The most memorable Seder

Chabad Kathmandu

As an early icebreaker just before we began to read from the Passover Haggadah Friday night, my wife Jody asked the assembled family and guests to name their most memorable Seder. For me, there was no question.

Exactly one year ago, our family was sitting in a luxurious ballroom at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu for what is billed as “the largest Seder in the world.” Organized by the local Chabad, this massive Seder hosts over 1,000 guests, nearly all of them Israeli, young, and pierced. My wife and I, young at heart but decidedly non-pierced, were clearly the odd folks out.

The ballroom was laid out with about 100 round ten-person tables. Perhaps wanting to seem less conspicuous, we sat next to another older Israeli couple: Claude and Ilan, who had hiked not only the eleven-day half Annapurna circuit that we did but the full three week loop that climbs as high as the 5,400 meter Thorong-la Pass.

What was remarkable about the pair was that Claude is completely blind. His partner literally led him through the route, up and down 5oo meter-at-a-time climbs on rough steps, past water buffalo and into the deep snow at the top of the world. They slept in the same hard beds we did and used the squatter toilets and bucket showers that are the norm in the Himalayas.

The two North Tel Avivi’s were quite enjoyable company; I wish I could say the same about the Chabad rabbi and his cadre of ten or so yeshiva bochers who had flown in from as far away as Israel and Thailand to lead the Seder.

It feels unfair to complain about Rabbi Lifshitz: putting on a Seder that size is an logistical nightmare – from taking payments over the Internet to securing a location where the gas generators are large enough that there’s sufficient electricity for the whole evening. They even put signs in Hebrew all over Kathmandu directing Seder-goers from the Chabad House in touristy Thamel to the Yak and Yeti, located on the road out of town.

The problem was that the way the Seder was run seemed (to me at least) like such a wasted opportunity. Rabbi Lifshitz essentially speed-read the Haggadah as if it was a “greatest hits” album; we finished the entire story and were washing for matzah in under 50 minutes, including “breaks” for the most popular songs such as Ma Nishtanah.

Why couldn’t the Chabadniks have engendered some discussion? “Who is the evil son today?” would have been a good question to ask. Or “What is the nature of freedom when we have our own state?” After all, they had 1,000 captive Israelis and, other than the crowd in the lobby smoking its way through the magid while waiting for the matzah-ball soup, we all know how Israelis like to argue. This was a chance to bring the Seder alive for these certainly secular Sabras who might otherwise have been camping out in the mountains on the holiday.

Instead, to keep the attendees’ attention, the rabbi kept things interesting by running a raffle right in the middle of the dinner. First prize was a bungee jump off a 160 meter high suspension bridge over the Bhoti Kosi River near the Nepalese-Tibetan border. And unbelievably, Jody held the winning ticket! We never win anything, but unfortunately, we weren’t able to take advantage of our unlikely luck, as we were leaving back for Israel the day after the holiday. So we let another intrepid Israeli enjoy the plunge.

Perhaps the prize should come with a few strings attached, so to speak: as the jumper is plummeting towards the water, he or she would be required to sing dayeinu. That just might be enough to redeem the Seder.

Israeli startup gets in on ‘Hunger Games’

The Hunger Games may be breaking all the box office records in the US since its theater release last month, but its Facebook game is not far behind.

Developed by Israeli company Funtactix, the online game has become a big hit since being launched last week. Which should not be too surprising since the Jerusalem startup is apparently so talented that Lionsgate Films signed an agreement with them to develop the official ‘Hunger Games’ game – two months after it launched the Facebook game for Mission Impossible 4.

The Hunger Games online app enables fans of the film and the book dynasty to play with virtual friends based on the characters from the books and film.

“Even though we knew in advance that the movie would be a huge hit with teens we were still very excited when we saw the initial statistics, and we hope they will continue to grow and increase,” said Funtactix founder Yaron Leifenberg in a press release.

The (JVP) Erel Margalit-financed company was founded in 2006 and has developed a reputation in web-based gaming since its 2008 introduction of connected 3D multiplayer action gaming to the browser. Based in New York, with development teams centered in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Funtactix is another example of the burgeoning Hollywood-Israel connection in full bloom.


Not kosher for chicken soup – Pesach or otherwise

Vetara’s Bio Groentebouillon soup mix not kosher for chicken soup?

My wife Jody makes the greatest chicken soup. I’m not getting paid to say that, nor getting any other domestic perks. It’s just downright awesome. It’s more like a stew, with whole turkey necks (that actually makes it “turkey soup” but don’t tell the kids), tons of vegetables, barley and some secret spices. There are also a couple of tablespoons of organic vegetable soup mix.

Jody has been making the soup for years, but as Passover has come chametz’ing its way in, Jody wanted to check the label of our soup mix at the store, to see if it was kosher for Pesach, before buying a new jar. As she ran through the ingredients, she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks.

One of the ingredients…was milk.

The ramifications, if true, were devastating. It would mean that we would have been mixing milk and meat, eating treife chicken soup…for nearly 18 years (since we moved to Israel). With such a serious sin, why not just move on to the next level and drip some pig fat into our soup?

Jody put down the jar of soup mix, finished her shopping and quickly returned home where she pulled out her nearly depleted jar of pre-Pesach mix. There was no milk listed. It must have been some sort of change in the product. Jody breathed a sigh of relief. No baby goats would need to be sacrificed at the Temple this year.

Still, it didn’t make sense. Why would there be milk in a vegetable soup mix? The manufacturer – a Dutch company – had written “Controlled Vegetarian” all over the package, although that was for the old jar.

There’s probably an all parve replacement, hopefully just as organic. We’ll check after the holiday. In the meantime, if you are a consumer of Vetara’s Bio Groentebouillon soup mix and you use it in your fleishedik soup, and you keep kosher, consider yourself warned.

A happy – and kosher – Passover!

Will psychokinetic powers propel Shaul Mofaz to the top?

Oren Zarif with a happy patient

For several years the local “In Jerusalem” supplement to Friday’s Jerusalem Post ran series a full-page ads for a “miracle worker” named Oren Zarif who claimed to heal people through his psychokinetic powers. His ads featured rows of elated  patients with brief quotes about how Zarif had “saved me from painful back surgery,” or “made the pain in my neck go away” (the latter presumably had nothing to do with ridding the patient of an ex-husband or wife).

Zarif never explains how he does it, but the ads featured graphics of some squiggly lines going from Zarif’s head to the now-cured-ones.

Frankly, I always found the ads kind of pathetic. I mean, who would feel the need to pay good money to have some unknown guy with long stringy hair send squiggly lines across the ether.

Apparently, Zarif thinks that Shaul Mofaz should. In a letter to Mofaz, the new head of Kadima who displaced Tzippi Livni in the party’s primaries last week, Zarif has apparently demanded that Mofaz make him his number two man in Kadima. This comes from this morning’s online edition of The Times of Israel.

Zarif has always had a big ego – the copy in his ads leave no room for modesty – but this latest play goes over the top. Zarif claims that it was only because of his supernatural powers that Mofaz won and that “the political system can’t operate without the aid of [his] alternative powers.” It’s also not the first time that Zarif says he has intervened in the past on behalf of other politicians, though he wouldn’t provide specifics.

Zarif operates four treatment clinics in Israel where he “transfers energies to the subconscious of the patient, awakening a process of self-healing,” according to his website. This, however, appears to be his first foray into politics.

It comes with an explicit threat. If Mofaz doesn’t heed his demands, Zarif says, he will send those squiggly lines towards Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, ensuring his future success in the next election.

Perhaps Mofaz should give in to Zarif’s psychic blackmail. Zarif promises that “if I am number two on [Kadima’s] list, I will retire from my business.” That might not be good for Mofaz, but it sure could help the rest of us. And isn’t that what politics is all about – helping the voters.

Squiggly lines coming your way, Shaul.

Foto Friday – The Innovators Way

Foto Friday – The Innovators Way

The Innovators Way is a new photo exhibition showcasing 27 researchers whose innovations, developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, improve quality of life and human welfare worldwide in fields such as health, safety, environment and nutrition.

The exhibition celebrates the work of those researchers whose initiatives have led to commercial products on the market today.

These creative initiatives came about as the result of intensive and wide-ranging scientific research, followed by patent registration, commercialization and finally marketing by Israeli and international companies.

None of this would have been possible without Yissum – the Technology Transfer Company of the Hebrew University. Yissum is solely responsible for the commercialization of innovations and technologies originating at the university. The company was among the first of its kind in the world when it was established in 1964, and is today ranked among the world’s 15 leading companies in this field.

To date, Yissum has registered more than 7,000 patents on more than 2,000 inventions, and has established 72 spin-off companies.

The scientists and innovations documented in the new exhibition include:

Prof. Haim D. Rabinowitch (right) and Prof. Nachum Kedar established the foundations for the introduction of genes for extended fruit shelf-life into standard tomato cultivars, turned cherry tomatoes into a global commodity, and developed the cluster tomatoes. (The original research was conducted jointly with Prof. Yosef Mizrahi of Ben Gurion University and Dr. Ehud Kopeliovitch. The seeds are produced and manufactured by Vilmorin (France), Monsanto (USA), Syngenta (Switzerland) and Bayer (Germany).

Prof. Marta Weinstock-Rosin who developed Exelon, a medicine prescribed for people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Exelon can slow the progression of the disease in a significant proportion of patients and improve cognitive function in some subjects. Exelon is manufactured by Novartis (Switzerland).

Professor of Chemistry David Avnir, developer of Sol-Gel Technology for the formation of new materials which combine the properties of glasses or ceramics with the properties of organic and biological compounds. Applications of Sol-Gel Technology have been developed in the fields of optics, catalysis, sensing, polymers, biochemistry and pharmacy. Many researchers at the Hebrew University have participated in the various developments. Sol-Gel Technologies, Inc. (Israel) was established to commercialize products based on these newly invented materials, and is active especially in the fields of dermatology and agriculture.

Prof. Alexander Vainstein, the Wolfson Family Professor of Floriculture, who developed the MemoGenetechnology which enables the creation of new traits in plants and the enhancement of agricultural crops through genetic modification. MemoGene is a groundbreaking process for targeted and site-specific plant genetic modification, using highly innovative novel tools for genomic modification. The technology, which was patented jointly by Yissum and Danziger Innovations (Israel), is applicable to all plants.

Prof. Shmuel Peleg has developed technologies upon which two Israeli startups were founded. One technology creates panoramic stereo images from photographs taken by an ordinary camera, which has been commercialized by HumanEyes Technologies (Israel). The second is a technique for video synopsis, which enables hours of video surveillance footage to be viewed in minutes, and which has been commercialized by BriefCam. [Full disclosure: I work for BriefCam and know Prof. Peleg personally. I also thought the photo really captured his spirit.]

The exhibition’s photographer, Nati Shohat, is the founder of Flash 90, a photographic agency that supplies images to newspapers, magazines and other customers in Israel and abroad. Shohat’s news photography and artistic and portrait work have been exhibited in many venues and in publications such as Stern Magazine, Paris Match, Le Monde, Time and others.

Hebrew University has about 1,000 senior faculty members and a student body of approximately 23,000. To date, it has conferred over 120,000 degress. The University has some100 research centers and more than 4,000 research projects. Faculty members and alumni have been awarded 8 Nobel Prizes, 1 Fields Medal, 269 Israel Prizes, 12 Wolf Prizes, 18 EMET Prizes and 41 Rothschild Prizes. Founders include Chaim Weizmann, Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Chaim Nachman Bialik.