Today was Friday. Friday in Israel is the weekend, so I had the whole day to relax. The problem was I couldn’t get myself to leave the house. This has been a pattern lately. Granted there isn’t a whole lot to do on a Friday afternoon because most things close for the Sabbath, but it’s best to get out of the house a bit.
After several hours of hemming and hawing I realized why I didn’t want to go out. I was afraid of Israelis and don’t like spending time with them. I am tired of being yelled at for no reason. Or being told not to feel my feelings. Or being cheated. Or being lectured at about why Israel is great and being lectured at about why Israel is terrible. Being told Americans are fake, Arabs are terrorists, Haredim are leeches, and on and on and on and on. It’s just exhausting and I’m over it. There are reasons for it and it doesn’t justify the behavior. Some Israelis like to say they treat it each other “like family” which is why they’re so hard on each other. To which I say if that’s how you treat your family, you need a therapist. Take it from someone who has one. It’s messed up. And it’s only here.
So after looking at flights to Cyprus (they’re cheap!) and almost booking a flight, I realized I was just too tired to get everything ready. If I wanted to hang out with non-Israelis, I needed another plan.
Remembering a few pleasant visits to Neve Sha’anan, an immigrant neighborhood, I headed that way. When I say immigrant, I mean non-Jews. Name a nationality and they’re there. Just tonight, with minimal effort, I met a Moldovan, a Tibetan, Turkish Muslims, Hindu Nepalis, an Eritrean, a Gujarati, and yes- one Israeli, a Kavkazi Jew. He was the only Israeli I talked to all night- and it felt great.
I started the night off at a Nepali restaurant eating the best momos I’ve had in Israel. Momos are Nepalese dumplings, but quite different from the Chinese variety most people know. They have intriguing spices and a spicy red sauce and are delightful. I used to eat them all the time in D.C., which has a large Nepalese community and some fantastic restaurants. At $5 for 10 dumplings, they were a steal and infinitely better than the shit momos I have eaten in Israeli Tel Aviv for at least twice the cost.
I chatted with some nice Turkish Muslim men about Tarkan (one of my favorite Turkish singers, in their words a “superstar”). I pulled out my few Turkish words and between them, English, and Hebrew, we had a fun conversation. I then noticed the chef was wearing a Tibet shirt. Tibet is a place and cause dear to my heart. Tibetans are persecuted much the way Jews have been over the centuries. They have a beautiful culture and I admire Tibetan Buddhism. Plus the amazing food. When I lived in D.C., I would visit the International Campaign for Tibet headquarters and camp out in their basement library and read. I also participated in their Tibet Lobby Day a few years ago alongside Tibetan-Americans to convince Congress to support human rights.
Turns out the chef is actually Tibetan. I didn’t expect to meet a Tibetan in Tel Aviv, but here he was! We talked about khatas, his excellent momos, and my favorite Tibetan singer, Ani Choying Drolma, who I saw in concert in D.C. I first got to know her music via the Tibet Store in D.C. and grew even closer to her as I discovered she’s a fellow abuse survivor and just a beautiful human being.
The Tibetan guy, the Kavkazi Jew, and I took a cute selfie (probably the first time that sentence has ever been said!):
As I left the restaurant, I heard the most beautiful music. I saw a light and some signs and headed down a ramp. Next thing I knew, I was in Nepal! Surrounded by beautiful saris and offerings and chatter in Nepalese, I felt at ease. People were so kind. They let me take pictures of their shrine and to pray at it. Which I did. Because my Judaism- and frankly my spirituality- extends to the best of all faiths. Why limit myself with such beauty at my doorstep?
The only non-Nepali in the room, I aroused some curiosity. Most of which resulted in huge smiles, a ton of free food, and some great conversation. More than any other time in Israel, I felt treated like a human being. There wasn’t one raised voice, aside from an occasional emphatic part of the priest’s sermon, when everyone raised their hands in enthusiasm. Like a Baptist church, but a little calmer, and full of the smell of incense.
Everyone spoke Nepalese, English, and Hebrew. English far, far better than the average Israeli, with a beautiful accent. While for some people this might be an exotic experience (and certainly finding it in Tel Aviv was a surprise), for me it reminded me of home. Back in D.C. I spent a lot of time exploring the Nepali community. Every weekend, I would tune in to the local MHz program “Nepal Darshan Television”. It’s a program produced in the Washington area for Nepalis (and me). The beautiful scenery of the country enchanted me. I will visit that place before I die. Lumbini in particular calls to me, the birthplace of Lord Buddha.
In addition, my friend Kristle and I for several years would go to Lhochar, the Tamang New Year celebration. The Tamang in America are a minority within a minority (like me, as a queer Jew). An ethnically Tibetan group in Nepal, they speak their own language in addition to Nepalese. And they are Buddhist whereas most of the country is Hindu. Although they frequently go to each other’s festivals, in a good example for the people of this region.
Kristle is a black Caribbean-American and I’m a queer Jewish-American. We became friends on the Obama campaign in 2008 in Florida, where she was my intern. And then became my friend 🙂 . We would get tickets to Lhochar through our friend who owned a Nepalese restaurant. And it was amazing. Buddhist priests would bless us. Dancers would perform. A people preserving their culture within a culture in a foreign land. It warms my heart- they’re my people. And I pray for their success.
Going back to the Nepalese event, I met a guy named Padam. We got to chatting and he asked if I spoke Hebrew. I said yes and he said he also spoke Arabic (along with Japanese and Korean). I asked how. He said he learned it in Kuwait. Probably as a migrant worker- I’m not an expert, but I’ve heard the working conditions can be pretty terrible. Then I surprised him by responding in Arabic. And here we were- in the most sacred moment I’ve had in this land- a Jewish American and a Nepali speaking Arabic. We had a belly laugh about it. It’s worthy of a shehecheyanu– the blessing Jews say for the first time something happens. Because if you know another Jew and Nepali who speak in Arabic, feel free to let me know 🙂
As I headed out, I noticed music playing from a cell phone store. I recognized the melodies but couldn’t place it. I listened and listened and then approached the salesman. “This is Vietnamese music, isn’t it?” “Yes! How did you know?” I just smiled. I know Vietnamese music- I listen to it. I’ve bought many CD’s in Annandale, Virginia- Little Saigon.
Next to his Arab coworker was a sign. I had to read it twice to make sure I could believe my eyes. Here it is:
That’s right- in Tel Aviv, there is a Tamang association. Even as I write it, I feel it is a miracle. If God speaks, this was how. And through the magic we make between each other- the improbable. The Nepali who speaks Arabic with me and the Arab store owner who has a Tamang sign in his doorway.
With an enthusiasm that words cannot describe, I asked him to give my phone number to the organization. I even explained to him a bit in Arabic about the Tamang- almost certainly a first in this land. He gave me a nice smile and we said ma3 asaalameh.
This is only a taste of this night. I danced with an Eritrean guy to Tigrinya music in a supermarket while I bought Thai sauces for pad see ew. I told a Moldovan woman my great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and she eagerly told her co-workers in Romanian. Her smile grew when I asked if she was from Chisinau- her hometown.
People often ask “what I do” with my languages and my knowledge of culture. People tell me to work for the CIA or the Mossad. That wouldn’t work so well since I’m pretty much a pacifist- but people insist nonetheless as if they know what’s best for me. Better than I do. This is all you have to know- what I did tonight, that’s what I do with my languages. I explore cultures, I make friends, I learn, I bring joy. I’m the multilingual Ba’al Shem Tov so while you dream about how much money I could make helping the government, I’m going to be hanging out with my neighbors eating momos as the sounds of Hindu prayer fill the air. Smiling as we connect heart to heart. Because that’s what life’s about. It’s not about your paycheck or your business card or the size of your apartment.
It’s about the size of your heart.
One of the reasons I came to Israel was to live with my people. What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have one. I have many. God leaves little miracles waiting for you where you least expect it. Keep your eyes open and your heart warm and who knows what- or who- awaits you.
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