It was a Friday night in Barcelona. Just hours before, I had spontaneously decided to board a train from Tortosa to Barcelona. At 4:30pm, to be precise. I had thought about visiting other medieval cities and Jewish quarters, but I felt that this Friday night, I wanted to be with living Jews. Much how I felt in Belgium.
So I went to services. Like I’ve mentioned recently, I don’t really feel religious. I started my journey to Israel weeks away from starting Reform rabbinical school, only to pursue my exploring and blogging instead. But I remained an active Reform Jew, even leading services regularly in Tel Aviv. And to this day, even if I’m not religious in the textbook definition of the word, if I’m going to a synagogue, it’s going to be Reform. It’s my flavor of religious Judaism.
While for a while I came pretty close to being an out-and-out atheist, I’d say at this point I’m secular and spiritual. I have issues with organized religion (although I sometimes see its benefits both in motivating people to do good and in building community) and I don’t believe in the God of reward and punishment as written in the Torah or any religious text.
But I do believe in spirit, and while I value science and logic, I think some things are a bit beyond our comprehension. And that feelings are also valid. And sometimes hard to explain. Perhaps representing bits of truth beyond our conscious recognition. It is impossible to truly know everything, so with humility I bow to the unknown even as we pursue it. In the meantime, I’ll be singing in the forest, poring through inspiring archival documents, and trying to cross cultural barriers to bring kindness into the world. For me, culture, history, art, music, nature, dance, hope, the unexpected- these are all spirit. And they ignite me in a way that gives life purpose. As a Jew and generally, as a human being.
With this in mind, I headed to synagogue. The prayers generally didn’t speak to me. I don’t really like the idea of standing together, singing the exact same words, the choreography or the conformity of organized prayer. Even so, I found myself sometimes bursting into song and some of the texts do speak to me. Occasionally, I even tried to sing some of the prayers, replacing the word God with something that rhymed. Sometimes the word God didn’t bother me. I sometimes sang harmony- a way for me to retain my difference while being part of a community. I can’t say it made me want to pray in the traditional way. I even stepped outside for some of the prayers that I really don’t connect with. I’m kind of a hippie and would rather be singing wordless melodies while strolling the beach. Like I was in these photos. But what’s clear now, after traveling in Europe, is that where I found myself questioning if I even felt Jewish two months ago, now I feel quite Jewish. And have either rediscovered or found new ways of connecting to my spiritual, cultural, and political identities.
I came to Barcelona without any hotel reservation. In Hebrew, I call myself “ben adam zorem”. A guy who goes with the flow, who improvises, who’s in touch with his spirit, confident and willing to try new things. Some of this confidence stems from my own skills and intuition. Some of it comes from counting on others to help me along the way- being brave enough to reach out to them. And being grateful for their support.
After services, there was a wonderful dinner and I found myself talking to the other community members. Everyone was so kind- it really felt like a family meal. The kind I never really got to have, where I felt respected and included. Big hugs that made me feel loved and welcomed.
One person in particular made my night. There was one other Israeli at services. A young woman named Reut from Hod Hasharon, a city decidedly not on anyone’s tourist map, but I of course had visited 😉 . We got to talking. There’s something about being Jewish- especially being Israeli- where you just trust someone. Maybe it’s a shared heritage, understood customs, experienced persecution. Maybe it’s a feeling in your kishkes, as I shared with a wonderful, spirit-filled American named Anne sitting next to me. Anne if you’re reading this your email didn’t go through, send it again! 🙂 We had so much in common yet had never met. It’s a great feeling. I even got to play Jewish geography- I met a Hungarian woman who knows a Hungarian friend of mine in Tel Aviv! And I’m a quarter Hungarian. How’s that for full circle?
So back to Reut. We found ourselves outside in the rain. I told her I didn’t have a hotel booked for the night, so without even prompting, she got to helping me. That’s how Israelis are.
We walked around asking at hostels- everything was full or over 100 Euros. After some funny moments (including this odd Moldovan guy working the front desk who seemed to be hitting on me but then didn’t want to go out with us the next night- wherever you are Iulian, you’re really cute and I hope you come to Israel!), we headed to the Metro.
It was very simple- Reut said I could stay with her. Reut isn’t even from Barcelona- she’s just here doing some Israel education. It needs to be said again for the benefit of my friends in other countries- we had never, ever met before. No known friends in common. Although we both happen to be Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian- so in all likelihood, we’re probably related several times over.
We stayed up all night talking, having a blast. We had so much in common. Sharing love stories, stories of loss, making our way through the Barcelona rain, trying not to slip.
When I got to her apartment, Reut got to setting up my bed. Putting on a new sheet, feeding me, taking care of whatever I needed. And because I’m a fellow Israeli, I understood that this is how we do things. I’ve hosted people I’ve met the same day several times in Israel. It’s something I rarely see in other countries (although it has happened to me in Barcelona incidentally). There’s just a sort of trust and bond. A deep generosity, hospitality, a sense that wherever you find one of your own, you’re home.
It’s not because all Israelis are great. Some are pretty awful. Every country has its good and bad, every culture too.
But there are certain overall cultural differences that really stand out.
Israelis, as a whole, are kind of lone travelers like me. Or once were. Holocaust survivors who sometimes lost their whole families only to start anew in a completely new country. And build once again. Jews kicked out from Arab lands thrown into the tumult of conflict, cultural loss, and war. We’re survivors, we’re scrappy, and we use whatever we can to move forward and to make the best out of life. In that sense, I’ve always been Israeli, even when I was across the ocean. It’s just that moving to Israel, I found millions of other people like me who had overcome (or are striving to overcome) deep hardship and using every last skill to squeeze the sweetness out of life.
In this sense, I feel my personal story as an individual and a Jew parallels the experience of the Jewish people. In particular, of Israel itself. A scrappy start-up nation where, for the most part, people understand that a Shabbat meal with people you love is more important than the size of the home it takes place in.
Today I enjoyed a street fair with Reut and some of her friends from synagogue. An Argentinian Jew and a Turkish Jew- themselves wanderers like me. Here we were- at face value, nothing in common. But in reality, everything. Our Jewishness brought us together and if I’m honest with you, made us instant friends in a way no other identity can for me. Although some come close. It’s not that we’ll necessarily be best friends- thought we might. It’s just that there’s a certain baseline comfort that’s beyond words that you can just feel with another Jew. It’s in your kishkes.
My experience with Reut’s generosity- even as I write this, I don’t even know her last name- got me thinking. This trip and my experience in Israel has tested my original thesis. My first thought when coming to Israel, when starting this blog, was that one needs roots. That’s why my chosen Hebrew name, Matah, means orchard.
Yet what I discovered is no single place, no single culture, can fully satisfy me. In fact, I discovered I have roots all over the place. Directly, in 8 different European countries. Indirectly, basically all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Renewed, in my appreciation of my American identity. And kindled and rekindled in my Israeli one. In addition to all these roots, my linguistic communities and my passions for art and music and nature and kindness connect me to all sorts of people, Jewish and not. And I look forward to developing those connections as well.
So perhaps, in the end, I don’t need to be rooted in one place. By virtue of my identities, my diversity, my curiosity, my past, my intellect, and my sense of adventure, I don’t think I ever will be. Although we can never be quite sure what the future holds.
This thirst for a multifaceted life is my strength and my challenge. I’m a wanderer, an explorer- as Jews have been for over 2,000 years. This is who I am.
While I might not need roots, what I did discover is I need a home. Traveling is amazing- I’ve been carrying only a small backpack (not even one of those big ones you buy for Nepal) for 2 months. I have three t-shirts. A sweater. One pair of shorts. A pair of shoresh sandals which an Israeli can spot from a mile away. No sneakers. One pair of socks. My jeans got torn up, so I threw them out. This is how I travel. I love it. It’s what I need, and I’d rather have a lighter backpack to explore more places. I’m rugged, flexible, and I think I have my priorities straight. For me, it’s about the journey, not the froufrou. Although I will say I’ve learned to appreciate the value of a a once-in-a-while well-timed stay in a 3 star hotel. Quiet is something frankly you have to buy.
Traveling this way has taught me a lot. And the most stressful thing about traveling without a home to recharge in is the constant movement. Adapting to new languages and cultures and emotional norms. But also the transit, the not knowing what the city will be like, the not knowing how quiet your sleep will be- if you’ll be able to sleep at all. The motion. It’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, occasionally really stunning when you look out the window and see a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean on a 10 Euro bus ride taking you through the mountains.
So in the end, I’m sure I will keep traveling. To be honest, each day is a bit of an adventure to me. Whether it’s physically going to another city or chatting with people at the library, I find ways to engage in new and exciting directions. Sometimes my friends ask me how these stories happen to me. But they don’t- I am the kind of person who these stories were made for. Sometimes I seek them out, sometimes they find me. And I connect with people in a way, I reach for the kind of people and places that fill me with joy. I search for understanding. It can bring the unexpected, both good and bad. I was made to discover. Myself, others, and the world. And I love sharing it with you. And am inspired by what you share with me.
I hope you’ll continue to join me on my journey as I turn my blog into my career. As my cover photo says, “what happens on Earth stays on Earth”, so I intend to make my mark. By donating $20 now, you will get your first year’s subscription free. Soon, the starting rate will go up to $36.
So I may not need roots that stick me to the ground and restrict my movement. Some Zionist thinkers might not like this- that I choose not to give up my other identities, my Diasporic features. But I’d rather be like Israeli poetess and fellow olah Leah Goldberg who speaks of the pain and joy of having two homelands. I’m grateful to my friend Leora for sending me that poem when I needed it.
By understanding my varied roots around the world, I better understand myself, my people, my countries. Israel itself. An ongoing process and one in which I feel I’ve made great progress.
What does it mean to be Israeli? That’s the title of this blog. For me, after going several months without seeing another Israeli, Reut embodies what it means to be one. In the best way. It’s someone who after a short conversation, helps you find a hotel. When you realize there is none, invites you to stay. Who feeds you, who hugs you, who makes a bed for you. And invites you out to hang with her friends the next day.
Roots can be tangled, messy. But a home- you need one. To venture out from, to explore from, to come back to at the end of the day or after a long and exciting trip.
The world is my oyster. Who doesn’t like to taste a little treyf? But most of the time, I don’t eat shellfish. Which is why more and more, I feel Israel is my home.