Culture, Food, Uncategorized

Will Israel Wake Up to Food Allergies?

((Originally posted on The Jerusalem Post blogs on July 22, 2011. I ask you to please pass on to your Israeli friends.))

Yesterday, while swimming at the pool with my kids, my friend Daniella called me over to ask me if I heard about the girl who died from an allergic reaction in Tel Aviv.
Immediately my heart leapt into my throat.
No, I said. What happened?
Daniella told me what she understood from the story and the blanks were filled in later when I got home and googled “Girl dies from nut allergy in Israel.”
In my mind, the girl was young, like my son, but in reality she was a young adult; independent and out for a night with her young friends. Presumably, she did everything right. She asked the waiter if there were nuts in the Belgian waffle dessert she ordered, including Nutella, a popular hazelnut-based chocolate spread. According to testimonies from her friends, the waiter told her there was not.
And so she ate it.
It’s a choice each food allergic individual and the individuals who parent kids with food allergies have to make each and every day.
Do we live in a bubble or do we venture out into a dangerous world and do our best to keep ourselves safe?
I don’t know if the woman had an epi-pen on her or if it was used. The details are missing from the story. I do know that we insist that my 8 ½ year old son carried a green canvas Steve’s backpack with him wherever he goes: to school, to camp, to a friend’s house, to the migrash, to restaurants, to sleepovers at his Saba and Savta’s. Some people have indicated they think it’s excessive. I worry it might someday be a lifesaver for him.

Inside the small pack is his “epi pen pack” a plastic bag with two pens of epinephrine, Benadryl and an instructions note that indicates his allergens (peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts) and potential reactions to recognize.
Despite this visible reminder and verbal requests to keep him safe by keeping him away from nuts, I’m amazed at how often people forget. Or perhaps they don’t forget, but they don’t think that his allergy (or any food allergies) are truly life threatening.
I don’t know why, exactly, but Israelis, on the whole, do not take his food allergies seriously. This is in stark contrast to the States, where more and more parents are toting epi-pens as accessories.
In the weeks leading up to our aliyah, I anxiously researched schools and communities, but not so much to learn about education or teaching styles, rentals or housing markets. No, the most important information I needed to find had to do with food. And I was dismayed to find out that food allergy awareness, while growing, is still something that is not only severely lacking in Israel, but blatantly off the radar of important government officials and in schools.
I was shocked to find there was no school nurse on site to administer an epi-pen should my son need it. (We had to train him how to administer it himself.) I was shocked to find out that unlike in the States where there is some regulation on labeling, in Israel there was none; instead manufacturers slap everything with a “May contain traces of nuts, sesame, or gluten” label in order to avoid liability issues, leaving our food allergic children with no true concept of what they can and cannot eat from the packaged food selection.

Worse yet for us, my two kids with allergies react to nuts and sesame, I daresay two of Israel’s “national” foods.
I was not surprised to find out that parents here still served peanut butter-smothered Bamba at every childhood function, from birthdays to Yom Hatzmaut. But I was devastated to learn that most bread products in Israel, including pita, pizza and challah, are covered in sesame; and most ice cream and candy are swimming in nuts, from pesek-zman to kit kats.
Nothing terrifies me in this country more than the risk my children face when they eat outside their home.
Not terrorism, not kassam rockets, not enemy infiltrations into my small Northern community.
No, nuts and sesame scare me a whole lot more.
We’re doing what we can to try to eliminate our fear and to continue to empower our children to speak out about their food allergies. To make sure they ask adults to help them when we’re not around. To engage their friends in protecting them by keeping away from them their food allergens. Some of it’s working. I saw it yesterday at the pool when my son’s 5-year-old friend told him to stay away from his sesame covered sandwich.
But what can we do when we continue to find ourselves in situations where Israelis pooh-pooh food allergies; even when our child speaks up and requests assistance? Our son has been told by teachers and camp counselors that a food product does not contain nuts without reading the label. When he insists they read the label, they insist back that it’s “fine for him.” This is unconscionable.
This is contrary to what we have spent 6 years teaching our son and, while these laid back adults don’t mean my son harm, they do likely think, “Ze lo big deal.” But, I assure you, it is a big deal.
I’m sorry to say it, but somewhere in that café in Tel Aviv, someone thought “ze lo big deal” and a woman died. Or someone wasn’t thinking at all.
If we, as a country, can take so seriously the issues of kashrut labeling on our foods, we can and should take life threatening allergies just as seriously, if not more.
I’m seeing more awareness of Celiac disease in Israel and noticing more gluten free foods popping up even in the mainstream markets. This is great. But it’s just a baby step. In North America, there are eight common food allergens: fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, wheat, eggs, soy, with sesame and corn following close behind. And while there are studies that Israeli children seem to be less susceptible to peanut allergies than their Jewish American counterparts, considering the influx of their Jewish American counterparts as new olim to Israel, I suggest that Israel wakes up and starts treating this as a serious issue.
What do I mean by that?

1. Start by regulating labeling in the food industry. Require strict guidelines on food labeling and differentiate between CONTAINS and is PREPARED ON EQUIPMENT WITH. The government should monitor this labeling.

2. Hold restaurants accountable for what they serve their customers. Educate restaurant owners about the life threatening nature of food allergies. Some restaurant chains in the US have started preparing and offering food allergy versions of their menus so that guests can know which foods contain what.

3. Be closely in touch with FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network), a US non-profit that has already made great strides in both creating awareness and supporting parents of food allergic children by creating local and regional support groups.

4. Educate ganim and school staff on the seriousness of food allergies. Suggest they incorporate food allergy awareness into their “diversity” and “good citizenship” programs. Bullying and teasing of food allergic kids is on the rise. 
Right now, there is no magical cure for food allergies. And even worse, the numbers of food allergic children are on the rise. (That’s a blog post in and of itself; if you want to get started, check out or read my friend Robyn O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth.)
As Naama Katzir from the food allergy advice and counseling association says in the YNet story on the tragic death this week, “The Health Ministry has sadly been dragging its feet for over three years and is tarrying over launching regulations for the marking of food products. Over the last few years there have been a vast number of harsh allergic reactions, mainly with children. Sadly both cases ended like this tragic case – in death.”
Does Israel need another tragic death to wake up to a growing public health concern?
This very frightened mother of two Israeli food allergic children hopes and prays the answer is no.

Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go

Out of hibernation

I’ve woken up from my slumber.

You know how I know?

I’m starting to get pissed about things that matter to me again.

The stuff I used to bitch about, cry about, stress about, blog about, and try to fix back before I moved to Israel, but actively and intentionally pretended not to notice while I got acquainted with my new neighbors and surroundings.

 But now, seven months later I’m back!

Not in a bad way, mind you. And not unlike a mother who has given birth and finally feels ready to try out her pre-pregnancy jeans and leave the baby for a few hours, I feel as if I’m settled enough in my new life to start acting like me again.

The fog — that of getting settled, adjusting, figuring out who, what, where, and how– has lifted.

This is not to say I’m reinstating my New Jersey, east coast edge…I like the country girl I’ve become. But the Type A Jersey is itching to come out a little. I see this in the fact that I’ve started paying attention again to food (what I eat and what I feed my kids); I’ve started looking into holistic healers in Israel; and I’ve started to get loud about things that upset me in the community in which I live and at my work.

I’ve also started toying with the concept of making a difference here in Israel. Of being someone who influences and inspires.

My close friends, particularly those who’ve worked closely with me or coached me in leadership positions, won’t be surprised to hear this. They knew it was only so long that I could maintain this “under the radar” presence.

But Israel might be in for a little bit of an awakening.

I’m not yet sure how this will manifest itself: An Israel holistic health and wellness fair? a bigger presence at my children’s schools? in my yishuv? a book project? a professional collaboration? A new blog? A new endeavor?

Only one thing is for sure: It will not be a new baby.

That said, I still feel the little tugs of the hibernating me asking me if I really need to do this?

“Do you really need to do this?!?” She screams as she tugs.

“Wasn’t it nice to be ‘laid back’ for a little while?” She asks. “Wasn’t it easier to just let things slide? To let the world figure things out without your help? To be inwardly focused and not so concerned about whether or not people truly understand the impacts of toxins in foods or climate change or indoor air pollution???”

“I am what I am” says both the Buddhist and the Popeye in me.

Wish me both the peace of a Buddhist monk, and the courage of Popeye as I seek out and explore new endeavors that will satisfy the Leo and the leader in me.


Culture, Middle East Conflict, Politics

Blind focus

Just as I implied recently in my response to the online debate between Village Voice editor Allison Benedikt and columnist for The Atlantic Jeffrey Goldberg: Activists often wear blinders.

I include myself in that statement. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise. But I don’t think most activists acknowledge their own tunnel vision. They’re too busy protesting.

I’ve been casually following the reports of the atrocities taking place in our neighboring country of Syria. I’m disgusted, and frightened, but not surprised. It’s not news that Bashar Al-Assad is yucky, to say the least.

But what drives me absolutely bananas is that the human rights activists who are ever focused on Israel (in particular those whom live abroad) have much less to say about Syria committing daily acts of terror against their civilian residents than they do about Israel.

Do these activists understand what is happening on a daily basis in Syria these last few months? Have they read not only about the children being killed over the last four months, but the ones tortured?

None of us have the full picture considering Syria has stopped allowing members of the media or human rights organizations into their country. The reports comig “out of Syria” are coming from those who escaped into Lebanon or Turkey where reporters and aid organizations are standing by.

Contrary to Israel who has been navigating a diplomatic and public relations nightmare over the past weeks in regards to the “Gaza Flotilla Activists” and who this week is preparing for the influx of hundreds of protestors staging a “fly-in” to Ben Gurion Airport on Friday, Syria is giving the big F-U to everyone.

Activists can comment on the situation in Israel because there are various reports coming out of this country about events and activities, from various political viewpoints. News and opinions are ever-flowing out of Israel.  Debate is considered healthy here and encouraged. Not so Syria.

I think this is something left-wing political activists protesting against Israel tend to conveniently forget.

It’s true that Israel is making efforts to keep these protestors out of the country. (And she’s been ripped a new one by the international media for doing so.) But, unlike Syria, Israel is not closing her doors to all who disagree with her policies. Syria, on the other hand, is and I do not need to be a paying member of Amnesty International to know this.

Going back to the Benedkit/Goldberg debate (because it will relate, I assure you): In his last words on Allison Benedikt, Goldberg shared some comments from his readers on the topic. One comment in particular was particularly powerful for me, and I’d like to share it here because it sums up a bit what I’d like to, if given the opportunity, sometimes yell back at left-wing activists who blast Israel. Particularly the ones who fail to shout just as loudly or write just as passionately about the atrocities commited by Israel’s neighbors.

After all, we do not in this region exist in a bubble. (As much as even I often pretend that we do.) We exist as one piece of a volatile puzzle. And if human rights activists really care about human beings, they would turn their heads slightly to the east and start shouting, too, about Syria.

Goldberg quotes his reader as writing:

From a reader who argues that Benedikt, and like-minded writers, mistake Israel for a fascist state, when in fact it is the most liberal country in its neighborhood:

 Allison Benedikt portrays support for Israel as an illogical aberration among otherwise right-thinking liberals. How could someone who is ostensibly progressive support this oppressive vestige of the colonial era? But this couldn’t be more wrong.  Here’s a list of liberal touchstones.

1)  You support the rights of gay and lesbian men and women.  Check.

Therefore you must support Israel, one of the few countries in the region where homosexuals aren’t persecuted and even murdered, by state sanction.

2)  You support the rights of women.  Check.

Therefore you must support Israel, one of the few countries in region where women enjoy all the rights men do, and aren’t required to drape every part of their body in the anonymity of the burqa or veil, and are allowed to drive, and may serve on the hight court, and are even the top general in the military.

3)  You support the rights of minorities.  Check.

Therefore you must support Israel, where a substantial number of cabinet members are Arab, where the quality of life for Israeli Arabs is higher than in neighboring states, where there is no tradition of legalized slavery as there was in the Arab states until the 1960s, when it was abolished under European pressure, but still continues in a form of servitude for migrant workers from abroad.

4)  You support democratic government.  Check.

Therefore you must support Israel, a fact that really speaks for itself, in these times in particular, where tyrants around Israel are slaughtering their citizens in droves as they hold on desperately to power, and where the people have always been disenfranchised.

5)  You support a free press.  Check.

Therefore you must support Israel, where an opposition thrives in the media.  Has she read Haaretz?

You could go on and on and on, ad nauseum, but the truth is supporting Israel is consistent with liberalism.  Not support Israel is consistent with totalitarianism.

I invite the activists out there, the ones on the flotilla and the ones boarding planes this week and the ones with blogs and the ones writing columns in newspapers, i invite you to diversify your interests, so to speak. Consider all the victims and violators in the region.

Ask yourself a really hard question: Why is it that I am so focused on Israel?


The flavor of Israel

Yesterday, my day was steeped in Israeli culture. This was mostly due to the fact that I had to travel down to the “Mercaz” for work meetings in Ramat Gan (a large Tel Aviv suburb).

 When you are an new immigrant living on  kibbutz in the North, and your daily life basically consists of driving from said kibbutz to your job twenty minutes away in Misgav where you work with a bunch of former Americans and Canadians, there are few opportunities to really experience Israeli culture. Some days, I could almost imagine that I am living in Colorado as opposed to Israel. If it weren’t for the crazy drivers…

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I live in a fairly rural, out of the way part of Israel, travelling to the Center every once in a while is fun, if not a little bit overstimulating. It’s nice to be able to grab an espresso, to people watch, and browse the store windows. This is not something I get to do on a regular basis any more.

But as I was in Ramat Gan for meetings, there was little time to take in the scenery, save for my lunch hour at Dominique’s Bakery and Restaurant on Tuval Street.

Don’t feel bad for me, for on the drive back home from Tel Aviv with my boss, I would get my fill of Israeli culture.

Naturally, like rush hour in any major city, leaving Tel Aviv on a work day is a nightmare. Israelis have a funny word for traffic jams: P’cock. I pointed out to my boss that this Hebrew word sounds a lot like a Yiddish word my mother used to shout in the car whenever we were stuck in particularly obscene traffic: Facocked!

Is it a coincidence they sound so similar?

As we were discussing the potential entymological connections, we didn’t realize just how facocked by the p’cock we were about to be.

Seconds before it happened, I spotted a fender bender directly in front of us. I found my voice quick enough to shout, “Watch out!” My boss swerved over to the right hand shoulder just in the nick of time to miss the accident.

And, dayenu, that would have been enough for us.

But, the excitement only continued. The car who was rear-ended was a Lexus. The driver opens up his door and exits the car. A well-dressed, red-headed man who appeared to be in his late sixties or seventies steps outside.

My boss flips out.

“That’s Yoram Gaon!” she shouts.

I’m like, “Who’s that?” Thinking it’s one of our coworkers that I haven’t met yet.

“You don’t know Yoram Gaon? He’s an Israeli icon,” she says to me excitedly.

“Um, no, I have no idea who that is.” I say. My scope of recognition of non-politician Israeli celebrities include basically Naomi Shemer, Ilan Ramon, Hanna Sennesh, and Yoni Netanyahu. And they’re all dead.

“Didn’t you see Ani HaYerushalmi?” My boss asked.

My face remained blank.

I really wanted to get excited with her. I LOVE celebrity spotting. I love celebrity spotting so much that when I used to live in SoHo, I used to be late for my job at the children’s book publishing house I worked at because I would follow super hot celebrities into Dean and DeLuca across the street. (Mmmm…Jared Leto. He was buying melons.)

I used to hang with the smokers outside the lobby of the building because they were always telling me how Leonardo DiCaprio was constantly passing by on the street. Try as I did, I never once saw him myself! But I bummed a lot of cigarettes.

I did see a host of other celebs including Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Janeane Garofalo, and Leonard Cohen when I lived in lower Manhattan. I was not a stalker, per say, but I think you’d classify my level of excitement at celebrity spotting a bit above the norm.  It was often difficult to balance my overwhelming desire to make friends with them with my rational understanding that such behavior would be completely inappropriate. Instead of grabbing their hands and leading them back to my apartment, I casually gawked and ran back to my computer to send an email to EOnline celebrity gossip, Ted Casablanca, who wrote a weekly celeb spotting column called, “The Eyes Have It.” Somehow that satisfied my urges.

Unfortuantely, I doubt Ted Casablanca would be interested in the likes of Yoram Gaon, despite the fact that this aging “gingi” is like the Frank Sinatra of Israel.

Nonetheless, I feel like I have passed a certain marker in my Aliyah experience: I have narrowly missed being in a car accident on the Ayalon freeway and I now can recognize a living Israeli celebrity.


Education, Kibbutz, Learning Hebrew, Letting Go, Living in Community, Making Friends

The Blooper Reel

In the movie that is my life, this period in time will be filled with perfect material for the end of film outtakes. The bloopers and practical jokes that roll after the credits; that end up on disc 2 of the DVD set.

Hopefully, by the time such a movie is made I, too, will be able to laugh at the time when I was a  consistent perpatrator of the Hebrew version of “Who’s on First?”

Let me explain by example.

Here is a loose transcript of the cellphone conversation I just had with an Israeli parent of a friend of my son’s:

Me (“my” Hebrew translated into English for your convenience): Hello [parent’s name]. Speaking is Jen. The mom of Oliver.

Other Mom ( in 100 mph garbled cellphone Hebrew): Yes?

Me: You call me?

Other Mom: Yes.

Me: Yes?

Other Mom: No, I was talking to Tal blah blah blah my laundry.

Me: Um. Ok. Did you call me?

Other Mom: blah blah sent a message blah blah blah

Me: You sent me what?

Other Mom: No. I didn’t send.

Me: What you no send?

Other Mom: No, you sent me a message.

Me: Yes, yes, I send SMS with new cellphone number.

Other Mom: Oh, ok. I wanted to talk to you.

Me: Ok. About what?

Other Mom: No, no. I don’t want to speak to you. I was speaking to my son.

Me: Oh, excuse me. I am so sorry.

Other Mom: (laughs and says in English). No, we will speak soon. Goodbye.


Every single day of my life in Israel is an exercise in embarassment and humility.

It sounds a lot worse than it is. Daily humiliation by no means leads to unhappiness.  I think, in fact, my willingness to speak Hebrew at all to these people is indicative of the fact that I am starting to let down my guard. However, as I continue to become more confident in speaking Hebrew to my friends, colleagues, and neighbors, I also continue to make lots and lots of mistakes. Something, generally speaking, I work hard at not doing.

Veteran immigrants to Israel, the folks who learned Hebrew 20 years ago in an ulpan, as opposed to “Jen Style” (ie. figuratively flat on her face with a dictionary in her hand) all recommend “making mistakes.”

“Don’t be afraid to speak Hebrew,” they tell me. “This is the way you will learn.”

The only problem with this advice is that most Israelis don’t have the patience for my learning curve.

When they speak to me in Hebrew (usually very fast), and I respond by saying, “What did you say?” they usually will do one of two things:

1. Tell me again, but this time in English

2. Repeat what they said the first time, just as quickly, if not more quickly, but louder

What I really need them to do is repeat it in Hebrew, but at the pace of a person who has just regained her use of speech after being in a coma for nine months.




On the other hand, when I try to speak Hebrew (and I deserve an A for effort these days), I find myself five words into my attempt and either:

a. I don’t know the word for…let’s say…”repulsive” in Hebrew and then I have to go about trying to describe what “repulsive” means using the limited Hebrew I do have. By the time I am finished with that task, I forget what was so repulsive to begin with. Or,

b. The person I am talking to looks absolutely and completely bewildered, though still hanging on to my every word hoping that by the end of my discombobulated, grammatically incorrect sentence she will be able to piece together something comprehensible from what just exited my mouth.

At the very least, thanks to a good job at a company in the hi-tech industry, I think I’ve managed to establish myself as a reasonably intelligent person…despite the fact that I walk around in fool’s clothing most days.

And considering that it must require a lot of patience for non-English speakers to interact with me, I suppose I should take it as a good sign, then, that some people continue to do so.

Hopefully, within time, we’ll understand each other, too.