It's not every day that Orthodox Jews gather in a synagogue to learn about happiness. But on a recent Sunday morning at Young Israel of Century City, a standing-room-only crowd came for precisely that. The event was the seventh annual Ariel Avrech Memorial Lecture, and the speaker was author, radio host and happiness guru Dennis Prager.
The very idea of a serious lecture on happiness felt weird, and Prager sensed it. After all, synagogue sermons usually deal with sober topics like ethics, compassion, truth and justice. Personal happiness? That feels more like a selfish fetish of the secular world. The Torah world is supposed to operate on a more noble and altruistic plane.
Well, that is the misconception Prager came to correct.
Prager's thesis -- which he expounds on in a book, Happiness Is a Serious Problem, and a weekly "Happiness Hour" on his radio show -- is that happiness isn't a selfish act at all, but might be, in fact, the ultimate mitzvah.
To dramatize his point, Prager used the religious language of altruism. If the Torah commands us to look beyond ourselves and consider the welfare of others, what better way than to act happy around others and elevate their own happiness? It's a worthy sacrifice, Prager explained, not to allow one's negative feelings to bring others down.
His subject touched a sensitive nerve. He was talking to Jews who pride themselves on following all of God's mitzvot, and yet, acting happy to make others happy hardly seemed like an obvious mitzvah; certainly not as natural or obvious as lighting the Shabbat candles or donating to charity.
Prager's thesis came to life when he talked about his "war on the moody" -- people who put their feelings first, even at the expense of bringing others down. Judaism isn't about putting feelings first, he said. It's about actions, and actions that bring happiness to the world are supremely moral.
Prager explained how he stumbled onto his happiness philosophy. Many years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz invited him to speak to students at UCLA and suggested "something light, like happiness." When Prager responded that "happiness is a serious problem," Schwartz said he loved that title, and Prager crafted a talk that became one of his most popular.
He's been on a happiness mission ever since.
His mission isn't to promote the suppression of negative feelings -- that's not realistic -- but to make people aware of the power of a happy disposition to change the world around us and make it a better place.
His lecture hit home with me, since one of my pet peeves is moody or disengaged people who think they're being "authentic" when they inflict their moody vibes on those around them, especially in a festive setting. Of course, at the other extreme, I also don't enjoy people who try too hard to act happy. Faux happiness makes me feel guilty that they're faking it on my behalf. Maybe, then, Prager's lecture should come with this caveat: If you have to act happy when you're not feeling it, make sure only the happiness shows, not the acting.
Eventually, Prager says, the more you act happy, the less you'll have to fake it.
This whole notion of happiness was on my mind last week when I went to an event at the Backdoor Art Gallery, a little space located off an alleyway behind Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
The gallery is run by my friend Bob Ore, a French-Moroccan Jew who is one of the premier producers of French cultural events in town. Last year, when he brought the popular comedian Gad Elmaleh to Los Angeles, several hundred French-speaking Jews packed a local theater. Ore is the kind of guy who can get a hundred fashionable people to show up at a party on an afternoon's notice.
At his event last week, you felt you were in a little nightclub in St. Germain, with a French poet singing love songs to a summer night crowd seeking a little moonlight bliss.
The singer was Pol-Serge Kakon, a painter and troubadour in his late 50s with long silver hair and a thin mustache who looked like he could have been married to Edith Piaf. I couldn't believe I was in Los Angeles.
As Kakon was singing to his adoring crowd, I thought about Prager's lecture on happiness. For all I knew, Pol-Serge could have had a real crummy day or been consumed by the sadness of a failed romance. But if that was the case, we saw none of it. All we saw was a singer exhaling happiness onto the people around him. It wasn't a showy kind of happiness, but an intimate sort that comes from being lost in the pleasure of the moment.
Kakon had the power to make us happy, and he used it.
Maybe Prager wants us to be a little like that French troubadour -- to elevate those around us by simply exhaling happiness.
To Prager, this simple act is so important that he calls it a moral obligation. If that's still not enough to motivate you, well, just remember that happy people get invited to the best parties.