Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ali Karavan (Abu Hassan) Humus - Old Jaffa, Israel

I ate lunch at Abu Hassan (Ali Karavan) today in Old Jaffa, Israel. The restaurant is known for serving some of the best humus in Tel-Aviv but it is certainly not known for its ambience. This restaurant gives "fast food" a whole new definition. Or maybe it might be called "speed eating."

The place is quite small with seating for 25 or 30 guests. The tables are crammed together and they seat you wherever they can find a chair. You may be at a table with 4 or 5 other strangers but after all - you are all eating some great humus.

There can be quite a line-up to get in. As people get closer to the restaurant, waiting for a chance to sit down, they are literally standing over the patrons, waiting for them to finish so that they can find a place to sit down.

Once seated, the menu is quite simple - a bowl of humus and some pita breads. You can add "masbacha" (mediterranean spices) or some warm fava beans to the bowl and you get a side order of some raw (yes, raw) onions and a lemon-pepper-oil mixture. You also get a fork and you can order a drink but you won't get any napkins. Fortunately there is a sink with running water.

The wait staff scream at each other to bring out the orders. The food is thrown (or slapped) onto the table in front of you seconds after you are seated.

There is no take-out no matter how long the line gets. Rumour has it that when there was take out, people would congregate in front of the restaurant eating and would block traffic.

The place is quite loud (between the diners and the yelling staff), not particularly clean and has a very rushed feel. On the other hand, the humus is quite creamy, fresh and tasty and it is not very expensive. I'm not sure I would call it the best humus I've ever had. Raanana has a "Humus Bar" which serves humus that is every bit as good - and has a much more civilized feel (and Humus Bar is kosher...)

Overall, this was certainly a real middle eastern experience and one worth trying out, though probably not one that I'd like to have too often.

Abu Hassan is located at 1 Dolphin Street in Old Jaffa, Israel.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gender Equality Issues: From Israel to Canadian Conservative Synagogues

The issue of gender equality has been getting a great deal of attention in Israel recently, as I have written in some of my previous blog articles. What has become quite apparent is that the views that many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox men have of women and their capabilities are not confined to the religious sphere. As Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner wrote in the New York Times on January 14, 2012, the clash between the values of equality and Halakha (Jewish law) has created a growing rift in Israeli society. The New York Times article portrays the issue primarily as one between Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) and secular Jews. But the issue is much broader. It is a clash between traditionalist views of gender roles that begin in the religious sphere and modern conceptions of equality. It is not confined to Orthodox Judaism or to Israel. It affects Western countries around the world struggling with the tension between the tolerance of minority religious practices and gender equality.

To focus on one area, in Conservative Judaism, the issue has been one that has polarized practising Conservative Jews. Since the 1970s and the advent of the Ezrat Nashim movement, Conservative Judaism has wrestled with the line between traditional Halakha and religious gender equality. Different rabbis have weighed in with a range of responsa (rabbinic opinions) outlining their views on issues such as whether women should be permitted to read from the Torah and have Aliyot; whether women should be counted in a Minyan; and whether a woman can be a Shlicha Tzibur (a prayer leader). Some rabbis have found ways to reinterpret the Halakha in permissive ways while others have called for a “tikkun” – a correction to the law. There has not been unanimity in the rabbinical opinions.

The vast majority of American Conservative synagogues have adopted a fully or mostly egalitarian approach to these issues, based on some of the rabbinical responsa that have been issued. In Israel, most of the Conservative synagogues (including the one I attend) have also become partially or fully egalitarian. Ultimately, an egalitarian synagogue sends a message that no person is limited by their gender from fulfilling an equal religious role in the synagogue or an equal role in society outside of the religious sphere. How can a modern society in which women have an equal opportunity to be doctors, lawyers, pilots or any other profession or career continue to insist that in a synagogue, the women must be relegated to the balcony or behind the curtain or even just prevented from participating in the religious service? How can one expect that a social environment in which women’s voices are not heard and women do not participate in or lead the religious services will see women as equals in other areas of life?

Though largely settled in many areas of the world among Conservative Jews, this issue, which has generated so much recent controversy in Israel, is still very much alive in Toronto. Toronto’s Conservative synagogues are generally not egalitarian. But over the past few years, this has begun to change. Some of the smaller Conservative synagogues have become fully egalitarian, with women able to participate in all aspects of the service equally, including the Torah service. Other Conservative synagogues, such as Beth Emeth and Shaar Shalom have very stringent limitations on the role of women. Still others have been having ongoing and sometimes heated debates about the matter. The issue has divided the city’s Conservative rabbis as well as the congregants.

One of Canada’s largest synagogues, which is in fact one of the largest Conservative synagogues in the world, Beth Tzedek, has been “Torah egalitarian” for a number of years. This has meant that women can be called up to the Torah to read or to have an Aliyah. But women have not been able to lead most prayer services. This same approach has been taken at Beth David Synagogue, while some synagogues like Beth Tikvah and Adath Israel have had some opportunities for women to participate, but to a more limited extent.

In March of 2011, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl of Beth Tzedek issued a responsum that women would now be counted in the Minyan at Beth Tzedek. Although this did not move the synagogue to complete gender equality, it put Beth Tzedek at the forefront of the group of large Conservative synagogues in Toronto in moving towards religious equality.

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl’s responsum has been attacked by Conservative Rabbi Wayne Allen in the 2nd volume of his book Perspectives on Jewish Laws and Contemporary Issues, who argues that Frydman-Kohl has essentially abandoned Halakha by issuing that ruling. Before setting out his specific arguments to address Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, Rabbi Allen includes an introductory chapter in his book in which he describes a range of differences between men and women. Picking up on a book by Stephen Pinker, The Blank Slate, Rabbi Allen staunchly defends traditional gender roles as mandated, in his view, by Halakha. But his support for this Halakhic view of the world is based on his conclusion that these observations about the capabilities of women apply much more generally than just in the religious sphere, even in today’s world. Women are best suited for the "task of caring for children." Judaism leaves men free to "tend to other worldly concerns" he concludes.

Recently, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, a 1,000 family synagogue in Toronto, has opened up the issue of the increased religious participation of women. Beth Tikvah is likely to put the issue to a vote shortly and may well join Beth Tzedek and Beth David as a Torah egalitarian Conservative synagogue. In doing so, it would reject the conclusions of its former rabbi, who vehemently opposed religious egalitarianism throughout his tenure at Beth Tikvah. The move will not make Beth Tikvah a fully egalitarian Synagogue – that is still likely to take a few more years. But it may spark other Toronto Conservative synagogues to reassess their positions and policies.

From this discussion of what is happening in the Conservative synagogues in one limited geographic location, it is easy to understand the tension in some parts of Israel. It is quite evident that those who would use the “traditional” view of Halakha as their guide towards how to deal with gender equality issues do not limit themselves to the religious sphere even though they often purport to do so. Hence the recent efforts by ultra-religious Jews to bar women from singing in public; to keep women at the back of the bus; and to prevent men from having to listen to women delivery speeches in public. Of course, the issue is more challenging in Israel because religious groups receive state funding and because the line between synagogue and state is blurred. However, where some of these religious groups have the opportunity to extend their views of the role of women to areas outside of the synagogue, the effect becomes clear.

It seems to me that if these Haredim were able to see women as equal in the synagogue, only then would they be able to respect the ability of women to function in any other social or professional capacity in society at large. As evident from what has been happening in Israel in Haredi areas and even in the written works of some conservative rabbis, the exclusion of women in the synagogue spills over and affects views of gender equality more generally.

This issue is not limited to Haredim, to Israel or to the Jewish community. It applies much more broadly. It is a issue facing Catholicism and Islam and other religious denominations. The line between religious freedom and tradition and gender equality is a core issue at the very heart of every contemporary liberal democracy.

Postscript: Added on February 8, 2012: It was just announced that the membership of Beth Tikvah Synagogue, held a "Special General Meeting" on February 7, 2012. More than 80% of the members at the meeting voted in favour of the Board's proposal. Beth Tikvah Synagogue is now officially "Torah Egalitarian."

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Coffee In Israel

The first few times I visited Israel in the 1980s, it was a struggle to find a decent cup of coffee. At the time, many Israelis drank "botz" ("mud"), which meant a cup of finely ground coffee prepared Arabic style in a small cup. Others drank "nescafe," used as a generic Hebrew word for any instant coffee. I wasn't a fan of either. There were a number of places where you could find a decent "cafe hafuch" (a latte) but it was a challenge.

The Starbucks chain thought this was a huge opportunity. They opened a number of cafes in Israel in 2001 but they were not successful. Israelis didn't particularly like Starbucks' burnt taste and found the coffee to be way overpriced. Starbucks wasn't interested in tailoring its menu to Israeli sensibilities and was not interested in investing heavily in marketing. It closed its six outlets in 2003.

But since the mid 90s, there has been an explosion in the growth of Israeli coffee chains and many of them offer fantastic coffee. It seems to me that these chains can also offer a good lesson to North Americans since they often offer high quality food to go along with the coffee.

Aroma Cafe is the largest chain in Israel with more than 120 cafes. Many, though not all of them are Kosher. They offer a range of European style coffees - lattes, capuccinos, espressos as well as some cold beverages. Aroma's real attraction is the excellent quality of the food that it offers to go along with the coffee. It has a range of salads and sandwiches on its menu which are mostly made up of fresh ingredients, breads baked on the premises and full nutritional information supplied at all of the restaurants. Each coffee comes with a signature chocolate, though the chocolates are all milk chocolates. I've always thought that Aroma would do better to offer the option of a piece of high quality bittersweet chocolate. The milk chocolates just aren't that tasty.

Aroma now has franchised locations in other countries as well. There are 7 in the Greater Toronto area and more are apparently planned. Picture something like a Second Cup or a Starbucks with slightly lower prices and a range of fresh, healthy food items. For now, the major Canadian and American upscale coffee chains have resisted providing a wide ranging, fresh, healthy food selection. Tim Hortons, at the other end of the spectrum has provided some great food but an entirely different type of coffee that is not in the same class. Chains like Aroma will give Canadian and American chains quite a bit of competition or will at least force them to consider adding decent food.

Another big chain in Israel is Arcaffe, with locations across the country. Arcaffe emphasizes the high end, Italian style quality of its coffee. It carries a range of espresso based beverages. The premises are usually a bit more upscale than Aroma and some have really nice outdoor seating areas. The Arcaffe breakfasts are great with fresh cheeses, warm toasted breads, a variety of spreads and eggs, made to order.

One of my favourite chains is Ilan's, which also does a brisk business selling pre-packaged whole beans and ground coffee. Like the other chains, Ilan's uses dark roasted Italian-style coffee but its coffee is slighly milder in taste than some of the other chains, though it is still quite full-bodied. The food menu is not as wide ranging though some of the Ilan's locations have a broader selection.

Other coffee chains in Israel include Cup O'Joe, Cafe Hillel, Cafe Neto, Cafe Cafe and a few others. These are all cafes with multiple locations in different cities. There are also many smaller establishments, modelled on European cafes that offer terrific coffee.

Overall, Israel has seen a huge growth in coffee culture and the proliferation of cafes across the country. The quality of the coffee is great and the days of having to settle for botz or *gasp* "nescafe" are long gone. The weather can also be quite conducive. Much of the year, the cafes are filled with Israelis sitting outside enjoying the coffee, the view, the weather and the bustle of the location, especially at the centrally located cafes.

Of course, sometimes its also nice to bring the fresh beans home and turn on the Gaggia...Inspired by a Toronto colleague, I'm trying to be a high quality barrista as well as barrister...My work is at the top of the article. The beans...from Ilan's.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

United Airlines - Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Newark Update

I flew back from Israel to Toronto on United Airlines (formerly Continental Airlines) recently and I wanted to add a bit more information about that flight. I wrote a blog about this in October(Continental: Tel-Aviv to Toronto via New Jersey - Review) Tel-Aviv and much of that blog is still relevant. But I thought I would add a few points, some of which might be repetitive.

First of all, one of main reasons for choosing United is that the flight times are much better than those of Air Canada. United leaves Tel-Aviv at 11:10 p.m. and arrives in Newark, New Jersey at about 4:30 a.m. There is a 6:20 connecting flight to Toronto, which arrives in Toronto about 7:45 a.m. If you can sleep on the plane, it's a lot better than spending all day from 12:30 p.m. (Israel time) to 6:30 p.m. (Toronto time) on the plane. It's very hard to get any sleep at all on these flight times.

Secondly, United is a full partner with the Aeroplan program. So you get the full points that you would have had if you had flown with Air Canada - even the bonus points. If you are Elite or Super Elite, you can access the lounge in Newark, get priority backage handling and priority boarding. The main drawback is that you cannot get an upgrade using the Air Canada eupgrades system. There is a way to use Aeroplan points to buy an upgrade but it is apparently very limited.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, United (still flying as Continental in my last blog about them), has an excellent personal entertainment system. It includes a huge selection of audio recordings, new and old as well has a huge selection of movies, new and old. It also has a pretty decent selection of games that you can play at no additional charge. Unlike Austrian Air's circa 1970s "Space Invaders," the games on United are pretty decent. Just don't forget to bring your own headphones or you will be nickel and dimed into paying a few dollars for a set. You will also have to pay if you want wine, beer or any other alcohol at any time during the flight. If you are looking for some free drinks on a flight, for now you have to stick to Air Canada or the European airlines.

Leaving Israel, you cannot buy any duty free alcohol, perfume, liquid or gels and take it on the plane with you if you are travelling to the U.S. This applies even if you are not transferring - just taking a direct flight. This time I read the sign and didn't buy anything. But many others must have missed the sign. There was quite a bit of commotion at the check-in counter as departing passengers fought with staff over whether they could board the plane with duty free items or surrender the items for confiscation. At the gate, staff were not conducting full bag inspections but were asking passengers "do you have any duty free or liquids or gels?" I'm not counseling any violations of law but it seems to me there must have been some passengers who purchased duty free and simply put it in their knapsacks and said "no" when asked the question. This is probably risky, since the duty free shop enters the ticket information when it sells the merchandise. All in all, it looks mainly like a protectionist measure to me, aimed at getting passengers to buy from the U.S. airlines on-board duty free shops.

The flight itself was fine, for a twelve-hour flight. The Kosher meal that I had was probably slightly better than its Air Canada counterpart. It looked like some kind of meatballs made out of chicken on a bed of curried rice but I can't really be sure. It was heated up properly and accompanied by some fresh fruit and a stale roll.

The real hassle with this flight is the changeover in the U.S. Arriving in Newark, you have to go through U.S. customs and immigration, pick up your luggage and then bring it to a check-in station. If you have a Nexus/GOES system pass, the customs and immigration line-up can be cleared very quickly. If you don't, you could be waiting for quite a while. After that, you have to take a train from terminal C to terminal A. The trains come quite quickly and are reasonably convenient. The third part of the process is going back through U.S. airport security to get to the departure gates. Here, there is no special line-up for frequent flyers, business class or people who just have a good contact (the quick way to get through security in Israel) everyone has to get in a very long line. As in other U.S. security locations, you have to take off your shoes, your belt and anything else you might be wearing that might have any metal in it. The process takes so much longer than Israeli security and my guess is that the U.S. airport security is much less effective.

The price was similar to other airlines. You can mix and match on-line and fly one way via the U.S. and the other way direct. This is a decent option. For example, you can fly to Toronto from Tel-Aviv overnight on either United Airlines or U.S. Air and then fly back on Air Canada, which is also an overnight flight. The U.S. Air flight is somewhat more comfortable than United Airlines but Continental provides more Aeroplan points.

The connecting flight from Newark to Toronto is only about an hour long. Our flight was delayed about an hour, which is probably a reasonably short delay for wintertime, even though there was no snow anywhere. Delays like this can always happen and are one of the drawbacks of a stopover rather than a direct flight.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Israeli President Shimon Peres Speaks at Conservative Conference in Israel

(Photo from

The Masorti Movement (Conservative Judaism) celeberated 35 years of activity in Israel tonight at a gala evening in Shefayim, Israel. More than 600 people attended from Conservative Synagogues and communities all over Israel. Various Rabbis and lay people were honoured at this festive evening.

Israeli President Shimon Peres accepted an invitation to deliver the keynote address at the conference. Immediately before he spoke, the choir "Shirat Machar" ("Song of Tomorrow") performed. Shirat Machar is a professionally coached choir made up of members of Noam (the Conservative youth movement in Israel). The choir is made up of young men and women from all over Israel. They perform a variety of music including Israeli popular music and some religious music. This type of performance has been attracting a great deal of publicity in the Israeli media lately, since there have been growing efforts by ultra-religious Jews in Israel to exclude women from singing in public.

Peres opened his comments, right after Shirat Machar finished, with a big smile and by noting that he had come to the conference expressly so that he could hear women singing. This was a direct shot at those ultra-religious fanatics who view this type of performance as a violation of Jewish law. Peres clearly set out a vision of gender equality that has no place for the exclusion of women or anyone else, in public, during army ceremonies or at any other time.

Peres went on to call for tolerance in a variety of other areas. He called on Israel to redouble its efforts to sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate a peace agreement. He emphasized the importance of minority religious rights, equality and democracy in Israel in every respect. He called on people of divergent religious views to find ways to live together, as they have for so many years, and to fight back against the militant minority that would create barriers between people of different views.

Peres has sometimes been called a dreamer, but the vision that he dreams is one of human dignity, peace, justice, tolerance and freedom. Commenting on the importance of Conservative Judaism and its roots, Peres described how Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the visionaries of Conservative Judaism, had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight against discrimination just days before King Jr. was murdered. He brought that history forward in describing the contributions that Conservative Judaism continues to make in Israel by pushing for tolerance, respect for the law, justice and genuine devotion to the State of Israel.

President Peres had to leave shortly after his speech. But he paused to take some photographs with Shirat Machar and to speak to its members briefly. Just after his speech, the choir performed a second, longer set, much to the delight of the gala guests. Shirat Machar came back after various awards were presented and after dinner to perform a third set, this time including a chain of Shlomo Artzi songs which was enthusiastically received.

The combination of President Peres and Shirat Machar at the conference emphasized some of the key values of the Conservative Movement. Justice, tolerance, religious pluralism and dignity as reflected in Peres' vision, set out in his speech; and the exuberant, energetic sound of youth, male and female, working together to build a better future as represented by Shirat Machar.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Protest in Jerusalem Uses Nazi Era Symbols

Israeli news outlets YNet News and Haaretz as well as Israeli radio and television stations have devoted extensive coverage to a rally by Ultra-Orthodox Jews (“Haredim”) on Saturday night. At the rally, the protesters were wearing yellow stars reminiscent of the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi German and occupied Europe. There were also protesters wearing striped pajamas as if they were imprisoned in concentration camps. Some of these Haredim dressed their children in Nazi-era clothing and had them raise their hands to copy the famous Warsaw Ghetto photo.

(Photo from Ynet News by Noam Moskovich)

What exactly has Israel done to cause these Haredim to make boisterous claims that they are being persecuted “in ways worse than the persecution under Nazi Germany?” Aside from the fact that the State of Israel provides funding to Yeshivoth (schools of Jewish learning), exemptions from military service, extensive welfare and medical coverage and many other benefits, the Haredim are particularly upset at the recent wave of protests throughout Israel against “hadarat nashim” – the “exclusion of women.” The right of the Haredim to treat women as second class citizens is sacrosanct and mandated by their religious beliefs, they argue. Any challenge to these views is state-imposed fanaticism that must be labeled “fascist.”

As I have described in other blogs, there has been growing media and public attention over the issue of gender equality in religious and ultra-religious communities. People have been begun to take issue with the existence of segregated buses in certain communities, sometimes even state funded, where women are forced to sit at the back of the bus; with the posting of signs requiring women to walk on a different side of the street than men; and with the pressure placed on the Israeli army by Haredi soldiers insisting that women not be permitted to sing at official events. In rallies across Israel, organizations such as “Israeli Chofshit” – “Free Israel” have hosted events at which men and women, politicians, citizens and Israelis from different backgrounds, religious and non-religious, have spoken out against gender discrimination. Looked at through the lens of gender equality, it is actually easy to single out those with the real “fascist” values.

Now, in what can only be described as a repulsive display, the Haredim have held a counter-demonstration protesting against these rallies as what they call the “exclusion of Haredim.” They argue that Israeli secular society is “waging war” on their way of life and taking away their right to practice their religious beliefs as they see fit. To make these arguments, they resort to the extreme comparison between themselves and Holocaust era Jews who were being rounded up, imprisoned and executed.

The use of Holocaust imagery for this purpose has sickened average Israelis, many of whom have family members or other friends or relatives who were Holocaust survivors. Many also feel quite outraged that their tax money is being used to provide state support for this medieval way of life which often runs counter to values of equality and freedom that Israel promotes as a progressive state. Ironically enough, it is these values of tolerance and equality, promoted primarily by secular society, that have allowed the Haredim to flourish in many parts of Israel.