Yes, Israelis say, we are ‘Happy’

Joining worldwide craze, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem residents dance in the streets to Pharrell Williams’ hit

Guys wearing yarmulkes in Jerusalem and shirtless men in Tel Aviv want the world to know one thing this month: They’re happy.

Pharrell Williams’ upbeat song “Happy,” which was released in November and appears on the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack, hasn’t just gone viral.

It has prompted hundreds of new versions of the song, featuring people around the world dancing and mouthing along as Williams sings, “Because I’m happy / Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Several of those were filmed in Israel, and all videos can be submitted to Williams’ 24HoursofHappiness website.

There are six characteristics that can make a video “memetic” rather than just viral — in other words, that make people want to imitate it rather than simply forwarding it to a friend, said Limor Shifman, a senior lecturer in Hebrew University’s communication and journalism department who has written a book on the subject.

Well-known examples of memetic videos include “Gangnam Style” and “Charlie Bit My Finger.”

“Happy” has five of the six characteristics Shifman pinpointed, boosting it to the memetic level.

First, its music video features ordinary people, making it more approachable for those who want to imitate it. It’s simple — much of the video is one person dancing in front of a camera, making it easy to replicate. The music and lyrics are repetitive. It’s whimsical — it doesn’t focus on sex, politics, gender, race or religion. Finally, it’s humorous and playful, featuring people mouthing the song’s lyrics with Williams’ voice overlain.

A montage of 'Happy' video photos from Pharrell Willliams' 24hoursofhappiness website (Courtesy Pharrell Williams Facebook Page)
A montage of ‘Happy’ video photos from Pharrell Willliams’ 24hoursofhappiness website (Courtesy Pharrell Williams Facebook Page)

“But there’s an added element, which is the happiness message,” Shifman said. “The optimistic message is universal, catchy and very nonthreatening. And it’s also a great tune.”

More people are jumping on board, most recently two organizations in Jerusalem: Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim, a Camp Ramah high school program based in Jerusalem that uses all of Israel as its classroom for its North American students, and Made in Jerusalem, a nonprofit organization that works with startup companies.

Ramah’s video offers a different perspective — not of Jerusalemites who have lived in the city for years but of students who have recently fallen in love with the city, said Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim’s director, Daniel Laufer.

The video features all 51 students currently in Jerusalem through Ramah’s high school program. They cartwheel across the street, leapfrog over each other and perform a synchronized swimming routine — out of water. They invited higher-profile figures, such as Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, and deputy mayor, Rachel Azaria, to join them.

“Other than that, it was just strangers we found,” Laufer said. “We dance with them, and they danced with us.”

This video’s goal was to showcase “cool Jerusalem,” he said. The city has history, and religion, but it’s also modern, exciting, fun — and very happy.

Of course, there were challenges that came along with shooting a video with a group of students. Only a few were free to dance with the mayor, for example.

“At the same time, some of them had midterms and were in the middle of regular classes,” Laufer said. “My academic principal was ready to have my head, but he was also in the video several times, having a great time. We managed to keep everyone happy.”

Made in Jerusalem’s video was crafted in a very different way; the organization contacted members of various startups and asked them for several seconds of high-quality video footage of them dancing. Those bits and pieces were spliced into a video that showcased not Jerusalem’s tourist sites but rather the locals’ haunts.

“It’s the places where we live, where we hang out, where we meet, where we work, where our startups are,” said Uriel Shuraki, co-founder of Made in Jerusalem. “We have Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], we have kids, we have all kinds of people.”

It was important for Jerusalem to join in on the “Happy” craze, he said.

“I think the world is now in a place where it’s looking for something deeper, something more meaningful,” he said. “With the ‘Happy’ movement — it is kind of a movement — people can participate and can be part of a global movement that’s focused on the positive things in life.”

Rachel Azaria, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, appeared in both of the city’s videos.

She likes that they’re different, and she refutes the claim, stemming from a bit of “Happy” competition that arose between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, that the other city’s videos are more multicultural.

“To have Haredim dancing — I don’t know what else constitutes multicultural,” she said. “Come on, you have everything.”

And despite the history and politics that sometimes paint Jerusalem in a negative light, Azaria refuses to believe the city is less than happy. The only reason the Jerusalem videos followed the Tel Aviv ones is because the city’s residents needed a bit longer to lighten up, she joked.

“It’s life; that’s our life,” she said. “We live here, we work here, we have fun here, we try to lighten up here. We live. That’s our life.”

One of the more recent “Happy” videos shot in Tel Aviv was a two-day, whirlwind effort by photographer Louiz Green and actress Sivane Kretchner. Green said the phenomenon Williams inspired has allowed her to learn about other parts of the world, such as Lebanon, through their own versions of “Happy.” She wanted to create a video that represented Tel Aviv to people who haven’t seen it.

Kretchner is co-owner of the Tahel theatrical group, which offers LGBT productions, and the video ended up featuring many gay and lesbian dancers. In Green’s opinion, Tel Aviv is undoubtedly the happiest city.

“I think Tel Aviv is the best city in the world, no question,” she said. “I love Tel Aviv. I will never live in another city.”

Another version, created by ISRAEL21c, has the most views of any “Happy” video coming out of Israel and was featured as part of the United Nations Day of Happiness, said Nicky Blackburn, editor and Israel director at ISRAEL21c.

Other Israeli “Happy” videos include one shot by ESET Israel and another filmed in Yeruham. At the end of the day, though, despite friendly competition that has natives of each city arguing theirs is the most happy, all of Israel’s “Happy” videos have a similar goal.

“We want to show the nice face of Israel,” Shuraki said. “We want to show that it is not only what people see in the news, and we want to show the faces of the people here, so people can emotionally connect with Jerusalem or with Tel Aviv.”

Israel’s videos join many others, including one based entirely on Star Wars. And although the videos’ themes are generally light, some delve more deeply.

“Between this optimistic song, some of the footage that you see is interesting — the political potential an Internet meme has even when politics is not intended,” Shifman said.

One version, “Unhappy Kyiv,” was shot in Ukraine’s capital during the country’s ongoing crisis that has seen dozens killed. It offers stark contrasts, featuring people dancing through the streets of Kiev before transitioning to demonstrators carrying signs, flags and weapons. The views are juxtaposed with interviews, some with people who covered their faces.

“To be happy, I need the Ukraine to be free, truly democratic, to be a land of prosperity,” one woman said. “Now what makes me happy are the people who share a common idea.”

One man added, “If only I could see those young boys who died so unfairly, then I would be happy. If they could be resurrected, not only me but the whole Maidan would salute them with happiness.”

In the background, Pharrell Williams continued to sing: “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.”

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