Business

Answers.com no longer has all the answers

Answers.com with former CEO Bob Rosenschein

Answers.com, one of Jerusalem’s largest employers of English-speaking immigrants and a long-time survivor of the first dot.com crash, has been effectively gutted by its new owners. TechCrunch reported that yesterday, 45 of the company’s 65 Israel-based employees were fired, along with some of the New York staff (the company had a total of about 90 people). The axed included Answers.com’s founder and CEO Bob Rosenschein and CTO Jeff Schneiderman.

The bloodshed was not entirely unexpected (new owners tend to look at their acquisitions with more scrutiny than, perhaps, the founders with all their history and attachment). But that doesn’t make it any less painful for the staff let go.

The purchase of Answers.com always seemed a bit strange to me. Publicly traded on NASDAQ, the company was profitable and seemingly happily humming along when AFCV Holdings, a portfolio company of growth equity investor Summit Partners, swooped in to acquire Answers.com for $127 million.

That may seem large but, when the deal was announced, shareholders were unhappy, claiming that it tremendously undervalued Answers.com. They even tried to block the sale (a U.S. court denied the motion in April 2011).

AFCV said the layoffs were necessary to focus the company on its main product –the Q&A site WikiAnswers – and that a number of product initiatives (including 1-Click Answers, AnswerTips and Widget Gallery), as well as a mobile version, would no longer be supported. AFCV also said that, since Answers.com was not public anymore, the company didn’t need certain support structure.

All that makes sense, and it was probably no surprise to Rosenschein and Schneiderman that AFCV would want to consolidate management at their own headquarters or with their own people (hastening the duo’s departure). And it may even make a certain amount of business logic – as Gil Reich, the head of Answers.com’s product management, pointed out in his own blog, Answers.com went through so many ups and downs in its 12-year tenure, that the new owners may have felt compelled to “ruthlessly cut everything it felt distracted from (the company’s) core mission of a great community creating great content.”

But it’s nevertheless frustrating to see a company that employed a lot of good people in Israel lose that staff to a new American parent that clearly doesn’t share the same sense of “career Zionism.” The Business Insider blog described it more nefariously: It looks like the new owners are “milking the company for the cash that comes from all that SEO traffic.”

One of my friends at Answers.com wrote on her Facebook status, it’s the “end of an era, beginning of a new one?” We’ll have to wait and see. There are still 20 people left in Israel at Answers.com. For the rest, that new beginning may not be exactly what they expected.

“There are amazing things coming out of Israel”

“I constantly send ISRAEL21c articles to decision-makers and friends to show that there is more to Israel than just the conflict,” says Alan Franco, president-elect of the New Orleans Jewish Federation and an active member of local and national Jewish organizations including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“We have a thriving democracy – the only democracy in the Middle East, and similar to the US in that it is made up of immigrants. We have a country that is an agricultural, economic and high-tech miracle. I try to highlight through ISRAEL21c pieces that in the middle of everything else going on, there are amazing things coming out of Israel.”

For nearly a decade, US congressmen and medical specialists have been among the frequent recipients of Alan’s forwarded ISRAEL21c stories. He particularly likes to pass along articles regarding agricultural and health advances in Israel.

Judging by the feedback he gets, these American politicians and physicians are not only reading the news items but acting on them as well.

“I know there have been conversations that have taken place between American and Israeli doctors based on these articles,” Alan says. “Some of most effective pieces I’ve shared are about Save a Child’s Heart.”

This Israeli-based international humanitarian project offers free treatment at the Edith Wolfson Medical Center in Holon for children with cardiac ailments from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and developing countries.

“Israel has cared for children from countries that don’t recognize its right to exist,” Franco points out. “And yet when a child has no other options, those countries look to Israel.”

Alan likes to help out Israel in other ways as well. As part of the New Orleans-Rosh Ha’ayin sister city program, he organized a chef mission to Israel this month “to highlight what I think is the most common denominator that brings people together — food. But there are so many common denominators between Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Americans.”

Eager to point out those commonalities with different groups of people, including schoolchildren, Alan depends on ISRAEL21c to get the message out. “I think the site has great value,” he says. “That’s why I’m happy to support it.”

A celebrity at the school play
Entertainment,Israeliness

A celebrity at the school play

It’s been a good week for comedy in Israel. First, the twice-a-year Comedy for Koby show has been traveling around the country to great acclaim – I blogged about it yesterday. And in a few minutes, raunchy (and embarrassingly funny) U.S. comedian Sarah Silverman will improbably appear on a panel at Shimon Peres’ “Israeli Presidential Conference” entitled “My Recipe for a Better Future” (Silverman is also performing two nights of standup next week in Tel Aviv).

But Silverman’s introduction to Israel was in a much less glamorous setting. Last night, she attended that most mundane of Israeli activities: the school play, in which her niece was on stage. I was there too: Silverman’s sister, Susan, lives around the corner from us, and our kids go to school together at Jerusalem’s Sudbury Democratic School. Here’s a nearly 20-year-old clip of Silverman riffing on her sister’s recent marriage:

Part time paparazzi that I am, I was feeling pretty confident as I sauntered over to Silverman and introduced myself to the controversial comic superstar. Silverman was nearly incognito in sweats and a baseball cap – but it didn’t much matter: most of the Israeli kids there probably never even heard of her. I gave her some tips on where to eat the best falafel in Israel and wished her a good trip – her first ever to Israel.

Silverman then noticed the cargo pants I was wearing and bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t get similar pants for women. She then turned to her sister and made some racy comment – which I unfortunately couldn’t completely hear – that compared my pants with a woman’s body part. Either Silverman was already in performance mood, or she just naturally wisecracks.

I told her that I already blogged about her here on Israelity and I also told her about my personal blog, This Normal Life.

“This Normal Life,” she mused. “I’ve heard of that. I’m sure I’ve been on your site.” Sure, Sarah, nice small talk. But she continued. “So…where did you come up with the name?”

“Do you really want to hear?” I asked. “It’s a sad story.”

“What, did someone die?” she said.

“Actually, yes,” I replied.

I proceeded to explain how I started the blog in 2002 after a cousin was killed in the terrorist attack at Hebrew University and how I wanted to demonstrate to the world that, despite all the murderous atrocities in those difficult years, Israel was still a “normal” place and we were going about our normal activities, not cowering in our homes waiting for the next bomb to go off.

I then changed the subject and asked if she’s picked up any good material yet for her act.

As the Democratic kids left the stage to thunderous parental pride, I was struck by how I had shared with the famous Sarah Silverman that inherently Jewish reality, the one that is so part and parcel of everything we do in Israel, it’s even included in the Jewish wedding ceremony: that, even in our greatest joy (meeting a celebrity, shlepping nachas from our talented kids), we must always remember our sadness and suffering. At the wedding, the groom breaks a glass. Some of us blog. Ah, the vagaries of modern life in our beleaguered state.

Welcome to the real Israel, Sarah. We’re pretty normal here. Most of the time.

Laughing for a good cause
Entertainment,Life,Pop Culture

Laughing for a good cause

It’s not easy to write a review of a comedy show. Most of the jokes quickly blend into the background and you walk away with a general sense of how funny such and such comic was. “Yeah, I liked the one about, you know, when he, um, talked about the beach, right?”

But I’ll give it a try, since last night’s installation of the now twice-yearly Comedy for Koby show was one of the best of recent years.

Comedy for Koby is a fundraiser for the Koby Mandell Foundation, which helps bereaved family members who have lost a loved one to a terror attack attend a therapeutic, healing and ultimately rejuvenating overnight camp or retreat. The foundation was started by Seth and Sherri Mandell whose 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists in 2001.

Los Angeles-based comic Avi Liberman puts together a package of 3 top U.S. standup artists, all with deep television chops, who perform around the country (this year there were 7 performance scheduled). Lieberman raises all the money to cover expenses, so every shekel for tickets goes straight to the foundation.

Last night, the comics were on stage in Jerusalem. Lieberman himself always leads with a 15 minute set of his own. Liberman mixes his own Jewish identity with Israel-specific jokes. His best last night (and totally politically incorrect, so sensitive readers should skip the next two lines): what’s the difference between a pizza and a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man? The pizza can provide a meal for the whole family.

Next up was Ted Alexandro, a soft-spoken self-proclaimed Catholic comic. His funniest moment was when he was touring the Old City of Jerusalem, looked up, and saw a statue of Jesus. This god really has strong abs, Alexandro mused, before disparaging the Buddha as prophet in dire need for a trip to the gym, and speculating what a good Christian exercise machine ought to be called. “Cross-trainer,” he joked.

Religion was also part of Ian Edwards set as he compared the names of Jewish holidays with African American women’s names. Rosh Hashana – yeah, I dated her once, he quipped. Along with her sister, Tu B’shvat.

Judy Gold closed the show; she was reputed to be the best of the bunch and she certainly had the ribald personality (apparently toned down for her Israel appearance), along with a good dose of Yiddishkeit – how many funny men (or women) keep a kosher home and celebrate shabbos every Friday night, as Gold does?

(more…)

The real light show
Art

The real light show

Ever since last year, I’ve been waiting excitedly for the now annual Jerusalem Light Festival. The event brings world-class international light artists to Israel’s capital to situate their magnificent light installations along the streets and alleyways of the Old City.

Last year’s light creations were so fabulous, I thought it could get only better. I was wrong, unfortunately.

In 2010, Zedekiah’s Cave (also known as Solomon’s Quarries), near Damascus Gate, was transformed into an underwater masterpiece, with eerie lighting and the sounds of the sea. The cave itself, which dates back to the time of Herod the Great, stretches 5 city blocks culminating in a vast 300-foot long auditorium-lie chamber.

This year’s exhibition in the cave was interesting – a set of 40 Bwindi masks from the border area between Congo and Uganda, lit up in different colors to a pulsating “bi-vocal” African soundtrack – but it was disappointing compared to the 2020 show.

The program also promised a “red and blue market celebration” along the trail that led through the Muslim Quarter. Instead, it was just a long line of red lights leading through a mostly deserted marketplace with some bored teenagers and a lot of Israeli soldiers.

I shouldn’t be so harsh – there were a few cool installations, especially the “fairy tale” images projected onto Damascus Gate, turning the ancient stones into a three dimensional medley of dragons and marionettes.

But that had to be balanced by the Hurva exhibit – last year, a film chronicling the history of the Jewish quarter projected on the recently restored walls of the massive synagogue. This year, it was a rather subdued installation featuring strands of light, changing colors, set to some sort of vaguely familiar new age music.

Overall, it also seemed like attendance was much lower, but this was only the first night; maybe it will pick up.

Total eclipse in Jerusalem, June 15, 2011

The real show, however, was not in the alleys of the Old City, but above it. A total lunar eclipse, the longest in 100 years, and culminating at 10:22 PM, had festival goers fascinated by the wonders of nature above much more than the artistic creations of men and women below.

The light show continues for a week. The eclipse, unfortunately, was a one-hour affair.