As the High Holy Day period heads into its final stretch, and with a second lockdown providing those of us in Israel ample time to reflect, I wanted to share a few of the messages that have helped me get through these challenging times, whether that’s a result of feeling down and confused personally or as part of our collective pandemic panic. Some are expansions on themes I’ve written about before; others are new. I find that repeating these as necessary, almost as “mantras,” can make a big difference. 

1. Wash the dishes. When the world and/or one’s health seem out of control, I imagine a sink full of dishes. It’s my role at home to wash up after meals, so I’m not averse to getting soapy. But it can still be daunting after a Shabbat with lots of guests. (Remember guests?) If you’re methodical, though, the dishes eventually get done and the countertop is clean – for a moment. It’s a Sisyphean metaphor, of course: tomorrow there will be another meal and more mess, and you’ll have to start over from scratch. Still, knowing that you’ll get everything in order, even temporarily, helps keep one from getting too overwhelmed. 

2. Patience is a virtue. Beyond the well-worn cliché, I’ve found great value in not jumping to conclusions. Over the past months of Covid-19 paranoia (coronanoia?), who hasn’t worried that those sniffles, that unexpected cough or momentary feeling of fever was not the start of the virus with a capital V? It might well have been … or it could have been allergies, or a cashew gone down the wrong way. Waiting for a vaccine is an extreme exercise in patience – it may turn the tide, but it might not be available until well into next year, if at all. Can you wait a beat before going to, “Oh no, I’m going to catch Covid and die?” Practicing wonder statements – “I wonder if that’s something I should get checked out” – instead of straight-out worrying can short-circuit downward negative spirals.

3. Everyone has some discomfort every day. I had a Zoom call with a new doctor last week. As I told him about my assorted ailments, he asked, “So, is your middle name Job?” referring to the Biblical character whose faith is tested with every affliction imaginable. It was meant to be a joke (a little too on-the-nose, if you ask me) but the truth is, everyone feels varying degrees of crappiness. Maybe not all the time, but to live and, especially, to grow older comes with a price. For some it’s a bad back, for others cancer. For some, both. The body I had when I was 16 wasn’t perfect either. 

4. There are no shoulds. This was the very first life lesson I wrote about when I was diagnosed with cancer two and a half years ago and it’s just as relevant today. When I complained to my therapist, “This isn’t how my life is supposed to be,” she shot back, “Who said so?” The world as a whole is now experiencing a bad case of the shoulds – we should have used the past six months to prepare better for the second wave, we should never have opened up the schools all at once, we should have protected the elderly better. I’m not here to defend bad leadership, but it helps to remember there are no shoulds in life. 

5. Seek balance over binary thinking. We have a tendency in times of trouble to think about the situation at hand as black or white – good or bad, positive or negative. And yet during this pandemic, as well as during my personal health challenges over the past several years, I’ve felt both fearful and full of joy – sometimes at the same time. Embracing this kind of non-binary thinking is tough – our brains are not evolutionarily wired for it. It means living more comfortably in the gray areas, acutely experiencing both pain and elation, and constantly striving to tip the balance ever so slightly towards the latter.

6. Self-regulate. When I feel a kvetch coming on, repeating this mantra reminds me to think before expressing a gripe out loud. It’s as important for me as it is for those around me (my wife, my family and friends) who can get burned out if I grumble too much. It’s not that I need to go radio silent, just to turn down the volume a bit (on a radio whose anxiety level can never be completely “off”). Words that can reinforce this message include “postpone,” “pace yourself,” and “consider what to say.” 

7. Commit to the escalator. Getting through life day by day is a little like riding a department store escalator – the aim is to get to the top. Along the way, though, there are all kinds of mental concerns that pop up like shiny objects – those fancy luggage worries on the third floor or the fine cutlery distractions on the fourth. That’s OK – on some days you may have the time and inclination to hop off the escalator and take a look, even dwell there for a bit. Do you want the Samsonite spinner with two wheels or four? On other days, you may be more focused on the goal. Just know that, either way, when you’re done turning over the Royal Doulton knives, you’re committed to getting back on the escalator and continuing on your journey. After all, the restaurant there is supposed to be very high end. And I hear that it’s corona-free.

I first compiled this list of mantras for The Jerusalem Post.

Photo from Mysid – Wikimedia Commons

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When I turned 50, we took the entire family for an 11-day trek on the Annapurna trail in the Nepalese Himalayas. 

As we ascended to nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, we crossed paths several times with a man who had just turned 60 and was doing the same hike to mark the start of his seventh decade. 

I was taken by his stamina and strength and I vowed that, when I got to that age, I would be fit enough to continue my own worldwide adventures at high altitudes.

I turned 60 a couple of weeks ago, but we did not return to Nepal to hike again. Nor did we fly to Peru or Georgia or Slovenia or anywhere else on my bucket list of trails because, well you know, corona. No one is going anywhere these days. 

While an international family mountain outing might be out, it was not the only thing I had envisioned as a way to signify sixty. Also on my list: throwing a party with one of my favorite Israeli indie rock bands.

I went so far as to contact the group and they were interested. But how could we hold a concert in the midst of a pandemic? 

It would have to be outdoors. But I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood with a backyard or garden that big. If it was out in the woods somewhere, would the event need a permit? Electricity? Toilets? Security? And then, would I demand that all the attendees wear masks the entire time? I couldn’t serve food or drinks because that would mean the masks would be coming on and off which would make me and other guests uncomfortable. 

This debate was before the latest lockdown started, of course.

“Oof, I wish my birthday didn’t fall in the middle of all this,” I said to my wife, Jody. “It would be OK if I was turning 58 or 59, but I was very attached to doing something special for 60.”

I’m not alone in the birthday dilemma – at more than six months in, more than half the world has now marked such a milestone (60 or otherwise) since Covid-19 upended the way we celebrate.

My solution: I wouldn’t acknowledge my birthday at all this year. I’d remove my date of birth from Facebook so I wouldn’t get all those prompted birthday greetings. I’d tell anyone who knew the date IRL (in real life) that I didn’t want any gifts, any cards, any hullabaloo whatsoever. Not this year.

My family wasn’t having any of that – they’d already planned a socially-distanced outdoor dinner at a restaurant in the center of town complete with heartfelt speeches and gag gifts. 

It was wonderful – how could it not be with a family like mine? – but when we bumped into a friend who was dining at a nearby table and she wished me a happy birthday, I bristled.

“I’m skipping 60 and going straight to 61,” I grumbled.

She nodded but clearly didn’t understand the significance of my declaration. Indeed, this was shaping up to be about much more than simple avoidance or denial. Rather, it was, for me, a way to reframe my “problem,” transforming a singular birth date into a year-long process, one that could provide for a modicum of hope – and not just for me personally. 

— Hope that when I turn 61 next year, we will have beaten the virus; that a vaccine will have returned some sense of the world we knew and that we won’t be living with the specter of death and disability literally a breath away.

— Hope that by the time I’m 61, the politics of 2020 that have sewn such discord and hate have been transformed; that there’s a different president in the United States and a different prime minister in Israel and that healing is not just about our physical health.

— Hope that between 60 and 61, the ailments that have bedeviled me personally have turned a corner; that I’ve been able to treat my maddening floaters so that I’m able to see properly again; that I’ve figured out a cocktail for my chronic insomnia that allows me to get more than four hours of sleep a night; that my cancer has, if not magically reversed course, then at least not gotten worse. And if it has, then whatever my next treatment is will generate a durable remission. 

Just before Rosh Hashana, I received an email with the Jewish non-profit Reboot Project’s10Q,” an annual list of ten trigger prompts to reflect on for the High Holydays. These, too, can be a source of hope.

For 2020, Reboot sent out its usual questions (“How would you like to improve yourself and your life in the next year?” “Have you had any particular spiritual experiences this past year?”) – plus ten new ones.

“As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, what is one thing that you find yourself reassessing in terms of the future?”

“How would you like to see society shifting in the coming months?” 

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, what is your greatest fear? What is your greatest hope?”

So much of life in general, and as the past six months in particular have emphasized, is out of our control. But at this time of year, during the 10 days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I have to believe there is still room for hope. For me, for us, for the world. 

And for another hike or party – when I’m 61.

I first tried to ignore my birthday at The Jerusalem Post.

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We were recently invited to a friend’s birthday party in Jerusalem. We decided not to go – corona fears. 

Making the decision not to attend was far from a simple one and, for some time afterward, I couldn’t stop second-guessing myself. Was it really necessary to stay home? 

After all, the whole party took place outdoors, where Covid-19 has been shown to be less contagious than indoor events. There were far fewer people invited than would be at a typical Israeli celebration. From what I heard afterward, while face masks were not universally or properly worn at all times, they were still in the majority. 

It’s gotten so confusing. What’s safe and what’s not safe anymore? 

The truth is, we have been socializing outdoors, too. My wife, Jody, and I have sat on the beach with friends, hiked in the hills of Jerusalem without masks, eaten al fresco in restaurants. We even stayed overnight in a hotel – albeit one with separate cottages and only after they had seriously disinfected the room for hours. 

Are we taking unnecessary risks? Or has our understanding of this virus changed over the six months since it upended the world? Do the “rules” from March remain the same in September? 

Mind you, I’m not someone who will argue that we can’t trust the authorities because they have been inconsistent – you know, first, we were told not to wear masks, then yes; early on, it was wipe down groceries and packages, oh wait, that was never really necessary. 

This back-and-forth is entirely reasonable – that’s how science works. We learn as we go and adjust accordingly, discarding initial hypotheses as new data comes in.

And yet, as our understanding grows, it can get pretty complicated. A study published in The BMJ last week included a grid of low-, medium- and hike-risk activities. There were 72 different squares organized into eight quadrants: indoors/outdoors, face masks or not, good or poor ventilation and whether a venue has high or low occupancy.

As science-centric as my thinking is, I am finding myself increasingly drawn towards theories I want to believe are true, even when the data isn’t completely there yet. 

I’m not talking about outright hoaxes like preventing Covid-19 by injecting bleach or gargling with saltwater. But the news is filled with hopeful preprints – preliminary published research that has not yet been peer reviewed but that, if true, might make it possible for us to worry less.

Doctors at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, for example, are having success with a coronavirus drug developed by Israeli biopharmaceutical startup Kamada made from blood plasma donated by recovered Covid-19 patients. 

“The response was, in my eyes, almost a miracle,” Zeev Rothstein, the hospital’s director, said. 

I want to believe this is true.

It’s now being reported that patients with some of the most severe Covid-19 symptoms had particularly low levels of Vitamin D. I immediately scanned dozens of my past blood tests to find out my own levels of the vitamin – I was within a normal range. 

I want to believe that will help.

I want to believe Ben-Gurion University Prof. Mark Last’s statistical model that “herd immunity” in Israel (which would slow, although not stop, the spread of the virus) will be achieved when only one in six Israelis have been infected and that, if confirmed cases represent only a tenth of the actual number of infections in the country, we’re not far from that point now.  

Indeed, by that estimation, I could be one of the million or so Israelis who have already caught the virus. I want to believe that the five weeks of fever I had in January was actually Covid-19 and not just the flu, and that I’m now on the other side.

If not, I want to believe the new study out of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa that suggests, contrary to what we’d assumed for months, that not only are cancer patients not at any more risk than the general population, but that changes to the immune system as a result of chemo and immunotherapy treatments may actually confer protection from the most serious Covid-19 side effects. (The study, unfortunately, does not apply for hematological malignancies, only for solid tumors, I’ve since learned.)

Perhaps most of all, I want to believe the research that links Covid-19 illness with “viral load.” This theory suggests that scrupulously wearing a face mask (as I do) reduces the amount of virus particles you inhale so that, if you do get sick, it will be with milder or even no symptoms. It worked with hamsters whose cages were separated by surgical masks. (No, the hamsters didn’t have to wear masks themselves.) 

Believing these gives me comfort. It doesn’t make me any more lax in my precautions, but it does help me cope with imagining how we’re going to get through the coming months, in particular a winter where outdoor socializing and activities are less accessible. 

The biggest problem with writing anything about this pandemic, of course, is that the news changes so quickly. Half of what I referenced in this article might be totally debunked by the time it appears in print. Or data could be released proving it beyond a doubt. 

So, knowing everything we do now, should we have gone to our friend’s party? If there’s one thing I’m sure about, it’s that there’s no room for regret. I want to believe – and I do believe – that the decisions we have made up to this point have been the right ones.

I first wrote about what I want to believe for The Jerusalem Post.

Grid of risky activities from The BMJ.

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Seth Rogen’s sour pickle

by Brian on August 30, 2020

in In the News,Reviews

Unlike many of the pundits who have commented on Seth Rogen’s controversial interview earlier this summer on Marc Maron’s popular WTF podcast, in which the producer and star of the new movie An American Pickle speaks apparently disparagingly about Israel, I actually listened to the recording – the entire nearly hour and a half podcast. I wanted to understand for myself whether Rogen’s negative quotes had been purposely plucked out of a longer, more balanced interview, as Rogen himself has since insisted.

The bad news first: Rogen was unequivocally critical as he repeatedly repudiated the need for a homeland for the Jews. Whether that was a result of a well-thought-out point of view or an ill-conceived attempt at yuks, Rogen really did say he was “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel” from his Israeli camp counselors who he described as “psychopaths.” 

Rogen’s joke that it would be better to put Jews in a worldwide “blender” in order to preserve our people was particularly inappropriate.

After a few minutes of listening, I was ready to boycott Rogen. No American Pickle for us. Canceled.

But if you stay tuned and listen more carefully, between the lines, there is a more nuanced conversation between two publicly identified, self-defined proud American Jews.

Once he’s gotten past his provocative Israel “doesn’t make sense” shtick, it would have been easy for Rogen to fall back on Jewish stereotypes, the kind that that comedians like fictional TV funny woman Miriam Maisel rely on for their 1950s-era comedy club cellars routines.

Rogen does, too, at times. 

When Maron suggests, for example, that “the Orthodox gene pool is so tight they’re producing Jews who don’t even look like Jews,” Rogen quips, “They’ve mutated beyond Jews.”

But Rogen also stands up for our traumatic past – at least the American version.

“My grandmother was born in a caravan fleeing the pogroms in 1919,” Rogen tells Maron. “A lot of people don’t realize, if you meet a Jewish person America, it’s probably because someone tried to kill their grandparents not that long ago. This is why my grandparents were so tough. They had to fight.”

That might seem a trivial point, but it’s an important one these days with antisemitism on the rise in the West and where many, in the U.S. in particular, feel compelled to clarify that, no, Jewish history does not equal white supremacy.

On the Israel question, I was happy when Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog spoke to Rogen by Zoom afterward and reported that Rogen told him that, “of course Israel must exist” and that his words on the podcast “were meant as a joke.” 

Rogen was more circumspect in an interview with Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer. 

“I think that it’s a tricky conversation to have in jest,” he explained. “My pride in being Jewish and how deeply I identify as a Jewish person perhaps made me feel like I was able to say things without as much context as perhaps I should give them.”

I wish I could give him as much credit for An American Pickle.

Rogen certainly isn’t hiding his Jewish background – this may be the most Jew-y Hollywood movie since Yentl.

The film starts off promising enough – a witty fantasy about a Yiddish-speaking Jew from the imaginary village of Schlupsk somewhere in turn of the century Eastern Europe who accidentally falls into a barrel of brine and wakes up 100 years later in present day Brooklyn. 

There he meets his great grandson; both are played by Rogen who puts his many years of Jewish day school and summer camp to use by not messing up too badly the details of his simplified version of Jewish tradition. (His Yiddish is pretty good, too.)

The early scenes where 1919 Herschel encounters today’s technology, from Twitter to electric scooters, and becomes a social media phenomenon for marketing “artisanal pickles,” had me smiling, but the film runs out of juice pretty quickly. 

Really, how many times can you joke about Cossacks coming to kill us – in Brooklyn? Rogen can’t seem to decide if he wants to seriously critique the forces that are shaping modern political culture or if he wants to make a slapstick trifle between long estranged family members.

The movie was based on a short story by Simon Rich and, despite its brief 90-minute running time, might have been better if it had been made into a Saturday Night Live skit.

If you watch even a few minutes of the film, which debuted on HBO earlier this month, you’ll quickly get why Rogen doubled down in Maron’s podcast on his regard for the grandparents’ take-no-guff generation – it’s the setup for the film, making Rogen’s jokes basically a bit of not particularly well disguised PR.

By the end, though, there’s simply not that much depth in An American Pickle. The time travel conceit allows Rogen to skip right over sensitive subjects such as the Holocaust, Israel, socialism and, as The New York Times’ AO Scott puts it, “the drama of Jewish male selfhood that preoccupied so many in the middle generations — the whole Phillip Roth-Woody Allen megillah.”

Rogen has made a career of playing slacker characters, from Freaks and Geeks to Superbad and Knocked Up, so I’m not sure why I expected something more. 

Still, the controversy from the podcast worked – it got me to watch Rogen’s movie. Too bad it was not much more than a sour pickle.

I first reviewed Seth Rogen’s controversial pickle for The Jerusalem Post.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.

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Kaddish in 103,000 words

by Brian on August 16, 2020

in A Parent in Israel,Reviews

When my father died 11 years ago, I wasn’t sure what to do about Kaddish. Saying the mourner’s prayer three times a day, as many traditional Jews do, didn’t seem like something I could – or would want – to take on. 

Instead, I wondered if there was something else more personally meaningful that could serve as an alternative to Kaddish for my father

My father worked for 35 years as a feature writer and editor for the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered arts, culture and show business for California Living and Image magazines. Over his career, he interviewed such figures as Victor Borge, Phyllis Diller, Leonard Nimoy, Buddy Hackett and Carl Sagan. 

But my father’s dream was to publish a novel. Every night after dinner, he would retire to his home office where he would diligently type away on his IBM Selectric, crafting his fiction until it was time for the evening TV sitcoms.

He worked on one novel after another, but never managed to land an agent or a publishing contract. He had just finished a draft of his latest work when he died of cancer at the age of 81.

In 2009, self-publishing was still mired in the stigma of “vanity.” Nor were eBooks much of a thing – Amazon had only debuted the first Kindle a year earlier. 

My father never considered going the indie route – if he couldn’t grab the attention of a traditional New York publisher, he wasn’t interested.

But I knew how to work with Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing. I had already been corresponding with a number of book designers and layout artists. 

What if I were to edit my father’s last book and publish it for him, posthumously?

My father left a nearly finished version of that book, The Bell Tower, on his computer, which my brother, Dave, emailed to me following my father’s death. 

I spent the next nine months deeply immersed in the world he’d created. The Bell Tower is a semi-autobiographical novel that takes place in a fictional small town in the American South, where the protagonist, like my father, worked as a radio announcer while searching for love.

I knew my father had started his career in radio, but I didn’t know much about the place he’d lived. Now that he was gone, I couldn’t ask him how much of what he’d written in The Bell Tower was true. The radio part seemed accurate enough – I had experience spinning discs for my college radio station – and the details of the tight-knit, gossipy, small-town Jewish community were well-constructed.

There were some passages I was less comfortable with, in particular several racy scenes which I debated whether to leave in or not. And I was curious to what extent the woman with whom my father’s alter-ego in the book was obsessed reflected past romances my father may have had before he married my mother. 

The trickiest part of editing the book was the ending – it was weak and I struggled with what to do with this final section.

I soon found out why.

When I finished the edit, my brother discovered a second draft of The Bell Tower that addressed the wobbly conclusion – albeit not for the better. In fact, in order to fix the plot holes in the first draft, my father had changed the folksy nature that characterized much of what I enjoyed in the first place.

But now I was in a quandary. Should I stick with a first draft he clearly didn’t intend to be released – or work on the revised version that wasn’t as good?

I decided to go with the original with a changed ending; it was the only new writing I added.

And then, as I do with my own work, I put it aside in order to come back later with fresh eyes.

Except that I didn’t touch it again for ten years.

Perhaps I was still uncomfortable with the idea of putting his book out into the world without the permission he certainly couldn’t give. And yet, if he knew how easy it is (from a technical point of view, at least) to self-publish nowadays, would that have given him the professional satisfaction that alluded him for so long?

Michal Govrin helped me make my decision. 

I met the celebrated Israeli poet, novelist and stage director at a Shabbat dinner in 2019. It took her twenty years, she told me, before she had the courage to edit the autobiography of own father, a Zionist pioneer and kibbutznik who literally helped drain the swamps. 

“It’s wonderful to do this kind of project,” she emphasized, “to get to know your father in this deep and intimate way. I believe he would have wanted it.”

My brother and my mother concurred.

I finally published The Bell Tower. My father even has his very own Amazon Author page. My layout designer was so taken by the endeavor, she threw in a free print design, so it’s available in paperback as well as electronic format.

Dwelling in the imaginative world my father fashioned gave me new insights into his feelings on religion, his own parents, and following one’s passions. The fact that, like my father, I had originally hoped to launch a career in radio before turning to writing, only made the narrative of The Bell Tower more resonant.

I stopped saying the traditional Kaddish before the first year was over. But in many ways, I’ve never stopped saying it. It’s just taken me ten years and 103,000 words to convey it properly.

Walter Blum’s novel, The Bell Tower is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/36qFMWG.

I first wrote about The Bell Tower for The Jerusalem Post.

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Coronavirus and the five stages of grief

August 2, 2020

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Where does Covid-19 mask denial fit in?

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Our coronavirus gap year

July 19, 2020

To cope with the ping pong of good news followed by harrowing aftermath, I’ve started thinking of this time as our “coronavirus gap year.” How Emily Perl Kingsley’s essay “Welcome to Holland” applies to the current pandemi

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“We are both” – The blunder of binary thinking

July 5, 2020

Our brains may be hardwired towards a “binary bias” – this or that, happy or despondent. But DNA need not define our destiny. We can be both.

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Cancer is not magic

June 20, 2020

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I so much wanted to believe in magic. Not for a cure but that the cancer would transform me magically into someone new.

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When did your pandemic end?

June 7, 2020

Pandemics typically have two types of endings. The medical and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes. Are we there?

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