IMG_3530Jacob’s Ladder is my favorite weekend of the year. The spring version of the semi-annual music festival, which was held last month, presents an eclectic mix of country, folk, bluegrass and, lately, local indie rock bands over three days at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar north of Tiberius.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of kippa-wearers and others who, at least in outward dress, identify as religious at Jacob’s Ladder. That used to be me too. When I’d ask myself back then how I could justify attending a music festival that takes place over Shabbat and is filled with amplified music spread out over three different stages, I developed a number of working answers.

“Well, I’m not playing any instruments myself, I’m just listening.”

“I’m still keeping Shabbat, I do communal meals with my friends, I make Kiddush and there’s even a Friday night minyan.”

“I don’t handle money. I buy tlushim (coupons) before sundown on Friday night and use those if I need something in the food court.”

But over the years, something’s changed. Maybe I’ve gotten tired of all my justifications and bend over backwards explanations about how spending a weekend at a music festival or using funny money to buy schnitzel for lunch is really OK according to halacha (Jewish Law).

When it comes to the observance of Jewish tradition, we are all pick and choosers about what we do or don’t do. Sometimes it’s something big, like listening to music on Shabbat. Other times it’s more private decisions such as whether to skip a particular set of prayers, eat a sandwich without washing for bread beforehand, wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) for men or cover one’s hair according to a particular minhag (custom) for women.

No one can keep every single one of the thousands of laws that started with the 613 in the Torah and have been expanded by our rabbis over the millennia. So – at least those of us who feel some pull towards tradition – we pick and choose what’s most meaningful. Sometimes it’s out of laziness; other times it’s following a mindful reading of texts, wrestling with issues, and reflecting seriously about how to be true to oneself within a traditional framework.

Take premarital sex, for example. I took a whole class on the subject, taught by Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, a powerhouse when it comes to analyzing traditional Jewish approaches towards sexuality. Her PhD dissertation was entitled “Talmudic Re-readings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic.” She co-authored the book “The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” and was named one of the “36 under 36” by the Jewish Week in 2008. Rosenfeld was selected earlier this year to serve as a communal spiritual leader in Efrat by the city’s embattled Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

In her class, Rosenfeld raised the issue of whether the concept of a pilegesh (or concubine) could be applied to modern day cohabitation. The idea was originally proposed by Prof. Tzvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University in a 2006 article in the academic journal Akdamot.

A pilegesh is essentially a woman in a monogamous relationship but without betrothal and marriage. The pilegesh would hold by the same laws of nidah (ritual impurity) that a married woman would, and she would go to the mikveh (ritual bath) afterward. The biblical patriarch Abraham had a pilegesh (Ketorah) as did his grandson Jacob (Bilhah).

I know unmarried, sexually active Orthodox young people who today invoke the pilegesh concept to give halachic backing to what they’re doing. Maybe that’s actually correct in terms of Jewish Law; that it’s a healthy continuation of classic Talmudic argumentation. But sometimes it seems like it would just be more emotionally honest to say: you know what, I’m OK with being frum (religious) on most things but on this one, I’m choosing to have sex. Not because I’m weak or bad. Not because I’m lazy. Just because. End of story.

I’ve even come up with a name for this new “denomination.” I call it “Pick and Choose-daism.”

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David wrote an article last year for The Huffington Post where she argued against a teshuva (a religious responsum) voted into practice by the Conservative Movement that says both men and women should be equally obligated in performing all of the mitzvot. Ner-David wasn’t claiming in her piece that people shouldn’t be encouraged to observe Jewish Law. Rather she says that the concept of “obligation” – for men and women – is out of step with the modern world.

“Every Jew today is a Jew-by-choice,” she writes. “We are no longer living in the shtetl…Jews today choose to perform mitzvot out of a sense of commitment to tradition, community, family, a way of life, a spiritual path, or even simply a desire to repair the world. Even those who do see themselves as obligated have chosen to construct their worldview in that way.”

Ner-David wants Jews to “take personal responsibility for finding meaning in the rituals and actions they call mitzvot instead of performing them out of peer or communal pressure, habit, comfort or a sense of feeling bound by tradition.”

The implications of embracing our essential nature as pick and choosers are broad – not just for those in an observant framework, but for the Jewish world as whole.

Hebrew University lecturer and Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Dr. Micah Goodman gave a talk in 2014 called “Jewish Awakening in a Secular World.” Goodman, who also serves as the director of the Ein Prat Leadership Institute, explained that he no longer speaks about promoting “religious pluralism.”

Rather, the future is in “secular pluralism,” he said: in allowing non-traditionally observant Jews to reclaim their traditions by studying sources, turning classic piyutim (Jewish liturgical poems) in rock songs, and observing the holidays in their own ways, free from commandment and obligation. If you read my previous column “In Praise of Datlashim,” you know I’ve found a kindred spirit.

Goodman didn’t use the term, but Pick and Choose-daism, in his worldview, could be the rock upon which Judaism 2.0 is built.

Pick and Choose-daism even fits with the practice of mindfulness. Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels who heads up the Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, uses a teaching from Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, the Hassidic Rebbe known as the Mei Shiloah, to describe what it means to worship idols, something clearly prohibited by Jewish Law.

“You shouldn’t just do what your rabbis and fathers did,” Jacobson Maisels paraphrases the rebbe. “That’s not serving God. That’s serving your parents or your teachers or maybe some notion of tradition. And that’s idolatry!” Rather, the true way of being observant, Jacobson Maisels continues, is “to stake out your own path…[to drop] all your preconceptions – and become what you actually are right now in this moment,” knowing full well that even that will change…and change again.

For observant Jews, though, how far can one go? Can you invite guests over for Shabbat if you turn on and off electricity? Will they eat off your dishes if you use the same dishwasher for both milk and meat (even if not at the same time)? Can you be counted as a witness under the chuppah (wedding canopy) if you Whatsapp on chag (Jewish holidays)?

Ultimately, it comes down to setting your own lowest common denominator; deciding which communities you want to be part of and adhering to those standards, without compromising on your own inner truth.

I love Jacob’s Ladder and most of the people who I’d like to have over on Shabbat are OK with that. I know that may exclude some people. But they’re doing their own kind of Pick and Choose-daism. And that’s OK too.

A longer version of this article appeared originally at The Jerusalem Post.


KippaDatlashim are some of my favorite people. I admit I’m partial. All three of my kids are datlashim. That said, datlashim may represent the very future of Judaism or, stated with less hyperbole, may help an increasingly fractured Jewish community find common ground between religious and secular.

Datlash is an acronym that stands for dati l’she’avar – a formerly religious person. (Dati is Hebrew for “religious.” She’avar means “in the past.”) Datlashim in Israel grow up in a religious environment; they go to religious schools and attend Orthodox synagogues, but at some point rebel and leave their religious background behind. While I attach positive connotations to the term – these are bold young people blazing their own truth rather than remaining stuck through inertia in a system that no longer speaks to them – others in the religious world are less kind, preferring the more alarmist initials OTD – for “off the derech” (someone who was religious and has now lost his or her way) – to stigmatize this growing phenomenon.

And growing it is. I don’t have hard data, just anecdotal evidence observed from my kids and their friends. Among this younger generation of Israeli teens and twentysomthings, there are datlashim everywhere. In the mechinot (the pre-army academies), datlashim predominate. In the Sherut Leumi (National Service) division that is not just for religious girls (yes, there is one), being a datlash is the common denominator. My kids sometimes call Jerusalem Ir HaDatlashim – the city of the formerly religious – to describe the burgeoning datlash scene in Israel’s capital.

That was nowhere more in evidence than a few weeks ago than on Shavuot eve at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai, which is known for its datlash friendly programming. During the short time I was there (for a lecture by fellow Jerusalem Post columnist Daniel Gordis), hundreds of Hebrew-speaking young people streamed in and out of multiple lectures, ranging from Rambam to ruminations on love in the haredi world by journalist Tali Farkash (not herself a datlash). Some attendees wore kippot and could blend in perfectly in any Modern Orthodox community; others were smoking and checking their phones. That they couldn’t stay away from the Shavuot night tradition of all night learning – even as one of the main religious messages of the holiday is Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah with all its accompanying commandments – speaks volumes about the datlash mindset.

And there have been volumes written already about the phenomenon. The most important is the plainly titled HaDatlashim by journalist Poriya Gal-Getz, a datlashit herself from a prominent rabbinic family who interviewed a dozen formerly religious men and women for her book.

“What causes us to seek out datlashim like us, and sometimes marry each other?” Gal-Getz asks. “What causes us to spot datlashim a mile away, even after years, and activate a ‘datlash radar’ that finds people like us and creates an almost immediate bond and camaraderie? And most importantly, why do we insist on calling ourselves this, in a label that preserves the past within the present, rather than simply becoming hilonim (secular), even 10 or 20 years afterward?”

The answer, writes The Jewish Chronicle’s Miriam Shaviv, is that – to paraphrase the famous song by the Eagles – datlashim can check out of institutional Orthodoxy anytime they want, but they can never really leave. “While they are by no means practicing Jews, and certainly do not identify as such, their religious education has left an indelible impression on them. They never quite shake the language and world-view of the Orthodox Jew,” Shaviv writes.

Or as one of the Gal-Getz’s interviewees, literary critic Arik Glasner, puts it, “Anyone who has seriously tasted religious experience once will long for it always…He will have a hard time finding rest in entirely secular life and ideology.”

That’s reflected in the term itself. Compare datlash with another description of the formerly religious: hozer b’she’alah – a play on the expression hozer b’teshuva, one who has returned to religion via “repentance” (teshuva). She’alah means question, so a hozer b’she’alah, therefore, is one who has returned to questioning – i.e., who has become secular. Datlash, on the other hand, has da’at – Hebrew for religion – up front and center.

What causes someone to become a datlash? That’s a broad question best left explored in another column. One brief comment from Gal-Getz: leaving Orthodox observance “isn’t a one-time passage between two opposite extremes, entailing absorption, absolute assimilation, and transformation from religious to secular, but a complex process, full of shades and nuances, that likely continues for a lifetime.”

It may be easy for datlashim to spot each other, but to the uninitiated, it’s as difficult as distinguishing groups based on head covering style. At first blush, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a datlash and someone born entirely secular.

But for datlashim, Shabbat is still Shabbat. On his or her own, a datlash might not light Shabbat candles or say the Friday night Kiddush, but as soon as two or more datlashim get together, making Shabbat – the rituals, a meal, maybe even some singing – is natural. Then it’s off to the movies or downtown for a drink. But the impetus to engage in Jewish ritual is still there. Unlike the strictly secular, datlashim know their halacha (Jewish Law) and are not, in fact, anti-religion per se; they just want to do it on their own terms.

I asked my kids what kind of homes they thought they’d have when they got married and started raising families of their own. “Well it would be kosher of course,” said one. “And we’d send our kids to religious schools,” said another. “Even if they teach things you don’t agree with?” I asked. “We’d set them straight at home. But they should have a basis.”

“The datlash pathology is always to see everything with two hats,” writes Gal-Getz in her book. “It stems from the need to translate yourself constantly, to speak Tel Avivian on the outside, to speak religious Zionism in the heart.”

Yehuda Mirsky, in his review of HaDatlashim, makes the wry comment that “the difference between datlashim and ordinary religious defectors is that datlashim want their children to be datlashim, too.”

And therein lies the challenge and the promise of the datlashim. Is a datlash identity sustainable over the long term? Today’s datlashim are certainly not the first young people to leave religion behind. That’s the story of Judaism everywhere it confronted the modern age – in the Diaspora and in Israel. Just look at the biblical literary of this country’s founding fathers and mothers compared with their secular descendants today.

But there’s a difference, one of my kids said over cheesecake on Shavuot dinner, before heading out to Beit Avi Chai. “The early Zionists cast off their religion because they were replacing it with something else. Datlashim don’t have that. So we have to build our own system.”

What will that system be? It may be too early to tell but, at least in a city like Jerusalem, Ir HaDatlashim, that might include datlashi schools, teaching a datlash curriculum of sorts with datlashi instructors. Datalashi synagogues have already sprung up. They’re not called that, of course. But there are non-judgmental, inclusive spaces where many of the congregants would fit a datlashi model. These are young people seeking to create their own form of Judaism – one where Shabbat is clearly different from the six days that preceded it, but not strictly halachic. Where guitars and darbuka complement the evening service; where the kitchen might not be strictly kosher but meat and milk would never be served together.

In the popular Israeli TV series Srugim, which centered on religious singles in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, my favorite character was always Hodaya, the daughter of a rabbi who became a datlashit. Try as she might to live a strictly secular lifestyle, she keeps coming back to her still religious friends for Shabbat meals. When she starts living with a man, he’s another datlash, of course.

Can datlashim bridge the gap between religious and secular in this country? It will certainly be challenging – for them and for a political establishment that frowns on anything that veers from strictly Orthodox. But as their numbers grow, along with recognition that the datlashim are not just a fringe phenomenon but a force to be taken seriously, we may be looking at the closest Israel has seen to a religious middle in a long time. As Miriam Shaviv writes, “It is heartening to see a group that can potentially cross bridges; that has genuine sympathies with, and ties to, both [religious and secular] groups.”

We need to nurture the datlashim among us – and within us – so that the next generation of datlashim has the confidence and power to develop its own uniquely Israeli traditions.

This article appeared originally at The Jerusalem Post.


Moshe of Pe'erEver since making aliyah, we’ve joked that we could never leave Israel, and certainly never move out of Jerusalem…because of the challah. All that changed two weeks ago when the bakery that has been the source of perhaps the best kosher sweet whole wheat challah in the world closed down. After 43 years in business, the main branch of Pe’er Bakery in Jerusalem’s German Colony shut its doors.

The reason, explains owner Shoshana Sharabi, who has been at the cash register while her husband Moshe has tended to the ovens all these years is simple enough: “Di!” she exclaims, using the Hebrew expression for “enough already.” Her husband Moshe is turning 70; Shoshana is not far behind.

“I’m tired. I’ve been asking him to close for three years. Only now has he agreed. We want to travel, see the world,” she tells me. After 43 years, who am I to take that away from this 13th generation Jerusalemite who wants to spend her remaining years generating experiences that don’t all have to do with the proper allotment of poppy seeds and raisins.

It hasn’t always been easy for Pe’er’s proprietors, either. Most recently, the Sharabi’s went up against the Israeli Rabbinate, which temporarily revoked their kashrut license when Shoshana refused to pay. “They were sending a mashgiach [a kosher inspector] once a month for an hour. If I’m going to pay, he should come more often. He should do his job.” The Rabbinate fined Pe’er and Shoshana flirted with moving over to city councilperson Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz’s Hashgaha Pratit private community kashrut organization, but it never took and closing shop loomed larger.

“Where will you go now?” I ask Shoshana as I wait for Moshe to pull the final challahs out of the oven. “India is on the top of the list,” she says, and I feel the same tinge of excitement I do for young Israelis heading east after their army service. “Do you like Indian food?” I ask. “We can’t actually eat anything there, we keep kosher you know,” she scolds me. I tell her about the plethora of strictly vegetarian restaurants that are everywhere in India. Her eyes light up. Despite her role baking a very traditional Jewish food, Shoshana is, surprisingly, a recently converted vegan.

And yet, for a few days after I heard the news, I was devastated. Every Friday, for nearly 20 years, I have run the pre-Shabbat errands for our family, which include buying a copy of The Jerusalem Post, stopping at Marzipan for their gooey half-baked chocolate rugelach, and schmoozing with Shoshana while picking up my challot. Every once in a while, I’d try to mix things up and get a challah from somewhere else. The kids would always put me in my place and the following week, I’d be back at Pe’er.

Challah became even more important in the last five years when our family instituted a new Friday night ritual. After realizing we were always full after eating just the challah, dips and chicken soup, and that no one had room for an entire meal afterward (though we’d eat it anyway and then complain), we dumped the meat, potatoes and salad and only serve soup, bread and dessert.

Before moving to Israel, getting our weekly challah was much more of a pain. Living in Berkeley, California in the late 1980s, there was no kosher challah nearby; we’d have to drive 20 minutes to the Grand Bakery in neighboring Oakland. Later, when Noah’s Bagels opened its first store in Berkeley and began baking kosher challah, it was easier, but we’d still have to order in advance and there was always the possibility our bag would be given to someone else by mistake, leaving us Shabbat challah-less. At Pe’er, the supply of braided bread on Friday seemed endless.

As I lamented a post-a-Pe’er-calyptic world, Jody reminded me that I’m “grasping,” one of the essential sins against mindfulness that I’d just spent so much time working on during our recent 6-day silent meditation retreat (see This Normal Life, April 17, 2015). Much of our suffering, I know, comes from frantically trying to hold on to what’s good, or its converse: resisting the unpleasant. Both will pass – sooner than you think; it’s the nature of the universe. Moreover, grasping and resistance are ultimately about the fear of death. If I can’t get past my attachment to a particular bakery, how will I ever deal with the truly inevitable?

Pe’er isn’t vanishing from the scene entirely. A satellite branch in Mahane Yehuda, run by the Sharabi’s son, is staying open, with the same recipe (for now at least). It’s not as convenient, but if we invite Shabbat guests who are regular shuk shoppers, maybe they can give us an occasional blast from the past.

“Why didn’t you offer your son to take over the German Colony bakery?” I ask Shoshana. She has other plans for the building, which she and Moshe own. They plan to turn it into apartments for rent. The thought of the venerable Pe’er building, where I’ve spent so many fleeting moments, becoming another luxury ghost village, rattles me, but again, megiah lah – after 43 years, the Sharabi’s have earned it. They don’t owe us anything. It’s business. And surviving nearly half a century in a city where restaurants are lucky to last half a year is commendable.

The truth is, there are plenty of alternatives to Pe’er in the neighborhood already: a new bread shop on Emek Refaim Street and another on Bethlehem Road in Baka have opened up recently. French patisserie Ness bakes up a doughy challah, though it’s not sweet enough for me. The Coney Island Knish shop sells a pretty tasty whole wheat loaf. And there’s always the reliable Herby from Beit El. Maybe I’ll even take up baking – homemade always trumps store-bought.

Clearly, we don’t have to make yeridah – that is, to leave Israel – just yet.

My Pe’er lament appeared originally at The Jerusalem Post.


Monty close-upWhen we were considering buying a dog for our family four years ago, I had three conditions: that it not shed (because I’m allergic to dog fur), that it not poop (because no way was I going to be picking up warm dog droppings daily) and that it not bark (as a chronic insomniac, I’d be quickly enraged if what little sleep I do get was interrupted).

Well, one of three aint to bad: our little white Maltese has hair, not fur, so I don’t sneeze, but he does need to relieve himself (and as a good citizen I clean up nice). And of course he’s a dog so he barks.

The latter probably saved our house from some pretty severe water damage recently. Remember that freak thunderstorm a couple weeks back that dropped an inch and a half of rain and hail on Jerusalem starting at about 3:00 AM? Before daybreak, the city had received more rain than the average 0.9 inches that usually falls during the entire month of April!

At about 4:45 AM, I was woken up by our dog barking and yelping. I tried to ignore him, hoping he’d knock it off after a few minutes, but he kept at it, becoming ever more frantic. So I got up and made a quick pit stop in the bathroom before checking on him downstairs.

My feet sloshed into water.

I called out to my wife Jody, who I had heard using the bathroom a few minutes earlier, so I assumed she hadn’t fallen back asleep yet. “Is the floor supposed to be wet?” I asked, a question that could only have made sense when twisted through the still strong influence of the sleeping pills I’d taken earlier in the evening. I groggily turned on the light in our bedroom. There was water coming through the door from the living room, reaching almost up to the tail end of our bedspread.

The living room was flooded. The old Chinese carpet that has been in the family for 40 years was sporting strange brown stains. Water was heading under the couches, moving towards the stereo and the CDs; it was cascading down the stairs into the kitchen and then down the second set of stairs towards the kids’ bedrooms.

I stared dumbfounded and barefoot in the face of the flood. Jody was quicker witted than me in my Zopiclone induced stupor and quickly determined it was coming from the front terrace; the ferocity of the downpour had overwhelmed the two drains, the only ones where we had not installed a plastic guard against leaves and other debris from the planters above.

For the next hour, we threw down towels to stop the flow and Jody, in pajamas, boots and a raincoat, cleared leaf after leaf and squeegee-d the water back down the drain while lightning confronted the pre-dawn sky. About half way through, I finally woke up enough to realize that I ought to put on shoes too.

As I was squeezing out towels and tracking stray streams across the house, I thought: home owning is a bitch. But then I remembered what it was like to be a renter and the thought of calling our old ba’al habayit (landlord) at 5:00 AM made me glad that this was our problem and nobody else’s.

I was also well aware that things could be far worse. Earlier in the week, I paid a shiva call to my cousin whose mother, my Aunt Claire, had passed away at the age of 92. He told me a story about how, on her honeymoon, the cottage she was staying at caught fire and burned down. Claire escaped unhurt, but her groom sustained burns over half his body. Infection set in and he only survived because, as an American serviceman, he was first in line for a then non-standard treatment: Penicillin.

When it was clear we’d bested the flood, I realized the dog needed a walk. It was 5:30 AM, but he’d been upset and it wouldn’t be humane to put him back to bed without at least giving him the opportunity to do his business first. I put on my coat and leashed him up. As I opened the front door, my next-door neighbor was standing there with a frying pan.

“Did your house flood, too?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “But our electricity is out.”

We went downstairs where he, presumably, was planning to flip the switch on the fuse. Instead he walked right past the electrical cabinet, opened the door to the garage, got into his car and drove off, frying pan in hand, leaving his house dark and damp.

I went back to bed puzzled. Was he planning to wake up his electrician in the middle of the night and clobber him into coming over with that frying pan? Maybe since they had no electricity he was going to a friend’s house to whip up some eggs? He could have done that at our house.

The answer came the next morning when I ran into him blow drying his soaked electric box while waiting for the electrician: it turns out he gets up at that hour every morning to use the mikveh (ritual bath) and he had a new frying pan that needed toiveling (immersion before use).

The dog, by the way, had stayed dry in his bed – the water hadn’t made it to that point in the house yet, although it was coming close and, had we not gotten up in time, he would have been one wet Maltese. Rather, he was upset by the thunder, which continued unabated until the sun finally rose.

We let him sleep in our bed with us for the rest of the morning – something we never do. After all, with his barking, he’d earned it. (I can still do without picking up after the poop, though.)

I first reported on the flood in The Jerusalem Post.


Meditation retreat pictureAfter months of election obsession, rapaciously reading everything I could, poring over polls and talking with anyone and everyone I could for the better part of the winter, I did the only thing left to do.

I shut up. Literally.

Just a few days after the votes were tallied, my wife and drove up to Kibbutz Ein Dor for a silent Jewish meditation retreat organized by Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of Or HaLev – the Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation in Israel, and Rabbi James Roth, head of the U.S.-based Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism.

For six days, from 5:30 am every morning, we did nothing but sit and walk and eat mindfully, meditating on mats in the communal hall, deliberately stepping slowly through the trees and foliage of the kibbutz’s campus quad-like retreat center, punctuated only by teachings and instructions by the retreat leaders, group Q&A and short one-on-one sessions. I turned off my phone and disconnected from the Internet. No email, no updates interrupted my silence.

When we emerged nearly a week later, Israel hadn’t bombed Iran, no UN declarations had been made calling for a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu had not yet formed a coalition. Nothing much seemed different on the outside. But inside, for me, everything had changed.

Mindfulness meditation, whether given a Jewish spin or taught entirely secular as with the research-based MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) system of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in a nutshell, posits that nearly all of our suffering is caused by our thoughts and if we can become aware of those thoughts as they are coming up and not go chasing after them willy-nilly, reacting blindly according to our habitual and too often unhealthy patterns, we can regain our equilibrium and perhaps even find peace and equanimity.

Family therapist and meditation blogger Roger Nolan describes it like this: “Imagine that you are sitting at a railroad crossing in your car while a long, slow-moving freight train is passing through. Every freight car represents a thought arising in consciousness. If you keep looking straight ahead with your gaze soft, you can watch the thought cars pass by. Sometimes, however, a pretty freight car catches your eye, and you continue to follow it with your gaze, thus succumbing to the ‘train of thought.’”

At the retreat, Rabbi Jeff Roth quoted an old Buddhist adage: “Pain is mandatory, suffering is optional.” The meaning: pain (both emotional and physical) is part and parcel of the human condition. You can’t avoid it. But when your thoughts cause you suffering, that’s unnecessary. And a mindfulness practice can help you do something about it.

Here’s an example that happened to me during the retreat. We were sitting down for Shabbat dinner. No one was talking – other than saying Amen to Kiddush, it was a silent meal. I positioned myself across from my wife Jody – even though we weren’t even making eye contact (another retreat recommendation), it’s a nice way of quietly connecting. (And no, we didn’t speak even in our shared room.)

But when Jody got up to wash before bread, a latecomer entered the room and took her seat. Now, he surely had no idea that Jody was sitting there, but I couldn’t talk to tell him. And my thoughts started going crazy. “He did that deliberately. He doesn’t care about other people. What chutzpah! Who does he think he is?”

Now it happens that this guy was a “smiley” type – he always had a grin on his face even when he was in silence. And as I looked at him, I started to grin, too, and then a little laugh – no more than a barely audible giggle – emerged from somewhere inside of me. Were any of my thoughts true? No. But look at how much suffering I’d called up. For what?

Jacobson-Maisels related a similar Shabbat dinner story. The food on the retreat was “elegant vegetarian” – wholesome and surprising in its simplicity. All week, there’d been no dessert except for a few packages of waffelim. But on Friday night, at the end of the buffet line, there was what looked like chocolate cake. “Oh boy,” Jacobson-Maisels thought to himself. “This is going to be great.” But as he got closer to the “cake,” there was a sign: Chocolate covered polenta. “Yuck,” Jacobson-Maisels griped. “I don’t want that. That’s going to taste terrible!” He tried it anyway. And it was good. But the thought – a dashed expectation of real chocolate cake – had created unwarranted anguish.

None of this was new to me. I’ve participated in two silent retreats run by Jacobson-Maisels and one with the Tovana organization, which has been running Vipassana style retreats in Israel for nearly 20 years. I attend a weekly meditation group in Jerusalem. I understand the logic and theory of the connection between thoughts and suffering. But this time, something clicked. Somewhere between the sweet polenta and the luscious trees of Ein Dor, a penny fell and there was someone there to hear it – me.

It was due in large part to Sam Harris.

Harris wasn’t at the retreat, of course. He is best known as one of the most outspoken of the New Atheists. Along with Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and philosopher Daniel Dennett, Harris has mercilessly skewered religion in best selling books such as “The End of Faith” and “The Moral Landscape.” He is also, surprisingly, a serious student of mindfulness, which is the subject of his 2014 book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

“There is a connection between scientific fact and spiritual wisdom, and it is more direct than most people suppose,” he writes in “Waking Up.” Harris then spends much of the book’s 256 pages trying to dispel the concept of the self. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion,” he writes. “There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain.”

This turns out to be critically important, because if there is no “I” in there directing my thoughts, it’s much easier to not be attached to those thoughts or to believe that they say something integral about who I truly am as a person rather than being random and – as I’d come to realize in the case of the Shabbat dinner incident – frequently ridiculous.

Harris takes a staunchly secular approach. But this was a Jewish mindfulness retreat and retreat leader Jeff Roth was saying pretty much the same thing – with a Jewish twist.

Roth linked the sense of self (or lack thereof) to the story of the Garden of Eden. The opening of the book of Genesis, explained Roth, is not about the creation of the universe but really a parable about the emergence of human language.

Language is by definition dualistic. In order for there to be the concept of a “tree,” everything else has to be “not a tree.” And since the sense that one has a self is tied into thinking, which cannot be separated from language, the self is inherently dualistic too. It’s heady stuff, but we see it everywhere in the real world. There is “me” and “you,” “enemy” and “friend,” “human” and “God.”

When we first meet Adam in the Garden, he was pre-language. As Roth sees it, eating from the tree of good and evil – another dualistic symbol – ushers in the advent of language. But it’s ultimately a trap, a mode of thinking out of sync with both science and later strains of Jewish theology, which stress the oneness of everything

At the end of six days, I was far from “enlightened,” but I’d developed at least a few new skills and, yes, even some insights that have stayed with me so far. My wife and I stopped at a restaurant on the drive back to Jerusalem and ate so mindfully that I was compelled to explain to the waitress why we were slow in finishing our meal. “I noticed,” she nodded. Normally, I’d be terribly embarrassed. But I let that thought go.

The next day, while parking my car in a garage, another driver cut me off, nearly causing an accident. I began to honk my horn and flash my lights. “What a jerk!” I stewed. Then came that little laugh, a reminder of Shabbat dinner on the retreat. Did I really need to suffer over this thought?

It took me a full 24 hours to have the desire – or maybe the courage – to open the Internet. The politicians were still quibbling, relations between Obama and Netanyahu were growing chillier still, and social media was all abuzz over whether Jon Stewart’s replacement was anti-Semitic. Would that they all could spend just a weekend on a silent meditation retreat.


How to Make This Year’s Seder Not Like Any Other Night

April 7, 2015

The run up to tonight’s Seder included a remarkable – and decidedly disturbing – discovery in the Blum house: no one in our family really likes Pesach. Actually, it was worse. Some of us really hate Pesach. The preparation, the cleaning, even the Seder itself doesn’t rank highly on our list of peak Jewish experiences. How […]

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Who Took My Bar Munchies?

March 22, 2015

Who ever heard of a bar without bar munchies? But that’s exactly what happened to us recently when my wife and I mustered up the courage to head out with friends on a cold Jerusalem night to check out Gatsby’s, a much talked about new cocktail lounge in downtown Jerusalem. The first thing to know […]

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Israel’s Electoral System: the Best for Us?

March 9, 2015

As elections draw close, friends and family back in the old country often ask me how someone who grew up in the U.S. with a relatively simple and seemingly stable two-party system makes sense of Israel’s very different approach, with up to a dozen parties who have to be coaxed, coerced and wheedled together into […]

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The Case for Boredom

February 23, 2015

When was the last time you were bored? Think about it…what do you do if you have nothing of great importance to do – say, you’re standing in a line at the pharmacy and there are three people ahead of you, or you’re waiting for a bus that Moovit says is still 7 minutes away, […]

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Smoking at an Israeli Wedding

February 9, 2015

Is this a thing: smoking on the dance floor at a wedding? My wife and I attended the nuptials of a friend’s son a few weeks ago. It was a lavish affair with an endless appetizer bar and a DJ crew that could compete with the best Tel Aviv clubs. But as the hundreds of […]

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