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Jewish women on happiness

Writing that last post on the General Social Survey about women's unhappiness has really got me thinking about happiness and how to define happiness. In my post, I shared a quote from Nora Ephron in which she explains that in different eras, happiness could be defined as "a puppy," "a dry martini," or "knowing what your uterus looks like." What would happiness be defined as today? A smart phone?

The Jewish Women's Archive has trained me to look to Jewish women at times like this, so I picked up The Quotable Jewish Woman, which lives on my desk here at the office. As it turns out, Jewish women have a lot to say on the subject of happiness.

"It is good to have such moments of despair and of temporary extinction; continuous calm would be superhuman." ~ Etty Hillesum, 1983

"Throw yourselves at happiness, sisters, / Burst into silvery laughter!" ~ Miriam Ulinover, 1922

"Happiness is getting a brown gravy stain on a brown dress." ~ Totie Fields

"Instant gratification takes too long." ~ Carrie Fisher, 1987

"The people are a very fickle baby that must have new toys every day." ~ Emma Goldman, 1911

"A happy woman is one who has no cares at all; a cheerful woman is one who has cares but doesn't let them get her down." ~ Beverly Sills, 1975

"There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness or death. Any attempt to prove otherwise constitutes unacceptable behavior." ~ Fran Lebowitz, 1978

"Only to have a grief equal to all these tears!" ~ Adrienne Rich, 1963

"My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose. Neither am I the means to any end others may wish to accomplish. I am not a tool for their use. I am not a servant of their needs. I am not a bandage for their wounds. I am not a sacrifice on their altars." ~ Ayn Rand, 1946

"I was always much too elated to imagine despair." ~ Eve Babitz, 1993

"I came to see the Center elderly as in possession of the philosophers' stone -- that universally sought, ever-elusive treasure, harboring the secret that would teach us how to transmute base metals into pure gold. The stone, like the bluebird's feather of happiness, is said to be overlooked precisely because it is so close to us, hidden in the dust at our feet." ~ Barbara Myerhoff

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How do you define happiness?

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"When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us." Helen Keller

Happiness is having your children be successful and content in their chosen life path. If you so choose, and are fortunate enough to have children, that is one sure investment you make in our community's future.

I was at the first Tikkun conference, and the memorable events (other than creating an online feed to the conference--which directly led to meeting Grace Paley) were all tied up with memories of her. Most of all, I remember her giving a keynote speech? Just a talk? at the conference dinner, perched on a box behind the podium, reading a piece she said that she was called a "Midrash on Happiness" followed by one of the best talks I have ever heard. I was in tears at the end, not just because of the midrash, but because of the way in which she managed to speak to so many issues that mattered, from nuclear disarmament to changes in Israel, and how we must fight hard to effect change, without losing the hope and acceptance of the piece with which she opened her talk. It turns out that it wasn't just me. I am astonished by how many other people have made that piece part of their lives. Happily, the midrash piece is actually online, via Google Books. And somewhere, at a friend's house, in (what is probably not anymore) my copy of one of her later collections, is the whole talk.

The problem, of course, is not just that there are so many definitions of happiness, but that often the things that make us happy can be sort of contradictory. Case in point: the first two things that come to my mind when I think of what makes me happy these days: 1) when one of my kids takes my hand and says, "I love you, Ima" and 2) when I can have a quiet evening away from my kids! My absolute favorite piece on happiness is from Grace Paley (whom I've often written about on this blog). Her story, "Midrash on Happiness," is a short conversation between two old friends, walking along and musing about what they need for happiness -- both the small, intimate moments of everyday life, and the larger changes in the world. What I love about Paley is that she captures the conflicts we often feel between the two, but she doesn't privilege one over the other. She shows how both are essential. Reading the perfect short story -- that's something that really makes me happy.

My happiness is looking into my 6-month-old sons' eyes and having them break into a big happy grin upon seeing their mommy. There is no better feeling in the world. Baruch Hashem for my two little miracles.

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Jewish women on happiness." 24 September 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/jewish-women-on-happiness>.

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