Bruce Feiler, a Georgia-born author who lives in Brooklyn and made his original reputation abroad — writing about his sojourns to lands whence came the Torah — has branched out in recent years. His newest book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out And Play, And Much More” (William Morrow), follows his “The Council of Dads,” about a support group he formed for his young daughters after he was diagnosed with cancer, and the “This Life” column about contemporary families he wrote for the Sunday New York Times. The Jewish Week caught up with Feiler, who was traveling in Spain, via e-mail.
Q: You made your reputation as an Indiana Jones, traveling around the Middle East in the footsteps of biblical figures. Then a column in the New York Times, and a few more-personal advice books. How did you turn yourself into Dear Abby?
A: I had kids! Seriously, my wife and I reached a point with our children where we were incredibly frustrated. We had no idea how to build a family culture. Our parents’ advice was outdated; our friends were just as clueless as we were; the family “experts” seemed incredibly stale. Meanwhile, in every other world — from Silicon Valley to elite peace negotiators to the Green Berets — there are new techniques to make groups run smoothly.
Is “Secrets” colored by your experience with cancer and the lessons you learned from “The Council of Dads”?
Major illness, like any setback, is a constant reminder to focus on the relationships around you. Also, I think it colored what is my favorite idea in the book: that children who know more about their family’s history, including its ups and downs, are more resilient and have higher self-esteem.
You say that most of the ideas you mention in your book “have been hiding in plain sight.” Is running a happy family simply common sense?
Not exactly. What I meant was there is an amazing new body of knowledge out there. Experts in fighting know about how to fight smarter. For example, if you sit on upright chairs with cushions you’ll be more accommodating. Also, experts in family dinner know what you talk about is more important than what you eat. But who has time to find all that knowledge?! I’ve tried to gather it in one place.
Your new books coaches families on how to be happy. Traditional Judaism would argue that happiness is a byproduct of, or means to, a meaningful spiritual life — not an end in itself. How do you balance these concepts?
Research consistently shows that religious families are happier, but the reason is surprising. It’s not about how close they are to God or how many services they attend. It’s about relationships. Happiness is deeply related to having close relationships, and religious people tend to feel part of a larger community and thus have a large number of meaningful relationships with others.
One of the experts you cite suggests a “ritual” to bring families together: “Set the table with a tablecloth, put out candles.” Does this sound familiar?
And it’s no surprise that that advice, which came from Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory, was delivered at a Shabbat dinner at his home in Atlanta. He mentioned his Passover ritual of making horseradish sauce while dancing to traditional Jewish music and said the hokier the ritual the better. But rituals have to be made, he stressed, we can’t just sit back and hope they happen.
How do your contemporary authorities on family dynamics compare to what Jewish tradition (the Torah, Talmud, etc.) have preached over the centuries?
The three secrets to a happy family I’ve identified do echo some themes of Jewish teaching: “Adapt all the time. Talk. A lot. Go out and play.” But new research has provided additional ideas that go beyond traditional Jewish culture. Take two of my favorite pieces of advice. First, the Law of Two Women. Research shows that if you have two women in extended family conversations you’ll reach consensus sooner. Second, when you discipline your children, sit in an upright chair with a cushioned seat, as everyone will be more accommodating. Don’t think you’d see that in the Talmud!
Feiler will discuss “The Secrets of Happy Families” on Feb. 20, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble, 150 E. 86th St., Manhattan.