The European left: mostly anti-Semites or all anti-Semites?

It’s been odd.  Through my travels lately, I’ve encountered a number of European leftists and every single one has been a rabid anti-Semite.  A small sample size, but telling perhaps also in the fact that they expressed it in the exact same way.

I’m someone who’s often skeptical of the news.  News reports tends to focus on the most sensational stories- and to skew them in a way that gins up your fear or anger to get ratings.  It’s a business.

I have a few reasons I write this blog.  Foremost, because I enjoy it and it feels therapeutic.  I like sharing my stories- having a written record of my journey.  And I also like sharing my observations and ideas with friends around the world.  Especially when I can offer nuance or perspectives overlooked by mainstream media.

While the news often gets it wrong or only gets part of the story, European leftist anti-Semitism is quite a real thing.

If you read the Jewish news, this problem is hardly a new one.  Literally just Google it.  While I occasionally experienced it in America, perhaps because America has a much less intense history of anti-Semitism and a lot more living Jews, it never hit me as hard as here.

On the plane from Slovenia to Brussels, I was seated next to a Flemish Belgian man, Tom.  Tom was rather grumpy at the beginning of the flight, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt on a crowded airplane, and he did get chattier later in the flight.

To his right was Dina, a really open-minded, curious Slovenian woman.  Dina, if you’re reading this, you made my flight!  Keep exploring, I admire your curiosity and kindness 🙂

I joined in their conversation.

Tom works at an arts NGO in Brussels.  On his own initiative, maybe because he peeked at my phone playing Hebrew songs, he brought up the Jewish community in Antwerp.  Almost completely out of nowhere.

I said I was Jewish and I speak Yiddish, just like the remaining Hasidim there.  One of the very communities to still do so in Europe.  When just 70 years ago, millions of people were using the language every day.

He then proceeded to tell me how tight-knit the community was.  Which was at first a maybe neutral observation.  Which then devolved into him telling me (and Dina) how they were so “isolated”.  It didn’t take long before he was telling me about the “powerful, elite Jewish lobby in Amsterdam” that practically controls Dutch politics.  To give you an idea of how absurd this is, Jews are .2% of the Dutch population.  Who continue to suffer anti-Semitic attacks.  In a country with relatively low levels of anti-Semitism and a decent relationship with Israel, but sometimes one that ventures into the obsessive and preachy.  Hardly characteristic of a government run by a cabal of Jews, but then again age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes are as hard to counter as they are to prove.

While Dina at every turn asked interesting questions and thanked me for sharing about my country, Tom was frankly a dick.  He said Israel was an apartheid country- something I would never say to anyone on a plane, no matter how rough their government is.  It’s aggressive and mean.

I asked why he thought this and he said: “because Arabs don’t have equal rights.”  A rather broad standard for apartheid seeing as how every country in the world has societal groups that are discriminated against.  From gays to Roma to refugees to Jews to Latinos to Muslim immigrants to Catalans to Tibetans and on and on.  While I’d agree Arabs don’t have equal rights in Israel, neither are they excluded nearly on the level of apartheid South Africa.  I don’t think there were many black members of government there, while 15+ members of the Israeli Knesset are Arabs.  My doctor in Israel is Arab.  Arabs go to university side-by-side with Jews.  This isn’t an attempt to whitewash racism- it’s real and I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve even experienced it.  It’s just to say that to equate Israel with a country that did nothing but brutalize its black population in constantly legally-sanctioned segregation is to both insult the victims of apartheid and to deeply insult Israel.  Not to mention the fact that the actual racism in Israel goes unaddressed because you’re completely mischaracterizing it.  But your objective is not fixing problems, it’s creating them.

I asked Tom, much like I asked the British anti-Semites I met last week, why he would say such things about Israel but not about China, which brutally occupies Tibet and Uyghur territories, including banning their languages and religious customs.  He said something utterly bizarre and word-for-word what Alice the British anti-Semite said: “because Israel is a democracy.”

Well that’s odd.  How can a country be both a democracy and an apartheid state at the same time?  That’s logically impossible.

But for the mental gymnasts on Europe’s far left, it makes total sense.

The one thing I found strangely in common between both groups of anti-Semites was they had to tell me how they were not anti-Semitic.  Specifically in both cases, by pointing out how they “call out” anti-Semitic BDS supporters.  People who boycott Israel.  In Alice’s case, like her.  And in Tom’s case, I can imagine he supports it too.  Even as he claims there is no such thing as left-wing anti-Semitism while embodying it himself.

They told me specific stories of how awesome they were at calling out anti-Semites in their own movement.  As if somehow I’d be thrilled or want to thank them for being so great at noticing the blatantly obvious anti-Semitism in a movement that only targets one country in a whole world of nations that abuse human rights.  In their world view, they can’t totally hate Jews because we’re a minority and minorities are always right.  But we’re a minority that stubbornly resists their gospel, so they have to hate us.

You see, they have a religion and it’s called leftism.  In reality, it’s authoritarian nationalism simply with a different flavor that on the right.  Orthodox thinking, you or me, inside or outside, right or wrong.  Non stop.  And the idea that all countries should follow their model.  Alice couldn’t stop ranting about how international law was “objective truth” and Tom told me how if we only “secularized” the Middle East and “got over our problems” we could have a one state solution.  If only we just behaved like those civilized Christians.  Pardon me, Europeans.

You see this idea is not new at all.  Europeans scouring the globe for people to “teach”.  For people who need to be just like them.  You see, before colonialism, Europeans had hundreds of years of practice as this condescending attitude at home and it’s called anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is a colonial movement.  A movement to force the Jewish people to abandon our faith, our traditions, our difference.  And it’s been around for as long as Christianity has existed.  Morphing into purportedly secular forms in the past 200 years, but with the same exact premise.

You can see this in how Tom described the Jews in Antwerp.  While Jews in Brussels are mostly secular, Jews in Antwerp are mostly Hasidic.  He said it was bad politics for a centrist party there to have invited a Jew to be a candidate for local elections (who was later forced out).  Because the Hasidic man, per his interpretation of Jewish tradition, cannot shake hands with a woman.  While I personally do not follow this school of thought, this is actually a very common practice in forms of Judaism and Islam, so it’s not as if an alien is visiting Earth.  It’s a thing- like it or not, it’s a practice and a real pluralist can disagree with the behavior and not condemn the person as a bad human being.  Or that he is not worthy of participating in public life.

But European leftists are not pluralists, they are fascists with cute hipster clothes and law degrees.  After I tried explaining the nuances of Jewish law and the complexity that comes with every culture having practices that fall outside other culture’s norms.  He said to me: “you cannot have this man in politics.  We have tolerance here.”  Perhaps the most Orwellian sentence I’ve ever heard.

But the reality is there’s nothing tolerant about this ideology.  If it likes gay people, it’s only because we fit into their worldview, not because they are generally empathetic people.  If they like Jews or Israelis, its only the ones who are “against the occupation”- and to a degree that satisfies them that they have passed their ideological litmus test.  They say they like refugees- Alice even worked with them.  In her case, she tried to claim that refugees being denied entry to her country were somehow not being racially discriminated against (even though we all know that is bullshit).  And that was somehow radically different than Israel discriminating against a Palestinian on the basis of being a different race and religion.  In Tom’s warped view, he actually claimed anti-Semitism wasn’t a real problem, in fact it was all anti-Islam now.  While he derided Muslim immigrants for their backwards homophobia and general troublemaking.

In other words, this isn’t about equality.  It’s about nationalism.  Refugees being discriminated against based on race and religion is not “the same” as Palestinians being oppressed because the former have no claim to nationhood.  Europe has the right to screen and reject desperate refugees fleeing war, but in Tom’s view, Israel doesn’t even have the right to borders.

You see in these twisted views, Jews are acceptable fodder for molding and scolding.  Not only Jews, as many Muslim immigrants here have discovered.  But first and foremost Jews.

While to an American progressive’s eye, Europe seems more advanced (and it some ways, like healthcare, it is), it’s actually just a battle of one orthodoxy versus another.  With the helpless middle (yes, there are open-minded Europeans like Dina) struggling to get some space in the debate.

The far right hates Jews for being socialists, for fomenting “revolutions”, for being impure infiltrators undermining their traditional culture.  Just look at the Hungarian campaign against George Soros.

The far left hates Jews because we are capitalists, we are money grubbers, we illiberal oppressors of blameless Palestinians.  We are black hats and side curls and oy oy oys.  And far too traditional in a world where everyone should “get over” those old identities of yore.

The thing is they hate us for the exact same reason: because we are not them.

And try as some Jews might- and have- we never will.

You see all we can do is hope to be like them, only to be rejected yet again, exactly how German Jews who prayed in German, fought for Germany, and embraced their country were ultimately burned at the stake.  We can try and try and try and we’ll never been Dutch or British or whatever enough for them.  Because we’re Jews.

It reminds me of another shell I used to have in the Diaspora that I successfully lost in Israel: my defense against anti-Semites.  Explaining and defending myself as a Jew.  Israel, for all the traumas it brought me, did help me get rid of this sense of inferiority.  And I don’t intend to let it come back.

My concern for humanity comes from a sense of fairness and pluralism.  Which is why it doesn’t matter to me if someone is Tibetan or Palestinian, Jewish or a Muslim refugee.  We are human beings and we deserve good.  So whether the Security Council recognizes us as such is really irrelevant.  Because it doesn’t take a piece of paper to try to treat all kinds of people with kindness.

This kind of thinking doesn’t work with people who want to blame the world’s, let alone the Middle East’s, problems on just one group of people and one alone.  An easy fix for an impossible problem.

Before telling me that his “easy solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was for both sides to secularize and join together in one state, Tom asked me what my solution was.

Perhaps to his small-minded surprise, I said: “I don’t have one.”

He almost didn’t know how to respond.

Perhaps living in a bureaucratic city, much like my hometown of Washington, where everyone pretends to have iron-clad answers for every problem, he can’t handle the uncertain.  But I don’t view the world this way.

Not because I sit indifferent saying we shouldn’t do anything.  Just that I’ve gained the humility to understand that things aren’t so simple.  And even if we try our best, we might not succeed.

Tom in particular asked if I had started praying more since moving to Israel.  A pretty obvious and disgusting way of asking me just how stupid I was.  Did I really take the bait and become one of “those Jews”.

I said no, I actually pray less.  I’m spiritual and pretty secular now.

The reality is while I don’t pray, I’ll offer one now.  I hope people like Tom lose each and every election.  Just like their far-right friends who have the same narrow-minded us vs. the world attitude.

Because Europe doesn’t need them.  There are good people here.  I’ve met incredibly hospitable African immigrants from Rwanda, Syrian refugees, Roma, and Francophone Belgians.  And people like Dina, not a minority, but simply empathetic and curious.  Oftentimes the nicest people here are the ones most overlooked.  Perhaps why they’re a little nicer, a little more open when I talk to them.  Because I actually care about them.  Unlike their wealthy snooty neighbor Tom who’d rather talk about them.

If you ask Tom where to go in Belgium, he’ll tell you about all the fabulously wealthy areas, the Flemish cities which attract millions of tourists.  But I’m writing you from Wallonia, the Belgian underdog, where there’s less money but a lot of heart.  And I saw millions of stars tonight surrounding by cute sleeping cows next to a forest.  I didn’t pay thousands of dollars in rent and I got the best free view in the world.

Life is about priorities.  And I’d rather spend my time with people who respect me even if they don’t make the front page of a tourist brochure.  Or perhaps, precisely because they don’t.

While Tom told me, quite cruelly, that he doesn’t think Israel will exist in 50 years, the reality is Belgium might not either.  If one of the richest countries in the world can’t cross its linguistic divide and come together, you’d think someone from there would understand how hard this is to do in the Middle East, where the conflict runs thousands of years deep.

But then again, that’s like asking a Belgian to say “French fries”.

==

Here are some pictures from Wallonia.  The place every tourist book tells you not to visit because “eew they’re not as rich”.  See for yourself, it’s pretty sweet.  And has some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Europe.  Another reason not to listen to the Toms of the world and go see things with your own eyes.

Goodbye Eastern Europe

This may end up being a shorter blog because I have a flight to catch tomorrow, but I felt it was important to put a few things down in writing before I forget.

I’ve spent the last three weeks in the East.  Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia.  Countries rarely on the tourist radar of Americans, slightly more on the radar of Israelis.  But hardly London or Paris.

I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve seen gorgeous mountains, I’ve learned about wild stray dogs firsthand, I’ve eaten delicious food, I’ve experienced European anti-Semitism from the Left and Right.  I’ve seen green forests, beautiful libraries, and enjoyed the rather reasonable prices.  Especially compared to the aggressive gougefest that is Tel Aviv.

These places are, on the whole, more polite and less aggressive than Israel.  It was nice to have to re-conform to the ideas of consideration and rules.  Even when it struck me as bizarre at first, like when a Romanian guy stood silently waiting for the crosswalk to say “go” at 11pm with no cars coming.  I actually laughed out loud at that one- he said it was because “it’s important to be fair.”  If only Israelis could just take one iota of that respect and apply it to their lives, the world would be a better place.  Even if it feels sometimes a big exaggerated here.

If I had to make a few broad generalizations, here they are.  Hungarians are super rude and xenophobic.  I’ve never been stared at so much (perhaps outside of Israel).  My caramel skin perhaps?  My Jewish complexion?  I’m not sure.  But there is a deep aggression to a lot of people in Budapest.  Maybe they’re still weary of communism or hate tourists, but I’ve never, not even in Israel, had so many people chuck my change or plastic bags at me in stores.  For absolutely no reason.

Overall, all three countries are rather xenophobic.  Anti-Semitism is definitely still present, despite the paucity of Jews, showing just how utterly illogical the whole concept is.  And a great deal of the energy that has historically been used against Jews is now being used against other minorities such as Roma and Syrian refugees.  There is a lot of angry graffiti to be found- occasionally countered by progressive forces.  Though some of those forces have said pretty nasty things to me about Israel.  It’s not easy to be a gay, open-minded Jew in this part of the world, squeezed in all directions.

The nature here is absolutely stunning.  Perhaps because this part of the world industrialized later and isn’t as densely populated as Western Europe, the mountains and forests are so much prettier.  If you like raw green space, Eastern Europe has a lot of it.  Especially Slovenia, the 2nd greenest country on the planet.  The public transit isn’t great, so if you really want mountain time, find some hostels or lodging deep in the hills and enjoy.  I had a lot of stomach-turning van rides in Romania- this region is not for the feint of heart.  But once you get a sense of it, the surroundings are quite gorgeous  And the stars are brighter than almost anywhere.

Slovenians, while perhaps just as xenophobic as Romanians and Hungarians as a whole (it should be noted I met people in all places who resisted this mentality, but it is a phenomenon), are much friendlier than Hungarians.  Again, generalizations, but I had a lot of interactions with people.  Because I’m friendly and because my phone had next to no data here, so I was always asking for directions.  The average Hungarian looked distraught and irritated to answer my questions.  While Slovenians almost always were happy to guide me.  Before someone blames this on communism, Slovenians also lived under communism and somehow turned out gentler, so who knows.  Maybe it’s just a long-standing part of the culture of a product of Slovenia’s greater economic success.  But it is a thing.

Romanians are by far the most religious of the three countries, with new churches being built everywhere despite some fairly grinding rural poverty.  I can’t help but think what an intense waste of money this is at a time when people are suffering and millions of Romanians go abroad in search of work.  Everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, but should the government really be funding religious institutions at this rate when people can’t earn a living?  There are Romanians who agree with me, but they are an embattled minority.

Slovenians are the least religious and, perhaps not surprisingly, the most gay friendly.  Or at least tolerant of our existence.  While there are neo-Nazis here (I saw my first Nazi salute during a tour), gay rights legislation is fairly advanced and I never felt threatened.  I can’t say that anything in Slovenia remotely approaches the tolerance of a major city in Western Europe, but for this region, it’s quite chill.  Romanians, as a whole, are pretty conservative and you feel it.  Some of the major urban student centers like Cluj are more open, but I feel they are perhaps the exception more than the rule.  It must be quite hard to be gay and grow up in this part of the world.

Jews.  Jews in this part of the world are more likely to be dead than alive.  While a few brave non-Jewish souls, sometimes in partnership with the few living Jews, take care of our few remaining historical relics, this is overall a graveyard for my people.  While you can see aspects of our culture (or shared culture) everywhere- from the folk music to the food- the Jewish graveyards and empty synagogues far outnumber living communities.  I’m frankly tired of seeing our ruins and want to see some living members of my tribe.  It is certainly interesting and moving to see sometimes (though sad to see that only Jewish cemeteries have to be walled off to prevent desecration), but I prefer my Jews alive, thank you very much.  I will say that I wish more Israelis (and American Jews) visited this part of the world, because it is an important part of our heritage- 2,000 years old- that explains a lot of our behavior and our traditions.  The food here tastes a lot like home.

The living Jews I met here are pretty cool overall.  I really admire them keeping our culture alive in the belly of the beast.  In a place that gave birth to so much of our civilization today.  And I learned a lot about my own heritage.  Whether it was the delicious flodni dessert that tastes like charoset, the intensely personal Holocaust survivor stories, or the surprisingly old history of Reform Judaism in this part of the world, a lot of my previous understandings changed.  Even of Israelis themselves- I understand a bit more why they are they way they are.   I am more knowledgeable about my ancestry and my origins than I was before, and I’m proud to have reconnected to places important in my identity.  And through meaningful conversations I had with both Jews and non-Jews, hopefully contributed something to this place’s future.

I met some really interesting people here- whether it was Syrian refugees, a Jordan queer girl, or a Polish guy deeply interested in visiting Israel and learning about Jews.  I met some ambivalent people- young Germans who preached tolerance and reconciliation after the Holocaust.  Who seemed genuinely interested in my identity as a Jew and Israeli.  Who then made the odd suggestion that I *must* visit Chemnitz, the East German city now erupting in neo-Nazi riots, to see that these are just frustrated protest voters who wouldn’t actually hurt me.  A serious twist of tolerance shifting into victim blaming that I’m still digesting and may write about further later.  It’s not my job to see the wonders of this city- it’s the responsibility of Germans to make it safe for me to visit.  “Never again” doesn’t mean it’s my job to do their work in building a more tolerant society.  I’m curious to visit Germany one day, but I’ll only go to places I feel safe.  As most tourists would do in any country.

And Slovenians.  Most Slovenians I met were quite friendly and had little if anything bad to say about Israel or the U.S.  And a few were pretty rotten.  There’s this one place up in the mountains where you can take a stunning cable car ride.  I visited it and met some young people who worked there, one of whom gave me a ride to the local village.

Both she and her colleague, at completely different points in time and in different conversations, took pains to tell me how Israelis steal from their resort.  That they’re too demanding and rude.  As if I’m some sort of ambassador for the Israeli tourist hordes.

It was quite odd.  Because the way they phrased it, they said: “what are people like there?”  As if a few dozen poorly behaved tourists represented a country of 8 million people.  Admittedly a rather impolite country, but one that is hardly so barbaric as to be the only one to produce bad tourists.  I saw more than a few clueless tourists from around the world, especially in Budapest where it seems all people do is take selfies.

Perhaps Israelis are more aggressive, and I tried to show some nuance, but I got tired of it.  At first, I thought I was being too hard on them.  Maybe their stories of missing forks and bedsheets were true.  Although I have to say if you have the money to travel to Slovenia, you’re probably not that desperate for a new fork.

But I soon understood that it was anti-Semitism.  For in the same conversation, the cute, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy who I resisted sleeping with (I’m pretty sure he was gay- what a cute smile!) kept saying how lazy and irritating Albanians and Bosnians were.  Those southern immigrants were just too stupid to be as successful as Slovenians.  A trope I heard a lot, not much different than how some white Americans talk about blacks or Latinos.

The oddest thing about it all is that when I pointed out that maybe some people have mistaken stereotypes about Slovenians too, the hot guy said: “no, we are polite.”  Just after he asked me to defend rude Israelis and made racist comments against (often Muslim) immigrants in his country.

Here’s one thing I’ll give Israelis credit for: if they’re racist, they tell you so.  I do feel that Israelis on a whole are a pretty racist bunch.  More than the average American and more than a lot of countries.  But this trip goes to show they’re perhaps not as unique as we think.

That perhaps we’re simply, on some level, holding on to the cultural norms of the part of the world where a lot of us come from.  A place where Slavs bemoan gypsies, where a Romanian used the word n*gger in the car with me, a place where the brown and the black are derided alongside the Jew.

So if Israelis are too racist, at least it’s not shrouded in a bunch of bullshit.  Because there’s nothing polite about prejudice.  Not against Israelis, not against immigrants, not against refugees.  You can have your neatly queued lines and your politely folded napkins, but that doesn’t make you polite, that makes you neat.

I hardly begrudge this neatness- it’s quite nice after the sometimes overwhelmingly crude Israeli norms that make you feel like your feelings don’t matter at all.  A gentle, if prejudiced, silence is sometimes better than shouting for no good reason.

But perhaps next time a Slovenian complains about the Jews stealing his forks and napkins, I’ll ask him to return our synagogues held by his government.  The decrepit cemeteries holding our dead, turned into casinos and nightclubs.  And the Jewish homes and gardens turned into restaurants and simply stolen by average citizens.  With not so much as a thank you.  To this day, Romania has paid a paltry amount to Holocaust survivors who used to live on its soil.  Survivors often living in poverty, 70 years after they were stripped of everything.

So I don’t mind your politeness, I kind of like it.  But all I’m asking is if you’re going to criticize my countrymen for taking something that isn’t theirs, then give us back what is ours.  We’re not immigrants, we’re not foreigners, we’ve been living on shared soil for 2,000 years and I’m tired of you treating us like the “other”.

Eastern Europe- I’ve learned a lot here.  Maybe I won’t spend so much time here next visit, whenever or if that might be.  Perhaps next visit I’ll be spending more time with existing Jewish communities or documenting our heritage.  Or maybe teaching the more open-minded among your folk about what it means to be a Jew.  To build a better, shared future.

In the meantime, I’m going to places with more living people who get me.  Living Jews, living gay people, living in better conditions.  Because as much as I needed some space to try new things and understand myself as an individual, not just a member of a collective, I really feel I need a bit of that community now.

I’m a human being above all else.  A living thing.  And living things need sustenance.  The kind of sustenance where even if you barely agree on anything at all, when you see the challah on the Friday night table, you know on some level you’re in this together.

So if I’m a bit tired of tribalism, I suppose I’m not opposed to a little teamwork.

Chag sameach, wishing you a happy Sukkot.  And may this itinerant holiday remind you that the journey is never-ending.  May your journey bring you to health, safety, and satisfaction.

Amen.

2 nice Slovenians and 2 deranged British leftists

Today was interesting.

I started the day by going to the Jewish Museum of Ljubljana.  A place well worth visiting.

The director of the museum was out, but a technician from the puppet theater next door (!!) showed me around.  While I feel sad to see Jewish community spaces in disrepair, I’ve noticed a couple times in this part of the world that art spaces are sometimes next door.  Or inside.  And if I had to choose one kind of entity to inhabit our space, it is definitely this.  Better than the Slovenian Jewish cemetery turned into a casino.

The man was very nice, let me walk around for a bit.  There were some artifacts, which was cool.  And also a short video outlining how the center uses culture- rather than religion- to bring together Slovenians and tourists to learn about tolerance.  Using the Jewish experience as a way to build shared values and make life better.  A message I thoroughly enjoyed.  If you visit here, check out the tiny but heartfelt space.  A reminder how a small group of people can use history for good.  To keep a struggling Jewish community alive while contributing to the broader culture- a generous message this part of the world seriously needs.

After I finished, we stood outside for a few minutes.  We just chatted- about everything.  Ljubljana, his upcoming journey to New York (he’s very excited), his collaboration with Jewish institutions, and how he still lives at home at the age of 40 (!!), mostly for financial reasons.  He was also really cute 🙂  To find a non-Jew so kind, friendly, and organically curious about my culture was sincerely refreshing.  When he talked about Judaism, it was like he was talking about his favorite fruit or a fun trip last weekend.  Not forced, not against, just kind of natural.  It felt great.

Outside, I noticed a 20-something year old man with a very Jewish face.  We come in all shapes and sizes, but this guy looks like he eats gefilte fish.  Standing at his side is his female partner.

I chatted them up, turns out they were British.  We talked about Jews and talked about what life was like for me in Tel Aviv.  Turns out the female partner, Alice, was not Jewish but had spent 3 months volunteering with NGOs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  It made me a bit nervous- some of these crusading goyim I’ve met in Israel are quite anti-Semitic, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe she was just a well-intentioned do-gooder.  Plus sometimes I share their distaste for human rights abuses.  Maybe we had political differences but I hoped that here in no-man’s land they wouldn’t matter so much and we could find common ground.  I’ve heard dire warnings about the anti-Semitic European left, but people are diverse and I prefer to understand things from my own experience.

I won’t defend an “us vs. the world” Jewish isolationism- a paranoia that is playing out in the creeping fascism of the Israeli state towards its “internal enemies”.  And I also won’t tolerate a bunch of privileged Europeans lecturing me about who I am and why my country is so terrible.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they did.  The woman told me about the awful settlers, how I can agree or disagree with international law but there is no doubt it holds an “objective truth”.  That she boycotts Israeli settlement products.  And she’s so brave for “fighting” anti-Semitism in leftist circles- including friends of hers who refused an AirBnB guest because of his Jewish name.  She did scold them.  Good for her!  While the far right in Israel may be so paranoid that they start to resemble their oppressors, they are on to something here.  The far left in Europe, if it is anything like these two young people, is quite sick.

I asked them if they also boycott Chinese goods because of China’s occupation of Tibet.  Over and over again they kept saying “it’s not the same”.  While admitting some similarities, apparently the major difference is China is a big country and the “international community” has decided Palestinians deserve a state, while Tibetans do not.  After I shot down their assertions that China wasn’t really so bad about colonizing Tibet (it is), they finally admitted “there should” be demonstrations for Tibetans.  But they couldn’t answer why so few of their friends seem to care.  Or why so few leftists take to the streets to protest the chemical weapons massacres in Syria, the oppression of Kurds, or the forced assimilation and dispossession of Berbers.

Any time I tried to encourage them to rethink their double standards, they kept saying I was “deflecting”, evading Israel’s responsibility for the occupation.  No matter how many times I said I was against human rights abuses, that I was deeply concerned about expanding settlements, and that Palestinians lived under fear of Israeli violence and land appropriations, it didn’t matter.  Even though I want equality and freedom for Palestinians, including from my own country’s military and government, it didn’t matter.  I was either their brand of pro-Palestinian or, in not so many words, a fascist.  When I prefer to think of myself as pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and above all, pro-human being.

The Jewish guy was even worse than his partner.  He claimed that Muslim anti-Semitism was understandable because when they saw their Palestinian counterparts from the Islamic Nation (the Ummah) being oppressed, they got angry.  That their suffering meant more to them because they were fellow Muslims.  An argument practically carbon copied from the Islamic Brotherhood- and frankly, a nationalistic and deeply illiberal one.  Why should someone in Morocco be justified in hating Jews because of the Israeli state’s policies towards Palestinians?

I told them this: “the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians does contribute to their hatred of us.  And it makes many of them angry- often justifiably so.  And it fuels sadness, extremism, and desperation in their society.  And some of their hatred predates Israel or is unrelated to our existence.  There were Moroccan Muslims killing Jews in 1033.  Long before the State of Israel existed- hardly because of it.  Sharing a religious text with someone is never a justifiable reason to hate someone else.”

But they didn’t buy it.  In their view, Muslim attacks on British soil were “different” than Hamas.  Israelis deserve it and they don’t.  That suicide bombings were somehow similar to American slave revolts.  The Muslim world was “complex”- its growing fanaticism “not clear” and ultimately caused entirely in reaction to colonialism and the Cold War.  Certainly Western intervention is a factor in the development of extremist Islam, but fanaticism is hardly a new concept.  The circumstances around us influence our choices and all people and peoples have the agency to choose our behavior.  While in the Jewish guy’s view, Palestinians were “justified” in being anti-Semitic, I think that infantilizes them.  I know Palestinians who’ve worked very hard to overcome anti-Semitic stereotypes to become peace activists.  Just as Jews have overcome racism they were taught about Arabs.  And to suggest hatred as an acceptable default is to simply elevate the most extreme voices in society.  And to not expect anything better from people.  To devalue our ability to make choices and to disempower people striving for something better.

In the Jewish guy’s view (his name was Adam), Israel’s “existence” was the cause for Arab hatred of Jews.  When I asked him whether he believed all of Israel was occupied Palestine, he giggled and said he “wouldn’t dive into that debate now”.  I suppose it would ruin his two week vacation to Slovenia- a privilege few Israelis and Palestinians enjoy.

When I talked about Jews expelled from Arab countries, their passions barely lifted.  “That was bad too.”  But they returned immediately to their talking points.  Without a even sigh of sympathy for my friend’s Syrian Jewish family whose old house has been turned into a nightclub.  Who lost their possessions and their citizenship in the name of a rabid Arab nationalism now tearing that country to shreds.

In Alice’s view, the difference between Israel and China is that Israel claims to be a European-style democracy.  She expects more from us.  When I told her that not a small number of (in my view, mistaken) Israelis would prefer a Jewish state over democracy, she said “that’s the point”.  Not realizing I had undermined her entire argument.  Very few Israelis consider their country European- some sort of Middle Eastern Sweden.  For us, Israel is a safe haven, a place where yes, civil liberties and peace are quite fragile and often under attack.  A place where we don’t have the luxury of sitting on a quiet Oxford lawn sipping tea while we discuss the state of the world.  ISIS is on our border, not just the news cast.  This doesn’t excuse extremism in my country, but it’s also not a reason for ignorant Europeans to come parading telling us how bad we are at being like them.  As if that’s all we truly wanted to be.  What I don’t want to be is a British law student whose tuition is subsidized by the War in Iraq and 400 years of colonialism lecturing the world about human rights.  Next time you’re in Israel, visit Atlit, the prison camp your country dumped Holocaust survivors in while you colonized our homeland.  To the detriment of both Arabs and Jews.  The effects still felt today.  Look in the mirror first.

The mirror is not a place she wanted to look.  At a time when 40% of British Jews are so scared of left-wing anti-Semitism in their country they’re considering leaving, she had not a word to say about the topic.  Only that British Jews were hypocrites for feeling so emotionally attached to Israel, for being irrational, for not allowing what she would consider adequate debate of the issue.  The sad thing is I wish we did have more open debate about Israel in Jewish communities and there are people stifling it.  It’s because of people like Alice that those people have the upper hand and fear dominates our discussion.  It’s because of her that their fear is partially based on reality, even if it ends up hurting Jews as we’re forced to whisper our views for fear of outsiders using our words against us.  To attack us.  As Jews.  As Israelis.  She refuses to see that she is an outsider or that she has any privilege as a non-Jew.  Being a human rights lawyer apparently gives her free reign to evangelize like her colonial forefathers, to decide the acceptable limits of debate in a community not her own.  Persecuted by her own to this day.

What was particularly baffling is that Alice is herself a product of colonialism.  Though perhaps this explains her chaos.  She is an Anglophone living in Wales, a territory violently subjugated and conquered by the British.  The majority of Wales now speaks English- both because of British colonists like Alice’s family and because of the state’s suppression of the language.  When I suggested she was being a bit of a hypocrite for the disproportionate attention she places on Israel rather than tending to her own backyard, she grew incredulous.

“You don’t know anything about my family!  My mom wasn’t even born in Wales, she was born in Kenya.”

My jaw dropped so hard it almost broke through the table.  “Your mom was born in Kenya?  When it was a British colony?”

“Yes, but it’s not my fault.”

I suppose it’s not.  Just like it’s not the fault of millions of Jews who’ve made their way to Israel to escape oppression.  When no other country would have us.  Even from countries like Slovenia where to this day, Jews are struggling for government support in reclaiming our Holocaust and Communist-era property.  In a continent that just weeks ago saw a massive neo-Nazi march in Germany, is it too much to ask for a little empathy?

As if these two hooligans couldn’t get any dumber, part of the reason they came here was to learn about the “glories” of Slovenian socialism.  A country so utterly decimated by this hapless system that to this day, you can quickly recognize which cities the communists ruined.  By their ugly architecture, environmental degradation, and plaques commemorating thousands of political prisoners.  I suppose Slovenian socialism would make for a fun dinner table conversation at a British potluck, but Slovenians are too busy healing from this nightmare to attend.  Perhaps their friends in other poor Eastern European EU countries are cleaning up after your party.  After all, wealthy Brits do like this part of the world for cheap labor.  Quite a number of Romanians I’ve met used to work in London- and many made a point to say they had never made a British friend.  One man actually told me he made more Pakistani and Arab friends than native-born Brits.

After reaching a crescendo where I started to notice our volume was disturbing the other patrons, I felt bad for the people sitting near us and brought things to an end.  Despite Alice’s repeated begging for me to just see how I was wrong, how my feelings weren’t justified.  How Israeli expansionism was somehow different and worse than the British in Wales or the Chinese in Tibet.  That we were just so terrible- and that I was ridiculous for feeling she had something “against me”.

By this point, any benefit I got from the conversation had evaporated.  I dug deep and skillfully managed to wrap up the conversation politely by wishing them safe travels.  We parted ways.

The main benefit- and it was quite insightful- was that I got was to understand the mentality of left-wing authoritarians.  Well-educated, polite anti-Semites.  People happily defending the Islamic ummah, justifying anti-Semitism, celebrating the 1950s, and using nationalism as the primary basis for people’s rights.  People oddly reminiscent of the far-right they hate.  The main difference being who they hate, not that they hate.

I left fuming.  Fuming because I had just been berated by lousy anti-Semites dressed in chique clothing and shrouded in law degrees and fancy language.  But no different in mentality than any other anti-Semite.  Their weapon may be their pocketbook and their Amnesty International meetings.  Rather than the crowbar of a neo-Nazi.  But their effect is the same- to degrade the Jewish people and hold us to an unfair, unequal, and unjustifiable standard applied to no other nation.  That’s why every other nation’s problems are “different”, but ours are worthy of boycotts.  Adam even suggested that Israel should be an “or lagoyyim”, a light unto the nations.  Something I told him is actually a racist concept and holds us to an unreasonable standard.  As if him mouthing two Jewish words made him less of a bigot towards his own people.

I also felt quite proud afterwards.  In the face of senseless hatred, rather than getting sucked into the vortex of black-and-white abusive thinking they wanted me to step into, I had managed to show empathy and nuance.  In one conversation, I managed to defend the humanity of Palestinians, settlers, Jews, linguistic minorities, Muslims, and Israelis.  And to challenge the myths behind many cookie cutter narratives about each of these groups.  I’ve only shared a piece of the conversation, but I noticed that I held my middle ground and showed understanding for myself, my people, and all the groups mentioned.  Groups that are known for tearing each other to pieces.

I walked around until I found a cell phone store.  A young man was behind the counter and we started talking.  He was Slovenian but with quite a beautiful British accent.  Marko’s father was British- apparently other Slovenian kids made fun of him for it.  Why?  I’m not quite sure.  I suppose simply because he was different, a minority, a Brit where the British weren’t King.

We talked about my travels and my roots.  He told me about non-Slovenian Slavic immigrants discriminated against in Slovenia.  People, in his view, now increasingly woven into the fabric of his country.  Which he liked.  He listened attentively and kindly as I shared my family’s experience with anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.

He was so empathic.  I suggested he visit the Jewish Museum and he enthusiastically looked it up in front of me and said he’d visit.  He was really impressed that I was visiting local sites, not just popping by to see the big castle and move on to Vienna.  It’s worth noting here that the British folk, when I suggested they visit the Jewish museum, gave a polite nod and seemed rather disinterested.  Would that they had just one ounce of compassion for the Jews of the country they’re visiting that they have for Palestinians.

Marko taught me about a lot Slovenia.  Its history, its problematic expulsions of minorities including ethnic Germans, and his feeling that things are getting better.  He even showed me crazy long spreadsheets he has to deal with at work.  And we laughed at the passive-aggressive notes his colleagues leave in the Google Docs.

As I left, Marko said something that really struck me.

“Grab your heritage and explore!  Go for it!”

Then it really hit me.  What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day.  On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.

What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the “empaths”.  People who care about other people.  And not just those who fit their worldview.  The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others.  Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.

While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her.  That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.

At a time when societies are increasingly polarized and people search for the comfort of orthodoxy- be it the Bible or international human rights law- I’d rather wander with Marko and the technician from the puppet theater.

It’s hard to live without a concrete set of rules.  To sometimes use “maybe”.  To realize things aren’t as simple as “if Israel immediately exits the West Bank there will be peace”.  Even as you agree with the thrust of the argument.  Even as you have to protect yourself from people who mouth similar words to you but in order to destroy you rather than lift humanity up.  That the reasons you think the way you do are just as important as what you actually think.  I choose to struggle in the space where I have to create meaning and relationships for myself rather than having it dished to me by circumstance or creed.

I think religious dogma is still a problem and I’m coming to realize dogma itself is perhaps the greater problem.  Someone’s “religion” could just as well be UN resolutions instead of the Quran.

Shared ideology or imagined national identity can provide a sense of community, something hard for people living in the rich textured space of the “in between”.  At a time of increasing displacement, migration, and alienation from our surroundings.  Where Facebook likes take precedence over human sight.

After the absurd hatred of these British anti-Semites, I’m not suddenly about to vote for Bibi and move to a settlement deep in the West Bank.  Nor do I think all British people are anti-Semites.  Or even all leftists, though this definitely makes me rather cautious about engaging with them.

What it does clarify for me is that my new tribe is hard to find because we’re the most loosely organized.  For by our nature we are not group-thinkers.  We are coherent, diverse individuals trying to live with kindness and conscience, just doing our thing.  We don’t have a flag.  We just grab our heritage, our art, or our heart and live.  And let live.

We may never make the news because bombings bring ratings.  As do wild accusations and extremist thought.  Moreso than a half-Slovenian half-British guy becoming friends with a wandering Jew at a cell phone store.  In need of warmth after being battered by people who, on paper, are more like him.

This story is a whole lot richer than Donald Trump’s latest tweet and some European extremists shouting about Israel as if we’re the only problem in the world.  As if our very existence is the issue, rather than thousands of years of conflict and a complicated situation.  Nuance isn’t in their vocabulary, which is how they make the front page.  Or in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, into Parliament.

My story matters.  And next time I meet a smug, privileged European who wants to lecture me about how strong and powerful and irrational Israel is, how Palestinians aren’t anti-Semitic, that we deserve to be killed.  Instead of sitting with them until I can pay the bill, I’ll walk inside, settle, and leave.  I have nothing to say to people like this anymore.

I’ll be talking with actual Muslim friends instead of waxing sentimental about the Ummah.  I’ll be socializing with real Slovenians or Romanians instead of reminiscing about the socialism that harmed their families.  And I’ll be standing up for the Jewish people and all people wherever you come to harm them.  No human being deserves hatred and violence.

That’s empathy.

==

 

Slovenia

After having escaped Romania, I headed to Hungary, which was a better experience. Not fantastic- there’s a lot of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and surprisingly unfriendly people.  But definitely easier to live in as a gay man than anywhere in Romania I’ve been.  And, unlike Romania, has actual living Jews to commiserate/celebrate with- which makes all the difference.  Plus some gorgeous synagogues.

After having experienced Budapest, I hopped on a bus to Slovenia.  Slovenia- what do you know about Slovenia?  Slovenia is a tiny, tiny country.  Population of about 2 million people.  And, after Finland, the greenest country in the world.  Forests are everywhere, the air feels clean, and, as a major plus, it is much friendlier than Hungary.  Which kind of puts to bed the idea that all post communist countries need to be filled with rude people.  Because Slovenia was not only communist, it survived the semi-apocalyptic breakup of Yugoslavia- and the people are much nicer on average than the women chucking my change back at me in Hungarian grocery stores.

Slovenia is naturally beautiful- the mountains are obscenely gorgeous.  Some, deep green, are similar to mountains in Israel.  Others, so high, have no vegetation and even when it’s not cold, look like they have snow on top.  The contrast between the lower, wooded mountains and the grey/white tops of the Alps is stunning.

More consistently than anywhere else on my travels, I have been able to find relaxing moments.  To sleep.  And to hear my voice.  Not overwhelmed by dogs chasing me in Romania or homophobes or crowds of anti-Semites, Slovenia is a lot more chill.  Which has been healing.

Slovenia certainly has its problems.  I was on a guided tour- on Yom Kippur- in Ljubljana.  The super-environmentally-friendly capital whose old town is entirely pedestrian walkways.  Not a car in sight.  For an avid walker like me, this is paradise.

On the tour, the guide was describing artwork on the cathedral.  It included depictions of the Crusades.  For those who don’t know, the Crusades largely consisted of Christian soldiers butchering Jews on their way to the Holy Land, where they then engaged in a mutual bloodbath with Muslims over the same strip of land people continue to fight for today.  It was not a pleasant time to be a Jew.

The guide said: “the Crusaders are celebrated on this Cathedral- a new piece of artwork- because they built hospitals and schools here.  Some people don’t like the religion and warfare aspect- I think it’s subjective.”

The Crusades may be many things, but their benefits are not particularly subjective.  Murdering thousands of people in the name of an invisible God is not what I’d call anything other than horrifying.  And you can certainly find some other artwork for your cathedral that doesn’t involve mass murderers.

At the end of the tour- by the way, the guide’s English was fantastic and most young people here speak the language quite well- I asked about the Jewish quarter.  While Slovenian Jews are few in number, their history is quite old.  And there is a medieval Jewish quarter, along with remnants of a community mostly butchered in the Holocaust.

The guide had failed to mention Jews at all when talking about the Second World War, so I was curious to hear her response, which was underwhelming: “here in Ljubljana, the Jews lived freely in the war, there was no ghetto.”

While the situation was complex here- in fact Slovene partisans suffered heavy losses and managed to carve out some hold outs despite the fascist invasion- the Jewish community never lived here freely.  And under German occupation, almost all of them were annihilated. When I pointed this out to her, she said “yes, some died.”  Understatement of the century doesn’t quite do it justice.

In the middle of the tour, a teenage boy walked by- seemingly perturbed.  A few times during the tour, locals harassed our tour guide.  Xenophobia is real here- as are neo-Nazis.  And perhaps because she was speaking in English or because we’re foreigners, or who knows what- some people didn’t like it.  And the boy, looking at our group, shouts in an angry voice something in Slovenian.  As he lifts his arm in a recognizably, crystal clear Heil Hitler salute.

I have never in my life seen a Nazi salute.  Europe, if I’m totally honest, is not a great place to be a Jew.  It’s had its moments- we’ve been here for over 2,000 years with some great successes.  But do not kid yourself- most European Jewish communities now define safety as absence of violent attacks the likes of which are rocking France.  Rabid societal hatred is seen as an unfortunate and growing norm.

The strange thing about Slovenia is there have never been many Jews here- and aren’t many now.  Making the hatred all the stranger, and for me this emphasizes the Christian roots of anti-Semitism here.  Because if we’re not even here, what else explains the depth of hatred?  I’ve never heard of Buddhists or Hindus persecuting Jews because nothing in their holy books condemns us.  Sociology and context matter- but so does ideology.  And if you’re fed a lie for generations in church, at home, in school- it infects your brain and society.  And it is not so easily dislodged- many don’t even want to remove it.

Tonight, I was asking for directions on the train.  Lately, I’ve been using my phone a lot less, I’ve totally disconnected from social media, and I’m finding myself increasingly connecting to people around me.  And to feel present in my surroundings.  It really impacts my day- and causes me to interact with more people.  And make different decisions about where to spend my time.

On the train, a nice young woman gave me a ton of advice about Slovenia.  Places to visit, food, everything.  She even walked with me to a restaurant to get a burek- a kind of savory pastry that we eat in Israel too.  This woman, let’s call her Alenka, was so nice.  Bubbly, friendly- warm.  She reminded me a bit of myself when I helped tourists in Israel.  It felt great.

Alenka is in a church choir.  Catholic.  As you’ll see from my previous blogs, I’m rather fearful of religious people at this point.  Certainly I have friends who are.  But when meeting someone new, unfortunately religiosity is often a sign that I should back away.  Especially in this part of the world, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to hate gays and Jews- i.e. me.  That’s not a theory- it’s reflected in public opinion polling in almost every European country (oddly enough, I believe the Netherlands or somewhere in Scandinavia is the only place where occasionally religious people polled as *more* tolerant).

Alenka asked if I was Catholic.  And I said: “no, I’m Jewish.”  She said: “oh, we have a Jewish community in the north east of the country.”  So simple.  No hate, no commentary, it was as if she was describing where the North Pole was.  And, compared to the brutal comments I heard in Budapest and my tour guide’s decided revisionist history, it felt great.

It’s a reminder that people are complex.  Yes, religious people are more likely to hate me.  And, some are pretty cool.  This is what makes life hard.  I want to protect myself and if I completely shut out a group of people based on a characteristic- then I might miss out on moments like tonight.  When I’m laughing my way through Ljubljana with a new friend.

On the bus to Slovenia, I met a young Polish guy named Greg.  A neuroscientist from Warsaw.  Poland, in case you didn’t know, has pretty much the worst record of Jew hatred of any country.  In a part of the world where it has quite a few competitors.

So, again, I was feeling nervous.  When I mentioned I was from Washington, D.C., he made some odd remark about how the city was “empty of people”.  And then he went to sleep.

I was prepping myself mentally for keeping my distance.  If that’s how he reacted to Washington, D.C., I can’t imagine what he would say about Tel Aviv.

Later on the bus ride, after he took a nice nap, we talked again.  Turns out he was exhausted from a 16 hour bus ride, explaining the earlier grumpiness.  When I mentioned Israel, he actually showed curiosity.  Apparently, he wants to visit.  I told him some exciting and harrowing stories and also about my Polish ancestors.

He loved it.  In fact, we shared a lot in common- just as people.  We’re adventurous, spontaneous, like to travel solo, and are intellectually curious.  I really liked him.  And after I told him some Israel stories, he said one of the nicest things someone has said to me this whole trip.  Possibly that someone has said to me in longer than I can remember.

“Your stories of Israel make me want to visit.”

The world is losing its mind.  Especially if you read the cherry-picked, profit-driven clips in the news.  That show the worst of humanity.  Not outright lies- there are a lot of nutsy people in the world and to pretend we’re all great is just as dangerous as saying we’re all terrible.

Nationalism, including in Slovenia, in Israel, in America, everywhere- is on the rise.  Nationalism, in my view, is a kind of collective narcissism which says our group is the best- because we happen to be here.  Together.  It doesn’t really hold up to much logic.  There are certainly differences between countries, but it hardly justifies pretending the place you happen to live is the best in the world.  It’s not a gentle or benign concept- it literally leads to killing people.  I’m frankly baffled that I should have to explain this in a part of the world that saw an actual genocide in my lifetime.  Which I remember watching on TV.

But it’s happening.

And so I offer you Greg and Alenka.  Not because they invalidate other people’s hatred.  Nor should we ignore signs of danger- there are dangerous people out there.  And their power is growing.  I recently read a story about Indian tourists in Slovenia being chased by neo-Nazis yelling “white power” as the police looked on indifferently.  Being different here is hard- and frankly, unlike in the Mediterranean, I sometimes feel my caramel skin stands out here.  In ways that could make me a target.

I’m glad people like Greg and Alenka are out there being kind to complete strangers.  I try to do the same.  It helps put the news in perspective so we can remember that if 27% of Slovenians are die-hard anti-Semites (that’s an actual statistic from the ADL)- that means the vast majority of the country is not so bad.  Maybe even some ignorant people who are persuadable.

We have a right and responsibility to protect ourselves and I will never forget seeing a Hitler salute in the middle of downtown Ljubljana.

We also have to do the nearly-impossible balancing act of remembering the good people.  The people trying for something kinder, more open, compassionate, and welcoming.  The people who go out of their way to smile and guide you when your phone is turned off, you don’t speak the language, and you need directions.  And you end up eating bureks together and laughing in the street.

Traveling as a Jew- as a gay Jew- is not easy.  In this part of the world, harder than I expected.  And I’ve traveled to some pretty hardcore places.

I suppose what helps me feel a little safer, a little more loved is when people who I least expect make an effort to make me feel at home.  Walking to a mountain today, as I bought fresh yogurt from a farm’s vending machine (that’s a thing!), I saw a sign:

“Home is not a place.  It’s a feeling.”

For someone who grew up in an abusive family, who is wandering as a nomad, who doesn’t always feel welcomed.  Not in this part of the world, sometimes not anywhere.  Being so many different minorities is hard.  Rewarding, and sometimes kind of scary and frustrating.

This message was for me.  This Yom Kippur I didn’t fast, in fact I haven’t fasted in years.  And, for the first time since I can remember, I didn’t go to synagogue.  And I didn’t pray the liturgy.

I’m calling this my first Un-Kippur.  The holiday still matters to me because I’m a Jew.  It’s part of my me.  Even if I don’t go to shul, I’m no less a Jew than someone else.  Something I had to say myself to a man wearing a yarmulke harassing me to go to synagogue in the middle of Ljubljana.  Proof that simply wishing someone a meaningful holiday can bring on a load of coercion- not just in downtown Jerusalem.

This was an un-Kippur but not a fun-Kippur. It was a chill Kippur.  I relaxed, I explored, I learned, I shared, I smiled.  If that’s not in a prayer book, then I don’t want to read it.

If religion makes you act like Alenka and causes you to perform acts of kindness, do what you’ve got to do.  For me, I suppose I don’t think I should bottle up all of my apologies for one day a year and pour them out.  Perhaps next year I’ll want to spend the holiday with some secular or open-minded religious Jews.  Just for community.  Maybe I’ll apologize to some people this week- maybe I’ll just apologize when I hurt someone.  I can’t say having a particular day to do so is a bad idea.  Just that you don’t need a particular day to do it.  Consideration of others’ feelings should be built into our ordinary experiences.

Writing a blog about your personal experiences, ideas, challenges, pains, joys- is hard.  It’s super rewarding and, because I’m the kind of person who is open to changing my ideas- it can be tricky.  Sometimes, people will like one blog because it validates their opinion, only to find me sharing something quite different a week later.  And they get angry.

I will never claim to be a one-stop-shop for cookie-cutter ideology.  There are many news outlets out there for you if that’s what you want.

What I will do is share.  Reflect, observe, remark.  Build.  Paint.  A picture that continues to develop.  Like the photos from my disposable camera I’m using.  Another one of my new life experiences- or at least the first time since I was 12.  It’s cool- it forces you to stop and think when you really want to take a picture.  And it keeps me away from the temptations of my smartphone.

This new year- or even if you don’t feel it’s a new year- this is my hope for you and for us.  To try to new things, to keep the good stuff that works, to dare to be different.  And to accept when you’re the same.  To live in a world where rigid thinking is overrated.  To fight for what’s right- and sometimes to take a break or consider other views.

Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Slovenian, communist, Zionist, Palestinian, etc.  These are words we use to describe ourselves.  But I tend to think that their utility is limited.  Not irrelevant, but certainly stunted.  Because the deep meanings we attach to these words could never possibly describe the depth of our experiences.

So while we need to protect ourselves- and labels can help us do that- it’s important to describe.  Not in one word, but in full thoughts.  Who we are, what we hope for, what we want.

If your identity, your ideology, can fit in one word- perhaps the best gift to give yourself this Rosh Hashanah is the freedom to speak your truth in more than 140 characters.

Because if all I knew about Greg and Alenka is that they’re Slavic, then I might never have opened myself up to knowing them.

I can’t say I’ll stay much longer in this part of Europe.  I am happy that I saw it with my own two eyes.  No article, no travel guide, not even my blog is a replacement for human experience.

 

 

A trip to Hungary

Sometimes life truly surprises you.  Having left Romania (see posts), I decided I needed somewhere nearby, more gay-friendly and with more *living* Jews.  So I headed to Hungary, another one of my ancestral homelands.

I am a quarter Hungarian.  My great-grandparents were from Pacza, which today is either Pacsa, Tornyospálca, or the (formerly Hungarian) Slovakian village Pača.  I’m still doing extensive research- finding Jewish genealogy here is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.  Due to both the time passed (130 years) and the killer job Nazis did in burning our archives, it can be quite hard.  An entire continent uprooted us over ages, so it’s hard to feel rooted here, even as we’re the oldest religion on the continent and our empty houses of worship dot the landscape.  Sometimes turned into trendy cafes or Italian restaurants, without so much as a word of our consent.

Budapest is an interesting place.  Gorgeous scenery, grand buildings, and a surprising calm for a city of its size.  The screaming and chaos of Tel Aviv this is not.  Cute cafes (including one that has cats in it!), affordable prices, and phenomenal safety make it a good place to spend a few days.  Not to mention Hungary’s 1700-year-old Jewish community that I’m a part of.  Before the frickin Huns even arrived.

As a Jew, some things stood out to me.  First off, there are actual Jews here.  Most parts of Romania I visited had almost no Jews left, or a very old (as in gray hair) community.  In a place that was once home to over 700,000 Jews, dating back to Roman times.

Secondly, the people here are really…brusque.  Maybe that’s not the word- I’ll be blunt: they’re assholes.  No, not everyone.  But most people.  There is a deep politeness to Hungarian society.  At first, this was refreshing, having experienced so much rudeness in Tel Aviv.  But you soon start to see that it’s a big facade.  People here have literally thrown my change at me in stores, they stare a lot (until I stare back), a woman I was paying for genealogical research berated me for taking water from a water cooler.  In the office I was paying her to sit in.  To quote: “in our country, you ask for water first.”  Message understood.

While this brusqueness is pretty much thrown at everyone (especially if you’re a foreigner), it has at times manifested itself towards me as a Jew.

I visited a beautiful library the other day.  It was so peaceful- quiet, relaxing, a great place to think and reflect.  The architecture here is marvelous and the tranquility truly, aggressively silent.  There is no neighbor blaring Beyonce at 3am on a Wednesday.  Yes, that has happened to me in Israel.

It’s in fact a branch of the Hungarian National Library.  Hoping to find some books to relax (I love books!), I went exploring.  I found most books were in Magyar, the local language.  But some were in French, German, Romanian, English, and other languages.  I even found a small book on Judaism.

I approached a young man working behind the information desk.

In my best American-polite voice, I asked: “excuse me, sir, do you have any books in Yiddish?  Or on Hungarian Jews?”

His answer: “this is the Hungarian National Library.  We only have books about Hungarians.  In Hungarian.  You can try one of these other libraries to try to find what you’re looking for.”

As he handed me a scrap of paper.

This is Hungary.  A place so reminiscent of the nationalism that plagues the Middle East, it might as well live there.

The fact that the city he lives in was a quarter Jewish just 70 years ago didn’t seem to factor into his commentary.  Or maybe it did.  After all, the Jewish quarter today is a bunch of bars and hipster cafes.  This kind of appropriation and abuse happens a lot with nationalism- it’s just that in America, you don’t often *see* the Native American ruins turned into a nightclub.  Perhaps it would sensitize Americans to how they achieved their great wealth.  Or perhaps they’d end up bland and desensitized like far too many Hungarians.  Despite having nearly cleared their country of Jews (in collaboration with Nazis), an astonishing 41% of the country is anti-Semitic.  The highest number in all of Eastern Europe.  A region famed for hating me.

The other day I heard an American voice.  A woman was taking a picture of a synagogue, I thought she might be Jewish.  “It’s beautiful,” I said.  She said back: “indeed!  Where are you from?”  I said: “I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and going back 130 years I’m Hungarian.”

She laughed: “well yeah, if that’s how we’re counting, I’d be speaking Irish right now.”  Chuckle, chuckle.  Completely unaware that maybe one of my ancestors worshiped in this synagogue.

I said: “my ancestors were kicked out of this country for being Jews.”

A dead silence.  “Oh, ok.”  She then stepped inside, maybe 10% embarrassed, 90% too focused on the lens on her camera.  Never to be seen again.

Feeling decidedly unconnected to most locals, I used the Couch Surfing app to find some internationals to hang with.

I’m really here to get away from the Middle East for now- to get some space.  But to my surprise, I found a young Jordanian woman (let’s call her Amira for privacy’s sake).  Who wanted to go to a gay bar!

Thank God, I really wanted to see some cute guys and connect to that other community I’m a part of- the fun one 🙂 .

A little nervous that politics might come up (it says that I’m Israeli on the app), I didn’t know what to expect.

But instead of a long drawn out conversation about the region’s ongoing PTSD, we ended up sitting down with two queer Macedonian girls.  And dancing with some British people.  And giggling.  And singing.  And frankly having a fantastic time.  It gave me a little hope that especially when we’re away from the mess, we can have a little more fun.

I met a few nice Americans here as well.  It was kind of refreshing to speak English and to share the same culture.  I can’t pretend Israeli culture hasn’t impacted my life- it has.  In a lot of ways, traumatically.  In some ways, kind of cool.  At heart, I’m still pretty American- more than you might expect.  And it was nice sharing that with people on kind of a neat neutral ground here somewhere in between corn bread and challah.

Friday night I went to Reform services.  I do not believe in God.  It’s something I’ve fully realized lately, and my experiences in Israel have convinced me of.  But I really miss community.  And when you’re traveling, Jews are better than anyone else at being nomads.  We’ve been doing it for 2,000 years.  And we find each other everywhere 🙂 .

I went to the services and found myself liking some of the same melodies (for those who don’t know, I’m really, really Jewish- I’ve led Reform services in varying locations since I was 14).  I especially love the old tunes- the ones from this part of the world.

And I found myself unable to mouth the word “God”.  I found some of the words I could kind of reinterpret or recreate with my meaning.  But the God piece- it really angered me.  I don’t believe in God- and the concept makes me furious.  I feel it’s an abusive one- not that all people who believe in it are abusive, but the idea of an invisible being telling us what to do- often to the detriment of our self-worth- really irritates me.  Especially when you see that conflict up close literally killing people.

I excused myself for the latter half of the service and came back for the meal.

The meal was great- a potluck, with some Hungarian surprises.  Hungarians love paprika.  I don’t know why, but they do.  And to be honest, it was found in nearly every dish I ate as a child.  So I guess my family brought it with us across the ocean.

The rabbi taught me all about Hungarian Jewish food.  And her congregant told me all about Hungarian Jews.  Apparently 19 out of 20 Nobel Prize-winning Hungarians were Jewish.  No wonder so many of them can’t stand us 😛 .

The rabbi has a fascinating story.  Her parents hid in the forests near Budapest during the Holocaust.  While her grandfather was deported to Buchenwald, her parents buried a suitcase under a tree each night.  And pretended to go to work each day.  Sleeping in the dirt under the moonlight.  Until the war ended.  And 565,000 out of 800,000 Hungarian Jews were evaporated.  An entire civilization, a race, loving parents with their little children- burnt to a crisp.  To supply a bunch of Germans with BMW’s.  And to satisfy Hungarian blood lust with the active participation of their fascist government.

What was so astonishing was how normal the rabbi was.   How kind, how gentle, how welcoming.  How easy it was to talk with her about one of the hardest things to talk about.

A deep note to my Israeli friends- losing loved ones in the Holocaust is not an excuse to be abusive yourself.  Not to other peoples or to other people.  This rabbi proves that.  If anything, it is a reason to work extra hard not to be that way.  This is an incredibly difficult hurdle- as someone who has been abused for decades myself, I know that.  And in the end, we’re responsible for our behavior, even as we know what has caused it.  And we can choose to pass that abuse on or to break the chain and strive to treat others better than we were treated.  Stop weaponizing the Holocaust to excuse bad behavior and instead, let’s heal.  Evidently, without the help of many countries that caused our pain.

In the end, while I don’t believe in God, I loved the Shabbat dinner.  Not for religious reasons, but for culture.  For history.  For conversation.  Yes, for continuity and change.  A Reform service- a tradition deeply rooted in Central Europe.  Where Neolog synagogues still stand.  And where, despite the best efforts of more than a few miserable neighbors, we still exist.  We are here.  I think I’ll keep seeking out, maybe creating, Jewish culture because I like some of it.  It’s mine, and I’m proud of our survival and our thriving in the midst of sometimes unbelievable pressure.  Perhaps something we share in common.

For ages upon ages, Christian Europeans denied us the right to own land.  To practice everyday professions.  Forced into banking and jobs that goyim didn’t want.  So more people would hate us than the actual governments oppressing them.  To then pay taxes to go to church and learn why we’re awful- and burn us on Christmas Eve as tradition.  No Christmas tree for me, I think.

Jews were stereotyped as “rootless”- a people wandering miserably, punished for killing Jesus.  When in reality, it was Christians themselves who regularly uprooted us.  Stealing our homes, killing us, even enslaving us at times.  Which is how a bunch of people with Mediterranean features and DNA ended up in bitter-cold Poland instead of on a beach on the Dead Sea.

We’re not rootless.  We are from here- me too.  My tradition, my very blood is Middle Eastern, it has stained the soil of Hungary, and I am no guest.  Do not throw plastic bags at me in your grocery stores or tell me your libraries are “just for Hungarians”. And stop complaining about how hard it is for you.  Communism sucked, you’ve been through a lot.  The economy isn’t great.  But I’ve literally met Darfur genocide survivors more cheerful than you.  Have a little perspective.  At least you’re here to complain unlike the rabbi’s grandfather.  Turned to dust.

Now a word to my Palestinian friends.  Through a mutual friend, I had been dialoguing some with a Palestinian woman from Hebron online.  One of the most violent and chaotic focal points where Israeli extremism and Islamic fanaticism meet in utter despair.  Where settlers bemoan the existence of Arabs- and sometimes physically attack them.  And not a small number of practically caged-in Palestinians throw bombs, stab babies, and shoot Jewish civilians.  If you want to really feel bad about humanity, this is a good place to take a peek at the darkness.

This woman, let’s call her Fatima, is religious.  I tried dialoguing and it went well for a while until she starting erupting at me- kind of out of nowhere.  Having seen some of the conditions in the West Bank, I displayed a lot of empathy.  Including sharing about the documentation I’ve done about Palestinian villages destroyed in Israel.  My empathy was several times thrown viciously back in my face.  Which really hurt.  Sometimes she managed to listen and acknowledge.

Fatima shared she was excited to go to Austria to teach Palestinian culture.  I told her my family was Austrian- in fact, all of Hungary once was.  And she said “oh, that’s random, you’re American and Israeli though.”  And I said: “yes, they were kicked out for being Jews- and the ones who remained were mostly massacred in the Holocaust.”

She said: “I hate Hitler and all his ilk.”  The “ilk” part floating softly in the air, its full meaning to this day not entirely clear to me.  Did she mean me?  Did she mean Israel?

Despite a lot of hateful rhetoric she spewed at me without even knowing me- despite me frankly trying to be an ally for a better future for her and her people in ways that gets me into trouble with a lot of Jews.  I told her this: “if you really want to understand why Jews feel we need a state, ask the Austrians what happened to the Jews there.  Why there are barely any Austrian Jews left.  You might not want to learn Jewish history now- that’s OK, maybe you’re not ready.  But you won’t understand a thing about us if you don’t understand why we left the wealthiest continent on the globe to colonize a conflict-ridden strip of desert.”

To the Palestinians desperate for support and solidarity- you deserve humanity and you deserve a better life.  In peace.  And watch out who you ally yourselves with.  Just as I bemoan Bibi becoming friends with anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim nationalists in Europe (that’s a thing), I encourage Palestinians to think twice before cheering our former oppressors.  In some cases, our current ones.  You may think they’re coming to show you solidarity- some of they may be.  And some might be coming to help you just because they hate us.  And if you’re really smart, you’ll realize they helped create the very conflict you live in.  By smashing us for generations and by colonizing you too.  Not a small number of them and their families and friends are just as happy to hate Muslims in Europe as they are to see you and I go head to head to realize their anti-Semitic blood fantasies.  Even if you think they’re on “your team.”  Every time you bring your case against Israel to the E.U., even if you don’t mean to, you’re revitalizing our trauma.  I don’t have a lot of great alternatives, but you might want to think about how you do what you do if you’re really serious about successfully solving things.

I don’t believe in God, I believe in accountability.  Not theoretical after-death accountability from above.  Accountability in the here and now.  That we must take into our hands if it is to happen at all.

As a survivor of abuse, I often wondered to what degree that abuse- widespread in my family across generations- was caused by anti-Semites.  Every individual is responsible for his behavior- and that includes my family members.  No amount of systemic or individual oppression justifies heaping that hurt on someone else.  Over and over.  And that’s why I have worked so amazingly hard to be a better person than the people who abused me.  And why I’ve cut toxic people out of my life, at great cost that has brought me impressive progress.

I do notice a lot of abuse in Jewish families.  And I wonder to what degree this pattern, if it is one, is tied to our less-than-generous neighbors who belittled us and uprooted us for generations.  It has to have had an effect.  I wonder if similar toxins have infected African American and Native American communities for the same reasons.  I’m not sure, but I’ve heard some arguments that it has.

I have skin in the game.  I want to know why I had to suffer for so long- with so many horrendous consequences for my health and well-being.  And while I can hold my family and my fellow Jews accountable (especially Israelis, whose society has turned a lot of abusive behavior into social norms- a scary development), I want to know why so many bigots here in Europe demeaned us.  And I want to call them to account.

I’m grateful for the brave non-Jews here who are allies to us and other minorities.  And I ask you to realize just how bad it can be here.  That it is still one of the most anti-Semitic regions of the world despite being practically Judenrein.  That large percentages of almost every country hate Gypsies, gay people, and increasingly Syrian refugees.  A problem admittedly complex (a number of them have perpetrated violent anti-Semitic attacks), but hardly one that justifies hatred and racism towards suffering people.

While taking a break tonight from genealogical research and writing this blog, I stepped outside for some food.

I found myself in front of a kebab store.  With the famous spinning shwarma machine.  Just the kind of culture I was trying to get some space from, to rest.

I found myself walking and re-walking the block debating whether to buy it.

And feeling so angry at Hungarians (the only other options around) and really hungry, I went in.

Turns out, the owner is a Syrian refugee.  And I told him I’m American and Israeli and we had an awesome conversation.  He told me my Arabic is as sweet as baklava.

As I bid him a warm goodbye, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the best people I’ve met on this trip are not Romanians and they’re not Hungarians.  Even though I am “from” these places- and they do have some fun stuff to offer in addition to the hardships.

The people who made me smile the most were a queer Jordanian girl who had never been to a gay club and a Syrian refugee.

Dear Europe- you may have gotten rid of us Jews.  But like a racist Israeli cab driver once told me: “you killed 6 million Jews and got 50 million Muslims.”

To which I say: “if you won’t show us the kindness we deserve, then I will help every refugee I can.  Because you uprooted us- but you will not uproot them.  My pain- the way I see life- my job is to turn it into honey.  Or at least not bitterness and bile.  So if it helps a Syrian refugee feel a little happier to chat, I’ll do it.  And I support their right to a safe life.  If it causes you a little pain to live with the ‘other’, then I’ll be blunt with you: you’ve earned it.  Grow up.  The grand Hungarian Empire is never coming back.  And it’s your turn to show a little kindness where you showed indifference towards my family.  An indifference I feel I continue to pay for to this day.”

You kicked me out 130 years ago.  I’m the first of my bloodline back.  With an American and Israeli passport- something you could envy.  You can choose to live in misery wailing about the communism that was, quivering about “Muslim invasions” that do not exist outside of your TV screen.  There hasn’t been a Turkish soldier here since the 1600s.  Or you can do something Jews have had to do for a long time in the shadow of your pitchfork: adapt.  If you don’t want to change, at least give me mine with a smile.

p.s.- the picture is of the Great Neolog Synagogue on Dohany Street.  If there’s one reason to come to Hungary besides great affordable food- it’s this.

The incredible yo-yo of being a Jew

Lately, I’ve been traveling in Romania.  It’s my third time here since March- I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, delicious and cheap food, and overall calmer atmosphere than Israel.  A place with far more history than America but with no active warfare like Israel.  And a place where a quarter of me comes from 🙂

Well, here’s the conundrum of being a Jew.  Especially a gay one.  Romania has some pretty awful things too.  Just as I’m trying to get space from Israel (and its creeping fascist state, persecuting minorities), I get a reminder of how stupid people around the world convinced us we needed a state.  Like theirs- faulty, and usually creating more problems than solving them.  But understandably could seem better than being regularly persecuted.

Romania has a storied history of anti-Semitism.  There are brave non-Jews working to preserve our heritage now- I’ve met young people interested in Klezmer, old women doing Israeli folk dancing, people looking after our synagogues.  The ones that haven’t been turned into pizzerias.

It also has a lot of bigots.  On Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting in a restaurant.  I almost went to services, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t.  I don’t believe in God.  I considered going for the community, for the tunes, for maybe a bite of Jewish food.  But when I saw the historic-synagogue-turned-arts-center was fastidiously set up to separate men and women, I felt that an Orthodox Rosh Hashanah was the last thing I wanted to do now.  I talked to some of the non-Jewish staff members, which was nice.  And then I left to eat.

So I’m alone noshing in this restaurant.  And a woman, maybe 40 years old, is playing with her kid.  The kid waves at me and we say hi.  He’s super cute.  The mom starts talking to me in English.  She’s from Bucharest but moved to Cluj some years ago because it is nice and calm.  When she asked where I was from, I said I was both an American and Israeli citizen.

She then says: “I want to go to Gaza.”  I said that wasn’t possible now.  And she says: “I know, I want to go get arrested [to protest].”  I said: “it’s a difficult situation on all sides.  My friend lives on the Israeli side of the border with rockets falling on her house and I’m sure it’s hard for Gazans too.”

I tried to conclude the conversation, but she kept pushing.  While making every effort to smile, she told me: “I want to go to PalestinA”.  With an “A” as if she just needed to emphasize every last consonant.  Like somehow I didn’t pick up on her political message the first time she bluntly interrupted my holiday meal.

I said: “great, you can go.”

Romanian woman: “I want to go to Jerusalem and see the Orthodox Christian sites.”

Me: “you can do that, you should realize that the Christian sites aren’t so protected in Gaza under Islamist rule and that Jerusalem is a part of Israel.”

First things first, I could have gotten into a nuanced conversation about West and East Jerusalem, varying land claims, the suffering on all sides, the Christians caught in the middle of national conflicts, but I knew this woman wasn’t interested in nuance.

Instead, she said the strangest thing.  Besides not knowing Jerusalem was a part of Israel (again, even if you accept the contested nature of the land, most of the world recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli), she was astounded to hear rockets were falling on Israeli cities.  From Gaza.  She said the news said it only happened the other way around.  She said: “life is suffering.”  And when I tried to suggest there were good things in Israeli and Palestinian society too, she just kept to her message.

Feeling rather fed up with this idiotic woman ruining my first solo Rosh Hashanah meal, I said to her: “life is complicated.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and was kicked out for being Jewish.  The rest of my relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.  And now our synagogues here stand empty or turned into restaurants.  Nothing is simple.”

She made an awkward smile, maybe 10% out of guilt, 90% out of stupidity, and said have a nice night and left the restaurant.

Sometimes this happens when I leave Israel needing some space.  I go leaving disgusted at how the government abuses its citizenry, especially minorities, much like other societies abuse(d) Jews.  Even today, neo-Nazis are rallying in Chemnitz, Germany and physically attacked a Kosher restaurant calling the owner a “Jewish pig”.  In Germany.

And I sometimes find all the reasons that pushed us, as a community, to feel we need a state too.  Because after having been expelled from town after town, butchered senselessly and demeaned, we were tired.  And we felt there was no other solution.

It takes endless gall for a Romanian woman who has never met me, doesn’t know my politics, doesn’t even know it’s a Jewish holiday, to barge in and attack me.  While her own country sucks at the teat of my people’s abandoned houses, synagogues, and property.  The land they’ve ripped from our culture.  And tell me how bad I am.

How is it possible to hate us when you’ve already exterminated 95% of us?  When we’re not here to “oppress” you anymore with our difference?

Because, if I may be frank, Romania can be kind of a shit hole.  A place with gorgeous nature and some incredibly backwards people.  The young people, both due to economic despair and perhaps a desire to make their lives better, go to Italy, Spain, and the UK to work.  Sometimes in undesirable conditions, but to earn a decent living and progress.  Sometimes at great cost.

Meanwhile, the country, losing population and brainpower, stagnates.  68% of Romanians still want to reclaim Moldova, a territory first lost to the Russian Empire in 1812.  There are people who want to ban a Hungarian minority party for “secessionism”.  Some villagers literally burned Gypsies alive.  In my lifetime.

In one of the most open-minded parts of the country, I had a young computer programmer tell me I’m a sinner for being gay.  I had the husband of a reflexology therapist with an eco-house tell me: “niggers don’t work in America.”  Someone who at surface level would have fit in at a hippie commune in Vermont.   I had an Uber driver take me 20 km out of the way to rip me off and have been literally chased by wild dogs.  Who apparently are best dealt with by being neutered, but the corrupt government pays its friends to kill them.  Knowing it won’t get all of them, the problem resurfaces in a few years, along with the funds to wash, rinse, repeat.  Corruption at a stellar level.  The public transport is pretty abysmal, if your stomach can handle the bumpy ride.  And the village people suffer in poverty while the government miraculously has millions of dollars to build ornate new churches.

Textbook awful.  And the Romanian people deserve better- and they bear some responsibility for their country’s problems.  Not all of it- none of us can truly force our governments to change on our own.  If I grew up here, I think I’d be pretty miserable.  I suppose in a perverse way, I can thank the Romanian anti-Semites for inspiring my ancestors to leave this hole.

There are nice things in Romania- you could consider visiting.  I just know that it’s time for me to leave.

I do know that the push and pull of hatred- of anti-Semites towards us, and Israeli Jews towards the communities now reliant on them.  That is a dangerous see-saw and it is hard to escape both empathy and anger towards all sides.

There’s a reason there’s not a lot of Jews left here.  And a reason a lot of gays would probably like to leave (or do).  It can’t be fun to be a minority in hyper-religious, hyper-nationalist pit.  The kind of problem I was just trying to get space from.

It doesn’t speak highly to my hopes for humanity, though I do know some societies manage to balance addressing past woes and healing with more success.  Or so I hope.  Perhaps I’ve just been in this part of the world too long.  Yet I know our problems, whether in Israel or other countries, are not ours alone.  The inflamed nationalism of our times has even reached Sweden, where a party with neo-Nazi roots gained almost a fifth of the vote.  Sweden.  The Home of Abba.

Tonight, feeling kind of lonely, I got an unexpected call.  I was having trouble reaching friends in the States, and suddenly I saw the name “Muhammad” on my phone.  A young Bedouin man, 19 years old, from the Negev.  We had met while I was visiting his village several times and I asked him for directions.  A sweet guy, we’ve kept in touch over WhatsApp over the months.  And now, he’s doing something super brave- starting college in Tel Aviv.  A city he has been in for only one day his whole life.  With a culture completely alien to the one he grew up in- in language, in demeanor, in everything.

He’s having trouble finding an apartment- partially due to racism.  At some point on this call, it finally came up that I was gay.  He had a lot of questions, but in the end seemed somewhere between accepting and resigned.  He said: “I can’t control what others do or how they are, everyone has their own way.”  A kind of understanding that I wish our own Pharaonic Prime Minister could bring himself to feel.

In explaining to Muhammad how to find an apartment, I told him to be honest about who he was.  He said he’d go view apartments, and only after he showed up in person would people find all sorts of excuses for why it wouldn’t work.  Like this is 1950s America.

I told him that back in the States, I’d always include my volunteering in the gay community on my resume.  Because if a company wouldn’t like me for being gay, even though it’s illegal for them to discriminate, I wouldn’t want to work there.  Nor waste my time with their hatred.  And yes, even at liberal non-profits, this tactic has saved me from some deeply homophobic work environments.  Even from a female non-profit executive who also did consulting for gay rights groups.  Who told me to be closeted about my identity if I took the job!

So I said: “tell them you’re Muhammad.  In my opinion, it’s better not to waste your time with someone who won’t accept you the way you are.  It’s sad, but trust me, if they won’t give you the apartment without knowing your name, they’ll figure it out when they meet you.”

So while Romania was good for the first few visits, when I could enjoy the stunning scenery and surface-level conversations, it’s now worn out its welcome.  Because while I could go around this country and hide- or lie- about who I am, I’m tired of it.  I haven’t survived this much and lived this long to feel ashamed of something I am proud of.

I’m a Jew.  I’m gay.  I don’t believe in God (a no-no in this deeply religious country).  And I’m a kind person.  It’s Romania’s loss that I’m leaving- not mine.  Leaving like millions of young people tired of old dogmas and nationalism that has killed millions across the globe.  Take note, Israel- this is your fate if you keep burrowing your hopes in a ground soaked with blood.  There’s no such thing as a fair society where one group is esteemed above all others.  As we well know from our experience in places like Romania.

What I do know from tonight is when I was feeling at my worst.  Lonely, sad, still reeling from being chased by wild dogs and people saying the word “nigger”.  That a Bedouin friend named Muhammad called me on the phone, we talked about gay identity and racism and finding apartments, and I felt better afterwards.  As I started searching for ways to help him.  A simple call that changed my night.

You can keep reading the rags- the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva, even the Washington Post, New York Times, and Fox News.  All with different politics but the same objective- fear and money.

I like when people like Muhammad challenge the way they were taught to think.  Living in a gray space of exploration and growth.

Israel is realizing my deepest fear, the abused spreading its abuse more than striving to heal from it.  Frighteningly reminiscent of the European nationalists it is now allying itself with.  That kicked us out.  That burned our homes.  And our bodies.

Muhammad makes me yearn for the country it could be.

==

The cover photo is of me in the Sighisoara synagogue.  Now empty, its members killed by Romanian and German fascists.  The remnants emigrated to Israel and America or assimilated under the pressure of communism.  The shul was rededicated by Jewish donors and some local non-Jewish allies.  A faded, almost barbarically quiet presence in places we once called home.  A sign of cooperation, and a sign of the times.  To be a Jew, more than anything else, is to know how to live in the bittersweet.

 

 

The Jewish conundrum

I’m currently traveling through Romania.  Romania, for all its current and past political problems, is today a much, much more peaceful place in Israel.  You can’t really compare a 50,000 person demonstration in Bucharest with hundreds of rockets, racist legislation, land appropriations, occupation, and creeping fascism of Israel.  A state once semi-democratic but now plunging into the totalitarian fiesta that is the Middle East.  And once was Eastern Europe.  With vestiges creeping back today.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that the increasingly psychotic right-wing leaders of the former communist bloc have found themselves in bed with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Even as they spew anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries.  I suppose bullies attract bullies.

Before we dive in, here are some pretty pictures of my other homeland.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and I’ve loved traveling here.  This is my third visit this year- I’m the first member of my family to step on its soil since she left 130 years ago for the golden shores of America.

Romania is gorgeous.  Or in the case of Cheile Turzii, “gorges” 🙂 .  I’ve been to Cluj, the silicon valley of Romania.  Literally- both a valley surrounded by hills and also the high-tech hub of the country.  Filled with lots of young, progressive people working in high tech.  But with way less pent up aggression than people in Tel Aviv.

I’ve been to historic Transylvanian cities, old synagogues, beautiful mountains.  Romania is stunning.  My ancestors must’ve really been struggling to want to leave here.  (Turns out they were- the government passed anti-Semitic legislation and had various state-sponsored pogroms the years my family left)

And for those of you still living in Israel, the other day I bought ice cream, a large bag of oatmeal, apples, bananas, milk, several yogurts, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, a Romanian home-made candy, cascaval cheese, turkey, whole-grain bread, and I forget how many other things.  For a total of $10.  Israel is stupidly expensive and the quality of food is definitely not better than here- but I suppose that’s what you get when your country is ruled by a bunch of nepotistic politicians whose rabbi friends make an extra buck off of every piece of food by deciding God approves of it.  Nationalism costs money- I suppose if you pour every ounce of your being into conflict and the idea that your country is super awesome, then people can take advantage of your distraction and charge you money for the things you actually need to survive.  But keep believing that patriotism is awesome.

Romania also knows a thing or two about ethno-nationalism.  It’s a country where, to this day, there’s actually a political party calling for outlawing the Hungarian minority’s party.  Because they claim the Hungarians want to hand over Transylvania to Hungary again.  Does this sound familiar, Israel?

It’s also a place with a long, storied history of anti-Semitism.  One which, thankfully, is much, much better today.  As I have never felt physically threatened and have never even faced an aggressive comment here.  Frankly, Romanians are way more polite and respectful than Israelis.  I feel emotionally safer with the average Romanian than a Jew in Israel.  And not just because they say “please” and “thank you”- although that’s nice too.

And Romania does have a mixed record on its Jews.  As I’ve been here, I have seen a little bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, I’ve heard some yearnings for right-wing politics, I even saw a billboard promoting some sort of Mein Kampf theater production.  Hopefully with the goal of educating people, but I’m honestly not sure.  And I was rather shocked to see the words on a billboard.

I also visited a synagogue.  I was hesitant to- I’m here partially to get space from Israel.  But I was in Sighisoara and I just wanted to take a peek.  Perhaps it was partially because when I asked a young woman where it was, she said there was none.  Even as Romanian nearly-Klezmer-sounding music blared out of her store (which was awesome- she said she’d check out Jewish music after).  I don’t think she was ignorant out of hatred.  I think she simply didn’t know there was a synagogue.  In a town of 20,000 people.  Sad.

I have to note that I’ve mentioned to many people here I’m Jewish.  And sometimes I’ve noticed feelings of guilt.  One guy, when I said my family was killed in the Holocaust, said it gave “shivers down his spine” and he told me about an Israeli he’s met who actually moved to Romania.  And to return to the synagogue in Sighisoara, the non-Jewish custodian of the synagogue was so, so proud to show it to me.  She even hummed the tune to “Tzadik Katamar”, a Jewish prayer written on the wall of the synagogue.  As we both motioned the steps to the Israeli folk dance.  For those of you who think, as I was basically taught at home and at synagogue, that Eastern Europeans are just a bunch of lousy bigots- you’re wrong.  The lousy bigots would be the people who taught you this lie- and the idea that you can generalize about tens of millions of people.  Many decades of evolution after most of our persecution took place.  Things have undoubtedly changed here for the better.  I feel much safer in Cluj Napoca than in Tel Aviv or London.

And there are problems.  Today I was at some sort of folk festival and I met a guy who spoke Spanish.  I was ordering food and having trouble conveying how many grams of meat I wanted (that’s a thing here- everyone should pick up on this.  You don’t have to guess how big your food will be, or be disappointed!).  He, like many Romanians, has worked abroad.  In his case, Spain.  In many others’, Italy or elsewhere.  Part of the reason things are so cheap here for me is that their economy isn’t so great.  Sending thousands of young people abroad in search of work.  Sometimes, to return.  Sometimes, not.

He starts talking politics with me.  One of the things I *love* about Romania is how un-invasive people are.  When I say I’m American or Jewish or tall or short or religious or not religious- people don’t dig.  In Israel, you can say you dislike tomatoes and enter into a 15 minute argument about a fucking fruit. (or vegetable- again, keep arguing).  Israelis like to pretend that respecting people is such an American concept, that “politeness” is fake.  But actually, my experience is Eastern Europeans are way, way more polite than Israelis.  So their barbaric habits must have other roots, because it sure ain’t from here.  I tried to cross the road the other day at 10pm, with no cars coming, and my friend said we should wait.  I asked why and he said: “because we have to respect the rules.  And be fair.”  As he returned me the fifty cents I overpaid for our meal.  I actually laughed out loud because no one has treated me with such dignity in a long time.  Then he gave me hand-picked apples from his family’s farm.  You can be generous and polite- it’s not that hard.

Now to return to the first guy talking politics.  He starts telling me about Romania’s corrupt politics and economic woes.  And how things were *better* under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  While I can understand the former, the latter is a bit absurd.  While perhaps there was more economic stability under the communist dictatorship, this is a man who was executed by his own people for committing genocide and heinous war crimes.  Even Queen Elizabeth hid from him in bushes once.  A story so silly it has to be true.

What really irked me, besides the Middle East-style hijacking of the conversation to lecture me about politics, is that this dictator was a real ass to the Jewish people.  He confiscated over 1000 cemeteries and synagogues.  Jews had to *pay* to make aliyah, to leave the country.  While Jewish issues are hardly at the top of Romanians’ list of woes, to not even think about how this man made my people’s- any people’s- lives miserable is just abysmal.  And cruel.

I’m glad your pocketbook was better under your former dictator, but I’m not particularly happy he shat on my family’s heritage either.  Nor are the political prisoners he killed and tortured.

In the end, what I have to say is this: religion is a sham.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism- it’s all frankly an overcharged book club where everyone thinks their book is the best.  Nationalism, to me, is just another type of religion.  My flag, my country, my people are awesome, and everyone else comes next.  If at all.  Because all of these philosophies aren’t provable.  Like, frankly, the existence of God.  What evidence do you have for God existing?  If God was so self-evident, why do you have to teach children about it to believe in it?  And why do you need organized religion to enforce its tenants?

Religion, like all philosophies, can contain grains of truth.  It’s just that for me, they don’t come from an invisible deity who you’ve personally never met or seen.  But somehow miraculously spoke to a human being you don’t know thousands of years ago to tell you exactly how to live your life.  I presume among clergy there are some good people, but their profession lends itself to charlatans because they are selling something they cannot prove.  While not all things can be easily proven, I want the antibiotic I take to fix my stomach bug to have FDA approval.  And our societal ethics should be no different- based on facts or at least rational arguments.

When you’re convinced that your book is the best, you have to constantly beat people over the head with it.  Since, ironically, it is not self-evident that you are the best (which would go against the idea that you’re inherently awesome), you have to remind people over and over again.  Why would you need to evangelize something so blatantly obvious?

For example, did you know Unitarianism was born in Transylvania?  This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned in Romania.  I went one of their first churches.  Unitarianism, for those who don’t know, is today largely a peacenik left-wing church centered around social justice.  I even once went to a Ska concert at one in high school- pretty much anything goes.

Yet apparently, the first Unitarians were lunatics.  My tour guide told me they would go into churches and just start tearing down artwork and “idols” and burning shit.  Far from the birkenstock-wearing vegans that I know today.

So when I visited a Unitarian church here- one of the first- the pastor did exactly what every lunatic clergy in Israel did.  Tell me how they were the first, the best.

I had mentioned how I had Unitarian friends in America, that they would be thrilled to see I visited.  He smiled.  Genuinely.  And also proceeded to tell me how young the American church was and that the Hungarians were the first Unitarians.  Implication- the real Unitarians.  Unitarians!  Even the friggin Unitarians have to argue about who is the first in their book club.  And they are probably the most relaxed readers.

This kind of stupid narcissism is inherent to any ideology which believes it is perfect, the best, superior.  The 10 minute interaction with the Unitarian pastor was mostly harmful because it reminded me of much longer, more aggressive interactions with the brilliant Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith-peddlers of Israel.  Romanians, even at their worst, are still way less intense than the average Israeli.

I once posted an Arabic video in a Facebook group to have a guy from Yaffo randomly message me on Facebook voice notes of him saying “that’s great you want to learn Arabic.  Here’s the call to prayer.”  As he Allahu-Akbar’ed the hell out of my phone.  Many Muslims are shocked that I’ve read the Quran and not converted to Islam- because it’s such a perfect book I must have “seen the light”.  And claimed their religion has never persecuted Jews- despite centuries of evidence.  I had a Jewish guy ask me for money to buy food for Shabbat- and then tell me how awful the Sudanese “leeches” were in South Tel Aviv where I lived.  I even had a Jew tell me once that the worst Jew is better than the best goy.  And another Jew told me- knowing I was Reform- that Reform Jews are Christians (why is that an insult?).  Somehow Christians are stupid enough to get into this battle when they are 2% of the population.  I’ve met Orthodox Christians tell me they are the “original Christians”.  Not like those Catholics…  I’ve even had Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Christians say they are the real Arameans, not the Arameans in Northern Israel.  Christian priests literally get into fist-fights in Jerusalem every year over who gets to light some sort of flame in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Literally coming to blows over a fucking match.

In the end, I have religious friends and not religious friends.  I’m not religious- I used to identify as religious and am not anymore.  If this blog was hard for you to read as a religious person, I can understand.  I also feel it’s important to share my truth.  What I hope is that even if you read a different book from me (frankly, I’m a fan of reading everything), what I hope is you take from it kindness and generosity.  I personally have found it detrimental to limit myself to one book, one ideology in informing my world view.  And that the idea of a deity above me, rather than the human beings beside me, has led me to feel small and to make some poor choices.  And now, I feel more empowered and happy.

So in the end, when it comes to Romania, I’m not a Jew because I believe in God or because I think we are the best.  I’m not a nationalist.  I’m a Jew sometimes because people force me to be one.  When I see a desecrated cemetery, like I did in Cluj, my inner Jewish spirit arises.  My empathy for my people, for my ancestors, wells up.  My desire to protect.  Just like if I saw a Muslim cemetery being turned into an apartment building in Yaffo.  That is a true story.

What I believe in, then, is humanity.  Is treating each other with respect.  When someone yearns for an anti-Semitic dictator to my face, I am a Jew.  When someone bulldozes an Arab home, I’m an Arab.  When someone throws coffee in someone’s face for wearing a hijab, I’m a Muslim.  When ISIS butchers Christians in Iraq, I’m one of them too.

It’s not because of God or any book.  It’s because I’m against suffering.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I won’t be asking God for forgiveness or beating my chest or dressing in a suit to impress a congregation half-asleep as a rabbi preaches.  Sometimes a good message, sometimes not.  Always one which includes an appeal for donations.

What I will be doing this Rosh Hashanah is exactly what I try to do every day.  Be kind, give a smile to someone who needs it, explore, reflect, enjoy.

Because I’m not a religious leader, I won’t tell you how to spend your holiday- if you observe it at all.  Instead, I’ll hope that you follow the path that brings you joy and understanding.  Nuance and hope.  And the ability to feel sad and angry at hatred, compassion for those being hurt, and the realization that we make choices each day. Which can bring light into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

Instead of fighting over a flame, let’s grow its light.

p.s.- the cover photo is a synagogue in Targu Mures.  Because there are good people in Romania and around the world working to preserve Jewish heritage, even as others wish to destroy it.  I am grateful to them and honored to visit.