Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Frustration of Israeli Writers: Is Life HERE Really That Way?

An old American friend writes to me about Israeli writers.

"What is it with them? Are they all frustrated, angry, recluse that write just about frustration?"

This conversation started over 25 years ago with Amos Oz's Black Box. How can anyone even write with such moody perspective. Can't Israelis write happy novels and escape the reality or at least give American the feeling that something is good over there? Is it the case that life is such a frustrating experience, filled with tension, fear, anger... that it seeps quietly into literature (without us even knowing it?) Next comes: you (that's me) tell me that Israel is nothing like what portrayed in the press, but the literature is dark and gloomy. The mainstream press you can dismiss but the literature does not come from nothing! Is this a case of American and European publishers giving their readers what they want? not what is real? After all, publishers and book sellers need to sell books, if people around the world see Israel as a dangerous and frustrating place from the media perspective, sell them books written by frustrating gloomy writers, wallah!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Israeli Reading Habits: Foreign Books in Translation

The Hebrew language is both a mystery and a wonder. The ancient Hebrew with roots in Aramaic goes back about 5,000 years. It is the last surviving language from an fertile crescent where culture seem to have started 10,000 or more years ago. Today Hebrew is a renewed version of the biblical version. Still, every school child can read the bible and understand the language fairly well. It is the daily language used for everything in life from professional publications to negotiating prices in the market.

Hebrew literature and poetry is read by a very small number of people, in Israel itself six million people speak Hebrew on a daily basis. In the rest of the world it is less than a million. The market for books in Hebrew is small. Most Israelis prefer to read in Hebrew, even foreign language books. English is the most popular second language in Israel and a minority of Israelis read in English, especially fiction for enjoyment. There are over a million Russian speakers in Israel and they read mostly in Russian. Russians do not have a large enough market to translate into the language from other languages. Add to this the long isolation of Russians from world literature, it turns out that Hebrew is the preferred language for English, French and German top selling books. Israelis, Russian, Ethiopian and even English readers end up with Hebrew translations of books from around the world.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Secular Bar Mitzvah: a 13th Year Rite of Passege

In the Jewish tradition a boy becomes a man at age 13. In a big religious ceremony a boy "comes out" to the community by reading from the Torah (bible scroll) in front of his community. But the old Jewish traditions are not as important to secular Jews in Israel. Here, 13 year olds are not yet as mature as Jews needed to be in biblical times, this rite of passage is more of an echo to tradition than reality of giving a just inducted "man" the rights and responsibilities of an adult (permission to marry, leave the home and start an independent life.) It seems that at this age boys are more worried about scoring goals in soccer or getting a kiss from a girl.

Tradition is still followed and 13 year-olds learn to chant the "parasha" (weekly Torah portion) and read it at an appointed sabbath in front of the local synagogue congregation. This is usually in the local neighborhood synagogue where the family lives. Family and close friends are invited to this event. But the real deal is the party. A bar-mitzvah is the biggest party a family gives a man sometimes just a bit smaller in size than a wedding ceremony. This is a chance for the family to invite friends and neighbors. An old family friend, my father's medical school buddy who lives close had a grandson's bar mitzvah party. The party was last Friday afternoon in a Jaffa restaurant. The boy's father is a musician and a music school owner. The family invited the kids from the boy's school and they were entrained by a bunch of video games and computer music games (Nintendo Wii, guitar hero) and fast food (McDonald's, Hummus, and Coke)


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Israeli (Tel Aviv's) Malls Turn to Bazzars: Shopers Happy :)

Israel has been building malls at a fast clip the last twenty years. Malls as they come in replaced the small shops along small town main streets and big city neighborhood shopping street. In Tel Aviv and surrounding cities there are many malls (more than 10.) From small ones like Givatay'im to large ones like Ramat Aviv and Hertzeliya's seven stars. Malls are clean and shiny with chain stores from women clothes to gifts to cafes to book stores. Israel's chain retailers have grown in size and sophistication as malls spread across the country. Chain retailers and mall builders have a symbiotic relationship. Malls need shops, retailers need space and shoppers. But small specialty shops with interesting collection of goods do not fit into this mall expansion scenario. This makes for a shift of shopping habits, to some young shoppers malls are what they want but not everyone is happy with the change. There are no dry goods shops with great smells from nuts to herbs and spices. There are no small "school" supplies shops from notebooks and pens to school accessories you would not believe (polar and exponential graph paper, finger puppets and test prep books) where kids can touch and wonder in small dark corners. Vegetable and fruit stands, fish and meat shops, cloth boutiques and bakeries run by mom and pop on a small street simply can not afford the rents and will probably not have enough foot traffic to make a profit in a mall. Small take home food shops and falaffel, hummus, sadwich and shawarma stands are certainly not part of the mall scene. But these little small outlets are still useful in daily life, so mall managers went out to try and get them into their spaces.


Northern Israel Entrepreneurs Active and Working - Technion Conference

While the venture capitalists in Israel have been concentrating on the big deals, investment in the range of US$10 million, entrepreneurs have been busy away from the spotlights. In Israel venture capital investment has gone down to pre-2005 levels. The consequence is very few large venture capital backed start-ups. There was a talk of this lucrative sector in the Israeli economy turning into different type of financing models. In Israel where high-tech start-ups is a big economic factor many are having a hard time dealing with the drop in companies and jobs. But contrary to predictions from two years ago, this does not mean people stoped innovating. Technologists have been developing new ideas some even building products. Some small teams have started marketing their products.

Yesterday, at the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology, equivalent to USA's MIT) about 250 start-up workers and managers gathered to discuss the state of affairs. It seemed to me that most of the attendees were from northern Israel. Haifa is situated in the southern edge of Israel's gallil. Some of Israel's known start-ups are situated in northern Israel. But central Israel (the Dan region) is better known for start-ups, venture capital and entrepreneur services. Nevertheless, the meeting was well attended and a lecture hall in the engineering building was filled to capacity.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jeff Pulver on Tel Aviv Restaurants: Brasserie M&R, Rothschild 12

Jeff Pulver is one of these people who is comfortable anywhere in Israel. He is a quiet man who runs around Israeli start-ups and tries to figure out which ones are winners and how to get them to be a winners in a world wide scale. It seems like he is in Tel Aviv about 1/2 of his time, but it's probably much less. On his Facebook page, there is an ordinary entry about an interview on TimeOut magazine:

Check out Time Out Tel Aviv - March 2010 issue - http://digital.timeout.co.il/activemagazine/welcome/israel_33.asp (Flip to page 12 for a familiar face)

If you go to the TimeOut he mentions on page 12, he recommends two restaurants in Tel Aviv: Brasserie M&R and Rothschild 12. The Brasserie M&R I wrote about a long time ago. It is one of these places that figured out a way to keep the quality and style as it is. Rothschild 12 [Hebrew page (achbar ha'yir) ] [foursquare page EN] is one of these famous places where you can rub elbows with Israel's fashionable set (Pulver is a guest in this club.)

Nice to hear that someone who has been all over the world likes the restaurants and hotels in Tel Aviv. Look out for reviews like Pulver to get a real sense of what people like in Tel Aviv. Obviously you don't know Pulver's taste and preferences, but it may be more reliable (and personal) than a big blog or a tourist site review. Read More...

Friday, March 12, 2010

All Politics is Local: Biden, Netanyahu and Tip O'Neil

Tip O'Neil's famous quote: "all politics is local" comes to mind this week. I am commenting on Joe Biden the US VP's uncomfortable position with regard to Jerusalem's city planning board approval of 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem [Haaretz/EN]. Joe Biden came to make nice with Netanyahu and the Israeli leaders. Since peace negotiations with the Palestinians is crawling at a snail's pace, everyone wants to get the credit for bringing the two sides together. US president Obama is busy with domestic issues, he does not seem to be giving the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations any attention. Hillery Clinton tried her hand but did not win the hearts or minds of either side. So Biden was sent to give the negotiations a kick start. Biden came to make sure the Israeli's are not aggravating the Palestinians by building outside the green line. This is in keeping with the last agreement between the sides to cool down the bickering. On Biden's second day in Jerusalem the city's building authority announced approval of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem and up to 50,000 units outside the green line going forward a decade from now [Haaretz article]. This seemed like a planned "slap in the face" of Biden. Not so say most Jerusalem residents, Biden is not part of the equation this time and neither are the Palestinians


Can Israeli Technologists Make THE Peace with Palestinians? (A Ghost Story)

If you are a follower of Israeli start-up scene you probably heard the story of Ghost. This is a virtual desktop start-up that just folded it's doors [start-up mania article] The idea was to offer the latest technology to replace the desktop in a cloud computing platform. The start-up was a collaboration of Israelis and Palestinians on a large scale. Large scale in terms of start-ups in Israel that is. For the first time Israeli investors and executives used Palestinian programmers. This was a big deal here. Most people were worried and suspicious. First of all, who has ever heard of successful Palestinian programmers? Actually, who ever heard of any Palestinian programmers??? This kind of thinking is what made the project such a anomaly to begin with. The company was in management and financial terms Israeli, but the work was "outsourced" to the west bank.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Start-Up Nation, Start-Up Mania, Start-Up Fever?

The recent book about Israel: "Start-Up Nation" [Amazon] [B&N] [Borders] brought for the first time the amazing story of Israel's technology start-up world out in the open. In Israel, high-tech entrepreneur success is a 20 year phenomena. The dream of many engineers is to develop an innovative product, sell a few units to show how great the product is... AND sell the venture to a US company. What a simple recipe for a get rich quick dream? The more ambitious entrepreneurs want to take the company public on NASDAQ. (Israel is the number two country with NASDAQ listed companies after the US.) Start-up success is held in almost mythical terms in Tel Aviv. Besides the financial rewards there is a reverence to entrepreneurs as creative inventors and productive managers. This attracts all kind of people to the world of entrepreneurship. Start-up fever or start-up mania (see blog) are a common condition seen around the high-tech community. Start-Up Fever condition comes in many forms, from chronically unemployed (or under-employed) entrepreneurs to job hopping early start-up engineers. There are also the "always in attendance" at tech meetings denizens. Essentially start-up fever is the blinding desire to have your own start-up regardless of reality. Let's face it, not all engineers are able to produce a good product and get on a shelf.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Israel's Social Media: Different Strokes for Different Folks

This blog did not get any articles the last month. This was not intentional or laziness. My time was spent expanding my social networks. I am working on two campaigns, one to find a full time job as a product manager [CV]. The second is to promote a beta test for YouFounder. We keep hearing how Israel is the land of new ideas and early adoption. Stories about how people get noticed on social networks make the TV news. There are statistics on use of social networks; so many people use social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Linked-In) that pretty soon everyone will be just on social networks doing nothing else. Anyway there are lots of nice stories about Israel and technology. But what do people here use technology for? Is it really changing how people work? Are people changing their way of communicating by using social networks?

There are two interesting phenomena we see in Israeli social media. The first is the use of social networks which are group based in Hebrew. These include Walla groups, Blogli blogs, Y-Net communities and Marker Cafe. Local social media use is interesting to people outside Israel who see social networks as an extension of personal physical connections. In Israel personal physical connections have always been one of the most useful way of getting things done. Israelis keep long connections with high school friend and army buddies. Friendships with neighbors and parents of your children's school friends are also important. In small communities even in big cities, personal contacts are the way people interact. The other phenomenon is the use of popular world wide sites. These connect Israelis to people around the world. Sites like: Twitter, Facebook, Linked-In and MySpace are some examples. The blogsphere is also strong in Israel with high Blogger and WordPress use. Israel is a small place with connections all over the world. Social media gives people the opportunity for the first time to connect around the globe without leaving Israel. This has turned out to be one of the most active area in the Israeli high-tech field today. (more on Israeli technology status in an upcoming post.)

What I learned in terms of networking falls into a few personal "styles". Styles is the only way to describe how people behave in social networks. Someone should research if people behave the same in real life as in social networks. They probably do. Here are a few observations on different personal styles: