Wherever I stand, I stand with refugees

As some of my long-time friends know, I’ve always been an advocate for refugees.  My very first internship in college was with Jews United for Justice, a DC organization promoting economic and civil rights.  I personally lobbied my boss to make our Summer “Labor on the Bimah” workers rights event about immigrants rights.  The year was 2006 and Republican Congressmen were pushing a horrific law that would’ve even punished Americans who helped undocumented immigrants.  Even pastors that fed them.

My boss agreed and we organized 30 events around the D.C. area on Labor Day to mobilize Jews- alongside Christians and Muslims- to support immigrants rights.

Part of my job was to find Jewish texts to explain why our tradition asks us to speak out on this issue.  This is what I compiled.

You may be familiar with the verse from Exodus 12:49: “There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you.”  Or “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger.” (Deut. 24:14)  Or any of dozens of similar commandments.

I spent much of my career in the U.S. fighting for immigrant and refugee rights.  In the government, at NGO’s, and as a private citizen.  The struggle there continues.  Even this month hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees may be deported if the DREAM Act isn’t passed and TPS isn’t renewed.  When I left for Israel, Donald Trump was pushing to ban refugees (and even entire countries’ citizens from visiting).  Not by coincidence, these countries were largely Muslim and the refugees increasingly Syrian.

I rallied and rallied for humanity.  I screamed till my voice was lost.  I was invigorated but also scared and exhausted.  In my favorite moment from one of the rallies by the White House, I met up with a Syrian refugee friend Remi who I had met on Facebook months before and we fought for justice together.

rally pic

This picture is what I believe.  All of us have suffered.  Few peoples more than the Jews.  Having been banished from country after country for over 2,000 years- and butchered along the way- we should be the most compassionate towards those fleeing suffering.  It’s a biblical mandate and it’s rooted in our history.

Many of the Jews living in Israel are refugees themselves- from the Holocaust, from Arab governments who expelled them, from the Soviet Union, from war and famine and anti-Semitism.  Sometimes when people experience trauma, it can be hard to empathize with others.  And there are some people who, after putting in a great deal of effort to heal, are able to see the humanity of the other.  To realize that the Jewish story, while unique, is not the only story of suffering.  And that our own pain must become a source of compassion towards others.

One of the reasons I made aliyah frankly was to get away from the refugee rights struggle.  I was tired.  It’s painful and the American government is eagerly attacking both the foundations of our democracy and of my friends’ human rights.  Since making aliyah, I’ve continued to talk to Syrian refugees in Arabic via Skype through a fantastic program called Natakallam.  Since moving to Israel, it’s now easier to schedule since I’m in the same time zone as my Skype partner Shadi in Iraq 🙂 .  One day, inshallah, we’ll be able to visit each other in peace, as we both want to do.

In the meantime, I thought I had escaped.  And then I met Sadiq.  Sadiq is a Darfur refugee living in Tel Aviv.  I had signed up to tutor refugees in English, but as a newly arrived oleh with my own stress, I didn’t realize just how hard it would be.  Sadiq was sweet and wanted to party at the beach and improve his English.  He worked twelve hour days every day of the week.  And he hadn’t seen his family in 20 years.  I heard about the relatives killed, the homes abandoned, and the pain.  He had survived a genocide.

Yet somehow he had a positive attitude and a beautiful smile.  And a willingness to learn.  I enjoyed learning some Sudanese Arabic from him.  I was just too overwhelmed to continue tutoring.  So I explained to him why I needed to pause our work together and I took some time to reflect and get my life in order.  He understood and I focused on finding an apartment and adjusting to life here.

About two months ago, I found some more stability when I got my own apartment.  I took advantage of some cheap flights and took my first post-aliyah vacation to Cyprus.  Cyprus is amazing and for all its historical problems, the area I was in was peaceful and relaxing.  I was away from the Middle East, from loud Israelis, and from conflict.

Then I saw a woman in a hijab trying to ask a Greek-speaker something.  I went up and talked to her in Arabic.  She was looking for a grocery store.  With my Arabic and my nascent Greek, I helped her communicate with some locals to find it.

We then started chatting.  She asked where I was from, I said Israel.  Turns out Fatima and her family are from Idlib.  They were excited to hear my Syrian accent.  She had a son Muhammad and I chatted with him for a bit.  And another woman, Jamilah, stood beside them.

After they thanked me for directing them to the grocery store, I asked if they were all family.  That’s when Jamilah started crying.  She told me, as she bawled, that she had lost all her family in a bombing in Idlib.  She came to Cyprus from Syria with Fatima and her son, family friends.  And they arrived two weeks ago.

Then everyone started crying.  And telling me about their injuries.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was sad for these people- my neighbors.  And angry at the people who had harmed them.

I did my best to offer words of comfort and gave them information for aid organizations.  Then I handed them a bunch of Euros and got their contact info to pass on to my friends in the field.

In an astonishing act of gratitude, they asked for my phone number because they wanted to invite me to dinner.  Refugees fleeing war, only 2 weeks in Cyprus.  From Syria.  Inviting an Israeli to their house for a meal.  I tear up when I think of the incredible kindness.  What utterly generous human beings, an example for us all.

If our interaction brings some peace and understanding between our peoples, I’m all the happier for it.  And I hope with all my heart they get the help they deserve.  And a future their boy Muhammad can enjoy.

Because in the end, we are all people.  I was recently at a Shabbat dinner and I told a Sabra that I was upset when someone here made a racist comment about African Americans.  She said: “aval zeh lo pogea becha.”  But it doesn’t hurt you.  To which I said: “of course it does.  African Americans are my friends, my classmates, my neighbors.  We are all Americans.”

Which is the point.  We’re all Americans and we’re all humans.  It davka does pogea bi.  The question shouldn’t be “why does this offend you?” it should be “why doesn’t it?”

I live in South Tel Aviv.  Not Florentin, Real South Tel Aviv.  And in my neighborhood, there are a lot of refugees.  From Eritrea, from Sudan, from all over the world.  And despite the hubbub you hear in the news, not only is this neighborhood safer than any major city I’ve lived in in the U.S., but a lot of local residents get along fine.

I’ve met a Sabra girl who only hangs out with African friends.  I’ve met Filipino and Eritrean kids who speak Hebrew fluently- and to my dismay, not their families’ languages.  My elderly neighbors with pictures of Rav Ovadia all over there house love their non-Jewish caretaker.  I’ve met Sudanese Christians who could quote the Torah better than most Jews (in a know-it-all kind of way that suits them as Israelis).

So whether it’s Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu trying to oppress refugees and migrants.  When they’re ignoring our Torah and abusing people fleeing tyranny.  And when the Prime Minister, in the name of my country and my people, is prepared to spend 504 million shekels* to deport refugees.

There is only one answer: no.  Refugees are the world’s problem.  I can’t explain human suffering.  I just know that when someone in is pain, when someone is fleeing death, we should open our hearts and help them.

Your Judaism may be only about helping Jews.  If someone insults or harms another group, you may not see it as your problem.  But my Judaism and my Israeli identity is about helping my people and helping my non-Jewish neighbors.

My own suffering and the suffering of my people is part of why I care so deeply about helping vulnerable people in need.  My Judaism doesn’t stop at the doors of my synagogue nor the borders of my country.


*The government announced a budget that will allot $3,500 dollars to each refugee deported.  And it’s about 3.6 shekels to the dollar.  There are about 40,000 refugees.


A New Year’s Resolution for Israel

Today is the secular new year.  In Israel, fittingly but quite strange for me, they say “shanah tovah”, the typical Jewish greeting for Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year.  It’s a fun night of celebration and also a chance to think of what’s ahead.

For me, this week marks my 6 month anniversary of arriving in Israel.  I’ve learned so much in such a little amount of time.  I’ve visited over 35 cities.  I’ve been to Hasidic dance parties, Mizrachi concerts, dabke dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Yiddish theater, a Russian puppet show, and a Yemenite concert.  I’ve eaten Bukharian, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazi, Romanian, Druze, Arab, Kavkazi, Georgian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Eritrean, Filipino, and so many other types of food.  I’ve davvened with Haredim, Reform Jews, Chabad, and hippie vegan Jews.  I visited a Druze shrine and a Karaite synagogue.  I got to watch Islamic prayer up close and personal in a mosque and I went to an LGBT Orthodox Torah study group.

Not bad for the half year mark!  I’m quite proud of all my accomplishments- moving across the ocean alone, making friends, finding an apartment, adjusting to a new culture, and using all nine of my languages and starting to add Greek!

There has been a lot of stress along the way.  Israel is an extraordinarily hard place to live- or so say Sabras who grew up here.  And while sometimes they exaggerate because whining here is kind of a national sport (and they don’t know much about the challenges faced by people elsewhere), the truth is in many ways they’re right.  And it’s all the more difficult for someone like me who moved here at 31 without an extensive support network.

What’s hardest about life in Israel is also the source of my New Year’s resolution.  The hardest part of life in Israel is the people.  More specifically, the intense and mean-spirited prejudice I experience on almost a daily basis.  Towards me as an American and towards other cultures- especially within Israel.  Don’t get me wrong- there are some fantastic people here, who mostly join me in complaining about the awful ones.  But boy- there is a mean streak to Israeli culture that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world.  It’s not because I haven’t seen prejudice elsewhere- I’ve experienced it in places like Spain (anti-Semitism), Argentina (homophobia), and the U.S. (all of the above).

The difference in Israel is the intensity and the degree to which many people here celebrate judging others.  I’m someone who deeply values multiculturalism.  I’m well aware that there are limits to it and questions about how far it should extend.  But the basic principle of respecting- at times embracing- parts of every culture to me is second nature and a fundamental way I live in the world.  The good news is Israel is chock full of interesting cultures.  Sadly, that most Israelis know nothing about- and don’t care to appreciate.  While some Israelis are curious about Berlin or America, few are particularly curious about their neighbors who look or talk differently from them.  Let alone their own roots.

The truth is when the State of Israel was being built, its founders despised (and that is not too strong a word) multiculturalism.  Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic- these languages were vigorously and shamefully repressed by the state.  Kids grew up with shame about their roots.  And sadly some 2,000 year old beautiful Jewish cultures are going extinct as a result.

The un-rootedness of many Sabras fosters insecurity and prejudice towards those who maintain their heritage.  Just ask many a Sabra what they think of French Jews or Russians who continue to speak their languages here.

There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in cultural diversity, but it needs to be nourished.  And that’s where I- and you- come in.  There are Israelis like me who are proud of our origins.  There are Israelis- I’ve met them- who realize you can speak fluent Hebrew and still maintain (or re-learn) your French or Russian or Arabic or Romanian.  There are many who don’t realize that because they’ve been trained to revile the Diaspora.  And that’s very sad.

But in the end, I believe in multiculturalism and I’m convinced there are some people here who are ready to join me in this movement.  I want to celebrate the incredible cultural richness here- of Jews, of Arabs, of refugees, of everyone.  It is a gift that must be cherished to be protected.

It is no longer acceptable to me that when I tell my Sabra friends that I met Aramaic-speaking Christians or Samaritans who speak Ancient Hebrew or Eritreans with an awesome juice bar that their reaction is: “wow I didn’t know that was there- you’ve seen more here in 6 months than I’ve seen in a lifetime!”

Bullshit.  Time to get off your hummus-filled tuchus and get to know the richness of your country.  No- not the high-tech.  The cultural treasures right underneath your nose waiting to be discovered.

It’s time to leave behind the old-fashioned Zionist concept of the “effeminate”, “decadent”, “overly pious”, “cosmopolitan”, “weak” Diaspora Jew.  It’s 2018, time for a change.  It’s time to realize the “Diaspora” is The World.  And lucky for us, a whole bunch of people from all over the world have made this country their home.

Now it’s time to realize that if we understand where we came from, our cultures, our heritage- it doesn’t negate our Israeli identity.  It thoroughly enriches it.  Just like my delicious cover photo of Pringles, Russian sweets, Korean seaweed, and Israeli Bissli that co-exist at my neighborhood store.  Pluralism that begins with culture can increase respect between all sectors of society.  And instead of Jew hating Arab hating Zionist Orthodox hating Haredi hating Secular hating Mizrachi hating Ashkenazi- maybe, just maybe, we build just a little bit more understanding and a lot less hate.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.  Inshallah.  Ojalá.  Mirtsashem.

Let’s do this y’all. 🙂

The biggest threat to Israel

There are many threats to Israel- terrorism, nuclear weapons, earthquakes, poverty, diminishing water resources.  You name it.  But for me, the biggest threat facing Israel is one word: invalidation.

First, let’s start with what the word validation means.  Validation does not mean agreement and it doesn’t mean love.  Validation means showing empathy and understanding where someone else is coming from.  How the conditions of their life have informed their views and even if you see the world differently, you can get a glimpse of why they are the way they are.  Even if, in the end, they may be too difficult for you to be friends with.  It’s a difficult skill and an extremely useful one for living an effective life.

Validation is useful for building healthy relationships.  And its opposite, invalidation, is how you destroy them.  All of us invalidate sometimes- we judge, we mock, we belittle.  Maybe other than Buddha himself, I don’t think there’s a single human being who never judges.  However, there are degrees of invalidation.  Invalidation is when we say harmful, hurtful things to (or about) people.  She’s ugly.  I’m fat.  My neighbor’s a dumb ars.  That Orthodox woman is frumpy.  That gay guy must be a pill-popping slut.  That Haredi man is a fanatical homophobe.  That Arab is only good for making falafel- he probably wants to throw us into the sea.

Israelis have a serious problem when it comes to judging both themselves and others.  Judging has been a part of Jewish culture since the Torah- the Bible isn’t exactly Zen Buddhism.  But I remain fairly convinced that the sometimes mind-numbingly intense judgments that I hear here are also a product of trauma.  When someone is traumatized or experiences intense pain, unless and until that person heals, it is common for people to pass that trauma onto others.  That is why it is so common to see families- generation after generation- experiencing abuse.  It’s also why I distanced myself from toxic relatives and broke a chain of toxicity to build a better life.

If you think of the Jews who’ve come to this land, it hasn’t usually been for happy reasons.  Ashkenazim escaping pogroms.  More Ashkenazim escaping the Holocaust.  Holocaust survivors escaping post-war pogroms (yes, you read that right- Europeans continued butchering Holocaust survivors after the war).  A huge percentage of Ashkenazim here are descendants of Holocaust survivors- including almost every Hasidic Jew.

Mizrachim escaped their own pogroms from Morocco to Yemen- only to find their property confiscated by Arab governments.  And then, upon arriving in Israel, they were put into impoverished refugee camps.  Russian Jews fled the Soviet Union (where their religion was banned) and its chaotic aftermath.  The U.S.S.R. was a government so antisemitic it literally has its own Wikipedia article about how antisemitic it was.  Persian Jews fled the Ayatollah, French Jews fled (and still flee) antisemitic terror and discrimination, and even today there are American Jews like me escaping rising antisemitism and white supremacy in the United States.  The list goes on and on and on and on.  And it has a 2,000 year old antisemitic backstory.

And when these Jews arrived in Israel, while many were grateful for a safe haven, their cultures were often decimated in the name of Jewish cohesion in the nascent state.  Ashkenazim were told to stop speaking Yiddish (police even raided Yiddish theaters- an unforgivable thought when you think that the spectators were likely Holocaust survivors).  I even remember a survivor telling me that when she arrived to Israel from Poland after the Holocaust, Sabras would call her and her mom “sabonim”- “soap”.  That was to make fun of the “weak” Diaspora Jews who the Nazis reportedly turned into bars of soap.  Mizrachim were also pressured to give up their languages, their music, their culture- which to many Sabras seemed a bit too much like the (Arab) enemy.  To this day, they continue to have significantly lower average incomes than Ashkenazim.  And every single Israeli Prime Minister has been Ashkenazi, unless you count some recently discovered Sephardic genes in Bibi’s DNA.

With these examples, we’re literally just scratching the surface with Jews.  And it’s worth saying that the Arab population here has suffered its own traumas- of wars, of discrimination, of terrorism (yes, Israeli Arabs are also attacked by terrorists), of families divided across borders, and more.

Add to this 70 years of on-and-off warfare, and you can understand why Israel has three times the rate of PTSD as the United States.

So when a fellow Israeli is harsh to me.  When they say something mean and judgmental- about me, about another community, about themselves- I understand.  I don’t by any means justify it- I think it’s harmful and if we’re going to thrive as a society, this must change.  And sometimes I frankly have to protect myself by distancing myself from their toxicity.  And I get it.  Israelis have been through a lot.  And not everyone is healing.  It took me a while to get to this understanding- but this is the ultimate validation.  I don’t personally agree with being racist or hateful- I just know that if someone got to that point, there’s something causing it and I hope they choose a different path.

Many Israelis complain to me about American “politeness”.  They think Americans are fake- when they smile, when they say thank you, when they do a whole variety of quotidian acts that make up American culture.  On the one hand, I get it- there are times when Americans can be exceedingly formal.  It can be hard to gauge if someone really likes you- or what they think.

At the same time, I remember what one Israeli friend said to me: “I don’t like that in America they’re all the time worried about whether they’re hurting you.”  To this I say- you’re not talking about politeness anymore.  You’re talking about consideration.  You’re talking about kindness.  You’re talking about someone caring how you feel- and trying to respect your boundaries.  In a way that you never got growing up in a society filled with people whose boundaries have been crossed over and over again against their will.  Who have endured but in many cases, not healed.  And who all too often pass their hurt along to others.

To this I say- enough.  All Israelis, in fact all people, deserve the right to heal from their traumas.  And to not have new pain heaped upon them.  As a society, we can still keep our bluntness and our assertiveness without the spite and without the cruelty.  Find one way to heal yourself this week- and find one way to encourage a friend.  I’m not a psychiatrist or a PTSD expert, nor do I have the power to stop violence.  But I think that if we each find a way to bring some healing into our society, it will do us all a lot of good.

To borrow a bit from our Christian neighbors, my cover photo is from an Arab church in Haifa.  It says: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you“.  Amen.

Reform is a verb

I grew up as a Reform Jew active in every possible aspect of the movement.  When I made aliyah, I was certain to connect with Reform communities- I would never live in a city without one.

Another reason I chose to live in Tel Aviv was because of the queer community.  It is a city that is arguably gayer than anywhere I’ve ever lived- and I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Madrid, and Barcelona.

Oftentimes, I felt like my sexual identity and my Jewish identity had to be separate.  When I was in one community, I was almost always still a minority due to my other identity.  While Reform Jews are largely accepting of LGBT people (in particular the NFTY youth group), I faced sometimes intense homophobia in my community.  I once had a Reform clergy person tell me bisexual people don’t exist and a Hebrew school teacher who giggled about which person was the “real man” in a gay relationship.  I even had another Hebrew school teacher posit that there was something strange that caused more Jews to be gay than non-Jews.  When visiting a Reform synagogue in another city, a 30-something rabbi told me all about how he likes gays to help with his fashion because that’s what we’re good at.  Not to mention my toxic relatives.  And all of this isn’t even including those among the more conservative elements of the Jewish community who twist texts to guilt and harm people like me.

And in the gay community, I also at times faced anti-Semitism or felt excluded.  I remember going on several dates with a non-Jew and everything seemed to be going well and then suddenly he broke off the relationship because I didn’t eat pork.  At the time I didn’t really care if he ate pork, so it seemed rather odd and when I pressed him on it, it was clear there was an anti-Jewish sentiment behind it.  One guy implied he couldn’t date me because I was “really Jewish”.  A non-Jewish ex-partner’s father – to my face – defended the KKK as an organization supporting Confederate soldiers, not racism and anti-Semitism.  His son, my ex’s brother, dressed up as a Hasidic Jew for a college Halloween party- peyos and all.  In addition to the more recent political anti-Semitism in the LGBTQ community, I think it’s just hard to be a minority within a minority.  Oftentimes LGBT events are scheduled without regards to Jewish holidays and people don’t necessarily know about Jewish culture.  It’s not necessarily malicious, but it does make it hard.  And sometimes, I felt like the gay community really prized white “straight-acting” gay men above other members of the community, including physically.  Above blacks, Latinos, bisexuals, trans, and- in my experience- Jews.  While I strongly believe that most LGBT people in the U.S. are not anti-Semitic, I can’t deny that at times I felt uncomfortable or out of place in the community.

Which brings us to tonight.  Tonight, as usual, I went to Reform Shabbat services which were lovely.  We had a communal dinner and then I went home.  When I got home I realized it was only 9:15pm and I was bored as hell.  It can be hard to make plans for Shabbat when you’re new to Israel and don’t know a lot of people.  And it can feel lonely.

I found a friend going to a gay pop music party.  I usually just chill with friends and eat on Shabbat and walk around.  But having no great alternative tonight and having the itch to get out of the house, I made a move and I went.

What a great decision.  First of all, it was my first Tel Aviv gay party.  And it was fun.  The music was also great.  Hearing a bit of American pop music was a nice escape from the stress (even the interesting stress) of everyday life here.  Also there were some cute guys- not the super muscle-y ones you see on the beach, more like cute nice Jewish boys.  It felt comfortable.  Also, pretty much everyone was Jewish- a completely unique experience.  I really felt this when the music switched from Britney Spears to Israeli pop.  Even to the first Israeli singer I ever got a CD from at age 13- Sarit Hadad.  That felt powerful.

For Sabras – Israelis who grew up here – there is absolutely nothing novel about what I just said (which in and of itself is kind of cool).  But I’d like to remind them of something.  There is nowhere else in the world where a queer Jew can hear Hebrew on the dance floor all around him.  There is nowhere else in the world where every weekend there are gay dance parties and most of the people in the room are Jewish.  There is nowhere else in the world where when you take a picture with a drag queen (my cover photo) you say to them “todah”.

Only in Israel – only in Tel Aviv – do I feel my queer and Jewish identities meld.  Not at a conference, not at an event, but rather in my day-to-day life.  I don’t have to compromise on either important aspect of my self to live here.  And that is a gift – one that I hope I can inspire my Sabra friends to recognize and my American Jewish friends to respect.

There are some beautiful things about being a minority.  The solidarity, the awareness, the empathy you can develop for others.  The secret codes we use to find each other and protect our culture.  But honestly, a lot of the time it sucks.  And being a double minority makes it that much harder to feel at ease.

On a Friday night, I’m almost always at Reform services.  And oftentimes at a dinner afterwards, sometimes even with Orthodox friends.  Frankly, I feel more at ease at a Modern Orthodox Shabbat meal than with a lot of secular Jews.  I love zemiros and I love the many hours of chatter and fun.  As I see myself, I’m an “all-Israel Jew”.  I like to find the beauty in every community of the People Israel (and even the non-Jewish communities of the State of Israel).

And tonight I added a new community.  The queer Tel Avivi community is also my community- and also a part of my spirituality.  It’s a place I feel affirmed in every way and it’s a fun way to blow off steam after a long week.

I’m a Reform Jew because reform is a verb.  When Judaism or any religion becomes too static, its vitality withers.  Today I reformed my Judaism.  And I realized that while some Shabbats I’ll want to do long meals with singing and just be in the moment, sometimes, after a good hearty sing at services, I might just want to slip out at one in the morning and dance my heart out till the sun comes out.

That’s my Judaism too.

Why do so many Israelis know nothing about each other?

This is a question that confounds and deeply frustrates me.  If we’re going to live together and thrive and appreciate each other, we certainly can’t do it living in silos.

I’d like to share a few examples from people who I think are well-intentioned:

Yaniv is a Jewish doctor (every mom’s dream!).  Growing up in a secular Persian and Moroccan family, he’s now partnered with an openly gay Ashkenazi Orthodox man- already showing he’s pretty open-minded.  I was telling him about my trip up north last week, where I visited many Arab villages, including some Christian communities.  He actually lived for several years in Haifa as well so he has spent time in this part of the country.  I started talking about the different groups in Israel- Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Maronites, etc.  And I noticed he didn’t really react.  I asked him if he had learned about Christianity in school.  He and his partner basically explained that in their schools, they learned only very basic information and didn’t get any exposure to the different types of Christianity.  In the country where the religion was born!  They were surprised, for instance, to learn that in the U.S. there are hundreds of different types of Protestantism alone.

Ahmed is an Arab Muslim cab driver.  We were talking about our backgrounds and he asked about my origins.  I explained that I’m Ashkenazi from Romania, Austria, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus.  He asked why my family came to America.  I explained that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were massive pogroms in Eastern Europe along with crushing poverty that motivated Jews to move to America.  Ahmed asked me: “They killed Jews in Russia too?  I thought they just did that in Germany during the Holocaust.”  I was shocked, although I had heard similar things from European Christians in whose countries anti-Semitic violence took place, which is all the more problematic.  There is 2,000 years worth of anti-Semitic massacres and discrimination which you can read about a bit here.  Ahmed was sorry to hear about the anti-Semitic killings and genuinely surprised.

Yoav is a 26 year old Jewish guy from a moshav near Jerusalem.  An open-minded guy, he told me about how he thought it was important for Jews to get to know Arabs and vice-versa.  I told him how I visit all parts of the country, including nearby Bnei Brak, a Haredi city you can read about here and here.  He said he’s never been there (he lives 20 minutes away) and was considering a trip sometime, but he’d need time to think about whether he was up for it.  As an aside, I met an 18 year old from Ramat Gan, a 5 minute walk from Bnei Brak, who had never even stepped foot there, even to buy a bottle of water.  Yoav said he had seen on the news that someone paraded around Bnei Brak with an Israeli flag and got negative reactions from people, so he was afraid to go (a number of Haredim are not Zionist for religious reasons).  I told him that first of all, I’ve been a number of times and never had any issues- in fact, I found a lot of interesting food, music, and people.  I also told him that if your first interaction with someone is to delve into several-hundred-year-old political debates, you’re not going to have a very good discussion.  Rather than getting your information about your neighbors from the news, I said, just go and meet people for yourself.  He nodded in agreement.

Yair is a 20-something man from Jerusalem.  I believe he either is or was Modern Orthodox.  I had told him I was Reform and he and his Haredi friend asked me a bunch of (sometimes provocative) questions about the movement.  I do think that they were well-intentioned and curious but had not met many Reform people before.  Again- their sources were the news.  I did ask Yair: “What personal experiences have you had with Reform Judaism?”  He said: “Oh well I went to a Reform synagogue in London once and it did nothing for me.  Sorry, but Reform Judaism is kind of hollow.”  I then said to him: “There are millions of Reform Jews in the world and over 1,000 synagogues.  If I ate one bad schwarma in Jerusalem, would that be fair to say all Jerusalem food sucks?”  He said I made a good point and listened as I explained a bit about my community.

I could write a whole separate blog about ignorance I hear from tourists here (I met a Christian American tonight here for business who was absolutely shocked that Sunday is a day of work here and he wondered what Christians do here.  My answer: “they adapt”.  I had to spend a solid 15 minutes explaining how Jews in the U.S. adapt to a calendar that doesn’t reflect our holidays and traditions- he had no idea).  But I’d like to focus on my neighbors for a moment.

The examples I gave above are of Israelis who I truly believe have good hearts and are open-minded people.  These are not people who are hardcore bigots or full of hate (although those exist in every society).  These are people who know almost nothing about their neighbors, but who I believe have some curiosity about them.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem.  Unlike in the U.S. where people go to school together with kids of all different races and religions, here there are separate schools for each sector of society.  Setting up a genuinely pluralistic multilingual public school system could take quite a bit of energy and time (although it’s perhaps an interesting outside-the-box idea to explore).

In the meantime, I do have a suggestion.  We need to step outside our bubbles and find one way each week in which we reach out to someone new.  Someone from a background we know little or nothing about- or are even afraid of.  It could be as simple as asking your Orthodox co-worker how the holidays were and what her family did.  Or asking the secular guy in your office what music he likes.  It could be opening up Wikipedia and reading about Arab Christians in Israel.  It could be watching this amazing dabke dance from Nazareth or asking your favorite Arab falafel guy to teach you a few words of Arabic.

The point is if we wait for the government or politicians or the media or NGO’s to do this work for us, it’ll be too late.  If we’re really going to make Israeli society work, we need to get to know each other.  You don’t need a program.  You don’t need a tour guide.  Gently step outside your bubble (knowing it’s still there when you need to reflect and regroup) and embrace the possibilities.

No law can make someone like you.  That only comes from an opening of the heart.

Everything is Better in America

Israelis love, love, love to tell me how much better and easier things are in America.  Aside from several seriously well-informed Sabras who understand the challenges of American healthcare, college education, crime, gun violence, public transportation (or lack thereof), and anti-Semitism, a lot of people here just don’t get it.  On the other hand, a lot of Israelis (including some who say America is better, in an act of serious cognitive dissonance) like to tell me how awful the food is, how naive the people are, and how fake everyone is in the U.S.

In the spirit of shedding light and dispelling myths, here’s my take on what’s better in America and what’s better in Israel.


  • America is the most diverse country on the planet.  430 languages are spoken in the U.S.  There are hundreds of Protestant denominations alone- not to mention Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians of all varieties, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Bahai, Rastafarians, Mormons, and Native American religions.  It’s extremely racially diverse- there are twice as many Asians in the U.S. as there are Israelis in the world.  And seven times as many Latinos.
  • Much more so than in Israel, Americans of different backgrounds work, play, pray, and learn together.  On my high school soccer team, white Christian kids were a minority (and somehow almost all of them were blond!).  Just on one team, off the top of my head 13 years later, we had kids from El Salvador, Korea, Iran, Israel (!), Georgia, Bulgaria, Peru, Cameroon, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Turkey, Russia, and a bunch of Jews.  There were no organized co-existence activities- this was just our normal life!
  • Pluralism.  In the U.S., thanks to the separation of church and state, religion is a personal rather than a legal matter.  This even benefits the Jewish community, where over the course of my life I became friends with Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and even Haredi Jews.  Are there debates between Jews?  For sure.  But the relationships between communities are much deeper in the U.S. than here and there is far, far less vitriol.
  • Ethnic food.  Yes, thanks to the tens of millions of immigrants from around the world, American food is amazing.  I’m really sorry (not sorry) for my Israeli friend who posted about her office in Denver not providing her with suitable vegetables for breakfast (side note- nowhere I’ve been outside of Israel eats vegetables for breakfast).  But the fact is, American food IS international food because we’re an international society.  Don’t come to America expecting your (albeit delicious) Israeli cheeses, yogurts, and tomatoes for breakfast- that’s not what we do.  But we do have immensely better, fresher, and cheaper Thai, Burmese, Indian (southern and northern), Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Laotian, Korean, Nepali, Japanese, etc etc.  Not to mention the best Jewish deli food in the world.  The point is that unlike in Israel, where I grew up, these are not seen as exotic tastes of foreign lands.  They become part of our diet and become American food.  When I spent a summer in Spain, I didn’t miss hamburgers.  I missed Chinese food.


  • Healthcare – I’ve already written a blog about this which I recommend reading.  Israeli health spending per capita is $2910 and in the U.S. it’s $9403.  The number one reason for bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical expenses.  Just two years ago, I had to spend $20,000 on medical care in one year- in addition to the $500/month I spent on medical and dental insurance.  Israel’s healthcare system is ranked 4th for efficiency- the U.S. is ranked 46th.  My friend Dave is battling a brain tumor and has to raise $68,000 for treatment, something unthinkable in Israel.  Please consider donating (and stop whining about Israel’s healthcare).
  • College education – in the U.S., college education ranges from about $9410-$32,410 a year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more dollars for housing or food.  Some schools like Bates are charging over $60,000.  The better the school, the better the job prospects.  Israeli tuition is about…$3000 a year.  Pretty sweet.
  • Fresh produce – yes I just touted American food, which is amazing.  Truth be told, the fruits and veggies here are better.  Perhaps because Israel is small and doesn’t ship grapes from California to New York, the produce is super fresh and extremely tasty.  Other than farmers markets, fruit in America tastes watery.  In Israel, it is full of flavor, inexpensive, and delicious.
  • Weather – this depends on where you are in the U.S. (I’m looking at you beautiful San Diego), but at least compared to D.C., the weather in Israel is much nicer.  Yes it can get very hot, but there is a beach.  There are beautiful rural places to escape to with nice breezes.  When there is three feet of snow on the ground during a D.C. blizzard, Tel Aviv is 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a February day.
  • Caring for one another – this might surprise Israelis, but I find Israelis to be much more willing to trust one another and to help one another than Americans.  I regularly see people step up and help people who are sick, lost, in need of a place to stay, etc- even if they’ve never met them.  These are things that would usually be met with suspicion in America, but here are totally normal.  If you have nowhere to go on Friday night for Shabbat, just tell someone and you’ll be eating a warm meal before you can remember their name.
  • Judaism – yes, the U.S. is pluralistic with a much bigger Reform community than Israel, but the fact remains that the entire country here is a synagogue.  When I walked down the street today, my friend and I heard a shofar.  There is biblical graffiti everywhere- done by hipsters.  My favorite Israeli dancing songs play on juice bar stereos.  All of my holidays are government holidays.  I can go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the morning and a gay Orthodox Torah study in Tel Aviv at night.  There is also unparalleled Jewish cultural diversity (and food!) here- with Jews from dozens of countries represented.  My identity is validated over and over and over again even in ways Sabras don’t recognize.  Here, I am normal.

We won’t even get into the economics of things, because while Israelis decry how much more Americans make, the fact is things are a bit more complicated.  The average Israeli household earns a net income of $56,892 a year.  In the U.S., the figure is $55,775.  For sure, there’s variation by region and industry, and there are different tax burdens.  But the point is- not all Americans are rich (most aren’t) and especially when you consider that significant sectors within Haredi and Arab societies here don’t work, there’s not as much of a gap between Americans and Israelis as some people here think.

In the end, I’m not writing this blog to declare victory or to engage in endless debate.  That feels a waste.  There are beautiful things in America and beautiful things here.  And shitty things in both places.  And I could give many more examples of both.

I chose to be here not because it would be easy, although in some ways it is easier than America.  I made aliyah because it would be meaningful, it would be validating, and it would be inspiring.  In short, because I think it’ll make me happy.  Much like this famous scene from Monty Python, let’s not bicker about who’s right.  Let’s just respect each other’s choices, including mine to become an Israeli.  Because in the end, I’m not asking for your approval or your advice.  I’m here.

What America can learn from Israel

Tonight, in the span of 5 minutes, I saw what Israel has to teach the world about tolerance and diversity.

Walking back from an outdoor movie in Yafo (which overlapped with the Islamic call to prayer halfway through), I heard a man on a microphone.

The man was talking to a crowd at a restaurant on the roof of a building.  He started to sing.  I figured it was just a guy playing music for tourists.

Then I started to recognize traditional Jewish wedding music, saw a chuppah, and realized it was My Big Fat Jewish Wedding.  People started to dance and shimmy as the music blared.  Definitely the only time I’ve ever walked by a rooftop restaurant and discovered it was a Jewish wedding- on a Wednesday!

Then I headed to a great spot where you can look out at the sea, just meters away.  And there I saw a group of Korean Christian tourists with a guitar singing their songs of praise.  A crowd of secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims watched with great interest.  Women in hijabs swayed back and forth as the Koreans sang their hymns.  Everyone applauded at the end while the song leader said “God bless you” to all of us.  It was beautiful.

As I headed over to a dessert shop, I could hear the ululating (in Hebrew “kululu”, in Arabic “zaghrada”) from the Jewish wedding.

The dessert shop is run by Arabs.  For the first time, I tried malabi, a creamy Israeli pudding dessert likely of Turkish origin.  It was de-licious.

As I chowed down, I noticed the shopkeeper, Zidan, was blasting “Shav El Admati” (I return to my land), a famous Zionist Mizrachi music song about Jews returning to Israel.  So this was an Arab man singing at the top of his lungs a Jewish song about returning to Israel.  While I, an oleh chadash (new immigrant), am singing all the words with him because I learned them while pining for Israel in America.

As the song ended, Zidan gave a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew directions to the nearest Kosher restaurant.  When the man didn’t understand, the gay Reform Jew (me) showed him the restaurant.

All of this happened in a one-block radius in 5 minutes.  It was the best part of my day.

At a time when America is suffering, I can’t help but think that perhaps my former country has something to learn from Israel.  I’ve often spoken of ways Israel can learn from America, but I think it’s time to turn the tables for a moment.

Tolerance and coexistence don’t just happen at big elaborate ceremonies or through proclamations.

They happen in our day-to-day lives, when people least notice or expect it.  Organically, not by way of grandiose announcements or gestures.  If you put yourself out there in your own surroundings, you’d be surprised what you can find.

In some ways, Israelis are much better at this than Americans, probably better than Israelis even realize.  I’d love to see my fellow Israelis appreciate the miracle we’re living in.

At a time when Americans are struggling, understandably, to figure out how to repair their society, my advice from Israel is this: living your values in your day-to-day life is the best way to make change.  Forget the speeches and the rallies- there may be a time and a place for them, but their impact is temporary and can’t sustain long-term change.

Be the Korean Christian singing for Israelis.  Be the Muslim woman swaying to their music.  Be the Haredi guy asking directions from an Arab shopkeeper.  Be the new immigrant exploring new foods and new cultures.

There’s a lot you can’t control in life, but what you can- enjoy the hell out of it.  Look around you, there’s miracles happening everywhere.  Just look.

American Nazis, Syrian refugees, and baklava

Today on many levels was just a normal Israeli day.  I ran around doing errands, dealing with Israeli bureaucracy, hearing my favorite songs blasted from cars on the streets, and walked down the beach to Yafo.

That is exactly what made today so weird.  In America, today was not a normal day.  As I could tell from post upon post from my friends in the States, something big was happening.  Neo-nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a rally in Charlottesville, VA, a beautiful, musical college town which I have fond memories of.  I’ve been there twice, heard great live bluegrass music, and hiked in the nearby mountains.

One of the Nazis literally drove their car over a counter-protestor, killing the woman.

On the one hand, this was shocking.  I lived in the U.S. almost my whole life and I’ve never heard of a massive Nazi rally, even in the most conservative parts of the country.  Estimates are that 1,000 people came.  For something that’s supposed to be fringe, that’s a shockingly large number of people to come to a random town in rural Virginia.  For any Israelis shaking their heads saying this is “overblown” (מוגזם), you are naïve and literally know nothing about America other than Britney Spears and Times Square in New York.  You complain all the time how Americans are so “polite” and never say what they think.  So if that’s true that we keep our opinions to ourselves, then 1,000 Nazis showing up at a public rally (not approved by the police) is a very big deal.  Get your heads out of the sand and realize that if this phenomenon grows in the U.S., it’s going to affect Israel and the rest of the world big time.

While this rally was shocking, it was not surprising.  I’ve experienced a lot of bigotry in the United States.  I went to a sleep away camp in North Carolina for many years and I actually met a camper who told me he was in the KKK youth group.  I told him I was Jewish and he said “I don’t mind the Jews as much, I just hate those n*ggers”.  While riding the Metro in D.C. I’ve been called a spic.  At my progressive liberal arts college, Wash U, my roommates once had to defend me from a fellow student who was homophobic and trying to attack me- in my dorm.  At the same school, I wanted to go with another gay guy to a dance and the people there told me “it’d be better if you didn’t, they won’t like it.”  At my diverse suburban high school, a girl once told me “you’re cool, you’re not like the other Jews who are all loudmouths and stingy.”  I was holding hands with a guy once in the D.C. area and a man followed us yelling “faggot” until we snuck into a restaurant.  As recently as a year ago, I was literally thrown out of a taxi cab by an evangelical pastor for being a gay Jew.  To this day, I still find it hard to wear the rainbow yarmulke I wore on my head in that car.   And that makes me sad.

The examples I gave above- I could give many dozens more.  I think every minority in America can.

That’s because Nazism and bigotry are not new to America.  There was a pretty strong Nazi Party in America in the lead-up to World War II, to such an extent that many believe it caused Franklin Roosevelt to reject Jewish refugees who were later sent to death camps.  Of course the Ku Klux Klan has been murdering minorities for 150 years- African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Latinos, you name it.

My point is this- while in some ways we’re witnessing a new and scary phenomenon, in other ways, it is a revival of long-standing American social movements.  What this means is this is not about any one person alone, it is about a movement.  You can’t extinguish a movement with an impeachment or an election.  You have to solve deep-rooted societal issues (I think many of which are economic and addressed by neither political party) and ultimately extinguish the hatred.

To my friends in the U.S.- my heart is with you.  Remember that with all the anger, it can be easy to misdirect it towards people who might otherwise be open to your message.  Practice self-care and keep an open heart as you try to build a better society.  Focus on what you can control and accept that there are things you can’t.

I found it strange today.  I couldn’t figure out why I was so upset.  I knew I was upset about what was going on in America- that I was worried for my friends.  But things were great here.  The sun was shining, I was eating a delicious chicken shnitzel, and I felt safe.  Everywhere around me were Jewish songs, Jewish signs, Jewish policemen, Jewish everything.  While Nazis marched in America, I couldn’t have felt safer.

I felt all sorts of conflicting feelings.  The pride for having predicted this would happen.  The relief and happiness that come with having made a good choice to make aliyah to escape these problems.  Deep sadness for the state of America.  Fear for my friends’ safety and well-being.  Anxiety for my non-Jewish friends who can’t make aliyah and hoping they’ll find a sense of security.

Overwhelmed with emotion, the 103 degree heat index, and the LOUDNESS of every Tel Aviv street, I raced towards the beach.

The beach at night is perhaps the only (fairly) quiet place in Tel Aviv.  Tel Aviv is a city smaller than D.C but with the energy of three New Yorks.  Sometimes, I just want some friggin’ peace and quiet.

I hopped on the phone with my friend Shadi, a Syrian refugee living in Erbil, Kurdistan in Iraq.  Shadi is my Arabic conversation partner, even going back to when I lived in the States.  Through the organization Natakallam, I pay to practice my Arabic and Shadi earns a living.

Shadi is awesome- he’s Kurdish, so we love talking about our minority experiences.  He’s also extremely open to my Judaism and my gay identity.  Whenever I’m in need of some positive energy and affirmation, I hop on Skype.

Today, I told Shadi all about what was going on in America.  How I felt happy in Israel and how I felt scared for my friends.  How I felt guilty for feeling happy with my life here while my friends suffered.  I compared notes with how his experience was as a refugee.

And then he opened up.  Turns out, Shadi’s mom and dad still live in Qamishli, Syria where he grew up.  Four years ago, he fled to Erbil, a Kurdish city in Iraq, both because of the civil war and because his wife has leukemia.  Apparently, treatment is much less expensive in Iraq.  So as to allow him to focus on helping his wife with chemo, his daughter stayed seven months with his parents in Syria- in the midst of a civil war.  Thankfully his daughter is reunited with him and his wife now and he is learning coding so he can be a computer programmer.  One day he hopes to return to Syria.

Interestingly, Shadi and I both chose to escape bigotry (there is intense persecution of Kurds in Syria) by going to places where our peoples are the majority.  There’s something about living in a place where you’re normal that’s healing and gives you a great sense of security and validation.

I don’t share Shadi’s moving story to try to minimize my own pain or that of my friends in the U.S.  Rather, I share it to put things in perspective.  Things are bad in America right now.  Fortunately not yet to the extent that they are in Syria, which makes me count my blessings and helped calm my anxiety.

Yet things in America will get worse.  Several years ago, when I told my friends Donald Trump would become President, they thought I was nuts.  Putting aside the question of whether you support him or not, my prediction was correct.  All the babbling idiots on CNN and MSNBC and the pompous writers in the Washington Post didn’t see it coming because they live in a bubble.

Now they ponder how the courts or the elections or this and that will help.  It won’t.  Time to accept reality- American democracy is unraveling.  Either it will be stitched back together by an engaged and powerful citizen movement.  Or it will die.

To my American friends- I’m praying for you.  Even as I write this.  I love you and I want you to be safe.  You have to decide how to move forward.  Want to stay and fight for a better America?  Absolutely your right and your choice and I applaud you.  Want to get the hell out and build a life elsewhere like I did?  I totally support you.  Just understand what’s going on so you can make an informed decision.  I think there is a substantial possibility that the U.S. is headed for a civil war or intense civil strife.  I hope to G-d almighty I’m wrong, but just be prepared that this is a real possibility and plan accordingly.  If there’s any way I can help, in particular for those considering aliyah, I’m here.

To my Israeli friends- wake up and smell the coffee.  I’ve talked to several sabras (native-born Israelis) today and nobody seemed to get why this was a big deal.  Even on the website of Yediot Achronot there was no mention on the front page, although there was an article about a woman who became a Jewish food guru.  What happens in America affects us- our foreign aid, our diplomatic support, aliyah (I’d bet there was a spike in applications today), etc.  An America where Nazis are gaining power is bad for Israel and bad for American Jews.  Start paying attention and realize that listening to Rihanna and having a cousin in L.A. doesn’t mean you understand America.  Read JTA, Huffington Post, even the radical left-wing Socialist Worker and the right-wing Washington Times.  You could even go further off the deep end and look for extreme right-wing blogs, but I won’t recommend that on my blog 🙂  The point is be informed because this affects our friends, ourselves, and the world.  I’m always happy to suggest resources or chat.

After my conversation with Shadi I made my way to Yafo, enjoying the summer breeze as it hit my face.  I made my way to my favorite baklava spot, hung out with my friend Sager who works there, and bit into a delicious slice of heaven.  I could’ve sat for two hours telling him all about America, but I just relaxed and soaked in the fun.  The tension in my body faded and I felt safe.

Something I hope my friends in America will feel soon too.

Anti-Semites who visit Israel

Tonight, I went to an English-Hebrew practice group.  Not because I particularly need to practice my Hebrew, since I’m surrounded by it all day and I speak it at every opportunity.  But because I wanted to make friends.

There was an interesting cast of characters, including a guy who claimed for 20 minutes he was a porn producer, only to say later he was not.  I spoke some Hebrew, others spoke English, all was fine.

Then I met an exceedingly handsome French guy whose Hebrew accent was to die for.  Even after he revealed he had a girlfriend, I couldn’t stop looking at his beautiful skin and face and smile.  Oulala!

Let’s call him Pierre.  Pierre has a very cushy job at a pharmaceutical company who has asked him to work in Israel for four months before moving him to London.  Not a bad life.  Pierre is actually not Jewish!  This surprised me, because actually there are a ton of French Jews here, many of whom are escaping rabid anti-Semitism in France.  He asked some thoughtful questions about Israeli politics, religious identity, and had an impressive command of Hebrew for someone who’s been here for a few weeks.

I decided he might make a good friend, so we walked for a while together after the event.  Sadly, it didn’t take long for the garbage to come out.  Perhaps feeling liberated from being away from a larger group, he started to tell me all. about. the. settlements.  Please don’t get me wrong- talking about the Jewish presence in the West Bank is a very legitimate political issue and one that is far more complex than the Western media makes it out to be.  I can understand why there are people critical of the settlements (their word) and- just as critically- I can understand why Jews choose to make their home in Judea and Samaria (their words).  There are genuine concerns about human rights violations and there are very real religious and historical reasons why Jews want to live in these places.  I’ll save the political debate for a future blog- the point is I try to have empathy towards different types of people.

Pierre was not so interested in empathy, but more in lecturing me.  The truth is I found it shocking, but not too shocking.  I’ve had many non-Jews, especially those visiting Israel, jump into long-winded speeches about their political beliefs.  Before really even knowing much about me or frankly, Israel.  Unfortunately, so many people around the world view this place solely through the prism of news articles and not through their own personal experiences and relationships here- both with Israelis (Jewish and Arab) and Palestinians.

I often feel like the world expects Israelis and Palestinians to entertain them, like a circus.  One person dies here (doesn’t matter the religion or nationality), and the BBC cameras race to the scene.  It’s front page news.

Yet when a black kid is shot on the streets of D.C. or when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered or when Tibetans are colonized by the Chinese government, the world barely blinks.  The conflicts go on, untended and unresolved.

It’s not that I’m arguing we shouldn’t pay attention to what happens here- we should.  It’s just that the amount of attention that the world puts on this tiny little place is absolutely out of proportion and exacerbates the problem rather than solving it.

In the end, non-Jews who visit here from Western countries should treat this place with respect- including the Jews who live here.  If you want to understand why Jews return to their homeland, you need to learn something about Jewish history.  Plenty of American Christians know what Chanukah is (vaguely), but most couldn’t tell you about the pogroms that brought my ancestors to the U.S.  Or Martin Luther’s antisemitism.  Or the laws that prohibited Jews from owning land in Europe.  Or forced conversions of Jews to Islam in Iran.  Or the myriad blood libels, burnings, discriminatory clothing, or expulsions you can read about here.  And before my American friends chime in with “oh well this is foreign to the U.S.”, you can read this.

My point is this- before you rush to judge another culture (because yes, Jews are both a culture/people and a religion), learn something about it and show some humility.  When I met Pierre, I didn’t rush to ask him to condemn France’s myriad expulsions and massacres of Jews over the course of 2,000 years.  Nor did I ask him to condemn the extensive French collaboration with Adolf Hitler (as an aside, I had a highly educated French teacher who thought the first time French people did something antisemitic was the Holocaust).

Why?  Because I don’t even know him!  If I met a Chinese person, would I launch into a tirade about Tibet?  Is that socially acceptable?  Is that kind?

No.  Because everyone is a human being first and foremost.  If you really want to get to know Israel, you have to get to know Israelis.  Just like anywhere else on the planet.  You have to accept that things aren’t always black and white and that there are reasons why things are the way they are- even if you don’t always agree.  Empathy isn’t about morally approving of everything another person or another culture does- it’s simply understanding where it comes from and acknowledging that all behavior is caused.

There’s a reason why if I hear a Jewish Israeli criticizing settlements it bothers me less than if a French Christian does it.  There are historical reasons for that.  Jews have had to band together over the course of two millennia to survive oppression without a state.  Now that we have a state, we still find our situation fragile as we’ve endured war after war for our existence.  This is a place with eons of trauma that we’re trying to heal from- even as we try to make peace with our neighbors, who have their own issues they’re sorting out.

Let’s say you have a zany uncle.  You laugh about your uncle with your mom, with your cousin, even with your aunt.  But the second some random person at a gas station laughs at him, your back straightens and you’re ready to defend him.  Because you’re family.

For Jews and especially for Israelis, we are a family.  If I’m gay and I use the word queer, it feels safe.  If a straight person uses it, I start to worry that it might be an insult.  I think the same concept applies.

You don’t have to dance around things all the time- let’s talk.  But you do have to be sensitive to my people’s historical experience if you want to talk with me.  Try to understand where we’re coming from.  The fact that you have a Jewish friend and like challah does not mean you understand my history and my identity.  I’d in particular recommend the book “A Short History of The Jewish People” as a great place to start learning.

A while after my conversation with Pierre, I looked at his Facebook profile.  Hoping to find some sign of nuance or interest in Judaism that would abate my anger, I instead found a homophobic quote, a picture of Hitler, and an article posted that mocked Jews who were concerned about antisemitism.  I blocked him.

All goes to show that yes, you can ask good questions about Israeli identity, you can speak some Hebrew, you can be intellectually curious about Judaism, and even visit Israel.  And be an anti-Semite.


Dancing on Roman ruins

Wednesday I went to Caesarea, a beautiful seaside town of fourth century Roman ruins.

On my flight to Israel, I met a fellow oleh chadash (new immigrant) named Ari. We’ve become fast friends and recently he made the wise observation that I’ve spent almost all of my time in Tel Aviv and that we should go explore other parts of the country. Since he has a British accent and all things sound wiser that way, I obliged him.

I could spend this blog telling you about the amazing Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins. Or the crystal blue sea. Or the snorkeling Ari and I did.

Instead, I’d like to tell you about our cab driver, Akiva. Before I get to that, look at the cool pictures below of our trip!


When Ari and I got off the train, we had trouble finding the right bus. Caesarea is the opposite of Tel Aviv- it is completely in the middle of nowhere, so it is hard to get around.

Instead of waiting for buses, I ran and hailed a cab dropping someone off and we got in.

The driver’s name was Akiva. Akiva is a Persian Kurdish Jew. He speaks some Farsi and fluent Kurdish. His mom made such good Kurdish food that he said he’d pay $500 just to taste her food again (she passed away at 82).

Before dropping us off at Caesarea, Akiva tells us he can show us the graves of ancient rabbis if we call him for a ride back.

After a day of fun and exploring and a little bit of sunburn, I called Akiva.

Twenty minutes later, Akiva comes walking down the street and tells us to follow him. He said the guards wouldn’t let him bring in his car.

We walk 10 minutes down the road and he motions for us to literally climb with him down a cliff. We make our way down and there is the grave of Rabbi Abahu, one of the Amoraim (great scholars of old- and by old I mean 1700 years old). Rabbi Abahu was actually from 3rd century Caesarea- something people who deny Jewish history in this land would be wise to remember. Our cab driver was not bullshitting us- there’s an actual sign and little books of Psalms that you’re supposed to recite. We leave stones on the grave in the rabbi’s memory.


It’s customary to pray for something when visiting the grave of a great rabbi. I prayed for our driver Akiva, my friend Ari, for me, for the Jewish people, for the whole region, for the victims of the war in Syria, and for the soul of the rabbi himself. I’ve never prayed at the grave of a rabbi- it was quite a moving experience, especially with the beautiful sea breeze and sound of the waves crashing behind us. Could Rabbi Abahu have ever imagined that his people would return to their homeland 2,000 years after the Romans brutally forced them into exile? I wonder if he prayed that one day his descendants (us) would visit his tomb.

Akiva walked us back up the cliff (it’s worth pointing out that Akiva is probably 70 years old and there’s no cab meter running- this is just out of the generosity of his heart). Then he walked us to another site- an ancient synagogue mosaic. You could even see some Hebrew writing among the tiles. According to (our) Akiva, the famed Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) was buried there as well after he was mercilessly tortured by Roman soldiers.


First off, I’ve never felt more connected to the land of Israel. Not just because of the stunning scenery that constantly keeps me in awe that I actually live here. But also because my ancestors walked this land. They defended our faith and kept our culture alive so that I can reap the benefits today and pass on that tradition to future generations.

Akiva, our wonderful cab driver, is the epitome of the best of Israeli society. After spending a good 20-30 minutes with us exploring these historic sites, he asks us to follow him again. This time, we headed towards the car. It was another 15 minutes down the road.

This 70-year-old man took an hour out of his day in pummeling heat to show us our heritage. Not because he had to, just because he is kind and he is proud of his people. There is a depth of generosity here- true, unrewarded, and authentic- towards strangers that I have never seen in any other place in the world.

Perhaps that is because we’re not strangers. Akiva, Ari, and I- as different as we might be- our stories are intertwined. We are not strangers. We’re more like long lost family getting reacquainted after a long and painful absence.

There is nothing sweeter in the world than for three Jews to dance on Roman ruins.

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