Monday, April 16, 2007

More people getting married in Israel

More people from abroad are getting married in Israel it seems.
In recent years an increasing number of Jewish couples from abroad looking for an alternative to a formal wedding at home or a more typical remote destination in the Caribbean or Tuscany have decided on Israel as the place to break the glass and officially start their lives together.

"We are very casual and would not have had a black-tie wedding," said Gena Bresgi, 23, of New York City, who was married last year in a large glass hall amid the lush gardens of a kibbutz. "Our wedding had a nice feel, very relaxed. There was not that high pressure."

It was her husband's first visit to Israel, and together the two families toured the country. Close friends and relatives who came used the wedding as part of an Israeli vacation, too.

With relatives around the world, Israel proved to be an ideal place to gather, Bresgi said.

"I have a lot of family in Israel and all over the world," she said. "This was a more central meeting place for everyone."

Beyond the dramatic settings, gourmet food, guaranteed good weather between May and late September and more informal feel, Israeli weddings tend to run just a fraction of the cost of a wedding in the United States, Europe or Australia.

The next time you get married, think of us!

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Holocaust memorial sirens = normality

Holocaust Remembrance Day is in progress at the moment. Yom HaShaoah, as it is called in Hebrew, is a unique part of Israeli life.

At mid-morning, sirens sound throughout the country for two minutes. When the sirens begin, people stop what they are doing and stand silently in memory of six million Jews murdered in the Nazi-led Holocaust. When the sirens stop, daily life picks up where it left off.

Today I was on Ben Yehuda Street when the sirens went off at 10 a.m. As usual, pedestrians halted on the sidewalk. Motorists got out of their cars and stood in the street.

While the sirens were still sounding, a big, expensive automobile drove past.

One seldom sees such a disrespectful act on this day in Tel Aviv. I won't try to comment further on it. Instead here is something I wrote in a diary three years ago.

Holocaust remembrance day (Monday, April 19, 2004)

A few minutes after 9 a.m. the screen goes dark and the computer shuts down. The radios are suddenly silent, and the emergency lantern is lit. A power failure.

Going down into the stairwell to check the circuit-breakers, I encounter a downstairs neighbor. His apartment is also without electricity.

I telephone the electric company. A computer voice answers. As of 9 a.m., it says, no power outages are scheduled. The voices advises me to check that the problem isn't in my circuit breaker. Next, the voice asks me to key in my area code and telephone number. The computer does a quick lookup, and the voice tells me the problem is in Tel Aviv, on my street, in my building. It tells me which key to press if other apartments in the building lack power. I do it.

After I hang up, the thought starts occurring to me that something bigger may be wrong. Power outages where I live are rare, and the electric company usually restores service quickly. I listen to the 9:30 news update on a battery-powered radio which I keep in the apartment for emergencies. Nothing unusual on the radio. Just the usual tensions. The radio devotes its main discussion to the Holocaust, which is being remembered today in memorial ceremonies throughout the country.

Ten minutes later I hear a woman's voice, shouting: "Hello! Hello! Down there! Do you have electricity?"

From my kitchen windows, I see the shouting is coming from the penthouse of the building next door. This neighbor has never spoken to me before. I spoke to her husband once, a former city official, when he came in to vote where I was a poll-watcher in the last national elections and I had to verify that he was who he said he was. Apart from that, we have had no other contact. Now she is asking a question, and I hear anxiety in her tone.

"We don't have electricity in this building," I tell her. "I reported it a half-hour ago."

"Has there been an attack?" (We are speaking Hebrew, and she uses the word pih-goo-'ah, which denotes an act of sabotage and has come to connote terrorism.) "Like in the United States?" I understand this as an allusion to 9/11.

"There was nothing on the radio," I tell her.

I go out onto the front balcony. I see that a woman is cleaning the sliding glass doors in a third-floor apartment across the way. I want to believe that all is normal in Tel Aviv. But the thought that something sinister may be behind the power failure won't go away.

Then I hear the sirens.

It is 10 a.m., and the sirens are sounding around the country, as they do every year on Israel's Holocaust memorial day. The sirens reassure me. Everything is okay, I tell myself. If there had been an attack big enough to knock out electricity in Tel Aviv, the sirens wouldn't be working, would they? The reasoning is false, but this doesn't occur to me until later. At the moment, the woman across the way has stopped wiping the glass doors and is standing at semi-attention on a balcony, looking out at the street. I see no other sign of life.

After two minutes, the sirens stop. Immediately, an automobile noisily turns a corner into my street and two men in work clothes stride purposefully into a building entrance. They had been standing out of my line of sight during the sirens.

A few minutes later the electricity comes back on. On this memorial day that has become part of our life, all seems normal.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Cultural Exchange: Matzo - Shukran wa Sahten!

Passover is a favorite holiday for Israelis because of its Zionist content, and it is celebrated by an overwhelming number of Israeli Jews.  Israel's Arabs have been a part of the Passover tradition, in a sense, for many years. It is they who symbolically "buy" all the 'Hametz' (not kosher for Passover) foods so that Jews can say they have no Hametz in their houses or businesses.
Less discussed, but nonetheless important, is a widespread cultural phenomenon. During the holiday, numerous not too observant Jews flock to Arab towns to buy non-kosher pita bread, beer and other items that have vanished from Israeli stores.  These are generally those who do not have the foresight to buy two cases of beer and three or four loaves of bread a week in advance, and to freeze the bread. We won't get into the whole issue of Jewish religious observance at Passover  or Israeli Jewish religious observance here. Suffice it say that Arabs do a fairly brisk business in non-kosher for Passover items in this season.

Now, some people may be very sorry to hear about such practices, and unhappy that I discuss what everyone knows (see the flame comment for an article that criticized Israeli candy), but that's the way it is, and that's the way we have to tell it, though some people may write angry comments reminding me that I am not Ephraim Kishon or Moses or whatever, and I wasn't in Israel during the riots of 1929 and I was not even present at the first Zionist congress, and therefore, according to them, I am not entitled to comment. I freely admit that I was not around at the parting of the Red Sea, but nonetheless I have to write what I know to be true.
Israeli Arabs, as we have long known, are collaborators in the celebration of Passover in Israel, and play a very important role in it.
What we didn't know perhaps, and what is most interesting, is that the exchange works both ways. While the Jews are busy buying pita bread, humus and other forbidden goodies, the Arabs are busy munching matzo!
So Sahten (hearty appetite in Arabic, Bete'avon (hearty appetite in Hebrew), Shukran (thanks in Arabic) and Toda (thanks in Hebrew) to everyone for their respective cultural contributions.
Ami Isseroff

Matza's secret fans - Arabs

By Yoav Stern  Haaretz 6 April 2007

The first swallow of spring is usually found in the heaps of Matza boxes that fill supermarket aisles all over Israel. It certainly applies to supermarkets in the Jewish towns and cities, and apparently is also true in Arab communities.

Gadaban Supermarket, located at the entrance to Umm al-Fahm, generally stocks up on Matza for Passover. Moreover, the supermarket has to replenish its stock before the end of the holiday, due to keen demand by locals.

Apparently, the Arab public regularly consumes large quantities of Matza.

Iyad Sharbaji, the manager of Gadaban, told Haaretz yesterday that his Matza is consumed entirely by local Arabs. "The Jews passing by here already have enough Matza. The customers are all from the local Arab community," he said.

His competitor down the road, The Market, opened this year. The demand for Matza therefore caught the store by surprise. "People told us ahead of time that they wanted Matza, so we bought five crates. Now we have only two left," he said.

It turns out the avid consumption of Matza is not a new trend in Arab towns and villages, whose inhabitants view the traditional Jewish food as a welcome and refreshing change in the menu. "It's not a religious issue, and certainly not a political one," Sharbaji explains.

A journalist associated with the Islamic Movement in Israel told Haaretz that he also bought Matza. "The kids can't get enough of it," he gleefully reported. "They eat it like crackers. But it also represents a sense of folklore for us. Maybe we like it more than Jews do because no one's forcing us to eat nothing but Matza all day long," he said in explanation.

Another happy customer from Baka al-Garbiyeh said his children and wife were "packing the Matza away," adding that they preferred to eat their Matza with a spread of jam or chocolate.

In fact, it seems Matza is particularly popular with Arab children, and most consumers report their sons and daughters especially relish the seasonal offering.

Since the demand for Matza in the Arab public is naturally unconnected to Passover, the residents of towns like Baka al-Garbiyeh begin consuming it well before the holiday.

Meanwhile, bakeries in Arab towns have reported a substantial increase in sales during Passover, as Jewish customers stock up on bread and pita, which are hard to find in Jewish towns over the holiday

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

What secular and religious Israelis say about being Jewish

Earlier this week, in a post about preparing food for Passover, I wrote: "We can only guess what percentage of attachment to Judaic tradition lives inside your typical secular Israeli."

The next day, the Hebrew newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth printed an educated guess.

Yedioth, which is the country's biggest daily newspaper, reported on results of a survey conducted for it by Dr. Mina Zemach's Dahaf institute.

The survey found that adult Israeli Jews define themselves as follows:

Secular--50 percent
Traditional--30 percent
Religious--12 percent
Haredi ("ultra-orthodox")--8 percent.

Of those who identify as secular, 55 percent believe in the existence of God and an additional 16 percent believe in a supreme force. Aside from belief, 61 percent observe the religious prohibition against consuming meat and dairy products at the same meal, and 47 percent don't eat leavened bread at Passover. Some 34 percent eat only kosher food at home, and 39 percent would recommend a religious wedding for their children.

On the other hand, the survey found secular behaviors and ideology among the non-secular. Thus, 62 percent of the "traditional" Jews drive automobiles on the sabbath, and only 48 percent say that religion is what defines them as Jews. A majority of "traditional" Jews attribute their Jewish identity to nationality.

Taking everyone into account, the survey found that what defined the respondents as Jews was as follows:

Jewish religion -- 40 percent
Israeli nationality -- 33 percent
Jewish nationality -- 26 percent.

Some other findings about the entire Jewish population follow.

--77 percent believe in God (vs. 70 percent of U.S. Jews) and an additional 8 percent believe in the existence of a supreme force.

--65 percent eat only kosher at home.

--62 percent eat in non-kosher restaurants.

--62 percent of married women light sabbath candles.

--44 percent kiss the mezuzzah on a doorpost.

--25 percent of men pray daily in a synagogue.

--23 percent of men wear a skullcap.

--14 percent of men pray in synagogue only on sabbath and holy days.

The Dahaf institute, which conducted this survey, is known for political polling. Its director appears regularly in a televised political discussion show on Israel's Knesset channel.

A Hebrew report of this survey appeared on pages 12-15 of a pre-Passsover supplement in Yedioth's April 2 printed edition. The report stated that the polling sample was 1,000 adult Israeli Jews. It did not indicate the margin of error nor when the survey took place.

The author of Yedioth's report on the poll was Sever Plocker, who later commented on the survey in a column which is translated into English and available online. It is titled, "The new Israeli Jew."

"Survey conclusions are optimistic," he wrote. "The religious-secular gap is being bridged, and the risk of it[s] creating a rift is becoming more remote. The walls are being torn down, the borders distinguishing between the holy and the profane are being divided both ways, and there is a symbiotic relationship and mutual benefit between religious-traditional Judaism and secular Judaism."

He concluded: " Some will view this as the failure of Zionism, which sought to create a new type of Jew detached from his past and ghetto-like characteristics. This type of interpretation is erroneous: The more the nationalist elements of Judaism are strengthened the more Zionism will thrive, because it serves as the Jews' national freedom movement."

You can read the whole article at YnetNews, Yedioth's English-language site.,7340,L-3384538,00.html

A note on terminology: The survey's four-way division of Israeli Jews (into secular, traditional, religious and haredi) reflects a blind spot of Israeli pollsters and Israeli society in general. It makes no allowance for the Reform and Conservative denominations, which are active in Israel despite lack of official recognition. These denominations represent a majority of religiously affiliated U.S. Jews. The pollsters' terms "secular" and "traditional" represent 80 percent of Israeli Jews but do not necessarily correspond to Reform and Conservative. In an Israeli poll, "religious" does not embrace Reform or Conservative. The pollsters' "religious" corresponds to "orthodox" in U.S. English. "Haredi" is usually translated as "ultra-orthodox."

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Keeping kosher at an Israeli seder table

"Where are you for the seder?" is a question Israelis have been asking one another for weeks. The answer can tear apart an entire family. Many couples have to choose between being with one set of inlaws or the other for the Passover seder. Parents of adult children can face the same dilemma in reverse, torn between their various offspring.

Our family is lucky this year. All sides are invited to my son's place.

My son's housemate telephones. She asks me to prepare two vegetarian appetizers for 30 people, and one vegetarian main dish.

The question of kashrut arises. There will be meat on the table, and most of the vegetarian recipes in my repertoire call for cheese or cream or some other dairy product.

Ordinarily, meat and dairy on the same table would not be a big issue with this group. Some of the people who will be at the seder keep kosher by their own lights, regardless of what is on the table. If they eat meat, they don't have ice cream for desert. This principle would not get anyone a certificate of approval from the official rabbinate, of course, but it can satisfy the inner Jew in an Israeli who feels attached to tradition yet not bound by it.

The kosher status of the seder is an issue because the guests include a couple who have been becoming more religiously observant. Translated from the Hebrew, what they are doing is called "returning to repentance." This is sometimes likened to the born-again phenomenon among certain Christians, but the processes are not the same. For Jews, it is not a matter of salvation through belief. Returning to repentance means observing rules of behavior including keeping kosher.

We don't know if meat and dairy on the same table will offend this couple. Nor do we know how they might react. One religiously observant friend used to bring her own plate to meals at our apartment because we didn't have separate sets of dishes for meat and dairy meals.

In time, word arrives through family channels that the newly observant couple will be ok with the seder as planned.

In Tel Aviv, which some people denounce as a hotbed of rampant secularism and non-kosher abominations, a survey found recently that more than 30 percent of the restaurants are certified kosher. Years ago, in response to data showing that a certain percentage of Israel's Jewish population was religious, someone commented that this percentage was actually the proportion of religion that lives in each Israeli.

We can only guess what percentage of attachment to Judaic tradition lives inside your typical secular Israeli. Whatever the percentage is, it seems to get bigger at Passover, when Jews in Israel gather to retell their versions of the story.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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