The 2500 killed in Israel every year that no one talks about.

Yeshiva boys walking outside of pollution haze of Haifa in the background.

It’s an early Wednesday morning when I put on my shoes and pop in my head phones. I turn on my running app and begin my morning stride down a street in south Tel-Aviv. By the time I get to Eilat Street near the beach, in spite of years of running, my lungs fill up with heavy air and I have to slow down. At the same time, at home my wife is sick again. It seems every two weeks or so she comes down with respiratory disease of some sort. We’re both suffering from same thing that many Israelis who fear terrorism, suffer without knowing it: the air is rich in particulate matter.

In spite of all the wonderful news about Israel and their environmental tech, they are still reliant on coal, 50% as of 2014 with plans to eliminate it by 2030 according to Times of Israel. However today, there are still over 2000 people a year who die in the area between Ashdod and Tel-Aviv every year according to Haaretz. In Haifa, 15% of cancer cases are attributed air pollution. Israel is dead last of all OECD countries in quality of air. How can StartUp Nation, an intelligent and small country, afford to lose so many people while expending so many resources to fighting the comparatively rare occurrence of terrorism? The Jewish diaspora is quick to defend Israel from outside hate and threats, but it seems to be ignorant of the internal threats and self inflicted harm that costs Israel every year 3.3% of the country’s GDP.

The damage is not just from coal, but from heavy reliance on diesel which powers the large amount of trucks, trains and buses that pass through Tel Aviv narrow streets. The city and it’s surroundings account for 42% of Israel’s population . All of them are exposed to high pollution from cars and passing planes which have been linked to premature deaths, Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

What are some of the reasons for this? One reason is protectionism. While Israel now has the natural gas to solve the issue, enough that it exports it to Egypt and Jordan, the several hundred coal jobs hold heavy sway in politics, which is why it will take 12 years to transition away from coal, gas and diesel. The temporary jobs of a thousand Israeli workers will cost as many as 30,000 Israeli lives in the next 12 years. This is nearly 10 times more than all the Israelis killed in all the combat since 1948. A few hundred jobs and a few million dollars in profit for a few individuals will cost Israeli citizens $42,000,000,000 US Dollars. That’s twice the entire annual spending of Israeli government.

I love living in Israel. So does my wife. Having lived on three continents and traveled to over 40 countries, there’s no place that makes me feel at home like Israel. After making Alija and putting in the hard work to become Israelis, we thought long and hard about whether we can make a home here and how that will be living far from our parents and friends in US. But health is important, and so we have to ask ourselves, is our health and children’s health is more important than comfort. Do we stay and be sick or leave and be healthy? That is a question that no Israeli should every have to ask themselves.

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The Challenge of Learning Hebrew

I always felt that I was good at languages until I came to Israel.

I was born in Ukraine and learned to speak Russian and Ukrainian almost simultaneously. I moved to the US at ten and learned English to a point that most don’t know I was born outside of the United States. In middle school and high school, I took French, and I can still converse in it. Conversational Spanish and Portuguese I picked up in my travels. I even took Chinese and thought it to be fairly simple and easy to learn. But Hebrew, the language of my forefathers, In Hebrew I learned my match.

I faced difficulty learning it while traveling and working on the book. I looked into the prayer books and tried to make it out. I wrote down the alphabet but that didn’t help. I finally decided to go to classes where once a week, I learned to read, letter by letter, I learned to pronounce foreign words. Each word came out slowly, laboriously. I thought I was ready for Israel, but I soon learned that being to read HaTikva, means nothing. It means nothing when trying to get around when paying for services or reading a menu. I also learned that hundreds of hours spent on Duolingo made me no more capable of answering people when they asked for directions. After a year in Israel, I thought I would be virtually fluent, but I was virtually mute.

You see, most Israelis that I work with, have no patience to teach me. We have to work and converse and so we switch to English after a few pleasantries. I use Google translate for difficult things and so I learned to get by. I was waiting also for my Alija (immigration) to come through. I was waiting because I thought that Ulpan (Hebrew School) is expensive. I was sad to find out that the government Ulpan is generally very good and very affordable compared to University and private classes. And so it was a year after arriving in Israel that I began my Hebrew journey.

Twice a week in a class full of French and Russian young people, I waded through the learning of how to read and write, how to speak, how to answer questions. Let me tell you, it is no piece of cake.

Hebrew is an ancient language. It is built to “make sense” which makes it very difficult to learn. It lacks vowels to save space and is written left to right, both reasons thought to be because it was a language developed before paper, and so was etched into stone. It has fewer consonants as well, this makes words look and sound similar to each other as there are fewer sounds. Then the grammar, which has prefixes, suffixes, and endings. The prefixes and endings sound also the same and vary a lot for the female and male gender. The female and male gender are not consistent and neither are endings for the nouns, adjectives, and verbs. The verbs can be irregular and they modify the adjectives and nouns depending on who or how many people speak. The adjectives also switch their placement compared to English. It is the upside-down language that requires a consistent practice that is hard to find when working on two simultaneous graduate degrees.

After four months, it is starting to come together. I am starting to hear more words when people speak and I am starting to find it easier to speak with others. I find it also with a little effort, possible to read more complex text at a faster rate. I have a long way to go but one of my big goals and greatest challenges is starting to make progress. With effort and practice, I hope to be conversational, come October, our two-year mark.

As a Jew in Israel, there are many difficult things I find here. The language is the toughest. It gives me perspective on my parents and others who emigrate in their mid-thirties, the difficulties they find in learning a language and providing for their family. These are not weak people, this takes hard work and America and Israel are lucky to have the type of people who were able to do so. Because from first-hand experience, by the number of people I saw drop out of my Hebrew classes and give up on learning the language, it is far from everyone who can adapt, learn and thrive.

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Jewish Kochin-Portuguese India

I land in Kochin and the curry and smoke smell of India hits me as I step off the plane. I’ve been to India twice before, but this is the first time to the long-awaited south. The airport is new and clean, with lots of light coming through large windows reflecting off the polished black marble floors, a staple of Indian high class. It’s like usual India but better, a stark difference to previous trips. A life-size statue of a decorated elephant greeted me before I reached the immigration. The electronic visa area was set up to the side of the regular visa area. It had plush couch seats and a gentleman was talking to me in a chair of a desk that was not quite right, with a railing and a camera situated such that neither one of us could see each other without straining our necks to see above the railing or squishing in the see to see bellow. A superior came over and then a few others as there were no other people to question and they didn’t have anything else to do. They asked me questions about my business and what I would be doing. Once I gave them my business card, they let me through. It’s always good to be a CEO, even of a company that no longer exists.

Jewish Kerela Click on image to view album.

I was out of the airport and when I didn’t see a sign for Sam, I was slightly disappointed. I had grand visions of having a sign and being lead out of the airport like a VIP. When I didn’t see the sign I realized that I did not know what my guide looked like! I thought of alternatives, maybe Mariya, the Belorussian steward from Qatar Airways might help? But she and all other crew were gone, and I was realizing that I am all alone. All of a sudden, a man with short hair who looked a bit like Mohannad, asked if I was Sam. It was Deepak! I was saved! Our driver came to get us and we plunged into the mess that is Kerela roads. The country road was an ever-present city with cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses passing each other banked by large trees and intermittent shops. No stop signs, no dividers, no stoplights- just ever moving chaos, the default in a country with so many people.

After about an hour we reached our first destination. A quiet village with an old old cemetery near an abandoned quarry. Overgrown and slowly disappearing into nature. Slowly we started to make out the graves and headstones camouflaged in the brown and tan growth around the perimeter, each marked with Hebrew inscriptions. I couldn’t make most out but I could read names. There was a sense of peace and quiet, but also of abandonment. I snapped pictures and we moved on to the next stop.

We drove over to the synagogue nearby. The village was built around it. The village didn’t have a road before, it had a ferry station which was the village port and how all villages began back in the day, by being next to a waterway. The synagogue, white with an angled red-tiled roof. You had to pay an entrance fee as they are under the care of the government and the cultural authority. It was small with seating according to Masorti tradition, on the sides with a slated beemah in the center. Not too hot as the windows were designed to allow the air to pass through and cool the building. The ark was wood and intricately carved. The woman’s section was at the top where there was also a room for studies and storage. The circular window that usually at the front was a Bharati wheel.

While we were there, three Indian girls came in. I asked if they were Jewish. They were not.

“What brought you guys here?” I asked

“We have heard of this place and Jewish people, we were curious.”

The synagogue museum, was doing its job.

Next to the synagogue is the home of Bezalel Eliahu and his wife Bat Zion. They met in Israel, both emigrated there and made a living in Ashqelon working in developing the agriculture capability of Israel. The dining room wall in his home was covered with pictures of his family and dignitaries: him with Ben Gurion, Narendra Modi, and many other officials. He bought this house next to the synagogue after decades being away, which was the house he grew up in and he comes here for the summers. His daughter lives in Vancouver and granddaughters passed up American college for service IDF and Hebrew University. He told me that he taught his children to give, just as he was brought up and he said that he was asked by the President of India: “give back something to the motherland”.

“Four words: we give respect to all, and all give respect to us.”

In this town, four religions lived side by side in peace. The Muslims built a mosque on the side of the street as to not disrespect the synagogue. Eliahu said how once a group of Americans came and asked how this was possible. He said: “Four words: we give respect to all, and all give respect to us.” She was a Holocaust survivor and she broke into tears upon hearing this.

We drove to the next largest synagogue about 40 minutes away. It was in another river town with a Jewish street where hundreds of Jews once lived. The synagogue had several parts, an entrance around which the rabbi’s house was built, a storeroom with a women’s study above, from which there was an elevated walkway to the main women’s section. There was also access to a secret room above the hall. From the women’s section, you could walk down a staircase into a large hall with an intricately carved wooden ark with a crown top. There was a simple carved beam made out of slots and a wooden carved and flower decorated the ceiling, a staple of their architecture.

Copies of copper plates that made the contract with the Kerela king and the community were on display, signifying the long tradition between Jews and the people of Kerela. An Indian woman who worked there was showing us around. She seemed to know a lot about the Jewish people having studied History in college. She was employed by the government of India which ran the synagogue as a government museum. It was nice to see how well the government took care of the Jewish past, even in this tiny small town far from any tourist attraction.

She told me how this synagogue was rebuilt in the 1600s after destruction by the Portuguese before the Inquisition. The Kerela people called the destruction and massacre a shame and abomination. Thus after the Portuguese left, the synagogue was rebuilt according to Kerela architectural style with wooden ellipses under the sloped roof, just like the Taj hotel. The street with similar houses was a vibrant Jewish community until 1948, when most of them left for Israel.

We made an hour drive to new Kochin passing fishermen and rice farms which lined the river. The city was on the large bay with new buildings where we got onto a ferry to the old colonial Cochin. Old Cochin was on another side of the wide bay with a Taj Hotel on an island in the middle of the bay. We passed large transport tanker ships docked waiting to relieve their load and awaiting new items to ship. The old Kochin was composed of small one or two-story buildings and narrow chaotic streets. Our rickshaw navigated the chaos with honks of the horn, sometimes getting stuck with other rickshaws, requiring us to get out and push them apart. As we neared the Jewish area, more and more Muslims appeared. We reached “Jew Town” demarcated a large sign and throngs of tourists. The street was wide with and filled with foreigners that we saw for the first time. We walked through one of the trinket shops that became a cafe and then a bookstore and turned out to be a shortcut to the famous Paradesi Synagogue.

The entrance to the synagogue was again apart from the main building. In front of the building was a large clock tower with a distinctive watchtower above it and a Jewish cemetery to facing the entrance. To the side of the entrance was a room with large painted panels showing episodes from the history of the Kochin Jews with the background on who they were and how they settled in Kochin. One of the panels told the story of Jews were nearly wiped out in the 1100s in an event where 40,000 Jews were killed by Muslims with only 11,000 surviving and swimming to safety to find safety from the king of Kerela.

The synagogue itself was beautifully blue walls and tiles with gold embroidered cloth on the beemah and an intricately carved ark and roof but with bright colors. Every ceramic tile on the floor was decorated with pictures. Unlike other synagogues, there were many people visiting this one. When we entered, we saw a group of Israelis on the right side praying and giving Kadish. No pictures were allowed as the man in charge, (not Jewish) was collecting money for a copy of copper plates and small poor quality pictures.

Afterward, we walked down the street lined with trinket sellers and found Sarah. Sarah is the 97-year-old last living Jew in “Jew town”. She was nice and smiled. She looked even older. She said “you bring us food and we will eat it” Her helper Tada was there with her. I took pictures of them. He had been helped by Ralphy and other Jews in town and was now taking care of Sarah and her legacy. He showed us the living accommodations showing that same floor plan was for most Jews in Kochin. He gave me a copy of the history of Jews and signed it and then took us to an old synagogue that was taken apart and now sits in the Israel Museum. There was some Jewish street art with Hebrew writing on it and inside, stripped bare, holes in the roof allowed the hundreds of pigeons to make it a home. We then stopped by the post office where I got a stamp stamped with a date and a Magen David. Tada proudly told me that this is the only post office in India that has a Magen David as their official stamp.

“Jewish people were nice and friendly people. When they left, the happiness left with them.”

We got back on a rickshaw and made our way back to the ferry. The driver talked to my guide about how had lived here among the Jews when they were still here. I asked what people felt after the Jews left. I assumed it was a stupid question. I assumed he would say nothing happened, things remained essentially the same. But that’s not what he said. “Jewish people were nice and friendly people. When they left, the happiness left with them.” He said. This profoundly struck me. I felt that somehow Jewish people abandoned their Indian hood. That they in a way abandoned people who valued them. At the same time, Jewish people like Indian people seek their homeland, a place that is theirs, surrounded by their culture, their land, and their history.

We got off the rickshaw, got a ticket for the ferry in the men’s line and then got into the waiting cage for the people who are getting on the ferry. The ferry or a boat that feels more like a water bus came over and we got on. At this point we had an issue, Deepak’s phone battery died and we had to contact the driver. As we fumbled, the woman across from us without a word gave us a safety pin off of her sari with a smile, helping us pop the sim card from his phone and put it into mine. But I didn’t have his contacts. We decided we’d wait for his driver to call and in the meantime, in the meantime we would go to the last stop to meet Elias Josephai or Babu at his synagogue.

The synagogue was a five-minute ride by rickshaw. We walked down a marketplace alley where everything is sold that comes from the dock at a much cheaper rate than when it is sold in Mumbai or other stores. As we walked down a narrow alley, it opened up. On the right side among all the shops, behind a fence was an interesting looking building with red-brick outlines around windows. I began to take pictures of it and unbeknownst to me, this was the synagogue. We walked around and entered an alleyway where the entrance was under a red sloped roof. At the entrance were different plants, part of Babu’s plant store.

Once we enter, there were dozens of aquariums. Babu ran the aquarium store in the front room. Then we walked in and entered a beautiful synagogue. Unlike Paradesi synagogue which was accented with blue colts inside, this one was accented in red, with red cloth, Magen-David decorated Beema, red tiles on the floor and red carvings on the ceiling.

As we entered the synagogue, I saw Babu and the older couple who we saw in the outskirts of Cochin synagogue. The balding white-haired man was hunched and took many pictures with his SLR while his wife talked to Babu. The old man and his wife live in Minaseret Zion, where I also have relatives. They were visiting because the man was born in India and saw himself as an Indian Jew. The synagogue moved him to tears and he thanked Babu for keeping it open and for restoring it. Babu lead us through a photo album that cataloged the restoration of the synagogue, showing how a Hindu master donated to the synagogue and a Muslim man donated the beautiful lights. He told us how a friend of a friend made oil lamps just as the ones that used to light the synagogue.

“They were not happy, they were at peace but not happy.”

I talked to him about why Jews left. I said Jews were persecuted in so many places, why would they leave this place if they are happy. “They were not happy, they were at peace but not happy. They never purchased land or made large investments. They were very religious and knew that one day they could move back. “

Babu then spoke of a few other Jews who live around India, each with a large business today and that is why they continue to stay. He told me about his hope: that this synagogue, would be replicated in Israel where 500,000 Indian Jews live. He hoped that this beauty would be appreciated and that the culture that Jewish Indians created could continue to live on in Israel.

I asked about the Chabad. According to Babu, the Chabad rabbi was forced to leave by the Muslim Imam’s who are in much control of the city and are not as friendly as they once were. Perhaps the East European Orthodoxy just did not gel as well with locals as the Mizrahi Jews who lived here for centuries. Ominously, the day after the Chabad rabbi left, the Muslim cleric’s sons died in an auto accident.

We left with much feeling after such a beautiful synagogue and such heartfelt conversations. We walked down the market street, bought a Cochin delicacy, of coconut oil fried bananas and spicy nuts. We got me some cash and a sim card and met with the driver as Deepak had a chance to charge his phone at the synagogue. We got in the car at 18:55. I thought I had another hour, plenty of time to catch the train. But when I checked the time on my printout and was shocked to realize that my train departure was at 19:00! Deepak tried to relax me saying the train is always late, but Danesh stepped on it and the two of them got me through the serpentine of Cochin streets to the train station where my train was waiting for me. As I stepped onto the train car, the car began to move, we didn’t have a second to spare. My visit was brief, but the experience was as rich as the culture of Kerela’s Jewish people.

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Jews and MLK

The story of the wealthy Jew, the influential Jew of United States would not be a reality if not for MLK. Remember that before the civil rights act, before the work of Martin Luther King Jr, a Jew (Leo Frank) could be strung up in Georgia in front a crowd and nothing would happen to those who killed him. Before Martin Luther King, Jews could be singled out the way Mexican and Central Americans are today, and prevented from emigrating even in the midst of Genocide, as was the reality due to the Immigration act of 1924. Before MLK and his work, Jewish people could be excluded from buying homes in areas like La Jolla California, attending Universities like Harvard, participating in Fraternities like Pi Kappa Alpha or being part of country clubs like Rancho Santa Fe country club. 

Jewish communities often speak that they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Reality is that they did not march for him or for black people, they marched for their own rights which at the moment were not guaranteed and often trampled on. If it was not for the sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who are in fraternities, who are country club members, who live in wealthy neighborhoods of New York, Los Angeles and San Diego, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who contribute to politics and Israel, whose kids attend Stanford and Harvard, these people, simply would not exist. 

So as a Jew and an American, I owe a deep deep debt of gratitude to the work and sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if you are Jewish, you do as well. 

The story of the wealthy Jew, the influential Jew of United States would not be a reality if not for MLK. Remember that before the civil rights act, before the work of Martin Luther King Jr, a Jew (Leo Frank) could be strung up in Georgia in front a crowd and nothing would happen to those who killed him. Before Martin Luther King, Jews could be singled out the way Mexican and Central Americans are today, and prevented from emigrating even in the midst of Genocide, as was the reality due to the Immigration act of 1924. Before MLK and his work, Jewish people could be excluded from buying homes in areas like La Jolla California, attending Universities like Harvard, participating in Fraternities like Pi Kappa Alpha or being part of country clubs like Rancho Santa Fe country club.

Jewish communities often speak that they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Reality is that they did not march for him or for black people, they marched for their own rights which at the moment were not guaranteed and often trampled on. If it was not for the sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who are in fraternities, who are country club members, who live in wealthy neighborhoods of New York, Los Angeles and San Diego, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who contribute to politics and Israel, whose kids attend Stanford and Harvard, these people, simply would not exist. 

So as a Jew and an American, I owe a deep deep debt of gratitude to the work and sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if you are Jewish, you do as well. 

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As Linda Sarsour Speaks, Jews of America Need to Consider Plan B

BDS is dehumanization of Jewish people of Israel. It states that the beginning of peace cannot come until an end of Jewish habitation of their ancient homeland. Sarsour stating this at the women’s march is the definition of normalized antisemitism because it takes Jewish people and makes them less than human, makes them the only ethnicity on earth that a large portion of America feels that they are not deserving of their own homeland and that the path to that is Ethnic Cleansing. Normalization of antisemitism is exemplified here publicly and proudly: genocide and ethnic cleansing is ok against Jewish people in Israel. The two sides, the majority of Trump’s supporters and Linda Sarsour now agree on one thing: their antisemitic feelings. And the people in the middle are going along with it. It is now more unpopular to defend Jews than to go after them. What is worse is that majority of American Jewish people are not aware of the feelings of their fellow Americans toward them. This shift has been slow and steady. The attacks have been slow and increasing and constant.
So the question of what to do at this point? Well, those who see what is happening have to do two things: they have to fight and plan for the worst. They need to understand that Jewish people who don’t see what is happening, are choosing not to see and will not see it. They need to work for a better day but also remember history and begin making plans for leaving the United States. I do not say this lightly, I say this because I have seen and spoken with too many people who lost their families because they did not see Germans becoming genocidal maniacs, because they did not see their neighbors turning to murder, but Germans did become genocidal maniacs and their neighbors in Germany, France, Netherlands, Hungary, turned them in and their neighbors in Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Poland slaughtered them. We are the survivors of those who survived. We know better, we must prepare, because we just witnessed a major tipping point in escalation against us, and it is not likely to go back. We have witnessed a full normalization of hate. It is time to protest, it is time to fight, it is also time to prepare to flee or perish.

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Yom Kippur Tel Aviv- The Holiday Israeli Kids Love

In America, kids’ favorite holiday is Christmas. Jewish American kids prefer Purim and Hannukah. Purim because of treats and dressing up and Hannukah because of presents. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is the one kids like the least. They have to fast, they skip a day of school for an even longer day at the synagogue. You have to apologize to people. It’s a drag!

However, Israeli kids like the holiday that is the one you’d least expect. They love and eagerly await for Yom Kippur. Why?

Yom Kippur in Israel, and especially in Tel Aviv, becomes something completely different from what it is in the United States; it transcends religion. At sundown on Yom Kippur, all traffic stops. All cars, buses, scooters, and motorcycles stop driving. People, human beings, are no longer restrained by the dangerous snarling and belching metal beasts roving the streets. They spill from the buildings like water down the sidewalks and wash the entire pavement surfaces. They flood the streets on bikes, roller blades, skateboards and on foot. Children of all ages, race on the streets with their parents sitting together and chatting, unafraid of cars. The kids feel the freedom that children in rural areas and suburbs feel every day and they lap it up with the hunger of a released prisoner.

People begin to spill out onto the streets of Tel Aviv as cars stop driving.

Most Israelis are secular. As such, they don’t go to synagogue to pray and most of them do not fast. They spend the day with their families and explore their city. They sing and they dance at Rabin Square where hundreds of kids ride on bikes on the square and on the streets. They ride skateboards on Rothchild and bikes on Ibn Gvirol. They stay out late into the night even though there are no bars visibly open, but some underground bars are open where people go to drink and have fun as if it was the prohibition.

The holiday extends into the next day. Kids are out unsupervised, riding around all parts of Tel-Aviv, from the African kids in the south near Tahana Merkazit (central bus station), to the wealthy kids in north Ramat Aviv, to the Arab kids of Jaffa. The adults also ride around: some ride their bikes along the tranquil and quiet Ayalon, the main freeway that cuts across Tel Aviv. The generally congested Ayalon is eerily quiet. Every once in a while, an ambulance or police car or a lone car with an emergency, quietly drive along the road, careful to watch out for the bikers and walkers on the wide highway.

All is quiet on the Ayalon

Not everywhere are streets empty and shops closed. In Arab Jaffa, some shops are open on Jerushalaem street, in open defiance to the Jewish holiday. Kids ride back and forth on the streets with a tree-lined walking path in the center. For some reason motorcycles and a few cars blasting music also ride up and down the streets flanked by kids on bikes, in an open protest to the Jewish holiday. On the unoccupied walkway in the center, Arab families sit in plastic chairs. The mustached men with long traditional garb and the women with long religious skirts and head-covering. They smoke shisha and drink tea as kids run around them. This is the biggest chaos of Tel Aviv, and yet, it is still peaceful.

A girl on a skateboard and Arab kids on Jerusalem Street of Jaffa.

As the day comes to a close, Jewish men and women in bright white holiday clothing walk along the Arab streets of Jaffa with tzit-tzit flowing in the quiet wind, tallis under their arms. Their kids trail them on bikes and skateboards. They walk past the Arab kids and shops on their way to the hundreds of synagogues that pock-mark all of Tel-Aviv. The synagogues are packed, standing room only with men near the Torah and women at the back. Everyone is crowded and prays for the last two hours of the Hag (holiday). Everyone is smiling and everyone in the synagogues represents their countrymen as they ask forgiveness for a year’s worth of not asking permission, for a year’s worth of yelling at each other and being generally rude and pushy Israelis from Israel, apathetic Israelis from Russia, always too loud in public Israelis from America and isolated from everyone in their superiority Israelis from France. Together they packed the synagogue in suits and in shorts, in fancy shoes and in flip-flops, in hats and yarmulkes, with beards and shaved faces, with piercings and tattoos.

Packed synagogue in north Jaffa, south Florentine

At 6:30, the city beasts awaken, they creep onto the streets. Kids leave the streets and they are replaced with incessant noise of honks and revving of buses. The peace and quiet are gone, but the feeling remains. Because for 24 hours, Muslim, Christian or Jew,  we were all Israelis, we were all one nation experiencing a communal peace and calm, we all felt and experienced a connection to ancient Israel, celebrating Yom Kippur as we did, 2000 years ago.

Am Chai Israel.

Take a look at some pictures in Instagram

open shops in Jaffa

Kids ride in bands without parents in central Tel Aviv

African kids in south Tel Aviv on Levinsky street.

African kids and religious Jews leaving Synagogue near Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv.

Couples late at night on Ibn Gvirol

Kids on bikes in front of the cultural center on Yom Kippur Evening.

Tel Aviv residents walking on streets along the beach.

Kids and parents and adults on Rothchild Boulevard.

Jaffa on Yom Kippur

Arab boy on bike in Jaffa on Jerushalaem Street

Arab boys riding bikes along side a runner on Yerushalaem Street.

Israeli and Druze flag in Jaffa/Florentine

Jaffa Florentine residents after Yom Kippur Services



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A Few Updates!


So as some may know, I am living in Israel and attending the graduate program at Tel Aviv University working on Bat Research for world-renown Professor Yossi Yovel to get a Master’s in Environmental Science and on my Executive-MBA from the Northwestern Kellogg and Tel Aviv University Recanati School of Business.

Past year has not been easy, as I have been writing about my experience, taking courses, working on research, training Israelis in American Folk wrestling and so many other things.

A few big things I wanted to share:

A) I’m an Israeli now! Waiting for my passport but my wife and I have officially gotten our Alija!

Steph and I in Jerusalem right after getting our Alija.




B) In July I  was lucky to get the Addesman Scholarship which allowed me to travel to Namibia to study under Prof. Berry Pinshow, Prof. Scott Turner, Dr. Eugene Morais, and Prof. Nurit Agam Biophysical Field Methods. Two of the toughest and hardest working weeks in beautiful Namibia. The trip allowed me to visit the Jewish community in of Windhoek about which I wrote in my Jewish Namibia post.

Our Namibian and Israeli students at Gobabeb with Prof Pinshow, Prof Turner, Dr. Maurais and Prof Agam

C) I’m very honored to have been the recipient Don P. Jacobs scholarship for the business school. It’s an honor as he was the longtime dean of Kellogg business school and he developed the first global MBA with Israel being the first chapter. I am very honored to be one of the recipients for this year.

I am applying to many scholarships for the business school and the goal for the business school is $80,000 ($65,000 tuition and $15000 in travel costs for the global electives). Currently, I have raised $20,000. I created a little thermometer here so you can keep up to date with my progress.


Thanks for stopping by! Feel free to write me to litvins on my gmail e-mail with any comments, suggestions and thoughts!


Tel Aviv American Folkstyle Wrestling Club at Team Bert

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Jewish Namibia

Nikita came to the hostel door. I saw him behind the security personnel. He was a lanky man with thin features, tall and glasses. He said his name was Nikita and I switched to Russian immediately.

He drove me down the dark night streets of Windhoek. It was a full moon but if felt darker than the dunes of Gobabeb. The lights of buildings and streetlights showed us the way. The cars zoomed on what was the wrong side of the road for me.

We entered a suburb, recognizable by tall walls and electrified fences, a staple of developing country. The door was opened by a round-faced black man with a kippa and a grey beard about two inches long. I shook his hand and saw three other men around a beautiful painted granite table. A quiet professorial type, a native Herero, Zochar, an Israeli with a blue kippa, Tova sandals and a long black beard which moved as he spoke. At the center was a jolly man that looked like Santa with a South African British. This was Zvi, the caretaker of the Namibian Jewish community.

For the next two hours, we discussed the history of the Jewish community of Namibia, their connection to the  Herero people and other topics concerning Judaism.  Most people come to Namibia for animals and nature, but I feel that it is a place for people.

According to Zvi, the Jewish community began with Litvaks arriving to join the German Jews who arrived during the colonial days. Jews arrived to escape Germany as they fled to South Africa which at the time administered Namibia.

South Africa took over Namibia after WWII. It lied to Namibians telling them they can vote for independence, but in reality, gave them the option of voting for SA to be free or to stay in the commonwealth. The community was a lively one although one with many arguments. German Jews liked things to start on time, Lithuanian Jews not so much. 

Their synagogue was in the center of Windhoek. Windhoek means wind corner in Afrikaans is the capital and it had 5 mayors of Jewish descent.  The community boasted a lot of influence, many Jews who came made money in diamonds and infrastructure. Most, however, moved out. Windhoek did not have a University until recent times, Namibia received independence from SA only in 1992, so as Namibian young left for Johannesburg, they rarely returned. Thus one by one, the community slowly shrank as Jews moved to Israel or America or anywhere.

Today there are 40 Jews in Windhoek. 7 are members of the synagogue which rarely has a minyan.  Zvi does his best, putting on Seders, often cooking himself and shipping kosher meat from Johannesburg. He has often tried to develop an industry of Kosher meat. Meat is a staple of Namibian food. With the dry savannah environment, it can be compared to Argentina and Texas. Lots of game and beef, so much so that many people rarely eat anything other than meat. However, because the Namibian government was supported and supported Palestinians while Israel supplied support and arms to South Africa, the government today has a consulate but not an embassy, and thus no official diplomatic ties to Israel, making trade difficult and costly.

We ate butternut soup, a Namibian vegetable, prayed and enjoyed each other’s company. At the end of the night, the professor drove me home. He stayed in Bulgaria while in exile and married a Bulgarian woman. He converted to Judaism after the many Jewish mathematicians helped him and he saw the similarity between Jews and Herero.

Few know of the carnage the Herero felt and the prequel they would be to the suffering insured by the Germans upon Europe. The final solution was not first implemented on Jews, but on Herero, who after rebelling for being abused, was nearly wiped out when Germans killed the men and marched the women and children en masse into the desert. More than half the population died before they were lead back into concentration camps. The concentration camps were slave labor camps where thousands of Herero died of malnutrition and starvation. Many also died due to scientific experiments conducted on them. The only thing to stop the German barbarity was the end of 1st world war when they handed over the land to Britain. However, the racism of the world would not go unpunished. Because Germans were killing local indigenous people, no one stepped in to argue on his or her behalf. German government felt nothing at the actions of their Generals. The generals and the soldiers were promoted. Europe would soon know the barbarity of these soldiers when Hitler would take these very soldiers as the architects of his army and the final solution. The concentration camp designer would perfect his designs, General Goering’s son would lead the Luftwaffe and the protege of the Namibian Concentration Camp doctor/butcher, Dr. Mengele would continue with the sadistic live human experiments he called science at Auschwitz.

There is a lesson in Namibia, there is no evil we can ignore, evil unchecked spreads and soon envelops everyone. Racism, in the end, causes us all harm. This is what we spoke of at the table of Zvi, the musician, and one-time nightclub owner. We spoke of Apartheid of yesterday and of BDS movement today, to isolate Jews from the world, to dehumanize them, to repeat the butchery of yesterday upon the population today. We spoke of the changing world and the old Torah. These are the stories that flow in a Jewish home, thousands of miles from my home in Tel Aviv and San Diego.

Today, the congregation still meets at the old Synagogue in downtown Windhoek. They sold the Synagogue which will be converted into a Jewish Museum, as they hope to buy a new place, closer to where the community lives so that it might awaken again. Until then, the prized hospitality of Namibian people, including the Jews, was shown to me in the Herrero, in the Afrikaans and yes, the Jews.



























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Finding a new gender and religion

Courtesy of Gavin Wyer at his Beit Din


Originally published on SD Jewish News and World


I learned of Gavin through a comment he made on my Facebook page. He remarked there ought to be Birthright Trips for older people, especially Jews like him, ones who learn of their heritage later in life. Because I love stories of Jewish self-discovery, I reached out to Gavin to talk about his Jewish experience.  As I spoke to Gavin, the simple story quickly become complex. The more complex the story became, the more interesting his story was to me. Interesting people are rarely simple, living simple lives. Gavin is no exception.

In his fifties, Gavin Wyer went through a process of freedom and liberation, in some ways, not unlike Pesach. Religious holidays like Hanukkah, Pesach, and the Muslims’ Ramadan are holidays that take a person on a journey that changes them each year in little ways. Pesach, for instance, takes a Jew through a figurative reliving of a transition from bondage to freedom. Through the multi-day process, the holiday makes people think and ponder their history, their people’s history and their connection to God and other people in their life. Gavin’s story was also a journey of liberation from the woman he thought he should be, to the Jewish man he really was and the work it would take to realize what was there all along.

But let us go back to how it all began: Gavin was born in San Jose to an American father and Canadian mother. Soon after, they moved to San Francisco where his parents divorced and Gavin at the age of three, moved with his mother to her native Canada. Growing up with a brother, two half-sisters and a half-brother, there were two things that Gavin wasn’t allowed to do: look into Judaism and question his gender identity. He lived with the mentality of avoidance for 52 years: he got married to a man, had children, and divorced, twice. At 31 Gavin made a step towards his true self, he came out as a lesbian. He moved to a remote part of Regina Saskatchewan at 35 where he worked in corrections. By fifty, most people seem like they have had things figured out.  For Gavin, a life of never quite fitting in culminated at this point where he would face his greatest challenges and changes.

At 52, Gavin happened to see Chaz Bono on TV. Chaz is Sonny and Cher’s son who had gone through a female to male transition. For the first time, Gavin could see who he really was, something he knew since as far back he could remember but was forced to hide and pretend. Seeing Chaz, the door opened to self-realization to become who he truly is:  “That’s me, this is who I am!” he said to himself. Because even though Gavin was divorced and living as a lesbian, he always felt that this identity didn’t fit him. All of his life Gavin felt that he failed as a woman. It never fit. In fact, when he was seven months pregnant, a maternity store clerk called him a “Sir”. “How many pregnant men do you have coming to this place?” he said to her. Even when he was a lesbian woman and men at his work asked him for advice with women, Gavin’s response was: “I have no idea.” He simply couldn’t relate or understand women even after years of living with them. However, seeing Chaz Bono gave him that final insight into who he really was, and with that insight and clarity, Gavin’s transformation began.

Although the physical change was not without its hardships and complications, the psychological transition was “by far more difficult” and not necessarily because of other people’s reactions. For instance, Even though a prison is a place of violence and macho aggression, Gavin felt immediate acceptance and respect from co-workers and prisoners when they learned of his choice to accept his male identity. The transition overall was difficult emotionally, not because Gavin had to learn to act like a man, but because difficulty lay in determining what kind of man he wanted to be, something that most men figure out over the course of their lives, but Gavin had to figure it out within a matter of months. He quickly realized that calm, quiet people are those whom he respected and that example he learned to follow.

In spite of those difficulties, what Gavin did not account for and which took a great emotional toll on him was that coming to terms with one truth about himself would require coming to terms with all truths. What Gavin did not foresee was that the most important challenge he would face was coming to terms with Judaism.

Gavin’s relationship with Judaism is similar to that of many modern Jews: complicated from an early age. One of his earliest Jewish memories was as a child. Somewhere in the house was a book with a Star of David. When his mother saw him with it she slapped him and threw the book in the fireplace and told him that he was to have nothing to do with Judaism. He doesn’t know why she acted this way, she was not antisemitic. He thinks perhaps a feud with his grandmother caused the reaction. Whatever the reason, the traumatic experience made him run from Judaism for the rest of his adult life. When a high school boyfriend invited him to a dinner with his parents and Gavin realized it was Shabbat from the candles and religious regalia around the house, he abruptly left and joined a Christian club the next day. He took a religious studies course in college and skipped the lecture on Judaism. He continued to run from Judaism until the day it all changed.

In Regina, Canada where Gavin lived during the time he began his transition, he had a mentor to help him with the process. One day his mentor said that he wouldn’t be available for a few days due to the High Holidays. Gavin realized that his mentor was Jewish and his first reaction was to run. However, for the first time, Gavin decided to not react and analyze his reaction. Gavin decided to explore this desire to run from Judaism. “What’s going on?” he asked himself. “Why am I running from this?” When he mentioned this to his mentor Joel (not a real name), Joel’s very Jewish response was: “I think you might be Jewish.” Gavin didn’t believe it.  This idea seemed absurd. However, Gavin decided to go online and learn about Judaism.  As Gavin learned about Judaism, he realized that he felt a kinship to morality, to people, to history and the religion.

Gavin’s next step was to call a rabbi for a talk. When they met, he told his story and the rabbi laughed and said: “Of course this makes sense, you’re Jewish!” This reaction was baffling to Gavin but he wasn’t persuaded, he decided to hire a genealogist. The genealogist mirrored the rabbi and without any prior sleuthing agreed with what everyone else said: “You’re Jewish.”  The genealogist explained that in his experience, 100% of the time, a suspicion of being Jewish resulted in finding Jewish roots. With Gavin, however, the story was a bit more complicated. His father’s family came from Germany. It was thought that they changed the pronunciation of the name from German “Veyer” to Whyer in order to mask themselves as Swedes. However, the genealogist thought that this might be a false lead as they found that part of the family to be living in the US for five generations, making it impossible for them to be from Nazi-era Germany. On his mother’s side, things were even murkier.

Gavin’s grandmother who had passed long ago was Christian and vehemently denied being Jewish. She changed her name, refused to discuss family history and died before he could find out her past. No one knows why she did this, one theory is that this behavior is common in many survivors of large trauma. Heavy trauma sometimes caused people to close up about their past. One can understand this when taking into account that when his grandmother was growing up, America was a less inclusive place for Jews. At that time being Jewish could cost people jobs, exclude them from educational opportunities and make it difficult to find a place to live. Many people in the United States and Canada hid their Jewish past if they could.

They seemed to hit a dead end. However, as Gavin learned about Judaism, he realized that while Hebrew had no effect on him, Yiddish did; old memories resurfaced. He remembered a large gathering a little after his little brother’s birth, and his baby brother crying. He remembered old Yiddish words that his grandmother used to say and holidays where food was restricted and eating bread that they never cut but always ripped with their hands. Gavin reached out to his siblings with whom he lost touch and he was surprised to find out that they were battling the same issues: years earlier his half-sister also searched for her Jewish past and while she did not find anything, his brother embraced the Jewish life. These revelations, even in the absence of Jewish genealogy, told Gavin everything he needed to know and felt to be true. The new revelation about himself made Gavin angry. He was angry at God for doing this to him, especially at this time: “Are you kidding me? I’m in transition!” He said to himself when first facing the possibility of being Jewish. What made acceptance easier was a list Gavin wrote many years ago “25 Things About Me.” He remembered how when he read the list, he could not stop the tears from flowing because not one thing on that list was true anymore. He realized that everything he thought was permanent and core to who he was at the time, was in fact not unchanging and not ever-present. However, Judaism, whether he accepted it or not, was a core part of him.  Gavin decided to accept it and go through the  conversion process to make it official.

This return to Judaism coincided with Gavin’s move to Victoria, British Columbia, after the completion of a serious operation. His return to Judaism was physically easier but emotionally tougher than his gender return. Gavin had to learn everything about his people’s history and face the broad opinions that exist in Judaism. On the other hand, for the first time in his life, he felt he had a culture and a people, something that when he had asked his mother about, she always denied. Here was his birthright, something that he was born to and would finally have.

Accepting Judaism did not make things easier for Gavin; life’s roads are never smooth. After studying under a supervision of a rabbi, Gavin joined a Conservative synagogue in Victoria. While his synagogue seemed to be welcoming to him and his identity, Gavin was troubled when he noticed that other converts were sailing through the process while his conversion was continuously delayed.  When he asked the rabbi, there was always a reason for a delay: the rabbi was busy, or it was a bad time, or he was traveling or it’s the holidays. Gavin began to feel a bit like the Shabbos Goy, helping synagogue setup the kiddush on the Sabbath but never accepted as a Jew. When he mentioned this to one of the community members, the member became uncomfortable and  attempted to relax Gavin by saying: “There’s nothing bad about being a Shabbos Goy.”  This sent Gavin over the edge. Gavin felt a frustration that many converts and half-Jews feel of not feeling acceptance by the world and the Jewish community. One quiet day at the synagogue, the feelings boiled over to the point where he ripped his kippah off and threw it at the bima in front of the ark. The kippah flew with the precision of a plastic bag and undramatically landed at his feet. He then threw his Magen-David necklace and yelled: “I’m not Jewish!!!” And walked out.

As days passed and there was time for reflection, Gavin realized that being Jewish is something that one is and is not something that one can cast off. No matter how hard it might be, regardless of the treatment from Jews or non-Jews, being Jewish is something that is within you because it is you.  Gavin realized that no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t stop being Jewish just as he couldn’t stop being a man. Gavin said, “This is not something I can deny and believe me, I tried.”  Gavin went back to the synagogue and found his Magen David, still on the floor, waiting for him.

Learning about Gavin, I realized how important it is to discern between Judaism as a religion and as an ethnicity. To some, both are important, to some they cannot see past religion while others stay away from religion. For Gavin, the religion was important and this slight from his synagogue was the final straw. Yet, instead of turning his back on his heritage and religion, he chose to approach a different rabbi: if some in the community were not ready for people like him, it was on him to find those who embraced him.

It was just Gavin’s luck that a rabbi he met in California when he first became Jewish- curious, had recently moved from Boston to Seattle. The rabbi had also gone through the gender reassignment process and she was happy to help. With her, Gavin went through the final conversion, with an all-trans Beit-Din, something the rabbi believed to be a historic first.

After conversion, Gavin felt no ill feelings towards his community in Victoria and returned to the synagogue where he was accepted as a Halachic Jew. However, for some time after, Gavin could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t always treated as fully equal. Then one day, one of the children at the synagogue came out as trans while preparing for Bar Mitzvah. Perhaps it is because the times are changing, or maybe it was because of Gavin having been at the Synagogue all those years, that her friends, rather than removing themselves from her, embraced their friend with their support through the transition. The girl completed her bat mitzvah and afterward, Gavin felt that members of the synagogue became more accepting of him as well.

Gavin also never blamed the rabbi. He understood that the rabbi did what he could at a time when society itself was different. He stayed at the synagogue and continued to be himself, and because of people like him who lived their truth, he helped the synagogue and in a small way, society change as well. In a sense, they all transitioned: Gavin, the synagogue, and even society transitioned over time from a prison of a body and a prison of a mind. Similarly to how the Jewish people transitioned from a prison in their own land during Hanukkah, during Yom Kippur, or Pesach. Freedom passed like the light from shamash to the rest of the candles, from Gavin to the synagogue.

At the beginning of the transition, he found that there were many small but important details that required thought and change. One of those details was what would his granddaughters call him. Grandmother? Grandfather? This discussion occurred about a week before Gavin’s Jewish discovery began, which made his Jewish discovery all the more poignant because one of the granddaughters resolved the issue with one word: “saba!” It made so much sense, but how did she know this word which meant grandfather in Hebrew, Gavin asked his daughter. “I don’t know why, but she really wants to learn Hebrew” Gavin’s daughter told him.

Sadly, the path to acceptance is not always direct or pleasant. It is common for people in the trans community to lose their families as a result of announcing their truth, and Gavin was no exception. Although his kids were accepting at first, once the physical changes began to take shape, they began to feel that they were losing their mother. In spite of being part of the LGBTQ movement, they could not face Gavin in his new form and became estranged from him for many years.

But all things heal with time: recently, Gavin’s daughter got in touch with him about their genealogy. As with Gavin’s children, not all people in our society and community accept people like Gavin, but with time, like the Jews who followed Moshe who also needed time to accept their freedom and break the bonds of slavery, they will embrace the freedom of acceptance, and accept all people into the human brotherhood.


Poem by Gavin Wyer


Is this my birthright
to stand with these men
whose sacred brotherhood
goes across time and space
to the very beginning of G-d
and whose unrelenting pain
scars the souls of all men?

Is their truth also mine
in a final deception cleared
and long awaited homecoming
beckoning from generations lost?

Is my final name revealed
to be known at last as one
and claim this heavy burden
of title drenched in blood
to join the endless chain
of unbroken family pride
that comes at such a cost
and gives no quarter?

Is this the secret knowledge
tattooed upon my soul
that my bone and blood and skin
remember still in quiet places
where G-d awaits discovery?

Does this thing lay claim to me
while I yet with hesitance
explore forbidden texts
only to find name unspoken
resides within the seeking?

(c) Gavin Wyer

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Jumping Head First Into Israel’s Politics

My final transformation from a visitor to Israel, to a student in Israel to a citizen of Israel, culminated in going to an election talk by an Israeli politician.

In the basement of the ZOA* House on Ibn Gvirol Street, Asaf Zamir, the Tel-Aviv deputy mayor had his chance to make a case for himself in front of the two hundred or so English speaking Olim (immigrants). He had a short beard that didn’t quite connect to his mustache and an untucked button-up shirt. Although he lived in Florida for part of his childhood giving him accentless English, he lived in Israel most of his life making it hard for him to remember some words, getting help from the crowd for words like opportunity or workers. He was presented as a very different kind of politician, and to me, he embodied the Israeli politician.

So what did he propose? The things which were important to him: bike lanes and pre-k education. He wants to get cars off the streets and make it more affordable to raise children in the city. He explained that Tel-Aviv population is becoming older and younger at the same time because as young people don’t move to the periphery and decide to start and raise families in the city. The public option he hoped would offset the expense of private education pre-k.

After giving an introduction that included stats on voting (30% of the electorate) and logistics (election day is a day off and there is no need to register), he made his case for why it is time for new leadership and what he will do. Afterward, he opened up for a Q&A which in spite of being full of Olim, was extremely Israeli. First Zamir called on a man by calling him “Waldo” because the man wore glasses and a hat similar to the character in a kids’ puzzle book. The man named Nick asked if he would enforce a ban smoking, ban smoking near bike lanes and introduce math textbooks in the English language “because they are written better”. Zamir’s answer was “I’ve spoken over 500 times and I thought I heard everything.” He followed that up with “I’m a smoker, they are people too.” He also said that no he will not go after smokers and no we will not change textbooks.

Zamir laughed at the man asking the questions and said no, breaking two of the cardinal rules of American politics. A woman asked him about dog poop and class sizes. He didn’t answer the question on dog poop, which is what interested me, and told her how some schools have more, some less, it depends on the popularity of school and that 34 students per class are so much better than the 40 there used to be.

Next, a man asked about developing a park and changing the ratio of commercial to residential from a ratio of 70/30 commercial to residential to 30/70. To which Zamir responded that the city needs 70/30 to pay for the services for the 30% and “you say you want cheaper housing but you don’t want me to build in a parking lot, which one do you want?”

When someone asked about the drugs, crime, and poverty in South Tel Aviv, Zamir went into a long tirade about how African refugees arrived in Israel, why they don’t leave, why they are abandoned and how because they are not leaving, we might as well make their lives as normal as possible to help them be a productive part of society. Although, he didn’t say anything about how he would do that.

When Zamir spoke of making the city better than ok, he did not mention how to get rid of plastic in the sea, cigarettes butts off the beach or how to help end the mountains of trash in the streets due to infrequent trash pick up and undersized trash bins. He did tell us however how much of the responsibilities of a city in Israel is handled by the central government including transportation and safety, which is why all he can do about lack of transportation on Shabbat is offer a free shuttle.

The moderator of the event decided to bring the discussion back to issues specifically concerning Olim and asked Zamir what had he done for Olim in the past five years and what will he do. The first question Zamir didn’t answer and to the second his response was his most American politician answer yet: jobs and improved social life. Which seemed like a terrible answer because he as a politician in a city can’t really provide either one. What he can provide is a hotline or a telephone system that answers people in English and gets a person to an English speaking operator instead of hanging up on the caller. With so many foreign Olim and people from abroad who all share English as a first or second language, Israel’s insistence on Hebrew with people who don’t yet speak Hebrew can often feel downright cruel!

In the end, I actually liked Zamir. He stayed late to answer all the questions as promised. I thought it was to seem him crack a joke about building a wall and having Egypt pay for it. He was very Israeli: saying no to people, expressing the things he will not do like recycling or better public safety, things he will do like a light rail (which is already being built) and bike paths (which are also being installed). So what will Asaf Zamir bring as the young new face? I’m not sure, but he did say that he is likable.

*Zionist Organization of America

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