Last week my friend Meira sent me a family photo on WhatsApp. I felt disoriented. The pictures she usually sends are shots of her beautiful daughters, smiling and happy during shopping expeditions with their cousins, parties with their friends, or visits with me to the Israel Museum or Jerusalem’s temporary ice-rink.
The image Meira sent last week was different. I saw at once that it was her husband with his family. Standing to the left of his mother, with his hand on his brother’s shoulder, he is instantly recognizable.
Unlike most photos I get on WhatsApp, it’s a formal portrait. It’s not in a lively setting, or glorious technicolour. It isn’t a fleeting scene captured fleetingly in a digital image. And it wasn’t taken a few seconds ago. But none of that disoriented me. What unsettled me — for a moment — is that the family doesn’t look happy.
The explanation that sprang to mind was that it was taken during hard times. My friend’s next WhatsApp message provided the date and location: Beirut circa 1964. Within a few years, that Jewish family would join the countless others from Arab lands who were uprooted from the countries they’d lived in for centuries, perhaps even millennia, and scattered across the world. They had reason to look unhappy.
But of course their sad expressions were not a reflection of the geo-political situation. This family didn’t look sad because they were anticipating exile from the only home they’d ever known, which in their case would end with the offer of a small government-subsidized apartment in a development town in Israel’s periphery and then — the strong-willed, far-seeing and smart mother (can’t you see it!) held out — an even smaller apartment in a poor neighborhood of Tel Aviv in which the parents spent the rest of their lives.
In fact, they weren’t looking sad at all. They were looking serious. Smiling in photographs is socio-cultural specific. In that place, at that time — family portraits were serious affairs, like painted portraits. People didn’t feel compelled, as we do now, to exhibit their dentistry whenever they saw a camera.
When it comes to knowing whether or not the people around us are happy, smiles don’t mean much. A character in a Thomas Hardy novel — maybe Jude the Obscure — was always smiling, and travelers passing through his village always smiled back. Only those who knew him were aware that he suffered from a muscular disorder that kept a perpetual grin on his face. By disposition, as opposed to appearance, he was a misanthrope. He hated the world. His smile was grossly misleading.
Neither can we necessarily tell how happy people are by what they say. A few weeks ago the Jewish Chronicle reported that, according to an Office for National Statistics study of personal well-being, British Jews are less happy than Christians and Hindus, and below the UK happiness average. (According to the survey, Muslims are even less happy.) But how did the survey cope with the well-known resistance among some Jews to admitting that they are happy — phuhh, phuhh? What about those Jews who are only truly happy when they have something to be unhappy about! Since when do Litvaks make spontaneous declarations of happiness?
Hasidim, of course, are not like Litvaks. Nachman of Bratslav said that It’s a great mitzvah always to be happy, though I doubt that’s the mitzvah the beautiful family in this National Geographic Travel Photography Competition prize-winning photo by
Agnieszka Traczewska had in mind …
If you can get beyond their radiant smiles for long enough to notice the creeping damp on the walls behind them, you’ll realize that this young couple probably won’t enjoy much in the way of creature comforts. But fortunately, a recent UN survey (in which Israel ranks eleventh — finally, good news from the UN!) claims to demonstrate that the wealthiest countries in the world don’t necessarily have the happiest populations. Really? Money can’t buy you happiness? I hope the UN didn’t spend too much proving that…
On Wednesday evening we held the third of our German Colony/Katamon ‘Neighbors Share Their Stories’ open house meetings. One of our three speakers, Jack, comes from another of the countless families exiled from Arab lands. He began his story with this amazing summary of his life so far: ‘I was born in Thailand to parents from Aleppo; I had my Brit in Beirut and my Bar Mitzvah in Brazil; I was educated in Britain, married in Gibraltar, and raised my six children in Jerusalem’. Mine was not the only jaw in the room to drop.
Last Friday night at synagogue, Jack gave me two volumes of commentaries on the weekly portion written by the head of a yeshiva named in memory of Jack’s grandfather, Yosef Djemal. On shabbat afternoon, I opened volume one at Va’yetze (my doctoral dissertation focused on the dream at Bethel, so I usually start there), and I read these words on Jacob’s notorious vow and the talmudic question about who is truly wealthy:
‘We must truly and deeply understand that it is G-d Who gives us our skills and potential. He grants us life, wisdom, strength, and emotions by which to act and thus accomplish. And when we thus acquire wealth, He asks that we use what He has helped us obtain to help others. And what is the final result of this chain? … [T]hat we will merit … the privilege to do good in the world and to help those in need. At the same time, we will also be able to appreciate all that He gave us. “He who is happy with his lot” is, accordingly, one who is happy with the talents and abilities he was given.’ (Rabbi Shabtai Sabato, Borne Upon a Spirit, B’reshit)
One of our other speakers was a retired professor of Social Work from Hebrew University. In a very different way, his story too was jaw-dropping. His inspiration was emphatically not from religious teachings. The twin forces that have guided his life are Zionism and Psychoanalysis.
Later that night I googled his name, Yona Rosenfeld, and found this extraordinary interview with him, in English, filmed last year as part of the This Place project. I recommend it very, very, very highly. It’s called: Our Greatest Fear is the Fear of Sadness.