Picture it, going for Gold in Sofia

I find myself for 26 hours in Sofia, Bulgaria. It’s a nice city, with easy access to/from the airport in relatively cheap taxis ($8-$11). But why am I even here? We’ll get to that. 

For my overnight stay I chose the Sofia Balkan Hotel, part of the Luxury Hotels/Starwood group. The interiors were nice, but the lobby was unfortunately taken up by an education convention, so the interior was a bit off. Outside, there is an archeological dig taking place, with an awkward fencing separating the hotel from the street. 

I managed a great rate on Booking.com for a Junior Suite, and when checking into room 327 was shocked at the state of the furniture – the couch was literally thread-bare. A quick trip back to reception yielded 527 – much nicer. A good reminder to never take the first room you’re offered if you don’t love it. There’s almost always a better one. 

The hotel’s central location was great – the city’s large pedestrian mall was a block away, as was the meeting site for the local Free Sofia Tour, which lasted about two hours and was a great way to see the city and get an overview of the lay of the land. Sofia has been populated for 6000 years and has flipped back and forth between occupation and liberation about 4 times. 


The highlights of the tour were the open-air excavations and taking a sip of the running sulphuric mineral water at the public bath house. It’s the second time I’ve been in an ex-Soviet Eastern European city, and Communism fell less than 30 years ago – the city still has the marks of the regime in its huge Soviet-era buildings.  


But the remarkable thing is the survival of many churches as well as a mosque and the largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe. 


I spent some time at the synagogue, with a lovely introduction to it from a local congregant. He was old enough to live through the Holocaust, and a witness to the miracle of the Bulgarian Jewish survival through the period. Even though Bulgaria was a member of the Axis, it never deported its Jews to the camps. My Shul guide told me all the Sofia Jews moved away to the North and stayed with other Jewish families. He was 5 at the time. 
Overall, Sofia is a funny place though – the public bath house has been turned into a museum, even with its beautiful architecture and springs still intact. A spa is being planned – that would be make more sense. The statue of Sofia that is the cities’ new symbol is a strange amalgam – the city is named after a Saint, yet the statue had an unsaintly neck line and is adorned with pagan objects. 


So why am I even here? It’s all about the Gold. Gold status on BA, that is. My year end is over soon, and I found myself in spitting distance to Gold status. Going Gold has a number of benefits over Silver, including First Class lounge access, seating choice at booking, better upgrade chances, and accelerated points-earning to help maintain your level.

Doing a bit of research, I discovered there are a handful of shorter ‘long haul’ flights that provide maximum points with minimal time – evaluating the options like Marrakech (been there), Rekjayvek (would want to spend longer and expensive on the ground), St Petersburg (not gay friendly), and landed on Sofia – cheap on the ground, and in a country I’d never been to before. I have a goal to travel to 50 countries by the time I’m 50, and Bulgaria is now #46.


So in all, a nice little adventure, a new country, a new culture … and Gold status. A good way to end the Jewish Year 5776 – Shana tovah to all! 

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Proud of your boy

In 2006, Disney released ‘Disneymania 3,‘ a CD with then-contemporary stars singing classic Disney songs. One of the cuts was ‘Proud of Your Boy,’ an original song from the movie ‘Aladdin’ that was not used in the final movie. The song is meant to be sung by Aladdin, and it’s his hope to make his mother proud of him after all of his ‘messin’ up, screwin’ up times.’ I fell in love with the song, relating to the theme of wanting your folks to be proud of you.

Flash forward to some point last year, when I first heard word that Disney UK would be bringing the ‘Aladdin’ musical to the West End. What a dream come true to be part of a West End premiere in some way. As soon as the opening night date was announced, I blocked off my calendar and made sure I wasn’t traveling anywhere. I couldn’t wait to see it and to hear ‘Proud of Your Boy’ performed live. 

Rewind to last month, the death of my father and the beginning of the mourning period. One of the key restrictions on a mourner is the ban on listening to live music. This applies to the full 12 month period of mourning. Once the shock of my father’s passing began to settle, I began reviewing all of my travels and plans in a new light. One issue was finding a minyan, as discussed last time. Another was the long-awaited opening night. Should I attend? It was work-related, and there is an exception to the rules – one can listen to music or attend a celebration if it is related to your work – so a wedding DJ can still earn a living. There is even a line of thinking that the average person can attend a celebration such as a wedding if he/she performs some part of the ceremony at the wedding, like washing the groom’s hands. Certainly I was expected to attend the event as a senior leader, and it was also going to be the first time some of our newest talent were attending an official Disney event, so I wanted to be there for them. And in my heart, well, I just wanted to go. 

As I sat shiva, I asked my mother what I should do – should I attend the event? ‘Would you be expected to be there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Will your boss be there?’ ‘Probably.’ ‘You should go.’ ‘Ok.’ I didn’t argue all that much.

It was fun to meet two of our newest series talent, Jade and Jayden, as they came off their first carpet experience. It was the first time they would hear their names called by press and photogs, and I suspect not the last. I girded myself for ‘Proud’ – concerned I would lose it amongst my colleagues. Turns out the song is not only included in the musical, but is given special prominence as the ‘I wish’ song, giving Aladdin his big motivation for the musical – he wants to prove he is much more than just a street rat. And of course it’s reprised a few times. But I made it through without shedding a tear. The musical itself was a lot of fun – great music, strong performances and lots of theatrical magic – particularly the flying carpet. Even if I weren’t a Disney employee I would recommend it for families and those who love the film. 

The capstone to the mourning process is the laying of the headstone on the grave. The tradition in Israel is to lay the headstone at the end of the Shloshim (30 day period after the death). In the US it can be six or twelve months. We followed the Israeli custom, and held the Mekever (headstone laying ceremony) this past week. It was a short but powerful affair, with a few prayers said and my niece delivering a beautiful speech. It’s a nice headstone as these things go, nothing too ornate. The quote on the headstone is from Proverbs and reads ‘Above all that thou guardest keep thy heart; for out of it are the issues of life.’ Laying the stone gives just a bit of closure for us.

So as Shloshim ends, and the rest of my year-long mourning period stretches ahead of me, how do I make my Dad proud? I managed to say the Kadish for him every day, but I don’t think I can keep that up. So what then, once a week? Twice a week? I have a new-found solace in worship – is this temporary to comfort my grief? Is this hitting something deeper within me? I have all sorts of trips and holidays planned this summer, what is the right balance? How do I make him proud?

Dec 22 2013, the day before my Dad’s health slid

You’ll see now comes the better part
Someone’s gonna make good
Cross his stupid heart
Make good and finally make you
Proud of your boy


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A minyan in Milan

Sitting Shiva takes a pause on the Sabbath, and one can shower,  change into different clothing, and imbibe alcohol. I did all three. At the first Friday night dinner after my father died, it was very difficult to get through the pre-meal recitations.

Every week we sing a song called ‘Eshet Chayil’ or ‘Woman of Valor,’ sung to honor your wife, mother, sister. My father would always sing it for my mother, and by the song’s third line I was sobbing. I bucked back up a few lines later, determined to finish. But I could not get the final verse out under the tears. 

Another tradition my family keeps is the Sabbath familial blessing. My Dad would bless each of us children, the grandchildren, and any other kids in the house, of any age really. He would always end with ‘You’re covered’ – in his Brooklyn-ese accent the ‘r’s barely pronounced. Even in his state the past two years, I would crouch next to him, put his hand on my head, and ask him if I was ‘covered.’ A few times he would respond. As the time came for blessings it hit me that I would never get the blessing of my father again. And I sobbed some more. 

My nephews-in-law and I downed a half bottle of single malt scotch over the course of the meal. More songs were sung, memories shared. 

Sabbath came to an end, Shiva resumed. By Sunday night I was heading back to London, and finished Shiva the next morning. This began the next period of mourning called ‘Shloshim‘ or ‘Thirty’ for the number of days it lasts. During Shloshim, you aren’t supposed to listen to music or go to celebrations, shave or cut your hair – so I’ve been looking slightly scruffier than usual. You are also supposed to say the ‘Kaddish‘ or ‘Mourners Prayer’ every day. The Kaddish needs to be said at a service with a ‘Minyan‘ (10 Jewish males). For mourners of parents, the Kaddish needs to be said not only for Shloshim but for 12 months from the time of death. 

I am not particularly observant, although I was raised Orthodox. I hardly go to Synagogue, let alone every day to a proper service. But I have been determined to say Kaddish at least once a day for the Shloshim period. Finding a Minyan on a weekday in West London has proven a bit tricky. The most dependable one is the Western Marble Arch Synagogue, a tube ride away. Praying has had to take the place of the gym, and even with the extra walking and biking to/from services, I’m putting on some weight. 

an added bonus

walking to work from minyan


The more challenging bit was finding a minyan in Milan. I had a business trip planned, and I needed to find a place to pray. I searched Chabad, and reached out to the main Chabad center – the Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) called me back and recommended two places run by her two sons-in-law. I wondered if they competed? After a few calls, the place with a ‘guaranteed’ minyan was Beit Hatalmud. This was clear across town from the office. So for a 7:00am minyan, I was up early, and the Italian taxi driver did not disappoint – he zipped across Milan along the streets where the trolleys run. 

inside Beit Hatalmud

The service was a bit different than what I am used to, but the other congregants helped me along. I was able to get back to the office each day using the Metro, which I found very easy to use, clearly signed and inexpensive – €1.50 flat fare to use the system (like NYC). 

back/forth across Milan

subway lines have easy names (M2, M3) in milan

While in Milan I was slightly frustrated by one of the other restrictions for Shloshim and the year – one isn’t supposed to buy new clothing. Some interpret this as fancy clothing like suits – so under garments, T shirts and casual clothing are OK. This restriction probably saved me a lot of money – but I did manage to get to the beautiful Emporio Armani flagship store and leave with a new belt and messenger bag. 

Duomo by night

Duomo by day

One of the fun experiences was taking a trolley tour around the city. Work organized this for us one evening, including nibbles and drinks. The weather didn’t quite participate, so the sights were a bit grey – still a fun experience I would recommend to get a good lay of the land. The food and drink in Milan didn’t disappoint – lovely veal Milanese (natch) at Ristorante da Ilia, wood-fire pizza at Piccola Ischia, and Aperol and Campari spritzes in the Navigali area right off the canals.   

Now back in London for Sabbath and the Shavuot holiday, bouncing between services at the Sephardic Holland Park Synogogue and Western Marble Arch. Next week I trek to Disneyland Paris for a presentation .. Does Mickey Mouse count for a Minyan? Let’s see…

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A eulogy for my Dad

This was my eulogy for my father. 

My Dad was not a rabbi but he was a great teacher. By his words, but mostly by his actions. He taught me – and my sister, my brother, my nieces, all of us – a great deal. 

And I’m not talking about fishing – everyone else but me learned that I think. Dad taught me how to be a leader, how to stand up for my beliefs. He was a boss in every sense of the word and I can only hope to live up to his example. He taught me about being a husband – “marry your best friend.” “Never go to sleep angry.” He taught me about unconditional love. When he was confronted with things he didn’t entirely understand, he always told me I was his son and he would love me no matter what. He taught me to be strong. ‘Keep it together during a crisis, fall apart afterwards.” He taught me there’s the right time to worry. When things looked bleak he’d say “don’t worry. I’ll tell you when to worry, and now’s not the time.” 

Well Dad we don’t have to worry about you any more. Your suffering is over and you are in a better place. I’ll do my best to stay strong and follow your example. I ask you mechilah (Hebrew for forgiveness). 

Thank you for being the best Dad and teacher a man could have.

The forgiveness bit I put in after hearing my siblings put it in theirs. I guessed it was something you do. 

The grave was very deep – 12 feet as it was a double plot. When it comes time for my Mom, she has a space six feet under, and over my Dad. That was new. 

The funeral kicked off the first part of the Jewish mourning process – sitting ‘shivah.’ ‘Shivah‘ means seven, and for seven days you sit in mourning. You sit at the family house, on a low chair, and can’t do much other than sit. You wear the same outer clothing from the funeral for the whole week – so those were strategically chosen for comfort. You also can’t shower, wash your hair, wear leather, shave, cut your hair, do business or serve yourself. 


This was how I looked at the end. The ripped white shirt lasted the week. 

I sat at my sister’s house with my mother, sister and brother. My sister’s friends were incredible – they organized all our meals for the week. My nieces and nephews-in-law were also incredible, taking care of our needs, fetching endless cups of water, coffee, tea. Pictures of my Dad were spread in front of us – good conversation and memory springboards. The purpose of shivah is to work through your grief. It is also, to be honest, a bit of work to have to make conversation, and also put those visiting you at ease themselves. By the fifth day or so you find yourself repeating the same stories, explaining once again how he died. My sister and I joked we needed new stories after a certain point. 

I have only a few friends in Israel, so most of the visitors were friends of my sister or mother. When I did have my friends visit it was very special – one of them reached out to some childhood friends he knew were in Israel – so two guys I hadn’t seen since high school paid shivah calls. That was pretty cool. 

Sabbath came on the fifth day of the shiva, and you don’t sit on the Sabbath, so by late Friday afternoon the house was cleared, and it was just family. We were all in the kitchen, a few hours before sunset and the beginning of the Sabbath. I told everyone that Friday night would be hard, and that there will be crying, and I will likely be the first. 

I was right. 

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A funeral in Israel 

My father, Bennett Sydney Levine, died a week ago Monday, on May 23, 2016. 
He died peacefully in his sleep in his home in Modiin, Israel. One of his live-in health care aides, Rolly, found him at 9am. In Israel, usually a person is buried the day he or she dies. Because my brother and I couldn’t get to Israel until Tuesday, we waited until then for the funeral. I am not a particularly religious Jew. I was raised Orthodox but don’t practice or pray that much. I have a lot of pride as a Jew, and I love the land of Israel. My family is Orthodox, over half of it very much so. As we progress through the burial and mourning process, I am re-connecting with things in a different way. 

Burials in Israel are different than in America. The Jewish practice is to have the body touch the earth in some way. In America, the law requires a body be buried in a coffin. Jews will make a crack in the bottom of the coffin, so the body is in contact with the earth. 

There is no formal viewing. No embalming. No fancy suit or makeup. A simple cotton ceremonial robe, wrapped in a prayer shawl. In Israel there is no coffin either. 

When we get to the gravesite, we are told that the custom is for the oldest son to put dirt on the closed eyes of the deceased – this symbolizes the essence or strength of the deceased to the son. Then we will have an opportunity to see him and formally identify him. 

My brother agrees to place the dirt. He does this by himself. My mother cannot see my father in this state. My sister and I join my brother with my father laying in state. My brother quickly leaves, having already seen my father, leaving my sister and me. It is a hard moment for us both. I pick up the shawl, and for the last time see my father’s face, sand over his closed eyes. 

I say goodbye and leave him with one of the religious caretakers. 

There is an open area with a fabric covering, a large stone slab in the middle. My father is carried out and laid out on the slab, wrapped in the shawl. There is a lectern but no microphone. It is unusually overcast for Israel in May, and it’s been raining on and off all morning. Abe, our family friend and Rabbi, is the master of ceremonies. My mother and sister give their eulogies. My brother reads letter from five of his children, and then gives his eulogy. 

Mine is the last family speech. 

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3 Musicals and an Opera

I’ve been busy taking in some culture this past month, seeing three musicals and an opera..

IMG_42751. Urinetown the Musical – this is the London premiere of the Emmy-winning musical. I saw this one on Broadway back in November 2003, and wasn’t particularly wowed by it back then. The story takes place in a future where water is so rare, people have to pay to pee. Its a fable of freedom and revolution, with broadly drawn characters and a satirical bent. The lead hero is played by a hot and buff Richard Fleeshman. This production was much edgier than the Broadway version, owing lots of its graphic imagery to the Walking Dead and Blair Witch Project, with blood splattered all over the cast and deadened wraiths hanging out on the set. The St. James Theatre has a strong pitch, so every seat feels close to the stage. I would check this out before it closes in May.

2. The Commitments – Jukebox musicals aren’t my thing, but I loved the movie back in the day, buying both soundtracks, so I wanted to check it out. Scoring half price tickets at TKTS in Liecester Square didn’t hurt. If you aren’t used to thick Irish accents and aren’t familiar with UK and Irish culture, a lot of the dialogue will fly by you, but the music and the performances are really what you’re there for and they don’t disappoint. A young, exuberant cast delivers fun performances. Worth seeing if you get the reduced tickets, otherwise enjoy the movie.

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3. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – I had caught this one too on Broadway, back in February 2006, with Jonathan Pryce and a younger Norbert Leo Butz (and Joanna Gleason), and had vaguely fond memories, but no real stand-out songs. A hallmark of a good musical in my view is for at least 1 or 2 songs to be memorable once you leave the theatre, and ideally a yearning to buy the cast recording to re-experience the magic. This production has some pretty big UK stars in it – Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound play the leads, and do fine jobs indeed. The biggest name for US (and global audiences) is Samantha Bond, who plays Lady Rosamund on Downton Abbey (the aunt who gets Edith out of trouble). Packed with laughs, the musical is a lot of fun, with memorable numbers “Give Them What They Want” and “Great Big Stuff.”

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IMG_41684. La Boheme – Last but not least, I took my friend Adam to see the opera at Royal Albert Hall for his birthday. The Hall itself is grand – probably the most incredible venue in which I’ve seen a production.  A very approachable opera for most people, given its popularization as “Rent” – so many of the musical’s scenes have their corollary in the opera, the most endearing for me is the candle scene when Mimi and Rodolfo meet. This production in the round was spectacular – around 95 people in the company,  with spectacular sets and lots to look at. The chorus members have little stories of their own, and it made me think that opera is in its way ‘live transmedia’ in that all of these little parallel stories are playing out on the stage at the same time as the main narrative – something that

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online transmedia so often tries to accomplish with side-stories and narrative tangents. If visiting London, I would really recommend seeing just about anything at Royal Albert Hall, it is such a magnificent venue.

Which London musicals, West End or otherwise, have you seen lately and would you recommend it?

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Spring has Sprung at the Serpentine

When I lived in New York City, there was always that first Spring weekend, when Central Park would explode in people out running, biking, and enjoying the returning warm weather – that day in the Park was always one of the best days of any year. Yesterday was my first ‘London’s first warm weekend day,’ and Hyde Park did not disappoint.
My friend Ian and I spent most of the day around the Serpentine, the large lake inside the center of the park. We found a spot at the Serpentine Bar & Kitchen which was a bit challenging given how crowded it was. You have to put your order in at the queue, and they deliver your food to your table – the waits were a bit long, but understandable. We passed on the pizzas (the looked good) and stuck to a few pitches of Pimms & Lemonade – a perfectly sweet cool drink for the warm day.

20140310-105731.jpgWe had good intentions to rent a rowboat (no paddle boats for us real men), but were undone by another long queue.
Instead we took a walk around the lake, finding the Princess Diana memorial fountain. This is a granite fountain at low ground level which is designed to have your feet dangling into it and feel the water rush past as you relax. Signs admonish you not to actually walk in it – but lots of people and little kids were ignoring that bit.
We stopped at the Lido Restaurant, ordered a few more bottles of rose, with the full intention to head back to the boats – alas when we did, it turned out they were closing up for the day, so no rowing for us – not that I minded to be honest, the strenuous activity inconsistent with the overall relaxation of the day. We will try again another time, as they certainly looked fun, giving a great vantage point from the center of the lake.

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