Over the past few years, I’ve learned the most important lessons. And I learned them from the most unexpected people and places.
On a bus from Hungary to Slovenia this Fall during my backpacking trip, I was seated next to a cute, if grumpy Polish guy. My inner Jew was angry. Was it my nose he didn’t like? What did he have against Washington, D.C. (he said it was boring)? The guy slept for most of the time, which was for the better as my thoughts raced in anger at how this guy was ruining my trip. Why did I get seated next to an anti-Semitic mean guy? Poles were known for their anti-Semitism and while I hadn’t said who I was or where else I was from (sticking with American is usually safer in Europe these days), I had this feeling he was just mean. That he somehow knew I was Jewish and wasn’t going to like it. It’s not a fear completely misplaced. Poland is renowned for its anti-Semitism, currently ruled by a government claiming Poles didn’t participate in the Holocaust. Even the Polish American Cultural Center in Philadelphia has an exhibit claiming Hitler was equally committed to exterminating Poles and Jews- an absurd claim that no historian would support. And a convenient way to exculpate yourself for crimes your own people committed. A people underappreciated by some in the Jewish world- Poles form the largest group of “Righteous Among the Nations“. Non-Jews who saved our lives during the Holocaust.
Sadly, I was taught growing up in my home that Eastern Europeans were reflexively anti-Semitic. Based on no personal experience whatsoever. And while some fit the bill, others do not. I met a Romanian girl who wants to learn Yiddish. I met a Slovenian cell phone salesman who is now eager to visit his town’s Jewish museum after chatting with me. I met a really cute Hungarian guy who decided to visit Israel for vacation- just because. There are all types out there- it’s the most important value I’ve learned from my experience. That if good people shouldn’t be used as a fig leaf to pretend there aren’t dangers or differences between cultures, nor should bad people be the only ones we talk about. My best friend in the world is a deeply religious Muslim, a Syrian refugee living in Iraq. He knows everything about me- and we’ve never even met. And my experience with him doesn’t convince me that all pious Muslims would treat me with equal kindness, nor that none of them would.
What it does is remind me that people are people. That arriving to Israel as a gay Reform progressive Jew- and visiting ultra-Orthodox kin in Bnei Brak- well that changed me. I now see Orthodox Jews as people. Not as ideological enemies, but simply people. Good, bad, weird, nice, just like everyone else. Not that there aren’t differences- every group has differences. But that educated by my synagogue and my family to believe Orthodox were bizarre, backwards, and violent, I realized that they aren’t. Not more or less than any other group. Yes, Haredi men wear Polish noble outfits from the 1700s- but we wear suits to work- is our uniform any less ridiculous? Every culture has its strange beliefs- and when you have the self awareness to see that in yourself, you are a bit less judgmental of the beliefs of others.
Which is how I found myself a month ago at the Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C. A temple I drove by thousands of times during my rocky childhood. Gazing in awe, but never visiting. Curious, but more interested in the delicious Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, everything-ese food that surrounded my incredibly diverse hometown.
But this time in America, after being in Israel, I decided to take a peek inside. I went with a Jewish friend and we talked for literally two hours with Mormon missionaries. Some of the nicest- but not all of them- people in the world. With a never-retreating grin that struck me as a combination of frightful and deeply pathologically relaxing. You can’t really offend a Mormon- they bounce right back and just keep engaging. It’s a resilience, if a bit forced, that progressives could really use right now. Instead of building ideological fortresses. Putting up signs that say “all are welcome” but then defining who is welcome- isn’t that just as problematic as excluding those not listed? Isn’t it also a bit patronizing for you to decide? Are progressives the “protectors” of helpless minorities? And yet if we don’t say who is welcome in our society, are we leaving out the difference that sometimes leads certain people to harder lives here? While the debate rages between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”- I can’t help but sit in confusion. Can’t we say both?
Which is why I left the Mormon Temple with my fair share of critiques. After all, the missionaries have each other’s cell phone passwords to check in on their morality. A rather creepy, Big Brother scenario. But they also were interesting. And individuals. And welcoming. And friendly. And human beings. I met one Austrian woman who even knew some Yiddish! And some were actually less friendly- which while unpleasant, just went to show that Mormons are people too. Which was kind of refreshing. At least I can say my experience with Mormons isn’t based on a musical mocking them. A musical which they had the dignity to turn into a bright public relations opportunity.
Which brings me back to Greg, my Polish nemesis on the bus. Feeling antsy and gazing out the window, waiting for the next rest stop (or mountain- Hungary is really flat, even if I deeply miss its greenness in the dead of American winter), I didn’t want to be around this grumpy influence anymore. What did he have against Washington, D.C.? He went once for a conference- what does he know? If he feels that way about Washington, what’s he going to say if I say I’m Israeli- or Jewish? Two words which I’ve learned in the past year are not the same- although I’ve found myself feeling bits of both. I’m a bit of a contrarian. I feel like an outsider as a Jew in Israel sometimes, and definitely an outsider as an Israeli in many American Jewish circles. We’ll see how it develops. But I suppose every society needs people who can see things from different angles, question conventional wisdom, and be the other voice. Even bridging between different cultures. American Jews and Israelis really need that right now. And I hope to be the voice encouraging one group to think of the other. Encouraging us to think in new ways. I’m learning to embrace that role.
Judaism, no matter where I am, is always going to be important to me. It’s not something to take for granted nor is it something I haven’t questioned- I grew up in a household hostile to the religion they belonged to. Where relatives screamed at me in public for wanting to go to synagogue because of their personal psychoses. And where some relatives even took advantage of my vulnerability as a child- in the synagogue.
One odd therapist I had did have a useful insight. “Most people in your situation, with an abusive family, hostile to your Judaism and your very sense of self, would have given it up to survive”. And sadly, I did have to give up a lot in my life to survive. My house as a kid was a torture camp- I stand in awe at my strength to survive it, and to become kinder than the people who were supposed to protect and nourish me.
But I did hold on to my Judaism, at great personal expense. Because it brings great personal reward. It’s not an easy religion to be a part of. I find it amusing when Jews debate whether we’re going to let people into our tribe– who on earth wants to be a part of the most persecuted society on the planet? Why would we stop them?
While the debate is superfluous, the essence underlying it is valid. We are a pretty cool tribe. I’ve found in Judaism community, meaning, history, language, music, connections to other cultures, psychological insight, spiritual wisdom, and a sense of love.
A love sometimes threatened by people who should appreciate it. Whether it be some Jews themselves, whether it be anti-Semites, whether it be people launching rockets aimlessly at our civilians. Even threatened by the people around me who should’ve been teaching me to love it. But instead would whisper the words “I love you bubbelah”, seeping that warm Yiddish warm into my ear drum, and then forcing me to touch their body.
The Judaism I have is one I’ve fought for. And will always be a part of me, even as I (and it) evolves in meaning.
So when I sit on the bus next to Greg, the Polish neuroscientist, I am nervous. Should I share this part of me with him? Mostly I blast Jewish music into my headphones and stare at the green plains.
Greg eventually woke up. Turns out the poor guy was on a 16 hour, two bus trip from Poland to Slovenia- in the same day. And after a long rest, his grumpiness gave way to kindness.
Turns out, when I shared a bit more about D.C., he realized he didn’t know that much. He even sounded interested. He apologized for his grumpiness- he was exhausted. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish momentary meanness from meanness that stems from an internal axis oriented around cruelty. Those people exist too.
Eventually I saw he was the former- a normally nice guy just having a bad day.
I cheered him up. We shared some stories. And eventually I decided it was worth the risk to share I was Jewish. And, in fact, part Polish. Polish Jewish- the kind that has suffered a lot in the past two hundred years.
He was amenable. He was interested. He was more excited that I was Jewish than that I was American.
He wanted to visit Israel. He showed pangs of guilt about his current anti-Semitic government. Slight pangs that were visible enough to me to feel. It felt great. It was a sign of his kindness.
I’ve learned that empathy is the number one quality I seek in a fellow human being. That often this is reflected to me- given my passion for Judaism- in people who validate my culture. And who I then truly enjoy validating myself. I know a lot about different cultures and speak 10 languages. And it brings me great joy to make Uber drivers from West Africa laugh every time I tell them I like fou-fou. I’ve never heard a laugh so big, so many times. 🙂
So when Greg told me about all this passion and kindness for Judaism- I wept for joy. Not visibly, it just turned into this kind of sweetness inside of me. A sweetness I had had to keep holed up for so many years as I hid bits of my self to protect me from the people encharged with raising me.
That’s a sweetness I carry with me to this day. Along with the strength that protected it. Like the sabra fruit, I’m both sweet and prickly- if you manage to respect me, you’ll get to the sweet stuff. If you mess with me, you’ll get pricked.
I start the next step of my journey. I’m excited. It’ll be tough, but I’ve been through a lot. I hope it is rewarding, peaceful, happy, and full of challenges. The kind that bring you closer to your goal. And some rest, some stability, and growth. Peace of mind, and striving for more. Foundations from which to sprout new opportunities.
As Shabbat descends, I wish you a peaceful week end. Take a moment, pause. Count your blessings. Each of my readers is one. And I thank you, and the kind people who help me on my journey. Marko the Slovenian phone salesman, Greg the neuroscientist, and the Americans I’m meeting and have yet to meet. Who will join on my journey. And I, on theirs. Let’s pursue kindness together.
Gut Shabbes, Shabbat shalom. May it be filled with respite. May you find moments of joy.