Some of you may know that a couple weeks ago, I finally found a long-term apartment. Everything about my identity- being Reform, being American, being progressive, and being queer- should lead me to live in the more secular center and north of the city. But I feel utterly blessed that I ended up in the south.
When I first moved to my neighborhood (whose name I won’t reveal over the internet), I was apprehensive. I knew absolutely no one there and there were posters advertising Shas concerts everywhere. There are almost no young secular/Reform Ashkenazi people and I have yet to see a pride flag. There are no pubs, nightclubs, cafes with WiFi- it is quiet. Part of that is the beauty of the place and why I chose to live there. Though at times, it was so quiet I felt lonely.
Today, I had no plans for Shabbat. I had plans Saturday night, but during the day I figured I’d wander around and get to know my neighborhood. And then I heard a boom. And a tap tap. Boom. And a tap tap…it was a darbuka! I stepped outside and heard loud clapping and drumming and singing coming from across the street. Not the utterly depressing slow moan of westernized Israeli rock (sorry guys- I do like some of it, but mostly it makes me want to cry!). But rather the boom boom and ululating of Middle Eastern music.
I’m an outgoing guy, so I simply stood outside and listened- and as seems to be the Israeli custom, they immediately invited me inside. When I say invited- I don’t mean a polite “how do you do?” and offering a cup of tea. No- I was ushered into a room of 20 people, given a Mexican sombrero, plied with food and drink- all while I danced with people I just met to beautiful, soul-stirring Mizrachi music.
It was amazing and overwhelming all at the same time. While I danced, the uncle tried to get me to drink whiskey (I don’t drink), then the cousin handed me pitas with hot dogs in them (which I shook while I danced), then the grandfather told me over and over again to keep eating! I was living my dream of being in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Then, the most amazing thing happened. The family asked me what song I’d like to sing. I am an avid Mizrachi music fan. This music is, hands down, the most unique cultural product to ever come out of Israel, although many (sometimes racist) Israelis wouldn’t realize that. This music was born out of a fusion of the traditional Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Ladino, and Persian music brought by Jews to Israel in the 40s and 50s. It then used the best of the West- drum sets, synthesizers, and electric guitars to imitate traditional instruments. Add in a dose of Israeli folk tunes along with elements of Ashkenazi melodies and voila, you have the first “world music” before “world music” even existed!
So as I stood there, the first song that came to mind was “Mabruk aleek”. It’s an Arabic-language wedding song. And there I was dancing, having an absolute blast. As with most things in Israel, life can go from quiet and lonely to exciting and heart-warming in the matter of seconds.
I was told I could sit and eat now- as relative after relative brought me food and water and food and water. But things only got better- I discovered my new adoptive family is half Syrian and half Iraqi. And with the exception of the youngest generation- everyone in the room speaks Arabic! I specifically studied Syrian Arabic in college in the U.S. with a professor from Damascus- and now with Syrian refugees on Skype. It was a dream come true! Everyone’s smiling with each Arabic word I say. And I’m spending Shabbat with Jews- in Arabic!! For an American Ashkenazi Jew, this is a surreal experience, and one I’ll never forget (though I’ve been invited to come again over and over- so I doubt it’ll be the last!).
Then we moved to another room so I could meet the other 15 relatives. I was asked at least three or four times if I was married, but the final time it was because they wanted to set me up with someone’s daughter. The first few times I laughed off the question, but now I had a choice to make. In the living room where we were banging on darbukas and recording videos on cell phones (things Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews don’t do on Shabbat), there were also at least half a dozen pictures of a rabbi who I presume was Rav Ovadia, who founded the Haredi Shas party. Let’s just say the party isn’t generally a big fan of gays, Reform Jews, or really most of the things that people in the north of Tel Aviv support.
So I debated internally and did something brave: “you can set me up with her daughter, but it won’t work because I’m gay.” I looked around and asked: “are you in shock?” And without skipping a beat, one of the aunts says to me: “oh no, we have that in our family too.” I started to smile as relative after relative starts thinking of men to set me up with. One of the younger relatives actually pulls out her phone, calls her friend, and gets me the number of a gay guy to help me make friends in the community.
After helping one of the men download an app on his phone to turn YouTube videos into Mp3’s (he loves everything from Eyal Golan to Umm Kulthum), I hung out with the youngest kids- two 10-year-old girls. We danced to Justin Bieber on the street and made funny videos.
Before I left, I was of course given a full container of homemade Iraqi kubbeh and rice. They told me to come by whenever and one of the little girls even said, “come every Shabbat!” at least three times. They took my number and said they’d introduce me to the neighbors, show me where I can volunteer, and feed me a lot.
My neighborhood is a lot browner, a lot more Middle Eastern, a lot more Arabic-speaking, and a lot more working-class than North Tel Aviv. And you know what? That’s not only “OK” by me- it’s fucking amazing. Because the 14-year-old me who went by himself to a Sarit Hadad concert in Maryland is smiling from ear to ear. Mizrachi music- Mizrachi culture- isn’t something new for me. It’s something that, from the first days of when I learned Modern Hebrew after my Bar Mitzvah, gave me hope in dark times and energy and smiles. It connected me to my Judaism and to Israel itself.
Unfortunately, there are many Israelis now and back in the early days of the State who are avidly racist against Mizrachim. Even Mizrachi music was banned from the radio by the government in its early days. And to the surprise perhaps of some of my fellow progressive American Jewish friends- this racism largely comes from secularized “progressive” Jews of Ashkenazi origin. The kind who write for Haaretz or sit on the Supreme Court- two of our favorite institutions.
But let’s move beyond the politics. What I’m trying to say is my neighborhood- this is not where the tourists are. This is not where the wealthy people are. This is not “trendy” and it’s not French-Vietnamese vegan fusion food. These are people who have fought for their cultural and economic existence- and are here to tell the tale. These are people whose Sephardic Judaism has a remarkable fluidity- even queerness- to it.
God bless them. Because when a lonely newly-minted Israeli stumbled outside his house today, he didn’t just meet his neighbors. He met family.
Because for all the beautiful luxury penthouses in North Tel Aviv, there’s one thing money can’t buy.