Thrilling days of yesteryear

Nothing links the three books described below except that each, in its own way, is so charming that I couldn’t resist opening it up and, having done so, couldn’t put it down.

One of the treasures of American-Yiddish journalism was “A Bintel Brief” (“A Bundle of Letters”), an advice column that ran in the Jewish Daily Forward that serves as a window into the lives of the immigrant generation of American Jews around the turn of the 20th century. Now Liana Finck, a gifted young writer and artist, has reframed some of the most affecting of those letters in a comic-book format in “A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York” (Ecco).

Although Finck is unabashedly sentimental about her discovery of her grandfather’s yellowed clippings from the Forward, she decided to illustrate and dramatize some of the most troubling letters in the archive in a conscious effort to show us the complexity and consequence of the life experiences the letter-writers shared with their newspaper. So we are privileged to witness family drama and dysfunction, hard lives and broken hearts, operatic accounts of betrayal and loss — all of it illustrated in Finck’s endearing and often whimsical artistic style. 

The letters themselves show us the galvanizing process by which “greenhorns” turned themselves into Americans, as do the bracing answers, which were composed by the storied editor of the Forward, Abraham Cahan. A barber confesses that he has dreamed of cutting off the head of a troublesome customer and, when he stands at his chair in the barber shop, “I get a sudden impulse to do what I did in my dream.” The advice from Cahan is highly practical: “The writer of this letter must simply laugh off the dream and drive the whole matter out of his head,” unless “his nervous system is for some reason weakened,” in which case “he must consult a doctor.” Finck is always faithful to the voices in the original letters and the answers, but she also writes and draws herself, her cherished family and Cahan into the stories. Indeed, by the end of this enchanting book, the reader feels that he or she, too, has spent time in the company of patient, lovable but also inscrutable ghosts.

Putting the ‘Pop’ back into soda pop

At the dawn of the 20th century, the British royals were privy to a spiffy new system for infusing drinking water with carbon dioxide bubbles. It would take 53 years for SodaStream to reach commoners, and another 42 until it was acquired by an Israeli distributor and transformed into an international DIY product called Soda Club.

The brand really started to sparkle when it was taken over in 2007 by an Israeli entrepreneur with a Harvard Business School degree, and today the home carbonation system is sold by 40,000 stores in 41 countries. CEO Daniel Birnbaum says that about 4 million households now have a SodaStream machine on the kitchen counter.

“We still have a long runway ahead of us,” Birnbaum said. “There are a lot more households out there.”

Jazzing up a blah brand

Birnbaum was perfectly happy at the helm of Nike Israel when fellow Harvard alum Yuval Cohen, managing director of Fortissimo Capital, asked him to check out a possible acquisition.

“When he told me it was Soda Club, I almost fell off my chair, because I thought the company was gone,” recalled Birnbaum, who had previously established Pillsbury Israel.

But after visiting the firm’s Airport City headquarters, he predicted that Soda Club was a sure investment. It had an existing sales base of close to $100 million in a product category that accounts for $230 billion in sales globally.

Making what he calls the quickest career decision of his life, Birnbaum left Nike and took on Soda Club, determined to push its envelope of potential. Because for all its modest success, the brand was as flat as week-old pop.

“It was losing money on operating expenses. The management had little passion or optimism, no growth strategy, no new product pipeline, no new market development. I asked about their plans for markets like Russia and the U.S., and they had no answers.”

Just four years later, having rebranded the system with its old name and a new logo, Birnbaum has added 24 countries to the marketing mix and even relaunched it in the United Kingdom with its original commercial jingle, “Get busy with the fizzy.”

In the United States, where Soda Club was strictly Web-based, SodaStream is now available in mega-retailers including Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Sears, Kohl’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

A native New Yorker living in Israel since he was 7, Birnbaum understands the American market well thanks to his education and a stint at Procter & Gamble.

In November last year, SodaStream’s initial public offering on NASDAQ turned out to be the eighth-largest Israeli IPO ever in the United States and Israel’s biggest IPO in 2010.

“When we rang the closing bell on our first day as a public company, the vice chairman of NASDAQ announced that we are an Israeli company, and I just glowed,” said Birnbaum, who lives in Tel Mond with his family.

MUSIC VIDEO Lauren Rose – ‘Hava Nagila Baby Let’s Dance’

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It didn’t make Britain’s Top Ten Christmas records, but it’s still a killer version: Lauren Rose sings ‘Hava Nagila’ like you’ve never heard it—or danced it—before!

P. F. Sloan: does he still believe we’re on the ‘Eve of Destruction’?

“Eve of Destruction,” the famous folk-rock protest hit from 1965, isn’t usually regarded as a specifically Jewish song. Or even a religious one, for that matter.

It’s a litany of anguished complaints about the problems of the temporal world of the time — civil rights marchers repelled in Selma, Ala., the imminent danger of nuclear war, the threat from a militant “Red China.” It struck such a chord with a teenage audience worried about the future that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a youthful crie de coeur against the political status quo. It became an extraordinary pop-cultural event in its own right.

But the long-missing-in-action writer of “Eve of Destruction,” 61-year-old Los Angeles resident P.F. (Phil) Sloan, cites his studies of Jewish mysticism as a key source of inspiration. After decades of fighting physical and mental illnesses that ended his professional career, Sloan is back with a new CD, “Sailover,” recently released on Hightone Records. Only his sixth album since 1965, it includes versions of “Eve” and other songs he wrote in the 1960s, plus new folk-rock compositions. And he performs at Largo in the Fairfax district, where he grew up, on Sept. 27.

After his bar mitzvah at Hollywood Temple Beth El, Sloan’s rabbi recommended him for early kabbalah training, especially study of the mystical writings and Torah interpretations in the Zohar.

“It is rare because you’re supposed to be 40 [to study],” Sloan said, speaking by phone from Chicago where he was performing at a club. “My rabbi suspected I was an old soul.”

He studied for about 18 months, he said, providing him with “a greater, deeper understanding of Judaism and its relationship to people.”

But at the same time, Sloan was also interested in rock ‘n’ roll. In 1964, while still a teenager, he and friend Steve Barri wrote and recorded “Tell ‘Em I’m Surfin'” as the Fantastic Baggys. His “P.F. Sloan” persona appeared in 1964, when in response to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he wrote several protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” “The Sins of the Family” and “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” It took a full year before the growlingly, deep-voiced singer Barry McGuire, fresh from the New Christy Minstrels, released “Eve” on L.A.’s Dunhill Records — also Sloan’s label — and it became a hit.

Sloan feels the song was “directly attributable” to his kabbalah studies.
“The song was a divine gift,” he said. “I was given information about the history of the world through that song — not that that’s unusual in mystical Judaism. It was quite a wonderful gift at age 19 to be given that. I knew it was special and knew it would change things.”

Sloan sees the song as his dialogue with God.

“I say to God that ‘this whole crazy world is just too frustrating,’ and then God says to me, ‘But you tell me over and over and over again about these problems I already know,'” he said.

“It’s an endless dance around this razor’s edge about what God is saying every time I sing this song,” Sloan explained. “He’s telling me, ‘Don’t believe we’re on the eve, I’m not going to allow it.’ And then other times when I sing it, I get the message he’s going to allow destruction to happen. Every time I sing it, I get an insight into what’s going on.”

Sloan’s parents moved from New York, where he was born as Philip Gary Schlein, to Los Angeles for his mother’s arthritis. But when his father had trouble getting permission to open a downtown sundries store under his name Schlein, he changed it to “Sloan” to avoid anti-Semitism.

Working with Barri or alone, Sloan wrote hits for other pop stars in the 1960s, including “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers, “Where Were You When I Needed You” for The Grass Roots and “Let Me Be” for The Turtles. But his attempts at becoming a successful singer-songwriter like his idol, Bob Dylan, didn’t work out. He says his record company was reluctant to support him at the time and that he signed away his songwriting royalties.

And from roughly 1971 to 1986, he said, he was incapacitated by undiagnosed hypoglycemia that led to depression and catatonia. He lived with his now-deceased parents until they found an apartment for him and helped him get nursing care.

But in 1986, he also started visiting Sai Baba, a controversial Indian guru who claims healing powers, at his ashram. He has gone back every two years and slowly started to recover. He said by 2001 he felt good enough to start performing again. In 2003, for instance, he participated in a tribute concert to Jewish religious singer and songwriter Shlomo Carlebach at Congregation Beth Jacob.

“I’m now walking 1 1/2 miles a day,” Sloan said. “I have a huge amount of energy. It’s like God has touched me and just given me a tremendous amount of love and energy. I feel like I’ve been reactivated.”

P.F. Sloan will be at Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Doors open at 8 p.m. $5-$20.

For more information, call (323) 852-1073 or visit

Spectator – A Musical Trek to Israel

For 2,000 years, Jewish music has been a hybrid compounded of elements picked up from our neighbors. Salamone Rossi created Italian Baroque settings of Hebrew texts. Chasidic niggunim drew on Viennese waltz music and Eastern European military marches. Sulzer and Lewandowski wrote like German Protestants. In the Diaspora, Jewish music has always been a hyphenate.

One might expect that the creation of a Jewish state might bring about a change in such affairs, but listening to the excellent new compilation “The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel” (Rough Guide/World Music Network) one realizes that, for now at least, Israeli music, too, is an amalgam of local and global influences, ranging from the dance-beat driven songs of the late Ofra Haza to the hip-hop of Hadag Nahash.

Of course, Israel itself is a crossroads, situated in the midst of so many different cultures, and a catch basin for all those different sounds, but for obvious reasons, Israel is a particularly fertile ground for a fusion of Jewish musics — Moroccan, Algerian, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Ladino, Yiddish and so on. And Dan Rosenberg, who compiled this CD has made a point of drawing from all of them. The result is both a useful snapshot of Israeli pop today and a highly danceable record in its own right.

The Jewish Moroccan tradition is a particularly rich one musically and is fittingly well-represented here with selections by Shlomo Bar (of Habrera Hativit) and David D’Or, Emil Zrihan and Kol Oud Tof. But there are equally telling contributions from Bustan Abraham — a Turkish classical composition turned into a devastatingly syncopated dance treat — and old folkies Alberstein and Arik Einstein.

There are no real duds here, although the harmonica-driven Tea Packs is a band more redolent of American vaudeville than some will care for, and Ofra Haza’s discofied “Ode-Le-Eli” probably wouldn’t cut it at a traditional Yemenite wedding. But even those two songs are better-than-average representatives for artists whose popularity is too large for them to be ignored in this context.

The best thing about “The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel” is that it will introduce listeners to the entire range of music coming out of the country. If you can get your parents to put away their Hillel and Aviva records and check out the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra or Idan Raichel’s Project, you’ll be glad you did. (How your parents will feel, that’s not my problem.)

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week; his new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.


Spend Chanukah Barenaked


While naming your holiday album “Barenaked for the Holidays” is a pretty catchy way to get some attention, for the quirky pop band that calls itself the Barenaked Ladies, it made sense — about as much sense as getting naked on “The Sharon Osbourne Show” last year, anyway. Apparently, stripping down’s just part of the offbeat Canadians’ sense of fun. So it follows that anyone expecting the Ladies’ holiday album to be anything less than silly would be, well, silly.

The new CD offers up revamped Christmas, Chanukah and New Year’s classics, as well as a few original tunes, including one called “Hanukkah Blessings,” written by Jewish band member Steven Page. The reinterpreted songs include a version of “Jingle Bells” that has “the extra lines you remember from being a kid,” Page recently told

Another song, titled, “Deck the Stills,” is a variation on “Deck the Halls” that functions as a bizarre homage to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, wherein the band’s name, sung repeatedly to the melody of “Deck the Halls” makes up the entirety of the song.

Two Chanukah standards also make it onto the album: “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and “I Have a Little Dreidel,” both redone in traditional — if a little peppier — style.

While the Ladies might not seem bent on tradition, there is at least one that it’s said they stick to. The band is known for always recording at least one song per album completely nude. Which song that is remains a mystery, although for the sake of Sarah McLachlan, their collaborator on the recording,”God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” we hope it wasn’t that one.

And while in typical, unpredictable style, the Ladies released their holiday CD way back in October, Page was quick to mockingly defend the choice on the band’s official blog, noting its release was “just in time for the holidays. Well, by holidays I mean Ramadan and Canadian Thanksgiving.” Still, he added, “It might be early for a stocking stuffer, but it’s perfect as a turkey stuffer.”


Words From the Old Ball Game

With Seth Swirsky’s Beatles-style haircut and soothing voice, one would probably hand him a guitar rather than a baseball bat. But if Swirsky — a pop songwriter who has written gold- and platinum-selling albums for artists like Celine Dion and Taylor Dane — were asked his preference, he might opt for one of each.

“I love baseball for the kind of background to our summers that it gives us,” Swirksy said. “It’s like a soundtrack to our great summers when we’re growing up.”

In his new book, “Something to Write Home About” (Crown, $25.95), Swirsky pays tribute to the sport that has played such an important part in his life. A collection of personal baseball memories written to Swirsky by everyone from Paul McCartney, to the grandson of the inventor of the Wiffle ball, “Something to Write Home About” affirms Swirsky’s assertion that “baseball connects us.”

Of all the letters in the book, Swirsky’s favorite is that of Jewish Dodger Shawn Green, recounting the time he found himself on the field with two other Jewish players around Rosh Hashana.

“The idea that three Jews were kibitzing at home plate in major league baseball is so great,” Swirsky said. “It was so particularly Jewish.”

The third book in a trilogy, “Something to Write Home About,” is the completion of an effort that began during the baseball strike of ’94 — around the time that Swirsky’s eldest son, Julian, was born. “I thought to myself, if I write to some players and they give me some interesting answers, I would love to save this for my son,” Swirsky said.

While Julian is only 9 years old, Swirsky hopes his son will one day appreciate the sport as he does.

“I go to a baseball game [regardless of] who I’m going with,” Swirsky said. “It doesn’t matter whose playing. If my dad wants to go to a baseball game, it is a yes, because men don’t ask each other to go to a park and have a picnic — that’s how men go to a park.”

Seth Swirsky will be signing copies of his book,
“Something to Write Home About,” on June 7 at 2 p.m. at Borders in Chino, 3833
Grand Ave.; June 8 at 2 p.m. at Borders in Glendale, 100 S. Brand Blvd.; and
June 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 189 Grove Drive. For
more about Swirsky, visit


Avi Davis is president of Israel Development Group, a business consultancy, in Beverly Hills. He and his family own a home in Safed, Israel. Senior columnist Marlene Adler Marks will return July 3.









With this latest assault on Jewish values and tradition, things have gone just a little awry in the Jewish state.

A Nation Like Any Other

By Avi Davis

The sight of Israeli Minister of Tourism Moshe Katzav being kissed by Israeli singer and Eurovision song contest winner Dana International must have made someone, somewhere blush. But you wouldn’t have known it by reading any of the Israeli papers last week. With the kind of glee that is only reserved in the Holy Land for the smashing of idols, Israeli editorialists pounced on Dana’s victory as further proof that Israel, having produced not just a Eurovision contest winner, but a transsexual one, has finally arrived as a nation among nations. So finally, we have the good word from Israel: Androgyny is in. Ethnocentricism (read Judaism with its intolerance for diversity and priggish emphasis on sexual purity), is most definitely out.

It’s not the first time an Israeli singer has stirred the pot of national pique. Last year, pop singer Noa, in a show of flagrant contempt for her own religion, sang “Ave Maria” to Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. Of course, there are millions of Israelis who champion such acts of self -revilement. Many voices declare that the seeming struggle between internationalism and insularity is in reality a murky battle between tolerance (read secularism) on the one hand and repression (read religion) on the other.

Unfortunately, that translates as little more than an apology for the collapse of one of Zionism’s most fervent promises. For if there was ever a sense that Israel as a nation might have a mission in this world other than material gain or the right of personal expression, it seems to have dissolved in the secular world’s exultation of escape from stifling age-old commitments.

Yet such joy can only be tentative. Because when examined carefully, the hankering after international acceptance reflects no more than a pervasive sense of inferiority and absence of self-worth.

With this latest assault on Jewish values and tradition, things have gone just a little awry in the Jewish state.

Indeed, if he returned today, Joshua, the Jewish people’s first general, might be puzzled to discover that many of the Caananite practices he thought he had eradicated are making their slow but steady comeback.

And although child sacrifice may still not be on anyone’s agenda, there is an eerie sense that in the unceasing effort by Israeli secular society to strip all religious influence from their lives, the moral imperatives that have served us faithfully for so many centuries are being discarded.

It should not have been like this. The early Zionist ideologues struggled with the moral character of the nation to be. Ahad Ha’am, one of the most spiritually inclined of them, declared that the Jewish state would be built on a foundation of Jewish values or it would perish.

Later, David Ben-Gurion made the famous statement that he longed for a normal state with normal problems. However, this expectation of normalcy was never conceived by Ben-Gurion to import the tawdry and banal from other nations at the expense of Jewish culture. Ben-Gurion’s profound respect for Torah and the ethical teachings of the prophets became for him a genuine ideal for the revitalization of his people. For Ben-Gurion, dyed in the wool secularist though he was, the term am segula (treasured nation) came to denote not so much the feat of land reclamation as a reassertion of the Jewish people’s role in the moral development of the world. In his own curious way, Ben-Gurion’s ideas were very much in tune with the vision of the prophets.

Sadly, despite some remarkable acts of charity as a nation (offering refuge to fleeing Vietnamese and providing agricultural aid to drought stricken African nations are just two examples that spring to mind), that’s not the way things have turned out. Everyday life in Israel is beset with acts of dissoluteness and discourtesy. Israelis are often uncouth and vulgar. Rudeness, in stores and on the roads, is a way of life. In Tel Aviv, Jewish prostitution has become a very serious problem; an underground Israeli cartel now works in partnership with Palestinian thieves masterminding a pandemic of car thefts in the major cities. From male strippers in the living rooms of Tel Aviv to the notoriously unpleasant business practices of Israeli entrepreneurs, both in Israel and outside of it, Israelis have earned for themselves the unhappy sobriquet of prickly boors for whom ethics are no more than the doormat you use to clean your boots when you enter a house.

It is of course unfair to label all Israelis as degenerates or even lay the blame for every moral infraction at the feet of the secular. The Orthodox (courtesy of Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein) and ultra-Orthodox have done little to assuage the prevailing view that they are self-righteous bigots who would bleed the state rather than give to it.

But the tragedy remains that for the secular, self-abasement has become the language of dissent and a weapon of revenge.

All of this just to be a nation like any other. You have to wonder if the ghetto was a happier place.

Whatever the answer, it was the sudden superstar elevation of the transsexual Dana International that provided the final confirmation that there is a price to be paid for normalcy and that price is the squandering of a profound moral heritage. To many of us, the singer’s victory became meaningless when her status as Israel’s first transsexual singer was given more prominence than her actual song.

In truth, Dana International is perhaps a victim of all the hype that surrounds her and her painful journey deserves more our sympathy than our scorn. Yet her personal struggles set the State of Israel’s in sharper relief. Is it, after all, truly unrealistic to expect
Israel, a country composed largely of secular Jews, to subscribe to traditional Jewish codes of ethics and behavior? I don’t think so. Does it mean that all secular Israelis need to become religious? Not at all. But the Israeli education system can certainly provide guidance by accepting as a principle that being an Israeli carries with it responsibility and instituting compulsory instruction in
musar (ethics) that would ultimately lead to strengthening the nation’s moral purpose and an improvement in everyday life.

In the meantime, all normalcy advocates can certainly take heart. In normalcy, they will find a fertile ground for the flourishing of tolerance and maybe even the political framework for a future State of Canaan.