Name: Avner Even-Zohar, aka “Captain Happiness”
City: Carmel Valley
Position: Hebrew-language instructor for the military, public speaker, children’s book author
J.: Where did you grow up in Israel and what brought you to the U.S.?
Avner Even-Zohar: I was born in Tel Aviv, but then my family moved to Herzliya. I got a scholarship to study at the University of Texas in Austin.
J.: You ran San Francisco’s Israel Center from 2000 to 2005, and during that time you were a popular speaker on college campuses, lecturing about such topics as gays in the Israeli military and Israeli politics. Do you miss it?
AEZ: I still get to do it sometimes. I am part of the Jewish National Fund’s speakers’ bureau and they send me to college campuses. Now I talk more about the queer liberation movement in the Middle East and leadership, emotional intelligence, creativity and innovation in Israel.
J.: Where did the title “Captain Happiness” come from?
AEZ: When I started working at the military language school here in Monterey, I was promoted really quickly to be a department chair. I was the youngest person to ever hold this position, so they sent me to a lot of leadership trainings, and through that, I got very interested in emotional intelligence and happiness. Through the tests they gave us, I started to look at my own life, and saw that I wasn’t particularly happy, so I started to make some changes in my life. I realized that I can increase my own satisfaction and gratitude.
J.: How has it been working at a military school where you’re openly gay?
AEZ: I started working here before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was abolished, and I’ve always been openly gay from the beginning; my students can Google me the first day of classes and find out. While things were quieter then, there is now a group of gay and lesbian service members, both faculty and students, who are putting together an officially recognized group; it may be the first such recognized group in the U.S. military. They are holding a pride event [this month] and asked me to be keynote speaker.
What’s your secret to being happy?
AEZ: One of my talks is called “Jewish Happiness Is Not an Oxymoron.” A lot of the principles of emotional intelligence that are now being validated by science are rooted in Judaism; for example, one basic principle is to ask yourself what can I do for the world, rather than what can the world do for me. When you see yourself that way, you’re attuned to see what kind of service you can provide, and that really changes your life. Instead of chasing ego, and my definition of ego is the desire to have money and fame and control and sex, Judaism tells us if you chase those things, they’ll run away from you. But if you are of service to others, ironically you get all those things.
Happy people share their happiness with the world, and miserable people share their misery with the world. Once I was happy and started to share it with others, the response was really positive.
J.: You’ve written several children’s books, with titles like “Have You Hugged an Elephant Today?” “Acer the Rat- Racer” and “If You Want to Be Happy — Be!” What got you into writing these books?
AEZ: I sometimes feel I don’t really write them, but they write themselves through me. I’ve published four, and the fifth one is coming out very soon. I write the books I would want to read. When I’m in doubt or have a challenging moment, I want a book that will tell me simply and clearly some guiding principles that will help me with my own journey. While they’re geared for kids, their message is for all ages; seniors really enjoy them, too.
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