“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

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?


The real light show

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.


We’re number one…in Facebook use

I’ve always suspected it. My kids seem to be permanently attached to Facebook and other social media services. Now, new research proves I’m right. And it’s not just my family – it’s the whole country.

According to a just released poll by the well regarded market intelligence firm Comscore, during April the average Israeli spent nearly 11 hours performing online social networking actions. That’s the highest in the world.

I’m not sure how to compare these poll results on Israeli behavior with the rest of the world – it seems to me that our friends in North America are just as busy updating their status and chatting as we are. But then I haven’t spent as much time watching a teenager in Los Angeles glued to his iPod Touch as I have my own kids. Indeed, the incessant ping and beep of a message arriving has become the new background music to our once analog life.

Dvir Reznik suggests that Israel’s high ranking in the Comscore poll may be because our cell phone data plans are more generous that those overseas.

Reznik is the VP of Marketing at Israeli startup Onavo, a company which compresses data to make mobile use more economical (I blogged about them earlier when they raised a $3 million round of financing). Reznik explained that, while most Americans seem content with (or are at least forced to settle for) only a few hundred MB of data flow a month, Israelis can easily jump into the 2-5 GB range for roughly the same price.

And where is much of the social media consumption occurring? On our increasingly ubiquitous smartphones, of course.

The Comscore poll also found that Israel has the second highest relative number of social network consumers, with 90% of Internet users having their own social media profile. Canada came in with 85% while, in the U.S. and Western Europe, it was a paltry 60-70%. (The Philippines was in the top spot with 93%).

All this is fun to write about, but it’s not necessarily a good thing for the social future of humankind. An influential new book called “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” by Sherry Turkle has been widely quoted since its publication earlier this year.

In the book, Turkle cites some very disturbing research about how social media is adversely impacting our in-person relationships. It’s not just parents who are annoyed at their children texting at the table; kids are craving the attention of their distracted parents too. It affects the bond that forms between mother and baby during nursing, with the Imma too busy checking messages to spend time with her infant. And teenagers told Turkle that in many cases they actually prefer to chat online than to speak to a friend in person.

But for Israelis, that’s not the important take away. We’re number one, gush the newspaper reports, to a chorus of knowing “pokes.” In a world where our little country is being increasingly delegitimized, any claim to fame is welcome. And, in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve already posted a link to this article to Facebook and Twitter.