Israeli farmer beaten to death, reportedly by Palestinians


An Israeli farmer died at the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center after being found severely beaten in a field.

The 60-year-old Rehovot resident was discovered Wednesday afternoon in central Israel after reportedly having been beaten by Palestinians who had crossed into Israel without permits, the Times of Israel reported.

The farmer died of injuries several hours after arriving at the hospital.

The motives of his assailants have not been determined.

This Week in Jewish Farming: Meeting the neighbors


Back in the spring, I struggled to figure out a good cold storage solution for the farm. I settled on the idea of buying a used cargo trailer and converting it into a refrigerator, which isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds.

Several farmers I know, and supposedly thousands of other buyers across the world, have purchased an ingenious little device called a CoolBot, which essentially tricks a standard window air conditioner into functioning as a fridge. Hook the Coolbot to the AC, stick it in a well-insulated room, and presto.

The main part of this job was laying the insulation — 4 inches of foam on every surface of the trailer, according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, and the thing needs to be both airtight and waterproof. My mom’s favorite handyman helped me out at first, but after two days it was still unfinished and he had to leave town. At this point, I was barely a week away from my first farmers market and, typically, I was getting nervous.

I wandered down to the hardware store where I had befriended the manager and asked if he knew anyone with carpentry skills who could do a weird job on short notice. Turns out he did. It further turns out that the carpenter in question was my next-door neighbor.

Larry is a 76-year-old lifelong bachelor who grew up on the land he still lives on. His father was a dairy farmer and his extended clan – two brothers, an uncle, some nieces and nephews, and various other relatives – all live in neighboring houses. Larry runs a small boat repair business out of the shop in back of his house and he agreed to shepherd my makeshift refrigerator through to the finish, though he was deeply skeptical of the idea. Still, a week later, he pulled his truck up to the farm with the trailer hitched behind him. We hooked up the CoolBot in a matter of minutes and, within the hour, the temperature was down to 37 degrees. Victory!

Since then, Larry has become a regular presence in my life. He built me a custom box to protect my pricey scale when I lug it to the market and a plywood tailgate for my truck. He replaced the truck’s hitch, repaired the pig-tail electrical connector and cleared a clog in my backpack sprayer with his air compressor. When the starter on the truck blew a few weeks back, he towed me back to his house. Bare-chested and lying on a piece of cardboard on the ground, Larry replaced the starter while his brother Raymond and I talked about water pumps.

I’ve paid Larry for some jobs — sometimes in cash, other times in tomatoes – and others he’s done just to be nice. Every couple of days I’ll drop by his place on my way home. He’s normally laid back on a cot in his living room watching TV, his supper on the coffee table nearby. I’ll sit for a bit, he’ll tell me the same story he told me the day before or rant about the news. About the only thing I can offer in exchange for his many kindnesses is loaning him my weed whacker and providing some company. And that seems about enough for Larry.

In an earlier post, I soured a bit on this notion that food is the great community builder. But my relationship with Larry harks back to what I imagine community life was like in an earlier era — a time when neighbors performed vital functions for one another, when the connections were thick and lasting, when the sense of mutual dependence was real. It’s something I never experienced before, neither in the density of Brooklyn nor in the roomier, white-picket-fence suburb of my childhood.

It’s the kind of thing I think we all idealize in our hazy, sepia-toned imaginations but rarely experience. And it’s the kind of connection born less of food than of need and proximity — though greasing the skids with some fresh-picked delicacies from the fields certainly helps.

Green gold: Israel sets a new standard for legal medical marijuana research, production and sales


Just over six years ago, in the lush Upper Galilee of northern Israel, the nation’s first large-scale harvest of legal medical marijuana was flowering on the roof deck of Tzahi Cohen’s parents’ house, perched on a cliff overlooking the bright-green farming village of Birya. Until then, fewer than 100 Israeli patients suffering from a short list of ailments had been allowed to grow the plants for themselves, but this marked the first harvest by a licensed grower.

The Cohen home soon became a temple in the area for believers in the healing powers of cannabis — a legendary family operation that, in this early golden era, served as a grow house, a pharmacy and a treatment center all in one. In “
Strain samples at Tikun Olam’s distribution center in northern Tel Aviv.

“We think that medical cannabis should be distributed to the patients as any other medical drug — at pharmacies,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron Grinboim wrote in an e-mail.

The ministry first announced that a new, cutting-edge distribution program would be unveiled in spring 2012, but — due partly to a turnover in the Israeli Knesset, and the challenges of setting up such an unprecedented structure — the ministry now predicts it will go into effect by the end of 2014.

The head of Israel’s newly created Medical Cannabis Unit, political unknown Yuval Landschaft, has a no-press policy of his own, and the Ministry of Health will not reveal the details of his new plan. But insiders told the Jewish Journal that Landschaft and a team of brand-new hires, whose sole duty is to oversee and redesign Israel’s medical cannabis program, are racing to build a streamlined pharmaceutical system that could set a new global standard in the field.

“Yuval’s dream is that everything be sent to a central warehouse, where it’ll be packaged for distribution,” said Mimi Peleg, director of patient training at Abarbanel’s cannabis center.

Under the plan, government-affiliated pharmaceutical supplier Sarel Ltd. would be in charge of testing each batch of cannabis to verify its quality and consistency, and would then stock pharmacies across Israel with measured doses of marijuana — as it does with any other medication.

Similar programs have previously been tested in both Canada and Holland. However, Canadian officials recently announced that they will hand the industry back to private suppliers in 2014, eliminating the federal government’s previous role of approving and educating cannabis patients. And in Holland, the number of patients has dropped to less than 1,000, with critics alleging that the quality of legal coffee-shop weed consistently tops the medical stuff.

State and city programs across the United States have spiraled even further out of control: A patchwork of conflicting laws at the local and federal levels have prevented a cohesive program from taking shape in any of the 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal.

If Israeli officials can overcome this cannabis curse — requiring them to fit a radically complex, villainized and under-studied plant into a rigid pharmaceutical system — the small Jewish nation could become the first to pull off a federal program that the medical community can get behind.

WEST COAST ROOTS 

Right around the time the Cohens founded Tikun Olam, former Los Angeles resident Yohai Golan fled the Wild West medical cannabis scene in California to start growing small and humble again at his mother’s house in Israel. 

Golan and the Cohen family each received founding grants in 2008 — $15,000 and $50,000, respectively — from David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps fortune, who told the Jewish Journal he was inspired to donate the money because “the government in Israel looked like they were going to set an example of a more reasonable approach.” Bronner also funded a visit to Israel from leading cannabis experts at the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, who coached the growers through their startup phase.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv in early September, dressed in a stone-studded Peter Pan hat worthy of Burning Man, Golan told turbulent stories of growing medical cannabis in Venice Beach and San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running with the crews of big celebrity pot advocates like Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell and actor Woody Harrelson. Although Golan claimed he was legally licensed to grow in California, he said his grow houses were subjected to constant raids by local police, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents and even motorcycle gangs.

“California is where it began, but it became a mess,” he said. So Golan returned home to Israel, where he poured everything he had learned growing marijuana in California into a farm he later named Better.

“My friend is the owner of Bodhi Seeds out of Santa Cruz, and he went and took master strains that I liked and cross-bred them especially for me to use in Israel,” Golan said. “He created a Purple Kush strain — a cross of Purple Kush, Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel — that was made especially for the desert.” It has since become Better’s most popular strain.

Unlike the Cohens, who chose their spot in the Upper Galilee for its pure mountain air and mystical history, Golan eventually decided to base his farm a few hours south, in the Valley of Elah. “We have no humidity and desert winds that drop into the mercaz,” he said. The Better farm now grows another buzzed-about strain called “cheesepie,” which contains 13 percent CBD and less than 1 percent THC, along with seven other standardized strains and many more in the development stage.

Various cannabis growers in Israel confirmed that a few months ago, they received a letter outlining some of Landschaft’s proposed changes — including grouping the strains into four medicinal categories based on their levels of CBD and THC.

Nativ Segev, CEO of Better, said that as long as strain experimentation isn’t limited, he believes the strongest cannabis growers will still be able to thrive within the ministry’s egalitarian vision. “The best thing to do is specialize in growing — to grow the best you can, and then sell it to the government,” he said. “If you grow good things, if you grow the best [strains], you will be OK.”

Other farms are hesitant to move toward a more socialist system, which would involve sharing their gardening secrets with the feds, said Dr. Yehuda Baruch, Abarbanel’s director and former head of the cannabis program (before a changing of the guards in January).

“I tell the growers, ‘This is not the THC Olympics,’ ” said Boaz Wachtel, one of Israel’s original cannabis advocates and founder of the country’s fringe Green Leaf Party. “They’re very competitive.”

Up to now, a healthy competition between farms, as in many Israeli industries, has livened up the market and encouraged top product quality. However, a more centrally regulated system under construction at Israel’s Medical Cannabis Unit would eliminate some farms’ current branding advantages, and would allow patients and doctors to choose from all the farms’ strains, instead of just one. (Currently, patients report that it’s almost impossible to switch from one farm to another.) “If every grower has a number of great strains to offer, it won’t be a problem,” Wachtel said.

“The most important thing is that we stabilize phenotypes so that we can depend on what we’re getting from one season to the next,” said Abarbanel’s Peleg, who does strain testing for three of the farms. “The way to get there is to start sharing genetics — to have this national grow where we have a nursery for everybody, and start making better and more healthy clones that we’re giving away to the growers.”

However, she added, “this sharing attitude is not popular here.”

Doctors and other cannabis experts who spoke to the Jewish Journal agreed that one of the keys to writing cannabis into modern medical history, and to completing the clinical trials needed to more fully legitimize its use, will be to create standard strains or oils that can be replicated and expected to have consistent results, patient-to-patient.

Peleg said she hopes ego wars among growers won’t block Israel’s road to a more compassionate system. “We have the opportunity to really do something better” than anywhere else in the world, she said. “And I hope we take advantage of it.”


The outer wall of the Tikun Olam laboratory is inscribed with a passage from the Bible, in which God instructs Moses to anoint the altar with a special incense. Many believe this incense included cannabis.

MEDICINE OR SNAKE OIL?

In the United States, the exasperated Drug Policy Alliance, a leading organization in the fight to turn around backward cannabis policy, has long argued that American scientists and physicians interested in studying and prescribing cannabis are stuck in a sort of catch-22.

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the alliance’s California branch, wrote in a March 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: “Marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana’s medical benefits gets funded, so there’s practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana’s reclassification.”

Due to this lack of hard evidence, doctors in Los Angeles — from the so-called Dr. Feelgoods along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to pricey boutique physicians in Beverly Hills — are not even technically allowed to prescribe cannabis. Instead, they issue patients a recommendation slip, no questions asked.

“A doctor can recommend cannabis, but they can’t tell [patients] where to get it, and they can’t have a conversation with them about using it,” Reiman said in an interview, adding that in Israel, on the other hand, “when your federal government participates in the program, doctors don’t have to worry that if someone finds out, they’re going to get a bad reputation.”

Peleg, who worked for many years in Santa Cruz for the respected dispensing collective Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana before moving to Israel, added that in California, “Doctors aren’t supposed to talk about strains and methodologies, and sellers aren’t supposed to talk about diseases and implementation.” This leaves patients in the dark about the nuances of the cannabis plant in relation to their symptoms, and they find the right strain and dosage through trial and error. 

“It’s irresponsible for us to consider this a medicine and treat it like snake oil,” Peleg said. “Just because it works on everything doesn’t mean it’s snake oil. We need the studies for the right reasons — because people deserve to know what to expect. We need to know really basic questions, like do strains matter or not, or do cannabinoids matter? Let’s prove it.”

Although there is a world of research to conduct before the ingredients of marijuana are 100 percent understood within a medical framework, much of what doctors do know has come out of the Holy Land. “In many ways, Israel is providing the research we need to move forward,” Reiman said.

Researchers in the United States complain that due to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stronghold on the scientific cannabis supply, it’s near impossible to conduct the studies and clinical trials that doctors need to more confidently prescribe marijuana to their patients.

Conversely, in Israel, a tiny country of 8 million with intimate connections but big dreams, a circle of talent in the field — including cannabis growers, scientists and physicians — are all within one phone call to a friend-of-a-friend.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known internationally as the grandfather of cannabis research for being the first to isolate THC in the 1960s, remains today a top professor and researcher at Hebrew University. In the middle of an interview with the Jewish Journal, the kindly and soft-spoken 82-year-old took a panicked phone call from a local physician who wanted to know whether his cancer patient could benefit from cannabis. “I get that several times a day,” he said.

“Until well-designed clinical trials have been done and have been published, physicians don’t know what to do,” he added.

Mechoulam famously got his hands on his first batch of Lebanese hashish in the early ’60s, through a friend who had connections at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police. “Later we found that both the head of the investigative branch of the police and I had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam wrote in the British Journal of Addiction. “The Ministry of Health was in charge of illicit drug licensing and not the police, and I had broken the severe drug laws. Luckily, being ‘reliable,’ I just had to apologize.” He would later go on to receive the Israel Prize in exact sciences, the nation’s highest honor, for his work with cannabis.

In the decades since Mechoulam’s groundbreaking discovery, he and dozens of other Israeli scientists, in collaboration with their peers around the world, have built a foundation of knowledge on which a sane medical cannabis program can be built — all with the crucial blessing of the federal government.

Professor Ruth Gallily at Hebrew University has proven herself the queen of CBD research, confirming it highly effective in treating many types of inflammation, including that which leads to severe spine and back pain and even some heart disease.

“I can really tell you that CBD is a fantastic anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I have seen the benefit of it to so many people.”

Dr. Ephraim Lansky, an Israeli physician who specializes in studying herbs, published a now-famous case study based on a cancer patient who came to him with a golf-ball-sized tumor in his head. Lansky treated the young man with about one gram of high-CBD cannabis per day, ingested orally.


“Prescribed Grass” filmmaker Zach Klein, left, visited the Hadarim nursing home in southern Israel with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, center, to show him the benefits of cannabis for some patients there. Also pictured is nurse Inbal Sikorin, who helps administer the cannabis to patients. Photo courtesy of Zach Klein

Eight months later, according to Lansky, the tumor had shrunk by 75 percent, and his patient’s seizures had faded completely.

“Cannabis is just another herb, and it belongs within the wider context of herbal medicine,” Lansky told the Jewish Journal. “Of all the other herbs I use, it’s the most useful. I’d even have to put it ahead of garlic.” He hopes to spend the next few years publishing case studies on his cannabis patients, which could become the building blocks for full-scale clinical trials.

Mechoulam is likewise interested in the greater context of cannabis as a sort of cure-all: He continues to explore and lecture about his discoveries within the human body’s own natural endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that line up with the dozens of active ingredients in marijuana. The system could hold the secret to why marijuana is able to ease such a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado physician who treated an epileptic 5-year-old with high-CBD cannabis as the crux of Gupta’s CNN documentary, has announced that he is immigrating to Israel to take advantage of the more expansive research opportunities.

“We have an obligation as a medical community to study cannabis so that we can understand how it works, and more effectively decide what cannabinoids are most effective for what, and at what dose,” Shackelford told the Jewish Journal in a phone interview. He added he is “humbled by the opportunity to take what I know and expand on it in collaboration with these committed people in Israel who have done so much more.”

Shackelford hopes to study cannabis’ effectiveness in treating seizure disorders, among other conditions. “Israel’s the perfect place to do it, because of the openness to inquiry, and because of the relative lack of pejorative government opinion — because federal legislation is not restrictive,” he said.

Shackelford is also determined to help set up a system in Israel wherein physicians are involved in learning about the particulars of cannabis as a medicine. 

The real remaining obstacle to putting scientific theories about cannabis into medical practice, and setting up a sound pharmaceutical system, is a lack of funding for clinical trials on humans, said Shackelford — a problem echoed by many other experts in the field. Researchers must first test various combinations of THC and CBD (and other cannabinoids) on patients, under strict controls, before the medication can be properly prescribed.

“Clinical research is not an easy thing to do,” Mechoulam said. “And because cannabis came from the wrong direction, from the direction of an illicit drug, it’s difficult to get it into the clinical trials.”

The Israeli government has approved some of the only clinical trials involving cannabis in the world, including an exciting look at the response of PTSD patients to cannabis high in THC. However, these trials have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. And while some pharmaceutical companies have taken cautious interest in refabricating the elements of marijuana and running their own trials, they still seem generally unsure of how to brand and patent such a complex product of Mother Nature.

Thanks to this absence of conclusive research, it’s not easy for patients to snag a coveted pot license from the Ministry of Health.


A single storage locker at Abarbanel Mental Health Center holds the majority of the nation’s cannabis supply, after the marijuana has been tested at the lab and before it is packaged for distribution.

Although the number of license holders in Israel has been growing in recent months — according to the ministry, the total now sits at about 12,700, up from about 11,000 at the start of the year — estimates by pro-cannabis politicians and even the Ministry of Health itself put the number of potential cannabis patients still left out in the cold at between 40,000 and 100,000. 

Doctors in California can recommend medical marijuana for any condition as they see fit, while Israel’s Ministry of Health instructs doctors only to prescribe marijuana as a last resort and keeps a strict list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Some patients wait months, even years, before they see their requests approved.

Israeli activists have not stood idly by: An angry mob staged a hunger strike outside Health Minister Yael German’s house in May, responding to a further tightening of the list. (German has since expanded the list to include Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.)

An Israeli psychiatrist who wished to remain anonymous said he has seen a mere four or five new cannabis licenses issued to his PTSD patients in the past few years, out of hundreds who have applied. This, despite the fact that he has seen “spectacular results in patients with post-trauma.” 

A recent pilot for a clinical trial out of Abarbanel showed similarly promising results. However, “In order to convince the specialists to agree that cannabis is good for post-trauma, you need to [isolate] certain cognitive functions that you can test very precisely,” the psychiatrist said. Rick Doblin, founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California, also attested that the study was “very haphazard and irregular, with no information on things like how much marijuana they used — but still it showed that it seemed to be helpful for quite a few people.”

Tragically, as researchers fumble in uncharted territory, many of the unusually high number of Israelis with PTSD are unable to find relief in the top-of-the-line bud their country has to offer. 

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS 

“We have to consider, what are we doing when we don’t give people this medication? That’s the real question,” Dr. Itai Gur-Arie, then-chairman of the Israel Pain Association, said in the documentary “Prescribed Grass.” “It’s not that the patients won’t get any medication at all. They’ll get other medication — opiates. In other words, we won’t give them marijuana, we’ll give them heroin.”

Wachtel, one of Israel’s first cannabis advocates, had to rush out of an interview to consult a family whose teenage daughter, stuck at home for the last nine months with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, couldn’t get cannabis through her doctor — “so the family decided to go to the black market, to see if it helps,” Wachtel said.

On the positive side, patients in Israel lucky enough to meet the government’s cannabis criteria — and, in many cases, persistent enough in pressuring their doctors — are overwhelmingly impressed with the results. 

A 32-year-old cannabis patient in the western Galilee who wished to remain anonymous said he experienced violent spasms in his legs after being paralyzed in a swimming-pool accident a couple of years back. After trying marijuana on his own, he found that it instantly relieved the spasms.

So the quadriplegic told his doctor he needed cannabis for back pain, because pain is one of the approved conditions on the Ministry of Health’s list — and was prescribed 20 grams a month, the ministry’s conservative starting dose. Although the patient said he believes he needs a few more grams per month, he has been highly impressed with the strains he receives through IMC Agriculture, another licensed grower in Israel. (He said he chose IMC over Tikun Olam because the latter “became too commercial.”)

“When I go to swim, if I’m not using the cannabis, my body starts having spastic seizures — my body becomes completely stiff,” the patient said. But with a few puffs of cannabis beforehand, his paralyzed limbs are able to relax in the water.

With the help of cannabis, the 32-year-old has eliminated all but one of seven pharmaceuticals from his daily regimen.

Paulette Azar, 55, a recovering breast-cancer survivor who lives on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, said she fights for about three months each year to renew her annual cannabis license to treat her lingering cancer pain and PTSD symptoms. 

“It was very painful, the cancer — very painful,” she remembered, clutching her forearms tightly. “The doctors tried to give me other medications, but I didn’t let them. I had to be rude with them. I shouted, so I got [the cannabis]. And since then, I have no more pain when I smoke it, and I am very happy. I put music in my house, and I can live my normal life.”

Since the humble beginnings of the Ministry of Health’s cannabis program, the standard dose has plummeted from 200 grams to 20 grams per month. “At the beginning of the month, there are so many people who need their medicine, so we have to wait in line for, like, two hours,” Azar said.

Still, Azar said she is shocked and grateful that such a security-obsessed government allows her up to 70 grams of Tikun Olam product monthly.

Another Tikun Olam patient, Mor Hagdi of the Ramat Gan suburbs, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 22. He said he tried cannabis as a last resort, when his cocktail of pain pills wasn’t able to ease his suffering and was turning him into a zombie. “The pain is chemo pain,” he said. “I swear to God, I wouldn’t want even my enemy to get this pain. Now when I am talking about this, I cannot sit, I must walk — it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody in the world. But when I smoke the cannabis, I just feel the pain going down. It’s relaxing — and now there is no more pain.” The marijuana has also helped stoke his dwindling appetite.

Three years ago, Zach Klein, the filmmaker behind “Prescribed Grass,” initiated a very do-it-yourself clinical trial at the Hadarim nursing home just south of Tel Aviv — the same one where CNN’s Gupta watched a Holocaust survivor smoke away his dark past.


Yossi Segev, left, and Mimi Peleg were two original employees of Israel’s central cannabis distribution center, located at Abarbanel. Here, Peleg weighs cannabis during the center’s early days. Photo courtesy of Mimi Peleg

“One of the families [of a patient] saw the documentary and asked the head nurse for medical cannabis,” Klein remembered. “She said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But they insisted. So she called me and told me, ‘You made this movie, so now come here and help me out.’ ”

Klein, who worked as head of research and development for Tikun Olam at the time, came to the home and tried blowing cannabis in the face of a 75-year-old woman with dementia. 

“I saw an immediate change,” he said. “She stopped shouting; she created eye contact with me. The nurse almost collapsed, because for months, this was the tiger in the place. And after a few minutes, we actually had some kind of communication — I was calling her name, and she was responding. After a few minutes, she was even laughing.”
One of the most outspoken medical pot advocates in the Israeli Knesset has also been the most unlikely: Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, the same religious conservative who ignited the Israeli right this year when he posted to Facebook that he didn’t see anything wrong with shaking women’s hands. Feiglin is furious that it has taken Israel so long to build a system wherein marijuana is prescribed to everyone who needs it. 

 “Israel has reached a very, very high level of research and development of new kinds of cannabis,” Feiglin said in a phone interview. “It can help the whole world, and it can help the Israeli economy tremendously. I find it hard to believe that people are trying to restrict it. You cannot stop something that is so clear — so good for the patients and so good for the economy.”

Currently, only Holland allows its medical cannabis farms there to export marijuana to other countries, and the quality of Dutch medical strains is hugely lacking, according to Israeli activist and expert Wachtel. Israeli cannabis farms are anxious to share their strains with the world. At least two farms have been preparing for the coming revolution: Tikun Olam and Better have grown a loyal following around the world via social media, racking up about 1,300 and 24,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. Better’s fans drool over close-ups of the harvest, leaving comments such as “Dank!” “Gorgeous!” “Teach me your ways” and “You’re an inspiration to growers everywhere.” 

Beverly Hills PR maven Cheryl Shuman, who calls herself “the Martha Stewart of marijuana,” made a highly publicized trip to Tikun Olam territory in early September, bringing back with her high praise for the Holy Land. 

“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders — with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” Shuman told the Jerusalem Post Magazine for a cover story on her visit. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries. … That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me, and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”


At a lab located on the Tikun Olam farm, various forms of marijuana — including, from left, capsules, cigarettes, whole buds and liquid tincture — are tested.

Tikun Olam spokeswoman Weisberg said the farm is more than willing to meet that tall order. “This is a product that we can send to the whole world,” she said.

One of Colorado’s most active medical pot advocates, Bill Althouse, said he has communicated with growers in Israel about the possibility of sharing cannabis strains by shipping their genetic material internationally. Yet, the Ministry of Public Security, which runs Israel’s police department, has been a roadblock to the farms’ expansion, arguing in government meetings that medical cannabis is “leaking” into the hands of non-patients. Police keep a close eye on the farms — mandating video security systems worthy of Israel’s nuclear research center in Dimona — and poke around every once in a while to make their presence known. 

Tikun Olam has received numerous warnings to stop selling “special” baked goods such as chocolate praline and tahini cookies containing cannabis butter, on the basis that their effectiveness has not been properly researched. Police sent an undercover agent to Tikun Olam’s cramped storefront in northern Tel Aviv three years ago to prove that the supplier was over-selling to patients.

“I don’t think they themselves know why they’re here,” said Weisberg on our tour of the Tikun Olam farm, ducking into the portable office building when she realized cops had arrived to survey the premises.

But despite ongoing complaints from growers and patients that Israel’s medical cannabis program is too tightly regulated, many experts see the strict and tedious beginnings of the Israeli program as essential to its eventual success. 

“The con in Israel is there are a large number of patients who can’t get recommendations because they don’t meet this limited list of conditions that have been chosen to start the process,” said MAPS’ Doblin. “But the advantage is that Israel is building public support in a pretty steady way, with no backlash. When you have these broader, anything-goes [policies], there often is the potential and actuality of a backlash.”

Peleg, who is working as MAPS’ liaison in Israel, agreed that the Israeli government’s heavy hand has been a blessing in disguise.

“In a democracy, you’ve got to take into consideration that it’s all about compromise. And in terms of slow and steady growth, we are having a responsible growth rate,” she said. “I was shocked when I recently did a tour of cannabis clubs in California and Colorado to learn that in those states, you don’t have to be taught how to use cannabis, ever. There’s a real disconnect going on there that I think we’ve got solved here.”

Comparing animal rights and the Holocaust


On Oct. 2, Alex Hershaft, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the nonprofit Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), sat on the ground with some 100 other protesters in front of the Farmer John pig slaughterhouse in Vernon, Calif., blocking the entrance from two bi-level trucks carrying 200 pigs that had arrived to be slaughtered that day. In the next 24 hours, the pigs would be among 6,000 animals that would be stunned by electrical shock, hoisted up by their hind legs and their necks slit in the plant, which is the largest pig slaughterhouse on the West Coast. 

The demonstration was just one of more than 100 such protests held across the United States and in other countries commemorating FARM’s annual World Farm Animals Day.

“You could hear the pigs on the trucks crying,” Hershaft, 78, said quietly in a phone interview from his Bethesda, Md., home several days later. “Despite my advanced age, I made the trip to Vernon and risked arrest, because, as a Holocaust survivor, I am honor-bound to call public attention to this ongoing tragedy.”

As a 5-year-old in the Warsaw Ghetto, Hershaft witnessed brutal beatings and shootings and saw Jews dying of typhus in the streets. After being smuggled out of the ghetto by a family maid, he survived the war by passing as an Aryan. Upon liberation, he learned that his father had died following internment in a German slave labor camp, and that most of his other relatives had also perished.

Eventually, Hershaft earned a doctorate in chemistry at Iowa State University and, while teaching at the Technion in Haifa in the early 1960s, he witnessed a Druze family celebrating the birth of a baby by ritually sacrificing a baby goat. “I saw the irony of killing one child to celebrate the birth of another,” said Hershaft, who in 1961 decided to become vegetarian. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking a beautiful, living, breathing being and hitting him over the head, cutting his body into pieces and then shoving them in my face.”

He began to see parallels between the Nazi Holocaust and animal slaughter, including “the crowding, cattle cars, brutality and the routine and efficiency of mass extermination,” he said. “I am not equating the Holocaust with the millions of animals slaughtered every week for U.S. dinner tables, for we differ in many ways,” he added. “Yet, we all share a love of life and our ability to experience many emotions, including affection, joy, sadness and fear.”

Hershaft, who is now vegan, became an animal-rights activist after attending the World Vegetarian Congress in 1975, and in 1981 he founded FARM, which along with groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has became a force in the struggle for improved treatment of farm animals and vegan advocacy. 

Today, Hershaft said, FARM has an annual budget of $250,000, as well as 85,000 subscribers to its newsletters. Hershaft said tens of thousands of volunteers participate in FARM’s grassroots activities, including The Great American Meatout, Gentle Thanksgiving and a new 10 Billion Lives project, which encourages veganism. 

On the phone, Hershaft recalled how Farmer John’s bucolic mural of pigs cavorting in a meadow reminded him of the deceptive sign, “Work Makes You Free,” above the gates of Auschwitz. “I echo the wisdom of famed Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘For the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka,’ ” he said.


For more information about FARM, visit farmusa.org.

Comparing animal rights and the Holocaust


On Oct. 2, Alex Hershaft, a Holocaust survivor and founder of the nonprofit Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), sat on the ground with some 100 other protesters in front of the Farmer John pig slaughterhouse in Vernon, Calif., blocking the entrance from two bi-level trucks carrying 200 pigs that had arrived to be slaughtered that day. In the next 24 hours, the pigs would be among 6,000 animals that would be stunned by electrical shock, hoisted up by their hind legs and their necks slit in the plant, which is the largest pig slaughterhouse on the West Coast. 

The demonstration was just one of more than 100 such protests held across the United States and in other countries commemorating FARM’s annual World Farm Animals Day.

“You could hear the pigs on the trucks crying,” Hershaft, 78, said quietly in a phone interview from his Bethesda, Md., home several days later. “Despite my advanced age, I made the trip to Vernon and risked arrest, because, as a Holocaust survivor, I am honor-bound to call public attention to this ongoing tragedy.”

As a 5-year-old in the Warsaw Ghetto, Hershaft witnessed brutal beatings and shootings and saw Jews dying of typhus in the streets. After being smuggled out of the ghetto by a family maid, he survived the war by passing as an Aryan. Upon liberation, he learned that his father had died following internment in a German slave labor camp, and that most of his other relatives had also perished.

Eventually, Hershaft earned a doctorate in chemistry at Iowa State University and, while teaching at the Technion in Haifa in the early 1960s, he witnessed a Druze family celebrating the birth of a baby by ritually sacrificing a baby goat. “I saw the irony of killing one child to celebrate the birth of another,” said Hershaft, who in 1961 decided to become vegetarian. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of taking a beautiful, living, breathing being and hitting him over the head, cutting his body into pieces and then shoving them in my face.”

He began to see parallels between the Nazi Holocaust and animal slaughter, including “the crowding, cattle cars, brutality and the routine and efficiency of mass extermination,” he said. “I am not equating the Holocaust with the millions of animals slaughtered every week for U.S. dinner tables, for we differ in many ways,” he added. “Yet, we all share a love of life and our ability to experience many emotions, including affection, joy, sadness and fear.”

Hershaft, who is now vegan, became an animal-rights activist after attending the World Vegetarian Congress in 1975, and in 1981 he founded FARM, which along with groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has became a force in the struggle for improved treatment of farm animals and vegan advocacy. 

Today, Hershaft said, FARM has an annual budget of $250,000, as well as 85,000 subscribers to its newsletters. Hershaft said tens of thousands of volunteers participate in FARM’s grassroots activities, including The Great American Meatout, Gentle Thanksgiving and a new 10 Billion Lives project, which encourages veganism. 

On the phone, Hershaft recalled how Farmer John’s bucolic mural of pigs cavorting in a meadow reminded him of the deceptive sign, “Work Makes You Free,” above the gates of Auschwitz. “I echo the wisdom of famed Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘For the animals, life is an eternal Treblinka,’ ” he said.

For more information about FARM, visit farmusa.org.

Farmer, rabbi and maple syrup maker, Shmuel Simenowitz melds Torah and environmentalism


It’s easy to spot Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz at a Jewish food conference, an environmentalist gathering or any of the other progressive-minded confabs he frequents.

Just look for the Chasid in the room.

Simenowitz is an anomaly: a haredi Orthodox Jew, black hat and all, who is equally at home—and equally uneasy—in a roomful of dreadlocked 20-something eco-hipsters as at a Chasidic celebration. He takes flak from the Orthodox for “wasting time” with the foodies and is chided by progressive activists for his commitment to ritual observance.

“I see myself as a post-denominational Torah Jew with Chasidic sensibilities,” he tells JTA, with more than a trace of self-mockery. “I’m an equal-opportunity offender.”

More seriously, he says, not only is there no contradiction between living a Torah-true life and reducing one’s carbon footprint, the two are intertwined.

“I grow my own food, I grow organically, I am a good steward of the earth,” he says. “That’s Torah. I’m a Torah Jew, and my world values are seamlessly integrated into that.”

Simenowitz, 53, is part of a small but growing group of strcitly Orthodox Jews who are getting back to the land—farming organically, raising animals, living lightly on the earth and doing it in the name of Torah.

Fifteen years ago he walked away from a successful career as an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer and moved from the New York suburb of Long Island to an organic farm in Vermont with his wife, Rivki, and two young children. They were becoming observant, and thought the big house and fancy cars wouldn’t help them “grow spiritually” or raise their children with the values they were beginning to hold dear.

The couple planted vegetables, set up a chicken coop and began making maple syrup from the hundreds of maple trees in their 14-acre sugar bush, calling their project Sweet Whisper Farm. Simenowitz used draft horses to plow the fields and carry the maple sap from the trees to his sugar shack, which is modeled on an 18th-century Polish wooden synagogue—one of hundreds destroyed by pogroms, Nazis and years of Communist rule.

Jewish student groups, observant and non-observant, would visit from the big city, and Simenowitz would introduce them to farm work while imparting a little Torah wisdom.

“When I get the yeshiva guys up here, they know their Torah but they need to get their hands in the dirt,” he says. “And when I get the tree-hugging crowd, they say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful sunset,’ and I say, ‘That’s great, but we need to do some learning.’ We’re like spiritual dietitians, giving everybody what they’re missing, trying to bridge that gap.”

Two years ago Simenowitz and his family moved to Baltimore, and they now live in an Orthodox neighborhood of families interested in getting back to the land. One neighbor keeps bees. Another spins her own wool. A third has an organic farm—just the kind of integration for which he and Rivki had been looking.

But Simenowitz still travels to Vermont each spring to work his sugar bush.

About a decade ago, after a disastrous maple harvest season, the sap finally started running on the eve of Passover, right before the first seder, and neighbors poured in from all over to help collect it as fast as they could. But as sundown approached, Simenowitz put down his bucket and said work had to stop. By the time he was permitted by Jewish law to continue working, all the sap had spoiled in the unseasonably hot sun—hundreds of gallons, nearly his entire crop.

The story was featured in Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, and “Someone passed a comment, saying, ‘What kind of God would let that happen when you’re out there doing his thing?’ ” Simenowitz recalls. “And I said, ‘Bottom line, you don’t get hurt doing mitzvahs.’ ”

After the story was published, people started calling from all over to adopt a tree in Simenowitz’s grove; his business was saved.

Simenowitz produces about 100 gallons of maple syrup in a good year, boiled down from 4,000 gallons of raw sap, which is collected from buckets he hangs from his tapped trees. He taps the trees in a pattern, he explains—a little higher or lower each year so as not to damage the tree. The sap is pumped into an evaporator inside the sugar shack, where the water is boiled off to leave behind the syrup, which is about 60 percent sugar.

The operation is kosher certified. There are two major kosher concerns with “pure maple syrup.” First, an observant Jew is required to turn on the evaporator because only an observant Jew is allowed to “light the fire” that cooks a kosher food item. Second, while the sap is boiling, farmers drip animal fat into the mixture to keep it from foaming over the top of its container.

“Traditionally they’d take a piece of pork fat, suspend it from a string and the foam would rise, touch it and go down,” says Simenowitz, who instead uses olive oil, pouring in a drop or two at a time.

Simenowitz, who sells all his maple syrup himself either in person or by mail order, says he sells out every year.

He makes his living as a traveling scholar-in-residence, lecturing about farming in Orthodox venues and teaching Torah to Jewish environmentalists and foodies through Ya’aleh v’Yavo, the Jewish environmentalist project he directs. He also picks up the occasional legal case, to keep the bills paid, and has been tapped by the city of Baltimore to do a comprehensive energy audit on a new Orthodox-friendly commercial building, including designing some of its energy-efficient infrastructure.

Simenowitz doesn’t attend Jewish food conferences anymore, saying he is “tired of being the poster child for the Orthodox.” Jewish environmentalists and eco-foodies need to ground their work in Torah, he says, if they want the Orthodox world to take them seriously.

“The Orthodox are late to the parade,” he acknowledges, but that’s understandable.

“The environmental agenda is often grafted onto a liberal social justice agenda that the Orthodox community can’t accept,” he says. “Part of my program is to fill that breach.”

Simenowitz works closely with Kayam Farm, an organic farm and Jewish educational initiative at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center just outside Baltimore. When he first visited several years ago, he learned that Kayam was based on his farm in Vermont, which the general manager’s daughter had visited as part of a group from the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

“That was really validating,” he says, “to see the seeds I planted take root.”

How sweet it is: behind the buzz at two of California’s hives


Bzzzzzz.

 
I’m trying not to freak out at the high-pitched scream of the bees. See, I’m wearing full protective gear for the honey-making process — a white jumpsuit, a netted straw hat affixed to me with a series of complicated rigmarole of strings (the zipper ones had run out), long tan-leather gloves that reach past my elbow, and socks as high as my knees, with the pants taped down over them. Not an ounce of my skin is exposed, but still I can’t help but feel nervous — it’s Hitchockian, really — as thousands of bees swarm around me.

 
They’re doing this because I’m standing in the beeline — literally the line of passage of bees swarming from the hive because they have been smoked out of there; it’s kind of like the 405 during rush hour, except faster, as they stream out of their man-made hives and into the countryside of Northern California.

 
Call this my week of honey. As the High Holidays approach, I’ve embarked on a two-part honey tour: First, traveling to a friend-of-a-friend’s private honey extracting pre-holiday party at his family villa in Sonoma, and next at a commercial honey farm in Southern California.

 
For as long as Jews have been eating on holidays, it’s been customary to eat honey on Rosh Hashanah, as a symbol of hope for a sweet new year. The tradition of eating honey is ancient, recorded as early as the Babylonian Talmud in the seventh century. There are also many mentions of honey in the Bible, most notably in Exodus, when the land of Canaan promised to the Israelites is called “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Although that honey is thought to be fig or date honey, by using honey on Rosh Hashanah we are remembering Israel, no matter where we are.

 
It is also noted in Psalms that God’s commandments are “sweeter than honey and the droppings of the honeycomb,” and “sweeter than honey to thy mouth.” The High Holidays, which are a time of judgment and preparation for the upcoming year, should be filled with mitzvoth, and honey reminds us of that.

 
We usually eat it with apples, as well as challah, and for many, as part of every recipe on the table. (See recipes throughout this special Rosh Hashanah section.)

 
But where does the honey itself come from? I’d always known generally, on a third-grade science-class level, that bees make honey from flowers, but I’d never really thought about the complicated process that bees go through to make honey, or the complex operation that people go through to get that honey to the table. Until now.

 
It’s Labor Day weekend and instead of lounging out at some pool, I’m standing in a buzzing field, sweating profusely in my mad scientist/spaceship/safari outfit, invading the bees’ habitat in order to help take honey from their hives. These hives are not like I’ve imagined them: those brown, hairy ovals found in trees at summer camp and replicated in ceramic honey holders. Man-made hives look more like small armoires, a short stack of wood dresser drawers, called supers. Each super has about 10 frames, long rectangles dotted with the geometrically perfect honeycombs, the octagons where the honey is deposited. Our goal today: to remove the frames, bring them to the farm, extract the honey, then filter, bottle and label it.

 
They say it’s easier to catch flies with honey, but how do you catch honey?

 
The first thing we have to do is light a fire in the smoker, a can with an accordion-like pump that produces, eponymously, smoke. Bees hate the smell of smoke, so we pump smoke into the top drawer, close the lid and the bees make a mad dash out, which is when I discover, standing in front of the hive is probably not the best place to be.

 
Then we take the frames out of the drawer, brush off the bees and run it over to the car for transportation. (Walk is more like it; it’s not easy to run in this jumpsuit, nor is it smart to make sudden movements near bees — although swarming bees, rushing to get out of their smoky hives, don’t often stop to sting visitors). We have four hives here today — some 40,000 bees — but only two are producing honey. It’s tedious work, this smoking, brushing, transporting of the frames — and it’s only the first step. (I suppose that our job is nothing compared to that of the worker bee, who makes about 40 trips a day to the flowers).

 
Finally, we can take off our paraphernalia for the rest of the process and get out of the hot sun to go to the honey “farm”: It’s more like a high-ceilinged garage structure containing honey extracting equipment.

 
If you’re a good turkey carver, you’d probably be good at scraping off the capping, the layer of capped wax that seals the honey in the frames. But if you’re like me — someone who cooks the bird but never carves it — handling the hot knife turns out to be quite tricky. It’s easy to tell which rectangle frames hold honey — the combs are darker, heavier. I hold the frame diagonally over a container that will catch the drippings, and try to shimmy the knife at an angle. Oops! No, I didn’t slice my finger, just cut too deeply into the combs.

 
I uncap the other side too but my wrist aches and I feel kind of sorry for the poor bees that will have to rebuild the combs just because I’m a lousy home destroyer — I mean carver.

 
I decide to move over to the next step in our human assembly line: combing the frames. I use what looks like a hair pick to scrape off the last remaining wax.

Ecohustle Blooms in Community Garden


“Whether politicizing nature is altogether wise is something we shall learn.”

— W.H. Auden

I first saw Joan Baez sitting on the floor of a farmhouse living room near my high school, and she was playing guitar and singing like an angel. Her black hair, “like a raven’s wing,” hung to her waist. There was something superhumanly beautiful about the song, the girl, that time, the place — that I have never lost.

I’ve never again seen her in person. But in the media over the years, I saw her everywhere: in civil rights demonstrations, protesting the Vietnam War. Wherever there was injustice, she was there. A grown woman now, shorn, but still an angel.

Last week, I saw her on the front of The Times in a tree near the Alameda Corridor, and the spell was finally broken.

Joan, on this one, you’re wasting yourself.

The matter at issue is a community farm in South Central Los Angeles that has sprung up on 14.3 acres that do not belong to the farmers. The land belongs to Ralph Horowitz, who says he wishes to build a warehouse or to sell the land at something close to its market value.

Horowitz, it turns out, is no match for the South Central Farmers’ PR firestorm, which has struck again and again. First, musician Zack de la Rocha, then tree-sitters Julia Butterfly Hill and John Quigley, plus actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Daryl Hannah and now Joan — who was as beautiful as ever in that old walnut tree.

I’m not sure I want to blame Joan for this, but she’s symbolic of a circus that had been, a couple of years ago, a sincere cause. It’s now a media show, an ecohustle: In the one corner, an “evil Beverly Hills landlord.” In the other, various celebrities and now a folk icon standing tall on the loam tended by hundreds of pairs of humble hands.

The climax was set to go down last week, when a civil court judge signed off on an eviction order. There ensued high-pitched press conferences, vigil invitations and e-mail blasts proclaiming doom. But at this writing, authorities have not taken action.

What didn’t seem to get mentioned was that these farmers have no more legal right to be on the 14.3 acres belonging to Horowitz than they would on your land — if they suddenly decided to occupy your front lawn and set up farming there.

I didn’t mean to be that blunt. I was one of the first to report on the garden. It is beautiful, so are the gardeners. But their cause has somehow become a rigid ideal, resistant to compromise and particularly to reality. I mean, what does Hannah really have to do with growing nopales near Avalon Boulevard?

Or what does this garden have to do with the fall of the great Maya and Aztec civilizations that never reached, let’s face it, Ensenada, let alone South Central? I don’t know, but they’re being evoked to justify the gardeners working Horowitz’s land, as is the gardening families’ allegedly desperate need for healthy nutrition — as though scurvy were endemic in South Los Angeles.

Also invoked is the issue of “ecological sustainability and community self-reliance,” as Green Party chief Michael Feinstein put it. But then, most of the farmers aren’t from the local community and the “self-reliance” involves refusing to get off someone else’s property.

Not that this sort of occupation doesn’t have a role in modern society. In Buenos Aires, former employees now run the huge Bauen Hotel, which they took over as a derelict abandoned by the original proprietors in Argentina’s turn-of-the-century economic meltdown. A little earlier, in the 1990s, in Erfurt, Germany, squatters took over the bankrupt Topf & Sohne iron works, which built the Auschwitz crematoria, putting up displays elucidating the ghastly history that had been ignored by both the East and West German governments. The difference here is, and it’s a big one, this land is not abandoned. It belongs to someone whose right to his property is valid — whether we like him or not.

Just like the rest us, developers can be run over by buses, catch double pneumonia or have their property taken at rock-bottom prices by eminent domain. This is what happened to Horowitz 20 years ago.

Horowitz (like the self-proclaimed garden spokesman who calls himself Tezozomoc) didn’t return my e-mails. So I don’t know how crucial this acreage is to his investment portfolio or his kids’ college education. But regardless, he’s been treated unfairly. The city of L.A. played three-card-monte with the property for 14 years after failing to use the land for the stated “public need,” a trash-to-energy incinerator.

Horowitz finally had to bring suit to get it back at the price he was paid for it. Now he finds his land requisitioned by busy agriculturists said to be nicer than he is. Does one have to be a fellow property owner to feel for someone who landed on the wrong side of the visionary hedge? Had Wal-Mart grabbed this land instead of the gardeners, all these ecohustlers might be out there holding vigils for Horowitz.

But it’s the city that is really responsible for this mess. It’s not clear to what extent Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa fluffed a transaction that would have had the city pay half of an $11 million purchase of the land in partnership with a private foundation. What’s clear is that the city’s showed poor leadership all the way here by not seeking the best solution for everyone involved: This deal would and should include a fair price for Horowitz and offer those who actually live near the gardens their own share of this precious green space — as parkland and ball fields and perhaps low-cost housing.

In other words, the gardeners should expect that they’ll have smaller personal gardens if they really want public money to be part of their rescue.

Mayor Villaraigosa has advanced the lame argument that Horowitz, after being a victim of city shenanigans for years, should, in effect, donate his valuable land for nothing more than the price it was worth two decades ago.

The mayor could better spend his verbiage forging a more reasonable arrangement. If he can’t — and the gardeners won’t — compromise, the city might as well save its money and let Horowitz build his warehouse.

Marc B. Haefele is news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government for KPCC-FM.

 

The Headache of Resolutions


Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years
ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year’s resolutions.

And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed
farm equipment. “That would be a pickax or a sickle,” says Danny, 12, who
studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.

But today we can’t simply return some borrowed tool, toy or
casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent
ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel
compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top
English-language novels, to be more patient.

And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk
hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in
university extension classes and buy “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”

But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have
reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do
we even bother making resolutions?

“Relentless optimism,” Jeremy, 14, suggests.

“Self-deception,” Gabe, 16, says.

“Social pressure,” Zack, 19, adds.

“Why do we diet?” my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically,
knowing that it’s human nature to want to improve oneself.

And it’s human nature to want to divide time into manageable
and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.

And that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a symbolic milepost, a
fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our
resolutions will stick. But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the
Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to
coincide with the rebirth of the land. That’s why they almost unanimously
resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the
new crops.

And there’s nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches
us, we’re all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between
yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.

Spiritually, we know that change doesn’t happen without
prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High
Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul.
During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or
injured during the previous year.

We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete
amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the
promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for
our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than “who shall live
and who shall die.”

Psychologically and experientially, we know that change
doesn’t happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom –  until life slams us
up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing
us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.

New Year’s Eve is the only secular holiday, save our
birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.

Perhaps it’s that intimation of mortality, combined with the
knowledge that once again we’ve made no one’s year-end Top 10 list, that
triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.

And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7
or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and
painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate
weight loss with no exercise.

But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband’s
delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it’s our turn to
clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let’s institute truth in advertising and call
New Year’s resolutions by their real name: New Year’s wishes. An opportunity to
dream, to fantasize, to visualize a “before” and after” us. A shot at the
self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in
more than 41 million chance of winning.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many more habits
I’m willing to break. Over the years, I’ve quit smoking, worked myself down to
my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my
sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody’s asking if I want to give up carpool
driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family’s human PalmPilot.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m saving my serious repenting
for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash
superficiality.

Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however
arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some
frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.

Personally, for 2004, I’d like to eat more vanilla ice
cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time
needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, “chilling.”

But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that’s
been sitting in the garage.  


Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.