Are Israelis Jewish?

Before we delve into one of the least discussed aspects of life here, I’d like to clarify a few things lest you misunderstand my intent.  Or go wandering off into anti-Israel or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, pretending identity issues don’t complicate every culture.

I am not questioning whether there is a genetic connection between Jewish people.  Various studies have shown extensive shared DNA among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Jewish populations.  Obviously conversions, conquest, and migrations have diversified our phenotype, but by and large, Jews today share a great deal of genetic heritage.  Anecdotally, I have moments here where I think I see a Jewish friend from home, until I come closer and hear them speaking Hebrew.  While Jews come in all shapes and sizes (and of course, this observation doesn’t extend to Jews by choice), there are clearly ancestral connections between us.  My ancestors migrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, but people in Cyprus speak to me in Greek.  My own genealogical research has shown my DNA most similar to Sicilians, Palestinians, Syrians, Greeks, and Lebanese.  No ethnic Pole would mistake me for one of them.

In addition, I am not suggesting there aren’t cultural links between Israelis and Jews around the world.  Shared holidays, cuisine, religious texts, history, and family ties bind us.  Nor am I raising this critique to carry the banner of Palestinian nationalism (or any nationalism).  Sometimes accepted truths need to be questioned.  Every people’s narrative, including theirs, is worthy of critique and reevaluation to help understand our modern world better.  I’m just better positioned to talk about my own.

There is nothing significantly more natural about one country’s existence versus another.  Whether it’s the French nation, the Moroccan nation, or the American nation- borders are fairly arbitrary and cultural boundaries are far more porous than you might expect.  Until World War II, most French citizens didn’t even speak French as their first language.  Until 1549, present-day Morocco was actually ruled by Berbers, not Arabs.  For the past 2800 years, the country has been ruled by Arabs for only about 350 years, half of which was under strong European influence.  Yet today, almost everyone would think of Morocco as an Arab country, despite its significant 30% Berber minority that has not yet assimilated into Arab culture.  When Ellen DeGeneres was born in 1958, Hawaii wasn’t even a state.  The American flag had 48 stars.  And over 1/3 of Louisiana spoke French, not English, as a native language.

So now, back to Israel.

Israel is defined as a Jewish state.  Its various symbols, including the Star of David, the menorahs you see dotting every street corner this winter, the Hebrew signage, are all readily recognizable to any Jew around the world.

Yet there exists a bit of an internal paradox.  You see Israel was founded to be unlike the Jews of the Diaspora.  The express purpose of Israel is to “ingather” the “exiles”- to bring Jews to the Land of Israel.  Ideologically, presented as the only true, authentic home of the Jewish people.

This nation-building project is largely a product of both frustration with 2,000 years of Christian and Muslim persecution and the nationalism that swept the 19th century world.  It doesn’t take a great deal of creativity to see deep desires in Jewish texts and prayers to return to Zion.  It’s not as if the effort came out of nowhere.  But it was a minority movement until the 20th century and there needed to be a narrative to build the nation.

Every nation has founding myths, often rooted in a bit of truth and a lot of imagination.  America is the land of promise and opportunity, a country of hard-working immigrants that gives refuge to those seeking persecution.  An imperfect, but consistently improving place, bringing the promise of ever-greater democracy.  Of upward mobility to those willing to put their heads down and work.  A lousy narrative that the past two years has shown to be fallible, at best.  Which is why so many American progressives are baffled by the Trump phenomenon.  Because having been taught that the arc of history bends towards justice, they now see that it’s more like a chaotic pendulum that swings from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Voting Rights Act to the Muslim travel ban.  That while gay marriage is now legal, real wages haven’t changed in 40 years, income inequality has consistently increased since 1980.  Including under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Anti-gay and anti-Semitic hate crimes are increasing at an alarming rate.  But in good news, the number of bilingual immersion schools has increased fourfold in a decade.  Reminiscent of the plethora of German-language schools that dotted America until World War I paranoia led to their persecution and eventual demise.

In short, the American mythos, like all national mythos, is based on a little bit of fact and a lot of ideology.  And the more unquestioningly you buy into it, the more you’ll be disappointed when you realize that rather than America constantly progressing towards a better future, it’s complicated.  And that it’s OK- it might actually help us find better solutions to our problems if we accept the non-linear and unpredictable nature of history.

So what’s Israel’s founding mythos?  The Jewish people are from here.  OK, that much I agree with.  We have had a continuous presence here since biblical times.  Again, true- as a visit to Peki’in showed me.  After 2,000 years in which most Jews suffered in “exile” (a charged word, but let’s say “outside of Israel”), we returned, struggled, made the desert bloom, revived the Hebrew language, and re-established the Jewish state.  Bidding adieu to the insufferable and contorted Jewish cultures of the Diaspora and starting a strong, independent Israeli future.

This part presents a conundrum.  First off, while Jewish tradition does speak extensively of exile and the Land of Israel, most Jews didn’t see living here as a practical step.  While rabbis over the centuries have been buried here, and there has always been a Jewish community here, the vast majority of Jews have lived elsewhere for two millennia.  While small populations of Jews moved here over the centuries, 99% of world Jewry did not.  Even during intense persecutions.  And not simply because they couldn’t make it here.  Sephardic Jews in the 1500s made their way to Tsfat– it was possible.  But most Jews fled Inquisition Spain to Turkey, Greece, the Netherlands, and other far-flung destinations.

Jews have indeed experienced intense, mindbogglingly irrational persecution for centuries.  At the mercy of the latest ruler’s whims, our mixed languages are testament to how many times we’ve been ruthlessly expelled.  Which is why Yiddish contains ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, medieval French, medieval German, Polish, Russian- and today new English and Modern Hebrew loanwords.  And why Judeo-Spanish (popularly known as “Ladino”) contains medieval Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese influence supplemented by Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.  Our linguistic heritage, one of our greatest accomplishments, shows both our resilience and our willingness to incorporate the best of surrounding cultures while building our own.  It is an archaeology of our past.

The question is whether the past 2,000 years have been nothing but suffering.  And the answer, as even a cursory trip to Europe or the Middle East would show, is no.  Grand synagogues, survivors of genocide and annihilation, dot the European and Middle Eastern landscape.  For centuries, Jews have served as royal advisors, as traders, as doctors, as Prime Minsters, as Senators, as Congresspeople, as Supreme Court Justices.  While most Israelis know Poland only from their high school trip to learn about the truly horrific experiences of the Holocaust, they probably don’t know that for about 500 years, Poland was known as “paradisus iudaeorum“.  The Paradise of the Jews thanks to the welcoming and tolerant Polish leaders who invited them to their kingdom.  Which until the Holocaust was the single largest Jewish community on earth.  Home to beautiful hand-crafted wooden synagogues, economically vibrant shtetls, and a multicultural society.  With religious freedom far more advanced than many Western European countries.

None of this whitewashes anti-Semitism.  Both Christian (and to a slightly lesser but still potent degree) Muslim leaders found ample opportunities to scapegoat Jews.  While Jews often enjoyed prosperity during times of hope and progress, when things went awry, they were (and are) often first in line to receive the unwarranted blame.  Besides discrimination in occupations, inferior legal status, and frequent violence, Jews have been routinely kicked out of their homes for eons.  Take a look at this map (sourced from here):

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And this map *only* covers 500 years of Jewish history.  It doesn’t include the Babylonian Exile, the Roman Exile, and certainly not the modern expulsions of Jews from Arab states.  Here’s a more extensive list for when you need a depressing read.

So it’s not surprising that Jews would at some point want the safety and stability of a homeland.  The problem is that when you base the premise of that claim on the idea that everyone hates us and the only thing we experienced for two millennia was persecution, you miss out on a huge part of the story.  It’s a lie.  It erases amazing Jewish resilience and creativity, our sometimes productive relations with our non-Jewish neighbors, and it distorts the way modern Israelis see themselves and the rest of the world.

Recently, I watched a couple of Corey Gil-Shuster’s YouTube videos.  Corey had the creative idea of letting Israelis and Palestinians speak for themselves, so he solicits questions from his fans and interviews people on the street.  The ones I saw this week were about Israelis of Polish and Romanian descent.  By and large, the respondents emphasized they have no connection to these countries or cultures.  While a few displayed some curiosity about visiting, most detested the cuisine, the languages, and the heritage.  It’s sad- while our history in these countries is certainly bittersweet, you can’t really understand yourself without knowing your history.  It’s worth showing empathy for Israelis struggling with this conundrum- the vast majority of Ashkenazim here are descendants of Holocaust survivors whose families were obliterated.

One respondent caught my eye in particular.  He had no interest in Eastern Europe because “all of our history is here”.  In Israel.

This is an extraordinary and deeply ignorant thing to say, with huge political ramifications.  Jews have lived outside Israel longer than we have lived inside.  His own family didn’t return here until two generations ago.  Every aspect of modern Israeli culture is fused from another source.  From our shnitzel to our jachnoon, from the Yiddish word “balagan” to the Arabic “yalla”.

To the Hebrew language itself.  While Israel’s founding myth suggests the ancient Hebrew language was “revived”, many scholars see this phenomenon in a different light.  In the late 1800s, Zionists began writing newspapers and books in Hebrew throughout Europe.  Occasionally salons took shape where people tried to converse in the language, a language they had often learned in yeshiva and which had, at various times, served as a kind of basic trading tongue between Jewish communities.  In other words, spoken Hebrew had ceased to be the mother tongue of Jews since ancient times.  It did, however, continue as a written religious language, a source of vocabulary for Jewish languages, and a kind of very basic spoken language when Jews met from different cultures.

Therefore, when Zionists proposed a Jewish national project, they turned to Hebrew as a unifying language that had continued in one form or another to be present in communities around the world.  The problem was nobody spoke it as a mother tongue.  So when sitting in salons (or eventually classrooms in what is today Israel), Jews had to formulate this ancient tongue in terms of the ones they already spoke.  For the vast majority of early Zionists, this foundational native tongue was Yiddish.  The beautiful, underappreciated, nuanced language of Ashkenazi Jewry for over 1000 years.

In fact, with the exception of some Yemenites, almost all early Zionist pioneers were native Yiddish speakers.  I recently visited Zichron Yaakov again.  This beautiful city was one of the first Jewish town re-established in the ancient land of Israel in the late 1800s.  And as makes logical sense, much of its early documentation was written in the language of its residents- Yiddish.  Here’s a 1902 city archives document…in the mamaloshn.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Zionist icon, raised his son as the first monolingual native Modern Hebrew speaker.  But he, like the many teachers spreading the language, had to rely on his native language both consciously and subconsciously to build a vocabulary.  To build sentences.  There’s not nearly enough content in the bible and medieval rabbinic writings to cover modern topics like electricity, trains, and even gossip at the market.  You don’t hear Moses asking God “hey, how’s it going?” in the Bible.  Which is why the modern Hebrew phrase “ma nishma?” is actually a direct translation of the Yiddish “vos hert zakh?”  What is heard…or, as we might say more colloquially, “how are you?”

The influence of Yiddish (and to a smaller degree Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Palestinian Arabic, Russian, and other languages) on Hebrew is substantial.  Far beyond what the average Israeli knows.  Mah pitom, mah atah omer, tachles, kitzer, nu- these words and so many others are either direct loanwords from Yiddish or translations of Yiddish phrases not found in old Hebrew texts.  While it’s far beyond my expertise, the influence extends to rather fundamental things like syntax as well.

In other words, Modern Hebrew is a kind of fusion language.  Some claim Hebrew revivalists murdered Yiddish, simply relexifying the language with Semitic words.  Even as its speakers were in fact persecuted by fanatics like the Battalion for the Defense of the Language.  On the other hand, the average Israeli accepts the national mythos that he or she speaks the revived Semitic language of their ancestors.

But the truth perhaps lies somewhere in-between.  Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann claims that Modern Hebrew is not Hebrew at all.  Nor is it Yiddish.  It’s actually “Israeli”.  That’s right, just like the French speak French, he claims Israelis speak Israeli.  And that rather than being simply Yiddish overlaid with Semitic vocabulary or a “miraculously” revived dead language, it is quite simply another language.  With elements of both our Semitic and Diaspora past- Hebrew and Yiddish.  A very Jewish approach to building a language- it’s how all of our tongues have been formed.  One built on another.

It’s a fascinating thesis and I encourage you to visit his website to get a better understanding of his perspective.

To me, it makes a lot of sense.  When I hear Israelis speaking Hebrew, I hear the intonations of Yiddish and the Yiddish-infused English I grew up with.  But the words are largely Semitic, indicative of a major linguistic and cultural shift.

So why does all of this matter?

Because if Israelis in fact speak Israeli, and not a revived exotic language nor simply a dialect of Yiddish, then that has big implications.  It means that the despised Diaspora Jew lives in every sentence we speak here, unwittingly.  It means that Jewish history took a rather drastic turn here- that indeed our Semitic vocabulary has overwhelmed all our other languages.  So that even if much of the language is influenced by Yiddish, the words themselves are largely constructed from the Bible, from medieval rabbis, from new innovations using ancient texts.

The implications are enormous.

Visiting the Zichron Yaakov “First Aliyah Musem”, I learned about the discourse surrounding the first wave of pioneers to resettle the Land of Israel in the 1880s.  More than anything else, it was an interesting opportunity to see the Israeli mythos at work- and to understand its fault lines.

Here are some pictures from a video telling the tale of a prototypical family as they’re leaving Eastern Europe.  Read the captions:

The accompanying audio basically said: oy, the persecution!  We’re leaving to escape it because the Diaspora is miserable, but our real reason for leaving is our desire to build a homeland.  Beware- the angry natives.  Don’t worry, we’ll befriend them.  We’ll be manly, not like those effeminate Diaspora Jews.  We’ll work the empty land and make the empty desert bloom.  But don’t push the mother too much- she’s bearing a future Israeli baby in her tummy.  We’re fiercely independent but still rely on donations from Jews abroad to survive.  We could go join the Jews living comfortably in America, but instead we bravely suffer for the good of the nation here.

The over-the-top rhetoric is not much different than the romanticized stories I learned in grade school about American pioneers.

And its just as problematic if it’s not analyzed.  It contains numerous contradictions.  If the main reason for olim arriving was to build a homeland, why didn’t they come earlier?  If the main reason was to escape persecution, why wouldn’t they go somewhere more economically promising?  Early Zionists here struggled.  Which is why of the 2.5 million Jews who escaped 1880s pogroms, only 35,000 came here.  Of whom indeed 40-90% did leave.  If the land was empty and in need of restoration, how was it that there were Arabs here?  How were they making a living?  And in fact, how were they making a living if the conditions were so rough that most Jews left?  Why were the Arabs to be both feared and befriended- without even having met them?  How was mother going to give birth to an Israeli when the State of Israel didn’t exist yet?  How are the pioneers so independent and strong if their livelihood is dependent on donations from Jews abroad?  Why did they think life was so easy for Jews in America, where most toiled in sweatshops?  And why did some choose to stay in the Holy Land despite the hardships?

You’ll probably have to re-read that paragraph a few times, it’s enough to make your head spin.

These are difficult questions.  The kind of questions few Israelis think to ask.  The kind of questions most people fail to raise about their own national identities which are just as fraught.

As I see it, there’s some truth to all of these questions.  Clearly, some pioneers were so ideologically motivated that even disease and poverty didn’t stop them from staying.  It’s also clear that some people came primarily to escape pogroms, and then hopped on the next boat to more prosperous countries.  That they weren’t really as motivated by Zionism.  That while it took guts and courage to come here, you’re not really strong and self-sufficient if your enterprise is being funded by charitable donations from Jews abroad.  That those Jews abroad are maybe not all suffering as much as you suggest if some have money to give you.  The land was clearly underdeveloped and impoverished, explaining why so many Jews left.  But it was also not simply empty and in need of Jews to make it “bloom”.  As evidenced by the newcomers’ concurrent fear of and desire to befriend the local Arabs, of whose presence they were aware.

Or so suggests the video.  It’s just a video, but one whose contradictions haunt this land to this day.  It explains why Israeli governments both rely on and dismiss Diaspora Jews.  We deserve their charity but really they should be living here like us.  We ran away from their identity, but we want their money.  The Bank of Diaspora.  But boy, things must be terrible for them.  And somehow, worse for us, but our country is better.  A series of spiraling thoughts that manifests itself in today’s Diaspora-Israel relations crisis.

It explains the common Israeli stereotype of Arabs as backwards, but also as worthy of admiration.  A source of fear, but also a source of slang, of Israeli cuisine, and in earlier times, even a new style of clothing.  The land was empty, fallow, deserted, in need of our industrious might to improve it.  But the people here, in the supposedly empty land, will both not like us and become our friends.  Representing both an intense realism and a far-fetched optimism, perhaps delusion.  An acknowledgement that even the most justified or necessary national project will entail changes or displacement that the existing population may not like.  But that we will find a way to live with them as brothers.  A hope not yet realized.  And a complicated, contradictory view of history not yet reckoned with.  A pain largely unacknowledged and festering.  As conflict and misunderstanding here mars the future of both peoples.

And lastly, the identity question.  One that holds particular resonance for me.  The ideology suggests that Diaspora Jews are weak and suffering.  But the very Jews who came here, to become Israeli, were from there.  The video itself portrays the pioneers speaking Modern Hebrew, a language that was not spoken in Poland.  The mother is meant to give birth to an Israeli child, who she conceived in Europe.  In Israel, a state that in 1880, did not yet exist.  So how is this baby Israeli?  And why are these people speaking what is the 1880s was a non-existent language where they lived?  As children in this museum look on trying to learn about their history?

It’s the central identity question for Zionism and for Jews like me who come to live here.  We are seen as a source of weakness, but of potential hope.  Rather than acknowledging that early Jewish communities here spoke Yiddish, that they came from a real place that had culture.  That it contained suffering but also life.  This video, much like the Zionist imagination that surrounds it, misleads.  It erases Judaism itself.  Because the miraculous thing about Israel is that people brought their cultures here and managed to build on top of them.  To fuse them.  To find creative ways of building a new future, with all the complexity that came with it.  But by erasing these people’s Judaism, the video demonstrates the central problem of Zionism.  You can’t mold a people that isn’t there.  Most discourse about Israel focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  What is being missed is how the country’s development necessitated an internal paradox that has yet to be solved.  How do you turn a Jew into an Israeli, while needing the Jewishness to justify the Israeliness?  How do you leave behind his Jewishness in order to create a new identity that is founded on it?  In other words, Zionism posits that we are entitled to live in this land due to our connection to it.  But for 2,000 years, most of us have lived outside it, and we’re the population being encouraged to return to it.  In order to make the “New Jew” to populate this country, you have to both take the Jew out of his old land and pretend that he was something different all along.  Because somebody had to start this process.  And that somebody was living in Eastern Europe, not Israel.  Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman in Belarus.

So if Ben Yehuda’s premise was that we need a new type of Jew, one who speaks Hebrew, one who puts aside his Diasporic identity in favor of an Israeli one, how do you do that?  How do you do that when Eliezer himself wasn’t born in Israel, his own culture was one of gefilte fish and kugel and yeshiva studies?  His Hebrew language itself carried across generations through religious texts and countless phrases in the Yiddish language itself.  Which he then used to build Israel’s national tongue.

The way you do it is to stop being a Jew.  Eliezer was the same human being who grew up in Luzhki.  Undoubtedly scared and angered by anti-Semitic violence, he had a different vision.  To leave- not just to move, but to leave his actual identity behind.  Perhaps a response to the intense pain he experienced as a minority, the countless persecutions.  But his response was to disavow himself of his self.  Or, more generously put, to invent a new identity.

But not just any identity.  There was no Jewish country for him to go to.  So for him to build it, for others like him to build it, necessitated a different kind of values.  Polar opposites, mirror images of what he had been taught.  So while Jewish identity for millennia had been built on the interplay of local cultures and Jewish traditions, his identity would be independent and disconnected from the Diaspora.  While Jewish identity for millennia had accommodated the powers-that-be out of necessity, his Israeli nation would be blunt, would be muscular and direct.

In short, for Ben Yehuda and thousands of other early Zionists, and the many olim who followed them, to become Israeli in the fullest sense meant disavowing who they had been.  It meant becoming Israeli instead of Jewish.  A blunt sentence that many of my Israeli friends will find hard to digest.

Because there’s nothing congruous about the countless Romanian and Polish Jews in Corey’s YouTube video deriding their own cuisines.  While feeling that hummus and falafel are what it means to be Jewish.  Because unless your grandparents worshiped in a synagogue in Aleppo, hummus has about as much to do with Judaism as sushi.

Which is the point.  Israeli identity is about a new start.  A new state.  A new place where we control our destiny and not live at the behest of the fragile grace of different rulers.

The challenge for Israelis today, though, is to realize that this new start came at a price and to realize its full potential, it must be understood.  To realize that there’s nothing inherently more logical about being Israeli versus being a Jew in America.  To not be surprised that most American Jews don’t speak Hebrew- because the only Jewish language our ancestors spoke when arriving on Ellis Island was Yiddish.  And sometimes Ladino.  To realize that your national project is unique- but that its foundations, however much you try to untether them, are rooted in Jewish experience.  And not just the ancient Bar Kochba revolt or the Kotel, but also 2,000 years of engaging with the rest of the world.

To realize that your grandparents and great-grandparents are from rich cultures.  Yes, marred by persecution, but also enriched by life.  That there’s no shame that they spoke different languages or ate kreplach or wore turbans.  That your identity today is dangerously fragile and wants for empathy because you don’t understand where you come from.  Because the lifeless stones in Jerusalem don’t explain why your Hebrew accent is a fascinating mishmash of Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciation.  Or why you hate Haredim for using the Ashkenazi accent your ancestors did, or for wearing 17th century Polish clothing.  They don’t explain why ayins and alefs magically appear to flesh out the phonetics of foreign words.  But that Yiddish does- because those letters serve as vowels in that language.  In a way that no Hebrew prophet would possibly have understood 2,000 years ago speaking the language you supposedly speak to this day.

None of this is to discredit Israel or Israelis.  Although I’m sure someone will twist my words to try to harm us- an inevitable risk when writing about Judaism and the Jewish people.  Lehefech, to the contrary, my purpose is to help Israelis, including myself, understand.  That when you pretend you can so thoroughly untie yourself from your roots, you don’t understand why you are the way you are.  You don’t understand why American Jews might not want to move here, but care a lot about this place.  You don’t understand why some of your Arab neighbors care what you call chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.  Even as some of them fail to realize that some of the foods they call their own have been eaten by Jews for centuries in the Middle East.

You don’t see that the Ashkenazi Israelis in the YouTube clips I saw are shadows of themselves.  Proclaiming how thoroughly Israeli they are for eating falafel.  Distancing themselves from their Judaism when they make faces of disgust at the mention of the foods their families actually ate for centuries.  It’s an act of self-hatred that Israelis have had to do for generations, a price they pay for building a new identity, but also one worth questioning the value of today.

The question facing us is immense.  If Israelis (and olim) continue to have to distance themselves from their past, from Judaism itself, what will remain of our people?  While this article asks whether Israel and “Diaspora” Jews can survive as one people, my question is were we ever one?  Or do you by definition stop being Jewish in order to be fully Israeli?  Do you have to fully reject the other half of our people in order to be accepted here?

It’s a daunting question.  One that haunts me as an immigrant.  Someone who came here precisely to be able to be more Jewish.  To avoid the awkward and sometimes scary anti-Semitism I experienced.  To be free to be me.  To accept some changes that come with integrating into a new society.  But certainly not to reject who I am, where I come from, and my heritage.  That’s the exact opposite of what I want to do.

So therein lies the rub.  Can I become fully Israeli while remaining fully Jewish?  A seemingly preposterous question, but a relevant one.  As I asked museum staff in Zichron Yaakov where I could find Yiddish documents from the early settlement, and received puzzled and disgruntled looks.  As if it were something I shouldn’t ask about.

In the end, I don’t have an answer.  But I have an inkling.  Judaism is an irrepressible force with thousands of years of history.  Including coping with some of the most challenging and disturbing moments of humanity, and surviving.

Zionism is one way that some Jews have approached solving that problem.  And in some ways, it has succeeded.  Israel is the only growing Jewish community in the world and the only country with a majority Jewish population.  At a time when anti-Semitism is growing and Jews rely on this country for refuge.

But it is also is a ticking time-bomb for Judaism itself.  For what has enriched Judaism over the years was not the sacrifices on the Temple Mount nor the Land of Israel itself.  Rather, it has been our ability to balance, to live in tension with our identity as different and strategically synced with that of our neighbors.  To our benefit, for our growth, and for the enrichment of humanity.  Which is why when I speak Yiddish, I can understand almost any German.  And he can understand me- when I choose to use words he’ll know.  And when I want to have a bit more privacy or protect myself, I throw in some Aramaic and Hebrew and Polish and he has no idea what I’m saying.  It’s the creative Jewish balancing act that has made us who we are.  And allows us to both engage the world and have some distance from it.

To be a Jew is to push in two seemingly opposite directions. To fight to conserve your culture, and to fight for humanity to progress so the former is possible.

Once upon a time, Zionists maybe needed space from the traumas they had experienced to build a new identity.  I can relate to that.  But at a certain point of maturity, it’s beneficial to look back and see where you’ve come from.  To do anything less is to empty yourself of part of who you are.  And to live in perpetual confusion about the state of the world and the meaning of your identity.

I posit that Israelis are Jews, even if some of them would prefer not to be, at least in the sense of the Diaspora identity they have been taught to loathe.  Which is why in Zichron Yaakov, a place that almost entirely spoke Yiddish at its foundation, there is almost no trace of the language today.  But a short visit to the local library and a talk with the friendly librarian helped me find a copy of “Le Petit Prince” in the language of my ancestors.  One of our languages.

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The foundations of Jewish history are underneath our feet.  They are in the Steins and Skys and Mans and Bergs that run in your families.  They lie in my English name, Matt, my Hebrew name, Pesach, and my Israeli name, Matah.  And I lost nothing for calling the last one Israeli and not Hebrew.  They’re all a part of me and my journey.

So my hope for Israel, for my Israeli friends, is that you can synthesize these varying aspects of self.  Not to pretend they don’t exist- nor to pretend it’s an easy task.  There are reasons we give ourselves space from the past.  And there are times to reconnect to it, to better understand ourselves, and to build a better future.

Israel will better connect to American Jews, to Europeans, to our Arab neighbors, and to themselves when we have a better sense of what actually happened here and who we are.  Not in the sense of pretending Israeli identity is fake- it’s not.  That’s an anti-Semitic trope in and of itself.  But rather to see how we got to where we are.  And to realize that it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe even good, to put the pieces of the puzzle back together again.  To see the fascinating kaleidoscope of who we are.

So that the man in the YouTube video can be proud of our ancient history here, his family’s perseverance in Europe, and his own life here.  That it’s a multilayered, rich, complex story worthy of every chapter.  Because you can’t return to a land if you’ve never left it.  And you can’t live there successfully without some of the wisdom you gained while you wandered.

 

Goodbye Eastern Europe

This may end up being a shorter blog because I have a flight to catch tomorrow, but I felt it was important to put a few things down in writing before I forget.

I’ve spent the last three weeks in the East.  Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia.  Countries rarely on the tourist radar of Americans, slightly more on the radar of Israelis.  But hardly London or Paris.

I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve seen gorgeous mountains, I’ve learned about wild stray dogs firsthand, I’ve eaten delicious food, I’ve experienced European anti-Semitism from the Left and Right.  I’ve seen green forests, beautiful libraries, and enjoyed the rather reasonable prices.  Especially compared to the aggressive gougefest that is Tel Aviv.

These places are, on the whole, more polite and less aggressive than Israel.  It was nice to have to re-conform to the ideas of consideration and rules.  Even when it struck me as bizarre at first, like when a Romanian guy stood silently waiting for the crosswalk to say “go” at 11pm with no cars coming.  I actually laughed out loud at that one- he said it was because “it’s important to be fair.”  If only Israelis could just take one iota of that respect and apply it to their lives, the world would be a better place.  Even if it feels sometimes a big exaggerated here.

If I had to make a few broad generalizations, here they are.  Hungarians are super rude and xenophobic.  I’ve never been stared at so much (perhaps outside of Israel).  My caramel skin perhaps?  My Jewish complexion?  I’m not sure.  But there is a deep aggression to a lot of people in Budapest.  Maybe they’re still weary of communism or hate tourists, but I’ve never, not even in Israel, had so many people chuck my change or plastic bags at me in stores.  For absolutely no reason.

Overall, all three countries are rather xenophobic.  Anti-Semitism is definitely still present, despite the paucity of Jews, showing just how utterly illogical the whole concept is.  And a great deal of the energy that has historically been used against Jews is now being used against other minorities such as Roma and Syrian refugees.  There is a lot of angry graffiti to be found- occasionally countered by progressive forces.  Though some of those forces have said pretty nasty things to me about Israel.  It’s not easy to be a gay, open-minded Jew in this part of the world, squeezed in all directions.

The nature here is absolutely stunning.  Perhaps because this part of the world industrialized later and isn’t as densely populated as Western Europe, the mountains and forests are so much prettier.  If you like raw green space, Eastern Europe has a lot of it.  Especially Slovenia, the 2nd greenest country on the planet.  The public transit isn’t great, so if you really want mountain time, find some hostels or lodging deep in the hills and enjoy.  I had a lot of stomach-turning van rides in Romania- this region is not for the feint of heart.  But once you get a sense of it, the surroundings are quite gorgeous  And the stars are brighter than almost anywhere.

Slovenians, while perhaps just as xenophobic as Romanians and Hungarians as a whole (it should be noted I met people in all places who resisted this mentality, but it is a phenomenon), are much friendlier than Hungarians.  Again, generalizations, but I had a lot of interactions with people.  Because I’m friendly and because my phone had next to no data here, so I was always asking for directions.  The average Hungarian looked distraught and irritated to answer my questions.  While Slovenians almost always were happy to guide me.  Before someone blames this on communism, Slovenians also lived under communism and somehow turned out gentler, so who knows.  Maybe it’s just a long-standing part of the culture of a product of Slovenia’s greater economic success.  But it is a thing.

Romanians are by far the most religious of the three countries, with new churches being built everywhere despite some fairly grinding rural poverty.  I can’t help but think what an intense waste of money this is at a time when people are suffering and millions of Romanians go abroad in search of work.  Everyone’s entitled to their beliefs, but should the government really be funding religious institutions at this rate when people can’t earn a living?  There are Romanians who agree with me, but they are an embattled minority.

Slovenians are the least religious and, perhaps not surprisingly, the most gay friendly.  Or at least tolerant of our existence.  While there are neo-Nazis here (I saw my first Nazi salute during a tour), gay rights legislation is fairly advanced and I never felt threatened.  I can’t say that anything in Slovenia remotely approaches the tolerance of a major city in Western Europe, but for this region, it’s quite chill.  Romanians, as a whole, are pretty conservative and you feel it.  Some of the major urban student centers like Cluj are more open, but I feel they are perhaps the exception more than the rule.  It must be quite hard to be gay and grow up in this part of the world.

Jews.  Jews in this part of the world are more likely to be dead than alive.  While a few brave non-Jewish souls, sometimes in partnership with the few living Jews, take care of our few remaining historical relics, this is overall a graveyard for my people.  While you can see aspects of our culture (or shared culture) everywhere- from the folk music to the food- the Jewish graveyards and empty synagogues far outnumber living communities.  I’m frankly tired of seeing our ruins and want to see some living members of my tribe.  It is certainly interesting and moving to see sometimes (though sad to see that only Jewish cemeteries have to be walled off to prevent desecration), but I prefer my Jews alive, thank you very much.  I will say that I wish more Israelis (and American Jews) visited this part of the world, because it is an important part of our heritage- 2,000 years old- that explains a lot of our behavior and our traditions.  The food here tastes a lot like home.

The living Jews I met here are pretty cool overall.  I really admire them keeping our culture alive in the belly of the beast.  In a place that gave birth to so much of our civilization today.  And I learned a lot about my own heritage.  Whether it was the delicious flodni dessert that tastes like charoset, the intensely personal Holocaust survivor stories, or the surprisingly old history of Reform Judaism in this part of the world, a lot of my previous understandings changed.  Even of Israelis themselves- I understand a bit more why they are they way they are.   I am more knowledgeable about my ancestry and my origins than I was before, and I’m proud to have reconnected to places important in my identity.  And through meaningful conversations I had with both Jews and non-Jews, hopefully contributed something to this place’s future.

I met some really interesting people here- whether it was Syrian refugees, a Jordan queer girl, or a Polish guy deeply interested in visiting Israel and learning about Jews.  I met some ambivalent people- young Germans who preached tolerance and reconciliation after the Holocaust.  Who seemed genuinely interested in my identity as a Jew and Israeli.  Who then made the odd suggestion that I *must* visit Chemnitz, the East German city now erupting in neo-Nazi riots, to see that these are just frustrated protest voters who wouldn’t actually hurt me.  A serious twist of tolerance shifting into victim blaming that I’m still digesting and may write about further later.  It’s not my job to see the wonders of this city- it’s the responsibility of Germans to make it safe for me to visit.  “Never again” doesn’t mean it’s my job to do their work in building a more tolerant society.  I’m curious to visit Germany one day, but I’ll only go to places I feel safe.  As most tourists would do in any country.

And Slovenians.  Most Slovenians I met were quite friendly and had little if anything bad to say about Israel or the U.S.  And a few were pretty rotten.  There’s this one place up in the mountains where you can take a stunning cable car ride.  I visited it and met some young people who worked there, one of whom gave me a ride to the local village.

Both she and her colleague, at completely different points in time and in different conversations, took pains to tell me how Israelis steal from their resort.  That they’re too demanding and rude.  As if I’m some sort of ambassador for the Israeli tourist hordes.

It was quite odd.  Because the way they phrased it, they said: “what are people like there?”  As if a few dozen poorly behaved tourists represented a country of 8 million people.  Admittedly a rather impolite country, but one that is hardly so barbaric as to be the only one to produce bad tourists.  I saw more than a few clueless tourists from around the world, especially in Budapest where it seems all people do is take selfies.

Perhaps Israelis are more aggressive, and I tried to show some nuance, but I got tired of it.  At first, I thought I was being too hard on them.  Maybe their stories of missing forks and bedsheets were true.  Although I have to say if you have the money to travel to Slovenia, you’re probably not that desperate for a new fork.

But I soon understood that it was anti-Semitism.  For in the same conversation, the cute, blond-haired, blue-eyed guy who I resisted sleeping with (I’m pretty sure he was gay- what a cute smile!) kept saying how lazy and irritating Albanians and Bosnians were.  Those southern immigrants were just too stupid to be as successful as Slovenians.  A trope I heard a lot, not much different than how some white Americans talk about blacks or Latinos.

The oddest thing about it all is that when I pointed out that maybe some people have mistaken stereotypes about Slovenians too, the hot guy said: “no, we are polite.”  Just after he asked me to defend rude Israelis and made racist comments against (often Muslim) immigrants in his country.

Here’s one thing I’ll give Israelis credit for: if they’re racist, they tell you so.  I do feel that Israelis on a whole are a pretty racist bunch.  More than the average American and more than a lot of countries.  But this trip goes to show they’re perhaps not as unique as we think.

That perhaps we’re simply, on some level, holding on to the cultural norms of the part of the world where a lot of us come from.  A place where Slavs bemoan gypsies, where a Romanian used the word n*gger in the car with me, a place where the brown and the black are derided alongside the Jew.

So if Israelis are too racist, at least it’s not shrouded in a bunch of bullshit.  Because there’s nothing polite about prejudice.  Not against Israelis, not against immigrants, not against refugees.  You can have your neatly queued lines and your politely folded napkins, but that doesn’t make you polite, that makes you neat.

I hardly begrudge this neatness- it’s quite nice after the sometimes overwhelmingly crude Israeli norms that make you feel like your feelings don’t matter at all.  A gentle, if prejudiced, silence is sometimes better than shouting for no good reason.

But perhaps next time a Slovenian complains about the Jews stealing his forks and napkins, I’ll ask him to return our synagogues held by his government.  The decrepit cemeteries holding our dead, turned into casinos and nightclubs.  And the Jewish homes and gardens turned into restaurants and simply stolen by average citizens.  With not so much as a thank you.  To this day, Romania has paid a paltry amount to Holocaust survivors who used to live on its soil.  Survivors often living in poverty, 70 years after they were stripped of everything.

So I don’t mind your politeness, I kind of like it.  But all I’m asking is if you’re going to criticize my countrymen for taking something that isn’t theirs, then give us back what is ours.  We’re not immigrants, we’re not foreigners, we’ve been living on shared soil for 2,000 years and I’m tired of you treating us like the “other”.

Eastern Europe- I’ve learned a lot here.  Maybe I won’t spend so much time here next visit, whenever or if that might be.  Perhaps next visit I’ll be spending more time with existing Jewish communities or documenting our heritage.  Or maybe teaching the more open-minded among your folk about what it means to be a Jew.  To build a better, shared future.

In the meantime, I’m going to places with more living people who get me.  Living Jews, living gay people, living in better conditions.  Because as much as I needed some space to try new things and understand myself as an individual, not just a member of a collective, I really feel I need a bit of that community now.

I’m a human being above all else.  A living thing.  And living things need sustenance.  The kind of sustenance where even if you barely agree on anything at all, when you see the challah on the Friday night table, you know on some level you’re in this together.

So if I’m a bit tired of tribalism, I suppose I’m not opposed to a little teamwork.

Chag sameach, wishing you a happy Sukkot.  And may this itinerant holiday remind you that the journey is never-ending.  May your journey bring you to health, safety, and satisfaction.

Amen.

A trip to Hungary

Sometimes life truly surprises you.  Having left Romania (see posts), I decided I needed somewhere nearby, more gay-friendly and with more *living* Jews.  So I headed to Hungary, another one of my ancestral homelands.

I am a quarter Hungarian.  My great-grandparents were from Pacza, which today is either Pacsa, Tornyospálca, or the (formerly Hungarian) Slovakian village Pača.  I’m still doing extensive research- finding Jewish genealogy here is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.  Due to both the time passed (130 years) and the killer job Nazis did in burning our archives, it can be quite hard.  An entire continent uprooted us over ages, so it’s hard to feel rooted here, even as we’re the oldest religion on the continent and our empty houses of worship dot the landscape.  Sometimes turned into trendy cafes or Italian restaurants, without so much as a word of our consent.

Budapest is an interesting place.  Gorgeous scenery, grand buildings, and a surprising calm for a city of its size.  The screaming and chaos of Tel Aviv this is not.  Cute cafes (including one that has cats in it!), affordable prices, and phenomenal safety make it a good place to spend a few days.  Not to mention Hungary’s 1700-year-old Jewish community that I’m a part of.  Before the frickin Huns even arrived.

As a Jew, some things stood out to me.  First off, there are actual Jews here.  Most parts of Romania I visited had almost no Jews left, or a very old (as in gray hair) community.  In a place that was once home to over 700,000 Jews, dating back to Roman times.

Secondly, the people here are really…brusque.  Maybe that’s not the word- I’ll be blunt: they’re assholes.  No, not everyone.  But most people.  There is a deep politeness to Hungarian society.  At first, this was refreshing, having experienced so much rudeness in Tel Aviv.  But you soon start to see that it’s a big facade.  People here have literally thrown my change at me in stores, they stare a lot (until I stare back), a woman I was paying for genealogical research berated me for taking water from a water cooler.  In the office I was paying her to sit in.  To quote: “in our country, you ask for water first.”  Message understood.

While this brusqueness is pretty much thrown at everyone (especially if you’re a foreigner), it has at times manifested itself towards me as a Jew.

I visited a beautiful library the other day.  It was so peaceful- quiet, relaxing, a great place to think and reflect.  The architecture here is marvelous and the tranquility truly, aggressively silent.  There is no neighbor blaring Beyonce at 3am on a Wednesday.  Yes, that has happened to me in Israel.

It’s in fact a branch of the Hungarian National Library.  Hoping to find some books to relax (I love books!), I went exploring.  I found most books were in Magyar, the local language.  But some were in French, German, Romanian, English, and other languages.  I even found a small book on Judaism.

I approached a young man working behind the information desk.

In my best American-polite voice, I asked: “excuse me, sir, do you have any books in Yiddish?  Or on Hungarian Jews?”

His answer: “this is the Hungarian National Library.  We only have books about Hungarians.  In Hungarian.  You can try one of these other libraries to try to find what you’re looking for.”

As he handed me a scrap of paper.

This is Hungary.  A place so reminiscent of the nationalism that plagues the Middle East, it might as well live there.

The fact that the city he lives in was a quarter Jewish just 70 years ago didn’t seem to factor into his commentary.  Or maybe it did.  After all, the Jewish quarter today is a bunch of bars and hipster cafes.  This kind of appropriation and abuse happens a lot with nationalism- it’s just that in America, you don’t often *see* the Native American ruins turned into a nightclub.  Perhaps it would sensitize Americans to how they achieved their great wealth.  Or perhaps they’d end up bland and desensitized like far too many Hungarians.  Despite having nearly cleared their country of Jews (in collaboration with Nazis), an astonishing 41% of the country is anti-Semitic.  The highest number in all of Eastern Europe.  A region famed for hating me.

The other day I heard an American voice.  A woman was taking a picture of a synagogue, I thought she might be Jewish.  “It’s beautiful,” I said.  She said back: “indeed!  Where are you from?”  I said: “I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and going back 130 years I’m Hungarian.”

She laughed: “well yeah, if that’s how we’re counting, I’d be speaking Irish right now.”  Chuckle, chuckle.  Completely unaware that maybe one of my ancestors worshiped in this synagogue.

I said: “my ancestors were kicked out of this country for being Jews.”

A dead silence.  “Oh, ok.”  She then stepped inside, maybe 10% embarrassed, 90% too focused on the lens on her camera.  Never to be seen again.

Feeling decidedly unconnected to most locals, I used the Couch Surfing app to find some internationals to hang with.

I’m really here to get away from the Middle East for now- to get some space.  But to my surprise, I found a young Jordanian woman (let’s call her Amira for privacy’s sake).  Who wanted to go to a gay bar!

Thank God, I really wanted to see some cute guys and connect to that other community I’m a part of- the fun one 🙂 .

A little nervous that politics might come up (it says that I’m Israeli on the app), I didn’t know what to expect.

But instead of a long drawn out conversation about the region’s ongoing PTSD, we ended up sitting down with two queer Macedonian girls.  And dancing with some British people.  And giggling.  And singing.  And frankly having a fantastic time.  It gave me a little hope that especially when we’re away from the mess, we can have a little more fun.

I met a few nice Americans here as well.  It was kind of refreshing to speak English and to share the same culture.  I can’t pretend Israeli culture hasn’t impacted my life- it has.  In a lot of ways, traumatically.  In some ways, kind of cool.  At heart, I’m still pretty American- more than you might expect.  And it was nice sharing that with people on kind of a neat neutral ground here somewhere in between corn bread and challah.

Friday night I went to Reform services.  I do not believe in God.  It’s something I’ve fully realized lately, and my experiences in Israel have convinced me of.  But I really miss community.  And when you’re traveling, Jews are better than anyone else at being nomads.  We’ve been doing it for 2,000 years.  And we find each other everywhere 🙂 .

I went to the services and found myself liking some of the same melodies (for those who don’t know, I’m really, really Jewish- I’ve led Reform services in varying locations since I was 14).  I especially love the old tunes- the ones from this part of the world.

And I found myself unable to mouth the word “God”.  I found some of the words I could kind of reinterpret or recreate with my meaning.  But the God piece- it really angered me.  I don’t believe in God- and the concept makes me furious.  I feel it’s an abusive one- not that all people who believe in it are abusive, but the idea of an invisible being telling us what to do- often to the detriment of our self-worth- really irritates me.  Especially when you see that conflict up close literally killing people.

I excused myself for the latter half of the service and came back for the meal.

The meal was great- a potluck, with some Hungarian surprises.  Hungarians love paprika.  I don’t know why, but they do.  And to be honest, it was found in nearly every dish I ate as a child.  So I guess my family brought it with us across the ocean.

The rabbi taught me all about Hungarian Jewish food.  And her congregant told me all about Hungarian Jews.  Apparently 19 out of 20 Nobel Prize-winning Hungarians were Jewish.  No wonder so many of them can’t stand us 😛 .

The rabbi has a fascinating story.  Her parents hid in the forests near Budapest during the Holocaust.  While her grandfather was deported to Buchenwald, her parents buried a suitcase under a tree each night.  And pretended to go to work each day.  Sleeping in the dirt under the moonlight.  Until the war ended.  And 565,000 out of 800,000 Hungarian Jews were evaporated.  An entire civilization, a race, loving parents with their little children- burnt to a crisp.  To supply a bunch of Germans with BMW’s.  And to satisfy Hungarian blood lust with the active participation of their fascist government.

What was so astonishing was how normal the rabbi was.   How kind, how gentle, how welcoming.  How easy it was to talk with her about one of the hardest things to talk about.

A deep note to my Israeli friends- losing loved ones in the Holocaust is not an excuse to be abusive yourself.  Not to other peoples or to other people.  This rabbi proves that.  If anything, it is a reason to work extra hard not to be that way.  This is an incredibly difficult hurdle- as someone who has been abused for decades myself, I know that.  And in the end, we’re responsible for our behavior, even as we know what has caused it.  And we can choose to pass that abuse on or to break the chain and strive to treat others better than we were treated.  Stop weaponizing the Holocaust to excuse bad behavior and instead, let’s heal.  Evidently, without the help of many countries that caused our pain.

In the end, while I don’t believe in God, I loved the Shabbat dinner.  Not for religious reasons, but for culture.  For history.  For conversation.  Yes, for continuity and change.  A Reform service- a tradition deeply rooted in Central Europe.  Where Neolog synagogues still stand.  And where, despite the best efforts of more than a few miserable neighbors, we still exist.  We are here.  I think I’ll keep seeking out, maybe creating, Jewish culture because I like some of it.  It’s mine, and I’m proud of our survival and our thriving in the midst of sometimes unbelievable pressure.  Perhaps something we share in common.

For ages upon ages, Christian Europeans denied us the right to own land.  To practice everyday professions.  Forced into banking and jobs that goyim didn’t want.  So more people would hate us than the actual governments oppressing them.  To then pay taxes to go to church and learn why we’re awful- and burn us on Christmas Eve as tradition.  No Christmas tree for me, I think.

Jews were stereotyped as “rootless”- a people wandering miserably, punished for killing Jesus.  When in reality, it was Christians themselves who regularly uprooted us.  Stealing our homes, killing us, even enslaving us at times.  Which is how a bunch of people with Mediterranean features and DNA ended up in bitter-cold Poland instead of on a beach on the Dead Sea.

We’re not rootless.  We are from here- me too.  My tradition, my very blood is Middle Eastern, it has stained the soil of Hungary, and I am no guest.  Do not throw plastic bags at me in your grocery stores or tell me your libraries are “just for Hungarians”. And stop complaining about how hard it is for you.  Communism sucked, you’ve been through a lot.  The economy isn’t great.  But I’ve literally met Darfur genocide survivors more cheerful than you.  Have a little perspective.  At least you’re here to complain unlike the rabbi’s grandfather.  Turned to dust.

Now a word to my Palestinian friends.  Through a mutual friend, I had been dialoguing some with a Palestinian woman from Hebron online.  One of the most violent and chaotic focal points where Israeli extremism and Islamic fanaticism meet in utter despair.  Where settlers bemoan the existence of Arabs- and sometimes physically attack them.  And not a small number of practically caged-in Palestinians throw bombs, stab babies, and shoot Jewish civilians.  If you want to really feel bad about humanity, this is a good place to take a peek at the darkness.

This woman, let’s call her Fatima, is religious.  I tried dialoguing and it went well for a while until she starting erupting at me- kind of out of nowhere.  Having seen some of the conditions in the West Bank, I displayed a lot of empathy.  Including sharing about the documentation I’ve done about Palestinian villages destroyed in Israel.  My empathy was several times thrown viciously back in my face.  Which really hurt.  Sometimes she managed to listen and acknowledge.

Fatima shared she was excited to go to Austria to teach Palestinian culture.  I told her my family was Austrian- in fact, all of Hungary once was.  And she said “oh, that’s random, you’re American and Israeli though.”  And I said: “yes, they were kicked out for being Jews- and the ones who remained were mostly massacred in the Holocaust.”

She said: “I hate Hitler and all his ilk.”  The “ilk” part floating softly in the air, its full meaning to this day not entirely clear to me.  Did she mean me?  Did she mean Israel?

Despite a lot of hateful rhetoric she spewed at me without even knowing me- despite me frankly trying to be an ally for a better future for her and her people in ways that gets me into trouble with a lot of Jews.  I told her this: “if you really want to understand why Jews feel we need a state, ask the Austrians what happened to the Jews there.  Why there are barely any Austrian Jews left.  You might not want to learn Jewish history now- that’s OK, maybe you’re not ready.  But you won’t understand a thing about us if you don’t understand why we left the wealthiest continent on the globe to colonize a conflict-ridden strip of desert.”

To the Palestinians desperate for support and solidarity- you deserve humanity and you deserve a better life.  In peace.  And watch out who you ally yourselves with.  Just as I bemoan Bibi becoming friends with anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim nationalists in Europe (that’s a thing), I encourage Palestinians to think twice before cheering our former oppressors.  In some cases, our current ones.  You may think they’re coming to show you solidarity- some of they may be.  And some might be coming to help you just because they hate us.  And if you’re really smart, you’ll realize they helped create the very conflict you live in.  By smashing us for generations and by colonizing you too.  Not a small number of them and their families and friends are just as happy to hate Muslims in Europe as they are to see you and I go head to head to realize their anti-Semitic blood fantasies.  Even if you think they’re on “your team.”  Every time you bring your case against Israel to the E.U., even if you don’t mean to, you’re revitalizing our trauma.  I don’t have a lot of great alternatives, but you might want to think about how you do what you do if you’re really serious about successfully solving things.

I don’t believe in God, I believe in accountability.  Not theoretical after-death accountability from above.  Accountability in the here and now.  That we must take into our hands if it is to happen at all.

As a survivor of abuse, I often wondered to what degree that abuse- widespread in my family across generations- was caused by anti-Semites.  Every individual is responsible for his behavior- and that includes my family members.  No amount of systemic or individual oppression justifies heaping that hurt on someone else.  Over and over.  And that’s why I have worked so amazingly hard to be a better person than the people who abused me.  And why I’ve cut toxic people out of my life, at great cost that has brought me impressive progress.

I do notice a lot of abuse in Jewish families.  And I wonder to what degree this pattern, if it is one, is tied to our less-than-generous neighbors who belittled us and uprooted us for generations.  It has to have had an effect.  I wonder if similar toxins have infected African American and Native American communities for the same reasons.  I’m not sure, but I’ve heard some arguments that it has.

I have skin in the game.  I want to know why I had to suffer for so long- with so many horrendous consequences for my health and well-being.  And while I can hold my family and my fellow Jews accountable (especially Israelis, whose society has turned a lot of abusive behavior into social norms- a scary development), I want to know why so many bigots here in Europe demeaned us.  And I want to call them to account.

I’m grateful for the brave non-Jews here who are allies to us and other minorities.  And I ask you to realize just how bad it can be here.  That it is still one of the most anti-Semitic regions of the world despite being practically Judenrein.  That large percentages of almost every country hate Gypsies, gay people, and increasingly Syrian refugees.  A problem admittedly complex (a number of them have perpetrated violent anti-Semitic attacks), but hardly one that justifies hatred and racism towards suffering people.

While taking a break tonight from genealogical research and writing this blog, I stepped outside for some food.

I found myself in front of a kebab store.  With the famous spinning shwarma machine.  Just the kind of culture I was trying to get some space from, to rest.

I found myself walking and re-walking the block debating whether to buy it.

And feeling so angry at Hungarians (the only other options around) and really hungry, I went in.

Turns out, the owner is a Syrian refugee.  And I told him I’m American and Israeli and we had an awesome conversation.  He told me my Arabic is as sweet as baklava.

As I bid him a warm goodbye, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the best people I’ve met on this trip are not Romanians and they’re not Hungarians.  Even though I am “from” these places- and they do have some fun stuff to offer in addition to the hardships.

The people who made me smile the most were a queer Jordanian girl who had never been to a gay club and a Syrian refugee.

Dear Europe- you may have gotten rid of us Jews.  But like a racist Israeli cab driver once told me: “you killed 6 million Jews and got 50 million Muslims.”

To which I say: “if you won’t show us the kindness we deserve, then I will help every refugee I can.  Because you uprooted us- but you will not uproot them.  My pain- the way I see life- my job is to turn it into honey.  Or at least not bitterness and bile.  So if it helps a Syrian refugee feel a little happier to chat, I’ll do it.  And I support their right to a safe life.  If it causes you a little pain to live with the ‘other’, then I’ll be blunt with you: you’ve earned it.  Grow up.  The grand Hungarian Empire is never coming back.  And it’s your turn to show a little kindness where you showed indifference towards my family.  An indifference I feel I continue to pay for to this day.”

You kicked me out 130 years ago.  I’m the first of my bloodline back.  With an American and Israeli passport- something you could envy.  You can choose to live in misery wailing about the communism that was, quivering about “Muslim invasions” that do not exist outside of your TV screen.  There hasn’t been a Turkish soldier here since the 1600s.  Or you can do something Jews have had to do for a long time in the shadow of your pitchfork: adapt.  If you don’t want to change, at least give me mine with a smile.

p.s.- the picture is of the Great Neolog Synagogue on Dohany Street.  If there’s one reason to come to Hungary besides great affordable food- it’s this.

The incredible yo-yo of being a Jew

Lately, I’ve been traveling in Romania.  It’s my third time here since March- I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, delicious and cheap food, and overall calmer atmosphere than Israel.  A place with far more history than America but with no active warfare like Israel.  And a place where a quarter of me comes from 🙂

Well, here’s the conundrum of being a Jew.  Especially a gay one.  Romania has some pretty awful things too.  Just as I’m trying to get space from Israel (and its creeping fascist state, persecuting minorities), I get a reminder of how stupid people around the world convinced us we needed a state.  Like theirs- faulty, and usually creating more problems than solving them.  But understandably could seem better than being regularly persecuted.

Romania has a storied history of anti-Semitism.  There are brave non-Jews working to preserve our heritage now- I’ve met young people interested in Klezmer, old women doing Israeli folk dancing, people looking after our synagogues.  The ones that haven’t been turned into pizzerias.

It also has a lot of bigots.  On Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting in a restaurant.  I almost went to services, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t.  I don’t believe in God.  I considered going for the community, for the tunes, for maybe a bite of Jewish food.  But when I saw the historic-synagogue-turned-arts-center was fastidiously set up to separate men and women, I felt that an Orthodox Rosh Hashanah was the last thing I wanted to do now.  I talked to some of the non-Jewish staff members, which was nice.  And then I left to eat.

So I’m alone noshing in this restaurant.  And a woman, maybe 40 years old, is playing with her kid.  The kid waves at me and we say hi.  He’s super cute.  The mom starts talking to me in English.  She’s from Bucharest but moved to Cluj some years ago because it is nice and calm.  When she asked where I was from, I said I was both an American and Israeli citizen.

She then says: “I want to go to Gaza.”  I said that wasn’t possible now.  And she says: “I know, I want to go get arrested [to protest].”  I said: “it’s a difficult situation on all sides.  My friend lives on the Israeli side of the border with rockets falling on her house and I’m sure it’s hard for Gazans too.”

I tried to conclude the conversation, but she kept pushing.  While making every effort to smile, she told me: “I want to go to PalestinA”.  With an “A” as if she just needed to emphasize every last consonant.  Like somehow I didn’t pick up on her political message the first time she bluntly interrupted my holiday meal.

I said: “great, you can go.”

Romanian woman: “I want to go to Jerusalem and see the Orthodox Christian sites.”

Me: “you can do that, you should realize that the Christian sites aren’t so protected in Gaza under Islamist rule and that Jerusalem is a part of Israel.”

First things first, I could have gotten into a nuanced conversation about West and East Jerusalem, varying land claims, the suffering on all sides, the Christians caught in the middle of national conflicts, but I knew this woman wasn’t interested in nuance.

Instead, she said the strangest thing.  Besides not knowing Jerusalem was a part of Israel (again, even if you accept the contested nature of the land, most of the world recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli), she was astounded to hear rockets were falling on Israeli cities.  From Gaza.  She said the news said it only happened the other way around.  She said: “life is suffering.”  And when I tried to suggest there were good things in Israeli and Palestinian society too, she just kept to her message.

Feeling rather fed up with this idiotic woman ruining my first solo Rosh Hashanah meal, I said to her: “life is complicated.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and was kicked out for being Jewish.  The rest of my relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.  And now our synagogues here stand empty or turned into restaurants.  Nothing is simple.”

She made an awkward smile, maybe 10% out of guilt, 90% out of stupidity, and said have a nice night and left the restaurant.

Sometimes this happens when I leave Israel needing some space.  I go leaving disgusted at how the government abuses its citizenry, especially minorities, much like other societies abuse(d) Jews.  Even today, neo-Nazis are rallying in Chemnitz, Germany and physically attacked a Kosher restaurant calling the owner a “Jewish pig”.  In Germany.

And I sometimes find all the reasons that pushed us, as a community, to feel we need a state too.  Because after having been expelled from town after town, butchered senselessly and demeaned, we were tired.  And we felt there was no other solution.

It takes endless gall for a Romanian woman who has never met me, doesn’t know my politics, doesn’t even know it’s a Jewish holiday, to barge in and attack me.  While her own country sucks at the teat of my people’s abandoned houses, synagogues, and property.  The land they’ve ripped from our culture.  And tell me how bad I am.

How is it possible to hate us when you’ve already exterminated 95% of us?  When we’re not here to “oppress” you anymore with our difference?

Because, if I may be frank, Romania can be kind of a shit hole.  A place with gorgeous nature and some incredibly backwards people.  The young people, both due to economic despair and perhaps a desire to make their lives better, go to Italy, Spain, and the UK to work.  Sometimes in undesirable conditions, but to earn a decent living and progress.  Sometimes at great cost.

Meanwhile, the country, losing population and brainpower, stagnates.  68% of Romanians still want to reclaim Moldova, a territory first lost to the Russian Empire in 1812.  There are people who want to ban a Hungarian minority party for “secessionism”.  Some villagers literally burned Gypsies alive.  In my lifetime.

In one of the most open-minded parts of the country, I had a young computer programmer tell me I’m a sinner for being gay.  I had the husband of a reflexology therapist with an eco-house tell me: “niggers don’t work in America.”  Someone who at surface level would have fit in at a hippie commune in Vermont.   I had an Uber driver take me 20 km out of the way to rip me off and have been literally chased by wild dogs.  Who apparently are best dealt with by being neutered, but the corrupt government pays its friends to kill them.  Knowing it won’t get all of them, the problem resurfaces in a few years, along with the funds to wash, rinse, repeat.  Corruption at a stellar level.  The public transport is pretty abysmal, if your stomach can handle the bumpy ride.  And the village people suffer in poverty while the government miraculously has millions of dollars to build ornate new churches.

Textbook awful.  And the Romanian people deserve better- and they bear some responsibility for their country’s problems.  Not all of it- none of us can truly force our governments to change on our own.  If I grew up here, I think I’d be pretty miserable.  I suppose in a perverse way, I can thank the Romanian anti-Semites for inspiring my ancestors to leave this hole.

There are nice things in Romania- you could consider visiting.  I just know that it’s time for me to leave.

I do know that the push and pull of hatred- of anti-Semites towards us, and Israeli Jews towards the communities now reliant on them.  That is a dangerous see-saw and it is hard to escape both empathy and anger towards all sides.

There’s a reason there’s not a lot of Jews left here.  And a reason a lot of gays would probably like to leave (or do).  It can’t be fun to be a minority in hyper-religious, hyper-nationalist pit.  The kind of problem I was just trying to get space from.

It doesn’t speak highly to my hopes for humanity, though I do know some societies manage to balance addressing past woes and healing with more success.  Or so I hope.  Perhaps I’ve just been in this part of the world too long.  Yet I know our problems, whether in Israel or other countries, are not ours alone.  The inflamed nationalism of our times has even reached Sweden, where a party with neo-Nazi roots gained almost a fifth of the vote.  Sweden.  The Home of Abba.

Tonight, feeling kind of lonely, I got an unexpected call.  I was having trouble reaching friends in the States, and suddenly I saw the name “Muhammad” on my phone.  A young Bedouin man, 19 years old, from the Negev.  We had met while I was visiting his village several times and I asked him for directions.  A sweet guy, we’ve kept in touch over WhatsApp over the months.  And now, he’s doing something super brave- starting college in Tel Aviv.  A city he has been in for only one day his whole life.  With a culture completely alien to the one he grew up in- in language, in demeanor, in everything.

He’s having trouble finding an apartment- partially due to racism.  At some point on this call, it finally came up that I was gay.  He had a lot of questions, but in the end seemed somewhere between accepting and resigned.  He said: “I can’t control what others do or how they are, everyone has their own way.”  A kind of understanding that I wish our own Pharaonic Prime Minister could bring himself to feel.

In explaining to Muhammad how to find an apartment, I told him to be honest about who he was.  He said he’d go view apartments, and only after he showed up in person would people find all sorts of excuses for why it wouldn’t work.  Like this is 1950s America.

I told him that back in the States, I’d always include my volunteering in the gay community on my resume.  Because if a company wouldn’t like me for being gay, even though it’s illegal for them to discriminate, I wouldn’t want to work there.  Nor waste my time with their hatred.  And yes, even at liberal non-profits, this tactic has saved me from some deeply homophobic work environments.  Even from a female non-profit executive who also did consulting for gay rights groups.  Who told me to be closeted about my identity if I took the job!

So I said: “tell them you’re Muhammad.  In my opinion, it’s better not to waste your time with someone who won’t accept you the way you are.  It’s sad, but trust me, if they won’t give you the apartment without knowing your name, they’ll figure it out when they meet you.”

So while Romania was good for the first few visits, when I could enjoy the stunning scenery and surface-level conversations, it’s now worn out its welcome.  Because while I could go around this country and hide- or lie- about who I am, I’m tired of it.  I haven’t survived this much and lived this long to feel ashamed of something I am proud of.

I’m a Jew.  I’m gay.  I don’t believe in God (a no-no in this deeply religious country).  And I’m a kind person.  It’s Romania’s loss that I’m leaving- not mine.  Leaving like millions of young people tired of old dogmas and nationalism that has killed millions across the globe.  Take note, Israel- this is your fate if you keep burrowing your hopes in a ground soaked with blood.  There’s no such thing as a fair society where one group is esteemed above all others.  As we well know from our experience in places like Romania.

What I do know from tonight is when I was feeling at my worst.  Lonely, sad, still reeling from being chased by wild dogs and people saying the word “nigger”.  That a Bedouin friend named Muhammad called me on the phone, we talked about gay identity and racism and finding apartments, and I felt better afterwards.  As I started searching for ways to help him.  A simple call that changed my night.

You can keep reading the rags- the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva, even the Washington Post, New York Times, and Fox News.  All with different politics but the same objective- fear and money.

I like when people like Muhammad challenge the way they were taught to think.  Living in a gray space of exploration and growth.

Israel is realizing my deepest fear, the abused spreading its abuse more than striving to heal from it.  Frighteningly reminiscent of the European nationalists it is now allying itself with.  That kicked us out.  That burned our homes.  And our bodies.

Muhammad makes me yearn for the country it could be.

==

The cover photo is of me in the Sighisoara synagogue.  Now empty, its members killed by Romanian and German fascists.  The remnants emigrated to Israel and America or assimilated under the pressure of communism.  The shul was rededicated by Jewish donors and some local non-Jewish allies.  A faded, almost barbarically quiet presence in places we once called home.  A sign of cooperation, and a sign of the times.  To be a Jew, more than anything else, is to know how to live in the bittersweet.

 

 

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!