Bombs during dinner

This weekend, I went to one of the most beautiful places on the planet, the Golan Heights.  Please don’t bother reading the Wikipedia article, it’s a bunch of political nonsense and needs to be edited.

In short, the Golan Heights is the northernmost part of Israel.  Once it was a part of Syria, but after Syria invaded Israel in 1967 and lost the war, Israel pushed back the Syrian soldiers and gained the Golan.  The Golan is important strategically because it is high ground and for the first two decades of Israeli history, the Syrian Army used that advantage to pummel Israeli villages below in the Galilee.

Now, the Golan is home to both Jews and Arabs, with a slight Jewish majority.  Arab communities include Druze, Muslims, and Alawites.  The Arabs often identify as Syrian, although a number of them have adopted Israeli citizenship.  It’s a very rural area and extremely green and beautiful.  It’s kind of reminiscent of a Middle Eastern Vermont or Switzerland.  Before I get into my story, here are some pictures to give you an idea (I visited the picturesque Galilee along the way so I’ll throw in a few from there too):

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Friday afternoon, my friends and I went for a hike in the Galilee.  A park ranger told my friend Jordan to get out of the creek and then told me I was wondering too far away.  As with almost all tense situations in Israel, the awkwardness immediately dissipated when I started to talk to the guy.  Turns out Muhammad is a Muslim Arab from the Golan, meaning his roots are in Syria.  I spoke with him in Arabic and he started to open up to me.  Turns out, Arabs in the Golan are afforded the very unique opportunity to go to college in Syria (this is astonishing because Syria and Israel are technically in a state of war and Syria doesn’t even recognize Israel.  But as with all things in the Middle East, you find loopholes).  He studied medicine in Damascus for a year, but then had to flee because of the civil war.  He decided he didn’t like medicine (despite his parents’ wishes that he become a doctor- does this sound similar, Jewish friends?) and became a park ranger and enjoys being in the peace of the outdoors.  He definitely had some delusional ideas about how great life is in Syria for its meager remaining Jewish community (after all, there is a reason almost all of them have left).  That being said, he was also clearly a very open-minded and tolerant person open to people of all backgrounds.  He is a person forging his own path (pun intended), something I can identify with.

After our hike, we went to a kibbutz to spend the night.  To say this place was magical is an understatement.  It’s the most romantic, scenic, and peaceful place I’ve ever been.  And I’ve been to the Alps.  It is a rural, progressive Jewish lifestyle, something that is almost non-existent in the United States.  Not only is most of rural America conservative (whereas kibbutzim have socialist origins and still lean left), but also Jews as a minority need to be around lots of other Jews in order to make for a rich communal life.  This partially explains the high concentration of Jews in New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, Miami, LA, San Francisco, Atlanta, etc.  The same could be said for gay people, which is a big reason why I, as a gay Jew, have stuck to major urban areas in the U.S.

This is not the case in Israel.  You can enjoy a progressive rural lifestyle and feel at home.  No rednecks here 🙂

I have a deep love for nature and tranquility so I found the experience awe-inspiring and thoroughly relaxing.  I wandered around the kibbutz and nearby and just felt at peace.  I have a strong inclination to raise my family in a place like this in the future- somewhere safe, Jewish, open-minded, and surrounded by God’s beautiful plants and animals.

After singing “Lecha dodi” by a lake as the sun set over the mountains much like the first kabbalists in Tsfat, I came back to the house for Shabbat dinner.  As we laughed and relaxed around the table, we heard a boom.  And then another boom.  And many more.  We realized that those were bombs being dropped in Syria’s civil war.  The border is just a few kilometers away.  It was a somber reminder of the violence raging oh so close by.  It’s one thing to hear about the civil war and quite another to simply hear it.  I prayed to God for the safety of my brothers and sisters just across the border.

We then had a lovely dinner and I wandered around alone afterwards exploring the kibbutz, praying, dancing, just unwinding.  I looked up at the moon and talked out loud to God.  “God, thank you for this beautiful Kibbutz.  God thank you for Shabbat and for the beauty of nature.  God thank you for the opportunity to visit the Golan Heights.  God, thank you for the gift of being an Israeli.  For the gift of living in this place, for bringing me here.  Where despite the news and despite the booms off in the distance, I feel safer than I ever have in my life.  Help me to grow stronger and heal and to make your name great.  To strengthen your people and to bring peace.  Amen.”

I went inside, talked to a really hot Lebanese guy Ameer on Tinder across the (other) border, and got the best night’s sleep I’ve had in Israel yet.

That’s life in Israel- radically accepting that there are some things you can’t change (war and borders), and then thoroughly enjoying all the amazing things in front of you (trees, lakes, mountains, Judaism, good food, friends, and more).  Never taking life for granted and, while things can be sad or scary, rather than being paralyzed, just enjoying the hell out of the blessings you’ve got.

It was a little scary and sad to hear those booms in the distance.  At the same time, I can honestly say that I actually felt safer at this kibbutz than in America.  Here, I feel my identity is validated, that I’m a part of a big national family, and that I’m enjoying life to the fullest.  It’s worth the risks because life here is so much better for me.

And who knows, one day maybe Ameer and I will be able to cross the border and pick up where we left off last night 😉

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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Eating baklava with a Palestinian

This is going to be really hard to summarize in a blog, but I’m going to give it a go.

Tonight, I had baklava with a Palestinian.

On an evening stroll in Yafo, I stopped by the Abouelafia bakery.  It’s a renowned Middle Eastern bakery that attracts people of all faiths and backgrounds.  As I like to do, I started speaking Arabic with a middle-aged gentleman working there named Adnan.

Since we’re in the Middle East, instead of exchanging pleasantries and saying “nice to meet you”, I invited him to sat down with me and we talked for about two hours.  Also important to add that this conversation was fueled by lots of baklava and knafeh.  And it was delicious.

First things first- Adnan is a cool guy.  He helped me hand-pick the best baklava (there were easily two dozen kinds).  He put on Nancy Ajram for me.  He told me I spoke great Arabic.  He’s even letting me come back and pay him tomorrow since I didn’t realize they were cash only.  Because that’s how we do here.

We talked about everything.  Bibi (we both don’t like him).  Abu Mazen (we both don’t like him).  Hamas (we both don’t like them).  And politicians in general (we both don’t really like them).

We also talked about the shared history of Arabs and Jews, as carriers of two of the world’s oldest civilizations.  Our shared linguistic heritage (Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages).  Our love of learning.

I told him how half of the students in my college Arabic class were Jewish and that many spoke Hebrew, so when the Moroccan professor started speaking on the first day, many Jews were laughing and nodding along with him.  And the non-Jewish students were totally confused.  Because Jews and Arabs have a shared cultural heritage.

Then we delved deeper into politics.  First, he said that he has no problem with Jews.  Jews and Arabs are regular people who just want to eat, sleep, drink, educate their children, and live a happy life.  He said his family’s neighbors back in 1948 (before Israel’s independence) were Jewish.  His family is from East Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem.  We could unpack that phrase for literally eons and still be talking.  So let’s sum it up- in 1948, Israel’s Arab neighbors invaded the nascent country.  Israel won its independence and the parts of the U.N. mandate that were supposed to be a new Arab country were annexed by Egypt (the Gaza Strip) and Jordan (the West Bank).  Jerusalem was divided, with the western part in Israeli hands and eastern part in Jordanian hands.  In 1967, when Israel’s neighbors again tried to invade, they were rebuffed, and Israel won Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, home to many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holy sites.

While Israel never formally annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it did so with East Jerusalem.  The political reasons are complex, but part of the rationale was that Jerusalem was Israel’s (now unified) capital and home to the holiest site in Judaism- the Temple Mount.  Under Jordanian rule, Jewish holy sites were neglected or destroyed and Israelis weren’t allowed to visit them.

The point of this isn’t to rehash history or to debate politics.  It’s to say that since Adnan is from East Jerusalem, he is different from other Arab citizens of Israel.  Arab-Israelis who live in pre-1967 Israel are full voting citizens and variously identify as Arab-Israelis, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, or Palestinian-Israelis.  More often than not in public discourse, they are referred to as Arab-Israelis, though people’s personal identifications may vary.

Folks from East Jerusalem, however, are largely permanent residents, which entitles them to many government services including healthcare.  They are eligible to apply for citizenship if they renounce foreign citizenships, which is a complicated issue involving national identity and bureaucratic red tape.

Going back to the story, Adnan tells me that even though he had Israeli citizenship, since he spent seven years abroad working in Romania (which, incidentally, is where some of my family lived before immigrating to America), when he tried to return to Israel, they told him he had lost his citizenship.  Even though he was born in Jerusalem and his family has lived there for who knows how many generations.

Eventually he got Romanian citizenship, came back, and then through a process of waiting for three years in Israel without being able to travel abroad, he became a citizen again.

I’ve tried to avoid writing about the Israeli-Arab conflict on this blog because I’m sick and tired of people thinking that’s the only thing that’s going on in this region.  There’s a lot of life and beauty here and I can’t think of a single friend who visited China showing concern over the plight of Tibetans (which they should- they’re being violently oppressed by the Chinese government).  The point is I want my journey to be about so much more than that- and I’m tired of the media turning both Israelis and Palestinians into monkeys for the world to watch while other countries deteriorate without notice.

And the conflict is here.  You can’t totally avoid it, no matter what you do.  It landed on my lap because I talked to a guy at a bakery for goodness sakes.

I’ve spoken to many Arab-Israelis in Yafo and had a great time.  Things aren’t always great for them either, but they’re pretty good.  I spent 30 minutes the other day in a McDonald’s talking to an Arab-Israeli girl who’s going to an Anime convention in Ramat Gan and speaks perfect Arabic, Hebrew, and English (in addition to the Japanese she’s learning).  If she lives abroad in Japan, she won’t lose her citizenship, thank God.

But Adnan is not an Arab-Israeli.  He’s a Palestinian (in his own words).  He’s a Palestinian with Israeli residency, caught between a right-wing Israeli government and the absolute insanity that is Palestinian politics.  He lives in a place claimed by two peoples and on some level, isn’t allowed to really fully be a part of either.

I am proud to have made aliyah.  Aliyah in Hebrew means “rising up”.  It is not just immigration.  It is a process by which a Jew returns to the Holy Land to live with his or her people.  It is an adventure and a blessing.  I am grateful to the Israeli people and the Israeli government for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

Adnan’s a great guy and also has some problematic and contradictory thinking.  He doesn’t like Zionists and likes Jews (a whole lot of us are Zionists especially here).  He said that Arabs have always treated Jews well historically and that hasn’t always been true.  When he went to get his citizenship back, he ridiculed the Ethiopian-Israeli at the embassy saying she didn’t look like she was from Israel.

The point is not to make Adnan out to be some idealized perfect person or some terrible anti-Semitic monster.  He’s a complicated person with a good heart.  The point of aliyah is to rise up.  I have a right to be here.  Jews have a right to be here and to protect ourselves from harm.  And Arabs – Palestinians – have a right to be here too.

I will use my aliyah to lift myself and my people up.  And I will use it to lift up Palestinians like Adnan who lose their citizenship when moving abroad while I gain mine for moving here.

If my government can support me in building a new life here, surely it can let Adnan keep his dignity.  Those are my Jewish values.

A hopeful story from the Middle East

In case you haven’t been reading the news (don’t worry if that’s the case- I don’t read it either), the Middle East is heating up this summer, and I’m not just talking about the day it was 103 degrees on the heat index last week.

There are tensions on the Syria-Israel border (in addition to the whole civil war there).  There are also tensions on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem- the place where the Jewish temples of old stood and where the Al-Aqsa Mosque currently stands atop the Western Wall.  If you don’t know what those are- don’t worry.  The point is they’re all Jewish and Islamic holy sites.  Two Israeli Druze policemen were killed by Palestinian terrorists on the Temple Mount and other Palestinian terrorists murdered a family having Shabbat dinner in the West Bank.  Meanwhile, Palestinians are protesting the addition of metal detectors on the site of the first terrorist attack.  I honestly haven’t read enough to know the details, but needless to say, there are probably provocative politicians on all sides who’d like to take advantage of this moment to escalate things.

So the only thing that really matters from that whole paragraph for the purpose of this blog is: shit is intense here.  I am living in a powder keg.  A powder keg I love and is full of beauty.  And also lots of problems.  Good thing I found a new friend in my building today who was hula hooping outside at 3 in the afternoon to hip hop music, because I gladly joined him for a little break from the heaviness.

In the midst of this chaos, there is also hope and it’s the kind of good stuff you will never, and I repeat never, see in any newspaper- not in Israel and most certainly not abroad.  The thing you have to experience here.

The other day, I had a cab driver named Samir.  Samir is a clearly Arab name so as I like to do, I spoke with him in Arabic.  Turns out he’s Bedouin and from Haifa, which is quite interesting because most Bedouin live in the Negev Desert down south, a testament to their nomadic desert roots.  Turns out, he’s married to a Kavkazi Jewish woman who converted to Islam in order for them to be married.  In Israel, all marriage is through religious channels, so if you want an interfaith marriage, you have to go to Cyprus to get a civil marriage and come back.  We’ll save more details for a future blog.  He and his wife are raising their kids Muslim but they speak Hebrew at home and are sending their kids to a Jewish school (they could have opted for an Arabic-language school instead).  In addition, the kids are currently quadrilingual and are in elementary school.  They speak Hebrew, Arabic, Kavkazi (a Jewish language related to Persian), and Azerbaijani.  They will also learn English in school, making them quintilingual by middle school.

We talked about the immense cultural and religious diversity his children will experience.  He said he wants them to know about Judaism and Islam and other cultures and religions.  I told him how in the U.S., people of all different backgrounds study, play, and grow up together.  It was an amazing, complex, and beautiful bit of gray space in a land where all too often things seem black and white.

I’d like to encourage you to spend a little less time on NewYorkTimes.com or Haaretz and a little more time getting to know real people.  People in your neighborhood, people around the world.  If you have the chance to come here (or already live here), let’s explore together.  If you’re in another city, get to know your neighbors.  It is good to be well-read and it is also not the only way to be well-informed.  Step outside your comfort zone, embrace your humanity, and we’ll see our way out of this crisis.  Or at least get a well-deserved break in an oasis of peace.  One conversation at a time.