I want to share an experience I had in Tortosa, Catalonia. Some call it Spain, for now I’ll stick with Tortosa 😉 .
Tortosa is a city that used to have a sizable Jewish population. Before the Inquisition and related persecutions, Tortosa had a “call”. That’s pronounced “caly” (for lack of a better way to write it in English)- and it means “Jewish quarter”.
I decided I wanted to go for a hike. Tortosa is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, take a look:
I love nature, but I found myself increasingly drawn to the signs around me that said “call”. They’re everywhere. Something I love about Catalonia is that quite a number of cities make preserving their Jewish heritage a priority. Unlike the mostly derelict synagogues of my great-grandmother’s Romania, Catalans seem generally proud of their Jewish heritage. Because quite a number of them are Jews themselves- or were hundreds of years ago. And they know it.
I wandered the call, finding where the synagogue once stood, the kosher butcher shop, even a plaza named after a rabbi, Menahem Ben Saruq.
I found myself humming Jewish tunes, including one of my own creation, and being stared at by some Moroccan men. Almost the entire neighborhood now is filled with Moroccan Muslim immigrants.
I then headed to the town archives. I love, love, love archives. And I want to give a huge shout-out to archivists everywhere. You keep heritage alive. Science is amazing and can heal and grow our planet- but without humanities and a sense of morality, it is useless. Ben Carson is a great example of why science is not a religion, it does not have all the answers any more than any other field of study. Scientists need ethical systems just as much as humanists need biology and medicine.
The best thing about town archives, other than the ancient documents they contain, is that they are free! So here’s my travel tip: if you find yourself itching to see unique, cool texts and really learn about where you’re traveling, head to an archive. If it’s a rainy day (as it was for me), even better. I walked around Tortosa with a piece of generously donated cardboard over my head until I could find a 9 buck Mickey Mouse umbrella. 🙂 Archives are my refuge. And unlike museums, you won’t be shelling out tons of cash to wait in line and crowds. Archives are often quite empty- sad for the state of humanity, but great for someone like me who likes a little peace and quiet. All you need to do is fill out a form, show your passport, and next thing you know you’re looking at a hand-written 900 year old document.
That’s where I found myself. The archivist brought me the “Carta de Poblament”. It’s a Catalan document that the Count of Barcelona had offered the town during the medieval Christian conquest of Spain. It basically offers new settlers various land privileges and natural resources for settling the territory. Until then, it had had Jews, Christians, and Muslims. But with the eventual imposition of the Inquisition, both Jews and Muslims had to convert, leave, or face torture and death. Their empty houses became the Christian settlers’ homes we see today. Occasionally, as in Granada, you can still see where the mezuzah was once hanging.
I then looked at the next documents I had requested. I wanted to see Jewish documents. And in some cases, you can still find them in Catalonia. I once visited the Girona Jewish archive (the city has a particularly well-preserved call) and got to see documents in Judeo-Catalan! Catalan written in Hebrew letters- and in some cases, with Hebrew phrases. For a Jewish speaker of Catalan like me, there is nothing cooler.
The first document was in medieval Catalan (did I say archives were cool??) and was about the Jewish community of the city. The next document was from 1323 and detailed how the local rulers had imposed a tax on the Jewish community to repair a broken wall. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but Christian rulers (and Muslim ones) often imposed discriminatory taxes on Jews either as “protection money” or simply to raise cash.
The third document is the one that stirred my soul. It was called “Població de convertits”. A list of the Jews who had converted to Christianity. Often under penalty of death. From the early 1400s. I have to say that seeing the hand-scribed names really moved me. I felt deep sadness as my finger scrolled through the names of Jewish souls lost to an ever-encroaching Christian hegemony. I wish I could say this was only a Christian problem, but it’s not. Even the relatively tolerant Muslims of Al-Andalus engaged in pogroms, massacring the Jews of Granada in 1066. A thousand years before the State of Israel, for people who think Muslim anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon, purely a product of colonialism.
As I flipped through the pages, I wanted to find a specifically Jewish name. It’s almost as if part of me couldn’t actually believe this document was real. That maybe I had been given the wrong one. Persecutions of Jews are often invalidated, ignored. This must be just history books, it doesn’t feel totally real. I couldn’t believe I was holding an ancient text of suffering, of my people, for free in a municipal library.
And there it was- Abram. Abram and his son converted to Christianity. I paused looking at the name. I thought about how awful it must have been to be a Jew at that time. What must have been going through his head and he decided between expulsion, death, and embracing a faith that so hated his identity.
And there it was, his conversion. I felt sorry for him- and kind of angry. How could he give up on our tradition so easily? I’m sure it wasn’t easy. But I felt torn. And I felt furious at the authorities who forced him to give up who he was. His soul, and those of his ancestors, are forever lost to the Jewish people. Like so many others. So when quite a number of Latinos or Spaniards I’ve met say that Jews are “racist” or “closed off” for only marrying “their own”, this document is my bold counterargument. We only exist because we preserve ourselves. Your people have been nothing but obstacles in our way for hundreds of years and I won’t apologize for keeping my identity alive. I’m grateful to the non-Jews I’ve met here in Catalonia and Spain who are working to keep our heritage visible. Thanks to them I can connect to my past- and they connect to me, as you’ll see in my recent post about a gay Valencian man I met with a Hebrew tattoo. Who changed my life.
Before I left the archive, I thought if there was something creative I could do to bridge the past. To make my Jewish ancestors proud. To connect to Abram and to show the vitality to Judaism to this day, despite all of the hatred placed in our way.
When I left Israel for my travels two months ago, I could barely utter a Hebrew (or Arabic) word. I was so tired of the region, the hatred, the intense pressure to assimilate into Israeli society. I had chosen a name, Matah, when I made aliyah. It means orchard. It sounds like Matt, but is different- it’s about planting roots. The name of this blog.
In Europe, I’ve been going by Matt. Occasionally, Mateo. But this day, I was going to reconnect. I took a piece of paper, and added a nice touch to the 600 year old remnant of my civilization:
Right next to Abram’s name, the second line from the top, I wrote my names.
Jew. Jueu. יהודי.
I think Abram would have been proud. I certainly was. Half a millennia since the expulsion of Jews from this land, I was here, a proud Israeli visiting from the land of our ancestors. Living with self-determination after two millennia. Something Abram could have never even imagined. And here I was alive in his home of Tortosa.
It’s a reminder that the impossible is sometimes possible. History changes. And each one of us can make a difference.
As I left the archives (still with the cardboard box over my head- one of the funnier moments of my trip until my feet were soaked in rainwater), I headed to the cathedral. There I found a 1300-year-old Jewish gravestone in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. With a Menorah and, interestingly, a *5* pointed star:
What’s so amazing is I could mouth out some of the words. “Kever”- grave. “Shalom”- peace”. And “livrachah”- for a blessing. The last word something we say to this day as we remember loved ones in synagogue. A stunning reminder that even when the most hateful among Christians and Muslims stole our land, expelled us, and killed us- we held on to the one thing that kept us alive: words. Evidence of our continuous presence on this continent, one that has tortured us. But where we have ultimately persevered in existing. Even if our current existence there is tenuous. How many people can see a 6th century tombstone and recognize the words from today’s liturgy? We’re a truly special people with an incredible historical memory.
As I headed home, I felt hungry. I stopped into a kebab place. As with many stores here, it was run by Muslim immigrants. In this case, from Pakistan. I have had some difficult experiences with Muslims in Europe. I was curious before going on this trip what it would be like- both figuring that Europe was kind of a neutral space for potential dialogue and aware that there were many reports of anti-Semitism. I was also keenly aware that I had to be careful in saying where I was from. While an American Jew can hide behind their red, white, and blue passport, when you say you’re Israeli, people know you’re a Jew (even if you’re not!).
I’ll start by saying I’ve had some incredible experiences with Muslims in Europe. I went clubbing with a queer Jordanian girl, who had never been to a gay club. And she knew I was from Tel Aviv- and we’re still in touch. Our sexy curves swerving on the dance floors of Budapest. I also met a Syrian refugee there, who lifted my spirits as we chatted in Damascene Arabic late at night over shwarma. And who I told I was from Tel Aviv. And had a great time.
I’ll also say I’ve had a difficult time here. More often than not, I don’t reveal I’m Jewish or Israeli to Muslims here. By the decoration of their stores and their clothes, I can tell they are quite often devout. And just the other day, a woman 10 minutes down the road from where I stayed in Belgium was threatened at gunpoint by a “bearded man” for being Jewish. I wish I could say this was the only incident of Muslim anti-Semitism here, but it’s not. Just a few years ago, the Belgian Jewish Museum I strolled by was attacked by Islamic terrorists, killing several civilians. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe (including from neo-Nazis), and many Muslims’ pointed questions about where I was from didn’t make it any easier. More than a few times, they didn’t believe me when I said I was American- I didn’t “look” American. Sometimes they think I’m Arab, other times they ask me what my religion is. Repeatedly. Which is incredibly uncomfortable and invasive.
Just the other day, an Algerian immigrant told me Israel and America *started* the Syrian Civil War and he didn’t believe Iran or Russia was killing civilians. Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t tell him I was Israeli in his kebab shop at 11pm.
I’ll add that I find it doubtful that many of these immigrants know the Jewish history of the land they live on today. Despite the many signs covering their neighborhood explaining it. Quite a number of Christian Europeans don’t either. It struck me as bizarre and sad to see hundreds of Moroccan men walking around the Jewish quarter of Girona. Seeing them wasn’t bizarre- what was more bizarre was the fear I felt in even singing a Jewish song there. I couldn’t even get out the melody as two men stared. Maybe they didn’t know what I was singing- but if they did, would I even feel safe? Do they care that they live on this land bathed in the stains of our blood? In fact, both of our blood?
It’s times like these where I feel distant from Muslims, from Arabs. I’m someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in dialogue and exploring this civilization, as you can see from my previous blogs. Sometimes it is fruitful and lot of times, it is painful. We’re like two conjoined siblings who wish they could get away from each other, but can’t escape our shared past- and present. I sometimes wonder whether learning Arabic was a waste of time, even as I miss the sounds of the language, the beats of its music, even fighting for the rights of Arab-Israelis and my Palestinian neighbors. Some of whom would rather see me dead. Who some extremist Jews wouldn’t mind dead. It’s an odd yin-yang of hope, fear, love, and hatred.
So it was timely that my friend Muhammad called. Muhammad is a 20-something kid from Rahat, a Bedouin city in southern Israel. I met Muhammad while asking for directions in his town- I was trying to find a restaurant. A delicious, delicious restaurant. Bedouin food is quite different from other Arab food- if you’re in Israel, go to Mansaf restaurant at the entrance to Rahat. Your life will be changed and your taste buds will thank you. As will the friendly people there who wanted to take selfies with me.
Muhammad and I have kept in touch over the past 6 months or so. We even met up again in person. I knew he was studying for his college entrance exams- he wanted to study accounting. A few months ago, he got in! I’m so proud of him. He just moved to Ramat Gan and starts school this week. Love you man!
To say this is a culture shock and a brave move is a deep understatement. Rahat is extremely traditional and entirely Bedouin. Despite living in the same country as Jews, Muhammad has had limited interaction with them. So moving to Ramat Gan, perhaps one of the cities with the highest percentage of Jews in the country, will be quite a shock. Some ways good, but a huge change nonetheless.
Muhammad has managed to get an apartment (something that took me months in Tel Aviv) and find two jobs! On his own. I helped him along the way- on WhatsApp. From my AirBnB in Oradea, Romania, from Hungary, from Almería, and from Tortosa. I’m so proud of him.
Which is why it was a punch to my gut to hear what he had to say on the phone. Muhammad went for a job interview in Ramat Gan. He was offered the job, but the boss said: “our establishment has a lot of religious people, so we need to give you another name.” Muhammad was a name some people just can’t bear to hear as they’re munching on their hummus and falafel.
Heartbroken, he almost decided to change his name. He asked me what to do. I first offered my sympathies. This is one of the saddest things I can hear- that a young, aspiring young man is being told to cut off his identity. I’m with you Muhammad.
Secondly, I shared some stories of discrimination I had faced as a Jew and a gay man- in America and in Europe. The Lyft driver who threw me out of his car for being a gay Jew. The Muslim man and the Belgian Christian who said I was an apartheid occupier, an ethnic cleanser. The Argentinian who said Jews control the world. The Algerian who said Israel did.
He was shocked. And I think somewhat comforted to feel he wasn’t alone. See while the reasons we were discriminated against were different, in the end they were the same. People who hate difference. People who refuse to see nuance or to empathize with others.
I told him that I love him as Muhammad. As whatever he chooses to call himself. And nobody has the right to decide that for him. He has the right to choose to fight racism, to call a lawyer, to speak with an NGO. And he has the right to put his energy towards finding a better job where people will appreciate him. And choosing between the two strategies is not always easy. I know- I never got a dime from Lyft despite a huge public relations campaign, but I was featured in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for gay rights. For a case we lost. I support Muhammad in being himself, however he chooses to find his way forward.
So you have to ask yourself after all this, what’s in a name? Abram converted to Christianity- and seeing his name hundreds of years later I spotted him as my landsman. Matah was a sign of hope for me when I made aliyah, then became a grating sound on my ears. Until I saw Abram and realized how lucky I was in certain ways to be a Jew at this time, in this place. With a homeland we can call our own. And Muhammad- how a brave young Muslim Bedouin man is forging his path forward in Ramat Gan. Weighing his past identity with his present as he pursues a new future and faces racism. Holding on to his name even as he wrestles with how to live as a minority. Something I try to help him manage as someone who can draw on the rich reservoir of Jewish history and gay identity. Minority persistence.
Muhammad gives me hope that despite my experiences in Europe, there are Muslims out there who like me. As I am. A gay Israeli American Jew. I can’t pretend there are masses of them, but even knowing someone like Muhammad is out there, striving for more, caring about me, relying on me- that gives me a bit of hope. And warms my soul.
There is a place on this planet where Jews and Arabs live together. It’s not Spain of 500 years ago. It’s Israel. For all its problems, Israel is a place where Arabs know Jews as people. Not caricatures or cartoons or characters on a soap opera. Nor memories of 70 years ago, when they used to inhabit the same quarters in Morocco and Damascus. No, in Israel we live together. Not always in harmony, but knowing each other. In a way that, perhaps better than anywhere else in the world, allows me to find people like Muhammad who I can breathe my breathy “habibis” and my deep s “sadeeqs” with. Where I feel my Arabic is sometimes quite worthwhile.
In the end, what’s in a name? Occupation is the word you’ll hear most in the news about Israel. And I’m not going to evade and suggest that Palestinians are not real (that’s a thing), that they aren’t facing human rights abuses (they are), or that some of them weren’t expelled from their lands (some were). What I will say is that occupation is complex. As I travel around Europe, I notice all the Jewish lands occupied. The Jewish bodies and souls emptied. The synagogues turned into casinos and strip clubs and Italian restaurants. The Muslim immigrants occupying our former quarters- either oblivious to our former past or some outright hostile to our current existence.
At a time when Catalans feel Spain occupies them (and Spain denies their difference), just how objectively clear is this word? The far left would have you believe things are black and white, that Israel is an occupier, Palestinians are natives. But rarely in life are things so clear. When you visit Peki’in and meet Jews who have been there continuously since the Second Temple. When you meet Arabs from Ramle who migrated from Libya a hundred years ago. It’s not to suggest the current situation is good- but it is to suggest it is not entirely one-sided and it does not present simple solutions.
In the end, I also think about this word. As I travel, one of the great questions on my mind is my own occupation. How I occupy my time, what I like to do, what I want to do going forward.
Perhaps it’s telling that I recently found this cute sign in Catalan that says: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
And I’ve come to what I feel is the next step. As I write this blog, it strikes me that when I left Israel, I wasn’t sure if I’d continue writing it. Yet I found myself over and over again enjoying the therapy of sharing my experiences, of writing things down so for years on end I’ll be able to remember my adventures. To share my thoughts, to bring a little understanding to the world, and hopefully to engage you with exciting, unexpected stories from cultures and languages you want to explore.
Which brings me to today. I’ve written about 140 blog posts, hundreds of thousands of words. I’ve received the most wonderful, heart-warming comments from readers in San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, and Bethlehem.
And I’ve shared it for free, out of love and a desire to make the world better.
This is how I occupy myself. I love exploring and want to keep sharing meaningful stories and thoughts with you.
The way I do that is by asking you to contribute to making it possible. Thousands of miles crossed doesn’t happen for free. I’ve invested so much of my own time and money, and to keep things going, to be a member of my community, you now have the opportunity to contribute.
Soon, I’ll be making my blog a subscription site. The format is being determined, but in one fashion or another, you’re going to have to pay to access this well of hope. It’s fair and I can’t wait to connect with you on an even deeper level as we use this blog to connect open-minded people around the world.
If you’d like to join now, you have a chance to subscribe at a one-time, more affordable rate. If you go to my GoFundMe page and contribute $20 or more, you will get your first year subscription free. Everyone who has donated up until now will be grandfathered in and given a free subscription as well. If you wait until I transition the site, the price will start at $36.
I want to keep you along for the journey. I want to show you amazing archives and diverse people. The unexpected twists and turns. In 8 languages. With a queer angle, an open-minded lens. Proud of Judaism and Israel and willing to engage in nuance. To make my communities better, kinder. Understood and understanding.
I invite you to join me. Or you can always find another gay Jewish blogger who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish and read his blog instead 😉
Let’s explore together. 🙂