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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chabad of Tokyo

Three years after leaving Tokyo, the whole family is back in Japan for a short visit this week. There are obviously many experiences and memories to write about, but I wanted to write a few words about a dear family and an invaluable organisation - Chabad of Tokyo.

During the 4.5 years we were living in Tokyo, Chabad was for us - as it is for many Jews around the world - the main focus of Jewish life here. The Sudakevitch family have become our friends. They arrived in Tokyo a year or so before we did, so they've been here for almost 9 years now. Recently the Chabad House moved to a new building, which is going to be renovated in the near future and become the centre of Jewish life in the Japanese capital.

We just spent shabbat and chag with the Sudakevitch family (we are staying in a hotel nearby). It was lovely to see them again and to have meals in their sukkah. We had "hakafot" last night with a group of tourists from Israel that really livened the place up; I'm sure the Japanese neighbours were asking themselves what the loud singing and raucous dancing was all about. Rabbi Mendi told me that on Yom Kippur they had about 200 people for the end of the day, with only about 60 chairs available. This is surely a great sign for the new Chabad house in Tokyo.

So if you're visiting Tokyo, be sure to pay Chabad a visit!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Singapore and Israel

I'm sat at Singapore Changi airport, waiting for a red eye to Tokyo, after having spent 3 days in this wonderful city-state. I've been to Singapore several times in the past, and it's a great place: "Asia for beginners".

Every time I'm here I'm struck by the fact of how much Israel would benefit by adopting some of the practices of the Singaporeans. I agree that, strictly speaking, Singapore is not a "true" democracy; in fact, it has been described as an "illiberal democracy" or even a "benign dictatorship". But my argument is that this is exactly the type of democracy Israel needs.

Here are some examples of Singaporean practices that I think would do wonders if applied in the Holy Land:

  • Freedom of speech is moderated, to protect minorities and to prevent "disharmony". Oh, if someone would only put a leash on the Israeli media!
  • You kill someone (first-degree murder), you die. You traffic in drugs, you die. Simple and effective.
  • OK, so perhaps capital punishment is a little harsh, so how about this: you don't flush the toilet, you chew gum in public, you litter, you jay-walk, you trade in pornography - you are a criminal.

I think the idea is clear. Compare Singapore to other "Chinese" countries in Asia and note the difference in wealth, law and order, cleanliness, manners, etc. Certain populations need taming, for want of a better term. Israelis could do with a little taming themselves. Things would look much better if heavy fines were imposed every time someone threw litter from his car or cut in line at "kupat cholim". I say: hit the Israeli where it hurts most: his pocket!

It's a well-known secret that Israel helped Singapore build its military. It's time Israel also learns a thing or two from Singapore.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Prozac and Home-Equity Loans

The financial crisis gripping the world right now started with the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble in the US last year (explanation here). Naturally, the financial industry players - banks, brokers, insurers, etc. - took most of the rap for creating this crisis, and rightfully so.

But what about the people who actually borrowed the money? Aren't they at least partly to blame for taking these risky loans?

Adam Hanft has an interesting theory: Americans have been medicated with anti-depressant drugs to a level that caused them to accept irrational levels of risk. Not sure about that $500,000 loan for the new house you want so much? No worries, just pop a Prozac into your mouth and suddenly the loan doesn't look so risky. Drug-induced confidence might indeed be partly responsible for the irrational behaviour of many of these home-equity borrowers.

Now, isn't that a depressing thought?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Melachim Gimmel, by Yochi Brandes

Yochi Brandes grew up in an ultra-orthodox charedi religious family. Now she does not follow halacha but is "religious in her own way", whatever that means. And, faithful to the turnaround, she wrote a book that will probably make many religious people angry. Not me; the story isn't gripping enough to make me angry...

The presumptuously named Melachim Gimmel ("King III", i.e. a continuation of the books of Kings, no less) is not Brandes' first book, but it is her first "Biblical novel". This relatively new and recently blossoming genre, concerns books based on Biblical figures that go to extreme lengths to disfigure the Biblical narrative and present a "new way of looking at things". The authors will obviously studiously tell their readers that the new narrative is all based on apocryphal literature or midrashim, and they merely uncovered the truth behind the Biblical story. Because the Bible, as we all know (wink, wink) is just one big conspiracy story to hid the real history from us gullible believers.

Melachim Gimmel is basically the life story of Yerov'am (Jeroboam) son of Navat, the fourth king of Israel (first king after the split between Yehuda and rest of the tribes). The book has three parts. The first tells the story of Yerov'am's childhood and young adulthood, and lays the foundation for the "secrets" to be revealed later in the story. Mind you, at this stage we the readers are not really supposed to know that it's Yerov'am the story is about; he is called Shlom'am in his youth (altough it beats me how anyone with cursory knowledge of the Bible can miss it). The second part moves to Michal, daughter of King Sha'ul and wife of King David, who is following her husband's steps (upon his visit to Achish, the Philistine king) by acting as if she's crazy in order to fool everyone around her. In reality, the screaming and the lighting of thousands of candles at night are a ruse to hide her conspiracy with Hadad the Edomite to fell her husband and restore the kingdom to her father's family (you guessed right: Yerov'am). The third and final part is the part where it all comes together and Yerov'am becomes king of Israel, thus fulfilling the true prophecy of Elisha.

The Biblical story is turned on its head by Brandes. The King David dynasty and the tribe of Yehuda are depicted as the evil ones, whereas the King Saul dinasty and the tribes of Binyamin and Efraim are the good guys. The only reason the Bible says it differently is because the scribes of the time were ordered by the palace to write false stories. For example, David never really killed Goliath, Saul never really persecuted David (quite the contrary) and God never stripped the kingdom away from Saul to give it to David.

Brandes is not the first to write a "revolutionary" narrative of the Bible. Anita Diamant did it years ago with the story of Dinah. Shlomit Avramson did it recently with the story of Tamar and Yehuda. Even the story of the generations-long struggle between the dynasties of Saul and David was rendered into a (much better, futuristic, novel) by Chagai Dagan. But Brandes writes pretty well, so at least the shalowness of the "new narrative" and the "hidden secrets" are not all that tedious, and the book can be read and be done with in a few hours. Good riddance.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Lion's Muffled Roar

The District Court in Jerusalem refused yesterday to overturn the moral turpitude clause in Aryeh Deri's 1999 verdict. This means that Deri will not be able to run for mayor of Jerusalem. This is good news.

Deri is considering to appeal to the High Court of Justice. I hope he does, so that the last nail goes into the coffin and the lion is buried for good (or at least for these elections).

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Financial Crisis: Explained (Again)

A day before Congress decides on the bailout plan for the financial markets (and for all of us), is a perfect day to be reminded of this video from about a year ago. How sadly prescient it was:

The Amnesiac, by Sam Taylor

The Amnesiac is a strange book. I bought it following a recommendation on VSL, that called the book "unputdownable". Well, it took me a few days to get through it, so I wouldn't define it quite as such. But it is an intriguing book, as one would expect from a book about amnesia.

James Purdew is a 30-year-old Briton that leads a more or less contented, easy-going life in Amsterdam with his girlfriend, Ingrid. A leg injury has him confined to the apartment for a while, which gets him thinking about life in general and his in particular (lesson for life: do not think too much!) He gradually realises he has this blank about three years in his past, and when he checks his diaries he finds out those relating to that period are locked in a box to which he has conveniently lost the key. As his relationship with Ingrid hits a dead-end anyway, he decides to head back to England to retrace his past.

So far so good, and up until this part the book was indeed "unputdownable". A great start. But this is where things get more complicated. James starts his detective work by going back to the house he lived in during his university days. The plot goes back and forth in time and various clues come together, pieces of the past. James starts feeling this is all part of a bigger picture that keeps eluding him. He also gets the feeling he is being manipulated by greater forces.

The story is hard to follow, not only because of the obvious "holes" of James' missing past, but also because of the writing style. Narration switches between James and a mysterious narrator, that claims at times to be in the same room as James. Excerpts of other works are inserted alongside the main story. There are several characters, in different times, whose names or initials are similar. Taylor also switches between genres: science fiction, mystery and drama. This is partly why this book is slow to read; the reader is curious to find out what is going on, but the style is such that it slows down the reading pace.

The end is rather disappointing, as one suspects what happened quite early on in the story. Nevertheless, this is a book I would recommend and certainly a great debut book for Sam Taylor.

PS - I was reminded of the movie Memento while reading this book (note to self: must watch that movie again).