As a child of the Washington D.C. area, I grew up in a very “progressive” environment. In some senses, it was great. There’s an extraordinary diversity of food, languages, and cultures that I think helped me keep an open mind about the world. On the flip side, I think a lot of black-and-white thinking predominated. While progressives- and I’ve spent most of my life being quite an active one- love to rail against right-wing conservatives, they sometimes hold just as harsh judgments. About Mormons, about evangelicals, about religious people in general. About country music and rural people and southern accents.
And these days, Israel. Lately my Facebook feed and the news have looked like some sort of horror movie. People abroad who I thought actually liked my country have come out of the woodwork with all sorts of hatred and ignorance. Often in the name of “progressive values”. There’s the non-Jewish guy who used to come to a Hebrew group in D.C. We loved him and he said he loved Israel. And then I saw such hateful and gruesome content on his Facebook that I just had to end it. I won’t for a second deny the challenges nor the pain of the situation in Gaza- nor will I put the blame exclusively on Israel’s doorstep. Not when Egypt maintains its own blockade, not when the Palestinian Authority stops paying its people there due to a feud with Hamas, and certainly not when Hamas plants bombs on our border so they can massacre us. Or in the words of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, they will “eat the livers” of those besieging the Strip. I assume he means us, because I haven’t seen a single protest against Egypt. Jews love chopped liver, just not the kind that comes from our bodies. We’ll protect ourselves, thank you.
The point is I was often taught progressivism=good. Conservativism=bad. That you could judge someone’s moral character by these two words. And it’s wrong.
Living in Israel has helped me realize how textured people are. That I love certain progressive values like economic fairness, LGBTQ rights, women’s empowerment, and protecting the environment. And that when taken to an extreme, some progressivism becomes just as hateful as the far-right rhetoric it purports to combat.
I live in a rather conservative neighborhood. By far the most conservative part of Tel Aviv. A place where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is the left-wing, and Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, is the right. And guess what? I like it. I have friends here- from Sudanese, Darfuri, and Eritrean refugees to a smattering of progressive young people to Haredi and traditional Mizrachi families. Who lovingly host me for Shabbat.
Few things in life are black and white. Even the people who wear those colors 😉
I like some things about conservative thought. I enjoy the innovation and creativity of Tel Aviv’s street art and gay scene. And I love seeing people saying Kaddish in a Yemenite accent on my street as they dedicate a new Torah scroll. Which I eagerly join in on. Preserving tradition is something I love. Not for a museum, although there are some great ones here, but for me. It’s my tradition and I understand why people feel strongly about their- our- heritage. A Jewish ethno-religious state with religious courts for Jews, Druze, Christians, and Muslims might not sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union. And I get it. And Israelis have all sorts of thoughts about how to change it- or keep it the same. But we’re here, and we’re not particularly thrilled with your lack of support. We’re going to do what we want. And I suppose if you don’t like each and every thing we do, we don’t really care. Which is the reaction you’re going to keep getting if you single us out with no particular compassion. Where have you been to protect us from Iranian rockets and Hamas terrorists? Where are your rallies for our lives? Is liberalism only good to Jews when we’re mild-mannered doctors and lawyers with no claim to independence or a right to self-defense? I know you like Seinfeld, but what should Jerry do if he’s walking through Brooklyn and is beaten to a pulp by anti-Semites, like some Hasidim the other day? We’re sick of being your punchline and we’re sick of being punched. And many more conservatives- conservative Americans- support us than progressives.
In short, I’ve decided to just be me. I’m not locked into being progressive or conservative, I’m going to live my life ethically and kindly and inclusively. With respect and faith and pride as a Jew and as a human being. Willing and eager to find that gray space people often overlook. And to bring it to light. Those aren’t liberal or right-wing values- they’re mine.
Which brings me to today. Today, I was feeling really stressed. I’m feeling less and less American and I even struggle to speak English sometimes. I spend almost all my time here in Hebrew and Arabic (or other languages) and English is directly tied to 30 years of trauma I experienced. I think, I feel better in Hebrew and Arabic oftentimes. It’s where I feel healed and strong. And can express myself as who I am today.
Today I wandered Bnei Brak, a Haredi city outside Tel Aviv. Neighborhoods I had never seen before where it was totally fine for me to be in shorts and a t-shirt. I found some gorgeous palm trees and a neat sign for a women’s shiur, or religious class. Which I took home 😉 I then wanted to go to Oranit, a settlement in Judea and Samaria, but the traffic was terrible. So I popped over to Petach Tikva and Givat Shmuel, an area with a large Modern Orthodox community.
Tired of the tall buildings, I went in search of green.
I ended up in the most curious of places. Kfar Habaptistim. The Baptist village. While in America, old me would have been horrified to go to a Baptist village. As would many of my “progressive” friends. New me thought it’d be kind of interesting.
So I walked the windy, beautiful, rural road. With fields that reminded me of the Midwest. And then, I saw the most curious thing: a baseball field.
I haven’t seen one of those in a long time. Baseball isn’t the most Middle Eastern sport. And I had a rough time playing it as a kid- as it was forced on me by my family and I never fully jibed with the intense masculinity and sometimes homophobia that went along with sports then. And I was quite good at some.
I walked towards the field and watched as the largely American-Israeli guys and gals played. With a Baptist female pitcher.
I felt this sense of redemption. Like God was giving me a little glimpse of what things could’ve looked like if my childhood wasn’t so rough. And a sense of satisfaction to be able to see it in action in my homeland, my new home.
Hearing the people chatter back and forth in Hebrew and English, seeing the scores posted in both languages. Seeing the Baptist literature and knowing that it was kind of benign in a country where we’re 80% of the population and nobody can coerce me. Like the anti-abortion activists with ketchup-covered beheaded baby dolls at my Missouri polling location. Here, we run things. So I actually thought seeing the New Testament in Hebrew was kind of cool.
I don’t think I’ll get into baseball now. I think God was just trying to help me close a chapter. And help me embrace the one I get to live now.
The one where I ate Nepalese momos with a Tibetan chef after the Baptist village. Around the corner from my apartment. Where I played with his three year old kid who speaks Tigre because he studies in school with Eritrean kids.
The one where I was walking home from the momos and stopped by the Darfuri fruit stand and chatted with the owner in Hebrew and Arabic. He told me about his business ventures and life while I picked up cucumbers. This is where I do my shopping. He lives down the street from me.
This isn’t an exotic visit. It’s not a diversity day. It’s not a beautiful exhibit or a rally or a trip to Thailand. It’s where I live. It’s my home. It’s my day-to-day beautiful life.
Once, I was American. That’s where I was born, that’s where I lived for many years. Some really tough and some moments of real gold slipped in between the familial abuse and the prejudice I faced in society for being both queer and a Jew. I treasure the Amazigh New Year I went to. The Asian art museums. The queer Passover seders. The vast array of cultures and the pure sense of quiet and calm you feel in a park.
And now, I’m Israeli. Not a progressive Israeli, not a conservative Israeli, not an American-Israeli (maybe sometimes). An Israeli. The kind that hangs with Hasidim, the kind that wakes up to his neighbors’ Mizrachi music, the kind that sings Yemenite music in the shower, the kind that hangs with Druze, the kind that goes to queer Sarit Hadad parties, the kind that leads Reform services, the kind that eats gefilte fish in Bnei Brak on Thursdays. The kind that helps Arab guys push a dead car, the kind that pushes onto a bus- but gets up and insists that an older person sit down. The kind that that gestures and yells and talks with passion. And who puts people up for a night he met on the bus. That day.
The kind who does Shabbat with an Orthodox Ashkenazi and a secular Mizrachi Jew- a gay couple. Several times a month. And who dances dabke with Arab college students.
I don’t do these things to write a blog about it. Nor do I do them to check off boxes and to feel I’ve fulfilled a diversity quota.
I do these things because they bring me joy. And I like these people. They are my friends. My Hasidic, Druze, Muslim, Christian, Secular, Gay, Straight, blah blah blah friends. Friends! These are not people I simply say “please” and “thank you” to at a store.
So perhaps the lesson I’ve learned from Israel is I don’t really care what party you vote for nor how liberal or conservative you are. I’m not really even convinced that elections are the biggest way we make change. I care about my neighbor. If your kindness is limited to only those who agree with you on everything, or those you feel are “in your camp”, you’ll soon find yourself sitting alone at home. Chanting: “no tolerance for intolerance!” Like I once did. But now I see what life has to offer when your heart is ready to see the best in what’s around you. Even in a Baptist baseball field.