Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In the Pink

Several years ago, a number of international organizations and companies spearheaded an initiative to raise awareness of breast cancer and generate donations, by selling pink products. One of those companies was KitchenAid. They introduced a line of pink products including a food processor, giving a portion of sales of each item to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation.

Sadly, my mother's family has been repeatedly afflicted by breast cancer. I've lost two beloved aunts, Sybil and Thelma, and other women in the family have undergone treatment. Alissa's family has also experienced breast cancer firsthand.

It seemed perfectly appropriate then to support this initiative, and so we bought the pink KitchenAid. This began an initiative of our own that we call Pink for Pareve. Having a kosher kitchen meant we already had separate dishes and utensils for meat and dairy, but we didn't have any dedicated pareve (neutral) dishes or appliances. Thus, the KitchenAid became the first of our pink pareve items. Since then we've added a pink frypan, a pink pot, pink plastic bowls, pink cutting boards and even pink towels. It's an easy way to remember which items are pareve; more importantly, they are daily reminders of the scourge of breast cancer and its affect on our family.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. As part of an effort of Estee Lauder Cosmetics, buildings around the world will be lit up in pink light beginning Wednesday at 8:00pm, including Tel Aviv's Sderot Rothschild, and others. Other international buildings to be coloured include the Japan's Tokyo Tower, New Zealand's Sky Tower, the Millennium Memorial in China, the municipality building in Paris and the LA International Airport.

The Israel Cancer Association (ICA), which is organizing the campaign in Israel, reminds all women aged 50 to 70 that they should get a mammogram every two years; high-risk women should begin undergoing screenings earlier. A number of recent genetic studies have found that Ashkenazi Jewish women have a much higher than average probability of carrying a breast cancer-causing genetic defect.

While all women should be aware of the facts of breast cancer, there are several organizations that address the specific needs of Jewish women.

In Israel, for more information, call 1-800-599-995 or see the ICA Web site at

Jewish women in the United States should contact Sharsheret for information and support.

Canadian Jewish women should contact the L’Chaim Cancer Support Group for Jewish Women in Canada. They have a DVD entitled, “What Every Jewish Woman Should Know About Cancer.” Topics include breast cancer genetics, finding support from Jewish sources, and helping a friend undergoing cancer treatment. For information about L’Chaim or to order the DVD, please call (416) 630-0203.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A brake for the holidays

Reflecting upon Rosh Hashanah reminded me of an incident that happened many years ago. I was driving my parents to work while their car was in the shop. At the time, they owned a knitting store in a strip mall on Carling Avenue in Ottawa. Carling is a fairly flat street but there was a steep decline before the mall. At the top of the hill, we came to an intersection, and I felt something odd about the brakes as we stopped. Spongy. As we started down the hill I thought to myself, if there's something wrong with the brakes I need to know now and not at the bottom of the hill after we've picked up speed. I slowly started to depress the brakes. My foot went, down, down, down until the brakes were completely depressed to the floor without any affect.

All this time my parents were chatting away, and so without interrupting them, I casually dropped my hand to the emergency brake and started to pull up. I geared down to engine brake, and continued using the handbrake all the way down, into the mall, and up to their store where I finally pulled the brake up all the way and stopped the car. As my mother got out of the backseat, she remarked, "You were going a little fast, I think" but my father, who had been sitting in the passenger seat, leaned toward me and whispered, "Your brakes were completely out, weren't they? Then he smiled and patted me on the back.

Rosh Hashanah feels a little like that trip down the hill to me. I would normally have braked automatically, without even thinking about it. The brake situation forced me to heighten my control of the car and be completely aware of my actions. Likewise, on Rosh Hashanah we are required to truly take responsibility for our actions. We consider our behaviour and repent; we consider our relationships with each other and with God, and commit to improve.

And while many (especially those who don't regularly attend synagogue) are overwhelmed by the quantity of prayer-giving during the High Holidays, this is really a time, in my opinion, when the goal is quality not quantity. Not amplitude but attitude. Not immensity but intensity.

I would go so far as saying that although there are a number of prayers which are considered essential, if you feel that a small dose of high-powered prayer is the best you can do, then go for it. If you're not someone who usually attends services, I sincerely hope you will consider 'stopping by' for a little quality time. Don't worry about ritual or tradition; just make the most of a few moments there, in whatever form that may take (I don't recommend 'speaking in tongues' but you know what I mean.)

I must also say, it's always struck me that both my Father, (z"l) and Grandmother (z"l) were born on Rosh Hashanah, and my Grandfather (z"l) died on Yom Kippur. It is impossible for me to think of the imagery of a book of life being opened and closed during this season without taking it a little personally. I'm sincerely a little uneasy during the High Holidays. Well, maybe that's the point.

Alissa and I wish our family and friends, those we already cherish and those we look forward to meeting, a sweet and healthy New Year. May this be a year of simchas and blessings for everyone.

L'Shana Tova, Ktima v'Chatima Tova!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tora! Tora! Tora!

One of the many beautiful things about learning at seminary is the opportunity to partake in amazing events. Going to the Kotel (Western Wall) and singing in the darkened holiness. Spending Shabbat with an amazing group of women in Efrat. Not to mention, just learning Torah with amazing teachers and amazing women.

And once in awhile, you merit being a part of a great simcha (celebration) - a Hachnasat Torah, or introduction of a new Torah to a community.

Yesterday afternoon, Nishmat, the seminary where I learn, was blessed to receive not one, but two new Sifrei Torah (kosher Torah scrolls). One came all the way from New York, facilitated by the teacher of our Rabbanit (who has completed the circle by becoming the teacher of the teacher), the other from the neighbourhood synagogue located next to Nishmat.

Nishmat has a policy of including the neighbourhood in everything. Even the Chesed, or volunteer work, that the girls do, takes place in the local area. So of course, the neighbours were invited to the party!

The celebrating took place on the streets of the Pat neighbourhood in Jerusalem, with the mitzvah mobile (in North America, you rent an ice cream truck for a street party, in Israel, you rent a truck that plays simcha music!), balloons, candy, dancing and lots of singing.

Every time a community - synagogue, school, hospitals, whoever - receives a Sefer Torah, it's as if we were at Sinai, receiving the Torah from God all over again (look it up - Moses, mountain, golden calf, 15- no, 10 commandments). We can almost - almost - imagine the joy of our ancestors. We have it better though. We know what we're receiving; our ancestors had no idea yet what a beautiful, powerful gift they had been given.

Lest you think this is something that only the religious people care about, there were so many people in the neighbourhood who came running out of their buildings to kiss the Torahs as they went past, who joined in the festivities, who were excited about dancing with the Torah.

We blocked off streets, preventing the local bus from moving for maybe 5-10 minutes. It was the first time I'd experienced a blocked bus driver not leaning on his horn. The passengers didn't seem to mind; they were all on their feet in the bus, clapping right along.

I had to leave before the girls got their chance to dance with the Torahs once they were safely delivered to the Bet Midrash ("house of learning" or our study hall) of Nishmat. But this is such an important, joyous event, as I was making my way out, tables were quickly being pushed out of the way, instruments were being set up and the room was practically sparking with the urge to celebrate this beautiful event.

I'm sure I missed a heck of a whirl, but what a blessing to be a part of such an amazing experience.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Baruch Dayan Emet

Blessed is the true Judge. This is what traditional Jews say when we hear of the death of someone not related to us.

We say this for a number of reasons. We have no idea why God calls someone back. We can have no way of knowing why one family suffers many losses, while another suffers none.

Baruch Dayan Emet
is what we said when we heard of the death of IAF pilot Assaf Ramon, 20, whose father Illan Ramon died aboard Space Shuttle Columbia six years ago. Yesterday, Ramon's F-16 crashed into the Hebron Hills during dogfight training, some 70 kilometres south of where we live.

Why this promising young pilot, who vowed to follow in his father's footsteps, was killed is known only to God. Why this mother has to face the loss of a son, after facing such a public, tragic loss of her husband is a mystery to us.

But the whole country feels it. This tiny country with its tiny population cried yesterday at the news. It was impossible to completely blink back the tears while listening to the morning news report today. When we lose one, the whole country mourns. When we lose one so tragically, the whole country cries. When we lose a national son, our hearts break for his mother.

When things happen here, it's never too far away. In the same way, there is an immediacy to Israel's history that is impossible to escape. Within minutes of where we live, for example, there are a number of memorials for fallen soldiers from the 1948 War of Independence; including one by the highway which sits next to a wing from an Israeli Spitfire. Along the highway to Jerusalem, the rusted remains of makeshift armoured cars, destroyed as food convoys were trying to reach isolated Jewish neighbourhoods in the city, are gathered together like a congregation of corpses. There are countless battered ruins of Arab villages, stone walls now overgrown with prickly pears and wildflowers. In the larger cities, it's still possible to see bullet and mortar pockmarks in buildings. In places like Sderot, these scars are fresh. This is a wall in Sderot that has just been struck by a Kassam rocket. Don't be fooled by the lack of a destroyed wall. Shrapnel has torn holes in these steel girders. My wife was one block away when it landed.

For these reasons, in this part of the world wars are perceived not as something that happens 'over there' but as something that happens right here. What's interesting is how this reality affects people differently. But for the most part, that sense that the next war will be fought in our own backyards (my apartment has a metal reinforced bomb shelter, and we do regular air raid siren drills) has actually reinforced in people the importance of living life to the fullest. Israelis don't do anything halfway; you do want you want, and you say what you feel. It took us a while to realize that people weren't being rude; they just had much better things to do than engage in idle chatter (please note, discussing politics is not idle chatter). The beaches and parks are always filled with ball-playing teens and picnicking families, enjoying every free moment.

Generally, that sense of immediacy also makes most people hesitant to fight another war. Everyone we know has lost a friend, a son, a father, a brother. I know Israel was criticized after the Gaza mission, but it's also forgotten that the country endured years of rockets before responding - not out of any particular worry about the international reaction, but out of fear of losing any more sons. That hesitation proved costly in 1973, when Syrian and Egyptian forces were able to strike first because the Israeli government didn't act preemptively as it did in 1967.

It also prolonged the war in Lebanon, which should have been fought with massive numbers of ground troops, as it was in 1982. Instead, the war was fought mainly from the air, which saved Israeli lives but gave enemy forces the opportunity to hide in bunkers while civilians, forced to accept rocket launchers next to their homes and schools, were injured and killed. While the military success or failure of the war is still being debated, Israelis recognized the moral failure of this tactic; Israeli lives should have been risked to prevent civilian losses. And so in Gaza, the war was fought almost entirely by ground forces, who coordinated air attacks using laser pointers and other sophisticated devices to prevent civilian losses (which weren't even remotely as high as some claim and paled next to other similar campaigns in places like Sri Lanka, where a reported 6,500 civilians were killed by government forces.)

What is clear is that today's wars aren't fought like those of yesteryear; we no longer send thousands of soldiers to remote places to battle in open fields away from the local population. Since the First World War, we understand that every city street is a potential battlefield. It's unlikely that Canadian or American cities will experience this kind of war, and we can't expect them to understand how it feels to live between battlefields, but the Europeans remember this feeling well, and they're justifiably reluctant to fight more wars in their own cities. No one wants to live with the shadow of war hanging over them. Sadly, we don't always have that option.

Capt. Assaf Ramon, 1989-2009
May his memory be for a blessing.

written by both Morey & Alissa

Friday, September 11, 2009

Stupid, meaningful or just plain old ass-hats?

TIFF. It means spat, or argument. TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) is the subject of a tiff. With filmmakers. Over what?


TIFF started a new program called City to City, with the intent of featuring films from filmmakers from a chosen city. To kick off this event, they have chosen Tel Aviv. A brave choice, to be sure. But if any city is a great choice to represent different voices, it is Tel Aviv. Secular, religious, gay, straight, eclectic artist, grey-suited businessman, sad slums, beautiful beaches, towering skyscrapers, pretty cottages, Jew, Arab, Tel Aviv has it all. And everyone has an opinion, and everyone voices their opinion. Freely.

John Greyson, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, David Byrne, Julie Christie, Viggo Mortenson, Harry Belafonte, Naomi Klein, Min Sook Lee, and many others - some recognizable, some not - believe that these opinions should not be heard. They believe the voices of these people should be stifled. In other words, these artists believe that filmmakers in Tel Aviv should be censored, blacklisted. They attest to this in a letter of protest that was sent to TIFF. John Greyson, a respected filmmaker, withdrew his film from TIFF.

Oh, the irony of artists censoring artists.

To its credit, TIFF is standing strong. Cameron Bailey, co-director of TIFF wrote an open letter in response to this protest.
"I was attracted to Tel Aviv as our inaugural city because the films being made there explore and critique the city from many different perspectives....We encourage everyone to see the films, engage in debate and draw their own conclusions."
The artists mentioned above apparently believe that we shouldn't engage in debate. We should just criticise Israel and be done with it. No one should draw any conclusions because obviously, the only conclusion is Israel is bad. Israel oppresses. Yet, if these artists had their way, the only place you'd be able to see the films featured in City to City would be Israel.

Who are the real oppressors here?

If you wish to know who supports City to City, here are some of the names and statements I've been able to find:

Minnie Driver - "Empowered groups of people, deciding whose stories can, and cannot be told, does nothing but remind us of oppression that has no place in filmmaking"
Jon Voight
Saul Rubinek
David Cronenberg - "attempts to stop TIFF's City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv amount to political censorship"
Ivan Reitman - "Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda in the end, only serves to silence artistic voices."
Norman Jewison
Robert Lantos - "Their brand of political censorship is at odds with the most cherished values of Canadian society: freedom of expression and freedom of choice...Bigotry like theirs has no place at the Toronto International Film Festival."
edited to add:
Simcha Jacobovici - "(TIFF) has been hijacked by a group of so-called activists bent on furthering their agenda – to demonize Jews and to marginalize Israel, in order to bring about the destruction of the Jewish State. Clearly, they do not support a two state solution. By objecting to a “spotlight” on Tel Aviv they are saying that no place in Israel is legitimate. From their twisted perspective, everything that Israel does is – by definition – illegitimate and everything that the enemies of Israel do is – by definition – legitimate. This is anti-Semitism in its crudest form. Furthermore, they have chosen to align themselves with Gaza’s Hamas regime that stands for terrorism, fundamentalism and totalitarianism. It is a Holocaust denying organization that is against Jews, Christians, gays and women. There is no worse regime in the world and yet Naomi Klein, John Greyson and company have chosen to identify themselves with it. You can tell a person by their friends."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tiff - noun: a slight fit of annoyance, bad mood, or the like.

I've updated my blog with a post on this week's controversy over the Toronto International Film Festival. I have no problem with a filmmaker, in this case, John Greyson, pulling his film from TIFF over its decision to salute Tel Aviv. That's his right. But, when artists organize and hold letter-writing campaigns over a festival's artistic decision, I take it personally. As someone who ran a film festival for eight years, I can tell you these decisions are not made lightly, and I commend TIFF and co-director Cameron Bailey for recognizing Tel Aviv as an important cultural centre.

That's not to dismiss the city's political history. But name me a great city that doesn't have baggage. We might as well boycott the Berlin Film Festival over East Germany's treatment of political prisoners during the cold war. That Israel and the Palestinian issue is contentious ground is a given. But the festival should be a catalyst and forum for debate on the subject. Stifling that debate is an act of cowardice by a gang of thugs who cannot argue rationally and must therefore act irrationally. How else would one describe artists promoting artistic censorship? It boggles my mind; it hurts my heart.

More importantly, to accuse TIFF - a festival which has a history of supporting Palestinian filmmakers and screening films highly critical of Israel - of now acting as a propagandist for the Jewish state is just daft. Or deliberately malicious. Either way, I'm sure the irony of promoting the Palestinian cause by accusing a festival of promoting the Israeli case isn't lost on these people.

My blog post is here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Faraway, So Close!

"Do you want to spend Shabbat with some seminary girls?" she asked.

I should explain. Last week, Alissa began a month of learning for Elul at Nishmat, a women's seminary in Jerusalem. As part of the programme, Nishmat had organized a Shabbaton in Efrat with Rabbi Menachem Schrader and his family. Husbands were invited.

Let me think: Jewish learning. Free food. A tour of Efrat. Seminary girls. I could imagine quite a few yeshiva boys have dreams about weekends like this. Ok, I'm in.

On Friday afternoon, we met up with the group at the school . Of course, as things turned out, I was the only husband other than that of the group leader, and his English is about as good as my Hebrew. But, this would give me a chance to practice conversational Hebrew. The girls seemed friendly and bright, even if I felt a little like a one of the parental chaparones on an overnight High-School excurison.

After loading up our things, we set off by bus to Efrat. After crossing the checkpoint, it was a short drive to Efrat, located in the heart of an area south of Jerusalem called Gush Etzion, situated between Beth Lechem and Hevron. Efrat is relatively small, around 8,000 mainly religious Zionists, and was established in 1980.

It's impossible to visit the region without recognizing the political situation. The West Bank is complicated, to say the least. There had been a perpetual Jewish presence since Biblical times until the illegal Jordanian occupation in 1948 when Jews were expelled - many were killed or injured when the Jordanian army destroyed the Etzion Block - and prohibited from visiting religious sites.

Sadly forgotten by many is the fact that Jews are called "Jews" because they come from Judea, the historic name for this area. This unassailable historical fact was the basis for the Balfour Declaration (1917), endorsed by the San Remo Convention (1920) and the League of Nations (1922), confirming the Jewish people's right to live in the Holy Land, on both sides of the Jordan River. So, according to International law, Jews have every right to buy land and settle in this region.

And so, entering Efrat we feel like we are coming home. There is a visceral familarity to the landscape and the expansive sky, and I dwell upon the words of Moshe to the people Israel, "For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land with streams of water, of springs and underground water coming forth in valley and mountain; a land of wheat, barley, grape, fig and pomegranate, a land of oil-olive and date-honey; a land where you eat bread without poverty--you will lack nothing there."

We arrive at the home of the Rabbi and immediately the process of assigning billets begins. The Rebbetzin and Rabbi have decided to send the girls to homes based on dietary restrictions: vegans to this home, vegetarians who eat fish to these people, omnivores who can't eat get the idea. I turn to the Rabbi and say, "I eat EVERYTHING!" (In truth, Alissa prefers not to eat meat but she's far more accomodating than me). He says, "Well, there's the Bogners."

"Huh? David and Zahava Bogner?"

"Oh, do you know them?"

"We know of them. And we've commented on each other's blogs."

"Well, they're just down the street." And once we had the address, we were off to the home of Bogners, known by many as 'Chez Treppenwitz.'

If you want to know what happened next, you can read here.