Israel may have finally figured out a way to stop BDS. We’ll get the leaders of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement so stoned they won’t be able to demonize us anymore.

That’s a joke, of course, but the truth – at least about the means if not the ends – is not so far removed.

When the Knesset returns for its winter session shortly, among the bills members will be asked to consider is a law opening up the country’s booming medical cannabis business to international export. It’s a market that could bring in as much as $4 billion a year in revenue. Health Minster Yaakov Litzman is behind it, as is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Israel has in recent years become a world leader in the research, production and growing of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Israel actually pioneered research into the plant when in 1963 Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, then a young scientist at the Weizmann Institute, strolled into a local police station and asked if the cops had had any spare cannabis laying around. They did and Mechoulam took an Egged bus back to his lab with 5 kilos of Lebanese hashish in his bag. The following year, he became the first scientist to successfully isolate the THC component in cannabis.

Fast forward to now, where some 50 American companies have established R&D operations in Israel or partnerships with local firms such as Tikkun Olam, One World Cannabis Pharmaceuticals, and ICAN. Nearly 700 Israeli entrepreneurs, anticipating the expected approval of the export law, have applied to the Ministry of Health to grow or sell cannabis-related products.

In 2016, more than $250 million was invested in cannabis research in Israel. Cannabis may not rival Israeli high-tech (yet) but it is clearly big business.

Which is how, a few weeks back, I found myself on a tour with some 20 journalists to the Breath of Life Pharma facility in the center of Israel. BOL may very well be the largest medical cannabis operation in the world: There’s a 35,000 square foot production plant, 30,000 square feet of grow rooms and labs, and a million square feet of cultivation fields.

When we weren’t strolling the grounds, we heard lectures from a mini who’s-who of cannabis experts. They included Dr. Adi Aran, who is studying the effect of medical cannabis on autism at Sha’arei Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem; Dr. Itamar Raz, the head of the Israel National Diabetes Council who has found that medical cannabis can help both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; and Yuval Landschaft, who heads up the Medical Cannabis Unit in the Ministry of Health.

It was during Landschaft’s PowerPoint presentation that a particular slide caught my eye – a page from the 1899 edition of Merck’s Manual (“a ready reference pocket book for the practicing physician”) which listed over 50 “prescribed uses” for cannabis.

One of the ailments on the list: insomnia, which regular readers of this column know has been the bane of my too wakeful life.

My hand shot up during the question and answer period. “Have there been any clinical trials with insomnia yet?” I wanted to know.

BOL CEO Dr. Tamir Gedo answered. “Not yet,” he said, “but we plan to start one in 2018.”

It makes sense. Anecdotally, at least, the non-psychoactive “CBD” component in cannabis (there are 140 different “cannabinoids” in the plant; THC is the one that gets you high) has been used for insomnia since … well, Merck’s time. A key 2006 study showed that CBD has a positive impact on the sleep mechanism of rats.

But other than several studies from the early 1970s that have been dismissed for having poor controls, and a 2016 investigation using CBD oil to address PTSD-induced sleep disturbances, no major human studies have been conducted yet.

BOL isn’t the only cannabis company in Israel looking at plant-based alternatives to Ambien and Lunesta. ICAN is partnering with the American pharmaceutical company CannRX Technologies to develop a precise sleep formulation.

ICAN and CannRX announced their intentions during this year’s “CannaTech” medical cannabis conference in Tel Aviv. The medication, dubbed “ICAN.sleep,” will be delivered using a metered inhaler – similar to the ones used for asthma. “You take a puff or two, depending upon the dosage, and basically within ten minutes you’ll be drowsy enough to sleep,” explained CannRX executive chairman Bill Levine.

I called up ICAN founder and CEO Saul Kaye to ask if I could get on the trial. He was interested. It’s hard to find test subjects in Israel who haven’t used cannabis recreationally, he told me, not entirely kidding. Israel, it turns out, has the world’s highest ratio of cannabis users: 27 percent of the population aged 18-65 smoked or vaped in the last year.

Kaye said that because Israel has focused on “medicalizing” cannabis rather than legalizing recreational use, “we have destigmatized better than other places.”

An example: Netafim, the pioneering Israeli drip irrigation firm, has been developing greenhouse systems for growing cannabis.

And why not? This part of the world has an ideal climate. “Israel is blessed with 340 days a year of sun, and cannabis flowers thrive in a warm climate,” Gedo told the journalists during the BOL tour.

My BDS cannabis wisecrack might not have been the pithiest, but I have high hopes that Israel’s medical cannabis industry could revolutionize healthcare in general and insomnia in particular. And that’s nothing to joke at.

I first wrote about the coming high times for The Jerusalem Post.

I also covered the medical cannabis market for Israel21c.

Picture courtesy of Breath of Life Pharma

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The period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur presents an opportunity to reflect on how the last year went and what we could do better in the year to come.

In that spirit, I need to come clean: I’ve got an addiction problem … to social media.

Sure, we all are hooked on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to a certain extent. But lately I’ve seen the other – some might say the darker – side of Facebook, and my obsession with the platform has grown increasingly unhealthy.

If this is the time of year to make a New Year’s resolution, then my soul is calling out for an intervention.

I have long been a frequent Facebook sharer and I’ve accepted that the dopamine hit of excitement I feel whenever someone “likes” one of my posts is just a part of being a digital citizen of the 21st century.

But in the last few months, I’ve been using social media in a new way: to publicize my recently launched book.

The problem is that, once Facebook knows you have something you want to sell, it comes at you doggedly with offers, suggestions, nudges and analyses. And in my experience so far, Facebook has proven to be very good at extracting both my time and my money.

This is not to say that Facebook is doing anything wrong. It’s a business and this is how you support a platform that has some 2 billion members: by selling advertising.

It starts when you open a business page. Facebook helpfully “suggests” what it calculates would be your best strategy.

Would you like to “boost” a post that you’ve written? “For just $5, your post could be seen by up to 2,000 more people.”

Wow, all that exposure, you think. I can afford $5.

But Facebook is as rapacious as it is relentless. After the post goes out, the site tells you how well it did, and assembles strikingly detailed demographics of just who saw it – where, when and for how long.

And then: Would you like to do another? And another? Each time the suggested price and duration seems to rise just a bit.

I dutifully followed the bait. And it seemed to be working. My page was being liked and shared; people were buying the book. But personally, it was taking a toll.

I was sleeping even less than I normally do. I was constantly looking at my phone, heart pounding, checking how well my ads were doing.

It was just at this moment that Manoush Zomorodi’s new book, Bored and Brilliant, was released.

Zomorodi, host of the popular podcast “Note to Self,” proposes that we have lost the capacity to be bored. We are never without our mobile devices with which we fill our every spare second with something to read, watch or listen to. But it’s during the moments when we are bored that our most profound thoughts come to us.

Now, my issue isn’t boredom. But Zomorodi’s 7-step program for breaking our tech additions might help me, too, I figured.

One point spoke to me in particular: Take a “fakecation,” she says. That’s where you go incognito for a certain period of time – maybe a day, maybe only an hour – while not actually going out of town.

Now, the Jewish people have a weekly “fakecation” day: it’s called Shabbat. And last week, it was Rosh Hashana – essentially a triple length Sabbath.

For the observant, turning off the computer on Shabbat and holidays is a given. For someone less pious like me, it meant I’d need to voluntarily decouple from social media.

Could I do it?

I was OK for the first part of the holiday. I’d reach into my pocket to take out my phone – but it wasn’t there. I gazed longingly in the direction of my office computer while remaining steadfast, sitting on the couch reading The Jerusalem Post in – gasp – print.

But by evening, I began to falter. I’d sneak a peek at a screen – surreptitiously in some cases, with guilty deliberateness in others. By the second day of Rosh Hashana, I’d given up entirely and was checking like it was a regular weekday.

But where willpower waned, Facebook prevailed.

The social network had helpfully suggested that I “invite” my friends to like my new page for the book. So I started clicking. At a rate of one invite per second, I should be able to get through everyone on my list in under an hour.

And in came the responses. “Great job.” “How exciting.” Multiple thumbs up.

And then a message I hadn’t expected.

“It looks like you were misusing this feature by going too fast,” Facebook informed me. “You’ve been temporarily blocked from using it. Blocks can last a few hours or a few days. We can’t lift this block for any reason.”

Facebook had done a better job at booting me off social media than Jewish Law.

“Your phone is like a baby,” Zomorodi says. Sweet and yet also incredibly time-consuming. “They want your attention all the time and the minute you leave them alone, they squawk and yell and drive you absolutely bananas.”

My baby, apparently, had decided to take a nap right then and there. I had no choice but to accept it.

And that, ironically, is how I made my High Holiday resolution come true. Will it last? Probably not. But for a few hours I had a happy, Facebook-free New Year.

I first wrote about Facebook addictions in The Jerusalem Post.

Here’s my first article about Note to Self’s Bored and Brilliant program from 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I first wrote about Rabbi Eli at The Jerusalem Post.

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

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

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

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

“Oh no. Oh no. Oh NO!” I cried out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was curious.

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit.

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

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

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

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

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

And it drives me nuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote about screen addiction originally at The Jerusalem Post.

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Dishwasher soap opera

August 5, 2017

When we bought our first dishwasher, we had to choose an approach per halacha (Jewish law) for how we were going keep that dishwasher kosher

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Is Judaism an operating system or an app?

July 23, 2017

Is Judaism more like an operating system or an app? The answer could help solve problems such as the recent Kotel and conversion crises in Israel.

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

July 18, 2017

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

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When words and belief clash

June 25, 2017

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

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What kind of God do you want to believe in?

June 20, 2017

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

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