wedding-in-cyprusWhen my daughter Merav married her high school sweetheart Gabe last month, the date they set for their wedding just happened to come out on the 22nd anniversary of our family’s aliyah.

When we made the decision to move to Israel, one of our greatest hopes was that our children would find nice Jewish Israelis to marry and get hitched in the one and only Jewish state.

But our daughter didn’t get married in Israel. In a modern Zionist irony that is in equal parts infuriating and tragic, Merav and Gabe flew to Cyprus where the mayor of Larnaca, the island nation’s third largest city, did the honors at the local city hall.

Merav and Gabe didn’t choose Cyprus because they weren’t allowed to marry in Israel. While Israel has no civil marriage system, meaning people of different religions cannot legally wed in the country, both my daughter and her new husband are Jewish according to halacha (Jewish Law).

They did it because, as Merav told me, they didn’t want to have anything to do with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which has exclusivity over Jewish marriage in Israel, and that refuses to allow people to marry in accordance with customs that are not fully Orthodox.

In Merav and Gabe’s case, that meant having a fully egalitarian ceremony, with a presiding rabbi not on the rabbinate’s officially approved list.

Our children are far from alone.

Every year, some 20,000 Israelis take advantage of a loophole in the law that states if a couple marries overseas and then presents the documentation to the Israeli Interior Ministry, they will be registered as married. But if they opt for a Jewish ceremony in Israel without going through the rabbinate (and they skip the Cyprus part), their status will remain single.

It’s become a full-fledged phenomenon.

One out of every five marriages in Israel today now bypasses the rabbinate, in what can only be described as a bottom up effort to topple the rabbinate’s monopoly on marriage by simply making the institution irrelevant.

“The only way to effectively address these problems is through grassroots efforts and mass civil disobedience,” Chuck Davidson, an Orthodox rabbi who regularly performs weddings outside the rabbinate in Israel, told me.

Getting married in Cyprus is not that difficult – although it doesn’t come cheap.

A couple thinking of getting married overseas can contact any one of several Israeli companies that offer full service wedding packages. (Prague is another popular destination.)

For around $2,500, they will book your flight and hotel, arrange your appointment time at City Hall in Larnaca, assemble and manage all the paperwork for you, and even hire a driver and car to get you from the airport to town and back.

Merav and Gabe decided to skip the markups and do it on their own. Not surprising in this social media age, there is an abundance of advice online – in Facebook groups dedicated to the subject or on websites like Free-wedding.info or Larnaka.org.cy.

They started by going to the Interior Ministry to procure a document that testified they were both single. While the document itself is free, translating it into English and getting it notarized and stamped can run up to $250.

That’s more than the flight to Cyprus, which takes less than an hour and can be booked on the web for just $150 round trip.

Once in Larnaca, there are accommodations to fit every budget. You can fly in and out on the same day, though many couples add a night or two to create a mini-vacation.

The actual ceremony takes all of seven minutes and costs $350. Weddings are conducted in the mornings only. At that rate, if fully booked, Larnaca is making upwards of $10,000 a day just on weddings.

“No one is willing to admit this, but if Israel ever decides to allow civil marriages within its borders, the financial ramifications on the island will be disastrous,” journalist Sarah Stricker wrote several years ago while following a number of Israeli couples marrying in Cyprus.

Merav and Gabe’s appointment at City Hall was at 9:00 AM. Their official certificate of marriage was ready by 1:30 PM. The couple spent the afternoon on the beach, sipping cocktails and overlooking the blazingly white Cypriot sand.

Two weeks after returning from Cyprus, Merav and Gabe had the egalitarian wedding of their dreams in Israel.

Both Merav and Gabe signed the ketubah (marriage contract), witnessed by not just two men but two women, and which included language where they mutually committed to each other. They exchanged rings and circled each other under the chuppah. Both men and women recited the sheva brachot.

Three days later, they brought their paperwork from Cyprus to the Interior Ministry in Jerusalem and were officially registered as married.

Yes, it was a shame they had to leave Israel on the very day of our aliyah to get married abroad, but we are so proud of their pioneering spirit and their determination to play a part in a much needed movement for change and reform.

For all of that, let’s wish the happy couple mazel tov!

I was first proud of my pioneering kids in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

When God offers you a raft, take it

by Brian on November 16, 2016

in Just For Fun,Travel

jordan-river-courtesy-tourism-ministryMy wife Jody and I recently spent a relaxing weekend at a small vacation bungalow in Poriah, a moshav overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with our friends David and Shelley.

On Friday afternoon we had a few hours to kill before we needed to get ready for Shabbat and we wanted to go on a hike.

The Israel National Trail runs along a hill above one of the tributaries of the Jordan River, starting at the Rob Roy canoe rental facility. It’s a lovely route with lots of shade, perfect on an unseasonably hot day. It sounded like a serene way to get out into nature.

It turned out to be anything but.

The weekend in question was during fall holiday season when everyone – and it really seemed like everyone – in the country packs up anything at home that’s not locked down to go camping, transforming peace into plenty…of noise.

Every few meters along the riverbank was another encampment, each more extravagant than the previous one: from simple barbecues with a few sleeping bags to full-on villages with table settings for dozens, kegs and coolers, and living accommodations that looked like an inside out version of Hermione’s beaded bag from the Harry Potter books.

And then there were the sound systems – speakers as big as those you see in a club, pounding out a soundtrack of epic outdoor proportions.

The recently released army youth groups favored trance; the pounding bass created little ripples of recognition in the water below. There were several Mizrachi music campsites and one playing Russian disco pop.

A large group of English speakers – maybe a post-Birthright gathering? – was blasting the Eagles and the Allman Brothers.

Talk about an ingathering of the exiles.

We walked for about half an hour along the Israel Trail until there was a land crossing where the Jordan went underneath us briefly.

We reversed course, now on the other side of the river, pleased that we wouldn’t have to double back on the same route and that we’d get a slightly different perspective on the musical merrymaking.

But when we got back to our starting point at the Rob Roy, we were confronted with what, in retrospect, should have been an entirely expected dilemma: we were separated from our car by the Jordan River and there was no bridge in sight.

Now, the river is not very wide and it wasn’t particularly deep either – you can cross it while still keeping your hair dry. But Jody and I were wearing our leather hiking boots and we all had our iPhones, wallets, and watches with us, none of which were waterproof. The canoes were already tied up for the night.

At that moment, a woman with a floating air mattress came by.

“Do you need a ride?” she asked.

We considered the makeshift raft, but we still had our boots and our electronics to worry about, and it was easy to imagine the raft flipping over mid-stream.

That didn’t stop Shelley, who jumped on and gently sailed to the other side. David skipped the raft entirely, sloshing through the water in equal time.

“Um, we’re going to see if we can walk to the road to the other side of the kibbutz,” I told our friends. “When we get there, it should only take a few minutes for you to drive and pick us up.”

We set off through a lovely green field until we got to a very high metal mesh fence which served to protect Kibbutz Degania not only from wandering animals but any riff raff thinking of expanding their camping radius.

We walked around the fence for a bit, until it was clear it was impenetrable. The sun was starting to set.

“We don’t have any choice,” Jody said ruefully. “We’re going to have to cross that river.”

We returned to where we started, but this time, the raft was no longer available. Our moment had passed.

And then, charging back through the water came David.

“Give me your bags,” he commanded. “I’ll carry them over my head with your shoes and phones in them.”

The water wasn’t that cold. It took us two minutes at most to cross. The sharp pebbles that dug into our feet were the worst of it.

As we dried off our feet at the Rob Roy, a cover band was playing rock and roll classics. There were hundreds of people grooving in the late afternoon breeze. I recognized the lead singer: Reuven Schmaltz, one of the original members of Red Meadow, which regularly plays at the nearby Jacob’s Ladder music festival.

As we drove back to our bungalow, I was reminded of the classic joke about a pious man who is caught in a flood. As he flounders in the water, a ship comes for him.

“No, no,” he tells his would be rescuers. “I trust that God will send a miracle to save me.”

A bit later, a helicopter arrives and drops a rope for him to climb to safety.

“No, no,” he says again, “God will provide.”

Eventually the man drowns.

When he arrives in Heaven, he has an audience with God.

“Why didn’t you save me?” he demands of the Almighty.

“I sent you a ship and I sent you a helicopter!” God responds.

The clear lesson: the next time we’re offered a raft on the Jordan River, we’ll take it!

I first turned down that raft at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: Israel Tourism Ministry.

{ 0 comments }

sheet_music-_kol_nidre_4991049347I didn’t go to synagogue this Yom Kippur. To be frank, I didn’t even fully fast. My ongoing rebellion against religion has turned into a full-fledged insurrection.

As my wife Jody left the house without me for Kol Nidre, she turned and said, “I can understand that Jewish Law and prayer don’t speak to you anymore. But if you’re not even fasting, you’re really separating yourself from the rest of the tribe. Seventy-three percent of Jewish Israelis fast on Yom Kippur.”

And then she added this kicker: “How are you even still Jewish?”

Thirty years ago, before I became religiously observant (only to more recently leave it), my answer would have been something along the lines of, well, I was born Jewish and I feel Jewish.

Not very deep, I know, but true enough for someone who didn’t know which side of the Tefillin goes up and who figured the “four species” of Sukkot must be the name of a high-end hotel.

The problem with gaining a little knowledge, as a few years of yeshiva learning and living a religious lifestyle for double decades provided me, is that then you know too well what you’re not doing.

That often leads to binary, either-or thinking, like: if you used to be scrupulous about keeping kosher but now you’re not, you’re not just a tinok sh’nishba – a child who sins inadvertently as a result of not having been raised with an appreciation for the thoughts and practices of Judaism – but rather you’re an all-in apikorus (a heretic).

And yet, Jody’s question begs an answer. How am I still Jewish?

How am I not Jewish?

My life is infused with Jewish content and practice at every turn – from the electronically unplugged Shabbat and holiday meals we eat together as a family every week to the classes on Jewish texts and philosophy we go to at places like Pardes and Beit Avi Chai.

There’s the funky but respectful Seder we make, the museum exhibitions on Jewish history and art we visit, the Jewish publications I seek out for my daily news obsession, the Jewish music we listen and dance to, the Jewish Renewal community we sing with in Jerusalem, the topics I write about here in this column.

It may have turned more cultural than observant over the years, but that doesn’t make it any less Jewish.

And then there’s Israel.

Admittedly I came to this country as a very different person, and Israel itself has dramatically changed. But I’m still here after 22 years. It’s just that my Jewish identity has morphed from a sukka-seeking Diaspora Jew with delusions of Kotel to a – well there’s no other way to say it – an Israeli.

Which is both surprising and strange since I have few Israeli friends, my Hebrew is stuck in kita gimel, and many of the norms and behaviors of the people around me drive me nuts.

And yet, I do this one seemingly illogical action, day after day: I show up.

I’m committed to making my small contribution to the continuity of the Jewish State and the betterment of the Jewish society around me, even if the majority of what I do is just try to live a normal life.

But those small things matter.

I vote. I pay my taxes. My children serve in the army. I always clean up after my dog.

Above all, I take continuing pride in being a willing if not always entirely enthusiastic part of the greatest Jewish adventure in 2,000 years.

And when the politics and religion of this place get me down, or when the missiles start flying from Gaza, I don’t flee to another, less war-prone country (if that even exists). I stick it out because my presence, however minuscule and seemingly insignificant, I have to believe, does have a long-term impact, even if I may never see it.

Yuval HarariHistorian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Harari would say I’m afflicted by an over reliance in what he’s dubbed the “Liberal Story,” which posits that if only we liberalize our political, economic and religious systems, “we will produce paradise on earth, or at least peace and prosperity for all.”

But the Liberal Story, he writes in a recent column in The New Yorker, is imploding all around us. Disillusionment triggered first by the financial collapse of 2008 and continuing through the botched Arab spring and the alarming rise of nationalism, extremism, isolationism, terrorism and Trumpism, has led to mass disenchantment and fear for the future.

I can’t give up hope, though – not for Israel nor for the Jewish people (those two identities now inextricably fused, for me at least). That would be the true turning away from my Jewishness, much more than whether I chose to eat a bowl of cereal to wash down my anti-depressants this Yom Kippur or not.

Zionist Union Knesset member Manuel Trajtenberg put it more eloquently when he wrote that to live “as a believing Jew” means “believing in the uniqueness and historic role of the Jewish people… and in the need to…create a better world for future generations.”

And so I will continue to show up, day after day. I refuse to stop trusting that I can contribute, however obliquely, to that quintessential Jewish value of tikkun olam – repairing the world – or at least our little corner of it.

I guess I’m not such a heretic after all.

I first answered this question about my Jewishness at The Jerusalem Post.

Kol Nidre picture attribution: Zagler, A. R. S. Schenker Keller, Jacob (museums.cjh.org  Center for Jewish History, NYC)

{ 0 comments }

train-imageWhen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu buckled under haredi pressure in September and canceled 20 long standing Israel Railways permits to do regularly scheduled repair work on Shabbat (leading to the cancelation of train service the following Sunday morning that inconvenienced tens of thousands of commuters and soldiers), he probably wasn’t thinking it would reignite Israel’s long simmering Shabbat wars.

But no sooner had the emboldened ultra-Orthodox parties internalized the bounty they’d unexpectedly received, the ante was upped. Next on Interior Minister and Shas leader Arye Deri’s agenda: the shut down of grocery stores and kiosks in the heart of secular Tel Aviv.

The response was quick in coming: threats by the Be Free Israel group to stage a mass secular street party on Shabbat in haredi Bnei Brak.

The party never happened and the kiosks are still open. But it got me lamenting how we got to this point.

Not the historical circumstances. While Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to create the now sacrosanct “Status Quo of State and Religion” seems, in retrospect, to have been a short sided political calculation, in 1947 Ben-Gurion was simply being prudent in ensuring that every major Jewish community, including the religious parties, would support Jewish statehood.

No, my quibble is with the whole notion that, in order for Jews of different backgrounds to get along, we need to settle on a kind of “lowest common denominator” of observance. That is, the most stringent approach to religious behavior becomes the one that’s adopted so that everyone can be together.

It plays itself out on the national stage of course: the absence of public transportation on Shabbat in most Israeli municipalities, the monopoly the Israeli Rabbinate has on kosher certification, Orthodox control over marriage and conversion.

But you can see it within families as well, where differing kashrut standards mean not everyone can share a Sabbath meal, because the meat and vegetables from Rami Levy, while 100 percent kosher, aren’t strict enough for all.

What if it didn’t have to be this way?

Could we instead imagine a Jewish world in which striving to always solve for the lowest common denominator is not the only way for Jews to get along? A world where differing practices are embraced – not with resentment, but with joy and openness. A world in which we replace “tolerance” – which linguistically suggests that one is only begrudgingly “tolerating” something – with something closer to true coexistence.

What would such a world look like?

First of all, we’ve got to stop with the Shabbat protests – on both sides. If a kiosk wants to sell milk on the holy Sabbath, let it. If Bnei Brak doesn’t want buses running down Jabotinsky Street on the weekend, that can be accommodated too. But let’s permit public transportation in those locations where the majority demands it.

Civil marriage is a must. Already one out of every five Jewish Israeli couples does not go through the Chief Rabbinate. And, according to new figures published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of couples choosing to live together rather than get hitched legally has increased 29 percent in the last two years. When it comes to weddings, the lowest common denominator is already broken.

As for the train repairs on Shabbat that fueled the latest controversy, Orthodox maverick and Jerusalem Post columnist Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes that, “There is only one sanctity that is even greater than Shabbat and that is the holiness of the human being.” If it is true that improving Israel’s train system will “save countless human lives by having people switch from car to rail, halacha [Jewish Law] will, without any doubt, demand of us to work on Shabbat to complete construction as soon as possible.”

Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz, said something similar some 40 years ago.

Religious Jews should regard meeting the essential 24/7 needs of the modern state – services like water, electricity and policing – as a full religious obligation. To ask to be exempt from work on Shabbat was unthinkable to Leibowitz and would actually confer upon the religious Jew the stigma of an “inferior” status.

The haredim would argue that opening a supermarket on Shabbat is not an essential service and a Jewish world that doesn’t rely on lowest common denominators would lead to a total disintegration of Jewish unity.

The thing is, we’re not unified now. Our children can’t (or won’t) marry each other, we don’t eat in each other’s homes, and we fight repeatedly to preserve a long irrelevant status quo.

This is not an easy one to solve and there is little political will to legislate the changes that would effectively separate religion and state.

But as Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz argued in a recent column, such a dramatic shift could actually benefit the religious parties. The next time railway construction takes place on Shabbat, haredi politicians “would be able to tell their constituents that they had no hand in the matter,” Katz wrote, and would therefore “not be pressured to topple a government over religious issues.”

It’s time for a reboot of the conceptual arithmetic that has defined religious-secular relations in this country over the past 70 years. As we sit our sukkot next week, let’s think long and hard about what kind of a country we want – before the next Shabbat wars become the only lowest common denominator on which we can all agree.

I wrote about the looming Shabbat wars originally at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

“Rosh Hashanah is an epic fail.”

That was the gist of a provocative column by Jay Michaelson published earlier this month in the Forward.

jay-michaelsonMichaelson, who writes on religion and progressive politics and is the author of a half dozen books, including “Everything is God,” wasn’t talking about whether Rosh Hashanah should or should not be observed but rather how it is practiced, particularly in the large non-Orthodox synagogues of America where the Forward’s main readership is.

The solemn responsive readings and monotone formality, contrasted with the fashion show frivolity in the pews, make Rosh Hashanah just about the worst interface for Jews who only visit a synagogue one or two days a year, Michaelson says.

While Michaelson was writing specifically about Jewish life in the U.S., his message applies to Israel too, where the synagogues are similarly packed on Rosh Hashanah with less than regular, shofar-seeking worshipers.

Michaelson’s column, not unexpectedly, elicited major pushback with commenters resorting to some ferocious name-calling.

But the thing is: he’s not wrong – if you’re willing to think outside of the four walls of the shul box.

Rosh Hashanah has some great messages, to be sure. Celebrating symbolic renewal on this “birthday of the world” – on both the national and personal levels – gives us a proscribed framework for expressing gratitude for what we have and a safe space to acknowledge the beauty and blessing that exists if we are willing to push past the cynical.

Seeking forgiveness from our family, friends and neighbors and – more importantly – from ourselves for not living up to the unreachable expectations we so often set, is an important step towards living a more mindful life. There is great communal value in looking back at the year and tallying up our accomplishments (and shortcomings) as if our lives depended on it.

It’s just that we’re doing it in the wrong location.

The synagogue is no place for Rosh Hashanah. The brick-heavy machzor (the holiday prayer book) has become, over the years, more akin to a never-ending Wikipedia entry, containing every prayer and piyut that was ever written, than a guidebook for spiritual connection.

Trying to find the meaningful messages in the morass is possible, but one is just as likely to nod off or go numb as the day stretches on for 4 or 5 hours. And then you wake up and do it all over again the next day.

Michaelson’s prescription for the High Holy Day dilemma? Skip Rosh Hashanah entirely and commit to a different day on the Jewish calendar. Michaelson recommends Sukkot – a holiday of “harvest, joy, environmentalism [and] companionship” that is everything Rosh Hashanah isn’t: interactive, kinesthetic and engaging.

I’m a big fan of Sukkot, too. But I’m not ready to dump Rosh Hashanah just yet. There are other ways to rehabilitate the day.

Why not get together with family and friends, whether for a meal or a hike or a game of cards, and use the themes of Rosh Hashanah as triggers for deep discussions on repentance or how to build a better, safer and more just society.

The Unetanneh Tokef prayer is a good place to start. It sensitizes us to the fragility of life in a world filled with terror.

“Who will die at his predestined time and who before his time, who by water and who by fire, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague.”

There’s even a bonus prompt to spur discussion on privilege and class.

“Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched?”

Or combine a debate about Rosh Hashanah’s ancient emphasis on “kingship” with a comparison to Game of Thrones. Has the world gotten any better since that admittedly mythical time? Or do misogyny, sexism and battle-hardened testosterone still loom large in our supposedly enlightened age? (At least we don’t have dragons.)

Do all this even if you do go to synagogue.

Every year before the High Holy Days, the Jewish non-profit organization Reboot offers a tool called “10Q.”

10q10Q is a website that presents you with ten questions that you answer online. You then click “Send to Vault” and the site locks your answers away until the following year, when you receive an email inviting you to review what you wrote and to reflect on the year just passed.

The questions are meant for private introspection but they work well in a Rosh Hashanah group too.

“Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?”

“Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year?”

“What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?”

“Describe one thing you’d like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?”

The final 10Q section allows you to write down predictions for the coming year. Do that communally – and open the list from last year to see how you did. (I predicted another summer war with Hamas, about which I’m very pleased to have been wrong.)

Spend at least some of Rosh Hashanah contemplating these questions and you’ll be much closer to the true spirit of the holiday.

As Michaelson writes at the conclusion of his piece, you can “go to synagogue some other time.”

I first wrote about how to make Rosh Hashanah better at The Jerusalem Post

{ 0 comments }

What if there were an “end date” to life?

October 2, 2016

It was my birthday last week. I turned 56. That means I have another 19 years left on this planet. No, I don’t have a crystal ball predicting when I’ll die. But I have been very much taken with the end-of-life prescription laid out by medical ethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, who wrote in a much-cited […]

Read the full article →

The secret to making my mixed marriage work

September 16, 2016

“I know my husband uses the microwave on Shabbat,” a friend told me, after I shared my story of being in a mixed secular-religious marriage, “but he makes sure to do it while I’m out of the house at shul.” While this bifurcated approach may work in the short term, where the less observant partner […]

Read the full article →

I’m in a mixed marriage and it’s not what you think

September 16, 2016

I have a confession to make: I’m in a mixed marriage. But not the kind you usually think of when you hear the term, which conjures up images of countless Tevyes sitting shiva. These days – and in Israel, in particular – “mixed marriage” refers not so much to two people of different religions, but […]

Read the full article →

Snub from Cairo

September 16, 2016

When Egyptian judoka Islam el-Shehaby lost to Or Sasson in the 100-kg judo contest at the recent Rio Olympics, Shehaby demonstrably snubbed his Israeli opponent by refusing to shake hands, as is Olympics protocol (not to mention just plain good manners). This prompted outrage – not only in Israel, but at the International Olympics Committee, […]

Read the full article →

Keeping kosher “in my own way”

September 16, 2016

Dennis Prager has a radical proposal. In a column published earlier this month in the Jewish Journal, he makes the argument that “if you don’t eat bacon or shellfish because you are a Jew” – even if you eat beef or chicken that hasn’t been slaughtered according to Jewish Law or you eat out in […]

Read the full article →