Out There: Turning weeds into flowers

If a college entrance exam would ask applicants to pair up words, nobody would match "Palestinian violence" with "happiness;" "Iranian nukes" with "optimism;" or "Hassan Nasrallah" with "contentment."

Optimism cartoon 370 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Optimism cartoon 370
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
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 brown.
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 Ireland.
“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 wonderment.
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 behold.
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.
Israeli optimism, 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.”