Monday, December 29, 2014

The Stunning Natural Beauty of Montenegro

We really didn't know what to expect when we crossed the border into Montenegro, but we would soon learn that this small, southeastern European country is home to some of the most stunning natural beauty that we have ever seen.

The name of the country in Montenegrin, the local language, is Crna Gora, which means Black Mountain. This is because of the dark, nearly black pine trees that once covered the mountains. Today those slopes are covered with dense green forests overlooking wild mountain rivers and beautiful, clear lakes.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Not supposed to happen in America

Hezbollah and Mossad agents battle it out on the streets of America in Doha 12, a novel inspired by the 2010 assassination in Dubai of Hamas commander Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh.

This time, Hezbollah terrorist Masoud Talhami has been murdered in Doha, Qatar. Twelve people are suspected of involvement in the hit. Their identities are known, yet, the names appearing on their passports actually belong to innocent people. Now Hezbollah seeks revenge for what it assumes to be a Mossad operation.

"If these people let Mossad use their identities, they're part of the same gang," charges Fadi Alayan, leader of the Hezbollah hit team.

One by one, the innocent included among the Doha 12 fall victim to very strange, tragic accidents. Soon there are only a few Americans left. Jake Eldar is a bookstore manager in Brooklyn and Miriam Schaffer is employed as a legal secretary in Philadelphia. United when they realize their lives are endangered, Jake and Miriam can't convince the police that the plot against them is real.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Evening with Sarah Silverman

You either love her or you hate her, but either way you have to admit that the American Jewish comedienne says everything that's on her mind, no matter how vulgar or repulsive it might be.

My evening with Sarah Silverman – it almost sounds like a date. But this was a date I didn't even know was listed on the calendar when my wife sent me an email in the late afternoon. "Did you know that Sarah Silverman is receiving an award at the Jerusalem Cinematheque this evening?" What was the likelihood of getting tickets at the last moment? Amazingly, there were two seats left in the tenth row. On the spur of the moment, I made the purchase.

The occasion was a screening of "Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles", her debut comedy special for HBO. The film, a stand-up routine Sarah performed before an intimate audience of 39 people at L.A.'s Largo nightclub, won her the 2014 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. The film was shown as part of the Jewish Film Festival taking place in Jerusalem. Before the screening, Sarah received an achievement award in recognition of her work in entertainment.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Incident with the Montenegrin Honey Wine

There's so much to see in Montenegro that we felt compelled to take home something special as a souvenir. We bought a bottle of local wine and this is what happened.

Montenegro is a very small country marked by stunning nature. Our travels took us through the Durmitor, a national park with majestic mountains, beautiful lakes, and a deep canyon - the Tara - which we couldn't stop staring at in wonder. We made our way south to stop at the Skadar Lake nature reserve and continued to the coast.

The walled city of Kotor is located along a secluded section of the fjord-like Gulf of Kotor. Many tourists arrive in Kotor by cruise ship, but we came by land. We enjoyed our stroll within the well-preserved medieval old town, seeing the so-called "column of shame" where citizens threw vegetables and eggs at petty criminals; the 17th century clock tower; the Maritime Museum; and the twin-steepled Cathedral of Saint Tryphon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Black Stain on Israel's Environment

A pipe burst in an isolated area of southern Israel last week resulting in an oil leak. No big deal? A very big deal! In what is being described as the "worst ecological calamity in the state’s history," some five million liters of crude oil spilled out to cause serious damage to one of the country's most unique, and less known nature reserves. While images of contaminated, blackened desert riverbeds were shown repeatedly on local television screens, not a single voice of authority stood up to claim responsibility for the disaster.

The pipe belonged to the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) and has been used to transport Asian oil from Israel's southern port city to refineries at Ashkelon. Originally established in 1968 as a joint venture with Iran, EAPC today operates 750 kilometers of pipelines in Israel. A previous spill in 2011 caused extensive damage to the Nahal Zin nature reserve, but that was only 1,000 cubic meters of jet fuel.

This time the spillage was far greater and it is estimated that it will take 50 years to rehabilitate the Evrona nature reserve, located in the Arava region some twenty kilometers north of Eilat. Evrona, a rarely visited stretch of desert lying along the Jordanian border, is barely noticed as motorists speed south to holiday vacations on the Red Sea shore. Evrona is home to both rare deer and the northernmost Egyptian Doum palm trees in the world.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Despite the Headlines, It Is Safe to Visit Israel!

Last Friday morning I scrambled up steep stone steps, set in place nearly five hundred years ago. These were the walls constructed for Suleiman the Magnificent, protecting the ancient, timeless city of Jerusalem. Built on a rocky base that had previously served the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great, the Ottoman walls remain solid even today. Walking atop the ramparts one overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem, holy to three of the world's major religions, and on the other side, the busy, modern thoroughfares.

My wife's first cousin had arrived in Israel, along with six other members of his immediate family. They were on a tour of the country, with plans to visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, a kibbutz, and the Negev Desert in the south. For some of them, it was their first visit ever. They hired a guide and met with people who spoke to them about Israel, its politics, history, society, and culture. On Friday, I accompanied them as they climbed the ancient city walls, and on a visit to the Old City's Jewish Quarter.

Read the rest of this article on The Oslo Times.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Brave New World of The Circle

It's a bit embarrassing to admit, but every day I check how many new followers I have on Twitter; how many Likes my Facebook posts received; and how many pageviews were registered on my blog. I'm not obsessed with being successful on social media, but the more re-tweets, the better. For me, this is just part of my efforts to build my platform as an author.

But imagine, if you will, a world where increasing one's following is more important than anything else. And imagine that in that world, success is measured by the number of Likes, Comments, Tweets, and Favorites you have received. In such a world, all social platforms are combined under one roof. One roof, one circle.

This vision of an all-encompassing social media platform is the future depicted in the novel The Circle by Dave Eggers (Knopf, October 2013).

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why I Write about Bulgaria

It was a cloudy, spring day and my wife and I were sitting on a bench, waiting for the Regional Historical Museum to open its doors for the day. We were in Vratsa, a small town in northwestern Bulgaria, 2-hour's train journey north of Sofia. A statue of 19th century revolutionary Hristo Botev overlooked the pavement, the hero's arm clenched across his chest as if he were about to launch into a fervent call to rebel against the long-gone Ottoman oppressors. A gypsy boy approached us.

The boy mumbled something in Bulgarian, a language we had failed to master despite several meetings with a tutor who emphasized grammar, rather than conversation. The boy held out his hand.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Touring the Dark Side of Tel Aviv

The short story collection Tel Aviv Noir, edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, takes readers on a tour through the city's seedy neighborhoods.

A former police officer escorts visitors to the riverbank where a murdered girl was found in a suitcase; the building where an infamous rapist was caught; and a strip club where a former cop regularly performs in the nude. In "The Tour Guide", a short story by Yoav Katz, the bourgeois Israelis eager to see the grimier side of Tel Aviv are people with full-time jobs, children, and a bit of free time. They are looking for thrills and are willing to be shocked that such crimes take place in Israel. "Fear and sanctimoniousness are a profitable combination"; the tours attract large crowds.

Readers of Tel Aviv Noir, Akashic Books (September, 2014) will feel that they have joined one of these tours. The short stories included in this anthology explore prostitution, drugs, alcohol abuse, gambling, and murder. Like the rest of the series launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir, each of the stories here is set in a distinct Tel Aviv neighborhood. A map is provided at the beginning, showing Florentin, Rothschild Boulevard, Neve Sha'anan, Dizengoff Center, and the other locations where the stories take place.

The collection opens with "Sleeping Mask" by Gadi Taub, author of the novel Allenby Street, which was made into a popular Israeli television show. At age 49, Taub is the oldest of the 14 authors who contributed an original story specifically for the book. "Sleeping Mask" tells of a woman who descends into prostitution to pay off her father's gambling debts, and of the older man who falls in love with her.

While most of the book's 14 stories were originally written in Hebrew , one of the exceptions is "Swirl", by Norwegian journalist Silje Bekeng. This story, written from the perspective of a foreign diplomat's wife, tells of the ex-pat life in a luxury apartment on Rothschild at a time when social protesters have set up camp on the boulevard below. Paranoia of someone spying on the woman's life and fruit bats flying through the summer skies make this tale exceptionally enjoyable.

Tel Aviv Noir was edited by two of Israel's most well-known literary voices. Etgar Keret, author of five story collections; three children's books; and three graphic novels; contributed "Allergies", about a couple who adopt a dog and ends up doing increasingly strange things to take care of the pet. Assaf Gavron, author of the recently published novel The Hilltop, wrote the concluding story - "Center", about a murder at a high tech start-up with offices at Dizengoff Center, and the amateur detectives who are hired to solve the crime. The goal of the anthology, according to its editors, was to introduce a younger generation of Israeli writers to English-speaking audiences.

“In spite of its outwardly warm and polite exterior, Tel Aviv has quite a bit to hide," Keret says in the introduction to the book.  Keret assures readers that "Tel Aviv is a lovely, safe city. Most of the time, for most of its inhabitants. But the stories in this collection describe what happens the rest of the time, to the rest of its inhabitants."

Noir fiction can be defined as literature dealing with victims, suspects and perpetrators. Gavron says the stories of this book are not classic noir, but rather detail a dark element in the city. "I think Tel Aviv deserves its status as an interesting city, with culture and literature and with noir as well as everywhere in the world," he said in an interview with the Jewish Book Council.

Tel Aviv Noir reveals a side of the city that most residents and visitors never see. Readers interested in exploring the dark side of Tel Aviv will be fascinated by these short pieces of noir literature.

Buy Tel Aviv Noir and read it now!

Originally published at The Times of Israel.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Secret to Being a Productive Writer

It rained the other day in Israel. This is an event in itself, because the country goes through a very long, hot, dry summer. When the first rains of the new wintery season arrive, they have a special name - they are called the "Yoreh", as this heavy precipitation literally shoots down from the sky. The rainfall is welcomed by farmers and umbrella salesmen, but it occasionally causes flash floods, not only in Israel's southern desert, but also in the streets and neighborhoods of Tel Aviv.

After one of the season's first storms, my house lost its Internet connection. I stayed home from work the next day awaiting the technician who would come to check out the problem. Sitting at my computer with no online news, Facebook, Twitter, or email to distract me, I ended up accomplishing quite a bit. I made great strides in the editing of my novel, wrote a book review, and finalized a travel article.

In short, not having an Internet connection made me, at least for that morning, a very productive writer! Yet, my creative muse quickly ran out. I began to get itchy, worrying about what was happening in the world. What was the latest news? Were there important email messages awaiting my attention? Did someone tweet to me? From being a very productive writer in the morning, I became a very unproductive writer in the afternoon. Give me back my Internet!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Hebrew-Speaking Bedouin I Met in the Middle of the Jordanian Desert

I traveled to the stunning ancient Nabatean city of Petra in southern Jordan, across the border from the kibbutz where I had lived for seven years.

My wife and I were founding members of Kibbutz Yahel in Israel's Arava Valley, and we lived there starting in the late 1970s. Our home was near the border with Jordan, and even though it was a peaceful border, it was not one we could cross. Israel and Jordan were still technically at war. It was only in 1994 that Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. The peace between the countries allowed Israelis to visit Jordan, and one of the sites I had longed to see for some time was Petra, capital of the Nabatean traders from the 3rd century BCE.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Beer Made from Hummus

beer made from hummus
Imagine this. You walk into a Tel Aviv hummusiya, order hummus and pitot, and to drink, you select the most appropriate beverage to accompany the meal - beer made from hummus. This unique ale would perfectly compliment Israel's fast food, according to Bryan Meadan, brewer of the world's only chickpea ale.

And, hummus beer is gluten free, making it suitable to anyone with a restricted diet.

"One of the things I missed was beer," Meadan says, having been diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2006. A resident of Har Halutz who made aliyah from Montreal via California back in 1982, Meadan searched the Internet for information how to brew his own gluten-free beer. He began experimenting with different materials and finally honed in on buckwheat (kusemet in Hebrew), a plant grown for its grain-like seeds not related to regular wheat.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Life in the Wild, Wild, West Bank

In Assaf Gavron's novel The Hilltop, an illegal settlement in the West Bank is home to Jewish settlers safe from the threat of evacuation thanks to a "hodgepodge of laws and conflicting authorities."

The settlement is called Maale Hermesh C, an extension of Maale Hermesh A and Maale Hermesh B which doesn't appear on official maps. Considered by the government to be illegal, and a thorn in Israel's relations with the United States, the outpost has so far escaped evacuation because the required resources in the defense establishment are occupied elsewhere.

This hilltop outpost has attracted a handful of colorful, very believable characters. Bearded veteran Othniel Assis has established a vegetable farm that may, or may not be situated on privately owned Palestinian land. Gavriel Nehustan and Roni Kupper, orphaned brothers who grew up on a kibbutz, have arrived at the outpost for completely different reasons - one has experienced a religious awakening and the other has become penniless after pursuing a career in Tel Aviv nightlife and New York finance. There are women settlers as well, including right-wing patriot Neta Hirschson and Russian-born math teacher Jenia Freud.

The outpost's residents raise families, celebrate the Jewish holidays, bring baked goods to the Israeli soldiers who guard their homes, remodel part of their kindergarten to be used as a synagogue, fall in love, and protest the occasional visit of Israeli politicians. In short, they live normal lives in what can be best described as an absurd, off-the-map place to live.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Reading in the Dark

"Lights out!"

When I was a young boy, this parental request meant an end to my nightly reading adventures, whether they be solving mysteries with the Hardy Boys or traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea with Jules Verne. In those days, I was obedient to a fault. The lights in my bedroom invariably went out at chapter's end. I never read books by flashlight because I could barely breathe under the covers.

Four decades later and my reading preferences and habits have changed. Now, the words "Lights out" declared in my conjugal bedroom signal a start to the night's literary activities. My wife and I fire up our tablets, turn off the lights, and start reading in the dark.

I teamed up with Maggie James, Bristol-based author of psychological novels including Sister, Psychopath, His Kidnapper's Shoes, and Guilty Innocence, to raise the question of what is better for late-night reading in the digital age. A dedicated e-reader or an all purpose tablet?

What is your preferred method of reading in the dark?

Read the rest of this article on Maggie James Fiction.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Would You Jump Off This Bridge If Someone Paid You?

As we crossed the picturesque bridge in Mostar, a young man in a bathing suit was resting on the rails. He waited patiently, as if he had all the time in the world. All that it would take to get him to dive into the waters of the Neretva River 24 meters below was 25 euros, but the tourists walking across the bridge didn't want to donate money to see his feat.

The bridge in Mostar, one of the most recognizable landmarks in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this despite the fact that it's actually a reconstruction of a 16th century Ottoman bridge. The original Stari Most, as it is called, was destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War.

Read the rest of this article on The Huffington Post.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Searching for Identity Elsewhere

In his novel, Elsewhere, Israeli-Austrian writer Doron Rabinovici raises questions of identity and belonging, Europe and Israel.

Ethan Rosen, an Israeli-born lecturer at the Vienna Institute for Social Research, returns to Israel to attend the funeral of a long-time family friend, but declines an offer to write the friend's obituary. But when an obituary appears, written by Rudi Klausinger, a colleague up for the same professorship position at a prestigious Viennese university, Rosen is quick to compose an article disputing statements Klausinger included in the piece.

Except, the arguments to which Rosen objects are actually quotes from an article he had himself previously published. In essence, he engaged in a dispute with his own writing. And then a cassette arrives, stories and instructions from the dead friend relayed from beyond the grave. Rosen is called back to Israel once again when his father, an Auschwitz survivor, becomes ill, in desperate need for a kidney transplant. Klausinger shows up as well, in search for his biological father.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The First Time I Drank Rakia

My wife and I arrived in Sofia in early 2009 at the start of a two-year job relocation. We had never before lived in Europe, had never previously lived in a big city. We looked forward to the possibilities of travel and new experiences and were quite excited as we began our Bulgarian adventure.

A heavy snowfall greeted my wife when she flew into Sofia, and we realized our adventures would have to wait. We settled into a daily routine of working, shopping, laundry, cooking, and living ordinary lives in a strange and unfamiliar country. Still, we were eager to venture out from our apartment and begin our explorations.

Just around the corner from where we lived I discovered a very small chef's restaurant, called The Golden Apple. On my way home at the end of one of our first work weeks, I stopped in and made dinner reservations. It was Friday night and it would be good to go out.

The waiter brought menus to our table, and we asked for the English version. Realizing that we were newcomers to the country, the waiter asked, "Have you ever tried rakia?"

Read the rest of this article on Eat Stay Love Bulgaria.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Radicalism That Threatens Israel

In The War on Women in Israel, Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman asks why Israel's government has constantly sided with an extreme version of Judaism.

An outsider reading this extensively researched review of the way women are treated in the modern Jewish State might think that the author was describing Alabama of the 1950s. With women segregated to the back of certain public bus lines; prevented from singing in the Knesset and banned from some official ceremonies; and forbidden to pray according to their beliefs at Judaism's holiest site; it would seem that Israeli society is suffering from a severe case of gender discrimination.

"The cold, hard reality facing woman in Israel today is that while Israel has made certain strides for women's rights, it has not achieved the mission for which it was created. It is not equal for all, regardless of gender," Sztokman says. But what is more alarming, in her opinion, is that "there is a growing faction of Israelis who are threatening not only equal rights for women, but also their fundamental freedoms and their presence in society."

What follows is a report from the battlefield, detailing the war against women in the Israeli army, on the buses, in the courts, and on the streets of the country. The combatants on one side of the conflict are, initially, religious feminists. Their enemy is not just the ultra-Orthodox extremists who abuse them verbally and physically; the problem, the author states, is much greater.  Sztokman's book sets out to tell how these feminists, and their allies, are "protecting the world from the spread of religious extremism."

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Israel is a mistake (not)

Eight years after suggesting that Israel was an "honest" mistake, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen's follow-up book shows that his love for Israel prevails.

Israel "is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable," Cohen wrote in a July, 2006, column. "The idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now."

Stating that there was no point in condemning the fetid anti-Semites of Hamas and Hezbollah, Cohen suggested that Israel "pull back to defensible -- but hardly impervious -- borders. That includes getting out of most of the West Bank -- and waiting (and hoping) that history will get distracted and move on to something else."

Referring to that article repeatedly in his new book, Israel: Is It Good for the Jews? (Simon & Schuster, September 2014), Cohen explains that "the word 'mistake' was itself a mistake." The mistake, he simplifies, was the "belief that somehow the Arab Middle East would politely make way for European Jews."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Writer and Friend of Bulgaria

The first email that I received from Knigi News, a website devoted to Bulgarian books and authors, had the word "Inquiry" listed in Bulgarian as its subject, and the message it contained was simply "Do you speak Bulgarian, Mr. Shuman?"

This was the start of my correspondence with Bulgarian author Stoyan Valev (When God Was On Leave; Time To Be Unfaithful; The Bulgarian Decameron). He wrote to me in Bulgarian and I responded in English. At some point, Google Translate failed to correctly relate our messages, as Valev assumed that I was married to a Bulgarian woman who would help me with translations.

The following is my interview published on Knigi News. The questions were given to me in Bulgarian and I wrote my answers in English. I am sincerely grateful to friends who helped me with translations to enable this interview. I must admit that what pleased me most was the description of my image that accompanied the article. The caption was: "Ellis Shuman, writer and friend of Bulgaria".

Monday, September 15, 2014

From Bulgaria to the Promised Land, Brazil

Escaping from internment in a Bulgarian labor camp during World War Two, a Jewish man makes a better life for his family in the Amazon.

One of the earliest memories that Licco Hazan retains from his childhood is the assassination attempt on Bulgarian ruler Tsar Boris III, a bombing which destroyed the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral in downtown Sofia in 1925. Licco, a member of a proud Jewish family, traced his origins to Toledo in Spain, five hundred years earlier. His grandfather was the cantor at the Sofia Synagogue, a profession which gave the family their name. Life was not easy for the Hazans at the beginning of the 20th century, nor was it an easy time for Bulgaria. Things would get much harder.

In 1941, Bulgaria joined the Axis and officially entered World War II. Under pressure from Germany, the fascists who took control of Bulgaria planned to deport the country's Jews to the concentration camps in Poland. Bulgarian citizens and clergy rose up in protest, thwarting these plans. Still, Licco Hazan and his brother were rounded up and interned in a labor camp, where they were given back-breaking tasks.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Israeli Actor Moni Moshonov Stars in Oscar-Bound Bulgarian Film

Moni Moshonov
The film Bulgarian Rhapsody, a Bulgarian-Israeli production directed by Ivan Nichev, was selected by  Bulgaria's National Council for Cinema to be its country's contender in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscar Academy Awards. The film, detailing the rescue of Bulgaria's Jewish citizens during World War Two, stars Israeli actor Moni Moshonov

Moshonov, who was born in Sofia in 1951 and moved to Israel with his family at the age of four, is well known for his hosting of the popular satirical TV show Zehu Ze!, first on Israeli Educational Television and then on Channel 2. In addition to his many comic roles, Moshonov has appeared frequently on the stage in Cameri, Habima and Beit Lessin theatrical productions. His film roles include Hatuna Meuheret (Late Marriage, 2001), for which he won the Israeli Film Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Moshonov's role in Bulgarian Rhapsody is his first in a Bulgarian language film.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Couldn't Believe What I Saw Out My Sarajevo Hotel Window

My wife and I arrived in Sarajevo in June, as part of our tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were eager to visit a city rich in history, culture, and religious diversity.

Our trip to Sarajevo coincided with the one hundred year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria - the shot that sparked World War I. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984; the city suffered heavily while under siege during Bosnia's war for independence, 1992-1995. The Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript dating to the 14th century and considered the most valuable book in the world is housed in Bosnia's National Museum, which has been closed since late 2012 due to lack of funding. So much history!

Before we had a chance to see the city, we enjoyed a cultural experience that took us quite by surprise. Who would have imagined that the most colorful part of our visit to the Bosnian capital would be seen by looking out our hotel window?

Read the rest of the article on The Huffington Post.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Interview with Bulgaria Now

I was invited by Lance Nelson to be a guest on his weekly podcast show, Bulgaria Now. Lance is the founder of the extremely successful Bansko Blog. The Bansko Blog reflects Lance's passion for Bulgaria, for its outdoor life, the mountains, and in particular, the winter ski season. The blog also posts articles on topics ranging from property ownership in Bulgaria, to Lance's travels around the country.

In my Bulgaria Now interview, I talk about my book, Valley of Thracians, my experiences in Bulgaria and what it was like to be under rocket attack in Israel.

In addition, I field a range of random questions. Listen to the podcast and you'll learn what excites me, what book I am looking forward to reading, and whether I am a beer person or a wine person. Enjoy!

You can listen to all the Bulgaria Now podcasts by clicking here. Subscribe to all the podcasts on Soundcloud, iTunes, Overcast or Stitcher.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

10 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Bulgaria

Bulgaria? Why visit Bulgaria? Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with majestic mountains, sandy beaches, picturesque villages, good food, and hospitable people. And, it's incredibly affordable.

If you don't know anything about Bulgaria, here are ten reasons you should visit.

1. Roses - Bulgarian roses are not only stunningly beautiful, but a major export item as well. The petals reportedly produce as much as 85% of the world's rose oil, an essential ingredient in the production of perfumes. Gathering the roses is very labor intensive. Visit the country in May and June to see the colorful harvest.

Read the rest of this article on The Huffington Post.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Bringing Gilad Shalit home

The Negotiator by Gershon Baskin offers a behind the scenes look at the negotiations that brought Israel's soldier home from Hamas captivity.

On June 25, 2006, Palestinian terrorists made their way through a tunnel from the Gaza Strip and attacked an IDF post near the border. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and another two were wounded; two of the Palestinians were also killed. Gilad Shalit*, lightly injured in the attack, was dragged back into Gaza through the tunnel.

This scenario sounds eerily familiar, after the recent attempts by Hamas terrorists to penetrate into Israel and strike at army posts and kibbutzim, actions which led to the loss of several Israeli lives. During Operation Protective Edge, it was believed Hamas was striving to achieve a "quality" attack, in which they could kidnap Israeli soldiers for use as future bargaining chips.

When Gilad was captured, Dr. Gershon Baskin, founder of an Israeli-Palestinian think tank and veteran of peace process talks, immediately launched informal talks with Hamas officials. In particular, Baskin communicated with Ghazi Hamad - initially the spokesperson for the Hamas government and its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. With Israel and Hamas refusing to openly negotiate with each other, the two believed that they could help compose the principles that would lead to a prisoner exchange between the sides.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Incident with My Wife's Birthday Present

I asked my wife one week before her birthday what she would like to receive as a gift. "Perfume," was her reply.

A few days later, my wife called me to say that she had just purchased her birthday present, and hoped that this was okay with me.

I felt relieved, knowing that I would not have been able to select a suitable scent. Perfume comes in a wide variety of fragrances; it's something that one should choose for oneself, I thought. (Author's note: my wife and I have a stable enough marriage that surprising each other with gift selection is not necessary. Birthdays are a time to celebrate; after all, it's the thought that counts.)

"I put it in the computer room," she informed me that evening. And that's the last I thought about the purchase. Little did I know, at the time, what would happen to that bottle of perfume.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Murder in the Invisible City

The Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn is a closed society, but the brutal murder there of a pregnant woman is a story that must be told.

Rebekah Roberts, a stringer for one of New York's daily newspapers, is assigned to report from the scrap yard where the woman's body has been found. Immediately she confronts religious residents who refuse to talk. She realizes that it may prove difficult to uncover what happened to the victim.

Although Jewish by birth, Rebekah is not observant and knows little about the Hasidim or their customs. Teamed up with a NYPD detective, who wears a yarmulke in order to fit in with the community, yet drives on the Sabbath, Rebekah also begins to track down her mother, who she hasn't seen since the woman abandoned her when she was a child.

The murder investigation seems to have stalled; it isn't following "normal avenues". Could it be that there is a cover-up and people know more than what they are saying? Is it possible that the Shomrim, the community's self-appointed "guardians" have taken matters into their own hands?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Very Real Question Asked in "The Lie"

The Lie by Hesh Kestin
If you are morally opposed to the use of torture during interrogations, how far would you go if a loved one's life was at stake?

Cigarettes abound on the pages of The Lie, the new suspense novel by Hesh Kestin. There are cigars as well, and a trail of butts left by Hezbollah terrorists. Almost all of the characters in this book smoke, and those who don’t, get smoke blown in their faces. Or lit butts held to their chests.

Dahlia Barr, a controversial human rights attorney who regularly defends Palestinians in Israeli courtrooms is offered a position she finds hard to refuse. She transfers to the police force to serve as Special Adviser for Extraordinary Measures, where she will be able to prevent the torturing of suspects during interrogations.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Voices of Reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Guest Post by Vanessa Thevathasan

August 4 2014: As the violence continues, there are grassroots organisations in Israel and Palestine that are working to build peace. One such example is Parents Circle-Families Forum. The organisation has bought together more than 600 Palestinian and Israeli families, all of whom have lost an immediate family member to the conflict, to call for peace and reconciliation.

Out of war and the human tragedy it inevitably entails, the Parents Circle-Families Forum is working to bring families together to amplify the call for the immediate cessation to the conflict.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Casualty of War: Patience to Hear the Other Side

I have a young Facebook friend. I won't mention where she's from, but like me, she is an author, struggling to establish herself in the vast world of publishing in efforts to market her book. And like me, she had been willing to reach out and connect with a resident of a distant country, despite the vast differences between us in age, religion, gender, and nationality.

Today, I informed this Facebook friend that I need to disconnect from her for awhile. This is because she asked me if I was sad about the genocide in Gaza. And she also sent me horrific images of dead children, declaring there could be no justification, whatsoever, for the massacres taking place there on a daily basis. (Her words.) When I sent her an article written by an author from her country, stating that there were two sides to the current conflict, she refused to hear my side, the Israeli side.

I did not un-friend my author friend, as others might have, but clearly, there is a failure to communicate here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

There's 'A Possibility of Violence' in Holon

Inspector Avraham Avraham is back. Following the trauma and failure of his previous case, Avraham took some time away from the Holon Police department to be with his girlfriend in Belgium. Upon his return to the interrogations room, chills go through his body. He feels like he is "leaping from a cliff into a stormy sea, with no preparations."

An explosive device has been found in a suitcase next to a day care center in a quiet neighborhood. A suspect is being held, but not enough evidence connects the man to the crime, and he is released. Avraham learns that threats have been made to the woman in charge of the center, but she never reported them and doesn't admit to them now. Avraham feels that there is more to this case than what meets the eye.

He begins to suspect an older man, a father of two whose wife is apparently overseas. This man is making travel plans; Avraham fears that the suspect is not only escaping from the scene of his crime, but that he has very dangerous intentions once he gets to his destination. Acting on his gut instincts, Avraham pursues this lead, convinced that he has uncovered something far more serious than the suitcase found near the day care center.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

War Drains Your Creativity

There is so much more I could say to support Israel's war against the terrorists. I could justify the use of force, argue for the right to self defense, but not now. I will not use these lines to mourn the lives of Israeli soldiers, or the horrific loss of life among the Palestinian civilian population. I will not ponder the possibilities for peace between the sides. This is not that article.

I cannot claim to be suffering. Lives have been lost, homes destroyed, but I'm okay. While there have been rocket attacks and sirens that have sent me running for cover, the dangers have been minimal. I live in a community far from the front. From my backyard I can hear the distant thunder of the Israeli army's artillery as it pounds into Gaza, and the boom of an occasional rocket interception overhead, but I live in relative safety.

Still, this war is affecting me. I find it hard to concentrate, to come up with new ideas, or to revise old ones. As a writer currently editing a new novel, I cannot escape what is happening and dive into my writing wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Where I Stand on the War in Gaza

I really didn't want to write this article. I prefer to blog about why people should visit Israel, and how beautiful and peaceful the country is. I prefer to write travel reports, book reviews and articles offering advice to my fellow aspiring writers. But today, things are a bit different and I feel the need to tell readers where I stand.

The simple fact is that my country is at war. We are fighting a deadly battle with terrorists - terrorists who seek to kill as many Israelis as they can and who don't hesitate to fire rockets and crawl through tunnels to prove that this is indeed their intention. As an Israeli, I believe my country is fighting a just war to protect and defend our homes, to ensure our very right to live.

Unfortunately, most of the world doesn't see things the same way. Israel is castigated by the media and violent riots have broken out all over Europe. Even the United States and the United Nations, while acknowledging Israel's right to self defense, declare that Israel must cease its fire because too many Palestinians have been killed.

It is in the context of this war, and the world's criticism of my country, that I feel obliged to state where I stand, to tell the truth about what is happening, and to let readers know what I believe. With these words, I speak only for myself, but I believe many other Israelis feel the same way.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Driving through Gaza City at Midnight

I remember that the streets were very narrow, very dark. The mosques were empty and the stores had their shutters down. It was quiet; there was no one about in the middle of the night. And, I remember feeling very safe, sitting in the back seat of an Israeli army jeep driving through Gaza City, even while wearing the green uniform that identified me as an IDF soldier.

This was long ago, in the late 1970s, when I was doing my three years of conscripted service in the army. Some ten years after Israel captured the Gaza Strip in the Six Day War, the area was mostly peaceful. Israeli soldiers had frequently fought Palestinian militants based in Gaza, but when I arrived, I really didn't have anything to fear.

My short stay in Gaza happened before there were any Israeli settlements there. It was before the violence of the first Intifada, and almost 30 years before Israel dismantled its settlements as part of the unilateral disengagement plan.

Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, Canada, and many other countries, took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. From its Gaza base, Hamas continued to launch terrorist operations targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians. More than 1,200 rockets have been fired into Israel since the start of the latest outbreak of hostilities.

As I write these lines, Israeli forces are on the ground in Gaza; an Israeli soldier lost his life overnight.

With my father at an army base; I was apparently on guard duty at the time.

I had no fears at all entering Gaza as a teenager serving in the Israeli army. At the time, Gaza was just another Palestinian area under Israeli control, raising no unusual concerns. It was an era of peaceful coexistence. My family had visited Jericho and freely driven through Ramallah and Nablus on our travels in Israel. My father used to take a daily bus trip via Hebron on his way to a job in Beer Sheva. Workers from Bethlehem came every day to their jobs in Jerusalem. Israelis shopped in the markets of Tulkarm and Kalkilya. Gaza was just as quiet as these other cities and towns.

I must clarify that I did not serve in the army as a combat soldier. Due to a lowered physical profile, I served most of my time in uniform at a medical supply base in the center of Israel. The rest of my service in the Nahal army branch was devoted to establishing a new kibbutz in Israel's southern desert.

It was a bit exciting for me to be part of an army unit setting up a new base in the Gaza Strip, not far from the Mediterranean Sea. I'm not sure today, where exactly this base was located, but at the time, I remember it being on a desolate hill, surrounded by sand dunes. There were no Palestinian homes or fields in sight. The prefabricated buildings had never been used before. Water arrived daily in a tanker truck. A noisy generator provided electricity in the mess hall.

We served many shifts of guard duty at the base, although it wasn't clear what we were guarding against. One dark night, when the stars seemed to be swallowed by an unfamiliar sky, a shot rang out. One of the soldiers had heard a suspicious noise and, in an infringement of standing orders, had quickly fired. It was just a mule, grazing nearby; the animal escaped unscathed. That single, misguided shot was probably the scariest thing of my entire army service.

My sisters, Debby and Judy, came to visit me at the base.

For some reason, I gravitated into an administrative position. My job was to go out each morning and list the activities of my fellow soldiers, who were busy stretching lengths of barbed-wire fencing, something we called concertina, to protect the base. Even though I was far from being an officer, I felt a bit haughty in my clerical duty. It gave me a chance to talk to the other soldiers, and kept me from participating in the manual work.

One morning I approached the sharp barbs of the fencing, ready to list the names of the soldiers in my notebook. I don't recall exactly how it happened, but I fell against the fence, deeply gashing the palm of my hand. As I held a cloth against the blood, I hurried back to the base's office to get bandaged.

All my life I've had a problem seeing blood, especially when it's pouring out of a wound in my body. Arriving in the office, I saw a mass of red on my hand. I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the linoleum floor, with a damp cloth pressed against my forehead. But, I couldn't see much of anything else. As I fainted, I had landed on my glasses, breaking one of the lenses.

I was sent north, away from the Gazan base. I hurried to an optician to fix my glasses. After a brief vacation, I was reassigned to the medical supply unit. I would never return to the Gaza Strip.

This all sounds so trivial now, when young Israeli soldiers are fighting in Gaza, endangering their lives so that the citizens of Israel, including me, can live in security, without the fear of rockets falling from the sky. Maybe someday, the Gaza Strip will be free of Hamas, offering a chance of peaceful coexistence. Maybe one day, it will again be possible to drive safely through the streets of Gaza City at midnight.

With my mother; this time I'm in dress uniform at a different base.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Yesterday Evening, Hamas Fired Rockets at My House

I was driving home from work yesterday with music playing on the radio when the announcer broke into the broadcast with urgent messages. "Red Alert in Jerusalem; Red Alert in Beit Shemesh; Red Alert in Maale Adumim." A 'Red Alert' notification indicates that a rocket has been launched from the Gaza Strip and is bound for part of Israel, warning citizens in that area to run for their bomb shelter or safe room. The announcer continued to list communities endangered by the incoming rockets. "Red Alert in Abu Gosh; Red Alert in Nataf; Red Alert in Neve Ilan."

Neve Ilan! That is the name of my small community in the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem. While I couldn't hear it while driving on the highway, an air raid siren had sounded in Neve Ilan and other places nearby. My wife went to sit in our stairwell, as with the lack of any other shelter, it is supposedly the safest area of our house. And then she heard booms.

The rockets launched from Gaza were intercepted in the sky over our area by Israel's Iron Dome air defense system. The Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets at Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Jerusalem, and even at Haifa. But when the rockets exploded in the sky over my home, it was a bit frightening, to say the least.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How My Debut Huffington Post Article Went Viral

The first article I wrote and published on The Huffington Post has been "liked" as of this moment by 14,753 readers. It has been shared on Facebook 3,605 times and tweeted 225 times. In addition, the unauthorized (but very much appreciated) translation of the article into Bulgarian has been read in that language by 10,717 people.

I can't believe that my debut Huffington Post went viral!

My article was titled "10 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Bulgaria" and the response was overwhelming. Fellow authors asked me how I managed to get published at the Huffington Post. Bulgarians praised my positive insights about their country. And others, including myself, were astounded at how viral this article became.

How did all this come about?

I had been thinking about blogging on The Huffington Post for some time. In addition to posting book reviews on The Times of Israel and writing articles offering advice to other aspiring authors, I enjoy writing about my travels, both in Israel and abroad. I felt that blogging on The Huffington Post would be a good outlet for my writing, as well as help establish my platform as an author.

The unauthorized Bulgarian translation of my article also went viral.

If you're interested in writing a blog at The Huffington Post you must pitch your idea to them. There is a link on the website, but before you send off your proposal, make sure that you are familiar with the way posts appear there. The first step is having quality content, and then it should be presented in an easy-to-read fashion, complete with appealing images. And, most important of all, you must have a catchy title for the story.

As soon as my article was published, I began to tweet about it, as well as share it with my contacts in Bulgaria. But then, the article began to take on a life of its own. Before I knew it, the number of "likes" on the page had skyrocketed. Readers shared the article with their friends. It appeared on numerous news feeds before I even had a chance to share it myself on Facebook.

The article generated interest in the highest echelons of European politics. Among others, my article was tweeted by:

* The president of the European Chess Union
* The former Vice Prime Minister / Defense Minister of Bulgaria
* The European Union's Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

In addition, hundreds of ordinary Bulgarians read the article, in English as well as in their native language. Many of them contacted me and thanked me for writing a positive review of their country.

I was quite shocked by the success of this article. It certainly gives me the motivation to begin writing my next travel blog article, although, I doubt it will see as much social media sharing.

If you haven't yet read my article, click now to "10 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Bulgaria". As I finish writing these lines, the number of "likes" has reached 14,800. But by the time you click through, it might be higher still.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On the Trail of the Sarajevo Haggadah

How an illuminated manuscript inspired me to travel to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I first learned of the Sarajevo Haggadah when I read the novel, People of the Book, by Australian-born author Geraldine Brooks. The book, inspired by a true story, tells the harrowing journey through the ages of a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript. This colorful holy book was spared destruction during World War Two when it was saved by an Islamic scholar and hidden in a village mosque. Its history goes back even further, to 14th century Spain and Venice.

The novel fascinated me. It was also exciting to learn that one of the characters in the story, a member of the partisans fighting against the Nazis, was based on a true person, the mother of one of the members of the moshav where I live near Jerusalem.

I couldn't stop thinking about Sarajevo, a city famous for its cultural religious diversity.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Taking an Organized Tour in Europe

The bus stopped shortly after we crossed the border for a much needed coffee break. Actually, it was the second time we had crossed from Croatia into Bosnia and Herzegovina after landing in Dubrovnik early that morning. We had traveled a short distance up the Croatian coast only to find ourselves with a twenty-kilometer stretch of Bosnian coastline before entering Croatia once again. As our destination for the day was Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, we needed to cross the border one more time.

It sounds a bit confusing - so many border crossings in such a short distance. Luckily, I didn't have to worry about a thing. My wife and I were on an organized tour. Our guide handled the passports and border police, and our driver followed the planned route toward Sarajevo.

This was the first time that we had ever taken an organized tour, and we weren't sure what to expect. I love to plan our travel adventures - researching hotels, routes, and places to explore. But this time, we were visiting three countries, with three different currencies, and many border crossings. I decided to forego driving for one week and enjoy the ride. I would soon discover that there are advantages and disadvantages to taking an organized tour in Europe.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Why I'm Going to Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina - a tiny country in southeastern Europe. What do you know about the country? Would you ever think of traveling there?

I have traveled a lot over the years. I have been to Las Vegas, London, and Hong Kong. I lived for two years in Bulgaria, using that country as a base for excursions into Serbia, Romania, Macedonia, and Turkey. I have explored Amsterdam, Prague, Madrid, and Budapest. I have walked the streets of Macau, taken the subway in New York.

So, why I am I so keen on traveling to Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Monday, June 16, 2014

About that Missing Atomic Bomb…

Whatever happened to that extra atomic bomb manufactured by South Africa before it voluntarily dismantled its nuclear missile program? Why did the King and Prime Minister of Sweden go missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle in June 2007? And most importantly, what are the odds that an illiterate born in a Soweto shack would grow up and one day find herself in a potato truck with said atomic bomb, the missing monarch, and the prime minister?

The answer is one in 45,766,212,810.

This, according to the calculations of the aforementioned illiterate herself.

This is the premise for The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (Ecco Press, April 2014) by Jonas Jonasson, the international bestselling author of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. The new novel is written in the same lighthearted satirical voice as the previous book.

Friday, June 13, 2014

How I Crashed Not One, But Three Eritrean Weddings

Rehov HaNevi'im (Prophets Street) is one of the most beautiful streets in Jerusalem, with historic buildings and cultural delights in an area often overlooked by visitors to the city. There's the Italian Hospital, built in 1914, which now houses offices of the Ministry of Education. There's the nearby Musrara neighborhood, once one of the city's slums sitting on the Jordanian border and now attracting artists and the middle class. There's the Russian Compound, with the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church built in 1860, and Jerusalem Police headquarters. And there is Ethiopia Street.

Ethiopia Street - a winding, picturesque lane that was once home to Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man responsible for reviving the Hebrew language in the modern era. The main attraction on this lane is the Ethiopian Church, a walled compound built in stages between 1874 and 1901. At its center stands a round church, modeled on churches in Ethiopia.

My visit to the Ethiopian Church on a Saturday afternoon coincided with a wedding. No, not just one wedding, but three. And the wedding parties were not Ethiopian at all! The exquisitely attired brides and grooms were from Eritrea!

Where is Eritrea and what are throngs of young Eritreans wearing fancy clothing doing in an Ethiopian church in Jerusalem?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Read "Searching for Seinfeld" for Free

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld played a small, but crucial role in Israel's history. Like many other idealistic youth who later became well-known celebrities - including Bob Hoskins, Sacha Baron Cohen, Sigourney Weaver, and Helen Mirren - Seinfeld volunteered, age 17, on a kibbutz.

In the story "Searching for Seinfeld" from my book The Virtual Kibbutz, a reporter sets out on Seinfeld's trail, tracking down the days he spent on a kibbutz in Israel. How did Jerry like getting up early in the morning to work the fields? The answer, based on the real story, involves bananas!

Read "Searching for Seinfeld" absolutely for free on, an innovative startup with the dream of "allowing anybody, anywhere to create a professional book, digital or print - for free."

What this means is an online, visually pleasing, digital book that is an absolute pleasure to read. I am proud to offer my short story for your reading pleasure on the site. Share this with your friends!

Click to read "Searching for Seinfeld".

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Ellis Writers Club

Growing up, I never knew anyone else who had the same first name as I did. I thought that was kind of special. Some people asked me if I was named for the famous island where immigrants had arrived in the United States. I told them that Ellis Island was named after me.

After publishing my first books, starting a blog, and establishing a presence on Facebook and Twitter, I came into contact with a number of other authors who also had Ellis as their first name. A bigger surprise, though, was to find out that Ellis was also a common woman's name.

There is no doubt in my mind that having Ellis as a first name is a sign that you are a very creative person, capable of huge literary achievements. As members of the Ellis Writers Club, we are all dedicated authors and writers, constantly improving our craft. Each of us has our own writing style; our books are in different genres. Yet, as writers with Ellis as our name, our books are guaranteed to captivate readers all over the world.

Without further ado, I am proud to introduce Ellis Morning, Ellis Vidler, Ellis Nelson, and myself Ellis Shuman - the founding members of the Ellis Writers Club. Read our books!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

We Have to Talk about Nakba

In Contested Land, Contested Memory, Canadian writer Jo Roberts argues that Israelis and Palestinians must acknowledge each other's suffering for reconciliation to have a chance.

In the 1970s, I studied for two years at the Jerusalem Experimental High School, in a setting so picturesque that it was nearly impossible to concentrate on school work. The school was housed in an old Arab building on a slope behind the gas stations at the entrance to the city. At the time, the suburb of Ramot was still being constructed on the far hills. Modern highways had yet to cut through the deep valley.

The surreal beauty seen from the school included the abandoned stone houses of the village of Lifta. When walking to and from school, and when escaping from classes, my classmates and I would sit on the remnants of walls, hide in the shelled out remains, and some of us actually camped out in the former homes of the village. Little thought was given to the residents who had fled in 1948, to what their lives were like, or whether they had been dealt an unjust hand in the war that established the State of Israel.

Friday, May 30, 2014

That Awesome Moment When You Finish Your Manuscript

The other day I let out a big sigh. After 13 months of constant writing and editing; after multiple revisions and three drafts; after transferring ideas from my creative mind into 98,000 words on my computer screen; and after many hours of wondering whether anything would ever come out of my efforts; I realized that I had actually and most definitely completed the manuscript of my next novel.

What a high! What a sense of accomplishment. What a proud moment, such an awesome moment.

And then, reality set in. What if what I had written was no good? What if the plot didn't make sense? What if the characters were unbelievable?

I couldn't let my achievement go to my head. From the pinnacle of my literary success, I nose-dived into uncertainty and self doubt. What would others think of my book?