Ok it’s really four Orthodox Jews, but you’ll get my point.
Last night, I was at a rally for refugee lives in Tel Aviv. It was exhilarating- over 20,000 people. Some estimate 30,000. Considering Israel has only 8 million people, it’s quite sizable. Although being from Washington, D.C., the capital of rallies, it still feels small 🙂 .
On my way home, I wore my yarmulke (head covering). Foremost, because last time I walked home from a rally I got shouted down and followed by hateful people in my neighborhood, which was scary. I have met neighbors for refugee rights and it’s probably a minority position where I live. Since Judaism is a source of privilege here, I felt wearing a yarmulke might afford me a sense of safety from some people who might otherwise be angry at me. People who can’t imagine why a religious Jew would even be at a refugee rally. I suppose once I decided to put it on, I was glad to do so because it made me feel a little bit connected to a religion I increasingly feel distant from. To put my yarmulke to good use for human and Jewish values.
Before I get to what happened on the way home, I’d like to share what happened the other day.
On my way to get kebabs, I heard English in my neighborhood. I was so astounded- I am definitely the only American for several blocks around my house- that I asked the people in Hebrew what language they were speaking.
Turns out, they were Americans from nearby neighborhoods coming for food. Both of them Orthodox Jews. We bantered a bit, they made some uncouth remark about refugees, but honestly nothing too grave considering what I hear in Israel. And other than that, it was fine. I told them I was gay and a Reform Jew, which aroused curiosity- but really nothing beyond that. When I said I was a religious Reform Jew- they simply pondered, asked a few questions, and said “OK cool, do you want to join us for dinner?”
Which brings us back to yesterday. On the way back from the rally, wearing my yarmulke, two Orthodox men approached me to say they didn’t like my signs. They said it was great there was a rally because finally there were enough police to keep the streets safe. They told me: “it’s so hard to raise children here with these Eritreans around.” Right in front of the Eritreans standing next to me.
I told them this: “I grew up with Eritreans in the U.S. and we get along fine. Unlike in Israel, where everyone lives in their little bubble, I’m glad I have friends of different backgrounds. That we learn and play together. Here you have four separate school systems based on religion and race. How many Reform Jews do you even know?”
And the man closest to me says: “None- thank God.”
My heart sunk- and I can’t say I was the least bit surprised because in Israel, I’ve heard this a lot. I said “well you’re talking to one now. I am disappointed by your hatred. In the U.S. I have friends who are secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic.”
He said: “I’m not hateful. Anyways, all of your mixing in the U.S. is why American Jewry is disappearing.”
At this point, I felt the discussion was useless and went to talk to some absolutely lovely Eritreans who exchanged numbers with me. We live down the street from each other and are going to hang out. Our values are infinitely more intertwined than those of the Israeli I just finished speaking with.
If you want to understand in one anecdote the major difference between American and Israeli Jewry- it’s this. Are there open-minded Israeli Orthodox Jews (or Israeli Jews in general)- yes. I regularly do Shabbat with a gay Orthodox Israeli Jew who loves to learn about Reform Judaism.
And are there bigoted American Orthodox Jews (or American Jews in general)? For sure.
Do I believe there is a substantial difference between the two groups’ attitudes? Yes.
In America, by and large, Jews get along. Perhaps better than American Jews even realize. Only by being here in Israel have I realized the degree to which Judaism is different here- and far more divisive. And far too often hateful.
Where two American Orthodox Jews saw my queer and Reform identities as nothing more than curiosity and an entree to a dinner invite, two Israeli Orthodox Jews couldn’t even stand the thought of befriending me. To thank God for not knowing a Reform Jew (let alone an Eritrean)- that’s a true perversion of religion.
It’s important to remember people come in all shapes and sizes, both here and in Israel. I could have turned this blog into an opportunity to hate Orthodox Jews. And believe me, I was very angry last night and felt some of that hatred. Instead, my cover photo is my picture of a Hasidic kids book- based on Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen“. Because I like to look for the unexpected and to try to speak with nuance and understanding.
For many American Jews, pluralism, diversity, and respect are key values- regardless of religious affiliation. And for many Israeli Jews, the idea of a school where an Eritrean, a Reform Jew, and an Orthodox Jew could learn together is so out of the norm, it can barely be imagined. Even if they agree with it.
And that’s exactly the kind of school I grew up at. Eastern Middle School is where I spent my teenage years in Silver Spring, MD. To this day, I remember an Eritrean friend of mine there teaching me about Tigre. And I remember an Orthodox friend who was one of the popular girls bouncing to Backstreet Boys- and who now lives in a Haredi community in London.
And it’s not only “not a big deal”- it’s cool. Living together is nice. It can be challenging and mostly, it’s just interesting. And fun. And enriching. And I personally pray for the day when God will soften the hearts of the two Orthodox men who berated me. So that instead of complaining about their Eritrean neighbors, they might see they have something in common with them. Or even to learn from them.
May it be so. May it be soon.