Twenty years ago, on July 31, 2002, our cousin Marla Bennett was killed in a suicide bombing at Hebrew University. Marla had just sat down to lunch following her Hebrew ulpan studies when a terrorist detonated the bomb he had planted in a backpack at an adjoining table. Seven people were killed in the blast. Marla was just 24.

Marla and Aviv (age 4)

Marla and our family became very close during the years she lived in Israel. Telling our children about her death was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do.

I wanted to write something to commemorate Marla’s death on this grim milestone. I could have written about her funeral, which attracted 1,500 people in San Diego. Or the coverage in the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage, which ran for 13 painful pages.

I could have spoken about how Marla and her fiancé Michael fell in love at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, just like my wife, Jody, and I did many years earlier. 

But perhaps the most powerful part of Marla’s story is not the past but the future – specifically, all the babies who have been named after her. Linda Bennett, Marla’s mother, told me that there have been at least 25 children with some version of an “M” name.

Marla was Amanda Pogany’s best friend in Israel (although there were many who claimed Marla as their best friend). “It was a rare kind of friendship; the kind that, as soon as you meet, you can’t actually remember what your life was like before,” Amanda recalled.

When Amanda and her husband Aaron’s first daughter was born, they named her Meira (Maisie in English). “Meira means one who illuminates, a perfect reflection of who Marla was,” Amanda told me.

Eileen Katz named her daughter Ellie Miriam. (Marla’s Hebrew name was Miriam.). Marla and Eileen knew each other from the USY youth movement. Like Marla, seven-year-old Miriam today “is kind, empathetic, an eager participant and a good friend to everyone,” Eileen said. 

Rebecca Birken Yussman lived with Marla in the “Berkeley Bayit” in the late 1990s and also named her daughter Miriam after Marla, “one of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met.” As for her own Miriam, “if she’s your friend, she’ll do anything for you – just like Marla.”

Adam Arenson knew Marla from as far back as pre-school. Adam referred to Marla as “a professional friend,” someone who was cherished “because you know she would take your call or respond to your email, whenever, wherever.”

Adam named his daughter Maddie, which is derived from “migdal or tower. Marla was a towering presence among all who knew her – for her openness, her dedication, her sense of loving life.”

Barri Worth Girvan’s four-year-old daughter Mila was named after Marla, who was Barri’s camp counselor and was “like an older sister to me, someone I always looked up to, so much so that one summer I earned the nickname M.I.T. (Marla in Training),” Barri joked. “Marla had a radiant smile [and Mila] already lights up our lives – and my camera photo stream!”

Jessica Rosenberg shared with me about her 14-year-old daughter Molly who, like Marla, “is intellectually curious, conscientious, generous and silly. She also makes a pretty excellent rainbow challah – much like Marla did!” Jessica reminded me that Marla’s email was marlaann@cheerful.com, a fitting address given that she was “always up, always positive and with a laugh that was contagious.”

Marla’s namesakes are not all girls. 

Deborah Bock Schuldenfrei wrote to tell me that her oldest son, Heshel Max, was named after Marla. What reminds Deborah most about Marla is that Max “is so remarkably kind. He cares so much about his cosmic connection to Mar and internalizes the blessing of her name in his own identity.”

Justin Radell also has a son named Max. Justin and Marla met during Marla’s freshman year. “We would walk to Hillel together on Friday nights,” Justin said. “I became more connected to Judaism during college and Marla was a big part of that.”

The last person I spoke with for this piece was Maytal Lefkowitz – not a parent but one of the children who was named after Marla by her parents Emma and Eric. Bearing an “M” name “comes with huge responsibility,” she told me. “I was named after someone who had tremendous impact on so many people’s lives.”

There were four pillars to Marla’s life, Maytal explained. “Marla believed in Israel. She believed in education. She believed in the Jewish people. And she believed in her friends and family.”

Maytal has lived up to Marla’s ideals in many ways. She is the Far West Regional Social Action and Tikkun Olam vice president for her USY chapter. She regularly volunteers at a local food bank and, like Marla, is committed to Jewish summer camp – indeed, when we spoke, Maytal was in Israel at the Ramah summer seminar. 

Before she died, Marla wrote an essay for the Avi Chai Foundation.

“I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half now and my favorite thing to do here is go to the grocery store,” she shared. “I know, not the most exciting response, but going shopping, as well as picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and waiting with the hungry mob at the bakery, means that I live here. I am not a tourist. I deal with Israel and all of its complexities, confusion, joy and pain every single day. And I love it.”

We love you, Marla. We will never forget you – and neither will all the Miriams, Maytals, Meiras, Maddies and Maxes who carry on your legacy.

Thanks to the members of the “Missing Marla” Facebook group for your many contributions to this article.

The legacy of Marla’s babies first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.

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As I lay on the operating room table, I began to shake uncontrollably. I don’t know whether it was because the room was cold, my hospital gown was thin, or I was just terrified. Probably some combination of all three.

After two years of suffering with floaters, and a failed attempt at treating them with laser vitreolysis (“Playing Space Invaders with my Eyes,” February 11, 2022), I was finally biting the bullet and having them surgically removed.

A quick recap: Floaters are microscopic fibers within the jellylike vitreous humor of the eye that can clump together, casting shadows on the retina as they bob about. They can be incredibly bothersome: large grey blobs and clouds of thousands of dots and squiggles that bounce around anytime you change your gaze. 

It’s not surprising that I was shaking: The surgery I was about to undergo – a vitrectomy – involves drilling three small holes into your eyeballs – one to drain the vitreous fluid, along with any floaters; the second to replace it with a saline solution; and the third for a small light to illuminate the area.

Retinal surgeons are generally very reticent to perform FOVs (“floater only vitrectomies”). There’s nothing actually “wrong” with your eyes, they will argue. The floaters are annoying, yes. Dangerous, not so much. Eye surgery, on the other hand, comes with a whole host of possible complications including retinal tears and infections. You could even go blind.

Moreover, most everyone who has a vitrectomy will also develop cataracts. That wasn’t a concern for me: It was the cataract surgery I had nearly three years ago that unleashed the floaters in the first place. I also had a posterior vitreous detachment (PVD) in at least one eye, meaning the vitreous gel was no longer connected to my retina, making a tear less likely.

Vitrectomies are among the most common operations retinal surgeons do – just not for floaters. If you need a biopsy to check for eye cancer or there’s a macular hole in the retina that needs repair, the ophthalmologist will readily remove the vitreous. 

The nurse covered me in a blanket to help with my shivering. An IV was inserted into my arm – “just in case, although we almost never use it.” 

During the procedure, I heard machines whirring and imagined I saw the floaters sucked away. The most uncomfortable part was the needle to anesthetize the eye. After that, I didn’t feel a thing.

45 minutes later, I was done. A patch was affixed, and I was sent home with a backpack full of eye drops.

When my surgeon removed the patch the next day, it was nothing short of a miracle: My vitreous was clear. No floaters at all. There had been no complications, and my vision was 20/20. 

I scheduled an appointment to do the other eye.

Even though I knew what to expect, I was shaking all over again for my second surgery. Something could still go wrong. 

This surgery, too, went well with no complications. But when the patch came off, I spied what appeared to be new floaters! 

“How can this be?” I asked my doctor, trying to play it cool. 

“It’s probably some debris from the surgery,” the doctor replied. “A bit of blood can get in and look like floaters. It will likely resolve in the next few weeks.”

Except that it didn’t. 

A month later, the floaters/debris were still careening around. Two months, three months in, no change. I felt deflated. 

Then I noticed something unusual. These new floaters were different. Rather than hovering right in the core of the eye, obscuring my vision, they were mostly off to the side.

Could applying a metaphor comparing the core vs. the edge help me deal with my situation?

After all, the main part of my vision was still clear. Would it be possible for me to ignore that pesky edge?

This is something I struggle with in many areas, not just my eyes. 

Professionally, if I get something wrong with an article I’m writing, it drags me down, even though 90% of the piece – the core – was just fine.

If I have a fight with my wife, I can spiral into depression, even though the spat is just an edge case and the core relationship remains strong.

On vacation, a missed opportunity will gnaw at me even if the majority of the trip was wonderful. 

Even my cancer has a core vs. edge element to it. Yes, I have tumors from my relapsed lymphoma, but they are growing slowly. My overall health remains pretty good.

Sometimes, though, it becomes impossible to dismiss the edge in favor of the core. 

One morning, a few months following the vitrectomy that led to that edge debris, I awoke to a burst of new floaters, worse than anything I’d experienced previously. Apparently, my right eye, unlike the left, hadn’t actually developed a PVD yet and some transparent vitreous had remained, hidden from my doctor. The emergence of a PVD now – brought on it seems by a very bumpy dune bashing “safari” during our vacation in Dubai – negated all the progress I had made. 

Now I had no choice.

I underwent a second vitrectomy on the same eye two weeks ago. My surgeon had to put in stitches which are very uncomfortable, but there was good news when the patch came off this time: He got all the floaters and all the vitreous. 

I was ecstatic. But even more important: I had learned a valuable lesson along the way about appreciating what I have in the core. 

The benefits – for my eyes and for my mental health – are crystal clear.

I first wrote about my vitrectomies for The Jerusalem Post.

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American social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University Jonathan Haidt published an alarming article in the Atlantic magazine earlier this year that has since gone viral. 

Prof. Jonathan Haidt

In the piece, Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid, he asked provocatively: Is social media compatible with democracy? His somber conclusion: Probably not.

Dr. Micah Goodman, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author most recently of The Wondering Jew, thinks he has a solution. And it’s taken straight out of Jewish tradition. 

Dr. Micah Goodman

We all need to do a better job at “living Talmudically,” he said during a webinar discussion with Haidt sponsored by Hartman.

In his Atlantic article, Haidt described the impact of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on democracy by invoking the metaphor of the Tower of Babel. 

Hubris! God declared, before destroying the tower and “confusing their language so that they may not understand each other.”

“That’s the curse of Babel,” Haidt explained during the webinar. “You live in this modern city, the tower comes down, and you can’t even talk to the people next to you. In the world today, our technology has fragmented our ability to communicate. Ironically, the more connected we are, the more difficult it becomes to share a common story.”

The issue really took hold in 2009 when Facebook added the “like” button and Twitter debuted “retweets.” If, before then, social media was about sharing pictures of your kids, after that it was “all about ‘performing’ to get more engagement,” Haidt said.

And what gets the most engagement? Anger. Fights. Entrenched positions

Social media users have become adept “at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships,” Haidt lamented.

By 2014, college campus culture was in the throes of change, “so that we became afraid of saying anything, lest you be publicly shamed and maybe fired,” Haidt noted. When Gen Z began to graduate, “they took those norms into journalism and the arts. So, you see the use of social media to destroy people. We call that cancel culture.” 

The result is “a political and moral homogeneity that leads to structural stupidity,” he concluded. “If people are afraid to say, ‘wait a second, I think that’s wrong’ or ‘here’s some evidence against this or that view,’ then we lose dissent and stupid ideas get elevated. When our institutions also become structurally stupid, our society collapses. We cannot have a liberal democracy without strong institutions.”

Responding to Haidt in the webinar, Goodman blamed our contemporary social pickle on “the law of unintended consequences where, instead of being radically connected, we’ve become radically separated.”

Goodman compared what’s happening today in the “digital revolution” with a previous revolution. “If you were able to ask the entrepreneurs living in London during the industrial revolution if building a steam engine was a good idea, they’d have no clue that, 200 years later, the unintended consequences would lead to global warming and climate change.”

Fast food is a similar story. “French fries are very tasty. They’re cheap and fast,” Goodman exuded. “And now you see a crisis in health in the U.S., with rates of diabetes and obesity soaring.”

What are the unintended consequences of the digital revolution? “Political polarization,” Goodman said. “The only difference is that, because everything is so fast these days, it’s only taken us 10 years to see we’re all going crazy.”

The answers, according to Goodman, lie in the Talmud.

“The Talmud is an ongoing argument,” Goodman said. Unlike most other legal codes which focus on the finalized law, “the Talmud erased the conclusions and canonized the arguments!”

This can be seen most evocatively in the inclusion of opinions from both the houses of Hillel and Shamai. “When we study Talmud, we’re obligated to learn about ideas we don’t live by,” Goodman explained. 

In that sense, the Talmud is essentially a metaphor for dialogue, for hearing opinions we may not agree with, for the sake of unity. 

“Jews are expected to know the opinion of Abaye, but to uphold the opinion of Rava; to study the positions of Shammai but live according to the positions of Hillel,” Goodman wrote in the articleOur Technology Sickness and How to Heal it.

The problem with social media,” Goodman said, is that “it is shrinking our mind to the size of our opinions. And that is an anti-Talmudic world.”

I experienced a dose of social media-powered toxic discourse firsthand recently when reading through the hundreds of comments on my article about puberty blocks and trans teens. Half the posts praised my arguments; the rest were largely vitriolic.

The comment that upset me most was the insinuation that I had no right to write about this topic because I had no skin in the game.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The inability – on both sides – to seriously entertain an opposing viewpoint, or to express an opinion without resorting to insults, is exactly what’s tearing society apart. 

Unfortunately, this is not one of those columns where I end with a bit of feel-good advice on how to solve a vexing problem. Yes, we would do better if we could all “live Talmudically,” as Goodman exhorts. I’m just not sure how we get there – or if we even can. 

Let’s just hope, if there’s another flood, metaphorical or real, the survivors on the next “ark” will have the foresight to pack a copy of the Talmud with them.

I first wrote about structural stupidity and the Talmud in The Jerusalem Post.

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In the summer of 2012, exactly ten years ago, my wife, Jody, and I bought a Renault Fluence Z.E., the 100% battery-powered car sold in Israel by high-flying battery swap startup Better Place. We were, at the time, staunch electric car champions. 

A decade later, though, my electric enthusiasm has started to lose its charge.

We were sold on Better Place because we believed electric vehicles (EVs) represented a small but significant step towards reducing the ravages of climate change. EVs would help wean the world off fossil fuels, reduce pollution-related illness and death, while providing a smoother, faster and more sophisticated ride.

None of that has changed, per se, but EVs, it turns out, aren’t as carbon neutral as I’d once hoped.

The problem isn’t while cruising around town, where the emissions from EVs (there are none) are far superior to their gas-guzzling counterparts. Rather it’s what happens before the car is even assembled – and what happens when it’s time to put that EV out to pasture.

Steve Greenfield, founder and CEO of Automotive Ventures, a venture capital fund focused on investments in the mobility space and author of the forthcoming book The Future of Automotive Retail, shared with me some sobering facts.

One of the key elements making up the modern electric car battery is lithium. Mining it is far from climate friendly, requiring some 70,000 liters of water to make a single ton of lithium. 

More than half of global lithium resources is located in the so-called “lithium triangle” between Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The lithium must then be sent – on decidedly carbon unfriendly ships – to China, where 80% of the world’s lithium-ion batteries are made.

EV batteries also require cobalt, where the waste generated from mining this metal pollutes both air and soil, leading to decreased crop yields, contaminated food and water, and respiratory and reproductive health issues. As for the atmosphere, mining cobalt releases both CO2 and nitrogen dioxide. 

There’s also the human cost

More than 70% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an estimated 200,000 miners – including 25,000 children – can be found digging underground in small-scale “artisanal mines” with little oversight and even fewer safety measures.

“Cobalt is an essential mineral for the green transition,” says Anneke Van Woudenberg who directs the corporate watchdog Raid, “but we must not turn away from the abusive labor conditions that taint the lithium-ion batteries needed for millions of electric vehicles.” 

At the other end of an EV’s life, another environmental calamity awaits: Electric cars have nowhere to go to die

Traditional internal combustion engine vehicles, after they’ve reached a certain age, are either stripped down for parts or, if they’re still roadworthy, sent to emerging economies where they embark on a second life. 

In the first case, when an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle passes its prime, a network of global “dismantlers” stands at the ready to take it apart and sell off any raw materials. Dismantlers have serious concerns regarding EVs, however, Steve told me: Electric car batteries have been known to explode and the chemicals in them can be toxic if not handled carefully. 

As for giving EVs a second life, there’s little appetite for them at the present moment in much of Africa, India or Asia, where electric charge spots are nearly non-existent – although, as Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Gigawatt Global, told me, “Distributed solar charge spots could be a good solution” in places where the power grid is spotty and reliable delivery of fuel is tenuous. 

Despite all these very real problems, nearly every automotive manufacturer has plans to electrify its offerings in the coming years. General Motors CEO Mary Barra says her company will stop making gasoline-powered cars entirely by 2035. And the success of Tesla is undeniable: In February of this year, the company’s valuation was roughly six times the market value of GM and Ford combined.

It’s understandable why battery-powered electric vehicles have become the next big thing. Batteries are a well-understood technology that can be tweaked to provide better range and energy density, as opposed to something entirely new that still requires years of R&D.

And yet, I sometimes feel that electric car enthusiasts and manufacturers have a blind spot when it comes to the EV’s overall benefit in ameliorating climate change.

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon by throwing shade on the electric battery juggernaut that has enraptured so many. The problems with lithium-ion battery disposal and recycling will eventually be solved. New battery technologies are coming that will reduce our reliance on cobalt

Other fuel types – hydrogen in particular – hold promise, too, if not for cars (that train has long since left the station) then for transportation that entails longer distances than a rack of limited-range batteries can handle (think air travel, where being forced to land a dozen times en route in order to recharge is a non-starter). 

Plus, the only emissions from a hydrogen-powered vehicle are water vapor, although producing hydrogen remains problematic. (Reconfiguring the grid to generate electricity from renewables such as solar, wind and hydro will be key here – for charging EVs, too.)

I loved our Better Place Fluence Z.E. Despite getting burned when the company declared bankruptcy in 2013, we will probably buy another EV when the time comes. 

But let’s be prudent and remove our ideological blinders. EVs are not a magic panacea. They may be the most immediate and functional approach to addressing climate change on an individual level, but there is still much work to be done. 

The future of transportation technology will ultimately be more nuanced than today’s evangelical all-or-nothing EV approach.

I first waxed pessimistic about EVs and climate change at The Jerusalem Post.

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My six-month-old grandson doesn’t know what sex is. Heck, he doesn’t know what food tastes like or what walking, crawling or even sitting up entails. 

Would you say he has the cognitive capabilities to give up on any of those future abilities – for the rest of his life?

No, of course, you wouldn’t. These types of major decisions should only be made by someone who has already experienced them first hand and knows what he or she’s forsaking. So why are medical experts encouraging young children to embark on massively disruptive procedures that could prevent them from enjoying some of the greatest pleasures of living.

I’m talking about prescribing puberty blockers and other meds that prep pre-teens for a transition from one gender identity to another. However, new research reveals a shocking side effect: Gender dysphoric kids who take puberty blockers – which are meant to delay or entirely block the normal development of secondary sexual characteristics – may never be able to have an orgasm. 

Dr. Marci Bowers, a vaginoplasty surgeon who herself transitioned when she was 38, spoke recently at a virtual conference hosted by Duke University. “Every single child or adolescent who was truly blocked atTanner Stage 2 [when hormones begin their work of advancing a child to adulthood] has never experienced orgasm. I mean, it’s really about zero.”

The problem is most acute for boys, where going on blockers means the adolescent won’t generate enough, if any, testosterone. As a result, the boy’s genitals won’t develop to maturity, leading to a “lack of skin for creating a female vulva” if vaginoplasty is eventually chosen, Bowers added.

Former editor of The New Republic and host of The Dishcast, Andrew Sullivan, got even more graphic on a recent episode of his podcast

“If you are a prepubescent boy and they decide to put you on puberty blockers and, in due course, on cross-sex hormones before the natural testosterone of puberty hits you, one of the side effects is that the boy won’t have the material to turn into a clitoris,” Sullivan said. “So not only will this boy be sterilized, he will never experience orgasm as a woman. How do you explain to a nine-year-old that they will never have an orgasm when they don’t even know what an orgasm is!”

But the decision-making process has been set up as a false binary with parents being admonished, “Would you rather have a live girl or a dead boy?” Sullivan noted, referring to data from the Trevor Project that found half of pre-transition transgender boys and girls considered suicide in the past year. 

But are meds and surgery the only way to prevent such outcomes? 

Jewish tradition is surprisingly supportive of what we’d today call gender fluidity. The Mishna, for example, describes six different genders. In addition to “male” (zachar) and “female” (nekevah), we also find:

  • Androgynos – one who has both male and female physical sexual characteristics.
  • Tumtum – one whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.
  • Ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but at puberty develops male characteristics.
  • Saris – one who appears male at birth but later takes on more typically female biology either naturally or through human intervention.

I have no problem with individuals choosing to change their sexual identification. Rather, it’s the pushing of irreversible medical intervention before consent can be reasonably given that gets my gender goat.

That’s not the position of the American Medical Association, which states that “standards of care and accepted medically necessary services that affirm gender or treat gender dysphoria may include mental health counseling, non-medical social transition, gender-affirming hormone therapy, and/or gender-affirming surgeries.”

The tide may be changing. 

In addition to Bowers’ clarion call, clinics in Finland and Sweden have now “stopped routine hormonal treatment of youth under age 18 and put psychological interventions and social support ahead of medical interventions,” wrote Carol Tavris in Skeptic.

So-called “detransitioners” (people who transitioned from one gender to another and then returned) are starting to speak up, too. 

“I have this intense rage over the harm that was done to me,” detransitioner Julie, 27, told Common Sense contributor Suzy Weiss. Julie called her treatment a “collaborative idiocy,” drawing together her parents, therapists and doctors. “It took a goddamn village.”

What should we do instead? The answer may be found in an experience my wife, Jody, and I had while attending a class reunion at Oberlin College a few years back.

Oberlin is a big biking town, so shortly after we arrived, we visited the campus cycle shop to rent two-wheelers for the weekend. We were greeted by a lovely salesperson with a long beard and a deep voice wearing a dress

I didn’t ask if our salesperson had plans to medically transition at some point. That wasn’t the point, in any case; rather it was that you can identify however you like without medication and without surgery.

Why can’t we promote this kind of approach instead of puberty blockers? It would take a societal change, to be sure – an acceptance of new modalities for gender identification – but isn’t that better than inflicting indelible changes on youth too young to know what they’re signing up for? After all, a biological male in a dress with a penis can still experience orgasm.

Corrina Cohn, who had sex reassignment surgery when she was 19, may have what’s the most felicitous last word. “Sex is essential in healthy relationships,” she wrote in The Washington Post. “Give it a chance before permanently altering your body.”

I first shared my discomfort with puberty blockers at The Jerusalem Post.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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