My aunt the spy

We met a real honest-to-goodness spy this past Shabbat. “Florence” (not her real name) was in town for the bar mitzvah of her nephew. We were all making small talk – the unseasonably hot weather, how well the bar mitzvah boy read – when I asked Florence “so what do you do?”

She was quick to answer. “I work for the CIA. Well, I did. I’m retired now.”

“What do you mean, worked for the CIA? What exactly did you…” I asked.

“I was a spy,” she interrupted, matter-of-factly. “I was based in Europe and I collected information for 20 years, mostly about the Russians, but about other things as well.”

Now, meeting someone in Israel who has some connection to Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, is not so unusual. They won’t tell you, but if you know the right questions, you can usually figure it out. But there was something somehow exotic about meeting a real American spook.

So, what were those “other things” you mentioned, I asked.

Florence then revealed that she was one of the lone dissenting voices in the CIA leading up to the war in Iraq. She argued strenuously that Saddam Hussein did not in fact have weapons of mass destruction. No one would listen. Until one day she found a friendly ear (she wouldn’t say who).

“Do you have any documentation?” the ear asked. About 2 and a half feet of it, Florence responded. She then proceeded to fax 2,600 hundred pages. Eventually she was all over the television news in the U.S. (which is why she could talk freely about her deeds and why I can blog about it here). In any case, the CIA wasn’t interested in hiding her identity anymore. “It’s way too expensive to ‘retire’ a covert spy,” she added.

Her story bears some resemblance to that of “out-ed” CIA operative Valerie Plame. I asked Florence about the movie Fair Game starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, which is mostly what I know about the Plame case. Florence’s face began to twitch. I don’t know if it she was making a deliberately dismissive gesture or was legitimately worked up. “That movie bears no resemblance to the truth,” she snapped.

Spoken like a true spy, even a retired one.

Israel ranks high in venture capital investment, patents

Well-known Israeli investor Erel Margalit of JVP in Jerusalem

If you’ve got the impression that there are a lot of startups raising a lot of money in Israel, we now have the data to back it up. And another report that came out this week shows that Israel is also high on the list of patents applications.

Haaretz reported that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put Israel first on a list of venture capital investments as a percentage of GDP. The ranking, based on 2009 data, found that venture capital investments in Israel were equal to 0.18% of GDP, which ranked it higher than developed economies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Sweden.

On the patent front, Israel didn’t score quite as high, but was still among the top countries in terms of patent applications, coming in at #15. 7,266 new patent applications were submitted in 2010 and 2,293 were granted. Israel ranked slightly higher at #11 in the ratio of applications to its GDP for the years 1995-2007.

2010 was a good year for trademarks submitted to the Israel Patent, Design and Trademarks Office. According to Ynet, there were 8,017 trademark applications. Interestingly, nearly 70% of the applications were submitted by foreign applicants.

There was some bad news mixed in with the good. When it comes to the bureaucracy involved in setting up a company, specifically for startups, Israel ranked a miserable 29th out of a total of 37 countries studied. That puts us only eight places above China, the last-ranked country.

The countries where start-ups face the least amount of bureaucracy are Ireland and Germany.

But (and we have to end on good news), in a ranking of venture capital plus growth capital, Israel came in second to Ireland. Now, if only we had more good bagpipe bands, we’d soar above the Emerald Isle.

Jerusalem voted 11th best city

A recent issue of Travel+Leisure magazine

Way to go Jerusalem. Israel’s capital has been voted the world’s 11th best city in the world by the readers of the American travel magazine Travel+Leisure. That puts Jerusalem just one notch behind Paris, but way ahead of neighboring Tel Aviv, which came in 29th.

Jerusalem also scored high on the continent list – as the second best city in Africa and the Middle East (although that’s not a hard one to beat – once you’ve seen the Birj Dubai, you’re pretty much done with the UAE). Tel Aviv did well on this ranking, pulling in the third place spot.

While it’s always nice to see our cities hit top marks in travel polls, I have to wonder about a poll, which puts Bangkok at number one. Sure it’s an exotic location, but is it really a better city than, say, Florence, Rome or New York (which came in second, third and fourth respectively)?

And then there’s the Lonely Planet poll from last year, which saw Tel Aviv as the third best city in the world, “a kind of San Francisco in the Middle East,” the guide said among other superlatives. Jerusalem didn’t even place in the top 10, nor did Bangkok (although another Thai city, Chang Mai, did).

Still, I’ll take what we can get. It’s better than topping the list of countries most likely to be delegitimitized at the U.N. this fall.


Balabusta boosts the shuk

At Balabusta. Image: Ben Bresky, Israel National News

There’s nothing like a summer in Jerusalem. That’s a catchphrase I find myself uttering frequently to friends contemplating a visit to Israel’s capital. We’ve got the weather (hot during the day – like everywhere – but cool at night – very un-Tel Aviv) and, increasingly, a level of culture and fun that no one can beat – not even that decadent beach bunch down the hill.

Just look at the schedule so far. There was already the Israel Festival, the Festival of Lights, the Jerusalem International Film Festival, Steve Reich’s Different Trains at the Tower of David, a series of intimate theater and dance performances in people’s homes, the Woodstock Revival, and coming up: the annual Wine Festival at the Israel Museum, the Beer Festival, the Arts and Crafts Festival…you get the idea.

And smack dab in the middle is the Balabusta happening at the Mahane Yehuda open-air market, taking place Mondays in July. Balabusta is Yiddish for a “good housewife.” At the market, it’s an excuse for a street party. We went last week and had a great time, as did the many thousands of people who made the narrow walkways of the shuk (as the market is also known) feel like a bullet train at rush hour.

The pay off, though, was worth it: a wide variety of music, theater, kids performances and discount eats. Along the main drag of the market were two stages on the roof. One was a rotating roster of rock bands; the other had a puppet show featuring a massive marionette of a bird so large it needed five puppeteers to operate it. Smaller bands and a DJ corner (featuring Israeli rapper Segol 59) hob nobbed with the fruit and vegetable sellers. Navigating the crowds was slow moving at times, but there was no real jostling between attendees.

Mahane Yehuda has become quite gentrified over the past few years, with upscale cafes and restaurants interspersed with gourmet cheese and nut stands. One shuk stalwart is Itchikdana, a tiny Indian vegetarian restaurant that serves some excellent thalis. For the Balabusta festival, they were offering up a “taster’s plate” for only NIS 10. You could choose from several different types of fried dishes (samosas, tempura-like carrots) and a potato curry along with yogurt and chutney sauces. It was just the right size and very filling. The best deal of the night.

Balabusta continues tomorrow and next Monday night, from 5:00 PM – 11:00 PM. Entrance is free, though expect to buy some “treats” (we found a decent baklava for dessert).

The view from inside

Image from

How often do you turn to your doctor and say – please give me a very unpleasant and painful procedure? But that’s pretty much the drill as we hover around the age of 50 and ask our family physicians to schedule a colonoscopy. The health funds recommend that everyone 50 and up get a colonoscopy and then afterward once every 5-10 years.

So that’s how I found myself one morning last week at Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem in the gastro clinic, waiting for my turn with no small amount of trepidation. Revise that: make it outright fear. Yes, I know that the anesthesia given for the procedure is supposed to knock you out so completely, you don’t feel a thing. But as a chronic worrier (and a writer who learned the golden axiom), I need to be shown, not just told.

The gastro clinic at Sha’arei Tzedek is being refurbished, so I was temporarily shunted down to what appeared to be a glorified supply closet next to the Emergency Room. That’s where a gruff but efficient nurse hooked me up with an IV in my hand to administer the sedative.

The actual room where the procedure is done was more doctor-friendly. But, as I lay on the table waiting to get started, suddenly a crew of office staff burst in – apparently to install a printer!

The nurses brought in a portable mechitza (not much more than a curtain on wheels) to separate me from the workers. I turned to my doctor in concern. “Would you like me to ask them to leave?” he suggested kindly. Well, um, like, duh, I responded.

I then asked him to please give me extra drugs. “The maximum you can do.”

That was actually the last thing I remember. When I next opened my eyes, I was in the recovery room with my wife Jody at my side. She appeared quite relieved. “You looked like you were dead,” she said.

In truth, the procedure had been as painless as they said. Now, as to the preparation, don’t get me started. You can put all the citrus flavor you want into that purgative drink, but it still tastes like motor oil coated with sewage. Or worse.

How did my colon do? Well, I’m supposed to follow up with my doctor in a month when the results from a biopsy come back, but I assume that if it was anything major, the doctor would have put a rush on it.

Colon cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer and can usually be detected by colonoscopy. I asked for it, I got it, and it wasn’t so terrible after all. If you’re in the appropriate age group, talk to your doctor and don’t be afraid. I won’t be…next time.