Tentative hope

Monday morning, I got my second vaccine shot. What a friggin’ relief. After the painful year we all endured, it feels so good to just be done with it all. Inshallah – God willing.

Even as I await full immunity – and as many of my friends and family still await their shots – I can’t help but reflect on the past year. Reflect, and find some good in it.

When I first moved back from Israel in 2019, I was in a state of chaos. Battling mental health concerns, losing friendships, avoiding family, and even experiencing transient homelessness. It was a scary time that I hope to never repeat.

I started 2019 in Philly, a great city where I made many friends and regained my stability. Eventually, wanting to be closer to family, I decided to come back to D.C. where I grew up. I had a rocky start that eventually gave way to the beginnings of a new life. A job, new friends, activities. All of which suddenly disappeared with COVID.

The initial chaos of COVID gave way to a new way of living. At times, unbearably lonely and chaotic. After all, I lost my job and it became harder to socialize or even see my family for Passover.

And yet, like Jewish history teaches us, life is both bitter and sweet. And this past year has had some real sweetness for me. For every friendship I lost during my period of chaos and confusion after Israel, I’ve made many more new ones. For every moment I lost with my family, this past year has been full of so many beautiful new memories. And thanks to my top-notch mental health team, I feel good. I feel safe. I’m starting to feel more and more whole.

So in short, COVID was a mess. And yet I managed to build a really beautiful life for myself this past year. Perhaps because I was forced to stay in the same place, I had to build what I could with the tools at my disposal. So if I couldn’t go to restaurants (it’s been a year!), I went on walks with friends. And got in better shape. And if I couldn’t go on coffee dates, well, I went on walks yet again! Or sat far from each other on benches in parks. Sometimes in the freezing cold. Or hail.

This year I made some of the best friends I could ever have imagined. People who make my life worth living. This year, I explored every nook and cranny of the D.C. area with my mom, even when we could barely feel our fingers in the cold. Laughing all the way.

This year sucked- and it rocked. I mourn every death because of COVID. And I’m grateful for having one of the most stable, productive, loving years of my life. I wrote a freaking book!

So again, like with most things Jewish, it was good and it was bad- both at the same time sometimes. I’m grateful for the good this past year has brought me and am excited to celebrate my newfound fragile freedom to live even more fully. To invite my friends to Shabbat dinner. To find love. To dance. To visit Israel. And to live like Israelis who, coping with so many threats, take advantage of every moment of life to thrive.

My cover photo is from Sderot, a city that has endured it all – years of neglect, poverty, and Hamas rockets. It’s a city that has survived despite it all. When you’ve been through the thick and thin, you can come out bitter. Or come out sweeter than you could have ever imagined. I’m someone who, like Sderot, has endured and has the big empathic heart of a survivor.

Thanks to great friends and family, I won this year. I can’t wait to see what waits ahead. May it be sweet for me and for you.

A Jew does not despair

It has been a while since I’ve written a blog post. November 2nd was my last post, right before the election. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without writing in a year. That’s ironic for someone who wrote a book during the pandemic. Writing is therapeutic, it is healing, it is revealing.

During the past few months, so much has happened in both Israel and America. The Capitol insurrection, Inauguration, the winter COVID crisis, vaccination campaigns, and in between all of those major events, I held a dozen different virtual book events. These events took place in order to engage the community around my book, More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic.

What I found was that during the darkest hours, staying connected to these stories and to Israel itself gave me a sort of calm, a deep happiness, a smile on my face. “Despite it all” as Israelis say. There are a number of reasons why I choose to live in the U.S. and not Israel. And a lot of reasons why I miss Israel and wish I could be visiting there right now.

What’s consistent, then, is that I can’t live without either place. And at a time when Israel’s skies are closed and I haven’t been vaccinated yet, I just can’t go there. It breaks my heart. I have friends I haven’t seen in a year and half, I have foods I miss, I have views I want to gaze upon. Yes, despite the title of my book, I miss the hummus!

I yearn to tell new stories from Israel, not the ones I’ve already written about. I want to explore, to meet new people from this gorgeous land across the sea. To have new adventures.

And yet we can’t. A number of famous rabbis are quoted as saying: “A Jew doesn’t despair”. So if I’m a Jew, where does that leave me? How do I accept the limits of my connection to Israel right now while keeping the flame burning for when I can go back?

I’m not sure. And in that answer, I feel thoroughly Israeli. Because one thing I learned from my experience there is that Israelis live in – and are rather brilliant in accepting – uncertainty.

I’m reminded of the time I visited Kibbutz Nir Am and Sderot. These are two areas that had been hit rather viciously with Hamas rocket fire and flaming kites that burned nearby forests to a crisp. I walked from the train to Kibbutz Nir Am and simply walked around. The place was almost silent. The crops nearby completely burnt to a crisp. And more kites were falling that day. I was a little scared, but I felt it was my duty to understand what these people were going through.

I finally came across a father with a 5-year-old daughter. I asked him how they were faring. He was honest – his daughter was scared and confused. He had to take her to school each day with fields burning and sometimes she had to hide in the bomb shelter. Not long ago, they discovered a Hamas tunnel going right underneath the kibbutz.

When I asked him how they cope with all the stress, he said with a mix of resignation and determination: “anachnu sordim”. We are surviving.

That is what it means to be a Jew. It is, against all odds, to survive. To do it in the face of deep uncertainty. Sometimes we truly manage to thrive. But we can’t always. Sometimes it’s simply enough to be. That is what sometimes defines success. Just like the Purim story we celebrate today.

On a day when I woke up early to try the completely defunct and backwards DC vaccination site – and failed to get an appointment – I suppose this man from Nir Am has a lesson for me.

I’m alive. Yes, some days are quite hard. And I think we’re all thoroughly sick of COVID. What a nightmare. And I can find gratitude in the fact that I’m healthy, I’m safe, I have a bed to sleep in, I have food, I have friends and family who love me.

So how do I stay connected to Israel during this time? I’m not sure. I talk to friends, I listen to music, I watch TV shows. And it’ll never be like being there itself. I’ll have to wait.

Because what our job is now is not to travel, is not to explore- it’s to survive for the day when we can do that again. It’s to care for each other. And in doing so, to find a sense of purpose amidst the chaos.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach – have a hope-filled holiday. We survived in ancient Persia and we’ll do it again.

Game time for democracy

For those of you who follow Middle Eastern politics, you might have noticed the thousands of Israelis protesting Benjamin Netanyahu over the past few months. What’s interesting about the protests (which I avidly support) is how they are framed. While most protestors I had seen in the past had focused on Bibi’s corruption, many of these protestors were calling on their fellow citizens to “save democracy”. The two concepts are intertwined, but it’s the understanding that democracy itself is at risk that we in the U.S. should pay attention to.

Faced with our own corrupt leader who doesn’t believe in democracy, what are we to do? We have to prepare ourselves with survival tactics to resist and ultimately disarm Donald Trump’s machine of lies. I don’t use these words lightly- I have friends and relatives voting for this man. People I care about. But whether they choose to understand reality as it is or not, the facts are such that our very democratic system is at risk. As Bernie Sanders said, this election is not about Trump vs. Biden, it is Trump vs. democracy itself.

Democrats and allies on the progressive spectrum in the U.S. have a lot to learn from our Israeli ideological counterparts. Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for 15 years in a row. And yet Israeli civil society, although in some ways “on the ropes”, has managed to forcefully resist his authoritarian tendencies. Progressive Israelis have managed to build Arabic-Hebrew bilingual schools, Israeli-Palestinian dialogue/solidarity groups, societal support for LGBT adoption rights, and so much more. All in the face of a strongman who cares nothing for human rights. The peaceful protestors over the past few months have been tear gassed as if Israel were, well, more like some of its neighbors than the glowing democracy government mouthpieces claim it is.

So back to the American elections tomorrow. It’s clear that civil society can flourish even under an autocrat trying to dismantle democracy – like both Bibi and Trump. However, it is hard. Hard as hell. And I hope that if, G-d forbid Trump wins or steals the election, we as Americans will have the wherewithal to build that resistance. I think we have the power.

The better option is to win this election like our lives depended on it. And like our democracy won’t survive without a Biden win. Because America is not immune to the authoritarian winds blowing throughout the world these days. Freedom is fragile.

If we don’t want to live in a society where Trump is President for a decade and a half like Bibi, it’s time to put aside any doubts. Any third party flirtations. Any questions about Biden himself (who wasn’t my first choice). And to vote for him and Kamala Harris and get everyone you know to do so.

Because it’s not just our future that’s at stake – it’s our present.

As my cover photo says, “only love will win”. Let’s do this for democracy tomorrow.

Why Israel needs to exist

America stands at the precipice of the most intense election it has known in decades. As each side ramps up its rhetoric (full disclosure: I’m voting for Biden), the atmosphere becomes more and more heated. With COVID-19 still raging and no vaccine yet proven to prevent it, our country finds itself led by demagoguery and populism rather than patience and science. And everyone, Democrat or Republican, can’t be having a great time as this pandemic remakes our faltering economy and splintering society.

What disturbs me most about this scenario is the potential for violence. I think the likelihood is, fingers crossed, that Joe Biden will win on Election Day, carried by both progressive and centrist voters looking for true leadership. In this event, I can’t help but wonder if our impulsive President won’t call on his faithful followers to rally behind him in a campaign to derail democracy. A campaign that would likely require violence. While it’s not beyond the far left to engage in violence as well (as would probably be the case if the President wins a contested election), I’m frankly more fearful of the scenario I just laid out.

The possibility of election-related violence is not an absurd notion- a quick review of the news will reveal deep thinkers and journalists broaching the possibility.

The question then becomes what to do about it. On a preventative level, I hope the Biden campaign, any sensible voices left in the Trump campaign, police departments, and federal law enforcement have prepared for these potential situations. I hope they are ready to defend and protect a democratic electoral process- and all of our nation’s people. No matter the color of their skin or their political affiliation.

I found myself particularly anxious today thinking about the possibility of a social breakdown due to a contested election stacked on top of COVID-19 woes. I thought through my options. I could talk to my mom (as every nice Jewish boy does when feeling down), I could stockpile food and hand wipes, I could sign up for security alerts, I could call my therapist. Any number of actions I could take both now and in the future to mitigate this stress. In the end, I went grocery shopping to buy some delicious produce and decided to write this blog. I’m lucky enough to still live in a democracy where freedom of expression is protected and am fortunate enough to have a grocery store nearby. Two things that many people around the world don’t enjoy. And I don’t take for granted.

Where does this tie in with Israel?

Thinking through my options, I realized that if things get really bad in America, I am blessed to have an Israeli passport. Not that I only want to be in Israel when things are bad in the States- I love going to Israel. But to move back right now in the midst of an Israeli economic meltdown and the highest COVID-19 morbidity rate in the world is not a priority for me.

Nonetheless, it is an option for me. As it is for every human being with one Jewish grandparent or married to a Jew. It’s an option that I intend to exercise should the shit the proverbial fan in the U.S. Something I pray doesn’t happen.

Israel has been and continues to be a haven for Jews fleeing persecution. Nearly everyone there is a refugee or the descendant of one. People who lost everything, only to rebuild in a new land. The land of our ancestors.

Israeli politics frequently disappoints my ideals and the ideals of many of Israel’s founders. And yet its existence has allowed for millions of lives to be saved. It’s a miracle I’m grateful for every day.

Ideally, we should all feel safe wherever we live. We shouldn’t need havens. And yet certain groups of people are prone to being persecuted, making the concept necessary. Which is why I’ve been involved in refugee advocacy for most of my adult life. It was actually a largely Jewish team in the shadow of the Holocaust that put together the refugee and asylum system that saves lives around the world.

I wish other groups in America felt safe or felt they had a back-up option like I do. African-Americans, in particular, are targeted much like they have been throughout American history. And I worry for the safety of all ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities at this time.

So here’s to hoping. Here’s to hoping that even if you can’t go to Israel come November if things get bad, that you’ll find your own little Israel. A space that feels safe to you- physically, socially, psychologically. And may I be part of that Israel for you. That you can reach out to me, just like I hope I can reach out to you. Because no matter what comes, if we deal with it together, we are bound to be stronger.

And please, please, please- vote. Vote for peace.

I wrote a book

The past few months have been a struggle for me personally, for both of my countries, and for the world.  As death tolls skyrocketed and we found ourselves in quarantine, I found myself increasingly searching for what to do next.  Just before quarantine, I had started a new project that I had been dreaming about for several years: writing a book.

The task, the aspiration, took on new meaning as I found myself with loads of free time and little to do with it.  I picked up painting as a new hobby, but I wanted to do something a bit more meaningful and productive as well.

So I looked back on my 100+ blog entries and wasn’t sure where to start.  I had adventured not only in Israel, but also in almost a dozen European countries.  And even within Israel, I had explored a wide variety of communities, ranging from Haredim to refugees, from LGBTs to Reform Jews – and everything in between.  Where should I start?

With the options overwhelming, and not wanting to write a 500 page book, I decided to start with my explorations using the Arabic language.  After all, it was one of the most unique (and one of my favorite) vantage points for exploring Israel.  And one of the least expected.  What was this gay Jew doing exploring Israel in Arabic – and not with the goal of covering the Arab-Israeli conflict?

As I started to write and compile in my little indoor bunker of an apartment, I started to remember the fond memories I had of exploring Israel.  And felt grateful that I got to see what I saw when I did- when I still could.  That I took advantage of every opportunity to see new ways of life, new forms of thinking, and ultimately meet new friends.  Which is how my Israeli WhatsApp contacts include an American-Israeli tour guide married to a woodworker, a Muslim Bedouin student, a Bulgarian-Israeli immigrant, and an Orthodox gay guy among others.

This book, more than anything else, is about these kind of one-on-one personal experiences.  That I happened to make because I spoke Arabic in a country where four different religious communities speak it.

It’s about connection and it’s about making peace – not through big agreements, but through individual friendships and conversations that help you cross cultural boundaries and build a bit of hope in places that really need it.  Including your own heart.

I encourage you to join me on this journey and read “More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic”.  It’s available on Amazon.com – Kindle and black-and-white interior paperback and color interior paperback.

When we can’t leave our homes to travel where we want, join me on this adventure from the comfort of your living room.

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The Israeli solution to COVID

The past few months have been a mess in many respects.  I don’t need to be another person to tell you about the massive amount of death, of political idiocy, and economic disaster.  You know it- you’re living it with me.

Coronavirus is tiring.  Not just the news (which I have limited myself to viewing one day a week).  It’s the seeing little children wearing masks.  It’s the hour I spend wiping down my groceries.  It’s the fear I feel when there’s a leak in my apartment.  Not from the leak itself, but from the fact that building maintenance will have to come and how will I keep my social distance.  Will they be wearing a mask?  Will I have to disinfect my (soaking wet) couch that they moved since they touched it?  Can I even disinfect a couch?

It’s the endless litany of questions you ask yourself every day to stay safe but still build a life worth living.  Balancing that need for safety with the desire to see friends, to go outside, to live in a lively way at a time when there is so much pain and fear.  When you find yourself avoiding people on the sidewalk as if they were the plague itself.  Because what if…

In a lot of ways, America has proven utterly inept at responding to this crisis.  Our fierce independence and distrust of authority, which helped us create this country, become liabilities when communal responsibility is required to survive.

This push and pull between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, libertarian and communal that can be a source of creative tension.  Or destruction.  It lends itself to an interesting question.  How honest are Americans as they have this debate and what does it have to do with COVID-19?

Having lived in Israel, one of the most common tropes I heard about Americans was that we were fake.  That when we asked “how are you?” we didn’t expect a real answer.  I often found myself pushing against this notion, because clearly Americans are a diverse lot, capable of being as fake or authentic as everyone else.

And yet as I watch people coping with the COVID-19 crisis here, I can’t help but think there’s a grain of truth to this Israeli stereotype.  Because the expected answer to “how are you?” in American culture is “I’m fine, thanks”.  Which is not an answer.  It’s a lie.  Especially at a time like this- nobody’s fine.  Some days might be good, some days might be shitty.  But none of them are just fine.  Well and swell.  It’s just not real.

My question is as we debate the political and social ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis here, could we learn something from Israeli directness?  Could we, instead of packaging our comments in “please” and “thank you” just drop the charade and let ourselves be angry, be sad, be surprisingly happy in the face of it all.  Whatever we’re actually feeling.  And share that with those who agree with us- and yes, with those who don’t.

It’s not because I live in a dream world where I think emotional honesty will all by itself heal the rift tearing our country apart, as Democrats and Republicans fall ever deeper into ideological pits harder and harder to climb out of.  Nor does it mean assigning the blame 50-50 to each side.  Hardly- I’m a Democrat and I think 95% of the irresponsible political behavior over the past few months has to be owned by Donald Trump and Republican governors disregarding public health experts by opening their states too soon.  I also believe all of us have ideological biases and gaps in our logic.

But see that’s the thing- I was honest.  I didn’t sugarcoat.  And it doesn’t make me any less willing to engage with (or want to persuade) someone who disagrees.  I didn’t take my ball and go home.  Because what I learned in Israel is you can be direct and respectful.  That being upfront about our personal emotions and opinions can do good not only for ourselves, but perhaps for society.  It’s not easy at first, but once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.

Back to the “I’m fine, thanks!” era.  That era is over.  Thank God.  The new one is up to us to define.  May we do it wisely.

The man from Eilaboun

The past month has been stressful.  Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m not alone in coping with this stress.  The whole world is suffering.  Quarantines, layoffs, sickness, death- it’s nauseating and depressing.  I’ve given up on reading the news, except for my favorite site.  I mostly count on my mom to filter in the information I actually need to know to protect myself.  We’re living in, if not unprecedented, then supremely strange and difficult times.

So how do we respond to such confusion and chaos?  Pain and suffering?

The answer lies in some happier times I experienced.

One day I found myself on a bus from Tel Aviv headed northward.  I had long wanted to visit the Christian Arab town of Eilaboun.  It is absolutely stunning in beauty.

The town is surrounded by orchards and olive trees.  The scenery didn’t disappoint.  But just as importantly, neither did the people.  When I knocked on someone’s door to see if I could visit the church, the elderly gentleman was quick to not only open the building, but also to be my tour guide.  The tiny building was beautifully decorated. And I got to go on the roof and see where the old man had, as a child, been the one responsible for ringing the church bells.  He regaled me with stories of his naughty childhood antics- he was such a sweet man.

After having visited the church, I decided to roam the fields a bit- I like doing that kind of thing.  Just communing with nature and being in touch with my surroundings in a way that was hard to do in Tel Aviv except when I’d go to the shore.

Suddenly, as has happened to me a few times on my travels, I found myself a bit too long in the bright Middle Eastern sun and my water was running dangerously low.  With no store in sight, I wasn’t sure what to do.  It’s not exactly like there’s a cab waiting alongside an olive grove that you can hail.

Starting to get a bit worried, I came upon another elderly man.  This man was working by his shed in the fields.  He must’ve been at least 75.  I greeted him in Arabic and told him I was trying to find water.  I noticed he had a large two-liter bottle next to him.  He reached for it.  I figured he’s pour me a cup – he had some.  And that, to quote the spirit of our recent Passover holiday, would have been enough.

Instead, he handed me the whole bottle.  Without hesitation, without asking where I was from, who I was, what I was doing wandering an olive grove.  No questions.  Just handed me the bottle.

I was shocked.  I had seen tremendous generosity in Israel but this was a new record.  I asked him if he was absolutely sure he could part with the water.  And he insisted I take it.

In the Middle East, water isn’t a fun thing to sprinkle on your plants or to fill a bathtub with or to fill pools with in every neighborhood.  It is a precious commodity.  It is quite simply life.

So as we’re faced with our own societal drought- a drought of reason, a drought of compassion, a drought of knowledge to combat a disease we know precious little about.  Focus on what we do know.  And what we can do.  And what we can do is share our bottles.  Since we can’t hand someone a drink, find another way to contribute.  Call a friend.  Teach someone a new skill.  Help your neighbor navigate the unemployment system.  And even as we all ask for help ourselves – and rightly so – be sure to find your water bottle and give it away.  Like the man in Eilaboun did for me.

Because that’s the reason I’m sitting here typing this blog.

From a former die-hard Bernie supporter

As I’m sure all of you know by now, if nothing else because of the surge of ads, the Democratic primary is underway.

Among the slew of Democrats who have competed (and the not-so-small number still competing), each candidate has his or her strengths and flaws.  Personally, I’ll be happy to have anyone new in the White House who is a functioning adult and doesn’t make foreign policy via Twitter.

That being said, not all of the candidates are equal in my mind.

But first, a bit of context.  In 2008, I worked on the Obama Campaign and was a pledged delegate for him at the Democratic National Convention.  In 2016, I not only voted for Bernie Sanders, I held a house party for the campaign.  I became so upset with the party’s treatment of him that I (albeit in the very safe blue state of Maryland) voted for the Green Party in the general election.

This time around, I feel different.

It’s not because Bernie doesn’t have some good policies.  His approach to higher education and healthcare is correct and would put us in the same category as Israel or most Western European countries.  It’s a crying shame that there are un- and under-insured people in this country.  And if countries with fractions of our GDP can do it, so can we.  It’s time to stop pretending we’re so different from the rest of the world that it just “couldn’t be done” here.  It can- and should.

That being said, especially after having spent time in Israel, there is something grating about the way Bernie talks about the world.  It’s so utterly black-and-white in its approach, when the world is shaded in so many hues of gray.

It’s the half-Norwegian half-Persian Jew who celebrates Passover with smoked fish and steaming kabobs.  It’s the Bedouin man who married a Jewish woman who converted to Islam but are raising their kids Jewish- with Arabic spoken at home, and Hebrew at school.  It’s the far right-wing man I saw on TV saying he’d vote for Lucy Aharish, an Arab TV celebrity, for Prime Minister.  It’s the Hasidic Jew I met who fixed my cell phone!  And will almost certainly go to the voting booth to vote for the most homophobic party in the Knesset.  Meanwhile, I bought him dinner.

Life, my friends, is not simple.  And while sometimes there are clear victims and perpetrators, oftentimes, especially when talking about masses of people, it’s not so simple.  The Palestinian kid in the refugee camp is not the Hamas leader launching rockets, nor is the Israeli settler attacking Palestinian farmers the same as the settler who engages in peaceful dialogue with his or her neighbors.  Because yes, settler-Palestinian dialogue is a thing.

But much as Bernie boils down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days to a matter of a lofty giant trouncing a powerless foe, he does so with pretty much every issue he can talk about.  I’m not a particular fan of the way wealth is distributed in our society, but I also would like to lose the “millionaires and billionaires” line he constantly repeats.  It’s old and it’s not going to move us forward.

And what it also won’t do is attract a single centrist Democrat or Republican vote when ultimately a (theoretical) President Sanders has to actually pass legislation, rather than just give a rowdy stump speech.

Again, I’ll be happy if anyone can begin to bring order after what has been perhaps the most chaotic and unruly presidency we’ve seen in my lifetime.  If the person to bring that order is President Sanders, then the people will have spoken.

But my hunch is that if he’s the nominee, the people will look at Trump and Sanders and millions will vote with their feet and stay home.  That’s not my plan- I’ll vote for Bernie if that’s what’s on the menu.  But don’t get me wrong- I think it’s a mistake to nominate him and I think that he jeopardizes the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House.  And we’d do well to nominate someone a bit more nuanced and a little less angry.

Just some thoughts from a former “Bernie or bust” kind of guy 🙂

A Jew and a Syrian refugee in Cyprus

Today, the White House released its long-awaited “peace plan”.  It’s also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And on top of that, impeachment proceedings continue to plod along in the Senate.  It would be what you’d call a heavy news day, at least if you’re following my particular Facebook feed.

The barrage of information, even sometimes important and valuable information, can leave me feeling hopeless.  Hopeless because sometimes it’s just too much to hold in one person’s body and not feel out of control.  Like the world is spinning, I’m meant to be “aware” of everything, and as one individual, I get little say.

So here’s a short story about how we can all make a little difference without being glued to the news- or social media.

I found myself about three years ago in need of a vacation.  Having not long ago moved to Israel, I was exhausted.  The process of getting adjusted to Israeli culture, bureaucracy, housing, and bureaucracy (yes, that deserves two mentions) left me feeling exhausted.  I needed a break.  A moment to celebrate my accomplishments in moving halfway around the world.  And also a chance to breathe in another culture that I had long been interested in.

I hopped on a $24 flight (yes, that’s not missing a zero, I paid as much for dinner the other night) and went to Cyprus!  The Greek part.  Because Cyprus, like Israel, has a Green Line and its own conflict with a Turkish-occupied region in the north.

Cyprus is a beautiful island.  In December, around Christmastime when I was there, the island was almost empty of tourists.  Which is odd because it’s reasonably warm and its crystalline waters even attract Russian bathers used to the frigid north.

The country is filled with ancient history alongside modern street art.  Paphos, where I stayed, reminds me a lot of Israel, or at least some hybrid of Tel Aviv’s hipster Florentine neighborhood mixed with the Roman ruins of Caesarea.

I stayed in a tiny hostel in the center of Paphos, the ancient capital of the island.  One day, I found myself hiking up a street on the outskirts of town.  A woman in a hijab approached me.  Speaking broken Greek (about my level!), she kept asking about a grocery store.  I tried my Arabic, and turns out she was Syrian.

When I spoke Arabic, her eyes lit up.  Not only because we could now communicate, but because we spoke the same Arabic- Syrian.  Turns out she was asking directions to a grocery store and I had no idea where it was.  I found a local clerk who spoke English and translated between them to get directions to the Halal store.

The woman was elated.  She, along with her three children, were alone in Cyprus.  Her husband had been killed by the Assad regime in Syria, in what is truly a sort of modern-day Holocaust since today is about remembering.

She asked if I could come to the store with her.  I asked if she was worried she’d get lost, but I could tell by the way she hesitated that what she needed was money.  She had no job and they were barely subsisting on this new island away from their home.  Trying to build a new one.

I didn’t have much.  Once I took out my bus fare, I had 20 Euros left, so I handed them to her.  She asked me where I was from and I said “I’m Jewish, I live in Tel Aviv- I’m from Israel”.  She was surprised but not an iota less grateful.

As I walked along the road, I bid them goodbye.  They kept waving, shouting ma3 assalameh, shoukran- goodbye, thank you.  Over and over before I headed my way and they headed theirs.

It breaks my heart.  I wish I could’ve given them so many things- residency, a job, their dead family members back, enough money to build a life.  A clock that could wind back time and bring them back to the home they once knew.

But I couldn’t do that- none of it.  So rather than drowning myself in sorrow or a constant news feed of the world’s troubles, I just took 10 minutes and tried to be human.  To show a bit of compassion to make someone else’s day better.  What countless people do for me.

To those friends I know- and those I don’t- that have helped me make my sojourn better: thank you.

And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the days ups and downs and the latest news cycle, don’t give up.  Gently pull yourself away and remember this story.  Because I have a feeling, or maybe just a hope, that that woman’s family is giving someone else directions now.

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A gay Reform ally for Haredim

To say my identity puts me on the other end of the Jewish spectrum from ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) communities is an understatement.  Reform Jews are seen by many in the Haredi world at best as misguided and at worst, ideological enemies.  And gay people, well, are seen as much worse.  Not every Haredi person is a homophobe.  I’ve met some, including through my blog, who see themselves as allies or in the case of one secret Facebook group I’m in, as gay themselves.  And yet a tremendous number of Haredi Jews condemn homosexuality in the most severe terms, making it nearly impossible for someone in their community to come out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, let alone come out of the closet as queer.  Something which is slowly but hopefully changing for the better.

I share these observations not just from my intuition or news articles, but from lived experience.  Among all my progressive Jewish friends, I have by far spent the most time in Haredi communities.  To the extent where I have two “go-to” restaurants in Bnei Brak, including one where I get the greatest hugs.  I have explored the largest Haredi city in the world many times, and even found things to like.  I even met Hasidim who watch Game of Thrones and boxing on YouTube.  And more perplexingly, actually met Bedouin and chatted in Arabic on the streets of the world’s largest shtetl.

My adventures have taken me outside Bnei Brak as well, including to a cave of Lithuanian misnagdim in Tsfat, a conversation about marijuana and gay identity in Modi’in Illit,  I’ve visited Haredi communities in Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Antwerp, Me’ah Shearim, and more.

The adventures sometimes go well and sometimes don’t.  I once told a Breslover Hasid I was Reform and it didn’t register even the slightest expression of disapproval.  I once told a Yiddish teacher I was Reform and he berated me- during the lesson I was paying for.  I rarely have felt at ease as a gay person and often felt the need to be closeted when entering this community, which made me deeply uncomfortable.  And one Chabad rabbi’s wife I know identifies as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of this is to say that when we see attacks against our Haredi sisters and brothers on TV these days (of which there have been a lot), I understand why this is complicated.  Far too rarely do these communities stand in solidarity for my well being and human rights.  And yet- some do.  And furthermore, the philosophical question arises of whether we should only stand with those who stand with us.  Or whether we have an obligation regardless.  And perhaps, through some positive interactions, can even bring people together in new ways.

As a gay Reform Jew, I feel my tradition obligates me to stand with Haredi communities battling seemingly endless anti-Semitism.  Not just because it affects me as a fellow Jew (we should be realistic- hatred never stops at one community’s door), but because our tradition asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  To be brave.  To lock hands with someone different from you, and hopefully open all hearts involved in the process.

It is ideologically easy for liberal American Jews to stand with refugees, with immigrants, with the queer community, against climate change, and a whole series of other issues that fit neatly into our ideological profile.  Into my ideological profile as well.

It is much more challenging, and equally important, to push ourselves to extend our solidarity to our brethren whose politics, dress, and approach to faith differ from our own.

So in the end, that is my hope.  That liberal American Jews such as me can find it in our hearts to extend a hand to our Haredi brothers and sisters.  And that they will grasp it.  We both have much to gain from such a partnership.  And much to lose- for the people who hate us will hardly care how we pray or what we wear.  They care that we are different.  We are Jews.

The cover photo is one I took while visiting and learning at the Breslover Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.