Monday, 1 October 2007

If women ruled shul...

It has often been said that if women ruled the world, there would be no war, no terrorism, and far less poverty. Although there’s no evidence to suggest that this is indeed true, men have been running the show for a while now, and it’s pretty fair to say that they’ve made an almighty mess of it. I’ve also got a sneaky suspicion that if women controlled religion, there would be a lot more common sense involved in the whole affair. If women ran the Beit Din, the chances are that there would be far more order and sensitivity associated with marriage, divorce and conversion. That’s for sure.

When it comes to Succot, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if roles were reversed. I always get a little stressed by Succot, and I’m pretty sure that if women were in charge, life would be much easier. Building the Succah isn’t a problem – thanks to our good friends in China, building the Succah has basically turned into lego for big kids. The four species though are a whole different story. It starts with the picking – our male leaders have developed, over time, an obscure set of laws that determine what’s kosher and what’s not. If women had been asked to interpret the verse, “Pick for yourself a beautiful fruit of the tree”, we would have crowds of people arriving at shul with pomegranates, mangos and galia melons. Instead, we’ve got men examining the tip of a wrinkled lemon with a magnifying glass to see if they can find any miniscule black dots.

But the bit that really gets me is when the men walk around the Bima for the Hoshanot. It would seem that the only reason that shuls were built with balconies was so once a year the women could peer down at the men… and laugh. A shul full of over 200 men, all holding the four species, cannot fit into a tiny space around the bima. But they try. After about 20 seconds they suddenly realise that they’re not going anywhere, so what do they do? They stay there, looking around and yelling at each other to move, as if that’s going to make things better. Eventually, after shuffling no more than three or four steps, they return to their seats, having not learnt a thing from their pathetic attempt. I am sure that if roles were reversed – women leading the service below and the men in the gallery – that the men would be treated to a synchronised display of weaving in and out of pews, worthy of the Royal Ballet.

But let's not take this role reversal thing too far - kiddush would be a disaster!

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Valuing Life

In Mishnaic times, when someone accidentally killed, they had to flee to a City of Refuge, which would serve as a safe haven from would-be avengers. There were three cities east of the Jordan and three to its west. The Talmud wonders why there was a need for the same number to the east, when the population there was far smaller. The answer given is that there were more murders to the east than there were to the west. But murderers don’t get refuge – their punishment is death - ask the Rabbis. The Talmud replies that in a place where murder is commonplace, the value of life diminishes and consequently there are more accidental deaths.

We Israelis and Jews have long boasted about our tremendous value for life. We’re proud of the fact that we never forget about our soldiers – no man is left behind, nor forgotten. Every death – whether victim to war, terrorism or road accidents – pains us greatly. But is this for real or is it just empty, oft-repeated rhetoric? If we really did value life so much, then why would we continue to drive so fast, jump red lights and ultimately create an environment where our roads are so frightening?

The time has come for us to admit to ourselves that if life was really so sacred to us, we would do things differently. As I was driving along Route 1 last week, I was forced to slam on the breaks because a fellow driver cut across me at high speed, with no concern for anyone else on the road. Does he value life? He would claim that of course he does – after all he had a bumper sticker calling for the return of the kidnapped soldiers.

It reminds me of my shul. The shul wants to be friendly. So how does it go about be friendly? It appoints a "friendly officer" to stand by the door welcoming people. People might rarely talk to anyone new, and it’s quite unlikely that you’ll get invited by someone else for a meal, But there is a "friendly officer." These people simply don’t get friendliness. You make a shul friendly... by being friendly. When people are warm and welcome strangers, they are friendly. When a shul has to appoint a committee to make some friendly decisions, they have missed the point.

Likewise with valuing life. Valuing life isn’t about printing on the front page of the newspapers the names of everyone who dies in a car accident or in a military operation. Valuing life is making sure that they don’t die in the first place. It might not be so dramatic, but valuing life is about driving slowly and courteously. Currently, we do not value life any more than anyone else.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Harry Potter and the Holy Machloikes

At midnight tonight, all will be revealed when the final Harry Potter book is released. The suspense will finally come to an end.

Children and adults across the world will be queuing up to get their hands on a copy. This is, of course, everyone except for Israelis. Why? Because the launch is on Shabbat and Trade and Industry Minister, Eli Yishai, has threatened to fine anyone who opens to sell the book. So we’ll have to wait a few hours longer...unless we go to Steimatzky in the old port of Tel Aviv, where they are proudly advertising a midnight Harry Potter celebration.

But in case you’re concerned that this gross violation of the holy Sabbath will turn into a celebration of everything secular and anti-religious in Israel, do not fear.

No doubt passing most readers by, the advert makes a subtle reference to the holiest of holies in Judaism – the Unetanneh Tokef prayer, composed by the medieval sage Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. “Who will live? Who will die?”

The legend goes that Rabbi Amnon, after refusing the local bishop’s demand to convert to Catholicism, had his hands and legs amputated. At each amputation, Rabbi Amnon was again given the opportunity to convert, which he refused. As he lay dying, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried to shul for the Rosh Hashana service, where he recited Unetanneh Tokef with his last breath.

When I first made aliya, I was always aware that in this country, state and church often find themselves getting mixed up. But one thing I’m sure of is that two bearded men - Rabbi Amnon and Prof. Albus Dumbledore – never expected it to get mixed up quite like this!

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Wednesday, 11 July 2007

How to beat the boycotts

The UK is getting a new Ambassador… and believe it or not, he actually speaks English. Not only that, but one of Israel’s most important diplomatic positions is being filled by someone with an impressive diplomatic record. Ron Prosor is a career diplomat. Fluent in English and German, he has represented Israel in Washington, London and other cities, as well as serving as the Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The last three Israeli Ambassadors to the UK were all political appointments, and more often than not, totally inappropriate for the job. The current ambassador, Zvi Heifetz is a successful Russian-Israeli businessman, with a couple of years of experience as a Russian language advisor for the Ministry of Defense. In July 2004, Ariel Sharon appointed him to the post – apparently something to do with Heifetz’s close friendship with Sharon’s son Omri.

Heifetz was previously the chairman of an Israeli music production company, which at least served him well when making small talk with another pop music producer, British Mid East envoy Lord Levy.

Prosor might be good but he’s got an almighty challenge ahead of him. When asked at a recent event what his strategy would be to counter the union boycotts, Prosor proved that he was true Israeli Ambassador material – he replied, “a winning one”. Genius. This is precisely what the Israeli mission, as well as the community leaders have lacked for too long.

If Mr. Prosor starts employing this creative new strategy to other issues like promoting trade and tourism, he might even catch the eye of the locals. Within the next year, there’s bound to be a job opening at the English football team…

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Thursday, 5 July 2007

The Perfect Watermelon

Picking the right watermelon is quite an art. Go down the fruit and veg aisle of any Israeli supermarket and you’ll see a crowd of people surrounding the watermelons, placing their ears against the fruit and vehemently tapping away. The theory goes that if it sounds hollow, you’ve got a good’en. If you’re like me, you’ll find that they all sound hollow so you’ll tap, listen and then pick any of them. After taking a couple of rotten ones home, it was put to me that I should ask the supermarket assistant to cut a big one in half, have a taster, and if it’s good, take the half home (apparently this is perfectly acceptable supermarket etiquette).

Whilst waiting in line for my watermelon to be cut, I chuckled at the thought that this was the only place in the whole country where Israelis were happily queuing up for an Arab with an extremely long knife! Who says we don’t trust each other?!

Branding Israel

It’s a question that we’ve been asking ourselves for 40 years: Why is it that we're so bad at PR? I might be a little biased, but even when I try really hard to be objective, I'm still convinced that Israel has a pretty good case. But when it comes to the media, foreign governments and hearts & minds in general, the Palestinians have done a far better job at making themselves heard.

Everything seems to be a PR disaster for us. So much so that we resort to getting some Israeli girls to strip down and model for lads’ mags as “sexy Israeli soldiers”. This might be a bit of harmless fun, but quite embarrassing to have come from an Israeli diplomat, as an official Israeli hasbara initiative. Why is it that no one considers even West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and that the BBC even felt the need to apologise when a sports presenter referred to it as such? Why is it that Israel has to defend its “right to exist”, a phrase never used for any other country?

I was driving through a predominantly Arab neighbourhood of Lod on the way to work when I spotted a house at the side of the road. It was a pretty large house, probably owned by one of the town’s more well to do residents, or perhaps simply home to a very large extended family. In the brickwork there was a plaque marking the year it was built (1990) and with an illustration of the Dome of the Rock. The Palestinians love imagery. Every Palestinian official sits in an office with a picture of Jerusalem fixed to the wall. And what have they talked about non-stop for the past forty years? Three things. Jerusalem, the Occupation and refugees. They go on and on about them and find a way of attaching everything that happens to one (or two or three) of them. As far as marketing is concerned, continuously reiterating your key messages is the secret to building up a brand. Ask anyone about the Palestinians and they will know that they stand for these three things.

What about Israel? What are our key messages? Hmmm. We want peace… or at least no war or perhaps separation. We love Jerusalem even though most of us don’t talk about it or even visit it very often. We’re good at science and technology. But our most important message – the one we always like to focus on – is that we want to be accepted by the world. That’s all, just accepted.

So put your feet in the shoes of a neutral and ask yourself, ‘Whose message would convince you?’

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Bring Gilad home now

A consensus is emerging in Israel about what to do about the MIAs: We should do everything possible to free them, but doing so in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners would reward terrorism and encourage future kidnappings. The consensus breaks down at whether we should go for a deal anyway, or rather, stand firm and not give in. Much has been written and said about the MIAs but as far as I can see there has been one glaring oversight.

Every occasion that an Israeli has been kidnapped in the last fifteen years has been a result of an Israeli mistake. Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from the Kerem Shalom army base within Israeli territory after terrorists dug a tunnel under the border. From a military perspective this is a shocking error that should never have happened. Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, as well as the three soldiers kidnapped in 2000, were in Israeli territory on the Lebanese border. There is no acceptable reason why terrorists should be able to break through what should be a rock solid border. Elhanan Tannanbaum was visiting Lebanon to do a drug deal and Nachshon Wachsman was hitchhiking in the territories. The common thread is that Israelis wouldn’t get kidnapped if we didn’t make mistakes.

So what’s my point? Whether we do a deal with Hamas and Hezbollah or not, they will always know that kidnapping tortures us. Far more important than trying to regain our deterrence by refusing a deal, is to simply make it impossible for them to kidnap anyone ever again. Just as the IDF is currently undergoing a major retraining in light of the failures of the Second Lebanon War, they should also be figuring out how to strengthen our borders and defend our army bases. A military as strong as our own should be able to protect its soldiers when they’re on sovereign Israeli territory. It’s as simple as that.

Olmert should do a deal straight away, give them whatever they want and bring our boys home… and never let this happen again.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

From Downing Street to Emek Refaim

Tony Blair must be glad to be ending his time in 10 Downing Street. It’s been an incredible ten years for the Labour Prime Minister, but having faced a difficult couple of years under tremendous pressure from his own party, Parliament and the British people, he’ll be pleased to say farewell. Aged 54, he has many good years ahead of him, and by the sounds of things, he’s not planning on getting out his slippers and pipe quite yet. Blair is expected to be appointed the Quartet’s Middle East envoy later today. The reaction was predictable: The Americans think he’ll be great, Tzipi Livni said it was a “terrific decision”, the Russians are disappointed and the Palestinians think it’s the worst thing to have happened to them since al-Naqba.

It will for sure be interesting to see how an envoy that appreciates Israel’s predicament fares in the region. Reaction has ranged from those that think this is yet another pointless effort at mediating between two sides that are so bitterly divided to make the whole exercise worthless, to those that think it’s worth a try, if unlikely to reap any rewards. I, however, am more interested in the spectacle of Tony Blair spending more time in Jerusalem. Rumour has it that he’ll get an office somewhere in Jerusalem. If he’s going to be here for longer periods, he might get fed up of the Citadel or King David and look to buy a small eight bedroom in the German Colony. If he and Cherie are strapped for cash now that they’re a one-income family, they could always call Ehud Olmert for some advice on where to get a dodgy loan, or simply put their Connaught Square house on the market. Then there’ll be the question of whether Tony would prefer to start his day in Café Hillel or Aroma – “I’ll have a coffee and croissant please… and do it Islington style”. He’ll probably fall off his chair when he discovers that a café breakfast doesn’t have to cost £12 . Then of course there’s the question of what to do with the kids. Ulpan would be a sensible first move but the only way to really pick up the language would be to enlist them all in the army and send them to Lebanon for the next war.

Tony has always been a friend of Israel, sometimes at great political cost. His support for Israel last summer might have been the nail in his political coffin, a decision that couldn’t have been made easily. It only goes to prove that he must have a thing for Israel and the Jews. With rumours circulating that he’s considering converting to Catholicism, we can only assume that the story is more or less right but the details are slightly off. When Tony hits the Middle East, don't be surprised if his first phone call is not to Olmert or Abu Mazen - the Jerusalem Rabbinate should be rolling out the red carpet!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Where are they now?

Last week I bought a car. After listening carefully to my friends' conflicting advice, I decided on buying an ex-rental. Having taken the car for a quick spin, I agreed on terms with Udi, the moody Avis salesman, and signed a contract. Just before putting pen to paper, we pointed out that the car was dirty and it would be nice to have it sparkling, at least for the next day. Udi relunctantly agreed and radioed one of his colleagues. By the time we had finished the paperwork, the car was as good as new. We thanked the young Arab fellow and gave him a small tip. He was very grateful and wished us good luck with the new car.

As we left the car lot, we noticed that irritatingly, the security code wouldn’t stop bleeping. Conscious that we were at risk of becoming victims of a car-buying disaster story, we turned back ready to shout and scream. Udi shrugged his shoulders and told us that we must be doing it wrong. But my Arab friend showed more concern and came to have a look. He fiddled with some wires and tried again. When he realised that there really was a problem, he went into the office and came out with a voucher for us to go to a local garage for it to be repaired. Grateful for his help, I shook his hand and asked his name. “Abu Mazen”, he replied.
I burst into laughter. “Abu Mazen?”
“Yes. My name is Abu Mazen”.
Thinking for a moment I said, “I get it. They all call you Abu Mazen here because you’re the only Arab member of staff. What’s your real name?”
“No. They call me Abu Mazen because that is my name. I am Abu Mazen.”
Feeling a little embarrassed I thanked Abu Mazen and off we went, thinking to myself that I could now say that Abu Mazen cleaned my car.

Hamas has been giving the real Abu Mazen quite a headache lately so given the choice between being President of the Palestinian Authority or cleaning cars in Jerusalem, I would have thought that it’s a bit of a no-brainer. With Abu Mazen accounted for, if you have wondered why you haven’t heard so much about Yasser Arafat lately, you can see what Abu Mazen’s former boss is up to by clicking here.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Read all about it!

Like most subcultures, Israeli shuls have their own printed medium of communication – it’s called the Shabbat leaflets. These leaflets, published by Yeshivot and Jewish organisations, started out some years ago as black and white photocopies, comprised of a few short Divrei Torah. As they became more popular, and publishers saw the possibility of making money from them, they began to include adverts for everything from mobile phones, kosher holidays to the Far East and new homes. As the money poured in, the leaflets got bigger, the graphics got fancier and the general appeal started to grow. The content branched out from Parshat Shavua to cover a wider variety of Jewish topics and the selection of leaflets grew as more and more organisations started printing their own. In piles by the front door of shuls across the country, worshipers now enter shul on a Friday night and can choose from a wide selection.

However, the common thread through most sheets is a strong political line. With Mekor Rishon as the only right wing newspaper among a generally left-wing media, these leaflets fast became the medium through which the Dati Leumi community leaders would air their views. Whatever the week’s Parsha, Rabbis from West Bank settlements search for connections to themes such as the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and the importance of a Torah-conscious leadership. During disengagement, the sheets were vocally anti-withdrawal, directly attacking the government and its policies. Shul reading, previously the exclusive domain of Talmud Torah, has been for some time now, infiltrated by right wing political propaganda. The sheets regularly advertise new housing projects in West Bank settlements, promote demonstrations, and around election time, can be expected to call upon its readers to vote for one of the right wing parties.

The Yesha Council now publishes its own leaflet called Yesha Shelanu. This leaflet is pure politics – it mostly consists of news stories and pictures, all centred around the settlements. In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air – for once a leaflet that says what it is, rather than trying to disguise itself as a Torah publication. Last week’s edition reviewed a new trend of getting married outside the Cave of Machpela and offered a prize to anyone who could identify a photograph taken somewhere in the Land of Israel (funnily enough the Yesha Shelanu photographer never seems to make it to the Galil, Negev or even the Mercaz!)

As something of a backlash against this trend, a couple of new leaflets came out, published by more moderate or apolitical organisations like Tzohar, which aim to keep the focus on Judaism. While some of these sheets have managed to break into the mainstream of shul reading, it is hard to ever imagine a politically left-wing sheet ever being circulated around the shuls. And this is precisely the root of the problem – these publications have no accountability whatsoever. Their circulation is guaranteed by central distributors who decide what to deliver to the shuls, as well as the shul gabaim who have the final call as to whether they allow sheets on to their premises or not. If the distributor or your shul gabbai doesn’t like it, you simply can’t read it – you will read what they give you. And what’s more, I’m yet to see a sheet which publishes letters, leaving the readers with no way of channelling dissatisfaction in the way one can with a newspaper.

So if I don’t like them, why do I read them? Simple really. Beats the alternative.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The President's new clothes

So Shimon Peres is the President-elect of the State of Israel. His two predecessors have both brought embarrassment on the office of the President – Ezer Weizman through his acceptance of large undeclared gifts from, and Moshe Katzav, through his alleged inability to control himself when amongst women.

What kind of president will Peres be? Having been in the Knesset since 1959, he's got used to speaking his mind. But yesterday he pledged that as president, he will be a unifier rather than a decision-maker. Since there's no written constitution, the president’s role and purpose is quite flexible, largely determined by the incumbent. Katsav was little known outside of Israel, considered by foreign dignitaries as nothing more than an official Israeli figure-head. Peres, on the other hand, has enormous kudos abroad and may indeed attract more international attention than the Prime Minister. But when it comes to Israelis, Peres will never command respect from a large number of locals – even if he were never to utter another political word. Which brings us to the question of who the president is there to serve – folk here or folk there?

Yossi Verter in Haaretz, summed up Peres with the following joke:
Shimon Peres comes out of a visit with the King of Thailand and goes to the local market and buys some elegant fabric. He takes it to a Thai tailor and asks him to make him a suit from it. The tailor looks at the fabric and says to him: I'm sorry - It's only enough for a pair of pants, if that. The next day he flies to London. He takes the fabric from Thailand to a top tailor. It's enough for a sleeve at most, the tailor tells him. That evening he's in Paris and goes to see another tailor. Maybe I'll be able to sew you a sock, the tailor says. Disappointed, Peres returns to Israel. On his way to party headquarters, he stops by his usual tailor on Lilienblum Street. Can you do something with this fabric, Peres asks. I'll make you two suits, says the tailor. And an extra pair of pants. Stupefied, Peres asks: How is it that abroad the fabric is hardly enough for anything while here you can sew me half a wardrobe out of it? That's easy, replies the tailor, laughing. Abroad, you're a giant.

Based on that, we can safely assume that for the next seven years, the Office of the President of the State of Israel will be great for Israel's reputation abroad, if largely irrelevant to the kiosk owner in Lod and taxi driver in Rehovot.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Too many cooks

Last week, Shaul Mofaz travelled to the US for high level talks in Washington. As Israel's Minister of Transportation you would naturally expect these meetings to have discussed the sale of new aircraft or perhaps an exchanging of ideas on reducing car accidents. But let's be honest – Mofaz was Chief of Staff and Defence Minister, so talking about cars is a little beneath him. He might have got a better portfolio in this Government if he had jumped ship to Kadima a bit earlier. But Mofaz went down the opportunist path and stayed with Likud until he realised that he wasn't going to get a good job at the end of it. Sharon was smart enough to realise that he didn't need Mofaz as much as Mofaz needed him. And when Olmert was eventually elected, he wanted his most senior security man at the Cabinet table, so gave him Transportation.

Building a Cabinet can be a difficult challenge for a new Prime Minister, especially when leading a new party full of power-hungry opportunists and with several other coalition partners. To satisfy the many, Olmert appointed a record number of ministers, creating jobs that didn't exist previously such as Minister for Strategic Affairs (basically dealing with Iran which used to be the responsibility of the PM, Defence and Foreign Ministers). This is an old trick - in 1996, Bibi Netanyahu appointed Ariel Sharon to the new post of Minister for National Infrastructure, just as a way of giving him a job, but not a very good job. There is no earthly reason why a small country with a 120 seat parliament needs a minister responsible for sewerage, gas and electricity!

More ridiculous, Olmert appointed a whopping six deputies! Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni both hold the title of Vice PM, and Mofaz, Avigdor Lieberman, Eli Yishai and Amir Peretz (soon to be replaced by Ehud Barak) are all Deputy PMs. This is absurd!

The problem here is that the Israeli Government is basically operating like a Jewish organisation. Take a shul for example - there's a Rabbi, a couple of wardens, a treasurer, a president, a vice-president, a secretary, a head of the ladies' guild, a caretaker and even an old fellow who's been a member for a million years - and they all think then run the place. There are 120 MKs who think that they should be running the Knesset and aren’t willing to cooperate with others unless they get something in exchange. Most analysts see this as a product of Israel being a young country which still requires serious reform before it'll settle down into something of a normal liberal democracy. Such reforms include local representation and a written constitution. It would be nice to add to that list a limit on the number of cooks allowed in the kitchen.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Ten weird and wonderful things about shul

They’re true the world over and if you go to shul, you’ll know what I mean…

1. Shaking hands – Every time someone gets a mitzvah at shul – whether it’s an aliya, opening the ark, lifting the Torah – everyone he passes feels the need to shake his hand and congratulate him. Congratulate for what? It’s easy, it didn’t involve any preparation and we’ve all done it.

2. Instructions on opening the ark – Every time the job of opening the ark is given to a guest, shul wardens always feel the need to explain how to do it, as if directing a novice on how to do open heart surgery. “There’s two strings, one is high and one is low. Pull the high one down and the curtain will open. Then you’ll find two doors. They’re the slidy variety so don’t try to pull them open… Would you like me to go up there with you in case you need help?” Let’s be honest, we all have curtains and doors at home, we’ll figure it out.

3. Shokeling – What’s with the ferocious swaying movement? Sometimes forward and back, occasionally side to side. Someone once told me that Jews shokel to help their concentration during prayer but have you ever seen people violently swaying in an exam, or while driving a car?!

4. 'Someone’s sitting in my seat' – We’ve all been there before, when visiting a shul that someone comes in late and tells you that you’re sitting in their seat. Reasonable people like myself see this as incredible rudeness unbefitting of a House of Prayer. That said, when I come to my shul and see someone sitting in my seat, I find somewhere else to sit…and spend the rest of the service pissed off that someone's sitting in my set.

5. Standing up for the Rabbi – As a mark of respect to the Rabbi, we stand up when he walks into the shul. The problem is, that we’re tired and can’t be bothered getting up for him. So what do we do? We’ve put our hands on the sides of our chair, push all our weight down on our arms, and lift up our back sides so there’s about an inch between us and the chair. Then we release the pressure on our arms and drop ourselves back down. Let’s get something straight – that is not standing up.

6. Pointing your little finger – When someone goes up to lift the Torah for Hagbah, we’ve got this weird thing we do when we point our little finger in the air, close one eye, aim our little finger at the Torah scroll and then kiss our little finger. In my book, that’s not the way to kiss something. And why the little finger?!

7. Correcting laning – When someone goes up to read from the Torah, despite the fact that we know he spent hours preparing the laning and does so for no material benefit, we treat him like an arrogant showman who is out to impress us. It’s the only way of explaining the combat that begins with his first word, where we yell out every time he slips up. And when we do, we have that smug sense of having caught the bastard.

8. Sweetie man – Children are taught never to accept sweets from a stranger. It’s one of the most basic rules of childhood, along with “stop, look and listen”. But when it comes to shul, kids are free to take candy from anyone, regardless of how creepy they look.

9. Missing pages – All shul siddurim have pages missing. We accept it as if it’s a given. In fact, we never question why it is that we have books at home that have been read many times but are still in decent condition, but shul siddurim are always missing pages. Do people get so caught up in their prayers that thy start tearing it apart?

10. Sleeping – It doesn’t matter how much sleep you’ve had – there are certain points in the service that can put even the insomniacs to sleep. The Rabbi’s sermon goes without saying, but things like Megillat Kohelet and that song before laning on Shavuot morning can put the whole congregation down. Just make sure not to snore.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Burg's treachery

Avraham Burg, former chairman of the Jewish Agency and Kneeset Speaker, has caused quite a ruckus round these parts. Ahead of the launch of his book, Defeating Hitler, Burg gave an interview to Haaretz, in which he said things that surprised even those who thought they new the renegade Laborite. It’s always dangerous to take short quotes out a long interview but Burg is too clever a man to have said what he said without meaning it. In response to one question about the notion of a Jewish state, Burg answered “to define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It's dynamite." Burg, now a successful businessman based in France where he bears a French passport added that he considers himself a “citizen of the world, afterward Jew and only after that Israeli”.

The response was explosive. Burg is now considered a traitor by many, while others are trying to explain it as some kind of psychological, ideological breakdown. Kadima MK Otniel Schneller called for Burg not to be buried in the section of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Cemetery reserved for national leaders, even if this requires passing special legislation.

Burg’s interview is in Zionist terms what a Jewish child marrying out is in religious terms. He has turned his back on the State of Israel, on the Zionist vision and the Jewish people. Not to mention his father’s legacy. From the far left to the far right there have been Israeli personalities whose opinions I have found to be deeply mistaken and self-damaging, but they remain true to Zionism. Burg has left the fold and is determined not to do so quietly.

When a Jewish child marries out, the natural reaction is often to disown him. As Chava desperately begs her father to accept her decision to marry out, Tevye asks “How can I accept them? Can I deny everything I believe in?” Burg has married out of the Zionist family and we should make our disapproval known. That said, we should do so in a sensitive way – try to understand where this change has come from – and do everything we can to make sure the door stays open to him. The Zionist project is relatively young and has a long way to go. We can look at the state of government or the dire relations between Israelis and Palestinians and easily give up hope. But being a true Zionist in 2007 is about realizing that we have a long way to go and that we’ll only get there with faith and commitment.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

12 to 12

This morning I was tagged in a memo started by Nefesh B'Nefesh, asking olim to list 12 things they love about Israel and send them on to friends, family, and Jew's all around the world.

1. Everything is negotiable – In Israel, we don’t just negotiate when buying a house. Even when going to buy some new shoes, don’t leave until you’ve got 50 shek off and a free pair of socks.

2. Tremping – In England, if you ever saw someone standing by a motorway junction with an outstretched finger, you would think “weirdo”. If you ever saw someone pull over for that guy, you would think “death-wish”. Although not officially recommended, it’s an alternative form of transport to the bus and train for many Israelis. I once got a tremp from an MK!

3. Israeli National Football Team – Every time Israel competes in the qualifiers for a major international football tournament, the Israeli fans really believe that this year will be the year. It obviously won’t be because the national team is made up predominantly of Jews who play every week in what is essentially a Jewish league. Jews are not and will never be that good at footbal, or any other sport for that matter.

4. Down to Earth – I love the fact that you often pass by an ordinary looking block of flats with an extraordinary amount of security outside. That is because the mayor or an MK or a judge lives in a modest three bedroom flat inside. (Not true for all our leaders but certainly true for quite a few!)

5. Marrying out – Although we usually frown upon dating and marrying out of the faith, we all shep nachas from Israeli model, Bar Refaeli. Can it really be that she is Jewish and so hot and dating Leo di Caprio?!

6. Israeli small-talk – On meeting someone for the first time, expect to be asked: “How much do you earn?” and “How many square meters is your home?” and “When are you going to have a child?”

7. Security – When you enter a shop, the guard asks you, “Are you carrying a weapon?” As if a terrorist would for sure say yes, apologise for the trouble he was about to cause and voluntarily hand himself over to the police.

8. Wealth – Western Olim Chadashim all talk about how much less they earn and how hard life is in Israel… but then buy a new car with zechuyot and build a brand new house. Who ever does that in London or New York?

9. The Environment – Israelis are by no means the biggest environmentalists but actually take decent care of it without even realising. Most flats have a dud shemesh, heating water through solar power most of the year, and fruit and vegetables is home-grown which means that it’s only available in season and doesn’t accumulate too many “food miles”.

10. Janglo
– The world’s only website where you can buy a second-hand cholent pot (warning: may need a clean) or sell your left over shemura matza.

11. Easily excited – Israelis get excited about the most ordinary things like a new road or tunnel. When the road to Gush Etzion was first opened, there were massive traffic jams as everyone tried to be first to see the tunnels.

12. Anti-Semitism – Many olim leave their home countries because of anti-Semitism. The great thing about Israel is that instead of being on the receiving end of anti-Semitism, you can actually become a fairly decent antisemite yourself. E.g. “Those conniving charedim steal our money and all stink” or “Those Peace Now bastards are worse than the blood-thirsty Nazis”.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Kosher Calling

Jerusalem is the best place in the world for keeping kosher. Wherever you are in the holy city, you will find a wide array of kosher eateries for your every taste. Whether it's pizza or shwarma, Chinese or Mexican, it's all here and it's all kosher.

Once the Jerusalemites had found a way to ensure that most food was certified as "kosher", they started making other things kosher. You can now travel on a "kosher bus route" - instead of split hooves there's split seating, men at the front, women at the back. You can also find "kosher shops" that don't allow entry to immodestly dressed women, and the more mehadrin shops have separate opening hours for men and women.

In my quest to find a moving company, I noticed an advert plastered over a Mea Shearim bus stop for Yosef Movers, "ten years of experience and low prices". About to tear off the tag with his phone number, I spotted that he had mentioned that his phone number was a "kosher number". I had never heard of such a thing. What made it more interesting was that the sign had been stamped in red ink - several times - "Beware, this number is not kosher!" Someone was going around stamping adverts with a kashrut warning. Memories came flooding back of that time I bought a Push-Up Lolly Pop to school, only to be told by one of my classmates that he had heard it "might not be kosher".

Desperate to get to the bottom of this, I decided to poll a few of the locals. The first chassid to pass, an elderly man, took a glance, squinted his eyes as if he was reviewing the whole Talmud Bavli for a reference to Hilchot HaPelephon, and then shook his head. Realising that the answer to my question would more likely be found with a younger Talmudic sage, I pulled over a teenage lad. He knew the answer straight away: "A kosher phone is one with no internet or SMS".

"So, is Yosef Movers kosher?" I asked. Examining the number carefully, my young friend said he couldn't be sure so to be on the safe side, I should probably find a different company.

As my bus arrived, I couldn't help but wonder what was so treif about a text message? How much impurity can you write in 300 characters? And how much porn can you squeeze into a screen that small?! With no one looking, I tore off the number and slipped it in my pocket. Let God be my judge.

Friday, 1 June 2007

What Shimon Peres should do after being President

The date is 21 July 2014 and President Shimon Peres’ seven year term has finally come to an end. Elections for the new President are heating up with a three-way race between candidates Aryeh Deri, Shiri Maimon and an unknown going by the name of Noshe Gatzav.

After surviving an indictment for buying a Pacific Island off an American businessman for $3 (which he claimed was to create a utopian “peace island”) and rumours of him pinching Sharon Stone’s bottom at the Tel Aviv Premier of Basic Instinct 4, Peres made it through to his last day in Beit Hanasi.

Aged 90, Peres has fought in the Haganah, served as the youngest ever Director General of the Ministry of Defense, an MK since 1959, filled almost ever ministerial position including Defense Minister and Prime Minister (twice), led the Labour Party, served as Deputy Prime Minister in a Kadima-led government and was the country’s oldest ever President.

Shimon Peres doesn’t like being bored. Looking ahead to his 100th birthday, Mr. Peres might like to consider filling his days in one of the following ways:

1. Sell Israel’s nuclear secrets on
2. Star in Basic Instinct 5
3. Spend more time by Ariel Sharon’s bedside
4. Compete in the Labour Party leadership primaries
5. Trigger a political earthquake with the creation of a brand new party called Kadima Hachadasha (see logo: thanks BY)
6. Referee a five-a-side football match between teams managed by Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley
7. Release a cover of Shir LasShalom with Dana International
8. Appear in Lirkod im haKochavim (Strictly Come Dancing)

Any other ideas?

Thursday, 31 May 2007

"I only get in with Jewish taxi drivers"

I had a meeting yesterday with one of Jerusalem's best known Moving Companies to discuss our upcoming moving date. The owner of the business came over to my flat - a charming guy with very good English, a proud list of service guarantees, and a sweet smile. He presented me with his perfectly-written English language handbook and proceeded to give me his pitch.

“We are the best and most reliable movers you will find in Israel. I pay my workers very well so they enjoy working for me. Some have worked for me for many years and wouldn’t do anything to risk their jobs. They move your belongings with care, there has never been an instance of theft from my guys and at the end of the job they will not ask for a tip. If you want to give them one, it is entirely your choice. I give you a fuller level of insurance than anyone else so you don’t have to worry. You can get a cheaper price elsewhere, but you will end up losing in the end when they damage your belongings, steal your valuables and bully you into giving a massive tip.”

And if I wasn’t sold yet he gave me his killer-punch. “I don’t employ illegal workers. Only people with Israeli citizenship. And no Arabs.”

Fantastic! No Thais and Poles without proper paperwork, and no Arabs who, naturally, would steal all my valuables.

The sad fact is that this pitch works for most people - plenty of times I've heard people say that they avoid getting in with Arab taxi drivers. If he pays so well and has maintained his staff for so long, why not interview Arab workers as well, and if they’re good, employ them. Does he really think that a hard-working Jerusalemite Arab who is getting paid twice as much as his neighbour would risk anything that could cost him his job?

What it comes down to in the end is a smart businessman tapping into widespread racism. I guess it’s hardly surprising that the man on the street thinks like that when prominent figures such as Former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu feel its ok to advocate carpet-bombing Gaza to root out terror. They’re only Arabs after all.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Looking for: A woman to meet a man in his 60s

We Jews might only make up 0.227% of the world population, but we manage to find plenty of ways of differentiating ourselves from each other. We love labels. Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Liberal, Secular, Charedi, Chassidic, Masorti, Traditional… the list goes on. Last week I received an email that referred to a shiur taking placing at an Egalitarian Traditional shul. The problem with all these labels is that we often have no idea what they actually mean. Which is why I was especially glad to see someone take the time to actually define one of these terms… in a lonely hearts ad in Friday’s Jerusalem Post.

The anonymous bachelor took out an advert on the classified page, titled “Looking for: A woman to meet a man in his 60s”. A native Californian now living in Jerusalem, “still involved in his U.S. businesses” (a.k.a. wealthy) describes himself as having “a rich history, a wonderful sense of humor, likes people and loves Israel… very modern orthodox”. Sounds good, so what’s he looking for? A “very modern orthodox…physically attractive and well groomed” woman, not “a leftist”, professional, worldly, “unencumbered with young children” and under the age of 50. After giving his email address he offers five bullet points defining “very modern orthodox”. They include having a day school education, being a follower of all basic halacha, into mixed swimming, watching TV and going to the movies…and a hatless trouser-wearer.

Well, there you go. If you do all of that, you’re “very modern orthodox”. If you wear a hat or skirts you must be “extremely modern orthodox” or perhaps “old-fashioned orthodox”. If you didn’t go to day school you’re just “a little bit modern orthodox” and if you’re a bit lax on basic halacha you might have to settle for “only just modern orthodox”.

If by any chance you fit the description and fancy meeting a guy 15 years older than you – who knows what he wants – don’t worry about being short of small talk for your first date. Mr Very Modern Orthodox promises “other criteria to be discussed”.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The students strike back

I never left England because I was running away. I love England – I enjoyed growing up there, studying and working there. I like English sport and culture, and I was really fond of the English sense of fair play. There were however moments of discomfort, when I felt that ‘fair play’ was getting steamrolled. One of those moments came when the AUT, the Higher Education Union, voted for an academic boycott of Israel. Although the motion was eventually reversed – after a tough fight – it was a reminder that there are some people who really don’t like us and know exactly how to hurt us – education. Jews and Israelis have never been the greatest sportsmen or fashion icons, but when it comes to academia, we’re well up there.

As tends to happen with our people, when our enemies aren’t succeeding, we normally know the best way to help them along. England’s Israel-bashing academics might not have succeeded for now to damage Israel’s universities, but we’re doing a pretty good job at doing it ourselves. Following the release of the Shochat Report which included a recommendation to raise tuition fees, Israel’s students went on strike. For a third of this semester, they did anything besides sitting in lectures, classes and the library. Students who crossed the picket line spoke of harassment and academic sabotage.

Ask an Englishman what characterises a student, and you’ll be told drinking, partying and sex. Studying comes a distant fourth. A friend of mine pointed out that if English students ever suggested that they would strike, they would be met with a chorus of laughter. A strike requires not working, which most students ably do most of the academic year! But in Israel education is sacred, students tend to do a fair amount of work and the thought of empty classrooms is of real concern.

We Israelis pay massive taxes of which a large chunk goes into defence. After that, you’ve got feeding the poor, improving our schools and hospitals, paying our public service workers properly, caring for elderly Holocaust survivors etc etc. The list is endless and there simply isn’t the money to go round. The students are theoretically right – they shouldn’t have to pay any more – but cutbacks have to be made somewhere.

After 37 days, the student leaders have finally agreed with the Prime Minister’s Office to halt the strike and get back to class. The fees will be frozen for a year, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess. When the issue comes around again – for goodness sake – let’s deal with it without another self-inflicted academic boycott.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Irresponsible boys and a blameless nation

Last week, I bumped into an English gap-year student who was heading towards Burgers Bar on Emek Refaim. He was full of the joys of a year with no exams, not a day’s hard work, no interfering parents and free use of daddy’s credit card. I asked him how his year had been. His initial response was “amazing”, “the best ever” and “so cool”, but as we got talking, it turned out that he wasn’t so happy after all.

His youth movement had chucked him off his programme and was trying to get his yeshiva to throw him out too. “I did nothing wrong,” he said. “All I did was go to Istanbul for a short holiday without telling anyone.” Reluctantly he agreed that he had done wrong and that the movement had a right to be angry, but felt that they were being unfair in trying to get him kicked out of yeshiva. “I’m in the middle of my spiritual discovery,” he said. “If they kick me out now I will be spiritually lost. Who knows where I’ll end up?” In other words, his youth movement would be totally responsible if he ended up leaving the faith altogether.

The more I reflect on Winograd’s conclusions and the reaction that followed, the more I think back to how the country overwhelmingly supported the war. Most of us called for an invasion of Lebanon and we wanted it fast. If Olmert had waited, we would have been up in arms. How could we sit back and be silent when our soldiers had been killed and kidnapped?

When I mentioned this to a friend, he told me that we only supported the war because our leaders created an atmosphere that led us that way. I don’t buy this at all. We always have the ability to think for ourselves and make up our own minds. Throughout the war, I don't recall Kikar Rabin calling for a swift withdrawal or a speedier ground assault. When it comes to tuition fees or municipal taxes we know how to form an independent opinion, but for some reason, last summer, we only heard what our leaders were saying.

Ten months later and Qassam rockets are raining down on Sderot again. 35% of the population has left. Some will never return. Schools are closed and businessmen are wondering whether they made the right decision in being located in Sderot in the first place. What should be done about it? We surely can’t allow the south to be held hostage. If we act should we respond with targeted aerial attacks or a full-blown re-occupation? What will the world say? And if we do respond, what will that do to the Hamas-Fatah civil war and future balance of powers?

If there are two lessons from last summer, it is that the Government should assess the situation & do what it thinks is right and that we must challenge them on everything they tell us.

In dealing with Hamas, the Government should be bold in taking whatever measures it deems appropriate. But moreover, we – the people – should be even bolder in holding our government to account. It’s not good enough to blame the Government again if things go wrong and we were silent.

Only children prefer to blame those around them when things don’t turn out the way they want.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Taxi Tales

Taxi driver (T) - Where to?
Jonny (J) - Gan Sacher please.
T - Jump in.
J - Do you mind not smoking?

Taxi driver chucks his cigarette out of the window

T - You just have to ask, you know?
J - I know - I just asked.
T - All right, but you don't have to make a big deal about it.
J - I didn't - I just asked.
T - Whatever. What's going on at Gan Sachar tonight?
J - Big concert for Yom Yerushalayim. All the stars are going to be there.
T - Why do you want go there? It's going to be full of freichot and arsim.
J - Just fancy doing something special for Yom Yerushalayim.

After two years in Israel, I still get surprised when I have to explain myself to taxi drivers.

As we reach a junction, a guy with long hair rides past on a bicycle.

T - You can't tell the difference between them.
J - Between who?
T - Boys and girls today.
J - Hu?

The conversation paused for about 30 seconds while I tried to figure out what he was talking about.

T - Did you hear the news?
J - What?
T - More Qassams fell on Sderot.
J - Yeah. It's a mess.
T - I don't understand how you can go to a concert and celebrate when Qassams are falling.
J - That's Israel. We're always at war with someone, but somehow manage to find a way of celebrating life.
T - Who's performing tonight?
J - Everyone... Idan Reichal, Harel Skart, Shlomi Shabbat, Hadag Nachash...
T - I have all their DVDs (I think he meant CDs) . Why don't you stay at home and listen to them. You could have a babrbeque and open a bottle of wine.
J - Because it's not the same as seeing them live.
T- I don't understand you kids.

He pulls over outside the park.

T - That'll be 18 shekel.
J - Here, take twenty.
T - Thanks. Is that Shlomi Shabbat on stage?
J - Yeah.
T - I love that guy. Let's see if we can find somewhere to park.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Antisemites of the World, Unite!

Antisemites - they're everywhere.

Politics: France's new President, Nicolas Sarkozy, won the Presidential Election by six percentage points. Where did he get most his votes? In the French Embassy in Tel Aviv, where he won a whopping 90% of the vote, a higher percentage than he won in his hometown. So naturally, you would expect him to hold his victory rally in Bloomfield Stadium Tel Aviv, but no, the antisemite opted for Paris. And if you still have your doubts - after all, he had a Jewish grandfather - he just appointed a Socialist Foreign Minister who blames Israel (a.k.a. the Jews) for everything.

Sport: West Ham United's great escape from relegation out of the English Premier Football League will go down in sporting history as one of the great stories of survival. When West Ham were ten points adrift at the foot of the table, they never could have imagined that they would be playing top flight football next season. The commentators have heaped praise on Argentine superstar, Carlos Tevez for turning West Ham's fortunes, netting a hatful of goals in the last few matches. But anyone who actually saw West Ham beat Manchester United in the last game of the season would know that the real hero was Israeli Yossi Benayoun who cleared the ball off West Ham's line twice. None of the commentators will admit it, but Tevez's contributions were secondary to Benayoun's heroics. That's because Yossi is a Jew and Carlos is not, and all football commentators are antisemites.

The Arts: Scandal of scandals. Worse than getting "nil points" at the Eurovision Song Contest, Israel didn't even qualify this year. The Israeli entry may not have included any monsters, nor were any of the band members previously of another sex. Their entry might have been about nuclear war, but that's clearly not the reason that they were unceremoniously dumped out of the competition. Yes, you guessed it – the judges were all antisemites.

It shouldn't come as a surprise to us that antisemites have infiltrated all aspects of public life. We've known for a long time that all of Europe are antisemites, and this week, the Americans proved that they too are antisemites when they turned down an invitation to celebrate a united and undivided Jerusalem. To paraphrase an old saying: It's not our fault we're paranoid when everyone is out to get us.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

1967 and All That

It’s strange how history tends to judge similar events inconsistently.

In 1948, Israel was at war with Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Syria, conquered territory that it had not been assigned under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, and the war resulted in approximately 360,000 Palestinian refugees.
In 1967, Israel was at war with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, conquered territory that it did not control under the 1949 Armistice Agreements, and the war resulted in approximately 200,000 Palestinian refugees.
The territory Israel gained in the War of Independence is considered legitimate; the territory gained in the Six Day War is taboo.

British Ambassador to Israel, Tom Phillips, recently echoed the view accepted by almost everyone in the world: “There are aspects of the occupation that distress me, having gone around the territories and looked at it, that I find hard to justify. I cannot justify the amount of settlement activity that is going on…I think this is a major obstacle to peace.”

There are different views explaining who caused the Six Day War. The fact is however, that Phillips and co. couldn’t care less about who or what caused the war. The way they see things, Israel began occupying Palestine in 1967 and continues to do so to this day. The Palestinian problem (as well as a host of other Middle Eastern and international problems) will only be resolved when the occupation is ended.

Israel marks Yom Yerushlayim this week – 40 years since Jerusalem was reunited, 40 years of Jews being able to pray at their holiest place on Earth. It is also 40 years of occupation. The dream of a Greater Israel, a return to all of Israel’s holy sites and a more secure Israel, has not played out as some might have hoped. Yom Yerushlayim carries with it forty years of baggage, making it difficult for many Israelis to celebrate.

As I personally struggle with this question, I remind myself that we’re not celebrating 1967 Day or Six Day War Day – it’s Jerusalem Day. A day for us to stand in awe of our capital city with its beautiful Old City and buzzing kanyon. To wander up Emek Refaim, see the packed hotels and witness the state of the art Light Railway come to fruition. Day to day, we Jerusalemites complain a fair amount about our city and all its problems. But for one day, we will see the bigger picture. Now that’s surely worth celebrating.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Three Cheers for Cromwell!

There are few things that I enjoy more than spending an evening curled up on the couch with a good DVD. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new action film, a good comedy or an old musical. But recently, a new genre of DVD entered my life, when a friend of mine got hold of a copy of the ceremony at Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, marking the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of Jews to Britain. You can’t find that in Blockbusters.

The ceremony brought together the leaders of Anglo Jewry and representatives of the British establishment, most notably, Prime Minister Tony Blair, for a service of thanksgiving. Bevis Marks was the obvious location for such an event. It’s England’s oldest and one its most beautiful Synagogues, it’s in central London, and its members are as English as they come. They talk posh, wear top hats and no doubt, drink tea at five and host garden parties.

Several children from the local Jewish Primary School, dressed impeccably in their maroon school uniform, hair brushed and teeth sparkling, went up on the stage to offer thanks to the people of England. Addressing the Prime Minister, the children thanked him and his predecessors for being so kind to the Jew, allowing him to come back after he had been expelled 365 years earlier and for tolerating him ever since. “Oh thank you Prime Minister, thank you so much for not massacring us, or forcing us to live in ghettos. Thank you for allowing us to open businesses and to vote in elections. It really is awfully kind of you.”

Yes. We Jews are so used to persecution and hatred that we sound almost surprised when we’re left alone.

Don’t get me wrong. We have a lot to be thankful for, but at the same time, it’s a reciprocal relationship. We shouldn’t try to hide the things that are most important to us, as if we’re a bit embarrassed by them. Like our deep love of Israel. Throughout the ceremony I was struck by the absence of at least a mention of Anglo-Jewry’s strong ties to the Jewish State and support for strong bilateral ties between both countries. The service concluded with laughter all around when the choir performed its rendition of God Save the Queen in Hebrew. I wondered whether they would sing the Hatikva in English, but given the atmosphere of the event, Mr Blair could have been mistaken into thinking that “Lihiyot Am Chofshi B’artzenu” (To be a free people in our country) was referring to England.

But even the best planned events occasionally have their blips. Only a keen ear would have noticed that when the choir sang Aleinu, they followed the Sephardi liturgy that includes a line about the gentiles, removed from the Ashkenazi siddur years ago – “For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god which helps not.” Now that’s not cricket.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Who's to blame?

Taking responsibility: We love talking about it but hate actually doing it. Ever since a child is old enough to understand, his parents and teachers go on and on about the importance of taking responsibility. I remember a Rabbi once saying that whenever he teaches a Bar Mitzva boy, he always asks him what it means to him to be becoming Bar Mitzva. Almost without exception, he said, the answer is, ‘Being of age means that I must take responsibility for my own actions.’

Everyone preaches about responsibility. But when it comes down to it, human nature kicks in, and we do everything possible to avoid it. The leaders who led Israel through the disastrous Lebanon War still refuse to take responsibility and resign. Before Winograd’s findings were released, they defended their record in the war. After the findings came out, they still shirk responsibility. Ironically, when Sharon founded his new party in 2005, it was initially named Ahrayaut Leumit (National Responsibility), before the party leaders changed it to Kadima (Forward). Forget about responsibility, let’s just go forward.

The shocking scenes from Beitar Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium, where 30 people were injured in a crush on Sunday, bring back awful memories of the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989. At the final whistle, with Beitar just a whisker away from winning their first league title in nine years, the fans attempted to run on the pitch to celebrate. At Teddy, the spectators are kept behind fences, with gates that only security can open. When the fans rushed forward, those at the front were crushed. Even when the gates were opened, the crush continued as thousands tried to funnel through the narrow gaps.

With ambulances, medics and stretchers in the background, Jerusalem Police Chief Ilan Franco gave an interview saying that it wasn’t his fault. As far as the police were concerned this was a normal fixture, as the league could only be won the following week. The club says it wasn’t their fault that there is a perimeter fence around the ground – they were planning to take it down for the following game but never anticipated that the passionate fans might be getting a little excited. And of course the fans claim it’s not their fault – it was just a natural reaction. Apparently it’s no one’s fault

The Police Inspector-General has announced that a special investigative team would be set up to assess the events leading to the event. Let’s just hope that when they come out with findings that places the blame on a combination of the police, the stadium and the fans that someone might step forward and say ‘I take responsibility for my failings.’ Unfortunately, I suspect that the reaction is more likely to be ‘kadima!’

Sunday, 6 May 2007

A Day in the Life of a Kiosk Owner

There’s a wonderful institution in England called the Corner Shop. You rarely have to walk more than 5 minutes until you come across one, open from early till late, seven days a week, with all the chocolate bars, newspapers and cartons of milk that you could ever need. Owning a Corner Shop is a trade particularly popular with Britons of Asian descent - which means you can normally get whatever you need even on Christmas Day! Corner Shop owners are considered hard working, upstanding members of society, who, together with accountants and undertakers, provide the rest of us with life’s most important services.

Israel doesn’t have Corner Shops. It has Kiosks. The kiosk on our street backs on to a small park, making it an absolute goldmine. Throughout the summer, hundreds of children and parents wander around the park, all hungry for ice cream and thirsty for chocolate milk. Over the winter, the owner made some changes to boost business, ahead of the summer surge. He started by knocking a hatch though the back wall of the kiosk so that he'll face the park (which he never opens). He then painted his new kiosk… pink. And finally he painted a “No Parking” marking on the road outside of his kiosk so no one should block his view of the street. Genius.

As if the Knesset made it mandatory, every kiosk – however big or small – has its own satellite dish, along with all the sports channels. This helps explain the mystery of why the kiosk owner stays open so late, even when most people are home for the night. Every evening, he and a few of his mates do precisely what they would do at home, but without their nagging wives reminding them to wash the dishes, put the kids to bed and fix the wobbly door knob. The chevra sit around the kiosk’s little table, and enjoy 90 minutes of uninterrupted pleasure. The kiosk owner knows that however little trade he’ll get that evening, he is guaranteed to sell 5 packets of cigarettes and a kilo of garinim.

Beyond selling today’s copy of Maariv and Yediot, and tickets for this week’s Lotto and Totto, most people assume that there’s more to the kiosk owner than meets the eye. No one really knows how the kiosk owner makes his money but let’s just say, it’s not how Mr. Patel does it.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Cleaning Israel’s Smog

Over the past couple of days Israel has experienced, a weather phenomenon, known here as ovech. Ovech occurs when a hot, dry wind blows a whole load of dirt and sand from the desert across the country, creating a thick smog. It leaves a layer of dirt over all the cars and windows that stays until you clean them (only to return two weeks later with the next ovech!) The best way for Mother Nature to relieve us of ovech, is by sending a huge storm, allowing the heavy rain to clean the air and let us start over.

We all expected the Winograd Report’s Interim Findings to criticise the Government and its leaders for Israel’s performance in the Lebanon War last summer. But no one expected it to be quite so stinging. Olmert, Peretz, Halutz, the Cabinet, senior officers and advisors were all blamed. Not only were the decisions wrong, but it revealed a cancer in the workings of government that requires a massive repair job. There were immediate calls for Olmert and Peretz to resign. And when Tzippi Livni, the candidate most likely to replace Olmert, stepped forward, it seemed that the revolution was really under way. That was until she called for his resignation, but forgot to offer her own if he didn’t. The half-heartedness of her leadership, the readiness to sit on the fence even at a moment of truth, took the sting out the wave of revolt. It now seems like Olmert will survive for the time being, blocking the possibility for new faces to come in and start the cleaning process.

As I arrived at work this morning, there was a crash of thunder and the clouds burst. Finally, some relief from the ovech. But the storm never came, and after a few minutes, the rain had passed and the ovech had survived. Strange how the weather reflects our political climate…

Being a Member of a Secret Society

Some men have the freemasons, others have poker buddies or rugby teams. I have weekday shul.

Being a regular weekday shul-goer is like being a member of an exclusive men’s club. We have a meeting place, a shared uniform and a common objective. And there are usually just men.

The only difference between weekday shul and the freemasons is that in the freemasons, most lodge members know the other’s names and occasionally talk to one another. Members of the weekday shul club know each other’s faces, a bit about each other’s laning and davening skills, but not very much else.

When we weekday shul-goers pass each other on the street, we give each a knowing nod and then carry on with whatever we’re doing. The nod speaks louder than words. It says ‘Hello fellow shul-goer. I may not know your name but I respect you because you are also as crazy as me in getting up in the morning at 6am to go to selichot. Have a good day.’ The weekday shul-goer’s nod is our secret handshake.

The shul-goers’ mutual respect is strongest on the street. But when we’re at shul, that respect isn’t always so important. Two days ago, I witnessed a classic weekday shul encounter at my regular Mincha service in the Global Park Office shul. At 3pm, a few workers from each of the companies slip away for their ‘cigarette break’ and spend 15 minutes together in the privacy of the bomb shelter. There are Sephardim and Ashkenazim; Chassidim and ‘normal folk’. There might be hundreds of workers in the block, but I swear, I could meet any other the 30 Global Park shul-goers, anywhere in the world and would give them ‘the nod’.

As we got to the end of the Amida, the Lubavitcher leading the service, attempted to skip the Tachanun prayer, and move straight to Kaddish.
‘What are you doing?!”, yelled a Moroccan.
“It’s Pesach Sheini tomorrow,” replied the Lubbie.
“But we say Tachanun on Erev Pesach Sheini”.
“But I don’t, and I’m in charge today!”
Cue all the others, and a huge argument erupted, verging on a mass brawl… all over whether to skip a prayer (that we all hate) on the day before the Pascal Offering would have been offered in the Temple times, if we had been impure a month earlier on.

I quietly gave ‘the nod’ to one of my colleagues and we slipped out.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

A Land of Contradictions

On Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, several hundred settlers chose to mark the day by marching to the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the northern West Bank. This followed a series of earlier treks to Homesh on every Jewish holiday, in an attempt to show up the government and push for resettlement.

Not all settlers favour calls to resettle this area, and even fewer are willing to break the law in going there. This group is made up predominantly of young, religious settlers who believe in their God-given right to live in all the land promised to them. The Arabs have shown that they won’t live under them nicely, so they need to be forcefully pushed away. The Palestinians, on the other hand, see the settlers as unwanted colonialists, living on their land. They see the straggly haired hilltop youth as nothing less that the scum of the scum – lawless hooligans, causing havoc under the noses of their conniving leaders.

When one views things in such clear terms, there is little room for debate and no room for self questioning. Black and white, so it seems.

Not so. When the settlers marched, they waved at IDF jeeps and bought ice cream from local Palestinians who had arrived at the scene with shopping carts. What?! The friendly gesturing at Israel troops makes sense, but the trading between settler and Palestinian, occupier and occupied, enemy and enemy? If the Palestinians hate them so much, why did they go to such lengths to provide them with refreshing snacks on a hot day? What were the settlers doing giving business to the other?

Put simply, Israel needs ice cream, and the Palestinians need to sell ice cream. It’s the old Siamese twins problem rearing its ugly head again. We need them and they need us. Which is why we will never separate from each other, despite what our leaders might say. Will we come to an agreement with them once day? Maybe not. But an understanding? Certainly.

It’s exactly this land of contradictions that I live and breath.