October 21, 2018

Meet Yonathan Berrebi: The Tahini Master

Yonathan Berrebi jokes that it was only after he began his internship at the iconic Le Jules Verne restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower, that world-famous chef Alain Ducasse earned his third Michelin star.

“I peeled the shrimp,” he said wryly. 

With Parisian parents, the culinary capital of the world seemed like an obvious place to receive his chef’s hat, so in 2005, Berrebi enrolled at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Academy. Years later, he managed the Israeli franchise of the famed French gastronomy company, Fauchon. Yet despite his French connections, there is no love lost between the 37-year-old chef and French cuisine. 

“Until this day, I hate French kitchens,” he said. “There is no soul in the food. Yes, they are great technicians, but it is nothing like the Spanish, Italian or Greek, where you can see passion [and] happiness and the flavors are bold.”

Berrebi abhors cookbooks, and follows neither recipes nor the work of other chefs. “I don’t want to be influenced by others,” he said. 

“While tahini is ubiquitous in Middle East cuisine, it’s never the main component. ‘Tahini deserves a front-row seat,’ Berrebi said.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Berrebi’s first restaurant is unique. Called HaTahinia, and located in Tel Aviv, the menu is comprised almost entirely of tapas-sized dishes made with tahini; from sea bream dipped in a tahini batter, to a dish called “The Party,” which lives up to its name with a poached egg waiting to explode under a bed of tahini, schug, harissa and artichokes. 

While tahini is ubiquitous in Middle East cuisine, it’s never the main component. “Tahini deserves a front-row seat,” Berrebi said. “It’s an amazing canvas and you can do whatever you want with it.”

The idea came to Berrebi while he was working as a private chef on a yacht owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer. He was invited to cook a meal for the Prince of Monaco, Albert II, together with the prince’s private chef, “a stuck-up French guy with a closed top button,” in Berrebi’s words. 

Berrebi was experimenting with mixing the paste with seafood stock instead of plain water. Slowly but surely, the tahini — and the other chef’s heart — opened up. “I showed the pompous French chef something he’d never seen before,” Berrebi said, but was quick to add that the two later became friends. 

Berrebi’s life on the yacht was star-studded — cooking for the likes of Beyoncé, Tom Jones and fashion designer Marc Jacobs — and lucrative. But ultimately, he said, it was a gilded cage. “I was lonely.” Wi-Fi access was extremely limited, making his long-distance relationship with his partner, Kareen, all the more distant. 

Kareen first messaged Berrebi on social media after a tattoo artist posted a picture of the chef getting inked on the head with the image of a bisected brain. A tattoo aficionado herself, Kareen’s tiny, tat-emblazoned frame doesn’t exactly bespeak her background in information science.

Kareen gave up a career at Walt Disney to work at Berrebi’s restaurant, finding creative solutions to get over some of its teething problems.

Much like the chef himself, HaTahinia is an open book. “What you see is what you get,” Berrebi said, gesturing to the steel kitchen in the center of the bar. Diners are encouraged to interact with Berrebi as he prepares dishes from scratch in front of them. The downside is you might have to wait 25 minutes to be served. “But you didn’t come for a fast-food experience,” Berrebi said. On the upside, you’ll be offered shots of ouzo to tide you over. 

One thing Berrebi was not willing to compromise on was the location. Except for the fish and the tahini itself — which he sources from a family in Nazareth — all his ingredients come from the Levinksy market, where the restaurant is located.

“The real culture of food,” he said, “will always come from the market.”

A correction was made to this story at 12:14 p.m. changing the name of fashion designer Mark Jacobs to Marc Jacobs. 

Israeli Film ‘Longing’ Explores Fatherly Love and Loss

Shai Avivi; Photo provided by Breaking Glass Pictures

In the opening minutes of Israeli filmmaker Savi Gavizon’s “Longing,” middle-aged bachelor Ariel Bloch gets news that’s not only shocking, it’s a double-punch to the gut. Meeting his ex-girlfriend Ronit at a café, he’s told that he fathered a son 20 years ago. Then he learns that the boy, Adam, is now dead, killed when his car plunged off a bridge. Reeling from the news, he begins a quest to learn more about the young man he never had the chance to meet.

The answers he gets are complicated: Adam was a talented musician and poet, but he was also angry and troubled, with a history of defacing property, dealing drugs, stalking his French teacher, and getting his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant. How Ariel deals with and processes these revelations as he meets people in Adam’s life and learns about himself in the process is at the core of Gavizon’s dark comedy.

Starring Shai Avivi as Ariel, Assi Levy as Ronit, and Neta Riskin as French teacher Yael, “Longing” was nominated for 13 Ophir Awards—Israel’s Oscar — with Gavizon’s script winning the award for best screenplay.

“This is a story about parenthood, about the desire to be a parent and the afflictions that come with it: identification and honor,” he told the Journal. “This is a journey that creates near-laboratory conditions for the examination of the hidden aspects of parenthood.”

The divorced father of two children, Maya, 25, and Yoav, 20, the Tel Aviv-based writer-director of “Nina’s Tragedies” and “Lovesick on Nana Street” explained his inspiration for his latest film.

“A few years ago, when I got divorced, my kids became the anchor in my life. I developed an obsession to be with them as much as I could. On their days with me, I didn’t allow them to go to their friends and surely not to sleep over. They had to stay with me. Instead of being a good father to them, I was a good father for me,” he said. “Issues of awkward parenthood began to bother me and these issues looked for their story to be told. These issues, I think, resonate in the heart of every parent.”

Bringing the story to the screen posed several challenges. “The essence of the story is the journey of the main character from cold to hot and from loneliness to being surrounded by people, from thinking about himself to [recognizing] others. So I had to design him as a very cold, selfish and lonely person.” It is a very hard step to begin with, he explained, so it was important that he cast the right actor. He chose Shai Avivi because of “his talent, warmth, gentleness and lovable quality that makes people relate to him, even as a difficult to like character.”

“Longing” artfully treads the line between darkness and light, deftly blending comedy and tragedy. “I’ve always wanted to create a film which is comprised of absurd situations, because they allow access to deep emotions without falling into the trap of sentimentality and cliché,” Gavizon said. “Perhaps this is why I’ve allowed myself, for the very first time, to be led to the very end by a singular pain and a singular passion. ‘Longing’ is a tragicomedy, paved with more absurdity than any other screenplay I’ve written to date.”

“‘Longing’ is a tragicomedy, paved with more absurdity than any other screenplay I’ve written to date.” — Savi Gavizon


As a director, he said the most significant challenge he faced was directing this film in an entirely realistic fashion, in order to provide “a solid emotional platform for those moments that touch on the extreme and the ridiculous.” He explained that classic comic drama usually starts funny, and gradually becomes serious and painful, but in this case, “I chose to do it in the other way around. The movie starts very sad, and becomes more and more absurd and comic. ‘An Extremely Sad Comedy’ is probably a title that suits ‘Longing’ better than any of my other films.”

While the the story he tells is very extreme and charts a dangerous path, Gavizon and his cinematographer, Assaf Sudry, kept the film’s visuals modest and functional. “But if you look carefully,” he said, “you can see the manipulation we made with color and light. It was very important for me not to leave the texture of the things as they are. It’s not really realistic texture. Assaf was the perfect guy to do it.”

Although Gavizon did not base any of the film on real people, he was inspired to include a real Taoist ceremony his girlfriend told him about after returning from a trip to Singapore. “When a son dies, [Taoists] try to find for him a girl who also died, and they marry them in a ceremony. They believe that this marriage will [allow] them to be together, wherever they are,” he said.

“I thought that it might be interesting and unique to create a story with these circumstances, [set] in a Western society. But what interested me more about this marriage was the parents; I was attracted to their psychological need to continue being parents and less in the mystic and metaphysical side,” he said. “I think this ceremony goes one step deeper and darker than the Jewish way that I know to mourn and deal with death.”

The Haifa native, who is not religious, said he does “study Judaism from time to time, and I have religious people in my family. I’m surrounded by Jewish culture and tradition. I have no doubt that these facts directly and indirectly affect my work.” Right now, he added, “I’m busy wondering what my next film will be about.”

“Longing,” now in theatrical release, will be available digitally and on DVD on Oct. 12.

Kafka and the Cat Lady

Eva Hoffe with Max Brod Photo from Hoffe’s family archive

The story of Eva Hoffe is a sad one. In essence, it is a long, sordid history of broken promises. It begins with Czech-Jewish writer Franz Kafka. Before passing away, he entrusted his friend Max Brod with a large collection of his manuscripts, instructing Brod to destroy them.

He did not.

Brod, in turn, left them to his secretary (and alleged lover) Esther Hoffe, with the instructions that she transfer them to a public archive in her lifetime.

She did not.

Thus they ended up in the hands of Esther Hoffe’s last living daughter.

For decades, Eva battled the Israeli courts for her right to Kafka’s manuscripts, stored in vaults in Tel Aviv and Zurich and (according to some individuals I asked) in a small, brown suitcase hidden somewhere in her squalid apartment.

Had Eva won her case, she would have sold the manuscripts for millions of dollars. But she lost. And then, in August, she died at the age of 85.

Reading of her death, it wasn’t her manuscripts that I thought of first. Rather, it was her cats. Before I knew of her as the keeper of Kafka’s lost work, I knew her as the cat lady of Spinoza Street.

It was years ago that I met her for the first time. This was back when I first moved to Tel Aviv. I didn’t know many people and would sometimes spend my afternoons wandering around the city — mentally mapping the streets and trying to get my bearings. It was during one of these walks that I happened into Trumpeldor Cemetery.

Minutes from the hectic commercial center of Tel Aviv, the quiet and dignified cemetery felt a world apart. The names inscribed on the graves sounded familiar to me. Nordau, Ahad Ha’Am, Arlozorov, Dizengoff, Bialik, Tchernichovsky – the politicians, poets, and leaders of Israel. Until then, they had been nothing more than street names to me.

As I continued my walk, I saw a familiar face pass by — an older woman with a scowl and a hunched back.

Back then, I was working at a small nursery school on Spinoza Street. My days were spent shaping Play-Doh, building with Legos, and taking the kids out to the small back garden to run around.

The woman I saw in the cemetery was familiar to me as the pair of peering eyes that sometimes glanced at us from a window high above our nursery school’s back garden. 

Franz Kafka
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

I had never spoken to her, but I knew of her through local lore. It was Eva Hoffe, the much-maligned cat lady of Spinoza Street, and the unlikely keeper of Franz Kafka’s unpublished manuscripts.

She turned and saw me looking at her. It appeared that she recognized me as well. Slowly she made her way over to me. “You work at the preschool,” she said.  “I can hear you very well from my apartment. The children make a lot of noise.”

The truth is, we could hear her too. More specifically, we could hear her cats.

She paused a moment, weighing what she wanted to say. I assumed it would be something unpleasant. My boss had never missed an opportunity to characterize her as a child-hating and crotchety neighborhood burden.

 “You make a lot of noise,” she repeated. “But you make the children laugh. It’s lovely to hear to them laugh.”

This caught me off guard, but before I had a chance to respond, she took my arm and began pulling me with her. “Come,” she said, gesturing to a grave. “This is Max Brod. Today is his memorial. He was a friend of my mother’s.”

We stood in silence a moment as we looked at the grave. I don’t remember how much I knew then of her legal battles for Kafka’s manuscripts, or of the significance of her mother’s relationship with Brod. She didn’t bother explaining. After a beat, she said goodbye to me and walked away.

The next week at work, I saw Hoffe taking out her garbage during the students’ outdoor playtime. 

We exchanged waves. My co-worker, Jenna, cocked her head at me. I explained how we had met and added that Hoffe was, surprisingly, a very sweet lady.

Jenna rolled her eyes.

This was to be expected. Those who worked at the nursery school thought of Eva the way my boss did. She had even managed to influence the thinking of the class mothers.

The issue was her cats. Back then, Eva’s shrieking cats could be heard from her windows at all hours. She must have had at least 20 of them in there, all fighting and bristling and mewing plaintively to be fed.

My boss so disliked having Eva as a neighbor that she led a small but determined campaign against her. She encouraged the class mothers to lodge complaints with the municipality about the cats, telling them to say that the presence of so many animals in a confined space had a detrimental effect on the health and well-being of their children (a complete falsehood). “Without more voices,” she would say, “nothing will be done.”

After a certain number of calls had been lodged, the city would come and clear out the cats, after which Eva would begin to collect them again.

At times, I would defend Eva’s right to her cats, but I was always met with the same response, which was that it wasn’t ethical to keep all those cats cooped up in there. I would tend to agree, but somehow I sensed that cat-activism was not the motivation behind the campaign. It was something else. My boss’ ire was aimed at Eva herself and the appeal to “think of the cats!” was unconvincing.

As I learned more about Eva’s case, I began to defend her right to her manuscripts as well. And for the same reason. The state’s case didn’t convince me.

The state argued that the Hoffe family had no legitimate right to Kafka’s manuscripts. Brod had specifically requested that they be placed in an archive. In disobedience to his wishes, the Hoffes had decided to cynically profit off of them through private sale.

But if the state was truly concerned with honoring the wishes of the manuscripts’ rightful owner, why not look to the source — to Kafka himself — who wanted them destroyed?

As a writer, I am always disturbed when the posthumous requests of authors regarding their own work are disregarded. The dead have few advocates, and the long-dead have none. The question of destroying the manuscripts was not part of the equation in the Hoffe case. As such, it seemed to me that this was a matter of two illegitimate parties battling over a piece of property which belonged rightfully to a fire pit.

Before I knew of Eva Hoffe as the keeper of Kafka’s lost work, I knew her as the cat lady of Spinoza Street.

If that was the case, why not rule according to “finders keepers” and let poor Eva keep her ill-gotten heirloom? The state of Israel surely had no greater claim.

Had she won her case, she would have made millions through the sale of the manuscripts. The highest bidder most likely would have been a national archive anyway. Israel would have lost a literary treasure, but Eva would be luxuriating in a gorgeous mansion, her cats strutting about happily, crystal dishes of food in every room and a servant making the rounds tending to the litter boxes.

But she lost and the work contained in the vaults was ordered to be transferred to Israel’s National Library.

In lieu of a truly legitimate claim to the manuscripts, one question considered in the case was that of stewardship. Again and again, it was pointed out that Eva Hoffe was unqualified to care for historical documents — especially if some were kept in her own home.

This same argument was thrown around on Spinoza Street by those who wanted to rob Eva of her cats.

I am a cat owner myself and have always loved the way the strays stalk the streets of Tel Aviv. There are those who complain about Tel Aviv’s cat “infestation,” but for me, they stir up a sense of wilderness and mystery. If every street hides a story as interesting as that of Eva Hoffe’s, surely the cats are the keepers of those stories. This is, I believe, as it should be.

On more than one occasion I asked my boss if she ever considered the possibility that Eva’s cats were not mistreated. That they were noisy because they were cats and because cats make noise. After all, we worked at a preschool.  Anyone who has ever worked with children knows that, in addition to their charming laughter, they make plenty of noises far less pleasant, often resorting to screaming, yelling and crying. This in no way reflects on the warm and loving environment we provided for those children day after day.

A woman so devoted to cat ownership, I argued, is surely devoted to their upkeep and health as well.

“How can you know for sure?” my boss would ask me.

I didn’t know for sure. Nor did I consider it my place to try and find out.

Some stones are better left unturned.

And so it was that I found myself defending the right of an old woman to be ornery and mad, of cats to live in squalor, and of great works of literature to go lost.

Matthew Schultz is a writer living and working in Tel Aviv.

The Man Who Makes Tech Go ‘Boom’

Hillel Fuld

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the death of Fuld’s brother, Ari, who was stabbed by a Palestinian terrorist on Sept. 16. Fuld tweeted shortly after Ari’s murder: “He lived as a hero and died as a hero. My big bro is gone. Thanks for the messages. Really. Just looking for oxygen now …”

In the summer of 2014, Steve Wozniak ­­— the man who helped develop the personal computer — visited Israel for 24 hours. He invited Hillel Fuld, a keen-eyed, peppy Jerusalemite who takes the term “tech aficionado” to a new level, to a breakfast meeting at the David InterContinental in Tel Aviv. It was the height of the Gaza War, and in the middle of their meeting, a siren blared, warning of an incoming missile.

“I had to rush the founder of Apple to the bomb shelter,” Fuld breathlessly recounted. “It was so surreal.”

Wozniak is one of Fuld’s 34,200 followers on Twitter, along with Ellen DeGeneres, Yoko Ono, Ashton Kutcher, Arianna Huffington, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and a host of brands including Coca Cola, Tommy Hilfiger, United Airlines and Windows. 

Today, Fuld is the strategic adviser to around 20 Israeli tech companies, advising on all things growth, from social media, content, PR and fundraising, to the art of pitching. He also collaborates with tech giants including Google, Oracle and Microsoft as a mentor and influencer. 

 “I help Israeli tech go ‘boom,’ ” is Fuld’s self-styled tagline. 

When he was 15, Fuld made aliyah from Queens, N.Y., to Jerusalem. For as long as he can remember, he has had a passion for technology, although his wife prefers the term obsession. After completing his military service and receiving a degree in political science anthropology, Fuld wanted to pursue something in the tech arena. At the suggestion of a friend, he took a job as a technical writer at Comverse Technology but was totally unaware that the position entailed drafting user manuals. 

Still, his experience at Comverse — which at the time was the biggest tech company in Israel — was invaluable, he said. At the same time, he began scribbling his thoughts on tech for what he called a “diary on the internet.”

“Today we call that a blog and it turns out that was set to become a thing,” Fuld noted. He amassed a large following and entrepreneurs soon began approaching him for advice. He had no business model and refused to take a dime. “People kept telling me to monetize but I said no. I’m happy to help and money will follow,” he said. 

“I had to rush the founder of Apple to the bomb shelter. It was so surreal.” — Hillel Fuld

He kept his job at Comverse and blogged on the side. “In time, those two things merged and my job became my passion and my passion became my job,” he said. 

“Now I’m living my dream,” Fuld said. “I wake up in the morning, I head to Tel Aviv and meet with truly legendary entrepreneurs who are building world-changing technology. It still makes me pinch myself that they’re taking my advice.”

He credits Twitter for contributing to his success. “I was able to leverage Twitter’s culture of openness 10 levels above what I ever could have dreamed of,” he said. Through the social media giant, Fuld met and interviewed his idol, Marc Andreessen, the billionaire entrepreneur credited with inventing the first web browser. He also met his teenage crush, “Who’s the Boss?” actor Alyssa Milano, with whom he talks regularly. He was recently named the 15th most influential tech blogger on the internet.

“The amount of influence that you can have sitting in your living room wherever you are in the world is phenomenal,” he said.

Fuld is selective about the companies he chooses to work with but said the most important aspect is the people. “At the end of the day, technology doesn’t win, people win.”

Where does he plan to go from here?

“If I won the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.

Staying in Israel at Great Cost

Lysann Bendel

Lysann Bendel was in the middle of her conversion process to Judaism when she caught a glimpse of her grandfather on a TV screen.

Living in Israel, she was watching German television as it documented the 2001 inauguration of the new synagogue in her hometown of Dresden on the site of the old synagogue, which the Nazis burned to the ground during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogroms. She always knew her grandfather was a Dresden firefighter who tried to battle of the infamous 1945 firestorm that destroyed Dresden’s Baroque Old City, and which took the lives of his first wife and two children.

She never knew until that moment that her grandfather could have been one of three firefighters who saved the only remnant of the synagogue: the golden Jewish star ornament. Her research confirmed that he was involved in hiding it during the war.

“I’ve been asking myself very often why should he actually risk his family’s life,” the blue-eyed Bendel said at a Tel Aviv café, sporting a funky, dirty-blond buzz cut. Her tan is a testament to her life in Israel. “I never had an idea of being Jewish or part of that. So I asked myself what brings his family to rescue the Star of David, hiding it from the Nazis, for eff-ing sake. I seriously believe that my grandfather knew about his Jewish roots. There is no other thing that makes sense to me.”

Bendel, 38, didn’t think she had Jewish roots when she moved to Israel on a whim in 1999. Her last name is the only real clue. She describes her childhood growing up in the former East German city as “beautiful.” Back then, Dresden was hardly rebuilt, and she fondly remembers driving in a “Trabi” (East German car brand Trabant) to surrounding lakes. But she never felt like she truly belonged. Germans are known for being reserved and withdrawn. She’s talkative and inquisitive, perhaps a symptom of her “Jewish soul.”

But life in Israel, while spiritually satisfying, has not been easy. She persisted through the intifadas and wars because of her love for the place. Currently, she works at an entry-level position at a software company to make ends meet, having had to abandon Holocaust studies at Bar-Ilan University. She paints in her free time in her Tel Aviv flat, but lately has been catching herself wondering what life would be like in Germany. Sometimes, she even has a case of “Ostalgia,” “nostalgia” for the communal life of East Germany.

“Tel Aviv is the only place my individuality stays the way it is. ” — Lysann Bendel

“To stay in Israel comes at a great cost,” she said. A few months ago, she suffered a stroke, arguably from stress. “I understood in the last two years that we pay a price for everything we do; for me, it’s health and finance. It’s much harder in Israel to make your dreams come true than in Germany. There, I would have never stopped my Ph.D. to make money.”

But no matter how stressful life is in Israel, this creative spirit feels at home, especially in Tel Aviv.

“Tel Aviv is the only place my individuality stays the way it is. In others place I’ve lived in Israel so far, I’m ‘the German,’ ‘the blonde,’ ‘the cute girl.’ ”

Her divorced parents still live in Dresden, unable to truly identify with her Zionism. She considers herself a type of ambassador for both countries, continuing an ongoing process of reconciliation between the Jewish people and Germany.

“Actually, the first years in Israel, I was always asked about, ‘What did your grandparents do?’ Now, it’s: ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

In her case, it’s because of her grandfather that a firestorm still rages in her heart for Israel. He died when she was young, but he always reminded her of the pain and destruction of World War II, and how the next generations must make sure it never happens again.

“I believe he’s my guardian angel in life. Everything seems to be linked to him.”


“HEARTS,” 2015

A hearts mural on Rabbi Meir Street in Tel Aviv. “Hearts” is part of the international exhibition “Passage to Israel,” which opens at the Sagamore Hotel in the South Beach area of Miami Beach on March 8, as part of a three-month “Peace 70” initiative (passagetoisrael.org).

An Israeli at the Ends of the Earth

Natalie Silverlieb

When Natalie Silverlieb told her mother that she was moving to Vanuatu, her mother’s first response was “Vanu-what?” followed by, “Why?”

Silverlieb’s family and friends — as well as her husband, who did not join her on the 10-month trip — were puzzled as to why the New Jersey native would uproot her life in Tel Aviv to live in a remote island nation in the South Pacific. (On her recent return home to Tel Aviv, she had to travel for three days through five countries, covering 10,000 miles.)

Fewer than a dozen Israelis live in Vanuatu, but Silverlieb moved there a year ago to become a local director for the humanitarian aid agency IsraAID. She now oversees a large-scale water infrastructure development project funded by the World Bank.

In the time she’s been stationed in Vanuatu, Silverlieb has had to adjust to living in a developing nation, as well as its volcanic rumblings and cyclones.

Her mother, a world away in Montville, N.J., worries about her, but that’s nothing new. Her mother worried when Silverlieb made aliyah to Israel in 2012, when she spent time at a Jewish camp on a small Turkish island in the middle of the Bosphorus, and when she volunteered for six months in an Indian orphanage.

The ultimate adventurer, Silverlieb has always been audacious and relentless in following her passions. She was an actress for most of her life, pursuing her dream all the way to the Great White Way. After more auditions than she could count, she made it to Broadway as the female lead understudy for Disney’s “Tarzan.”

“I literally thought I’d die an old lady backstage in my dressing room,” Silverlieb said of her commitment to being a professional actress.

But in 2007, after “Tarzan” closed, Silverlieb’s brother, Sam, persuaded her to go on a Birthright Israel trip, which proved transformative. When she returned to New York and got back on the audition trail, her life didn’t make much sense anymore. It was time for a new dream.

Trusting her intuition and her heart, Silverlieb moved to Israel, where she quickly began to understand some of the reasons why she was drawn to the Jewish state. For her, tikkun olam (repairing the world) was a flag to rally behind. She sought a way to combine her performance background with her budding commitment to social justice.

Silverlieb has had to adjust to living in a developing nation, as well as its volcanic rumblings and cyclones.

After completing her master’s degree in international community development at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Silverlieb started to focus on international development. She supported Jewish communities in such places as Bulgaria, Greece and India through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and started working in the field with IsraAID after the 2016 Canadian wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

“I feel like I got really lucky,” she said. “I’ve always admired IsraAID’s work.”

A few months later, with two suitcases in hand, she was on her way to Vanuatu.

Silverlieb said she is inspired and humbled to “put my values into action through a Jewish and Israeli lens.”

She may be an international development professional by trade, but by nature she’s a true diplomat, proud to be an “ambassador” representing Israel and Jews in one of the most remote locales on the planet.

The people of Vanuatu put Israel on a pedestal, she said. “They’ve studied the Bible. They know it’s the Holy Land.”

For now, Silverlieb has signed on to continue her work in Vanuatu, despite being homesick for Israel every day — “the food, the culture, the little Hebrew I can speak, the holidays — you know, it’s just your home.”

In February, when she returns to Vanuatu, her husband will join her.

Then, maybe, her mother might worry a little bit less.

Muvix Reinvents the Cinema Experience

Photo courtesy of Muvix

The demise of the movie theater has long been predicted but has yet to happen. The final nail in the coffin may be streaming services like Netflix and inexpensive 4K, flat-screen monitors (or even personal devices, which millennials often prefer), which make staying in with a bucket of homemade popcorn a cost-effective and convenient alternative to the cineplex.

Alon Nisim Cohen, a cinema buff and fan of the classic movie-theater concept, decided he wasn’t about to let a time-honored tradition become the latest casualty of the digital age.

Each room sports a large flat-screen TV and furniture designed to remind you of home.

Instead, he decided to bring digital smarts to the theater.

The result is Muvix,  a mashup of the comforts of home with the excitement of a night out on the town, all run by a mobile app.

While the Muvix Concept mini-multiplex at the Tahana — the old Tel Aviv train station — looks and feels like a movie theater, what the company really is selling is a cloud-based technology for on-demand, multi-theater synchronized screening.

Muvix has built 14 mini-theaters in a single open-plan building. Some accommodate only two people, others can hold a party of 20. Each room sports a large flat-screen TV and furniture designed to remind you of home (for instance, a couch and comfy armchair or two large double beds).

To book a screening, you first download the Muvix app and choose the movie from a list of 100 or so recent and classic films. At the theater, you get a pair of headphones to plug into your smartphone. The app tells you which theater you’ll be using. The Muvix software links the video with the soundtrack.

The core of Muvix’s technology is keeping track of hundreds of users watching potentially dozens of films at once, with the soundtracks streaming over multiple cellular phone networks (or at the Muvix Concept space, via Wi-Fi).

You don your headphones and the movie starts at the appointed time. If you want to order food during the film, you can call a waiter from within the Muvix app.

Muvix Concept in Tel Aviv is really a beta testing facility for Muvix’s eventual move on the U.S. market. So far, 5,000 people have seen a Muvix-powered film. The theater has been open to the public since July on weekends; the introductory fee is NIS 20 per person (about $5.70), including a free drink.

Muvix’s staff is small — only 15 people in nearby Petah Tikva — and the company has raised $6 million from several angels along with founder Cohen, who previously headed and took public CyberArk, one of Israel’s largest cybersecurity companies.

While Muvix aims to create a fun alternative to watching at home, where Cohen and Muvix CEO Nithai Barzam are going with the technology is not necessarily the movies. Barzam envisions Muvix software being used in corporate environments, where a series of pop-up theaters easily could be rolled out for a night or two. The “movie” might be company-provided content about its new product line or a team-bonding event.

Sticking with the Hollywood direction, a municipality could create a pop-up theater in the park, on a rooftop or at the beach with multiple screens. You pick your movie from the app, don your headphones and share the experience of being together while watching what you prefer.

Muvix could be implemented in a hospital waiting room, an airport waiting area, a live concert or a sporting event, Barzam suggests. All the controlling software is run from the cloud.

The Muvix experience can seem a bit isolating at first because you’re ensconced in your private sound bubble. If you want to talk to your friends, a private group audio button lets you speak over the soundtrack to others in your group.

Worried that your phone doesn’t have enough juice to last the entire film? Hit the call button on the app and a Muvix staffer will bring you a battery charger.

The Bukhari Renaissance Woman

Photo by Efrat Lotenberg

The living room in an apartment in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood was heaving with people, young and old, most of whom had tears streaming down their cheeks from laughter. Their host, Eti-Jon Eliezerov, had just finished a skit impersonating a Bukharian Jew cooking up a storm.

According to Bukhari tradition, a woman’s worth, jokes Eliezerov in a sing-song voice, is measured by whether she can peel a potato in one go.

“The peel has to be a single coil and must remain thin,” Eliezerov emphasizes.

At the age of 13, her father fell in love with her mother after observing her chop a carrot with dazzling agility.

Eliezerov was born and raised in the house in Florentine where, today, she hosts evenings celebrating Bukharian Jewish heritage. She returned to live there in 2011 after a 32-year absence, during which she married — much to her parents’ chagrin — an Ashkenazi. Together, they had three children.

Eliezerov’s parents arrived in Palestine in 1935 from Samarkand, modern-day Uzbekistan. Along with hundreds of thousands of their Jewish brethren in Central Asia, they spoke a Jewish dialect of the Tajik-Persian language. It was a grueling, two-year trudge by foot to the Holy Land, with multiple tragedies and pitfalls along the way, including a stint in an Afghani prison and the death of Eliezerov’s older sister.

When speaking of her parents, Eliezerov’s voice oozes unbridled adulation. Her mother, a dancer, and her father, a musician, traveled the world together giving traditional Bukhari performances. But little Eti, at 6 years old, paid a steep price for their wanderlust. At a loss for what to do with her, her parents put Eliezerov in an ultra-Orthodox orphanage in the coastal town of Netanya for a year and a half while her parents took off on a tour to Paris. Later on, she was moved to another institution in the town of Bnei Barak. It was only in fourth grade that Eliezerov returned to her parents’ home in Florentine.

“My mother was devastated. She whined to me: ‘But his eyebrows aren’t even black!’ ” — Eti-Jon Eliezerov

Eliezerov said she feels no bitterness toward them. “I’m not angry. I was never angry at them. I’m not able to get angry at them.”

“My parents were the warmest, most hospitable people,” she says.

She credits her up-and-down childhood in her later choice to become a therapist, specializing in psychodrama and gestalt.

These days, though, Eliezerov says her calling is to restore the Florentine neighborhood to its heyday. Today, the neighborhood, which hugs Jaffa on one side and the fancy Neve Tzedek district on the other, is a haven for hipster millennials. The Florentine that Eliezerov remembers from her childhood, though, brimmed with a fusion of culture and Jewish tradition.

“There was a lot of love in this neighborhood, everyone’s door was always open. It was colorful,” she says.

Eliezerov already has gotten the Tel Aviv municipality on board with bringing back the long-dead tradition of a parade through the streets on Simchat Torah. She also spearheaded an initiative called “Florentine in a Pot,” creating a bridge between the neighborhood’s old and young populations in which the elderly give cooking workshops infused with storytelling to their young neighbors.

And in her own house, Eliezerov is living her dream by hosting monthly evenings celebrating Bukhari culture. She wears traditional Bukhari garb and serves her guests Bukhari food, such as Plov, a rich rice dish embellished with meats and carrots. Armed with a doyra, a Bukhari drum, Eliezerov dances and sings lyrics that hark back to bygone days in Samarkand.

Although she is a born and bred Sabra, Eliezerov said she felt “just like I’d arrived home” when she traveled to Uzbekistan as a guide on a roots trip.

It’s a wonder, then, that in her early 20s she rebelled by marrying an Ashkenazi of Polish descent.

“My mother was devastated,” she said. “She whined to me: ‘But his eyebrows aren’t even black!’”

Eyebrows, it seems, are not inconsequential in Bukhari tradition. Despite her choice of partner, Eliezerov was adamant to preserve some of the Bukhari traditions relating to marriage and as such she insisted on a Koshchinon, the traditional eyebrow grooming ritual. According to Eliezerov, Bukhari women are forbidden from touching their eyebrows – which, she points out, is often a unibrow – until they are about to get married. A few days before the wedding, and prior to immersion in the mikveh, the bride is surrounded by married friends and relatives who watch as the Koshchin – the eyebrow groomer – shapes her brows using a special blade and string. The Koshchin usually doubles as a comedienne, stage whispering in the bride’s ear crass nothings about what awaits her in matrimony. Special songs are sung at the occasion, and in keeping with Bukhari tradition, endless trays of food are served. To gasps of oohs and aahs, the mother of the bride also presents her daughter’s dowry, consisting of flowing gowns and dresses and bedsheets.

Nevertheless, after a 30-year marriage, Eliezerov divorced her husband. He was, in her words, too far from religion. Especially after her adult son became religious, she realized just how much she missed the faith of her childhood. These days, Eliezerov, who returned to being an observant Jew, feels like she finally has found her place in the world.

“I’m in my childhood home, making people laugh, making them cry, using my talents to move people,” she says.

“All my life, I’ve waited for this.”

Episode 61 – Drags to Riches

A few months ago Tel Aviv celebrated Pride month with a glorious parade. This annual event has already become a tradition and attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all over Israel and from across the globe to this tiny Mediterranean city.

Indeed, Tel Aviv is known as the Pride capital of the world, but that status was not bestowed upon it, but rather earned. When you come to think of it, it’s not obvious that in a religious, conservative country like Israel, such a vivacious sub-culture of LGBT would flourish. And yet, it does.

Uriel Yekutiel is maybe one of the biggest international symbols of the Israeli LGBT community. As a renowned performer, Yekutiel is tearing up the stages of Tel Aviv’s night life. As a dancer and an actor, he’s been creating viral video clips for years, and in 2015 he even danced with Bar Refaeli in a commercial. Yekutiel’s videos are young, fun and provocative.
Yekutiel also led the revolution of mizrahi-themed gay parties, and apart from that, he devotes much of his time to social causes, like the struggle against suicide in the gay community.

Uriel Yekutiel joins 2NJB to talk about his fascinating life and career.

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Uriel’s commercial with Bar Refaeli:

WATCH: Holocaust survivor recounts leaving father behind on train to Auschwitz, receives message from him years later

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A remarkable story has emerged of a Holocaust survivor leaving her father behind on the train cars headed for Auschwitz and receiving a message from him years later.

The 92-year-old survivor, identified as Klara Prowisor, told filmmaker Matan Rochlitz that she, her husband Philippe Szyper and her father were all forced by the Nazis to ride the train cars to Auschwitz. Szyper repeatedly insisted that they jump out of the car in Belgium, but Prowisor initially resisted because her father had become gravely ill and didn’t want to leave his side. Others in the train car didn’t want them to jump because the Nazis threatened to punish them if anyone was missing.

However, after sleeping on it she eventually decided to jump.

“I left my father,” said Prowisor, “and it was so painful. I abandoned my father in such terrible conditions.”

Szyper jumped shortly after Prowisor, and Belgian citizens provided them refuge until the war was over.

One evening in 1962, when Prowisor and Szyper were visiting Tel Aviv, they were walking down Dizengoff Street when Prowisor was approached a woman who said she had been looking for Prowisor for 20 years because she witnessed Prowisor’s father wake up after Prowisor had jumped. Prowisor’s father told her to relay a message to Prowisor.

“If you ever meet my daughter again, tell her I’m the happiest father,” Prowisor’s father told the woman. “I’m glad she jumped.”

Prowisor learned from the woman that her father had passed away on the train before the train had reached Auschwitz.

“He had this intuition to tell me, ‘You did the right thing,’” said Prowisor. “I live with that. A weight fell off me.”

She later added, “It was so important for me to hear this woman pass on my father’s message to me. It’s exceptional. It’s a gift … from God.”

Prowisor then said she didn’t believe in God.

The woman who relayed the message to Prowisor has never been identified, but it is believed that she was Dutch.

The full video can be seen below, via the New York Times:

Riding on the Right Side of the Law

Barak "Doveleh" Moskowitz. Photo by Danielle Shitrit.

On the road to the hard-knock Israeli town of Ramla, between the small town of Kfar Chabad and the smaller moshav of Beit Dagan, there’s a bar where bikers come and park their hogs.

It’s called Bonnie Design, and it’s equal parts watering hole, social club and shrine to all things Harley-Davidson. It’s here that Barak “Doveleh” Moskowitz, a hardcore member of the Israeli motorcycle gang Zion Riders, parks his custom bike each day. (A friend gave Moskowitz the nickname “Doveleh,” Hebrew for “Little Bear,” and it stuck.)

He doesn’t come to drink, although he’s always happy to join his friends at the bar. Moskowitz says he has been sober since 1991, when at the age of 26, he joined Narcotics Anonymous, embraced its 12-step program and gave up the drugs, booze and petty theft that had marked his previous decade.

He doesn’t really come to chat, either, although Moskowitz is laid back and generally loves to talk.

For Moskowitz, the real reason to come to Bonnie Design is the dog that lives along the way.

“I have one dog and two cats at home,” Moskowitz said, “but I also have a dog near Ramla. He’s been tied up his whole life. He’s a big dog — very nasty. He’s chained up in a field. So every day I bring him food.”

Moskowitz is a study in contradictions: a tatted-up, road-hardened biker who greets friends with a grin and double kisses on the cheek; an ex-con who cuddles up at night with a rescue pup and who spends hours each day at a trendy vegetarian cafe in the heart of posh Tel Aviv.

Moskowitz has a name for the dog in the field: “Gingy,” because of his reddish fur. He would love to take home the animal, he said, but unlike Moskowitz, Gingy can’t be tamed.

“He’s a murderer,” he said. “He would kill anyone. He would kill my dog and my cats, but with me, and only me, he is OK. I understand him and he understands me, too.”

Moskowitz was born not far from Gingy’s field, in the Israeli town of Ness Ziona. He first tasted crime as a teenager, stealing cars and motorcycles with packs of friends who would hang out and cause trouble along Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.

A few years later, while completing his mandatory three years in the Israel Defense Forces, he was stationed in a jeep with three other men at the Quneitra crossing between Israel and Syria. It was Oct. 6, 1973, and his commander wanted to make an omelet on the jeep’s hot plate. He ordered Moskowitz — the youngest and lowest ranking among the quartet — to head over to the unit’s makeshift kitchen tent to grab some olive oil.

A few seconds after Moskowitz scrambled out of the vehicle, a Syrian strike took out the jeep. Moskowitz survived, but the guilt shattered him.

“Three people died in one place, but I didn’t. For sure it was luck,” he said. “And that’s where it all started. I started taking opium, and then I started to live on the street.”

For years, Moskowitz was caught up in a cycle of crime and punishment. He served multiple stints in prison for theft. He lived illegally as a squatter.

He had a son while in prison, and before Moskowitz got out, his wife took the child and left. He says he held the baby once, when the boy was 8 months old. He says he hasn’t seen the child since.

The suffering, he said, “got too much,” and in 1991 he bade crime, drugs and alcohol goodbye. He started to earn a legal living by buying and reselling vintage items and antiques. Today, his closest and most genuine family, he said, is the Zion Riders, Israel’s answer to the Hell’s Angels.

He is a fixture at Cafe Xoho, the vegetarian Tel Aviv cafe popular among olim, Anglos and the gluten-free, raw-food and vegan set. He loves it there, he said, and this past summer he rode his Harley down to the Negev desert to attend the wedding of the cafe’s owner.

Last year, knowing he could never bring Gingy home with him, Moskowitz  rescued a black Labrador puppy named Sunny. He can’t bring Sunny on his bike with him, but in a few months, he said, he is going to purchase a motor home to drive around the country. Sunny will travel with him, wherever he goes.

These days, Moskowitz is recovering from gastric bypass surgery, which he had because of developing diabetes, and he is meeting weekly with his 12-step group to offer support and to help him stay clean.

“We sit and we talk about everything,” he said. “People like me, we are many thousands in Israel.” 

Debra Kamin, an American journalist living in Tel Aviv, is a regular contributor to The New York Times Travel section, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Time magazine, Town & Country and Variety.

[WATCH] That time Tom Petty hung out with an Orthodox rock band in Israel

Musician Tom Petty died at UCLA Santa Monica Hospital last night, October 3, after suffering cardiac arrest. The rock star just wrapped up a big tour, which ended on September 25 at the Hollywood Bowl, marking the 30th anniversary since he visited Israel for a “Temple in Flames Tour.”

From the vaults: September 1987, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers toured Israel with Bob Dylan, performing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A film crew followed Petty around and chronicled the experience for MTV‘s Musical Passport series, Rock Israel.

“We’re really just whirl-winding through here, so it would be hard to say I have any impression of the people,” he said during a private interview, probably backstage between shows.

On the tourbus, Petty pointed out the window. “What’s that?” he asked as they passed an ancient site. “Well, it ain’t Mulholland Drive,” one of his bandmates responded.

“I haven’t heard any Israeli Rock and Roll, though it must exist,” he confessed. And he soon found out, it does a la Orthodox rock band, Diaspora Yeshiva Band. “I think anyone should be able to pick up an instrument and jump around,” Petty said smiling.

While sightseeing in Jerusalem, Diaspora Yeshiva Band’s frontman Avraham Rosenblum, points out the Mosque of Umar. “That’s considered the holiest place to Jews because there’s a rock directly underneath that and that rock is considered the foundations to the universe. Some of our famous rabbis said the process of music also began here,” Rosenblum said.

To which Petty responded, “That’s pretty wild, right?”

Israel gears up to host prestigious Italian cycling race

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, center, bicycling with retired cycling champions Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of the Giro.

Stressing the chance to show off Israel to the world, Israeli officials joined with their Italian counterparts in announcing Monday that three stages of the prestigious Giro d’Italia cycling race will be held in the country, starting in Jerusalem.

It will mark the first time that any leg of cycling’s Grand Tour races — the Giro, the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta — will take place outside of Europe, and just the 12th time the Giro had gone outside of Italy in its 101-year history.

Israeli officials said the race will be the biggest sporting event ever held in their country and touted it as an opportunity to showcase the Jewish state — and its capital — to the world.

“Hundreds of millions of viewers around the globe will watch as the world’s best cyclists ride alongside the walls of Jerusalem’s ancient Old City and our other historic sites,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said at the hotel gathering. “Our message to the world is clear: Jerusalem is open to all.”

The race will bring more than 175 of the world’s best cyclists to Israel along with tens of thousands of tourists and cycling enthusiasts.

Culture Minister Miri Regev called on “everyone who loves the Giro to come here to Israel.”

“This bike race across the Holy Land will be a fascinating journey through time covering thousands of years,” she said. “I’m sure it will be a thrilling experience for everyone.”

Israel will host the first three stages of the Giro, or “the Big Start,” on consecutive days from May 4 to 6. Stage 1 will be a 6.3-mile individual time trial in Jerusalem, passing the Knesset and ending near the walls of the Old City. Stage 2, in the North, will start in Haifa with riders pedaling 103.8 miles down the Mediterranean coast to the Tel Aviv beach. Stage 3, in the South, will cover 140.4 miles through the arid Negev from Beersheba to Eilat on the Red Sea.

Italian officials told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz earlier this month that they were being careful to avoid crossing into politically sensitive areas, like the West Bank or eastern Jerusalem, which they feared could spark protests. An official map of the Stage 1 route shows it approaching but not entering the Old City, which is located in eastern Jerusalem — where much of the world, but not the Israeli government, envisions a future Palestinian capital.

According to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, the route will pass the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial as part of a tribute to Gino Bartali, an Italian cycling champion credited with saving hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. While ostensibly training in the Italian countryside, Bartali, who won the Giro four times and the Tour de France twice, would carry forged papers in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle to Jews hiding in houses and convents. He also hid a Jewish family in his cellar.

In 2013, years after his death in 2000, he was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Holocaust authority, Yad Vashem.

Alberto Contador, left, and Ivan Basso, right, former winners of the Giro d’Italia, with race and Israeli officials including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, fourth from right. (Courtesy of the Giro)

Italian Sports Minister Luca Lotti said Monday that the race would celebrate Bartali’s memory. In addition to being a great sports champion, he said, Bartali “was also an extraordinary champion of life, and a man of heroic virtues, and this needs to be commemorated, and shared, especially with the young generations — never to be forgotten.”

Retired Giro champions Alberto Contador of Italy and Ivan Basso of Spain, both two-time winners, also were on hand for the Jerusalem announcement.

Sylvan Adams, a Canadian real estate magnate and philanthropist who recently immigrated to Israel, helped bring the Giro to Israel and will serve as its honorary president. Adams said he was motivated by love of cycling and a desire to help his adopted country.

“I would call this the antidote to BDS,” he told JTA, referring to the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. “The media sometimes portrays our country in a negative way, and this is a way to bypass the media and go straight into the living rooms of 800 million people. They’ll see our country exactly as it is, and my experience is people almost universally have positive experiences when they encounter Israel.”

The Giro is just part of Adams’ larger plan to make Israel a cycling powerhouse. A co-owner of the Israel Cycling Academy, Israel’s first professional cycling team founded in 2014, he is building the first velodrome in the Middle East in Tel Aviv to be finished in time for the race.

“My plan is to bring Israeli athletes to the highest level of the sport,” he said.

Ran Margaliot, an Israeli former professional cyclist and the general manager of the Israel Cycling Academy, said the team has applied to compete in the Giro and will find out if it qualified in December. It is among 32 second division teams jockeying for a wild card spot, but he is hopeful.

“I certainly think we deserve an invitation,” Margaliot told JTA. “No one can tell me we’re not good enough, and we work as hard as the Europeans, even harder.”

Margaliot said that while he failed to achieve his ambition of becoming the first Israeli to race in a Grand Tour, the next best thing would be for an Israeli member of his international team to do it.

“You can imagine what it would mean for an Israeli rider to be racing in his own country, passing near his home and friends and family,” he said before catching himself. “But we have a lot of work to do to get ready.”

On first Israel visit, Conan O’Brien falls for ‘beautiful’ women and shakshuka

Conan O’Brien overlooking the beach in Tel Aviv on Aug. 26. Screenshot from Twitter

Conan O’Brien first trip to Israel has so far been a love fest.

Since arriving in the country Friday to film a special episode of his TBS talk show, he has schmoozed with locals in Tel Aviv, calling them “fantastic, really funny, nice people.” And they have reciprocated the affection.

In a Facebook video shot Saturday evening in Jaffa, in south Tel Aviv, O’Brien flirts with a young blonde woman, despite the presence of her husband.

“Is this music you’re hearing right now making you fall in love with me?” he asks, referring to a droning tune in the background.

“I already did,” she replies.

But it’s not just the women.

“All the men are incredibly buff, and the women are beautiful,” O’Brien says. “A lot of men in speedos, if that’s your thing. Fortunately for me, it is.”

O’Brien also gushes about the food. He recommends shakshuka, the Middle Eastern breakfast dish of eggs poached in tomato sauce, advising, “You gotta get yourself some shakshuka, and get it today.”

He also endorses Gold Star lager, Israel’s best-selling beer, deeming it “amazing, terrific.”

Although O’Brien describes Tel Aviv as “absolutely gorgeous,” and says he went for a run along the waterfront, one thing he is not a fan of is the heat. “I’m like a vampire. When the sun comes up here, I just start shrieking and hissing,” he jokes.

With the temperature in the city reaching a humid 90 degrees over the weekend, many Israelis can relate to that criticism.

O’Brien will reportedly spend five days in Israel shooting his international special “Conan Without Borders.” In announcing the trip, he joked that he was coming “to help Jared Kushner,” U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and aide, who arrived in the country Wednesday to advance peace talks.

In his video Saturday, O’Brien said he would visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and employees at the new Setai hotel on the Sea of Galilee told JTA he had booked rooms there for later in the week.

Not content just to watch O’Brien’s video about them, which has been viewed more than 400,000 times, some Israelis have been posting photos of their interactions with the comedian on social media, too.

An Israeli entertainment journalist shared on Facebook photos of O’Brien taking shots Friday night with the chef at a high-end Asian restaurant. And on Saturday afternoon, O’Brien appeared to charm Israelis enjoying Shabbat on Tel Aviv’s central Rothschild Boulevard.

“Every second word cracked everyone up.. He really knows how to be a celebrity, so accessible and friendly,” one man wrote in a Facebook post that included photos of him with O’Brien. “He stops cars in the streets and starts talking to the drivers, shouting Shabbat shalom to passersby in broken Hebrew.”

Another Tel Aviv resident went so far as to give O’Brien the shirt off his back — in exchange for O’Brien’s blue button-down. The man explained that he had stepped out of his apartment to get a cup of coffee hoping no one would see him in the ripped up old army shirt, but “from here to there Conan liked the shirt.”

“What a king,” a commenter wrote.

However, at least one Israeli may have been less than charmed. In a video O’Brien shot in a restroom on his inbound El Al flight, someone can be heard aggressively shaking and banging on the door.

“Peace, peace, l’chayim, l’chayim,” O’Brien shouts. “Please, please, there’s a peaceful solution here.”

Netanyahu: Moving Embassy to Jerusalem could ‘easily be done’

An Orthodox Jewish man stands in front of the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

In a meeting this month with Republican members of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to express support for moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, according to one of the participants Representative Lloyd Smucker (R-PA). The Pennsylvania lawmaker told Jewish Insider that Netanyahu “believes is that it could easily be done. In his (Netanyahu) words: We already have a consulate in Jerusalem. It’s a matter of just changing the sign to make it the Embassy.”

While President Donald Trump repeatedly urged the transfer of the Embassy to Jerusalem during his 2016 election campaign, the real estate mogul turned commander in chief signed a national security waiver on June 1 keeping the U.S. diplomatic compound in Tel Aviv.

“President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests,” the White House noted in a statement at the time.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

The Israeli leader raised the issue of the Embassy in response to a question by Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE). According to Rep. Smucker’s recollection of the meeting, Netanyahu “believes that there wouldn’t be a lot of pushback in the event that we do that.”

Palestinian officials have vehemently opposed the Embassy’s relocation. Jibril Rajoub, one of the most influential Fatah members,  told the Times of Israel in January, “Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is a declaration of war against Muslims.” Jordan, which maintains ties to East Jerusalem guaranteed in the 1994 peace treaty, has also said that moving the Embassy would cross a “red line.”

After the national security waiver was signed this summer, the momentum to relocate the embassy appears to have declined in Washington following months of anticipation by many of the President’s supporters. However, Netanyahu’s backing of the embassy transfer to Jerusalem in the August meeting with Congress demonstrates it is not a settled issue yet.

Netanyahu slams ‘fake news,’ calls investigations a ‘witch hunt’

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an event by his Likud Party in Tel Aviv, Israel August 9, 2017. Photo by Amir Cohen/REUTERS.

Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently the subject of multiple corruption investigations, lashed out at the “fake news” media at a rally attended by thousands of Likud Party supporters.

Held Wednesday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, the rally was organized by coalition chairman and Likud lawmaker David Bitan, who told Israeli media he organized the rally because Netanyahu is being “persecuted” by the media and the opposition. Supporters were bussed in from around the country for the rally.

In his speech, Netanyahu slammed the “fake news” media, echoing a sign at the rally that said “Fake news is f***ing news.” Some journalists said they were verbally abused by rally participants.

Netanyahu called the corruption investigations “an obsessive witch-hunt against me and my family.”

“They don’t want to just take me down, they want to take us all down. They know that they can’t beat us at the ballots, so they are trying to circumvent democracy and topple us in other ways,” Netanyahu said.

“We know that the left and the media — and we know that it’s the same thing — is on an unprecedented hunt against me and my family to bring down the government. They are putting unrelenting pressure on the legal system in order for them to present an indictment without any proof,” he said.

Netanyahu is currently the subject of two corruption investigations. In the first, called Case 1000, Netanyahu is accused of receiving expensive gifts from billionaires and then taking action on their behalf. In the second, called Case 2000, he is accused of striking a deal with a newspaper publisher in order to receive favorable coverage at the expense of a competitor, Israel Hayom, owned by the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Two other corruption scandals target close associates of Netanyahu and both his wife and older son also are targets of investigations.

Why Mariah Carey is being grilled about an Israeli corruption scandal

Mariah Carey at a press conference for the Israeli cosmetics brand Premier Red Sea in Tel Aviv on June 26. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Mariah Carey’s latest trip to Israel hasn’t been full of screaming fans and big stages.

She’s in Tel Aviv for business as the new face of the Premier Dead Sea cosmetics brand. During a press conference on Monday, she was grilled with questions about a past relationship — specifically how her ex-fiancé might be entangled in the corruption scandal dogging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The last time the Grammy winner was in Israel, in 2015, things were much different. Carey visited with James Packer, an Australian billionaire who was her then-fiancé. The couple had some fun at the Western Wall and met with an unnamed “spiritual leader” for guidance about their future. They also had a fancy private dinner with Netanyahu — a close friend of Packer’s — and his wife, Sara.

So why else is this Israel trip different for Carey? For one thing, she and Packer broke up last October.

Oh, and Packer has also since been linked to Netanyahu’s headline-grabbing corruption scandal.

Over the past year, Netanyahu has been accused of illegally taking lavish gifts from several of his rich supporters, such as billionaire Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. He also allegedly made a deal with Yediot Ahronoth, one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, so that the publication would cover him more favorably. Several dozen people have been questioned by Israeli police in connection to the investigations.

Netanyahu has denied the charges, saying he received gifts but not bribes.

Packer has been accused of giving Netanyahu’s oldest son Yair free hotel rooms and luxury flights, and he has been wanted for questioning in Israel since March. Rumors spread that Carey might be questioned by police at some point, but this is not actually the case, according The Hollywood Reporter.

When asked about Packer’s current whereabouts, the diva had some choice words.

“I don’t know where the motherf—er is,” Carey Israel’s Channel 2 News. “How am I supposed to know? I don’t know, for real. I really have no idea about the political stuff that goes on, I don’t pay attention to it.”

Another interview with the Israeli entertainment show “Erev Tov” was shut down by her publicists.

“Oh, now they want to blame me? Someone wants to blame me for something now? What did I do? I didn’t do anything,” Carey said in the interview.

The ruffled pop star cancelled a reception she had planned for Tuesday night and is now only staying in Israel for a few days to fulfill her contractual obligations.

She does plan to visit the Dead Sea for the first time, and she’s bringing her six-year-old twins Monroe and Moroccan (no typo there) along.

“I’m hoping they’ll have a good time and won’t get salt in their eyes,” Carey said Monday.

All she wants for Christmas is to be kept out of her ex’s corruption probes.

Mula Goldman on the Six-Day War: ‘You can’t even think about losing’

Left: An undated picture of Mula Goldman during his service as a paratrooper for the Israel Defense Forces. Right: Goldman recently at his home in Tarzana. Photo by Eitan Arom

Two weeks after Sam “Mula” Goldman was discharged from active duty military service in May 1967, war broke out in between Israel and its neighbors. Around him, Tel Aviv began to empty out as the fighting-age men went to war.

“The way you mobilize at that time was you just go from door to door, people go get people,” he said in a recent interview.

But because he had just left active service and wasn’t yet on the roster of reservists, nobody came to get him. So, unbidden, Goldman turned up to his unit. It was never a question of whether he should report for duty.

“When there is a war, you go fight the war,” he said, speaking on the phone from Texas.

Goldman now works in construction, commuting between Tarzana and Dallas. His three sons, all of whom live in the United States, also were Israel Defense Forces soldiers, including one, Erez, the Los Angeles regional director of the Israeli American Council, who was a paratrooper like his father.

Fighting in 1967 was something like a rite of passage for many members of Goldman’s generation. In Israel, war is a fact of life, he said.

“It’s part of growing up,” he said. “It’s part of the culture. … But we don’t make a big deal out of it. You’re not unique. Many people go through the same thing, you know what I’m saying? You don’t brag about being in the army.”

When Goldman reported for duty, the army found a job for him, commissioning him to organize a unit that would drop behind enemy lines with mortar equipment.

“We were trained only a few days,” he said. “I never dealt with that stuff before.”

The plan was to jump out of planes into the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Desert. But on the way to the plane, plans changed and the mission was canceled. Instead, Goldman was sent to the Sinai to fight alongside regular infantry. Then, plans changed again, and Goldman was moved to the Golan Heights.

“All the way across the country,” he said. “And then everything was so quick — in six days it was over, man.”

For the remainder for the war — three or four days — Goldman fought a literal uphill battle in the Golan, exchanging mortar fire with Syrian forces until the Israelis gained the higher ground.

The experience was not without its frightening moments, but actual battle left no room for the emotion, he said. “You’re afraid on the way going there, on the way back maybe. While you’re doing it, eh — no time to be afraid.”

Instead, Goldman’s narrative betrays a tone of absolute necessity, where failure was simply out of the question.

“In Israel, you can’t even think about losing,” he said. “You gotta win. Losing is not an option. … If Israel lost the Six-Day War, there wouldn’t be Israel anymore.”

As the child of Holocaust survivors, the thought of annihilation was not far from Goldman’s mind. Of his mother’s 12 siblings, only four survived World War II. Goldman himself was born in 1946 in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen before his parents took him to Israel two years later.

“We grew up with the slogan, ‘Never again,’ ” he said. “So, of course, it’s in the background.”

But after the war, any fear evaporated, replaced almost overnight by jubilation.

“We lived for a little while in a euphoria. We the garesh [apostrophe],” he said, a reference to the Jewish state’s diminutive size. “The little Israel can do what nobody can do.”

Shortly after the war, Goldman moved to Pennsylvania to attend Philadelphia University, but Israel was never far from his heart. When war broke out again in 1973, he decided to join the fray. By his telling, Israeli expatriates were fighting for seats on flights to Tel Aviv.

“Of course, you don’t have to go,” he said, “but I came. I wasn’t by myself. A lot of people did it.”

Why join a war when you’re tens of thousands of miles away with no specific obligation to fight?

“Because that’s your country,” Goldman said. “What do you mean? It’s your country, and if not you, who will?” n

David Bahat on the Six-Day War: ‘Like sitting ducks just waiting for the war’

Left: David Bahat, wearing the red beret of the Israeli paratroopers, with his wife, Hannah, in 1968, shortly after his service in the Six-Day War. Right: David and Hannah at the Grand Canyon in April. Photos courtesy of David Bahat

David Bahat used to marvel at the paratroopers who would practice their jumps near where his family lived, in a refugee camp outside Tel Aviv.

His parents brought him there from Baghdad in 1951 and moved into a shack in Kiryat Ono. The contrast between dirt-poor immigrants like Bahat and the men heroically throwing themselves from planes was vast. He and his elementary school friends used to ditch class to watch them.

“We were fascinated to see the people jumping,” he said in an interview in his Encino home. “I was maybe 8 years old at that time. I said, ‘I want to be a paratrooper.’ ”

Less than 10 years later, Bahat lived up to that dream, donning the red beret worn by the elite soldiers. But he describes his own service fighting with Hativat HaTzanchanim, Israel’s legendary paratroopers brigade, in 1967 as nothing more than an ordinary man called on to do his duty.

“I don’t consider myself a hero,” he said. “I just happened to be a young paratrooper who was in the service at that time and ended up in the war.”

Bahat agreed to an interview only reluctantly, worried about portraying himself as something extraordinary rather than a person who just did what was expected of him in the service of his country. Eventually, though, he agreed to meet a reporter at his townhome, answering the door on his day off in gym shorts and an AC/DC T-shirt. “I’m a classic rock kind of guy,” he explained.

Bahat, 67, was a 17-year-old soldier when tensions began to escalate between Israel and its neighbors in May 1967. He and his unit were sent to the Negev Desert to await action, where they slept under the stars, battle ready.

“We were on alert for, like, three weeks, like sitting ducks just waiting for the war,” he said.

Bahat saw combat during the six days of hostilities, “but it’s something that I don’t like to talk about. It’s war,” he said.

Instead, he chose to recall other memories, like listening to the news that came in from the other theaters of battle — of victories in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. As much as they could, other units kept Bahat and his companions up to date via radio with what was going on. Meanwhile, he said, an Egyptian station was broadcasting false news reports in broken Hebrew aimed at demoralizing the Israeli troops, relating how Arab armies had taken Tel Aviv.

Tuning into the broadcasts from his fellow soldiers scattered across the country, Bahat was particularly moved to hear about the unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule. He used to spend his summers there as a kid, visiting relatives, and always was confused when he turned a street corner and suddenly came face to face with barbed wire and barricades.

“I couldn’t understand,” he said. “It’s like you go on Ventura Boulevard and all of a sudden there’s a border there. As a kid, I could not comprehend that. … So when I heard in Sinai in the war that Jerusalem was liberated, the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Now I can actually cross that street.’ ”

Another cherished memory comes from the second day of the war, when Mike Burstyn, the Israeli-American actor and singer, came to entertain Bahat’s unit at Rafiah.

The soldiers arranged their jeeps and turned on their headlights to create a makeshift stage, and Burstyn pulled out a piece of paper on which singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer had written the lyrics to her new song, “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold), which would later become an anthem for a reunified Jerusalem. For years afterward, Bahat would tell his wife that the first time he heard the song was from Burstyn in the midst of war and chaos in the Sinai Desert.

About five or six years ago, Bahat ran into Burstyn at an event in Los Angeles and reminded the performer about the show in the Sinai.

“We both were crying,” Bahat said, choking up at the recollection. “He didn’t believe he could see a guy after 40 years here who remembered that he came to Rafiah the second day [of the war].”

After finishing his military service, Bahat returned to civilian life and married his elementary school sweetheart. In 1976, with two young daughters in tow, they moved to Los Angeles and ended up in the San Fernando Valley, where Bahat works in the jewelry business. With his wife, Hannah, an administrator and teacher at Wise School, he has eight grandchildren.

From time to time, he talks about his wartime experiences with his grandchildren, to make sure they understand the State of Israel and its origins. But sometimes, they just want to hear about his exploits.

“ ‘Saba, how can you jump from a plane? Were you scared?’ ” he said, recalling their inquires. “All kinds of questions like that. They take pride.”

Trump signs waiver, won’t move embassy to Jerusalem now

President Donald Trump touches the Western Wall on May 22. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

President Donald Trump signed an order to renew the six-month waiver that allows the U.S. embassy to remain in Tel Aviv rather than moving it to Jerusalem.

As a candidate, Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem, which was required by an act of Congress in 1995 but which successive administrations have delayed with a series of six-month waivers, citing national security concerns. The latest waiver, signed by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, expired on Thursday.

Trump’s signing of the waiver was first reported Thursday morning by the New York Times, though there had been much speculation in political circles and in the media that he would do so.

“While President Donald J. Trump signed the waiver under the Jerusalem Embassy Act and delayed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, no one should consider this step to be in any way a retreat from the President’s strong support for Israel and for the United States-Israel alliance,” the White House said in a statement announcing the signing of the waiver. “President Trump made this decision to maximize the chances of successfully negotiating a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, fulfilling his solemn obligation to defend America’s national security interests. But, as he has repeatedly stated his intention to move the embassy, the question is not if that move happens, but only when.”

Trump did not discuss the waiver publicly during his visit to Jerusalem late last month. He was, however, the first sitting president to visit the Western Wall. He has stated that he would like to broker the “ultimate deal,” a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians with the approval of the rest of the Arab world. He reportedly was convinced on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia and to the Palestinian Authority that moving the embassy at this time would imperil such a deal.

The United States, like most countries throughout the world, does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel calls all of Jerusalem its “undivided capital,” while the Palestinians consider eastern Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement issued by his office said that Israelis “disappointed” that the embassy will not move at this time.

“Israel’s consistent position is that the American embassy, like the embassies of all countries with whom we have diplomatic relations, should be in Jerusalem, our eternal capital,” the statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said. “Maintaining embassies outside the capital drives peace further away by helping keep alive the Palestinian fantasy that the Jewish people and the Jewish state have no connection to Jerusalem.”

“Though Israel is disappointed that the embassy will not move at this time, we appreciate today’s expression of President Trump’s friendship to Israel and his commitment to moving the embassy in the future,” the statement said.

J Street in a statement, welcomed Trump’s decision to sign the waiver, calling it “in keeping with 20 years of bipartisan policy” since the passage of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act.

“J Street believes that Jerusalem is absolutely central to the history, culture and identity of the Jewish people. We look forward to it, one day, being recognized by the entire world as Israel’s capital, as part of a negotiated two-state solution,” the statement also said.

In Israel, Trump reinforces the Wall

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Let the record show: On May 23, 2017, the president of the United States updated his Twitter header to display a photograph of himself standing at the Western Wall. Not saluting an American flag, not kissing a Latino baby or speaking at a Midwest rally or shaking a veteran’s hand, but communing with Judaism’s holiest site.

I have nothing cynical to say about it. For a man whose self-worth is in direct proportion to the size of his Twitter following (30.2 million), and who likely checks his feed more often than his briefing papers (OK, that was a little cynical), this means something.

The most powerful person in the world is demonstrating the power of that place. President Donald Trump is linking the sovereignty of the Western Wall to the State of Israel, despite the demurrals and hedging of his advisers and representatives. Tel Aviv may be one of the most dynamic, creative and delicious cities on earth, but only a fool, or the former head of a large oil company, would say, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did, that it is the “home of Judaism.”

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which must be solved sooner rather than later in a just way for both sides, is not going to be solved by ignoring or minimizing the narratives each side claims as its own.

In their justified desire for a homeland, Palestinians have sought to deny the primacy of Jerusalem in the Jewish narrative. This week, one prominent Palestinian activist wrote that the holiness of the Western Wall is a post-1967 development, not an age-old tradition. When I read that I laughed and looked up at my study wall, at a photo taken in the late 1800s of Jewish men and women packed up against the ancient stones, in prayer.

In defense of their rights to Jerusalem, many Jews have negated the Muslim claim on the city. There seems to be an online cottage industry in this, in fact. Don’t fall for it. Do your own research. Jerusalem is a holy place in Islam — that big gold-domed atop the Temple Mount might be your first clue.

Jerusalem has been wracked by a long history of dumping on other people’s history. And I mean this literally. To assert their own primacy over the holy city, the Byzantine rulers turned the Jew’s Temple Mount into the city dump. In the “Encyclopedia of Religion,” professor Reuven Firestone relates the legend that it was the Muslim caliph Umar who, after vanquishing the Christians, ascended to the desecrated area, rolled up the sleeves of his robe and began cleaning up the soiled Muslim and Jewish holy place himself.

The caliph then built the Dome of the Rock, not as a mosque, Firestone writes, “but rather as a monument celebrating the presence and success of a new faith.”

We are just about a week away from the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, when the Israelis ascended to the Dome, captured East Jerusalem and united the city.

That moment when Israeli soldiers gathered where Trump stood this week, and wept and prayed that the Wall was back in Jewish hands, remains the iconic image of the war, the Jewish Iwo Jima. The emotion, the sacrifice, the sense of historical and religious destiny has affixed in Jewish minds the idea that from that moment on, all of Jerusalem belongs to Israel.

Har HaBayit b’yadenu,” Lt. Gen. Motta Gur proclaimed as his troops captured the Old City, the most famous single sentence of that war. “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”

But the irony of Trump’s visit is that if the president gets his way, the grip will have to be loosened. For years, Jews and the groups that pander to them have proclaimed intractable sovereignty over every square inch of the city. “Jerusalem will never be divided,” has been the go-to applause line for every Jewish or Israeli speaker — despite the reality that the city even now is pretty much divided.

The truth is every serious final status solution ever put forth by an Israeli prime minister, and any agreement that would ever be agreed to by the Palestinians, would include some shared sovereignty over Jerusalem. What’s the alternative — constant fighting? You can’t pray for the peace of Jerusalem and want to see it, like Aleppo or Damascus, reduced to pieces.

I don’t know how serious Trump is about making what he calls “the ultimate deal.” He has a short attention span, a disdain for details and a lot of ’splaining to do back in Washington. But this week, he leveraged Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to crack open negotiations, demonstrated the kind of support for the Israelis they need to feel secure, and showed the proper respect to the Palestinians.

A dear friend and die hard Israeli leftist  I know e-mailed me as Trump departed for the Vatican.

“The bastard gave a fantastic speech that was even given compliments by Barak Ravid from Ha’aretz,” he wrote, citing the left-leaning columnist. “He’s going about this whole Middle East thing in a completely opposite manner than Obama, and it may be that he is hitting the spot. Oy vey….”

If Trump continues on this path, and doesn’t shy away from confronting each side with the truths the other holds dear, the president might just have a prayer.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.

Democrats and Republicans flip on Western Wall

President Donald Trump leaves a note at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to answer whether Jerusalem’s Western Wall or Kotel is part of Israel when asked by Pool reporters on Monday morning before arriving in Tel Aviv for his first ever visit. The top US diplomat followed the same approach to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster who also declined to clarify if he believes that the holy Jewish site is under legal Israeli sovereignty when pressed by White House reporters. On Capitol Hill, Members of Congress switched their traditional roles on this sensitive issue when responding to the Trump administration’s policies as the city of Jerusalem continued to play a key role during President Donald Trump visit to Israel.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“I think they’re being sensitive. Much like, what I would be sensitive. They are in the midst of some very interesting times and are being wise with what they want to weigh in and how they want to handle things,” Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN) told Jewish Insider on Monday evening. “I wouldn’t begin to second guess what they are doing because I don’t know the pressures that they are under.”

However,  Democrats critiqued the administration for this policy decision. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) emphasized that she “very much” believed that the Kotel is part of Israel. “It’s a lack of understanding of the holiness of the site i.e. understanding the faith and the history that’s attached to it.” On a similar note, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) said, “I recognize that the Western Wall is part of Israel. I think most members of the House do.”

While Republicans were frequently quick to condemn the Obama administration for criticism of the Netanyahu government, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) refused to criticize senior Trump administration officials: Tillerson and McMaster regarding the Western Wall.  “I don’t know their reasons for not being able to answer, so I can’t comment on that,” Carter noted.

Assessing Trump’s first overseas visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Carter lavished praise upon the President. “I think he’s done a great job. It’s certainly a better situation for America. Instead of our chief elected official, going over and apologizing for everything we’ve done, we finally have someone who is going over there and asserting themselves and American interests. I’m proud of that.”

But, Crowley offered a more restrained assessment. “So far, the world hasn’t fallen apart so I give him credit for that. I would have liked him to say something about the inequities and the human rights violations that take place in Saudi Arabia.”

At the same time, Rep. Mark Pocan focused on the President’s potential impact on the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen when visiting Riyadh on Sunday. “I’m more concerned about what he’s (Trump) doing in Saudi Arabia with whatever deals he made regarding the arms sales in Yemen because if the major port in Yemen is bombed, we are told a half a million people will go in famine. We are trying to keep laser focused on the Yemen issue. It’s a big armed sales with no preconditions whatsoever,” he explained.

The pro-Israel right is starting to feel unease with Trump

President Donald Trump in New London, Conn., on May 17. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Zionist Organization of America launched two broadsides against a Trump administration it has ardently defended, signaling a growing unease on the pro-Israel right with the president’s Israel policies.

The ZOA, the flagship for the conservative pro-Israel community, slammed President Donald Trump for retreating from a campaign pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It also attacked the appointment of Kris Bauman, a veteran Obama administration negotiator, as the Israel adviser on the National Security Council.

Criticism of Trump from the Jewish right, while growing, is almost always accompanied by a caveat that his Israel policies are better than those of his predecessor, Barack Obama, and praise for some of his appointments.

The ZOA statements came Wednesday, the same day an array of Jewish groups held a celebration in the Capitol of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

During the celebration Republican lawmakers – without naming the Trump administration – decried the failure to move the embassy to Jerusalem. One of those present, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, one of two Republican Jews in Congress, later released a statement explicitly criticizing Trump and urging the move.

Trump the candidate had vowed to move the embassy as one of his first acts upon assuming the presidency, but since elected has retreated from the pledge. This week, an unnamed top U.S. official told Bloomberg News that the relocation from Tel Aviv was off the table for now.

The story prompted expressions of concern of varying intensity from the Jewish right.

Morton Klein, the ZOA president, said in a statement that the slowness to move the embassy “sends a message of weakness” and called it “painful.”

Zeldin, one Trump’s most prominent Jewish supporters during the presidential campaign, said in his statement that the Bloomberg report was “an ill-timed mistake on the part of the administration to make this decision and announcement.”

Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, the umbrella group with a constituency that according to polls was lopsided in its support for Trump last year, said in an interview that those voters were likely “disappointed” with the delay.

Klein in an interview Thursday offered up the caveat that he was still grateful that Trump had won the election.

“This guy in his heart and soul is very pro-Israel in a serious way,” he said, naming among other appointments Nikki Haley, the outspoken U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “So many of us had high expectations it would be 100 percent on Israel; that might have been too high an expectation. He’s so much better than Obama or than Clinton would have been,” referring to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition director, said Trump’s Jewish critics should keep the bigger picture in mind: His first tour overseas, next week, will include Israel and a visit to the Western Wall.

“It should be comforting, and those who are critical should note the symbolism of the president doing it at this time,” he said, noting the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. “It sends a symbolic message and one that should resonate throughout the Jewish community and the international community.”

Much of the pro-Israel right remains a strong area of Trump support on foreign policy. Breitbart News, with several alumni occupying key posts in the administration, has not advanced tough criticisms of the president’s Israel policy, although it has been critical of Trump on some domestic issues.

Conservative groups that reviled the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, chief among them the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are pleased with Trump’s policies. While Trump has not scrapped the deal, he has ramped up his rhetoric targeting the regime and added sanctions targeting Iran’s missile testing.

Conservative pro-Israel voices — among them Klein — have been outspoken as well in defending top Trump advisers who hail from the “alt-right,” a loose assemblage of anti-establishment conservatives that includes anti-Semites but also strident defenders of Israel.

Still, there are signs that unease with Trump’s Israel-related choices is deepening on the right. The tendency in Trump’s first months in office was to blame any decision that the pro-Israel right found unappealing on officials Trump did not appoint – civil service professionals whose tenure dated back to the Obama or George W. Bush administrations, or even further back.

But now, some of the fire is being directed at Trump appointees. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, has earned opprobrium from the pro-Israel right wing for his bid to sideline Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a young NSC staffer who is known for his hard-line Iran views. Trump nixed McMaster’s decision to move Cohen-Watnick to another agency.

Now fire is being directed at Bauman, whom McMaster named recently as his chief adviser on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Klein in a separate statement called Bauman, who served on the U.S. team during the 2013-14 failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, “pro-Hamas.”

Klein based his assessment on a screed against Bauman published last week in FrontPageMag, which unearthed a 2009 academic work by Bauman citing views that recommend accommodating Hamas as a necessary evil in any negotiations toward a final status outcome. Bauman also is unstinting in describing Hamas’ brutality and terrorism in the paper.

Daniel Shapiro, until January the U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Wednesday called Klein’s attacks the “lowest of low blows,” noting that Bauman’s brief was to improve security for Israel in the West Bank ahead of a final status agreement.

Also troubling for the pro-Israel right has been Trump’s warmth toward the Palestinian Authority leadership, particularly P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Trump welcomed at the White House earlier this month and with whom he will meet in Bethlehem next week.

“I’m disappointed he brought a guy who rewards terrorists who murder Jews to the White House,” Klein said, referring to P.A. subsidies for families of jailed and killed terrorists.

The White House said in its readout of the Trump-Abbas meeting that Trump raised the issue of the payments and urged Abbas to stop them.

Jewish, homeless and alone: One tale of grief on L.A.’s streets

On a Sunday last December, Joe Wedner leaves a church service carrying fruit from a free food pantry. Photos by Eitan Arom

For Joe Wedner, theology is well-worn territory. God and His workings are among the trains of thought that keep Joe’s mind chugging, often in a broad and frenzied circle. At the center of that theology is a paradox that causes Joe a fair amount of strife.

Joe is 77, stooped and bearded. He’s a Jew by birth, but in practice, at least since 2013, he honors every faith — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. — without discrimination or distinction. His face betrays the weatherworn quality of someone who has spent years living on the streets, and he carries an air of all-consuming tragedy.

“I cry a lot — so I’m sorry — but I’ve never been locked up for crying,” he told me the first time we sat down together, in January 2016 at Native Foods Café, a vegan restaurant in Westwood.

He sat in front of a heaping pile of beans, grains and vegetables, his pushcart parked next to our table. Overflowing with pieces of cardboard and extra jackets, the cart held the sum of his worldly possessions.

Vegan cuisine was Joe’s idea. He avoids processed foods and animal products, not for ethical or health reasons, but religious ones. When a waiter stopped by our table, Joe pointed to his food and asked, “Is this the most natural, unchanged-from-God whole food that we got?”

God pervades Joe’s existence.

“There is no place that God is not,” he told me. “God is everyplace. God is in every belief. God is in every emotion.”

His relationship with the Almighty is perhaps Joe’s one remaining comfort in this world, although even that relationship is not without strain. According to Joe, two activities offer him any sort of solace from the unrelenting fear and anxiety that rule his day-to-day existence: religion and sex. Since Joe is homeless and elderly, it’s not easy for him to find sexual partners, so religion is all that remains in any practical sense. Every week, when he has the time, he attends as many religious and spiritual services as he can.

But his God, he insists, is not a particularly benevolent one. The paradox at the heart of Joe’s theology is that although God is everywhere, He is a maniac.

“God can do the impossible,” he explained to me. “He can give absolute, total freedom and still prevent man from sinning and leaving Him, and therefore He can prevent suffering. Why doesn’t He prevent suffering? Because He’s mentally ill. He’s seriously mentally ill, and we are His image and likeness, and we are mentally ill.”

When it comes to his own mental illness, Joe makes no secret. In his second email to me, shortly after we first met, he wrote, “I thought you might be interested in the attached information.” It was a psychiatric report diagnosing him with bipolar disorder, for which he refuses medication. He also admits to being delusional and cripplingly paranoid.

[To give or not to give? Experts weigh in]

For Joe, delusion bleeds freely into reality and vice versa. Consider his present life plan: Joe is taking UCLA Extension courses on the entertainment industry, hoping to land a high-paying job and strike it rich. The basis for his plan is his conviction that education is the key to income. Although that makes enough sense, his plan to strike it rich stretches credulity.

Yet Joe sticks to his plan doggedly, even if it means forgoing a roof over his head.

Joe has been homeless for four years, a condition that puts him in the category of “chronically homeless” — those homeless for a year or more due to debility. He is less an anomaly than a poster boy for the definition: By the latest count, 61 percent of the roughly 13,000 people who are chronically homeless in Los Angeles County are mentally ill, about 8,000 people total, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

If there is an anomaly to Joe, it’s his religious background.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center ranked Jews as the most financially successful religious group in America. Only 16 percent claimed a family income of less than $30,000 a year.

Tanya Tull, a homelessness policy pioneer and CEO of Partnering for Change, said in addition to Jews living on the street, many others eke out an existence in deplorable conditions in cramped apartments in poor neighborhoods like MacArthur Park and Mid-City. She cited as one example a 71-year-old retired Jewish man who spends more than 80 percent of his Social Security payments on rent in a studio apartment in Pico Union, where he experiences regular power outages and struggles to treat a chronic pulmonary condition.

Some local impoverished Jews are clients of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and its partner organizations. Federation estimates that together, the groups help about 20,000 Jews living in poverty, providing them with free kosher meals and grant assistance for housing, paired with case management.

But that number reflects only those whom they help.

“There are more people out there — Joe is a perfect example — who are not accessing these services,” Lori Klein, Federation’s senior vice president for its Caring for Jews in Need program, told the Journal.

Federation estimated that 50,000 Jews lived in poverty in Los Angeles in 2014, the latest year for which data are available. More than 600,000 Jews live in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Klein suggested that Joe call a central access hotline of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which directs people experiencing financial instability to appropriate resources.

Joe said he called in April, but found that the services it offered were more or less the same as those he already was getting from a Kaiser Permanente social worker. As for housing, Joe, it turns out, has other priorities.

I first met Joe when I showed up for an assignment at jumu’ah, the Muslim prayer service offered Friday evenings at UCLA. I was early and found Joe sitting on a metal folding chair in the hallway outside the prayer room with the demeanor of someone who didn’t have anywhere else to be.

After services, I took down his email address. Joe checks his email frequently — somewhere among the loose cardboard and plastic bags in his cart was a laptop that he’d had since 2013. (It’s since been stolen; he now returns emails via public computers at UCLA.)

It turns out that Joe has little to hide and, by his estimation, much to gain from an interview.

“The more you tell the better,” he told me at Native Foods. “My psychiatrist does not disagree that my whole problem is a girlfriend deficiency, and I’m trying to get that out there.”

It was only much later in the interview that I learned he has a wife and daughter — but that hasn’t interrupted his other plans. Joe is interested in obeying all of God’s commandments, including to “be fruitful and multiply.”

“I need a lot of girlfriends,” he said, without a hint of irony or jest. “So I want to put that out there, just in case there might be somebody like me, that also wants a lot of children, a female. Because … I’m a panhandler, and a panhandler knows if you say the same thing to enough people, no matter what it is you’re saying, if you say it to enough people, you find a few, one or a few, that’ll agree with you.”

With Joe, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between delusion and what could be described merely as misplaced priorities. His desire to have children is motivated not just by the joy of sex but also by the conviction that children represent “eternal life and salvation from death.” But whether Joe should father a child at 77, with no means to support one, is a consideration he ignores. He remains enthusiastic in pursuing his goal.

In the middle of the conversation, a young woman approached our table to express interest in the interview. Joe’s demeanor changed instantly. His eyes lit up, and he began talking more quickly, almost frantically. It occurred to me that he was putting on a show.

“You could sit down,” he told the young woman. “You could sit down and listen to me. If you’ve gotta go — want my email address? I’m an extremely interesting person. You’ll never find anybody running around loose more mentally ill than me.”

Joseph Leo Wedner was born on Feb. 2, 1940, in Detroit.

His father was born to an Orthodox family near Sanok, Poland. His mother, an American, was what Joe called a “three-day Jew,” someone who attended synagogue approximately three days a year. They had one other son, John, since deceased.

At 13, Joe became a bar mitzvah at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a Conservative synagogue near Detroit. He recalls his trips to his father’s shul with fondness if also with a bit of detachment, saying, “That was very nice, people talking with their creator, praying and asking to not get sick with colds or anything else.”

But even at a young age, Judaism didn’t quite do it for him. He remembers, as a 5-year-old, being beset with a paralyzing fear that his faith couldn’t extinguish. He recalled his envy when he saw a glow-in-the-dark crucifix hanging over the bed of a grade-school friend.

“I thought, ‘Man, oh, man, everybody’s lucky except me. I gotta have horrible, terrible nightmares ’cause I’m scared of school. Why can’t I go to Catholic school and have that crucifix hanging by my bed?’ ” he said.

His family life was dysfunctional, he said: “That’s what our family does, is yell at one another. Big ones yell at the little ones.”

But Joe managed to hold things together and graduate from a local college, enrolling in medical school at the University of Michigan. Soon, though, his mental health began to slip, as it would at crucial moments in his future. He described struggling with paranoia so severe that he didn’t think he could make it in medical school. When things got bad, he went to see the dean.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to flunk out anyway, I’ll never get through this, it’s too hard, and I’m afraid of the American Nazi party. I’m going to Israel,’ ” he recalled.

His experience in Habonim Labor Zionist Youth as a teen in Detroit had convinced him that a Jew could live happily only in a socially just environment in Israel. So in January 1964, he left for Israel, landing at Kibbutz Sarid in Israel’s north.

It didn’t quite play out the way he had hoped. Instead of working, he “slept and ate all day and chased the tourist girls,” he said. He was kicked out, and he fell in with some hippies — or maybe they were secret police. Joe can’t be sure.

His new friends taught him to play guitar and beg on the street. After a stint in Abu Kabir Prison in Tel Aviv on narcotics charges — “all the hippies were doing narcotics,” he said — he felt disillusioned and left the country the year after he arrived.

From there, Joe tramped through Europe and the Middle East, his first experience with vagrancy. But, in 1968, he was back in the United States, and over much of the next four decades earned a living wage subsisting on odd jobs and help from his mother as he moved from place to place, with stints in New York, California, Washington state and Hawaii. Things weren’t always great, but there was a roof over his head. And then came Josie.

It was 2004. Joe had been living in the Philippines for about a year, living off the interest from an inheritance from his mother, when his psychiatrist suggested he hire a live-in maid because he hadn’t cleaned his Manila apartment in more than a year.

Josie showed up at his door. “Right from the beginning, we fell in love,” he said.

They were married a short while later. Their daughter was born in 2006, and a year later, they moved to Loma Linda in San Bernardino County, where they lived in a “very small, but very comfortable apartment.” The marriage was a rocky one, which he blames on his own upbringing.

“My family is dysfunctional, extremely, is as dysfunctional as a family can be without actually flying apart,” he said. “It was always screaming, weeping, crying, insulting, criticizing etc., so I did that to my wife, whose family never did that.”

In 2011, they traveled to Josie’s hometown, Zamboanga City, in the Philippines, moving from apartment to apartment. Josie started a few businesses, but they all failed. By 2013, he recalls, she told him, “Get me back in the USA, I don’t like it here.” He flew to Los Angeles, with plans for her to follow later — but no plan of where to stay once he left the airport.

Even living on the street, Joe was sending money back to Josie from his Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for the elderly, blind and disabled. After a while, he couldn’t afford to continue. “I heard from her when she needed money and then, when I stopped sending her money, I haven’t heard from her,” Joe said. She last contacted him in December. I reached out to Josie through email and Facebook, but she did not respond.

Nonetheless, Joe is keen to bring his wife to the U.S. While his strategy may be a doubtful one, he persists: To earn a visa for Josie, he needs to demonstrate to Immigration and Customs Enforcement that he can support her. Thus, his coursework at UCLA.

Sevgi Cacina, a film student at UCLA Extension who is making a documentary about Joe, first approached him after she saw him pitch his skills as an actor and producer at networking events. The crowd typically doesn’t know what to make of Joe, but one thing is certain, she said: “He’s not joking.”

He’s even enlisted some help. Screenwriter Brooks Elms said Joe enrolled in an online course that Elms taught through UCLA Extension in 2015, during which Joe diligently completed each assignment. After the course concluded, the students invited Elms to lunch in Westwood.

“Joe came to that lunch, rolled his cart right there from the street, and asked how he could get a movie made,” Elms wrote in an email. “I asked why he was even spending money on a film class when he could be spending it on basic survival needs, and he was determined to learn about the film business and make something happen that way.”

Elms said he’s now helping Joe make a film about Joe’s life on the streets.

“We plan [to] post it online with hopes it will bring him some much-needed income,” Elms wrote.

Until that happens, Joe remains on the street and sleeps in a sleeping bag in Westwood. Mostly, he’s tenacious about his plan, but sometimes his resolve lapses.

“This is as close to work as I got, giving an interview for a lunch,” he said at the vegan joint, “which is extremely disconcerting to me, because now I’m afraid I’ll never get my wife and daughter back.”

Joe’s separation from his wife and daughter is “an overwhelming tragedy that pervades my being every moment. … It causes anxiety, depression and every bad feeling.” Any kind of spiritual activity, from Mass to a 12-step meeting, relieves the pain of those feelings.

One day, on a visit to the Seventh-day Adventist church in Santa Monica — which he calls “Simcha Monica” — he ran into a Chabad missionary near the church.

As a lapsed Jew with a spotty relationship to the tribe, he was nervous about allowing the rabbi to lay tefillin on him. So he thought about it, and prayed about it, and decided he’d better drop by a Chabad.

“If I’m striving for God to help me, in everything, then I got no better or worse chance at the Chabad Lubavitch synagogue than I got anyplace else, so I’ll go,” he said. “So I started going. The more I went, the more I started feeling that … if I know what’s good for me, I better add Roman Catholic and Muslim to the places I pray.”

Basileia Community church elder Bill Horst bows his head and prays for Joe Wedner after a service in Hollywood.

Joe’s schedule for religious services is noncommittal and wide-ranging, though it leans Christian. Perhaps his favorite place to pray is a Christian congregation called the Basileia Community, which meets in a Baptist church in Hollywood. At one point, he was going twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays, while attending Roman Catholic services on Mondays and Thursdays and Chabad or Seventh-day Adventist services on Saturdays.

Lately, school has interfered with his attendance, and he’s often forced to stay around UCLA for services. One Sunday in December, I agreed to drive him to Basileia. We met on the corner of Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue with boisterous crowds of students surging by. He looked even smaller than I remembered, dressed in two coats and too-long pants that he’d rolled up at the cuff over a scuffed pair of brown loafers.

I loaded his pushcart, with its one broken wheel, into my car, and we set off for church.

On the way, I decided to raise the issue of permanent supportive housing — apartments made available by the city and county expressly for chronically homeless and mentally ill individuals like Joe. Los Angeles voters recently passed Measure HHH, a $1.2 billion bond that earmarks most of the funds precisely for building this type of housing. Joe conceded that it would be nice to have a toilet of his own, and the privacy to have company.

But “it might not be around here,” he speculated as we turned onto Wilshire Boulevard. “Then I’d have to wait for a bus and ride the bus and wait for a bus back … then it would slow down my saving up that $60,000 I need to show to get my wife over here.”

By now his foot was tapping violently enough to shake the car. The topic clearly made him anxious.

His thoughts are scattered, with a tendency to trail off or pivot wildly. On occasion, an unrelated question will reveal a heretofore-unexplored saga in Joe’s life.

By the time we reached Basileia, a question about his wife inadvertently had revealed details of the money he had inherited from his mother: Between 1984 and 2007, he said, he played the stock market, growing $250,000 into more than $800,000 at one point and living off the interest. When the market crashed 10 years ago, Joe said his bank account flat-lined.

As we walked into the church, people were schmoozing around a light buffet. Joe wasted no time in loading up a plate with fruit and breakfast rolls. It had been some time since he had been here, and several people approached him to say hello. A massive man with a kind face and a blond bun, the drummer in the congregation’s music ensemble, greeted Joe with a fist-bump.

Explaining my presence there as a Jewish Journal reporter, I mentioned that Joe was Jewish.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish, Joe!” a fellow churchgoer interjected.

I was mortified for outing him, but Joe was unfazed.

“I’m all things,” he explained.

For Joe, God is in every religion, all beliefs, indiscriminately and without exception. He likes Basileia for its inclusiveness and the kindness of his members. But it has no monopoly on his faith.

The band started to play and the hymns began to flow. “Holy Spirit, come fill this place!” the congregants sang, sitting in a semicircle under the exposed rafters of the tall, gabled roof.

The gathering was a dressed-down affair, community-oriented and progressive. The room flickered softly with the glow of candles and Christmas lights, and a plain, wooden cross overlooked the scene.

While the music played, Joe crossed his legs and tilted his head downward, staring just past his interlaced fingers, his white beard fanning out over his UCLA Extension T-shirt. The pastor, Suz Born, a bespectacled woman with a soft voice and the measured demeanor of a kindergarten teacher, kneeled next to him with her hands raised in the air.

Joe Wedner shows off a T-shirt reflecting his enrollment in UCLA Extension while standing on a corner in Westwood in December.

Soon, the music slowed to three or four chords repeated on an acoustic guitar. The frenzied foot tapping that had shaken my car had slowed to a soft, irregular beat.

When the service broke up, he stuck around to chat with friends and acquaintances, indulging them in detailed explanations of his theology. “The only reasonable conclusion is that God is mentally ill,” I overheard him saying.

He shares his theory widely, even if to awkward laughs or kind dismissals. It doesn’t earn him many friends. The Roman Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists say he’s blaspheming God. He says they’re blaspheming God by calling his truth blasphemy, since truth is God.

After services ended, church elder Bill Horst sat beside Joe to pray with him, resting his head on his hand and concentrating intensely. Later, Horst told me he prays for Joe to experience the mental soundness that often eludes him and to find a way off the streets.

Horst said that despite “packaging that’s a little tricky to get past,” Joe gets along OK at Basileia. At one point, he was making sexual overtures to single women there in a way that made them uncomfortable, Horst said — but church leaders sat him down and asked him to respect certain boundaries, and to his credit, he did.

“Someone can have a meaningful relationship with someone like Joe even if they find that difficult to imagine,” Horst told me on the phone later. “There is something real and coherent and worthwhile there if you’re willing to look for it.”

As people began to file out of the church, Joe headed to a basement room to pick up some donated food. He made a beeline for the fruits and vegetables. “There’s salad over here, boyfriend,” a homeless woman called out to him. But the salads were of the prepacked grocery store variety, and some had meat in them, so he passed over them. Even with his dietary restrictions, food is the least of his worries. Between panhandling and food banks, he has plenty. If he lacks for something, it’s not provisions but companionship.

“I need friends,” he said at Basileia. “My family is gone, so I need friends. Inshallah” — if God wills it.

Joe’s first serious brush with Christianity came during a lockup in Washington State Penitentiary in January 1978, when he was 37. He’d enrolled in a university-level accounting course in Tacoma, Wash., hoping it would set him on a path to quick riches. But he was failing and frustrated. One day, he decided somebody was driving too fast down his street, so he took out a loaded .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and brandished it, yelling, on his porch. He was imprisoned for 25 months before his mother, an attorney, managed to get his sentence vacated on a technicality.

Prison was not a welcoming place. “The guards were unfriendly and the prisoners were even more unfriendly,” he said.

The only people who would speak with him were the missionaries.

“The Christian missionaries were there every day. I saw Jewish missionaries there once the whole 25 months I was there,” he said. “So naturally, I read the Christian Bible — a few times.”

He acquainted himself well with the text and continues to read and reread it. He keeps one in his pushcart. These days, one of Joe’s favorite verses to quote is the Man of Sorrows in Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

It’s not hard to puzzle out why he’s so fond of the verse. On the one hand, it’s easy to imagine Joe as Isaiah’s outcast, “pierced for our transgressions … crushed for our iniquities.”

On the other hand, it’s a potent illustration of a capricious and unsparing God, doling out suffering: Why would any but a mentally ill God cause one man to suffer for all the rest?

And so, my question for Joe was, why go to such great lengths to worship a God he believes — fervently — to be insane? Joe’s theology and his delusions often are baroque, but they’re pieced together from pieces of simple, direct logic. To my spiritual question came a pragmatic answer.

On weeks he goes to prayer services and reads from the Bible, he said, “things coincidentally or not coincidentally go better. And so I just keep doing it.”

Recalling lessons of Passover, Israelis pray for their Syrian ‘enemies’

A view of the Suruc refugee camp in Turkey, which houses some 35,000 Syrian refugees. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

At a Shabbat service in Tel Aviv on Friday evening, congregants recited the mourner’s prayer for those killed in Syria’s civil war.

Standing before a mural of the Tree of Life, the rabbi of Beit Daniel, the largest Reform synagogue in Israel, delivered a sermon on the Jewish obligation to condemn the savagery of the war. And a bar mitzvah boy led a prayer for peace in honor of the Syrian people, whom Israelis have long considered enemies.

“When you include something in your prayers, you push it to a higher level of consciousness,” said Gilad Kariv, the head of the Reform movement in Israel and a member of Beit Daniel. “We declared that the Syrian people are rooted in the deepest part of our soul as individuals and as a community.”

After an apparent chemical attack in Syria on April 4 killed dozens of people, including children, liberal and Orthodox Israeli Jews alike adapted their Passover prayers to address the tragedy unfolding just across their northern border. They found inspiration to pray for Syrians in the story of the holiday, which some Jews have long interpreted as urging sympathy for the oppressed — and even the oppressor.

Israel’s Reform movement this year asked its members to dedicate the Sabbath before Passover, called Shabbat Hagadol, to the Syrians and refer to them at least twice during the seder, which recounts the Israelites’ biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt. The first mention is to come before a prayer for peace by the 18th-century Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Braslav, which some may add to the Haggadah. The second should come when seder participants spill a drop of wine for each of the 10 plagues God visited upon the Egyptians to win the Israelites’ freedom.

Kariv cited the view that the wine ritual symbolizes that the Jewish “cup of joy” is diminished because the Israelites’ emancipation came through the suffering of the Egyptians. If inheritors of that Jewish tradition can find room to forgive the biblical Egyptians, he said, Israelis can certainly sympathize with Syrians, with whom they have battled and never made peace.

“Despite the fact that Israelis can identify the Syrian people as our enemies, the vast majority of us feel deeply saddened about what is happening next door,” he said. “We are using this tradition to remind us to have sorrow for the suffering of all people.”

Zeev Keinan, a longtime leader in Israel’s Conservative, or Masorti, movement, delivered a Torah commentary on Friday at his Maayanot synagogue in Jerusalem about whether Israelis should pray for the Syrians. His conclusion – yes – was not a surprise to anyone who read the prayer he wrote several months ago for the Syrian people on behalf of the movement. He said the prayer, which has been widely distributed, is being read at his synagogue and others throughout Passover.

Appropriately, Keinan noted, a line from the prayer is taken from a passage of Exodus that refers to the aftermath of the final plague God inflicted on the Egyptians: the death of every non-Jewish firstborn son.

Keinan, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, said repurposing the phrase “there is not a house without one dead” (Exodus 12:30) is in keeping with the Passover tradition. In addition to the spilling of the wine, Keinan referred to the Talmudic story that God stopped the angels from rejoicing when  the Egyptian soldiers who were pursuing the fleeing Israelites drowned in the Red Sea, saying, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying.”

In the Orthodox world, a prayer for Syrians has been making the rounds online ahead of Passover. Written in 2013 by a leading religious Zionist ethicist, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, the prayer reads in part: “We beseech You in prayer to arouse in the killers their basic humanity and evoke mercy in their hearts, that they may recognize that we are all created in the image of God, and that there are limits even to human cruelty.”

Cherlow said he wrote the prayer, despite a reluctance among Orthodox Jews to add to Jewish liturgy, out of concern for the “civilians and children” in Syria. He said Jews are commanded “as part of our going out of Egypt” to observe that they are allied with any oppressed or displaced people. But Cherlow acknowledged being uncertain about what exactly to ask of God, given that most of the warring parties in Syria could be considered enemies of Israel.

“In this case, I can’t say we know what we wish for,” he said. “While I can’t use the term ‘happy,’ I prefer the bad people shoot each other and not kill me.”

Echoing the overwhelming sentiment in this country, Cherlow said Israel has little choice but to maintain its policy of nonintervention in Syria. Most Israelis feel getting involved would accomplish little and risk incurring the wrath both of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, as well as the radical Islamic rebel groups, including the Islamic State, that seek to topple him.

Still, Cherlow emphasized that prayer is not enough in the face of evil, and said the events in Syria also inspired him to demand action. He recently recommended to the army’s chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot, that the Israel Defense Forces expel reserve soldiers who assist as mercenaries in conflicts in African and South American countries, among others, and formally add ethical considerations to its decisions about weapons sales.

According to Kariv, Israel’s Reform movement plans to issue a letter on Wednesday demanding that Israel, which has not taken in any Syrian refugees, welcome 100 orphan children from the country — a plan proposed earlier this year by haredi Orthodox Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.

Israeli anti-missile system becomes operational

The David's Sling misile defense system. Photo courtesy of JTA/Israel Ministry of Defense

Israel’s medium-to-long-range anti-missile system became operational on April 2 as tensions on the country’s northern and southern borders have heated up. The defense system is meant to intercept rockets fired from a range of 20 to 200 miles, including those fired from the Gaza Strip toward Tel Aviv.

“I will reiterate, that whoever wants to strike us will be beaten, and those who threaten our existence are putting their own lives at risk,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the official launching ceremony for the system, adding that defending the home front is of the “utmost importance.”

The system, called David’s Sling (which used to be called Magic Wand) joins the Iron Dome, which is designed to shoot down short-range rockets, such as those fired from the Gaza Strip at Jewish communities near the Gaza border, and the Arrow system, which intercepts long-range missiles of more than 300 miles. David’s Sling is designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, medium- to long-range rockets and cruise missiles.

“It’s always good when you have several layers of defense, as there is always some leakage [of missiles that get through],” said Shlomo Brom, a former head of the strategic planning division of the Israeli army. “This is an optimal system for dealing with medium-range missiles.”

Hezbollah has threatened to target a large ammonia storage tank in the northern Israeli city of Haifa. The Haifa District court has ordered the 12,000-ton tank shut, fearing it could cost thousands of lives if it were hit. Despite an April 1 deadline for closure, the site remains open. David’s Sling could hit a Hezbollah missile fired from Lebanon.

David’s Sling is a joint project with Israel’s Rafael Advance Defense Systems collaborating with Raytheon, which also produces the Patriot missile system. Some of the components were built by Elta, a subdivision of Israel Aerospace Industries that developed the system’s radar, and Elbit Systems, which developed the command and control mechanisms.

Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, attended the launching ceremony and Netanyahu addressed part of his speech to him.

“Admiral, today marks an important milestone in our joint development of cutting-edge missile defense technologies. We face, both of us, increasingly sophisticated threats, but we have repeatedly demonstrated that together we can meet these challenges a lot better than any one of us could do so alone,” he said.

“We’re white and blue, [but] red, white and blue, in this context, works even better.

“At a time when budgets are tight, please know that the government of Israel and the people of Israel are deeply grateful for the ongoing support by the United States of this crucial effort and the ongoing support of the United States for the general defense of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The new system comes as President Donald Trump has said he wants to cut budgets for foreign aid.

“When it concerns declarations, President Trump is very supportive of Israel, but a basic element of the policy that he talked about during the campaign is that he wants to cut U.S. foreign aid expenses because America is first now,” Brom said. “If this project is continuing, it shows the U.S. wants to make an exception when it comes to Israel.”

Finally some good news: Britney Spears reportedly to perform Tel Aviv concert in July

Britney Spears

Britney Spears will perform in Tel Aviv in July, the Israeli media are reporting.

The one-night show by the American pop singer reportedly will take place at Yarkon Park and be part of her upcoming Asian tour. The final date and ticket sales have not been announced.

Rumors that Spears, 35, would play in Israel have circulated in the past, but the show’s producers confirmed to Haaretz that the concert would be announced officially in the coming days.

Spears has sold more than 240 million albums, DVDs and singles since her debut in 1999.

Other big names scheduled to perform in Israel in the coming months include Gun N’ Roses, Aerosmith, Justin Bieber, Radiohead and Tears for Fears.

Stop celebrating Muslim decency

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Feb. 21. Photo by Tom Gannam/REUTERS.

Being congratulated for basic civility is no compliment

Since the recent wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats, vandalism, and cemetery desecrations, journalistic and social media have vocally celebrated condemnations, fund-raising, and volunteer efforts by Muslim groups in an attempt to bolster interfaith cooperation and rehabilitate the reputation of the Islamic community precisely when its very welcome in America is being questioned like never before.

But nobody deserves congratulations for basic decency. Condemning bomb threats and making donations to repair damage from bias crimes is something good people of all backgrounds do. Liberal hoopla over proper Muslim responses to anti-Semitism is no more than a religious riff on the soft bigotry of low expectations. When Muslims go to extraordinary lengths to show they embrace their Jewish neighbors – and they sometimes do – public praise is appropriate. But headlines about Islamic press releases condemning cemetery vandalism send the opposite message – that in normal circumstances Muslims are callous and heartless.

Imagine these headlines:

  • Asian Driver Arrives At Work Without Incident
  • Jamaican Musician Passes Drug Test
  • Black Man Marries His Children’s Mother


While those headlines aim to challenge nasty stereotypes, they actually reinforce their legitimacy.

News stories about broad community efforts to help besieged Jews that contain a sentence “Even the local Muslim community turned out in force” are entirely appropriate. But special congratulations when Muslims act like, well, people are not compliments.

I know how it feels to have my own group celebrated for simple propriety.

As a Zionist, I am perpetually annoyed by hasbara (roughly, propaganda) that celebrates Israeli actions that are only minimally admirable – like an Israeli soldier who shares her sandwich with a starving Palestinian child or an Tel Aviv hospital that provides an impoverished dying Arab woman with free medical care. Yes, I understand that these examples are intended to debunk the idea that Israelis are not decent (although I have yet to see anti-Israel discourse accusing Israelis of withholding sandwiches from orphans). But the very act of highlighting basic decency legitimizes the slander, which is particularly offensive given the many good Israeli actions that are far from just minimally proper.

The people spotlighting Muslim attempts to repair desecrated cemeteries may think they’re rebutting negative stereotypes. But they aren’t. Sorry to say it, but Americans who fear or hate Muslims don’t do so because they think Muslims tolerate vandalism. They do so because they think Muslims tolerate terrorism. These stories will not dent that perception.

Americans are rightly proud of the way its citizens of many groups came together to help one group among them recover in a time of distress – and Muslims should be part of that celebration. But breathless reports that American Muslims aren’t jackasses after all help nobody – including American Muslims.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and Muckrack.com/DavidBenkof, or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.




Lifting the veil on the ‘White City’

From left: Carol Bishop captures “Bishop10 Aharonovitz St., Brazilai-Haussmann 1937” and "35 Petah Tikvah Rd. Rekanati House, Shlomo Leaskovsky-Yaakov Orenstein, 1935." Photos courtesy of Carol Bishop

The famed modernist apartment buildings that line Tel Aviv’s streets have earned the Israeli port city the nickname the “White City.” Influenced by the International Style of modern architecture in the 1930s, the buildings reflect the prevalent vision that shaped the city’s creation and left an architectural legacy recognized with a World Heritage Site designation.

Two Los Angeles-based photographers, Susan Horowitz and Carol Bishop, examine that legacy in an exhibit called “Tel Aviv — The White City + Beyond,” now on display through May 28 at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California in Koreatown.

“The style came from the idea of ‘new’: a clean slate. And what was more new than these ideas about buildings?” Bishop said.

“When they needed to accommodate so many people streaming into Israel, they felt that that would be the newest style and one without reference to older design and other cultures,” Horowitz added.

When Jewish settlers came to Palestine in the early 1900s, they worked with British colonial administrators to build a new city on the sand dunes north of the ancient city of Jaffa. The architects of that era drew inspiration from the International Style of architecture that took hold in Europe immediately after World War I. The style emerged from the Bauhaus School of Arts, Design and Architecture, which Walter Gropius founded in Weimar Germany in 1919. (The Nazis closed the school in 1933.)

The rise of Nazism led to a mass migration of European Jews to Palestine in the 1930s. Tel Aviv’s rapid growth meant an immediate need for housing and no shortage of work for architects. Among them was Arieh Sharon, a Bauhaus-educated architect who designed workers’ housing, private homes, cinemas, hospitals and government buildings.

Approximately 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings were built in Tel Aviv in the 1930s and ’40s — the largest collection in the world. The buildings were collectively recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 2003, and guided tours of the White City are still popular with tourists.

Bauhaus-style architecture emphasizes functionality and eschews decorative elements. The Tel Aviv buildings resemble white blocks with clean, flowing lines and smooth surfaces, the facades interrupted only by inset windows and balconies. The architects adapted their style to the sunny Mediterranean climate, maximizing ventilation by placing the buildings on pilotis, or ground-level support columns, to create shady outdoor areas.

Horowitz and Bishop, longtime friends and colleagues, combined their images in one show to reveal two different perspectives on Tel Aviv.

Susan Horowitz’s photograph “Meier on Rothschild.” Photo courtesy of Susan Horowitz

Susan Horowitz’s photograph “Meier on Rothschild.” Photo courtesy of Susan Horowitz


Bishop’s part of the exhibit, called “Colors of the White City,” is made up of color photos, with green palm trees and bright, blue skies framing the gleaming buildings. She also includes a sepia-toned series of photos of Jaffa’s old buildings, and a conceptual series focused on the use of limestone bricks.

Horowitz’s photos, in her part called “Perspective — The White City,” are black and white and often include nearby buildings to juxtapose the white Bauhaus-style apartments with their more contemporary (and far less stylish) neighbors.

One photo by Horowitz shows a billboard promoting “Meier on Rothschild,” a mixed-use complex designed by American architect Richard Meier (designer of The Getty Center in Los Angeles) that opened in 2015 and includes a 39-story building — Meier’s take on Bauhaus architecture. The billboard displays a quote from Meier: “Building this white tower over the white city is a dream come true.”

When she first arrived in Tel Aviv, Bishop said, she was struck by its similarities to Los Angeles, such as the climate, the culture, the age of the buildings and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces. She also noticed another parallel: Just as L.A. is attempting to preserve modernist buildings that have fallen into disrepair, so, too, is Tel Aviv rehabilitating some of its decaying Bauhaus-style buildings.

Horowitz, during her research, discovered another connection between Tel Aviv and L.A. through the work of architect Ben-Ami Shulman. He was born in Jaffa in 1907, studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and became one of the noted modernist architects in Tel Aviv in the 1930s. After moving to Los Angeles in 1960, Shulman built residential and commercial buildings in a nondescript style often referred to as “vernacular architecture.”

Horowitz photographed all 17 documented Shulman buildings in L.A., as well as eight Shulman buildings designated as landmarks in Tel Aviv, and organized them into a mini-exhibition she calls “Some Shulman Architecture,” which is included in the “White City” show. (The title is a reference to artist Ed Ruscha’s iconic photographic series “Some Los Angeles Apartments,” that draws attention to easily overlooked or banal elements of the built environment.) Horowitz’s Shulman project was previously displayed at the American Institute of Architects’ Los Angeles office in 2015.

Not everyone accepts the historic narrative of the White City, however. In his book “White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa,” dissident Israeli historian and architect Sharon Rotbard notes that only four Bauhaus students ever emigrated to Palestine, and they were more influenced by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Tel Aviv began as a suburb of Jaffa, but its population boom in the 1920s soon came to overshadow the Arab economic and cultural hub. Since Jaffa’s annexation to Tel Aviv after the 1948 war, most of Jaffa’s residents were pushed out and its neighborhoods were bulldozed.

“Tel Aviv eagerly appropriated the Bauhaus brand name in order to develop the local myth about the rebirth of Bauhaus in Palestine,” says Rotbard, who contends that the story of a gleaming white city built on sand dunes is a “fable” created to serve “obvious political and economic agendas.” While the Bauhaus school emphasized utopian social ideas, Rotbard argues that Tel Aviv’s modernist architecture was used for colonial purposes: to whitewash the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians.

But to label the White City as a “colonial” architectural project is inaccurate, Bishop argued.

“I think the word ‘colonial’ is a little tricky,” she said. “I would say utopian. A dream that, finally, in our own power, we can visually — and, of course, culturally — start anew.”

“Tel Aviv — The White City + Beyond” by Carol Bishop and Susan Horowitz is on display through May 28 at the offices of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, 3250 Wilshire Blvd., No. 550, Los Angeles.