Posted by Ryan Torok
Last Sunday, two buses carried volunteers from the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a nonprofit organization, and from the Alliance for Healthy and Responsible Grocery Stores, a coalition. They drove around East Los Angeles neighborhood Boyle Heights, an area which is considered a food desert (food deserts are defined as neighborhoods that don’t have a supermarket within .5 miles of the neighborhood’s commercial center).
The bus tour stopped in Ramona Gardens, a housing project that has seen its share of gang violence and where resident, single mother and L.A. Voice PICO organizer Olga Peres spoke about the lack of nutritious options for her and her family.
In addition, Peres said that the nearby convenience stores sell expired food and that the lettuce that she buys has to be peeled and peeled until she can get to a part that she can actually eat. She also said that at one of these stores, she purchased a bottle of juice, and, to her dismay, found that it had already spoiled and was moldy. When she tried to return it, the employee at the store only offered her store credit.
Yeah, that’s definitely the kind of place where you’d want store credit.
Look for my Jewish Journal ‘food deserts’ feature story (in print and online) in mid-April.
12.28.11 at 12:38 am | A member of the paparazzi, Adam’s a freelancer. . .
12.19.11 at 5:01 pm | Last weekend, I met Elaine and Lee, an older. . .
12.16.11 at 10:54 am | I woke up this morning to a text message from my. . .
10.19.11 at 5:22 am | Eli Lipmen, communications strategist for the. . .
10.15.11 at 6:21 pm | Yesterday, I was at Occupy L.A., asking people. . .
10.14.11 at 3:04 am | Brain cancer survivor Judi Kaufman has suffered. . .
4.26.10 at 1:21 pm | After a panel session featuring Ellis (“Less. . . (3)
10.14.11 at 3:04 am | Brain cancer survivor Judi Kaufman has suffered. . . (2)
5.20.10 at 6:06 pm | Susan Polis Schutz is a filmmaker, poet and. . . (2)
March 19, 2010 | 5:33 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Comedian Joel Chasnoff sits across from me at Mel’s Diner on Sunset Boulevard. It’s early – too early – but Chasnoff is wide-awake.
It’s not just because Chasnoff, 36, is on New York time (Chasnoff resides in the Bronx with his Israeli wife and their three daughters).
No, Chasnoff is excited to discuss his first book, “The 188th Crybaby Brigade,” a politically keen but ultimately humanist memoir about how he spent a year fighting as a tank gunner in the Israeli Defense Forces and did one tour of duty in Lebanon.
In other interviews I’ve done with comedians, they try hard to be funny. They even tell jokes and try to pass them off like they just came up with them on the spot. Thankfully, Chasnoff doesn’t do that. He’s just a smart guy who decided to do something different when he was 24 and then wrote about it.
“Are we officially on?” says Chasnoff, leaning over a cup of tea and speaking into my mini recorder.
What follows is an abridged transcript of the interview:
Chasnoff: I’ve always said that this book is not about military operations. It’s about people. It’s about the guys in the platoon. It’s about what it means to be a Jew.
Jewish Journal: While you were in the army, did you know you were going to write it?
JC: About halfway through it occurred to me that I had a story. Every night, I made it a point [to] write at least one sentence about that day. Often it would be pages, like in Lebanon. There was so much downtime.
JJ: In certain sections, the book seems anti-war and anti-Israel. You portray an Israeli army that is, at times, reckless and inept. In certain passages, you depict the war against Hezbollah as without clearly defined goals. Was that your intention?
JC: I set out to write a personal, true story that’s honest as possible. My feelings are on the page.
I love Israel. I don’t want Israel to look bad. But that’s the thing: If Israel is going to grow, books like this need to come out.
JJ: Do you think it was a traumatic experience?
JC: Some of [it] was traumatic.
JJ: It certainly sounded traumatic. There’s a point during your intense training where you’ve just had it. You call your father and you tell him you want out. But you cut it off there. You don’t say how your dad responded.
JC: [That was] my point. My dad was incapable of saying anything. All through my childhood, my dad’s been powerful, overbearing and always had something to say. [He] always knew the answer. Whenever I had a girlfriend in high school and we broke up, my dad would be like, “Oh, I knew you didn’t belong together.” He always knew.
JJ: How true was the dialogue to how the conversations actually happened?
JC: [Author] Dave Eggers, in “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has an incredible introduction to the book where he explains the things that were changed and had to be molded to make the book work. You remember the conversation [and] construct it so that it’s readable.
JJ: Right. Eggers omitted all the times that people said “dude.”
JC: Exactly. That’s my favorite book of all time. I’ve reread it so many times that I feel like I almost know it by heart, or at least sections by heart. Every time I read it, I read something that I forgot was there.
JJ: How do you view Israel now, when you go? How does it feel?
JC: I can go without the sense of guilt I had as a kid. I’m not saying every American Jew needs to feel guilty if they haven’t served in the army. I always felt a little wrong going there, seeing soldiers, calling Israel my homeland but letting them do the work. I feel absolved of that guilt. I can complain about the country when I want to. I’ve given something to it.
It’s a complicated relationship. It’s like a relationship with a woman. At first, you’re struck by her beauty. Then, when you get to know the person, it’s a little more nuanced and complicated, but the love is deeper.
JJ: Do you know if you took any lives in Lebanon?
JC: In the book there’s this story with a dog that we inadvertently kill in Lebanon. It was kind of a fiasco. The truth of the matter is that there’s always a small, small part of me that has not been 100-percent sure if it was a dog. Maybe it was a human being. I included that in [an earlier draft, but] the editor felt I was introducing a whole new topic. So we left it out.
I’m 99.9 % certain that it was a dog [and that] I didn’t kill another human being. But there is that small chance. Every once in a while I think about it but no so often.
JJ: Do you ever regret joining?
JC: Not at all. I look back at it as one of the defining experiences of my life.
JJ: There is a passage with one of your fellow soldiers holding a gun to his head and contemplating suicide. Did you worry that the serious passages like that one would not come across as seriously as they should, placed in the midst of comedy.
JC: It’s funny. When I do readings of the book, I usually start off with a funny reading from early on in basic training. Then I usually finish with Lebanon. There’s a section where I describe how an officer mistakenly kills his own soldier in Lebanon. Sometimes people laugh. There is something to be said about being primed for comedy and not realizing it’s tragedy.
JJ: I’ve heard the book might be turned into a film.
JC: I think every book has a chance of being turned into a film. It would take the right people. War movies in general aren’t a big draw. The key is to make a film about people and relationships, not a war film.
JJ: Do you think American Jews should join the army?
JC: If you want to help Israel, it’s not the best way. I could have been a teacher for low-income children. That would have been a better way to help.
I’ve gotten emails from people who have read the book and said, “I was thinking about joining. What do you think? Should I do it?” I haven’t written back yet. I’ve been thinking about how to answer.
JJ: You said that the book is about what it means to be a Jew. It seemed like such a big deal to you, emotionally, that your mom was only a convert. I read it and thought, ‘Big deal. His mom converted.’
JC: I have a hang up about conversion. So much about Judaism is our history. We are defined by the exodus from Egypt. All these Bible stories define who we are. Can you just sign papers, dunk yourself in water and suddenly all that history is yours? I’ve always felt like I didn’t fully belong.
JJ: You touch on racial and class issues between the Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardic Jews.
JC: [And] the Russians.
JJ: Were you hesitant about including that?
JC: I was. It’s something you need to treat tenderly. On the one hand, I want readers to know that I wasn’t just going to cheer Israel on and not confront any of the domestic issues. The class issue is one that Americans don’t think about. We think about Israel [and] we think about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, [but] not so much about domestic issues. On the other hand, it could easily turn into a generalization that makes it look worse than it actually is. I had to do it carefully.
JJ: What are your plans now?
JC: I don’t know. It’s very strange. For the past three years, this book has been my life. I’ve always wanted to study in yeshiva for a year in Israel. It might be the year to do it soon.
To read the Jewish Journal review of Chasnoff’s book, click here.
March 17, 2010 | 5:27 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Earlier today, I called my friend up – just to say hello. This is a guy who is fresh off some discouraging JDate experiences. He wouldn’t admit to feeling down, but I’m convinced that he is. To top it off, he slaves away in a neuroscience lab, often well beyond dinnertime.
When he answered the phone, however, he wasn’t at work. He was at American Apparel, where he’d just bought a green V-neck T-shirt.
Of course, I made fun of him. Who buys a T-shirt just for a holiday?
Do you know what his answer was? I shouldn’t be cursing on this blog, but what he said was so amazing that I don’t want to tamper with it.
He said, “I don’t give a shit.”
Is that not the best thing you’ve heard all day? I certainly thought it was great. I liked it so much that I momentarily re-evaluated my cynicism.
“Good answer,” I said.
It was, because tonight, my friend will proudly sport his spanking new green V-neck T shirt. He will merrily stagger in and out of packed, noisy bars until the wee hours of the morning (or at least until 2 AM). He will pound several beers and toast his buddies. He will probably hug strangers. He will forget about his woes. And that’s what St. Patrick’s Day is about. Sure, the holiday is Catholic in origin, but finding an excuse to celebrate life is a notion that transcends religion.
Be safe, and, of course:
P.S. My editor emailed me a link to Jerusalem Post article “The Irish-Jewish Connection.” Did you know that the protagonist in Irishman James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is part Jewish?
I didn’t either. That book is, like, really hard to read.
March 17, 2010 | 2:30 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Melanie, our multimedia reporter, and I went to see Julie Spira. She’s a cyber-dating expert (still searching for her own love) and author of “The Perils of Cyber Dating.” The book suggests that while online dating occasionally leads to awful experiences, keep the hope alive: Love can be found online.
In a video, edited by Melanie, which you can watch below, Spira offers tips on how to date online, successfully. I’ll let the video speak for itself. For now I’m interested in getting over-analytical about something Spira said during the interview.
Spira, who has been using online-dating websites for over twenty years, has this huge web presence. She uses online tools like Facebook and Twitter to promote an online company, cyberdatingexpert.com.
Melanie said it best in a recent Gchat conversation: “Spira has embraced and turned to the internet for her 2nd life.”
Hmm… Spira did say that the people who aren’t using Facebook, Twitter and posting videos of themselves on YouTube, are “missing out.”
Reinforcing that we have cool jobs, Melanie and I, during work hours, talked more about this. We did it over Gchat, while sitting at our cubicles, which are only a few feet away from each other. These are a couple of words Melanie introduced to me.
1. Luddite - “People who will live their life on a daily basis,” said Melanie. “They won’t search through Craigslist for housing or jobs. They won’t seek possibilities via the internet. They don’t think about where they could be, or what else they could be doing. They think about the here and now.”
Apparently, Melanie had dated a guy like this. He actually sounded like a bit of a jackass.
2. FOMO – This is an acronym that Melanie came up with. It stands for “fear of missing out.” She offered the idea that people spend all day online out of fear of what they might be missing on – because the internet is a means for them to actively seek, albeit voyeuristically, further possibilities of what their life could be (vacations, friends, connections, images, job listings…).
FOMO is also a reason I feel compelled on a Friday night, even if I am exhausted, to leave the house and go out for the evening. Moreover, FOMO might compel someone to use an online dating site, feeling that they are missing out on their match if they don’t search through the internet.
Below is an excerpt from the conversation:
melanie: maybe we are fascinated by [Spira’s] inculcation into technology. there was something about her charisma.
[I didn’t say this in the conversation, but “inculcation” is quite the vocabulary word. I certainly didn’t know what it means. Way to go, Mel!]
ryan: i wish julie would find somebody and get married
ryan: somebody she DIDNT meet online
ryan: that would be ironic i think
melanie: i think ultimately that while the internet represents a means to actively pursuing more possibilities, it is ultimately disappointing
ryan: as is life
But, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed with Julie’s online dating tips [insert cheesy grin; hold camera steady]. Watch below:
March 16, 2010 | 8:18 am
Posted by Ryan Torok
Television and radio host Glenn Beck, earlier this month, decreed that social justice doesn’t belong in religion, but Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University (AJU), suggested that the issue is more complex.
Social justice has to be based on the democratic engagement of the community, as opposed to a rabbi [or clergyman] imposing a social justice issue on his or her community, said Artson, at the Westside Jewish Community Center on March 15.
Beck spoke against religiously affiliated social justice movements on his radio show. “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site,” Beck said. “If you find it, run as fast as you can.” He added that they are code words for communism and Nazism.
Artson spoke at a panel that followed a collaborative learning session between Hebrew Union College (HUC) and AJU rabbinical students. The topic was the Old Testament’s justification for agricultural justice. During the Q-and-A, a student asked the panel (which also featured Rabbi Richard Levy of HUC) its take on Beck’s comments.
Artson’s analysis comes on the heels of online debate. A blogger for nonprofit online news publication Mother Jones criticized Beck for his view and his syntax: Adam Weinstein, in post “Glenn Beck: God Hates Justice,” referred to Beck’s statements as “incoherent bauble.”
Below, find MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann’s broadcast of Beck’s remark.
March 8, 2010 | 6:14 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
I was lost in a maze of crepe stands, nut vendors, smoothie bars and actual bars at the farmer’s market at the Grove. I’d been stood up by a girl, a 40-year old voiceover actress actually, who I was supposed to meet to see a band of klezmer, punk gypsies that were supposed to be playing in the middle of the Sunday morning craziness but were nowhere to be found (I found out later that I wasn’t stood up at all but had gone to the wrong farmer’s market—oops), but I met these people, the Kaufmans, who were munching on crepes. They let me put my coffee down on their table while I fished around for a pen and pad in my Jansport backpack, and then the Mrs. of the marital equation, Sherry Kaufman, a makeup artist, educated yours truly about the origins of the farmer’s market I’d mistakenly gone to. Life was pretty good.
I asked Mrs. Kaufman if she reads the Jewish Journal.
“It’s Purim today. Did you know that?” I asked.
Part deux: Not For Those Who Don’t Know Matt
I left the market of the farmers, drove to my dad’s apartment and picked up my sister’s dog…
...and went to the Purim carnival at Temple Emanuel, where I met up with my friend Matt and his girlfriend near the dunk tank. All around us, kid-sized Spidermans, clowns, baseball players and hippies ran around the closed off street, which was off of Burton Way, and sprayed each other with silly string—it was late in the day, the ride were being shut down—the moon bounce had already been deflated to a giant blob—and so the kids had to find a way to amuse themselves. Silly string is as good as anything. I asked Matt, who was never the strongest Jewish studies student in high school, to explain the Purim story. He actually did a pretty decent job. The video is below and it’s over three-minutes long, which doesn’t seem bad to me, but Matt’s my friend. For those who don’t know Matt, the video could probably be shorter.
March 2, 2010 | 1:26 pm
Posted by Ryan Torok
Explaining why Israel enjoys global prominence in the healthcare business even though it’s a tiny country is a daunting task. Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book, “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” attempts to. It spotlights the tech-savvy, ambition, resourcefulness and chutzpah of Israeli entrepreneurs and acknowledges the successes of some Israeli healthcare startups.
For instance, Senor and Singer mention the Pill Cam, the first pill with a camera inside (so that patients can swallow the pill rather than face invasive surgery).
But the book’s focus is broad.
Fortunately, David Fischel and Brian Neman, two L.A. locals in their early twenties, have experience with Israeli healthcare startup companies.
In 2007, while Fischel studied at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv for a master’s degree in business, he worked for SCP Vitalife, a healthcare venture capital fund. One of Vitalife’s prominent investments, Argo Medical Technologies, has been developing a medical device to help paraplegics walk.
Last summer, Neman worked as an intern with Oramed, an Israeli biotech company in Jerusalem. The company is on the brink of revolutionizing Diabetes treatment.
RT: First of all, what are the differences between biotechology, pharmaceuticals and medical devices?
Fischel: Biotech drugs are typically proteins and antibodies. Pharmaceuticals are chemical substances—they have molecular interactions with our bodies. Medical devices are tools—they are physical objects such as catheters and imaging devices. Israel is a powerhouse in medical devices.
RT: Why do you think that is?
F: Well, whether your company specializes in pharmaceuticals, biotech or medical devices, there is a path you have to take. If you’re doing pharm or biotech, you have to find the chemical entity or the protein you think that’s going to affect the body positively. You have to develop it, test it on animals and patients, do clinical trials, and then you need to get regulatory approval. For a drug it’s much harder than what is required for developing medical devices. It takes a lot more time and money to market a drug. For a device, it usually takes a shorter amount of time.
It’s also partially because it requires less time and less money. In small countries with limited sources you can create value [quicker] with a device than with a drug. If you need hundreds of millions to develop a drug, it’s tough in a small country like Israel.
Lastly, medical devices fit with the Israeli mentality. Israelis like something that’s quick, gets off the ground, [something] you can see tangentially the results of in shorter periods of time and you can see money in [in] a shorter period of time. In the short term, you can see results.
It also fits with the strength of Israeli education, which is much more based in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering than purely biotech. In medical devices, you don’t need that much of a medical background. If you look at a surgery, you might have an idea for how it could be done better. You don’t need the chemical background that you would need for biotech.
RT: Brian, how did you become interested in biotech?
Neman: There is potential to positively impact a lot of lives. That is really important to me. I add a value to that no matter what my salary is. And Israel is the best place to do it. Why do I say that? Relationships. You see Hadassah hospital and Tel Aviv Medical Center with
Oramed [the company that Neman worked for]. The Israeli universities and companies have very strong relationships and on top of that there is an extremely strong relationship between the government and industry in Israel. It’s absolutely unparalleled. The army also pushes these innovations and is often the first to try them.
Oramed is a blossoming company because of those relationships. It’s sad to see that companies in the U.S. don’t use that synergistic relationship like companies in Israel [do]. Oramed gets a very good sum of money from the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS) [at the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor in Israel]. Someone in a government position there knows that there is value in scientific technology. The government in Israel is pretty pleased with innovation.
RT: Can you say more about how the Israeli army relates to these startups?
N: Startups have four or five employees. Any start up in general has four or five employees. That team building comes from the army. The army is built of small teams of four or five guys getting together in self-managed teams [“Start-up Nation” says more on this].
RT: Does the U.S. view Israeli startups as competition?
N: Not really. Israel realizes that its talent and real strength lies in the development and technology. You see startup companies left and right in Israel that have the confidence to say an American company is going to buy them out. I don’t know the future plans of Oramed, but for the most part, Teva and only a few others have turned into worldwide companies. Teva is the largest generic pharmaceutical manufacturer in the world.
From what I’ve seen, the plan is to develop the technology, show that it is feasible and dump it off to an American company. A lot of companies in general develop these technologies and have no plans to commercialize them on a large scale. You’re not going to see a lot of Israeli startups doing advertising and distribution in the U.S. They call Israel the “Start-up Nation” because there are a lot of startups. These companies don’t go on to be like Teva, to have a worldwide presence, to have a worldwide regard. They allow an American company to do a merger and acquisitions.
Fischel works for his family’s healthcare hedge fund, the L.A.-based Dafna Capital Management. The fund invests primarily in biotech and medical devices. Fischel focuses on medical devices.
Neman is currently in graduate school at U.S.C., working toward a master’s degree in healthcare administration.