And it’s not for the reason you think 😉
Last night, after a day of doctor’s appointments (including randomly cancelled ones), I didn’t want to eat dinner alone. I felt immense gratitude for the Israeli healthcare system- I didn’t pay a dime for my visits. And also running from doctor’s office to doctor’s office isn’t the most relaxing experience, though I did get a solid hour at the beach in Herzliya, which is stunning. Can’t say I ever got to watch the sea while hustling between meetings in Washington, D.C.
I have a favorite (well, two favorite) restaurants in Bnei Brak, a Haredi (ultra-Othodox) city outside Tel Aviv. I knew I wanted to see my friend Yisrael who works at one. He always warms my heart. The thing about Yisrael is he’s kind of a mystical Hasid- I keep forgetting the name of his restaurant but every month or two I manage to find my way there. In the past month, I so wanted to see him that I started calling restaurants in Bnei Brak asking for Yisrael (a futile task- there are a lot of Yisraels in Bnei Brak). I couldn’t find him! But I knew he was there.
So last night I wandered. I went to a shtiebl, a small synagogue (with a whole bunch of rooms). Outside, they always have ridiculously cheap Jewish books. Nice Jewish books. I got an old, beautiful one for 5 shekels that has the Torah in Hebrew with Yiddish commentary. That’s $1.39. There’s nothing better in the world. And nowhere better to be a Jew.
As I perused Hasidic CD’s at the store next door, a young man in a black hat asked me where the shtiebl was. And I pointed him to the building to my right and said: “you’re here”. Bnei Brak is not a tourist destination for me, it’s a part of my life.
I was getting hungry so I headed to what I *thought* was Yisrael’s restaurant, only to find a grumpy man. When I asked for Yisreal’s whereabouts, he asked me: “what do you want, Mashiach?” The messiah? Eventually after some prodding, he did know about the restaurant (competition?) and I headed up the street. As soon as I saw the sign, I knew I had arrived. Some things you feel your way towards.
Yisrael greeted me with the biggest hug ever. He is so so warm! He overloaded my plate with salmon and kugel and pasta and I grabbed a seat. Yisrael periodically chimes in when I talk with other people. The people I sat down with were a Yemenite Jew and a 16 year old Litvak, or Lithuanian Jew. I’m part Lithuanian- we’re probably cousins. Not a metaphor- we probably are related.
Here’s the shocking thing- the kid doesn’t speak Yiddish. Well, he understands some but his parents mostly speak it (and English) so he can’t understand. Interestingly, Eliezer (pseudonym) also knows how to count in Arabic. Pretty damn well. He says he learned from undocumented Palestinian workers who live in the city.
Meanwhile, the Yemenite guy- he speaks astoundingly good Yiddish! As does his father. From living with Ashkenazi Hasidic friends. He even understands the nuances of Litvish and southern Yiddish dialects. We had a lot to talk about. Including my love for Yemenite language and culture. I just recently bought Yemenite Judeo-Arabic books and music from a store in Bnei Brak. So we sat there, me and the Yemenite guy, helping to teach the Lithuanian Jew some Yiddish. Find me that in another country.
The Yemenite guy had to go back to Jerusalem, so I sat with Eliezer. Eliezer is a precocious kid. He goes to yeshiva all day. He has 10, yes 10, siblings. And, he says, he likes it. It’s fun. When I asked if it’s ever quiet, he laughed and said “maybe around 2am”.
Eliezer was enchanted by something you might not expect. I needed to charge my phone so I pulled out my brand new portable charger. He was enamored. Not because he had never seen one. Lehefech, to the contrary, he knew it inside and out. And he doesn’t even have a phone. He grabs it from me and starts teaching me how to use it. Things I didn’t even know about it. So once he had found a new way to charge my phone, he asked me how much it was. 150 shekels. Oy, I don’t have that kind of money. And I bet he doesn’t- while his dad is the head of two yeshivas, 11 kids is a lot of mouths to feed.
But Eliezer is not easily deterred. He wanted to see my smartphone. I got a bit nervous- not just because generally I don’t like children browsing my cell phone- but also because I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it. I was wearing a small black yarmulke and they knew I was from Tel Aviv and not Hasidic. But the last thing I wanted was for little Eliezer to stumble upon a racy WhatsApp chat (yes he opened my WhatsApp) or something he’d find not so “kosher” and it might ruin my vibe in the restaurant.
I showed him pictures of my hiking in Haifa, which he loved. But what he really wanted was to go to eBay. Yes, eBay. The kid who doesn’t have a phone, let alone a smartphone, knew what eBay was and that that would be where he could find a portable charger. He browsed through the list of chargers with ease. He knew the megahertz or whatever. I don’t even know what he was talking about. He spent a good minute or two looking, but nothing suited him. He knows he doesn’t have the money now, but he wanted to see what was out there. A curious kid, like I was.
I told him he could work a little on the side to make some money. He said he already owed some friends money, including this restaurant. His dad won’t let him work because the dad wants them to be “super strong” Haredim. I told him people worked in the Torah, that Haredim work in Bnei Brak, like Yisrael. He knows- in fact, he said if his father permitted it, he’d consider working. But as a 16 year old, he doesn’t have much say in the matter and it’s his family. What’s he supposed to do?
We had a good laugh about many things- he has a great sense of humor. I told him he’d make a great stand-up comedian, and he smiled.
As the evening drew to a close (11pm on a weeknight- Bnei Brak is not a sleepy suburb), another Hasid asked Yisrael why I made aliyah. Yisrael, who I met not long after I arrived here almost a year ago, recounted in perfect detail all the reasons I had told him. 9 months ago. With a depth of emotion and appreciation that warmed my heart. I know Yisrael is happy I’m here and I’m grateful he’s in my life. The other Hasid, seeing how I talked and hearing my story said: “atah yehudi cham”. You’re a warm Jew, a Jew with heart.
Knowing Eliezer owed the restaurant money and grateful for his companionship and his humor, I bought him dinner. Before I left, Yisrael asked me for my phone number. He wants to call me from time to time, see how I’m doing. From his Kosher phone.
Before I left, I told Yisrael I missed him and I’d be back. He knew. And he said: “there’ll be two here waiting for you,” as Eliezer winked at me.
I headed back to Tel Aviv with a warm tummy. Not just because of the delicious kugel, but because the people I spent my night with filled me with warmth and love.
When I was a kid, I was curious about Orthodox Judaism. I wanted to go to a service. My family wouldn’t let me because they said Orthodox Jews aren’t feminist. While my family members abused me– which I don’t find particularly feminist either.
The fact is coming to Israel has allowed me to build a relationship with Hasidic Judaism. In fact, all kinds of Judaism- Mizrachi, traditional, Israeli Reform, secular, Litvish- everything. It’s the one place on the planet where we all come together. And you’ll find a Yemenite speaking Yiddish.
Some people tell me it’s ludicrous for me to spend time with Hasidim. I’m gay, I’m Reform, I’m progressive- they’d hate me if they knew who I was. But they’re wrong. There are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man in Hasidic communities. And there are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man with secular people, and certainly times I feel uncomfortable as a religious person. There are times I feel uncomfortable as a Jew with Arabs. Or as an Arabic-speaker with Jews.
Should I live my life in a ghetto where I only go where no prejudice exists? Where there’s no conflict? Where everyone agrees with me?
Guess what? No such place exists. Anywhere. Not in Tel Aviv, not in Bnei Brak, not in Ramallah. The fact is we’re people. And some places are more comfortable than others, for certain aspects of what I believe and how I am. And, I get something out of pretty much everywhere I go.
Do I wish the Hasidic community was more gay-friendly? Yes. I’d probably spend more time there. Do I think things are changing and that the community is not monolithic? Absolutely, as I found earlier this week when I met a gay-friendly Hasid.
And I also believe that the fact that I’m gay isn’t a reason for me not to embrace my Hasidism. Yeah, I’m kind of Hasidic. And Haredi. And Modern Orthodox. And Reform. I connect to all sorts of things. So why should I give up what I love about Hasidic Judaism to satisfy a secular militant in Tel Aviv who believes my identity should be held hostage to their “tolerance”?
The point is we’re all entitled to enjoy what we enjoy. I like Haredi Bnei Brak. I like Druze villages. And Christian ones and Muslim ones and gay pride parades in Tel Aviv. I like my neighbors with Shas rabbis posted all over their house, who set me up with guys. Each one of these communities, some more than others, poses challenges for me. And has something unique to offer.
Lately I’ve been questioning if I want to keep living in Tel Aviv. Do I want to move North? I love Haifa and the Galilee and the Golan. So peaceful, green, co-existency, Arabic-speaking. That part of me flourishes there. But what about Tel Aviv? The convenience, the energy, the international vibe, the interesting cities like Bnei Brak that surround it? Not to mention its gay life. And Jerusalem- probably not going to live there, but don’t want to be too far. Its history and spiritual vibe pulls me in and fills me with wonder.
In the end, what I’ve decided is where you live is not where you pay rent. That’s an aspect. Where you live is where you step, where you spend time, where you laugh, where you hike, where you pray. Where you live is where you bring joy into the world and where you feel filled with wonder. Even where you cry.
I can’t live anywhere in Israel. Because I live everywhere.
p.s.- that’s me sticking my tongue out in Kiryat Tivon, the most non-Haredi place in Israel, because I’m going to have a good time wherever I go!