A whole lot more happened today, but that’s what I could fit in a title.
Last night was Passover. Passover in Tel Aviv was amazing. It was my first time celebrating it in the Holy Land and I loved it. As a child, Passover was my favorite holiday (though this year’s Purim in Tel Aviv is giving it a run for its money). It’s a holiday about freedom and especially growing up with abusive relatives, it always had a special meaning for me. About my own potential for freedom one day and all the other oppressed people in the world who I would make that journey with.
Here in Tel Aviv, I went to two seders: one Reform and one LGBTQ. Perhaps one of the few places in the world where you can genuinely “Seder hop”, I walked from one to the other in 10 minutes.
At the first Seder, I met a fellow gay Jew, Oscar, who was Spanish and Swiss and spoke French, Spanish, Gallego, English, and some Hebrew. Pretty amazing to kind of meet a European me! We agreed to meet the next day for lunch in my neighborhood, the “other side” of Tel Aviv.
I had planned on walking him through the refugee and foreign worker neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, which we started to do. Then we looked at the Central Bus Station, arguably one of the grittier buildings in the world, and he said “ugh, it’s so ugly! I hate that place.”
I quickly changed our itinerary to show him the hidden beauty of this chaotic space. Since it was Passover and Shabbat, most things were closed. The most interesting things were still open. An entire area of Filipino restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores was open. Homemade food filled the air with delicious smells. We sat and got some food, including my first-ever Halo Halo, a delightful dessert drink with a million types of toppings and fruit. The woman behind the counter, like most Filipinos here, speaks amazing English and opened her Halo Halo machine just for us 🙂
Passing by a store, I noticed something curious. Inside was a Sri Lankan flag!!! I know this flag because in Washington, D.C., once a year, they open all the embassies for visitors. I had been to the Sri Lankan one and eaten this delicious coconut rice with spicy red sauce. Turns out the woman inside was indeed Sri Lankan! And she told me the name of this delicious dish was Miris and Hal Bat, a name I’d been searching for for years!
The woman was so kind. She’s thinking of opening her own Sri Lankan restaurant in Tel Aviv (friends- keep your eyes pealed!). She grew up Buddhist and then converted to Christianity in Israel. Her husband is from Darfur and I presume Christian (perhaps explaining her conversion). He was super nice and we talked about my favorite Sudanese music.
Heading out, I let Oscar go on his way and I strolled towards Yaffo. There, I bumped into some lost tourists from Belgium. One of whom was exceedingly gorgeous. I gave them a free tour of Florentin and we decided to sit down to coffee. They have two weeks in Israel so I chatted with them for a couple hours and helped them plan their trip. We spoke in a mixture of French and English.
After being so kind as to treat me to my tea, they headed to their hostel and I walked home. On my way home, I saw women…dressed in saris. While this might not be such a strange sight in Suburban Maryland where I grew up (with a lot of Indian friends), it felt kind of random in Tel Aviv. I’ve met Indian Jews here, but there aren’t many in Tel Aviv and I haven’t seen many in traditional clothing.
Because it’s not weird to talk to random people here (like it is in much of America), I went up and asked where they were from. They said they were Indian Christians. They were in Yaffo celebrating Easter. I wished them a Hag Sameach, definitely the first time I’ve used that phrase to wish someone a blessed Easter.
Arriving back in my neighborhood, I saw something strange. A clean store. For those of you who’ve spent time near Hatikvah, you’ll know that my neighborhood has many virtues. Delicious ethnic food, cultural diversity, rare Jewish languages, and a certain warmth to the people. But nobody would say the virtue of my neighborhood is its cleanliness. When I come back from a trip abroad, it takes me a day or two just to get used to the smell again.
I walked up to the store and saw beautifully arranged fruits and vegetables. Seeing as how I was hungry and most restaurants were closed for Passover, I decided to buy some produce.
Turns out it’s a brand new store. Owned by Sudanese Muslims- from Darfur. It’s probably rare for someone in the U.S. (or pretty much anywhere outside of Darfur) to bump into both a Darfuri Christian and a Darfuri Muslim in the same day, blocks apart. Unless they happened to be working with refugees.
I was blessed with the chance to speak Arabic with them, for a few reasons. One, because I love languages and the chance to hear Sudanese Arabic outside of Sudan is pretty rare. It’s a really neat dialect. Also, I wanted to share a message.
I told him: “batmanna inno al-pesakh al-jay, ra7 itkoon 3ankoon 7urriyeh. 3eid al-fisi7 huwwe 3eid al-7urriyeh.” That I hope that next Passover, they will have freedom, because Passover is the Holiday of Freedom. We talked about how I’m working with other olim here to support refugees. And you could see his smile grow by the second. I know where I’ll be shopping more- and it’s a 5 minute walk down the street.
On my way home, I couldn’t help but think about my fantastic Pesach experience. This was undoubtedly the most diverse Passover I’ve ever had. And I grew up in a county that has 4 of the 10 most diverse cities in America. I’m starting to wonder if in some ways, my corner of Tel Aviv is even more diverse.
I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to celebrate this Passover in freedom. Freedom to do it how I want, with whom I want, and where I want. Freedom is a blessing every day you can enjoy it.
I pray and will work for the freedom of the Darfuri men I met today and all refugees. Here and around the world. There are few causes more dear to my heart or so morally clear. Whether these refugees continue to live in Israel, are blessed with a secure country to return to, or move elsewhere, I pray that they are able to live in safety. Nobody- nobody- should be sent to their death. I hope that next year I won’t need to write this blog again because refugees will be given what they need: refuge.
And now to return to the title of this blog. As you may have noticed in the news, many thousands of Gazans, along with some Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Lebanon are protesting. Are they doing it to coincide with Passover, due to its message of freedom? I don’t know, though it would represent perhaps a welcome recognition of our shared existence, even if the timing might serve to stiffen Israelis’ spines rather than inspire empathy. Even if the cause is just, I’m not sure I would choose Ramadan as a time to protest Islamic anti-Semitism. Just like if I’m angry at a friend, I wouldn’t yell at him while he’s studying for a stressful test. Part of communicating is understand when the other person is ready to listen.
I’m not suggesting there’s a particularly ideal time to make the powers that be listen. I’m just saying that if any part of your goal is to reach the Israeli heart, making a Jewish religious holiday a time for protest is going to backfire. Especially when I remember as a teenager, a Palestinian terrorist blew up a Passover seder killing 30 people and injuring 140 more. Even I felt angry about the timing of these protests and I’m rather empathetic to the cause.
I have little doubt that it is miserable to live in Gaza. Unemployment in Gaza, as of 2016, was 42%. For youth, 58%. Child labor is on the rise. The Hamas government is an abysmal filth pit of extreme religious conservatism. At various times, it has banned Palestinian women from dancing, from riding behind men on motor scooters, from smoking in public, from getting haircuts from male barbers, from running in marathons. It even banned New Year’s Eve celebrations in the name of Islam. It has banned Palestinians from reading certain books, from holding hip-hop concerts, and from going to the water park. Already feeling geographically penned-in on both the Israeli and Egyptian borders, I have to imagine that Hamas’s extremist steps only escalate the tension that Gazans feel on a daily basis.
What’s the solution? I’m not honestly sure. Marching to the border with names of their former villages and demanding to “liberate Palestine” is only going to make most Israelis angry. And scared. I’m personally scared for what is happening and what may yet happen. The loss of life, which has already begun, will likely continue on both sides.
I empathize with the anger of many Gazans. Their life sounds suffocating and if we’re totally honest, no government in the region is totally innocent here. People, including children, are suffering.
I also feel that the Palestinians striving for their own freedom need to remember that I, along with my fellow Israelis, have worked hard for our own. We’re not going anywhere. You can come back to Salameh, the Arab village I live on top of, and maybe we can build a life together. That’d be a miracle and maybe it’s not possible due to the hatred all around.
What you cannot do- or at least what I will stop you from doing- is kicking me out. The Palestine of 1947 doesn’t exist anymore. Pieces of it, perhaps. Just like the many Jewish communities around the world destroyed or cleansed by both Muslims and Christians. Which is why we’re here. Just this week, a Muslim man in France stabbed an 85 year old Holocaust survivor to death while shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Stabbed 11 times.
Does this man represent all Muslims? Of course not- and to suggest so is bigoted. But the thing it doesn’t need to be all Muslims for Jews to feel scared. We’re scared.
You’re scared. You don’t like it when Israeli jets bomb your houses. To get terrorists, but ultimately killing innocent Gazans along the way. Inevitable. And sad. And how does the average Palestinian, who only knows Israelis in an army uniform, build a relationship with our culture beyond warfare?
And for Israeli Jews, while we’re blessed with having Arab neighbors in our own country (who frankly we should get to know better), the only image we have these days of a Palestinian is of a terrorist. Or of a more “peaceful” person waving a flag, storming the border fence, claiming to liberate Palestine. From us. Presumably, to kick us out. Back to the world that murdered us over and over and over again.
This blog could continue endlessly. The torment of people here, on all sides, is so, so sad. My friend Hekmet teaches me dabke, a Palestinian and Levantine folk dance. The other day I told him how sad it was to learn about how some Zionist militias destroyed Arab villages. He told me something that both eased my conscience and gave me hope: “Matt, it is sad. And it’s also sad that Jews were kicked out of Middle Eastern countries. In the end, we just have to live together. We can’t only focus on the past.”
The past matters. And so does the present. My sincerest hope is that while knowing our past- as Jews, as refugees, as Israelis, as Arabs, as Palestinians- we can live together in peace. Because re-litigating or liberating or invalidating or denying on any side will just kill and kill.
I don’t want a war here this summer. I’ve come to a point where I like living in Israel. And I want to meet Palestinians who want to build a future of hope together.
If I can take away one message from my Passover today, it’s that it’s possible. Today I spent my holiday with Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And I had a blast.
And not the kind that kills innocent people.
My cover photo is me eating Filipino chicken wings. One day maybe me, refugees, and Palestinians can all eat them together and make a delicious mess 🙂