HEALTH COACH TALKS with Ya'qub ibn Yusuf about Joy

 with Olam Qatan Proprietor, 
and Scholar, Ya'qub ibn Yusuf, 
in Jerusalem, about joy

Thank you, dear friend, Ya'qub, for taking the time to share the wisdom that you have earned after a lifetime devoted to your studies.

1. You have gone on ahead, in your studies, can you report back to us the important details (both the sublime and the mundane; the micro and the macro) about the joy, that you have encountered?

2. What do the great teachers tell us about joy?

3. You are living in a hotbed of conflict. What role can joy have there?

4. Is there joy on the streets of the new city of Jerusalem?

5. Please share with my readers, here at HEALTH COACH, any personal wisdom, from your life devoted to scholarly study, about joy. 

Please visit: 
The Physiology of Joy 

The Temple Mount at sunset 
with the New City of Jerusalem rising behind 

I came home late from a Turkish Sufi music concert, following a Kabbalistic session of musical meditations. I got home, turned on the computer, and fell asleep in my armchair, got up, and put myself to bed. I thought to pick up the thread this morning… and I think I’m past your deadline! I’m sorry about that.

The Light Rail Train Bridge is located near the Eastern Gate 
to the Old City of Jerusalem, considered as the modern entrance to the city

In ancient times this road connected the Old City of Jerusalem with the Tel Aviv Highway, Jaffo at the Mediterranean Sea, and Herzl Boulevard, one of the most important arteries of the New City of Jerusalem.

But maybe I’ll take a minute and write about the concert. Because it was literally on the streets of Jerusalem. Mahaneh Yehudah, and around it, Nachlaot, is the first Jewish neighbourhood that was built outside and away from the walls of the Old City. 

Nachlaot - click for expanded view

The open market, there is a wild, crazy place where sellers stand behind the counters of their shops open to the streets, even in winter. I was impressed last night, coming out of the class I attended in Nachlaot with Yitzchak Schwartz, a guitar-playing ultra-orthodox rabbi with a very big heart who was born in El Paso, Texas. 

Mahaneh Yuhudah - click to expand

I was impressed even as I caught a bus to go home at 11:30 pm, to see young folks sitting in the cold (above freezing, but still cold by Middle East standards!) at all kinds of bars and cafes. I myself had just been sitting outside, listening to Turkish music, some of it inspired by dervish poetry. That’s the only thing that would keep me sitting outside between 9:30 and 11 pm! I was amazed to see more and more people coming and sitting there around me, drinking tea, or beer, or Arak, eating all kinds of things that go with pita bread, and enjoying this music. The group is called Ashik which means Lover (of God), and the bar, which is on a lane off the main street; opens at night when most of the markets are closed, and serves people sitting on folding chairs and tables, right there in the lane. 

There were a few Jewish Israelis of Turkish origin - the young woman singer and the bamboo Ney flute player in the group and a few people in the audience. In the summertime, when Ashik plays, it seems to me there are more people interested in Sufism, and I read a few poems from the dervish Yunus Emre that I’ve published in Hebrew. 

Aşık Ensemble

But this night it was just for the music, people were there because they love oriental music. When they finished the program, a young fellow who works at the restaurant started to improvise some Arabic song with some of the musicians. Mostly young people were there. I noticed a beautiful young black woman smoking a hookah… and then a white-haired older man got up and started to dance, waving his wool scarf in the air! The audience went wild… this was just as I was leaving.

click to expand

So is there joy in the streets of Jerusalem? At an outside café in a lane off the main street of the Mahaneh Yehudah market, last night, there was a lot of joy. After 8 days of Hanukah, on what everyone knew would be Christmas Eve… somewhere else… there was joy. Mostly Jewish people (maybe some Arabs), mostly young, people who love oriental music, Turkish, Arabic, whatever; people who want to celebrate living here in the Middle East and crossing boundaries and having a good time; many of us felt joy.

This is one thing I’ve noticed about Jerusalem that’s very different than Istanbul. In Istanbul, it’s really crowded. What is it - 17 million people? More than the whole population of all of Israel, Jewish and Arab, crammed into one city! And people there are well-behaved. Nobody shouts in the streets. It’s just not done. Here, in Jerusalem, people feel free to express themselves. We’re Jews at home in our homeland. Friends shout, celebrate, sing songs, pray. In the streets, and in their homes, with open windows. And they argue! A driver doesn’t stop at the crosswalk, and the middle-aged woman with red streaks in her hair and ski pants, starts shouting at the driver about his bad behaviour. He stops to listen to her and reply, and the drivers behind him start honking. I saw this just yesterday, as I was on my way by bicycle to open my bookstore. This is normal in this country. Is it joy? Not all of it. There is much anger. But there’s an exuberant self-expression which is at home in this place.

For me, personally, I think of joy as a quieter, more inward thing. There are moments of appreciation and expansion, of feeling: Well, yes, this is good, which I’d call joy. We can talk about mindfulness - remembering to sense the body. We can talk about remembering God, and gratitude. Joy is close to these, but it’s something that emerges… free. 

In Judaism, we have lots of mitzvoth Commandments. One thing I didn’t really see eye-to-eye with my Sufi teacher Murat Yagan, he’d quote Jesus saying one Commandment I bring to you, that you love your neighbor as I have loved you. (He passed away just a year ago, and I never got to discuss or argue about this with him, may his memory be for a blessing.) You know, that one Christian Commandment doesn’t work for me at all. I cannot love as a Commandment. I can show respect, I can hope to feel respect from those around me, and that then clears the way for love. But the love comes free, not as something you’re supposed to feel. I feel very stubborn about this… on this point I am very much a stubborn Jew.

click to expand

But I mention this because joy is like that for me. We have the same problem in Judaism. There’s a Hasidic teacher, Rebbe Nahman, who really showed me the vision I was seeking - of how universal spirituality and Judaism might fit together - when I first came to Winnipeg to study with Reb Zalman some 40 years ago. While I’ve been digging out Reb Nahmans deeper spiritual teachings over the course of these years, some of his more popular teachings—and he’s become very popular, especially among the newly religious here in Israel—don’t speak to me so much. Especially the one about the command to be joyous. 

My old friend and teacher Arthur Green who is in Israel this week, just published a book about Ten Great Ideas of Judaism, and the first one he discusses is the emphasis on joy. And this is a point where I don’t mind being a bit of a heretic. I don’t think you can command joy. It doesn’t feel right at all. You clear the way and joy comes, love comes. Of its own. Art does quote a nice passage, though, from Rebbe Nahman, where he describes someone feeling depressed who gets invited to joy, like being invited to join a circle of dancers and there’s a part of yourself that stays on the sidelines looking on at your dancing. And you have to grab that part of yourself as well, and pull him into the dance! Well, what can I say? I don’t like to have to and should but I do like that description. 

There’s a popular expression in Judaism which is said at sad events like funerals, which Art quotes in Yiddish, but I hear a lot around me in Hebrew: “Just at rejoicings!” Indeed, the general term in Hebrew and Yiddish for births, weddings, bar and bat mitzvas, is Simchas or smachot rejoicings! My mother, her memory be blessed, was bipolar; she could get very, dangerously depressed. But she also knew great joy, and love for the people around her. When my parents moved from the USA to the mystical city of Tzfat, she found a great role as a Bible teacher in the day-clinic at the mental hospital down the road from where they lived. And every year she’d open her class by telling her students, “Friends, our patriarchs and matriarchs were not perfect people. They had human problems, deep problems, and human as they were, they struggled to find the way to follow the living God. That’s why we have so much we can learn from them!” I remember some of her students coming to her funeral, and the appreciation they expressed. Anyway, I’m way ahead of myself. 

This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness, comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture. Be grateful for whoever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.   Rumi

Seven years earlier, my father passed away. He was the rabbi of the only congregation in Tzfat that had men and women sitting together. Anyway, I remember as we sat for seven days in traditional mourning, people would say the traditional Jewish blessing, “It should only be at Simchas, at rejoicings!” And my mother and sister and I discussed how annoying this was. My father’s passing was sad, but it was also joyous. He followed his vision and he quietly led a great life. What an accomplishment! 

The problem is, people didn’t want to honour the sad parts of life. Religion, after all, should be teaching us to embrace the whole thing! We made it a family custom to gently encourage the comforters, saying to them, Gam bismachot - Also at rejoicings. Yes, we look forward to opportunities to rejoice, but we don’t deny the genuine sadness that's a part of life. We want to savour that as well. 

It brings me just a little bit to the edge of tears, to recall these things about my mother, my father, my family. There’s joy in that sadness. I wouldn’t have it any other way… than the way it is. Thank God, for the whole of our life!

Let me get this off to you… in case it’s still useful.
With much love,

Microphones For Peace
Building Audible Bridges

Oriental Music and Stories  
Podcast From Olam Qatan 
Book and Oriental Music Store, Jerusalem  
Hosted by Ya'qub ibn Yusuf
1. The Range
2. The Corner
3. Schlomo Bar & David D'Or
4. Yair Dalal & The Perfume Road
5. Piris & Mark Eliyahu 
Olam Qatan means microcosm or small world and is the name of Jerusalem’s spiritual bookstore & East-West music store. Our Olam Qatan program features new Israeli music bridging secular and religious approaches to Judaism, Ashkenazic and Sephardic culture, and sometimes also bridging the Jewish and Arab worlds. This episode gives a first taste of the new spiritual and East-West music of Israel: from Shlomo Bar, Bustan Avraham, Yair Dalal, E-W Ensemble, Sheva and Shotei HaNevua, to Yasmin Levy, Yonatan Razel, Eden MiQedem, Meir Banai and Diwan HaLev.
The music can be purchased from Olam Qatan.

Olam Qatan at Facebook
+972 2-563-7507

Olam Qatan
54 Emek Refaim

Please visit:
The Physiology of Joy