I am often asked why I use my nickname, Happy, as opposed to my given name, Evan, for most contexts in which I find myself, other than in my professional life.
Well, the nickname started at the ripe old age of two weeks, when my parents observed me laying in my crib and happily giggling. They laid the "Happy" moniker on me-and only later, as new parents, became aware that the "happy"(ness) I was exhibiting as an infant was probably due to gas.
Still, the name stuck. As far back as I can remember everyone called me Happy: my family, teachers, rabbis and cantors, friends, fellow students, co-workers-even those who were angry with me (at the moment). It worked for me. I was never enamored of my "real" first name, Evan. My parents named me after my deceased grandmother, Esther (of course, that would have been worse). They were deliberating between two "E" names, Earl or Evan, so they looked up the meanings: Earl meant procrastinator and Evan meant challenger. No contest.
Back then, though, the name Evan was uncommon, and people were always mispronouncing it as "even" or "eee-von." Oy.
Happy, in contrast, seemed to suit my optimistic disposition. True, it wasn't easy to be cheerful at age 8 when my parents divorced, but they worked together to help me adjust. Both my parents remarried, and everyone seemed to get along. Recently I was asked if my nickname might have played a part in raising my happiness quotient. It got me thinking.
Over the 64 years I've been blessed to participate in this world, only occasionally has my outward appearance of happiness been a cover-up for some disappointment in my life. I guess it's been hard to be sad for any length of time when people keep referring to me as Happy.
Most of the time, I am truly happy. And I attribute this, in large part, to my long-time involvement in Jewish life and in organizations dedicated to improving the human condition. Engagement gives meaning to my life, and from meaning I derive happiness.
My grandfather and great-grandfather on my father's side were both rabbis. Dad broke the chain, but stayed active in Jewish life. I was "encouraged" to follow suit by attending religious school on Saturday mornings and at least one evening during the school week. There I built friendships with fellow students with whom I had more in common than those in public school. My temple friends became almost like family, all of us sharing a special connection to Jewish history, culture, and religion. I didn't need to explain to them why I didn't celebrate Christmas and other holidays my Christian friends took for granted, or why I wasn't in school on the High Holy Days. Later, I became active in NFTY youth groups and the region, enjoyed URJ camping, taught Hebrew and religious studies in Reform synagogues, took courses at the HUC-JIR Rhea Hirsch School of Education-and seriously considered reestablishing the rabbinic line in our family.
Ultimately, I decided to go to law school. But I nonetheless found my "calling," as it were, in discovering ways to fulfill the mitzvah of tikkun olam (repair of the world). Two movies I'd watched left lasting impressions on me: To Kill A Mockingbird, about the importance of giving everyone a fair trial as well as taking a stand against bigotry; and Inherit the Wind, which demonstrated how narrow-mindedness and religious extremism can cause society to stay stagnant, restrict intellectual growth, and lose sight of the greater goals of finding solutions to our world's problems. Law became my vehicle to effect positive change in society.
In the 1980s I pursued tikkun olam through the avenue of politics and public office. After winning a seat on the Long Beach City Council, I hung on my office wall a beautiful lithograph inscribed with the biblical phrase, "Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof-Justice, Justice Shalt You Pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). I set this as my standard in working on my constituents' behalf.
One injustice I observed early on was the disenfranchisement and lack of respect given to the gay and lesbian community. I became the first non-gay elected city official to march in the Gay Pride Parade and Festival; today, 25 years later, every elected and non-elected official, including our police and fire chiefs, participates in the parade and celebration. I also authored legislation that made it illegal for landlords to refuse to rent to individuals suspected of having AIDS, or for employers to discriminate in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. Acting upon my Jewish values made daily life meaningful.
Another source of naches (personal pride) was my work as a cofounder, volunteer, and board member of Bet Tzedek (The House of Justice), which in the '70s brought legal services to approximately 50,000 Jews in Los Angeles living below the poverty level. Nowadays, 60+ staffers and 1,000+ active volunteer attorneys and paralegals provide free legal services to people in need. Our programs-which address the challenges of consumer fraud, slum housing, nursing home abuses, employment rights issues, kinship care, and senior legal services-have been honored by both the legal community as well as national, state, and local governments. Our Holocaust Survivor Reparations Project has been exported to several North American cities. From time to time I see and read reports on the many people whose lives we have saved who otherwise might have been destroyed-physically and/or spiritually-by indifference and neglect. This is satisfying work.
My spirits are also lifted when I'm surrounded by other people who share my passions. I'll never forget the excitement of being at my first URJ (then UAHC) Biennial in 1965, meeting so many people with different regional accents who shared my Jewish commitment to social justice and peace. I was energized by brilliant speeches, inspirational sacred music, and new friendships. From then on, my URJ involvement-including a great many Biennials-has been an ongoing part of my life, to the extent my career obligations allow.
In retrospect, I believe that being known as Happy may have subconsciously encouraged me to embody this trait. My path to happiness has been living a life guided by Jewish values, Divine spirituality, and close family and friends. What was hammered into me in religious school turned out to be true: Judaism isn't just a religion-Judaism is a way of life. Making this concept part of my philosophy has brought me happiness in abundance.
Evan "Happy" Braude, an attorney, is a member of Temple Israel of Long Beach, California and the URJ Board of Trustees.