Saturday, December 11, 2010

Don’t hate me because I’m hateful

Well, guys, this is official…the most annoying guy in the world is Israeli. This has already been discussed in countless forums ( and blogs (, but recently a local radio show in my area did an official survey, and declared him the winner. Yes, we are talking about Offer “Vince” Shlomi, who grew up in my home town of Haifa.

The ShamWOW commercial landed Vince into infamy, and I hope the tons of cash he made off it were worth it. Offer has done other things too, like some comedy movie that wasn’t too successful (trailer: Thank you, Offer, for getting the people of Israel such a world record.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Say it like you mean it!

One of the peculiarities of the Hebrew language is that it does not rely on vowels to denote pronunciation. Instead, it has a system called “Nikud”, which could be translated to “Dotting”. With Nikud, the writer adds various dot and line combinations around letters and they function as vowels. For example, a 3-dot combination under the letter is equivalent to putting an E in front of it in English.

However, Nikud is hardly ever used in real life. It is taught to kids in the 1st grade, but by the 2nd grade, they will have learned by heart how to pronounce most of the words in the Hebrew language, and no longer use it. This does mean that Hebrew words are much shorter than other languages. For example, the word Telephone is written with just 5 letters…something like TLFON. There is a vowel to denote the O sound, but the E’s are not used.

This makes writing in Hebrew more “efficient”, but is not easy for kids to get around. They have to learn to recognize the pronunciation from a written word, and it doesn’t always work out. For common, day-to-day words, this is usually no problem, because everybody uses the words, and the kid learns it sooner or later. However, some “grown-up” words can be missed and get mispronounced. For example, the word “Toner” (as in a photocopier) is written in a way that is unclear, and so many people mispronounce it as “Tooner”. A Centimeter is often pronounced like “Santimeter”. The Salmon fish is often pronounced “Solomon”. I’ve even seen a guy who likes to eat “Tona” sandwiches once.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inter- no-net

A major concern for the religious community in Israel surrounds the fact that it’s not much FUN being religious. You only read from the Bible (or other religious books), women are always covered from head-to-toe et cetera. The most frightening thing for the community is that a member will discover how much fun it is being secular, and decide to abandon religion and the community. To prevent that, it’s very important to them to keep their people from being “tried” – they close themselves off in their own neighborhoods and try to shield the residents from any clue of the outside world. As part of this, TV has traditionally been forbidden, and since the introduction of the internet, it has been a source of controversy. On one hand, they realize their businesses, which do have to sell and buy to secular businesses, need the web, but the web also provides access to everything that is forbidden – pictures, information…and even PORN!

Naturally, they started coming up with various crazy work-around “solutions”. One company will receive letters and faxes from religious people, type them into a computer and send them out as Email. Another company provides heavily censored internet connections, with proxy-servers that block 99% of the web except specific sites deemed permissible. The craziest idea, though, is something that started about 2 years ago…it’s a CD that contains cached copies of pre-approved websites, and sent to subscribers monthly via the post. The disc has about 3500 websites, and even a search component. The entrepreneur says he has about 200,000 subscribers, and that they also allow them to update their content using public terminals and a USB-drive, in case you want to be updated more than once a month. I’m wondering how come nobody thought of having a pay-per-minute search service, where someone reads out censored results to you over the phone…that way, you wouldn’t even have to have a computer (which many religious folk are extremely against even without the internet)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thou shall not cheat thy god

A few weeks back, I told you about Saturdays, which are the weekend-days (like the American Sunday). I also said that during the day of rest you cannot work, operate machinery or electronics. You can’t turn on your oven, so religious families have electric hotplates, because you can turn them on before the weekend starts, and the thermostat keeps them safe until Saturday evening. The electric hotplate is a perfect example for a major industry in Israel – products that can cheat the no-work rule. For example, riding an elevator would require you to press a button, which is “work”, so every elevator in Israel has a Shabbat mode, in which it automatically stops at every floor, so you don’t have to actively press anything. Also, dialing the phone is forbidden, because pressing the numbers is “work” too, so some company came up with a genius solution. Their phone scrolls through the digits 0-9, and you stop it on the digit you need, thereby building up the number step-by-step…like cracking a combination lock. Another company is selling pens with disappearing ink, which make them ‘legal’ to use on a Saturday. The industrial union estimates the market for such products to be at 10 million dollar a year.

So…god bless the Israeli mind for coming up with clever circumvention, but the stupid thing is that the religious folk actually think that they can outsmart their god. I mean…if you really believe that your creator wants you to rest on the weekend, what do you think will happen when you’re judged after you die? Do Smarty-pants go to heaven?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Random Congratulations

The Jewish calendar is based on the moon, as opposed to the standard calendars we use around the world. This means that the Jewish year only has 354 days a year, instead of 365, and the Jewish holidays “move” backwards in relation to the Gregorian calendar. Most of the country uses the Gregorian calendar anyway, but he orthodox community use the Hebrew calendar almost exclusively (some of them keep track of both, if they have a business need to work with civilian groups or companies). For example, my birthday moves around between Aug 26th and Sep 20th. It was on Sep 13th in 2003, and on Sep 2nd in 2004, and so every year it’s different. I have a good friend who is religious, and we were both born on the same day. I call him to congratulate him every September 13th, and he calls me to congratulate me on some random date every year…

Personally, I don’t care – I celebrate it on the Gregorian date of Sep 13th, which is when it was on my original birthday in 1973. Who DO care is pretty much the entire population of Israel…at least the secular population. The reason is that the Daylight Savings time is also affected by this, which means that on some years, they switch off DST as early as the beginning of September. Every few years, some organization or political party tries to change this so that the DST changes are set by the Gregorian calendar, but the religious politicians are always able to keep it the way it is.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to be ashamed of one's self

Christians have Lent, Muslims have Ramadan, and Jews have Yom Kippur. The Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurs around September or October of every year, is one unique and funny day. In theory, you are supposed to fast for a day to atone for your sins, and ask for forgiveness from everyone you know for any wrong-doing that you may have done to them. Sounds reasonable? Just wait…
The weird part about Yom Kippur is that many people who are secular still fast during it. Some do it for coolness and others as a display of machoism (even women). Ironically, it seems many people don’t really get the idea…abstaining from eating for a long period of time is supposed to make you suffer, which is why you’re supposed to do it to atone for having committed sin. The result is that thousands of people stay at home, starving themselves while watching comedy marathons or surfing the web. Internet usage in Israel during Yom Kippur spikes by about 200%, and the video libraries clean out a few days before.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mila, not Brith

A few weeks ago, my Son was born (my first and last child), which reminds me of some of the craziness surrounding newborns. I’m talking about the Brith, of course. The myths and stories surrounding Circumcision are plentiful, starting from the story of the massacre of the Shechemites in Genesis 34 (The sons of Jacob ask the residents of Shechem to circumcise all their males, as a condition of peace among their two people. Then, as the men of the Schechemites were sore following the procedure, Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi killed all the males as revenge for sleeping with their sister Dinah) and up to an official Position Paper on Neonatal Circumcision by the American Academy of Family Physicians (in which they state no position…).

I’m not a fan of circumcision. I don’t think it does any serious good, and the risks are terrifying. However, my wife is very much for it, so I’ve decided not to oppose it, if we do it in a medical clinic, with a proper medical (as opposed to religious) procedure. I hope that it succeeds and there are no complications (now or in the future). However, I’m still baffled by the fact that even today, thousands of Israelis still go through this procedure “out in the open”, having a Rabbi with no medical training perform this in their living room or on some hotel table, surrounded by hundreds of people, each carrying their own germs and viruses. It’s performed with no anesthesia, as the poor child screams and squeals on the table. Mind you, the Rabbi has to perform a cut that is only a few millimeters long, using nothing but his (often quite old) eyes and (often quite large) hands. About 1 in 50 of these crude acts of butchery end up in complications (about 4 times as likely as when done by a doctor at a clinic). Even when the procedure goes well, about 5% of circumcised kids have to have surgery later in life to widen the urinary opening.

The full Hebrew term for the Brith is “Brith Mila”, meaning “Covenant Circumcision”, because that’s the original covenant that was between Abraham and God. Being the Atheist that I am, I care even less for the Brith than the Mila, of course, so whenever someone asks me when it is, I say “Mila, not Brith”. It’s surprising just how many people don’t understand what I mean by that. It’s like saying “Marriage, not wedding” or “Eating, not a meal”.

Friday, August 13, 2010

You can pass over this one...

Passover is one of those holidays even non-Jews have heard of, but it has some interesting aspects in Israel. The premise of the Holiday is celebrating the exodus from Egypt. In case you don’t recall, when escaping Egypt, the Israelites wanted to take some bread with them for the road, but in their rush, they couldn’t wait for the dough to rise, and ate flat-bread. To celebrate this anniversary, the Jewish people are commanded to eat flat-bread during the entire 7-day holiday, and so during this time of year, Jews consume Matzos. Matzos are made with un-leavened dough, and this already makes no sense, because the Israelites did use leaven…they just didn’t let the dough rise. The Jews, as frequently is the case, have taken all of these 10 notches up. First, they declared that un-risen dough is not enough, but it has to be completely unleavened. Second, not only are you required to eat the crappy flat-bread, you are forbidden from eating any leavened dough product for the entire week. Had enough? Heck no! If you are an orthodox Jew, you are required to BURN every piece of leavened dough product in your home. By the way, this goes not only for dough– those who keep the religious law go as far as eliminating many other non-dough products like coffee or even toothpaste, out of fear that some invisible spec of leavened wheat found its way into it. Some take it even farther, burning any consumable that may touch you, like soap.

Some religious groups are easier, and allow you to sell your stock of leavened bread t to someone else, like a neighbor who is not a Jew. This works well for large organizations. For example, every year, before Passover, every city “sells” its leavened bread to some random guy (usually a local Arab) for a ridiculous amount of money, and then, after Passover has ended, buys it back. This does not actually involve MOVING the bread…just transferring ownership.

Thing is; only a small percentage of Israelis are religious, and actually follow this craziness. The religious groups, however, have historically tried to force the secular and atheist population to do so by creating state-laws. One minor success was in establishing a law in 1986 that forbids selling of leavened dough products during Passover. Actually, the law only forbids displaying of such products in public, but it has been the focus of an ongoing war between the secular and religious population ever since. The religious groups try, each election, to have their representatives in various government and city offices, and when they succeed, that officer would use his power to shove various religious laws down the secular population’s throat. With regards to Passover, this takes the form of inspectors who patrol the city during the holiday, and if they find a business that breaks the law, they issue large fines. One problem is that they actually misinterpret the law, and fine even business that don’t actually “display leavened dough products in public”, but the businesses often prefer to pay up rather than spend thousands on legal battles.

In recent years, some businesses realized that “display in public” is exactly what it means, and they can do whatever they want on their private property. This led to a funny incident where some idiot religious fellow tried to protest this by walking nude into some supermarket that was selling leavened bread, claiming it was perfectly legal to be nude, because he was not being nude in public. Correct as he may be, this did not do any good for his cause, as more and more Israelis are becoming secular, and the sale of leavened dough during Passover is at an all-time high.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Alergic to death

Remember how last time I told you I was a Cohen, and how my wife had to go through some special training for that? Well, the reason for all that is because Cohens are priests (in theory, at least) and need to keep themselves more pure than the average guy. One thing that is the unholiest of them all is blood. Touching blood is a big no-no for Cohens, which is why my wife has (according to Jewish law, that is) to wash herself in the Mikveh after her period. In fact, touching blood is not allowed for anybody, and so Jews are not allowed to have intercourse during or around the time of the menstrual period. Any Jewish woman is required to check herself daily until the period is over, and then go to a Mikveh, and only then she can her husband. When a Jewish woman is working, she will avoid touching people during and around her period. For example, if you go to a store in Israel, and the clerk is a Jewish woman, she will usually ask you to put your money on the counter for her to pick up, so that her fingers don’t accidentally touch yours.

This also applies to food – for meat to be Kosher, it must be completely drained of blood during a special procedure. The side-effect of this is that kosher meat is much less flavorful than the kind of meat non-Jews are used to.

Another thing that is unholy is death, and so a Cohen is not allowed to touch dead people. Even entering a cemetery is strictly forbidden. That’s the stupid part, but here’s the funny one: The state of Israel, like many others, have dozens of ancient cemeteries. Many of them known and marked, but now and then, a new one is discovered. The city of Haifa, where I lived, has had one discovered under major road that crosses the city, and so they had to put a huge sign near it, warning Cohens that they must not drive through that road. Can you believe it? Orthodox Jews will actually have to drive half-way across town to avoid passing over a cemetery!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thou shalt be clean!

Good chances that at some point in time, you have met or heard of a person with the last name of Cohen (often spelled Coen or Kohen). Perhaps you know one personally, and perhaps you just saw one of the movies by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel. Cohen is a last name that designates a person who is in direct patrilineal descent from Ahron (also spelled Aaron or Aharon), who was Moses’ brother. Aaron was the first high priest of the Israelites around the time of the story of the exodus from Egypt ( and for further reading). Usually, a person carrying this last name is a Cohen, although there are many people who are so without carrying the name – I happen to be one of them. For a religious Jew, being a Cohen is a great honor – the closest we got to Royal Blood. For a secular or atheist Israeli like myself, this is no big deal, and for most of my life, I didn’t even know of it.

When I was 23, and about to marry my sweetheart, Paula, the issue came up. The Rabbanuth, which is the official body in Israel that governs the state with regards to religious matters, also has full control of marriages. As such, they have records of the entire population, and that includes info on who is a Cohen. Israel has no separation of state and church, as we already discussed, and so the Rabbanuth has absolute power to muck-around with people with regards to marriage. For example, they will not let people get married during certain periods of the year, because it conflicts with some religious holidays ( In my case, since I am of royal descent, this meant that my wife-to-be had to go through special training, so she can become worthy of living with a person of such high status (in case you haven’t detected the sarcasm…this stuff is beyond BS!). During this training course, she was trained in various stupid religious traditions, some funny, some sad and all totally idiotic. She recalls the stupidest and funniest one as the Washing in the Mikveh. Biblical regulations specify that full immersion in water is required to regain ritual purity, because during the monthly period, a woman becomes un-pure. The Mikveh is a public bath-house where all religious women are required to attend after their period ends. The trainer was an 80 year old woman, demonstrating how you should stretch the skin all over your body to get full exposure, thereby reaching the maximum purity. Can you imagine?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Do pigs fly?

Last time, I told you a lot about the way the week works in Israel – how the week starts on Sundays, and then retail closes early on a Friday, and this time, I want to tell you a little about Kosher foods. Many people know that Jews are not allowed to eat pork products. That’s a very simplistic summary of a significant part of Judaism – having to consume kosher products. Kosher means “good”, and the Jewish religion has tons of rules about what is good and what is not. For example, Mammals that both chew their cud (ruminate) and have cloven hooves are kosher, but others are not. Fish must have fins and scales to be kosher, but this is just the beginning. Another rule is that meat and dairy must not be consumed together, and this is why Cheeseburgers are not OK for orthodox Jews. This goes even further – not only are you not allowed to eat the two together, you must protect yourself against accidentally eating the combo, so if a pot is used to cook meat, it cannot be used to cook dairy products. Essentially, you can wash it REALLY well, and then use it, but many orthodox families have two sets of dishes, as well as two sinks. Some richer families even have two separate kitchens. Kosher applies to a multitude of other items. For example, an orthodox person would not eat at a restaurant if he is not sure it stands up to the highest standards, as proven by a certificate. To get it, the place has to prove weekly that it keeps dairy away from meat. The certificate can be revoked if the place is open during a Saturday (because no commerce s allowed on the holy day of Sabbath) and so most of the restaurants in Israel are not visited by religious Jews.

Let’s go back to pigs. Pigs are un-kosher and forbidden, but many other animals are in the same position, only less famous. The history books are full of stories about Jews that preferred to die rather than eat pork. Whatever. I’d kill for a good cake, but OTHERS…not myself.
For more info about Kashrut:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Walking Distance

Almost everybody in the world enjoys some sort of weekend vacation, even if it’s for only one day, rather than two, but while most of the world rests on Sundays, Judaism dictates that the day of rest is the Saturday. There are even some Christian sects who celebrate this. Israelis who work in the business sector finish their week on Thursday evening, and then dedicate Friday for errands, and rest on Saturday, going back to work on Sunday morning. Another interesting aspect of this religious custom is that a “day” actually starts at the evening time, and ends at evening time of the next day, so a “Saturday” starts on Friday, when the sun sets, and ends on Saturday at sunset.

Since god has rested on the 7th day, according to the story of creation, the Jewish religion interprets this as a day of rest, and rest is mandatory. This means that anything that could be considered “labor” is expressly forbidden for a religious Jew. No working is a DUH, but also no driving, no operating machinery and get this: no operating of any electric device (including turning the light on or off and using the phone), no writing, no handling of money, no walking over 2 miles* and more. Since the Saturday starts with the sunset, which could be as early as 5:30pm during winter, workplaces close early on Friday, to give people the opportunity to get back home before it becomes forbidden to drive. For this reason, on a Friday, most businesses (retail, principally) close down at about 2pm (rarely after 3 pm) and everybody goes home. Entertainment related business do stay open, like restaurants, drugstores, cinemas etc, but one of the big problems in Israel is the fact that most Israelis are secular or atheist, and don’t want things to close down. For example, pubs don’t close, but the bus and train services do, and people have a problem getting to where they want to hang out. The religious parties keep trying to find a way to force every business to close completely, but I’ll talk about that another time. It’s quite a bummer that a person who works 5 days a week has only a few hours to take care of errands on the weekend before most businesses close down, and people who work in the retail business and work on a Friday are even in a tighter spot. Interesting, huh?

*This is actually a rule that dictates you must not walk past a radius of 1 mile from your home. You can walk that area as much as you like, but not farther.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Can Pigs fly?

Having been born in Israel, I’m naturally a Jew. The Jewish religion dictates that if your mother was Jewish, you are one as well, and there’s nothing you can do about it – it doesn’t require a baptism or any other ceremony – you are a Jew, like it or not. I was never a believer, and so seeing a lot of the things Jews do in the name of god makes me laugh, or sometimes angers me.

For example, many know that Jews (as well as Muslims) are not allowed to eat pork. That doesn’t mean that there’s no pork in Israel, as there are many secular Jews, atheists, Christians and followers of other religions that do not limit the consumption of pig products. This does, however, introduce some interesting conflicts in the life of an Israeli.

1st, there is a law that forbids raising Pigs on the soil of Israel. That’s exactly how the law puts it – no pigs on the soil. There are certain places that are exempt, but the Israelis have found an interesting workaround – they do raise pigs, but they are kept on special platforms that keep them from touching the ground. This makes it legal, and so many Israeli are able to enjoy Bacon and other “white meat” foods. Luckily, there’s no law against Shrimp (which, like pigs, are also not Kosher), because cops would have a tough time arresting them at the beach…

Want to learn more? Read here about KASHRUT:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

It's a matter of customs

In a few weeks I will celebrate the 2nd anniversary of my new life in the US. Some people might find this to be sappy and foolish, but having lived for 35 years in Israel, and then moving here, makes you appreciate a lot of things that many Americans take for granted and never think about. For example, when you go to the mall, or a restaurant, you can go into one of the many doors, so it’s reasonably close by no matter where you parked. In Israel, though, things are quite different. Because of the terrorist threat, most businesses have to have tight security, and that’s usually in the form of a security guard. Every shopping mall employs guards who open every car’s trunk to look for bombs, and when you walk into the mall itself, another guard sweeps you with a metal detector. The hassle is not too bad, but guards cost money, so a typical mall would try to save some by employing as few guards as possible. This means that a typical mall would have only one or two entrances to the parking lot, and one or two doors open at any time. The “grand canyon” in Haifa, for example, which I frequented, has a huge garage with many doors into the large mall, but all are locked except two. This means that if you arrive at the mall more than 30 minutes past opening time, you’ll be walking all the way from the end of the parking lot to the entrance, steering clear of cars, breathing in the car’s emission gasses and generally having a hard time. Yup…that’s just ONE of the downfalls of living with terrorism. For me, going to a mall like Bellevue square, and being able to walk in from any of a dozen entrances is a blessing!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

“Americans are so intelligent, that even their kids speak English!”

This is something I say a lot as a joke, making fun of the fact that English is considered to be a hard subject in my home country of Israel. My name is Erez Ben-Ari, and I’m a new immigrant to the United States. Back in 2007, I won the American green-card lottery, and subsequently left Israel with my wife, dog, cat and belongings and moved to the state of Washington. Moving to a country that is so different than Israel (or, you could say “moving from a country that is to different than the USA”) is an interesting process, and I have a lot of interesting and funny stories to tell. In this blog, I will share with you my successes, failures, anecdotes and interesting facts about my home country, about the state of Washington, and about being an immigrant. Hope you like it!