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The Year of the Happy Jew

Gematria is a Hebrew word borrowed from the Greek language many centuries ago. “Geometry” has a similar source. Gematria is the art or science, depending on one’s orientation, of equating numbers with letters. Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent. When two different Hebrew words can be found that have the same numerical value, the potential for deep inner meaning exists. Take, for example, the word “echad,” which means “one” and, as the last word of the Shma, describes God’s unity. The three letters of echad, in the system of Gematria, add up to 13. The Hebrew word for “love,” “ahavah,” also adds up to 13. Therefore, echad equals ahavah: God’s unity is love! For generations of Jews, for whom the words of holy texts represented the doorway into religious understanding, gematria expanded the possibilities for rapture geometrically.
The Jewish calendar year that we have just completed was the year 5748. In gematria, that equals the letters that spell the word “tismach,” which means “rejoice.” 5748 was the year of rejoicing! I had been waiting for such official sanction for a long time. Therefore I declared last year to be “The Year of the Happy Jew.” That turned out to be such a good idea that even though the year tismach is over, I have decided to extend the declaration into the coming year. This year we Jews get to practice putting more simcha, joy, into our lives and the lives of those around us.
There are many painful messages that we Jews carry around as a result of being Jewish. For centuries we have been the victims of severe attacks, prejudice, humiliation, and stereotyping. Obviously, anti-Semitism has often made life for Jews into a struggle. Less obvious are the ways in which it has affected the inner lives of Jews, marring their self-perception and contracting their sense of the possible, coating their thoughts and feelings with an ever-present veneer of anxiety and pain.
When children are told enough times that they are stupid, ugly or unwanted, they eventually begin to believe that they are indeed stupid, or ugly, or unwanted. When children are repeatedly threatened or beaten, they begin to believe that the world is inherently unsafe, and close themselves off to people. Such children often also come to believe that, somehow, this painful situation is their own fault. The same happens to groups of people who have been subjected to prejudice, brutality, or stereotyping. These groups come to believe the demeaning stereotypes that surround them in their society. They internalize their oppression. This is one of the characteristics of oppression that makes it so insidious and difficult to combat. Not only must Blacks, women, gays, Jews, or whomever fight the hateful stereotypes coming at them, they have to fight their own self-hatred, too.
Blacks call each other “nigger” and judge each other on the lightness of their skin. Women question their own intelligence and ability to get things done. And what is “Jewish self-hatred” if not the product of centuries of being hated and reviled?
One attitude that Jews have internalized is that life is difficult, a struggle, and extremely serious, punctuated at best by moments of tenuous joy. This attitude is honestly come by, since for centuries our lives were that way. We were never secure, and our situation in Europe culminated in the Holocaust, the ultimate confirmation of our fears.
Even when the external oppression has ceased or lulled, the internalized oppression gets passed on from one generation to the next, embedded in the lore and attitudes of that community. Just as Black people still struggle with the “slave mentality” a century after emancipation, we Jews still struggle with feelings of defensiveness, invisibility, lack of trust, and constant worry, even when we are not in actual danger. I do not for a moment mean to deny the dangers that exist for Jews in the world today; I am painfully conscious of them. But because we have been raised to expect struggle, hardship, and disaster, it becomes difficult for us to notice the times when perhaps the external situation has improved.
This is the case in the United States today. If you consider the scope of Jewish history, we American Jews of the late twentieth century have a rather rare opportunity. We are currently experiencing enough freedom and enough safety from anti-Semitism to breathe deeply and examine how anti-Semitism has affected our insides. We have the opportunity to study ourselves and our culture and actually begin to separate the life-affirming attitudes and values that we have received as Jews from the rigid scar tissue of pain, fear, and isolation that we carry as a result of centuries of struggling to survive attacks made against us. Several years ago I was attending a baby-naming ceremony for a Jewish baby boy. It was an innovative little ritual, and one of the things we did was pass Eli from person to person, so that each of the adults could personally bless him and welcome him. Of the dozen people there, everyone was Jewish except for one woman, a bubbly, vivacious woman named Kathryn. We passed the baby around, and as each person gave Eli their greeting, I noticed how warm, how serious, how intent — how Jewish, I realized — the welcomes were. And then Kathryn held the baby, and she smiled at him, and said in a cheerful voice:
“Well, Eli, welcome aboard!”
Despite myself, I found myself wanting to shout at her, “Welcome aboard?
What do you think this is, a pleasure cruise?! This is life!” Suddenly I under- stood, more clearly than I ever had before, that for Jews, life is a serious business. How could Kathryn understand? We are warm, loving, intense . . . and serious. That was the lesson we had learned from our history, a message embedded in our behavior and culture, and we were passing it on to Eli as automatically and matter-of-factly as it was passed on to us. Only Kathryn’s presence awakened me to the awareness that there are, indeed, other ways to look at life.
Taking life seriously is a quality I cherish among Jews. There is a thoughtfulness in our holiday cycle that enriches our lives. Compare Rosh Hashanah with the secular New Year. Our High Holiday is centered on taking our lives, and the process of our lives, seriously. And we are raised to seriously care about what happens in the world, to work for fairness and justice.
Yet there is an element to the seriousness — the heaviness — that is the product of our oppression. You can see it in the Yom Kippur liturgy: So many sins! Such a load of guilt we carry! Perhaps, perhaps, if we could let go of some of the seriousness about our lives — what might emerge?
That is why this is the Year of the Happy Jew. We have some collective teshuvah to do, and that is to bring more simcha, joy, into our lives, into our relationships, and into the Jewish community. We are guilty of the sin of joylessness. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts we Jews can give to God right now, without sacrificing our seriousness, is to put more simcha in our lives.
Joylessness affects us as a community. The Jewish community is the sum total of the attitudes we Jews bring into it, good and bad. We’re it. Whatever you love about the Jewish community is in you. Whatever you can’t stand about it is in you, too. Our heaviness, our seriousness, our intensity as a group, may seem like reality to us, like “the way it is,” but there are other ways to approach life. For some people, the metaphor for life is a pleasure cruise! It is a great challenge for communities of Jews to realize that we have all been affected by internalized oppression, that we all therefore behave sometimes in unloving, fearful, defensive ways, and that when we get together as a group, the possibility for acting out these behaviors increases geometrically. Conscious simcha is a great antidote for Jewish internalized oppression.
From what I’ve seen so far, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation has a pretty good handle on simcha. But I’d like to go a step farther and collectively formalize the Year of the Happy Jew. Let us spend a couple of minutes privately sitting and asking ourselves: What could I do to inject more simcha into my day, and into my life? Think about a person close to you: What could you do with that person to make that a more joyful relationship? Now think of yourself as a Jew: What could you do this year to make your life as a Jew a more joyful experience?
Don’t underestimate the seriousness of simcha. It is vital nourishment for a life well lived, a life that enhances other lives. I honor this growing Jewish community for seeking out the joy, the connection, and the aliveness of being Jewish. Be patient, be kind to one another, fight fair, but bottom line, don’t settle for less than simcha.
—Kol Nidre 5749