The old adage is “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” It’s sometimes a sweet sentiment- turn the difficult into the delightful. The hard into the soft. Swords into ploughshares. Yada yada.
My experience living here has taught me this is mostly a bullshit philosophy. There are some lemons so sour you simply can’t digest them- and shouldn’t try to. When you bite in, the bitterness overwhelms your mouth and your taste buds go dead.
Like yesterday. I’m walking in my neighborhood with a friend. We sit down to eat and the men behind us start rambling on about gays taking over the neighborhood like they do “in London and Paris”. Without even stopping to consider that I might be gay- or their neighbor. Also ironic because almost no gay people live in my deeply conservative part of Tel Aviv- frankly if they had more, maybe it’d be a better place. I wish I could turn their comments into some sophisticated commentary on gentrification, but I could tell from their tone that wasn’t all that was at work.
We then finished up our meal and headed to a bakery. The man at the bakery indicated he was from Ramle, a city with a large Arab population I’ve visited several times. I said “shoo akhbaarak?” How are you? He responded “fine, you speak Arabic?” Aiwa, yes I do.
At this point in the conversation with many people, they get excited. How did you learn Arabic? Why do you speak with a Syrian accent? Bravo, you speak great!
But instead, this man’s response was: “you’re not Arab so I think you just be who you (really) are.”
Like a sword through my heart. A punch to the gut. Rather than seeing my speech as a gesture of kindness, this man sought to put me in my place. You’re not one of us, so stop trying to be. He might as well have slapped me across the face instead because it might have stung less.
I’m not Arab, nor was I suggesting I am. I happen to love Arabic and have been learning it since I was 17 years old– the only teenager in an Arabic class at my Jewish Community Center. And then in college and with Syrian refugees on Skype and now in Israel- with Arabs in Israel, Israeli Jews, and Palestinians. I love the language and am a firm believer that learning languages is a source of richness and communication. That I have Arab friends now, that I listen to Arabic music, dance dabke, and travel to their villages- I may not *be* Arab but I love Arabs like I love all other people on this planet. And I’m proud to be a fan and active participant in Arab culture. A not insignificant statement about our shared humanity in a country where so many people hate each other. It’s a statement most Arabs have told me they appreciate deeply. And some, like this man, just choose to hate.
At times like this, I get really sad. It’s hard to even hear or remember the positive experiences I’ve had when the hatred overwhelms and clouds the heart. Because it really hurts to be profiled, to be discriminated against, to be hated simply for being who you are.
So I decided to look at the notes on my computer. I keep a special place where I put positive comments on my blog. People who’ve written on Facebook about how I’ve helped, healed, and contributed to their understanding and hope.
Here are some (last names redacted for privacy):
Orian: “I really like reading your posts and seeing all the beautiful places you visit in Israel.”
Jordan: “I know you are probably busy, but I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you so much for your beautiful writing. I relate to you so much more than I thought. Your experiences have been healing and have helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. Your blog has also helped me out of the deep depression I am going through being in the USA in these strange times.”
Irene: “You were awesome with him btw, I wish I had someone to talk and guide me through these issues when I was younger.”
Debbie: “I’ve been in Israel for 30 years this September. It sounds as though you’ve broken barriers and understood this society in ways that other people don’t in a lifetime. Kol Hacavod! I remember my days in Israel as a single person, and how lonely and frustrating it can be. Please pm me if you’d like to be in touch.”
Max: “I love hearing the stories of your adventures in Israel thank you for posting.”
Elias: “As a Swede and an American, who’s studied Arabic for over a decade now, I wholeheartedly agree.”
Richard: “What a lovely, thoughtful article. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I hope you have many, many more like it.”
David: “As an older, gay Jew who is planning on Aliyah I have much to learn from your writings. So I am very happy I found them.”
Nancy: “I have not heard Arabic music before but listening to this I’ve grown to love it! So, I’m listening to it over and over again in my car!!! Todah, Matt.”
Goldie: “When I hear of Haredi in Jerusalem, I think of the women blowing whistles, screaming and pounding on tables when Reform Jews are trying to pray at the Kotel. Thank you for giving me Yisroel, a better image of a Haredi.”
David: “Very interesting, especially as I gradually became more dugri after making aliyah (many years ago) – but I am more dugri when I am abroad, and more English-polite when I am at home in Israel.”
Jordan: “Great read! It brought context to things I was already feeling as well gave me entirely new insights. I’m a non-Jewish American living here with my Israeli partner, and even though I also lived and traveled extensively abroad before I came here, I still struggle with the communication style here quite a bit. Perhaps it’s time to become more sabra myself. :)”
Louise: “Very interesting from a sociolinguistic perspective. Thanks.”
Diego: “Great post, I had been waiting for another entry, missing your key insights into Israeli society and the mixture of culture and languages.”
Laura: “Matt, your posts are so honest and profound. Thanks for sharing them here.”
Ruth: “Hi Matt. Your blog posts are very moving to me.And I’m very impressed with you being ready to confront the ‘hard stuff’. I’m an American Jew who saw your post in Jewish Spirit, although I don’t know think I’ve also seen them elsewhere.I just told a Palestinian friend of mine, Kefah who lives in Shu’fat, about your posts. I think they’ll please her. I sent one of your posts to a Palestinian friend of mine (Palestinian – American, grew up in Jordan and Lebanon, now lives in Cyprus) and she said ‘Wow! Thank you for giving me heart.'”
Ann: “Very interesting. Your field research Matt Adler is invaluable. Kol Hakavod.”
Howard: “Thanks, Matt, for this powerful, and important, article. You are a treat to know, and learn from.”
Joanne: “You brought me back in time to my grandmother’s Seder 55 years ago thank you so much for the precious remembrance of my very happy memories .”
Trond: “As always, your thoughts and commentary are amazing. Your observations, the conclusions you draw, and how they seem to inform you worldview and actions (if I may be so presumptuous) really give my hope for humanity a boost (and it isn’t high to begin with).”
Marilyn: “I don’t always agree with Matt Adler’s blog posts, but they are always worth reading. This balanced and poignant article deserves your attention!”
These comments give me a much-needed boost. When people rain down on you, stop eating the lemon! Maybe instead of struggling to make the lemon taste good by drowning it in sugar, pick up a new fruit.
People like the Arab guy in my neighborhood exist in every society. There are Jews here who’ve made me feel like an enemy for liking Arabs or refugees. There are refugees here who, after telling me how racist Israel is, tell me they like Donald Trump because he’s against Muslims. There are Muslims here who try to convert me and say deeply anti-Semitic garbage. And Jews who are just fine deporting Arabs or refugees, even to their deaths. Homophobic Jews and Arabs, Arabophobic Druze, Druzophobic Arabs, LGBTs against refugees. The list of hatred is not small here- so let’s stop pretending 99% of people in the world are great. Because frankly, that’s a lie as dangerous as pretending 99% of the world is your enemy.
And if I’m totally honest, the level of hatred in Israel seems much higher to me than many places I’ve lived or traveled. Every society has its problems, but here it burns with an intensity of a forest fire. The trees, never consumed by the flames, simply pass on the burn and soon you find yourself surrounded by heat and ash, struggling to breathe. Running to gasp for a breath of fresh air while your eyes stay alert for the next spark. Deep rest is not something you’re likely to find here.
Faced with an unrelenting and increasingly powerful flame, I’ve realized I can’t exactly douse it. I’ve most certainly put out a lot of ignorance and hatred here- the comments above show that I’ve been a source of hope. And for every moment of joy and spirit I have been able to bring, I’m proud and glad. And I hope you pass that understanding and kindness on so perhaps together we can keep a little oasis fresh with water. Withstanding some of the heat, pushing it back sometimes, and keeping the tinder from catching on fire.
The Arab man told me to just “be who you are”. To stop playing games. To him and people who think like him I say: “you are being who you are. Not Arab, not Jewish- callous. Hard-hearted and mean.”
I’m not pretending to be Arab nor am I pretending to be anything. I’m being exactly who I am. A kind, 32-year-old human being who likes cultures, languages, and aims to improve himself and be generous to people around him.
Wherever I go, whatever I do.
My greatest accomplishment in Israel is that I’ve managed to maintain my humanity in a place where so many wish to rip it away.
Keep doctoring your lemons. I’ll have some mango.
p.s.- that’s my mango, my friend Molly whose family owns my favorite sushi joint in Israel 🙂