After having escaped Romania, I headed to Hungary, which was a better experience. Not fantastic- there’s a lot of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and surprisingly unfriendly people. But definitely easier to live in as a gay man than anywhere in Romania I’ve been. And, unlike Romania, has actual living Jews to commiserate/celebrate with- which makes all the difference. Plus some gorgeous synagogues.
After having experienced Budapest, I hopped on a bus to Slovenia. Slovenia- what do you know about Slovenia? Slovenia is a tiny, tiny country. Population of about 2 million people. And, after Finland, the greenest country in the world. Forests are everywhere, the air feels clean, and, as a major plus, it is much friendlier than Hungary. Which kind of puts to bed the idea that all post communist countries need to be filled with rude people. Because Slovenia was not only communist, it survived the semi-apocalyptic breakup of Yugoslavia- and the people are much nicer on average than the women chucking my change back at me in Hungarian grocery stores.
Slovenia is naturally beautiful- the mountains are obscenely gorgeous. Some, deep green, are similar to mountains in Israel. Others, so high, have no vegetation and even when it’s not cold, look like they have snow on top. The contrast between the lower, wooded mountains and the grey/white tops of the Alps is stunning.
More consistently than anywhere else on my travels, I have been able to find relaxing moments. To sleep. And to hear my voice. Not overwhelmed by dogs chasing me in Romania or homophobes or crowds of anti-Semites, Slovenia is a lot more chill. Which has been healing.
Slovenia certainly has its problems. I was on a guided tour- on Yom Kippur- in Ljubljana. The super-environmentally-friendly capital whose old town is entirely pedestrian walkways. Not a car in sight. For an avid walker like me, this is paradise.
On the tour, the guide was describing artwork on the cathedral. It included depictions of the Crusades. For those who don’t know, the Crusades largely consisted of Christian soldiers butchering Jews on their way to the Holy Land, where they then engaged in a mutual bloodbath with Muslims over the same strip of land people continue to fight for today. It was not a pleasant time to be a Jew.
The guide said: “the Crusaders are celebrated on this Cathedral- a new piece of artwork- because they built hospitals and schools here. Some people don’t like the religion and warfare aspect- I think it’s subjective.”
The Crusades may be many things, but their benefits are not particularly subjective. Murdering thousands of people in the name of an invisible God is not what I’d call anything other than horrifying. And you can certainly find some other artwork for your cathedral that doesn’t involve mass murderers.
At the end of the tour- by the way, the guide’s English was fantastic and most young people here speak the language quite well- I asked about the Jewish quarter. While Slovenian Jews are few in number, their history is quite old. And there is a medieval Jewish quarter, along with remnants of a community mostly butchered in the Holocaust.
The guide had failed to mention Jews at all when talking about the Second World War, so I was curious to hear her response, which was underwhelming: “here in Ljubljana, the Jews lived freely in the war, there was no ghetto.”
While the situation was complex here- in fact Slovene partisans suffered heavy losses and managed to carve out some hold outs despite the fascist invasion- the Jewish community never lived here freely. And under German occupation, almost all of them were annihilated. When I pointed this out to her, she said “yes, some died.” Understatement of the century doesn’t quite do it justice.
In the middle of the tour, a teenage boy walked by- seemingly perturbed. A few times during the tour, locals harassed our tour guide. Xenophobia is real here- as are neo-Nazis. And perhaps because she was speaking in English or because we’re foreigners, or who knows what- some people didn’t like it. And the boy, looking at our group, shouts in an angry voice something in Slovenian. As he lifts his arm in a recognizably, crystal clear Heil Hitler salute.
I have never in my life seen a Nazi salute. Europe, if I’m totally honest, is not a great place to be a Jew. It’s had its moments- we’ve been here for over 2,000 years with some great successes. But do not kid yourself- most European Jewish communities now define safety as absence of violent attacks the likes of which are rocking France. Rabid societal hatred is seen as an unfortunate and growing norm.
The strange thing about Slovenia is there have never been many Jews here- and aren’t many now. Making the hatred all the stranger, and for me this emphasizes the Christian roots of anti-Semitism here. Because if we’re not even here, what else explains the depth of hatred? I’ve never heard of Buddhists or Hindus persecuting Jews because nothing in their holy books condemns us. Sociology and context matter- but so does ideology. And if you’re fed a lie for generations in church, at home, in school- it infects your brain and society. And it is not so easily dislodged- many don’t even want to remove it.
Tonight, I was asking for directions on the train. Lately, I’ve been using my phone a lot less, I’ve totally disconnected from social media, and I’m finding myself increasingly connecting to people around me. And to feel present in my surroundings. It really impacts my day- and causes me to interact with more people. And make different decisions about where to spend my time.
On the train, a nice young woman gave me a ton of advice about Slovenia. Places to visit, food, everything. She even walked with me to a restaurant to get a burek- a kind of savory pastry that we eat in Israel too. This woman, let’s call her Alenka, was so nice. Bubbly, friendly- warm. She reminded me a bit of myself when I helped tourists in Israel. It felt great.
Alenka is in a church choir. Catholic. As you’ll see from my previous blogs, I’m rather fearful of religious people at this point. Certainly I have friends who are. But when meeting someone new, unfortunately religiosity is often a sign that I should back away. Especially in this part of the world, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to hate gays and Jews- i.e. me. That’s not a theory- it’s reflected in public opinion polling in almost every European country (oddly enough, I believe the Netherlands or somewhere in Scandinavia is the only place where occasionally religious people polled as *more* tolerant).
Alenka asked if I was Catholic. And I said: “no, I’m Jewish.” She said: “oh, we have a Jewish community in the north east of the country.” So simple. No hate, no commentary, it was as if she was describing where the North Pole was. And, compared to the brutal comments I heard in Budapest and my tour guide’s decided revisionist history, it felt great.
It’s a reminder that people are complex. Yes, religious people are more likely to hate me. And, some are pretty cool. This is what makes life hard. I want to protect myself and if I completely shut out a group of people based on a characteristic- then I might miss out on moments like tonight. When I’m laughing my way through Ljubljana with a new friend.
On the bus to Slovenia, I met a young Polish guy named Greg. A neuroscientist from Warsaw. Poland, in case you didn’t know, has pretty much the worst record of Jew hatred of any country. In a part of the world where it has quite a few competitors.
So, again, I was feeling nervous. When I mentioned I was from Washington, D.C., he made some odd remark about how the city was “empty of people”. And then he went to sleep.
I was prepping myself mentally for keeping my distance. If that’s how he reacted to Washington, D.C., I can’t imagine what he would say about Tel Aviv.
Later on the bus ride, after he took a nice nap, we talked again. Turns out he was exhausted from a 16 hour bus ride, explaining the earlier grumpiness. When I mentioned Israel, he actually showed curiosity. Apparently, he wants to visit. I told him some exciting and harrowing stories and also about my Polish ancestors.
He loved it. In fact, we shared a lot in common- just as people. We’re adventurous, spontaneous, like to travel solo, and are intellectually curious. I really liked him. And after I told him some Israel stories, he said one of the nicest things someone has said to me this whole trip. Possibly that someone has said to me in longer than I can remember.
“Your stories of Israel make me want to visit.”
The world is losing its mind. Especially if you read the cherry-picked, profit-driven clips in the news. That show the worst of humanity. Not outright lies- there are a lot of nutsy people in the world and to pretend we’re all great is just as dangerous as saying we’re all terrible.
Nationalism, including in Slovenia, in Israel, in America, everywhere- is on the rise. Nationalism, in my view, is a kind of collective narcissism which says our group is the best- because we happen to be here. Together. It doesn’t really hold up to much logic. There are certainly differences between countries, but it hardly justifies pretending the place you happen to live is the best in the world. It’s not a gentle or benign concept- it literally leads to killing people. I’m frankly baffled that I should have to explain this in a part of the world that saw an actual genocide in my lifetime. Which I remember watching on TV.
But it’s happening.
And so I offer you Greg and Alenka. Not because they invalidate other people’s hatred. Nor should we ignore signs of danger- there are dangerous people out there. And their power is growing. I recently read a story about Indian tourists in Slovenia being chased by neo-Nazis yelling “white power” as the police looked on indifferently. Being different here is hard- and frankly, unlike in the Mediterranean, I sometimes feel my caramel skin stands out here. In ways that could make me a target.
I’m glad people like Greg and Alenka are out there being kind to complete strangers. I try to do the same. It helps put the news in perspective so we can remember that if 27% of Slovenians are die-hard anti-Semites (that’s an actual statistic from the ADL)- that means the vast majority of the country is not so bad. Maybe even some ignorant people who are persuadable.
We have a right and responsibility to protect ourselves and I will never forget seeing a Hitler salute in the middle of downtown Ljubljana.
We also have to do the nearly-impossible balancing act of remembering the good people. The people trying for something kinder, more open, compassionate, and welcoming. The people who go out of their way to smile and guide you when your phone is turned off, you don’t speak the language, and you need directions. And you end up eating bureks together and laughing in the street.
Traveling as a Jew- as a gay Jew- is not easy. In this part of the world, harder than I expected. And I’ve traveled to some pretty hardcore places.
I suppose what helps me feel a little safer, a little more loved is when people who I least expect make an effort to make me feel at home. Walking to a mountain today, as I bought fresh yogurt from a farm’s vending machine (that’s a thing!), I saw a sign:
“Home is not a place. It’s a feeling.”
For someone who grew up in an abusive family, who is wandering as a nomad, who doesn’t always feel welcomed. Not in this part of the world, sometimes not anywhere. Being so many different minorities is hard. Rewarding, and sometimes kind of scary and frustrating.
This message was for me. This Yom Kippur I didn’t fast, in fact I haven’t fasted in years. And, for the first time since I can remember, I didn’t go to synagogue. And I didn’t pray the liturgy.
I’m calling this my first Un-Kippur. The holiday still matters to me because I’m a Jew. It’s part of my me. Even if I don’t go to shul, I’m no less a Jew than someone else. Something I had to say myself to a man wearing a yarmulke harassing me to go to synagogue in the middle of Ljubljana. Proof that simply wishing someone a meaningful holiday can bring on a load of coercion- not just in downtown Jerusalem.
This was an un-Kippur but not a fun-Kippur. It was a chill Kippur. I relaxed, I explored, I learned, I shared, I smiled. If that’s not in a prayer book, then I don’t want to read it.
If religion makes you act like Alenka and causes you to perform acts of kindness, do what you’ve got to do. For me, I suppose I don’t think I should bottle up all of my apologies for one day a year and pour them out. Perhaps next year I’ll want to spend the holiday with some secular or open-minded religious Jews. Just for community. Maybe I’ll apologize to some people this week- maybe I’ll just apologize when I hurt someone. I can’t say having a particular day to do so is a bad idea. Just that you don’t need a particular day to do it. Consideration of others’ feelings should be built into our ordinary experiences.
Writing a blog about your personal experiences, ideas, challenges, pains, joys- is hard. It’s super rewarding and, because I’m the kind of person who is open to changing my ideas- it can be tricky. Sometimes, people will like one blog because it validates their opinion, only to find me sharing something quite different a week later. And they get angry.
I will never claim to be a one-stop-shop for cookie-cutter ideology. There are many news outlets out there for you if that’s what you want.
What I will do is share. Reflect, observe, remark. Build. Paint. A picture that continues to develop. Like the photos from my disposable camera I’m using. Another one of my new life experiences- or at least the first time since I was 12. It’s cool- it forces you to stop and think when you really want to take a picture. And it keeps me away from the temptations of my smartphone.
This new year- or even if you don’t feel it’s a new year- this is my hope for you and for us. To try to new things, to keep the good stuff that works, to dare to be different. And to accept when you’re the same. To live in a world where rigid thinking is overrated. To fight for what’s right- and sometimes to take a break or consider other views.
Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Slovenian, communist, Zionist, Palestinian, etc. These are words we use to describe ourselves. But I tend to think that their utility is limited. Not irrelevant, but certainly stunted. Because the deep meanings we attach to these words could never possibly describe the depth of our experiences.
So while we need to protect ourselves- and labels can help us do that- it’s important to describe. Not in one word, but in full thoughts. Who we are, what we hope for, what we want.
If your identity, your ideology, can fit in one word- perhaps the best gift to give yourself this Rosh Hashanah is the freedom to speak your truth in more than 140 characters.
Because if all I knew about Greg and Alenka is that they’re Slavic, then I might never have opened myself up to knowing them.
I can’t say I’ll stay much longer in this part of Europe. I am happy that I saw it with my own two eyes. No article, no travel guide, not even my blog is a replacement for human experience.