“Can I ask your advice?” Shraga said on a sunny Shabbat afternoon a couple of weeks ago. “How do you make it work, religiously? You know, being in a mixed marriage?”

I was taken aback momentarily. I had never heard my marriage described that way although, on consideration, it was in fact accurate.

For years, the expression “mixed marriage” has been wielded like an angry bird battering away at the very foundation of Diaspora Jewish continuity.

In Israel these days, though, the term mixed marriage has taken on a new meaning: not two people of different religions but of different religious outlooks, where one person in the couple is observant and the other is not.

Frequently, that’s not the way the couple started out.

That’s been the story of my marriage. When Jody and I first met, we were both newly frum. Our love was forged on shared goals of building a religious household and raising religious children. A dozen years in, though, I began to change. Observance and belief dropped off and we found ourselves in crisis.

“You’re not the man I married!” Jody cried out at one point in the early days of trying to figure out what this all meant.

But figure it out we did and that’s why Shraga had turned to me. He’s been with his wife 10 years already and has a couple of kids, but he and his partner are no longer on the same page religiously. He will discretely start the air conditioner on Shabbat while his wife pretends to look the other way. She loves going to synagogue; he struggles to get there for Kiddush.

What are the keys to ensuring that a marriage like his – like mine – can survive, he needed to know?

Elliot MalametBefore I give you (and Shraga) my answer, I want to expand the dilemma beyond just the personal. On Shavuot this year, I attended a lecture by Dr. Elliot Malamet with the provocative title “The Torah vs. Me: Judaism and the Question of the Authentic Self.”

Malamet’s topic was, in many ways, my own life played out on a national, religious stage. What do you do, Malamet asked, when your sense of personal autonomy clashes with the foundations of something bigger – your marriage or, in this case, Jewish Law? Can you stay within tradition? Or must you squash your authenticity to adhere to the rules and norms of the religious system?

Malamet brought the example of the late Rabbi David Hartman who once had to decide whether to marry a couple named Peter and Susan. But there was a hitch. At the last moment, Peter discovered he was a Kohen – a member of the priestly class. And Susan was a convert. Jewish Law says the two are not allowed to marry.

God Who Hates LiesHartman wrote about the dilemma in his 2011 book The God Who Hates Lies. He noted that his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, faced a similar question and sided with the halacha. That couple was forced to seek happiness elsewhere. Rabbi Hartman couldn’t do that to Peter and Susan, though, and he agreed to marry them.

In many ways, the modern Jewish world, with its incessant back and forth between the individual and the system, has become the ultimate mixed marriage.

Too often, though, that’s presented as a binary, either-or conundrum. When confronted with change, you have to choose: in or out. There are movements within religious tradition towards embracing more modernity – the latest ordination of seven women as Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem earlier this month is just one example – but it’s slow by design. Move too fast, and the whole scaffolding snaps. But move too slowly and people drop out.

“Nu,” Shraga demanded, impatient with my digression into issues that he didn’t see as necessarily helping with his personal puzzle. “How do you bridge the gap?”

What’s worked for my marriage, I told him, is being able to differentiate between core values and external actions. Because the latter – like everything in life – are always going to change, sometimes radically.

In a marriage, for example, you might marry someone working in hi-tech earning a certain salary and used to a certain lifestyle. Then your spouse changes careers and becomes a house painter.

If you get too attached to the external identity, that can precipitate a predicament. But if you know going into the marriage that many, maybe even most of the “actions” are going to change, you can identify and hold onto the personal qualities that brought you together in the first place.

That’s also the case with Judaism on the national scale. The actions – specific religious behaviors, customs and Jewish Law – are going to change in small and sometimes larger ways, but the core of what brings us together as a Jewish people (and I’ll let you fill in your own blanks here) remains.

The only surefire guarantee to breaking up a mixed marriage of either kind is to fight change, which, while clichéd, is indeed inevitable.

That doesn’t mean you can’t bend.

“Learning how to compromise is essential for a healthy relationship, although you sometimes have to be very creative,” said Nomi Raz, a Jerusalem-based couples counselor. In a mixed marriage, “the one who’s more religious becomes a bit less. The one who’s less observant needs to be more tolerant.”

“A big part of a relationship is spending time together and religious activities are one way partners do this,” a friend who’s in a mixed marriage told me. “It simply requires a little more resourcefulness in finding things to share.”

Jody and I have been able to find a balance between self-actualization and accommodation. I hope our experience will help Shraga stay true to himself and to his marriage.

Because if we can do it, then so can the Jewish world.

I first wrote about mixed marriages at The Jerusalem Post.

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As I was researching The aliyah premium – how much more does it really cost to live in Israel?, I quickly realized that the only fair way to deal with the wide variances in individual earnings and tax rates was to stick with official and presumably impartial government sources like the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics or the U.S. Census Bureau.

But real life rarely conforms to the averages you get from published data, as the hundreds of messages I received on social media made abundantly clear.

By focusing on “average household income,” my social media correspondents told me, I was missing out on the stories of the not-so-average families and individuals who chose to make aliyah and who – except for a relatively small demographic of hi-tech workers able to transition into well compensated employment in Israel – more often than not “traded down” career-wise.

Trading down happens in two ways. Either you earn significantly less after aliyah (think a doctor’s earnings in the old country vs. Israel) or you’re compelled to change careers entirely because the job you were doing isn’t available in Israel, requires language skills you’re missing, or entails a long and difficult process of certification.

Eve Jacobs with her business partner, Nadia Levene, in one of their Jerusalem Holiday HomesEve Jacobs worked as an elementary school teacher in the U.K., but says continuing in that field in Israel would have meant “retraining and living on very little pay” – a double whammy.

“As a doctor, my Israeli salary is 10-20 percent of what it was and the hours are 50 percent more,” one person wrote to me on Facebook.

“Talented hard-working people in business or the legal field can earn much more in the U.S.,” wrote another.

This is not unique to Israel, of course. People changing countries everywhere tend to trade down, with the usual justification that “we’re doing it for the children.”

“True, you’ll take a pay cut. But the trade off is you belong. You are the landlord and not the tenant here,” wrote a Facebook friend.

Why is it so hard for immigrants to make ends meet?

“When you leave your country of origin, you leave the connections and the subtle cultural understandings that give you an economic advantage,” wrote Brett Batzofin

Rachel Selby echoed that insight. “In the U.S. you are familiar with the system, you have a good education, you know the language with all the nuances, and you have family connections and a network of old friends.” You lose that edge when you move away.

Rachel Berger, director of post-aliyah and employment at Nefesh B’Nefesh, sees the glass more half full.

“If you look around at the cities and neighborhoods where new immigrants have settled, you’ll see that people are not packing their bags and leaving,” Berger said. “People complain but, at the same time, we are seeing a lot of growth and development.”

Berger classifies those making aliyah into two categories: “professionals who are passionate about their trade and want to continue in it, and those who – after taking the leap of aliyah – also want to do a career leap and transition into something different.”

I found that in my Facebook comments too – a move beyond the negative towards reinvention. Many people were flourishing after making aliyah. The common denominator: being an immigrant had pushed them to embrace change and often to find an entrepreneurial spirit they didn’t know they had.

Eve Jacobs, the schoolteacher from the U.K., opened up Jerusalem Holiday Homes, which manages short-term holiday rentals. Business is booming.

“There is no way I could have lived as a single mother in Jerusalem on a teacher’s wage,” Jacobs said. On a good month, she says she is able to earn “more than three times as much as my previous salary.”

Shira Taylor Gura The Stuck MethodShira Gura trained in the U.S. as an occupational therapist but took time off to raise her children. She started writing a blog about how to get “unstuck.” It caught on. Her first book is due out later this month and she has launched a business involving coaching, workshops and retreats.

“I never would have dreamed I’d be an author, entrepreneur or anything other than a stay-at-home mom,” Gura said.

“When I first made aliyah in the 1970s I was a geneticist,” wrote Barak Tom Salakoff. He went back to university, got a degree in education, and has been “a teacher for over 40 years. Aliyah was good for me in so many ways.”

Then there’s Joel Haber who worked as a screenwriter before moving to Israel. He knew he wouldn’t be able to continue in the same profession in English, so he retrained and became a tour guide here. “My career life is way better for me than it was when I was in the States,” he said, adding that being willing to switch careers to something “that is needed here or that better fits one’s skillset” ensures “much greater chances of finding professional success.”

That might describe my own post-aliyah career trajectory, as well. I worked in hi-tech for many years before transitioning to freelance writing. I’m much happier even if my compensation has dropped.

I often wonder, though: if I’d stayed in the U.S., would I have gotten bit by the same entrepreneurial bug? Or would I have stayed the hi-tech course?

We can second-guess the choices we make forever. Still for me – and apparently quite a few other immigrants – aliyah has been anything but “trading down.”

I trade up to write for The Jerusalem Post! This article appeared there.

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Malabi Tropical 2I’m probably the worst person to review the annual Jacob’s Ladder folk music festival that took place last weekend on the grounds of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee. I’m generally not a big fan of folk unless it’s either prefixed with “indie” or has “rock” appended afterward.

As a result, I spend my time searching for music at the fringes of the festival: the indie and alternative artists that sneak in between the Irish fiddles and Americana. I am particularly interested in young Israeli musicians at the beginnings of their careers.

Over the years, I’ve discovered some amazing artists who have become favorites on my iTunes playlist and, in some cases, even personal friends – not surprising given that Jacob’s Ladder, which draws up to 5,000 people, bills itself as “Israel’s friendliest festival,” and the artists often camp out with the rest of us, making them especially approachable.

Jacob’s Ladder introduced me to the likes of indie darlings Lola Marsh and the two Maya’s – Isacowitz and Johanna, both of whom got their starts at the festival. (Maya Isacowitz’s first album Safe and Sound went gold in Israel.)

I’ve followed the careers of Jenny Pakman and Gilad Bloom who grew from a gentle guitar duo to a full on rock band with their Red Sun Project.

Ohad Rein’s Old Man River brought the feel good vibe he mastered while being mentored by Aviv Geffen on TV’s The Voice to Jacob’s Ladder last year. And I still cry when I hear Red Meadow perform “Hey Sister,” the lilting jangly guitar-driven ballad that bandleader Eli Schmaltz wrote when his own younger sibling left Israel for a new life in Texas of all places.

So who were the stand out Israeli indie artists for the 2016 edition of Jacob’s Ladder – the musicians you won’t want to miss when they come to a venue near you?

Tamar and Netanel are a folk duo from Jerusalem who might best be described as the love child between Simon and Garfunkel and Rav Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine). Many of their songs, nearly all of them in English, are influenced by Jewish themes. One standout (their only song in Hebrew and with a beat you can almost dance to), simply called “Nigun,” is based on a text written by Rav Kook himself.

There was no question about dancing to Malabi Tropical, the first band I’ve seen over the years at Jacob’s Ladder to rock out with a distinctly Caribbean groove. Band leader Uri Yida Shehoah who wore a red fez and sang mostly in Spanish, formed Malabi Tropica in 2012 in Costa Rica after he met fellow Israeli Nitzan Aroshas. (Shehoah’s father is Israeli, his mother Mexican.)

The two traveled around the Costa Rican countryside in Uri’s van honing their style until they decided in 2014 to relocate to Israel. The Caribbean sound met the Middle East, added some gypsy flair and the result has been 200 shows over the last two years and a growing fan base.

The biggest draw of the show for fans of quirky indie pop this year was Jane Bordeaux. The trio (there’s no one actually named Jane in the band) write original country flavored folk and sing it in Hebrew. They made their debut last year at Jacob’s Ladder and have had several hits on Israeli radio, including the withering ukulele-led “Einav” (“I’m not jealous, but this city is too small for the both of us.”)

This year, Jane Bordeaux graduated to the main stage where an otherwise delightful performance was marred by an electrical failure during their penultimate song forcing the band off without a proper goodbye (not to mention a much anticipated encore).

The biggest discovery for me, though, was a brand new ensemble called Tsmarmorot (Hebrew for “goosebumps” or “chills”) – 7 musicians from Moshav Yodfat in the Lower Galilee, formed by Jacob’s Ladder veteran Danny Sherban, two of his children – Maayan and Yuval – and several of their friends “who have married local girls and boys and become family,” Maayan told me.

The band is just at the beginning of its career, playing what Maayan calls “gentle Hebrew melodic rock and roll,” and got its start entertaining the band members’ children as they “as they fell asleep around the fireplace in the cold Yodfat evenings.”

The result is quite charming and when Danny Sherban’s fiddle blends sweetly with the cello played by the group’s “other” Maayan (Lev Cappeluto), you just might find yourself transported back to a less bombastic version of mid 1970s Electric Light Orchestra. Their song “Elisha” (a lullaby to band member Uria Bartov’s son) reminded me of Israeli singer songwriter Keren Ann’s hypnotic “Not Going Anywhere.”

Will Tsmarmorot be going places? I certainly hope so. But not too far – I’m looking forward to their next show at Jacob’s Ladder, along with more indie discoveries.

I reviewed this year’s Jacob’s Ladder originally for The Jerusalem Post.

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1024px-December_Charter_FlightIt’s no secret that immigrants to Israel from North America take a financial hit. But as I finished up my U.S. taxes last month (as an Israeli with dual citizenship, I am required to file in both countries), I stopped for a moment to ponder exactly how big that hit has been.

What is the “aliyah premium,” I wondered – the difference between how much I earned in Israel over the past 20 years and what I might have earned had I’d stayed in the U.S.? Did it add up to tens of thousands of dollars over a couple of decades? Hundreds of thousands?

Or is the whole differential a kind of fiction, a “woe is me” story we tell ourselves about why life is so hard in Israel but that might not hold up against the actual data?

I decided to try to crunch the numbers. I read through articles and statistics, spoke with accountants, business journalists and even a day school admissions director. Here’s what I found. Keep in mind I’m not an economist, so any figures I present will be pretty gross generalizations.

Let’s start with mean household income – the average income earned by all breadwinners in a home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American households earn $72,641 on average vs. $56,892 in Israel. The latter figure comes from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and includes income from all sources – labor, capital, government stipends and familial assistance.

So, data point number one: Israeli households earn a gross amount equal to 78 percent of their American counterparts – that’s a 22 percent “aliyah premium.”

But what about taxes? Surprisingly, the tax rates aren’t that different. The Israeli statistics folks say that same Israeli family pays 18 percent of their earnings for income tax, national insurance and health tax. My Israeli accountant ran the numbers for the same salary and it came out higher – closer to 24 percent. But he advised me up front that he hadn’t calculated the various credits and deductions (number of children, gender, etc.) that inevitably bring the total rate down.

In the U.S., taking the same gross calculation and similarly ignoring all manner of discounts and deductions, the average household income of $72,641 for a married couple filing jointly would be subject to income tax of 17 percent and another 7.65 percent for social security – in another words, almost the same as Israel.

But, as my U.S. tax preparer told me: that too is fraught with complexity. “A family with many children, high medical expenses, that itemizes their deductions or gives a lot of charity could very well wind up paying a lot less.”

Offsetting that to a certain extent are state taxes, although these vary considerably. Some states have no tax at all (Nevada and Florida); most add another 3-5 percent to the tax bill, my tax preparer said.

“You have to be careful gathering data from different sources to make comparisons,” my colleague financial journalist David Rosenberg warned me. The best way, he said, “is to take your data from a single source like the OECD.”

The OECD data tells a much more sobering story. Looking at household net disposable income (which the OCED defines as the money available to a household after taxes for spending on goods or services), Americans wind up with $41,355 on average vs. just $22,105 for Israelis.

Data point number two, then: the “aliyah premium” might be as high as 47 percent.

And that’s not factoring in the higher cost of certain purchases in Israel, such as cars (which carry a 78 percent Israeli tax mark up), gasoline (triple that of much of the U.S.), electronics and many food items (remember the cottage cheese protests). Housing in Israel is famously expensive, but then so is real estate in most major metropolitan areas of the U.S.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to compare the U.S. and Israel from a strictly economic point of view,” says Jacob Richman who operated the popular Computer Jobs in Israel website and email list for 23 years. “There are many social and Jewish aspects to living in Israel that are hard to put a price on.”

Jacob is right, of course: there’s no way to calculate the true value one gets living in a Jewish State, following a Jewish calendar and being part of Jewish history. But my analysis here is strictly about the money.

Nevertheless, there are some mitigating factors that narrow the financial gap.

The cost of private Jewish day school in the U.S. is a huge consideration. I spoke with Yelena Spector, the director of admissions at the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago. The price per child for tuition maxes out at $18,165 a year for children at her school. Bus fees add another $1,000 plus per child; hot lunches and fundraising drives even more.

If you have three children in day school, “that’s $60,000 coming straight out of your income,” Spector told me. And while some states have vouchers for private education, that’s not on the federal tax level.

As a result, “even ‘well off’ families apply for financial aid,” Spector says. Aid granted varies widely but it’s rare that tuition would drop below $5,000 per child, she added. So, even with a big break, an American Jewish family making that OECD average household income could be paying up to 36 percent of their net for schooling alone.

(That’s not an entirely fair analysis, as such an “average” earning family would probably not be able to afford Jewish day school in the first place, even with generous financial aid.)

Private school exists in Israel, too, but it’s not a necessity in the same way that it is for a family in the U.S., which has decided that Jewish education is a priority. Figure about $100 a month per child per month for books and class trips at a public school in Israel. But even factoring in these Israeli fees, the much higher private school costs for U.S. Jewish education narrows the gap from the OECD’s 47 percent “aliyah premium” to just 27 percent.

What about healthcare? In Israel, universal health coverage is included in that Israeli tax number of between 18-24 percent. Not so in the U.S. where it’s much more complicated

I pretended to be a family of five applying for coverage on a website affiliated with the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. I picked California, which is where I used to live. I plugged in my average household income numbers. The result was a mess of options that makes calculating a single tidy figure a Sisyphean impossibility.

I could pay a few hundred dollars a month and have a reasonable deductible and co-pays for doctor visits and pharmaceuticals, or I could pay much less but have deductibles exceeding $10,000. The number of options – gold, silver, bronze and platinum plans; multiple providers – set my head spinning.

I asked a colleague who heads a non-profit in U.S. what his employees generally pay. He says around $200 a month. Assuming a family will use up at least some of its deductible, that could easily add up to another, say, $5,000 a year – some 12 percent off the OECD household income total.

Many Israeli families buy supplemental health insurance (add another $100 a month at least). Still, even factoring in the Israeli health extras, in this admittedly unscientific analysis, the “aliyah premium” has now been sliced to a mere 15 percent.

Finally, social security might be only 7.65 percent if you’re a salaried employee in the U.S., but if you’re independent, you’re responsible for both the employer and employee amounts. Take off another 7.65 percent and you can see that the “aliyah premium” has nearly evaporated.

Clearly, every family’s situation is going to be different. If you’re a hi-tech worker with no kids and you don’t get sick much, you could probably earn a lot more in the U.S. But, on the other hand, your Israel startup could get bought or go public, leaving you sitting pretty in Tel Aviv.

There’s so much I haven’t included: property and worldwide capital gains are taxed differently (higher in Israel), synagogue dues ($2,000 for a family in the U.S.) are not widely applicable in the Jewish State, summer camp fees in the U.S. are sky high (add another $4,000 per child), life insurance premiums are higher in Israel, as is long term care insurance. Retirement programs and pension saving vary. And this analysis only concerns the U.S. Comparing costs between Israel and Europe is an entirely different tub of hummus.

So, have I lost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in my 20 years here? It doesn’t seem so. My bottom line “aliyah premium” is far more manageable that I anticipated.

Is being a part of this modern Jewish experiment called Israel worth a 7-15 percent hit on income? Everyone has to decide for him or herself, but for me, I’m more than happy to run with those numbers.

I originally crunched the numbers over at The Jerusalem Post. There has been a lot of discussion of this article on Facebook. If you’re not a friend already, just ask!

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Meditation intervention

by Brian on April 28, 2016

in Health,Just For Fun

Meditation-retreat-picture“You’ll be staying in Building 3,” explained Danny, as we arrived at Kibbutz Ein Dor, where we were about to spend just under a week at the annual silent Jewish meditation retreat my wife and I have attended for the past several years.

We had gotten to the retreat late this year – our son’s end of high school music recital conflicted with the beginning of the retreat and we couldn’t miss his performance – which meant that by the time we entered the space on Tuesday evening, everyone else was already in silence.

Danny, who as retreat manager could talk, pointed out how to get to the dorms where Jody and I had a private room, where to pick up sheets and towels, and other logistics. Then he added, as nonchalantly as he could, in a slightly choked whisper, which foreshadowed the drama about to unfold, “Oh, by the way, it’s the women’s dorm. Brian, you’ll be the only guy there.”

Well, that was going to be awkward.

But no problem, I’d just explain to my fellow dorm-mates the situation, how because we were the only married couple on the retreat this year, they hadn’t been able to rent an entire separate building just for us, and so it was either me with the women or Jody with the men.

Except that I couldn’t explain anything – they were in silence, I was in silence and at these kinds of retreats, we generally don’t even make eye contact.

“I’d recommend that you use the shower in the men’s dorm. But it should be OK for you to use the toilet in Building 3,” Danny suggested helpfully.

“Do the women know I’m coming?” I asked. Danny looked away sheepishly, but the answer came quickly as Jody and I wheeled our small suitcases – much too loudly given the general quiet around us – to the dorm. Surprised and uncomfortable glances from a couple of women shot in my direction.

“What is he doing in here?” I imagined them thinking. “Does he not know this is the women’s dorm? Is he some Peeping Tom? Does he think he can just sneak into some woman’s room without us noticing? Maybe he’s not even on the retreat!”

Nope, this was definitely not going to be easy.

I thought about putting up a sign up at the entrance to the dorm explaining my presence, how I didn’t want to make anyone feel threatened or unsafe. But that’s not how communication works at a silent retreat. In the dining room there’s a place to leave private notes – never to other participants – only to the teachers and staff.

The Ein Dor retreat center is a study in contrasts. The meditation room itself was recently renovated and has lovely wooden floors, an abundance of comfortable mats and pillows and soft lighting. The accommodations, on the other hand, haven’t been touched in at least 30 years. They make a Himalayan guesthouse look like a Waldorf Astoria.

Broken windows, cobwebs and every manner of crawling thing, plus peeling paint that at several moments cascaded down from the ceiling onto the floor of our room, were our constant companions. Jody and I – who are strict about keeping social silence on retreat and don’t talk to each other even when we’re alone in our private room – could only share a wry smile.

Not talking can sound like torture but I find it incredibly liberating. I talk to people all the time for my work. It’s awkward at first to sit at the Shabbat table in total silence, but to dispense with the small talk and focus instead on the food (and the cooking of Ayana Lekach, who calls herself a “mindful caterer” is superb) is a practice we would all do well to try from time to time, even on a non-meditation specific Shabbat.

I dutifully showered in the men’s dorm and kept my toilet time in Building 3 to a minimum. Other than the looks I received – or had I just projected my own awkwardness onto the women I was now living with? – I had no way of knowing whether my being there was causing a disturbance. That is, until the afternoon announcement period on our second day there, when one of the retreat leaders spoke up.

“I just want to let you know, in case you haven’t noticed, that Brian is staying in the women’s dorms. He’s not showering there, so don’t worry,” explained Rabbi Jeff Roth, whose Awakened Heart Project co-sponsored the retreat with Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels Israel-based Or HaLev.

Someone must have written a note.

A few hours later, Jeff brought it up again. “And just so you know,” he added, “Brian is not even looking in the women’s showers.”

That, I surmised, was directed as much at me as the other women. I wanted to run away. This was just too embarrassing.

It always takes time – in my experience a good 2-3 days – just to “settle” on a retreat; to get to that point where you’re no longer thinking about what you need to accomplish at work or concerns about the outside world. I was still in that period so I allowed myself to fantasize about sneaking away, taking the bus to Afula and going home to Jerusalem.

But I couldn’t leave Jody a note to tell her that, so I stayed.

The truth is, this was all good “material,” which is exactly what a retreat – and a meditation practice in general – is all about. The real aim in mindfulness is to be able to just “be” with whatever arises, especially uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. It’s not about shutting down feeling or trying to somehow get “quiet.” Indeed, going on retreat is some of the hardest and internally noisy work I’ve ever done. It sounds peaceful but it’s really the opposite.

But the payoff can be huge. If you can accept what comes up (not just on retreat but at any time in your life) rather than resist, if you can sit with the pain – whether physical, emotional or both – without trying to distract yourself through chocolate or TV or sex, the insights can be life altering.

The key is to drop expectations and cede control – you really don’t have any. I was on this particular retreat for a total of 96 hours. I had all of 45 minutes of clarity. But that 45 minutes was breathtaking and I couldn’t have gotten there without the support of my fellow meditators in the hall or the other 95 hours of sitting, walking, eating and sleeping mindfully.

“Material” can come from surprising places. The first time I was on retreat, I was shocked that there were other groups sharing the space – and they weren’t silent, not by a long shot. I was livid, my expectations of a pastoral relaxing environment dashed.

This year, it was even more in your face. A group of young Israelis were staying in an adjacent dorm and holding some kind of sports camp on the grounds. We were doing our best at turning inward; as they set up the goal posts and tossed around the soccer ball, their unambiguous objective was to make as much noise as possible.

Had Danny put me in the women’s dorm davka to create discomfort? Even if it wasn’t on purpose, it certainly served the purpose of generating “material” to work with.

At the end of the retreat, the participants were encouraged to say something about their experience. I talked about my four days in Building 3. Afterward, a woman approached me.

“You were the best male dorm mate we could have asked for,” she said. “Especially because you always put the toilet seat down!”

“Thank you,” I replied, breathing out an attentive sigh of relief. “I did that mindfully, too.”

I first got awkward in Building 3 at The Jerusalem Post.

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A Seder for Non Believers

April 15, 2016

Jewish tradition commands Pesach Seder participants to imagine that they themselves had been enslaved in Egypt and were redeemed through the Exodus. But what happens if you don’t believe that there were Israelites in Egypt or that the Exodus was a real historical occurrence? What do you do on Seder night if your personal take […]

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Why I’m voting for Donald Trump

April 1, 2016

Yes, you read that right. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally come around. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has won me over. And come November, if he’s still in the race (and if this election year has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is mandated from heaven), he’ll have my vote. He says he’s […]

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Rebranding Zionism (Zionism = Calendarism)

March 21, 2016

I interview people for a living. Many of the articles I write are for publications outside of Israel. For those conversations, I don’t usually identify myself as living in Jerusalem – I want the person I’m speaking with to be the focus of the article, not me. I have a U.S. phone number, so there’s […]

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Secular in City

March 16, 2016

Yaniv doesn’t like Jerusalem. “It’s nothing personal,” he said nonchalantly between demonstrative slurps of my wife Jody’s famous chicken soup, as he joined us at the Shabbat table a few weeks back “I just don’t feel welcome here – in the city that, is,” he added, looking sheepishly at Jody. “It’s just so…you know…religious.” There’s […]

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The Little Bakery that Could

February 25, 2016

When the German Colony branch of Jerusalem’s Pe’er Bakery closed down last year after 43 years of operation, fans of its signature sweet whole wheat challah let out a collective kvetch: where would we go for challah now on Fridays? But Pe’er’s challah is back in the neighborhood, albeit at another establishment – the Coney […]

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