I’m currently traveling through Romania. Romania, for all its current and past political problems, is today a much, much more peaceful place in Israel. You can’t really compare a 50,000 person demonstration in Bucharest with hundreds of rockets, racist legislation, land appropriations, occupation, and creeping fascism of Israel. A state once semi-democratic but now plunging into the totalitarian fiesta that is the Middle East. And once was Eastern Europe. With vestiges creeping back today. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the increasingly psychotic right-wing leaders of the former communist bloc have found themselves in bed with Benjamin Netanyahu. Even as they spew anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries. I suppose bullies attract bullies.
Before we dive in, here are some pretty pictures of my other homeland. My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and I’ve loved traveling here. This is my third visit this year- I’m the first member of my family to step on its soil since she left 130 years ago for the golden shores of America.
Romania is gorgeous. Or in the case of Cheile Turzii, “gorges” 🙂 . I’ve been to Cluj, the silicon valley of Romania. Literally- both a valley surrounded by hills and also the high-tech hub of the country. Filled with lots of young, progressive people working in high tech. But with way less pent up aggression than people in Tel Aviv.
I’ve been to historic Transylvanian cities, old synagogues, beautiful mountains. Romania is stunning. My ancestors must’ve really been struggling to want to leave here. (Turns out they were- the government passed anti-Semitic legislation and had various state-sponsored pogroms the years my family left)
And for those of you still living in Israel, the other day I bought ice cream, a large bag of oatmeal, apples, bananas, milk, several yogurts, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, a Romanian home-made candy, cascaval cheese, turkey, whole-grain bread, and I forget how many other things. For a total of $10. Israel is stupidly expensive and the quality of food is definitely not better than here- but I suppose that’s what you get when your country is ruled by a bunch of nepotistic politicians whose rabbi friends make an extra buck off of every piece of food by deciding God approves of it. Nationalism costs money- I suppose if you pour every ounce of your being into conflict and the idea that your country is super awesome, then people can take advantage of your distraction and charge you money for the things you actually need to survive. But keep believing that patriotism is awesome.
Romania also knows a thing or two about ethno-nationalism. It’s a country where, to this day, there’s actually a political party calling for outlawing the Hungarian minority’s party. Because they claim the Hungarians want to hand over Transylvania to Hungary again. Does this sound familiar, Israel?
It’s also a place with a long, storied history of anti-Semitism. One which, thankfully, is much, much better today. As I have never felt physically threatened and have never even faced an aggressive comment here. Frankly, Romanians are way more polite and respectful than Israelis. I feel emotionally safer with the average Romanian than a Jew in Israel. And not just because they say “please” and “thank you”- although that’s nice too.
And Romania does have a mixed record on its Jews. As I’ve been here, I have seen a little bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, I’ve heard some yearnings for right-wing politics, I even saw a billboard promoting some sort of Mein Kampf theater production. Hopefully with the goal of educating people, but I’m honestly not sure. And I was rather shocked to see the words on a billboard.
I also visited a synagogue. I was hesitant to- I’m here partially to get space from Israel. But I was in Sighisoara and I just wanted to take a peek. Perhaps it was partially because when I asked a young woman where it was, she said there was none. Even as Romanian nearly-Klezmer-sounding music blared out of her store (which was awesome- she said she’d check out Jewish music after). I don’t think she was ignorant out of hatred. I think she simply didn’t know there was a synagogue. In a town of 20,000 people. Sad.
I have to note that I’ve mentioned to many people here I’m Jewish. And sometimes I’ve noticed feelings of guilt. One guy, when I said my family was killed in the Holocaust, said it gave “shivers down his spine” and he told me about an Israeli he’s met who actually moved to Romania. And to return to the synagogue in Sighisoara, the non-Jewish custodian of the synagogue was so, so proud to show it to me. She even hummed the tune to “Tzadik Katamar”, a Jewish prayer written on the wall of the synagogue. As we both motioned the steps to the Israeli folk dance. For those of you who think, as I was basically taught at home and at synagogue, that Eastern Europeans are just a bunch of lousy bigots- you’re wrong. The lousy bigots would be the people who taught you this lie- and the idea that you can generalize about tens of millions of people. Many decades of evolution after most of our persecution took place. Things have undoubtedly changed here for the better. I feel much safer in Cluj Napoca than in Tel Aviv or London.
And there are problems. Today I was at some sort of folk festival and I met a guy who spoke Spanish. I was ordering food and having trouble conveying how many grams of meat I wanted (that’s a thing here- everyone should pick up on this. You don’t have to guess how big your food will be, or be disappointed!). He, like many Romanians, has worked abroad. In his case, Spain. In many others’, Italy or elsewhere. Part of the reason things are so cheap here for me is that their economy isn’t so great. Sending thousands of young people abroad in search of work. Sometimes, to return. Sometimes, not.
He starts talking politics with me. One of the things I *love* about Romania is how un-invasive people are. When I say I’m American or Jewish or tall or short or religious or not religious- people don’t dig. In Israel, you can say you dislike tomatoes and enter into a 15 minute argument about a fucking fruit. (or vegetable- again, keep arguing). Israelis like to pretend that respecting people is such an American concept, that “politeness” is fake. But actually, my experience is Eastern Europeans are way, way more polite than Israelis. So their barbaric habits must have other roots, because it sure ain’t from here. I tried to cross the road the other day at 10pm, with no cars coming, and my friend said we should wait. I asked why and he said: “because we have to respect the rules. And be fair.” As he returned me the fifty cents I overpaid for our meal. I actually laughed out loud because no one has treated me with such dignity in a long time. Then he gave me hand-picked apples from his family’s farm. You can be generous and polite- it’s not that hard.
Now to return to the first guy talking politics. He starts telling me about Romania’s corrupt politics and economic woes. And how things were *better* under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. While I can understand the former, the latter is a bit absurd. While perhaps there was more economic stability under the communist dictatorship, this is a man who was executed by his own people for committing genocide and heinous war crimes. Even Queen Elizabeth hid from him in bushes once. A story so silly it has to be true.
What really irked me, besides the Middle East-style hijacking of the conversation to lecture me about politics, is that this dictator was a real ass to the Jewish people. He confiscated over 1000 cemeteries and synagogues. Jews had to *pay* to make aliyah, to leave the country. While Jewish issues are hardly at the top of Romanians’ list of woes, to not even think about how this man made my people’s- any people’s- lives miserable is just abysmal. And cruel.
I’m glad your pocketbook was better under your former dictator, but I’m not particularly happy he shat on my family’s heritage either. Nor are the political prisoners he killed and tortured.
In the end, what I have to say is this: religion is a sham. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism- it’s all frankly an overcharged book club where everyone thinks their book is the best. Nationalism, to me, is just another type of religion. My flag, my country, my people are awesome, and everyone else comes next. If at all. Because all of these philosophies aren’t provable. Like, frankly, the existence of God. What evidence do you have for God existing? If God was so self-evident, why do you have to teach children about it to believe in it? And why do you need organized religion to enforce its tenants?
Religion, like all philosophies, can contain grains of truth. It’s just that for me, they don’t come from an invisible deity who you’ve personally never met or seen. But somehow miraculously spoke to a human being you don’t know thousands of years ago to tell you exactly how to live your life. I presume among clergy there are some good people, but their profession lends itself to charlatans because they are selling something they cannot prove. While not all things can be easily proven, I want the antibiotic I take to fix my stomach bug to have FDA approval. And our societal ethics should be no different- based on facts or at least rational arguments.
When you’re convinced that your book is the best, you have to constantly beat people over the head with it. Since, ironically, it is not self-evident that you are the best (which would go against the idea that you’re inherently awesome), you have to remind people over and over again. Why would you need to evangelize something so blatantly obvious?
For example, did you know Unitarianism was born in Transylvania? This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned in Romania. I went one of their first churches. Unitarianism, for those who don’t know, is today largely a peacenik left-wing church centered around social justice. I even once went to a Ska concert at one in high school- pretty much anything goes.
Yet apparently, the first Unitarians were lunatics. My tour guide told me they would go into churches and just start tearing down artwork and “idols” and burning shit. Far from the birkenstock-wearing vegans that I know today.
So when I visited a Unitarian church here- one of the first- the pastor did exactly what every lunatic clergy in Israel did. Tell me how they were the first, the best.
I had mentioned how I had Unitarian friends in America, that they would be thrilled to see I visited. He smiled. Genuinely. And also proceeded to tell me how young the American church was and that the Hungarians were the first Unitarians. Implication- the real Unitarians. Unitarians! Even the friggin Unitarians have to argue about who is the first in their book club. And they are probably the most relaxed readers.
This kind of stupid narcissism is inherent to any ideology which believes it is perfect, the best, superior. The 10 minute interaction with the Unitarian pastor was mostly harmful because it reminded me of much longer, more aggressive interactions with the brilliant Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith-peddlers of Israel. Romanians, even at their worst, are still way less intense than the average Israeli.
I once posted an Arabic video in a Facebook group to have a guy from Yaffo randomly message me on Facebook voice notes of him saying “that’s great you want to learn Arabic. Here’s the call to prayer.” As he Allahu-Akbar’ed the hell out of my phone. Many Muslims are shocked that I’ve read the Quran and not converted to Islam- because it’s such a perfect book I must have “seen the light”. And claimed their religion has never persecuted Jews- despite centuries of evidence. I had a Jewish guy ask me for money to buy food for Shabbat- and then tell me how awful the Sudanese “leeches” were in South Tel Aviv where I lived. I even had a Jew tell me once that the worst Jew is better than the best goy. And another Jew told me- knowing I was Reform- that Reform Jews are Christians (why is that an insult?). Somehow Christians are stupid enough to get into this battle when they are 2% of the population. I’ve met Orthodox Christians tell me they are the “original Christians”. Not like those Catholics… I’ve even had Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Christians say they are the real Arameans, not the Arameans in Northern Israel. Christian priests literally get into fist-fights in Jerusalem every year over who gets to light some sort of flame in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Literally coming to blows over a fucking match.
In the end, I have religious friends and not religious friends. I’m not religious- I used to identify as religious and am not anymore. If this blog was hard for you to read as a religious person, I can understand. I also feel it’s important to share my truth. What I hope is that even if you read a different book from me (frankly, I’m a fan of reading everything), what I hope is you take from it kindness and generosity. I personally have found it detrimental to limit myself to one book, one ideology in informing my world view. And that the idea of a deity above me, rather than the human beings beside me, has led me to feel small and to make some poor choices. And now, I feel more empowered and happy.
So in the end, when it comes to Romania, I’m not a Jew because I believe in God or because I think we are the best. I’m not a nationalist. I’m a Jew sometimes because people force me to be one. When I see a desecrated cemetery, like I did in Cluj, my inner Jewish spirit arises. My empathy for my people, for my ancestors, wells up. My desire to protect. Just like if I saw a Muslim cemetery being turned into an apartment building in Yaffo. That is a true story.
What I believe in, then, is humanity. Is treating each other with respect. When someone yearns for an anti-Semitic dictator to my face, I am a Jew. When someone bulldozes an Arab home, I’m an Arab. When someone throws coffee in someone’s face for wearing a hijab, I’m a Muslim. When ISIS butchers Christians in Iraq, I’m one of them too.
It’s not because of God or any book. It’s because I’m against suffering.
So this Rosh Hashanah, I won’t be asking God for forgiveness or beating my chest or dressing in a suit to impress a congregation half-asleep as a rabbi preaches. Sometimes a good message, sometimes not. Always one which includes an appeal for donations.
What I will be doing this Rosh Hashanah is exactly what I try to do every day. Be kind, give a smile to someone who needs it, explore, reflect, enjoy.
Because I’m not a religious leader, I won’t tell you how to spend your holiday- if you observe it at all. Instead, I’ll hope that you follow the path that brings you joy and understanding. Nuance and hope. And the ability to feel sad and angry at hatred, compassion for those being hurt, and the realization that we make choices each day. Which can bring light into our lives and into the lives of those around us.
Instead of fighting over a flame, let’s grow its light.
p.s.- the cover photo is a synagogue in Targu Mures. Because there are good people in Romania and around the world working to preserve Jewish heritage, even as others wish to destroy it. I am grateful to them and honored to visit.