Are Israelis Jewish?

Before we delve into one of the least discussed aspects of life here, I’d like to clarify a few things lest you misunderstand my intent.  Or go wandering off into anti-Israel or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, pretending identity issues don’t complicate every culture.

I am not questioning whether there is a genetic connection between Jewish people.  Various studies have shown extensive shared DNA among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Jewish populations.  Obviously conversions, conquest, and migrations have diversified our phenotype, but by and large, Jews today share a great deal of genetic heritage.  Anecdotally, I have moments here where I think I see a Jewish friend from home, until I come closer and hear them speaking Hebrew.  While Jews come in all shapes and sizes (and of course, this observation doesn’t extend to Jews by choice), there are clearly ancestral connections between us.  My ancestors migrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, but people in Cyprus speak to me in Greek.  My own genealogical research has shown my DNA most similar to Sicilians, Palestinians, Syrians, Greeks, and Lebanese.  No ethnic Pole would mistake me for one of them.

In addition, I am not suggesting there aren’t cultural links between Israelis and Jews around the world.  Shared holidays, cuisine, religious texts, history, and family ties bind us.  Nor am I raising this critique to carry the banner of Palestinian nationalism (or any nationalism).  Sometimes accepted truths need to be questioned.  Every people’s narrative, including theirs, is worthy of critique and reevaluation to help understand our modern world better.  I’m just better positioned to talk about my own.

There is nothing significantly more natural about one country’s existence versus another.  Whether it’s the French nation, the Moroccan nation, or the American nation- borders are fairly arbitrary and cultural boundaries are far more porous than you might expect.  Until World War II, most French citizens didn’t even speak French as their first language.  Until 1549, present-day Morocco was actually ruled by Berbers, not Arabs.  For the past 2800 years, the country has been ruled by Arabs for only about 350 years, half of which was under strong European influence.  Yet today, almost everyone would think of Morocco as an Arab country, despite its significant 30% Berber minority that has not yet assimilated into Arab culture.  When Ellen DeGeneres was born in 1958, Hawaii wasn’t even a state.  The American flag had 48 stars.  And over 1/3 of Louisiana spoke French, not English, as a native language.

So now, back to Israel.

Israel is defined as a Jewish state.  Its various symbols, including the Star of David, the menorahs you see dotting every street corner this winter, the Hebrew signage, are all readily recognizable to any Jew around the world.

Yet there exists a bit of an internal paradox.  You see Israel was founded to be unlike the Jews of the Diaspora.  The express purpose of Israel is to “ingather” the “exiles”- to bring Jews to the Land of Israel.  Ideologically, presented as the only true, authentic home of the Jewish people.

This nation-building project is largely a product of both frustration with 2,000 years of Christian and Muslim persecution and the nationalism that swept the 19th century world.  It doesn’t take a great deal of creativity to see deep desires in Jewish texts and prayers to return to Zion.  It’s not as if the effort came out of nowhere.  But it was a minority movement until the 20th century and there needed to be a narrative to build the nation.

Every nation has founding myths, often rooted in a bit of truth and a lot of imagination.  America is the land of promise and opportunity, a country of hard-working immigrants that gives refuge to those seeking persecution.  An imperfect, but consistently improving place, bringing the promise of ever-greater democracy.  Of upward mobility to those willing to put their heads down and work.  A lousy narrative that the past two years has shown to be fallible, at best.  Which is why so many American progressives are baffled by the Trump phenomenon.  Because having been taught that the arc of history bends towards justice, they now see that it’s more like a chaotic pendulum that swings from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Voting Rights Act to the Muslim travel ban.  That while gay marriage is now legal, real wages haven’t changed in 40 years, income inequality has consistently increased since 1980.  Including under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Anti-gay and anti-Semitic hate crimes are increasing at an alarming rate.  But in good news, the number of bilingual immersion schools has increased fourfold in a decade.  Reminiscent of the plethora of German-language schools that dotted America until World War I paranoia led to their persecution and eventual demise.

In short, the American mythos, like all national mythos, is based on a little bit of fact and a lot of ideology.  And the more unquestioningly you buy into it, the more you’ll be disappointed when you realize that rather than America constantly progressing towards a better future, it’s complicated.  And that it’s OK- it might actually help us find better solutions to our problems if we accept the non-linear and unpredictable nature of history.

So what’s Israel’s founding mythos?  The Jewish people are from here.  OK, that much I agree with.  We have had a continuous presence here since biblical times.  Again, true- as a visit to Peki’in showed me.  After 2,000 years in which most Jews suffered in “exile” (a charged word, but let’s say “outside of Israel”), we returned, struggled, made the desert bloom, revived the Hebrew language, and re-established the Jewish state.  Bidding adieu to the insufferable and contorted Jewish cultures of the Diaspora and starting a strong, independent Israeli future.

This part presents a conundrum.  First off, while Jewish tradition does speak extensively of exile and the Land of Israel, most Jews didn’t see living here as a practical step.  While rabbis over the centuries have been buried here, and there has always been a Jewish community here, the vast majority of Jews have lived elsewhere for two millennia.  While small populations of Jews moved here over the centuries, 99% of world Jewry did not.  Even during intense persecutions.  And not simply because they couldn’t make it here.  Sephardic Jews in the 1500s made their way to Tsfat– it was possible.  But most Jews fled Inquisition Spain to Turkey, Greece, the Netherlands, and other far-flung destinations.

Jews have indeed experienced intense, mindbogglingly irrational persecution for centuries.  At the mercy of the latest ruler’s whims, our mixed languages are testament to how many times we’ve been ruthlessly expelled.  Which is why Yiddish contains ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, medieval French, medieval German, Polish, Russian- and today new English and Modern Hebrew loanwords.  And why Judeo-Spanish (popularly known as “Ladino”) contains medieval Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese influence supplemented by Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.  Our linguistic heritage, one of our greatest accomplishments, shows both our resilience and our willingness to incorporate the best of surrounding cultures while building our own.  It is an archaeology of our past.

The question is whether the past 2,000 years have been nothing but suffering.  And the answer, as even a cursory trip to Europe or the Middle East would show, is no.  Grand synagogues, survivors of genocide and annihilation, dot the European and Middle Eastern landscape.  For centuries, Jews have served as royal advisors, as traders, as doctors, as Prime Minsters, as Senators, as Congresspeople, as Supreme Court Justices.  While most Israelis know Poland only from their high school trip to learn about the truly horrific experiences of the Holocaust, they probably don’t know that for about 500 years, Poland was known as “paradisus iudaeorum“.  The Paradise of the Jews thanks to the welcoming and tolerant Polish leaders who invited them to their kingdom.  Which until the Holocaust was the single largest Jewish community on earth.  Home to beautiful hand-crafted wooden synagogues, economically vibrant shtetls, and a multicultural society.  With religious freedom far more advanced than many Western European countries.

None of this whitewashes anti-Semitism.  Both Christian (and to a slightly lesser but still potent degree) Muslim leaders found ample opportunities to scapegoat Jews.  While Jews often enjoyed prosperity during times of hope and progress, when things went awry, they were (and are) often first in line to receive the unwarranted blame.  Besides discrimination in occupations, inferior legal status, and frequent violence, Jews have been routinely kicked out of their homes for eons.  Take a look at this map (sourced from here):

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And this map *only* covers 500 years of Jewish history.  It doesn’t include the Babylonian Exile, the Roman Exile, and certainly not the modern expulsions of Jews from Arab states.  Here’s a more extensive list for when you need a depressing read.

So it’s not surprising that Jews would at some point want the safety and stability of a homeland.  The problem is that when you base the premise of that claim on the idea that everyone hates us and the only thing we experienced for two millennia was persecution, you miss out on a huge part of the story.  It’s a lie.  It erases amazing Jewish resilience and creativity, our sometimes productive relations with our non-Jewish neighbors, and it distorts the way modern Israelis see themselves and the rest of the world.

Recently, I watched a couple of Corey Gil-Shuster’s YouTube videos.  Corey had the creative idea of letting Israelis and Palestinians speak for themselves, so he solicits questions from his fans and interviews people on the street.  The ones I saw this week were about Israelis of Polish and Romanian descent.  By and large, the respondents emphasized they have no connection to these countries or cultures.  While a few displayed some curiosity about visiting, most detested the cuisine, the languages, and the heritage.  It’s sad- while our history in these countries is certainly bittersweet, you can’t really understand yourself without knowing your history.  It’s worth showing empathy for Israelis struggling with this conundrum- the vast majority of Ashkenazim here are descendants of Holocaust survivors whose families were obliterated.

One respondent caught my eye in particular.  He had no interest in Eastern Europe because “all of our history is here”.  In Israel.

This is an extraordinary and deeply ignorant thing to say, with huge political ramifications.  Jews have lived outside Israel longer than we have lived inside.  His own family didn’t return here until two generations ago.  Every aspect of modern Israeli culture is fused from another source.  From our shnitzel to our jachnoon, from the Yiddish word “balagan” to the Arabic “yalla”.

To the Hebrew language itself.  While Israel’s founding myth suggests the ancient Hebrew language was “revived”, many scholars see this phenomenon in a different light.  In the late 1800s, Zionists began writing newspapers and books in Hebrew throughout Europe.  Occasionally salons took shape where people tried to converse in the language, a language they had often learned in yeshiva and which had, at various times, served as a kind of basic trading tongue between Jewish communities.  In other words, spoken Hebrew had ceased to be the mother tongue of Jews since ancient times.  It did, however, continue as a written religious language, a source of vocabulary for Jewish languages, and a kind of very basic spoken language when Jews met from different cultures.

Therefore, when Zionists proposed a Jewish national project, they turned to Hebrew as a unifying language that had continued in one form or another to be present in communities around the world.  The problem was nobody spoke it as a mother tongue.  So when sitting in salons (or eventually classrooms in what is today Israel), Jews had to formulate this ancient tongue in terms of the ones they already spoke.  For the vast majority of early Zionists, this foundational native tongue was Yiddish.  The beautiful, underappreciated, nuanced language of Ashkenazi Jewry for over 1000 years.

In fact, with the exception of some Yemenites, almost all early Zionist pioneers were native Yiddish speakers.  I recently visited Zichron Yaakov again.  This beautiful city was one of the first Jewish town re-established in the ancient land of Israel in the late 1800s.  And as makes logical sense, much of its early documentation was written in the language of its residents- Yiddish.  Here’s a 1902 city archives document…in the mamaloshn.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Zionist icon, raised his son as the first monolingual native Modern Hebrew speaker.  But he, like the many teachers spreading the language, had to rely on his native language both consciously and subconsciously to build a vocabulary.  To build sentences.  There’s not nearly enough content in the bible and medieval rabbinic writings to cover modern topics like electricity, trains, and even gossip at the market.  You don’t hear Moses asking God “hey, how’s it going?” in the Bible.  Which is why the modern Hebrew phrase “ma nishma?” is actually a direct translation of the Yiddish “vos hert zakh?”  What is heard…or, as we might say more colloquially, “how are you?”

The influence of Yiddish (and to a smaller degree Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Palestinian Arabic, Russian, and other languages) on Hebrew is substantial.  Far beyond what the average Israeli knows.  Mah pitom, mah atah omer, tachles, kitzer, nu- these words and so many others are either direct loanwords from Yiddish or translations of Yiddish phrases not found in old Hebrew texts.  While it’s far beyond my expertise, the influence extends to rather fundamental things like syntax as well.

In other words, Modern Hebrew is a kind of fusion language.  Some claim Hebrew revivalists murdered Yiddish, simply relexifying the language with Semitic words.  Even as its speakers were in fact persecuted by fanatics like the Battalion for the Defense of the Language.  On the other hand, the average Israeli accepts the national mythos that he or she speaks the revived Semitic language of their ancestors.

But the truth perhaps lies somewhere in-between.  Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann claims that Modern Hebrew is not Hebrew at all.  Nor is it Yiddish.  It’s actually “Israeli”.  That’s right, just like the French speak French, he claims Israelis speak Israeli.  And that rather than being simply Yiddish overlaid with Semitic vocabulary or a “miraculously” revived dead language, it is quite simply another language.  With elements of both our Semitic and Diaspora past- Hebrew and Yiddish.  A very Jewish approach to building a language- it’s how all of our tongues have been formed.  One built on another.

It’s a fascinating thesis and I encourage you to visit his website to get a better understanding of his perspective.

To me, it makes a lot of sense.  When I hear Israelis speaking Hebrew, I hear the intonations of Yiddish and the Yiddish-infused English I grew up with.  But the words are largely Semitic, indicative of a major linguistic and cultural shift.

So why does all of this matter?

Because if Israelis in fact speak Israeli, and not a revived exotic language nor simply a dialect of Yiddish, then that has big implications.  It means that the despised Diaspora Jew lives in every sentence we speak here, unwittingly.  It means that Jewish history took a rather drastic turn here- that indeed our Semitic vocabulary has overwhelmed all our other languages.  So that even if much of the language is influenced by Yiddish, the words themselves are largely constructed from the Bible, from medieval rabbis, from new innovations using ancient texts.

The implications are enormous.

Visiting the Zichron Yaakov “First Aliyah Musem”, I learned about the discourse surrounding the first wave of pioneers to resettle the Land of Israel in the 1880s.  More than anything else, it was an interesting opportunity to see the Israeli mythos at work- and to understand its fault lines.

Here are some pictures from a video telling the tale of a prototypical family as they’re leaving Eastern Europe.  Read the captions:

The accompanying audio basically said: oy, the persecution!  We’re leaving to escape it because the Diaspora is miserable, but our real reason for leaving is our desire to build a homeland.  Beware- the angry natives.  Don’t worry, we’ll befriend them.  We’ll be manly, not like those effeminate Diaspora Jews.  We’ll work the empty land and make the empty desert bloom.  But don’t push the mother too much- she’s bearing a future Israeli baby in her tummy.  We’re fiercely independent but still rely on donations from Jews abroad to survive.  We could go join the Jews living comfortably in America, but instead we bravely suffer for the good of the nation here.

The over-the-top rhetoric is not much different than the romanticized stories I learned in grade school about American pioneers.

And its just as problematic if it’s not analyzed.  It contains numerous contradictions.  If the main reason for olim arriving was to build a homeland, why didn’t they come earlier?  If the main reason was to escape persecution, why wouldn’t they go somewhere more economically promising?  Early Zionists here struggled.  Which is why of the 2.5 million Jews who escaped 1880s pogroms, only 35,000 came here.  Of whom indeed 40-90% did leave.  If the land was empty and in need of restoration, how was it that there were Arabs here?  How were they making a living?  And in fact, how were they making a living if the conditions were so rough that most Jews left?  Why were the Arabs to be both feared and befriended- without even having met them?  How was mother going to give birth to an Israeli when the State of Israel didn’t exist yet?  How are the pioneers so independent and strong if their livelihood is dependent on donations from Jews abroad?  Why did they think life was so easy for Jews in America, where most toiled in sweatshops?  And why did some choose to stay in the Holy Land despite the hardships?

You’ll probably have to re-read that paragraph a few times, it’s enough to make your head spin.

These are difficult questions.  The kind of questions few Israelis think to ask.  The kind of questions most people fail to raise about their own national identities which are just as fraught.

As I see it, there’s some truth to all of these questions.  Clearly, some pioneers were so ideologically motivated that even disease and poverty didn’t stop them from staying.  It’s also clear that some people came primarily to escape pogroms, and then hopped on the next boat to more prosperous countries.  That they weren’t really as motivated by Zionism.  That while it took guts and courage to come here, you’re not really strong and self-sufficient if your enterprise is being funded by charitable donations from Jews abroad.  That those Jews abroad are maybe not all suffering as much as you suggest if some have money to give you.  The land was clearly underdeveloped and impoverished, explaining why so many Jews left.  But it was also not simply empty and in need of Jews to make it “bloom”.  As evidenced by the newcomers’ concurrent fear of and desire to befriend the local Arabs, of whose presence they were aware.

Or so suggests the video.  It’s just a video, but one whose contradictions haunt this land to this day.  It explains why Israeli governments both rely on and dismiss Diaspora Jews.  We deserve their charity but really they should be living here like us.  We ran away from their identity, but we want their money.  The Bank of Diaspora.  But boy, things must be terrible for them.  And somehow, worse for us, but our country is better.  A series of spiraling thoughts that manifests itself in today’s Diaspora-Israel relations crisis.

It explains the common Israeli stereotype of Arabs as backwards, but also as worthy of admiration.  A source of fear, but also a source of slang, of Israeli cuisine, and in earlier times, even a new style of clothing.  The land was empty, fallow, deserted, in need of our industrious might to improve it.  But the people here, in the supposedly empty land, will both not like us and become our friends.  Representing both an intense realism and a far-fetched optimism, perhaps delusion.  An acknowledgement that even the most justified or necessary national project will entail changes or displacement that the existing population may not like.  But that we will find a way to live with them as brothers.  A hope not yet realized.  And a complicated, contradictory view of history not yet reckoned with.  A pain largely unacknowledged and festering.  As conflict and misunderstanding here mars the future of both peoples.

And lastly, the identity question.  One that holds particular resonance for me.  The ideology suggests that Diaspora Jews are weak and suffering.  But the very Jews who came here, to become Israeli, were from there.  The video itself portrays the pioneers speaking Modern Hebrew, a language that was not spoken in Poland.  The mother is meant to give birth to an Israeli child, who she conceived in Europe.  In Israel, a state that in 1880, did not yet exist.  So how is this baby Israeli?  And why are these people speaking what is the 1880s was a non-existent language where they lived?  As children in this museum look on trying to learn about their history?

It’s the central identity question for Zionism and for Jews like me who come to live here.  We are seen as a source of weakness, but of potential hope.  Rather than acknowledging that early Jewish communities here spoke Yiddish, that they came from a real place that had culture.  That it contained suffering but also life.  This video, much like the Zionist imagination that surrounds it, misleads.  It erases Judaism itself.  Because the miraculous thing about Israel is that people brought their cultures here and managed to build on top of them.  To fuse them.  To find creative ways of building a new future, with all the complexity that came with it.  But by erasing these people’s Judaism, the video demonstrates the central problem of Zionism.  You can’t mold a people that isn’t there.  Most discourse about Israel focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  What is being missed is how the country’s development necessitated an internal paradox that has yet to be solved.  How do you turn a Jew into an Israeli, while needing the Jewishness to justify the Israeliness?  How do you leave behind his Jewishness in order to create a new identity that is founded on it?  In other words, Zionism posits that we are entitled to live in this land due to our connection to it.  But for 2,000 years, most of us have lived outside it, and we’re the population being encouraged to return to it.  In order to make the “New Jew” to populate this country, you have to both take the Jew out of his old land and pretend that he was something different all along.  Because somebody had to start this process.  And that somebody was living in Eastern Europe, not Israel.  Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman in Belarus.

So if Ben Yehuda’s premise was that we need a new type of Jew, one who speaks Hebrew, one who puts aside his Diasporic identity in favor of an Israeli one, how do you do that?  How do you do that when Eliezer himself wasn’t born in Israel, his own culture was one of gefilte fish and kugel and yeshiva studies?  His Hebrew language itself carried across generations through religious texts and countless phrases in the Yiddish language itself.  Which he then used to build Israel’s national tongue.

The way you do it is to stop being a Jew.  Eliezer was the same human being who grew up in Luzhki.  Undoubtedly scared and angered by anti-Semitic violence, he had a different vision.  To leave- not just to move, but to leave his actual identity behind.  Perhaps a response to the intense pain he experienced as a minority, the countless persecutions.  But his response was to disavow himself of his self.  Or, more generously put, to invent a new identity.

But not just any identity.  There was no Jewish country for him to go to.  So for him to build it, for others like him to build it, necessitated a different kind of values.  Polar opposites, mirror images of what he had been taught.  So while Jewish identity for millennia had been built on the interplay of local cultures and Jewish traditions, his identity would be independent and disconnected from the Diaspora.  While Jewish identity for millennia had accommodated the powers-that-be out of necessity, his Israeli nation would be blunt, would be muscular and direct.

In short, for Ben Yehuda and thousands of other early Zionists, and the many olim who followed them, to become Israeli in the fullest sense meant disavowing who they had been.  It meant becoming Israeli instead of Jewish.  A blunt sentence that many of my Israeli friends will find hard to digest.

Because there’s nothing congruous about the countless Romanian and Polish Jews in Corey’s YouTube video deriding their own cuisines.  While feeling that hummus and falafel are what it means to be Jewish.  Because unless your grandparents worshiped in a synagogue in Aleppo, hummus has about as much to do with Judaism as sushi.

Which is the point.  Israeli identity is about a new start.  A new state.  A new place where we control our destiny and not live at the behest of the fragile grace of different rulers.

The challenge for Israelis today, though, is to realize that this new start came at a price and to realize its full potential, it must be understood.  To realize that there’s nothing inherently more logical about being Israeli versus being a Jew in America.  To not be surprised that most American Jews don’t speak Hebrew- because the only Jewish language our ancestors spoke when arriving on Ellis Island was Yiddish.  And sometimes Ladino.  To realize that your national project is unique- but that its foundations, however much you try to untether them, are rooted in Jewish experience.  And not just the ancient Bar Kochba revolt or the Kotel, but also 2,000 years of engaging with the rest of the world.

To realize that your grandparents and great-grandparents are from rich cultures.  Yes, marred by persecution, but also enriched by life.  That there’s no shame that they spoke different languages or ate kreplach or wore turbans.  That your identity today is dangerously fragile and wants for empathy because you don’t understand where you come from.  Because the lifeless stones in Jerusalem don’t explain why your Hebrew accent is a fascinating mishmash of Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciation.  Or why you hate Haredim for using the Ashkenazi accent your ancestors did, or for wearing 17th century Polish clothing.  They don’t explain why ayins and alefs magically appear to flesh out the phonetics of foreign words.  But that Yiddish does- because those letters serve as vowels in that language.  In a way that no Hebrew prophet would possibly have understood 2,000 years ago speaking the language you supposedly speak to this day.

None of this is to discredit Israel or Israelis.  Although I’m sure someone will twist my words to try to harm us- an inevitable risk when writing about Judaism and the Jewish people.  Lehefech, to the contrary, my purpose is to help Israelis, including myself, understand.  That when you pretend you can so thoroughly untie yourself from your roots, you don’t understand why you are the way you are.  You don’t understand why American Jews might not want to move here, but care a lot about this place.  You don’t understand why some of your Arab neighbors care what you call chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.  Even as some of them fail to realize that some of the foods they call their own have been eaten by Jews for centuries in the Middle East.

You don’t see that the Ashkenazi Israelis in the YouTube clips I saw are shadows of themselves.  Proclaiming how thoroughly Israeli they are for eating falafel.  Distancing themselves from their Judaism when they make faces of disgust at the mention of the foods their families actually ate for centuries.  It’s an act of self-hatred that Israelis have had to do for generations, a price they pay for building a new identity, but also one worth questioning the value of today.

The question facing us is immense.  If Israelis (and olim) continue to have to distance themselves from their past, from Judaism itself, what will remain of our people?  While this article asks whether Israel and “Diaspora” Jews can survive as one people, my question is were we ever one?  Or do you by definition stop being Jewish in order to be fully Israeli?  Do you have to fully reject the other half of our people in order to be accepted here?

It’s a daunting question.  One that haunts me as an immigrant.  Someone who came here precisely to be able to be more Jewish.  To avoid the awkward and sometimes scary anti-Semitism I experienced.  To be free to be me.  To accept some changes that come with integrating into a new society.  But certainly not to reject who I am, where I come from, and my heritage.  That’s the exact opposite of what I want to do.

So therein lies the rub.  Can I become fully Israeli while remaining fully Jewish?  A seemingly preposterous question, but a relevant one.  As I asked museum staff in Zichron Yaakov where I could find Yiddish documents from the early settlement, and received puzzled and disgruntled looks.  As if it were something I shouldn’t ask about.

In the end, I don’t have an answer.  But I have an inkling.  Judaism is an irrepressible force with thousands of years of history.  Including coping with some of the most challenging and disturbing moments of humanity, and surviving.

Zionism is one way that some Jews have approached solving that problem.  And in some ways, it has succeeded.  Israel is the only growing Jewish community in the world and the only country with a majority Jewish population.  At a time when anti-Semitism is growing and Jews rely on this country for refuge.

But it is also is a ticking time-bomb for Judaism itself.  For what has enriched Judaism over the years was not the sacrifices on the Temple Mount nor the Land of Israel itself.  Rather, it has been our ability to balance, to live in tension with our identity as different and strategically synced with that of our neighbors.  To our benefit, for our growth, and for the enrichment of humanity.  Which is why when I speak Yiddish, I can understand almost any German.  And he can understand me- when I choose to use words he’ll know.  And when I want to have a bit more privacy or protect myself, I throw in some Aramaic and Hebrew and Polish and he has no idea what I’m saying.  It’s the creative Jewish balancing act that has made us who we are.  And allows us to both engage the world and have some distance from it.

To be a Jew is to push in two seemingly opposite directions. To fight to conserve your culture, and to fight for humanity to progress so the former is possible.

Once upon a time, Zionists maybe needed space from the traumas they had experienced to build a new identity.  I can relate to that.  But at a certain point of maturity, it’s beneficial to look back and see where you’ve come from.  To do anything less is to empty yourself of part of who you are.  And to live in perpetual confusion about the state of the world and the meaning of your identity.

I posit that Israelis are Jews, even if some of them would prefer not to be, at least in the sense of the Diaspora identity they have been taught to loathe.  Which is why in Zichron Yaakov, a place that almost entirely spoke Yiddish at its foundation, there is almost no trace of the language today.  But a short visit to the local library and a talk with the friendly librarian helped me find a copy of “Le Petit Prince” in the language of my ancestors.  One of our languages.

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The foundations of Jewish history are underneath our feet.  They are in the Steins and Skys and Mans and Bergs that run in your families.  They lie in my English name, Matt, my Hebrew name, Pesach, and my Israeli name, Matah.  And I lost nothing for calling the last one Israeli and not Hebrew.  They’re all a part of me and my journey.

So my hope for Israel, for my Israeli friends, is that you can synthesize these varying aspects of self.  Not to pretend they don’t exist- nor to pretend it’s an easy task.  There are reasons we give ourselves space from the past.  And there are times to reconnect to it, to better understand ourselves, and to build a better future.

Israel will better connect to American Jews, to Europeans, to our Arab neighbors, and to themselves when we have a better sense of what actually happened here and who we are.  Not in the sense of pretending Israeli identity is fake- it’s not.  That’s an anti-Semitic trope in and of itself.  But rather to see how we got to where we are.  And to realize that it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe even good, to put the pieces of the puzzle back together again.  To see the fascinating kaleidoscope of who we are.

So that the man in the YouTube video can be proud of our ancient history here, his family’s perseverance in Europe, and his own life here.  That it’s a multilayered, rich, complex story worthy of every chapter.  Because you can’t return to a land if you’ve never left it.  And you can’t live there successfully without some of the wisdom you gained while you wandered.

 

What kind of Jewish State?

Lately, as some of you have noticed, I’ve felt rather down.  Job hunting is stressful- and job hunting in Israel is even more so.  Sending resume after resume, LinkedIn after LinkedIn, call after call.  It’s exhausting.  And knowing that the salaries here are so much lower than the U.S. doesn’t help.  As I’ve written about, Israel is one of the most expensive countries in the world.  Tel Aviv is the 9th most expensive city.  Yet the salaries don’t keep pace.  Out of the 34 OECD countries, Israel is ranked 23rd in purchasing powerAccording to Numbeo.com, an average meal at a low-cost restaurant is $14.78 in Tel Aviv and $20 in New York.  New York rent is also more expensive, although Tel Aviv is actually more expensive than the Big Apple if you want to buy an apartment outside the city center.

In that spirit, let’s compare apples to apples.  While most indices for New York are more expensive than Tel Aviv (although milk is 33% more expensive in Tel Aviv!), you have to remember the salary gap.  The average net salary, after taxes, is $4,505.72 per month in New York and just $2,294.76 in Tel Aviv.  And Tel Aviv is where most of the high paying jobs are in Israel.

All of which is to say that although New York is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, a place where most Americans couldn’t dream to live, Tel Aviv is actually worse off economically.  The average Tel Avivi has 14.96% less purchasing power than a New Yorker.

It’s an economic desperation you see on the streets here.  Today alone I noticed two different grown men rummaging in trash bins in the middle of the city.  Looking for food, I presume.  A degrading experience for them, and a deeply sad and disturbing one for me to see.  It makes me read signs like this one, which I saw at a bike store, with a bit of irony:

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Of course, these problems are not only happening in Israel.  Around the world, the gap between wealthy and poor has become a pressing issue.  When I was in San Francisco last month, I saw more homeless people than possibly any other city I’ve visited.  Rural Romania, where I spent some time hiking and backpacking, has largely been hollowed out by migration to London and Spain and Italy in search of work.  Village economy has dried up after joining the EU.

The thing is not everyone is suffering here.  In 2018, Israel counted over 30 billionaires.  In dollars.  High-tech firms here are some of the most successful in the world, with some of the highest salaries in Israel.  If you work in the start-up scene, Israel is the place to be and you could probably build a comfortable life here if you choose to make aliyah.

On the other hand, with the cost of living continuing to increase and other industries’ salaries failing to keep pace, Israelis are being left behind.  Including olim like me.  Who came here with a Master’s degree from Georgetown university, 8 fluent languages (including Hebrew), and 10 years of public relations experience.

I have some more meetings in the next few days.  I have been sending out my resume left and right, networking like a maniac.  Those of you who know me personally know I am an extremely proactive person.  Root for me, encourage me, I need it.

I want to share some stories from this journey.

Last week, I went from bookstore to bookstore in Jerusalem.  Calling, showing up in person, filling out forms.  I figured it’d be good to earn some money while searching for a job with a real salary.  No call backs.  I was even told by one bookstore that I was “overqualified”, even after explaining I was just looking for part-time work.  I also spoke to an employee of an Israeli travel company I was trying to network with.  With the hopes of collaborating on my blog, to hopefully earn some revenue and bring them business.  After I sent some English and Hebrew writing samples, the employee wrote to me: “it is hard to impressed by your writing.”  It was like a gut punch.  I know I’m a good writer- and the 50,000 people who read my blog are proof.  As are the wonderful comments you all share with me.  But it’s just demeaning.  How long should I fight for an underpaid job here?

Needing a break from the stress of job hunting- a hunt which at this point is extending to both Israel and the U.S. out of necessity- I headed to a museum.  Knowledge, history, learning- these things always light me up and give me hope.  Seeing the long spectrum of Jewish history and the beauty of art helps put my current struggles into perspective.  And fills the soul with light when people around you are swallowing your hope alive.

When I visited Italy last march, I learned about the unique history of Italian Jews.  A 2,000 year old community, they predate both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and have their own rite.  At the Jewish Museum of Rome (which I highly recommend visiting), I learned there was another place in the world where the Italian rite was used: Israel.

In one of the most miraculous stories I’ve ever heard, Italian Jews transported an entire historic synagogue to Israel in the 1950s.  In a bid to preserve this ancient Jewish heritage- seen as endangered even after the Holocaust- the building made its way to Jerusalem where it is now housed in the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art.  It’s a small but absolutely stunning museum.  With ancient and medieval Italian Jewish artifacts, and the synagogue itself.  It is used to this day- and has extremely rare Italian-rite prayer books which I got to hold and read up close.

The museum is a testament to Jewish history and the power and nature of Israel itself.  In the museum, I read from the Sereni Haggadah, a 15th century Italian book illustrated with Ashkenazi motifs and written according to their rites.  I read about how some Italian Jews even spoke and published in Yiddish.  A reminder of how all Jews are connected- that Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Italian flow into one other.  In the sun-soaked land of Italy, where all three communities have co-existed for centuries.

The synagogue and the museum are a reminder of the power of the Zionist ideal.  Without Israel, who knows what would have happened to these treasures, to the synagogue itself.  While some synagogues in Europe are preserved, the vast majority have been destroyed or lay in decay.  I saw some turned into restaurants and casinos and there is even one that was turned into a strip club.  But more than anything, they are usually locked and empty.  To prevent continuing theft and anti-Semitic attacks, an eerie testament to their largely emptied communities.

Israel was the logical place to send this synagogue.  It’s a place where the history of the Jewish people can sit safely, far out of the reach of anti-Semites.  It’s a place where the National Library of Israel preserves 5 million Jewish books, audio files, and other treasures.  An unmatched collection spanning continents and centuries.  A gold mine I got to explore this past week.  The only library of its kind.  I perused Judeo-Arabic versions of the Torah, Catalan-language books about Jewish history, dialect maps of Yiddish, and a book about the xuetes of Mallorca, Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  Who manage to maintain a separate, often persecuted, identity to this day.  Check out the library’s website and discover a digital collection that can transport you from your home to almost any Jewish community- past or present.  If you’re in Jerusalem, go visit!  There are real gems right under your nose- and it’s free!

While visiting the Italian museum, I met some foreigners, who were intrigued by the exhibit.  Including Jews.  I spoke with a British Jew whose parents are Israeli.  He only speaks a few words of Hebrew, but he connects to his Judaism by studying Italian Jewry.  The museum staffer himself had Mexican parents and we spoke in Spanish about the siddurim.

I also made a point of talking to several sabras, or native-born Israeli Jews.  This segment of the population tends to have the least appreciation of Jewish heritage.  Israeli schools teach a lot of biblical history and a lot about modern Zionism.  But Diaspora communities of 2,000+ years are often relegated to discussions about the Holocaust.  Undoubtedly a painful watershed event for world Jewry that a third of Europeans don’t know about.  But hardly the only thing worth mentioning in two millennia of history.  Marked by both persecutions and amazing perseverance and creation.  It leaves the average sabra deeply ignorant of Jewish communities outside of Israel, something I see reflected in the growing gap between American and Israeli Jewry.  Clearly a gap that has origins on both continents, but which I see little effort to tend to here in Israel.

More than this, it also leaves Israelis ignorant of where they come from.  Here our history dots the landscape.  Ancient Jewish archaeological sites sit in every corner of the country.  Ritual baths, or mikvahs, built two thousand years ago- the kind I have personally used at my synagogue in Washington, D.C.  I have even done a genetic test- and my DNA is closest to Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians.  Our guttural Semitic language was birthed in this land.  Yet we also were enriched- at times oppressed- by the cultures we have engaged with since our expulsion from here.  And without understanding the intermediate 2,000 years, the average sabra doesn’t really know a lot about how he or she came to be.  And what it means for the Jewish people- or our state- today.

Two sabra women I met had Iraqi parents.  I think being the children of olim, especially ones so ruthlessly expelled from Iraq, made them more open to learning about Diaspora history.  Perhaps just as importantly, they knew about their own rich heritage, so it might have made them more appreciative of other Jewish cultures.  I sensed their awe as they looked at the synagogue, admired its beauty, and stood in wonder at its journey from Italy to the capital of the State of Israel.  A journey Italian Jewish slaves in Rome 2,000 years ago never could have imagined.  Yet worked and prayed for- and whose descendants made a reality.

There was one young sabra in the museum, otherwise the latest generation was nowhere to be seen.  It’s a stark reminder that once you are cut off from your roots, and as you grow new ones, it is hard to inspire people to reconnect.  It’s a phenomenon I struggled with almost a year ago to the day.  My journey to learning Yiddish as an adult proves that reconnecting with the breadth of Jewish history is possible.  And some young Israelis, like the phenomenal Yemenite singers of A-WA, are joining me on that journey.  As they go around the world singing traditional Judeo-Arabic songs to sold-out clubs.  I personally have seen them three times on two continents- go experience the magic of Yemenite song!  They are keeping their chain of tradition alive while innovating along the way.  A fitting testament to two millennia of Yemenite Jewish heritage and to the fact that it has survived at all.  Thanks to Israel, where almost all Yemenite Jews live today after being expelled in the 1950s.

There is a certain push and pull, perhaps even an intertwined irony to having a Jewish state.  The state has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Jews.  Jews whose countries senselessly butchered them or confiscated their property and expelled them.  From the U.S.S.R. to Morocco, from Algeria to Poland, from Germany to Iraq.  While some Jews have come here voluntarily, the vast majority have come under major duress.  I couldn’t help but notice an Italian and Hebrew prayer in the museum this week dedicated to saving Alfred Dreyfus.  The French Jewish army captain ruthlessly persecuted by his countrymen, by anti-Semites just over a hundred years ago.  Reading that prayer in a museum in Israel reminded me of the importance of having the ability to protect ourself.  That while we work with allies wherever we can find them, we have just as much a right to defend our people as anyone else.  Which is why we have put our lives on the line to make sure the State of Israel exists for all of us.

At the same time, it’s clear that nationl-building has come at a price.  As it does in all states.  Where minority cultures, where immigrant cultures, where the “other” is often ruthlessly assimilated until it is almost unrecognizable.  To this day, France won’t sign a European treaty recognizing its minority languages.  Arab governments such as Morocco and Algeria have forcibly assimilated their native Berber populations linguistically and ethnically.  A deep marginalization that continues to this day.  Turkey for years claimed that Kurds were simply “mountain Turks” despite their completely different languages.

For Jews, the curious thing is we did it to ourselves.  While for sure in Diaspora communities, Russians, Americans, French, and others have pushed us to assimilate into their cultures, in Israel, Jews did it to other Jews.  In other words, the sabras already living in Israel identified as the “new” Jews- strong, masculine, assertive.  And the old “effeminate” and “bookish” Jews of the Diaspora arriving here had to be reformed.  Which is why ancient Jewish languages like Yiddish and Iraqi Judeo-Arabic and Ladino were basically thrown out the window.  Hollowed out.  Jews were forced to take on a new, uniform Israeli identity.  To be more sabra and less Shmuly.  In some sense, more Israeli and less Jewish.  At least as how Judaism had been conceived of until then.  An odd statement to digest.

Some of this is the price you pay for building a nation.  Without a certain degree of cohesion, could Israel have successfully resisted Arab invasion after Arab invasion?  Could a Yiddish-speaking commander have successfully (and quickly) communicated with a Moroccan Jew who spoke Arabic?  If Israelis had had the luxury of being the Switzerland of the Middle East (not coincidentally, a country with four official languages), maybe it would have been seen as more feasible.  To allow a bit more room for diversity.  But our nation was not given an easy start.  So practicality took precedence over preservation, and entire Jewish civilizations were wiped out or cannibalized.  A couple weeks ago, I entered a Persian restaurant in Jerusalem (Baba Joon by the Centra Bus Station- the best Persian food I have ever eaten) and the really friendly waiter was clearly proud of his heritage.  But he didn’t know how to say “you’re welcome” in the language his ancestors spoke for 2,500 years.  I taught him, which made him smile.  There are people who want to connect to their heritage here, but it is hard and there are those who resist.  Partially to avoid painful memories of persecution, but partially because they’ve been taught that that “Diaspora stuff” is worthless.  It’s the dustbin of history.

But that’s wrong.  To wander is to be Jewish.  Whether physically, as in the case of Jews across the centuries.  Or intellectually, by visiting the National Library, by learning your ancestors’ language, by going on an unexpected hike or to a new museum.  To explore, to devour knowledge, to take the untrod path- that is Judaism.  We’ve been wandering since Abraham and our legendary trek in the desert.  On our way to the Promised Land.  Just because we have a state now doesn’t mean we should stop our inquiry, our curiosity, our search for the unexpected connections that bind us together and enlighten our selves.

At the end of the day, I stood in line at the grocery store.  Feeling disillusioned, stressed, in need of a smile, I struck up a conversation with the friendly Russian Jewish clerk.  In Slavic-accented Hebrew, she asked me how I was doing and what I was up to.  Our conversation roamed.  We talked about aliyah, the struggles.  She told me how she was Russian but her parents were Polish.  And how she only thought there was sweet gefilte fish until she moved to Israel, unexposed to the salty southern varieties of Ukraine.  A country that in her own words, she inexplicably detests.  Israelis are full of contradictions like all people, but we have a bit more courage to say them out loud.

We laughed as I told her my great-grandparents used to make this food by hand.  Putting entire carp in their bathtub and making the delightful fish balls one by one.

She then asked the best question. “Redstu yiddish?”  Do you speak Yiddish?

And I said “yo!  Ikh ken Yiddish!”  I do speak Yiddish!

And right there, in the line at the grocery store, as an impatient sabra waited behind us, we chatted in mamaloshn, the mother tongue.  A tongue our ancestors have shared for generations.  Filled with warmth and love and the smell of rich chicken broth bathing kneydlakh in the Passover kitchen.  Not to mention a literary tradition that has produced thousands upon thousands of books filled with wisdom, now available for free digitally at the Yiddish Book Center.

In the end, my Yiddish and my Hebrew co-exist, if at times uneasily.  I am no less fluent in one because I speak the other.  In fact, one helps me understand the other, as the languages overlap and have enriched each other throughout Jewish history.

It’s a symbiosis I hope sabras can achieve.  That while building a state does require new models and sacrifice and adaptation, it doesn’t have to completely erase our rich and complicated Jewish past.  To relegate it to nothing but our Shabbat foods, to museums, to archives.

Judaism is alive and kicking.  Despite all the people and peoples who have stood in our way.

The question we face now is what kind of Judaism?  Having built the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, one that continues to require our vigilance to protect, perhaps we need to shift our focus.

Our focus was once state building.  But now the question is what kind of state we want to live in, or have as a safe haven?

Do we want a state where a few people earn millions of shekels in high tech while middle aged men scrounge for food in trash bins?  A state where Jews live disconnected from their own rich heritage, on whose very land Jews mostly spoke Yiddish and Ladino until the 1920s?

Or do we want a state where people can earn a living.  Where, if not rich, people can survive, can build a career.  Can contribute to our people and our economy and connect with the world no matter how wealthy they are.  Where the Russian grocery store clerks who have PhD’s in chemistry can practice the profession of their training.  Instead of giving preference to sabras, who are in some cases far less qualified.

Do we want a state where you can be both Israeli and Moroccan, the kind of hyphenated, hybrid identities that hold so much potential.  That have enriched Jewish history for millennia.  That might even enhance empathy and understanding among Jews of all backgrounds.  And now offer us the rare opportunity to fuse our past to present, without erasing where we’ve been.

My answer is I hope so.  I won’t say yes because most things are out of my control and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jewish history and from living in Israel, it’s that things are complicated.

But I believe, at the end of the day, that it’s better to strive for something better than to sit stationary, stewing in malaise.

I don’t know where my journey will take me.  I don’t control the Israeli economy, but I do care about contributing to its society.  And I will do so wherever I find myself, even if for economic reasons I find myself longing for a warm plate of jachnoon from the other side of the Atlantic.

One day, I hope to sit in the Museum of Italian Art in Jerusalem.  To guide tours for hundreds of bright young Israelis eager to learn about their heritage.  To connect them with Jews and non-Jews visiting the same museum from around the world, who value them as Jews and as human beings.  Who see their past and their present as intertwined with their own and worthy of their care.

I hope to sit in that museum with a budget.  A budget the government will dedicate not just to security, not just to elaborate national ceremonies, not just to the hundreds of rabbis it employs.

But also to our culture.  To our institutions.  To the humanities, to our humanity that has persisted over generations.  To educators, to social workers, to artists, to after-school programs, to scholars, and to social innovators.  Not just social media.

So that one day, a well-educated, passionately-Jewish oleh like me can find a well-paid job.  Preserving our heritage, educating for tomorrow, and not just running pay-per-click campaigns from the 9th most expensive city on the planet.

Im tirtzu, if you believe it, it is not a dream.  This is the next frontier.  May we be the pioneers.

My cover photo is a medieval Italian Jewish painting.  Proof that our creativity extends not only to high tech, but also to high art.

In search of a job

I’ve written before about the many challenges of making aliyah, of immigrating to Israel.  There are mammoth cultural differences, the hardest apartment search of my life, the air raid sirens (a false alarm, and then a real one), the LGBT Arab-Israeli refugee Jew-on-Jew political conflicts, and for me, healing from 30 years of abuse.  I’ve managed to overcome all of these obstacles while moving here alone at the age of 31- not a small task.  One that I’m proud to have accomplished and it has changed me as a person and made me realize my true strength.

There’s another challenge I didn’t have to face when I first arrived here but now seems rather daunting: finding a career.

I arrived here with fluent Hebrew (and Arabic and Yiddish) – something that facilitated my social relationships, my integration, my exploration of the country.  Something most olim don’t have- but that I invested in learning on my own initiative since I was 13.

This should also help finding a job, but I have to tell you the process is daunting even knowing the national language.  I was fortunate enough to arrive to Israel with a job- I’ve been doing digital marketing and public relations freelancing from home for 5 years.  And for my first year here, that worked quite well.  Due to the time difference between America and Israel, the fact that I was being paid in dollars, and the flexibility of my business, I was able to travel during the day and work at night.  Something that helped me build this very blog.

I put a lot of effort into building that business.  I got a graduate degree from Georgetown University in communications, something that to this day means I owe the U.S. government $40,000 in student loans.  I found clients, I networked, I presented at various conferences and built a reputation.

The problem is that that work is becoming harder for me to find at the moment.  Perhaps it’s due to me living halfway across the world- it’s harder to network and find new clients.  It’s also cyclical- there tends to be more work leading up to elections.  Now that the election is over, there seems to be a lull.  I’m still open to doing the work, but part of the risk you take on as a freelancer is that you have to find your own clients.  And I’ve been quite adept at it, but I think my geographical distance and the circumstances are making it harder now.  It’s hard to find a new client when your only connection is via LinkedIn or email.  I don’t live in America now, it’s hard to make those personal connections so crucial to getting your foot in the door.

So I find myself applying for jobs here.  It’d mean giving some of the flexibility I’ve enjoyed as a freelancer (or if projects come through, I could continue doing them on the side).  But it’d come with the security of a paycheck.  Something I need after some fulfilling travels that have left me with a great understanding of self (and some great blog posts) and unfortunately, a smaller bank account.

Unlike most folks, there is no family home to retreat to, eat ice cream, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and recuperate.  Send out resumes and make an important pit stop at home to recover and change direction.  If I were to do such a thing, it’d be to subject myself to living with people who sexually assaulted me my entire childhood.  And I moved halfway around the world precisely to heal from such abusive behavior, not to find myself dependent on the people who caused the pain in the first place.  My story, as much as it is about Israel and Judaism, is also one of being a survivor.  Never underestimate the challenges one faces when cutting off abusive family- it leaves you utterly alone in ways few people manage to understand.  It is to live trying to seek out emotional support and encouragement you never received, understanding it will never truly be the same as the love you’re supposed to get from your family.  It is giving up on their economic support for the sake of having a life.  Of having freedom.  It’s a decision I never regret.  It has made my life infinitely richer and healthier.  And it comes with pain and challenges that in areas that most people take for granted.

So I find myself in Israel hopping from friend’s house to hostel to who knows what.  I left my apartment before my recent travels so that I could afford to do it.  A smart choice (plus my landlord wouldn’t let me sublet).  Also, my old neighborhood was quite rough, the poorest part of Tel Aviv, so I wouldn’t want to move back there anyways, as interesting and life-changing an experience as it was.

All the while, I’m applying to jobs and networking.  With non-profits that support olim like me.  Cold calling, reaching out on LinkedIn, friends of friends of friends.  I’ve expanded my career search- everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, libraries, archives, museums, the tourist industry, marketing, politics, hi-tech, higher education, language teaching.  And I wouldn’t even limit myself to the ones I’ve mentioned (I’ve probably forgotten a few that I’ve applied to).

I’m ready and willing to use my 8 languages, my travel knowledge, my desire to support Israel and the Jewish people, my passion for research and learning, my teaching experience- all of it.  Just so I could build a fulfilling career and rebuild my bank account in the only country I really feel is home.

And it’s proving quite tough.  I’ve met with headhunters who say I have an amazing resume.  I worked for the Obama campaign in 2008, and then later in the Obama Administration.  I have 10 years experience working in marketing, community outreach, media relations, blogging, and social media.  Most of that time either in the non-profit sector or government, or with public relations firms consulting for them.  I have an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master’s degree from Georgetown, schools that any American knows are pretty great institutions.

The problem is jobs in Israel seem to be mostly about who you know.  In a country where, much to my delight, there is a strong sense of community, this can make it quite hard for a newcomer to break in.  I’ve met many people here who are still best friends with their crew…from kindergarten.  That’s not an exaggeration.  People serve together in the military- a difficult experience but one which brings lifelong connections, and jobs.  Sabras have family here, and they look out for each other.  It’s part of the reason the government won’t recognize French and Russian academic qualifications.  It’d put these highly educated immigrants in their appropriate fields, while competing against native-born Israelis in those same industries.  Which is why protektzia, or “connections”, reigns supreme.  It’s like having legacy at an Ivy League school- it protects insiders from generation after generation.  And it leaves quite a number of Russian physicists and French lawyers working as grocery store clerks or in late-night telemarketing.

Just to give you a full sense of the picture, understand that the cost of living in Israel is also extremely high.  Tel Aviv was recently rated the world’s 9th most expensive city.  Even if you don’t live in the city proper, the cost of housing, groceries, and other goods is disproportionately high to people’s salaries.  We’re hardly the only country to confront a wealth gap- Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 34%.  Capital around the world is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people– while most struggle.  The problem is Israel’s cost of living index is higher than all other developed countries except for ultra-wealthy Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.  So that while Geneva is more expensive than Tel Aviv, its residents earn more than twice as much as the average Tel Avivi, with 48% more purchasing power, as you can see in the graphics below from Numbeo.com:

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The hefty cost of living and minuscule salaries (especially in any industry outside of the famed Israeli high tech scene), is what drove 500,000 Israelis to the streets in the largest social protest in the country’s history.

Allow me to quantify this for you.  Recently, I was in the process of interviewing for a non-profit job at a well-respected NGO.  Knowing my full qualifications (and despite trying to negotiate, as a good Israeli does), the full-time job’s salary was fixed at 7,000 shekels a month- before tax obligations.  In Tel Aviv.  That’s $1,870 a month.  When I last lived in Tel Aviv, in the poorest neighborhood where literally prostitutes walked the streets, I paid 3,600 shekels a month for a one bedroom apartment.  About 3.7 shekels per dollar, so about a thousand bucks.  For Tel Aviv, this is an absolute steal.  I’ve seen one bedroom apartments advertised for 4,000-7,000 shekels- and above.   You could end up living with two roommates in the city center and still pay 3,000 shekels.  Something I’d rather not do at my age.  Or you could live further outside the city and perhaps save some money on rent, but then spend your money commuting and watch your social life shrink.  In a country where public transit doesn’t run from Friday night to Saturday night and Sunday is a working day, your weekend (i.e. the time you have to see friends) takes on new importance.  Where you live is where you’ll socialize, so unless you’re willing to buy a car (the car tax here is around 100%- 5 times higher than Europe), you need to live near your friends.  And let’s just say the young gay Reform Jews (and people who befriend them) aren’t usually living in the sticks where the housing is cheaper, like in most countries.  While new immigrants do get some breaks on the financial challenges, you start to see just how difficult it is to make a living here.

So to return to the calculations, let’s say I was able to find a similarly priced apartment to my last one.  That would leave $870 a month- to furnish the apartment, pay municipal property taxes, pay for your cell phone, pay for food, pay for transportation, pay for medical expenses, pay for life.  Oh yeah, and presumably have fun and maybe save a buck or two.  And that doesn’t include paying income taxes.  It’s worth noting the tax burden in Israel is significant.  There’s a debate about just how high, but this site rates it as one of the 15 highest in the world.  Higher than the U.S.  While the tremendous socialized healthcare system defers some tremendous costs I had to bear in the U.S., it does become a question of just what exactly is the trade off here.  And whether it’s worth it.

After this interview process and despite most of my background being in cause-based non-profit work, I immediately expanded my scope to the for-profit sector.  The salaries are higher.  I’ve met with headhunters and am applying diligently.  The higher salaries still pale in comparison with the States, especially as an oleh.  Someone with my background might be expected to find a job in the for-profit sector for somewhere around 10,000-15,000 shekels a month.  With 10 years experience, fluent Hebrew, native English, and a Master’s degree.  At the very high end, that comes out to $48,084 a year- pre-tax.  Consider that I’m 32 years old, would like to start a family, and that the average cost of an Israeli home is $415,000.  In Tel Aviv, it’s $582,442.  The average.  If you can manage to find it and beat out the sabras waiting in line with decades of family connections.  The latest statistics resulted in the following headline: “Buying a Home Will Cost an Average Israeli 146 Monthly Salaries“.  Chew on that for a while.  As difficult as my situation is, it’s hard to even comprehend how Israelis living in or near poverty make it work here.  A lot of them, unfortunately, don’t.

So the reality is this: in my own country, I feel I’m a wandering Jew.  Going from place to place, trying to find affordable AirBnBs and sofas to crash on as I fire away resumes.  A process that can take some time in any country, so I remind myself to put my head down, network, and apply apply apply.  And I’m incredibly grateful to my friends who are helping me along the way.  My friend Rotem who let me crash at her apartment for a week and a half while she was abroad.  The wonderful cashier at the market who, when his credit card machine wasn’t working, just let me bring him the money two days later.  And so many others.  The level of trust here can be truly heart-warming.

Nobody said immigrating would be easy, and I’m grateful I even have a country to move to.  It’s not easy to be a Jew anywhere now, as the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh showed- and as the rapidly increasing anti-Semitic violence in Europe reminds us.  There are good reasons Israel exists and why people like me come here despite all the challenges.  It’s a country with a lot of warmth, a spirit of survival, a generosity, a frankness that is refreshing.  Landscapes that totally melt the heart.  And more possibilities of finding a Jewish partner than anywhere else in the world.

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The problem becomes when the great things about this country start to obscure your other life goals.  Building a family, financial stability, and feeling fulfilled in your career.  Olim here often have to take jobs unrelated to their careers and are limited in our upward mobility by the Israeli “good ol boys” network.  I understand every change requires sacrifice, but I want to like what I do.  And I’m not fortunate enough to have parents to buy me a home.  Which is the main reason Israelis manage to get one in the first place- and why many olim don’t experience economic advancement here.

In the meantime, my search continues.  I believe in the idea of Israel and I like a lot about life here, which is why frankly I blog about it all the time.  Haters gonna hate, but the Jewish people deserve a homeland and I’ll defend that idea till the day I die.  The sometimes boorish economic policies of our government or the monopolies that stand in the way of our progress are in no way a critique of our right to be here.  Indeed, it is Israeli workers who bear the brunt of the economic inequality here- and that doesn’t make us any less Israeli.  It makes us more.  Sadly, these are problems many other workers face around the world.  That we much find solution for.  So please don’t consider this post an opportunity to hate Israel, because it’s not.  What I’m sharing is a critique of how we should make this place better so people like me can succeed here.  A hope that we can build a vision for how we want to live here with fairness and opportunity.

I’m open to a lot of different careers and I want to feel fulfilled in what I do, even if it’s different than my first choice or second choice or even third choice.  If you know of great opportunities, reach out to me, I’d be happy to chat and appreciate you keeping your eyes peeled.

The greatest irony of my aliyah process is that I discovered my passion is Israel, but that its very soil may be too poor for my roots to dig in.  To establish themselves, to build a solid foundation, to grow and flourish.

What I won’t accept is the situation my friend found himself in recently.  A couple years older than me, a fellow American oleh, he interviewed at an English tutoring company.  Obviously, it’s his native language so he’s got a pretty good handle on it.  The salary: 30 shekels an hour.  8 bucks.  And the worst part about this story is he didn’t even get the job.  As he bravely tries to raise a family in the land of his ancestors and pursue his dreams.

Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah.  The famous Zionist saying suggests that if we will it, it is not a dream.  I agree.  The dream becomes a hope, a goal, an aspiration, something you wish to achieve.  It’s a hope I’ve pursued since I was 13 years old learning Hebrew in the house of an Israeli woman in Washington.  The problem is that hope sometimes clashes with harsh reality.  With circumstances out of your control.

Do you continue to tell yourself that anything is possible?  Or do you look at your diminishing bank account, the salaries, the limited opportunities for advancement, and the $140,000 it costs to have a child here as a gay man and think:

My heart is in the east, but my wallet- and future- may be elsewhere.

Goodbye America, for now

It’s appropriate that I write this blog on the eve of America’s midterm elections.  As my country prepares to pivot, so do I.  Tomorrow, I board a flight to say goodbye.  For now?

I find myself feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  Excitement because I think Democrats will take back the House of Representatives.  And if it’s truly a blockbuster night, even the Senate.  I think Donald Trump needs a wake-up call that he can’t govern this country alone.

Anxiety because I worry about the future of the Democratic Party and what it means for this nation.  The extremes of the Democratic Party, as best represented in the Trump-like antics of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   Someone who on the surface level, I agree with 80% of the time.  But who takes her positions- and most importantly her rhetoric- to extremes.

Ms. Cortez, almost certainly to win her election tomorrow, supports a variety of policies that are fairly standard in Israel and Western Europe.  Socialized medicine, environmental protections, affordable higher education, and civil liberties for LGBT people.

The problem is she takes public policy and turns it into a bombastic crusade in which anyone who disagrees with her is the enemy.  And in which purity Trumps all.

Ms. Cortez compared the threat of climate change to that of Nazi Germany.  She supports impeaching Donald Trump without considering the consequences to her party or the national discourse.  Or the potential counter-reaction of angry armed Americans who will doubtless double down on hunting down minorities.

She criticized Israel for having “massacred” innocent Palestinians in Gaza- without showing any understanding of the fact that many of them were armed Hamas members.  And that while all killing is a travesty and some of the deaths may have been avoidable, it’s not so simple here.  I’d like to see how she’d react as an 18-year-old soldier when people volley rockets and flaming kites at you and your family’s neighborhoods.

The most audacious and Trump-like aspect of this accusation is that Ms. Cortez’s response to criticism was: “I am not the expert…on this issue”.  A bizarre and deeply narcissistic approach to politics.  You are a future lawmaker- if you’re not an expert on an issue, you probably shouldn’t make such wild and factually incorrect claims.  You sound a lot like our Tweeter-in-Chief.  Shooting from the lip.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, I found the most shocking flier walking around Berkeley.  Although if you’re from the area, you won’t be surprised.

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At face value, I agree with some of the flier.  I would like to see more black women in politics.  Minorities are perpetually underrepresented and it changes the discourse to have different people in the room making decisions.

On the other hand, this is no better than Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric.  “Abolish every jail”.  “Black radical revolution”.  “Justice for PALESTINE”- and the word Palestine written in Arabic.  “Black ballot”.

It’s not that each of these words on their own are necessarily bad.  I advocate for Palestinian human rights.  I want black empowerment.  I think the prison industrial complex needs reform.

But the way it’s presented is so fundamentalist.  It’s a “with-me-or-against-me” rhetoric that is dangerous in and of itself.  It is imbued with a fanaticism, a sense of infallibility reminiscent of a Puritan more than a public policy debate.

I don’t believe in abolishing every jail.  Some people are dangerous and need to be behind bars.  Not everyone can be rehabilitated and I want want serial killers and rapists off my streets.  I also don’t think that any ballot should be all about one group.  I don’t vote a “Jewish ballot” or a “gay ballot”- it’s exclusionary it is very phrasing.  And the Palestine piece- it’s telling that there wasn’t a call for peace, nor was there a condemnation of anti-Semitism.  Let alone an acknowledgment that Israel, that the Jewish people are entitled to empowerment too.  Especially days after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.  I have never seen an attack so clearly demonstrate the need for a State of Israel or for solidarity with our people.  Yet where are the grandiose words, the empathy for us?

We’re not on the agenda for the far left- and I feel it.  I see poster after poster here in California.  “Hate has no place here”.  “Against hate”.  “Immigrants, Muslims, LGBTs are welcome here”.  But not on one single sign have I seen the word “Jew”.  Out of hundreds I saw, one sign had “you are welcome here” written in Hebrew- a reminder that some people care.  But if I’m honest, I leave California with a deep sense of disappointment and a feeling that most of the left doesn’t feel we are worthy of their solidarity.  I am inspired by the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who came together to #ShowUpForShabbat, but I have yet to see progressive activists put us on their agenda.  We are worthy of our own discussion- not just in terms of Trump, not just in terms of gun control, not just in terms of hate crimes.  All of these are valid issues and related- but they are not the same.  This was an anti-Semitic attack during a period of rising anti-Semitism around the world.  And I expect progressive activists to step outside their comfort zone and learn about us on our own merits- not just when it’s convenient for their ideological agenda.  If the attack makes them reconsider their reflexive support for Palestinians over Israel (as if one should have to choose), then I’m glad it makes them uncomfortable.  Because if you’re upset about Pittsburgh, imagine what Moroccan Jews and Polish Jews feel like about thousands of Pittsburghs and having no home left to go to.  That’s why Israel exists- and you need to face the fact that your society is failing to protect us.  The extremes on both sides.  Which is why a wise Jew will never give up on the state that is our only insurance policy.

Black-and-white thinking results in aggression and a breakdown in communication.  A young Jewish student at Florida State threw chocolate milk at Republican volunteers while invoking the Pittsburgh massacre.  I share her frustration at the rise of the far right and its racist and anti-Semitic elements.  I also will offer some humility in saying its different analyzing this from afar than living here.  I’m American, but I am not here most of the year and it’s different to physically be here.  I think that as a (somewhat) outside observer, I can illuminate things that are hard for you to notice when your surroundings shadow your vision.  And I bow to the fact that we live in different, overlapping existences and I recognize that you bear certain consequences more directly than me.

I will offer this advice- do not behave like the people you hate.  Of all the times people have said nasty things to me (and again- I don’t know what, if anything, the Republicans said to arouse her anger), I have never considered launching my beverage at someone’s face.  It’s not that I thought about it and decided not to- it just never occurred to me.  Everyone has a right to their feelings- but we don’t have a right to attack people.  Even people we disagree with or think are damaging society.  The greatest challenge of being oppressed is not to become the oppressor in fighting back.  I’m a double minority and a survivor of three decades of abuse.  I get it on a gut level- it’s hard.  And I hope this young woman can learn from this experience and realize that she has further poisoned debate rather than showing courage.  We’ve all been impulsive students once, but it’s important to remember our actions have consequences.  And I can’t imagine her behavior has made Jews any safer at a time of deep discomfort about our place in society.

Empathy is about understanding where others come from- not necessarily agreeing with them.  So in that spirit, I’d like to offer this.  I am American-Israeli.  I feel more American in Israel and more Israeli in America.  I am a hybrid.  Some people share my observations, and sometimes people disagree with them.  I address a mostly progressive audience because that’s part of who I am and it’s who I know best.  Its whose actions hurt me the most because I care what they, what you, think.  Many of my observations about extremism apply to the far right as well- it’s just that I don’t have much cachet with them.  I can’t imagine they’re particularly interested in hearing the voice of a queer Jew at this point in history.

There are distinct cultural differences between Israel and America.  Israelis are famously direct, Americans famously polite.  Israelis will message you pretty much non-stop, Americans think you’re in love (or desperate) if you message someone the day after a date.  The words we use, the emotions we feel, the way we convey them- our behavior- is deeply influenced by the culture we live in.  And I live in both.

American friends expecting me to conform to American cultural norms- to always remember them- please consider that I don’t live here.  I’m not an American abroad, I’m not an expat, I’m not on some jaunt or program.  I’m an Israeli, an out-of-the-closet Jew running by completely different norms.  And if I sometimes am too direct for you, consider my reality too.  I shouldn’t (and can’t) always revert to your way of thinking because it’s hard- it’s not fair, it’s not who I am, and it’s not how I live.  If you’re offended by my bluntness, I won’t always say I’m sorry- because sometimes you need to hear some straight talk.  That’s my Israeliness.  But I will say I never intend to hurt you and I care about what you think.  Otherwise I wouldn’t write this blog.

As we sit on the eve of great change- for me personally and for America my country- I want to share my hopes.  I predict Democrats will gain power this week.  Not sure how much, but it will change the discourse and perhaps even bring some balance to the national debate.

The question for my progressive friends is how will you wield this power?  After several years of hearing worn-out tropes from the far right, after being wounded, will you be the adult or the child?  Will you govern with a gavel or a sledgehammer?

I hope you govern wisely.  Yelling at people doesn’t change their opinions.  Some people we can’t dialogue with- but some people are not only open to hearing your thoughts, they could teach you something too.  Protect yourselves, but don’t close off your hearts entirely.  And check in with yourself to see if you’re becoming the domineering person you’re fighting against.

This is something I personally wrestle with, especially in Israel.  A place packed with tension.  Beauty, for sure.  But it’s not for nothing people are angry there- rockets are falling on my friend’s kibbutz this week.  Ideologies, religions collide.  This is not suburban California- it is a country the size of New Jersey with ISIS on its borders.

The best thing I can offer you is to evaluate ideas on their own merit.  Just because Donald Trump likes Israel, doesn’t mean you should hate it.  And just because Alexandria Cortez doesn’t like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean you should join her in hating Israel.

Find the counterexamples.  When I get angry at Arabs or Muslims (I have a lot of reasons- I have a high likelihood of being killed for being gay, American, Israeli, or Jewish in their societies), I find someone who reminds me.  Who reminds me that there is good too.

My friend Muhammad is a Bedouin student who just moved to Ramat Gan.  He’s having a rough time- it’s not a particularly diverse city and he has experienced racism.

He told me he felt Jews only care about their own.  And I got angry.  I reminded him that I’m a Jew and I helped him find an apartment and adjust to life in his new home.  Hours upon hours of expensive long distance calls from abroad.  And that I was proud to do so.

He relented that it was politics, the TV, the blowhards who got him down.  And I told him I understood- if I went by what the TV told me, I’d think all Muslims want to kill me for being a gay Jew.

And that’s where we found our common ground.  We remind each other of our humanity.

He apologized, which of course I accepted.  And I wrote him in Hebrew:

“No worries, bro.  Remember there are Jews like me, and I’ll remember there are Muslims like you.”

His response: “Exactly!” and a kissy emoji.  Which, to remind my American readers of cultural differences, is not a romantic gesture.  Arab men (and a lot of straight Israelis) show a lot of intimacy towards their male friends.  That in an American setting would make you think we’re heading for the sheets.

But we’re not.  We’re friends.  We’re each other’s alarm clock, a reminder of the people who don’t fit our preconceptions.  The people who value us the way we are.

America- that’s what I hope for you November 7th.  No matter what happens, no matter what you advocate for, do it with humanity.  Remember the other, remember the exception.

I hope next time I visit, instead of a “black ballot” or a “white ballot”, I’ll see people talking to each other face to face.  Instead of a voiceless flier slapped on a cold brick wall.

I believe in you.  And I want you to succeed.

What’s right with America

Recently, I took a trip to Berkeley.  Known as a hotbed of far-left activism and anti-Israel hatred, I wanted to see what was up.

While a friend of a friend had suggested there was no such thing as campus anti-Semitism there, I wanted to see what it was like first hand.

Going in with rather low expectations, I found a lot to like there.  Berkeley is a cute town.  I found my way to a delicious little restaurant that sold onigiri, or Japanese rice balls.  As a kid who lived in Japan (and then stayed connected to the culture back in the States), I grew up with this as comfort food.

In the restaurant, I chatted with a nice young man behind the counter.  I made a point of mentioning I was from Tel Aviv- a risky proposition in a city where not a small number of people boycott our existence.

Turns out, he was a Jew!  His father had volunteered on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv years ago.  And he told me he might go on Birthright!  I told him to check out my blog and contact me if he visits- if you’re reading this please message me!  I will hook you up 😉  It was a refreshing reminder of vibrant Jewish life here- a life that both as an American and an Israeli I support.  That I urge the Israeli government to back with full force- not just rhetoric.  Bibi- recognize progressive Judaism in Israel and abroad- as a living community which strengthens our state and our people.  If we’re Jewish enough to be shot by anti-Semites, we’re Jewish enough for the Jewish State.

As I headed to campus, I decided to visit Hillel, the Jewish campus organization.  I met some wonderful young students, who told me about the active Jewish life on campus.  About their trips to Israel- and their desire to return.  And unfortunately, some of the rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic students they have to deal with.  As they noshed on some pretty tasty looking shakshuka.

Frankly, I felt lucky to have graduated from college 10 years ago, where anti-Semitism was unheard of at my Hillel and where the scary rhetoric of today’s campus extremists was barely in its infant stages.

One particular story stood out to me.  Speaking with an Israeli, she told me about a non-Jewish student who came to a discussion about the various types of Zionism.  And, apparently innocently and sincerely, asked “but what does Zionism have to go with genocide?”

The Israeli thought she meant the Holocaust.  But apparently the student, having heard all sorts of inflated rhetoric on campus, thought Zionism was a form of genocide.  A blatant lie and a sad reflection on the rhetoric of the anti-Israel movement.  That does a disservice to Jewish and Israeli history, the complexity of the conflict, and to Palestinians themselves as these “activists” push our peoples further and further apart.

I stand in admiration of Israel educators and Jewish students who patiently answer such questions.  I have to say if someone asked me this question in earnest, I’d assume they were simply attacking me.  Because in some cases, they are.  But when you see someone so earnestly manipulated, it breaks the heart.  And I’m so proud of our Jewish activists and non-Jewish allies who are standing up for truth, for nuance, and for engagement in today’s increasingly toxic environment.

One student named Judith particularly stood out to me (hi Judith, if you’re reading!).  She is a Berkeley native so she is used to the screaming, often irrationally hateful activists who populate her campus.  Like the Christian minister I saw on a street corner shouting in a megaphone that “Jesus wasn’t afraid of the Jewish culture.”  As people walked by completely indifferent.

Her bravery and her ability to ignore such people remind me of Israelis.  She is used to it, and she lives her life despite it.  It reminds me of young Jews I met in Belgium who were used to having their synagogues under armed guard.  Where you submit your passports a week in advance to visit.  To get a background check.  A reality unthinkable in European cathedrals, open to the public without even a cursory glance.  It’s a reality American Jews will have to get used to.  After Pittsburgh, you can expect enhanced security at American synagogues.  Where, sadly, I think they will one day resemble the fortress-like congregations that dot the European continent my family once called home.

The age of American Jewish innocence- where we lived in security and prosperity- is evolving.  What was once the safest and most prosperous Diaspora community since medieval Spain is in the midst of a monumental change and I fear for its future.  I will not be surprised to see armed guards outside American synagogues next visit- and it will make me a bit sad.  One Jewish community advocate estimates it could cost $1 billion to secure American synagogues.

We once thought we were exceptional, that our bagels were as American as apple pie.  But as is often the case in Jewish history, if we ever forget who we are, the anti-Semites arise to remind us.  If you are a non-Jewish ally reading this, the hour is late and if you don’t mobilize with us now, American Jewry is at tremendous risk.  Speak up, show your solidarity, stand with us- lest we become the next France.  Where Jews fear to walk around with yarmulkes on and Jewish centers are regularly attacked.  Where Holocaust survivors are burned to death in their homes.  If you think this is alarmist, you don’t know much about Jewish history.  The ethnocentric view places this recent attack only in the context of American hate crimes like heinous attacks on black churches or immigrants.  But if you read Jewish history, you’ll realize this analogy is relevant but incomplete.  Violent anti-Semitism isn’t new- and it didn’t start with Donald Trump.  Although I’d invite him to stop complaining how attacks against us “slow” his political momentum.  We’ve been dealing with this for 2,000 years and counting and across dozens of countries.  I’m not a huge fan of the (seemingly endless) privilege discourse, but as a non-Jew, it’d benefit you to consider the ways you’re fortunate to not be one of us.  And to find ways to help.

As I wandered around Berkeley’s campus, I felt more comfortable than I expected.  There is something about coming in with low expectations that gives you the freedom to be pleasantly surprised.  To have your preconceptions splendidly upended.  Like when I met pro-Israel libertarians with buttons that said “BDS=BS”!  So thankful to have you advocating for us in the belly of the beast 🙂 .

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Yet some expectations are based in reality.  I met a man tabling for a Muslim Student Association volunteer program- run in conjunction with an anti-Semitic professor.  Berkeley is about to host a Marxism conference.  With speakers on Palestinian liberation- likely predicated on the destruction of Israel.  A terrible false dichotomy that speaks more to their black-and-white destructive thinking than any sort of genuine attempt at dialogue or peacemaking.  Signs abounded about the “Trump-Pence Regime” and “resistance.”  As if our President, as narcissistic and callous as he may be, was somehow installed by a putsch.  As opposed to the democratic elections he won.  Someone you oppose becomes an illegitimate enemy of humanity rather than a candidate or ideology you want to defeat.  The former requires nothing but anger.  The latter requires organizing, analysis, and persuasion- real work that requires you to engage with people you disagree with.  You can tell what I think is more productive.

This kind of black-and-white thinking is something I’ve dabbled in, especially in college.  There’s something about this time in your life, free from obligations, where you can experiment with radical ideas.  And on some level it’s healthy.  Some ideas accepted as normal in our society need to be challenged and changed.  I also feel that my abusive upbringing pushed me into defensive and judgmental thinking as a way to protect myself and to make sense of inexplicable hatred.

And I’m proud to have worked hard to grow out of this mentality, as befits my age and my process of healing from abuse.  And my engagement with a wide range of cultures and political views.  So that when I meet an American-born Cambodian student whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge, but who is excited about the Marxism conference, I feel a mixture of emotions.  Anger, sadness, and pity.  It takes a lot of mental acrobatics to justify the way she thinks, but all I can say is that I hope she can one day escape the ideological labyrinth in which she wanders.

Because for me, resistance is not about slogans or yelling at people who disagree with you.  It’s about standing for your values while resisting the urge to do evil when it has been done to you.

As I prepared to leave Berkeley, I told Judith that I thought she was brave for having adjusted to life in her town.  As a proud Jew and a lover of Israel, to be surrounded by such political extremism can’t be easy.  And like Jews have done for centuries, she got used to it and lives her life.

And I left her with a warning: “Jews in Europe are now used to armed guards and soldiers protecting their synagogues.  Like fortresses.  They’ve gotten used to it to- it’s necessary and it’s sad.  So be careful- don’t get too used to it.  Because you deserve better.”

She nodded in agreement as she boarded the bus to a fun date with her boyfriend.  The kind of care-free evening that makes America so fun.  And makes Americans so lucky.  With all your problems, remember this is the wealthiest and one of the most stable countries on the planet.  And don’t forget it.  It’s a blessing.  Hamas fired 30 rockets on Southern Israel last week and Catalan political leaders sit in Spanish prison.  Even as you push for change, count your lucky stars and remember there are problems outside this country too.

At night, I headed into San Francisco.  Having seen the good, bad, and neutral of Berkeley (including some amazing burritos made by Asian students), I wanted Shabbat.

Shabbat is not something to take for granted.  It’s only a feeling that happens if you make it happen, especially outside of Israel.  On my travels, I found myself gravitating towards Jews when I wanted that feeling of community.  It wasn’t really about religion in the traditional sense of the word.  It was about being a Jew with people who understood me.  And sharing in our customs, food, and talk.

One organization that has brought this to life for me is Moishe House.  They organize communal houses for Jews across the world, which then hold programs for both Jews and non-Jews.  A pluralistic cultural space, it is a great complement or alternative to synagogue, as it doesn’t require a particular belief and all are welcome.

I’ve written before about how I visited Moishe Houses in Brussels and Barcelona.  And now it was San Francisco’s turn.

The folks at Moishe House Nob Hill put on an amazing Shabbat dinner.  There’s a special feeling when you’re with Jews.  To put it in the words of a man named Ben I met- it’s intangible.  You just feel at home.  You know something links you even if you’ve never met.

When I walked in the house, I was greeted with the smell of chicken shnitzel, of hummus, and I even made my own challah.  For the first time!

Turns out one of the housemates’ friends even read my blog about San Francisco!  It’s an amazing feeling of connection when you see just how small of a people we really are.  And I’m grateful to both Moishe House and its energetic residents for building this safe, vibrant space.

A space where for just one night, I can worry a little less about saying I’m Israeli.  Where I talk about Judaism without worrying about sounding “too Jewish”.  Where I can count on empathy after this week’s Pittsburgh terror attack.  An empathy I sometimes found lacking among non-Jewish folks I met in San Francisco.

It was interesting- I had actually forgotten about the attacks until the dinner.  The dinner was advertised as a Pittsburgh solidarity dinner, a great idea.  It’s just that as an Israeli, I had mourned, been angry, and moved on to the next thing.  A zen-like way of living in the moment that I learned to do more and more in the Jewish State, where hundreds of Pittsburghs have happened.

So where I expected just a Shabbat dinner, I got a lore more.  It was nice to see the tender side of American Jews.  Israelis, so accustomed to terror attacks, move on rather quickly out of necessity.  It was both heartbreaking and moving to see how the attacks affected the young Jews here.  The softness of American Jews is a real treasure- unique in Jewish history for having enjoyed so much freedom and safety.  And it’s something I fear will have to change.  As the country and the world increasingly scapegoats us, American Jewry would be wise to connect more with European Jews and Israel to learn coping skills.  It’s not easy- but the good (and bad) thing is we have a lot of experience dealing with terror.  And we can be there to support each other during this transition.  What I fear may be a new normal.

A curious thing happened at dinner.  A young man requested we do kiddush, the traditional blessing over wine or grape juice.

The Moishe House residents looked around, looking for volunteers.  Having led Reform services my whole life (including in Tel Aviv), I know the blessing by heart.

When I left Tel Aviv two months ago, I could barely utter it.  So disenchanted with both Judaism and Israel itself in such a tense region of the world, I wasn’t even sure if I was a Jew.  Although, as you’ll see with my previous blogs, Europe reminded me I was.

So I found myself with a choice.  Having gone from religious to atheist, to agnostic, to spiritual.  Where did I stand now?

I wasn’t sure.  But I sang.

And I sang with love.

And people joined in.

I hadn’t sung a kiddush in two months.  And it felt great.

As I write this blog, I think I do believe in God.  Maybe not the way others do, but who cares?  It’s my belief, and while I can’t find myself obsessing over details of Jewish law or ignoring the problems of literalism or religious tribalism, I believe.  I don’t know- I believe.  That’s why we use that word.  Because someone with perfect faith is a liar- and a demagogue.  Leaving room for doubt is the most Jewish thing in the world- and allows us to till the fertile gray space our minds can thrive in.

What inspired my faith this Friday?  A lot of things.  The human spirit, the need for connection, nature, change, my accomplishments, gratitude, and just a feeling.  A spiritual connection that complements, even creatively contradicts, my rational thought.  To make me who I am.

And what also inspired it are the great people I’ve met along the way.  Judith, Moishe House, Hillel, Israel educators, the young Jew making Japanese food.  Korean burritos, amazing taco chips, and the people who accept me as the Israeli I am.

This morning, I met a 70-something year old hippie at my hostel.  When she asked where I was from, I was nervous at first.  I’ve had some bad experiences with anti-Semites when I said I was Israeli.

But much to my surprise, like the young man making Japanese food, Lynn was Jewish.  A Reform Jew, like me 🙂 .  I don’t go to services as much now, but the synagogue I don’t go to is definitely Reform 😉 .  Lynn had been to Israel in 2006 and loved it.

We had a great conversation as I made delicious pancakes drenched in the kind of authentic maple syrup you only really find here.  It’s America’s hummus- something I just won’t eat in my other homeland.  It doesn’t taste right.

I gave Lynn my email and told her to come visit.  And I mean it- I hope she comes and I will set her up with whatever she needs.

Because I won’t give up on Jews anywhere.  And no matter who my Prime Minister is, no matter who attacks our people, no matter what- I believe in us.  And I want to be the progressive, open-minded Israeli who gives you pride in the Jewish State.  Who works tirelessly on the other side of the world to make space for people like us.  For a Jewish vision that supports LGBT rights, Arab empowerment, consideration for minorities, inclusion for refugees, and equality for progressive Judaism.  For a strong homeland that welcomes all of us.  Because there are Israelis like me who are your allies.  Forget the headlines and stand with us.  Because together we can strengthen the Israel and Diaspora community that makes us feel at home.  That lives out values we identify with.  And yes, that empathizes with people who disagree with us.

And in the meantime, I ask you to stand with us.  When you’re in Berkeley and people spout irrational, inaccurate hatred against Israel, to fight back.  To educate.  To realize that your fate depends as much on me as mine does on yours.  That Israel is your insurance policy- just as it has been for Moroccan and Polish and Ethiopian Jews forced from their homes for decades upon decades.

I need a strong America for a safe Israel.  And you need a strong Israel when you don’t have a safe America.

The world is changing, and who knows what will happen.  Enjoy this moment- who knows what tomorrow holds.  That’s the Jewish way.  And whether you’re Jewish or not, it can enrich your life to realize this basic fact.

Whatever you want to do, don’t wait.  There are no guarantees.  Dance in the streets, speak your mind, smile, cry, hug.  Like Lynn hugged me before she left- a precious gift for someone traveling alone.  Both on this trip, and in life.

What I’ve discovered is that what makes me feel less alone is finding empathetic people along the way who take you in.  Who make you feel loved and warmed.  Who feel your humanity.  Who share with you.

At a time when empathy is faltering, challenge yourself to show it.  And to find it where it appears to have disappeared.

Because next time I visit America, I want it strong.  This week, try to find a moment to talk to someone different, as hard as it might be.  Because Twitter and Facebook are great, but they won’t smile at a woman on the train.  And a news feed can’t feed a heart’s desire for acceptance.

America is a great country.  I hope its residents embrace the beautiful privilege of living there.  Despite it all, still one of the calmest and most prosperous places on the planet.

We are.  Black white, Jewish Muslim, gay bisexual, Republican Democrat, conservative centrist, straight and working class.  Christian, Native American.  Vegan and wealthy.

The next time your hand reaches for the screen.  Ready to type a comment on Facebook.  To agitate, to vent, to express.  Flip it like a pancake, fingers pointing ahead, thumb towards the sky.

Reach out and meet your neighbor.  Try.  It won’t always go well, but it’s worth it and it’s what we need.

This hand was made for you and me.

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Evangelical Gay Jewish San Francisco

I’d like to share with you some stories from a recent visit to San Francisco.

After making aliyah a year and a half ago, I came back to the States for the first time.

What I’ve liked most is speaking English.  Everywhere the signs are in my language.  I can pick up on nuance and norms that I just can’t in another language, no matter how fluent I am.

I like the delicious fortune cookies I tasted at a factory in Chinatown and the wonderful Chinese-American woman I met who really wants to go to Israel.  She just wants to travel in general and see “what’s the big deal about the Eiffel Tower”.

I like the Latina saleswoman at T-Mobile who, when I mentioned I was from Israel, was so excited.  She was really proud of me for moving halfway around the world and pursuing my dreams.  And she told me what it was like for her to visit Mexico, how friendly people were.

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I like the rainbow flags that adorn the Castro, a kind of mini gay state.  I even found street art honoring a Jewish victim of AIDS.  Having lived in the Jewish Holy Land, I wanted to visit the gay one.  And it was really interesting.  While a rather small area (I suppose I envisioned it being half the city), it was so colorful, so gay.  Sometimes a bit risqué for my tastes (I saw naked men strolling down the street…), but I enjoyed the occasional sexual pun.  Including the absolutely hilarious tank top that said “can you host?” and the funny Planned Parenthood bag.  If you don’t get the hosting joke, ask a gay friend 😉

The Bay Area is filled with tremendous wildlife.  Scenery out of a movie.  The waves of the Pacific lapping against the shoreline but with an ease that matches the calm of this city.  I’ve never been in such a large city with such a relaxed pace of life.  It’s kind of the Tel Aviv of North America, as one person put it.

I like the personal space, the quiet, the lack of rockets, the feeling of sexual freedom that I wish Israel had more often.  A place so inundated with religion and nationalism that sexual shame, even in “sin city” Tel Aviv, often feels so much stronger than I wish it would be.

Now I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this progressive paradise.

First off, I’ve never seen so many homeless people.  In a city that prides itself (almost to a fault) on being so liberal, it’s hard for me to understand why there are so many people without a roof over their heads.  For sure, it’s not as if the ordinary citizen can fix this problem.  Nor is homelessness an easy problem to fix- mental healthcare, economics, and so many other factors go into it.

But I can’t help but feel confused, at times disturbed, to see so many people walking by on their headsets, talking about the latest computer program or software, while people sit suffering right by their feet.  I’m not expecting people to fix the problem, but it feels quite different from Israel.  We have lots of homeless people too, but both I personally and lots of people around me gave them food and water and money.  I even talked with a homeless man in Tel Aviv who told me all the books he has read recently.  I just haven’t witnessed that kind of spontaneous interaction or generosity here.

This kind of distance or callousness is something I’ve noticed a few times.  The other day, I was in Chinatown.  An elderly Chinese woman had fallen, hitting her head on the sidewalk, with blood spilling everywhere.  Person after person after person just walked by.  Me being both who I am and an Israeli, jumped into help.  I bought her water and brought napkins to help stem the bleeding.  A wonderfully generous African-American woman came over and held the napkins against the woman’s head.  An Asian-American man translated for the woman as he tried to talk to the 911 operator.  It was a kind of generosity-filled melting pot that I love about this country.

The disturbing part was watching the people walk by.  The people on their phones or who didn’t want to get dirty (I personally got blood all over my sandals…yeah, it’s gross and risky, but was I going to let a woman die to keep my feet clean?).  The people who, after helping for a second, just walked away.  The woman still dazed and confused, babbling in incoherent Chinese (not that I’d know the difference).

I stayed with her until she got into the ambulance.  That’s how you behave like a human being.  Your meeting is not more important than a person’s life.

Walking around the Castro, I entered a gay book store.  Boy do I love to see gay book stores, the world needs more of them.  And more book stores in general.  A place I truly feel warm and inspired and at ease.  A place of learning and discovery where you don’t have to “look” for anything- you can just look 😉

A lot of the books were really, really left wing.  I grew up with these kinds of book stores in D.C.  Once they made me excited, now they make me nervous.  I think I’ve grown out of this mindset and I think the mindset here has solidified since I left.  While some of the material is interesting, it’s often steeped in the black-and-white thinking that plagues both extremes in this country.  And usually involves hating Israel.

I noticed some rainbow buttons that said “Proud Queer Muslim” and “Queers Against Islamophobia”.  Frankly, they’re pretty neat.  Just days after the Pittsburgh massacre (one which personally touched me), I wanted to know if they had any against anti-Semitism.

The store clerk said: “oh you know, I don’t think we do.  Somebody must have them.  We don’t have any timely buttons.”  As if anti-Semitism was a new issue.

To his credit, the store owner paused and said he’d look into it.  And steered towards his computer to search.  I hope he finds some and puts them out.  Anti-Semitism isn’t new and I hope we can count on his solidarity.  The moment showed both the deep ignorance that can pervade this country and that sometimes we can puncture it.  I hope I moved things in the right direction.

During my visit here, I’ve had a lot of conversations about Israel.  The difference between an American Jew and an Israeli is we can’t hide our Jewishness.  We’re out-of-the-closet Jews.  And as soon as you say you’re from Israel, the conversation begins.

The cool part is when you get awesome people.  One man, Nick, is someone who I actually befriended in Tel Aviv helping him buy a sandwich.  In town on a business trip, he was struggling to deal with the hectic line, so I stepped in and helped him order.  I sat with him and his coworker and had a great time.  We kept in touch and he invited me to stay with him for several days here in the Bay Area.  Since making aliyah, I often feel Americans are more distant.  This is the country where self realization is priority one, where the individual is the greatest unit of meaning.

But Nick shows that some Americans buck that trend and are capable of the spontaneous generosity I’ve come to love in Israel.  He’s a new American friend, and I’m happy to have met him and am grateful for his kindness.

Curiously enough (or perhaps not!), Nick and I did some genealogy together and discovered he’s a quarter Jewish.  Maybe one day he’ll make aliyah 😉  But in the meantime, I was really happy to help someone discover their roots and connect to our people.  I’m proud to have generous people like him as part of our tribe.

Other people are not so fond of the Jewish State.  At various moments here, I’ve met people who can’t say the word Israel without following it with the word Palestine (as if I wasn’t aware who my neighbors were).  I’ve met people (including Jews!) who said that Israel’s very existence is a fair question.  And that someone who doesn’t believe Israel should exist because of our “illegal occupation” is not an anti-Semite.  Telling Israelis how to live their lives while sitting in the richest city in the United States.  While ironically living in a state whose very name is Spanish and whose territory once was filled with Native Americans.  Who now live in abject poverty like the city’s homeless.

I talked to one person who, knowing full well I was Jewish and mourning the Pittsburgh terror attack, said: “I rarely see the Jewish community condemn actions when it isn’t a Jewish person.”  That we didn’t care about People of Color.  A statement profoundly callous and absurd.  Callous because this is our moment to mourn, not for you to politicize our tragedy, rant about Trump, or talk about other (equally heinous) hate crimes.  But just to let us be sad for one moment and yes, to make it about us.  And absurd because the Jewish community is at the forefront of human rights, civil rights, and immigrants rights in a way few members of these communities do so for us.  I can’t recall an LGBT, African-American, or immigrant march against anti-Semitism.  I suppose I’m a gay person marching against anti-Semitism, but I think my point about the rallies still stands.  I could be wrong, I just literally can’t think of one.  And I’m someone who in both the States and Israel has marched countless times for every minority group under the sun.  And will continue to do so.

I’ve met people (even left-wing Jews) who claim campus anti-Semitism is right wing propaganda.  That it doesn’t really exist.  Who believe this and this and this and this and this and this are “fake news”.

When you meet so much ignorance, it’s sometimes hard to feel safe, let loose, and enjoy yourself.  I’m a person who likes to talk to people, so when people around me are mean, I don’t have much fun.

I did flirt with a really cute guy in a bagel shop, so San Francisco has its good parts too 😉  If there are any sweet, reserved guys out there who like an ambivert who’s outgoing but also likes a long stroll and deep conversation, hit me up 😉

As evening came, I headed back on the BART train to where I was staying.  My Uber app wasn’t working, so I asked a bus driver where the next bus was to my destination.  The wonderful middle-aged Latina woman pulled me aside and showed me exactly what to do.  She, much like the Israelis I love, wouldn’t let me go until she showed me every step of the process.  And got my app running again.

She asked me: “where are you from?”

“Washington, D.C. and now I live in Israel.”

“But you speak Spanish, where are your parents from?”

“Also American.”

“So how do you speak such good Spanish?”

“I used to be a Spanish teacher.”

And in the most Israeli response ever: “used to be?”

It was that loving gnaw of guilt.  I miss it.  And I’m looking forward to feeling it again when I go home to the state I call my own.

The woman sent me on my way: “cuídate m’ijo”.  Take care my son.

I miss Latinos and I miss America.  I used to work for immigrant rights nonprofits and the best part of this country is its incredible diversity.  I miss the people who upend your prejudices and expectations, the random acts of kindness by Americans of every background.  The understated people who help, rather than the self-righteous who think doing you a favor indebts you to them.  If you want help, ask someone who has less.  Who knows what it’s like to struggle.  Because chances are that very lack is the pain that makes them more tender.  Find the heart bursting at the seams- it’s worth more than a wallet overflowing with cash.

On the train back home, tired of anti-Israel bullshit, I noticed the woman sitting next to me reading Fox News.  Just a year and a half ago, that would’ve scared me.  And to be honest, it’s not someone I’d probably talk gay marriage and immigrant rights with.  But I wanted to test a theory.

I pretended I didn’t know where I was going.  I told the woman I was from Israel and asked for directions.

“Israel?!  Israel!  Wow I was there just a few years ago!  What a beautiful place!  I saw…”

And then she named every biblical site imaginable.  And told me how gorgeous the Golan was.  And how she, as a Christian, stood by my country.

My heart is pulled in many directions.  As a gay person, I’m concerned about the rightward tilt of this country.  As someone who cares about women’s rights, immigrants rights, diversity, and equality, I’m concerned by voices who deny these freedoms.  Who justify punishing children stopped at the border.  Children who could be very well related to the wonderful bus driver who helped me tonight.  Fleeing chaos and violence in El Salvador, a country ridden with gangs and whose drug violence is partially fueled by American consumption.  And some of our own failed policies.  Whose own government cares so little for its own people.  Where the gap between rich and poor is extraordinary- and growing.

And as a Jewish Israeli, I’m concerned about the callousness some American progressives show towards my people.  Of course, the same callousness shown by neo-Nazis.  For some reason, Jews don’t deserve the compassion of the far left.  What drives millions of Americans to march for women, for refugees, for black lives- all of which I support- somehow doesn’t materialize for us.  Protesting against Donald Trump is not the same as protesting for Jews.  Maybe you don’t think we’re feeble enough for you to take care of us as you purport to do for other minorities.  But trust me- while we’re not feeble, our existence is at your behest.  As 2% of the population, we don’t live without your tolerance.  And if you’re not willing to fight for it, you’ll find more of your neighbors becoming mine in Israel.  If you don’t get why we spilled our blood to build a Jewish state now, you never will.  Although I’ll keep trying to explain.  And hope one day we’ll find ourselves on this sign too:

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So when it comes down to it, who should I count on?  I’m not just a blogger, I’m a person.  Should I go after the university-educated progressives- even some Jews- who think our very existence is up for debate?  Should I give up on progressives- knowing open-minded people like Nick are out there eager to learn?  Who don’t hate us?  Should I accept the support of evangelicals, who give it so freely?  Who make my train ride enjoyable, a conversation rather than a debate?  Even if it means their victory could put my other identities and values in jeopardy?

I’m not sure.  My instinct is to accept support wherever we can get it because frankly, we don’t have a lot.  If masses of progressive Americans stood with Israel, we wouldn’t need to rely on other groups’ support.  But as a matter of principle, should I reject anyone’s support?  The person who made me feel most loved as an Israeli was an Asian-American Christian, not a Jew and not an NPR listener.

November 6th is Election Day.  I’ll have you know I requested my absentee ballot from Maryland- but it has not yet arrived.  What’s going on Maryland?  I might not be able to vote because you’re not doing your job.  Here’s my request below:

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I hope my ballot does arrive but I’ll tell you what I’m thinking anyways.

My ballot is secret- so I won’t share all.  I will tell you this- I’m a registered Democrat and have been almost my whole life.  I’ve voted Democratic 95% of the time, with an occasional Libertarian and Green foray.  I worked on the Obama Campaign in 2008.  Was a Pledged Delegate for him to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.  I served in his Administration at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This year is going to be different.  I’m going to vote mostly Democratic.  I can’t look that Salvadoran woman in the face and punch a whole next to a bunch of R’s who’d like to see her deported.  Or her family suffer.  In some cases, even if they’re legal residents.  And I care about my own civil liberties and those of all Americans.  I’m disturbed by the state of healthcare, the arts, public transit, higher education, poverty, and so much more.

And I’m going to choose at least one, reasonable-sounding Republican (I am from Maryland- we have a few of those left) and I’m going to vote for them.  It’s a protest vote and a warning.  Democrats- stop taking me for granted.  I like a lot of what you have to say but your most radical members are starting to sound as black-and-white as the people they purport to oppose.

I care about myself as an American-Israeli Jew.  And if some of the people I met in San Francisco are at all representative of your party’s direction, you can count on my support going elsewhere.

Where, I don’t know.  In the perpetual Jewish conundrum of being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, I’m not sure where home is.  Other than perhaps the other side of the Mediterranean.

But I will say this- I’m an American citizen.  I pay taxes.  I was born here.  And I will continue to vote here, even if next election I have to request a thousand absentee ballots a year in advance to be heard.

And I want you to hear me clearly: I’m a swing voter.  And I’m not afraid to push the lever for a Republican once in a while if I feel the party I once called home doesn’t care about my safety and my well-being.

I’m Israeli and I’m American.  You might not want to rally for my rights, but you should want my vote.  It’s the only weapon I have.  Because just like a Latino voter or an African-American or a gay person- I’m going to ask you a question:

“Why is your party better for the Jewish community and Israel?”

Because in addition to all the other issues I care about, I care about myself.  That’s the basis of democracy.  Those are my interests.

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I miss you America, and I can taste the sweet fortune cookies on my lips.  The delicious dumplings and sushi and Thai food I sorely miss.  The Halloween outfits and pumpkins I never see in the Jewish State.  The interracial couples, the potpourri of cultures, the Chinese-language books in your storefront windows.  Teaching immigrants how to adapt to life here.  Just like my ancestors did, to give me life today.

I want you strong and I hope to be back soon.

In the meantime, give me some hope you’re going to pull through.  Because outside of Israel, the Jewish people has no better home.  And I’m still your son even if my heart beats seven hours ahead.

I don’t want to live torn in two.

My mouth closed in apprehension, afraid of how you’ll react when I say: “I’m Israeli.”

p.s.- my cover photo is me and Harvey Milk, a true gay rights hero.  What a great feeling to see my gay self represented in bright colors on city walls.

 

I’m from Pittsburgh

This blog is hard to write.

I sit writing in America, a place I haven’t visited in 1.5 years since I made aliyah and became an Israeli citizen.

This trip, hard-earned, is something I’ve waited for for a long time.  A chance to reconnect to my American-ness, to eat delicious affordable Asian food, to see signs in English, to feel at home.  Israel is my home, and America, even if I’m not here most of the year, is also my home.  And it always will be in some sense.  It is a part of who I am no matter where I go.

So it was to my great shock that just a few days after landing, I heard about the anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is not any city for me- it’s where half of my family is from.  It’s a place I’ve visited since I was a little kid.  A place somewhat fraught for me, like all places associated with my childhood.  But one that is distinctly a part of my life experience.  My cover photo is a picture of my grandfather’s grave in Adath Jeshurun Cemetery, right outside Pittsburgh.

Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the attack took place, is a place I’ve visited and heard about many times.  A place I’ve eaten good Jewish deli food.  A place where I still know people.  One friend I spoke to stayed locked in her home for the day with her kids, afraid to go outside.  And in all likelihood, some of the terror victims are probably related to me in this tight-knit community.  A community shattered by a never-ending hatred increasingly rearing its head in the Land of the Free.

This is America in 2018.

When my family, on both sides, came to America, it was to escape persecution.  Anti-Semitism is not new- and to the chagrin of some folks turning this into a political spectacle- it is not something miraculously awakened by Donald Trump.  I do think Trump and his most extreme supporters have made things worse by normalizing bombastic, hateful speech.  With little care for the consequences.  Words matter- and can inspire crazed people to harm others.  But I think we must be careful to remember this tragedy is first and foremost about Jews.  Indeed, the psychotic animal who killed 12 people this Shabbat actually hated Trump for being “controlled” by Jews.  Anti-Semitic attacks by both neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists have been happening all across Europe and indeed America.  For generation after generation.

The mainstream media rarely covers these stories.  Or gives them the attention they deserve.  Just this past year, an elderly Holocaust survivor was murdered in her Paris apartment for being a Jew.  The Belgian Jewish Museum was attacked by Islamic terrorists just a couple years ago, killing several people.  And, perhaps to your surprise, Jews are the single largest target for hate crimes in the United States.  And in the United Kingdom.  And not just the past two years.  For what it’s worth, two UK politicians have blamed Israel for the attack in Pittsburgh.  As they stand on the precipice of electing the most anti-Semitic leader in the Western World- Jeremy Corbyn.

Of course, the debate right after the attack turned to gun control, to Trump, to elections, to the never-ending arguments plaguing this country that I so love.  For what it’s worth, I support gun control and think it’s patently absurd how easy it is to get guns in this country.  It is immoral, it is dangerous, it is stupid.  I don’t care if you want to go hunt a deer- do whatever you want.  But you don’t need 20 semi-automatic weapons without a background check.  America- grow up.  This isn’t the 1700s and you don’t need a militia- your government has nuclear weapons.  If things get so bad, your rifle won’t really help.  I’m frankly more scared of you.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that gun control is only one piece of the picture.  And frankly, I think starting the debate about this terror attack in this fashion is demeaning.  This attack is about one thing and one thing only: Jews being killed for being Jewish.  This isn’t a school shooting- it’s a synagogue.  Both are heart-wrenching, but this was done with a different intent.  It targeted Jews for being Jews, purposefully.  And even if we have (necessary) gun control, it won’t stop anti-Semitic terror.  Just ask European Jews who have to have armed guards and soldiers protect their synagogues.  When I visited synagogues across the continent, I often had to provide my passport info a week in advance, provide Jewish references, and be screened for entry.

It’s a reality Jewish institutions across Europe have sadly become accustomed to as they try to preserve life on the continent my family called home for 2,000 years.  With the highest levels of anti-Semitism since the Holocaust.  What a short memory this continent has.

It’s a reality that American Jews are about to face themselves.  They- we- are already facing it.

My synagogue growing up had huge boulders outside the sanctuary to prevent Islamic terrorists from driving car bombs into our prayers.  But you could always come visit for services without background checks- just as open as any church around the corner.

Now, that is over.  American Jewish innocence is gone.  Whereas we were once the envy of European Jews under siege by far-left anti-Semites calling for the destruction of Israel and far-right neo-Nazis smashing Kosher restaurants to bits.  Today, we are no different.  Today, we remembered that in the end, we’re Jews.  Sometimes the world forces this identity on us.  We might wish to be accepted, to be welcomed, to be tolerated.  And sometimes and by some people, we truly are.  But in the end, we are at the mercy of the majority.  And while a majority of Americans might not hate us, they also don’t care enough to protect us.

That’s blunt talk for you.  And I’ll explain what I mean.

I don’t think most Americans are anti-Semites.  I grew up with anti-Semitism- yes even in liberal suburban Maryland- but it was mild compared to what we saw in Pittsburgh and certainly compared to the violent attacks plaguing Europe.  I think America, perhaps due to our founding principles and our large Jewish community, is still a better place to be a Jew than Europe.  Something I’m thankful for.  I’m glad my great-grandparents didn’t stay in Romania to become nothing but dust in desecrated cemeteries.  It is thanks to their bravery I am alive and American and now living in our homeland.

But I do want to know where are the Americans today?  At a time when you see thousands upon thousands of Americans- rightly in my opinion- rallying for immigrants, for refugees, for Muslims, for women.  Where are the massive protests for Jews?  Not a couple thousand people.  Masses.  Not framed as gun control, or mental healthcare, or election rallies.  But for Jews as Jews.  And fellow Americans.

I don’t want vigils.  I want protests.  I want action.  I want justice.  And your sympathy doesn’t interest me.  I want to know what you’re going to do to help us.  Because we’re 2% of the population and we can’t protect ourselves without your support.  Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, Christian and Muslim, everyone.

Jews put our lives on the line to defend others.  I, along with many Jews, are active in supportive refugees’ rights.  HIAS, the Jewish refugee rights group attacked in the shooters’ social media posts, is a group I’ve been involved with for years.  When I lived in Washington, I used to tutor Latino immigrants for their citizenship exams.  With HIAS and other young Jewish professionals.  Dedicating our time and energy to help people who remind us of our great-grandparents who made this country our home.  Who HIAS brought here, to safety.

The question is- where are these communities when we need support?  Some of them are rallying, and I appreciate it.  Muslims have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Tree of Life synagogue.  No doubt, Latinos, African-Americans, White Americans, and others have spoken out for our rights.

But I do not see the kind of mass movement necessary to stop this phenomenon.  That puts Jews at the center of this conversation as opposed to a convenient political tool to smash your ideological opponents in either direction.

So I want to hear more.  I want to see more refugees demonstrating as refugees thanking us for our support.  Support that cost us lives to save theirs.  Something I still believe in.

I want to see mosques raising Israeli flags in solidarity.  Money is great- but I also want to see that you understand why we have Israel now.  That when we face these kinds of attacks on a massive scale, Israel is the refuge we can go to.  Which is why there are 4,000 Jews left in Morocco and 300,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel.  Who lost everything they own to a corrupt and anti-Semitic regime, no less brutal than the shooter in Pittsburgh.

I want to see more non-Jews studying Judaism.  Not just the Holocaust, but 2,000 years of persecution.  And not only that, but our civilization, our culture, our life.  To understand us.  Jews know so much more about our Christian neighbors than most of them bother to learn about us.  We are not just a Bible verse- we are your neighbors.  Your countrymen.  And you owe it to us to take some time out of your today to learn something about us beyond what a Menorah looks like.  Our history is valuable, our culture meaningful, and you could stand to learn something from our persistence and our worldview.  We are not just to be tolerated- we have something to teach you.

The people who gather to rally against Israeli “apartheid”, who decry Jewish “privilege”- where are you now?  Where are your protests?  Where is your anger?  I don’t want your sadness, I want your passion.  I want you to care as much about us as you do about people you’ve never met in a news story from halfway around the world.

If I’m honest with you, I sometimes think about moving back to America.  I’m enjoying visiting now and although I’m not in Pittsburgh, I feel the aches and pains of this country no matter where I am.  Even sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean.  Because I care about the place where I spent 30 years of my life living.  Where my ancestors found refuge.  Where we built the greatest Jewish civilization since 1500s Spain.  One that, much like the latter, is showing signs of fragility in a way that scares me.

One thing I’ve learned from this trip, these two months of exploration, is that anti-Semitism will follow you whether you like it or not.  When I needed a break from Judaism and Israel, I soon found myself defending my people as I roamed Europe.  Relentlessly stereotyped and aggressively attacked by anti-Semites.

It’s not because all Europeans (or Americans) are anti-Semitic.  I met wonderful, open-minded people curious about our culture.  And I appreciate them more than you can imagine.

It’s just that this ancient hatred is everywhere.  And you can’t avoid it.  That’s not the time we live in.  I’m not sure we have ever been able to avoid it, but the fantasy we lived in is over.  The fantasy that America was immune, was different- it’s gone.  It may have never been the paradise we dreamed of- anti-Semitism has a not-so-subtle past here too.  But if we’re honest, we thought that those times were mostly over.  And our country had progressed beyond these wild sentiments to become a place where Jews are leaders in commerce, in law, in politics, in media, in academia- in all the places anti-Semites claim we control.  Fueling the world’s conflicts, crashing economies, manipulating and conspiring.  Although oddly we can’t manage to prevent people from shooting up our synagogues or blowing up pizzerias in Tel Aviv.

In the end, I’m from Pittsburgh.  Three generations of my family have lived there and for both the good and the bad, it is a part of my life.  I remember the special smiley cookies I used to get there as a kid, I remember the incline you can take up the cliffs to see the three rivers converge, I remember the white chocolate cheesecake I loved at the train station-turned-restaurant on the waterside.  I remember the botanical gardens.  I remember the Church Brew Works.

I remember the deli where I ate delicious whitefish salad in Squirrel Hill.  A neighborhood now missing a dozen souls.  Whose lives were crushed by anti-Semitic hatred, a fiery malevolence we can never truly understand.

I implore my fellow Americans to stand with us- and not silently.  To act with the same urgency that you do when a school is shot, when a mosque is defaced, when women are demeaned by our public discourse and our legislation.  Rally.  March.  Speak up.

I don’t want your Facebook posts, I want your heart.  And your feet pounding the pavement demanding answers from ideological firebrands attacking us from both extremes.

This shooting was about Jews- first and foremost.  Put aside your ballot for just one moment.  Mourn with us, march with us.  We’ll get to the other issues- I promise.  We care about them too.

But today isn’t about you.  It’s about us.

I can hardly pretend that seeing a terror attack against Jews in America is surprising as an Israeli (we’re used to anti-Semitic terror- I had an almost eerily calm reaction when I first heard about it).  But it did shock me as an American.  This is the worst anti-Semitic attack on American soil, in our entire history.

I feel blessed to be heading on an airplane in a few days back home.  From home to home.  From past to present.

Because while I will continue to advocate for my American Jewish brothers and sisters, for me there is only one place on the planet where I feel empowered to protect myself.  Where I don’t have to rely on the good will of the people around me to survive and thrive and be my Jewish self.

It’s a place that’s complicated, that’s difficult to live in, but at the end of the day, when someone points a gun at my Jewish soul, we can point a gun right back.

It’s called Israel.  And if you don’t support its existence, you’re no better than the man bludgeoning my people to death for daring to pray in Hebrew in a city my family called home.

America- if you didn’t understand why we need such a state before this massacre, I hope you get it now.  But in the end, even if you don’t, that’s why I live there and not here.  Because my existence there isn’t dependent on your understanding, however much I still want it.

It’s dependent on us.

May the memories of the dead be for a blessing.  And may it inspire the Jewish people everywhere to live, to come together, to grow.  And for our non-Jewish neighbors to stand up for us before they find our once-thriving communities turned into the history exhibits that fill the European continent with tourist attractions.  Rather than living beings.