Today, as you might have seen in the news, was a tense one for Israel. Hamas organized 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza to charge the border fence with Israel, in some cases burning tires, hurling rocks, and even setting Israeli farmland on fire with kites laden with fuel. The army even stopped men planting a bomb. Peaceful protests these were not. They were specifically timed to counter the American Embassy dedication in Jerusalem. No doubt taking advantage of Gazans’ misery and poverty, Hamas chose to direct their attention towards Israel as the source of their problems. While I couldn’t and wouldn’t argue that Israel bears no responsibility for the problems in Gaza, so does Hamas and so does the Palestinian Authority (which is in a feud with Hamas), and so does Egypt which also closes its border to Palestinians. Yet not a single Gazan is charging the Egyptian border. While Hamas feeds people fantastical notions that they will redeem and liberate Palestine (i.e. present-day Israel)- a Palestine that hasn’t existed for 70 years. Its traces here and there but mostly gone. Memory. Sad and true. And complex- because they might still be there if Arabs had agreed to a two-state solution in 1948. And definite gray space because some Arabs were kicked out against their will, even after agreeing to live as Israelis. My heart goes out to my friends living in the villages near Gaza, including my friend at Nahal Oz, just on the border, trying to study for exams with the stench of burning tires surrounding her. I try to mourn the loss of all human life, even those humans who angered me and tried to harm me. I empathize with the families of those Palestinians whose lives were lost today- and hope this sad moment inspires more to seek peace and not violence. So we can all live in safety and tranquility.
In the face of this tense day, I wasn’t sure where to travel. I kind of wanted to go to Jerusalem to see the opening of the new American embassy. As an American-Israeli, it gave me great pride to see my other homeland offering such strength to my country. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and has been in the prayers of Jews for thousands of years. It is also holy to Muslims and Christians. The new embassy is in the western part of the city, Israeli territory since 1948 and not a part of the contested West Bank or East Jerusalem, site of a probably Palestinian capital in a future peace agreement. I’m not a fan of Donald Trump on so, so many issues and I did not vote for him. But I’m grateful to him for his courage on this issue because, whatever his motivations- he is right. We can’t have honest peace negotiations until we recognize that Israel is here- and here to stay. Hopefully alongside a brighter and freer future for Palestinians.
It was late in the afternoon so I couldn’t make it to Jerusalem. Instead, I took the bus to possibly the least touristy place in Israel- Modiin Illit. The city is almost entirely Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, and is located east of the Green Line that demarcates the boundary between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria.
Other than checking with a friend to see if it was safe to visit and reading the Wikipedia article, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, it’s really cool. First off, the Haredim who live are almost entirely Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews- like me! Religiously speaking, they are ultra-Orthodox but different from Hasidim in that they focus more on intellectual learning rather than feeling. Part of my ancestry is Lithuanian so it was kind of like a belated coming home. We both made our way to Israel to reunite 🙂
I’ve spent time in Haredi communities here before, including Bnei Brak (many times) and briefly in Mea Shearim and Tsfat. What was so unique about this community was how green and calm and almost suburban it was. The bus driver was Haredi. The people driving cars were Haredi. There were huge green parks, well-kept and clean. The air was fresh. While the housing was clearly dense due to the large families, there was never a sense of congestion or pressure. It was quite tranquil on an otherwise tense day in my country.
I stopped into a bakery to get some food. While the friendly young man made me a sandwich, a goofy (and really cute) guy was making silly noises. “Artikim 10 shekel, leShabbaaaaAAAT!” Making fun of some guy who sells 10 shekel popsicles on Fridays. He had all these silly voices and everyone was just laughing. I joked with the employees that he should do PR for the restaurant. Incidentally, one of the employees told me he put their bakery on Google Maps- which, to his delight, is exactly how I found it.
When I told one of the guys I was American, to my great surprise he said: “what are you doing here? Why wouldn’t you stay in America?” This is a response I’ve gotten from many, many (mostly secular) Israelis. A kind of envy of America’s wealth and opportunity. At no point had I heard this from an Orthodox Jew here, who view this as the Promised Land. An obvious choice for a Jew.
He was quite serious about it- he wanted me to find him a job as a mashgiach, or a Kosher certifier. I told him I didn’t know of anything, but that I’d look into giving him my passport. We laughed.
As I headed out, I noticed a sign: “Matityahu”. This was really cool for me to see because my name in English- Matthew- that’s from Matityahu in Hebrew. So all of a sudden I started seeing signs with my name everywhere- in Hebrew! Turns out there is a village next to Modiin Illit by my very name.
I walked up the hill and found it to be stunning. Apparently a lot of Americans live there, so if I can’t be in Jerusalem for the opening, at least I could be with my kin 😉
I noticed a very attractive 20-something Orthodox guy. A woman was taking pictures of her daughters, he said he was jealous because nobody took pictures of him! I laughed and said I’d take one. And I did. And it turned out really cute and he agreed.
Because this is Israel, we then talked for about two hours. He grew up Orthodox and now identifies as a Breslover Hasid. He went through periods of intense doubt approaching atheism and has many secular friends. He says at this point, more than Orthodox. He serves in the army. And he’s trying to open his own business.
One of the things that alarmed me about Israelis at first, but now I love as one, is that we get down to the point. No lame chit-chat- tell me who you are, what you’re about, what you believe, what you want. You get to the meat of a person very quickly and can figure out how to relate to them and connect.
In this case, Shmuel (pseudonym) and I talked about everything. I came out as a gay Reform Jew (not a trivial thing in the middle of an Orthodox settlement alone). He said he had never met an openly gay person before, but didn’t show the slightest bit of phobia or aggression. Mostly curiosity. As a Haredi Jew, he had ideological issues with both Reform Judaism and homosexuality- but was utterly open to hearing what I had to say about them. And I really felt listened to- and I listened to him. There wasn’t the slightest bit of disrespect nor hatred. We laughed, we debated, we walked- it was nice. He looks good in a kippah, it’s a shame he’s not gay 😉
We talked about his shidduch dates (he’s too busy for them, plus he has the army, and he doesn’t want to feel pressured). We talked marijuana (he smokes but says a lot of people don’t approve). He reads a lot of modern literature about business and how to grow your intellect. The most important thing for him in a partner is someone who wants to grow, something I found really admirable.
He gave me a ride to the gate so I could catch the bus. I encouraged him to read Orthodox rabbis’ opinions on homosexuality because there are some that are increasingly accepting. He said he didn’t know about it but he’d check it out. Without any resistance to my suggestion.
Shmuel has had trouble praying. He goes to synagogue but he just can’t read the words, it feels forced to him and he wants it to feel real again when he’s ready. I offered him a suggestion: “praying isn’t just what you do in a synagogue. Praying is what we’re doing now. Two Jews, two people from very different backgrounds talking together, learning from each other, growing together. Realizing we have a lot more in common than we thought. And choosing to listen and debate rather than rip apart each other’s differences.”
He nodded and then he asked: “I forgot to ask, what’s your name?”
I said: “Matt in English, Matah in Hebrew”.
“Pleasure to meet you”
“You too man!”
On a day when the world sat fixated on CNN sated with blood and terror, a Hasidic Jewish settler and a gay Reform Tel Avivi had a really nice chat.
Now you know the news they don’t report. Don’t give up hope 😉
p.s.- my cover photo is of Breslover graffiti I found in Bnei Brak. The rainbow filter is my addition 😉