September 23, 2022

Rosh Hashanah: Having a Happy Jewish New Year in Israel - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

This is the season in which every conversation ends with a blessing to our counterparts for a “good New Year.” As we begin 5783, let’s take a moment to examine what that means.

“Good” means excellent health, loving relationships, and prosperity. And then, there’s that elusive term “happiness.”

We almost always add the codicil “Chag sameach,” happy holiday.

Okay, we’re not No.1. That distinction goes to Finland, ranked the happiness capital of the world for the past five years. I have only one Finnish friend, and she’s the most even-tempered person I know. Of course, you can’t extrapolate from one, but the national Finnish stereotype is to be reserved and coolheaded.

Sometimes the quiet Finnish way is related to the physical aspects of the country. Finland – 16 times Israel’s size, with a little more than half of our (hotheaded) population – also has breathing space with its vast forests and lakes plus all those outdoor saunas.

Finland’s fellow Scandinavian neighbors are Norway and Sweden, also ranked in the top 10 for happiness. There is the border with Russia, which may impact Finland’s future happiness, but remember that Finland and Russia have not been at war for nearly eight decades. 

We Israelis, on the other hand, live in a constant state of security alertness, intranational tensions and political strife. Still, on the happiness scale, we’re just one country behind Norway, where the fairy-tale fictional kingdom Arendell of Disney’s movie Frozen is set. And wide-open space isn’t everything. We’re ahead of New Zealand, Canada and the United States in measures of happiness.

Wrestling with this question (Israel means “the one who wrestles”), I turned to the latest update by authors Adam Reuter and Noga Kainan, whose 2018 book Israel – Island of Success presents a data-driven analysis of our country’s many achievements.

Reuter and Kainan call themselves “rational optimists,” using the term developed by British scientist Matt Ridley, and basing their conclusions on statistics and interviews. Their book’s bottom line is that we in Israel stand on stable ground and have the ability to cope with our challenges, present and future.

THEIR BOOK was published, of course, before the pandemic. How are we doing now? According to Reuter and Kainan’s most recent report, called “The Intensification of Success,” we have still more reasons for life satisfaction today.

Israel had the fifth lowest OECD mortality rate from COVID – and three of the four ahead of us are islands with built-in isolation. That’s a quarter of the death rate of the OECD as a whole. Our universal access to sophisticated healthcare and our lifestyle make us one of the healthiest countries in the world. Add to that, the quick acquisition and administration of vaccines saved us from the tragedies experienced by other OECD countries, such as Italy.

A contributing factor, not mentioned by the authors, was our creative response. In theory, public health should extend to the entire population, but it was immediately clear that COVID-19 infection rates weren’t uniform. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, the ultra-Orthodox community, 12% of the population, had 25% of the infections. A Health Ministry task force turned this around in real time by developing specific community models for information, treatment and prevention.

Remember the hotels for isolation and the vaccination centers plus cholent on Thursday nights? These were ideas that government specialists came up with, adapting models to specific community needs. The same was true for turning around the high rates of infection and depression in senior residences. We expect as much from our experts!

The economic toll of the pandemic, it turns out, was moderate also. In terms of both returning to low rates of unemployment and restoring economic growth, we’re among the world’s top nations.

WE’VE LONG known that we have more children per family than the rest of the developed world, but Reuter and Kainan point out that we’re the youngest country in the OECD, with a median age of 30, compared to 42 in the OECD. That means that the optimism in the country is also shared by younger people, itself a vector of happiness. Europe, China and the US are all facing shrinking populations that are also aging.

What about the traditional wish for “a sweet new year”?

Fortunately, Israel’s sweetness is not based on sugar consumption. We’re not near the top of sugar-eating countries. A study of 187 countries puts our eating habits among the healthiest in the world. We’re crazier for tomatoes than sugar cereals.

We do use 4,500 tons of honey per year, 40% of which is consumed on Rosh Hashanah. But we’re not treacly standouts. The top honey-eaters in the world, interestingly, live in the Central African Republic.

Nor should we feel guilty about all the time we spend at the table during the holiday season. Lots of research positively correlates family dinners with physical, social-emotional and even academic benefits. And, according to Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, an international expert in positive psychology, the No.1 predictor of happiness is the time we spend with people we care about and who care about us.  

That means the person at our Rosh Hashanah table is likely to be our source of happiness. What a good way to start off the year.

As Rabbi Nahman of Breslov says, mitzvah gedola lihyot b’simha. When we’re counting those 613 seeds of the pomegranate that correspond to mitzvot, remember that it’s a major mitzvah to be happy.

Shana tova u’metuka and chag sameach!