In the year and a half since starting this blog, I have never used Donald Trump’s name for the title of a post. Knowing full-well that more people would click on the post, I still resisted. First off, because I think there are more interesting, textured things in the world to talk about. And secondly, because…basically the first point. Enough people are kicking and screaming (in both directions) about this one individual that I decided that when I did comment on him, it’d be in the context of a post. Not the title.
Being in America now has been odd. On the one hand, it’s been great. America is a very calm place compared to Israel, and indeed much of the world. It has nothing close to the level of crime of Latin America and not nearly the level of terrorism that you see in the Middle East. If you’re American and reading this and tempted to say “of course, but…”, realize how lucky you are. If you’ve never lived through an air raid siren or personally grown up in a favela, you’re doing better than most of the world. And shouldn’t take it for granted. Stop whining.
On the other hand, America is a rough transition. I know I said stop whining, but indulge me for a moment. Israel, for all its faults, is home to a very direct yet flexible culture. People say what they think, which is refreshing. Even if sometimes you wish people would say less. In addition, people find creative solutions. The end result is much, much more important than the formalities of the process. And while sometimes, in excess, that leads to abuse (like the lack of rental protections for apartments), at its best it means creativity and even empathy.
To give an example. I was on the train the other day. Oddly enough, some trains in America still use paper tickets you buy on board. I bought a ticket from a station to one about 15 minutes away. First off, it costs $5, which is absurd. Then I realize that I needed to go one more stop. One stop. The conductor comes over and says I need to buy a whole new ticket. I showed him my prior ticket and asked if I could just pay the difference. His response:
“Now that we’ve passed the other station, your ticket is invalid. You need to buy a new one.”
No matter the irrationality of the rule (I was going one extra stop and clearly hadn’t been on this train before), he stuck to it. And charged me another $5. To go one stop.
This hyper awareness of rules- and their enforcement- is part of what makes it easier to understand boundaries in America. And to protect yourself.
It’s also what makes this place dull and heartless at times.
In Israel, I’ve found myself at countless train stations where my card didn’t work or I bought the wrong ticket and the people simply let me in. I have never, ever been fined anything. The assumption in Israel is that you’re well-intentioned until you prove otherwise. I feel the assumption in America is the rules are the rules and if you didn’t know them or broke them, you pay the price. For better and worse.
There’s a rigidity to this place that is both calming and deeply irritating. I know how the rules work, and I’m angry that they never bend when they should.
As I’m in the States for the time being, I’ve also done a little looking for sublets.
My inclination is to live by myself (re-adjusting to life here and healing from 30 years of trauma is hard enough without tacking on a roommate relationship to manage). But given both my budget and my need for flexibility, I figured I wouldn’t rule out a roommate.
I found a neat ad on Craigslist. Mostly furnished place, ready for move-in now. I emailed with the guy, seemed reasonable. Talked on the phone, and also no red flags. I headed over.
I was in for a surprise.
First off, Mark had a huge American flag in his living room. Nothing alarming, but a bit odd. I can’t remember ever seeing one in previous apartments I had lived in.
Then, Mark tells me he dresses up in cammo and does some sort of military reenactments with his friends. Something akin to paintball, I didn’t quite catch the name.
A bit off the beaten path, but he was being open about it and didn’t want me to be alarmed when I saw him all decked-out. To each his own.
Mark was also excited that I was Israeli. He himself was half Jewish and his landlord was in the IDF. I was already rather nervous coming back to the States. Especially liberal areas where I’ve spent most of my life, where Israel has become a curse word. Rather than a country with its ups and downs like all others. So that was refreshing- check that box off the list.
When I mentioned I was also gay, he said something to the effect of he’s too busy to care what other people do and he has lived with gay roommates in the past. All right- not a super answer, but an offensive one either, as best I could tell.
Then came the kicker.
He showed me his assault rifle.
I really didn’t know what to say.
Those of you who know me know I’m probably one of the most adventurous people out there. I have friends from every background- yes, including Republicans. But this was…new.
I told him as much. He told me he wanted to show me to be up front with me and it was just a hobby- or to shoot intruders. The last part added like kind of a side note, that later flashed brightly in front of me. The red flag slowly starting rising.
I told him I don’t drink. Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m a sober alcoholic- I haven’t drunk in years. So while I don’t mind being around people who drink, it has to be in moderation and no loud parties in my apartment. Or people pressuring me for not drinking.
He said he was a “one beer after work” kind of guy and rarely held parties. A kind of reasonable sentiment, until I started looking around. A quick glance in the living room revealed some 12 large bottles of liquor. In the kitchen, more. In the refrigerator, beer vodka vodka beer.
I started to realize that while Mark was a rather soft spoken and actually quite flexible person (he was even willing to switch rooms if it was quieter for me), he was deeply unaware of himself. And if the small Trump sticker on his bulletin board didn’t seal the deal, his assault rifle meters away from his alcohol did.
Let’s take things in the other direction.
I recently found myself at a university library. One of the staff members was a cute young gay guy. We found ourselves chatting and I mentioned something about living in Tel Aviv and my passion for Jewish history. He seemed excited about the latter, yet the conversation quickly turned to politics. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it ended up there.
Using the most polite, sophisticated words he waxed about the fragility of American democracy, the threat of social media to mankind, the glories of the midterm elections, and you can basically discern the rest. It was like an NPR story had sex with the Liberty Bell. And all the beautifully crafted words basically could be summarized as this: Republicans are evil, Democrats are America’s last hope, and woe to our country. Trump is the anti-Christ. We’re truly disintegrating into oblivion.
While I admit I agree with some of his sentiments, I don’t identify with such a black-and-white worldview. I wondered whether my nuance would stand here as tall as it stood in Israel, and while I’m not yet sure of its height, stand it does.
Because while I probably vote 90% the same way as this man, our worldviews feel quite distant. When I told him about problems in other countries, he almost seemed surprised. As if America’s woes were number one. Everywhere else must be easier.
Except that’s ridiculous. For all the issues here (and there are real ones- healthcare, mass shootings, etc.), this country is pretty well off. It’s one of the richest, safest places on the planet. What’s odd here is that the people complaining the most, the people most absorbed by their angst, tend to be the most comfortable. The highly educated, high-income crowd- just the one that went to Harvard instead of Vanderbilt.
Which leads me to an interesting story.
On New Year’s Eve I found myself alone at a hotel. It was lonely. Between the intense jet lag, the hours upon hours of travel, the job hunt, and the apartment hunt- I was tired. I actually forgot it was New Year’s- it wasn’t high on my agenda. And in Israel, it’s a minor day, so much like Thanksgiving, I didn’t feel it much there.
But here, I felt alone. Everyone was dressed up or with friends, and I was in a new place by myself. And while I like spending time with myself, the potency of the moment made my aloneness strike deeper.
I went for a stroll in the rain.
Coming back, I decided to do something that often lifts my spirits (and would be a nice lesson for the cute gay guy wallowing in his sorrow). I decided to do something nice for someone else.
At the front desk of the hotel was a woman named Donna. Donna is African-American, super friendly, and has been really supportive of me during my apartment/job/life search. No matter what time of day I saw her, she had a big smile and a warm heart.
How warm of a heart, I was about to find out.
I didn’t have much to give. My bank account is dry. My possessions few- they all fit in my two suitcases.
So I sat down and made her a New Year’s card. I got some colored markers and wrote her name in about 20 different languages. And drew a pretty picture.
Then I gave her the card. I told her how much it meant to me how supportive she had been this week. And that it must suck to be working on New Year’s so I wanted to say thank you.
She was moved. She thanked me and talked about why she loved working in a hotel. That she enjoyed customer service- even if some of the customers were rough. She had such a holistic attitude and resilience. And you can see why she likes working with people- she’s a warm-hearted and outgoing person.
She asked what all the languages were and then told me she’d frame the picture with the new picture frames she got as a gift.
Then, Donna and I had a great three hour conversation. About everything. Donna lives in a part of town that does have real problems. Gangs, violence, drugs. She’s worried for her kids’ lives. Including her daughter who was turning 16 that night. And who Donna, being a fantastic mom, treated to a night at the hotel with all her cousins and friends.
I told Donna about my own challenges. About living without my family. About air raid sirens and bomb scares and my dwindling back account. About being alone in so many ways. In a new town, re-adjusting to life in a country I never thought I’d be in right now.
And she was deeply empathetic.
What was so remarkable is that she didn’t want to talk about Trump. When I mentioned the nutsy guy with the assault rifle, she was compassionate towards me. She thought he was nuts. I mentioned he had a Trump sticker and that while I had all different types of friends, he kind of was a living caricature of his voters. But the funny thing is that Donna didn’t bite. While it’s hard to imagine her being a Trump voter (although it’s possible), she just didn’t care to get into a political discussion or a “woe is me” fiesta.
She kept commenting how crazy it was for him to have a gun next to alcohol and that she was glad I was looking for somewhere else.
As our marathon conversation drew to a close (along with some impromptu Destiny’s Child karaoke), I didn’t realize I was in for such a treat.
Her daughter came down, we all sang Happy Birthday, and she gave me some cake.
So I sat there, one Jewish guy and about 15 black kids in a hotel lobby. Singing Happy Birthday- and feeling at home. Realizing that home isn’t about self-pity and it’s not about a physical place. It’s about a total stranger who welcomes you and makes you feel like you matter.
Donna is that kind of person. Despite going through real, rather than imagined, hardships, she keeps her head up. She’s self-aware- she knows the challenges facing her and her family. But she has hope and resilience and knows that the problem is bigger than one person. Even if I agree that that person (yes, Donald Trump) is obviously making most of America’s problems worse.
What struck me about Donna is that she was a naturally curious and welcoming person. When I talked about Israel or Judaism or languages or D.C. or anything- she didn’t argue or judge. She just cared. And treated me like the human being I see her as.
Because what this country needs- what everyone needs- is not just a new political system nor a new leader. Although Lord knows the way things are going won’t work.
What this country needs is empathy. Is kindness. Is love.
Not just for people who look, who pray, who think like you. But for everyone.
And that doesn’t mean forfeiting your personal safety nor pretending that all ideas are equally valid. After all, I didn’t end up rooming with the Trump supporter. Alcohol and firearms are a bad idea, and even if I’d honestly be curious to learn more about his views over coffee, it’s nothing I’m going to risk in the place I call home.
What it means is just being a human being.
And what strikes me about being here is that my loyalties and identities are challenged from two poles.
On the one hand stand people like Mark, infatuated with a kind of preconceived notion of what Israel is. As if we all walk around with Uzis and a ceaseless masculinity. While it’s nice to feel accepted as an Israeli, it’s a one dimensional view of a complicated and interesting place with eight million different people. A place where I spent so much time with Druze and Arabs and queer people. The kind of people Mark doesn’t think of when he thinks of Zion.
On the other hand stand self-righteous but ultimately no less scary people like the library guy. While he appeared to show deep interest in Judaism, it was only insofar as it related to his political agenda. So he railed against right-wing anti-Semitism, but didn’t have anything to say about Israel. His repeated silence in and of itself a kind of answer. In fact, from the moment I sat down, I almost felt interrogated as to how much I agreed with him. A kind of litmus test, perhaps a loyalty test that Jews have faced for centuries. Am I one of the good Jews who embraces his politics? Perhaps not his intention, but certainly how I felt. Because while he was enthused to rail about gender and race and Trump and anti-Semitism, he had not a word to say about Israel even though I mentioned it multiple times. A silence that speaks.
Basically, my identity, like in Israel, stands pulled in multiple directions. My progressive, gay, culturally curious self veering towards the people who dislike me for being Israeli. And my Israeli, assertive, not-always-left-wing nuance landing in bed with people like Mark who think that means I share an entire set of values. Which I don’t.
So where does that leave me?
Torn, confused, tired, pleased (I did eat macaroni and cheese pizza today- God bless America). Safe, scared, whole, calm, anxious.
The one thing reassuring in this process are some of the open-minded people I’ve met that show how great this country can be. And how we can’t fall prey to the extremes who rest self-confident in their judgment of each other- and of all of us.
Waiting for the train the other day, my phone data was low, so I asked a guy for directions. The young man, Dylan, is originally from the Philly area but now lives in Dallas. He was equally lost but, in a move that is straight from an Israeli playbook, he walked with me to find the answer.
Dylan is a great guy. I have no idea what his politics are- if I had to guess, he’s probably left-of-center. Maybe similar to me. Maybe not. I really don’t know. Which is the point.
Because Dylan opened his Google Maps, chatted with me, made me feel at home while lost. Not because of my politics nor my Israeliness (or Americanness). But because I was a fellow human being who was lost. Because he is a nice, compassionate person.
So we ended up spending the train ride together. And it was great. He was intellectually curious, he listened to my stories from my travel (without jumping to conclusions or rushing to categorize what was progressive or not). He basically was just a human being.
So if one thing gives me hope about America, it’s people like Dylan and Donna. That while people are focused on Donald, there are other people whose names start with D worthy of talking about. I’ll take Donna and Dylan over Donald.
That while there’s a time and a place to be angry and to rage. And there’s a time to protect yourself (again, no assault rifles + alcohol). There’s also a time to treat the people around you as people rather than voters. As fellow travelers rather than someone who needs to be heading in the same direction as you.
As people you’re willing to help to find their way, even if it leads to a different station.
I miss Israeli directness. I miss the creativity, the energy, the diverse cultures, the immense amount of things to do.
But I like American quiet sometimes. And while the rules are a bit unruly, they sometimes serve a purpose.
And while the political extremes here have gotten much more extreme since I was last here, there is hope.
The hope that while our views matter, our shared humanity matters most. And the unsung heroes of this country are the people who live out their values in their daily lives. Without a reason to beg for praise or highlight their virtue.
The kind of people who invite you to their 16 year old daughter’s birthday party. Or help you find your train station and make you feel welcome.
Because life is not about your destination. Nor where you start.
And much like the rusty, overpriced train I took, it’s not about the vehicle.
It’s most of all about the direction.
May you find fellow travelers willing to help you get there. And don’t be afraid to be the one to guide someone in need. Not to the station of your choosing, but towards the hope they call home.
Wishing you a fulfilling New Year wherever you roam. With people who light your path and lighten your burden.
p.s.- that’s me and Donna in the cover photo. She says I’m her new BFF and we’re going karaokeing soon. I can’t wait 😉