Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lag B'Omer 2013 - Bonfires Everywhere!

Lag B'Omer Tali School Ra'anana April 26 2013
Saturday night marked the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer - the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer in Israel, the counting of which culminates in the holiday of Shavuot which begins on the 50th day. 

Traditionally, observant Jews have marked Lag B'Omer by celebrating and gathering for large bonfires.  The holiday commemorates the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century disciple of Rabbi Akiva.  It also marks the revolt by Bar Kokhba and his followers against the Roman empire.

In Israel, Lag B'Omer is one of the favourite holidays of the year for kids.  Teenagers and younger kids (and many older "kids" as well) across the country gather wood in the weeks leading up to Lag B'Omer in preparation for the huge bonfires that they create on the evening of Lag B'Omer. 

For many 14-18 year olds, this is one of the prime social events of the year.  In Ra'anana, there were bonfires being held across the city.  Groups of teenagers, sometimes as many as hundreds of kids, get together, with six or seven charcoal barbecues, enough wood to keep a fire burning all night - and plenty of excitement (and maybe some other refreshments) and hold bonfires across the country.  No adult supevision required.  No adults anywhere in the vicinity - except maybe the odd Ra'anana security official checking up to see that everything is in order (whatever that means).  The kids run the bonfire, run the barbecues, buy and cook the meat, and even clean up afterwards.  Some arrange DJs, some just bring their own music.

For the younger kids, the bonfires are more closely supervised.  The photo above was taken at the Tali school in Ra'anana, which was holding its bonfire for 6 to 12 year olds (grades 1-6) and their  parents.  There was a DJ with dancing and prizes, karaoke, some group singing led by the school music teacher and food for everyone, organized by class.  The bonfire was huge but it was carefully controlled and kids maintained a proper distance.

Here is a view of the set up for the bonfire - before it was lit.  You can see the school in the background.  This was an opportunity for Tali families to socialize across the class and grade divisions.  

Lag B'Omer is quite a fun and exciting holiday in Israel.  The spirit of the holiday spreads across the country as does the smoke from all of those massive fires.  Even the newspapers got into it.  Yedioth Achronot ran a political cartoon which featured a picture of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sarah sitting at a bonfire by themselves.  Someone asks "where is everyone?."  Someone else answers "they are all at Yair Lapid's bonfire" and there is another picture of Finance Minister Yair Lapid with a huge number of people  - dancing, singing and looking happy at a bonfire.  Quite a telling political cartoon.

Although Lag B'Omer is not a "chag" (a Jewish holiday on which work is forbidden), Israeli kids still get two days off school.  One day to prepare for the bonfires - and one day to recover from being up all night...I suppose the second day is also a day to allow all the smoke to clear.

It is a really quite a unique celebration - and one that is probably hard to imagine in most other countries.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Israeli National Ice Hockey Team Shreds Bulgaria

The Israeli national ice hockey team has secured a spot in Division II, Group A for next year's IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship with a 13-2 win today over Bulgaria.  Israeli star Daniel Erlich led the way with 3 goals and 8 assists.  Oren Eizenman also had a hat trick with 5 assists and Daniel Mazour potted 4 goals and added 2 helpers.  The Israeli team scored early and often.  This game was never in doubt, with Israel scoring its first goal only a couple of minutes into the game.  The only "close" point in the game afterwards was when Bulgaria scored late in the second period to bring the score to 5-2.  After that, the Israelis went on an all out scoring spree and never looked back.

Israel has captured first place in the tournament with four wins and no losses.  It will play Mexico in the final game of the tournament on Saturday.  Even if Israel were to lose, the worst it could do at this point would be to finish tied with China or New Zealand, both of whom Israel has already defeated.  Israel would therefore advance on the basis of tie-breaker rules.  Division II Group A opponents will include Belgium, Iceland, Austria and Serbia.  Spain will move from Group A down into Group B to take Israel's spot.  Croatia will be moving up from Division II Group A to Division I Group B after winning the Group A round robin.  Great Britain, which played this year in Division I will move down and join Israel in Division II Group A.

Israel will now be ranked #34 in the world in international ice hockey.  With its move to the next division, it will be competing against teams ranked 29 to 34, with an opportunity to move up to the 3rd best division in the world.  This is a significant achievement for the Israeli national ice hockey program though it is unlikely that the players will be mobbed at the airport by adoring fans on their return from Turkey.


"President Obama" Flogging McDonald's in Israel - a Must See

Check out this Israeli TV ad for McDonald's. McDonald's Israel Ad.  It's rather amusing.  If you don't want me to spoil it, watch the ad before reading any further...

The ad features a smiling likeness of President Obama saying "God bless Israel" at the end of the ad - and "God bless McDonald's Big America Meal" (one of the featured meals in McDonald's Israel).  It is being run constantly on Israeli TV.  I find it both interesting and amusing - and maybe somewhat surprising that a major corporation would use a likeness of the U.S. President in a commercial TV ad.  I'm surprised that McDonald's of Israel has not received some sort of cease and desist letter - or if they have they haven't acted on it.

I tend to doubt that President Obama authorize the ads, even though he is known to enjoy the odd stop at a McDonald's, though perhaps not as much as former President Clinton.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Israeli National Ice Hockey Team - Big Win at IIHF Championship vs. New Zealand

The Israeli national ice hockey team had a great day today, scoring a 3-2 win over New Zealand at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Izmit, Turkey.  Israel and New Zealand play in Division II, group B, which includes other hockey powerhouses Bulgaria, China, Mexico and Turkey.

After three games of round robin competition, Israel now sits in first place, undefeated so far.  They play Bulgaria tomorrow and Mexico on Saturday.  The winner of this tournament will move up to play in Division II, Group A at next year's IIHF tournament.

Israeli ice hockey star Daniel Erlich
In another game today, Mexico defeated Bulgaria 8-7 in a shootout.  Mexico has one loss.  However, because it won in overtime today, it will not be able to catch Israel in the standings if Israel wins one of its two remaining games.  Only New Zealand is still a threat to Israel's first place position if Israel drops its two remaining games or  even if it loses one and ties one.    A win tomorrow against Bulgaria (which is winless so far) and Israel would be almost certain to win the tournament.   

Prior to this year, the Israeli national team's best achievement was a trip to Divison I following a big win in 2005 in the Division II group A tournament.  They were quickly relegated back to Division II the following year.

Israel's current national team is coached by Canadian Jean Peron.

Israeli ice hockey star Oren Eizenman
Three of the tournament's five top scorers in this group so far are Israelis, including Daniel Erlich (of the University of Western Ontario), Oren Eizenman and Maxim Birbraer who are 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. 

None of this is likely to make the headlines in Israel, which is obsessed with soccer and basketball and has little time for ice hockey.  Perhaps, if Israel actually wins the tournament, there will be some press coverage.

However, with the opening of the Israel's second major ice facility in Holon, there is a real opportunity for Israel to continue to develop its ice hockey program.  Aspiring Israeli ice hockey players will be able to train in the centre of the country and will not have to travel more than 150 km to Metullah for some ice time.

Even with more ice time in Holon, the Israeli ice hockey team is not likely to threaten Canada any time soon.   But a spot in group A of Division II would see Israel play against a group of higher calibre teams next year.  The real goal would be to try to win that tournament and secure a spot in Division I for the following year.  It will take some really shifty stickhandling for Israel to score a spot in that world class Division.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dealing with Terrorism: In the U.S. and in Israel

Boston Terrorist Incident
Israelis have been quick to send their heartfelt condolences to Americans on the occasion of last week's terrorist bombing in Boston.  Unfortunately, Israel has far too much experience in dealing with these types of incidents.  Even though this attack was reportedly carried out by two Chechens who had recently adopted a form of radical Islam, it would be quite a stretch to say that this attack has anything to do with Israel - notwithstanding the fact that at least one of the bombers reportedly yelled "Free Palestine" at some point.  The only relationship between this attack and the attacks that Israel has faced so often over the course of its history is that they are both types are cowardly, terrorist attacks designed to kill and maim large numbers of innocent civilians.

Terrorist attacks have a significant effect on the societies in which they occur.  One need only look at the level of airport security that we now all face, post 9/11, to contemplate the effects of terrorism.  In the U.S., the effect has spilled over to security at numerous events from sporting events to political rallies, with airport type security measures so often ubiquitous.  Yet, the U.S. continues to be a remarkably free country, which makes it such an easy target for terrorists and crazed mass murderers.  In fact, given that Congress recently defeated proposed gun-control legislation, it is probably still one of the easiest places in the world to purchase a weapon and commit unspeakable acts of horror.

The Boston attack had nothing to do with gun control but it was an attack that took advantage of a very free society and one that is still free from the daily struggle with security issues of the type that Israel faces.  Unfortunately, here in Israel, Israelis are constantly required to be vigilant about abandoned packages, bags and luggage.  A left back will attract immediate calls for help, calls to the police and quick area evacuations.  This is the sad legacy of numerous terrorist incidents.

Israeli Bomb Disposal Robot
A few years ago, not long after we first arrived here, our son left his school knapsack on the side of the road while playing some sports.  He forgot it there and headed home. Just minutes later, an Israeli bomb disposal vehicle arrived and tore open the knapsack.  The math books were saved, but the durable Roots bag was a distant memory.   Israelis who see an unattended knapsack or other package act quickly.  They know that lives can depend on their actions.

Just last week, while I was leaving the airport, I saw a woman leave her suitcase unattended for a very brief time.  Security personnel quickly began asking about the ownership of the bag and preparing to take action.  The woman returned and received a sharp scolding from the security officers who were ready to have the suitcase detonated.

Israelis are accustomed to facing airport style security in many places - the entrance to malls, concerts, just about any public gathering and even many restaurants and smaller facilities.  This is the burden that the society has to grapple with after so many years of terrorism.  Fortunately the number of these attacks has waned considerably in recent years but the measures are still necessary and very common. 

This same type of security challenge is one which other free, democratic countries, not only the U.S. and Canada, but numerous European countries, are likely to face increasingly over time.  The challenge for these countries, just as it is for Israel, is to find the balance between implementing sufficient security measures and placing unnecessary restraints on a free public.  It seems to me that Israel's airport security, for example, does a far better job in this regard.  There is no need for every single person to take off their shoes  and belt when travelling, just to ensure that everyone is treated equally.  This simply creates an unnecessary convenience for millions of travellers.  

On the other hand, it will certainly be a sad day in the United States and other western democracies if things get to the point where anyone wishing to enter a mall must pass through a metal detector and an airport security type station.  While that is the reality in Israel, Israelis are not wishing it on others.  On the contrary, Israelis are hoping that we will get to the point where these measures will not be necessary here.  Unfortunately, for now, it does not look like that day will arrive any time soon. 

Israeli Airline Employees Strike to Protest Open Skies Agreement With EU

Planning to fly to or from Israel over the next few days on an Israeli airline?  You better check your schedule carefully.  Employees of Israeli airlines, El-Al, Arkia and Israir, began an "open-ended strike" this morning at 5 a.m. to protest an "Open-Skies" agreement that the Israeli government reached recently with the EU.

Israir Airlines
The Open Skies agreement was apparently concluded in July 2012 but has not yet been passed by Israel's cabinet.  Under the agreement, all EU airlines would be able to fly to Israel and Israeli airlines would be able to fly to any destination in the EU.  It is expected that this could increase tourism to Israel and reduce air travel prices significantly for Israelis.  However, according to YNet News, Israel's online news source, Israeli TV station, Channel 10, ran a story that the Israeli Transportation Ministry had warned of the potential collapse of El Al - Israel's largest airline - in the case of an Open Skies deal.  According to Channel 10, the Ministry did not bring the report to the government's attention or to the attention of the public.  The Ministry apparently denies that it concealed the report.

El Al Airlines
Israeli airline employees are apparently worried about potential lay-offs, redundancies and the overall economic consequences that they will face if this Open Skies deal proceeds.  One of the major concerns is that the Israeli airlines have significantly higher security costs and the EU airlines will not be required to incur these same costs.  Another concern relates to whether or not the Open Skies deal actually provides for guaranteed landing spots in EU cities.  Apparently, the deal does guarantee quite a number of spots for EU airlines to land in Israel.

The Israeli cabinet is meeting to discuss the matter and various talks are being held.  It is unclear where this is all headed and whether other air travel in and out of Israel will be affected.  But for now, travelling on one of the three Israeli airlines is sure to be a challenge.

Arkia Airlines


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Shirat Machar Summer Tour 2013

The Israeli musical group Shirat Machar is trying to put together a North American tour this summer (2013).  They are hoping to visit a number of cities including Toronto, New York, Washington, Boston and St. Louis.  They also plan to perform at Camp Ramah locations across the U.S. and Canada.

Shirat Machar is made up of a group of eleven 14-18 year old singers, selected from Israel's NOAM movement (the equivalent of USY - the Conservative youth movement in North America).

The group has released a number of CDs.  It has performed live across Israel on a number of occasions, including some very special events attended by the President of Israel, Shimon Peres.

For some members of the group, this will be their last chance for a tour as they will be entering the Israeli army for their compulsory national service.  Members of Shirat Machar are hoping that this will be the best set of concerts that the group has performed.

A group of backers have set up a funding opportunity on Kick Starter.(Click here).
The group is hoping to raise at least $10,000 U.S. to help fund the tour.  This will be a unique opportunity for the members of the group but, even more so, for those who are lucky enough to have the chance to see them perform live.  They are energetic, youthful and extremely talented.  Their performances combine contemporary Israeli pop music with more traditional Jewish-influenced music, some drawn from liturgical sources.  This group of Israeli youth shows a different face of Israel, the inspiring, hopeful and egalitarian side.

Please consider passing this link on to whomever might be interested in supporting Shirat Machar - and in seeing them perform live in North America.  If you are interested in making a contribution, you can use the link above.  This is still a conditional request - the contribution will only be accepted if the project goes ahead. 

If you are looking for a taste of Shirat Machar music - try this link to Some Nights or this link to Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen Version)

Many thanks and best regards,


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Yom Haatzmaut 2013 - Chag Sameach

I was fortunate to be able to get back to Israel for Yom Haatzmaut - Israel Independence Day - in time to celebrate Israel's 65th anniversary.  I was away for an extended period to have the chance to celebrate Pesach in Toronto - so it is nice to be back for such a great occasion.

Yom Haatzmaut, of course, is always the day after Yom Hazikaron - Israeli Rememberance Day.  For Israelis, the cost of building and maintaining a state has been tremendous.  More than 22,000 solidiers have been killed in defending the State and some 4,000 civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks.  Of course, the line between soldier and civilian in Israel is very much blurred since most Israelis are conscripted to serve in the army for some period of time and then become available as reserves for years afterwards.  It is fitting that Israel remembers its fallen so poignantly the day before celebrating Independence Day.  It is reminder of the bittersweet essence of life.  It also undescores the level of honour, respect and dignity shown to those who have lost their lives or been injured fighting for the freedom of rest of us.  In Israel, on Yom Hazikaron, a siren sounds at 11 a.m. and everyone stops for a moment of silence.  Cars pull over on the highway and drivers get out of their cars.  Buses pull over and all of the passengers get out of the bus and stand for a moment of silence.  Everything comes to a complete halt.  Radio stations play sombre music all day.
As the sun sets, Yom Haatzmaut begins and the country shifts from commemoration to celebration.

In the evening, Erev Yom Haatzmaut, (the holiday begins the night before as with every other Jewish holiday), there are concerts and events across the country.   We attended the Ra'anana celebrations, which this year featured Rami Kleinstein and Harel Skat. 

Ra'anana has close to 80,000 residents.  I wouldn't want to try to guess how many were in the park but it was quite a signficant number.  There were food vendors selling everything from pizza to hamburgers, bourekas to ice cream - and other vendors selling all kinds of must have items for kids ranging from glow in the dark watches and blow-up hammers to helium balloons and all kinds of crazy hats and headgear.

At one end of the park was the main stage.  It featured various kids' dance troupes for the first couple of hours, accompanied by recorded music.  Some of the dance groups were elementary school students and others were semi-professional dancers from some of the city's sophisticated high school dance programs.  Of course, this was hardly religious or even Israeli music.  Most of the dancing was accompanied by current pop, rap, hip-hop or other North American and British influenced music.  All of the groups were well rehearsed and some were quite entertaining.

At about 10 p.m., the City ran a 10-15 minute fireworks display.  After that, Israeli singer Harel Skat performed on the main stage.  He is quite young, having been a runner-up in the Israeli version of American Idol.  He was quite entertaining and the audience enjoyed his music.  His set was only about a half hour long but it was really good.  Most well known Israeli performers go from city to city playing at a number of venues on Yom Haatzmaut - and earning huge fees.  I don't know what Skat's schedule was like - but the Israeli papers reported that singer Eyal Golan was performing at five venues and earning about 120,000 shequels per performance (each of which were probably about a half hour long).

After Skat's peformance ended, the next performer due up was Rami Kleinstein.  He was nowhere to be found at 10:30 p.m. - probably at some other performance - so the crowd was subjected to a tortorous DJ using a stage name of "Brian's Freak Show."  He hurled obscenities at the crowd and played atrociously vulgar music, mostly uncensored rap and house music.  It is little wonder that Ra'anana's religious community runs a second stage at the other end of the park, which features, primarily, religious music.  At the main stage, which included many young children, this DJ's performance was simply obscene.  (And of course, many of you know that MY threshold is reasonably high...).  I actually found it shocking that the city of Ra'anana would celebrate its Independence Day with such a vulguar performance.  I think many agreed with me.  Even those who were waiting to see Rami Kleinstein began to lose patience as this assault continued for about 1 1/2 hours.  The audience thinned noticeably though that was also due to the fact that it was getting quite late.  Even the intended target audience did not seem totally thrilled with this filler D.J. 

So by the time Rami Kleinstein showed up, and Brian's "freak show" mercifully ended, many of the people who would have enjoyed Kleinstein had left.  He performed for about a half hour and it was a great show - but it was not his ideal crowd.  Where in his live peformances, people all sing along and dance to his music, the reception here was much more subdued.

We left the park around midnight, even though the party was continuing on until 4 or 5 a.m.  My son tells me that there was a DJ called "Eazy" playing predominantly "dub step" starting at about 12:30 a.m.  It Sounds like it was even worse than "Brian's Freak Show."  I suppose each generation complains about the musical tastes of the younger generation.  But there is lots of great new music out there today, much of it popular with young crowds. So it is puzzling to me why the biggest public celebrations would feature the trashiest type of entertainment.

On Yom Haatzmaut itself, we slept in and missed morning tefilloth.  Many observant Israelis include a special Hallel prayer on Yom Haatzmaut, a prayer that is reservered for the most important holy days on the Jewish calendar.  But when we finally woke up, we performed the Israeli duty of having a barbecue on Independence Day...which was followed by a really nice, festive Birkat Hamazon to make up for the service that we had missed in the morning.

Israelis also celebrate by Independence Day by holding an International Bible Contest in Jerusalem (the finals of an event that takes place all over the world).  As well, Israeli President Shimon Peres hosted a musical event at the President's residence.

Overall, there are many opportunities to enjoy wonderful music, to celebrate with people everywhere and to contemplate Israel's future and past accomplishments.  Maybe next year, we will find a different venue for the evening event with more tasteful entertainment (not that I'm complaining about either Rami Kleinstein or Harel Skat, both of whom were great). 

Chag Sameach from Israel!