Thursday, December 29, 2011

Barbecuing in Israel: Charcoal or Gas?

When people invite someone for a barbecue in Israel, it is often a big ordeal. Referred to as “al-ha-aish,” a barbecue evening is often more a drawn out social event than simply a meal. For many Israelis, the preferred grill is a charcoal grill. Reminiscent of ancient hunter-gatherer societies, the men will often gather around the grill, ready to display their masculinity by getting the flame roaring without using any starter fluid or cubes. Instead they will use some sort of makeshift fan to fan the flames and help get the fire going. In the supermarket, you can buy a big plastic hand (a “nuff-nuff”) that you can use to help with this process. The host will often prepare copious quantities of meat – including everything from chicken wings, kebabs, hamburgers and chicken steaks to fine beef steaks, often spiced with succulent Middle Eastern flavours. But don’t expect an early dinner. I have been invited to a number of barbecue evenings that have been called for 7 p.m. where dinner was finally ready around 10:30 p.m. Personally, I have learned to get a charcoal grill started quite quickly, though I use large quantities of lighter fluid. Even so, charcoal barbecues can take up a great deal of time.

Barbecues are quite popular in Israel on national holidays. On Yom Haatzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day, parks and beach areas are filled with families making charcoal barbecues for large groups. I have been to many barbecue events, even hosted by religious families on Pesach and Sukkot as well as other holidays. It can be quite fun and the result can be some very tasty food, but it’s often a long process.

(Photo taken from Shawarma Mayor's Blog - notice the Nuff-Nuff?)

Recently, gas grills have become more common place in Israel. The prices of these grills however are obscenely high. Grills can run as much as 5 or 6 times the prices of comparable barbecues in Canada or the U.S. and many of the better types are simply not available. Although this is partially due to State-imposed duties, the barbecue prices are way out of sync with the type of mark-ups that can be found on other items.

So I decided to bring over an in-between grill on one of my recent trips. People making Aliyah or otherwise bringing a container to Israel can bring along a large grill from North America. You should make sure you will be living somewhere with access to a yard or a large balcony on which grilling is permissible. The weight of these large grills makes it prohibitively expensive to bring them by plane so it makes sense to bring them by ship. But a portable grill is a different story.

I picked up a Weber Q-220 in Canada – which was within the allowable weight limit for one of my trips back to Israel. The grill sells for about $200-$225 in the U.S. or about $280 plus HST in Canada. Canadians can use about 33,000 Aeroplan points to buy one (taxes included). In Israel, the same grill sells for between 2,000 and 2,200 N.I.S. or about $570 to $630 Canadian. It can be bought with a stand and is really quite portable.

There is no problem at Israeli customs since the grill sells for around $200 which is the legally permissible limit for importing appliances and other items into Israel. But, what I hadn’t realized was that the propane tanks in Israel (and Europe) differ in size, shape and gas mixture from those in North America.

I spoke to the "kind" folks at Weber Israel who have the exclusive import rights for Weber grills. They told me that the grill was totally different and I could only use the barbecue in Israel to “hold a plant” since it couldn’t be modified. This turned out to be completely false information, though it had me worried for a little while.

I phoned around and found a store named “Nuni” in Gedera. They said that they would simply have to change the internal gas nozzle (connected to the burner) and the hose attachment and the barbecue would be all set to work in Israel. They charge 100 N.I.S. to do these adaptations and 400 (about $112 Canadian) N.I.S. for a new 5 kg. propane/butane tank. Apparently it costs 100 (about $28 Cdn) N.I.S. to refill the tank each time. They did this quickly and demonstrated that the unit worked at their shop. They also modify larger North American grills for Israeli use at reasonable prices.

So I now have the Weber Q220 working at home and I am ready to invite some people over for a barbecue. Of course with a gas barbecue, we can call the dinner party for 7:30 and eat at 7:45 or 8 p.m. We’ll miss out on the ritual of getting the fire started (and using the nuff-nuff) and maybe we’ll miss some of the charcoal taste but we’ll have lots more time to spend drinking wine or scotch or just schmoozing while the food is cooked in a fraction of the time. Sure the food might not taste quite as good as if it was cooked over charcoal, but I have always used gas grills and generally enjoyed them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Aeroplan Changes for 2012-13: Elite Status is being Downgraded

Air Canada’s Aeroplan has announced significant changes to its frequent flyer program for the 2012-13 year. The gist of the changes is that benefits are being scaled back significantly for “Elite” Aeroplan travellers.

One of the great things about flying Air Canada between Tel-Aviv and Toronto was the fact that you could gain “Elite” Air Canada status with just about 3 round-trip flights. Up until now (and until February 28, 2013), this has meant a number of great benefits – including being able to check 3 bags, access to lounges around the world, and, most importantly, being able to upgrade to business class, subject to availability, from any fare.

These “Elite” benefits meant that Air Canada flyers that flew 35,000 miles in a year would be treated as “Gold” card holders across the Star Alliance system, which includes Lufthansa, Austrian, Continental, United, US Air and many other airlines.

Apparently, some of the other airlines were not too happy with this since it meant that it was easier to qualify for this Gold status on Air Canada than on other Star Alliance members. So, Aeroplan has now released information about a range of changes. For the 2012-13 year, the “Elite” flyers with 35,000 miles will be downgraded to “Silver” status. They will lose automatic international lounge access and will no longer be able to upgrade on international travel to business class from low cost fares. Lounge access will still be available as an option at the expense of other benefits.

Aeroplan has added in two new classifications to replace the 35,000 category. Members accumulating 50,000 miles (4.5 round trip flights between Toronto and Tel-Aviv) will be treated as “Gold” and will get lounge access and the ability to upgrade, even on international flights. The main benefit they will lose, which the “Elite” members previously had, is getting a bonus of 1.5 Aeroplan miles for each mile flown. Members earning 75,000 miles (a bit less than 7 trips) will more or less be treated the same way as Elite members are being treated until February 28, 2012.

Overall, it appears that people with 35,000 miles a year will now need to travel about 75,000 miles a year to get all the same benefits. The 100,000 mile travellers (“Super Elite”) will still be treated the same as will the 25,000 mile travellers. For anyone travelling back and forth to Israel less than 5 times in a year, this will make Air Canada somewhat less attractive than it is currently. When combined with the fact that all of Air Canada’s 12 hour return trips to Toronto from Tel-Aviv leave at 12:30 p.m. (rather than in the evening), it may be worthwhile to reconsider El Al or some other options with a stopover such as Continental or US Air. For now, Air Canada and El Al still provide free headphones and free wine (Kosher and non-Kosher on Air Canada), which is something the U.S. airlines no longer include but this will probably be changing shortly as well.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The God Who Hates Lies by David Hartman - A Discussion

I spent Shabbat appropriately by reading David Hartman’s latest book, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition. Hartman, who recently turned 80, is an Orthodox Rabbi who moved to Israel in 1971 and founded the Shalom Hartman Institute. He moved from Montreal where he had been serving as the Rabbi of an Orthodox Congregation. The Shalom Hartman Institute is self-described as a “center of transformative thinking and teaching that addresses the major challenges facing the Jewish people and elevates the quality of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.” One of Hartman’s sons, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is the current president of the Institute. Hartman’s daughter, Tova, is one of the founders of Shira Hadasha, an egalitarian Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem.

The God Who Hates Lies is partly an autobiographical spiritual journey tracing the time that Hartman spent in Orthodox Yeshivas growing up to his experiences as a pulpit Rabbi. But the book then turns to Hartman’s development of his own theological outlook. Exposed to a range of ideas at Fordham University and Yeshiva University, Hartman began to contemplate how to reconcile the traditional view of revelatory halakha (Jewish law) with the realities of a modern world, while still within an Orthodox Jewish framework. Three particular issues seem to have caught his attention.

The first is the issue of gender equality in Judaism, brought to his consciousness most dramatically by his daughter. “A persistent, committed and sharply insightful evaluation of how these issues were treated by much of the halakhic and Orthodox theological world revealed to me how inadequate the tradition had been in dealing with such a fundamental challenge.” Hartman concludes that he could not justify the continued Orthodox exclusion of women from a minyan (from being counted as part of the 10 person quorum required for Jewish prayer). How can a woman, for example, who is trusted in the courtroom or the hospital, or any other profession or occupation in society at large, be treated with the same status limitations as a child or a slave in the synagogue?

Hartman’s second area of concern relates to the interaction with the non-Jewish world and with traditional Orthodox views of non-observant and secular Jews, non-Jews and would be converts. As in the case with gender equality issues, Hartman challenges the traditional Orthodox notions of interaction in these areas.

Thirdly, Hartman seeks to reposition the centrality of the role of the State of Israel as a key aspect of the rebirth of the Jewish people and with a dynamic and changing role in the development of halakha in a vibrant way that is not stagnant and mired in the past. His book is particularly scornful of ultra-religious (Haredi) communities which are anti-Zionist, refuse to serve in the army, participate in the development of the State and contribute to the economic well-being of Israel. He views their interpretation of Jewish law as unchanging, divinely revealed and impervious to the outside world as fundamentally dangerous to the growth and development of the Jewish people over the long term.

The book addresses each of these areas in some detail. It canvasses many of Judaism’s great thinkers and their respective views of the nature of Jewish Law. It then moves to Hartman’s view of halakha as a “communally mediated religious system dedicated to seeking God’s presence in every aspect of life,” which is defined as having different ways in which it can function. Although it can be viewed in traditional fashion, as an obligatory legal system, Hartman proposes that it can also be viewed as an educational system. In either case, Hartman arrives at certain core problems where present-day normative halakha meets moral challenges that do not appear to be answered appropriately in the modern world.

Certainly, some questions come to mind when assessing Hartman’s approach. What is the source of the morality upon which he relies to question the morality of some current halakhic difficulties? It may be tautological. Or it may be that the exposure to present day values of equality and other aspects of liberalism trump, in Hartman’s mind, some halakhic ideas that hearken back to a time of many hundreds of years earlier.

The most problematic issues that Hartman addresses relate to the role of women. Whether Hartman is discussing the plight of the aguna (a divorced Jewish woman whose ex-husband has not agreed to grant her a divorce certificate and therefore cannot remarry under Jewish law) or the halakhic failings of Jewish legal approaches to women in family life, ritual life and even public life, Hartman is not content to accept traditional Orthodox views in these areas. He discusses the historically accepted concept of gender inequality in Judaism and takes issue with various apologetic rabbis and authors who have sought to justify this inequality. He calls on the need for women to be “initiators, conquerors and builders – even of themselves” starting with their own direct access to the mechanisms of culture, the sacred tradition.

In a concluding chapter entitled “The God Who Hates Lies: Choosing Life in the Midst of Uncertainty,” Hartman speaks about the need to continue to develop the authentic Israeli public that is dealing with halakhic issues in a relevant and modern way. A quintessential Zionist, Hartman devotes much of the final chapter to a discussion of the way in which the State of Israel can and does play a central role in defining the face of the Jewish world. Hartman’s quest, as embodied by the goals of his institute is to embrace of vision of Jewish law which responds to the “shifting cultural landscapes of our ever-emerging historical drama.”

Though the book falls short in presenting concrete proposals for dealing with many of these vexing issues in a way that might be considered acceptable in Orthodox circles (that may not be possible today), it is quite an interesting read. Theologically, as some critics have maintained, it probably positions Hartman very close to Conservative Judaism but Hartman does not make that leap. For example, he does not expressly call for fully egalitarian, mixed seating prayer services in his book, which would be the logical response to the questions he poses. However, he does offer a level of respect to non-Orthodox Jewish denominations that is all too often sorely absent.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - a Review

I had the chance to read Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson last week on a lengthy flight. The book doesn’t really fit this blog thematically but I figure there are a few tie-ins. For one thing, I was able to get through this 571 page book on a 12 hour Air Canada day time flight between Israel and Canada. My other tie-in is more personal. Much of the book deals with Jobs at work and the manner in which he dealt with his employees, partners, co-workers and even family members. As an employment lawyer, these are the types of issues that I regularly address so I figured that this was another reason I should write about this book.

Early on, Isaacson includes a great deal of discussion about Jobs’ rebellious and anti-authoritarian nature. Jobs loved to play practical jokes on classmates, friends and teachers. (Does this sound familiar?). One of my favourite stories is the time Jobs and some friends came up with the idea of a “bring your favourite pet to school day” and proceeded to plan and advertise it without official sanction just to create chaos at school for a day with dogs and cats chasing each other around.

As a product of the times of the late 60s and early 70s, Jobs greatly enjoyed Bob Dylan music and dropping acid (LSD). He traveled to India to visit gurus and came back to North America wandering around barefoot as a vegan and self-described “fruitarian” at times. For a while, he apparently believed that with this type of diet, he would not develop body odour and could avoid regular bathing. People around him did not agree and were forced to raise this with him.

Even though this book was an "authorized" biography, Isaacson does not bury the unsavoury aspects of Jobs’ character, particularly the way he dealt with people around him. Some of these stories resonated with me, both as an employment lawyer who often hears similar stories and as someone who has worked with these types of outrageous characters. Jobs cheated his partners and employees out of money he owed them; he publicly humiliated his employees and colleagues, calling their ideas stupid (and worse) and heaped all sorts of abuse on them. He generally treated those around him in shockingly horrible fashion with nothing but contempt reserved for those he thought of as intellectually inferior.

Yet on more than one occasion, Isaacson explains away or otherwise excuses this behaviour. He writes that Jobs’ employees understood that he was building a list of exclusively “A list” employees and that this was his way of pushing those around him to work harder and achieve more. He suggests that the employees understood this and were happy with the trade-off. Those who were not up to the task or could not put up with Jobs were dismissed or quit.

In later sections of the book, Isaacson refers to Jobs as a “magical genius.” This is a recurrent theme, echoing the quote attributed to Leo Durocher that "nice guys finish last.” In other words, Isaacson seem to back the idea that the ultimate achievements of Jobs and of Apple overshadow any indiscretions in Jobs’ conduct or treatment of others. It is not expressly stated this way by Isaacson, but Isaacson’s message comes through quite clearly. It is one of the recurrent themes of the book. Do great accomplishments excuse or justify everything else?

I found the development of Apple and the treatment of many of the historical events in Apple’s history to be quite riveting. Whether dealing with how Jobs and Apple took advantage of Xerox early on, Jobs’ role in building Pixar or how Jobs personally oversaw and negotiated key aspects of iTunes, including his personal meeting with record industry executives and celebrity artists to get the rights to music for iTunes, much of this history is quite fascinating. Jobs’ successful efforts to persuade U2, Bob Dylan and ultimately even the Beatles to permit access to their musical catalogues are interesting and at times exciting.

As the book progresses and Isaacson deals with the newer Apple technology – the iPhones and then the iPads, there is a palpable sense of awe with these products with little critical assessment. After reading these chunks of the book, I began feeling the urge to run out and get an iPad II, and maybe even an iPhone as well (I have currently been using a blackberry)(I haven't done this yet...). Isaacson seems to blindly accept Jobs’ assessment that “Android (Google's competing operating system) is crap” and that Apple is on the right track in pushing the fully integrated closed system. Although this method has greatly benefited Apple to this point, it is not clear that the continuation of this type of system will allow Apple to hold the #1 spot indefinitely over Google or other tech companies.

It seems to me that the debate is much more complicated than that described in the book. Google has made and continues to make great strides with its “open” system. The Google type system may well be doing much more for human scientific advancement and technological access than Apple even though the wide range of different Google compatible products necessarily leads to a great variation in quality.

At the outset, I hadn’t really been sure that I wanted to read this book but it had received so much publicity that I decided I had to pick it up when I saw it in Costco. I found much of it quite interesting and generally enjoyed the story. It is well written (although at times a bit choppy, reflecting the speed of at which the book was published after Jobs died). It raises a number of issues and themes for discussion including the role of art and design in technology; different methods of invention; the purpose of technology itself and how to gauge what the public needs or wants; and whether success in business overrides everything, including morality and human kindness. On this last point, there are few, if any stories throughout the book detailing acts of kindness, generosity or goodwill on Jobs' part. Particularly given Job's enormous wealth, this is quite a disappointing indictment.

As well, the books details Jobs’ very difficult and ultimately losing battle with cancer. Very personal aspects of his illness and his treatment are examined including his decision to avoid surgery when cancer was first discovered and somehow hope that he could "will it away."

Jobs’ lifelong sense of personal abandonment is analyzed and traced to the fact that he had been an adopted child. This is used as another justification for Jobs' behaviour towards others. Yet this sense of abandonment did not prevent Jobs from doing the same thing when he was 23 – fathering a child and abandoning her. For a lengthy time period, Jobs denied paternity, even after a DNA test was conducted and showed a very high likelihood that this was his daughter. Ultimately, Jobs relented and provided assistance but his overall level of interaction with this daughter was relatively low.

The book returns to the clash between the openly rebellious youth of Jobs and the kinds of things he accessed and benefited from (His early “hacking” involvement with Steve Wozniak was in creating a machine that would crack telephone company codes and allow people to make free long distance calls) to his ultimate arrival at an end-to-end series of products, presented to users as a fait accompli with little room for innovation or challenge or the kind of questioning and hacking that Jobs embraced when he was younger. The limited range of options available in Apple products and the very limited ability for users to change the devices are reflective of Jobs' desire for control over everything with which he was involved from the employees and contacts with whom he worked to the consumers who bought the products.

After having finished the book last week, reading it cover to cover on one flight, I have continued to contemplate many of the issues raised. For that, I have to credit Isaacson. He has put together a study of Jobs and of this particular Apple that comes with more than a healthy dose of “food for thought.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jerusalem Not Tehran: Another Rally to Oppose the Silencing of Women's Voices

According to Israeli on-line news site, in a recent poll, some 49% of Israelis agreed with the statement that religiously observant soldiers should not be forced to remain at ceremonies at which women are singing. As I discussed in my previous blog post on November 17, 2011, this issue has been getting increased publicity over the past few months as a result of a number of incidents in which women were publicly shunned by Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox groups.

Last night, hundreds of women and men attended a performance and demonstration in the centre of Jerusalem in support of the right of women to sing publicly and, more broadly, the need for Israel to continue as a society of equality, democracy and freedom rather than creeping towards a society with greater theocratic influence and control.

A number of well-known Israeli singers performed at the concert including international recording artist Achinoam Nini. One of the musical groups, Tarentina, began its set wearing full black, mock burkas. After playing a song in these outfits, they peeled off the head coverings and commented on the oppressive requirement of having to wear such cumbersome clothing in some societies. Echoing the sentiments of other speakers at the rally, they noted that “Israel is not Iran and Jerusalem is not and should not become Tehran.”

The rally was organized by Micki Gitzin, chair of “Free Israel,” an organization that has planned a number of these rallies over past number of months. Gitzin told the audience that “we will continue to sing anywhere and anytime until there is an end to the movement to shun women.”

Ultra-Orthdox Jews and many other observant Orthodox Jews maintain that it is improper to listen to a woman singing in public. In Orthodox synagogues, only men are involved in leading prayer services and reading from the Torah and women are generally seated in a different section of the synagogue, behind a wall (a mechitza). It is therefore not surprising that these communities would apply or attempt to apply that separation and view of equality more broadly. It is more disturbing that so many other Israelis, even many secular Israelis, would agree that it should be their “right” as observant Orthodox Jews to implement such rules in public arenas outside of the synagogue environment.

Conservative Judaism has recognized the connection between what occurs in the synagogue and its effect on equality more generally. In a recent responsa for the Schechter Institute, Rabbi David Golinkin traces the development of this ultra-Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman’s voice publicly by examining Jewish law. He concludes that the first real authority to require a general legal prohibition against hearing women sing publicly was Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the “Hatam Sofer”) in the early 19th Century. (Volume 6, Issue No. 2, November 2011). Citing author Emily Teitz, Rabbi Golinkin notes that this relatively recent prohibition was not consistent with Jewish religious practice throughout earlier periods during which women often sang publicly, including at synagogues throughout the middle ages. Moreover, he notes that there is also authority for the proposition that it would be a greater halachic (Jewish legal) problem for observant men to walk out while women were singing (and thereby insult them) than it would for such observant men to actually sit and listen to the women singing respectfully.

In Israel, Conservative Jews have played an active role in the struggle to ensure equality in the synagogue and in society, generally. At last night’s rally, a co-ed choir, “Shirat Machar” – “The Songs of Tomorrow” performed as one of the opening musical acts. Shirat Machar is a musical ensemble comprised of teenagers affiliated and supported by Noam, the Conservative youth movement in Israel. Most if not all of the Conservative synagogues in Israel are egalitarian which means full participation by men and women in leading services, reading from the Torah and participating in other ways in the religious services. This egalitarian outlook, which begins in the synagogue, affects attitudes of congregants in many other ways.

Sadly, in some circles, the flip side is true. Attitudes towards women and towards gender equality that begin in Orthodox synagogues are often carried forward to other areas of life including family law, the law of estates and inheritance and even views of appropriate conduct between men and women.

The difficulty in Israeli society is the historic “compromise” under which earlier Israeli governments ceded much of the authority over religious affairs to the monopolistic control of the Orthodox establishment. As this authority has expanded recently with the growth of religiously observant communities in Israel, issues of gender equality have begun to face new and greater challenges. Rallies of the type held last night are aimed not just at ensuring that women’s voices continue to be heard in public in Israel but that democracy and equality for all, regardless of gender, continue to be among the most significant values in Israel.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Looks Like a Goose, Tastes like a Pig - a Kosher Pig...

It's not yet April Fool's - but I couldn't resist including this. After all, it is supposedly true, according to Haaretz, one of Israel's major national daily newspapers.

An organically grown, Spanish goose has been located that, apparently, tastes just like a pig. Of course, observant Jews cannot eat pigs, which are one of the animals expressly forbidden in the Torah for consumption. But there is nothing wrong with eating a goose that tastes like a pig, as long as it has been slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law.

The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, has given these geese the official stamp of approval. So Israeli restaurants that observe Kosher dietary laws (certainly not all restaurants in Israel are Kosher) will soon be able to sell Kosher "pork" – (which will really be disguised goose). Score another one for those observant Jews who just have to find a way to eat what everyone else is eating - more or less. And it is bound to help with those Jews who have always wanted to keep Kosher but just can’t give up the swine...

Personally – I have never really gotten excited about simulated bacon bits, kosher imitation crab, fake pepperoni pizza or other Kosher items masquerading as some prohibited non-Kosher food. There may be a way to season the right kind of chicken so that it tastes just like a lobster but those who are eating it would not have had the experience of torturing it first by tossing it on a hot barbecue or into a boiling pot.

Maybe our Rabbis would be better off ensuring that we are able to eat some healthy green vegetables – like broccoli, asparagus, spinach, collard greens and other wonderful food items that have recently been facing increasingly stringent rules (due to the existence of microscopic or almost microscopic bugs). Many vegetables are banned or hard to find in Israel – without any really compelling reason (as far as Jewish law is concerned), other than a relatively new found Rabbinical interest in an increased level of vigilance for avoiding the tiniest of insects, even those that are not normally visible to the naked eye.

Consider this crazy picture. The Kosher Indian restaurant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem (that I reviewed in a previous post), which is supervised by the highest level of Kosher authorities in Israel, may soon be able to add Kosher simulated "pork" to its offerings but will still not be able to serve cauliflower and potatoes ("aloo ghobi"), a dish that is so essential to Indian cuisine - or a range of other vegetarian delicacies.

It seems to me that Israelis interested in eating healthy diets are really the ones getting goosed, yet again.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Israel Needs a Two Day Weekend

Anticipation of the weekend for many North Americans and others living in western countries can often be a preoccupation. Canadian pop singers have written a number of different anthems. 1980’s band “Loverboy” topped the charts with its hit “Everybody’s Working for the Weekend.” Hard rock band “Triumph” was less successful with its 1970’s song “I live for the Weekend,” but still captured the idea. There have been many other examples.

There is no doubt that not everyone in these countries enjoys the benefits of the weekend. In Canada, retail activity has grown dramatically over the past twenty years after Canadian Provinces eliminated Sunday closure laws. Many people continue to work in a range of industries on Saturday or Sunday or sometimes both. Many professionals and others work one or both weekend days. But there are still a significant number of people who enjoy a five day work week with Saturdays and Sundays off. There are many others with two days off, even if those days are two other days.

For observant Jews, a two day weekend in the diaspora has generally been a blessing. Saturday, as Shabbat, has meant attendance at Synagogue, family time, no travel, no commercial activity and a real day of rest. Observance of Shabbat in many areas has helped build a sense of community and synagogues have often played a central role.

Sunday, has been generally set aside for almost everything else that people might want to do but don’t have time to do in a busy week. Shopping, kids’ sports activities, family outings, leisurely brunches, weddings, unveilings, the list goes on and on. For North Americans and other westerners, it’s hard to imagine moving to a six day work week instead of a five day week. In fact, in the late 20th century, some writers began to speculate about a utopian future of shorter and shorter work weeks, perhaps even three or four days.

In contrast to the rest of the western world, Israel does not have a two day weekend. Sure there is a Hebrew word “sof shavua,” meaning weekend - but really it just means Friday night and Saturday.

Israeli students go to school six days a week. Although younger kids often finish by 1:30 p.m., the fact is that there are still six days of waking up early to be on time for school. Many people in Israel work six days a week. Although many leave work early on Fridays and a growing number don’t work at all that day, Friday is not seen as a universal day of rest. For those parents who have the day off, their kids are still in school so it is not a family day.

A six day week is one of the most difficult adjustments for immigrants who are often used to enjoying a two day weekend (and a number of three day long weekends throughout the year). But it is also difficult for Israelis, even if they have never had the opportunity to enjoy the rhythm of a five day week rather than one that stretches over six.

Earlier this year, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, Sivan Shalom, proposed a legislative change to turn Israel into a five day work week society. The initiative met with significant opposition and is currently being “studied.”

Many observant Jews are opposed to the idea of turning Sunday into a second day of rest, arguing that it would not suit a Jewish country to adopt a Christian day of rest. But a legislatively mandated weekend would not turn Sunday into another Sabbath in a religious sense. In Israel today, in many areas, buses do not run on Saturday; restaurants and stores are closed; many activities are viewed as religiously prohibited. Turning Sunday into at least a partial day of rest would not mean adopting all of these measures in relation to Sunday. In fact, observant Jewish families would be among the major beneficiaries of a two day weekend. They could spend Saturday observing Shabbat; and then spend Sunday enjoying so many other activities. Many of these other activities would be defined as “work” under Jewish law and prohibited on Shabbat, even if they are, in fact, leisure activities. But this “work” would certainly permissible and even encouraged on Sundays.

Some people argue that Friday is already a shortened day due to the need to prepare for Shabbat, especially in the fall and winter. If Sunday becomes a weekend day, they maintain that Israel will effectively be transferring to a four-day work week rather than a five day week. But although some people work short days or have Fridays off, kids are in school and everything is opened. In Israel currently, the weekend does not really begin on Fridays for most people, or at least not until Friday evenings.

There has also been some opposition to including Sunday in the weekend from Israel’s significant Muslim population, who argue that Israel should make Friday a second weekend day if it is to make this kind of change. Other countries in the Middle East have a Friday-Saturday weekend. However, Israel’s principal trading and commerce partners are Europe and the United States as well as, increasingly, countries in the far-east rather than the other Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps this might change one day but that does not seem too likely in the short term, despite the current “Arab Spring” (which so far, seems more like the start of a long winter…) So a commercial synchronization with the west would probably be a better step for Israel.

Others have put forward arguments about the potential effect on productivity in Israel society. What will happen if the country reduces its six day work week? Won’t this dramatically affect commercial output? Well, some have cynically responded that Israel would be lucky to get four days of productivity from its workers even under the current six day system…

After all, it is worth reviewing, less cynically, but more realistically, some actual highlights of the Sunday to Friday “work week.” Post offices, banks, government offices, conveniences stores all close certain mornings or afternoons during the week – and not even at the same time! In many industries, workers take ½ hour breaks, all together from 10 a.m. to 10:30 every day. Some stores still close from 1 to 4 p.m. or from 2 to 5 p.m. for an afternoon siesta. Much of this would probably have to change to ensure the proper use of a two day weekend. But Israeli commerce would benefit from the certainty of having almost everything open, universally, on a regular schedule.

Whether it is Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday, it seems to me that Israeli society would benefit greatly from switching to a five day week. Kids should be in school normal hours, from 8:30 to 3:30 p.m. or 8 to 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday and perhaps until 12:30 or 1 p.m. on Fridays. Government offices should be open five full days a week from 8 to 4:30 or 8 to 5 p.m., as should banks, post offices and other organizations. While some workers will find it annoying to actually have to work five full days, a far greater percentage of Israelis will benefit from access to an extended weekend.

For observant Jews and for those who wish to see greater observance of Shabbat in Israeli society, a two day weekend will provide an alternate day for many people to do their errands, their shopping and to travel. Saturday night could become a great night for pubs, restaurants, movie theatres and many other places offering public entertainment.

For all Israelis, whether Sabbath observant or not, a two day weekend is likely to help reduce stress levels and slow down the hectic pace of Israeli society. This can only be a good thing – even if it will be a Herculean challenge to bring Sivan Shalom’s proposal into effect.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gender Equality in Israel - Some Recent Issues

Gender equality issues have been percolating through the media in Israel over the past few months. For Israel as a democratic country, the trend is somewhat disturbing. The impetus for some of these issues has been the increasing power of the religious right, and sometimes a confluence of interests between Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and other “mainstream” Orthodox groups. Israel is not alone in wrestling with these issues. Western democracies with any level of constitutional protection are finding that one of the major legal battlegrounds is the clash between minority religious rights and gender equality. These issues are being addressed in France, Canada, the U.S. and many other countries. The difference in Israel is that the Jewish character of the state often veils protection for religious rights and provides enhanced protection to the fundamentalist side of these disputes. Most recently, this has increasingly come at the expense of equality rights.

A few months ago, there was an incident that drew significant publicity in Israel. A number of religious male cadets left an Israeli Defence Forces event because the event included public singing by women, something that is viewed as prohibited under ultra-orthodox tradition. In another military event, a group of female soldiers were asked to leave a Simchat Torah celebration and go to a separate area, so as not to be with the male soldiers while they were dancing. These incidents have raised a great deal of concern in a country in which women have fought so hard to obtain and ensure greater equality of opportunity in the military. These issues led to major rallies across Israel on November 11, 2011 at which large groups of protesters, led by women’s organizations, rallied for the right to “hear the voices of women” in society.

Another battleground has been Jerusalem. Haredi groups have been defacing billboards that included pictures of women. Advertisers have yielded to some of this pressure and increasingly avoided using pictures of women in Jerusalem advertising. The Haredi community also attracted significant attention when it divided the streets of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot, with women only allowed on one (narrower) side of the street.

Although these might sound like isolated examples, there are many others. For example, I watched a televised national celebration of Israeli Independence Day last year. The celebration was set up as one that would be acceptable to religious audiences. In a musical evening that went for more than 2 hours, none of the performers were women. This was not the only televised national celebration – there were others that fully included women on different channels. But I still found this type of televised national celebration to be deeply offensive.

Israeli law has already, for years, provided a two track legal system in relation to family law. People with divorce or other domestic legal issues can go the rabbinical authorities to have their disputes adjudicated. Good luck getting a just resolution in a rabbinical court if you are a woman. After all, women are not even considered proper witnesses in many areas of Jewish law. Fortunately, parties have the option of bringing disputes to the general court system. However, it is a race - since the Court to which the dispute is brought initially is entitled to take jurisdiction generally.

Most recently, in an example that actually favoured women’s rights, the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously upheld the conviction of former President Moshe Katsav for Rape and other instances of sexual assault. I have previously written about the lower court decision and won’t get into great detail here. But there are a few key points worth mentioning. Katsav took the position at trial that everything was fabricated and that he had no sexual relations of any kind with any of the victims. He provided various alibis, which were carefully examined by the three-judge lower court and were all found to be completely fabricated or otherwise unsupportable. On appeal, the main thrust of one of his key arguments was that the lower Court failed to take into account the possibility that he had consensual, romantic relationships with each of the victims. Is it surprising that the Supreme Court dismissed this out of hand?

Yet what have been truly amazing are the types of attacks that Katzav’s lawyers and supporters have launched in the media against the Court’s decision. It seems that what has upset them so greatly is that the Israeli Supreme Court was willing to say non-consensual sexual contact and assault is a crime, even if came as a result of abuse of authority, breach of fiduciary duty and unwarranted pressure rather than as a physically violent attack. This seems to have been yet another fault line between orthodox and non-orthodox views of gender equality.

In countries like Canada, with its Charter of rights that enshrines equality (gender and other types), courts are more likely to favour gender equality over the rights of religious minorities, at least that has been the trend to date. But in Israel, given the state supported “Jewish character” of the state, and the lack of a constitutional document that enshrines equality, the challenge is significant, particularly as the percentages of Orthodox and Ultra -Orthodox increase.

In part the problem in Israel goes to defining “Jewish character.” The State has provided a monopoly over religious affairs to the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. This applies to weddings, funerals, Kashrut (dietary laws), funding for synagogues and a host of other areas. As a result, the State directly and indirectly sanctions practices that dramatically discriminate against women. Orthodox synagogues have gender-separate seating and bar women from participating in services. Women are not called to read from the Torah, they are not permitted to lead services and, generally, their voices are not heard.

It is not too difficult to see a spill-over effect of these practices to views of gender equality in the rest of society. After all, how can men, who routinely justify the exclusion of women from a wide range of religious practice and participation, be expected to treat women equally as fellow professionals, work colleagues, teachers, bosses and employees?

It seems to me that this problem will only be addressed, not only in Israel but across the world, when synagogues, churches and mosques all enshrine equality and egalitarianism as crucial values. This has occurred in Reform and Conservative Judaism, in some Church denominations and some other religious groups. But these groups are generally still in the minority. For example, Reform and Conservative Jewish groups do not receive state funding in Israel, while Orthodox groups do.

To ensure equality in Israel, the State and the Courts will soon be called upon increasingly to make decisions that pit equality rights against religious rights. Will Israel continue to favour equality rights under growing demographic pressure? The State can begin now by eliminating the monopoly that it has provided to the Orthodox over many areas of Jewish law. If the political or legal will is not there, Israel risks increasing the Orthodox character of the State, which can only mean a slide closer to countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and, of course, a disaster for gender equality.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ethical Oil by Ezra Levant - A Review

Ezra Levant is not afraid of controversy. As an active Conservative, columnist, talk show host and political activist, Levant’s views have often ruffled feathers and generated publicity. Given his right wing outlook, and the fact that he has recently worked for one of the world’s largest tobacco corporations, one might be tempted to dismiss his views about the oil industry as self-serving propaganda. But I don’t think it’s fair to tar Levant with this broad brush without carefully considering the arguments he puts forward in his 2010 work Ethical Oil.

I read the book, subtitled “the case for Canada’s oil sands” yesterday. The book is only about 234 pages long but I found the central premise to be extremely compelling. Levant argues that any consideration of the merits of Alberta’s oil sands projects should take into account a variety of political and other considerations, rather than environmental considerations alone and should weigh these factors against other world oil suppliers and against other energy sources. When taking into account a range of factors including treatment of workers, accountability of the oil companies, operation within a legal framework, and where the profits go, Levant has little trouble concluding that the Canadian tar sands are currently the most ethical source of oil in the world. I think it is hard to argue with that conclusion.

Entitled “the very short list of democracies that sell oil,” chapter 2 of Ethical Oil reviews the world’s major oil suppliers as a list of “dictatorships, human rights abusers and warmongers.” From Saudi Arabia, described as a major sponsor of world terrorism, Levant proceeds to examine Iran, Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela and Sudan, collectively a “rogue’s gallery” of some of the “world’s worst places.” He cites a quote from Michael Besancon of the chain Whole Foods, stating that “fuel that comes from tar sands refineries does not fit our values.” He proceeds to examine that suggestion by questioning whether places like Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Nigeria better suit those Whole Foods “values.” When politicians, lobbyists and corporations like Whole Foods state a preference for Saudi or Iranian oil over tar sands oil, have they properly considered issues like the promotion of peace, human rights and equality of men and women?

Levant is not afraid to tackle the environmental impact of tar sands development. One of his arguments here is to put things into context, particularly when weighed against other energy sources, other countries (particularly China) and even other oil producing nations. He points out that Canadian technology is constantly becoming more efficient and better environmentally, whereas the other oil producing nations are causing greater and greater damage.

Chapter 8, entitled “Greenpeace’s Best Fundraiser Ever,” includes this great question: “Why do the world’s most prominent anti-oil groups focus on Canada’s oil sands but virtually ignore polluting dictatorships that are worse by any conceivable measure?” Levant uses this segue to launch an attack on the hypocrisy of Greenpeace, which rails against nuclear power across the world but is largely silent when it comes to condemnation of China – particularly through Greenpeace-China. The book provides a detailed explanation of the issues affecting Greenpeace and ties this back to the type of unfair criticism that the tar sands face as compared to other, more polluting energy sources.

Chapter 11, entitled “Saudi Arabia’s War Against the Oil Sands,” includes some fascinating tidbits. Like the fact that Saudis spent $6.6 billion in a single year in the U.S. on lobbying efforts to polish their image in Washington. Or that they contributed some $10 million to Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library (as the single biggest contributor), $10 million to George H.W. Bush’s Library and, of course, tens of millions to Jimmy Carter, who is described by Levant as a “mouthpiece for Arab foreign policy.”(This probably wouldn't be too different from a description by someone like Dershowitz). Levant also points out that the Binladin family (yes, the same Binladin family) hired Al Gore to come give lectures in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There really is something wrong with a world in which so much American and Western money continues to flow to such an obnoxious, undemocratic, terror-sponsoring regime.

Levant addresses the cost to the U.S. of securing and protecting Middle Eastern oil supplies (i.e. of defending the Saudis and other Middle Eastern countries) and juxtaposes that against the very substantial economic benefit to Canada itself (and the U.S.) of developing the oil sands. I won’t go through all of these arguments.

While it might be argued that Levant has downplayed or minimized some very real environmental damage that continued development of the tar sands would cause, the central thesis of the book is that this is one factor to be considered among a range of others. I think there is much to be said for Levant’s premise that a preference for buying oil from regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran could have much more dangerous consequences for the world – including the world’s environment and world peace – than Canada’s development of Alberta’s oil sands.

None of this is intended to prefer a long range preference for tar sands oil as the world's bright source of future energy for generations to come. But given consumption rates today and the world's massive reliance on oil, wouldn't it be better if more of the oil were to come from Canada?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

2011 Ice Hockey in Israel at Metulla

Well the 2011-2012 ice hockey eason is underway in Metulla, Israel. As I've explained in earlier blog entries on this site, this is the northernmost point in Israel. From Ra'anana, the drive is 177 km, each way.

Nevertheless, every two weeks, the list is filled with 30 players and 2 goalies - most of whom drive at least 2 hours to come and play ice hockey. They come from Jerusalem, Ra'anana, Tel-Aviv, Modin and many other Israeli cities and towns.

The games are non-contact and are set up with three lines, divided by skill level. This is great for a guy like me. I get to play on the third line with the other shleppers (hacks). The first line is actually quite fast-paced hockey and is fun to watch. Some of the players played Junior hockey in Canada or U.S. College hockey so they are quite good. The 2nd line is in between. Sometimes it is faster than other times, depending on which players have shown up. The lines are changed up fairly evenly and everyone gets to play for about 1/3 of the 1 1/2 hour ice time slot. There are almost always two goalies with full equipment.

On the way to the game, I had to make my way through 1/2 hour or so of Ra'anana traffic, just to get onto the toll road (Route 6) (known as the Yitzhak Rabin Highway). The exit out of Ra'anana to Route 6 is really poorly designed and is especially crazy during rush hour. We had to leave at about 5:30 p.m. to get to the rink on time. Apparently, the traffic problem is being fixed with the development of a new highway next to Ra'anana, due to open over the next couple of years.

Once on the highway, the speed limit is 110 and there isn't too much traffic so you can make it up north reasonably quickly. In total, the drive to Metulla took about 2 1/2 hours. We made it to the area by about 7:50 p.m. - which gave us enough time to grab a coffee at Aroma at the shopping mall in Kiryat Shemona, the last "big town" before Metulla, about 10 km away.

Getting to play on the same line as my son is quite fun, though I have to say, he is becoming a much better hockey player than me. Nevertheless, I managed to score a goal...which is pretty rare.

Aside from these bi-weekly Thursday night games, the Israeli Hockey Association is running a tournament with the same rule set up from February 6 to 10, 2012. They have been doing this annually and attract players from all over the world. Players can come in teams or can come individually and be placed on teams. The tournament is designed to raise awareness of ice hockey in Israel and to encourage tourists to come and visit Israel, while spending a bit of time playing some hockey. Two years ago, legendary Canadian hockey player Paul Henderson dropped the puck at the opening game of the tournament.

For those who are planning to be in Israel at some point but cannot make the tournament, there are sometimes spots available for casual players who want to come out and play at one of the games on a Thursday night. In fact, the association even lends equipment to players who didn't manage to bring their full gear to Israel.

The Thursday night games are attended by a great group of guys (and sometimes a young woman or two). After the games some of the players go for a swim in the pool, which is part of the ice rink complex (fittingly named the "Canada Centre"). Others head to Kiryat Shemona to have a post-game Shawarma, usually at a small kosher take-out place called "Shlomi's Baguette."

The drive back to Ra'anana, without any traffic can take as little as about 1 1/2 hours, so we were able to make it back by about 1:30 a.m. With the cost of the ice time (about $45 per player) and the crazy prices of gas in Israel, this is a fairly expensive activity. But getting on to the ice for an hour and a half in Israel is really a great time, especially if you are a Canadian.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bar or Bat Mitzvah - Davidson Center / Robinson's Arch

Looking to plan a mixed or egalitarian bar or bat mitzvah near the Kotel in Jerusalem? As you may know, this is not possible at the main area of the Western Wall itself. Since the Israeli government ceded effective control over this area to Rabbinic authorities many years ago, the Kotel is divided into separate areas for men and women, with a barrier (a Mechitza). Women are not even permitted to sing or read from the Torah on the women's side. In fact, some women have been arrested for "disturbing the peace" for violating this prohibition.

There is an alternative. The Israeli Supreme Court acceded to a petition brought before it to allow egalitarian prayer at the Southern Wall in an area known as the Robinson's Arch, which is part of the Davidson Center. The entrance to this area is just before the Kotel. Thousands of Conservative, Reform and other liberal Jews conduct bar and bat mitzvah services annually at this location and have found it to be quite a spiritually moving location.

I have now attended at least 5 or 6 of these ceremonies, some as the parent of the bar or bat mitzvah and I thought I would put together a few pointers for those looking to arrange a simcha here.

Bar or Bat Mitzvahs are generally conducted on Mondays or Thursdays at this site since those are the days on which the Torah is read. I do not believe that the Center offers the option of Shabbat celebrations though this may be something that one could look into.

Conducting a Simcha at this location (as with planning many other events in Israel) requires very careful attention to quite a number of small details. One way of doing this is to use an experienced Israeli Rabbi, tour guide or other facilitator who can look after all of these matters. Just make sure that it is someone who has done this many times and has it down to a science.

If you decide to try to plan it yourself, the first step is to arrange a permission certificate ("Ishur") well in advance with the Masorti Movement in Israel which administers the site. You can contact them at They do not charge a fee for the booking but encourage a donation. With an Ishur, you will get access to a Torah scroll, Siddurim (prayer books) and a small table for the Torah. You will get a box of Siddurim but they will not all necessarily be the same. The Center supplies a mixture of "V'ani Tefilati," "Rinat Yisrael" and "Sim Shalom" prayer books. If the starting time is before 8:45 a.m. (sharp), no additional admission fee is required unless the guests would like to take a tour of the Center. This can be a great activity, especially with a knowledgeable tour guide, but is not required. If your guests are late (even by a minute or two), full admission will be required.

Services conducted at the Davidson Center can be more peaceful, secluded and controlled than those at the Western Wall, as well as being inclusive of all the participants. However, during busy season, especially during parts of the summer, there can be three celebrations occurring at the same time, in three consecutive one hour slots. If your simcha is one of the first two of the day, you will have to pay careful attention to timing. No music, drums, shofars or other instruments are permitted at the Center and food is strictly prohibited. In the summer, you can hear other bar-mitzvah groups being escorted to the Western Wall with drums and shofars. This can be one of the distractions but a fascinating one.

Access to the site, which is down a number of stone steps, can be challenging for seniors and others with any kind of physical limitations. There is an elevator at the far end but it may or may not be working at any given time. There is no seating at the site. You can bring folding chairs or you can find some seating on the rocks though the rock seating is certainly not ideal for anyone who might require a comfortable chair.

In the summer, it can become quite hot, particularly after 9 a.m., so make sure to bring hats, water and sun tan lotion for everyone.

One of the real challenges is transporation to and from the site. Traffic is closed to most private vehicles in and around the Old City of Jerusalem and finding parking is extremely difficult. Generally, the best option is to arrange bus service to and from the site. However, you must use an experienced driver who routinely handles this route and knows exactly where and when the guests and participants can be dropped off. If you must drive, you should consider parking at the restaurant or some other nearby location and taking a cab to the Davidson Center entrance.

There are many options available for training a bar or bat mitzvah student. For those using an Israeli Rabbi to conduct the service, he or she may offer internet based training for guests from outside of Israel or, of course, personal training in Israel. Otherwise, a bar or bat mitzvah student can train with any teacher that his or her local Rabbi or other reference source might suggest. In Israel, students can often train with knowledgeable high school students (at a fairly reasonable hourly rate) or of course, there are many Rabbis who have steady streams of students.

Since the Davidson Center area is somewhat less formal than the Kotel, ceremonies can be tailored to suit individual requirements. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah student can conduct some or all of the Shacharit service, depending on his or her capabilities and can read some or all of the week's Torah readings (which are usually quite short during the week). Bar and Bat Mitzvah students often prepare divrei Torah (short talks about the week's Torah portion) to deliver during the ceremony.

Following the service, there are a number of options. Some families opt to arrange a tour of the Davidson Center itself, the nearby tunnels at the City of David or the tunnels behind the Kotel. These tours can be really fascinating and are best arranged with a knowledeable tour guide. They must be booked far in advance - especially the tour of the tunnels behind the Kotel which leads to some of Jerusalem's most incredible archeological sites.

Some families also decide to take pictures at the main plaza part of the Kotel itself, where mixed photos are permissible. Bear in mind, that you must pass through airport style security to get to the Kotel area. During busy times, this can take a half hour or so. If your event is in the summer time, it will get very hot, especially if you have also included a tour of the Davidson Center or one of the other sites before stopping at the Kotel. Despite all the cautions, these pictures may turn out to be some of your best photos.

Most families try to arrange a celebratory meal after the function. Sometimes this is arranged right after the bar or bat mitzvah and without any touring and other times it is arranged after tours of the sites and photo opportunities at the Kotel. Either way, you will need to plan this carefully with the bus driver (whose cell phone number you must have). One of the hardest logistical parts of these affairs is arranging the transportation for the guests from the bar/bat mitzvah to the restaurant.

There are a few restaurants that are within walking distance of the Kotel. These are often booked quite far in advance, may still require difficult walks in hot weather conditions and may be quite pricey for the menu and food quality.

Jerusalem has many other great catering options. I have been to bar and bat mitzvah celebrations at Beit Tikoh, Te'enim, Taverna and Terrasa all of which offer kosher dairy menus and all of which were a reasonably short bus ride from the Kotel. At one bat mitzvah, the Kotel drop off and pick up area was so crowded that the guests had to walk from the Davidson Center to Te'enim, which took about 40 minutes. Trying to arrange a bar or bat mitzvah during Pesach or Sukkot can create huge logistical challanges since these are some of the busiest times at the Old City.

There are also quite a number of kosher meat restaurants available within a reasonable distance, though listing and evaluating all of the restaurants would require a few additional blog entries.

Overall the Davidson Center is a great place for a bar or bat mitzvah for families looking to conduct their prayer service together, include everyone and still be at a holy and religiously significant site. It does however require careful, detail oriented planning with the help of someone who knows how to manoeuvre through Israeli ways of doing things.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Israeli Weddings - a Short Primer

A typical Israeli wedding, from my experience, can easily include 400 to 500 guests. I was even at one recently with close to 900 people, which was apparently 200-300 short of the hall capacity. Since I have been to quite a number of these weddings over the past few years, I thought I’d write a short primer on what to expect. I am writing mainly about secular Israeli weddings at this point. I’ll add another article after I make it to a few more religious weddings.

Most Israeli weddings are at event halls, many with indoor and outdoor facilities. Unlike many Jewish weddings in North America, the ceremony is not really separated from the party and is certainly not in a synagogue. Of course, at this point in time in Israel, only Orthodox Rabbis, approved by the Israeli Rabbinic authorities can actually conduct a Jewish wedding. So even the most secular of Israelis must use the Orthodox rabbinate if they wish to have their marriage recognized by the State of Israel. There are some ways around this but that is for another blog entry.

Weddings are often called for 7 or 7:30 p.m. and they take place pretty much any day of the week from Sunday to Thursday, with some preference for Tuesday (for religious reasons). Since Sunday is a regular work day in Israel, Sunday weddings are not as predominant as they are in North America. The invitation will often specify that the chuppa – the actually ceremonial part of the wedding – will take place at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. But that is really just an estimate. From what I have seen, there can easily be a delay of an hour or two or even more. Knowing this, guests tend to arrive any time from the specified start time until two or three hours later, with some correlation to age. The younger guests seem to show up later in the evening.

At many of these weddings, there are some great hors d’oevres. When the weather is nice, this can all be set up with outside stations, often including barbecue areas, sushi areas and all kinds of other foods. Of course in the summer in Israel the chance of rain is almost zero. During the fall and winter, these stations can be set up inside, often with a view of the outside. This part of the affair is culinarily somewhat similar to a Montreal Jewish wedding where the amount of food served before the ceremony has even taken place can be enormous.

Usually somewhere around 9 or 9:30 p.m., the actual marriage ceremony takes place. It is often set up off to the side of the hall in a designated area. At a number of the weddings I have attended, I would guess that 20% to 30% of the guests have gone to watch or participate in the ceremony. The rest continue eating appetizers, visiting the bar and schmoozing.

Once the ceremony is over, guests make their way back to the dining and dance floor area for the main meal. The DJ usually takes over at this point for balance of the evening. The range of music can vary wildly with the crowd, though “eastern” Israeli music is very popular these days. I haven’t been to any Israeli (secular) weddings where anyone has welcomed the guests, made a speech, conducted a ceremonial Challah cutting, led birkat hamazon (grace after meals) or held any other “formalities.” Once the chuppah has ended, it has simply been eating, dancing and drinking for the balance of the wedding. Sometimes there is a slide show going on in the background.

Whoever thinks that Jews don’t drink very much at weddings hasn’t attended an Israeli wedding recently. Though there are bottles of wine (usually red) on each table for those who are so inclined, the drink of choice, especially for the younger generation, seems to be vodka and Red Bull and certainly not in small quantities…

Guests uniformly tend to give cash gifts, often handed to the parents of the bride or groom in an envelope with a short note, many times on arrival at the hall, much like an Italian wedding. The amounts are usually fairly substantial, these days starting at about 400 to 500 N.I.S. per couple (about $125 to $150). Though the recipients will usually prepare a list of who gave what amounts for future reference, I have yet to receive any thank you cards, emails or other acknowledgements of a wedding present.

There are no reply cards with the invitations so the hosts have to come up with their best estimate of the number of guests for the caterer. Since no one really knows who will be attending, there is no assigned seating. Sometimes there are too many tables, sometimes not enough. But the caterers can usually open up another 50 to 100 spots in fairly short order. On occasion, if you leave your seat for a little while to dance or go the bar, you might lose it…though this can usually be straightened out.

While the groom will often wear a suit and the bride will usually wear a white bridal gown, anything goes for the rest of the guests. Many of the men will come dressed in jeans and a short sleeve button down shirt. There can be quite a range of dress for the women from skirts and dresses to jeans and casual tops with the only common denominator being that the outfit is often quite tight, to put it mildly.

Most of the meals at these weddings are table service and most of the wedding halls in Israel are kosher. As crazy as this sounds for North Americans, there is an expectation that the guests at each table will take up a collection and tip their assigned server, sometimes at the beginning of the evening if they want to ensure really good service. I was even at one recent wedding with actual “white glove” service. Not only were the servers wearing white gloves, but they were even folding cloth napkins and replacing the cutlery on an ongoing basis. This is pretty rare here from what I’ve seen.

Overall, like in any society, the weddings are somewhat a reflection of the broader culture. Here in Israel, the weddings are fairly informal and casual with an emphasis on fun and celebration rather than formality, dress code or detail. In some ways, that probably sums up the way many things are done in Israel – often hectic and chaotic – with limited attention to customs, rules, or organization but many times quite engaging, raucous and enjoyable.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Continental Air Lines - Tel-Aviv to Toronto

I tried flying Continental Air Lines on my most recent flight from Tel-Aviv back to Toronto.

The flight time was a key consideration. The flight leaves Tel-Aviv at about 11:00 p.m. and arrives in Newark, New Jersey around 4:30 a.m. (EST). There is a 6:30 a.m. connection to Toronto which means that that the flight arrives in Toronto at about 8:00 a.m. These flight times are similar to US Air times (via Philadelphia). I find it much better to fly at night. Air Canada's direct flights back to Toronto from Tel-Aviv all leave at 12:00 p.m. and arrive in Toronto at 6:00 p.m. For various reasons, which I have written about in other blog posts, I'm not very happy about these all day flights. With Continental (now also called United - since the two merged), you can even fly from Tel-Aviv to Toronto via the U.S. at night and then fly back from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on Air Canada direct at night. The price is very similar to flying both ways on Air Canada.

The Continental flight was quite decent. The flight left on time. The airplane was clean and looked fairly new. It seemed to be well kept. The personal entertainment systems were among the best I've seen. There was an enormous selection of music with hundreds of CDs. There was also an enormous selection of movies.

A major benefit of flying Continental for Air Canada Aeroplan Elite or Super Elite members is that you get the same bonus points as if you were flying Air Canada itself. So an Elite traveller can get about 18,000 points for a round trip flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv. A super elite traveller can get about 23,000 points. No other airline (other than Air Canada) offers this benefit for this route.

Like other U.S. airlines, Continental charges for extra baggage (meaning more than one suitcase) and charges for everything from headphones to alcoholic beverages. The staff, like other U.S. airlines, are somewhat aloof. This is not the personal interaction that you can get with El Al nor is it even as friendly as Air Canada. At best, you could call it organized and competent, if somewhat stingy.

On arrival in New Jersey from Tel-Aviv, all passengers must clear U.S. customs and collect their baggage to be handed back for check-in just after customs clearance. Here it is a great benefit to have a Nexus card and bypass the lengthy customs line-ups. Otherwise you could be waiting for a quite a while in an immigration/customs line-up.

There is an airport shuttle that runs from the arrival terminal (Terminal C) to the departure terminal (A) but this was reasonably convenient, even if not marked particularly well. Unfortunately, there was no access to duty free since the duty free shops only open at 6:30 a.m. and the plane from Newark to Toronto left at 6:30 a.m. It is worth pointing out that you can buy duty free items in Tel-Aviv and then put them in your suitcase after you pick the suitcase up in Newark before sending it along to Toronto. However, you have to pay the prices of the Israeli duty free shops where are not necessarily that reasonable. Unlike the connection through Philadelphia, you have to clear personal security again after landing so that adds to the line-up time and inconvenience factor.

Overall, the flight was fine and was probably a decent option for Aeroplan members looking to take a night flight from Israel to Toronto though there is no easy way to upgrade to business class from economy. The availability of upgrades is still one of the best reasons to fly Air Canada between Toronto and Tel-Aviv along with the general convenience of a direct flight.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sukkot 5772/2011 in Israel

Sukkot is a holiday that is often neglected in the Jewish community in North America. Though it is considered one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, part of the group of three “pilgrimage” holidays, it has become a holiday that is more likely to be celebrated by Orthodox Jews along with some Conservative and Reform Jews.

Perhaps this is partially due to timing. Since Sukkot arrives only a few days after Yom Kippur, it is difficult for many people to take off days from work for religious observance after having used holiday time for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

It could also be related to the weather. After all, in many parts of North America, it could be only 10 or 15 degrees Celsius and maybe even very rainy, which makes it a challenge to sit outside in a makeshift hut with a thinly covered roof and enjoy meals for 8 days. Then there is the challenge of procuring a palm branch, some willow leaves, myrtle leaves and an etrog (citron – part of the lemon family) to hold together during morning prayers. Finally, many families simply did not grow up celebrating the holiday in post-war Canada and the U.S. and the traditions were not passed along in the same way as a holiday like Pesach (Passover).

All of this is very different in Israel, which is clearly the best place in the world to be to celebrate Sukkot.

For starters, Sukkot is a national holiday in Israel. Most stores, restaurants, and other businesses are closed on the first and last days of the seven day holiday. Kids are off school the entire time. Many businesses are on lighter work schedules during the intermediary days. For many families, it is a great opportunity to leave the country and go travelling to Europe or some other destination for a family vacation. But for those remaining in Israel, it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday.

Some aspects of the holiday have transcended religious boundaries and become part of a national celebration. Many secular families put up sukkot (temporary booths) even if they only wind up using them once or twice to entertain some guests. Kids have lots of fun making decorations for their family sukkah, in school before the holiday starts, and with their families.

Many Israeli cities have palm trees. In Ra’anana, for example, the city trims its palm trees a few days before Sukkot and posts a schedule of when the trees will be trimmed and where the branches will be available for free pick-up. Residents are able to collect these palm branches and use them for the roofs of their sukkot. Some families have one or more of the required trees on their own property and can collect the proper items from their own backyard.

Cities across Israel have “Sukkot markets” where people can come and buy almost any item needed for the holiday, ranging from pre-fabricated sukkot starting from about $150 for a complete kit (with metal poles, canvas walls and bamboo roofs), to the sets of items needed for the holiday (lulav and etrog sets). With all of the competition, the prices of the various items become much more reasonable. It is quite a bit of fun to wander around in these markets and see what is being offered and the varying price ranges.

Restaurants throughout Israel, even many that are not even kosher, put up sukkot, so that their patrons can sit and eat their meals in the sukkah. This is actually quite the sight. In areas that are densely packed with restaurants, like some parts of Achuza Street in Ra’anana, you can see a whole row of sukkot, one in front of each restaurant. Some restaurants share one sukkah between two or three establishments.

We enjoyed a family dinner at the beginning of the holiday sitting outside with a group of about 30, eating, singing and drinking wine. We could see and hear neighbours on both sides also enjoying the festival with outdoor family meals. We also managed to make it Jerusalem for a bat-mitzvah during the intermediary days of the holiday. There were thousands of people arriving at the Old City of Jerusalem that day with their lulav and etrog sets in hand for the morning prayers. The roads were closed to most private vehicles so we wound up walking for about 40 minutes from the Kotel area to the restaurant for the celebration. The area was simply too crowded to be able to take a taxi.

The weather was beautiful throughout the country for the entire seven day holiday. Israeli and other musicians were performing at clubs and venues all over. There were various indoor and outdoor festivals taking place and many people taking the time to enjoy family outings at many of Israel’s hiking trails, water parks or historical sites.

One of the Hebrew names for Sukkot is “z’man simchateinu” (the time of our happiness). It is a name that is well suited. Sukkot really is one of the happiest times to be in Israel, as a visitor or as an Israeli.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shalit Released - Emotional and Bittersweet Day in Israel

Gilad Shalit is back home and the first group of 477 Palestinian prisoners have been released. Some 550 more will be released over the coming months.

It has been a gripping and highly emotional day in Israel. News coverage began early in the morning and continued throughout the day. There was no other real news here in Israel. This historic exchange was one of those days – days that will stick out as historic – like the day of Kennedy’s assassination or the day the Twin Towers fell. A day about which people in Israel will ask each other for years – what were you doing on the day Shalit was released?

There was a thick cloud of apprehension throughout the morning. Would the deal go through? Would there be some kind of last minute hitch? Would Shalit really be alive and well? As the morning progressed, events unfolded as planned in the deal that had been reached on October 11, 2011. Convoys of Palestinian prisoners were driven from Israeli jails to various points for exchange. Israeli dignitaries and military helicopters were prepared. Worldwide press streamed to various sites.

As the morning unfolded, the events occurred as planned, mostly. The Palestinian prisoners, more than half of whom were serving life sentences for murder or other equally heinous crimes were released. Shalit was released to Egyptian authorities and was promptly interviewed in Egypt. It was almost surreal. Here was the Egyptian press asking Shalit if he would now commit to working to secure the release of the thousands of remaining Palestinian prisoners – trying to draw a moral equivalence between a captured soldier and thousands of convicted terrorists and murderers. He was quick enough on his feet to explain that he would like to see peace – and to see them released – if they agreed to end their armed struggle against Israel and to live in peace.

Shalit was handed over by the Egyptian authorities to the Israeli officials. He was given an Israeli army uniform and met with Israel’s Prime Minister before meeting his parents. He looked thin and pale. He had seen no sunlight for more than 5 years and was still suffering the effects of some shrapnel injuries that had never been properly treated. He seemed quite frail. There is much work ahead to bring him back to a state of good health.

At Shalit’s yishuv in Mitzpe Hila, in North Central Israel, there was palpable excitement. Many might have wondered whether they would have ever seen Gilad Shalit alive again. Shalit’s father called this the “happiest day of my life.” Residents of the Yishuv were in a celebratory mood.

But for many others throughout Israel, the mood was much more sombre. There was a sense of relief and thankfulness that Shalit was back home and free. But Israelis also had to watch scenes of hundreds of convicted criminals being released to wildly enthusiastic crowds in Gaza, calling on Hamas to kidnap “another Shalit” as soon as possible. It was not a day for celebration but a day on which an Israeli life was been saved – even at the cost of 1,027 freed prisoners, who had collectively been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis.

Despite the calls by some for Hamas to try to capture new prisoners or commence a new wave of terrorist attacks, there was still a feeling that maybe this could be the first deal of a series. Maybe there are more negotiations to be conducted between Israel and Hamas, however indirectly. Maybe a deal can be reached that will bring stability and calm to the relationship between Israel and Gaza and bring hope to the idea that there really can be peace in the region one day – even if that day is still many years away.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kidnapped Israeli Soldier Gilad Shalit is Coming Home

There is a decidedly bittersweet mood in Israel these days. The top story in the newspapers, on websites, television and the radio is the pending release of Gilad Shalit which is scheduled to take place on Tuesday October 18, 2011.

Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in June 2006 by Hamas terrorists who made their way through a crossing from the Gaza strip into an Israeli military area by boring through a tunnel. After more than 5 years of being held captive by Hamas, in Gaza, without access to the Red Cross, medical attention, any other visitors or the outside world, Shalit is being released in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners currently being held by Israel.

Israeli society is very concerned about the welfare of Israel’s soldiers. Since there is almost universal conscription at the age of 18 (with certain exceptions), the army is made up of a significant number of conscripted civilians. While there are also many career army professionals, the Israeli army relies on its citizens to serve their terms and then to be available annually for one month of reserve duty. The army is very much a people’s army and many people in Israel have been touched by the death or injury to a loved one who suffered in the course of fulfilling military duty.

The kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, a conscripted soldier, and the fact that Hamas continued to hold him captive for so long brought many Israelis together in a push to have the Israeli government find a way to bring him home. Shalit’s parents were very active in finding ways to pressure the government. They set up a tent not too far from the Prime Minister’s residence and vowed to remain in the tent and not go home until Shalit was able to return to Israel. They and their increasingly numerous supporters spearheaded publicity campaigns which included bumper stickers on cars, world publicity campaigns, public rallies in Israel and a range of other efforts that brought Shalit to the forefront of the Israeli national conscience. Youth and school groups, university students and other organizations mobilized. Israelis across the political spectrum were united in the idea of finding a way for Shalit to return to Israeli.

However, Israelis were not necessarily united on the price that Israel should be prepared to pay. Over the five years, Hamas continued to demand that Israel release hundreds if not thousands of prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Many of these prisoners were convicted terrorists, having been found guilty of a range of atrocities including multiple murders. The Israeli government negotiated with Hamas through intermediaries but up until October 11, 2011 could not come to a deal.

On October 11, 2011, Israel reached a deal with Hamas, brokered by Egypt, to release 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Some 280 of these prisoners to be exchanged have been tried and convicted to one or more life sentences. They include murderers of innocent civilians, planners and architects of terrorist attacks and others who were involved in grotesque, violent crimes. This is not a “P.O.W. exchange” or a “prisoner exchange” where each side gives back its captured soldiers from a war. This is the ransom of 1027 dangerous criminals in exchange for a kidnapped soldier.

Families of the victims of some of these terror incidents brought three separate petitions to Israeli’s Supreme Court today in efforts to stop the deal from proceeding. Two cabinet ministers from the Israeli Government including Avigdor Lieberman opposed the deal in a cabinet vote. Heated debates have taken place all over the country about the wisdom of agreeing to exchange such a large group of violent, unrepentant terrorists for one soldier.

Yet, ultimately, there appears to be majority support for this difficult decision taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The opportunity to save a life – to fulfill the deal that the State of Israel makes with its citizens – to spare no efforts to protect its soldiers and to leave no soldier behind – these ideas resonate with Israelis. They reinforce the value of life and give hope to Israelis that the government will take all necessary steps to protect themselves, their friends, family members and others they know who could somehow find themselves in a similar situations.

So, as Israelis are glued to their televisions tomorrow, hoping to catch a view of Gilad Shalit as he returns home, and praying that he does so in good health, they will be very mindful of the steep price that the Country has paid to redeem him from captivity. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated, this will not be a day for celebration. Israel will be comforted and even happy to see Shalit return. But it will be a very difficult sight indeed to see so many terrorists released. Some of these criminals will be returning to Gaza. Others will go back to the West Bank. Some will be expelled and will be taken in by Turkey or Syria. Many are likely to begin thinking about their next terrorist operation immediately upon their release. Preventing these attacks will certainly occupy the army and Israeli intelligence organizations for years to come.

Despite all of the negative aspects of this deal, Israelis are an optimistic people. They have to be to live in this neighbourhood. Perhaps there is, in the background, the thought that if the deal goes through, as negotiated – maybe, just maybe, there might be other deals to be made with Hamas. For all of its terrorist history, its avowed intention to destroy Israel and its brutal tactics within the areas it controls, perhaps Hamas will be willing to take other steps that lead to short, medium or even long term improvements in the area and can be viewed as steps towards peace. As na├»ve as this might sound and even if the odds are less than one in 1,027, many Israelis might still feel that the risk is worth taking.

For now, given that the deal has been signed and the petitions to stop the deal have been rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court, Israelis will hope that Gilad Shalit returns home as planned and that he is healthy and well.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Selichot and Yom Kippur in Jerusalem and Ra'anana, Israel

This is the Kotel (the "Western Wall" or the "Wailing Wall") in Jerusalem, at 2:00 a.m. on Friday October 7, 2011. From the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until the day before Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of Jews make their way to the Kotel for Selichot prayers. The prayers are penitential prayers which are said as part or religious preparations leading up to Yom Kippur, usually between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

People come to Jerusalem from all over Israel to recite the Selichot prayers. Traffic to Jerusalem is madness. Many of the roads are closed to passenger vehicles. We tried our luck driving anyways and wound up spending quite a bit of time in the car. Eventually we parked a couple of kilometers away from the Old City and made our way to the Kotel by foot, moving along with thousands of other pedestrians.

We were not there for one of the main, official Selichot services. Instead, we saw groups of 10 or 15 people doing individual Selichot prayers. The area near the Kotel was so densely packed, it was next to impossible to move to the front and actually get near the wall. It was quite fascinating to see so many people there in the middle of the night. Though we left at 3:00 a.m. from the Kotel area, it might as well have been the middle of the day. The whole area was well lit and thousands of people were just arriving as others left. Luckily for us there was a 24 hour Aroma Coffee bar nearby, which must have been enjoying one of its busiest days of the year. Nothing like a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant to go with those penitential prayers...

We spent Yom Kippur this year in Ra'anana. From about 2:00 p.m., on Erev Yom Kippur (the day before) everything in Israel completely shuts down. The buses and trains stop running. The airport closes. Stores and restaurants close. Even the border crossings all close. By 5:00 p.m., when Yom Kippur starts and the fast begins, everyone stops driving. There is not a car on the road, other than emergency vehicles. It is actually amazing to see. There is no law that prohibits cars from driving and a significant percentage of the population does not observe the holiday in any religious way. Many are not Jewish. But nevertheless, there are simply no cars on the road.

Instead, Yom Kippur has become a national day of bicycling and walking. The day before Yom Kippur in Israel is the single biggest day of the year for bicycle sales. Secular kids and adults throughout the country go on lengthy cycling trips, riding in the middle of the main highways, with not a car in sight. Others walk up and down the main city streets, in the middle of the road.

We drove our car to our synagogue before Yom Kippur and parked it there before Yom Kippur started. After services, we walked backed to Ra'anana from K'far Saba (a walk of about an hour). There were thousands of people in the streets, walking along, chatting with each other and people they might bump into. The main street in Ra'anana (Ahuza Street) was filled with wall to wall people, strolling along and enjoying the chance to take over the main streets with no cars anywhere. For the kids, the highlight was sitting down on the main highway (Highway 4) as we crossed it from K'far Saba to Ra'anana. An erie sight to see one of Israel's busiest highways with no vehicles whatsoever.

Israel moved its clocks back one hour just before Yom Kippur to ensure that the fast would end earlier. So the scheduled time for the fast to end was 5:54 p.m. on

We walked to Yom Kippur services in Ra'anana in the morning. Again, it was quite the sight to see children bicycling, skate boarding and roller blading everywhere, on main streets and side streets, right in the middle of the road, as others walked to synagogues throughout the city, often dressed head to toe in white clothes.

According to a recent survey conducted, 85% of Israelis claimed that they fast during Yom Kippur, which is a remarkably high percentage considering the number of secular people in the country. I don't know what percentage would have also said that they were happy to take their kids out for a bike ride, while fasting, but that number must have also been quite high.

Strangely enough, a day that is seen as the most solemn and holy day on the Jewish calendar has probably become the most exciting day of the year for many Israeli youth. Nevertheless, many of these non-observant Jews head over to the nearest synagogue, with their children, to hear the Shofar being blown just after sunset, marking the end of another year in the Jewish calendar and the fresh beginning of a new one.

Shana Tova to all from Ra'anana.