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.

Roots

The premise of this blog is that one needs roots in order to grow, to thrive.  I’ve seen this idea in action.  By connecting to my ancient roots in Israel, my family’s history in Europe, and by understanding where I grew up in the States, I understand myself better than I did a few years ago.  After being in Israel, I know why people think I look Greek, Turkish, Italian, Spanish (and Hispanic)- it’s because my DNA is from the Mediterranean.  After being in Hungary, I now know why my family cooked so much with paprika when I was a kid- the country is covered with it.  And it’s where two of my great-grandparents were born.  And after re-visiting where I grew up, I understand a lot of the challenges I’ve faced and continue to overcome.  And I remembered how the diverse hot pot of cultures known as Montgomery County, Maryland helped nourish my passion for multicultural exploration.

Which brings us back to my premise.  One needs roots.  You can live without them, but to not know where you come from- both as an individual and as part of a broader collective- is to miss out on some fabulous new understandings of the world.  Of your community.  And of your self.

Another benefit of understanding your roots is that you realize how diverse they are.  How generation after generation, my ancestors have planted and re-planted their Judaism and their bodies in new soil.  Often forced by governments and people who hated Jews, or by grinding poverty, they forged their way from Israel to Europe to North America.  And, in my case, back to Israel.  Thankfully, by choice.  Although millions of Jews expelled by Arab governments or whose families were hollowed out by the Holocaust made Israel their home with no other option.  Thank God- and to our pioneers, our soldiers, our brave entrepreneurs- for giving us a place to call home no matter what.

One thing I’ve realized about roots is that they can be nourished by various soils.  Take, for example, the Italian synagogue in Jerusalem.  After the Holocaust, Italian Jews were worried that their already decimated community would find its 2,000 year heritage erased.  Rather than leaving the synagogue to decay in post-World War II Italy, they shipped the entire synagogue to Jerusalem.  I had the blessing to visit it and it is stunning.  Not just because of the outstanding architecture, but because it, like the Jewish people, is the ultimate survivor.  And the fact that it remains an active congregation only makes it more majestic and inspiring.

Like the Italian synagogue, I too am nourished by diverse terrains.  Whether its the deep green of the Galilee, the churches of Eilaboun, the beach of Ma’agan Michael, or the ancient stones of Jerusalem, my heart is in Israel.  And if it’s the eleven Jews of Satu Mare, Romania keeping their community alive, or the pluralistic Jewish community center in the tiniest of buildings in Ljubljana, Slovenia building bridges with non-Jews, or the descendants of conversos in Lisbon who do Shabbat every week in an apartment first rented by Holocaust refugees.  My heart is in Europe too.

And if it’s the smell of whitefish salad, the dozens of times I get to speak to new Arab immigrants about Judaism- and their own memories of their countries’ Jewish communities, and the deep pluralism and tolerance that pervades Jewish institutions, then my heart is in America too.

So in the end, it’s not that roots are overrated.  It’s that you’re allowed to plant them in various places at different times and reap the challenges and rewards that that climate has to offer.  We are each able, to the best of our legal and financial capacity, to explore new places and incorporate new knowledge into our tree rings.  So that as each year passes, we hopefully grow wiser, with a bit thicker skin, and remain sensitive to our selves and our surroundings.

We can only be physically in one place at one time.  With the grace of modern technology, we can communicate across great distances and share ideas faster than ever before.  It’s a conundrum and opportunity wrapped into one.

Like the other day when I sat at Gratz College holding a centuries-old Tseno Ureno and dozens of pre-Holocaust Yiddish and Hebrew books.  Books whose owners may have perished in the fire of Nazi terror, or who after surviving it, may no longer be alive today to read this post.  Let’s hope they died of old age, but we know both possibilities exist.

To hold such books is magic.  Because the great spiritual endeavor, indeed fervor, of the Jewish people lies not as much in our biblical narrative so much as in the reality of our own survival.  That as much as I love our religious heritage, the fact that I’m performing the same act or saying the same words or thumbing the same pages as my ancestors is what draws me to God.  More than the obligation to do so.

Yet what has become clear to me is that if Jewish history, indeed our truth and our reality, is what holds the deepest spirituality for me- our culture, our music, our food, our togetherness.  It is also true that our community survives thanks to obligation.  That even if that space is an uncomfortable one for a liberal-minded Jew to inhabit, it’s one worth exploring.  Because if we don’t find ourselves obligated to a broader set of ethics and laws, even as they evolve, how do we continue to survive?

In short, that is why I’ve found myself, the die-hard Reform Jew who was the RCVP of his Temple TYG, who was on the NFTY-MAR Social Action Committee, who led his campus’s Reform Chavurah, who traveled with the URJ to Argentina, who helped write a Reform sex ed curriculum, who led services in Tel Aviv, who visited Reform shuls on four different continents.  I’ve found myself in a new space.  I’m the Reform Jew who walks to an Orthodox synagogue.  Where for the first time in my life, I’m now a member.

It’s not because I disavow myself of Reform Judaism.  I love a lot of the values and intellect of Reform Judaism and will continue to feel awe-inspired by its willingness to challenge and to change.  I am a proud Reform Jew who thinks this movement has a lot to contribute to Judaism.

It’s just that much like I don’t need to limit myself to being Israeli or American or Ashkenazi, I can be gam ve’gam.  Both this, and that.

So I’m the American who also votes according to Israeli interests.  I’m the Israeli who speaks Arabic.  I’m the left-of-center voter who has voted for four different American parties (yes, once even for a Republican).  I’m the Reform Jew who goes to an Orthodox shul.  I’m the diverse, multicultural, exploring, driven person who likes to travel and see new points of view.  The gay man who hangs out with the Amish in Yiddish.

So what are roots?  Roots are a start.  They’re a movable foundation.  Whose soaking up of nutrients changes their very composition.  They are a beginning, they change, they are stability.

I find myself, as my blog suggest, bearing fruits.  Making new friends, reconnecting with old ones, writing a new future even as I use my past to inform it.  Not to dictate it.

I will continue to bear fruits wherever I find myself planted.  Bringing nuance, change, hope, and compassion- and seeking it from those around me.  Learning, growing, and contributing to the communities I love.  And discovering new ones to explore.

That’s how you sow an orchard.

Cover photo: “Bereshit” (Genesis) – Tseno Ureno Yiddish Bible,

Gratz College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania