“No, no, you’re doing it all wrong,” Ravit, the cannabis pharmacist, told me.

Ravit was referring to the way I was ingesting my cannabis oil by placing a drop on a cookie and swallowing – my own homemade medical marijuana edible.

“You want to put it on a finger and rub it on your gums,” Ravit continued. “Like you do with coke.”

“Coke?” I replied, confused. “You mean Coca-Cola?”

“No, cocaine,” she replied. “What, you’ve never done cocaine?”

“Um, no,” I sputtered in return. 

“But you’ve seen it in the movies, right?” Ravit pressed on.

“I’ve seen actors snort it up their noses,” I said.

“And then they rub what’s left on their gums.”

“Sure,” I said, although the truth is, I never noticed that second step.

Ravit and I were trying to get the dosage right for my second foray into the world of medical cannabis. I had received my first cannabis license from Israel’s Ministry of Health three years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer and wanted a more natural way to counteract the worst side effects of treatment.

At the time, I was mostly interested in CBD, the part of the cannabis plant that doesn’t get you stoned, and which has been all the rage in recent years, showing up in everything from energy drinks to chocolate chip cookies.

CBD didn’t do much for me and my cancer relapsed while I was taking my nightly drops, so I let my medical license lapse.

But when my chronic insomnia took a turn for the worse at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I began searching for an alternative to the sleeping medication I’ve been hooked on for the last 20 years. 

When I first started taking the pills, they were a godsend. I’d get seven hours of solid shut-eye and could function again. But the duration of my slumber had been steadily decreasing until, by April of last year, I was on double the recommended dose but getting only a paltry four hours of zzz’s. 

That’s a lot of chemicals for not a lot of benefit.

I decided to see a different doctor for my nocturnal malaise. Maybe there were some pills I still hadn’t tried. I didn’t know when I set up our Zoom appointment that my new doc was also a staunch advocate of psychoactive plant use.

Dr. Cannabis told me that I’d essentially exhausted my sleeping pill options. “What you need is a good Indica with a very high percentage of THC,” he proposed. 

There are two main types of cannabis. Sativas rev you up and give you an energetic, happy high. Indicas are sedating and perfect before bed. There’s a handy mnemonic for the latter: Indica – “in-da-couch,” which is where you’ll want to sink after a few puffs.

Dr. Cannabis recommended I start by smoking or vaping, both of which are faster acting than drops. He punched my information into his computer and sent the request off to the Ministry of Health. 

My official diagnosis: PTSD-induced insomnia, which makes sense: My insomnia kicked in big time in 2001 when the Second Intifada was raging and military helicopters were flying over our apartment on their way to Beit Jalla. I would lay awake at night getting more and more stressed.

Once my license was approved, the next step was to procure my cannabis.  

There are a number of cannabis pharmacies dotted around the country. Some are specialists like Pharm Yarok in Netanya. Others are regular pharmacies such as your neighborhood SuperPharm. Each stocks dozens of strains from multiple manufacturers. These days, they come in professional packaging – a cardboard box with a Ziploc pouch inside. 

Medical cannabis use is still a mostly trial and error process. Every body responds differently to the many varieties available. I started with three 10-gram boxes – one each of “Maple Leaf,” “Og Arsi” and “Neptune.” I’ve never been a pothead, so I didn’t know anything about rolling a joint and keeping it lit. I borrowed a vape pen from a friend and started my journey.

After about a month I had worked up to three puffs before bed while weaning off the pills completely for the first time in decades. To my amazement, I was actually sleeping, albeit not consistently. I wasn’t getting any more rest than I was on the last round of meds.

Discouraged, I called up Dr. Cannabis.

“For PTSD you have to take a lot,” he said. “Three puffs is nowhere near enough. You need three, four times that.”

Twelve tokes is indeed a lot, but after a few nights, it began to have the desired effect. Within about 15 minutes, I was so “in-da-couch” that I would fall asleep nearly immediately. But I would still wake up after a few hours. 

It was Ravit who suggested I add a drop or two of Indica oil to the mix, which I picked up on my next pharmacy run.

The oil didn’t prevent me from waking up, but when I did, I would usually fall back asleep. On a bad night, I’d get four hours of sleep. On my best nights, though, I’d be up to six blissful hours – not ideal, but good enough, all things considered.

Is medical cannabis the answer for everyone’s PTSD-related sleep problems? I’m no professional. All I can say is that it’s succeeding for me. For now. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to rub some more Coca-Cola on my gums. 

I first documented my adventures in medical cannabis for The Jerusalem Post.

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In 2018, a five-episode miniseries called Autonomies aired on Israeli TV. The show depicts an alternate reality where, 30 years ago, a civil war between haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) and Israel’s secular majority broke out. Intense fighting over lifestyle, education, and draft exemptions led the haredim to essentially secede from the State of Israel, declaring Jerusalem as the capital of a new autonomous zone. 

A high wall with checkpoints was erected and travel documents were required to transit in and out of the autonomy, which was now responsible for its own tax collection, police and social services.

Autonomies, the TV show, is fiction, of course, but haredi autonomy is quite real in today’s Israel. 

Non-haredi Israel, while complaining bitterly, has been willing to tolerate this autonomy because, if you don’t live in certain parts of Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, it could be ignored especially when the economy was booming and the army, despite paying lip service to universal conscription, didn’t really want to draft tens of thousands of recalcitrant ultra-Orthodox men.

Then the pandemic hit. 

The same opposition to the rules that has been mainstreamed by many haredi leaders is now killing the rest of the country – in some cases quite literally.

The alarming statistics at this point are well known: Haredim constitute 12% of Israel’s population but, according to January 2021 data from the Home Front Command, as high as 40% of daily Covid-19 cases. The percent of patients testing positive for Covid-19 in the haredi city of Beitar Ilit was 29% in January, compared with just 4% in Tel Aviv. Haredi elderly are dying at three times the rate of secular Israelis.

This translates into a serious impact on the country’s medical facilities. Hospitals in Jerusalem – which has the highest percentage of haredi Covid patients – are so overwhelmed they are sending anyone who needs treatment for Covid-19 out of the city. Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center reports that non-essential procedures have been curtailed as staff are reassigned to the Covid department.

Meanwhile, despite Israel’s repeated lockdowns, in the de facto haredi autonomy, stores, schools and synagogues remain open, as if there was no corona and no law. The dual funerals of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik and Rabbi Yitzhok Scheiner attracted upwards of 20,000 haredi mourners.

“A lesson of the pandemic that might be hard for the secular public to accept is that, in every sense, they and the haredim are living in different countries, writes Dr. Guy Hoshen, director of the coronavirus department at Sourasky, in Haaretz.

The counter to this dystopian prognosis is that the majority of haredim are following the rules, so why vilify an entire community? That may be true, but it hardly means much when infection rates are soaring. As David Horovitz points out in The Times of Israel, “We are not talking about all in the community, but neither about an insignificant minority.”

Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz puts it more bluntly. “What we are seeing is mass insurrection.”

What can be done to shake up this intolerable situation?

Sending in the police clearly won’t work, as we saw when haredi extremists in Bnei Brak attacked authorities and torched a bus to protest enforcement of coronavirus regulations. 

The key to making changes must come through economic incentives that bring the haredi world closer to the Israeli norm. It’s worked in the past. 

Employment among working age haredi men in the late 1970s was above 80%, Prof. Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Public Policy, told me. That was before the ultra-Orthodox parties became part of Israel’s governing coalitions. Once money started flowing to their institutions, haredi participation in the workforce plummeted to just 40%. 

When the short-lived 2013-2015 government that included no haredi parties cut child subsidies and grants to full-time yeshiva students, yeshiva enrollment plunged by 16%.

The cuts didn’t last long – when the government fell after just a year and a half, the incoming coalition restored the cash. The number of yeshiva students, including married men in kollel, subsequently grew by 37% between 2014 and 2018. 

The pandemic may have triggered a tipping point in non-haredi Israel’s acceptance of this status quo. A poll published at the end of January found that 61% of Israeli voters would prefer that the next coalition exclude the haredi parties. That would, in turn, allow legislating desperately needed economic changes.

I despair that a simple alteration in Knesset arithmetic will be enough, though. It would only be a matter of time before the haredim are back in a future coalition and the autonomy would pick up where it left off.

In this respect, maybe full-scale autonomy, like that depicted in the TV show, is the best approach.

Autonomies co-creator Yehonatan Indursky suggests that what he put on screen is actually “not a dystopia [but] the reality that currently exists in Israel.” 

Why not formalize it?

“The ultra-Orthodox should have a defined territory in which they can live their lives without being imperiled,” writes Carlo Strenger in Haaretz. “A federative structure might relieve Israel’s various cultures from [their] fears of being endangered. We all need spaces to breathe.” 

I’m not convinced that’s an acceptable approach – neither practically (where would the borders be drawn?) nor ethically (isn’t it the Jewish people’s goal to create more unity, not less?)

But whether through economic incentives or radical separation, the haredi autonomy in Israel, as it’s currently formulated, “needs to come to an end,” Katz writes. “No one is above the law. Yes, it is hard. But if we don’t act now, it will only get harder.”

Autonomies is streaming on Amazon Prime.

I first wrote about the haredi-secular civil war for The Jerusalem Post.

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With international travel off the table for the last year, my wife Jody and I have been exploring what’s closer to home. It’s been fabulous. 

Up until the start of the most recent lockdown, we were taking off one morning or afternoon every week to get out into nature for a local tiyul (Hebrew for hike), two or three hours in duration. Because we live in Jerusalem, most of our “Tuesday tiyulim” and “Wednesday walks” have been in the hills around Israel’s capital. 

These brief excursions have made all the difference in getting through the pandemic. Once the current lockdown lifts, we’re looking forward to hitting the trails again. I hope that, even when overseas destinations are accessible again, we continue our Israel trekking adventures.

Here are eight of our favorite trips in the Jerusalem area. 

1. Shvil HaErez. When we’re looking for a short and easy hike within the Jerusalem city limits, Shvil HaErez is our go-to tiyul. The circular route starts in the Jerusalem Forest below Yad Vashem and can be hiked in one to two hours depending on how much you want to stop and smell the cedar trees. (“Erez” is Hebrew for cedar.) There’s plenty of shade, picnic tables and beautiful views. No car? No worries – take the Jerusalem Light Rail to Yefe Nof and start the hike from there.

On Shvil HaErez

2. Emek Ha’arazim. We’d seen this valley hundreds of times as we drove into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but never hiked it. It’s totally worth getting out of the car – as long as you don’t mind that you’ll never be far from the sounds of traffic from the nearby highways. We parked at the New Kraft Stadium in the Jerusalem Park (entrance is from Golda Boulevard near Har Hotzvim) and walked along the bike path to Einot Telem, once a small Jewish settlement that was abandoned during the 1929 Arab riots. To make the walk more challenging, you can climb up to the 9/11 Memorial which has the names of all those who died in the terror attack.

Playground in Emek Ha’arazim

3. Motza Valley Park. Also a part of the expansive Jerusalem Park that encircles the city, this hike starts where we ended the previous trek, at Einot Telem, and continues under Highway 1 along the bike path in the opposite direction until you reach the Beit Zayit Reservoir. It’s not much of a reservoir – it fell out of use years ago – but there are pretty picnic spots and the scenery is stunning. When there’s no more corona, a brief detour will score you lunch at popular dairy café Derech HaGefen.

The dam at the Beit Zayit Reservoir

4. Nahal Halilim. Our final hike from Einot Telem took us up the green trail in the direction of Meveseret Zion. The main attractions for this hike are the two caves which branch in multiple directions and are worth the laundry you’ll have to do the next day (you must crawl through parts on your hands and knees). If caves aren’t your thing, the trail is filled with flowers (especially in the spring). The higher you climb, the prettier the views.

“Ancient” board games at Einot Terem

5. Hidden Ein Kerem. We’ve been visiting Ein Kerem for years but there’s a less traveled side between the picturesque village and Beit Zayit to the north. You start on the Israel Trail, walking down the lovely “Gan Eden” staircase (literally, “stairway to heaven”) until meeting up with our old friend, the bike path, that takes you to the other end of the Beit Zayit Reservoir. Backtrack a few minutes and head up into the hills for a longer walk, returning to Ein Kerem on Shvil HaHaruv (“the carob path”). Any Ein Kerem walk must finish with ice cream at Golda’s, one of our favorite sweet shops in the country.

On the “Stairway to Heaven” (see the Israel Trail marker)

6. Shvil Hadassah. The staff at Hadassah Medical Center realized they had a treasure of trails surrounding the hospital. Volunteers cleared land, painted signs and created a loop around the campus. We like to start this hike in Ein Kerem. Walk up towards Mary’s Spring and turn right. You’ll eventually end up in one of Hadassah’s parking lots. That’s OK. You can cut through and get back to the trail to return to Ein Kerem. Ambitious walkers can combine this loop with Shvil HaMa’ayanot, which is dotted by natural springs that fill up in winter.

View from Shvil Hadassah

7. Sataf. There are so many great hikes in the Sataf area; the most popular is Har Eitan, which loops around the mountain with 360-degree views. You can also hike down from Sataf to Ein Kerem (two cars recommended if you don’t want to hoof it back up), trek nearby Mount Heret, climb to Mount Tayasim, or walk through neighboring Kibbutz Tzova, with a stop for a picnic at a charming oasis. The 12th-century Crusader fortress of Belmont is nearby, too.

Socially distanced on Har Eitan

8. HaMesila Park to Ein Lavan. When Israel’s third lockdown hit, we were unable to drive in our car to a trailhead. But you can exercise freely on foot, without a distance limit, so we walked from our home in southern Jerusalem along HaMesila Park (“Train Track Park”) past the Biblical Zoo and the Aquarium, ending at the popular spring Ein Lavan. The Mesila is exquisitely landscaped, more than making up for the more urban flavor of this hike. It’s a nearly two-hour walk from the First Station to Ein Lavan. We were pooped and considered taking a taxi home but, you know, corona. We registered 18 kilometers on our health app.

Park HaMesila with the Holyland project in the background

We look forward to doing this one again – in one direction only!

I first wrote about our Tuesday tiyulim and Wednesday walks at The Jerusalem Post.

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Nothing lays bare the extreme nature of living in Israel more than this country’s remarkably decisive vaccination drive happening at precisely the same time as Israelis are suffering through a third coronavirus lockdown – making Israel one of the few countries to reach such a dubious milestone. 

First the positives: Israel has stepped up to the plate in a way that few other countries have, rolling out a campaign for vaccination that has been breathtaking in its speed and efficiency. In the first days of the drive, Israel shot up to take the top spot worldwide in the number of vaccinations administered per capita. 

Moreover, unlike other countries, the minimum age for receiving a vaccine in the first weeks was set at only 60. After complaining in this column previously about how disheartened I was having such a significant milestone birthday during a pandemic, I finally got a present I really wanted. 

So, when Keren the nurse jabbed my arm at Jerusalem’s Pais Arena, where the Maccabi HMO had eight shot stands up and running, I was practically in tears, not from pain but rather the hope that an end to this international nightmare is finally in sight.

And yet, it was just a few months earlier that Israel held another extreme Covid-19 distinction – as the country with the greatest number of new cases per capita in the world. 

That came as a direct result of the government’s woeful management of the corona crisis – months of setting redlines that were repeatedly breached; enacting last minute decisions only to be scrapped or revised; prescribing quarantines that were not enforced; and carving out exceptions for some groups and not others due to barefaced political calculations.

Now, Israel has risen once again, like a relentless, demented phoenix, to a perch near the top of the new cases per capita list.

The vaccination campaign is part of the Israel “that takes care of its citizens in often astonishing ways,” writes Yossi Klein Halevi, whose latest book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor became a New York Times bestseller. “Israelis know they live in a country that not only demands unparalleled sacrifices from its citizens but also earns that right.”

But there is another Israel, Klein Halevi continues, “an increasingly dysfunctional nation that has lost the most basic trust in its leadership, whose democratic institutions are under sustained attack and that is now, in the midst of a pandemic and the worst economic crisis in decades, being dragged into an inexplicable fourth election in less than two years.”

The extremes Israelis have experienced living through this year like no other are not exclusive to the pandemic. 

While our high-tech sector is a respected world leader, local customer service too often comes up lacking. 

The gap between rich and poor continues to grow; Israel has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the OECD.

Israelis love nature, yet we can’t seem to bring home our garbage left on the trail.

We overpay for imported goods and it’s become near impossible to afford an apartment in a metropolitan area, yet our system of universal healthcare, even as it is chronically underfunded, remains one of the best in the world and costs a pittance per month.

You can transfer money to a friend or service provider with three taps using an app like Bit or Pay but visit one of the dwindling numbers of brick and mortar bank branches and prepare to be yelled at. Someone’s sent you a package? Expect the post office to lose it.

The Abraham Accords brought a surprisingly warm peace with the United Arab Emirates, but closer to home, there’s never-ending tension with our Palestinian neighbors.

Israel’s extremes are even represented in our geography: You can go from snow to desert within just a few hours’ drive.

Sometimes, though, Israelis come together in truly wonderful ways and the extremes momentarily evaporate. Israel’s vaccination drive has been one of those times, writes Daniel Gordis in Bloomberg.

“Friends of ours, just a few years too young to have been eligible for the vaccine, look after an elderly woman,” Gordis explains. “She, of course, was eligible and got an appointment. So, they drove her downtown to her HMO’s location.”

The wife took the woman in for her shot while her husband waited in the car – until the wife called and told her partner to come inside immediately. 

“They’re going to vaccinate us,” she told him. 

“But we’re too young,” the husband protested.

The nurse had the final word. “You brought in an elderly person who needed to get here. You deserve to get the vaccine, too.” 

Former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov has described Israel’s extremes as a kind of “national disorder [with a] tendency to vacillate between feelings of euphoria and anxiety.”

It can all make your mind spin. But for this miraculous moment, I am choosing to focus on the salubrious. Indeed, I barely even noticed that my arm, post-vaccination, hurt like the dickens for a few days. 

That was Klein Halevi’s response, too, after his first Pfizer jab – a moment of “quiet pride, of knowing I made the right decision when, four decades ago, I’d entrusted the state of Israel with my future and the future of my family.” In a few months, he adds, if all goes well, Israel will be “the first fully vaccinated country, the first to defeat Covid-19.”

Now, that’s an extreme statement I’ll be happy to own.

I first highlighted Israel’s extremes in The Jerusalem Post.

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When I was first diagnosed with follicular lymphoma three years ago this month, it was clear I was going to write about it – that’s just what I do. What I didn’t realize was how documenting my journey publicly would change me and, in particular, my commitment to honesty with friends, family and readers.

Writing about health challenges is nothing new – witness the growing number of websites, articles and book-length memoirs from people who are either suffering from or have beaten their illness into remission, even if just temporarily.

More recently, the number of articles appearing online about Covid-19 – from heartbreaking health challenges to practical steps for coping pre- and post-lockdown – have multiplied even more rapidly.

There are many more medical stories that take place farther from the limelight. In the last 20 plus years, for example, over 850,000 people have created a health journal through the website CaringBridge, which claims that one in eight people in the U.S. visited the site in 2019.

Writing about health can be a kind of therapy, a means of turning a bad break into something with a more positive (if not altogether happy) ending.

I’ve been doing this for years – and not just with illness. 

When my wife, Jody, and I got caught outdoors in a sudden downpour on a hike in Norway, I connected that experience with ACT, an analytical technique that blends mindfulness with cognitive behavioral therapy, as a way of flipping the script on our extreme dampness. 

Crafting such a column forces the writer to conceptualize an event as a story with a beginning, middle and end, maybe an uplifting moral. After a while, the writer may even come to believe the ending he or she has written for this “fictionalized” version of the story.

In this way, writing publicly about health challenges becomes a version of what behavioral economists call a “commitment device.”

Freakonomics author and podcast host Stephen Dubner describes a commitment device as “a clever means to help you commit to a course of action that you know will be hard. That might mean losing weight, quitting smoking or anything else involving willpower.”

Imagine two versions of yourself, Dubner proposes: current you and future you. If you know that your future self will want to follow a behavior that your current self is not comfortable with, you can “make a deal to punish (or reward) yourself if the future self doesn’t follow through on the current self’s promise.”

Odysseus essentially did that when he had himself “lashed to the mast of his ship so he couldn’t succumb to the song of the Sirens,” Dubner explains. 

Buying a gym membership (and committing to posting a selfie a day) to force yourself to get in shape is another example. 

There are even websites like Stickk.com, where users join a public community (say, “Diet and Exercise”), state their goal (“lose 10 pounds in a month”), put down some money ($200 is a good starting point) and define what will happen to the money if they don’t stick to their commitment. Stickk says that adding financial stakes triples one’s chances of success and that its users have put “$50 million on the line.”

Dubner describes the case of Adam Scott who wanted to reduce his unhealthy habits – everything from drinking too much to watching excessive TV. If he failed, he declared on YouTube, he would send a $750 check to someone “whom he really, really didn’t want to give his money to: Oprah Winfrey.” 

Now, you might be a fan of Oprah, but you get the point. By going public with his commitment, Scott was signaling that he would do whatever it took to carry through with his pledge. 

Writing about one’s health publicly can have a similar effect. When I end a story with a positive, that helps shape my attitude – even if it’s just for the hour I’m writing down the words. When I know that thousands of people are reading that affirmation, it creates a feedback loop: I’ve put it out there; now I’m being held accountable.

What if I don’t feel so positive by the time the article is published? Embedded in this public contract is a commitment to honesty. If my health deteriorates, I will tell you about that, too.

At the same time, I can also access the happy ending that I wrote previously to remind myself that, however lousy I may feel at the moment, there was a time not so long before when things were different – and it’s likely that things will change again soon. 

That’s certainly a message we could all stand to hear with Covid-19 still raging around us. 

One more benefit: Sharing your story publicly when you’re having a good day can help mitigate the propensity to feel sorry for yourself on the bad ones.

While commitment devices can be effective tools for keeping yourself on a productive path and are particularly relevant on days like today, January 1 – New Year’s Day, when making resolutions is a time-honored tradition – they’re not foolproof. Adam Scott wound up mailing that check to Oprah for a relatively minor infraction – he pledged to cut out milk from his diet, then accidentally put a couple of small containers of two-percent cream in his coffee.

Still, should you find yourself in a health crisis feeling understandably down, consider writing – publicly, privately, on CaringBridge, Stickk or another support site. Think about your pain as part of a bigger story and, if you’re feeling up to it, craft an ending that gives you hope.

I first wrote about making this year’s New Year’s resolutions stick at The Jerusalem Post.

Computer image from Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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Covid, cancer and self-image

December 19, 2020

Healthy and young. Productive member of society. The sexual single. The pious one. The adventurer. What do COVID and cancer have in common? Both can strip away chunks of one’s self-image. What speaks to you?

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A coronavirus wake-up call

December 6, 2020

Have you had a covid scare in your family? Here’s our story. Please share your own in the comments. How will you get through pandemic winter?

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Covid-19’s silver linings

November 21, 2020

Can there be anything positive about Covid-19? Beyond the cliches of “more time for reflection?” Here are eight surprising benefits.

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Punctured on the way to a flu shot

November 8, 2020

It wasn’t just the needle that left a puncture when I went to my doctor to get a flu shot.  Until last week, I’d never gotten the vaccine for annual influenza before, mostly because, over the course of my 60 years, I’ve sailed through winters without getting particularly sick. But with Covid-19 literally in the […]

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