How to listen – a lesson by a Jerusalemite

  1. Go about your day.
  2. Partially acknowledge the helicopter flying overhead.
  3. Hear a scream from afar and register that it is in jest, not in pain.
  4. Listen to the emergency vehicle’s siren in the distance. Stop what you’re doing and see if there is more than one.
  5. There is. Sit helplessly as you hear dozens of emergency vehicles rushing to another attack against Jews.
  6. Open up your regular news source and refresh it until it starts reporting what you’re already imagining.

That’s how a Jerusalemite listens.

Yesterday was a beautiful day

Yesterday was a beautiful day.

I went to the festive Jerusalem March with my sister and gave out candy to the Christians who are here to show their support to Israel. I was choked up almost every time I shouted, “Thank you for coming to Israel. Thank you for supporting us.”

jerusalem march 2015

And yesterday evening I went with another sister to a refreshing concert by the new Israeli band A-WA – three sisters of Jewish Yemenite decent have revived old traditional melodies in hip-hop style. People were legitimately holding hands in circles while doing the “tza’ad Teimani” dance step at this rock concert.

a-wa concert oct 2015

Yesterday was a beautiful day for Erica Chernofsky and her family until the incident that could have made them front page news. “They could have killed us today,” Erica writes – when Arab school children took the opportunity while walking home from school to throw boulders at her car with Erica, her husband and her children all inside.

And yesterday was most probably a beautiful day for Eitam and Na’ama Henkin but the end was the worst nightmare – them and their family became the front page news as Eitam and Na’ama were murdered in a drive-by shooting in Israel last night, leaving behind four children under the age of ten.

eitam and naama henkin

I actually heard about the incident (that two were badly injured – only afterwards did I hear that they’d died) minutes before the A-WA concert began. My feelings inside did not correlate with my surroundings but that is often the case in life, and in particular in Israel, and so I decided to push through it and revel in the talent and innovation of Israeli culture and society as much as I could.

Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Israel. Tomorrow will probably be a beautiful day too. Because so many Israelis of different origins, nationalities and races, work tirelessly to make Israel the special Jewish country we envision with its unparalleled strength, morality and innovation.

The beauty is that the local Arabs have an open invitation to be a part of this. They can get a useful and productive education instead of learning to hate Jews, they can get excellent jobs in Israel, as many do already, and they can be part of building a just society.

Yesterday could have been a beautiful day for the Arab school kids who stoned Erica’s family and the murderers who killed Eitam and Na’ama. Most of the Israeli people I know seem to have a ceaseless desire to partner with our neighbors and help them strive for something more than they’re used to. All they need to do is say the word, stop the violence, and we’re there. But meanwhile, we will continue to do what Jews have always yearned to do – protect ourselves without being at the mercy of anyone and their fickle feelings towards Jews and Israel. Because we have a beautiful vision in mind and we’re well on our way to fulfilling it.

My resolution not to pursue happiness (or meaning)

Happiness – both its definition and the actual thing – eludes us. There are moments when I could practically swear that I’m happy but they are interspersed with many more complex experiences and feelings, not to mention that the happy moment itself is strewn with a complex mix of emotions.

Pursuing happiness is one of those things that someone somewhere came up with and everyone has run with it like our lives depend on it. And yet I would guess that Thomas Jefferson had no idea how unhappy pursuing happiness in its most general sense would make (hundreds of) millions of people.

Mainly, I think more than anything, it creates a feeling of entitlement for those who take it seriously. Most basically, “I deserve to be happy.” But beyond that, whatever every person or society thinks is that thing that ultimately makes people happy, is the thing they think they deserve.

There are many things in life that we cannot see or grasp if we look right at them. It almost seems as though they don’t exist when given too much attention – and maybe the truth is that they do disappear when directly looked at.

I think happiness is one of those things.

I, for one, am sick of the head space wasted on asking myself, “Am I happy? Am I content? Am I really doing what I want to be doing?” All these questions are good and to a large extent they really keep me on track, helping me make good decisions, but this is only the case as long as they aren’t visited too often and with me, they really are taking up too much head space. And too much of this meta thinking is pulling me down.

But here’s the thing. It isn’t exactly happiness that I’m pursuing. In my opinion, meaning = happiness. And meaning, a seemingly deeper goal than happiness, is of utmost importance to me, and that is what I’m in the pursuit of. The irony, like with the pursuit of happiness, is that I don’t give things a chance to be meaningful before I get scared that, alas, truly my life is meaningless.

Don’t get me wrong; I do belief that the real path to “happiness” – whatever that actually is – is through meaning, possibly more than anything else. But meaning needs its space and time. In other words, like happiness, it should not be given too much attention.

And so this year I want to say to myself: Deena, choose your path and go. Use your common sense and deal. Things don’t have to be working out “perfectly” in order to prove you’re headed in the right direction. Do what you want and need to do and let things happen. When life is hard, annoying, upsetting, frustrating, remember that that doesn’t necessarily prove anything is wrong. And so, don’t dwell on these difficulties which make you second guess yourself all the time. And, maybe most importantly, if things today feel mundane, don’t jump to the conclusion that your life lacks meaning.

Make decisions, make mistakes, make whatever you want and then continue on.

Because ultimately it will be perseverance, integrity and common sense that will lead to that content feeling – happiness? – we have when we see that what we did brought meaning to ourselves and to the world.

Photo by mokra

The first time my nephew whistled

Every chance he’d get, my now-9-year-old nephew B would try to whistle. From the age of 5, on the way to school, lying in bed at night, wherever he was, whatever he was doing, was an opportunity to try to whistle.

Including, apparently, in the classroom. But one day, a few months ago, while sitting in class, an innocent activity – trying to whistle in class – suddenly became a disruptive one.

“A strange noise came out of my mouth and so my teacher kicked me out.”

“Wait, so the first time you finally whistled,” I asked him, sitting in my parents’ – his grandparents’ – living room on Yom Kippur, “was that day in class? And you got kicked out for it?”


“Well, I think you should have been invited to the front of the class and given a standing ovation for persevering to learn how to whistle for years and finally succeeding!”

And so he whistled a tune for us all.

B gave me permission to share this story.

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert

The time Dr. Oliver Sacks helped me (through his anthropologist on Mars) and three of the things I loved about him

I just saw on Facebook that Oliver Sacks, the very famous neurologist, and a family member of my step grandfather, has passed away at the age of 82. I cried and I thought, “Why am I crying? Sacks clearly expressed no remorse in reaching the end of his life.” How glorgious to live a life you can feel fulfilled by at the end of it…

But I still felt sad and realized I’m not crying for Dr. Oliver Sacks. I am sad for us, for losing a sweet voice in this world.

When I was 18, I signed up to do national service in my dear country Israel. Unfortunately, in the middle of the year, I was unhappy enough in my position that I decided to look for something else. In Jerusalem, where I was determined to stay, the only open national service position I could find in the middle of the year was working one on one with autistic children. With absolutely no training I was welcomed into my new position. And so all I could do was read. I acquired two books, one of which was An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. His uniquely readable medical writing was a Godsend and helped give me insight into the peculiar world of autism.

I never met Oliver Sacks in person, though my grandmother did since she was married to one of his cousins, but there was an endearing air about him, even from afar..

For one, he always seemed to just be who he was. He wrote his popular medical stories which probably got some criticism from his colleagues. And later on he’d make these cute little videos or write articles just sharing some thoughts with the world. He never seemed to be trying to be anything in particular besides whoever he was.

And as a result he was another thing I admired in him and that was normal. At least in his writing and short videos which you can find on YouTube, he was the most regular, down to earth genius you might ever not meet. He shared thoughts about regular things, deeper things but all just relatable human things.

Finally, from the little I got to know him from a distance, he never seemed to be afraid. He had a sense of purpose and worked towards them. It wasn’t only death he seemed unafraid of, but of living life too.

I may be reading into Sacks’ life and psyche but these are things I perceived in him from afar. It is an inspiration to have the example of a genius who, I imagine, one could look at in the eye and not be concerned about being in the presence of greatness. He was something great but I don’t know if he ever saw himself as more than just a regular human who seemed to love humans, and was happy to help others with his skills and unique mind, forging forwards as simply himself.

May we continue to be inspired by you, Dr. Oliver Sacks. Rest peacefully.

Photo source: © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Drink less, listen more

Jason Fredic Gilbert wrote a piece I loved distilling his wise advice on himself of 20 years ago interspersed with swear words and way too cool pictures. In response, this is a list of some of my philosophies of life – things I believe in and try to live by. My tips are interspersed with very few swear words, less I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude (maybe I need more beer (see JFG’s post) or less (see JFG’s post and below)) and also some photos.

Here you go…

Don’t have agendas with people because otherwise you end up treating them like objects you’re trying to get something out of instead of like humans.

drinking jokes

Be as honest as possible. Since you no longer have any agendas with people, you can be as honest as possible without concern. You’d be surprised just how honest you can be and still get along well in this world with the added bonus of building some trust with others.

learn to listen

Drink less. And figure out what your preferences really are. I recently realized I really don’t like raw tomatoes. I’ve been eating them for years thinking I sort of like them because it didn’t register just how much I actually don’t. Same with drinking. Not sure why drinking is so popular today but I’m probably not the only one who doesn’t actually like it as much as I thought.

drink less

Don’t make drink, drunk or mass-meat eating jokes. They are juvenile and work for around half an hour in high school; after that find something much more interesting to laugh about.

flowers in yaffo

Never take people’s advice blindly. It’s amazing how much people pretend they know something. As a rule, the more a person acts as though they know A Great Truth, the thicker your skepticism filter should be while listening.

peoples advice blindly 2

But learn to listen. This point is self serving if nothing more – I hate talking to people who don’t listen (to me or others) and you’ll be astounded how much it helps your relationships.

advice blindly 3

Let people, including yourself, ask questions more than once. Some things we even need repeated to us our entire lives. It’s OK.

asking questions

Work on overcoming fears. Although they theoretically help save you from uncomfortable or dangerous situations, some of them aren’t worth it because they prevent you from living your life how you want to. Of course, though, don’t get over smart fears. Now go figure out the difference between the two.


Move more but don’t call it exercise because exercise sucks. So it might be shaking your body up, stretching once every day or so, or finding a dance party you like going to. Just don’t you dare call it exercise.


Be forgiving of yourself. Who you are is a product of millennia of fine-tuning idiosyncrasies. Of course work on yourself but also don’t be so down on yourself.

old man walking

Be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice, be nice. No, it’s not always easy, and sometimes you’ll fail, but the bookends of this post are “don’t be trying to get things out of people” and “be nice.” Because treating people well is fucking important.

be nice


Back into the lion’s den (aka the classroom)

Despite a few fleeting moments of glory and belonging, my student career was a difficult one fraught with worry, despair and a sense of failure.

I often have experiences today that evoke memories of my student days but today I try to figure them out differently as an adult.

For example, right now I’m registered for an Arabic class. There is something very fun and amusing about a group of adults stumbling over a new language, but for much of the time I feel like I’m not getting the material fast enough (relative to most of the others) and as a result I start feeling embarrassed.

I also can’t get myself to study between lessons because it is overwhelming to me and I don’t feel like it’s sinking into my brain anyway. I’ve told myself to just study for 10 minutes a day – at least that’s better than nothing – but I’m too overwhelmed and so I haven’t succeeded in doing it.

At this point I’ve fallen so behind that I didn’t even go to the last couple of lessons – partially because of timing, partially because I’m ashamed to go in so unprepared.

But I keep asking myself, do I really not want to be going to class anymore? The answer is a resounding no! I like the lessons and I want to continue. I am just embarrassed and find it so stressful when the teacher actually expects me to know anything.

And so tonight I decided I’m going to class tomorrow, and in anticipation of it, I wrote an honest note in our WhatsApp group. I wrote:

Dear friends, I wanted to tell you that although it’s difficult for me to study outside of class, I don’t want to stop coming to class! I knew I may not be so successful in this course when I signed up but I signed up anyway because I figure at least the exposure to Arabic once a week will have some affect. In short, I will try to come tomorrow, just please don’t expect too much from me. :)

I know some of you are probably wondering, why all the words? Why all the explaining? Why not “just” show up and be as prepared or unprepared as I am? It isn’t my problem what they think, right?

Well, I’ll tell you why I wrote that note. Because if I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be able to get myself to go. Falling behind in class is quite a normal thing and yet it is so shameful and stressful when it happens. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one who isn’t keeping up. I’m sure I’m not the only one who stopped/sort of stopped coming to class, and I bet some of them would continue coming if the embarrassment factor was minimized. Basically I decided to try to normalize falling behind, both for myself and for anyone else who might benefit from it. If I put it out on the table, there will be no surprises or false expectations. (Yes, I know their expectations of me shouldn’t matter. Yadda yadda.)

Of course there still remains the question of why I can’t get myself to study. Why do I get paralyzed in this way? But first and foremost I want to not be so embarrassed by it.

I have to admit I’m still a little nervous about going tomorrow, it would be so much easier not to…

But I want to learn Arabic!! And so I’m committed to trying, even if I’m not succeeding very well. And now that I’ve said, “Accept this” about falling behind, I hope I can walk in there happily tomorrow, and enjoy the class for whatever it is for me.

Image source

The Jerusalem souvenir reinvented

When I travel, I like to choose one cute little thing to take back with me as a souvenir. On my latest trip to Toronto I bought a key chain of a turtle carved from stone from the new aquarium. (I LOVE IT.)

So what souvenir options are there in Jerusalem? A shofar? A bag with an Oriental design? A postcard of the Church of the Holy Sephulcre or of the Western Wall?

Here’s the thing. Jerusalem is no longer in the year 1000. It is in the year 2015 and it is a vibrant city full of new and exciting things.

Rethinking the Jerusalem souvenir is one of the goals of Jerusalem Design Mix, the new pop-up store on Rivlin Street in the city center, just across from Mike’s Place, seconds from Yaffo Street. It is a store that displays the creations of close to 50 Jerusalem and Jerusalem-inspired designers.


When I went to visit the other day, the first thing I noticed were the magnets that say “It’s complicated.” What a perfect souvenir to bring back from Jerusalem, the city where “It’s complicated.”

And, of course, there are the gefilte fish pillows (and wallets)…


…postcards with beautiful photographs and adorable and pretty bags.

When you go downtown in Jerusalem, you must stop by this shop. It will be in its current location until after Sukkot (until around the 6th of October 2015) after which they’ll be moving to a new yet-decided location.


The positive side of my existential angst, not giving a fuck and other lessons of the week

This has been an emotionally taxing week for me and so, more than usual, I’ve looked to different sources for comfort and inspiration to help me through it. Amazingly, countering the difficulties have been extremely inspiring meetings with wonderful people and an episode of one of my podcasts that I found to be so insightful that I listened to it around three times this week.

Thinking back over my week, I’ve learned a lot. Some are new lessons, some are new lessons built on old lessons and some are, as is very often necessary, old lessons relearned.

Here are some of them:

1. Asking “what for” is good

I ask “what for” constantly. It’s the more practical side of my regular existential angst because it’s saying, “OK, so you are drawn to this activity. What are the goals you hope to reach by taking part in these projects? Is this really meaningful to you? Do you really feel like this is what you want to be doing?”

This week I met with two people who helped me with this.

The first is someone I met with for the first time who can completely relate to my asking this question and, as he put it, he is troubled with this question not on a daily basis but every moment of every day. And he said that we don’t necessarily get answers of this question but the asking in itself means we’ll end up doing very meaningful things.

The other person, a friend of mine, said he always has in mind why he’s doing what he’s doing and as a result, he can partake in the most mundane of tasks and it doesn’t matter because he knows what his greater goals are.

2. My ruts are important and they pass

I freak out about my ruts. I’m scared of them. I worry I’m never going to be happy again and that I’m going to be unproductive forever. (Yes, I’m pretty fatalistic.) But I’d really like to give more respect to myself by giving more respect to my ruts. They are saying something and they are one of the symptoms of not going blindly through life which is a good thing. My ruts help direct me and are a result of my making decisions consciously on a regular basis. My ruts are part of my maturing process and I don’t have to be so scared of them.

3. I still have a lot of work to do on not giving a fuck

Today I reread the epic piece by Mark Manson about what it means to not give a fuck, why it’s a good idea and tips on how to do it (well, not do it).

One of the things that gets to me in my life is stuff. All that little and big, annoying stuff. Stuff that doesn’t go exactly how it should in order to give me peace of mind. Stuff that I wish I could control but I can’t, stuff that results from my decisions, stuff that simply makes up a lot of the day.

For example, I decided to organize monthly writing meetups. I already have a substantial mailing list for it because there was immediate interest. A couple of days ago I sent out an email with info about the first meeting. I got a few responses, two of which were in the realm of “constructive criticism” as we so nicely put it… As they crush my spirit. I honestly could barely function afterwards. I kept thinking, “Why do I do anything ever? It’ll never be exactly what people want anyway and it might be a huge flop and I’ll feel like an idiot. Why even try? It’s too hard and too risky.”

One of the points Mark makes in his crazy piece where he uses the f word supposedly over 100 times is that in order to not give a fuck about unimportant things, we need to be giving a fuck about something much bigger. Which is what my friend said (see #1) – that he can deal with a lot of crappy stuff because he knows why he’s doing what he’s doing.

And it’s the same thing here. I know why I’m doing what I’m doing (well, except when I’m asking myself, “For what?”). I’m doing this writing group because I want to give myself the opportunity to write. I want to give myself the opportunity to commiserate with other writers. And after years of waiting for someone else to create this kind of group, I realized I’m just going to have to do it myself. And so I am. How I want to do it. So as long as it’s what I want to be creating then it’s as perfect as it’s ever going to get.

Not to mention that the negative feedback was barely negative and these two people are lovely and very interested in what I’m doing. It’s just so fucking hard doing things that put you out there that you need to be strong as anything to take what the world sends back at you when you do things so you don’t feel crushed from anything negative or any bit of resistance.

4. If the morning pages aren’t working for me anymore, I could look for a different daily writing exercise to do instead

For a while I did the morning pages that Julia Cameron recommends in her The Artist’s Way spiritual path to creativity. It was very good for me until it wasn’t anymore. And now I’m at lose ends and feel this lacking. I need to be writing but can’t get myself to do the morning pages. It’s time for me to make peace with the fact that, at least for now, it’s time to move on. And that’s fine because I could just look for a different writing exercise to take on instead.

So now I’m on a search for a new writing exercise that could be good to do on a daily basis. Any suggestions?