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.
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.
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.
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.
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.