This morning, I felt like crap. Making aliyah is hard. I’m far away from my friends and my D.C. Jewish community. I’m alone. I’m adapting to a new culture and country.
To shake off the blues, I decided to go on a tiyyul (trip) to Ramle (which can also be spelled Ramla). A small and fairly poor town, it’s not usually on Israeli or foreign tourist maps. I went several hours without seeing a single tourist. And that’s exactly what I needed- somewhere a little quieter and off the beaten path to unwind from the hectic and exciting energy that is Tel Aviv.
First off, Ramle reminds me of the D.C. suburbs where I grew up. It’s quiet, has about 70,000 residents (almost identical to where I lived before Israel), it’s calm, and it’s diverse. Much like Montgomery County where I’m from, there are mosques, synagogues, and lots of churches. I kind of miss seeing churches sometimes. Ramle is a “mixed city”, meaning there are significant Jewish and Arab populations (and even Karaites!).
I started my adventure at what American Jews might call a “tchotchke store”- odds and ends. What immediately caught my eye were tons of cheap CD’s- of music I adore. For 10 NIS a piece ($2.80), I bought Jewish music from Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco. As I paid for my CD’s, I noticed all sorts of amulets knows as hamsas. Some were in Hebrew, obviously for Jews. Yet I noticed some in Arabic. I asked the store owners, who themselves were Russian Jews, whether the Arabic hamsas were for Arabs or Mizrachi Jews or both. They gave the most beautiful answer: “they’re for everyone. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all need protection from the evil eye.”
I then made my way to an Indian restaurant owned by Indian Jews. It’s vegetarian and closed on Shabbat, which makes it Kosher in my book, but I’m not sure if it has a teudat kashrut. I badly miss the ethnic cuisines of America- especially Thai (no, the Thai food in Tel Aviv is not that great), Chinese (cheap, delicious Chinese food of Rockville Pike), and Indian. As soon as I entered the place, I knew I had made the right decision. The smells wafted over me as I began to smile. I sat down by myself and ordered pakora, palak paneer, and naan. The waiter’s Hebrew wasn’t strong so I spoke to him in English.
At this point, a woman came over to me and asked if I was American. Turns out, not only is she American too, she’s a half-Persian half-Indian Jew from…Bethesda, Maryland! Exactly where I lived before making aliyah! And she knows one of my rabbis from D.C. The odds of this happening are infinitesimally small. She’s a tourist, I don’t even live in Ramle. There are 6 million American Jews and over 326 million Americans spread across 50 states. What are the odds! Reminds me of that famous Hebrew school song “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish“. It’s cool to be part of an international 3,000 year old club.
After this amazing coincidence, I walked through a bustling marketplace, where unlike in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv there are no tourist traps. Just lots of grapes and candy and tomatoes. I stumbled upon a Turkish synagogue and then a Tunisian one. Without asking permission (because that’s how we do in Israel), I just walked in and talked to the janitor who is also a congregant. His name is Zion and he grew up in the synagogue. He made aliyah from Tunisia at age 5. He showed me an original Torah scroll, hundreds of years old, brought from Tunisia. He also handed me a book which had all the traditional Tunisian Jewish piyyutim (liturgical poems). Everything in the synagogue was handcrafted and beautiful, including the stained glass. I told him maybe I’d come pray with them some day. What a treat.
As I walked by a Crusader monastery, I heard a car blasting Middle Eastern music. I thought it was Arabic music, since the town is 20% Arab. But as I listened more closely, I realized it was Mizrachi music, the music of Middle Eastern Jews. That’s Ramle for you- a town where you don’t know exactly whose culture the music belongs to. Where ethnic boundaries are blurred and mixed. Where Russians sell Arabic amulets, where Tunisian Jews pray next to Turkish Jews, where mosques and churches dot the landscape next to synagogues. Where Indian Jews prepare American olim kosher curry.
Some people might say there’s not a lot to see in Ramle. To which I’d say I suppose it depends on what you want to see.
As my bus headed back, all I know is my eyes gazed more towards the fields around the town than towards the skyscrapers awaiting me on the coast.