Sandy Cash’s musical journey

November 13, 2012 - 1:13 PM by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Music 

Sandy Cash

Local folk singer extraordinaire Sandy Cash didn’t set out to become an ambassador for Israel through music. She originally fancied a career as a rabbi. But 25 years in the Middle East have transformed the talented singer-songwriter and, with the release of her fourth CD, “Voices from the Other Side,” Cash’s musical message of hope, tempered with some hard truths, has the potential to reach even more receptive listeners than if she was the next Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (although the latter is probably funnier).

Full disclosure: I first met Sandy Cash when we worked together in Jerusalem some 18 years ago and we have remained friends ever since. We hosted her for a house concert around the time of the release of her first album, “Exact Change,” in 2000. And we caught her live last week for a launch party at a club near her home in Beit Shemesh. None of that changes my appreciation for her musical evolution.

And an interesting evolution it’s been. Cash was a Judaic Studies major at Yale, she says, because she thought about becoming a rabbi in the Reform or Conservative movements at the time. But by the time she graduated, she’d become more religious, enough so that – in a rabbinical twist on the old Woody Allen joke – she wasn’t sure she’d want to belong to the kind of community where she could be a rabbi. She came to Israel instead and realized “I didn’t want to be a professional Jew. Maybe I just wanted to be here,” she says.

Her next big dream, also to be subtly subverted, was to become an actress on the Hebrew stage. She enrolled in Tel Aviv University’s drama program (“it was like a very high level ulpan,” she says) but realized that acting on stage, she’d “always be thinking about dikduk” (grammar). She was cast as a chorus member in Les Miserables in Tel Aviv and later performed in a number of Israeli musicals including Evita with Israeli pop star Riki Gal.

Now fully comfortable on stage as part of a company, she wanted to be up front too. So, she taught herself guitar (she had played piano and sung growing up) and began composing her own material. “It was a way to get my theatrically oriented songs on stage without having to collaborate with anyone,” she jokes.

She started off by scouring the folk music world for “every funny intellectual song I could find.” She then added in her own ironic songs, which drew on her experience raising four children in the pressure cooker we call Israel. She calls the result “standup comedy with guitar.”

Four albums later, there’s still a light touch and humor in her music, but a seriousness has crept in too, the result of a songwriter who is coming into her own and, with two of her kids either in or about to go in to the army, has more to share than other singers’ ditties about bridesmaids and Viagra (although those are still in her repertoire).

She’s now doing something “I’ve never done before,” she says: “Using my music to give voice to the modern Israeli experience. Using a very personal lens – and staying away from specific political prescriptions – I want to help people across the pond understand what it’s like for me to live here.”

This focus came about in part during tours she’s done in the U.S. where she’s found herself “surprised to be in the position of a spokesperson for Zionism.”

Two songs on the album stand out in this light: “Freeze Frame Truth,” which tries to present a fraught, balanced snapshot about the reality of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier put in the uncomfortable position of having to search the trunk of an young Palestinian woman’s vehicle for a bomb at a checkpoint; and “A Song of Zion,” which somewhat more politically chastises those who habitually criticize Israel out of “love” until the time when they can finally embrace the Jewish state…only after its imagined destruction.

“I’m not trying to lay out prescription on how the Israeli government should act or how the world should feel about the Jewish state,” she says. But through music she hopes that she can “humanize the conflict.”

But then she backs off a bit. “I’m not a political songwriter,” she insists. But music “has an unparalleled ability to capture attention, to break down barriers of indifference and to deliver an emotion-based message that penetrates straight to the heart. And when the heart is open, the mind is sure to follow.”

Sandy Cash followed her heart – to Israel. And rabbi or not, we are all the beneficiaries.

You can listen to (and buy) tracks from the CD here. Sandy also made a video of one of her songs, about the guitar that she uses, that originally belonged to her husband’s cousin who was killed in the Yom Kippur War. You can watch it here.

Bagels, politics and personal ownership, here and there

November 6, 2012 - 12:11 PM by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Food, Politics, Pop Culture 

That’s some tall bagels…

While all eyes today will undoubtedly be focused on the U.S. elections, sometimes it’s the little things that are elevated to true shmooze status. And for fast foodies in Jerusalem last week, it was the closing of Tal Bagels on Emek Refaim.

Let’s face it, no matter who’s president, you still have to eat bagels…at least a couple of times a year. And Tal was the best in town. The product was tasty, the facility spacious, the shmears shmeary. I’ve had many a meeting there over the years. So why did they suddenly shut down?

No one knows for sure although a Facebook discussion on the subject (yes, people will speculate about just about anything on social media) suggested that Tal Bagels had lots its mojo a while back and was no longer the place to be and be seen.

Tal Bagels in Jerusalem was the only kosher branch of a national Israeli chain. The owner of the local franchise also owns the adjoining Aldo Ice Cream and the former yogurt shop. Those two are doing fine.

Don’t worry too much for us poor Jerusalemites…it’s not like we’ll be bagel-less. Holy Bagels is still open a couple of stores down on the same block. And, not too far away in Baka, Bagel Bite is going strong after many years. Other bagel establishments exist downtown – Sam’s and Nina’s are two – but I can’t speak for their tastiness; I just know I liked Tal the best.

There’s something a little deeper in my mini-obsession over the local bagel scene. It’s that sense of personal ownership those of us in Israel can feel over the smallest things, a feeling that’s very different than in the old country. I remember when they put in a new McDonald’s near where we lived in Berkeley. Big deal. Or when they erected a new stop sign. Yawn.

But here…every little jot and tittle on the ground is a big deal. A new flower arrangement on the roundabout – hey, that’s my traffic circle! Aroma now makes a Chai latte with soymilk – woo hoo!

It’s not that Jerusalem is a small town compared with Berkeley – it’s the opposite – but rather this is my town, my country, my future. We didn’t just move to another state in the U.S. We made a statement of connection, of belonging, of peoplehood. And that’s reflected in everything we do here, including the seemingly insignificant, like fretting over which bagel restaurant is down the street.

On Wednesday they were carting off the furniture at Tal and taking down the sign. By Friday, there was a new sign up. Coming soon: Bagel Café. You can take the Tal out of the bagels, I guess, but you can’t take the bagels out of the hood. Bring on the shmears, round two, as we watch the U.S. election results tomorrow morning.

New York Marathon moves to Jerusalem

November 4, 2012 - 12:35 PM by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Environment 

Matt Krieger, marathon man

What do you do when you’re all set to run the New York Marathon to raise money for a great cause and a hurricane gets in your way? In Matt Krieger’s case, transfer the race to Jerusalem.

Krieger is originally from New York but now lives in Israel. He had planned to be in the Big Apple today for the annual mass marathon but he couldn’t get a flight (actually had booked six different flights but the hurricane cancelled them all). And then, of course, the marathon itself was cancelled.

Krieger had been running to raise money for ALEH, Israel’s largest network of facilities for children with severe physical and cognitive disabilities. He’s already received pledges for over $2,700 (and his goal was just $2,500). So he had to run somewhere.

That somewhere will be Jerusalem, tonight. Krieger has put together his own route, which he says will take him through just about every neighborhood in the city. He’ll be ending up around 9:00 PM in the capital’s Gan Sacher. He’s encouraging readers to come out to cheer, pass out Gatorade or even run a bit with him. Because it’s kind of lonely running an entire marathon alone!

OSCAR the Grouch

November 1, 2012 - 12:46 PM by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Business, Environment 

Our car at the battery swap station near Ramle

On Sunday, Better Place held their first ever customer event. A couple of hundred Better Place electric car owners – including us – descended on the company’s Herzliya showroom up to hear from Better Place staff the inside scoop on where the company is headed. It was an electric gas to see so many petrol-free cars in one parking lot. (It was also a bit daunting to find our car on the way out since all the cars are the exact same Renault Fluence ZE.)

Better Place VP of Sales Zohar Bali handled most of the presentation, which included reassurances that the company is steadily selling more and more cars. He backed it up with various numbers – 20 cars to this hi-tech company, 25 to another. I didn’t write down all the names, but Amdocs and Matrix figured prominently on the list, as did Elco, which has agreed to purchase 125 vehicles by the end of 2013.

Most of the main leasing companies in Israel have signed on, as well, Bali said – at least in a limited way so far. He admitted it was hard to move cars with all the bad press the company has received since Shai Agassi’s ouster. Still, he insisted Better Place was on track to sell 2,500 cars in the next 12 months.

Bali didn’t sugarcoat the financial difficulties the company is in – he confirmed the reports in the press this week that the company will be laying off staff (the Israeli media says 150-200 staff members out of a total of 400, mostly in R&D and infrastructure, but not sales and marketing).

A charming slideshow played with pictures of happy customers in front of their cars, shaking hands (and often hugging) their salespeople. Then Bali opened up the floor to questions and feedback.

There was overwhelming agreement that the car itself is a dream to drive, the swap stations work as advertised, and that Customer Service is efficient and polite. There was the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from a room full of early adopters.

There were complaints too: the batteries aren’t lasting the full 140-160 kilometers per charge as promised (Bali said it’s very “individual”) and that there aren’t any swap stations on Highway 6. An English speaker said he had a hard time with Better Place’s emails and announcements in Hebrew. (Customer Service manager Oded Shtemer promised the customer would get them in English from now on – hey, us too!).

Then someone brought up OSCAR, Better Place’s vaunted operating system for cars.

To put it bluntly: OSCAR is a grouch. He is awkward and sometimes surly. If you ask him for directions, he doesn’t always have the right answer and his instructions on which route to take can plunge you into terrible traffic. OSCAR’s maps seem to be suffering from the malady that has plagued Apple’s new iPhone maps product (indeed, they are based on the same purchased map data set).

We had our own “experience” with OSCAR on our drive to the Better Place event. After we entered in our itinerary, OSCAR recommended that we swap batteries on the way. Fine, we didn’t want a repeat of our near-battery depletion experience on our first day out. OSCAR’s suggestion was the Nesharim station. That seemed kind of out of the way, we thought, but OSCAR knows best, right?

Nesharim is in Ramle, quite a drive to and from Highway 1. With the swap itself, that added a good 20 minutes to our travel time. The nice station attendant told us that, when it comes to finding the nearest swap station, we shouldn’t trust OSCAR; better to program it in ourselves. Thanks a lot, OSCAR!

The good news: OSCAR is due for a major facelift and a new version will be released, give or take, by the end of the year. It will address most of the problems people have been having, particularly by adding better maps, customizable routes and integrated crowd-sourced traffic data (like fellow Israeli startup Waze).

It will actually require we re-learn a lot of the software, OSCAR’s project manager explained, taking to the stage. That’s the downside to being an early adopter, he added cheerfully, as we all nodded appreciatively – we knew what we were signing up for by getting in at the beginning.

Indeed, as we left the meeting, we marveled over the very fact that an automobile company held its own “user group” event and that they answered all our questions patiently and honestly. Similar meetings would be held every couple of months, Bali said.

Getting into bed with Better Place is more like buying a 1987 Macintosh than a car. You have to be a bit of a fanatic. I’m still using a Mac 25 years later (not the same model of course). Will that be the same with my Better Place car? Hopefully, and I’m sure that OSCAR will pull himself out of the trashcan by then.

Houses from Within returns to Jerusalem with more trains

October 29, 2012 - 6:31 PM by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Entertainment, Travel 

Train station in Israel ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

The annual “Houses from Within” weekend is one of my favorite Jerusalem adventures. The event opens tens of normally private homes and institutions to the public. Dwellings owned by artists like successful sculptor Giora Segal, who renovated a small house in Motza (not technically in Jerusalem) built on top of a Second Temple period cave, or authors such as Haim Hazaz, whose Talbieh apartment has been preserved exactly as it was when he wrote there between 1961-1973, are all on display for those who can are ready to brave the crowds.

Yes, Houses from Within has become so popular that Disneyland-like lines stretching for over an hour are not uncommon among the top traveled sites. Institutions such as a tour of the still under construction Palace Hotel or the Hansen Hospital, a former facility for local lepers, require advance booking – online reservations opened one week before the event and were booked by the time we even opened the computer that morning. Others, like the Convent of the St. Charles Borremeo Sisters in the German Colony, were handing out numbers; by 9:00 AM, all but the last tour at 11:30 AM was full.

Jody and I are big fans of the more offbeat openings. A year ago, we toured one of the tunnels where the fast train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (and back) is being built. This year, we continued our train theme and joined a crowd of several hundred who came to the old Jerusalem Train Station to hear about its process of renovation from the project’s preservationist architect, Moshe Shapira.

The restoration of the train station stands to be one of the most impressive new additions to Jerusalem’s burgeoning cultural scene. The station has a fascinating history, one that parallels the development of Jerusalem, starting in 1892 when construction started on a “twin” to the terminus in Jaffa. In fact, the train preceded the station – the materials for its building came from the coast on the train itself, and as new construction technologies became available (for example, concrete), that reached the train station in Jerusalem by rail.

The train and its station have seen different owners (Turks, Brits, Israelis), derailings, bombs, fire and, most recently, neglect. The train stopped running in 1998 (the track is still in use but ends at Malcha) and became a dilapidated shell of its self, filled with graffiti and garbage.

But with the incredibly successful opening of the new “train track park” – a walking/cycling path along the route of the tracks from the old train station all the way to Malcha – the station stood out like an angry bird.

Shapira was also one of the architects behind the transformation of the Jaffa train station into a chic dining and art complex. Its twin in Jerusalem looks to receive the same treatment. The plans call for several upscale restaurants, food booths for pizza and faster food, a pub, a 160-square meter art gallery, a bike shop, a depot for Segway tours, and more. The tagline is “a meeting place between culture and food.” Some of it will be open on Shabbat and all will be immediately accessible from the train track park.

Its planners are calling it part of Jerusalem’s “Cultural Mile” which stretches from the Jerusalem Theater to the Khan and then on to the Cinemateque and the also-being-built Sherover Cultural Center in Abu Tor. If it all works out (and looking at the loving care that has been put into the work so far, I am optimistic), it will quickly become a must-visit stop on the tourist track – as the train track park already has, attracting hundreds of visitors on weekends, locals and out-of-towners alike.

For me, it will be a joy to step foot inside the train station again. I used to ride the train in the mid-1980s and even worked on a film crew that shot in the station; we decked it up to look like a World War 2-era station in Russia for an educational movie on bar mitzva.

Houses from Within is part of the larger Open House Worldwide which also includes an event in Tel Aviv. The next one will be in May 2013. Mark your calendars!

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