Who Are They to Tell Us We're Happy?

Israel is in 14th place, quite a high ranking, in the index of countries whose inhabitants feel they are happy.

Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer
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Headshot of Haaretz columnist and literary supplement editor Benny Ziffer, who is artistic director of the poetry festival to be held in Metula.
Benny Ziffer

For a moment at the beginning of the week I was flooded with true happiness, when I read the following springtime report in the newspaper: Israel is in 14th place, quite a high ranking, in the index of countries whose inhabitants feel they are happy. A short time later, however, a cloud passed across my face, as I saw in my mind's eye my editor reading the very same report and saying to himself: Here's something that's right up Ziffer's alley; let's assign him to make mincemeat of it for the end-of-Pesach paper.

Verily, what I feared came to pass. Here am I, and opposite me is Happiness, and we eye each other warily. "I don't believe your statistics," I tell Happiness. "Look around. Everyone is scowling, edginess is waiting for the slightest excuse to burst out in the form of curses and brawls. Look at the way people behave on the road, these Israelis. If they were happy, they would be somewhat better drivers, wouldn't you say?"

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

Happiness assumes a polite, Dalai Lama-like smile, and makes no reply. Which starts to drive me nuts.

"Sure, you're sitting there in your air-conditioned offices at the United Nations (the happiness index was published by the UN, the paper reported ) and believe the fictions that people tell you. Where are the occupation and its wrongs? Where is the daily suffering of the Palestinians? Where are the Qassam rockets? The social-protest movement? The Iranian threat? And Netanyahu? You guys in New York must be living in Cloud Cuckoo Land," I say.

Happiness, a tranquil type by nature, reaches for the bottle of water before him. He pours some into a glass and sips it. "It's all right to get annoyed," he says, trying to sound persuasive. "That's it, get out all the filth you have stored inside."

I do as he bids and enumerate all the evils with which Israel has been cursed, as everyone knows, in politics, economics, societal issues and culture. My over-enthusiasm makes me thirsty. Happiness pours me a glass of water and hands it to me. But as soon as the liquid touched my lips I discover that it is not water at all but pure alcohol. Vodka, maybe, or gin.

"What's the deal? Are you trying to make me go fuzzy?" I call out, slamming the glass on the table. "No, on the contrary," Happiness replies. "Statistics published by the UN show that people who drink a glass of alcohol every day tend to be healthier and happier. Believe me. I speak from personal experience."

Happiness opens his mouth and tells his story. How he was born into a family of indigent refugees. His father was killed by the occupation army and his mother was raped before his eyes when he was a child. As he wandered into the unknown from his native village, which was wiped off the face of the earth, he fell ill with TB and went blind in one eye. His mother, who was unable to withstand the rigors of the journey, whispered to him before closing her eyes for all time, "Do not forget, my son, to be always happy."

After he finished speaking and inhaled deeply, as sick people do (indeed, only then did I notice how shattered and meager this happiness was ), I realized something that I had not grasped before, in my ardent desire to tell him my troubles: namely, that the condition of your health and your bank account have nothing to do with happiness. In other words, you can be an oppressed Palestinian and still be happy. You can be a neurotic, aggressive Israeli - and also a happy person.

"So what's the value of this happiness you're trying to sell me?" I retorted provocatively to the wretched being who was talking to me.

"That's just it," Mr. Happiness said. "I haven't come to sell you anything, only to ask if you can donate a little money to a project we are trying to get off the ground: to build a school for children of refugees who were deported from Israel back to Africa and live there in garbage-cities. Donations start at NIS 50 and up."

He poked around in the left pocket of his suit and pulled out a receipt book.

Now I could no longer contain my anger. I looked for something to throw at him, the crook. The glass of alcohol was the only thing within reach. I stood up, and like that blonde MK from the right wing, I hurled the contents of the glass into the face and onto the suit of Happiness.

"Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" I shouted. "Parasites! Don't you have enough money in the UN that you have to ask me to underwrite you? Yallah, yallah, we know all about you! Sufferers, my foot!"

Against all expectations from the reserved, smiling gentleman, Happiness, reeking of alcohol, got up and slapped me. It was a tremendously powerful blow that threw me a meter or two back. I fell to the ground. My head struck the floor. I saw stars. No one had ever slapped me like that. I was so astonished that I burst into tears, like a little boy.

"Say you're sorry for what you said!" he exclaimed, bending over me with a clenched fist and holding me by the throat with his other hand. I nodded my head once, twice, three times. After he had ascertained without any doubt that I had learned the lesson - that you don't mess with happiness - he took a notebook out of his right pocket and added my name to the column of new additions to the statistics.



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