Aurland“It’s called re-entry syndrome,” my therapist friend Nomi explained to me as I was describing the difficulty I was having returning to Israel after our recent vacation abroad. “It happens to everyone.” It’s especially acute, she added, when you’ve just come from an especially polite country such as Norway, where we’d just spent two weeks hiking up waterfalls, gazing at glaciers, and most pertinent to my surprisingly strong resistance to coming home, re-discovering the meaning of the words “customer service” and “patience.”

I certainly won’t be the first person to point out that Israel can be a tough place to live. It’s a rough neighborhood, yes I know, and our history has given us ample reasons to dispense with many of the social pleasantries that our neighbors in the West so value. Moreover, my wife and I were, after all, on vacation in Norway, interacting with service providers primarily in the tourism industry, not the general population. Who knows what life is really like in a place like that?

But still, it can be jarring. At least on the surface, everyone in Norway was just so nice. Like Eden at the front desk of the Vangsgaarden Guest House in Aurland, who went out of her way to strategize the best trekking routes and let us borrow the hotel’s bikes for an hour at no charge. Or the manager at the sweets shop in Geiranger who, after we ran into her and her staff on a team building day and took their picture, insisted we come in for hot chocolate on the house. Or all those drivers on the narrow switchback mountain roads who never tailgated or honked or flashed their lights at us, and never, ever tried to pass when it wasn’t safe. If a tour bus needed room to maneuver at a tight curve, car drivers would simply wait.

On our return, the contrast came as quick as the ride from Ben-Gurion Airport back to Jerusalem. Our taxi driver cut between other cars with feckless abandon, while texting on his phone most of the time. A few days later, my wife and I were in a clothing store. Could the saleswoman have looked less dour? At the evening concert at the annual Hutzot HaYotzer arts and crafts festival, a burly guy with a crew cut and a white t-shirt insisted on sitting on the back of his seat. Why should he care if he was blocking the view of those behind him? Megiah lo – he deserves whatever he can take.

Israel can be a wonderful place, I thought to myself. If only it was filled with Norwegians.

When I told my kids about my bout with re-entry syndrome, they were quick to offer excuses for their fellow countrymen. “Maybe that salesperson had a boyfriend in the army on the border with Gaza and she’s really scared,” said one. “Or maybe the guy at the concert lost someone to a terror attack,” suggested another.

“I’m not trying to blame anyone for their behavior,” I replied. “I accept that this is the way it is here. I just wonder sometimes if it’s worth it. I mean, is this how I want to live out however many years I have left?”

That was how I felt, a few months earlier, when I had a near meltdown at the bank. After waiting close to an hour, the clerk in charge of my account couldn’t find the papers she needed and yelled at me (or maybe she was just speaking normally, it’s hard to tell in Hebrew), telling me to come back another time and rudely dismissing me with neither an apology nor an explanation.

As I walked home, I was drained, defeated, and found myself questioning some pretty big life choices. “Why are we even here?” I blabbered, as I recounted my experience at the bank to my wife Jody. “I’m just so tired, all the time. Maybe we should consider leaving.”

“What would that look like?” Jody asked, entertaining my question seriously.

The truth is, I’ve pictured this scenario before. But it always crosses into the realm of fantasy. The only way I can relieve the existential angst of leaving Israel and all the messages of betrayal and cowardice it brings up is to imagine going totally “Jewcognito.” That is, moving to a place and ditching any remnants of an Israeli – or for that matter a Jewish – identity in order to blend in without baggage.

It would have to be some city where we didn’t know anyone. That rules out all the places we’ve lived in the past as well as anywhere near family. We wouldn’t join any kind of organized Jewish community and we’d take neutral stands on all the burning Jewish questions of the day – BDS, Iran, anti-Semitism – that is when we weren’t ducking having opinions entirely. I doubt we’d move to Norway – that would be too far-out – but a small town in Iowa might fit the bill. We’d have to invent an elaborate backstory and stick to the script, like Don Draper from Mad Men. (Wait a minute, that didn’t work out so well for him in the end, did it?)

Fantasies, of course, are just that; black and white escapes routes born out of frustration that don’t take into account the 67 shades of grays that give life its real richness. Short of the ultimate extreme makeover, coming to terms with Israel as it is would probably be a better long-term solution. Worse comes to worse, I can always retreat into the Anglo bubble that characterizes my southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka and leave the interacting with the outside world to more stoic souls like my wife.

Now, I’m aware that my post-vacation beef with the boorish behavior of my neighbors might come across as trivial; a wimpy whine expanded into an artificial crisis obsessed primarily with the most superficial of qualities. “Israelis may not always be the easiest on the outside,” one of my kids pointed out, “but they will always have your back.”

I know that, along with all the other big picture arguments for making a go of the Jewish state: the historic opportunity of Zionism and the ingathering of the exiles, a country run by the Jewish calendar, the casual creativity that infuses everything from startups to wedding attire, the positive qualities of aggressive openness, the democratic responsibility of prodding change in those systems that are infuriatingly broken, the excellent humous. But that’s missing the point: I needed some help with getting past my very real re-entry syndrome.

My therapist friend Nomi used to work at the AACI where she counseled new immigrants on coping with culture shock. There are some interesting overlaps with re-entry syndrome, she explains. For aliyah, Nomi cites a five-stage process developed originally by Lucy Shahar, co-author of Border Crossings: American Interactions with Israelis.

The first stage is ”euphoria,” a honeymoon period where everything Israeli is wonderful. This is followed by “depression,” however, “characterized by a sense of homesickness, nostalgia for the familiar and a sense of loss,” Nomi goes on. “This second stage is also marked by a negative stereotyping of Israelis; a sense of them and us, and of not wanting to be around them.”

Fortunately, the depression usually passes, followed by an “adjustment” phase. But it’s also short lived, and about a year into one’s aliyah, a new downer arises, “disillusionment,” with a feeling of “is that all there is? Wasn’t aliyah supposed to improve my life in a more meaningful way?” If you can get past the disillusionment, and you make the choice to stay, you finally reach the fifth and final stage, “bi-culturalism,” where you can function and live a full life in both your original and new Israeli milieus.

“The Catch 22 is that you have to wait until you’re bi-cultural in order to decide if you want to be bi-cultural,” Nomi adds, wryly.

Nomi uses the five stages to give immigrants insight into their initial transition, but every time you leave and come back to Israel, she says, you go through the entire process again in miniature. In my case, I seem to have skipped over the euphoria phase and landed somewhere between stage two, depression, and stage four, disillusionment.

“Eventually you’ll get over the re-entry syndrome and regain your previous sense of equilibrium,” Nomi reassured me. “It may take a few weeks, or even longer.”

I hope so. Living in this livid limbo is no fun. I’m pretty sure I’ll get back to my version of Baka bubble bi-culturalism and I’ll be fine.

That is, until the next vacation.

I first wrote about re-entry syndrome at The Jerusalem Post.


Amulet bowlDr. Robin Stamler is a magic buff. It’s not magic tricks that interest him so much as the intersection between Jewish tradition and the mysterious and inexplicable. In a brisk one-hour session at the recent Limmud Jerusalem conference, Stamler laid out some of the more esoteric examples of Judaism’s quirkier, some would say, darker side.

What is clear is, that by the time the Talmud was being redacted, magic was very much a part of Judaism; not just a tangent, but an accepted reality in the daily lives of our ancestors.

Warding off demons, particularly through the writing of protective amulets, plays a large role. Stamler shared a story from the Talmudic tractate of Pesachim that discusses a man who was set upon by sixty demons that were living in a “sorb-bush.” The man went to a rabbi who was also a local amulet maker. The rabbi wrote for him the necessary text, but it was mistakenly only for a one-demon bush. It didn’t work, naturally, and the demons “laughed at his expense,” so another scholar was called in. He wrote the correct sixty-demon amulet and “the demons fled at once.” Archaeologists have found many amulet “bowls,” particularly in Babylonia, confirming that this was not an infrequent practice. (See picture above.)

Stamler also gave examples of protection against Lilith who, unlike the feminist hero she has become in recent years, complete with her own magazine, has a much bleaker backstory. Before Eve was created, Lilith was said to be Adam’s first partner, but she was expelled from the Garden of Eden over a difference of opinion on sexual positions (she wanted to be on top). During her flight, she turned to the dark side and, by the Middle Ages, was widely feared as a killer of infants – so much so that countless amulets at great cost were written to ward off the dangers of this terrible demon.

To my modern eyes, it was all rather amusing. Ah, how primitive our forefathers were! And how foolish they were to spend good money on such things. We of course know better these days.

Rebbetzen Miller lead pouringThat is, until Stamler got to Rebbetzen Aidel Miller, a master of the art of “lead pouring,” a relatively modern feat of Jewish magic that originated in the late 19th century and is also known by its original German name Bleigiessen. Rebbetzen Miller is operating today, in 2015 not hundreds of years ago, charging a tidy sum ($101 per session – after the 101 shofar blasts some congregations blow on Rosh Hashana) for a procedure that involves heating lead until it melts, then pouring it into a bucket of cold water placed near the sufferer’s head, discerning the shapes of the bubbles and globules that result, and using her knowledge to subsequently remove ayin hara (the evil eye), bypass child bearing blocks, or improve success with shidduchim (finding a marriageable partner). Rebbetzen Miller will come to your home or even do the procedure over the phone, apparently.

It wasn’t just the lead that was boiling now. I felt a burning sense of theological indignation. How could this be a part of Jewish tradition? This was no better than reading tea leaves or palmistry. Why not just whip out the old Ouija board? Magic belongs to the pagans, not the Jews, right?

“Why does it bother you so much?” my wife Jody asked as I recounted Stamler’s presentation and my surprisingly strong reaction to it. “So some people believe in magic. You don’t. What’s the big deal?”

“It goes against everything I was taught about Judaism, back from when I first started becoming observant thirty years ago,” I replied.

“Like what?” Jody said.

“Like God is real, Moses wrote the Torah and halacha is binding,” I sputtered. “Judaism was supposed to be free from the make believe and mumbo jumbo of other systems. It was supposed to be true with a capital T. That’s what attracted me in the first place. If magic is rampant in our tradition, does that make the entire enterprise suspect?”

“You’ve changed an awful lot since the 1980s,” Jody said kindly. “Do you still believe that?”

At some level, I still do. It has a lot to do with how I got into Judaism in the first place. I grew up entirely secular and came to observance in my twenties through the kiruv yeshivas of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Somayach (I went to both). And even though my Jewish expression is much more nuanced now and I no longer run my life strictly according to Jewish Law, the messages from those first days stuck: true Judaism is all or nothing. If you light a flame to heat up some soup on a Saturday, you’re breaking Shabbat. Not just doing it differently, but transgressing a clear set of timeless, unchangeable commandments.

Maybe if I’d become religious more organically, if I’s been raised with some Sunday School, a little Hebrew, and slowly moved into observance, rather than become a full on ba’al teshuva out of nowhere, it would have been different. But as I’d come to understand it, Judaism was 100 percent pure; it was the real deal and there was no room for demons and superstition and other supernatural beings other than the one true God. The rabbis knew what they were doing. They were infallible and righteous.

Maybe that’s why, every time I learn something about Jewish tradition that contradicts those early fundamentalist messages, it stings. Magic in Judaism – it can’t be! Women being ordained as rabbis – never! Observant Jews at a music festival on Shabbat (see my previous column “Pick and Choose-daism,” June 19, 2015) – what is the world coming to? Sex before marriage – yikes.

It seems that my current religious practice and my original Jewish belief system is out of sync. And it was getting me hot under the collar, even with the heavy air conditioning in Robin Stamler’s Limmud classroom.

It was another session at Limmud that helped provide some answers. Calev Ben Dor led a session with the provocative title “Approaching Troubling Torah Texts.” Ben Dor, a member of the David Cardozo Academy’s Jerusalem Think Tank, analyzed a number of biblical texts that seem to conflict with our modern moral standards. As an example, what do you do with the command in Deuteronomy to stone to death a “stubborn and rebellious son?” Surely we wouldn’t do such a thing, not today or even thousands of years ago.

Ben Dor described three ways the rabbis of the Talmud tried to deal with such texts. One was essentially to ignore the text and to leave the judgment to God in the world to come. Another was to “neutralize” the text; to limit the specifics in which a law is applicable so much that it becomes unenforceable. The Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin stipulates that the rebellious son must be a boy not a girl (exempting half the population at the get-go), a minor, not a mature adult, and that it only applies if the rebellious son consumes “a tartemar of meat and drinks half a lug of Italian wine.”

The approach I liked the most, though, and the one that I’d say is arguably the most applicable today, is that the troublesome text was never meant to be acted on in the first place; it was brought entirely for the purposes of study and interpretation. Rabbi Simeon, referring to the improbability of the “tartemar of meat and half a lug of Italian wine,” decrees that, “Such a thing never occurred nor ever will be, and it is written only for studying.” Rabbi Yehuda agrees.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks updates that understanding for the modern age. Writing in his book The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, he says that “every religion is based on a body of holy writings [which] contains hard texts: passages which, if taken literally and applied directly would lead to results at odds with that religion’s deepest moral convictions. Such texts need interpretation. The classic form of fundamentalism is belief in the literal meaning of texts. Interpretation is as fundamental to any text-based religion as is the original act of revelation itself.”

I would go one step further: it’s not just ancient texts about rebellious sons that trouble us today – it’s all of the other illogical tangents that have seeped into and continue to hold sway over our tradition. Rabbi Sacks and the scholars of the Talmud seem to be saying you don’t have to believe that magic literally works just because it’s in there. Maybe it’s there for us to learn something – about human psychology or the history of religion.

Maybe the Rebbetzen Millers of the world exist so we have a baseline of charlatanism to compare all the good stuff against. Or to teach us that, if you don’t like something in Jewish tradition, you don’t always have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes the magic bubbles are enough.

I first got all hot and bothered by my magic bubbles at The Jerusalem Post.


Brian-rainbow(sm)Google Maps said it would take just under two hours to hike from Oslo’s Frogsternen café, with its world famous homemade apple pie, to Sognsvann lake via the rolling hills and blueberry patches near Ulyovata. said the temperature would get up to lovely 25 degrees and there was a zero percent chance of precipitation. It was a perfect way to start off our two-week vacation in Norway. We dressed in shorts and t-shirts and left the rain gear back at our hotel.

And for the first hour and a half, the hike was just about as picturesque as we’d anticipated when my wife Jody and I started planning a trip to this far-north land of the fjords, where the summer sun doesn’t set until 11:00 pm and four different versions of smoked salmon are served at every meal.

When the skies started to darken and we felt the first drops of rain on our unprotected bodies, we figured it was just a fluke. There weren’t that many clouds above. It would pass over. We ducked under a tree to wait it out.

But the rain wasn’t a fluke. It began to pour down heavier and heavier until thunder cracked and lightning sizzled and it was clear that the meager foliage above our heads was contributing more to our rapid dampening than any semblance of protection.

As our physical discomfort increased, we found ourselves gripped by real if irrational fear. We were in a foreign country with nothing more than Google to guide us. We had already walked for as long as Google had predicted for the entire hike, yet we knew we hadn’t even reached the half-way point. We were pretty sure we were still on the blue path the waiter at the Frogsternen café told us to follow, but then again, we could be completely lost.

The possibility that we might be stuck out here for hours in the rain, maybe until the Norwegian darkness finally fell, suddenly seemed less than far-fetched. We felt our hearts race, hot bursts of sweat dueling with the cold tap-taps from the skies, as we held hands, frozen in place and thinking the worst.

Fortunately, we had Dr. Russ Harris as our self-help guide. Harris is the author of The Happiness Trap, a layperson’s guide to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which weaves the practice of mindfulness into psychotherapy by utilizing a variety of cognitive techniques while minimizing the usual emphasis on meditation. I got turned on to ACT by my friend Jerusalem therapist Bracha Zornberg, who has found ACT so effective she now uses it with all her clients.

“Mindfulness is a hot topic in Western psychology right now,” Harris writes. It is “increasingly recognized as a powerful therapeutic intervention for everything from work stress to depression. In ACT, meditation is seen as only one way amongst hundreds of learning these skills – and this is a good thing, because most people do not like meditating!”

I had brought a copy of The Happiness Trap with me on the trip and had already been trying to put into play some of the skills Harris describes in the book’s 33 breezy chapters. Right about now, in that foggy Frogsternen forest, would have been an ideal opportunity.

The “acceptance” part of ACT begins with techniques to help “defuse” the hold that our thoughts and emotions have on us. “Cognitive fusion” Harris writes, occurs when a “thought and the thing it refers to become blended.” Just like we might react to words in a crime novel “as if someone is [actually] about to be murdered, we react to words like ‘I’m useless’ [or] ‘I’m going to fail’ as if failure is a foregone conclusion.”

In a state of cognitive fusion, we treat thoughts as if they are real; we believe them entirely, give them our full attention and obey them, almost as if they are orders, rather than seeing them for what they are: bits of language that float in and out of our minds, often at random, constantly changing, with no more certainty than, say, the weather in Oslo. “Defusion is about [allowing] our thoughts, images and memories… to come and go as they please, without giving them more attention than they deserve,” Harris explains.

Among Harris’s suggestions for defusing an unhelpful thought: You can reframe it by adding “I’m having the thought that…” So, in our case, instead of “we’re going to be stuck in the woods all night in the rain,” you’d say “I’m having the thought that we’re going to be stuck in the woods all night.” Am I really going to be here until dawn? Do I know that with 100 percent certainty? Or is it just a thought?

Another ACT technique is to repeat the thought in a silly voice. It could be Elmer Fudd or a character from Monty Python. I chose Homer Simpson. “Duh, we’re going to be stuck in the woods all night!” I said to Jody. We both laughed at the absurdity. “We’re going to be miserable,” faux Homer continued, but it now seemed less a pronouncement of unassailable doom than the ravings of an unreliable yellow cartoon.

The aim of defusion,” Harris writes, is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, but rather to stop struggling with them. He then adds a caveat: “At times they will go away and at times they won’t. If you start expecting them to go, you are setting yourself up for disappointment or frustration.”

That’s why Harris calls his book The Happiness Trap: because the frantic pursuit of happiness as one’s ultimate goal in life is pretty much guaranteed to lead to its converse. “The things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant,” Harris says. An intimate long-term relationship, for example, comprises both wonderful feelings like love and joy, but it’s also hard work with plenty of ups and downs. -The same holds true with pretty much every other “meaningful project we embark on. Although they often bring feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, they also generally bring stress, fear and anxiety.”

It even makes sense from an evolutionary point of view: “Our minds did not evolve to make us feel good [or to] tell great jokes,” Harris writes. We needed food, water, shelter and sex. Happiness is just a fleeting bonus.

With all this in mind, that’s how, lost in the Norwegian wood, Homer Simpson and a cautiously happy Dr. Russ Harris got us out of a wet funk and enabled us to think clearly again.

After about 20 minutes paralyzed in the rain, we decided to run for it. We moved as quickly as we could over the rain slickened rocks, attempting – mostly unsuccessfully – to bypass the newly formed puddles that had potholed the previously pristine trail. In a cruel irony, sanctuary presented itself just four minutes away – far less than the time we had hunkered down under that ridiculous tree – in the form of a tourist “hut” that, while now closed, had only an hour before provided ample shelter while serving Norwegian heart-shaped waffles with fresh jam to soothe other weary hikers. As if on cue, a massive rainbow appeared over the hut and the skies cleared, leaving no trace of the abruptly castrated catastrophe.

Over the course of the next two weeks, we practiced our new found defusion techniques every chance we got: when the bus arrived late and the thought arose that we might miss our boat to Bergen (we didn’t); when we were convinced that all those waffles and lavish Norwegian breakfasts would add unwanted and unsheddable kilograms (our weight was back down to normal within a week of healthy eating upon our return); that the loud party on the other side of our hotel room’s paper thin walls would go on all night (it was shut down by midnight).

So, here’s my bottom line; the key to a successful vacation: when something unhelpful comes up, ask yourself or your partner, “Are you having a thought?”

And always pack appropriate rain gear!

I first got lost in the woods over at The Jerusalem Post.


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.


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