YMCA Chorus in t-shirts (sm)An article a few weeks ago in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz questioned why someone would ever want to make aliyah from a comfortable country like the U.S. Especially these days – with the murders of the Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shear and Eyal Shach still on our minds, the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khaider stinging at our collective conscious, followed by hundreds of Hamas missiles from Gaza and the thunderous response of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – why, asked writer Vered Kellner, would a family pick up and leave friends and family, “a renovated apartment in the heart of Manhattan, a lively Jewish community and kids in some of the best schools around,” to come to what is these days among the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world?

Why indeed? Even as a not-so-recent immigrant to Israel, it’s a question I still ask myself sometimes.

Kellner, an Israeli living in New York for the past two years, became obsessed with a particular family making the move to Israel. “I followed them on Facebook and peeked at them in synagogue, trying to pick out from among their words and glances the reason why they were taking such a dramatic step,” she writes. Kellner admits she misses the Israeli pressure cooker with its intense, bipolar emotions, as she puts it. “I’m already addicted, a lost cause,” she says. “But what about the new immigrants, the ones who choose it?”

Like the family in New York, I left a good job in hi-tech to move 7,500 miles away from all but our immediate family and I’m still struggling, 20 years later, with accepting that I will never fully speak a language whose backward squiggles and ornate verb constructions are so completely foreign from the English in which I make a living expressing myself as to render me prime parody fodder for an Israeli TV comedy show like Eretz Nehederet.

And then there’s the missiles. It’s not that I didn’t know there was the possibility of sirens and running for shelters in my future. During the first Gulf War, I had a transistor radio at my desk in California tuned in all day to the local all news station. I would hear the sirens, the reports of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds and the purposely-vague descriptions of where they landed. But just like the parent I would soon become, I put it out of my mind. When our kids grow up, there will be peace, I cooed. We won’t need an army and there certainly won’t be any more rockets.

The day we made aliyah, Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped. I can almost hear Kellner crying out, “What were you thinking!”

The truth is, I was never supposed to be here. I came to Israel almost by accident. After I graduated from college, I dreamed of traveling around the world. I loaded my arm up with inoculations that would allow me to go anywhere – Africa, India, Southeast Asia. Israel was just a stop along the way.

But from nearly the moment I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was captivated. Even though (or maybe because) I grew up utterly assimilated, with no bar mitzvah, Yom Kippur just another school day, and the highlight of Shabbat mornings our weekly bacon breakfast, I couldn’t tear myself away from this place. The trip around the world was put on hold, I stayed for three years and met my wife-to-be. We returned to the U.S. to jumpstart our careers, started a family and made aliyah for real a few years later.

Bomb shelters were never a part of the narrative. So, maybe the question is not why’d you want to come here, but why do you stay?

We have a family trip to Ireland planned for the end of the summer. (The irony of visiting a country that had its own long-term terrorism problem is not lost on me.) As the missiles fell, my daughter asked if we could move the date of the vacation up.

“Could we maybe get out now…just for a little while?” she asked.

“You know what you’d be doing, right?” I replied. “You’d have your news app open on your iPhone all day and you’d be Whatsapping with your friends non-stop and be totally unable to enjoy the trip.”

That was the experience of Allison Kaplan-Sommer who was vacationing in Rhode Island during June’s kidnapping crisis. She was looking forward to the trip as a break from the “sadness and strife” of the Middle East. But try as she might, “I haven’t been able to give myself that break…it seems wrong to wake up and read a local morning newspaper where the top story is a feature celebrating the fact that the shin-guards worn by the American soccer team in the World Cup were made in Rhode Island.” And so she spent much of her vacation glued to streaming video and social media out of Israel.

To friends who have helpfully suggested to Kaplan-Sommer that maybe she ought to pack up the kids and “find a safe refuge until the storm blows over,” she responds that she’d “rather be here experiencing it than far away wondering what the country is going through.” She likens it to when a family member is ill. It’s easier somehow to cope when you’re right in front of them, “with your finger on the pulse of their condition.”

Kellner gets it too. “Why settle for a seat in the balcony when you can have one in the orchestra?” she mused.

And yet, that seat in the orchestra can be so difficult. Why choose to put yourself in harm’s way when, as an immigrant with two passports, you always have an easy way out?

Michael Oren says it’s a matter of responsibility. Oren is the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and an eminent historian – his “Six Days of War” is by far the best and most comprehensive volume in English on the 1967 war.

The rebirth of the state of Israel is an historic opportunity for Jews who care about their Judaism to take responsibility for making the country all that it can be, Oren told a sold out crowd at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies earlier this month. “The notion that as Jews we are responsible for one another is a time-honored Jewish definition…and what I’d call the base definition of Zionism,” Oren explained.

Yes, Israel is beset by a myriad of problems – economic, political, social, racial. “Sovereignty is messy,” Oren said. “But taking responsibility for that mess is what Zionism is all about. It’s very easy for me to talk about Israel’s astounding achievements in hi-tech, medical science and Nobel Prize winners. But what I’m proudest of is the mess, the chaos. And right now, we have no shortage of it.”

(Maybe that’s why our Jewish mothers back in the States have such a hard time with us being here. They spent their entire childrearing years trying to coax us into avoiding getting messy.)

Our youngest son sings in a unique Israeli-Palestinian teen choir. The Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which has been meeting for two years now under the sponsorship of the Jerusalem International YMCA, has performed all over the country – including singing backup for veteran Israeli guitarist and peace activist David Broza’s Israel radio chart topping cover of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.”

The group’s weekly meetings alternate rehearsal time with “dialogue,” led by trained facilitators. The conversations are not always easy but for the 32 teenagers in the choir, an understanding and respect for the “other side” has developed.

Sometimes, though, I wonder: what’s the point? A couple dozen kids are being educated towards coexistence? Big deal. How is that going to make a difference on the national level? Can any of them personally stop the missiles? How, in fact, is my being here rather than in the U.S., also not being involved in anything political, going to make a change in Israeli society (other than, say, encouraging dog owners to pick up after their pets in the park)?

But you don’t need to educate a whole society for change to occur. A single individual can have profound impact – for better or for worse. Maybe one of the kids in the chorus will grow up to be prime minister and figure out how to forge peace in a way no one has yet thought of. Maybe, because of this experience, one will not grow up to be a terrorist (Arab or Jewish). And here’s one for believers: maybe one will grow up to be the messiah.

When you hear the sirens, it’s easy to succumb to despair, that this is too overwhelming a mess. “But I look at it the other way around,” Oren concluded his talk. “I can think of no greater blessing than to be alive at a time in Jewish history when I as a Jew have to deal with this mess.”

I get that and agree. But a little less mess, that would be OK too.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine and blog.


Using FB on Internet (Reuters)A rabbi friend of mine had major surgery last month. Thankfully, he made it through OK and has now begun a long recovery process.

Before, during and after the surgery, my Facebook Wall was flooded with posts asking me to pray for my friend. Impromptu minyans were formed online as well as at his congregation in St. Louis. Individual prayer was requested…the tone was concerned yet strident. The message seemed to be: if enough of us pray long and hard enough, my friend would be assured a successful return.

The same approach was prevalent throughout the tragic ordeal Israel has just gone through regarding the murders of Gil-Ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach…if anything on a much grander scale. Special prayers and psalms were added to the regular synagogue service and mass gatherings, including one at the Western Wall, attracted tens of thousands of supplicants.

Even the usually secular Yair Lapid got into the prayer space. In a meeting with Bat-Galim Shaar, Gilad’s mother, Lapid said, “I haven’t prayed for six years. Since the bar mitzvah of my son I haven’t been in a synagogue. When the story of your sons broke, I looked through the entire house searching for my grandfather’s siddur (prayer book). I sat and prayed.”

I didn’t pray for the rabbi in St. Louis or for the three boys. Not that I didn’t want my friend to recover or the boys to be returned home alive and well! It’s just that I’ve always had a hard time relating to the implied end result of the classic understanding of prayer in times of emergency: that God can miraculously bend the laws of nature according to the fervency of words directed in a heavenly direction.

So how does a skeptic like me respond to all those calls to pray spilling forth from my email, social media, and even some news sites? In the aftermath of the horror that has gripped the nation, I suspect I won’t be the only one asking the question.

My first reaction was to respectfully ignore the messages. To say, well, it doesn’t work for me, but everyone has his or her own way of coping. But there was an implied guilt in the entreaties. Maybe I was just reading into them, but they seemed to be chiding me: have you done your part? Have you forwarded this email sufficiently? You don’t want to be the weak link. Are you really so sure of your beliefs?

It was that same kind of thinking that had me ask my father, a devout atheist, five years ago, as he was dying in a California hospital, what his full Hebrew name was.

“Why do you want to know?” he said to me.

“People are asking,” I replied. “They need your Hebrew name to pray for your recovery.” And then I added: “do you mind if they pray for you?”

“They can if they want to,” he said, as matter of factly as he could between morphine drips. “But it’s not going to change anything.”

Which it didn’t. He was gone a few days later.

And still: maybe I just don’t get how prayer really works. If only I could drop the defenses and give it a try.

Leah-Bieler-mediumIn the midst of the kidnapping crisis, I came across an article by Leah Bieler that helped put things in perspective. Bieler is a Talmud teacher in the U.S. with a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“Individual and communal prayer have in them the potential for tremendous power,” Bieler writes in a piece that appeared in The Forward. “Prayer can force us outside of ourselves, help create and maintain empathy, form community, heal wounded souls. It can redirect our thinking [and] bind us to the past.”

That certainly seems true enough. Indeed, in times of helplessness, just the act of coming together, even if we say nothing at all, can be tremendously affirming. And isn’t it during those very gatherings that ideas for specific responses are mulled and eventually enacted. Would the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, for example, have been so effective if Jews didn’t have the opportunity to meet every Shabbat to pray…and plan?

Bieler continues: “All of these are holy purposes. But using prayer as a magic trick is a much dicier business. The moment I’m sure that my specific mode of praying will work miracles is bound to be short lived. I will, without fail, find myself disappointed in the end.”

That set off a stream of angry talkbacks and counter-posts, such as this one from the blogger Elder of Zion: “Wow! I guess all the theologians over the centuries of every religion must bow to the mighty logic of Bieler and stop wasting their time in prayer!”

But for every counter, there is a counter-counter post. The blogger Atheodox Jew commented on why his wife acceded to a similarly mystical call that was made for Jewish women around the world to light extra Shabbat candles (or to light candles earlier than usual) in the merit of the missing boys.

“Did she light early because she sees the act as a segula, a sort of ‘charm’ or ‘technique’ for aligning spiritual forces in our favor?” he writes. “Certainly not. Did she do it, as most people spoke about, ‘in the merit’ of the boys, meaning that if we accrue enough favor with Hashem (God), He will change His decree and grant the boys’ release? No, that was not her intent either.”

She did it, in much the same way as Bieler is arguing, as a symbolic act of caring, ”of keeping the fate of the boys and the anguish of their families in our minds and hearts” and as “an expression of solidarity and compassion.”

At the Jewish Renewal community my family and I attend in Jerusalem, when it’s time for Maariv (the evening prayer) on Friday night, the rabbi suggests that congregants either join with the chazzan (prayer leader) for traditional davening, or sit quietly in mindful meditation. “Just no talking!” she insists.

I usually choose the second option. That should be no surprise: I’ve written before about my personal practice of mindfulness, an approach that focuses on being in the moment; of not “grasping” towards a particular desired outcome or “resisting” negative or painful thoughts and feelings. Prayer for God to intercede in the world seems in some ways to be the opposite of that; a way of covering up the pain with ready-made texts and semi-plausible sentiments rather than fully feeling difficult emotions.

James-picI asked my teacher, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of the Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, for a comment. After all, he teaches Jewish mindfulness.

Prayer, when it is about “recognizing what you want and then asking for it or trying to get it is not necessarily being stuck in ‘desire’ or unhealthy ‘aversion’ towards the current situation,” he explains. “It may actually be justice. That is, if I see injustice and I have the desire for justice, I pray for justice, and I act to create justice, then that is all very healthy, as long as I am doing it in a way that recognizes that I also may not get what I want and I can still be present with that.”

Indeed, mindfulness – that being in the moment and not grasping or resisting – should never be used to shut down desire, Jacobson-Maisels continues. Desire is to be embraced. The key is not getting lost in it. Prayer is important because it “helps us name and express our desires,” he says. “And in my experience, it can connect us with the pain we are experiencing rather than having us run away from it.”

What seems clear is that Jewish prayer in the modern world can probably be interpreted in as many ways as there are people praying. If I take a step back and drop the judgment; the grasping and aversion, I can almost look forward to that next Facebook request.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.


Students 2Ever since we moved to Israel 20 years ago, I’ve always felt like I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I’ll never be truly Israeli, since I didn’t grow up with all the pop culture references someone born in the country knows intuitively. And I’m not fully American anymore either, since I haven’t resided in the U.S. for more than a month at a time for nearly two decades.

Now, it turns out, there’s a term to describe me: I’m what’s known as a TCI – a “third culture individual.”

The expression isn’t new. It was first coined by researchers in the 1950s to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad (in that case, they’re often called TCKs for “third culture kids”). These TCKs are not part of their parent’s culture and not entirely at one with their new country’s culture, hence the appellation “third culture.” The term received visibility when a very famous TCK became president of the U.S. (Barak Obama was born in Hawaii but grew up in Indonesia).

While TCKs are generally children and young adults who have spent a good chunk of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture, a TCI can be anyone who has significant living experience in a culture outside his or her own. Which means that I am a TCI, but my kids are not: even though two of them were born in California, they came here when they were young enough that their culture is 100% Israeli.

profileDespite being a TCI for close to half of my adult life, I hadn’t realized that I was part of a specific subculture until I met Lital Helman, COO of the web startup GradTrain. Helman was sitting next to me at a networking event sponsored by JNext, a new organization in Jerusalem that is working hard to foster an interdisciplinary ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Israel’s capital.

The event was an invitation-only moderated discussion between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg prior to the latter’s receipt of the Genesis Prize last month. It was held at the Hansen House, the former leper hospital turned hi-tech and design hub. Helman and I struck up a conversation while drinking mid-day champagne and eating mini-quiches and chocolate éclairs.

Helman was born in Jerusalem and grew up here, but has been TCI’ing it in New York and Pennsylvania for the past seven years. She moved there for school where she quickly discovered that a preference for hanging out with her fellow ex-countrymen was not unique to Israelis. In fact, TCIs often have more in common with other TCIs – even those from entirely different countries – than with the majority culture around then.

So, for example, I as a TCI in Israel might relate quite resonantly to the travails of an American expatriate who has lived for 15 years in Japan or a Swedish Ph.D candidate in Canada, even though it would seem that our day-to-day experiences would be quite dissimilar.

Helman ought to know. Her company, GradTrain, is a peer-to-peer video coaching platform that helps students from one country wishing to study at a university in another figure out the nuances of everything from application essays and scholarship options to what to expect from roommates and healthcare. The company was founded last year and is growing steadily with several thousand unique visitors a month, a couple hundred active coaches and 20,000 social media followers. Coaches charge for their insight and time; GradTrain takes a percentage.

While most students come to GradTrain to figure out how to get into a graduate program overseas, many return to their coaches for follow-on sessions once they’re been accepted to school, as “third culture” issues start to arise. (All of GradTrain’s coaches are themselves TCIs, so they’ve walked the same road as the people they’re mentoring.)

Language is a big part of being a TCI. Helman gives the example of someone saying “that’s interesting.” In Israel, she says, “that means the person wants to hear more. In the U.S., it often means ‘let’s change the subject.’” The same is true when an American says, “let’s have lunch. The real meaning if often just ‘nice to meet you.’ In Israel, I’d invite that person for a meal!”

This lack of understanding can be very disconcerting for a TCI in a new culture. “People who travel abroad to study are usually very motivated and talented. They’re used to having conversations where they understand what’s going on, so not getting the reaction they expect can be very confusing. It can really break a person,” Helman says. “They wonder if something has happened to them, if maybe because they’ve moved to a new country, they’re not the same person anymore. It takes time to learn the rules.”

Helman advises TCI students to do the opposite of what’s often suggested for faster acculturation, to hang out only with locals from their adopted country. Rather, “they should keep some friends from back home, or hang out with other people with international backgrounds,” she says. “That way, you won’t be the only one around who doesn’t get what’s going on.”

I’ve certainly seen the language issue in action with my TCI friends in Israel. Even the most Hebrew-fluent Anglo might not fully appreciate the word play of the legendary Israeli pop band Kaveret like a native. In the same way, Israelis will never get the cultural “stickiness” of Gilda Radner’s “Never mind” or Steve Martin’s “Excuse Me” on the gut level of a 70s child growing up in the U.S. with the first generation of TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Another example, this one not from Israel: on a recent episode of the U.S. public radio show “This American Life,” author David Sedaris described his experience living in Paris. He shared how he structures which establishments he patronizes and which he avoids in large part according to where he’ll have an easier time communicating in his limited French.

Maybe it’s because we’re both writers, with all the perfectionism we attach to communicating with grace and facilité, but like me, Sedaris is devastated daily by the withering comments a salesperson can lob in his direction for an awkwardly constructed phrase in a language not his own. All the more so in Israel, where the resurrection of an ancient tongue is a source of national pride and, even after two decades in the country and attendance at no less than six Hebrew ulpans, my still fumbling attempts at ordering anything more complicated than falafel are fodder for communal outrage.

Helman, 34, ultimately found she was tired of being a TCI in New York and together with company co-founder Jacob Bacon (despite the unlikely name, he is Israeli like Helman), returned to Israel earlier this year to run the company from the city of her birth. They are currently operating out of the JVP incubator in Jerusalem.

Helman discovered upon her return that being a TCI can go both ways. “When you come home, it can be like starting all over again,” she says. “You’re not the same person. People and places have changed. You sometimes feel like you’re now a foreigner” in your own country.

Do most TCIs stay in the country they’ve found themselves in or return home? Helman says it depends on the nationality. “People from Eastern Europe want to stay in the place they’re moving to and often use their studies as a gate to immigration. Israel, Germany and China have programs in place that provide a lot of incentives for students to come back.” The Chief Scientist’s “returning academics” program in Israel is an example.

As for TCIs from the United States, “99 percent of Americans who study abroad go back,” she adds.

I’m not planning on becoming part of that 99 percent and abandoning my own TCI status to return to California. Indeed, I think there’s probably something a little different about the crazies among us who make aliyah, at least in terms of our commitment to a new culture.

After 20 years, though, perhaps now is the time to embrace my essential TCI-ness, awkward moments and all. After all, I’m not just an anomaly. I’m a trend!

This post appeared originally in The Jerusalem Post’s Friday Magazine section.


The Jacob’s Ladder music festival, held twice a year at the Nof Ginosar kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and which just concluded its spring session this past weekend, has been quietly transforming itself from a groovy environment in which to hear interesting and enjoyable music into a growing platform that cultivates and helps launch local indie acts.

At the most recent Jacob’s Ladder, three bands that played smaller halls over the last few years, with seating for just tens and hundreds, made it to the main stage, where they could now be discovered by thousands. And one musician, who has been developing a fan base singing covers and folk tributes on the main stage, moved in the other direction, debuting a set of haunting originals in a smaller space. (She was so popular, a second show was scheduled to handle the overflow.)

LolamarshOf the first three, the clear standout was LolaMarsh, a band fronted by Yael Shoshana Cohen, who came to national prominence in 2012 as a contestant on the Israeli music competition TV show “The Voice.” At last year’s Jacob’s Ladder, it was just her, a couple of mates and a loop machine; on Friday night, Cohen had a full electric band and was, as my Jerusalem Post colleague David Brinn said after the band performed their indie hit “Stranger to My Past,” one of the best bands he has seen at Jacob’s Ladder…ever. I would agree. Here’s a link to a video of that song.

Cohen has a voice that evokes a young Kate Bush and her musical style alternates between more introspective numbers and over-the-top bombast with a strong indie rock flavor and the occasional taste of 70s progressive (sometimes all in the same song). Her stage presence is delightful, something I confirmed when I ran into her wandering the kibbutz lawns later. (Jacob’s Ladder exudes that kind of laid back vibe.)

Carli Fairburn on stageThe “Carli and Yosi” band also jumped up to the main stage this year, in the same evening spot as LolaMarsh but on ThursdayCarli Fairburn is the voice and spunk of what the festival program called “hypnotic folk groove.” I was blown away by the Australian-born singer’s mastery of a “loop station” last year. (A loop station is a device that basically records what you sing and starts repeating it. The performer “plays” it like an instrument, turning it on and off and adding layers of sound – a guitar riff, a bit of percussion, a repeated chant – and then sings along to it.)

This year, Fairburn and her Israeli husband Yosi Chopen had the audience provide backing vocals for some of her songs. It was an exhilarating, participatory way to launch the three-day festival.

Red Sun on stageRed Sun Project was the third of the indie bands to “graduate” in 2014 and they might be the sweetest success story. I first saw them four years ago when they were an acoustic folk due known only by their first names, Jenny and Gilad. They were playing the open mic stage in the kibbutz hotel lobby to just several dozen people. In subsequent years, they moved up to a proper hall, added some percussion and, this year, made their biggest leap, with a mostly electric show that evoked Coldplay with Gilad’s ringing guitar work. The lead singers’ delicious harmonies continue to make this band one of my Jacob’s Ladder favorites.

I’ve gotten to know both Jenny and Gilad personally over the years – I’ve played them several times on my Internet radio show, and Gilad and I share a last name (we’re not related) – so I was excited to hear how they evolved. Their performance at Jacob’s Ladder, in fact, was their first ever as a full band, not surprising given that Gilad only returned earlier this year from a six month post-army trip to India where he grew his formerly military crew cut to a suitably indie curly mane and added a little facial hair for extra style. They played songs mainly from their only album “Liquid Moments.” I am looking forward to where their career takes them next.

Maya Johanna on stagePerhaps the biggest discovery of the weekend was Maya Johanna, who also appeared in The Voice. Johanna, 29, has built a name for herself at the festival, singing 60s and 70s folk standards with her mentor, Jacob’s Ladder veteran guitarist and harmonica player Shay Tochner. (Indeed, on Thursday night they performed a tribute to the late Pete Seeger on the main stage.) But on Friday afternoon, Johanna sang her own material, which she dubbed, (with a hat nod to Carli and Yossi…or was it the other way around?), “magical indie folk rock.” The result was stunning.

Much of Johanna’s new work takes a contemplative, quiet stance, her delicate voice often quivering as the music seems to emerge from some place deep within. While she rocked out a couple of times, she was shy, even nervous on stage in-between songs, which only contributed to the impression that the audience was being given an early peek at a fascinating future. With collaborator Sun Tailor (a stage name for Arnon Naor), she is closing in on finishing “Shallow Waters,” her first album. She’s set up a Kickstarter-like campaign on an Israeli site – Headstart.co.il – to help fund the final cut. She’s already topped her NIS 40,000 goal. Here’s a link to the video for Shallow Waters.

I’m rooting for Johanna to join the ranks of fellow Maya (Isacowitz) who also got her start at Jacob’s Ladder and whose first album has received considerable Israeli airplay. Isacowitz headlined Thursday night last year at Jacob’s Ladder. This year, she couldn’t make it – she’s in New York recording her second album. I reviewed her live show for The Jerusalem Post here.

The rest of Jacob’s Ladder was its usual mix of fiddle-friendly country, folk and pop, this year featuring two overseas bands on the main stage, the Toronto bluegrass boy band The Slocan Ramblers (similar to the Jacob’s Ladder “house band” of the Abrams Brothers but not quite as charming) and The Jammin’ Divas, a quartet of women from around the world – Australia, Ireland, the U.S. and Israel – who were sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and reminded me of a more serious version of The Roches.

The Jammin’ Divas were part of a probably unintentional trend: nearly all the bands who took to the main stage had women lead singers. That included The Betty Bears who did a full show of Dixieland, swing and New Orleans classics from the 1920s and 30s; Sawyer, which whipped the teen and young adults at Jacob’s Ladder into a late night dancing frenzy; and DBlues which has a full horn section to funk up a Saturday afternoon. Over on the lawn stage, Tamar Capsuto, who performed solo last year, returned as part of a tribute to the music of Joni Mitchell. Even the Nava Tehila-led Kabbalat Shabbat had a woman, Ayelet Kagan, on lead vocals. The standout male of the show: Gal Nisman, who wow’d the crowd with his spot-on tribute to Eric Clapton and Ray Charles.

Who will make it to the main stage in 2015? Check back then when I write my review of the next Jacob’s Ladder.

 This post appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post. Photos of Carli Fairbun, Red Sun and Maya Johanna were taken by the talented Lee Fogel.


How I Met Ehud Olmert

by Brian on May 13, 2014

in In the News,Politics

Ehud Olmert (photo - Marc Israel Sellem:The Jerusalem Post)I was nearing the end of an interview with an Israeli business executive for an article I was working on when there was a surprise guest at the door: Ehud Olmert. This was after the point when Olmert, one of Israel’s most veteran politicians, a former prime minister and mayor of Jerusalem, was convicted on bribery charges connected to the Holyland development project, but before today’s sentencing of the once world leader to six years in prison.

Now, I have never met a prime minister, nor for that matter have I ever met someone who’s been (or is going) to jail, so I wasn’t entirely sure how to react. Should I be excited to meet Israel’s equivalent of George W. Bush (the past prime minister equivalent, not the going-to-jail part)? Or aghast at bumping into a famous criminal?

Mind you, I’ve never been a big celebrity hound. Despite growing up in California, the only star I ever even came close to was Friends’ David Schwimmer, when we were both eating in the same sushi restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Los Angeles. I didn’t interrupt his entourage, preferring to gawk from three tables away. Closer to home, I’ve shaken hands with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat many times, but I already knew him from back when he was a venture capitalist and I was the head of a startup looking for funding.

So I wasn’t overly awed to be standing opposite such a well-known and powerful man. Still, from the moment Olmert walked into the room, it was clear that he was not in any way ordinary. This man was destined to be prime minister. He had a presence that was not diminished by his current circumstances.

Impeccably dressed, after a brief introduction, he strode right towards me and took my hand, holding it for close to a minute while he asked me questions about myself: where was I from, how long have I lived in Jerusalem, what do I do for a living? He held my gaze; he was attentive, focused and made the recipient of his grip feel, well there’s no other way to say it, just plain special.

I answered his questions with some lighthearted banter, then launched into a rather inane story about how a neighbor’s dog had once gone out exploring, impregnating several female dogs along the way, before ending up at the Olmert’s house.

“Which house?” Olmert asked and laughed.

“The one on Kaf-Tet b’November,” I said, glad that, given the current situation, it wasn’t his home on Cremieux Street; that one had been the source of a previous legal affair for the former prime minister. I thought about making a joke about that other famous Jerusalem residence, the Holyland, but thought better of it.

Olmert’s arrival was a signal that my scheduled interview was over. I packed up my laptop, slung my backpack over my shoulder and said my goodbyes. Only when I arrived on the street and pulled out my phone did I realize that I had left the recorder on, taping the entire encounter, inane dog story and all. I reviewed the audio file; there was nothing incriminating. I was no Shula Zaken.

Unless an appeal is granted, Olmert is due to begin serving his time on September 1. As such, I imagine this would probably be our first, and only, in-person encounter. But just in case, I’ll prepare a different story for next time, hopefully one without a randy, roving canine.

This post appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.


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April 29, 2014

I’m not a fan of Game of Thrones. That doesn’t mean I have anything against the popular TV show based on the book series of the same name; I just haven’t found time to fit it into my already too busy TV watching schedule. But Jerusalem virtuoso rock violinist Michael Greilsammer’s new mashup of the […]

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Who Needs Peace Talks? Musical Coexistence in Jerusalem

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As the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were breaking down last week, the Old City of Jerusalem was an unlikely spot of musical coexistence. And nowhere was that more pronounced than in a hard-to-find back alley called Muristan Square where two performances demonstrated that the situation doesn’t have to be as bleak as […]

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Will the World’s Largest Seder be Canceled this Year?

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The sanctions and now full strike at Israel’s Foreign Ministry have already wreaked havoc with the country’s diplomacy. First, a planned trip by the Pope to the Holy Land appears to be on the verge of cancellation. Next, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s historic visit to Latin America also looks likely to fall to the editing […]

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The power of singing on Friday night

March 18, 2014

The next time you go to synagogue on a Friday night, take a moment to consider how many people are there for the davening (the prayer itself) and how many for the communal singing? If queried, most congregants will probably respond with some combination of commandedness and connection to God. But from a sociological perspective, there’s a […]

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Haredi Nation vs. Startup Nation: JNext and the Irony of Sunday’s Protest

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The irony was almost too delicious – and at the same time dreadfully serious – to avoid. The hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who rallied on Sunday essentially against integrating into Israeli society nearly sabotaged an event across town meant to position Jerusalem as the “capital” of the Startup Nation with all the jobs […]

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