Today, I visited Vila Joiosa, a village in Valencia, Spain. I went there because they speak Valencian (or as most people call it, Catalan). I studied Catalan in America at Georgetown University. I fought my way into the class, which had nothing to do with my Master’s program, because I love Catalan. I did my undergraduate thesis in Spanish on the Madrid and Barcelona educational systems’ approaches to immigration. And in Barcelona, I fell in love with Catalan. A beautiful Romance language filled with x’s and mysterious accent marks. To me, it looked like a sophisticated, intriguing, sexy Spanish.
So nearly 10 years after my undergraduate education, I found myself at Georgetown studying communication. And they have a wonderful Catalan program funded by the Ramon Llull Foundation, to promote their culture and language abroad. And the professor generously let me into the class 😉
I’ve been visiting Alicante, a major city in the province of Valencia. What’s so striking about Alicante is that it is in the heart of an area that has spoken Catalan for generations (some locals distinguish it as Valencian, but they are essentially varieties of the same language, whatever you wish to call it). Yet today, almost nobody speaks the language. The street signs are in Valencian, but you hear nothing but Spanish on the streets. As if the words are a formality, a reminder of the past, but more of a museum than a living heritage.
So I went searching online to find a village that spoke Valencian, to this day. I love Valencian Catalan. I love dialects and accents. And when I lived in America, I used to watch Valencian-language public TV. It’s a beautiful variety of Catalan. And despite what some Catalanists claim, many of its differences can be traced to historical settlement patterns, not just hispanification of the language. Indeed, I learned today that parts of Valencia use the same unique definite articles as the Balearic Islands. The only place in the former Roman Empire to keep this unique variety of Latin grammar alive. Just like one of my favorite bands, Antònia Font.
So it was with great sadness when I saw Spanish nationalists shut down the Valencian-language TV station a few years ago and also stopped broadcasts of TV3 from Barcelona. I love TV3- I was interviewed on it about my connection to Judaism and Catalan and my gay identity. You can watch it here and here and test how much Catalan you can understand 😉 .
Every year, I’d check Wikipedia to see whether Valencian activists had succeeded in getting the station up and running again. Desperately wanting to hear the beautiful Valencian dialect from far away- my only way to engage with it.
Well the station is back up and running. And it’s thanks to people like City Councilor Josep Castiñeira of Vila Joiosa that it survived. Along with the Valencian dialect of Catalan.
Vila Joiosa means “joyful town”, and today I had a most joyous experience there.
Walking around town, I noticed a bookstore. Its name was in Catalan: “Vila Llibres”. I got excited- this was just why I came to this seaside village.
Upon entering, I noticed a sign that says “here, we’ll serve you in Valencian”. Whew! Unfortunately some Spaniards can get prickly when you address them in a minority language, but here I knew I was safe to speak Valencian.
I did get a bit nervous at first. I noticed a rainbow flag. As a gay person, you might think this would make me feel at ease. But in fact, a large portion of the European left, who is generally pro-gay rights has become anti-Semitic. Quite a number of them, as Josep pointed out later, are quite content to be interviewed on Russian and Iranian TV, but can’t fathom the existence of Israel. As if our state is somehow less legitimate than the haphazard mess of Middle Eastern states randomly carved out by colonialism. If you believe your country should exist but Israel shouldn’t (I’ll give a pass to equal opportunity anarchists), you’re an anti-Semite and I don’t like you.
So when I saw this was essentially a left-wing Valencian nationalist bookstore, I got nervous. Indeed, on the tram on the way to Vila Joiosa, I saw large graffiti calling Israel a murderous state. Needless to say, there was no accompanying graffiti suggesting Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Spain were similarly murderous despite both past and current colonialism, murder of LGBT people and minorities, and ethnic cleansing (including of Jews).
My conversation with Josep, the bookstore owner, started about Valencian. I told him I was an American who had studied Catalan and I was excited to see his bookstore. Stunned that I spoke Catalan without an accent, he welcomed me in and showed me a map of Catalan dialects. I stood in wonder as he taught me dialectal differences. I can’t imagine a more exciting experience than chatting in Valencian while learning about the amazing map of Catalan varieties. Phonetics, grammar, cultural diversity- this is what I love.
Turns out, it wouldn’t be the only thing I loved about Josep.
I asked about buying a book specifically written the way Valencians speak Catalan. He pointed me to some, and I went exploring. Then I noticed a book about the dybbuk, the mythical Jewish spirit creature, in Catalan! As I brought the book to his attention, he said it wasn’t specifically in the Valencian dialect. And then I came out as a Jew- not an easy thing here if you’ve read my previous blogs, including from here in Alicante.
I told him how cool it was to see a Jewish book in Catalan. And as I spoke with him, I started to notice Jewish books everywhere. About Jewish history and culture. I noticed a little sign that even said “shalom”- something I was so used to that I hardly recognized how unique it was in Valencia!
Josep then did the most amazing thing. He pulled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo that said: “leshanah haba’ah beyerushalayim”. Next year in Jerusalem. A phrase we sing at the end of our Passover Seders dreaming of returning to our Holy Land. A phrase we’ve sung for thousands of years. Zionism is not a new concept, it is built into our very prayers. Now is no longer a dream, but a delicate reality we strive to preserve for ourselves and future generations.
I was in the most glorious shock. Turns out Josep, in his own words, is a Zionist. And like me, is gay. And left wing. And a progressive Valencian nationalist. In fact, he is a city councilor for the Compromís political party.
After a trip filled with so much anti-Semitism that I often feel afraid to reveal my Jewish Israeli identity here, I can’t tell you how relieved and thrilled I was. To feel accepted. Not only because, as some right-wing Europeans feel, that they like Israel because they hate Arabs. Which puts me in an awkward position as who believes in human rights for all, including Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors. Something I fight for- as an Israeli. Even when significant elements of those societies hate me for being gay and Jewish. It’s simply my value system, regardless of whether all the people I fight for support my own human rights. Though some of them do. What’s great about Josep is that we share progressive values. And support Israel for this reason, and promote the people within it, like me, who are working to make it more and more a reality.
Josep is a hero. Several years ago, I remember seeing headlines that Valencians were boycotting American Jewish singer Matisyahu purportedly because of Israel. Where he doesn’t even live. It’s pure anti-Semitism and it left me feeling distant from this culture that I spent so much time and love connecting to from across an ocean. It’s beyond hypocritical for Spaniards to boycott Israel when their entire country is built on the bloodshed and expulsion of Jews and Muslims. And it’s classic anti-Semitism when this hypocrisy is used to target someone who isn’t even Israeli!
Josep told me that he worked with his allies in Compromís to counter this boycott. Even educating ignorant people in his own party. He is against the BDS movement which seeks to destroy the State of Israel. Not alter policies, not debate nuance, but to eliminate an entire country because it is Jewish. A group of people so delusional that they have no problem traveling to China, meeting Russian academics, or enjoying the fruits of their own colonialism. But somehow Israel is worthy of the utmost and disproportional criticism. A 2,000 year old hatred rooted in the New Testament itself is hard to get out of your bones. Fortunately some Christians today, like Josep’s priest friend in Vila Joiosa who loves Israel, are working as allies of our community to rid their culture of this hatred.
While I was across the ocean learning Catalan and embracing Valencian culture, Josep was here defending my heritage. We honor each other. And it is through the grace of our spirit that we met today. Recently, I’ve felt I don’t believe in God. And I still feel that the way God is portrayed in religious texts is erroneous and even dangerous. But perhaps for the first time in months, I felt a connection to my inner God. Because it’s by following my inner compass that I made my way to Josep’s bookstore today. And made a new friend, hopefully for life.
Josep made me feel accepted. He warmed my heart and put a huge smile on my face. And so I took a piece of paper and wrote him a poem. In Hebrew and in Catalan. Here it is:
Josep and I are bibliophiles. Lovers of the written word. So perhaps it’s no surprise given our many shared passions that we really clicked. People who love kindness, who seek to learn, who reject black-and-white thinking, that’s my kind of people. That’s who Josep is, that’s who I am, that’s my life aspiration. The fuel that keeps me going and pointed in the right direction.
As I read my poem out loud, I could feel his smile. I live for moments like these. Faced with so many challenges, these experiences give me a reason to live.
I want to feel accepted. I’m an unorthodox thinker, but at my heart I’m basically a moderate left libertarian. Unfortunately, some of the people who claim to carry this banner are anti-Semites. Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.
It has made me feel isolated from my own natural community. People who believe in human rights, individual freedom, less imposition of the state, economic fairness, LGBT rights, and compassion. Something the extremes of our community have twisted so much they’ve ended up allied with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.
What’s so great about Josep is that with him, I can be myself. While right-wing Jews and Zionists often demand I put my gayness aside and the far left demands I put my Jewish identity aside, Josep lets me be both. A gay Jewish progressive. And a lover of Catalan, unfortunately a language community where some speakers are anti-Semitic as well. And Josep stands as a brave counterexample to their ignorance. Proudly carrying the banner of a long Catalan philosemitic tradition.
Like most people, I just want to feel accepted. And people like Josep make me more convinced than ever about how important it is for Jews to engage open-minded people like him. To support his efforts against anti-Semitism and to empower his own fight for cultural rights. So that his village won’t end up like Alicante. A place with Valencian signs but no Valencian speech.
The Spanish state has waged relentless war on cultural minorities. First, Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition. But later groups like Catalans, Valencians, Basques, and Galicians. Certainly nationalism is a delicate question. If you read my blog, more often than not I’m against it. Because in its most extreme forms it leads to division and violation of human rights.
What I’ll say, since I am an unorthodox thinker, is that sometimes nationalism is necessary. As a minority group in the age of globalization, I have yet to find a better solution to preserving our identity than to have our own state. It’s imperfect, it can lead to abusing other minorities when left unchecked, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen work.
I’m not interested in Jewish museums nor is Josep interested in a museum of Valencian history. Indeed, when they start making museums about you, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington (which I love), you better start worrying. Because you’ve become mundane and weak enough that it’s OK to stop persecuting you and just remember you. As if you’re a gentle reminder of the past. We can weep together, but deny you the right to live differently.
Josep and I, while lovers of learning and certainly of museums, that’s not what we want. We’re interested in being living communities. It might be inconvenient for your ideology to recognize that nationalism is the only way for us to continue to be who we are. Indeed, it’s somewhat inconvenient for my own ideology at times.
But it’s a solid fact. And until you can show me a better way to ensure a Jewish and Valencian future, a little nationalism is what keeps us alive. As the socialist hymn goes, I want bread and roses. I don’t just want bread to survive, I want roses. The beauty, the higher-level fulfillment of cultural identity and passing down my heritage. As a part of my existence. Not to go the way of the Shakers, but to be imperfect but real.
If you’re Spanish or American or Chinese or Russian or Arab, you’re not worried for the survival of your culture. You’re global superpowers with hundreds of millions of adherents. But Catalans and Jews and Basques and Tibetans- we’re not so lucky. And we’re not content to rely on your goodwill to survive. Because we’ve seen that even though there have been periods where you’ve granted us tolerance, there are others where you extinguish us. And we want the self-determination to protect ourselves when you decide to scapegoat us. We want self-empowerment.
It’s messy, but it’s sometimes necessary. Of course, we must be mindful that our own self-empowerment doesn’t turn into the same hatred we’ve experienced. A delicate balancing act, but one which I’m willing to engage in to ensure my people’s future.
All of my life decisions led to this sweet moment today. My decision to study Spanish- which led to my decision to study Catalan. My decision to pursue an active progressive Jewish life in America and Israel. My decision to move to Israel, and then travel the world exploring myself and discovering new aspects of Jewish identity. My decision to come out of the closet as gay.
None of today would have happened without me making these powerful life choices. Nor without Josep making similarly brave decisions that led him to connect with me. Standing up for his beliefs, for my people, for his own sense of self, even when it was inconvenient or led to threats. He recently was attacked by fascists, as vicious in their black-and-white prejudice as the far left. Like me, he remains squeezed between extremes but pursues his identity with vigor. And I am grateful for his resilient pursuit of purpose.
I have never, ever recommended a specific restaurant or store on this blog as far as I can remember. I’m not Trip Advisor, I’m here to share my experiences, not plug businesses- nor have I accepted ad revenue from them. But I’m going to recommend Josep’s bookstore, because it is an oasis of wisdom and kindness. Whether you speak Catalan or not, go visit. Tell him I sent you. And enjoy wonderful conversation and buy something to support such a kind heart who supports us.
At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and anti-Semitic, I have never been more convinced of the need to engage open-minded people like Josep. I often feel like giving up on the Left, but there are people like him who bravely stand with us. Or are curious to learn. This is why I’ve started my new initiative Nuance Israel to empower them. If you’ve liked this blog and my other writing, contribute to my new project to make my ideas a reality. To bring together moderate, open-minded people to support a textured engagement with Israel and the Jewish people. To put a stop to anti-Semitic boycotts which seek to shut down conversation and destroy my country. Engagement is the way forward for a progressive Israel and to defeat anti-Semitism abroad.
On the bus back to Alicante, some Arab kids in front of me were listening to loud YouTube videos of Arabic music. I told them: “ana kamaan ba7ibb al-musiqaa al-3arabiyeh, bas biddi naam. Min fadlak.”
I also love Arabic music, but I wanna sleep. Please 🙂
They smiled and turned the volume down.
I can see multilingual Maimonides and the other greats of Spanish Jewish history smiling down on me.
A day in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew. A moment of connection to a great Iberian past. That Josep and I brought to life again today.
Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.