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Figuring out the happy Israel

I speak often to groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, about Israel, and one thing that often surprises them is how high Israel ranks in all those various annual happiness surveys.

When some folks hear that Israel regularly ranks in the top 12 in these surveys — this year the UN’s World Happiness Report put Israel ninth, behind a bevy of peaceful northern European countries and New Zealand — they look perplexed.

For non-Jews whose knowledge about Israel comes from the newspapers, which do not paint an overly promising picture of the Promised Land, when they think of happy lands they think of countries like the US with Disneyland and Hollywood, France with an abundance of wine, and Brazil with all those people dancing the samba — these are countries that just seem to exude happiness.

On the other hand, they associate Israel with all they see on the nightly news: rockets and terror and war and unending election cycles.

Tell them that despite all that, Israelis are genuinely a happy people, and some will say that this just proves that not only are they happy, but they must also be stupid, because how could anyone with half a brain find happiness amid the rockets and terror and war and unending elections cycles?

That is the non-Jews. For Diaspora Jews who might know a little bit about Israel’s complexities, and a lot about Jews, when they hear the results of these happiness surveys, many of them, too, are taken aback. They think to themselves, “Since when are Jews happy?”

Many are the explanations that have been proffered for Israelis’ happiness, from the sunny weather to the Mediterranean diet to a sense of fulfillment and purpose just living here. All that certainly plays a role.

But one of the leading factors that I have read about and makes the most sense to me, is that in this geographically small land, one’s family and loved ones are nearby. It’s not America, where the parents live, say, in Denver, and the kids live a few thousand kilometers away in New Jersey. Here the parents live in Jerusalem, and the kids live — if they work in hi-tech — in Tel Aviv. They see each other 
. . . a lot.

And close physical proximity to parents and children and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, even with the occasional meddling and fights and tension, leads to happiness, or so say the experts.

For immigrants who perhaps left their parents behind to move here, and who have given birth to and raised their children in this country, this is especially powerful and poignant, leading to the thought: OK, I may have left my parents, but at least my kids won’t leave me.

At least that’s the hope . . . and the prayer.

So far I’ve been lucky. Up until now all of our children and grandchildren have lived within an hour’s car ride from my Ma’aleh Adumim home. The roads to their homes might not always traverse the world’s most friendly and hospitable terrain, but at least they are close by.

Up until now.

At the beginning of the month, my third child, Skippy, along with Mrs. Skippy and their three sons — Biff, Chip and Kipper — moved to the Golan Heights.

That’s right, the Golan Heights. I should have seen this coming. My father drummed into me poetry, and I know, as Wordsworth wrote, that “the child is the father of the man.” Therefore I should have seen the writing on the wall.

When Skippy was in ninth grade, we had a yeshiva high school 90 seconds from my front door. But no, that was not for the Skipster. He insisted on going to a school 90 minutes south of our home, and living there, to boot. Call this foreshadowing.

When he finished high school and wanted to study in a yeshiva before going into the army, where did he choose? Jerusalem? Alon Shvut? Jaffa? Otniel, perhaps? No, he picked the furthest one possible: Eilat.

I was starting to get a bit paranoid, wondering whether it was something I said, and why my No. 3 child wanted to put all that space between us. But then — after getting married and finishing the army — he chose to stay relatively close by.

But now? Now I feel lost.

“How could they?” I protested to The Wife, pulling out my hair. “What are we going to do? When will we see them?”

“Relax,” she said, ever the mindful instructor focusing on the here and now, not the what was and the what will be. “They are moving to the Golan, not Grenada. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Keep a sense of proportion.”

And she was right, of course. But everything is relative. Having had my son and grandkids 50 minutes away, their moving to the Golan now feels as though they are moving to the ends of the earth. But they are not, and I need to keep that in mind.

My youngest son, the Youngest, did, however, go to the ends of the earth. Literally.

In April, The Youngest and his wife left on a whirlwind world tour and — as the weeks and months wore on and they traveled from Nepal to the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and, get a hold of this geographic logic, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Denver, Chicago, Lakewood and New York — I felt intense longing. But last week, after more than four long months, they returned safely. I felt happier at their return than I had felt in weeks; all seemed well again with the world.

Of course, all things are not well with the world — what with the rockets and terror and war and unending election cycles — but all seemed in order in my little world, and, that being the case, I could cope with all the rest.

I was happy, and had I been polled at the time by those UN folks measuring happiness around the world, my answers would have helped push Israel even higher up in those rankings — which explains exactly why Israel scores so high in those polls, despite everything going on around us.

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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Herb Keinon, a Denver native, interned at the IJN before going on to a career at the Jerusalem Post, where he is a senior contributing editor.

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