When I was 13 years old, as a typical American Jewish teenager, I had a Bar Mitzvah. At this point, many a kid drops out of Hebrew school and doesn’t return to synagogue except for maybe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
I, on the other hand, loved Hebrew school. I had several truly awesome teachers and I think my energy and passion for my tradition made me a favorite student. Especially since so many kids hated it!
When I finished my Bar Mitzvah, I knew I wanted to keep learning at synagogue. But I wanted something more- I wanted to learn the language of my people: Hebrew.
I approached an Israeli teacher and asked if she’d give me private lessons. She did- and that’s why I speak pretty baller Hebrew for someone who’s lived in Israel for 6 months. Because at age 13, I knew that’s what I wanted and I went for it. It’s a unique and brave decision that changed my life. Without it, I doubt I would’ve made aliyah.
I remember that my Hebrew teacher gave me a gift- I forget for what. Maybe her sister had been in Israel or something. In any case, she gave me a CD- one of Sarit Hadad’s first albums (the one in the cover photo- the rainbow is my addition 😉 ). She herself wasn’t a fan (of the music or Mizrachim), but it didn’t matter- I loved it.
The CD moved. It moved me physically- the rhythms were infectious. I danced all over my room and blasted it in my discman. It moved me emotionally- her songs were about empowerment and love and doing what you feel like. Growing up with an inescapable bunch of toxic relatives, it was just the medicine I needed. And it powered me through many hard times and gave me hope and happiness.
A couple years into my Hebrew lessons, I found out Sarit Hadad was coming to Rockville, Maryland- where I grew up. She was performing at Montgomery College in a small auditorium. And at age 14 or 15- I went. Alone.
And I had the time of my life. Me and mostly a bunch of Israeli expats shimmied and danced and sang. It was freedom, it was love, it was my newfound identity.
Over the years as I learned more Hebrew, saw more Israeli films, traveled to Israel, made Israeli friends, ate the food, and embraced the culture- the Mizrachi music Sarit inspired me to love was there. Every step of the way.
As Sarit became more popular, her songs got more and more poppy (and less and less Georgian/Arabic/Mizrachi). Personally, I love her old stuff the most- the CD of her live show in France is one that I played over and over again in my living room as a teenager. I also used to (and still do!) belt out her old version of Inta Omri. It’s incredible- I watched it with my Syrian neighbors last Shabbat.
In addition, as I explored other Mizrachi singers (and I more and more associated Sarit with some of the tougher times in my life), I drifted a bit from her music, although it was never far. Her songs were particularly popular at Israeli dancing, which I’ve done for some 15 years.
Which brings us to tonight. On Facebook, I found a party that was entirely dedicated to songs by Sarit Hadad. While not an explicitly gay party, it definitely had that vibe (both by featuring a female singer and the way it was advertised). In Tel Aviv, many parties are mixed queer and straight.
I was ecstatic but unsure of what to expect. I went alone- which is hard in any country, especially a new one.
And boy did it pay off. Once the music started booming, I found fun people to dance with. Over the course of about 3-4 hours of Sarit’s songs (and some other singers), I think there were 2 or 3 songs I didn’t know the words to. It brought me back to the earliest days of my Israeli identity and to my teenage passion for it. It brushed the dust off and brought them back into my heart.
And yes, there were a shitton of queer people, which only made it more awesome.
I shimmied, I swiveled my hips, I shook my bootay, I waved my hands, I shouted every single lyric. And it was fabulous.
As I headed home, I thought about this amazing transformation. How music I listened to 18 years ago helped sustain me, build me an Israeli identity, and bring me to this very country to enjoy it, against all odds.
Like Mizrachi music, like Sarit herself- I am a survivor. I’ve done the unthinkable in making aliyah and building my Israeli identity from the 7th grade- pretty much on my own (and often with the opposition of toxic relatives). And despite the cries of the loads of Israelis who hate Mizrachi music- often for prejudiced reasons- I love it to death.
Because sometimes Israel sucks. Air raid sirens, bureaucracy, terrorism, racism, and not a small amount of difficult people.
But you know what? Israel is also tonight. Israel is the free-spirited fun of Mizrachi culture. Israel is me looking back at 13 year old Matt Adler and saying- it’s going to be okay. Because no matter how bad things seem now, you’re going to power through, you’re going to pray, you’re going to dance, you’re going to listen to beautiful music.
And you’re going to make it like Moses to the Promised Land. To spend the night of your life dancing to your teenage tunes- the ones you chose to listen to. Among queer people. Among your people.
And nothing, my friends, is sweeter than that. I’m here, I’m queer, kululu!