Saturday, June 30, 2012

Sold. Finally. For a (Huge) Loss. Baruch Hashem.

After serving for four years as an absentee landlord from across the world, I am happy to announce that we have sold our home in Oak Park, MI. Mazal Tov to us, and Mazal Tov to the Adlerstein family on their purchase! May you have many happy years in the home until you join us here!
Of course, it's wonderful to have the burden of the house behind us. The straw that finally broke the camel's back was when my tenant called to tell me that when the hot water heater broke, she had it repaired for the small sum of $1,500. (What did she care - it's not her money.) What was I supposed to do...say no? Make her pay for it? Then and there we decided to sell the house, leading to seven months of anguish and heartburn all the way up to yesterday, when the sale finally went through. Some thanks are in order to the people in Michigan who helped a tremendous amount in getting the sale done. (I don't want to name you in case you didn't want to be named...but you know who you are, and thanks!)
And yet, there I still have a lingering sense of melancholy about that house.
First of all, we lost a TON of money on that house. (I won't say how much for fear of upsetting my wife, but think of a number, and then double it.)
I don't really blame any individual person, as much as the entire United States economy for going down the crapper at the exact time that I was ready to sell my house. I do have a sense of bitterness about the fact that I did the foolish thing: I paid down my mortgage, faithfully. In fact, I used to add extra money to the balance of my mortgage, like all the people on the radio recommend that you do. (Yes, I used to listen to those shows at night.) What happened? All the people who took as much money as they possibly could out of their homes - to fix the roof, take vacations, redo the kitchen, you name it - they either let their homes foreclose or they got their banks to agree to a short sale. I, on the other hand, had paid down my debt so much that the bank wouldn't even consider a short sale. It wasn't worth it to them. So, am I bitter about my house losing value? A little. But am I bitter about the fact that people who abused the system lost their credit, while I lost literally tens of thousands of dollars? I cannot say that I am not.
Truth be told, I was ready to just let the house go back to the bank had it not sold this summer. Then I would have lost both the money, and my credit. But I guess it's better this way. At least I kept my word, and paid back the money I owed. (Although apparently in the United States that's not worth that much anymore.)
But there's also an emotional aspect to selling a home, especially the first home you own. We lived in that house for seven years, and brought two children into the world in (a hospital near) that house. I learned (to whatever degree that I did learn) how to build stuff in that house, and built a closet (in the basement), a neat deck in the front, a great basketball hoop over the garage and some cubbies for the kids next to the kitchen. The things that you did with your own hands really have more meaning to you. Pieces from people we knew and loved are in that house: Eddie Katz found the chandelier on a street somewhere, and fixed it up. A little polish and some new glass, and it was good as new. I put in the crown molding together with Avraham Elchonen (actually, he pretty much did that while I watched, but who's counting?). Aaron Siegel did much of the carpeting and the wood floor in the Dining Room. At a certain point, people become part of a house as well. And, in selling the place, you sever yourself from it forever.
But, as these things go, life goes on. I really do believe and feel that every aspect of our aliyah was guided by God's hand. The money stings, but we can't complain. Hakadosh Baruch Hu finds ways to give us what we need. And, as the Gemara tells us, the Land of Israel is acquired with yissurin - tribulations. I'll take the financial kind of yissurin over any other type any day of the week.
It is, after all, just a house. And we've got a new house to work on now. I need to put up the ceiling fans, install shelves, figure out a garden, put in a "lockers" for the kids - plenty to do.
And we plan (and hope and pray) to stay in this new home, in the Holy Land, for a very long time.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chukat - Death with Dignity

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chukat - Death with Dignity

The powerful and beautiful details found in the story, and the Midrashim describing the death of Aharon convey critical messages for us today.
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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Cost - and Value - of Lashon Hara

Everyone knows that Lashon Hara is not only forbidden; it's also damaging, hurtful and wrong. Slanderous speech can ruin friendships, families and communities. Whole organizations exist to highlight the dangers of lashon hara and encourage us to avoid them.

Last week after davening, the speaker in my shul wondered whether one could speak about the foul smells in our yishuv (if such smells actually exist), or if that too is considered dibat ha'aretz - "slander against the Land," akin to the slander of the Meraglim. He suggested that there is a notion of speaking negatively about even the inatimate objects in Eretz Yisrael.
It was not a "halachic" talk in the strictest sense, but the speaker was trying to convey the seriousness of speaking slanderously about anything. After all, the Torah tells us that the Meraglim's sin was speaking negatively about the Land itself.
And yet, I couldn't help but wonder: Let us assume that because of the prohibition of Lashon Hara, no one spoke about the smell of sewage coming from the local treatment plant (if there is such a plant...) Rather, one only forwarded complaints to the responsible people in local government. Of course that's the ideal path to pursue. But I wonder whether government officials would respond with the same sense of urgency and vigor to a problem - any problem - if they knew that no one was talking about the problem.
It seems clear that sometimes the very fact that people are discussing an issue among themselves, in private, coerces individuals in power to try and effect change.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the growing awareness of, and attempt to address abuse within the Orthodox community. I recently saw a quote from a Mishpachah Magazine article (You can read the full article here)  from Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwebel, the Executive Director of the Agudas Yisroel of America, who said the following:

Yes, it is a high price to pay. But is it too high of a price? If the fact that people we speaking lashon hara saved a child - or tens, or hundreds of children - from the scourge of sexual abuse, is that worth the cost of the lashon hara? Many would suggest that it was.
It would be wonderful if people in prominent positions always acted altruistically, responding immediately to problems with alacrity and zeal. But even leaders are human. They must make choices, and prioritize, and decide which problems to attack and address, and which to ignore in the hopes - as vain and they may be - that they go away.
This is where the power of the crowd - the power of lashon hara - can affect their actions. If enough people talk about an issue; if enough bloggers blog and enough Facebookers post statuses, at some point, an issue cannot be ignored. It must be addressed, for better, or for worse.
And yet, are we not still speaking about lashon hara? Is it not still slander, speech forbidden by the Torah? Who are we to say that the benefit justifies the cost?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Buying a Home in Israel: Step 2 - Find a Lawyer

In a previous post I mentioned that we bought a home, thank God. Just as in the States, it's really not advisable to try and do it yourself. Especially in Israel, you need someone who will guide you through the many, many hoops that you need to pass through to buy a home.
Just as an example, depending on where you live in the country, you either buy the land in your home outright, or you rent it from the State of Israel for 99 years. I cannot tell you which kind of home I've got. (Ask me in 99 years.)
Lawyers here charge by percentage of the home. Personally, I don't really understand why the value of the home should have any influence on the fee of the lawyer. Does she work more hours for a more valuable home? But there's really no point in complaining, because that's how the lawyers charge, and simply tell you that they're no different than real estate agents (who also charge by the value of the home). True enough.
In any case, you should not pay more than one-half percent of the house. If your lawyer asks for more than that, find another lawyer. Maybe use my lawyer. We were quite happy with his work.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Parshat Korach - Suffering for the Sins of Others. And Non-Orthodox Jews.

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Korach - Suffering for the Sins of Others. And Non-Orthodox Jews.

Do we suffer for the sins of others - including our great-grandparents? Are non-Orthodox Jews really considered Jewish at all? Let's Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, the author of the Torah Temimah and another work called Tosefet Brachah, what he thought over a hundred and fifty years ago.

Editor's (who's also the author) note: In the shiur, I state (mistakedly) several times that the Netziv was the author of the Tosefet Brachah. Several people took the time to correct me, noting that Tosefet Brachah was written by Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, also the author of Torah Temimah. Thanks!) 

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Who Is a Jew? Torah Temimah Edition: Thoughts for Parshat Korach

Editor's (who's also the author) note: In the original version of this post, I wrote that the Netziv was the author of the Tosefet Brachah. Several readers took the time to correct me, noting that Tosefet Brachah was written by Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, also the author of Torah Temimah. Thanks!)

With a recent government decision to pay the salary of non-Orthodox rabbis serving their communities in Israel, the Jewish State raised, yet again, the troubling and difficult issue of "What is Judaism?", and, by extension, "Who is a Jew?" Next week, rabbis from across the country will gather for an emergency meeting, "to discuss the implications of the decision to fund Reform and Conservative clergy, and to propose ways to bring about a reversal of the ruling." Rav Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel told Kol B'rama (a Sephardic Radio station) that,
“We will come out loud and clear against this matter. The greatest danger for our generation is the danger of assimilation, and we need to be strong and steadfast in our fight. It is forbidden to remain silent, because there is nothing more serious than this measure."
He said that the government's "reckless" decision "could uproot the all foundations of the Torah."
Is he right? Does this crack in the Orthodox monopoly in the Israeli rabbinate present the grave threat that Amar and many others fear? I'm not sure. After all, when they find out what Reform Judaism really is, most Israelis don't find it compelling at all, preferring not to attend Orthodox shuls over attending Reform services.
Yet, the knee-jerk reaction of rabbinic leaders from across the ideological spectrum to the potential inroad of non-Torah Judaism to Israeli society should not surprise us. After all, rabbis have been articulating similar responses for hundreds of years. We find just one such response in a comment of Rav Baruch Halei Epstein to Parshat Korach in his work Tosefet Brachah. (you can download the sheets here)
When Korach and his group gang up against Moshe and Aharon, representing a real physical threat to them, God appears to Moshe and tells them,
הִבָּדְלוּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת; וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם, כְּרָגַע
'Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may destroy them in a moment.'
Moshe and Aharon respond by begging God for mercy asking,
קל, אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל-בָּשָׂר:  הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא, וְעַל כָּל-הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף?.
O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?
In essence, Moshe and Aharon wonder: why should the entire congregation suffer for the sins of a single individual? Punish Korach, but why punish everyone else because of his actions?
Netziv, noting this interpretation of Moshe and Aharon's question to God, asks an obvious question. If we look throughout Jewish history, we find that in fact, people have always suffered for the actions of a single individual. Among the long list of examples he provides we find that
  • According to Ramban, Jews have suffered throughout our history for Sarah's treatment of Yishmael
  • The Jewish nation continues to suffer for the sale of Yosef at the hands of his brothers
  • We're still paying for the Sin of the Golden Calf
  • We still suffer for the Sin of the Spies
The list goes on and on. R' Epstein also notes that it's not just a rule in the negative; rather, we also benefit as a community from the merits of individuals.
Yet, if this is true, why is Moshe so surprised when God threatens to punish the entire nation for Korach's actions? After all, this is just how things work. Of course the nation suffers when an individual sins; we affect one-another, and sometimes our actions really do cause everyone else to suffer. Why are Moshe and Aharon so surprised?
In his second answer to this question (He first suggests that Moshe wasn't asking God a question at all; Rather, he was making a statement of exasperation and frustration.), R' Epstein makes a sweeping comment about who is in and who is out of the Jewish community - a distinction that has critical meaning for us today.

ואמנם נחמתי כי אפשר לפרש המאמר "האיש אתה יחטא ועל כל העדה תקצוף" באמת בתמיהה ובפליאה, ולא קשה מכל מה שהערנו מעונשים כללים עבור חטא יחיד, יען דעיקר טעם עונש כללי הוא מטעם ערבות, כמבואר בסנהדרין (כ"ז סע"ב) על הפסוק בפרשה בחקתי (כ"ו ל"ז) וכשלו איש באחיו, איש בעוון אחיו, מלמד שכולם ערבים זה בזה ע"כ. ואמנם זה שייך רק בחטאים הבאים לרגלי סבות גשמיות כמו בעקב היצה"ר ותאוות, או לרגלי עושר או עוני כי שניהם עלולים לסבב חטא ועוון כנודע, אבל בכל זאת החוטא הזה אף כי פרץ גדר בדרכי התורה והמצווה, אעפ"י כן נשאר בכלל היהדות ונחשב רק לפגום ולחוטא, וכמו שאמרו (סנהדרין מ"ג א') ישראל אעפ"י שחטא ישראל הוא, וזה הוא מפני שבידו לשוב בתשובה ושב ורפא לו. ובמצב כזה שייך ערבות כי מכיוון שישב הרי הוא ככל ישראל.
ולא כן זה הפורץ גדר עפ"י רוח כפירה בעיקר, ואינו מודה לא בתורה ולא במצות ולא בכל יסודי ועקרי הדת, ועל כזה נאמר (משלי ב' י"ט) "כל באיה (למינות ולכפירה) לא ישובון" (עיין ע"ז כ"ז א'), ואיש כזה נחשב כמו שיצא מכלל האומה וכאבר הנחתך מן הגוף, ואין עוד לגוף כל יחס לה. ולכן בחוטא כזה אין שייך ערבות אך הוא לבדו עונו ישא.
But, I was consoled, for it is possible to explain the phrase, "shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation" in truth as a question and a wonder. And it is not difficult - all that which have noted from the general punishments for the sin of an individual. This is because the main reason for communal punishment is derived from the principle of guarantorship. as it is explained in Sanhedrin (27b), which explains the verse in [Parshat] Bechukotai (26:37) "and a man shall stumble upon his brother", [which the Talmud explains to mean that one will stumble] on the sin of his brother, "and this teaches us that all of Israel are responsible for each other."
Yet, this is only relevant to sins that come at the heels of physical causes, such as those sins resulting from the evil inclination or physical desires, or due to wealth or poverty - for both of these forces are liable to cause sin and iniquity, as is known. Still, this sinner - even though he broke through the fence of the ways of the Torah and the Mitzvot - nonetheless he remains in the category of Judiasm, and is considered a blemished and sinful [Jew], as [the rabbis] said, "an Israelite - even though he sins is still conisdered an Israelite." This is because it remains within his power to return and repent, "And he shall return and be healed." And in this type of situation, mutual responsibility is relevant, for should he repent he would be like all of Israel.
But this is not true of one who breaks the fence with a spirit of heresy by denying the essential truth [of God and Judaism], and he does not admit to the truth of Torah or Mitzvot nor any of the foundations and basic principles of [Jewish] religion. And about this [type of person] it is written, "All who come (to apostacy and denial) shall not return" (See Avoda Zara 27a) And a person like this is considered as if he has exited from the nation, like a limb amputated from the body - to which the body has no more connection. For this reason, there is no notion of communal reasponsibility for a sinner such as this. He alone shall bear the burden of his sins.

Sure, we pay for the sins of a "normal" sinner; one who lost control and sinned due to impulse, desire, or any other physical cause. But what about someone who, God forbid, has abandoned Judaism, and no longer subscribes to the tenets of traditional Jewish faith? That person, says R' Epstein, is not Jewish - like a limb amputated from a body.
R' Epstein wrote these words in Europe about 150 years agon. But it's clear what and who he's referring to. And it shines some light on the rhetoric of Israeli rabbis, who are simply taking their cues from an extensive literature that harshly denigrates any form of Judaism that rejects the principles we hold dear.

Monday, June 18, 2012

What Were the Spies Thinking? Translating Belief into Action

When the Spies returned from their tour of the Land with the wonderful attributes of Eretz Yisrael, they submitted their negative, pessimistic report, describing how, in their minds, the attempt to conquer the Land of Israel would lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. This of course led to a tragic night of mourning and a rejection of the Divine plan to conquer the Holy Land. As opposed to Kalev, who told the people, עלה נעלה וירשנו אותה – "we will go up and conquer it," (13:30), the spies counter by telling them, לא נוכל לעלות אל העם – "we cannot overcome the nation."
This leads me to wonder, according to the Meraglim, what were the Jewish people supposed to do? While the nation later suggests that they go back to Egypt, we never find any mention of the Spies themselves making that suggestion. If they didn't think that they should return to Egypt, but rejected the possibility of military conquest, what then did the think the Jewish nation was actually supposed to do?
I believe that they never really got that far.
The Meraglim did believe in the importance of Eretz Yisrael as an ideal. After all, if God wanted the Jewish people to be in Eretz Yisrael, who were they to argue? But they saw that belief as independent of any kind of action. They lived in their own Ivory Tower, where they could consider ideas and values without concern for real-world ramifications. To them, belief wasn't necessarily connected to action. The ideal of Eretz Yisrael didn't necessarily mandate doing something to actualize that ideal. How would it happen? Good question – but not one that the Meraglim concerned themselves with.
Yet, nothing can be farther from the truth.
According to Wikipedia, Ideology is defined as,
a set of ideas that constitute one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare worldview), as in several philosophical tendencies (see political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a "received consciousness" or product of socialization). The main purpose behind an ideology is to offer either change in society, or adherence to a set of ideals where conformity already exists, through a normative thought process.
In other words, you cannot divorce ideology from actions. The Spies had no right to simply say, "Look, we're just telling you what we see. It's not our problem what happens afterwards." Their ideas – and the fear that they spread – had very real consequences, and any attempt to claim otherwise rang hollow.
I've been thinking about this notion of ideology devoid of action, because I recently got myself involved in a minor dispute with Rabbi Gil Student, the author and owner of the popular Hirhurim blog. It all started rather innocently, with Rabbi Student posting a lovely video from Shlomo Katz depicting many nice Kotel scenes, along with the following text:
This is why, despite the many challenges of the State of Israel, I consider myself a Zionist. So many of our prayers have already been answered, but others not yet.
I couldn't hold back, and commented on the blog,
Let me understand correctly: you’re only a Zionist because you believe that our prayers have been answered. And if they weren’t answered, you would not be a Zionist? If, God forbid, we were to take a step backwards, as we did seven years ago, would that make you less of a Zionist? What exactly do you mean? What is a Zionist in your mind – someone who believes that Moshiach has come – or may be coming, or partially has come?
I thought that Zionists were people who believed not only that HKB”H would return to Zion, but that we too would do so ourselves, as He commands us to do. See this week’s parshah for more information. It seems that we throw around the term Zionist without exactly defining what it means, and what obligations it implies.
This led to the following extended discussion:
Rabbi Student: So according to you, someone who makes aliyah is a Zionist and someone who does not is not? Was Rav Soloveitchik a Zionist? Are Rav Schachter and Rav Blau? Were you before you made aliyah? Are your parents? One step backward is just a setback. If there was ch”v another exile, I would stop being a Zionist. I use the term Zionism as describing a belief system. Apparently others use it differently.
Me: Doesn’t a belief system necessarily obligate? Or, is your armchair Zionism the type that sits back and watches while other people build the Land of Israel for you? And those names that you mentioned – all of them worked (the Rav) or work tirelessly to advance the causes of the State of Israel. Your initial comment – and the ones that followed, imply strongly that you are a Zionist because from what you can tell (from nice videos and the like) things are going nicely here (and I infer that you think there’s some level of geulah going on). My understanding of Zionism is one that requires some effort – even from afar, to advance the cause of the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Student: I consider that to be a mistaken opinion. I believe that someone can believe in the Torah without studying it, although he should study it. And someone can believe in God without following His commands, although he should. And he can believe in Zionism without making aliyah, although he should.
Me: I try not to rub aliyah in the face of people who live in the States, but you seem to think that we should honor your life choice as a personal decision with no religious or spiritual implications. When I lived in the States, I acknowledged the tension and the pressure to live in Israel. I was actively involved in AIPAC and other efforts to support the Jewish State. That’s the very least that you can and should do.
Judaism isn't simply a religion of dogma. It's a religion of action. Of course God wants us to believe. But He also demands that we translate that faith into concrete reality on the ground, by learning Torah and following the mitzvot; by creating faith communities dedicated to spreading the d'var Hashem, and yes, by working together to reestablish the Jewish Nation as a ממלכת כהנים in the Holy Land.
Of course God cares what we believe. But He also wants to know, "What are you going to do about it?"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shelach - One Chance to Save the World

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shelach - One Chance to Save the World

If God came to you and gave you one chance to make the one argument that would convince Him not to destroy the Jewish people, what would you say? Moshe had to save them twice, once after Chet Hameraglim, and once at the Egel. What did he say that saved us? Why did it work?

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Public Parking in Israel: A Primer

A recent NY Times article about new parking technology installed in Santa Monica noted that the new meters that the city just installed (which can take credit cards) know when a car is parked in a space, and then zero out the meter when the car leaves that space. The city claims that "it's not about the money," but the article ends with a quote from a UCLA parking professor who said,
“I don’t see how this increases turnover — it just makes sure they get everyone to pay and they know how much they are getting,” said Professor Shoup, who is widely considered the intelligent parking guru. “Anytime someone says something isn’t about money, it’s about money.”
Of course it's about the money. It's about preventing people from finding a meter with extra time, which is always a nice little bonus if you luck out in this manner. It'll never happen in Santa Monica, though.

This got me thinking about just how advanced the parking situation has gotten here in Israel. Before I moved here, I always found parking here confusing. There are no meters, so how are you supposed to pay? I knew that you had to buy these little slips of paper and put them somewhere, but found the whole thing a bit intimidating. In fact, it's not that confusing at all, if you just know the rules and how to pay.

Where to Park

On the street, there are basically two colors: red and white strips (don't park here), and blue and white stripes (park here and pay). If you're lucky enough to find a street curb that hasn't been painted, it's free parking!

How to Pay
There are no parking meters in much of the country, which makes a great deal of sense. Cars don't necessarily fit exactly between meters, which might cause a real waste of space. I have vivid memories of NYC parking tickets because I parked too far away from the meter (or something like that). There are a number of ways to pay:

1. Coin: Look for a small machine under a parking sign. Put in the appropriate amount of money, and the machine will then spit out a ticket, which you put somewhere on your dashboard that's visible. That's it. The problem with these machines is that they're not always close by, and often broken or missing, which is annoying. But there are other, much better options.

2. By Electronic Meter: In every post office, you can buy a little meter called EasyPark that you keep in your car and use to pay for parking. Simply turn it on when you park, and off when you get back to your car.

3. By Phone or App: You can register your car and credit card with Pango so that you then call the number (*4500) to begin paying and call it again when you leave. Or, simply download the free Pango app to your iPhone or Android phone, and click to begin paying when you park, and then click again to end payment when you leave.
If you use #3 or #4 - don't worry. The parking police have little computers connected to the network, so they know if you've paid or not.

All of this seems both simple, fair and efficient. The system maximizes the amount of space used on the street while allowing drivers to only pay for the time that they park, and not have to guess how much time they'll actually need, or run back to the meter to add more money.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Buying a House in Israel: Fringe Benefits

In a previous post, I wrote about how well we had gotten along with the people who sold us our house in Yad Binyamin. This past Friday, Rena gets a phone call from the couple, wondering if we'd be home for Shabbat. We would. Great, she said. I'd like to bring something over.
This is what she brought:

If you look carefully, you can see our name on the sign on the door. I also love that she made it in English...Gave us a pretty good feeling.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Have You Tried Shakshuka?

I normally don't post on food in Israel, but I saw an article in Ha'aretz that recommended certain a number of different street foods that you can buy in Israel (including the old standards - falafel, shwarma, etc.), but I noticed one food that didn't make the list that I must recommend called "Shakshuka."
I remember shakshuka from my yeshiva days as a watery, vile mix of tomato sauce and scrambled eggs, and could never figure out why the Israelis liked it. Yet, what I didn't appreciate then is that all institutional food is vile, and it wasn't Shakshuka that I didn't like, but yeshiva shakshuka. (It's kind of like when American kids say that they don't like falafel because all they've had is the frozen kind that you buy in the store and warm in the microwave - a crime against food if you ask me.)
What is Shakshuka? Says the heilige Wikipedia:
Shakshouka (Arabic: شكشوكة‎; Hebrew: שקשוקה‎) (also shakshuka) is a dish of eggs poached in a sauce of tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, often spiced with cumin. [1]. It is believed to have Algerian and Tunisian origins.
That's about right. Take a spicy, really flavorful tomato sauce, crack a couple of eggs into the sauce while it's boiling on the stove and serve at the table, piping hot. It's powerfully flavorful - and delicious. My current favorite version is the Italian Shakshuka at Cafe Cafe (p22) - basically take the above dish and stir in a generous helping of Mazorella Cheese. Slather it on a roll over a long breakfast, and you're set for the day.

Shakshuka at Cafe Cafe! Really, Really Good.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Behaalotecha - Meat of Different Flavors

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Behaalotecha - Meat of Different Flavors

The struggle for spirituality in a physical world plagued the Children of Israel in the desert, and attacks us just as strongly today. Meat is just the beginning...

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

We Got The Keys! (Now All We Need to Do is Pay the Mortgage.)

Leah, with our new keys!
About a half-hour ago we finally picked up the keys to our house! (Saar 6 in Yad Binyamin, for those keeping score) Very exciting for us! So much to do! But so much has already been done. I got a few questions from my last post, which I hope to answer in this one.
About six months ago, my landlord called me to tell me that he had decided to sell the house that we're living in. I thanked him for giving me the advance notice (he's been a really great landlord), asked him what he was asking for the house (way too much if you ask me...but it seems someone else disagrees) and then calmly freaked out. So many issues: Where should we live? Should we rent or buy? Would the house sell? How much time would we have?
Actually, that one we knew. Our lease runs out at the end of June, so I knew I had some time. It took quite a while, because we contemplated looking for rabbinic positions in other areas (there really aren't very many available at all. I checked.) and finally concluded that we'd like to stay in Yad Binyamin. The people are lovely, we've made great connections with good friends, our children are settled, there are good schools and great amenities, and we simply like living here.

View Old and New House Walk to Shul in a larger map
Note to future olim: this seems to be the trend among people who make aliyah somewhere. Most people that I know end up staying where they first land, for many of the reasons that I listed above. It seems pretty rare for people to switch communities, unless they're really not happy. This means two things: On the one hand, you've got to choose carefully when selecting an initial community to live in, because the odds are that you'll end up staying there. At the same time, I get the feeling that pretty much all the different communities in Israel are great. Whenever I speak to people, they're really happy where they live. So, if you have a general idea of what you're looking for, odds are that you'll be happy.

Rent or Buy? Over the last four years, the rent has been relatively reasonable - at least my rent has been. But it became clear that should we choose to continue to rent somewhere else, we'd be paying significantly more than we are this year, which made buying a property the obvious choice. Also, when you rent your landlord can call you and tell you that he's decided to sell your house. That can be somewhat unsettling. So we decided to buy.

I told Rena: You look at houses, and when you find something you like, call me. She did just that, and found a house that she really liked. We looked at it, and it seemed like it had a lot of potential. After some looking in the yishuv at other houses, we decided to make an offer. Several long weeks of back-and-forth later, we arrived at a mutually agreed price with our seller, and we had a deal.

If only it were that simple. We were really happy with both the house and the price. But, about a week after we came to an agreement, my seller called me and asked me, "When you made an offer, were you thinking about looking at other houses, or was it a firm offer?"
"It was a firm offer." Lump in throat. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, since we came to an agreement, I've gotten a few calls from people looking to offer me more than we agreed on. But I want you to know that I'm a man of my word. I believe that when I make a commitment I should keep to it. If you tell me that you fully intended on buying the house, I'll keep to my word."
"We want the house," I told him, and we left it at that. When I hung up the phone, I really started to worry. Would he change his mind? Would he keep his word? After all, who knows how much money we were talking about? This question occupied me for a good many weeks, until we finally signed the contract to buy the house. In the end, he did of course sell the house for the agreed-upon price.
Just today, Rena and I, speaking about the issue, wondered whether we would have done the same, and kept our word as he did. We agreed that we most probably would have, but there's no way to know. My seller told me that he when struggling with the issue, he spoke to his father who told him, "I only know one thing. I like to sleep well at night."
 When the seller gave me the keys today, I told him how much I valued and appreciated his keeping his word, and how much I enjoyed working with him.He told me that when speaking to his father recently, he had mentioned the same thing, to which his father said, "Wait, something must be wrong. Both the buyer and seller are happy?" Indeed.

Next: Getting a mortgage in Israel.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Are Oreos Israel?

My wife returned home from the local grocery to the joy and delight of my children with three boxes of Oreos. Yet, just when she was about to break open the first box, she noticed the hechsher on the box:

You should have no trouble seeing that the cookies, which were not made in the United States, have the hechsher of the Triangle-K, an organization that is not universally accepted in Orthodox circles. Actually, to be more precise, the Triangle-K is almost universally not accepted in Orthodox circles.
But then, you might notice the big oval to the left of the Triangle-K. Having trouble reading it? No problem, I'll blow it up for you.

It says:
כשר חלבי (לאוכלי אבקת חלב נכרי) אפיית ישראל ללא חשש חדש באישור רבנות הראשית לישראל
[Translation: Kosher dairy (for those who eat powdered milk from non-Jewish milk) baked by a Jew without any concern for Chadash, with the approval of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate]

What? Is there something that I'm not getting? How is it that the OU, Chof-K, Star-K, etc, specifically "do not recommend" using products with the Triangle-K, but the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has no problems with it? Does the rabbinate send its own representative into the factories in order to ensure that the supervision is done properly? Or, has the Chief Rabbinate somehow decided that despite the fact that most reputable kashrut organizations don't accept the Triangle-K, they accept it nonetheless?
I'd love to hear that the answer is the former...and yet I fear that it's closer to the latter.
In any case, we found ourselves in the sticky situation of trying to explain to our children why they couldn't eat the cookies. "What's wrong?" they wondered. Isn't it Kosher?
"Yes," we told them, it is indeed kosher. It's certainly not treif, and we try very hard to educate our children that while we might be strict about certain chumrot and hashgachot, that does not, by any means, imply that the food is treif.
"But if it's Kosher, why can't we eat it?" How do you answer? It's not kosher enough?
Of course, this problem isn't unique to Oreos. It happens often when we come across a meat restaurant that isn't Mehadrin (which we're careful about). And yet, I never thought that I'd have a problem with the Israeli rabbinate approving a product that I myself don't approve.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Shockingly Honest and Terribly Troubling Piece on Mark Zuckerberg and Reform Judaism

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg's Facebook feed pointed me to a saddening article in the Forward that notes Mark Zuckerberg's public abandonment of Reform Judaism as a jumping-off point to worry about the future of Reform Judaism. Why does a prominent son of devoted Reform Jews, after the full regiment of Reform Jewish education, Bar Mitzvah, confirmation, and even a trip to Israel, now classify himself as "atheist"? She goes on to wonder about what this phenomenon says about the entire denomination. Some critical quotes:
We failed Zuckerberg and will continue to fail young people like him because the pluralistic theologies of Reform Judaism articulated since the 1960s make it difficult to grasp what we Reform Jews believe on any given issue. Our faith is too amorphous. 
Translation: Young people have no idea what we believe because we don't really believe much of anything specific. Far more upsetting though is this:
Also, as a Reform rabbi, it would be hard for me to tell a congregant not to date anyone who was not already Jewish. I would urge congregants to talk about their commitment to Judaism with any potential romantic interest and make it clear from the beginning that Judaism is an important and hopefully central part of their life. But it is simply impractical to tell single people to restrict their dating gaze to those who are of the Jewish faith. Even if we wanted to say such a thing, the reality in our congregations would make such exhortations antiquated and irrelevant. 
I found it truly shocking that a Reform rabbi doesn't feel comfortable telling a Jewish congregant that it's ideal to date someone within the Jewish faith. Moreover, to even suggest such a thing flies in the face of what's happening in the pews, and would make the rabbi "antiquated and irrelevant." Really? Methinks that the rabbi speaks out of both sides of her mouth: on the one hand she calls her faith too amorphous. She wants to stand for something. But at the same time, she won't even stand up in shul and discourage practices that lead to intermarriage. And then she wonders why her young people are bolting from the shul.
It's not really much of a wonder. And it doesn't leave me with much hope that the next Zuckerberg will find any more reason to remain a Reform Jew - or for that matter, stay Jewish at all.