Monday, December 30, 2013

The Magnificent Synagogue of Sofia, Bulgaria

The Central Synagogue of Sofia is the pride of Bulgarian Jewry and the only Jewish house of worship in the Bulgarian capital. Jewish life in Sofia, home to some 2,000 Jews out of the country's 6,000, centers around the synagogue. During the two years my wife and I lived in Sofia we visited the synagogue many times.

On September 9, 2009, a ceremony was held at the Sofia Synagogue marking the 100th year anniversary of the building's dedication in 1909 by Bulgarian Tzar Ferdinand. The ceremony was attended by Bulgaria's president at the time, Georgi Parvanov.

On every occasion that friends and family members visited us in Bulgaria, we took them to see the magnificent synagogue. The synagogue made such an impression on me that I included one scene in the building in my novel.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review of "Smokescreen"by Khaled Talib

In Smokescreen, a fast-paced espionage thriller by Khaled Talib, someone wants the prime minister of Israel dead. An innocent man will be blamed for the assassination.

Israel's leader has held secret talks with the Palestinians, including Hamas, and is willing to make serious concessions in exchange for peace. The historic announcement detailing the peace deal will be made in Singapore upon the prime minister's visit, and that is where the assassination will take place. Similar to conspiracy theories surrounding the killing of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, blame for the assassination will be placed on a patsy to divert attention from the real conspirators.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I Prefer Editing a Novel to Writing One

Some authors start writing their novel with a detailed outline prepared in advance. These "planners" may have labored out a scene-by-scene plot before sitting down to write the first word of their book.

Other authors start writing with a general idea in their mind but with a willingness to allow the story to develop as they go. These "pantsers" may only know the basic idea of their book, or perhaps just its opening line.

Both types of authors work hard at completing the first draft of their manuscript but when they succeed in that, the field is leveled. Editing, the next stage, takes a hastily written manuscript (although the writing process can actually go on forever) and transforms it into a readable novel. Many writers abhor the editing process, but I actually enjoy editing a novel much more than I do writing one.

Here's an interesting fact about my writing process. I am preparing a detailed outline of my book after having completed the first draft.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Seinfeld's Kibbutz Days

An interesting part of Israel's history is often overlooked by historians. In 1971, future comedian Jerry Seinfeld, aged 17, volunteered on Kibbutz Sa'ar for a short period of time.  "I worked in the banana groves," Seinfeld later recollected. "I couldn't take it any longer! It was hard work; you guys work hard in Israel."

Seinfeld's experiences during his kibbutz days never made their way into the iconic television series that bore his name, but they did play a role in The Virtual Kibbutz, my collection of short stories detailing life on Israel's unique society. The book's opening story, "Searching for Seinfeld," was based on the true story of a newspaper reporter's search for Seinfeld's kibbutz past.

Monday, December 16, 2013

We Survived Jerusalem's Snowstorm of the Century

I know what snow is. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and experienced many blizzards in my childhood. My wife grew up in Ithaca, New York, which had very white winters as well. Living in Israel, we thought that we would escape harsh winters, yet we still have strong memories of the storm that struck the country in 1992, which blanketed our home in Moshav Neve Ilan with half a foot of snow and knocked out the electricity for three days. And then recently, we lived for two years in Bulgaria, where the winters are quite cold and snow is very common.

We didn't know that the worst snowstorm in some 150 years was heading our way. The first snow fell on Thursday morning, but then the storm struck in force overnight, knocking out our power and leaving us without heat as well. We assumed the electricity would go back on right away, but another night of heavy snow hit us.

We are just now recovering from four days without power and heating and beginning to deal with the severe damage caused to our house by a falling tree and a leaking roof.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Masada - The Legend and the Truth

On an isolated mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea is Masada, a symbol of Jewish independence and freedom. With sheer rock cliffs dropping 450 meters, the nearly impregnable fortress is stunning when seen against the majestic starkness of the Judean Desert.

It was on Masada that a small garrison of Jewish rebels held out against the Roman conquest in the year 73 CE. Three years after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, Eleazar Ben Ya'ir and some 960 others of the Sicarii Zealots resisted the siege of Roman governor Flavius Silva and the mighty Tenth Legion of the most powerful army on earth.

Rather than allow themselves to be captured and taken off into slavery in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the Zealots decided that it was better to die at their own hands as free men. After listening to an impassioned speech by Ben Ya'ir, the Zealots drew lots and then took their own lives.

This makes for an amazing story, something that still resonates in Israel today when new army recruits swear in with the vow, "Masada will never fall again". But how much of the Masada story is actually true?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Disengaging Tale Told in “The Settler”

It’s hard to read Orit Arfa’s novel The Settler and not feel her bitterness stemming from Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. I will attempt to keep my review as apolitical as possible. Please note - this review may contain spoilers as to story's direction.

Let’s start with the facts. In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a “Disengagement plan” that would see the country unilaterally relinquish control over the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in recognition that “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” There were 9,000 Israeli residents living in 21 civilian Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip at the time. In August 2005, Israeli soldiers evicted these settlers and a month later, the last IDF troops withdrew from Gaza.

The Settler opens as soldiers are evicting the Dakar family, long-time Gush Katif residents and agricultural pioneers in their community. The scene is traumatic – a family of ordinary citizens who didn’t break any laws is being forcefully pulled out of their home – yet it is a scene that most Israelis avoided seeing, or thinking about. This harrowing experience leads Sarah Dakar, the family’s oldest daughter, to reevaluate everything she has held dear about Israel and its values.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Do You Spell Hanukkah?

The holiday of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, begins tonight with the traditional lighting of the first candle on the Hanukkah menorah. The holiday commemorates the re-dedication of the Holy Temple, wrestled from the Greeks by Judah the Maccabee in the year 164 BCE. The Maccabees were a family from the town of Modiin, and they founded the Hasmonean dynasty that would rule the country until Roman times.

According to tradition, the oil used in the Temple's re-dedication was only supposed to last one day, but miraculously lasted for eight days instead. From this miracle, holiday customs and traditions developed celebrating both the festive lights and the oil itself.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Catholics in the Holy City of Jerusalem

How is it possible to live in Israel for over forty years and not be familiar with all of the winding streets of the Old City of Jerusalem? How could it be that within the walls there are churches of such stunning beauty but I never knew they existed in Israel?

My wife and I signed up for a four-session touring course on "Minorities in the Old City of Jerusalem" and the first visit was to the Christian Quarter, to learn about the role the Catholics play in the Holy City. The tour had been organized by Zman Eshkol, the leading operator of leisure studies in Israel, and our guide for the day is Esther Sa'ad.

Friday, November 22, 2013

How I Got 10,000 Twitter Followers in Less than 10 Months

An aspiring author asked me recently how I had managed to build up such a large social media platform in such a short period of time. I had set up my Twitter account at the beginning of February and was nearing 10,000 followers when he asked. I was glad to share my experiences and offer some advice. But first, I told him, a more important question was asking why it was important to me to have such a large Twitter following.

I have always had problems connecting with Facebook's interface, and in fact, many of my 'friends' seem a lot less active these days. Either that or I just never see their posts because of Facebook's incomprehensible algorithms. I never set up a Facebook author page, deciding instead to use Twitter as my primary promotion platform, and as a way of connecting with other writers.

You have to relate to Twitter with an understanding of what you can get out of it. Most of my followers are fellow writers, so I never shout out "Buy my book" in my tweets. I have sold a few books directly thru Twitter, but I think I could count these sales on two hands. So, why is Twitter important to me?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Who Will Die Last, a Review

My review of David Ehrlich's short story collection is longer than the shortest story in the book. This is a slim volume which despite its brevity, gives readers a realistic, touching and memorable view of different aspects of Israeli life.

Although the stories of Who Will Die Last barely fill 150 pages, one shouldn't attempt to finish them in one sitting. Each story has to be digested by itself; each one lingers pleasantly after completion. Some of the stories, barely a page or two long, are just right at that length, while others introduce us to characters we wish to know further and situations that we wish would last longer.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Tastes and Colors of South Tel Aviv

When tourists come to Tel Aviv they spend time on the sandy beaches, eat in tasty restaurants, visit galleries and museums, stroll through ancient Jaffa, and enjoy a city with thriving nightlife. But for many Israelis, even someone like me who commutes to Tel Aviv for work every day, there are parts of the city that I don’t know at all.

My wife and I signed up for a three-part visit to the markets of Tel Aviv, with a focus on the special tastes and foods available. The course is run by Zman Eshkol, the leading operator of leisure studies in Israel, and our guide for the day is the very knowledgeable Or Rein.

The tour starts at the iconic Shalom Tower, once the highest skyscraper in the entire Middle East. Let's step inside for a little bit of history about Tel Aviv's origins, and then we'll begin tasting the special foods that Tel Aviv has to offer.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scenes from "Valley of Thracians": Belogradchik

One of my most memorable trips while living in Bulgaria was to Belogradchik in the northwestern part of the country, not far from the Serbian border. Belogradchik, a town whose name literally means "small white town," is famous for the nearby Belogradchik Rocks formation and the medieval Belogradchik Fortress, which was built in and around the massive rock cliffs.

I was so impressed by what I saw that I knew that I would have to include a scene in Belogradchik in the suspense novel I was writing. I wasn't sure if I would be able to capture the unique, striking beauty of this natural wonder, which served as Bulgaria's candidate in the 2009 New 7 Wonders of Nature competition.

Belogradchik is a must-see destination for any tourist coming to Bulgaria, but like much of the country, it remains off-the-beaten track for most visitors. Join me now on a virtual tour of Belogradchik, where one of the pivotal scenes of Valley of Thracians takes place, with accompanying texts from my novel.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

How I Found Time to Write in My Busy Schedule

I am frequently asked what the most difficult part of being a writer is. Is it conceiving the initial outline for the plot of a novel? Or the development of the characters? Perhaps editing is the most challenging part of the process? Many fellow authors argue that marketing their books takes up the majority of their time and, admittedly, marketing a book is much more difficult than writing and editing.

For me, though, the most difficult part of being a writer is finding the time to write. I commute to my office job every day, getting stuck in traffic in at least one direction. While at work I try to concentrate on my job. By the time I return home in the evening hours I am physically exhausted and my mind is drained of all creativity. Weekends, unfortunately, offer less of an opportunity to write than I would like. I prefer to spend my free time with my wife and family. Also, I like to read, travel, watch entertaining television shows, and take long walks.

So, when is there time to write? I finally found a solution.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Former Mossad Agent Pens Mossad Thriller

Mishka Ben-David's spy thriller Duet in Beirut is extremely realistic due to the author's twelve years of service in the Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency.

According to former Mossad agent turned author Mishka Ben-David, "one out of a 1000 operations go wrong." Ben-David should know, as he participated in the 1997 botched assassination attempt on the life of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. It was Ben-David who handed the antidote to the poison injected into Mashaal's body over to the Jordanians in exchange for the two Mossad agents who were captured.

Another botched assassination attempt takes place in Ben-David's 2002 spy thriller, Duet in Beirut, which has just been published in English for the first time with a seamless translation by author Evan Fallenberg.

Friday, November 1, 2013

How I Made My Book Trailer in One Hour, for Free

I invite you to view the book trailer for Valley of Thracians and get your impressions of it. Not of the book, but of the book trailer itself. What do you think?

Viewers of the trailer have told me that it gives a good sense of Bulgaria, a country that they have never visited, and one about which they know very little. Also, viewers have said that the trailer is very suspenseful, highlighting the mysteries that await readers of the book.

So, take less than two minutes of your time to view the trailer, and then I'll tell you how I made it in one hour, absolutely for free. I'll tell you upfront that I have no experience editing videos and I've never done this before. If I could do it, so can you.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Mosque, a Synagogue, and a Church

My wife and I have traveled quite a bit in the Balkans and we enjoy learning about different cultures and seeing new places. Sometimes, though, the most beautiful places of all are right at your doorstep.

This past weekend, we vacationed in Israel's north, traveling around the Galilee and taking in the rolling hills, the pastures full of grazing cattle, the neat rows of vineyards, and the picturesque communities. We walked through the artist colony of Tzfat (the mystical city of Kabbalistic Judaism also known as Safed), and visited the renovated historic village of Rosh Pina.

We drove north, toward Israel's border with Lebanon. Here the scenery was even more beautiful, full of dark green forested valleys. We had never traveled these northern roads before and every turn exposed us to new vistas. Our journey on the cloudless October day would take us to see a mosque, a synagogue, and a church - three houses of worship quite unlike those we had seen in the past.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Joy of Kosher, a Tasty but Slightly Salty Review

I don't cook, let's make that clear, but I do enjoy eating. Does that qualify me to review Jamie Geller's new cookbook? I think so!

How does someone who doesn't cook review a cookbook? By enlisting the wife of course. My wife selected a number of dishes from Geller's Joy of Kosher cookbook for our Friday night dinner and I, of course, volunteered to eat them.

But first, a word about the book. Geller's previous cookbook, Quick & Kosher - Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing, was published in 2007. That book was called an "autobiographic cookbook" by one reviewer on Amazon. This cookbook is a worthy sequel, as Geller's family takes center stage. It features Geller's husband and her five children in pictures and stories accompanying the various sections of the book.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How I Sold 910 Copies of My Book in One Week

Not to brag, but rather to share and encourage…

During the entire month of September, my self-published suspense novel Valley of Thracians sold a grand total of four copies. This was despite the fact that the book had received favorable reviews on Amazon; it had been featured and spotlighted on many book blogs; and I had written guest posts on various authors' websites.

My marketing strategy since publishing the novel at the end of January included its being part of the KDP Select program, making it available for Kindle exclusively at Amazon. During the month of March I ran a five-day free promotion, and the book was downloaded by over 8,000 readers all over the world, making it a 'bestseller' for three days, if you can define a free book as something that 'sells'. But after the digital book went back to its normal price of $4.99 a copy, sales dropped off steadily, reaching a new low with the four books sold in September.

Clearly, potential readers were not being enticed to buy the book. I needed to do something to increase sales.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Taste of Coexistence at the Majda Restaurant

A restaurant in the village of Ein Rafa played host to celebrity travel chef Anthony Bourdain. My friends and I dined there on tasty food that was a fusion of cultures.

Bourdain's recent broadcast from Jerusalem of 'Parts Unknown' on CNN received some flack due to its purported Palestinian bias. Bourdain opened the show by acknowledging that his visit would be seen by many "as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, a fascist, CIA agent, and worse." But, putting politics aside, the travel chef treated viewers to the tastes and culture of Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Highlighted on the show was a visit with a mixed-marriage couple who run a restaurant in the village of Ein Rafa. As he ate outdoors, Bourdain talked with the owners, Michal and Yakub. The food looked so good that it resulted in an intense desire on my part to dine at this unusual restaurant, whose name is Majda.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Paratroopers, Peace Plans, and Prayers

Yossi Klein Halevi's Like Dreamers is an epic narrative of modern Israeli history, detailing the transformation of Israeli society following the Six Day War.

In June, 1967, Israel stunned its Arab neighbors and the entire world with a swift victory against seemingly insurmountable odds, capturing east Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. Just six years later, Egypt and Syria launched coordinated attacks on Israel's northern and southern borders, catching IDF commanders and government leaders by surprise and destroying the myth of Israel's invincibility.

Years of euphoria immediately following the Six Day War were replaced by a period of uncertainty that not only questioned who was responsible for the Yom Kippur War failures, but also how Israel should relate to the appropriated territories. In many ways, Israel is still facing the consequences of those two wars today.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Day at the Beach in Tel Aviv

What's the weather like in your part of the world? Here in Israel, late September is one of the best times of the year. The skies are bright blue, the days are pleasantly warm, and the evenings are cool and refreshing. We've already had our first rain of the season, but there is still plenty of time to enjoy the wonderful weather.

My wife and I headed off yesterday for a day at the beach. Tel Aviv has about 14 kilometers (9 miles) of Mediterranean beachfront, with promenades, sandy beaches, numerous cafes and restaurants, fancy hotels, and endless blue horizons. We usually head to the Charles Clore Beach in the south, mainly because of its close proximity to Jaffa (Yafo),with its Biblical connections and historic port.

Also known as the Dolphinarium Beach, for the dolphin tank and nightclub that once stood at the site, the Charles Clore Beach is a comfortable place to relax in the sun. We left our home in the Judean Hills and the drive took us 35 minutes (because there was no traffic on the holiday). When we go to the beach we go early in the morning, to ensure getting a good parking spot across the street from the beach and a spot in the shade.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Daydreaming Is Part of a Writer's Job

The other night at the dinner table, my wife noticed that I wasn't focusing on our conversation. In fact, I was staring off into space, with my fork held in midair. "Hello, are you there?" she asked.

"Sorry, I was working," I replied.

Working? What kind of work has you staring off into space, daydreaming?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My Granddaughters Are Passionate About Passion Fruit

Israel is known for its wide variety of delicious fruit. In the winter months, citrus is prevalent with tasty oranges, grapefruits, and clementinas providing ample amounts of vitamin C. During the summer months, the markets are full of apricots, peaches, pears, plums, grapes, watermelons, melons, and figs. Pineapples are homegrown, apples are available all year round, pomegranates play a role in Rosh Hashanah traditions, and etrogs mark the Sukkot holiday. There are bananas, cherries, dates, kiwifruit, guava, pomelos, strawberries, and avocados! And isn't the olive also a fruit?

I apologize if I may have inadvertently offended fruit growers in Israel whose specialties were not mentioned in the previous paragraph. With so many types of locally grown fruit, what do you think is the one my two granddaughters most enjoy?

Monday, September 16, 2013

40 Years after Yom Kippur

For a 16-year-old new immigrant, the siren interrupting Yom Kippur prayers was very unexpected. The war took the entire country by surprise.

The siren blared suddenly, unexpectedly, just after 2pm. Like many other observant Jews in Jerusalem at that moment, I was in synagogue, anxiously waiting for the Yom Kippur Musaf service to end so that I could take a break from the never-ending prayers. I was  totally unprepared for a siren on the holiest day of the year. The other congregants were unprepared as well.

I had made Aliyah the previous year from Sioux City, Iowa, where nothing ever happened. In my first months of living in a new country I was initiated as an Israeli. There was a horrific terrorist attack at Lod Airport, and a few months later, Palestinian terrorists killed our athletes, including a classmate's father, in Munich. I grew up quickly.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Every Holocaust Survivor Has a Story

There is no number tattooed on the arm of Sal Wainberg, yet he is a survivor of the Holocaust. According to Deb Levy, who penned Wainberg's memoir, entitled Bury the Hot, what Sal "doesn't have branded on his skin, he carries deep inside… he doesn't have a number; just a narrative."

Wainberg "has wanted to write his story for a long time," Levy writes. "Seeing the written testimony is the final step he needs in the five stages of grief. He needs to know he's left his legacy."

Levy, whose parents are long-time friends of Wainberg and his wife, never knew that he had a Holocaust story to tell. As she began to interview him with the purpose of putting his memories into book-form, she wondered how he could recall, with such detail, the horror of growing up in war-torn Poland. "There are memoires, sensations as clear to me now as they were some 70 odd years ago," he told her. "They swim through my mind, with traces of understanding I had as a child and reconciliations I've come to in my later years."

Friday, September 6, 2013

Israel's Leading Crime Writer Debuts in English

Sarah Glazer, an 82-year-old grandmother who lives in a quiet Tel Aviv neighborhood, has nothing better to do with her time than to use a recently purchased, and quite expensive, pair of binoculars to spy on her neighbors. There's this young man from down the street who walks his dog in the middle of the night. Sarah observes the man carefully, ready to make an official complaint if the man doesn't clean up after his dog's nocturnal messes. This time, she sees, the man bends down to collect the dog poo with a bag.

Sarah takes her medicine. After all, the doctor told her to space the pills six hours apart, and that is why she is awake at this ungodly hour. But then, something else brings her back to the window. She readjusts the night vision of her binoculars and spots a man and a woman, going at each other like animals. They are animals, she thinks, but she keeps her eyes glued to the scene.

Sarah Glazer doesn't realize it at the time, but she has just witnessed a brutal rape. The police are called in and hurry to solve the high-profile case. Detective Eli Nahum sees an easy conviction when he quickly arrests a likely suspect. Nahum pushes for the victim to positively identify the suspect in a line-up, but as the case becomes complicated due to legal technicalities, Nahum begins to doubt the suspect's guilt.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to Write a Thriller like Dan Brown

I remember boarding a flight from Israel to the United States in January 2004, with a copy of The Da Vinci Code in hand. The plane made a stopover in Prague but I barely paid attention. When we landed in Newark, I had just finished reading what I considered the best thriller I had ever read. On my return flight to Israel, I read Angels and Demons in its entirety.

Ever since those non-stop reading sessions, I have been enthralled by the novels of Dan Brown. I purchased and eagerly read Deception Point and Digital Fortress. I pounced on The Lost Symbol shortly after it was published.

Now I have just finished reading Inferno. While I no longer read at the speed of flight, I still finished the novel in a very short time. This won't be a review stating how much I enjoyed the book and why. Instead, it's a review of what makes Dan Brown such a successful writer of thrillers.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thrills in Exotic Locations

In the opening action sequence of the James Bond movie, "Skyfall", our hero is racing on a motorcycle after an unnamed assailant through the streets of Istanbul, Turkey. The bikes drive over the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar and then crash through a window into the souk itself, where they speed past startled shopkeepers and shoppers. Eventually they reach the railroad tracks where we witness a fight to the death atop a speeding train.

"Take the shot," the command comes from London and a rifle is fired. James Bond plunges off the train to the river far below. The opening credits of the movie begin to roll across the screen.

Rewind to the motorcycle chase. While most viewers are wondering how 007 manages to stay on the bike as it bounds up stairways and through glass, I am enthralled by the scenery barely glimpsed behind the motorcycles. The minarets of Istanbul's amazing mosques. The exotic attractions and fragrances of the markets. The scenic valley through which the train travels. These scenes of a fascinating city bring back memories of my own visit to Istanbul in the spring of 2010.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Gates of Jerusalem

Jaffa Gate

A small, walled area in the center of Jerusalem contains holy sites revered by followers of the three major monotheistic religions. The Temple Mount, where the First and Second Temples once stood, is now home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The retaining wall of the Temple Mount is known as the Western Wall (formerly the Wailing Wall) and it is the largest outdoor synagogue in the world. And Jesus walked along the Via Dolorosa carrying his cross to his crucifixion. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is considered by many Christians to be where Jesus was buried and the purported site of his resurrection.

The Old City of Jerusalem is without a doubt the most colorful tourist destination in Israel. The narrow passageways of the Arab shuk. The modern housing and reconstructed synagogues of the Jewish Quarter. The wide Cardo street passing on the very stones put into place by the Roman conquerors of the city. The many restaurants, the yeshivot schools, the carcasses of animals hanging from their hooks in tourists' faces, the carpets and olive wood souvenirs in the Christian Quarter. No one can understand Jerusalem's uniqueness without a visit to the Old City.

While people have lived in this area of Jerusalem since early Biblical times, the current walls were constructed in 1538 by Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Legend says that Suleiman's architects mistakenly left Mt. Zion outside the city walls. Mt. Zion is revered as the traditional location of the Last Supper and the burial site of King David.

Join me on a colorful virtual tour of the gates of the Old City. And then visit Jerusalem to see them yourself!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Let Fiction Be Your Passport to the World

I recently finished reading The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, an inspirational love story set in Burma. Admittedly, I don't usually read love stories, and I'm not too keen on inspirational novels either. What fascinated me most about the book was its setting. Burma! Burma - a land of impoverished villages, superstitions, and Eastern values. I really know nothing at all about Burma, yet I was swept away by this novel's descriptions of the country and its people.

This is what I enjoy most about reading. Whenever I pick up a book set in an unusual location I find myself traveling there in my mind. I dive into the customs, history, and cuisine of a place that I imagine based on the narrative and the way the characters interact in that setting. Reading a good book is the perfect way to see the world. I don't read science fiction or fantasy; there is enough in the real world to keep my interest for a long time.

Read the rest of this article on: 
Laurie's Non-paranormal Thoughts and Reviews:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

I Am Fascinated by Jesus

No, not by the central figure of Christianity. I am interested in the Jewish rebel leader who stars in Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan.

There is history and there is belief. As a Jew living in the modern State of Israel, I am putting my beliefs and faith aside and openly stating that I am interested in the historical figure that lived in this land two thousand years ago. There are two hard facts about Jesus of Nazareth. First of all, Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement at a very tumultuous time. The second fact is that Rome crucified Jesus for doing so.

These two facts set the stage for the meticulously researched biography by Reza Aslan, published just last month. Entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, this book challenges many long-held assumptions about the man whose life and teachings form the foundations of Christianity. Aslan is not the first author to consider the case of the historical Jesus, but his jargon-free, unprejudiced, reader-friendly presentation of both Scripture and history will ensure that his message will reach a large lay audience.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Bulgaria, Land of Roses

Bulgarian rose

In central Bulgaria, just south of the Balkan Mountains, is a region famous for its rose-growing industry. Bulgarian roses reportedly produce as much as 85% of the world's rose oil, which is an essential ingredient in the production of perfumes. The soil and climate of what is commonly known as the Valley of Roses help produce some of the most beautiful and oil-rich roses in the world. Rose oil is considered the 'liquid gold' of Bulgaria, due to the high demand for it on the world market.

At the center of the Valley of Roses is a small town by the name of Kazanlak. Following the annual rose petal harvest in May and June, a time when the entire valley is enveloped with the fragrance of roses, Kazanlak stages its well-known Rose Festival. The Rose Queen is crowned and people from all over the country parade in the streets in a colorful display of pageantry and culture.

During our stay in Bulgaria, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit Kazanlak during its Rose Festival. Roses and the rose oil industry also play a role in Valley of Thracians. Enjoy photographs of Bulgarian roses and passages about roses from my suspense novel.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Gourmet Dining in the Jerusalem Shuk

How can you not like a restaurant where the waitresses dance gleefully between the tables?

A recent dining experience at Jerusalem's renovated train station left me wondering if any of the new restaurants popping up all over the city were capable of serving a tasty meal accompanied by courteous service. I didn't have to wait too long to discover a gem on the Jerusalem culinary scene.

During the day, the Mahane Yehuda market is packed with shoppers, shoving their way up the crowded passageways past stalls offering fruits, vegetables, boutique cheeses, spices, fresh fish, household goods, delectable varieties of halvah, meat products, candies, toys, clothing, wines, alcoholic and soft drinks, pickled goods, coffees, teas, ethnic fare, nuts, pitot, bread, and other baked goods. The merchants shout out the going price for watermelon, tomatoes, cherries, peaches, plums, mangos, melons, and cucumbers, competing against each other for audio supremacy. Bags of produce are selected, packed, weighed, and paid for. The stream of customers continues unabated, from morning to night, with peaks of activity ahead of Shabbat and holidays.

Monday, July 29, 2013

A Palestinian Tale Told by a Jewish American

Questions and answers with Michelle Cohen Corasanti, author of The Almond Tree- a story of Palestinian life under Israeli rule with hope for a better future.

I previously posted a review of The Almond Tree, which is being described by some as a Palestinian version of The Kite Runner. The book tells the story of a Palestinian man who grows up under Israeli rule yet despite repeated tragedies, learns to build a better life for his family through education and cooperation with Israelis.

Although possibly difficult for Israelis and Jews everywhere to read, The Almond Tree should be required reading for all as when there is understanding of the other side, peace can be achieved.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hear the Other Side = Review of The Almond Tree

Reading The Almond Tree, a Kite-Runner-like epic of Palestinian life by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, makes you aware of what it's like to exist under Israeli rule.

Put yourself in the shoes of Ichmad Hamid, a young boy growing up in a Palestinian village in the year 1955. No, sorry, that's something you can't do. Ichmad's family, living in a village under Israeli military rule, is so poor that they can't afford shoes for the children. Wearing sandals cut out of discarded tires, Ichmad plays with his brothers and sisters while his father earns a pittance building homes for the Jews in a nearby moshav.

There is an open field near the family's house, close to the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. The Israeli army has planted land mines in the field in efforts to stop infiltrators from crossing the border. But in the eyes of Ichmad's two-year-old sister, the field looks like a great place to play. The result of her frolicking is tragic, setting the stage for other tragedies and misfortunes that will befall the family over the years.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Writing in My Sleep

The other morning, just after 4 a.m., my cat woke me up as she does every morning. She stood at my side of the bed, pacing back and forth and crying, waiting for me to get up and throw her out of the house. I cannot ignore her meows. Cleaning up a mess in the other room is quite a nasty job. So each morning I crawl out of bed, make my way down the stairs, and let her out into the last hours of darkness before the dawn.

Getting back into bed for what I hoped would be another cycle of much needed sleep before the start of the workday, my mind woke up. Visualizing. What I was seeing, in crystal clear clarity, was the next chapter of my work in progress. Dialogue, movement, setting - everything came into place.

I ran downstairs to jot down my notes. I couldn't afford to lose this important epiphany! My next novel was coming together, while I was sleeping!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bulgaria Is One of Europe's Cheapest Tourist Destinations

During the two years that my wife and I lived in Sofia, Bulgaria, we found the country to be extremely affordable. Good food at the restaurants was available at reasonable prices, taxis were cheap, and entries to museums were very inexpensive. We traveled extensively around the country, finding lodgings in comfortable hotels at minimal cost. Of course, we were living the lives of expatriates and average salary levels for working Bulgarians are extremely low. But for tourists, Bulgaria continues to offer so much at a very low cost.

And that was the funny thing - there were hardly any tourists. Okay, there were hordes of vacationers from Russia, Ukraine, and even England on the sandy Black Sea shores, and the ski resorts in the mountains filled up with visitors during the winter months, but in the countryside, in the picturesque villages and the informative ethnographic museums, there were hardly any tourists from outside the country.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The 21 Shekel Tip

How much should you leave on the table when the service is slow and the food is mediocre, but you enjoyed the meal?

Last night my wife and I met with an old friend and dined for the first time at the First Station, located on the tracks of Jerusalem's old railroad station. The setting was beautiful - wooden planks covered the area where we used to board the train on scenic, but aggravatingly slow rail journeys to Tel Aviv and Haifa. Carts and stalls were aligned in readiness for the biweekly farmers' market, and a large drive-in-like screen stood stiff against the evening breeze, waiting for the next free film show.

There are a number of restaurants at the First Station and many of them are also open on the Shabbat. Only one eatery carries a Kashrut certification and that is where we sat down at an outside table with our friend, whom we hadn't seen in 24 years. Nearby, couples, families and the occasional cyclist made their way over the former train tracks. It was a lovely evening for catch-up conversation and what we hoped would be a pleasant meal.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Beauty of Bulgarian Ceramics

During our two year stay in Bulgaria, my wife and I fell in love with Bulgarian ceramics and pottery. The colorful plates, pots, and serving dishes were sold in the markets at very reasonable prices. Restaurants offering traditional Bulgarian food set their tables with the ceramics as part of their standard décor. And many Bulgarians use the ceramic ware in their homes.

It was obvious to us that we would be taking Bulgarian ceramics back home as souvenirs of our stay in the country. On our first trip to the Rila Monastery we stopped in a village, attracted by the display of pottery outside a shop. There we made our first purchase - a blue cooking pot with brown edges and handles, and a lid where the colorful design was repeated. The pot cost 30 Lev (about $20). We used that pot on many occasions in Bulgaria and it has served us well back at home in Israel.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Israeli Secret Agent Saves World, Again

Gabriel Allon, the star of Daniel Silva's thrillers, is called out of retirement once again to embark on another Israeli counter-terrorist mission.

The Fallen Angel, just out in paperback, is the 12th Gabriel Allon spy novel and readers of the series won't be disappointed. As in the previous books, Allon is busy in Europe restoring a famous piece of art. This time he's at the Vatican, working on one of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces.  But he is called away by a friend when the body of a beautiful woman is found on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. While the police suspect suicide, Allon immediately sees that the woman has been murdered.

The investigation into the woman's death is just the first step on a mission that reunites Allon with his former team members in the Israeli intelligence agency referred to only as the Office. Back at headquarters on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv, Allon begins planning an operation against a Swiss antiquities dealer who is secretly funding Hezbollah terrorists.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Water Envy

My wife and I just took a trip down memory lane. Well, actually they were her memories, not mine, but after being married for 35 years, I guess I have adopted them as well.

My wife grew up in Ithaca, New York, and for over three decades she has longed to take me to her old stomping grounds so that I could understand her roots. Somehow she was not very impressed when we visited Sioux City, Iowa, where I had lived until age fifteen before making aliyah.

"Ithaca is much more beautiful," she told me repeatedly. "And there are so many waterfalls."

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Parchment Maze, a Review

The first people to leave lasting traces of their mark on Bulgarian history were the Thracians, who settled in the Balkans in the 8th century BCE. But Bulgaria's ancient history goes back much further. The Copper Age culture that developed in the Varna region (4,400-4,100 BCE), left sophisticated examples of ritual burials, pottery, and the first use of gold on earth. What happened to these ancient people, and why did such a long interval take place between their time and the arrival of the Thracians?

In The Parchment Maze, written by bestselling Bulgarian author Ludmila Filipova and just recently translated into English, archaeologist Vera Kandilova is researching the connection between the origins of Christianity and Orphism, the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Thracians, when she begins to encounter perplexing symbols tied to the prehistoric civilization that mysteriously disappeared from Bulgaria. Could these symbols be indications that proto-writing, the first attempts by mankind to convey information in a written form, actually developed in the Balkans?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How I Found My Editor

After I finished writing, revising, and polishing my manuscript - a suspense novel set in Bulgaria - and after receiving very few responses from the many literary agents I had queried, I decided to take my next step in a completely independent direction. The world of publishing had changed, making it easier than ever to self-publish. I had read the success stories of indie authors and I was convinced that I could follow in their footsteps. 

Before I clicked the submit button to make my novel available to the public, I had to be totally convinced that it was in the best possible shape, free of embarrassing punctuation and  grammar mistakes. I had reviewed the text repeatedly, but I no longer could see sections requiring further revision. I needed the assistance of a professional editor.

How would I find a suitable editor, one who would connect with my fiction and provide professional assistance and advice at a reasonable price?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Stories from the Heart of Israel

I previously posted an interview with Ayelet Tsabari but only now had the chance to read her debut collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth. In that interview I questioned whether an author living in Toronto, writing in English, could be considered an Israeli author. Having read the eleven stories in this collection I have no doubt as to the answer. Not only is Ayelet Tsabari an Israeli author, but her stories are compelling and compassionate; they speak out from the heart of Israeli society and experiences.

In “Tikkun,” the opening story, two former lovers reunite in a Jerusalem café. Lior immediately notices that Natalie has changed. “‘Dossit,’” she says, completing his sentence and confirming the reason why she is “covering her hair, wearing a skirt down to her ankles and a long-sleeved shirt on a summer day.” Seven years since she became religious, he learns, since right after they broke up and went separate ways.

Lior and Natalie had fallen in love during the nineties. “The Gulf War was over, Rabin was elected prime minister and everyone thought peace was possible… Now, more than a decade later, Rabin is dead after being assassinated at a peace really; suicide bombers explode in buses and cafes.”

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Valley of Thracians Selected as Thriller of the Month

Valley of Thracians, my suspense novel set in Bulgaria, was called a "psychologically astute thriller" and selected as a "Thriller of the Month" for June on, a website devoted to reviewing and recommending the best thrillers for Kindles and/or other e-reader devices.

The novel "is a sober, psychologically astute thriller set in an exotic part of the world – ancient civilizations and artifacts, corrupt smugglers and personal flaws and secrets are a potent mix in this one," the website's review said.

The reviewer on the website concluded her review by writing, "We are absorbed in this culture and by the story. Very impressive."

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Aroma of Tel Aviv's Coffee House Culture

I am writing these lines on my laptop as I sip my morning cappuccino. Like many who work in Ramat Gan's Bursa district, my day begins with a cup of steaming hot coffee professionally prepared; there are many coffee shops and cafes in the neighborhood. Some people linger over their coffee, catching up on iPhone messages and answering emails; while others, like me, pull out their laptops and type away, undisturbed by the grinding of coffee beans; the hiss of steam escaping as milk is heated; and the swish of credit cards as orders are recorded.

Go back twenty five years. The fictitious Café Nevo of the Barbara Rogan novel of the same name is the "oldest and certainly the grungiest of the Dizengoff cafés". The coffee shop, originally established by two enterprising Polish brothers, attracts not only common workers, but "writers, actors, and artists who by virtue of their socialist ideology styled themselves members of the proletariat, but who in fact constituted the Tel Aviv elite of their day".

"If they were that good they’d be working,” one of the characters of the novel says of Café Nevo's clientele. “Nobody with any serious work to do hangs out in cafés".

Friday, May 31, 2013

Nothing’s Missing in this Compelling Crime Novel

Let’s start with the title. There is no file missing in The Missing File, the debut novel of D. A. Mishani, which has just been published in English. Rather, this police procedural novel revolves around the case of a missing Israeli teenager. The meaning of the title became clear to me when I considered the original, Hebrew name of the book, ‘Tik Ne’edar‘, which was published in 2011. The book’s title should be stated with an emphasis on the second word. There is a teenager missing, and Detective Avraham Avraham has been assigned to find him.

When the mother of 16-year-old Ofer Sharabi shows up in the Holon police station to report her son missing, Avraham doesn’t see any urgency in the case. “‘There is very little chance that something has happened to your son,’” he tells her. “‘I don’t think there is any point in starting to search for him now,’” he concludes.

The boy doesn’t turn up overnight and the police arrive at the Sharabis’ home to question the mother and her neighbors. Ofer’s father is not yet aware of his son’s disappearance; he is a seaman onboard a ship bound for Trieste.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Scenes from "Valley of Thracians": Plovdiv

My wife and I made two trips to Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. Plovdiv is considered one of the oldest cities in the world, with traces from a Neolithic settlement in the area. It was first a major Thracian city, then a Greek one, and then it was ruled by the Romans.

Plovdiv's modern history began with its liberation from Ottoman rule by the Russian army in 1878. The city was a focal point for the Bulgarian national movement, and Old Plovdiv includes many colorful houses built during that century.

In my suspense novel, Valley of Thracians, the Peace Corps volunteer at the center of the story recalls his visits to Plovdiv.

Plovdiv is a must-see destination on any visit to Bulgaria. Join me today on a virtual visit to Plovdiv, with pictures of some of the locations where scenes from the book take place.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Kindle Author Who Has Never Seen a Kindle

In January, I self-published my suspense novel, selecting to include it in the KDP Select Program and making it available exclusively on Amazon. In the month of March I ran a five-day free promotion, one which resulted, temporarily at least, in the book's achieving bestseller status. Over 8,000 people all over the world downloaded Valley of Thracians to their Kindles, and some of them have actually read the book.

All of those potential readers have seen something that I haven't - what my book looks like on a Kindle device. I don't own a Kindle. I have basically written a book for a medium that I have never seen.