Thursday, January 29, 2009

TV is Back?! LOST and 24 Return!

Whew. That last blog took a lot out of me. Thanks to everyone who took the time to read through that monster of a post, and thanks to everyone who gave me positive feedback. I actually went through the whole Israel recap post and did a few edits / corrections, as I wanted to make sure it was complete and is now there to serve as a thorough account of my recent Israel adventures. I'll be sure to post a lot more about Israel in general over the next few weeks and months, but in the meantime, man, there's A LOT I've wanted to talk about, but have put off so that I could finish up my post-Israel recap. I want to talk about Obama's inauguration, the Oscar nominations, Waltz With Bashir, and several other pressing topics, and hopefully I'll get to all of that over the next several days. But first, it's time to forget about all of that for a bit and talk TV.

Because, whoah baby, after a post-holiday lull, TV is back in a big way in January. Two of my all-time favorites have returned after lengthy absences, and, well, there's a lot to talk about ...


- I know, I know, all of you loyal blog readers have been on the edge of your seats waiting to hear my thoughts so far on the latest season of 24. So, before I get to a more critical analysis, let me first offer belated cries of gravitas-infused joy:


Yeah, regardless of the fact that last season of 24 was not exactly the series' best, you can't help but be pumped that, finally, after a year-long hiatus, one of the top shows of the last decade is finally back in primetime. Oh how I missed you, 24. The recent Redemption movie offered up a nice little tease, but, finally, this is the real thing. Twenty-four consecutive, real-time Jack Bauer Power Hours.

Suffice it to say, upon returning from Israel, practically priority #1 was getting reacquainted with Jack and co. Forget unpacking, forget laundry, forget tagging photos on Facebook. The clock was counting down, and I was outta time!

Okay, so what have I thought of the season so far? It's strange, there's a lot to like about what we've seen in the first several hours, but at the same time, the season has been solid and well-done, but not really mind-blowing or jaw-dropping. At least not yet. I'll start with the positives - in general, it's great to see Jack back in action and kicking ass, especially alongside his longtime right-hand man, Tony Almeida, aka the bearer of the SOUL PATCH OF DOOM. Tony's presence as a back-from-the-dead wingman of moral ambiguity is a much-needed boost to the show's overall badass quotient, and many of this season's best moments to date have been in scenes where Jack and Tony are at odds/working together /being badass in general. I mean, if you asked me to name the biggest highlights of the season thus far, some of them would include the Tony vs. Jack throwdown in the premiere, the two of them working together and joking about nearly killing each other, and Tony's taking out all of Emerson's men in this week's ep, with a Bauer-powered sniper assist, and then cooly exclaiming "why don't we put all this behind us?".

Tony's return has been a highlight, but in general the season seems to just have an overall more serious, less campy tone than last season. Sure, there are still the familiar beats of any typical 24 season, but this year, at least so far, there's no one subplot that makes you rolly our eyes and reach for the fast-forward button. At first, for instance, I expected the First Husband's subplot, in which he investigates his son's murder, to be this year's big groaner. But the storyline has surprised me by actually being very compelling, delivering some of the season's most intense moments to date. It helps that the actor playing the first husband is great - how intense was it last week as he clenched his fists in anger after being hit with a paralysis-inducing serum by his traitorous secret service agent? Their ensuing tussle and the chaos that resulted was great stuff. Like I said, the season has just had a very solid feel to it - nothing too over-the-top or campy, yet plenty of cool moments to keep the intensity high.

Now, what's bothered me about the season up to now? Okay, the biggest problem may be this: a lot of this season of 24 feels like it's expending too much effort addressing the show's critics - namely those who have complaine that the show glorifies violence and torture. To me, this season's constant and somewhat heavy-handed moral arguments regarding the merits of torture have really slowed the show's momentum at times, and also just taken me out of the action to boot. While the arguments for and against torture are interesting in the real world, not so much in a fictionalized and stylized one like 24's. I mean, imagine if you had a Batman movie where each fight scene was bookended by discussion of whether or not he was in the right to beat up crooks without due process. I'm not saying that the legitimacy of torture isn't a good *overarching* theme for the season, but the way it's been handled has undoubtedly been pretty hamfisted. I want to be able to get caught up in the action, not forced to wonder about the moral reprecussions of each of Jack Bauer's smackdowns.

This leads me to another issue with this season. No way to put this subtly - there's just an overall lack of gravitas so far this year. Yes, Tony is back, and so is the white-haired mastermind Bill Buchanan. But there's no villain who really gets your blood boiling like Peter Weller did a couple of seasons ago. No big bad who Jack has a true personal stake in taking down and taking down hard. Similarly, things in the White House are just kind of ... there. Without a heavy-hitter player like a Powers Boothe in these scenes, there's not quite the intensity present that we're used to seeing in 24's Oval Office. Cherry Jones is doing a nice job, and upped the ante this week with one heck of an emotional speech to her cabinet. But still, give us some White House rivalries we can really sink our teeth into. Same can be said for CTU, I mean the FBI. So far the FBI team comes off as CTU-lite - a more realistic but less cool version of the usual archtypes we always see on 24. Hell, there's even a mole. 24 needs some new types of characters who don't mirror ones we've already seen again and again on the show. Right now, things are solid, but all too familiar-feeling.

Finally, the writing is brisk and focused, but maybe too much so. At the drop of a dime, Jack accepts Tony and Bill's premise that there is an urgent need to work outside the government, even though thousands of lives could be risked by doing so. Bill's plans are similarly strange - is it really worth it to impede the government at every turn in a time of crisis, just to expose yet another conspiracy within its ranks?

That said, there are few shows that can deliver the same visceral thrills as 24, and the great thing about this season is that there's a whole lot of upside. Even if feels like the show is just kind of spinning its wheels right now, there is a very intriguing groundwork being laid, and it feels like things could really blow up at any moment. And already, we've gotten some instant-classic 24 scenes. How about Jack steering a car off a building from the floor, bracing himself for the big drop with a rare quip - "this is gonna hurt ...".

So yeah, thank the action-TV gods, 24 is back. The question is, will this be another *great* season, or merely a decent one?

My Grade:

Hours 1 & 2: B+
Hours 3 &4: B
Hour 5: B
Hour 6: A-


- If you read my massive BEST OF 2008 series of blogs (if not, go do that ASAP ...), then you're well aware that I named Lost my Best TV Show of 2008. So it goes without saying that I was really, really psyched for the show's much-anticipated return two weeks ago. And I am happy to say that the first three episodes of 2009 did not disappoint.

I think the great thing about Lost right now, which really became clear last season, is that the writers now seem to have such a solid vision for what the show's mythology is, how it fits together, and where it's all headed. Like many, I got very frustrated in the second season when you couldn't help but feel that the show was being written on the fly without a clear sense of direction. Now, there's that great sense that the puzzle pieces are slowly but surely coming together. Part of that is thanks to the new twist in which the castaways still on the island are being hurled through time, continually emerging in different periods in the island's history. It's a brilliant device in that allows the writers to seamlessly and organically reveal a ton of new information about the show's mythology without resorting to hard flashbacks or flash-forwards. Already, we've seen some huge reveals about Richard Alpert, Ethan Rom, and of course Charles Whidmore and their collective histories on the island, and it's clear that there's a lot more of these revelations still to come. And man, what a great opening to the season, in which we saw a flash to a scene where Daniel Faraday is somehow lurking amongst the members of the Dharma group circa the 1970's. Can't wait to see the follow-up to that intriguing teaser.

I know some people get turned off by all the time travel stuff, but to me, it's a real treat when such an inherently cool concept is handled in such a smart and imaginative manner. I love all of the rules being established, the paradoxes and possibilities. It gives the show a bit more of a true sci-fi edge, but there's still that sense of fun and mystery and grand adventure. This was apparent in this week's Desmond-centric ep, as Desmond is always a character who gives the show that epic, sweeping feel that its best episodes often possess. The first few episode have been pretty plot-heavy so far, but what's great about Lost is that it always takes a few seconds in the midst of all the action and delivers some classic character moments. That said, I found this week's Desmond and Daniel-focused ep a lot more intriguing and dramatic then the previous week's Hurley-centric hour. With so much going on and so much intrigue on and off the island, it just felt like kind of an odd choice to spend so much time with Hurley and his oddball family.

The only other complaint is that even with so much revealed and such a focus on unraveling the show's mythology, there's still a tendency to simply not have characters communicate realistically. For example, as a former Other, it's clear that Juliette might in fact be a wellspring of valuable information on the island's history, and yet the writer's still have her talking in vague sentances and we've yet to see her really questioned by Sawyer or Locke.

But really, Lost to me is firing on almost all cylinders so far in '09, and I'm as intrigued as ever by the show's ever-expanding cast of characters. I'm dying to know why Whidmore was an Other and how he came to leave the island and become at odds with Ben Linus. I'm curious as to the story of Faraday's mother, and eager to see what role Desmond, Penny, and their son Charlie will play going forward.

In a season of so-so new shows and heartbreaking cancellations (so long, Pushing Daisies ...), it's simply great to see a show as smart, challenging, and full of imagination as Lost back on the air. Again, the show has yet to have an absolute classic, mind-blowing episode so far this year, but I feel like it's only a matter of time.

My Grade:

Premiere: B+
Episode 3: A-

- Alright, back soon with more, including thoughts on Fringe, Smallville, and The Office - plus lots, lots more. Have a great Superbowl weekend - PEACE OUT.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The All-New ISRAEL Adventures of Danny Baram - The Blog Is Back and my Birthright Israel Recap is here!

- Welcome loyal readers - after a lengthy hiatus, the blog is back! Below you'll find a very special entry, a recap of my recent ISRAEL ADVENTURES. I've spent a couple of days typing away, making sure to provide a detailed account of my trip. So sit back, relax, and enjoy!


Has it really been one week since I've been back in The States? Even after a week, only a part of me is fully back in the here and now, in the day to day. Part of me is still in Israel, in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, and with my 40+ travelling companions. This has been a week of coming down, of readjusting and reintigrating. But Israel was not merely just some ordinary excursion, it really was an eye-opening, amazing experience. Even though I'm now back in America and back into a daily routine, things aren't quite the same as before. It's hard to explain, but I'll try now to recap my 10+ days in Israel and talk a bit about why exactly the whole thing was such an epic adventure.

Let's see, where to begin ... okay, first of all, a brief bit of background. As I've gone over a bit here in the past, the trip which I participated in was made possible via the Taglit-Birthright Israel organization, which sponsors free trips to Israel for young adults across the world. If you're Jewish, between the ages of 18 and 27, and have never been on an organized trip to Israel, you're eligible to participate. It's a trip that, as you can probably tell, one would be insane not to take advantage of. For one reason or another though, I never ended up going while in college. I studied for a semester in London, got caught up in things in Boston, and got deterred due to the wave of suicide bombings and other violence in the region between 2001 and 2004. But now, after having gone to a Jewish day school for eight years, after having worked at a Jewish summer camp for five, after having taught Hebrew school, and after having been raised with a fairly traditional Jewish upbringing ... now, finally, the time was right. I applied to Israel Experts' Winter trip, one that's run by the Jewish Federation of LA - perfect, because it meant that everyone on the trip was from the LA area. As someone who was looking for a bit more of a Jewish connection here in LA, it seemed like a great group to go to Israel with.

- And still, there was some uncertainty. The week before our trip, war broke out in Gaza, and the sensationalized reports of violence and danger were enough to cause a few people to drop out from our trip. While it was obvious to me from day one that the American media exaggerates the scope of the conflict, I couldn't help but be at least a little nervous. Still, for me, and for a lot of others on the trip, this was really one of or last opportunities to take advantage of Birthright. No way was I going to back out.

DAY 1:

- Flash-forward to Tuesday, January 6th 2009. After weeks of shopping and other preparations, the big day was finally here - Israel, baby! Of course, it would have been too easy if everything went 100% smoothly ... after a late night of packing on Monday, I stuff a few final items into my suitcase early Tuesday morning, only for ... my suitcase zipper to get stuck on a plastic bag. When my coworker Craig arrived to pick me up to go to LAX, I was starting to freak out a bit - was I going to have to unpack and re-pack all of my stuff? Luckily, Craig and I managed by sheer force of will to un-stick the zipper without breaking it off - a true miracle. With that roadblock behind us, we drove through typically insane LA traffic to get to LAX. I guess it wouldn't be a Danny Baram adventure if I actually got to my destination on time, right?

- One funny item: at the entrance-way to LAX, the security officials were inspecting cars as they drove up, one by one. Since I was in a hurry, I was getting pretty impatient as we sat in the line of cars. But then, security took a look inside our car and immediately let us pass. I guess they got a look at Craig and I and thought that we couldn't possibly be a security threat ... I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or slightly offended.

- Anyways, I made it to the airport terminal, checked in with our "madrichim" / group leaders, Teddy and Jesse, and then the next few hours were a whirlwind of security checks, meeting and greeting with the rest of our Israel Experts group, etc. The security for El-Al, Israel's proprietary airline, is very strict, and you undergo a lengthy questioning process prior to boarding the plane. The funny thing is that it's actully not that painful, as airline employees question you via very friendly-seeming conversations.

- Now, the 16-hour flight to Israel was alternately fun and painful. Okay, well, mostly it was just sort of painful. The big bright spot was, of course, that on one side of me was seated Sabrina A, who quickly became one of my favorite people on the trip and in general. The downside was that I was in a middle seat, and on the other side of me was a dour, extremely large orthodox man who left me little leg room and even less breathing room. He vigorously prayed at regular intervals to boot, which was not fun for me. Mostly, I was in and out of half-sleep. I did watch about 3/4 of Mama Mia, but fell asleep before the reveal of who the father was (don't worry, I later found out ...).

- Finally, though, after the longest flight ever, we touched down in the Holy Land. We navigated through Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and regrouped, picking up our rented Israeli cellphones, claiming our luggage, and boarding our tour bus for the first time as we headed away from the airport. I think we all had that slightly surreal feeling upon setting foot in Israel - are we really here? But with this trip, we didn't stop to linger. It was time to get things started.

- Arriving at our first hotel, Maale Hahamisha, in the Jerusalem hills, we wearily piled into a rec room and met our intrepid Israeli tour guide, Gill, as he outlined our itinerary for the trip. Just as an aside, Gill was basically an awesome guy, except his English occasionally came out a bit funny. He often asked us to meet at oddly specific times ("guys, we'll meet back here at 11:07 ..."), and used the word "beautiful" to describe things that most would call merely nice or okay. Gill: definitely one of the classic characters of our trip. But a fine tour guide, to be sure. At this point, we also met the great group of Israelis that would be joining us for the duration of our trip ...

- Let me just say, they really were an awesome group. Hilarious, friendly, and overall a cool bunch, maybe the single best part of the trip was just getting the chance to laugh, joke, and exchange ideas with our resident Israel Experts. The first Israeli who I really got to know well was Or, who was one of my roommates for our first four nights in Israel. Or had joined us directly from Gaza where he had been participating in airforce missions for the IDF. Pretty intense, but Or also happens to be a hilarious guy, able to quote Mel Brooks movies and Weird Al songs with the best of 'em. Suffice it to say, those first couple days with Or and my other roommates Dan C and David produced some classic conversations, both profound and ridiculous.

- But yeah, after our flight, we had dinner in our hotel, a couple of orientation activities, and then ... we were out.

DAY 2:

- During our first full day in Israel, we did and saw a lot of cool stuff. We started by going to Cesaria to check out some of that ancient city's historic ruins. We had actually been scheduled to go to Haifa that morning, but changed our plans a bit due to safety concerns after some rockets had hit nearby. Later though, we went back towards Haifa and visited the site of the Baha'i Gardens - a spiritual place for the mysterious Baha'i religion. In the zen-like, hilltop gardens, there were some truly spectacular views of Haifa and the coastline. After that, we stopped for lunch and then headed to the holy city of Tzfat ...

- Tzfat was one of the first places on our trip that truly wowed me. Walking though the city's ancient arches and alleyways and traversing its hilly landscape, you really felt like you were in another era. Tzfat is also the birthplace of the mystical tradition of kaballah, and so in Tzfat we visited with one of the absolute craziest characters that we encountered on our trip - Avraham, a tripped-out artist and kaballah guru who was once simply Robert from Detroit. Meeting with Robert was akin to Homer Simpson's journey to meet the Kwik-E-Mart founder on that one episode of The Simpsons. This guy was just unbelievable, like someone mixed The Dude with Cheech and Chong and some college hippy who liked hackysack a little too much. Avraham told us the story of how he ditched his middle-class suburban life in America and embraced the ancient traditions of the kabballah. And, he also encouraged us to purchase prints of his paintings. Suffice it to say, Avraham's trademark, stoner-iffic exclamation of "awwwesooommme ..." became one of our trip's biggest in-jokes.

- In the evening, we toured around Tzfat and weaved through ancient staircases and archways to peruse the city's eclectic collection of arts and crafts shops. As my mom is a dreidel collector, I picked up a dreidel from one of Tzfat's many unique crafts shops. Later, it was time to head to what would be our home for the next few days, the Afik kibbutz in Northern Israel, near the Golan Heights.

- Afik was definitely a change of pace from our first hotel. It was farm-livin', with small, bare-bones rooms (they did have cable TV though ...), and some truly ghetto bathrooms, the kind that have nothing but a curtain separating the shower from the rest of the restroom. This meant that, whenever someone took a shower, it was all but guaranteed that the entire bathroom would end up soaked. Our first night in Afik also introduced us to the kibbutz's very own "pub," basically a cramped room with a bartender and a DJ who fancied himself to be pretty cool. We all hung out in the pub most nights while at Afik, and danced along as the DJ played his usual set of hip-hop staples followed by a set of hardcore techno songs. Yep, kibbutz-style raves. Good times.

- Sidenote: every time we gathered as a group before leaving a destination, we counted off, summer-camp-style, to make sure everyone was present and accounted for. Just for the sake of preserving it in my own memory, I was #2.

DAY 3:

- Our third day in Israel was cold and rainy. Not exactly the ideal weather to go up to the Golan Heights and check out a mountainous military outpost, Har Bental, which overlooks the Northern Galilee region, and which was the site of many a fierce battle in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. We went down into some bunkers and got a taste of what it might have been like to be holed-up in the Golan in a time of war. Pretty intense, but with the weather being what it was - with poor visibility and slippery surfaces - I think we were all a bit relieved to hear that a scheduled hike had been cancelled in favor of some slightly more laid-back activities.

- After leaving the outpost, we travelled a short distance and visited a local Olive Oil factory known for its rejuvanating skin-care products. The owner of the plant talked to us for a bit and it was kind of an eye-opening moment, as he spoke of how Israelis like him had their day jobs and most times went about their business as usual, but that, somewhere in the back of their minds, all Israelis have that part of them that is ready to spring into action and do their part to defend their country. But anyways, at the Olive Oil factory, we learned a very important lesson about Israeli tourist destinations: they are very fond of producing ultra-cheesy videos to show to visitors. And I do mean *ultra* cheesy. Words cannot even describe, except to say that if someone were to put this Razzie-worthy short film on YouTube, it'd probably become a cult-classic. Amazingly enough, they had an almost-as-cheesy video (featuring a genie!) at our next stop, a winery in Golan. Yep, get thee to a winery, baby. We sampled some of Israel's finest vintage, and I learned some important things about how to smell and taste wine and pretend that I detect a hint of oak or whatever in the taste. Um, yeah, what can I say ... I'm a Manischevitz man.

- Back at Afik on Erev Shabbat, we had what I think was kind of a breakthrough moment on our trip. We were all sitting in one of the kibbutz's social rooms, and our group leaders asked us to go around and talk for a couple of seconds each about what Shabbat meant to us. It was clearly planned to be a quick, half-hour activity, but, man oh man, it became this really intense and confessional thing, with people getting surprisingly emotional in describing their previous Shabbat experiences or lack thereof. I mean, I had planned to tell a funny anecdote or two about some of our wacky Shabbat dinners at the BU Hillel, but instead got caught up in everyone else's outpourings and rambled on about my family's history of weekly Friday night Shabbat dinners. It was definitely interesting and at times shocking to hear the diverse array of backgrounds that people in our group came from, but hearing everyone's stories definitely gave me a renewed appreciation for my own Jewish background.

- This led up to us having our first Shabbat dinner together as a group at Afik, followed by one of our most fun nights of the trip, just hanging out at the kibbutz, talking and sharing jokes and stories. Got a lot of hilarious pics from that night, and some great group photos to boot. Again, I feel really lucky to have gone on this trip with such an overall great group of people. Day-to-day, I often find myself dealing with all manner of "Hollywood" types, so it was just a great experience to get away from that for a bit and meet so many genuine, passionate, funny, and unique people.

DAY 4:

- This was our first full day of Shabbat in Israel. Saturdays in Israel are not quite like Saturdays in the States, because even though the majority of Israelis are not particularly religious (and in fact tend to label themselves as "secular"), tradition states that on the Sabbath, everything literally shuts down. People don't drive, don't go shopping. Stores and restaurants are closed, and life simply slows down for a day. Therefore, we did the same to some extent. We mostly stuck around the kibbutz, although we didn't necessarilly just sit around. On Saturday morning, we went on a hike around the Afik grounds, which turned out to actually be kind of intense. While hiking over hills and across the towering Golan mountainside, we discussed some of the conflicts that have plagued the region, and saw firsthand how large areas of the mountains are not suitable for hiking due to the danger of landmines.

- After the hike, we observed Shabbat by mostly just chillin' around the kibbutz. We took naps, ate lunch, and sat around singing along to favorite rock songs and snacking on Israeli staples like Bomba and Beasly. As the sun went down, we gathered outside for Havdallah, the traditional service that transitions out of Shabbat and into the beginning of a new week. I enjoyed it, and definitely had flashbacks to my days as a camper at Young Judea and Camp Ramah. Only this was a lot more rewarding, being 26 and not an awkward teenager (well, now I'm at least slightly less awkward ...). After singing some Havdallah "nigunim," it was time to head out ...

- ... and so we boarded our bus and drove down a treacherous-looking mountain pass towards Hamat Gader, a natural hot springs. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I have to say that the hot springs was pretty awesome. They had a really nice, elegant setup there, with great facilities, and this was clearly a hotspot for locals to hang out. And I could see why. When you step into the mineral water, it's like being in a natural hot tub, and the pools were outfitted with all kinds of jets and whatnot, perfect for getting a soothing massage. The only downside was that the sulfur-filled water smelled like eggs, but oh well, it was still a very cool spot that I'm glad we got to check out. I'd probably be a regular if I lived nearby.

- After leaving Hamat Gader, the night was still young, so we decided to stop over in the bustling city of Tiberias. For some reason, I really dug it - I guess it was that, after visiting all of these ancient sites and whatnot, it was cool to be in a more modern city filled with young people. Not to mention, after a somewhat questionable dinner at the kibbutz, the slice of pizza and milkshake I had in Tiberias was like mana from heaven.

DAY 5:

- On Sunday, we bid farewell to the Afik kibbutz and drove towards our next destination, the bustling Israeli metropolis that is Tel-Aviv. But first, we stopped at the Givat Haviva Institute , which deals with Arab-Israeli relations, promotes equality, and educates with regards to the ongoing conflict. At the Institute, we heard from Lydia Aisenberg, a journalist and educator, who talked to us about her experiences making aaliyah to Israel from the UK and taking up residence on a kibbutz in the 60's. She then accompanied us as we drove to a viewpoint that overlooked the troubled West Bank. From above, the sprawling cities and golden mosques of the West Bank were very picturesque - it was only when Lydia pointed out the massive security fence that spans the West Bank that you really got a feel for the extent of the conflict in the region.

- Next, we continued our journey to Tel-Aviv, which is actually LA's sister-city in Israel. Anyone who thinks of Israel as some sort of backwoods country needs to check out Tel Aviv - it really is an amazing and thoroughly modern city. The sheer amount of shops, restaurants, businesses, industry, nightlife, and culture packed into the city reminded me of places like New York and London. I wish we had gotten a little more time to explore the city! In Tel Aviv, our first stop was Rabin square, named for assassinated Israeli prime-minister Yitchak Rabin, who delivered a speech in the square in 1995 before being shot by a militant Israeli extremist. We visited the spot that marks where the shooting occurred. Thinking back to being in day school and watching Rabin, Yassir Arafat, and Bill Clinton agreeing to a lasting (but ultimately failed) peace treaty, you couldn't help but be saddened looking at the spot where a true advocate for peace was murdered by one of his own people.

- We had a little bit of time to walk around and to go inside a Tel Aviv shopping mall, but we quickly high-tailed it to an event known as Cafe Europa, a weekly gathering of Israeli senior citizens, many of them Holocaust survivors. Basically, Cafe Europa is kind of a weekly party for seniors, in which they gather to talk, reminisce, and get their groove thang on. Seriously, those old-timers could dance, and I think I worked up almost as much of a sweat trying to keep up with them as I did climbing Masada. It was actually a great chance to practice my Hebrew too, as many of the seniors barely spoke English, if at all. And it was fun when some of my fav Hebrew songs from my summer camp days were played ("Mashiach! Mashiach! Mashiach! Ayayayayayay!").

- We then got a chance to check in at our Tel-Aviv digs (the Deborah hotel), have dinner (woo-hoo, no more kibbutz food!), and freshen up before heading out to our evening activity, which involved taking in a showing of a much buzzed-about stage play called "Not By Bread Alone." The performers in the play are all people who, to various degrees, are deaf and blind, and what's remarkable about the show is how the actors are able to communicate in order to put on a cohesive production. Throughout the show, we heard about the various players' hopes and dreams, as the troupe worked together to communicate with the audience. Now, while the play was interesting, I really wasn't sure quite what to make of it. To me it walked a fine line between profound and gimmicky, and as impressive as it was to see the performers overcome their disabilities in order to put on a show, portions of the play just proved very awkward to watch. It also didn't help that all of us from the trip were completely exhausted by the time the show began. When the lights went out in the theater, pretty much all of us had to struggle to stay awake, and I'd venture to say that most of us dozed off at one point or another. I guess that was, for better or worse, true of our entire trip. We were running on pure adrenaline for so much of our time in Israel that whenever we sat down and stayed stationary for an extended period, it was sort of hard to stay awake.

DAY 6:

- Still in Tel Aviv, we woke up and began a tour of the old city of Jaffa by walking along Tel Aviv's amazing coastline. I don't know if I've ever seen water so blue before - again, some truly breathtaking scenery. From there, Gill led us around Jaffa and pointed out a number of historical sites, with more landmarks straight out of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim lore. After our tour, we stopped by the area's famous flea market, which was pretty insane. Overflowing with all manner of vendors and shops and food stands, the market was a surreal scene that was like something out of a movie. My personal highlight was probably the freshly-made-on-the-spot pomegranate juice that my friends and I enjoyed - so good ...

- In the afternoon, we participated in a string of activities in which me met with local community groups affiliated with the Jewish Federation. Our first stop was a seminar at a very interesting school of sorts, for a group of young Israelis known as "Mechinot." These guys and girls had recently graduated high school, but rather than immediately joining the army, as is standard, they chose to participate in a year long educational / service program. It was interesting to hear the reactions of our Israelis to this group - some seemed skeptical, but Or testified that he had dealt with soldiers who had been Mechinot, and that they tended to be well-prepared for the army and often had excellent leadership skills. The seminar led to a pretty heated discussion among our group about the role of national pride and patriotism in Israel and America. It was fascinating to contrast the Israeli mindset, which is so tied to the reality of mandatory army service, versus the mindset of most Americans, who don't have to grow up knowing that they will soon be required to join the armed forces. It's a topic that I'll hopefully go more in-depth with on another day, but all I'll say for now is that it was pretty fascinating throughout our trip to compare and contrast the experience of growing up in America versus that in Israel.

- Our next activity took place at a pretty funky book/film/music shop in Tel Aviv, where we met up with an up-and-coming Israeli filmmaker who screened her short film for us, which has been making the rounds at a couple of festivals. While I admit that her film kind of lost me, it was really interesting to hear about her experiences as a writer/director in Israel. Since probably at least ten or so of us on the trip worked in the entertainment industry, it was cool that we got the opportunity to get a glimpse at the experiences of an Israeli filmmaker.

- Speaking of film and TV, a couple of times while in Israel I got the chance to hit up some local malls / shopping centers and check out stores like Tower Records. For a pop culture geek like me, it was a lot of fun seeing Hebrew versions of my favorite movies and TV shows for sale. And I've got to say, NBCU was representin', as I saw a number of posters for Heroes on DVD around Israel.

- One other very random tidbit ... At a shopping center at which we stopped for lunch near the Golan, there was a bar / restaurant themed after Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride! How awesome is that? Unfortunately, the place was closed when we checked it out, but still - "you killed my father, prepare to die!" = awesome.

- After stopping back at our hotel, we hopped on our bus and drove to Independence Hall, the historic building where Israel's independence was declared in 1948. We were all a little grumpy by the time we got inside, because someone had not scheduled things very well and for some reason we ended up eating a pretty bare-bones dinner while standing outside the hall in freezing cold weather. Definitely not the best moment of our trip ... but, I will say that even though a lot of us sat down in Independence Hall feeling cold, tired, and cranky, by the time our tour guide finished his presentation we were all into it and pretty moved. How could you not be - standing in the hall where the modern state of Israel was founded, singing along to Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem), in the very spot where it all started?

- After Independence Hall, we finally had the chance to hit the town in Tel Aviv. A lot of people in the group were really exhausted by this point, so some opted to head back to the hotel. But most of us wanted to at least check out what Tel Aviv had to offer. Of course, it was a Monday night, so the area we went to by the pier was not exactly overflowing with people. But a group of us stopped into Mike's Place, a noted hangout for American tourists and transplants. There we had some much-needed American-style munchies. Me and Dan C walked around and checked out a few of the other local establishments, but soon returned to Mike's as it seemed to be the best option at which to spend an hour two. Eventually, we headed back to the hotel, exhausted but happy to have ended our last night in Tel Aviv on a fun note.

DAY 7:

- We left Tel Aviv in the morning and began our journey southwards that would eventually lead us to the sprawling Israeli desert known as the Negev. En route, we passed a number of interesting sites and historical cities, including the famous biblical city of Jericho, as we steadily moved South towards Israel's less-populated regions. But first, it was time for some orange-pickin'!

- A lot of fun was had while helping to pick clementines at an all-volunteer farm that specialized in harvesting food to donate to the hungry, as part of the Table to Table project. We all went Green Acres and got really into combing through the orange trees and finding those hard-to-reach clementines. One thing I will say is that, even as I write this, my hands are covered with scrapes and bruises ... I think some of that may be from Masada, but some of those cuts are surely from the prickly orange grove.

- Our next stop before hitting the Negev was the Ayalon Institute, which is a kibbutz that once served as a top-secret ammunition factory prior to Israel's establishment as a state. While still under British rule, Zionist settlers built secret basements where they manufactured ammunition. A pretty interesting place - one thing that I really liked about our trip as a whole was that it gave me a very tangible sense of Israel's modern history. It really is amazing how, despite being an ancient and holy land, Israel is only a couple of decades old in terms of being a modern, globally-recognized nation.

- One more stop before goin' all Bedouin, that being the lovely city of Rechovot, the hometown of Adi, one of our Israeli companions who worked for Israel Experts and who had conducted all of our telephone interviews way back when. In Rechovot, we stopped at a very nice (and very American) mall where we had some lunch (I believe I went for a second round of Burger Ranch, an Israeli fast-food staple). By this point, I was starting to feel a bit like a real Israeli, as a number of store employees tried to strike up conversation with me in Hebrew, only for me to respond "Ani lo meveen harbeh ivrit." (I don't understand a lot of Hebrew). Still, a bunch of us were laughing as we struggled to order some ice cream at the food court - for some reason, the woman there just could not understand our requests (that being said, the ice cream was quite tasty). I also checked out some of the stores at the mall to see what the retail biz was like in Israel. One interesting factoid is that console video games are ridiculously pricey in Israel - the equivalent of up to $90 American dollars for one XBOX 360 or PS3 game. To that end, a lot of Israelis tend to digitally download PC games rather than buy retail. Still, you saw the 360, PS3, and Wii everywhere in Israel, with both Hebrew and Arabic versions of many of the games available

- Rechovot was sort of our last gasp of modern civilization for a little bit, as after lunch we boarded our bus again and continued on South deeper and deeper into the Negev. The drive really was incredible - driving through the sprawling desert, you really felt like you were in an Indiana Jones movie or something - I've never seen that sort of landscape up close before. It really was just nothingness as far as the eye could see. Even more surreal was when we finally approached the Bedouin camp where we'd be staying the night ... we got off the bus at this Bedouin village, and next thing I know these imposing guys are walking towards us leading a pack of camels, which would soon be transporting us on a bumpy ride around the desert. It was weird, hilarious, and exciting all at once. But really, all of us were just pretty psyched to ride the camels. I was lucky to get some great pictures of me riding our trusty steed, and man, it really was just a crazy experience. Luckily, our camel was pretty docile, but one of the camels next to ours kept kicking at its riders and threatening to knock them off of their saddles. So, yeah, while the camel ride left my thighs feeling a bit rough, it was absolutely one of the most memorable experiences I've had.

- After getting humped (so to speak) with the camels, we settled into our large Bedouin tent and set up our makeshift beds for the night, consisting of thin mattresses and equally thin sleeping bags provded to us by the Bedouins. Since temperatures outside were quickly plummeting, I made sure to pile on a couple of mattresses and several sleeping bags. There was some heating in the tent, but nonetheless it was extremely chilly inside at night - most of us slept in pants and sweatshirts! But it wasn't quite time to sleep yet ... we gathered in a separate tent and listened as a Bedouin ambassador as he told us about his people and welcomed us with traditional displays of Bedouin hospitality. We sampled their pita bread and tea and joined in on some traditional Bedouin songs and dances. Lest you think that these guys were still living in the ancient past though, our jam session was bookended with our guide offering to sell us CD's of his music for low, low prices. Plus, his cell phone rang a couple of times while talking to us - guess he gets pretty good reception in the desert. That's not to say that we weren't all pretty wowed by the whole experience - being in the Bedouin camp, even if it had a couple of modern amenities, was still kind of like being on a movie set, like being taken back to another time, or like being on that one planet from Star Wars (take your pick).

- We were then treated to a traditional Bedouin dinner, which we ate seated on the floor of a large tent, with big circular platters of hot food given to us by the Bedouins. I'm not a big eater of non-chicken meat, as my friends know well, but I will say that the pita bread was excellent. After dinner, we had the option of going with Gill on a nighttime hike through the desert. Most of us decided to go, and it turned out to be a pretty amazing experience. Again, I've never had that feeling before of walking in a total void. It made you understand why in ancient times it must have been invaluable to know the alignment of the stars, because otherwise you'd literally have no way of knowing where you were wandering to in the desert. Gill took us out away from the camp and into the Negev, and it was pitch black except for the moonlight. It was kind of eerie, as was the absolute (and I mean absolute) silence of the desert, interrupted only by the occasional howls of various animals. Out in the blackness of the desert at night, Gil told us some stories and then we headed back towards the camp. Once back, our group gathered around a campfire, a guitar or two was broken out, and we randomly sang a bunch of songs - basically anything that most of us could recite by heart, which meant everything from the Chili Peppers to "I Can Show You the World" from Aladdin. Being the repository of song lyrics that I am, I overcame my singing deficiencies to kick things off at our campfire on more than one occasion. All that was missing was the s'mores ...

- Finally, it was time for sleep - we only had a couple of hours to rest, as we were scheduled for a pre-dawn wake-up in order to climb Masada. Again, the Bedouin tent was large, but it basically saw all 40 of us piled together with our makeshift beds, sleepover-party-style. It was also pitch black once the lights went out, so navigating across the mass of people in order to move around the tent was a bit of a challenge. But hey, we were roughin' it!

DAY 8:

- With little sleep and lots of action, Days 7 and 8 of our trip were almost like one continuous mini-adventure in the middle of our Israel adventure. During this span of time, things definitely kicked up a notch - I mean, within the span of 24 hours we rode camels, slept in a Bedouin tent, climbed Masada, hiked through Ein Gedi, and swam in the Dead Sea. Beat that, Jack Bauer.

- So, at about 5 am on Wednesday morning, before sunrise, we were on our tour bus and on our way to climb the ancient mountain-fortress known as Masada. In short, Masada is a mountain in southern Israel, on top of which lies an ancient fortress that was built by the Jews during the first Jewish-Roman war. When the fortress was sieged by the Romans, the soldiers residing within chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender. There are a couple of ways to get up Masada, one being a cable car. But we toughed it out. We took a slightly shorter but still-rigorous path when we ascended the mountain - we climbed up giant stone stairs that really gave your legs a workout. We were told to hurry up and climb in order to make it to the top before the sun rose, and after a quick start I really started to get a bit blown up. But I and everyone else pressed on, as the air got thinner and the steps steeper, and we made it to the top of the mountain. For myself, I'm not someone who is a regular hiker or anything, so it really was rewarding to climb Masada and stand at its summit looking down across the Holy Land. Once on top of the mountain, Gill gave us a tour of the fortress - from ancient caverns once used as aquaducts to bathhouses and temples. And of course we all stood and watched the sun come up across the vast red mountainous mesa - it was a spectacular view indeed.

- Of course, making it to the top of Masada was only half the battle. We descended the mountain via the Snake Path, a twisty and precarious stairway that winds around the mountain like a snake, hence its name. Man, what a rush - the Snake Path was extremely intense - traversing the narrow walkways and stairways while looking down at the seemingly endless drop below ... well, let's just say I tried not to look down. It took a good one or two hours to make it all the way down, and I looked in pity at the poor souls who were climbing UP the path ...

- But yeah, climbing Masada really was a thrill, and provided a huge sense of accomplishment. I mean, it was one of those things where it's like, "okay, I just climbed Masada, why sweat the small stuff?" As Jimi Hendrix sang ... "well I'm standin' next to the mountain - chop it down, with the edge of my hand."

- There was no rest for the weary though ... after a picnic lunch on the grounds surrounding Masada, we boarded the bus again and drove towards Ein Gedi, an oasis in the middle of the Negev. Driving towards Ein Gedi was pretty amazing - I mean, of course I am familiar with the concept of an oasis, but to actually see one was something else. Imagine driving through the desert with nothing but sand and rocks visible for miles, only to see what looks like an island in the middle of the sea of sand with lush greens and blues, rocky silver hills, and waterfalls that look like something out of a Bob Ross painting. Now, Ein Gedi was an instance where Gill did not quite communicate to us what we were in for. He kept telling us we were just getting off the bus and quickly walking around. For that reason, I took my entire duffel bag with me so I'd have a bathing suit and towel in case we ended up going swimming. Quickly though, I realized that we were actually going to be going on a long and surprisingly arduous hike across rocky terrain. Unfortunately, I therefore ended up being saddled with a dufflebag slung around my shoulders for the entire hike ... But, I have to say again how amazing the scenery of Ein Gedi was. The waterfalls were just spectacular, and it was no wonder that the spot inspired King David to write some of his famous poetry and that it receives mention in the biblical Song of Songs.

- One cool thing that happened at Ein Gedi - our Birthright group crossed paths with the Israel Outdoors group which my friend from LA, Lauren S, was a part of. Both of our groups were kind of headed in oppossite directions, but we had a few quick minutes to say hello and snap a great photo of us together. Small world, huh?

- I did have one small scare while hiking in Ein Gedi. As we were walking across a rocky path that went alongside a waterfall, I was talking with some people from the group when I slipped on a wet rock and started to tumble. Luckily, I grabbed hold of the rope barrier that separated us from the steep incline beside us, but, man, for a minute there, I thought I might be about to take a bigtime plunge ... Actually, while a couple of guys (and one bold girl) did take a dip in the Ein Gedi springs, I was pretty worn out from Masada, and just perched myself on a rock, sat back, and took in the scenery, which was, as I've said, pretty amazing.

- After our Ein Gedi adventure, we drove down, down, down to the lowest point on earth - The Dead Sea! I thought I had seen some spectacular coastlines thus far in Israel, but I was truly wowed by the glimmering blue sea as it met with the rocky beaches of the valley. The Dead Sea is definitely one of those definitive Israel experiences, as there really is nothing else like it in the world. Being there was definitely a big moment for me, as it's a place that I've heard about all my life - over and over in Solomon Schechter we learned about "Yam HaMelach" and it's unique properties that allowed you to effortlessly float in its salty and therapeutic waters. Before we actually got to the Dead Sea, we stopped at the Ahava factory outlet for a few minutes, at which were were all nudged to spend our valuable American dollars on overpriced skin care products made directly from Dead Sea minerals. The ladies of our trip were pretty into it, but I think us guys couldn't help but roll our eyes a bit. Finally though, we arrived at the Dead Sea, changed into our "swimming costumes" (as Gill called them), and dove in. The water did sting a bit (especially so soon after getting roughed up by those camels ...), but it really was a pretty crazy experience to float so effortlessly in the water. After taking our first dip with the Dead, we headed over to the Dead Sea's famous mud pits, and hilarity ensued. I mean, wow, I have never experienced anything quite like those mud pits. You jump into these natural vats of dark gray goo, and it's like being in really thick quicksand or something. We all lathered ourselves up with the mud from head to toe, and looked like a bunch of rejects from a George Romero movie - so crazy! The tricky part was getting out, as the mud became so heavy that it was hard to sit up or lift your arms or legs out of the mudpit. Nevermind the fact that the weight of the mud works to pull your bathing suit off - I had to cling to my trunks for dear life to avoid unnecessary exposure. But yeah, it was hilarious walking around once we emerged from the pit - I did the obligatory zombie pose and we all had a blast slinging mud at each other. Finally, we went back into the sea and tried to wash off some of the mud, which really just led to us being covered in a weird salt-water-mud substance and smelling pretty funky. Luckily, the changing rooms had real showers with which to properly rinse off.

- After drying off, a bunch of us had a really nice lunch at a terrace snack shop that overlooked the Dead Sea. Sitting there, eating my surprisingly tasty turkey sandwich, in the tranquil beachside patio overlooking the glimmering blue water of the Dead Sea, I couldn't help but think: "yep, this is the life."

- Finally, what I'll dub the "hardcore extreme adventure" portion of our trip came to a close, as we boarded our bus and headed towards what would be our final destination of the experience -- finally, we we going to Jerusalem. We arrived in at our hotel, Moriah Gardens, in the early evening, and by this point we were all extremely exhausted. Still, I think everyone was glad to be in a room with a real bed and bathrooms after the more rustic portion of our trip. While the service at the hotel wasn't always great (it took them a full day to bring me a bedframe for my cot ...), they had internet access, pretty good food, and nice facilities so it was hard not to be happy to be there. The hotel was also practically Birthright central, with several Birthright trips from across America staying there at the same time as us.

- Like I said though, we were positively out-of-it by the time we settled down for dinner, so unfortunately it was at times hard to stay awake during that evening's activity, a political panel discussion held in our hotel. However, the panel quickly heated up, and got very, very interesting. We actually heard from representatives from each of the major Israeli political parties, ranging from the far left to the far right, and it was extremely eye-opening to hear the differences between them. As crazy as America's political system can be, Israel's might be even nuttier. Since there are several prominent political parties, the more extreme factions on the left and right have a voice in addition to the more moderate groups. Now, it was really interesting to hear some of the arguments that arose. I suspect that most of us in the group were pretty liberal-leaning in American terms, but on this panel the left-wing guy really came off as an outsider, with his anti-violence, anti-war viewpoints severely criticized even by the moderates. It didn't help that the left-wing guy was a bit out-there, but still, it just goes to show how the Israeli mainstream is much more hawkish than its American counterpart. And they have to be - Israel is surrounded by hostile nations that don't acknowledge its right to exist. But still, you can see how years of war and bloodshed have hardened the Israelis - they don't have a lot of tolerance for pacifist views. And honestly, if I was Israeli I doubt that I would either. I actually asked a question to the panel that stirred up some intense debate - asking what if anything Israel needed to do to improve its PR in terms of rallying the international community around its cause. The ensuing arguments set off a debate about the state of free speech rights in Israel, and again, it was just fascinating to hear the many differeing views within the spectrum of Israeli politics.

- And then, there was nothing left to do but go to sleep. We were exhausted!

DAY 9:

- Thursday in Jerusalem was definitely one of the most all-around memorable days we had in Israel. We started things off by visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's famous Holocaust museum. It really is an amazing museum, with incredibly well-put-together exhibits that really put the events of the Holocaust in perspective. I've read and learned a lot about the Holocaust and World War II, but our tour of the museum gave me a very clear and well-rounded overall perspective on how exactly these terrible events came to pass. We started our tour by gathering in an auditorium and listening to a Holocaust survivor recount his nightmarish childhood in Holland, during which he and his family were brought to a concentration camp. This guy was an incredible storyteller, and I don't think I've ever heard a firsthand account of the Holocaust told so vividly before. Despite being early in the morning, I was on edge of my seat listening to his harrowing tale. Afterwords, the tone for the rest of our tour of the museum had really been set - I felt like I had just relived this man's horrific experiences. Once in the museum, we met with a tour guide who led us through the various exhibits. The tour was really well done in that we had headphones through which we could hear our guide, allowing us to wander around while she was speaking and examine each exhibit at our own pace.

- The exhibits and overall experience of Yad Vashem were both moving and devastating. The pictures, accounts, and historical documents were almost too much to take in. One thing I found both fascinating and horrifying were the black boxes scattered throughout the museum. On the front of each box was a dignified looking picture of one of Germany's top-ranking Nazi officers, and a list of all of their various awards and professional accomplishments. But inside each box was a list of their atrocious crimes, hate-filled letters that they had written spewing with antisemitism and zero hints of remorse. It was a stark reminder that evil can have an all too human face. Overall though, Yad Vashem was a riveting and haunting experience that I won't soon forget.

- We then stopped back at our hotel for lunch and rested up a bit before our afternoon / evening tour of Jerusalem's Old City. Going into our trip, this was probably what I was most excited to see, as it really is history come alive. And walking through the Old City did not disappoint. You really do feel as though you're in a pretty special place, and everywhere you turn there is an ancient or holy site straight from the bible. But Jerusalem is also a thriving and modern city, so it's really interesting to see that dichotomy at play, and to just look around and see the diverse people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds that call the city their home.

- A quick Jerusalem story: we stopped for a bit to grab a snack and look in some shops nestled between clusters of ancient archways. I walked around on my own for a few minutes and grabbed an amazing slice of freshly-baked pizza. As I rejoined the group, a mass of Israeli school kids walked by, a class of children probably around 9 or 10 years old. They all immediately pegged us as Americans and were so excited to run up and practice their American accents on us. A couple of boys ran up to me - "What's up, dude?" they shouted. I summoned my best SoCal affectation and shouted back - "What up guys? How's it going?", and they all smiled and high-fived. So cool.

- Finally, as the sun began to set over "Yerushalayim Shell Zahav", we worked our way to the famous Western Wall, perhaps the world's holiest site, the last remnant of the ancient Temple. The scene at the Wall on this particular evening was absolutely epic. Gathered in the large square facing the Wall were hundreds of newly-recruited Israeli soldiers, assembled for an induction ceremony, surrounded by throngs of their family and friends. As rows and rows of fully-outfitted young troops filled the plaza, it was kind of an ominous vibe, I have to admit. It got very chaotic, very quickly. Our group filtered through the security booths and approached the Wall - we split into groups and I went over with the first batch of people to get up close and personal with the Kotel, as it's called in Hebrew. Being in front of the wall, it really was awe-inspiring. I was desperately trying to find my kippah which I thought I had brought with me, one of the blue and gold ones we gave out at my Bar Mitzvah, but couldn't find it, much to my dismay. Still, I approached the wall and put my note to God in one of its many cracks, as is the custom. As I stood there, an orthodox man approached me and asked if I'd like him to say a bracha (prayer) for me - I said I would and he proceeded to recite a blessing as I stood in front of the wall. I got so caught up in the whole thing that I missed meeting up with the rest of my group to tour the caverns below the wall. I explained what happened to Gill and joined up with Group #2 instead. I did manage to get some excellent photos of the Kotel and the surrounding plaza as well.

- We then took a somewhat lengthy tour of the recently-excavated tunnels and caverns that run beneath the Wall, essentially areas that used to make up the inner-sanctum of the Temple. It was pretty amazing to walk right past the spot where the Holy of Holies was located in ancient times, the spot where the actual Ark of the Covenant was said to have been kept. I mean, talk about intense! After a while though, the stuffy air of the tunnels began to get to me and I was ready to go back to the surface. But wow, what an experience to walk amidst the ruins of the legendary Holy Temple.

- As we exited the Western Wall plaza, the scene outside was really crazy, with the military induction ceremony in full swing. We bobbed and weaved our way through the massive crowd, and it really was like one of those scenes from a movie where you kind of felt like you were walking through a powder keg. Just seeing so many soldiers in one place, as the skies darkened and the Wall loomed overhead, again, you couldn't help but feel a little on-edge, even if the reason for them being there was essentially celebratory.

- We then walked out of the Old City and into the more modern section of Jerusalem, over to Ben Yehuda Street - a sprawling avenue packed to the brim with shops, restaurants, and nightlife. Thursday night in Israel is pretty much the weekend, so the place was absolutely hopping. We all kind of wandered around for a bit looking for a good place to eat dinner, and finally a couple of us ended up going to this small, European-style bistro that had a chilled-out vibe and some extremely solid food. It was the first time in Israel that we really had a chance to go out for dinner and just relax and enjoy a leisurely meal, so it was really nice just sitting and talking with a couple of my trip-mates for a while.

- When we first arrived at Ben Yehuda Street, our resident Israeli party animal, Or, told us we should all meet him later that night at a bar called Triple. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to see Or in his natural element, after dinner I persuaded a couple of my dining companions to walk with me to try and find the place Or had mentioned. After ambling around Ben Yehuda, asking a bunch of random Israelis for guidance, we finally came across a happening area that was home to several local hotspots, including Triple. We were amongst the first from our group to arrive and meet up with Or, but the great thing was that over the next half hour or so, about twenty or so people from our group, including all of the Israelis and even Gill, joined up with us. It was a great time, maybe the most out-and-out fun night of our trip. The music at Triple was bouncing, the locals were friendly, and it was just awesome seeing everyone from our trip letting loose and having fun. I have to make special mention of the music selection that night - in Israel, they love their cheesy pop tunes, and that night I heard a glorious one-two punch of "I Saw the Sign" by Ace of Base, and that staple of 90's-era dancing, The Macarena. Yes indeed.

- On the bus ride back to our hotel from Ben Yehuda Street, it really began to hit me that I was having a blast. In one day I'd toured a museum that stands as a reminder of the worst moment in our people's history, seen the holiest site in the world, and partied down with twenty new friends. I was really riding high - it doesn't get much cooler than that.

DAY 10:

- On Friday, we slept a bit late after our crazy night in Jerusalem. Even after we got back to the hotel, we had stayed up talking and joking - everyone was sensing that the trip was nearing its end, and we wanted to take advantage of the remaining time together in Israel. Sleeping in though left me feeling really groggy during the early part of the day - I think we were all starting to come down a bit after the nonstop craziness of the previous few days. Our first outing of the day, however, was a sobering one indeed. We travelled to Mount Hertzl, essentially the Israeli equivalent of Arlington Cemetary. It's a site at which past Israeli prime-ministers, presidents, military officials, and other dignitaries are buried, as well as hundreds of rank-and-file soldiers killed in battle. The centerpiece of the site is a plaza and burial site for Theodore Hertzl, the founder of the Zionist movement which eventually led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Walking past the graves of giants like Yitchak Rabin and Golda Meir was a pretty powerful experience in and of itself, but man, things really became intense when we walked past the graves of young soldiers killed in battle. So many of the graves listed birthdays in 1981, 1982, 1983 ... it was absolutely haunting to see so many dead and buried soldiers who were so close to me in age. When some of the Israelis in our group began to tear up and break down in sadness while looking at their fallen comrades, it was almost too much to take. And then there was one final punch to the gut - a large expanse of fresh grass reserved for soldiers killed in the ongoing situation in Gaza. There were some freshly-dug graves and there were mothers kneeling and crying beside them. Again, just a sobering reminder of the price Israel pays to ensure its existence. And throughout our trip, there was a constant sense that this was *our* home too - often we heard people use the phrase "welcome home" with regards to our arrival in Israel - so, in a sense, these soldiers died for us. A pretty powerful concept, to be sure.

- Sidenote: people keep asking me if I felt safe in Israel. The answer is a resounding "yes." Life in Israel as a whole is a bit different than in The States. You do have to be aware of your surroundings, and yeah, it could be jarring for us Americans to see how normal it was to walk into a foodcourt and see soldiers casually strolling around sporting uzis or shotguns. But Israel is a modern, safe, and incredibly friendly place. And especially when participating in a group trip like Birthright, the utmost care is taken to stay away from any trouble areas and to maintain safety at all times. But really, most of the places we visited in Israel were more welcoming and safe-seeming than you'd typically find in LA. So I'd say that, for anyone contemplating going on Birthright but not sure due to safety concerns ... do it! For the most part, it's business as usual in the Holy Land.

- Anyways, our next stop after Mt. Hertzl was slightly less emotionally intense, but a lot of fun. We went over to Jerusalem's famous open-air market, aka the Shuk, and threw ourselves into the teeming crowds of bustling Israelis looking to make all of their last-minute, pre-Shabbat purchases. The market is absolutely insane. People were shouting and haggling, the streets were crowded, and often there was barely room to move. You had to really channel your inner Israeli (kind of like your inner New Yorker) and push people aside and bark at the vendors, otherwise you'd just get lost in the shuffle. But the sheer variety of foods on display - fruits and baked goods and meats and fish and vegetables - was just sensory overload. We eventually made our way to the Shuk's famous Marzipan Bakery, and filled up boxes with pastries, breads, and other baked goods. Yep, we were already beginning to negate some of the workout that we got climbing Masada ...

- We went back to the hotel for a bit, and then prepared for our second Shabbat in Israel. A semi-last-minute decision was made to spend Kabbalat Shabbat at the Western Wall, and it turned out to be a great choice. Even though we had just been to the Wall the day before, being there on Shabbat was an entirely different experience. In honor of the Sabbath, the Wall plaza was sectioned off into seperate areas for men and women, and while the previous day's atmosphere was slightly ominous, on Friday evening the Kotel was one giant party. The men's section was like walking into a giant Chabad house. Orthodox chasidim and chabadniks and dozens of other religious sects danced madly around, sang like their lives depended on it, and eagerly pulled us into the ruckus. "Where are you from?" asked one orthodox fellow with a long beard. "Connecticut," I said - "I went to school in Boston and now live in LA." "Boston?!" he exclaimed - "You know Rabbi Poesner?" "Sure I know him," I replied. Such is Jewish geography - everyone knows everyone. It's funny, because from some of my experiences, particularly in Boston with BU's Hillel, I was familiar with the crazy celebratory customs of orthodox Jews, but a lot of people in our group were just blown away by all of the excitement. It really was a festive atmosphere, and it was amazing to participate in welcoming Shabbat with Jews from all over the world at the holiest of holy places. Definitely another experience that I won't soon forget.

- After a half-hour or so, we regrouped and walked through the Armenian quarter of the Old City en route back to our hotel. Everywhere we went in the Old City, Jews passed by singing and dancing and celebrating, each time inviting us to join in the merriment. It really was quite the experience, walking through Jerusalem on Shabbat.

- Back at the hotel, we ate a Shabbat dinner (complimented by some fresh challah purchased earlier in the day at Marzipan ...), had some group discussion, and then hung around in the hotel lobby talking, until we slowly but surely began to feel the pull of sleep. I was really beginning to fade by this point - I remember sitting in our room talking with one of my roommates, David, and my eyes were literally closed as we were talking because I couldn't keep them open anymore. There was definitely an air of sadness though - this was to be our last full night in Eretz Yisroel.

DAY 11:

- Our last day in Israel! It was definitely surreal waking up in Jerusalem knowing that within a mere matter of hours I'd find myself back in LA. Once again, we got to take it pretty easy in the morning as the day's schedule was not particularly heavy. I had tried to pack up a bit the night before but I still wanted to make sure that all of my stuff was in order. We didn't meet again as a group until lunchtime at the hotel. After lunch, we walked over to a neighboring (and slightly swankier) hotel, where we joined up with another Birthright / Israel Experts group for a sort of closing session with the head honcho of Israel Experts, who gave us the cliff notes version of Israel's history from biblical times to today (via a "map program," in which a giant map of Israel was drawn on the floor). The session kind of put the final exclamation point on all that we had seen and heard to date.

- We then finished packing our bags and loaded up the bus - again, the finality of the trip was really starting to hit us. As the sun set, we gathered outside the hotel for one more Havdallah celebration, once again circling up and singing the traditional Havdallah songs and prayers. With our bags packed and the evening upon us, we sat in the bus one together one last time, and made a final stop at Kibbutz Nachshon, where a goodbye feast awaited us when we arrived. That final dinner was really nice -- we were in a well-decorated outdoor picnic area with hanging lights and a large buffet. Hot chicken soup, pasta, and salad was ready for the taking, and bottles of wine marked the occasion. A good meal, to be sure. After dinner, we moved our chairs into a circle and had one last group activity, which involved assembling a jigsaw-puzzle map of Israel using all our accumulated geographic knowledge. In addition, we closed things out by reflecting on our 10+ days in Israel ...

- That last group conversation was a flashback of sorts to our first Shabbat, where one after another, people stepped forward and shared surprisingly heartfelt recollections of the trip, peppered with funny anecdotes and great stories. Gill gave us a final recap of all that we had done and seen on the trip, and then asked us to share our favorite moments or biggest insights. I quickly volunteered to speak, and I talked about what an honor it had been to experience the trip alongside such a great group of Israelis. I had gotten to room with three of them, and it was amazing to me how we had on one hand engaged in some really insightful and serious conversations about Israel and America, and on the other hand, we had shared in some of the most hilarious and goofy conversations I've ever had the pleasure of participating in. I talked about how before I left on the trip, people actually came up to me and said things like "why would you want to go to Israel," or "Israel's the last place I'd want to go right now." But the ongoing conflict made it that much more important to go and to show our support. Is said that after meeting so many great people and seeing so many amazing places, we obviously would have been crazy NOT to have gone.

- Finally, after our final dinner and discussion, we collectively said our "thank-you's" to Gill, Jesse and Teddy, our bus driver Yitzchak, and to the rest of the Israel Experts staff. We were presented with a complimentary book and group photo. And then, we were off. We arrived at Ben Gurion airport and I couldn't help but be overcome by a strongly surreal and dreamlike feeling. We turned in our Israeli cell phones, picked up our just-arrived Birthright T-shirts, pulled out our passports ... and then came the very sad task of saying goodbye to the kickass group of Israelis who had been with us for 10+ days. Or, Ilan, Yuval ... Lior and Adi ... Eran, Tom, Ori, and Inon, and of course Gill. After our farewells, we slowly but surely made our way through El Al security. Once past security, we had some time to kill, so our now semi-fractured group did some last-minute souvenier shopping, and then, somehow, we all ended up getting McDonalds at the airport foodcourt. Hey, I guess it's an appropriate way to symbolize returning to America? Actually, I think we all just wanted to fill up on food in preparation for our 16 hour flight back to LA. Again though, being back at the airport was just sort of weird - our group leaders were no longer leading us around - our fellowship was breaking apart. We were still kind of clinging together and yet our trip was all but over.

- We boarded the plane back to LA, and I was incredibly relieved to find that I had an aisle seat, and even better, an empty seat next to me. Having that extra room to stretch out made all the difference in the world. On the flight back, we all kind of drifted in and out of sleep, alternating between watching movies, chatting, picking at the somewhat iffy El Al in-flight meals, etc. I listened to about 7 consecutive episodes of the Ricky Gervais Show podcast, and then just listened to music - I was too lost in thought and reflection, and too trapped in a strange state of nervous energy mixed with exhaustion, to really focus on a movie or TV show or book. Finally, after a long flight that was its own sort of epic odyssey (but much less painful than the flight to Israel), we touched down in LA. The next half hour or so was a whirlwind of going through customs, picking up our baggage, and saying our goodbyes. The good part was that we all lived in LA and everyone was excited about reuniting soon and often. But the reality was that as a group, this was likely our last hurrah. We were back in America, back to our lives, after an incredible Israel adventure.


- It was so strange, hours earlier I had been in Israel, hours later I was oddly wide-awake and eating a waffle at the IHOP in Burbank with the G-Man. It's taken me this entire week to really come down from my Israel adventures. I'm only now starting to get over my jetlag, which had me crashing and falling asleep at odd hours and waking up at even odder ones. And while I was already semi-addicted to Facebook, this week I've been seemingly checking it every five seconds, anxious to read my trip-mates' status updates and curious to see if I was tagged in any new photos. I was actually pretty happy with how my many photos came out - I took almost 600 pictures and uploaded most of them to Facebook across 9 separate albums.

- I definitely feel sort of different since coming back to the States. I just feel a bit more at peace about things, not concerned with the usual B.S., at least for now, and, I don't know, more spiritually-fulfilled? I love the fact that so many of the people from my trip seem so enthusiastic about Judaism and Shabbat and everything else. In the past, trying to get friends to come along to Jewish activities has been like pulling teeth - it's awesome that there is now this big group that is into it. And this past Saturday, less than a week after returning to America, a bunch of us from the trip got together to see Waltz With Bashir, the Israeli film that's now been nominated for a foreign-language Oscar. It was great to see everyone again - I think I was in withdrawal after several days apart or something, and it's funny because I think everyone had that same pent-up desire to get together and talk a little more about our trip and comisserate about the struggle to reacclimate to business as usual. But we took a little group photo at the Arclight theater, and I added it to my last album of Israel photos ... to me it signified that the trip might be over, but hey, the adventure continues.

- So in closing, thanks to everyone for making my Israel adventure a truly memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. I know I didn't get a chance to mention everyone by name in this post, but I can't emphasize enough what a great group we had and what an amazing experience we were treated to in Israel. Sababa!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Live from ISRAEL ...!

Hey everyone,

Don't have much time but thought I'd take advantage of a few minutes of downtime here in Tel Aviv and write my first-ever blog post LIVE from the Holy Land. The trip has been great so far - I've already seen some amazing places, from Haifa to Tzfat to the Golan, and now I'm here in Israel's most hopping city, Tel Aviv. I just want to say that everything here is very safe - I don't think people in America understand just how modern and developed Israel actually is. Being here in Tel Aviv is just like being in NYC, LA, or London.

Anyways, stay tuned for a full report once I'm back in the US of A. But for now, here's a l'chaim for a very-special post live from Tel Aviv!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Danny's Epic ISRAEL ADVENTURE Begins!

And I am off, folks! Yes, in a mere matter of hours I will be leavin' on a jetplane for ISRAEL. It's amazing to me that after all these years, I am finally going to see the place for myself. You'd think that after eight years of Solomon Schechter Day School, five years of camp-counselering at Camp Shalom (where I worked with dozens of Israelis), two years of teaching Hebrew School, and 26 years of being Jew-ish, I would have visited by now. But finally ... I will make my long-awaited debut in the Holy Land. They won't know what hit 'em.

It really is a long time coming. I mean, all through elementary school, I learned all there is to know about Israel - its cities, its culture, its history. Half of my teachers were Israeli, a fact that taught me at an early age that Israelis can be a prideful bunch who don't like to be messed with and who don't like when kids talk in the classroom. Hmm, okay, maybe that's not all Israelis, just Mrs. Schmidt. Yikes ...

But seriously, I am curious if all that random information I have stored somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain will surface when I finally step foot in Israel. The last time I used Hebrew regularly was when I taught it at the third-grade level, circa 5 years ago. Ani lo yodeah eem ani zocher harbeh ivrit. Most likely, I'll start to attempt to speak Hebrew and inadvertantly transition into some form of broken Spanish.

And yeah, sure, there is some craziness goin' down in the Gaza strip. But don't worry, I'll be packing a cammo-colored tanktop and red, Rambo-style headband just in case I have to throw down with some terrorist scum. So watch out, Hamas, the Hebrew Hammer will soon be landing in your backyard - so watcha' gonna' do?

Okay, to be serious for a second, thanks to everyone for their well-wishes and concern. Honestly, I think this is going to be a fun-filled trip and an epic adventure. Birthright is known for their emphasis on safety and security, and we will be far away from trouble spots like Gaza. Personally, I'm excited to walk among the old city of Jerusalem, check out the soothing waters of the Dead Sea, and rock out in Tel-Aviv.

So wish me luck. I will be back in LA on the 18th. I've got my iPod loaded up and my DVR set to record the 24 season premiere. Facebook status updates may come sporadically pending availability of wi-fi. Now all I have between me and Eretz Yisrael is a 14 hour flight. Oh man ...

Alright, Israel - here I come.

PS - If you haven't already, check out my HUGE Best of 2008 posts - you'll have plenty of time to read 'em, as the blog will likely be on hiatus for a bit, unless I manage to find a find a computer and update live from Israel. In any case, stay tuned for the full Israel report - coming in 10 days! PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Danny's BEST OF 2008: Music - My Top 10 Songs of '08

I know, I know, you thought I was done with all my Best of 2008 craziness, but I'm back with one mo' post, just in case one or two people out there were wondering what my picks were for the Best Music of 2008 ... well, here they are. Since no one album stood out to me overall this year as being groundbreaking or monumental, and since we're living in the age of a la carte digital downloads anyways, this year I will limit my list to best songs of the year.


1. "Paper Planes" - M.I.A.
2. "Scare Easy" - Mudcrutch
3. "You're Gonna Go Far, Kid" - The Offspring
4. "Better" - Guns N' Roses
5. "Disturbia" - Rihanna
6. "Rock n' Roll Train" - AC/DC
7. "I Kissed a Girl" - Katy Perry
8. "Pork n' Beans" - Weezer
9. "Human" - The Killers
10. "Inner City Pressure" - Flight of the Conchords

See, I can do a Best-Of list that doesn't take 5 hours to read (or write!).

Once again, Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Danny's BEST OF 2008: My Year in Review - Thoughts on The Year That Was and Hopes For The Year To Come!

Happy New Year!

But before I plunge headfirst into 2009, as is tradition, it's time for one last post looking back at 2008, the year that was. If you haven't already, please check out my mega-posts detailing my thoughts on the year's best in movies, TV, and more - even if you already skimmed through, I've made a few tweaks and additions over the last few days so it's worth giving 'em another read through. Then come right back here for one more dose of year-end wrap-up.

Before I get into my 2008 recap, however, I think I should start by talking about what's going on in the here and now. Normally, I'd simply be relaxing on this post-New Year's weekend, semi-dreading a return to work on Monday but optimistic about the big things to come in the new year. But right now, things aren't quite normal. I'm headed to Israel in a mere two days, via the Birthright Israel program, on what will be a very long-awaited, much-anticipated trip. For those that don't know, Birthright is a group that offers free (yes, free!) trips to Israel to any young Jews between 18 and 27 who have never travelled to Israel on an organized trip before. Seeing as how this is essentially my last year of eligibilty, I decided several months back that it was now or never, and that this was really the optimal time to take advantage of the great opportunity that Birthright offers.

So again, under more normal circumstances, I'd be running around like crazy, prepping for the trip, getting packed, figuiring out all the logistics, and hoping that it turns out to be a great group and an awesome trip. And I'm still doing all of those things (esepcially the running around like crazy part ...).

But what's slightly abnormal here is that just days ago, Hamas chose to break it's ceasefire with Israel by firing numerous rockets into Israeli territory. In response to the latest outbreak of rocket fire and to years of continued Hamas aggression, Israel retalliated in the form of large scale airstrikes, and, as of today, a ground assault in Gaza.

Now, I've taken a lot of flack for comments that I made a couple of days back. In a previous post, I said that, while I will always support Israel's right to defend itself, I couldn't help but worry that the force of Israel's attacks was costing it the larger battle to win over the hearts and minds of not only their Arab enemies, but of the rest of the world as well. To some degree, obviously, my reservations about Israel's retalliation is due to me being days away from going there myself. For selfish reasons, I am hoping for an end to aggression as soon as possible, and a return to a peace-agreement, even if it's one that is only likely to provide some short-term relief. And I also think that, in my previous comments, I was not clear enough in affirming my overwhelming support for Israel and my full condemnation of Hamas. But to a large extent, I can't help but stand by the spirit of what I said earlier, which is that no matter how pure Israel's intentions, unless they act with the certainty that their strikes will help end the neverending cycle of violence in the region, one can't help but wonder if the short-term benefits of these initial strikes will outweigh the possible longterm effects. Ultimately, is Israel just helping to unify its enemies against it?

I'm not saying that I have the answers. My point is simply that - look - you can see that Israel has tried to improve its PR in the last few days, even as Hamas leaders make evil-sounding doomsday-prophecy threats against Istael - but again, I just wish that Israel would take the extra step sometimes to make its case to the world before acting. Yes, the rockets fired at Israel were a terrible threat, but the threat was not so immediate and huge that Israel couldn't have begun its retaliation after first explaining its rationale and rallying its allies to its cause. It just pains me to see Israel once again defending itself even as people all over the world protest and as Arab nations align against it. How many times is this going to keep happenening?

The fact is, Israeli military action against terrorists is unlikely to have a lasting, positive affect unless: a.) there is full and active cooperation from the US and a coalition of other countries (the US has yet to even verbally lend support to Israel's ground strikes), and b.) the Israelis make EVERY effort to turn the everyday Palestinians AGAINST the likes of Hamas and radical Islamic groups in general. Racking up a death toll of civilians does NOT help the Israeli cause in this regard, and as hard as it is to avoid casualties of that nature in this type of assault, you have to wonder if that in and of itself calls the worth of this assault into question. Ultimately though, if the rank and file Palestinians come out of this latest conflict with more hatred towards Israel and more support for Hamas than ever, then, well, you have to wonder if the larger war against terror took one step forward and two steps back.

So that is the point I was and am trying to make. But don't get me wrong - Hamas deserves to be dismantled, and as an organization it deserves absolutely zero support from the UN, the USA, or anyone in the world. Any governing body that spends all of its cash on weapons and ammo rather than schools and hospitals should have seen some of the current humanitarian crisis coming. And the rhetoric of Hamas, like so many terrorist groups, is simply ridiculous - how do they expect to be taken seriously when they talk with melodramatic threats that make them sound like Cobra Commander from GI Joe? That's what I don't understand about people who talk about Israel and Hamas in equal terms, as if they are simply two opposing sides in some conflict colored in shades of gray. Hamas, clearly, wants nothing more than a reason to maim and kill. Anger and bloodlust is their currency, and it's how they maintain popular support. Their mission statement is death and destruction, whereas Israel's is peace and democracy. And that's why I just worry that Israel must be careful not to play into its enemy's hands.

So ... anyways ... in a couple of days I'll be boarding an El-Al jet and heading over to this hotbead of crazyness. More to come later, but let's get back to my Year In Review.

- Really, putting aside the conflicts of the last few days, 2008 was an historic year that produced many great moments that will go down as some of the most memorable in recent history. The presidential election of 2008 was undoubtedly one for the books, and it felt liek a moment of great victory and redemption for our country.

It's already easy to forget just how huge the moment was. Barack Obama, a candidate whom I supported since the start of his presidential run, won the election to the surprise of many and now stands as our country's President Elect. So many people expressed doubt that he could do it, but after eight disasterous years of George W. Bush in office, the majority of Americans rallied around the idea of positivity, of hope, and of change.

It's funny, because right now there is that strange feeling that we're on two concurrent paths - one towards potential disaster, and one towards a new golden era of innovation, prosperity, and equality. The last eight years brought us to the brink, and right now it feels as though we're teetering on edge - international instability, war, economic turmoil, environmental crisis - it's strange then to think that there is an uncanny sense of optimism, the idea that a brighter future is just around the corner. I don't know if that's really the case or not, but I can't help but think back to election day in November and remember the feeling of joy and elation, and wonder if that feeling was only fleeting, or was it a sign of great things to come?

I am thankful, however, that Obama's election win signalled a triumph over the divisive, Rove-ian politics that defined our country for so long, the tradition that John McCain embraced even after such tactics had been used against him. The tradition that Sarah Palin tried to reignite - for better or worse though, she proved so big of a moron that even her party loyalists tended to see her for the joke that she was. And thank God for that.

It's why January 20th can't get here soon enough for the sake of our country and the world. If ever there was a "lame duck" president, it's George Bush here in early January. Even he seems to have resigned himself to the fact that his policies have caused enough damage - better to rest on his laurels than stir up any more trouble. But man, so much trouble is brewing. All of the crises and huge global issues listed above, those are what Obama inherits, and what we all have to look at directly and you know, confront, deal with, solve.

It's why there's no time to argue about whether evolution is real - it's called facts, people - science is real, deal with it. There's no point in debating the morality of gay versus straight - if it doesn't affect your life, who cares? There's no use in pandering to the oil companies and the gun lobby and the tobacco makers - these people are old hat, *so* twentieth century, their time is over. That's some status quo action we don't need anymore, baby. Instead of making these issues about ideology, let's make them about solving problems. Oil is a problem. Guns are a problem. Poverty and disease are a problem. The economy is a problem. Crazy fanatics who want to kill us are a problem. Red vs. Blue is a problem. Dancing With the Stars thriving while Pushing Daisies gets cancelled - that's a problem, man.

And that's why I hereby declare 2009 to be the Year of the Solution. Let's forget the Us versus Them mentalities, embrace the "Yes We Can" mentality, ignore the stupid people, listen to the smart people, worry about doing what needs to be done, and by all means: let's do it!

- As for me, well, 2008 was a pretty good year, but I'll admit, after a a four-year period of change, evolution, and newness, 2008 was sort of a status-quo year. Same job, same apartment, same salary ... But, at the same time, there was a lot to like in 2008, and a great foundation established on which to build in the year ahead. For all I know, '08 may have been the calm before the storm (a good sort of storm, I mean).

Let's see, almost a year ago at this time I was headed to VEGAS for one of my first big business-trips. I attended my first-ever Consumer Electronics Expo, where I saw all kinds of cool tech, saw Peter Frampton in concert, stayed in the nicest hotel room I had ever been in, and was wined and dined on the company dime. Not bad for a kid from Bloomfield, CT who in earlier years spent many a family vacation slumming it in cheapo motels somewhere in Cape Cod.

Soon after that, in February, I got to go on another company trip to NYC. It was absolutely freezing the entire time I was there, and it was an exhausting couple of days, but the highlight was certainly the fact that I got to hang out with some great East Coast friends, including Erica and Kate W. I even got to visit the offices of The Onion, thanks to Mike D, now of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon fame. I also got to take the weekend to visit the family in CT - it was first of three times in '08 that I'd travel home. The next time would be in May, when I stopped in CT en route to BOSTON, for my brother Matt's big college graduation from BU. It was a lot of fun to hang out in Beantown and see the ol' BU stomping grounds, and it was a fun if too-short trip. Of course, I had tons of Boston pride several weeks later, when THE CELTICS won their first NBA championship in years after dramatically defeating the rival Lakers. But I digress ... As I was saying, the third and final time I'd be home in CT in '08 came in October, when I joined the fam during Yom Kippur, and reclaimed my title as videogame champ of the Baram household.

I also had a couple of trips down to San Diego this year. The first was in April, where I joined the Axe-Man and his family for a Passover seder. And of course, I was back in SD in July, for an event that has now become a much-anticipated annual tradition, the San Diego Comic-Con. Our long weekend in San Diego was even better than the previous year's trip. At the show, I saw several great panels, including the first-ever public screening of Watchmen footage, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime Q&A with the legendary Ray Bradbury, one of my all-time heroes. At night, not only did we have a a ton of fun partying like rockstars in downtown SD, but I even managed to get into an ultra-swanky Entertainment Weekly / SciFi party that was absolutely packed with all manner of big-time celebs. Yet another sign that I was livin' the dream. And hey, prior that that, in June, I got to attend the Saturn Awards - not exactly the Oscars, but hey, it was my first real Hollywood awards show, and I was right there with the likes of Summer Glau, Jennifer Love-Hewitt, and, dammit all, Dolph Lungdren. Pretty sweet, if I do say so myself.

Also over the summer, I attended my first-ever E3! Okay, well, kind of. I didn't hit the show floor, but I was front and center for Microsoft's E3 press conference, which was pretty cool. It was, certainly, one of my work-related highlights of the year, in a year that saw a number of big things happen at NBCU and in my department in particular. Without going into detail, it was a year that saw my group get back in business with Apple and iTunes, for one thing, which definiely kind of brought things full-circle in some sense. Of course, with the tanking economy and the state of the entertainment biz in general, things could be tumultuous at times. From the huge protests outside of NBC during the Writers' Strike to the wave of layoffs that hit in December, it was definitely an interesting if not at-times nerveracking time to be in showbiz.

But I kept pluggin' away, and tried to take on new responsibilities when the opportunity arose - whether it was helping to interview and supervise the NBC Pages in our department, or just me trying to be more assertive and vocal when possible. Meanwhile, I am of course a stickler for tradition, and one of my annual traditions is going all-out to celebrate all-things Halloween come October. This year saw yet another successful Horror Movie Marathon, one more trip to the Scary Farm, and yes, another great Halloween bash (aka the event formerly known as Page-O-Ween), in which I donned a long wig, tophat, and fingerless leather gloves as part of my SLASH costume. A memorable (and rocking!) getup indeed.

There were all kinds of other random adventures scattered throughout '08. An epic trip to Disneyland, some intense games of tennis, lots of bonding over politics, Wet Hot American Purim, a live Stella comedy show, and a bigtime birthday bash in September, to name a few. I was on a bit of a concert dryspell going into the Fall and Winter, but more than made up for it with a huge double-bill in late '08, as in a span of several days I saw SMASHING PUMPKINS, followed soon after by one of the all-time rockin' rock bands, AC/DC. I was, in fact, thunderstruck. There were family visits, birthday parties galore, nights on the town, and as is evident from this here blog, more movies than any one man should see in a single year.

Some friends left LA in '08, and there are some people who are here who I've seen all too infrequently. There are some on the East Coast who I only wish I could see more often, and some I regretfully didn't even have a chance to see this year. But hey, this was yet another year where I got to spend at least a little time with old friends like Erica C, Stephanie P, and Bradd K. I even got a visit visit from Kirsten S, all the way from Australia. I saw parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. And yes, my brother, whom I take great pleasure in annoying with too-frequent phone calls made for no other reason than to exchange mutual exclamations of that ever-popular Baram catchphrase, "dammit all ...". I made some great new friends, and became better friends with others. And of course there's the usual crew here in LA, with whom I have now shared countless adventures in Hollywood and beyond for going on four years now. But hey, don't worry, I'm not going to get sappy or anything. That's not what this blog's about (it's about overly long Best of the Year Movie lists that take 5 hours to read ... duh!).

That being said, I think that's about it for my recap of '08. A good year, to be sure. But you know, sometime several months ago, I half-jokingly ended a report on my apartment upgrades by saying that, just as I had improved my apartment in '08, so too would I be improving myself. Well, I've made a little bit of progress, I think, but as always this is just the beginning. 2009 is here, and I'm ready to shake things up. Up above I declared 2009 the Year of the Solution. On Facebook recently, my brother boldy declared 2009 to be the Year of Baram. Upon reading this intriguing yet somewhat boastful message, I couldn't help but smile, nod my head, and reply to his message with the simplest of affirmations: "dammit all ..."

- More to come before I'm off to Israel. Peace in the Middle East! (Seriously!)