Friday, October 29, 2010

In the New York Times, Some See Manufactured Controversy

Is the New York Times biased against Israel? Some would say "yes." I base this on my ability to find at least one person who takes each side of the issue. Wait, you might wonder. Is that really fair? After all, if a hundred people think the Times is fair, but only two think it's biased, my description doesn't really reflect the true picture!
Some might have a problem with my headline, but not the New York Times. How do I know? It can't bother them that much, because they seem to have no problem using this troubling journalistic tactic when writing about Israel.
Take this article from today's Times: "Remembering Rabin, Some See His Legacy Fading". Again with the "some." How many is "some"? Do they reflect a significant trend in Israeli society, or is this just a convenient way for the Times to gin up an issue? Some would like to know.
In fact, the article itself alludes to the fact that this is a created-controversy.
But with the failure of the Oslo accords, the violence of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, the withdrawal from Lebanon that increased Hezbollah’s power and the rise of Hamas in Gaza after Israel pulled out, land-for-peace is viewed with skepticism by a rising portion of the Israeli public.
Reading between the lines, it's clear to Israelis that the Arabs don't want peace, and only viewed land-for-peace as a tactic to acquire land, so that they could then fight for more land. Israelis don't view the Palestinians as serious about wanting peace with us (they'd rather reach consensus with Hamas - who at least say openly that they want to kill us, than sit down seriously with Israel). So why in the world would we waste time trying to negotiate with people who have no serious interest in negotiation? (Unless someone was pressuring us to do so.) "Some" might wonder about a NY Times article lamenting the decline of the left-wing in Israel and its politics.
What about this article: "Some Question Insistence on Israel as Jewish State"? You would think that the article would be about a strong internal debate about whether Israel should be a Jewish state or not. But that's not the case. The article itself says so, telling us that,
Many Jews in Israel and beyond consider it essential that they are recognized not just as members of a religion but also as a people with historic rights to a sovereign state in the Holy Land. The issue, they say, goes to the core of the conflict and will serve as a litmus test for Palestinian intentions.
“Only when our peace partners are willing to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state,” Mr. Netanyahu said Friday at the same conference, “will they truly be prepared to end the conflict and make a lasting peace with Israel.”
What does it mean that "many" Jews think that Israel must be Jewish? Didn't the headline tell us that "Some" question that fact? Could it really be "most" vs. "almost none?" But that wouldn't make an attractive headline which grabs our attention and page views.
Most (and by that I mean pretty much everyone) in Israel takes it as a given that Israel is and must be a Jewish State (Other than Ahmed Tibi. He's not so sure.) The real question - the burning question in Israel right now, is only alluded to later on in the piece.
There is no consensus even within Israel on the meaning and nature of a “Jewish state.” For many Israelis, it describes the country as it is: with a Jewish majority that speaks Hebrew, living in a dominant Jewish culture. Some would like to see a more religious element; others worry that it denotes an ethnocracy.
That's the burning question. What does a "Jewish State" really mean? How Jewish should it be? Does it mean that we should make bagels and lox (which nobody but Americans eat here) and Matzo Ball soup the national foods, and leave it at that? Or perhaps the government should observe all Jewish holidays and maintain kashrut (which it does)? Should the country promote Torah study (does that too) or just promote the ideas of Jewish identity and heritage (ditto)? These burning questions really do occupy Israeli society today. (My wife Rena returned yesterday from her continuing education courses at a local college talking about a symposium on campus which discussed the need to inculcate Jewish identity in the secular Israeli classroom.)
These critical issues might be the honest subjects of debate and discussion here in Israel. But the NY Times really isn't interested in them, because only "some" would actually care enough to take a deeper look. Instead, it's far better to manufacture a controversy, quote an individual or two who take the contrary position, and write an inflammatory article describing a non-issue.
"Some" would call that journalism. Just not me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Chayei Sarah - Faith and Effort, the Pendulum of Religious Life

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Chayei Sarah:
Faith and Effort, the Pendulum of Religious Life
The story of Eliezer's search for a wife for Yitzchak seems full on challenges. Was he right to set a test to find a wife for Yitzchak? Did he really look for any girl, or was Rivkah the "right" girl from the start? How much should we guide our lives by our faith, and to what degree must we take our future into our own hands?

Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Spolter Kindle - A Great Device for English Readers Living In Israel

We've been wanting one for a while. Our children, especially the older ones, are avid English readers. So avid, in fact, that they long ago exhausted their supply of English language books. Long ago. When we returned home from the States this summer, a good chunk of the weighty parcels we brought back with us were filled with books. They devoured their books in a number of weeks. We just can't physically keep up. The books are also quite hard to get here, and frankly, we ran out of space for more books ages ago.
To each of these challenges, the Kindle seems to be a perfect solution:
1. We can get books at the touch of a button. Too easy, in fact, if you ask me. But I guess Amazon is counting on that. No shipping.
2. There's no space or storage issues.
3. Even better, is that while the Red Dawn (or Red Bull, or whatever the Science Fiction series they love is called) series costs money, there are literally thousands and thousands of books that are available for free.
So, with a new Kindle available for shipment to Israel, I finally caved and bought a Kindle 3. At this point, we really love it.
To date, two of my children have read or are reading the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book they probably never would have read in print form. Seems too old. But on the Kindle, it's actually a good book. Funny how that works. Moreover, for my eight-year-old, I was able to bump the font size way up so that the words on the page didn't overwhelm her, making reading a more manageable task for her. Even I have started to enjoy the device. I downloaded a book sample that seems poised to suck me in. I might just have to buy the whole book. As we use the Kindle more, I'm curious to see whether it's a fad, or whether it will really be a device that we use on an ongoing basis (like my iPod).
I also love the fact that this is a dedicated book reader. It's not a tablet where I have to worry that my kids are surfing the web or playing games. In fact, I told my children that they can use it without any time limits, with one condition: that they don't fight about it.
I doubt the Kindle can prevent that family problem. Oh, that's right. Amazon does have a solution to family fights about its book reader: They'd be quite happy to sell me another one.

Update: Two children have finished reading the Wizard of Oz, and have moved on. My daughter is now on the next book in the Oz series (I didn't even realize that there were more Oz books - and there are many more, and my son, who's in 6th grade, has started reading Great Expectations. By Charles Dickens.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stipends for Kollel Students

As you can imagine, the debate over whether Kollel students should receive government funding is a rather hot-button issue here in Israel. Most Israelis see Chareidim as leeches on society, who refuse to pay taxes or serve in the army, but happily utilize government services and benefits. It's a caricature, but not without some basis.
Despite Yediot Achronot's hysterical attempts to convince the Israeli public that most Chareidim agree with them, I think that most Chareidim take the diametrically opposite view, which is best articulated in a comment that I found on Ynet (Hebrew site) to an article about the issue. (I didn't read them all of the comments, but at the time it was comment number 600. It's a controversial topic.)
אנחנו האברכים שומרים על המדינה בכך שאנו לומדים ומתפללים לבורא עולם יום יום ולילה לילה. לא כמו ה"סטודנטים" שכל היום רק מבלים וכאילו "לומדים".
לכו תעשו דברים מועילים לעם ישראל ותלמדו את מה שבאמת צריך ללמוד.
מגיע לנו ואפילו יותר! אנחנו אל על המדינה! אנחנו בצבא הקב"ה שומרים עליכם הסטודנטים. תעריכו את זה ותבינו שזה הדבר החשוב ביותר.
We the Kollel students guard the state in that we study and pray to the Creator of the World day and night. Not like the "students" who waste their time and supposedly "study".
Go do beneficial things for the Nation of Israel and learn what one is really supposed to study.
We deserve [this stipend] and even more! We are for and above the state. We are the army of the Holy One blessed be He, guarding over you students. Value this and understand that this is the most important thing.
I'm confident that this represents an accurate articulation of Chareidi mentality. To their understanding, they're not leeches. They're on the front lines of Israel's protection, and the very least that the State can do is provide the minimum support they need to survive.
Discussing this with a friend, he had the following reaction. Give them their stipends, but require every kollel student who receives monetary support to sign a contract agreeing to transfer his שכר - his spiritual reward for his Torah learning - over to the State of Israel. After all, if the State is paying for the learning, shouldn't its citizens at least reap the spiritual reward? He wonder whether they'd agree to sign such a contract. (I think that they would.)
I have another, more troubling reaction. The legislation as proposed, would only provide stipends to kollel students with three or more children whose wife doesn't work. We're really only talking about an extra 1,000 shekel. It's simply not possible for anyone to live on that amount of money, so demanding that wives not work is simply an invitation for more fraud and dishonesty. If the government doesn't want to give Kollel fellows money, then it shouldn't give them the money. But if we're going to give the kollel guys stipends to learn, we shouldn't do it in a manner that will force them to lie to continue learning.
To do so would only perpetuates the stereotypes and derisiveness so prevalent in Israeli society today.


I consider myself a master procrastinator. (I feel somewhat confident that I'm not alone in this feeling.) One could even argue that this entire blog is one large effort to waste time. After all, there are a number of other things that I should and could be doing instead of writing this post, right now. And depending on where and when you’re reading this post, you may very well be procrastinating as well. (Of course, justifying such procrastination isn’t hard. At least you’re not wasting your time with other, more inane, time-wasting sites. When it comes down to it, one could view the entire Internet as one huge procrastination machine?)
With procrastination on my mind, I noticed an interesting detail in the Torah reading this week.After the angels arrive in Sodom to tell Lot to get the heck out of Dodge, as pretty soon there won’t be any Dodge, we find that after Lot fails to convince his sons-in-law of the impending doom, he dawdles. ויתמהמה – “and he delayed.” (see Beraishit 19:16) In fact, the trop on this word is the unusual shalshelet, so the whole word is read in a lazy, time-wasting way. Why did he dawdle? Rashi explains that he spent the night working, “to save all his money.” Ironically, for all his effort, he left Sodom empty-handed. Radak offers a slightly different take on the same theme, writing that Lot, “continued to delay as if he was worried about the money he was leaving. For this reason they were delayed until the morning and they could not allow him to take anything with him.”
Why did Lot delay the entire night? Why, if he truly believed that the city faced destruction, did he not immediately collect what he could and leave? If we think about it ourselves, would we be that different? Something inside him found it hard to leave. Although he knew that Sodom was doomed, he hoped that it wasn’t. He put off his departure until the final possible moment – and in doing so lost the possibility of saving any of his beloved property.
Lot’s actions don’t make any sense. But they are quite human.
Time-wasting occupies my thoughts after reading an interesting and thought-provoking article on the subject in a recent issue of the New Yorker. (I’m almost caught up from my summer vacation.) The article, which tries to answer the time-tested question of why we push things off without any sense or reason, makes a number of different suggestions. Some theorize that we put short-term needs ahead of long-term goals (I want to watch The Office now; I don’t want to finish designing the course for which I need to get paid). Others suggest that our propensity to delay reflects inner dual-personalities in which the two parts of me (“The Office”-watcher vs. educator) battle for control.
But when I think about myself, I’ve always considered my personal propensity for procrastination to be rooted in something a bit darker: an inner fear of failure. I don’t always watch TV to procrastinate. I often write on this blog, which isn’t always “easy.” Writing takes effort, thought, energy, wittiness, skill, literary prowess – you get the point. I actually like writing. But why then don’t I write the book that I’ve got in the back of my head instead of this quick piece? Sure, there’s the instant gratification from checking the Feed Stats of this blog. But, if I probe a little deeper, maybe I haven’t really started writing the book as I’m afraid that I won’t finish; or it won’t come out well; or no one will really like it. If you don’t like this post, no big deal. You were about to check the NFL highlights anyway. But if you don’t like a book that I worked on for a year or more – that’s painful. I’ve wasted a heck of a lot of time. I’ve invested a lot of myself – all for nothing.
And yet intellectually I know that it’s going to be a great book. And I’ve really got to finish writing that course. Time to get back to work and stop procrastinating.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Rabbi Ride-Around - A Thought for Vayera

On a rabbinic list that I receive, I learned about a program run by Rabbi Ze'ev Smason, popular rabbi of Congregation Nusach Hari B'nai Zion of St. Louis called the "Rabbi Ride-Around."
Basically, Rabbi Smason agreed to ride around in a local park for fifty miles, after of course accruing a significant amount of sponsorship which benefits the shul.
Let me say from the outset that this post is not meant as a criticism of Rabbi Smason, who I don't know personally. Each rabbi must find his own comfort zone in his congregation and community, and find the proper balance between the need for stature and a casual closeness to the membership of the shul. That being said, I'm trying to decide how I feel about the Rabbi Ride-Around.
On one hand, it's a great program. It promotes the values of health and well-being, and raises badly needed money for a good cause. (It seems that the shul is putting up a new building.) Yet, on some level, it seems to me to diminish the kavod of the rav, and therefore the shul and Torah that he represents. This program brings to mind the dunking machine we used to throw sponges at during carnivals for the chance to dunk a favorite teacher. It's fun and good-natured. But is it appropriate? Maybe if other people ran together with the rabbi. I'm not sure. But the rabbi riding alone? Something about it rubs me wrong.
And then I thought about the parshah. The Torah tells us that when the three guests arrived at Avraham's door, he rushed to greet them, and then personally served them a lavish meal. The kicker is the description of how they ate:
וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב וּבֶן הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיִּתֵּן לִפְנֵיהֶם וְהוּא עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ וַיֹּאכֵלוּ
And he took butter and milk and the cattle that he had made for them and placed it before them, and he stood over them under the tree, and they ate
You have to wonder: was it really appropriate for Avraham Avinu, the representative of monotheism in the world, to stand over a group of ragged strangers waiting over them hand over fist? Could he not have brought a servant - which he surely had - to wait on them all, and eat with the guests together? Was Avraham's behavior also not, in some way, a diminution not only of his personal honor, but the God that Avraham so publicly proclaimed? Clearly according to the gemara (Kiddushin 32b), the answer is no.
מעשה ברבי אליעזר ורבי יהושע ורבי צדוק שהיו מסובין בבית המשתה בנו של רבן גמליאל, והיה רבן גמליאל עומד ומשקה עליהם, נתן הכוס לר' אליעזר ולא נטלו, נתנו לר' יהושע וקיבלו; אמר לו רבי אליעזר: מה זה, יהושע, אנו יושבין ורבן גמליאל (ברבי) +מסורת הש"ס: [דרבי]+ עומד ומשקה עלינו? אמר ליה: מצינו גדול ממנו ששמש, (אברהם גדול ממנו ושמש) אברהם גדול הדור היה, וכתוב בו: +בראשית יח+ והוא עומד עליהם! ושמא תאמרו, כמלאכי השרת נדמו לו? לא נדמו לו אלא לערביים, ואנו לא יהא רבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו? אמר להם רבי צדוק: עד מתי אתם מניחים כבודו של מקום ואתם עוסקים בכבוד הבריות? הקב"ה משיב רוחות ומעלה נשיאים ומוריד מטר ומצמיח אדמה, ועורך שולחן לפני כל אחד ואחד, ואנו לא יהא רבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו?
It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tzaddok were celebrating at the wedding of the son of Rabban Gamliel, and Rabban Gamliel stood and served them drinks. He gave the cup to Rabbi Eliezer, who refused to take it, and then gave it to Rabbi Yehoshua, who took it. Rabbi Eliezer said to him, "What is this, Yehoshua? We sit and Rabban Gamliel (the Nasi at the time) stands and serves us drinks?" He said, we find [in scripture] someone even greater who served [others]. Avraham was the leader of his generation, and it is written about him, "and he stood over them." And perhaps you might say that they appeared to him as angels? No, they appeared to him as Arabs. And we should not allow Rabban Gamiel the son of Rebbe to stand over us and serve drinks? Said to them Rabbi Tzadok: How long will you all leave the honor of God, and engage in the honor of men? God Himself blows the wind...sends the dew and grows the earth; He sets the table of each and every individual. And we should not allow Rabban Gamliel the son of Rebbe to stand over us and serve us drink?
Clearly, the thought of the great leader and teacher Rabban Gamliel, standing at the bar at his son's wedding serving drinks disturbed Rabbi Eliezer. It bothered him so much that he could not bring himself to accept a drink. So this debate goes back a long way. But Rabbi Eliezer loses the argument. A rabbi is permitted to forgive his honor - רב שמחל על כבודו, כבודו מחל.
Yet, the conclusion does not come easily. Before telling us the story the Gemara wonders about my issue: "Is the Torah his (the rabbi's), that he may forgive his honor?" God wrote the Torah - so he can forgive his honor. But what right does a rabbi, whose honor stems from the Torah, have to forgive his - and the Torah's - right to the proper level of respect and reverence?
Rava provides a startling answer: אין, תורה דיליה הוא דכתיב ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה - "Yes, it is his Torah, as it is written, 'And in his Torah he will delve day and night." In essence, the rabbi who represents God's Torah has the right to decide when his honor must be insisted upon, and when to take a different tact and take a more casual approach.
Rabban Gamliel wanted to serve drinks to his students at his son's wedding. For whatever reason, on that evening he didn't want the reverence. He wanted to tend bar, relax and enjoy together with people whom he cherished. Avraham understood that serving the strangers was perhaps the very best way to bring Godliness to them. The very spectacle of such an honored leader serving them might force them to rethink some of their most deeply held beliefs.
And if Rabbi Smason wants to ride a bike to raise money for his shul, that's great too. I can't say that I would have done it myself. But I'm pretty sure that I couldn't bike fifty miles in one day no matter how much money was on the line.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How Not to Parent: Never say No.

The New York Times just featured a troubling article about how parents are now using iPhones to occupy and babysit their children. What's troubling about giving a child an iPhone to play with? It's not the end of the world - within reason. And I quote:
Brady Hotz, who will be 2 at the end of this month, was having a hard time getting out the door of his family’s home near Chicago the other day. He’d woken up late — 6:45 instead of 6:15. His mother, Kellie Hotz, was in a rush. She got him dressed, gave him milk and cereal, and announced, “We’re ready to go.”
Brady, not budging from his position near the couch, dug in. “Mickey!” he said plaintively. “Mickey!” (Translation: I’m not going anywhere till I get to watch “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on TV.)
Ms. Hotz, a veteran of such standoffs, switched instantly to what she called her “guaranteed success tool.”
“What about Mickey on the phone?” she suggested.
That’s all it took. Mother swept up the now entirely cooperative toddler, cued up the show (via YouTube) on her little iPhone screen, and strapped him into her car, where he sang happily along with the video for the 15-minute ride to day care.
Then trouble began again. Brady wanted to stay in his seat with the iPhone. Finally he put it in his coat pocket and went inside — where Ms. Hotz was able to surreptitiously reclaim her gizmo and leave for work.
Let me get this straight: first the child refuses to go to daycare without watching his favorite show in the morning. The kid is two. So, instead of saying "no" and establishing boundaries (and yes, even two-year-olds really get and need structure), his mom succeeded in bribing him by letting him watch his show on her iPhone. Then, when the kid would not return the phone, instead of again saying, "You know what, that's enough", and taking the phone, the mother got the kid to put the phone in his pocket, and then stole it back.
Lessons son learned that morning:
1. Stubborn behavior gets rewarded.
2. Tantrums have desired effect.
3. When you can't honestly get what you want, steal, lie and cheat to do it.
Sadly, while the story purports to be about the iPhone, it's more of a story about parents' unwillingness or inability to parent - either by paying attention to their children instead of passing them off to an electronic device, or by setting boundaries of acceptable behavior for children. Also, if you look carefully at the picture, you'll see that not only does little Brady have his mom's iPhone; he's also got an iPad set up for him in the car (just in case he needs to watch a second show at the same time, I guess).
Right now, the iPhone might be a "guaranteed success tool." But in parenting and raising her son, it's quite the opposite: a recipe for failure.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Latest Song Craze Here in the Holy Land

It started with Simcha, who learned the words first. Then, somehow, Petachya picked it up, and now the kids won't stop singing this song. As you listen, you'll notice that it's basically a hip-hop song that you'd expect to hear in a disco (From what I know. I don't frequent such places. Too old.). But then, if you listen to the words, you realize that there's something much deeper going on in a song from a seemingly secular Israeli pop star. I can't embed the song (it's been disabled, but you can watch and listen to the song here (live) and here. The lyrics are as follows (with translation):
בכל מקום כל הזמן
יש לכולנו מגדול ועד קטן
ימים יפים וגם פחות
וביניהם תשובה לכל השאלות
In every place, at all times,
we all, from young to old
have good days, and also less [good]
and in between them the answer to all the questions

יש אלוהים אחד גדול
הוא בעולם הזה נותן לנו הכול
בין אפלה לקרן אור
את הנתיב אנחנו רק צריכים לבחור
וזה ידוע החיים הם מתנה
הכול צפוי והרשות נתונה
there is One Great God
in the world who gives us everything
between the darkness and the ray of light
we only need to choose the [proper] path
and it is known that life is a gift
everything is expected, and the permission is given (that's a quote from Rabbi Akiva in Avot 3:14)

מי שמאמין לא מפחד,
את האמונה לאבד
ולנו יש את מלך העולם
והוא שומר אותנו מכולם
He who has faith is not afraid
of losing that faith
and we have the King of the World
and he guards us from them all

(Second Stanza)
העם הזה הוא משפחה
אחד ועוד אחד זה סוד ההצלחה
עם ישראל לא יוותר,
תמיד על המפה אנחנו נשאר
וזה ידוע החיים הם מתנה
הכול צפוי והרשות נתונה
This nation is one family
one plus another one is the secret to success
we will always remain on the map
and it is known that life is a gift
everything is expected, and the permission is given
The words are surprising, even shocking, coming from a seemingly secular Israeli, and they clearly have touched a nerve in Israeli society. I have long believed that most, in fact the great majority of secular Israelis - are not as secular as we might believe. The cab driver who picked you up puts on tefillin each day. The secular lady you work with shares Shabbat dinner with her elderly mother each week. There's a tremendous amount of faith in this country that's looking for an outlet, if only we can find a way to tap into it. Not every song on YouTube gets 2.5 million hits.
There's also clearly a strongly political (and geopolitical) aspect to the song. "We will always remain on the map" clearly alludes to the Iranian threat, and the Jewish response not only of military strength, but also faith in God. I find it refreshing and quite powerful to see a spiritual response come not from the frum, but from the secular community. (You can also clearly hear the Breslover refrains of והעיקר לא לפחד כלל" - "and the essence is not to be afraid at all!" as well)
It's a catchy tune that kids really latch onto. If you teach in a Jewish school, would you teach it to your students? It's a great lesson in faith, in Hebrew, and also about Israeli society: secular, religious, faithful, Breslov - all mixed into one messy song.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Worst Thing You can Be in Israel? A "Frier"

For the past year (or more), I've been a regular subscriber to Makor Rishon, which is the paper of record in the Religious Zionist community. (the other paper that I read, called B'sheva, is published by the Arutz Sheva people, and distributed for free - if you get to the makolet early enough on Friday morning to get a copy.) I like reading the paper because while I don't understand every word, it's a good way for me to stay current on what's going on in the Israeli world (not the American bubble that I try not to live in), and there's always something relevant for me to know about in the world of education in which I work. The kids also like the kids magazine and run for it on Friday when they get home from school.
The price for the weekly paper, including magazines? After an initial trial period, 150 shekel a month. Sounded a little pricey, but that's what the guy on the phone said, so I agreed. That was over a year ago.
Last month, we invited a local Israeli family over for lunch. Great people, great conversation - a wonderful time all-around. They noticed that we get Mekor Rishon, and commented on how they should really resubscribe. (apparently, they canceled their subscription hoping to get a better price.) How much did I pay? the husband asked me. I told him. He almost fell out of his chair, giving me that pitiful look you give someone whose gotten ripped off and doesn't even know it. Nobody pays that much, he tells me. Really? I do, said me, feeling ever more stupid by the second. This is Israel, he says. Everything is negotiable.
Sadly, I had to agree with him. While the American in me is happy to pay the asking price, because you usually don't negotiate to buy groceries, here everything is subject to discussion and debate. Moreover, it's not rude. It's expected - part of the fabric of Israeli life. And if you don't negotiate and just pay the asking price? Your loss.
Don't worry. I'll check it out and let you know, he tells me, and we drop the topic.
Sure enough, he comes over to me later on in the week. I was right. 70 shekel a month - some kind of program they've got.
I really feel like a moron. I've been paying 150 shekel for something I could have gotten for 70. I'm cheesed off, probably more at myself for not asking for a deal than for actually paying full price. So I call them.
Lo and behold, they've never heard of anyone paying such a low price. Ever. It doesn't exist. "What's the name of your friend?" I heard that a few times. We can give you 100 shekel a month without the magazines. I was adamant. Seventy a month. With the magazines. After being told that there was no way in the world that they could offer me such a low price, I had had enough.
"Fine," I told them. Please cancel my subscription. I had to send an email to cancel in writing, which I did on the spot.
Surprised I was not when my cellphone rang last week. Why did you cancel? How can we get you back? I calmly explained what I was willing to pay, and the salesman began to argue with me. While trying to haggle, he apparently got another call and said to me, "Can you hold on a minute?" (Remember, he was the one who had called me.) I hung up - and didn't answer the phone when he called back some time later.
This morning, he called again. I was calm and patient. "Listen: Seventy shekel a month. That's what I'm willing to pay. Any more, and we can end the call right now."
Pause. Let me call you back.
A few minutes later he calls me and says, "Well, your friend must be on the yearly plan - 960 shekel for the year for 13 months. Comes to about 73 shekel per month. What do you say?"
It wasn't the 70 that I wanted, but it was less than half what I was paying beforehand. I agreed.
But tell me, I wondered, Why was it that I had to cancel my subscription before you miraculously "found" this plan?
He laughed. It's like yeshiva, he said. Some questions are better than the answer.
Yes, I agreed. But many yeshiva bochrim leave religion for that very reason.
In the end, I got the price that I wanted. But I still feel foolish for having paid double that for over a year. In Israeli terms, I was a "Frier" - a sucker - someone who could have and should have done better, but got taken advantage of due to my naivete, simplicity, willingness to comply - my American nature. I wonder: would I have been better off not knowing that I was overpaying? Sure, now I'm saving money. But I also feel stupid and angry at the paper for having taken advantage of me.
Many Americans find this to be one of the most frustrating aspects of Israeli society. I'd tend to agree.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Prayer for Rain: Still Relevant?

The location: The Spolter home, West Hartford, CT
The date: August, 1999, Shabbat morning, around 7:00am
The situation: Rena is nine months pregnant with the child that would be Bezalel, and labor pains have begun in earnest.

This being our second child, I was calm and collected. As soon as we decided that it was time, I picked up the phone and called the cab company.
"Hi, we're having a baby, and I need a cab to get to the hospital." That's when things started to get a little dicey.
"OK," said the operator. "I should have someone available to come out to you in about forty-five minutes." That didn't seem like such a good idea.
"Forty five minutes?! My wife is in labor!"
Sadly, the cab company operator was not in a position to conjure up a cab for me, as there weren't a huge number of cabs floating around the sleepy town of West Hartford on a Saturday morning. I started getting nervous, and hung up the phone.
I wandered outside, probably hoping that I could flag down a passing cab. No, it didn't make sense. We did not live on Broadway in Manhattan. But what else could I do? It was then that Linda, our neighbor, noticed me. (She was "walking" the dog in her backyard.)
"Is it time?" She was well aware of Rena's condition. "Is there anything we can do?"
Actually, there was. We needed a ride. Linda was happy to wake up Chuck, her husband, who drove us to the hospital in our car, which he then drove back home.
Linda and Chuck were wonderful neighbors. We didn't know them that well, but we did know that they were devout Catholics, and every so often we'd discuss light theology. That Shabbat morning, the talk turned to original sin and epidurals.
Chuck and I wondered aloud about how we were to understand the meaning of בעצב תלדי בנים - "With pain you shall bear sons," (Chava's sin for eating from the forbidden fruit), in light of the modern development of epidurals and relatively pain-free childbirth. Were we in some way escaping Divine will by bearing children without pain?
Rena was having none of it. Sitting in the back of the car enduring contractions of ever-increasing frequency and intensity, she had heard enough theology for one childbirth: "Will you guys shut up and just get me to the hospital?!"
The rest of the ride was considerably quieter.

I remember this story as we once again begin reciting the phrase ותן טל ומטר לברכה during Shemonah Esreh.
Here in Israel we begin praying for rain in earnest on the 7th of Cheshvan. Jews in the Diaspora wait to make the change until December 4th, something I never quite fully comprehended. Something about the rain in Babylonia.
Here we really need the rain. It's a matter of livelihood, economics, and prosperity. We need the water to plant the fields to drive the economic engine of Israel (and feed the population, although around here they've been planting cotton lately.) Rain is so critical to survival that it plays a prominent role in the Shema. If we follow the commandments, God promises that, ונתתי מטר ארצכם בעתו - "and I will give the rain of your land in its proper time." The Torah describes the Land of Israel in terms of its dependence on the Divine desire to produce rain.

כִּי הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--לֹא כְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם הִוא, אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִשָּׁם: אֲשֶׁר תִּזְרַע אֶת-זַרְעֲךָ, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ בְרַגְלְךָ כְּגַן הַיָּרָק. יא וְהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ--אֶרֶץ הָרִים, וּבְקָעֹת; לִמְטַר הַשָּׁמַיִם, תִּשְׁתֶּה-מָּיִם. יב אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ: תָּמִיד, עֵינֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בָּהּ--מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה, וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה
For the land, whither thou goest in to possess it, is not as the land of Egypt, from whence ye came out, where thou didst sow thy seed, and didst water it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs; but the land, whither ye go over to possess it, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinketh water as the rain of heaven cometh down; a land which the LORD thy God careth for; the eyes of the LORD thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.
God designed the Land of Israel specifically to need rain; He wants us to pray for the rain, to yearn for His benevolence and sustenance and support. The rain forms a critical part of the religious and spritual structure of life in Israel.
Exept now, does it really?
Sure, right this moment, we need the rain. But Israel has rightfully taken critical measures to ensure that the Jewish State's water needs will be met for the forseeable future. In an article in this week's B'sheva newspaper, Professor Uri Shani, the current and outgoing head of Israel's water authority says that in just 3-4 years, we'll see a significant change in Israel's water situation, which should prevent crises with regard to water in Israel, as major desalination processing plants come online.
Clearly, this is an amazing, critical development, which provides the State with needed water, security and self-reliance. And I'm also not naive nor dismissive of the power of, and need for prayer. We clearly still need the rain, and always will.
But as our ability to provide for our water needs grows, does our dependence upon God in some way wane? Are we somehow fundamentally altering our relationship to God and the need for rain by using technology to provide for ourselves?
In truth, I don't think so. We turn to God for so many different needs - safety, security, health, economic prosperity - the list is endless.
But will we still pray for rain when we can produce all the water we need on our own? I don't know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Audio Shiur: Parshat Lech Lecha - Solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Lech Lecha - Solving the Arab-Israeli Conflict
What do you do when confronted with seemingly intractable problems? How must we react when we face seemingly impossible challenges that don't make sense? Avram Avinu shows us the way - and offers a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Well, sort of.
Click here to download the shiur, or here to navigate to the shiur on

Thoughts about Synagogue Life: What Can We Copy?

I always subscribed to the attitude of, "why make up my own stuff, when I can copy other peoples' success?" This began in earnest after attending the National Council of Young Israel's rabbinic convention, early in my career, and listening to a talk by Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. His talk focused on the programming that he ran in his shul, which back then was far less sophisticated than it is today. (I'd say that others have started copying him, but he does it best.) He shared an invitation that he sent out for a High Holiday speakers' series, in which he would invite local speakers from his community to speak during Elul, leading up to the High Holidays. Moreover, he had a graphic designer create an invitation, which gave the event a special feeling that encouraged attendance and participation.
It was a great idea. The local speakers usually were happy to participate, did not cost me a lot of money, and the program - which I ran from that year until I left Michigan, was always something that members looked forward to, gave them a sense of the upcoming yamim nora'im, and actually built to the Shabbat Shuvah drashah and Yom Kippur. (You can see some of the programs that I ran here.)
Rabbi Muskin has built the idea into a yearly, full-color multi-page glossy guide that's achieved a high level of notoriety. Truth be told, as a rabbi I always viewed his production (and others) as far beyond my reach. I didn't have the membership, or money to create such elaborate materials. (Although one could argue that I lacked the vision.)
But his guide is a must-see for anyone involved in creating community programming, for the very simple reason that there's no reason not to copy his great ideas. Many of the programs that work in L.A. could easily work locally in other communities for less money, or perhaps even no money, given volunteers, creativity, and open-mindedness.
Sure, if you read the guide you might think that it's beyond the reach of your shul to do something that sophisticated. You might even think that it's over the top and unnecessary, or even inappropriate for your community.
But you should also be looking at it asking yourself, "What can I copy?" After all, there's no need to reinvent the wheel.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Rubashkin Sentence: Some Troubling Questions

When I originally saw this video, two thoughts immediately came to mind:
1. The production values are fantastic. While the song doesn't really move me, the video work is great.
2. Then I saw what the video was for, and I really, just couldn't believe what I was seeing. Rubashkin? That's what every Jewish music performer around the world gathered together to sing for? Unity? Kindness to our brothers? (the words in the song). How about not stealing, lying and cheating our fellow men? That might help. And is that really the cause celebre of the Jewish community right now? I'm waiting for the song to unite the nation to free Gilad Shalit. He never got a trial. His crime was serving the Jewish people in the IDF. Where's his song?

Needless to say that my Shabbat began with a great deal of righteous indignation.
I had my nephews over for Shabbat, and I mentioned the video to them and some of my issues with it. They told me that in the Haredi Orthodox community, there's tremendous outrage over the case, and it rallies people more than many other more pressing issues. They made some factual claims that seemed dubious to me, so I did a little investigating (at least by reading the Wikipedia article). And the more I read, the more I questioned - about the case, and even about myself and my own smug self-righteousness.
We're all at least aware of the Sholom Rubashkin case - the former meat packer convicted of wire fraud, cheating, etc and sentenced to 27 years in prison. I found the whole affair incredibly embarrassing and troubling. It doesn't look good when someone who outwardly represents fervent Judaism is convicted of anything, and a large part of me - and many in my community - felt that he probably got what he deserved.
Only now I'm starting to wonder.
  • It seems that while he did falsify bank statements to get loans, he always paid back the loans on time. Not an excuse - but that really goes to the severity of his crimes.
  • It also seems that he was prosecuted on a 90 year old law criminalizing the fact that while he paid his cattle suppliers, he did so a few days late, violating Federal law. See this article.
  • It's also pretty clear that the reason he defaulted on the loans was the government's immigration closure, effectively shutting down the plant. I'm not condoning hiring illegal immigrants, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking that the Agriprocessors plant was unique.
  • Finally, he has beaten every single immigration related charge (or they were dropped).
  • After all this, he was still sentenced to 27 years in prison, which very-well may be a life sentence - and was castigated by a number of former attorneys general.
I'm starting to wonder what's going on here. Should he do jail time? Sure. But 27 years. It really does seem out of whack.
  • I'm wondering whether there were tensions between the Lubavitch community and the Iowa secular and non-Jewish community beforehand which came to the fore here.
  • I'm wondering whether prosecutors felt pressure to get a high level conviction, especially when the realized that the immigration cases wouldn't pan out after such extensive publicity in the aase.
  • I'm wondering finally, whether he really did get some type of special treatment, in the form of prosecutorial abuse through "overcharging" - I don't know what the technical term is - because he's an Orthodox Jew.
  • Finally, I'm wondering whether we (and I include myself - especially Jews who are not Haredi) didn't ask these questions because we find the whole episode embarrassing and just want it to go away.
That doesn't seem very fair.
The only news I could find incriminating Rubashkin so harshly was a NY Times article which stated,
"Prosecutors, citing Mr. Rubashkin’s “blatant lawlessness, utter lack of remorse, his egregious and repeated attempts to obstruct justice,” have asked Judge Linda R. Reade to impose a life sentence."
Is there any evidence that they provided to back up their claims? Do we just take prosecutors at their word? A life sentence? That seems really, really over the top. Along these lines, seeing a U.S. Congressional Representative who sits on the Judiciary Committee send a letter like this to the United States attorney general only heightens my sense of concern.
I'm starting to really wonder whether something fishy happened to Sholom Rubashkin here, and whether his ethnicity and religion are, in some weird way hurting his case. If that's the case, the Haredi community singing song raising money might not be the best way to help him.
But what else can they do?

Thought for Lech Lecha: The Hardest Part of Aliyah - the Mental Part

Lech Lecha is obviously the call to come. Can any Jew living in the Diaspora today not hear the words of God's call to Avram to come to the Holy Land as anything less than a personal invitation? (I know, they can, but I can dream, can't I?)
For a good few years I heard the call, personally. It was a challenge - daunting and frightening. I knew the words. I knew the commandment. I knew what I was supposed to do. And yet I stayed, mostly because I was afraid.
What would I do? How could I leave my job? Would I be able to support my family? How could we knowingly give up good jobs in America for the unknown of Israel.
All very real fears. And in the United States, legitimate fears as well. Therein lie the problem: as Americans, we're by nature culturally American, fully integrated into a mentality that requires long-term planning and foresight; a sense of confidence and sureness about the future; a need to know and be ready for the future long before it happens. How do we overcome our own fears as we contemplate fulfilling not only the wishes of the Torah, but our own dreams? I think we can find one possible answer at the opening to Parshat Lech Lecha.
Many commentaries focus on the order in which God commands Avram to leave his homeland of Haran:
לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.
Logically speaking, first he should leave his father's house, then his birthplace, and then his country. Why does God seemingly reverse the order?
I edit the weekly parshah sheet at Orot, and saw a beautiful thought written by a student named Tali Richter in the name of Rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin, who wrote that the Hasidic masters taught that "a person can be found where his thoughts lead him." If, during davening at shul he's thinking about his business, then he's really not at shul, is he? When God told Avram to leave Haran, aside from the commandment to leave physically, God also commanded him to abandon his foreign mentality. Thus, the order makes perfect sense: first one must leave his land - his national culture and mode of thinking, before he can leave his birthplace and his home.

I remember a number of years back when we started doing shul programming together with the members of the Kollel Torah Mitzion, obviously from Israel. They would call me up and tell me, "Rabbi, we want to run a Shabbaton in your shul."
"Sure," I said. "No problem. When do you want to do it?"
"We were thinking about next week."
It took me years to get it into their heads that there was no way we would, or even could run a Shabbaton with a week's notice. What about advertising? Could we get volunteers to help with the food? The social hall might very well be booked. We planned the shul calendar months in advance - and I know of many that plan their entire year in the summer. That's not silly. It's just good advance planning. Very, very American.
And yet, I'm pretty sure that the Israelis thought that we were crazy. Really? Two months in advance? Why do you need that much notice? Just send out an email, put up a cholent, and we'll have a Shabbaton.
Now, looking back, I realize that they weren't wrong. We were just speaking two very different cultural languages. Israelis think nothing of throwing a program together in a night. Many schools don't really have their finalized timetable for the school year until well after Sukkot. (OK, that one can get frustrating.) It's just part of the mentality, of being open to doing things quickly, making abrupt changes, and not needing to have solid, long-term plans.
That's what God told Avram: In order to leave Haran and make aliyah to the Holy Land, you first need to leave the mentality of your homeland. In Avram's case, his homeland was mired in a culture of idolatry and polytheism. In our case today, we're stuck in a culture of absolutes; of self-reliance and self-dependence that leaves no room for faith and nothing up to God. We need to know. We need to be sure.
Well, that's not how it works here. Kids in high school have no idea what career path they want to choose, and they usually don't even want to think about the topic. They've got army to worry about, yeshiva to attend. Shuls and organizations think nothing of planning an event for...this evening. And people come. And even people who live here leave their jobs for one reason or another before they've got a sure thing - to go back to school, to learn Torah for a year, to take care of their children - and that's not unusual or unreasonable.
Something will happen. Hakadosh baruch hu will provide. And He does.
But the first change, and probably the hardest, is the needed change in mentality that makes everything else possible.
So many people on the precipice of aliyah ask themselves, "Am I crazy?" Truthfully, to Americans, the answer is probably "yes." But to Israelis, don't worry. You're perfectly normal.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Jewish Nation

I'm not usually surprised by the things that Jews do or say, but Gil Student recently posted about a new "book" - apparently it's more of a long-form essay in which the author suggests that the solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict lies in abandoning the Jewish nature of the State of Israel.

Rabbi Gross, a young, Yeshiva University-trained pulpit rabbi in Omaha, proposes that Israel “abolish its Jewish character and become a full secular democracy with equal rights and opportunities for all.” There will be a single state on the land, neither Jewish nor Palestinian. It will be a secular country, a democracy of all its citizens, with no official religion that may alienate citizens of another or no religion. Over time, this will reduce ethnic strife and lead to a prosperous and just nation.

It's probably not really fair to comment on a book without reading it, but I have no intention of buying the book. I'm going on Gil's word, which I trust. Nonetheless, I just don't understand how someone educated in a religious-Zionist institution, could possibly suggest that the Jewish State abandon its Jewish character and identity. Aside from the almost unbelievable naivitee of believing that democracy would flourish here guaranteeing freedom, safety and security for all (see Gaza, Egypt, Jordan and Syria - all democratic states), such a perspective denies the very nationhood of the Jewish people.
I'm going to come out and say this just to be clear: Judaism is not a religion. It's a nationality - a peoplehood that makes demands of the members of that nation - strong demands. That nationality is defined, like all nations, by a common language, culture, history, heritage and yes, homeland.
Sadly, over two millennium of exile we have forgotten our core, and come to identify ourselves only in terms meaningful to the exile in which we reside.
The fact that an Orthodox rabbi living in Omaha cannot appreciate these basic facts about what Judaism is troubles me greatly. How someone can lead a shul in which they're going to read:
וַיֵּרָא ה', אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת
And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said: 'Unto thy seed will I give this land'
...and then turn around and say, "you know what? I don't think that we should have it? What about the other people living here? We should share it...or maybe give it back..."
I can just see Avraham Avinu turning over in his grave. Only, according to Rabbi Gross, I shouldn't be able to. After all, not enough Jews live near his grave to justify Jewish control of Hevron. According to his logic, what right do we have to visit his grave at all?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Wrong Number, Israel Edition

I needed to locate a certain person who I knew lived in Yerushalayim, but did not have his phone number. So I did a Bezeq search for his name, Chaim Yankel Schwartz, (not his real name), and found a number. Was it him? There could be a bunch of CYS's in Yerushalayim, but I called anyway.
It wasn't him. He was C.Y. Schwartz, but not the one that I was looking for. I apologized for calling the wrong number, and hung up.
Usually that's the end of the story. But not in Yerushalayim.
A minute later my phone rang back. It was C.Y. Schwartz. Not the one that I was looking for, but the one that I had called by accident. Clearly an older man.
"Hello? You were looking for Chaim Yankel Schwartz and called me a minute ago? I have a phone book. Were you looking for C.Y. and Miriam Schwartz?"
In fact, I was.
"You have a pen? Good. Write down this number."
He gave me the number. I thanked him, and marveled about the fact that a person I had called by accident would take the time to call me back and make sure I got the right number.
I jumped on the computer to share the story with you.
Then the phone rang again. C.Y. Schwartz.
"Hello? I just want to make sure that you've got his address." He gave me the address.
You know how they say, "Only in Israel"? With this one, really, really - "only in Israel."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

This is Just to Say, frum edition

This is just to say
that I have eaten the cholent
that was in
the crock pot

and which
you were probably saving
for lunch

Forgive me
it was wonderful
so filling
and so satisfying

for Rena. Related link here.

Belated Beraishit Post: A Thought from Rav Charlap

Rashi's Israel-focused commentary on the first verse of the Torah is well known. I'll quote it anyway. Thanks to Chabad for saving me a ton of time with the Rashi text and translation.

אמר רבי יצחק לא היה צריך להתחיל [את] התורה אלא (שמות יב ב) מהחודש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו [בה] ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית, משום (תהלים קיא ו) כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים, שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל לסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו
Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.
First of all, the fact that Rashi chose to focus on the Land of Israel with his first comment on the Torah speaks volumes. Rena and I were discussing the comment on Shabbat, and she pointed out that Rashi was most probably making a historical comment to the people of his times, as they watched Christian hordes pillage Europe on their way to conquer the Holy Land. "Not to worry," he seems to tell them - and us. "They might take it now, but one day it will once again be ours."
How right he was.
On Shabbat, I heard a talk which quoted Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlap, one of Rav Kook's main students, who asked a very pointed question about the verse that Rashi quotes from Tehillim, "The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations”. If the whole point of the message is for us to convey our ownership of the Land of Israel to the nations of the world, then the verse should say, כח מעשיו הגיד לעמים - "The strength of His work He related to the nations." Why does God first have to tell His nation?
That, said Rav Charlap, is precisely the point. Sadly, too often Jews themselves fail to appreciate our own inherent, intrinsic connection to God's holy land. They think other inhabitants
have as much right to the Land as the Jewish people do , and that while it might be a Jewish homeland, we have no more claim on the Land than other nations.
That's our biggest problem. If we believed fully in our inherent right and connection to the Land of Israel, then the nations of the world would accept our position as well. As long as we waver, the world will as well.