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.