Women returning home after collecting water from a well in Dolhare, India, on May 10, 2012. Photo by Mahendra Parikh/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Israeli firm to provide drinking water — from the air — for India and Vietnam


An Israeli company whose technology made a splash at last week’s AIPAC conference has signed deals to produce drinking water — by extracting it from the air — in India and Vietnam, two countries that have long faced shortages.

Water Gen inked an agreement last week with India’s second largest solar company to produce purified water for remote villages in the country. Earlier, the company arranged with the Hanoi government to set up water generators in the Vietnamese capital.

“The government of Vietnam greatly esteems the technological developments in Israel, and I hope that the Israeli technology that we supply to Vietnam will significantly help to improve water conditions in the country,” Water Gen President Mikhael Mirilashvili said after the signing in Hanoi, according to a statement.

The memoranda of understanding are worth $150 million in total, according to Water Gen, which was founded in 2009 and creates technology that extracts water from the air for use by civilians and soldiers who do not have access to clean sources.

Water Gen President Mikhael Mirilashvili signing a memorandum of understanding with the Hanoi government in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 29. Photo courtesy of Water Gen

Water Gen President Mikhael Mirilashvili signing a memorandum of understanding with the Hanoi government in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 29. Photo courtesy of Water Gen

Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz demonstrated Water Gen’s technology on stage at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., on March 26. He touted the device, which he said can produce 15-20 liters of drinkable water a day, as a weapon against worldwide water scarcity and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

“There is no weapon more powerful in the fight against BDS than for Israel to develop technologies that the world cannot live without,” he told the crowd. “You cannot boycott products that you can’t live without.”

About 1.2 billion people, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of water scarcity, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Of India’s 1.25 billion people, 75 million lack access to clean water, the Water Aid nonprofit found last year. And Vietnam has struggled to provide its population of 95 million with water because of contamination, poor infrastructure and heavy agricultural demand.

Water Gen devices use thin plastic leaves to condensed water from warm, humid air. The company says that its largest unit can produce 825 gallons of water per day for only 10 cents a gallon (mostly in energy costs).

In India, Water Gen is to deploy its technology to supply drinking water to remote villages in India with solar power from Vikar Solar. The Vietnam project is to generate tens of thousands of liters of water a day for the people of Hanoi. Water Gen also said in a statement that it plans to build a factory to produce technology for sale in the region.

Hummus in Hanoi: Israeli chef brings Middle Eastern cuisine to Vietnam


Shahar Lubin earned his culinary chops in Israel and, later the United States, cooking his way through more than 20 restaurants, starting at the age of 16.

Still, it was a leap when he moved to Vietnam and opened a restaurant of his own.

“I said, ‘I’ve been doing it for other people for so long, I might as well do it for myself,’” said Lubin, who operates Daluva, the first and only “Middle Eastern gastropub” in Hanoi, a city of 7 million with a lively street-food culture.

Lubin, 37, grew up in the Israeli village of Hararit, in the Galilee, and spent summers working as a shepherd. He said he began cooking as a social activity with boys in neighboring villages. In 2000, after serving in the Israeli army and living in Jerusalem, Lubin moved to Philadelphia, his father’s hometown, and began working his way up the restaurant food chain, from line cook to senior chef.

Working in a wide variety of kitchens, Lubin said he prepared everything from pub food to “contemporary Israeli” cuisine. At one point he worked in the same restaurant under three different incarnations.

“I was like a cat — I came with the building,” he said with a laugh.

But the long hours exacerbated a chronic back injury and Lubin grew desperate for a long break. Southeast Asia seemed like a logical place to get “recharged,” he said, partly because he liked what he knew of the region’s food. So Lubin traveled there in 2009 for what he thought would be a one-year sabbatical.

Lubin said he spent most of a year exploring Southeast Asian cities, including Bangkok, Thailand and Yangon, Myanmar.

“I’ve seen enough nature in my life, and I’ve seen enough dead ruins of dead civilizations,” he said flatly. “I like life.”

In Hanoi, Lubin met the owners of a Vietnamese restaurant group who were planning to open a Mexican restaurant. They offered to bring him on as a consultant.

The job didn’t materialize, but Lubin stayed in Hanoi anyway, working as a restaurant consultant, English teacher and freelance writer. In 2012, when a restaurant was folding in Hanoi’s upscale West Lake district, he took it over.

Daluva’s previous owner had created a menu of Asian and Western fare that Lubin describes as “nondescript.” So Lubin renovated the restaurant and relaunched it in 2013.

The menu now has Israeli favorites like hummus, falafel and shakshuka alongside American burgers and rib-eye steaks. But other items, such as the Tunisian salmon stew or “fancy pants pizza” — topped with pears, blue cheese and cured duck pancetta — make it difficult to neatly categorize the restaurant’s offerings.

That’s intentional, Lubin said — he deliberately cooks in a range of styles, and he used to bristle when Philadelphia journalists labeled him an “ethnic” cook.

“I try to divorce food from its origin and think, ‘What is the taste?’ not ‘Where is it from,’” he said on a recent weekday morning as he sat in Daluva’s unassuming, exposed-brick dining room.

Lubin said the vast majority of Daluva’s ingredients are sourced locally, and he likes to use them in unorthodox ways. His tagines use Vietnamese salted limes instead of lemons, for example; his taramosalata has Vietnamese fish sauce instead of salted fish roe.

Israel’s ambassador to Vietnam is among those impressed. “I find him to be a very creative chef,” Meirav Eilon Shahar said in a telephone interview.

Another Daluva fan, Peter Nacken, a German travel and food writer who lives near the restaurant, said it was nice to have a “creative food spirit” around the corner.

“With these kinds of platters, you don’t realize you’re eating vegetarian,” Nacken said on a recent evening at Daluva, surrounded by empty white plates. He and his family were sharing a meze platter that included a tabbouleh made with diced banana flower.

The dishes at Daluva are not elaborately presented. Lubin said his instinct is not to show off his culinary prowess in obvious ways, and to instead focus on creating a casual dining atmosphere.

“I guess it’s a Philadelphia attitude,” he said. “In Philadelphia, we don’t like things that are too frou-frou.”

But Daluva’s food is full of subtle complexity. A “pulled” eggplant sandwich, for example, is Lubin’s intrepid variation of the pulled-pork classic. In a cooking process that requires 12 to 14 hours of labor, he said, the star ingredient is smoked, roasted, peeled, dry rubbed and dehydrated — all before it meets a homemade barbecue sauce. The result is a smoky, tangy creation that would please ranchers and vegans alike.

And every few months, Lubin creates a specials menu based around whatever strikes his fancy. Previous menus have celebrated — and, to a degree, reinvented — cuisines from Greece, New Orleans, Japan and beyond. Last month, he created what may be the world’s first Vietnamese-Israeli fusion menu for a Culinary Friendship Week sponsored by the Israeli Embassy.

A highlight of the menu was Lubin’s quirky reinterpretation of bun cha, a Hanoi street-food medley of grilled pork, vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs. Lubin nixed the pork and replaced it with falafel.

“It seems improbable to give bun cha an Israeli flavor,” Shahar said, “but he did it.”

The restaurant is tucked among the West Lake villas and serviced apartments of wealthy Vietnamese and expatriates. But a more traditional Vietnamese neighborhood — complete with swarms of honking motorbikes and street vendors wearing traditional conical hats — is just a few blocks away.

Lubin said he may someday move his restaurant to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s other major city, which is generally seen as more cosmopolitan and may be more receptive to his Middle Eastern gastropub concept.

“I’m happy with our product,” Lubin said. But for anyone serving non-Vietnamese cuisine in Hanoi, he added, “it’s hard, apparently, to be successful here, consistently, unless you’re an Italian or Japanese restaurant.”

Nguyen Phuong Mai, 27, a Vietnamese food blogger in Hanoi who goes by the nickname Tho, said some of her friends regarded Daluva’s food as “strange” because it is so unfamiliar to their palates.

But Mai has traveled in Israel, she said, and she recognizes a good chef when she sees one. On her blog, Tho Loves Food, she has praised Daluva in glowing terms.

Some of Mai’s posts include extended musings on the nuances of Lubin’s ingredients, or similarities and differences between Vietnamese and Middle Eastern cooking. But a recent heading summed up her views in just a few words.

“Daluva – True gem in Hanoi – Must try,” she wrote.

East meets West for UC Grad at Asian Chabads


Like many newly minted American college graduates, Liad Braude, a 22-year-old UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) alumnus, chose to travel instead of going straight into the workforce. However, unlike his peers who were buying round-the-world tickets, packing for European trips or strapping on their backpacks for budget jaunts through South America, Braude embarked on a road less traveled, opting instead to spend a year volunteering in Chabads across India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

When I caught up with Braude in Hanoi, Vietnam, the bearded young man who stood before me was a world away — both physically and spiritually — from the beer-guzzling Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity boy I had befriended five years before at college. Months ago, when we shared a farewell in Israel, neither of us had any idea where his trip would take him. 

Braude left on a one-way ticket for India hoping to go to the East to further his yoga studies. Born in South Africa and raised in San Diego, he first saw his path diverging from the norm during his junior year at UCSB, when he credits his highly creative roommates, who were “artists, musicians, fire spinners and cooking enthusiasts,” with influencing his overall direction. During that time, he traded in his six-days-a-week gym routine for rigorous yoga-and-meditation training and pursued individual studies in the religious studies department. Raised deeply Jewish, his political science education had taught him to question biases, so he began to look to different philosophies — including Buddhism, Hinduism, North American religions and Islam — for direction. When graduation came, although he had been planning a trip with friends since his freshman year, he instead decided to travel alone to the East. 

“I came to the conclusion that if you believe in something, you have to go for it and not hold back. There would be no saying ‘what if’ later in life,” he said, explaining his decision to leave without a plan or even a cell phone, guided only by faith. 

Not long after Braude arrived in India, he found that the teachings of the ashrams where he was studying could be in opposition to the communal Jewish values with which he was raised. Braude realized he could live a life of seclusion forever, but decided his purpose was to grow spiritually while also helping those around him to grow.

“I was sleeping [for] around five hours a night, eating one vegetarian meal a day and dedicating the rest [of my time] to study, meditation and yoga,” Braude said. “My Eastern religious texts stressed a life of simplicity and separation. My Jewish texts taught me that while we must seek spiritual refinement, the Jewish purpose is to elevate the world around us by being deeply involved in the physical world.”

Braude had explored many different philosophies and faiths but kept finding himself returning to volunteering in Chabad communities. His service grew so much that at one point he was singlehandedly running the Chabad in Rishikesh, India, using his own funds and donations when the Chabad’s rabbi needed to return to Israel. 

Throughout his time in northern India, Braude met with elder spiritual leaders from a wide range of faiths, including priests, gurus, Brahmans, yogis and babas, but also spent his Shabbat dinners at Chabads, together with up to 30 Jews gathered from around the world.

In Sri Lanka, where the Jewish community is very small — Braude estimates that fewer than 15 Jews live in Sri Lanka’s capital city — the Chabad’s primary focus was catering to traveling businessmen and visiting Israeli travelers. Sri Lanka’s only synagogue is in Colombo, and the Chabad, located near the airport, provides rooms and kosher food for those passing through. During Braude’s time there, he helped in various ways, including by teaching the shaliach’s children English and assisting with the culinary needs of the Chabad by making sure all foods were cooked and prepared in accordance with the laws of kashrut. He also described how the Chabad brought a Torah to festivals on the beach for the many Israeli travelers who attended. 

“Young backpackers would come and go constantly, and I was there to make them feel comfortable and answer questions,” Braude said. “When desired, I could also provide short lessons of Judaism or assist in putting on tefillin.”

Vietnam’s Jewish community, in contrast to Sri Lanka’s, is large and well established, especially in Ho Chi Minh City.

“I would open the Chabad every morning at 9 and spend all day overseeing its daily operations,” Braude said. “My overall concern was focused on upholding and assisting the rabbi with the religious aspect of the center, as well as making all feel welcome. Thus, the focus was on kashrut, Torah study, tefillin, communicating with visitors and spiritual guidance at times.”

Braude also spent a lot of time in the kitchen of the Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City, an area renowned for its delicious kosher restaurant and even caters kosher food throughout the country for large tour groups. The bustling, industrious Vietnamese hub drew large crowds during festivals, and Braude said one of his favorite memories of his trip was bartending a shtetl/”Fiddler on the Roof”-themed Purim party at the Chabad, which more than 70 guests attended.

A “Fiddler on the Roof”-themed Purim party at the Chabad in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Chabad

“When people ask my favorite place over the course of my year, I explain that I was fortunate enough to be in some of the most amazingly scenic places in the world. Nevertheless, a place is only as good as the people you are surrounded by. Even though Ho Chi Minh is a big, industrious city, I had an incredible family there that made it one of my favorite locations.” 

After a year away, Braude is now back in the U.S., living with his family in San Diego. One of his biggest adjustments since his return has been to move from a highly spiritual and spartan lifestyle to the life of abundance he faces in California.

“The life of an observant Jew, to many, doesn’t match up well with life over here,” he said. “However, this is where I know I am supposed to be for now, and I don’t believe the two have to be in conflict. The Jewish philosophy is to be involved in this world and to infuse godliness within it. I am still in the process, but I intend on fusing the life I had before with my newfound path.”

Although his lifestyle has changed from what he left behind in Santa Barbara, Braude said he is still very much the same passionate soul he has always been.

“I may have a beard and tzitzit now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do all the things I used to do,” he said. “In fact, I quite enjoy the notion that I may be the first observant individual to bless my beer at a certain bar, or do a mikveh at the local beach.”

Although he may still consider pursing ordination as a rabbi, he said he believes how a person lives is more important than a framed paper hanging on the wall.

“My senior quote in high school was Mark Twain’s ‘I never let my schooling interfere with my education,’ ” Braude said. “I think that still holds true for me.”

U.S. honors 24 minority veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam


Two dozen U.S. Army veterans received the country's top military honor at the White House on Tuesday for acts of bravery in World War II, Korea and Vietnam as part of an effort to recognize those whose service may have been ignored because of their race or religion.

President Barack Obama awarded the medals recognizing the 24 Hispanic, African-American and Jewish-Americans veterans – the largest group of soldiers to be honored for the award since World War Two.

Just three of the men honored are still living and were on hand to accept the blue-ribboned award from the president. The others either died in combat or later of natural causes. One veteran is still classified as missing, Obama said.

The review was part of a years-long effort to honor service members despite past discrimination, Obama said.

“Here in America, we confront our imperfections and face the sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of these soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal,” he said.

“As one family member said, this is long overdue,” Obama told the audience of wives, brothers, sons and daughters who came to accept the awards in a ceremony at the White House.

The awards followed a 2002 law authorizing a review of war records for Americans who are Jewish or Hispanic. As part of the effort, records of other service members who were overlooked have also emerged.

The three living veterans on hand to accept their award were Melvin Morris of Florida and Jose Rodela and Santiago Erevia of Texas.

The ceremony drew singer Lenny Kravitz, whose uncle Leonard Kravitz was honored posthumously for his service in Korea in 1951.

For a list of those honored, visit whitehouse.gov.

Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Peter Cooney and Cynthia Osterman

Another Republican senator backs Hagel for Pentagon chief


Chuck Hagel's path to confirmation as President Barack Obama's new secretary of defense became more secure on Thursday when Republican Senator Richard Shelby said he would support the nomination.

Shelby joined almost every other Republican senator a week ago in delaying a vote on confirming Hagel in order to allow colleagues more time to examine Hagel's record, said spokesman Jonathan Graffeo.

Fifteen other Republican senators signed a letter to Obama on Thursday asking that he withdraw Hagel's nomination, saying they respect the military service of the decorated Vietnam War veteran, but he lacks the bipartisan support and confidence to serve effectively.

The White House said it still supports Hagel and expects he will be confirmed. Senate Democrats expect a vote on his confirmation next week, after Congress returns from a recess, and that Hagel will win the majority support he needs to become the chief civilian at the Pentagon.

Graffeo said Shelby now plans to vote for a motion to stop debate, ending the delay, and in favor of the nomination when the Senate considers whether to confirm Hagel, barring any surprises between now and the vote.

Shelby, a five-term senator from Alabama, served with Hagel during the nominee's two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska. He is at least the third Republican – along with Mike Johanns and Thad Cochran – to say he will vote for Hagel.

Democrats control 55 votes in the 100-member Senate, and none has come out against Hagel. While he has long looked likely to garner the 51 votes he needs to be confirmed, his backers feel it will strengthen him as Pentagon chief to have as much bipartisan support as possible.

REPUBLICAN OBJECTIONS

Many Republicans have fiercely opposed Hagel's nomination as civilian chief at the Pentagon since it was announced on Jan. 7.

Hagel broke from his party as a senator by opposing former President George W. Bush's handling of the Iraq war, infuriating some Republicans. Some have also raised questions about whether he is sufficiently supportive of Israel or tough enough on Iran.

Republicans also worry Hagel will be too supportive of any effort by Obama to include cuts in Pentagon spending as a way to deal with yawning U.S. budget deficits.

Hagel's performance at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services committee also drew harsh criticism. Even some Democrats said he appeared at times unprepared or hesitant in the face of aggressive questioning.

The pressure against Hagel's nomination continued with Thursday's letter from the 15 Republicans, which cited among other things statements by the former senator they said “proclaimed the legitimacy of the current regime in Iran.”

But the White House, blasting what it called continued political posturing by Republicans it contends puts the country at more risk, said there were no plans for Hagel's withdrawal.

“We firmly believe that Senator Hagel will be confirmed, but the waste of time is of consequence,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at his daily news briefing.

“There are 66,000 men and women in uniform in Afghanistan and we need our new secretary of defense on the job to be part of the significant decisions that have to be made as we bring that war to a responsible end,” he said.

Many of the senators who signed the letter have been among Hagel's most vocal opponents. They included James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate armed services panel, and five other Republican members of that committee – Lindsey Graham, Roger Wicker, David Vitter, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee.

The other nine were Senators John Cornyn, Patrick Toomey, Marco Rubio, Daniel Coats, Ron Johnson, James Risch, John Barrasso, Tom Coburn and Tim Scott.

Editing by Todd Eastham

Lautenberg says he will not run again


Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he will not run again for the Senate.

Lautenberg, 89, had previously said he would consider running again in 2014.

On Thursday, he told various media that he would instead dedicate the final two years of his term to passing new gun controls and environmental protections and creating jobs in New Jersey.

Lautenberg first served in the Senate from 1982-2000.

Two signature laws are called the “Lautenberg Amendment.” One passed in 1990 facilitates refugee status for those fleeing religious persecution. Designed originally for Soviet Jews, it has since been used to assist refugees from Vietnam, Burma and Iran among other nations.

The other passed in 1996 bans the sale of guns to people convicted of domestic violence.

Lautenberg first retired in 2000, but was asked by Democrats to run again in 2002 after incumbent Robert Toricelli was forced to drop out because of scandal.

Lautenberg's announcement was met with “sadness” by the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Jewish Democrats around the country will miss his stalwart support for the U.S.-Israel relationship and his leadership on progressive domestic policies supported by the vast majority of American Jews,” it said.

A Jew visits Vietnam


I spent last week in Vietnam and Cambodia. Visiting these two long-suffering countries made me revisit some of the basic beliefs that have shaped my life.

The most important of these is communism. Nothing has shaped my political and social outlook as communism has: its mind-boggling evil — more than 125 million civilians killed, countless others tortured and enslaved — and the amoral reactions to it among so many in the West. Unfortunately, this reaction also has a lot to do with 20th century Jewish life, which I will address shortly.

I was smitten by the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese people struck me as particularly strong, dignified, intelligent and hard working.

That was one of the reasons I walked around with such anger at the Communist party of Vietnam, which ruled it during the Vietnam War and which rules it today. I regard every Vietnamese killed in that war as a wasted life, another victim of communism, the greatest devourer of innocent life since man first walked upright.

Now, of course, I am sure that some readers will be astounded by, if not morally outraged at, such sentiments. The prevailing explanation for the Vietnam War is that the Vietnamese people were fighting for their national freedom against the United States, just as they had fought against the French and Japanese.

But in order to buy that interpretation of the Vietnam War, one has to buy the following three suppositions:

a) That a Vietnamese fighting for the North Vietnamese communist government or for the Viet Cong was fighting for freedom and independence.

b) That a Vietnamese fighting for South Vietnam was not fighting for freedom and independence.

c) That the United States was not fighting in Vietnam to secure the freedom and independence of the Vietnamese people — or at least the freedom and independence of those living in South Vietnam — but for some other, nefarious, reasons.

But what if those three suppositions are all false?

They are.

a) A Vietnamese fighting for North Vietnam and its communist leaders was fighting for North Vietnam and its communist leaders, not for freedom or for independence. That some or many Vietnamese believed the lie told them by the North Vietnamese communists — that they were fighting for their freedom and independence — was no different from the many Russians who believed Stalin’s lies, the many Chinese who believed Mao’s lies or the many Germans who believed Hitler’s lies.

b) The Vietnamese who were truly fighting for freedom and independence were the Vietnamese who fought for the American-supported government in South Vietnam, something many Vietnamese bitterly learned after the communist tyrants took over the south. That is why so many Vietnamese — the “Boat People” — later fled Vietnam despite knowing that many of them would die by drowning or by being eaten by sharks, and that many women would be gang-raped by pirates. All of those risks were worth taking in order to escape communist Vietnam.

c) America fought in Vietnam for the same reason it fought in Korea — in hopes of enabling at least the southern half of the population to live in freedom. Like their counterparts in North Vietnam, the tyrants of the North Korean Communist party told their people that by fighting against America they were fighting for their freedom and independence. And just like in Vietnam, it was a lie. The Koreans who fought for Korea’s freedom and independence were the Koreans who fought on the American side, not the ones who fought for the communist side.

Why have I written this in a Jewish newspaper?

Because too many Jews did not, and many still do not, regard communism as the monstrous evil it was.

If any people should recognize great evil, it is the Jewish people. How could we have suffered the Holocaust and deem ourselves a people with an elevated moral conscience and not have been among the leaders in identifying and condemning communism as evil? How could most American Jews have agreed with those who condemned President Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire”? And how could any of us Jews, of all people, live in America, the country that has spilled more blood for the liberation of other peoples, and accept, let alone make, the charge that America fights abroad — from Korea to Vietnam to Iraq — for “imperialist” reasons or for economic gain?

Today, the Communist party in Vietnam has embraced capitalism and private enterprise and the country has begun its long trek from communism to freedom, from poverty to prosperity. So what, exactly, did all those Vietnamese die for? The answer today is the same as it was in the 1960s and ’70s — for the megalomaniacs and fanatics of the Communist party of Vietnam. Any Jew who chanted “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” might want to consider doing teshuvah. For the truth is that those who hated Nazism but did not also hate communism did not hate evil. And hating evil is a mitzvah.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.

Be careful what you ask for


“The Secret” is on everybody’s lips. Oprah, Ellen, Larry. Who am I, then, to say it’s drivel? *

So I put the Law of Attraction to a test. Actually, I did this unknowingly, years ago, well before The Secret was a ka-ching in Rhonda Byrne’s metaphysical cash register.

I volunteered for Big Sunday, an annual citywide day in May of community service, a chance to put tikkun olam into practice. Big Sunday makes you feel good, earns you a colorful T-shirt, and is an excellent way to meet men.

Sure, working at battered women’s shelters or knitting booties for preemies might sound appealing, but … well … as long as I was volunteering … why not do something more male-friendly?

My proclamation to the Universe: I will meet single, hetero men. I found a downright macho project, helping to clean a stretch of the L.A. River. Surely the universe was listening.

And the Law of Attraction worked! The Universe did provide. Men, that is. Dozens and dozens of men. Little men. Cub Scouts. Adorable, hard-working, young. Not one of these Cub Scouts (nor their very married troop-leader fathers, wedding rings glinting in the sun) was my beshert.

My Stated Desire was simply not specific enough. When you send a thought into the universe, be precise. I’d give the universe another chance.

“I will meet an age-appropriate single hetero man of wit and intelligence,” I declared.

And this year the universe provided! Rick appeared. Good looking. My age exactly. Lean, muscular, a terrific smile. Articulate. Definitely hetero. And covered with prison tattoos, homeless, a junkie on parole for murder.

Is “living by your wits” the same thing as “witty”?

My Big Sunday assignment: interview a homeless person and write a biography; what did I expect? Organizer Katherine Butts Warwick offered a chance to “put a human face on homelessness.” She told us that, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly one-third of homeless adults have served in the Armed Forces. On any given day, as many as 200,000 veterans (male and female) live on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year. There are now more homeless Vietnam veterans than Vietnam dead. I was shocked.

Rick wasn’t a vet — in fact, though he had desperately wanted to serve in the Armed Forces, his record of violence, gangs and prison prevented him from ever being accepted as a soldier. Rick spent 19 of his 50 years in prison. He now dreams of getting his GED, entering detox, having a permanent roof over his head and landing an office job (he learned to type in prison).

But Rick is upset at the lack of support he’s gotten after so many years behind bars.

“When you get out on parole, they don’t help you at all. They throw you out on Skid Row. What society fails to understand,” he says, “is that the system gives us a two- or three-year sentence, maybe 10, but, sooner or later, we’re going to come back. They think, OK, he’s put away, we’re safe,’ but they’re forgetting that the same person is going to come out again — without receiving any kind of social help, any kind of psychiatric help. It’s dangerous.”

Dangerous for Rick. Dangerous for society. Eye-opening for me.

I was looking for a date, a relationship. Instead, Rick made me grateful for the roof over my head and the support system of friends and family that I have in my life. Next year, I’ll be more specific still with the universe. In the meantime, I’ve learned that spending time volunteering fills up a spare evening and makes me feel better about myself than playing the dating game, L.A.-style. And tikkun olam trumps “The Secret” any day of the week.


Diane Saltzberg lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at dlsaltzberg@gmail.com


* Editor's note: If "The Secret" isn't drivel, we sure got it wrong in this cover story by Amy Klein!


Chinese Restaurant in Haifa, Israel Vietnamese Boat People


Vietnamese ‘boat person’ Kien Wong now lives in Haifa and owns Yan Yan, a popular Chinese restaurant.

More about the refugees rescued by Israel in this 2006 article from Tom Tugend.

Vietnamese Israeli family takes a long trip ‘home’


In 1977, an Israeli cargo ship nearing Japan spotted a leaking boat crammed with 66 Vietnamese men, women and children out of food and water.
 
They were among the hundreds of thousands of “boat people,” fleeing their war-ravaged country following the end of the Vietnam War. Despite desperate SOS signals, the refugees’ distress had been ignored by passing ships from East Germany, Norway, Japan and Panama.
 
The Israeli ship picked up the weakened passengers and took them back to Israel. There, Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized their permanent admission to Israel, comparing their plight to that of Europe’s Jewish refugees seeking a haven in the 1930s.
 
What happened to the Vietnamese refugees, and the hundreds that followed them, in “the land of the Jews”?
 
In one of the opening scenes of the Israeli film “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” (screening locally on Sept. 30), Hanmoi Nguyen, one of the original refugees, has been in Israel for 25 years. He works hard in a Tel Aviv restaurant, lives modestly, and with his wife is raising five Israel-born, Hebrew-speaking daughters.
 
The oldest girl, Vaan, is a writer, has served in the army and feels Israeli — except for her looks. In their classic up-front style, her fellow sabras keep asking her whether her eyes are slanted because she eats so much rice and if she is related to this or that Chinese martial arts star.

In the evenings, the father writes Vietnamese poetry and joins his friends in nostalgic songs about the beautiful land they left behind.
 
In Vietnam, Hanmoi Nguyen was the son of a wealthy landowner, and he dreams of returning to his village to reclaim the property and settle scores with the communist functionary who kicked him out at gunpoint.
 
He scrapes together enough money for the trip and returns to a land and a people he hardly recognizes. In a curious parallel to the Holocaust survivors who returned to their homelands to reclaim their old homes, he is met with suspicion and hostility by the new inhabitants and red tape by officials.
 
Even the hated communist functionary, like the Nazi bully in Germany, is now a nice old man who urges that bygones be bygones.
 
After a few months, daughter Vaan joins her father to dig for her own roots. She is happy that people on the street look like her, but has trouble negotiating the language and has no patience with the elaborate circumlocutions of social intercourse.
 
To the natives, Vaan herself has become a foreigner, and she laments, “I am a tourist, I am an Israeli.”
 
The agony of being suspended between two civilizations, without being fully at home in either one, is sensitively, at times heartbreakingly, portrayed, but the film by Israel’s Duki Dror (a UCLA alumnus) is not without humor.
 
One hilarious scene shows the newly arrived boat people being welcomed by an effusive Jewish Agency representative in Hebrew, of which the polite audience doesn’t understand a word.
 
Shortly afterward, an equally enthusiastic integration official tries to teach the refugees a lively Chanukah song.
 
On the reverse side, the returned father tries to explain Israel to puzzled Vietnamese villagers. He finally comes up with, “They have one lake and eat strange foods.”
 
The film, in Hebrew and Vietnamese with English subtitles, is presented as part of the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival, which will showcase various global cultures through films, photographs and music Sept. 28- Oct. 1 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
 
Two other films, looking at Israeli society from different, and critical, perspectives, are on the program.
 
“Zero Degrees of Separation” by Elle Flanders, focuses on an Israeli-Palestinian gay couple, and a similar lesbian couple. Apparently everyone is bitterly opposed to Israeli government policy, or, as the synopsis has it, “The stories contrast the ideals at the birth of the ‘holy land’ with the reality of the country today — an Israel mired in the rubble of occupation.”
 
“The Last Supper — Abu Dis,” a short film by Palestinian director Issa Frej, seems equally disenchanted with present-day Israel. As seen through the eyes of a young Arab woman, the people of an Arab village overlooking Jerusalem anticipate the consequences of the approaching Israeli security fence, which, they claim, will cut the village in half.
 
All three films will screen on Saturday, Sept. 30, at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd. “Journey” will start at 5 p.m. The 26-minute long “Last Supper” screens at 8 p.m., followed immediately by “Zero Degrees.”
 
For additional information about the films and other festival events, call (323) 466-3456) or visit www.nationalgeographic.com/allroads.
 

Iraq Situation: It’s Vietnam Deja Vu


Determination is a virtue. Remember how determined we were in Vietnam?

No bunch of barefoot peasants was going to force the United States of America to cut and run. No sir. Through eight long years and 58,000 dead soldiers we demonstrated our refusal to be cowed.

We were in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese people against the godless communists who were out to enslave them. Unfortunately, the fact that the enemy was ethnically identical to the citizens we were protecting made it a little hard at times to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.

Some of the troops got so fed up with the effort that they stopped trying to tell them apart. On their helmets they had a catchy solution: "Kill ’em all. Let God sort ’em out."

Then, as now, we had persuasive reasons for persisting, even after it became apparent that we couldn’t win. There was the infamous "domino effect" of collapsing Asian countries if we left. And of course, the ever-popular "bloodbath" that would follow if the communists took over the South. Naturally, we had to keep fighting so as not to abandon our POW’s, who, it turned out, were repatriated immediately after we left.

Then there was the knotty problem of how to leave. We needed to "save face," to ensure our continued credibility among the nations of the world (most of whom thought we were crazy to be there). We finally left the way we came — on boats and planes.

During our prolonged adventure in Southeast Asia, we heard constantly that we were engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Sound familiar?

We tried to win them over with crop assistance and relocation to "strategic hamlets." We built schools and clinics. When that didn’t work, we established "free-fire zones," where we shot anything that moved, including water buffalo.

And we were always making progress. Maps showing steady increases in territory "pacified" were popular backdrops for briefing senior administration officials when they visited. But the people doing the killing and dying had a slightly more cynical view. On a restroom wall in Long Binh I read, "Would the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light."

In the end, we lost because we didn’t belong. We were foreigners pursuing what we considered our own self-interest at the expense of a people we saw as "underdeveloped."

They sent us packing, because, in the end, they were more willing to die than we were to kill them. It was, after all, their country. Vietnam should have taught us this: Determination in the pursuit of folly is the indulgence of fools.

Now we seek to disengage from Iraq, that ungrateful tar baby of a country, wondering all the while at the absence of the flower petals with which the inhabitants were supposed to greet us, their liberators. Instead it appears that many of them hate us so much that it is not enough to kill us. They want to dismember our burned bodies and hang us from the nearest bridge.

Can’t they see that we only want for them the freedom and democracy that is the natural condition for all people?

All right, we tell ourselves, the resistance to what is best for them is the work of a few "insurgents" or "Saddam loyalists" or "outside terrorists." Surely, most of the Iraqis like us and appreciate what we’re trying to do for them.

Meanwhile, in a related story, our own country is in the hands of the most arrogant, secretive, ill-informed administration in memory. These are people for whom the lesson of Vietnam was that we didn’t try hard enough, didn’t give the military free rein. Sure we dropped more bombs on the place than were used by all parties to World War II, but, by gosh, if Washington hadn’t micromanaged that war, if we had really taken the gloves off, we could have won.

As with Vietnam, we were wrong to go to Iraq, and we are wrong to stay. The action-oriented neoconservatives currently controlling our government are convinced that our proper place in the world is as an imperial power, disdaining the opinions of other nations, attacking preemptively whomever we feel threatened by. Do we imagine that the skewed intelligence and downright deceptions used to justify this war are irrelevant to its outcome?

And now, once again, standing on the ash heap of lies and miscalculations that have characterized this disastrous and unilateral aggression, the gang in charge looks at the rest of us smugly and speaks of a need to "stay the course" in an effort to sell this misbegotten invasion as an example of determined leadership in the war on terrorism.

If we are stupid enough to buy this approach for another four years, we deserve the whirlwind that awaits us.


Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.

Jewish Vietnam


If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Vietnam, you won’t have a chance to see a thriving Jewish community or eat at a kosher bakery. Yes, Jews migrated to Shanghai in World War II to avoid the Holocaust and there are some Jewish institutions in Thailand. Although many Jews went to Vietnam during the war and a few have worked in Vietnam since the war, you won’t find Hebrew as useful as English in your travels. There are plenty of Buddhist temples, a few prominent Catholic churches and even a few exotic indigenous religious groups, but there are no synagogues.

The Torah, like all sacred books of the world’s major religions, remains semibanned in Vietnam. While the Constitution formally allows individuals to practice their religion, promoting religion remains a state crime. Translation: you can’t bring any prayer books or holy texts into the country. The State Department warns tourists of possible deportation for leading prayer groups.Israel staffs a consulate in Saigon and an embassy in Hanoi. While diplomatic relations were started with the PLO in 1982, Vietnam didn’t open relations with Israel until July 1993. Cold War politics have died slowly in Southeast Asia.

“Vietnam, Jews, and the Middle East: The Unintended Consequences” (St. Martins Press) by Judith Apter Klinghoffer, a Rutgers professor of history, argues that Israel is still blamed as the Western ally that closed a potential second front against the United States by rapidly winning the Six-Day War in 1967. According to this provocative theory, a second front would have drained Washington of military resources used in Vietnam. The PLO originally modeled itself on the Viet Cong in 1964.

Many Jewish activists also joined and often took leadership roles in the mass movement against the war in Vietnam in the United States.

So while there’s not exactly a Jewish angle on Vietnam, the curious traveler with a penchant for history, art, culture, and fine food will probably find a trip quite rewarding.

“The Jewish Travel Guide 2000” (International Edition) lists nothing for Vietnam. Thailand, in contrast, has two pages of listings, including two synagogues, a kosher bakery, a Jewish community center and Chabad House.

Visiting Vietnam


The 25th anniversary of Saigon’s fall has unleashed a flood of existential questions for Vietnamese and Americans. The roads taken, alternatives ignored and current choices compete for attention.Surprises and paradoxes littered the cityscapes of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi during my two-week April trip to Vietnam. First, Vietnam has become a safe, cheap and fascinating travel destination for American tourists. Schoolchildren, for instance, walk out of their way to greet you with a “hello” at museums and in parks. I’m sure a certain and unavoidable amount of anti-U.S military sentiment exists, yet almost everyone I met seemed very friendly, eager to talk and curious about the United States.

It’s impossible, even for people who have suffered in Bangkok’s traffic jams, to imagine the chaos on Saigon’s streets. Visualize the worst traffic jam you ever sat through on the 405. Now replace each car with five motorcycles, three overloaded bicycles, and a cyclo. Shrink the freeway by two thirds. Add humidity. Subtract traffic rules like lanes, direction and seat belts. That’s traffic in the new Vietnam.

The English language has also made an impressive comeback on the streets. A huge banner, for example, hanging on the recently completed Hanoi Towers proclaims in English: “Office Space Available for Lease.” Of course, Hanoi’s largest banner wraps around the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. It measures at least 20 feet high and 100 yards long and proclaims in Vietnamese, “Vietnam belongs to the people of Vietnam.”These contradicting banners lead to another perception. Traditional communist symbols currently co-exist in an odd symmetry with new corporate logos. The unofficial motto, acceptable to both older communists and younger capitalists, seems to be “money makes the world go ’round.” The attitude, at least in Saigon’s crowded markets and narrow street stalls, feels like “We won the war, you lost. Now won’t you please buy something?”

The intense energy, chaotic streets and constant bargaining for consumer goods in Saigon and Hanoi highlight the government’s dilemma. The country remains extremely poor by almost all standards, including the average number of calories consumed daily. Countryside residents average just over $150 per year, Hanoi residents top $300 per year, and Saigon residents live it up on $600 per year. Women merchants still carry produce using don garh, the two baskets suspended from either end of a pole and carried on their shoulders.

The continual presence of young children peddling postcards, especially in Saigon’s District One and central Hanoi, where tourists visit and shop, can be disconcerting, even overwhelming. I became essentially a walking ATM, purchasing numerous postcard collections, Xeroxed copies of Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” “The Sorrow Of War” by Bao Ninh and “Lonely Planet’s Vietnamese Phrasebook.” Visitors might want to have a “giving” philosophy worked out in advance. After a few days, I was giving away the duplicate postcard collections to other aggressive postcard vendors. (I still brought back over 200 postcards!)

My most memorable mornings involved hiring a cyclo driver, riding around wide boulevards, and taking pictures of Saigon coming to life from 5 to 7 a.m. You can watch hundreds of Vietnamese residents exercise in the streets and parks starting at 5 a.m. Senior citizens stretch their bodies; children play soccer in the streets; a few women begin to set up on the sidewalks to sell vegetables, bread and fish. I also enjoyed very early walks along Hanoi’s beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake as hundreds of people exercised. Vietnam’s two state television channels have also created a distinct electronic culture. The channels often show close up images of butterflies, rice fields, and the day’s newspaper – with little or no camera movement. An off-screen narrator presumably provides commentary. Vietnamese television seems the total visual antithesis of MTV’s fast edits, music and seductive commercials.

Another indigenous form of Vietnamese entertainment, water puppet theater, provides an intriguing glimpse into peasant culture. Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater, a popular attraction, depicts Vietnamese folktales in short symbolic vignettes as four musicians perform a 45-minute concert of traditional music. This peculiar evening of pre-electronic entertainment, celebrating the lives of rice farmers and national mythology, features colorful puppets moving in a languid pool. Designed for 11th century peasants and marketed to 21st century tourists, the Hanoi Water Puppet theater costs less than $3 and includes a free audiocassette. A bargain or a bore.

A far safer bet for sophisticated visitors remains Ha Long Bay, with its spectacular island peaks. Ha Long Bay, selected as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994 and featured in the film “Indochine,” awes one with its natural beauty. Boat cruises are available taking visitors to hundreds of small, uninhabited, oddly shaped limestone islands for a few hours. It’s a stunning and magnificent place in the Gulf of Tonkin that gives the distinct impression of being unearthly. Tourists usually take a one- or two-day organized excursion trip from Hanoi. During the bus trip to Ha Long Bay, one can glimpse Vietnam’s endless rice fields, water buffaloes, and women in their non (conical hats) working in the fields.

Visiting Vietnam, like visiting Israel, means running into old ghosts from painful historical periods. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, American tourists can spend several full days just visiting museums and monuments about “the American War.” A strong nationalism and third-world revolutionary rhetoric continue to burn inside Vietnam’s museums, even while local merchants and their consumers dream of a first-world economy.

The national slogan, printed on all government forms, reads: Independence – Freedom – Happiness. Cynics and refugees joke that the dashes stand for minus signs. Ho Chi Minh’s multidecade crusade for national independence from the Japanese, French and Americans was successful. The Vietnamese paid a heavy price for victory and unifying their country – approximately 3 million people died in the war with the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies alone. Given Vietnam’s 20th-century wartime experiences with foreign powers, a certain level of classical nationalism and xenophobia seems understandable.

The War Remnants Museum, called the American War Crimes Museum until a few years ago, crams many disturbing pictures and articles documenting wartime atrocities. A surprisingly large percentage comes from Western media sources, including large color photographs of the My Lai massacre, prisoner executions, and physical torture. According to the guides, the War Remnants Museum is the most popular Saigon museum for Western tourists.

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi remains the country’s central shrine for remembering that long 20th century civil war. Thousands of children, peasants, and tourists walk two by two past stone-faced soldiers. Visitors encounter the legendary state founder in somber silence as people view the well preserved corpse of Vietnam’s George Washington. I couldn’t help wonder how history would have been different if the American government had recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence – which began by quoting our own Declaration of Independence – in 1946 instead of supporting France’s efforts to regain her former colonies.

Yet Ho Chi Minh’s formula for independence, freedom and happiness – built on the Soviet economic model, national pride, and decades of rebellion – has brought more poverty than prosperity. Reunification led to a forced exodus of at least a million ethnic Chinese, soon known as boat people, rather than some socialist promised land. New wars soon followed with Cambodia and China. I felt sad leaving Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The cult of Ho Chi Minh, for worse or better, continues.