What it means to be Israeli

It was a Friday night in Barcelona.  Just hours before, I had spontaneously decided to board a train from Tortosa to Barcelona.  At 4:30pm, to be precise.  I had thought about visiting other medieval cities and Jewish quarters, but I felt that this Friday night, I wanted to be with living Jews.  Much how I felt in Belgium.

So I went to services.  Like I’ve mentioned recently, I don’t really feel religious.  I started my journey to Israel weeks away from starting Reform rabbinical school, only to pursue my exploring and blogging instead.  But I remained an active Reform Jew, even leading services regularly in Tel Aviv.  And to this day, even if I’m not religious in the textbook definition of the word, if I’m going to a synagogue, it’s going to be Reform.  It’s my flavor of religious Judaism.

While for a while I came pretty close to being an out-and-out atheist, I’d say at this point I’m secular and spiritual.  I have issues with organized religion (although I sometimes see its benefits both in motivating people to do good and in building community) and I don’t believe in the God of reward and punishment as written in the Torah or any religious text.

But I do believe in spirit, and while I value science and logic, I think some things are a bit beyond our comprehension.  And that feelings are also valid.  And sometimes hard to explain.  Perhaps representing bits of truth beyond our conscious recognition.  It is impossible to truly know everything, so with humility I bow to the unknown even as we pursue it.  In the meantime, I’ll be singing in the forest, poring through inspiring archival documents, and trying to cross cultural barriers to bring kindness into the world.  For me, culture, history, art, music, nature, dance, hope, the unexpected- these are all spirit.  And they ignite me in a way that gives life purpose.  As a Jew and generally, as a human being.

With this in mind, I headed to synagogue.  The prayers generally didn’t speak to me.  I don’t really like the idea of standing together, singing the exact same words, the choreography or the conformity of organized prayer.  Even so, I found myself sometimes bursting into song and some of the texts do speak to me.  Occasionally, I even tried to sing some of the prayers, replacing the word God with something that rhymed.  Sometimes the word God didn’t bother me.  I sometimes sang harmony- a way for me to retain my difference while being part of a community.  I can’t say it made me want to pray in the traditional way.  I even stepped outside for some of the prayers that I really don’t connect with.  I’m kind of a hippie and would rather be singing wordless melodies while strolling the beach.  Like I was in these photos.  But what’s clear now, after traveling in Europe, is that where I found myself questioning if I even felt Jewish two months ago, now I feel quite Jewish.  And have either rediscovered or found new ways of connecting to my spiritual, cultural, and political identities.

I came to Barcelona without any hotel reservation.  In Hebrew, I call myself “ben adam zorem”.  A guy who goes with the flow, who improvises, who’s in touch with his spirit, confident and willing to try new things.  Some of this confidence stems from my own skills and intuition.  Some of it comes from counting on others to help me along the way- being brave enough to reach out to them.  And being grateful for their support.

After services, there was a wonderful dinner and I found myself talking to the other community members.  Everyone was so kind- it really felt like a family meal.  The kind I never really got to have, where I felt respected and included.  Big hugs that made me feel loved and welcomed.

One person in particular made my night.  There was one other Israeli at services.  A young woman named Reut from Hod Hasharon, a city decidedly not on anyone’s tourist map, but I of course had visited 😉 .  We got to talking.  There’s something about being Jewish- especially being Israeli- where you just trust someone.  Maybe it’s a shared heritage, understood customs, experienced persecution.  Maybe it’s a feeling in your kishkes, as I shared with a wonderful, spirit-filled American named Anne sitting next to me.  Anne if you’re reading this your email didn’t go through, send it again! 🙂  We had so much in common yet had never met.  It’s a great feeling.  I even got to play Jewish geography- I met a Hungarian woman who knows a Hungarian friend of mine in Tel Aviv!  And I’m a quarter Hungarian.  How’s that for full circle?

So back to Reut.  We found ourselves outside in the rain.  I told her I didn’t have a hotel booked for the night, so without even prompting, she got to helping me.  That’s how Israelis are.

We walked around asking at hostels- everything was full or over 100 Euros.  After some funny moments (including this odd Moldovan guy working the front desk who seemed to be hitting on me but then didn’t want to go out with us the next night- wherever you are Iulian, you’re really cute and I hope you come to Israel!), we headed to the Metro.

It was very simple- Reut said I could stay with her.  Reut isn’t even from Barcelona- she’s just here doing some Israel education.  It needs to be said again for the benefit of my friends in other countries- we had never, ever met before.  No known friends in common.  Although we both happen to be Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian- so in all likelihood, we’re probably related several times over.

We stayed up all night talking, having a blast.  We had so much in common.  Sharing love stories, stories of loss, making our way through the Barcelona rain, trying not to slip.

When I got to her apartment, Reut got to setting up my bed.  Putting on a new sheet, feeding me, taking care of whatever I needed.  And because I’m a fellow Israeli, I understood that this is how we do things.  I’ve hosted people I’ve met the same day several times in Israel.  It’s something I rarely see in other countries (although it has happened to me in Barcelona incidentally).  There’s just a sort of trust and bond.  A deep generosity, hospitality, a sense that wherever you find one of your own, you’re home.

It’s not because all Israelis are great.  Some are pretty awful.  Every country has its good and bad, every culture too.

But there are certain overall cultural differences that really stand out.

Israelis, as a whole, are kind of lone travelers like me.  Or once were.  Holocaust survivors who sometimes lost their whole families only to start anew in a completely new country.  And build once again.  Jews kicked out from Arab lands thrown into the tumult of conflict, cultural loss, and war.  We’re survivors, we’re scrappy, and we use whatever we can to move forward and to make the best out of life.  In that sense, I’ve always been Israeli, even when I was across the ocean.  It’s just that moving to Israel, I found millions of other people like me who had overcome (or are striving to overcome) deep hardship and using every last skill to squeeze the sweetness out of life.

In this sense, I feel my personal story as an individual and a Jew parallels the experience of the Jewish people.  In particular, of Israel itself.  A scrappy start-up nation where, for the most part, people understand that a Shabbat meal with people you love is more important than the size of the home it takes place in.

Today I enjoyed a street fair with Reut and some of her friends from synagogue.  An Argentinian Jew and a Turkish Jew- themselves wanderers like me.  Here we were- at face value, nothing in common.  But in reality, everything.  Our Jewishness brought us together and if I’m honest with you, made us instant friends in a way no other identity can for me.  Although some come close.  It’s not that we’ll necessarily be best friends- thought we might.  It’s just that there’s a certain baseline comfort that’s beyond words that you can just feel with another Jew.  It’s in your kishkes.

My experience with Reut’s generosity- even as I write this, I don’t even know her last name- got me thinking.  This trip and my experience in Israel has tested my original thesis.  My first thought when coming to Israel, when starting this blog, was that one needs roots.  That’s why my chosen Hebrew name, Matah, means orchard.

Yet what I discovered is no single place, no single culture, can fully satisfy me.  In fact, I discovered I have roots all over the place.  Directly, in 8 different European countries.  Indirectly, basically all over Europe and the Mediterranean.  Renewed, in my appreciation of my American identity.  And kindled and rekindled in my Israeli one.  In addition to all these roots, my linguistic communities and my passions for art and music and nature and kindness connect me to all sorts of people, Jewish and not.  And I look forward to developing those connections as well.

So perhaps, in the end, I don’t need to be rooted in one place.  By virtue of my identities, my diversity, my curiosity, my past, my intellect, and my sense of adventure, I don’t think I ever will be.  Although we can never be quite sure what the future holds.

This thirst for a multifaceted life is my strength and my challenge.  I’m a wanderer, an explorer- as Jews have been for over 2,000 years.  This is who I am.

While I might not need roots, what I did discover is I need a home.  Traveling is amazing- I’ve been carrying only a small backpack (not even one of those big ones you buy for Nepal) for 2 months.  I have three t-shirts.  A sweater.  One pair of shorts.  A pair of shoresh sandals which an Israeli can spot from a mile away.  No sneakers.  One pair of socks.  My jeans got torn up, so I threw them out.  This is how I travel.  I love it.  It’s what I need, and I’d rather have a lighter backpack to explore more places.  I’m rugged, flexible, and I think I have my priorities straight.  For me, it’s about the journey, not the froufrou.  Although I will say I’ve learned to appreciate the value of a a once-in-a-while well-timed stay in a 3 star hotel.  Quiet is something frankly you have to buy.

Traveling this way has taught me a lot.  And the most stressful thing about traveling without a home to recharge in is the constant movement.  Adapting to new languages and cultures and emotional norms.  But also the transit, the not knowing what the city will be like, the not knowing how quiet your sleep will be- if you’ll be able to sleep at all.  The motion.  It’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, occasionally really stunning when you look out the window and see a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean on a 10 Euro bus ride taking you through the mountains.

So in the end, I’m sure I will keep traveling.  To be honest, each day is a bit of an adventure to me.  Whether it’s physically going to another city or chatting with people at the library, I find ways to engage in new and exciting directions.  Sometimes my friends ask me how these stories happen to me.  But they don’t- I am the kind of person who these stories were made for.  Sometimes I seek them out, sometimes they find me.  And I connect with people in a way, I reach for the kind of people and places that fill me with joy.  I search for understanding.  It can bring the unexpected, both good and bad.  I was made to discover.  Myself, others, and the world.  And I love sharing it with you.  And am inspired by what you share with me.

I hope you’ll continue to join me on my journey as I turn my blog into my career.  As my cover photo says, “what happens on Earth stays on Earth”, so I intend to make my mark.  By donating $20 now, you will get your first year’s subscription free.  Soon, the starting rate will go up to $36.

So I may not need roots that stick me to the ground and restrict my movement.  Some Zionist thinkers might not like this- that I choose not to give up my other identities, my Diasporic features.  But I’d rather be like Israeli poetess and fellow olah Leah Goldberg who speaks of the pain and joy of having two homelands.  I’m grateful to my friend Leora for sending me that poem when I needed it.

By understanding my varied roots around the world, I better understand myself, my people, my countries.  Israel itself.  An ongoing process and one in which I feel I’ve made great progress.

What does it mean to be Israeli?  That’s the title of this blog.  For me, after going several months without seeing another Israeli, Reut embodies what it means to be one.  In the best way.  It’s someone who after a short conversation, helps you find a hotel.  When you realize there is none, invites you to stay.  Who feeds you, who hugs you, who makes a bed for you.  And invites you out to hang with her friends the next day.

Roots can be tangled, messy.  But a home- you need one.  To venture out from, to explore from, to come back to at the end of the day or after a long and exciting trip.

The world is my oyster.  Who doesn’t like to taste a little treyf?  But most of the time, I don’t eat shellfish.  Which is why more and more, I feel Israel is my home.

Let’s talk about occupation

I want to share an experience I had in Tortosa, Catalonia.  Some call it Spain, for now I’ll stick with Tortosa 😉 .

Tortosa is a city that used to have a sizable Jewish population.  Before the Inquisition and related persecutions, Tortosa had a “call”.  That’s pronounced “caly” (for lack of a better way to write it in English)- and it means “Jewish quarter”.

I decided I wanted to go for a hike.  Tortosa is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, take a look:

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I love nature, but I found myself increasingly drawn to the signs around me that said “call”.  They’re everywhere.  Something I love about Catalonia is that quite a number of cities make preserving their Jewish heritage a priority.  Unlike the mostly derelict synagogues of my great-grandmother’s Romania, Catalans seem generally proud of their Jewish heritage.  Because quite a number of them are Jews themselves- or were hundreds of years ago.  And they know it.

I wandered the call, finding where the synagogue once stood, the kosher butcher shop, even a plaza named after a rabbi, Menahem Ben Saruq.

I found myself humming Jewish tunes, including one of my own creation, and being stared at by some Moroccan men.  Almost the entire neighborhood now is filled with Moroccan Muslim immigrants.

I then headed to the town archives.  I love, love, love archives.  And I want to give a huge shout-out to archivists everywhere.  You keep heritage alive.  Science is amazing and can heal and grow our planet- but without humanities and a sense of morality, it is useless.  Ben Carson is a great example of why science is not a religion, it does not have all the answers any more than any other field of study.  Scientists need ethical systems just as much as humanists need biology and medicine.

The best thing about town archives, other than the ancient documents they contain, is that they are free!  So here’s my travel tip: if you find yourself itching to see unique, cool texts and really learn about where you’re traveling, head to an archive.  If it’s a rainy day (as it was for me), even better.  I walked around Tortosa with a piece of generously donated cardboard over my head until I could find a 9 buck Mickey Mouse umbrella. 🙂  Archives are my refuge.  And unlike museums, you won’t be shelling out tons of cash to wait in line and crowds.  Archives are often quite empty- sad for the state of humanity, but great for someone like me who likes a little peace and quiet.  All you need to do is fill out a form, show your passport, and next thing you know you’re looking at a hand-written 900 year old document.

That’s where I found myself.  The archivist brought me the “Carta de Poblament”.  It’s a Catalan document that the Count of Barcelona had offered the town during the medieval Christian conquest of Spain.  It basically offers new settlers various land privileges and natural resources for settling the territory.  Until then, it had had Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  But with the eventual imposition of the Inquisition, both Jews and Muslims had to convert, leave, or face torture and death.  Their empty houses became the Christian settlers’ homes we see today.  Occasionally, as in Granada, you can still see where the mezuzah was once hanging.

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I then looked at the next documents I had requested.  I wanted to see Jewish documents.  And in some cases, you can still find them in Catalonia.  I once visited the Girona Jewish archive (the city has a particularly well-preserved call) and got to see documents in Judeo-Catalan!  Catalan written in Hebrew letters- and in some cases, with Hebrew phrases.  For a Jewish speaker of Catalan like me, there is nothing cooler.

The first document was in medieval Catalan (did I say archives were cool??) and was about the Jewish community of the city.  The next document was from 1323 and detailed how the local rulers had imposed a tax on the Jewish community to repair a broken wall.  I’m not sure exactly what happened, but Christian rulers (and Muslim ones) often imposed discriminatory taxes on Jews either as “protection money” or simply to raise cash.

The third document is the one that stirred my soul.  It was called “Població de convertits”.  A list of the Jews who had converted to Christianity.  Often under penalty of death.  From the early 1400s.  I have to say that seeing the hand-scribed names really moved me.  I felt deep sadness as my finger scrolled through the names of Jewish souls lost to an ever-encroaching Christian hegemony.  I wish I could say this was only a Christian problem, but it’s not.  Even the relatively tolerant Muslims of Al-Andalus engaged in pogroms, massacring the Jews of Granada in 1066.  A thousand years before the State of Israel, for people who think Muslim anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon, purely a product of colonialism.

As I flipped through the pages, I wanted to find a specifically Jewish name.  It’s almost as if part of me couldn’t actually believe this document was real.  That maybe I had been given the wrong one.  Persecutions of Jews are often invalidated, ignored.  This must be just history books, it doesn’t feel totally real.  I couldn’t believe I was holding an ancient text of suffering, of my people, for free in a municipal library.

And there it was- Abram.  Abram and his son converted to Christianity.  I paused looking at the name.  I thought about how awful it must have been to be a Jew at that time.  What must have been going through his head and he decided between expulsion, death, and embracing a faith that so hated his identity.

And there it was, his conversion.  I felt sorry for him- and kind of angry.  How could he give up on our tradition so easily?  I’m sure it wasn’t easy.  But I felt torn.  And I felt furious at the authorities who forced him to give up who he was.  His soul, and those of his ancestors, are forever lost to the Jewish people.  Like so many others.  So when quite a number of Latinos or Spaniards I’ve met say that Jews are “racist” or “closed off” for only marrying “their own”, this document is my bold counterargument.  We only exist because we preserve ourselves.  Your people have been nothing but obstacles in our way for hundreds of years and I won’t apologize for keeping my identity alive.  I’m grateful to the non-Jews I’ve met here in Catalonia and Spain who are working to keep our heritage visible.  Thanks to them I can connect to my past- and they connect to me, as you’ll see in my recent post about a gay Valencian man I met with a Hebrew tattoo.  Who changed my life.

Before I left the archive, I thought if there was something creative I could do to bridge the past.  To make my Jewish ancestors proud.  To connect to Abram and to show the vitality to Judaism to this day, despite all of the hatred placed in our way.

When I left Israel for my travels two months ago, I could barely utter a Hebrew (or Arabic) word.  I was so tired of the region, the hatred, the intense pressure to assimilate into Israeli society.  I had chosen a name, Matah, when I made aliyah.  It means orchard.  It sounds like Matt, but is different- it’s about planting roots.  The name of this blog.

In Europe, I’ve been going by Matt.  Occasionally, Mateo.  But this day, I was going to reconnect.  I took a piece of paper, and added a nice touch to the 600 year old remnant of my civilization:

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Right next to Abram’s name, the second line from the top, I wrote my names.

מטע אדלר

Matt Adler

Jew. Jueu. יהודי.

I think Abram would have been proud.  I certainly was.  Half a millennia since the expulsion of Jews from this land, I was here, a proud Israeli visiting from the land of our ancestors.  Living with self-determination after two millennia.  Something Abram could have never even imagined.  And here I was alive in his home of Tortosa.

It’s a reminder that the impossible is sometimes possible.  History changes.  And each one of us can make a difference.

As I left the archives (still with the cardboard box over my head- one of the funnier moments of my trip until my feet were soaked in rainwater), I headed to the cathedral.  There I found a 1300-year-old Jewish gravestone in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.  With a Menorah and, interestingly, a *5* pointed star:

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What’s so amazing is I could mouth out some of the words.  “Kever”- grave.  “Shalom”- peace”.  And “livrachah”- for a blessing.  The last word something we say to this day as we remember loved ones in synagogue.  A stunning reminder that even when the most hateful among Christians and Muslims stole our land, expelled us, and killed us- we held on to the one thing that kept us alive: words.  Evidence of our continuous presence on this continent, one that has tortured us.  But where we have ultimately persevered in existing.  Even if our current existence there is tenuous.  How many people can see a 6th century tombstone and recognize the words from today’s liturgy?    We’re a truly special people with an incredible historical memory.

As I headed home, I felt hungry.  I stopped into a kebab place.  As with many stores here, it was run by Muslim immigrants.  In this case, from Pakistan.  I have had some difficult experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I was curious before going on this trip what it would be like- both figuring that Europe was kind of a neutral space for potential dialogue and aware that there were many reports of anti-Semitism.  I was also keenly aware that I had to be careful in saying where I was from.  While an American Jew can hide behind their red, white, and blue passport, when you say you’re Israeli, people know you’re a Jew (even if you’re not!).

I’ll start by saying I’ve had some incredible experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I went clubbing with a queer Jordanian girl, who had never been to a gay club.  And she knew I was from Tel Aviv- and we’re still in touch.  Our sexy curves swerving on the dance floors of Budapest.  I also met a Syrian refugee there, who lifted my spirits as we chatted in Damascene Arabic late at night over shwarma.  And who I told I was from Tel Aviv.  And had a great time.

I’ll also say I’ve had a difficult time here.  More often than not, I don’t reveal I’m Jewish or Israeli to Muslims here.  By the decoration of their stores and their clothes, I can tell they are quite often devout.  And just the other day, a woman 10 minutes down the road from where I stayed in Belgium was threatened at gunpoint by a “bearded man” for being Jewish.  I wish I could say this was the only incident of Muslim anti-Semitism here, but it’s not.  Just a few years ago, the Belgian Jewish Museum I strolled by was attacked by Islamic terrorists, killing several civilians.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe (including from neo-Nazis), and many Muslims’ pointed questions about where I was from didn’t make it any easier.  More than a few times, they didn’t believe me when I said I was American- I didn’t “look” American.  Sometimes they think I’m Arab, other times they ask me what my religion is.  Repeatedly.  Which is incredibly uncomfortable and invasive.

Just the other day, an Algerian immigrant told me Israel and America *started* the Syrian Civil War and he didn’t believe Iran or Russia was killing civilians.  Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t tell him I was Israeli in his kebab shop at 11pm.

I’ll add that I find it doubtful that many of these immigrants know the Jewish history of the land they live on today.  Despite the many signs covering their neighborhood explaining it.  Quite a number of Christian Europeans don’t either.  It struck me as bizarre and sad to see hundreds of Moroccan men walking around the Jewish quarter of Girona.  Seeing them wasn’t bizarre- what was more bizarre was the fear I felt in even singing a Jewish song there.  I couldn’t even get out the melody as two men stared.  Maybe they didn’t know what I was singing- but if they did, would I even feel safe?  Do they care that they live on this land bathed in the stains of our blood?  In fact, both of our blood?

It’s times like these where I feel distant from Muslims, from Arabs.  I’m someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in dialogue and exploring this civilization, as you can see from my previous blogs.  Sometimes it is fruitful and lot of times, it is painful.  We’re like two conjoined siblings who wish they could get away from each other, but can’t escape our shared past- and present.  I sometimes wonder whether learning Arabic was a waste of time, even as I miss the sounds of the language, the beats of its music, even fighting for the rights of Arab-Israelis and my Palestinian neighbors.  Some of whom would rather see me dead.  Who some extremist Jews wouldn’t mind dead.  It’s an odd yin-yang of hope, fear, love, and hatred.

So it was timely that my friend Muhammad called.  Muhammad is a 20-something kid from Rahat, a Bedouin city in southern Israel.  I met Muhammad while asking for directions in his town- I was trying to find a restaurant.  A delicious, delicious restaurant.  Bedouin food is quite different from other Arab food- if you’re in Israel, go to Mansaf restaurant at the entrance to Rahat.  Your life will be changed and your taste buds will thank you.  As will the friendly people there who wanted to take selfies with me.

Muhammad and I have kept in touch over the past 6 months or so.  We even met up again in person.  I knew he was studying for his college entrance exams- he wanted to study accounting.  A few months ago, he got in!  I’m so proud of him.  He just moved to Ramat Gan and starts school this week.  Love you man!

To say this is a culture shock and a brave move is a deep understatement.  Rahat is extremely traditional and entirely Bedouin.  Despite living in the same country as Jews, Muhammad has had limited interaction with them.  So moving to Ramat Gan, perhaps one of the cities with the highest percentage of Jews in the country, will be quite a shock.  Some ways good, but a huge change nonetheless.

Muhammad has managed to get an apartment (something that took me months in Tel Aviv) and find two jobs!  On his own.  I helped him along the way- on WhatsApp.  From my AirBnB in Oradea, Romania, from Hungary, from Almería, and from Tortosa.  I’m so proud of him.

Which is why it was a punch to my gut to hear what he had to say on the phone.  Muhammad went for a job interview in Ramat Gan.  He was offered the job, but the boss said: “our establishment has a lot of religious people, so we need to give you another name.”  Muhammad was a name some people just can’t bear to hear as they’re munching on their hummus and falafel.

Heartbroken, he almost decided to change his name.  He asked me what to do.  I first offered my sympathies.  This is one of the saddest things I can hear- that a young, aspiring young man is being told to cut off his identity.  I’m with you Muhammad.

Secondly, I shared some stories of discrimination I had faced as a Jew and a gay man- in America and in Europe.  The Lyft driver who threw me out of his car for being a gay Jew.  The Muslim man and the Belgian Christian who said I was an apartheid occupier, an ethnic cleanser.  The Argentinian who said Jews control the world.  The Algerian who said Israel did.

He was shocked.  And I think somewhat comforted to feel he wasn’t alone.  See while the reasons we were discriminated against were different, in the end they were the same.  People who hate difference.  People who refuse to see nuance or to empathize with others.

I told him that I love him as Muhammad.  As whatever he chooses to call himself.  And nobody has the right to decide that for him.  He has the right to choose to fight racism, to call a lawyer, to speak with an NGO.  And he has the right to put his energy towards finding a better job where people will appreciate him.  And choosing between the two strategies is not always easy.  I know- I never got a dime from Lyft despite a huge public relations campaign, but I was featured in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for gay rights.  For a case we lost.  I support Muhammad in being himself, however he chooses to find his way forward.

So you have to ask yourself after all this, what’s in a name?  Abram converted to Christianity- and seeing his name hundreds of years later I spotted him as my landsman.  Matah was a sign of hope for me when I made aliyah, then became a grating sound on my ears.  Until I saw Abram and realized how lucky I was in certain ways to be a Jew at this time, in this place.  With a homeland we can call our own.  And Muhammad- how a brave young Muslim Bedouin man is forging his path forward in Ramat Gan.  Weighing his past identity with his present as he pursues a new future and faces racism.  Holding on to his name even as he wrestles with how to live as a minority.  Something I try to help him manage as someone who can draw on the rich reservoir of Jewish history and gay identity.  Minority persistence.

Muhammad gives me hope that despite my experiences in Europe, there are Muslims out there who like me.  As I am.  A gay Israeli American Jew.  I can’t pretend there are masses of them, but even knowing someone like Muhammad is out there, striving for more, caring about me, relying on me- that gives me a bit of hope.  And warms my soul.

There is a place on this planet where Jews and Arabs live together.  It’s not Spain of 500 years ago.  It’s Israel.  For all its problems, Israel is a place where Arabs know Jews as people.  Not caricatures or cartoons or characters on a soap opera.  Nor memories of 70 years ago, when they used to inhabit the same quarters in Morocco and Damascus.  No, in Israel we live together.  Not always in harmony, but knowing each other.  In a way that, perhaps better than anywhere else in the world, allows me to find people like Muhammad who I can breathe my breathy “habibis” and my deep s “sadeeqs” with.  Where I feel my Arabic is sometimes quite worthwhile.

In the end, what’s in a name?  Occupation is the word you’ll hear most in the news about Israel.  And I’m not going to evade and suggest that Palestinians are not real (that’s a thing), that they aren’t facing human rights abuses (they are), or that some of them weren’t expelled from their lands (some were).  What I will say is that occupation is complex.  As I travel around Europe, I notice all the Jewish lands occupied.  The Jewish bodies and souls emptied.  The synagogues turned into casinos and strip clubs and Italian restaurants.  The Muslim immigrants occupying our former quarters- either oblivious to our former past or some outright hostile to our current existence.

At a time when Catalans feel Spain occupies them (and Spain denies their difference), just how objectively clear is this word?  The far left would have you believe things are black and white, that Israel is an occupier, Palestinians are natives.  But rarely in life are things so clear.  When you visit Peki’in and meet Jews who have been there continuously since the Second Temple.  When you meet Arabs from Ramle who migrated from Libya a hundred years ago.  It’s not to suggest the current situation is good- but it is to suggest it is not entirely one-sided and it does not present simple solutions.

In the end, I also think about this word.  As I travel, one of the great questions on my mind is my own occupation.  How I occupy my time, what I like to do, what I want to do going forward.

Perhaps it’s telling that I recently found this cute sign in Catalan that says: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

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And I’ve come to what I feel is the next step.  As I write this blog, it strikes me that when I left Israel, I wasn’t sure if I’d continue writing it.  Yet I found myself over and over again enjoying the therapy of sharing my experiences, of writing things down so for years on end I’ll be able to remember my adventures.  To share my thoughts, to bring a little understanding to the world, and hopefully to engage you with exciting, unexpected stories from cultures and languages you want to explore.

Which brings me to today.  I’ve written about 140 blog posts, hundreds of thousands of words.  I’ve received the most wonderful, heart-warming comments from readers in San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, and Bethlehem.

And I’ve shared it for free, out of love and a desire to make the world better.

This is how I occupy myself.  I love exploring and want to keep sharing meaningful stories and thoughts with you.

The way I do that is by asking you to contribute to making it possible.  Thousands of miles crossed doesn’t happen for free.  I’ve invested so much of my own time and money, and to keep things going, to be a member of my community, you now have the opportunity to contribute.

Soon, I’ll be making my blog a subscription site.  The format is being determined, but in one fashion or another, you’re going to have to pay to access this well of hope.  It’s fair and I can’t wait to connect with you on an even deeper level as we use this blog to connect open-minded people around the world.

If you’d like to join now, you have a chance to subscribe at a one-time, more affordable rate.  If you go to my GoFundMe page and contribute $20 or more, you will get your first year subscription free.  Everyone who has donated up until now will be grandfathered in and given a free subscription as well.  If you wait until I transition the site, the price will start at $36.

I want to keep you along for the journey.  I want to show you amazing archives and diverse people.  The unexpected twists and turns.  In 8 languages.  With a queer angle, an open-minded lens.  Proud of Judaism and Israel and willing to engage in nuance.  To make my communities better, kinder.  Understood and understanding.

I invite you to join me.  Or you can always find another gay Jewish blogger who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish and read his blog instead 😉

Let’s explore together. 🙂

הפריווילגיה הישראלית

שלום לכם ושנה טובה.  אני פונה לחבריי הישראלים בפוסט הראשון שלי בעברית.  למי שמנסה לתרגם את זה דרך גוגל טרנסלייט, יהיה לו קשה ולא יתפוס את המשמעות העיקרית.  אז מומלץ יותר לקרוא בלוג דומה (אבל כן, קצת שונה) באנגדלית פה.  או, אפילו יותר טוב, תלמדו עברית

😉

אז בואו נתחיל מזה שאני לא גדלתי בכלל עם עברית בבית.  ההורים שלי הם לא ישראלים.  הייתי בארץ רק פעמיים לפני שעליתי.  ולמדתי עברית בוושינגטון עם מורה פרטית ישראלית כי דווקא אני רציתי.  בעצם היו אנשים במשפחה שלי שלא אהבו את זה שלמדתי עברית וגם התנגדו לעובדה שאהבתי ללכת לבית כנסת.  מי שחושב שזה לא הגיוני שיהודים יתנהגו ככה, הוא צודק.  אבל אין שום דבר הגיוני בהתעללות.

זה בדיוק הנושא שאני רוצה לדבר עליו עכשיו.  אני שורד התעללות מינית, רגשית, ופיזית.  והאנשים הראשונים שהתעללו בי היו במשפחה שלי.  ולצערי לא רק אחד או שתיים.  לא פעם אחת, לא “בטעות”, וכן מתוך רוע.

סיבה אחת גדולה שעליתי לארץ היה כדי לברוח מהאנשים שהתעללו בי.  מגיל 6 אני יכול לזכור טוב טוב את מה שעשו לי.  אני יכול לזכור כשאנסו אותי במשפחה שלי.  חברי המשפחה שלי.  ובוודאי היה נמאס לי.  תמיד היה לי חלום ציוני שרציתי להגשים אותו, אז שתי הסיבות האלה בנוסף להרבה סיבות אחרות הספיקו.  בגיל 32, לבד, עליתי לארץ לפני שנה וחצי. כמעט בלי להכיר שם אף אחד.  אני בנאדם אמיץ.

היו לי חוויות נהדרות בארץ.  אם עוד לא קראתם את הפוסטים שלי בבלוג, אני ממליץ בחום.  דיברתי עם צעירים דרוזים בערבית על הזהות ההומואית שלי.  התפללתי בבית כנסת חסידי בבני ברק- ואני יהודי רפורמי כל החיים שלי.  הלכתי למסיבות גייז עם מוזיקה מזרחית- מוזיקה שנתנה לי כוח לחיות בארה”ב.  כשרקדתי לבד לצלילי שרית חדד בחדר שלי במקום להקשיב לצעקות מהסלון.

ישראל זה מקום מיוחד מאוד ואני מעריך אותה אפילו יותר עכשיו, כשאני מטייל באירופה וחוויתי פה אנטישמיות ברמה שאף פעם לא ראיתי.  נגיד שמאוד נהניתי כאן אבל ממש לא פשוט להיות יהודי או ישראלי (לדעתי, ישראלי זה מן יהודי חוץ לארון כי יודעים מיד שאתה יהודי כששואלים מאיפה אתה).  היה לי ממש מעניין כאן- אתה יכולים לקרוא על כל מה שגיליתי בפוסטים שלי באנגלית.  אבל בואו נגיד שעכשיו הבנתי למה ישראלים מעדיפים לטייל בנפאל.  לא מעט אנשים פה יודעים על ה”אפרטייד הישראלי” אבל בכלל לא יודעים על היהודים שהיו פעם גרים במדינות שלהם.  שעכשיו יש יותר בתי קברות יהודים מאשר יהודים חיים.

אבל גם נכון שאני מטייל באירפה ולא נמצא בארץ.  כי הבנתי שהחיים כל כך קשים שם- במיוחד בשביל מישהו שסבל התעללות משפחתית.  אתם אך ורק מדברים על משפחה.  ואתם ממש אוהבים לשאול שאלות.  בלי סוף.

מצד אחד זה נחמד.  אני מעריך שבארץ יש חום- גם במשפחה וגם בין חברים.  והאמת שאחרי שהתרגלתי לחיים שם, אני כן קצת נמאס לי מהנימוס האירופאי-האמריקאי.  דוגריות לפעמים עושה לי טוב.

מצד שני, זה נורא.  כל הזמן אומרים לי שאני מטומטם כי עליתי לארץ.  שיותר טוב באמריקה.  ואיפה המשפחה?  ווואי אתה ממש מתגעגע אליהם, נכון?  קשה קשה.

לפעמים זה בא ממקום טוב, אפילו אם זה כן תמים.  אם זה שעליתי מארץ 1000 פעם יותר עשירה ומוצלחת ויש לי שני תוארים ואני דובר 8 שפות, כנראה ש*שי* סיבה שבאתי למדבר שלנו.  כן, להגשים את החלום הציוני (שהוא לפעמים יותר חלום ולפעמים יותר סיוט- זה משתנה אפילו משעה לשעה).  אבל הרבה פעמים, לא יצא לכם לחשוב למה דווקא הייתי עושה דבר כזה “מטומטם”.  שאולי דווקא כן יותר טוב לי בארץ מסיבות די טובות.  סיבות שגורמות לי לחשוב עכשיו שאולי אני אמור לחזור.

אז אולי ברגע הזה אתה רוצה לשאול אותי “אבל למה לא אמרת משהו?”  אבל כמה פעמים אני כן שיתפתי.  ורוב הזמן אנשים היו אומרים *לדבר* עם האנשים שאנסו אותי, לסלוח, לשכוח.  או שקשה אבל מה לעשות.  אפילו כזה צחוק מוזר מדי.  מישהו אמר פעם “אםםםם יאללה אז מי רוצה לדבר על אונס?”  אולי מן הומור שחור אבל ממש לא מתאים למי ששרד התעללות.

ולמי שלא מבין- זה מפני שאני כבר לא בקשר עם המשפחה שהצלחתי לא להפוך להיות כמוהם.  להיות בן אדם מכבד ואוהב.

היו כמה אנשים שכן הבינו אבל הגיע כזה רגע שהבנתי שזה כבר לא הגיוני להמשיך לספר אם זה יותר יכאיב לי מאשר יעזור לי להרפא.  אז יצאתי.

ולמרות שקשה כמו יהודי באירופה, אני כן למדתי הרבה על עצמי והצלחתי להבין למה אני איך שאני.  אפילו השתניתי מכמה בחינות. זה עזר לי להרפא.  להתקדם.  וימשיך להיות תהליך.

אז אם אפשר לשאול למה לא אמרתי, גם אפשר לשאול למה לא חשבתם?  האם זה באמת מורכב לחשוב שלבנאדם אחר יש סיבות שמסבירות את ההתנהגות שלו, את הבחירות שלו?  שעולים אמריקאים אנחנו לא *כל כך* תמימים ושאולי יש עוד סיפורים כמו הסיפור שלי (יש- אני מכיר)?

בזכות שיש לישראל כל כך הרבה דברים שהבנתי שאני כן אוהב, אני כותב את הבלוג הזה.  כי יש גם אנשים שהם לא מתנהגים כמו אלה שכתבתי עליהם פה.  כי יש אנשים אוהבים שמשתדלים להבין.  כי אני לא מוותר על המדינה שלי ועל החיים החדשים שביניתי.  וברור, כי אני כבר לא רוצה לספר את הסיפור שוב פעם ושוב פעם.  אז פשוט אשלח לכם את הלינק.  אתם אנשים חמים ואוהבים אבל לדבר איתכם לפעמים מעייף.  אני לא צריך להצדיק את החיים שלי אז יאללה, תמשיכו לקרוא ותבינו.

עכשיו אני מטייל באירופה.  כמה חברים שלי בארץ ממש מבינים ומעריכים את הבחירה שלי. לעזוב דירה ולצאת לבד.  בלי לדעת לאן ולכמה זמן ואיפה אני אשאר בסוף.  אין בית של אמא לחזור אליו בסוף.  סליחה, אבל זה לא הטיול שלכם להודו.  זה מאמץ כדי להרפא מ30 שנה של התעללות.  וכן, להינות קצת.

וזה לא שאני עשיר- להיפך.  אין לי שום תמיכה משפחתית ורק נותר לי כזה 2000 דולר בחשבון שלי.  בנוסף ל40000 דולר שאני צריך להחזיר לממשלה האמקריקאית על התואר השני שלי.  שם ללמוד זה לא זול כמו בארץ- ואני משמלם על זה לבד.

כמה חברים שלי בארץ אמרו לי “איזה פריווילגיה יש לך לטייל בחו”ל”.  ואם אתה אחת מהחברים האלה, אל תדאג, לא אקח את זה אישית ולא היית היחיד שחשב ככה.

אבל זה כן חרא של הבנה.  לכל אחד יש פריווילגיות.  העובדה שיכולתי לעלות לארץ זה מן פריווילגיה.  וגם העובדה שאני אמריקאי.  וגם שיש לכם משפחה (למרות שאני מניח שיש עוד ישראלים כמוני).  שיש לכם את שפת העברית מגיל 0.  ולצברים- שלא הייתם צריכים לעלות לארץ.  שיש לכם חבר’ה מהצבא ואפילי חברים מהגן שאתם עדיין יוצאים איתם למסיבות.  זה לא כולכם- אבל זה קיים.  אני אישית מודע ומודה על זה שלא גדלתי עם פיגועים ומלחמות.  ואני ממליץ לכם להודות על הפריווילגיות שלכם.  כי הזמנה לארוחת שבת לעולה בודד זה ממש לא דבר כמובן מאילו.  גם לכם יש מזל לפעמים.  תודה לכל מי שאירח אותי בשמחה ובאהבה.  בזכותכם הרגשתי פחות לבד.

אז בסופו של דבר, אני לא כל כך אוהב את השיח על “פריווילגיה” כי זה דבר די רלטיבי.  למרות שלפעמים עוזר לחשוב עליו.

אז בואו נגיד את זה ככה.  יש לי את הפריווילגיה להיות ישראלי ולתרום לחברה חדשה.  תודה לכל מי שנלחם על החלום והבית שלי.  עד עכשיו.

ויש לכם את הפריווילגיה לגור במדינה שגדלתם בה.  עם התמיכה של שכונות, משפחות, וחבר’ה.  לדבר את שפת המדינה מגיל אפס, להרגיש בבית ולא להתבלבל כל פעם שמישהו משתמש במילה חדשה שלא למדתם באולפן.

קשה להיות ישראלי.  אני יודע- פשוט מנקודת מבט אחרת.  אז בואו נעריך את הפריווילגיה להכיר אחד את השני.  כי למרות מה למדתם בבית הספר, לא באתי לארץ כדי להיות כמוכם, אלא להיות איתכם.

ליבי מזרח ואנוכי בסוך מערב.

אני מוסר לכם ד”ש, לרחוב יהודה הלוי מהארץ שבו הוא גדל.  איש גלותי מוכשר ומוכר. מתגעגע.

 

What I’ve learned from my travels

September 1st, 2018 I left my apartment in Tel Aviv, ended my lease, and packed a single backpack.  This backpack would be my luggage for the entirety of my 2+ month backpacking trip throughout Europe and the U.S.

I had traveled a lot in Israel the past year and a half- and in extremely adventurous ways.  More than ever before.  I had amazing experiences like talking with Druze teens about what it’s like to be gay.  Stunning new experiences like davvening in a Hasidic synagogue in Bnei Brak.  Awe-inspiring experiences like dancing with Litvak Jews in a cave in Tsfat.  Empowering experiences like dancing to Mizrachi music at a Tel Aviv gay party.  Scary experiences like being chased by a violent Arab man in the village of Tira.  Scarier experiences when I found myself lost on the wrong side of the West Bank border area as the sun was setting.  Scariest experience when I heard air raid sirens on the first night in my new apartment.

So when I set off to Europe, I figured this would be a piece of cake.  And in some ways, it is much easier than traveling in Israel.  Nowhere I went in Europe has active violent conflict.  There are no air raid sirens, nor suspicious packages, nor soldiers walking around- a constant reminder of the state of the region.  You also can’t watch or hear the Syrian Civil War.  You just meet Algerian men who are convinced that the whole thing was started by Israel and America.  And you meet left-wing Belgians and Romanians convinced Israel is an apartheid state- but who have never been there.  Europe- a great place to be ignorant but be really convinced you’re right.  Maybe they’d make great Israelis 😉  Though they might not be so happy to hear that…

So what are the challenges of traveling in Europe?  First off, Europe is not all the same.  That’s like saying “what’s it like traveling in Asia?”  I started my trip in Romania.  Traveling in Romania is in some ways probably more similar to traveling in a relatively safe third world country.  This is not a place where you can buy your train tickets in English.  Maybe in Bucharest, but in hardcore Transylvania, you kind of mouth some words and they nod along and it works.  But this is no Paris.  It’s what makes it special, authentic, at times lonely, and challenging.

What’s cool about going to a place like Romania is not the wild dogs who chased me.  (that’s a thing- one of the many natural threats I survived)  But it is cool to see the unexpected.  I always enjoy this.  Cluj Napoca, for instance, is in the middle of Transylvania, a region with a rich Hungarian, Saxon (there are German settlers in Romania!), Romanian, Roma, and Jewish history.  And today, unlike most of the largely decaying country, it is a high tech hub.  Filled with young computer programmers.  Many of whom are the avant-garde progressives of the country.  There are even vegan restaurants.  And some of these programmers are deeply religious Christians (like most Romanians).  Who smile, say thank you, offer you rides, and then tell you you’re sinning for being gay.  One of the hardest parts about traveling is the cues you’re used to for protecting yourself might not match up with the local culture.  And so while I wouldn’t expect the average Silicon Valley computer programmer to be a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian homophobe, in Romania, that’s a real possibility.

Having escaped the wild dogs of Romania, I headed to Hungary, another of my ancestral homelands.  Budapest is a strange place.  Gorgeous architecture, amazing Jewish history, sweet views of the Danube.  Gay clubs (I went to one with a Jordanian girl I met on CouchSurfing!).  Something severely lacking in rural Romania.  On the other hand, Hungary is really intense.  Not the pace of life- Budapest is actually one of the quietest, most easy-going cities I’ve visited for its size.  But the people.  Boy!  This is a place, quite unlike Israel, where following the rules is religion.  It’s a bit hard to describe, but the incident where I was scolded for taking water from a water cooler- in an office where I was paying for genealogical research- might demonstrate the point.  After I paused and asked permission to take the water, I was granted some drops with a scowl.  I left Israel missing politeness, but Hungary showed me that when it’s imposed with fascist efficiency, it can be just as stifling.  Thank God for the woman at a sandwich shop who helped me call a cab while I carried my heavy backpack.  She was a bit nicer than the cashiers who repeatedly threw my change at me!

Slovenia.  In Slovenia, in some ways I got the best of both worlds.  Friendlier than Hungary and more modern than Romania, it was a step forward.  And the mountains, wow.  I have to say, I think I’ll be back here and I’ll head straight to the hills.  Stunning.  It takes your breath away.  It was in Slovenia I realized how brown I am.  You see, some Romanians and certainly some Hungarians can look kind of olive skinned at times.  Or at least a bit less Aryan.  Brown hair, brown eyes.  Maybe a bit different from me, but not drastic.

Slovenians look (and consider themselves) some sort of Slavic Austrians.  Having Austria on their northern border and being the wealthiest of the post-Yugoslav Republics, Slovenians definitely have a sense of difference.  And if you take a look at them, you quickly realize how much you stand out as a Mediterranean-looking Jew.  Their skin so fair, I was often considered to be a foreign worker.  Frankly, it made me more empathetic to Arabs and other immigrants from post-Yugoslav republics that come here.  Slovenians even have a slur for the latter.  Because physically, you stand out right away.  And while I enjoyed the amazing dairy vending machines and the cute cows and horses, I knew my stay would be temporary because I just didn’t fit in.  In case there was any doubt, I saw a young man give a Hitler salute in broad daylight in the capital during my walking tour.  I much prefer the wonderful young man selling cell phones- half British half Slovenian- who was excited to learn about the small Jewish museum.  Who, when I told him about it, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down the address to visit.  One of the hardest things about travel- especially as a minority- is protecting yourself.  Staying away from the neo-Nazis (because yes, that’s still a thing), and trying to meet more of those wonderful young cell phone salesmen who tell you “grab your heritage and go forward with it!”  Thanks Thomas 🙂

Belgium.  Belgium is, unlike most of Eastern Europe, a place with living Jews.  Other than the fact that small countries fascinate me and that I like speaking French, I came to Belgium to hang with real Jews.  Not just the ones in abundant abandoned cemeteries all over Romania and Hungary.  Often physically blocked off and locked to prevent desecration- vandalism that happens to this day.  Despite the brave Jews and non-Jews who help us keep our heritage alive.  Or at least preserved.

Belgium is where I discovered that I look Arab.  Well, in Israel sometimes Arabs thought I was Arab, especially when I spoke the language.  But in Belgium, let’s say Belgians know even less about the differences between Semites, so I was quite often assumed to be Algerian, Moroccan, Syrian- you name it.  Even often by Arabs, who sometimes just as ignorant, couldn’t fathom a Jew who looked like them.  Although one night, it got me delicious Halal food recommended by a Tunisian man concerned for my Islamic diet.  The meal was followed by a free delicious dessert and a Kurdish man giving me PKK terrorist literature.  I took some pictures then threw it out- an interesting memento, but not worth long conversations in airport security.  I’ll have you know it was written in 6 languages- can’t say I approve of killing civilians, but I do like a nice multilingual brochure.

Belgium is also home to a lot of different languages.  While in the news, you might hear about French vs. Flemish tensions (indeed, Belgium is a country almost constantly on the verge of dissolving, having set a record for the longest time without a government), there are lots of others as well.  Before French arrived, southern Belgium had (and in some cases still has) a ton of Romance languages.  Walloon, for instance.  Even Brussels has its very own language- Bruxellois!  I went to an adorable antique bookstore and bought a book about the history of the language from an older couple who still speak it!  They even had Tintin translated into various Belgian languages- indeed “languages” because if you just know French you won’t even understand half of them!  Travel guides portray Brussels as a veritable gangsters paradise, but I actually found the city rather quaint, with the absolute best, gooey waffles I’ve ever eaten.  Step aside, IHOP.

In Belgium, I also learned the value of sitting put for a while.  Traveling is exhausting.  Even when you’re learning so much about yourself, it’s just overwhelming to be recovering from PTSD and abuse, thinking about big life decisions, making travel plans, and adjusting to local culture and language.  Also, the random people who think you’re a millionaire because you’re traveling alone.  Or a weirdo.  I’m neither- my bank account is quite low, but I view travel as a strategic investment in me.  And I’ve learned so much about myself in the process.  Maybe these people will when they’re 60 and retire- but I’d rather not wait to experience the world.  Also, traveling alone forces you to really think about what you want and gave me ample time to reflect without distraction.  I’ve gone nearly two months barely using social media at all, and while occasionally I miss it, I find myself building deeper connections with friends- even from afar.  By sharing with them directly rather than passively assuming everyone sees something I posted to my Facebook page.  Even when it’s hard- like when don’t like where I ended up- not relying on social media helps me realize I need to go somewhere new.  If you’ve never thought to pause your social media, I have to say it’s one of the wisest and healthiest things I’ve done.  Give it a try 😉

So the benefit of sitting put in Belgium was that I had ended up in Antwerp.  I was supposed to go to the Netherlands but I realized this city was better for me and I was tired.  Indeed, I ended up spending several days in Antwerp.  Slowing down, enjoying the abundance of East Asian food.  Fixing my SIM card.  Hanging with Hasidic Jews (and reconnecting with why I like them- something exorcised from my system due to tensions in Israel).  Realizing that Jews really do stick together more in the Diaspora and the intense sectarian battles of Israel don’t really flare up as much in Belgium.  When your whole community is 30,000 strong and a lot of the people around you hate you for just being different.  I stayed with a wonderful Rwandan family in Jumet, a part of Charleroi.  Just this week, a Jewish woman was threatened at gunpoint 10 minutes down the road in an anti-Semitic attack.  It makes you appreciate just how special it is to be an American and Israeli Jew when you see how hard it is in other countries.  And it certainly scares you into questioning when, if ever, you really reveal who you are.  A kind of Jewish closet.

Luxembourg.  The tiniest country I’ve ever visited.  I’m so hipster that I didn’t even visit Luxembourg City.  Instead, I hopped on a bus from Bastogne, Belgium and went to Ettelbruck.  Passing through pristine forests along the way.  I expected to see limos and fancy homes, but instead realized that it’s basically a foreign worker city.  While you could tell the ethnic Luxembourgers by their luxury cars, almost everyone else was Portuguese, Chinese, African, or Cape Verdean.  I was definitely the only tourist there- probably the only tourist ever.  I got the most stares of my life.  I did manage to meet an ethnic Luxembourger, who mostly laughed at me being Jewish.  I did make friends with Cape Verdean women who loved my Portuguese and my passion for Kompass and Cesaria Evora.  A reminder that while Judaism and being American and gay are my primary identities, my languages are also a sense of pride.  And of connecting with people.  A kind of safety, a tribe of sorts.  One that helped me laugh and smile while waiting for the bus back to Belgium.  I still haven’t been to Portugal, but I did use the language in Luxembourg!

Now onto Spain.  While I enjoyed the beautiful historic sights of Belgium (not to mention discovering my great uncle was an American soldier killed in World War II liberating the country- while I was there!), I was ready for some sunshine.  Belgium, although filled with delightful treats, is a rather rainy place.  And Spain is warm and delightful- the people and the weather.

Spain is a place I’ve been many times, whose language- indeed languages- I speak.  Spanish, Catalan, even some Basque 😉  Andalusia, the South, is filled with warmth.  And also, a shitton of invernaderos.  Greenhouses.  Hardly a word you learn in Spanish class!  Almería, where I spent a lot of my time, is home to thousands of them.  Hundreds of thousands of Andalusians were forced to migrate to Catalonia and Germany and indeed Latin America during colonialism.  Explaining why Cubans and Puerto Ricans sound a lot like people in Granada.  The economy, frankly, sucked.  And still sucks.  While I still consider myself deeply empathetic to Catalan concerns for cultural continuity, I can see why Andalusians have their own pain.  You don’t leave a region of the country this pretty because things are going well.  Also, some people here live in caves, but I’ll come back to that in a future blog.

It is thanks to these invernaderos that some Andalusians could stay put.  I learned this from a nice man who I hitchhiked with out of a beautiful rural village (people told me there were buses back- there aren’t- a reminder that travel is full of the unpredictable, even if you read every guide book.  And I don’t.)  He even called his family and offered to give me a tour of the bell peppers and tomatoes.  I politely declined- he seemed nice but it was getting late and you have to understand that while most people are quite generous, some people are looking to make a buck or worse.  And you need to protect yourself.  Hitchhiking is a delicate art, I’ve done it some.  At its best, you’re riding through Romania with a really cool entomologist.  At worst, you’re riding through Slovenia with an anti-Semite.  It can be a real time saver, even a life saver.  And it can be quite scary to be stuck in someone’s car.  Frankly, I’m not sure how black people survive on this continent.  I’ve faced enough prejudice for being a Jew.  I can’t imagine the average Spaniard letting a Senegalese man hitchhike.  When I told a woman from Jerez that I studied immigration to Spain, she told me (as if I would agree with her): “wow, did you predict just how bad it would get?”  Like the thought had never entered her mind that I was studying the topic out of empathy.

Indeed, Andalusia is naturally beautiful and filled with friendly people.  Frankly, some of the hottest guys I’ve ever seen.  With smiles as sweet as their thighs.  But for a moment, I’d like to validate other Spaniards’ stereotypes about the region.  It is not the most cosmopolitan.  People yell really loud, talk constantly, and quite a number of them have never stepped outside Spain.  The friendliness was certainly a welcome change after Belgium, but I have to say I discovered that actually I don’t mind a little distance.  Having people repeat directions three or four times is at first charming, and later gets kind of annoying or patronizing.  Probably not the intent, but even warmth has its limits when you’re trying to go somewhere or get something done.  I can’t say I’ll validate one Andalusian woman’s comment that people there don’t like to work, but it’s hardly Germany either.

In Alicante, in the province of Valencia, I was reminded why I love minority languages.  When I left Israel, I felt rather dejected about languages.  I’ve spent my whole life studying them and I saw in the Middle East that they alone will not bring peace.  Morals, values, ideologies, personalities- are at least as important as knowing language.  I once had a Hebrew professor suggest that if all Jews and Arabs spoke each other’s languages, there’d be peace.  But now I’m fairly convinced this is not the case.  Even if I believe it would sincerely help.

But when I came to Valencia and met a gay Zionist and bonded with him in Catalan, I knew languages were magic.  I had a reason for falling in love with them- and for choosing to learn not only global languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and French.  But also Yiddish and Catalan.  Yiddish surprisingly useful in Luxembourg and with German tourists.  And Catalan in melting the heart of a wonderful Valencian bookstore owner who frankly made my day.  Maybe even my month.

After hearing British leftists say that Israelis deserved to die in terror attacks, to being berated by a Belgian man on an airplane for living in an “apartheid state”, to being strangely followed by an Iraqi man insistent on finding out where I was from- it’s not been easy being a Jew here.  Certainly not being Israeli.  So to find a Valencian man with a Hebrew tattoo was one of the most refreshing things to ever happen.  Thank you Josep- visca Valencia, visca la llengua catalana!

One of the things I’ve learned on this trip (and noticed in Israel too) is that whenever someone says “I have nothing against…” or “I don’t see color”, it means they’re a bigot.  It’s odd- but actually the need to articulate this is usually, if not always, a sign of deep hatred.  I’ve seen this with comments against Jews, against Arabs, against gays.  Consider this my travel tip 😉

My travels have revealed something very deep for me.  When I left Israel, I left rather bitter.  That’s putting it lightly.  If I’m honest with you, I’ve thought more than once that I’d never return.  But my experiences in Europe have shown me that indeed, every country has its problems.  And frankly, there are reasons why 2,000 year old Jewish communities in Belgium and France are emigrating to Israel.  And why almost no Jews remain in Romania- where 750,000 lived in 1939.  Europe has a Jewish problem- and it’s not the Jews.  This is a terrible place to be a Jew.  I met wonderful young Belgian Jews who were accustomed to the fact that their synagogues are under lock and key and heavily guarded, inaccessible to the public except for prayers.  In Europe, to visit a cathedral you just walk in.  To go to synagogue, you need to provide your passport.  Often a week in advance.

Anti-Semitism, along with other problems (Belgium’s teetering existence, Romania’s massive killings of wild dogs, poverty in Wallonia Belgium, discrimination against Roma almost everywhere), makes you realize that everywhere is a trade-off.  And while Israel certainly has its unique problems, I think I underestimated the challenge of being a gay Jew in Europe.  A place where the people who like gay people often hate Jews.  A place where the people who like Israel often hate gays.

It’s for this reason I had one of my core beliefs in Israel validated: it’s always better to see things with your own eyes.  If I had gone on an organized tour (or not traveled at all), I would’ve wondered in the back of my head if Europe would really be a better place for me to live.  A lingering doubt that would’ve eaten me alive- especially because I could pay a few thousand dollars, learn Magyar, and become a Hungarian citizen.  Gaining an EU passport through the suffering of my ancestors- and the intense nationalism of the Hungarian government.

But what I discovered is that there is no future for me in Europe.  Visiting, engaging in activism, supporting Jewish communities, exploring- oh yes.  I will be back.  But living?  I suppose that what I’ve realized is that while I’d feel suffocated to spend 365 days a year in Israel, I can’t live without it either.

Israel is imperfect.  Sometimes awful.  But it’s really a lot more normal than I thought.  And despite the claims of boycotters, every country has issues.  While one Belgian man said Israel should be boycotted because Arabs don’t have equal rights (a point I conceded- and fight against in Israel)- you could say the same about every country.  Roma don’t have equal rights anywhere in Europe.  Jews are being persecuted for wanting kosher food.  Many governments, including France and Spain, give millions of dollars in tax money to the Church.  The same church that covers up sexual abuse to this day and in the case of Spain, actually supported a dictatorship.  For decades.  And while I’d hardly suggest the issue of Muslim integration or Syrian refugees in Europe is easy (not a small number of Muslims in Europe are polled as saying Sharia law is superior to civil law), it is quite apparent that they suffer intense discrimination.  But I’m hardly going to boycott Britain because the UKIP party wants to kick out immigrants.  It’s counterproductive, it scapegoats the entire British public for a portion of the society’s thoughts, and I think it’s childish.

As childish as saying an Israeli scientist can’t come share life-saving research in Britain.

Whatever problems Israel has, I try to be part of the solution.  And I’d encourage high falutin’ British leftists to start at home before judging my country so harshly.  After all, 40% of your country’s Jews are thinking of leaving home because the Labor Party is led by an anti-Semite.  It’d do you well to worry as much about your own country’s human rights abuses as you do about my own.  Because believe me, it’s the definition of privilege for a powerful country built on colonialism to boycott a small country of Holocaust survivors.  Who you actually detained in prison camps when they reached Israel’s shores.  I’ll be just as thrilled when European leftists protest for the rights of Jews expelled from Arab lands with half as much enthusiasm as they do for Palestinian refugees.  Empathy can’t be selective for it to effective- or just.

Tonight reading about the challenges solo travelers face, I saw a lot of myself in the commentary.  And I felt proud.  While some people have called my trip a “privilege” or that I must be “rich”, the truth is it was a bold move.  With little money in my bank account, I left my apartment and carried only a small backpack for two months.  I escaped an actual wolf in Belgium, a viper in Romania, and a psychotic AirBnB host who put me on the streets at 9pm because I complained about animals crawling around my room.  I managed to make it to 6 countries.  Some places where I spoke the languages, others where I didn’t.  Some I had visited, some I hadn’t.  I made new connections, I protected myself from scary people.  I saw nuance.  I met anti-Semites, Arab and European, and met wonderful Syrian refugees and curious Polish neuroscientists who welcomed me as a Jew.

I left Israel with the sounds of Hebrew and Arabic grating to my ear.  And now I use them to talk to friends, a sometimes warm reminder of my past life.

If you wish you could travel, just do it.  Unless you live in a slum in India, you can make it happen- even just for a week or two.  There are inexpensive ways to do it and you don’t *have* to have a lease.  You don’t *have* to have an office job.  You don’t *have* to study.  You make choices.  We all do.  With pluses and minuses.  I decided to drop everything and go.  Not knowing where I’ll end up.  Still not really knowing what’s next.

Truth be told, reading the articles tonight about solo travelers, I realize I’ve always been one.  Surrounded by hostile family, I’ve always been on my own.  So the only real difference between this trip and the rest of my life is now I realize it.  That while most people miss home and yearn for their family’s hugs or can’t wait to get back, I realize I have nowhere to go back to.  Not if I want to live my life the way I want and to feel respected.  I can only go forward.

That’s why I made aliyah.  That’s why I built a new life.  And for all its imperfections, Israel is one of my homes.  Maybe my only real one right now.  I’d like to build more of a connection to my American identity without the baggage of people telling me how to feel it.  As an independent adult.  I’m just as American as I am Israeli and I feel the pain and gain of having two homelands.  Something people on both sides might want me to choose between but which I refuse to do so.  They are both mine, they shape me, and I contribute to them.  I’ll have my falafel and pumpkin pie, thank you very much.

When I’m in Europe, I miss two things.  The delicious fresh rice noodles of Pad See Ew from my favorite Thai restaurant in Washington.  And the slow quiet of a Tel Aviv street on Shabbat.

Sometimes it takes seeing what you don’t have to realize what you do.

As my cover photo says in Spanish: “shoot for the moon, if you fail, at least you’ll be among the stars”.  In the village of Vícar, a white town covered in poetry that I never knew existed until a week ago.  Go explore 😉

 

 

The single best moment of my entire trip

Today, I visited Vila Joiosa, a village in Valencia, Spain.  I went there because they speak Valencian (or as most people call it, Catalan).  I studied Catalan in America at Georgetown University.  I fought my way into the class, which had nothing to do with my Master’s program, because I love Catalan.  I did my undergraduate thesis in Spanish on the Madrid and Barcelona educational systems’ approaches to immigration.  And in Barcelona, I fell in love with Catalan.  A beautiful Romance language filled with x’s and mysterious accent marks.  To me, it looked like a sophisticated, intriguing, sexy Spanish.

So nearly 10 years after my undergraduate education, I found myself at Georgetown studying communication.  And they have a wonderful Catalan program funded by the Ramon Llull Foundation, to promote their culture and language abroad.  And the professor generously let me into the class 😉

I’ve been visiting Alicante, a major city in the province of Valencia.  What’s so striking about Alicante is that it is in the heart of an area that has spoken Catalan for generations (some locals distinguish it as Valencian, but they are essentially varieties of the same language, whatever you wish to call it).  Yet today, almost nobody speaks the language.  The street signs are in Valencian, but you hear nothing but Spanish on the streets.  As if the words are a formality, a reminder of the past, but more of a museum than a living heritage.

So I went searching online to find a village that spoke Valencian, to this day.  I love Valencian Catalan.  I love dialects and accents.  And when I lived in America, I used to watch Valencian-language public TV.  It’s a beautiful variety of Catalan.  And despite what some Catalanists claim, many of its differences can be traced to historical settlement patterns, not just hispanification of the language.  Indeed, I learned today that parts of Valencia use the same unique definite articles as the Balearic Islands.  The only place in the former Roman Empire to keep this unique variety of Latin grammar alive.  Just like one of my favorite bands, Antònia Font.

So it was with great sadness when I saw Spanish nationalists shut down the Valencian-language TV station a few years ago and also stopped broadcasts of TV3 from Barcelona.  I love TV3- I was interviewed on it about my connection to Judaism and Catalan and my gay identity.  You can watch it here and here and test how much Catalan you can understand 😉 .

Every year, I’d check Wikipedia to see whether Valencian activists had succeeded in getting the station up and running again.  Desperately wanting to hear the beautiful Valencian dialect from far away- my only way to engage with it.

Well the station is back up and running.  And it’s thanks to people like City Councilor Josep Castiñeira of Vila Joiosa that it survived.  Along with the Valencian dialect of Catalan.

Vila Joiosa means “joyful town”, and today I had a most joyous experience there.

Walking around town, I noticed a bookstore.  Its name was in Catalan: “Vila Llibres”.  I got excited- this was just why I came to this seaside village.

Upon entering, I noticed a sign that says “here, we’ll serve you in Valencian”.  Whew!  Unfortunately some Spaniards can get prickly when you address them in a minority language, but here I knew I was safe to speak Valencian.

I did get a bit nervous at first.  I noticed a rainbow flag.  As a gay person, you might think this would make me feel at ease.  But in fact, a large portion of the European left, who is generally pro-gay rights has become anti-Semitic.  Quite a number of them, as Josep pointed out later, are quite content to be interviewed on Russian and Iranian TV, but can’t fathom the existence of Israel.  As if our state is somehow less legitimate than the haphazard mess of Middle Eastern states randomly carved out by colonialism.  If you believe your country should exist but Israel shouldn’t (I’ll give a pass to equal opportunity anarchists), you’re an anti-Semite and I don’t like you.

So when I saw this was essentially a left-wing Valencian nationalist bookstore, I got nervous.  Indeed, on the tram on the way to Vila Joiosa, I saw large graffiti calling Israel a murderous state.  Needless to say, there was no accompanying graffiti suggesting Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Spain were similarly murderous despite both past and current colonialism, murder of LGBT people and minorities, and ethnic cleansing (including of Jews).

My conversation with Josep, the bookstore owner, started about Valencian.  I told him I was an American who had studied Catalan and I was excited to see his bookstore.  Stunned that I spoke Catalan without an accent, he welcomed me in and showed me a map of Catalan dialects.  I stood in wonder as he taught me dialectal differences.  I can’t imagine a more exciting experience than chatting in Valencian while learning about the amazing map of Catalan varieties.  Phonetics, grammar, cultural diversity- this is what I love.

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Turns out, it wouldn’t be the only thing I loved about Josep.

I asked about buying a book specifically written the way Valencians speak Catalan.  He pointed me to some, and I went exploring.  Then I noticed a book about the dybbuk, the mythical Jewish spirit creature, in Catalan!  As I brought the book to his attention, he said it wasn’t specifically in the Valencian dialect.  And then I came out as a Jew- not an easy thing here if you’ve read my previous blogs, including from here in Alicante.

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I told him how cool it was to see a Jewish book in Catalan.  And as I spoke with him, I started to notice Jewish books everywhere.  About Jewish history and culture.  I noticed a little sign that even said “shalom”- something I was so used to that I hardly recognized how unique it was in Valencia!

Josep then did the most amazing thing.  He pulled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo that said: “leshanah haba’ah beyerushalayim”.  Next year in Jerusalem.  A phrase we sing at the end of our Passover Seders dreaming of returning to our Holy Land.  A phrase we’ve sung for thousands of years.  Zionism is not a new concept, it is built into our very prayers.  Now is no longer a dream, but a delicate reality we strive to preserve for ourselves and future generations.

I was in the most glorious shock.  Turns out Josep, in his own words, is a Zionist.  And like me, is gay.  And left wing.  And a progressive Valencian nationalist.  In fact, he is a city councilor for the Compromís political party.

After a trip filled with so much anti-Semitism that I often feel afraid to reveal my Jewish Israeli identity here, I can’t tell you how relieved and thrilled I was.  To feel accepted.  Not only because, as some right-wing Europeans feel, that they like Israel because they hate Arabs.  Which puts me in an awkward position as who believes in human rights for all, including Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.  Something I fight for- as an Israeli.  Even when significant elements of those societies hate me for being gay and Jewish.  It’s simply my value system, regardless of whether all the people I fight for support my own human rights.  Though some of them do.  What’s great about Josep is that we share progressive values.  And support Israel for this reason, and promote the people within it, like me, who are working to make it more and more a reality.

Josep is a hero.  Several years ago, I remember seeing headlines that Valencians were boycotting American Jewish singer Matisyahu purportedly because of Israel.  Where he doesn’t even live.  It’s pure anti-Semitism and it left me feeling distant from this culture that I spent so much time and love connecting to from across an ocean.  It’s beyond hypocritical for Spaniards to boycott Israel when their entire country is built on the bloodshed and expulsion of Jews and Muslims.  And it’s classic anti-Semitism when this hypocrisy is used to target someone who isn’t even Israeli!

Josep told me that he worked with his allies in Compromís to counter this boycott.  Even educating ignorant people in his own party.  He is against the BDS movement which seeks to destroy the State of Israel.  Not alter policies, not debate nuance, but to eliminate an entire country because it is Jewish.  A group of people so delusional that they have no problem traveling to China, meeting Russian academics, or enjoying the fruits of their own colonialism.  But somehow Israel is worthy of the utmost and disproportional criticism.  A 2,000 year old hatred rooted in the New Testament itself is hard to get out of your bones.  Fortunately some Christians today, like Josep’s priest friend in Vila Joiosa who loves Israel, are working as allies of our community to rid their culture of this hatred.

While I was across the ocean learning Catalan and embracing Valencian culture, Josep was here defending my heritage.  We honor each other.  And it is through the grace of our spirit that we met today.  Recently, I’ve felt I don’t believe in God.  And I still feel that the way God is portrayed in religious texts is erroneous and even dangerous.  But perhaps for the first time in months, I felt a connection to my inner God.  Because it’s by following my inner compass that I made my way to Josep’s bookstore today.  And made a new friend, hopefully for life.

Josep made me feel accepted.  He warmed my heart and put a huge smile on my face.  And so I took a piece of paper and wrote him a poem.  In Hebrew and in Catalan.  Here it is:

 

Josep and I are bibliophiles.  Lovers of the written word.  So perhaps it’s no surprise given our many shared passions that we really clicked.  People who love kindness, who seek to learn, who reject black-and-white thinking, that’s my kind of people.  That’s who Josep is, that’s who I am, that’s my life aspiration.  The fuel that keeps me going and pointed in the right direction.

As I read my poem out loud, I could feel his smile.  I live for moments like these.  Faced with so many challenges, these experiences give me a reason to live.

I want to feel accepted.  I’m an unorthodox thinker, but at my heart I’m basically a moderate left libertarian.  Unfortunately, some of the people who claim to carry this banner are anti-Semites.  Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.

It has made me feel isolated from my own natural community.  People who believe in human rights, individual freedom, less imposition of the state, economic fairness, LGBT rights, and compassion.  Something the extremes of our community have twisted so much they’ve ended up allied with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

What’s so great about Josep is that with him, I can be myself.  While right-wing Jews and Zionists often demand I put my gayness aside and the far left demands I put my Jewish identity aside, Josep lets me be both.  A gay Jewish progressive.  And a lover of Catalan, unfortunately a language community where some speakers are anti-Semitic as well.  And Josep stands as a brave counterexample to their ignorance.  Proudly carrying the banner of a long Catalan philosemitic tradition.

Like most people, I just want to feel accepted.  And people like Josep make me more convinced than ever about how important it is for Jews to engage open-minded people like him.  To support his efforts against anti-Semitism and to empower his own fight for cultural rights.  So that his village won’t end up like Alicante.  A place with Valencian signs but no Valencian speech.

The Spanish state has waged relentless war on cultural minorities.  First, Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.  But later groups like Catalans, Valencians, Basques, and Galicians.  Certainly nationalism is a delicate question.  If you read my blog, more often than not I’m against it.  Because in its most extreme forms it leads to division and violation of human rights.

What I’ll say, since I am an unorthodox thinker, is that sometimes nationalism is necessary.  As a minority group in the age of globalization, I have yet to find a better solution to preserving our identity than to have our own state.  It’s imperfect, it can lead to abusing other minorities when left unchecked, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen work.

I’m not interested in Jewish museums nor is Josep interested in a museum of Valencian history.  Indeed, when they start making museums about you, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington (which I love), you better start worrying.  Because you’ve become mundane and weak enough that it’s OK to stop persecuting you and just remember you.  As if you’re a gentle reminder of the past.  We can weep together, but deny you the right to live differently.

Josep and I, while lovers of learning and certainly of museums, that’s not what we want.  We’re interested in being living communities.  It might be inconvenient for your ideology to recognize that nationalism is the only way for us to continue to be who we are.  Indeed, it’s somewhat inconvenient for my own ideology at times.

But it’s a solid fact.  And until you can show me a better way to ensure a Jewish and Valencian future, a little nationalism is what keeps us alive.  As the socialist hymn goes, I want bread and roses.  I don’t just want bread to survive, I want roses.  The beauty, the higher-level fulfillment of cultural identity and passing down my heritage.  As a part of my existence.  Not to go the way of the Shakers, but to be imperfect but real.

If you’re Spanish or American or Chinese or Russian or Arab, you’re not worried for the survival of your culture.  You’re global superpowers with hundreds of millions of adherents.  But Catalans and Jews and Basques and Tibetans- we’re not so lucky.  And we’re not content to rely on your goodwill to survive.  Because we’ve seen that even though there have been periods where you’ve granted us tolerance, there are others where you extinguish us.  And we want the self-determination to protect ourselves when you decide to scapegoat us.  We want self-empowerment.

It’s messy, but it’s sometimes necessary.  Of course, we must be mindful that our own self-empowerment doesn’t turn into the same hatred we’ve experienced.  A delicate balancing act, but one which I’m willing to engage in to ensure my people’s future.

All of my life decisions led to this sweet moment today.  My decision to study Spanish- which led to my decision to study Catalan.  My decision to pursue an active progressive Jewish life in America and Israel.  My decision to move to Israel, and then travel the world exploring myself and discovering new aspects of Jewish identity.  My decision to come out of the closet as gay.

None of today would have happened without me making these powerful life choices.  Nor without Josep making similarly brave decisions that led him to connect with me.  Standing up for his beliefs, for my people, for his own sense of self, even when it was inconvenient or led to threats.  He recently was attacked by fascists, as vicious in their black-and-white prejudice as the far left.  Like me, he remains squeezed between extremes but pursues his identity with vigor.  And I am grateful for his resilient pursuit of purpose.

I have never, ever recommended a specific restaurant or store on this blog as far as I can remember.  I’m not Trip Advisor, I’m here to share my experiences, not plug businesses- nor have I accepted ad revenue from them.  But I’m going to recommend Josep’s bookstore, because it is an oasis of wisdom and kindness.  Whether you speak Catalan or not, go visit.  Tell him I sent you.  And enjoy wonderful conversation and buy something to support such a kind heart who supports us.

At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and anti-Semitic, I have never been more convinced of the need to engage open-minded people like Josep.  I often feel like giving up on the Left, but there are people like him who bravely stand with us.  Or are curious to learn.  This is why I’ve started my new initiative Nuance Israel to empower them.  If you’ve liked this blog and my other writing, contribute to my new project to make my ideas a reality.  To bring together moderate, open-minded people to support a textured engagement with Israel and the Jewish people.  To put a stop to anti-Semitic boycotts which seek to shut down conversation and destroy my country.  Engagement is the way forward for a progressive Israel and to defeat anti-Semitism abroad.

On the bus back to Alicante, some Arab kids in front of me were listening to loud YouTube videos of Arabic music.  I told them: “ana kamaan ba7ibb al-musiqaa al-3arabiyeh, bas biddi naam.  Min fadlak.”

I also love Arabic music, but I wanna sleep.  Please 🙂

They smiled and turned the volume down.

I can see multilingual Maimonides and the other greats of Spanish Jewish history smiling down on me.

A day in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew.  A moment of connection to a great Iberian past.  That Josep and I brought to life again today.

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

The wonderful, the ignorant, and the outright anti-Semitic

I’m writing you from Spain.  The past week, I stayed in Almería, a small city in the southeast corner of the country.  This is my fourth visit to Spain.  When I was 13, I came with my school.  When I was 21, I did research here for my thesis (including a fair bit of research on Spanish beaches 😉 ).  This past year, I realized my dream of re-visiting Catalonia after having learned Catalan.  And now, I’m chilling in the south of Spain.

Spain has always been an important place for me.  Spanish is the first foreign language I learned and Spain is the first country I visited without my abusive family.  At a time in my life when I was suffocating, Spain and its wonderful, warm people gave me room to breathe.  And have fun.

I fell in love.  I majored in Spanish in college.  By accident.  I was supposed to major in sociology but my university closed the department midway through my studies (yes, that’s a thing).  And I so loved Spanish that just by virtue of my desire to learn it, I had already taken enough coursework to put together a major.  Follow your heart, not the curriculum.

Every language is a source of richness.  I speak a bunch, including minority languages like Catalan and Yiddish (and have studied Irish and Basque).  Sometimes people shit on these languages for not “being useful”.  As far as I’m concerned, the way you feel about a language (or accent) is mostly about what you feel about its speakers.  Every language, like every culture, has something to offer, to make you grow, if you choose to see it that way.  Perhaps that’s why subconsciously I chose to wear a Catalan t-shirt at the Alhambra on Spain’s National Day.  An unintentional but loud statement in Andalucía, where dissing Catalans is as common as eating Gazpacho.

What enchants me about Spanish in particular is how I fit in.  Most of the time.  Because of my olive skin and Semitic features (Spaniards are also very Mediterranean-looking and have a lot of Jewish blood), I often am seen as Spanish.  Or Latino in America.  Sometimes people overlook Mediterranean/Middle Eastern people, but we look different than the Swedish people in Minnesota or the Irish Americans in Boston.  We look ethnic.  In Belgium, people think I’m Arab (including Arabs).  And I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t look American.  Not the nicest thing, but maybe there’s some truth to it.  Most people in Abercrombie ads don’t look like me.

But in Spain, people think I’m one of them- or at least a native Spanish speaker.  Partially because I’ve got a great accent, but people over the past week thought I was anything from Catalan to Venezuelan to Chilean.  In America, someone once called me a “Spic” on the Metro.  I’ve had multiple cases where people I’ve already known discover I’m not Hispanic, tell me how surprised they are, and suddenly want to be friends with me.  Here, I feel a little more at home.

In Israel too I often felt that physically I more fit in.  My appearance, indeed my DNA (I’ve run tests that show my makeup is closest to Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians), is from there.  Trust me, nobody in Hungary mistook me for an ethnic Hungarian.  Even though my great-grandparents were from there.  Israeli clothing models, politicians, rabbis, studs at the beach look a lot more like me than Channing Tatum.  But don’t get me wrong, I do like Channing Tatum 😉 .

In Spain, I’ve met some incredible people.  I met a Spanish man who told me how proud me was of his town’s judería, or Jewish quarter.  I met a Russian guy married to a Taiwanese woman who owned a bubble tea store.  Who spent 10 minutes looking up directions for me to a Sephardic heritage site.  I told an Afghan baklava seller I was from Israel- and spoke some Farsi with him.  His eyes lit up. 🙂  I ate amazing Moroccan bastilla and chatted with the owners in Arabic.  I even met a very Catholic young man marching in a Semana-Santa-style procession who directed me towards the local Jewish museum.

There’s also a lot of ignorance.  Not necessarily outright prejudice, but for sure ignorance.  A lot of people have no idea where their town’s Jewish quarter is- even when the local municipality has developed it as a tourist attraction.  And it’s been there for over a thousand years.  This particularly struck me yesterday on El Día de la Hispanidad, the day “celebrating” Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New” World.  The same year Spain kicked out its Jews.

On this day, I saw a massive Catholic procession which (although it is not actually connected) looks like a much more elaborate and classy KKK march.  Even Spaniards joked with me about it.  It really does look similar, but it is not a hate parade.  I will say it momentarily jolted me.

Spain is known for being the most (or one of the most) anti-Semitic countries in Europe according to the Anti-Defamation League’s polling.  Not surprising given the legacy of the Inquisition, although neighboring Portugal had that too, and moreso than Spain, is undergoing a kind of Jewish renaissance, including a burgeoning philo-Semitism.  Strong ties with both Israel and the Jewish community make it a much more comfortable place to be a Jew, right next door.

Spanish municipalities, particularly those governed by left wing parties, have tried over and over again to boycott Israel.  Something I find ironic, at best, in a country covered with the blood of my ancestors.  Where I’ve seen synagogues turned into office buildings, where thousands of people fill the streets celebrating Christopher Columbus.  A man by all accounts a genocidal maniac.  Incidentally likely the descendant of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by Spain.  Hired by the royal family celebrated during this week’s holiday.  The family who ethnically cleansed my people from this land.

To return to the issue of these Catholic processions, I’d like to share my experience in Alicante, another city in Spain.  In the province of Valencia.

I was walking down the street and asked someone to explain the meaning of everything.  I’m a curious guy so I listened patiently as someone explained about the various teams that put together the saints displays.  Like I mentioned, some Spaniards like to joke about how it looks like a Klan rally (long robes, candles, crosses…).  I agreed it was a bit of a culture shock, and the rather nice Spaniards I spoke with said: “yeah, it has nothing to do with violence.”

But actually, that’s wrong.  Catholicism in Spain (frankly, Catholicism for most of its existence) has until recently been about violence.  Towards Jews, towards Muslims, towards apostates.  And while today, religious processions are mostly a cute cultural custom (it’s cool to watch, the music is neat too).  Not too long ago, they were a way for the church to impose its will on the people.  Including countless Jews it forced to convert or abandon this land under penalty of death.

After a relaxing bus ride up the coast to get here (the scenery in Spain is spectacular), I went out tonight.  It was a Saturday night and I wanted to talk to people.  Traveling alone can be so rewarding, I’m learning so much about myself.  And sometimes it’s nice to take a break and be with people.

I met an interesting mix of people just by chatting on the street.  Spaniards are known for being friendly and they live up to their reputation.  There are few better places I’ve visited for someone traveling alone.  Everyone is ready to chat.

I spent the night with a mix of Spaniards, Americans, Ukrainians, and one Argentinian man.

When I said I was from Israel, everyone was cool.  In fact, the Spanish guy knows his family has Jewish roots and he wants me to bring him to a synagogue.  And if you saw his cute punim, you could see he wasn’t lying.  He’d fit right in on a kibbutz.

The only person with a problem was the Argentine.  He said to me- to my face- “how do you feel as a Jew, controlling the world’s economy?”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but there was something in his silence when I said I was from Israel that told me he’d be an anti-Semite.  Perhaps a defense mechanism I’ve developed after dealing with so much bigotry.

I told him point blank: “that’s an anti-Semitic question based on stereotypes.”

He didn’t accept it.  When I tried to explain (as if you can reason with someone this insane) that actually Israel has a lot of poor people with one of the widest wealth gaps in the OECD, he pushed back:

“The Jews in Argentina control everything.”

I gave him a deep stare, told him I actually spent two weeks helping poor Jews in Argentina after the economic crisis, and reiterated that he was being anti-Semitic.  And to my great credit, he asked for the check and left.  Two hours later, he came back with free wristbands to go to a nightclub- for everyone in the group but me.  He said: “you don’t get one.”

Message understood.

I still love Spanish.  I love every language I learn.  Every culture has richness to share.

But I don’t fit in here.  For a visit, sure.  I suppose on some level I always thought I could be Spanish or in the words of my former coworkers at a Hispanic advocacy group, an “honorary Latino”.  Before moving to Israel, I spent most of my college years and professional career working for Latino and immigrant rights.  And I’m proud of it.  It reflects my values as a Jew and as a human being and a lover of Spanish-speaking cultures.

In the end, though, it’s not mine.  At least it can’t replace my Jewish identity, though at times I wished it would.  It felt easier- what an amazing global community to be a part of.  There’s a reason everyone’s listening to reggaeton these days- it’s infectious.  For all the wars and coups and discrimination and poverty and dictatorships, being Latino is fun.  I love French and I speak it when I want a sense of calm.  But let’s face it- when people want to get down, they put on salsa, not French folk music.  Although I listen to that too 🙂 .

I wish I could say my experience with the Argentinean man was unique, but it’s not.  In fact, when I visited Argentina, I saw authentic Nazi war medals being sold at the local fruit market.  My middle school Spanish teacher taught us that in her country of Guatemala, to call someone a Jew was to call them a “burro”, an “ass”.  As she laughed.  At a gay club in Spain, men excitedly guessed where I was from and when I finally said “Israel”, two of them fell silent and turned away.  One Spanish woman compared me to an Islamic terrorist because I don’t eat pork.  In Granada, I asked the tourist info booth why the Jewish museum was closed on Friday morning, even though it was listed as being open until 2pm that day.  And the woman sassily snapped: “you have to respect, it’s the Sabbath, that’s why they’re closed, it’s their norms.”  As if I couldn’t possibly know- or be Jewish.  I explained I was Jewish and that Friday morning is not the Sabbath- they chose to list the museum as open then.  The woman couldn’t care less as she ignored me and moved on to her next task.  Her much nicer colleague grimaced.  And tried to help me.  When I worked for a Latino advocacy group in Washington, they refused to give me Yom Kippur off in exchange for Christmas.  I appealed to the president of the group.  And got my vacation back almost a year later.

It’s not because all Latinos or Spaniards are anti-Semitic.  There are people here, as in all cultures, who are curious about Judaism.  Some who love it.  And some who are indifferent or ignorant but not hostile.  Some Latinos are Jews.

I’ve also experienced a deep strain of anti-Semitism in Spanish-speaking cultures.  No doubt a product of hundreds of years of Catholic-church-sponsored hate and Inquisitions.  Today, sometimes repackaged by far-left parties as anti-Israel fanaticism.  A kind of new religion in which Jews remain all-powerful and in need of constant reprimand.

In the end, I’ll always be a Spanish speaker.  It flows off my tongue better than any other, maybe even more than Hebrew.  The language is filled with warmth.  The people such friendliness.  The culture such a diverse and interesting history.  One in which Jews have always played a part.  Our blood flows through the veins of its people, our ruins dot the town squares.  Like the former synagogue in Guadix I visited that’s now an unemployment office.

Tonight, my best conversation was with an Algerian man.  Feeling distraught about the Argentinian anti-Semite as well as some homophobic comments I heard, I wanted a taste of home.  Shwarma.

I talked to the man in Arabic, and he was surprised.  “Where are you from?”

“Tel Aviv.”

“Tel Aviv?  Palestine?”

“Israel.  Palestine.  The Land.”

“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”

“No, I’m Jewish.  I’m Israeli.”

“But you speak Arabic!”

“I do, I love it.  It’s a beautiful language.  And I like Algerian Rai music and I have Algerian Jewish friends in Israel.”

“Wow!!  Rai?!?  And your friends- do they still eat couscous?”

“Yes they do.  Every Shabbat.”

Perhaps the world expects me to have more fun with a bunch of young Spaniards and expats at a bar.  Telling me how progressive and open they are, while spewing bile about Jews and gays after a few drinks.  Perhaps belying what they really think.

But my favorite conversation tonight was with an Algerian falafel man.  Because I’m the first Israeli he’s ever met.  And my language, my heart, brought him a smile from ear to ear.

So in the end, I’m not Latino, I’m not Spanish, and I don’t really want to be.  But I am a Spanish-speaker, an Arabic-speaker, and most importantly, a person who uses language to warm hearts.

Expel us, boycott us, ridicule us in a bar.  But Judaism is as Spanish as paella.

Queen Isabella could have never imagined me staring down an anti-Semite on the streets of Alicante 500 years later.  And winning.  Let alone a Jew and a Muslim speaking in Arabic.

Confuse me for a Latino, I don’t care.  Once it would’ve made me scared that you won’t like me.  Or I’d defiantly wear my honorary Latino badge, proud to be different.  Now, I just feel I’m a human being.  I’m a Jew- who I am and what society makes me.  And I’m happy to explore all cultures and stand with kind-hearted people no matter who they are.  I’ve learned to love my olive skin more.  And I’m grateful to have places like Spain where I look normal.

Libi bamizrach.  My heart is in the East, I’m in the far West.  And the person who brought me there was an Algerian shwarma man.

Yehuda Halevi would be proud.

==

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This picture is of a door in Granada’s Jewish quarter where you can still, 500 years later, see the marks of a mezuzah.  We’re everywhere.  Scatter us like seeds, but we sprout back up wherever we’re planted.

The funny, silly, and strange side of traveling

Oftentimes, I use my blog therapeutically.  It’s first and foremost a place to express myself, my observations, some of my deepest feelings.  It’s also a place to share and to give you insight into my world and how I see it.  And I often get inspirational comments from readers, which brings everything full circle and truly makes blogging a rewarding experience.  Thank you for being a part of it.

I’d like to use this blog to talk about some sillier or more mundane parts of travel.  Because that’s a part of my experience too.

Let’s start with “bris”.  Here in Spain, I see almost everywhere, in huge letters, the word “bris”.  Graffitied on walls, like street art or a gang sign.

But what you need to know, if you haven’t already caught why this is funny for me, is that “bris” is the Hebrew word for circumcision.  So everywhere I turn in southern Spain, I see beautifully graffitied, street-smart bold letters proclaiming “cut penis”.  It’s a joke lost on the entirely un-Jewish populace, but they say Spaniards have a lot of Jewish DNA from the forced conversions of the Inquisition.  So maybe even though they haven’t had a bris, once upon a time, their ancestors did. 🙂

Here’s a strange observation from Europe.  Europeans can have some pretty strong stereotypes about Americans.  Mostly based on Hollywood- often without ever having visited.

I often think in some ways Europeans are truly superior to Americans when it comes to certain policies.  Like healthcare.

One thing they are rather behind on is water.  Something you’ll never hear about in a foreign policy magazine 🙂 .  Almost everywhere you go in Europe, you have to buy bottled water.  In restaurants, tap water is usually not an option, even though it is almost always safe.  What a waste of plastic!

Now I’ll share a bit of a funny story.  In Israel, water, despite being a precious commodity in a desert country, has to be given to anyone in any establishment for free.  Even if you’re not patronizing it or buying anything.  It’s great.  America, while not quite on that level, is a big fan of tap water.

So I was quite surprised when I visited the Jewish Museum of Budapest.  I had paid to get some genealogical research done and while I was waiting, I went to fill up my water bottle at the cooler.

The researcher said: “you didn’t ask.”

I responded: “oh, OK…can I have some water?”

And her reply: “yes, in our country you ask first.”

Whew!  Next time you’re in Budapest, think twice before pressing the water tap!

Another funny thing.  In Brussels, you can ride public transit without buying a ticket- but at the risk a conductor will ask for it, and fine you accordingly.  The Belgians developed a rather clever app.  It lets you check online for the last time someone spotted an inspector on a particular route.  So when I got on the bus- unable to find a local ticket vending machine- my new Spanish-Jewish friend said: “don’t worry, they haven’t checked on this line for 20 minutes.”  I thought Israelis were lawless, but Belgians have their own little ways of rebelling 🙂

Slovenia is known for its dairy products.  I was staying in a suburb of Ljubljana, an outlying neighborhood.  I walked towards a mountain.

On the way, I spotted the most curious device.  It was a vending machine- the type you’d usually see filled with Kit Kats, Twix, and cookies.  But with fresh dairy products from the local farm- which you could see right next to it.

So, feeling thirsty, I bought some milk.  And feeling hungry, I got some yogurt.  B9, A12.

That’s how you do breakfast in Slovenia!

Speaking of vending machines, I’ve seen some interesting ones.  In several countries, including Spain, I’ve seen condom vending machines!  On the street.  Even some that sold lube.

The other day, walking around in Spain, I noticed the vending machine as I saw old women walking by.  Who, if they noticed it all, seemed to care far less about it than about the latest gossip in the neighborhood.

In a place where 50 years ago, the public schools were Catholic.  With crosses hanging in every room.

Belgium is known for a few things.  Chocolate, fries (don’t call them French!), and beer.  Mostly, carbohydrates.  But what you may not know is Belgium is the home to the best rugelach I’ve ever eaten.  Rugelach, for those who don’t know, is a Jewish pastry.  In Israel, the form it takes is kind of like a fluffy sweet croissant with some sort of filling- fruit, chocolate, etc.

In Belgium, I was in Antwerp, in the diamond district.  The Jewish part of town.  Even the shopping area is called “Meir”, a Jewish name.  Golda’s surname.

I was hungry and knew there was Jewish food.  Unlike in Eastern Europe where the food was quite familiar, but the dead Jews outnumbered the living ones, in Belgium, there is still a living community.  With amazing bakeries.

I bought three cinnamon rugelach.  On the outside, they look the same as they do in Israel.  But on the inside- it tasted like French Toast.  Gooey, sticky, delightful.  Warm, lip-smacking good.

So good that after four steps away from the shop, I made hard turn back and bought three more.

Belgium- home of waffles and delightful food that will clog your system for days.  Including the world’s best rugelach!  And a lot of cell phones whose ringtones are the Islamic call to prayer, where for a moment I felt time-warped back to Yaffo.

Romania.  Aaaaaaaah Romania Romania Romaaaaania Romania!  Romania is a silly place.  One of the things I love about Romania are the Gypsies (more properly termed, “Roma”).

Frankly, in Romania I kind of look like one.  I started to appreciate this highly stigmatized group after a cute Roma kid kept winking at me on a bus.  Romania’s public transit doesn’t seem to have improved much since communism- it mostly relies on really bumpy van rides that take twice as long as a car.  But are still shorter than the even slower train.  Romania is a good place for a scenic ride…

So this kid winking and smiling at me made my ride a bit better.  I started to learn that it was pretty easy to spot Roma.  Not just physically (although yes, both their skin color and facial features are a lot more like my Semitic ones than those of the typical Transylvanian).  Also, they wear the most interesting clothes.  As if they are out of a Western movie.

Roma men tend to wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats!  The women dress in colorful skirts.

I hardly expected to see men in Romania who reminded me of Chicanos in the Southwest, but that’s exactly what they look like.  Caramel skin, nice leather shoes.  And some of them I hear make great salsa.  I wish- I can’t say Mexican is my favorite food, but I miss a good quesadilla once in a while.

Which they make in San José, Spain, a seaside resort.  In a restaurant next to which lies a bakery.  From which I heard the word “Maramureș” shouted out loud.

Maramureș is a region of northern Romania.  And one of the cooks is from there.

Europe is a large, diverse place.  But it’s one where these days, you’re as likely to hear Romanian in Andalusia as you are in Bucharest.  A place where I had some of the best sushi of my life in Slovenia- with a chef straight from Osaka.  A place where I found my favorite Indonesian instant noodles in an Asian grocery store in the Flemish city of Antwerp.  Where right down the street, you can find the best rugelach in the world.

Europe- once a continent, now a global village.

To explore is to see things for yourself.