“Enough. Just enough. Get on the damn planes.” 

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway speaking at the White House

That was the unequivocal response from local Facebook pundit Paula Stern, who posted just minutes after news broke about the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, north of San Diego. 

The planes Paula is referring to, of course, should be heading to Israel.

“It isn’t about money,” Paula implored her American Jewish readers. “It isn’t about the homes or cars you may have now or may or may not be able to afford at the beginning. It’s about your very lives and those of your children.”

Is Paula right? Have the twin shul attacks in Poway and six months before that in Pittsburgh laid bare the existential danger of living as a Jew outside of Israel in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism? 

On the face of it, the argument – “move to Israel where it’s safer” – hardly seems valid. Far more Jews have been murdered by terrorists in our tiny slice of the Middle East than in the Diaspora. 

So, unless you include the Holocaust in your calculations, or you have a crystal ball accurately predicting the time and place of a new wave of international pogroms, how can you claim that Jews are somehow safer today in Israel? 

On the contrary: the existential threat is here, with hundreds of thousands of missiles aimed our way from Lebanon and the potential of nuclear annihilation from Iran always lurking just around the JCPOA corner. 

Of course, there’s more to living with meaning and purpose than staying safe at all costs. But that didn’t stop our family from fantasizing about escape one Friday night.

Our daughter, Merav and her husband, Gabe, are no strangers to danger. Merav has written eloquently about her life dodging missiles in Sderot, where she is a student at Sapir College. After a particularly brutal few days earlier this year, the couple sought refuge in Jerusalem. They invited friends to drop by after dinner. 

“If you could live anywhere, where is the safest place?” one person asked. The young people, world-weary before they’d even finished their degrees, began listing off regions and countries.

Europe was out – the jihadists had made sure of that. Post Pittsburgh, so was the U.S.

Southeast Asia had seen enough attacks to cross the region off the register even before the Easter massacres in Sri Lanka.

“New Zealand!” one person said triumphantly. “We traveled there after the army. It’s a paradise. The police don’t even carry weapons.”

Then Christchurch happened. 

Although that shooter targeted Muslims, the ideology to which he subscribes makes clear that, there’s no love lost between white nationalists and the Jews either. 

The friends around our dining room table became quiet. In a world where no place is safe, the question becomes less about outright prevention than of who do you want around you when tragedy strikes?

Are you more comfortable if the first responders are Israeli? Does it give you solace to know that some of your fellow citizens will be armed and well-trained to take down a shooter (while in a country that maintains strict gun control laws)? Are you reassured that there is a Jewish army to protect you (even if that force sometimes falls afoul of its own high moral standards)?

Moreover, does the shared trauma and experience of living in a “dangerous neighborhood” actually better prepare Israelis to deal with the violence that will inevitably come, no matter where in the world we may be?

That seemed to be one of the messages from the San Diego shooting. Among those in attendance at the Chabad of Poway synagogue were members of a family who had moved to California from Sderot. (That irony has not been lost on anyone: “We left Sderot because of the rocket fire,” the father of eight-year-old Noya Dahan, who was wounded in the attack, told Israeli radio. “We left fire for fire.”)

Almog Peretz, Noya’s uncle who was also injured, commented to Israel’s Channel 12 that, “this is sad,” but given that he’d lived not far from the Gaza border, “we know a bit about running from Qassam rockets.” 

Peretz credited his experience rushing to bomb shelters for honing his instincts, adding that he “took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran.” He hid the children in a building out back, then returned to rescue another family member who was stuck in the bathroom. 

Israeli Shimon Abitbol, who was visiting Poway for a family simcha, said “without thinking twice I lay down on my grandson and protected him.” Abitbol is a deputy director for the Magen David Adom ambulance service and was the organization’s station chief in Kiryat Shmona during the Second Lebanon War.

So, is Paula right – but for the wrong reasons? “Get on the damn planes” – not necessarily for your physical safety but to know you’ll be in good hands when needed?

I don’t share Paula’s reproach that Diaspora Jewish tragedies like Pittsburgh and Poway should necessarily compel Jews to emigrate en masse. Aliyah is a nuanced and highly personal decision that isn’t right for everyone. Ideally, it shouldn’t be made as a defensive reaction to horrific events but as a carefully considered choice coming from a proactive desire to belong to a people and a place. 

Still, if current events contribute to such reasoning, as we celebrate 71 years of independence, those of us in Israel will be more than happy to welcome you.

I first commented on Pittsburgh and Poway at The Jerusalem Post.

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You want me to swallow … that?

by Brian on April 28, 2019

in Cancer,Health

“You want me to swallow…that?” I blurted out to Yardena, the nurse. 

In Yardena’s hand was an oversized, oval-shaped capsule, the size of a pill bug – that is, if a pill bug got caught under a radioactive beam and grew in power like a high-tech Spider-man.

The bug/capsule had flashing eyes and, instead of DNA, its innards were electronics: sophisticated cameras and a tiny WiFi transmitter that was to send pictures of my gut to a portable device the size of a 1992 Sony Walkman that Yardena instructed me to strap around my waist. 

The whole set-up, formally known as “capsule endoscopy,” is part of an Israeli innovation – now celebrating its 20thanniversary – called the PillCam. It’s a (mostly) non-intrusive way to diagnose digestive problems and it can reach parts of the upper gastrointestinal tract that standard colonoscopies can’t.

With my chronic cancer currently under control but the stomach pains that preceded it still raging, my doctor wanted to check to see if my Crohn’s disease – which has been inactive for 30 years – perhaps had flared and was the cause of my ongoing discomfort.

The PillCam is much more convenient and safer than a traditional colonoscopy. Unfortunately, the prep is no different. I’ll spare you the fiery details; suffice it to say, I couldn’t really leave the house the day before.

Given Imaging, the company behind the PillCam, was an early Startup Nation success story. Given Imaging was founded in 1998 and the first version of the PillCam was approved for use by the FDA in 2001. The company was sold in 2014 to Covidien (now a part of Medtronic) for nearly $1 billion.

The PillCam is one of the clearest examples of how technology originally developed for military purposes – in this case, the cameras used to guide missiles – can be repurposed for a new life in civilian healthcare.

Given Imaging founder Gabi Iddan had been working on optics for the Israeli defense contractor Rafael. The PillCam started as a side project but eventually became too big for Rafael’s labs and was spun off into its own company. Over two million patients have swallowed a PillCam as I was now being urged to do.

Each video capsule costs about $500, which sounds like a lot until you compare it with a colonoscopy which can run up to $4,000 per procedure. The camera snaps between two to six pictures per second during its 12-hour exploration of the gut, for a total of 30,000 images when it’s all done. When you return the Walkman-like device the next day, the data is downloaded and the battery recharged. 

Thankfully, you don’t have to return the pill itself.

In 2012, reporter Michael Mosley swallowed a PillCam and spent the entire day at the London Science Museum while the movement of the capsule through his body was broadcast live on BBC television.

Only two-thirds of patients who should undergo colonoscopies actually proceed as recommended – either out of fear it will hurt or because it’s too expensive and their insurance won’t cover enough of the cost. Wider adoption of the lower-priced and painless PillCam could increase compliance and save lives.

I stared at my personal PillCam for a few long seconds and rolled it between my thumb and pointer fingers. After all the prep I’d done the day before, I wasn’t considering turning back. 

Still, it was a big pill and I have lingering trauma from summer camp in 1972 when I was 11-years-old and we were forced to swallow these enormous salt pills every morning at breakfast as a prophylactic to avoid dehydration. I couldn’t do it and had to wrap my pill in peanut butter to get it down. 

Since then, I’ve become a skilled swallower.

I picked up the glass of water, but first, Yardena, who was supervising the whole process, had a request.

“Repeat after me,” she said.

I looked at her confused. I’d already signed the paper she gave to me – was some additional verbal consent required? 

“May it be your will, Lord my God…” she said, invoking the start of Hebrew prayer.

Wait a minute, I thought. Doesn’t she know who she’s talking to? She clearly hasn’t read my articles on the importance of only saying what you believe and believing what you say.

“Go on, it’s not going to hurt you,” my wife, Jody, who had accompanied me to Hadassah Hospital that morning, urged.

“…that this activity will bring healing to me, for You are the free healer,” Yardena continued. 

This prayer, for taking medicine, is an ancient one, dating back to the Talmud and formulated further in the codifications of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Brura.

I didn’t want to be rude. Yardena was just trying to be helpful and, besides, who says no to a “free healer?” 

To paraphrase King David, “The Lord is my HMO, I shall not argue.”

I mangled some of Yardena’s words in Hebrew, but that didn’t stop the two religious women in the adjacent room from answering with loud Amen’s. 

I took a big gulp and the PillCam’s journey was underway with a little help from above or, more likely, the good folks at Given Imaging headquarters in Yokneam.

A few days later, I received the results. The PillCam did find old signs of Crohn’s disease but a subsequent test showed it to be mostly inactive. My doctor assured me that’s not the cause of my pain. It’s back to the brainstorming table.

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The scam

by Brian on April 14, 2019

in In the News,Technology

It started with a simple Facebook message. “Hello, Brian, you don’t know me, but are you in Las Vegas right now on a book tour? If not, I think someone is impersonating you!” 

That was odd. I did do a publicity tour in the U.S. when my book, TOTALED, was published in 2017, but that didn’t include Las Vegas and I certainly wasn’t there now. Why would someone want to pretend they were me? 

I probably should have ignored the message but my curiosity was piqued. “What is this regarding?” I wrote back. 

“Can you talk with me briefly this morning?” “Alan” responded, perhaps too quickly. “I am available mostly today! Thanks!!! Facebook phone works well…the icon of the phone above in messenger is all that is needed simply click on it…”

I’m smart enough to know never to click on a link sent in a suspicious message, especially one riddled with questionable formatting and too many exclamation marks. But I wasn’t done probing. What was so important that I should call him?

According to Alan, there was someone out there in the dark reaches of the Internet claiming to be the author of TOTALED, currently on a book tour and selling tickets on Craigslist to some tennis tournament in Palm Springs that I’d never heard of before. 

“Of course I feel stupid but sent the money,” Alan admitted. “But I believe I found this low life on FB and I will get him.”

Before I could ask how exactly Alan was going to “get him,” an email popped up from a Samuel Joseph Friedman. 

“Sam” was also claiming that an Internet impersonator with my name was trying to sell tickets on Craigslist, but instead of a tennis tournament in Palm Springs, it was an art exhibition in New York.

Sam explained that when he asked my nominal doppelganger for verification that he really had the tickets he was offering, Sam received a testy response featuring a shocking lack of punctuation that would put Faulkner to shame.

“If you don’t trust don’t buy I’m an [sic] Wealthy author who’s on tour currently doing meet and greets that’s the only reason I’m selling these tickets I can show you my bank account with my name and you can google my net worth I have no problem with that it’s $100 I’m not trying to scam you no offense. Here’s my website check me out brianblum.com.”

The link to my website was real, but me, a wealthy author? I wondered whether I ought to be flattered someone thought so highly of my work.

At the same time as I was being bombarded by Alan and Sam, my wife, Jody, forwarded me a Facebook message she had received from “Amanda.” 

“Dear Judy” – misspelling Jody’s name is always a red flag – “I apologize in advance for imposing. A Brian Blum claiming to be an author is selling an item on Craigslist. Wanted to see if it was a legit transaction. Found your contact on Facebook. Sorry for being nosey, but my intuition errs on the side of caution.”

At least she knew where to put her periods and commas. 

Three messages from three different people, all within an hour of each other, each claiming they were being scammed by someone with my name? This couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.

I decided to play along a bit longer. 

“I can’t find anything about a Brian Blum on a book tour in Las Vegas,” I wrote to Alan. “Can you send me a link to the post?” 

“Where are you currently? Without being specific,” he responded. “BTW, your work sounds fascinating!”

Flattery’s not going to work this time, Alan. 

“Perhaps we should hire an investigator. At least I’m considering it!” Alan exclaimed, again encouraging me to call him. Was this the scam – gain my confidence until I wire him money for a private detective?

Meanwhile, Sam was writing me back. He sent a screen shot from his mobile, but there was something off. The text for his email app’s “to” and “from” was in Portuguese. 

“Are you from Portugal or Brazil?” I asked, trying to be crafty. 

“I live in New York and learned Portuguese whilst at NYU.”

“Whilst?” That’s definitely not the way a real New Yorker would talk. And switching the operating system for his phone to Portuguese to better learn the language, while doable, hardly seemed likely.  

I returned to Alan and reviewed his Facebook profile. It said he was a regional sales manager at a medical technology company. He had more than 2,000 friends and hundreds of posts going back years. 

Creating such an elaborate fake profile would have taken an awful lot of work. Was someone impersonating Alan, too? Or had he been tricked into unwittingly participating in the ruse? 

As “Alan,” “Sam” and “Amanda” realized they were not going to make any headway with me, I was promptly ghosted, as they moved on, I assume, to their next victim. 

A few days later, I checked Alan’s Facebook profile again. There was a picture of him at the tennis tournament. The caption: “TICKETS OBTAINED” in all caps. 

I may never know who the real scammer was or what he or she was after. I was careful and didn’t click on any phishing links. 

Still, if you get a message purportedly from me, selling anything other than my book, or claiming that I’m currently on a book tour doing “meet and greets,” steer clear. 

I first covered this scam (if that’s what it is) at The Jerusalem Post.

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When I first arrived here in 1984, I wanted Israel to be more like America. It was a common aspiration among immigrants: Israel of the mid-1980s was a much rougher place than it is today, with infrastructure resembling that of a developing nation (remember six-month waits for a home phone line?) more than the world-class Startup Nation it has become.

Not that I didn’t respect what Israel had to offer – I chose to move here, after all. But I hoped that, with time, and maybe with the influence of a few more Anglos, Israel would catch up to American standards of personal service, competitive prices, polite public discourse and environmental awareness. 

Now, the opposite seems to be the case. I’m worried that Israel is becoming too much like America.

While it’s true that service has improved and many (though certainly not all) prices have come down, the kind of thinly veiled racism and divisive hate-filled speech that have become endemic in American politics are now the major talking points of the current Israeli election. The same kind of polarization and finger-pointing rife between Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. is being played out between Right and Left in Israel. The epithet “fake news” has migrated across the Atlantic far too smoothly. 

Moreover, the leaders of both countries are under investigation while politicians and operators here and there have already been charged, convicted, served time or are on their way to prison. Israel has not even been able to escape the scourge of phone hacking and rumors of compromising videos, both of which are now part of our political discourse, as well.

Anglo-Israelis used to blame Israel’s shaky coalition system for our electoral woes. Wouldn’t it be better, we mused, if we had a more stable, two-party system with an independently elected president? 

Now, the American system hardly seems like one to emulate. 

Israel’s diverse population doesn’t clump into relatively (and I use that term cautiously) homogenous geographies like those that elect the U.S. House of Representatives. The binary structure of Republicans vs. Democrats also ensures that if you support the losing candidate, your vote essentially goes to waste. That’s mitigated somewhat when you have a multitude of smaller parties, as in Israel.

Smaller parties also work to check the ascent of populists, says Harvard University political scientist Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.” While coalition building does tend to give outsized power to the fringes, it can positively serve to prevent a single powerful leader from turning into an outright authoritarian. 

How so? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had an easier time passing the so-called “French Law,” which grants immunity from prosecution to a sitting prime minister, if his Likud party held an unchallenged majority in the Knesset. But his coalition partners have (thus far) blocked such legislation.

It’s not just politics: There are other areas where my one-time dream of “becoming more like America” would disadvantage Israel.

Healthcare. A friend was suffering from chest pains while on a recent trip to New York. His doctor wanted to check him into the hospital. My friend agreed – but first he flew home to Israel. “No way would I ever want to get caught in the American medical system,” he explained. “The hidden bills could kill me.” 

Israel’s universal healthcare system may be underfunded and its hospitals overcrowded, but not once have I been turned down for an expensive cancer treatment as have some of the people in the U.S. that I’ve become friends with through various cancer groups on Facebook. To be sure, there can be long waits for specialists, and many Israeli physicians are unnecessarily curt, but socialized medicine works.

Public transportation. Earlier this month, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira published a damning report on Israel’s failure to implement an effective system of buses, trains and light rail, especially compared with OECD countries. I, on the other hand, think Israel’s public transportation is actually pretty terrific.

But my frame of reference is not Europe but the U.S. where, apart from the biggest cities, much of the country is not accessible by decent public transit…if at all. When I was growing up, the closest bus to my suburban California home was a 45-minute walk. Egged may serve some far-flung communities only once a day, but there’s nary a place in this country which is not reachable without a car.

The IDF. I happily missed the draft lottery in the U.S. – it was abolished when I was a teenager – but that doesn’t mean military service is an a prioribad thing. In addition to defending a country in a dangerous neighborhood, Israel’s mandatory army gives soldiers unparalleled responsibility at a young age, spurs social cohesion and pushes off the age at which students enter university. Israeli students come charged up for college with maturity and extra determination.

There is one area where I would like to see Israel take a page from the American playbook: legalization of cannabis. Yes, we have it for medical use, but it’s still too hard to get a license. The recent decriminalization of recreational pot is a good start. But with the surprising rise of Moshe Feiglin and his Zehut party’s pro-cannabis platform, even if Zehut doesn’t clear the threshold, it’s got the other candidates talking. 

Easier access to cannabis might just help mitigate some of the more hateful aspects that now dominate our political discourse.

I first compared the U.S. and Israeli systems at The Jerusalem Post.

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Jews on a cruise

by Brian on March 18, 2019

in Just For Fun,Reviews

When Chetan met Tania, it was not exactly love at first sight. More like love at first rub. 

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship

Chetan (from Mumbai) and Tania (from Bangkok) were both working as massage therapists on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship. They quickly fell for each other and will be getting married in July.

It’s exactly the sort of romantic story you’d expect if you watched enough episodes of The Love Boat as a kid. My wife, Jody, and I met the happy couple while experiencing the cruising lifestyle firsthand when my father-in-law took his adult children, his sister and their spouses on a seven-day cruise to celebrate his 80thbirthday.

Regent Seven Seas is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, established in 1966 by the late Israeli-American tycoon Ted Arison. Regent’s cruises are small by comparison – our ship had only 700 passengers compared with the 5,000 on Norwegian’s gigantic “Escape” ship.

Jody and I had never been on a cruise before. For years we’d seen the advertisements in The Jerusalem Post for similar sea-bound vacations and had been curious. But cruising wasn’t our thing, we told ourselves. We like to explore a place in depth rather than jump from port to port with just a few hours in each location

To our surprise, our first cruise turned out to be delightful – albeit with a few trade-offs.

On the one hand, everything is taken care of for you on board: you don’t have to pack and repack as you change destinations, porters carry your bags (no tipping allowed), the service is stellar and the food and drink abundant. Our cabin was larger than any hotel room we’ve ever stayed in, complete with a walk-in closet and a continually restocked, no-charge minibar.

The biggest downside: you never really get to know the destinations you visit. Our cruise started in Miami before stopping in Havana, Cuba; Roatan, Honduras; and the towns of Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico. For all but Cuba (where we had a whole day in town), we were whisked from the docking terminal directly to whatever activity we had chosen for that morning. 

In Roatan, for example, Jody and I opted to go zip-lining over the rain forest. It was exhilarating…but that’s all we know about Roatan. What kind of people live there? What’s the political environment? Do business and industry thrive? Is there decent public transportation? 

Zip-lining in Honduras

We saw one other part of Roatan: the shopping mall at the port which sold tchotchkies at inflated prices. 

That was true for all of the ports. In Cozumel, we found a store hawking the softest sheets I’ve ever felt, made entirely out of bamboo. I asked the store clerk if they were from a local endeavor. No, he replied. The corporate headquarters were in Salt Lake City. I checked the Internet: the same sheets were available on Amazon.com for $100 less.

Back on the ship, food was an ever-present actor during our seven days at sea. The best way to describe it is “gluttonous.” You want three entrees with dinner and four desserts? Go for it. There were no bills, no limits. During the cruise, I developed a penchant for pina coladas – delicious but not exactly calorie-free.

Near the end of our trip, I attended a lesson at the fitness center on “hacking your metabolism.” I was all fired up to tackle portion control on my last day on board, but then along came the 4 pm teatime special – 15 different kinds of gourmet cupcakes. 

I tried valiantly to eat just one. But when Roshan, the head pastry chef, came out to schmooze, my eyes got too big. 

“You know, if one of those red velvet cupcakes just happened to make it to my room, I wouldn’t object,” I said to Roshan.

When we returned to our cabin, there were not one but two cupcakes elegantly arranged on a plate in our living area. 

Cupcakes at teatime

Cruises like those from Regent Seven Seas are all about customer service, made possible by a low passenger-to-staff ratio – our ship had 450 staff, all of whom were seemingly paid to be friendly. We couldn’t walk more than 10 feet before we heard “Hello sir,” “How are you today?” or the ubiquitous “Can I get you another drink?” It’s the opposite of Israel’s stereotypically surly service industry.

Moreover, the staff is trained to anticipate your needs. One day, we went on an excursion that included snorkeling. When we got back to our room, the laundry line above the bathtub had already been drawn so we could hang our wet bathing suits.

Our cruise probably had a good number of Jews, although we didn’t have any way of knowing. Other than the dozen or so people who came to the “self-led Shabbat evening service,” no one was sporting any identifiable religious attire. As for Israelis, we met one couple from Netanya (English-speakers originally from the U.K.) and a group of four Sabras … who had since immigrated to America.

We didn’t find new love like Chetan and Tania on our weeklong Love Boat (not that we were looking for it), but we were pampered and treated so well that I’m looking forward to our next cruise (even if that’s not until we’re 80 ourselves). 

Maybe we can board a little closer to home than Miami. The Regent Seven Seas Voyager regularly sets sail in our part of the world; it docks in Haifa in April.

I first reviewed the cruising life at The Jerusalem Post.

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A cure for cancer?

March 10, 2019

Israeli startup AEBi’s claim that it was on the verge of developing a cure for cancer was premature and even cruel. Here’s whats really going on.

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The “benefits” of cancer in Israel

February 18, 2019

While no one ever wants to get cancer, there are a few “benefits” to having the disease. A look at the Yuri Shtern Holistic Care Center.

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Transforming rage into creativity

February 18, 2019

The SUV was right on my tail, flashing his lights and frantically marking his territory like a mean dog without a muzzle. Classic road rage.

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Husband: self-regulate!

January 21, 2019

My long-suffering wife has earned that sobriquet. I kvetch. But now she’s read me the riot act: “Husband, you’ve got to self-regulate!”

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Judaism’s honesty problem

January 6, 2019

Does Judaism actually encourage dishonesty? Two stories from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz during a talk at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

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