Mayonnaise with that? Israeli TV drama takes Lenny Bruce further

June 27, 2014 by

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Lenny Bruce would be giggling in his grave. He was the one who so famously explained that mayonnaise is goyish. Who would have predicted how far this observation would extend?

Israel is gripped by many obsessions painful and joyful. At the same time as we pray for the return of the three kidnapped kids, we are also overtaken by World Cup fever. For a country not represented in the greatest football spectacle of all time (yes, it’s football, Ann Coulter!) Israelis are free to support whoever they want – flags abound.

But the greatest obsession in abeyance until next season is our Zaguri obsession. 26 episodes of this family comic drama about a dysfunctional Moroccan family in Beersheva took the country by storm. And it also reappropriated mayonnaise for a brand new audience. To Full Post

For Discussiony-Panelly-minded people


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Every Jewish holiday however celebratory always has its reflective aspect. This Chag Ha’atzmaut at JW3 is no different, giving room as it does to thoughtful and honest conversation

2stateFor more than 20 years now, the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been two States for two Peoples. And for 20 years now, we are still nowhere near this solution. Three fascinating women will be sharing their opinions about this solution that hasn’t yet solved anything… Linoy Bar Gefen is a top TV and print journalist, who still believes that the 2 state solution is the only game in town. To Linoy’s political left will be Yael Lerer, who was parliamentary aide to the Arab Balad Party, and established the Andalus Publishing House that produces Hebrew-language translations of Arab Literature. And to the right of Linoy, Karni Eldad – singer/song-writer and blogger – will talk of her love for the Biblical land of Israel and the Jewish State. A deliberately multi-vocal all-female panel. To Full Post

For the fun of it!


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The most important word in the famous phrase “hugging and wrestling with Israel”, is the word “and”. JW3′s festival embodies the balance brilliantly. Here are some of the fun for the sake of fun events they have planned.

gagaOn Bank Holiday Sunday there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find a different side to Israeli dancing! The artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, Ohad Naharin, developed a world-renowned movement language called Ga-Ga, that he insisted was appropriate for non-dancers as well as professionals. Ga-Ga People is now an international organisation, running amazing workshops for all – dancers and non-dancers, from age 18 to age 120. To Full Post

Yom HaZikaron – Memorial Ceremony + About The Oranges


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Yom HaZikaron Tekkes

Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Day of Memorial, is a complicated day to mark in the Diaspora. Israelis sometimes feel strange to be marking the day outside of Israel, missing the all-togetherness of an entire nation standing to attention, and sometimes feeling bad they are not with their family. Local Jews also grapple with some ambivalence – wishing to show solidarity on the one hand, but at the same time knowing their emotional connection to Yom HaZikaron is always going to be qualitatively different to that of their Israeli counterparts. To Full Post

Hallelujah! with Kobi Oz in concert


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A Yom Haatzmaut celebration that has something for everyone.

The headline is that Kobi Oz is performing live together with his incredible band. For music-lovers – you get a soulful, energetic, and light-hearted blend of world music performed by world-class musicians. For Israel-celebrators, you get a sweet taste of the best of Israeli culture that blends Jewish text, social comment, and Middle East spice. For Israelis, there’ll be many favourites from the days of Teapacks, and some amazing Oz variations on Arik Einstein classics. For Jewish culture vultures, the materials Kobi has created for his Psalms for the Perplexed venture will blow you away (entire album with translations here). And for everyone – all the songs will be accompanied by projected translation into English…

And the warm-up act for Kobi… A Eurovision Evening! A truly British celebration of Israel – nostalgic, strange hair-do’s, dancing and joy with tongue very firmly planted in cheek. Israel’s just a little country that isn’t even in Europe, but right from its debut entry year in 1972 it has out-sung out-danced and out-kitsched the talents of the musical elite in the Continent’s premier festival of song. Sing along to the Hais and Horas on the Eurovision big screen, then vote for the absolute winner. 

18 reasons to be excited in London

April 9, 2014 by

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I’m very excited about London, these days.

Starting on 27th April there’s going to be a massive Israel festival leading up to Yom Ha’atzmaut on the night of May 5th.

It’s the JW3 inaugural Chag Ha’atzmaut, that we at Makom consulted on.

I think it’s just a fantastic program, and I’m going to spend the next 9 days explaining why.




As its title suggests, the festival deals with the Party and the Political – fun stuff and serious stuff, panels and lectures, performances and screenings. The festival has everything – live music and live parody; Brits discussing Israel and Israelis discussing Israel; films and art and theatre; amazing dance workshops and kids’ events.

What gets me most buzzed is that JW3 has made such a bold statement: That Israel is important to them – important enough to relate to Israel’s dynamic complexity as an honest adventure that has room for celebration and for deep questioning.

First up tomorrow: Hallelujah! With Live Performance by Kobi Oz, and the film Precious Life.

The L word and Israel

February 14, 2014 by

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Image by Neil Mercer

I would like to talk about the L word.


It is a word that went out of fashion many moons ago for many people, but it still lives in our relationships.  To Full Post

Hillel Open and Closed: 5 comments

February 9, 2014 by

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Mahatma Gandhi once famously said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

It would seem that the gusts of wind currently swirling through the Hillel environment are throwing up a similar assumption and a similar question. The assumption is that Hillel is someone’s home which visitors are welcome to enrich but not to change. And there is a hanging question as to what might knock us off our feet?

A fascinating and healthy discourse has emerged over National Hillel’s guidelines for Israel programming on campus. We at Makom have been following the discourse with great interest. As key advisors to the Hillel-Jewish Agency Israel Engaged Campus initiative, as seasoned practitioners of complex dialogue on Israel throughout the Jewish community, and as consultants to Jewish organizations around the world on exactly the same issue of guidelines and red lines – we’ve noticed a few anomalies and a few opportunities. To Full Post

From Pomegranates to Woody – Robbie Gringras


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My favorite character from the Chazal period, the Rabbis of the first and second century, is Rabbi Meir. He was a smart cookie. He was married to a strong and smart woman, and was an original thinker. At the same time, his superior intellect made him slightly suspect in the eyes of his contemporaries. It was said, (admiringly or disapprovingly) that he could argue a point of law one way, and then argue it equally fluently the other way. When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.

 When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.


Meir’s most famous moral and intellectual choice was in his ongoing friendship with R. Elisha Ben Avuya. Ben Avuya had been the top scholar of his generation until he lost his faith and was excommunicated. In the moral universe of Chazal, to renounce one’s faith was disgraceful. Like being a child abuser in our days. In the Talmud his name was obliterated, his teachings were accredited to “the other”, and no one was allowed to come near him, let alone study with him. R. Meir, my hero, totally ignored this ban. He continued to study with his old friend and teacher, arguing: “When one eats a pomegranate, one can spit out the seeds yet still gain sustenance from the juice.” Quite apart from the fact that this is actually more difficult that it sounds (ever tried it?), it is also more morally complicated than Meir admitted. To Full Post

Debates and the freedom of speech

January 8, 2014 by

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A Jew is kidnapped, and there is only one way to free him. The community must summon the Prophet Moses to take part in a religious disputation with the Archbishop.

 Who on earth can “summon” Moses? The community figures they will have to cheat a little. They dress up the huge bearded Shimon the Butcher in biblical clothes, and push him towards the disputation.

 “I may look like Moses,” pleads Shimon, “but I don’t know a thing about religion! How will I be able to debate the Archbishop, of all people? I hear tell he was once a Jew who studied at Yeshiva…”

 “Don’t worry, Shimon,” explains the Rabbi, “I will be standing right next to you and I’ll whisper all the answers in your ear.”

 But the moment “Moses” arrives at the medieval arena, he is pulled up onto a high platform, separated from the Rabbi by yards of scaffolding. The Rabbi looks up at him, helpless.

 “Hear ye hear ye!” cries the adjudicator on the platform, “On my left stands the great Archbishop! On my right stands the Jewish Prophet Moses! Today they will engage in theological dispute! And, since the Archbishop does not speak ancient Aramaic, and since Moses clearly does not speak Latin, this disputation will be conducted in SIGN LANGUAGE!”

 The Archbishop begins the mute intellectual duel. He draws a wide circle in the air. Shimon the Butcher points down to the earth. The Archbishop brandishes three fingers. Shimon raises a fist. The Archbishop reaches behind him and lifts up a glass of wine and an loaf of bread. Immediately Shimon pulls out a boiled egg, breaks the shell on his forehead, and begins to eat it.

 At that the Archbishop pales. He shakes his head, and signals to all that he is defeated. “Moses” has won, and the kidnapped man is freed into the arms of a rejoicing Jewish crowd.

 As they help him down from the scaffolding, the other bishops quiz the Archbishop as to the meaning of the defeat. He shakes his head in awe:

 “Genius… pure genius… I signaled to him that the Lord ruled the heavens and the earth. But he replied that more crucially the Lord lives with Man on earth. And he’s right! He’s right… Then I reminded him of the Holy Trinity, but he straightaway pointed out that for all his blessed incarnations, the Lord is one. As a final attempt to escape his massive intellect I showed him the body and the blood of Christ! But he just showed me the egg, the symbol of life eternal, and I knew I was bested…”

 At the same time the joyous but confused Jews were asking for Shimon the Butcher’s interpretation of his victory. They found Shimon as non-plussed as they were:

 “I dunno what happened, to tell you the truth,” he stammered, “He told me he was going to throw us Jews out to the ends of the earth, and I told him we we’re staying right here. He threatened to poke my eye out  with a fork – I told him I’d punch him on the nose. They he got out his lunch, and I got out mine!”

 I love telling this story. For some reason, no matter how many times the audience has heard it, or heard a version of it, they still laugh happily at the punch-line. Yet the joke conceals – as do many Jewish jokes of a certain era – a great deal of pain.

 A disputation was not a nice thing. The idea that one’s freedom may be dependent upon one’s ability to argue is terrifying to imagine. To lose a theological dispute was not to “lose an argument”, but to lose one’s basic rights. Yet in Jewish folk memory, the disputation is a recurring motif of street-smart trickster Jews outwitting the untrustworthy goyim and winning the day. It’s a feel-good story drawing on one of the darkest periods of Jewish history.

I was reminded of this story a few months back. I was on a fact-finding mission with the Makom team, mapping out the nature of Israel education in the UK, and ended up in a late-night conversation with an old friend. We had grown up together in Habonim Youth Movement, were weaned on the same Zionist heroes, and were meeting up for our annual heart-to-heart. I have been living in Israel for the past 17 years, while he has spent most of this time living in the UK.

 He was telling me about “The Inheritance of Abraham”. This was a policy paper issued by the Scottish Baptist Church, about Israel. My friend had been called by a radio show to comment on its contents, which he assumed were highly critical of Israel. He was ready to roll out his usual “yes but” response: Yes, the occupation of the West Bank must stop, but critique of Israel must not spill over into demonization or anti-semitic slurs. But then he read the report.

He was stunned to find that the attack on Israel was not only political: It was theological. Israel was not only accused of maltreatment of Palestinians. The Jews themselves were deemed guilty of overplaying their “chosen people” hand, and were mostly condemned for interpreting their own scriptures wrongly. In short, the critique was that they were not, well, Christian enough. The position paper, which has since been altered quite significantly, was couched in almost classic Disputation language.

 My friend had quite rightly pointed out that the Christian church should be the last institution to lecture people on behaving in a “Christian” fashion, but beyond that, a criticism of the religious approach of another is simply out of bounds. “You can’t say that,” was his phrase.

 I found myself only half-agreeing with my friend.

“Well,” I found myself correcting him, “You can say it, but you’d be wrong.”

“No,” pushed back my friend, “You can’t say it.”

I was surprised. This, coming from the person who had written a seminal book about Westen traditions of democracy and freedom of speech? There are things that cannot or should not be said? Surely it is okay for the Scottish Baptists to write and publish what they want, just as it is within our rights to tell them where to stick it?

And what about the Jews living in Scotland? My friend asked gently. What must life be like for Jews in Scotland when everyone is looking at them as Christ-killers? You cannot, he went on, separate the statement from the power that stands behind it. The fact is that the Baptists in Scotland have the power to make Jews’ lives miserable. There is nothing free about a discourse held between the powerful and the powerless.

But then, I wondered out loud, don’t we just find ourselves rushing to proclaim our powerlessness rather than dealing with criticism? Can only the weak critique the weak? And who is to judge who is weaker than whom? I was thinking of my Israeli context. Palestinians argue they are weaker than Israel – so Israelis must not critique their behavior? Does weakness free you from responsibility? And Israel – whenever accused of wrong-doing – will often point to the huge threats surrounding us from the entire Arab world. If we see ourselves as weak does this exempt us from critique?

My friend would not back down. He was, in the end, arguing about the moral propriety of the Disputation.

And it was in this realization that we discovered why it was that we found ourselves on two different sides of this argument. Why it was that I was happy simply to dismiss the “findings” of the Scottish Baptists, and why he was keen to deny their right to publish the findings at all.

 I have become an Israeli Jew and he has become a British Jew. For our formative young adult years we were both Zionists, agreeing on pretty much everything to do with the Jewish world. Now we found ourselves seeing the philosophical point of the other, but with our guts pointing in different directions.

I, after seventeen years of life in Israel, would seem to have internalized the Zionist revolution: Jews have power. As a result, we can live with critique because we can choose to ignore it. Living in my sovereign state, backed up by army and state structures, I feel that the Baptists’ opinion is just that: An opinion and not an existential threat. Whereas my friend who has lived outside of Israel for all this time, has internalized Diaspora minority-ness: Jews outside of Israel do not have such power. As a result, a word, inadvertently tossed out or consciously wielded by the powerful, can do serious harm.

We’re probably both right. Or both half-right.

Since this conversation, controversies and sensitivities have continued to crop up around the UK. The use of the Y-word in soccer matches, strange upside-down salutes, walled-off churches, and edgy TV satire. Before responding, I find myself reining in my Zionist’s shrug, ready to hear the muffled shout of the minority. 

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