Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Animal Copyright, “Ashes and Snow”

Gregory Colbert delivered an Animal_copyrightoutstanding presentation and excerpts from his incredible nature film "Ashes and Snow"at TED.  I just watched it on YouTube, and this is a must see– watch it here

The idea that he introduces of an animal copyright makes eminent sense– corporate advertisers who use nature and animals to promote their produts should pay 1% of their media buy into an “Animal Copyright Foundation”  and dedicate these funds to animal and nature conservation projects around the world.  Based on the annual dollars spent on such advertising, funding from the Animal Copyright could become the largest environmental fund in the world in just three years. Colbert’s suggestion should not be controversial– his simple logic, we pay for the use of musical scores and for the human talent in commercials, why shouldn’t we have an obligation to pay to protect the animals and the natural vistas that aren’t able to be represented by talent agents?  This makes a lot of sense to me.

I hope that others will support this idea.  It’s time for a lot more people to think creatively about immediate solutions to the environmental crisis we are facing.


Do You Know How to Pray?

December 11, 2006

We stood on the side of the road in silence, looking across the valley at the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque from Mount Scopus. Only the gathering evening wind and the steady idle of the Mercedes taxi’s engine accompanied us while we looked out into the encroaching darkness.  It was almost 6 PM, and my Israeli driver, who has shepherded me through ten trips to Israel since 2002, had brought me to this historic site before my dinner meeting to enjoy a few quiet moments and admire the lights of Jerusalem.

We had just left the Kotel, where I observed the 32nd anniversary of my father’s passing by reciting the Jewish mourner’s prayer, the Mourner’s Kaddish, at the Western Wall.

As we contemplated the Old City, we heard a new sound.  A melodic and melancholy chant now blended with the swirling wind and rose through the valley from the Al-Aqsa Mosque to reach us on Mount Scopus.  It was the muezzin’s evening call to prayer , multiplying through a succession of loudspeakers from the minarets of the numerous mosques that dotted the darkening landscape in front of us.

“Do you know how to pray?” my driver asked, piercing the silence.

With my own recent prayers still in my head, I quickly replied, “Yes, of course I do.”

His query surprised me, since my own experience is that spirituality and prayer come from within and need no formal instruction.  But my first reaction misinterpreted what he was really saying.

“I don’t know how to pray”, he asserted. “I am a Jew, and I live in Israel, and that’s it. . . . I think that the Jews who live outside of Israel know much more about prayer than many Jews here in Israel.  To be a Jew outside of Israel, you have to want to be a Jew and want to learn how to pray.”

I felt saddened as I considered his heartfelt statement, but I didn’t know how to respond.  I closed my eyes and asked myself how differently he, an Israeli Jew, would feel about his own Jewish identity if the State of Israel actually embraced religious pluralism.

And for a moment, as I strained to hear the now fading melody of the muezzin, I imagined what that Israel would be like.

Photographs (click on image to enlarge)


The Western Wall in the foreground with the golden dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque above it, in a picture I took in June 2006.

The view of Al-Aqsa Mosque from Mount Scopus, December 11, 2006, at approximately 6 PM .


Spain Rediscovers Its Jewish and Anti-Semitic Roots

The Sunday New York Times ran a story on November 5 about how it is now socially acceptable among Spaniards to uncover the Jewish heritage that Spain forcibly purged and took great pains to eradicate for 500 years.

"Now it’s trendy to have Jewish roots," according to Javier Castano, who is an expert on Spain’s Jewish history at the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Madrid.  The full article is worth reading (click here).

I enjoyed my own experience traveling in Spain and exploring its Jewish and Muslim past in the summer of 2005 with my family.

It is unfortunate that today deep anti-Semitism continues to scar Spain. The New York Times reporter, Renwick McLean, also makes this point in quoting Jacobo Israel Garzon, president of the Federation of Jewish communities in Spain:

"A contradictory element in all this is that a new anti-Semitism is also developing in Spain.  It uses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as its source, but it passes very quickly from anti-Israelism to anti-Semitism."

The expulsion of the Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492 effectively gutted the country of its intelligentsia and economic engine, a socio-economic trauma from which Spain has, in effect, never emerged.

A demographic footnote: the article tallies the Jewish population in Spain at 40,000 – 50,000, which overstates the most recent demographic source data that I have published elsewhere in this blog.  According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, the most recent census data available on their site is from 2002, which estimates the total Jewish population in Spain at 12,000. I doubt it has increased materially since that time, unless, of course, this trendiness is leading to a wave of Jews declaring a new Spanish aliyah.

Fighting the Anti-Israel Academic Boycott With an Inter-Faith Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease

My friend and college classmate Mark Gluck continues to lead the fight against the academic boycott of Israel by sponsoring a second medical science conference in Israel that is a cooperative effort with Al Quds University and Hebrew University.

Mark writes to me about his latest inititative–

Rutgers-Newark is taking a leadership role in fighting the anti-Israel boycotts that are growing in Europe, which seek to isolate Israeli scientists and doctors from their international colleagues. Following our very successful 2005 meeting on Parkinson’s disease in Jerusalem (which resulted in front page coverage in The Star Ledger and The New Jersey Jewish News, and a story on NPR radio), we are moving now to organize a second meeting in Jerusalem in 2008 on Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease. This meeting will be a joint US-Israeli-Palestinian meeting, co-organized by Rutgers University-Newark, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Al Quds Palestinian Medical School in the West Bank. The speakers will include prominent doctors and scientists from the US, Europe, and the Middle East, students and postdoctoral fellows from the US and Europe, and Israeli and Palestinian medical and PhD students from Hebrew University and Al Quds Palestinian Medical School. Half the meeting will take place at Hebrew University and the other half will take place at the Al Quds Palestinian Medical School in the Wet Bank.

Mark is half-way toward his goal of raising $60,000 to make this conference happen.  Funds raised will support the speakers’ travel, pay for local housing, room, and other costs, advertise the meeting throughout world, as well as support students and postdoctoral fellows from the US and Europe to attend the meeting, seeding future US/Europe-Israel-Palestinian collaborations and relationships.

Anyone who would like to help support this effort should contact Professor Mark Gluck at .

For more information on the anti-Israel boycott in science and academia, see an article by Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the World Jewish Congress entitled "The Academic Boycott Against Israel and How to Fight It", which appears at: .

with additional information at:
Mark has also written an open letter on this subject:

In addition to damaging the scientific careers and work of Israeli scientists and doctors, this boycott backfires because it hurts, rather than helps, Palestinians, as I wrote in an editorial for Israeli21c entitled  "An open letter to supporters of the anti-Israel academic boycott," by Mark A. Gluck PhD.

You can read the full text on line at:

Sky Blogging

I am connected to the Internet while flying from Munich to San Francisco on a Lufthansa flight, and while I do enjoy quiet time, I also enjoy being able to blog from 36,000 feet on my way back home. I don’t know how long this airplane connection has been going, but it is a great thing!

My family and I just concluded our summer holiday, which began with a week’s stay in Israel in conjunction with two speeches that I gave at the 2006 Israel Venture Association conference in Tel Aviv.  We left Israel 48 hours prior to the Gilad Shalit abduction and have been following the sequence of escalating violence with a feeling of great sadness for all.

I tried to stay off the web for much of the trip, with limited success.  Wi-Fi connectivity abounds throughout Europe, as do Internet cafes, and my kids are as compelled to IM with their buddies as I am to avoid coming back to a mountain of unanswered emails– latest SPAM count 1300+. 

I did have the chance to take more time than usual to think about some posts and let them evolve a bit before posting– in particular about recent thoughts I have had on religious pluralism and fundamentalism after leaving Israel.

And of course there was the World Cup– watching the Azurros go all the way from various locations in Italy was a great experience– nothing beats good timing. 


Puerto Ricans Meet at Masada

We had been walking around the forbidding Masada Plateau for about half an hour in the 105 degree heat.  I felt a little dazed, but would really be dazed in a moment,

Looking at a group of spanish speakers about 20 yards away,  I said to my wife, "Isn’t that a Puerto Rican flag they are carrying over there?"

"Are you crazy, of course not." she asserted.

But there it was, and there they were– 26 Puerto Ricans on a college trip led by Universidad del Sagrado Corazon Professor of Theology Jose Lazaro– my kinsmen from the home island, and I had to travel to Masada, deep in the heart of a mineralized baking oven known as the Dead Sea, to meet them.

We talked about old times– (donde viven ustedes en la isla?), and new times (como van las cosas, tan mal como dicen en los periodicos?)–

I haven’t been back to Puerto Rico since 1989. Professor Lazaro didn’t know about blogs before our conversation– now he does and hopefully he will look mine up and see all of us together.

What a delightful surprise– something tells me we were all meant to be at Masada together today.


He said the economic problems of the island are not as bad as they have been reported to be. "On an island, when people talk, small pebbles become boulders and an insect bite becomes a pain in the …"


With the summer travel season coming up, I feel compelled to issue a public health warning to fellow flyers.  A recent study reveals that the ice cubes, and even the water served for coffee and tea, on many airplanes is less clean than the water in most toilet bowls.

In one out of every seven planes, the EPA found water that did not meet federal standards. It found bacteria like coliform and E. coli — which are often associated with human feces. …

Ice cubes are usually brought onto the plane by a vendor — when the food is brought on board. It’s not something that is usually made with the tap water on the plane.

… it’s "fair" to ask flight attendants where the water comes from, if you’re getting coffee, tea, or a glass of water. … "My guess is that, on most planes, they’re not boiling the water before they serve it in coffee or tea."

And that means dangerous bacteria could survive even in a hot cup of coffee or tea — news that left some travelers a little queasy.

To read the full article from CBS news, click here.

Revisiting Medieval Spain: What Ever Happened to Luis de Torres?

On August 3, 1492 Luis de Torres set out on the adventure of a lifetime– the discovery of the New World with Christopher Columbus.  But, in addition to generally being apprehensive about this uncharted journey’s risks, I think that Luis was very depressed and had mixed feelings about representing Christian Spain as part of the Columbus expedition.  Just a few weeks prior to setting sail, Luis de Torres was forced to leave his homeland because he was a Jew.

A few interesting facts about Luis–

Luis joined the expedition as Columbus’ translator because he, like every well-educated Christian, Muslim, and Jew in Al-Andalus (Spain), was fluent in Arabic– which was the principal language for the conduct of commerce and scholarly research in  philosophy, religion, and the sciences.

Luis de Torres and every other Jew on the Iberian peninsula had to leave the country (or convert to Christianity, more on this later), as a result of the historic edict expelling the Jews from Christian Spain signed by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand on March 31, 1492, just three months after the capitulation of Granada to the two monarchs. Granada (home of the Alhambra palace which I visited this past July) was the last remaining Islamic state in Spain and had enjoyed protection from the Christian monarchs for 250 years.

Luis de Torres was the first person to engage in a diplomatic mission between the Europeans and the native Americans of the new world–  when Columbus unexpectedly reached Hispaniola (modern day Cuba) instead of Arabic-speaking Mongols in India, he sent Luis de Torres to meet with the Taino tribal chief.  Luis therefore has the distinction of being the first European diplomat to meet with a native American leader.

I found this personally amusing because I was born and raised in Puerto Rico; the Puerto Ricans are descendants of the Tainos; I learned all about their history in elementary school; and practically the entire congregation of Shaare Tzedek (my childhood synagogue in Puerto Rico) consists of Cuban Jews.  So how’s that for a small world?

The story of Luis de Torres is just a minor anecdote in an important and illuminating book about religious tolerance between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain. "The Ornament of the World", published in May 2002 and written by Maria Rosa Menocal, who is the R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale, rectified a serious hole in my knowledge of medieval history.  I’m still scratching my head about why I did not properly learn until now that the period from roughly 760 to 1492 was actually one of great learning and enlightenment in Europe– a time of significant progress in science, mathematics, and music.

When viewed from the vantage point of the religiously pluralistic society of Al-Andalus that took root under the inspired leadership of the great Umayyad prince, Abd Al-Rahman, the European world was hardly in a Dark Age during those important centuries of development.

On the contrary, poetry flourished, and the avid translation of religious, scientific and other classic philosophical texts (in particular Greek philosophy) into Arabic established the preconditions for future generations to successfully access this treasure trove of knowledge through the vast libraries of Cordoba.

At the end of "The Ornament of the World", Menocal makes some important concluding points.  I have excerpted several passages below:

The "founding father" of Western Islamic culture [Abd Al-Rahman] was in fact the survivior of a coup in Damascus that changed the course of Islamic history– and he and his descendants established themselves in Spain, where their rather promiscuous and open cultural vision and their lenient application of the dhimma covenant established itself so deeply that by the midlle of the tenth century we see … a prosperous and library-filled Islamic sopciety within which the Christian primate is not only thoroughly Arabized (which at the time meant also a level of education in the classical tradition, including Greek philosophy, that was unimaginable in the Christian West) but a respected and successful member of the Islamic community.  And the Jewish community was even more successful and prominent.

Most important, however, is that Muslims, Christians, and Jews did not have separate cultures based on religious differences but rather were part of a broad and expansive culture that had incorporated elements of all their traditions, a culture that all could and did participate in regardless of their religion. . . . It was, in other words, a culture that rejected religious or political correctness as the basis for any sort of aesthetic or intellectual value.

The first thing that this tells us is that these three religions have a shared history that is itself a part of European history and culture.  And that this was not merely a grudgingly shared moment but instead a very long and illustrious chapter in the history of the West. The fact that it eventually died– which many people point to in order to diminsih it or to claim that enmity is the only possible condition for these three monotheistic faiths– in no way negates the many rewards, social as well as cultural, of that age.

The second crucial thing it tells us is that the enemies of that kind of tolerance and cultural coexistence were always present and came from quarters within all three faith communities. . . . it was then (as it is now) clearly a matter of differing interpretation of the same scripture and the same religious traditions.

"The Ornament of the World" is an important book that is useful to any student of history and to anyone interested in understanding the roots of religious tolerance– and persecution– between the three Abrahamic faiths.  The ironic parallels between the religious conflicts that plague us today and those that defined medieval Spain may leave some feeling that much of Western society has not made much progress since 1492.  Spain, in particular, is still paying the price for violently and irrevocably excising the cultural and ethnic diversity which was at the root of its unparalleled socio-economic success for well over 600 years– during a time of intellectual darkness for much of the rest of the world.

Looking forward, I would like to think that the globalization of information and the increasing transparency in its dissemination will help the pendulum to swing faster in the direction of religious pluralism and tolerance and away from the ignorance and fear bred by orthodoxy. 

As I wonder why, until recently, I had no sense for the realpolitik and shifting alliances of the Christian warrior Rodrigo Diaz ("El Cid") or of the fact that the large body of the great Rabbi Maimonides’ work was originally written in Arabic (except for the Mishneh Torah, which was first written in Hebrew), I think that my own ignorance may be  symptomatic of the way the West treated much of Islamic cultural and intellectual history before 9/11.

Menocal usefully points out that Osama Bin Laden’s own jihadist exhortations to recapture the past glory of the Islamic empire of Al- Andalus reflect a similar ignorance of the period’s true history.  Someone should send him a copy of the book– maybe he’ll learn something, too. 




A Spaniard in Granada Revives an Ancient Islamic Craft—Golden Pottery

July 14, 2005, Granada

My family and I journeyed to Granada, Spain, to visit the Alhambra and develop an appreciation for the cultural achievements of the Islamic empire at its height during the 14th and 15th centuries.  We were not disappointed, and I highly recommend a visit to Granada to tour the magnificent Alhambra—you can time it in July if, like us, you like hot days and long siestas.

We had an unexpected meeting with the master ceramicist and sculptor, Miguel Ruiz Jimenez, that added an additional and welcome dimension to this segment of our trip.

We had noticed beautiful local ceramics in the hotel lobby, and wanted to find local artisans and see their work.  Ignoring the front desk at the hotel, I went directly to the web and accessed the Spanish Google, keyed in “ceramica artesana Granada”, and, within five minutes, I was speaking with Agustin Ruiz, who manages an Andalusian artisanal ceramics association called Abacoarte.

Thirty minutes later we were in a taxi on our way to the nearby town of Jun to visit the artisans’ ceramics factory, and we were introduced to Miguel, who graciously gave us a tour of the ceramics plant.


Dsc_0079Miguel Ruiz Jimenez demonstrates how terra cotta receives a plaster coating before painting and glazing.

Given that our total knowledge of Granadan ceramic arts was zero, we had plenty of questions for Agustin and Miguel.

We learned that Miguel Ruiz Jimenez has been making ceramic pottery since the age of seven—today he is 56—and that his art has been recognized through works commissioned by the Spanish Embassy in Algiers and the monument in the Granada Park in Coral Gables, Florida. He also won the competition to represent Granada in Expo-92 through his original design submission of the “Vaso de las Granadas”.

Throughout the tour, Agustin repeatedly suggested that we go see Miguel’s private gallery nearby, which houses his collection of Nazarite Crockery, which he terms Golden Pottery, in the style of the Islamic ceramics that are among the treasures of the Alhambra.

We drove up to an unusual gate made of organ pipes that retracted automatically and allowed us to proceed up a hill to a structure that resembles a white geodesic dome with an interior exhibition space of approximately 12,000 square feet.  Inside, we were greeted by Miguel’s wife and surprised to find an exquisite collection of jugs, vases, plates, and bowls—all replicas of historic Islamic designs.

Interior of the exhibition space

One of the "Jugs of the Alhambra" collection

Miguel’s website features excellent pictures of these art works and also features some of his sculpture work.  If you visit the site you will have the opportunity to read some of Miguel’s personal views of history, politics, and technology in the context of his own life’s work.
  He is definitely a colorful and opinionated individual.

So how has Miguel Ruiz Jimenez financed his expansive exposition gallery and the years of practice that it has taken for him to master the craft of making Golden Pottery? His talent has  been recognized by members of the Saudi royal family and other well-heeled Muslims, and he has received commissions to make one-of-a-kind pieces that now adorn palaces and banks from Marbella to the Arab Middle East (apparently a replica of the Alhambra has been built by a Saudi prince near Riyadh).

Prior to the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews (the Jews had 90 days to convert or leave the country) by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492, Spain thrived in the midst of an  Islamic empire which has been noted to have featured relatively peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews.

As we prepared to leave the gallery, we were surprised to find one of Miguel’s "golden pottery" plates featuring Hebrew characters in its center, and we figured out that it was a Passover Seder plate with elaborate 15th century designs.

This coming Pesach we will celebrate in San Francisco with a Seder plate from Granada, made by a master artisan whose inspiration has rescued a lost Islamic art from oblivion.  Google searches definitely work. 


40 degrees centigrade is hot! (approximate conversion = celsius x 9/5 +32)