I’m looking out at the sprawling Peace Wood stage, a generous grassy lawn, dotted by august Eucalyptus trees, that slopes down towards a well-equipped performance platform. Much of the plot is covered by large cloth tarps that provide shade from the mid-May sun and can swing wildly when the wind kicks in.

The stage itself is flanked by a towering speaker system with enough intensity to get a crowd of 3,000 on its feet dancing while still respecting the aural sensitivities of the older generation.

It’s Jacob’s Ladder 2018 and, as you read this, the merriment at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee is well underway. The annual indie, folk, country, blues and bluegrass festival has been a home away from home for many of the tens of thousands of Anglos (and an increasing number of Israelis) who have pitched a tent here over the past 42 years.

My family and I are relatively newbies, coming to Jacob’s Ladder only for the last decade or so. While our kids still sleep under the stars, my wife and I gave up camping for the luxuries of a simple rented room on the kibbutz with a spartan bed, a shower with passable water pressure and a functional air conditioner.

When we arrive, we have our Jacob’s Ladder rituals. First, we find a spot at the Peace Wood space to lay out our mat and plant our low rise folding chairs. It’s not a simple decision. Are we fully under the tarp? Which way is the sun moving? Would it be better to be further back with a clear view or close up but with that tree in the way?

Fortunately, once everything’s in place, Jacob’s Ladder’s reputation as Israel’s “friendliest music festival” is confirmed with this unwritten but critical rule: You can leave your stuff out all day and all night and no one will steal or move it. If someone does sit in your seat, you can nicely ask and they’ll vacate without a fight.

Next, it’s off to get our Jacob’s Ladder t-shirts, exchange cash for “scrip” (the Jacob’s Ladder funny money with which we pay for schnitzel from the food court and vegan chai from the tea shop) and a quick visit to the Kinneret to check how far the shore has receded.

The Peace Wood stage is just one of four set up to accommodate all the acts at Jacob’s Ladder (there are 37 this year). The eponymously-named Lawn Stage is the most laid back. The Hermon Hall inside the kibbutz hotel building is the most chill (in that it’s usually frigid from the powerful a/c). And the Balcony Stage is where overseas guests, Italy’s “Ukus in Fabula,” will be leading a ukulele workshop.

For much of the past decade, the festival’s main act has been the Abrams, a country-pop Canadian boy band that exudes evangelical love for the Holy Land. This year, the Abrams are elsewhere, replaced by home-grown Tarante Groove Machine who promise an hour of energetic world music – a very different vibe that will undoubtedly go down well with the legions of dancing teens who have created their own Jacob’s Ladder “mosh pit.”

I asked Yehudit Vinegrad, who produces Jacob’s Ladder with her husband Menachem, if choosing Tarante to headline this year was a nod to the next generation of festival goers. “Definitely,” she said. “Though we want the 71-year-olds to dance, too. Our aim is to cater to all ages.”

And to an ever widening demographic.

“The festival originally attracted mainly the English-speaking immigrants who came in the 1960s and 1970s,” Vinegrad told me. “In order to carry on the festival, we need to sell enough tickets, so we do our best to attract Hebrew speakers too.”

Another change: a special Thursday through Friday afternoon-only ticket for the growing number of religious attendees.

My musical tastes tend more to indie than Irish fiddling. As a result, I’m most looking forward to two young bands. One is the six-piece Forest, who mix up psychedelic klezmer, progressive rock, chanting, shamanism, storytelling and prayer.

The other is Kim in the Sun, a new configuration for Mika Sade who I praised as one of the breakout artists from Jacob Ladder 2017. Vinegrad was impressed enough with Sade and her Minnie Riperton-esque trills to move her to the Peace Wood stage this year. “Mika Sade is unique, original and overflowing with talent and surprises,” Vinegrad said.

Vinegrad also suggested I don’t miss the Ukrainian band, Spiritual Seasons, who focus on North European folk music; Itamar Haluts, with his infectious power pop originals; English folk music devotees The Fine Marten; and Richie and Bel, who came to Vinegrad’s attention after the lead singer “bought a ticket last year and stood on one of the main pathways and played. Lots of people stopped to listen to her.”

When the last band winds up the final notes of the traditional Jacob’s Ladder closer “Good Night Irene” Saturday afternoon, a group of stragglers who can’t get enough will head down to the Sea of Galilee where, gingerly anchoring the legs of our white plastic chairs in the rocks and gently lapping waves, we’ll hold one last jam, piloting the virtual Chevy to the levee along the City of New Orleans and already dreaming of 2019.

I “previewed” this year’s Jacob’s Ladder originally at The Jerusalem Post.

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“What’s your Hebrew name?”

That was all the text message said. No empathetic opening like “I heard about what’s going on” or acknowledgment of “that must be really tough.”

I knew exactly what the sender was getting at – he wanted to pray for me and needed the mystical equivalent of my teudat zehut (my Israeli ID number).

This brief WhatsApp exchange was just the first in a series of awkward moments I’ve encountered since telling people I have cancer. As much as the diagnosis was a shock to me, it’s been an even bigger one to friends and family who were not privy to the repeated pokes and scans and blood tests that preceded the final verdict.

One thing I’ve learned in the relatively short time I’ve been living with follicular lymphoma is that people don’t know how to respond when they first hear about someone who’s sick.

I understand that much better now. You really have to have been through a life threatening condition – either personally or by caring for a loved one – to truly “get it.” And even then, every individual responds differently to his or her illness, so the compassionate thing to say to one person might come off as uncaring to another.

I decided to write down a list of the most appropriate words I’d want to hear. Then I found that Letty Cottin Pogrebin had already done the same thing.

Pogrebin was a founding editor of Ms. Magazine. Her most recent book of non-fiction, “How to be Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” was written after the author was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago.

Pogrebin’s book is filled with valuable insight. Asking “How are you?” for example, is a loaded question for someone who’s ill, she writes. In normal discussion, it’s meant as a breezy placeholder for a longer conversation to be held later, where the questioner is expecting just a quick “Fine, how are you?” in response.

But for a sick person, that simple salutation triggers a fairly complex decision-making process, where one has to “decide on the spot, questioner by questioner, friend by friend, situation by situation, how candidly to respond,” Pogrebin explains.

Here are a few tips I’ve picked up during my own bout with cancer.

Wishing a sick person refuah shlemah – a “complete recovery” in Hebrew – is a standard formulation in Jewish circles that does the job succinctly without descending into platitudes or clichés. It’s much better than faux encouraging lines like “Everything happens for a reason,” “You’re so brave” or “We’re all going to die someday. You could be hit by a car tomorrow.”

Similarly, while it’s true that my cancer may very well “change me for the better,” that sentiment is better off coming from me, not from someone else, however well intentioned.

“Let me know if you need anything” sounds comforting but it actually puts the onus on the sick person to proactively reach out for assistance. In her book, Pogrebin suggests that a more helpful response might be “How can I help?” or “What can I do?”

Another from Pogrebin: Do your best to suss out where the sick person is at before engaging in conversation. A chipper “Tell me all about it!” might not be received as supportive by someone in pain. Sometimes it’s appropriate to change the subject; other times, the best thing to say is just “cancer sucks” and leave it at that.

When it comes to giving advice, it’s fine if the sick person initiates. “Hey you’re a nutritionist, what do you know about sugar and tumors?” But otherwise, that YouTube video you saw about how your favorite holistic therapy can cure cancer may come across as pushing an agenda I might not be ready to hear.

“But you’re so healthy. You work out, you’re always hiking, you don’t smoke. And your wife’s a vegan. How could this have happened?” But it did. And science doesn’t know what causes lymphoma. It could be genetics. It could be overuse of antibiotics. It could be the environment. Or all of the above.

These last two points underlie what I think is behind many of the comments people make: fear. It’s terrifying when someone gets cancer because it forces you to confront not only your friend’s mortality but your own.

Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in his best-selling book The Emperor of all Maladies that, in the United States, one out of every two men and one out of every three women will develop cancer during their lifetime.

So, if you can create “categories of exclusion” – “Yes, he exercised, but he also ate meat” or “I had that same ultrasound and it was clear” – then you can feel “safe” (at least for the time being) that you won’t get it too.

That, I propose, is what’s behind the “Can I pray for you?” question. It’s not so much that you’re helping me, but rather that you’re calming your own dread by doing something – anything – in the face of the alarming possibility that the universe is, in fact, random.

I understand that concern – I feel it too. But, as regular readers know, I’m not a big believer in the efficacy of prayer. So I’ve begun to suggest an alternative action when someone asks for my Hebrew name.

“Instead of praying, the next time you’re walking down the street, smile at someone you don’t know or just say hello to a stranger,” I explain. “And when you do, please think of me.”

I first suggested smiling at a stranger at The Jerusalem Post.

Man in prayer image from Ori Lubin [CC BY-SA 4.0 from Wikimedia Commons]

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It was the hiccups that scared me the most.

When my father was going through chemotherapy for lymphoma 9 years ago, he developed a terrible case of violent, virulent hiccups that persisted for days. In the story I told myself, it was the hiccups that ultimately killed him, making him too weak to battle both the cancer and the chemo.

So when I came home after my first chemotherapy treatment and started to hiccup, I immediately panicked. It wasn’t that I was afraid I would die – my lymphoma is a different, less aggressive kind. But would I hiccup for days, too? Would I bust or bruise my diaphragm through the relentless assault?

I called my doctor. She knew what the problem was immediately and prescribed a pill which paused the spasms and put my mind at ease. But it was the first sign that my treatment would be filled with surprises – not unlike my diagnosis just six weeks earlier for the cancer itself.

I’ve long harbored a grim curiosity about chemotherapy. While I hoped I’d never have to find out personally, I wondered: what’s it like to sit in an oncology or hematology daycare room with an IV in the arm? Does it hurt? Do you feel like vomiting the whole time? What happens when you get home?

I can’t speak for every patient’s chemo experience – there are so many different types of cancers and treatments and everyone responds differently – but I can tell you about mine.

Let’s start with the hospital. It’s actually kind of boring.

After needle finds vein, you pretty much sit around and wait while many milliliters of fluids in a procession of plastic bags hooked on a tall metal pole slowly make their way into your blood. There’s no feeling of pressure – the meds aren’t being propelled into your body by a pump. Indeed, the only time I really knew anything was happening was the shiver of cold that would hit me whenever the nurse changed the bag to blend up the perfect cocktail of cure.

Of course, it all starts with that prick. To paraphrase Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, “Needles, why did it have to be needles!”

Even in normal circumstances, I’ve always hated getting my blood taken. While getting an IV inserted is not substantially different (it just stays in longer than for a blood test), I calculated I will need a whopping 21 IVs before my treatment is over.

Before you even get started, the nurse takes some blood. If your count is off, then it’s no soup for you today.

My particular treatment is nicknamed G-CVP. Each “letter” gets its own bag, plus there are a variety of “pre-meds” administered before the main course, mostly to prevent allergic reactions. Some of them make me drowsy. But I wake up when nature calls.

And it does – plenty during my usual 6-8 hour stay.

With all those fluids flowing into my arm, I need to pee a lot. No problem: there’s a bathroom nearby. But for my particular treatment, I also have an electric-powered box that regulates how fast the immunotherapy meds can drip.

The problem is, to walk to the toilet with my IV pole in tow, I need to disconnect the box from the power. But the electricity strip is located high above the bed. I can’t reach it comfortably with my IV arm.

One rule I learned quickly about getting chemo is: never come to the hospital alone. The accompanying person can quickly grab a doctor or nurse if there’s an issue or – most important – unplug you so you can go to the loo. If I had to wait for the nurse to disconnect me each time, I’d burst.

Other times, you need help maneuvering around all the activity going on in the room. One thing’s for sure: getting chemo in an Israeli hospital is rarely a solitary activity.

There’s the morning snack cart volunteer who brings the sandwich rolls with the super sweet strawberry jam, the chocolate Carlo puddings and a variety of drinks (“I’ve got tea and Pepsi, who wants?”); the afternoon lunch lady with the endless supply of potato chips and rubbery chicken schnitzel that makes a serving in El Al coach seem like a Michelin-starred meal; the Aldo gourmet ice cream truck (“I’ll take pistachio, please”); and the medical musician from the Haverut organization who is happy to strum a soothing song straight out of Psalms.

My wife Jody and I have developed a novel way of passing the time separately yet together. We call it our “in-flight movie trick.” When we fly on an aircraft with individual entertainment screens, we’ll pick out a movie we both want to watch, then press play at the same time.

We have two iPads at home, so for the hospital, I cue up the same TV shows. We tap play and go – no need to crane our necks towards a single shared screen.

When the last bag has drained, the nurse removes the IV with a gentle tug and we’re free to go. There’s no formal discharge, no waiting for papers to be signed – we all know the process will simply start over again soon.

As “uneventful” as the actual daycare experience has been for me, all those chemicals still wipe me out. Nor is that the end of the story. Once I get home, there will be a variety of side effects, both physical and emotional.

But I’ll have to save that for another column.

I first tried to demystify chemotherapy at The Jerusalem Post.

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There’s a dilemma among datlashim – the Hebrew acronym for formerly religious Jews – that Ellie Morris shared in a letter to the editor she wrote to The Jerusalem Post.

Morris was speaking with one of her children who told her that, “in a discussion he had with his datlash friends concerning how they wished to bring up their offspring, they all came to the same conclusion: They wanted their children to be like them – datlashim!”

The dilemma, of course, is that being formerly religious is, by definition, a one generation phenomenon. To be formerly, formerly religious would, in fact, involve becoming religious again.

But it’s a question that deserves to be taken seriously. If, as I cited in my column “Datlash 2.0 – The Elephant in the Room” (January 4, 2018), only 46 percent of those in the National Religious public who in 2002 defined themselves as religious still see themselves that way 10 years later – and yet those datlashim yearn for their children to be datlashim too – how then can the concept of datlashiot be sustained?

I decided to ask a datlash.

I met Eliraz a few weeks ago at a high-tech event where I’d been invited to speak. The 26-year-old Shalem College student was more than happy to describe what made her move away from the religious traditions she grew up with.

“My family kept Shabbat and kashrut at home,” Eliraz explained, “but my parents were very chill about everything. At school, though, there were all these rules. You had to have a shirt that covered your elbows. You couldn’t wear red. We always washed our hands before eating bread. At home, I could wear jeans and a tank top. While we washed before a meal, it was really just on Shabbat. So I developed this idea that there were two sets of rules – stricter school rules and more lenient home rules.”

Over time, Eliraz found this bifurcation suited her lifestyle. If it was too hot at her parent’s home on Shabbat and the air conditioner wasn’t on, she’d simply flip the switch. On Friday night, if she wanted to read, she’d turn on the light.

“I didn’t imagine anyone would get mad,” she continued, “since it was clear to me that there were two separate levels of laws.”

Eventually, Eliraz dropped both the school rules and the home rules entirely. Her parents were upset but not devastated. “My mother told me, ‘we raised our kids to ask questions and have critical views. So we can’t blame you for reaching your own conclusions.’”

Eliraz doesn’t want to throw it all away, though. When she has children, she said, “I want them to be able to go to my parents’ house for Shabbat and sing Shalom Aleichem. I want them to know what the traditions are.”

And yet, as a datlash, Eliraz isn’t planning to teach her kids about observance at home. So, how’s this going to work?

“It Takes a Village” is the title of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book about raising children in America. It’s applicable for datlashim, too. Extended families can and must play a crucial part in the overall education of the “next generation” of datlashim – as long as everyone can remain open.

Eliraz’s parents live in the suburb of Efrat. After Eliraz moved to Jerusalem to attend university, she would want to visit on Shabbat – but not necessarily for the entire weekend. But how could she drive in and out? What would the observant community think?

Eliraz’s parents had a conversation with Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. I contacted Rabbi Riskin to find out what he said.

“Do your kids know that you love them and nothing would make you happier if they stayed for all of Shabbat?” Riskin asked. “And do your children know that you have enough room and enough food for them to stay all of Shabbat? If so, even if they don’t wish to stay overnight, they should still come – however they come – so they can continue to experience the warmth, beauty and togetherness of Shabbat.”

Eliraz now regularly drives to her parents on Shabbat, as do many other datlashi children. There’s even a WhatsApp group specifically for rides into and out of Efrat on the Sabbath, Eliraz revealed.

It holds for holidays, too. Eliraz will be with family as always for Pesach Seder tonight. She’ll drive there and back, she told me. “I love being part of it. I just don’t want to observe all of it.”

Is this going to solve the dilemma of preserving datlash values to the next generation? Hardly. First we’d have to define what exactly datlash values are, something upon which datlashim themselves scarcely agree.

But it’s a start. And maintaining transparent and non-judgmental communication between parents, children and grandchildren is an important value of its own.

“When I ask kids who have rejected the lifestyle and religious approach of their parents what they want, they always tell me the same thing,” said Aryeh Ben David, who is the director of Ayeka, a Jerusalem-based Jewish education institute. “’I want to be seen and heard as myself. I don’t want to be loved with an agenda.”

“We all want our children to be like us to a certain extent, but also to be independent thinkers,” Ellie Morris wrote in her letter. “Yet we are not sure that as Jews, with Jewish continuity in mind, we are truly free to make that choice.”

Yes, we are, Ellie. A datlash loved and accepted at home is going to be a healthier, happier, more integrated individual, regardless of any particular religious outlook.

Maybe that’s the true datlash value system.

This latest in a series of articles on the datlash phenomenon first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.

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The TV club

by Brian on March 20, 2018

in Just For Fun,Reviews

What do the following have in common: A magical psychologist who can send his patients back in time, a 5-year-old with autism, a tawdry affair, and a dysfunctional Jewish family where the former patriarch is transgender?

Yes, they’re all quick descriptions for recent television shows. They’re also the programs we’ve watched as part of our weekly “TV club.”

Never heard of a TV club? Well, it’s like a book club in that group members all read (or in this case, watch) something together and then discuss it afterward. So the subject matter chosen needs to be on a topic that will generate lively debate, stimulate insights into human nature and in general keep participants on their intellectual toes.

Our TV club started nearly 5 years ago when we were watching the first of the programs on my list, Being Erica – a superb Canadian drama about a Jewish thirtysomething woman whose life is falling apart.

When we first meet her, Erica has been fired from her job, her boyfriend has dumped her and she lands in the hospital from a peanut allergy. While there, a mysterious “Dr. Tom” visits. He has the ability to help her deal with her traumatic childhood through time travel that allows Erica to revisit pivotal moments from her past.

My wife Jody and I watched the first few seasons alone. But then we thought it would be fun to invite some of our therapist friends (for some reason, a number of the people with whom we are close are in the helping professions) to join us and analyze each episode.

It was such a success that we didn’t want to stop. We expanded the group beyond psychologists. But Erica ended so we searched for another drama that would keep us talking. Amazon’s Transparent fit the bill.

Nominally about the transition of Mort to Maura, the award-winning series is more about the characters’ overall family dynamics.

Sometimes we get through an entire episode without stopping, but most of the time, we wind up pausing every few minutes so we can chat, fume, pontificate or learn. (It helps that one of our friends is a sex therapist; “Transparent” is so full of teachable moments.)

I haven’t heard of other TV clubs, but the idea makes a lot of sense in this era of “Peak TV,” when the best actors, writers and directors have moved from the big screen to the home entertainment center. And it’s more of a social activity than a book club, which is primarily a solitary affair punctuated by the occasional in-person meet-up.

Our TV club serves another critical function for the group, all of whom are immigrants to Israel: it’s a mini-family.

None of us have family in Israel beyond our own children. We have friends outside the TV club, of course, but getting together with the same people on a weekly basis (outside of, say, Shabbat) is a big deal and something we didn’t do before TV club.

We don’t just watch and discuss. Jody always makes popcorn and puts out tea. One friend brings cake, another a variety of multi-colored organic gluten-free vegan chips. And we share about our lives. What’s happening with work, kids and – lately – health.

When I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of months ago, the TV club was there for me – at first to listen as I juggled treatment options, then to offer help. I knew I could count on every member of the club. That goes way beyond TV.

At this point, we probably spend more time talking and less time watching TV when we get together.

There are some excellent shows that we won’t watch in the TV club. Anything with too much violence is out. I wanted to try Fauda with the group. We watched the first scene until I noticed at least half the group was shielding its eyes from too much tension.

TV has been my go-to screen for years, since I became too frustrated with the movie-going experience in Israel. I’d rather be at home with a few friends than with a bunch of strangers texting and talking throughout, even if the screen at the theater is bigger and I don’t have to worry about annoying our neighbors if we crank the sound system up too loud.

Plus, at home, I get to hold the remote control.

We’ve watched two other series over the years. The Affair (co-created by Israeli Hagai Levi who was behind HBO’s In Treatment) has given us lots of opportunities to yell at the screen. (“No, don’t go back to his house! What were you thinking!”)

Our most recent TV club show, The A-Word, also has Israeli roots – it’s a British remake of the Hebrew drama Yellow Peppers. Both revolve around an extended family coming to terms with the main couple’s son, who’s on the autism spectrum. (The 5-year-old boy in the British version also listens exclusively to late 70s punk and early 80s New Wave, which is an added bonus for this fan of that musical time period.)

Now we’re at a crossroads. The A-Word has ended its two-season run. The Affair doesn’t come back until the summer. And the future of Transparent is unclear now that actor Jeffrey Tambor has been ousted from the show for sexual harassment.

What should we watch next? You know our criteria. We are open to suggestions!

I first wrote about our TV club in The Jerusalem Post.

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Fateful decisions, cancer and faith

March 6, 2018

How do you make a decision with imperfect information? That was the question in front of me as I had to decide between cancer treatments.

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Lessons from lymphoma

February 25, 2018

To her great credit, my doctor never used the word cancer. “You have a growth on your lymph nodes,” she said at the start of a 45-minute conversation. “It’s indolent” – linguistically idle or, in medical terms, slow growing.” “It’s the lowest grade of the least aggressive form of lymphoma.” Yet, no matter how she […]

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Secrets of the Startup Nation

February 5, 2018

How did Israel become the Startup Nation? Here are five new reasons.

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“But she’s not Jewish”

January 22, 2018

“I heard Ben broke up with his girlfriend. I’m sorry.” “Don’t be.” “Why not?” “They weren’t good together. They were always fighting.” “Well, that’s a relief, I guess.” “Not really. He’s got a new girlfriend. She’s even worse.” “What’s wrong this time?” “She’s not Jewish.” “But do they get along?” “Oh yes, they are very […]

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Datlash 2.0 – the elephant in the room

January 9, 2018

What’s fueling the growing phenomenon in Israel of datlashim – Hebrew for formerly religious Jews? And how big is it in real numbers?

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