Say “happy land” to most people around the world, and certain countries will
leap to mind: Brazil, Jamaica, Denmark, probably Australia.
Israel, so closely
associated with missiles, bombs, conflict and strife, probably isn’t on that
list. Which is why those various wellness and happiness and optimism surveys
taken from time to time, showing Israelis among the happiest, most optimistic
and content people in the world, are so jarring.
For instance, if a
college entrance exam asked applicants to pair up words, nobody would match
“Palestinian violence” with “happiness,” “Iranian nukes” with “optimism” or
“Hassan Nasrallah” with “contentment.”
But we’ve got all that – the violence,
the nukes, the Nasrallahs – and much more. We have a chemical weapons superpower
on our northern border fast disintegrating; we have a large country to our south
governed by a man who says Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs; and a
month after our own elections, we have no government.
Yet a 2011 Gallup
survey rated us the fourth-most optimistic country worldwide; a 2011 OECD life
satisfaction poll placed us in eighth place; and we came in 14th in the UN’s
2012 world happiness report. What’s that about?
A RECENT walk down the
street with one of my sons gave me the answer.
This is, unquestionably, a
magical time of the year, especially where I live, out in Ma’aleh Adumim on the
cusp of the Judean Desert. About nine months of the year, the gentle sloping
hills outside my window are a monotonous brown. No trees, few shrubs, no
vegetation, just brown – Georgia O’Keeffe brown; Sahara Desert
There is beauty in those barren hills, don’t get me wrong. (I
imagine the moon is also a lovely place.) But the beauty in those hills comes
more from their soft, rounded shapes than from their vegetation. Finding
beauty out there during the parched, brown months – especially for someone who
grew up amid the trees, leaves and roaring rivers of Colorado – is an acquired
taste, very much of the “hey, I live here and might as well find some splendor
in the scenery” variety.
But for three brief winter months, especially
during a wet winter like the one we’ve just had, the hills are painted in
splendid green, purple and yellow. During these months the hills are beautiful
even to those accustomed to lush green surroundings. You look out the
window and – for a second – you see not the Mojave Desert, but
“Honey, quick, come look, it’s Earland, bloody Earland,” I yell
at The Wife in my best lilting accent. “Come look quick, before it all
wilts, withers and dies.”
IT WAS ON one of these misty Irish mornings in
Ma’aleh Adumim that I ambled down the road with one of me lads. He stopped
suddenly at a vacant lot to admire a weed.
At least I thought it was a
weed: the mustard weed, the kind that were it sprouting through the cracks of a
Denver sidewalk, or around the perimeters of an American manicured lawn, would
be viewed as a pernicious pest and unceremoniously pulled up by its roots. But
not here, not for my boy. For him it was a flower.
In my boy’s
clear eyes this was not a weed to dismiss, but the wonderful hardal hasadeh
(sinapis arvensis) that grows in “only” 16 regions in the country (how many
regions are there?) and deserves a full-blown explanation.
And not only
did this weed – er, flower – attract his attention, but so too did many others,
even those that looked awfully like the hated dandelion of my youth, the one I
spent many a summer day expunging from my father’s lawn. But in my son’s eyes,
these were neither dandelions nor weeds, rather some of the finest wildflowers
ever to grace God’s green earth.
And therein lies the secret to Israeli
contentment and optimism: See a weed, call it a flower.
All that stuff about
making the desert bloom? C’mon. It's blooming all right, but it's blooming with
what we in Colorado would call weeds. It's just that here we see them as
flowers. And this weeds-to-flowers perspective can be seen through different
aspects of our collective life.
CLIFF RICHARD, a 72-year-old British
rocker, signs on to make a stop in Israel, and it is being called one of the
major concerts of the summer. Post offices introduce a numbers system to
retrieve packages, and we are thrilled by this amazing innovation. Yishai Oliel
wins an international tennis championship for boys ages 12 and under, and he
merits a phone call from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a visit to his
office. Supermarkets hire people to sack groceries, and we are bedazzled
by how that helps speed up the checkout process.
It rains, and Netanyahu
– on a trip to an IDF base on the Golan Heights – makes a special stop to survey
how the rain has dramatically enhanced a local waterfall. My son, the
weed-lover, will walk miles to a “spring” in the heat of the summer to splash
around in what – truth be told – is no more than a glorified puddle, formed by
an underground rivulet.
“Isn’t this a great ma’ayan [spring]?” he gushes,
as though he had just discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. Spring my
foot, it’s a water faucet. But I’m quiet, taken in by his
Hakol barosh – everything is in the mind – is what our
children get drummed into them in the army. Everything is in the head:
fatigue, aching knees, hunger. I used to hate that phrase, but it has some value
to it, because if the weariness of a long trek can be overcome by your mind,
then a murky waterhole can become Emerald Lake, worth hours of travel just to
This ability to make something seem greater than it looks on the
surface is a childlike trait endearing also in adults because it bespeaks
excitement and wonderment at the routine and the regular.
happiness, and contentment – despite the objective reality around us and the
constant kvetching voiced at everyone’s Shabbat table – comes from taking the
small and making it big; from taking the usual and making it special; from
taking the weeds and considering them flowers.
Or, as Eeyore said in
Winnie-the-Pooh, “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” Ours is a
national psyche that “gets to know them.”