What Reform and Orthodox Jews can learn from each other

First, a little background.  I was raised a Reform Jew and have been involved in the community since I was a young child.  I served on my Temple’s youth group board, was on the NFTY-MAR Social Justice Committee, traveled with Kesher to Argentina, led my college’s Reform Chavurah, and represented my movement as part of my Federation’s dialogue program with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox youth.  I’ve led services in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv.  I’ve visited Reform communities in at least eight different countries.  And I believe that social justice and tikkun olam should be integral parts of Jewish practice.

In addition to my ongoing involvement in the Reform world, I am also a member of an Orthodox synagogue and have on various occasions over the past six months prayed regularly at three different Modern Orthodox synagogues.  I’ve been to Orthodox weddings.  I’ve davvened with Hasidim in Bnei Brak.  I’ve wandered the Haredi bookstores of Me’ah She’arim and Crown Heights and done Sukkot with a Chabad family in Montreal.  I’ve visited the ultra-Orthodox community in Antwerp and eaten gefilte fish in a  Satmar restaurant in Williamsburg.  I’ve spent countless Shabbats eating and laughing and counting on my Orthodox friends to both provide joy in my life, and to be there for them when they needed a sympathetic ear.  These are deep relationships I’ve developed and am proud to have, including with Modern Orthodox rabbis who I’m out of the closet to as a gay man.  I’m a member of Eshel, an amazing organization of LGBTQ+ Jews who’ve spent (or spend) time in Orthodox spaces.

I find myself in the unique position of loving both communities and finding something beautiful in each space.  Theologically I still define myself as a Reform Jew, albeit one whose practices lean more traditional than the average member of our communities.  And I think both communities, often at loggerheads and in political conflict in Israel and around the world, should learn from one another.

Let’s start with the concept of community.  Orthodox Jews are brilliant community builders.  Study after study shows that if you want to make friends, you need to see them regularly, organically, and often spontaneously.  Last Shabbat I went to synagogue for kiddush and without even asking, a friend invited me to lunch, where I happened to be joined by a new member of the congregation who I had been talking with on WhatsApp for months answering his questions.  He’s new to town and until Saturday, I had never even met him face-to-face.  I didn’t even view it as a favor, I just felt it was part of the ethos of my community.  Countless people had stepped up and included me in their lives, I would of course do the same for a new member of the synagogue.  Warmth, kindness, and inclusion of new members is interwoven organically into the fabric of the Orthodox communities I’m a part of.  It’s not a special initiative or program- it’s an integral part of the lifestyle.

When you add to this mix the fact that many Orthodox Jews feel an obligation to regularly go to synagogue, it is a potent way to build links between people.  I know that any given week, without having to make plans, I will see most of my friends in the same two or three synagogues.  And sometimes more than once a week if there are weddings, additional holidays, and sometimes even Shrek viewings!  There’s a tightknittedness that one rarely sees in the modern world.  And leads to a rich spiritual, social, and communal life.

In short, consistent obligation creates community in a way that progressive synagogues have rarely succeeded in doing.

So what, then, can Orthodox Jews learn from their Reform brethren?  A few things.  One, that tightknittedness need not come at the expense of concern for the “other”.  In a world that is increasingly polarized and in which we are witnessing political cruelty at the highest levels, Jews cannot remain silent.  Even if it does not always directly affect “us”.  In other words, it requires great effort to ensure that communal solidarity and tightknittedness doesn’t come at the expense of caring for those not in the community.  Reform Jews are incredible at tikkun olam and social justice work that ensures that Judaism is also part of a broader societal “we”.  Politics is often hushed in Orthodox communities that I’ve been a part of, and while this can be a reprieve from the news cycle, I believe religion is inherently political.  Being quiet for the sake of internal cohesion can come at the expense of speaking out on the issues of the day like the Prophets of old.  We come from a tradition of speaking in the here and now.  While respecting diversity of opinion within the Jewish community is important, so is mobilizing to protect the rights of others.

Another thing Orthodox Jews could learn from Reform Jews is to let go of some of the guilt they feel for making non-halachic decisions.  In other words, because Orthodox Judaism views Jewish law as binding, when individuals (inevitably) make personal decisions about the nature of their religious observance, it is often accompanied by a sense of feeling “less” observant than their peers.  With accompanying guilt, or a sense of inhabiting a lower spiritual plane.  Reform Jews, precisely because they celebrate rational, educated choice as the gateway to religious practice, don’t feel as much guilt about not keeping the same “level” of kashrut or traditional Sabbath observance.  For Reform Jews, Judaism is an evolving tradition.  So if we accept that even the most strictly Orthodox Jews make individual decisions about religious practice, perhaps it’d be beneficial to simply label this as “difference” rather than “levels” of observance.  You are not more or less Jewish than someone else simply because of the time of night you light Shabbat candles.  Rather, it’s because of the light you feel from their warmth in your heart, inspiring acts of kindness.

Reform Jews could use some more religious obligation, ritual, and communal warmth.  Orthodox Jews could use less guilt, more openness to change, and more concern for people outside their community’s borders.

And we could all use a deep breath.  There are enough crazy people in the world who are happy to persecute us for being Jewish, for being different.  Do we really need to add to the masses of fanatics by hating each other too?  After all, it’s hardly as if anti-Semites are clamoring to persecute only one kind of Jew.  Kindness is the path forward for the Jewish community- both internally and our relationship with the rest of the world.

The biggest difference between Israeli and American Jews

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

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

That difference is positioning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Whole Grain Judaism Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s how you sow an orchard.

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

Gratz College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dual loyalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to an archive I recently visited.

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

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

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

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

And I had that pleasure today.

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

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

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

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

And that’s something I learned about today.

How many of you know who David Salisbury Franks was?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American. Jewish. Israeli. Proud.

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

The Donald- and other people whose names begin with D

In the year and a half since starting this blog, I have never used Donald Trump’s name for the title of a post.  Knowing full-well that more people would click on the post, I still resisted.  First off, because I think there are more interesting, textured things in the world to talk about.  And secondly, because…basically the first point.  Enough people are kicking and screaming (in both directions) about this one individual that I decided that when I did comment on him, it’d be in the context of a post.  Not the title.

Until today.

Being in America now has been odd.  On the one hand, it’s been great.  America is a very calm place compared to Israel, and indeed much of the world.  It has nothing close to the level of crime of Latin America and not nearly the level of terrorism that you see in the Middle East.  If you’re American and reading this and tempted to say “of course, but…”, realize how lucky you are.  If you’ve never lived through an air raid siren or personally grown up in a favela, you’re doing better than most of the world.  And shouldn’t take it for granted.  Stop whining.

On the other hand, America is a rough transition.  I know I said stop whining, but indulge me for a moment.  Israel, for all its faults, is home to a very direct yet flexible culture.  People say what they think, which is refreshing.  Even if sometimes you wish people would say less.  In addition, people find creative solutions.  The end result is much, much more important than the formalities of the process.  And while sometimes, in excess, that leads to abuse (like the lack of rental protections for apartments), at its best it means creativity and even empathy.

To give an example.  I was on the train the other day.  Oddly enough, some trains in America still use paper tickets you buy on board.  I bought a ticket from a station to one about 15 minutes away.  First off, it costs $5, which is absurd.  Then I realize that I needed to go one more stop.  One stop.  The conductor comes over and says I need to buy a whole new ticket.  I showed him my prior ticket and asked if I could just pay the difference.  His response:

“Now that we’ve passed the other station, your ticket is invalid.  You need to buy a new one.”

No matter the irrationality of the rule (I was going one extra stop and clearly hadn’t been on this train before), he stuck to it.  And charged me another $5.  To go one stop.

This hyper awareness of rules- and their enforcement- is part of what makes it easier to understand boundaries in America.  And to protect yourself.

It’s also what makes this place dull and heartless at times.

In Israel, I’ve found myself at countless train stations where my card didn’t work or I bought the wrong ticket and the people simply let me in.  I have never, ever been fined anything.  The assumption in Israel is that you’re well-intentioned until you prove otherwise.  I feel the assumption in America is the rules are the rules and if you didn’t know them or broke them, you pay the price.  For better and worse.

There’s a rigidity to this place that is both calming and deeply irritating.  I know how the rules work, and I’m angry that they never bend when they should.

As I’m in the States for the time being, I’ve also done a little looking for sublets.

My inclination is to live by myself (re-adjusting to life here and healing from 30 years of trauma is hard enough without tacking on a roommate relationship to manage).  But given both my budget and my need for flexibility, I figured I wouldn’t rule out a roommate.

I found a neat ad on Craigslist.  Mostly furnished place, ready for move-in now.  I emailed with the guy, seemed reasonable.  Talked on the phone, and also no red flags.  I headed over.

I was in for a surprise.

First off, Mark had a huge American flag in his living room.  Nothing alarming, but a bit odd.  I can’t remember ever seeing one in previous apartments I had lived in.

Then, Mark tells me he dresses up in cammo and does some sort of military reenactments with his friends.  Something akin to paintball, I didn’t quite catch the name.

A bit off the beaten path, but he was being open about it and didn’t want me to be alarmed when I saw him all decked-out.  To each his own.

Mark was also excited that I was Israeli.  He himself was half Jewish and his landlord was in the IDF.  I was already rather nervous coming back to the States.  Especially liberal areas where I’ve spent most of my life, where Israel has become a curse word.  Rather than a country with its ups and downs like all others.  So that was refreshing- check that box off the list.

When I mentioned I was also gay, he said something to the effect of he’s too busy to care what other people do and he has lived with gay roommates in the past.  All right- not a super answer, but an offensive one either, as best I could tell.

Then came the kicker.

He showed me his assault rifle.

I really didn’t know what to say.

Those of you who know me know I’m probably one of the most adventurous people out there.  I have friends from every background- yes, including Republicans.  But this was…new.

I told him as much.  He told me he wanted to show me to be up front with me and it was just a hobby- or to shoot intruders.  The last part added like kind of a side note, that later flashed brightly in front of me.  The red flag slowly starting rising.

I told him I don’t drink.  Those of you who follow my blog know that I don’t drink – I haven’t drunk in years.  So while I don’t mind being around people who drink, it has to be in moderation and no loud parties in my apartment.  Or people pressuring me for not drinking.

He said he was a “one beer after work” kind of guy and rarely held parties.  A kind of reasonable sentiment, until I started looking around.  A quick glance in the living room revealed some 12 large bottles of liquor.  In the kitchen, more.  In the refrigerator, beer vodka vodka beer.

I started to realize that while Mark was a rather soft spoken and actually quite flexible person (he was even willing to switch rooms if it was quieter for me), he was deeply unaware of himself.  And if the small Trump sticker on his bulletin board didn’t seal the deal, his assault rifle meters away from his alcohol did.

I left.

Let’s take things in the other direction.

I recently found myself at a university library.  One of the staff members was a cute young gay guy.  We found ourselves chatting and I mentioned something about living in Tel Aviv and my passion for Jewish history.  He seemed excited about the latter, yet the conversation quickly turned to politics.  I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it ended up there.

Using the most polite, sophisticated words he waxed about the fragility of American democracy, the threat of social media to mankind, the glories of the midterm elections, and you can basically discern the rest.  It was like an NPR story had sex with the Liberty Bell.  And all the beautifully crafted words basically could be summarized as this: Republicans are evil, Democrats are America’s last hope, and woe to our country.  Trump is the anti-Christ.  We’re truly disintegrating into oblivion.

While I admit I agree with some of his sentiments, I don’t identify with such a black-and-white worldview.  I wondered whether my nuance would stand here as tall as it stood in Israel, and while I’m not yet sure of its height, stand it does.

Because while I probably vote 90% the same way as this man, our worldviews feel quite distant.  When I told him about problems in other countries, he almost seemed surprised.  As if America’s woes were number one.  Everywhere else must be easier.

Except that’s ridiculous.  For all the issues here (and there are real ones- healthcare, mass shootings, etc.), this country is pretty well off.  It’s one of the richest, safest places on the planet.  What’s odd here is that the people complaining the most, the people most absorbed by their angst, tend to be the most comfortable.  The highly educated, high-income crowd- just the one that went to Harvard instead of Vanderbilt.

Which leads me to an interesting story.

On New Year’s Eve I found myself alone at a hotel.  It was lonely.  Between the intense jet lag, the hours upon hours of travel, the job hunt, and the apartment hunt- I was tired.  I actually forgot it was New Year’s- it wasn’t high on my agenda.  And in Israel, it’s a minor day, so much like Thanksgiving, I didn’t feel it much there.

But here, I felt alone.  Everyone was dressed up or with friends, and I was in a new place by myself.  And while I like spending time with myself, the potency of the moment made my aloneness strike deeper.

I went for a stroll in the rain.

Coming back, I decided to do something that often lifts my spirits (and would be a nice lesson for the cute gay guy wallowing in his sorrow).  I decided to do something nice for someone else.

At the front desk of the hotel was a woman named Donna.  Donna is African-American, super friendly, and has been really supportive of me during my apartment/job/life search.  No matter what time of day I saw her, she had a big smile and a warm heart.

How warm of a heart, I was about to find out.

I didn’t have much to give.  My bank account is dry.  My possessions few- they all fit in my two suitcases.

So I sat down and made her a New Year’s card.  I got some colored markers and wrote her name in about 20 different languages.  And drew a pretty picture.

Then I gave her the card.  I told her how much it meant to me how supportive she had been this week.  And that it must suck to be working on New Year’s so I wanted to say thank you.

She was moved.  She thanked me and talked about why she loved working in a hotel.  That she enjoyed customer service- even if some of the customers were rough.  She had such a holistic attitude and resilience.  And you can see why she likes working with people- she’s a warm-hearted and outgoing person.

She asked what all the languages were and then told me she’d frame the picture with the new picture frames she got as a gift.

Then, Donna and I had a great three hour conversation.  About everything.  Donna lives in a part of town that does have real problems.  Gangs, violence, drugs.  She’s worried for her kids’ lives.  Including her daughter who was turning 16 that night.  And who Donna, being a fantastic mom, treated to a night at the hotel with all her cousins and friends.

I told Donna about my own challenges.  About living without my family.  About air raid sirens and bomb scares and my dwindling back account.  About being alone in so many ways.  In a new town, re-adjusting to life in a country I never thought I’d be in right now.

And she was deeply empathetic.

What was so remarkable is that she didn’t want to talk about Trump.  When I mentioned the nutsy guy with the assault rifle, she was compassionate towards me.  She thought he was nuts.  I mentioned he had a Trump sticker and that while I had all different types of friends, he kind of was a living caricature of his voters.  But the funny thing is that Donna didn’t bite.  While it’s hard to imagine her being a Trump voter (although it’s possible), she just didn’t care to get into a political discussion or a “woe is me” fiesta.

She kept commenting how crazy it was for him to have a gun next to alcohol and that she was glad I was looking for somewhere else.

As our marathon conversation drew to a close (along with some impromptu Destiny’s Child karaoke), I didn’t realize I was in for such a treat.

Her daughter came down, we all sang Happy Birthday, and she gave me some cake.

So I sat there, one Jewish guy and about 15 black kids in a hotel lobby.  Singing Happy Birthday- and feeling at home.  Realizing that home isn’t about self-pity and it’s not about a physical place.  It’s about a total stranger who welcomes you and makes you feel like you matter.

Donna is that kind of person.  Despite going through real, rather than imagined, hardships, she keeps her head up.  She’s self-aware- she knows the challenges facing her and her family.  But she has hope and resilience and knows that the problem is bigger than one person.  Even if I agree that that person (yes, Donald Trump) is obviously making most of America’s problems worse.

What struck me about Donna is that she was a naturally curious and welcoming person.  When I talked about Israel or Judaism or languages or D.C. or anything- she didn’t argue or judge.  She just cared.  And treated me like the human being I see her as.

Because what this country needs- what everyone needs- is not just a new political system nor a new leader.  Although Lord knows the way things are going won’t work.

What this country needs is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is love.

Not just for people who look, who pray, who think like you.  But for everyone.

And that doesn’t mean forfeiting your personal safety nor pretending that all ideas are equally valid.  After all, I didn’t end up rooming with the Trump supporter.  Alcohol and firearms are a bad idea, and even if I’d honestly be curious to learn more about his views over coffee, it’s nothing I’m going to risk in the place I call home.

What it means is just being a human being.

And what strikes me about being here is that my loyalties and identities are challenged from two poles.

On the one hand stand people like Mark, infatuated with a kind of preconceived notion of what Israel is.  As if we all walk around with Uzis and a ceaseless masculinity.  While it’s nice to feel accepted as an Israeli, it’s a one dimensional view of a complicated and interesting place with eight million different people.  A place where I spent so much time with Druze and Arabs and queer people.  The kind of people Mark doesn’t think of when he thinks of Zion.

On the other hand stand self-righteous but ultimately no less scary people like the library guy.  While he appeared to show deep interest in Judaism, it was only insofar as it related to his political agenda.  So he railed against right-wing anti-Semitism, but didn’t have anything to say about Israel.  His repeated silence in and of itself a kind of answer.  In fact, from the moment I sat down, I almost felt interrogated as to how much I agreed with him.  A kind of litmus test, perhaps a loyalty test that Jews have faced for centuries.  Am I one of the good Jews who embraces his politics?  Perhaps not his intention, but certainly how I felt.  Because while he was enthused to rail about gender and race and Trump and anti-Semitism, he had not a word to say about Israel even though I mentioned it multiple times.  A silence that speaks.

Basically, my identity, like in Israel, stands pulled in multiple directions.  My progressive, gay, culturally curious self veering towards the people who dislike me for being Israeli.  And my Israeli, assertive, not-always-left-wing nuance landing in bed with people like Mark who think that means I share an entire set of values.  Which I don’t.

So where does that leave me?

Torn, confused, tired, pleased (I did eat macaroni and cheese pizza today- God bless America).  Safe, scared, whole, calm, anxious.

The one thing reassuring in this process are some of the open-minded people I’ve met that show how great this country can be.  And how we can’t fall prey to the extremes who rest self-confident in their judgment of each other- and of all of us.

Waiting for the train the other day, my phone data was low, so I asked a guy for directions.  The young man, Dylan, is originally from the Philly area but now lives in Dallas.  He was equally lost but, in a move that is straight from an Israeli playbook, he walked with me to find the answer.

Dylan is a great guy.  I have no idea what his politics are- if I had to guess, he’s probably left-of-center.  Maybe similar to me.  Maybe not.  I really don’t know.  Which is the point.

Because Dylan opened his Google Maps, chatted with me, made me feel at home while lost.  Not because of my politics nor my Israeliness (or Americanness).  But because I was a fellow human being who was lost.  Because he is a nice, compassionate person.

So we ended up spending the train ride together.  And it was great.  He was intellectually curious, he listened to my stories from my travel (without jumping to conclusions or rushing to categorize what was progressive or not).  He basically was just a human being.

So if one thing gives me hope about America, it’s people like Dylan and Donna.  That while people are focused on Donald, there are other people whose names start with D worthy of talking about.  I’ll take Donna and Dylan over Donald.

That while there’s a time and a place to be angry and to rage.  And there’s a time to protect yourself (again, no assault rifles + alcohol).  There’s also a time to treat the people around you as people rather than voters.  As fellow travelers rather than someone who needs to be heading in the same direction as you.

As people you’re willing to help to find their way, even if it leads to a different station.

I miss Israeli directness.  I miss the creativity, the energy, the diverse cultures, the immense amount of things to do.

But I like American quiet sometimes.  And while the rules are a bit unruly, they sometimes serve a purpose.

And while the political extremes here have gotten much more extreme since I was last here, there is hope.

The hope that while our views matter, our shared humanity matters most.  And the unsung heroes of this country are the people who live out their values in their daily lives.  Without a reason to beg for praise or highlight their virtue.

The kind of people who invite you to their 16 year old daughter’s birthday party.  Or help you find your train station and make you feel welcome.

Because life is not about your destination.  Nor where you start.

And much like the rusty, overpriced train I took, it’s not about the vehicle.

It’s most of all about the direction.

May you find fellow travelers willing to help you get there.  And don’t be afraid to be the one to guide someone in need.  Not to the station of your choosing, but towards the hope they call home.

Wishing you a fulfilling New Year wherever you roam.  With people who light your path and lighten your burden.

p.s.- that’s me and Donna in the cover photo.  She says I’m her new BFF and we’re going karaokeing soon.  I can’t wait 😉

You can always return

One of the most fascinating things about Portugal is its Jewish community.

Jews have lived here for 1,500 years. Then forcibly converted 400 years ago during the Inquisition, sometimes burned at the stake. In the late 1800s, the community was revived by the migration of Moroccan Jews. Most of whom had roots in the very communities expelled from the Iberian peninsula. But according to my friend Eduardo, who I’ll tell you more about later, native-born Portuguese of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to return to the faith of our ancestors. This only changed a few decades ago.

Which led to the most fascinating phenomenon I have ever witnessed in a Reform synagogue.

It was Friday night. I spent a long day visiting Tomar, a medieval town two and a half hours outside Lisbon. I went because it is beautiful and has a medieval synagogue- a pre-Inquisition remnant of Israel. With 5th century Hebrew tombstones. And an attendant who complained about me and an Israeli couple asking for one Hebrew brochure each. As if three pieces of printer paper was just a bridge too far.

“Vocês querem três?” she said with a grimace.

“Sim, e é o nosso património religioso, acho que está bem.”

It’s our religious heritage, so I think it’s perfectly normal.

She quietly pursed her lips in the tiniest of frowns as we perused the small, but fascinating museum.

I think it’s fantastic that Portugal and other countries are working to preserve Jewish heritage, it’s a link to our shared past and critical for understanding where we’ve been- and where we’re going. But much as I would suggest a white tour guide for a slavery museum not give black visitors a hard time for asking for leaflets, I think the person working a Jewish museum should show a little compassion. We’re not asking for the building back- we simply want to read what it’s about. You’re lucky we’re here- and given your country’s penchant for persecuting us, so are we.

I headed back to Lisbon, somewhat despairing. I had just written a blog yesterday about how much I loved Portugal. And before I visited the museum, I had a truly magnificent experience hiking in the mountains nearby and strolling the medieval walkways.

On the long train ride, I debated what to do that night. I had given my passport information to Reform synagogue Ohel Jacob to go to services. Because that’s the reality in Europe- and it won’t be long before it’s the reality in America too. Due to anti-Semitism, every synagogue in Europe has extensive security and unlike cathedrals, you can’t simply pop in. You have to fill out a visitor form with your personal info and send a picture of your passport. It’s to prevent us from being butchered- much as we have been on this continent for millennia. To this very day.

Running on 3 hours of sleep, up late thinking about big life decisions, and having traveled 5 hours on a train, I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and prepare for my flight to America the next morning.

But something in my soul told me to go.

So I grabbed a cab, with a rather wily driver who couldn’t believe I didn’t know where the street was. I told him I hoped he never got lost in New York if he visits sometime 😛 . Try to be the understanding person and realize not everyone knows your country like the back of their hand. Which is why I’ve often found myself directing tourists around Tel Aviv, sometimes sitting down with them for hours helping them plan their visits. Be the kind person who helps someone find their way.

I often visit synagogues around the world. And for Friday night services, although I can’t say I particularly believe in the actual message of the prayers (I’d much rather be singing in the forest of Tomar), I find something magical about the moment. For me spirituality is where I feel free to dance, to sing, to express my innermost fears, hopes, and spontaneous desires. It’s not being told what words to say when and how and singing in unison. It goes against every grain of my being- there’s no way that the human spirit was built to conform. Or that the words of someone 2,000 years ago should or could possibly express my full sentiments.

What I find magical about prayer, then, is the act itself. For me, Jewish history and survival is the most miraculous phenomenon. So the fact that we’re sitting in a room, using the same ancient words, melding with the symbols our ancestors have known for centuries, that is magical. Something we share with Jews everywhere.

This kesem, this enchantment, reaches new heights in Portugal. And this night more than any other.

Because to sit praying with Jews in Portugal 400 years after the genocide of our people is the most spiritually connecting thing I’ve ever done in a synagogue. The fact that it’s the first and only Reform one here is an added bonus that made it particularly salient for me. Familiar, comfortable, known but different.

For most of the melodies I knew by heart. But the accents pronouncing them were Portuguese, not American or Israeli. The resh taking on that particular Lisboan roll. The siddur itself from Brazil, half in the holy tongue, half in the language of Camões. It was beautiful to hear the congregants read out loud prayers I knew- but in a lilting and soothing Portuguese. Next time you get a chance to visit a synagogue abroad, go. Because even hearing the words you know in a different language can really change the way you see them. Only for the better.

Everyone in the room looked like Jewish faces I had seen before. In Maryland, in Argentina, in Barcelona, in Belgium, in Israel. They even invited me to lead some of the prayers, which I found quite fulfilling. Because even if the words themselves aren’t my dogma, the act of sharing them with the people around me was electric. And sometimes I found myself slipping into a spiritual state, where I couldn’t quite separate my past religiosity, my current spirituality, the heightened significant of the current moment, and my desire to separate them all in the name of rationalism. It’s healthy to live in the gray space rather than forcing yourself to conform to an all-or-nothing vision of the world. And so I found myself belting out Adon Olam as my own prayer, even as I questioned why it resonated for me so much. But living and love the hypocrisy. Neat lines are for buying a ticket at the movie theater. At least in America. Not in Israel, where there is no line at all. Or in Portugal, where the line exists but elegantly and gently and without compulsion. It’s the middle ground I’ve been searching for, and I flow into the veins of Portugal in a way I’ve never settled in any other country.

At the end of services, I was invited to make kiddush, the blessing over the fruit of the vine. It’s a prayer with complicated words that sometimes engage my own mixed feelings about Jewish theology. But is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.

So to do honor to this tiny and bold community, I grabbed the cup and blessed it. With a gusto and a sense of pride. I loved my own voice. And for someone who grew up being senselessly criticized left and right, it felt whole to enjoy myself. And the congregants loved it- one man gave me a big thumbs up 🙂

Then we sat down to an oneg, as is often the case on Friday night.

As we began to eat, the stories began to flow as much as the wine.

The conversation quickly turned to the Inquisition and how many of the Portuguese were descended from Jews forced to convert. Apparently many of whom took the surnames of trees, which is how you can recognize them today. Such as Oliveira, or olive tree, the last name of one of the congregants, Eduardo.

I looked around the room and asked how many of the people were Bnei Anusim, or descendants of forced converts.  And wish an almost embarrassed look, every single one said yes.  A bashfulness undeserved- I find it extraordinary that someone would want to dig up their roots and reconnect with the very faith that led to their family being persecuted.  And then rejoin it.  To those in the Jewish world who are unwilling to engage with this community I have a message.  Perhaps if you dedicated one tenth of the time you spend on trying to get apathetic Jews to do Jewish things and put it towards engaging these people who want to be Jewish, things might be going better for us.

Their stories were fascinating.  I didn’t get to talk with everyone- there was one really kind older woman who sat with me during services but I didn’t get to chat with her much after.  Especially in a group setting it can be hard to make time to talk with the quieter folks, but they often have the most interesting stories to tell.  And when I go back, I’d like to sit down with her more.

The stories I did hear were moving.  People who had grandparents or parents tell them they were Jewish- on their deathbeds.  DNA tests that showed Sephardic ancestry.  One man from Brazil- because remember, a lot of forced converts fled to the Americas- told me his father refused a Catholic funeral.  No crosses were present when he was buried- and he told his daughter (who then told this man) that they were Jews.  And every person in that room wouldn’t make you bat an eye if you saw them on the streets of Tel Aviv or in synagogue in San Francisco.

As the night winded down, it was about 10:30pm and I was tired.  But I stayed a bit longer to say goodbye to the congregation, and then Eduardo invited me to see their museum.  Museum?  This was a one room apartment, where was there a museum?

But sure enough, a tiny room behind where we prayed held something I can barely find words to describe.  Eduardo had buried the lede.

In this antique-looking room filled with old wooden bookshelves was the library of Polish and German holocaust survivors.

Because Ohel Jacob was not started as a congregation for Bnei Anusim.  It was, in a fashion typically cyclically Jewish, started by Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  And so it was actually an Ashkenazi synagogue, now being prayed in by Sephardim.  Whose founders, when they eventually fled to America, handed the keys to the first generation of Bnei Anusim in Portugal to “come out of the closet”.

As a deep bibliophile and lover of Jewish history, I couldn’t imagine a more potent or exciting moment.  The books lay largely in tatters, but still coherent.  I opened some.  I found books from Lublin, Poland, from Vienna, from Germany.  In Hebrew, in German, in Yiddish.  Sometimes with a touch of Polish or Russian.  They had all the character of an old, bound book you’d find in the corner of a 19th century library.  With all the Jewish spirit you could possibly ask for.  Here are some pictures:

Eduardo is learning how to read Hebrew.  He can sound out some of the words (and prays quite well- he lead services for the first time this week!).  But he couldn’t understand what the books meant.

So I opened them and began to explain.  It was this beautiful Jewish moment of transmission- of taking my knowledge, imparting it to someone thirsty to learn.  And of living in this precious moment together, with the spirit of the Holocaust survivors hovering over us.  And in the thin air that separated our two physical selves, even as our souls drew closer together.

As if the books themselves weren’t enough of a find, it turns out there was more.  There was a Torah scroll burnt to a crisp, covered with a tallit to protect it.  Eduardo thinks it may have been destroyed in Kristallnacht.

Nearby was a megillah, or the Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim.  Commemorating our survival of an attempt to annihilate us in ancient Persia.  I read the words aloud to him, a poignant moment that reminds us that our present circumstances are nothing new.  A long view of Jewish history reveals how fragile our existence is- and how our persistence has kept us alive.

Back in the main prayer room were five more Torah scrolls.  As Eduardo unveiled the ark that held them, he pointed to one in particular:

“This one is 500 years old.  From Iraq.  I’m not sure exactly how it got here.”

I stood in absolute awe- and distilled silence.

Here were these treasures of Jewish history, rotting but still alive.  And the only thing stopping them from having made it to a trash pit is this dedicated congregation.  Descendants of forcibly converted Sephardim preserving the Yiddish books of Holocaust survivors.  It’s a higher order humanity that’s hard to find if you scroll the front page of the news these days, but it’s as real as it is crucial.

The congregation has about 50 people these days.  Most, but not all, Bnei Anusim.  And they have a volunteer librarian who is helping catalogue the books.  You can see it online here.

If you find yourself in Lisbon, I can’t think of a better place to spend a Friday night.  Visit them and strengthen this beautiful community.  At a time when anti-Semitism has pushed some Jews to disaffiliate or dislike their own faith, Ohel Jacob is a reminder of the gifts our tradition has to offer.  And the strength of the Bnei Anusim in digging through layers of family history and prejudice to reconnect to it.  Bruchim habaim habayta- welcome home to the Jewish people.  Here’s a picture of me and some of my new friends from Ohel Jacob:

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Sometimes I ask myself (or others ask me) why I wander.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just go with a set plan and stick to it?  To craft a life itinerary?  Some people want to know where I’ll be in a month, in a year.  I don’t know.  That’s part of what makes exploring magical.  If I had stuck to my original plans a year and a half ago, I’d be in rabbinical school in Jerusalem.  I probably never would’ve written my blog.  I wouldn’t have had time to travel to 10 countries and 120 villages in Israel.  My Arabic wouldn’t have become fluent, I wouldn’t have learned Italian and beefed up my Portuguese.  I wouldn’t be able to understand as much Romanian.  Nor know how to dance dabke.  Nor realize some important things about myself.  That I like quiet time.  That I love exploring different cultures, and sometimes I just want to speak English.  That I actually like some things about America that I didn’t have the context to appreciate before.

And many of the experiences that have so enriched me might not have happened.  If I had stuck to my original plan, would I have sung in the great synagogue of Satmar?  Would I have befriended Roma in rural Romania?  Or eaten Hungarian Jewish pastries in Budapest?  Or discovered that my great uncle was killed liberating Europe from Nazis?  Or that there are people in Andalucía who live in caves?  Or learned the Spanish word “invernaderos” while exploring Almería, a city covered in greenhouses?

Probably not.  I might had other adventures.  But I wouldn’t have had as much time for these.  And I probably wouldn’t have ended up everywhere I did if I simply stuck to a plan.  I doubt I would’ve made my way to Romania three times if I had sat in Washington, D.C. and crafted a year itinerary.  But having been there once, I liked it, and it drew me to go again.  Giving myself the flexibility to change plans has opened up doors to me that remain shut for folks who insist on everything going according to schedule.

So as I write this blog, I find myself not in Tel Aviv, not in Portugal, but in New Jersey.  A place I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting even a month ago.  It’s perhaps appropriate that I first started writing the post on a plane from Portugal- in the airspace that is neither here nor there.  A real wanderer is willing to milk that middle space.  And live with the understanding that the borders, or rules, we are taught to respect sometimes need a little massaging.  Because to find richness, you’ve got to be willing to throw away some of the expectations.  As much as you have to be willing to realize that sometimes they have value.

Today I found myself in the curious position of peering at Google Maps and realizing that directly across the street from where I’m staying is a Jewish cemetery.

After getting a solid American bagel with whitefish salad (please, Israel, learn the value of real bagels!), I strolled into the graveyard.

As you can probably tell from this blog, I’m in America for now.  Not sure exactly how long (again, see my wandering comment).  Could be three months, could be longer.  And maybe less.  Who knows.  Wherever I find myself, I find myself with a bit of yearning mixed with sorrow.  That Portuguese feeling of saudade, where you reach for the best of the past, with the sadness that is it not here now.  In my case, I think it means knowing the beauty and the sorrow of each place, of each experience I’ve had.  And realizing it’s not entirely possible to separate them.  Am I a different, more healed person today because I grew as an individual or because I was in Israel?  I might be able to parse some of that out, but I’m not certain they are so easily picked apart.  Going to Israel was a wise choice, because as I sit here now, I feel like I have grown as a person.  That the hardships are not something I’ll particularly miss while I’m away, and if I had never stepped on that plane, I can’t imagine I would’ve learned nearly as much about myself or the world.  About where I’m from, and who I am.

In the end, I’m still an Israeli citizen, I still pay my bituach leumi, I can come and go whenever I want.  Israelis do it all the time- to work abroad, to go on long trips after the army, to explore.

The difference in my case is that I’m also from here.  So it feels different to come here than someone who didn’t grow up American.  It feels eagerly comfortable for me to see muenster cheese, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies worthy of the name, to eat New York style pizza, to eat real cheddar cheese.  And not to break the bank doing so.  As you can tell, cheese is pretty crucial- and while I love European and some Israeli cheeses, I have to say I gave a “come and get me” look to a stack of American cheese the other day.  I missed you America.

So I live in that space of saudade.  Because however long I’m here, it’s different.  It’s pleasant to be back, it’s hard to reconcile my past with my present, and as much as I love exploring different cultures, it can be difficult to emotionally prepare yourself for the jumping back and forth.

Feeling an emptiness, a fear of losing my passion- for travel, for adventure, for Jewish exploration- I headed across the street to the cemetery.

And the most curious thing happened.

The very first grave I saw said “Adler”.  And I have to double check my genealogical research, but this New Jersey town’s name sounded familiar.  It was one of those bashert, “meant to be” moments that reminded me I’m from here too.  And American Jewry has a story to tell as well.  It’s my story.  And I’m glad to contribute to it while I’m here.  And to the best of my ability, wherever I am.

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What my experience in Israel- and my short time here so far- has taught me is that you can always return.  The Jews of Portugal, of Ohel Jacob, know this better than anyone.  Life, like history, is full of surprises.  Who knows when I’ll be hopping on a plane or a train or digging through an archive again.  Or finding new ways to explore.

You can always return, but you can never go back.  Because as you grow and develop, if you strive for health and wholeness and understanding of self, you won’t feel the same.  Which is why when I needed a little dose of the confidence I developed in Israel while ordering pizza today, I talked to some friends on WhatsApp in Hebrew.  And I felt my backbone straighten and my warmth grow within.

To be a Jew, to be me, is to wander.  Maybe physically, maybe intellectually.  To enjoy where you are, but never get too comfortable.  To always have a suitcase packed because you don’t know what might happen.  Or what might motivate you to go somewhere else.

Life is like a rubber band.  There’ll always be different feelings pulling you in different directions, and you evaluate how far you can stretch.  Whether you want to stretch in a different direction.  Or whether the gap between the ends is too tense and might snap.  In Israel, the diverse cultures and languages pull me in, the economy, the pressure to assimilate, and the conflict pull me out.  Although my desire to fix things pulls me in sometimes.  It might take some time to see how my rubber band stretches here.  But I’d say that the ease of life, the consideration, the lack of air raid sirens, the comfort of speaking my native language, and the well-paying jobs pull me in.  And the lack of directness, the sometimes suppressed emotions, the healthcare system, the anti-Semitism, and the constant smiling pull me out.  As does the fact that unlike in Israel, Jewish customs and our own physical appearance are not the norm, are not celebrated, are not public.  As I learned when I mistakenly tried an anti-“frizz” shampoo yesterday that “tamed” and suppressed my wavy Jewish hair which I’ve come to love.

I’ve seen in Israel and other places that every place has different ways of doing things.  Sometimes better, sometimes not.  I’m a richer and more aware person for knowing that, and not assuming the way I was raised, or the society I grew up in, is necessarily the only or best way to live.  Or the worst.

My rubber band will continue to stretch in different directions as the circumstances of my life and the societies around me change.  And may propel me, like the rubber bands we used to fling in elementary school, to new places and new situations.

Stick with me.  What I’ve realize is my spirit of adventure, of exploration, of intellectual curiosity is with me to stay.  So don’t be surprised when you find me speaking Yiddish to Amish people, or reading American Jewish archives from the 1800s, or talking to the Latinos who served me my bagel in Spanish today.  I’m happy to say that even if my life changes over the coming period, that part of me is ingrained.  And if the manner of exploration may change, the curiosity and desire to do so will not.

And Israeli friends, Romanian friends, Spanish friends, Catalan friends- miss me, but don’t despair.  Not only are we blessed with amazing communication tools these days, we’re blessed with amazing transit.  And while seeing your faces every day is not the same, stay in touch.  We haven’t broken up, we’re in a long distance relationship for now.  I don’t know when I’ll be back, but don’t be surprised if I’m messaging you “I’m coming to Kfar Sumea” or “I’m on my way to Valencia” with a few days notice.  Or even from your city itself.  That’s how I roll.  Be prepared for the unexpected- or not.  Just flow.

I’m an Israeli citizen.  I’m American- but not just.  I’m Romanian and Hungarian- and I’ve visited those places.  But I’m also Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Polish- and I haven’t stepped foot there- yet.  I’m an Arabic speaker and I’ve visited almost every Druze village in the Galilee- but I haven’t been to Julis yet.  Or to neighboring Jordan.  Or to the tiny Israeli villages that sit on the border with Egypt, facing the Sinai peninsula.  Where Moses himself wandered for 40 years.

If that sounds like a lot of exploring done, and a lot yet to do- you’re right.  Just don’t ask me for a plan- because for me, to know what you’re going to do the next 15 years is anathema to the way I experience the world.

As the cover image says in Portuguese: “volto já”.  I’ll be right back.  Or more literally “I’m already returning”.  Because perhaps to return is not to go back to where you were.  In fact, it’s not a place.  It’s to orient yourself in the direction of your soul.

The word “tshuva” in Hebrew means both repentance and return.  So that perhaps living in a state of self awareness is to continually strive to point ourselves in the direction of  our authentic desires and hope.  Being itself.

So I haven’t “gone back” to the U.S. nor have I “left” Israel.  It’s a childish dichotomy that doesn’t fit with the modern world, nor our capacity to be more than one thing.  Plus I feel the vibe of Portugal more than both- so who knows where life will take me.  I simply am where I am.  And where I sit right now is only one part of the story, if an important one.

I go where I go and I do what I do not to go back.  But to turn and re-turn and turn again until I find myself wandering again in a direction that brings me a sense of wonder, of joy, of fulfillment, of sadness, of challenge, of comfort, of growth, of repose.  Of healing.  Of life itself.

Keep journeying.  The Bnei Anusim of Portugal have been doing it for 400 years- and their story is still unfolding.  So is mine.

P.S.- here are some surprisingly beautiful pictures of New Jersey, a reminder to leave stereotypes at the door and explore for yourself.  As the picture says: “I never fold”.

The wonderful melancholy of Portugal

Portugal, for those who have never visited, is an awesome place.  But don’t hype it too much or you’ll sound like you don’t get the vibe.

One of the interesting things about Portugal, something I connect with, is the deep friendliness paired with an honest relationship with hardship.  Fado, the traditional music of this country, is exactly that.  Unlike the vibrant Flamenco of its Spanish neighbors, Fado is a slowly melding pot.  It doesn’t force you to separate the happy from the sad, it lets you feel where the two intersect.  And none of this prevents Portuguese people from smiling, giving you directions, and making conversation with you.  They kind of remind me of me.  To be “happy” is not to be joyous all the time.  It’s to treat others with kindness and warmth and compassion- and also to protect yourself and realize the pain too.  Rather than hiding it or gritting your teeth and smiling, pretending it’s not there.

While for me personally, I find a lot of Lisbon’s tourist attractions crowded and kind of dirty, other parts of the country (and even the city) are magical.  Just take a look:

Portugal is a land that has known both great sorrow and joy.  It was once home to one of the largest empires in the world.  Despite Romance language learners gravitating towards Spanish and French, Portuguese has 260 million speakers on four continents.  With a sound that just makes my ears feel at ease.  It’s kind of a sexy tongue.

It’s one that I learned in a semester in undergrad in a course “Portuguese for Spanish speakers”.  And this is my first time getting to speak it in a Lusophone country.  That’s the cool word for “Portuguese-speaking”.  What’s interesting is that although I learned Brazilian Portuguese and there are differences between the two dialects, I actually sometimes find myself understanding people here even better.  The pronunciation is a bit more similar to the Castilian Spanish I learned first.  And interestingly enough, it shares both grammatical features and phonology with Catalan.  For example, while some Spanish verbs have stem changes, i.e. dormir becomes duermo, in Catalan it’s dormo and in Portuguese it is also dormo.  In fact, in both Catalan and Portuguese the final “o” becomes a “u” sound.  And what’s more, in the continental variety of Portuguese, the “l” carries a particular weight to it that sounds kind of like Russian…or Catalan!  Geographic distance is not the only factor in linguistic similarity, and Portuguese and Catalan are proof of this, despite sharing no borders.

Portugal has known good and bad, both in its imperial endeavors as well as its domestic politics.  While I am far from an expert on Portuguese history (I really didn’t come here to be sad, there’s enough of that in the Middle East), I do know they had a modern dictatorship.  And much prior to that, they had the violence of the Inquisition.

After having enjoyed some of the delicious pastries, the nature, and some art, I decided to wander through some local neighborhoods to an archive.  I love archives- I’ve written about this before.  I’ve visited them in Girona, Salerno, and Tortosa.  They are always a source of inspiration and an opportunity to hold history in your hands, to connect physically to the past.  And they’re always free.

There’s not a lot of visible Jewish sites left in Lisbon.  There are some elsewhere in the country, but kind of far for a relatively short trip, so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to see.  I tried wandering the Alfama, the former Jewish quarter, and while there are apparently walking tours, there’s not a lot of Jewish things left to see.  Although you will notice the sign for the Jewish museum being constructed, apparently against the wishes of some neighbors.  Who are slowing down the process and whose motives aren’t entirely clear.  Some suspect anti-Semitism.  I am not an expert on Portuguese architecture, but the claim that the museum will disrupt the neighborhood vibe seems specious at first glance.  The neighborhood is dirty and a new building could probably do them some good.  Here’s the construction sign:

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In the Alfama, I asked a shop keeper for any advice about Jewish sites.  And to my great pleasure, he was kind enough to tell me his friend runs tours.  And he looked visibly pleased to be speaking with a Jew.  He was proud to tell me his friends visited Tel Aviv recently and loved it.  And irrespective of my own feelings about Tel Aviv (it’s not my favorite place in Israel), what was awesome is that he clearly liked Jews.  And I showed my warmth in kind.  He also said I spoke really good Portuguese 🙂

I’m an out-of-the-closet Jew and so while it doesn’t come up in every conversation I have (and sometimes I purposely say I’m American to avoid prejudice), it comes up often.  Naturally.  So I tend to get a good feel for the attitude of a culture towards Jews pretty easily.  And what I can say is that at least up until now, I haven’t felt any noticeable animosity.  While that might sound understated, it’s actually incredibly positive for today’s Europe.  A place where anti-Semitism is spreading like wildfire and a third of people don’t know what the Holocaust is.  What’s so interesting about Portugal, then, is how little of this animosity I feel.  Something reflected in the fact that polls show it having relatively low levels of anti-Semitism, despite the global trends in the opposite direction.  Even its next door neighbor Spain was rated the society with the highest levels of anti-Semitism in all of Europe.

When I visited the public library in Sintra, a city outside Lisbon, I asked about what Jewish books they had.  While it’s not a scientific study, it’s often instructive to see if local libraries have books on X or Y topics as a sense of their communal importance.  And it’s just as interesting to see what books they are and how they’re categorized.

In the case of Sintra, the librarian patiently wrote down the information of several books.  While at first, I had been disappointed at the two lonely Jewish books smushed between tons about Christianity and Islam in the religion section, I soon learned something else was at work.

In the Sintra public library, most Jewish books were found alongside (or within) books about Portuguese history.  The National Library in Budapest told me they didn’t have books about Jews because, “we only have books about Hungarians here”.  But the Sintra public library had Jewish knowledge integrated into their sections about Portugal itself.  A kind of anecdotal example that has so far paralleled my experience in both countries.  I found Hungary quite anti-Semitic and xenophobic.  And here, not as much.  Even though in both countries, Jews have played an outsize role in their history.  Well, in Portuguese history.  Because apparently in Hungary, Jews aren’t Hungarian.

So today, feeling an itch to look at some old documents and see if I could find some Jewish ruins, in the metaphorical sense, I headed to an archive.

At the archive, I managed to find archivists’ notes on the Inquisition.  According to the staff member, these notes were pretty old- and they were what the archivists saw in original Inquisition documents.  Everything was beautifully handwritten, even if the contents themselves were saddening.  A kind of writing Portuguese were made for.

For those who don’t know much about the Inquisition, when the Catholic kings conquered the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, they sought to unify disparate lands and consolidate power.  While initially they had tolerated and even co-existed with the Jewish communities- some of which dated back to Roman times- this changed.  In 1492, the Spanish conquered the last Moorish outpost and Catholicism was made the only state religion.  Jews who had lived on this land for thousands of years were forced to flee their homes, and many did- to Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Serbia, and elsewhere.  Leading to today’s Sephardic Jews.  Some of whom still speak Judeo-Spanish.  I even have a friend who teaches it in America- so if you find yourself at Binghamton, look up Prof. Kirschen.

The remaining Jews were tortured into converting to Catholicism.  Those who didn’t, were murdered, sometimes en masse.  And others converted to Catholicism, sometimes secretly practicing their ancient faith.

Spain imposed the Inquisition first, leading many of its remaining Jews to flee to Portugal.  Where unfortunately, a few years later, the country followed in Spain’s footsteps.

With brutal consequences I saw first hand today.

I found 5 shelves full of beautifully bound books.  I peered closer and found they were Inquisition records from the city of Évora.  The shelves contained no less than 113 separate volumes.  From a city that today has 56,000 people in a country of 10.3 million.  So it hardly represents the entirety of the Inquisition.  I’m not even sure it represents all of this records from this one city.

I opened one up.

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I couldn’t have imagined me using my Portuguese to read Inquisition documents when I learned it back in St. Louis, but this is how I roll.  And it’s always eye opening and fulfilling to see things first hand.

It didn’t take long to find the first person accused of the “crime of Judaism”.  That’s a direct quote.  For today’s anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour who claim hatred of Jews “isn’t systemic”, all they have to do is go to a library to realize they’re wrong.  It’s absurd to have to even say that.  The Inquisition documents were so brutally detailed and organized they seemed no different than the Nazis years later.  Perhaps even an inspiration.

The stories were heartbreaking.  I felt my emotions rising, unhindered by my American stiff upper lip nor my Israeli “who gives a shit”.  It was my inner Portuguese saudade mixed with a lot of sadness.  I felt connected to these people from ages ago, I wallowed in their pain, I held my hand to the text as I lifted their message into my life today.

The first condemned Jew I met was Alfonso Álvares.  He was 55 years old from Évora, the son of Lourenço and Constança.  Married to Inés de Miranda.  His crime: “judaísmo”.  He was arrested on November 12, 1654.  A full 118 after the arrival of this torturous regime to Portugal.  162 years after it’s initiation in Spain, where some of the Jews fled from.  The Inquisition was not a one year event- it lasted centuries to expunge the Jewishness from the entire peninsula- and its colonies in America.

What was Alfonso’s punishment for being a Jew?  He was imprisoned, all of his property was confiscated, and he was burned as a heretic 10 days later.  I wonder if this qualifies for Ms. Sarsour’s definition of “systemic”.  It only involved the state, the Catholic church, the prison system, and the organized confiscation of property.  You know, totally spontaneous.

Page after page was filled with people burned alive, imprisoned, and tortured for the “crime of Judaism”.

There was even a man, oddly enough, who wasn’t persecuted for being Jewish, but rather for making a “silver Jesus with the face of John, the Negro”.  A weird story that the archivist on staff didn’t even understand.  But clearly an example of how persecution of Jews is often the precursor to even more acts of hatred.  As senseless as the ones that started it.WhatsApp Image 2018-12-20 at 9.26.17 PM(1)

Then there was Branca Alvares, a Jew arrested on January 21, 1586, burned alive August 2, 1587.  In the intervening time, sentenced to prison, stripped of her clothes and her dignity.  A martyr for our faith, a defender of our right to be who we are.  I never met you, Branca, but I admire your bravery in the face of stupid hatred.  Our people persist because of people who resist, like you.  May your memory and those of all our people burned at the stake be for a blessing.  I dedicate this blog to you.  I hope that my work in the world does honor to your courage.

It’s worth noting here that many of the victims had their property confiscated by the Church, acting in concert with the state.  A common theme in Jewish migrations (and expulsions) is that we are often invited to countries for our trade networks and knowledge.  And subsequently expelled when the state decides it needs our property.  Portugal and Spain are no exception- their imperialism in the Americas was funded by persecuting Jews and stealing their money.  Which is why the Inquisition couldn’t end even with the conversion of the remaining Jews.  Denunciations of New Christians, or “conversos”, continued for centuries, allowing the state to intimidate people into conformity and compliance.  And simultaneously, rob Jews of their money to finance conquest around the world.

This aspect of anti-Semitism is one that confounds liberals to this day.  An overly simplistic understanding of rich=abuser, poor=victim does not help them understand the nature of anti-Semitism, which doesn’t fit this model.  Jews historically have been placed in the position of middle men.  Almost never in the history of Western civilization have we been allowed to lead a nation, but we are often invited to partake in slightly lesser but well remunerated jobs like lawyers, doctors, or in olden times, court advisors.  But never the king himself.  Which is why today in America, you have a strong representation of Jews in Congress, in entertainment, and in any number of prestigious professions.  Yet never has there been a Jewish president- nor do I think there will be.  Western civilization has not reckoned with anti-Semitism yet, and until it does, we will not be allowed at the top.

What are the implications?  Jews are stereotyped as rich.  I’ve heard this trope from Brazilians, Argentinians, Belgians, and even people I went to high school with.  Part of the reason for that is rulers could put certain Jews in these kind of prominent positions and divert the disgruntled populace’s anger towards them.  Rather than the ruler himself.  All the while, maintaining Jews’ inferiority by denying them access to the top of the system.  Often reinforced by discriminatory clothing, restricted living quarters, brutal violence, and more.  Christmas was traditionally a time to persecute Jews.

It’s a lesson progressives today need to learn if they want to understand the nature of anti-Semitism, because it operates in a different fashion from racism.  But with no less destructive results, as we’ve seen lately in Pittsburgh, across Europe, and elsewhere.

In other words, while some Jews are poor, the success of other Jews economically is used by rulers to eventually rally the populace to execute their genocide and expulsion.  Giving the ruler access to Jewish capital to finance his latest endeavor, and of course never actually helping the angry pitchfork-bearers themselves.

What’s curious about Portugal is the Jews are back.  In fact, while I’m not sure exactly why, Jews were back here sooner than in Spain.  Already in the early 1800s, after a thorough cleansing of anything Jewish here, Jews were allowed to return to the land they once called home.  It’s a brave and risky act I can’t even imagine.  You can still find today in Lisbon Shaare Tikva, a synagogue built by these returning Portuguese Jews.  In a twist of history few would have expected when Branca and Alfonso were being burned at the stake for the crime of Judaism.

I’m not sure what brought them back.  It’s a crazy thought- how could you trust the Portuguese people after all that hurt?  Maybe Portugal wanted Jewish capital again.  After all, today with its economy facing issues, it’s inviting descendants of expelled Jews to re-apply for citizenship.  An Orwellian, if perhaps well-intentioned, process.  In which Jews are having to collect documents 500 years later to get citizenship to a country their ancestors were expelled from.  An odd and uniquely Jewish scenario, but one that is leading quite a number of people to apply.  I hope the law is applied fairly and liberally if it is truly meant to make recompense for the past.  And that if the country wants us back this time, I hope it ends better today.

What’s truly amazing about the whole thing is how normal Portugal is today.

I’ve visited a lot of countries in Europe over time.  Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Switzerland, Italy (twice), Hungary (twice), France (twice), Spain (four times), Romania (three times).  And now Portugal.

And what I can say is, as of today, I can’t think of a single country where I’ve felt more at ease as a Jew.  Italy comes close.  Perhaps their Mediterranean cultures, where my DNA and my gentle curls flowing over my olive skin help me feel at home among my distant cousins.  Indeed, a third of Portuguese are estimated to have Jewish blood, in addition to us being from the same part of the world.  It’s certainly more comfortable than the sometimes awkward stares I’d get in pastier countries like Romania or Switzerland, where a border guard thought I was an illegal Mexican immigrant because I spoke Spanish.

But there’s a little extra something here too.  The Portuguese, perhaps having slogged through the Inquisition, imperialism, and a dictatorship, have found a way to let their sadness mingle with their joy.  To let their emotions become a part of who they are, rather than something to suppress.

So that when these barriers eventually fell, Portuguese often found themselves researching their own Jewish history.  In fact, the town of Belmonte is full of Portuguese with Jewish roots- who have re-embraced their faith and built a synagogue.

There is ignorance everywhere, and Portugal is no exception.  Sometimes curiosity about us is naïvely, though sometimes innocently, mentioned in the same breath as masons or the capitalist system.  Like we’re some sort of curious phenomenon worth exploring or perhaps an exoticism.  A less textured way to see us.  But honestly I don’t know enough about it to fully understand.  All I can say is that even the ignorant comments here have stung less than in other places and so far seem to be said with less malice.

Yet Portugal is one of the few European countries that I feel is headed in the right direction with regards to its Jewish past- and present.  And hopefully future.  While supposedly enlightened nations like France and Germany and Sweden experience an ever-increasing amount of anti-Semitism, Portugal is not joining the crowd.

Hanging out in the far west of Europe gazing towards America, Portugal is doing what it has always done.  Mixing its pain with its joy.  Creating that unique blend where it doesn’t need to deny its faults, nor deny itself pleasure.  Here, you can’t isolate one from the other.  It’s a psychologically healthy phenomenon that perhaps explains why this country, even with hundreds of years of anti-Semitic persecutions, is able to reconcile this with welcoming Jews back.  Much better so than their Spanish neighbors next door.

So as I dedicate this post to all the brave Jews here who persisted and resisted in the face of anti-Semitic hatred, to their descendants living out their Judaism- or returning to it- I’d like to offer a hope.

Portugal is evidence of the wily and often surprising twists of history.  The proverbial arc that bends towards justice is a messianic lie that is put to rest by the rollercoaster that is the Portuguese Jewish experience.  An experience filled with pain and with surprising hope.  Could a Portuguese Jew 400 years ago have ever imagined me reading his death sentence in an archive- alive?  The inspiring quirks of history are as noteworthy as the failures.

So as I watch the world spin in unexpected and sometimes scary directions, hope accompanies my fear.

A hope that Europe becomes more like the Portugal of today than the Portugal of four centuries ago.

The Primary Axis is Empathy

Ok so one of the most confusing aspects of living here, perhaps of life itself, is understanding the context for what people say.  And what it reveals about their intentions.

Most of our public discourse is focused on quotes- and not just here in Israel.  “Gotcha” moments dominate our news cycles and rarely do we consider the surrounding environment.  Critical thinking is not a skill valued by the news media these days- nor by many of its consumers.

So rather than talking public policy or the latest headlines, I’d like to delve into a less-discussed aspect of the conflict here- and its implications for politics everywhere: the axis of empathy.

For most people, the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is broken down into pro-Arab/Palestinian and pro-Israel.  To be one is not to be the other- or at least a lot less.

What I’ve come to realize, both through living here, through spending lots of time in Arab villages in Israel and meeting Palestinians, is that this breakdown is a distraction from the real conflict.

It’s not meaningless, but it obscures the most important dividing line.

When I’m abroad- Europe, America- my primary orientation is to be wary of hardcore pro-Palestinian activists and to feel more empathy for Israel.  For two reasons.  One is that generally speaking, if someone is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel outside of this land, they are an anti-Semite.  And if someone is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish outside of Israel, they are empathetic towards Jews.  And generally, though not always, empathetic in general.  The exception to this rule would be people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish or pro-Israel and extremely anti-Arab, to the point of being an extremist.  There are people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would be a prime example of one.  And there are certainly people who are pro-Israel and hate all Arabs- I met a Dutch guy on CouchSurfing who liked Israel (and gay rights, interestingly enough) because he hated Arab immigrants.  But when it came down to it, he was actually kind of homophobic.  The flowery gay rights rhetoric was merely a convenient tool to oppose (indeed, sometimes homophobic) Arab immigrants in his own country.  Not out of genuine concern.

What is important to note is that this dynamic flips on its head while living here.  In Israel, the least empathetic Jews are unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Arab.  And I have more empathy for Arabs here who oppose Israeli government policy than the Algerian man I met in Spain who claimed Israel and America started the Syrian civil war.  And claimed Russia and Iran hadn’t killed anyone.

In other words, the very same sentence in two different contexts can mean two completely different things.  Making identifying toxic people a challenge for someone like me who straddles multiple cultures- often in the same day.

For example, I’ve met Americans and Europeans visiting Israel who only want to visit Palestinian areas and show no interest in Israeli history and narratives.  I once met a German exchange student at Tel Aviv University who came to dance dabke with Arab students- and me.  While I was there out of empathy and a desire to learn more about my neighbors, he was there because he hates Israel and Jews.  But I didn’t catch this at first, which ended up really hurting me.  I figured that because we’re both in the same place and we both have empathy for Arabs, therefore we must both be empathetic people.  The problem is that when we sat in a cafe after dancing, he asked me: “why do Israelis talk so much about the Holocaust?  It’s old history.”  When I tried to explain that in the same city he was sitting, there were actual Holocaust survivors, his response was to defer: “but that happened so long ago”.  In his country.

So here’s the rub.  We’re going to the same event.  We would both probably agree with the sentence: “I’m concerned about the human rights of the Palestinian people”.  But I’m doing it as an Israeli concerned about my neighbors’ well being.  And he’s doing it because he doesn’t like Jews.  My words are out of empathy, and his out of antipathy.

The same can go for Arabs themselves.  Many people throw around the word “Arabs” as if 300 million people were the same.  Yet the experience and positioning of Arabs can be radically different.  When a Moroccan immigrant to Belgium says “Israel is a racist state”, it is without a doubt coming from anti-Semitism.  It is rather unlikely he’d say Morocco is racist for having persecuted its Jewish citizens whose quarters now lie largely empty.  Nor for oppressing its 30% Berber minority.

Yet when an Arab citizen of Israel complains about racist discrimination, it is usually based on first-hand experience.  And unlike the Moroccan in Belgium, who has almost certainly never even been here, the Arab Israeli has felt this in her own life.  So again, the very same sentence, two completely opposite meanings.  In the case of the Moroccan immigrant, anti-Semitism.  And the Arab living here, concern for his well-being and the state of society.  Antipathy and empathy.

Of course there are nuances.  There are Arabs here who care a lot of about racism and injustice, but ask them about gay rights, and sometimes you get a deep silence.  Or in the case of one Palestinian: “I think we should throw them off of buildings like ISIS”.  So the question is whether their concern about racism is because they are concerned about people being hurt, or whether it is only because it affects them.  All other suffering be screwed.  Whether it’s from a place of empathy and solidarity or narcissism.

Which is why I’ve met Americans who care a lot about Palestinians, but know literally nothing about Jewish history.  Whose only experience with Judaism is maybe eating challah at a friend’s house.  But knows nothing about why or how their Jewish friends ended up in Minnesota.  Or why there are more Polish, Romanian, and Iraqi Jews in Israel than in any of those countries.  Whose combined Jewish communities numbered 4,1326,000 before the Holocaust.  Today, standing at 25,000 according to the most generous estimates.  Meanwhile, 4.5 million of their descendants live in Israel, where they found refuge.  While the rest lie buried in foreign soil, millions upon millions in overgrown cemeteries.  That’s if they’re lucky- sometimes our burial grounds are turned into soccer fields.

It’s also important to remember our own positioning.  In other words, when I’m in Israel I feel differently than I do in America or Europe.  Both because of the surrounding environment, my own political interests, and of course, which direction empathy flows.

In other words, when I’m in Israel, again depending on circumstance, but I’m at my most empathetic when I’m able to find concern for Arab Israelis and for Palestinians.  Not an easy thing- it’s not as if these communities don’t have their own extremism.  As I sit in a Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem, I am staring at a book entitled: “Victory for us is to see you suffer”.  Whose WiFi code is “JerusalemIsOurs”.  Just miles away from where a Palestinian shot six Israeli civilians two days ago.  Just last month I lived through a terrifying air raid siren in Beersheva, as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.

I can’t say I felt terribly empathetic to Palestinians then.  Though I imagine life is excruciating for them under Hamas rule and faced with harsh conditions imposed by basically every government in the region- their own, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Egypt.  Suffocating.  Palestinian extremists storm the Israeli border, some of whom have been quoted as saying they want to get to the other side to rape and murder.  And in the meantime, ordinary Gazans who just want to put food on the table are caught in the crossfire, as are their Israeli counterparts on the other side.  Some of whom are concerned for their Palestinian neighbors as well.

Basically, what it comes down to is empathy.  When someone is an anti-Semite, I’m going to defend Israel and talk about what’s good with the country.  When someone is anti-Arab, I’m going to share why its complex and we can’t generalize about millions of people.  And because the context for identifying these people is extremely hard to pinpoint, it is not so easy.  Because words that have the potential to sound empathetic coming out of the mouth of an Arab citizen of Israel sound horrifying coming out of a far-left European or a Tunisian living in Paris.

And the same goes for pro-Israel.  When I hear someone passionately defend the Jewish people’s right to a refuge and homeland outside this country, it touches my heart.  And when an Israeli rages about anti-Semitism and how the world hates us, but has never left this country, it’s usually indicative of a deep narcissism.  Because someone who has grown up in the Diaspora or has spent significant time abroad experiencing anti-Semitism has a basis for their anger.  But the man I met who has never left Kiryat Gat is raging about anti-Semitism, it is because he is repeating what he read in the newspaper or what he learned in school.  Because he is a fervent, unquestioning nationalist.

So when I hear an American Jew frustrated with his right-wing relatives who shut his progressive Israel views down, I feel empathy.  But when a British non-Jew tells me that “British Jews are ridiculous, why do they care about Israel without ever having been there?”, I know she’s an anti-Semite.  It’s the positioning.

Therefore, to return to the original point, the positioning of “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” obscures the most important axis of this conflict.  Indeed, of human society in general.  The axis of empathy.  Of kindness.  Of care.

Because when you re-orient the conflict this way, you see that the potential allies are much different than what the news media and politicians on all sides would prefer for us to see.  That the Muslim girl in Tira who appreciates Jewish women’s freedom to choose their clothing is as much my ally as the Jewish kid in Tel Aviv of Syrian ancestry blasting Arabic music in his coffee shop on Ibn Gvirol.  He doesn’t understand a word- but he told me he wants to learn and he loves the music.

What unites them is not a nationalistic goal, nor is it a sense of fidelity to a tribe.  It is their desire to see humanity in the other.  To show compassion, empathy, and openness.

It’s the tribe I love the most.  It’s the tribe that no matter where I find myself in the world I want to belong to.  That I strive to strengthen and be a good member of.  The empaths.  Like Marko, the young Slovenian cell phone salesman who was excited to discover a Jewish museum in his city.  And as soon as I told him about it, he scribbled the name on a piece of paper.  We shared about our cultures and our personal experiences with discrimination and overcoming it.

He told me at the time, a moment that was quite hard for me after seeing a Nazi salute in his town’s square: “Grab your heritage and explore! Go for it!”

This is what it means to be a person.  At the time I wrote:

“Then it really hit me. What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day. On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.

What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the ’empaths’. People who care about other people. And not just those who fit their worldview. The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others. Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.

While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her. That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.”

This tribe is the most important one in the world.  More than Israel, Jews, Arabs, Americans, left and right.  And it is the hardest to organize.  Because even after you’ve identified them, there are so many forces pulling us apart.  Telling us the colors of our flag matter more than those of our heart.

But if we are to have a future on this planet, it is a must.  It’s necessary to be like the liberal Washingtonian I read about who visited a gun store in Virginia- just to talk to people.  It’s necessary to be like the Arab from East Jerusalem I met who studied Hebrew on his own to get to know his neighbors.  It’s necessary to be like me, an American Israeli Jew who studied Arabic for years and years because it’s the best way to understand Arab people.  To build bridges in the impossibility that is the conflict which embroils us.  Because my deepest hope is for a day when I can hop on a train from Tel Aviv to Damascus.  And maybe stop over for a night of partying in Beirut.  And then sit sipping tea in the Lebanese mountains overlooking the Jewish towns of the Galilee.  As if the past 70 years have been just a bad dream.

It is not easy.  There are times when I am afraid- and sometimes justifiably so.  There are extremists on every side here and abroad.  There are people who’d rather us- all of humanity- sit in silos.  Easy to market to, easier to divide and conquer.  While both “progressive” and right-wing billionaires continue to rake in our resources.  Palestinians and Israelis fight for crumbs, but who really gains?  Why are there 30 Israeli billionaires but the average New Yorker, in one of the most expensive cities on earth, has 17% more purchasing power than a Tel Avivi?  Why is there a Palestinian billionaire while 32% of his countrymen sit in abject poverty, unemployed?

In the end, the people at the top care very little for the people at the bottom.  If I wanted to indulge my most cynical side, I’d say that’s how they got there.  But I’m really not sure.  What I can say that what interests me less are peace declarations, foundations, donations, and projects.  What interests me more is the well being of the average human being.  And while people here- indeed around the world- rally around the ethnic group or religious community or political party they are supposed to defend- who is really winning?

I’m not suggesting billionaires are necessarily bad people, though.  I’m not sure life is so simple.  There are really mean poor people and generous wealthy ones.

But what I am suggesting is it’s not fair.  And that efforts to focus us exclusively on identities at the expense of our shared human empathy are driving us into a hole.  So while liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has been held up as an exemplary clean energy enthusiast, how often do the organizations who receive his donations wonder where he got his money?  Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and eventually his own investment firm which invested millions in private prison companies.

But let’s join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in storming the office of Nancy Pelosi about climate change and rail against Republicans who receive coal money.  While The Latino Victory Fund which supported her partners with Tom Steyer’s SuperPAC.

To what extent this is purposeful, I don’t know.  I do appreciate Ms. Cortez’s critique of money in politics, but I fear the judgmental fire in her belly may scorch us as a society.  Maybe Tom Steyer and other donors’ views are situational.  Some people earn a lot of money to then try to do a lot of good.  People’s motivations are hard to discern.  And I don’t want to support a witch hunt or class warfare, or to suggest people are purely good or evil.

But I do think the result is a game of smoke and mirrors.  Where I should spend my time hating Palestinians or Republicans or Muslims or right-wingers or left-wingers, when in the end most people can’t make ends meet.  Around the world.

So I’ll say this.  If there is a solution to this problem, it’s the empaths.  Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Benjamin Netanyahu, the BDS movement, or anyone else dominating the headlines these days, let’s focus our attention elsewhere.  Maybe they can join us later, but in the meantime, instead of gazing up at them, let’s look sideways.  Ahead- at the people in front of us.

Those are our allies.  Our potential friends are the people who don’t buy into this warfare.  They’re the Republican willing to buck the party on gay rights.  They’re the Democrat who who dialogues with her anti-abortion neighbors.  They’re the Tunisian who writes about the Jewish history of his land– in collaboration with a Jewish historian.  And the Israelis like me who empathize with the challenges facing our Arab countrymen and our Palestinian neighbors.  Who rather than tearing up at every Ben Gurion quote and saluting the flag, would prefer to talk with the Arab man who cleans their school.  They’re the American Christian who visits this land to understand both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than coming with a pre-set agenda.  Who is willing to confront anti-Semitism with as much vigor as racism or Islamophobia.  To confront their own prejudices.

Because we all have them.  And if we’re honest, if we’re empathetic, we can acknowledge that.  I, for one, have been learning more about transgender experiences.  I don’t know much- and it’s a deeply stigmatized identity and community I don’t know much about.  But I’m putting myself out there and realizing I have a lack of knowledge.  And that doesn’t make me weak, it’s makes me kind.  Because to acknowledge our own gaps in knowledge is to point us in the direction of what we need to learn.

So in the end, I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.  I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice.  I’m not interested whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a left winger or right winger.

What I’m not interested in is “or”.  What I’m interested in is “and”.  Because an empath lives in the and.  The ability to see that the identities we are supposed to defend are only part of the story.  That the words we use aren’t as important as what they indicate- given our position.  That the sentiment behind them, the context is much more important than the vocabulary itself.

So give me pro-Israel Europeans and Israeli Jews who rail against racism.  Give me Americans who fight against BDS and anti-Semitism and give me Israelis who fight against an unquestioning Zionism.  Give me Palestinians learning Hebrew and Israeli Jews learning Arabic.

Give me the and.  Because the real way forward, as I see it, is to step outside our silos.  And find the people whose orientation is towards compassion, who are willing to question orthodoxies, and are struggling to live in the gray space at a time when polarization would make it so much easier not to.

Who are willing to give up the simplicity of living enclosed in the safety of a walled-in tribe.  Whether that tribe be NPR listeners, secular North Tel Aviv, a gun show, or a West Bank settlement.

Because where things get a porous is where life gets dangerous.  And when boundaries become frontiers, they can become markers for progress more than barriers separating us from each other.

Don’t tell me what you think, show me how you care.  Don’t tell me where you’re from, show me where you’re going.  Because perhaps what I’ve learned is it’s not so much where you are so much as how you’re oriented.

The bad news about today’s world is that we’re increasingly divided along national, political, and religious lines.  Which can make it incredibly hard for a double minority gay Jew like me to find a safe and welcoming home.  When I look at a map, my heart wishes I could live everywhere and my mind knows that I can’t.  It’s a force that pulls me apart and forces me to choose between the well being of my identities and my curiosity about the world.  Although as I write this article I wonder if perhaps the most important identity of all, someone’s kindness, may lead me in different directions than I’m “supposed” to pursue.  Maybe it already has.

The strain of trying to find a home, a career, a place where you feel safe, fulfilled, and stable is real and intense.  It’s a lot to handle at once and can feel excruciating.  Especially when your primary communities are targets for so much antipathy and hate.  What I’m discovering is there’s a way to view things a bit differently that can help me find a way forward.  Because when you understand the most important (if not only) characteristic of someone you’ll like is their compassion, you realize that exists in every corner of the planet.  And while it requires some sifting, some risk taking, some potential hurt, you can find people everywhere who will treat you with dignity and compassion.

Israeli identity is not so portable.  Tied to this land, there is nowhere else on the planet that feels exactly like this.  Where Jews live in the majority.  Where Hebrew signs dot the skyline, where Hatikvah is blasted at every sports game.  Where Judaism isn’t something to be hidden at home or behind synagogue security guard.  Where it carries both the power and responsibility of running things.  It exists like this nowhere else on the planet, which is why so many Israelis have trouble adapting to life, including Jewish life, elsewhere.  Perhaps this will change- groups like the IAC are trying to help Israelis build a Diaspora identity, as strange as that sounds.  I can understand why it’s necessary for their well being.

Jewish identity, on the other hand, is the most portable identity in the history of mankind.  It changes and mutates everywhere we go, adapting in extraordinary and creative ways to both fulfilling and extremely scary circumstances.  Sometimes it’s snuffed out- it can’t plant its roots everywhere due to the cruelty of some people.  But it does show an incredible adaptivity that few cultures have managed to replicate.

It is challenging to be an Israeli or Jew in much of the world.  But there are some things you can uncover anywhere.  And can bring to any society.  What you can carry with you to every corner of the globe is a desire to help, to understand, to bring hope and kindness.  And to find people willing to share that warmth with you and to join you in the task of building a gentler, more caring human society.

Because when we understand the meaning of the words others say, we realize that it’s the intent behind them that matters most.  That help us sift through the distractions to see the direction their heart points in.

May we all find the words to bring us peace.  In our own lives and in the lives of the people around us, to the extent we can.  This Christmas, this Chanukah, this Kwanzaa, is the season when the sun sets early, the darkness sets in, and the contrasting blackness surrounds us.  Which presents us with the challenge of finding warmth.  And if we manage to kindle a flame, also gives us the chance to make our little bit of light shine even brighter.  Not as bright as the sun, but brighter than if we try to be a lamppost at noontime.  We can’t choose when the sun sets- nor can we choose when it rises to cover us and glow.  When you find yourself in darkness, you can’t expel all of it.   So rather than struggle against its very existence, perhaps the key is to find someone else willing to light a candle with you.  To make some space for warmth.  Until the morning breaks again.