New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv

Happy New Year Tel Aviv

Decorations of a bar in Florentine

I love New Year’s Eve. I love it because I grew up in Soviet Union where it was the biggest holiday of the year. It was not religious or ideologic, it was all about family. Families saved up food for a feast for this holiday. We once even had bananas, bananas! The whole family would come together, we ate, we sang, my grandmother played the piano, we watched tv and shows. Every year we would get  a pine tree which we decorated and on January 1st we got presents! (The presents were not under the tree because we didn’t have wrapping paper, so they were always a surprise.)

After coming to US, I still remember our first tree. We got it on the cheap after Christmas. It was 5 foot tops and with maybe ten branches extending wide to fill up most of our living room: the stalk in the middle clearly visible through the thin branches. A really sad thing but it was ours and it reminded us of the home we left.  We decorated it and our family came together for the first New Year in a new country.
Over time, the cultrure of the country seeps in. America doesn’t celebrate the way Russia did. In US the holiday is not a family event. You celebrate with friends and it’s ok to bring in the new year at midnight and then go home. So I started to have my own celebration. Bringing in my friends to my house, having good music and food. We had some amazing New Year’s celebrations, an epic time every year. So this is why when I came to Israel, I realized that this holiday, that the whole world decided to celebrate, is a no holiday in Israel. Probably the only country in the world that doesn’t care for it. Even though there are over a million Soviet Jews here who celebrate, the country refuses to recognize it. It felt like in someways Israelis try to deny that they are part of the world, isolating themselves on something special, that could make them a part of the global community. This is why in Israel schools are open the next day and all businesses, there are no fireworks, no official celebrations.
BUT, unofficially, some still try. Because we are new and don’t know many Israelis who celebrate the holiday, we decided to have our own celebrations in my apartment in Florentine. South Tel Aviv area of  Florentine is secular and worldly. There are a lot of bars and there are regular graffiti tours of the area. So it is easy to find   new year’s trees on display in stores and restaurants here (they are not called Christmas trees) as well as happy new ear signs and decorations in English and Russian.
That’s one thing that I love about Israel. There is no commercialism. Every week all decorations change, they don’t have happy holidays, they have happy Hanukkah. Once Hanukkah is over, they have Merry Christmas signs up. Once Christmas is over, they have Happy new year decorations up. But it feels festive. There are no sales, no pushy decorations, it feels festive, not commercial exploitation.
As I took the bus home on December 31st and I saw shop  keepers getting their tips ready, putting up lights and decorations, I was starting feeling the spirit. The same spirit I used to feel in Ukraine as my family was getting ready for the company to come over, cooking all day and decorating and cleaning the house.
In a few hours, my American, Australian, Dutch and Israeli friends came over. We poured champagne, we ate, we had conversations and at 11:30, we went up to the rooftop to dance and bring in the year. It has been my favorite thing to do every year, to bring everyone outside, to meet the new year in the nature. It had been raining like crazy all day but by midnight it cleared up and we had a beautiful new years. There were no fireworks, but we had our poppers, our whistles and our funny hats. We yelled and cheered. We could see people in apartments around us who were sitting at home. It felt lonely. It actually made us a little lonely to see people at home alone as if it was just another night.
So we took off to find a place to dance. We lost some of our members as they had to head home to get ready for the work day. We walked the quiet streets of Florentine surrounded by the graffiti, permanent street decorations. However, when we got to Rothchild, it was packed with people. A corner bar on a street had the music blasting outside and maybe a dozen people were dancing on a corner. We joined the circle and danced until people cleared while a religious jew with a big knitted kippa and long peyyut handed out pamphlets and collected hugs.
We walked home and I passed out drunk, woke up with a hangover and sadly, had to go to work and school. Sitting on a bus for an hour while hung over was cruel, it was sad, but it was worth it.  I thought about how originally, this holiday, celebrated the bris of the worlds most famous jew and 2000 years since the end of Jewish homeland. Today though, as we are back, that’s not what we celebrate. We celebrate making it another year, together, the world alive, all of us alive, Israel is alive.
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Christmas in Tel Aviv

A few years ago I spent a couple days in Haifa. I was there around Christmas time and I was amazed at all of the Christmas decorations, the Christmas trees, the Santas. I forgot that there are Christian and Muslim Arabs and that Christian Arabs do celebrate Christmas. In Tel Aviv, there was nothing of the sort that I could remember or noticed. This seemed to have changed, a lot.

Now that I live here, I’m able to see a lot more or maybe there is a lot more. For one thing, Christmas trees are a thing now. From stores in Jewish areas to large trees in Arab Jaffa, you can now actually see the trees. You can also see people walking around in Santa hats and Christmas decorations are sold in stores and hung in stores. It is strange to think that only a few days ago was Hannukah, and now Christmas seems to have sprouted.

Of course, it is not like in the US. There are no big sales, the decorations I talk about are seldom and not overdone. The 2% of Christian Israel seems to be over-represented, especially compared to the amount of Hanukkah things you see in the US, which is virtually non-existent.

On the actual Christmas Steph and I went out. We went to a Christmas event at a local food court where we saw a Jewish take on Christmas: everyone had weird glasses with Santas wabbling off of them like antennas. There was a Christmas tree, egg nog and everything was festive. Families were eating, people were drinking wine and beer and playing games, which seems to be a specialty at this food court. The big difference, of course, is that in the US, everyone is at home and virtually nothing is open. It was one of the things that made me feel like such an outsider, I had nowhere to be and thus felt completely alone as all others seemed to be spending something important with their family.

We went to a huge party at the Abraham Hostel. People were streaming in dressed up in Santa hats and cheesy sweaters. We played a round of pool after getting some beers. The special was three shots for 36 shekels ($10 bucks). The place was packed with American ex-pats, Europeans, birthright trippers, and Israelis. It felt strange to be at such a huge party on Christmas. It reminded me of the annual party for Jews in San Diego, but bigger and more fun. It made me happy. As we left the drunken debauchery, we walked along a street. This was a Sunday night and the stores were full. We dropped by a Max Brenner Chocolate place, full to the brim. Then we went and got some waffles and ice cream.

After we indulged in this delicacy, we walked and passed a lot of American Jews in the streets. It seemed that all Israelis were home and American Jews had a need to be out on this Christian holiday. I had a realization of just how deep American culture permeated American minds. Even Jews, with their desire to be different and abhorrence of Christmas because of the thousands of years of persecution, had a need to feel Christmas, the spirit and culture that they grew up with, even if they never got to participate. Only in Israel, I thought, would Jews feel free and normal celebrating Christmas.

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Hanukkah in Tel Aviv



I’ve never spent Hanukkah in Israel. At least not in the way as a non-tourist where I get to take it all in. So I can’t tell if what I witnessed was new or old but here are some of the things I observed:

The first night I dropped by the synagogue in Tel Aviv University. There was a talk that was happening there, and they lit the candles before starting the talk. Around campus, there were a lot of Hanukkiahs all over campus, one lighting above the doorway of the business building. The first night there were sufganiyot being given out to students at various buildings with menorahs being lit.

Stephanie bought one for us and we lit ours on the first night as I worked on homework. As the nights progressed, more and more doughnuts found their way into everyone’s homes. We would see them on the streets left in boxes and on plates. There were artisinal stores with $10 sufganiyot and so by the end of eight days, people were sick of them. I made a joke that Hanukkah is eight days of Sufganiyot.

Every night you knew which night of Hanukkah it was. The Hanukkiahs were literally everywhere. On streets, on street corners, in windows, lighting up the city hall and all over social media. For the seventh night, we went to Rabin Square where a giant four-story Hanukiah stands. The Chabad rabbis were there to give out the hanukiahs, a 14-year-old orthodox kid in a suit and hat sang Hannukah songs with a keyboard rabbi next to him. People took pictures, danced together with kids and dogs. The rabbis went up in an elevator truck used to fix light poles and lit the candles which gave off columns of smoke.

The stores were all decorated with Hannukah decor. Lots of gold and black all over town and at one restaurant where we took my mother, there were many dreidels to play with. We played and entertained ourselves as we waited for the food.

It was strange to feel a Jewish holiday, being surrounded not by Christmas, but by my holiday, by people who celebrated my holiday. And if they didn’t celebrate it, they at least ate the Hanukkah donuts.

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Dear Palestinians- Don’t Shoot At Me Over Trump, Join Me In Protest Against Trump.


Dear Palestinians, I’m a Jew living in Israel. I was a Jew in my passport when I was born. I didn’t choose this. No country ever gave me full citizenship and made me belong. The only place in the world where I have that is Israel where I get to be your neighbor. Israel is the place you settled as an Arab or converted as to Islam or Christianity, for if you are an Arab, you are from Arabia. Israel is the place that is the birthplace of Islam and Christianity, because Jesus and Mohammed both believed in the Torah and made it the basis of Islam and Christianity. Jews wrote the Torah, it is written that it was given to them by God and they are the keepers of the original Torah. According to the Torah and a lot of Archaeological and genetic evidence, we are from here. We are the parents, you are our children, sometimes we disagree. Thus, we lived here as neighbors for millions of years. We are one people and we should act as one people and protest these dumb dumb assholes in America who divided us with a stupid meaningless announcement as one people.

So if we are one people, why are we fighting? We all love this land, we built this land, why are we fighting here instead of living and prospering? Furthermore, why are we fighting over the words of a giant orange cheeto half a world away? He said something dumb to distract the world from his problems. He said something to make a whole lot of evangelical Christians who think him doing this will make them go to heaven and kill all of us here. He said something to make a portion of American Jewish ideological zealots who don’t care about you or me but instead about some vague idea of old Israel that they don’t even live in. So why are you shooting at us?

Why are you shooting at us when his words didn’t actually change anything? Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for over thirty years. His words are not moving Knesset, or the residence of the prime minister. His words are not making East Jerusalem part of Israel. All he did, was stir the pot for his own benefit. Your leadership, instead of standing together with the majority of Israelis who hate Bibi, who has come to power and has held it through fear and intimidation declared war on us and you joined that war.

They declared war- the war not just on us, the Israelis, but on all of us. When they shoot rockets, Israel responds just as you respond when Israel shoots rockets. This causes deaths and sadness on both sides. When you clash with soldiers, people are harmed. But why clash with Israeli soldiers? They are not American. They are not Trump. They are most likely just as against him as you are and are responding to you because you are attacking them.

You know what we should do? We should band together. We should protest together. We should not create this war that does what that asshole wants: detract the Americans from kicking him out of office. We should come together in peace and create the country we both want: with East Jerusalem as your capital and West Jerusalem as ours. As two people who have a common past and a common future.

Let’s not let him divide us for his own means, let’s come together and help conscious and good Americans get away from him and help ourselves create the countries we deserve.

Together we can thrive, together we can throw off the puppet masters in Iran and America. Let’s not add any more deaths to his words, let’s create children and live with our actions. By going with him, we will have death and war. By going together we can have Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and prosperity. Let’s go together.

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I like the number eight. As long as I can remember, eight has been my favorite number. Seven might be the lucky number, but 8 is my favorite. I say this because today, the Jewish world turns 5778.  I don’t usually write something like this on Rosh Hashanah. Something that resembles the Christian new year. However, this year has been rough and perhaps, I should have before, and so I will now.

This year has been rough, it will be a year in two months that  Trump was elected; our naive hope that he would not last has become a depressing reality. I have applied and been accepted to Tel Aviv University and will study two things I am passionate about: environment and business. This year I became a married man, through semi-Jewish tradition. I ready many books, conquered many habits. Some of my photographs made it into a museum, I gave a few talks about my book. I went to Israel with Stephanie However, in some ways, this year has felt like a loss.

This year I feel there was little done with Our Jewish Story. Little progress was achieved with Phittle and very little headway on ending BDS. After a less than great year, we hope that next year will be better. After all, next year,  I will move to Israel and start on my masters. I will be living as a married man. I should have hope! Hope after all, is born within us out of the fact that we can do something. As long as we breath and can speak and write and think, we have influence and therefore we can do something. Now of course, we should also have realism about our abilities and our influence. We should know that we can only have hope if we have the will to act.

Sometimes we act kindly, sometimes passionately and sometimes, not enough. For instance, some people get angry and shout at their friends over things they disagree, but we should only get passionate to the degree we have influence. Thus we should be passionate with our wives and husbands, our kids and parents. We should be passionate because we have a say in their life. We have ability to influence them. We should also be passionate with our friends and do our best to keep them from making poor decisions, because we do have influence. Now we know that we should try to speak to our representatives and congress people, but we should not get too passionate about those things because individually, we have very little influence there.

This year, I have lived through a few life changing events. Events which gave me experiences generating feelings unlike any other in my 35 years on earth. To build my chuppah, to plan a wedding, to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage, to see her walk down the aisle, all feelings concerning those events are impossible to describe, which is why I did not anticipate them. Similarly to loose my wedding ring has also felt unreal. Perhaps less unreal only compared to seeing a monster become elected to the most influential post in the world and begin dismantling our safety and security like a child locked in a candy store has also been a feeling on the opposite spectrum (sorry my Republican readers, I know how you felt about Obama, let me have my feelings if you have yours).

On the other hand, I have also seen my child grow from a toddler to a person. I have come to understand my teachers and parents more than I ever thought possible. I have learned to have compassion for my co-workers, my elders and so many flawed people.

These are the experiences I gained this year. I have come to realize, that there is so much to gain every year that I cannot imagine the year to come. This experience we call life is so rich that no book can describe it, no 3-D experience can make it real. All I can say is I wish others what I wish myself: the audacity to live. I wish myself and others to have courage and have the ability to hope and dream, and to trust in self. We need to trust ourselves that we will find a way to get to the other side even if we can’t see the other side. We must trust ourselves because the alternative does us nothing. We need to trust ourselves because we’ve made it thus far, we might as well believe that can make it a bit further.

Thus this book is sealed. A new book is opened, but with the advantage of having read the ones before, we can walk stronger, faster, bolder.

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Bar Mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El

I went to Temple Emanu-El today. A temple that has produced a lot of leaders in San Diego. I expected something special because of the many stories I have heard of this synagogue on a hill in historically Jewish San Carlos, across the canyon from San Diego State University.

The outside is made of white stone like the buildings in Jerusalem. The entrance was bright and full of light. The wooden doors lead me to the simple temple inside. Wood paneled walls with a beautiful clerestory. The ark was two large glass doors on a stage like many reform temples. No fancy artwork was there. Simple decor such that the eyes would stay with the rabbi. The one beautiful accent was a Sanctuary lamp that looked like something that Chihuly would make.

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On Zionism

Last month I was accepted to the prestigious joint executive MBA at Nortwestern University-Tel Aviv University. As soon as I was accepted to the program, which would give me a chance to live and learn in Israel I was tasked with finding a way to pay for the education. This means applying to scholarships. Some scholarships have interesting prompts like this one for American Zionist Movement.

Sam Litvin On Zionism

I was seven years old playing with my best friend when he said “I’m, Russian.” I replied “me too!”  My mother corrected me: “You’re not Russian, you’re Jewish.” It was traumatic, it was a three-letter word that made me “other”.  This was the first time I heard the word “Jewish” and I did not understand what it meant. I’ve never heard of a country called Judea or of the people who are Jewish. I looked like all the kids around me and we all had the same customs. I did not understand what it was about me that was Jewish. It took nearly 23 years from that moment to learn what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be a Zionist.

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Rabbi Chalom of SDSU

When my friend Eric came to San Diego, I took him to the SDSU Chabad. The large house across the street from University on Fraternity row was packed with over 100 college students. Long tables line the room with a a Torah ark at the front. The strange sight overwhelmed Eric as he saw students chanting and singing songs in Hebrew standing up on chairs with their arms. Not all students were Jewish as all are welcome, but everyone could feel the pride and love for the history and traditions.

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What’s Up With Yiddish?

Yiddish culture is at the root of Judaism and American culture, and YAAANA in San Diego is going to make sure we know it.

The invitation to a Yiddish Cafe sat in my email inbox unopened for over a week. Each week a new reminder arrived about ’s YAAANA (Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America) Yiddish Cafe arrived taunting me. As a friend of Joana the organizer I couldn’t say no. As a Jew from Ukraine I shouldn’t say no. But as Sam, I really wanted to say no.

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Interview With Eric Fingerhut (Full Text)

He sat with a phone against his ear in the dim hallway of the Fairmont of Grand Del Mar. We nearly passed him but I recognized the silver haired man with a grey kippa from the pictures of my research. Minutes later, the ex-congressman, Stanford Law graduate and the current CEO of Hillel entered the large oak-paneled dining room where I set up my recorder. The room had a long bar, floor to ceiling windows, stone carved fireplace, paintings worthy of museum walls, and cloth covered chairs transporting me far from San Diego. “Hi, how are you,” said Fingerhut full of energy as he shook my hand with a smile. He excused our surroundings, explaining that he heard that this is the “Versailles of San Diego and so I had to stay here.” I looked out the window onto the lawn below where fountains crisscrossed and bushes artfully manicured into intersecting diamonds. It was no Versailles, but it certainly tried and was in stark contrast to my usual perception of Hillel.

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