Monday, June 20, 2022

Breaking News - Another Israeli Election

Shavua Tov (Happy New Week), Happy Juneteenth (if that's the right greeting) and welcome to summer (just about).  I have decided to put together this quick blog with some breaking news and a few other bits....As always, I welcome comments and invite discussion.  And there is certainly lots to discuss... 

Israel Politics

After one year of governing in Israel with a diverse, rag-tag coalition, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held a press conference today with his coalition partner and alternate Prime Minister - Yair Lapid. At the press conference, Bennett announced that he had done everything he could to keep the government together but they had reached an insurmountable roadblock and would have to dissolve the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and call an election.  If the dissolution proceeds, as expected, the election is likely to fall at the end of October.

As might be expected, Bennett reviewed what he maintained were the successes of his government.  His list included an improving Israeli economy, the notion of working together with political opponents for the benefit of the country,  and advances in a number of different areas.  He praised his coalition partners and thanked them for serving in the government, particularly those who had served as cabinet ministers.  Bennett also indicated that he would honour the coalition agreement and transfer power to Yair Lapid - who will become the interim Prime Minister of Israel - assuming the transfer can be put through the Knesset.  If this goes through - Lapid will become a caretaker, lame duck Prime Minister of Israel, charged with steering the country through to the next election - and post-election until a new government can be formed.

Bennett himself faces a very uncertain future.  His fellow Yamina party members have largely abandoned him and commentators have speculated that this is the end of his party.  Bennett still intends to remain in politics but it is unclear at this point - which party he will represent.  It is also unclear where his fellow Yamina members will go.  Some might join Likud - perhaps with enticement from Netanyahu.  Others might move further to the right and join the Ben-Gvir/Smotrich party.  If Yamina were to run in its present form, it seems unlikely that it could even make it past the electoral threshold.

Lapid also spoke at the press conference - but his talk was quite abbreviated.  He thanked Bennett and told him that he really believed that Bennett was acting for the good of the country over the course of the coalition agreement - even though he and Bennett have their disagreements.  He thanked Bennett for their friendship and, yes, expressed his love and respect for Bennett.  It was somewhat emotional.  Lapid then stated that there are still many pressing issues to address - and time will not stop and wait for the election or the post election results.  He intends to roll up his leaves and get to work even though he will face significant hurdles in trying to do so.  

We may still see some political wrangling between now and a vote to dissolve the knesset.  There may be a way for the opposition to prevent Lapid from taking power.  We might even see Netanyahu make an effort to put together a 61 seat government.  This does not seem likely but anything is possible.  I would imagine that the dissolution bill will be passed within the next week to ten days though I am not totally clear on what is actually going to happen after that.

It is too early to speculate on what may happen in the next election.  There is a reasonable possibility that the "right" bloc, led by Netanyahu, will amass a sufficient number of votes to build a coalition and take back power.  

But nothing in Israel is a certainty.  There may well be a sizeable number of Israelis who view this coalition government as having offered a refreshing change - and a harbinger of new types of government in Israel.  If Netanyahu and his "bloc" cannot put together 61 seats - we may well see another type of coalition government - even if it is not led by Bennett.  Suitors for the role are likely to include Avigdor Lieberman, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.  There may well be others.  

Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke shortly after the Bennett-Lapid press conference.  He was smug, arrogant, and completely dismissive of the current government.  He called it a failed government and said that from talking to "people in the streets," he is well aware that Israelis can't wait to have him and his government back in power.  I would imagine that there are certainly some segments in Israeli society who would agree with him but many who would not.  My sense from this press conference was that Netanyahu is living in a bit of an alternate universe - but I would not rule out the possibility that he may still be able to win another election.  Of course he was also using the opportunity to try and "spin" things as favourably as possible.  We will have to wait to see what the Israeli public really thinks.

Interestingly, Netanyahu stated more than once that the current government is a government held together and bolstered by "terror supporters"  (he was referring to the Arab Ra'am party led by Monsour Abbas) and he stated, definitively, that he would not form a government supported by Abbas (who has currently been an active member of the current governing coalition).  Netanyahu's numbers may not quite add up - and he may well come to visit Mr. Abbas with his hat in his hand, looking for some support down the road.

In any event, the next few months promise to be interesting political theatre in Israel.  I expect lots of suprises, lots of drama, lots of vitriol and some very loud discourse.  Then again, how is that different from any other electoral campaign in Israel?

Travel Update

Airports in both Canada (at least Toronto) and Tel-Aviv are incredibly crowded these days.  For leaving Israel, airlines are requesting that passengers arrive four hours before their flights.  I left Israel on Sunday June 12th and it took more than two hours to get through the first part of Israeli security.  Of course there are still three other security/exit stations to leave Israel  - so it probably took close to three hours to get through everything.  Don't worry - I still had a bit of time to visit the duty free shop but it was a long, frustrating and time-consuming experience.

Toronto Pearson Airport has been using a "metering" system for arrivals. Essentially, they keep you in the plane, away from a gate, for an extended period of time.  Then they announce that only passengers with "connecting flights" will be able to leave.  Naturally, the plane itself becomes quite chaotic.  People without connecting flights get up and take all of their luggage to the front of the plane, blocking the aisles and pushing forward to try and get off the plane first.  Our arrival in Toronto was quite a zoo.

Once we were out of the plane, the line up was not that terrible - especially for those with a Nexus pass.  And there were no real delays at the baggage carousel.

I have also left Toronto Pearson airport recently.  With Air Canada status, the line ups are not too bad - but for everyone else, it looks fairly chaotic.  Going to the U.S. from the Toronto  Airport is incredibly crowded, with extensive line-ups, fewer than normal staff at security and at customs - and lots of overstressed travellers.  Leaving for Israel from Toronto (or any other international destination) is probably a bit easier since you don't have to pass through customs on your way out as you do for U.S. travel.

TV Update

We recently watched the second season of Tehran.  The final episode was released this past Thursday night.  The first season featured a largely unknown cast but there were some terrific actors.  This second season was filmed in cooperation with Apple TV and brought in Glenn Close as an Israeli spy, operating in Tehran, to supplement the cast from the first season. I thought the second season was somewhat better than the first - and, overall, was quite rivetting.  For now, I think it can only be watched on AppleTV.  If you speak hebrew, you can watch it on, an Israeli streaming channel or on Israel's Channel 11.  Not sure if there will be a third season, but if so, I will look forward to it.  I understand that filming is also in progress for Fauda's fourth season.  Lots of recent Israeli programming to watch and much of it is very good.

With hockey playoffs just about over, football season still three months away and few other sporting events that really grab my attention, I may have to find a few other series to watch.  I welcome recommendations.  I don't mean to disrespect the Blue Jays, by the way. They have a very exciting team this year but I can't really see watching 162 games a year.  I will probably watch more baseball as it gets closer to the playoffs.

In any event, it is the summer and I hope to make it to the beach, the lake or some other water activities.  So I probably don't need to watch too much TV anyways.  Would definitely rather go for a swim.  Or visit a winery....

Wrap Up

We are looking forward to having some visitors over the summer, some who have been to Israel several times and some who are coming for their first time.  Although it is usually very hot in July and August (even intolerably hot), there is lots to do.  When we are not out and about, we put our faith in our air conditioning units - and the hope that things cool down somewhat in the evenings.  Sometimes it cools off considerably, sometimes it doesn't. For those who are thinking of visiting Israel, it is better, from a weather perspective, to come in March/April and October/November - maybe even September - if you have a choice.  Many people don't - and find that their available dates are dictated by school and work schedules.  This summer, in particular, Israel is expecting a very large number of tourists.  The planes are full (and tickets are very expensive).  Hotel prices are also very high.  

The Israel Museum has still not announced dates for the annual Jerusalem Wine Festival (which is a wonderful event). It is probably going to take place in August this year.  There are hundreds of scheduled concerts across the country - so many musicians trying to make up for the loss of the past two years of live entertainment. 

So even though it is quite hot in the summer - there is so much to see and do in Israel that pretty much any time of year is a good time.  

Wishing everyone a wonderful summer.  Not sure how many blogs I will put together in the coming months but I am sure that I will write a few as the election draws closer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Yom Hazikaron, Yom Haatzmaut 2022 and the Movie "My Tree"

The period of about three weeks from Pesach (Passover) to Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) is densely packed with commemorations and celebrations.  We start with the holiday of Passover, known as the "time of our freedom."  Shortly after that, Israel commemorates Yom Hashoah v'Hagvurah - the day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Bravery.

One week later, Israeli Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron, a day of remembrance for fallen soldiers, police and other security officials and victims of terror - in Israel and outside of Israel - is commemorated and then one day later it is Israeli Independence Day.  These are powerful and emotional days filled with compelling public ceremonies, observances and rituals.

I have written about some of this in the past so I am not going to rehash what I have previously written.  But I thought I would highlight a few things.  

The combination of  Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut all emphasize the importance of Israel - the tremendous price that Jews have paid before they had a state - and then to establish  and maintain the State, the need for the state as the defender of the Jewish people around the world, and the fragility and preciousness of the state along with its resilience.

On Yom Hashoah (You can watch this year's ceremony here), six Holocaust survivors are called up to light memorial torches.  Their stories are told before they come up.  Their numbers are dwindling each year.  One survivor, scheduled to light a torch, died this year one week before the ceremony.  All of Israel's dignitaries are in attendance - the President, the Prime Minister, the Supreme Court Justices.  And in between, there are powerful musical performances.  In most years, there is a common theme.  The Jewish community suffered devastating, murderous losses in Europe at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.  If only Israel had been in existence in 1939, perhaps it could have helped, it could have saved lives, it could have  prevented so much death.  And, of course, from the Israeli viewpoint, it is only a strong Israel that can genuinely fulfil the promise of "never again" for the Jewish people.

One week later, Israel commemorates the loss of more than 24,000 soldiers and security personnel killed since the establishment of the State and the loss of thousands of victims of terrorism in Israel and abroad.  Once  again, there is a torch lighting ceremony (shown here) before the same dignitaries along with bereaved  families who have lossed loved ones.  There are powerful musical peformances (Here and Here) and not a dry eye among the attendees.  The following day, there are ceremonies at cemeteries across Israel as loved ones are remembered and missed.

As the sun sets and Yom Hazikaron ends, the  sadness turns to joy and Israeli Independence Day is ushered in - this year marking Israel's 74th birthday.

Once again, there is a torch lighting ceremony - this time featuring Israelis who have reached tremendous heights with their accomplishments - in different walks of life.  Yom Haatzmaut ceremonies have honoured scientists, artists, musicians, health care workers, athletes, leaders of charitable organizatons and so many others.  There are dance peformances, military fly-overs, fireworks, musical performances and, of course, speeches.  Across the country, there are celebrations with musical peformances, carnival-like atmospheres and raucous, exuberent crowds - thrilled to celebrate Israel's accomplishments over its first 74 years.

One of my personal highlights is a program that Israeli singer Idan Reichel has run for the past few years.  He has asked Israeli soldiers - most of whom are in the army as part of mandatory conscription - to send him recordings of themselves singing.  He and his crew receive hundreds of entries.  They then select 10 of these young soldiers.  Reichel and his crew show up at each soldier's base and suprise them somehow - with an invitation to sing at the national Independence Day performance.  The 10 soldiers spend some time preparing with Reichel and then perform at the national  ceremony with their family and friends in attendance.   At the end of the evening, Reichel picks one lucky winner to co-write a new song with him  to be recorded and released.  The whole event mixes so many key aspects of Israel. Reichel meets with and selects Israelis from all across the country - religious and non-religious, from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds - men and women, from the north and the south, the east and the west, all of whom are serving in the IDF, defending the country.  The singers are all emotional, excited, very talented and very proud.  

Finally, after watching the solemn commorations of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron, one week apart and then thoroughly enjoying the gleeful and exciting Yom Haatzmaut celebrations, I noted that I had received an email earlier in the day "warning" me about the movie "My Tree" that is now being shown on CBC Gem as part  of "Jewish Heritage" week.  I decided that  I should watch the film, which was released in 2021 by Toronto based Jason Sherman.

Sherman has an attractive and easy going style in his narrative.  He seems personable enough and sincere in his "quest" to look into the story behind the planting of a tree in his name at the time of his bar-mitzvah many years ago - coincidentally - at the shul that I am still involved in when I am in Toronto.

But his seemingly "curious" nature is somewhat of a cover for a manipulative and unbalanced hatchet job on the Jewish National Fund ("JNF" or Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael - KKL), and by extension, Israel.  At the outset, Mr. Sherman mocks his Jewish heritage by poking fun at his bar-mitzvah ceremony, where he can't even bring himself to wear a Kippah standing in the Synagogue's main sanctuary, with his film crew, and reading some prayers.  After some coaxing from the Synagogue's executive director, he reluctantly agrees to cover his head.  It is evident that he has gone back to his bar mitzvah shul to mock it.  He doesn't meet with the Rabbi of the shul  or mention that he has tried to do so.  The current Rabbi would be too compelling and wouldn't fit with the theme of this "documentary."

Sherman then sets out on a journey to Israel to look for the tree that was planted in his name at the time of his bar mitzvah in the 1970s.  At the outset, Sherman gives his abbreviated version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  For example, he notes that in 1948 "war broke out," as if it were a rain storm suddenly beginning.  No mention of the fact that all of Israel's surrounding neighbours attacked Israel - and certainly no mention of what happened with all of the Palestinian land that was held by Jordan from 1948 to 1967.  Or the Jewish towns and villages that were wiped out by the Arab armies during that war.  In fact, Sherman refers to the founding of  Israel as the "Nakhba," - using the Palestinian term for the great disaster.

Along the way, Sherman cites such "luminaries" as Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, and Edward Said, all known Israel bashers.  And frankly, I woudn't even have a great problem with that if he also cited or interviewed or spoke with some historians, politicians, scholars etc., who might give an opposing view.  He could interview them, argue with them and raise his concerns.  There is no shortage of people who would have thoughtful responses to some of what Sherman raises.  

But there is no opposing view because this is not an objective documentary.  It is essentially a propaganda film that describes Israel as an illegitimate war-crime state.  The concluding part  of My Tree longs for the day (at the end of the movie) where Israel will be replaced by a one-state solution. Sherman refers to himself  as having been complicit in "war crimes" because his family planted a tree for his bar mitzvah by contributing money to the JNF.   

Like any decent prograganda film on this topic, disguised as a documentary, the movie certainly includes some truths, cites some historical injustices  and raises awareness of important issues.  I don't mean to downplay the genuine injustices that many Palestinians have faced including those who lived in Arab towns that were overrun by the Israeli army in 1967.  But there is no context at all.  The wars that Israel has fought have been existential and that has included a battle over land in many cases.

Sherman mocks the notion that Jews  had a presence in the Land of Israel historically, for thousands of years or that there is any reality to the historical connection that  the Jewish people have to the country.  He portrays Israel as a settler-colonialist state, rather than a movement to reclaim an indigenous homeland.  He disregards legitimate land purchases, settlement  and nation building on the the part of Jewish immigrants starting in the 1880s. Of course there is no mention, whatsoever, of any role  the Palestinians might have played in the whole historical narrative and the hostilities.  No mention of how the wars started, no discussion of terrorism, pre-1948 massacres, or any other parts of the historical record that might not fit with Sherman's thesis. 

Now there is a great deal of controversy over the dichotomy and the opposing views of Israel - but one could certainly explore these issues and give them context - even if ultimately preferring the anti-Israel side of the narrative,  as Sherman is inclined to do.  Because of this lack of context or balance, it is no wonder that the film has been presented at Palestinian film festivals.  It is probably quite popular among the likes of Peter Beinart, Sid Ryan, Roger Waters, JVS (Jewish Voices for Peace), the BDS movement and other groups and individuals that are opposed to Israel and its policies - or reject Israel's existense outright as a Jewish State.

By way of an example, Sherman wanted to discuss these issues with a Rabbi in Toronto.  Apparently, the only Rabbi in Toronto who he  could  find to speak to him was a rabbi from the Danforth Jewish Circle that meets in a church.  To her credit, I thought Rabbi Miriam Margles did a fairly decent job answering some of the points raised by Sherman.  But would it be too problematic to try to meet with some other rabbis - perhaps the rabbi of the same shul that he went back to when asking about his bar mitzvah?  Or perhaps other Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Chabad rabbis?  Again, I find it hard to believe that no one would speak with him.  More likely, he didn't want to hear or record what they might say because it woudn't fit his narrative.

Ultimately, the juxtoposition between the celebrations in Israel,  and this type of movie made by an unaffiliated Torontonian, who happens to be Jewish, highlights the growing chasm between Israel and the diaspora.  Israel is now home to more  than  half of the world's Jewish population and that population is rapidly increasing.   On the other hand, the Jewish communities in  Canada  and the U.S. as well as other countries around the world are shrinking due to assimilation, intermarriage and general apathy.  Further, according to some recent articles, the level of support among young Jews in the U.S. and Canada - for Israel - has also been dropping.  This is disappointing but not surprising.

Last night, in Toronto, I attended at a Ma'ariv  service at the same shul where Mr. Sherman was doing some of his filming.  I was joining a family member to commemorate a Yahrtzeit.  The shul was sparsely attended.  But the more  troubling point is that it was Erev Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day.  There was no shul programming scheduled, no special prayers, no serious commemoration of this solemn day.   In fact, the shul was having a "Town Hall Meeting" - of all days - on Yom Hazikaron.  And that was, to me, another reflection of this growing gap between the two communities.

To end on a positive note, I can mention that, despite these trends, the number of Birthright groups travelling to Israel remains significant.  Thousands of young Jews from around the world  are taking a 10 day trip to Israel to see the country first hand, and hopefully come away with some sense of affinity, belonging, and pride for the country that is now home to such a large percentage of the world's Jewish population.  And some of them may well wind up on a bus with one of our family members - who is now a full licensed Israeli  tour guide.

Wishing everyone a Chag Sameach on Israel's 74th birthday and hoping that the coming years will bring peace, stable government, continued development in a wide range of areas, more great music and closer relationships with Jews around  the world, including, perhaps, those like Mr. Sherman, who might come back for another visit.  This second time around, aside from looking for his tree, he can also see his Temple ruins, his ancient synagogues, the burial sites of his ancestors and so many other important Jewish historical sites that just didn't seem relevant to the statement he was trying to make  - including those particularly dear to my heart - like the ancient wineries, wine storage facilities and wine presses that were one of the largest sources of economic activity in the Temple years, during the first and second Kingdoms of the Jewish people in Ancient Israel.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

March 2022: Kanievsky Funeral, Prime Minister Bennett, Wineries and More

It has been a while since I have written.  Certainly there is no shortage of events to write about but I have been quite busy professionally and with many other things going on.  So I thought I would  do a bit of a smorgasbord of topics that hopefully fit with the theme of this blog, as indiscernible as that might sometimes appear.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky Z"L

Today was a huge event for hundreds of thousands of Israelis and for many more Ultra-Orthodox and  Orthodox Jews around the  world.  Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky died on Friday and his funeral was held today in B'nei Brak.   Estimates for the  number of attendees range from 500,000 to 800,000 people.  Much of the centre of the country was  closed  down.  Bus routes, highways, trains all ground to a halt so that public transportation could be diverted for the purpose of taking people to and from the funeral.

Rabbi Kanievsky was considered a great leader for the Ultra-Orthdox community in Israel and worldwide.  He gained quite a bit of attention speaking in March 2020 about the need to keep Yeshivas open even while everything else was being shut down during Covid - but he eventually endorsed the idea of following Israeli health guidelines and called for all of the members of his community to be vaccinated.  He himself wound up sick with Covid-19 but recovered from it last year.

Among some of his rulings cited in Wikipedia are a ruling that medical cannabis is kosher for passover (as long as it is legal) and that sexual abuse within the Haredi community should also be reported to civil authorities (many leaders previously had  argued that it should be kept within the community). Obviously, he has ruled on hundreds, if not thousands of other  issues, but I am not about to research his catalogue of halachic decisions.  

At his funeral, various rabbis spoke about his greatness, his dedication to Torah study and his willingness to speak to anyone who wanted to come and speak with him.  One of his sons spoke about how he would study Torah for at  least 17 hours every day.  When it was time to come and eat - he would arrive at the table.  If the food wasn't ready (his wife, of course, was normally the one preparing it), he would pick up a book and keep reading so that he would not waste any valuable time until the food was ready and until his wife was ready to sit down and  eat with him.

In any event, I can't say that I personally knew too much about him or  that I even considered going to join the hundreds of thousands of  people at his funeral.  Maybe I just don't like being trampled or, at least, the risk of being trampled.  Or maybe it's because I have no connection to Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and my politics and beliefs are diametrically opposed to those of their community on a wide range of issues, including gender equality, secular studies and state vs religion divisions.  In fact, watching these tens of thousands of young men, sporting their black jackets and hats, I couldn't help but feeling that they should all be  conscripted to the Israeli army like the vast majority of other people that age.  But that topic is for another  day.  As an historical event, it was, nevertheless, something quite interesting to watch on TV.  I can be, after all, quite a news junkie and this was certainly a newsworthy event.    

Prime Minister Bennett and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine   

Ukranian President  Volodymir Zelenskyy is scheduled to speak to the Israeli Knesset tonight at 6 p.m.  But the Knesset is being renovated so it sounds like the event  will primarily be on Zoom.  It is also unclear how many of the Knesset members will attend.  Some of the Knesset members, particularly on the right side of the spectrum, seem to be somewhat more sympathetic to Putin than other Israelis on the centre and left of the spectrum.

From what I hear, it seems to me that a significant majority of Israelis are supportive of Ukraine and are doing many different  things to try and help the  Ukranians.  Israel has sent field hospitals to be set up at different borders in Poland and in Moldova.  Israelis have been sending food, money, supplies of all different types and all kinds of other assistance to Ukranians.  Israel has been accepting Ukranian refugees and making plans to house and shelter large numbers of them either temporarily or, in many cases, permanently.  

At the same time, Israel, under the previous leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu maintained close connections with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Israel has been coordinating sorties over Syria to destroy Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah and has been careful not to turn Russia into an active enemy combattant, especially since Russia is now in effective control of Syria (one  of the legacies of the Trump administration).  Prime Minister Bennett has been placed in a very difficult spot.

On the one hand, his mandate, as the Prime Minister of Israel is to act in the best interest of  Israel, a country that consistently faces existential threats, the most current being the  possibility of a nuclear war with Iran.  Prime Minister Bennett must also be concerned about the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Ukraine and in Russia as well as actions that Russia might take if he pushes things too far on behalf of  Ukraine.

At the same time, for the Jewish community and for people who ask "where was the world?" during the Holocaust, we are in a situation that  is eerily reminiscent of 1939.  We are watching one country invade, destroy and  decimate another country, murder thousands of civilians, use all kinds of banned  weaponry and generally threaten  all of Europe.  The U.S and NATO to their credit, have taken some  very significant actions including economic sanctions, supply of  military weaponry and other steps.  It doesn't seem to be enough as Ukraine seems unlikely to be able to withstand the Russian  forces for too much longer  even though  the Ukranian army has lasted a lot  longer than many  anticipated.  Even Turkiye, which is trying to remain somewhat neutral, has been supplying Ukraine with some  very advanced fighter  drones.

But  thus far, Israel has refrained from supplying  Ukraine with military supplies and assistance and has been very careful to avoid criticizing  Putin too harshly.  As a result, Prime Minister Bennett has been selected by Putin and Zelenskyy as one of the "acceptable" figures to try and  negotiate a resolution.

At this point, it is hard to see that he is getting anywhere, though at least we can say he is trying.  Russia is continuing to destroy Ukraine, thousands are dying, tens of thousands are starving and there does not not seem to be an end in sight.  It is truly heartbreaking.  But at the same time, I think many are feeling anger that the world is just not doing enough.

Many Israelis are going out of their way to help Ukranian refugees in so many different ways including  housing some  of them temporarily.   But I can't say that Bennett's positions, at least  those that are being publicly reported,  are particularly comforting.

As an update, I just finished listening to Zelenskyy's speech, with a translation to Hebrew.  One  of the most  important lines - he said -  and I am paraphrasing somewhat - "it is one thing to act as a mediator between two countries with different interests.  It is quite another thing to refuse to take a side when faced with a choice  between good and evil.  I leave it for you to reflect on what kind of decisions you are making as a country."

In reaction to the speech - one Israeli commentator said that although Zelenskyy's speech was short - "he held up a mirror right to our face - and I didn't like what I saw."

Covid and Travel

Israel has eliminated all pre-flight testing requirements for  Israelis  coming to Israel.  All  that  is needed is a PCR test, on arrival, taken  at the  airport.  For the most  part, the  mask mandates have  been lifted and many people are no longer wearing masks in different places.  Non-Israelis are required to show a PCR test taken within 72 hours of the flight departure time and proof of medical insurance that covers Covid-19.  They are also required to take a PCR test on arrival at the airport.

Purim 2022

We returned to shul for Purim this year - having only conducted Megillah  readings by Zoom in 2020 and 2021.  Our shul was fairly crowded though it definitely felt less crowded than some peak years.  I managed to read my  usual chapter 8 (video available on demand by private request...).  We also had nice enough weather to hold a Purim Seudah on Purim day (Thursday March 17, 2022) and tried to do our part to fulfill the mitzvot of eating and  drinking in sufficient quantity.  (Not usually a problem in this house as many of  you know).

Pesach is Coming    

Less than a month to go until Pesach (Passover).  I am planning to be in Toronto for a few weeks before the holiday - so perhaps, ironically, I will look around and buy some Kosher for Passover products in Toronto that you can't normally find in Israel.  Some examples might be Matzah ball soup mix (I know, we  can make it from scratch...), cake meal, and a few other items.   Another example would be Israeli wine.  Some Israeli wines can be purchased in Toronto at prices that are far less than what they sell for in Israel.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As crazy as it sounds, it is true.

We are looking to see if we can host a Ukranian refugee family or  two for our Seder so we have a few weeks to get that organized.  We hope and pray that by then, this war will be over.

Oscar Watch

Watching the annual Academy Awards is something we enjoy but it requires an all-nighter here in Israel.  Our clocks will change on Thursday the 24th  at night - and the time difference will go back to 7 hours.  That means that the Oscars will be on in the middle of the night on Sunday night/ Monday morning.  Some years we try to stay up and watch although this year I may be able to watch at a more reasonable time in Toronto.

We have been making our way through the list of best picture nominees.  We greatly enjoyed Coda which is apparently one  of the top 3 or 4 frontrunners.  I can't say the same about The Power of the Dog which, in our view, was extremely slow.  I wasn't thrilled about Licorice Pizza either.  I found King Richard, the story of Venus and Serena Williams and their Dad, Richard Williams, quite compelling and thought Will Smith was wonderful.  We also  saw Westside Story.  I had really been looking forward to it but in the end, I'm just not sure that it added much to the  original.  So we have about 5 left to watch in the coming days.  Not sure we will get to all of them in this final week before the awards show but I guess we will see.

Prices, Prices

Like everywhere else, I'm sure, prices here of  just about everything have been going through the roof.  I think gas was at about $3.00 cdn per  litre (which is probably close to $12 US per gallon for my American readers who think gas prices are high in the U.S....).

Other food items have also been increasingly high priced with lots of  blame to go around - Covid-19, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the quasi-monopoly in the food industry in Israel and anything else you can think of.  One item that is cheap - is juice oranges - which can  be purchased for 1.99 shekels a kilo - which is less than $0.40 per pound (Cdn).  Let's say $0.32 a pound U.S.  So we have been making some freshly squeezed  orange juice.  Just don't add a pineapple - which can cost $20-$30 for one....a very small one.  

Wineries and Other Day Trip Ideas

Despite all that has been going on, we still managed to get in a few field trips over the past month.  In particular, we managed to visit three wineries, an  olive oil plant and a coffee roastery, all of  which are trips that I would recommend  for anyone visiting or  for those who live here but haven't been to these places.

Earlier this month, we went to the Kitron Winery.  We have been there before and I think I may have written about it.  It is a beautiful winery that is described as one of a handful of fully "gravitational wineries" in the world.  This means that the winery relies  on forces of gravity to move  the wine from place to place during production.   The grapes start on the top level of the winery and move down by levels  without pumps.  According  to the vintners, this means that Kitron does not need to add sulphites.  They claim that the Kitron red wines do not give people headaches the same way that other red wines might.  Kitron is a Kosher winery that is observing the  Shmittah year in the most stringent  way possible - it's field are lying  fallow this harvest year (since it is a sabbatical year) and  no wine  will be made from this year's  grapes.  Kitron  offers a terrific tasting  experience  with some  great cheeses, a variety of wines, breads, jams, olives, peppers and even some coffee and halvah  for  dessert.

We also visited the Odem Winery this month, which is near Kiryat  Shemona in the very northern part of Israel.   The  Odem Winery uses grapes grown in volcanic soil for most of  its wines and there can be a volcanic taste in some of the wines.  However, they are quite good.  We particularly enjoyed the reserve Shiraz/Syrah.  The people were very friendly, the visitors' centre is quite nice and the cheeses were tasty.  We have  also visited this winery more than once and we have  enjoyed  it each time.

Near the Odem Winery, we stopped at Eretz Geshur, an olive oil factory.  Here you can taste 12 different types of olive oil, ranging from oils that are light tasting to those that are full bodied, spicy and even a bit bitter.   You might  not have realized that there is such a big difference from one olive oil to the next until you taste them side by side.  We also  watched a movie about olive oil production, which was fascinating.   Eretz Geshur uses a full automated system for  picking the olives and then has a number of different machines including crushers and  centrifuges for automating the process to the greatest extent possible.  The factory is strictly kosher  and  is a fun place to visit.

Just last week, we visited one additional winery, Flam, which is not too far from Beit Shemesh in the centre of Israel.  The visitors' centre was a bit more of a "do it yourself" place though it was reasonably nice.  The wine was tasty but not earth shattering.  The most  popular wines were the most expensive, one of them close to 350 Shequels a bottle (about $140 Cdn) so we didn't buy any.

Not far from Flam,  we  stopped off at Agro Cafe also near Beit Shemesh and had some really nice coffees.  Agro Cafe imports coffee beans from various locations around the world and roasts all its own coffees.  The site  conducts workshops on how to make coffee in 5 or 6 different ways, information about the history and production of coffee and about some of the issues facing coffee growers and the workers in the industry.  Another highly recommended spot to stop for a visit.

Final Comments

In case you might be thinking that I live a life of leisure and luxury, just running  around  visiting  wineries, that is decidedly incorrect.  I have actually been quite busy, working remotely, meeting with clients by Zoom and even attending  at Zoom mediations, and court appearances.  It does happen that being in central Israel means that you are less than 90 minutes away from about 300 wineries - so where we have the chance on Sundays or on other days, earlier in the day, it  is a fun activity.   My workday, when I'm in Israel, normally starts at about 4 p.m. and goes  until 12  or 1 a.m.  so it is a strange schedule

The weather is starting  to get  nicer here - and I imagine that very soon it will be extremely warm - usually starting in late April.   We were  blessed to have some wonderful visitors in February and are looking forward to other visitors in May, June and July.  We are always  happy to see friends and family from Canada, the U.S.  and other places and you can go through some of my past blogs for some destination suggestions.

That's about it for now - I wish everyone all the best - the best of health - and peace early in this war-torn year of 2022.