Monday, April 28, 2003

Betting on SARS

I can understand how Canadians must feel right about now.

They’re outraged. Really ticked off. Last week, the World Health Organization issued a Traveler’s Advisory warning urging visitors to avoid Toronto unless they have urgent business there. The reason, as we all know by now: fear of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

We in Israel certainly have been there.

For the past few years, the US State Department has repeatedly advised Americans to steer clear of our fair country. Not that there isn’t what to worry about. Terror is indiscriminate and a visitor here could very well be involved in a serious incident. No one knows that better than us: we lost our cousin Marla a year ago in the July 31, 2002 attack at Hebrew University.

But the warning, dripping with official sternness, always made it seem that simply walking down the street, at all times and in every place, posed an immediate and incontrovertible danger to life, limb and the pursuit of happiness. And that's simply not our day-to-day experience.

I imagine that must be how it feels to the average Torontonian as well.

Travel Advisories have a more insidious impact. Tourism in Israel has been decimated. The entire economy is in acute doldrums. No doubt, it would have been hurt by the violence regardless. But an official warning takes away a certain degree of freedom of choice.

For example: student groups that could still have come for summer trips - even if that entailed sequestering themselves in protected buses and at officially sanctioned and secure events - chose instead to preach Zionism in Poland…or Florida. Federation missions, similarly, have been repeatedly delayed.

After all, the argument went, if the State Department said it’s not safe to come, who are we to argue otherwise?

That was all the ammunition our own families needed.

“We heard on the news,” they have duly informed us on more than one occasion, “that all non-essential personnel should leave. You don’t seem very essential. Why aren’t you coming home? Now!

But the pendulum swings both ways.

Jody’s sister and brother-in-law and their six children live in Toronto. But Jody’s sister is not originally from Canada. With the new Travel Advisory, shouldn’t she, too, leave immediately? Return home (in this case to Los Angeles) to sit out the duration of the SARS epidemic?

What if the spread of SARS continues at a low but still dangerous boil for years? Does she stay in LA indefinitely? What about her family? And what happens then if SARS spreads and affects ordinary folks in Los Angeles as well?

SARS may be perceived today as a problem mainly affecting the Far East and Canada. But terrorism was once seen as primarily a Middle Eastern problem. Then came 9/11.

And yet, is the panic truly justified? Let’s look at the statistics. There have been over 2000 SARS cases in China and more than 100 people have died. But that’s out of a population of over 1.26 billion. What are the chances of getting infected by SARS vs. getting run down by a Beijing tram?

If I were a betting man, I’d say that SARS is not all that much to worry about.

And still, bet we do. In so many aspects of our life.

When the violence first broke out in Israel in September 2000, we began to make all kind of bets based on probabilities and historical data in order to decide where we would go or which roads we felt safe to drive on. Had there been a shooting on that road? Nixed. A bomb on that bus line. Off the list.

The more analytical among our friends repeated the mantra that more people have been killed by traffic accidents than by terror incidents. So statistically, they argued, it was still safer to stand in the center of Ramallah than to get behind the wheel of your own car.

But gut emotions don’t always follow the rational machinations of modern minds.

And so we have the current pandemonium where CNN has gone almost overnight from non-stop coverage of the war in Iraq to scenes of deserted schools in Beijing and passengers with gas masks at airports in Toronto, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Here’s an irony: Jody and I have been planning a big trip to the Far East for some time now. I used to do a lot of traveling for work and I racked up enough points to score two free tickets to wherever El Al goes.

We decided on China. When?

May, 2003.

So, are we going? Not a chance. Of course SARS has spooked us. And it would be highly imprudent to belittle the seriousness of what could still turn out to be an epidemic of global proportions. Maybe we’ll go to China in the fall if things have calmed down. Or we’ll pick a different exotic El Al destination – India or South Africa perhaps.

But what if SARS has spread to those places too by then? The tickets are only good for a year. Do we forfeit the trip of a lifetime for an infinitesimal possibility of getting sick? And if we picked a supposedly safe spot, who’s to say we wouldn’t get kidnapped and shot while stopping for cash at an ATM?

Obviously, throwing caution to the wind is not something we do casually. But in a world going increasingly mad, fraught with new and previously unknown dangers every day, the only way to survive, to make sense of it all, is to keep on living our normal lives. We can’t let the terrorists, the viruses, or whatever comes next – get us down.

Of course, that’s just what we in Israel have already had to learn after suffering years of violence. Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to get that (positive) message, too.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

A Different Aliyah

Rachel just doesn’t get it. I’ve explained it again and again. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A chance to become a part of Jewish history. To not just live as a minority in some other culture’s history, but to make our own. How can someone who feels such a connection to the Jewish people – and I know Rachel does - turn down the chance to make the desert bloom?

Rachel straightens her headscarf and heads to the corner of the small room that serves as the kitchen. She angrily throws a pot of lentils on the fire and mutters something about needing to make bread but feeling too tired. Maybe in the morning. I resist the temptation to complain about dinner. It will be the fourth time this week that all we’ve had is lentils.

The streets outside our small house are all abuzz with excitement. It’s early evening. The sky is in the process of going from blue to deep purple. There seems to be something hovering in the air, though at an altitude higher than I can make out, but still discernible. I can smell change in the air.

Most of our friends work at one of the many construction sites in the neighborhood. As they start arriving home from a hard day of labor, there is a sense of hope for the first time in as long as I can remember. But their anticipation is tempered since an even larger group is doing all it can to keep us in check.

The argument of the nay-sayers is simple and at times deceptively compelling: times are tough, but the devil you do know is better than the devil you don’t. And who is this aliyah emissary anyway? He talks about the need to emigrate, the importance of the endeavor, but he doesn’t speak for everyone. Who appointed him in the first place?

Still, I’ve made up my mind. I’m going. How long have we dreamed of such a thing? To think that it is within our grasp, in our generation.

Oh sure, it will be tough. Our standard of living will definitely take a significant step downward.

Not that it was so great to start with. The taxes have been outrageous. And do you know what it costs to get your kids into a good school these days? You’ve practically got to bribe the headmasters. Kids are actually dropping out of school to go to work, not because they want to. But what other choice do they have?

And then there are the accommodations: these transit camps they’re talking about don’t sound anywhere near as nice as our small but cozy homes here. The building standards where we’re going are supposed to be primitive by comparison to what we’re used to.

Not to mention the food. Until things really get up and running, I’ve heard that it’s going to be near impossible to import our favorite stuff from “the old country.”

Don’t worry, they say, the food will be tasty, but it will pretty much be the same thing everyday. Creative use of spice is the key. Sure, I’ve heard that before.

But still, those are all just creature comforts. What’s important is unity. Togetherness. Living in peace and harmony.

Speaking of which, I understand that the peoples who are already there aren’t too keen about sharing their land with a bunch of newcomers. They’ve already informed our leaders that they’ll fight us, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, should we attempt to expropriate any of their property for our own use.

But what are we supposed to do? We’re looking at genocide here. What, we should just sit quietly and watch as our male-born children are thrown into the river? I don’t care how nice your living room furniture is; it’s just not worth it. Why don’t the world bodies understand that we need a homeland here! This is a matter of survival.

Hey, what’s that sound? The commotion on the street has died down. That smell I told you about, that there was something way up in the sky? Well, it’s getting a whole lot closer now. Wait…are those…locusts? At this time of year? Man, things are really getting freaky these days. Must be a sign. But from who…or what?

Well, maybe we’ll find that out too when we leave. I can’t wait. Rachel, she’ll come around, I’m sure of it. This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime!

Monday, April 21, 2003


Let me start off by saying that cooking has never been my forte. Growing up, my mother wouldn’t even let my brother and me into the kitchen. That was great as a kid, with all these wonderful meals magically appearing and us having virtually no idea how they came into being. But as an adult it has left me with certain limitations.

Before Jody and I were married, I ate out a lot. Between falafel and burgers and the occasional salad, I probably spent more on food than rent. There was a brief period where I bought a wok and actually got pretty good with stir frying veggies.

I don’t know where that wok is now, though. And in any case, it’s not kosher for Passover. Which leads us to the dilemma of the day.

It was chol hamoed Pesach – the intermediary days of Passover – when matza is still high on the food chain. Jody had to go out and the kids hadn’t eaten dinner yet. Not a good combination.

No sooner had Jody walked out the door when eleven-year-old Amir asked “What’s for dinner?”

“I’m hungry!” nine-year-old Merav demanded.

Five-year-old Aviv was practically asleep on the couch, but he managed a brief whimper to indicate that he concurred.

Usually during Pesach week, we feast on a whole lot of matza: chicken salad on matza, matza with tuna, matza with butter and salt, matza bagels, and matza mousse for dessert.

“Let’s check what we’ve got,” I suggested, putting on an expression of “exaggerated enthusiasm” as I had learned in a recent Dale Carnegie class.

We had eaten out for the Passover Seder itself so there were no serious leftovers. The cupboard wasn’t exactly bare, but it wasn’t overflowing either. All that we had on hand were a dozen eggs, three squares of butter and the aforementioned matza.

“Matza Brie!” I declared with all the passion of a yet-to-be-televised naked chef.

“Do you know how to make matza brie?” Merav asked, with more than a touch of cynicism in her voice.

“No,” I responded, “but how hard can it be? It’s just eggs and matza, right?”

I cracked five eggs into a bowl, whisked them together, poured them into a frying pan and then crumbled a single piece of matza into the mix.

“Abba, aren’t you supposed to use, like, five pieces of matza?” Merav commented.

“And I think you’re supposed to soak the matza before you put it in the pan,” Amir instructed with alarm.

“It will be fine,” I shot back. “Don’t worry.”

“Matza Brie is supposed to be like French Toast,” Merav added.

“This isn’t Matza Brie as you know it,” I said, thinking on my feet. “It’s a…a...matzomelete."

"Yes,” I continued, ”it’s the perfect food for a country constantly suffering from a matzav” (that ubiquitous Hebrew term for "the situation").

“When friends call from the States and ask how the matzav is, we can say – it’s just fine, because we’re having matzomeletes.”

I looked down from my reverie. The matzomelete was starting to stick to the pan. The moment of truth was at hand. The kids eyed the concoction suspiciously. I still hadn’t gained their trust. As I spatula’d it onto their plates, no one uttered the customary “he got more!” or “she got more!”

They took a bite.

“Not bad,” declared Amir.

“Pretty tasty,” said Merav.

“Got any ketchup?” asked Amir.

I had done it!

Later that evening, when Jody came home, I told her the story.

“Matzomeletes instead of matza brie, huh? See, I knew you could handle the kids. But I’ve got an even better idea.”

And then with a wink she said: “Let’s go upstairs. I bet we can cook up a little Matza Brian of our own.”

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Pass Overs

Suddenly, the words have new meaning.

It’s the day before Passover, and I call home to wish my parents a Chag Sameach – Happy Holidays. My mother picks up.

“I’m glad you called, Brian. Your father is in the hospital.”

I figure he must have fallen again, broken a bone and is getting a cast. This has been an increasingly recurrent theme with my parents, now that they’ve gotten well into their 70s.

“He was having chest pains yesterday,” she says.

This is not what I expected. I feel my own heart begin to race.

“We thought it was nothing, but the doctor says he needs an angiogram. He might need a stent or open heart surgery.”

And then the classic Jewish mother coda: “But don’t worry. I’m sure it will be OK.”

I immediately start to worry.

“And when were you planning on telling me about this?” I ask.

“After the test, I suppose.”

“But what if it doesn’t go well? When is the test scheduled for?”


“That’s Pesach, you know.”

“Is it?” my mother asks. “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

My family has never kept track of holidays particularly well.

“Well, bring him some matzah in the hospital,” I offer.

“Sure,” she replies with nervous laughter.

And I wonder: is this how it begins? The moment every child with older parents dreads: when what was a relatively stable situation descends into a slowly deteriorating condition. Compounded by the even more complex process of managing the details - and the emotions - from 10,000 miles and a 10 hour time difference away.

I know, I worry too much. There is no news yet.

“If you need to get a hold of me, you know I won’t be answering the phone on Pesach,” I feel obliged to add.

“I’m sure there will be no reason.”

“But if there is, here’s what you do. Call a few times in a row. Let the phone ring. Then I’ll know it must be important. I’ll also leave my cell phone on. I’ll check for missed calls on the display.”

And I think: Shabbat and holidays are usually such a restful time for those who observe them in a religious way. No television. No interruptions by the never-ceasing phone. A year ago, that proved to be an enormous relief: in Israel we didn’t know about the Passover Massacre in Netanya until after the holiday ended. Our seders were calm, even joyful.

But now I feel out of control. Something is happening to my father and not only am I not there, I will be completely incommunicado.

“How is he doing?” I ask my mother.

“He’s a little scared. You know, we’ve never talked about death.”

“But nothing’s going to happen,” I say.

Now who’s reassuring whom?

The etymology of the English translation of the Hebrew - “Passover” - suddenly pops into my mind. On the night of the final plague in Egypt, the Jews smeared the blood from the sacrifice on the doorframes and the angel of death passed over that house.

And I think: angel of death, please pass over all those who are not deserving of death - the soldiers and innocent civilians; the celebrants this year at the Park Hotel in Netanya. And please pass over my father.

“Does Dave know yet?” I ask my mother. Dave is my brother.

“No, he’s away on a business trip to Miami. He won’t get back until Wednesday night.”

“I’ll call him and leave a message.”

“Yes, that’s probably a good idea.”

“We’ll talk Thursday night?”


“I’ll call you.”


I hang up and call my brother in San Francisco. On the answering machine, I babble a bit, recording what I know, trying to steer a tone between this is important and don’t worry.

As I’m about to put down the phone, I add “Happy Pass Over. To you. To Dad. To all of us.”

Post Script: my father is now out of the hospital. He had a blocked artery. I spoke to him and he said that the Internet saved him. When he felt chest pains, he looked up the subject on the excellent Mayo Clinic website which suggested possible angina.

The doctors in the emergency room said if he had waited another couple of days, he probably would have had a massive heart attack. They inserted a stent to prop open his artery and the prognosis is for full recovery.

Monday, April 14, 2003

Passover the Sushi

“Maybe this Pesach will be the year,” I hint to Jody.

“Year for what?” she asks innocently, knowing exactly what the cat is about to drag in. We have this conversation every spring at just about this time.

“That we practice what we preach,” I reply, taking the high ground. “Social integration. Breaking down class and racial differences.”

Who couldn’t resist such a pitch? Except that what I’m really talking about is serving sushi. On Pesach.

Now such a discussion would never even have come up in North America. On Passover, you simply don’t eat wheat and various other grains – including the rice that’s at the center of the sushi experience.

That’s because most Jews in North America are of Ashkenazi extraction, that is they are of Eastern European descent who, in addition to not eating wheat products, hold by the post-biblical prohibition against eating kitniyot on Passover.

Kitniyot, often translated as “legumes,” are those grains that are similar in appearance to wheat, or that were stored in the same bags as wheat in years past. “Just in case” some prohibited wheat should accidentally still be in a rice or corn bag, the kitniyot products are banned too.

Now, for the seven days of Pesach (eight outside of Israel), this was never a major deal. The kosher-for-Pesach section of the supermarket or your local kosher deli would be conspicuously free of kitniyot.

But in Israel, the majority culture is not Ashkenazi, but that of the Sephardi Jews who hail primarily from Arab lands. And their custom is the more kitniyot the merrier.

And so, officially certified kosher-for-Pesach products in Israel are full of the Ashkenazically-offensive kitniyot. We’re not talking about outright grains, but derivatives like corn oil. All the snack foods – the chips and the candy bars – are made with the stuff. Which takes them off the list for the Ashkenazi observant.

One of the most liberating things about moving to Israel for those who keep kosher is not having to read labels and look for small letters in circles and triangles on the backs and sides of packages. But come Pesach, it’s back to the Disaspora.

This distinction between different types of Jews, though, is in my opinion artificial and unnecessary. Do we really need to have different customs depending on where you came from? We’re all here now. And Israel is clearly in the Sephardi part of the world. To mix a metaphor, when in Rome, let them eat rice cakes!

And then there’s these “just in case” prohibitions. Last time I checked, we don’t really re-use burlap grain bags thrown over the backs of donkeys anymore. Everything is very neatly separated and kept quite clean, thank you. The chances of a tiny grain of wheat getting into my cream of corn soup is pretty marginal.

“But our family tradition is Ashkenazi,” Jody protests.

“Our family tradition was nothing,” I remind her.

That’s true: neither of us come from observant backgrounds, so why shouldn’t we pick and choose what works the best?

Besides which I already have a tradition of eating kitniyot. In 1987, I spent Passover in Tokyo, Japan. I joined a large group Seder at the Tokyo JCC under the leadership of then Tokyo Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

During the intermediate days of Pesach, members of the Tokyo Jewish Community went on a group hike up a nearby mountaintop.

It was a beautiful spring day; the cherry blossoms were in full bloom as we sat down to eat our lunches. The assorted families on the trip tore the tin foil off of their carefully packed kosher meals from home. But I was a traveler, on the road, staying in a cheap hotel. So I had picked something up along the way. And what else do you eat in Japan?

That’s right. Sushi.

“You can’t eat that,” the Rabbi’s wife said to me, aghast.

“Yes I can,” I replied as I picked up the chopsticks and enjoyed my kitniyot under a warm Japanese sun.

“It’s only a matter of time,” I say to Jody, trying to stare down her resolve.

“I’ll think about it,” she replies.

This is also part of our annual dance. But Jody’s been known to think about things a long time.

It looks like we’ll have to pass over the sushi again this year.

Saturday, April 12, 2003

On Cults, Saddam and Judaism

In the opening days of the war against Iraq, coalition forces - and international media pundits - were surprised by the degree of resistance shown by Iraqi forces. And they were left somewhat dumbstruck by the fact that Iraqi civilians didn’t rise up against the Iraqi regime in greater numbers.

While this seems now like so much ancient history since the regime has finally crumbled, the intensity of exuberance displayed by Iraqis celebrating in the streets, toppling statues and shooting holes in larger than life Saddam portraits as US Marines entered Baghdad points to a complex dynamic built up over many years of dictatorial rule.

The expression “cult of Saddam,” it seems, may be more than just a figure of speech.

Over the years, I’ve had an unfortunate amount of experience with cults that may help to illuminate this point. The first was in 1979 when I was traveling the U.S. by Greyhound bus at the tender age of 19 and staying in downtown youth hostels and YMCAs (more on that another time).

I met an attractive young Scandinavian woman at Library of Congress in Washington D.C. She invited me to come back to her house for dinner. She said she was living with a number of other international students. Always open to new experiences, I readily agreed.

Did I mention that she was an attractive young Scandinavian woman?

About half an hour into dinner, I began to realize that something wasn’t quite right. My concerns intensified during the after-dinner "talk" and slide show. When the name Reverend Moon was finally used, it confirmed my worst suspicions.

Flash forward ten years. Jody and I have just landed in New York after spending three years in Israel studying and working. A friend invited us to an informational meeting of a group called Lifespring. It sounded interesting: a Large Group Awareness Training self-help group that promised to help transform us into better, happier, more productive human beings. Who could argue with that?

But, again, at the meeting there was something lo beseder, something not quite right. The participants were too enthusiastic. The pressure too strong to sign up...tonight. They separated Jody and I for one-on-one sessions with a personal counselor.

The whole experience reminded me too much of a time in college when I thought I might make some money selling bibles door-to-door in the Deep South (boy how things have changed over the years!). The company representative pushed me to sign on the dotted line without thinking it over.

“If you talk to your friends and family you’ll never do it,” he explained. “And then you’ll miss out on an amazing and highly lucrative experience.”

After enough of these encounters, I was motivated to research the subject of cults in general. It turns out there are two main types: religious cults like the Moonies and "business" cults including organizations such as est and the Landmark Forum.

The religious ones are easier to spot: their members can be seen handing out flowers and flyers in airports, getting married by the thousands to complete strangers in steamy Asian stadiums.

The business cults, however, are more insidious. They have seemingly legitimate aims. There may or may not be a single charismatic head of the organization. They give out real tax receipts. Many people are truly helped. But their main goal is to keep you signing up for more and more courses.

My research showed a common denominator, however: the cult process invariably starts by banging down one’s self-esteem. The group leader calls you names, makes you feel bad, worthless, lower than a slug. Often times, the participants are encouraged to gang up on you. Then as you are feeling your absolute worst, the leader lets you share in a bit of power. Maybe even put down someone else.

This surge is incredibly powerful. And if it’s timed right, at the moment when you’re passionately urged to commit to the next step – to sign up for the advanced class series or turn over control of your 401K - chances are much greater that you'll do as instructed.

"Trainers" in these types of programs, writes Robert Carroll in the Skeptic’s Dictionary, “are not just teachers; they are sellers. Their main job is to motivate participants to buy more services, i.e., sign up for more courses.”

One other common element: a secret, almost coded language full of expressions only other members of the group share. Scientology, which counts among its members celebrities such as John Travolta, Lisa Marie Presley and Tom Cruise, goes the farthest in this area, promulgating a variety of cryptic terms like “auditing,” “raw meat,” “Sea Org,” “engram” and “pre-clear” that mean nothing to non-practicioners.

Advanced students also gain access to a mystical and outrageous “back story” involving symbiotic alien beings called Thetans, a bad guy named Xenu who lived some 75 million years ago, and an ancient plot to blow up the earth’s volcanoes with nuclear weapons.

Scientology founder, L.R. Hubbard, by the way, got his start as a science fiction writer. Coincidence? I think not.

What about Judaism? When I was a student at Pardes, studying for the first time in a more observant environment than the one I'd grown up in, I had my own concerns that traditional Judaism was itself a sort of cult. So did my parents and friends back home. After all, there were all kinds of strange rituals and coded expressions. A powerful feeling of group identity.

But there are some differences: Judaism doesn’t make you feel like crap and then build you back up in order to keep you in. And the rules are open, out there for anyone to read (with translations into every imaginable language freely available). Yes, one is certainly discouraged from leaving the fold and speaking out, but it is possible and done, quite easily, and more often than expected. No, Judaism, thank God, doesn't qualify for cult status as far as I'm concerned.

So what does all this have to do with Iraq? Not having been there, it’s not really possible for me to say how much of a cult mentality is present there and whether it’s more of a business cult (the business of ruthlessly running a country) or a religious cult of personality.

But clearly there was a strong leader who regularly beat down the citizens of his country with messages of extreme fear and worthlessness and made sure it was impossible to speak out, since someone was watching you, always. This was directly juxtaposed with the all-powerful army and security squads which were granted nearly unlimited power and prestige. Is there any wonder there was such loyalty to the leader? And such a sense of freedom when the icons come crashing down?

What worries me more than the cult-like aspects of Saddam's reign of terror is a growing realization that many of these same elements are present throughout the Middle East. We see it quite clearly in countries like Syria, as well as with the suicide bombers closer to home. Is there something inherent in the region that necessarily requires regimes to operate in cult fashion?

And more important: what will happen now that one of the worst has been taken down?

The phenomenon of cults is a powerful one, and one that deserves more attention than I can give in a single column. Click the Comments button on the website to join in the discussion.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

The Height of Chutzpah

The headline in Haaretz called it the “height of chutzpah.” I’d have to agree.

Last night, I sat down in front of the television for my usual news channel surfing. I wanted to see the latest developments in the war with Iraq. As always, I started with CNN (Channel 12), then began clicking the channel changer to check out BBC (Channel 13), Sky (Channel 14), and finally the Israeli stations.

But Channel 13 had been replaced by a text screen informing viewers that, as of April 1, the BBC was gone.

Not to worry though, the screen informed us. We still had the other news channels. And we could always sign up for the new more expensive digital cable where we could get Fox News. But no more BBC.

Was this some kind of April Fool’s joke?

Now, say what you will about the BBC’s coverage (and many have been less than flattering), but having it available is still a basic expectation from a Western-oriented country’s cable service. All the more so in the middle of a war! Haaretz wrote:

“Within the service packages promised by the cable companies to their customers, the major international news networks - CNN, BBC, and Sky - are the ‘bread and butter’ of media. These are not entertainment luxuries but a basic need in modern democratic society.”

The decision to take the station dark was not ideological; it was a purely financial matter: the cable companies, despite their near-monopoly and outrageous prices for mediocre service, are in dire financial straits and couldn’t come to terms with the Beeb over numbers. The same issue came up with CNN a few months ago, though it never got to the point of the station being yanked off the air.

In all probability, the BBC will be back in a few days after this strong-arm technique raises ire in quarters beyond Haaretz. But the incident is indicative of the way Israelis too often view the English language media.

You might think, for example, that being so often at the center of the world’s attention Israel’s home grown media would have a fairly balanced mix of Hebrew and English news programming. Especially in a country where, every hour on the hour, everyone stops to hear the latest news updated.

But no, Israel TV broadcasts a mere 12 minutes a day of news in English. Israel Radio fares a little better with a 15-minute news program in English aired several times a day on Reshet Aleph (Radio Channel 1).

When the war with Iraq started, however, Reshet Aleph became the “Silent Station,” on the air but with no broadcasts except in times of emergency (it’s a hold-over tradition from the first Gulf War that allows listeners to leave their radios on, including on Shabbat, only to be woken up in case of emergency).

As a result, the English news got shifted to another, albeit less strong frequency. OK so far.

But as of last week, it was decided that Reshet Aleph can broadcast regular programming, at least during the day. Good for listeners of the English news, right? Wrong. English news is still on the weak frequency. For all we know, it may never go back at all.

For all our pretensions about being part of the global community, Israel remains a pretty provincial place. Another example: languages other than Hebrew don't rank high on the respect list. A few years ago, the Knesset enacted legislation requiring our pop radio stations to play a minimum of 40% Hebrew-language music. Not as bad as France, but why is the Knesset getting involved in this kind of lawmaking in the first place?

And while we're discussing politics, just look who’s our new foreign minister: Silvan Shalom. One would think that an important qualification of this critical post, one that is in large part entrusted with explaining Israel’s position via the world media, would be a solid command of English. Shalom isn’t horrible, but he’s nowhere close to his predecessor Bibi Netanyahu who has long been considered a master communicator.

But then the position of Foreign Minister has always been awarded according to internal political considerations. How else to explain that David Levy, who doesn’t speak English at all, once served in the post.

The collision between politics and media can sometimes play itself out in entirely unexpected and unfortunate ways. Jerusalem listeners remember Radio West, an illegal pirate station that broadcast 24 hours a day in English during 1998 and 1999. Despite a playlist that consisted almost entirely of bad 1970s anthem rock (can you say Kansas and Stix?), Radio West was a godsend for those of us who missed English language programming from the old country. Heck they even had the weathercast in English.

The police raided Radio West in June1999 and shut it down for operating without a license. Which was true: they never pretended they were a legitimate state-run station. But what irked many is that it seemed that Radio West was singled out. The many religious pirate stations continued on. But Radio West didn’t have the protexia these other constituencies had. They were just too easy a target.

Now, I’m sure I’m raising the dander of some of you out there who will say I’m just a big baby. That I should learn to speak Hebrew better and stop whining. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign reporters in this country who rely on the English news.

More importantly, though, if we can’t come to terms with English as the global language of diplomacy, in both our ministries and our media, how are we ever going to be able to successfully argue our case in the court of world opinion?

And that starts from being able to channel surf and hear every angle on what’s being said.

Including the BBC.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Barenaked Birthday

People relate to birthdays in different ways.

For some, it’s a celebration, a moment of anxious anticipation, with presents and parties and triumphant transition into what is perceived as being an even better age than the one just passed. For others, it’s a time of avoidance and dread. Of forever being 29.Or 39.

But what happens to someone’s birthday after they die? Jewish tradition - and general human nature - both place great importance on commemorating the day of one’s passing. All the more so when it is dramatic and tragic, as it was in the case of Marla Bennett’s death.

And so, on July 31, 2003, a year after the attack at Hebrew University in which Marla was killed while eating lunch with friends, there will be memorials and poems and speeches. There will be trips to the cemetary and articles written in the San Diego newspapers.

But Marla’s birthday will be remembered by only a few family members and close friends. Even if not immediately, this is what will happen in time.

Why I am I raising this point now, so many months in advance of her yahrtzeit, the one year anniversary of her death? Because Marla would have turned 25 yesterday. And she adored birthdays. Her own. And others.

On her meticulously annotated calendars, she marked the birthdays of all her friends and family so as to never miss an important date. No one escaped a card or call or email from Marla on his or her birthday.

Adam Arenson was a close friend of Marla’s. They went to pre-school and high school together. They dated. One of Adam’s most cherished memories of Marla has to do with birthdays.

“I had this terrible migraine,” Adam explained. It was prior to a big youth group convention he was participating in. And then one day, “Marla appeared with a tape: the first two albums from the Barenaked Ladies." For those of you who are not familiar, the Barenaked Ladies are three clothed Canadian guys who sing quirky pop-rock.

“Marla popped the tape in," Adam continued, "found a lyric she loved, and sent me home with stern instructions: ‘listen in the car, listen doing homework, listen going to sleep.’ Well, it worked. The migraine was banished…and I was hooked on the Barenaked Ladies.”

Shortly thereafter, Adam received a note from Marla concerning his “Birthday Surprise Supply List.” On it was “a sleeping bag, toothbrush, swimsuit, towel, magazine, and a can of Mr. Pibb."

The day of Adam's birthday arrived and Marla came to pick him up. They headed out onto the road. Where to, Adam knew not.

“After a stop at the local deli for sandwiches, Marla pulled out a walkie-talkie and radioed some code, and then another car with some of her friends sped into view. With a nod, both cars drove north and hit traffic.”

At that point, Marla’s friends in the other car radioed back that they needed to “secure the car. And so, in completely stopped freeway traffic, they jumped out, searched the floor of our car, and took a few pictures faux-running alongside us Secret Service style. I was then instructed to put the swimsuit over my head and the towel over my ears." Apparently they weren't going to the beach. It's still not clear what the Mr. Pibb was intended for.

“We entered a parking structure. And I had no idea where we were until we stood under a theater sign announcing a Barenaked Ladies concert. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I’m sure the ticket stub is still on Marla’s high school collaged corkboard. Needless to say it was a great concert and the best birthday present I ever received.”

I am repeating this story today because it so beautifully capture's Marla's essence. Bubbling, full of life, always giving to others. Especially when it came to birthdays.

People who loved Marla often ask when confronted with various situations “what would Marla have wanted?” or “what would Marla have done?” We can never know for sure, but I am pretty certain that she would have wanted us to continue celebrating her birthday and not just focus on the day of her death.

Marla only had 24 birthdays to enjoy. One of the greatest tragedies in losing Marla is that we will never know what fun adventures she had in store for her next 50 birthdays. And for those of her family and friends.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Here We Go Again

It's strike time again.

While to most of the world that means renewed air strikes on Baghdad, here in Israel, "strike" has a much more down-to-earth connotation.

It’s like clockwork. As soon as the annual budget in Israel is proposed to the Knesset, the labor unions go into high gear.

It starts with a teachers warning strike. School starts an hour late for a couple of days. Then the local authority workers strike. Finally, the government workers join in and close down the Income Tax Authority, the Interior Ministry, the Employment Service and more. The garbage collectors stop picking up the trash, and the kindergarten assistants (though fortunately not the teachers who are paid by a different ministry) walk off the job. Already 100,000 local authority workers and 40,000 government employees have walked off the job.

I understand the frustration. The austerity plan that Finance Minister Netanyahu has proposed is pretty severe. But then so is the economy. Look around: there are no tourists, the high tech office parks are looking more and more like ghost towns and too many of my friends are unhappily unemployed.

“But how can they just fire 6,000 teachers?” eleven-year-old Amir asked, referring to the part of the plan the most directly affects him. “What, we just won’t have a science teacher anymore?”

In years past I would have railed against cuts in the education system and argued instead to reduce defense spending. But that hardly seems prudent these days. What if a three-month delay in completing the security fence along the old Green Line leads to another thirty fatalities?

No, there’s no easy way out this time. No pat answers.

Yet, we’re less than six months past the last strike that took place in October 2002. The only country I can think of that strikes as often as us is Italy. Maybe it’s the sun baking out of our brains any remnant of good sense.

As the strike grinds on, as it inevitably will, unlikely solutions will be proposed. The Clerks Union has already proposed some elements of the strike are a security risk: with no garbage collection, bombs could be waiting in every trash can, set off no doubt by the countless street cats inhabiting those same bins. Two and a half years ago, a strike spanned Rosh Hashana, totally negating the holiday greeting “may you have a sweet new year.”

But this is nothing compared to when the sympathy strikes start in (currently "scheduled" for this coming week). The worst is the airports authority, which one year shut down all flights for days on end. That was at a time when I was traveling a lot for my startup, and we were scheduled to make a presentation on stage at a big conference in California.

People were camping out at the airport, hoping for an open window. I stayed at home until it was announced that one flight would be allowed to depart, an El Al flight on Motzei Shabbat. Which just happened to be my flight. It was enough to make one believe in God. Or El Al.

I have experience with strikes in the “old country” as well. I remember when my father, a newspaperman at the San Francisco Examiner for 35 years until he retired a few years ago, went on strike. All the city's papers were shut down for what seemed to me as a young boy to be an eternity. I imagined my father walking the picket line and collapsing while evil taskmasters forced him to march forever onward with nary a milk and cookie break.

The main area where our family is being affected currently is in kindergarten. A sign was posted on the classroom door informing us that they weren't going to be able to open gan the next day unless the parents volunteered to take turns as teacher’s assistants. This too was deja vu: the same thing happened in the October strike and Jody, whose work schedule is flexible, stepped up to the plate.

Five year old Aviv was ecstatic. His mother was coming to be his teacher. He got dressed by himself and ate a double breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios and toast. He raced out the front door, and Jody had a good time, too: she got to observe the kindergarten in action. It was a unique opportunity; an ironic blessing in disguise.

And there’s one more blessing: the meter maids are also on strike. So, while many of the city's offices may be closed, there’s lots of free parking outside!

Not that the hordes of soon-to-be-unemployed will have any change to feed those meters...