Letters to the Editor about Datlashim articleWhen I was growing up, I was frequently bullied. I had all the stereotypical markers for bullies to pick on: I was overweight, socially awkward, a klutz in sports and inevitably last to be picked, bespectacled and brainy. It didn’t help that my first name could be twisted to spell out the very insult that my peers from four decades ago refused to release.

Even when I eventually thinned out in high school, my tormentors clung to that image of the stocky nerd, and I did little to disabuse them of their cruel notions. There was name calling, books and body parts kicked when I was least expecting it, the kid who punched me in the face and broke my glasses, and the way I had to sneak up from a distance to the bus stop to school in order to make sure Rick L. and his posse were not waiting there too.

The bullying stopped when I got to college where most of the attributes that had been so disparaged during my teen years were now in demand. I was popular (enough) and finally happy. I graduated, met my wife, got married, had kids and moved to Israel. With bullying banished, it’s been a good ride for the last 30 years.

But now the Internet has caught up and the bullying is back. Two of my recent columns in The Jerusalem Post Magazine generated some surprisingly ugly talkbacks and letters to the editor. I’m no pollyanna – someone who thinks good things will always happen – and I have read enough of the hateful speech that usually accompanies anything about Israel on social media to know that the web can be a scary place. Not just about Israel of course – cyberbullying, of teens in particular, is a serious scourge that can and has had fatal consequences.

So I’m almost embarrassed to even write about my own feelings towards the nastiness directed my way. No one has cursed at me or used anti-Semitic language. Suicide is certainly not on the agenda. But I’m still in shock by how personal the writers have been, going for what they perceive as my weak spots and making me question the value of vulnerability.

Both my friends in real life and long time readers know that I am very open about my life, sometimes to a fault. Over the years, I’ve shared inside information about my family (much to my kids dismay), about sex, about losing a loved one to terror, about my health, about religion and the importance of blazing your own truth. I have always embraced the public exposure that is concomitant with writing from the heart.

Still it can hurt. One writer lashed out at my column “In praise of datlashim,” calling it “a sad reflection on [my] parenting skills” and adding that I act as if I am “proud of the fact that [I have] failed [my] children.” Another writer shockingly warned me to keep my children “as far away as possible from [his] children.”

For my follow up column, “Pick and Choose-daism,” the letter writers continued with the personal failure theme, with one calling my approach “a recipe for failure, as is painfully evident from the author’s personal experience,” while a talkbacker online hiding behind the pseudonym of “Shel Zahav” called me “an idiot trying to justify his failures” and that The Jerusalem Post ought to drop me “like the hi-tech industry did before.”

Now, I can deal with comments about my parenting skills – I know I’m a good father and no anonymous Internet hater is going to convince me otherwise, But that last comment was particularly stinging, because whoever Shel Zahav is, he or she seems to know me personally. I never indicated in either of those columns that, before I began writing full time, I used to be a startup entrepreneur. Was this talkbacker an investor who lost money on one of my companies, or maybe a disgruntled ex-employee still holding a grudge? Should I be worried in real life?

I wondered if any of my writing colleagues had been similarly bullied and how they related to it? I asked and the response: all of them had been on the receiving end of nasty comments.

Many, like Jerusalem Post Managing Editor David Brinn, say they have stopped reading the talkbacks entirely. “Or more accurately, I stopped paying attention to them,” he says. “Sometimes I still look at them because they’re so strange and interesting in what they reveal about the writers. But I have never responded to a talkback and don’t intend to.”

Jerusalem Post and Israel21c writer Abigail Klein Leichman says that before making aliyah, she wrote an op-ed in her local paper and got “some very nasty feedback. It was upsetting and the experience made me think twice about writing on personal topics ever again.”

Freelance editor and writer Eve Horowitz, who writes only about personal topics in her “Therapy in the Holy City” column over at The Times of Israel, says she’s received “just one outwardly negative reaction…if I were recipient of a lot more reactions like that one, it might make me shut down.”

Another colleague says that he makes a distinction between a talkback online and a letter that appears in the print edition of the paper. “Talkbacks are like the plague. Anyone can write what they want, it’s an anonymous note,” he says, adding that, like David Brinn, he doesn’t read them anymore. Letters, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. “I don’t think that there’s an inherent right that everyone who writes a letter has to get in print.”

Some websites edit talkbacks before they go online, deleting the most racist, sexist or anti-Semitic diatribes. But most don’t, embracing the ensuing slugfests as opportunities to increase page views. And with no nuance online and anonymity the norm, it’s easy to go straight for the jugular.

It’s not just newspapers, either. Last year, a petition was sent to Amazon.com demanding that the online bookstore remove the ability for reviewers to comment anonymously. Best selling novelist Anne Rice (of Interview with a Vampire fame) was one of nearly 10,000 signatories who decried the world of book bullies who mercilessly attack authors on sites like Amazon and GoodReads when they don’t agree with something the author has written (or stands for personally).

The Internet works both ways, of course. After I posted about the comments I received on my articles to my Facebook friends, I was overwhelmed with support – both against the trolls and in favor of the actual content of what I wrote.

The truth is, I’d really like to steer clear of both the talkbacks and the letters to the editor entirely. I know that the writers are just acting out on their own insecurities or narrow-minded fears. But part of being a proactive citizen of the social web is staying on top of what people are saying about you. It’s true for politicians and brands, and it’s true for columnists as well: ignore what’s being written about you at your own peril.

Jerusalem Post columnist Lawrence Rifkin takes a different approach. “I positively love letters that berate me because very few, if any, agree with me. So at least it means people are indeed taking the time to read me. I’m of the school where it’s taught, ‘Say what you want about me, just spell my name right.’”

I’m not planning to let the bullies get to me. I’ll keep on baring my soul – I don’t know how to be any other way. And, to borrow a line from one of my more notorious commenters, if I didn’t, then I’d really be a failure.

This column appeared originally in The Jerusalem Post where it received its own share of talkbacks.

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It’s common to divide people into two opposing types. There are optimists and pessimists, extroverts and introverts, people who love cilantro and those who think it tastes like dirty dishwater. Add to this, people who run to the doctor at the first sign of something wrong and others who wait, trusting that the body will normally sort things out on its own.

I’ve been thinking about this last binary distinction over the past few months as I’ve been hit by a mysterious virus, one that remains undiagnosed; not especially debilitating, certainly not fatal, but nonetheless symptomatic enough to generate a kaleidoscope of modulating aches and annoying pains.

My family doctor is pretty sure that whatever this is, it will most probably pass on its own and I’d be best served allowing patience to trump concern. So while I practice being part of the slow-to-medicine camp, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate on how my body – and the bodies of those around me – is starting to act up in ways that do not bring easy comfort as I firmly claim my place in the middle age years.

Reciting a litany of ailments, illnesses and worse has become a regular part of the casual “how are you and how’s your family?” conversation. Worse still, at least two family members are now fighting cancer. Others in our community are sick; some have died. My mystery malaise seems pedestrian by comparison; definitely not worth complaining about to casual acquaintances

So when the latest symptom arose and my gums started bleeding, I figured it was just more of the same, connected to the overall Theory of Everything That’s Wrong with Brian right now.

My wife Jody was having none of it though. Usually firmly on the side of wait and see, she suggested that a visit to the doctor would not be unwarranted.

“No, no, I’m sure it will pass in another week, I’ll just sweat it out,” I countered. “Anyway, what’s a little pain? There are people with far more serious problems.”

A week passed and my gums were still red. Plus now my throat and my sinuses hurt too – could a sinus infection be the cause and was it triggering inflammation in my mouth?

“Fine,” I said, finally giving in, “I’ll see the doctor.”

I was able to get an appointment the same day. My doctor looked up my nose and down my throat and didn’t see anything. “Of course,” I grumbled to myself. “Story of the last three months.”

He wrote me up a note and sent me on to my dentist.

“My gums have been bleeding, maybe you could have a look?” I wrote in an email I fired off to Dr. A, pleased that he’d entered the digital age and I didn’t have to pick up the phone.

“Can you come in now?” came the quick response. Yes, I could. He’d save the last slot of the day for me.

Despite my professed nonchalance, the realities of my middle age maladies have thrown me for an existential loop. I have long nurtured a fantasy that I’ll live to be a vigorous 90 or maybe 95. I’ll be lucid and clear, exercising up until the end, writing thoughtful articles and books, continuing to ingest comfortable amounts of salt, sugar and fat, all while enjoying my golden years with Jody disease and wrinkle free. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I should downgrade my expectations? If I make it another 20 years, would that be enough?

Ezekiel EmanuelEzekiel Emanuel (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother) thinks so. In a controversial, much-cited essay published in The Atlantic magazine last year, Emanuel put forth his reasons for “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” His thesis: medicine may have prolonged life expectancy but not quality of life. Once we hit 75 (on average), we start to slow down. We get sick more often. We suffer through chemo and broken bones. That clear thinking I’m so attached to goes muddy.

“Healthcare hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process,” he writes. Death usually results “from the complications of chronic illness – heart disease, cancer, emphysema, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes.” To bolster his point, he refers to predictions that there will be a 300 percent increase in the number of older Americans with dementia by the year 2050.

Emanuel wants to go before he deteriorates both mentally and physically. “I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either,” he writes. Today (he’s in his 50s, like me) “when the doctor recommends a test or treatment, especially one that will extend our lives, it becomes incumbent upon us to give a good reason why we don’t want it.” After age 75, though, “I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless.” That means no screenings for cancer, no colonoscopies, no cardiac stress tests, no flu shots; not even antibiotics.

His friends and family are sure that by the time he reaches 75, he’ll push back his date – to 85, 90. But “I am sure of my position,” he states. “By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.

Emanuel makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to turn down possible treatments while my family casts their concerned eyes towards my mental competence, but the thought of there being an “end date,” at least to medical intervention, if not to life itself, is oddly comforting.

With my monkey mind jumping from neuron to neuron, I drove to the dentist at the appointed time. Traffic was heavy and there was no parking anywhere near his office, so I wound up getting there quite late. I was afraid he’d have left for the weekend, but he was there waiting, eyeing me with unusual compassion. “Leah, let’s get some X-rays for Brian,” he said to his assistant as he laid me back in his chair. “No, wait, I see the problem,” he quickly added as he glanced towards my gums.

I’d broken a tooth. A tooth! Not sinusitis, nothing related to my mystery illness at all. “That’s where all your pain is coming from,” he said. “I can fix it on the spot. Do you want to?” Yes, please.

His expression was still one of exaggerated kindness as he wiggled the numbing needle into my inner cheeks and fired up his collection of whirring drills and fluorescent flashers that would soon fill the hole in my tooth where food had been collecting for the last week. “This is what’s been hurting you the most,” he said, holding up a collection of food particles he’d scooped out from my makeshift oral compost pot.

“I can show you more,” he intoned.

“No, that’s OK, really,” I mumbled, though with my mouth propped open by instruments, I’m not sure he heard.

When the procedure was done and the cotton balls extracted, I asked him about those looks he was giving me. “When you wrote you were bleeding from your gums, I thought, oh God, it’s early stage leukemia,” he confessed. “I imagined all your gums were gushing blood!”

There was no leukemia; just a simple toothache, easily fixable. I still have to get to the bottom of my other ailments. But for now, I may not be so reluctant to see a medical professional.

At least for the next 20 years.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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