the question to me was: Who was this person, really? This is what drives me, this intense curiosity, the need to know who was really there.”

Hazleton writes about how, at 40, Muhammad had a revelation on Mount Hira near Mecca. Based on what was revealed to him, he preached monotheism as well as a radical program of social and economic justice.

“It was correctly seen by the powers-that-be in Mecca as a challenge to them,” Hazleton said, “as radical and subversive.” As a result, Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca. 

“But it was with that exile,” Hazleton said, “when he was thrown out of Mecca and took refuge 200 miles to the north in Medina and set up this extraordinary idealistic community which included Jewish tribes, that he realizes he’s become a political leader, not just a spiritual leader, not just a preacher. 

“And along with that comes what’s expected of a political governing authority of the time: How do you establish your power? Do we fight? What happens when we fight?”

In her book, Hazleton describes how, in Muhammad’s struggle to gain both political and religious power while in Medina, some Jewish tribes paid the price.

“Muhammad’s relationship with the Jews was extremely fraught,” Hazleton said. “Medina, where Mohammed sought refuge, had been, until a few generations before, largely controlled by Jewish tribes. By the year 600, however, Jewish tribes were the minority and therefore vulnerable. …

“[Muhammad] confronted three Jewish tribes, all relatively powerless. One tribe was exiled from Medina, then a second one [was exiled], and the third was massacred.”

Hazleton said that the massacre was a “ruthless” decision, but — given the time and place in which Muhammad lived and the obstacles he faced — a “pragmatic” and “effective” one. 

“I think it was a way for Muhammad to establish his political authority. I don’t really think it had to do with anti-Jewish animus. … It had to do with the dynamics of power, and it’s the only time something like that happened.”

Hazleton pointed out that two of Muhammad’s wives were Jewish and added that “Muhammad clearly saw himself as part of the Jewish tradition. … Islam was a radical call back to the basic values of the Torah and even talmudic stories. Many people are amazed when they actually do read the Quran that one-third is devoted to reprising biblical stories, that so many prophets of Islam are Hebrew prophets.”

“The First Muslim” is Hazleton’s seventh book about the Middle East, a place she left 34 years ago. Or did she?

“In some ways, I’ve never actually left [the Middle East]. It never lets go of you, not if you’ve spent any time there. By writing about it, I lead a double life: On the one hand, I’m here in 21st century Seattle; on the other, I spend my days in the ancient Middle East.

“This sense of place for me, the Middle East, is very vivid. You’re talking with someone who has an olive tree in her floating garden here in Seattle. The olive tree is my little piece of the Middle East in this misty outpost in the Northwest.”

Fellows showcase PresenTenseLA projects


“What if I told you that religious school students were skipping into the classrooms — counting down the days until they come back to school?”

Those were the words of Johannah Sohn, one of 12 fellows funded by PresenTenseLA who presented their “social entrepreneur” projects to hundreds of people gathered at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station Arts Center on the evening of May 22. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted PresenTenseLA’s inaugural “launch night,” the culmination of months of work by 12 aspiring local entrepreneurs, all of whom received skills-building assistance from The Federation and successful local entrepreneurs.

PresenTenseLA is Los Angeles’ installment of the international PresenTense project that started in 2006 in Israel and was further developed by Boston’s Jewish Federation in 2009. PresenTense aims to identify and assist what its organizers hope to be groundbreaking social projects that will help Jewish communities around the world, according to Julia Moss, the L.A. Federation’s PresenTenseLA coordinator. 

Funded with a $175,000 grant over three years from the Jewish Community Foundation and a three-year $110,000 grant from the Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, PresenTenseLA focuses on helping business-minded Jews. Although PresenTenseLA does not fund the fellows’ actual initiatives, it has helped them create business plans as well as facilitate connections with businessmen and investors who can provide further crucial assistance. 

Staging the event at the art gallery enclave of Bergamot Station lent the evening the feel of next-gen modernity that PresenTenseLA is all about. And one after another Wednesday evening, the Jewish fellows presented their ideas in TED talks fashion — short speeches that gave the audience a snapshot of their innovative projects. 

Sohn’s project, “Virtual Israel,” is an online video game that will allow Hebrew school students to role-play as European Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine between 1912 and 1915. 

From purchasing a visa stamp to exploring the streets of Neve Tzedek, Sohn envisions her game introducing something into the Hebrew school curricula that she feels is missing — fun. 

Sohn’s project, in PresenTenseLA terminology, is in its “growth stage,” meaning she has already drafted budgets and is at the point where she’ll be ready to launch “Virtual Israel” within one year if she can secure funding — a major segment of which is to pay about $22,500 for 15 laptops so more students can use it.

Fifth-grade Hebrew school students at Adat Ari El in Valley Village, where Sohn is the Jewish Learning Community director, are already testing a pilot version of the game.

“We are a people who have always come up with new ways to engage in Jewish life,” Moss said. “We’ve survived for thousands of years because we are constantly looking at the landscape and adapting.”

PresenTenseLA fellow Jason Youdeem speaks with an attendee about his venture, “30 Years After Fellowship,” which will aim to increase civic engagement among Iranian-American Jews. 

Rachelle Minteer, another fellow, plans to open a program for L.A. Jews struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. The catch? Her program, Jewish Recovery Services, will bring recovering addicts to a rehabilitation center in Israel. Minteer, who has been sober for five years, is planning a site visit to a potential partner rehab facility outside of Jerusalem. 

Launch night was the culmination of a process that began in September, when 27 applicants submitted their visions to PresenTenseLA. The 12 fellows were selected in November, and since then they have been creating concrete businesses with the assistance of coaches and mentors — from young professionals with on-the-ground experience to seasoned professionals, from all corners of Los Angeles’ Jewish community.

Michal Brous, for example, was mentored by Alain Cohen, owner of Got Kosher? and inventor of the popular pretzel challah. Brous’ project, Sweets2Share, will operate out of the Got Kosher? storefront on Pico Boulevard, where she will bake and sell kosher pastries, donating one pastry to Global Kindness for every pastry sold. The sweets will be included as part of the food packages Global Kindness distributes to more than 350 needy families in Los Angeles and around the world.

Brous, who baked hundreds of her pastries for launch night, will first move to Israel for one year with her husband and three children to study at the Tadmor culinary school to become a pastry chef. She hopes to establish her presence at Got Kosher? following her graduation.

Moss said she hopes PresenTenseLA will thrive for many years to come, as it is particularly helpful to the many young Jews who want to spread Judaism, but won’t (or financially can’t) become members of a synagogue.

“Young adults are not joining synagogues, and the JCC system has struggled for so long,” Moss said. 

As Federation president and CEO Jay Sanderson put it, these types of projects are one way of working with young Jews “as they look to innovation and new methods, languages and technologies to express themselves.”

One fellow who received a particularly energetic reaction from the crowd was Ashley Gleitman Waterman, whose program, “Tell and Retell,” will train grandchildren of Holocaust survivors in the art of storytelling. These storytellers — who will be trained by actors and professional storytellers — will then use their skills and stories to educate their peers about the Holocaust.

By next year, Waterman hopes to have trained enough storytellers to educate more than 100 teenagers about the Holocaust.

Once survivors of the Holocaust are no longer with us, Waterman believes, the grandchildren will be the ones to share stories of what their grandparents experienced.

“When they tell them, we think there will be a very profound effect.”

The $285,000 in grants received by Federation will allow PresenTenseLA to operate for the next few years, and Moss hopes that the program becomes a mainstay in Los Angeles.

“I can’t imagine that this won’t continue for years to come,” Moss said. “There are always going to be people creating.”

Oscars win awards for sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism


Was anybody else offended by the not-very-subtle onslaught of sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-semitic “jokes” at the Oscar ceremony on Sunday night?

It seems as though the Oscar writers think that Hollywood is so liberal that it can get away with making offensive comments because everyone knows that they are “just joking.”

I don't agree.

At a time when America is facing an epidemic of gun violence and debating how to limit the spread of assault weapons, host Seth McFarlane thought it would be clever to make a joke about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

“Daniel Day-Lewis is not the first actor to be nominated for playing Lincoln,” McFarlane said. “Raymond Massey portrayed him in 1940′s Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I would argue, though, the actor who really got inside Lincoln's head was John Wilkes Booth.”

[ANOTHER TAKE: Seth MacFarlane: Not an anti-Semite]

Perhaps hoping to win an award for “most racially insensitive” comment, McFarlane joked about Lewis' habit of staying in character during the filming of Lincoln, even when the cameras were off. “If you bumped into Don Cheadle in the studio lot,” McFarlane said, looking at Lewis in the audience, “would you try and free him?”

McFarlane also made outrageous remarks about Adele's weight, gays, women, Latinas, and Jews.

It would be difficult to pick a winner in the “most sexist comment” category. McFarlane sang a juvenile song, “We Saw Your Boobs,” about movie scenes where former Oscar nominees posed topless. Referring to the decade-long quest to find Osama bin Laden by Jessica Chastain's character in Zero Dark Thirty, McFarlane said it was an example of women never being “able to let anything go.” To those women who lost weight before attending the Oscar ceremony, McFarlane said: “For all those women who had the 'flu,' it paid off … lookin' good.”

Referring to Latina actresses Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek — both of whose English is impeccable — McFarlane said: “We have no idea what they're saying, but we don't care, cause they're so attractive.”

After singing the “We Saw Your Boobs” song with the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus, MacFarlane made a point of explaining that he wasn't actually a member of the chorus, as if being gay was something to be ashamed of. MacFarlane also observed that the show's producers had invited the cast of Chicago to perform on the telecast because “the [Oscar} show isn't gay enough yet.”

Perhaps the most offensive comments were made by “Ted,” the talking stuffed bear who bantered (through McFarlane's voice) with actor Mark Wahlberg about Hollywood's domination by Jews. If putting those words in the mouth of a talking bear is supposed to make these remarks cute and cuddly, it didn't work with me.

The set-up was Ted's desire to gain acceptance with the Hollywood “in” crowd — which he said were the Jews — so he could attend a post-Oscar orgy party. After Ted begged Wahlberg to tell him where the orgy would be held. Wahlberg spilled the beans, saying that it would be “at Jack Nicholson's house.” This was a not very subtle — and not very funny — reference to a 1977 incident that occurred at Nicholson's home, where director Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl. Polanski pleaded guilty but fled to Paris before he was sentenced.

Remarking on all the talent assembled at the Oscar ceremony, Ted said to Wahlberg: “You know what's interesting? All those actors I just named are part Jewish,” referring to Joaquin Phoenix (who has a Jewish mother), Daniel Day-Lewis (ditto), and Alan Arkin (whose parents, in fact, were both Jewish).

“What about you?,” Ted asked Wahlberg. “You've got a 'berg' on the end of your name. Are you Jewish?”

Wahlberg explained that he is Catholic. Ted responded: “Wrong answer. Try again. Do you want to work in this town or don't you?”

To gain favor with the Hollywood crowd, Ted claimed that he was Jewish, that he “was born Theodore Shapiro,” and that “I would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever.”

When Wahlberg called Ted an idiot, Ted responded: “We'll see whose an idiot when they give me my private plane at the next secret synagogue meeting.”

Ted's (or, in reality, McFarlane's) remarks about the “secret” Jewish cabal that controls Hollywood, discriminates against non-Jews, and is tied to Israel were not clever and witty. They were anti-semitic.

I'm certain that many film industry folks sitting in the audience were uncomfortable with the barrage of offensive comments throughout the evening. I'm not a prude and I believe it is OK to make fun of one's foibles. But McFarlane’s (and Ted’s) comments did not simply poke fun at specific individuals. They targeted entire groups. Sunday night's Oscar show crossed that invisible line between satire and bigotry.

As a progressive and a Jew, I found these comments outrageous, and I'm confident that many of the millions of Americans watching the show on TV were also offended by the bigoted stereotypes about women, gays, Latinas, and Jews throughout the broadcast.

Of course, there were no hooded sheets, burning crosses, N-words, or “fag” jokes. But bigotry comes in various shades. Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony was ugly and unfunny.

Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy department at Occidental College. His most recent book isThe 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012).

Jewlicious offers pluralistic fun aboard the Queen Mary


“The Reform service is going crazy, the Conservative service is going crazy. Orthodox [service] is huge,” Josh Kaplan, a Jewlicious board member, said as he walked past the concierge to the Jewlicious merchandise booth.

Surrounded by black-and-white photographs of Winston Churchill, Bob Hope, Loretta Young and other historical and cultural figures, attendees of the eighth annual youth-oriented festival Jewlicious arrived onboard the Queen Mary on Feb. 24.

A carefree attitude defined the weekend festival. For the first time, it was a held on the retired ocean liner docked in Long Beach. In previous years, the festival, attended by college students and young adults, had been held at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach.

A blend of music, arts, lectures and Shabbat celebrations attracted approximately 700 people this year, with 350 people staying overnight.

On Friday night, “Blossom” and “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik discussed her Jewish journey during “Inside the Rabbi’s Studio,” with festival director Rabbi Yonah Bookstein. Raised secular, Bialik’s transition to Modern Orthodoxy began with her involvement at UCLA Hillel. “What I understood about [Judaism] became more intriguing than what was going on in the secular world,” Bialik said of her time as a UCLA undergraduate.

Short TED-style talks dominated on Friday, featuring Jewlicious blog creator David Abitbol (speaking on “Young American Jews and Israel”); Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Esther Kustanowitz (“Comedy, Connections and Today’s Jewish Community”); Tea Party member Michael Prell (“My Jew-ish Journey”); young adult and former Israel Defense Forces soldier Jay Schreiber (“Stories of a ‘Lone Solider’ ”) and Torah scribe Julie Seltzer (“Birthing the Torah”). Tahlia Miller, Matisyahu’s wife, examined “how personality affects relationships,” and Rav Shmuel Skaist led “Torah and Chulent,” the sole all-night event.

“The overall goal of Jewlicious is to create the best experiential weekend for young Jews in the country,” Bookstein said in an interview. “That’s always been our goal, and that’s what we constantly strive to achieve. As the years have progressed, we’ve had a lot of involvement with our participants, with feedback and their involvement in planning it.”

Hurrying around an 11 p.m. ice cream party in the ship’s Britannia Salon, a 7,500-square-foot room that once served as the Queen Mary’s second-class lounge, Bookstein described this year’s festival as “next level.” For the first time, festival-goers slept on site, bunking in the cruise ship’s cabins, as opposed to previous years, when they slept at hotels adjacent to the Jewish community center.

The venue also allowed for more freedom. In previous years, attendees were confined to the JCC. This year, they could walk anywhere on the boat. After a massive Shabbat dinner that had four long tables seating 50 to 80 people each, a bunch of students from California State University, Long Beach, ventured off to the Observation Bar, an art deco lounge with live music and cocktails.

After the TED-style talks, 20-year-old Becky Rudin, a member of Claremont Students for Israel at Claremont College, along with six female friends from Claremont who were at Jewlicious for the weekend, walked the ship’s deck, enjoying the evening’s cool air.

“I just wanted to get more involved in the community … and have an enlightening Jewish experience,” Rudin said.

Friday was filled with lectures, Shabbat and attendees getting to know each other — and their way around the ship — but the rest of the weekend featured live music and comedy. On Saturday night, ska and reggae band The Aggrolites and stand-up comedians Todd Barry and Moshe Kasher performed. The Los Angeles band Fool’s Gold filled in for Moshav, which had to cancel for personal reasons.

On Sunday, an acoustic concert with The Wellspring took place on the Captain’s Deck overlooking the Long Beach harbor and skyline. Later, a panel discussion examined “Jews and Cannabis,” workshops explored the Jewish art of paper cutting, and mimosas complemented an outdoor brunch.

“It was just so scenic and gorgeous,” Bookstein said of the weekend’s weather, but he could as well have been describing the event.

“The new venue really brought a whole new atmosphere to the festival; everybody was just raving about having it on the Queen Mary,” he said. “I think that with the success with 8.0 on the Queen Mary, we’re already looking forward to doing the ninth one there.”

Following Ted, not Steve


With the passing of Apple founder Steve Jobs, master creator of the iPod, iMac, iPhone and iPad, many people are now wondering: Which future brilliant gizmo will be buried with Jobs that we’ll never get to see?

As someone who adores Apple products, I appreciate the question, but it still disturbs me.

That’s because it reminds me that we live in a world that worships cool gadgets. I’ve noticed this is especially true with men. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen a dinner conversation be overtaken by male friends debating megabytes, bandwidth and cellular connections.

Cool gadgets fascinate us because they give us an illusion of power — a sense that we’re always making progress, that we have the power to control an unpredictable world.

The problem, of course, is that machines, however mesmerizing, can’t teach us how to think.

In fact, they might do just the opposite. They train us to consume. The faster our digital gadget, the faster we consume. The more sophisticated the gadget, the less sophisticated we seem to become.

How do we consume our information? In little snippets, posts, Tweets and texts. If the snippet is juicy, like a graphic video of Gadhafi’s last minute, or one of monkeys that can paint, we spread it around so others can consume it, too.

We’re becoming a snippet society. We snorkel and catch newsy snippets and instant opinions that reinforce our thinking but rarely go scuba diving for deeper understanding. 

One of the sexiest snippets is news of The Upgrade. We eagerly await it, crave it, sleep outside the Apple store hoping to be among the first to get it.

Can you imagine Ernest Hemingway, while he was working on “The Old Man and the Sea,” lining up outside a pencil store for a “new and faster” pencil?

Instead of meaningful or creative thought, our new mobile gizmos make us value speed and ease. They spew out zillions of digital Doritos that our minds snack on all day — and once you start crunching, who can stop?

“Information is cheap,” Internet philosopher George Dyson wrote, but “meaning is expensive.”

Yes, but in truth, how can meaning compete with the serial pleasures of our alluring gadgets? We caress them, study them, marvel at their features, and, in no time, discard them so we can marvel at the upgraded version. This pattern of pleasure never stops. A better gadget is always around the corner, waiting to seduce us.

The maestro of this impulse was the great Steve Jobs. His sensual and intuitive machines, it must be said, have added an enormous amount of pleasure, convenience and human connection to the planet, and we owe him immeasurably for that.

But what his machines can’t do — what no machine can do — is encourage us to think more deeply and value the power of human ideas.

For that, you’ll need to go see Ted.

This is one of my favorite Web sites (TED.com) because it seduces with ideas — fascinating, challenging, eye-popping ideas on subjects like life, science, philosophy, beauty, ethics, art, astronomy, love — you name it.

The site offers videos of hundreds of the best and deepest thinkers in the world presenting their ideas in snappy talks that last anywhere from seven to 20 minutes. 

As I write this, here are some of the subjects featured on its home page: “How Beauty Feels,” “Art Made of Storms,” “Learning From a Barefoot Movement,” “How to Spot a Liar,” “Less Stuff, More Happiness,” “What Do Babies Think?” and “Finding Life We Can’t Imagine.”

The subjects are endless. The insights are riveting. But here’s the point: The site could be just as riveting in 100 years — even without improved technology — because its hero is content.

When I say content, I don’t mean disposable content that gives you a sugar rush. I mean deep and meaningful content that intrigues you, fires up your curiosity and provokes thought. This kind of content makes you think of new ideas, not new technology.

It reminds us that the ultimate gizmo is the human mind, and the ultimate app is human ideas.

I have no doubt the presenters on the TED site all have their own smartphones, iPads and Twitter accounts. But I also have no doubt that in order to come up with their ideas, at some point they had to slow down, unplug and just think.

The Jewish tradition seems to have a prophetic understanding of this need to reconnect with the essential. Maybe it’s no coincidence that 3,300 years before the invasion of Tweets and texts, God gave us a day for just that purpose. It’s Shabbat, our weekly holy day, when we liberate ourselves from all technology and reconnect with our inner humanity, our inner ability to think and go deep.

It took the extraordinary content of a Web site to remind me of this great Jewish value of elevating our minds over our machines.

This is surely a value that won’t soon die — not with Steve Jobs or any of us.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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