Tonight, in the span of 5 minutes, I saw what Israel has to teach the world about tolerance and diversity.
Walking back from an outdoor movie in Yafo (which overlapped with the Islamic call to prayer halfway through), I heard a man on a microphone.
The man was talking to a crowd at a restaurant on the roof of a building. He started to sing. I figured it was just a guy playing music for tourists.
Then I started to recognize traditional Jewish wedding music, saw a chuppah, and realized it was My Big Fat Jewish Wedding. People started to dance and shimmy as the music blared. Definitely the only time I’ve ever walked by a rooftop restaurant and discovered it was a Jewish wedding- on a Wednesday!
Then I headed to a great spot where you can look out at the sea, just meters away. And there I saw a group of Korean Christian tourists with a guitar singing their songs of praise. A crowd of secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims watched with great interest. Women in hijabs swayed back and forth as the Koreans sang their hymns. Everyone applauded at the end while the song leader said “God bless you” to all of us. It was beautiful.
As I headed over to a dessert shop, I could hear the ululating (in Hebrew “kululu”, in Arabic “zaghrada”) from the Jewish wedding.
The dessert shop is run by Arabs. For the first time, I tried malabi, a creamy Israeli pudding dessert likely of Turkish origin. It was de-licious.
As I chowed down, I noticed the shopkeeper, Zidan, was blasting “Shav El Admati” (I return to my land), a famous Zionist Mizrachi music song about Jews returning to Israel. So this was an Arab man singing at the top of his lungs a Jewish song about returning to Israel. While I, an oleh chadash (new immigrant), am singing all the words with him because I learned them while pining for Israel in America.
As the song ended, Zidan gave a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew directions to the nearest Kosher restaurant. When the man didn’t understand, the gay Reform Jew (me) showed him the restaurant.
All of this happened in a one-block radius in 5 minutes. It was the best part of my day.
At a time when America is suffering, I can’t help but think that perhaps my former country has something to learn from Israel. I’ve often spoken of ways Israel can learn from America, but I think it’s time to turn the tables for a moment.
Tolerance and coexistence don’t just happen at big elaborate ceremonies or through proclamations.
They happen in our day-to-day lives, when people least notice or expect it. Organically, not by way of grandiose announcements or gestures. If you put yourself out there in your own surroundings, you’d be surprised what you can find.
In some ways, Israelis are much better at this than Americans, probably better than Israelis even realize. I’d love to see my fellow Israelis appreciate the miracle we’re living in.
At a time when Americans are struggling, understandably, to figure out how to repair their society, my advice from Israel is this: living your values in your day-to-day life is the best way to make change. Forget the speeches and the rallies- there may be a time and a place for them, but their impact is temporary and can’t sustain long-term change.
Be the Korean Christian singing for Israelis. Be the Muslim woman swaying to their music. Be the Haredi guy asking directions from an Arab shopkeeper. Be the new immigrant exploring new foods and new cultures.
There’s a lot you can’t control in life, but what you can- enjoy the hell out of it. Look around you, there’s miracles happening everywhere. Just look.