Backstreet Boys scrap Israel shows due to Gaza crisis

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Backstreet Boys canceled three sold-out concerts in Israel due to the Gaza conflict.

The American pop band posted a message Sunday on its official website announcing the cancellation of the July 29-31 concerts at the Raanana Amphitheater “to assure the safety of the audience.” New dates will be scheduled for the spring.

“This is a major disappointment for the band and fans as this was to be our first visit to Israel and we looked forward to meeting our fans,” the message said.

Canadian singer Paul Anka also canceled two concerts set for this week in Tel Aviv. The concerts will be rescheduled “once the local situation is resolved,” according to a statement issued by his representative.

Earlier, the Gaza conflict forced the cancellations of a Neil Young concert in Tel Aviv and a performance by the band America.

Kicking off tour, Madonna shows she’s no lady (Gaga)

Pop superstar Madonna kicked off a new world tour on Thursday wishing peace on the Middle East even as she showcased grim dance routines depicting violence and bloody gunmen among her more colorful numbers.

Madonna, 53, mixed hit songs over three decades in music with tunes from her recent album, “MDNA,” before a packed audience, and she took a sly dig at younger diva, Lady Gaga.

“She’s not me!” Madonna sang at the end of “Express Yourself,” which she had reworked to include a sampling of Lady Gaga’s recent “Born This Way.”

That song from Lady Gaga, who emerged on the pop music scene about four years ago and has enjoyed a huge following in recent years, has been cited by many music fans and critics as being very similar to Madonna’s late 1980s dance club smash.

Since Lady Gaga, 26, released “Born This Way,” fans and music lovers have speculated that a generational challenge was in the works between the two women and comedians have poked fun at any imagined rivalry between the two.

Despite occasional lighthearted touches such as a baton-twirling routine in cheerleader formation and a psychedelic homage to Indian philosophy, the dominant mood at Thursday’s concert in Tel Aviv seemed more grim with a stage shrouded in black and red and costumes that often appeared ominous.


“Like a Virgin,” a dance tune that helped propel Madonna to stardom as risqué pop ingénue in the 1980s, was performed as a mournful cabaret with violin accompaniment. At one point, the singer was trussed up and hoisted into the air by four male dancers, then lowered onto a platform as though into a volcano – a virgin sacrifice.

For “Gang Bang,” Madonna wrestled with armed intruders whom she then dispatched with a pistol – their “blood” spattering across an enormous video backdrop. In a routine for “Revolver”, she wielded a Kalashnikov rifle, used by many modern-day insurgents, while one of her dancers favored an Israeli Uzi.

The exertions never sapped her confident singing, though she did become somewhat breathless during remarks to the audience at Ramat Gan stadium on Tel Aviv’s outskirts.

“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason. As you know, the Middle East and all the conflicts that have been occurring here for thousands of years – they have to stop,” she said to cheers.

A devotee of Jewish mysticism, Madonna had dubbed the first leg of her 28-country “MDNA” tour the “Peace Concert” and distributed free tickets to some of the Palestinians who attended from the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Among them was a woman named Yasmine, who declined to give her last name in light of Palestinian calls to boycott the Madonna concert and other cultural events in Israel. She offered a mixed assessment of the show.

“I wasn’t a fan of the intro. It was too aggressive and massacre-like,” Yasmine said. “Her (Madonna’s) speech about peace and the mention of Palestine was heartfelt, though.”

Avihay Asseraf, an Israeli who dedicated a Facebook page to Madonna’s visit, was more sanguine about the darker displays.

“That’s how she chose to express herself this time,” he said. “Ultimately this is a show, a spectacle, and it’s all for fun.”

Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

Viva Israel: Tour bringing Elvis fans

Some Elvis fans will be making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land rather than Graceland.

The Elvis Presley Holy Land tour in May 2013 will take 100 Elvis fans on a traditional tour of Israel that will include a stop at the Elvis Inn in Abu Gosh near Jerusalem, a diner cum shrine to “The King.”

The connection between Elvis and Israel appears to be his love of gospel music. Though gospel music does not come from Israel, “Elvis fans, a good majority of them, are church people, so it’s a good fit,” Brian Mayes, co-founder of Israel Theme Tours and an entertainment publicist, told The Associated Press. “A large portion of fans are evangelical: Christian, Catholic, Jewish. The Holy Land is an interesting destination for them.”

Three gospel singers who performed with Elvis will accompany the tour. Elvis won three Grammys for his spiritual recordings.

Bibi cancels Bieber meeting over reported snub of beleaguered kids

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly has canceled a meeting with pop star Justin Bieber after the singer refused to meet with children from southern Israel.

Netanyahu, who was scheduled to meet Bieber on Wednesday night, a day before his concert in Tel Aviv, invited children living in communities that have been hit by rockets fired from Gaza to join the sit-down. Bieber, however, refused to meet with the children, according to Israel Channel 2, causing Netanyahu to cancel the meeting.

Bieber and his manager reportedly asked for the meeting with Netanyahu.

The teen idol arrived Monday in Israel and is scheduled to tour the country. His itinerary includes visits to Christian sites in the Galilee, the Dead Sea, Masada, Acre and Caesarea. He has complained in tweets on Twitter that the Israeli paparazzi have forced him to hole up in his hotel room.

Meanwhile, some 700 children from southern Israeli communities that have been hit by rockets and missiles from Gaza were given free tickets to the Bieber concert.

The tickets for Thursday’s show in Tel Aviv, as well as transportation, are a gift of The Schusterman Foundation-Israel, The Morningstar Foundation and ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators.

For top stars like Madonna, Israel gig becoming more common

Madonna managed to sprinkle some of her fairy diva dust on Israel during her recent tour, calling the Jewish state the world’s “energy center,” wrapping herself in the flag on stage and even lighting Shabbat candles with Sara Netanayahu.

Audiences, local promoters and officials are hoping her magic will linger and boost an already emerging trend in which Israel is becoming a draw for big-name artists in relatively large numbers.

“Anytime you have a successful concert or artist of that caliber here, people will take notice,” said Jeremy Hulsh, a concert promoter who also founded Oleh Records, a company that promotes Israeli artists abroad.

“This year was particularly strong and next year looks to be strong, too. There are lots of newcomer promoters willing to take risks because they are seeing great potential,” he said, noting that Israelis are willing to pay top dollar for tickets and thus help the bottom line. “Israelis are both excited and grateful to see any big names coming to Israel.”

September alone is seeing the likes of Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Julio Iglesias, Dinosaur Jr. and Faith No More performing here. Earlier this summer, the Pet Shop Boys played, as did the new pop sensation Lady Gaga.

Madonna played two concerts last week to a total of some 100,000 fans, while Cohen’s performance for 47,000 sold out in 17 hours—faster than his shows anywhere else in the world.

As promoters and agents talk among themselves, word seems to be spreading that Israel can be a lucrative and successful new stop for performers. Logistics and facilities are top rate, fans pay as much as $400 for good seats for a big name and, despite an uncertain security situation, artists realize when they arrive that the country belies its image as a war zone.

In an age where Israelis feel particularly besieged by international criticism amid calls for cultural and other boycotts, the celebrity acts and the glamorous star power they emit feel especially welcome.

“Madonna is the best ambassador for the Jewish people,” gushed Liav Mizrahi, a 31-year-old art teacher from Tel Aviv who saw her first of two concerts here and was still breathless the next day.

Andy David, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said he hoped the message that Israel is a “normal” country was a happy by-product of high-profile acts like Madonna coming to the country.

“We are a normal country where people enjoy music and performers understand there is a market here for their music, he said, adding later that “it’s good business and a good place to come.”

“We are not some crazy corner of the world where everything is upside down,” David said.

Madonna in particular has forged a unique connection with Israel following her involvement with the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles. Although her last performance here was 16 years ago, she has been to Israel several times in recent years on private visits that included the Western Wall in Jerusalem and the graves of mystics in Safed.

Although the average Israeli seems a bit befuddled by the Queen of Pop’s interest in Jewish mysticism, especially the Kabbalah Center’s version—serious Jewish scholars have dismissed it as a flashy and inauthentic New Age perversion—they have embraced her all the same.

Officials also have embraced the celebrity fawning with enthusiasm. Madonna dined with Tzipi Livni, a prime ministerial hopeful and leader of the opposition, at a trendy Tel Aviv restaurant. Last Friday evening the singer met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. Madonna, who reportedly knows some Hebrew, recited the blessing over the Sabbath candles with the first lady.

One major paper featured Madonna’s arrival on its front page, overshadowing news that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been indicted on corruption charges the day before.

In a column in the weekend magazine of the daily Ha’aretz titled “You Really Like Me,” Gideon Levy described the history of Israeli politicians seizing photo ops with stars. A photo spread showed Golda Meir shaking hands with Kirk Douglas, Menachem Begin kissing Elizabeth Taylor’s hand and Shimon Peres visiting Jaffa with Sharon Stone.

“We have always longed for the world’s love, or at least the love of those of its stars who bothered to come here,” a sarcastic Levy wrote.

The occasional big-name music act certainly isn’t new to Israel. Paul McCartney performed last year, and Roger Waters, the late Michael Jackson and Elton John also made their way here over the years.

What is new, industry insiders say, is the volume of such performances, due in part to Israel’s sound track record as a place where fans will pay relatively high prices for tickets.

Performing in Israel involves not only security considerations and the extra insurance necessary to cover them, but the expense of flying in equipment, crew and backup musicians from Europe, as most performers include Israel as part of their larger European tours.

“It’s easier now because promoters are not afraid of Israel and the insurance companies are covering the risks of such shows,” said Perla Mitrani, a project manager for, a site that features Israeli concert dates. “Israel is now becoming a market like anywhere else, a normal stop on people’s tours. The question is how much people are ready to pay for this or that performer.”

According to Avisar Savir, a promoter who is arranging an upcoming concert here of the Chasidic reggae musician Matisyahu, the world economic crisis also has provided an opportunity for Israel.

“People need to open new markets,” he said, “and Israel is seen as a legitimate place to come in a way it wasn’t before.”

Israeli official woos expats — you <I>can</I> go home again

The message from the high Israeli official addressing more than 100 Israeli expatriates at Stephen S. Wise Temple was simple and direct.

“We want you to come back.”

Catchy slogans are one thing, translating them into reality is vastly more complex, Zeev Boim admitted.

Boim is Israel’s minister of immigration absorption, and he was in Los Angeles with a backup team of government and private industry representatives as part of a concerted campaign that touched down in seven U.S. and Canadian cities.

In the early decades of the Jewish state, Israelis abandoning the homeland were scorned as weaklings, traitors and “yordim,” those “going down” from the peaks of Israel to the depth of the Diaspora.

Ostracism didn’t work in stemming the outflow, and for some time the Israeli government has been wooing, rather than denigrating, the growing number of Israelis abroad. Boim’s North American tour, toward the end of last year, represented Israel’s strongest signal yet of its earnest intent to welcome its departed sons and daughters back into the family fold.

For any campaign, it is useful to know the size of your target audience, but pinning down the number of Israeli expatriates in any given country or city is the despair of demographers. Do you count only native Israelis or include those who, for example, went from Russia to Israel, became citizens but then moved on to Europe or the United States? And what about the American-born children and grandchildren of Israelis?

During an interview at the Israeli consulate, Boim offered a relatively straightforward criterion: All holders of Israeli passports, including those with dual citizenship, are considered Israelis.

Boim, who should know, estimated that there are 700,000 to 1 million Israeli expats in the world, of whom some 600,000 are in North America, including 150,000 to 200,000 in the Los Angeles area. Some local Israelis maintain there are as many as 300,000 of their compatriots in Los Angeles, which would represent more than half of all Jews here.

More realistically, Boim’s ministry has given out considerably lower figures than the boss, and local demographer Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) insisted that the count is completely out of line, with only 26,000 Israelis in the Los Angeles area.

Whatever the number, Boim argued that the key to luring back expats lies in providing decent jobs, and that Israel’s strong economy, especially in the high-tech sector, is in a position to offer such employment.

In each of the cities Boim visited and after his pep talk, seriously interested expats could talk to specialists from his ministry and private industry about jobs, establishing businesses, housing, government assistance and liaison with local Israeli consulates.

Although the expats, classified as “returning residents,” would not receive as much government aid as new immigrants, Boim held out inducements in the form of tax relief, cutting bureaucratic red tape and even deferment from mandatory military service. Additional sweeteners are reserved for those willing to settle in the underpopulated Galilee and Negev regions.

The “come back home” push aims for long-range, not immediate, results, Boim said. He cited the return of some 6,000 expats in 2005 as a promising sign. On the flip side, however, around 8,000 to 9,000 Israelis left for overseas residence during the same year.

A large majority of those attending the Los Angeles meeting with Boim came on a look-see basis, but about 10 percent stayed to talk about the nuts and bolts of returning home.

Among them was Angie Geffen, the American-born daughter of Israeli parents, who traveled from Scottsdale, Ariz., with her husband, Amir, an Israeli electrical engineer.

Contacted a week after the meeting, she was bubbling over with enthusiasm, praising the excellent organization and helpfulness of Boim’s support staff. She said the meeting had saved her weeks of research.

“We’ll move in a couple of months,” she said confidently.

During a follow-up call two months later, Geffen had come down from her high. She complained about protracted disputes with Israeli housing authorities about obtaining land and shelter for her and 32 other families in a Galilee community.

She, her husband and their young son still hope to leave for Israel before Passover, “but we will have to rethink our finances,” she said.

Another participant was “Ehud,” a 31-year-old teacher at a Jewish day school here, who left Israel as a child and asked that his real name not be used. Ehud said he was impressed by Boim’s talk but not by a 10-minute follow-up interview with one of the minister’s assistants.

“When I talked about available job opportunities in Israel, I was told, ‘We’ll try to find you something when you get there,'” Ehud said. When he pressed the matter, the interviewer told him, “We don’t start the process until you get there.”

Ehud still wants to marry and start a family in Israel, but he might first visit on his own to check out the job situation.

What keeps Israelis in the Diaspora, and what draws them back home? The individual answers and motivations differ, but talks with expats yield some common themes: The big draw in coming to the United States is almost always economic opportunity. The big pull to return is the sense of social intimacy and togetherness few expats can find elsewhere, and the worry that their children and grandchildren will lose their feeling of Israeli connectedness.

Ravit Markus is an independent producer who dreamed of going to Hollywood while a film student at Tel Aviv University.

Since arriving here more than two years ago, she has produced some well-received documentaries, most recently, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” in collaboration with fellow expat, director Dan Katzir, and she is now turning her hand to a romantic comedy.

Now in her late 20s, Markus considers herself quite typical of the local expats, both in their ambitions and conflicts.

Noteworthy sessions and events at the G.A.

10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Tour of the Skirball Cultural Center
Note: Tour leaves from Westin Bonaventure and returns to the L.A. Convention Center.

2:30 p.m.
Opening Plenary: “One People, One Destiny, One Great Day in November”
Greetings: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Keynote Speaker: Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel”
Speakers: Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc., and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; Randy Neal, California regional director, Christians United for Israel; and Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the L.A. Archdiocese

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Jewish Learning: Activism and Social Justice”
Speaker: Rabbi Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism

8:30 a.m.-9:45 a.m.
Plenary: “The Jewish Future: Where We Are as a People”
Moderator: Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president of policy development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los AngelesSpeakers: Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University in New York

10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Plenary: “Emerging Global Realities and the Challenge of Radical Islam”
Speakers: Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” and “American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Media Lessons Learned From the War”

Speakers: Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media and public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker staff writer and author, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide;” and Irit Atsmon, former Deputy IDF spokesman

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”
Moderator: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Speakers: Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project; Aviva Raz-Shechter, director, Department of Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Issues, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Charles Small, director, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University

3:45 p.m.-5 p.m.
Plenary: “Challenges of the Jewish People at the Beginning of the 21st Century”
Speaker: Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP

8:15 p.m.- 10 p.m.
Event: “A Once in a Lifetime Evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall”

Background: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will co-host a concert of Jewish music at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program will include selections by Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill. Performers include Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, an 85-member chorus and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Gerard Schwarz.

8:30 a.m.-10 a.m.
Plenary: “Challenges and Opportunities: Israel 2006”
Moderator: Judge Ellen M. Heller, president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Speakers: Israel Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Israel Education Minister Yuli Tamir
Special Guest: Moshe Oofnik, Sesame Street Workshop

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Understanding Islam: Current Trends”
Speakers: Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute; Norman Stillman, professor and chair of Judaic history, University of Oklahoma; Irshad Manji, author, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith”

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Working to Save Darfur”
Speakers: John Fishel, president, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; and Ruth Messinger, president/executive director, American Jewish World Service

4:15 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Plenary: “The New Frontlines: Facing the Future Together”
Keynote Speaker: Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

8:30 a.m.-Noon
Meeting: “Translating the GA Into Action: Open Board of Trustees & Delegate Assembly Forum”
Goal: Coming up with an action plan based on issues addressed at GA.

Summer Tours to Israel Rerouted, But Not By Much

Most summers, the trip to the Naot Sandal factory on a kibbutz close to Israel’s northern border is a highlight of the teen tours run by United Synagogue Youth (USY). But this summer, with the north under constant threat of rocket attacks, the 400 USYers stayed in the central and southern part of the country, and Naot came to them, with a special sale near USY’s base in Jerusalem.

That was one of the easier adjustments to a constantly changing itinerary for USY kids and the other estimated 6,000 American teens on tours in Israel this summer.

“All of us that have kids in Israel are trying to make the best of the situation,” said Jules Gutin, international director for USY, the youth arm of the Conservative movement, which has about 50 California teens in Israel this summer. “We want the experience to be worthwhile and positive, as well as safe.”

So while kids may be missing out on trips to the Golan Heights, to the kabbalistic city of Tsfat, the Banias natural pools or Maimonides’ grave in Tiveria, tours are making up for it with extra time in Jerusalem and challenging hikes through the Negev.

Few Kids Have Returned Home

Most tours departed the United States before the violence escalated in Israel, and most of the teens have stayed. USY reports that as of early this week, three kids went home, and Young Judaea has a similar count, with six kids out of 470 being summoned home. Three of the 390 students on NCSY’s Europe and Israel trip did not continue on from Europe to Israel.

The Orthodox Union canceled a trip scheduled to leave this week with its Yad b’Yad program, where 15 developmentally and physically disabled adults were to be accompanied by 35 teenage counselors on a four-week tour of Israel.

Administrators worried about heightening participants’ anxiety, and about difficulties rerouting the group, or moving it quickly in case of emergency. The day before the trip, it was recast as a West Coast tour.

Israel Experience, the educational tourism arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, coordinates programming and security for most of the trips that leave from North America.

“Trips are being rerouted based on the current situation, and it’s an hour-by-hour reevaluation,” said Rachel Russo, director of marketing for Israel Experience.

IDF, Police, Jewish Agency Monitor Tourist Itineraries

Israel Experience adjusts the groups’ schedules according to recommendations it gets from a situation room staffed by representatives from the Israeli army, the Israeli police, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Jewish Agency. Each teen tour group that signs up with Israel Experience — and most do — is tracked by GPS.

“They are really fluid in moving the groups when they need to move,” said Russo, whose daughter is in Israel with Ramah Seminar this summer.

Program operators have also been working overtime to keep in constant communication with parents. Young Judaea is sending out three email updates daily, in addition to photos and journals on its Web site. USY increased updates from the usual weekly to daily, and someone is available to answer parents concerns at all times.

Most teens also have cell phones with them, so parents are kept in the loop. So far, while parents have expressed concern, few are panicking. And by all reports, the kids themselves seem to be having a great time.

Bonnie Sharfman, whose 16-year-old, Zach, is on a trip with Nesiya, says she hopes the visit will have a lasting impact.

“We are choosing to look at this situation as an amazing learning experience for Zach and hope that he will return home in a month with much to say regarding the social, political and economic realities of Israel and the region,” she said.


Israel Launches First Underwater Museum

It was the largest, most impressive port in the Roman Empire when it was inaugurated in 10 B.C.E. And some 2,016 years later, the ancient port of Caesarea — along the Mediterranean coast of Israel — was inaugurated again last month, this time as the world’s first underwater museum.

Divers can now don their wetsuits and tour the sign-posted remains of the magnificent harbor built by King Herod to honor his Roman patron, Caesar Augustus. The site has been excavated over the last three decades by a team led by the late professor Avner Raban of the University of Haifa’s Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies.

It’s not your ordinary museum tour. Visitors float from one “exhibit” to the next, marveling in silence at the untouched remains of a once-glorious harbor: a Roman shipwreck, a ruined lighthouse, an ancient breakwater, the port’s original foundations, anchors, pedestals.

“It’s a truly unique site,” said Sarah Arenson, a University of Haifa maritime historian and participant in the project. “This port was built as the state-of-the-art port of the Roman Empire, and made the other ports of the time, including those of Rome, Alexandria and Piraeus, look small and out-of-date by comparison.”

Arenson notes that the port is also unique today: “There are no other ancient ports in the world that are accessible to ordinary divers,” she said.

Some such ports are restricted to authorized scientists. Others may be open to any diver, but would be meaningless to such visitors “because,” Arenson explained, “all you would see is a bunch of stones.”

At Caesarea, divers view some 28 different sign-posted sites along four marked trails in the sunken harbor covering an area of 87,000 square yards. Divers are given a waterproof map that describes in detail each of the numbered sites along the way (currently maps are in English and Hebrew; within a few months they will be available in six additional languages). One trail is also accessible to snorkelers; the others, less than eight yards below the surface, close to the beach, are appropriate for any beginner diver.

And what does the visitor see?

In a sense, an abrogated history of this once prominent port town — from its entrance at sea (about 100 meters from the current shoreline) to the Roman shipwreck that signaled the demise of the port — probably due to an earthquake — about a century after its construction, researchers believe. And, in between, divers can view the remnants of the original foundations that made this harbor one of the wonders of the Roman Empire.

“This port was built using the knowledge and technology of Roman engineers,” said University of Haifa maritime historian Nadav Kashtan, a member of the team that excavated the site.

The port was built with a type of hydraulic cement, invented by the Romans, known as pozzolana.

“The Romans found that when they take the volcanic powder found around Mount Vesuvius and mix it with lime and rubble, the substance hardens in water,” Kashtan said. “This hydraulic concrete was imported to Casearea and used to fill wooden frames which were then lowered into the water to lay the foundations for the port.”

Two such frames were found, one almost perfectly intact, and are on view today.

Kashtan noted that thousands of men were recruited — both from Rome and locally — to build the port in the course of 12 years. Among them were many divers, who descended simply holding their breath, or possibly in a diving bell.

The Roman city of Caesarea was built on the ruins of a decaying Phoenician town called Straton’s Tower. Its builder, Herod, who also built the Second Temple of Jerusalem, was considered one of the most magnificent builders of the Roman era, Kashtan notes.

The Jewish king built the town — given to him as a present by Augustus — into a grand, fortified city that served as the capital of the Roman province of Judea for about 600 years.

The underwater park was developed with the financial support of the Caesarea Development Corporation.

Israel has long been known as a diver’s mecca because of the rainbow of corals and exotic fish found off the coast of the Red Sea resort of Eilat. But the country has more than two-dozen other diving sites along the Mediterranean coast — from the unique maze of chalky white caves of Rosh Hanikra in the north, to a collection of shipwrecks dotting the coast as far south as Ashkelon.

The sunken port of Caesarea — with its ancient sites and modern explanations — is sure to become one of the top underwater attractions.

Leora Eren Frucht is an associate editor of Israel21c.


Israeli Superstars Rock the Diaspora

Lo Ozev At Hair Avur Af Echad Anachnu Shnayim Tamid, Beneynu

(“I won’t leave the city/not for anyone/we are two, always/between us, one God.”)

— Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch, “Live at Caesaria”

Don’t believe everything you hear. Two of Israel’s greatest rockers — Shlomo Artzi and Shalom Chanoch — are leaving Israel, albeit briefly, pairing up for a joint three-concert tour to promote their new album, “Live at Caesaria,” in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, homes to Israel’s largest expat communities.

Although Israeli stars have toured America for years — consider Idan Reichl’s recent popularity at the Kodak Theatre — this tour will be the Israeli equivalent of say, Billy Joel and Elton John touring together. These two Israeli mega-singer/songwriters have produced hundreds of pop songs over more than four decades, and they continue to sell out concerts despite their advancing ages — both are nearing 60.

But unlike Joel and John, who are increasingly relegated to “soft rock” and appeal primarily to their original Gen-X and Baby Boomer fans, the Israeli rockers still enthrall their original fans from the 1960s and 1970s, even as they have captured the hearts of later generations. (This is particularly true of the blue-eyed, dimpled Artzi, who still draws a bevy of screaming, belly-shirted young things rushing the stage at his concerts.)

Part of the pair’s cross-generational appeal is, of course, due to the fact that Israel is a small country, without much room for niche markets: Rock is rock. (Not like America, with its hundreds of Grammy categories). But it’s also because the two men, in a way, are Israeli rock. No, they are Israel: Chanoch was born in 1946, and Artzi was born in 1948.

Chanoch jumped to fame when he teamed up with that other great Israeli star, Arik Einstein, in 1967. In the 1970s Chanoch became a star in his own right, but for the next years continued to write songs performed by other Israeli artists.

Artzi got his start in the army band and in 1975 was chosen to represent Israel at Eurovision. He lost the competition, and soon after recorded “He Lost His Way,” which was meant as a last hurrah, but instead reignited his career.

Each of the artists’ songs have flooded the radio waves for nearly five decades, a soundtrack, of sorts, to Israel’s many wars, casualties, celebrations, assassinations, and shifting moods — from hopeful to cynical and hopeful again.

“There has not ever been another man/like that man,” Artzi sang on the tribute album made following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a song that became a mantra for the mourning peace camp.

In 1985 Chanoch came out with his humorous “Mashiach Lo Bah” — which became a pop sensation and later entered the lexicon, with its typically Israeli cynical chorus: “The Messiah isn’t coming — and he isn’t phoning, either.”

Neither artist’s lyrics seem particularly religious: (Consider Artzi’s song, “Here and There”: “Here and there the Messiah’s plane flits about/when will it land near us on the shore? She says: He who believes in lies will be disappointed.”) But their ironic faith reflects the tone of much Israeli culture. Many of their songs are about love, about friendship, about wars, and always with a little politics thrown in.

Last summer, Artzi and Chanoch performed together in the amphitheater in Caesaria, in Northern Israel. There, Chanoch played one of Artzi’s most popular songs. “Suddenly when you didn’t come/I felt like this.” Artzi later said it was best performance ever of the song. In turn, Artzi sang one of Chanoch’s songs, and a joint performance was born. After 42 performances in Israel, the duo comes to America (New York’s Beacon Theater on March 5; Miami on March 8; and Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre on March 11).

One problem with tribute albums, where artists sing another artist’s song, is that a fan has to be able to let go of the original version to appreciate strangers singing the familiar song. (Does one really want to hear Kate Bush singing “Rocket Man,” on the Elton John tribute album “Two Rooms”?)

It can be disconcerting to hear the two singing each other’s top hits on the album.

And yet, after five decades on the Israeli scene, their songs have become such a fabric of Israeli society, their fans overlapping, their voices sounding increasingly similar as age takes its toll (let’s not forget the smoking) that it seems somehow only fitting for Israel’s two great icons to merge their playlists.

And besides, in concert, they’re singing all the songs together.

Like this one, written by Chanoch, performed first by Einstein.

Kama Tov Shebata Habayta/Kama Tov Li’rot Otcha Shuv …

“How good it is that you’ve come home/How good it is to see you….”

The March 11 concert at the Kodak Theatre starts at 8:30 p.m. $47-$147. 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.


Diva Sings Out About Her Tour, Fans


In America, celebrity divas are instantly recognizable by their first names: Madonna. Britney.

Israel has its own diva: Rita.

Known only by her first name, Rita is as dramatic and flamboyant as a diva should be, but also soulful, with an intensity in her voice and performances that packs an emotional punch.

Her style embodies an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern sounds, with distinctive Persian tones combined with Western influences. Her muses include husband Rami Kleinstein, who was born in the United States but moved to Israel as a small boy, eventually becoming a famous Israeli musician in his own right.

For the first time in two years, Rita will bring her sultry performance style and amazing vocal range to the United States in a minitour, with an L.A. date at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on April 7.

While Rita’s invariably sold-out shows are usually highly stylized, over-the-top productions, that’s not true of this tour.

“It’s very touchable, very intimate,” she said in a telephone interview with The Journal from her Tel Aviv home. “I want to be very attached to my audience. To be able to talk to them and to hear them.”

And she has millions of fans here.

“It’s very flattering,” said the 43-year-old singer. “I feel that I have a long but healthy relationship with my audiences, because I see my work as a celebration, because I get so much love.”

The Iranian-born songstress, who moved with her family to Israel at 6, burst onto the Israeli music scene in November, 1985. Her first two singles went to No. 1.

Over the years, Rita’s albums have reached gold and platinum status, has been named Israel’s “Singer of the Year” on several occasions and represented Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest. She’s also acted in films and performed on the Israeli stage — a few years ago in “My Fair Lady” and most recently in “Chicago” — and said she hopes to do more theater work.

Almost 20 years after her debut, she’s still considered Israel’s leading female vocalist, and has shown no signs of slowing down.

A self-confessed workaholic, Rita said that she always tries to improve on her work and that she approaches every show as if it’s the first and last of her life.

“The audiences are smart,” she said. “They know if you’re giving them all of you or not, and I always give all of me.”

Rita describes her career highlight as “always the most recent thing.” She sang at the March opening of Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust museum, in front of 41 dignitaries from around the world.

“It was such a moving, emotional experience to be there, singing ‘Yerushalayim Shel Zahav’ in Jerusalem, surrounded by all those photos of all those terrible things that happened to our people,” she said. “But there we were on top of this high mountain in Jerusalem, with everyone sitting there. It was an incredibly emotional experience.”

So much so that Rita’s rendition of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” is being incorporated into her tour.

Her North American performances are rare, but Rita does many concerts in Israel and Europe. She said she’s very excited about this upcoming tour, saying how important it is for her to meet “my family” — how she refers to her U.S. fans. Besides Los Angeles, the minitour will stop in San Francisco, New York and Montreal. Now that her two daughters are older (13 and 4), she added, she hopes to tour the United States at least once a year.

Rita said she feeds off the dedication of her fans.

“I received a letter and flowers from a fan recently, who wrote that he loved my concert because, ‘It’s not what you give the audience, or what you say to them, but what you cause them to feel.'”

Rita said her mission is “to touch the souls of people. I think that’s an amazing opportunity that we have as artists, to cause people to feel. “

Rita will perform at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 7, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. For tickets and information, call (310) 273-2824


Israel Serves Up a Star

When the U.S. Open swings into New York Aug. 30, you’ll have to squint to find Israel’s tiniest tennis player.

It’ll be easier to catch her on the scoreboard. She’s the one with the muscular name — Anna Smashnova-Pistolesi — and the big game.

Generating power with her 5-foot-2, 117-pound frame, Smashnova-Pistolesi has smashed her way to No. 19 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings.

You can simply count on Smashnova-Pistolesi. This is her third straight year ranked in the top 20. She’s 9-0 in WTA tournament finals. That makes her one of Israel’s most effective athletes.

Smashnova-Pistolesi has done it on the go. She was born 28 years ago in Minsk, Belarus. Her family moved to Israel when she was 14. She stays at her parents’ home in Herzelia when she’s in the country. She has her own home in Italy, where she lives with her husband, the former pro Claudio Pistolesi.

You can call Smashnova-Pistolesi a walking United Nations. But she knows her loyalty.

“I always play under the Israeli flag and represent my country at every tournament,” she said. “I am always happy by the widespread support that I receive from Israeli fans throughout the world.”

Even though Smashnova-Pistolesi stands tall in Israeli sports, her Italian shift makes it tough for her to connect with some Jews. She keeps trying to win points well after serving in the Israeli army in the mid-1990s.

“If there are people who don’t appreciate what I have done,” she said, “I can only say that I am sorry that I cannot reach out to everyone, but with so many tour events, the rigorous training necessary and the constant traveling, tennis is really a demanding sport.”

She also waves the flag for other Israeli players: “Shahar Peer has a lot of potential. She is ranked No. 17 in the juniors and has a very good attitude. She could become quite good, and there are also some good boys; Dudi Sela got to the semis of the U.S. Open junior boys event last year.”

Smashnova-Pistolesi has had an active summer. She entered all the California tournaments and the Olympics. She didn’t win a trophy or medal, but in Los Angeles she picked on someone much bigger, Daniela Hantuchova, and cut down the once-rising Slovakian.

The next day, Smashnova-Pistolesi wilted under a sizzling sun and against a hot Svetlana Kuznetsova. The fullbacklike Russian proved too strong.

“She didn’t give me many chances,” Smashnova-Pistolesi conceded after getting cooked.

Smashnova-Pistolesi hopes to bounce back at the U.S. Open. She certainly has the strokes, especially one mean backhand. It could be the third best one-hander among women pros after Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne and France’s Emelie Mauresmo.

If Smashnova-Pistolesi beats top pros such as those, her name will grow. Even if her body doesn’t. — Bucky Fox, Contributing Writer

Catholic Teachers Experience Israel

When John Fitzsimons traveled to Israel this spring, he spent a week away from his students at Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, but as the Catholic teacher said, "They did announcements over the intercom every morning about where I was and what I was doing that day."

Fitzsimons was one of seven Catholic teachers to spend 10 days in Israel in March as part of the Holy Land Democracy Project (HDLP), a first-year outreach program to Catholic high schools, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. On June 22, the project will be celebrated at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The estimated $75,000-funded project had teachers tour several historic sites like Jerusalem’s Old City and Masada, followed up by six hours of teacher training and a five-hour course for students designed to combat nonexistent or negative perceptions of Israel among Catholics. This training was especially aimed at Latino students, as surveys show a higher likelihood of anti-Semitism among first-generation and foreign-born Latinos.

"We could teach non-Jewish children to have what we believe would be an accurate understanding of Israel," said HDLP Chair Dr. Dan Lieber, a Santa Monica oncologist who funded the $5,000 in prize money for the project’s Catholic student essay contest about the Jewish state, with winners receiving Israel bonds at the June 22 event.

The Federation project makes students specifically aware of Israel as an open, American-style democracy.

"This was primarily not about Jewish-Catholic relations, but about Israel," said Lieber, adding that the March trip for teachers was key because, "We weren’t embarrassed to have people go over and see for themselves. I don’t think Saudi Arabia would be doing that."

The teachers came from Catholic high schools in outlying, largely non-Jewish areas of Los Angeles, including all-girls schools such as Pomona Catholic, St. Mathias in Downey and Ramona Convent in Alhambra. The teachers this spring used a 15-minute tie-in video as part of the Federation-created curriculum.

"It supplements almost everything I teach," Fitzsimons said of his classes in church history and religion.

St. Mathias history teacher Michelle Butorac said most of her students "couldn’t locate Israel on a map" before she spent 10 days talking about her trip, which helped personalize the Middle East’s far-away, hard-to-grasp events.

"It makes it come alive for them," she said. "That’s what they’ll remember years later."

The project builds on other ongoing Jewish-Catholic outreach: Mt. St. Mary’s College in Brentwood hosted the ADL’s June 15-18 "Bearing Witness" training program for Catholic teachers. For 12 years, the AJC’s Los Angeles chapter has been running a Catholic/Jewish Educational Enrichment Program with priests and rabbis making joint visits to Jewish day schools and Catholic high schools.

Having teachers visit Israel changed student reactions.

"It had a lot more credibility and it was much more real to them because I had been there; kids don’t know what to believe and here’s a teacher they know," said Fitzsimons, who had one student win the Federation contest’s top prize with an essay about Israeli democracy.

Ramona Convent social studies teacher Mike Sifter said that during the Federation’s structured regimen of lectures along with kibbutz, Knessett and Yad Vashem visits, he and Fitzsimons broke away with a Palestinian tour guide.

"He drove us up to the Temple Mount," Sifter said. "Our guide was spouting off his viewpoint which did not jive with what I knew. The general gist of the [Federation] program are universal ideas that we’re already teaching our kids."

"I still think the problem of anti-Semitism among minority groups is still a problem in America. Their kids tend to the most rabidly pro-Palestinian," Sifter said. "The kids hate Arafat, though. They don’t believe that Arafat is fair and this came up several times in discussion."

Lieber said anti-Semitism should be combated with early prevention.

"Those kids, when they grow up, they’re going to take their information from sources which we feel are biased," he noted.

The Federation plans to expand the project from five Catholic schools this year to 10 next year. Sifter said that one Israel perception problem is that, outside of class visits by a rabbi, teenagers in outlying Los Angeles County cities do not encounter Jews as regularly as kids could on the Westside or in the San Fernando Valley.

Sifter said, "When the rabbi comes [to visit the class], they say, ‘You’re the first Jewish person I’ve ever met.’"

World Briefs

Israel Asks U.S. Egypt Help in Gaza

The United States and Egypt want to know more about Israel’s proposal for Egypt to help secure Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Dov Weisglass, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, and Giora Eiland, Sharon’s national security adviser, discussed the idea Monday in meetings with Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The Israelis are ready for a total withdrawal, but say they need Egyptian help to keep arms smugglers from crossing the Gaza-Egypt border.

U.S. State Department official said the proposal was not fully worked out and that the Americans are waiting for further details. If the Egyptians are willing, the official said, the United States could help them with incentives.

Nadil Fahmy, Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, said his country was interested in the proposal but needed to know more. Egypt would participate if the withdrawal were part of negotiations with the Palestinians, Fahmy told JTA.

“It has to be in the context of resolving the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution and ending the occupation,” he said. Israel has suggested that its withdrawal could be unilateral unless the Palestinians crack down on terrorism.

E.U. Presses Libya

The European Union called on Libya to join a free trade zone it has boycotted because of Israeli membership in the group. The European Commission said Monday that Tripoli immediately should send officials to Brussels to prepare its application to the group, whose purpose ultimately is to create a free-trade zone bringing together all the countries of North Africa and the Middle East. Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi recently expressed a desire to join the process, but he cannot take part unless he agrees to recognize Israel.

Bush Sends $20 Million to UNRWA

President Bush is sending $20 million to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza. The new allocation, authorized Thursday, is from the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund, and will be distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The request is a response to an appeal for $193 million for humanitarian needs for the Palestinian people, the State Department said.

Group Collects Money for Haitians

A Jewish group is collecting money for humanitarian aid
in Haiti. Donations can be sent to the American Jewish World Service at: AJWS,
Haiti Relief, 45 W. 36th St., 10th Floor, New York, NY, 10018, or online at

Avi Chai Grant Saves Birthright

A new grant of $7 million to Birthright Israel is breathing new life into the cash-strapped program, allowing Birthright to more than double the number of slots available for this summer’s tours.

The future of Birthright — which provides free trips to Israel for Diaspora young adults — was thrown into question recently as it became clear that its sponsors were not going to meet their financial commitments to the organization for 2004.

The major drop in funding came from the Israeli government, which reduced its funding for Birthright to a token amount for 2004 due to budget constraints. That prompted Birthright to reduce its available slots this summer to 3,500.

Now, with a new "challenge grant" of $7 million from the Avi Chai Foundation, Birthright and Avi Chai are hoping the group of 14 Jewish philanthropists who helped launch Birthright will match the Avi Chai grant.

Already, the group has notified its trip providers that it will now be able to bring 8,200 young Jews to Israel this summer.

Avi Chai officials said foundation members felt compelled to contribute the money to make up for the Israeli government’s drastic slash in Birthright funding.

"[We] believed it was unfortunate for the program to have to suffer a significant reduction in the number of participants just as Birthright was reaching full strength," the foundation said in a news statement.

Birthright officials reacted to the announcement with delight.

"We are extraordinarily grateful to Avi Chai, in whom we have great respect," said philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, one of Birthright’s founders and principal funders.

Steinhardt said the foundation agreed to become a Birthright philanthropic partner and is planning to give an additional $1 million per year for each of the next five years of the program.

When Birthright was launched, the three major sponsors of the program — the Israeli government, a group of Jewish philanthropists and the North American Jewish federation system — agreed to divide evenly the funding for the $210 million, five-year program.

Each party originally committed to contributing $70 million for the first five years. However, citing severe budget constraints, Israel cut its funding this year to $400,000, from $9 million the previous year.

Compounding Birthright’s financial woes, the federation system now plans to pay a total of only $35 million, of which it is currently short $4 million to $5 million, officials say. As a result, the Jewish Agency for Israel, the overseas partner of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, has increased its contribution to the program to make up for the shortfall.

Since the program began, it has brought some 60,000 Diaspora youth between the ages of 18 and 26 to Israel for free 10-day guided trips of the country. For many, it is their first trip to Israel. Only youth who never before have been on a peer tour of the country are eligible to participate.

The ambitious program has been hailed as a revolutionary way to help infuse Diaspora youth with a strong Jewish identity, a sense of connection to Israel and the drive to connect with their own Jewish communities back home.

Before Tuesday’s announcement of the $7 million grant, Birthright’s future seemed uncertain.

Although Birthright took 10,000 young Jews to Israel this winter, including 8,000 from North America, the program was forced to turn away thousands more who were eligible because of a funding crunch, program officials said.

In its statement, Avi Chai said it wants to be a partner with the philanthropists backing Birthright Israel for the next five years and said it was awaiting word from the Israeli government on future commitment to the program.

Avi Chai also said foundation members hoped that the Jewish federations in North America and Europe would fulfill their pledge to provide one-third of the program’s funding.

Avi Chai is a private foundation that funds educational programs and describes itself as "committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people, Judaism and the centrality of the State of Israel to the Jewish people."

Established in 1984, it has offices in New York and Jerusalem.

JTA staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.

Sing Us a Song, Israel’s Piano Man

One hot summer night in 1997, under the starry desert sky at Masada mountaintop in Israel, I fell in love with Rami Kleinstein.

“Get yourself some apples and dates/sweeten up your days/He’s not worth the pain/that rattles your heart.”

I felt as if Rami was singing directly to me, as he played piano while the sun rose on one of Israel’s most famous sites. The song was “Apples and Dates” from his 1995 triple-platinum eponymous album. It was an album that solidified his place in the canon of Israeli pop stars, culminating in his most recent album, “Say It,” which hit platinum in Israel.

Now the American-born singer and composer is coming to Los Angeles as part of a six-city tour, “Rami and the Piano.” While the charming chanteur has played here before, his new solo tour, produced by Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble, is aimed at English-speaking audiences. The proceeds will benefit the community programs produced by Keshet Chaim, a nonprofit organization whose goal is also to bring Israeli artists to the general American community.

With his dancing fingers and heartfelt lyrics, Rami has often been called Israel’s answer to Billy Joel and Elton John. Besides his music, his other claim to fame has been his wife: the sexy singer, Rita. Rami has composed for his wife and they produced a joint album, “Rita and Rami,” which they performed in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Like other Israeli singers, Rami has sung about the political unrest, as in his first solo album in 1986, “The Day of the Bomb,” which went gold. He has also released his own versions of American music, namely Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”; but his most poignant work is when he sings about — you guessed it — love.

“Everything you want/everything you ask for/I will do everything in my power to do it for you/I am captivated by your magic/just whisper it/everything you want, I will do it for you.”

Every time I hear Rami sing this, I know it is meant for his wife, Rita. But still, I remember our time on Masada together, so many years ago, and I pretend he’s singing it just to me.

Play it again, Sam.

Rami Kleinstein will perform “Rami and the Piano” on
Saturday, Dec. 6, 8 p.m. at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For
more information, call (818) 986-7332 or visit .

Israel to Seek Celebrity Support

Flush with the worldwide publicity generated by this summer’s visit to Israel by actor Christopher Reeve, Ambassador Yuval Rotem of the Israel Consulate of Los Angeles said that in September he will "re-embark on this mission, to appeal to some people from the entertainment industry and ask them to pay a visit."

The paralyzed actor’s high-profile July 28-Aug. 1 visit — a story that drew worldwide media attention during a lull in Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli countermeasures — may have prompted the Los Angeles diplomat to ask more of Hollywood. However, despite visits to Israel this year by Reeve, Whitney Houston and film producer Lawrence Bender, vocal support for Israel in Hollywood — including that of Hollywood’s Jews — appears rare.

"For some reason in Hollywood," said independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom, "people feel they have to take a stance — ‘OK, I’m either pro-Israel or anti-Israel’ — not that there are different ways to be pro-Israel."

"Jews are sort of scared to make their own case," Jaglom told The Journal. "The word ‘Zionism’ becomes like a dirty word. The only head of a studio who would produce ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ [the Academy Award-winning 1947 film dealing with anti-Semitism] was a non-Jew — Darryl Zanuck."

Rotem began calling for more celebrities to visit Israel in speeches and other forums about 15 months ago, "when I saw Oliver Stone spending three days with Yasser Arafat in the compound in Ramallah and [he] expressed his support or basically his sympathy with Yasser Arafat."

Aside from the Reeve visit, in which Rotem’s office was directly involved, the diplomat said, "I can’t report to you that I’ve had a great success. It’s not so easy to mobilize those people. Hollywood people tend to be very much on the sidelines whenever there is a major issue."

However, Josh Molina of NBC’s "The West Wing" said, "I want more prominent Jews — people with a profile higher than mine — to at least come out and say publicly that Israel has a right to exist. I feel like the silence tacitly endorses the opinion that somehow Israel is the bully and the Palestinians are the underdog. It’s politically incorrect to support Israel."

Hollywood’s underwhelming public solidarity with Israel was discussed earlier this summer during a panel discussion in Beverly Hills at the annual convention of the American Jewish Press Association. As to why celebrities do not back Israel, "They’re too busy getting behind France," joked panelist Darren Star, creator of HBO’s "Sex and the City."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also is perceived as relentlessly complicated, which runs against celebrities’ general desire for easy-to-follow, good guy-bad guy causes. And Jews in Hollywood circles are distinct from the larger Jewish community in Los Angeles and uniquely uninterested in The Jewish Federation or other Israel-allied groups.

"They’re not actively involved in most affiliated Jewish causes," said Donna Bojarsky, who sat on the panel with Star and is a political consultant who advises actor and prominent Israel supporter Richard Dreyfuss.

Additionally, Jews in Hollywood often identify with liberal and Democratic Party causes and social justice issues, and thus often see Israel through Labor Party pro-peace positions.

"I think of lot of people are very uncomfortable with some of the [tougher, right-wing] Likud policies over the years," Bojarsky said. Bojarsky’s husband, Jonathan Jacoby, runs the nonprofit Israel Policy Forum, which in June hosted a seven-day tour of Israel, Egypt and the West Bank. The tour group included Bender, who as a child in the Bronx was beaten up for being Jewish.

"I’ve never had this one feeling of being in a place, in a majority," said Bender, who met with Israeli officials, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. "I think they enjoy meeting people from Hollywood."

The producer said he saw how Israel needs help. "The hotels are not full. People are not going there," said Bender, whose Quentin Tarantino film, "Kill Bill," opens Oct. 10. "Tel Aviv is actually a party town, a fun place to be."

"Jerusalem is obviously a heavier place," he continued. "Nobody realizes how badly the Israelis are suffering. Obviously the Palestinians are suffering — but people need to understand that Israel needs help."

In Los Angeles, the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) plans to start a series of foreign policy discussions involving scholars as well as celebrities. IFP is also eyeballing Hollywood for a possible one-day, breakaway set of the organization’s own events timed around the United Jewish Communities’ Nov. 16-19 General Assembly meeting in Jerusalem.

The estimated $75,000 for the Reeve trip came from the consulate, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Hollywood-based Israeli producers Haim Saban, Arnon Milchen and Avi Lerner.

"This is basically where the money comes from — Israelis who understand the complexity," Rotem said, adding that he will obtain funding for more trips. "I will have money. I will make the fundraising. There is nothing better than being there to understand."

When asked if he will approach actor Arnold Schwarzenegger about a fall trip, the Israeli diplomat laughed and said, "We don’t try to intervene in California politics."

Israelis Shun Terror as Sole Issue of Life

Even in the face of terrorist attacks and the likely falloutfrom a war in Iraq, Israelis refuse to become a “single-issue society.”

“We continue to care passionately about religious pluralismand equality,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union forProgressive Judaism, who visited Los Angeles recently.

As the top professional of one of the largest Jewishreligious organization in the world, the Jerusalem-based Regev conducted aglobal tour of issues facing the liberal wing of Judaism during a wide-ranginginterview in Los Angeles. During his visit, he addressed a meeting at StephenS. Wise Temple.

The World Union is the umbrella organization for 1,500Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Progressive congregations in 44countries and, Regev estimated, touches the religious, educational and sociallives of approximately 2 million Jews.

In Israel, the astonishing recent electoral success of theShinui Party, which advocates the separation of religion and state, hasheartened Jews opposed to ultra-Orthodox influence and strictures in the JewishState.

Because of the vagaries of Israeli coalition politics, Regevdoes not believe that Shinui will be able to realize such goals as civilmarriage and army service for yeshiva students through changes in the laws.

However, by heading the Interior and Justice ministries, hesaid Shinui can effect changes through administrative rulings, such as thelegal acceptance of Conservative and Reform converts and the appointment ofsympathetic judges.

He added that Israeli society is now in a position to decidewhether its wants to exist as a theocracy or a democracy.

The World Union has not taken a stand supporting or opposingthe use of U.S. military force in Iraq.

“In recent years, we have not addressed international policyissues, and the Iraq question has not come before us,” said Regev, who took uphis post in January 2002. “But I plan to upgrade our involvement ininternational advocacy issues.”

As the World Union approaches its 75th anniversary, whichwill be celebrated July 10 in its birthplace, Berlin, it faces changes andchallenges throughout the world.

Much has been written about the Reform movement’s perceivedshift to the right, but Regev sees this as an oversimplification. Reform ritualand observances have always been more traditional in Israel than in the UnitedStates, he said, but it is true that there is a growing interest among U.S.Reform Jews in kashrut (dietary laws), mikvah (ritual bath) use and the wearingof a kippah and tallit.

However, in social and moral issues, including the recentacceptance of a transgender student for rabbinical training at Hebrew UnionCollege-Jewish Institute of Religion, “We are committed to moving forward andto stretching the margins,” he declared.

In the former Soviet Union, there are now approximately 100Reform/Progressive synagogues and groups, with strong concentrations in Moscow,Kiev and Minsk. There are shortages of both rabbis and funds, but a two-yearprogram is underway to train congregational paraprofessionals, supported by theReform rabbinate in Southern California.

In Germany, as in other Central European countries, wherereligious congregations are supported by public taxes, Regev is fighting forrecognition and a share of the government money from the Orthodox-dominated”Einheitsgemeinde.” Under this concept of the “unified community,” its CentralCouncil is supposed to represent the Jewish community as a whole, but, inpractice, discriminates against Reform and Conservative denominations, Regevcharged.

As a native-born Israeli, and a lawyer as well as a rabbi,the 51-year-old Regev has a message of both encouragement and disappointmentfor the U.S. Jewish community.

On the upside, despite the intifada, “we haven’t put ourlives on hold, and they are imbued with beauty and song,” he said. While hisson, Jonathan, serves in the army, his 16-year-old daughter, Liron, “is atypical teenager, who hangs out at the mall and takes public buses to her musicrehearsals.”

As representatives of the U.S. Reform movement, 44rabbinical and cantorial students and 33 high school students are spending ayear in Israel and “having the time of their lives,” Regev said.

On the down side, the absence of American tourists induces”a painful sense of abandonment,” he said. Not only the hotels, but the WorldUnion’s hostel at Beit Shmuel in Jerusalem stands practically empty.

Added to the emotional impact of such isolation is thefinancial drain, compounded by hard times in the U.S. economy. The drop infinancial support “weighs me down,” Regev admitted, especially at a time “whenthere are great new opportunities and an expanded vision for Progressive Judaismthroughout the world.” 

Land of Milk, Honey and Seaweed Wraps

Halfway through my 20-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tel
Aviv, the man to my left said, “I wonder if I will be able to stop myself from
kissing the ground?” He was with a church group that organizes trips to Israel
about every 18 months or so, and this would be his first time in the Holy Land.
The group was smaller than usual this time. Only 12 instead of the usual 30 or

“Do you feel brave for coming here?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “The media makes more out of it than there is,”
he said.

But I wasn’t so sure. While I’d jumped at the opportunity to
take part in the week-long “Women in Israel” press tour organized by the
Israeli Ministry of Tourism, I did feel brave. After all, as everyone kept
saying, this wasn’t the ideal time to be visiting the country.

But then again, I reasoned, when would be an ideal time to
visit Israel? Given the circumstances, this trip seemed like it: The theme of
the tour was “Women of the Bible,” but what the itinerary really offered was a
“women’s” tour of Israel. That meant getting to meet and interview top Israeli
women like Dr. Sharon Einav, an ICU physician at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem;
Reform Rabbi Na’amah Kelman of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of
Religion; and Capt. Sharon Feingold of the IDF press office. It meant day trips
to biblical sites like Dvoriya in the Lower Galilee. It also meant luxury
accommodations, gourmet cuisine and getting pampered at two Israeli spas.

Of course, there is a certain amount of guilt involved in
considering a trip of this sort, while terrorism and unemployment crippled the
country. But, on the other hand, Israelis need our support: The drop in tourism
has much to do with Israel’s suffering economy. So, while it may have seemed
somewhat perverse, we journalists would be on a solidarity mission of our own.
We would see all that Israel still has to offer and remind people that it is
more than the terror target you see on CNN — that it is still the Land of Milk
and Honey, delectable food, beautiful sites and peaceful retreats. And so,
while I did not kiss the ground like some members of the church group next to
me, I eagerly anticipated being spoiled, Israeli-style.

“Come back — and bring your friends,” the flight attendant
told the man from the church group as we deplaned. My own small group — five
female journalists (myself included) and a representative from the ministry’s
public relations firm — joined our tour guide, Ruth, and our driver, Nachshon.

First stop: Tel Aviv.

Aptly named, Tel Aviv’s Hotel Dan Panorama sits right on the
city’s promenade, offering a spectacular view from its many balconies. A box of
dates stuffed with nuts and a fruit basket (apples, oranges, bananas, kiwis and
persimmons) awaited me in my room, which had a balcony overlooking the
Mediterranean, the promenade and a minaret with a police car parked in front.  

That first night, after a brief exchange with the guard at
the entrance, we were ushered into Lilit, an elegant fish and dairy restaurant
where we met veteran Israeli actress Gila Almagor, who played Deborah in “A
Woman Called Golda” and wrote, produced and starred in “HaKayitz Shel Aviya”
(The Summer of Aviya). Between bites of her cheese soufflé, Almagor told us,
“The contradictions in this country, it’s unbelievable.” We nodded through our
own savory bites of green salad with roasted figs, brie and olives. The guard
was peripherally visible through the glass window.

The next morning, we gluttoned ourselves on the delicious
excess of the Israeli breakfast buffet, a matter of pride for most fine Israeli
hotels: think Vegas with more class, and choice dairy products, fresh produce
and exotic additions like various kinds of olives, as well as date, fig and
eggplant concoctions. (Israeli produce is far superior to much that we see
here: Red bell peppers that bleed when you cut into them, and pears that taste
like pears — instead of potatoes.) Indeed, the spreads continued all week, as
each hotel, from Mizpe Hayamim in the north to Jerusalem’s Sheraton Plaza
Hotel, worked to outdo the other and put its unique stamp on this cultural

Our bellies full, we headed to Mizpe Hayamim, a Relais and
Chateaux rated resort hotel and spa complete with private organic farm and
vineyard. Paths wind through the small gardens and fountains that surround the
ivy-covered stone buildings. Scents of jasmine and lavender and a mysterious
something else in the air greeted us upon arrival. A man and woman sat
languidly in the courtyard, dressed in unofficial spa uniforms of white
terrycloth robes and slippers. Ironically, in this pristine, healthful
atmosphere, they both were smoking.

We’d arrived at tea time, in time to enjoy an herbal tea and
hot chocolate buffet in the lobby. Then it was back in the van again, to
descend toward Tiberias for dinner at Decks. Nestled on the shore of the Sea of
Galilee, the airy restaurant was draped in soft white billows of fabric and was
largely open to the water, thanks to its high ceiling and tall glass doors,
which opened onto a deck. Decks specialized in meat, cooked in biblical tradition
over bonfires of locally harvested olive, eucalyptus and citrus wood. A slushy
drink they called “The Nectar of the Gods” was worthy of the title, consisting
of lemon juice, mint, sugar and ice, all blended


On Day Three birds sang outside my window as I dressed for
another decadent breakfast, and a road trip to Safed, considered one of the
four holy cities and the former center of Kabbalah.

Perched high on a mountain, the mystical city draws a
combination of artists and religious Jews. We toured the old city, with its
ancient synagogues, and the artists’ colony, where we met artist Lana Laor
(known as Laor). In the past year, she’d departed artistically from painting in
blues, her focus on love — like a blue-hued painting of two pears sitting side
by side on a ledge — and substituted vivid red pomegranates. “The red is very
violent,” she said. “If you look inside, you can find, like a heart beating.” 

From the heavy beauty of Safed, we returned to the haven of
Mizpe Hayamim for our spa treatments: you can choose from more than 20 kinds of
massage and treatments from acupuncture, to face and body mud and seaweed
masks, scrubs and peels, to manicures and pedicures.

On Friday, we headed south to Jerusalem, to arrive before
the start of Shabbat. The lobby of the Sheraton Plaza Hotel bustled with
black-hatted men, modestly (and smartly) dressed women and their children, a
severe change of pace from the placid north.

On Shabbat morning, we learned of the Shabbat attack on
security forces in Hebron, as they escorted settlers returning from the Tomb of
the Patriarchs. Other reality checks followed in the next few days, as we
toured the Old City and Jerusalem’s main hospital, Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem.
The upcoming Thursday, Nov. 21 (the 16th of Kislev), they told us, would be the
Hebrew calendar anniversary of the Ben Yehuda bombing, which killed 11 people.

Except for Jerusalem, we were largely insulated from current
events in Israel: We’d spent much of our time eating in gourmet restaurants
(sometimes empty and sometimes full), lounging in spas and sleeping in
five-star hotels. After three days in the country’s capital, I couldn’t help
but release a small sigh of relief. Heading for the Dead Sea and the Negev, I
was really ready for a mud-pack treatment. After a quick dip — or rather, float
— in the Dead Sea, we slathered up properly, covering ourselves completely in
the black sludge. My skin felt smoother, I noticed, as I relaxed in the steam
room of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea.     

Leaning my back against the warm wood wall of the room,
watching the swirling steam, I realized my trip was nearly over. I recalled the
Christian tourist I’d met on the plane, and I wondered what he thought of his
first visit. I could have envied his fresh outlook in that moment; but instead,
I felt as lucky as he. Despite my many previous visits to Israel, it had again
found a way to teach me something I didn’t know, and to expose me to a world I
hadn’t before experienced. I couldn’t speak for my Christian friend, but I knew
I’d be coming again — and bringing friends.

For information on Mizpe Hayamim, visit

Prez by Day, Punk by Night

Lawyer, lecturer, punk rocker –and executive president of an Orthodox synagogue.

Welcome to the world of Bram Presser, 26, the Melbourne, Australia-based lead singer of Yidcore, a Jewish punk rock group that specializes in Jewish and Hebrew songs.

As executive president of Melbourne’s North Eastern Jewish War Memorial Centre, Presser is responsible for fiscal affairs at the synagogue, which serves 260 families.

“Not all the shul members approve of me, but they do say they like me when I am quiet,” Presser said.

At the age of 19 and already into punk, Presser established the Theatre Club at the Northern Suburbs Memorial Centre. At 23 he was involved with Israeli affairs through his position on Victoria’s State Zionist Council. The synagogue was a separate entity within the community center until 2001, when the two merged and Presser became executive president of the combined organization.

Yidcore recently completed its second U.S. tour, playing a month of concerts to enthusiastic audiences in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The band’s latest CD “Chicken Soup Caper E.P.” and its first CD, “Yidcore” feature familiar Jewish songs such as “Dayenu,” “Bashana Haba’ah”and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” together with originals “Minyan Man” and “Why Won’t Adam Sandler Let Us Do His Song?”

The band’s third U.S. tour, which Presser hopes will be coast-to-coast, is on the drawing board.

“We formed the band as part of an Australian Union of Jewish Students show and it was a tearaway success,” Presser said.

Yidcore features three other members who also came out of Melbourne’s Jewish day schools: advertising man Mikie Slonim, marketer Paul Glezer and architect Dave Orlanski.

For a punk rocker, Presser lives a clean life: He is strongly anti-drug and is a nonsmoking vegetarian. He has played in bands since he was 14, and attributes his punk skill to his Jewish background.

He also is a lecturer in law at Melbourne University, where he is preparing his criminology doctoral thesis. In the future, he hopes to arrange a concert tour of Israel for Yidcore — even performing, if allowed, at the Kotel.

“At the end of the day, it’s our way of expressing our Jewishness, and the message is getting through to a generation who would otherwise never hear it,” he said.

Yidcore’s music can be heard on its Web site,

Singles Fall in Love With Israel

Luckily, the lure was Israel, not pairing up. With a group consisting of 24 men and only seven women, singles action on the July Birthright trip to Israel sponsored by JDate, the Jewish singles online network, was minimal.

But the 10-day tour did have lots of Los Angeles action, with nine of the travelers, five men and four women, hailing from the L.A. area.

All the members of the L.A. contingent agreed they’d had a great and exhausting vacation. Steven Finnk, 25, from Santa Monica, called the trip "breathtaking — a walk through history" — and enthused about standing in the field where David and Goliath battled, climbing Masada at dawn and kayaking down the Jordan River. "All the stories of Jewish history came to life," he said.

For most of the L.A. travelers, like Finnk, the trip made Israel a knowable reality to which they could imagine returning — a definite win for the Birthright project, whose aim is to turn on young adults to Israel and Zionism.

Birthright Israel offers a free 10-day trip to Jews between 18 and 26 who have never visited the Jewish state (and to some who have, as it turns out) as a way of bolstering their sense of Jewish pride, adding to their Jewish knowledge and connecting them to the country. The trips are organized through various providers offering different itineraries and philosophical approaches. The JDate excursion was run by IsraelExperts. So far, nearly 30,000 North American Jews have taken advantage of the Birthright program.

Ari Zipper, a newcomer to Los Angeles, was bitten so hard by the Israel bug that he was having a hard time with the idea of going home. Zipper, originally from Colorado, moved to Los Angeles a few months ago to take a job in custom-designing home-theater installations. Now a resident of Valley Village, he’d lived in Jerusalem as a small child and felt "ready to stay" — except for the pledge he’d made to his job.

As a Hebrew speaker — his mother forced him to speak the language as a child, which he said made him angry then, but glad now — he became the group’s Israel-integration success story. While on the trip, he got job offers and was interviewed on Israeli television.

Where others talked about visiting the Western Wall or other tourist sites, Zipper cited as his trip highlights a doorway in Jerusalem and a groove in a cobblestone street with water running in it — small details he recalled from his early childhood here. "This is my home," he marveled. "I can’t describe the feeling. I’ve never been this happy. When I’m here, I have peace of mind."

For Rachel Katz, 25, a fourth-grade teacher in Buena Park, visiting Israel was "like a far dream," something she wanted, but somehow didn’t expect to do. Katz, a native of Orange County where she was active at Temple Beth David in Westminster, made going to the Western Wall a top priority. "I just wanted to go to the Kotel. I’d seen it in picture but never thought I would be here. Now I feel like I’ll come back."

The Tepper family sent Jennifer, 25, and Stacey, 23, sisters from Huntington Beach, where Jennifer lives with her cousin, Marisha Tepper, 20, who also came on the trip.

The Western Wall — "to be there and experience it in real life" — was the high point of the trip for Stacey, too, currently a student at Arizona State University. Jennifer, a clinical psychologist, found that the trip "brought together so much of who I am. I didn’t expect to be so moved." Marisha, a student at Orange Coast Community College, particularly loved finding ancient remnants at an archeological dig near Beit Guvrin.

For the Teppers, as for most others on the trip, security had been a concern in planning their trip but, ironically, concerns about safety had faded once they got to Israel. Marisha, whose parents had counseled her to "wait" to come to Israel, noted, "It’s sad to see how fearful Americans are and how strong Israelis are."

Marc Miller, 26, an information technology consultant from West Los Angeles, reported that co-workers and friends worried about his safety, and had pressured him not come on the trip. Now, he said, he sees Israel as "one of the safest places on earth" and blames television for "painting a picture."

Like others in the group, Miller thinks this trip signals a long-term change for him. "I had pushed away my interest in being Jewish in favor of college and non-Jewish friends," he mused. "This trip made me remember how important being Jewish is to me and how important it is to people in Israel that we came."

Mahbod Moghadam, 19, of Encino, had "put aside the summer for traveling" and couldn’t beat Birthright’s price. A student at Yale and the son of Iranian immigrants, Moghadam, who had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Emet in Burbank, was planning a trip to Israel next year for a research project on Iranian history. Friends warned him that Birthright would try to "brainwash" him in regard to Israel, but he says he found only "sincere, open argument, not brainwashing. The agenda is to allow young, dynamic people to make up their own minds."

Meanwhile, he praised the enormous range of activities, a "sample platter" he didn’t think he would have thought to do on his own, and he expects, back in America, to "extend" his Jewish religious life and his support of Israel and Zionism.

Pejman Nabat, 25, a native of Iran — his family escaped by way of Pakistan and India to Europe when he was 5, before moving to America — is studying history and psychology at UCLA and planning to go to dental school ("I have a passion for dentistry," he confided).

Active in Nessah Yisrael, a Persian community organization, he lauded the trip as providing fun, learning and a feeling of being "at home." He says he made "30 friends I’ll keep in touch with" on the trip. His highlight? "Everything was a highlight — I looked forward to every day."

The Return of Poogy

The fabled Poogy, Israel’s most celebrated rock band, is reuniting in the United States next month for a three-city tour, billed as their “final reunion.” It’s worth watching the reviews to see how they’re received. The results will offer data on the state of Jewish identity and Israel-Diaspora relations. Israel’s soul will be on display. Will American Jews come listen?

The last time they toured here was 1976, shortly before they broke up.

“We played 20 cities, and every concert was sold out,” says the band’s drummer, Meir “Poogy” Fenigstein, now a Los Angeles-based impresario. “Every place we performed, from Winnipeg to Phoenix, audiences knew the words and sang along. And it wasn’t Israelis. It was American Jews.”

“I don’t know how they learned it. Maybe because we came out at the time of the Yom Kippur War, when American Jews were closer to Israel. A lot of American kibbutz volunteers probably heard Poogy on the radio, and brought back the memories. I think we became a sort of bond between them and Israel.”