Raising a Glass to Purim and Solidarity

March 23, 2016 by

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Purim reminds us to reach out to others, focus on what connects – rather than divides – us, and work to better the Jewish collective.

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Sweating the small stuff – another view on Israel this week

October 18, 2015 by

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[Cross-posted with Times of Israel]

After this last week, walking through Jerusalem as if tiptoeing through a firing range, it was good to return home to the Galilee.

Here in the Galil, I am reminded that the old adage, “Don’t sweat the small stuff!” doesn’t always work in Israel. Quite the opposite. If I start worrying about the big picture, about the Palestinians, about the delicate social structure of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Israel, about ISIS and about Iran… It’s not easy to find solutions or even comfort.

Today I sweated the small stuff.

Much better.

This morning my daughter and I picked up two elderly hitchers, a man and his wife. They had been picking olives on their land, and were returning home with buckets and plastic bags full.

It was tough.

The old lady enthusiastically pushed a gift of a bag of olives into my daughter’s lap, giving her a careful and swift explanation as to how to turn them into oil.


We sweated.

For although my daughter’s Arabic was good enough to work out how many days to soak the olives, and with what ingredients, one word – accompanied by vigorous hand-gestures – evaded her. We parted with many thanks but no idea as to the key action required for the oil. It wasn’t until we reached a good internet connection that we discovered that she had instructed us to shake the bag of soaked olives, and not to crush them. Same kind of gesture…

It was touch and go for a while, but we made it through.

Then this afternoon we went for food. My brother had come to visit from the UK after a short academic conference in Israel. They’d been culinarily so spoiled during the conference that he was desperate for a falafel. We went to my old haunt. Two Arab guys from Dir El Assad, working from the old center of Karmiel. They were happy to see me, and were very gracious to my brother, until one of them found out that we hailed from Manchester, England.

His face clouded over. My face clouded over. We sweated.

For him to meet two fans of Manchester United soccer club, when he was a passionate fan of Bayern Munich (a team Manchester United had famously beaten in the 1999 European Cup Final), was very difficult for him. The bitterness of a historical defeat hung painfully between us as we sat, munching into tahini-soaked falafel in the heart of the Galilee.

He and I still giggled a lot and had a hug goodbye, but it was close.

Back home on Tuval, my brother and I faced the final test. Sitting in the visitor’s center of Jonny Stern, tasting his boutique wines. The grapes had been picked from Tuval’s fields, the wines had won awards throughout the world, and we were in a bind. Which wine to choose for tonight’s Friday night meal, when every single wine we tasted had won some Golden Cluster award from some wine festival around the world?

We sweated.

We sweated the small stuff all day.

It felt good.

(We plumped for the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve…)

“Sweet when I am Bitter” – a New Year’s celebration of Hebrew

September 13, 2015 by

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I’ll admit that there has been little leading up to Rosh Hashana that leaves me looking forward to the New Year. The extremities of Climate Change, the extremities of Middle Eastern conflicts, the extremities of poverty, refugees, and public discourse.

And then, galloping in on its White Horse, Israeli popular culture comes to lift me up once more. I have been translating Israeli popular music for over a decade now, but today I celebrate the fact that Israel’s Song of the Year is untranslatable.

The song “Sweet when I am Bitter” is such a delightful reggae swing through the cutest of Hebrew word play, that it is no wonder it won the listeners’ award on top radio station Galgalatz.

Throughout the song, Eliad Nachum strings together a hidden list of top music stars, like a musical word puzzle of Israeli popular culture. The chorus in particular is a delight.

A direct English translation would have you understand that Eliad is praising his girlfriend while referring to a friend of theirs called Bob: “You create sweetness like Bob, when I am bitter.” But the word “bitter” in Hebrew is “Mar”, and “Li” indicates the bitterness is mine. In this way we can hear that the Hebrew is hiding the iconic reggae star: “BOB, ksheMARLEY”

As well as playing with pop stars, Eliad touches on the bible, too. “Just tell me, and I’ll run into the (lions’) den” he proclaims. But while referencing the Book of Daniel, he also gently plants a tribute to beloved performer Gidi Gov: “Rak taGIDI ve’arutz el toch haGOV”

The whole song pays tribute to HaDag Nachash, Eyal Golan, Dudu Tasa, Nomi Shemer, and many more.

I could have done one of Makom’s standard video translations, but more would have been lost than captured.

I think this is cause for celebration.

Hebrew culture has now reached such a thickness that even the hit parade is too dense to be easily translated.

Shana Tova!

10 Hours on a Palestinian tour bus – a perspective

August 26, 2015 by

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First appeared on Yediot – the Online Magazine for Bnei Akiva, UK.


In order to respond to embedded questions, hover over the text in bold.


When you’ve been fed one narrative your whole life, the prospect of experiencing another is both daunting and enticing at the same time. When my dad suggested that he and I spend our daddy-daughter day out on a Palestinian tour of Hebron and Ramallah, I laughed, but agreed straight away. To Full Post

Rami: The Magician of Two Disparate Landscapes.

June 24, 2015 by

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Yonatan Ariel, Executive Director of Makom, gave this eulogy at the Global Jewish Forum of the Jewish Agency for Israel on Wednesday morning, June 24th 2015. It has been a year since Rami passed.


Rami Wernik passed away last Erev Shabbat from cancer. He was 46 years old. He served as the North American Director of Makom and was a dear friend and colleague.


Rami is the son of Rabbi Joe and Miriam Wernik – with Joe known to many here, as he served on this Board for numerous years. Rami leaves them, his sister Idit, his wife Kim and his two children Zohar and Dvir to whom he gave his all.  And an astonishing array of friends, colleagues and admirers, including his children’s mother, stellar Jewish educators on three continents, and an avalanche of students touched by his gentle and stunningly modest spirit.

We would like to dedicate this Global Jewish Forum to Rami’s memory – here’s why.

Rami – I tried, and failed, to get you to work with me at Melitz. But I kept my eyes on the prize. When we met up again whilst you were a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow we had a series of rolling conversations about life, the Jews, education and the world. You have been a charming partner ever since. The exquisite devotion you pay to your thoughts before they emerge as words, the compelling and inviting attention that you offer to any conversant, and the rigor with which you challenge ideas before you take them inside are just wonders to behold.

Avraham, our patriarch, was a revolutionary, smashing the idols of his time. In our day, when in the midst of the blogosphere and the twitterverse we are stifled and suffocated by the clamour to make a deafening noise, and more-so in strident tones, then discreet, charming Rami stood out as a superb listener. He gave the most generous reading possible of any poorly expressed thought, gently enabling the other to be at their best, not trashing them for being their worst. Avraham Wernik, like his namesake, was a revolutionary for our times too.

So when you came to work at Makom, my heart thrilled. The purposefulness, the resolve to succeed in an honest way, and the spirit of fun and adventure that you displayed was magical.

For years I have called you by a nickname: Rambo. It always struck me as a delicious and judicious choice because of its incongruity. Rambo is the bulked up, physically aggressive drifter, lunging and wandering hopelessly. Contrast that with you as the smart, sensitive, handsome caring man with loyal anchors in so many areas of your rich life. Yet the determination with which you chose Jewish education as your profession and your knowledge, passion and skills for philosophy and its applications to real life is what it takes to be an elite craftsman in the education ‘A’ team. You prepared meticulously, designed passionately, and interacted delicately – with an abundance of care for your pedigree, your peers, and your participants. What an honor to be with such gifts.

Rami was the quintessential value-driven educator committed to and loving Israel and the Jewish People.

He was a true bi-lingual, bi-cultural talent. He spoke Jewish and Western with gusto. He grew up in Israel and having survived Hodgkins disease he was educated both in the US (JTS-Columbia, Harvard and Stanford and as a Wexner Fellow), and in Israel (Hebrew University and as a Mandel Jerusalem Fellow). He was a wonderful professional and an influential figure at Melitz, Mercaz Herzl, Camp Ramah, the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in California, the American Jewish University and has for the last several years directed Makom’s programs in North America, travelling the continent to cultivate and teach the embodiment of Klal Yisrael.

Leah Goldberg captures Rami’s bi-focal commitment in her poem Oren – Pine. The last two verses read:

אולי רק ציפורי-מסע יודעות
כשהן תלויות בין ארץ ושמיים
את זה הכאב של שתי המולדות.

אתכם אני נשתלתי פעמיים,
אתכם אני צמחתי, אורנים,
ושרשיי בשני נופים שונים

Perhaps only migrating birds know –
suspended between earth and sky –
the heartache of two homelands.

With you I was transplanted twice, oh my pine trees
with you, I branched into myself and grew –
And so my roots are in two disparate landscapes.


As Jon Levisohn his friend and co-conspirator in philosophy of Jewish education wrote:

“Rami was kind, compassionate, honest, funny, and so smart. Never naive, but never a cynic. If you ever had a conversation with him about Israel, you know what it sounds like to care so deeply that your critique is, genuinely, self-critique... He radiated warmth and kindness. He’s the kind of person who deflated ego just by his presence.”

Our tradition teaches us:

עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר, והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

(משנה, מסכת אבות, פרק א’, משנה ו’).

Find a teacher and acquire a friend, and judge each person with merit.

My experience with Rami was that the order was reversed. First you found a friend, and then slowly, elegantly, he would peel the layers of his wisdom and offer them graciously for your consideration.

This is the distilled essence of what I have learned from Rami:

  1. Care and be curious about generations – those before you, those alongside you, and those after you.
  2. Practice listening, and learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Let your ears trump your mouth.
  3. Think before you speak. Think fast, but think first.
  4. Find work that you believe in, that you can devote your whole self to.
  5. Eat nuts, fruit and dark chocolate every day.
  6. Make and nurture wise, happy and caring friends.

And that is why this Global Jewish Forum is dedicated to Rami z”l.

With tears in our hearts we remember a gifted educator, a deep thinker, a great team member and an all-round mensch. We are all going to sense the palpable absence of his warmth, intelligence, and moral compass. We will miss him terribly. With every good wish for the journey onwards.

יהי זכרו ברוך May his memory be for a blessing.


Who Knows Four? Talking Pesach through 4HQ…

April 2, 2015 by

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[Also appeared on Times of Israel]

It all started with the Exodus from Egypt. That was the moment when the Children of Israel asked themselves four fundamental questions, and answered them with remarkable unity.

Nowadays, hearing about ad hominem attacks in the community, deep splits over Israel’s path, and divides within Israel itself, unity is the very last word that comes to mind. It might be that this Pesach we may find the comfort of solidarity through sharing the same four common questions, even if our answers now differ radically.

The story of the Exodus can be summarized with four Hebrew words that translate as: “To Be a People, Free In Our Land.” (When you think about it, it kind of makes sense that the Exodus story has a Zionist flavor!) These four words, that now live as the penultimate line of Israel’s Hatikvah anthem, also played out then, as now, in the form of four timeless questions.

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In Egypt the Children of Israel were facing existential questions of a life in slavery (To Be?), struggling with a newly-embraced  collective identity as a People and not just a fractious extended family (People?), exploring freedom from slavery and the freedom to commit (Free?), and setting off for the Land of Israel (In Our Land?) – and in following Moses across the Red Sea, the Children of Israel released the Four Hatikvah Questions into Jewish consciousness.

As we sit around our Seder night tables this Pesach, in addition to the traditional four questions sung by our youngest, we may be able to make out this additional set of Four Hatikvah Questions making their presence felt.

PESACHThese are no longer the days of miracles. We can no longer expect consensus on the answers we each reach. But there is deep value in sharing questions about Israel in our lives.

To Be?

What is the best way to ensure our survival? How can we best assess what threatens us, and how might we best neutralize these threats? (When) can we chill out and just “be”?

(Jewish) People?

What makes us a collective? How should our religion, tradition, and faith play out in our lives? What value should we place on unity and solidarity among Jews, if it risks distancing us from others? In what way should our Jewish values of justice, and tikkun, drive our collective actions and thoughts?


How should the Jewish People innovate, create, and renew? What democratic structures and norms are required within Jewish communities and within the Jewish State? How can they enable us to freely choose how decisions are taken and implemented? How do we resolve the tension between “freedom” on the one hand and a commitment to the collective of the “People” on the other hand?

In Our Land?

Is Land important? When we talk of “our” Land, do we use the possessive pronoun as we would when we refer to “our apartment” or “our car”? Or is the pronoun more about identity: “Our Land” like “our family”, “our friends”? Must we be and live “in” our Land, in order for it to be truly “ours”, or can we be anywhere in the world?

When we argue about Israel, we are reviving the ancient tensions between the four questions – two universal, two particular – that walked with us through the desert from Egypt to Canaan, and continue to challenge us to this day.

May we all reach the harmony of our own ongoing answers, and may we continue to ask the questions of ourselves and of others in love and respect.

חג שמח

[Illustrations commissioned by Makom from Shay Charka]]


Will the voter make it past the negative campaigning?

March 16, 2015 by

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It doesn’t really require a translation…

This election campaign has been characterized by a great deal of mud-slinging and negativity from all sides. This cartoon from Shay Charka covers many of the more troubling remarks and accusations.

And the voter traipses on…



The Holiest Day of His Life – Voting in Israel’s First Elections

March 16, 2015 by

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Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Moshe Yekutiel Alpert, from the old settlement in Jerusalem, was the “Mukhtar” of a few neighborhoods before the establishment of the State. Here he describes his first walk to the voting station (the list he refers to in this piece was the United Religious List. Imagine today’s Jewish Home, Shas, Yahadut HaTorah, and Yahad running together on one list, where the commonalities are greater than the differences.)

“At 05:35 in the voting rabbimorning I awoke, and we got up – my wife, my brother Rabbi Shimon Leib, and my brother-in-law Rabbi Netanel Saldovin, and my son Dov. After we had drunk coffee, we put on our best Shabbat clothes in honor of this great and sacred day.

“For this is the day that the Lord made in joy and happiness. For after two thousand years in exile or more, and one might even say from the six days of creation to this day, we have never been honored with a day such as this, that we may go to the elections of the Jewish State, and blessed be that we have lived and existed and reached this time.

“… I and my wife and my brother-in-law went to vote at HaHabashim Street, with our State of Israel identity booklet in our hands. In great and awesome joy we walked that short distance, and all the way I walked as if dancing at Simchat Torah with the Israeli Identity booklet in my hand as the Scroll itself. There was no limit to my joy and happiness.

All the way I walked as if dancing at Simchat Torah with the Israeli Identity booklet in my hand as the Scroll itself.

“The caretaker brought the ballot box, and the Chairman called to me and said, “And thou shalt glorify the elderly”, and that since I was the oldest one there, that I would be the first to vote.

“With a thrill of the sacred and awe of the holy I handed over my Identity booklet to the Chairman, and he called out my name from the booklet. The deputy Chairman noted down my name, and gave me the number one. He passed me an envelope and I entered the second room, where all the paper slips of all the lists were laid out. And with a trembling hand and emotions of sanctity I picked up the slip with “Bet”, the United Religious List, and placed it inside the envelope I had received from the Chairman.

“I returned to the voting room, and showed everyone that I had only one envelope in my hand.

And then came the holiest moment of my life.

“And then came the holiest moment of my life. A moment that my father did not live to see, nor did my grandfather. Only me, in this time, in this life, was honored with this sacred and pure moment. Praised be me, and praised be my portion. I made the “Shehechiyanu” blessing, and put the envelope in the ballot box.

“I shook the hand of the Chairman, the deputy Chairman, and all the other committee members, and left the room. I waited in the corridor for my wife, for she was second, and my brother who was third, and after him my brother-in-law who was fourth to vote, and at 06:28 we went home, and I went to pray. A great festive day.

Promises, Promises – the pre-election commitments so far

February 6, 2015 by

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This is the way the elections promises line up so far. With over a month to go, it is interesting to see where Israeli politicians are putting their mouths, so to speak.

As we know, election campaigns are generally focused on persuading the floating voter, and so parties often talk less to their home crowd and more aim to impress newcomers. As such, this laudable open source initiative is revealing. The chart above is taken from the ongoing google sheet, to which the public is invited to report politicians’ promises.

In terms of our 4HQ approach, we can see that the vast majority of the promises live within the People/Free areas. 35.5% of promises address economic welfare issues, 13% talk about lowering the costs of housing, and another 2.4 % talk of medical care. Add to that the face that nearly two-fifths of the coalition demands (which make up 20.2% of all promises) also address socio-economic issues, this means that well over half of all election promises made are on what in Israel are known as “chevrati” – socio-economic issues.

Only 6% of promises would fit into the security/peace deals category, compared with 11% of promises addressing corruption and good government. About a third of promised legislation addresses Jewish People issues, such as conversion, the rabbinate, and Haredi conscription to the army – round about 6% of all promises.

So according to promises so far, here is our 4HQ chart of election promises!

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Let’s talk about Zionism – through a 4HQ filter…

January 28, 2015 by

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The Labor/Tnuah combo has chosen to call itself the Zionist Camp.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not a boutique clothes shop in Tel Aviv, but a political party with serious intentions. Their first introduction to the Israeli public is in this short video that begins with Herzog challenging: “Zionism? Let’s talk about Zionism!”

Soon thereafter this very video was “altered” by the opponents of the Zionist Camp.

We present both videos for you, parsing them through the filter of 4HQ, the Four Hatikvah Questions –


I must emphasize before beginning that these are my personal readings of the videos, hence this blog is under my name not Makom in general. We’ll all be having a go at this game in the coming few weeks – and you are also invited to add your reading to the comments below!

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