Israeli Musician Adam Ben Ezra’s Magic Sound

Sometimes subjects for feature articles come from the strangest and most unexpected places.

Late this past summer I heard an Israeli musician perform who blew my mind. I was at a work event with my husband, out on our first “date” since our son had been born more than 9 months earlier, and ended up hanging out alone. It was the opening of the Jerusalem Music Conference, and the first performer was a double bass player named Adam Ben Ezra.

I was in the ladies room checking my hair, a bit bored and trying to find a way to pass the time, when I heard this awesome sound coming from the stage down the hall.

“At last they started playing music!” I thought. The stage had been empty for a good hour while the VIPs and staffers of the music conference and other guests busied themselves with having a few drinks from the open bar. It was your basic awkward social/work function where nobody is really there to have fun, and almost everyone is “on” in their work persona. I think I was one of five people in the crowd of about 200 that really had nothing in particular to do.

But when I heard the music coming from the other room, I came out as fast as possible, expecting to see a band on stage. Instead, I just saw one guy with a contra bass and a fedora, jamming out to a highly distracted audience. Since everyone was huddled around or near the bar, I took up a spot in the audience pit in front of the stage and enjoyed hearing the jazz/funk/rhythm tune, even more so because I had the performer practically to myself.

After less than 3 minutes, I could tell this musician was something special, and turned to the only other person in the room watching him perform.

“Isn’t this guy amazing?!” I asked him.

“Yeah, I think so,” the rather slight, wiry man with dark hair and a huge smile answered back without skipping a beat. “I’m his manager!”

The manager, who turned out to be Guy Dayan of  Goola, stuck his hand out to shake mine.

What followed was one of those serendipitous moments that happens sometimes in the life of a reporter. I got to have a long chat with Ben Ezra and Dayan outside the venue while they took a cigarette break. They are charming, down-to-earth guys who love what they do. Ben Ezra is a true musician, largely self-taught and motivated to keep working, creating and improving on his craft. Dayan is the consummate business man and manger–always on the lookout for his client’s welfare in a business and personal sense (it helps that the two have been friends since childhood).

A few weeks later I was in Tel Aviv and spent two hours talking with Ben Ezra and Dayan about music, inspiration, and the artistic mind. Even though they were smoking almost the entire time (I hate cigarette smoke), it didn’t bother me in the least. I was so interested in what they had to say, who they were, and where they were going that I didn’t want the interview to end.

That intersection of interesting, talented and charming is what makes for good copy–every time.

Here’s the article as it appeared in print in English.

5 ways journalists can use social media for on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East

By Genevieve Belmaker for

Social media is a particularly powerful tool in the Middle East, where in some countries it gives people a way to express themselves. That expression takes many forms, from social protest, to political criticism, to sharing news and information.

Most recently, groups such as the Israeli Defense Force have been using social media to seek support and participation as the Gaza Strip conflict escalates.

Sometimes major news happens in people’s backyards and they send out extremely valuable tidbits of information in real-time. For journalists who can’t be everywhere or be there to see it firsthand, the hyper-active social media stratosphere in the Middle East is an invaluable tool. The explosion of regional use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook started with Arab Spring, and has only grown since then.


Getting Too Close for Comfort

Getting physically close to a story is not as easy as it seems. First of all, most people are not conditioned to think in terms of potential sources of information, getting close enough to take a good photo, or whipping out a video recorder to document something interesting and unique. It takes repetition and practice to get used to always keeping an eye out for the story.

To go from passive observer to engaged observer (by recording what is happening) also takes overcoming blocks that keep us in the passive category. Sometimes it is fear. Sometimes laziness. Sometimes timidity.

Fear covers all of the above. But why is it so powerful? I think the answer is that it’s not.

When I was in Ein Kerem, Israel on the last day of Sukkot (a major Jewish holiday) recently, I came across some orthodox Jewish men dancing and singing in the streets. I knew it was a good opportunity to take some photos and video–just for practice. I am very fearful of photographing people, so I try to do it as often as possible. Maybe in a year or two I won’t be as timid.

In this case, it is understandable that I was a bit fearful. The only time anyone has ever threatened to stone me was a couple of years ago when I was photographing a huge demonstration by orthodox Jewish men in Jerusalem.

A photo from a protest of 10,000 orthodox Jewish men and boys in Jerusalem in 2010 that I covered.

But standing there in the idyllic setting of Ein Kerem, I overcame that bizarre and isolated incident and whipped out my Samsung Galaxy smartphone (basically a miniature computer) to take some photos and video.

Ein Kerem is a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem that is a huge tourist attraction. The small scale of the dancing street worked to my advantage because there was no through traffic (actually they were blocking any through traffic). The tourists were also an advantage, because there were quite a few people standing around gawking at the men as they danced and sang with their holy book, the Torah. Sukkot is the end of the Jewish calendar year and marks the point when religious followers of Judaism start reading the Torah from the beginning after spending the year reading through it.

A view of the mountains from Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

While I was taking the video, I knew I wasn’t close enough. I took a few small steps forward, measuring my distance against other onlookers. I was very consciously seeking strength in numbers, but why? What did I think these singing, dancing men were going to do to me if I got a bit closer? Yell at me, tell me to get lost, or pick up the nearest rock and chuck it at my head? It seems ridiculous in hindsight, but coming clean about shortcomings as a reporter post-story can be instructive if you make a brutally honest assessment. Well, it doesn’t have to be brutal, but  it should be without permissive trimmings and excuses if you want to do better the next time. And there will be a next time, unless you plan on quitting.

While still mid-story, there are a few things at play when photographing or videoing people on the street. First of all, are you invading their privacy? Second of all, are you interfering with them in any way? Sometimes there are no answers to either question, but they should be asked. Rule number one in journalistic ethics: do no harm.

Sadly, when it comes to certain kinds of public gatherings, a large media presence can serve to embolden even the most timid reporter (and protester, for that matter!). Just take a look at this video of recent protests in Spain. It’s something akin to mob mentality. You can easily see what a large gathering of photographers looks like. It takes a strong journalist to break away from the pack in such a situation and work on the outskirts of the story, away from the mutually-generating vibe of protesters and journalists.

In 2009 I was in Jerusalem covering some tensions between Muslims and Jews outside the walls of the Old City. The situation was electrified, and the gaggle of reporters there didn’t  help.

Police horses form an equine barrier during tensions near the Old City in Jerusalem in 2009.

In that situation, I was extremely bold. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like anything that I believe I am capable of. I got in front of a row of police horses and snapped several shots. I stood alone in front of a huge pack of Muslim men and photographed them as they bent in prayer, not moving until they told me, “Uh, can you move? We don’t want to pray with a woman in front of us.” I also got very good close-up shots of people’s faces while they were yelling at each other, shots from the roof of a building, and several shots of armed border patrol and police.

That experience proves two things. It proves the controlling force I think fear has on me as a reporter actually doesn’t exist. But more importantly, it proves that I am capable of getting as close to the story as I want to.

The Serious Business of Writing

I have always found it fun to imagine “the life” of a writer. Poring over works-in-progress, sitting in coffee shops alone for hours on end, possibly while wearing a beret. Writers, like other artists, have a mystique about them that makes the process of their work seem romantic and viewed through a lens that makes the edges all soft and fuzzy.

It simply isn’t true.

There are two problems with being a writer if you ever intend to make a living at it. One is that there is an endless supply of people and organizations out there who want you to fit into a mold that works for them. Imagine a search for a writer by a group or individual. The search will involve a long list of required credentials, experience, and probably writing style. Ability to write is a criteria, but it usually comes after the ability to mold yourself to what others want.

Problem number two: writing is LONELY. Really working as a writer involves many, many, many hours of laborious, painstaking work, often under the threat of a deadline. You have to abandon your spouse, your kids, your friends, and anything fun you might want to do in the pursuit of completing the task at hand. Therein lies the crux of being a writer: the task at hand will always involve an exclusive relationship between you and the written word. No matter how many editors you work with, they can’t hold your hand while you do the actual work.

Even though writing is fraught with potentially depressing moments of working so hard you can’t believe this was your dream, it’s still worth it. 100 times over it’s worth it. With work, work, work comes practice. With denying yourself personal time to have fun and spend time with loved ones, comes discipline and understanding about what it takes to really make it. It takes serious, hard work. But man, is it a wondrous labor.

Just Say No to Being a Content Producer

It’s seriously tempting as a journalist these days to take the low road when it comes to finding work. But if you calculate the time and energy it takes to search for freelance work, you’re better off getting really good at being a journalist.

The trick of dressing up hack journalism with the title of “content producer” is a great example. These are the so-called jobs that want someone to crank out anywhere from 3-30 articles a week for publication online. The first clue that this is NOT journalism is the part of the job description that notes you must have SEO keyword knowledge. I don’t know what the name for this kind of writing is, but it sure isn’t journalism. In fact, I think it is at odds with journalism.

I’ve come to realize that when it comes to being a journalist, I’m a purist. I’ve had those points in my career where I was an “editor” for some “content” project that paid pretty well. At the time, it was a great way to get cash for equipment I needed–a new laptop, a DSLR camera and lens, a recorder, et cetera. But at the end of the day, wherever you put your time and energy and effort is where you are going to see results.

Instead of wasting your most precious resource–your time–on searching for freelance/telecommute jobs that are vaguely related to being a journalist, spend that time working on pitches and story ideas.

Write your ideas down, let them ruminate in the back of your head. Try writing pitches and sending them out. I guarantee you will see where the holes are and what you need to work on. And I guarantee that if you’re serious about getting your pitch perfect and are passionate about the story (why bother choosing topics that you are lukewarm about?), you will get an assignment. Just keep at it–and say “no” to being a content producer. You won’t be sorry.



Don’t Give in to the Temptation to Give Up

It’s tempting as a journalist to give up and just find some other job. Something more stable, predictable and that feeds a steady paycheck into the bank account. There is also the in-between realm of working a “day job” that pays the bills and doing journalism on the side in one’s spare time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills, but I can speak from experience on this one–working a day job and being a journalist on the side is an incredibly slow way to get the experience you need and want. There are cases of those who are incredibly focused and get themselves into a niche and ride it all the way to quitting their day job and becoming a full-time journalist. But if you add much of a personal life in there–spouse or kids, for example–you are probably looking at several years of dragging along and not making much progress.

Then there is the temptation to just find “other people’s projects” and tag yourself on to them. In other words, “get hired” for other jobs. There again, you are going to have to spend precious time working at finding work. All time that you will not be spending working as a journalist.

I had an epiphany recently about the structure that makes the most sense for a freelance journalist who wants to be their own man. Or woman. My theory is not tested yet, but in my head it makes a lot of sense, and it is measured against 7 years of experience as a freelancer.

It goes something like this:

1. BE CREATIVE. Designate at least 1-2 projects you are working on that have no current market or audience, but that you feel strongly about. This could be a book or short story or essay you are working on.

2. BE PRODUCTIVE. Spend some time every day writing. Try to make it the same time or time frame. Test different times and see what makes the most sense for you. Put aside everything else during that time, including hiding your cell phone and email accounts. Writing emails does NOT count.

3. BE IN CONTROL. Realize that you are the one who is in control of what you work on. Don’t let yourself get pushed and pulled into doing things that have nothing to do with your work as a journalist. If that means you have to take your camera with you when you take your kid for a walk so you can practice photography, then just do it. Integrate your craft into your life–don’t try to manipulate your life to fit what you imagine your career is.

4. STAY IN THE LOOP. Be in touch frequently with other journalists. Meet them in person, connect through social media, send emails. Whatever you need to do. When you know what other journalists are doing with their time, it will inspire and push you to do more, do better, and quite simply–just do.

5. MANAGE YOURSELF. If your goal is to try to make a living as a freelance journalist, you are your most valuable resource. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to write, report, photograph, interview, research, find good stories. Despite the current market’s general disrespect for journalists (in terms of pay), realize that this is a highly valuable skill set. Market your skills with that in mind, and don’t take any wooden nickels.

6. MIX PROJECTS. Use a mixture of projects to advance your experience and credibility and livelihood as a journalist. Take on some projects that are just because you want to do them, some that are paid but have little to do with your real passions, and some that might develop into something better. You will know what works based on your financial needs. Don’t do only projects that are your dream projects, nor all jobs that are just to pay the bills.

Any other points to add to this list, let me know. I’d love to hear them.

Writers Live Their Craft

Most writers will agree that you need a regimen of some kind. I have to agree. Whether you’re a novelist, a journalist, or somewhere in between. A good place to start when you sit down to write is to put your phone away. Since most of us now have phones with email, your cell can be a major distraction. If you can train yourself not to pick it up and look at it every time you get a text, voicemail, or email, then great. But you might have to start with literally hiding or turning your phone off.

Actually, distractions in general are the first things you need to single out and eliminate or avoid to be more focused. In my mind, it goes hand in hand with developing a regimen or schedule for writing.

My experience has been that the more I hone in on the times of day when I am most productive writing (also very important), the more I find lots  of little things that can be potentially disruptive. Early morning when my husband has already left for work is a good time to write. Late evening when I have calmed down from the day is also a good time.

So what can be disruptive? Being in the middle of other people’s routines, for one. Trying to write when it’s actually time to be doing something else (like mealtime) can stop you from doing any real work. I have also found that writing too late at night can gradually wear me down. Going to sleep at a reasonable time whenever possible is always a good idea. Get up super early in the morning and write when you’re fresh, but don’t sacrifice your mental and physical health so you can write. Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do for yourself.

Another important part of a regimen is having something specific you are working on or doing every time you sit down to write. Sometimes I sit down to write a blog entry. I don’t try to do anything else. Other times I sit down to write a book review or an article based on an interview or an event. Do one thing at a time, and do it well.

Physical comfort is another part of being productive when you write. If you’re someplace where you feel uncomfortable, it might be harder for you. You might do better with a lot of hustle and bustle (coffee shops) or you might prefer the most quiet environment possible (home). Pay attention to what helps you be productive, and then pick a time of day to work in that environment–no matter what you’re working on. I discovered that I can be very productive for about 2 hours straight at a local coffee shop near my house between the hours of about 9:00-11:30a.m. By about noon it gets way too rowdy, but before that it’s just right.

The hardest part about being a productive writer is doing the actual work of writing. But developing a routine or a regimen is immensely helpful–give it a try.