Insanity Is Hereditary, You Get It From Your Children

samlevensonI always thought my mother came up with that one especially for me during my awkward bat mitzvah years, but I’ve recently discovered it was Jewish humorist Sam Levenson who’s responsible for it and other chuckle-worthy universal truths, including Time-Tested Beauty Tips, which has often been mis-attributed to the late, great Audrey Hepburn. (More classic Levenson one-liners like “If you need a helping hand, you can find one at the end of your arm” can be found here and here.)

Rabbi William Berkowitz has published an interview with Levenson called “The Gift of A Jewish Mother” at, a Yiddish culture site containing a treasure trove inspirational and historically-surprising articles. Levenson died in 1980, so the rabbi’s interview is at least a quarter of a century old, but I’m delighted he dusted it off to create this piece, thereby introducing at least one ignoramus to Levenson’s warm wisdom, which I pass on to you.

This quote in particular struck me on this early morning:

My family didn’t pursue happiness. That’s a big mistake in America – the whole pursuit of happiness. The only people who get happy from the pursuit of happiness are the people who sell tranquilizers. They’re the ones that have done very well. As for us, we believe in the pursuit of truth, of justice of yosher, of God, of rachmonus, of peace, freedom. That’s what you pursue. There is nothing written in our Jewish teaching about the pursuit of happiness. We pursue great ideals, but happiness is not an ideal. It’s only a by-product of an ideal achieved. It’s not an ideal unto itself.

As someone who struggles daily with the so-far elusive American dream of a home of one’s own, financially and spiritually fulfilling work as well as a perpetually shiny kitchen floor, I realize — in this quiet, predawn moment, anyway — the truth that fulfillment can only come when we’re looking for righteous things rather than material ones (though certain pairs of shoes have brought me deep and lasting contentment.) If I could learn in 2007 — and even possibly teach my children by example — to find happiness in what I have rather than what I don’t, I would make great leaps. It would save a lot of money in therapy, anyway.

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