On being a Jew, genetics and other things


A colleague of mine recently cited a statistic from a newspaper article, stating that “20% of all Germans are anti-Semitic”. I pressed him to be more specific, to which he explained that he had read the article to mean that “20% of Germans believe people of the Jewish faith have disproportionate power in business and politics”.

I was more taken aback by his interpretation of (dubious) statement, than the (dubious) statement itself, but this wasn’t the first time I had been confronted in Germany with a somewhat distorted view of what Jews actually are, especially considering the 20th century history of central Europe.

I’ll try to explain this quickly and concisely:

Judaism is a faith. But a Jew is not necessarily someone who practices Judaism. As a matter of fact, a Jew can be an Atheist (like Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, myself and many more). This is because hundreds of years of Jewish history have created not only a rich culture but also markers which, in genetics, serve to define ethnic divisions – and your DNA doesn’t care what you believe in, if anything at all.

Indeed, a Jew can be an Atheist, a Christian or even a Nazi (I threw that last one in there for shits n’ giggles).

I am Ashkenazi Jewish, just like Sigmund Freud, Adam Sandler, Heinrich Heine, Theodore Herzl and Franz Kafka (and most of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Ashkenazi Jews as an ethnic division coalesced at the turn of the first century (during the time of the Roman Empire), subsequently formed communities and around Central and Eastern Europe and are today the largest Jewish ethnic division at around 75% of Jews worldwide.

Here are my 23andMe Ancestry Composition results:

23andme Ancestry results

23andMe explains:

DNA shows clearly the connections among those who consider themselves to be Ashkenazi Jewish: two Ashkenazi Jewish people are very likely to be “genetic cousins”, sharing long stretches of identical DNA. This sharing reflects the close knit nature of this population.”

This easily explains why some diseases are far more prevalent in specific Jewish ethnic divisions, such as Tay-Sachs Disease (read more).

In Germany, I often get told that I look “Middle Eastern” or “from Israel”. Ashkenazi Jews, however, have actually little common ancestry with Middle Eastern populations (as far as the last 2000 years are concerned). Genetically, I’m far more likely to be closer to a person of mixed European Ancestry than to a Jew of general Middle Eastern descent, such as Mizrachi Jews, and my genetic connections to any historic Jewish population in what is today Israel are somewhat weak. This fact is hotly debated and politically volatile, as the existence of modern Israel is based on the understanding that the land has historically served as the ancestral home of Jews.

Middle Eastern Ancestry

Above: My Middle Eastern ancestry, according to my 23adnMe genetic test results

Does being ethnically Jewish mean anything to me? Not very much. But aside from the religion (which i don’t have) and the genetics (which I do), Ashkenazi Jews have developed a rich and fascinating culture which spans centuries of art, poetry and tradition. This culture is part of my history, but it is not me. I appreciate it for its beauty und diversity, and criticize it for aspects which have not made it into the modern world.

I hope I was able to shed a bit of light on the term “Jew”, however please be aware that I am neither a geneticist nor a rabbi. If you’re interested in the topic, there’s a whole world of information – I suggest you start here.

Note: Being Female, my 23andMe results can only analyze ancestry information via my Mitochondrial DNA. Considering both my grandmothers were Ashkenazi, It is unlikely that my male lineage is different than the above values in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, since no males in my family have done genetic testing, I am unable to verify this assumption.

A note on scale


I just finished watching the first two episodes of “COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey” a show presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson as a follow up to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” from the 80s. Just like Brian Cox’s “Wonders of the Solar System“, which aired in 2010, the new Cosmos series evoked plenty of reaction and discussion on and offline.

Whenever I’d sit and talk about the universe with friends (something I immensely enjoy and do surprisingly often), I’d often hear them say that coming to terms with the scope of the observable universe made them feel insignificantly small. I’ve never shared that sentiment. In fact, trying to grasp myself in the context of the universe has made me feel just as big as it itself might be, for the simple fact that scale is nothing but an illusion.

As I sit here and write this blog post (in my house, which is on a street, in a city, in a country, on a continent, on a planet, in a solar system, in a galaxy), thousands of species of bacteria are living in my digestive system. There’s an entire world of microorganisms living inside my body, and I can scale down to the infinitesimal (from my humble, human perspective) to find ecosystems thriving in our soil, oceans and extreme environments. You might call them “small” and our observable universe “big”, but none of this really matters. Only our stubborn need to put our universe in a human context makes us feel tiny.

You are as small as a protein, binding to DNA. You’re as large as Shoemaker–Levy 9, slamming into Jupiter. You are as massive as the distance between my cat and the outer edges of Andromeda. Think of the smallest thing you possible can; there are things even smaller than that. Think of the largest thing you can possible comprehend; there are things far larger than anything you can imagine.

Scale is personal. You’re only as small and insignificant as you allow yourself to be.

We’re hiring an Art Director!


We’re hiring an Art Director over at Intosite, the small-ish web company (about 50 people) I’ve been working for as Creative Lead since February of this year. Intosite creates digital products primarily for the Ganske Verlagsgruppe, which includes brands such as PRINZ, Merian and Der Feinschmecker. Our most recent project was reconceptualizing and relaunching PRINZ as a digital brand.

We’re looking for someone with strong aesthetic skills who loves the internet, gets excited about interfaces and cares about users. You’d be doing lots of layout work (both in terms of visuals and interaction), and will have a huge stake in concept design and user experience. You’ll be working closely with developers and product owners in a comfortable and friendly environment (we even work agile!).

If you’ve got experience, ideas you’d like to implement, if you like working with others and see yourself being an integral part of a project team, we can offer you an environment in which you can both learn and inspire others (there’s also cake, no lie).

Check out the “official” Job Offer and contact us using the email address at the end of the page or contact me directly.

Qype, a Lullaby


Today, Qype, Europe’s largest and most successful local review website, will be shut down. We saw this coming; Qype was bought by its biggest rival from across the Atlantic, Yelp, which had far more money than Qype but were having trouble breaking into the European market. Qype’s database of places, reviews and users is being migrated over to Yelp, and today, October 30th the light at Qype will be switched off.

The tech world is full of such takeover stories, especially European companies being bought by their larger North American rivals. For many company heads and investors, this is an exit strategy which is aimed towards from day one. Being sentimental about Qype’s demise makes little sense; Qype is, after all, a product which can be bought or sold. But for me, the night sky of the tech world will be one star less bright on October 30th.

It’s a story not about what Qype was, but what Qype could have been.

I joined Qype in August of 2007 as their first full-time designer. We were a small bunch: about 20 people in a small office in the heart of Hamburg’s posh shopping district. It was my first full-time job after moving to Germany and I was thrilled to go back to doing what I did best. My first task was to redesign the website completely, which seemed like a daunting task. The two year-old website had already seen a major redesign, and it was already looking outdated. After months of design and testing, we launched the new design in Mid-2008. Most users took the learning curve in stride. It was a great time to be a part of Qype. The development team was rapidly expanding, product was in focus and we were doing great work. We were working Agile, learning about User Behavior, launching features with beer and pizza and felt like we had a stake in a product we were developing with friends.
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The tricky business of democracy as a cosmopolitan citizen


March 2013 saw me celebrating the 7th anniversary to my arrival in Germany. What I expected to be somewhat of a short stay turned out to be a longer-haul ordeal; as the financial and social situation in Israel came to a point where my friends took on a 3rd job to make ends meet, I admit to deciding to stay in Europe out of the desire for a better standard of living – Israel had become a relic of my past, Europe seemed to offer me more opportunities, both professional and private.

After I moved to Germany I immediately lost my right to vote for the Israeli parliamentary elections. Only Israeli citizens living inside the country and official government employees abroad are given the right to vote for the Knesset. Losing this privilege pained me for a while – I respected the Israeli part of my identity and my past, and felt that as an Israeli citizen living abroad, it would be reasonable to have been able to participate in the democratic process for a certain amount of time. As years went on and my ties to the country became weaker, I learned to become politically active online without casting a ballot. I still cared (in a parental, yet distanced sort-of-way), but respected the fact that as a non-resident, certain privileges are limited.

That being as it is, my country of residency now and in the foreseeable future is Germany. After seven years of living here, battling the country’s infamous bureaucracy, fighting tooth and nail to be given the privilege to work, dutifully paying taxes, learning the language and contributing the to German economy , I finally received my permanent residency permit this year. This is a cause for celebration, of course, but it begs the question – why am I not allowed to vote in Germany? After spending over seven years as a part of German society and receiving official government documentation that I could, if I so desired, spend the rest of my life here, I am still not allowed to vote in German parliamentary elections.

Aufenthaltstitel

Like in many countries, the right to participate in the democratic process in Germany is reserved for citizens. In 2015 I’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship, granting me the full rights which accompany the status. Unlike other countries, however, Germany does not accept dual citizenships (except for very few exceptions, when certain criteria is met). This means that to fulfill my desire to vote for German federal elections, I need to give up other citizenships. The gravity of having to make this kind of decision weighs down on me now, several years away. It is true – I am not my passport, and if Israel was any other country I might not have the same reservations. Even as a non-zionist, there’s something to be said about willingly giving up an Israeli citizenship, after dozens of my family members were killed by the Nazis in camps and the remainder made their way to Palestine. The creation of the state of Israel and its declaration of independence from the British Mandate is ingrained in a collective consciousness of which I am inevitably a part.

In contrasting irony, the only country which will, at this time, allow me to participate in the democratic process is the US. I have an American citizenship from birth and am eligible to vote absentee for federal elections. I have not lived in the US since 1990 and have little desire in involving myself in the internal affairs of a country in which I neither live in, nor plan to in the foreseeable future.

I’ve fallen between two stools (a favorite expression of mine) of bureaucracy and faceless legislation and have no option or opportunity to participate in the democratic process in any country to which I can relate, or where I feel my vote would be important. Least of all, in the country in which I actually live.

Confessions of a skinny girl – or – From here, to there, and back again: a story about body recomposition in one part


TL:DR – girl loses 16 kilo by eating steak.

Here’s a confession: During my teenage years, I was rail-thin and mostly unhappy about it. Shopping for clothing was done in the children’s section, lingerie brands didn’t make bras in my size (a fact that amused my classmates greatly), and shoes were rarely manufactured for such narrow feet. I was drafted to the Israeli military at the age of 18, and was far from surprised to find that the smallest size of issued uniform was still much too big – even after having it tailored as slim as it could go.

I was never a particularly huge eater, but I had a healthy appetite and a love for food, often of the junk variety – the close proximity of my military office to a McDonald’s had my doctor worried I was clogging my arteries. Throughout my high school years, strangers and peers would often ask if I was suffering from anorexia – an eating disorder which is accompanied by excessive weight loss and classified as a psychological disorder. It boggled my mind to consider that talking in company about the overweight was a taboo, but the underweight seemed, to my teenage self, as “fair game”. “Are you not eating enough?” “Why are you so skinny?” “Why can’t you just eat more?” “Look at yourself, are you anorexic?”. The A-word followed me around and defined my teenage years, without suffering from the illness for even a single day.

My weight shifted between 39-42 kilos as I moved to Germany in 2006, being 24 at the time. It quickly became clear to me that often accusatory attitudes towards the naturally slim were not entirely restricted to Israelis – my first day in Berlin (and in Germany) had me hungry after a long flight – telling my then-boyfriend I’d be ready for a bite to eat, his sister muttered: “gut dass sie etwas essen möchte, sonst wird sie sterben” (“it’s good that she’d like something to eat, she’ll die otherwise”). During events, family and friends would ask my boyfriend if he “wasn’t feeding me enough”. It hurt, and I felt hopeless. Powerless to change, unhappy with the hand I’d been dealt.

Years went on, until I stopped smoking at the age of 27 (after 12 years of lighting up). Almost immediately, my metabolism changed and I started gaining a bit of weight, almost effortlessly. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Eager to ride the wave, I kept a journal of everything I was eating in an attempt to reach a golden goal (which I had arbitrarily set for myself) – 2000 calories a day. Being a vegetarian at the time made it difficult. Instead of gaining weight slowly and healthy in the form of muscle, the lack of access to healthy fats and significant protein meant I was consuming most of my calories from carbohydrates like wheat, starchy vegetables, and sugar, as well as overwhelming my digestive system with legumes. I knew little of nutrition at the time and didn’t make a significant effort to understand what was happening to my body. I saw the number on the scale go up, and that made me happy. I didn’t realize I was taking my body to unhealthy extremes and taking my psyche along for the ride.

Riding the wave was highly successful, and within a few short months I had managed to force my body to easily accept more calories (going “high carb” is admittedly not so difficult after the first week) and by the age of 28 I weighed close to 60 kilos. For a young woman of 1.60m, this put me in the high average percentile – but weight on the scale (and BMI) only tells part of the story. My movements were slower, my migraines getting worse, I was constantly sick and I seemed to not be able to stop the movement of the scale – I kept getting heavier. I was clocking in at 34% body fat – far too much for a young woman and far outside the healthy range for any age and or body type. I was, for lack of a better term (literally), “Skinny Fat”. I was nearing the age of 30 and setting myself up for diabetes, heart disease and stroke. I was becoming depressed, and very confused. I was unhappy at 40 kilos and unhappy at 60. I felt hideously underweight, I felt painfully overfat. I had self-esteem issues reaching back throughout the years, and eating carbohydrates beyond my capacity had done little to fix the problem, despite thinking I had found the golden ticket to “average alley”.

Me during fuller times

For the sake of my health and wellbeing, I needed to lose body fat – but dreaded losing too much weight. The ghosts of my youth would come back to haunt me. They’d say “she’ll be bony and gaunt” or “REAL women have curves”. I told the ghosts of my youth to stuff it, and got down to business.

It was clear that I needed to work towards the recomposition of my body – in with the muscle, out with the fat. The first thing would be to tackle my nutrition. I had stopped being a vegetarian shortly beforehand, which made matters simpler, but not necessarily easier. As I turned 29, my partner-in-crime was enthusiastic about attempting to drastically reduce refined carbohydrates, and this to this day remains one of the hardest, yet most impactful and rewarding decisions I’ve made in regards to my diet. By simply avoiding gluten, rice and potatoes (and reducing sugar significantly), I saw a 3% drop in body fat within mere weeks. I also began avoiding the staple foods I consumed during my exercise in vegetarianism – soy and tofu (not to mention seitan), a decision which had an absolute and immediate positive impact on the condition of my digestive system. I could suddenly eat a meal without feeling lethargic and tired – and the mid-afternoon hunger strikes were gone.

Out went the pastas, pizzas, donuts, baked potatoes, falafel wraps, and biryanis. In came the organic steaks, sashimi, soups, salads, cheese, fried eggs, bacon and dark chocolate. By my 30th birthday in mid-2012, I was down to 53 kilos and 28% body fat by the power of nutrition alone. 28% body fat was finally out of the “overfat” category (and outside of the danger zone), but the composition of my body was still leaning towards fat, as opposed to muscle. This was the point where I had to make some hard decisions – keep losing weight in an uncontrolled fashion, or make an effort to build up muscle tone.

Actually, stop the press. In reality, that was a no-brainer. What WAS difficult, however, was mustering up the discipline needed to get myself into shape. Issues of motivation, “willpower” and self-discipline are probably a topic for a separate post, but are worthy of being mentioned in this context. Here I was, a young woman with moderately good health and a lifetime ahead of her, drastically changing her nutrition and lifestyle. Did I really want this? Did I really need this? Was I really prepared for what I was getting into? Did I really understand what I was doing to my body? I wanted to be healthy, live a long life, look great, and feel great. Could I do this, as a run-of-the-mill girl, or was this a privilege kept for celebrity fitness trainers and TV doctors?

I took close to a year off to take time off and reevaluate my goals. That might seem like a long time – but it was sorely needed. I dealt with a major house move, a pet suffering from severe injuries and requiring surgery, and trouble at work. I hit the books and tried to understand more about the relationship between what we eat and how it affects both us as the planet. Both “The Perfect Health Diet” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” were fantastic aides in helping me achieve a more all-incompassing view of my body in the context of the world around me – and how to work on keeping myself happy and healthy in the long term. I felt that the best way to successfully take the next step would be to arm myself with science, facts and understanding.

Eating breakfast and incorporating snacks between meals helped keep my metabolism up as I started with moderate physical activity (walking, Wii Fit, swimming twice weekly) and slowly added weight training and cardiovascular activity at home. Lifting weights builds lean muscle, and muscle mass increases your metabolism and uses up lots of energy during the day. It’s also pretty straightforward – start lighter, increase repetitions and ease yourself into lifting heavy (I alternate between 5kg and 10kg weights). Cardio is great for heart health and expends a ton of energy, but isn’t as straightforward – finding an activity you enjoy which keeps you motivated for an extended period of time is trickier. I went through running and swimming before settling on Zumba (dance fitness) and regular walking (5-8km a day). Swimming once in a while lets me keep my water legs (I used to compete as a child and miss the water terribly) and does wonders for the muscles in my upper back (desk job, doncha know?).

This brings us to today, July 2013, and things look a little different. I started my journey to a healthier me at the age of 28, at 60 kilos and 34% body fat. Now, at the age of 31, I clock in at 44 kilograms, 16% body fat and 34% muscle mass – a total loss of 16 kilos and 18% body fat. I’ve lost the majority of the weight I gained during my “carb fest” and added strength, endurance and visible muscle girth to my limbs.

Being fit, healthy and feeling strong(er) feels fantastic, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the past few years is that I can be my own catalyst for change and motivation is something I can manufacture if I care enough about my goals. Nothing here was easy, besides making the decision to change – experiencing myself with a strong will is something which I expect to last me a lifetime. To those who cheered me on, held my hand, taught me and inspired me, the depth of gratitude which I owe you is deeper than I can express. But I’ll try: Thank you for caring along with me.

A new me.

Riding a bike isn’t like… riding a bike


Here’s a confession: I’m terrified of both riding a bicycle and driving a car. Just the thought of doing either sends me into an almost unstoppable panic attack, trying to do either causes my throat to close up and I’m gasping for air. This renders me completely reliant on public transportation or the kindness of others with an available shotgun seat.

It’s difficult for me to explain why this is: I used to drive often back in Israel (although admittedly I’d never be trusted to park the car) and my parents taught me to ride a bike at the age of ten, though I can’t recall riding one since (the streets of Tel Aviv and Herzliya are not as friendly to bicycle riders as Hamburg or Amsterdam might be.

When I get on a bike, my heart races and my blood pressure shoots through the roof. It takes every last bit of concentration to not fall off as I wobble the first few meters and try to gain enough speed to prevent myself from zigzagging across the pavement and into a pedestrian. Sometimes I stop to gather my thoughts at the side of the road and realize I’m sweating profusely.

I look at other people on bicycles around me, gliding through traffic, standing on the pedals, keeping perfect balance as they raise a hand off the handlebars and readjust their glasses, talk on the phone or pull back their hair. I try to mimic them, but my bike swerves into a row of parked cars the moment I release my right hand from the handlebars. I quickly go back to gripping them so tightly that I have redness and blistering by the end of the day.

The stares of those passing by when they see a grown woman having difficulties stabilizing a simple bicycle might be obvious only to me. Or perhaps, my head is the only place where they really exist. Maybe they’re not real people at all, but circus characters inside my head, like that episode of Star Trek Voyager with Michael McKean (Here’s the trailer, it’s pretty terrifying).

The Thaw

I’ve been the new owner of a hybrid city bike for the past few weeks (thank you, Matthias, for the giant push). I admit that being in a bicycle shop is almost as distressing to me as actually being on a bike, and walking home with a two-wheeled black behemoth is a bit like I assume being a new mother is like – happy and proud, but with no idea what to do with the damn thing.

I’ve taken the bike out to a few tours outside the city (thank you, Hendrik, for being a wonderful tour guide and for your very patient support) and have impressed myself with getting better with every push of the pedal. I’m confident enough in my continued improvement to consider renting a bike during my upcoming trip away, and – who knows – perhaps even get behind the wheel of a car.

When I think about it, I realize conquering fear is the best feeling in the world.

The Bike

The first time is always the most painful


Sunday, June 9th was a pretty good day. I woke up early, went swimming, made myself bacon and eggs for lunch and spent the rest of my day watching documentaries and doing some sports.

Dinner rolled around, I cooked myself some honey-lemon chicken with green beans and popped in a Zumba DVD. Half way between booty-shakes and chest pumps, my scalp started itching. The workout was intense and caused me to sweat quite profusely, I attributed the itching to sweat. After not more than a minute, the itching intensified and started to travel down my body. At this point I stopped the DVD and ran to the mirror. My body had covered itself with hives and my face was throbbing and swelling rapidly.

I quickly realized that I was experiencing an anaphylactic shock. My brother has severe food allergies, so the experience runs in my family. I grabbed my phone and dialed 112 (emergency services).

“Hello, I think I need urgent medical attention”

“What seems to be the problem?”

“I was just exercising, and my body has started itching all over and my face is swelling rapidly and extremely. I think I’m having an allergic shock”

“Where do you live?”

“On Stresemannstrasse”

“Which part of the city is that?”

“I… I’m sorry I’m having trouble breathing. I think it’s in Eimsbüttel”
(I was lightheaded and confused at this point. Stresemannstrasse is not in Eimsbüttel)

“How long has this been happening?”

“It started happening no more than five minutes ago. It’s getting worse very fast”
“Are you having difficulty swallowing?”

* tries to swallow *

“No”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry but I cannot send you an ambulance in this case. Please call the emergency doctor on duty”

I cannot believe my ears – I’m rapidly descending into physical shock and the emergency operator has just refused me an ambulance (perhaps I was more coherent than I felt?). Instead, he dictates a phone number to me (which i have trouble putting down, considering my condition) and bids me farewell.

“Hello?”

“Yes, hello, I need urgent medical attention. My body is covered in itchy welts and my face is rapidly swelling. I am having difficulty breathing. Can you send me help?”

“Are you alone?”

“Yes!”

“We’ll be there in under ten minutes.”

I guess that unlike the 112 operator, they were professional enough to realize something might be going on.

After five minutes, an emergency doctor and his team found me in a pretty bad state – after letting them in, I could no longer walk. My blood pressure had plummeted and I was extremely frightened. I laid down on the sofa and was immediately hooked up to an IV and administered epinephrine (adrenalin) and atropine. After about 20 minutes of monitoring me and trying to keep me from passing out, I was stable enough to be transferred to the hospital, so I was put onto a stretcher, moved into the ambulance parked out front and treated the neighbors to a bit of a light show.

I was shaking violently the entire way to the hospital in Altona – a side effect of the roller coaster my heart rate was taking, the doctor explained to me. He was aware of how scared I must have been, he put his hand on me in reassurance for most of the ride over. I was strangely calm, but that might have been the drugs.

Hours went by like minutes in the hospital as they waited for me to become stable. I kept glancing at the clock – and each glance advanced the clock by at least half an hour. I remembered my last visit to the emergency room with a sprained ankle, where an hour felt like four. This time, in the emergency room, I blinked and half the night was over. The nurse came by to take my blood, the doctor went over the day’s events with me to try and determine what caused the allergic reaction. We didn’t come up with any likely suspects. An orderly saw my blood pressure and asked if I was diabetic – the doctor laughed and told him I had been given adrenaline.

IV

I was released at 03:30 after my blood pressure returned to normal and I was finally capable of sitting up. I felt strangely calm, detached and distant. This feeling, which was probably a side-effect of the various drugs that they had administered, followed me into the next day along with tingling in my hands and general weakness. The swelling in my face went away completely on the evening of that day.

I feel perfectly fine now – just as I did five minutes before that itchy scalp. I’m shaken by the fact that I suffered from a severe, life-threatening anaphylactic shock without knowing what had caused it. I’m currently going through a series of tests to try to determine the culprit so I don’t need to go through this again. I’m also painfully aware that if I was too weak or unable to have dialed the number for the emergency doctor (which was unfortunately not as simple to bash out in a panic as “112″), I may have ultimately been left brain damaged or dead. Emergency services in Hamburg did not deem my situation serious enough to warrant sending an ambulance as I was going into anaphylactic shock – they’re going to be getting a very firm letter from me.

The evening was saved by an extremely professional, friendly emergency doctor who took great care of me and tried to comfort me as best he could. I don’t know your name – but you saved my life. Thank you.

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