Jim Axelrod, a national correspondent for CBS News who was raised in Highland Park and now lives in Montclair, has taken a close and intimate look at his own life in a newly published book, In The Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness.
On Friday, May 20, he will discuss his writing, his work, and his life when he speaks at the 8 p.m. Shabbat service at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, where he, his wife Christina, and their three children are congregants.
He spoke with NJ Jewish News on May 12 about his upcoming talk in a phone interview from his office at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York.
NJJN: Can you talk a bit about your book?
Axelrod: The book is about a lot of different things, but mostly about my search for happiness, which is what I am going to talk about at the temple. It is a very personal account of my own journey. I don’t think we are thinking about happiness in our culture. We think about a lot of other things, but not happiness.
NJJN: So many people have lost their jobs or have dysfunctional families, not to mention wars, racism, poverty, and oppression of all sorts, and, particularly in the Jewish community, concerns about anti-Semitism and the Middle East. What is there to be happy about?
Axelrod: I think if you take a look at the history of recorded mankind, many people reading this in central and north Jersey — my community — all live in the top fraction of 1 percent of people in the world. We have a lot to be happy about. We live in peace and, in large part, prosperity and security and safety. So the question of happiness becomes looking inward. Are you living the life you intended when you started out? This book is aimed at men and women in their mid-40s, where I am in life, and looking to do some stock-taking.
NJJN: You’ve mentioned “midlife malaise.” Are you feeling that?
Axelrod: I almost died covering the Iraq war, and I had every reason to have my life come into sharp focus. I was an embedded correspondent with the Third Infantry, and on our way over the Euphrates River, our Humvee stalled and we came under fire. It was a scary thing. My wife was seven months pregnant and it started me on the process of saying, “Hey, what am I doing here?’’
NJJN: Were you injured?
Axelrod: Psychologically I was injured. Not physically.
NJJN: What did the experience teach you?
Axelrod: It should have taught me a lot more, but it taught me you should always know why you are doing what you are doing.
You have to do a cost-benefit analysis. These are very deep questions that people don’t spend enough time examining. This situation was extreme. I was on a bridge covering a war. But every day there are people in our world in central and north Jersey who are caught on their own bridges, if you will. It may not be extreme as being under fire, but there may be just as important questions they need to ask themselves, and just as crucial that they get some answers. They may not be life-threatening, but they are wellbeing threatening. Every day, people go to jobs where they are miserable, they are in bad relationships, they are not taking care of themselves. They are not doing things they need to be doing to ensure their well-being.
NJJN: Would you go back to a war zone?
Axelrod: I would have to think about it, but if I do go back, I will go back with a lot clearer understanding of why I am doing it.
NJJN: Did you enjoy being a White House correspondent?
Axelrod: Washington was not a place my family loved or I loved necessarily, so while this job was one of the top jobs in journalism, I wasn’t nearly as happy as I was living in Montclair. It taught me the importance of place in terms of well-being. We instantly felt ourselves happier in Montclair.
NJJN: How do you factor Judaism into your life?
Axelrod: Four weeks ago my son William was bar mitzva’d at Ner Tamid, and that night there was a picture of me taken in a chair in the middle of a circle of people doing the hora. People have said to me, “It is the picture of happiness.” We are a family that says the Motzi before dinner each night. We hold hands and look at each other. This is rooted intrinsically into our family’s life. My children are all very much steeped in Jewish education at the Hebrew school in Ner Tamid, and my wife, who is a Jew by choice, is studying for her adult bat mitzva. I grew up at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. That is a cornerstone of my life.