Lately, I’ve been traveling in Romania. It’s my third time here since March- I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, delicious and cheap food, and overall calmer atmosphere than Israel. A place with far more history than America but with no active warfare like Israel. And a place where a quarter of me comes from 🙂
Well, here’s the conundrum of being a Jew. Especially a gay one. Romania has some pretty awful things too. Just as I’m trying to get space from Israel (and its creeping fascist state, persecuting minorities), I get a reminder of how stupid people around the world convinced us we needed a state. Like theirs- faulty, and usually creating more problems than solving them. But understandably could seem better than being regularly persecuted.
Romania has a storied history of anti-Semitism. There are brave non-Jews working to preserve our heritage now- I’ve met young people interested in Klezmer, old women doing Israeli folk dancing, people looking after our synagogues. The ones that haven’t been turned into pizzerias.
It also has a lot of bigots. On Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting in a restaurant. I almost went to services, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t. I don’t believe in God. I considered going for the community, for the tunes, for maybe a bite of Jewish food. But when I saw the historic-synagogue-turned-arts-center was fastidiously set up to separate men and women, I felt that an Orthodox Rosh Hashanah was the last thing I wanted to do now. I talked to some of the non-Jewish staff members, which was nice. And then I left to eat.
So I’m alone noshing in this restaurant. And a woman, maybe 40 years old, is playing with her kid. The kid waves at me and we say hi. He’s super cute. The mom starts talking to me in English. She’s from Bucharest but moved to Cluj some years ago because it is nice and calm. When she asked where I was from, I said I was both an American and Israeli citizen.
She then says: “I want to go to Gaza.” I said that wasn’t possible now. And she says: “I know, I want to go get arrested [to protest].” I said: “it’s a difficult situation on all sides. My friend lives on the Israeli side of the border with rockets falling on her house and I’m sure it’s hard for Gazans too.”
I tried to conclude the conversation, but she kept pushing. While making every effort to smile, she told me: “I want to go to PalestinA”. With an “A” as if she just needed to emphasize every last consonant. Like somehow I didn’t pick up on her political message the first time she bluntly interrupted my holiday meal.
I said: “great, you can go.”
Romanian woman: “I want to go to Jerusalem and see the Orthodox Christian sites.”
Me: “you can do that, you should realize that the Christian sites aren’t so protected in Gaza under Islamist rule and that Jerusalem is a part of Israel.”
First things first, I could have gotten into a nuanced conversation about West and East Jerusalem, varying land claims, the suffering on all sides, the Christians caught in the middle of national conflicts, but I knew this woman wasn’t interested in nuance.
Instead, she said the strangest thing. Besides not knowing Jerusalem was a part of Israel (again, even if you accept the contested nature of the land, most of the world recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli), she was astounded to hear rockets were falling on Israeli cities. From Gaza. She said the news said it only happened the other way around. She said: “life is suffering.” And when I tried to suggest there were good things in Israeli and Palestinian society too, she just kept to her message.
Feeling rather fed up with this idiotic woman ruining my first solo Rosh Hashanah meal, I said to her: “life is complicated. My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and was kicked out for being Jewish. The rest of my relatives were murdered in the Holocaust. And now our synagogues here stand empty or turned into restaurants. Nothing is simple.”
She made an awkward smile, maybe 10% out of guilt, 90% out of stupidity, and said have a nice night and left the restaurant.
Sometimes this happens when I leave Israel needing some space. I go leaving disgusted at how the government abuses its citizenry, especially minorities, much like other societies abuse(d) Jews. Even today, neo-Nazis are rallying in Chemnitz, Germany and physically attacked a Kosher restaurant calling the owner a “Jewish pig”. In Germany.
And I sometimes find all the reasons that pushed us, as a community, to feel we need a state too. Because after having been expelled from town after town, butchered senselessly and demeaned, we were tired. And we felt there was no other solution.
It takes endless gall for a Romanian woman who has never met me, doesn’t know my politics, doesn’t even know it’s a Jewish holiday, to barge in and attack me. While her own country sucks at the teat of my people’s abandoned houses, synagogues, and property. The land they’ve ripped from our culture. And tell me how bad I am.
How is it possible to hate us when you’ve already exterminated 95% of us? When we’re not here to “oppress” you anymore with our difference?
Because, if I may be frank, Romania can be kind of a shit hole. A place with gorgeous nature and some incredibly backwards people. The young people, both due to economic despair and perhaps a desire to make their lives better, go to Italy, Spain, and the UK to work. Sometimes in undesirable conditions, but to earn a decent living and progress. Sometimes at great cost.
Meanwhile, the country, losing population and brainpower, stagnates. 68% of Romanians still want to reclaim Moldova, a territory first lost to the Russian Empire in 1812. There are people who want to ban a Hungarian minority party for “secessionism”. Some villagers literally burned Gypsies alive. In my lifetime.
In one of the most open-minded parts of the country, I had a young computer programmer tell me I’m a sinner for being gay. I had the husband of a reflexology therapist with an eco-house tell me: “niggers don’t work in America.” Someone who at surface level would have fit in at a hippie commune in Vermont. I had an Uber driver take me 20 km out of the way to rip me off and have been literally chased by wild dogs. Who apparently are best dealt with by being neutered, but the corrupt government pays its friends to kill them. Knowing it won’t get all of them, the problem resurfaces in a few years, along with the funds to wash, rinse, repeat. Corruption at a stellar level. The public transport is pretty abysmal, if your stomach can handle the bumpy ride. And the village people suffer in poverty while the government miraculously has millions of dollars to build ornate new churches.
Textbook awful. And the Romanian people deserve better- and they bear some responsibility for their country’s problems. Not all of it- none of us can truly force our governments to change on our own. If I grew up here, I think I’d be pretty miserable. I suppose in a perverse way, I can thank the Romanian anti-Semites for inspiring my ancestors to leave this hole.
There are nice things in Romania- you could consider visiting. I just know that it’s time for me to leave.
I do know that the push and pull of hatred- of anti-Semites towards us, and Israeli Jews towards the communities now reliant on them. That is a dangerous see-saw and it is hard to escape both empathy and anger towards all sides.
There’s a reason there’s not a lot of Jews left here. And a reason a lot of gays would probably like to leave (or do). It can’t be fun to be a minority in hyper-religious, hyper-nationalist pit. The kind of problem I was just trying to get space from.
It doesn’t speak highly to my hopes for humanity, though I do know some societies manage to balance addressing past woes and healing with more success. Or so I hope. Perhaps I’ve just been in this part of the world too long. Yet I know our problems, whether in Israel or other countries, are not ours alone. The inflamed nationalism of our times has even reached Sweden, where a party with neo-Nazi roots gained almost a fifth of the vote. Sweden. The Home of Abba.
Tonight, feeling kind of lonely, I got an unexpected call. I was having trouble reaching friends in the States, and suddenly I saw the name “Muhammad” on my phone. A young Bedouin man, 19 years old, from the Negev. We had met while I was visiting his village several times and I asked him for directions. A sweet guy, we’ve kept in touch over WhatsApp over the months. And now, he’s doing something super brave- starting college in Tel Aviv. A city he has been in for only one day his whole life. With a culture completely alien to the one he grew up in- in language, in demeanor, in everything.
He’s having trouble finding an apartment- partially due to racism. At some point on this call, it finally came up that I was gay. He had a lot of questions, but in the end seemed somewhere between accepting and resigned. He said: “I can’t control what others do or how they are, everyone has their own way.” A kind of understanding that I wish our own Pharaonic Prime Minister could bring himself to feel.
In explaining to Muhammad how to find an apartment, I told him to be honest about who he was. He said he’d go view apartments, and only after he showed up in person would people find all sorts of excuses for why it wouldn’t work. Like this is 1950s America.
I told him that back in the States, I’d always include my volunteering in the gay community on my resume. Because if a company wouldn’t like me for being gay, even though it’s illegal for them to discriminate, I wouldn’t want to work there. Nor waste my time with their hatred. And yes, even at liberal non-profits, this tactic has saved me from some deeply homophobic work environments. Even from a female non-profit executive who also did consulting for gay rights groups. Who told me to be closeted about my identity if I took the job!
So I said: “tell them you’re Muhammad. In my opinion, it’s better not to waste your time with someone who won’t accept you the way you are. It’s sad, but trust me, if they won’t give you the apartment without knowing your name, they’ll figure it out when they meet you.”
So while Romania was good for the first few visits, when I could enjoy the stunning scenery and surface-level conversations, it’s now worn out its welcome. Because while I could go around this country and hide- or lie- about who I am, I’m tired of it. I haven’t survived this much and lived this long to feel ashamed of something I am proud of.
I’m a Jew. I’m gay. I don’t believe in God (a no-no in this deeply religious country). And I’m a kind person. It’s Romania’s loss that I’m leaving- not mine. Leaving like millions of young people tired of old dogmas and nationalism that has killed millions across the globe. Take note, Israel- this is your fate if you keep burrowing your hopes in a ground soaked with blood. There’s no such thing as a fair society where one group is esteemed above all others. As we well know from our experience in places like Romania.
What I do know from tonight is when I was feeling at my worst. Lonely, sad, still reeling from being chased by wild dogs and people saying the word “nigger”. That a Bedouin friend named Muhammad called me on the phone, we talked about gay identity and racism and finding apartments, and I felt better afterwards. As I started searching for ways to help him. A simple call that changed my night.
You can keep reading the rags- the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva, even the Washington Post, New York Times, and Fox News. All with different politics but the same objective- fear and money.
I like when people like Muhammad challenge the way they were taught to think. Living in a gray space of exploration and growth.
Israel is realizing my deepest fear, the abused spreading its abuse more than striving to heal from it. Frighteningly reminiscent of the European nationalists it is now allying itself with. That kicked us out. That burned our homes. And our bodies.
Muhammad makes me yearn for the country it could be.
The cover photo is of me in the Sighisoara synagogue. Now empty, its members killed by Romanian and German fascists. The remnants emigrated to Israel and America or assimilated under the pressure of communism. The shul was rededicated by Jewish donors and some local non-Jewish allies. A faded, almost barbarically quiet presence in places we once called home. A sign of cooperation, and a sign of the times. To be a Jew, more than anything else, is to know how to live in the bittersweet.