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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Values of Days Gone By - Epilogue

Last week I drove past the old Zinkal building, a.k.a "the building with the values-of-days-gone-by inscription", and this is what I saw:

For years I drive by this building. I finally decide to write a few words about it, and a month later it's gone. As the saying goes: sic transit gloria mundi.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, by Donald Harington

It was Friday night, a week ago. I was in Seoul, alone in my hotel room, facing a long shabbat with nothing to do but read. I started reading this book at 10pm. By the time I went to sleep, at 5am, I was half-way through it. The only reason I stopped was that I wanted to give myself a few more days of pleasure, instead of finishing it all in one go.

This is an epic novel that traces several generations of the Ingledews, the first settlers of the town of Stay More in Arkansas. The town was named so by the Indian the brothers met upon arriving in Arkansas (or rather, John met, as Noah was scared shitless of the native and ran to the woods). This Indian, Fanshaw, who spoke English with a British accent, referred to the Ingledew dwelling by this name because John kept telling him politely to "stay more" every time he came to visit. So it is only natural that the town dwellers became knows as the Stay Morons.

This wonderful book has twenty chapters. Each chapter opens with an illustration of a building, and through the story of that building and its distinctive architecture, Harington weaves the tale of Stay More and the Stay Morons. The tale makes its way through the Civil War, the Great Depression and two World Wars, gradually building a world which entrances the reader and makes him fall in love with its inhabitants. These hillibillys, with their simple ways and their reluctance to adapt to PROG RESS, go through good and bad but stay fiercely proud of their home town. The men work hard, which makes them come down with bad cases of the Frakes, a mysterious incapacitating disease that makes life seem utterly pointless, but they also enjoy the simple pleasures in life: hunting, fornicating, or simply sitting around on the porch of the town's general store or mill. The wives are busy producing children and taking care of their homes, although most of them turn out to be much smarter than the men.

The best way I can find to describe this novel is to call it the "American 100 years of Solitude". It will make you laugh aloud, it will make you smile, it will make you ponder life and it will definitely change the way you think about early American settlers and their modern-day offspring. I don't recall how I came by this book and why I bought it, but I'm so thankful I did.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Seven Medical Myths

The British Medical Journal just published a list of seven medical myths, common medical beliefs that turn out to be wrong.

Here they are:

1. People should drink at least eight glasses of water a day

I always knew there something wrong with this one. Even during my military training days I had difficulty drinking 8 glasses of water a day.

2. We use only 10% of our brains

Actually, I didn't know this one. However, had I heard about it I would have taken it to be true, simply based on watching most people around me. So I believe further research is warranted before dismissing this. I'll grant them 20%, but no more.

3. Hair and fingernails continue to grow after death

I have nothing to say about this one. I'm surprised it's a myth.

4. Shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser

I used to believe this one, until I starting losing my hair.

5. Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight

Yes, I believed this one. I actually berate my children for reading after lights out. Although, come to think of it, I should have known better. I behaved exactly like them when I was a child, and my eyesight is still perfect.

6. Eating turkey makes people especially drowsy

I don't eat much turkey, so I wouldn't know. Didn't know this one.

7. Mobile phones create considerable electromagnetic interference in hospitals

This I knew not to be true, as mobile phones operate on different frequencies. Another myth (not medical) is that mobile phones interfere with the aircraft navigation systems. Yeah, right.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sitting or Standing?

Some of the statistics coming out of Japan are simply too fascinating to ignore.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

DMZ, Korea

I took a peek into North Korea today. It was a short peek, it was foggy so I couldn't see much, but it was a peek nonetheless.

With the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the signing of the armistice agreement between South and North Korea, the DMZ (de-militarised zone) was set up. Where the front line stood at the end of the hostilities, a military demarcation line was drawn, from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other. The area 2km north and south of this line became the DMZ. Today I took the half-day "DMZ Tour" from Seoul to try and catch a glimpse of The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The drive from Seoul to the border is astonishingly short. On a traffic-free Sunday morning it took us well under an hour, driving north on the "Freedom Highway". After some formalities like having our passports checked (officially the DMZ belongs to neither country) and switching to a tightly-controlled official tour bus, we arrived to the southern border of the DMZ. There, the South Koreans constructed a small museum that describes the history of the place and everyone is made to watch a 7-minute movie that shows how the DMZ today, despite the de-facto state of war between the two parts of the divided country, is nothing more than a big nature reserve (with about 1 million soldiers around it, mind you).

By far the most fascinating part of this generally drab tour is the visit to one of the tunnels dug by the North, with the purpose to invade the South one day. The South Koreans, initially by accident and later with the aid of the Americans, began unearthing these tunnels in the 1970s. Four have been found so far, but the general belief is there are many more. The one open to the public is the 3rd tunnel, discovered in 1978. It is located 73m below ground level and runs through the entire DMZ. A tourist train goes down the interception tunnel dug by the South Koreans, and then one can walk about 200m north into the DMZ, below ground. It's a back-breaking experience, as the height of the tunnel is just short of a normal (Western) person's height. No picture-taking is allowed.

This 3rd tunnel was discovered after a defector from North Korea tipped off the authorities. The South Korean military engineers bore holes into the ground in several places and filled them with water in PVC pipes. Eventually, they hit the tunnel. Notwithstanding the evidence - the direction of the dynamite drill marks, the slope of the tunnel - the North Koreans vehemently denied they were responsible for digging it. In fact, they tried to hide the fact this was an incursion tunnel and claimed it was a mine; they proceeded, in their retreat, to paint parts of the tunnel black using charcoal in order to "prove" this was true. Silly buggers.

Another part of the tour is Dorasan train station, the northermost railroad station in South Korea. It was reconstructed after the rapprochement of 2000, and stands there today, brand-new, state-of-the-art, shiny... but totally empty, except for a souvenir shop and a couple of fancy-looking soldiers. The signs say Seoul-Pyongyang, waiting for the day this train route will become a reality. A nifty gimmick: you can stamp your passport with an immigration stamp to show you've "taken" this ride between the two capital cities. President Bush visited here a few years ago, and left a hand-written message:

Aside from the fact it was foggy and a freezing cold day, this man-made piece of history was a welcome distraction in an otherwise boring weekend in Seoul.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

"I Have a Bad Case of Diarrhea"

The Japanese go to great lengths to study English. Walk into any bookstore in Japan and witness an impressive number of English textbooks. Within a rock's throw of any train or subway station you'll see signs for quite a few English schools. Many commuters on the long ride to and from work will be listening to English lessons on their iPods.

But by far the most entertaining method for learning English is watching the Zuiikin Girls show on TV. These girls will teach you an English phrase by repeating it several times while doing aerobic exercises. Useful phrases, ones that would come in handy in daily conversations. For example, this one:

Want to see more? Thankfully, someone put together a page with all available Zuiikin Girls videos on YouTube. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Botched Strike

Today is the last day of Hanukkah, so it's back to school tomorrow. After almost 2 months, the high-school teachers' strike in Israel is drawing to an end, so hopefully tens of thousands of teenagers will finally start their school year in the coming days.The teachers' union and the government are about to sign a deal, giving the teachers a small raise (a few percent). This is basically same deal the general labour union (Histradrut) got from the government after striking for half a day a few months ago.

So all the talk about raising teachers' pay by 50% and agreeing on sweeping reforms in education has fizzled to a few percentage points. Nothing to write home about. Certainly not worth keeping kids away from school for weeks. The union's failure in this case is yet another example of the "value for money" organised labour get you.

The education system in Israel has many faults. Slowly but surely those who value better education, and are willing to pay for it, are moving to semi-private schools. The ultra-religious have had their private system for decades. The national-religious have in effect privatised their igh-schools through the system of "high-schoool yeshivah". There are almost no religious public high schools left in Israel, and those that are still around are typically in poorer cities and neighbourhoods. "Free education" is fast becoming an empty slogan. Parents are required to pay extra for books, extra-curricular activities (many of which are nothing but an extended timetable after "regular" school hours), school trips and much more. Despite this, over-crowded classrooms and short school hours are still the norm.

If the government does not make education a national priority (my guess: it won't), then the education system will go down the same path as the health system. Private healthcare in Israel is no longer for the rich only. Many families pay for private health insurance and many more for "enhanced" insurance through the existing national plans. Those who have, or those who are willing to pay extra, will get to the same place with education; those who don't, will be left behind.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Education and Israel's Future

Two interesting items in the news in Israel this week:

1. Deloitte announced the results of its annual survey of fastest growing technology firms in EMEA. The first three spots were taken by Israeli firms: Voltaire, Celltick and Runcom.

2. The Ministry of Education published the results of the 2006 PIRLS tests. These tests measure and compare the proficiency of school students across 45 countries. Russia, Hong Kong and Singapore took the first three places; Israel got in at the 31st place.

These two seemingly unrelated stories tell a very strong story.

Israel has no natural resources. It is a country burdened by high military expenditures. Its traditional industries, such as agriculture and diamond-cutting, are disappearing. The growth engine of Israel's economy in the past couple of decades has been the high-tech sector. In other words: Israel's future depends on "knowledge workers", people who can use their brains to create value.

The achievements of Israeli school children compared to those of their peers in Asia does not bode well for this country's future. Throw in the ongoing strike by high-school teachers and university professors (both get ridiculously low salaries), and the outlook is even gloomier.

Israel today is a leader the high-tech industry, worldwide. But this remarkable accomplishment is in grave danger. Continuing to ignore the fundamental problems in the Israeli education system - from kindergarten to PhDs - puts the future of this country at risk. The real threat to Israells' future does not come from Ahmadinejad and his likes. It comes from Israeli governments continuing to neglect the most important asset this country has: its people's education.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Annapolis: A Pointless Diversion

One day after the well-orchestrated show in Annapolis, Maryland, and the zillion words of commentary in the media about the "brave" or "expected" or "empty" speeches of the leaders (depending on who is doing commenting), it all boils down to three very simple facts:

1. Everybody knows what the deal will look like. Nothing in the main elements of a future agreement has changed (or can change) since Camp David 2000. So no speech can be "dramatic" or "brave" at this point in time. The problem is not the end result, it's the following two points.

2. Neither of the two leaders - Olmert and Abbas - have enough political power in their respective constituencies to strike a deal, certainly not the kind of deal they alluded to (i.e. partition of Jerusalem and the renunciation of the Palestinian "right of return"). Olmert is busy keeping his fragile coalition together; Abbas is busy trying to prevent the Hamas from taking away any remaining vestiges of power he still clings to.

3. Nobody in the US administration (or the international community) has the will nor the power to do what is necessary: dive into the mud to extricate the feuding parties, bang their heads together and force them to get the deal signed. Certainly not in the timeframe Bush and Olmert spoke about ("within 2008").

So, bottom line, I don't expect much to come out of Annapolis. In fact, I didn't even bother to watch or listen to the speeches; reading the headlines on the Web this morning was more than enough to figure out that plus ça change, etc. I obviously hope I'll be proven wrong, but I doubt it very much.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Values of Days Gone By

If you drive north on route 5 in Israel and look right (eastwards) after passing the Geha intersection (for Petah Tikva and Bnei Brak), you will see a decrepit industrial building with an interesting inscription on its roof:

I took this picture with my mobile phone, so apologies for the quality. Three letters are missing, but the inscription says: "We took a vow to partake in the building of the people and the Land of Israel".

I've been driving past this building for many years and I often look at these words. They strike an emotional chord within me every time. Yesterday, I googled these words and found out that the building belonged to an aluminium manufacturing company by the name of Zinkal, that apparently went under in 2002. Most of the entries about Zinkal on the Web are court proceedings of creditors against the company. The company's website returns an empty page.

I find this very symbolic. On one hand, the inscription shows the owners of Zinkal believed in values which most Israelis today view as passé and defunct. And yet they were proud enough of these values to inscribe them prominently on the copmany's building, in full public view on a main highway. On the other hand, the state of the building (and the inscription) are proof that the cynical view prevailed. Those who place the value of caring for the country and its people before the value of self-enrichment end up broke. I know I'm generalising, but it's a potent symbol nonetheless.

Update - 3 December:

Driving past the building again today, I noticed the sign posted on the top-left corner (you can just see it in the photo) is an ad for a lucky charm, an amulet, of R. Nachman of Breslov. This building' symbolism is stronger than I originally thought. Business gone bust, good old values failed, so let's turn to voodo Judaism to save us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Talmudic Negotiation

A couple of months ago I was in the final stages of negotiating a deal with a large company in South Korea. This company is notorious for its tough negotiating tactics. I was invited to a meeting with the VP in charge of purchasing to discuss pricing. The session was scheduled for 1pm, but he showed up at 4pm; we went on for 5 hours, during which I was not offered any food or drinks; no breaks were taken. This was all standard procedure, part of the "atmosphere" created by these companies to put pressure on the vendors. Not pleasant, but part of the game.

But every such negotiation has its funny moments. At one point, about 3 hours into the session, I was standing next to the whiteboard trying to reconcile our differences in pricing. I was moving numbers around, doing quick calculations and generally playing around with the figures to find a way to make it work. In the heat of the moment I must have been doing things a little too quickly for them to follow properly. One of the guys in the room suddently shouted: "stop!". I turned around and saw him holding his head between his hands. He gave me a desperate look, and said: "I can't take it any more with you and your Talmud!".

For a moment I was speechless. Then I just burst out laughing. They obviously knew I was Jewish and from Israel, but the last thing I expected to hear in that context was a reference to the Talmud. We all had a good laugh and after we calmed down I asked for an explanation.

It turns out that the Talmud is held in very high regard by Koreans. There are bestselling books in Korea, so I was told, that teach people how to think and negotiate better by using "Talmudic methods". The back-and-forth of Talmudic debate is considered a sophisticated way to reach the right conclusion, so this has been translated to advice heeded to by many Koreans. It's really all rather fascinating and it fits well within the widely-held myth (not particular to Koreans, by the way) that Jews are "intelligent" and "smart".

After a short discussion about the Talmud - they were impressed by the fact I study it every day - we continued the negotiation and eventually reached an agreement. I guess studying Daf Yomi has helped me in more ways than one.

Chuck for Huck

Mike Huckabee is a Republican presidential candidate in the US. Last month, Chuck Norris announced he is endorsing Huckabee's bid for the highest office in the country.

And here below is the first campaign commercial Huckabee is running. My jaw dropped when I watched this the first time. I had to watch it again to make sure my eyes and ears were not playing tricks on me. Only in America.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beware of Blondes

Jokes about blondes are a dime a dozen. Blondes resent being stereotyped as dumb, but a recent study (from France, mind you) shows that men's mental performance declines when they are around blondes. In the words of the professor, "blondes have the potential to make people act in a dumber way".

Thankfully, I prefer brunettes.

Monday, November 19, 2007

140 Million Jews

One of the questions that comes up every now and then in the Israeli-Japanese discourse is whether the Japanese are descendents of the Israelite Lost Tribes.

Brief history: After the Israelite kingdom was run over by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E, ten of the Israelite tribes were exiled and never heard of again. Today's Jews are descendents of the kingdom of Yehudah, specifically three tribes: Yehudah, Binyamin and Levi. Over the centuries, many theories have been put forward as to the whereabouts of the Ten Lost Tribes. In recent years, a group of Indians came forward and claimed they are descendents of the tribe of Menasheh; several of them made aliyah to Israel.

One of the theories is that the Ten Tribes (or some of them) ended up in Japan. Proponents of this theory point to Shinto, the native religion of Japan, purportedly showing that several traditions in Shinto can be traced back to biblical Jewish practices. The movie below summarises some of these finding, while this website is more comprehensive.

Personally, this all sounds a bit far-fetched, but who knows? After all, it has been almost 3,000 years so anything is possible. To me, the most frightening thought in this whole discussion is: imagine a world with 140 million Jews! The mere thought has me covered in cold sweat.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sub-Prime Crisis: Explained

You've all heard about the sub-prime financial crisis, causing all that trouble to the mightiest institutions on Wall Street. Let's admit it: most of us don't really understand what it's all about.

Well, no worries. It is all explained here:

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Vanishing American Jew

Last Friday night I attended "services" at a Reconstructionist "synagogue" in Irvine, California. No, I did not lose my mind (yet).

The group of Israelis I was with for the 2-week educational course were invited to participate in a panel about higher education in Israel, and this took place at this "synagogue". As it was our last evening together, I wanted to come and say goodbye to everyone, so after going to a real synagogue for services, I walked over to this place. As it happens, I arrived there just as the "services" were starting, so I was lucky enough to witness the whole charade.

This was no regular Friday. On this particular Friday evening, the event was called "Shabbat Alive", an especially lively show. There was a male "rabbi" and a female "cantor", who coincidentally also happen to be happily married. Both wore a tallit and a kippah. The "rabbi" had a wireless microphone attached to his jacket lapel; the "cantor" used a regular microphone. The "cantor" played a guitar, in addition to being accompanied by two sidekick singers and a band consisting of three musicians, no less.

The "services" were a mishmash of songs, some completely secular (such as Halleluyah, an Israeli song that won the Eurovision song contest back in the 1980s), combined with bits and pieces from the siddur (prayer book). In the spirit of egalitarianism, some of the passages were recited in both male and female format. This was carried to absurdity: when the blessing over the bread - which, for some odd reason, took place during the "service" even though dinner had already been eaten by the congregation - was recited twice, once as "ha-motsi" (male) and once as "ha-motsi'a" (female). The congregation itself, an assortment of Jews and Gentiles, 200+ strong, were sat in a movie-like theater, facing the stage. I thought this was appropriate, as this was indeed more a spectacle than a prayer.

But the most suprising part for me was not the actual event. Rather, it was the reaction of my fellow Israeli friends, all of them secular. Some of them were more shocked than I was. To them, Judaism was purely Orthodox; in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin's famous words: the synagogue they do not frequent is an Orthodox one. So what transpired on the stage was nothing short of an abomination to them. One of my friends, a proclaimed atheist, refused to put a kippah on his head, saying he was so angry at the fact that the Jewish religion was being put to such mockery that he would not play along.

Even though halachically-speaking I shouldn't have attended this "service" (the hillul ha-Shem there was blatantly obvious), in a way glad I'm glad I did. Seeing with my own eyes what Judaism was reduced to in America was in many respects an eye-opening experience. Although from a historical perspective such aberrations were proven to be short-lived, it was still important to me to witness first-hand a symptom of "the vanishing American Jew" (the title of an excellent book by Alan Dershowitz).

If I were to look for a bright point in this story, I guess it is the following. There is some value to be found in these "religious" movements, as some Jews in America would have no connection whatsoever to Judaism were it not for the existence of the Reform or Reconstructionist movements. I heard from various people in the Jewish community in Irvine that there are many cases of the second generation (the children of the parent that married out) veering back towards Judaism, some even becoming practicing Orthodox Jews. So perhaps there is some sense and purpose in this madness.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Quality of Life in the US

Quality of life is a hard thing to measure. Economists argue about the parameters that make up this elusive measurement of how satisfied people are with their lives. There are several QoF indices being published by different bodies; The Economist's is one. Things like wealth, health, political stability, political freedom, climate and job security are taken into account. The weighting of each of these parameters is crucial in determining which country's QoF is better.

Because of its composition, the QoF index does not produce the same country rankings as the GDP per capita index. For example, in the The Economist's index, the US comes 13th in the QoF ranking, despite it being the country with the highest GDP per capita in the world (if you ignore tiny Luxembourg).

I thought about this during my recent stay in the US. I spent two weeks in Irvine, California, a southern suburb of Los Angeles (the locals will resent this definition; for them, Orange County is distinct and separate from L.A.). Irvine is one of the country's most peaceful and wealthy cities. And yet many of the city's residents work in L.A., which means they spend hours each day sitting in traffic on dreadfully congested San Diego freeway (route 405). Ensconced in their air-conditioned SUVs and Priuses, they spend their mornings and their evenings in a bumper-to-bumper river of cars. How do you factor this nightmare into the QoF index? People in Irvine may be sleeping in 3-million dollar homes and driving in 100,000-dollar cars, but can you really put a price on the agony of spending hours each day staring at other cars' backsides?

Or take dometic air travel in the US. I flew from L.A. to Boston yesterday. Economy class on United Airlines. It's been a while since I was on a long domestic flight in the US, and it wasn't pleasant. The security lines were long. The TSA personnel grumpy. The United employee at the gate kept barking at passengers. The flight attendants adopted another strategy: they simply ignored the passengers. No food was served, only drinks and a biscuit (this was a 5-hour flight). The only positive element of it all was that the flight was on time. Compared to domestic flights in Europe (and certainly in Asia) the Americans have it really bad. The treatment they receive at the airport and in the air is atrociously discourteous. And they seem to take it willingly. So either they've given up on being treated nicely or they've been bullied into stunned obedience by the post-9/11 American way of life.

Quality of life? I think not.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Breathing Again

The fires in southern California are finally under control, after a week of firefighting, mass evacuations and many destryoed homes. I'm currently on a 2-week educational programme just south of Los Angeles. I arrived here with the fires, about 10 days ago, and although there were no fires in the immediate vicinity of my location, until a couple of days ago the air smelt heavily of smoke. In the first few days, there was a cloud of black smoke in the sky.

Orange County is a beautiful place. So serene, so green and so obviously wealthy. And yet when natural disasters like these wildfires strike, suddenly everything seems so fragile. Some of the local people I'm with were on stand-by to evacuate. Suddenly, one has to decide what to salvage from home that can fit in the car: photographs, valuables, documents. I thought what I would have done in such a situation and there are no easy answers.

Now that the sun is finally shining again and the air is (relatively) fresh, I look forward to the few more days I have here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Reshimot is in Danger

Reshimot (Notes) is one of the leading premium content sites in Israel. It is a platform for many gifted bloggers, a breath of fresh air in the mostly stale blogosphere.

The founders of Reshimot, all working voluntarily on this project since 2003, have published a call for help. Citing technical and financial problems they are seeking a strategic partner that will ensure the continuation of Reshimot. So far, they failed in locating such a partner.

If Reshimot fails it will be a sad day.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Mekimi, by Noa Yaron-Dayan

I hesitated before buying and reading this book. After all, I am not a big fan of Breslover Hasidim, especially the born-again, light-in-their-eyes, street-dancing, Uman-going kind. And that's an understatement. After having finished reading the book, my ambivalence persists.

Noa Yaron was a radio and TV celebrity in Israel in the early 90s. She was exposed, like many in her circle, to the teachings and writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th-century founder of the Brelover movement. Today, at the age of 35, she has six children and spends her time disseminating the teachings of R. Nachman to any woman who will listen. Everybody in Israel is aware of the Breslover Hasidim, as their ill-founded mantra (Na-Nach-Nachma-Nachman-MiUman) is plastered on walls, stickers, kippot, t-shirts, etc. This quasi-messianic sect of Judaism works particularly well for those seeking a Judaism that is somewhat "new-age", an alternative to seeking the truth in a remote Ashram in India.

In this book, Yaron-Dayan describes her path to the light. Mekimi in Hebrew means "the one who lifts me" and is derived from a verse in Psalm 113 - "He who raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts up the needy out of the dunghill" - an appropriate metaphor for how she sees her journey. Although Yaron-Dayan describes the book only as "semi-autobiographical", for example she names the woman Alma and her boyfriend-husband Ben (her husband's name is Yuval), it is based on diaries she wrote during the years and is therefore a good account of the processes she went through.

The book opens with an account of the secular world, the world Yaron-Dayan knew well, a world that made a star out of her. The description is, as expected, quite glum: materialism is the only religion, drugs are being smoked on a daily basis, relationships come and go and there is this huge void in everyone's stomach, a void that cannot be filled by anything or anyone. The process begins halfway through the book, when Ben, at the behest of a good friend, agrees to listen to a lecture by an ultra-orthodox person, a lecture that transforms him completely. He begins his own journey towards Judaism and Alma, his partner, joins. The last part of the book is a shameless praise (propaganda) for R. Nachman.

So why am I ambivalent about this book? It is well written. Yaron-Dayan has not lost her sense of humour and the book is interspersed with witty remarks, some of it refreshingsly self-defecating. But more importantly, it is genuine. Her passion and her ardent belief in her newly-found way are palpably present in every page of this book. Yaron-Dayan does not embellish the process she went through (and is still undergoing). She makes it plainly clear that becoming, and staying, religious is a continuous struggle. One does not "see the light" and change his/her ways overnight. There are endless obstacles along the way. It does not feel like a path but rather like a roller-coaster ride, where every high point is inevitably followed by a fall. The trick, as Yaron-Dayan vividly demonstrates through her own experiences, is how to make it up the next slope, to the next high point.

And yet I cannot completely identify with what this book is about. Yaron-Dayan is trying to convince us (that is, the secular among us) that if we become religious we will be happier. The recurring theme in this book is: Judaism is the key to personal happiness. If you feel a void in your life, Judaism will fill it. I do not believe this to be true, neither in practice nor on a theological level. In practice, this is a dangerous approach; although for some people finding Judaism may mean finding happiness, this feeling might be temporary and then the question is, what happens next? If Judaism loses its initial lustre, does that mean we go back, or try a new approach?

More importantly, defining religion in an anthopocentric way is theologically wrong. Judaism is first and foremost a theocentric religion; God is in the centre and man's purpose is to worship Him. We are commanded by God and the mitsvot we are to fulfill are a yoke. Promising happiness to people is dangerously close to subjugating God to our purposes, in other words, close to avodah zarah. While I identify with Yaron-Dayan's focus on the quest rather than on the target - she understands the target is unattainable and the best we can do is strive constantly to reach it, even though we know it is impossible - I cannot identify with the proposition that our happiness is the main purpose of this exercise. This is the source of my criticism of the Breslover way (and, indeed, Hasidim in general).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Terrorist in New York

Surprisingly, with all the noise around Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting New York and making speeches at the UN and at Columbia University, one obvious question has somehow completely slipped my mind.

Last night my wife, who does not usually follow the news as avidly as I do, turned around from her laptop and asked me: "Are you telling me Ahmadinejad is in the US and is going to leave back for Iran unharmed?"

When you think about it, it is indeed a good question. We have all come to accept the fact that terrorists and heads of state who support terrorism can walk about freely in our countries, whereas we do not even dare think about the possibility of visiting their countries. Think about it: Palestinians can walk about Tel Aviv, have coffee on the beach and shop in the malls, and return home safely to their homes. An Israeli would never dream of setting foot in Gaza City or Ramallah for fear of lynching.

The US has missed a chance to grab one of the world's biggest terrorists. What a shame.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Cars on Yom Kippur

Yesterday morning, Yom Kippur, around 7:30am, on my way to the synagogue, I saw two cars on the road. They were driving slowly, but they were definitely cars and they were definitely moving. On the road.

Why is this so unusual? Because in Israel on Yom Kippur, there are no cars on the road. And when I write "no cars", I mean NO cars. In every city and on most inter-city roads, the roads are completely empty for 25 hours. For kids in Israel, Yom Kippur has become "bicycle day", as they can roam the streets freely with their bikes undisturbed by other vehicles. Obviously in non-religious and non-Jewish towns people drive their cars, but if you live in a big city the likelihood of seeing a car driving on Yom Kippur is close to zero (aside to emergency services).

The most interesting part about this phenomenon is that there is no law that prohibits driving on Yom Kippur in Israel. It is a custom that developed out of respect for the holiest day in the year and Israelis have been keeping this custom for decades. As in most other areas concerning religion in Israel - shabbat, kashrut, marriages, etc. - there has been a steady erosion in recent years. I guess this erosion has now reached Yom Kippur as well. This is why seeing the two cars yesterday morning was both surprising and sad.

I am for separation of religion and state in Israel, so I cannot object to people driving on Yom Kippur. It is not the act of driving on this day that bothers me. After all, most people drive on shabbat. It is the fact that there was this island of consensus between religious and non-religious in Israel, and island that was not created artificially (or coercively) through legislation. And now even this small island is slowly disappearing.

I still believe such islands of agreement can be reached in order to maintain some public vestige of "Jewishness" in the Jewish state, but these cannot be had through the means of legislation. Unfortunately what most religious people (and political parties) do not understand is that the more religious legislation they enact, the less chance there is for a consensual modus vivendi that will do good not only to Israeli society as a whole but mostly to religion itself. Judaism free of state legistlation has flourished for 2,000 years; it gave us the core corpus of Jewish law and thought and kept Jews together through good times and bad. Somewhat paradoxically, a mere half-century of the "Jewish state" have reduced Judaism's standing and power amongst most Israelis. Time is running out if we wish to reverse this trend.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Belgian Table Manners

There has been talk recently about the possibility of Belgium breaking up as a country, because the two main groups - the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Dutch - seem unable to get along. The Economist recently carried a leader about this, entitled "Time to call it a day". Rather blunt.

I'm not going to enter into the fray. After all, who am I to say whether Belgium is a viable country. But all this talk about Belgium reminded me of the excellent sketch from "Not the Nine O'clock News" about eating habits in Belgium. I have it on DVD at home, but found it also on YouTube (starts from about 1 minute into the following video). What a pleasure it was to watch it again after all these years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Do We Deserve Gaydamak?

Those who lived in Israel in the 1980s will remember a popular car sticker that proclaimed: "Maxwell: Buy Me!". The sticker referred to the late British media mogul Robert Maxwell who at the time was busy buying up Israeli companies, including a leading newspaper. "Buy Me!" was a semi-ironic cry of desperation that symbolised a general feeling of discomfort with the economy and the way the government was running it.

Maxwell is long dead now, buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But his spirit lives on, having been miraculously reincarnated in Arcadi Gaydamak. This Russian-born billionaire rose to local fame after some particularly distasteful publicity stints: offering free "fun days" for the residents of the southern city of Sderot who are suffering from daily rocket attacks from Gaza; erecting a "tent city" in Tel Aviv for people who fled south from northern Israel during last year's Second Lebanon War; showing up as a visitor to the Knesset and at the same time telling the press that most parliamentarians were there solely for their salary; and the list goes on. One of his first moves here was to buy Beitar Yerushalayim, a legendary soccer team whose vocal, and sometimes violent, fans have made a semi-God out of him. His latest unsavoury move is an advertising campaign by one of the cellular companies featuring Gaydamak as... himself, the man who can buy anything.

All of this would have been nothing but a distraction, another indicator of the poor taste of some Israelis, who will worship anyone willing to offer them a free gift. But Gaydamak has expressed his intentions to establish a political party and to run for the mayorship of Jerusalem (a post formerly occupied by the current Prime Minister). He has also announced his support for Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and a notorious populist himself. The man clearly has aspirations that go beyond buying up faltering Israeli enterprises.

Gaydamak's background is questionable at best. He is wanted in France for an arms deal in Africa; he travels with an Angolan diplomatic passport to avoid arrest; there are stories circulating about money laundering in Russia and of the unorthodox ways he made his fortune; Israeli police advised the Jewish Agency to reject a $50M donation from him so as to avoid "problematic money" entering a government agency. Although he served in the military here, he spent most of his life outside Israel. His command of Hebrew is minimal. Despite his economic involvement in Israel and all the fanfare around his so-called "good deeds", he is still viewed by many as an outsider. And yet this man stands a real chance to become a member of the Knesset, perhaps even the mayor of the capital city. His ability to influence the outcome of the next election is not in doubt.

I know we Israelis have done a poor job in electing our politicians in the past, but could we be as bad as to deserve Gaydamak? If this is the case, we have some serious repenting to do this coming weekend...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Musings on the Eve of 5768

Another year ends. Time for reflection, for making resolutions, for doing away with last year's curses and looking forward to next year's blessings.

But who has time for reflection, let alone making new resolutions? I personally have had such a busy time at work lately and I'm currently losing my mind trying to balance my business travel over the next month (with most holidays being "stuck" in the middle of the week), that taking time off for reflections is a luxury I can ill afford. I am embarassed to say how many times I've attended selichot this past month (I belong to those who started repenting on the 2nd of Elul, not two days ago). It looks like Rosh HaShana itself will have to do for my selichot.

But, patur belo klum i efshar, so here are some thoughts as we approach 5768:

  • First, let's not go into the number 5768. With the dinosaur bones and all those fossils it's not a good idea. Best to recommend the book Bereshit Bara, by Prof. Nathan Aviezer, for some peace of mind on the subject of reconciliating creationism chronology with science.
  • Next year will be shnat shemitah, the seventh year, where one is supposed to let the land rest and the debts disappear. Alas, all that is left from a beautiful social, economic and environmental idea is the ritual bickering between rabbis about who to give money to to bypass the prohibition of eating fruits and vegetables grown in Israel. That, and a plethora of booklets detailing ad nauseam what one should do with one's shrubberies in the back garden.
  • A year ago Israel was licking its wounds from the botched war in Lebanon. And as a present for the New Year we got this week a whiff of renewed winds of war. So far it looks like all sides are happy with turning a blind eye to the nightly excursion of our brave pilots over the Syrian sky, but these incidents are exactly how wars get started.
  • A-propos war. After the missile attack last night on an IDF trainee camp near Gaza, what are the headlines on the internet? Get this: "Parents complain: why were soldiers sleeping in non-protected tents?" One has to read this twice to believe it's not a joke. Does anyone need more proof Israelis have lost the will to fight?
  • Perhaps 5768 will be the year I will finally take that (expensive) speed reading course I've read about? I am constantly frustrated at the number of books in my library waiting patiently their turn.
  • No resolutions for the new year. Old age brings with it realism about resolutions that look promisingly achievable when made but then leave nothing but a sour taste of disappointment a year later. Except maybe one: I will try to keep a steady schedule of working out, despite all the travelling. I really will try harder.

Shana Tova to all.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Scientific Proof: We Are Smarter

Several newspapers today are carrying a story about a study published in Nature Neuroscience. The headlines vary, but the basic theme is "the brain of left-wing people is different from the brain of right-wing people".

Here is the abstract of the study:

Political scientists and psychologists have noted that, on average, conservatives show more structured and persistent cognitive styles, whereas liberals are more responsive to informational complexity, ambiguity and novelty. We tested the hypothesis that these profiles relate to differences in general neurocognitive functioning using event-related potentials, and found that greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.

At long last there is scientific proof that we back-stabbing, self-hating, left-wing liberals are smarter. We seem to react better to complex information and adapt faster to changing circumstances. We also have better "neurocognitive sensitivity"; I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds like a good thing to have!

In other words, I was right all along. In recent years I have mostly refrained from entering into arguments with right-wing people, something I enjoyed doing in the past. After all, why bother arguing with someone if you've been scientifically certified to be much smarter than he/she is?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ordering Coffee

A few months ago I read a book by Bill Bryson called "Notes from a Big Country", which is a compilation of columns he wrote for The Mail on Sunday, describing his experiences upon returning with his English wife and family to live in the US after a long stint in the UK.

In one of these columns, he laments the fact that one can no longer order a simple cup of coffee. Gone are the days that you asked for a cup of coffee, paid for it, and walked away happy. You now had to make several choices before your coffee could be prepared for you, and some of these choices were mind-boggling.

I was reminded of this when reading an op-ed column by Stanley Fish in the New York Times (reprinted here in the IHT). Read it, it's funny.

But even funnier is a riposte by Ron Rosenbaum in Slate Magazine, here. Mr. Rosenbaum asks himself whether Mr. Fish's was "the worst op-ed ever". It's all very amusing.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

Having just finished the last book in the Harry Potter series, I felt I had to write a few words about this extraordinary literary phenomenon.

My acquaintance with the Harry Potter books happened by chance. For some reason, I completely missed the success of the first book; I might have read about it somewhere, but I probably wasn't paying much attention. Later on, during one of my visits to Boston, I entered a Borders bookshop in the centre of the city just to have a look. An entire wall was covered with a book I had not heard about; so I picked it up, read the first couple of pages, and decided I liked it. Only after having finished reading it, I found out it was the first book of the series ("Sorcerer's Stone", it was the US edition). It was plastered on the bookshop walls because the second book ("Chamber of Secrets") had just come out. So it is by this coincidence I stumbled upon the magical world created by Ms. Rowling. And, like many before me, I fell under its spell.

The second and third ("Prisoner of Azkaban") books I bought in Singapore, while on a trip to Asia. The fourth ("Goblet of Fire") and fifth ("Order of the Phoenix") I took off my mother, who bought them in the US. By this time my son was immersed in the books himself and was reading them over and over again. He read the sixth ("Half-Blood Prince") before me and it actually took me months before I got around to reading it. Reason was that I found the fifth book a little too long and not as captivating as the previous ones, so I thought I was beginning to have enough of Harry Potter. After reading the sixth book I realised how wrong I was and was pleased to see Rowling was back in form.

I got the seventh book ("Deathly Hallows") in Scotland a couple of weeks ago. I gave it first to my son to read'; he finished it in 4 days (it is the summer holidays after all), and then I read it (took me a bit longer, I admit). Rowling's finishing stroke is a masterpiece of suspense and storytelling which I very much enjoyed. There were some open questions I had at the end, but I attribute these mostly to my overlooking some facts along the way...

I will not go into any review of the Harry Potter books. Oceans of ink have been poured in literaray criticisms by people far more accomplished than me. One very good review was written by Stephen King, whom I don't like as an author but I think made some very good points about Rowling and the series. But I will make the following observations:

  • Whilst I resent most of the hype around Harry Potter, I admire the marketing genius of Rowling or whomever gave her advice.

  • At the end of the day, the main ingredients of the Harry Potter series - magical creatures, fantasy worlds and bravery of the good against the bad - were all available well before Rowling. Some even wrote that she "borrowed" a little too much off other authors. for example Tolkien. But it is the mix that makes the book, and Rowling's mix is a recipe few can imitate.

  • Perhaps a little too much is made of the fact that "children are reading again" because of Harry Potter. I think children were reading well before Harry Potter and there are some excellent children series out there (Lemony Snicket is a good example). But who am I to argue against any claim that will make the young generation read more? The fact that many Israeli kids are making an effort to read the last book in English (the Hebrew version will not be available before December) is an added bonus.

  • It was reported that Rowling is working on a new series. I have mixed feelings about that. If I were in her place (as if I ever will be...) I would want to be remembered as the magical creator of the most successful book series in history, and not take the risk of not attaining the same success with a new series. But that's just me.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Re'eh - Reconciling the Two Choices

ראה אנכי נתן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה

(דברים י"א, כ"ו)

One of the basic tenets of Jewish faith is free will. God, through the Torah, has shown us the right way to live our lives, but the choice on whether to follow this way or not is in the hands of each individual. The opening word of our parasha is re'eh - watch, or behold - a word which many commentators explain as understanding. We understand that God is giving us both a blessing and a curse, and that we need to choose between the two.

However, this week's parasha also has several references to the temple in Jerusalem (implicitly referred to as the "place that God will choose") as the only place where sacrifices can be brought to. The choice of the place where to worship God is not up to man, and man is commanded to come to a specific place and is prohibited from doing God's work elsewhere. In the story in Bereshit about Avraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, God says to him that He will show him which mountain to go to for this purpose. Answering Yitzchak's question about why there is no animal going with them, Avraham replies that God is supposed to show them which animal to sacrifice. We see here that it is God that tells us how and when to worship Him, and that we have no free will in this matter.

But if we read the story of the akedah more closely we see that Avraham is the one that actually "sees" the mountain, their destination. Avraham is also the one that "sees" the animal to sacrifice, after the angel of God tells him not to sacrifice Yitzchak. The idea here is that a person who reaches a high level of faith (and fear) of God, is a person who is able to "see" what God has chosen for him.

Rambam approaches the age-old theological question of free will against the will of God and asks a question on the verse from Tehillim 115: "whatever pleases [God] He has done". How can man have free will if God does whatever pleases him? Rambam answers that God gave us the right to make mistakes and choose the wrong way, in order to preserve free will. The value of man's free will is higher in God's eyes, so to speak, than the value of man following God's ways. This is true in a time when we are not close to God. But when we succeed in approaching God and understanding his ways, like Avraham did, we are able to make our choices freely and our choices match the will of God.

The famous story in the Talmud about the discussion among the sages that ended in a voice from heaven saying what is right and R. Yehoshua exclaiming: "it is not in heaven" - meaning man is free to interpret the law - is an illustration of this free will. At the end of this story, we are told God says "my sons have beaten me" and accepts the interpretation of the majority of the sages against the voice from heaven. In an interesting reversal of the order of things, the choice of God has become the choice of man!

So how do we reconcile the edict that we can worship God only in the temple in Jerusalem with our free will? How do we worship God the way we want and where we want, and make our choice also the choice of God? The answer is in the verse from Shemot 20, 20: "in every place where I cause my name to be mentioned, I will come unto you and bless you". The Talmud in Berachot says that even if one person sits down and learns Torah, God's presence is with him. If we follow God's edict and come to the place he mentioned His name, then He will come to us and bless us, He will come to the place we choose. This is the reconciliation between the two choices: God's choice and our choice.

This idea for this week's thought is from R. David Dov Levanon.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Scotland, UK

Last week, my wife and I went for a short holiday in Scotland. She was in England the previous week for her studies, and I was scheduled to be in Boston the following week, so stopping for a few days in Scotland fitted in well with our plans.

We stayed in Edinburgh, arriving at our guesthouse there with an hour to spare before shabbat. We picked this guesthouse for its proximity to the synagogue and it turned out to be a lovely place to stay at. The Jewish community in Edinburgh is very small but they have an educated, well-meaning rabbi who does wonders with the his small flock. We had our shabbat meals at his place and the conversation around the table (there were other guests from the US) helped pass this LONG shabbat (ended after 10:30pm!).

We did wander around the centre of the city on shabbat, but actually we saw very little of Edinburgh during our stay. We picked up our rental car on Sunday morning and for three days ventured out of the city into the lovely countryside. All in all, we drove about 1,000 kilometres, through some of the most beautiful scenery we ever saw (bar New Zealand). Here below are the routes we took:

On the first day (yellow) we drove west, all the way to Oban, a small village on the Atlantic Ocean. Our first stop was Stirling Castle, one of the largest and most well-preserved castles in Scotland (there are hundreds if not thousands of castles in this country). Here is the view from one of the ramparts:

Oban itself is a quaint little village, full with tourists this time of year. We arrived quite late in the day so did not take the ferry out to any of the islands. The walk along the seafront was very nice, especially as it just stopped raining and the sun was coming out.

On the way back east towards Edinburgh we saw the most perfect rainbow I have ever seen in my life. It was huge, so big in fact that I couldn't take a picture of it in one frame.

On the second day (red), we started by climbing the hills in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh. These hillsl dominate the city skyline (and helped us navigate back to our hotel on several occasions). The highest point is called Arthur's Seat; legend has it King Arthur was here, but apparently the name is a corruption of some other name. The hill does not look very steep, but the latter part of the climb is quite difficult (if short). It's worth the efforts though, as the 360-degree views of Edinburgh from the top are simply gorgeous, including a view of the old city with Edinburgh Castle perched on top of the hill.

Driving out of Edinburgh we went north this time, all the way past the city of Perth and to a town called Pitlochry. There is a huge dam there with special pools that were built for salmon to make their way past the dam on their journey upstream, the so-called "salmon ladder". The town hosts the Scottish Plant Hunters Garden, a charming green reservoir with winding paths through some truly exotic plants.

In the evening we searched for a vegetarian restaurant and found an Indian one not far from our hotel - Anna Purna. We went in and I asked the owner whether it was strictly vegetarian. He said "yes". Then I asked whether also the oils used were vegetarin. He looked at me and asked "are you Jewish?". Turns out this specific restaurant has been checked by the local rabbi, "who is also a regular customer" as the owner proudly said with a beaming smile.

On the third day (blue) we drove east to the coast and then down south through what is called the Border Abbeys region. This area of Scotland, just north of the border with England, has - you guessed it - lots of abbeys. We first drove along the coast, stopping in several small towns along the way. In one of them (the name escapes me) I went into a public toilet and was hugely impressed with how clean and well-kept it was. On the way out, I noticed this toilet has indeed been awarded with 5 stars in the "Loo of the Year Awards 2004". Impressive.

We stopped to see Melrose Abbey, a truly remarkable building founded in the 7th century by Cistercian monks.

All in all, it was way too short for us to really experience Scotland. But two things made this trip a very pleasurable one. First, the weather was on our side; it rained only for a few hours during our entire stay, and on the third day we could actually walk around without a second layer of clothing! Second, we saw not one Israeli tourist during out entire stay on Scottish soil! Many Spanish, some Chinese, but no Israelis...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Truths about Human Nature

Here are 10 truths about human nature:

  • Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them)
  • Humans are naturally polygamous
  • Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy
  • Most suicide bombers are Muslim
  • Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce
  • Beautiful people have more daughter
  • Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have something in common with criminals
  • The midlife crisis is a myth
  • It's natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair (but only if they're male)
  • Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

Some sound bizarre? Some sound politically incorrect? Check out the explanations in an article published in Psychology Today.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

I had heard about this book from several friends and seen it at airport book stores many times. Yet for some reason I kept postponing the decision to read it. I wasn't comfortable with the hype around it and felt it might be another "Oprah Book Club" book (not that I have anything against Oprah). Post factum, I need not have worried.

Azar Nafisi taught English literature in several universities in Iran, before giving up on the Islamic Republic of Iran and moving to live in the US. During the last couple of years before leaving, in the mid-90s, and after having had to resign from her teaching posts, a group of seven of her former students used to gather in her apartment every Thursday to read and discuss literature. This book group forms the basis for Nafisi's memoir, in which she gives her personal views of life under the Islamic regime that took over her homeland in 1979.

Nafisi's passion for literature - an almost physical one at times - is not to be doubted. She divides the book into four sections, each named after a book or an author: Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. In each section, she attempts to use the book/author as background for the wider narrative of her students' lives (and hers). As I have only read Lolita and a couple of Austen's books, I could not relate to every nuance and how the cited paragraphs related to the story being told. What fascinated me most were the "little" everyday stories about life in Tehran. Seemingly small and private episodes, when read together, shed a light on what life is like under the ever-watching eyes of the Ayatollahs.

An issue that runs throughout the book, one which obviously occupied (and occupies) the minds of many women in Iran, is the veil and robe. Nafisi succeeds in explaining to the reader what it means for a woman to "disappear" into the mandated clothing imposed by the regime and how liberating it feels to take off these clothes once indoors. She uses this issue to demonstrate how ridiculous religion can become when manipulated by the state and how pathetic some of the more fanatic proponents of these decrees can be when confronted with logical arguments. Through Nafisi's stories we learn how easy it is to be thrown in jail and executed; how the slightest comment or even body language against the regime leads to swift and painful punishment; how the government brain-washed hundreds of thousands of children to go to certain death during the Iraq-Iran war; and how impossible it was for universities to carry out their roles under the ever-changing rules imposed on them by the regime.

One aberration from the non-fictional narrative of Nafisi's book is the "magician", a male friend that Nafisi turns to in times of need, to get advice and direction. She never reveals the identity of this "magician" (the other characters are also not revealed, for obvious reasons, but at least they get a pseudonym) but he is clearly a great influence on her. Throughout the book I was intrigued by this character and was hoping to learn morea about him as I continued reading, But at the very end of the book, Nafisi writes: "I ask myself, Was he ever real? Did I invent him? Did he invent me?". I found this to be an unsettling and annoying ending. If the "magician" was indeed fiction, then how much of the "true stories" Nafisi tells us are indeed factual? I do not doubt that much of what she has written happened in real life, but this flirt with fiction in the book's epilogue was, in my view, unnecessary.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Peres - Finally

Shimon Peres was voted today as the 9th President of Israel. Finally.

This perennially unelectable politician and statesman, who managed to be Prime Minister twice without being elected to the post, has finally won a vote. I am very happy for him (and for Israel), although I would have preferred to see him as Prime Minister right now. In the arid wilderness that is the Israeli political scene nowadays, he could have filled the void we all suffer from.

Never mind. At least he gets the respectable finale he deserves to a most remarkable life and career.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Renegade Israeli

Since Thursday, the Israeli media has been enraptured with an interview given by Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and former head of the Israeli Agency, to the daily Haaretz (Hebrew, English). The interview was part of a promotional campaign for Burg's new book: "Defeating Hitler", in which Burg exposes some highly unorthodox views about Israel, Zionism, the legacy of the Holocaust and the future of the Jewish people.

You can read the interview, or better the book itself (I ordered it yesterday), and form your own opinions. Here are some of my thoughts about things Burg said in the interview:

Zionism is dead. Burg is of course right here. Zionism is dead in more than one sense of the word. It was a movement that achieved its purpose in 1948 and after the establishment of the Jewish state, it is no longer relevant. But perhaps more important, for most Israelis the "zionist drive" has been replaced by more mundane goals: self-achievement, prosperity and the right to decide to live abroad without being labelled a deserter. The repeated pestering by the interviewer trying to get Burg to "admit" he's no longer a zionist was somewhat pathetic.

Anti-semitism as the raison d'être. I couldn't agree more. Nobody argues that Israel is the answer to 2,000 years of persecution culminating in the Holocaust and that it is the only answer to a safe haven to Jews. But 60 years on, it's time for this country to define itself in positive terms - what it wants to achieve, where it wants to be, what future it can give its citizens - rather than in negative terms ("the whole world hates us and that's the only reason we need to exist").

Force is not a solution. Burg is right, and the mirror he talks about projects back an ugly picture. Israeli discourse is violent. Driving here is a nerve-racking experience. Orderly queuing is a rarity. Domestic violence and abuse of women is on the rise. A lot of this is attributable to the fact that Israel lives on its sword. Were it inevitable, I wouldn't argue. But the continued occupation of millions of Palestinians, for example, is not entirely inevitable. The toll of this occupation on Israeli society is obvious.

Israel as a fascist debacle. I think Burg went a little too far here, but I'm happy he put it so bluntly. Better to err by exaggerating than to wake up too late because of complacency. The dialogue on the street - from taxi drivers to vendors in the market to your average Israeli "arse" - is a proto-fascist dialogue.

Israeli elite has parted with this place. So true. So sad.

Lack of spirit, "living in order to live". Here Burg touches on the single most pressing problem of Israel, in my view. The country was founded on the belief it can turn its back on Jewish history. Religion and all those "disapora Jews" were a burden that Ben Gurion and his followers (mainly in the Mapai party) were eager to get rid of. They dreamt of the "new Jew" that is Israeli first and Jewish second. They believed that religious Jews were a thing of the past and were willing to grant them concessions only because they thought they would vanish in a couple of generations. And what are we left with, half a century later? A country struggling to define itself; a country whose youth find it hard to articulate the reason why they live here; a country where the elite sends its children abroad to stay; a country that has broken its ties with its history and its legacy but has failed to create an alternative national narrative that is not negatively-phrased. "Living in order to live" and "everybody hates us" will not take us far. This so-called "vision" is actually more likely to be the end of us. Rootless people can be uprooted easily.

Doctrine of nonviolence. Here I think Burg is being extremely naive. We are years, if not decades, away from being able to adopt such a doctrine. Whilst I agree we should not define ourselves based on the fact we are still under existential threat (and we are), I disagree that the solution is to ignore this threat and imagine we live next door to Switzerland. Unfortunately, we don't. Some of our neighbours are violent thugs that want to wipe us off the face of the earth, and the only way for us to survive (and not let the new Hitlers win) is to wipe them off the face of the earth first. I admit I sound here like the violent Israeli Burg is complaining about, but there is a difference. I refuse to let this fight against our enemies define me. I am defined by my history, my religion, my values and the future I hope to achieve for my children; I am not defined by Ahmadinajad.

There are many other points in Burg's interview I can relate to (or speak against) but in general I think he hit on some of the most poignant problems facing Israel today. Like many whose views I heard over the weekend, I too felt that the style of the interview and the way Burg expressed himself were somewhat harsh and out of line. I also dislike Burg on the personal level; his conduct when he was a politician was at times disgraceful. But perhaps it is exacly this outrageous style that might help jolt people out of their "live in order to live" modus vivendi and get them to think hard about what kind of Israel they want their children to live in. I sincerely wish people would concentrate less on the man and his style and more on the points he's making. I am looking forward to reading this book.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Mad Cow Disease

A story appearing in the British press today seems to indicate that "mad cow disease" struck some Brits decades before the big outbreak in Britain a few years ago.

According to secret government documents released yesterday, Israeli intelligence "might" have assisted Palestinian terrorists in planning the hijacking of the Air France plane bound from Tel Aviv to Paris, back in 1976, and hold the hostages in Entebbe. The legendary liberation of the hostages by Israeli commandos was supposed to either help the PLO in its struggle against other Palestinian factions or deter future terror attacks, depending on whose version you believe.

Coming in the wake of other disturbing news out of Britain this week - about the boycott of Israel by this or that organisation - one wonders what we will hear next from our esteemed ex-colonialists. Perhaps Israel helped the Argentinians capture the Falklands in order to divert attention from the invasion of Lebanon in 1982? Or maybe Israel planned the death of Princess Diana just because she was more beautiful than Sarah, the wife of the then prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu?

The possibilities are indeed endless.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Jewish Hospitality

On Sunday I'm off to a two-week trip to Asia, which means I'll be spending the holiday of Shavuot (Tue-Wed next week) in Singapore. I was planning on ordering meals at the local synagogue, as I did with my family last time we were there. But then it turned out I didn't need to.

I had mentioned the fact that I was going to be in Singapore for the holiday to a friend from Tokyo (whilst letting him know I'll be there for the following shabbat). And lo and behold: a day later I get an email from someone I do not know, inviting me to have the holiday meals with his family in Singapore. Apparently, my Tokyo friend wrote to him about me and the guy promptly emailed back with the invitation.

This is possibly quite a unique phenomenon. I know of no other community or group of people, certainly not as large and far-reaching as the Jews, where you can land anywhere in the world and if there's a Jewish community there, chances are you will not be left out in the cold. This is of course not true of every Jewish community and certainly not true of every person belonging to such a community, but during my four years in Japan I have seen this happen countless times. We ourselves hosted many people in our house for shabbat dinner or shabbat lunch, visitors - complete strangers - who just turned up at the synagogue on Friday evening.

Chabad have obviously made such hospitality a profession (I myself check if there's a Chabad house in places I travel to for the first time), but the "personal touch" of Jewish families who invite strangers to their home is still very much alive and kicking. Despite my intrinsic cynicism, I find it rather heart-warming. There, I've said it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Sefirat HaOmer and the Promised Land

We are in the middle of sefirat ha-omer, the daily counting of the 49 days between pessach and shavuot. This mitzvah appears in this week's parasha and the midrash says that we should not consider the omer as a "light mitzvah" because Avraham received the promise about inheriting the land of Israel based on this mitzvah. This requires an explanation; what is so special about the sacrifice of the omer that by fulfilling it Avraham received the Promised Land?

Another midrash may offer us an explanation. R. Yanai says that a man buys a piece of meat in the market and then goes through great pains to make that piece of meat get to his plate as food. On the other hand, while that same man is asleep in bed, God makes the winds blow, the clouds form and the plants and fruit grow. And the only compensation God receives for all this is the omer sacrifice, which is brought to the cohen. So according to this midrash, we "pay God back" for everything he does for us by fulfilling the mitzvah of the omer.

The Maharal explains this midrash as follows: God governs the world using both open, visible miracles and secret, unexposed miracles. When we are worthy enough to experience a visible miracle - such as the parting of the Red Sea or the halting of the sun in Joshua's days - our faith in God is absolute. After all, it is difficult not to believe when you witness God's deeds first hand. However, it is much harder to have faith by observing nature, which is in effect God's way of governing the world using hidden miracles, miracles which we do not perceive as being miraculous. As the Ramban teaches us, the essence of faith is tested in the belief in this "hidden hand". The omer sacrifice epitomises the presence of God in nature, such as it is described in the above midrash (clouds, winds, plants, trees). But is man able to pay attention to all these miracles while "sleeping in bed" and thank God for them?

This is where the omer comes in. It is an offering based on the product of nature and by fulfilling this mitzvah man becomes aware of the hidden miracles God performs through nature and his indebtedness to God. He thanks God by offering this sacrifice to the cohen and this thanking is the "payment" we offer God for what he does for us.

So now we can close the loop and understand how the omer and the promise of the Land of Israel to Avraham are connected. When the people of Israel were in the desert they lived by open and visible miracles: the manna from heaven, the fact their clothes remained in perfect condition for 40 years, the clouds that protected them, etc. But after they entered the Land of Israel all of these visible miracles stopped and the laws of nature - the "hidden miracles" - took over. Keeping the faith was much harder now, so the keeping of the mitzvah of the omer - a sacrifice brought from nature - symbolised that the people of Israel continued to believe in God even in this new situation. He who is able to thank God for the miracles of nature is the one that deserves the promise of the Land of Israel.

The idea for this week's Torah thought is from R. Zechariah Tubi.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Emor - Trying to Figure Out the Reason

ושור או שה, אותו ואת בנו לא תשחטו ביום אחד

(ויקרא כ"ב, כ"ח)

This week's parasha has many mitzvot; by the count of Sefer HaChinuch 63 of them, more than 10% of all mitzvot. And they cover many walks of halachic life: purity and impurity, incense, sacrifices, holidays and many more. Most of the mitzvot in Emor belong to the category of chukim (or, as R. Saadia Gaon called them mitzvot shimiyot), that is mitzvot that are not required by reason and that we cannot understand rationally, but rather are given through revelation. We can comprehend why the Torah would command us not to kill another human being or why we should respect the elderly. However, we cannot comprehend most of the laws of kashrut or why we needed to sprinkle the ashes of a dead red heifer in order to purify people. Regardless of our ability to understand the reasons behind a specific mitzvah we are nevertheless obliged to follow it. However, being the curious human beings we are, sages throughout history have attempted to provide reasons for the mitzvot, particulary the chukim.

One of the mitzvot in our parasha is on the face of things a most reasonable one, that we can easily comprehend the reason for:

"And whether it be cow or ewe, ye shall not kill it and its young both in one day"

(Vayikra, 22, 28)

The Rambam categorises this mitzvah in the category of rules destined to prevent cruelty to animals. He states that the love of an animal mother to its offspring is no different than that of a human mother to her children. Therefore, in order to avoid causing unnecessary grief to the animal, one is not to kill an animal and its offspring on the same day. For most people this would instinctively seem an obvious reason for this mitzvah. And yet things are not as simple as that.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees with the Rambam (Maimonides) and gives a different reason for this interdiction. He believes that there is nothing wrong with killing an animal and its offspring on the same day, as animals do not feel pain the same ways humans do. Rather, we are forbidden to do so in order to prevent us becoming too cruel. The purpose of this mitzvah is to instill in us a sense of pity and mercy, to avoid us becoming merciless butchers. The Ramban fears for our soul and for our sense of mercy, not for the animal's suffering.

But, as R. Haim David Halevy z"l (ex-chief rabbi of Tel Aviv) points out, if we examine the halachah, we find out that this mitzvah applies only if the animals are killed in a proper (i.e. kosher) shechitah; if the animal is killed otherwise, then it is permissible to kill its mother (or offspring). This fact actually makes both the Rambam and the Ramban's explanations of this mitzvah very difficult to accept. Why would we pity the animal less (Rambam) if it's killed in a non-kosher way, and how would the allowed method of killing help us achieve a sense of mercy (Ramban)? R. Halevy offers another explanation, which is based on the commentay to the Torah by R. Hirsch.

The prohibition to kill an animal and its offspring on the same day brings to the fore our sense of parenthood, which is present in both humans and animals. We kill the animal in order to either sacrifice it at the altar (in the days of the temple) or to eat it at our table. Both of these ends are to be done in holiness: sacrifices are holy and so is the meal we eat at our table ("a person's table is like an altar"). It is therefore not possible for us to "taint" this holiness by ignoring the love of the animal as a parent and not sympathising with this feeling.

But R. Halevy's explanation suffers from the same lacuna as the previous explanations. Strictly speaking, we are allowed to kill an animal at, say, 4PM before nightfall, and its offspring shortly thereafter at say, 6PM after nightfall. Technically it's not the "same day" so we avoid the prohibition, but surely if the purpose is for us to respect the love of parenthood and preseve a sense of holiness, how can a mere two hours fulfill that purpose?

No wonder there were many commentators and rabbis that said that searching for the reason of the mitzvot is futile. We are unable to comprehend in full the reason for every mitzvah so at the end of the journey (if there is ever such an end) we must revert to the basic faith that these mitzvot were commanded by God and we need to obey them.