On the road towards the passThe tragedy in Nepal two weeks ago, where 40 trekkers, including four Israelis, lost their lives in a sudden freak snowstorm along the well-traveled Annapurna route brought back a flood of memories from my own trip to the Nepalese Himalayas.

In 2011, my family and I went hiking in the same Annapurna region, and, although we didn’t navigate across the 5,400-meter high Thorong La Pass – which saw the brunt of the storm and most of the casualties when near zero visibility and sub zero temperatures shocked travelers who set out on what seemed an ordinary, October clear sky day – we trekked up to its end, threw snowballs, and spent a pleasant hour greeting the weary but exhilarated backpackers as they came through on their way to the bustling village of Muktinath, where we too spent the night.

Muktinath – like much of the Annapurna Circuit – is filled with Israelis. Indeed, a Himalayan trek in Nepal, combined with a month in India and possibly time in Thailand too was, until supplanted somewhat in recent years by South America, considered the classic post-army trek for young Israelis. Even if you’re not trekking in a group with Israelis, there will be signs – literally – of the Holy Land everywhere: pieces of cardboard with hand scrawled Hebrew adorn restaurants and accommodations with recommendations only other Members of the Tribe can understand. We saw, for example, “great hamburger here,” and “comfy rooms at good prices,” all written right to left.

In Muktinath, many Israelis congregate at the Bob Marley Guesthouse, a sprawling place with an enormous portrait of the reggae master welcoming visitors to its tens of rooms and chill lounge featuring a large pool table around which the dominant language is most definitely not Nepali. We didn’t stay there – our Nepalese guide recommended a more intimate place a few doors down – but we smiled as we peeked in and felt like we were already back home.

To understand why there are so many trekkers – including all those Israelis – on the Annapurna Circuit, you need only appreciate some of the most stunning scenery in the world, which as one backpacker put it, “gets better every day.” You start by hiking through the low lands: lush forests filled with bright red rhododendron flowers in the spring, passing impossibly green rice terraces spider-webbing their way down the hills as you climb higher.

Before long you are in a desolate alpine landscape, devoid of nearly all vegetation, vaguely Negev like but with more white and gray than brown, with the ever present peaks of the 7,500 meter Gangapurna and other Himalayan giants watching over travelers like a patron saint in hiking boots…until two weeks ago, when those same peaks turned into a death trap for far too many explorers, cut down at their most vulnerable, where the air was so thin.

The stories from the surviving Israelis are as heart wrenching as the thinning atmosphere that sucked the life out of those caught in its midst. One tells of Nadav Shoham assisting Tamar Ariel who had expended her energy early on helping other hikers until she could no longer walk herself. Shoham lifted her up repeatedly as she toppled into the snow until he too had nothing left to give. Both perished.

We were cold on our trek, too, but on nowhere the same scale and only at night if, as is inevitable for someone my age, one has to leave his or her sleeping bag to waddle outdoors to the squatter at the end of the hall.

That “hall” is part of what makes trekking in Nepal so appealing. There are guesthouses – known locally as “teahouses,” although they have beds and full meals, not just tea – situated every hour or so along the main parts of the trail. (Notably, there is only one teahouse with beds at the entrance to the Thorong La Pass and none for the next six or seven hours until you’ve descended to Muktinath.)

The frequency of guesthouses means you don’t have to lug camping gear or food. If you hire a porter – and at $10 a day, who wouldn’t – you don’t even have to carry your own pack, just some water and snacks. The guesthouses – which you can’t pre-book, it’s all first come first serve in the Himalayas – are what I’d call a Motel 6…minus 5. The rooms – if you can call them that – consist of a bed with a mattress of varying degrees of hardness and four walls but with absolutely no insulation and often windows that are either cracked or ill fitting. You’re not sleeping under the stars, but you can still see your breath at night. It makes an Israeli field school look like a 5-star palace.

But the teahouses were no guarantee against the storm that hit Annapurna. One Israeli trekker tells how she left her friends behind at a teahouse near the summit. (Her guide insisted they try to make it to the other side, despite the worsening weather; it saved her life.) At 2 pm, the teahouse owner decided to evacuate his property and escape. He promised to guide the trekkers to safety but, of the 30-odd people who followed him out, only a handful arrived safely at the nearest village many hours later.

Our trip to Nepal in 2011 – three weeks in total with eleven days on the trail including two rest days for Shabbat – was conceived as a way to celebrate my 50th birthday and our youngest son’s bar mitzvah. We did the “half circuit,” hiking in the opposite direction, giving the pass a pass, and flying back from the tiny airport at Jomson. I used to joke that our biggest accomplishment was that we spent all that time together, 24/7, three meals a day, and we didn’t kill each other. In light of recent events, that seems like inappropriate black humor.

Among those providing assistance to trekkers who made it out of Annapurna alive was Nepal’s strong Chabad, which has two main houses in Nepal – the main center in Kathmandu and an outpost in Pokhara, which is the jumping off point for the Annapurna region. At this time of year, Chabad was still bustling with backpackers who spent the High Holy Days in Nepal. We had our own Chabad experience – we went trekking in the spring and celebrated Passover with the group. That was part of the draw for me – Kathmandu’s Seder is known as the world’s largest although, in 2011, there were “only” 1,100 Israelis present at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, chosen not for its whimsical name but for the fact that, in electricity rationed Kathmandu, the Yak and Yeti had its own generators, meaning we would be less likely to be plunged into darkness at the height of the recitation of the Ten Plagues.

Throughout our trip to Nepal, when the weather was warm and the sights too striking to conceive of being consigned to a perfunctory photo album, I imagined I might return someday to do the full circuit, maybe for a 60th birthday challenge. After what happened earlier this month, would I still entertain the possibility?

While the Annapurna trail was, at press time, still closed to trekkers, as rescue workers continued to search for bodies, it will no doubt open again in the spring and the intrepid will return. Disaster can strike at any time, anywhere. Would I avoid Phuket and the beaches in Thailand that were decimated by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami? Should New York City become off limits because of Hurricane Sandy (or more human made catastrophes like 9/11)?

My heart cries out for the casualties and suffering of the Annapurna tragedy – all the more so because, like so many Israelis, I can see the trails and remember my own slowing pace as we hiked ever upwards. Perhaps I would hike earlier in the year to be extra careful. But if I’ve learned anything from living in the Middle East these past 20 years, it’s that we move on and do our best to live our lives “normally.” That applies in Jerusalem, and it does so in Jomsom as well.

I first shared my Nepal memories over at The Jerusalem Post.

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Members of the Tribe

by Brian on October 17, 2014

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

Bird_flock_in_vedanthangal (1)Birds do the nuttiest things. In a flock, some of the birds will voluntarily serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which has less time to search for food and, by issuing a warning call, is more likely to be spotted by the predator. Why do they do it then? And how, if Darwin’s theory of natural selection holds, does a sentry gene get passed on if in fact many of the sentries wind up sacrificing their lives for the greater good of the group?

This was one of the questions raised in an intriguing article that appeared a few years back in The New York Times Magazine that has little to do with birds but a lot to do with human beings…and with contemporary Jewish communities in particular.

The article, “Darwin’s God” by Robin Henig, tries to understand why virtually every human culture across the globe has a religious component. Is this God’s will expressed through multiple manifestations, Henig asks, or the process of evolution? On the eve of Yom Kippur, where God is never far from center stage in the holiday prayer book, it seems an appropriate topic for introspection.

Henig focuses on how the human brain developed a tendency towards religious behavior…whether God exists or not. In the process, he provides clues to understanding how religious practice and community in the 21st century can be a good thing even for those who don’t subscribe to religion’s basic tenets.

Two main theories occupy most of the scientific community’s attention, Henig says. In one, human beings developed religious thinking as a genetic byproduct. For example, early humans may have found it advantageous to interpret unknown sounds and movements as having meaning. A rustle in the bush might mean danger…or a possible food source. Recognizing this would give those humans endowed with this sensitivity an advantage over those without. With time, that same genetic make up might extend to perceiving other events outside the body, not just food and danger, as having meaning, opening up the possibility for religious experience.

The other theory addresses adaptation. Here’s where the bird analogy comes into play: like our feathered friends, working together as a community or tribe would give certain groups of humans a survival advantage over those who acted more as free agents. Any behaviors that enhanced the cohesion of community – and there are none more cohesive than religious ritual – would be naturally selected, reinforcing the behaviors in the resulting societies.

Returning to the birds, Henig writes that, “if there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.”

If we move beyond birds and early humans, though, how does this type of genetic or adaptive group behavior fit with the world we now live in, where expressing one’s individuality has become a core value? Is group membership and identity still relevant? And for Jews: is it important anymore to be, or stay actively involved, in the Jewish tribe?

Many would claim that it isn’t. Enlightened citizens of the world should be able to do what they want without the baggage of history holding them back. Eva Illouz, writing in Haaretz on “The Six Commandments of Secularity” just before Rosh Hashana, argued that secular culture is inherently forward thinking, always anticipating advances in human knowledge and understanding, in contrast to religion, which takes a more retro perspective, where “truth” is necessarily closer to some revelation in the distant past. Isn’t clinging to ancient tribal models archaic at best, then; the source of sectarian violence and hatred at worst?

My own experience says no. Belonging to and participating in a community provides the individual member with a closeness that human beings crave. All you have to do is imagine moving to a new city alone and having no group with which to affiliate. Today’s tribes also provide us with protection – whether that’s physically through the police and army, or via legislation intended to maintain order or funding designed to promote cultural activities that in turn guard against isolation.

Even the most disconnected of individuals belongs at least to the tribe of one’s birthplace – their nation. Of course you can always change locations, thus choosing a new tribe in which to live (and pay your taxes). If so, then why not apply that same ease of mobility to picking your religious tribe, choosing between spiritual paths as you would a country, sports team or book club?

On one level, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the approach. As long as the tribe is not violent or extreme, or impinges on other’s rights, you should do fine.

But what about your tribe of origin? If all the sentry birds in the example above decided to defect to join the tiger or bear tribe (assuming the tigers and bears accepted them), the individual birds aren’t harmed. But the original flock will now be without its sentries. If other birds with different roles in the flock did the same, pretty soon there’d be no flock at all.

Maybe that means the flock or tribe didn’t deserve to continue in the first place. Here’s where a leap of faith may be required. I take as a starting point that my Jewish tribe, the one I was born into, with its rich history, culture and wisdom, is worth preserving. Biologist E.O. Wilson suggests there may be a scientific explanation for this seemingly illogical bias. “The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-groups [that is, the group you’re already in], has the earmarks of instinct,” he says. “People are prone to ethnocentrism.”

The Israeli author Amos Oz once wrote that his definition of a Jew is someone who is engaged with Jewish tradition and subject matter – whether positively (“I’m proud of what the Jewish people have achieved”) or negatively (“I’m so ashamed by what the Jewish people have done or are doing”). The important thing, Oz says, is the desire for engagement with the Jewish community.

Returning to our opening example: who are the Jewish sentry birds? It would seem that if the flock is the Jewish people as a whole, then the sentries are those Jews who strive to maintain an even moderately committed Jewish lifestyle against the strong pull of contemporary assimilationist culture. This includes those Jews who live in Israel – perhaps the strongest public display of Judaism, even if its members would define their adherence more in nationalist than religious terms.

The definition can be extended even further to Jews of all stripes who are not afraid to be identified as such, and who demonstrate some Jewish engagement that goes beyond the 42 percent in the 2013 Pew study who say having a good sense of humor is part of what it means to be Jewish.

If that makes those overtly identified Jews and Israelis a bit like the sentry birds, forced to give up some of their personal freedom of choice for the good of the group, it seems a choice well worth making – whether seen as a manifestation of God’s will or the result of evolutionary forces anchored firmly in science.

This article originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post website.

Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar

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Blum family at Blarney Castle“If anyone asks where we’re from, say America, not Israel.”

Those were the instructions I gave to my wife and children for how to minimize friction while traveling outside of Israel after a summer where protests bordering on (and sometimes overtly embracing) anti-Semitism raged across Europe.

Our vacation – ten days in Ireland, hiking, drinking and enjoying Irish music in the country’s ubiquitous pubs – was planned long before Operation Protective Edge and its international impact began, and we flew out of Israel scarcely a week after the last missile was downed by the Iron Dome.

Ireland is not France or the U.K., where thousands demonstrated against Israel’s actions in Gaza this summer, but there were still some smaller rallies in Dublin, where we spent our first couple of days before heading out to the Irish countryside.

I was determined to keep a low profile. We wouldn’t speak Hebrew in public and we made sure not to wear t-shirts giving away where we were from. We long ago swapped strict outwardly identifiable kashrut for a traveler’s vegetarian diet when abroad, a choice that would prove to serve us well in Ireland: even in this meat and potato loving land, the most off-the-beaten track pub now offers at least one Indian curry and veggie stir fry dish along with the traditional non-kosher Irish Stew.

This is not the first time we’ve needed to hide our identity while on vacation. Last year, my wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary on the island of Bali, which as part of Indonesia, does not allow entry to those traveling on Israeli passports. Bali is an anomaly in Indonesia: a tourist-loving Hindu enclave that just happens to be part of a country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

We entered using our U.S. documents and told people we were from California (true, if you go back 20 years). While there is no Chabad or official Israeli presence in Bali, we ran into plenty of Jews and even a couple of Israelis (also with dual citizenship), one of whom operates a chain of organic vegan restaurants and holds Shabbat dinners in her apartment near the beach in Kuta.

McGann's pub in DoolinIn Ireland, concealing our identity was not a matter of gaining entry to the country, as with Bali, but a practical choice. Our plan was to visit a local pub every night. Given enough alcohol, who knows what kind of fracas might erupt if we told a stranger we were from Jerusalem. It was in another English-speaking, pub-centric city that I had a nasty encounter with several drunk dudes that, in retrospect, may have changed my personal destiny.

It was January 3, 1984. I was at the beginning of a post-college round-the-world trek that was to include my first visit to Israel. I stopped into a bar in London. I’ve never been a big drinker – at university I was nearly a teetotaler – but I was keen on chocking up “experience,” and frequenting the local pub was supposed to be a quintessentially British one.

I sat by the bar and got chatty with my new mates, who promptly ordered a round of beers, including one for me. Somehow in the conversation it came up that I was Jewish.

I sipped at my beer while they downed theirs. “Your turn now: you buy us a round,” one of the guys said. I hesitated. I hadn’t even come close to finishing my drink, plus I didn’t know that’s how the game worked – there were a lot more of them than me and I was a poor backpacker watching every penny.

“Man, I knew Jews were cheap, but you take the cake,” one of the other guys said. The mood turned quickly and I made my way out of the tavern.

Two of the guys followed me onto the street and harassed me with the “cheap Jew” line again. I don’t remember if I gave them money for my beer, but there were enough people around outside that nothing else happened. But I was shaken. Had I violated the drinker’s code? No…there could be no justification for anti-Semitic epithets.

I flew to Israel the next day. It wasn’t as a result of the exchange; my ticket was already booked. Still, I often wonder if that unpleasant send off contributed to the unexpected Zionism that took root once I got here.

Thirty years later, I didn’t want a repeat in Ireland with my family in tow, especially not in the current anti-Israel milieu that has taken hold in Europe. And so I instructed my family to say we were from America.

“So you’re here for the big game, then, yeh?” asked the desk clerk at our first hotel in Dublin. I stared at him blankly. Apparently there was a well-known American team in town, but I hadn’t a clue. “Um, we don’t really follow sports,” I mumbled, vowing to scour the Internet before our next such interaction.

The truth is, we didn’t have that many opportunities to share where we were from – most of our conversations had to do with whether we qualified for the “family discount” to get into a particular castle or whether we were drinking Jameson, Baileys or both. (It turns out you can mix them for an Irish Cream with a killer kick… who knew?)

“Enough of this,” our 20-year-old daughter declared a few days into the trip. “I don’t see why we can’t say we’re Israeli. The next person who asks, I’m just going to tell them.”

I couldn’t stop her. She was an adult. So what happened? Absolutely nothing. People nodded, said something like “that’s interesting,” “hey, I know krav maga,” or “I have a cousin who visited Israel last year.” Then they would turn to what we’d seen so far and where were we off to next.

Cliffs of Moher“When you go to the Cliffs of Moher, park your car before you get to the lot. There’s a little little farm on the right. You can’t miss it. They charge six and a half euros a person to park at the Cliffs, but you can walk in for free,” said one helpful local. Nothing about us being cheap Jews trying to cheat the system. Just a helpful tip from an Irishman proud of his country.

I met a retired Irishman in Dublin’s Phoenix Park underneath a five story high cross. “So where’re ya from?” he asked in an accent thick enough to match the curry we’d been sampling every night. “Israel,” I replied. He got quiet for a moment. Then he said, “My wife was a Polish Jew.” He didn’t volunteer any more information and, since I couldn’t understand more than every third word, I let it lie there.

Cross in Phoenix ParkBut a part of me felt ashamed. Why had I been so reluctant to say I am Israeli? What had happened to my Zionism in those first few days in the country? Had I been giving in to irrational fear? Or was I just trying to keep my family safe in the best way I knew how?

After all, all the way back in April, before the summer’s exacerbation in Israel, European Congress president Moshe Kantor cited a study by the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights that showed almost a third of Jews in several European countries were mulling emigration. “Jews do not feel safe or secure in certain communities in Europe,” Kantor said at the time. And things have only gotten worse.

Our last stop on the trip was in the tiny fishing village of Doolin. I’d read online that the owners of the Rainbow’s End Bed and Breakfast, where we were staying, were named Mati and Carmel. Could it be…were they Israelis? Expats who had made their home far away from the conflict of the Middle East, hosting travelers and spending their evenings at McGann’s, a pub known for having some of the best traditional Irish music in all of Ireland?

Now that we were being open about where we were from, I decided to ask.

“Oh no, not at all!” Carmel said, blushing a bit. “Mattie is short for Martin. And I was named for the saint closest to my birthday.”

She was referring to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, for which a feast, instituted in the 14th century, is celebrated by the Catholic Church on July 16. But, Carmel added, “I’ve always wanted to visit Israel!”

“You’re welcome to come any time,” I told her. And when you do, I thought to myself, you can feel free to tell people where you’re from.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to do the same.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine.

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Sultan's PoolIn a summer where nearly every large-scale outdoor event was canceled on instruction by Israel’s Home Front Command, the annual Hutzot HaYotzer International Arts and Crafts Festival in Jerusalem represented a desperately needed welcome breather.

Now in its 39th year, Hutzot HaYotzer is the country’s preeminent place to meet talented local artists – nearly 200 in total – who park their wares in a picturesque valley watched over by the walls of the Old City and who put on a smile for 12 days, as they pitch their hand crafted earrings, sparkly necklaces, ceramic hamsa’s and natural wooden children’s toys to some 175,000 eager attendees, wallets at the ready, anxious to forget politics and missiles for just one night.

Then, at 9:00 PM, a different mainstay of Israeli rock and pop takes to the stage at the adjacent Sultan’s Pool, the former reservoir that dates back to the days of Herod the Great. At an entrance fee of only NIS 55 ($15) for the entire shebang, it would be a bargain for the concert alone.

The festival is divided into two areas – one for Israeli artists and a second for international exhibits, from the Far East to South America, some 40 different countries in all. Street and gypsy performers mill about; there is an interactive performance space/café where the singers and dancers are also the waiters; a pavilion devoted to art from students at the Bezalel Academy looms large, and a frantic food court entices visitors to partake of an entrecote tortilla or that ubiquitous Israeli favorite: “Thailandi” noodles (which are nothing like what you’d actually get in Thailand).

The entrance to Hutzot HaYotzer has been spruced up too. For several years, one had to wind through a construction zone. That’s finished now – the result is the wet and wonderful Teddy Park with its musical fountain that has somehow turned into a free and fully clothed swim space for the city’s ultra-Orthodox population.

My wife and I have been going to Hutzot HaYotzer since we first arrived in Israel in 1984. Other than the few years we lived in the States, we’ve never missed it. But this year’s event, like Neil Young, America and Megadeth before it, was at risk of being shut down as the summer’s missile fire from Gaza made public gatherings of more than 1,000 people in the main centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv forbidden for our own safety.

Hutzot HaYotzer opened this year in that surreal period when the second to (hopefully) final ceasefire held for an all too brief seven days. And so the show went on.

We always pick the night we’ll attend the festival based on which band is performing. Over the years, we’ve caught stars like Aviv Geffen, Ivri Lider, Knissat HaSechel, Barry Sacharof and Tea Packs. This year, we chose alte-rocker Shalom Hanoch, who regularly performs his 70s and 80s hits at Hutzot HaYotzer but whom we’ve passed over for hipper entrants like Mosh Ben-Ari and HaDag Nahash.

By the time the concert started, every space except for a few nosebleed seats in the top bleachers was filled. The crowd was a classic Israeli multicultural, multigenerational melting pot. There were religious and secular, seniors and young families and lots of kids in backpacks and strollers. It always amazes me that teenagers still know all the words to songs written 40 years ago by an aging pop geezer.

When the lights finally went down and the smoke machine cranked up, out walked – not Shalom Hanoch – but Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who launched into a fiery political speech. I’m a big fan of Barkat but I was rolling my eyes: we came for the music not for a primer on why Jerusalem rocks…as a place to live and work. But his words soon proved to be much more than early electioneering. (The next polls won’t be until 2018.)

“How do we prevent the terrorists from defeating us?” he asked the crowd. “By coming out to sing together. By continuing with our normal life!” He praised the IDF and its soldiers. Then he announced he had a surprise.

“Every night here at Hutzot HaYotzer, we are saying thank you to a different military leader,” Barkat said, as he introduced the head of the IDF paratroopers, who said just a few brief words to acknowledge how important the nation’s support has been for the men and women in the field before yielding the stage to Shalom Hanoch.

It was at some point in the middle of that speech that it hit me: throughout Operation Protective Edge, Israelis found themselves marveling over the remarkable achdut – the national unity – that washed over the country. The feeling that the war in Gaza was a just one; that Hamas was an enemy that had to be taken on, was shared by nearly everyone, from the far left to the far right. You’d have to look pretty hard to find an Israeli Jew who would criticize the army’s efforts and the sacrifices of our soldiers.

But this was the first time that my wife and I had been together with other Israelis, in a large group setting, in public. There have been a few rallies that have slipped in during ceasefires – thousands gathered in Tel Aviv on August 14 and then again on August 18, for example – but most of the famous unity has been on a smaller scale: on social media, watching the news on TV, talking with friends on the phone or by forwarding supportive emails.

But here were thousands of Israelis, sitting together outdoors on a crisp Jerusalem night, cheering for our soldiers, as the mayor reminded us that this was more than a chance to dance; it was an opportunity to celebrate. We had not been defeated. We had not been broken. We can still sing together.

Shalom Hanoch acquitted himself splendidly, mixing his trademark ballads with a surprising number of head banging numbers. That wasn’t the point. The next day, the missiles started up again. The lull was over and it was back to the new normal for another week.

But for one night in Jerusalem, at least, the unity was far more than virtual.

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.

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Fire from Below

by Brian on August 23, 2014

in Living Through Terror,War in Gaza

photo 2With our nerves already on edge from the air raid sirens and the heartbreaking mounting death toll as Operation Protective Edge raged on last month, the thick black smoke billowing out of our parking garage did not bode well. I was about to jump in the shower when my son burst in and told me to get dressed and shut the window in my bedroom…now!

We live in an apartment complex in Jerusalem that is built around a central courtyard. At even intervals along the length of that common area are mock “wells,” intended to remind passersby of, say, the architecture of the Old City or Nachlaot. The wells are actually just openings to the underground garage, letting in light and creating natural ventilation. (Cynics say that the architects put them there to keep local kids from using the courtyard as a soccer field.) And now they were belching smoke like a 19th century coal-fired power plant.

My first thought as the smoke rose, first in fits, then so fast and thick that we couldn’t even see out of our windows, was that a missile from Gaza had miraculously scored a direct bulls eye in the well. But there hadn’t been a siren and there was no boom.

The fire trucks arrived within minutes and the source of the smoke was squelched. When we were finally able to come out of our house, the smell of burnt plastic, metal, and fabric was overwhelming. Five cars in the garage had gone up in flames, one after another in a row until it reached our parking space, which was empty (my wife was out with the car and on her way home at that very moment), before jumping to the next spot to torch our downstairs neighbor’s rental car.

Speculation began among the neighbors even before the police inspector had noted his suspicions. It was definitely not an accident, he said, that was for sure. An arsonist (or arsonists) had entered the garage, smashed the windows of each car separately, and tossed in some lit material, which caused the cars to catch on fire. He deduced this because, in one car, only the interior burned. At some point, the fire may have jumped to another vehicle on its own. If the firefighters hadn’t come in time, the inferno could have engulfed the entire garage of 70 cars.

OK, if it wasn’t an accident, what was it then? Was it nationalistic? Had the war in Gaza reached our parking lot by proxy? A debate broke out as to what constitutes “terror.” Is it terror if the target is property and not human life? But what if the cars had exploded? Maybe that would have taken down the building, resulting in loss of life. There are upwards of 200 people living in our apartment complex.

I did a quick Internet search on “car gas tank” and “explosion.” It turns out that all those cars that explode in the movies – it doesn’t really happen like that so often in real life. First, gasoline itself isn’t explosive. It explodes in a car’s engine, but only after it’s been vaporized and turned into gas, then mixed with air before introducing a spark. If you put gasoline into a cup and light it, it will burn, for sure, but it won’t blow up. (Standard disclaimer: kids, don’t try this at home.)

And while there is gasoline vapor in the tank, you need to add a source of fire to get it started. Fire won’t normally travel up a fuel line to the tank because there’s not enough air in the line to keep the flame going. So someone would have to be smart enough to know to punch a hole in the tank and insert the fire that way. I don’t think most arsonists have degrees in chemistry. Ours clearly didn’t.

The other possibility that began floating around in the email discussion among the residents was that the arson had a criminal motive. We have a friend who works in the police. He took a quick look at the case in the computer and came away convinced that organized crime was behind the attack. “Every day, I deal with burned out cars,” he explained. “Usually, it’s someone who is trying to send a message. They don’t always know – or care – if it’s the target’s specific car. They just want to make the person feel unsafe. Or to get the neighbors to put pressure on him.”

And why couldn’t it be terror, I pressed? “Torching a car takes too much time,” he replied. “If you want to kill someone, you’d be much more effective by bringing in a small bomb.”

Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any more comfortable.

In fact, the entire experience has left me feeling deeply ill at ease in my own neighborhood, in a different way than being under potential missile attack. This seemed more personal. Someone came into our garage and lit our cars on fire. We’re not on the seam line of Jerusalem, let alone the front lines in Gaza; this is a quiet suburban neighborhood where kids play, we walk our dogs and pick up after them, and stroll over to the local Aroma to get a cup of ice coffee and a croissant on a Friday morning.

Walking home the next night after dark, I found myself startled by noises and shadows in a way I hadn’t before the attack.

We have a great Va’ad HaBayit (house committee), which moved quickly to hire a clean up company to deal with the mess and the stench, and is now discussing the merits of putting in a closed circuit camera security system.

A few days ago, we received word that a suspect had been caught with a nationalistic background. However, he was subsequently released for lack of evidence.

We may never know what the true motive was for the attack on our building. The only consolation I can summon up is the hope that, as the old saying goes, lightning rarely strike the exact same spot twice. Illogical and probably not true, it still gives me some small comfort. Which is about as good as it gets in this long, strange summer of war.

This article appeared in the Friday edition of The Jerusalem Post.

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July 22, 2014 – The Day Everything Changed

August 10, 2014

July 22, 2014. Remember that date. It will be recalled in history books yet to be written as the day the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians changed completely. That’s because it’s the day that the war in Gaza transformed from just another in a series of “operations” to an existential threat to the Jewish […]

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Why’d You Want to Live Here, Anyway?

July 25, 2014

An article a few weeks ago in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz questioned why someone would ever want to make aliyah from a comfortable country like the U.S. Especially these days – with the murders of the Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shear and Eyal Shach still on our minds, the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khaider stinging at our […]

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A Prayer Skeptic Confronts Facebook

July 11, 2014

A rabbi friend of mine had major surgery last month. Thankfully, he made it through OK and has now begun a long recovery process. Before, during and after the surgery, my Facebook Wall was flooded with posts asking me to pray for my friend. Impromptu minyans were formed online as well as at his congregation […]

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Embracing the Third Culture

June 13, 2014

Ever since we moved to Israel 20 years ago, I’ve always felt like I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I’ll never be truly Israeli, since I didn’t grow up with all the pop culture references someone born in the country knows intuitively. And I’m not fully American anymore either, since I haven’t resided in the […]

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Cultivating Local Indie Acts at Jacob’s Ladder Music Festival

May 26, 2014

The Jacob’s Ladder music festival, held twice a year at the Nof Ginosar kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee, and which just concluded its spring session this past weekend, has been quietly transforming itself from a groovy environment in which to hear interesting and enjoyable music into a growing platform that cultivates and helps launch local indie […]

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