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.

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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

Crossroads

Over the past few years, I’ve learned the most important lessons.  And I learned them from the most unexpected people and places.

On a bus from Hungary to Slovenia this Fall during my backpacking trip, I was seated next to a cute, if grumpy Polish guy.  My inner Jew was angry.  Was it my nose he didn’t like?  What did he have against Washington, D.C. (he said it was boring)?  The guy slept for most of the time, which was for the better as my thoughts raced in anger at how this guy was ruining my trip.  Why did I get seated next to an anti-Semitic mean guy?  Poles were known for their anti-Semitism and while I hadn’t said who I was or where else I was from (sticking with American is usually safer in Europe these days), I had this feeling he was just mean.  That he somehow knew I was Jewish and wasn’t going to like it.  It’s not a fear completely misplaced.  Poland is renowned for its anti-Semitism, currently ruled by a government claiming Poles didn’t participate in the Holocaust.  Even the Polish American Cultural Center in Philadelphia has an exhibit claiming Hitler was equally committed to exterminating Poles and Jews- an absurd claim that no historian would support.  And a convenient way to exculpate yourself for crimes your own people committed.  A people underappreciated by some in the Jewish world- Poles form the largest group of “Righteous Among the Nations“.  Non-Jews who saved our lives during the Holocaust.

Sadly, I was taught growing up in my home that Eastern Europeans were reflexively anti-Semitic.  Based on no personal experience whatsoever.  And while some fit the bill, others do not.  I met a Romanian girl who wants to learn Yiddish.  I met a Slovenian cell phone salesman who is now eager to visit his town’s Jewish museum after chatting with me.  I met a really cute Hungarian guy who decided to visit Israel for vacation- just because.  There are all types out there- it’s the most important value I’ve learned from my experience.  That if good people shouldn’t be used as a fig leaf to pretend there aren’t dangers or differences between cultures, nor should bad people be the only ones we talk about.  My best friend in the world is a deeply religious Muslim, a Syrian refugee living in Iraq.  He knows everything about me- and we’ve never even met.  And my experience with him doesn’t convince me that all pious Muslims would treat me with equal kindness, nor that none of them would.

What it does is remind me that people are people.  That arriving to Israel as a gay Reform progressive Jew- and visiting ultra-Orthodox kin in Bnei Brak- well that changed me.  I now see Orthodox Jews as people.  Not as ideological enemies, but simply people.  Good, bad, weird, nice, just like everyone else.  Not that there aren’t differences- every group has differences.  But that educated by my synagogue and my family to believe Orthodox were bizarre, backwards, and violent, I realized that they aren’t.  Not more or less than any other group.  Yes, Haredi men wear Polish noble outfits from the 1700s- but we wear suits to work- is our uniform any less ridiculous?  Every culture has its strange beliefs- and when you have the self awareness to see that in yourself, you are a bit less judgmental of the beliefs of others.

Which is how I found myself a month ago at the Mormon Temple in Washington, D.C.  A temple I drove by thousands of times during my rocky childhood.  Gazing in awe, but never visiting.  Curious, but more interested in the delicious Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, everything-ese food that surrounded my incredibly diverse hometown.

But this time in America, after being in Israel, I decided to take a peek inside.  I went with a Jewish friend and we talked for literally two hours with Mormon missionaries.  Some of the nicest- but not all of them- people in the world.  With a never-retreating grin that struck me as a combination of frightful and deeply pathologically relaxing.  You can’t really offend a Mormon- they bounce right back and just keep engaging.  It’s a resilience, if a bit forced, that progressives could really use right now.  Instead of building ideological fortresses.  Putting up signs that say “all are welcome” but then defining who is welcome- isn’t that just as problematic as excluding those not listed?  Isn’t it also a bit patronizing for you to decide?  Are progressives the “protectors” of helpless minorities?  And yet if we don’t say who is welcome in our society, are we leaving out the difference that sometimes leads certain people to harder lives here?  While the debate rages between “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter”- I can’t help but sit in confusion.  Can’t we say both?

Which is why I left the Mormon Temple with my fair share of critiques.  After all, the missionaries have each other’s cell phone passwords to check in on their morality.  A rather creepy, Big Brother scenario.  But they also were interesting.  And individuals.  And welcoming.  And friendly.  And human beings.  I met one Austrian woman who even knew some Yiddish!  And some were actually less friendly- which while unpleasant, just went to show that Mormons are people too.  Which was kind of refreshing.  At least I can say my experience with Mormons isn’t based on a musical mocking them.  A musical which they had the dignity to turn into a bright public relations opportunity.

Which brings me back to Greg, my Polish nemesis on the bus.  Feeling antsy and gazing out the window, waiting for the next rest stop (or mountain- Hungary is really flat, even if I deeply miss its greenness in the dead of American winter), I didn’t want to be around this grumpy influence anymore.  What did he have against Washington, D.C.?  He went once for a conference- what does he know?  If he feels that way about Washington, what’s he going to say if I say I’m Israeli- or Jewish?  Two words which I’ve learned in the past year are not the same- although I’ve found myself feeling bits of both.  I’m a bit of a contrarian.  I feel like an outsider as a Jew in Israel sometimes, and definitely an outsider as an Israeli in many American Jewish circles.  We’ll see how it develops.  But I suppose every society needs people who can see things from different angles, question conventional wisdom, and be the other voice.  Even bridging between different cultures.  American Jews and Israelis really need that right now.  And I hope to be the voice encouraging one group to think of the other.  Encouraging us to think in new ways.  I’m learning to embrace that role.

Judaism, no matter where I am, is always going to be important to me.  It’s not something to take for granted nor is it something I haven’t questioned- I grew up in a household hostile to the religion they belonged to.  Where relatives screamed at me in public for wanting to go to synagogue because of their personal psychoses.  And where some relatives even took advantage of my vulnerability as a child- in the synagogue.

One odd therapist I had did have a useful insight.  “Most people in your situation, with an abusive family, hostile to your Judaism and your very sense of self, would have given it up to survive”.  And sadly, I did have to give up a lot in my life to survive.  My house as a kid was a torture camp- I stand in awe at my strength to survive it, and to become kinder than the people who were supposed to protect and nourish me.

But I did hold on to my Judaism, at great personal expense.  Because it brings great personal reward.  It’s not an easy religion to be a part of.  I find it amusing when Jews debate whether we’re going to let people into our tribe– who on earth wants to be a part of the most persecuted society on the planet?  Why would we stop them?

While the debate is superfluous, the essence underlying it is valid.  We are a pretty cool tribe.  I’ve found in Judaism community, meaning, history, language, music, connections to other cultures, psychological insight, spiritual wisdom, and a sense of love.

A love sometimes threatened by people who should appreciate it.  Whether it be some Jews themselves, whether it be anti-Semites, whether it be people launching rockets aimlessly at our civilians.  Even threatened by the people around me who should’ve been teaching me to love it.  But instead would whisper the words “I love you bubbelah”, seeping that warm Yiddish warm into my ear drum, and then forcing me to touch their body.

The Judaism I have is one I’ve fought for.  And will always be a part of me, even as I (and it) evolves in meaning.

So when I sit on the bus next to Greg, the Polish neuroscientist, I am nervous.  Should I share this part of me with him?  Mostly I blast Jewish music into my headphones and stare at the green plains.

Greg eventually woke up.  Turns out the poor guy was on a 16 hour, two bus trip from Poland to Slovenia- in the same day.  And after a long rest, his grumpiness gave way to kindness.

Turns out, when I shared a bit more about D.C., he realized he didn’t know that much.  He even sounded interested.  He apologized for his grumpiness- he was exhausted.  It’s sometimes hard to distinguish momentary meanness from meanness that stems from an internal axis oriented around cruelty.  Those people exist too.

Eventually I saw he was the former- a normally nice guy just having a bad day.

I cheered him up.  We shared some stories.  And eventually I decided it was worth the risk to share I was Jewish.  And, in fact, part Polish.  Polish Jewish- the kind that has suffered a lot in the past two hundred years.

He was amenable.  He was interested.  He was more excited that I was Jewish than that I was American.

He wanted to visit Israel.  He showed pangs of guilt about his current anti-Semitic government.  Slight pangs that were visible enough to me to feel.  It felt great.  It was a sign of his kindness.

I’ve learned that empathy is the number one quality I seek in a fellow human being.  That often this is reflected to me- given my passion for Judaism- in people who validate my culture.  And who I then truly enjoy validating myself.  I know a lot about different cultures and speak 10 languages.  And it brings me great joy to make Uber drivers from West Africa laugh every time I tell them I like fou-fou.  I’ve never heard a laugh so big, so many times. 🙂

So when Greg told me about all this passion and kindness for Judaism- I wept for joy.  Not visibly, it just turned into this kind of sweetness inside of me.  A sweetness I had had to keep holed up for so many years as I hid bits of my self to protect me from the people encharged with raising me.

That’s a sweetness I carry with me to this day.  Along with the strength that protected it.  Like the sabra fruit, I’m both sweet and prickly- if you manage to respect me, you’ll get to the sweet stuff.  If you mess with me, you’ll get pricked.

I start the next step of my journey.  I’m excited.  It’ll be tough, but I’ve been through a lot.  I hope it is rewarding, peaceful, happy, and full of challenges.  The kind that bring you closer to your goal.  And some rest, some stability, and growth.  Peace of mind, and striving for more.  Foundations from which to sprout new opportunities.

As Shabbat descends, I wish you a peaceful week end.  Take a moment, pause.  Count your blessings.  Each of my readers is one.  And I thank you, and the kind people who help me on my journey.  Marko the Slovenian phone salesman, Greg the neuroscientist, and the Americans I’m meeting and have yet to meet.  Who will join on my journey.  And I, on theirs.  Let’s pursue kindness together.

Gut Shabbes, Shabbat shalom.  May it be filled with respite.  May you find moments of joy.

Help someone today

Today I found myself in a Jewish deli.  I love Jewish delis.  Severely lacking in the Jewish State, Jewish delis still dot the streets of major American cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and L.A.  Filled with matzah ball soup, kreplach, black and white cookies, rugelach (the dense American kind made with cream cheese), and all of my favorite childhood foods.  Including whitefish salad.

In need of a pick me up after a rough hour or two, I slurped on my chicken soup.  The salty savory flavor filling my taste buds with joy and warmth.  The kind of warmth sometimes lacking in America.  A place so rigid and overly burdened by rules that when I emailed a local archive about visiting, they told me they couldn’t accommodate me for the next two weeks.  I’ve traveled to 10 countries in the past two years and I’ve never even had to make an appointment to visit an archive.  I even walked in unannounced and held Inquisition-era documents from the 1200s in the city of Tortosa.  God forbid you slightly disturb an American archivist- their schedules seem to be made years in advance.

On the contrary, while Israel is a place that lacks rules (hence the chaotic man-eats-man rental market), it does not lack warmth.  Once I visited a small moshav that now forms part of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.  Unannounced, I walked in to a tiny museum showcasing the area’s history.  Filled with amazing knickknacks and chotchkes, I stood in awe and perused.  The man staffing- and I use that word liberally, he was just sitting in a chair writing some notes and answering calls- told me to come on in.  You don’t have to “sign in” or wear business clothes or make an appointment.  He welcomed me in and proceeded to show me the tiny two room archive- for two hours.  No cost, no rush.  He regaled me with stories of the moshav- when the area used to be agricultural as opposed to part of a 2 million person metro area.  He showed me pictures of fallen soldiers he knew himself.  When he apologized for having to grab the phone after two hours of chatting, I then wandered alone for another hour.  Unsupervised, trusted.  Allowing my mind and my spirit to be guided by what I saw.  This is the best way to learn and experience.  Rather than goose-stepping through a syllabus or knowing “what you’re looking for”, sometimes you let your mind wander and discover amazing things.

Organization, then, is America’s greatest strength and weakness.  I never have to push in grocery lines here.  Americans might laugh at this, but this is the reality of living in Israel and not a small number of countries around the world.  You have to constantly advocate for yourself.  Rules are only as valid as your will to enforce them.  And if you’re not prepared to cut someone off in line at the grocery store, you simply won’t get to pay.  Apply this to literally every aspect of life in Israel and you can see why it is tiring.  Assuming someone else will respect the rules simply because they are there is an American value- not one to take for granted and not one to presume the rest of the world plays by.

This organization is a great weakness when it comes to creativity, spontaneity, and resilience.  The ability to plan is predicated on stability.  If you know that two weeks from now at 2pm you’ll be free, alive, and have enough money, you can make plans to grab coffee with a friend.  It’s a soothing stability that can allow for truly great long-term plans to come to fruition.  A stability often lacking in Israel, where things seem to shift from moment to moment.  You need to reconfirm that your friend is going to show up on the day you’re supposed to meet- or oftentimes they won’t show up.  Plans are a suggestion unless reconfirmed- and even then, not a small number of times people won’t show up.  It’s not seen as socially rude because you’re entitled to do it too without any repercussion.  To see how you feel.  It’s a different culture.  Flexibility can be a two way street both frustrating and liberating.  Plans in Israel are plans- not etched-in-stone commitments hovering above Moses’s head.

In America, the impulse to plan is so strong sometimes that Americans don’t realize how strange they are.  One Friday, an Israeli friend said that he asked an American here to play basketball together.  The American said sure.  Thinking that meant now, the Israeli suggested they play the next day.  The American, looking puzzled, pulled out his Google Calendar and (without thinking it odd- which it is) suggested they play in two weeks.  Two weeks- this cursed amount of time that apparently both archivists and basketball players live by on this dreaded continent.  Why is it so hard to live in the moment and play basketball when you feel like it?  How do you even know you’ll want to play in two weeks, or what the weather will be like?  Of all the places I’ve visited, Americans are some of the most rigid, placid, uncreative people I’ve ever met.  Perhaps that’s why immigrants to the U.S. are disproportionately credited with inventing new patents.  What would it look like to invite someone to coffee and go…the next day?  Would it be “too soon”?  Would it be too spontaneous or erratic or confusing or disrupt your yoga schedule?  There’s nothing natural about American hyper organization- and the fact that so few of you see that is a testament to your inability to see other ways of doing things.  It’s a rigidity that hampers the growth of this country- economically, socially, and politically.  On both sides of the aisle.

After yet another archive telling me I had to schedule an appointment to sit down with a book, I found myself noshing on my kreplach in the Jewish deli.  I had met nice Americans (an odd phrase to have to write- but I sometimes feel like an immigrant in my own country), but I was frankly tired of them.  I needed some good Jewish cooking to feel at home and bask in a bit of my own culture.

Then, the most incredible thing happened.  A black man walked in with a young presumably white man (although he was kind of olive skinned like me).  The black man was almost certainly homeless.  And the white man was dressed like he worked in a nearby law office.

The white man approached the counter- but it was the black man who ordered.  “One brisket sandwich, some chips, and a coke”.

The cashier repeated the order and gave the white man the check.  The latter paid, shook hands with his grateful (new?) friend, said “we have to stick together” and left.

It was the most beautiful thing.

I raced to pay my bill to try to meet this incredible young man.  This was the kind of American, the kind of person, I’d like to be friends with.  Spontaneous, generous, humble.  Like I see myself.

I rushed out the door, but the young man was nowhere to be found.

I looked left and right, walked around the block, but this mysterious hero disappeared, like a character from a Baal Shem Tov story.

I felt inspired.  Disappointed that I couldn’t find him, I realized I could do the same thing.  I walked up to a homeless man begging by a street corner.  I asked him if he’d like some food.

“Oh, wow, yes that would be nice.”

“Ok, no problem.  What would you like?”

He stared at the cart on the street selling the usual- Skittles, M&Ms, water, Coca Cola.

“Oh, I’d like a Pepsi and some CheezIts.  I love CheezIts!”

“They are good!” I said.

He looked sheepish.  “I’d really like…the flavored ones,” as he pointed to the white colored chips below the chemically orange ones.

“Sure, no problem, whichever ones you want.”

I asked the Indian man behind the plastic window if he accepted credit cards.

“Only over ten dollars.”

I sighed.  Short on money myself and not really having use for ten dollars of candy, I reached for my cash.  I only had one dollar and the Pepsi and CheezIts cost two.

The homeless man said: “Oh no, don’t worry about it, I’m OK.”  As if he didn’t need the food, as if his desire to be treated with an ounce of generosity required him to plead his strength.  It’s a degrading facet of American society that I hate.  It reminds me of the other day when I tried to take a bus but I was 50 cents short and the driver made me get off at the next stop.  I can’t count how many times in Israel I didn’t have the right change and was allowed to ride the whole way.  I was never asked to step off.  There is more to life than money, and it doesn’t cost a cent to be nice.

I insisted that I get the homeless man something despite his insistence that he was “OK”.

I gave the Indian man the one dollar I had and told my friend to grab the CheezIts.

He was thrilled.

He said “God bless you, thank you, have a blessed day.”  And I wished him the same.  I love moments like these.

America is the land of the dollar bill.  The question is whether you’d like to use it as a reason to kick someone off a bus, or take the spare one in your pocket and make someone happy.

You can wait for “policy makers” to fix your problems, or you can do something today to be nice to someone.  You can resent people for being poor, or you can show a little generosity.

Tweeting and “liking” and raising awareness don’t bring joy to people’s hearts.  Looking someone in the eyes and treating them like a human being does.

Today was a reminder for me that Americans are people too.  That some are rigid and unforgiving and cruel, and some are spontaneous, kind, and warm-hearted.  For all the cultural differences, there are nice and mean people everywhere- and it’s sometimes hard to figure out who is who.  What is kind in one culture could be cruel in another.  There are also cultural norms which aren’t moral even if they’re common.  And there are of course the individuals within this haze, whose kindness I’m trying to evaluate.  When you are able to have that clarity, it really makes life a lot better.  To avoid the mean people, and to merge your light with that of other bright souls.  To illuminate some space for each other in a sometimes dark world.

I hope that this story is a reminder for you that you don’t need to schedule a time to help people.  You don’t need to make an appointment to smile.  You don’t need a new law or politician to show someone kindness.  There’s nothing polite about keeping your distance when someone is in need.  It’s rude.

Generosity is something we’re all capable of, no matter how much we have.  Do it- it’s the best medicine one can find besides a warm bowl of matzah ball soup.  For yourself, and for the people you’ll help.  Do it now.

Dual loyalty

Today, the Trump-like Congresswoman from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, invoked the 2,000 year old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty”.  When discussing Israel advocates who she disagrees with, instead of talking policy or substance, she simply accused her opposition of trying to undermine America.  In the interest of Jews, oh pardon the typo- Israel.

The conversation is frankly exhausting.  Rep. Tlaib has a serious abusive streak.  Immediately after being sworn into office, she became known around the world for calling Donald Trump a “motherfucker”.  Thankfully, a lot of Americans are capable and willing of expressing their political views without resorting to the profanity of an angry 16 year old.  The situation is all the more depressing because Rashida, as the first Palestinian-American in Congress, could’ve done so much more.  Rather than trying to become something other than a literal walking and talking caricature of what people think Palestinians are, she just hopped right in.  I know Palestinians personally who don’t agree with her- her policy or her rhetoric.  And she does an immense disservice to America, to Palestinians, to Jews, to peacemakers, to her own constituents.  Shooting from the hip, making policy via Twitter, shouting profanity.  Sound like someone in the Oval Office?  Well, apparently he’s got a partner in crime now sitting in Congress.  Rashida Trump.

It’s sad.  America- indeed, every country- could use some more wisdom and less yelling right now.  In the face of growing xenophobia, polarization, and economic uncertainty, we need level-headed people to steer the ship.  Because as I see it, moderation is not entirely about what positions you take.  There are people I know who have a whole variety of views- some I agree with, some I don’t.  And my own views have evolved- and evolve- with time.   The one thing I hold in common with the people I love is that we don’t think we have exclusive ownership of eternal truth.  That even if we disagree, we’re willing to hear out other points of view.  That while there are obviously limits, we’re not going to wholesale discredit millions of people simply for thinking differently from us.  Or wearing a different label.  Which is why I have friends who are devout Muslims, West Bank settlers, Palestinian political activists, and Israeli soldiers.  I don’t believe in categorically rejecting an entire group of people because I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me.

This mentality stems from being hurt.  People naturally want to protect themselves.  And if they’ve been taught, or personally experienced, hurt from a particular type of person, sometimes the response is close yourself off.  I can understand to a degree.  It’s not as if I’m going to wave a pride flag around Ramallah.  There are substantive cultural differences- and prejudices and legitimate fears that come with them.

The problem is when this fear ends up cutting you off from entire segments of society.  So that rather than saying I’m afraid of Palestinians who are homophobic, I decide that I simply don’t like Palestinians.  That if I don’t talk to them, if I don’t engage with them, I’ll feel safer.  Except in the end, you miss out on potentially life-changing friendships and relationships.  Not to mention the fact that it’s not entirely effective.  There are obviously homophobic people in other cultures too- and people in Palestinian society who aren’t.  When taken to its extreme, this kind of black-and-white thinking doesn’t end up effectively protecting you.  And it does create a lot more prejudice and hate in the world.

So Rashida Tlaib doesn’t like Jews.  If that wasn’t clear until today, accusing us of dual loyalty sealed the deal.  I don’t know why she has come to this conclusion, but it’s sad and scary.  We need to be vigilant against people who subvert democracy out of a desire to see their inner nightmares fulfilled.  People willing to shout profanity and trample on other people’s dignity will continue to do so if left unchecked.  Now that Ms. Tlaib has accused Jews of dual loyalty, when she sees Jews defending themselves, it will oddly enough reinforce her prejudice.  It’s a demented and deeply disappointing reality that is quite hard to break- and depends mostly on the willpower of the individual to change.  Here’s to hoping Rashida has a long talk with her conscience and thinks about what kind of parent, Congresswoman, and human being she’d like to be.

Which brings me to an archive I recently visited.

The American Society of the Cincinnati is an elite organization made up of descendants of Revolutionary War officers.  One of their members, Larz Anderson, endowed a spectacular, grandiose mansion in Washington, D.C. to be its headquarters.  To say it’s beautiful doesn’t do it justice.  If you want to feel rich for a hot minute and enjoy some stunning artwork, go visit.  It’s long been a favorite off-the-beaten-path place for me to let my mind wander and my eyes feast.

Today, as I did several years ago, I visited the Anderson House library.  As a not-so-minor side note, I encourage you to click that link above.  You can see some of my blogs from before my move to Israel.  And you’ll notice that while many of my values are the same, my political perspective and capacity for nuance has grown tremendously.  So that rather than drifting further towards the self-righteousness of folks like Rep. Tlaib or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, I decided to pursue the more difficult if more rewarding journey towards nuance and empathy.  While certain systemic factors are out of our control, every individual has a certain capacity to make choices.  And those choices have ramifications for the thousands of people we meet in our life, for our own lives, and for society as a whole.  I’m proud to have overcome the one-dimensional thinking that these extremist political actors savor.

Now, let’s return to the comfort of the archives.

Archives are soothing.  They offer you a chance to explore without paying any money.  Without the sometimes interesting but ultimately tedious travel logistics.  They give you insight into things you don’t know- and things you don’t know you don’t know.  They are just the kind of place to find an unexpected twist to make you think differently.

And I had that pleasure today.

As a Jew growing up in America, I learned a lot about Judaism.  I learned about the Torah, some Talmud, Pirke Avot, tikkun olam, Israel, Ellis Island, Hebrew, holidays, and more.  I can remember lessons on the Holocaust, on tolerance, and of course a lot of Jewish music.

What I didn’t learn was about our own American Jewish history.  Let alone Yiddish, a language I came later to in life, but was actually the mother tongue of almost every great-grandparent of mine.

There’s something odd, indeed disturbing, that I can tell you much, much, much more about Haifa than I can about American Judaism.  By that, I don’t mean Debbie Friedman melodies or marching for Soviet Jewry, although those are undoubtedly part of our rich story too.

What I mean is I can’t tell you much about how our community actually developed here.

And that’s something I learned about today.

How many of you know who David Salisbury Franks was?

Probably not many.  Before today, I can’t say the name was at the tip of my tongue.

But Mr. Franks was a Jewish officer in George Washington’s Continental Army.  And, to the best of my knowledge, the only Jewish member of the Society of the Cincinnati.  Whose building I sat in.

His story is riveting and filled with mystery.  After several hours of reading, it appears there’s no clear narrative on where he was from.  Some sources claim he was born in Philadelphia, others in Boston.  He also had a cousin (although some say the relationship is not clear) with the same name in New York.  Who unlike this David Franks, was a loyalist to the British Crown.  Which as you’ll see, a resemblance that did Mr. Franks no service later in life.

Mr. Franks spent part of his life in Montreal, at the time recently conquered by Britain.  One of the first Jews to settle there, as French colonists had forbidden Jews from moving there.

Mr. Franks is sometimes referred to as a German Jew.  In other places, it seems his family was Sephardic- the descendants of Jews forced out of Portugal by the Catholic Inquisition.  His own surname potentially an anglicization of “de Franco”.  A reminder that Jews have often had to shed parts of our identity to Americanize, whether in 1700s Philadelphia or Hollywood.

I have to admit his Portuguese connection intrigued me.  Having just been in Portugal, I figured I wouldn’t find much to connect me to the place from America.  But I not only found a connection- I found a Jewish one!  Indeed many early Jews in America were Portuguese.  Just like the Jews who I met in Lisbon who after 400 years of hiding, are returning to our people and our faith.  The twists and turns of history can offer hope in the most unexpected times and places.

Mr. Franks was a proud American.  He was even arrested by British authorities for defending freedom of speech and protest.  He helped finance revolutionary troops.  And he put his own life on the line as a soldier.  And he did it in a Colonial America that, while substantially better than Europe, was at best ambivalent about Jews.  Through the 1680s, even in relatively tolerant Rhode Island, Jews couldn’t become naturalized citizens.  We were largely tolerated, but considered “others”.  Something a bit too different to be “all American”.

There are a ton of fascinating aspects of David’s story.  He was a Sephardic Jew, with potentially German Ashkenazi ancestry.  His family likely kicked out of Portugal by Catholic monarchs, only to be appointed an American diplomat to the Spanish king whose country founded the Inquisition.  He was sent to France to represent the new Republic because he spoke French- because of his family’s move to Montreal.  Significant not only because of the roaming, international nature of Jewish existence (one source of our “dual loyalty” accusation), but also because of the very long relationship between Canadian and American Jewry.  It’s one of the reasons I love going to Montreal.  You might be surprised to see they have the *best* Jewish food tour I’ve ever been on.  Twice.

Mr. Franks served as the Parnas, or synagogue president, of the Sephardic and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal.  The city’s oldest.  And at the time, a community only ten years old.  A reminder that what starts today may become deeply significant for years to come.  To remember we are still writers of history.  And that if in fact Mr. Franks was part or entirely Ashkenazi, his acceptance as a leader of the (at the time) elitist Sephardic community is a poignant reminder of the human capacity for crossing cultures.  For empathy and heterodox thinking.  The kind we could use more of today.

His story, and rise to prominence, is also part of the American Dream.  It’s the idea that in this country, you can grow and you can achieve regardless of where you come from.  And while it’s a dream that’s not without its detractors nor faults, it is a part of our history.  Which is why so many Jews have made America their home.  At the time of David’s service in the military, Jews weren’t even citizens of European countries.  The idea that he could lead so prominently is evidence that something is a bit different here.  Even if we should remember that our history as American Jews is not just American.  David’s family came from elsewhere- and appears to have maintained trade and familial ties to far-flung places such as Halifax, New York, England, Philadelphia, Montreal, and beyond.  Jews are from everywhere- and nowhere.  Which is precisely how anti-Semites like Rep. Tlaib are so successful in painting us as “rootless cosmopolitans” who can’t be trusted.  Without considering why we’ve had to move so much- precisely because of people like her.

The very mystery around his origins, his family connections, his own biography is part of what makes him interesting.  Perhaps there are scholars more versed in his life than I am, but what’s clear from my research is that there’s at least some confusion.  Even searching in the Mormon genealogical records on FamilySearch.org shows some varying hypotheses of his own lineage.  We know he was here, we know he was a Jew.  The details, at least from my internet searching, seem partially up for debate.

What’s not up for debate is Mr. Franks’s patriotism.

Or is it?

Mr. Franks has the misfortune of being the aide-de-camp of Benedict Arnold, the notorious loyalist traitor.  While several inquiries, including one called by Mr. Franks himself, exonerated David from any responsibility, a lot of Americans weren’t so sure.  Some shunned Mr. Franks and yes, questioned his loyalty.  While George Washington himself had no problem commissioning Mr. Franks afterwards and trusted him, not a small number of people dissociated themselves from the officer.  And left him so socially undesirable he was apparently interred by a friend in hazy circumstances in a Christian cemetery in Philadelphia.  Potentially carrying the body himself.  An undignified end to someone who put his life on the line for his country.

What’s so interesting about this story is how utterly resonant it is today.  And how it shows the deep relevance of knowing American Jewish history at least as well as we know about the Western Wall or Tel Aviv.

Because accusing Jews of dual loyalty is as American as pumpkin pie.  And to this day, just as pernicious as it was centuries ago.  Perhaps even worse.

The saving grace of this country, though, is that some people have a different vision.

The Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest in the United States.

The congregation, nervous on the eve of American independence, wrote to George Washington in the hopes of receiving some reassurance.  Reassurance that their fates were safe here- unlike their European relatives regularly butchered by ignorant masses of anti-Semites.  I’d suggest it’s hard to imagine such a need here- but the past few years have put that to rest.  Anti-Semitism, sadly, is alive and well.  And American Jews should remember that for all the special things that make this country infinitely better for us than most places in the world, we are in the end Jews.  And Jews have always been scapegoated in Western societies when things start looking uncertain.

What’s so remarkable about the letter, besides the deep sincerity and hopefulness of the congregation, is also Mr. Washington’s reply:

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It’s a stunning, beautiful, and heartfelt sentiment that has driven Jews to these shores ever since.

Because besides the joy of letting my mind expand and wander, what ultimately motivates me to research this era is a desire to understand the present as much as the past.  And to discover if America has the potential to be different than Europe or North Africa, areas rendered largely Jew-free over the past 100 years.

And there is a difference.  The difference is not that there isn’t anti-Semitism.  That has been- and always will be- here.  You can just look up the case of Aaron Lopez in 18th century Rhode Island.  A colony that refused to recognize his very citizenship precisely because he was Jewish.  Or take a look at Linda Sarsour three hundred years later claiming anti-Semitism “isn’t systemic“.

The difference is that from its very founding, America decided that Jews were to be treated as equals under the law.  That while other Western countries have, at various stages, offered opportunity to Jewish communities, this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, of separation of Church and State, of liberty.  And while it hasn’t always lived up to that promise, George Washington’s decision has impacted our civic life for hundreds of years.  It’s why my family ended up alive in New York and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. and not as ashes in German ovens.

The problem is that this tolerance, this willingness to forgo the outdated sectarian hatreds of Europe, is fragile.  We’re seeing this today.  And its fragility is only tempered by people’s willingness to defend difference.

Which is why today’s news about Rashida Tlaib is so scary.  As a Muslim American woman, she has no doubt faced persecution and hardship in her life for who she is.  Yet rather than choosing to become more empathetic in the face of hurt, she has chosen to become like the people who persecuted her.  Heaping senseless anger and mean-spirited words into our nation’s political debate.  And most specifically, on Jews ourselves.  Six million of us that she doesn’t even know.

What’s so sad is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Rep. Tlaib could choose to build bridges with people of different backgrounds.  She could acknowledge her family’s pain and challenges as Palestinian-Americans.  Like me, she’s a hyphenated American with various cultural connections around the world.  In her words, “dual loyalties”, but as I see it, an enriching confluence of identities.  She could use this similarity as a way to empathize with Jews and yes, even Israel supporters she might disagree with.  Because, in an ironic twist, its bigotry of people like her that propel people like me to believe in the necessity of a Jewish State.  That for all its faults (which all countries have), Israel is a safe-haven for us when people like her fail to treat us as human beings.  Something that has saved millions of Jewish lives from Tehran to Warsaw.  Which is why there are more Moroccan Jews in Beit Shemesh, Israel than in all of Morocco.

So in the spirit of the resilient David Franks, I’m not going to start hating Palestinians just because Rashida Tlaib hates me for being Jewish and Israeli.  That’s because I took the time to meet Palestinians, to become friends with them.  That I realize that even as she spews conspiracy theories and hatred, I know other Palestinians who don’t see the world as she does.  And that even if we have different cultures and sometimes political perspectives, I know my friends and I view each other as human.  Not political props or opportunities to get likes on Facebook.

What’s so sad is that Rashida Tlaib has become like her abusers.  An abuser herself.  Unhinged and attacking foes real and imagined.  Even as she’s supposed to be doing practical things to help her constituents.  Like re-opening the government.  A government whose very archives and museums house so much knowledge that could benefit us today.  And whose halls sit empty as employees go without pay or hope for a solution.  Indeed, perhaps a visit to these archives would be a wise first step for the Congresswoman rather than pontificating on Twitter.

What I loved about my experience today is how it connected me to myself.  I’m an American Jew, a Jewish American, an American and a Jew.  And part of my journey is piecing together who I am, where I am, and why I am.  And who I want to be.

Knowing more about the history of my people in this country helps me understand the richness of our civilization.  And offers insight into how we got here- and where we might be headed.  What’s unique about America, and what might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize.  That perhaps some things aren’t as unique as we hoped.

But either way, I speak from a place of increasing knowledge- and searching for it.

I’m proud of David Salisbury Franks, even if some of his companions were too cowardly to see his bravery.  I’m proud he put his life on the line for an uncertainty- for a hope that his country would treat him as an equal.  A hope his Portuguese ancestors were brutally denied.

I’m proud to be a Jew and I’m proud of Americans like George Washington who stood up for principles of religious freedom.  Principles that have contributed to this country’s development and rich cultural landscape.  And yes, freedom.

A freedom that is imperfect and like Mr. Washington himself, complicated.  A freedom that is far from guaranteed, but a freedom worth pursuing.

With that, I’d like to suggest a redefinition.  The word moderate these days is often used to suggest someone who splits the difference.  Someone who’s not too Democratic or not too Republican.  Someone in the middle.

What I’d like to suggest is moderation is a demeanor.  That while yes, certain patterns of political thinking can suggest black-and-white thinking, the most important indicator of moderation is how you treat others.  Your tolerance for difference.

If there’s one thing David Franks teaches us, it’s that it’s time for moderates to step forward.  It’s time we figure out a way to mobilize before the patients run the ward and we find ourselves spiraling into an inescapable and even deeper chaos.  A chaos that might start with the brutality of anti-Semitism but absolutely never ends with it.

Jews are a bellwether.  Society should be concerned when people start picking on us.  Yes, even other minorities.  Something even sadder.

But Jews- we’re also people.  And as George Washington made clear, we’re entitled to our rights beyond just being symbolic of waves of intolerance for the rest of the populace.

That as he said, we “merit the goodwill of the other inhabitants” and that “none shall make us afraid”.

I, for one, am afraid of people like Ms. Tlaib.  But I am not afraid to stand up for myself.

Jews have been walking the pine forests and city streets of this country since before it was a country.  And I’m not going to bow down before bigotry.

If you want to see our resilience, just go to the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati.  And learn about the brave members of our tribe who helped build one of the most fabulous countries on the planet.

American. Jewish. Israeli. Proud.

I suppose that’s four loyalties, but who’s counting? 😉

My best friend I’ve never met

I love to speak Arabic.  It’s a language I started learning in high school at the Jewish community center.  Then took in college.

One of the curious things about my Arabic is it’s very Syrian.  Of course, this naturally raises curiosity in Israel, a country Syria doesn’t even recognize.  As an Israeli, even if there was no war in Syria and I traveled on my American passport, I am not allowed into Syria.

So once I found myself in Haifa, northern Israel, talking to some Arab men on the street.  I asked where a restaurant was.  And the one man said to another: “fi hon 3arabi ajnabi”.

Translation: “there’s a foreign Arab here.”

Meaning I obviously speak fluent Arabic, therefore I am Arab, but my accent is such that I’m clearly not Palestinian or an Arab citizen of Israel.

First off, this is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given.  When I told the man I was Jewish the shock was audible- and delightful.

Secondly, the reason I have a different accent is because I speak Syrian.

How does an American Jew wandering northern Israel speak Syrian?  How does an Israeli citizen at all speak Syrian, especially one who is not a Syrian Jew?  After all, it’s a bit like a North Korean walking around New York City with a noticeable accent from Pyongyang.  How did you get here?

It’s a question that puzzled many of my Arab friends.  And my answer made them smile.

It’s because I learned Syrian Arabic from refugees.

As a college student, my senior year, after three years of Modern Standard Arabic, I had the opportunity to learn a dialect.  And I had a choice.  I could’ve learned Egyptian, the largest dialect of Arabic.  The most well-known, the dialect of a lot of popular media, of songs, a kind of spoken lingua franca of the Arab world.

Or I could learn Syrian.

Because part of my desire to learn Arabic was to get to know my neighbors (at the time, I didn’t realize how literal this would be), I chose Syrian.  Because Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Arabic are all part of one family.  And mostly mutually intelligible.

After a semester of Syrian Arabic in college, my Arabic lay mostly dormant.  There aren’t a lot of opportunities to practice it in Washington, D.C., other than the occasional pleasantly-surprised taxi driver.  Who sometimes gave me a free ride 🙂

So a few years ago, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, I found my Arabic suddenly useful.  The story I’m about to tell is an important one if you want to understand how to learn a language.  Learning a language effectively is 90% about your passion.  If you’re motivated to use it- doesn’t matter when or where- then you find a way to learn it.

And motivated I was.

The Trump Administration had begun limiting Syrian refugee arrivals to the States.  And most of the world stood silent- including Syria’s allies Iran and Russia- as Syrians were massacred by their own government.

I participated in a lot of protests, but I decided there were other ways I wanted to help too.

I found a brilliant program online called “Natakallam“, run by American entrepreneurs.  Natakallam means “we speak” in Arabic.  And the premise is that because people can use Skype anywhere and refugees are on the move, there is a way to help them make a living.  And that way is by pairing refugee teachers with Syrian dialect learners, who then pay for lessons and conversations over Skype.  It’s a fantastic way to learn the spoken dialect, especially at a time when we can’t visit Syria.  And besides providing a much-needed income to the refugees, it builds emotional and social bonds between people around the world.

I’ve done the program for several years now.  I’ve met inspiring people.  Young people displaced from their homes.  Now living in Lebanon, in Germany.  Curious about Jews- and about Israel.  In fact, wanting to establish relations with Israel and one day visit.  It shattered all sorts of stereotypes I had been taught about Syrians- and I’m sure ones they had been taught about me.

Over the past two years, I’ve been speaking with Shadi.  Shadi is a refugee from Syria.  He is Kurdish, a minority ruthlessly repressed by the Syrian government.  Whose language was forbidden to be spoken in public.  Whose very people have been butchered by Turkey, by Iran, by Syria, and by Iraq.  The latter, with chemical weapons.  They are a stateless people in search of safety.  A minority whose culture and identity have been viciously silenced- a silence matched only by the indifference of most western liberals to their fate.

And yet Shadi, despite being displaced from his home in Syria.  Being separated from his parents.  Despite a wife who is suffering from cancer.  Manages to see the bright side of life too.

Talking to him, besides making my Arabic fucking fantastic, always reminds me of what I have.  I’ve faced- and face- very real problems.  I am an unemployed sober alcoholic and survivor of 30 years of abuse with PTSD, currently going through a lot of culture shock.  And talking to Shadi reminds me that alongside these problems, I have a lot to be thankful for too.  I have friends who host me, I have food, I have two passports, I am not from a country in the midst of a civil war.  It reminds me of very good things I have, and to remember the millions of people who don’t have them.  Including my dear friend.

I’ve been spending the past few weeks recovering from jet lag, looking for a job, looking for a home, running out of money, figuring out my identity, healing from abuse, and so much more.  And I felt, as I often do, that a call to Shadi might put things in perspective.

What’s so remarkable about Shadi is that he’s so empathetic.  That his woes don’t stop him from seeing other people’s challenges.  In fact, they illuminate his heart even more.  Which is why for about an hour he wanted to know how I was doing, to hear what it was like being back in America for now, how my job search was going.  He wanted to hear about the challenges of finding a job in Israel, he wanted to hear how I was doing.  And he genuinely cares.

It felt so good.  I miss Arabic, I miss Shadi, and I find that speaking in another language helps me access different feelings I have trouble expressing in English.  Every language contains unique knowledge and creative expressions, fun twists of phrase.  It’s fun, it opens the mind, it engages me and my deepest passions.  I sometimes prefer to speak in other languages.  I haven’t spent much of the past several years speaking in English.  And now that I’m surrounded by it, I occasionally have trouble finding the right words.  Life sometimes imitates reality- I originally wrote that sentence: “I occasionally having trouble finding the right words”.

English is also the language in which most of my abuse happened.  Words carry a certain weight, a certain connotation for me in English.  A weight I’ve managed to make progress lifting through hard work.  But still feels different.  In other languages, my thoughts feel a bit freer, a bit more creative, and sometimes lighter.  Even easier than my mother tongue.

So after giving him a thorough update on my life, he wanted to update me on his.

Boy was it an update.

Shadi has waited patiently for five years as UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has processed his application to move abroad.  And hopefully build a new life while the country he called home is torn to pieces.

During those five years, he has been teaching students like me with Natakallam.  He has also been volunteering at an NGO, trying to get a paid job.  He has been living in a refugee camp, subsisting on the little aid the U.N. and foundations give him.  Even as his wife works at another NGO, bringing in a little extra income to make ends meet.

I should add that calling me a student of his is a disservice to our relationship.  Shadi is someone who is my friend.  Someone who I share very deep feelings with.  He is even someone who convinced me to go to Israel when I wasn’t sure.  He is someone who is supporting me now that I find myself, for the time being, in the States.  I also know a lot about him- his family, his wife, his parents, his Kurdish identity.  And the challenges that come with living in a refugee camp in Iraq.  You know your lot is pretty rough when you’re escaping to Iraq.

Because of the inanity of Middle Eastern politics, I can’t see Shadi.  Entering Iraq on an Israeli passport is suicide.  While it is potentially feasible through the Kurdish airports in the North (Kurds have had excellent relations with Jews over the centuries), the Iraqi government periodically shuts down their airports.  Also, ISIS is around.  In short, now is not the ideal time to visit Shadi, even if I had the money to do so, which I don’t.

So for two years, we’ve been talking almost every week.  Every year for my birthday, the only gift I ask my friends is to buy conversations for me so I can keep talking to him and he can keep earning a living.  I can’t imagine my life without Shadi in it.  And I’ve never met him.

But I know him well and he knows me in ways some people I’ve met face-to-face never have- or will.  We have a special bond- as minorities, as empathetic people, as survivors.  As friends.  And I’m grateful to him, to Natakallam, and to my friends who make this connection possible.

So now for Shadi’s update.

In the past few weeks, Shadi was given notice by the United Nations that his refugee application was rejected.  Countries are cutting back their refugee intakes- Shadi wondered outloud if some people took a look at his wife’s cancer diagnosis and didn’t feel like footing the bill.  Even though he is one of the hardest working people I know, and has so much to contribute to any country he’d live in.  I suppose even the most “enlightened” countries make a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to human lives.

In addition, Shadi’s wife’s NGO lost its funding and shut down.  His own NGO where he volunteers, in a truly Orwellian story, is ending his volunteer position.  They are not going to continue his job- which they don’t even pay for.  It’s an absurd situation straight out of an Adel Imam film.  It’s like telling someone they have to stop cleaning your house for free.  I don’t even have words for how asinine this is.  If only I hadn’t seen some things just as stupid during my own time working in the non-profit sector.

On top of this, Shadi’s wife is about to have a baby.  Obviously something that started well before this woe befell him.  And, in a kicker, the various foundations working in his part of Iraq have cut back food supplies.

I was in shock.

It’s moments like these where I realize that even as I hop from couch to couch, apply to jobs, get faceless rejections from jobs, and harness every ounce of my being to move forward, I have a lot to be thankful for.  And I frankly stand in deep admiration of Shadi’s strength in the face of such chaos and uncertainty.

Meeting people like Shadi has made me much more thankful for the gifts I enjoy as an American.  For the freedom I experience on a daily basis that I almost don’t think about.  For the food I eat.  And to remember that with all the challenges we face, other people are struggling alongside us.  Don’t forget them.

So with that, I told Shadi I’d schedule more times to chat so he could make a bit more income in the coming weeks.  When I said this, he made very clear that he wasn’t asking for help.  He might even be annoyed that I wrote this post.  He simply wanted me to tell me what was going on in his life- we’re friends and I care about him.  But I’m going to risk his anger and put this out here anyways because he deserves better.  I wish I had the money and the political power to give him the decent opportunities he merits.  But the one thing I can do is keep talking to him- to keep us both moving forward and give us hope.  And to give him a chance to earn a living against unimaginable odds.

So I’d like to ask one basic thing.  I’m in the middle of a job hunt, I have none at the moment.  But I don’t want your money.  I want you to help Shadi.  I want you to go to Natakallam’s website and purchase one or more conversations- whatever you can afford- and make sure they’re put under my name.  So I can spend that money and time with Shadi.  And help him move forward in building a life during such a stressful and uncertain time.

Survivors have to stick together.  And to help each other survive.  Shadi does that for me, and I do that for him.  And you can help.  Away from the mind-numbing political debates and legislation and policies, this is one concrete thing you can do to make someone’s life better.  Put aside for a moment your feelings about the headlines and do something to help a human being in need– today.

There is nothing more beautiful than the gift of language.  Learning Arabic has opened me to new cultures, new music, new food, new history, new ways of seeing the world- and my self.  It has even enlightened my own view of Judaism- not a small number of our own works are written in this language.

Most of all, Arabic has helped me make friendships.  Friendships like mine with Shadi that shatter stereotypes, that build love, that move beyond the angry headlines.  And into our homes and our hearts.

Please, to whatever extent you can, purchase conversations for me and Shadi to keep talking.  To keep his hope- and his family- alive.  Go to Natakallam and direct anything you’re able to give in my name, “Matt Adler”.  And besides keeping my Arabic fresh for future videos and adventures, you’ll give one of the kindest people I know a bit more money to survive.  And the compassion he deserves to move forward.

My birthday is in two months.  Consider it an early birthday present.  For me, for Shadi, for the idea that two people who’ve never met should care about each other.

May this year be a happy new year for everyone.  Especially for my Syrian refugee friends like Shadi, who deserve every ounce of happiness they can find amidst the turmoil on God’s good earth.

One day I’m sure Shadi and I will be sharing a cup of tea, laughing after overcoming so many hardships.  Basking in the sunlight of the mountains of Kurdistan, or maybe even in Tel Aviv.

But that day isn’t here yet.  So I hope I can count on you to help the best friend I’ve never met.

My cover photo is of me at Rosh Hanikra, Israel’s northern border.  One day I hope it will be open so I can visit Lebanon, hop over to Syria, and meet my neighbors face-to-face.