“Get out.” That was the provocative headline of a 2019 article by Liel Leibovitz that appeared in Tablet Magazine. Leibovitz was responding to the increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students on American university campuses, especially those who are pro-Israel.

Citing examples of what he called “active discrimination against Jewish students” at Williams College (where the student-run College Council denied the request of a new pro-Israel student group to be recognized) and NYU (where the anti-Zionist Students for Justice in Palestine won the school’s prestigious Presidential Service Award), Leibovitz argues that “even the finest American universities [have evolved] into hotbeds of dogmatic identity politics” which makes them “increasingly inhospitable to Jews and to Jewishness.”

Leibovitz concludes: “If you’re a young Jew who is thinking about tagging your parents with the bill for a famous college or university, don’t bother.” 

Leibovitz makes a compelling case, but the truth is, I have no direct insight into what’s really happening on American campuses today. 

So, I turned to someone who might know more: another Liel – last name Zahavi-Asa – who worked as the director of Jewish life and Israel engagement for Rutgers Hillel from 2015 until last year when she returned to Israel where she grew up.

I’ve followed Zahavi-Asa’s journey literally since she was born: her parents were in Berkeley when my wife, Jody, and I lived there too. We made aliyah a few years before they did and have stayed good friends.

Zahavi-Asa says, based on her experience organizing Jewish and pro-Israel events on campus, that Leibovitz’s prescription would be nothing short of disaster. 

“If all the Jewish students pulled out, those campuses would become even bigger centers of anti-Israel sentiment than what they’re already starting to become,” she says. 

You could say the same thing about Israel and the Middle East, she adds, “that it’s not worth investing money if there’s a chance you could get killed. But sometimes you have to stand on your own two feet and fight for what you believe in.” 

Zahavi-Asa does have a beef, however, with the way many Jewish and Israeli organizations go about that fighting. She is especially critical of groups that “parachute” into a campus and start screaming from a soapbox. 

“Students don’t want to be yelled at,” she says. Moreover, these external organizations “aren’t working in tandem with the staff on campus. They don’t know the campus climate about Israel. They’re only around for one or two days. And so they often end up doing more harm than good.”

What should Israel advocacy groups do instead? “Work with the Hillel staff,” she says. Or the local Chabad rabbis or Israel Fellows. “We’re on campus 24/7. We are the ones that have to deal with everything that happens, the good and the bad.”

Zahavi-Asa points to the Maccabee Task Force as an organization that works closely with Jewish student leaders and staff. Created in 2015, the organization has funded more than 1,600 pro-Israel events and is active on 80 campuses in the U.S. and Canada. While the Task Force is not shy about providing suggestions for activities, ultimately, they let their local campus partners decide what to do with the funding they give, Zahavi-Asa says.

Jewish support for Israel on campus is malleable and changes over time, Zahavi-Asa adds. Students fresh out of Zionist Jewish day schools, or who are returning from a gap year in Israel, come to college ready to fight. “They immediately join or start an Israel club. But by their junior or senior years, a switch takes place.” 

It’s not that they become less passionate about Israel. “But they are exposed to aspects about world history they might not have studied in their Jewish day schools,” Zahavi-Asa notes. “They also meet immigrants from many other places. They start to see that not everything revolves around Israel. Israel becomes a piece of a bigger puzzle.”

This nuanced view may turn out to be the best result of the college experience – and the reason Leibovitz’s admonishment to “get out” is so ill-advised in the eyes of the other Liel. Sticking around allows mature Jewish students to build their own intersectional groups. 

“They can develop greater authenticity in their pro-Israel activism,” Zahavi-Asa says. “It’s a more effective way of creating ‘allyship’ than the pro-Israel advocacy groups which push students into battle mode.” 

Visiting Israel can help. But not via the standard Birthright trip. A better approach, Zahavi-Asa says, are mixed groups of Jewish and non-Jewish student leaders. 

“These groups go to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but they also go to the West Bank,” she explains. “They get a realistic idea of what Israel is about by exploring it together. They may still disagree, but it creates the opportunity for a more honest discourse.” 

“A trip to Israel is an extraordinarily effective tool to get critics to pay attention to Israel long enough to understand that the narrative they’ve been fed just isn’t true,” says David Brog, the executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, which sponsors these types of trips. “Even a bad trip to Israel is effective because the gap between the myths and the reality is so very wide.”

Zahavi-Asa is now back in Israel where she works for the post-Birthright “Onward Israel” program as well as gap-year provider Aardvark Israel. She is also taking the Israeli tour guide course “to better explain to others what the Jewish connection is to this land,” she says.

Her tenure making Israel’s case on American Jewish campuses is clearly not over.

I first wrote about Liel Zahavi-Asa in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Good news, bad news or no news?

by Brian on December 22, 2019

in Cancer,Science

Are you a “good news first” or a “bad news first” type of person? Or maybe you prefer no news at all? That’s where I found myself following my second bone marrow biopsy in as many months: avoiding contacting my doctor in case the results were not what I wanted to hear.

It was a very different kind of response for me. 

I was all over my first biopsy – the initial one from two years ago, when I was first diagnosed with chronic cancer. I was equally on top of the pathology results from my biopsy in September, which confirmed what the PET CT had shown: that this was not a benign growth (the best though least likely scenario) but a return of my lymphoma. 

I went under the needle one more time to check my bone marrow. Good news: no cancer there. But there was still something off that didn’t make sense to my doctor; she ordered a second biopsy. 

Those were the results I was waiting for now. I should have heard after about 10 days. But I didn’t and, remarkably, I seemed to be happier that way. 

Avoiding news like this goes against how philosophers and scientists have long understood the way human beings process information. 

The idea that individuals seek – or at least pay attention to – sources of information is “deeply embedded in Western culture, at least as far back as Aristotle’s statement that ‘all men, by nature, desire to know,’” writes library and information science professor Donald O. Case in a 2005 paper published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association.

Yet, as psychologist Abraham Maslow (famous for his “hierarchy of needs”) noted in 1963, “we can seek knowledge in order to reduce anxiety and we can also avoid knowing in order to reduce anxiety.”

Herbert Hyman and Paul Sheatsley have described the latter as “selective exposure.” That’s where human beings so desire cognitive consistency that they will avoid reading or hearing about information that conflicts with their internal states.

That, of course, aptly describes our modern media environment. In my case, though, it’s more that I desperately want to believe I’m still healthy, that I won’t need more treatment at some point in the future, that this will all somehow just “go away.” Avoiding any news that might contradict that perception serves me in its own perverse way.

“Avoidance is a simple way of coping by not having to cope,” therapist and journalist Lori Gottlieb points out in her best-selling book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.

People also opt out of information-gathering when they feel powerless, adds Israeli-born sociologist Elihu Katz. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to delve deep into things over which one has no control.

It gets even trickier when it comes to cancers like mine that wax and wane but always return, and where there’s no clear line between “remission” and “relapse.” 

Indeed, some doctors have stopped using those terms. The cancer is always there; it’s just that, for certain periods, the chemo pulverizes it so that the scans can’t find any tumors and your status becomes NED (short for “no evidence of disease”). 

In this respect, I never really relapsed. I’ve just gone “non-NED” for a while and I’ll probably do it again another few times over the course of my life.

So, could living in denial actually be an effective strategy for contending with chronic cancer?

Not really. Science seems to support the opposite: embracing bad news rather than resisting it. Researchers from the University of Toronto and UC Berkeley have dubbed this “habitual acceptance” and they write that it “helps keep individuals from reacting to – and thus exacerbating – their negative mental experiences.”

Dr. Moshe Shay Ben-Haim at Tel Aviv University has proposed a technique involving repeated exposure to a negative event in order to assist people grappling with bad news.

“We show that, counterintuitively, you can avoid getting into a bad mood in the first place by dwelling on a negative event,” Ben-Haim writes. “If you look at the newspaper before you go to work and see a headline about a bombing or tragedy of some kind, it’s better to read the article all the way through and repeatedly expose yourself to the negative information. You will be freer to go on with your day in a better mood.”

Will finding out my bone marrow biopsy results allow me to be happier in the long run? Or will it plunge me into even more uncertainty over which I remain powerless? 

Uncertainty “doesn’t mean the loss of hope – it means there’s possibility,” writes Gottlieb in her book. “I don’t know what will happen next – how potentially exciting. I’m going to have to figure out how to make the most of the life I have, illness or not.”

After a full month had passed with no news from my doctor, I finally mustered up the courage to welcome uncertainty and embrace any bad news. I fired off a WhatsApp. 

My doctor replied quickly. The second bone marrow sample looked better than the first, she wrote, “with more functioning blood cells than were seen initially” although the percentage was still much lower than normal. Then again, I have cancer, I reminded myself, so what did I expect?

I didn’t comment on how I hadn’t been in touch, nor did I ask my doctor why she hadn’t updated me as soon as she received the results. Maybe she’s a no news sort of person, too. 

Although I’m not so sure I am anymore.

I first wrote about how I deal with good and bad news at The Jerusalem Post. Image from Damian Gadal – She’s bad news, CC BY 2.0

{ 0 comments }

“You’re not sick enough”

by Brian on December 8, 2019

in Cancer,Health

When I was diagnosed with chronic cancer last year, a friend of mine said something I found deeply distressing. 

“You’re not sick enough to write about your health,” he intoned. “No one will take you seriously unless you’re close to death.”

I brushed off my friend’s unsolicited “advice” and began to write anyway. But I was nevertheless dogged by his admonition. 

Could he be right? Was my cancer experience – so far at least – too “easy?” After all, during my first round of treatment, I didn’t lose my hair, I never had to be hospitalized, I didn’t spend nights hunched over the toilet overcome by nausea. 

No, that couldn’t be the case. Cancer is cancer, regardless of symptom severity. I must be suffering from “impostor syndrome.”

Impostor syndrome was defined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, who described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement. [They] live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” 

While Clance and Imes were referring mainly to the work environment, impostor syndrome can apply across a wide spectrum of activities – including, it seems, health.

Impostor syndrome is surprisingly common. Harvard Business School professor Ann Cuddy, who wrote an entire book about what she calls “impostorism,” reports that an estimated 80% of Americans will feel they are impostors at work or in life at one time or another. 

In recent years, an increasing number of public figures have come out of the impostor closet. Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, has said he felt like an impostor, which prompted another Neil – best-selling author Gaiman – to quip that meeting Armstrong made him feel better, “because if Neil Armstrong felt like an impostor, maybe everyone did.”

“Impostorism causes us to overthink and second-guess. It makes us fixate on how we think others are judging us,” writes Cuddy, “then fixate some more on how those judgments might poison our interactions.”

I’ve certainly felt like an impostor periodically in my professional life. My first major career trajectory was producing multimedia CD-ROMs. Back in the early 1990s, the industry was so new, we all were impostors of a sort, applying knowledge we brought from other disciplines and, mostly, making it up as we went along.

The best cure for impostor syndrome is time. The more you do something, the more competent you tend to feel.

When it comes to cancer, though, I’m constantly plunging headfirst into new territory. It was that way when I started chemo. It was that way as I watched my blood scores unexpectedly drop, and as I’ve carefully monitored my body for any alarming changes. 

While I’ve become more comfortable with cancer as my experience with the disease has grown, there’s one area where I feel like a perpetual impostor: death. 

“Are you afraid you won’t be any good at it?” my therapist asked during a recent session.

It seemed like such an odd question. And yet it makes a certain sense: I will never be able to get “better” at death over time. It’s always new, a one-time event with which none of us, by definition, can ever have any familiarity. 

For me, it’s not so much the being dead part – I’m pretty sure once I’m gone, I’ll feel nothing. Rather, it’s the transition, the moment of slipping from one state into an entirely unexplored one, that’s the source of disquietude. 

The only way to get past impostor syndrome around death would be to try it. But how? I’ve seen the movie Flatliners and it doesn’t end well. 

And then, an unusual opportunity – a stand-in experience of a sort – presented itself.

When my PET CT came back showing new tumors, my doctor ordered a biopsy to see what was going on. Because of the location of the tumors, the radiologist had to be exacting. I wouldn’t be allowed to move. The test had to be done under full sedation

As I lay on the hospital bed, IV in arm, a chipper anesthesiologist wished me “good luck,” before turning on the drip. I felt an unexpected warmth spread from my extremities to my lungs and then to my head as my blood carried the medication through my body. The only way I can describe it is as a great wash of yellow. 

As the smoggy haze descended, I felt myself panic. It was an instinct, an uncontrollable response. Despite knowing cognitively that I was just going to sleep for an hour or so, I fought back, as if I were drowning or being suffocated (although with my body paralyzed, there was nothing I could do).

The next thing I remember, I was in the recovery room, startled awake by the sound of what seemed like a thousand ringing cell phones all playing the boisterous opening theme to the evening news at full volume. 

That transition – the yellow haze and panic – is that what dying feels like? Do I now have a tangentially related near-death experience that can help temper my fear? Or, when the time comes, will I hold on with the same furious futility?

I don’t know. Nor will I be able to report back to you (hopefully many years from now). But, at the very least, I feel ever so slightly less like an impostor when it comes to that most unknowable moment in all our lives. 

I first wrote about Impostor Syndrome at The Jerusalem Post.

Poser image thanks to cogdogblog.

{ 0 comments }

If there was one thing you could always count on, it was that the weather at the Sea of Galilee in May, when the spring edition of Jacob’s Ladder has long been held, would be warm with cloudless blue skies.

Not so anymore. 

For the last few years, precipitation has dogged the folk, country, indie, rock, Irish and blues festival which is held outdoors at the Nof Ginosar kibbutz hotel. That might seem like a small inconvenience, but it’s led to a series of cascading events that contributed to last week’s shock announcement that, after 43 years, the spring Jacob’s Ladder was shutting down

It started three years ago when the unseasonable threat of rain in mid-May led many Jacob’s Ladder regulars to cancel their plans to attend. And the rain did make a spectacular appearance, pouring down on the thousands of attendees who were enjoying the closing band on Saturday afternoon. The band continued to play as the audience danced and laughed at the ridiculousness of rain in May.

It was not so funny for Yehudit and Menachem Vinegrad, who have run the festival since 1976. 

“Someone had to pay for the damage to the equipment that got ruined,” Yehudit told me over the phone last week. Moreover, the lower number of ticket sales put the festival in a precarious financial position.

The following year, the rain returned, making the ground at one of the two outdoor stages so soggy that the poles holding up the tarps that keep audience members protected from the sun began to sway; eventually they toppled over entirely. Bands had to be shifted to new locations; some didn’t get to perform at all, leading to disappointment and frustration for both artists and fans alike. 

To preempt another weather catastrophe, the Vinegrads pushed the now-canceled spring 2020 show to June. “I figured, maybe by then the rain will be over,” Yehduit said.

Jacob’s Ladder began as a way for the Vinegrads to bring a taste of the folk scene they had left in the U.K. when they made aliyah. It quickly became an intergenerational family-friendly mainstay of the Anglo Israeli community.

Rain is just one of the challenges of putting on a massive outdoor festival, one that in its good years attracted up to 3,000 people. There are also an increasing number of regulations that add to the costs. 

These rules come from good intentions – a reaction of the 1995 Arad music festival disaster where organizers sold 26,000 tickets for a site that was licensed to hold only 18,000. As thousands of people tried to push their way into the site, three teenagers were crushed to death.

All outdoor festivals (and not just Jacob’s Ladder) now have to comply with much stricter – and more costly – orders: additional security personnel and equipment, illuminated exit signs, professional parking supervisors rather than unpaid volunteers. 

“We appreciate the necessity for rules,” Menachem told me. “But when we approach the police, they always say, it’s too early, come to us after Pesach. Then we find out about this or that rule at the last minute and we have to come up with the extra money. It’s very hard to plan.”

Just last month, the security firm Jacob’s Ladder has worked with for the last four years informed the Vinegrads it was raising its prices by 50%. 

Running an outdoor festival as big as the spring Jacob’s Ladder is a hassle, but the Vinegrads were glad to do it – until this year when Menachem added up the numbers and discovered they’d incurred a not insignificant loss.

“It was like we worked the whole year without taking a salary,” Menachem lamented.

The Vinegrads, both 72, are former kibbutzniks not high-tech entrepreneurs and have kept expenses low by running the festival out of their modest two-floor home in Katrzin on the Golan Heights. Given that, other than two small Israeli pensions, the income from Jacob’s Ladder is what the couple lives on, the risk of losing more money next year was just too much. 

The only way around the conundrum would be to raise ticket prices, which the Vinegrads have done in the past, albeit reluctantly.

“Each time, we would get angry letters from people saying, the prices are too high, we can’t come anymore,” Yehudit said. “People don’t understand that it costs NIS 75,000 just to rent the grounds at the kibbutz. Meanwhile, we aren’t covering our expenses.”

That said, the final chord of Jacob’s Ladder has yet to be played. The Vinegrads are shopping the festival around to groups and organizations they hope might be willing to buy the Jacob’s Ladder brand. And they are continuing with the winter festival, which is scheduled to take place December 6-7 and already has a date booked for January 2021.

The winter festival is held indoors, which means most of the permitting and licensing are taken care of by the hotel. It also attracts less than 500 people, making it more manageable, intimate and potentially profitable. 

Attending Jacob’s Ladder has been a big part of my family’s life for much of our aliyah. I even put it on my recent list of “25 reasons to live in Israel.” And while the writing has been on the financial ladder for some time now, no one – not even the Vinegrads – thought it would stop so suddenly.

“We thought we’d carry on until we died,” Yehudit said. “We couldn’t see us ever ending it.”

I first explained the behind-the-scenes story at Jacob’s Ladder at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: Noam Amir.

{ 0 comments }

Many years ago, when we were still living in the U.S., I had a Reform rabbi friend who said something I found shocking at the time. He declared defiantly that he would never daven (Yiddish for “pray”) in a synagogue with a mechitzah – a divider separating men and women.

Mechitzah at synagogue in Afula, Israel

Back then, my wife, Jody, and I were members of a Modern Orthodox shul and I just didn’t understand my friend. He wouldn’t go into such a synagogue even for a simcha? A brit milah or a baby naming?

Then, a few weeks ago, we were invited to an Orthodox synagogue for a Shabbat Chatan, where a groom is called up to the Torah on the week before or after his wedding.

That’s when I realized that I, too, felt awkward in synagogues where men and women can’t sit together. 

This has been going on for a while. As I began to move away from observance over the last decade, eschewing the mechitzah minyans of my younger, frumer days felt more like an act of rebellion (“why can’t I sit with my wife and daughter?”) or perhaps a way of virtue signaling my new, unorthodox status, rather than some overarching anti-mechitzah ideology.

Charles King’s recently published book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the 20th Century helped me understand that my discomfort might involve something deeper.

King, a professor at Georgetown University, has written the fascinating story of German-born Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas and his social science colleagues, whose pioneering work in the early 20th century challenged – and eventually upended – long-held notions of gender, race and class.

Interviewed on the NPR program Fresh Air, King explained that, 100 years ago, most Westerners believed there were clear divisions between people based on their sex, color or social standing. 

Race, for example, was considered “inheritable and biological,” King said, while “people came in natural gender categories [that] would be the same across all societies and for all time.” 

As a result, everyone had their prescribed roles. Men, it was widely understood at the time, had a built-in genetic right to leadership – after all, they had been the hunter-gatherers, so of course they would also dominate in the modern world as CEOs, soldiers and synagogue heads. 

Boas and his followers were among the first to break down such conceptions.

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote in the 1930s, for example, about how among a number of plains tribal groups in the U.S., gender identities included an intersex category “where a person could have some of the outward biological features of one sex but occupy a social role that was on the opposite side.”

That was radical: It simply hadn’t occurred to people at the time, “that the reality you were observing in the world was a product of circumstance, culture and history, not of something that was innate,” King said.

Feminist writers from Simone de Beauvoir to Andrea Dworkin expanded on the work of Boas and his associates. Today, the idea that gender and racial roles are not fixed by biology has become mainstream in liberal Western thought. 

The message seems to have gotten stuck when it comes to Orthodox Judaism, however.

When I first spent time in Israeli yeshivot in the 1980s, I remember hearing the mantra that men and women are “separate but equal” and, as a result, women are not obligated to fulfill certain commandments, nor are they permitted to lead particular prayers or ceremonies, because they had “more holiness than men.” 

I found that disingenuous at the time, but I looked the other way. An Orthodox lifestyle offered enough benefits for me to dissociate from the misogyny lurking at its core. Perhaps, I hoped, Orthodoxy’s attitude would go away over time.

It hasn’t.

Just this summer, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of the leading figures of the religious Zionist community’s hard-line wing, when asked whether Ayelet Shaked could head the block of right-wing parties, declared, “The complicated whirlwind of politics is not for women.” Is a woman allowed to be in the Knesset? he asked provocatively. “Of course not.”

Aviner is clearly mistaken: there are Orthodox women in Israel’s parliament. Moreover, the progressive side of Orthodoxy now ordains female rabbis, even if they’re not always called that. 

But, to date, I’ve never seen an Orthodox synagogue with no separation of men and women whatsoever. The mechitzah may be low, it may be sheer or even made of glass, but it’s still there. 

And for me, that mechitzah is like a high-voltage wire or a radio antenna, a visceral symbol broadcasting that congregants who accept its presence still subscribe to an outdated belief that different roles for men and women are immutable and eternal, whether that’s based on our hunter-gatherer DNA or God’s word as transmitted by Jewish Law.

I’m not trying to be proscriptive here. As Shoshanna Keats-Jaskoll, founder of the Chochmat Nashim organization of religious women fighting extremism, told me, “I can respect the need for separate seating as a way to focus and not be distracted.” The problem, she says, is that what starts with the mechitzah “becomes highly unequal, fast,” going far beyond the choreography of prayer. 

A better approach – for me, at least? Mechitzah-less, egalitarian synagogues. One that I particularly respect is Jerusalem’s Zion congregation. While it makes no pretense to being Orthodox, Zion’s slogan resonates deeply. It reads simply: “come as you are.” 

That’s a kind of Judaism ready for the next 100 years.

I first wrote about my problems with mechitzah minions at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (Deror_avi)

{ 0 comments }

Running simulations

October 26, 2019

Dwelling on worst-case scenarios can be crazy making. But spinning simulations is also essential to being human, says Prof. Moshe Bar.

Read the full article →

Twenty-five reasons to live in Israel

October 13, 2019

Last week marked our “aliyah-versary.” Twenty-five years ago, on October 10, 1994, my wife, Jody, and our two young children immigrated to Jerusalem from Berkeley, Calif. A third child – our only Sabra – was born a few years later. So, on this, the silver anniversary of our Israeli citizenship, I present 25 reasons to […]

Read the full article →

Scanxiety

October 2, 2019

Fear of recurrence is the ugly elephant that refuses to budge from the living room of the anxious mind. How can you deal with yours?

Read the full article →

“How are you?” – a year and a half later

September 15, 2019

“How ARE you?” Miriam asked, corners of her mouth dropping. It’s a question people with long-lasting chronic illnesses hear all the time. How to answer?

Read the full article →

New kosher restaurants make dining out on Shabbat a mitzvah

September 1, 2019

A few weekends ago, my wife, Jody, and I ate out in a kosher restaurant open on Shabbat. In Jerusalem of all places.

Read the full article →