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

How could this be? Everyone likes Passover, right? After all, it’s the holiday that nearly every Jew observes, in one way or another. In Israel, 82 percent of Jews who self-identify as secular still attend a Seder. And, of course, 100 percent of self-identified religious Jews find themselves reciting the Haggadah. Were we alone in doing, but disliking, the holiday? Or are there closet Seder haters like us?

The truth is, this is not the kind of news you want to blurt out. It’s like saying “I know you’ve been eating in my kosher home for years but I forgot to tell you we serve bacon on our milk dishes.” (That was an example only, OK?) So I didn’t survey friends and families on how they felt about the holiday.

To be sure, there are plenty of reasons even the most fervent might find Pesach to be a pain. I understand the value of telling and retelling the origin story of the Jewish people, and eating matzah, the bread of affliction and hurry, is an excellent, highly tactile way of helping you feel as if you, yourself, came out of Egypt, as the Haggadah commands. But why does it have to be for seven days? The matzah message comes through loud and clear after one. All the rest is constipation.

Then there are all the magical elements that inevitably have me scratching my head in befuddled annoyance. If you immerse an everyday fork or a knife or a metal bowl in a pot of boiling water and pay some bearded guy a bunch of shekels, it will magically come out kosher for Pesach. How does that work, scientifically, I mean? Does the heat somehow expel the formerly meat or milk status of the utensil? If so, why doesn’t my cutlery reset to its default state every time I wash the dishes at home in hot water or use the dishwasher? And why could my grandmother bury forks in a flowerpot but me, I have to dutifully traipse down the street to the guys manning the pot and pay up?

When it comes to the ritualized obsessive compulsiveness over Pesach preparation, I can emphasize with the kvetching and disdain. But the Seder itself – that was supposed to be the pay off: family, food and a Haggadah filled with Ridley Scott produced twists and turns. Come on, who doesn’t like sticking their finger in a wine glass and flinging blood while pointing at their siblings and yelling, “you’re the wicked child!”

But now it was on the table. A family discussion had laid bare that many of us found that even the Seder was less than awe inspiring. The main part of the Magid, which tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt in excruciating detail – with its one-upping rabbinical scholars explaining why it wasn’t 10 plagues, it was 50, no it was 250! – followed by Hallel (praising God) and more Hallel and even more Hallel; it just seems to go on and on and our family wanted to flip the off switch.

Yet with Pesach just days away, in-laws flying in from the U.S. and an impressionable young couple already invited, we had to do something. I called up Naftali, a friend who had joined us for Seder several years earlier and had done his fair share of Torah learning. I shared our story. While their situation wasn’t as dire (their kids are both under four; they haven’t had time to move past the wonder of just getting through the first verse of Ma Nishtanah), Naftali admitted something I’d never considered.

“You know,” he said without blinking, “we don’t actually say all the words. In fact, we skip most of the Magid.”

“Skip the Magid?” I thought. Is he crazy? Doesn’t it say somewhere that you are commanded to hear every word? (Actually, that’s regarding the reading of the Megillah on Purim, so my bad.)

Ayeka-2But as I thought it over, it seemed he might have a point. Rabbi Aryeh Ben David agrees. Ben David runs Ayeka, an organization he calls a “Center for Soulful Education.” A couple of years ago, he sent out a pre-Passover email. The headline of one section was “Don’t Teach – Evoke.”

“The Seder is not a learning event,” Ben David wrote. “If the rabbis had wanted us to learn, they wouldn’t have asked us to drink four cups of wine (they weren’t talking about grape juice). We have 364 days of the year to learn about the Exodus. The Seder is an experience to evoke our hearts and souls.”

He gave further instruction to Seder leaders: “Please do not metamorphosize into the ‘Rabbinic Scholar’ for one night a year. Your job is not to preach and impress everyone with your erudition, but to create a safe space for others to share.”

Aryeh Ben David is a friend and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t suggesting we drop the text entirely, but with his implicit permission, I made a command decision. Why not mix it up a bit? Or more than a little bit. Why not totally go with the flow?

If a youngster at the table starts signing Ma Nishtanah out of order, don’t stop him, just do it. Ditto for Dayenu. Even if you haven’t gotten to the 10 Plagues, if it’s time to say, “That would have been enough!” so be it. And you know all those songs at the end of the Seder – Had Gad Ya and Echad Mi Yodea – the ones we look forward to all night but when it’s finally time to sing them, everyone’s too tired or too drunk or both? So sing them earlier, sing them at the top of the set. You can always circle back and include something you’ve missed. Or not. And always make time for a corny joke from Safta. (A favorite from past Seders: if a doctor carries a black bag and a plumber carries a toolbox, what does a mohel carry? A briskit!)

I don’t think we’ll change the order so much that we start with the Shulchan Orech (the meal itself) although it is an intriguing idea. But for some years now, we’ve been serving meaty artichokes instead of pale parsley for karpas, which goes a long way towards staving off hunger. And the hard-boiled eggs frequently arrive before we’ve slathered maror on haroset in a Hillel sandwich.

Chabad-House-Kathmandu-300x224Four years ago, we spent Pesach in Nepal, where we joined the world’s largest Seder sponsored by the local Chabad. With 1,100 Israelis attending that year, nearly all secular, it was an unprecedented opportunity to make the Seder meaningful to a uniquely captive audience who couldn’t care less about sticking to the traditional order. But the rabbi’s mission was different: he aimed to yotzei the assembled multitude – to ensure that they heard every word – and he subsequently raced through the Haggadah as if it were a “greatest hits” album, speed reading the entire story in under 50 minutes (including the songs).

I didn’t know it then, but the seeds of our freeform Seder were planted in Kathmandu. By opening up to the moment, allowing in surprise and embracing flexibility, might we more fully realize another key principle of the holiday: to feel truly liberated? That, after all, is the main order of the day.

{ 0 comments }

Who Took My Bar Munchies?

by Brian on March 22, 2015

in Just For Fun,Reviews

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

The first thing to know about me is that I’m not much of a barfly. I can count on one hand the times I’ve gotten rip-roaringly drunk, and most of those were over the last few years at the Jerusalem Wine Festival, held at the Israel Museum every summer. I was a resolute teetotaler in high school; when drinking was de rigueur, I was de nerd. I preferred geometry to Guinness. I never developed a taste for beer, which made fitting in at parties a challenge: I don’t recall my suburban high school classmates decoratively sipping Daiquiris while they banged on the provincial bong.

But I loosened up a bit as I got looser with my years and, while beer still doesn’t do it for me, I do appreciate a well made cocktail. Gatsby’s is the latest in what has become an international trend – high-end bars creating their own mixed drinks. The son of good friends of ours is one of Gatsby’s mixologists. He worked in a classy cocktail bar in New York City before returning to Israel, and the cocktails he’s made for us at his parent’s house were well considered, painstakingly planned, and delicious. Imagine what he could do with a whole bar behind him!

Gatsby’s trick is that it’s supposed to mimic a 1920s style speakeasy. The bartenders all wear bowties and suspenders. The entrance is through a “secret” wall of books that slides open (no door handle to give away what’s inside). There’s no sign outside to let guests know they’ve found the right address. And even so, they’re sold out nearly every night. (We made reservations the week before.) About the only 20’s touch missing was the music; I expected some Dixieland or Swing, at least some soft jazz. But the speakers were blasting trance and pop hits that would have made Duke Ellington jelly roll over.

Gatsby’s has a two-for-one happy hour and we’d heard their bar munchies were to die for – both creative and cheap. The Jerusalem Post gave Gatsby’s a glowing review that included not just the drinks but the bar menu. So we skipped dinner and planned to ply ourselves with starters. But when we were seated at our corner table, our waiter apologized but there would be no bar munchies tonight.

Unbeknownst to us when we reserved, there were two special chefs cooking up some rather gourmet sounding (and expensive) delights for the evening. OK, but maybe they could bring out some nuts or chips, a little cheese platter? I was already somewhere on the border between puckish and ravenous and I didn’t relish the thought of this lightweight drinking on an entirely empty stomach.

Our waiter checked with the kitchen and said he could bring us out some starters…in about 20 minutes. Which got me wondering: can you drink first and then eat, so that the food soaks up the alcohol retroactively? That didn’t sound particularly likely.

But what choice did I have? So I ordered the most kosher sounding starter and hoped service on the drinks would be slow. The menu was all in Hebrew and the waiter spoke like a contractor trying to explain the source of a water leak: gushingly fast and with little to hold onto except a few keywords. I heard “fish” and “labeneh” (a yogurt like cheese) and “grapefruit.” Bring it on, and fast.

But there was another problem: the fish was fine for me, but nothing on the menu was vegan and my wife is. So, even though I might be able to fill up on cheesy fish with grapefruit garnish, or whatever I’d just ordered, what would she do? “Maybe I can bring in a sandwich from the Aroma next door?” she asked. “Let me check,” our waiter replied but the answer was quickly no.

The first round of drinks was too prompt, arriving well before the fish mix. We were obliged to begin.

Now here’s the thing: they were really good. I mean, like Eric Clapton cocktails from heaven good. I ordered the “Fitzgerald,” a classic drink made with imported Angostura bitters, gin, sugar, lemon and egg whites. It went down smooth as an oyster (or so I’ve been told) and was, as our more alcoholically experienced drinking companion opined, very “adult” in flavor. My wife’s drink was equally unique – a local creation called the “Painkiller” which included rum, pineapple and coconut and was served in what looked like a real coconut. “It’s just a coconut shaped glass,” our waiter said, deflecting our expectations, but not much, as the alcohol was quickly working its way through our empty bellies.

The fish eventually arrived – at NIS 42 – it was tiny but fabulous. The conversation flowed, we ordered a second round (it was Happy Hour after all and, despite the lack of food, what, were we going to turn down a free drink?) and then an old friend walked in. I turned my head to say hello and the room spun. Ah, I remember that feeling: I once had a virus that turned into vertigo and I felt like throwing up for a week. If cocktails were software, I’d be asking: is that a feature or a bug?

Eventually, it was time to go. As we got up, somehow, the table, with all of our mostly drained drinks, flipped onto its side, spilling in slow motion what was left onto the couch, the floor, the guests at the next table over, but miraculously not breaking anything. Bow ties swooped in to mop things up. We sheepishly made our way out. I turned to my wife and asked, in all seriousness, “How did that happen? I think it just fell over by itself. That is so weird.” That maybe we’d knocked it over never occurred to us in the strange state we now found ourselves in.

That state included a rather stupid decision we’d made earlier in the evening when we decided to drive to Gatsby’s rather than take the bus. I didn’t anticipate getting this drunk – after all we were supposed to be supping on those famous bar munchies that weren’t. Now what were we going to do? We couldn’t drive home safely. We’d trashed the bar. And my wife was far beyond famished.

And there it was, shining like a beacon from sobriety: “The Vegan Schwarma,” a fast food restaurant where my wife could choose from a full menu of no meat, no fish, no dairy options: vegan schwarma, vegan burgers, vegan schnitzel, vegan pizza, vegan falafel (OK, that’s already vegan).

We split a burger. It cost all of NIS 30. Maybe it was because of the alcohol, but it was the best dang lentil, rice and nut patty I ever ate. No wonder the McDonald’s across the street closed.

In time, the inebriation subsided and we were able to drive home, me at the wheel, my wife spotting for oncoming traffic. When we told our story to the kids at home, they rolled their eyes big time. There’s nothing they like less than seeing their parents get stupid.

But I did feel stupid. The whole idea of drinking made even less sense now than it had when I was in high school. The truth is, as good as the drinks were, we enjoyed that fast food vegan burger far more than the cocktails. In the days to follow, we kept coming back to it as the “peak moment” from the evening. Our cocktails plus the frou-frou fish starter cost us over NIS 150. We could have bought five vegan burgers for that price!

I’m not dissing Gatsby’s – if you eat first or pick a night without any guest chefs experimenting in the kitchen, it’s a top-notch establishment that makes by far the tastiest drinks I’ve ever had. But still…

Two days later, it was Purim. Friends invited us for a lavish seudah – the traditional afternoon meal for the holiday – in which they promised the booze would be endless and everyone would leave totally plastered.

We gracefully declined. Even if they had munchies, my drinking days are over. That is, if they ever really started.

I first wrote about drinking and vegan burgers at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

As elections draw close, friends and family back in the old country often ask me how someone who grew up in the U.S. with a relatively simple and seemingly stable two-party system makes sense of Israel’s very different approach, with up to a dozen parties who have to be coaxed, coerced and wheedled together into tenuous coalitions that rarely last their full term and are defined more by their level of fractiousness than good governance. Israel would be so much better off adopting the U.S. model, my overseas armchair pundits say, with just two big parties (and the occasional surprise independent), where representatives are elected by district in order to be held accountable to their neighborhood constituencies.

Indeed, as the last government collapsed less than two years after its optimistic inception, I found myself longing for the perceived political stability of my youth. But then Haim Watzman set me straight.

Haim WatzmanWatzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist, writer and translator. He has written the “Necessary Stories” column at The Jerusalem Report for many years and is the author of two books, “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel” and “A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley,” both published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Last month, Watzman was invited on a speaking tour of the U.S. to explain Israel’s electoral system. Before he left, he gave a preview of his talk in Jerusalem.

Watzman is not a politician or even a political scientist, just an astute observer who has lived in Israel since 1978. But his conclusions make a lot of sense. As Watzman describes it, Israel’s system of proportional representation is not only uniquely appropriate for the Holy Land’s demographics, it is in many ways a better system than the one he and I grew up with in the U.S.

First, a basic definition: “proportional representation” means exactly what it sounds like. According to Mirriam-Webster, it’s a system where “the number of seats held by members of a political party in a legislature is determined by the number of votes its candidates receive in an election.” That is, if 30 percent of the electorate supports a particular political party, then roughly 30 percent of seats will be won by that party.

The key to proportional representation is that all votes contribute to the result, not just a plurality or a bare majority. Compare this with the two party system in the U.S. – if your candidate doesn’t win, your vote is essentially thrown out. If the opposing candidate holds radically different views, you have no representation at all.

John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher and political economist, was a strong advocate of proportional representation. Writing in 1861 he commented that, while in order for voting to work, “the minority must of course be overruled…does it follow that the minority should have no representatives at all [and] should not even be heard?”

That was a guiding principle when Israel was first setting up its own electoral system: ensuring that every citizen’s voice counted. As Watzman explained in his talk, we were, after all, a nation of immigrants, with widely varying backgrounds, ethnicities and social, political and religious views. To disenfranchise any minority would have had the exact opposite effect to fostering the unity the early nation so desperately needed.

This argument also applies to why Israel didn’t adopt a hybrid approach that combines an overall proportional system with some local representation (a proposal known as “mixed member proportional representation” and one that frequently makes its way into the public discourse whenever there are calls to change the system). Why do we vote only for parties and not for individual politicians?

Israel’s diverse population in its early years simply didn’t “clump” in clean geographic regions. It still doesn’t.

In my Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, there are religious, secular, Sabras, Anglos, French, wealthy, impoverished, Ashkenazim, Sephardim and everything in between. If we could only elect a single Knesset member from a single party for our district, would that person be able – or willing – to properly represent everyone else?

Watzman gave an example from when he first arrived in the country. He volunteered on a moshav called Hatzor HaGlilit, which is near Rosh Pina in the Upper Galilee. During the 1950’s, downtrodden immigrants from North Africa were sent there and formed most of its population. If the residents of Hatzor HaGlilit could only have voted for a local representative, it’s most likely that person would have come from the (then) larger town of Rosh Pina or one of the big Ashkenazi kibbutzim nearby.

But with a system of proportional representation, those new immigrants weren’t faced with a binary outcome; they could vote for a national party with candidates who would reflect their values and needs; their vote need not be “wasted.”

So, if proportional representation is so great, why do we have such gridlock in the Knesset? Why do our governments fall with such frequency? It must be the need to build unwieldy coalitions and the tyranny of the small parties over the large. Here, Watzman brought out some charts showing how early coalitions looked and the result was a system that was more stable than you might think looking at recent history.

In the very first Knesset, David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party won 46 seats out of the parliament’s 120. The next closest parties were Mapam with 19 seats, the United Religious Front (the forerunner to the National Religious Party and today’s Jewish Home) with 16, and Herut (which would later morph into Likud) with 14.

Mapai was powerful enough to keep the main portfolios for itself, where there was general agreement over priorities and strategy, while bringing in smaller parties to handle more narrow issues. So the coalition Ben-Gurion built in 1949 included not Mapam or Herut, but the Progressive Party (5 seats), the Sephardim and Oriental Communities party (4 seats), and the Democratic List of Nazareth (2 seats), in addition to the larger United Religious Front.

While that strategy might sound stable, it wasn’t, really: as early as 1950 Ben-Gurion had resigned over disagreements with the religious party. But the approach of keeping the “important” portfolios for the largest party continued for many years.

What’s happened in recent years, Watzman pointed out, is the rise of a greater number of medium-sized parties, which demand key ministries as part of a coalition agreement. That’s how Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid wound up with the finance, health and education ministries, and how Avigdor Liberman, although ostensibly merged with the Likud, got the foreign ministry in the last Knesset. These non-Likudniks had their own agendas and their own campaign preening to worry about and, as we saw, they often disagreed, vocally and on an international stage, with the government’s (and the coalition’s) official positions.

Given that the next Knesset will undoubtedly be filled with more medium-sized parties, have we reached an impasse where effective governing will be impossible, no matter who wins on March 17? Is it time to think about the U.S. system?

Again, Watzman says no. The gridlock we see in Israel is happening with equal ferocity in the U.S., where Democrats and Republicans can barely stand to be in the same room and government shutdown is the latest competitive sport.

Not everyone agrees with Watzman. Seth Freedman, writing in The Guardian, says that the burdens of coalition building stymie long-term planning and that “too many cooks routinely spoil the broth – especially when many of them hail from the extremist…end of the political spectrum.” (Read that from either the left or the right, please.) Smaller parties can, and routinely have, held the larger parties hostage for both financial and ideological demands with which the majority of Israelis don’t agree.

Even so, I still tend to side more with Watzman – that despite Israel’s political system seeming “foreign” to immigrants from the U.S., it’s what Israel needed 67 years ago…and it’s probably the best option even for today. Can there be tweaks? For sure. But they’re not necessarily with the system but rather directed towards the individuals who choose to run for office. As long as the people most interested in getting into the Knesset remain the same self-serving, corrupt, and bickering bunch, the dysfunction will not dissipate.

Is that a result of the proportional representation and coalition system? Maybe. But here I am hopeful. There are some good eggs boiling and some forward thinkers on the horizon. If they can be given time to govern, to actually promote and implement policies, instead of focusing just on short-term gains that can be turned into viral videos for the next campaign, our electoral system need not condemn us. As crazy as it sounds, our very own Knesset could someday serve as a beacon of sanity and a light unto the nations.

I voted for Israel’s electoral system first over at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

The Case for Boredom

by Brian on February 23, 2015

in In the News,Technology

New Tech CityWhen was the last time you were bored? Think about it…what do you do if you have nothing of great importance to do – say, you’re standing in a line at the pharmacy and there are three people ahead of you, or you’re waiting for a bus that Moovit says is still 7 minutes away, or you’ve just put the kids to bed but they’re not asleep yet, so it’s too soon to move on to the living room to blast the TV?

What do you do? If you’re like me, you pull out your smart phone. You check your email, Facebook, Twitter, the news, or you play a game. But do nothing and run the risk of getting bored? That’s so 2008.

Don’t feel bad – you’re certainly not the only one. Take a look around you the next time you’re at a party or in the park. How many people either have their heads in their phones or at least headphones in their ears as they’re standing or walking or sitting or running? Everyone.

Smart phones and other mobile devices have filled our every waking moment with stimulation, sometimes scintillating, more often just a numbing distraction. But as long as there’s still battery left, in 2015, boredom has been effectively banished.

And that could be messing up our brains big time. At least that’s the conclusion that Manoush Zomorodi came to. Zomorodi is the host of the American radio show and podcast New Tech City. Zomodori wanted to understand what we’re giving up on when we give up on boredom. Her research should alarm us. It alarmed me.

On the program, Zomodori interviewed Jonathan Smallwood, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of York in the U.K. Smallwood studies what’s called “mind wandering,” geek talk for the daydreaming that often results from getting bored. What he found was that there is a close link between “originality, novelty and creativity” and “the sort of spontaneous thoughts we generate when our minds are idle.”

Smart phones, which enable us to effectively avoid our minds ever being idle, also take away our ability “to see and learn where we truly are in terms of our goals,” Smallwood says, what neuroscientists dub “autobiographical planning.” About the only time many of us have during the course of an ordinary week where we’re not engaged with smart phone delivered media seems to be in the shower.

How much are people on their phones? Using an iPhone app called Moment which tracks every time you turn on your phone, pick it up, scroll, swipe or pinch, Zomodori came up with a number: her listeners were averaging around 110 minutes a day. That translates into checking one’s device an astounding 150 times a day.

Zomodori didn’t include Israelis in her analysis, but if anything, I’d guess we are even more hooked to our devices. We already have a long-standing tradition of half hourly news beeps priming us to pay attention wherever a radio is playing.

Is it really such a big deal, though? I’ve had my smart phone for a number of years now and my creativity seems to be just fine. Another psychologist, Dr. Sandi Mann, who teaches at the University of Central Lancashire, designed an experiment to investigate the correlation between boredom and innovation. She assembled a group of 40 students and had them copy numbers out of the phone directory for 20 minutes. She then gave them two paper cups and asked them to make something. The research subjects came up with some simple ideas, like using the cups to hold plants and spices.

Mann then asked another group to pull out the phone book but, for this round, to just read it for 20 minutes – a really boring task. This time, when they were given the paper cups, the students got much more creative. They turned them into earrings, musical instruments, Madonna-style bras.

Ironically, Zomodori has contributed to my own phone use. I’m a big podcast listener. I’m hooked on This American Life, Radio Lab, Vox Tablet’s English-language version of Israel Story, the TED Radio Hour, Fresh Air, Planet Money, Freakonomics, Invisibilia, and don’t even get me started about my Serial obsession. Now add to that list Zomodori’s New Tech City,

When I’m washing the dishes or mopping the floor on Friday afternoon, my headphones are in. When I’m doing pushups and squats, it’s Ira, Jad and Robert in my ears. When it’s my turn to walk the dog, oy va voy if my phone runs out of juice. What would I do, me alone with only my thoughts?

It’s not just podcasts. I check my email every time there’s a down moment in a conversation. My wife and I are having lunch together. She gets a phone call from a client, my screen is on at once. It got so bad that I was even checking my phone while we were on vacation in Bali. There I was, in a tropical paradise, drinking smoothies and getting massages, but 3G connectivity meant I was never far from the latest scandal back home.

I know it’s not all my fault. The apps on our phone are perfectly designed to send a little shot of pleasure boosting dopamine to the brain every time we receive a new tweet, email notification or Facebook “like.” I’m also no neo-Luddite: I’m well aware of the value our mobile devices have brought to our lives. I couldn’t do my job without the Internet, and apps like Waze and Google Maps have changed my relationship to getting lost (which used to result in something far more insidious than boredom). I love the fact that I can download an English-language eBook immediately rather than wait for someone visiting from the Old Country to kindly bring it over.

But still, if boredom so crucial to the human experience, maybe it’s time we take some action to bring it back into our lives

That’s what Zomodori decided to do when she launched the “Bored and Brilliant” challenge on her radio show. For the first week in February, she broadcast a series of suggestions designed to help us reclaim the opportunity to daydream. She never suggested we give up our phones entirely. Rather, on the first day, she recommended we keep our phones in our pockets or handbags, rather than having them in the “line of sight” where we can see those notifications pop up again and again. Next came “Photo Free Day” – for those people who are snapping pictures constantly, Zomodori recommended taking a whole day off.

Day Three was the hardest – Zomodori challenged listeners to delete their most addictive app. It might be a game, it might be Pinterest. You know what sucks you in. (Don’t worry, she said, reassuringly, it doesn’t have to be permanent, just give it a try.) On Day Four it was “fauxcation” time – that’s where you pretend you’re unavailable for the day and set your email and social messaging status to “away.” Day Five, Zomodori asked listeners to make like Chancy Gardner and just watch. Sit on a park bench or a café on the Ben-Yehuda midrahov and simply observe people going by. It’s boredom mashed up with mindfulness.

There was one more challenge Zomodori didn’t propose, but it’s one that the Jews might have something to say about: we already have a built-in don’t-use-your-phone day. It’s called Shabbat. Strictly observant Jews already refrain from using electronic devices on the Sabbath. Even if you don’t keep Shabbat, if you’re going to try any of Zomodori’s challenges, and they seem daunting during the workweek, doing so during the 24 hours between sundowns on Friday and Saturday nights might be an easier way to kickstart a new behavior…and a very Jewy way, to boot.

Keep it simple: set up a Friday night dinner with friends or family. Then, don’t just keep your phone in your pocket during the meal (as on Zomodori’s Day One); don’t bring it to the table at all. Lest you think I’m coming at this from some religious imperative, I’m not. But listening to everything Zomodori has raised from the latest in neuroscience, it just seems that, half way into the twenty-teens, a lightly mandated day (or even a few hours) of communal unplugging in order to boost creativity and restore boredom to its once, well, boring place, makes a lot of sense. (If you want to make this a group effort, Reboot’s “Sabbath Manifesto” project promotes a “National Day of Unplugging” the first weekend in March.)

By the way, I got kind of stuck trying to figure out the end to the article, so I did what I always do: I took a shower. Never underestimate the power of a little hot water and shampoo on a cold winter’s morning to turn boredom into brilliance.

I first got bored over at The Jerusalem Post. Here’s the link.

{ 0 comments }

Smoking in Mahane Yehuda (Laura Kelly)Is this a thing: smoking on the dance floor at a wedding?

My wife and I attended the nuptials of a friend’s son a few weeks ago. It was a lavish affair with an endless appetizer bar and a DJ crew that could compete with the best Tel Aviv clubs. But as the hundreds of young people grooved to a beat that was just a bit more melodically challenged than my hip but middle aged sensitivities could relate to, I was overwhelmed by the cigarettes. It wasn’t everyone but it was a lot. At times it seemed every third dancer was waving around a lit stick of tobacco.

Maybe I just don’t hang out in the cool parts of town, but I thought smoking was declining in Israel. Certainly in my circles, there’s almost no smoking at all. My friends by and large don’t smoke, there’s no smoking in offices or on buses anymore, even malls have gotten cleaned up in recent years.

The most recent statistics show smoking is definitely going down. A Health Ministry study from 2012 found that 17.7 percent of adult Israelis smoke, compared with 20.6 percent in the year before – a 14 percent drop. (Another study puts the number slightly higher, but the number of smokers is still heading south.) This is due in part to higher taxes, stricter enforcement, and a greater number of bans on where smoking is allowed.

It is now illegal to smoke in all commercial entities in Israel. That includes bathrooms, office buildings, gyms, cafés, restaurants, discos, pubs and bars. Owners of public places must display “no smoking” signs and prevent visitors from smoking.

I didn’t see any “no smoking” signs at all at the Kedma Event Hall in Neve Ilan where the wedding was held and had an inspector popped in (the fine for owners of public places is NIS 5,000 and for the smokers themselves it’s NIS 1,000), he would no doubt have been met by a near riot in trying to enforce the law.

It got so bad at one point that I had to step out of the hall entirely where, given the frigid temperatures that night, no smokers dared to tread, rendering the air clear from tobacco residue.

When I first got to Israel 21 years ago, I was more sanguine. After all, this was the Middle East not America, where no smoking laws have gone so far as to make cigarettes off limits now even at the beach (try telling that to a toned Israeli toting a matkot paddle). But back in 1984, who was I to judge a nervous people in a geography far more dangerous than where I grew up, letting off a little steam with a puff here and there?

Well, actually it was more than a little bit here and there. When I arrived in the country, Israel had only recently enacted a ban on smoking on Egged public transportation, but it was not yet strictly enforced. I remember being astounded that people were smoking on buses. That had been banned years before in the U.S., at least in California where I grew up. (Israel today has prohibited smoking even at bus and railway stops outdoors.)

One of my least pleasant Israeli executive encounters was when I was called into the office of the chairman of the board of the hi-tech company where I was working in 2002. The chairman needed me to do some copywriting for him. He smoked cigarette after cigarette in his private office the entire time we sat together. I probably should have said something but, you know, he was the chairman of what was then one of Israel’s most successful hi-tech companies, worth millions, and I was lucky to be driving a Mazda 3 company car.

He got his comeuppance in 2006, when he was charged with multiple counts of fraud pertaining to U.S. stock trading irregularities. He fled for another country, one without an extradition treaty and where, I suspect, they have less of a smoking ban. He’s still there.

I was never a smoker. On the contrary, as a teenager I was such a shtickler for smoke-free air around me that I would leave the room during meetings of the Jewish youth group I was a member of whenever someone lit up. I did the same thing when my father, who smoked a pack a day for decades, would pull out a Pall Mall to enjoy while watching All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. My brother joined me and our joint boycott eventually convinced him to quit. I wish I could say it turned his health around, but who knows? He eventually died of lymphoma. (A Mayo Clinic study shows a clear connection between smoking and the development of this, the fifth most common form of cancer.)

Even before my father died, smoking had been one of those things that baffled me to no end. How can it be that perfectly logical adults continue to smoke when we know definitively that smoking kills? How is that tobacco companies are even allowed to stay in business? I’m all for capitalism, but we don’t allow Teva to sell strychnine pills to kids to boost the bottom line.

Things of course have gotten better. Remember flying in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were smoking and non-smoking sections on airplanes? How did that ever make sense? If I was sitting in the row directly in front of the smoking section (which was often the case), was an invisible air curtain going to magically protect me from second hand smoke? It took until 1988 for smoking to be forbidden, and then it was only on flights of less than two hours in the U.S. That was extended to flights of six hours or less in 1990. Amazingly, international flights were not officially added to the ban until 2000 (although to be fair, many airlines banned the practice before then).

At the risk of sounding like an unoriginal standup comedian, every time I fly, I wonder why are there still “no smoking” signs above every seat. Don’t people the rules know by now? (The Internet has lots of suggestions, from “the signs need to be posted to make smoking officially against the law,” to “it’s not worth the extra cost to remove signs from 30 year old planes that are due to be retired soon anyway.”) If I were El Al, I’d replace the no-smoking signs with a reminder that switching seats if you don’t like the gender of the person next to you is strictly forbidden. Just saying.

One of the thoughts I had after my run-in with the dancing smokers at Neve Ilan was whether my mostly positive experience with smoke free Israel has been a fluke, more indicative of the Anglo circles in which I travel than a broader trend. Apparently not. Indeed, Neve Ilan might be the fluke. Statistically, Israel is doing pretty well. We placed 49th on a list of 185 countries in terms of the number of cigarettes consumed per adult. That put us slightly higher than the U.S. at #51, but way below Eastern Europe and Asia, which remain in the lead. (Serbia topped the list as the country with the most smoking, in case you were wondering.)

And I should be thankful that my suffering last week was brief with no immediate physical harm, unlike an awkward event five years earlier when I found myself at a raucous student party waiting to hear the Israeli band The Madboojah Project. I had been a fan of the group for years, but had never seen them in concert. I decided to suck up my discomfort at being twice (and in some cases three times) the age of nearly everyone else in attendance.

But as the night wore on, and 1:00 am turned into 2:00 am, I couldn’t get past the smoking, which was everywhere. It was a cold night and, trying to blend in, I was wearing my favorite blue hoodie. When I noticed a draft in my sleeve, I looked down. Some idiot’s cigarette had burned a hole right through it. Furious and maybe a little insulted, too, I left before the band came on.

At Neve Ilan, my sweater remained intact, but only because I steered clear of the dance floor. Israeli smokers may have a long way to go, but I try to learn from my mistakes. But really, smoking at weddings – is it a thing or not?

This article originally got smokin’ hot at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Roman vs. Jewish Law: What Happened to Patrilineal Descent?

January 28, 2015

My January 9, 2015 column in The Jerusalem Post generated a higher than usual number of comments, many of which were not particularly complimentary. In the piece, which addressed the United Synagogue Youth (USY) teen leadership’s decision on relaxing the group’s policy on “interdating,” I posited that since assimilation is natural – indeed inevitable – in […]

Read the full article →

USY language change on interdating not a yiddishkeitastrophe

January 9, 2015

The headlines screaming across Jewish newspapers worldwide were an Orthodox kiruv professional’s wet dream. For a Jew whose job it is to bring other Jews closer to Orthodox observance, the dopamine rush of delight must have been overwhelming. Because if it’s your business to convince wandering Jews to become frum (religious) and one of the […]

Read the full article →

Crowdsourcing the Real Israel

December 28, 2014

If you were just to read the international press these days, you might think Israel was on the verge of catastrophe, with sanctions from Europe just around the corner, boycotts being adopted from academia and beyond, terrorism back in vogue on the streets of Jerusalem and tourism in a tailspin. You wouldn’t be faulted for […]

Read the full article →

The Evolutionary Inevitability of the Jewish State Bill

December 18, 2014

It’s already hard to remember, with election fever raging all around us, what triggered this expensive, unnecessary mess we’re now in. I’m talking about the “Jewish State” bill, of course. It wasn’t the only culprit, but it was a big one. What’s most interesting about the Jewish State law is not whether it was a […]

Read the full article →

Resilience in the Face of Uncertainty

November 30, 2014

When we made aliyah 20 years ago, did we come expecting that there would be war in our future? On a certain level, I suppose we knew that we were moving to a dangerous neighborhood and that conflict was probable. But we repressed that kind of thinking. You had to – why would we willingly […]

Read the full article →