Israel’s still standing, still proud

Our very existence is worth mentioning as an achievement… but there’s so much more.Life in Israel is an emotional roller-coaster. When we’re up, we’re riding high with a clear view; but when we’re low, we seem to scrape the dirt.

Haim Gouri, the archetypical Israeli safra vesaifa – writer and fighter – told me in an interview marking the 60th anniversary of The Jerusalem Post: “We are a people of ups and downs, euphoria and pathos, pride and pique. Everything about us is drastic. Look even at the weather: We had snowstorms and brilliant sunshine in the same month this year [1992]. Every day there is a sudden sunrise and an equally dramatic sunset, but there is no twilight. Hazal [Sages] wrote: ‘The Jewish People is compared to the dust of the ground and to the stars of the sky. When they sink, they sink down to the dust; when they rise, they rise into the stars.’”

This time of year as Independence Day approaches, Gouri’s words always resonate. One of those “Only in Israel” experiences is that incredible combination of sad and happy as the ceremonies for Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers and terror victims fuse back-to-back with the Yom Ha’atzma’ut festivities, this year on April 23.

The extremeness is infectious: The world, it seems, either loves us or hates us, unfortunately too often the latter.

This year, undoubtedly, was not one of the easiest for this proud nation – but it doesn’t mean we have to abandon all reasons to be proud. A 59th birthday is an ambivalent occasion – still, it gives us a year to get into a suitable mood for our 60th anniversary.

What a difference a year makes: The day after Independence Day last year, on May 4, the 31st government of Israel was sworn in.

New prime ministers are traditionally given a 100-day period of grace – known in Hebrew as mea yemei hessed. Ehud Olmert, who had already had his 100 days in office due to Ariel Sharon’s stroke, did not get even that. He might have thought his toughest challenge would be quieting the opposition and holding together his fragile coalition with Labor. Ultimately, as we all know – hindsight being the flavor of the year – it was the out-of-the-blue attack on northern Israel, for which he was so clearly unprepared, that rocked his political career and shook the country’s faith in the leadership.

The corruption scandals, sex scandals, The War, the Kassams; the kidnapped IDF soldiers; spreading poverty. This has not been Israel’s finest hour.

Ups and downs are to be expected on the political and establishment merry-go-round anywhere, let alone in Israel where swinging from high to low is a way of life. But who would have thought that from one Independence Day to the next we would have a new IDF chief of staff, new police chief and the need for a stand-in president?

Who would have imagined that the hottest name in politics and social affairs would be Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian-speaking billionaire immigrant who helped look after the ‘refugees’ from the war and is planning a huge, free Independence Day bash?

Who would have considered that Labor leader Amir Peretz, previously better known for fighting the security establishment for funds for a social agenda, would this year be the defense minister, with no real reason to celebrate as he awaits the findings of the Winograd Report into his functioning during the war and the Labor leadership primaries, which will help determine his political future?

As we blow out the Remembrance Day candles and prepare for Independence Day’s fireworks displays, it seems almost natural this year to add the Shehechiyanu blessing, praising God “for keeping us alive, sustaining us and bringing us to this moment.”

For after all, we’ll still here, battle-scarred but not beaten.

Our very existence is worth mentioning as an achievement – if only for the pleasure of annoying our many enemies. The fact that we can celebrate Independence Day at all, albeit wiping away a tear for those who gave their lives and didn’t make it to the country’s 59th birthday, is noteworthy.

Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah threw some nasty surprises in the form of Katyushas; Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems set on dropping something even worse. But on April 24 there will be parties, barbecues, nature trips and celebrations.

We’re on a roller-coaster, but the screams of fear are mixed with laughter. For the most part, we’re enjoying the ride.

People abroad often forget that most Israelis live ordinary lives worrying about ordinary things: family, health, finances. We argue about politics. And how. But it is a family argument. And at least we aren’t concerned about the neighbors hearing the shouting.

There’s terrorism, but we don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism. Indeed, we’re free to laugh at ourselves with famous Jewish humor and don’t have to worry whether saying things like “famous Jewish humor” is insulting.

In previous years Jerusalem Post columnist Barbara Sofer has done a wonderful job pre-Yom Ha’atzma’ut reminding us of the 50-or-so reasons she loves Israel. The articles still hang – slightly yellowing and stained – on the fridge doors of more than one friend of mine.

They’re a reminder that years come and go; wars come and go; our leaders come and go (with alarming frequency); but the things that make this country great remain.

We’re still concerned about each other. The Katyushas in the north caused perfect strangers (and I use both words in their most literal sense) to open their hearts and homes to others less fortunate. Proving we are truly one family, Diaspora Jews came to offer solidarity and support. New immigrants came to stay.

The dollar weakened, the shekel rode high. In the country that created the phrase “routine emergency situation” – matzav shel shigrat herum – it’s been business as usual. Innovations, investments, construction and development abound. If the Palestinians put as much energy into building their de-facto state as they put into trying to destroy ours, Warren Buffett could make a double deal – investing in Gaza as he did in Galilee – and we’d all be better off for it.

Another year has gone by without our prayers for peace being answered. But despite the prayers of our enemies, we’re still here, not just surviving, but thriving.

And that’s why this Independence Day, as every other, I will hang the blue-and-white flag and raise a glass in that quintessential Jewish toast: “Lehaim – To life!”

(Reprinted with permission from The Jerusalem Post)

Israeli film taps into postwar angst

TEL AVIV – A poignant scene in “Beaufort,” Israel’s most popular new film, shows a young Israeli commander in Lebanon freezing in fear as a fellow soldier is caught in a rain of mortar rounds.

“Liraz, get me inside, Liraz!” shouts the wounded soldier to the commander, who hovers in a doorway a few feet away, his eyes betraying a sense of shock and terror.

The drama is not about Israel’s 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer. Filmed before that conflict, it is set in 2000 and tells of the last Israeli soldiers guarding an isolated outpost in southern Lebanon at the end of Israel’s 18-year occupation.

But the timing of the film’s release last month has heightened its impact. Israeli critics say its antiwar theme resonates with a public that is deeply disillusioned with its leaders’ handling of the inconclusive summer conflict.

Popular dissatisfaction has prompted the resignations of the army chief of staff and two senior commanders and calls for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to step down as well. A government-appointed commission of inquiry on the conflict is expected this spring to release a critique that could damage Olmert’s center-left government. Some right-wing politicians say the current leadership is ill-suited to fight another war with Hezbollah, which they predict is imminent.

“It’s the right movie for the right time,” critic Shmulik Duvdevani wrote in a review of the Joseph Cedar film on the Israeli news website Ynet. “A movie that takes place at the end of the first Lebanon war, bursts onto the screens in the course of the investigative commission’s discussions over the second Lebanon war, and a moment – which I hope won’t come – before the third Lebanon war.”

The story is set in a 12th century stone-walled crusader fortress atop a rocky hill in southern Lebanon. Beaufort served as a platform for Palestinian rocket attacks on northern Israel before the country’s 1982 invasion and, in a battle celebrated in the Jewish state, became one of the first targets captured in that offensive.

As the occupation claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers and triggered antiwar protests at home, Israel pulled its army out of southern Lebanon and demolished its outposts, including the one in Beaufort.

“What was once a symbol of victory and bravery turned into a symbol of stupidity, of futile battles, and of waste of human life,” a casually dressed Cedar, 38, told reporters at a recent screening of his movie in Jerusalem. “That transition is something that’s too literary not to turn into a film.”

Based on real events but featuring fictional characters, “Beaufort” has become one of Israel’s top-grossing features in 25 years. It was released March 8.

The movie also has won acclaim abroad. In February, Cedar, a New York native who grew up in Jerusalem, became the first Israeli to win the Silver Bear award for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival. “Beaufort” is expected to be released in the United States this year.

Cedar got the idea for the movie in 2001 after reading a fictional monologue by Israeli writer Ron Leshem about an officer’s fears and experiences in Beaufort. The article, based on interviews of many soldiers who served at the outpost, led Cedar, who lost two comrades during his nine-month army service in Lebanon in the late 1980s, to confront his fears as a young soldier.

He later met Leshem, and the two decided to join forces and adapt the article into a movie script.

“Beaufort” centers on Liraz, the controlling and overly private outpost commander. Amid speculation of an imminent withdrawal from Lebanon, Liraz and his subordinates wage a daily struggle to survive mortar attacks by an invisible enemy. The troops live in grim conditions within a concrete maze of underground tunnels, bunkers and observation posts.

As they watch comrades die, the soldiers confront their fears and become skeptical about the purpose of their mission. They question the decision to risk their lives to protect Beaufort and challenge the authority of Liraz, who ignores the impending evacuation until he is assigned to dismantle and blow up the outpost.

“We wrote an antiwar story whose hero is pro-war until the last moment, and he doesn’t understand that he’s cannon fodder, even when everything crashes around him,” said Leshem, who turned his article into a best-selling, award-winning novel.

The $1.9-million project was filmed near another ancient fortress, Kalat Namrud, which is in northern Israel near the Lebanese border and resembles Beaufort. About 50 truckloads of concrete were brought to the set to reconstruct the military fortifications.

Some moviegoers in Israel, where army service is mandatory, say they were attracted to the film’s military theme.

“Almost every Israeli has got to serve in the army,” said Noam Avital, a 31-year-old electronic engineer from Tel Aviv. “Identifying with the soldiers in the movie was very easy.”

The film has received mixed reviews.

Hannah Brown of the Jerusalem Post called it “Israel’s first great war movie,” one that shows “the claustrophobia and terror of being there, as well as the vulnerability of the soldiers and the bravado they use to mask it.”

But some have criticized its depiction of Israeli soldiers as victims and the fact that it never shows the face of the enemy.

“It’s a one-dimensional movie, a movie with no bad guys,” wrote Yishay Kiczales of the Tel Aviv newspaper Hair. “We know we’re not the only ones to pay a heavy price. ‘Beaufort’ completely ignores this complexity.”

Cedar said he intentionally avoided delving into the wider context of the conflict.

War is “a cycle that just repeats itself,” he said. “For a thousand years there were young men on this mountain, either capturing it or trying to protect it. By avoiding the specifics of the year 2000, it turns it into something that’s a bit more classical.”

‘I met children who only wanted to live’

The acclaimed singer documents his trip with Israeli doctors to Ethiopia and Rwanda.
RWANDA – Three months ago, I was asked if I would like to join a group traveling to Ethiopia and Rwanda. When asked to travel to Ethiopia, I go. I’m even willing to join a group that supports elephants. It took me a while to realize that the group consisted of doctors who travel around the world to treat children suffering from heart ailments.

Naturally I was a bit cynical: Who are you? Great heroes trying to save the world? “Come and see the department at the Wolfson Medical Center,” they told me.

I decided to go there one morning. I saw things I couldn’t believe existed only ten minutes away from my home. Students from all over the world take care of Palestinian and Jordanian children, children from Zanzibar, Vietnam and Ethiopia -all of them suffering from heart diseases and laying in one department full of tubes.

Less than a year ago I performed in Ethiopia in a series of very moving concerts which were also documented by Tomer Hyman. I never imagined that I would return within a year, but then one night my partner Amber and I once again boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa along with the group of doctors.

Addis, a poor and harsh city

At dawn we landed in Addis, a poor and harsh city. We immediately caught the soldier’s attention. Ethiopia is not a democratic country and the military treats the media with suspicion. As far as they are concerned, cameras and television equipment are forbidden.

I decided to go and talk to one of the soldiers who was paying a lot of attention to one of the big camera lenses we had brought with us. I spoke to him about music, about Mahmud Achmed, a great Ethiopian singer who we both admire and with who I had appeared in London the previous year. Suddenly he softened up and let us in.

We made a quick stop at the hotel and then went straight to the hospital. The group consisted of Simon Fisher – the Managing Director of the organization “Save A Child’s Heart” (SACH), Dr. Akiva Tamir (who we call Aki) – the Chief Pediatric Cardiologist in the Wolfson Medical Center and his wife Mirna, Head Nurse Nava Gershon, Amber and myself.

When we arrived at the hospital, there were already 40 children waiting for us. I thought to myself that if they had been waiting at such an early hour; they must have arrived during the night.

Only hope in outside help

The parents’ eyes focused on Aki. Each child was just one of out of millions of citizens who can only find hope in outside help. There was great despair in their eyes, but also the hope that maybe they would be chosen this time. It was a very difficult sight. Only three or four children would fly back to Israel with us. The rest would stay behind and there’s no way to help them. I don’t know how Aki copes.

I looked at the children and the families. People fighting to stay alive. I thought that a child is a child anywhere in the world and a mother is a mother anywhere in the world and how could it be that there is only one cardiologist in all of Ethiopia and even he has no resources?

In Africa, in a place where patients sit and wait for doctors to come from Israel, the bubble of Tel-Aviv suddenly seemed so distant. After two hours, Amber and I returned to the hotel. Aki stayed at the hospital and took care of children all day.

We left to tour the surrounding villages, places where I had visited less than a year earlier with members of [my group] the Idan Raichel Project. The people in Addis Ababa do not smile, but in the villages they do. They are extremely poor; sometimes they walk for four or five hours a day to draw water and to toil the land, but this is the only way of life they know.

Only the bare necessities

This lack of knowledge is good for them. Their way of life seems really difficult to us. Through western eyes they seem unfortunate with no resources at all. But in those villages people sit in huts, there is no cafe close by, children play outside and the stillness makes one think.

In Ethiopia one can eat and drink and raise children, and everything there is very basic – that’s how it can be summed up. We are the ones living on the edge thinking how great it is. In our world, children aged 12 can’t manage without their cell phones. It’s not that they are spoiled and pampered, they’ve just become used to it and that’s all they know. In the villages of Ethiopia, life is very different.

In the silence I thought of music, about Mahmud Achmed and his calming melodies. I found a special instrument called a “melodika” and I tried to find myself a quiet place to play. Suddenly I thought of my apartment on King George Street, about my performance in Tel Aviv on Thursday, about my friends who are now recording in Harlem and how life throws us from one place to another, I thought about our world.

Police escort

In the evening we returned to the hotel to rest a little and later went out to a local pub. There weren’t many people there, only four employees who play, sing and serve coffee. When we left it was really late and we walked for 20 minutes back to the hotel.

Suddenly we found ourselves in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Addis, surrounded by people. We were happy to see a policeman who, for a few coins, escorted us back to the hotel. The police also have to make a living somehow.

On Tuesday morning I went to the local radio station to be interviewed. In Ethiopia there is one radio station and one television station and all air time is owned by the government. A broadcaster who wants a program has to buy air time from the government. He himself sells the advertising time.

I had met the broadcaster who interviewed me the previous year. Each week he buys eight hours of air time and his program is very popular. In the middle of the interview there was a power cut. It happens a lot there. We sat and waited, the broadcast was prerecorded anyway.

Relations between Ethiopia and Israel are very good. They know that there is a large Ethiopian community in the country and that some have become very successful. There are not many great cultural figures from Ethiopia, mostly sportsmen. Every achievement is a source of great pride for them.

I tell the interviewer in English, for those listeners who understand the aims of SACH. It’s true that each time only a few children are saved, but the important goal is to build a framework in which children can be treated in Ethiopia.

After the interview we went back to the hospital to meet other people – young people in their twenties who were already operated on as children and who returned to the hospital to volunteer. It’s moving to hear that some of them have become medical students. Nava, the head nurse, recognized some of them and was excited to meet them again.

Two kinds of Israeli ambassadors

When I travel the world, I meet two kinds of Israeli ambassadors; the diplomats and statesmen – who serve the state – and cultural ambassadors, the doctor and the scientist – who make contact with the people themselves. I think of those people who were in my position in the past: Chaim Topol, Shoshanna Damari, Achinoam Nini and Ivri Leder. It’s a great privilege.

The children are not interested in countries and borders. They want to be healthy. They don’t understand the language; they are not even aware that they have serious heart problems. They don’t care that we’re from Israel.

I sat and waited with the children in the queue to see the doctor; I took out my melodika and began to play. I taught them to play and they got excited when they succeeded. All the differences disappeared. The differences between the countries and the language. Children are children.

They laughed at the way I look, about me being white, about my dreadlocks and how I can’t pronounce their names in the right accent. They pulled at the pockets of my trousers and I saw their parents watching out the corner of my eye, it’s moving.

Maybe in a few years they will be told that a doctor from Israel traveled around the world instead of working from nine to five, and because of him they are alive. At the moment it doesn’t interest them. A child only wants his heart to work properly so that he can run about freely.

That evening we flew to Rwanda. We are all excited because it was the first time the group traveled to Rwanda. More than 10 years have passed since the genocide there and rehabilitation is not yet complete.

Like an artist without a pencil

Dr. Joseph Mucumbitsi waited for us. His story is amazing. After 18 years in Brussels, after gaining a world-wide reputation as one of the world’s best medical experts, he decided to come home, to his people, to his country, to take care of them after the massacre. His frustration is enormous.

Aki says that all of his diagnoses are accurate, but that’s all he can do – diagnose. Like an artist without a pencil. He has no resources to treat the children. He is so helpless; he is trying to establish a center to treat children. Without outside support he will not be able to get out of this cycle. The villagers don’t cooperate. Most of them are afraid that they cannot afford medical treatment at hospitals, so they just don’t come.

Dr. Mucumbitsi asked for SACH to come – so they came, with their medical equipment. Suddenly there’s a sense of a humanitarian mission, the meaning of the mitzvah “to save a life is to save an entire world.” In a few months, in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda – the city we visited), SACH will set up a center. Even the Health Minister of Rwanda came to give his blessing.

We didn’t waste any time. This month some children will already be flown to Israel for medical treatment. I asked myself how I could help, how I could raise public awareness, how I could recruit volunteers and donations.

The next day I walked around. Addis Ababa is brown and dusty, but Kigali felt like the Africa you see in the movies. Kigali is a colorful and lively flourishing town. It looks like a market with all the colorful clothes and beautiful objects. No one has heard of the Idan Raichel Project there.

I got the chance to observe their culture. It is so open and impulsive. Life is generally modest. They save everything for special moments and then it all becomes relaxed and exciting.

We didn’t have a lot of time. After only a day and a half we were already on a connecting flight to Ethiopia, where the three children chosen to come back with us to Israel were waiting. Yisuv, a small sweet girl captured my heart.

She has something cheeky in her eyes; you can see that she’s no sucker. Here she is at five years of age, without her parents, flying to another country for surgery and she knows exactly where the surgery will be. She explained to the nurse in Amharic about the heart area and about the surgery. I looked at her and thought to myself; when did we lose our naivety? The only thing that matters to Yisuv is to be healthy and to go back home, to Mommy.

Tomorrow Yisuv will be five years old. She’ll celebrate her fifth birthday at the SACH hostel. The operation which was supposed to take place the day before was delayed a little because she had a cold. I went to the Wolfson Medical Center to visit her. Sometimes you write a song and it has such power.

Five years ago, I lay on a mattress in the basement of my parents’ house. I was grumpy, I had just broken up with a girlfriend and I wrote on a piece of paper: “Come, give me a hand and we’ll go.” This week I returned from Ethiopia and I gave a hand to Yisuv, so that she will come and also begin to walk.

(Reprinted with permission of Ynet News)

NEWSWEEK: Babes in the Holy Land – Israel flirts with a racy new public-relations strategy.

David Blumenfeld for NewsweekApril 9, 2007 issue – Jim Malucci has two tatoos, one on each bulging bicep. On the left one, the photographer for Maxim magazine has etched an image of a seductively dressed pinup; on the right, he has stenciled the words go with god in Portuguese. He leans on his left arm and points his camera at a model in a bikini on the Tel Aviv beachfront. “That’s hot, that’s wicked,” says Malucci, as the model shifts her hips and parts her lips. “I wanna see the curves. That’s it, honey. On your knees, legs apart. Nice arch in your back-boom!” The flash flickers as the sun drops toward the Mediterranean. A Hassidic man in a black hat accidentally steps into the frame. “Love the guy with the hat!” Malucci says, chortling.

Taking in the scene, David Saranga can’t help but grin. The Israeli consular official based in New York approached Maxim six months ago. His proposal: the government and other pro-Israeli groups would fly a camera crew across the Atlantic in an effort to remake the Jewish state’s public image. Israel’s reputation had suffered after last summer’s war with Lebanon; in a recent BBC poll taken in 27 countries, 56 percent of respondents considered Israel a “negative influence” in the world, higher than both Iran and the United States. But Israel’s real PR problem, according to Saranga, is that Americans-particularly men aged 18 to 35-either associate the country with war or holy relics, or don’t think of it at all. “We have to find the right hook,” he says. “And what’s relevant to men under 35? Good-looking women.”

Saranga’s effort is the latest volley in a long-running battle over how to sell Israel to the world. Tourism is a nearly $2 billion-a-year industry in Israel, and the art of public relations is something of a national obsession. In Hebrew it’s called hasbarah, which means “explaining.” For a country that’s always craved international acceptance, hasbarah was “the first growth industry of Israel,” the American author Richard Ben Cramer wrote. “We almost have a psychological disorder when it comes to public image,” adds Eytan Schwartz, the first winner of Israel’s top-rated reality TV show, “The Ambassador.” Schwartz’s prize is proof of that: the winner of “The Ambassador” gets to become a public-relations flack.

Still, by definition, hasbarah is open to interpretation. One of the central dilemmas is which aspects of Israel’s wildly diverse society to emphasize. Israelis disagree about which is more likely to appeal to Americans?Tel Aviv’s freewheeling, secular charms, or Jerusalem’s holy sites. Settler leader Benny Elon, a former tourism minister, says he considers ads touting Israel’s beaches a waste of money. For Elon, it isn’t only a cultural issue; it’s also bad business. Tourists in search of sunshine will always favor the French Riviera or the Caribbean. Israel’s “unique selling proposition” is its religious heritage, says Elon. “It’s the only state where you can take the Bible as your tourism guide.” A recent study by the consulting firm Ernst & Young recommends that the Jewish state target American evangelical Christian tourists-one of Elon’s pet projects.

Yet trying too hard to lure Christian tourists could end up alienating secular liberals. “Benny Elon is just dead wrong,” says Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, author of “The Case for Israel.” “It puts Israel in the camp of arch-conservative people.” Already, a recent study by the New York marketing firm Wunderman has concluded that Israel’s “brand” is perceived similarly to those of Philip Morris and the NRA. Ultimately evangelicals’ support for Israeli tourism will evaporate, says Dershowitz; Christians will eventually become “disappointed” with the Jewish state as their interests diverge. But even Dershowitz thinks the idea of paying to fly a magazine crew across the Atlantic is a little over the top: “Completely not the way to go. I can see models anywhere.”

Saranga insists his campaign is just smart niche marketing. “You have to match the message to the audience,” the diplomat says. And his supporters argue that the Jewish state’s diversity is one of its strongest selling points. Ultimately, says Dershowitz, “Israel is both countries … a country where models pose at great holy sites.” The tattoos on shooter Jim Malucci’s biceps make the balance look easy to find. But marketing budgets are finite, and cultural rifts aren’t so easily bridged. The reality of Israel is often having to choose: go with the girl, or go with God.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.

A ‘model’ Seder

Are the daily happenings and accomplishments in Israel modern miracles? You better believe it. The classic guitar players will all tell you that they first picked up a guitar to meet girls. I can’t remember the first time I picked up a pen to write but I surely didn’t do so with the expectation of meeting any girls from it. I suppose any girls I’ve met from my time on Jdate are a result of my finely-crafted essays (or was it the gratuitous picture holding a baby?) but nothing in comparison to the surreal experience I enjoyed at the recent photo Maxim Magazine photo shoot here in Israel.

Remember the Seinfeld where George gains access to the “forbidden city” of models, an experience he may never enjoy again… That was how I felt as a witness to the latest hasbara effort of Israel’s Foreign Ministry along with ISRAEL21c – to put it succinctly, showing the young male readers of Maxim, one of the most popular mens’ magazines in the US, that Israel is chock full of beautiful women.

This issue – due to hit the stands this summer – may either generate no more waves than the average Maxim, or cause the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh to dance in the streets in anticipation of the biggest aliyah since Russia opened its doors in the early 90s.

I can just imagine this conversation:

Israeli Government Official: “Prime Minister, deh demo-grah-fix proh-blem eez no lohn-ger! Meel-yons of American Jews ahr choo-seeng to live their lives een Israel!”

PM: “To waht do you aht-tree-bute dees? Anti-Semitism in deh Diaspora? Spirituality?”

IGO: “Ehhhhhhhhhh?..thong-eem???”

When I arrived at the Hashalom train station in Tel Aviv to meet to meet the Maxim staff, the possible scenarios were already running through my head: “Hey, baby… what’s your name? Come here often? Wanna play ‘Spin the Mezuzah’?”

As I spoke with the various crew members, to my slight surprise, none of these first-time Israel visitors expressed any fears despite the stereotypical images in the media. I asked them what their biggest surprise was, what they enjoyed so far, what they thought of the nightlife, and of course, why Israelis are so hot. The answers included:

** “I follow the news but it didn’t keep me from coming. I’ve heard so much about this country and really wanted to visit. I’m blown away by it, not afraid at all.”

** “It feels very Mediterranean but also Eastern, a real mix of cultures. And I’m looking forward to the soccer game tonight!”

** As for the beauty? “They’re a mixture of cultures who are all so unique and different. People have arrived from 90 countries: Ethiopia, Russia, Europe, South America, North America?” The standard gene-mixing answer.

Fortunately, I had some time to compose myself before meeting the model, Nivit Bash. Otherwise, this conversation might have ensued.

Model: “My name eez Nivit Bash. Waht is yours?”

Benji: “BUH-DAH-BUH-GOO-GOO!”

Until our interview, I spent most of the shoot finding the oh-so-important balance between being friendly and professional enough to justify my presence and inconspicuous enough to keep them from giving me the boot and ruining my life forever. I think I made a good impression on the make-up guy, the hair guy, and even the I-get-paid-to-rub-cream-on-the-model’s stomach guy. (LORD ALMIGHTY, HOW DOES SOMEONE GET THAT JOB??? C’mon, Nefesh B’Nefesh career placement… hook a brother up!)

As the morning progressed, I patiently bided my time, waiting for the right opportunity to speak with Her Royal Hotness. A few thoughts which crossed my mind:

** What exactly qualifies someone to be an Israeli model? My grandmother could throw a rock on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Avenue and hit the next Bar Rafaeli. (And her fastball has lost a little juice over the years.) There are babes EVERYWHERE. “Hey, look at that hottie! She must be the Maxim?Oh wait… she works the register at Burger Ranch.”

** The photographer constantly gave Nivit direction like “Put the weight on that leg? yeah, that’s better.” Boy, some people sure are picky.

** Why in the lord’s name does AIPAC insist on giving American congressmen tours of places like the Kotel? Two words: THE BEACH!

With the window of opportunity beginning to close, I knew I had to make my journalistic move. As soon as last picture was taken, I jumped on Nivit with the enthusiasm of… well… a bachelor at a Maxim photo shoot.

“Why are Israelis so beautiful? Do you have a message for America? What’s better: sex or humus?”

Much of what happened next escapes me. But somehow… be it the classic Israeli hospitality or divine intervention, I left shortly thereafter with an invitation to this woman’s Passover Seder.

Next year in Jerusalem? MONDAY NIGHT IN HEAVEN! “You better call, I’m not kidding!” I implored. “I’m serious, I’ll call you,” she assured.

An hour later, when my heart rate had returned to its normal mammalian pace, I arrived to my office and reflected on what I took from this experience (besides pictures.) With Yom Ha’atzmaut only a couple of weeks away, Nivit helped me realize how incredible this country is and just how much it’s accomplished in less than sixty years.

While the world focuses on conflict, cease-fires, and headlines, those of us who live here have the luxury to see how much more there is. Herzl dreamed of a state where Jews would fill the workforce: Jewish doctors, government employees, laborers, you name it. With cover girls like the aforementioned Bar Rafaeli, Jewish rappers, and the upcoming launch of the Israeli baseball league, it’s safe to say that his dream has come true.

Is there still work to be done here? Absolutely. Are the daily happenings and accomplishments in Israel modern miracles? You better believe it.

Job well done, Foreign Ministry; maybe I wasn’t your desired target audience, but consider the moral of this tiny ambassador boosted. This is a magical place. And if she doesn’t call? Nivit, I’ll see you at the newsstand.

Epilogue: She didn’t call. Time to learn guitar.