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The Secret Formula

May 8, 2009 | by Azriel Hirsh Friedman

I spent six years marketing a parade of pleasures, only to find out that God throws theme parties all the time.

Siberian Pines towered over thousands of Russian teens dancing in mist and siren light as an American techno DJ mixed hyper-tribal sounds. My client, a representative of Coca-Cola, stood by me and smiled at the work my company had produced.

I have a winter memory from early childhood of a pine tree-like image formed from hundreds of people holding candles and singing in one voice: "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony ... I'd like to buy the world a Coke..." And the memory fades.

Around that time, my pre-school teachers spoke of a sweet, giving old man with calm, joyful eyes and a long white beard visiting all the families in our Texas neighborhood. He'd visit mine if we'd put up a Chanukah bush for him. I made the Jewish Star that hung above it; and opened, with my brother and sister, all our Chanukah presents on the morning after his visit.

Coca Cola is probably the only company in history that became successful using an old man in their advertising. Coca Cola's version of Santa in a red suit has become the icon of joy the world over. Usually seeing old people in advertising is depressing.

"We're not just brown fizzy water," my client explained to me. "Authenticity! Refreshment! Joy! This is what we are about." I had been hired to link these values with Coca Cola in the minds of Russian teenagers.

Shabbat In Jerusalem

Brainstorming, I turned to my own Coca Cola memories and was frightened to find what was stocked up there layer upon layer: "THE REAL THING," "ALWAYS," and an element of mysticism -- "THE SECRET FORMULA." Even an association with an omniscient being flying through the clouds to reward children with gifts according to whether they were naughty or nice.

I wasn't sure if I was describing a soft drink or my confused childhood image of God as Santa.

I wasn't sure if I was describing a soft drink or my confused childhood image of God as Santa; I experienced Coca Cola almost as powerfully. Other Americans I asked for more creative input fondly recalled similar memories. Coca Cola was a real part of our collective childhood.

With Santa on contract, Coca Cola draws on two powerful ideas -- tradition and giving. Unlike Ronald McDonald -- who reigns unconvincingly in his plastic childhood Utopia under a yellow and red reconfigured communist banner, offering every child an equal portion of happiness in a box (which incidentally includes a Coke) -- the power of Santa, even over adults, is that he is the ultimate giver, granting each boy and girl whatever they really want.

With Coca Cola as my client, the money was good, but I became depressed. It started me off on a tangent. Authenticity, joy, refresehment, giving and tradition were qualities I'd craved, not only in a soft drink, but in something more substantial -- life. Christmas was not my holiday and Santa Claus was somebody else's grandpa, probably long since sitting in an old folk's home. What had I been bonding with all these years -- sugar and carbonation?

I spent six years in Russia creating a parade of pleasures, marketing to emotions that inspire people: fashion shows with Boshoi ballerinas pirouetting down the podium in Versace; rave parties stretching from Siberia to the Black Sea beaches; prestige events covered by Playboy; concerts off Red Square. I created special atmospheres and messages and brand links so people could think that, when they were using various products, they were experiencing whatever it was they needed to experience in life.

Pursuit of Pleasure

Then one day last winter as New Year's festivities approached, I experimented. Burnt out from events and parties, from figuring out lucrative ways for people to enjoy themselves ("ENJOY" is the current Coca Cola motto), I decided to retreat from my lifestyle -- to search out for my version of Hedonist's Anonymous. I narrowed it down to a month studying in either a monastery or a yeshiva. I opted for the more exotic -- a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

I was looking forward to spending day after day stared down by millions of strange black squiggle letters and stranger black-hatted Jews rocking back and forth, who I thought have revoked the physical world.

I was not so lucky.

I decided to retreat from my lifestyle -- to search out for my version of Hedonist's Anonymous.

A few evenings after arriving, a nebbishe-looking character approached me in the study hall and asked me to join him for his cousin's wedding. I grabbed a yarmulka from my sock drawer and prepared myself for a long night sitting among men who spent their entire day looking at books written for people living thousands of years ago.

The wedding was sheer madness. Twirling black coats, hats on fire, acrobatics, unicyclers, spinning in circles, singing and dancing, not a girl in sight except the bride and her grandmother.

An ancient white bearded rabbi smiled at me, nodding knowingly: "It is a mitzvah to give the bride and groom simcha on their wedding night."

"Where does one get simcha?" I asked feeling embarrassed for not bringing any.

"Simcha ... happiness," his eyes shined as his gruff voice continued. "An Eskimo has 35 words for snow. He recognizes each one. Rina, sasson, gila, simcha -- we have many Hebrew words for happiness. Stick around and you'll begin to feel how a Jew experiences each. You'll get to be a connoisseur of happiness!"

A man with his son upon his shoulders tap danced slapstick for the newlyweds.

Checking Out

The greater part of my adult existence has been spent pursuing pleasure. It was, therefore, this particular aspect of God's genius that I recognized in Judaism first. The studying I got done between all the weddings, brises and bar mitzvahs, the wild dancing and an endless surplus of religious holidays no one ever informed me about growing up as a Jew in Texas, lead me to one obvious conclusion:

The ultimate giver is not Santa, but God. Aside from life and all those other neat necessities, He invented Shabbat (a concept later copied by the T.G.I.F. restaurant chain) -- a weekly reward dispensed equidistantly towards infinity.

As far as I could tell God's plan was to bless Jews every weekend with short-term amnesia and bliss.

Shabbat, like a vacation or a party, is a distraction-free zone. As far as I could tell God's plan was to bless Jews every weekend with short-term amnesia and bliss -- comparable to a weekend in the Bahamas -- to return them by Monday fired up for the world of action and responsibility.

We were meant to be like Adam, busy suntanning in the light of God. Before he was cursed with the four letter word W-O-R-K, Adam had the ideal leisure lifestyle -- no work with infinite meaning.

Shabbat is the piece of paradise he passed down to us -- a day "to be." No work, no last minute phone calls, bank transactions, bills, cooking.

A Jew is commanded by the Infinite to be happy, to focus happiness within time, especially Friday Night and all day Saturday, connecting with the full force of life by doing what many Jews love best -- eating and talking.

God is THE divine social planner. The social life of the truly religious Jew is all sorted out -- no standing in club cues, behind red ropes waiting to be picked out of a crowd, no scurrying around to find the ultimate party, no singles bar approach/avoid tactics, no struggling to act confident but relaxed, no stress of being left out, no entrance fees.

And if Shabbat was not enough, God threw in theme parties throughout the months of the year. A drunken masquerade, an eight-night Festival of Light during the shortest most depressing days of winter, and a New Year's. And then the parties I'd never heard of: Shavuot -- an all-nighter with cheese cake; Tu B'shvat - a holiday for ecologists; Sukkot -- a week of camping!

The Real Thing

In four weeks of spending Shabbat in Jerusalem I recognized all the parties I ever threw, but with an open door policy and minus the extravagant outer trappings: the nutty randomness of guests mingling; the sudden affinity of strangers recognizing some part of themselves in one another; the atmosphere; the amazing catering; the dancing; the interaction which pierced superfical courtesy; the sweet drunken excitement.

I felt like an idiot; all this time Shabbat had stood quietly like a princess waiting in line.

I felt like an idiot. All this time Shabbat had stood quietly among the days like a princess waiting in line, too humble to announce her own stature, as I rushed by failing to notice her.

The lengths to which we go -- frat party spring break, bong hit, bunjee jump, swinger's lounge, celebrity cocktail -- was the extent to which intensifying emotional satisfaction eludes us.

Coca Cola's secret formula is the company's recognition that true bonds and emotions build in strength over time -- ad after ad evoking warmth, giving, tradition, joy. Marketing ploys aside, I think of Coca Cola and smile.

Shabbat is the secret formula that has been keeping Jews happy for millenia. It has power to quench real inner needs as it builds its bond, memory upon memory.

I can almost conceive of building my own family one day. If I do, I will want at least one day per week to unabashedly experience shared emotion. To concentrate all my happiness on those who mean most to me. To sense, even in silence, the energies of love from a grandfather, a brother, a child, a mother, an aunt, a friend. To savor over the years the flickering subtlety of each age of life bound in its happiest moments.

No doubt until then my craving for novelty will still lead me all over the world, to rooms full of people whose only common language may be expressed through singing voices. I am a social animal. Even when I'm settled and old I know I'll want a house open to guests changing every weekly episode, to travellers with bizarre stories, to visitors not quite sure where they've ended up but happy to be there, to a tumult and lull of impassioned discussion -- and, after the guests are gone or are sleeping, to passionately fulfill with my wife God's ultimate Shabbat commandment.

Shabbat is a secret formula worth smiling about.


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