Giving trash the boot

Israel’s inaugural Clean the Land Day will take place across the country on Friday, May 18. This welcome initiative comes from four Masa Israel Government Fellows — Daniel Barnett, Max Friedenberg, Sam Silverlieb and Joel Wanger – who created a national trash pickup day out frustration with the countless cigarette butts, plastic bags and cups, and empty bottles and boxes littering the landscape.

A very user-friendly website invites would-be participants to register to join a cleanup crew. You get a packet with info, along with disposable gloves (better throw those away responsibly!) and trash bags.

I say it’s about time. The littering problem is among the few aspects of life in Israel that bothered me as a new immigrant in 2007. Anglos talk about it all the time with great disgust. Some other organizations have even tried to do something about it. Well, here’s a way to be part of the solution.

I couldn’t say it better than the founders do: “Clean the Land is a social movement that seeks to create a cleaner and greener State of Israel. The inaugural Clean the Land initiative is the first step toward the movement’s larger goal of establishing a socially and environmentally responsible Israeli society in which phrases like “leave no trace” and “reduce, reuse, recycle” are as common as “yalla’” (let’s go, hurry up) and “yihiyeh b’seder” (it will be ok).”

And that’s no trash talk.

Globetrotters bounce into Israel

Globetrotters bounce into Israel

If there are two things that are universal, it’s humor and basketball. So the Harlem Globetrotters have all angles covered.

The venerable touring jugglers/ball handlers glided into Israel last week for three shows – two in Tel Aviv and one in Jerusalem. An international institution since 1926, the Globetrotters have showcased their iconic talents in 120 countries on six continents.
I saw them a few times growing up in New England, with the legendary team featuring Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal. So I was psyched to take my 11-year-old basketball-loving son to see them in Jerusalem.

And happily, aside from a few more showbiz hip-hop moments, the general premise was still intact – some amazing magicianship with the ball, tons of laughs, incredible baskets, and good, clean fun.

The names had changed – Hi-Lite was the Meadowlark funnyman-frontman, and Flip Atkins was the limber gymnast flipping around the court like he was on coils. But the game remained the same, down to the bucket of water chasing around the court during the break skit that ended up with confetti on the adoring crowd.

One ‘only in Israel’ moment occurred when Hi-Lite went into the crowd and came back with a women’s purse for some cross-dressing fun. He then asked the owner of the purse, Dina, to come to mid-court to regain her possession It turned out that, like much of the audience, she was religiously observant, wearing a head covering and a skirt.
She was a good sport, dancing with Hi-Lite and playing the straight woman to his Groucho Marx. However, when he thanked Dina and told her to give him a kiss, that’s where she drew the line.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Why not,” asked Hi-Lite.
“I can only kiss my husband.”
“Your husband? Is he here? Show him to me.”

They walked back to the stand and he shook hands with the husband, and turned back to Dina. “That’s your husband? Good luck to you!” And he gave her big hug, and returned to the court for the resumption of the game.

Of course, the Globetrotters won the game handily, against their worthy but hand picked opponents. And by the looks on the children, and adults leaving Malha auditorium, everyone went away happy. Even Dina and her husband.

Searching for a cure to insomnia the Israeli way

Haaretz recently published an article about an Israeli website they dubbed “Dr. Google.” The site is called Treato; its goal is to aggregate health and medical information, in particular on drug side effects, in a single place rather than forcing sufferers to wade through thousands of hits on Google, many of which are either irrelevant, unverified, or thinly veiled ads for the drug manufacturers themselves.

I had a chance to speak with the Treato guys last November for an article on ISRAEL21c and their aim, as Elvis Costello might croon, is indeed true. The site, which is backed by the former CEO of Israeli powerhouse Commtouch and some $9 million in venture capital, covers some 13,000 conditions and 11,000 medications. There are 800 million patient discussions indexed, coming from 23 million patients. Treato then analyzes and prioritizes all that data, so you don’t have to.

When I was writing the article, I decided to give Treato the personal touch. I’ve suffered from insomnia most of my life. People who don’t sleep have a lot of extra time on their hands, which often translates into trolling discussion boards in the wee hours of the night. Everyone has their own treatment successes or failures, and they’re all ready to share, push and proselytize as if their solution is just on the cusp of curing the rest of us.

There are the magnet hucksters, the CBT wonks, the magnesium machers, the anti-chocolate crowd, the acupuncture/homeopathy/chiropractor/melatonin/meditation groupies and, of course, an unending stream of recommendations for this or that sleeping pill or anti-depressant.

I’m not putting any of these true believers down – on the contrary, I’ve tried the gamut of proposals and some have actually provided some relief. It’s just that Google is an unforgiving intermediary. She doesn’t tell you what ranks higher and what the potential side effects might be. Treato does.

You still have to work it. A search on Treato for “insomnia + not sleeping” resulted in 33,000 comments, from both expected sites (,, and some surprises (, autismweb,com, But at least I don’t have to open each site one at a time; Treato puts it all in one place.

Treato launched in 2011, is aiming for revenues of $10 million this year, and hopes to break even in 2013. It’s not a play likely to be picked up by Mark Zuckerberg or other social media moguls. “People don’t like to talk about anti-depressants on Facebook,” Gideon Mantel, the company’s CEO says.

In the meantime, I’ll keep using Treato. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll discover that pickles and ice cream are the perfect cure for insomnia. Either that or I’m pregnant.

Apping the Omer

The "Sefiros" iPhone app

From the second day of Passover until the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, observant Jews perform a ritual called “counting the Omer.” Between those two dates, there are 49 days and, during evening prayers, one is commanded to say a few special phrases to mark each day (the “Omer” refers to a measure of barley offered as a sacrifice during Temple times).

There are Kabalistic connotations as well as historical/mythological ones: it’s said that a great plague that killed 24,000 followers of the first century CE luminary Rabbi Akiva abated on the 33rd day of the Omer. In Hebrew, it’s known as L’ag b’Omer, or more popularly in Israel, the “night of the bonfires” (ask any kid toting a rotted old bathroom door and you’ll quickly get the gist).

Counting the Omer is not terribly difficult in and of itself, but there’s a built in trick: if you miss counting for just a single day, you can’t say it with a blessing again for the remainder of the 49 days. For the frummer among us, that can be a big deal. It’s like Survivor or Big Brother, except the last one standing doesn’t win a million bucks, just the undying gratitude of a possible deity.

I can tell you that, when I was more religious myself, there wasn’t a single year that I got through until Shavuot intact. So I probably would have been delighted to have discovered a new iPhone app called “Sefiros” (that means “counting”) which is here to remind you to, well, count.

It’s really a very simple app: you set a timer and the app beeps to tell you it’s time to say the prayer. Sure you could do that with your regular iPhone calendar…but would you? A dedicated app with a repeating alarm that expires after 49 days is just that much easier.

To make it a bit more robust, the Sefiros app lets you add “action alerts” to your reminders; you can set them be with “with God,” “with others,” or “with yourself.” You can even reach out for a little social media feedback and post your success to Twitter. “Hey fellow frumsters, I made it to day #29. Nya, nya, nya.”

Not sure when sunset is? Never fear, Sefiros checks the time using GPS. The blessing you’re supposed to say is all there in punctuated prayer book Hebrew. And to beef it all up, the app includes a page of Kabalistic and personal growth insights for each day, written by Rabbi Yaakov Haber (his whole book is included in the app). Jerusalem-based AppStudio built the whole thing.

Can I recommend Sefiros? If you always lose the “did I remember to count” game like I once did, sure, why not? At $4.99, it’s not cheap, as far as apps go. But who’s counting anyway?

Pop Culture

Srugim co-creator tells all in Jerusalem lecture

Poster advertising Laizy Shapira's lecture this week

For its three season run, I was hooked on the Israeli TV drama Srugim. The program told the tale of four religious (and one formerly religious) young Israelis living in Jerusalem’s singles-centric Old Katamon neighborhood, affectionately known as the “swamp.”

The show won praise from both religious and secular society – the latter were captivated by its realistic portrayals of a “hidden” slice of an Israeli demographic they knew little about, while the former cringed but stayed glued to the tube for the way Srugim touched subjects often painfully close to home, much like thirtysomething did for Yuppie Americans in the late 1980s.

So it was quite a treat to hear the show’s co-creator Laizy Shapira speak about the show this week as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council in Jerusalem. The lecture also coincided with the release of the third and final season of the show on DVD including English subtitles.

Shapira is a charmer – personable, energetic and transparent in the best Israeli way (i.e., open but not too aggressive). It’s not hard to understand how he sold an initially skeptical television network on a show that defied stereotypes and embraced modesty (there’s sex but it’s mostly off screen). Srugim went on to win the top awards for a television drama at Israel’s version of the Emmy’s.

For a die-hard fan like me, some of the best moments of the talk were the insights into character development that only one of the show’s creators could share (warning: if you haven’t finished the show yet, spoilers ahead).

Q: Why did Amir and Yifat have such a tough first year of marriage? A: If you want to see a good marriage, watch your own wedding videos (“hopefully,” Shapira added).

Q: Why did Hodaya and Avri have to get back together, break up, and then only acknowledge their true love in the last scene of show? A: The dramatic tension between the two was all about the religious-secular divide which vanished once Hodaya left religion herself. But the fans (and ultimately the writers) demanded a happy ending.

Q: Why did Ro’i, who struggled with his sexual identity all through season two, have to turn haredi (ultra-Orthodox)? A: That subplot was too tragic to sustain itself indefinitely. The show’s writers decided they needed to resolve it. He either could have come out of the closet entirely or repressed himself by going frum. The latter seemed to give him more peace.

And the most important question: Why is Shapira voluntarily calling it quits, seemingly at the height of the show’s popularity? A: Srugim was all about the journey. Now that many of the characters have found closure, Shapira says “there’s nothing interesting left to tell.”

I’m not so sure about that. When I spoke with him after the presentation, Shapira noted that the writers scrutinized every word in the scripts, to make sure nothing came across as too far out. He then related a personal story.

Just before his own wedding a couple of years back, Shapira got hit in the eye by a hard candy hurled at him in synagogue, resulting in a huge shiner. He covered it up with make up (after all, he is in the business) but was concerned what people would say the next morning when he exited the bridal chamber with his face all black and blue!

That was a plot line that no one would have believed if it was in the show, Shapira joked; the kind of thing he was worried might creep into the scripts if the show edged past its proper expiration date. Maybe. But for 1,000+ members of the Srugim Facebook fan page, it would have been worth another season even full of bloopers like that.

But, hey, how about a spin off show? Look how well it worked for Joey from Friends…