Alabaman Arabs and the Western Wall

Yes, that is what happened to me today.

Today, I took my first trip outside of Tel Aviv since making aliyah and went to Jerusalem.  I decided to go to the Kotel, known in English as the “Western Wall” or the “Wailing Wall”.  It’s the last remaining wall of the Second Temple built in Jerusalem for the purposes of Jewish worship.  Basically, it’s the most sacred site on the planet for Jews.

It’s been at least 12 years since I was at the Wall and I was very excited to go back.  My anticipation was building as I made my way through the markets of the Old City.  This was the place my ancestors came from, the site that informs all Jewish spirituality.  Even today’s Jewish rituals and prayers are modeled after the Temple rituals.  The cruelty of the Roman Empire that destroyed the Temple couldn’t defeat our faith.

As I thought these powerful thoughts and felt these deep emotions, I came upon a sign that said “Alabama, the heart of Dixie”.  I had to re-read the sign a good two or three times before I realized yes, I was staring at a trilingual sign that said “Alabama” in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.  I felt like I was in some dystopian novel.  On what planet is there a University of Alabama store in the middle of the holiest city on earth?

Sure enough, it was an entire store dedicated to the University of Alabama owned by Arabs.  I met the kids running the store, who were sweet.  I spoke with them in Arabic and it turns out one of the kids’ dads studied at University of Alabama and became a huge fan.  I asked who exactly comes to their store, given the small number of Alabamans in Jerusalem, and they said lots of people came by.  I have to give them props for marketing because it obviously drew me in!

They had mugs and signs that said “Roll Tide” in Hebrew and Arabic.  For especially my Israeli friends who don’t understand this, watch this video.  Alabaman fans are particularly fanatical (about their team) and unabashedly southern, so even as an American it was a total curiosity to see a Palestinian store dedicated to probably the most Republican place in the country.

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And there it was.  I had a great conversation with the kids and their uncle- they’re very funny and friendly.  And then I walked to the Western Wall.

When I got to the wall, I tried praying once and it was pretty good but didn’t feel super powerful.  It ended up being a warm up.

I chatted with some German tourists and then went back for round two.  I grabbed a tallit from some Chabad guys (I was smart enough to tell them from the get-go that I didn’t want to lay tefillin, but of course they tried anyways, and of course I said “no thank you” and did what I wanted).

I then headed back to myself and enshrouded myself in the tallit, giving me a sense of privacy and direct connection to God and my inner spirit.  It was like my own personal synagogue.  I now started to open up.  I noticed a kid next to me.  He was probably in high school.  I had talked to his group earlier- they were Reform students from the U.K., from the same Jewish movement I belong to.  It felt powerful for us to pray next to each other given the Israeli government’s recent rejection of Reform prayer spaces at the Western Wall.

After a few moments, he stood there by myself and just started crying.  It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.  And one of the most sincere.

As I peered through the hole in my tallit at him and heard him wailing, I started to well up with emotion and sob.  I thought of all my ancestors who walked this land.  That their hands built this Temple and this very city.  That it’s because of the sacrifices of millions upon millions of Jews who were butchered mercilessly for over 2,000 years by Babylonians and Greeks and Romans and Catholics and Klansmen and Spaniards and Portuguese and Germans and Poles and Russians and Protestants and Arabs and Muslims and on and on and on.  They laid down their lives for me.  Most of them could only dream and pray for the day when they would be able to return to our homeland and pray at our holiest site.  And I carry their prayers in my heart.

When I decided to make aliyah, some of my friends asked me questions like “do you 20170730_154705.jpgknow anyone there?” and “have you ever been there?”.  Yes I do and yes I have.  If you’re a very active Jew, you almost certainly know people in Israel and you’ve visited.  Totally innocent questions, but ones you might typically ask someone moving somewhere far and exotic like Vietnam or Zimbabwe.

Israel may be Zimbabwe for you, but it is not for me.  Even though before making aliyah I had only been here twice, it is not a strange and foreign place.  While there are for sure cultural differences that I continue to learn about, this is not a colony.  This is not a destination.  This is not a stint abroad.

This is my homeland.  It is the source of my religious beliefs and my cultural heritage.  It is my people whose traditions gave rise to both Christianity and Islam many generations later.  Its stones cry out with the tears and laughter of my forefathers and foremothers.

It is a place that belongs to me as a right that my people have fought long and hard for.  The right to pray at our ancient holy sites free of violence or discrimination.  As recently as 1967, I could not have prayed at the Western Wall because Jordanian troops wouldn’t allow it.

The point is this: I am a Zionist because I believe I am not “moving to a new place” but rather because I am returning to the place I come from.  A place that has room for me to pray in peace at the Western Wall, for my Christians friends to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and for my Muslim friends to pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque.  And even to own an Alabaman t-shirt shop.

Amen.

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My New Minority Identity: American

When I decided to make Aliyah and come live in Israel, one of my main reasons was to live with my people- the Jewish people.  As a minority in the U.S., I’ve been subject to a great deal of antisemitism throughout my life and while there are some beautiful things about being a minority, it can also be extremely hard.  I often felt, even in good circumstances with good people, like I had to explain who I was and what I believed in.  Having talked to other minorities in the U.S.- Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, etc.- I know that my struggles were shared by many people.

Part of the reason I came to Israel was to not be a minority anymore.  To live in a Jewish-majority state and in Tel Aviv, where the LGBT community is so numerous that even if it’s not a majority of the city, it’s a very high percentage.  Where my identities would be validated.

This has been true for these identities in many ways.  I am constantly surrounded by hot Jewish men who I glance at- and often glance back!  I am surrounded by street signs with the names of Jewish leaders on them and I hear my favorite Israeli music blasting out of the windows of cars passing by.  In many ways, I couldn’t ask for a more validating space to live in.

At the same time, I’ve discovered I have a new minority identity that I didn’t fully expect when I moved here: American.  It never seemed particularly noteworthy or clear to me in the U.S. that, even as a double minority, I was also part of the majority as an American.  Never has that been more clear to me than in Israel.

The other day, I was talking to a gay guy who noticed all my pictures on Facebook of me going around Israel.  He knew I was an American oleh chadash (new immigrant).  He told me I looked like a “tourist” and laughed.  I told him I didn’t find it funny- that there are many other ways I could’ve visited Israel, but I made a very tough decision to uproot my life and live here as a citizen.  He told me “not to take it that way” and thought it was funny how I was “such a new immigrant”.

Last night, I was at a board games night and this guy told me that in English, “peaches” means “boobs”.  I told him I was American and that’s not a thing.  He told me he was in front of the White House two weeks ago yelling at Trump so he “emmmm, reeeeeally knowwwwz Eeeeenglish fluent”.  Just to clarify this for everyone- I had an Israeli correct me on my English- after I told him I was American.

I was sitting in a cafe with a new friend talking about Israelis’ favorite complaint about Americans- that we were too “PC”.  I asked him to explain exactly what he meant by that.  The friend, a well-intentioned and left-wing guy, told me “you guys have this whole debate about using the word n*gger and I don’t understand it”.  I proceeded to summarize the 400 year history of this racist term after which, to his credit, he finally admitted there are legitimate reasons why people don’t like this word.

Today, however, may just take the cake.  I was at a gay Torah study and this older man, seemingly out of nowhere, starts telling the group how all the “kushim” (an Israeli word somewhere between “colored” and “n*gger”) in the U.S. are homophobic bigots even though gay people always supported them.  My blood pressure shot sky high.  When I wanted to respond, the young rabbi in the room told me I could do so in “one sentence”.  I said “sorry I’m going to take a few”.  I tried to explain that not only is this a gross overgeneralization and racist, but that there are a ton of LGBT black people too and “black” and “gay” aren’t mutually exclusive categories.  I also mentioned that the NAACP, among other groups, actively supported the LGBT community’s fight for marriage rights.  Instead of any sort of acknowledgement of my much needed nuance, I was shouted down by younger participants who told me, the only American in the room, that black people in my country are homophobes.  Because I suppose when watching rap videos on YouTube is your only reference point for actual African Americans, you’ll come to such thoughtful conclusions.

I could channel my legitimate anger, sadness, hurt, and loneliness into a bunch of sweeping generalizations about Israelis, but then I’d be just like people who stereotype me and my (other) country.  Instead, I’ll say this: some Israelis are raging racist anti-American bigots.  Others are open-minded, eager to learn, and sweet.  And many fall somewhere in the middle.  People, in the end, are people.  You can find good and bad ones (and mediocre ones) any and everywhere.  It takes some filtering, but I hope I get to the point where I’ve built a really solid social circle here that validates all my identities: gay, Jewish, Reform, progressive, and yes, American.

To Israelis’ credit, even if their main point of reference about American culture is a trip to New York, Lady Gaga, and Game of Thrones, at least many are trying to learn about my other culture.  Most Americans know much less about Israel than Israelis know about America.  That being said, I’d encourage Israeli to dig a little deeper about my country.  It’s one thing to know the pop culture of another place and quite another to understand its social intricacies.  Ask me questions, dive in- don’t be afraid.  I’m open to talk, just like I was with my friend who didn’t understand the word n*gger and was open to listening to me.  That’s dialogue.  I’m eager to learn about you and eager to share about me.

In the end, I came to this country to be changed- to grow, to experience, to live in a new part of the world that is deeply connected to my identity.  I thank the Israelis who are making this journey possible.  At the same time, I am an oleh chutzpani – an outspoken new immigrant.  I didn’t just come to be changed- I came to change.  There are things about this society that must evolve, and that includes the way it treats its minorities- Arabs, Druze, Russians, French, and yes, Americans.

You can count on me to raise my American-Israeli voice.  I’m just getting started.

Listening to bluegrass in Tel Aviv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking about the Holocaust over Indian food

Israel, as I’ve discovered, is a place where absolutely extraordinary life-changing conversations happen every single day in the most mundane places.  On the bus, in a restaurant, even with your taxi driver.  You don’t need to go to a synagogue to learn here, you just need to open your mouth and ears.

For example, the other day I met a friend’s friend.  She’s a sabra (native Israeli).  We’re eating at an Indian restaurant and as we’re chatting, just casually mentions she’s a third-generation Holocaust survivor from Poland.

I can’t really remember anyone saying something so profound, personal, and shocking over naan and chana masala in the U.S.  And she didn’t look visibly upset- more just like she was sharing a fact about herself.  I’m from Washington, D.C. and like sushi and she’s a third generation Holocaust survivor.

She told me how her grandparents, even after years in Israel, would eat every last scrap of food off their plates at every single meal.  Even when they weren’t hungry anymore.  She told me how she and her siblings would “sneak” food off their grandparents’ plates so they wouldn’t over-eat.

She told me how her parents didn’t want her to go on her school trip to the concentration camps in Poland (because yes, that is something every Israeli teenager does as part of the national curriculum).  Her parents were angry that their tourist dollars were going to a country that sadly still is home to many anti-Semites.

She told me how her grandmother could forgive the Germans for the Holocaust- they were from a foreign land killing foreigners.  But she couldn’t forgive the Poles who aided them- because they betrayed their neighbors and many did so willingly and joyfully.

We continued the conversation for a while, but then slipped into other topics like her job, the Reform Movement (incidentally she studied with a Reform rabbi I know here in Israel!), the food, and other things.  We laughed, we joked, we ate.

She rode the bus home with me and got off at her stop.  On her way to her boyfriend.  To chat, to watch TV, to drink tea, to go to bed.

Just another Israeli day.

 

What’s this blog all about?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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