If I were making aliyah today, I’m not sure I would go through with it. If a potential immigrant asked my advice about moving here, I’m not sure what I’d say anymore.

Those were my first reactions after the Knesset enacted a double whammy of legislation earlier this month – the unnecessary Nation-State bill, which codifies language describing Israel as a Jewish State but has little practical effect other than making the 20 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish feel unwelcome, and changes to a law enabling state funding for surrogacy that leaves out single fathers and by extension men in same-sex relationships.

Those two laws were followed by the early morning detainment of a rabbi affiliated with the Conservative movement for the crime of conducting a marriage between two Jews whom the rabbinate claimed “are not eligible to be married.”

The attorney general quickly stepped in on the latter, freeing Rabbi Dov Haiyun from additional questioning by police. But taken as a whole, these three actions lead me to wondering: What has happened to us? Where did the shining words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence – which promised to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” – go?

The problem, as so often happens, is inertia. None of the actions in the Knesset or at the Haifa police station, however upsetting, affect the majority of Israelis on a day-to-day basis. On the contrary, life in general just keeps getting better and easier.

Sure, there is the constant threat of another war, but that hasn’t changed since the founding of the state. On the street, however, the differences between now and when I made aliyah 24 years ago can sometimes seem miraculous.

Some of the improvements are the result of actual good governance. Smoking has been banned nearly everywhere, we’re nearing the last bank or insurance company that still requires sending forms in by fax and if you get caught with pot (without a medical license), it’s a fine not a felony.

Jews and Arabs are integrating more than ever before, as well. As Matti Friedman pointed out in a 2017 article, nearly half of the Arab workers in Jerusalem are now employed in Jewish areas, and the number is rising. So is the percent of Palestinian students enrolled at Israeli universities. “Palestinians and Israelis might not like each other, but their fates are becoming more tightly entwined, and everyone has more to lose if things fall apart,” Friedman writes.

The cost of living in Israel remains high compared to other developed economies but, writes David Rosenberg, “real wages have risen 12 percent in the last five years, unemployment is at record lows [and] inequality and poverty have been falling.”

Then of course there’s technology. Social media may have mangled what’s left of our already email-challenged attention spans, but there’s no arguing it’s made the world a smaller, more connected place. (I’m on the side that says that’s a good thing.)

And the tech business is booming – so much so that the Startup Nation is having trouble recruiting engineers locally. A program called BETA (“Be in Tel Aviv”) offers a $20,000 relocation bonus, a yearly round-trip flight home and a Hebrew tutor among other perks.

It’s in the tech space where we can find one possible solution to the disconnect between an Israel getting better and a Knesset pushing a political agenda designed to engender the opposite.

We’ve seen it in action twice in recent weeks.

When ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit next to women on a recent El Al flight, Barak Eilam, the CEO of Ra’anana-based software giant NICE, declared that his firm would boycott El Al until the airline changed its policies. “At NICE, we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion,” Eliam wrote.

Within days, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin announced that passengers not taking their assigned seats would be deplaned immediately.

When the surrogacy law was passed, it was tech firms again who took the lead. Scores of companies gave employees who wished to join the protests permission to take the day off with pay.

“We stand with all of our employees seeking equality under the law,” Apple said in a statement.  “No one should be denied one of the most basic human rights … for being who they are” was how IBM’s statement read. CRM giant Salesforce said it “will support our employees who campaign for change to this law.”

Those same statements could have been made just as easily about the Nation-State law.

In the summer of 2011, tens of thousands of Israelis pitched tents along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to protest rising consumer costs. Some prices came down but mostly life went back to the status quo.

When Startup Nation gets involved, though, the possibility of real pain to the bottom line is greater, as El Al experienced. More of that could finally get the government spooked.

I’m not so starry-eyed to believe an activist Startup Nation will turn the tide alone – change still runs through the Knesset – but it’s a new approach and it takes courage for a sector that doesn’t usually get involved in politics.

In July, tech firms proved it’s possible. If the influence of tech was limited in the past to silicon and software, moving forward, it may be able to move the needle on injustice and enmity.

What would I say to someone making aliyah today? Come! Get involved. Protest. (And take the $20,000 relocation bonus.)

I first pondered whether the Startup Nation could save Israel from itself at The Jerusalem Post.

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Playing the cancer card

by Brian on July 23, 2018

in Cancer,Reviews

All I wanted was a “free pass” – the ability to say, “No I don’t feel up to walking the dog, can you?” or the option to tell a client, “I’m going to need an extension on the deadline because, you know, cancer.”

But, other than days when I really am so out of it I can’t hold a coherent conversation, I haven’t been able to play the “cancer card.”

It’s not that I’ve been doing so well. Behind the “inspiring” pictures I post to Facebook, smiling in my hospital bed or out for a stroll in nature, there’s been some genuine misery: fatigue, nausea, vertigo and various aches and pains. (So far, a healthy dose of medical cannabis and judicious “elbow bumping” seem to have kept me out of the ER.)

It was during one of those bad days that I became particularly discouraged.

“Maybe I could take a few months ‘sabbatical’ from work,” I suggested to my wife, Jody. “I could watch TV all day, catch up on my shows.”

“That’s not the cancer talking,” said my therapist, when I laid out my proposal. “That sounds more like depression. And you don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.”

My therapist was referring to my tendency to spiral in the face of bad news; to pile on the negativity until it becomes an obsession that isn’t good for anyone. “Checking out” could cause some serious psycho-social damage, she implied.

“But this time it’s different,” I countered, not ready to give in without putting up a fight for passivity. “It’s not like in the past when my boss was on my case or I had a tiff with Jody. This time, I’m really sick. I think a free pass could do me good, give me time to heal.”

But my therapist just shook her head. “You’ve built up all these structures that are a major part of your identity,” she said. “As a husband, a father, an employee, a dog walker, a friend, someone who exercises and eats well and hikes the Himalayas. Take those away and your self-image becomes limited to that of a ‘sick person.’ I don’t think that’s really what you want.”

That advice is consistent with the popular concept that maintaining a positive attitude can play a critical role in alleviating illness. The idea took off big time in the 1980s with Louise Hay’s massive best-seller “You Can Heal Your Life,” in which the author documents how through positive affirmations and visualizations she cured herself of cancer.

Hay’s approach resonates beyond rehabilitation. “For many years there have been those who were convinced that people with certain personality types were more likely to get cancer,” the American Cancer Society website recalls. “The common thought was that neurotic people and introverts were at the highest risk of cancer.”

That line of thinking has been since debunked – significantly through a 30-year study following 60,000 people published in 2010. But the belief in a mind-body-healing connection continues.

Is it backed up by science, though?

A study published last week in the journal Nature Communications conducted at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology suggests the answer may be yes. The researchers found that increasing the level of dopamine in the brains of tumor-bearing mice – thus boosting their positive emotions – reduced the size of their growths.

Whether or not the science holds up with humans, it misses the point, implies Barbara Ehrenreich in her book “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.”

When Ehrenreich was diagnosed with cancer herself, she ran into an almost unrelenting requirement to stay positive.

“Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she quotes Lance Armstrong as saying.

“Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live,” quips Anne McNerney in the book “The Gift of Cancer.”

“Cancer had everything to do with how good the good parts of my life were,” writes NBC News correspondent Betty Rollin.

Ehrenreich disagrees.

“Rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugar-coating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost,” she writes. “It requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer.”

And, if positive thinking fails and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment, “the patient can only blame herself: she is not being positive enough,” Ehrenreich adds.

It’s not just for cancer, either. “If your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success,” Ehrenreich rails.

The members of a Facebook group for people with follicular lymphoma (my cancer) are on the same page.

“We need the opportunity to experience and express a full range of emotions without guilt and having to always be positive for others,” wrote one.

“My husband was Mr. Positivity with his cancer. I am an Eeyore by nature – gloom and doom and grump. He died. I didn’t. So go figure,” posted another.

“Show up, take the drugs,” wrote a third. “That’s what takes care of the disease. But a good attitude makes it easier to show up.”

That last line most aptly describes why I’ve been unwilling to claim my free pass.

Cancer isn’t easy. It isn’t necessarily transformative. But continuing to show up, rain or shine, gain or pain, with a tired but true smile on my face, is without question better for me and, just as important, it’s better for my friends, family and coworkers when I present with some semblance of a recognizable self-identity.

I don’t get to play the cancer card. The truth is, I don’t want to anymore. That justmight be the most positive outcome of this unexpected journey.

I originally (didn’t) play the cancer card at The Jerusalem Post.

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Pay mindfulness forward

by Brian on July 9, 2018

in Cancer,Mindfulness

“You’re going to feel so much better in a week.”

I don’t know if it was a pep talk or my doctor’s analysis of my cancer, but those words of encouragement, uttered two days before my treatment for follicular lymphoma was to start a few months back, buoyed me through the initial fears and side effects of starting a 2-year process of chemo and immunotherapy.

It also set my expectations high – really high. So when I came back to Hadassah Medical Center for my second treatment a week later, it was hard to hide my disappointment.

“How do you feel?” my doctor asked with her usual cheer.

“In general, I’m tolerating the meds well,” I responded, which was true. I hadn’t wound up in the emergency room with a high fever or an infection. I’d had no allergic reaction while receiving the IV itself, which is another common concern.

Yes, I ached all over and felt fatigued much of the time. “But those are manageable,” I said, reassuring myself as well as my doctor. “It’s the stomach aches that are the worst. And that’s got me worried.”

Worried, because it was abdominal pain that sent me for that first ultrasound (the one that caught the cancer early) and now there seemed a distinct possibility that the pain might not go away with the cancer treatment; that the knife stabs to my stomach that I was experiencing daily might be caused by something entirely unrelated to my cancer.

“I’m afraid,” I told my doctor, “that this is going to be how I’ll feel for the rest of my life. That I’ll get to remission from the cancer but still be suffering from chronic pain.”

“Let’s not worry so much about a year from now,” she said. “How about we try to just get through the next week?”

Anxiety about the future has been one of my emotional bogeymen for as long as I remember.

It comes from an understandable place – it’s what makes us human. After all, human beings are the only animals that can even imagine a tomorrow. We play out in our minds multiple possible responses to everything. That allows us to think strategically; to be three steps ahead in a negotiation.

But when it fuses with worry, “future thinking” is decidedly less helpful.

I’d already begun to deal with this even before my cancer diagnosis.

I set out on a speaking tour of the U.S. at the end of 2017 to promote my new book. Yet every time I started my spiel, my stomach would flare up.

When I returned from the trip, I met with my therapist who suggested I try a variation of “pay it forward.”

“Can you derive any enjoyment at all from these talks?” she asked.

“Well, when the pain has subsided and I reflect back, I feel pleased about the job I did and the way the audience reacted,” I replied.

“So, can you bring some of that good feeling you know you’re going to get in the future into the moments when you’re actually talking?” she continued. “Even if you’re physically uncomfortable?”

“That’s not very mindful!” I chided her. I’d long ago internalized the meditation mantra that you should always strive to focus on the present and the feelings you’re having right now.

“I’m just suggesting a way to give those ‘future feelings’ more prominence in the current moment,” my therapist said. A kind of an “anti-mindfulness mindfulness.”

The concept was not unfamiliar to me. When we used to camp at the Jacob’s Ladder music festival (before we started renting a room with a proper bed), I would never get more than 3-4 hours of sleep. The tent was too cold. Then it was too hot. There was too much noise from the kids next door.

I’d walk around the grounds for the next two days in a daze.

But there’s so much more going on at the show: all the music, connecting with old friends, the late night jams by the Sea of Galilee.

How much of my overall experience was not feeling well? Ten percent? Why should I let just one element, already in the minority, define the entire weekend?

Here’s another way of looking at it: What’s the cost-benefit analysis on the weekend as a whole? Does the discomfort outweigh the positives? Would it be a reasonable decision to skip out on the festival entirely just to avoid the possibility of not sleeping? Of course not.

“The things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant,” writes Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap, a primer on ACT – Acceptance Commitment Therapy. He gives the example of an intimate relationship, which comprises desirable feelings like love and joy, but is also hard work with inevitable ups and downs and emotional pain.

To be sure, it’s not always possible to willpower your way past pain, especially when it’s chronic. But I’ve already found this technique helpful as I settle into my new normal.

Maybe I won’t feel better in a week, I told myself. Maybe it will take a month. Or a year. Or it won’t happen at all. My job is to accept whatever reality is mine (including the pain), while at the same time committing to embrace the bigger blessings in my life – those that are happening right now and those that I can imagine enjoying in the (hopefully very near) future.

I first paid mindfulness forward at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo of Hadassah Medical Center via Wikimedia Commons, taken by David Shankbone

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The Babylonian Talmud tells the story of the great rabbinic leader Rebbe who in the third century CE developed a malignant gastro-intestinal disorder. His followers set up a non-stop prayer vigil in the courtyard of his house. The idea: as long as they continued to pray, he would live.

His maid, however, felt that Rebbe would be better off ending his misery and smashed a large ceramic jar nearby. The loud noise startled the petitioners and broke their concentration. At that very moment, the Talmud relates, Rebbe died.

Jewish educator Dr. Elliott Malamet presented that story to illustrate a point in a provocative new talk he’s dubbed “Faith, Interrupted.” His lecture delves into the changing nature of belief and the rise of “rational” Judaism.

Malamet first needed to explain just how much the world has transformed since the advent of a scientific worldview – even amongst the religious. If, in a pre-modern age, the ancients ascribed cause and effect for inexplicable events to invisible deities and demons, today we know where to draw the line.

Malamet compared the prayer vigil at Rebbe’s house with a modern equivalent: life support technology. “Aren’t the two essentially the same?” Malamet once asked a class, only somewhat rhetorically. “You pull the plug and the person dies. You stop praying and the person dies.”

“Come on, Professor,” one of the students, who identified as Orthodox, responded. “The life support system, that’s science. But prayer, we all know that’s not how it really works.”

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and by the ‘disenchantment’ of the world,” wrote the German sociologist Max Weber in 1918, one of 35 citations Malamet brought to his talk. By “disenchantment,” Weber was referring to the belief that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”

In that respect, nearly all Jews today are “rational,” Malamet explained, in that we can clearly contextualize the limits of religious phenomenon. Rational Jews intuit which thoughts and behaviors to assign to the religious domain, and which remain beyond it.

Contrast that with the pre-modern “irrational” era of Rebbe, where God controlled everything, disease was an inexorable riddle and miracles were everyday occurrences.

We take the steady drift away from our irrational prehistory as a given. But it prompts a tougher question with a less certain answer: is the rational approach to Judaism we have today sustainable over the long-term?

That is, can a Judaism that cohabitates with the modern world continue to propagate well into the 21stcentury? Or has the breakdown of a once shared, if simplistic, understanding of how the universe works irreparably wrecked the system?

In 2011, Moment magazine asked a group of prominent Jewish leaders this question: “Can there be Judaism without belief in God?” While that takes the discussion of rational Judaism to a supernatural extreme, one rabbi’s response was nevertheless telling.

Rabbi David Wolpe is a leader in the Conservative movement. He says yes, there can be a Judaism with a less proscribed attitude towards the divine. But it will continue only “briefly, as it cannot reproduce itself … It can last a generation or two but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. I don’t believe that people will continue to light Shabbat candles because it’s a cultural practice.”

Transmitting such a Judaism, Wolpe concludes, “will be an insurmountable challenge.”

That’s a pretty bleak prediction. But could Wolpe be right?

Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Breslow Hassidic movement, tackled a related problem some 200 years ago. If God was everywhere, as Jewish mysticism proclaimed, he pondered, how could there be room in the universe for human beings?

Unable to resolve the paradox, Nachman wrote in his seminal Likutei Moharan that one must “cast aside all rational processes and serve God simply.” Mental understanding, he added, “is not essential.”

Even if Rabbi Nachman could not have anticipated the challenges of the scientific age, his conclusion was clear: only an approach to Judaism that deemphasizes thinking can persevere.

Two opinions, however respected their authors may be, do not foretell an immutable future, of course. But still: is it possible that, in another 50 or 100 years, just the irrationalists will be left standing?

Then I remembered where I live. While there’s no shortage of irrational Jews here in the Holy Land, Israel is flourishing as a bastion of rational Judaism. That’s in large part because we’re not just another denomination but a full-fledged nation and as such we don’t have to pay liturgical lip service to our irrational roots. When Jews light Shabbat candles in Israel, it can be part of our national traditions, not only as an expression of religious doctrine.

We may not exactly be secular, and the separation of church and state is hardly even a concept here. But we are at our core rational, and our identity as Israelis does not require that we revert to irrationality in order to survive.

Yes, Israel is still a work-in-progress. I’m not sure anyone would be entirely satisfied if, say, the recent holiday of Shavuot was reduced to cheesecake and water balloon fights.

But Israel can serve as the proverbial light unto the nations – in this case for the Jews. What we’ve built here, as unlikely as that seems these days given the ever-growing rift with our Diaspora brethren, can actually be an inspiration – or at least the starting point in a longer conversation – for Jews everywhere looking to strengthen a rational, enduring approach to tradition.

I first looked at rational vs. irrational Judaism in The Jerusalem Post.

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Famous germaphobes

by Brian on June 10, 2018

in Cancer,Science

I recently joined some dubious celebrity company. Among my companions are Michael Jackson, Howard Hughes, Cameron Diaz and Donald Trump.

What do we have in common? We all suffer from mysophobia. That’s an irrational fear of germs.

Donald Trump, for example, is so germophobic that Newsweek reported last year that he “needs to drink through a straw because he wants to avoid contamination” and that he washes his hands “as much as possible.”

Michael Jackson famously wore surgical masks and gloves in public. Howard Hughes would lock himself in his “germ-free” hotel room for months at a time.

My mysophobia is less obsessive, more practical and hopefully quite temporary. Blame it on the cancer.

When I started chemotherapy a few months ago, I asked my doctor whether I could go out in public. The concern is that chemo wrecks your immune system. So if you catch a common cold or a stomach bug, rather than simply stay in bed to recuperate, you could wind up in the emergency room getting pumped full of antibiotics.

“Try to avoid enclosed places with a lot of people,” my doctor advised. “And don’t shake hands. That’s the most common way to pick up a bacteria or virus.”

“Sure, I can do that,” I replied confidently. But the reality was a lot easier said than done.

In particular, I now had to figure out a whole new way to greet people, along with a litany of clever excuses when someone extends a hand.

I could have just blurted out, “I’m not shaking hands because I have cancer.” But that’s not always a discussion I’m ready to have, especially with strangers.

My more discreet response: “I’m not feeling well, so I’m not shaking hands right now.” First of all, it’s true. And it makes me seem like I’m more concerned about the health of the other person.

To wit: a few weeks ago, my wife Jody and I were invited to a Shabbat dinner at the home of some new friends. We didn’t know any of the other people there, which meant I’d have plenty of opportunity to practice my new line.

“That’s very considerate of you,” said Mark, one of the guests, as I kept my hands firmly at my side.

But when it turned out we were seated next to each other at the dinner table, Mark started to squirm. He moved his chair slightly away from me. “Just how, you know, contagious are you?” he asked hesitantly.

“Oh, I’m not contagious,” I admitted. “I’m worried about getting sick from you!” I then explained about the chemotherapy and I saw his expression morph from apprehension about his own health to compassion for the cancer guy.

With friends who know what I’m going through, I’ve developed a special kind of greeting: the “elbow-bump.” Rather than extend a palm, I jut out my right elbow. We do a little dance and have a laugh, which gives me the chance to explain what it means to have a neutrophil count of only 1.4.

“If you do shake someone’s hand, just avoid touching your face afterward,” my doctor said.

I’d have to be a pretty flexible yogi to bring my elbow all the way to my mouth.

There have been a few times where I had no choice but to shake hands. Once, I was interviewed by a Swedish journalist who covers electric cars about my book. We were at an Aroma cafe. I decided up front that cancer didn’t need to be part of that conversation.

“Excuse me for a moment, I need to use the toilet before we start our chat,” I said. I then quickly washed my hands. I figured his Scandinavian politeness wouldn’t begrudge me that favor.

Not that restrooms are the cleanest places. The website TravelMath tested the surfaces in an average hotel room to find out which were the “germiest.” The bathroom counter topped the list with 1,288,817 CFUs (that’s “colony-forming units”) per square inch.

Running a close second: the TV remote control. Interestingly, 3-star hotels came in considerably less germy than 5-star properties.

Being a germaphobe can be crazy-making. Once, I had an appointment in downtown Jerusalem. Normally, I’d drive, but Jody needed the car that day. I planned to take a taxi. Just as I got to the main street, though, an Egged bus that would take me right where I needed to go arrived.

It wouldn’t take much longer on the bus, I thought to myself. And it would cost so much less than a cab. I hopped on.

Immediately I realized I’d made a mistake. As I scanned the vehicle packed with people, windows closed, I imagined myself aboard a rolling petri dish of bacteria all gunning for my white blood cell-deficient system. If I could just get to a seat and keep my hands to myself…

The bus lurched forward and I had no choice but to grab one of the bug-infested poles. I sat down, defeated and anticipating my coming hospital stay.

When it was time to press the button for my stop, I tried valiantly to use my elbow. A teenager who was standing nearby regarded me quizzically, made what I imagine were some cursory conclusions before kindly using her gloriously non-immuno-compromised finger to do what had so terrified this unintended mysophobe.

I washed my hands like Donald Trump when I got home. The ER, thankfully, hasn’t seen me yet.

I first revealed my mysophobia at The Jerusalem Post.

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About that Baka boom

May 28, 2018

I was in the shower when it happened: a boom louder than any I’ve heard since the suicide bomb at Café Hillel on Emek Refaim Street in 2003.

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Finding the groove at Jacob’s Ladder

May 14, 2018

A pre-show “review” from last week’s Jacob’s Ladder indie, folk, country, blues and bluegrass festival at the Sea of Galilee.

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Please don’t pray for me – here’s what you can do instead

May 7, 2018

“But you’re so healthy. You work out, you’re always hiking, you don’t smoke. And your wife’s a vegan. How could this have happened?”

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What getting chemotherapy’s really like

April 22, 2018

I’ve long harbored a grim curiosity about chemotherapy. Does it hurt? Do you feel like vomiting the whole time? Here’s my personal experience.

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What datlashim want: “children just like us”

April 1, 2018

Will your datlashi children be driving to and from your Seder this year? Rabbi Shlomo Riskin says that’s OK – even into and out of Efrat.

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