I’d like to share with you some stories from a recent visit to San Francisco.
After making aliyah a year and a half ago, I came back to the States for the first time.
What I’ve liked most is speaking English. Everywhere the signs are in my language. I can pick up on nuance and norms that I just can’t in another language, no matter how fluent I am.
I like the delicious fortune cookies I tasted at a factory in Chinatown and the wonderful Chinese-American woman I met who really wants to go to Israel. She just wants to travel in general and see “what’s the big deal about the Eiffel Tower”.
I like the Latina saleswoman at T-Mobile who, when I mentioned I was from Israel, was so excited. She was really proud of me for moving halfway around the world and pursuing my dreams. And she told me what it was like for her to visit Mexico, how friendly people were.
I like the rainbow flags that adorn the Castro, a kind of mini gay state. I even found street art honoring a Jewish victim of AIDS. Having lived in the Jewish Holy Land, I wanted to visit the gay one. And it was really interesting. While a rather small area (I suppose I envisioned it being half the city), it was so colorful, so gay. Sometimes a bit risqué for my tastes (I saw naked men strolling down the street…), but I enjoyed the occasional sexual pun. Including the absolutely hilarious tank top that said “can you host?” and the funny Planned Parenthood bag. If you don’t get the hosting joke, ask a gay friend 😉
The Bay Area is filled with tremendous wildlife. Scenery out of a movie. The waves of the Pacific lapping against the shoreline but with an ease that matches the calm of this city. I’ve never been in such a large city with such a relaxed pace of life. It’s kind of the Tel Aviv of North America, as one person put it.
I like the personal space, the quiet, the lack of rockets, the feeling of sexual freedom that I wish Israel had more often. A place so inundated with religion and nationalism that sexual shame, even in “sin city” Tel Aviv, often feels so much stronger than I wish it would be.
Now I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this progressive paradise.
First off, I’ve never seen so many homeless people. In a city that prides itself (almost to a fault) on being so liberal, it’s hard for me to understand why there are so many people without a roof over their heads. For sure, it’s not as if the ordinary citizen can fix this problem. Nor is homelessness an easy problem to fix- mental healthcare, economics, and so many other factors go into it.
But I can’t help but feel confused, at times disturbed, to see so many people walking by on their headsets, talking about the latest computer program or software, while people sit suffering right by their feet. I’m not expecting people to fix the problem, but it feels quite different from Israel. We have lots of homeless people too, but both I personally and lots of people around me gave them food and water and money. I even talked with a homeless man in Tel Aviv who told me all the books he has read recently. I just haven’t witnessed that kind of spontaneous interaction or generosity here.
This kind of distance or callousness is something I’ve noticed a few times. The other day, I was in Chinatown. An elderly Chinese woman had fallen, hitting her head on the sidewalk, with blood spilling everywhere. Person after person after person just walked by. Me being both who I am and an Israeli, jumped into help. I bought her water and brought napkins to help stem the bleeding. A wonderfully generous African-American woman came over and held the napkins against the woman’s head. An Asian-American man translated for the woman as he tried to talk to the 911 operator. It was a kind of generosity-filled melting pot that I love about this country.
The disturbing part was watching the people walk by. The people on their phones or who didn’t want to get dirty (I personally got blood all over my sandals…yeah, it’s gross and risky, but was I going to let a woman die to keep my feet clean?). The people who, after helping for a second, just walked away. The woman still dazed and confused, babbling in incoherent Chinese (not that I’d know the difference).
I stayed with her until she got into the ambulance. That’s how you behave like a human being. Your meeting is not more important than a person’s life.
Walking around the Castro, I entered a gay book store. Boy do I love to see gay book stores, the world needs more of them. And more book stores in general. A place I truly feel warm and inspired and at ease. A place of learning and discovery where you don’t have to “look” for anything- you can just look 😉
A lot of the books were really, really left wing. I grew up with these kinds of book stores in D.C. Once they made me excited, now they make me nervous. I think I’ve grown out of this mindset and I think the mindset here has solidified since I left. While some of the material is interesting, it’s often steeped in the black-and-white thinking that plagues both extremes in this country. And usually involves hating Israel.
I noticed some rainbow buttons that said “Proud Queer Muslim” and “Queers Against Islamophobia”. Frankly, they’re pretty neat. Just days after the Pittsburgh massacre (one which personally touched me), I wanted to know if they had any against anti-Semitism.
The store clerk said: “oh you know, I don’t think we do. Somebody must have them. We don’t have any timely buttons.” As if anti-Semitism was a new issue.
To his credit, the store owner paused and said he’d look into it. And steered towards his computer to search. I hope he finds some and puts them out. Anti-Semitism isn’t new and I hope we can count on his solidarity. The moment showed both the deep ignorance that can pervade this country and that sometimes we can puncture it. I hope I moved things in the right direction.
During my visit here, I’ve had a lot of conversations about Israel. The difference between an American Jew and an Israeli is we can’t hide our Jewishness. We’re out-of-the-closet Jews. And as soon as you say you’re from Israel, the conversation begins.
The cool part is when you get awesome people. One man, Nick, is someone who I actually befriended in Tel Aviv helping him buy a sandwich. In town on a business trip, he was struggling to deal with the hectic line, so I stepped in and helped him order. I sat with him and his coworker and had a great time. We kept in touch and he invited me to stay with him for several days here in the Bay Area. Since making aliyah, I often feel Americans are more distant. This is the country where self realization is priority one, where the individual is the greatest unit of meaning.
But Nick shows that some Americans buck that trend and are capable of the spontaneous generosity I’ve come to love in Israel. He’s a new American friend, and I’m happy to have met him and am grateful for his kindness.
Curiously enough (or perhaps not!), Nick and I did some genealogy together and discovered he’s a quarter Jewish. Maybe one day he’ll make aliyah 😉 But in the meantime, I was really happy to help someone discover their roots and connect to our people. I’m proud to have generous people like him as part of our tribe.
Other people are not so fond of the Jewish State. At various moments here, I’ve met people who can’t say the word Israel without following it with the word Palestine (as if I wasn’t aware who my neighbors were). I’ve met people (including Jews!) who said that Israel’s very existence is a fair question. And that someone who doesn’t believe Israel should exist because of our “illegal occupation” is not an anti-Semite. Telling Israelis how to live their lives while sitting in the richest city in the United States. While ironically living in a state whose very name is Spanish and whose territory once was filled with Native Americans. Who now live in abject poverty like the city’s homeless.
I talked to one person who, knowing full well I was Jewish and mourning the Pittsburgh terror attack, said: “I rarely see the Jewish community condemn actions when it isn’t a Jewish person.” That we didn’t care about People of Color. A statement profoundly callous and absurd. Callous because this is our moment to mourn, not for you to politicize our tragedy, rant about Trump, or talk about other (equally heinous) hate crimes. But just to let us be sad for one moment and yes, to make it about us. And absurd because the Jewish community is at the forefront of human rights, civil rights, and immigrants rights in a way few members of these communities do so for us. I can’t recall an LGBT, African-American, or immigrant march against anti-Semitism. I suppose I’m a gay person marching against anti-Semitism, but I think my point about the rallies still stands. I could be wrong, I just literally can’t think of one. And I’m someone who in both the States and Israel has marched countless times for every minority group under the sun. And will continue to do so.
I’ve met people (even left-wing Jews) who claim campus anti-Semitism is right wing propaganda. That it doesn’t really exist. Who believe this and this and this and this and this and this are “fake news”.
When you meet so much ignorance, it’s sometimes hard to feel safe, let loose, and enjoy yourself. I’m a person who likes to talk to people, so when people around me are mean, I don’t have much fun.
I did flirt with a really cute guy in a bagel shop, so San Francisco has its good parts too 😉 If there are any sweet, reserved guys out there who like an ambivert who’s outgoing but also likes a long stroll and deep conversation, hit me up 😉
As evening came, I headed back on the BART train to where I was staying. My Uber app wasn’t working, so I asked a bus driver where the next bus was to my destination. The wonderful middle-aged Latina woman pulled me aside and showed me exactly what to do. She, much like the Israelis I love, wouldn’t let me go until she showed me every step of the process. And got my app running again.
She asked me: “where are you from?”
“Washington, D.C. and now I live in Israel.”
“But you speak Spanish, where are your parents from?”
“So how do you speak such good Spanish?”
“I used to be a Spanish teacher.”
And in the most Israeli response ever: “used to be?”
It was that loving gnaw of guilt. I miss it. And I’m looking forward to feeling it again when I go home to the state I call my own.
The woman sent me on my way: “cuídate m’ijo”. Take care my son.
I miss Latinos and I miss America. I used to work for immigrant rights nonprofits and the best part of this country is its incredible diversity. I miss the people who upend your prejudices and expectations, the random acts of kindness by Americans of every background. The understated people who help, rather than the self-righteous who think doing you a favor indebts you to them. If you want help, ask someone who has less. Who knows what it’s like to struggle. Because chances are that very lack is the pain that makes them more tender. Find the heart bursting at the seams- it’s worth more than a wallet overflowing with cash.
On the train back home, tired of anti-Israel bullshit, I noticed the woman sitting next to me reading Fox News. Just a year and a half ago, that would’ve scared me. And to be honest, it’s not someone I’d probably talk gay marriage and immigrant rights with. But I wanted to test a theory.
I pretended I didn’t know where I was going. I told the woman I was from Israel and asked for directions.
“Israel?! Israel! Wow I was there just a few years ago! What a beautiful place! I saw…”
And then she named every biblical site imaginable. And told me how gorgeous the Golan was. And how she, as a Christian, stood by my country.
My heart is pulled in many directions. As a gay person, I’m concerned about the rightward tilt of this country. As someone who cares about women’s rights, immigrants rights, diversity, and equality, I’m concerned by voices who deny these freedoms. Who justify punishing children stopped at the border. Children who could be very well related to the wonderful bus driver who helped me tonight. Fleeing chaos and violence in El Salvador, a country ridden with gangs and whose drug violence is partially fueled by American consumption. And some of our own failed policies. Whose own government cares so little for its own people. Where the gap between rich and poor is extraordinary- and growing.
And as a Jewish Israeli, I’m concerned about the callousness some American progressives show towards my people. Of course, the same callousness shown by neo-Nazis. For some reason, Jews don’t deserve the compassion of the far left. What drives millions of Americans to march for women, for refugees, for black lives- all of which I support- somehow doesn’t materialize for us. Protesting against Donald Trump is not the same as protesting for Jews. Maybe you don’t think we’re feeble enough for you to take care of us as you purport to do for other minorities. But trust me- while we’re not feeble, our existence is at your behest. As 2% of the population, we don’t live without your tolerance. And if you’re not willing to fight for it, you’ll find more of your neighbors becoming mine in Israel. If you don’t get why we spilled our blood to build a Jewish state now, you never will. Although I’ll keep trying to explain. And hope one day we’ll find ourselves on this sign too:
So when it comes down to it, who should I count on? I’m not just a blogger, I’m a person. Should I go after the university-educated progressives- even some Jews- who think our very existence is up for debate? Should I give up on progressives- knowing open-minded people like Nick are out there eager to learn? Who don’t hate us? Should I accept the support of evangelicals, who give it so freely? Who make my train ride enjoyable, a conversation rather than a debate? Even if it means their victory could put my other identities and values in jeopardy?
I’m not sure. My instinct is to accept support wherever we can get it because frankly, we don’t have a lot. If masses of progressive Americans stood with Israel, we wouldn’t need to rely on other groups’ support. But as a matter of principle, should I reject anyone’s support? The person who made me feel most loved as an Israeli was an Asian-American Christian, not a Jew and not an NPR listener.
November 6th is Election Day. I’ll have you know I requested my absentee ballot from Maryland- but it has not yet arrived. What’s going on Maryland? I might not be able to vote because you’re not doing your job. Here’s my request below:
I hope my ballot does arrive but I’ll tell you what I’m thinking anyways.
My ballot is secret- so I won’t share all. I will tell you this- I’m a registered Democrat and have been almost my whole life. I’ve voted Democratic 95% of the time, with an occasional Libertarian and Green foray. I worked on the Obama Campaign in 2008. Was a Pledged Delegate for him to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. I served in his Administration at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
This year is going to be different. I’m going to vote mostly Democratic. I can’t look that Salvadoran woman in the face and punch a whole next to a bunch of R’s who’d like to see her deported. Or her family suffer. In some cases, even if they’re legal residents. And I care about my own civil liberties and those of all Americans. I’m disturbed by the state of healthcare, the arts, public transit, higher education, poverty, and so much more.
And I’m going to choose at least one, reasonable-sounding Republican (I am from Maryland- we have a few of those left) and I’m going to vote for them. It’s a protest vote and a warning. Democrats- stop taking me for granted. I like a lot of what you have to say but your most radical members are starting to sound as black-and-white as the people they purport to oppose.
I care about myself as an American-Israeli Jew. And if some of the people I met in San Francisco are at all representative of your party’s direction, you can count on my support going elsewhere.
Where, I don’t know. In the perpetual Jewish conundrum of being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, I’m not sure where home is. Other than perhaps the other side of the Mediterranean.
But I will say this- I’m an American citizen. I pay taxes. I was born here. And I will continue to vote here, even if next election I have to request a thousand absentee ballots a year in advance to be heard.
And I want you to hear me clearly: I’m a swing voter. And I’m not afraid to push the lever for a Republican once in a while if I feel the party I once called home doesn’t care about my safety and my well-being.
I’m Israeli and I’m American. You might not want to rally for my rights, but you should want my vote. It’s the only weapon I have. Because just like a Latino voter or an African-American or a gay person- I’m going to ask you a question:
“Why is your party better for the Jewish community and Israel?”
Because in addition to all the other issues I care about, I care about myself. That’s the basis of democracy. Those are my interests.
I miss you America, and I can taste the sweet fortune cookies on my lips. The delicious dumplings and sushi and Thai food I sorely miss. The Halloween outfits and pumpkins I never see in the Jewish State. The interracial couples, the potpourri of cultures, the Chinese-language books in your storefront windows. Teaching immigrants how to adapt to life here. Just like my ancestors did, to give me life today.
I want you strong and I hope to be back soon.
In the meantime, give me some hope you’re going to pull through. Because outside of Israel, the Jewish people has no better home. And I’m still your son even if my heart beats seven hours ahead.
I don’t want to live torn in two.
My mouth closed in apprehension, afraid of how you’ll react when I say: “I’m Israeli.”
p.s.- my cover photo is me and Harvey Milk, a true gay rights hero. What a great feeling to see my gay self represented in bright colors on city walls.