The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

I come from a progressive background.  I grew up being taught to vote Democrat (and when I threatened not to do so as an 18 year old, got a series of heavy-handed lectures).  My DC suburban life was pretty liberal.  I knew Republicans- and they were a smaller minority than any ethnic or religious group I knew.  And decidedly quieter, for they knew the social consequences of being open about their identity.

I can imagine one could say the same thing in reverse about many other places in America.  I not know not a small number of liberal people who grew up in rural or conservative areas and faced bullying for their identity or beliefs.

When I worked for a variety of political and non-profit organizations, the rhetoric was quite clear: progressive=good, conservative=bad.  Even with regards to the moral standing of the person himself, not just the validity of her views.

One of the famous sayings of the labor movement, a movement that successfully improved living conditions for workers across America and the world, is: “which side are you on?”  There is even a catchy folk tune about it.  The idea was, politically speaking, to force people to choose between management (bad) and workers (good).  I can understand the need for rallying cries and I think the underlying ideology is problematic.

When you ask someone to choose between one human being and another, you set up a dynamic where someone will lose.  And while in some cases that might be necessary, it’s pretty black-and-white thinking that I think gets us into some trouble.  And perhaps gratifies our desire to feel right and just more than providing real solutions.  To the extent that solutions can be found- and they aren’t always so readily available.

Living in Israel and traveling the region has taught me some things.  For one, I’ve spent a lot more time with conservative people.  While I did go to college in the Midwest and summer camp in the South, I can’t really say I had deep relationships over many years with conservative Americans.  Here, my neighbors have pictures of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in their house.  As does almost every restaurant.  I do not live in the Tel Aviv of beach high rises.  I live in a place that loves Benjamin Netanyahu- it’s not on your Birthright itinerary.  Although it should be.

I have friends- not in the metaphorical sense- but actual friends, who have my phone number.  Who are Hasidic, who are Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who are Druze, who are Arab Christians, who are Arab Muslims, who are Modern Orthodox settlers.  The kind of people, in many cases, that I was taught to fear as an American Reform Jew.  Some of whom know I’m gay and/or Reform and are fine with it.  Some of whom don’t know- or don’t know yet- and it doesn’t particularly matter for me.

The point is I feel at home with these friends and I feel at home at queer parties in Tel Aviv.  Or leading Reform services.  Or going to pride parades.  Or vegan hippie Shabbats.  In fact, I sometimes feel more comfortable in my traditional Mizrachi neighborhood than I do at those vegan Shabbats.  But I try to find something to enjoy everywhere.  I also find it amusing to meet some vegans here who are just as “Orthodox” about their diet as any Haredi rabbi is about his Judaism.  Israel is an interesting place full of passion, contradictions, love, and curiosity.  I would never live anywhere else.

Which brings me back to my original point.  Living in Israel has opened my eyes- not only to insights about life here, but also about my former homeland.  America is increasingly polarized.  I see this also with regards to the absolute nonsense all too many progressives are spouting about Israel.  I met a young man the other day who goes to Williams College.  He told me, over some pasta in Tel Aviv, that activists on his campus put up an “Israeli apartheid wall” every year.  And then naively link the Israeli security fence to the American wall on the Mexican border.  Two rather different issues, but with one common thread: seeing the world through an American lens rather than understanding the nuances of other societies.  Like the fact that for all its complexities (including land disputes with Palestinian villages), the fence between Israel and the West Bank drastically reduced suicide bombings.  Saving who knows how many lives.

Israelis loved to tell me when I made aliyah that living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  Nothing could be more true.  The more you get to know this beautiful land, the more you see the struggle of the soldier, the identity see-saw of being Arab and Israeli, the hardship of checkpoints, the necessity of checkpoints, the suffering of refugees, the suffering of their neighbors who’ve been neglected for years.  The snobbery of wealthy “left-wing” white people, the identity void those people face because their own Yiddish-infused Ashkenazi identity was torn from them.  The anger of Mizrachim towards Arabs.  Because they are perceived as them by those same Ashkenazim who purport to advocate for them.  And because Arabs kicked them out of their countries.  And because the state suppressed their Arab-infused cultures when they arrived.  And because Palestinians mock them for being Arab- without understanding that Mizrachi Jews have lived in the Middle East long before Arabic was even spoken here.

In the end, if you really experience the full breadth of Israel, you understand there are no easy solutions.  Anyone who tells you there are is selling snake oil or perhaps listening to a little bit too much NPR.  Here’s the reality: if Israel simply “pulls out” of the entire West Bank, it will become militarized and extremists will use it as a launching point for terrorist attacks.  Just like what has happened in Gaza since Israel exited 13 years ago.  Many Palestinians simply want to make a living and too many Palestinians aren’t willing to let go of the past and move on.  And instead turn to violence, threatening Israeli lives and their own neighbors’ ability to provide for their families in peace.

There are groups out there that would like you to think there are simple solutions to the conflict here.  Or that there are simply “two sides” when there are as many opinions amongst both Israelis and Palestinians as there are stars in the sky.

IfNotNow is one of those groups.  I actually went to one of their events in the States because I was curious.  I’m open to hearing what pretty much anyone has to say and I think every government or ideology should be open to critique.

The problem with this organization is that its entire mission is framed in the negative.  Besides the fact that I have yet to hear a single positive thing about Israel from this group- which is both a moral and practical issue if you’d like us to hear your message- the message is simplistic.  In their own words, they want to “end American Jewish support for the occupation“.  Regardless of the merit of the argument, the framing is entirely negative.  Rather than advocating for peace or for anything- it’s about what they’re against.  Without defining what “occupation” even means.

This is more than a semantic point.  There are Israelis (and even some Arabs) who don’t see Israel as an occupier.  Or even see Arabs as occupying Jewish land.  Most Palestinians who would argue East Jerusalem is occupied- and many who live there want to hold on to their Israeli ID cards even if there’s a Palestinian state.  There are Arabs within Israel who don’t even identify as Palestinian, let alone want to live in a Palestinian state.  And others who do view their land as occupied- in pre-1967 Israel.  Who have citizenship.  There are Palestinians who similarly believe all of Israel is occupied territory.  Some Israeli Jews view the West Bank as occupied, Gaza as Palestinian-controlled, and want a Palestinian state in those two areas.  And other Jews who disagree to varying degrees.  Many Jews also support land swaps which would allow Jewish settlements to be fully integrated into Israel while giving equivalent land from within Israel to the Palestinians.  Largely Arab villages- many of whom despite their sympathies for Palestinians, don’t actually want to be swapped into a Palestinian state.  Who fear it will become an autocracy like all of its Arab neighbors.

So let’s take another look at the platform of this organization as an example of what’s going wrong with certain streams of progressivism.  On the webpage linked to above, they write: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood. We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

So in essence, the group is against the occupation- which they won’t define.  They won’t say if they support Israel’s existence, whether it can be a Jewish state, or even if people should boycott the country.  The only thing uniting this group is “ending the occupation”.  What that means- not only do I not know, they don’t know.  I can’t have a rational argument- or even find room for agreement- if I don’t know what somebody believes.  And it seems evident to me that these people are struggling with their Jewish identity, which I can empathize with.  I’m not sure they’re doing it in a way that’s advancing peace.

This past weekend, I spent a lovely Shabbaton with the Israeli Reform Movement’s biennial convention.  Young and old came together to celebrate the growth of, yes, progressive Judaism in Israel.  I enjoy both liberal Judaism and Hasidic Judaism and everything in-between.  They all have their ups and downsides.  Haredim need to work on their homophobia and judgmental attitudes.  And Reform Jews need work on, well, their Haredi-phobia and at times, anti-Mizrachi racism.  Which I did hear quite distinctly from several leaders at the conference.  One of whom decried the “Judaism of the ghettos of Poland and Casablanca.”  Haredim and Reform Jews both have beautiful passion for our religion and people.  And I get something out of all types of Judaism.  I had a great time and made good friends.

As we left the conference to take a shuttle to Tel Aviv, my friend Yarden checked her phone.  We had such a good time, she hadn’t looked for a while.  Turns out, Hamas was shelling her Kibbutz near Gaza- 3 rockets had fallen just that day.  I of course offered to let her crash at my place in Tel Aviv, but she said: “I appreciate it, but I have to get back for class.  I’m used to it at this point.  I was just hoping.  Hoping it had stopped.”  A week after 100 Palestinian Hamas rockets had landed in her area.

I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I’m praying for her and always here if she needs a place to stay.  And I plan on visiting her as well.  I sent her a cute message too after we left.

Do these words alone fix the Middle East crisis?  A crisis brewing in various forms for thousands of years?

No.  But nothing can.  Or at least I’m not sure what can.  Because I’m willing to admit, in a fashion I would’ve struggled to just a few years ago, that I don’t have easy solutions.  I’m not even sure what solutions there are.  And I hope things calm down.

What I did offer my friend- and I try to offer people around me- Arab, Jewish, Christian- whatever.  Is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is a joke.  Is a smile.  Is love.  Is a visit.  Is a cute emoji.

Some people, including my former self, might mock what I just said.  In the face of rockets and “occupation”, of suffering of so many varieties and cultures and religions.  What Matt, Matah, has to offer is kindness?  A joke?  Hah!  Why doesn’t he just go to a rally and stop the occupation!  What a blind superficial hypocrite who’s just trying to blind us to the reality of oppression.

Which side are you on?

To which I say: you’re asking an impossible question.  I’m a proud Israeli Jew.  That’s my side.  And I care what happens to my Arab neighbors.  And I care about refugees.  And I care about my neighbors even if they don’t like them.

In short, I care.  Not about “one side”.  About people.

In the end, there are some things I believe can help make our country greater.  I say greater because it’s already really awesome- in ways you’ll never see on the news.  The relaxing beaches, the Jews and Arabs who are friends, the gorgeous parks, the nightclubs, the life.  The vibrancy of this place and its people that makes New York look like a dull dirty boring rat-infested overpriced city with no beach.  That, OK, has better bagels than here.  But 10% of the soul.

I’d love to see more Jews learn Arabic.  I love to see more Arabs and Palestinians learn Jewish history and recognize our peoplehood.  I like to see more Ashkenazim learning about Mizrachi history- and learning Yiddish to understand their own.  And Mizrachim connecting to their Arabic-infused cultures and languages to realize they share a lot more in common with Arabs than some might like to admit.  Which I get.

Rather than offer easy solutions, I try to embrace that we can’t fix everything and there might not even be solutions to everything.  That can be scary to people who need certainty- I’ve been there before.  Now I’m proud that I am increasingly able to live with that discomfort and treat people with kindness whenever possible.

My wish is that progressives like IfNotNow, even if they continue to advocate in ways I disagree with, can understand where people like me are coming from.  Where my country is coming from.  And to advocate with a little more understanding and love.  And a little less yelling.

Because the one thing every visitor to Israel can agree on is we are already have enough of that.  Even if it’s just the guy selling tomatoes in the shuk.

Catching the bus at the Auschwitz train tracks

I just got back from an amazing trip to Hungary and Romania.

The blessing of living in Israel is that we’re so close to many other countries and it’s cheap to travel there.  My roundtrip flight was $90.  And I got to see my ancestors’ heritage up close- I’m part Hungarian and Romanian!

Two of my great-grandparents were from Hungary and one from Romania.  They immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s, about 130 years ago.  Nobody from my family has been back until now.

When I booked my travel, I was excited.  And then I got nervous.  Even a cursory glance at Jewish news will reveal anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, including in the East.  Where it has thrived for centuries– one of the reasons my ancestors left.

I almost didn’t go.  I needed a relaxing trip and I was worried that with the Holocaust sites (which there were many), the potential animosity, and even homophobia, it wouldn’t be so fun or safe- emotionally or physically.

In the end, I decided to go.  And I had a life-changing, amazing time.

First off, I went to the least touristy places in both countries.  Debrecen and Satu Mare, in Hungary and Romania respectively, are no Budapest and Bucharest.  They are beautiful and special in their own ways, but there are no people hawking tchotckes and souvenirs.

I kind of liked that, especially for a short trip.  Almost no tourist information was in English and few people spoke it.  Which, surprisingly for a multilingual person like me, made it kind of fun.  Using basic vocabulary, I was able to get around and actually have some nice conversations with people.  On a basic level and it helped me avoid anything precarious.  Although interestingly enough, in just three days, I used French, Portuguese (in both countries), and a bit of Catalan.  If you know Romance languages, you can piece together something intelligible to a Romanian.  Pretty cool 🙂

There’s something relaxing about not knowing what everyone is saying.  Could be perfectly nice stuff, could not be, but not knowing was kind of nice.  I was able to engage meaningfully- I visited Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and community offices.  Churches, restaurants, a farm, a romantic train through the countryside, and a university.  And I did talk to people- lightly and meaningfully.

And I have an interesting insight- I did not experience a single act of overt anti-Semitism.  And I told everyone I was from Israel.  And had roots in their country.  In fact, the only reaction other than a polite or neutral one was enthusiasm!  One teenage kid with amazing English- he learned from movies and music- said “wow, that’s cool!”  At a time when Jews are being physically assaulted and politically battered in such “liberal bastions” as the Netherlands, Britain, France, and Germany- not one negative comment.  Not from a young person or an old one, an English speaker or not.  I felt relaxed- and surprised.

It’s not because I’m under the illusion that there is no anti-Semitism- there is pretty much everywhere.  Find me a place without prejudice, and I’ll give you a lifetime of goulash.  The Jewish press does an important job in reporting anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, especially to protect our heritage sites.  Yet I wonder if by mainly reporting the bad stuff, Jews are left with a distorted impression of how these societies really are.  Today.

Because I was given a tour of a Hungarian Jewish cemetery- by a Protestant woman.  Who when I showed her a tombstone of a potential relative who was murdered in the Holocaust (which I did not expect), her face showed deep empathy.  When I told a young Hungarian woman visiting from London (who spontaneously invited me to sit with her at a restaurant- so nice!) that I found that tombstone- she also appreciated the gravity.  And then we went back to laughing with her and her two Brazilian friends about how she should make a YouTube channel of her silly catering stories.

When I told a Romanian guy I was there to exploring my Jewish Romanian roots, he said: “that’s really cool to come explore your heritage”.

Keep in mind these comments were during a time when Israel was in an active conflict with Hamas in Gaza.  In fact, Hamas launched 70 rockets at Israeli cities while I was on the trip- which I didn’t even know until after.  God protect them.  And it was a relief to have a break from the stress of living in Israel.

While more than a few of my “liberal” friends in America and Europe bashed Israel on social media, I didn’t see a single graffiti, hear a single comment, see a single flag- nothing while I was on this trip.  People were warm and welcoming and I had a really meaningful time.

I may write several blogs about the experience because there is so much to say- singing in an empty Satmar synagogue, getting a private tour of a Hungarian-Indian-Italian-Japanese-Egyptian art museum, meeting Romanian Jews, staying on a farm, touring Reform and Orthodox cemeteries, visiting gorgeous churches, and of course eating delicious food.  Food which could sit on a Jewish deli counter in New York and look perfectly in place.  The sliced cucumbers in vinegar, the braided bread, the rugelach-looking pastries.  I may not speak Magyar, but I sure eat the same food.

For now, I want to leave you with an image.  To help you understand that for any continuing problems, the Hungary and Romania of today are not the same as those of old.

Judith, a Jewish community leader in Satu Mare who gave me a tour of the synagogue and cemeteries, was walking me back to where I needed to catch the bus.  The bus to Hungary.

The bus was from a train station.  Not any train station- the train station where Nazis and their Hungarian fascist friends deported 18,000 Satu Mare Jews to their deaths.  Including Judith’s uncle and grandparents.

It’s also where I caught my shuttle.  As the driver called out our names- and asked for our passports- I couldn’t help but feel a bit disturbed.  Who are you to ask for my passport?  I’m from here!  And just 80 years ago, when my ancestors’ names were being called out, when their papers were being inspected- it was to send them to their death.

The difference is that now, thank God, thank those people Jewish and non-Jewish who’ve made things better- the only roll call was to make sure we were in the car and had paid.

When we got to the Hungarian border, the police were pretty tough.  Hungary is known for having a strict border policy right now.  And they took a hard look at my Israeli passport.

I could tell the Romanians in the van were having a laugh at them too- there’s some tension between the two countries.  Although it barely registers on my radar living in the Middle East.

After a long stop, the border police called my name.  Nervously waiting to hear what they had to say (I can’t imagine what my ancestors felt)- he simply handed me my passport and said “have a nice trip”.

Boy how times have changed.  For all the balagan, or mess, politically in Hungary right now, or the continuing prejudice Jews may face- there can be no doubt how much better things are today nor how grateful I feel for being alive in these times.  Where I can hear my name called at the train tracks to Auschwitz to catch a van to my AirBnB.

Anti-Semitism is alive and real in Eastern Europe, even if I didn’t personally experience it one bit.  And people are people.  Here’s the incontrovertible fact- I felt safer being an Israeli and a Jew in the Hungarian-Romanian borderlands than I would at a liberal arts college in the United States.  The former a place I was taught to fear, the latter a place I once called home.

But I suppose home is not just where you sleep.  It’s where you breathe, you love, you learn, you grow, you smile, even cry.  And I have a message: Romania and Hungary, you’re one of my homes again.  My family has been gone for a long time, and you surprised me with your warmth.  Thanks for the chance to visit- I have a feeling I’ll be back.

In the meantime, keep that braided bread ready for me.  I’m excited to see how it tastes on a Friday night compared to my challah.

challah hungary?.jpg

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

Last night, after a day of doctor’s appointments (including randomly cancelled ones), I didn’t want to eat dinner alone.  I felt immense gratitude for the Israeli healthcare system- I didn’t pay a dime for my visits.  And also running from doctor’s office to doctor’s office isn’t the most relaxing experience, though I did get a solid hour at the beach in Herzliya, which is stunning.  Can’t say I ever got to watch the sea while hustling between meetings in Washington, D.C.

beach

I have a favorite (well, two favorite) restaurants in Bnei Brak, a Haredi (ultra-Othodox) city outside Tel Aviv.  I knew I wanted to see my friend Yisrael who works at one.  He always warms my heart.  The thing about Yisrael is he’s kind of a mystical Hasid- I keep forgetting the name of his restaurant but every month or two I manage to find my way there.  In the past month, I so wanted to see him that I started calling restaurants in Bnei Brak asking for Yisrael (a futile task- there are a lot of Yisraels in Bnei Brak).  I couldn’t find him!  But I knew he was there.

So last night I wandered.  I went to a shtiebl, a small synagogue (with a whole bunch of rooms).  Outside, they always have ridiculously cheap Jewish books.  Nice Jewish books.  I got an old, beautiful one for 5 shekels that has the Torah in Hebrew with Yiddish commentary.  That’s $1.39.  There’s nothing better in the world.  And nowhere better to be a Jew.

As I perused Hasidic CD’s at the store next door, a young man in a black hat asked me where the shtiebl was.  And I pointed him to the building to my right and said: “you’re here”.  Bnei Brak is not a tourist destination for me, it’s a part of my life.

I was getting hungry so I headed to what I *thought* was Yisrael’s restaurant, only to find a grumpy man.  When I asked for Yisreal’s whereabouts, he asked me: “what do you want, Mashiach?”  The messiah?  Eventually after some prodding, he did know about the restaurant (competition?) and I headed up the street.  As soon as I saw the sign, I knew I had arrived.  Some things you feel your way towards.

Yisrael greeted me with the biggest hug ever.  He is so so warm!  He overloaded my plate with salmon and kugel and pasta and I grabbed a seat.  Yisrael periodically chimes in when I talk with other people.  The people I sat down with were a Yemenite Jew and a 16 year old Litvak, or Lithuanian Jew.  I’m part Lithuanian- we’re probably cousins.  Not a metaphor- we probably are related.

Here’s the shocking thing- the kid doesn’t speak Yiddish.  Well, he understands some but his parents mostly speak it (and English) so he can’t understand.  Interestingly, Eliezer (pseudonym) also knows how to count in Arabic.  Pretty damn well.  He says he learned from undocumented Palestinian workers who live in the city.

Meanwhile, the Yemenite guy- he speaks astoundingly good Yiddish!  As does his father.  From living with Ashkenazi Hasidic friends.  He even understands the nuances of Litvish and southern Yiddish dialects.  We had a lot to talk about.  Including my love for Yemenite language and culture.  I just recently bought Yemenite Judeo-Arabic books and music from a store in Bnei Brak.  So we sat there, me and the Yemenite guy, helping to teach the Lithuanian Jew some Yiddish.  Find me that in another country.

The Yemenite guy had to go back to Jerusalem, so I sat with Eliezer.  Eliezer is a precocious kid.  He goes to yeshiva all day.  He has 10, yes 10, siblings.  And, he says, he likes it.  It’s fun.  When I asked if it’s ever quiet, he laughed and said “maybe around 2am”.

Eliezer was enchanted by something you might not expect.  I needed to charge my phone so I pulled out my brand new portable charger.  He was enamored.  Not because he had never seen one.  Lehefech, to the contrary, he knew it inside and out.  And he doesn’t even have a phone.  He grabs it from me and starts teaching me how to use it.  Things I didn’t even know about it.  So once he had found a new way to charge my phone, he asked me how much it was.  150 shekels.  Oy, I don’t have that kind of money.  And I bet he doesn’t- while his dad is the head of two yeshivas, 11 kids is a lot of mouths to feed.

But Eliezer is not easily deterred.  He wanted to see my smartphone.  I got a bit nervous- not just because generally I don’t like children browsing my cell phone- but also because I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it.  I was wearing a small black yarmulke and they knew I was from Tel Aviv and not Hasidic.  But the last thing I wanted was for little Eliezer to stumble upon a racy WhatsApp chat (yes he opened my WhatsApp) or something he’d find not so “kosher” and it might ruin my vibe in the restaurant.

I showed him pictures of my hiking in Haifa, which he loved.  But what he really wanted was to go to eBay.  Yes, eBay.  The kid who doesn’t have a phone, let alone a smartphone, knew what eBay was and that that would be where he could find a portable charger.  He browsed through the list of chargers with ease.  He knew the megahertz or whatever.  I don’t even know what he was talking about.  He spent a good minute or two looking, but nothing suited him.  He knows he doesn’t have the money now, but he wanted to see what was out there.  A curious kid, like I was.

I told him he could work a little on the side to make some money.  He said he already owed some friends money, including this restaurant.  His dad won’t let him work because the dad wants them to be “super strong” Haredim.  I told him people worked in the Torah, that Haredim work in Bnei Brak, like Yisrael.  He knows- in fact, he said if his father permitted it, he’d consider working.  But as a 16 year old, he doesn’t have much say in the matter and it’s his family.  What’s he supposed to do?

We had a good laugh about many things- he has a great sense of humor.  I told him he’d make a great stand-up comedian, and he smiled.

As the evening drew to a close (11pm on a weeknight- Bnei Brak is not a sleepy suburb), another Hasid asked Yisrael why I made aliyah.  Yisrael, who I met not long after I arrived here almost a year ago, recounted in perfect detail all the reasons I had told him.  9 months ago.  With a depth of emotion and appreciation that warmed my heart.  I know Yisrael is happy I’m here and I’m grateful he’s in my life.  The other Hasid, seeing how I talked and hearing my story said: “atah yehudi cham”.  You’re a warm Jew, a Jew with heart.

Knowing Eliezer owed the restaurant money and grateful for his companionship and his humor, I bought him dinner.  Before I left, Yisrael asked me for my phone number.  He wants to call me from time to time, see how I’m doing.  From his Kosher phone.

Before I left, I told Yisrael I missed him and I’d be back.  He knew.  And he said: “there’ll be two here waiting for you,” as Eliezer winked at me.

I headed back to Tel Aviv with a warm tummy.  Not just because of the delicious kugel, but because the people I spent my night with filled me with warmth and love.

When I was a kid, I was curious about Orthodox Judaism.  I wanted to go to a service.  My family wouldn’t let me because they said Orthodox Jews aren’t feminist.  While my family members abused me– which I don’t find particularly feminist either.

The fact is coming to Israel has allowed me to build a relationship with Hasidic Judaism.  In fact, all kinds of Judaism- Mizrachi, traditional, Israeli Reform, secular, Litvish- everything.  It’s the one place on the planet where we all come together.  And you’ll find a Yemenite speaking Yiddish.

Some people tell me it’s ludicrous for me to spend time with Hasidim.  I’m gay, I’m Reform, I’m progressive- they’d hate me if they knew who I was.  But they’re wrong.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man in Hasidic communities.  And there are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man with secular people, and certainly times I feel uncomfortable as a religious person.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a Jew with Arabs.  Or as an Arabic-speaker with Jews.

Should I live my life in a ghetto where I only go where no prejudice exists?  Where there’s no conflict?  Where everyone agrees with me?

Guess what?  No such place exists.  Anywhere.  Not in Tel Aviv, not in Bnei Brak, not in Ramallah.  The fact is we’re people.  And some places are more comfortable than others, for certain aspects of what I believe and how I am.  And, I get something out of pretty much everywhere I go.

Do I wish the Hasidic community was more gay-friendly?  Yes.  I’d probably spend more time there.  Do I think things are changing and that the community is not monolithic?  Absolutely, as I found earlier this week when I met a gay-friendly Hasid.

And I also believe that the fact that I’m gay isn’t a reason for me not to embrace my Hasidism.  Yeah, I’m kind of Hasidic.  And Haredi.  And Modern Orthodox.  And Reform.  I connect to all sorts of things.  So why should I give up what I love about Hasidic Judaism to satisfy a secular militant in Tel Aviv who believes my identity should be held hostage to their “tolerance”?

The point is we’re all entitled to enjoy what we enjoy.  I like Haredi Bnei Brak.  I like Druze villages.  And Christian ones and Muslim ones and gay pride parades in Tel Aviv.  I like my neighbors with Shas rabbis posted all over their house, who set me up with guys.  Each one of these communities, some more than others, poses challenges for me.  And has something unique to offer.

Lately I’ve been questioning if I want to keep living in Tel Aviv.  Do I want to move North?  I love Haifa and the Galilee and the Golan.  So peaceful, green, co-existency, Arabic-speaking.  That part of me flourishes there.  But what about Tel Aviv?  The convenience, the energy, the international vibe, the interesting cities like Bnei Brak that surround it?  Not to mention its gay life.  And Jerusalem- probably not going to live there, but don’t want to be too far.  Its history and spiritual vibe pulls me in and fills me with wonder.

In the end, what I’ve decided is where you live is not where you pay rent.  That’s an aspect.  Where you live is where you step, where you spend time, where you laugh, where you hike, where you pray.  Where you live is where you bring joy into the world and where you feel filled with wonder.  Even where you cry.

I can’t live anywhere in Israel.  Because I live everywhere.

p.s.- that’s me sticking my tongue out in Kiryat Tivon, the most non-Haredi place in Israel, because I’m going to have a good time wherever I go!

Talking gay with a Breslover Hasid

Today, as you might have seen in the news, was a tense one for Israel.  Hamas organized 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza to charge the border fence with Israel, in some cases burning tires, hurling rocks, and even setting Israeli farmland on fire with kites laden with fuel.  The army even stopped men planting a bomb.  Peaceful protests these were not.  They were specifically timed to counter the American Embassy dedication in Jerusalem.  No doubt taking advantage of Gazans’ misery and poverty, Hamas chose to direct their attention towards Israel as the source of their problems.  While I couldn’t and wouldn’t argue that Israel bears no responsibility for the problems in Gaza, so does Hamas and so does the Palestinian Authority (which is in a feud with Hamas), and so does Egypt which also closes its border to Palestinians.  Yet not a single Gazan is charging the Egyptian border.  While Hamas feeds people fantastical notions that they will redeem and liberate Palestine (i.e. present-day Israel)- a Palestine that hasn’t existed for 70 years.  Its traces here and there but mostly gone.  Memory.  Sad and true.  And complex- because they might still be there if Arabs had agreed to a two-state solution in 1948.  And definite gray space because some Arabs were kicked out against their will, even after agreeing to live as Israelis.  My heart goes out to my friends living in the villages near Gaza, including my friend at Nahal Oz, just on the border, trying to study for exams with the stench of burning tires surrounding her.  I try to mourn the loss of all human life, even those humans who angered me and tried to harm me.  I empathize with the families of those Palestinians whose lives were lost today- and hope this sad moment inspires more to seek peace and not violence.  So we can all live in safety and tranquility.

In the face of this tense day, I wasn’t sure where to travel.  I kind of wanted to go to Jerusalem to see the opening of the new American embassy.  As an American-Israeli, it gave me great pride to see my other homeland offering such strength to my country.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and has been in the prayers of Jews for thousands of years.  It is also holy to Muslims and Christians.  The new embassy is in the western part of the city, Israeli territory since 1948 and not a part of the contested West Bank or East Jerusalem, site of a probably Palestinian capital in a future peace agreement.  I’m not a fan of Donald Trump on so, so many issues and I did not vote for him.  But I’m grateful to him for his courage on this issue because, whatever his motivations- he is right.  We can’t have honest peace negotiations until we recognize that Israel is here- and here to stay.  Hopefully alongside a brighter and freer future for Palestinians.

It was late in the afternoon so I couldn’t make it to Jerusalem.  Instead, I took the bus to possibly the least touristy place in Israel- Modiin Illit.  The city is almost entirely Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, and is located east of the Green Line that demarcates the boundary between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria.

Other than checking with a friend to see if it was safe to visit and reading the Wikipedia article, I had no idea what to expect.  Turns out, it’s really cool.  First off, the Haredim who live are almost entirely Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews- like me!  Religiously speaking, they are ultra-Orthodox but different from Hasidim in that they focus more on intellectual learning rather than feeling.  Part of my ancestry is Lithuanian so it was kind of like a belated coming home.  We both made our way to Israel to reunite 🙂

I’ve spent time in Haredi communities here before, including Bnei Brak (many times) and briefly in Mea Shearim and Tsfat.  What was so unique about this community was how green and calm and almost suburban it was.  The bus driver was Haredi.  The people driving cars were Haredi.  There were huge green parks, well-kept and clean.  The air was fresh.  While the housing was clearly dense due to the large families, there was never a sense of congestion or pressure.  It was quite tranquil on an otherwise tense day in my country.

I stopped into a bakery to get some food.  While the friendly young man made me a sandwich, a goofy (and really cute) guy was making silly noises.  “Artikim 10 shekel, leShabbaaaaAAAT!”  Making fun of some guy who sells 10 shekel popsicles on Fridays.  He had all these silly voices and everyone was just laughing.  I joked with the employees that he should do PR for the restaurant.  Incidentally, one of the employees told me he put their bakery on Google Maps- which, to his delight, is exactly how I found it.

When I told one of the guys I was American, to my great surprise he said: “what are you doing here?  Why wouldn’t you stay in America?”  This is a response I’ve gotten from many, many (mostly secular) Israelis.  A kind of envy of America’s wealth and opportunity.  At no point had I heard this from an Orthodox Jew here, who view this as the Promised Land.  An obvious choice for a Jew.

He was quite serious about it- he wanted me to find him a job as a mashgiach, or a Kosher certifier.  I told him I didn’t know of anything, but that I’d look into giving him my passport.  We laughed.

As I headed out, I noticed a sign: “Matityahu”.  This was really cool for me to see because my name in English- Matthew- that’s from Matityahu in Hebrew.  So all of a sudden I started seeing signs with my name everywhere- in Hebrew!  Turns out there is a village next to Modiin Illit by my very name.

I walked up the hill and found it to be stunning.  Apparently a lot of Americans live there, so if I can’t be in Jerusalem for the opening, at least I could be with my kin 😉

I noticed a very attractive 20-something Orthodox guy.  A woman was taking pictures of her daughters, he said he was jealous because nobody took pictures of him!  I laughed and said I’d take one.  And I did.  And it turned out really cute and he agreed.

Because this is Israel, we then talked for about two hours.  He grew up Orthodox and now identifies as a Breslover Hasid.  He went through periods of intense doubt approaching atheism and has many secular friends.  He says at this point, more than Orthodox.  He serves in the army.  And he’s trying to open his own business.

One of the things that alarmed me about Israelis at first, but now I love as one, is that we get down to the point.  No lame chit-chat- tell me who you are, what you’re about, what you believe, what you want.  You get to the meat of a person very quickly and can figure out how to relate to them and connect.

In this case, Shmuel (pseudonym) and I talked about everything.  I came out as a gay Reform Jew (not a trivial thing in the middle of an Orthodox settlement alone).  He said he had never met an openly gay person before, but didn’t show the slightest bit of phobia or aggression.  Mostly curiosity.  As a Haredi Jew, he had ideological issues with both Reform Judaism and homosexuality- but was utterly open to hearing what I had to say about them.  And I really felt listened to- and I listened to him.  There wasn’t the slightest bit of disrespect nor hatred.  We laughed, we debated, we walked- it was nice.  He looks good in a kippah, it’s a shame he’s not gay 😉

We talked about his shidduch dates (he’s too busy for them, plus he has the army, and he doesn’t want to feel pressured).  We talked marijuana (he smokes but says a lot of people don’t approve).  He reads a lot of modern literature about business and how to grow your intellect.  The most important thing for him in a partner is someone who wants to grow, something I found really admirable.

He gave me a ride to the gate so I could catch the bus.  I encouraged him to read Orthodox rabbis’ opinions on homosexuality because there are some that are increasingly accepting.  He said he didn’t know about it but he’d check it out.  Without any resistance to my suggestion.

Shmuel has had trouble praying.  He goes to synagogue but he just can’t read the words, it feels forced to him and he wants it to feel real again when he’s ready.  I offered him a suggestion: “praying isn’t just what you do in a synagogue.  Praying is what we’re doing now.  Two Jews, two people from very different backgrounds talking together, learning from each other, growing together.  Realizing we have a lot more in common than we thought.  And choosing to listen and debate rather than rip apart each other’s differences.”

He nodded and then he asked: “I forgot to ask, what’s your name?”

I said: “Matt in English, Matah in Hebrew”.

“Pleasure to meet you”

“You too man!”

On a day when the world sat fixated on CNN sated with blood and terror, a Hasidic Jewish settler and a gay Reform Tel Avivi had a really nice chat.

Now you know the news they don’t report.  Don’t give up hope 😉

p.s.- my cover photo is of Breslover graffiti I found in Bnei Brak.  The rainbow filter is my addition 😉

The Holocaust

For lack of a better title, that’s what I’m calling this blog.

Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is my first time spending this remembrance in Israel.

I knew in the back of my head it was coming tonight, but I was surprised with the speed.  I was going shopping in the Shuk and as early as 4pm everything started to shut down.  With no food at home, I scrambled and even convinced the mini-mart to sell me a milk carton as the tarp was being pulled down.

Living alone here, I wasn’t sure quite what to do.  I’ve been to Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers in the States, but you don’t get the feeling that the whole country is coming to a stop.  Quite the opposite, the average non-Jewish American wouldn’t even notice.

After deciding to cook some lentils I had lying around from the Eritrean corner store, I got to thinking.

This past year, I started doing genealogy of my family.  It’s not easy- I come from a deeply toxic and abusive family across several generations so to “reconnect” with long-lost relatives is hard.  I don’t know how they were as people and if they gifted me the torture I survived as a child.  What I hope, on some level, is that someone up the family tree was brave and hopeful like me.  Someone who aspired, who made it to America, who overcame obstacles.  Whose courage runs through my blood and brought me to my homeland.  Their very distance from me and my not knowing them allows me to imagine such a scenario.  To enjoy that several of them were Yiddish teachers.  That one was a rabbi.  That they spoke Yiddish and English and Romanian and Hungarian and Russian.    It gives me a little sense of rootedness when I sometimes experience loneliness and a sense of detachment.

It also helps me understand where I come from when Nazi Germans and their Polish, Hungarian, Russian, etc collaborators murdered my family.  Because while some of my Palestinian neighbors want us to just “go home”, it’s not quite so simple.  The truth is the homes we had before the Holocaust no longer exist.  There were 17,000 synagogues in Europe on the eve of the Holocaust and now there are 850.  European Jews numbered 9.5 million in 1933- and today barely 1.4 million- 85 years later.  You cannot find an Ashkenazi Jew who didn’t lose relatives in the Holocaust- whether they know their names or not.

And in Israel, they know their names.  Because about 90% of the State’s initial population was either Holocaust survivors or their relatives.  While the vast majority were Ashkenazi, a number of Sephardic communities were annihilated by the Germans, including the beloved Salonika which is now basically empty of Jews.

Some people do not get the Holocaust.  Many, many, many non-Jews I’ve met, including people I grew up with in the U.S., think the Holocaust is the only major act of anti-Semitism to befall the Jewish people.  I even had a French teacher in the States who genuinely thought no anti-Semitic violence happened before the Holocaust.  Wrong.  The Holocaust is the climax.  It’s the climax of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, which later morphed into race-based anti-Semitism.  The reason Yiddish has Hebrew, Aramaic, Italian, French, German, Polish, and Russian in it is because we’ve been expelled from all those lands (and others) over and over again.

Something few Americans I know want to acknowledge is their privilege as Christians.  Or as descendants of Christians even if they don’t practice the religion.  My point here, by the way, is not to suggest Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic nor to blame individuals today for the acts of other people.  Rather, I want to suggest that people need to understand the way being not Jewish gives them privilege over Jews everywhere in the world except Israel.

There are the basic things like when public holidays take place to the likelihood that a Jew will be elected President (in America- I’m not holding my breath).  Then there are the country clubs that wouldn’t admit Jews, the universities that had quotas, the lynchings, the job discrimination, the Hollywood surnames that lost their “skys” and “mans” and “bergs”.

I’ve personally been discriminated against- classmates calling me a rich Jew, people telling me Jews were loudmouths, having bomb threats called into the Jewish Community Center, even being thrown out of a taxi by an anti-Semitic driver yelling rants.  Being called “similar to an Islamic extremist” for keeping kosher.  A guy I was dating once even broke up with me after he found out that I didn’t eat pork.  Read between the lines.

It should be said that American anti-Semitism, even with its recent scary rise in cemetery desecrations, is relatively mild compared to other countries like France and Russia, from where Jews continue to flee.  It should be said, though, that there was a 57% increase in American anti-Semitic acts in 2017.  Something I believe American Jews should keep in mind and at least consider taking a glance at the Nefesh B’Nefesh website as an option.

The fact that American Jews, as a whole, have achieved great success- much like our German counterparts prior to Adolf Hitler- is not primarily to your credit, America.  It’s to ours for overcoming the obstacles you often put in our way.  The fact that my family was excluded from institutions didn’t just give you an advantage- it gave us a disadvantage which we bravely overcame.  And still overcome.  Discrimination is never neutral.

As I continued to do genealogy, I mapped out where my ancestors lived in Europe before coming to America starting 130 years ago.  I’m still working on it, but here’s my map so far:

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As I found my relatives’ birthplaces, I came across other databases.  The Nazis, to their credit, were diligent Germans.  The kind who keep good notes.  Who keep the trains running on time and the logs well-written.  There are entire databases, I discovered, of the names of Jews who Germans murdered.  And what I found, to my shock, was people with the same surnames as my relatives from the very same towns- killed by the Nazis.  In some cases, they were the only people in the town with the same surname.  My family.

While for many Israelis, Holocaust remembrance day is very direct- they remember their immediate relatives.  In some cases, they remember themselves in concentration camps.  American Jews, with the exception of post-war refugees, are another generation separated from the pogroms we escaped.  And we don’t necessarily know the names of our lost relatives, even if we realize they must have died.  With the help of the internet and Nazi record-keeping, I can now say I do.  It makes it much more personal and makes me a whole lot angrier.  And sad.

A while back, I met a young German man here studying for a semester.  I took him under my wing, showed him Tel Aviv, talked about Jewish history, and even brought him to a Yiddish Klezmer performance.

I think he was well-intentioned but supremely ignorant.  We talked about the Holocaust, which I welcomed.  I’ve struggled to find non-Jewish Germans willing to dialogue (partially because I don’t know many) and I think we both need it.  The young man asked me: “Why do Israelis keep talking about the Holocaust?  It happened so long ago.  It’s old history.”

My heart sunk.

If this is the kind of German that makes his way to Tel Aviv- which initially gave me hope- I started to wonder what the German back home thought of me.  I know rationally that it’s not wise to judge an entire people based on a few interactions (I’ve had some other problematic ones with Germans here- including one who complained about our holidays and our “weird-looking language”).  And emotionally I just get so angry.

In the end, Europeans, white people, Christians, whatever you want to call them.  The people across the pond who aren’t Jews.  They- not all of them- but they caused our trauma.  And, to a certain extent in recent years, you could say the same of Muslim-majority countries, though historically they treated us better relatively speaking.

So when Europeans – because it was not just Nazis, it was also millions of their collaborators – caused us trauma, it has become a generational problem.  Especially here, when combined with the wars and terrorism that followed.

So when French activists or Swiss protestors lament our aggressiveness or “disproportional force”, it’s hard for me to take them seriously.  Not because they don’t have a point- sometimes the trauma heaped on us has gotten passed on to Palestinians and our Arab neighbors.  But rather, because it’s the pot calling the kettle black.  When Europe is ready to compensate us and restore the property – and, impossibly, the lives – of our people, I’ll be ready to talk.  I just can’t really handle a German lecturing me about disproportionate force.  Who doesn’t even know about the tortured Jewish history of his town.  And if that’s hard for you to hear, good.  Because at least we’re being honest now.  And you have to take our feelings into consideration if we’re going to build something better here.

On our side, we haven’t gotten a moment to breathe.  Israelis, in particular those who have lived here many years, haven’t gotten a respite since the Holocaust.  Nearly non-stop warfare and violence.  We deserve a rest.

We also need to remember that because of all the traumas our people has been through, we must be extra cautious not to harm others.  As I’ve written about before, there have been times when Israelis, in particular in 1948, passed their trauma on to Palestinian civilians.  For the first time in 2,000 years, we have the power to abuse others.  Including refugees.  Few things are black-and-white, we just must remember that with power comes great responsibility.  The kind of responsibility and sensitivity that Europeans rarely showed us.  Such as the Polish politician who called Jews “animals” on social media.  Last week.

On many levels, I identify with Holocaust survivors.  Of course as a Jew and as a human being, but also as a survivor of torture and abuse by my relatives.  I’m an only child and I pulled my way out of that swamp with every last bit of my energy until I made it to the Holy Land.  Where those survivors and this survivor now live together, building a new life of hope, health, and joy.

Israel is an imperfect place, like every other country.  If you want to know why, despite all our very loud and vociferous differences, Jews here feel we need a homeland, all you need to do is count the number of Jews in Poland.  Or to try to find the synagogue where my great-grandfather prayed in Latvia.  Or to find the Jewish community of Pacsa, Hungary where my great-grandfather Adolf Adler lived.

Guess what?  You’re going to be in for a lot of tears.  Because our heritage there was erased.  And it’s because we have a new homeland, a complicated and blessed place, that we are still alive.  Israel struggles with many things- preserving Jewish culture, guarding human rights, and even sometimes pursuing peace.

One thing we’re good at is saving Jewish lives.  Something Europeans never really could figure out.

Have a meaningful Yom Hashoah.  May this remembrance find the existing survivors treated with more dignity.  May it find all victims of genocide treated with respect.  May it find us living in a world where while I remember my people being gassed, I don’t have to think about my neighbors across the border in Syria suffering the same fate.

One Holocaust, many genocides.  Never, ever again.

p.s.- if you’re wondering what the cover photo is, it’s the flag of the German-American Bund.  The American Nazi party.  Because Nazism wasn’t just Hitler.  We all must stand up for what’s right.

*Image by Paloeser

A family reunion with Haredim in a cave in Tsfat

I just got back from an absolutely fascinating and fantastic trip up North.  The North is truly the most beautiful part of this Land.  A place where mountains and hills, covered in green, soothe the city dweller’s soul.  A place where mysticism, hospitality, and quiet evenings can almost make you feel like you’re living in different country.

My friend and I were visiting the city of Tsfat.  Tsfat has been a center of Jewish mysticism and kabbalistic learning for 500 years.  And its Jewish community has both Biblical and Medieval roots.

It’s a place where you can just feel spirit.  Not because of any particularly grandiose buildings, but rather because of the air itself.  Tsfat is a place you can’t see- it’s a place you feel.

As we were walking on top of a Crusader castle, we heard singing.  Coming from below.  We approached some sort of round opening in the ground and could hear it very clearly.  It was niggunim- word-less Jewish melodies carried through the ages.  And they were coming from inside the hill.  I could make out the white shirts of men walking in a circle and singing.

I found a Haredi man and his family and asked if it was a synagogue in the mountain.  He said no, it was a cave.  And, being the consummate Israeli, ushered me over to him and took me to it.  Something I truly love about this place.

We headed down the hill and I entered the dark cave with the old man.  I found a circle of teenage boys holding hands, belting out the songs of my ancestors.  I came to Tsfat seeking some respite from the city and some calm.  And instead, I found God.

At a time when I had been feeling distant from Judaism and the concept of spirituality, I found something extraordinary.  Without hesitation, the old man and I stepped into the circle and started singing.

The cave magnified our song as each yai dai dai bounced off the walls and meshed with the others.

Before I had started dancing, I asked the man if the kids were Hasidic.  After all, Hasidim are known for their niggunim.  The man said, “no, they are Litvaks”.  Misnagdim.  Lithuanians.  Lithuanians- like me.

Suddenly I was no longer just singing beautiful Jewish melodies.  I was holding the hands of my cousins.  My family.  Separated by oceans and traumas and the Holocaust, reunited in a cave in Tsfat.  And just like the niggunim themselves, no words needed.  You just feel the power and the love.

What’s so extraordinary is that even though the Misnagdim and I come from pretty radically different Jewish traditions, the power of Jewish music brought us together.  Ashkenazi Jewish music has particular modes.  It’s not by accident that many of our songs sound similar.  So that even over a hundred years after our relatives were separated, we can reunite to the same sounds in a cave in the Land of Israel.

Feeling so moved that my face couldn’t help but smile non-stop for minutes afterwards, I headed out.  As my friend and I and the Haredi family walked out of the cave, the old man did the appropriately Jewish thing and asked me a bunch of questions.  Which, to his great pleasure, I answered in Yiddish.  Who was I?  Where was I from?  Where were my ancestors from?  What was my last name?  And, as is the case in many places I visit here, “are you married?”  When I told some Reform friends here I get asked that a lot, they laughed and couldn’t believe it.  And it also shows that there are a lot more traditional people here that I manage to spend time with.  Because I think I manage to get asked that question 3-4 times a day when I travel here, from Arabs and Jews alike.

When I told the man my last name was Adler, his eyes lit up.  “Adler!  You have a famous rabbi in your family!  You don’t know?  Oy, come to my house in Bnei Brak anytime- you are most welcome.”  And he gave me his address.  Because when people here invite you to something, they really mean it.

In Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a concept of elevating sparks of holiness.  For Jewish mystics, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is not just about social justice (as it is usually seen in Reform Judaism), but rather about taking the profane, the mundane and making it whole again.

I’ve traditionally associated Hasidim, rather than Lithuanians, with Kabbalah and a kind of anarchic and unbridled mysticism.  Yet Litvaks too have a relationship with this famous book.  Long have I wondered if they sang niggunim and what they sounded like.

And now, at a 130-year-old delayed family reunion in the most mystical city of all, I now know.

Nice to meet you fam.

p.s. I was humming this Hasidic-inspired song all the way down the hill, if you want to take a listen.

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Yiddish softens the heart?

Two weeks ago, I approached my friends at FluenTLV about starting a Yiddish table.  FluenTLV is a fabulous event (my favorite in Tel Aviv) where people get together to exchange languages.  I offered to represent the language and they were thrilled.

Last week, the first week we did Yiddish, probably 3 or 4 people came and it went well.  One German guy, a couple Jewish Americans, and an Israeli.  Given how stigmatized my heritage language is in Israel, I was pretty happy.

Last night, Yiddish came to life.  At the beginning of the night, an Israeli came in and tried to take one of the three chairs at my tiny table.  I said: “actually that chair is for Yiddish.”  He said “well, nobody is going to come anyways, so I’ll take it.”  I said: “nope, this chair belongs here, you can leave now.”  I asked him if he wanted to learn something and he said “sure, teach me a word.”  I did, he laughed, gave me one of those “everything is OK dude” Israeli high fives and left.  Probably without a further thought about what he had said.

The best part of the evening is that this guy was totally wrong.  Group after group came over to my table.  We didn’t have enough chairs.  When all was said and done, about 15-20 people had visited my table.  A German guy and two Dutch men explained how Yiddish had made its way into their languages!  A Brazilian Jew talked about Yiddish in her family.  I met Israelis whose parents or grandparents spoke the language and remembered some phrases.  Together, we read my copy of “Der Blat”, a Satmar Hasidic newspaper.  And I could see the glow in their eyes when they realized they could understand some of it.

What was also astonishing was how willing people were to learn.  I often find Israeli culture frustrating because of the bravado.  So many people here feel the need to be right trumps all.  Hence often endless debate, even when the facts used are minimal.  I’ve even had Israelis try to correct my English- knowing I’m American.  We often laugh that off, but after a while it wears on you.  It’s tiring having to constantly defend yourself.  Humility is not an Israeli value.

Yet at the Yiddish table, Israelis came to learn from me.  And subsequently shared about themselves.  Their families, their stories, their grandparents’ Yiddish phrases.  For the first time, I actually felt in dialogue with Israeli Jews rather than a lecture.  Or an argument.  There was a softness to our conversation that made me happy.  It warmed my heart and it gave me hope.

In a society where, as I see it, traumatized Jews faced 2,000 years of violent persecution with few options for safety and survival.  Sadly, some of these Jews ended up traumatizing and displacing Palestinian Arabs in a bid for a homeland.  Some of these traumatized Palestinians subsequently re-traumatized the Israelis.  And now we’re stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

That’s how I see it on regel aches- or “one on leg” as we say in Yiddish.  My Tweet-length version of the conflict here.  The saddest part is the trauma on both sides continues.  Anti-Semitism is not just the Holocaust.  It’s a two-millennia phenomenon that continues to this day from America to France to Iran.  I’ve personally experienced it in the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C.  When Jews are persecuted, we often have nowhere to go, which is why some people believe in a Jewish state.  I’m not sure it’s the best solution and I completely understand why people feel we need it.  It’s not by accident that there’s a lot of French people in Israel- they’re Jews fleeing violence and bigotry.  Palestinian terrorist attacks on pizza shops and buses and schools only feed this narrative as we feel under attack yet again.  Trauma piled upon trauma.

And for the Palestinians, you have those who are citizens of Israel yet continue to face discrimination, racism, and often poverty.  Whose lands were robbed of them- and are still in the hands of the Israeli state 70 years later.  You have those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who live in immense poverty, have little right to travel, have few if any civil liberties, and often face violence from the Israeli military.  And even some settlers who burn their trees, deface their houses of worship, and physically assault them.  And you have Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere who can’t even come back to the land they once called home.  Who have no rights in the villages they come from and whose host states often extensively discriminate against them.

Sometimes its enough to just make you cry and cry and weep for humanity.  With no end in sight.  Ya Allah, God please send us all healing.

So in the face of all this sadness, what gives me hope?  Yiddish.  Because tonight, I saw the softer side of Israeli Jews.  When they don’t have to be “tough”- not against Arabs, not against other Jews, not against their own heritage.  Rather, by connecting to their roots- roots violently uprooted both by European anti-Semites and the Israeli state– they felt warmth.

I hope politicians can figure out a solution to this problem.  Given their proclivity for narcissism and greed, I’m not sure what they’ll do.  In the meantime, perhaps part of the solution is culture.  When you feel connected to something bigger- especially something a part of your heritage- it puts things in perspective.  Rather than having to show how “Israeli” you are, you can be the multifaceted Jew beneath the uniform.  The Jew whose family was persecuted by Polish Nazi collaborators, the Jew whose family escaped to Israel, the Jew who lives on Palestinian land, the Jew who wishes to reconnect with his heritage.  A complex one, of persecution and co-existence.  Of perseverance and of trauma.

A little less prickly sabra and a little more soft kneydlach.  Those fluffy yet durable matzah balls that comfort you when you feel sick.

Cover photo by Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31812266