The “Jew Bill” and America’s Future

Proud to share my latest piece, published in the Baltimore Jewish Times: https://jewishtimes.com/90308/the-jew-bill-and-americas-future/opinion/.

The ‘Jew Bill’ and America’s Future

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the Maryland Historical Society. I’ve always liked Baltimore. As a suburban Marylander from Montgomery County, I suppose I should have some sort of enmity towards my ever-so-slightly northerly neighbor, but I like your town. I’m so Maryland that I once sat in the Annapolis harbor and tried to take a “shot” of Old Bay — the handful of powder quickly suffocating my taste buds as I laughed in disgust and glee. No matter where I am, I’m always a Marylander and a Jew through and through.

What, then, brought me to this interesting archive? A simple question: What is the future of American Jewry? Or, on a more primal level, my passion for archives. What’s hidden in history’s past that can en-lighten our present and stabilize our future?

I learned an interesting lesson. The ambiguous, if fruitful, relationship between Jews and the rest of America has its roots as far back as our state’s founding. And that if we want to understand the trajectory of our people, we need to know our local history as well as we do our Torah, our tikkun olam or our favorite falafel stand in Tel Aviv.

In 1826, the Maryland General Assembly passed what is commonly called the “Jew Bill.” Fifty years after independence, our beautiful black, red, gold and white state was the last one where Jews couldn’t legally serve as legislators. It’s a notion difficult to understand. In a country marked by the separation of church and state, how is it that our enlightened sliver of beach, mountains, ports and piedmont could deny our community the right to serve?

Oddly enough, the debate raged. Some argued against our rights, some for. I had the great blessing of holding some of these original documents in my hands, including the very statements by both our opponents and our supporters made before the assembly.

What struck me most is how the case for us was made. One of our most ardent supporters, Mr. H. M. Brackenridge, made his case for us based on our Americanness. In an argument that would grate on the ears of some today, he argued that American Jews should be able to serve because we’ve assimilated American values. That we were superior in character to the “Jews of Portugal and Turkey.” But there is a bit more to this argument.

In fact, Mr. Brackenridge, who wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in today’s “gotcha” culture, was making a sophisticated argument, if one that bodes a bit poorly for our future here. He argued that when a culture oppresses its Jews, the Jews become more deficient. He even said, “Will one seriously compare the Jews of England of the present day with the same people a few centuries ago, when degraded and op-pressed by the British kings?” In other words, while I find fault with the assumption that western countries were inherently more enlightened towards their Jews than eastern ones (indeed, history shows that was not always the case), he has an interesting framework, that if he overstates his culture’s “enlightenment” of our people (after all, we contribute to the societies we’re in too), he is arguing that oppression of Jews is wrong. America’s openness to our people is precisely what improves our condition to the point where we are suitable members of the legislature, having Americanized, yet retained our Jewishness in a manner that necessitates changing the law to include us.

In the end, what remains is a fascinating paradox. American Jews are worthy, in Mr. Brackenridge’s argument, by virtue of our Americanness. But also because of our Jewishness. In his words: “[Is there] nothing in the Jewish race … in the religious doctrines which necessarily disqualifies the Jew from discharging the duties, and fulfilling all the obligations of a citizen of Maryland?” For him, the answer is no. We are entitled to serve just as anyone else. Both by virtue of us being thoroughly American(ized) and because our Jewishness is seen as acceptable. Our similarities and differences are the source of our rights. If it was a simple issue of civic equality, then there’d be no need to make an argument based on our Judaism — why not simply say all religions are welcome? And if it was a matter of including us because of our acceptable Jewish values, why vouch for us in terms of our Americanness?

These are complicated questions. I don’t have easy answers. Mr. Brackenridge, as I see it, is making a difficult argument that continues to grant us both privilege and pain in this country. That our positive uniquely Jewish essence makes us good potential Americans, and that our assimilation into American society makes us better than Jews elsewhere. It’s a paradox that today sometimes manifests itself in questions about our loyalty. Because our perceived fidelity to American values is what makes people like Mr. Brackenridge grant us the very rights that make us free to be different.

In other words, our right to be different is contingent on a certain level of assimilation, which creates endless opportunities for us on a level not experienced in any other civilization. But it also creates a tension that can undermine our ability to preserve our distinct traditions in peace.

All of this was best summed up by my conversation with a cab driver the other day. When I said how I loved being in Israel, surrounded by my culture, he asked “well isn’t American culture your culture?” It is. But it’s not my only culture. I’m thoroughly American and thoroughly Jewish. It’s what makes us rich contributors to both civilizations.

In a phrase you’ll hear a lot in Israel, we’re “gam vegam.” Both this and that. And that will continue to confound people who try to put us in boxes. But it’s a dual and overlapping identity worth preserving, for the sake of our peoples, American and Jewish.

Before my visit to the archives, I can’t say I knew much about Maryland Jewish history. But I know this — handling it myself and reading the words in my own way has opened up new inquiries and ways of understanding myself, and new questions to probe and perplex.

If you find yourself curious about where we’re heading as Jews and Americans, perhaps a visit to your local archive will shed some light, or at least keep you entertained and engaged on a rainy afternoon in Charm City. I wish you a fruitful exploration.

 

Crossroads

Over the past few years, I’ve learned the most important lessons.  And I learned them from the most unexpected people and places.

On a bus from Hungary to Slovenia this Fall during my backpacking trip, I was seated next to a cute, if grumpy Polish guy.  My inner Jew was angry.  Was it my nose he didn’t like?  What did he have against Washington, D.C. (he said it was boring)?  The guy slept for most of the time, which was for the better as my thoughts raced in anger at how this guy was ruining my trip.  Why did I get seated next to an anti-Semitic mean guy?  Poles were known for their anti-Semitism and while I hadn’t said who I was or where else I was from (sticking with American is usually safer in Europe these days), I had this feeling he was just mean.  That he somehow knew I was Jewish and wasn’t going to like it.  It’s not a fear completely misplaced.  Poland is renowned for its anti-Semitism, currently ruled by a government claiming Poles didn’t participate in the Holocaust.  Even the Polish American Cultural Center in Philadelphia has an exhibit claiming Hitler was equally committed to exterminating Poles and Jews- an absurd claim that no historian would support.  And a convenient way to exculpate yourself for crimes your own people committed.  A people underappreciated by some in the Jewish world- Poles form the largest group of “Righteous Among the Nations“.  Non-Jews who saved our lives during the Holocaust.

Sadly, I was taught growing up in my home that Eastern Europeans were reflexively anti-Semitic.  Based on no personal experience whatsoever.  And while some fit the bill, others do not.  I met a Romanian girl who wants to learn Yiddish.  I met a Slovenian cell phone salesman who is now eager to visit his town’s Jewish museum after chatting with me.  I met a really cute Hungarian guy who decided to visit Israel for vacation- just because.  There are all types out there- it’s the most important value I’ve learned from my experience.  That if good people shouldn’t be used as a fig leaf to pretend there aren’t dangers or differences between cultures, nor should bad people be the only ones we talk about.  My best friend in the world is a deeply religious Muslim, a Syrian refugee living in Iraq.  He knows everything about me- and we’ve never even met.  And my experience with him doesn’t convince me that all pious Muslims would treat me with equal kindness, nor that none of them would.

What it does is remind me that people are people.  That arriving to Israel as a gay Reform progressive Jew- and visiting ultra-Orthodox kin in Bnei Brak- well that changed me.  I now see Orthodox Jews as people.  Not as ideological enemies, but simply people.  Good, bad, weird, nice, just like everyone else.  Not that there aren’t differences- every group has differences.  But that educated by my synagogue and my family to believe Orthodox were bizarre, backwards, and violent, I realized that they aren’t.  Not more or less than any other group.  Yes, Haredi men wear Polish noble outfits from the 1700s- but we wear suits to work- is our uniform any less ridiculous?  Every culture has its strange beliefs- and when you have the self awareness to see that in yourself, you are a bit less judgmental of the beliefs of others.

Which is how I found myself a month ago at the Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C.  A temple I drove by thousands of times during my rocky childhood.  Gazing in awe, but never visiting.  Curious, but more interested in the delicious Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, everything-ese food that surrounded my incredibly diverse hometown.

But this time in America, after being in Israel, I decided to take a peek inside.  I went with a Jewish friend and we talked for literally two hours with Mormon missionaries.  Some of the nicest- but not all of them- people in the world.  With a never-retreating grin that struck me as a combination of frightful and deeply pathologically relaxing.  You can’t really offend a Mormon- they bounce right back and just keep engaging.  It’s a resilience, if a bit forced, that progressives could really use right now.  Instead of building ideological fortresses.  Putting up signs that say “all are welcome” but then defining who is welcome- isn’t that just as problematic as excluding those not listed?  Isn’t it also a bit patronizing for you to decide?  Are progressives the “protectors” of helpless minorities?  And yet if we don’t say who is welcome in our society, are we leaving out the difference that sometimes leads certain people to harder lives here?  While the debate rages between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”- I can’t help but sit in confusion.  Can’t we say both?

Which is why I left the Mormon Temple with my fair share of critiques.  After all, the missionaries have each other’s cell phone passwords to check in on their morality.  A rather creepy, Big Brother scenario.  But they also were interesting.  And individuals.  And welcoming.  And friendly.  And human beings.  I met one Austrian woman who even knew some Yiddish!  And some were actually less friendly- which while unpleasant, just went to show that Mormons are people too.  Which was kind of refreshing.  At least I can say my experience with Mormons isn’t based on a musical mocking them.  A musical which they had the dignity to turn into a bright public relations opportunity.

Which brings me back to Greg, my Polish nemesis on the bus.  Feeling antsy and gazing out the window, waiting for the next rest stop (or mountain- Hungary is really flat, even if I deeply miss its greenness in the dead of American winter), I didn’t want to be around this grumpy influence anymore.  What did he have against Washington, D.C.?  He went once for a conference- what does he know?  If he feels that way about Washington, what’s he going to say if I say I’m Israeli- or Jewish?  Two words which I’ve learned in the past year are not the same- although I’ve found myself feeling bits of both.  I’m a bit of a contrarian.  I feel like an outsider as a Jew in Israel sometimes, and definitely an outsider as an Israeli in many American Jewish circles.  We’ll see how it develops.  But I suppose every society needs people who can see things from different angles, question conventional wisdom, and be the other voice.  Even bridging between different cultures.  American Jews and Israelis really need that right now.  And I hope to be the voice encouraging one group to think of the other.  Encouraging us to think in new ways.  I’m learning to embrace that role.

Judaism, no matter where I am, is always going to be important to me.  It’s not something to take for granted nor is it something I haven’t questioned- I grew up in a household hostile to the religion they belonged to.  Where relatives screamed at me in public for wanting to go to synagogue because of their personal psychoses.  And where some relatives even took advantage of my vulnerability as a child- in the synagogue.

One odd therapist I had did have a useful insight.  “Most people in your situation, with an abusive family, hostile to your Judaism and your very sense of self, would have given it up to survive”.  And sadly, I did have to give up a lot in my life to survive.  My house as a kid was a torture camp- I stand in awe at my strength to survive it, and to become kinder than the people who were supposed to protect and nourish me.

But I did hold on to my Judaism, at great personal expense.  Because it brings great personal reward.  It’s not an easy religion to be a part of.  I find it amusing when Jews debate whether we’re going to let people into our tribe– who on earth wants to be a part of the most persecuted society on the planet?  Why would we stop them?

While the debate is superfluous, the essence underlying it is valid.  We are a pretty cool tribe.  I’ve found in Judaism community, meaning, history, language, music, connections to other cultures, psychological insight, spiritual wisdom, and a sense of love.

A love sometimes threatened by people who should appreciate it.  Whether it be some Jews themselves, whether it be anti-Semites, whether it be people launching rockets aimlessly at our civilians.  Even threatened by the people around me who should’ve been teaching me to love it.  But instead would whisper the words “I love you bubbelah”, seeping that warm Yiddish warm into my ear drum, and then forcing me to touch their body.

The Judaism I have is one I’ve fought for.  And will always be a part of me, even as I (and it) evolves in meaning.

So when I sit on the bus next to Greg, the Polish neuroscientist, I am nervous.  Should I share this part of me with him?  Mostly I blast Jewish music into my headphones and stare at the green plains.

Greg eventually woke up.  Turns out the poor guy was on a 16 hour, two bus trip from Poland to Slovenia- in the same day.  And after a long rest, his grumpiness gave way to kindness.

Turns out, when I shared a bit more about D.C., he realized he didn’t know that much.  He even sounded interested.  He apologized for his grumpiness- he was exhausted.  It’s sometimes hard to distinguish momentary meanness from meanness that stems from an internal axis oriented around cruelty.  Those people exist too.

Eventually I saw he was the former- a normally nice guy just having a bad day.

I cheered him up.  We shared some stories.  And eventually I decided it was worth the risk to share I was Jewish.  And, in fact, part Polish.  Polish Jewish- the kind that has suffered a lot in the past two hundred years.

He was amenable.  He was interested.  He was more excited that I was Jewish than that I was American.

He wanted to visit Israel.  He showed pangs of guilt about his current anti-Semitic government.  Slight pangs that were visible enough to me to feel.  It felt great.  It was a sign of his kindness.

I’ve learned that empathy is the number one quality I seek in a fellow human being.  That often this is reflected to me- given my passion for Judaism- in people who validate my culture.  And who I then truly enjoy validating myself.  I know a lot about different cultures and speak 10 languages.  And it brings me great joy to make Uber drivers from West Africa laugh every time I tell them I like fou-fou.  I’ve never heard a laugh so big, so many times. 🙂

So when Greg told me about all this passion and kindness for Judaism- I wept for joy.  Not visibly, it just turned into this kind of sweetness inside of me.  A sweetness I had had to keep holed up for so many years as I hid bits of my self to protect me from the people encharged with raising me.

That’s a sweetness I carry with me to this day.  Along with the strength that protected it.  Like the sabra fruit, I’m both sweet and prickly- if you manage to respect me, you’ll get to the sweet stuff.  If you mess with me, you’ll get pricked.

I start the next step of my journey.  I’m excited.  It’ll be tough, but I’ve been through a lot.  I hope it is rewarding, peaceful, happy, and full of challenges.  The kind that bring you closer to your goal.  And some rest, some stability, and growth.  Peace of mind, and striving for more.  Foundations from which to sprout new opportunities.

As Shabbat descends, I wish you a peaceful week end.  Take a moment, pause.  Count your blessings.  Each of my readers is one.  And I thank you, and the kind people who help me on my journey.  Marko the Slovenian phone salesman, Greg the neuroscientist, and the Americans I’m meeting and have yet to meet.  Who will join on my journey.  And I, on theirs.  Let’s pursue kindness together.

Gut Shabbes, Shabbat shalom.  May it be filled with respite.  May you find moments of joy.

Help someone today

Today I found myself in a Jewish deli.  I love Jewish delis.  Severely lacking in the Jewish State, Jewish delis still dot the streets of major American cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and L.A.  Filled with matzah ball soup, kreplach, black and white cookies, rugelach (the dense American kind made with cream cheese), and all of my favorite childhood foods.  Including whitefish salad.

In need of a pick me up after a rough hour or two, I slurped on my chicken soup.  The salty savory flavor filling my taste buds with joy and warmth.  The kind of warmth sometimes lacking in America.  A place so rigid and overly burdened by rules that when I emailed a local archive about visiting, they told me they couldn’t accommodate me for the next two weeks.  I’ve traveled to 10 countries in the past two years and I’ve never even had to make an appointment to visit an archive.  I even walked in unannounced and held Inquisition-era documents from the 1200s in the city of Tortosa.  God forbid you slightly disturb an American archivist- their schedules seem to be made years in advance.

On the contrary, while Israel is a place that lacks rules (hence the chaotic man-eats-man rental market), it does not lack warmth.  Once I visited a small moshav that now forms part of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.  Unannounced, I walked in to a tiny museum showcasing the area’s history.  Filled with amazing knickknacks and chotchkes, I stood in awe and perused.  The man staffing- and I use that word liberally, he was just sitting in a chair writing some notes and answering calls- told me to come on in.  You don’t have to “sign in” or wear business clothes or make an appointment.  He welcomed me in and proceeded to show me the tiny two room archive- for two hours.  No cost, no rush.  He regaled me with stories of the moshav- when the area used to be agricultural as opposed to part of a 2 million person metro area.  He showed me pictures of fallen soldiers he knew himself.  When he apologized for having to grab the phone after two hours of chatting, I then wandered alone for another hour.  Unsupervised, trusted.  Allowing my mind and my spirit to be guided by what I saw.  This is the best way to learn and experience.  Rather than goose-stepping through a syllabus or knowing “what you’re looking for”, sometimes you let your mind wander and discover amazing things.

Organization, then, is America’s greatest strength and weakness.  I never have to push in grocery lines here.  Americans might laugh at this, but this is the reality of living in Israel and not a small number of countries around the world.  You have to constantly advocate for yourself.  Rules are only as valid as your will to enforce them.  And if you’re not prepared to cut someone off in line at the grocery store, you simply won’t get to pay.  Apply this to literally every aspect of life in Israel and you can see why it is tiring.  Assuming someone else will respect the rules simply because they are there is an American value- not one to take for granted and not one to presume the rest of the world plays by.

This organization is a great weakness when it comes to creativity, spontaneity, and resilience.  The ability to plan is predicated on stability.  If you know that two weeks from now at 2pm you’ll be free, alive, and have enough money, you can make plans to grab coffee with a friend.  It’s a soothing stability that can allow for truly great long-term plans to come to fruition.  A stability often lacking in Israel, where things seem to shift from moment to moment.  You need to reconfirm that your friend is going to show up on the day you’re supposed to meet- or oftentimes they won’t show up.  Plans are a suggestion unless reconfirmed- and even then, not a small number of times people won’t show up.  It’s not seen as socially rude because you’re entitled to do it too without any repercussion.  To see how you feel.  It’s a different culture.  Flexibility can be a two way street both frustrating and liberating.  Plans in Israel are plans- not etched-in-stone commitments hovering above Moses’s head.

In America, the impulse to plan is so strong sometimes that Americans don’t realize how strange they are.  One Friday, an Israeli friend said that he asked an American here to play basketball together.  The American said sure.  Thinking that meant now, the Israeli suggested they play the next day.  The American, looking puzzled, pulled out his Google Calendar and (without thinking it odd- which it is) suggested they play in two weeks.  Two weeks- this cursed amount of time that apparently both archivists and basketball players live by on this dreaded continent.  Why is it so hard to live in the moment and play basketball when you feel like it?  How do you even know you’ll want to play in two weeks, or what the weather will be like?  Of all the places I’ve visited, Americans are some of the most rigid, placid, uncreative people I’ve ever met.  Perhaps that’s why immigrants to the U.S. are disproportionately credited with inventing new patents.  What would it look like to invite someone to coffee and go…the next day?  Would it be “too soon”?  Would it be too spontaneous or erratic or confusing or disrupt your yoga schedule?  There’s nothing natural about American hyper organization- and the fact that so few of you see that is a testament to your inability to see other ways of doing things.  It’s a rigidity that hampers the growth of this country- economically, socially, and politically.  On both sides of the aisle.

After yet another archive telling me I had to schedule an appointment to sit down with a book, I found myself noshing on my kreplach in the Jewish deli.  I had met nice Americans (an odd phrase to have to write- but I sometimes feel like an immigrant in my own country), but I was frankly tired of them.  I needed some good Jewish cooking to feel at home and bask in a bit of my own culture.

Then, the most incredible thing happened.  A black man walked in with a young presumably white man (although he was kind of olive skinned like me).  The black man was almost certainly homeless.  And the white man was dressed like he worked in a nearby law office.

The white man approached the counter- but it was the black man who ordered.  “One brisket sandwich, some chips, and a coke”.

The cashier repeated the order and gave the white man the check.  The latter paid, shook hands with his grateful (new?) friend, said “we have to stick together” and left.

It was the most beautiful thing.

I raced to pay my bill to try to meet this incredible young man.  This was the kind of American, the kind of person, I’d like to be friends with.  Spontaneous, generous, humble.  Like I see myself.

I rushed out the door, but the young man was nowhere to be found.

I looked left and right, walked around the block, but this mysterious hero disappeared, like a character from a Baal Shem Tov story.

I felt inspired.  Disappointed that I couldn’t find him, I realized I could do the same thing.  I walked up to a homeless man begging by a street corner.  I asked him if he’d like some food.

“Oh, wow, yes that would be nice.”

“Ok, no problem.  What would you like?”

He stared at the cart on the street selling the usual- Skittles, M&Ms, water, Coca Cola.

“Oh, I’d like a Pepsi and some CheezIts.  I love CheezIts!”

“They are good!” I said.

He looked sheepish.  “I’d really like…the flavored ones,” as he pointed to the white colored chips below the chemically orange ones.

“Sure, no problem, whichever ones you want.”

I asked the Indian man behind the plastic window if he accepted credit cards.

“Only over ten dollars.”

I sighed.  Short on money myself and not really having use for ten dollars of candy, I reached for my cash.  I only had one dollar and the Pepsi and CheezIts cost two.

The homeless man said: “Oh no, don’t worry about it, I’m OK.”  As if he didn’t need the food, as if his desire to be treated with an ounce of generosity required him to plead his strength.  It’s a degrading facet of American society that I hate.  It reminds me of the other day when I tried to take a bus but I was 50 cents short and the driver made me get off at the next stop.  I can’t count how many times in Israel I didn’t have the right change and was allowed to ride the whole way.  I was never asked to step off.  There is more to life than money, and it doesn’t cost a cent to be nice.

I insisted that I get the homeless man something despite his insistence that he was “OK”.

I gave the Indian man the one dollar I had and told my friend to grab the CheezIts.

He was thrilled.

He said “God bless you, thank you, have a blessed day.”  And I wished him the same.  I love moments like these.

America is the land of the dollar bill.  The question is whether you’d like to use it as a reason to kick someone off a bus, or take the spare one in your pocket and make someone happy.

You can wait for “policy makers” to fix your problems, or you can do something today to be nice to someone.  You can resent people for being poor, or you can show a little generosity.

Tweeting and “liking” and raising awareness don’t bring joy to people’s hearts.  Looking someone in the eyes and treating them like a human being does.

Today was a reminder for me that Americans are people too.  That some are rigid and unforgiving and cruel, and some are spontaneous, kind, and warm-hearted.  For all the cultural differences, there are nice and mean people everywhere- and it’s sometimes hard to figure out who is who.  What is kind in one culture could be cruel in another.  There are also cultural norms which aren’t moral even if they’re common.  And there are of course the individuals within this haze, whose kindness I’m trying to evaluate.  When you are able to have that clarity, it really makes life a lot better.  To avoid the mean people, and to merge your light with that of other bright souls.  To illuminate some space for each other in a sometimes dark world.

I hope that this story is a reminder for you that you don’t need to schedule a time to help people.  You don’t need to make an appointment to smile.  You don’t need a new law or politician to show someone kindness.  There’s nothing polite about keeping your distance when someone is in need.  It’s rude.

Generosity is something we’re all capable of, no matter how much we have.  Do it- it’s the best medicine one can find besides a warm bowl of matzah ball soup.  For yourself, and for the people you’ll help.  Do it now.

Dual loyalty

Today, the Trump-like Congresswoman from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, invoked the 2,000 year old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty”.  When discussing Israel advocates who she disagrees with, instead of talking policy or substance, she simply accused her opposition of trying to undermine America.  In the interest of Jews, oh pardon the typo- Israel.

The conversation is frankly exhausting.  Rep. Tlaib has a serious abusive streak.  Immediately after being sworn into office, she became known around the world for calling Donald Trump a “motherfucker”.  Thankfully, a lot of Americans are capable and willing of expressing their political views without resorting to the profanity of an angry 16 year old.  The situation is all the more depressing because Rashida, as the first Palestinian-American in Congress, could’ve done so much more.  Rather than trying to become something other than a literal walking and talking caricature of what people think Palestinians are, she just hopped right in.  I know Palestinians personally who don’t agree with her- her policy or her rhetoric.  And she does an immense disservice to America, to Palestinians, to Jews, to peacemakers, to her own constituents.  Shooting from the hip, making policy via Twitter, shouting profanity.  Sound like someone in the Oval Office?  Well, apparently he’s got a partner in crime now sitting in Congress.  Rashida Trump.

It’s sad.  America- indeed, every country- could use some more wisdom and less yelling right now.  In the face of growing xenophobia, polarization, and economic uncertainty, we need level-headed people to steer the ship.  Because as I see it, moderation is not entirely about what positions you take.  There are people I know who have a whole variety of views- some I agree with, some I don’t.  And my own views have evolved- and evolve- with time.   The one thing I hold in common with the people I love is that we don’t think we have exclusive ownership of eternal truth.  That even if we disagree, we’re willing to hear out other points of view.  That while there are obviously limits, we’re not going to wholesale discredit millions of people simply for thinking differently from us.  Or wearing a different label.  Which is why I have friends who are devout Muslims, West Bank settlers, Palestinian political activists, and Israeli soldiers.  I don’t believe in categorically rejecting an entire group of people because I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me.

This mentality stems from being hurt.  People naturally want to protect themselves.  And if they’ve been taught, or personally experienced, hurt from a particular type of person, sometimes the response is close yourself off.  I can understand to a degree.  It’s not as if I’m going to wave a pride flag around Ramallah.  There are substantive cultural differences- and prejudices and legitimate fears that come with them.

The problem is when this fear ends up cutting you off from entire segments of society.  So that rather than saying I’m afraid of Palestinians who are homophobic, I decide that I simply don’t like Palestinians.  That if I don’t talk to them, if I don’t engage with them, I’ll feel safer.  Except in the end, you miss out on potentially life-changing friendships and relationships.  Not to mention the fact that it’s not entirely effective.  There are obviously homophobic people in other cultures too- and people in Palestinian society who aren’t.  When taken to its extreme, this kind of black-and-white thinking doesn’t end up effectively protecting you.  And it does create a lot more prejudice and hate in the world.

So Rashida Tlaib doesn’t like Jews.  If that wasn’t clear until today, accusing us of dual loyalty sealed the deal.  I don’t know why she has come to this conclusion, but it’s sad and scary.  We need to be vigilant against people who subvert democracy out of a desire to see their inner nightmares fulfilled.  People willing to shout profanity and trample on other people’s dignity will continue to do so if left unchecked.  Now that Ms. Tlaib has accused Jews of dual loyalty, when she sees Jews defending themselves, it will oddly enough reinforce her prejudice.  It’s a demented and deeply disappointing reality that is quite hard to break- and depends mostly on the willpower of the individual to change.  Here’s to hoping Rashida has a long talk with her conscience and thinks about what kind of parent, Congresswoman, and human being she’d like to be.

Which brings me to an archive I recently visited.

The American Society of the Cincinnati is an elite organization made up of descendants of Revolutionary War officers.  One of their members, Larz Anderson, endowed a spectacular, grandiose mansion in Washington, D.C. to be its headquarters.  To say it’s beautiful doesn’t do it justice.  If you want to feel rich for a hot minute and enjoy some stunning artwork, go visit.  It’s long been a favorite off-the-beaten-path place for me to let my mind wander and my eyes feast.

Today, as I did several years ago, I visited the Anderson House library.  As a not-so-minor side note, I encourage you to click that link above.  You can see some of my blogs from before my move to Israel.  And you’ll notice that while many of my values are the same, my political perspective and capacity for nuance has grown tremendously.  So that rather than drifting further towards the self-righteousness of folks like Rep. Tlaib or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, I decided to pursue the more difficult if more rewarding journey towards nuance and empathy.  While certain systemic factors are out of our control, every individual has a certain capacity to make choices.  And those choices have ramifications for the thousands of people we meet in our life, for our own lives, and for society as a whole.  I’m proud to have overcome the one-dimensional thinking that these extremist political actors savor.

Now, let’s return to the comfort of the archives.

Archives are soothing.  They offer you a chance to explore without paying any money.  Without the sometimes interesting but ultimately tedious travel logistics.  They give you insight into things you don’t know- and things you don’t know you don’t know.  They are just the kind of place to find an unexpected twist to make you think differently.

And I had that pleasure today.

As a Jew growing up in America, I learned a lot about Judaism.  I learned about the Torah, some Talmud, Pirke Avot, tikkun olam, Israel, Ellis Island, Hebrew, holidays, and more.  I can remember lessons on the Holocaust, on tolerance, and of course a lot of Jewish music.

What I didn’t learn was about our own American Jewish history.  Let alone Yiddish, a language I came later to in life, but was actually the mother tongue of almost every great-grandparent of mine.

There’s something odd, indeed disturbing, that I can tell you much, much, much more about Haifa than I can about American Judaism.  By that, I don’t mean Debbie Friedman melodies or marching for Soviet Jewry, although those are undoubtedly part of our rich story too.

What I mean is I can’t tell you much about how our community actually developed here.

And that’s something I learned about today.

How many of you know who David Salisbury Franks was?

Probably not many.  Before today, I can’t say the name was at the tip of my tongue.

But Mr. Franks was a Jewish officer in George Washington’s Continental Army.  And, to the best of my knowledge, the only Jewish member of the Society of the Cincinnati.  Whose building I sat in.

His story is riveting and filled with mystery.  After several hours of reading, it appears there’s no clear narrative on where he was from.  Some sources claim he was born in Philadelphia, others in Boston.  He also had a cousin (although some say the relationship is not clear) with the same name in New York.  Who unlike this David Franks, was a loyalist to the British Crown.  Which as you’ll see, a resemblance that did Mr. Franks no service later in life.

Mr. Franks spent part of his life in Montreal, at the time recently conquered by Britain.  One of the first Jews to settle there, as French colonists had forbidden Jews from moving there.

Mr. Franks is sometimes referred to as a German Jew.  In other places, it seems his family was Sephardic- the descendants of Jews forced out of Portugal by the Catholic Inquisition.  His own surname potentially an anglicization of “de Franco”.  A reminder that Jews have often had to shed parts of our identity to Americanize, whether in 1700s Philadelphia or Hollywood.

I have to admit his Portuguese connection intrigued me.  Having just been in Portugal, I figured I wouldn’t find much to connect me to the place from America.  But I not only found a connection- I found a Jewish one!  Indeed many early Jews in America were Portuguese.  Just like the Jews who I met in Lisbon who after 400 years of hiding, are returning to our people and our faith.  The twists and turns of history can offer hope in the most unexpected times and places.

Mr. Franks was a proud American.  He was even arrested by British authorities for defending freedom of speech and protest.  He helped finance revolutionary troops.  And he put his own life on the line as a soldier.  And he did it in a Colonial America that, while substantially better than Europe, was at best ambivalent about Jews.  Through the 1680s, even in relatively tolerant Rhode Island, Jews couldn’t become naturalized citizens.  We were largely tolerated, but considered “others”.  Something a bit too different to be “all American”.

There are a ton of fascinating aspects of David’s story.  He was a Sephardic Jew, with potentially German Ashkenazi ancestry.  His family likely kicked out of Portugal by Catholic monarchs, only to be appointed an American diplomat to the Spanish king whose country founded the Inquisition.  He was sent to France to represent the new Republic because he spoke French- because of his family’s move to Montreal.  Significant not only because of the roaming, international nature of Jewish existence (one source of our “dual loyalty” accusation), but also because of the very long relationship between Canadian and American Jewry.  It’s one of the reasons I love going to Montreal.  You might be surprised to see they have the *best* Jewish food tour I’ve ever been on.  Twice.

Mr. Franks served as the Parnas, or synagogue president, of the Sephardic and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal.  The city’s oldest.  And at the time, a community only ten years old.  A reminder that what starts today may become deeply significant for years to come.  To remember we are still writers of history.  And that if in fact Mr. Franks was part or entirely Ashkenazi, his acceptance as a leader of the (at the time) elitist Sephardic community is a poignant reminder of the human capacity for crossing cultures.  For empathy and heterodox thinking.  The kind we could use more of today.

His story, and rise to prominence, is also part of the American Dream.  It’s the idea that in this country, you can grow and you can achieve regardless of where you come from.  And while it’s a dream that’s not without its detractors nor faults, it is a part of our history.  Which is why so many Jews have made America their home.  At the time of David’s service in the military, Jews weren’t even citizens of European countries.  The idea that he could lead so prominently is evidence that something is a bit different here.  Even if we should remember that our history as American Jews is not just American.  David’s family came from elsewhere- and appears to have maintained trade and familial ties to far-flung places such as Halifax, New York, England, Philadelphia, Montreal, and beyond.  Jews are from everywhere- and nowhere.  Which is precisely how anti-Semites like Rep. Tlaib are so successful in painting us as “rootless cosmopolitans” who can’t be trusted.  Without considering why we’ve had to move so much- precisely because of people like her.

The very mystery around his origins, his family connections, his own biography is part of what makes him interesting.  Perhaps there are scholars more versed in his life than I am, but what’s clear from my research is that there’s at least some confusion.  Even searching in the Mormon genealogical records on FamilySearch.org shows some varying hypotheses of his own lineage.  We know he was here, we know he was a Jew.  The details, at least from my internet searching, seem partially up for debate.

What’s not up for debate is Mr. Franks’s patriotism.

Or is it?

Mr. Franks has the misfortune of being the aide-de-camp of Benedict Arnold, the notorious loyalist traitor.  While several inquiries, including one called by Mr. Franks himself, exonerated David from any responsibility, a lot of Americans weren’t so sure.  Some shunned Mr. Franks and yes, questioned his loyalty.  While George Washington himself had no problem commissioning Mr. Franks afterwards and trusted him, not a small number of people dissociated themselves from the officer.  And left him so socially undesirable he was apparently interred by a friend in hazy circumstances in a Christian cemetery in Philadelphia.  Potentially carrying the body himself.  An undignified end to someone who put his life on the line for his country.

What’s so interesting about this story is how utterly resonant it is today.  And how it shows the deep relevance of knowing American Jewish history at least as well as we know about the Western Wall or Tel Aviv.

Because accusing Jews of dual loyalty is as American as pumpkin pie.  And to this day, just as pernicious as it was centuries ago.  Perhaps even worse.

The saving grace of this country, though, is that some people have a different vision.

The Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest in the United States.

The congregation, nervous on the eve of American independence, wrote to George Washington in the hopes of receiving some reassurance.  Reassurance that their fates were safe here- unlike their European relatives regularly butchered by ignorant masses of anti-Semites.  I’d suggest it’s hard to imagine such a need here- but the past few years have put that to rest.  Anti-Semitism, sadly, is alive and well.  And American Jews should remember that for all the special things that make this country infinitely better for us than most places in the world, we are in the end Jews.  And Jews have always been scapegoated in Western societies when things start looking uncertain.

What’s so remarkable about the letter, besides the deep sincerity and hopefulness of the congregation, is also Mr. Washington’s reply:

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It’s a stunning, beautiful, and heartfelt sentiment that has driven Jews to these shores ever since.

Because besides the joy of letting my mind expand and wander, what ultimately motivates me to research this era is a desire to understand the present as much as the past.  And to discover if America has the potential to be different than Europe or North Africa, areas rendered largely Jew-free over the past 100 years.

And there is a difference.  The difference is not that there isn’t anti-Semitism.  That has been- and always will be- here.  You can just look up the case of Aaron Lopez in 18th century Rhode Island.  A colony that refused to recognize his very citizenship precisely because he was Jewish.  Or take a look at Linda Sarsour three hundred years later claiming anti-Semitism “isn’t systemic“.

The difference is that from its very founding, America decided that Jews were to be treated as equals under the law.  That while other Western countries have, at various stages, offered opportunity to Jewish communities, this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, of separation of Church and State, of liberty.  And while it hasn’t always lived up to that promise, George Washington’s decision has impacted our civic life for hundreds of years.  It’s why my family ended up alive in New York and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. and not as ashes in German ovens.

The problem is that this tolerance, this willingness to forgo the outdated sectarian hatreds of Europe, is fragile.  We’re seeing this today.  And its fragility is only tempered by people’s willingness to defend difference.

Which is why today’s news about Rashida Tlaib is so scary.  As a Muslim American woman, she has no doubt faced persecution and hardship in her life for who she is.  Yet rather than choosing to become more empathetic in the face of hurt, she has chosen to become like the people who persecuted her.  Heaping senseless anger and mean-spirited words into our nation’s political debate.  And most specifically, on Jews ourselves.  Six million of us that she doesn’t even know.

What’s so sad is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Rep. Tlaib could choose to build bridges with people of different backgrounds.  She could acknowledge her family’s pain and challenges as Palestinian-Americans.  Like me, she’s a hyphenated American with various cultural connections around the world.  In her words, “dual loyalties”, but as I see it, an enriching confluence of identities.  She could use this similarity as a way to empathize with Jews and yes, even Israel supporters she might disagree with.  Because, in an ironic twist, its bigotry of people like her that propel people like me to believe in the necessity of a Jewish State.  That for all its faults (which all countries have), Israel is a safe-haven for us when people like her fail to treat us as human beings.  Something that has saved millions of Jewish lives from Tehran to Warsaw.  Which is why there are more Moroccan Jews in Beit Shemesh, Israel than in all of Morocco.

So in the spirit of the resilient David Franks, I’m not going to start hating Palestinians just because Rashida Tlaib hates me for being Jewish and Israeli.  That’s because I took the time to meet Palestinians, to become friends with them.  That I realize that even as she spews conspiracy theories and hatred, I know other Palestinians who don’t see the world as she does.  And that even if we have different cultures and sometimes political perspectives, I know my friends and I view each other as human.  Not political props or opportunities to get likes on Facebook.

What’s so sad is that Rashida Tlaib has become like her abusers.  An abuser herself.  Unhinged and attacking foes real and imagined.  Even as she’s supposed to be doing practical things to help her constituents.  Like re-opening the government.  A government whose very archives and museums house so much knowledge that could benefit us today.  And whose halls sit empty as employees go without pay or hope for a solution.  Indeed, perhaps a visit to these archives would be a wise first step for the Congresswoman rather than pontificating on Twitter.

What I loved about my experience today is how it connected me to myself.  I’m an American Jew, a Jewish American, an American and a Jew.  And part of my journey is piecing together who I am, where I am, and why I am.  And who I want to be.

Knowing more about the history of my people in this country helps me understand the richness of our civilization.  And offers insight into how we got here- and where we might be headed.  What’s unique about America, and what might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize.  That perhaps some things aren’t as unique as we hoped.

But either way, I speak from a place of increasing knowledge- and searching for it.

I’m proud of David Salisbury Franks, even if some of his companions were too cowardly to see his bravery.  I’m proud he put his life on the line for an uncertainty- for a hope that his country would treat him as an equal.  A hope his Portuguese ancestors were brutally denied.

I’m proud to be a Jew and I’m proud of Americans like George Washington who stood up for principles of religious freedom.  Principles that have contributed to this country’s development and rich cultural landscape.  And yes, freedom.

A freedom that is imperfect and like Mr. Washington himself, complicated.  A freedom that is far from guaranteed, but a freedom worth pursuing.

With that, I’d like to suggest a redefinition.  The word moderate these days is often used to suggest someone who splits the difference.  Someone who’s not too Democratic or not too Republican.  Someone in the middle.

What I’d like to suggest is moderation is a demeanor.  That while yes, certain patterns of political thinking can suggest black-and-white thinking, the most important indicator of moderation is how you treat others.  Your tolerance for difference.

If there’s one thing David Franks teaches us, it’s that it’s time for moderates to step forward.  It’s time we figure out a way to mobilize before the patients run the ward and we find ourselves spiraling into an inescapable and even deeper chaos.  A chaos that might start with the brutality of anti-Semitism but absolutely never ends with it.

Jews are a bellwether.  Society should be concerned when people start picking on us.  Yes, even other minorities.  Something even sadder.

But Jews- we’re also people.  And as George Washington made clear, we’re entitled to our rights beyond just being symbolic of waves of intolerance for the rest of the populace.

That as he said, we “merit the goodwill of the other inhabitants” and that “none shall make us afraid”.

I, for one, am afraid of people like Ms. Tlaib.  But I am not afraid to stand up for myself.

Jews have been walking the pine forests and city streets of this country since before it was a country.  And I’m not going to bow down before bigotry.

If you want to see our resilience, just go to the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati.  And learn about the brave members of our tribe who helped build one of the most fabulous countries on the planet.

American. Jewish. Israeli. Proud.

I suppose that’s four loyalties, but who’s counting? 😉

My best friend I’ve never met

I love to speak Arabic.  It’s a language I started learning in high school at the Jewish community center.  Then took in college.

One of the curious things about my Arabic is it’s very Syrian.  Of course, this naturally raises curiosity in Israel, a country Syria doesn’t even recognize.  As an Israeli, even if there was no war in Syria and I traveled on my American passport, I am not allowed into Syria.

So once I found myself in Haifa, northern Israel, talking to some Arab men on the street.  I asked where a restaurant was.  And the one man said to another: “fi hon 3arabi ajnabi”.

Translation: “there’s a foreign Arab here.”

Meaning I obviously speak fluent Arabic, therefore I am Arab, but my accent is such that I’m clearly not Palestinian or an Arab citizen of Israel.

First off, this is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given.  When I told the man I was Jewish the shock was audible- and delightful.

Secondly, the reason I have a different accent is because I speak Syrian.

How does an American Jew wandering northern Israel speak Syrian?  How does an Israeli citizen at all speak Syrian, especially one who is not a Syrian Jew?  After all, it’s a bit like a North Korean walking around New York City with a noticeable accent from Pyongyang.  How did you get here?

It’s a question that puzzled many of my Arab friends.  And my answer made them smile.

It’s because I learned Syrian Arabic from refugees.

As a college student, my senior year, after three years of Modern Standard Arabic, I had the opportunity to learn a dialect.  And I had a choice.  I could’ve learned Egyptian, the largest dialect of Arabic.  The most well-known, the dialect of a lot of popular media, of songs, a kind of spoken lingua franca of the Arab world.

Or I could learn Syrian.

Because part of my desire to learn Arabic was to get to know my neighbors (at the time, I didn’t realize how literal this would be), I chose Syrian.  Because Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Arabic are all part of one family.  And mostly mutually intelligible.

After a semester of Syrian Arabic in college, my Arabic lay mostly dormant.  There aren’t a lot of opportunities to practice it in Washington, D.C., other than the occasional pleasantly-surprised taxi driver.  Who sometimes gave me a free ride 🙂

So a few years ago, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, I found my Arabic suddenly useful.  The story I’m about to tell is an important one if you want to understand how to learn a language.  Learning a language effectively is 90% about your passion.  If you’re motivated to use it- doesn’t matter when or where- then you find a way to learn it.

And motivated I was.

The Trump Administration had begun limiting Syrian refugee arrivals to the States.  And most of the world stood silent- including Syria’s allies Iran and Russia- as Syrians were massacred by their own government.

I participated in a lot of protests, but I decided there were other ways I wanted to help too.

I found a brilliant program online called “Natakallam“, run by American entrepreneurs.  Natakallam means “we speak” in Arabic.  And the premise is that because people can use Skype anywhere and refugees are on the move, there is a way to help them make a living.  And that way is by pairing refugee teachers with Syrian dialect learners, who then pay for lessons and conversations over Skype.  It’s a fantastic way to learn the spoken dialect, especially at a time when we can’t visit Syria.  And besides providing a much-needed income to the refugees, it builds emotional and social bonds between people around the world.

I’ve done the program for several years now.  I’ve met inspiring people.  Young people displaced from their homes.  Now living in Lebanon, in Germany.  Curious about Jews- and about Israel.  In fact, wanting to establish relations with Israel and one day visit.  It shattered all sorts of stereotypes I had been taught about Syrians- and I’m sure ones they had been taught about me.

Over the past two years, I’ve been speaking with Shadi.  Shadi is a refugee from Syria.  He is Kurdish, a minority ruthlessly repressed by the Syrian government.  Whose language was forbidden to be spoken in public.  Whose very people have been butchered by Turkey, by Iran, by Syria, and by Iraq.  The latter, with chemical weapons.  They are a stateless people in search of safety.  A minority whose culture and identity have been viciously silenced- a silence matched only by the indifference of most western liberals to their fate.

And yet Shadi, despite being displaced from his home in Syria.  Being separated from his parents.  Despite a wife who is suffering from cancer.  Manages to see the bright side of life too.

Talking to him, besides making my Arabic fucking fantastic, always reminds me of what I have.  I’ve faced- and face- very real problems.  I am an unemployed sober alcoholic and survivor of 30 years of abuse with PTSD, currently going through a lot of culture shock.  And talking to Shadi reminds me that alongside these problems, I have a lot to be thankful for too.  I have friends who host me, I have food, I have two passports, I am not from a country in the midst of a civil war.  It reminds me of very good things I have, and to remember the millions of people who don’t have them.  Including my dear friend.

I’ve been spending the past few weeks recovering from jet lag, looking for a job, looking for a home, running out of money, figuring out my identity, healing from abuse, and so much more.  And I felt, as I often do, that a call to Shadi might put things in perspective.

What’s so remarkable about Shadi is that he’s so empathetic.  That his woes don’t stop him from seeing other people’s challenges.  In fact, they illuminate his heart even more.  Which is why for about an hour he wanted to know how I was doing, to hear what it was like being back in America for now, how my job search was going.  He wanted to hear about the challenges of finding a job in Israel, he wanted to hear how I was doing.  And he genuinely cares.

It felt so good.  I miss Arabic, I miss Shadi, and I find that speaking in another language helps me access different feelings I have trouble expressing in English.  Every language contains unique knowledge and creative expressions, fun twists of phrase.  It’s fun, it opens the mind, it engages me and my deepest passions.  I sometimes prefer to speak in other languages.  I haven’t spent much of the past several years speaking in English.  And now that I’m surrounded by it, I occasionally have trouble finding the right words.  Life sometimes imitates reality- I originally wrote that sentence: “I occasionally having trouble finding the right words”.

English is also the language in which most of my abuse happened.  Words carry a certain weight, a certain connotation for me in English.  A weight I’ve managed to make progress lifting through hard work.  But still feels different.  In other languages, my thoughts feel a bit freer, a bit more creative, and sometimes lighter.  Even easier than my mother tongue.

So after giving him a thorough update on my life, he wanted to update me on his.

Boy was it an update.

Shadi has waited patiently for five years as UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has processed his application to move abroad.  And hopefully build a new life while the country he called home is torn to pieces.

During those five years, he has been teaching students like me with Natakallam.  He has also been volunteering at an NGO, trying to get a paid job.  He has been living in a refugee camp, subsisting on the little aid the U.N. and foundations give him.  Even as his wife works at another NGO, bringing in a little extra income to make ends meet.

I should add that calling me a student of his is a disservice to our relationship.  Shadi is someone who is my friend.  Someone who I share very deep feelings with.  He is even someone who convinced me to go to Israel when I wasn’t sure.  He is someone who is supporting me now that I find myself, for the time being, in the States.  I also know a lot about him- his family, his wife, his parents, his Kurdish identity.  And the challenges that come with living in a refugee camp in Iraq.  You know your lot is pretty rough when you’re escaping to Iraq.

Because of the inanity of Middle Eastern politics, I can’t see Shadi.  Entering Iraq on an Israeli passport is suicide.  While it is potentially feasible through the Kurdish airports in the North (Kurds have had excellent relations with Jews over the centuries), the Iraqi government periodically shuts down their airports.  Also, ISIS is around.  In short, now is not the ideal time to visit Shadi, even if I had the money to do so, which I don’t.

So for two years, we’ve been talking almost every week.  Every year for my birthday, the only gift I ask my friends is to buy conversations for me so I can keep talking to him and he can keep earning a living.  I can’t imagine my life without Shadi in it.  And I’ve never met him.

But I know him well and he knows me in ways some people I’ve met face-to-face never have- or will.  We have a special bond- as minorities, as empathetic people, as survivors.  As friends.  And I’m grateful to him, to Natakallam, and to my friends who make this connection possible.

So now for Shadi’s update.

In the past few weeks, Shadi was given notice by the United Nations that his refugee application was rejected.  Countries are cutting back their refugee intakes- Shadi wondered outloud if some people took a look at his wife’s cancer diagnosis and didn’t feel like footing the bill.  Even though he is one of the hardest working people I know, and has so much to contribute to any country he’d live in.  I suppose even the most “enlightened” countries make a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to human lives.

In addition, Shadi’s wife’s NGO lost its funding and shut down.  His own NGO where he volunteers, in a truly Orwellian story, is ending his volunteer position.  They are not going to continue his job- which they don’t even pay for.  It’s an absurd situation straight out of an Adel Imam film.  It’s like telling someone they have to stop cleaning your house for free.  I don’t even have words for how asinine this is.  If only I hadn’t seen some things just as stupid during my own time working in the non-profit sector.

On top of this, Shadi’s wife is about to have a baby.  Obviously something that started well before this woe befell him.  And, in a kicker, the various foundations working in his part of Iraq have cut back food supplies.

I was in shock.

It’s moments like these where I realize that even as I hop from couch to couch, apply to jobs, get faceless rejections from jobs, and harness every ounce of my being to move forward, I have a lot to be thankful for.  And I frankly stand in deep admiration of Shadi’s strength in the face of such chaos and uncertainty.

Meeting people like Shadi has made me much more thankful for the gifts I enjoy as an American.  For the freedom I experience on a daily basis that I almost don’t think about.  For the food I eat.  And to remember that with all the challenges we face, other people are struggling alongside us.  Don’t forget them.

So with that, I told Shadi I’d schedule more times to chat so he could make a bit more income in the coming weeks.  When I said this, he made very clear that he wasn’t asking for help.  He might even be annoyed that I wrote this post.  He simply wanted me to tell me what was going on in his life- we’re friends and I care about him.  But I’m going to risk his anger and put this out here anyways because he deserves better.  I wish I had the money and the political power to give him the decent opportunities he merits.  But the one thing I can do is keep talking to him- to keep us both moving forward and give us hope.  And to give him a chance to earn a living against unimaginable odds.

So I’d like to ask one basic thing.  I’m in the middle of a job hunt, I have none at the moment.  But I don’t want your money.  I want you to help Shadi.  I want you to go to Natakallam’s website and purchase one or more conversations- whatever you can afford- and make sure they’re put under my name.  So I can spend that money and time with Shadi.  And help him move forward in building a life during such a stressful and uncertain time.

Survivors have to stick together.  And to help each other survive.  Shadi does that for me, and I do that for him.  And you can help.  Away from the mind-numbing political debates and legislation and policies, this is one concrete thing you can do to make someone’s life better.  Put aside for a moment your feelings about the headlines and do something to help a human being in need– today.

There is nothing more beautiful than the gift of language.  Learning Arabic has opened me to new cultures, new music, new food, new history, new ways of seeing the world- and my self.  It has even enlightened my own view of Judaism- not a small number of our own works are written in this language.

Most of all, Arabic has helped me make friendships.  Friendships like mine with Shadi that shatter stereotypes, that build love, that move beyond the angry headlines.  And into our homes and our hearts.

Please, to whatever extent you can, purchase conversations for me and Shadi to keep talking.  To keep his hope- and his family- alive.  Go to Natakallam and direct anything you’re able to give in my name, “Matt Adler”.  And besides keeping my Arabic fresh for future videos and adventures, you’ll give one of the kindest people I know a bit more money to survive.  And the compassion he deserves to move forward.

My birthday is in two months.  Consider it an early birthday present.  For me, for Shadi, for the idea that two people who’ve never met should care about each other.

May this year be a happy new year for everyone.  Especially for my Syrian refugee friends like Shadi, who deserve every ounce of happiness they can find amidst the turmoil on God’s good earth.

One day I’m sure Shadi and I will be sharing a cup of tea, laughing after overcoming so many hardships.  Basking in the sunlight of the mountains of Kurdistan, or maybe even in Tel Aviv.

But that day isn’t here yet.  So I hope I can count on you to help the best friend I’ve never met.

My cover photo is of me at Rosh Hanikra, Israel’s northern border.  One day I hope it will be open so I can visit Lebanon, hop over to Syria, and meet my neighbors face-to-face.

The Donald- and other people whose names begin with D

In the year and a half since starting this blog, I have never used Donald Trump’s name for the title of a post.  Knowing full-well that more people would click on the post, I still resisted.  First off, because I think there are more interesting, textured things in the world to talk about.  And secondly, because…basically the first point.  Enough people are kicking and screaming (in both directions) about this one individual that I decided that when I did comment on him, it’d be in the context of a post.  Not the title.

Until today.

Being in America now has been odd.  On the one hand, it’s been great.  America is a very calm place compared to Israel, and indeed much of the world.  It has nothing close to the level of crime of Latin America and not nearly the level of terrorism that you see in the Middle East.  If you’re American and reading this and tempted to say “of course, but…”, realize how lucky you are.  If you’ve never lived through an air raid siren or personally grown up in a favela, you’re doing better than most of the world.  And shouldn’t take it for granted.  Stop whining.

On the other hand, America is a rough transition.  I know I said stop whining, but indulge me for a moment.  Israel, for all its faults, is home to a very direct yet flexible culture.  People say what they think, which is refreshing.  Even if sometimes you wish people would say less.  In addition, people find creative solutions.  The end result is much, much more important than the formalities of the process.  And while sometimes, in excess, that leads to abuse (like the lack of rental protections for apartments), at its best it means creativity and even empathy.

To give an example.  I was on the train the other day.  Oddly enough, some trains in America still use paper tickets you buy on board.  I bought a ticket from a station to one about 15 minutes away.  First off, it costs $5, which is absurd.  Then I realize that I needed to go one more stop.  One stop.  The conductor comes over and says I need to buy a whole new ticket.  I showed him my prior ticket and asked if I could just pay the difference.  His response:

“Now that we’ve passed the other station, your ticket is invalid.  You need to buy a new one.”

No matter the irrationality of the rule (I was going one extra stop and clearly hadn’t been on this train before), he stuck to it.  And charged me another $5.  To go one stop.

This hyper awareness of rules- and their enforcement- is part of what makes it easier to understand boundaries in America.  And to protect yourself.

It’s also what makes this place dull and heartless at times.

In Israel, I’ve found myself at countless train stations where my card didn’t work or I bought the wrong ticket and the people simply let me in.  I have never, ever been fined anything.  The assumption in Israel is that you’re well-intentioned until you prove otherwise.  I feel the assumption in America is the rules are the rules and if you didn’t know them or broke them, you pay the price.  For better and worse.

There’s a rigidity to this place that is both calming and deeply irritating.  I know how the rules work, and I’m angry that they never bend when they should.

As I’m in the States for the time being, I’ve also done a little looking for sublets.

My inclination is to live by myself (re-adjusting to life here and healing from 30 years of trauma is hard enough without tacking on a roommate relationship to manage).  But given both my budget and my need for flexibility, I figured I wouldn’t rule out a roommate.

I found a neat ad on Craigslist.  Mostly furnished place, ready for move-in now.  I emailed with the guy, seemed reasonable.  Talked on the phone, and also no red flags.  I headed over.

I was in for a surprise.

First off, Mark had a huge American flag in his living room.  Nothing alarming, but a bit odd.  I can’t remember ever seeing one in previous apartments I had lived in.

Then, Mark tells me he dresses up in cammo and does some sort of military reenactments with his friends.  Something akin to paintball, I didn’t quite catch the name.

A bit off the beaten path, but he was being open about it and didn’t want me to be alarmed when I saw him all decked-out.  To each his own.

Mark was also excited that I was Israeli.  He himself was half Jewish and his landlord was in the IDF.  I was already rather nervous coming back to the States.  Especially liberal areas where I’ve spent most of my life, where Israel has become a curse word.  Rather than a country with its ups and downs like all others.  So that was refreshing- check that box off the list.

When I mentioned I was also gay, he said something to the effect of he’s too busy to care what other people do and he has lived with gay roommates in the past.  All right- not a super answer, but an offensive one either, as best I could tell.

Then came the kicker.

He showed me his assault rifle.

I really didn’t know what to say.

Those of you who know me know I’m probably one of the most adventurous people out there.  I have friends from every background- yes, including Republicans.  But this was…new.

I told him as much.  He told me he wanted to show me to be up front with me and it was just a hobby- or to shoot intruders.  The last part added like kind of a side note, that later flashed brightly in front of me.  The red flag slowly starting rising.

I told him I don’t drink.  Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m a sober alcoholic- I haven’t drunk in years.  So while I don’t mind being around people who drink, it has to be in moderation and no loud parties in my apartment.  Or people pressuring me for not drinking.

He said he was a “one beer after work” kind of guy and rarely held parties.  A kind of reasonable sentiment, until I started looking around.  A quick glance in the living room revealed some 12 large bottles of liquor.  In the kitchen, more.  In the refrigerator, beer vodka vodka beer.

I started to realize that while Mark was a rather soft spoken and actually quite flexible person (he was even willing to switch rooms if it was quieter for me), he was deeply unaware of himself.  And if the small Trump sticker on his bulletin board didn’t seal the deal, his assault rifle meters away from his alcohol did.

I left.

Let’s take things in the other direction.

I recently found myself at a university library.  One of the staff members was a cute young gay guy.  We found ourselves chatting and I mentioned something about living in Tel Aviv and my passion for Jewish history.  He seemed excited about the latter, yet the conversation quickly turned to politics.  I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it ended up there.

Using the most polite, sophisticated words he waxed about the fragility of American democracy, the threat of social media to mankind, the glories of the midterm elections, and you can basically discern the rest.  It was like an NPR story had sex with the Liberty Bell.  And all the beautifully crafted words basically could be summarized as this: Republicans are evil, Democrats are America’s last hope, and woe to our country.  Trump is the anti-Christ.  We’re truly disintegrating into oblivion.

While I admit I agree with some of his sentiments, I don’t identify with such a black-and-white worldview.  I wondered whether my nuance would stand here as tall as it stood in Israel, and while I’m not yet sure of its height, stand it does.

Because while I probably vote 90% the same way as this man, our worldviews feel quite distant.  When I told him about problems in other countries, he almost seemed surprised.  As if America’s woes were number one.  Everywhere else must be easier.

Except that’s ridiculous.  For all the issues here (and there are real ones- healthcare, mass shootings, etc.), this country is pretty well off.  It’s one of the richest, safest places on the planet.  What’s odd here is that the people complaining the most, the people most absorbed by their angst, tend to be the most comfortable.  The highly educated, high-income crowd- just the one that went to Harvard instead of Vanderbilt.

Which leads me to an interesting story.

On New Year’s Eve I found myself alone at a hotel.  It was lonely.  Between the intense jet lag, the hours upon hours of travel, the job hunt, and the apartment hunt- I was tired.  I actually forgot it was New Year’s- it wasn’t high on my agenda.  And in Israel, it’s a minor day, so much like Thanksgiving, I didn’t feel it much there.

But here, I felt alone.  Everyone was dressed up or with friends, and I was in a new place by myself.  And while I like spending time with myself, the potency of the moment made my aloneness strike deeper.

I went for a stroll in the rain.

Coming back, I decided to do something that often lifts my spirits (and would be a nice lesson for the cute gay guy wallowing in his sorrow).  I decided to do something nice for someone else.

At the front desk of the hotel was a woman named Donna.  Donna is African-American, super friendly, and has been really supportive of me during my apartment/job/life search.  No matter what time of day I saw her, she had a big smile and a warm heart.

How warm of a heart, I was about to find out.

I didn’t have much to give.  My bank account is dry.  My possessions few- they all fit in my two suitcases.

So I sat down and made her a New Year’s card.  I got some colored markers and wrote her name in about 20 different languages.  And drew a pretty picture.

Then I gave her the card.  I told her how much it meant to me how supportive she had been this week.  And that it must suck to be working on New Year’s so I wanted to say thank you.

She was moved.  She thanked me and talked about why she loved working in a hotel.  That she enjoyed customer service- even if some of the customers were rough.  She had such a holistic attitude and resilience.  And you can see why she likes working with people- she’s a warm-hearted and outgoing person.

She asked what all the languages were and then told me she’d frame the picture with the new picture frames she got as a gift.

Then, Donna and I had a great three hour conversation.  About everything.  Donna lives in a part of town that does have real problems.  Gangs, violence, drugs.  She’s worried for her kids’ lives.  Including her daughter who was turning 16 that night.  And who Donna, being a fantastic mom, treated to a night at the hotel with all her cousins and friends.

I told Donna about my own challenges.  About living without my family.  About air raid sirens and bomb scares and my dwindling back account.  About being alone in so many ways.  In a new town, re-adjusting to life in a country I never thought I’d be in right now.

And she was deeply empathetic.

What was so remarkable is that she didn’t want to talk about Trump.  When I mentioned the nutsy guy with the assault rifle, she was compassionate towards me.  She thought he was nuts.  I mentioned he had a Trump sticker and that while I had all different types of friends, he kind of was a living caricature of his voters.  But the funny thing is that Donna didn’t bite.  While it’s hard to imagine her being a Trump voter (although it’s possible), she just didn’t care to get into a political discussion or a “woe is me” fiesta.

She kept commenting how crazy it was for him to have a gun next to alcohol and that she was glad I was looking for somewhere else.

As our marathon conversation drew to a close (along with some impromptu Destiny’s Child karaoke), I didn’t realize I was in for such a treat.

Her daughter came down, we all sang Happy Birthday, and she gave me some cake.

So I sat there, one Jewish guy and about 15 black kids in a hotel lobby.  Singing Happy Birthday- and feeling at home.  Realizing that home isn’t about self-pity and it’s not about a physical place.  It’s about a total stranger who welcomes you and makes you feel like you matter.

Donna is that kind of person.  Despite going through real, rather than imagined, hardships, she keeps her head up.  She’s self-aware- she knows the challenges facing her and her family.  But she has hope and resilience and knows that the problem is bigger than one person.  Even if I agree that that person (yes, Donald Trump) is obviously making most of America’s problems worse.

What struck me about Donna is that she was a naturally curious and welcoming person.  When I talked about Israel or Judaism or languages or D.C. or anything- she didn’t argue or judge.  She just cared.  And treated me like the human being I see her as.

Because what this country needs- what everyone needs- is not just a new political system nor a new leader.  Although Lord knows the way things are going won’t work.

What this country needs is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is love.

Not just for people who look, who pray, who think like you.  But for everyone.

And that doesn’t mean forfeiting your personal safety nor pretending that all ideas are equally valid.  After all, I didn’t end up rooming with the Trump supporter.  Alcohol and firearms are a bad idea, and even if I’d honestly be curious to learn more about his views over coffee, it’s nothing I’m going to risk in the place I call home.

What it means is just being a human being.

And what strikes me about being here is that my loyalties and identities are challenged from two poles.

On the one hand stand people like Mark, infatuated with a kind of preconceived notion of what Israel is.  As if we all walk around with Uzis and a ceaseless masculinity.  While it’s nice to feel accepted as an Israeli, it’s a one dimensional view of a complicated and interesting place with eight million different people.  A place where I spent so much time with Druze and Arabs and queer people.  The kind of people Mark doesn’t think of when he thinks of Zion.

On the other hand stand self-righteous but ultimately no less scary people like the library guy.  While he appeared to show deep interest in Judaism, it was only insofar as it related to his political agenda.  So he railed against right-wing anti-Semitism, but didn’t have anything to say about Israel.  His repeated silence in and of itself a kind of answer.  In fact, from the moment I sat down, I almost felt interrogated as to how much I agreed with him.  A kind of litmus test, perhaps a loyalty test that Jews have faced for centuries.  Am I one of the good Jews who embraces his politics?  Perhaps not his intention, but certainly how I felt.  Because while he was enthused to rail about gender and race and Trump and anti-Semitism, he had not a word to say about Israel even though I mentioned it multiple times.  A silence that speaks.

Basically, my identity, like in Israel, stands pulled in multiple directions.  My progressive, gay, culturally curious self veering towards the people who dislike me for being Israeli.  And my Israeli, assertive, not-always-left-wing nuance landing in bed with people like Mark who think that means I share an entire set of values.  Which I don’t.

So where does that leave me?

Torn, confused, tired, pleased (I did eat macaroni and cheese pizza today- God bless America).  Safe, scared, whole, calm, anxious.

The one thing reassuring in this process are some of the open-minded people I’ve met that show how great this country can be.  And how we can’t fall prey to the extremes who rest self-confident in their judgment of each other- and of all of us.

Waiting for the train the other day, my phone data was low, so I asked a guy for directions.  The young man, Dylan, is originally from the Philly area but now lives in Dallas.  He was equally lost but, in a move that is straight from an Israeli playbook, he walked with me to find the answer.

Dylan is a great guy.  I have no idea what his politics are- if I had to guess, he’s probably left-of-center.  Maybe similar to me.  Maybe not.  I really don’t know.  Which is the point.

Because Dylan opened his Google Maps, chatted with me, made me feel at home while lost.  Not because of my politics nor my Israeliness (or Americanness).  But because I was a fellow human being who was lost.  Because he is a nice, compassionate person.

So we ended up spending the train ride together.  And it was great.  He was intellectually curious, he listened to my stories from my travel (without jumping to conclusions or rushing to categorize what was progressive or not).  He basically was just a human being.

So if one thing gives me hope about America, it’s people like Dylan and Donna.  That while people are focused on Donald, there are other people whose names start with D worthy of talking about.  I’ll take Donna and Dylan over Donald.

That while there’s a time and a place to be angry and to rage.  And there’s a time to protect yourself (again, no assault rifles + alcohol).  There’s also a time to treat the people around you as people rather than voters.  As fellow travelers rather than someone who needs to be heading in the same direction as you.

As people you’re willing to help to find their way, even if it leads to a different station.

I miss Israeli directness.  I miss the creativity, the energy, the diverse cultures, the immense amount of things to do.

But I like American quiet sometimes.  And while the rules are a bit unruly, they sometimes serve a purpose.

And while the political extremes here have gotten much more extreme since I was last here, there is hope.

The hope that while our views matter, our shared humanity matters most.  And the unsung heroes of this country are the people who live out their values in their daily lives.  Without a reason to beg for praise or highlight their virtue.

The kind of people who invite you to their 16 year old daughter’s birthday party.  Or help you find your train station and make you feel welcome.

Because life is not about your destination.  Nor where you start.

And much like the rusty, overpriced train I took, it’s not about the vehicle.

It’s most of all about the direction.

May you find fellow travelers willing to help you get there.  And don’t be afraid to be the one to guide someone in need.  Not to the station of your choosing, but towards the hope they call home.

Wishing you a fulfilling New Year wherever you roam.  With people who light your path and lighten your burden.

p.s.- that’s me and Donna in the cover photo.  She says I’m her new BFF and we’re going karaokeing soon.  I can’t wait 😉

My first visit home

I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area.  Born in the city and raised in Suburban Maryland.  I went away for college, but found myself back in the area before immigrating to Israel a year and a half ago.  Out of my 32 years of life, I’ve spent at least 23 in this part of the world.

Because I grew up with a lot of abusive relatives, coming here wasn’t easy.  Since I moved to Israel, I haven’t been back.  In fact, when I chose to come visit the States a few months ago, I decided to go to California first because it would feel new.  And frankly, I had never been to the Bay Area and was curious.  You can read about my adventures on the West Coast here and here.

As circumstances would have it, I ended up back in the DMV, as some of us call it, this week.  It was a short visit, but a productive one.  Some things were hard– but empowering.  Some things were just hard.  And some things offered me a new perspective, a new appreciation for a place I was quite ready to leave not so long ago.

Here are some pictures from places that have filled my life with memories:

Some good, some bad, all a part of my life.

After an intense but meaningful reconnection with these deep memories, I decided I was in need of a good nosh.

Israeli food is interesting and quite delicious.  But it has basically nothing to do with the Jewish food I grew up with- unless you count some of the delicacies of Bnei Brak.

As a kid, every Sunday after Hebrew school, I went to “the deli”.  “The deli” because first off, this is a space, not a specific restaurant.  And secondly, because in this one tiny part of a Suburban Maryland shopping center, this Jewish deli has changed names and ownership about a half a dozen times in my childhood.  So calling it “the deli” just made sense.  The latest iteration of it is quite delicious, and I chowed down on my beloved whitefish salad, bagels, chocolate tops, dense American rugelach, a cheese omelette, and a poppyseed hamantaschen.  It was the best $25 I’ve ever spent:

The deli, in my view, is the most authentically Jewish space in America.  Whether my deli or someone else’s.  Because it’s a place where you bump into your neighbors, where you eat our food, where you seamlessly connect to Jewish culture, and where you see your American Jewish self represented.  It’s not for nothing you’ll find this deli covered in D.C. sports paraphernalia and Happy Chanukah signs- that’s what it means to be an American Jew.  And my heart felt as great as my stomach.

After some much needed soul food and reconnecting, I decided to go into the city.

Something really struck me about being in D.C. after a year and a half.  I’ve been going into the city since I was a kid.  And by the time I left, I was not particularly enamored with it.  There are downsides to living here- the endless politicking, the traffic, the dysfunctional metro, and the endless politicking.  Because yes, that’s worth mentioning twice.  It makes the vibe here a lot more “I’ll pencil you in” and a lot less “what are you doing tomorrow?”  The propensity for suits, for business cards- it’s not very me.

But what is very me is the beauty of this city.  Something I really didn’t feel when I left.  But even after having visited some astonishingly gorgeous cities in Europe and Israel, I think D.C. holds its own.  The historic homes, the courthouses, the museums, the monuments- there is a beauty to the architecture here.  It is an astonishingly clean city- especially after having trudged through the grossness that is Tel Aviv in the rain.  Even the Washington Monument and Capital building just seemed prettier than I remembered.

Another fascinating aspect of this area is how diverse it is.  You can find so many different races, religions, languages, and cultures.  And all the delicious food that accompanies them.  Melded together, mixed in a way that few countries manage to do.  Because when I’m outside America, I miss Thai food, I miss Chinese, I miss grilled cheese, I miss pizza.  Because for me, they’re all my food.  American food.  Because the beauty of America is its amorphousness.  I can feel that all of this is American because there’s no hard line dividing the Thai food I’ve eaten almost weekly (this week, twice!) since I was a teenager.  It’s a part of my American experience because the swirling stew of cultures is what it means for me to be from here.  As are my friendships with my friends from every background imaginable.  It’s not for nothing I actually keep in touch with my favorite Thai restaurant and send them pictures from my travels.  And they were so excited to see me and give me huge hugs!  It’s a reminder that home is not a physical space- at least not for me.  It’s a feeling of warmth and love and someone happy to see you.

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Feeling the urge for a little adventure, I called my friend Monica.  While America doesn’t have quite the same ruggedness or excitement for me as traveling in the Middle East or Europe, there are quirky things here.  One of them is the Mormon Temple, a huge edifice that looks like Disney World.  I’ve passed it probably hundreds of times in my life on the highway but never visited.  So I decided I should try something new on this trip back home and stop by.

And it was a strange but edifying and informative experience.

It’s worth its own blog post, but basically I learned a lot.  Mormonism, in case you didn’t know, is basically an American-grown religion.  Although the church itself sees it as a continuation of the Judaic tradition stretching back centuries.  And a certain fondness for Jews as a result.

Long story short, it was persecuted by other Christian denominations (some of whom view it as not Christian at all), until it made its way to Utah.  A state which is now dominated by the faith.  Which eventually became a global one, with the missionary zeal to match.

I had gone to high school with a couple Mormons, but didn’t know much about the faith.  Other than that Americans love to make fun of it.  I can’t imagine a musical called “The Torah” or “The Quran” would be particularly well-received by Jews or Muslims.  But “The Book of Mormon” delights audiences with laughs around the world.  And while I haven’t seen the play, it does seem like a bit of a double standard, and perhaps not fair to make an entire religion fodder for laughter.

Apparently the term “Mormon” is sometimes seen as derogatory- they are “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.  But until a better, shorter acronym is developed, I’m going to use it and preface it by saying I’m not intending it to be derogatory, simply a much shorter way of saying things on a blog.

I met several young missionaries- or “sisters”.  We talked for hours.  We talked a lot about Judaism- they knew some about it, but I shared more.  I certainly wasn’t trying to convert them (Jews don’t do that- note to those Christians and Muslims who think religion is about converting everyone else- that’s called supremacism).  But I was trying to share about myself as much as I was trying to learn about them, and have an entertaining and free evening.  It should be noted that since the religion is highly evangelical, everything is free.  I got free postcards and even a Mayan language Book of Mormon.  Because when you want to convert everyone, you need to learn their language.  Not my ideal use of language learning, but it does produce some interesting results, like a closet full of multilingual books.  Even different versions in Western and Eastern Armenian dialects.  A kind of polyglot paradise.  Also they have amazing Christmas lights:

In the interest of me getting some sleep tonight, I’ll leave it at this.  Mormonism, after a two or three hour long discussion with three missionaries, is an interesting faith.  The missionaries’ zeal was apparent- and the fundamentalism real.  No amount of smiles and kind words can change the fact that it was quite clear that they think they are right, and everyone else is lacking happiness for not being like them.  It’s a sad way to view the world.

That being said, I think there are some things to note.  First off, missionaries don’t represent everyone in a faith community.  As Mormons are human beings, I imagine some of them live with more doubt- and perhaps more pluralistic ideas- than the most zealous faithful.  Just like a lot of religions.  Frankly all faiths are based on stories, and to single out Mormons for having a “ridiculous” founding myth is mean.  Jews believe God parted a sea for us to walk across and then dropped bread from the sky for us to eat in the desert.  Christians believe a woman gave birth to a boy without being inseminated.  Who then walked on water.  Muslims think their prophet flew to Jerusalem at night- before airplanes.  We all have our stories- and I don’t begrudge any of them as long as they are used to motivate people for good.

Secondly, not all of the missionaries were the same.  In particular, one woman from Austria was quite fond of Yiddish- her father grew up in the Jewish quarter and was familiar with Jewish culture.  She herself had studied intercultural communication, my passion, and had her own honest and troubling relationship with American culture.  Which she sometimes found fake and indirect- something I can relate to after having experienced Israel.  Americans on a whole are not particularly forthright with their words- even if I’m able to read between the lines as a native in a way this woman couldn’t.  I don’t know if I’d characterize it as fake, but different and indirect it most certainly is.  And it leads to a lot of frustration.  Especially for someone like her meeting tons of people each day.

While all of the missionaries were trying their best to be friendly and welcoming, this one struck me as more authentically human.  In the sense that instead of relentlessly smiling, she was willing to open up about how life can be hard.  And she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.  Including how faith alone is not enough- that we use human observation, facts, and instinct to make choices too.  Which she admitted was valid after I prompted her to think it over a bit.  She just wasn’t as pushy as some of the other folks.  Who claimed to want to learn about other religions, but were hesitant to read the Torah- the very basis for all monotheistic faiths.  That is a kind of fakeness- don’t pretend to be interested in my community if it’s really just a talking point for assimilating me.  In the case of the Austrian woman, I felt she had a genuine interest in dialogue, rather than just repeating the word Jesus over and over again.  There are certainly things I don’t miss about America.

In the end, I can’t say I’m impressed with the Mormon faith as a way of life.  Nor do I think evangelizing people is ethical or kind.  If you think your religion (any religion) is superior to others, how is that any different from white supremacism?  I doubt most of these missionaries think of it in these terms, but I’m purposely raising this comparison to draw attention to how problematic it is.  And how it’s worthy reconsidering whether it’s fair to put one religion above others.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism- anything.

What I can say is that this Austrian woman, more than anyone I met, humanized Mormons for me.  That there are Mormons who live with doubt, or at least enough curiosity to hear other points of view.  And not just for the sake of convincing us.  In the end, whether you’re a Hasid in Bnei Brak, a secular Jew in Tel Aviv, or a Mormon in Washington, we are human.  And a willingness to go outside your comfort zone and try something new is difficult.  But worth doing sometimes to remember that relying on tired stereotypes won’t make this country, or the world, better.  I can now put a face to Mormonism, in fact several faces, and I don’t need to rely on a musical to teach me about a different society.  If the night’s goal was to convert me to Mormonism, it failed.  But if the goal was to put a human and complicated face on the Mormon faith, consider it mission accomplished.

Which gets to today.  The U.S. finds itself struggling with a government shutdown.  An absurd tug of war that ends up degrading public servants and slowing down the entire economy- not just of here, but of the world.  I don’t work with government budgets nor have I been following the situation closely- I have enough on my plate adjusting to being here.

But what I can say is this.  Everyone needs a bit of a bubble to feel safe.  I can’t imagine becoming Mormon, nor living in Utah.  I’m tired of people telling me I should accept Jesus Christ- he was a Jew and I really don’t have any interest in giving up my traditions to satisfy your zeal.

But nor am I content to sit only among those who I feel agree with me on everything.  It’s a phenomenon that liberals and conservatives can both be guilty of.  I can’t imagine many gay Jews visit the Mormon Temple, but I did.  I even found a Christmas ornament donated by Israel to stand alongside the ornaments of countries all over the world.  And I met an Austrian woman curious about Yiddish.  Even considering attending a Yiddish language program- curious about whether they let in non-Jews (we absolutely do- but just don’t try to evangelize us 😉 ).

In short, let go of the easy answers.  Donald Trump is a narcissist who plays too much on Twitter and has the temperament of a child- but with the arsenal of a nuclear power.  But even with his erratic and sometimes abusive character, I won’t automatically discount everything he says as wrong simply because he was the one who said it.  That is intellectually dishonest- and there are policies he has enacted that are outgrowth of the Obama Administration in which I served.  Some bad, some good.  And even though I never voted for him and never will, I’m not going to put my hands over my ears, live in isolation, and pretend that I’m always right or that everyone else is always wrong.

Because that’s fanaticism.  Whether it’s a gleeful Mormon missionary or a liberal bemoaning the “uneducated” masses of “ignorant” Americans in red states.

I live in the space where I am a committed and proud Jew, but open to learning about other religions.  I almost always vote Democrat, but I’m not diametrically opposed to everything a Republican has to say.  And I’m an American and Israeli even if some in both communities would like to have me only as their own.  That somehow me being physically present in America now means I’m “back from abroad” or that if I’m not stepping foot on Jerusalem’s streets I’ve “left Israel”.

There is no more stupid dichotomy in the world.  As a dual citizen, and a citizen of the world, I don’t belong to any one place.  I wasn’t on a “jaunt” in Israel- and I may yet return sooner than you expect.  Or to visit other countries.  Nor am I only Israeli- this trip helped me remember where I’ve spent so many formative years.  Why I love muenster cheese and chocolate chip cookies and cheap delicious Chinese food.  Why I still feel the effects of traumatic experiences even living far away.  And visiting places that triggered those memories precisely to integrate an understanding of my past into my present.  To help me be as full a person, as aware a person, as possible.

So in the end, my goal is wholeness.  Not holiness.  So rather than tell you what to do or what to believe, I’d rather you go out and explore for yourself.  Visit the Mormons, go to a synagogue, learn a new language, talk to a gun owner, eat vegan for a week.  Don’t rely on me or anyone else to be your only source of information.  Because the best news source is your own eyes, your own ears, your own heart.

Go exploring 😉

p.s.- that’s my third grade picture.  Not an easy one for me to put up given everything, but I’m proud to now understand myself as a whole person.  The good times and bad.  And I’m grateful to my teacher then, Mrs. Elrod, for being a stunning example of how to be a kind person.  And for all the great role models who inspired me to point myself towards a path of growth and compassion.  Which is part of how I ended up here today.