20100105_MultifocalGlass“Let me take care of him. He’s very sensitive,” my optometrist Nadine whispered to her coworker in Hebrew behind the counter as she brought out my new glasses.

“I heard that!” I snapped back, indicating that, while my Hebrew is famously fragile, I had command of enough basics to know when I was being insulted.

Except that in my case, it was true. I am super sensitive, in all kinds of things, but especially when it comes to new glasses. And this was not going to be an easy change.

I’ve gotten to that point in the narrative arc of my eyesight’s life story where multifocals are my best option for maintaining acceptable vision in the greatest variety of situations. Multifocals – also called progressive lenses – are the bane of middle age sight: a brutal compromise pushed by well intentioned but nevertheless sadistic eye doctors that allows you to see both far and near with the same pair of glasses, but in a much-reduced area.

Wearing multifocals is like looking through a back fence pinhole at the coming train wreck. You see distance through the middle part of the top of the lenses; you read by looking down. But look to the sides and everything gets distorted like one of those funhouse mirrors where you’re alternately tall or fat but always befuddled. Turn your head left or right or up or down too fast and the floor gives way like a Norwegian car ferry making a sloppy landing. Dizziness is a common side effect in the beginning.

Multifocals are similar to bifocals except that, instead of dividing the lens into two discrete areas with an annoying line across the middle, the vision range in multifocals flows seamlessly from top to bottom. To reach that Faustian bargain, though, you get distortion on the sides.

The more expensive the lenses, the less the distortion. A good pair of multifocals will easily set you back more than $1,000 in Israel. The best of the best: $1,500. I have a friend in Jerusalem who orders his multifocals online from Hong Kong. He pays a fifth of what I do, but given my demonstrated sensitivity and the need to get the prescription and fitting just right, I’ve never considered that option.

Multifocals were first invented in 1907, but it wasn’t until 1953 that Bernard Maitenaz perfected them enough for commercial use. A further improvement in 1972 addressed some of the more frustrating peripheral vision limitations, though as I can attest, far from entirely.

Changes in vision at middle age happen to all of us, so if this column isn’t relevant to you now, don’t gloat…it will be. The condition is called presbyopia. It’s where the eye’s natural lens stiffens and loses the ability to focus on close objects. The term comes from the Greek presbys (old man) and ops (sight). So it literally means, “trying to see as old men do.”

I’ve worn glasses since I was about seven years old, but only for distance. When Nadine first told me I’d need a different prescription for reading, I resisted the multifocals and ordered a pair of separate reading glasses, which I wore around my neck on a chain. It was as geeky as it sounds, and I found myself constantly switching back and forth. At Friday night synagogue services, if I wanted to read from the prayer book, it was one pair of glasses. If I wanted to see what was going on at the bima, it was the other. But what would I do if I wanted to look around when we were supposed to be saying Shema – wouldn’t my choice of glasses give my mis-intentions away?

“Try these for a week or two and see if you can get used to them,” Nadine told me before sending me on my way. “If not, call me, and I’ll see what I can do.”

The brain eventually adjusts to the multifocals so that it can see clearly through the distortion areas. Or to be more accurate: the distortion is still there but it just doesn’t bother you anymore. Your brain ignores it. Smart brain. Just the same, it can take weeks – in some extreme cases even months – before everything settles down.

I knew cognitively that this was the case (Nadine and the Internet told me so). But as the days, then weeks stretched on, and the world was still woozy just the same, the voices in my head were not complying. By voices, I’m referring to the kind in the new Pixar movie Inside Out, which so wonderfully captures the dialogue between the different emotions that control us, portraying five feelings operating a cartoonified control room in a young teenager’s head.

In my case, when it came to adjusting to my new multifocals, to use the language of Inside Out, fear was taking the lead, playing the catastrophe fiddle with aplomb, while sadness was doing its best to provide back up. Sometimes I would veer into anger with occasional disgust that I had to go through this all in the first place. Joy seemed to be taking a very long powder break

“I will never get used to these new glasses,” I heard my Pixar voices pontificating. “This is a total disaster. What was I thinking? I’ll never see as well as before. I’m so stupid. What have I done to deserve this?”

Two weeks after receiving my new multifocals, my brain had not adjusted, not in the least. My peripheral vision was so limited, I found myself jerking my head around uncomfortably where I used to be able to just glance to the side. When I tried to cut vegetables for a salad, the cucumbers (and the knife) had melted into a dangerous blur. Shaving – forget about it. My new glasses were a guarantee towards a tasteful George Clooney look.

Maybe the voices running rampant in my hypothalamic control room were right?

I finally broke down and made an appointment with Nadine. “I tried to get used to them, I really have,” I said, defeated.

“Let me check them,” Nadine replied and she took the new glasses off my face and brought them over to some machine.

“Hmmm. There seems to be a mistake. The lens was cut too high. Your distance vision should be here,” she said, pointing to the middle of the lens. “But you’re only able to see from here.” She was now pointing to the very top of the glass. “So, anything to the side is even more distorted than I would expect. I’m going to have to send them back. I’ll order you a new pair.”

Two weeks later, my new pair arrived. I’ve been wearing them now for a month. The difference was immediate and profound. The distortion is still there, but this time I seem to be getting used to it. I can even cut vegetables and shave again.

Inside Out did a great job in helping me identify the emotional tug of war going on in my head. But sometimes, it seems, all you really need is the right prescription.

I first shared my fuzzy vision on multifocals in The Jerusalem Post.


Hitchhiker's_gestureExactly 30 years ago today, I was in a car with a group of German strangers on my way to a standing room only soccer match just outside what was then West Berlin. As part of a two-month trek across Europe, I was feeling young and adventurous when I decided to try hitchhiking. Getting to know the locals was part of the whole travel experience, I figured, and I wanted to make my long awaited Eurotrip as colorful as possible, even if the train would have been faster and more convenient.

I was thinking about that trip recently as we passed the one year anniversary of the horrific kidnap and murder of teenagers Gil-Ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach at a hitchhiking post in Gush Etzion. At the time, there was a vigorous debate in these pages about whether yeshivas and other institutions that rely on their students grabbing a ride with strangers should instead offer free shuttle vans to students returning from a weekend at home. If the policies changed, it was suggested, seminary students – like the soldiers before them, after the army forbade hitchhiking – might find tremping less glamorous.

I never found hitchhiking glamorous – it was always more utilitarian, a means of getting from point A to point B without spending a lot of money – but I can understand the allure. A few years ago, when my daughter was in a pre-army academy, she boasted about how she tremped all over the Galilee. She raved about how nice the drivers were and how they cracked the system. (Put the pretty girls up front, with the guys and backpacks tucked away behind a tree or a bus stop).

I didn’t dare hitchhike growing up in the U.S. Hitchhiking was cool for the flower children of the 60s, but by the time I was coming of age in the 70s, thumbing a ride was already considered unsafe in America – for both sides. Too many alarming stories on the evening news about evil drivers or psychopathic hitchers drilled that message into my head, even without my parents having to state the obvious. And in any case, you could buy a used car for $1,000 and gas was still cheap. There was no economic imperative.

When I arrived in Israel in 1984, however, my personal financial situation was entirely different. I was a poor student; a car – be it a purchase or even just a rental – was out of the question. While I mostly took Egged, for a few months, I lived in the settlement of Ofra. There was a small ulpan there at the time, and I thought that immersing myself in a fully Hebrew-speaking environment would speed my language acquisition.

Transportation to Ofra in 1984 was inconvenient. There were buses, but they never ran when you wanted. The bus to nearby Beit El was somewhat more consistent. Which is how I found myself frequently, late at night, at a trempiyada (hitchhiking post) somewhere near Ramallah, hoping a friendly Ofra-bound driver would come by and give me a lift back to my dorm room. It invariably worked.

I often think back, both with wonder and thinly repressed horror, to how innocent and trusting I was back then. Or maybe it’s just that times have changed. Does anyone still hitchhike near Ramallah these days? In the shadow of that big red sign with the white letters reading in Hebrew, Arabic and English, “Entrance for Israel citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law.”

But in the summer of 1985, I was feeling entirely carefree as I stood near the entrance to the Autobahn outside of Cologne, waiting until I was offered a ride for the 6-hour journey to Berlin. Several cars stopped, but they weren’t going the whole way. The fourth vehicle was the winner.

There were already three guys inside, so it would be a scrunch, but they seemed good-natured enough and, as I’ve pointed out, I was a trusting twentysomething. The only hitch: they were stopping at a soccer match along the way. No problem, I said, thinking I’d hit the jackpot: I’d get both a hitchhiking happening and a hooligans-in-the-bleachers experience – all for a modest contribution towards a shared tank of gas.

But wait, there was more: after voraciously cheering on some team whose identity I have long since forgotten, my temporary new best friends were headed out to a late night punk club. Would I like to join them for a beer? The club was located deep in a basement in a grimy part of town. There was smoke and mohawks and glow-in-the-dark spandex outfits that told me I was definitely not in Ofra…or Ramallah anymore.

We left around 3:00 AM and everyone crashed at the apartment of one of the guys. I lived to tell the tale, slightly hung-over and hoarse, and ready for my next major hitchhiking endeavor: Japan.

I was still the same poor student, but now it was two years later, and I was spending a couple of months traveling in Asia. My brother was living in Japan already; he was teaching English in a smallish town called Shimonoseki. I had started my trip in Tokyo and wanted to visit him. But the bullet train to nearby Fukuoka cost a small fortune. So I decided to hitchhike across Japan – a nearly 1,000-kilometer journey.

My brother had made me a sign that said “Shimonoseki” on one side and “Tokyo” on the other for my return trip. I knew exactly two words of Japanese. E-sho-nee (which means “together”) and “OK” (that most universal abbreviation of agreement). I took a bus to the entrance of a highway where I stood with my sign and minimal communication skills and waited. And waited.

While it’s true the Japanese don’t have much experience with hitchhikers, I think my appearance might have contributed something to my general lack of progress: I was this scruffy bearded guy with a funny beany on my head, looking as far away as possible from the typical clean cut Japanese businessman who I can assure you doesn’t hitchhike much.

The first driver who picked me up didn’t quite understand the concept of hitchhiking and left me off on the side of the highway itself, only a few miles after we started. My second ride was the police who, rather than arrest me for playing pedestrian on a fast moving highway, courteously gave me a lift to a nearest rest stop and gas station. (They probably didn’t want to deal with this non-Japanese speaking gaijin.)

It had started to rain and I darted back and forth between the pumps and the convenience store for a few hours with my sign and puppy dog eyes until a kindly truck driver agreed to take me most of the distance.

The truck driver did his best to be a gracious Japanese host, plying me with vending machine-delivered cold canned coffee (long before Frappuccino’s and Ice Aromas made the concept palatable) and pointing at my head trying to use his very limited English to understand what the heck a kippa was.

But he eventually drove his big rig off the highway through a series of narrow winding streets, seemingly impassable for a truck of his size, before letting me off at my exact final destination. Three weeks later, I hitched all the way in the other direction, returning to Tokyo.

Since returning to Israel in 1994, I’ve never hitchhiked since. No longer a poor student, I have my own car. And taking the bus is just fine. It’s what I recommend to my children – especially after last summer. Not that they’ll listen. I probably wouldn’t either if I were their age again. There’s too much adventure in cold coffee and standing room soccer.

I originally hitchhiked through the pages of The Jerusalem Post here.


Letters to the Editor about Datlashim articleWhen I was growing up, I was frequently bullied. I had all the stereotypical markers for bullies to pick on: I was overweight, socially awkward, a klutz in sports and inevitably last to be picked, bespectacled and brainy. It didn’t help that my first name could be twisted to spell out the very insult that my peers from four decades ago refused to release.

Even when I eventually thinned out in high school, my tormentors clung to that image of the stocky nerd, and I did little to disabuse them of their cruel notions. There was name calling, books and body parts kicked when I was least expecting it, the kid who punched me in the face and broke my glasses, and the way I had to sneak up from a distance to the bus stop to school in order to make sure Rick L. and his posse were not waiting there too.

The bullying stopped when I got to college where most of the attributes that had been so disparaged during my teen years were now in demand. I was popular (enough) and finally happy. I graduated, met my wife, got married, had kids and moved to Israel. With bullying banished, it’s been a good ride for the last 30 years.

But now the Internet has caught up and the bullying is back. Two of my recent columns in The Jerusalem Post Magazine generated some surprisingly ugly talkbacks and letters to the editor. I’m no pollyanna – someone who thinks good things will always happen – and I have read enough of the hateful speech that usually accompanies anything about Israel on social media to know that the web can be a scary place. Not just about Israel of course – cyberbullying, of teens in particular, is a serious scourge that can and has had fatal consequences.

So I’m almost embarrassed to even write about my own feelings towards the nastiness directed my way. No one has cursed at me or used anti-Semitic language. Suicide is certainly not on the agenda. But I’m still in shock by how personal the writers have been, going for what they perceive as my weak spots and making me question the value of vulnerability.

Both my friends in real life and long time readers know that I am very open about my life, sometimes to a fault. Over the years, I’ve shared inside information about my family (much to my kids dismay), about sex, about losing a loved one to terror, about my health, about religion and the importance of blazing your own truth. I have always embraced the public exposure that is concomitant with writing from the heart.

Still it can hurt. One writer lashed out at my column “In praise of datlashim,” calling it “a sad reflection on [my] parenting skills” and adding that I act as if I am “proud of the fact that [I have] failed [my] children.” Another writer shockingly warned me to keep my children “as far away as possible from [his] children.”

For my follow up column, “Pick and Choose-daism,” the letter writers continued with the personal failure theme, with one calling my approach “a recipe for failure, as is painfully evident from the author’s personal experience,” while a talkbacker online hiding behind the pseudonym of “Shel Zahav” called me “an idiot trying to justify his failures” and that The Jerusalem Post ought to drop me “like the hi-tech industry did before.”

Now, I can deal with comments about my parenting skills – I know I’m a good father and no anonymous Internet hater is going to convince me otherwise, But that last comment was particularly stinging, because whoever Shel Zahav is, he or she seems to know me personally. I never indicated in either of those columns that, before I began writing full time, I used to be a startup entrepreneur. Was this talkbacker an investor who lost money on one of my companies, or maybe a disgruntled ex-employee still holding a grudge? Should I be worried in real life?

I wondered if any of my writing colleagues had been similarly bullied and how they related to it? I asked and the response: all of them had been on the receiving end of nasty comments.

Many, like Jerusalem Post Managing Editor David Brinn, say they have stopped reading the talkbacks entirely. “Or more accurately, I stopped paying attention to them,” he says. “Sometimes I still look at them because they’re so strange and interesting in what they reveal about the writers. But I have never responded to a talkback and don’t intend to.”

Jerusalem Post and Israel21c writer Abigail Klein Leichman says that before making aliyah, she wrote an op-ed in her local paper and got “some very nasty feedback. It was upsetting and the experience made me think twice about writing on personal topics ever again.”

Freelance editor and writer Eve Horowitz, who writes only about personal topics in her “Therapy in the Holy City” column over at The Times of Israel, says she’s received “just one outwardly negative reaction…if I were recipient of a lot more reactions like that one, it might make me shut down.”

Another colleague says that he makes a distinction between a talkback online and a letter that appears in the print edition of the paper. “Talkbacks are like the plague. Anyone can write what they want, it’s an anonymous note,” he says, adding that, like David Brinn, he doesn’t read them anymore. Letters, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. “I don’t think that there’s an inherent right that everyone who writes a letter has to get in print.”

Some websites edit talkbacks before they go online, deleting the most racist, sexist or anti-Semitic diatribes. But most don’t, embracing the ensuing slugfests as opportunities to increase page views. And with no nuance online and anonymity the norm, it’s easy to go straight for the jugular.

It’s not just newspapers, either. Last year, a petition was sent to Amazon.com demanding that the online bookstore remove the ability for reviewers to comment anonymously. Best selling novelist Anne Rice (of Interview with a Vampire fame) was one of nearly 10,000 signatories who decried the world of book bullies who mercilessly attack authors on sites like Amazon and GoodReads when they don’t agree with something the author has written (or stands for personally).

The Internet works both ways, of course. After I posted about the comments I received on my articles to my Facebook friends, I was overwhelmed with support – both against the trolls and in favor of the actual content of what I wrote.

The truth is, I’d really like to steer clear of both the talkbacks and the letters to the editor entirely. I know that the writers are just acting out on their own insecurities or narrow-minded fears. But part of being a proactive citizen of the social web is staying on top of what people are saying about you. It’s true for politicians and brands, and it’s true for columnists as well: ignore what’s being written about you at your own peril.

Jerusalem Post columnist Lawrence Rifkin takes a different approach. “I positively love letters that berate me because very few, if any, agree with me. So at least it means people are indeed taking the time to read me. I’m of the school where it’s taught, ‘Say what you want about me, just spell my name right.’”

I’m not planning to let the bullies get to me. I’ll keep on baring my soul – I don’t know how to be any other way. And, to borrow a line from one of my more notorious commenters, if I didn’t, then I’d really be a failure.

This column appeared originally in The Jerusalem Post where it received its own share of talkbacks.


It’s common to divide people into two opposing types. There are optimists and pessimists, extroverts and introverts, people who love cilantro and those who think it tastes like dirty dishwater. Add to this, people who run to the doctor at the first sign of something wrong and others who wait, trusting that the body will normally sort things out on its own.

I’ve been thinking about this last binary distinction over the past few months as I’ve been hit by a mysterious virus, one that remains undiagnosed; not especially debilitating, certainly not fatal, but nonetheless symptomatic enough to generate a kaleidoscope of modulating aches and annoying pains.

My family doctor is pretty sure that whatever this is, it will most probably pass on its own and I’d be best served allowing patience to trump concern. So while I practice being part of the slow-to-medicine camp, I’ve had plenty of time to meditate on how my body – and the bodies of those around me – is starting to act up in ways that do not bring easy comfort as I firmly claim my place in the middle age years.

Reciting a litany of ailments, illnesses and worse has become a regular part of the casual “how are you and how’s your family?” conversation. Worse still, at least two family members are now fighting cancer. Others in our community are sick; some have died. My mystery malaise seems pedestrian by comparison; definitely not worth complaining about to casual acquaintances

So when the latest symptom arose and my gums started bleeding, I figured it was just more of the same, connected to the overall Theory of Everything That’s Wrong with Brian right now.

My wife Jody was having none of it though. Usually firmly on the side of wait and see, she suggested that a visit to the doctor would not be unwarranted.

“No, no, I’m sure it will pass in another week, I’ll just sweat it out,” I countered. “Anyway, what’s a little pain? There are people with far more serious problems.”

A week passed and my gums were still red. Plus now my throat and my sinuses hurt too – could a sinus infection be the cause and was it triggering inflammation in my mouth?

“Fine,” I said, finally giving in, “I’ll see the doctor.”

I was able to get an appointment the same day. My doctor looked up my nose and down my throat and didn’t see anything. “Of course,” I grumbled to myself. “Story of the last three months.”

He wrote me up a note and sent me on to my dentist.

“My gums have been bleeding, maybe you could have a look?” I wrote in an email I fired off to Dr. A, pleased that he’d entered the digital age and I didn’t have to pick up the phone.

“Can you come in now?” came the quick response. Yes, I could. He’d save the last slot of the day for me.

Despite my professed nonchalance, the realities of my middle age maladies have thrown me for an existential loop. I have long nurtured a fantasy that I’ll live to be a vigorous 90 or maybe 95. I’ll be lucid and clear, exercising up until the end, writing thoughtful articles and books, continuing to ingest comfortable amounts of salt, sugar and fat, all while enjoying my golden years with Jody disease and wrinkle free. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I should downgrade my expectations? If I make it another 20 years, would that be enough?

Ezekiel EmanuelEzekiel Emanuel (Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s brother) thinks so. In a controversial, much-cited essay published in The Atlantic magazine last year, Emanuel put forth his reasons for “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” His thesis: medicine may have prolonged life expectancy but not quality of life. Once we hit 75 (on average), we start to slow down. We get sick more often. We suffer through chemo and broken bones. That clear thinking I’m so attached to goes muddy.

“Healthcare hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process,” he writes. Death usually results “from the complications of chronic illness – heart disease, cancer, emphysema, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes.” To bolster his point, he refers to predictions that there will be a 300 percent increase in the number of older Americans with dementia by the year 2050.

Emanuel wants to go before he deteriorates both mentally and physically. “I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either,” he writes. Today (he’s in his 50s, like me) “when the doctor recommends a test or treatment, especially one that will extend our lives, it becomes incumbent upon us to give a good reason why we don’t want it.” After age 75, though, “I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless.” That means no screenings for cancer, no colonoscopies, no cardiac stress tests, no flu shots; not even antibiotics.

His friends and family are sure that by the time he reaches 75, he’ll push back his date – to 85, 90. But “I am sure of my position,” he states. “By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make.

Emanuel makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to turn down possible treatments while my family casts their concerned eyes towards my mental competence, but the thought of there being an “end date,” at least to medical intervention, if not to life itself, is oddly comforting.

With my monkey mind jumping from neuron to neuron, I drove to the dentist at the appointed time. Traffic was heavy and there was no parking anywhere near his office, so I wound up getting there quite late. I was afraid he’d have left for the weekend, but he was there waiting, eyeing me with unusual compassion. “Leah, let’s get some X-rays for Brian,” he said to his assistant as he laid me back in his chair. “No, wait, I see the problem,” he quickly added as he glanced towards my gums.

I’d broken a tooth. A tooth! Not sinusitis, nothing related to my mystery illness at all. “That’s where all your pain is coming from,” he said. “I can fix it on the spot. Do you want to?” Yes, please.

His expression was still one of exaggerated kindness as he wiggled the numbing needle into my inner cheeks and fired up his collection of whirring drills and fluorescent flashers that would soon fill the hole in my tooth where food had been collecting for the last week. “This is what’s been hurting you the most,” he said, holding up a collection of food particles he’d scooped out from my makeshift oral compost pot.

“I can show you more,” he intoned.

“No, that’s OK, really,” I mumbled, though with my mouth propped open by instruments, I’m not sure he heard.

When the procedure was done and the cotton balls extracted, I asked him about those looks he was giving me. “When you wrote you were bleeding from your gums, I thought, oh God, it’s early stage leukemia,” he confessed. “I imagined all your gums were gushing blood!”

There was no leukemia; just a simple toothache, easily fixable. I still have to get to the bottom of my other ailments. But for now, I may not be so reluctant to see a medical professional.

At least for the next 20 years.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.


IMG_3530Jacob’s Ladder is my favorite weekend of the year. The spring version of the semi-annual music festival, which was held last month, presents an eclectic mix of country, folk, bluegrass and, lately, local indie rock bands over three days at Kibbutz Nof Ginosar north of Tiberius.

Over the past several years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of kippa-wearers and others who, at least in outward dress, identify as religious at Jacob’s Ladder. That used to be me too. When I’d ask myself back then how I could justify attending a music festival that takes place over Shabbat and is filled with amplified music spread out over three different stages, I developed a number of working answers.

“Well, I’m not playing any instruments myself, I’m just listening.”

“I’m still keeping Shabbat, I do communal meals with my friends, I make Kiddush and there’s even a Friday night minyan.”

“I don’t handle money. I buy tlushim (coupons) before sundown on Friday night and use those if I need something in the food court.”

But over the years, something’s changed. Maybe I’ve gotten tired of all my justifications and bend over backwards explanations about how spending a weekend at a music festival or using funny money to buy schnitzel for lunch is really OK according to halacha (Jewish Law).

When it comes to the observance of Jewish tradition, we are all pick and choosers about what we do or don’t do. Sometimes it’s something big, like listening to music on Shabbat. Other times it’s more private decisions such as whether to skip a particular set of prayers, eat a sandwich without washing for bread beforehand, wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) for men or cover one’s hair according to a particular minhag (custom) for women.

No one can keep every single one of the thousands of laws that started with the 613 in the Torah and have been expanded by our rabbis over the millennia. So – at least those of us who feel some pull towards tradition – we pick and choose what’s most meaningful. Sometimes it’s out of laziness; other times it’s following a mindful reading of texts, wrestling with issues, and reflecting seriously about how to be true to oneself within a traditional framework.

Take premarital sex, for example. I took a whole class on the subject, taught by Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld, a powerhouse when it comes to analyzing traditional Jewish approaches towards sexuality. Her PhD dissertation was entitled “Talmudic Re-readings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic.” She co-authored the book “The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy,” and was named one of the “36 under 36” by the Jewish Week in 2008. Rosenfeld was selected earlier this year to serve as a communal spiritual leader in Efrat by the city’s embattled Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

In her class, Rosenfeld raised the issue of whether the concept of a pilegesh (or concubine) could be applied to modern day cohabitation. The idea was originally proposed by Prof. Tzvi Zohar of Bar-Ilan University in a 2006 article in the academic journal Akdamot.

A pilegesh is essentially a woman in a monogamous relationship but without betrothal and marriage. The pilegesh would hold by the same laws of nidah (ritual impurity) that a married woman would, and she would go to the mikveh (ritual bath) afterward. The biblical patriarch Abraham had a pilegesh (Ketorah) as did his grandson Jacob (Bilhah).

I know unmarried, sexually active Orthodox young people who today invoke the pilegesh concept to give halachic backing to what they’re doing. Maybe that’s actually correct in terms of Jewish Law; that it’s a healthy continuation of classic Talmudic argumentation. But sometimes it seems like it would just be more emotionally honest to say: you know what, I’m OK with being frum (religious) on most things but on this one, I’m choosing to have sex. Not because I’m weak or bad. Not because I’m lazy. Just because. End of story.

I’ve even come up with a name for this new “denomination.” I call it “Pick and Choose-daism.”

Rabbi Haviva Ner-David wrote an article last year for The Huffington Post where she argued against a teshuva (a religious responsum) voted into practice by the Conservative Movement that says both men and women should be equally obligated in performing all of the mitzvot. Ner-David wasn’t claiming in her piece that people shouldn’t be encouraged to observe Jewish Law. Rather she says that the concept of “obligation” – for men and women – is out of step with the modern world.

“Every Jew today is a Jew-by-choice,” she writes. “We are no longer living in the shtetl…Jews today choose to perform mitzvot out of a sense of commitment to tradition, community, family, a way of life, a spiritual path, or even simply a desire to repair the world. Even those who do see themselves as obligated have chosen to construct their worldview in that way.”

Ner-David wants Jews to “take personal responsibility for finding meaning in the rituals and actions they call mitzvot instead of performing them out of peer or communal pressure, habit, comfort or a sense of feeling bound by tradition.”

The implications of embracing our essential nature as pick and choosers are broad – not just for those in an observant framework, but for the Jewish world as whole.

Hebrew University lecturer and Shalom Hartman Institute fellow Dr. Micah Goodman gave a talk in 2014 called “Jewish Awakening in a Secular World.” Goodman, who also serves as the director of the Ein Prat Leadership Institute, explained that he no longer speaks about promoting “religious pluralism.”

Rather, the future is in “secular pluralism,” he said: in allowing non-traditionally observant Jews to reclaim their traditions by studying sources, turning classic piyutim (Jewish liturgical poems) in rock songs, and observing the holidays in their own ways, free from commandment and obligation. If you read my previous column “In Praise of Datlashim,” you know I’ve found a kindred spirit.

Goodman didn’t use the term, but Pick and Choose-daism, in his worldview, could be the rock upon which Judaism 2.0 is built.

Pick and Choose-daism even fits with the practice of mindfulness. Rabbi James Jacobson Maisels who heads up the Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, uses a teaching from Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, the Hassidic Rebbe known as the Mei Shiloah, to describe what it means to worship idols, something clearly prohibited by Jewish Law.

“You shouldn’t just do what your rabbis and fathers did,” Jacobson Maisels paraphrases the rebbe. “That’s not serving God. That’s serving your parents or your teachers or maybe some notion of tradition. And that’s idolatry!” Rather, the true way of being observant, Jacobson Maisels continues, is “to stake out your own path…[to drop] all your preconceptions – and become what you actually are right now in this moment,” knowing full well that even that will change…and change again.

For observant Jews, though, how far can one go? Can you invite guests over for Shabbat if you turn on and off electricity? Will they eat off your dishes if you use the same dishwasher for both milk and meat (even if not at the same time)? Can you be counted as a witness under the chuppah (wedding canopy) if you Whatsapp on chag (Jewish holidays)?

Ultimately, it comes down to setting your own lowest common denominator; deciding which communities you want to be part of and adhering to those standards, without compromising on your own inner truth.

I love Jacob’s Ladder and most of the people who I’d like to have over on Shabbat are OK with that. I know that may exclude some people. But they’re doing their own kind of Pick and Choose-daism. And that’s OK too.

A longer version of this article appeared originally at The Jerusalem Post.


In praise of datlashim

June 7, 2015

Datlashim are some of my favorite people. I admit I’m partial. All three of my kids are datlashim. That said, datlashim may represent the very future of Judaism or, stated with less hyperbole, may help an increasingly fractured Jewish community find common ground between religious and secular. Datlash is an acronym that stands for dati […]

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Ch’aliyah: immigrating because the bread is better

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Ever since making aliyah, we’ve joked that we could never leave Israel, and certainly never move out of Jerusalem…because of the challah. All that changed two weeks ago when the bakery that has been the source of perhaps the best kosher sweet whole wheat challah in the world closed down. After 43 years in business, […]

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When we were considering buying a dog for our family four years ago, I had three conditions: that it not shed (because I’m allergic to dog fur), that it not poop (because no way was I going to be picking up warm dog droppings daily) and that it not bark (as a chronic insomniac, I’d […]

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After months of election obsession, rapaciously reading everything I could, poring over polls and talking with anyone and everyone I could for the better part of the winter, I did the only thing left to do. I shut up. Literally. Just a few days after the votes were tallied, my wife and drove up to […]

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The run up to tonight’s Seder included a remarkable – and decidedly disturbing – discovery in the Blum house: no one in our family really likes Pesach. Actually, it was worse. Some of us really hate Pesach. The preparation, the cleaning, even the Seder itself doesn’t rank highly on our list of peak Jewish experiences. How […]

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