Grooving at the Sea of Galilee

Jacob’s ladder has grown from a modest folk music festival, into a world music extravaganza that appeals to young and old, Anglo and Israeli alike.From its humble beginnings 32 years ago as a modest folk music festival geared primarily to the English speaking community in Israel, Jacob’s Ladder has evolved into a three-day bluegrass, country, blues and world music extravaganza that appeals to thousands of both Anglos and Israelis, from teenagers to 60+ old timers.

The latest edition of Jacob’s Ladder was held last weekend at its permanent home of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar along the Sea of Galilee just north of Tiberias. The musical line up featured a number of international acts including last year’s headliners, The Abrams Brothers, one of the country music scene’s preeminent banjo and fiddle-playing bluegrass acts. The Canadian-born Abrams Brothers – consisting of dad, two brothers, a cousin and two world-class banjo players from the US – had the younger set swooning.

Other star performers who came from overseas to perform at this year’s festival included Pete Morton, a British ex-punk rocker who turned to raucous guitar driven folk after hearing a Buffy Sainte-Marie record some 30 years ago; North Carolina-based “quirky folk singer and poet” Utah Greene; singer songwriter Sonia Rutstein, who goes by the stage name of SONiA (yes, correct spelling) and blends world music, folk, pop and Middle Eastern rhythms in English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew; and TRiAD, a rather weak three piece who performed oddly arranged interpretations of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Locally grown talent at Jacob’s Ladder included Avital Raz, who studied Indian classical music in Varanasi for five years and performs an eclectic mix of folk pop with Indian undertones; Sandy Cash, whose humorous ditties always make us smile (the song about a truck that accidentally dumps a load of Viagra in the local water supply is an all-time classic); Tal Koreneberg’s Bodhran band, perhaps Israel’s only double bagpipe jammers playing Irish, Celtic and Scottish folk tunes; and my personal favorite, Iyam who got the crowd dancing to a mix of Hebrew and English reggae and rap.

Jacob’s Ladder is more than just music, however. There are tai chi sessions, a clown workshop for the kids, a chai zulafor the cool set to chill out; and lots of country, line and square dancing. My wife Jody has been going to a monthly “contra” dancing in Jerusalem to which I’ve steadfastly refused to attend, on the grounds that I “don’t like anything with steps.” Jody dragged me into the first session at Jacob’s Ladder and before long I was hooked. What fun!

Despite a crowd in the thousands, Jacob’s Ladder never feels oppressive. There are three main stages and, other than Friday night when everyone spreads a sheet on the grass and grooves to the main acts, activities are pretty loose. Some people take a dip in the pool, others browse the arts and crafts area. The lobby of the hotel is always happening with impromptu jam sessions into the wee hours of the night.

Politeness and honesty are an unspoken rule of thumb. You can leave your stuff anywhere and no one will take it. If someone sits in your chair, there are no arguments when you return. Smoking is the exception rather than the rule. There is a laid back, free flowing feeling to the whole event that serves as an antidote, however brief, to the stresses of day to day living in Israel. In short, we love it.

Over the years, Jacob’s Ladder has become less Anglo and more Israeli. That’s in part due to the Israeli-born children of the original attendees who have grown up at Jacob’s Ladder and seem to know all the Israeli and Irish dances by heart (the mosh pit to the side of the main stage was grooving big time Friday night – even I plunged into the midst of the “scene”). There is also a fair representation of Israeli adults who enjoy the music and casual scene.

The overwhelming secular nature of Jacob’s Ladder has also changed in recent years. An increasing number of Orthodox families now attend the festival. The kippa-wearing crowd has its own minyan by the lake Friday night and seems to find no contradiction between Shabbat observance and listening to great music.

Attendees can buy “scrip” in advance so that food purchases can be made without spending real shekels over the weekend. We ate a “proper” Shabbat dinner in the Nof Ginosar dining hall which has one of the better buffets I’ve eaten at a kibbutz hotel.

Our friends call us a bit spoiled. While nearly everyone camps – the grounds of the kibbutz guest house are covered by a sea of tents – we booked a simple but functional room in the pundak, a country style inn with nice pinewood furniture, where we could sleep on a real bed and take a real shower. Despite several derisive comments on our refusal to rough it, that didn’t stop our friends from using our bathroom and fridge.

At the end of the weekend, as the music died down and the afternoon sun began to wane, we wandered down to the Kinneret, pulled a couple of plastic chairs down to the rocky beach and dangled our feet in the cool water. It was a perfect end to a fabulous weekend.

Will we be back? Undoubtedly. We’ve already booked our room for 2009…

Peace will be Israel’s best achievement

In the last 60 years, Israel has achieved much. The greatest achievement is still to come, however, and Israel continues to work hard towards it.It took 2,000 years to dream of it, 60 years to plan it and 60 more to bring it to life. The modern state of Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary with great pride in its achievements and with the knowledge that its story, like that of any other democratic society, remains unfinished. We Israelis live in a region filled with great instability and anxiety, but we will never give up our hope for peace.

Israel is a small place, no bigger than any state in the American South. Yet its people represent a brave and ancient nation with a dynamic soul. Today Israel ranks among the world’s 25 most advanced and freest nations. In 1995, it was the first country to sign a free trade agreement with both the United States and Europe. Israel is the only non-European Union state to be included in the EU science program, and was recently announced as a candidate for the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Israelis believe that anything can be possible. This was our belief from the moment our first immigrants entered the Promised Land in the late 19th century, and it continues to drive us today.

The strongest internal calling of contemporary Israelis echoes the desire of early Zionist thinker Achad Ha’am (1856-1927): to fulfill Israel’s destiny as “a light unto the nations.” Achad Ha’am’s essential idea to create an intellectual hub in the Promised Land still motivates the Israeli spirit of innovation and generosity.

This is the attitude behind the Israel of scientific achievement, the powerhouse of innovation that created the smallest satellites in the sky, the smallest pill cameras and technologies that are incorporated into every cellphone and personal computer. Israel leads the world in the number of patents registered and high-tech firms per capita.

Israelis do not dwell on their security problems. Since the early 1950s they have journeyed throughout the developing world to share their technological expertise. When aid recipients from the Amazon to Southeast Asia refer to Israel as a superpower, it has nothing to do with its military power. To them Israel is a superpower because it sends them engineers to help them acquire drinking water or doctors to help them treat diseases.

In spite of these achievements, the Israelis have yet to attain what will be their greatest accomplishment. They long for the day when they will live peacefully and securely alongside a stable, prosperous Palestinian state. Peace is the desire of the Israelis, and it is our wish for all our children over the next 60 years: Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews alike.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of many conflicts in the area stretching from the Persian Gulf to northern Africa. There are those who are determined to turn the Middle East into the center of a global clash of civilizations. Israel, however, will use its next 60 years as it used its first 60, working to achieve the dream of peace and stability. Our history gives us hope as it teaches us that people of good faith do have the power to implement their dreams. Our peaceful wishes and positive thinking might make us seem weak to tyrants, but Israel will prove that the victory of peace over hate is inevitable.

Reprinted with permission from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Israel’s happiest accomplishment

At 60, Israel has hardly begun, but its accomplishments already go well beyond the founders’ wildest dreams.Having just emerged from another day in first grade, Aviad asked me, for some reason, who was our prime minister, and I answered he was Ariel Sharon.

“Really?” replied the toddler, “and I thought it was Yossi Benayoun.”

Yossi Benayoun, the soccer forward who was born humbly in Dimona, has since climbed to international stardom in Liverpool, and Aviad, now a fifth grader who has also evolved, was asked this week what he thought Israel’s best accomplishments were in its first six decades. He said: The Yom Kippur War and the disk-on-key.

“Now there is a thesis,” I thought to myself. On the one hand – an epic military victory involving hordes of soldiers, casualties, prisoners, tanks, missiles, aircraft, diplomats, journalists, dollars, spies and oil barrels, all of them surrounding the tiny Jewish state the way the brothers’ sheaves circled Joseph’s in his dream; and on the other hand, a morsel of tin and plastic that stores entire livelihoods, and symbolizes the ingenuity which has inspired thousands of inventions here, from MS medicine and firewall software to unmanned aircraft and drip irrigation.

As it marks its 60th birthday, many find Israel’s shortcomings greater than its accomplishments. Celebrity lawyer Ya’acov Weinroth, for instance, has just decried in Haaretz our being possessed by greed, while the Atlantic Monthly asks on its cover: “Is Israel Finished?” As the ones who ordinarily decry Israel’s every failure, sin and shortcoming, Middle Israelis now wish to remind the whole world that Israel is not finished, that if anything it has hardly begun, and that in fact its accomplishments are well beyond its founders’ wildest dreams.

Israel’s most famous achievements have been the military ones, mainly because they were dramatic, violent and contentious. Today this is hard to recall, but back when the state was established its survival was in such doubt that the IDF Chief of General Staff had to travel to Switzerland to study its army’s system of reserve duty. Since then the IDF has become so big that many wonder whether it isn’t too big.

More deeply, but in the same vein, the very emergence of Jewish paratrooper brigades, submarine flotillas, artillery batteries, tank battalions and fighter-plane squadrons – so soon after the Jews were so non-military that they were butchered en masse – is a twist of historic events that even an exceptionally imaginative novelist could doubtfully have conceived without critics questioning his sanity.

Diplomatically, the Jewish state has also registered once-unthinkable breakthroughs. Today this is hard to believe, but in its first 16 years Israel did not buy even one bullet from the US. The first elaborate military contracts were with France and lasted only a decade, as Paris decided in 1967 to side with Israel’s enemies. Now Israel has just about all it needs militarily, thanks to local production and brisk foreign trade, but none of it came by itself.

The same goes for diplomatic relations. The young Jewish state’s unconditional ostracism by the Arab world soon spread to much of the Nonaligned Bloc, then, following the ’67 war to the entire East Bloc (except Romania) and finally, following the ’73 war, Israel also lost in one fell swoop all its embassies in Black Africa.

Now all this is history. Israel has full and elaborate ties with Eastern Europe, non-Arab Africa, China and Vietnam. Moreover, previously low-level relations with India and Turkey have since morphed into fully-fledged strategic alliances. Add to that the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and the de facto relations with some of the Gulf and Maghreb states, and compare that with David Ben-Gurion’s prediction in 1970 that peace with Egypt would come, but might take three decades to arrive – and you get a perspective on how far and how fast we have traveled.

This, too, did not go without saying.

Not to mention the economy. Israel’s lack of mineral riches, its small workforce’s inability to mass-produce anything and its industry’s lack of access to the neighboring markets all made many doubt its ability to survive, let alone thrive. In subsequent years, the failure of its centralized economy and the costs of its wars resulted in such hyperinflation that the economy became a basket case and the shekel a laughingstock.

Now the Bank of Israel is regularly buying dollars to keep the shekel from becoming excessively strong, while foreign companies ask Israeli business partners to pay them in Israeli currency, which has become fully convertible and is now among the world’s most solid coins. Israel has become the developed world’s fastest-growing economy; who would have thought.

Still, these dwarf in comparison with Israel’s social-cultural accomplishments.

It has been less than three decades since then-Labor Party leader Shimon Peres had to be whisked away from Beit Shemesh, where a predominantly North African-descended audience pelted him with eggs and tomatoes as the representative of well-to-do, Ashkenazi Israel. Who today remembers this, with kids increasingly unable to ethnically “classify” each other, and with non-Ashkenazi tycoons like Yitzhak Teshuva, Haim Saban and Tzadik Bino dominating much of the business sector? The same goes for the religious-secular rift. To us it goes without saying that the IDF, by law, keeps kosher in all its kitchens, but back when the state was established someone had to decree that, as well as the law forbidding industrial production on the Sabbath and civil marriages and divorces, all of which conceal serious controversies that could have debilitated the Jewish state, but never did.

Even happier is the restoration of the Hebrew language. Next time our leaders, enemies or friends make you want to jump out of the window, look behind your shoulder and imagine Eliezer Ben-Yehuda – author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary – is suddenly there, ready to hear you.

“What can you show me that will make me happy?” he will ask, and you will take him down to the nearest playground, kindergarten, school yard, grocery store, hospital, law firm or engineers’ office, and then observe him absorb – like a composer scrutinizing a symphony orchestra’s performance of his own sonata – the kids’ play, the grocer’s counting, the school children’s shouts, the kindergarten teacher’s storytelling, the engineer’s calculation, the surgeon’s operation and the lawyers’ negotiation, all rolling about in the very Hebrew whose resurrection he insisted was both feasible and imperative, while some ridiculed and others persecuted that hero for his odd cultural vision and resolve.

Then take Ben-Yehuda for a stroll up the Jerusalem pedestrian mall that is now named after him, and then proceed to one of the nearby ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods where the offspring of the rabbis who once boycotted him now themselves speak Hebrew, and then take him across the country – to get a load of our numerous Hebrew novels, periodicals, movies, plays, poems, operas, university courses, TV shows, evening schools, political debates and what not.

Then, looking at that prophet’s gulping of his vision’s realization, you, too, will appreciate that in breathing life into the language of Moses, David and Isaiah, and in speaking it to our kids, we are doing the unthinkable every minute anew, and that in this, what Israel represents is even more improbable, rewarding and vindicating than winning a war and inventing the disk-on-key.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

Say it in Hebrew

You have to live in Israel for a while before you start getting the nuances of modern Hebrew.Rak be’Yisrael - only in Israel – is a song title-turned TV show-cum catchprase that has sprung to mind a lot recently. It’s the combination of Passover and the upcoming Independence Day celebrations.

Linguistically, the country has been blessed with many phrases that might not exist only in Israel but have taken on a peculiarly Israeli tone: Ma ani agid lecha - what can I tell you? Hebrew has ma yesh ,/I>and Arabic has ma lesh, for example (what are you grumbling about?). But there are some phrases which are so homegrown or culturally loaded they are barely translatable: Davka, stam (just because) and balagan - the word for a mess which is so inimically Israeli (although its roots are actually Farsi, az ma?: so what?).

Yiddish and nowadays more often English have left their mark on Hebrew, but there are plenty of blue-and-white phrases summing up the quintessential Israeli character. Kacha stam, just like that.

Israelis, surprisingly, have nothing to worry about or at least they do not have a problem, “ein be’aya.” We live in a state of denial. “Ein ma la’asot,” – what can you do?

In an informal survey I carried out, the most frequently cited (and annoying) Hebrew catchphrases were: al tidag, yihiyeh beseder and smoch alai – don’t worry, it’ll be OK and trust me.

Why do we continue trusting that everything will always work out? Allahu akbar – God is great – might be the Muslim call to prayer and the Islamist battle cry but Elohim gadol – with the same meaning – is an expression of good faith, as it were. And the phrase: Ein lo Elohim – he has no God – meaning he has no moral restraints, is very Israeli from the opposite perspective. It’s even worse than the “lo ichpat li, ” I don’t care – in the sense of “I don’t give a damn.”

You have to live here for a while before you start getting the nuances of modern Hebrew. If you’re still at the stage when Israelis are annoyingly reminding you kol hathalot kashot (all beginnings are difficult) or asking me’eifo ata bamakor (where are you from originally?), you’re probably not there yet. If nothing else, you should try to listen to Hagashash Hahiver comedy skits to catch up with Israel’s modern cultural heritage – “Hevanta et zeh, Baruch?” (Did you understand that, Baruch?”) “Yofi, Nehama,” (“Great, Nehama,”) as comedian Shaike Ophir would have said.

The revival of the Hebrew language is one of the country’s greatest achievements – along with the fact that we’re still here. Or, as basketball player Tal Brody so quotably put it after Maccabi Tel Aviv’s big win against CSKA Moscow in 1977: Anahnu al hamapa ve’anahnu nisharim al hamapa!” (We’re on the map and we’re staying on the map!). Thanks to Brody’s pronunciation, it’s the only Hebrew catchphrase that can be legitimately said with a strong American accent.

Other phrases which give you a sporting chance of being accepted in society include kacha lo bonim homa (lit. you don’t build a wall like that, but used to mean that’s not the way to do something properly), first declared by TV announcer Yoram Arbel during an international soccer match. You can also use “Yalla Betar Yalla, ” the battle cry of Betar Jerusalem Football Club – but check you’re not surrounded by red-and-white (Hapoel) supporters or, to use another good Israeli phrase, oy va voy (woe is you). Local soccer fans (and not just Betar supporters) have some choice words you might not want to use any time you are not actually watching a match.

In Hebrew, anything goes: ein davar kazeh, ein davar kazeh (there’s no such thing as no such thing). Or, ein matzav (no way).

For obvious reasons, modern Hebrew grew up quickly in the military. Aharai, “after me,” is the call of officers from the days when they actually led their troops into war (and won) rather than watching on plasma screens in the war room (known by the acronym hamal).

Harder to translate are the words gibush (literally crystallization but used more for the intense period leading to the creation of a cohesive group) and ga’avat yehida, pride in the unit. The terms can be used out of the army for everything from school trips and class cohesion to building experiences in high-tech and business.

You don’t have to be in the country that long before you start using words like miluim (reserve duty) without translating them.

As the country celebrates its 60th anniversary, leave the “mazel tovs” to the Diaspora: Here we wish a hearty “Mazal tov.”

Magia lanu! We deserve it! The state’s first 60 years have not been easy – it’s been like one long drawn out gibush – but we have reason to be proud of what we’ve accomplished. And if you don’t believe me all I can ask is: Eifo ata hai? – where do you live?

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

What brain drain?

Many fear Israel is losing its best scientific minds to America. Nonsense, says one observer.There is widespread alarm in many quarters of Israel today that our brightest minds are leaving the country in search of more lucrative shores, specifically America. The Israeli government estimates that today there are 650,000 Israelis living abroad: 60 percent in North America, 25% in Europe and 15% elsewhere.

While one shouldn’t make light of the problem, it is imperative to put the peril of Israel’s brain drain in perspective. The migration of intellectual human capital to the best-paying markets is not only an Israeli phenomenon, it’s a global one.

In January 2004, TIME/CNN reported: [There is] “a continued drain of Europe’s best and brightest scientific brains, who finish their degrees and pursue careers in the US. Some 400,000 European science and technology graduates now live in the US and thousands more leave each year.”

A survey released by the European Commission that year found that “only 13% of European science professionals working abroad currently intend to return home.”

The Greek daily Ekathimerini cited other European Commission data in 2006 that shows “a massive flow of scholars from Europe to the US with only 29 percent of them declaring that they intend to return to Europe upon completion of their studies.”

According to Nadia Prigat, director of the Division for Returning Israelis in the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, who was interviewed in the Jerusalem Post in October 2006, an estimated 50 percent of Israelis living abroad do return within two to six years.

According to data released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics last May, out of 24,000 Israelis who left the country in 2004 for a period of more than 12 months, 10,000 had returned.

If there will be a reversal in the brain drain among Europeans or Israelis, I suspect it will be due to changes in the economy in the United States.

Indicative of the force of professional issues, a recent survey cited by the Absorption Ministry found that 46% of Israelis living abroad said job security took precedence over concerns regarding their children and housing, in decisions to return.

Today the Israeli economy is in good shape and high-tech is booming. There is room for guarded optimism in terms of our own brain drain. If anything, one should be encouraged by the fact that a Shalem Institute study found that between 1995-2002 only four percent of those Israelis with a Master’s degree or higher left Israel.

Geopolitical security fears also do not seem to play a part in driving Israelis from their homeland. It would be easier for Israelis to claim ‘the situation’ is at fault for their departure, than to admit they have been lured by higher salaries and other professional considerations, but on the whole, Israel as a society, has demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of geopolitical instability.

The National Resilience Project conducted at Haifa University found that while levels of fear and anxiety that family members might be harmed were very high (91.9 percent) during the early years of the intifada, at the same time the country’s sense of efficacy and solidarity (measured in terms of shift in ‘patriotic feelings’ up or down, and faith in the IDF) were very high – and this resiliency cut across all levels of education, religiosity and immigrant-veteran status with relatively mild variations.

Is there a gap between declarations and actions? No, apparently not. American and Canadian embassy data shows only a slight to moderate rise in requests for immigrant visas from Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) during the second intifada: 2,637 (2000), 3,000 (2001), 3,025 (2002), 3,518 (2003) for the US, and 2,600 (2000), 2,475 (2001), 2,600 (2002), 2,850 (est. 2003). Some 6,000 Israelis were expected to return from the US and Canada alone in 2006. And according to a JTA news report, Israeli Government statistics show 20,000 Israelis returned annually between 2001 to 2004 – at the height of the country’s problems.

A 2008 Tel Aviv University academic study warned that there are 1,409 senior Israeli academics at American universities, in absolute numbers equal to 25 percent of the entire senior staff at Israeli academic institutions, and off-the-charts per capita compared to Europeans at American institutions.

But is this due to Israel’s failures to keep them, or to their excellence? One cannot intelligently discuss the brain drain without entering into the equation the fact that Israel has the highest number of university graduates per capita in the world. It ranks first to third in the world in terms of the percentage of university grads per capita per age cohort, depending on whom you ask.

Annually, Israeli institutions of higher learning graduate 2.4 times the number of undergraduates per capita as the United States, and 2.8 times the number of graduate degrees.

The ability of Israeli universities and the Israeli economy to provide jobs that will keep pace with a 355 percent increase in the number of degrees granted between 1970 – 2005 in Israel (compared to a 31 percent increase in the US), is a problem – but this I would argue, constitutes ‘the troubles of the rich’ or at least mixed blessings for a country with an overabundance of intellectual capital.

As Israel approaches its 60th anniversary, we cannot and should not take the brain drain lightly.

But if indeed the brain drain is a global phenomenon and intellectual human capital does migrate to the best-paying markets, there is room for optimism in light of the current downturn in the American economy and the weak dollar; and the upturn in the Israeli economy – crowned by Israel receiving ‘developed nation’ status and A+ standing endowing the NIS with ‘hard currency’ rating, a situation that significantly levels the playing field for Israel.

With all the existential challenges Israel still faces it would be presumptuous to say ‘our cup runneth over’, but we Israelis certainly enjoy far more than ‘a half-full cup’ – and not only in terms of the brain drain.