Israeli folk dancing on the beach

Yes, you read that right.  Tonight, I spent 4 hours Israeli dancing on the beach.  Israeli dancing consists of line, circle, and couples dances that are rooted in traditional Jewish dancing and fused with modern songs and steps.  Here’s an example.

I’ve been dancing since I was 14 years old, when I would go to the Israeli dancing club in a small windowless room at my high school during lunch.  It was so fun that my friends suggested I start going to a weekly session in Rockville, MD, so I did!  I danced with the Israeli dance troupe at my college, called Magniv, and even choreographed for them.  After a few year break from dancing, I reconnected with the community last year in DC and have been going weekly ever since.

My first week in Israel was so chaotic, I didn’t get a chance to dance.  But this week, I made sure to go.  It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.  It’s hard to describe to you what it feels like to dance to the songs of your people on the beach as you watch the sun set over the Mediterranean.  There was such an energy that the fact that I was sweating every ounce of liquid out of me didn’t matter.  I met some really nice people- it was so welcoming and people I literally just met were grabbing me to dance circles and couples dances with them.  And what really struck me was how young everyone is.  I’d say 50% of the dancers were under 35, something that will astonish my American friends who dance.  It was so nice to hear many songs I knew- connecting my American Jewish life to my new Israeli life.  We Jews really are an international club!

Beyond that, a few things stood out to me and moved me.  One, dozens and dozens of people- tourists, Israelis, young, and old- gathered around us and just watched.  Some would make their own goofy dance moves.  Others took video clips.  And most just simply watched and enjoyed.  I’ve never felt so appreciated and validated in my life.  Other than one very special instance where a Catalan TV crew filmed my Israeli dance session in Maryland (that video will come out in January- I’ll keep you posted), I’ve never felt like this very treasured activity or my Judaism in general was worthy of a spectacle.  And I don’t use the word spectacle in a negative way- I mean that I felt highly appreciated.  It made it even more special.  In addition, it gave me great naches (pride) to see that the Municipality of Tel Aviv sponsors the dancing.  Therefore, it is 100% free of cost.  This is the benefit of being in a place where your passions, your traditions, and your culture are actively supported.  Not tolerated, not enjoyed, not accepted (those are all good too though!)- but financially supported by the government.  You’d be hard-pressed to find another place in the world where the government funds Israeli dancing.

For all the issues that surround the State of Israel, Zionism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and what have you (and I’m not denying those issues exist), there’s one simple fact: this is a place where my faith and culture is valued in a way that nowhere else can truly replicate.  I wish that for all peoples- it’s an incredible feeling that we all deserve.

I’d like to give a major shout-out to my Israeli dancing family in DC.  Next time you find yourself in Israel, which I hope is soon, please please please let me take you dancing.  It will be a memory you never forget.

Listening to bluegrass in Tel Aviv

I had a rough time sleeping last night.  Lots of pent-up emotions that I’ve felt over the past week came pouring out.  It has been really hard- meeting dozens of new people, escaping an abusive AirBnB host, finding new housing (then finding housing after that housing), hours of bureaucracy, jet lag, adjusting to the heat, and so much more.

There have of course been amazing and life-changing moments as well.  Even those have the potential to stress you out as much as you enjoy them.  When even the street art in Tel Aviv plays on biblical motifs, it is hard to escape Judaism even in Israel’s most secular city.  It’s part of what makes it so cool to be here.

And so hard.  In America, if I wanted to engage my Jewish identity, I could prepare myself.  I could go to a synagogue or a Jewish Community Center, to Moishe House or a friend’s Shabbat dinner- and I could tap into my Jewishness.  I knew what to expect and how to behave, even if I had never met the people.  Because it was my American Jewish culture.  And as soon as I stepped outside the event, I was back in American non-Jewish society.  Sometimes that made me sad, as I felt I needed to check part of my self at the door.  And sometimes it was refreshing as I could recharge myself in the broader society.

Here, everything is Jewish.  When I say everything, I’m not exaggerating.  Israelis might not see it this way.  For me, as an American-Israeli, it feels that way.  All the signs are in Hebrew.  For instance, next to a parking garage, there’s a sign that says “Boachem Leshalom” which means “come in peace”.  To a religious American Jew, however, this reads differently.  It’s the beginning of a famous verse of the prayer Shalom Aleychem, something we sing on Shabbat.  Next to a parking garage!!!  I can’t think of an equivalent in the U.S. but perhaps it’d be like seeing “He is Risen” on an elevator.

It’s awesome and totally exhausting.  I’m not used to having Judaism everywhere in my life.  And such heavy duty politics mixed into casual conversations (and this is coming from someone who grew up in Washington, D.C.).

Sometimes, you just need a break from it all.  This morning, I put on some bluegrass music from one of my favorite bands that I saw in Charlottesville, VA years ago.  Something you will never, ever hear in Israel.  Something thoroughly American and beautiful.  I called an American-Israeli friend and made plans to talk about light, apolitical, non-religious things.  I don’t know- football, college stories, old flames, who knows!  The point is nothing serious!

As I sat down to eat breakfast (boy am I missing my shredded wheat, trying to find some in Israel), I went to Google Advanced Image Search and googled “pictures of hamburgers”.  And I felt a wave of relief and comfort come over me as I scrolled through picture after picture of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon burgers, you name it.  Some of which I don’t eat.  And to be honest, I didn’t really eat hamburgers much in the U.S.

But it just felt like home.  Where I don’t have to extend myself, to explain myself, to go into the depths of politics and religion, where I could just be.  I felt out of place often in America.  And I also miss it.  It took moving to Israel to make me feel truly American.

What’s this blog all about?

 

One week ago to the day, on July 4th, 2017, I made one of the boldest decisions of my life: to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen.  In Hebrew, this process is called “aliyah”.  Every Jew (even if someone is a quarter Jewish) has the right to this opportunity enshrined in the Israeli “Law of Return”.  As long as you go through the (heavily bureaucratic) process and your ducks are in a row, you are free to make aliyah.  No matter what country you’re from, whether you’re Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or not religious at all.  Actually, even if you profess another faith like Christianity but have 1/4 Jewish roots.  We’ll go into the Law of Return another day in more depth, but for now let’s just say this is truly a unique process.  Immigrating to the United States this is not.  Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike tend to view this not as immigration so much as a homecoming.

When I told my friends I was making aliyah, I got a wide spectrum of reactions.  I heard such varied responses as “congrats!  That’s awesome, good luck!”, which was probably my favorite.  I inevitably heard “are you going there to help Palestinians?” (I love all people, including Palestinians, but this is a bit like asking someone moving to China if they’re going to help Tibetans- probably a worthy cause, but a kind of strange initial reaction to someone moving to another country).  I got asked whether I was concerned about Israeli politics (indeed, a veritable mess, but hardly worse than the batshit bonanza going on in the United States right now).  I was asked about the “demographic threat” (their words, not mine- and asked by a left-wing non-Jew), what I would do for a living, would I feel safe, where would I live, do I have family there, etc. etc.  People were stunned, excited, thrilled, anxious, sad, happy- you name it.

One thing I wanted to make sure to do was to make the process my own.  Everyone had their own reaction to my moving, and in the end, my friends, even with their sometimes frustrating questions, stood behind me and supported me.  But I wanted to make sure the process was mine first and foremost.

One of the reasons I made aliyah was to be with my people.  This is probably first and foremost why I came to Israel.  Having experienced a lifetime of antisemitism and being a minority, I wanted a place where I could be my true authentic self.  A place where I didn’t have to constantly explain or justify my culture, my holidays, my tradition, my mannerisms.  It’s not that all Americans are bigots- as Donald Trump would say “and some, I assume, are good people“.  There’s a lot to like about America- its diversity, its fluidity, its grassroots activism, and of course its delicious ethnic food.  In the end, I will always be American.  But my people have been Jewish a lot longer than being American.  The roots of my culture go back literally thousands of years.  My ancestors have been in the U.S. for about 100-130 years maximum.  It has clearly had an influence, but first and foremost, I’m a Jew.  Why is that?  Because the holidays I enjoy the most are the Jewish ones.  Because I’ll always choose kugel over a hamburger.  Because I feel more at home in a synagogue than a boy scouts den, a church, or a Rotary Club.  Because I talk with my hands and because “mazel tov” slips off the tongue more easily than “congratulations”.

It’s not that I dislike all things American, it’s just that I never really fully felt at home.  When I had to take unpaid leave from a progressive Latino non-profit to observe Rosh Hashanah.  When I was thrown out of a Lyft for being a gay Jew.  When I was berated by a classmate in high school for being a “rich Jew” because I wore a Fossil watch.  When I was told by another high school classmate that she couldn’t believe I was Jewish because I wasn’t a “loudmouth” like the other ones.  When a guy broke up with me because I wouldn’t eat pork.  When a woman I met at a happy hour in DC sent me David Duke videos on Facebook.

Thank God my friends aren’t like that, but this has also been my reality as an American Jew- I could literally write blog upon blog of similar experiences.  When you’re 2% of the population, it can be really hard to feel safe, appreciated, and respected.  Which is why perhaps I’ve always felt close to other minorities.

Hence why I’m here now.  I also came to Israel to find a Jewish partner (very hard to do so in the U.S.- 5% of 2%!), to travel Europe and the Mediterranean, to speak a bunch of languages, to never deal with Winter again, and so much more.

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So back to the point- I wanted to make this process my own.  Many people when they make aliyah take a Hebrew name.  Mine is Matah מטע, which means “orchard” or “plantation” (without the creepy American slave connotation).  I could’ve taken a more typical Israeli name like Matan, Mati, Matityahu- all of which come from the same root as Matt (which is in itself a Hebrew name).  But I wanted something more special.  Matah sounds like Matt but comes from a different root.  It is a biblical word but is an extremely modern sounding name.  It is truly unique, just like me 🙂

When talking to an Israeli friend about my name, I explained that I liked the idea of trees bearing fruit, just like I hope to do when I’m here- to bloom and grow.  She said that was interesting because her first impression was that I was using the name to indicate I was setting down roots.  I loved it.  The truth is, I’m doing both.  I hope to set down my roots so I can bear fruit- to feel a sense of belonging and stability so I can contribute to society and flourish.

That is what this blog is about- it is about the journey of an American Jew to his ancestral homeland to build a new life.  It’s also about maintaining connections with the life he left behind- because I’m not just an Israeli, I’m an American-Israeli.  It’s about exploring the myriad benefits that life in Israel has to offer- and the challenges.

Join me on my journey as I plant my roots to bear new fruit.

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