Thursday, December 23, 2004


We recently took off for a short vacation in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, with a group called Shabbat B’Teva. Literally meaning “Sabbath in Nature,” the group wraps hiking and tiyulim around a Shabbat atmosphere.

The idea of getting out of the nasty cold of Jerusalem (for those of you who’ve never visited, it actually snows here in the winter) to bask for a few days in the relative warmth of the desert was too appealing to refuse.

Eilat is a five hour drive by car from Jerusalem. Thursday, on the way down, we stopped several times, first at the Dead Sea (no, we didn’t go in – remember the disaster the last time?) and then at the Flour Cave, where the walls of the surrounding canyon are so chalky, you can give yourself a natural facial...minus the lemon juice and cucumbers, of course.

The next day, we hiked through the Black Canyon just north of Eilat in a setting as close to a lunar landscape as I imagine you can get here on planet earth. The canyon shifts from bare yellow sandstone to craggy black volcanic rock.

The air was clean, the sky an unwavering blue, the temperature just right. It was truly exhilarating.

By the time we got back to the Eilat Field School where we were staying, it was late Friday afternoon and we were happily weary, ready for Shabbat.

A “field school” is a kind of Israeli version of a youth hostel run by the Society for the Protection of Nature. The family rooms are spartan, furnished with bunk beds and scratchy starched sheets that for some reason are always a tad too short.

Meals are eaten in the field school’s cafeteria-style communal dining room, together with any other groups that may be staying at the same time.

When we sat down to dinner, we had the place to ourselves. We said Kiddush and broke bread. As we were getting up to hit the entrée buffet, two Egged tour buses pulled up and began unloading their cargo: 100 or so Israeli tourists.

The Israeli group found their seats. They were a rowdy bunch, decidedly not-religious. Just then, the leader of our group announced it was sing.

Now on Shabbat, it’s traditional to sing during meals. I have no problem with that; we often indulge ourselves. But I found myself vaguely uncomfortable with the prospect of doing this in front of a roomful of strangers.

Growing up, singing was something you did in private or in a place where it was sanctioned and expected: on a stage, at camp, in synagogue. You didn’t get up in the middle of a school cafeteria and start belting out your praise for God.

Well maybe you did...

There’s an expression we used to use to refer to people who were overly kiss-y in public. Remember? PDA – for public displays of affection. Well, on this night, in the Eilat Field School, I was experiencing something slightly different. We’ll just call it PDJ.

Public Displays of Judaism.

So there we were, performing for an audience who hadn’t bought a ticket. We sang Yom Ze Mechubad while the Israeli group piled potatoes and fish on their plates.

They ate their fried chicken rings while we crooned Dror Yikra.

I tried not to look, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I was most afraid of. Yes, the Israeli tourists were throwing idle glances our way. We were disturbing their meal. I just knew it.

The singing went on and on. Just when I thought we’d exhausted the repertoire of Shabbat zemirot, someone in our group started up with Israeli folk songs.

Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold).

Arik Einstein’s Ani v’Atah.

And then I noticed something I didn’t expect. The Israeli group was nodding. A few were, wait a minute…what was this…they were singing along. Now there was someone clapping. And another.

The song ended. And then the Israeli group did the impossible. They actually started the next one.

U’faratzta,” they sang. “Yama, v’kedma, tzafona v’negba.”

Our group happily joined in.

My wife Jody turned to me, oblivious to my agonized internal monologue and commented “Israelis just love to sing.”

We ate our dessert, said grace after meals, and headed back to our rooms to get the kids to bed.

The next day, after morning prayers, we hiked up nearby Mt. Zefachot before returning for Shabbat lunch. The scenery didn’t disappoint. From the highest point, you could see four countries: Israel, Jordan, Egypt and even the tip of Saudi Arabia.

But my thoughts kept straying back to the night before. And I wondered: what would today’s meal bring? Would the two groups sit together and bond during Shabbat lunch? Would there be more singing?

Was this a small step towards bringing bridging the gap between immigrants and sabras – those Israelis who are prickly like cactus on the outside but sweet and communal at the core?

And most important: would I overcome my aversion to singing in public?

We may never know. When we arrived back at the Field School on Saturday afternoon, the dining room was empty, the tour buses gone from the parking lot.

The other group had already checked out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Out of Context

We were recently invited to a bar mitzvah “weekend” at the resort hotel of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, a few kilometers from where we live at the southernmost edge of Jerusalem.

The bar mitzvah weekend is an alternative to the usual custom in our community where the bar mitzvah boy (or bat mitzvah girl) is called to the Torah in synagogue, with a festive Kiddush held afterwards followed by a lunch or party in the evening.

With the bar mitzvah weekend, though, guests are invited to stay over (often at the bar mitzvah family’s expense) at a hotel. The family gets to create exactly the environment they want in a more intimate space, and the guests get a three meal catered break from the weekly routine.

We were really looking forward to it. That was, until Amir got sick.

Our eleven-year-old, Merav, had already made her own plans to spend the Shabbat with a friend in town (it was a bar mitzvah after all...boys, ecchh).

“I guess we should cancel and stay home,” I said to my wife Jody as thirteen-year-old Amir flushed the toilet for the eleventh time that hour.

Jody had a different idea. “Why don’t I go with Aviv and you stay home with Amir?” she suggested.

I was shocked. Insulted. Hurt. Over the years we have taken great pains not to be separated as a family for Shabbat. Even when I used to fly overseas for business sometimes as often as twice a month, I’d always try to get back by Friday. And from California, let me tell you, that was one heck of a transcontinental shlep.

And now Jody was suggesting that we separate...right in the same city?

Still, she had a point. Why should we both miss out on the weekend? Six-year-old Aviv would have a great time (he loves hotels). Besides, our friends wanted us there.

“OK, how about this,” I countered. “You go to the hotel and I’ll stay home with Amir Friday night. Then if Amir’s feeling well enough in the morning, I’ll walk over for Shabbat services by myself.” It was under an hour to Ramat Rachel on foot.

“Would that be OK, Amir, if you stayed by yourself for a few hours?”

Amir just looked green.

“Right, we’ll play it by ear,” I said.

As Jody packed up her bags, though, I realized that all that togetherness meant that this weekend would be charting new territory. You see, I had never spent a Shabbat alone with one of my kids.

Which wasn’t a bad thing. It’s just...well, what would we talk about? Sure, Amir and I have never been at a loss for words. Still, I felt vaguely uncomfortable. The context was confused.

Which raised another question: what would we do, just the two of us, at the dinner table? Would we still sing Shalom Aleichem, the song welcoming the Sabbath angels to our house, without the rest of the family, I wondered? What about Kiddush? And the motzei over the challah?

There was no time to ponder. The sun was already setting. I put food on the hotplate, just like a regular Shabbat.

But Amir wasn’t hungry; all he could eat was rice and applesauce anyway. And I thought: maybe we should just skip the whole thing. Take a week off. Why go through all that bother?

And that felt even worse.

“Come to the table, Amir,” I said.

Amir was on the couch reading “New Spring,” the prequel to Robert Jordan’s wildly popular “Wheel of Time” series, his eyes still glazed from a week of nausea.

“Do I have to?” he mumbled.

“Yes,” I commanded, sounding more sure of myself than I really was.

Amir came. And we began. We sang Shalom Aleichem to our regular rousing tune. To my surprise, Amir joined in, as enthusiastically as his flu-weakened body could muster.

Then we turned to the empty chair where Jody usually sat and sang Eishet Chayil. Amir pretended to give his mother a massage. “That’s my job!” I joked.

While I wolfed down a piece of chicken and a couple of small potatoes, Amir poked at his rice and we talked. About whatever came into our heads.

We discussed the price of college and the new Nintendo DS Amir’s so crazy about. I pontificated on an article I had read recently in Wired Magazine about the economics of digital media distribution.

At the meal’s end, I even insisted that we sing the grace after meals, something about which I am habitually ambivalent. Amir didn’t complain.

And it struck me that the rituals which I thought would have less resonance without the full family gathered around...actually meant more. They provided a starting point, a common ground between father and son. In the very situation where I’d anticipated laziness, I found myself more stringent.

After dinner, we retired to the living room, both of us curling up with our books (I was a third of the way through The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s harrowing best seller about growing up in Afghanistan).

After a few pages, I put my book down, looked up and tried to put voice to the thoughts I was having.

“Amir,” I said. “Did you think that we were going to do all that?”

“All what?” he asked, lifting his eyes slightly.

“You know, the Kiddush and motzei and stuff?”

Amir’s answer was as simple as it was telling. In little more than a few quickly exhaled words, he validated thirteen years of parenting and varying adherence to tradition.

“Yeah of course,” he said. “Why not?”

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Donut Quiche

(Just in time for Hanukah, here's a special encore presentation of one of my - er - tastier columns.)

I know they’re bad for me. But I can’t resist.

I’m talking about donuts, of course. Whatever shape, size or variety, I go do-m’shuga-nut over them. And at this time of year, as Hanukah season descends upon us, Israel is overflowing with that uniquely Jewish version, the sufgania.

Sufganiot (that’s the plural) are a very simple but tasty version of the classic donut. Start with fried dough, don’t even bother digging a hole, then inject jelly or caramel (my preference) directly into the middle. Finish off by coating the creation with plenty of powdered sugar.

Sufganiot season starts earlier every year, in some cases kicking off just after Sukkot in October. By December, they are ubiquitous. At my eleven year-old daughter Merav’s class Hanukah party, I watched in awe as a large white van from a local bakery drove up to the school gates, opened its doors and revealed platter upon platter of white frosted mass-produced tempting and scrumptious sufganiot.

There are sufganiot in the kitchens at work, sufganiot at kiddush in shul, and sufganiot at the checkout counter of every supermarket from here to Haifa.

All of this reminds me of when our family was in the North America two summers ago and I became obsessed with finding the ultimate donut:

A Krispy Kreme.

I had heard that this chain serving hot and fresh donuts had taken the region by storm and was even trading on the stock market (look it up here)!

I had also heard their donuts were to die for. And I had never had one.

So the running theme of the summer was Dad’s obsession with finding that illusive Krispy Kreme. But on highways from Toronto to Cleveland to Chicago, our holy grail eluded us. It wasn’t until I was out shopping late one night, in a forlorn suburban mall in the middle of nowhere, that I chanced upon a freestanding Krispy Kreme franchise, beckoning to me from the middle of the nearly-empty parking lot.

Apparently, the big deal about Krispy Kreme is that when the sign outside is lit, that means hot donuts are rolling off the assembly line that’s a prominent feature in every store.

The sign was lit.

I approached the store and, through the windows, I could see hundreds of just-baked lightly browned donuts rolling out of the ovens, then floating down a river of boiling oil before being tenderly flipped and arriving at the end of their journey: an earnest Krispy Kreme employee offering free samples to us, the lucky consumers who had timed our arrival just right.

I sampled. I smiled.

Maybe it was because it was hot. Or because I had waited so long for this moment. But I declared to my fellow consumers, and maybe to God herself, that these were the absolute best donuts I had ever tasted.

I proceeded to buy a couple dozen for my wife Jody and the kids.

As much as I fawned over the Krispy Kremes last summer, I still have a special spot in my heart for the Krispy's more humble Israeli cousin. I think it must be the scarcity: you just can’t run out to get a hot sufgania in the middle of July. You won’t find one. You really have to wait for Hanukah to come near.

Which gives me an idea: why not create a year-round sufgania phenomenon. We’d have to modify the formula a bit. Turn it more into a full meal. And stuff the sufgania with more than jelly

How about spinach, broccoli and zucchini? Creating something more like a quiche.

Or fill it with chopped meat or schwarma or chicken schnitzel. We could replace the tired boring pita and the no-longer-trendy baguette with the hottest new trend: the fried dough sandwich!

From Beersheva to Binyamina,, this could be all the rage. Think of the entrepreneurship. The satisfied customers. The profits.

Shuki’s Falafel, move over. Here comes Brian’s Donut Quiche!

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Still in De-Nile

After all the whining I did in my last column, In De-Nile, I thought it only befitting to provide an update, however embarassing it may be.

What happened was this: I was just about to throw out my old broken phone headset when I noticed a small knob that I thought I'd checked before. The knob had somehow slid into the "mute" position. I moved it out of mute and, lo and behold, the headset works perfectly.

Which makes my previous column ironic, at best; at worst, well...I won't go there. But it also leads me to a point that I've been thinking about a lot lately. That is: can writing right wrongs? Or put more simply, if something nasty or unpleasant happens, can you make it better by writing about it?

Remember when we got locked out of our house a few weeks back? I started writing the story about that long night even while I was still suffering on my neighbor's couch. And before I even knew the ending, since the events were still unfolding in real time.

Same with that less than than stellar camping trip we took earlier this year; I knew as it was happening that I could salvage the experience by crafting it into a story.

So now I have another worry: that I am using you, my dear readers, as my surrogate therapist. My thinking has been that, as long as you laugh at my trials and tribulations, I can deal with them too!

Is that OK?

Well, why not? After all, I'm just trying to make the most of a tough situation, right? Or has my own life become just more grist for the story mill...

What do you think? I'd like to open it up for discussion. Click the Comments button on the website. Or send me an email at

Looking forward to hearing from you!