Packing up home

My mom z”l passed away on Tuesday April 18th, 2023. This past Sunday, about 10-15 very dear friends of mine came over to help pack things up. The only consolation on a very, very difficult day was the presence of these kind individuals, helping me sort through three and a half decades of our family life.

In fact, their presence so radiated throughout the house that had known so many wonderful family memories that it temporarily obscured the pain I was experiencing. While I found a moment to cry in my mom’s old bedroom, most of the time I actually felt reasonably good. But that’s the nature of trauma. It comes in waves. It ebbs and flows. And can sometimes hit you when you least expect it.

Some of my friends in their 20s and 30s have lost parents, though fortunately most have not. Of those who did, very few have experienced what I did this past weekend because usually there is a second parent to help with managing the deceased parent’s belongings, medical bills, and house.

Several friends have asked if I have anyone to help me. And to a degree I do- I have several relatives and family friends who’ve stepped up to help out. And I have a top-notch group of close friends who’ve time and again gone out of their way to help me.

But here’s what people need to understand: some things only I can do. My friends and family can’t decide whether to keep my childhood books, my stuffed Ernie that my mom repaired countless times as his dangling cotton-filled arm repeatedly threatened to dismember, my mom’s mosaics, my high school yearbooks, my mom’s records, or my family photos from Japan.

My friends and family can’t sign legal or financial documents, or do something as dark but necessary as designating my *own* beneficiaries.

What my friends and family can do – and some of them really have been doing – is to provide unconditional love. To go out of their way and make spending time together a priority. To be a phone call away. To help pack up my mom’s house. To check in on me.

To those people who’ve been making me feel loved – thank you. Nothing can replace the love of a mother, but the kindness of a friend goes a long way to soothing my soul during this difficult time.

Touching the objects of my childhood was not easy. Some of them reminded me of my loving mom, some of my toxic father, and some of myself as a young boy. That child-like part of myself that I had tucked away for years, hadn’t thought of in what seemed like millennia. At times it made me smile. And at times, it made me want to cry.

Where have the years gone? How I can honor my memories of my mom, of my step-dad, of myself? Where is the justice in buying two parents within 5 months of each other? How do I give up my childhood home so soon after?

These are all impossible questions to answer. But the only question that haunts me from morning to night – and sometimes in the middle of the night – is a simple one: “Where’s my mom?”

There are many answers to this question, both literal and metaphorical. And while I know I carry a part of her with me wherever I go, the answer to my question of “where’s my mom?” is “not here, not again in the flesh.”

Nothing put this answer into such stark contrast as packing up her belongings and my childhood home that we shared together since I was three years old. Because as those belongings cross the threshold and depart that house in the coming months, it’ll hit me with greater force. My mom is gone.

Mourning is a process. My period of shloshim is over. I continue to recite the mourner’s kaddish each night for my mom’s soul. And each night I have a little conversation with her – I do believe she’s in touch with me. And it doesn’t make it any easier to not be able to call or see her here.

To the people here in this world who are accompanying me on this journey: thank you. I can’t put into words what comfort it is to be able to rely on you. My mom taught me relationships, not things, are what matter. So I’ll take this message to heart. The things we packed were important, but the most important thing from last Sunday can’t fit in a box, and that is your love.

Miss you momma.

Every blade of grass has its own song

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind. With my mom’s passing on April 18th and the funeral and the shiva, not to mention the several years of ups and downs with the cancer treatment, I am completely and utterly exhausted. It’s 11:19pm on a Sunday and the quiet has set in. After a day, indeed a weekend, of seeing great friends, I felt boosted and even happy at times. It is only when the quiet sets in that my anxiety spikes and the sadness, more than anything else, comes to fruition.

I find myself doing what I know how to do to process my feelings, which is to write. When I lived in Israel, I started this blog as a way to keep in touch with my friends back home. And now I continue it as a way to keep in touch with my mom.

Mourning has been an uneven process, as I’ve been told to expect by clergy and family and friends. It comes in waves. I was lucky enough for my mom to make me a video and several audio clips when she was aware of her impending passing but alive enough to record something for me. In the clips that I’ve heard so far, she envisions a beautiful future for me. And encourages me to pursue it in her honor. I bawl every time I watch her. What an incredible gift that she gave me. And what an incredible robbery that she won’t be able to be there for my life milestones going forward.

At my mom’s funeral, I requested that the cantor learn to play one of my favorite Jewish songs, “Shirat Ha’asavim” – the song of the grasses. In this adaptation of the mystical Rabbi Nachman of Breslav’s words, Naomi Shemer sings that “every blade of grass has its own song”. When I lived in Israel, when I was out of touch with my family in part due to my own mental health issues, I would yearn for a way to reconnect. And I would sing this song in the fields of the holiest of lands. It sustained me and got me to where I am today. Just like my mom.

A few months ago, when we knew my mom was going to pass away, my mom and I met with one of our family’s rabbis (we’re lucky to have several!). I wanted to give my mom the chance to talk about how she envisioned being honored. It was a difficult and at times surreal conversation to have, but one that was important. It came to me that when the rabbi asked what if anything I would like in the service, that I wanted to include this beautiful song. It brought things full circle. Even when I was out of touch with family, I could feel a spiritual presence looking over me. A presence I still feel with me at times even though my mom has departed this earth. I believe my mom’s presence continues to guard over me and look after my well-being at a time when I sorely need it.

And for those needs she can’t take care of, I’m lucky enough to have an entire cadre of amazing friends who have stepped up to grieve with me, to cook for me, to care for me. Just like my mom would’ve wanted.

So mom, I can’t help but cry when I think of you. But know that it just means I love and loved you very much. And you always taught me it’s OK for boys to cry.

Not a day goes by without me thinking of you and trying to live my life in a way that would make you proud.

Thank you for always having my back, even when sometimes I didn’t know I needed it.

Sometimes the burden feels too heavy to carry. I will do everything I can to move forward, but won’t be afraid to ask for help when I need it. I hope you and David, my stepdad, are OK. And while it is probably going to be a long time before I join you all, I can’t wait to see you again. In the meantime, I’ll try to surround myself with people who help me “be my best me” as you would say.

It’ll be OK. It’s OK to not be OK. As you would say. I miss you. The only way forward is through – one step at a time. Love you mom.

Our last Passover together

Tonight was my last Passover with my mom. She is in hospice and her cancer is very far advanced in her body.

A number of people came by to visit my mom, including our synagogue’s rabbi who dropped off some Seder plate ingredients. He told me he forgot to provide a plate- I told him not to worry. I joked with my mom that we’re “substance over style” people. We care much more about what’s on the plate than what the plate looks like. That we care much more about what a person is made of than how put together they appear to be. Our house has always been “come as you are”.

Back in the day when my mom was physically able to, she would host the most amazing seders. All my friends would be welcome, no matter what their religion was. We typically would have at least all three Abrahamic religions represented each year.

The food was amazing. I LOVE Passover. It’s my mom’s and my favorite holiday. And it’s my religious Hebrew name – Pesach. We would sing, we’d do an abbreviated version of the Haggadah. We’d laugh. We’d have a ball.

Even despite having to eat unleavened bread for a week (and yes, getting tired of it!), we’d never get tired of the holiday spirit.

This year, my mom and I celebrated Passover while she sat in a hospital bed. We didn’t have our usual accoutrements – we didn’t use a seder plate. But we did laugh. We sang. We cried – boy did we cry.

I asked my mom if it was okay if I wrote about her being in hospice. And she said: “there’s nothing to hide”. With her typical bravery, she is facing this absolutely awful situation with incredible bravery and honesty. I decided to make public a previous blog I wrote about her. And I decided to write this one.

Because I want people to know how much I love my mom. How much she has made my life a better one. How sad I’ll be when she’s no longer here with me physically. How many moments in the future I wish I could share with her. And can’t.

Which leads me to God. After all, tonight wasn’t a typical visit to my mom. It’s a holiday. Our favorite one. God- I have no idea if you act in the universe, if you exist, if you care what’s going on with my family. You at best work in the most mysterious of ways.

The only thing I can say is that I believe that my relationship with my mom will not end on the day she passes away from this world. Whether it’s a walk on the C&O Canal – especially our favorite Great Falls, or hearing someone tell a corny elephant joke, or when I connect to the Judaism we both love so much – I will feel my mom’s presence. And I won’t feel as lonely.

That’s the only way forward. I don’t believe in God because God is merciful or compassionate or kind. At the moment, I don’t think they’re much of any of those things. But I believe in some spiritual force because I must. Because a life without a connection to my mom is too much to bear. And I will collapse.

In the Passover haggadah, we read “mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol haleylot?” “What makes this night different from all other nights?”

It’s different because it’s the last Passover I’ll spend with my mom.

A Haggadah of Hope

It’s not hard to be disenchanted with Israeli politics these days. While most of the world has been focused on Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-democratic “judicial reform”, his same government has also been engaging in racist incitement and encouraging violence against Palestinians. The pogrom in Huwara is only possible because of a government that cares nothing for the lives of its Palestinian neighbors and who views its own Arab citizens as a threat. With a new militia promised to radical racist cabinet member Itamar Ben-Gvir, we may only be steps away from even more confrontation and death.

In such dark moments, we must not find the light – we must be it. For me, that means digging through my books. It means finding some knowledge, some history, some inspiration for how we can overcome such horrible things.

I found just the book!

Digging through my bookshelves, I found a 1935 Haggadah, or Passover prayer book, from Jerusalem. But it was not any old Haggadah, it was a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic book – with the Arabic written in Hebrew characters.

It remains a mystery to me as to why this Haggadah was published in both languages! Not because there is no reason for it to be – but rather many! First things first – this was published by an Ashkenazi printer – Mendl Friedman. So the printer was unlikely to be a native Arabic speaker, like some of the Jews who had been living in Jerusalem for centuries before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Also, the Arabic inside the the Haggadah seems to be Levantine, though it’s a bit unclear at times and there seem to be a few inconsistencies. For example, in the Four Questions, the writer may have made a grammatical error (or I’m a bit rusty!), by first translating the Hebrew “leylot” (nights) as “leyli” (night as an adjective) instead of “liyali” (nights) before later switching back to “liyali”:

These inconsistencies make me think it was probably not a native speaker doing the translation, although I can’t be sure. In any case, we may never know whether this was an attempt to write in Judeo-Arabic, an attempt by Ashkenazi Jews to fit in their local environment, or the off chance that a Zionist organization wanted to promote integration into the local Palestinian culture (as some of them initially supported). Although the latter seems unlikely since the most pro-Arab Zionist movements tended to be extremely secular and were not likely to be publishing a religious text. If anyone reading this blog has insight into the who, what, when, where, why of this book, please share it with me.

So what does this have to do with today? In short, I am inspired by the publisher’s attempt to integrate Jewish and Arab cultures by way of language. Without knowing the intended audience, I can still say that publishing a sacred Jewish text in Arabic is a statement – especially in the conflict-ridden years leading up to Israel’s founding. I am moved by it and hope we will find many more ways to connect across cultures using language and our sacred texts as a point of commonality rather than conflict.

This Passover, Benjamin Netanyahu will probably be spouting off racist bullshit with his equally crazy family in a comfortable home rather than a jail cell where he belongs. However, we can be comforted by the past and inspired to act in the future. Jews and Arabs have not always been at each other’s throats. In 1935 an Ashkenazi Jew published a Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and Arabic. He probably couldn’t have imagined it would end up in a gay American-Israeli Jew’s hands, but that is the magic of history in action.

May this holiday bring more joy to the world. May it bring freedom. May it give us the courage to confront our modern-day autocratic Pharoahs in America, Israel, Russia, Turkey, Hungary, China, and more. For these Pharoahs sit in temporary comfort – justice will come. Avadim hayyinu – we were once slaves, and we will not stop fighting until we are all free. Chag pesach sameach, Happy Passover, and Ramadan Karim.


For those who don’t know yet, my mom is in hospice care. After several years of battling cancer, the chemotherapy just isn’t working anymore. To say my mom is the center of my universe and the most important person in my life is an understatement. She is everything to me and I’m devastated to an extent that is hard to put into words. All just months after losing my stepdad David to the very same type of cancer my mom has. Meanwhile, my stepbrother’s mom is battling cancer as well. No wonder I feel like my faith is being tested.

It feels as if on a personal level, I’ve experienced and am experiencing my own personal Holocaust. It’s as if someone waved a wand and threw every bit of crap at me humanly possible and said “now deal with it!”

I could barrel my way deep into the valleys of despair- but that’s not what my mom taught me about survival. From a young age, my mom taught me to find the positive in any and all situations. And I’m not going to lie, with an abusive father in the picture, there were some really dire circumstances sometimes.

But somehow we always found room to laugh amidst the tears. To drive around Potomac and gawk at fancy houses. To count all the Christmas lights on the way back from Hebrew school. To pray. To celebrate holidays. To invite friends and family to our ever-expanding table of loved ones. To always, always, always make room for another at the table.

My mom’s experience – and my own – over the past few years battling cancer has made me think about my Judaism and about what it means to be a survivor. Those of you who know me well know that I’m a bibliophile, a true lover of the written word. So I gave thought to what book of mine represented what it means to survive, to overcome darkness.

I found a Machzor, or prayer book, in my apartment. I can’t for the life of me remember where I got it, but probably in New York or Israel. And the book was fascinating.

The prayer book was owned by someone named Isaac in Brooklyn N.Y. with the date “1936” written in pencil. But the book itself was not from New York- it was from Vienna, Austria. And it was (according to the Jewish calendar date listed on the cover page) printed in 1934. Just four years before Austria became part of Nazi Germany. Who knows that became of the original publishers and owners of this book. I’m grateful it found a safe home in the U.S. with Isaac and eventually with me.

Which got me thinking – what does it mean to survive? After all, the original people who touched this book in Austria – they may not have withstood the Nazi onslaught that was about to engulf them. But their work lived on – and lives on in me every time I turn a page, every time I touch the cover. Every time I utter a printed word.

So too is it with people. My stepdad is a cancer survivor because every time I think of Lord of the Rings or his green thumb or his steadfast support of my family, I bring him back to life. And my mom will always be a survivor because I carry with me the strength that she taught me from the day I was born. My mom is much like this prayer book. Filled with soul. And built to outlast the evil that pursued it – be it the Nazis in Europe or a truly despicable cancer.

Lately I’ve been feeling more spiritual. I can’t quite say what form that takes or is going to take as I continue to tend to my own needs and ponder what’s next for me in life. But I am feeling more connected.

Those of you who know my mom know that she likes to look for the little signs of things going right. Of feeling connected to something larger than any one individual.

Which is why I think it’s beautiful that when I closed the prayer book, I noticed a heart on its cover.

It was as if this was all a bad dream. As if something out there was sending me a sign that it will be OK. That while this situation absolutely sucks and I wish it weren’t happening, that love is what will ultimately tie me to my family forever.

Thank you to all the friends and family who have been there and continue to be there for me and for my mom. We couldn’t do this without you. And I will never forget all of your kindness.

While some people perfect a nice clean crisp book cover, I like mine like this prayer book’s – a little worn. Because it shows someone loved it. So as worn out as I feel, I am happier for having lived this journey and known so much compassion along the way.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Hug your loved ones. The rest is just details.

להציל את היהדות

מזמן לא כתבתי בעברית. כנראה שאכתוב עם מלא טעויות. אבל אני מרגיש שכדאי לכתוב. כדאי לפרש את הרגשות שלי ברגע כל כך רגיש בהיסטוריה של עם ישראל ומדינת ישראל. הרבה אנשים שקוראים את הבלוג שלי יודעים שאחרי כמה שנים בארץ, אני חזרתי לארצות הברית, איפה שגדלתי. התכוונתי לחזור לארץ ללימודים בבית המדרש של הרבנות הרפורמית. אבל לא מעט זמן אחרי שחזרתי לארה”ב, אמא שלי חלתה בסרטן. אז הייתה מגפת הקוביד. אז נפטר אבא החורג שלי. ותוך קצת זמן, אמא שלי גם תלך לועלמה. בקיצור, הרבה דברים קשוחים התרחשו בחיי ופתאום לחזור לארץ לא הייתה בחירה הגיונית. לפחות כרגע.

אבל למרות שאני נמצא רחוק מהארץ פיזית, אני חושב עליה כל יום. אני מתגעגע לחברים שלי שם ואני מודאג מאוד לגבי המצב הפוליטי. לצערי, כאמריקאי, אני מכיר את הפאשיזם באופן מאוד אישי. אני גר בוושינגטון די סי. הייתי פה כאשר דונלד טראמפ השתדל לגנוב את הבחירות וכאשר הוא הסית נגד אזרחיו ב6 לינואר. הייתה תקופה מאוד מפחידה.

עד ה6 לינואר, הרבה חברים שלי בארץ או התלהבו מטראמפ או לא הבינו למה אמריקאים מבחינות פוליטיות שונות לא היו יכולים “להסתדר”. כלומר, אנחנו פשוט לא ידענו איך לדבר אחר עם השני. אבל אחרי ה6 לינואר, הרבה חברים שלי סוף-סוך הבינו שזה לא היה עניין פשוט ובעצם זה היה משבר פוליטי שחווינו בקפיטול.

לצערי הרב, כל ישראלי שפוי עכשיו מבין מה שקרה בארה”ב לאחרונה. שיש בשתי המדינות תנועות פוליטיות שרוצות להרוס. שרוצות לדכא מיעוטים, למחוק את “האחר”. זאת תנועה פוליטית בינלאומית- מרוסיה להונגריה, מארה”ב לאיראן, וכן לישראל.

מהנסיון שלי בארה”ב, אני רק יכול להדגיש כמה זה חשוב להמשיך להפגין ולתמוך בתנועות פולטיות שהן בעד הדמוקרטיה לכולםן. גם כן לפלסטינאים.

אין עתיד למדינת ישראל בלי דמוקרטיה. ואין דמוקרטיה בלי חרות לכל תושבי ישראל ופלסטין.

בסוף, כמו כל דבר במדינה היהודית, זה עניין של איזה סוג של יהדות תהיה חזקה יותר בישראל. ברור שצריך להיות מקום לגיוון- גם ליהדות השמרנית שאני לא מאמנין בה. אבל- בואו נגיד את זה בצורה ברורה- אנחנו רוצים עתיד של איסור חמץ בבתי חולים או אנחנו רוצים עתיד של יהדות שוויונית?

ליבי במזרח. לכל המפגינות והמפגינית האמיצים- תודה. אני איתכם בלב ואני אמשיך לדבר עם הממשלה שלי בארה”ב כדי לשכנע אותה להשתמש בכח שלה לשמור על הזכויות שלכם. כי בעצם, למרות שאנחנו רחוקים פיזית, האינטרסים שלנו דומים מאוד. אנחנו חייבים לתמוך אחד בשני בשוויון.

אני הפכתי אולי פחות דתי אחרי כל המוות והטרגדיות במשפחה שלי ובחברה שלי בשנים האחרונות. אבל אני כן מאמין שהגורל שלנו הוא משותף. ואף פעם לא אוותר על הקשר בינינו והחלום של שלום, של דמוקרטיה, ושל יהדיות שמייצגת את הערכים שלנו. מתגעגע המון- שנתראה בקרוב בע”ה עם חיוכים של הצלחה של המאבק.

Democracy Now

Israeli democracy has never been perfect. No democracy is perfect. Embroiled in over 70 years of conflict with its neighbors, the State of Israel has often taken antidemocratic steps. Occupying the West Bank and its over three million Palestinian residents is certainly antidemocratic. And fortunately, there are many Israelis who agree with me that that must ultimately change. As of now, Israelis advocating for peace and for an end to the Occupation have democratic protections. Protections Palestinians only wish they had – be they from Israel or their own Palestinian Authority.

A while ago, I read a quote from a Palestinian who said that the thing he admired most about Israel was that, at least for its own citizens, there was democracy. Acknowledging that he couldn’t benefit from it didn’t stop him from gazing towards Tel Aviv and the beaches and the freedom and the dozen plus political parties (including Arab ones) and saying “wow, I wish I had this too.”

That fragile democracy that is granted to Israel’s citizens, first and foremost to its Jewish citizens but also to a degree its Palestinian-Israeli citizens, was once something to admire. In a region of the world plagued by religious extremism, Israel stood out as a mostly secular and reasonably liberal place depending on where in the country you lived. Much like how things can really vary by place politically in the U.S., but you are guaranteed certain fundamental rights that other countries in the world sometimes lack.

This fragile democracy, which allowed me to participate in countless demonstrations for LGBTQ+ rights, for Palestinian rights, for Druze and other minorities – that democracy is failing right now. It is under threat from within. And that threat is named Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by homophobic and racist politicians such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. Much like American democracy was (is?) under threat from right-wing extremists such as Donald Trump, Israel is facing a similar January 6th-type moment.

What is this threat? It has several faces. First off, there is Benjamin Netanyahu’s “judicial overhaul” which seeks to neuter the Supreme Court and save his own ass from his ongoing bribery investigation. Secondly, there are rabidly anti-Palestinian policies bubbling beneath the surface, as Itamar Ben-Gvir seeks ever greater control over the security apparatus in the West Bank. Thirdly, there is the issue of religious coercion. This coercion ranges from anti-LGBTQ+ policies to shutting down construction work on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. It even includes a bill that would criminalize the entry of leavened products into hospitals during Passover, when such food is not traditionally eaten by Jews. It is a slap in the face of non-Jewish patients and families and Jews who may not be Orthodox in their observance.

How does one confront such authoritarian impulses? Israel is not unique in facing this challenge. I live in Washington, D.C. and was here for January 6th when right-wing terrorists attacked our own Capitol with the blessing of our former President. Countries like Poland, Hungary, India, Turkey, and others have seen a surge in authoritarian policies over the past few years.

In the U.S., the (lower-case d) democratic forces managed to unite moderates and progressives and even the occasional conservative to fight back on the streets and at the ballot box. It is thanks to the efforts of this coalition, particularly minority voters, that the Democratic Party had its best midterm elections in decades.

In Israel, this same demographic is fighting back- and hard. And I’m proud of my friends who’ve been demonstrating across the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to make their voices heard- for democracy, for change, for rule of law, for minority communities.

Well, not so much for minority communities. Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel are under threat like never before. Israeli moderates and progressives are taking to the streets to protect their democracy. But rarely if ever have we heard from their most prominent leaders, Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, about the racist threat to Israeli democracy. Of course the judiciary is important – and it can be a bulwark for non-Jewish communities as well. But the protest leaders have yet to address the intersection of their cause with that of the millions of Palestinians facing the prospect of ever-greater discrimination and violence from this government.

While some on the Israeli left have continually advocated for an inclusive vision of Israeli democracy that includes the rights of Palestinians, the center of the political map has yet to address this “Black Lives Matter”-esque issue. And by that I mean the crucial understanding of how minority rights intersect with the fight for democracy- for all.

In other words, because minorities don’t have a seat at the table in this protest for democracy, it will likely fail. I hate to write that – especially about a country I so love and want to see succeed. But until Palestinians- both citizens of Israel and those living across the Green Line– have a voice in this movement, it will be incomplete and not strong enough to take on the ferocious right-wing government threatening us all.

The photo I used for this blog is of me and two Druze friends of mine protesting for minority rights in Tel Aviv in August of 2018. It was a time when we fought for a shared future together. It was a time when Jews and non-Jews came together for democracy. It is possible. It is doable. It has been done before. It must be done now.

Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah. If you will it, it is not a dream. In the holiest of lands, hope must rise.

When the sh*t hits the fan

This past week has been one of those crazy weeks you never forget. My step-dad has spent the week in the ICU due to two blood clots and after going into cardiac arrest. My mom, who is on her newest round of chemotherapy, is taking care of him. I’m just trying to keep my head above water. Trying to enjoy life’s little moments and joys to distract me. With some degree of success. Thank you to all my friends who’ve been there for me this week and are helping me get through this.

This week, the insanity of my life seemed to parallel that of Israel’s.

Just as my world seemed to be spinning, Israel voted in one of the most right-wing, ultra-religious governments in its history. As an Israeli citizen, I’m embarrassed to see the rise of fundamentalism in my other homeland. It just goes to show that what we’re seeing in the U.S. and Europe is spreading to other countries as well. We must rise or fall together. This is the moment for people who care about the future of Israel – and its Palestinian neighbors – to speak out for democracy.

Faced with adversity in Israel and my own home front, I’m faced with a choice. I could pray, I could sway, I could wait for others to act in my place.

I will do no such thing. First of all, I will be there for my immediate family. Secondly, I will be there for myself – allowing for moments of relief and even joy as I step away from the trauma I’m dealing with. I want to live my life, which is what my step-dad would want even as he struggles for his own.

And when it comes to my brethren across the ocean – Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians, and Israeli Jews and Druze – I will step it up for you. As LGBTQ+ and Reform rights are also under attack, I will not sit by silently. The Israel and Palestine we want to build is possible. And we will not give up. Please consider a donation to Standing Together, my favorite Jewish-Arab activist organization, to promote solidarity and peace.

One of the things I learned while living in Israel was the power of embracing life and its fulfillment even in the darkest of moments. That’s why you’ll find Israelis partying on the beach as rockets fall down. It’s an extreme example, but a real one.

So as the rockets metaphorically fall on my own family and on Israel’s democracy, I will fight, but I will also dance. I will push when needed, rest my body to rejuvenate for the long haul, and I will enjoy the people and love that I get to experience each day.

Because as my cover photo from Majdal Shams says in Hebrew and Arabic: “Why not?” Hope lives, always.

How Montreal saved my Judaism

I just got back from the most amazing trip to Montreal. I had been before, but with groups of people who spoke only English. This time, I was going to do it in français. And on my own.

I found the past three years so difficult. I love to travel but because of Covid, I hadn’t been on a plane since I led a Birthright trip in Summer 2019. I had done some smaller trips to Philly, Richmond, Annapolis, Baltimore, and Charlottesville, all with friends. Which was great. I got to see new places and have a relaxing change of scenery. And rebuild my travel skills.

I spent the better part of two years traveling when I lived in Israel. I visited 120 Israeli municipalities and 10 European and Middle Eastern countries. And what was so amazing about this experience in Montreal was that with a little preparation, I was back in the game. Perhaps even better than before.

Montreal, for those who don’t know, is one of the most multicultural cities on the planet. It is home to large immigrant communities and diverse religious groups, including a significant Jewish presence dating back to the 1700’s. The Jewish presence is integral to the Montreal’s cultural identity. Of the three most famous Montreal foods, two are Jewish- bagels and smoked meat sandwiches. And these bagels, by the way, are in fact better than the best New York bagel I’ve ever had. They are cooked fresh 24/7 in wood-fired ovens and are absolutely delicious.

To be honest, as I’ve written about lately, I’ve felt distant from my Judaism. So I wasn’t sure how much I was going to engage with it on this trip. After all, I wanted to practice my French. Most Jews in Montreal are anglophones. And I was just tired of Judaism. I had signed up for a French-language Jewish culinary tour and if it hadn’t been in French (which excited me!), I’m not sure I would’ve gone.

But in French it was and something about the combination of French and Judaism works for me. It adds a layer of culture and interculturality to the experience. I found myself as the only Jew on the tour, including the guide, who was a non-Jewish woman from Quebec. The other participants were a French woman and a Quebecois man, both non-Jewish. While the guide was very knowledgeable, I ended up getting the chance to add my own commentary and knowledge to the tour! By the end, the French woman said the Museum of Jewish Montreal should hire me 🙂 . I was flattered.

The day before the tour, my connection to Judaism began to revive – or refashion itself – as well. I found myself in the Mile End, a heavily Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood. It was Shabbat and even though I was wearing decidedly non-Orthodox attire (a bright polo and jeans), I couldn’t help but wish the people walking by a “git shabbes”. A good Sabbath. And for the most part I got smiles and a “git shabbes” back.

Solo travel can be hard but little moments like this when a gay Reform Jew is greeting Hasidic brethren in Yiddish – that just makes my heart warm. And they weren’t the only people making my heart feel full. I’m part of the Yiddish-language community in the U.S. A French Yiddish-speaking klezmer artist and friend Eleonore introduced me to her Syrian KLEZMER VIOLINIST FRIEND. Who lives in Montreal! Yes, you read that right. So Zafer, the Syrian klezmer artist, and I did Greek food and talked about all things Jewish and Middle Eastern and queer! Because our commonalities were incredible. It’s the kind of mix you really only find in few places on the planet. Montreal is definitely one of them.

Having done the Jewish food tour, spoken a ton of French, and met a Syrian klezmer violinist, I had arrived at my final day (I did a bunch of other non-Jewish stuff but this blog can only be so long!). My last day I could’ve just gone to a park and eaten cheese with a baguette. Which sounds really nice right about now. But instead, I went back to the Mile End, bought a t-shirt from my favorite bagel place and went to a Hasidic bookstore in search of Yiddish books. I even got a compliment on my Yiddish from a young Hasidic man on the street who I asked for directions from!

I found the bookstore and this entire section (and more) was just books in Yiddish:

The bookstore employee’s eyes lit up when I said I wanted Yiddish books. He showed me children’s books, Mishnah in Yiddish, and Siddurim with Yiddish translations of the prayers. I must’ve spent an hour and a half in there. I wanted to buy everything! And while my eyes initially drifted towards the children’s books (which are so cute!), I found myself surprisingly attracted to the religious books given my recent doubts about God. In addition to some children’s stories, I decided to buy a part of the Mishnah and, most importantly a Siddur, or prayerbook. Something about the Yiddish softens the prayers for me. So they don’t seem so scary or prescriptive. They feel a little queer. And I like it.

So to the province with a blue and white flag just like Israel, je t’aime. Ikh hob dikh lib. I love you! Because of you, I feel a renewed connection to my Judaism. It’s a Judaism that intersects with language. With Hassidism. With queerness. And even with Syria!

I’ll be back soon. Because to travel, to wander- that is to be a Jew.

Am I an Agnostic Jew?

What is an agnostic? What is a Jew? These are questions I have been exploring in-depth lately.

As my previous blog post explained in more depth, my mother has a rare and aggressive form of cancer and my step-dad was recently diagnosed with an irregular heart beat as he collapsed on a treadmill. These events have led me in search of spirituality and more than anything, a sense of comfort.

For me, during hard times like my childhood when I was a victim of abuse, I searched for solace in Judaism. I remember as a teenager praying the words of the siddur alone in my bedroom, hoping against all hope for a solution to my pain.

Not only that, Judaism has given me a sense of community when I really needed it. In high school, I joined and eventually took a leadership role in my youth group. It gave me a largely supportive network as I came out of the closet as a teenager.

As a child in my synagogue, I felt cared for. And nurtured in a way that I wasn’t receiving in other parts of my life.

I showed my gratitude and excitement by leading monthly teen services and running the college chapter of the Reform Movement on my campus. I have led or attended Jewish services in at least seven different countries. I love Judaism.

So what’s leading me down this path of questioning, of doubt? It’s very simple. I see the pain and suffering in the world – the pandemic’s millions of victims, Syrian refugees, Ukraine, my mom’s cancer – and I wonder how a compassionate God would let such terrible things happen. And yet I’m not entirely sure that there isn’t some form of spiritual energy or being out there. Because certainly great kindness happens in the world too. And we have free will as human beings to practice compassion or to harm others.

I still find great spiritual energy in Jewish history, culture, music, and languages. And Jews have always been first and foremost a people more than a faith-centric religion like Christianity or Islam. There are even those people who consider themselves “agnostic theists” – or practicing Jews who are unsure of God’s existence. I would go so far as to argue that if you really polled most Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews, a significant number of them would fall into this category. I have even met Orthodox Jews who say belief in God is not necessary for living a life following Jewish law, or halacha.

Must a Jew believe in God? No. I don’t believe a Jew must believe in God. And I think our tradition has a rich tradition of agnosticism, or uncertainty about the existence or nature of God. As the Yiddish expression goes – “two Jews, three opinions”. We are a people of debate, of pluralism, of deep and fragmented thought.

So if someone asks me if I believe in God, I don’t feel a compulsion to answer. Because this whole time I’ve been searching for a path back towards belief as defined by others. By the words on the page of a prayer book someone else wrote. The path that feels right is to allow myself a little doubt. A little uncertainty. A little agnosticism in my rich Jewish tapestry and to lean into that reality. Because someone who says he or she has perfect faith in God while a parent is struggling with cancer is frankly hard to believe.

I am an adult free to make my own decisions and my choice now is to live as a Jew on the edge. On the edge of questions bigger than I could ever have imagined when I started my Jewish journey. Where will it take me? I don’t know! And that’s a pretty agnostic answer.

Cover photo is from Sderot, Israel. A city of survivors, just like me and hopefully like my mom.

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