Be a better you, be a better Jew: Mussar can help, author says

Alan Morinis has a friend who can maintain perfect inner calmness — until uttering two words reduces her to a nervous wreck.

“Hi, Mom.”

The song may go, “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” but Morinis is more concerned with people who are unhappy and know it. The Canadian author and lecturer is a devotee of the Mussar movement, an 1,100-year-old Jewish practice of contemplative rituals and exercises aimed at ameliorating faults and bringing about inner satisfaction.

Morinis — in town all last week for numerous events throughout the Bay Area — feels that we make many of our problems for ourselves. When we run into traffic, it’s a choice to smack the steering wheel and curse. When we put off our taxes until April 14, that, too was a choice.

And, like Sy Sperling of the Hair Club for Men, Morinis isn’t just the founder of Vancouver’s Mussar Institute, he’s also a client. He acknowledges that he has a problem with impatience and has been using the principles of Mussar to battle it.

“The typical anecdote I use is to imagine a couple getting ready to go out for a nice, social evening. It’s always the same one who’s at the door and not only are they impatient, they’re righteous. They know the other person is totally at fault. What they don’t realize and what the Jewish tradition teaches about impatience is, they have a choice,” said Morinis, who recently released his second book, “Everyday Holiness.”

“You can choose that moment to activate your patience. You can take the moment to catch your breath.”

In the mornings, Morinis practices “contemplations,” taking some time to imagine what the consequences of losing his patience might be. It’s not unlike a basketball player shooting free throws for hours in anticipation of doing so at the end of a game.

While Mussar has been around since the 10th century, it experienced a renaissance in 19th-century Lithuania. In the last decade more and more devotees have adopted it into their everyday lives (including several Bay Area clubs, among them two in Oakland).

The focus on individual happiness and well-being is something other Jewish communal endeavors have not focused on, according to Morinis.

The last 50 years or so of American Judaism have centered around “community — we were asking people to join and conform,” Morinis said. “The model of the Jewish world most of us grew up with is all based on timing and boundaries. At this time we all do this and all stand up and all sit down and all eat this and all don’t do this.”

Not that this is a bad thing.

“It’s all important as a collective. But all of us are unique individuals, no one can dispute that. [Mussar] is about guidance on an individual journey, not just being a member of a collective.”

For more information about Mussar, visit www.mussarinstitute.org.

“Everyday Holiness” by Alan Morinis (340 pages, Trumpeter, $24.95).

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.