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.

You can always return

One of the most fascinating things about Portugal is its Jewish community.

Jews have lived here for 1,500 years. Then forcibly converted 400 years ago during the Inquisition, sometimes burned at the stake. In the late 1800s, the community was revived by the migration of Moroccan Jews. Most of whom had roots in the very communities expelled from the Iberian peninsula. But according to my friend Eduardo, who I’ll tell you more about later, native-born Portuguese of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to return to the faith of our ancestors. This only changed a few decades ago.

Which led to the most fascinating phenomenon I have ever witnessed in a Reform synagogue.

It was Friday night. I spent a long day visiting Tomar, a medieval town two and a half hours outside Lisbon. I went because it is beautiful and has a medieval synagogue- a pre-Inquisition remnant of Israel. With 5th century Hebrew tombstones. And an attendant who complained about me and an Israeli couple asking for one Hebrew brochure each. As if three pieces of printer paper was just a bridge too far.

“Vocês querem três?” she said with a grimace.

“Sim, e é o nosso património religioso, acho que está bem.”

It’s our religious heritage, so I think it’s perfectly normal.

She quietly pursed her lips in the tiniest of frowns as we perused the small, but fascinating museum.

I think it’s fantastic that Portugal and other countries are working to preserve Jewish heritage, it’s a link to our shared past and critical for understanding where we’ve been- and where we’re going. But much as I would suggest a white tour guide for a slavery museum not give black visitors a hard time for asking for leaflets, I think the person working a Jewish museum should show a little compassion. We’re not asking for the building back- we simply want to read what it’s about. You’re lucky we’re here- and given your country’s penchant for persecuting us, so are we.

I headed back to Lisbon, somewhat despairing. I had just written a blog yesterday about how much I loved Portugal. And before I visited the museum, I had a truly magnificent experience hiking in the mountains nearby and strolling the medieval walkways.

On the long train ride, I debated what to do that night. I had given my passport information to Reform synagogue Ohel Jacob to go to services. Because that’s the reality in Europe- and it won’t be long before it’s the reality in America too. Due to anti-Semitism, every synagogue in Europe has extensive security and unlike cathedrals, you can’t simply pop in. You have to fill out a visitor form with your personal info and send a picture of your passport. It’s to prevent us from being butchered- much as we have been on this continent for millennia. To this very day.

Running on 3 hours of sleep, up late thinking about big life decisions, and having traveled 5 hours on a train, I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and prepare for my flight to America the next morning.

But something in my soul told me to go.

So I grabbed a cab, with a rather wily driver who couldn’t believe I didn’t know where the street was. I told him I hoped he never got lost in New York if he visits sometime 😛 . Try to be the understanding person and realize not everyone knows your country like the back of their hand. Which is why I’ve often found myself directing tourists around Tel Aviv, sometimes sitting down with them for hours helping them plan their visits. Be the kind person who helps someone find their way.

I often visit synagogues around the world. And for Friday night services, although I can’t say I particularly believe in the actual message of the prayers (I’d much rather be singing in the forest of Tomar), I find something magical about the moment. For me spirituality is where I feel free to dance, to sing, to express my innermost fears, hopes, and spontaneous desires. It’s not being told what words to say when and how and singing in unison. It goes against every grain of my being- there’s no way that the human spirit was built to conform. Or that the words of someone 2,000 years ago should or could possibly express my full sentiments.

What I find magical about prayer, then, is the act itself. For me, Jewish history and survival is the most miraculous phenomenon. So the fact that we’re sitting in a room, using the same ancient words, melding with the symbols our ancestors have known for centuries, that is magical. Something we share with Jews everywhere.

This kesem, this enchantment, reaches new heights in Portugal. And this night more than any other.

Because to sit praying with Jews in Portugal 400 years after the genocide of our people is the most spiritually connecting thing I’ve ever done in a synagogue. The fact that it’s the first and only Reform one here is an added bonus that made it particularly salient for me. Familiar, comfortable, known but different.

For most of the melodies I knew by heart. But the accents pronouncing them were Portuguese, not American or Israeli. The resh taking on that particular Lisboan roll. The siddur itself from Brazil, half in the holy tongue, half in the language of Camões. It was beautiful to hear the congregants read out loud prayers I knew- but in a lilting and soothing Portuguese. Next time you get a chance to visit a synagogue abroad, go. Because even hearing the words you know in a different language can really change the way you see them. Only for the better.

Everyone in the room looked like Jewish faces I had seen before. In Maryland, in Argentina, in Barcelona, in Belgium, in Israel. They even invited me to lead some of the prayers, which I found quite fulfilling. Because even if the words themselves aren’t my dogma, the act of sharing them with the people around me was electric. And sometimes I found myself slipping into a spiritual state, where I couldn’t quite separate my past religiosity, my current spirituality, the heightened significant of the current moment, and my desire to separate them all in the name of rationalism. It’s healthy to live in the gray space rather than forcing yourself to conform to an all-or-nothing vision of the world. And so I found myself belting out Adon Olam as my own prayer, even as I questioned why it resonated for me so much. But living and love the hypocrisy. Neat lines are for buying a ticket at the movie theater. At least in America. Not in Israel, where there is no line at all. Or in Portugal, where the line exists but elegantly and gently and without compulsion. It’s the middle ground I’ve been searching for, and I flow into the veins of Portugal in a way I’ve never settled in any other country.

At the end of services, I was invited to make kiddush, the blessing over the fruit of the vine. It’s a prayer with complicated words that sometimes engage my own mixed feelings about Jewish theology. But is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.

So to do honor to this tiny and bold community, I grabbed the cup and blessed it. With a gusto and a sense of pride. I loved my own voice. And for someone who grew up being senselessly criticized left and right, it felt whole to enjoy myself. And the congregants loved it- one man gave me a big thumbs up 🙂

Then we sat down to an oneg, as is often the case on Friday night.

As we began to eat, the stories began to flow as much as the wine.

The conversation quickly turned to the Inquisition and how many of the Portuguese were descended from Jews forced to convert. Apparently many of whom took the surnames of trees, which is how you can recognize them today. Such as Oliveira, or olive tree, the last name of one of the congregants, Eduardo.

I looked around the room and asked how many of the people were Bnei Anusim, or descendants of forced converts.  And wish an almost embarrassed look, every single one said yes.  A bashfulness undeserved- I find it extraordinary that someone would want to dig up their roots and reconnect with the very faith that led to their family being persecuted.  And then rejoin it.  To those in the Jewish world who are unwilling to engage with this community I have a message.  Perhaps if you dedicated one tenth of the time you spend on trying to get apathetic Jews to do Jewish things and put it towards engaging these people who want to be Jewish, things might be going better for us.

Their stories were fascinating.  I didn’t get to talk with everyone- there was one really kind older woman who sat with me during services but I didn’t get to chat with her much after.  Especially in a group setting it can be hard to make time to talk with the quieter folks, but they often have the most interesting stories to tell.  And when I go back, I’d like to sit down with her more.

The stories I did hear were moving.  People who had grandparents or parents tell them they were Jewish- on their deathbeds.  DNA tests that showed Sephardic ancestry.  One man from Brazil- because remember, a lot of forced converts fled to the Americas- told me his father refused a Catholic funeral.  No crosses were present when he was buried- and he told his daughter (who then told this man) that they were Jews.  And every person in that room wouldn’t make you bat an eye if you saw them on the streets of Tel Aviv or in synagogue in San Francisco.

As the night winded down, it was about 10:30pm and I was tired.  But I stayed a bit longer to say goodbye to the congregation, and then Eduardo invited me to see their museum.  Museum?  This was a one room apartment, where was there a museum?

But sure enough, a tiny room behind where we prayed held something I can barely find words to describe.  Eduardo had buried the lede.

In this antique-looking room filled with old wooden bookshelves was the library of Polish and German holocaust survivors.

Because Ohel Jacob was not started as a congregation for Bnei Anusim.  It was, in a fashion typically cyclically Jewish, started by Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  And so it was actually an Ashkenazi synagogue, now being prayed in by Sephardim.  Whose founders, when they eventually fled to America, handed the keys to the first generation of Bnei Anusim in Portugal to “come out of the closet”.

As a deep bibliophile and lover of Jewish history, I couldn’t imagine a more potent or exciting moment.  The books lay largely in tatters, but still coherent.  I opened some.  I found books from Lublin, Poland, from Vienna, from Germany.  In Hebrew, in German, in Yiddish.  Sometimes with a touch of Polish or Russian.  They had all the character of an old, bound book you’d find in the corner of a 19th century library.  With all the Jewish spirit you could possibly ask for.  Here are some pictures:

Eduardo is learning how to read Hebrew.  He can sound out some of the words (and prays quite well- he lead services for the first time this week!).  But he couldn’t understand what the books meant.

So I opened them and began to explain.  It was this beautiful Jewish moment of transmission- of taking my knowledge, imparting it to someone thirsty to learn.  And of living in this precious moment together, with the spirit of the Holocaust survivors hovering over us.  And in the thin air that separated our two physical selves, even as our souls drew closer together.

As if the books themselves weren’t enough of a find, it turns out there was more.  There was a Torah scroll burnt to a crisp, covered with a tallit to protect it.  Eduardo thinks it may have been destroyed in Kristallnacht.

Nearby was a megillah, or the Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim.  Commemorating our survival of an attempt to annihilate us in ancient Persia.  I read the words aloud to him, a poignant moment that reminds us that our present circumstances are nothing new.  A long view of Jewish history reveals how fragile our existence is- and how our persistence has kept us alive.

Back in the main prayer room were five more Torah scrolls.  As Eduardo unveiled the ark that held them, he pointed to one in particular:

“This one is 500 years old.  From Iraq.  I’m not sure exactly how it got here.”

I stood in absolute awe- and distilled silence.

Here were these treasures of Jewish history, rotting but still alive.  And the only thing stopping them from having made it to a trash pit is this dedicated congregation.  Descendants of forcibly converted Sephardim preserving the Yiddish books of Holocaust survivors.  It’s a higher order humanity that’s hard to find if you scroll the front page of the news these days, but it’s as real as it is crucial.

The congregation has about 50 people these days.  Most, but not all, Bnei Anusim.  And they have a volunteer librarian who is helping catalogue the books.  You can see it online here.

If you find yourself in Lisbon, I can’t think of a better place to spend a Friday night.  Visit them and strengthen this beautiful community.  At a time when anti-Semitism has pushed some Jews to disaffiliate or dislike their own faith, Ohel Jacob is a reminder of the gifts our tradition has to offer.  And the strength of the Bnei Anusim in digging through layers of family history and prejudice to reconnect to it.  Bruchim habaim habayta- welcome home to the Jewish people.  Here’s a picture of me and some of my new friends from Ohel Jacob:

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Sometimes I ask myself (or others ask me) why I wander.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just go with a set plan and stick to it?  To craft a life itinerary?  Some people want to know where I’ll be in a month, in a year.  I don’t know.  That’s part of what makes exploring magical.  If I had stuck to my original plans a year and a half ago, I’d be in rabbinical school in Jerusalem.  I probably never would’ve written my blog.  I wouldn’t have had time to travel to 10 countries and 120 villages in Israel.  My Arabic wouldn’t have become fluent, I wouldn’t have learned Italian and beefed up my Portuguese.  I wouldn’t be able to understand as much Romanian.  Nor know how to dance dabke.  Nor realize some important things about myself.  That I like quiet time.  That I love exploring different cultures, and sometimes I just want to speak English.  That I actually like some things about America that I didn’t have the context to appreciate before.

And many of the experiences that have so enriched me might not have happened.  If I had stuck to my original plan, would I have sung in the great synagogue of Satmar?  Would I have befriended Roma in rural Romania?  Or eaten Hungarian Jewish pastries in Budapest?  Or discovered that my great uncle was killed liberating Europe from Nazis?  Or that there are people in Andalucía who live in caves?  Or learned the Spanish word “invernaderos” while exploring Almería, a city covered in greenhouses?

Probably not.  I might had other adventures.  But I wouldn’t have had as much time for these.  And I probably wouldn’t have ended up everywhere I did if I simply stuck to a plan.  I doubt I would’ve made my way to Romania three times if I had sat in Washington, D.C. and crafted a year itinerary.  But having been there once, I liked it, and it drew me to go again.  Giving myself the flexibility to change plans has opened up doors to me that remain shut for folks who insist on everything going according to schedule.

So as I write this blog, I find myself not in Tel Aviv, not in Portugal, but in New Jersey.  A place I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting even a month ago.  It’s perhaps appropriate that I first started writing the post on a plane from Portugal- in the airspace that is neither here nor there.  A real wanderer is willing to milk that middle space.  And live with the understanding that the borders, or rules, we are taught to respect sometimes need a little massaging.  Because to find richness, you’ve got to be willing to throw away some of the expectations.  As much as you have to be willing to realize that sometimes they have value.

Today I found myself in the curious position of peering at Google Maps and realizing that directly across the street from where I’m staying is a Jewish cemetery.

After getting a solid American bagel with whitefish salad (please, Israel, learn the value of real bagels!), I strolled into the graveyard.

As you can probably tell from this blog, I’m in America for now.  Not sure exactly how long (again, see my wandering comment).  Could be three months, could be longer.  And maybe less.  Who knows.  Wherever I find myself, I find myself with a bit of yearning mixed with sorrow.  That Portuguese feeling of saudade, where you reach for the best of the past, with the sadness that is it not here now.  In my case, I think it means knowing the beauty and the sorrow of each place, of each experience I’ve had.  And realizing it’s not entirely possible to separate them.  Am I a different, more healed person today because I grew as an individual or because I was in Israel?  I might be able to parse some of that out, but I’m not certain they are so easily picked apart.  Going to Israel was a wise choice, because as I sit here now, I feel like I have grown as a person.  That the hardships are not something I’ll particularly miss while I’m away, and if I had never stepped on that plane, I can’t imagine I would’ve learned nearly as much about myself or the world.  About where I’m from, and who I am.

In the end, I’m still an Israeli citizen, I still pay my bituach leumi, I can come and go whenever I want.  Israelis do it all the time- to work abroad, to go on long trips after the army, to explore.

The difference in my case is that I’m also from here.  So it feels different to come here than someone who didn’t grow up American.  It feels eagerly comfortable for me to see muenster cheese, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies worthy of the name, to eat New York style pizza, to eat real cheddar cheese.  And not to break the bank doing so.  As you can tell, cheese is pretty crucial- and while I love European and some Israeli cheeses, I have to say I gave a “come and get me” look to a stack of American cheese the other day.  I missed you America.

So I live in that space of saudade.  Because however long I’m here, it’s different.  It’s pleasant to be back, it’s hard to reconcile my past with my present, and as much as I love exploring different cultures, it can be difficult to emotionally prepare yourself for the jumping back and forth.

Feeling an emptiness, a fear of losing my passion- for travel, for adventure, for Jewish exploration- I headed across the street to the cemetery.

And the most curious thing happened.

The very first grave I saw said “Adler”.  And I have to double check my genealogical research, but this New Jersey town’s name sounded familiar.  It was one of those bashert, “meant to be” moments that reminded me I’m from here too.  And American Jewry has a story to tell as well.  It’s my story.  And I’m glad to contribute to it while I’m here.  And to the best of my ability, wherever I am.

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What my experience in Israel- and my short time here so far- has taught me is that you can always return.  The Jews of Portugal, of Ohel Jacob, know this better than anyone.  Life, like history, is full of surprises.  Who knows when I’ll be hopping on a plane or a train or digging through an archive again.  Or finding new ways to explore.

You can always return, but you can never go back.  Because as you grow and develop, if you strive for health and wholeness and understanding of self, you won’t feel the same.  Which is why when I needed a little dose of the confidence I developed in Israel while ordering pizza today, I talked to some friends on WhatsApp in Hebrew.  And I felt my backbone straighten and my warmth grow within.

To be a Jew, to be me, is to wander.  Maybe physically, maybe intellectually.  To enjoy where you are, but never get too comfortable.  To always have a suitcase packed because you don’t know what might happen.  Or what might motivate you to go somewhere else.

Life is like a rubber band.  There’ll always be different feelings pulling you in different directions, and you evaluate how far you can stretch.  Whether you want to stretch in a different direction.  Or whether the gap between the ends is too tense and might snap.  In Israel, the diverse cultures and languages pull me in, the economy, the pressure to assimilate, and the conflict pull me out.  Although my desire to fix things pulls me in sometimes.  It might take some time to see how my rubber band stretches here.  But I’d say that the ease of life, the consideration, the lack of air raid sirens, the comfort of speaking my native language, and the well-paying jobs pull me in.  And the lack of directness, the sometimes suppressed emotions, the healthcare system, the anti-Semitism, and the constant smiling pull me out.  As does the fact that unlike in Israel, Jewish customs and our own physical appearance are not the norm, are not celebrated, are not public.  As I learned when I mistakenly tried an anti-“frizz” shampoo yesterday that “tamed” and suppressed my wavy Jewish hair which I’ve come to love.

I’ve seen in Israel and other places that every place has different ways of doing things.  Sometimes better, sometimes not.  I’m a richer and more aware person for knowing that, and not assuming the way I was raised, or the society I grew up in, is necessarily the only or best way to live.  Or the worst.

My rubber band will continue to stretch in different directions as the circumstances of my life and the societies around me change.  And may propel me, like the rubber bands we used to fling in elementary school, to new places and new situations.

Stick with me.  What I’ve realize is my spirit of adventure, of exploration, of intellectual curiosity is with me to stay.  So don’t be surprised when you find me speaking Yiddish to Amish people, or reading American Jewish archives from the 1800s, or talking to the Latinos who served me my bagel in Spanish today.  I’m happy to say that even if my life changes over the coming period, that part of me is ingrained.  And if the manner of exploration may change, the curiosity and desire to do so will not.

And Israeli friends, Romanian friends, Spanish friends, Catalan friends- miss me, but don’t despair.  Not only are we blessed with amazing communication tools these days, we’re blessed with amazing transit.  And while seeing your faces every day is not the same, stay in touch.  We haven’t broken up, we’re in a long distance relationship for now.  I don’t know when I’ll be back, but don’t be surprised if I’m messaging you “I’m coming to Kfar Sumea” or “I’m on my way to Valencia” with a few days notice.  Or even from your city itself.  That’s how I roll.  Be prepared for the unexpected- or not.  Just flow.

I’m an Israeli citizen.  I’m American- but not just.  I’m Romanian and Hungarian- and I’ve visited those places.  But I’m also Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Polish- and I haven’t stepped foot there- yet.  I’m an Arabic speaker and I’ve visited almost every Druze village in the Galilee- but I haven’t been to Julis yet.  Or to neighboring Jordan.  Or to the tiny Israeli villages that sit on the border with Egypt, facing the Sinai peninsula.  Where Moses himself wandered for 40 years.

If that sounds like a lot of exploring done, and a lot yet to do- you’re right.  Just don’t ask me for a plan- because for me, to know what you’re going to do the next 15 years is anathema to the way I experience the world.

As the cover image says in Portuguese: “volto já”.  I’ll be right back.  Or more literally “I’m already returning”.  Because perhaps to return is not to go back to where you were.  In fact, it’s not a place.  It’s to orient yourself in the direction of your soul.

The word “tshuva” in Hebrew means both repentance and return.  So that perhaps living in a state of self awareness is to continually strive to point ourselves in the direction of  our authentic desires and hope.  Being itself.

So I haven’t “gone back” to the U.S. nor have I “left” Israel.  It’s a childish dichotomy that doesn’t fit with the modern world, nor our capacity to be more than one thing.  Plus I feel the vibe of Portugal more than both- so who knows where life will take me.  I simply am where I am.  And where I sit right now is only one part of the story, if an important one.

I go where I go and I do what I do not to go back.  But to turn and re-turn and turn again until I find myself wandering again in a direction that brings me a sense of wonder, of joy, of fulfillment, of sadness, of challenge, of comfort, of growth, of repose.  Of healing.  Of life itself.

Keep journeying.  The Bnei Anusim of Portugal have been doing it for 400 years- and their story is still unfolding.  So is mine.

P.S.- here are some surprisingly beautiful pictures of New Jersey, a reminder to leave stereotypes at the door and explore for yourself.  As the picture says: “I never fold”.

The wonderful melancholy of Portugal

Portugal, for those who have never visited, is an awesome place.  But don’t hype it too much or you’ll sound like you don’t get the vibe.

One of the interesting things about Portugal, something I connect with, is the deep friendliness paired with an honest relationship with hardship.  Fado, the traditional music of this country, is exactly that.  Unlike the vibrant Flamenco of its Spanish neighbors, Fado is a slowly melding pot.  It doesn’t force you to separate the happy from the sad, it lets you feel where the two intersect.  And none of this prevents Portuguese people from smiling, giving you directions, and making conversation with you.  They kind of remind me of me.  To be “happy” is not to be joyous all the time.  It’s to treat others with kindness and warmth and compassion- and also to protect yourself and realize the pain too.  Rather than hiding it or gritting your teeth and smiling, pretending it’s not there.

While for me personally, I find a lot of Lisbon’s tourist attractions crowded and kind of dirty, other parts of the country (and even the city) are magical.  Just take a look:

Portugal is a land that has known both great sorrow and joy.  It was once home to one of the largest empires in the world.  Despite Romance language learners gravitating towards Spanish and French, Portuguese has 260 million speakers on four continents.  With a sound that just makes my ears feel at ease.  It’s kind of a sexy tongue.

It’s one that I learned in a semester in undergrad in a course “Portuguese for Spanish speakers”.  And this is my first time getting to speak it in a Lusophone country.  That’s the cool word for “Portuguese-speaking”.  What’s interesting is that although I learned Brazilian Portuguese and there are differences between the two dialects, I actually sometimes find myself understanding people here even better.  The pronunciation is a bit more similar to the Castilian Spanish I learned first.  And interestingly enough, it shares both grammatical features and phonology with Catalan.  For example, while some Spanish verbs have stem changes, i.e. dormir becomes duermo, in Catalan it’s dormo and in Portuguese it is also dormo.  In fact, in both Catalan and Portuguese the final “o” becomes a “u” sound.  And what’s more, in the continental variety of Portuguese, the “l” carries a particular weight to it that sounds kind of like Russian…or Catalan!  Geographic distance is not the only factor in linguistic similarity, and Portuguese and Catalan are proof of this, despite sharing no borders.

Portugal has known good and bad, both in its imperial endeavors as well as its domestic politics.  While I am far from an expert on Portuguese history (I really didn’t come here to be sad, there’s enough of that in the Middle East), I do know they had a modern dictatorship.  And much prior to that, they had the violence of the Inquisition.

After having enjoyed some of the delicious pastries, the nature, and some art, I decided to wander through some local neighborhoods to an archive.  I love archives- I’ve written about this before.  I’ve visited them in Girona, Salerno, and Tortosa.  They are always a source of inspiration and an opportunity to hold history in your hands, to connect physically to the past.  And they’re always free.

There’s not a lot of visible Jewish sites left in Lisbon.  There are some elsewhere in the country, but kind of far for a relatively short trip, so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to see.  I tried wandering the Alfama, the former Jewish quarter, and while there are apparently walking tours, there’s not a lot of Jewish things left to see.  Although you will notice the sign for the Jewish museum being constructed, apparently against the wishes of some neighbors.  Who are slowing down the process and whose motives aren’t entirely clear.  Some suspect anti-Semitism.  I am not an expert on Portuguese architecture, but the claim that the museum will disrupt the neighborhood vibe seems specious at first glance.  The neighborhood is dirty and a new building could probably do them some good.  Here’s the construction sign:

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In the Alfama, I asked a shop keeper for any advice about Jewish sites.  And to my great pleasure, he was kind enough to tell me his friend runs tours.  And he looked visibly pleased to be speaking with a Jew.  He was proud to tell me his friends visited Tel Aviv recently and loved it.  And irrespective of my own feelings about Tel Aviv (it’s not my favorite place in Israel), what was awesome is that he clearly liked Jews.  And I showed my warmth in kind.  He also said I spoke really good Portuguese 🙂

I’m an out-of-the-closet Jew and so while it doesn’t come up in every conversation I have (and sometimes I purposely say I’m American to avoid prejudice), it comes up often.  Naturally.  So I tend to get a good feel for the attitude of a culture towards Jews pretty easily.  And what I can say is that at least up until now, I haven’t felt any noticeable animosity.  While that might sound understated, it’s actually incredibly positive for today’s Europe.  A place where anti-Semitism is spreading like wildfire and a third of people don’t know what the Holocaust is.  What’s so interesting about Portugal, then, is how little of this animosity I feel.  Something reflected in the fact that polls show it having relatively low levels of anti-Semitism, despite the global trends in the opposite direction.  Even its next door neighbor Spain was rated the society with the highest levels of anti-Semitism in all of Europe.

When I visited the public library in Sintra, a city outside Lisbon, I asked about what Jewish books they had.  While it’s not a scientific study, it’s often instructive to see if local libraries have books on X or Y topics as a sense of their communal importance.  And it’s just as interesting to see what books they are and how they’re categorized.

In the case of Sintra, the librarian patiently wrote down the information of several books.  While at first, I had been disappointed at the two lonely Jewish books smushed between tons about Christianity and Islam in the religion section, I soon learned something else was at work.

In the Sintra public library, most Jewish books were found alongside (or within) books about Portuguese history.  The National Library in Budapest told me they didn’t have books about Jews because, “we only have books about Hungarians here”.  But the Sintra public library had Jewish knowledge integrated into their sections about Portugal itself.  A kind of anecdotal example that has so far paralleled my experience in both countries.  I found Hungary quite anti-Semitic and xenophobic.  And here, not as much.  Even though in both countries, Jews have played an outsize role in their history.  Well, in Portuguese history.  Because apparently in Hungary, Jews aren’t Hungarian.

So today, feeling an itch to look at some old documents and see if I could find some Jewish ruins, in the metaphorical sense, I headed to an archive.

At the archive, I managed to find archivists’ notes on the Inquisition.  According to the staff member, these notes were pretty old- and they were what the archivists saw in original Inquisition documents.  Everything was beautifully handwritten, even if the contents themselves were saddening.  A kind of writing Portuguese were made for.

For those who don’t know much about the Inquisition, when the Catholic kings conquered the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, they sought to unify disparate lands and consolidate power.  While initially they had tolerated and even co-existed with the Jewish communities- some of which dated back to Roman times- this changed.  In 1492, the Spanish conquered the last Moorish outpost and Catholicism was made the only state religion.  Jews who had lived on this land for thousands of years were forced to flee their homes, and many did- to Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Serbia, and elsewhere.  Leading to today’s Sephardic Jews.  Some of whom still speak Judeo-Spanish.  I even have a friend who teaches it in America- so if you find yourself at Binghamton, look up Prof. Kirschen.

The remaining Jews were tortured into converting to Catholicism.  Those who didn’t, were murdered, sometimes en masse.  And others converted to Catholicism, sometimes secretly practicing their ancient faith.

Spain imposed the Inquisition first, leading many of its remaining Jews to flee to Portugal.  Where unfortunately, a few years later, the country followed in Spain’s footsteps.

With brutal consequences I saw first hand today.

I found 5 shelves full of beautifully bound books.  I peered closer and found they were Inquisition records from the city of Évora.  The shelves contained no less than 113 separate volumes.  From a city that today has 56,000 people in a country of 10.3 million.  So it hardly represents the entirety of the Inquisition.  I’m not even sure it represents all of this records from this one city.

I opened one up.

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I couldn’t have imagined me using my Portuguese to read Inquisition documents when I learned it back in St. Louis, but this is how I roll.  And it’s always eye opening and fulfilling to see things first hand.

It didn’t take long to find the first person accused of the “crime of Judaism”.  That’s a direct quote.  For today’s anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour who claim hatred of Jews “isn’t systemic”, all they have to do is go to a library to realize they’re wrong.  It’s absurd to have to even say that.  The Inquisition documents were so brutally detailed and organized they seemed no different than the Nazis years later.  Perhaps even an inspiration.

The stories were heartbreaking.  I felt my emotions rising, unhindered by my American stiff upper lip nor my Israeli “who gives a shit”.  It was my inner Portuguese saudade mixed with a lot of sadness.  I felt connected to these people from ages ago, I wallowed in their pain, I held my hand to the text as I lifted their message into my life today.

The first condemned Jew I met was Alfonso Álvares.  He was 55 years old from Évora, the son of Lourenço and Constança.  Married to Inés de Miranda.  His crime: “judaísmo”.  He was arrested on November 12, 1654.  A full 118 after the arrival of this torturous regime to Portugal.  162 years after it’s initiation in Spain, where some of the Jews fled from.  The Inquisition was not a one year event- it lasted centuries to expunge the Jewishness from the entire peninsula- and its colonies in America.

What was Alfonso’s punishment for being a Jew?  He was imprisoned, all of his property was confiscated, and he was burned as a heretic 10 days later.  I wonder if this qualifies for Ms. Sarsour’s definition of “systemic”.  It only involved the state, the Catholic church, the prison system, and the organized confiscation of property.  You know, totally spontaneous.

Page after page was filled with people burned alive, imprisoned, and tortured for the “crime of Judaism”.

There was even a man, oddly enough, who wasn’t persecuted for being Jewish, but rather for making a “silver Jesus with the face of John, the Negro”.  A weird story that the archivist on staff didn’t even understand.  But clearly an example of how persecution of Jews is often the precursor to even more acts of hatred.  As senseless as the ones that started it.WhatsApp Image 2018-12-20 at 9.26.17 PM(1)

Then there was Branca Alvares, a Jew arrested on January 21, 1586, burned alive August 2, 1587.  In the intervening time, sentenced to prison, stripped of her clothes and her dignity.  A martyr for our faith, a defender of our right to be who we are.  I never met you, Branca, but I admire your bravery in the face of stupid hatred.  Our people persist because of people who resist, like you.  May your memory and those of all our people burned at the stake be for a blessing.  I dedicate this blog to you.  I hope that my work in the world does honor to your courage.

It’s worth noting here that many of the victims had their property confiscated by the Church, acting in concert with the state.  A common theme in Jewish migrations (and expulsions) is that we are often invited to countries for our trade networks and knowledge.  And subsequently expelled when the state decides it needs our property.  Portugal and Spain are no exception- their imperialism in the Americas was funded by persecuting Jews and stealing their money.  Which is why the Inquisition couldn’t end even with the conversion of the remaining Jews.  Denunciations of New Christians, or “conversos”, continued for centuries, allowing the state to intimidate people into conformity and compliance.  And simultaneously, rob Jews of their money to finance conquest around the world.

This aspect of anti-Semitism is one that confounds liberals to this day.  An overly simplistic understanding of rich=abuser, poor=victim does not help them understand the nature of anti-Semitism, which doesn’t fit this model.  Jews historically have been placed in the position of middle men.  Almost never in the history of Western civilization have we been allowed to lead a nation, but we are often invited to partake in slightly lesser but well remunerated jobs like lawyers, doctors, or in olden times, court advisors.  But never the king himself.  Which is why today in America, you have a strong representation of Jews in Congress, in entertainment, and in any number of prestigious professions.  Yet never has there been a Jewish president- nor do I think there will be.  Western civilization has not reckoned with anti-Semitism yet, and until it does, we will not be allowed at the top.

What are the implications?  Jews are stereotyped as rich.  I’ve heard this trope from Brazilians, Argentinians, Belgians, and even people I went to high school with.  Part of the reason for that is rulers could put certain Jews in these kind of prominent positions and divert the disgruntled populace’s anger towards them.  Rather than the ruler himself.  All the while, maintaining Jews’ inferiority by denying them access to the top of the system.  Often reinforced by discriminatory clothing, restricted living quarters, brutal violence, and more.  Christmas was traditionally a time to persecute Jews.

It’s a lesson progressives today need to learn if they want to understand the nature of anti-Semitism, because it operates in a different fashion from racism.  But with no less destructive results, as we’ve seen lately in Pittsburgh, across Europe, and elsewhere.

In other words, while some Jews are poor, the success of other Jews economically is used by rulers to eventually rally the populace to execute their genocide and expulsion.  Giving the ruler access to Jewish capital to finance his latest endeavor, and of course never actually helping the angry pitchfork-bearers themselves.

What’s curious about Portugal is the Jews are back.  In fact, while I’m not sure exactly why, Jews were back here sooner than in Spain.  Already in the early 1800s, after a thorough cleansing of anything Jewish here, Jews were allowed to return to the land they once called home.  It’s a brave and risky act I can’t even imagine.  You can still find today in Lisbon Shaare Tikva, a synagogue built by these returning Portuguese Jews.  In a twist of history few would have expected when Branca and Alfonso were being burned at the stake for the crime of Judaism.

I’m not sure what brought them back.  It’s a crazy thought- how could you trust the Portuguese people after all that hurt?  Maybe Portugal wanted Jewish capital again.  After all, today with its economy facing issues, it’s inviting descendants of expelled Jews to re-apply for citizenship.  An Orwellian, if perhaps well-intentioned, process.  In which Jews are having to collect documents 500 years later to get citizenship to a country their ancestors were expelled from.  An odd and uniquely Jewish scenario, but one that is leading quite a number of people to apply.  I hope the law is applied fairly and liberally if it is truly meant to make recompense for the past.  And that if the country wants us back this time, I hope it ends better today.

What’s truly amazing about the whole thing is how normal Portugal is today.

I’ve visited a lot of countries in Europe over time.  Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Switzerland, Italy (twice), Hungary (twice), France (twice), Spain (four times), Romania (three times).  And now Portugal.

And what I can say is, as of today, I can’t think of a single country where I’ve felt more at ease as a Jew.  Italy comes close.  Perhaps their Mediterranean cultures, where my DNA and my gentle curls flowing over my olive skin help me feel at home among my distant cousins.  Indeed, a third of Portuguese are estimated to have Jewish blood, in addition to us being from the same part of the world.  It’s certainly more comfortable than the sometimes awkward stares I’d get in pastier countries like Romania or Switzerland, where a border guard thought I was an illegal Mexican immigrant because I spoke Spanish.

But there’s a little extra something here too.  The Portuguese, perhaps having slogged through the Inquisition, imperialism, and a dictatorship, have found a way to let their sadness mingle with their joy.  To let their emotions become a part of who they are, rather than something to suppress.

So that when these barriers eventually fell, Portuguese often found themselves researching their own Jewish history.  In fact, the town of Belmonte is full of Portuguese with Jewish roots- who have re-embraced their faith and built a synagogue.

There is ignorance everywhere, and Portugal is no exception.  Sometimes curiosity about us is naïvely, though sometimes innocently, mentioned in the same breath as masons or the capitalist system.  Like we’re some sort of curious phenomenon worth exploring or perhaps an exoticism.  A less textured way to see us.  But honestly I don’t know enough about it to fully understand.  All I can say is that even the ignorant comments here have stung less than in other places and so far seem to be said with less malice.

Yet Portugal is one of the few European countries that I feel is headed in the right direction with regards to its Jewish past- and present.  And hopefully future.  While supposedly enlightened nations like France and Germany and Sweden experience an ever-increasing amount of anti-Semitism, Portugal is not joining the crowd.

Hanging out in the far west of Europe gazing towards America, Portugal is doing what it has always done.  Mixing its pain with its joy.  Creating that unique blend where it doesn’t need to deny its faults, nor deny itself pleasure.  Here, you can’t isolate one from the other.  It’s a psychologically healthy phenomenon that perhaps explains why this country, even with hundreds of years of anti-Semitic persecutions, is able to reconcile this with welcoming Jews back.  Much better so than their Spanish neighbors next door.

So as I dedicate this post to all the brave Jews here who persisted and resisted in the face of anti-Semitic hatred, to their descendants living out their Judaism- or returning to it- I’d like to offer a hope.

Portugal is evidence of the wily and often surprising twists of history.  The proverbial arc that bends towards justice is a messianic lie that is put to rest by the rollercoaster that is the Portuguese Jewish experience.  An experience filled with pain and with surprising hope.  Could a Portuguese Jew 400 years ago have ever imagined me reading his death sentence in an archive- alive?  The inspiring quirks of history are as noteworthy as the failures.

So as I watch the world spin in unexpected and sometimes scary directions, hope accompanies my fear.

A hope that Europe becomes more like the Portugal of today than the Portugal of four centuries ago.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I love to write.  As all of you who follow my blog know.  I often share pictures in the middle of my posts, but usually the focus is on my words and my stories.  One of the things I enjoy most on my travels is finding unexpected views.  I love taking pictures.  Of gorgeous sunsets, of nature, of landscapes.  Of funny street signs, museum paintings, street art, products in different languages.  Of people and places that make me go “wow” or think about the place I’m in a bit differently.

So before I end up writing another word-based blog post, I’d like to share some of my favorite photos.  I hope they make you “ooh” and “wow” and “huh?” as much they as they did for me.  I’ll occasionally add some backstory or captions, and sometimes will let them stand on their own.  I hope you enjoy!

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This picture is from Colares, Portugal.  A town you’ve probably never been to- but should if you want to get to…

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Cabo de Roca, Portugal.  And one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of sunsets, one of my favorite is from Stroumpi, Cyprus, where I spontaneously decided to climb a mountain.  With nothing but my jeans, sneakers, some water, and a boatload of motivation.  I took these pictures from the very top, watching the sky illuminate as I waited for my bus back home:

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This picture doesn’t even come close to doing this sunset justice.  And if I’m honest, Cyprus is filled with gorgeous sunsets.  Like this one in Polis:

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I took this picture while walking along the side of a road (with no sidewalk) for about an hour and a half to get back to the bus stop.  And I just had to pause for a moment (while making sure no cars would hit me) and soak in this view.  To me, it looks like the sky is a giant glob of cotton candy.

Cyprus, like many other countries, has some funny signs.  This is one of the cutest warning signs I’ve ever seen:

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There can’t be a cuter hazard than a crossing pelican.  I’ve dreamed of visiting Greece since I fell in love with My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a kid.  I’ve watched the movie at least 15 or 20 times.  Which is why this street sign in Paphos cracked me up:

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But Cyprus is not the only country with funny signs.  I learned Portuguese for a semester in college and I’m now having my first chance to visit a country that speaks it- Portugal!  I’ve long listened to the sounds of Fado music and devoured the beautiful sounds of the language itself.  Personally, I think it’s one of the world’s sexiest.

I found myself reading a sign in a park that said: “trajetos pedonais”.  Which was unfortunately translated as:

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Who knew the Portuguese could be so country?

Now I try to not to make fun of other country’s English.  After all, at least they’re bothering to speak my language.  Less than half as many Americans as Europeans are bilingual.  Although we’re not the only ones who expect everything as we like it.  I met a British tourist in southern Spain who was astonished at the low level of English.  It would be astonishing if not for the fact that you were in another country…

Now sometimes I do get a little chuckle.  Usually no one around me knows why I’m laughing.  But I found this restaurant in Italy and had to take a picture:

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Italians are an amorous folk.  But who knows what you’ll get on your pizza here…

Before I get all hot and heavy, I’ll move to a more cultured topic: art.  My favorite color ever since I was a kid was teal.  So it was to my great pleasure that I discovered a Portuguese art form called “azulejo”, which comes from the word azul, meaning blue.  Based on Moorish forms, the tiles are ornately patterned and gorgeous.  And frequently, accompanied by streaks of teal.  It was like an entire museum dedicated to my favorite color.  Here are some pics:

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As frantic tour groups rush by, I often find myself lurking in a room alone.  Staring at the mesmerizing patterns, feeling a sense of calm.  There are few things better than a quiet space with something inspiring to look at.

Which is why I often find myself at libraries and archives.  One day, when I have the money, a benefactor, or a university to donate to, I will collect my books together and start a library.  Books are the physical possession most valuable to me- they are the only thing I ship when I move.

So when I discovered you could go to city archives in Europe and after filling out a one page form, touch 1000 year old documents, I said “yes please!”  One of the first archives I visited was in Girona, Spain/Catalonia.  I simply walked in, said I wanted to see stuff, and they set me up.  Other than the two archivists, I don’t think a single other person was there that day.  I had the whole place to myself.

I ended up reading Judeo-Catalan documents like this one from the 1200s.  I even helped the archivists fix the digital imaging of the documents, which had them upside-down.  But once I found the digital images I wanted, I got to sit down with the originals.  To put my finger on history itself:

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I’ve learned that while people pay a lot of money and wait a long time to enter super-crowded museums, you can simply walk into the city archives and have thousands of years of history to yourself.  You don’t need a press pass or a reason- just go and say you want to learn about a certain topic.  It’s worth it 🙂

I have a lot more stories to tell, but it’s getting late here in Lisbon.  So before I share some gratuitously beautiful images (and some funny ones), I want to share a message.  I live off the beaten path.  I’ve dreamed of going to the places I’ve visited the past year and a half all my life.  I downloaded my first Romanian manele music 11 years ago.  My first Portuguese song 13 years ago.  My first Mizrachi song 19 years ago.

I don’t know what’s next.  I have a lot of challenges on the horizon and I’m not sure how I will carve my path forward.

What I do know is I can look myself in the mirror and say I’ve lived my dreams.  I’ve danced dabke with Druze kids, I’ve visited my ancestral homeland of Romania, I’ve seen the largest synagogue in Europe, I’ve met Roma, I’ve hiked through rural Italy- and learned enough Italian to speak for a few hours with a guy at a pizza place in Salerno.

None of this was handed to me on a silver platter.  I’ve spent the past year and a half healing from 30 years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.  And travel, exploration, language, culture, and trying new things has been a part of that healing process.  And I’ve realized that I am capable of so much.  That once these barriers that held me back begin to crumble, I am capable of even more than I’ve done so far.  And I have done a lot already.

I discovered how much I love to travel, to explore cultures, to spend time by myself, to reach out to new people I’ve never met before, to find the quiet types, to bask in nature, to learn new languages by visiting new countries, to rely on my English when I need to show I’m a foreigner and want a break from learning, to feel grateful when I see the tombs of my people across Europe, to feel inspired when I see Jews and Arabs who live outside society’s expectations.

In short, as much as I’ve gotten to know the societies around me, I’ve gotten to know myself.  To realize certain things have been and will probably always be a part of who I am.  And some things kind of shifted.  I got a new lens that allowed for increasing nuance, expression of feeling, and an openness that allowed me to make some important decisions.  And sometimes, to change them.

May your journey bring you awareness, comfort, and growth.  Mine continues to evolve.  And I hope that even if the next step in my journey is to spend most of the day in an office, that I still find time to adventure and wander and explore and find the unexpected to open me to new ways of thinking.  And I have a feeling that even if I end up a little more geographically “put” to tend to my bank account, I’ll be meandering again soon.  To Thailand, to Vietnam, to Australia, to Jordan, to Tunisia, to Eilat (I still haven’t made it there), to the Jordan Valley, to Lithuania, maybe even Ethiopia.  And probably places I haven’t thought of yet- which is the magic of being willing to change course when the moment seems opportune.

And Lord knows, I have enough stories from the past year and a half, including many I haven’t told you yet, to last a lifetime.  I tried to make this post about the pictures, but ended up telling a story in any case!  Because stories are what I do and an open mind is always ready to adventure.

Pack your bags…