VIDEO: What People In Jerusalem Wish For

When the news talks about the people of Jerusalem, it’s usually to highlight their differences. While those certainly exist, there’s more to it than that. People all have their own opinions and priorities and the folks living in Jerusalem are no exception. In this video, a group of Jerusalem residents are asked all the same question: if you had one wish, what would you wish for?

Their answers are surprising, and cut across religious, political and ethnic lines. There doesn’t seem to be any agenda to this video, as the divisive comments (some quite nasty) are left in along with the heartwarming ones. Naturally, many address the big issues, while some are tied up in their own affairs. This reflects my own experiences in Israel, where people range from good to bad to just plain ugly.

But mostly good, and that’s important to remember.

Keeping Kosher In Muslim Istanbul

Before I lived in Turkey, I thought roasted chestnuts just existed in old Christmas carols. In Istanbul, they are sold on many street corners, priced by the gram and varying in quality. They have also been a major form of sustenance for several of my houseguests. My friend with a gluten allergy bought a bag of them nightly, saying they were the closest food to bread she could still eat. They also became a mainstay for a recent guest with the most challenging dietary restriction yet: eating an all-kosher diet in a mostly Muslim country.

Our friend decided at the last minute to fly in from Israel to spend a long weekend in Istanbul. I was almost glad for the short warning, as it gave me less time to worry and wonder. Is halal the same as kosher? If you have to ask, the diets have some things in common (i.e. no pork), but they are about as compatible as their respective religions. Would he be able to even eat anything from our very non-kosher kitchen, freshly stocked with pork products from Greece? Stock up on disposable plates to serve vegetarian dishes, and you’re golden. What could we do during the Saturday Sabbath, when using electricity or exchanging money is forbidden? Wandering is a good activity, one that is well suited to this city.Turning to the trusty Google for kosher Istanbul ideas, I came up with mostly outdated listings for restaurants that have since closed and odd suggestions like trying to get into the Jewish home for the aged near the Galata tower. Though Istanbul is home to nearly 20,000 Jews, they apparently aren’t dining out much. The single kosher restaurant we found open to the public is Levi’s in Eminönü, a few steps from the Spice Market. Accessed through an old and rather decrepit han (a large commercial building), it has excellent views of the Golden Horn and a decor that hasn’t been updated in several decades. Levi’s serves standard Turkish food: grilled meats, kofte meatballs, salads and such, all certified kosher. I was likely the first foreign shiksa to dine there in some time, and like all Turkish establishments, they fussed and fawned over my baby and offered her sweets.

When it came time for the Friday night Sabbath and services, I had an edge in knowing a nearby synagogue in Şişli, as I used to live across the street. After the 2003 bombings, most of the city’s synagogues are heavily guarded by local police and accessible only with prior permission and identification. Unfortunately, our friend only learned he’d need his Israeli passport once he got there, and as one can’t carry anything during the Sabbath, he had no identification or way to contact us to bring it. He went instead just to Shabbat dinner at a local rabbi’s house, climbing the stairs back to our apartment in total darkness.

On Saturday, I walked him back to the rabbi’s for lunch, and when Google Maps failed to find the house number, my friend’s yamulke and tallit helped us find our way. As soon as some Turkish men spotted my friend, they escorted us to the rabbi’s house; evidently they’ve learned how to identify a Jewish visitor! At lunch, our friend met a few other Jewish travelers who found themselves in Istanbul for various reasons, who reported that they had to pretend they had forgotten their hotel room keys as they couldn’t operate the electronic key cards during the Sabbath. They had all found the rabbi through the Chabad-Lubavitch organization (you may have seen their mitzvah tanks in New York City), which connects Jews around the world, and found community even in a primarily Muslim city.

As we broke the Sabbath that night at a rooftop bar with a couple of Efes beers (most non-grape based alcohols are kosher, so beer is fine), I apologized for our non-kosher friendly city, but our friend declared one Istanbul one of his all-time favorite cities. Despite a diet of mostly fruit and vegetables, chestnuts and whatever random snack products available at the supermarket with the kosher symbol, he had gotten a taste of Turkey without a single kebab.

Levi’s Kosher restaurant is open weekdays for lunch only. Tahmis Kalçın Sokak, Çavuşbaşı Han 23/10, near Hamdi Restaurant in Eminönü. Find more info on the Turkish Jewish community here and here.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Suspected Of Vandalizing Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial

Israeli police suspect ultra-Orthodox Jews are behind Monday’s vandalism at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.

Anti-Zionist graffiti written in Hebrew was sprayed over several parts of the building, with lines like, “Jews, wake up, the evil Zionist regime doesn’t protect us, it jeopardizes us,” and, “If Hitler hadn’t existed, the Zionists would have invented him.”

As implausible as this sounds, many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that Israel shouldn’t exist until the coming of the Messiah. I myself know one family that subscribes to this belief, although being decent human beings they would never vandalize a Holocaust Memorial.

This is only the latest in a string of controversial incidents involving Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community. Recently vandals seriously damaged a 1,600-year-old mosaic from a synagogue. The Tiberias mosaic was one of the finest examples of Jewish art. Vandals broke into the museum and smashed parts of the mosaic, while spray painting slogans in Hebrew calling archaeological excavations a sacrilege.

Last year the country was stunned by the news that Ultra-Orthodox Jews had spat on an 8-year-old Jewish girl and called her a whore for not dressing modestly enough. Another group have been picketing a girls school they think is immodest and throwing feces and rocks at the kids. Back in 1990, some fellow archaeologists and I had rocks thrown at our vehicle because we drove through an Orthodox neighborhood on the Sabbath. Travelers beware.

[Photo credit: Getty images]

Visiting Synagogues Around The World

Places of worship have long been points of interest for travelers. Solemn and usually quite ornate, these buildings provide a window onto a community’s history and values and often give visitors a much-needed pause while pounding the sightseeing pavement. Cathedrals are typical for this kind of touring. But have you ever thought to pay a visit to a synagogue?

My fascination with exploring synagogues began on a trip to Willemstad, Curaçao, home of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas built in 1651. Several years later, I had the opportunity to visit the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, Kerala, India. Constructed in 1568, it is the oldest “active” synagogue in India – “active” because there are fewer than 20 Jews left in Cochin, most having emigrated to Israel. Coincidentally, I learned about the Jews of Cochin from an exhibit at the 6th and I Synagogue, a historic synagogue in Washington, DC, that is now used primarily as a community center and arts space.

The Jewish diaspora is thriving in many parts of the world. Yet in places like Cochin and Mumbai, the local Jewish community is dwindling, giving impetus to visiting some synagogues before they are shuttered or left to become museums. The following are some of the synagogues I have seen or wish to explore on my travels.


Travel and Jewish ceremonies a great match, who knew?

In the days of old, like a few years ago, traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies were held in traditional ways. Study the Torah. Read the Torah. Give a report about the Torah. Something along those lines. Kinda boring but part of the deal. It was the after-party that got all the press. Now, things are changing as families look for new ways to celebrate one of the Jewish faith’s most treasured events, the Bar Mitzvah.

First, quick, loose lesson on the Jewish faith.

When a boy “comes of age” at 13 he has become a “bar mitzvah” and Jewish tradition holds that he now has the same rights and responsibilities as a full grown man. The people that give out drivers licenses, voter registration cards and the like (including the sellers of beer, believe me) disagree but as Jews we’re used to the whole opression thing so we move along. Bar mitzvah also refers to the religious ceremony that goes along with a boy becoming a Bar Mitzvah and the party will follow the ceremony and that party is also called a bar mitzvah. Bat Mitzvah is the girl version which is basically the same deal but for girls it’s age 12 (because “girls are better than boys” as my mother told me countless times)

Got it? Ok let’s move along then.

Now, families are taking turning the traditional “rent a hall and have a party” part into a travel opportunity that involves everything from all-inclusive resorts to cruise vacations. And why not? People travel from all over the world to attend these things, why not make it convenient for everyone?

When Jodi and Alan Katz of Marietta, Ga., began talking about plans for a bar mitzvah for their son, Zach, the idea of reading the Torah in front of 300 strangers wasn’t so appealing to him reports MSNBC. This family did it differently and went on a cruise with 35 friends and relatives.

“It was the best thing we ever did,” said Jodi Katz. “It took away that pressure and anxiety. I could see in his eyes he was happy.”

Indeed, cruise lines, travel agencies and the like are seeing more of this type of business every year as bar mitzvah’s become family vacations.

A match made in heaven? “Not so fast” say traditionalists.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin sees these vacation-like events as a big problem for Judaism because it removes the child from their local Jewish community which he told MSNBC was the glue that holds the religion together.

“The beauty of the setting doesn’t come from the beach and sunset,” said Salkin, author of the book, “Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah.” “It comes from knowing the people in the pews.”

Still, the move to join travel and Jewish ceremonies makes economic sense, gathers important family members to witness the event and joins a movement to make religion relevant.

Rabbi Jamie S. Korngolds nonprofit company, Adventure Rabbi, focuses on teaching about God in nature. Based in Colorado, the group teaches kids traditional lessons using Skype. They also organize ceremonies, as well as hikes and horseback rides in Boulder and skiing at Copper Mountain for guests.

“People are trying to get away from big parties, and they want to focus on the spiritual rite of passage,” Korngold said.

Flickr photo by Justin Jackson