Rabbi Eli has been a friend of our family’s for almost 30 years. Originally from the United States, he’s an aliyah success story – 5 children, 16 grandchildren, all still living here.

There’s one thing that bothers Rabbi Eli, though: not all of his kids have stayed religious. At least not the way he would have liked.

Rabbi Eli has always been mainstream Orthodox: solidly national religious, not haredi but definitely keeping strictly to halacha (Jewish Law) in an Orthodox understanding.

One of his children however went the “datlash” route – that’s the acronym for dati l’she’avar – a formerly religious person. (Dati is Hebrew for “religious.” She’avar means “in the past.) In the U.S., the more alarmist initials “OTD” – for “Off the Derech” (derech is “path”) – are often used.

Rabbi Eli’s datlashit daughter, Na’ama, found her way back to the Jewish world recently through a Conservative congregation. That wasn’t Rabbi Eli’s kosher cup of tea, but he was happy for her.

Until it was in his face: His granddaughter’s bat mitzvah was coming up and Na’ama wanted her father to participate.

At the bat mitzvah, both mother and daughter would be called up to the Torah and the bat mitzvah girl would read from her portion of the week. There would be mixed seating and the service would be entirely egalitarian.

Rabbi Eli was thrown into a halachic conundrum – one that’s becoming more and more a part of the Jewish world: Can Jews who practice their Judaism very differently still come together for family simchas?

I’ve seen it go different ways. My wife and I were recently at a wedding where the groom’s Orthodox family insisted on a traditional chuppah complete with a Rabbinate-provided officiator who mumbled through the Sheva Brachot as perfunctorily as possible, even though the bride and groom were completely secular and seemed eager to move on to dinner and dancing.

On the other end of the spectrum, we also attended the wedding of a totally datlashi couple earlier this year. It was clear that some of the bride’s still religious family really had to hold back their judgment as the wedding party danced down the aisle to the music of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” (an odd if inspired choice). There was no rabbi officiating at all, but plenty of tattoos.

It’s not just the simchas. I know several stories where one side of a family won’t attend another side’s simcha at all (let alone eat the food at the party afterward) because it’s not frum enough. And I’ve written in this column about my own frustrations where guests have not been comfortable with me making some of the Shabbat evening blessings.

But there’s a solution. And it comes from my old friend Rabbi Eli himself.

Rabbi Eli decided he would attend his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. He took care to pray the morning service before he got there at an Orthodox early minyan, and he didn’t say a blessing over the Torah himself at the bat mitzvah. But he came. He sat together with his wife and family; his very presence gave everyone great nachas (joy).

Afterward, during the celebratory Kiddush, Rabbi Eli and I talked. He told me about how he got comfortable enough to attend the bat mitzvah. What he said surprised me.

“I disagree with pretty much everything they’re doing when it comes to their Jewish practice. But that doesn’t make them wrong.”

I thought about that for a long moment. What Rabbi Eli was saying is that we don’t have to agree on everything – with the old saying “two Jews, three opinions,” we probably never will – but that doesn’t mean that the other side is theologically or philosophically incorrect.

Rabbi Eli wasn’t compromising on his personal beliefs. But he opened up his heart to a tiny window of uncertainty, allowing in the possibility for doubt – and coming together with family.

Imagine if that same principle were applied to the religious and political battles that are raging in Israel these days – in the Knesset, the Interior Ministry, the Rabbinate, at the Kotel. If we backed off the hubris and the insistence that one side is right and other must be wrong, think of what this country – what the Jewish people – could achieve.

Agreeing to disagree is the easy part. Usually when we do that, though, there’s still a bit of us that believes there’s an ineffable Truth out there with a capital T – and we’re the side that’s got it.

Rabbi Eli went beyond that black and white box. “I don’t agree, but I’m not so sure of myself that I can say with absolute certainty that you’re wrong. It’s not right for me, but it seems to be right for you.”

That’s my kind of truth – with a little t.

I gave Rabbi Eli a bear hug right there in the Kiddush, herring and crackers in one hand, the other grasping Eli on the back. If I still were interested in having a rabbi, I thought to myself, Eli would be the one.

As we head into the High Holiday season, with the themes of renewal and repentance rife in the air, I’ll be thinking about Rabbi Eli’s words. I hope you will, too. The Messiah may not be picking up the telephone anytime soon, but if she did, I’d hope that this is what she’d say.

I first wrote about Rabbi Eli at The Jerusalem Post.

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With the launch of my new book in just under a week, I’ve been under enormous pressure, made all that much tougher by the chronic insomnia I’ve suffered from for the past two decades. But never in all my years of sleeping pill-popping did I make the goof I did on Sunday.

In addition to sleeping meds, I take a pill for mild asthma twice a day. It was 6:30 pm when I went to the medicine shelf in my bathroom.

I was talking excitedly to my wife Jody who was in the other room about some new development – my book had just scored a couple of five-star reviews on Amazon that day – as I looked for my afternoon medication.

I must have been distracted as I popped the pill into my mouth and swallowed my usual half cup of water.  Because when I looked down at the blister pack of pills in my hand, my heart sank. And then – well, the best way to put it is – I began to moan like a wounded animal.

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh NO!” I cried out.

“What? What’s wrong?” Jody responded with alarm from across the apartment.

A string of increasingly dire expletives exploded from my mouth as the panic cut right through me, like a Pakistani fighting kite ripping across my gut.

“Did someone die? Was there an accident? What is it, Brian?” Jody said, now by my side in the bathroom.

“I … took … the wrong … pill,” I said, eyes bugging out, body shaking.

Jody looked at me quizzically, trying to decipher my fervent but so far cryptic remarks.

“I took my sleeping pill instead of asthma pill!” I screamed even though she was just a foot away. “It’s too early. What am I going to do?”

I had been particularly productive that day – plowing through the latest changes to my website and putting the finishing touches on an audio version of the book. I had even drunk a big cup of heavily caffeinated Chai Masala an hour earlier to make it through the night.

I was counting on at least 5 hours of constructive writing in front of me. But now it would all be cut short – I would have to stop and go to bed. What a waste of time!

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that it took so long for me to make this fashla.

In Israel, pharmacists don’t pop your pills out of their original packaging and put them in carefully labeled plastic bottles like in the U.S. You get the box with the blister packs and it’s up to you, the patient, to keep track.

I’m usually very careful. Not this time, though.

Maybe I could vomit the pills out, I thought. I’ve never done that on-demand, but it looks easy enough in the movies. I tried, but my body wasn’t having any of it. I was a failure at forced regurgitation.

My distress was exacerbated by a longstanding fear – that someday I would accidently overdose on my meds, and that would be it. On my tombstone, it would say: “Loving father, devoted husband and almost published book author – he came so close.”

It was Jody who, as always, provided the calming advice.

“Nothing’s going to happen, Brian,” she said, taking my hand. “You might get a little sleepy. But you’ll wake up in the morning as usual and you’ll be fine.”

She was right of course. I would be fine. It was just one sleeping pill, not a whole bottle. Besides, what else could I do at this point?

“Don’t resist,” Jody added. “Be curious. Haven’t you often wondered what it would be like to take sleeping pills in the middle of the day?”

Well, no… But I resolved to look at the situation as an unanticipated experiment. I had speculated in the past that the pills might actually not be doing anything; that they were functioning mostly as a placebo, kicking in at night because I expected them to.

Normally, when I take a sleeping pill before bed, I’m ready to climb under the covers within 45 minutes. But as I sat in front of my screen, updating my author bio on Amazon, I was still awake an hour later. Another two hours and I was still there.

This was curious.

At the two hour and 15-minute mark, though, an unmistakable drowsiness kicked in. And that was that. Anything I might have written after that point would have been as enigmatic as a pronouncement from the Log Lady on Twin Peaks. My log has a message for you, Brian. It’s time for bed.

Jody tucked me in and I slept for three hours. I woke up, couldn’t fall back asleep, got out of bed at 2:00 am and worked for a couple of hours. I got back into bed at 4:00 am and slept until 7:00 am. I probably got a total of 6 hours of sleep – which is more than I usually get.

I don’t imagine I’ll make this mistake again. But if I do, I now have first-hand knowledge that it’s not the end of the world. There are ways to cope and it can even turn out pretty well.

I guess I have mixing up my pills to thank for that. And the sage counsel of my ever-patient, long-suffering wife, Jody.

I first wrote about my sleeping pill fashla at The Jerusalem Post.

Image credit.

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Israeli rocker Shalom Hanoch was at his best. Performing in an intimate concert at the state-of-the-art theater at the Elma Luxury Arts Complex in Zichron Yaakov, Hanoch crooned for over two hours, reinterpreting 50 years of hits on acoustic guitar with just Moshe Levi on piano accompanying him.

At 71-years-old, Hanoch is a bundle of white-haired, lean-bodied energy. The audience, who’d paid top shekel, should have been sitting, clapping or dancing in appreciative reverence. Instead, the darkened concert space was awash in a sea of light.

People were on their phones. In the row in front of me I could see one person checking her email, another WhatsApping with his kids, a third flipping through Facebook and reading the latest news on the Bibi bribery crisis.

The man to my left gripped his phone ferociously throughout the concert. He checked his screen every few seconds to see if he’d received a new message, and seemed compelled to respond to messages immediately.

As Hanoch sang his heart out on stage about love and longing, audience members were receiving their dopamine hits not from the passionate melodies of Israel’s “King of Rock,” but from the banal notifications they were unable to banish on their smart phones.

And it drives me nuts.

“They’re being rude to the performer,” I seethe. “That’s not how an audience should behave!”

But I’m also aware of how much I’m being triggered by the pull I feel to check my own phone. I’m embarrassed by the addiction that I’ve developed with my device.

And it is an addiction. Think otherwise? Ask yourself this: When was the last time you went to the bathroom and didn’t pull out your phone to check your messages while you’re doing your business? I know I can’t.

Jean M. Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who studies these public displays of over-texting. Her latest book focuses on teens; it’s called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

Twenge describes this “iGen” as young people who came of age in the late 2000s at the exact moment when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.

Smartphones have made young people more comfortable in their bedrooms, where they can chat for hours on their phones, than in going out to a party or cruising in their cars (shudder the Baby Boomers), Twenge writes in the September issue of The Atlantic.

(Ironically, that has made today’s young people safer than ever before – they are less likely to get into a car accident and have less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, Twenge points out.)

But the rates of depression and suicide in the iGen have skyrocketed, Twenge adds. “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands…are making them seriously unhappy.”

That’s not a radically new insight. But the data Twenge presents is shocking.

“Only about 56 percent of high-school seniors in 2015 went out on dates. For Boomers and GenXers, the number was about 85 percent,” Twenge writes. Eighth-graders who spend 6 to 9 hours a week on social media are 47 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who devote less time to Facebook.

Moreover, heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, and teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide.

Twenge admits that other factors could be at play. “But the smartphone, its blue light glowing in the dark, is likely playing a nefarious role.”

While Twenge writes mainly about teenagers, a survey by Common Sense Media found that it’s not teens spending the most time in front of screens – it’s their parents.

It seems likely: I see the same trends Twenge points out for the iGen happening with friends my age. And I’ve felt more isolated, lonely and depressed since an iPhone became my new best friend.

That scares me. But the impact for our kids is that much greater.

Twenge says she realizes “that restricting technology might be an unrealistic demand to impose on a generation of kids so accustomed to being wired at all times.”

Instead, she preaches the benefits of moderation. “Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids [and their parents] from falling into harmful habits,” she writes.

Given that “significant effects on mental health” appear after just “two or more hours a day on electronic devices,” says Twenge, that’s sage counsel.

In a Jewish context, that’s why Shabbat and holiday meals, with no screens allowed, remain so important in our household (even if we’re checking in the bathroom). Same with not using cell phones in synagogue – not a universal idea by any means, but a good one.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle agrees with Twenge. Turkle is another researcher with a book about how social media is rewiring our brains (2011’s “Alone Together”).

“We did the sacred space thing,” Turkle told The Guardian. “No computers or phones in the kitchen, at the dining table, or in the car. Those are the places I think where you create family space.”

We may not be able to resist the buzz in our pockets and purses entirely, but proactively practicing some purposeful restraint may allow us to be more present in our day-to-day family interactions…or the next time Shalom Hanoch performs in concert.

I wrote about screen addiction originally at The Jerusalem Post.

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Dishwasher soap opera

by Brian on August 5, 2017

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

It all started with the dishwasher.

Twenty years ago, as my wife Jody and I were buying appliances for our new apartment in Jerusalem, we bought our first dishwasher. We’d never owned one while we lived in the U.S., so we had to choose not only a brand but the appropriate approach per halacha (Jewish Law) for how we were going use the dishwasher within the confines of keeping kosher.

This was at a point in our lives when we were unequivocally Orthodox, so keeping to the letter of the law was important to us. The problem was: when it came to dishwashers, there’s a whole alphabet of competing approaches.

We started by asking our friends who owned dishwashers what they did. Everyone seemed to have a different story.

Some used the dishwasher for either milk or meat but not for both.

Some bought two sets of dish racks and swapped them in and out depending on whether the dishes were fleishik or milchik.

Some used just one rack, but ran an empty load of hot water in-between the milk and meat dishes. Some used just one rack but ran an empty load of cold water in-between.

And some just used the same rack for both milk and meat (but never together) without any empty loads separating them.

There seemed to be rabbinic authorities for every approach: Rav Ovadia Yosef said this, the followers of Rav Elazar Shach did it that way.

It was more than confusing – it prompted our first true religious crisis.

Jody and I both came to Orthodoxy as ba’alei teshuva – returnees to observant Judaism from secular upbringings. My own introduction to Judaism was through the Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem, where I learned that there were clear, unambiguous answers to every halachic question.

Yes, different Jewish groups might have slightly varying customs, but the religious ideal I absorbed in those years was to pick a community and then do what they do.

One of my teachers at Ohr Somayach was Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo. He taught a daily, class in Jewish philosophy in which he would mix halachic, secular and even non-Jewish concepts, with a healthy dose of Freud, Kant and Woody Allen. Cardozo’s class was challenging to the worldview I was eager to adopt, but also terribly exciting.

Cardozo, who is now the founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy (and a Jerusalem Post contributor), has always been a maverick. These days, he pushes the Jewish envelope even further with thought pieces entitled “Let us violate Shabbat so as to sanctify it” and “The joy of religious doubt.”

Cardozo and I couldn’t be more different in our approaches to observance today – he’s still firmly committed, albeit fiercely combative, while I now identify as secular yet searching. But when it comes to our thinking about halacha, we find ourselves surprisingly on the same page.

Indeed, if I’d consulted Cardozo 20 years ago, perhaps buying that dishwasher wouldn’t have precipitated such an existential Jewish dilemma.

In a recent column, “The problem and future of true halacha,” Cardozo lays his cards on the table from the get-go.

“Most religious Jews are not aware that halacha has nearly become passé,” Cardozo writes. “They believe it is thriving. After all, halacha is very ‘in’ and there are more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, it lacks courage.”

Cardozo believes that halacha has become fossilized; that “we have grown scared” of innovation. Provocative ideas “are condemned as heresy.” As a result, “trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect information replaces significant ideas [which are] reduced to a catch line … yet still presented as ‘the answer.’”

Cardozo takes aim at yeshivas for ba’alei teshuva like his old employer. “Outreach programs, although well intentioned, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are,” he emphasizes. “The goal is to fit them into the existing system.”

This was not the way it always was, Cardozo stresses. The rabbis in the Talmud “were not interested in teaching their students final halachic decisions, but instead asked them to take those decisions apart, to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions. The greatness of the Talmudic sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts and their attempts at solving them.”

The dishwasher was our Talmud. After extensive research with friends, community members and even a few rabbis, we came to the conclusion that there is no one conclusion. All of the answers were right and we wouldn’t be sinning if we chose one over the other.

At the time, we were disheartened – what did that say about the immutability of the halacha? Today it feels liberating. More important, it started a personal process that is still in progress, and is about much more than just dishwashers.

I don’t remember anymore whose opinion we opted for when we made our dishwasher kosher, but it has stayed that way all these years and no one has ever poked his or her nose into the sudsy water to question whether our rinse was cold, hot or none of the above.

In that way, I like to think we are practicing what Cardozo calls “the art of audacity” – the only way to be authentically Jewish.

I hope Rabbi Cardozo would agree.

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Is Judaism more like an operating system or an app? The podcast “Judaism Unbound” has been exploring that question over the last year. The answer could go a long way to helping us understand how to solve seemingly intractable problems such as the recent Kotel and conversion crises in Israel.

Judaism Unbound’s hosts, Daniel Libenson, the founder and president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and rabbinical student Lex Rofes, describe the operating system vs. app metaphor like this: Consider your smart phone – the operating system is the software that runs in the background. Apps are the individual programs you use – Facebook, Twitter, iTunes your browser and your calendar.

Your phone comes with an operating system – you can’t get rid of it or the device won’t run. Usually it comes with a few key apps installed. The rest you download, depending on your personal preferences.

Judaism has for most of its existence functioned as an operating system – a legal system undergirding everything Jews do. In the last 200 years, though, as new ways of being Jewish have emerged, the operating system began to break down. It got bloated and bogged down by “feature creep” – too many rules, too many prayers, too many expectations. It became outdated – like running DOS in a Windows world – losing relevance with the majority of its users.

Some “patches” to the operating system have been attempted, such as more participation by women and greater integration into modern life. And a few Jewish streams have done the equivalent of “upgrading” the operating system as a whole.

But the real change is that Judaism has gone from being perceived as an all-encompassing operating system with required functionality to a set of optional apps which one “opens” –regularly, once in a while…or not at all.

If in the past, the Jewish operating system implied keeping Shabbat, kashrut and family purity, now those are individual apps that must compete for our attention in a marketplace of other apps.

Apps don’t have to be standalone; the best way to think of Jewish apps is like the Jewish version of Google’s G Suite, which includes Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and more. So while you can use just the mikve app or the High Holidays apps, as an interconnected collection, Jewish apps have more power and meaning. They share features, interfaces and data more effectively.

Now, to be sure, Judaism as an operating system is alive and well in the ultra-Orthodox world, where the very idea that elements of Jewish Law could be conceived of as optional is laughable. But for most Jews around the world, Judaism has long since stopped functioning as an operating system – the apps have taken over.

Libenson and Rofes ask on the Judaism Unbound podcast: is this good or bad for the Jews? Does an app-oriented Judaism dilute Jewish tradition so much that users will eventually delete their apps? Or is this the only way for Judaism to survive in the 21st century?

I’d like to ask a parallel question: How is the app analogy impacted when the operating system is not Judaism but the Jewish State? Let’s call it IOS – the Israel Operating System.

Much of the intra-Jewish conflict in Israel today is really about whether our operating system here is religion or the state. If the operating system is run by halacha, there’s no need to think in terms of individual apps: everything’s included and mandatory.

But if the operating system is the state, there’s opportunity for different apps to compete. Will you download the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Secular Humanist or Orthodox version of the chuppah app? Can all the Jewish conversion apps exchange “files” seamlessly?

Are there benefits to downloading more than one version of an app, the way that I sometimes use Gmail and sometimes Microsoft Outlook? Is Zionism its own app or an integral part of IOS? Are cultural activities – Israeli theater, music, museums – apps, too?

In a Jewish app world, the Western Wall egalitarian plaza dispute would vanish because there would be no single app for how to pray in Jerusalem. There would be separate apps for kosher supervision from the Israeli Rabbinate, the Hashgahat Pratit organization and others. Users would choose the ones they prefer and trust.

Jewish apps would be cross platform, able to run on multiple operating systems, but I would argue that apps running on the Israeli Operating System would be the most efficient, able to take advantage of a common set of tools, APIs, and ready-made code.

Apps are democratic. If no one uses a particular app, you write a new one. The development environment for Jewish apps must be more “open source” than proprietary. Jewish apps of the future should be crowdsourced as well as crowdfunded.

The goal then shifts from legislating Judaism to making our Jewish apps attractive enough that people will want to keep them open all the time, on the front page of their virtual Jewish community smartphones.

Unbundling Jewish apps from the operating system won’t be easy – particularly in Israel, where religion and state have become hopelessly intertwined. We may need the release of a substantially “new version” of the Israel Operating System, one that can run both old and new apps smoothly. Crashes will be inevitable although rebooting regularly should optimize performance.

But it can be done. We have no choice. We live in an app, app, app, app world.

I first compared apps and operating systems at The Jerusalem Post.

Blurred iPhone image from Daniel Zanetti via Wikimedia Commons

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Mindfulness 101: Google engineer’s Search Inside Yourself seminar comes to Tel Aviv

July 18, 2017

Can you learn mindfulness in two days? From Google? The Search Inside Yourself organization thinks so. And they’ve come to Israel.

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When words and belief clash

June 25, 2017

It was Friday night, and as I was preparing to say the Shabbat kiddush – the traditional sanctification of the wine – one of our guests made a surprising request: “Could I, um, make my own kiddush?” The question seemed innocent enough, but I knew what he was getting at. It was not that he […]

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What kind of God do you want to believe in?

June 20, 2017

The paradox of modern Jewish life is that, while many believe in a “transcendent” conception of God they long for an “immanent” kind of relationship.

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The women of Jacob’s Ladder: indie artists rock the Sea of Galilee

June 4, 2017

The 41st annual Jacob’s Ladder music festival was characterized by two surprises: the event’s first-ever thunderstorm and a standout preponderance of indie folk acts fronted by women.

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Why live in Israel?

April 30, 2017

Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in his Friday column two weeks ago. With Yom Ha’atzmaut just around the corner, it’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. Katz sets up – and then deconstructs – two answers popular in recent years with Israeli […]

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