Monday, July 29, 2013

Lost and Found in Israel

I was having one of those unlucky days yesterday where was starting to worry about my short term memory.   We took a cab from the Kotel to downtown Jerusalem.  A few minutes later I realized that I had lost my cell phone (and older model blackberry that I use in Israel).  I started wondering where I could have left it.  We dialed the number and the cab driver answered.  He said that he was on his way from Jerusalem to Bethlehem but that he would return to Jerusalem and meet up with us to give us back the phone.  I felt quite lucky and of course tipped him appropriately.  A cousin who was with me told me that if this had happened in Brooklyn, there was no chance I would ever see the phone again

Within the same hour or so, I realized I didn't have my sunglasses.  I started to think about it and decided that there was a chance I had left them at a fast food Shawarma place where we had eaten lunch.  Everyone figured that there was no chance they would still be there.  We had tickets to something in Jerusalem that would take about 45 minutes so I couldn't go back until after that.  I decided it was worth taking the chance and wandering back to Moshiko (one of my favourite Shawarma place in Israel) and having a look.  I asked the staff and sure enough, they handed me back my sunglasses.  Two for two - that was quite something.  My cousins were shocked again.

So was I just having a lucky day? Or are you more likely to recover a lost object in Israel?  Interesting question.

On the one hand, when we first arrived in Israel four years ago, our daugher left her camera on a park bench at a Tali event.  She was extremely upset, not so much with the loss of the camera, but with the loss of all of the pictures that she had taken.  We sent around an email to the Tali families and within a few hours someone called and returned the camera.  So even four years ago, we were pleasantly suprised that some people would go out of their way to help return a lost object.  And we have had other similar experiences since that time.

On the other hand, Israel certainly has its share of car thefts, house break-ins and other types of crime, just as you might find anywhere and sometimes more so.  I have to admit that I was quite surprised a few years ago when someone stole my dock shoes (of all the things to steal - and they weren't even new - they were fairly run down) at the Netanya beach - picked them up and ran off while I was rinsing myself off after a swim in the sea.   I had to make my way up the huge number of stone steps from the beach with no footwear in extremely hot temperatures.  It was a painful experience.

A cousin of ours shared a more shocking story with us.  He was in a store in Rehovot and some guy asked him if he could borrow his cell phone to call his wife.  He said his battery died.  He made a call and stood there talking (or pretending to talk).  Then suddenly, he ran out of the store with the phone (an iphone) - in the middle of the day.  My cousin ran after him but it was too late - he was gone.  

Just last week, another friend of ours had her cell phone removed from her pocket while she was on a bus.  And there are many similar stories of smart phone theft.

So I have no way of suggesting that cell phones or any other possessions are safer or less subject to theft in Israel.  Perhaps the opposite is the case.  And Israeli thieves might be even more chutzpadik than you might expect in their modus operendi.

But we have had at least three postive experiences where we have lost items that we did not expect to get back and all three have been returned.  

The statistical sample is probably too small to be able to draw any conclusions.  But three for three is a fairly good track record.  For what it's worth, I do have a sense, for reasons that I cannot necessarily pinpoint, that the average Israeli, individual or family, is somewhat more likely to return something that they find (or try to help find the owners) than the average person or family in many other countries.  My personal experience with lost and found has been relatively limited (a handful of occurences) but to this point, it has supported, quite pleasantly, my optimistic and hopeful assessment of expectations.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Israel Elects Two New Chief Rabbis - More of the Same

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."
Rabbi David Lau and RabbiYitzhak Yosef
After a hotly contested election, 150 electors in Israel chose two new Chief Rabbis yesterday, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi, both Ultra-Orthodox ("Haredim"). During the course of the campaign, leading up to this vote, some Israelis had been optimistic that Israel might elect more moderate, Zionist, Chief Rabbis, like Rabbi David Stav. Rabbi Stav was supported by the Yeish Atid and Bayit Yehudi parties and promised a variety of institutional and substantive changes.

However, when the dust cleared and the results were announced, it became clear that this was a significant defeat for the forces of change in Israel's Chief Rabbinate. The elected Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, is the son of former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau (the subject of my recent book review). Newly elected Rabbi Lau is an ultra-religious Rabbi who was serving in Modin. The elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi, ultra-religious Yitzhak Yosef, is the son of powerful, well known Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Neither rabbi can be considered a progressive force in any significant way.

Over the course of the campaign, the outgoing Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was placed under house arrest on suspicion of bribery. Another candidate dropped out of the race on suspicion of fraud. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, father of the winning Sephardi candidate, made several outrageous statements over the course of the campaign, questioning the Jewishness of some of the more Zionist candidates. The strategy may have paid off as Rabbi Yosef's son wound up winning the Sephardi race, proving that even in a race for a religious office, mudslinging can be an effective political strategy.

The two chief rabbis were elected for a combined 10 year term during which they will hold one of two offices for five years each. They will have a major say and significant control over many personal status matters in Israel including marriage, divorce, conversions, kosher food in Israel, and other religious issues. These two winners are unlikely to bring about any major reforms or changes to these isues in Israel according to several commentators.

For some, Rabbi David Stav, a challenger for the Ashkenazi position, a more moderate candidate, and one who was supported by two of Israel's centrist political parties, seemed to provide some hope that Israel would begin to take a different approach to some religious issues. However, his defeat shattered any ideas that the office of the Chief Rabbinate would be ready for significant internal reform.

But perhaps this may have been a blessing in disguise. Since a clear message was delivered that no internal reform is likely to occur anytime soon, there may be increased support for a political approach to the problem of unchecked, abused power exercised by the office of the Chief Rabbinate. Commentators and newspapers in Israel, as well as various advocacy organizations, have called for a move towards the separation of shul and state - or at least towards a significant reduction in the powers of the chief rabbis. The election of a moderate Chief Rabbi might have diffused some of these calls. But instead, with the election of two Haredi rabbis, Israelis may become increasingly vociferous in their calls for a new approach to the issue of religion and the state.

Naftali Bennett, a cabinet minister and the head of the Bayit Hayehudi party has already stated that it is the political parties who can determine the need for change to the office of the Chief Rabbinate and not only the elected rabbis. He can certainly find support for these views from Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party.

|So it may well turn out the by electing two very conservative chief rabbis, the delegate group may have accelerated the demand for changes to the Chief Rabbi's office, to be carried out by Israel's political parties rather than the rabbis themselves. Given the alternatives, this could only be a tremendous step in the right direction for Israel for those who favour a more progressive approach to Judaism. But it will be a tough battle to try to move this type of change forward, even for those who currently hold significant political power in the Israeli parliament - the Knesset.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

El Al Review

El Al is Israel's national airline.  It's motto for the past few years in Hebrew has been "הכי בבית בעולם" which translates, approximately to "the most at-home-in the world."  It is a great slogan that evokes a certain feeling of  loyalty, family and nostalgia, which resonates with many Israelis.  Certainly El Al creates the feeling of entering Israel as soon as you reach the check-in counter from wherever in the world you might be flying.

For the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, El Al and Air Canada are the only two airlines that fly direct, non-stop.  So for those looking for the most direct, easiest way to get to Israel from Toronto, there are only two choices.  With respect to pricing, El Al is competitive and can often be significantly cheaper than Air Canada.  It also seems to me that there are still more "deals" to be had with El Al by negotiating with agents and other non-web ticket sellers.  With Air Canada, agents will often sell the tickets at a higher price than the price available on various web sites.

El Al is a member of the One World alliance which includes American Airlines, British Airways, Iberia, Finnair and WestJet to name a few.  El Al's own mileage program is called the Matmid program.  It allows you to collect points for flights and save up for bonus flights, upgrades and other benefits.  I am not going to get into the details of it but, overall, it is geared towards Israelis who are travelling frequently to a variety of destinations.  For a North American or someone travelling back and forth between Israel and North America, the benefits are not at all comparable to something like the Aeroplan program (now renamed Altitude) or the programs of many other airlines.  Some people might prefer to join the British Airways or American Airlines program and collect the points for an El Al flight through one of those other programs.

I have flown El Al quite a number of times over the past 30 years and it is fair to say that it has improved greatly.  One of the improvements is the check-in process.  There is available web check-in, which is highly recommended, especially when-leaving Israel.  This can save quite a bit of time.  The in-flight service has also improved significantly. The flight attendants are now generally polite, friendly and helpful.

However, some aspects of El Al service have remained quite outdated and are in great need of an update.  On the Toronto-Tel-Aviv route, there are no personal entertainment systems.  There are a few main screens for all the passengers.  There are a limited number of personal entertainment devices that can be rented but these are in short supply.  Whether using one of these devices or relying on the main screen the entertainment selection is fairly limited.  For the audio selection, there are about 10 different channels, of which two are reserved for the main screen.  You can catch up on some of the latest Israeli pop music on one of the stations, some Israeli "mizrahi" music (Mediterranean influenced music) on another channel or you can listen to a religious channel.  This is a unique aspect of flying El Al since none of the other airlines offer Hebrew entertainment on their routes to Israel. 

The El Al audio can be interesting for an hour or two, but overall, the best advice when flying El Al is to bring your own entertainment - books, audio devices, tablets or whatever else you might need.  This is a long flight - almost 11 hours on the way to Israel and sometimes, close to 13 hours on the way back to Toronto.   The lack of a reasonable entertainment system contrasts greatly with airlines like Air Canada, United, Lufthansa and others that can feature hundreds of movies and audio selections.

The food on El Al is all Kosher, so it is nice not to have to order a special meal on a flight.  But even though it may be Kosher, that does not mean it is tasty...On a recent flight from Tel-Aviv to Toronto the first meal was a choice of three options - beef, chicken or fried fish.  I went with the chicken and it was extremely dry and for the most part inedible.  The second meal on the flight (a flight of more than 12 hours) was a choice of an omelet or a salad...I took the omelet and it was quite brutal.  I guess I`ll try different options the next time and maybe I`ll have better luck.

Passengers on El-Al feel free to wander around the plane and chat with their fellow passengers.  There are often many groups travelling and there are many Israelis on the flights so there is a certain homey feeling to an El Al flight.  It also might be the only plane with a regular minyan (Jewish prayer quorum) at the back of the plane.  Many of the rules that some of the other airlines might try to follow - including orderly embarkment and disembarkment from the plane are dispensed with on El Al to help create that Israeli cultural milieu - or simply as a result of it.  

On the plus side, El Al has a second-to-none track record in areas of safety and security.  Flying El Al is, in some respects, reassuring, knowing that every possible step is being taken to ensure the safety of the passengers.  This is apparently very costly for the airline and helps explain why El Al has had to cut corners on other aspects of its operations.

For those who are flying regularly between Tel-Aviv and Toronto, it would be hard to justify flying El Al over Air Canada in light of the many benefits of the Aeroplan Altitude program, if the price is remotely similar.  But for people flying less frequently and looking for a direct flight at a reasonable price, El Al can often be significantly cheaper than Air Canada and that alone may make an El Al flight worthwhile.

I hope that in the coming years El Al will look at some of these issues and try to address them.  Maybe it could offer worldwide wi-fi access at a reasonable price.  If passengers pay to use it, it may not be such a huge cost for the airline.  This is something that some other airlines have been discussing though I am not sure that it is currently being offered by anyone other than Lufthansa.  This would help offset the deficiencies of El Al's current entertainment system.  Or perhaps it could revamp its Matmid program entirely and make it more like the programs offered by some of the world`s better airlines.  Ideally, of course, it would completely revamp its in-flight entertainment system and give each passenger a personal screen and an electricity outlet.  However, it is probably too much to expect wholesale changes to the interior of the planes, due to the costs involved.  But El Al should be able to find some ways to move its passenger experience from the 1980s to the present day, especially since the flights are so long.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Out of the Depths: Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau - a Review

On my lengthy flight back to Toronto, I had the chance to read Out of the Depths, as it is named in its English version, the memoirs of Israel's former chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau.  Rabbi Lau's life story includes his harrowing, heart wrenching and, at times, miraculous survival from the Buchenwald concentration camp and his liberation from that camp at the age of 8 years old.  Rabbi Lau recounts stories of the murder of his family members and the way in which his heroic brother saved his life and watched over him until the Nazis were finally defeated.  He managed to survive Buchenwald as one of its youngest survivors.  This section of the book is compelling and challenging, like many of the stories of other Holocaust survivors. 

The book then shifts over to Rabbi Lau's  yeshiva upbringing and his encounters with many of Israel's great rabbis as he grew up in the nascent State of Israel during a time in which the newly established country was struggling for its existence.  He provides various glimpses into the world of yeshiva learning and the mindset of many of the yeshiva students and teachers.  As the book wends its way through Rabbi Lau's ascent to the highest rabbinic position in Israel, it covers a number of different talmudic commentaries, midrash stories and siddur quotes that are interwoven into the Rabbi's life story, just as his historical background is woven into the very fabric of his everyday life.  Along the way, Rabbi Lau discusses the influence of and interaction he had with many different rabbis, ranging from his own teachers and mentors to other world-famous rabbis including the Rebbe of Gur and the Lubavitch Rebbe. 

The later parts of the book begin to discuss various encounters that Rabbi Lau had with Israeli and world leaders including Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Elie Wiesel, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, King Hussein, Karim Abdul-Jabbar and others. Some of the meetings and dicussions that are recounted are fascinating though this part of the book has less of flow to it and is somewhat disjointed.

The book generates some very difficult questions, theological, historical and existential, which continue to bubble after one finishes the book.  How does someone grapple with the theological questions posed by the Holocaust and the murder of six million of our people?  What motivated Rabbi Lau to maintain his belief system and commit himself to a life of "God-fearing" observance and practice after living through the horror of the Nazi period and seeing so many people, so many good people, murdered?  His parents, uncles, aunts and so many other family members were all destroyed along with the Jewish community in Piotrkow, Poland.

One part of the answer that emerges is Rabbi Lau's desire the fulfill his mission and continue an unbroken historical chain.  As the 38th generation of a chain of rabbis going back to year 1000 C.E., Rabbi Lau sees himself as destined to play a role in Jewish continuity.  His father urged his older brother to do all that he could to protect him and Rabbi Lau's brother, Naphtali, followed his father's wishes in awe-inspiring fashion. Rabbi Lau's miraculous survival must have been providently ordained, the book seems to suggest.

Another answer that emerges, the justification of many observant Jews, is the steadfast commitment to continue Jewish observance, custom and heritage in the face of such a large scale destruction of the Jewish community.  In other words, the refusal to grant the Nazis a posthumous victory by allowing the observant Jewish community to vanish.

But I have to confess that I was left with more questions than answers in reconciling some of these aspects of Rabbi Lau's book and his story.  As Rabbi Lau arrived in Israel, as a young boy, the other immigrants to Israel, all around him were caught in an existential struggle.  They served in Israel's armed forces, built Israel's infrastructure and developed so much of the basis for Israel's economy and other systems that were so crucial at this time period.  It is unclear what involvement he had with this whole struggle that Israel faced (and continues to face) though Rabbi Lau does include stories of pastoral visits to soldiers during times of war.  Rabbi Lau recounts some of his special victories during this time period, including his successful fight to prevent public transportation in certain areas of Haifa on Shabbat (the Sabbath) and to ban the importation of non-kosher meat to Israel.  Later in the book, he cites his success in consolidating some of the powers of the Israeli chief rabbinate and centralizing much of its authority.  Throughout the book, he makes it clear that he was always a staunch Zionist and that he would not leave Israel to accept a posting in another country, even temporarily.  

While shaping and developing the Israeli chief rabbinate and working to further the development of yeshivas and orthodox Judaism throughout Israel are certainly a laudable legacy,  they do bring to the fore one of the central political issues that the Israeli government is wrestling with today.  The world Rabbi Lau describes of 24-6 yeshiva study and stringent observance of halacha is devoid of any discussion of how any of the people Rabbi Lau enountered earned a living or contributed to the material side of Israeli society, other than through teaching Torah.  As this army of yeshiva-educated students swelled in Israel, the state became increasingly challenged by the question of how to ensure that these students could provide for themselves and contribute to Israeli society with their total lack of exposure to non-religious educational pursuits.  This question emerged in Israel's most recent election as one of the more pressing questions that Israel faces.

Another issue that I should point out (given the content and types of articles that I have regularly included here) is Rabbi Lau's attitude towards women.  Of course, there is little written about this topic in this work but that in itself speaks volumes.  Very few women are mentioned in this book and even fewer are discussed in any detail.  Certainly Rabbi Lau's mother played an enormous role in his life and made decisions that likely saved his life.  But Rabbi Lau seems much more dedicated to preserving the rabbinical legacy of his father, whose works are mentioned and discussed repeatedly throughout the book.  Later, Rabbi Lau's journey to find a spouse seems much more of an effort to find the appropriate rabbinical family with whom he could build an alliance rather than any focus on the character, personality or qualities of his future wife.  Indeed, Rabbi Lau's father-in-law, Rabbi Yitzhak Yedidya Frankel, seems to play the role of the father figure that Rabbi Lau lost so early on in his life.  There is far more discussion of Rabbi Frankel and the role he played in Rabbi Lau's life than of Rabbi Lau's wife or any role she may have played.

In a sense, it is difficult to criticize Rabbi Lau for this since this is the lifestyle, culture and tradition in the very observant Orthodox community.  But in Israel, a society in which so many women (including many observant women) were playing active roles as politicians, professionals, activists and army personnel in other communities, Rabbi Lau's world, viewed through the lens of his book, seems to be one in which the only role women play is the role of arranged spouse and mother.  While I do not doubt the contribution so many of these women have made to Jewish continuity and to their families, I could not help but consider whether this model of society, if had been dominant, would have even permitted Israel to become established, let alone to flourish.  Is a pre-medieval social structure really a viable and  appropriate way to structure a 21st century society?  Even with Rabbi Lau's great success in becoming Israel's chief rabbi, I was left with many difficult questions after reading this memoir of his life. 

Rabbi Lau's life is an incredible story of the unlikely journey from Holocaust survivor to Chief Rabbi.  This book provides great insights into the world of yeshiva learning in Israel and the world views of Israel's very observant and ultra-orthodox communities.  It also leaves the reader with a great number of thought provoking questions and challenges, many of which are probably unanswerable.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Punctured Tire? Moshe Lis Tire Repair at Tzomet Ra'anana

We realized that we had a punctured tire this morning though the tire was only partially deflated.  Of course this ruined our mid-day plans.  But more importantly, we started worrying about the potential costs of replacing the tire or getting it repaired.  This was not the first time this has happened to us so we had a rapair shop in mind.

We drove over to Moshe Lis tires, located at the southeast corner of Tsommet Ra'anana (the Ra'anana-K'far Saba junction (09)7431395).  We were met quite promptly by one of the staff.  With a quick glance at the tire, he let us know that we had a nail in the tire and that he could fix it in no time.

He pulled the tire off, pulled out the nail, fixed the tire and filled the air in all four tires - in less than 10 minutes, which included, of course, a mandatory water immersion diagnostic test to ensure that the tire had been properly repaired.

The bill?  45 N.I.S. or about $12.50 including the tax.  I'm not sure I could have even bought a coffee at a Toronto area tire repair shop while waiting to have a tire repaired - at that price.  The service was quick, efficient and, most importantly, accurate.   This was really, probably, the least painful car repair I can remember going through in many years.

I am told by a very close personal source (who has used Moshe Lis several times) that they will come within 10 minutes to just about any location in the Hasharon region of Israel and fix a tire at the same price.

I have no relationship with these folks - other than as an arm's length customer - but I have to say I was quite impressed with the service, the process and the value.  In fact, we even felt that we had to provide a tip to the guy who did all the work.  I'm not totally sure whether this was appropriate or not but he didn't seem to mind.

Unfortunately, if you are stuck with a flat tire elsewhere in the country, the general expectation is that you will change the tire and get it repaired yourself, even if you are driving a vehicle that you have rented from one of Israel's major rental companies.  If you are here as a tourist, you certainly would not expect to dail a 1-800 number and have a CAA equivalent show up within 15 minutes.

But that is all a digression for visitors.  Moshe Lis is really for those who live in or are staying in the Ra'anana-Herzliah-Hod Hasharon area and find themselves needing a quick tire repair.  Based on the few times that we have used their services, it is difficult to see how another shop would do a better job.