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.