Monday, March 7, 2011

The End of Lachrymosity

Over half a century ago, the great Jewish historian Salo Baron famously declared an end to the lachrymose view of Jewish history. By this he meant that prior Jewish historians had an almost unremittingly bleak view of Jewish history. Jews, in these narratives, were always the persecuted victims, living tenuously in a hostile world. Baron claimed that in truth Jewish life since the "exile" (i.e., the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the end of any semblance of Jewish autonomy) has largely flourished, nowhere more so than in the modern U.S. The positive evaluation of Jewish life outside of the land of Israel has now become the dominant trend in modern Jewish historiography written outside of the State of Israel, and has been lucidly surveyed in Michael Brenner, Prophets of the Past: Interpreters of Jewish History (Princeton, 2010).

This historiographical development immediately came to mind as I was reading the New York Times "Week in Review" Section. In a whimsical piece, the Times decided to track down "the happiest man in America." That is, they attempted to find the person who fulfills all of the "happiest" criteria of Gallup's well-being index. And they did find him: "he’s a tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year."

Now this struck me as odd - since when is being Jewish a sign of happiness? It turns out that according to the Gallup survey, Jews are the happiest of all religious groups in America (followed, curiously enough, by atheists and agnostics). Don't ask me to explain the reason for this because I can't; this just seems to be exceedingly weird to me.

Yet, now finally we have empirical evidence the perhaps Baron was onto something.


Daniel said...

One thing this shows as well, however, is the absurdity of regarding being "Jewish" as an independent variable from ethnicity. There are some, but very few, Asian-american Jews, and I doubt that it is "religion" that is making Jews happier. Thanks for the blog. Daniel Boyarin

Michael Satlow said...

Daniel, thanks, as always, for your comment. Clearly you're right that "Jewish" is here best seen as an ethnic rather than religious designation (especially given the high showing of the atheists!), but that still leads to a mystifying finding. My guess is that the methodology is flawed.

Cristina said...

Hi! I found this blog while listening to your podcast from Israelites to Jews. I found your podcast very interesting and well made. I am a previous catholic, now agnostic. I have felt envious of some people I know who take their religion seriously and seem to get a sense of happiness and serenity from it, which sometimes makes me wish I could believe, but I don't.

However, there is the complexity of defining what happiness is. I have come to understand it less as a permanent state, and more as a feeling present only during happy moments,or brief periods, which we should cherish. In this context, a happier person, to me, is one who has more frequent or more pleasurable happy moments, but doesn't necessarily feels "happy" most of the time.

Greetings from Mexico City