This Normal Life All about "normal" life in Israel Sun, 04 Dec 2022 13:12:51 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Hoarding and tossing Sun, 04 Dec 2022 13:12:50 +0000

I have been reading – and writing for – The Jerusalem Post for nearly a third of the publication’s 90-year existence. I’ve also done something else that’s been less lucrative but for which I feel an irresistible compulsion: clipping articles of interest.

I’ve been clipping for longer than my relationship with the Post. Growing up, I used to cut out pieces from whatever newspaper I could get my hands on: the San Francisco Chronicle, where I grew up; the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where I went to college; various alternative and underground weeklies. I once saved an entire issue of the Bali Advertiser, following a vacation in Indonesia. 

But 50 years of compulsive clipping has come to an end. Well, the physical part at least. 

Now, when I find an article I think I might find valuable later, I copy the text or the web address into Evernote – and throw away the print version.

I still have boxes and boxes of clippings, though. Which is why I’ve been slowly – very slowly – going through my collection and tossing articles I either haven’t read in years or don’t have plans to ever read again. But, first, I write down the name of the article, its author and a URL if available; if I had the time and hard disk and space, I might have opted to painstakingly scan the actual articles.

Over the years, I’ve rationalized my newspaper hoarding. 

First, as a writer, you never know when you’ll find something relevant for a story you didn’t regard as noteworthy at the time. 

Second, it will be a great way for my children to learn more about their father, after I’m gone.

The pushback: Why burden your children with having to go through your stuff? Take care of it while you’re alive, a legion of professional de-clutterers emphasize. Even if it’s all entirely online, your descendants will still have to decide whether to pay the monthly cloud storage costs – or make the painful decision to delete the account forever.

Still, it’s not an entirely crazy idea. 

When my wife Jody’s father passed away earlier this year, she found a treasure trove of old letters the two of them wrote to each other during college. It’s been an eye-opener.

Now, I don’t expect my kids to care about business plans I wrote in the 1990s for companies that never took off, or technical specifications for building long-forgotten CD-ROM edutainment titles. 

But I do hope they won’t get rid of at least some of the more interesting clippings I’ve amassed. 

Among the discoveries in my many boxes of Post clippings:

Can the Smadar Theater in Jerusalem be saved from greedy developers? An article from 2008 by Peggy Cidor was bleak but the Smadar is still standing, 14 years later.

Are young families leaving Jerusalem? Gail Lichtman wrote in 2010 about how to keep these valuable city residents in town. (It’s a topic that, sadly, never gets stale.)

Larry Derfner wrote about disappointed political doves in “Still liberal after all these years.” (More things that haven’t changed.)

Lauren Gelfand interviewed Moshe Basson, the proprietor and head chef of Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus restaurant. Thirteen years later, I had the best kosher maqluba (an upside-down rice and lamb dish) I’ve ever tasted there. (You’ve still got it, Moshe.)

For a few years, I saved every one of Shlomo Brody’s “Ask the Rabbi” columns. Among the more memorable headlines: “Does Jewish law promote vegetarianism?” “Do demons exist?” “May one invite someone on Shabbat knowing they will drive?” and “Why are yeshiva students exempt from serving in the army?”

Can Orthodox women be rabbis? Haviva Ner David thinks so and wrote about it in the Post.

Why are religious Jews spitting on priests in Jerusalem’s Old City? That was the topic of a disturbing 2009 article, “Mouths filled with hatred.”

Stewart Weiss wondered whether the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a sign from God. (Note to Stewart: nope.)

Hannah Brown covers movies and TV for the Post, but back in the early days of the Internet, she did a weekly round-up of the most interesting websites called “Couch Surfing.” I clipped a bunch of those, too. 

Naomi Ragen wrote about surviving the 2002 Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya. That was at the height of the Second Intifada, and I found too many articles on the topic in my stash. Among them: a piece about a waiter stopping a suicide bomber at Jerusalem’s Caffit on Emek Refaim Street, and another about the Sbarro bombing. (I eventually suspended my terrorism clippings when it got too overwhelming.)

And yet there’s room for optimism: Saul Singer dubbed our fair city “Jerusalem of charisma” and declared he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. (He’s still here.)

I didn’t just clip politics and lifestyle topics. I found a strong sprinkling of tech in my collection. 

Nicky Blackburn profiled Jerusalem startup, Versaware, which, at its height in 2000, employed 640 people. And Derfner wondered in 2008 whether we’re all living inside a high-tech bubble.

There were also articles on food, including quite a few of the Post’s annual sufganiothamantaschen and cheesecake-for-Shavuot reviews, which were delicious at the time, but no longer necessary to keep in hard copy.

I could go on – but then I’d fill the entire Magazine with my irrepressible nostalgia rather than focusing on lugubriously emptying more boxes.

In the meantime, I want to wish a happy 90th birthday to all my friends and colleagues at The Jerusalem Post.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post’s 90th anniversary Magazine.

Photo by Egor Vikhrev on Unsplash

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The eternal optimist Sat, 19 Nov 2022 19:08:02 +0000

The posts in my Facebook feed following the November 1 Israeli election quickly turned apocalyptic – and that’s putting it kindly. 

Is Itamar Ben-Gvir the bogeyman we need?

“Pack your bags, it’s time to go,” wrote one heartbroken friend.

“If you can, leave,” opined another.

I, along with some half the country, was devastated with the results of our fifth election in four years. But there are, in fact, several reasons to be optimistic. 

1. Everything is temporary. Other than a terror attack leading to a loss of life, just about anything in politics can be undone. 

Money for full-time yeshiva learning reduced? Wait, it’s back. Nope, gone again. 

Kashrut reform – we got it. Um, well probably not anymore. 

The Supreme Court is neutered by a Knesset “override clause?” For now, perhaps. But just wait another four years (or less) and, with a new coalition, the law will be reversed.

2. We are in the midst of a Trumpian backlash in Israel. The rise of Donald Trump was a clear backlash to the Barack Obama years, just as Joe Biden’s election was a response to four years of Trump. The ascendency of the far right in Israel today is, similarly, a backlash to the now defunct “government of change.” 

Did voters lurch further to the Right because they agreed with everything Benjamin Netanyahu and his presumed political partners had to say? No. But with the demise of Yamina, moderate religious voters had nowhere else to turn and so, as Carrie Keller-Lynn wrote in The Times of Israel, opted “to hold their noses” and vote for the Religious Zionist Party. 

Has Israel transformed overnight into a racist, homophobic nation? While there are certainly some rotten apples, most Israelis are still kind, helpful and moderate. As Martin Luther King Jr. once quipped, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” 

3. Israel is not alone in its swing to the Right. France, Sweden, the U.K., Hungary, Italy – all over the world, voters have moved steadily to the Right. When Trump was elected president, pundits predicted Americans would emigrate in droves. That didn’t happen, whether out of complacency or a desire to fight.

Frankly, where would you even go at this point? If the backlash hypothesis is true, the United States could be facing its own post-Biden Republican reaction in 2024 (although the results from last week’s midterm elections showed Democrats have more staying power than pollsters forecast).

France’s Emmanuel Macron beat rightist firebrand Marine Le Pen this time, but she still received 41% of the vote (far more than the 11% the Religious Zionist Party got in Israel). Budapest may be one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but Prime Minister Victor Orban’s branding Hungary as “an illiberal democracy” hardly makes it a place to move to.

4. A bogeyman can be a useful foil. Bibi hedges his language in ways only an accomplished politician learns to sublimate. Religious Zionist Party leaders Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, on the other hand, say exactly what they mean. “If they are throwing stones, shoot them,” Ben-Gvir told police officers in Sheikh Jarrah while brandishing his own handgun. But, as Vladimir Lenin once said, “the worse, the better” – that is, it’s only when things seem exceptionally dire that a meaningful uprising can take place. 

If the anti-Bibi block ever wants to win, a polarizing figure might be just what’s needed to scare it into motion. If enough policies are implemented that citizens can’t stomach, a fighting opposition will return to protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, stronger than ever. We can’t have the left constantly crying “gevalt” every single election. 

Speaking of which…

5. Losing Meretz may not be such a bad thing. I have nothing against Meretz. Many of my friends and family voted for them. But it seems the party has long since lost relevance, and the annual game of begging the nation to save them, such that they squeak by the electoral threshold, isn’t healthy. 

When a new left-wing party comes to replace the old Meretz, it will need to do more than represent an increasingly small slice of the Israeli population. As Haviv Rettig Gur wrote in The Times of Israel, “the left that just collapsed, in terms of raw political strategy, doesn’t deserve to exist.”

6. A Jewish state comes before a democratic one. Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, noted on Substack that the Left in general tends to eschew terms such as “Jewish” and “Zionist.” Indeed, in one of Yair Lapid’s final campaign videos as prime minister, he used neither term.

“The problem, for me, is that if you translated this video into French and substituted ‘France’ for Israel, Emmanuel Macron could use it in his next campaign,” Gordis wrote. “It’s a lovely video that would work for any modern liberal democracy. But here’s the rub. I never intended to move to any old modern liberal democracy…I came here to live in a Jewish state, a state that, while not imposing religiously on anyone, would be Jewish in manifold ways – culturally, educationally, in values and much more.”

Many moderate Israelis, who are “without question appalled by some things that Ben-Gvir says… just want to know that there is someone in the room reminding everyone that they are in the business of leading a Jewish state,” Gordis added. These voters may or may not want public transportation on Shabbat, but they want “a Jewish voice in government meetings.”

I do, too, although I disagree with Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Netanyahu and the haredi parties about the best way to get there. But that day is coming, which is why I insist on remaining optimistic. 

It’s our job now to hasten its arrival.

I first wrote about finding the silver linings in an uncomfortable situation for The Jerusalem Post.

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Reclaiming Zionism Sat, 05 Nov 2022 19:39:46 +0000

When our youngest son Aviv moved to New York this summer, I was worried. Not about him finding his way in the big city, but about what he might encounter on campus when it comes to Israel. 

First Zionist Congress

While The New School, where Aviv will be studying music, has not been a hotbed of anti-Zionist controversy, other schools in the city certainly have.

The most shocking stories have come out of the City University of New York, where an antisemitism watchdog reported that more than 150 incidents have taken place on CUNY campuses since 2015.

Perhaps the most egregious was a 2022 letter that declared Israel to be a “settler colonial state” that commits “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” and “funds Nazi militia groups.” The letter further called for Jewish groups to “unlearn Zionism” and labeled the Jewish student group Hillel “a known anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, Islamophobic, and anti-Palestinian organization.”

New York is certainly not alone. I just wrote about anti-Zionist activities at UC Berkeley’s School of Law in my last column. 

So, it was particularly timely that the Magazine recently published a special section marking the 125thanniversary of the First Zionist Congress. Ten influential Jewish leaders weighed in on the question of what the future of Zionism should be. 

The entire section should be mandatory reading for American college students – Aviv included. 

Israeli President Isaac Herzog got first crack at cracking down on the detractors who, he writes, are trying “to turn ‘Zionist’ into a dirty word.” Indeed, “Zio” has becomes the latest antisemitic pejorative.

“We have a duty to reclaim Zionism,” Herzog says. Zionism has created “a powerful vehicle for Jewish collective action. It is through Zionism that the Jewish people are making some of their most dramatic contributions to humanity.” 

Herzog is not saying that Jews on their own can’t have an impact – one need only look at the number of Jewish Nobel prize winners around the world – but rather that Zionism allows those achievements to reflect on the Jews as a whole, not specific individuals.

Moreover, Zionism has created a “safe space,” Herzog notes, “where the Jewish people can continue arguing and debating about their big questions, safe from the fears that had always haunted them.” 

Fears like persecution, on the one hand, and “erasure of their distinctive culture on the other.”

Former head of the Jewish Agency, Soviet refusenik and member of Knesset in the 1990s and 2000s Natan Sharansky shares concern for the second part of Herzog’s equation.

“There are only two factors that can slow down assimilation,” Sharansky writes. “Tradition and Zionism. If you don’t have any connection, neither to tradition nor to Israel, your grandchildren will probably not be Jewish.”

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 to 2013, recalls how, at the height of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, he was called to an emergency meeting with a major U.S. donor to Israeli causes. The donor wanted Oren to come up with a substitute for the word “Zionist,” one that “was less provocative and toxic.”

Oren “disagreed, forcibly.” Zionism, he argued, “had produced one of the most dynamic, creative, powerful, and unerringly democratic nations in the world – the only “ism” of the 20th century to succeed and succeed massively. All that we would forget just because some American students were labeling Zionism racist?”

Zionism by any other name “would still mean all of this,” Oren writes, “and Zionism by any other name would still be condemned by those who hate Israel.” 

By disavowing the nation-state of the Jewish people, home to the world’s largest Jewish community, “the anti-Zionist Jew is opting out of our nation, a fugitive from sovereign responsibility, a refugee from Jewish history, a footnote,” Oren concludes.

It was Gol Kalev, author of the book Judaism 3.0, who really drove it home for me.

“We are in the midst of a historic transformation of Judaism,” Kalev writes. “Zionism is becoming the organizing principle of the Jewish nation-religion. It is the primary conduit through which both Jews and non-Jews relate to Judaism, whether positively or negatively.” (Which would explain the international obsession with the run up to this week’s elections in Israel.)

Kalev divides Jewish history into three eras: Judaism 1.0 covered the days of the First Temple and a Jewish physical presence in the land. Judaism 2.0 came during our 2,000 years of exile and the development of Rabbinic Judaism. 

For Judaism 3.0, Zionism is “the one aspect of Judaism that cannot be ignored,” Kalev writes. “It evokes emotions, passions, anger, pride and engagement.”

Kalev proposes that more Jews embracing Zionism could take the wind out of the Israel denigrators’ sails. 

“Israel-bashing is by now too entrenched in mainstream society to be countered through rational argument,” Kalev posits. But “once there is a broad recognition that Judaism has transformed to Zionism, Israel-bashing becomes Jew-bashing [and] while being anti-Zionist is a rite of passage in certain circles, being anti-Jewish is a career-ending taboo.” (Witness the slow but steady fall of Kanye West.)

Kalev’s analysis resonates with my own Jewish journey. If I’m being honest, I’d say I made aliyah for the kosher food. That is, my family and I moved to Israel for religious reasons. But as my observance waned, I discovered myself without the religious anchor I had held onto for some 20 years. To my surprise, something else had taken its place: Zionism. 

That said, I’ve been guilty of not embracing my Zionism with the enthusiasm I’m espousing here. When I interview someone in the U.S. for an article and they find out I live in Israel, I’ll usually be asked, “So why did you move there?” 

I’ll typically hem and haw a bit before responding, “This is a historical moment and I wanted to be part of it, to make Israel – which certainly has its share of problems – the kind of place in which we can all be satisfied.” 

That’s a kind of subtle Israel-bashing, too, I realize now. 

Going forward, there’s only one response to that question, one that I’d recommend to Aviv, too.

Because I’m a Zionist and proud of it.

I first wrote about reclaiming Zionism for The Jerusalem Post.

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Toss that word salad Sun, 23 Oct 2022 10:57:36 +0000

When did we lose the ability to laugh at the linguistic changes coming at us at an ever-increasing pace? 

I had intended to write a column on how some of the language we use these days can be difficult for older folks like me to assimilate. I recall how, in the 1970s, we all could have a chuckle over “political correctness,”whether we were coming from the left, right or somewhere in between.

But when I asked on Facebook for examples of “modern-day euphemisms” that readers felt had perhaps gone too far, I opened a spigot of social media venom that has yet to be closed. To which I feel obligated to say: 

“Guys, you’re taking this all too seriously! I just wanted to have a spot of fun.” 

The trigger for my latest lexical exploration came when I was listening to a podcast during which, in the course of an episode discussing various aspects of parenting, the host never once used the word “mother.” Instead, it was “birthing person.” 

I understand the reasoning: In an age when a trans man may still have the physical equipment to give birth, “mother” may not be an inclusive enough term.

It seems, however, that my age may finally be catching up with me. I’m finding it difficult to close the generation gap. 

I’m not alone in my perturbation.

“What about women who cannot give birth, or who have adopted, fostered or used a surrogate? ‘Birthing person’ excludes them,” wrote several similarly “mature” commentators to my Facebook query.

“It’s best not to label someone at all. Refer to them by function,” another person helpfully offered. So, rather than use “male” or “man,” instead say, “a person who could get testicular cancer.” 

Isn’t this all really a form of kindness, asked Josh, “seeing people as they are and not using labels that render them invisible?” 

Perhaps I protest too much?

But then I read about several developments that had me stretching my euphemistically befuddled brain. Such as the latest pronouncement from WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, that there’s a new gender identity that must be supported – the eunuch – complete with freely chosen castration. 

Or as Andrew Sullivan, host of the popular Dishcast radio program, points out, look at the latest statement from the Human Rights Campaign that one should feel free to identify however one wishes, even if that’s as a “tree” or a “fish.”

Whether you’re sniggering sympathetically or stifling simmering outrage, politically correct euphemisms have always been designed to obfuscate the uncomfortable realities lurking underneath. 

That’s how “double mastectomy” becomes “top surgery” or a “chest-masculinization” procedure. It’s how what was once called a “sex change” is now a “gender-confirming” operation.

Modern age euphemisms are not exclusive to gender issues. 

“War” gets repositioned as a “campaign or an “intervention.” (Russia is particularly guilty of weaponizing this euphemism, although Israel doesn’t escape notice, either.)

“Healthy” could be construed a microaggression for someone who’s not. So, let’s replace it, some suggest, with “temporarily abled.” (Being “temporarily cancer free” isn’t particularly reassuring.)

“Cultural appropriation” may be the grandfather of 21st century newspeak. What was once a laudable goal – the melting pot, where a heady mix of cultures leads to all kinds of delightful instances of “fusion,” from food to art – has been transformed into an approbation. 

In 2016 I wrote about an Oberlin College student who criticized campus food services for preparing a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich with ciabatta bread instead of a baguette and coleslaw instead of pickled vegetables. 

There was also the the cancelation of a longstanding yoga class taught by a non-Indian woman at the University of Ottawa. The instructor, Jennifer Scharf, who had been offering the class for free for seven years, offered to rename it “mindful stretching.” 

Her proposal was rejected.

U.S. college campuses have seen their share of anti-Israel protests over the years. But don’t call it antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is now the “kosher” alternative for Jew haters who don’t want to be called out on their bigotry and racism.

To wit: a number of student groups at UC Berkeley’s School of Law passed a bylaw banning “Zionist” speakers from its events on campus. Beyond the quad, U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib warned that support for Israel is antithetical to being “progressive.” To which Representative Ritchie Torres of New York tweeted, “There is nothing progressive about advocating the end of Israel.”

Find “pedophiles” upsetting? Don’t worry, that’s been cleaned up – they’re now “minor attracted persons.”

A program for older adults was once phased out due to “natural disenrollment.” That is, the participants died.

To be fair, I’ve not been immune to political correctness. I once posed for a picture in front of a poster that read “Power to the Sandinistas” during my own studies at Oberlin. I doubt I had any knowledge of what the Sandinistas were all about (they were the socialist rulers of Nicaragua who battled the U.S.-backed Contras in the early 1980s).

Now, before you “OK Boomer me” for being hopelessly out of touch, can we accept that the pace and breadth of these changes in language are coming too fast for my and many of my peers’ set-in-our-ways, middle aged brains to grok?

We want to be upstanding, woke citizens of the world, but maybe we’ll have to settle for something more achievable: To simply be a good person struggling to make sense of a rapidly radicalizing world, with mild chortles where appropriate.

Here’s one change I think we can all get behind: Renaming “mail man” as “person person.” (OK, seriously, that would be “postal carrier.”)

It’s at least worth a sly grin.

I first wrote about woke euphemisms for The Jerusalem Post.

Saturday Night Live took on “woke jeans” in this bit.

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

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Repurposing old camps, malls and leper asylums Sun, 09 Oct 2022 10:47:05 +0000

El Rancho Navarro is an unlikely name for a Jewish summer camp. It’s not a well-known brand like Ramah, but it’s nevertheless where I spent several formative Julys in the early 1970s. In many ways, I attribute the Zionism I came to embrace later in life to my summers at El Rancho.

My old summer camp is now a meditation, yoga and ecological retreat center

I hadn’t been back to my camp, located outside the tiny town of Philo, Calif. in picturesque Mendocino County, for nearly 50 years until a recent visit to the United States when I was invited by Bob Wilms to learn more about The Land, the latest incarnation of the El Rancho property.

Instead of bunk beds in rickety cabins, arts and crafts in the afternoon, and horseback riding on good ‘ol Fred through the lush redwoods, Wilms has transformed El Rancho into a 162-acre rustic meditation, yoga and ecological retreat center.

There are no more horses at The Land; the barn has been turned into a hybrid co-working space and yoga studio with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the old paddock. 

The original horse paddock and barn
The new interior to the barn

The main dining hall, where the counselors forced us to take oversized salt pills with our oatmeal for breakfast, looks mostly the same with the addition of an impressive brick fireplace. 

Brian and Bob Willis in front of the dining hall fireplace

The flagpole where we gathered every morning to pledge allegiance is gone, as is the small room where Audrey, the nurse’s daughter who I had a fifth-grade crush on, and I used to play top-40 records while working on the camp newspaper – it’s now a tasteful gym stocked with exercise equipment. 

The old top 40 room is now a gym

I wasn’t able to enter any of the cabins (they were fully occupied when I visited), but photos on The Land’s website reveal luxurious beds with nary a bunk in sight. 

The transformation of bucolic El Rancho to opulent environmentalism was jarring at first to my nostalgic eyes but, as Bob showed me around, I began to see the logic of repurposing a no-longer-used space. 

It’s something we see in Israel as well. Indeed, in the spirit of the current season of physical and spiritual renewal, here are a few of my favorite such projects in my hometown of Jerusalem. (This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are similar projects outside of the city. Feel free to add your own repurposings in the comments online or write a letter to the editor.)

Train Track Park. When the train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem stopped running in 1998 to the former station in the German Colony, the tracks from there to the new station in Malcha were fenced off, becoming an eyesore of trash, weeds and stray cats. The tracks are now a seven-kilometer, wonderfully landscaped park, similar to the High Line in New York City, with a popular parallel bike path. The old station has become the Tahana HaRishona – a shopping, dining and entertainment complex. Take the train to the other end, and you’ll find the original station near Jaffa has been similarly transformed, as have some of the nearby tracks.

The Clal Building. Intended to be Jerusalem’s most state-of-the-art mall when it was built in the early 1970s, the Clal Building instead gained an unsavory reputation with its incomprehensible Escher-like layout, a miserable lack of heating in the winter, and a skylight that collected grime and bird droppings. It’s still an ugly monstrosity – except for the top floor, which has been transformed by the Muslala organization into an eco-friendly center teaching visitors about urban farming, sustainability, and renewal. Concerts and events are held on Muslala’s spacious outdoor patio. You can even pitch a tent. There are plans afoot to convert the rest of the Clal Building into “The Jerusalem Home for NGOs.”

Hansen House. Would you visit a leper asylum to see an exhibit of modern art? Put aside your misgivings, as Jerusalem’s Hansen House, a former home for lepers established in 1897, is now an interdisciplinary cultural center and branch of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. A variety of permanent and changing exhibits dot the space; a two-story multi-screen video installation is on display until November. There’s a small museum depicting the original asylum, as well as the scrumptious Offaimme Café which spotlights sustainable organic food.

HaMiffal. The Lorenzo-Serafin House on central Jerusalem’s Agron Street was abandoned and dilapidated when the art collective “Empty House” essentially squatted inside the building. The Jerusalem Foundation got behind the group and, today, HaMiffal – “the factory” in Hebrew” – is a cultural and arts center which also offers a trendy co-working space and café. The Foundation describes the whole space “as a massive work of art” which, while still quite rough around the edges, provides opportunities for over 200 local artists.

Gazelle Valley. This urban oasis was almost lost to real estate developers, who at one point surreptitiously moved tractors and other equipment into the area. The environmental activists eventually prevailed, quashing plans to build 1,400 apartments, and transforming what was once agricultural land belonging to two nearby kibbutzim into a preserve for a family of Jerusalem gazelles. In 2015, the lovely 64-acre Gazelle Valley opened, complete with bird watching huts, picnic areas and guided tours for local school children. The only downside: You can’t come with your dog as they could scare – and chase – the gazelles, who roam freely (this is no zoo). 

I’m glad that Bob Wilms has taken such good care of El Rancho Navarro and preserved its historical cabins and lands rather than constructing fancy condos. And now, all that could be yours, too: Wilms is in the process of selling the property in order to expand the ecological principles he and his staff have refined to rehabilitating inmates in prison. (More at

I first wrote about The Land and El Rancho Navarro in The Jerusalem Post.

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New Year’s predictions from the past Sun, 25 Sep 2022 10:12:13 +0000

When I was a teenager growing up in the 1970s, every New Year’s Day, my father, my brother and I would gather together in our suburban San Francisco Bay Area home to make predictions about what the coming year might bring. We did this on the secular New Year. However, just prior to this year’s Rosh Hashana, I discovered, sequestered in my diary, two envelopes with predictions for 1973 and 1974.

The family today (from l to r – Donica, Jody, Brian, Mom, Dave)

As I dove deep into my formative years, I was surprised by how prescient we were (at times) and how off base we were (most of the time). 

As we look ahead to the Hebrew year 5783, I present this nostalgic blast from the past that also serves as a small window into the issues that interested me long ago. Keep in mind that this was from before I had developed a solid Zionist identity. Still, there were a couple of Israel and Jewish nuggets in there.

Vietnam. With the war still raging and with me nearly a teenager already anticipating turning 18, we were all understandably concerned about the draft. I predicted selective service would end in 1973. (Wishful thinking?) My brother, who had a few more years to go before he too hit 18, didn’t agree. The U.S. army did in fact go volunteer in June 1973, although the Vietnam War didn’t end until 1975. (And then we moved to Israel in 1994 where all three kids of ours were eventually drafted!)

Presidential troubles. We all predicted bad things for then-President Nixon. Two of us said he’d resign, while one of us added he’d be impeached before he resigned (and then would be pardoned). I guess we all got points for that one.

Not so happy days. TV occupied an inordinate amount of our thinking (we were ‘70s pre-teens, after all.) When Happy Days was announced, my brother and I both thought it would flop. It was, as we now know, a massive hit; the turning point episode where Fonzie water skis over a shark – serving as the basis for the pop culture idiom “that show jumped the shark” – wouldn’t air until 1976.

Pop culture prediction. My brother was a rabid Hobbit fan and he predicted that J.R.R. Tolkien would come out with a new book in 1973. My father said Tolkien would die. They were both right, sort of: Tolkien passed away in September that year but his book, Bilbo’s Last Song, was published posthumously in 1974. And with the new Rings of Power series on Amazon Prime, Tolkien is very much with us today.

Assassinations. Turning from the mundane to the morbid: I predicted there would be two political assassinations in 1973, but I didn’t specify where and who. Basque separatists murdered Spanish prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco that year, although I probably wasn’t worldly enough back then to have taken notice of such international intrigue. More in our wheelbarrow: 1973 was also the year that Israeli forces snuck into Beirut and killed three PFLP operatives.

Yom Kippur War. We didn’t know there would be war in the Middle East when we sat down in January 1973 to work on our list. But in our predictions for 1974, my father, brother and I all posited there would be another war. (Thankfully, this time we were wrong.)

Problems at the pump. The price of gas was soaring even before the Arab oil embargo was launched in October 1973. I predicted gas would hit a whopping 41 cents a gallon in 1973 and 75 cents a gallon in 1974. (Ah, we were so innocent back then.) In our 1974 predictions, I went out on a limb and predicted the embargo would ultimately lead to prices jumping to $5.65 a gallon. I was right…just 40 years too early!

Inflation. The cost of gas prompted further worry about rising prices, which were creeping up fast in the years before 1973, with all of us predicting inflation would continue. And continue it did, reaching 8.8% in 1973, which, coincidentally, is pretty much the same as it is in the U.S. now.

Terror in the skies. It was easy in the early 1970s to glom onto doom and gloom. My brother and I predicted a stupendous plane hijacking with many dead. (Sadly, this time we were correct: Palestinian terrorists attacked a Pan Am flight at Rome’s main airport; 30 people perished.) 

Wankel say what? We were strangely obsessed with Mazda’s Wankel Rotary Engine, an alternative to standard piston engines, and were convinced that another carmaker would adopt the technology. But only Mazda got behind the Wankel and the spunky design met a sputtering end in 2012.

Famous deaths. My father imagined that China’s Mao Zedung would die in 1973. He hung on until 1976. We were even farther off about Frank Sinatra, whose death we predicted – he lived another 25 years. 

Beatles reunion. I desperately wanted to see the Fab Four reunited and predicted at least three of the Beatles would get back together and record an album that year. It took John Lennon’s death in 1980 to propel the remaining Beatles to record and release “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” in 1996. 

Pimple popper. This prediction was about as pedestrian as you can get, although it must have been pretty important to me at the time: 1973 would be the year my acne would finally clear up, I confidently proclaimed. Unfortunately, it would take another five years for my pimples to turn into plowhshares.

Battle of the bulge. Finally, in a moment of pure preteen snark, I predicted my brother would gain five pounds that year. My brother’s terse rejoinder: “Brian is wrong.” 

I first shared my predictions at The Jerusalem Post.

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The bully in my brain Sun, 11 Sep 2022 22:59:21 +0000

Bullies love to tell lies.

“You’ll never amount to anything.”

“You can be easily replaced at work.”

“That pain in your stomach will never go away. You’re going to die. Probably soon.”

“Bibi’s coming back. Trump too. Get ready for the end of civilization as we know it.”

The bullies I just mentioned are not real-life ones. Rather, they’re the bullying voice in our brains, always present and ready to spring into action whenever they sense weakness.

When I’m feeling out of sorts, anxious or depressed, my brain bully detects an opportunity to beat up on me. My bully especially likes it if I’m in any kind of physical or emotional pain or if I haven’t slept well – then it really goes to town on me.

My bully knows me really well. After all, I experienced enough real-life bullying when I was a teenager to generate significant trauma.

There were the bullies who knocked the books out of my hands if I got too close to my high school’s “senior rail.” And how could I forget the brute who once kicked me so hard in my neck I could barely move for days.

Real-world bullies grow up. They become vile politicians, crazy drivers, rude customer service personnel. What they have in common: They all lie.

“Of course, you can cancel any time you want.”

“I wasn’t tailgating. You were driving too slowly.”

“I declassified those documents before I sequestered them in my bedroom.”

Self-bullying, though, is the worst. While its origins make sense – it was an evolutionary adaptation that served us well when predators could be lurking behind every rock – bullying continues to live on in our fight-or-flight-focused lizard brains, which is why it’s so hard to banish the bullying cry.

Bullying is not the same as teasing. Teasing is mostly benign; you can laugh at the situation. Bullying makes you feel ashamed.

Bullying oneself goes hand in hand with catastrophizing. It eliminates your ability to see other possibilities other than the worst-case scenario.

Standing up to the disempowering voice in your head means understanding that the words a bully uses are not necessarily true.

It’s a message I internalized when I started meditating. Your thoughts are not you. Indeed, when you sit quietly, it can be overwhelming how many ideas and feelings flit into the mind unbidden.

Did I will that thought into existence? No. Then why give it agency?

My worst case of bully brain came when our family contracted Covid earlier this year. My daughter, Merav, and then two-month-old grandson, Ilai, already had symptoms. I knew it was only a matter of hours before I’d most likely get sick too. In order to get some sleep, I upped my usual dose of medical cannabis that night.

Then the phone rang.

Ilai had been rushed by ambulance to the hospital with a 104-degree fever. This was serious, to be sure, but my response was out of control. I would never see Ilai again. He wouldn’t survive the night. I became catatonic, literally losing the ability to speak. (Spoiler alert: We’re all fine now.)

What can one do to quiet an overactive bully in the brain? Here are several techniques to consider.

1. Shut down perfectionism. If you base your self-worth on your performance or success, it can set unrealistically high standards. The result is demoralizion, failure, underachievement and procrastination. Exactly what a brain bully desires. Can “good enough” be good enough?

2. Don’t over-personalize. If you instantly believe that a friend’s worried look means you have done something to upset that person (rather than it being something entirely unrelated to you), you’ve given your bully ample room to take up residence. Remind yourself: It’s not all about you.

3. Talk back to your bully. You don’t have to simply accept what the bully dictates. Get in dialogue with it. Argue. “Yes, it is expensive, but I can afford it. What you’re saying is a lie.”

4. Take a CBT reality check. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you challenge bully-fueled distorted thinking with charts. I adapted one CBT document to work specifically against self-bullying. In the first column, I write the bullying thought down. “My tumor is going to grow, and I’ll need to start cancer treatment again soon.” Then I compose a reality check. “Yes, there was some growth, but it wasn’t significant. My doctor isn’t worried.” And finally, I log a line of gratitude. “My cancer remains stable; I’m so grateful not to need more chemo for now.” Therapy may not cast out a bully entirely, but it provides tools to slow it down, to experience what it feels like when the bully backs down.

5. Avoid self-blame. Blame promises seemingly simple solutions to complex problems. “It was you, not me!” Self-blame ups the ante. It can make you feel as if you have the power to change things, since the fault must lie within your own control. That, too, is a lie that bullies tell.

6. Don’t let the bully make you forget the good. When anxiety comes calling, it can be difficult to remember the positive qualities you possess. Don’t let a bully overshadow all the wonderful things in your life.

7. Don’t compare, inspire. What you envy in others also exists in you. Rather than serve as a source of stress, first, acknowledge what it is you admire in someone else. Then reach out and tell that person they inspire you. Your bully surely wasn’t expecting that!

For more on bullying – and CBT in particular – especially if you’re a parent, Dawn Huebner’s book “What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” is a particularly good guide.

I first wrote about brain bullies for The Jerusalem Post.

Picture from Dee @ Copper and Wild on Unsplash

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Embracing the empty nest Sat, 27 Aug 2022 17:22:05 +0000

On the day we took our youngest son, Aviv, to Ben-Gurion Airport to begin his new life as a music student in New York, we couldn’t stop crying. 

Aviv – a few days before flying to NYC

It’s not that we think he’s making some mistake. On the contrary: This is an amazing opportunity to advance his career, made possible by a generous 82% scholarship from the school.

Still, we are grappling with perhaps the most substantial change in our marriage since we started having kids: We are now officially empty nesters. The parenting part of our journey together is now over.

Well, hardly.

We still have our other two kids, their partners and our nine-month-old grandson living nearby. And heading to an out-of-town college is not like it was when we left home some 40 years ago.

Back then, there were no cell phones, no WhatsApp or FaceTime or Zoom. Once you were out of the house – usually at age 18 – you were gone. Maybe you’d talk to your family once every few weeks or see them a couple times a year. 

Today we’re in touch daily. 

Aviv needs advice on a mattress to order? Send a screenshot from the Casper website. 

Do those new Hokas look snazzy? WhatsApp a photo while still in the shoe store.

Still, it’s not the same. Aviv lived at home for his entire 24 years, even commuting to Tel Aviv for the army, school and gigs.

Our time together was intensified when Covid came calling and we stopped having guests. We probably had hundreds of Shabbat meals just the three of us. 

Aviv also had the opportunity to “witness” my wife, Jody, and me at our best…and our worst. If we got into a tiff, he was there to contain us, even if it was just the fact that he was present in the house.

What would it be like now without him at home?

“I tell couples that nowadays most people have at least three marriages – sometimes to the same person, sometimes not,” my therapist told me. “There’s the initial short marriage; the young couple on honeymoon. Then there are the many years of raising children. Now there’s the empty-nest period. For each, you need to renegotiate your relationship.” 

Moreover, for every growth, there is a “necessary loss,” writes Judith Viorst in her book of the same name. Becoming a parent means you lose a certain amount of intimacy. Getting married implies giving up on the ability to play the field (if that’s something you in fact wanted). 

Aviv’s New York sojourn will be a period of incredible growth, too, but we can’t deny the feelings of loss and longing.

My friend Fern Reiss wrote about the strangeness of her own empty-nest status in the Huffington Post. Fern notes that, while she anticipated the day when the house would be quieter and “we could count on the brie cheese still being in the refrigerator when we looked,” the quiet was too intense. “It permeated everything. When I saw the brie cheese still untouched, it made me feel wistful, rather than victorious.”

Fern touches on something empty nesters frequently fret about: Would conversations with her husband “wither into feeble reminisces about [their] children’s past?”

I’d been thinking about that, too. 

Would Jody and I have what to talk about? Or would silence consume our Shabbat meals when the kids weren’t around?

That was clearly coming more from fear than reality. 

After all, Jody and I cherish our alone time together, whether that’s in town, eating at a new restaurant, hiking or visiting an art exhibit, or on an exotic vacation overseas. We have the skills and tools to handle the empty nest. 

There are positive changes, as well.

The house is already tidier, there are less clothes to wash, we can talk loudly without worrying we’ll wake our sleeping son, there are no fights over who finished off the last rice milk. We can have sex with the bedroom door open.

There are renovations to do, painting that’s gone neglected for years. Maybe we’ll entertain more, even have overnight guests.

And then, of course, there’s travel, which becomes easier when there’s no one at home to take care of. Unless a particularly virulent new Covid variant shuts the world down again, there are so many places on our bucket list – including Manhattan to visit Aviv.

“The motto for the current generation of empty nesters is carpe diem,” writes Andrea Petersen in The Wall Street Journal. “Some empty nesters are treating this period as a fleeting window of freedom before…health issues arise [or] the kids move back in.”

Petersen cites Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, who notes that, after they get through the transition, “a couple’s shared connection gets stronger, relationships with adult children improve and parents develop new interests.”

Christie Mellor, author of Fun Without Dick and Jane: Your Guide to a Delightfully Empty Nest advises parents to revel in their new role, watching movies until 4 am or eating cereal for dinner. “You need to embrace your empty nest and not wallow in your misery.” 

As I write this, it’s only been a week since Aviv left but we’re already starting to come out of our “grief.” I mean, it’s not like someone died. Aviv is off on the adventure of his life and, even if we can’t always witness it in person, we eagerly look forward to every new WhatsApp, every jam session video, and all the personal and professional growth that will undoubtedly come his way.

I first wrote about becoming an empty nester for The Jerusalem Post.

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50 shades of chutzpah Thu, 18 Aug 2022 10:00:31 +0000

When my wife, Jody, received an email from one of Israel’s leading hotel chains announcing a brand-new hotel in a refurbished historic building in central Tel Aviv, with a 35% discount for opening week, we thought, “This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.”

Eating on the Tel Aviv Boardwalk (that’s NOT our hotel in the background!)

We were looking for a way to mark the imminent departure of our youngest son, Aviv, who is moving to New York to study jazz at the New School in Manhattan. This new hotel – especially with the substantial break – seemed like just the ticket for “celebrating” this bittersweet milestone with the whole family. 

It wasn’t easy to find a date that worked for our three adult children and their partners, not to mention eight-month-old Ilai. But it all worked out and we were excited to lounge around the rooftop pool overlooking iconic Rothschild Boulevard.

About a week before the trip, Jody received a phone call from the hotel chain. They had changed their policies and were no longer allowing children under the age of 10 to stay. They would be happy to transfer us to another one of the chain’s properties.

I was livid. We had picked this hotel specifically. The other hotel, while I’m sure it would have been fine, simply didn’t have the same cool urban vibe.

“I want an upgrade,” I demanded of the customer service representative on the phone. The hotel we were originally supposed to stay at – and the one they wanted to move us to – were both 4-star. The chain had a 5-star hotel along the beach, too. 

“Move us there,” I said.

“It’s impossible,” the representative protested. 

“Look, you’re canceling us. We deserve something extra,” I countered.

“We’re not canceling you. We’re just moving you.” 

Up until this point, I had remained relatively calm. But this was not the kind of customer service I expected from such a top-end chain. After all, if you get bumped from a flight, you get compensated – with money, a hotel room, a better seat. Why is it so hard for Israeli service reps to adapt the adage that “the customer is always right?” 

By arguing with us, instead of working towards a mutually agreeable solution, they stood to lose us as loyal, happy customers.

“Let me talk with my supervisor,” the rep said. 

A new voice came on the line.

“We can transfer you to the 5-star, but it will cost another NIS 400 a night, per room.”

“But you canceled us!” I sputtered again, my voice rising now. “We spent a lot of time getting everyone in our party on board. If you can’t help us out here, we’ll have no choice but to consider halting our hotel club membership.”

“Let’s both think about this overnight,” she responded.

The next morning, the hotel chain called. I steeled myself for another battle. The message was curt but positive. 

“We are upgrading you to the 5-star. No extra charge.”

The customer service rep didn’t sound happy, but that wasn’t my problem. We had won! I had used my Israeli chutzpah to get what I wanted.

So why did I feel so dirty?

After 28 years in Israel, I’m still not comfortable using anger to get my way. I don’t cut in lines; I don’t flash my lights while on the highway to get the driver in front of me to speed up. In California, I always got better service by being polite. Yelling at a clerk is never good for building long-lasting relationships. I’m OK being assertive, but did I have to go ballistic?

“That was barely ballistic,” Aviv said, as he overheard the phone exchange from another room. “A real Israeli [by which he meant a Sabra born and bred here] would have gotten much nastier.”

Chutzpah has both positive and negative connotations, Alan Dershowitz explains in his 1991 book of the same name. “To the perpetrator of chutzpah, it means boldness, assertiveness, a willingness to demand what is due, to defy tradition, to challenge authority, to raise eyebrows. To the victim of chutzpah, it means unmitigated gall, nerve, uppityness, arrogance, hypocritical demanding.”

Or, as former Apple evangelist and author Guy Kawasaki puts it, chutzpah is when you “call up tech support to report a bug in your pirated software.” 

The 5-star hotel was an exemplary experience. The rooms had spectacular views of the Mediterranean. The pool featured plenty of shade plus spicy waffle-shaped French fries. Breakfast was even more lavish with not just scrambled or fried eggs on offer but spinach and salmon-laden Eggs Benedict if one preferred, plus all the cheeses, fish and pastries you could eat (although, unlike the current culinary rage at other elite properties, there was no knafeh on the dessert tray).

There was one fashla (mistake) that made me wonder whether the customer service problems were not limited to the phone folks. When we got to our room, it stunk of smoke – even though there was a clear “no-smoking” sign on the door. 

We called reception to ask for another room. 

Leonid arrived after a 15-minute wait with a spray can filled with air freshener.

“Maybe we should just stay,” I suggested to Jody. “When the air conditioning is turned on, I bet we won’t even notice the smell.”

“No,” Jody said emphatically. “This is not acceptable.”

When Leonid realized from our protestations that his magic spray was not going to do the trick, the hotel’s manager quickly appeared with the keys to a different room – a tad smaller but at least there was no stench. 

All that was required was a little assertiveness, no chutzpah needed at all.

I first wrote about chutzpah at The Jerusalem Post.

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The legacy of Marla’s babies Sun, 31 Jul 2022 08:44:04 +0000

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, 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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