Tentative hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jew does not despair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game time for democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Israel needs to exist

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

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

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

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

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

Where does this tie in with Israel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Israeli solution to COVID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gay Reform ally for Haredim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The liberal bias of the Torah

This week’s Torah portion is R’eih.  The word in Hebrew means “see”.  It is a command.  Enjoined upon the Jewish people to observe both the blessings and curses that life can contain.  The portion outlines a series of laws for the people to observe, with reward and punishment accordingly.  You can read the portion here.

Usually when talking about the portion for the week, we focus on the Torah.  But I propose that we actually look to the Haftarah, or accompanying prophetic reading, to understand what this portion is really about.

This week’s Haftarah portion comes from Isaiah.  Chapter 55 Verse 1 reads: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye for water, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  Whether rich or poor, come and get your fill.  In a highly capitalistic world, this verse is an interesting affirmation of human worth regardless of wallet size.

Many think of the safety net as consisting of basic needs: food, water, and shelter.  In the verse above, though, Isaiah follows basic needs (water and food) with items that seem more optional: wine and milk.  While the prophet seem to indicate an understanding that basic needs are important, why add these seemingly superfluous or luxurious items?  After all, we hardly need wine or milk to survive, items especially precious in the ancient times in which this portion was written.

Perhaps anticipating this question, Isaiah says in the next verse: “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?  And your gain for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.”  He reminds us that not by bread alone do we live.  To paraphrase the famous workers hymn, we want both bread and roses.  That satisfaction, contentment, wholeness, and pleasure are worthy goals in and of themselves, even foundational.  That once you have your basic needs filled, you can and should have the blessing to enjoy these joys as well.  They are not, then, luxuries.  But rather simply the higher steps on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Perhaps tellingly, a psychological model shaped like a pyramid, like the ones our ancestors were forced to build in bondage in Egypt.  That pursuing self actualization can free us of the unfair burdens placed on us in society.

If the Torah portion is about rules, then the Haftarah seems to contradict it with a focus on fulfillment above payment.

Today I noticed something at an American public library that puts this Torah and Haftarah portion in perspective- and into conversation.

I had reserved a computer to use and a man, seemingly someone who might be living on the street, was struggling to get up from his chair.  The librarian asked if he needed an ambulance, and he said no.  He asked if he could use the bathroom, but the guard gently escorted him towards the exit.  He looked tired and thirsty.

While I didn’t catch the whole exchange, I couldn’t help but think about the struggle between rules and compassion.  I don’t think the security guard or librarian meant harm.  After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules of the library for the good of the public.  And the library is not equipped to be a homeless shelter, which requires special expertise.  I volunteered at one in high school.

And yet you have to wonder whether sometimes rules should take a back seat to compassion.  Would it really hurt to allow someone to use a bathroom?  Especially at a public institution built for the social good?  The good of learning, the higher pursuits in life?  Rules have a purpose, but sometimes need to be broken for our well-being.

This scenario doesn’t present easy answers.  And despite the title of my blog, I think that there is value to law and order in certain scenarios.  That while I usually read the Torah with a liberal lens, someone could read the same text and come to different conclusions.  That’s what being a pluralist means.

And yet, this incident demonstrates why we should read both the Torah and Haftarah portions.  Because you could very easily come away thinking that rules rule all if you only read the former.  When our prophetic tradition reminds us of the important of joy, of fulfillment, of satisfaction as deep Jewish values that belong to everyone, not just the wealthy.

If we shouldn’t have to pay for wine or milk, then can’t we let someone use the restroom?  Or build more public restrooms so you don’t have to pay (or beg for entrance) every time you need pee?

Not every society functions this way.  In Israel, everyone can use almost any restroom and get free water at any restaurant or café, even without buying anything.  Perhaps a remnant of the socialist kibbutz ethos that built the country.

My hope is that we can find a better balance of rules and the kind of compassion that allows anyone, no matter her or his wealth, to enjoy life.  May the Torah- and Haftarah- be a light towards a more just society.  Ken yehi ratzon- may it be so.

 

The biggest difference between Israeli and American Jews

Over the past few years, the gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to have widened considerably.  Debates have included religious conversion, access to the Western Wall, and the degree to which each party should be allowed to exert influence in the other’s political sphere.  It’s given more than a few Jewish leaders headaches and heart break to see the world’s two largest Jewish communities at each other’s throats.  And personally, I find it disturbing for the future of the Jewish people.  Compromise and understanding, coupled with a healthy dose of empathy and intercultural understanding, could do a lot to repair this relationship.

While this deepening rift poses a threat to the Jewish people, I think the greatest difference between Israeli and American Jewry is systemic and structural more than (what I hope is) a temporary rift.

That difference is positioning.

To be a Diaspora Jew is always to be a minority.  Even if you happen to live in one of the heavily Jewish areas of the world (Crown Heights, Boro Park, Williamsburg, and not a small number of suburbs and towns across France, the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere), you are exceedingly aware of the fact that you are a minority.  While you may feel more comfortable being visibly Jewish and have a great reservoir of community to call upon to foment your identity, not a single person would doubt their minority status.  Jews form 2% of the American population and an even smaller percentage in other countries.

As I’ve written before, this creates a certain ethnic solidarity that often blurs or softens boundaries between different types of Jewish communities.  I noticed this when traveling in Antwerp, where I found the local Hasidic community quite warm to me.  I have traveled a lot in Haredi communities around the world, but there was something about doing it in the Diaspora that felt different.  Despite our own differences, we have a certain sense of being in it “together”.  Against a rising (or perhaps never disappearing) anti-Semitism, and for Jewish peoplehood.  We know that ultimately someone seeking our destruction won’t ask whether we’re Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox.  What they’ll care is whether we’re a Jew.

While that doesn’t mean to suggest there aren’t conflicts between different Jewish communities outside Israel, the conflicts tend to play second fiddle.  Our first priority is Jewish survival- against prejudice, against violence, and for a stronger Jewish community which can navigate the complicated territory of assimilation.  This has been more or less the modus operandi of Jewish communities for about 2,000 years since exile from Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Israel was built to ensure Jewish survival in a very different fashion.  While Diaspora communities have to focus on building interfaith partnerships, innovative programming, and lobbying local governments, Israelis have a very different approach.  As the only country in the world with a Jewish majority, Israelis have the right and responsibility to protect themselves with arms.  And because Jews are the majority, the rifts which take a back seat in the Diaspora become the flame wars we see in the Knesset.

Because while Israel faces threats (ISIS, Hamas, the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, etc.), it has developed an astonishing military capacity to handle them.  Therefore, in some ways (contrary to what you might see in the news), some of the most intense conflicts in Israel are between different types of Jews.

While some would argue these enemies of Israel are capable of exterminating it, I feel confident that the IDF and security apparatus of the state are in capable hands and able to deal with existential threats.  Some might disagree, and certainly the greater the external threat, the less prominent the internal debate about the nature of Judaism becomes in Israel.  In other words, a high degree of external threat (perhaps a reflex of 2,000 years of brutal anti-Semitism) can actually decrease Israeli internal societal debates.  Our survival instinct, after all, is part of why we’re here and Akkadians only occupy chapters of history books.

When the external threats seem under control, the Israeli internal debate truly rages- among Jews.  You can even see this in the most recent unprecedented call for second elections in Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu found himself unable to form a coalition not because of the Arab-Israeli conflict nor economic issues.  He found himself unable to form a coalition because parliamentarian Avigdor Lieberman refused to agree to the demands of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) political parties.  Despite having sat with those parties in multiple coalitions in prior times.  Perhaps an indication of Israel’s position of relative strength vis-a-vis external threats relative to past elections.  Otherwise, such internal debate would probably be less of a priority.

Which leads us to the original point.  In Israel, socio-religious debates about public transit on Shabbat, religious family law, and the role of non-Orthodox Judaism in public life are only possible because Israel is a Jewish majority country.  While various types of Jews certainly debate Jewish philosophy in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have the practical impact of necessitating a change in government policy.  Not even the most strident Satmar Hasid in Kiryas Yoel, New York would propose the state close the subway on Shabbat.  It’s a laughable suggestion because as a minority, we would never even think to ask such a thing.  And our priorities are radically different given our positioning.  The average Satmar Hasid in New York is more concerned with his or her family’s continuation of Jewish tradition and how the state interacts with their educational system.  The idea of exerting control over other Jews’ behavior through government policy doesn’t even really figure into the agenda.

In Israel, Jews freed from the need to focus on Jewish continuity have the great responsibility of debating the future of Judaism itself in the only place on the planet where its existence is secure.  And Jews in the Diaspora, freed from the need to debate the role of Judaism in public governance, are able to find greater common ground and develop a more pluralistic tradition.  And have the great responsibility of finding ways to make sure such a community can continue to exist within the context of being a tiny minority.

One Judaism is not necessarily better or worse than the other, but they are most certainly different.  And when we view today’s challenges through the prism of minority and majority status, perhaps it can give us the necessary context and empathy to resolve the rifts driving our people apart.  Israeli and American Jews will never be the same, but perhaps we can use the tension of our different identities for the kind of creativity that has spurred our people’s success across generations.  Instead of letting things degenerate.

May it be so.

Dialoguing in the face of hopelessness

Let’s face it- things look dire when you read the news lately.  North Korea this, Iran that, the Middle East generally speaking a mess.  Democrats who won’t speak to Republicans who won’t speak to Democrats who won’t speak to moderates who won’t speak to liberals.  It’s a dizzying and dismaying amount of isolation and siloing of society.

A friend recently messaged me upset about this breakdown in communication.  A liberal herself, she found it frustrating when she met people on her own side of the aisle who refused to recognize the humanity of those who disagreed with them.  That while some people clearly lie outside the pail of rational debate, there is room for disagreement in a democratic and pluralistic society.  And that if we resort to the tactics of extremists on the other side, what do we, in the end, become?

To this end, I’d like to share a story.

I found myself in need of an adventure.  And my adventure begins with Yiddish.  Yiddish is a Jewish language I speak, the language my own ancestors have used on a daily basis for countless generations.  A mishmosh (a Yiddish word itself!) of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Old French, medieval German, Polish, Russian, and more- it is a mixed language much like English.  Enriched by its various components.  It allows for a degree of nuance.  For instance, the word in Yiddish for an acquaintance is “froynd” (“friend” in German), whereas a close friend is a khaver, which means friend in Hebrew.  It indicates a lot about the society Yiddish speakers lived in and how social and familial ties developed.  As did persecutions.

So Yiddish, for all its various components, is probably about 70% comprised of medieval Germanic words (words which occasionally differ in meaning from their Modern German counterparts, but bear a strong similarity).  Pennsylvania Dutch, as the famous scene from The Frisco Kid goes, is remarkably similar to Yiddish.  As a pre-standardized form of German passed down from generation to generation here in the U.S., I’ve found it rather comprehensible to me.  I tested my theory out by speaking Yiddish to an Amish woman in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia- she smiled from ear to ear and responded back in Pennsylvania Dutch.  She said she had heard of similarities between the languages and you could tell she was tickled to find out it was true.  As was I 🙂 .

A few weeks later, I hopped on a train to Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish heartland.  I went to another market and tried out my Yiddish while buying some whoopie pies (a delightful cream-filled dessert made by the Amish- they are really good at making dessert!).  Some young women smiled and liked chatting with me.  A few didn’t speak Pennsylvania Dutch, but were nonetheless happy to see me reaching out to learn and share about our shared cultural heritage.

And one woman was just mean.

After buying her decidedly delicious whoopie pies and complimenting her on them, I tried out my Yiddish-Amish experiment.  Her response was to tell me a story about a Jewish woman she knew who she used to call a “dummer yud”.  That’s German for “dumb Jew”.

Dumb-founded, I didn’t know what to say.  I tried to ask her why she would use such a mean phrase, even about a woman she may not have liked.  She simply smiled, my religious or social or emotional arguments completely ignored.

I left deflated.

This dichotomy explains the rough terrain we’re operating in today.  Especially when it comes to dialoguing across cultures.  Faced with mistrust, I understand the impulse to protect yourself.  It’s actually a positive one because we all deserve safety and to be treated with respect.

It can also be a negative one if taken to an extreme.  If I don’t ever make myself vulnerable, then I won’t see moments of light, like when the young woman smiled from ear-to-ear in the market while I spoke Yiddish.  The first time she had ever heard my language or experienced my culture.

And if I always make myself vulnerable- or hadn’t distanced myself from the mean anti-Semitic woman- well, then I won’t be particularly happy or self-fulfilled.

This is the great challenge of communicating in a time of deep polarization.  It’s not easy and I’m always learning and re-learning my boundaries and trying to protect myself while putting myself out there.  Because if we never take risks, we never reap rewards.  For ourselves or for those lives we could touch with compassion and kindness.

So be the voice of love.  When in a group of like-minded people, offer a word of kindness about “the other”.  Whether that other be a Republican or a Democrat, a Muslim or a Jew, an atheist or a religious person, an African American or a white straight cis-man from Appalachia.  We are people.  It doesn’t mean all ideas fly or should be accepted as true.  It means that we ultimately share a lot in common with more people than we think- and should take advantage of that to build more compassion in our society.

If there is a solution to our polarization, perhaps it lies in each of us stepping just enough outside our comfort zones to provide some meaningful contact with people of different backgrounds.  Even some backgrounds that could make us feel scared- sometimes justifiably, sometimes maybe surprising us with their kindness.  Or a combination of both.

And it lies in being understanding.  Having spoken with five or six different Amish people in Yiddish and gotten positive or neutral reactions from all but one of them, I am better able to see nuance.  So that instead of sitting only with the “dumb Jew” comment (which should, nonetheless, be noted to protect myself), I can also recall the smiles of the young women touched by my actions.

As I left Lancaster filled with whoopie pies, I felt a dash of hope.  A hope I wish for all of you.  That nuance need not mean being neutral, nor negating our fears or feelings.  But that stepping outside and adventuring and getting to know our neighbors as equals- that is a true step towards happiness and wholeness.  For us, and for the greater society we share.

Whole Grain Judaism Part 2

Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote a blog post on a previous site of mine called “Whole Grain Judaism“.  I proposed some radical ideas that reflected both where I was politically and personally.  While some of the ideas have faded into my past subconscious, some seem relevant today.  In particular, the very title of the article.

The previous article focused a lot on the financial structure of Judaism and how it keeps us unnecessarily apart.  Some of the ideas no longer resonate as much with me, but some do.  There is a hyper-financialization of Judaism especially in the liberal settings I know best.  It’s one of the reasons that the Chabad financial model attracts so many Jews.  More Jews, less dues, more do’s, less inhibition to give on your own accord.

Nonetheless, acknowledging that life is more gray than black-and-white (liberal congregations are striving for financial stability, and I support their efforts), I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Whole Grain Judaism.

That aspect is our ability to cross the boundaries which keep us apart Jewishly.  Not financially, but socially and interpersonally and religiously.  Culturally.  How can we take our Judaism and make it a source of connection rather than isolation?

Isolation, as I define it, is when you keep to your own- exclusively.  Now everyone does this to a degree and if you never preferred one institution over another, you wouldn’t be telling the truth.  We all have our preferences and I think that’s healthy.  Different ideologies and life choices can strengthen the dynamism of the Jewish community and all religious and cultural groups.  Even sometimes when it creates tension.

However, when taken to an extreme, it can lead to the destruction of the Jewish people.  Or at a minimum, a severe exacerbation of the internal conflicts we experience.  Which, if left unchecked, stretch the creative tension to the kind of dissension and chaos that allows external threats to tear us apart.  It’s not a light subject- there have been multiple anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. in recent months (not to mention in Europe, Israel, and around the world, where they are sadly more accustomed to them).  If we don’t manage to have a bare minimum of internal solidarity, how are we supposed to face such threats?  We are two percent of the U.S. population- on a good day.  There are times we need to put aside our differences and work for our common good.  It’s not as if an anti-Semitic shooter is going to distinguish us based on where we pray, how progressive (or not) we are, nor our belief in God itself.

That being understood, what does this mean in practical terms?

It’s not as if any of us have a magic wand and can magically rearrange the Jewish world to institutionally promote the kind of ahavat yisrael, love of your fellow Jew, that would be needed to build such solidarity on a national level.

And yet, we all do have the capacity to make a difference.

My theory is that while institutional change is necessary, that shouldn’t get in the way of the little daily actions that, when combined, can create the kind of safety net of kindness that can preserve our people for generations.

I grew up in a Reform community.  Not in a small way- I became incredibly involved on my own accord.  I taught Hebrew school, led teen services, was on my youth group board, went to synagogue almost every week, and even almost went to rabbinical school.  I’ve visited or led services at Reform congregations from St. Louis to Barcelona, Budapest to Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C.  The Reform Movement’s intense fervor for caring about the other, for inclusion, for ethical living, for fervent prayer (as best embodied by its youth group NFTY)- those values still resonate with me in many ways.

I go to an Orthodox synagogue.  Not in a small way- I’ve become incredibly involved.  Especially for someone who has absolutely no Orthodox upbringing, relatives, or anything of the like.  I go weekly to synagogue on Saturday mornings.  I almost always go to mincha and maariv and havdalah.  I am usually at a shul member’s house for Shabbat lunch.  I rarely use my phone and I usually walk.  I love the rabbi.  He knows I’m gay.  I feel largely accepted and welcomed and I go because I love the people there.  It is not out of rejection of my past nor of the Reform values I still identify with.  I would still say I am a Reform Jew.  And I’m kind of an Orthodox one too.

This seeming dichotomy is how I live.  I am a fully-out-of-the-closet gay man who loves marching in Pride parades (and has done so two or three times under the banner of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center).  I am the same gay man who savors every bite of gefilte fish at the restaurant Shtiesel in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak (the famous show is named after it!).  And who savors that gefilte fish at Chabad in the States.  Who speaks Yiddish at both a secular socialist summer camp and in Hasidic book stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

If you can’t untangle where one part of my Judaism starts and another stops, good!  Because I’ve prayed in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Litvish communities.  I am just as happy accepting my culturally-Jewish friends who may not believe in God as I am davvening at shul on a Saturday morning.  Not because we have the same preferences all the time- we don’t.  But because we share important things in common.  And out of a love for my fellow human being, not to mention my fellow Jew, I try to focus on those commonalities as a way to build connection.

I don’t run the American Jewish Committee nor the Jewish Federations of North America.  I don’t sit on a synagogue board and I am not a rabbi.  I am a writer.  I’m an adventurer, an explorer, and every-day Jew trying to make a difference through words and actions.  Just like you- wherever you work or play.

I’m grateful to all the Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and ordinary citizens who try to bridge the gaps on a daily basis.  Who, instead of bemoaning the news or incessantly refreshing the page of the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz (it’s tempting, I’ve done it!), decide to take some power into their own hands.  To be the moderate-tempered person willing to talk to reasonable people of different backgrounds.  So that if we don’t have to deny our differences, we shouldn’t be prisoner to them either.

Do you.  Live Jewishly in a way that lets you experience the best of all worlds- from Hillel to Chabad, from peaceful protests to quiet Shabbat reflection.  Or just some of the worlds, but with a desire to respect people who inhabit the others.  And if you’re not Jewish, try taking this idea and applying it to your own community.  After all, we’re all part of the human community.  And if we don’t find a way to explore other cultures and ways of thinking and be those bridges of sanity during this time of confusion, then we will collapse.  Bring the healing yourself, and find yourself both challenged and rewarded for it with the richness a textured understanding of life has to offer.

To conclude, I’ve seen a lot of signs in both America and Israel with the same gist: “ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha”.  Love your neighbor, your companion, your colleague, your friend, your stranger, your person squishing over into your seat on the bus.  Love.

It’s not easy.  And sometimes, there are other emotions we should allow ourselves to feel.  I don’t love when people are cruel and I don’t love when people threaten innocent human beings or animals.  Love is a commandment, but not the only one.

And love we must.  Because if we don’t take it upon ourselves to get to know each other, it’s not as if our newspaper will do it for us.

Grab the only thing you can control, your self, and go for a ride somewhere you’ve never been.  And your open eyes are the best gift you can endow your soul, two little holes that let it breathe fresh air.  An air whose wisdom may eventually, God willing, come out of our mouths a little cooler than usual.  As kindness.  And whose spirit will allow us all to live Whole Grain lives.