This may end up being a shorter blog because I have a flight to catch tomorrow, but I felt it was important to put a few things down in writing before I forget.
I’ve spent the last three weeks in the East. Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia. Countries rarely on the tourist radar of Americans, slightly more on the radar of Israelis. But hardly London or Paris.
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve seen gorgeous mountains, I’ve learned about wild stray dogs firsthand, I’ve eaten delicious food, I’ve experienced European anti-Semitism from the Left and Right. I’ve seen green forests, beautiful libraries, and enjoyed the rather reasonable prices. Especially compared to the aggressive gougefest that is Tel Aviv.
These places are, on the whole, more polite and less aggressive than Israel. It was nice to have to re-conform to the ideas of consideration and rules. Even when it struck me as bizarre at first, like when a Romanian guy stood silently waiting for the crosswalk to say “go” at 11pm with no cars coming. I actually laughed out loud at that one- he said it was because “it’s important to be fair.” If only Israelis could just take one iota of that respect and apply it to their lives, the world would be a better place. Even if it feels sometimes a big exaggerated here.
If I had to make a few broad generalizations, here they are. Hungarians are super rude and xenophobic. I’ve never been stared at so much (perhaps outside of Israel). My caramel skin perhaps? My Jewish complexion? I’m not sure. But there is a deep aggression to a lot of people in Budapest. Maybe they’re still weary of communism or hate tourists, but I’ve never, not even in Israel, had so many people chuck my change or plastic bags at me in stores. For absolutely no reason.
Overall, all three countries are rather xenophobic. Anti-Semitism is definitely still present, despite the paucity of Jews, showing just how utterly illogical the whole concept is. And a great deal of the energy that has historically been used against Jews is now being used against other minorities such as Roma and Syrian refugees. There is a lot of angry graffiti to be found- occasionally countered by progressive forces. Though some of those forces have said pretty nasty things to me about Israel. It’s not easy to be a gay, open-minded Jew in this part of the world, squeezed in all directions.
The nature here is absolutely stunning. Perhaps because this part of the world industrialized later and isn’t as densely populated as Western Europe, the mountains and forests are so much prettier. If you like raw green space, Eastern Europe has a lot of it. Especially Slovenia, the 2nd greenest country on the planet. The public transit isn’t great, so if you really want mountain time, find some hostels or lodging deep in the hills and enjoy. I had a lot of stomach-turning van rides in Romania- this region is not for the feint of heart. But once you get a sense of it, the surroundings are quite gorgeous And the stars are brighter than almost anywhere.
Slovenians, while perhaps just as xenophobic as Romanians and Hungarians as a whole (it should be noted I met people in all places who resisted this mentality, but it is a phenomenon), are much friendlier than Hungarians. Again, generalizations, but I had a lot of interactions with people. Because I’m friendly and because my phone had next to no data here, so I was always asking for directions. The average Hungarian looked distraught and irritated to answer my questions. While Slovenians almost always were happy to guide me. Before someone blames this on communism, Slovenians also lived under communism and somehow turned out gentler, so who knows. Maybe it’s just a long-standing part of the culture of a product of Slovenia’s greater economic success. But it is a thing.
Romanians are by far the most religious of the three countries, with new churches being built everywhere despite some fairly grinding rural poverty. I can’t help but think what an intense waste of money this is at a time when people are suffering and millions of Romanians go abroad in search of work. Everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, but should the government really be funding religious institutions at this rate when people can’t earn a living? There are Romanians who agree with me, but they are an embattled minority.
Slovenians are the least religious and, perhaps not surprisingly, the most gay friendly. Or at least tolerant of our existence. While there are neo-Nazis here (I saw my first Nazi salute during a tour), gay rights legislation is fairly advanced and I never felt threatened. I can’t say that anything in Slovenia remotely approaches the tolerance of a major city in Western Europe, but for this region, it’s quite chill. Romanians, as a whole, are pretty conservative and you feel it. Some of the major urban student centers like Cluj are more open, but I feel they are perhaps the exception more than the rule. It must be quite hard to be gay and grow up in this part of the world.
Jews. Jews in this part of the world are more likely to be dead than alive. While a few brave non-Jewish souls, sometimes in partnership with the few living Jews, take care of our few remaining historical relics, this is overall a graveyard for my people. While you can see aspects of our culture (or shared culture) everywhere- from the folk music to the food- the Jewish graveyards and empty synagogues far outnumber living communities. I’m frankly tired of seeing our ruins and want to see some living members of my tribe. It is certainly interesting and moving to see sometimes (though sad to see that only Jewish cemeteries have to be walled off to prevent desecration), but I prefer my Jews alive, thank you very much. I will say that I wish more Israelis (and American Jews) visited this part of the world, because it is an important part of our heritage- 2,000 years old- that explains a lot of our behavior and our traditions. The food here tastes a lot like home.
The living Jews I met here are pretty cool overall. I really admire them keeping our culture alive in the belly of the beast. In a place that gave birth to so much of our civilization today. And I learned a lot about my own heritage. Whether it was the delicious flodni dessert that tastes like charoset, the intensely personal Holocaust survivor stories, or the surprisingly old history of Reform Judaism in this part of the world, a lot of my previous understandings changed. Even of Israelis themselves- I understand a bit more why they are they way they are. I am more knowledgeable about my ancestry and my origins than I was before, and I’m proud to have reconnected to places important in my identity. And through meaningful conversations I had with both Jews and non-Jews, hopefully contributed something to this place’s future.
I met some really interesting people here- whether it was Syrian refugees, a Jordan queer girl, or a Polish guy deeply interested in visiting Israel and learning about Jews. I met some ambivalent people- young Germans who preached tolerance and reconciliation after the Holocaust. Who seemed genuinely interested in my identity as a Jew and Israeli. Who then made the odd suggestion that I *must* visit Chemnitz, the East German city now erupting in neo-Nazi riots, to see that these are just frustrated protest voters who wouldn’t actually hurt me. A serious twist of tolerance shifting into victim blaming that I’m still digesting and may write about further later. It’s not my job to see the wonders of this city- it’s the responsibility of Germans to make it safe for me to visit. “Never again” doesn’t mean it’s my job to do their work in building a more tolerant society. I’m curious to visit Germany one day, but I’ll only go to places I feel safe. As most tourists would do in any country.
And Slovenians. Most Slovenians I met were quite friendly and had little if anything bad to say about Israel or the U.S. And a few were pretty rotten. There’s this one place up in the mountains where you can take a stunning cable car ride. I visited it and met some young people who worked there, one of whom gave me a ride to the local village.
Both she and her colleague, at completely different points in time and in different conversations, took pains to tell me how Israelis steal from their resort. That they’re too demanding and rude. As if I’m some sort of ambassador for the Israeli tourist hordes.
It was quite odd. Because the way they phrased it, they said: “what are people like there?” As if a few dozen poorly behaved tourists represented a country of 8 million people. Admittedly a rather impolite country, but one that is hardly so barbaric as to be the only one to produce bad tourists. I saw more than a few clueless tourists from around the world, especially in Budapest where it seems all people do is take selfies.
Perhaps Israelis are more aggressive, and I tried to show some nuance, but I got tired of it. At first, I thought I was being too hard on them. Maybe their stories of missing forks and bedsheets were true. Although I have to say if you have the money to travel to Slovenia, you’re probably not that desperate for a new fork.
But I soon understood that it was anti-Semitism. For in the same conversation, the cute, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy who I resisted sleeping with (I’m pretty sure he was gay- what a cute smile!) kept saying how lazy and irritating Albanians and Bosnians were. Those southern immigrants were just too stupid to be as successful as Slovenians. A trope I heard a lot, not much different than how some white Americans talk about blacks or Latinos.
The oddest thing about it all is that when I pointed out that maybe some people have mistaken stereotypes about Slovenians too, the hot guy said: “no, we are polite.” Just after he asked me to defend rude Israelis and made racist comments against (often Muslim) immigrants in his country.
Here’s one thing I’ll give Israelis credit for: if they’re racist, they tell you so. I do feel that Israelis on a whole are a pretty racist bunch. More than the average American and more than a lot of countries. But this trip goes to show they’re perhaps not as unique as we think.
That perhaps we’re simply, on some level, holding on to the cultural norms of the part of the world where a lot of us come from. A place where Slavs bemoan gypsies, where a Romanian used the word n*gger in the car with me, a place where the brown and the black are derided alongside the Jew.
So if Israelis are too racist, at least it’s not shrouded in a bunch of bullshit. Because there’s nothing polite about prejudice. Not against Israelis, not against immigrants, not against refugees. You can have your neatly queued lines and your politely folded napkins, but that doesn’t make you polite, that makes you neat.
I hardly begrudge this neatness- it’s quite nice after the sometimes overwhelmingly crude Israeli norms that make you feel like your feelings don’t matter at all. A gentle, if prejudiced, silence is sometimes better than shouting for no good reason.
But perhaps next time a Slovenian complains about the Jews stealing his forks and napkins, I’ll ask him to return our synagogues held by his government. The decrepit cemeteries holding our dead, turned into casinos and nightclubs. And the Jewish homes and gardens turned into restaurants and simply stolen by average citizens. With not so much as a thank you. To this day, Romania has paid a paltry amount to Holocaust survivors who used to live on its soil. Survivors often living in poverty, 70 years after they were stripped of everything.
So I don’t mind your politeness, I kind of like it. But all I’m asking is if you’re going to criticize my countrymen for taking something that isn’t theirs, then give us back what is ours. We’re not immigrants, we’re not foreigners, we’ve been living on shared soil for 2,000 years and I’m tired of you treating us like the “other”.
Eastern Europe- I’ve learned a lot here. Maybe I won’t spend so much time here next visit, whenever or if that might be. Perhaps next visit I’ll be spending more time with existing Jewish communities or documenting our heritage. Or maybe teaching the more open-minded among your folk about what it means to be a Jew. To build a better, shared future.
In the meantime, I’m going to places with more living people who get me. Living Jews, living gay people, living in better conditions. Because as much as I needed some space to try new things and understand myself as an individual, not just a member of a collective, I really feel I need a bit of that community now.
I’m a human being above all else. A living thing. And living things need sustenance. The kind of sustenance where even if you barely agree on anything at all, when you see the challah on the Friday night table, you know on some level you’re in this together.
So if I’m a bit tired of tribalism, I suppose I’m not opposed to a little teamwork.
Chag sameach, wishing you a happy Sukkot. And may this itinerant holiday remind you that the journey is never-ending. May your journey bring you to health, safety, and satisfaction.