The Primary Axis is Empathy

Ok so one of the most confusing aspects of living here, perhaps of life itself, is understanding the context for what people say.  And what it reveals about their intentions.

Most of our public discourse is focused on quotes- and not just here in Israel.  “Gotcha” moments dominate our news cycles and rarely do we consider the surrounding environment.  Critical thinking is not a skill valued by the news media these days- nor by many of its consumers.

So rather than talking public policy or the latest headlines, I’d like to delve into a less-discussed aspect of the conflict here- and its implications for politics everywhere: the axis of empathy.

For most people, the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is broken down into pro-Arab/Palestinian and pro-Israel.  To be one is not to be the other- or at least a lot less.

What I’ve come to realize, both through living here, through spending lots of time in Arab villages in Israel and meeting Palestinians, is that this breakdown is a distraction from the real conflict.

It’s not meaningless, but it obscures the most important dividing line.

When I’m abroad- Europe, America- my primary orientation is to be wary of hardcore pro-Palestinian activists and to feel more empathy for Israel.  For two reasons.  One is that generally speaking, if someone is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel outside of this land, they are an anti-Semite.  And if someone is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish outside of Israel, they are empathetic towards Jews.  And generally, though not always, empathetic in general.  The exception to this rule would be people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish or pro-Israel and extremely anti-Arab, to the point of being an extremist.  There are people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would be a prime example of one.  And there are certainly people who are pro-Israel and hate all Arabs- I met a Dutch guy on CouchSurfing who liked Israel (and gay rights, interestingly enough) because he hated Arab immigrants.  But when it came down to it, he was actually kind of homophobic.  The flowery gay rights rhetoric was merely a convenient tool to oppose (indeed, sometimes homophobic) Arab immigrants in his own country.  Not out of genuine concern.

What is important to note is that this dynamic flips on its head while living here.  In Israel, the least empathetic Jews are unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Arab.  And I have more empathy for Arabs here who oppose Israeli government policy than the Algerian man I met in Spain who claimed Israel and America started the Syrian civil war.  And claimed Russia and Iran hadn’t killed anyone.

In other words, the very same sentence in two different contexts can mean two completely different things.  Making identifying toxic people a challenge for someone like me who straddles multiple cultures- often in the same day.

For example, I’ve met Americans and Europeans visiting Israel who only want to visit Palestinian areas and show no interest in Israeli history and narratives.  I once met a German exchange student at Tel Aviv University who came to dance dabke with Arab students- and me.  While I was there out of empathy and a desire to learn more about my neighbors, he was there because he hates Israel and Jews.  But I didn’t catch this at first, which ended up really hurting me.  I figured that because we’re both in the same place and we both have empathy for Arabs, therefore we must both be empathetic people.  The problem is that when we sat in a cafe after dancing, he asked me: “why do Israelis talk so much about the Holocaust?  It’s old history.”  When I tried to explain that in the same city he was sitting, there were actual Holocaust survivors, his response was to defer: “but that happened so long ago”.  In his country.

So here’s the rub.  We’re going to the same event.  We would both probably agree with the sentence: “I’m concerned about the human rights of the Palestinian people”.  But I’m doing it as an Israeli concerned about my neighbors’ well being.  And he’s doing it because he doesn’t like Jews.  My words are out of empathy, and his out of antipathy.

The same can go for Arabs themselves.  Many people throw around the word “Arabs” as if 300 million people were the same.  Yet the experience and positioning of Arabs can be radically different.  When a Moroccan immigrant to Belgium says “Israel is a racist state”, it is without a doubt coming from anti-Semitism.  It is rather unlikely he’d say Morocco is racist for having persecuted its Jewish citizens whose quarters now lie largely empty.  Nor for oppressing its 30% Berber minority.

Yet when an Arab citizen of Israel complains about racist discrimination, it is usually based on first-hand experience.  And unlike the Moroccan in Belgium, who has almost certainly never even been here, the Arab Israeli has felt this in her own life.  So again, the very same sentence, two completely opposite meanings.  In the case of the Moroccan immigrant, anti-Semitism.  And the Arab living here, concern for his well-being and the state of society.  Antipathy and empathy.

Of course there are nuances.  There are Arabs here who care a lot of about racism and injustice, but ask them about gay rights, and sometimes you get a deep silence.  Or in the case of one Palestinian: “I think we should throw them off of buildings like ISIS”.  So the question is whether their concern about racism is because they are concerned about people being hurt, or whether it is only because it affects them.  All other suffering be screwed.  Whether it’s from a place of empathy and solidarity or narcissism.

Which is why I’ve met Americans who care a lot about Palestinians, but know literally nothing about Jewish history.  Whose only experience with Judaism is maybe eating challah at a friend’s house.  But knows nothing about why or how their Jewish friends ended up in Minnesota.  Or why there are more Polish, Romanian, and Iraqi Jews in Israel than in any of those countries.  Whose combined Jewish communities numbered 4,1326,000 before the Holocaust.  Today, standing at 25,000 according to the most generous estimates.  Meanwhile, 4.5 million of their descendants live in Israel, where they found refuge.  While the rest lie buried in foreign soil, millions upon millions in overgrown cemeteries.  That’s if they’re lucky- sometimes our burial grounds are turned into soccer fields.

It’s also important to remember our own positioning.  In other words, when I’m in Israel I feel differently than I do in America or Europe.  Both because of the surrounding environment, my own political interests, and of course, which direction empathy flows.

In other words, when I’m in Israel, again depending on circumstance, but I’m at my most empathetic when I’m able to find concern for Arab Israelis and for Palestinians.  Not an easy thing- it’s not as if these communities don’t have their own extremism.  As I sit in a Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem, I am staring at a book entitled: “Victory for us is to see you suffer”.  Whose WiFi code is “JerusalemIsOurs”.  Just miles away from where a Palestinian shot six Israeli civilians two days ago.  Just last month I lived through a terrifying air raid siren in Beersheva, as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.

I can’t say I felt terribly empathetic to Palestinians then.  Though I imagine life is excruciating for them under Hamas rule and faced with harsh conditions imposed by basically every government in the region- their own, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Egypt.  Suffocating.  Palestinian extremists storm the Israeli border, some of whom have been quoted as saying they want to get to the other side to rape and murder.  And in the meantime, ordinary Gazans who just want to put food on the table are caught in the crossfire, as are their Israeli counterparts on the other side.  Some of whom are concerned for their Palestinian neighbors as well.

Basically, what it comes down to is empathy.  When someone is an anti-Semite, I’m going to defend Israel and talk about what’s good with the country.  When someone is anti-Arab, I’m going to share why its complex and we can’t generalize about millions of people.  And because the context for identifying these people is extremely hard to pinpoint, it is not so easy.  Because words that have the potential to sound empathetic coming out of the mouth of an Arab citizen of Israel sound horrifying coming out of a far-left European or a Tunisian living in Paris.

And the same goes for pro-Israel.  When I hear someone passionately defend the Jewish people’s right to a refuge and homeland outside this country, it touches my heart.  And when an Israeli rages about anti-Semitism and how the world hates us, but has never left this country, it’s usually indicative of a deep narcissism.  Because someone who has grown up in the Diaspora or has spent significant time abroad experiencing anti-Semitism has a basis for their anger.  But the man I met who has never left Kiryat Gat is raging about anti-Semitism, it is because he is repeating what he read in the newspaper or what he learned in school.  Because he is a fervent, unquestioning nationalist.

So when I hear an American Jew frustrated with his right-wing relatives who shut his progressive Israel views down, I feel empathy.  But when a British non-Jew tells me that “British Jews are ridiculous, why do they care about Israel without ever having been there?”, I know she’s an anti-Semite.  It’s the positioning.

Therefore, to return to the original point, the positioning of “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” obscures the most important axis of this conflict.  Indeed, of human society in general.  The axis of empathy.  Of kindness.  Of care.

Because when you re-orient the conflict this way, you see that the potential allies are much different than what the news media and politicians on all sides would prefer for us to see.  That the Muslim girl in Tira who appreciates Jewish women’s freedom to choose their clothing is as much my ally as the Jewish kid in Tel Aviv of Syrian ancestry blasting Arabic music in his coffee shop on Ibn Gvirol.  He doesn’t understand a word- but he told me he wants to learn and he loves the music.

What unites them is not a nationalistic goal, nor is it a sense of fidelity to a tribe.  It is their desire to see humanity in the other.  To show compassion, empathy, and openness.

It’s the tribe I love the most.  It’s the tribe that no matter where I find myself in the world I want to belong to.  That I strive to strengthen and be a good member of.  The empaths.  Like Marko, the young Slovenian cell phone salesman who was excited to discover a Jewish museum in his city.  And as soon as I told him about it, he scribbled the name on a piece of paper.  We shared about our cultures and our personal experiences with discrimination and overcoming it.

He told me at the time, a moment that was quite hard for me after seeing a Nazi salute in his town’s square: “Grab your heritage and explore! Go for it!”

This is what it means to be a person.  At the time I wrote:

“Then it really hit me. What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day. On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.

What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the ’empaths’. People who care about other people. And not just those who fit their worldview. The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others. Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.

While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her. That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.”

This tribe is the most important one in the world.  More than Israel, Jews, Arabs, Americans, left and right.  And it is the hardest to organize.  Because even after you’ve identified them, there are so many forces pulling us apart.  Telling us the colors of our flag matter more than those of our heart.

But if we are to have a future on this planet, it is a must.  It’s necessary to be like the liberal Washingtonian I read about who visited a gun store in Virginia- just to talk to people.  It’s necessary to be like the Arab from East Jerusalem I met who studied Hebrew on his own to get to know his neighbors.  It’s necessary to be like me, an American Israeli Jew who studied Arabic for years and years because it’s the best way to understand Arab people.  To build bridges in the impossibility that is the conflict which embroils us.  Because my deepest hope is for a day when I can hop on a train from Tel Aviv to Damascus.  And maybe stop over for a night of partying in Beirut.  And then sit sipping tea in the Lebanese mountains overlooking the Jewish towns of the Galilee.  As if the past 70 years have been just a bad dream.

It is not easy.  There are times when I am afraid- and sometimes justifiably so.  There are extremists on every side here and abroad.  There are people who’d rather us- all of humanity- sit in silos.  Easy to market to, easier to divide and conquer.  While both “progressive” and right-wing billionaires continue to rake in our resources.  Palestinians and Israelis fight for crumbs, but who really gains?  Why are there 30 Israeli billionaires but the average New Yorker, in one of the most expensive cities on earth, has 17% more purchasing power than a Tel Avivi?  Why is there a Palestinian billionaire while 32% of his countrymen sit in abject poverty, unemployed?

In the end, the people at the top care very little for the people at the bottom.  If I wanted to indulge my most cynical side, I’d say that’s how they got there.  But I’m really not sure.  What I can say that what interests me less are peace declarations, foundations, donations, and projects.  What interests me more is the well being of the average human being.  And while people here- indeed around the world- rally around the ethnic group or religious community or political party they are supposed to defend- who is really winning?

I’m not suggesting billionaires are necessarily bad people, though.  I’m not sure life is so simple.  There are really mean poor people and generous wealthy ones.

But what I am suggesting is it’s not fair.  And that efforts to focus us exclusively on identities at the expense of our shared human empathy are driving us into a hole.  So while liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has been held up as an exemplary clean energy enthusiast, how often do the organizations who receive his donations wonder where he got his money?  Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and eventually his own investment firm which invested millions in private prison companies.

But let’s join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in storming the office of Nancy Pelosi about climate change and rail against Republicans who receive coal money.  While The Latino Victory Fund which supported her partners with Tom Steyer’s SuperPAC.

To what extent this is purposeful, I don’t know.  I do appreciate Ms. Cortez’s critique of money in politics, but I fear the judgmental fire in her belly may scorch us as a society.  Maybe Tom Steyer and other donors’ views are situational.  Some people earn a lot of money to then try to do a lot of good.  People’s motivations are hard to discern.  And I don’t want to support a witch hunt or class warfare, or to suggest people are purely good or evil.

But I do think the result is a game of smoke and mirrors.  Where I should spend my time hating Palestinians or Republicans or Muslims or right-wingers or left-wingers, when in the end most people can’t make ends meet.  Around the world.

So I’ll say this.  If there is a solution to this problem, it’s the empaths.  Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Benjamin Netanyahu, the BDS movement, or anyone else dominating the headlines these days, let’s focus our attention elsewhere.  Maybe they can join us later, but in the meantime, instead of gazing up at them, let’s look sideways.  Ahead- at the people in front of us.

Those are our allies.  Our potential friends are the people who don’t buy into this warfare.  They’re the Republican willing to buck the party on gay rights.  They’re the Democrat who who dialogues with her anti-abortion neighbors.  They’re the Tunisian who writes about the Jewish history of his land– in collaboration with a Jewish historian.  And the Israelis like me who empathize with the challenges facing our Arab countrymen and our Palestinian neighbors.  Who rather than tearing up at every Ben Gurion quote and saluting the flag, would prefer to talk with the Arab man who cleans their school.  They’re the American Christian who visits this land to understand both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than coming with a pre-set agenda.  Who is willing to confront anti-Semitism with as much vigor as racism or Islamophobia.  To confront their own prejudices.

Because we all have them.  And if we’re honest, if we’re empathetic, we can acknowledge that.  I, for one, have been learning more about transgender experiences.  I don’t know much- and it’s a deeply stigmatized identity and community I don’t know much about.  But I’m putting myself out there and realizing I have a lack of knowledge.  And that doesn’t make me weak, it’s makes me kind.  Because to acknowledge our own gaps in knowledge is to point us in the direction of what we need to learn.

So in the end, I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.  I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice.  I’m not interested whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a left winger or right winger.

What I’m not interested in is “or”.  What I’m interested in is “and”.  Because an empath lives in the and.  The ability to see that the identities we are supposed to defend are only part of the story.  That the words we use aren’t as important as what they indicate- given our position.  That the sentiment behind them, the context is much more important than the vocabulary itself.

So give me pro-Israel Europeans and Israeli Jews who rail against racism.  Give me Americans who fight against BDS and anti-Semitism and give me Israelis who fight against an unquestioning Zionism.  Give me Palestinians learning Hebrew and Israeli Jews learning Arabic.

Give me the and.  Because the real way forward, as I see it, is to step outside our silos.  And find the people whose orientation is towards compassion, who are willing to question orthodoxies, and are struggling to live in the gray space at a time when polarization would make it so much easier not to.

Who are willing to give up the simplicity of living enclosed in the safety of a walled-in tribe.  Whether that tribe be NPR listeners, secular North Tel Aviv, a gun show, or a West Bank settlement.

Because where things get a porous is where life gets dangerous.  And when boundaries become frontiers, they can become markers for progress more than barriers separating us from each other.

Don’t tell me what you think, show me how you care.  Don’t tell me where you’re from, show me where you’re going.  Because perhaps what I’ve learned is it’s not so much where you are so much as how you’re oriented.

The bad news about today’s world is that we’re increasingly divided along national, political, and religious lines.  Which can make it incredibly hard for a double minority gay Jew like me to find a safe and welcoming home.  When I look at a map, my heart wishes I could live everywhere and my mind knows that I can’t.  It’s a force that pulls me apart and forces me to choose between the well being of my identities and my curiosity about the world.  Although as I write this article I wonder if perhaps the most important identity of all, someone’s kindness, may lead me in different directions than I’m “supposed” to pursue.  Maybe it already has.

The strain of trying to find a home, a career, a place where you feel safe, fulfilled, and stable is real and intense.  It’s a lot to handle at once and can feel excruciating.  Especially when your primary communities are targets for so much antipathy and hate.  What I’m discovering is there’s a way to view things a bit differently that can help me find a way forward.  Because when you understand the most important (if not only) characteristic of someone you’ll like is their compassion, you realize that exists in every corner of the planet.  And while it requires some sifting, some risk taking, some potential hurt, you can find people everywhere who will treat you with dignity and compassion.

Israeli identity is not so portable.  Tied to this land, there is nowhere else on the planet that feels exactly like this.  Where Jews live in the majority.  Where Hebrew signs dot the skyline, where Hatikvah is blasted at every sports game.  Where Judaism isn’t something to be hidden at home or behind synagogue security guard.  Where it carries both the power and responsibility of running things.  It exists like this nowhere else on the planet, which is why so many Israelis have trouble adapting to life, including Jewish life, elsewhere.  Perhaps this will change- groups like the IAC are trying to help Israelis build a Diaspora identity, as strange as that sounds.  I can understand why it’s necessary for their well being.

Jewish identity, on the other hand, is the most portable identity in the history of mankind.  It changes and mutates everywhere we go, adapting in extraordinary and creative ways to both fulfilling and extremely scary circumstances.  Sometimes it’s snuffed out- it can’t plant its roots everywhere due to the cruelty of some people.  But it does show an incredible adaptivity that few cultures have managed to replicate.

It is challenging to be an Israeli or Jew in much of the world.  But there are some things you can uncover anywhere.  And can bring to any society.  What you can carry with you to every corner of the globe is a desire to help, to understand, to bring hope and kindness.  And to find people willing to share that warmth with you and to join you in the task of building a gentler, more caring human society.

Because when we understand the meaning of the words others say, we realize that it’s the intent behind them that matters most.  That help us sift through the distractions to see the direction their heart points in.

May we all find the words to bring us peace.  In our own lives and in the lives of the people around us, to the extent we can.  This Christmas, this Chanukah, this Kwanzaa, is the season when the sun sets early, the darkness sets in, and the contrasting blackness surrounds us.  Which presents us with the challenge of finding warmth.  And if we manage to kindle a flame, also gives us the chance to make our little bit of light shine even brighter.  Not as bright as the sun, but brighter than if we try to be a lamppost at noontime.  We can’t choose when the sun sets- nor can we choose when it rises to cover us and glow.  When you find yourself in darkness, you can’t expel all of it.   So rather than struggle against its very existence, perhaps the key is to find someone else willing to light a candle with you.  To make some space for warmth.  Until the morning breaks again.

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):

1920px-Expulsion_judios-en.svg.png

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.

 

El meu primer blog en català

Per a tots els meus amics i llectors que no saben, tinc una conexió prou forta amb la llengua catalana i el públic que la parla.

Seguint la recomanació del meu amic Felip Querol, qui em va entrevistar fa uns mesos sobre Israel, escriuré el meu primer blog en català.  O diguem, el meu segon, si s’enclueix el que vaig escribir com a estudiant de català a Georgetown University fa 5 anys 😉 .

Felip em va trobar a un grup de Facebook de Catalans a Israel.  Era curiós perquè justament en aquest moment, jo estava visitant Catalunya.  Tenim una paraula en Yiddish per a explicar aquests moments afortunats: “bashert”.  O sigui, “predestinat”.  Meant to be.

Podeu escoltar l’entrevista Començo a parlar a les 11:15 minuts més o menys.

Era una entrevista tan divertida.  Com hi ha molt antisemitisme acutalment a Europa, jo estava una mica nerviós.  Felip volia aprendre sobre Israel com un país diverse i complicat i interessant?  O volia fer polèmica?

Jo estava molt content de que ell volia aprendre.  Parlar com éssers humans sobre la complexitat i la bellesa del meu país.

No va ser el primer cop que vaig experimentar la màgia que és parlar en català sobre el judaisme.  Que és teixir junts dues identitats meves.  L’una enriquint l’altra.  Com si no va passar 500 anys de distancament i anhel.

Fa uns anys, quan encara vivia a Washington, D.C., on vaig creixer, vaig tenir l’oportunitat de ser un Katalonski.  Katalonski, per qui no sap, és un programa fenomenal de TV3 que va explorant el món, tractant de trobar gent com jo qui ha aprés el català.

Vaig tenir l’oportunitat de convidar l’equip d’aquest programa, inclouent-hi el presentador Halldor Mar, a la meva sinagoga.  Ell és un Katalonski com jo- nascut a Islàndia i ara un catalanoparlant radicat a Barcelona.  La meva sinagoga va ser la primera que van visitar mai.  No només això, els meus nous amics catalans van venir a fer danses folklòriques israelianes.  O al menys van tractar de fer-les 😉

Podeu veure l’episodi aquí.  Parlo de per què vaig aprendre la llengua.  Com la meva identitat com a minoria va influir la meva decisió.  Com ser jueu gay funciona- i per què em conecta amb el català.

Si dic la veritat, sempre quan em trobo amb dificultats o desafiaments, tinc ganes de parlar català.  I encara més, parlar amb catalans sobre el judaisme i Israel.

No és per casualitat.  Viure a Israel, viure com jueu és difícil.  Et trobes lluitant contra prejudicis àntics.  Per desgràcia, a Catalunya també, on un grup de ignorants van posar un boicot contra el meu país d’Israel.  Però clar, no contra dotzenes d’altres països molt més violents i agressius.  I sense pensar als israelians progressistes com jo que estan tractant de seguir construint una societat cada cop més oberta, tolerant, i diversa.  De lluitar per la justicia i un millor futur.  És la lluita de tot el món actualment- però els que proposen boicotear el meu país només parlen dels “pecats” dels jueus.  Un prejudici ibèric que no va desaparèixer durant els ‘ùltims 500 anys.

El que si m’anima es veure molts catalans que volen aprendre sobre el judaisme i la diversitat israeliana.  La comunitat gay a Tel Aviv, els jueus iraqís que continuen parlant el seu dialecte àrab àntic als carrers de Or Yehuda, els ciutadans àrabs que parlen al menys tres llengües i tenen representació política al parlament.  Un dret democràtic que per desgràcia no existeix als nostres països veïns.

Llavors quan parlo català i em conecto amb catalans que volen aprendre sobre la meva cultura, em fa content.  I m’anima aprendre encara més sobre ells- la seva cultura, la seva història, la seva llengua tan bonica.  Com em va passar a Vila Joiosa amb el meu nou amic valencià Josep.

I és per això que en aquest moment, quan estic buscant feina, quan vaig veure coets del Hamas, quan tinc la vida una mica estressant, em trobo escribint el meu primer blog en català.

Compto amb els meus amics catalans.  Som minories.  Hem sigut oprimit pel mateix estat espanyol.  Les notres llengües- el yidish, el ladino, el català mateix- han sigut ignorades i menyspreades per l’història.  Perque som “cultures petites”.  Perque segons alguns, només una civilització que té 300 millons de parlants importa.

Però jo sé, com jueu, com israelià, i com catalanoparlant, que no és veritat.  Que, com la meva primera professora de català em va dir: “cada llengua és una riquesa”.

Els èxits dels jueus i dels catalans són innombrables.  Hem pogut sobreviure i preservar les nostres cultures malgrat persecucions i ignorancia de fa segles.  Tenim històries riques i conectades.

Seguim tractant de tobar un equilibri entre la modernitat i la necessitat de preservar les notres identitats antigues.  Una cosa que poca gent al món enten.  Però seguim endavant.

Penso en el meu primer blog en català, el que vaig escribir com estudiant universitari a Georgetown gràcies a la Fundació Ramon Llull.  I potser no sigui per casualitat que aquest blog, que jo hauria pogut escriure sobre qualsevol tema, el vaig escriure sobre el ladino.  La llengua judeo-ibèrica que el meu pobre ha preservat fins avui malgrat la nostra expulsió del país que era el nostre.  El nostre- de vosaltres i de nosaltres.  De la vostra sang amagada i de la meva- les dues provenints del país del qual escric aquest blog.  Un miracle que l’Inquisició no hauria pogut imaginar fa 500 anys.

Quan penso en el català, penso en l’esperança.  En el futur.  En les dificultats acutals.  En la riquesa de ser una minoria que segueix contribuint i vivint i sobrevivint.  Rient malgrat l’ignorancia.  Rient en hebreu, en català.  Rient com som.

Per això, quan es parla del català i del judaisme, no em puc separar.  Perque per a mi, són dos aspectes inseparables de qui sóc.

Enviant una abraçada de Jerusalem.  Als meus germans i a les meves germanes a Catalunya.

Us estimo ❤️

La foto és del mapa del call jueu de Tortosa, una ciutat preciosa que vaig visitar l’ùltim cop que vaig anar a Catalunya.

Let’s talk about occupation

I want to share an experience I had in Tortosa, Catalonia.  Some call it Spain, for now I’ll stick with Tortosa 😉 .

Tortosa is a city that used to have a sizable Jewish population.  Before the Inquisition and related persecutions, Tortosa had a “call”.  That’s pronounced “caly” (for lack of a better way to write it in English)- and it means “Jewish quarter”.

I decided I wanted to go for a hike.  Tortosa is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, take a look:

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I love nature, but I found myself increasingly drawn to the signs around me that said “call”.  They’re everywhere.  Something I love about Catalonia is that quite a number of cities make preserving their Jewish heritage a priority.  Unlike the mostly derelict synagogues of my great-grandmother’s Romania, Catalans seem generally proud of their Jewish heritage.  Because quite a number of them are Jews themselves- or were hundreds of years ago.  And they know it.

I wandered the call, finding where the synagogue once stood, the kosher butcher shop, even a plaza named after a rabbi, Menahem Ben Saruq.

I found myself humming Jewish tunes, including one of my own creation, and being stared at by some Moroccan men.  Almost the entire neighborhood now is filled with Moroccan Muslim immigrants.

I then headed to the town archives.  I love, love, love archives.  And I want to give a huge shout-out to archivists everywhere.  You keep heritage alive.  Science is amazing and can heal and grow our planet- but without humanities and a sense of morality, it is useless.  Ben Carson is a great example of why science is not a religion, it does not have all the answers any more than any other field of study.  Scientists need ethical systems just as much as humanists need biology and medicine.

The best thing about town archives, other than the ancient documents they contain, is that they are free!  So here’s my travel tip: if you find yourself itching to see unique, cool texts and really learn about where you’re traveling, head to an archive.  If it’s a rainy day (as it was for me), even better.  I walked around Tortosa with a piece of generously donated cardboard over my head until I could find a 9 buck Mickey Mouse umbrella. 🙂  Archives are my refuge.  And unlike museums, you won’t be shelling out tons of cash to wait in line and crowds.  Archives are often quite empty- sad for the state of humanity, but great for someone like me who likes a little peace and quiet.  All you need to do is fill out a form, show your passport, and next thing you know you’re looking at a hand-written 900 year old document.

That’s where I found myself.  The archivist brought me the “Carta de Poblament”.  It’s a Catalan document that the Count of Barcelona had offered the town during the medieval Christian conquest of Spain.  It basically offers new settlers various land privileges and natural resources for settling the territory.  Until then, it had had Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  But with the eventual imposition of the Inquisition, both Jews and Muslims had to convert, leave, or face torture and death.  Their empty houses became the Christian settlers’ homes we see today.  Occasionally, as in Granada, you can still see where the mezuzah was once hanging.

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I then looked at the next documents I had requested.  I wanted to see Jewish documents.  And in some cases, you can still find them in Catalonia.  I once visited the Girona Jewish archive (the city has a particularly well-preserved call) and got to see documents in Judeo-Catalan!  Catalan written in Hebrew letters- and in some cases, with Hebrew phrases.  For a Jewish speaker of Catalan like me, there is nothing cooler.

The first document was in medieval Catalan (did I say archives were cool??) and was about the Jewish community of the city.  The next document was from 1323 and detailed how the local rulers had imposed a tax on the Jewish community to repair a broken wall.  I’m not sure exactly what happened, but Christian rulers (and Muslim ones) often imposed discriminatory taxes on Jews either as “protection money” or simply to raise cash.

The third document is the one that stirred my soul.  It was called “Població de convertits”.  A list of the Jews who had converted to Christianity.  Often under penalty of death.  From the early 1400s.  I have to say that seeing the hand-scribed names really moved me.  I felt deep sadness as my finger scrolled through the names of Jewish souls lost to an ever-encroaching Christian hegemony.  I wish I could say this was only a Christian problem, but it’s not.  Even the relatively tolerant Muslims of Al-Andalus engaged in pogroms, massacring the Jews of Granada in 1066.  A thousand years before the State of Israel, for people who think Muslim anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon, purely a product of colonialism.

As I flipped through the pages, I wanted to find a specifically Jewish name.  It’s almost as if part of me couldn’t actually believe this document was real.  That maybe I had been given the wrong one.  Persecutions of Jews are often invalidated, ignored.  This must be just history books, it doesn’t feel totally real.  I couldn’t believe I was holding an ancient text of suffering, of my people, for free in a municipal library.

And there it was- Abram.  Abram and his son converted to Christianity.  I paused looking at the name.  I thought about how awful it must have been to be a Jew at that time.  What must have been going through his head and he decided between expulsion, death, and embracing a faith that so hated his identity.

And there it was, his conversion.  I felt sorry for him- and kind of angry.  How could he give up on our tradition so easily?  I’m sure it wasn’t easy.  But I felt torn.  And I felt furious at the authorities who forced him to give up who he was.  His soul, and those of his ancestors, are forever lost to the Jewish people.  Like so many others.  So when quite a number of Latinos or Spaniards I’ve met say that Jews are “racist” or “closed off” for only marrying “their own”, this document is my bold counterargument.  We only exist because we preserve ourselves.  Your people have been nothing but obstacles in our way for hundreds of years and I won’t apologize for keeping my identity alive.  I’m grateful to the non-Jews I’ve met here in Catalonia and Spain who are working to keep our heritage visible.  Thanks to them I can connect to my past- and they connect to me, as you’ll see in my recent post about a gay Valencian man I met with a Hebrew tattoo.  Who changed my life.

Before I left the archive, I thought if there was something creative I could do to bridge the past.  To make my Jewish ancestors proud.  To connect to Abram and to show the vitality to Judaism to this day, despite all of the hatred placed in our way.

When I left Israel for my travels two months ago, I could barely utter a Hebrew (or Arabic) word.  I was so tired of the region, the hatred, the intense pressure to assimilate into Israeli society.  I had chosen a name, Matah, when I made aliyah.  It means orchard.  It sounds like Matt, but is different- it’s about planting roots.  The name of this blog.

In Europe, I’ve been going by Matt.  Occasionally, Mateo.  But this day, I was going to reconnect.  I took a piece of paper, and added a nice touch to the 600 year old remnant of my civilization:

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Right next to Abram’s name, the second line from the top, I wrote my names.

מטע אדלר

Matt Adler

Jew. Jueu. יהודי.

I think Abram would have been proud.  I certainly was.  Half a millennia since the expulsion of Jews from this land, I was here, a proud Israeli visiting from the land of our ancestors.  Living with self-determination after two millennia.  Something Abram could have never even imagined.  And here I was alive in his home of Tortosa.

It’s a reminder that the impossible is sometimes possible.  History changes.  And each one of us can make a difference.

As I left the archives (still with the cardboard box over my head- one of the funnier moments of my trip until my feet were soaked in rainwater), I headed to the cathedral.  There I found a 1300-year-old Jewish gravestone in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.  With a Menorah and, interestingly, a *5* pointed star:

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What’s so amazing is I could mouth out some of the words.  “Kever”- grave.  “Shalom”- peace”.  And “livrachah”- for a blessing.  The last word something we say to this day as we remember loved ones in synagogue.  A stunning reminder that even when the most hateful among Christians and Muslims stole our land, expelled us, and killed us- we held on to the one thing that kept us alive: words.  Evidence of our continuous presence on this continent, one that has tortured us.  But where we have ultimately persevered in existing.  Even if our current existence there is tenuous.  How many people can see a 6th century tombstone and recognize the words from today’s liturgy?    We’re a truly special people with an incredible historical memory.

As I headed home, I felt hungry.  I stopped into a kebab place.  As with many stores here, it was run by Muslim immigrants.  In this case, from Pakistan.  I have had some difficult experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I was curious before going on this trip what it would be like- both figuring that Europe was kind of a neutral space for potential dialogue and aware that there were many reports of anti-Semitism.  I was also keenly aware that I had to be careful in saying where I was from.  While an American Jew can hide behind their red, white, and blue passport, when you say you’re Israeli, people know you’re a Jew (even if you’re not!).

I’ll start by saying I’ve had some incredible experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I went clubbing with a queer Jordanian girl, who had never been to a gay club.  And she knew I was from Tel Aviv- and we’re still in touch.  Our sexy curves swerving on the dance floors of Budapest.  I also met a Syrian refugee there, who lifted my spirits as we chatted in Damascene Arabic late at night over shwarma.  And who I told I was from Tel Aviv.  And had a great time.

I’ll also say I’ve had a difficult time here.  More often than not, I don’t reveal I’m Jewish or Israeli to Muslims here.  By the decoration of their stores and their clothes, I can tell they are quite often devout.  And just the other day, a woman 10 minutes down the road from where I stayed in Belgium was threatened at gunpoint by a “bearded man” for being Jewish.  I wish I could say this was the only incident of Muslim anti-Semitism here, but it’s not.  Just a few years ago, the Belgian Jewish Museum I strolled by was attacked by Islamic terrorists, killing several civilians.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe (including from neo-Nazis), and many Muslims’ pointed questions about where I was from didn’t make it any easier.  More than a few times, they didn’t believe me when I said I was American- I didn’t “look” American.  Sometimes they think I’m Arab, other times they ask me what my religion is.  Repeatedly.  Which is incredibly uncomfortable and invasive.

Just the other day, an Algerian immigrant told me Israel and America *started* the Syrian Civil War and he didn’t believe Iran or Russia was killing civilians.  Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t tell him I was Israeli in his kebab shop at 11pm.

I’ll add that I find it doubtful that many of these immigrants know the Jewish history of the land they live on today.  Despite the many signs covering their neighborhood explaining it.  Quite a number of Christian Europeans don’t either.  It struck me as bizarre and sad to see hundreds of Moroccan men walking around the Jewish quarter of Girona.  Seeing them wasn’t bizarre- what was more bizarre was the fear I felt in even singing a Jewish song there.  I couldn’t even get out the melody as two men stared.  Maybe they didn’t know what I was singing- but if they did, would I even feel safe?  Do they care that they live on this land bathed in the stains of our blood?  In fact, both of our blood?

It’s times like these where I feel distant from Muslims, from Arabs.  I’m someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in dialogue and exploring this civilization, as you can see from my previous blogs.  Sometimes it is fruitful and lot of times, it is painful.  We’re like two conjoined siblings who wish they could get away from each other, but can’t escape our shared past- and present.  I sometimes wonder whether learning Arabic was a waste of time, even as I miss the sounds of the language, the beats of its music, even fighting for the rights of Arab-Israelis and my Palestinian neighbors.  Some of whom would rather see me dead.  Who some extremist Jews wouldn’t mind dead.  It’s an odd yin-yang of hope, fear, love, and hatred.

So it was timely that my friend Muhammad called.  Muhammad is a 20-something kid from Rahat, a Bedouin city in southern Israel.  I met Muhammad while asking for directions in his town- I was trying to find a restaurant.  A delicious, delicious restaurant.  Bedouin food is quite different from other Arab food- if you’re in Israel, go to Mansaf restaurant at the entrance to Rahat.  Your life will be changed and your taste buds will thank you.  As will the friendly people there who wanted to take selfies with me.

Muhammad and I have kept in touch over the past 6 months or so.  We even met up again in person.  I knew he was studying for his college entrance exams- he wanted to study accounting.  A few months ago, he got in!  I’m so proud of him.  He just moved to Ramat Gan and starts school this week.  Love you man!

To say this is a culture shock and a brave move is a deep understatement.  Rahat is extremely traditional and entirely Bedouin.  Despite living in the same country as Jews, Muhammad has had limited interaction with them.  So moving to Ramat Gan, perhaps one of the cities with the highest percentage of Jews in the country, will be quite a shock.  Some ways good, but a huge change nonetheless.

Muhammad has managed to get an apartment (something that took me months in Tel Aviv) and find two jobs!  On his own.  I helped him along the way- on WhatsApp.  From my AirBnB in Oradea, Romania, from Hungary, from Almería, and from Tortosa.  I’m so proud of him.

Which is why it was a punch to my gut to hear what he had to say on the phone.  Muhammad went for a job interview in Ramat Gan.  He was offered the job, but the boss said: “our establishment has a lot of religious people, so we need to give you another name.”  Muhammad was a name some people just can’t bear to hear as they’re munching on their hummus and falafel.

Heartbroken, he almost decided to change his name.  He asked me what to do.  I first offered my sympathies.  This is one of the saddest things I can hear- that a young, aspiring young man is being told to cut off his identity.  I’m with you Muhammad.

Secondly, I shared some stories of discrimination I had faced as a Jew and a gay man- in America and in Europe.  The Lyft driver who threw me out of his car for being a gay Jew.  The Muslim man and the Belgian Christian who said I was an apartheid occupier, an ethnic cleanser.  The Argentinian who said Jews control the world.  The Algerian who said Israel did.

He was shocked.  And I think somewhat comforted to feel he wasn’t alone.  See while the reasons we were discriminated against were different, in the end they were the same.  People who hate difference.  People who refuse to see nuance or to empathize with others.

I told him that I love him as Muhammad.  As whatever he chooses to call himself.  And nobody has the right to decide that for him.  He has the right to choose to fight racism, to call a lawyer, to speak with an NGO.  And he has the right to put his energy towards finding a better job where people will appreciate him.  And choosing between the two strategies is not always easy.  I know- I never got a dime from Lyft despite a huge public relations campaign, but I was featured in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for gay rights.  For a case we lost.  I support Muhammad in being himself, however he chooses to find his way forward.

So you have to ask yourself after all this, what’s in a name?  Abram converted to Christianity- and seeing his name hundreds of years later I spotted him as my landsman.  Matah was a sign of hope for me when I made aliyah, then became a grating sound on my ears.  Until I saw Abram and realized how lucky I was in certain ways to be a Jew at this time, in this place.  With a homeland we can call our own.  And Muhammad- how a brave young Muslim Bedouin man is forging his path forward in Ramat Gan.  Weighing his past identity with his present as he pursues a new future and faces racism.  Holding on to his name even as he wrestles with how to live as a minority.  Something I try to help him manage as someone who can draw on the rich reservoir of Jewish history and gay identity.  Minority persistence.

Muhammad gives me hope that despite my experiences in Europe, there are Muslims out there who like me.  As I am.  A gay Israeli American Jew.  I can’t pretend there are masses of them, but even knowing someone like Muhammad is out there, striving for more, caring about me, relying on me- that gives me a bit of hope.  And warms my soul.

There is a place on this planet where Jews and Arabs live together.  It’s not Spain of 500 years ago.  It’s Israel.  For all its problems, Israel is a place where Arabs know Jews as people.  Not caricatures or cartoons or characters on a soap opera.  Nor memories of 70 years ago, when they used to inhabit the same quarters in Morocco and Damascus.  No, in Israel we live together.  Not always in harmony, but knowing each other.  In a way that, perhaps better than anywhere else in the world, allows me to find people like Muhammad who I can breathe my breathy “habibis” and my deep s “sadeeqs” with.  Where I feel my Arabic is sometimes quite worthwhile.

In the end, what’s in a name?  Occupation is the word you’ll hear most in the news about Israel.  And I’m not going to evade and suggest that Palestinians are not real (that’s a thing), that they aren’t facing human rights abuses (they are), or that some of them weren’t expelled from their lands (some were).  What I will say is that occupation is complex.  As I travel around Europe, I notice all the Jewish lands occupied.  The Jewish bodies and souls emptied.  The synagogues turned into casinos and strip clubs and Italian restaurants.  The Muslim immigrants occupying our former quarters- either oblivious to our former past or some outright hostile to our current existence.

At a time when Catalans feel Spain occupies them (and Spain denies their difference), just how objectively clear is this word?  The far left would have you believe things are black and white, that Israel is an occupier, Palestinians are natives.  But rarely in life are things so clear.  When you visit Peki’in and meet Jews who have been there continuously since the Second Temple.  When you meet Arabs from Ramle who migrated from Libya a hundred years ago.  It’s not to suggest the current situation is good- but it is to suggest it is not entirely one-sided and it does not present simple solutions.

In the end, I also think about this word.  As I travel, one of the great questions on my mind is my own occupation.  How I occupy my time, what I like to do, what I want to do going forward.

Perhaps it’s telling that I recently found this cute sign in Catalan that says: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

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And I’ve come to what I feel is the next step.  As I write this blog, it strikes me that when I left Israel, I wasn’t sure if I’d continue writing it.  Yet I found myself over and over again enjoying the therapy of sharing my experiences, of writing things down so for years on end I’ll be able to remember my adventures.  To share my thoughts, to bring a little understanding to the world, and hopefully to engage you with exciting, unexpected stories from cultures and languages you want to explore.

Which brings me to today.  I’ve written about 140 blog posts, hundreds of thousands of words.  I’ve received the most wonderful, heart-warming comments from readers in San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, and Bethlehem.

And I’ve shared it for free, out of love and a desire to make the world better.

This is how I occupy myself.  I love exploring and want to keep sharing meaningful stories and thoughts with you.

The way I do that is by asking you to contribute to making it possible.  Thousands of miles crossed doesn’t happen for free.  I’ve invested so much of my own time and money, and to keep things going, to be a member of my community, you now have the opportunity to contribute.

Soon, I’ll be making my blog a subscription site.  The format is being determined, but in one fashion or another, you’re going to have to pay to access this well of hope.  It’s fair and I can’t wait to connect with you on an even deeper level as we use this blog to connect open-minded people around the world.

If you’d like to join now, you have a chance to subscribe at a one-time, more affordable rate.  If you go to my GoFundMe page and contribute $20 or more, you will get your first year subscription free.  Everyone who has donated up until now will be grandfathered in and given a free subscription as well.  If you wait until I transition the site, the price will start at $36.

I want to keep you along for the journey.  I want to show you amazing archives and diverse people.  The unexpected twists and turns.  In 8 languages.  With a queer angle, an open-minded lens.  Proud of Judaism and Israel and willing to engage in nuance.  To make my communities better, kinder.  Understood and understanding.

I invite you to join me.  Or you can always find another gay Jewish blogger who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish and read his blog instead 😉

Let’s explore together. 🙂

The single best moment of my entire trip

Today, I visited Vila Joiosa, a village in Valencia, Spain.  I went there because they speak Valencian (or as most people call it, Catalan).  I studied Catalan in America at Georgetown University.  I fought my way into the class, which had nothing to do with my Master’s program, because I love Catalan.  I did my undergraduate thesis in Spanish on the Madrid and Barcelona educational systems’ approaches to immigration.  And in Barcelona, I fell in love with Catalan.  A beautiful Romance language filled with x’s and mysterious accent marks.  To me, it looked like a sophisticated, intriguing, sexy Spanish.

So nearly 10 years after my undergraduate education, I found myself at Georgetown studying communication.  And they have a wonderful Catalan program funded by the Ramon Llull Foundation, to promote their culture and language abroad.  And the professor generously let me into the class 😉

I’ve been visiting Alicante, a major city in the province of Valencia.  What’s so striking about Alicante is that it is in the heart of an area that has spoken Catalan for generations (some locals distinguish it as Valencian, but they are essentially varieties of the same language, whatever you wish to call it).  Yet today, almost nobody speaks the language.  The street signs are in Valencian, but you hear nothing but Spanish on the streets.  As if the words are a formality, a reminder of the past, but more of a museum than a living heritage.

So I went searching online to find a village that spoke Valencian, to this day.  I love Valencian Catalan.  I love dialects and accents.  And when I lived in America, I used to watch Valencian-language public TV.  It’s a beautiful variety of Catalan.  And despite what some Catalanists claim, many of its differences can be traced to historical settlement patterns, not just hispanification of the language.  Indeed, I learned today that parts of Valencia use the same unique definite articles as the Balearic Islands.  The only place in the former Roman Empire to keep this unique variety of Latin grammar alive.  Just like one of my favorite bands, Antònia Font.

So it was with great sadness when I saw Spanish nationalists shut down the Valencian-language TV station a few years ago and also stopped broadcasts of TV3 from Barcelona.  I love TV3- I was interviewed on it about my connection to Judaism and Catalan and my gay identity.  You can watch it here and here and test how much Catalan you can understand 😉 .

Every year, I’d check Wikipedia to see whether Valencian activists had succeeded in getting the station up and running again.  Desperately wanting to hear the beautiful Valencian dialect from far away- my only way to engage with it.

Well the station is back up and running.  And it’s thanks to people like City Councilor Josep Castiñeira of Vila Joiosa that it survived.  Along with the Valencian dialect of Catalan.

Vila Joiosa means “joyful town”, and today I had a most joyous experience there.

Walking around town, I noticed a bookstore.  Its name was in Catalan: “Vila Llibres”.  I got excited- this was just why I came to this seaside village.

Upon entering, I noticed a sign that says “here, we’ll serve you in Valencian”.  Whew!  Unfortunately some Spaniards can get prickly when you address them in a minority language, but here I knew I was safe to speak Valencian.

I did get a bit nervous at first.  I noticed a rainbow flag.  As a gay person, you might think this would make me feel at ease.  But in fact, a large portion of the European left, who is generally pro-gay rights has become anti-Semitic.  Quite a number of them, as Josep pointed out later, are quite content to be interviewed on Russian and Iranian TV, but can’t fathom the existence of Israel.  As if our state is somehow less legitimate than the haphazard mess of Middle Eastern states randomly carved out by colonialism.  If you believe your country should exist but Israel shouldn’t (I’ll give a pass to equal opportunity anarchists), you’re an anti-Semite and I don’t like you.

So when I saw this was essentially a left-wing Valencian nationalist bookstore, I got nervous.  Indeed, on the tram on the way to Vila Joiosa, I saw large graffiti calling Israel a murderous state.  Needless to say, there was no accompanying graffiti suggesting Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Spain were similarly murderous despite both past and current colonialism, murder of LGBT people and minorities, and ethnic cleansing (including of Jews).

My conversation with Josep, the bookstore owner, started about Valencian.  I told him I was an American who had studied Catalan and I was excited to see his bookstore.  Stunned that I spoke Catalan without an accent, he welcomed me in and showed me a map of Catalan dialects.  I stood in wonder as he taught me dialectal differences.  I can’t imagine a more exciting experience than chatting in Valencian while learning about the amazing map of Catalan varieties.  Phonetics, grammar, cultural diversity- this is what I love.

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Turns out, it wouldn’t be the only thing I loved about Josep.

I asked about buying a book specifically written the way Valencians speak Catalan.  He pointed me to some, and I went exploring.  Then I noticed a book about the dybbuk, the mythical Jewish spirit creature, in Catalan!  As I brought the book to his attention, he said it wasn’t specifically in the Valencian dialect.  And then I came out as a Jew- not an easy thing here if you’ve read my previous blogs, including from here in Alicante.

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I told him how cool it was to see a Jewish book in Catalan.  And as I spoke with him, I started to notice Jewish books everywhere.  About Jewish history and culture.  I noticed a little sign that even said “shalom”- something I was so used to that I hardly recognized how unique it was in Valencia!

Josep then did the most amazing thing.  He pulled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo that said: “leshanah haba’ah beyerushalayim”.  Next year in Jerusalem.  A phrase we sing at the end of our Passover Seders dreaming of returning to our Holy Land.  A phrase we’ve sung for thousands of years.  Zionism is not a new concept, it is built into our very prayers.  Now is no longer a dream, but a delicate reality we strive to preserve for ourselves and future generations.

I was in the most glorious shock.  Turns out Josep, in his own words, is a Zionist.  And like me, is gay.  And left wing.  And a progressive Valencian nationalist.  In fact, he is a city councilor for the Compromís political party.

After a trip filled with so much anti-Semitism that I often feel afraid to reveal my Jewish Israeli identity here, I can’t tell you how relieved and thrilled I was.  To feel accepted.  Not only because, as some right-wing Europeans feel, that they like Israel because they hate Arabs.  Which puts me in an awkward position as who believes in human rights for all, including Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.  Something I fight for- as an Israeli.  Even when significant elements of those societies hate me for being gay and Jewish.  It’s simply my value system, regardless of whether all the people I fight for support my own human rights.  Though some of them do.  What’s great about Josep is that we share progressive values.  And support Israel for this reason, and promote the people within it, like me, who are working to make it more and more a reality.

Josep is a hero.  Several years ago, I remember seeing headlines that Valencians were boycotting American Jewish singer Matisyahu purportedly because of Israel.  Where he doesn’t even live.  It’s pure anti-Semitism and it left me feeling distant from this culture that I spent so much time and love connecting to from across an ocean.  It’s beyond hypocritical for Spaniards to boycott Israel when their entire country is built on the bloodshed and expulsion of Jews and Muslims.  And it’s classic anti-Semitism when this hypocrisy is used to target someone who isn’t even Israeli!

Josep told me that he worked with his allies in Compromís to counter this boycott.  Even educating ignorant people in his own party.  He is against the BDS movement which seeks to destroy the State of Israel.  Not alter policies, not debate nuance, but to eliminate an entire country because it is Jewish.  A group of people so delusional that they have no problem traveling to China, meeting Russian academics, or enjoying the fruits of their own colonialism.  But somehow Israel is worthy of the utmost and disproportional criticism.  A 2,000 year old hatred rooted in the New Testament itself is hard to get out of your bones.  Fortunately some Christians today, like Josep’s priest friend in Vila Joiosa who loves Israel, are working as allies of our community to rid their culture of this hatred.

While I was across the ocean learning Catalan and embracing Valencian culture, Josep was here defending my heritage.  We honor each other.  And it is through the grace of our spirit that we met today.  Recently, I’ve felt I don’t believe in God.  And I still feel that the way God is portrayed in religious texts is erroneous and even dangerous.  But perhaps for the first time in months, I felt a connection to my inner God.  Because it’s by following my inner compass that I made my way to Josep’s bookstore today.  And made a new friend, hopefully for life.

Josep made me feel accepted.  He warmed my heart and put a huge smile on my face.  And so I took a piece of paper and wrote him a poem.  In Hebrew and in Catalan.  Here it is:

 

Josep and I are bibliophiles.  Lovers of the written word.  So perhaps it’s no surprise given our many shared passions that we really clicked.  People who love kindness, who seek to learn, who reject black-and-white thinking, that’s my kind of people.  That’s who Josep is, that’s who I am, that’s my life aspiration.  The fuel that keeps me going and pointed in the right direction.

As I read my poem out loud, I could feel his smile.  I live for moments like these.  Faced with so many challenges, these experiences give me a reason to live.

I want to feel accepted.  I’m an unorthodox thinker, but at my heart I’m basically a moderate left libertarian.  Unfortunately, some of the people who claim to carry this banner are anti-Semites.  Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.

It has made me feel isolated from my own natural community.  People who believe in human rights, individual freedom, less imposition of the state, economic fairness, LGBT rights, and compassion.  Something the extremes of our community have twisted so much they’ve ended up allied with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

What’s so great about Josep is that with him, I can be myself.  While right-wing Jews and Zionists often demand I put my gayness aside and the far left demands I put my Jewish identity aside, Josep lets me be both.  A gay Jewish progressive.  And a lover of Catalan, unfortunately a language community where some speakers are anti-Semitic as well.  And Josep stands as a brave counterexample to their ignorance.  Proudly carrying the banner of a long Catalan philosemitic tradition.

Like most people, I just want to feel accepted.  And people like Josep make me more convinced than ever about how important it is for Jews to engage open-minded people like him.  To support his efforts against anti-Semitism and to empower his own fight for cultural rights.  So that his village won’t end up like Alicante.  A place with Valencian signs but no Valencian speech.

The Spanish state has waged relentless war on cultural minorities.  First, Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.  But later groups like Catalans, Valencians, Basques, and Galicians.  Certainly nationalism is a delicate question.  If you read my blog, more often than not I’m against it.  Because in its most extreme forms it leads to division and violation of human rights.

What I’ll say, since I am an unorthodox thinker, is that sometimes nationalism is necessary.  As a minority group in the age of globalization, I have yet to find a better solution to preserving our identity than to have our own state.  It’s imperfect, it can lead to abusing other minorities when left unchecked, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen work.

I’m not interested in Jewish museums nor is Josep interested in a museum of Valencian history.  Indeed, when they start making museums about you, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington (which I love), you better start worrying.  Because you’ve become mundane and weak enough that it’s OK to stop persecuting you and just remember you.  As if you’re a gentle reminder of the past.  We can weep together, but deny you the right to live differently.

Josep and I, while lovers of learning and certainly of museums, that’s not what we want.  We’re interested in being living communities.  It might be inconvenient for your ideology to recognize that nationalism is the only way for us to continue to be who we are.  Indeed, it’s somewhat inconvenient for my own ideology at times.

But it’s a solid fact.  And until you can show me a better way to ensure a Jewish and Valencian future, a little nationalism is what keeps us alive.  As the socialist hymn goes, I want bread and roses.  I don’t just want bread to survive, I want roses.  The beauty, the higher-level fulfillment of cultural identity and passing down my heritage.  As a part of my existence.  Not to go the way of the Shakers, but to be imperfect but real.

If you’re Spanish or American or Chinese or Russian or Arab, you’re not worried for the survival of your culture.  You’re global superpowers with hundreds of millions of adherents.  But Catalans and Jews and Basques and Tibetans- we’re not so lucky.  And we’re not content to rely on your goodwill to survive.  Because we’ve seen that even though there have been periods where you’ve granted us tolerance, there are others where you extinguish us.  And we want the self-determination to protect ourselves when you decide to scapegoat us.  We want self-empowerment.

It’s messy, but it’s sometimes necessary.  Of course, we must be mindful that our own self-empowerment doesn’t turn into the same hatred we’ve experienced.  A delicate balancing act, but one which I’m willing to engage in to ensure my people’s future.

All of my life decisions led to this sweet moment today.  My decision to study Spanish- which led to my decision to study Catalan.  My decision to pursue an active progressive Jewish life in America and Israel.  My decision to move to Israel, and then travel the world exploring myself and discovering new aspects of Jewish identity.  My decision to come out of the closet as gay.

None of today would have happened without me making these powerful life choices.  Nor without Josep making similarly brave decisions that led him to connect with me.  Standing up for his beliefs, for my people, for his own sense of self, even when it was inconvenient or led to threats.  He recently was attacked by fascists, as vicious in their black-and-white prejudice as the far left.  Like me, he remains squeezed between extremes but pursues his identity with vigor.  And I am grateful for his resilient pursuit of purpose.

I have never, ever recommended a specific restaurant or store on this blog as far as I can remember.  I’m not Trip Advisor, I’m here to share my experiences, not plug businesses- nor have I accepted ad revenue from them.  But I’m going to recommend Josep’s bookstore, because it is an oasis of wisdom and kindness.  Whether you speak Catalan or not, go visit.  Tell him I sent you.  And enjoy wonderful conversation and buy something to support such a kind heart who supports us.

At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and anti-Semitic, I have never been more convinced of the need to engage open-minded people like Josep.  I often feel like giving up on the Left, but there are people like him who bravely stand with us.  Or are curious to learn.  This is why I’ve started my new initiative Nuance Israel to empower them.  If you’ve liked this blog and my other writing, contribute to my new project to make my ideas a reality.  To bring together moderate, open-minded people to support a textured engagement with Israel and the Jewish people.  To put a stop to anti-Semitic boycotts which seek to shut down conversation and destroy my country.  Engagement is the way forward for a progressive Israel and to defeat anti-Semitism abroad.

On the bus back to Alicante, some Arab kids in front of me were listening to loud YouTube videos of Arabic music.  I told them: “ana kamaan ba7ibb al-musiqaa al-3arabiyeh, bas biddi naam.  Min fadlak.”

I also love Arabic music, but I wanna sleep.  Please 🙂

They smiled and turned the volume down.

I can see multilingual Maimonides and the other greats of Spanish Jewish history smiling down on me.

A day in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew.  A moment of connection to a great Iberian past.  That Josep and I brought to life again today.

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

The European left: mostly anti-Semites or all anti-Semites?

It’s been odd.  Through my travels lately, I’ve encountered a number of European leftists and every single one has been a rabid anti-Semite.  A small sample size, but telling perhaps also in the fact that they expressed it in the exact same way.

I’m someone who’s often skeptical of the news.  News reports tends to focus on the most sensational stories- and to skew them in a way that gins up your fear or anger to get ratings.  It’s a business.

I have a few reasons I write this blog.  Foremost, because I enjoy it and it feels therapeutic.  I like sharing my stories- having a written record of my journey.  And I also like sharing my observations and ideas with friends around the world.  Especially when I can offer nuance or perspectives overlooked by mainstream media.

While the news often gets it wrong or only gets part of the story, European leftist anti-Semitism is quite a real thing.

If you read the Jewish news, this problem is hardly a new one.  Literally just Google it.  While I occasionally experienced it in America, perhaps because America has a much less intense history of anti-Semitism and a lot more living Jews, it never hit me as hard as here.

On the plane from Slovenia to Brussels, I was seated next to a Flemish Belgian man, Tom.  Tom was rather grumpy at the beginning of the flight, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt on a crowded airplane, and he did get chattier later in the flight.

To his right was Dina, a really open-minded, curious Slovenian woman.  Dina, if you’re reading this, you made my flight!  Keep exploring, I admire your curiosity and kindness 🙂

I joined in their conversation.

Tom works at an arts NGO in Brussels.  On his own initiative, maybe because he peeked at my phone playing Hebrew songs, he brought up the Jewish community in Antwerp.  Almost completely out of nowhere.

I said I was Jewish and I speak Yiddish, just like the remaining Hasidim there.  One of the very communities to still do so in Europe.  When just 70 years ago, millions of people were using the language every day.

He then proceeded to tell me how tight-knit the community was.  Which was at first a maybe neutral observation.  Which then devolved into him telling me (and Dina) how they were so “isolated”.  It didn’t take long before he was telling me about the “powerful, elite Jewish lobby in Amsterdam” that practically controls Dutch politics.  To give you an idea of how absurd this is, Jews are .2% of the Dutch population.  Who continue to suffer anti-Semitic attacks.  In a country with relatively low levels of anti-Semitism and a decent relationship with Israel, but sometimes one that ventures into the obsessive and preachy.  Hardly characteristic of a government run by a cabal of Jews, but then again age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes are as hard to counter as they are to prove.

While Dina at every turn asked interesting questions and thanked me for sharing about my country, Tom was frankly a dick.  He said Israel was an apartheid country- something I would never say to anyone on a plane, no matter how rough their government is.  It’s aggressive and mean.

I asked why he thought this and he said: “because Arabs don’t have equal rights.”  A rather broad standard for apartheid seeing as how every country in the world has societal groups that are discriminated against.  From gays to Roma to refugees to Jews to Latinos to Muslim immigrants to Catalans to Tibetans and on and on.  While I’d agree Arabs don’t have equal rights in Israel, neither are they excluded nearly on the level of apartheid South Africa.  I don’t think there were many black members of government there, while 15+ members of the Israeli Knesset are Arabs.  My doctor in Israel is Arab.  Arabs go to university side-by-side with Jews.  This isn’t an attempt to whitewash racism- it’s real and I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it, I’ve even experienced it.  It’s just to say that to equate Israel with a country that did nothing but brutalize its black population in constantly legally-sanctioned segregation is to both insult the victims of apartheid and to deeply insult Israel.  Not to mention the fact that the actual racism in Israel goes unaddressed because you’re completely mischaracterizing it.  But your objective is not fixing problems, it’s creating them.

I asked Tom, much like I asked the British anti-Semites I met last week, why he would say such things about Israel but not about China, which brutally occupies Tibet and Uyghur territories, including banning their languages and religious customs.  He said something utterly bizarre and word-for-word what Alice the British anti-Semite said: “because Israel is a democracy.”

Well that’s odd.  How can a country be both a democracy and an apartheid state at the same time?  That’s logically impossible.

But for the mental gymnasts on Europe’s far left, it makes total sense.

The one thing I found strangely in common between both groups of anti-Semites was they had to tell me how they were not anti-Semitic.  Specifically in both cases, by pointing out how they “call out” anti-Semitic BDS supporters.  People who boycott Israel.  In Alice’s case, like her.  And in Tom’s case, I can imagine he supports it too.  Even as he claims there is no such thing as left-wing anti-Semitism while embodying it himself.

They told me specific stories of how awesome they were at calling out anti-Semites in their own movement.  As if somehow I’d be thrilled or want to thank them for being so great at noticing the blatantly obvious anti-Semitism in a movement that only targets one country in a whole world of nations that abuse human rights.  In their world view, they can’t totally hate Jews because we’re a minority and minorities are always right.  But we’re a minority that stubbornly resists their gospel, so they have to hate us.

You see, they have a religion and it’s called leftism.  In reality, it’s authoritarian nationalism simply with a different flavor that on the right.  Orthodox thinking, you or me, inside or outside, right or wrong.  Non stop.  And the idea that all countries should follow their model.  Alice couldn’t stop ranting about how international law was “objective truth” and Tom told me how if we only “secularized” the Middle East and “got over our problems” we could have a one state solution.  If only we just behaved like those civilized Christians.  Pardon me, Europeans.

You see this idea is not new at all.  Europeans scouring the globe for people to “teach”.  For people who need to be just like them.  You see, before colonialism, Europeans had hundreds of years of practice as this condescending attitude at home and it’s called anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is a colonial movement.  A movement to force the Jewish people to abandon our faith, our traditions, our difference.  And it’s been around for as long as Christianity has existed.  Morphing into purportedly secular forms in the past 200 years, but with the same exact premise.

You can see this in how Tom described the Jews in Antwerp.  While Jews in Brussels are mostly secular, Jews in Antwerp are mostly Hasidic.  He said it was bad politics for a centrist party there to have invited a Jew to be a candidate for local elections (who was later forced out).  Because the Hasidic man, per his interpretation of Jewish tradition, cannot shake hands with a woman.  While I personally do not follow this school of thought, this is actually a very common practice in forms of Judaism and Islam, so it’s not as if an alien is visiting Earth.  It’s a thing- like it or not, it’s a practice and a real pluralist can disagree with the behavior and not condemn the person as a bad human being.  Or that he is not worthy of participating in public life.

But European leftists are not pluralists, they are fascists with cute hipster clothes and law degrees.  After I tried explaining the nuances of Jewish law and the complexity that comes with every culture having practices that fall outside other culture’s norms.  He said to me: “you cannot have this man in politics.  We have tolerance here.”  Perhaps the most Orwellian sentence I’ve ever heard.

But the reality is there’s nothing tolerant about this ideology.  If it likes gay people, it’s only because we fit into their worldview, not because they are generally empathetic people.  If they like Jews or Israelis, its only the ones who are “against the occupation”- and to a degree that satisfies them that they have passed their ideological litmus test.  They say they like refugees- Alice even worked with them.  In her case, she tried to claim that refugees being denied entry to her country were somehow not being racially discriminated against (even though we all know that is bullshit).  And that was somehow radically different than Israel discriminating against a Palestinian on the basis of being a different race and religion.  In Tom’s warped view, he actually claimed anti-Semitism wasn’t a real problem, in fact it was all anti-Islam now.  While he derided Muslim immigrants for their backwards homophobia and general troublemaking.

In other words, this isn’t about equality.  It’s about nationalism.  Refugees being discriminated against based on race and religion is not “the same” as Palestinians being oppressed because the former have no claim to nationhood.  Europe has the right to screen and reject desperate refugees fleeing war, but in Tom’s view, Israel doesn’t even have the right to borders.

You see in these twisted views, Jews are acceptable fodder for molding and scolding.  Not only Jews, as many Muslim immigrants here have discovered.  But first and foremost Jews.

While to an American progressive’s eye, Europe seems more advanced (and it some ways, like healthcare, it is), it’s actually just a battle of one orthodoxy versus another.  With the helpless middle (yes, there are open-minded Europeans like Dina) struggling to get some space in the debate.

The far right hates Jews for being socialists, for fomenting “revolutions”, for being impure infiltrators undermining their traditional culture.  Just look at the Hungarian campaign against George Soros.

The far left hates Jews because we are capitalists, we are money grubbers, we illiberal oppressors of blameless Palestinians.  We are black hats and side curls and oy oy oys.  And far too traditional in a world where everyone should “get over” those old identities of yore.

The thing is they hate us for the exact same reason: because we are not them.

And try as some Jews might- and have- we never will.

You see all we can do is hope to be like them, only to be rejected yet again, exactly how German Jews who prayed in German, fought for Germany, and embraced their country were ultimately burned at the stake.  We can try and try and try and we’ll never been Dutch or British or whatever enough for them.  Because we’re Jews.

It reminds me of another shell I used to have in the Diaspora that I successfully lost in Israel: my defense against anti-Semites.  Explaining and defending myself as a Jew.  Israel, for all the traumas it brought me, did help me get rid of this sense of inferiority.  And I don’t intend to let it come back.

My concern for humanity comes from a sense of fairness and pluralism.  Which is why it doesn’t matter to me if someone is Tibetan or Palestinian, Jewish or a Muslim refugee.  We are human beings and we deserve good.  So whether the Security Council recognizes us as such is really irrelevant.  Because it doesn’t take a piece of paper to try to treat all kinds of people with kindness.

This kind of thinking doesn’t work with people who want to blame the world’s, let alone the Middle East’s, problems on just one group of people and one alone.  An easy fix for an impossible problem.

Before telling me that his “easy solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was for both sides to secularize and join together in one state, Tom asked me what my solution was.

Perhaps to his small-minded surprise, I said: “I don’t have one.”

He almost didn’t know how to respond.

Perhaps living in a bureaucratic city, much like my hometown of Washington, where everyone pretends to have iron-clad answers for every problem, he can’t handle the uncertain.  But I don’t view the world this way.

Not because I sit indifferent saying we shouldn’t do anything.  Just that I’ve gained the humility to understand that things aren’t so simple.  And even if we try our best, we might not succeed.

Tom in particular asked if I had started praying more since moving to Israel.  A pretty obvious and disgusting way of asking me just how stupid I was.  Did I really take the bait and become one of “those Jews”.

I said no, I actually pray less.  I’m spiritual and pretty secular now.

The reality is while I don’t pray, I’ll offer one now.  I hope people like Tom lose each and every election.  Just like their far-right friends who have the same narrow-minded us vs. the world attitude.

Because Europe doesn’t need them.  There are good people here.  I’ve met incredibly hospitable African immigrants from Rwanda, Syrian refugees, Roma, and Francophone Belgians.  And people like Dina, not a minority, but simply empathetic and curious.  Oftentimes the nicest people here are the ones most overlooked.  Perhaps why they’re a little nicer, a little more open when I talk to them.  Because I actually care about them.  Unlike their wealthy snooty neighbor Tom who’d rather talk about them.

If you ask Tom where to go in Belgium, he’ll tell you about all the fabulously wealthy areas, the Flemish cities which attract millions of tourists.  But I’m writing you from Wallonia, the Belgian underdog, where there’s less money but a lot of heart.  And I saw millions of stars tonight surrounding by cute sleeping cows next to a forest.  I didn’t pay thousands of dollars in rent and I got the best free view in the world.

Life is about priorities.  And I’d rather spend my time with people who respect me even if they don’t make the front page of a tourist brochure.  Or perhaps, precisely because they don’t.

While Tom told me, quite cruelly, that he doesn’t think Israel will exist in 50 years, the reality is Belgium might not either.  If one of the richest countries in the world can’t cross its linguistic divide and come together, you’d think someone from there would understand how hard this is to do in the Middle East, where the conflict runs thousands of years deep.

But then again, that’s like asking a Belgian to say “French fries”.

==

Here are some pictures from Wallonia.  The place every tourist book tells you not to visit because “eew they’re not as rich”.  See for yourself, it’s pretty sweet.  And has some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Europe.  Another reason not to listen to the Toms of the world and go see things with your own eyes.

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.