The Hebrew letters you can’t read

What’s in a word?  When we think about linguistic changes over time, we usually think about words and accents.  How did the Ancient Greeks pronounce Homer’s Iliad? Why does the word “mashber” in Biblical Hebrew mean precipice or edge, but today means “crisis”?

One thing you might not think of is how our script changes.  After all, even if English words are different today than 400 years ago, they’re still written in Latin letters.  Even if you’d be surprised at how some of them have changed.

But some languages have had their scripts completely change alphabets over time.  For one thousand years, Turkish was written in Arabic characters. For only the past hundred years has it been written in Latin letters.  Which means a Turkish person today who does not read Arabic characters cannot read his own history.  She has to rely on a translator to re-write old texts in the modern alphabet. It’s a pretty strange thought.  Think in reverse- what if the original Shakespeare had been written in Arabic characters? And you had to rely on someone to connect you to your own history.

It’s a question that is very relevant for Jewish studies.  First things first, Ancient Hebrew wasn’t written in today’s aleph bet.  It was written in letters that look something like a cross between Japanese and hieroglyphics.  Take a look:

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Today’s Modern Hebrew alphabet is descended from our sister language, Aramaic.  Aramaic is the language of the Talmud, of the Kaddish prayer, and of not a small number of Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem and Christians in the Galilee village of Jish.  This same Aramaic alphabet has been used for a lot of Jewish languages, including Yiddish, the native tongue of millions of Ashkenazi Jews across time.  Take a look at this 19th century bilingual Yiddish-Hebrew machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook, from our collection.  Or the 11,000 Yiddish books digitized online- for free- at our friends the Yiddish Book Center.  Or pick up a copy of Der Blatt in Bnei Brak.  Or visit Beit Shalom Aleichem’s library in Tel Aviv.  You’ll see those Aramaic letters everywhere.  Telling the story of the Jewish people.

What’s interesting is that even these letters have changed over time. One of these different forms is called Ktav Rashi, or Rashi script.  This alternate way of writing is named for the famous medieval rabbi.

What’s really inspiring about Jewish history is that what happens one corner of the globe inevitably ends up in another.

Rashi script (and its sister Yiddish script called vaybertaytsh), although named for a famous Ashkenazi rabbi, is actually of Sephardic origin.  Jews originally from Spain and Portugal, expelled and persecuted by the Inquisition, sometimes successfully escaped to other countries. They brought with them an amalgam of different Romance languages- medieval Catalan, Castilian Spanish, Portuguese, and more.  Often containing Arabic and Hebrew influences.

These Jews, often from distinct parts of Spain and Portugal with different languages, eventually melded their tongues into a new one: Judeo-Spanish.  Sometimes popularly called Ladino, but most scholars prefer the former term, so we’re going to use it. This tongue developed in a variety of new countries, such as present-day Turkey, Greece, Serbia, and more.

Judeo-Spanish then came to take on local influences in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation.  Making it as mixed and rich a language as Yiddish or another hodgepodge tongue you’re reading right now: English.

This language was written in the same Aramaic alphabet we use today in Israel and in synagogues around the world.  But with a twist: it was written in a form of the Rashi script. Take a look below at our copy of Istanbul’s Sephardic newspaper “El Tiempo” from January 2, 1896.  To this day, even in Modern Spanish, this remains a popular title for newspapers.  In Washington, D.C., you’ll find newsstands with “El Tiempo Latino”.

Here’s the news out of 19th century Istanbul*:

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If you’re a Hebrew speaker, you’ll notice something curious.  The title of the periodical and the headlines are written in the Modern Hebrew block alphabet we see today.  But the content is all written in a strange font, unfamiliar to the modern eye: the Rashi script!

There are words here and there you can catch.  But if you haven’t learned the script before, there are letters you won’t even recognize!  At best, you might find yourself staring in wonder as the somewhat familiar letters begin to entrance your mind and confuse you into curiosity.

This script has a version for handwriting too.  It’s called Solitreo, an ancestor of the Hebrew cursive you’ll see in Israeli classrooms today.

What does all of this mean?

In short, even if you spoke Modern Hebrew and fluent Judeo-Spanish but didn’t know this alphabet, you might not be able to read it!  Even though your Sephardic grandparents probably could. What’s more, Judeo-Spanish underwent yet another change as today it is mostly written in Latin characters!

When we learn about our heritage, who is teaching us?  Are we able to read the original texts ourselves and come to our own conclusions?  Or do we need someone to interpret them for us?

What does it mean that these texts, unless expensively re-printed in Modern Hebrew letters, are out of reach for most of today’s Jews or people who study our heritage?

You could ask the same question of our Turkish neighbors who can’t access the majority of their history in their current alphabet.

One solution is to re-print the texts.  A time-consuming one and while a good idea, can be above the budget of many institutions.  Especially for a minority language. Which limits how many texts can be made accessible to the modern reader.

Another solution is for people studying Judeo-Spanish (or any Jewish text written in Rashi characters) to learn the new script!

David Bunis, a professor at the University of Washington, is doing just that.  Here’s his take on why he’s teaching his Judeo-Spanish students the Solitreo and Rashi scripts.

While re-printing texts is great because it makes them more accessible to others, being able to read them in the original makes you the source of information.  And empowers you to read history anywhere. You are the judge, you are the interpreter. And your capacity to read is only limited by your time and effort, not by the letters you know.

No matter what, it’s great to learn about your heritage or different cultures around the world.  Preserving Jewish heritage for Jews, for Israelis, and for all our friends around the world.  To learn the lessons of the past and apply them to our present and build a better future.

Maybe you don’t have time to learn Rashi script or Solitreo, although if you’d like to give it a shot, try this free resource online.  It claims it can have you reading in 10 minutes!  Then you can peruse our catalog and find more news from Istanbul and across the Sephardic world to learn about.  Or old Yiddish prayers written by and for women.  Or maybe you want to pump up some Judeo-Spanish music in your car as you brave the traffic to work.

But no matter what you do, access this beautiful heritage.  The more you learn about it, the richer you are. And you don’t have to spend a cent to put it in your mental grocery cart.

*Image credit: National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University

Dual loyalty

Today, the Trump-like Congresswoman from Detroit, Rashida Tlaib, invoked the 2,000 year old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty”.  When discussing Israel advocates who she disagrees with, instead of talking policy or substance, she simply accused her opposition of trying to undermine America.  In the interest of Jews, oh pardon the typo- Israel.

The conversation is frankly exhausting.  Rep. Tlaib has a serious abusive streak.  Immediately after being sworn into office, she became known around the world for calling Donald Trump a “motherfucker”.  Thankfully, a lot of Americans are capable and willing of expressing their political views without resorting to the profanity of an angry 16 year old.  The situation is all the more depressing because Rashida, as the first Palestinian-American in Congress, could’ve done so much more.  Rather than trying to become something other than a literal walking and talking caricature of what people think Palestinians are, she just hopped right in.  I know Palestinians personally who don’t agree with her- her policy or her rhetoric.  And she does an immense disservice to America, to Palestinians, to Jews, to peacemakers, to her own constituents.  Shooting from the hip, making policy via Twitter, shouting profanity.  Sound like someone in the Oval Office?  Well, apparently he’s got a partner in crime now sitting in Congress.  Rashida Trump.

It’s sad.  America- indeed, every country- could use some more wisdom and less yelling right now.  In the face of growing xenophobia, polarization, and economic uncertainty, we need level-headed people to steer the ship.  Because as I see it, moderation is not entirely about what positions you take.  There are people I know who have a whole variety of views- some I agree with, some I don’t.  And my own views have evolved- and evolve- with time.   The one thing I hold in common with the people I love is that we don’t think we have exclusive ownership of eternal truth.  That even if we disagree, we’re willing to hear out other points of view.  That while there are obviously limits, we’re not going to wholesale discredit millions of people simply for thinking differently from us.  Or wearing a different label.  Which is why I have friends who are devout Muslims, West Bank settlers, Palestinian political activists, and Israeli soldiers.  I don’t believe in categorically rejecting an entire group of people because I’m afraid they’re going to hurt me.

This mentality stems from being hurt.  People naturally want to protect themselves.  And if they’ve been taught, or personally experienced, hurt from a particular type of person, sometimes the response is close yourself off.  I can understand to a degree.  It’s not as if I’m going to wave a pride flag around Ramallah.  There are substantive cultural differences- and prejudices and legitimate fears that come with them.

The problem is when this fear ends up cutting you off from entire segments of society.  So that rather than saying I’m afraid of Palestinians who are homophobic, I decide that I simply don’t like Palestinians.  That if I don’t talk to them, if I don’t engage with them, I’ll feel safer.  Except in the end, you miss out on potentially life-changing friendships and relationships.  Not to mention the fact that it’s not entirely effective.  There are obviously homophobic people in other cultures too- and people in Palestinian society who aren’t.  When taken to its extreme, this kind of black-and-white thinking doesn’t end up effectively protecting you.  And it does create a lot more prejudice and hate in the world.

So Rashida Tlaib doesn’t like Jews.  If that wasn’t clear until today, accusing us of dual loyalty sealed the deal.  I don’t know why she has come to this conclusion, but it’s sad and scary.  We need to be vigilant against people who subvert democracy out of a desire to see their inner nightmares fulfilled.  People willing to shout profanity and trample on other people’s dignity will continue to do so if left unchecked.  Now that Ms. Tlaib has accused Jews of dual loyalty, when she sees Jews defending themselves, it will oddly enough reinforce her prejudice.  It’s a demented and deeply disappointing reality that is quite hard to break- and depends mostly on the willpower of the individual to change.  Here’s to hoping Rashida has a long talk with her conscience and thinks about what kind of parent, Congresswoman, and human being she’d like to be.

Which brings me to an archive I recently visited.

The American Society of the Cincinnati is an elite organization made up of descendants of Revolutionary War officers.  One of their members, Larz Anderson, endowed a spectacular, grandiose mansion in Washington, D.C. to be its headquarters.  To say it’s beautiful doesn’t do it justice.  If you want to feel rich for a hot minute and enjoy some stunning artwork, go visit.  It’s long been a favorite off-the-beaten-path place for me to let my mind wander and my eyes feast.

Today, as I did several years ago, I visited the Anderson House library.  As a not-so-minor side note, I encourage you to click that link above.  You can see some of my blogs from before my move to Israel.  And you’ll notice that while many of my values are the same, my political perspective and capacity for nuance has grown tremendously.  So that rather than drifting further towards the self-righteousness of folks like Rep. Tlaib or Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, I decided to pursue the more difficult if more rewarding journey towards nuance and empathy.  While certain systemic factors are out of our control, every individual has a certain capacity to make choices.  And those choices have ramifications for the thousands of people we meet in our life, for our own lives, and for society as a whole.  I’m proud to have overcome the one-dimensional thinking that these extremist political actors savor.

Now, let’s return to the comfort of the archives.

Archives are soothing.  They offer you a chance to explore without paying any money.  Without the sometimes interesting but ultimately tedious travel logistics.  They give you insight into things you don’t know- and things you don’t know you don’t know.  They are just the kind of place to find an unexpected twist to make you think differently.

And I had that pleasure today.

As a Jew growing up in America, I learned a lot about Judaism.  I learned about the Torah, some Talmud, Pirke Avot, tikkun olam, Israel, Ellis Island, Hebrew, holidays, and more.  I can remember lessons on the Holocaust, on tolerance, and of course a lot of Jewish music.

What I didn’t learn was about our own American Jewish history.  Let alone Yiddish, a language I came later to in life, but was actually the mother tongue of almost every great-grandparent of mine.

There’s something odd, indeed disturbing, that I can tell you much, much, much more about Haifa than I can about American Judaism.  By that, I don’t mean Debbie Friedman melodies or marching for Soviet Jewry, although those are undoubtedly part of our rich story too.

What I mean is I can’t tell you much about how our community actually developed here.

And that’s something I learned about today.

How many of you know who David Salisbury Franks was?

Probably not many.  Before today, I can’t say the name was at the tip of my tongue.

But Mr. Franks was a Jewish officer in George Washington’s Continental Army.  And, to the best of my knowledge, the only Jewish member of the Society of the Cincinnati.  Whose building I sat in.

His story is riveting and filled with mystery.  After several hours of reading, it appears there’s no clear narrative on where he was from.  Some sources claim he was born in Philadelphia, others in Boston.  He also had a cousin (although some say the relationship is not clear) with the same name in New York.  Who unlike this David Franks, was a loyalist to the British Crown.  Which as you’ll see, a resemblance that did Mr. Franks no service later in life.

Mr. Franks spent part of his life in Montreal, at the time recently conquered by Britain.  One of the first Jews to settle there, as French colonists had forbidden Jews from moving there.

Mr. Franks is sometimes referred to as a German Jew.  In other places, it seems his family was Sephardic- the descendants of Jews forced out of Portugal by the Catholic Inquisition.  His own surname potentially an anglicization of “de Franco”.  A reminder that Jews have often had to shed parts of our identity to Americanize, whether in 1700s Philadelphia or Hollywood.

I have to admit his Portuguese connection intrigued me.  Having just been in Portugal, I figured I wouldn’t find much to connect me to the place from America.  But I not only found a connection- I found a Jewish one!  Indeed many early Jews in America were Portuguese.  Just like the Jews who I met in Lisbon who after 400 years of hiding, are returning to our people and our faith.  The twists and turns of history can offer hope in the most unexpected times and places.

Mr. Franks was a proud American.  He was even arrested by British authorities for defending freedom of speech and protest.  He helped finance revolutionary troops.  And he put his own life on the line as a soldier.  And he did it in a Colonial America that, while substantially better than Europe, was at best ambivalent about Jews.  Through the 1680s, even in relatively tolerant Rhode Island, Jews couldn’t become naturalized citizens.  We were largely tolerated, but considered “others”.  Something a bit too different to be “all American”.

There are a ton of fascinating aspects of David’s story.  He was a Sephardic Jew, with potentially German Ashkenazi ancestry.  His family likely kicked out of Portugal by Catholic monarchs, only to be appointed an American diplomat to the Spanish king whose country founded the Inquisition.  He was sent to France to represent the new Republic because he spoke French- because of his family’s move to Montreal.  Significant not only because of the roaming, international nature of Jewish existence (one source of our “dual loyalty” accusation), but also because of the very long relationship between Canadian and American Jewry.  It’s one of the reasons I love going to Montreal.  You might be surprised to see they have the *best* Jewish food tour I’ve ever been on.  Twice.

Mr. Franks served as the Parnas, or synagogue president, of the Sephardic and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal.  The city’s oldest.  And at the time, a community only ten years old.  A reminder that what starts today may become deeply significant for years to come.  To remember we are still writers of history.  And that if in fact Mr. Franks was part or entirely Ashkenazi, his acceptance as a leader of the (at the time) elitist Sephardic community is a poignant reminder of the human capacity for crossing cultures.  For empathy and heterodox thinking.  The kind we could use more of today.

His story, and rise to prominence, is also part of the American Dream.  It’s the idea that in this country, you can grow and you can achieve regardless of where you come from.  And while it’s a dream that’s not without its detractors nor faults, it is a part of our history.  Which is why so many Jews have made America their home.  At the time of David’s service in the military, Jews weren’t even citizens of European countries.  The idea that he could lead so prominently is evidence that something is a bit different here.  Even if we should remember that our history as American Jews is not just American.  David’s family came from elsewhere- and appears to have maintained trade and familial ties to far-flung places such as Halifax, New York, England, Philadelphia, Montreal, and beyond.  Jews are from everywhere- and nowhere.  Which is precisely how anti-Semites like Rep. Tlaib are so successful in painting us as “rootless cosmopolitans” who can’t be trusted.  Without considering why we’ve had to move so much- precisely because of people like her.

The very mystery around his origins, his family connections, his own biography is part of what makes him interesting.  Perhaps there are scholars more versed in his life than I am, but what’s clear from my research is that there’s at least some confusion.  Even searching in the Mormon genealogical records on FamilySearch.org shows some varying hypotheses of his own lineage.  We know he was here, we know he was a Jew.  The details, at least from my internet searching, seem partially up for debate.

What’s not up for debate is Mr. Franks’s patriotism.

Or is it?

Mr. Franks has the misfortune of being the aide-de-camp of Benedict Arnold, the notorious loyalist traitor.  While several inquiries, including one called by Mr. Franks himself, exonerated David from any responsibility, a lot of Americans weren’t so sure.  Some shunned Mr. Franks and yes, questioned his loyalty.  While George Washington himself had no problem commissioning Mr. Franks afterwards and trusted him, not a small number of people dissociated themselves from the officer.  And left him so socially undesirable he was apparently interred by a friend in hazy circumstances in a Christian cemetery in Philadelphia.  Potentially carrying the body himself.  An undignified end to someone who put his life on the line for his country.

What’s so interesting about this story is how utterly resonant it is today.  And how it shows the deep relevance of knowing American Jewish history at least as well as we know about the Western Wall or Tel Aviv.

Because accusing Jews of dual loyalty is as American as pumpkin pie.  And to this day, just as pernicious as it was centuries ago.  Perhaps even worse.

The saving grace of this country, though, is that some people have a different vision.

The Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island is the oldest in the United States.

The congregation, nervous on the eve of American independence, wrote to George Washington in the hopes of receiving some reassurance.  Reassurance that their fates were safe here- unlike their European relatives regularly butchered by ignorant masses of anti-Semites.  I’d suggest it’s hard to imagine such a need here- but the past few years have put that to rest.  Anti-Semitism, sadly, is alive and well.  And American Jews should remember that for all the special things that make this country infinitely better for us than most places in the world, we are in the end Jews.  And Jews have always been scapegoated in Western societies when things start looking uncertain.

What’s so remarkable about the letter, besides the deep sincerity and hopefulness of the congregation, is also Mr. Washington’s reply:

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It’s a stunning, beautiful, and heartfelt sentiment that has driven Jews to these shores ever since.

Because besides the joy of letting my mind expand and wander, what ultimately motivates me to research this era is a desire to understand the present as much as the past.  And to discover if America has the potential to be different than Europe or North Africa, areas rendered largely Jew-free over the past 100 years.

And there is a difference.  The difference is not that there isn’t anti-Semitism.  That has been- and always will be- here.  You can just look up the case of Aaron Lopez in 18th century Rhode Island.  A colony that refused to recognize his very citizenship precisely because he was Jewish.  Or take a look at Linda Sarsour three hundred years later claiming anti-Semitism “isn’t systemic“.

The difference is that from its very founding, America decided that Jews were to be treated as equals under the law.  That while other Western countries have, at various stages, offered opportunity to Jewish communities, this country was founded on the principle of religious freedom, of separation of Church and State, of liberty.  And while it hasn’t always lived up to that promise, George Washington’s decision has impacted our civic life for hundreds of years.  It’s why my family ended up alive in New York and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. and not as ashes in German ovens.

The problem is that this tolerance, this willingness to forgo the outdated sectarian hatreds of Europe, is fragile.  We’re seeing this today.  And its fragility is only tempered by people’s willingness to defend difference.

Which is why today’s news about Rashida Tlaib is so scary.  As a Muslim American woman, she has no doubt faced persecution and hardship in her life for who she is.  Yet rather than choosing to become more empathetic in the face of hurt, she has chosen to become like the people who persecuted her.  Heaping senseless anger and mean-spirited words into our nation’s political debate.  And most specifically, on Jews ourselves.  Six million of us that she doesn’t even know.

What’s so sad is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Rep. Tlaib could choose to build bridges with people of different backgrounds.  She could acknowledge her family’s pain and challenges as Palestinian-Americans.  Like me, she’s a hyphenated American with various cultural connections around the world.  In her words, “dual loyalties”, but as I see it, an enriching confluence of identities.  She could use this similarity as a way to empathize with Jews and yes, even Israel supporters she might disagree with.  Because, in an ironic twist, its bigotry of people like her that propel people like me to believe in the necessity of a Jewish State.  That for all its faults (which all countries have), Israel is a safe-haven for us when people like her fail to treat us as human beings.  Something that has saved millions of Jewish lives from Tehran to Warsaw.  Which is why there are more Moroccan Jews in Beit Shemesh, Israel than in all of Morocco.

So in the spirit of the resilient David Franks, I’m not going to start hating Palestinians just because Rashida Tlaib hates me for being Jewish and Israeli.  That’s because I took the time to meet Palestinians, to become friends with them.  That I realize that even as she spews conspiracy theories and hatred, I know other Palestinians who don’t see the world as she does.  And that even if we have different cultures and sometimes political perspectives, I know my friends and I view each other as human.  Not political props or opportunities to get likes on Facebook.

What’s so sad is that Rashida Tlaib has become like her abusers.  An abuser herself.  Unhinged and attacking foes real and imagined.  Even as she’s supposed to be doing practical things to help her constituents.  Like re-opening the government.  A government whose very archives and museums house so much knowledge that could benefit us today.  And whose halls sit empty as employees go without pay or hope for a solution.  Indeed, perhaps a visit to these archives would be a wise first step for the Congresswoman rather than pontificating on Twitter.

What I loved about my experience today is how it connected me to myself.  I’m an American Jew, a Jewish American, an American and a Jew.  And part of my journey is piecing together who I am, where I am, and why I am.  And who I want to be.

Knowing more about the history of my people in this country helps me understand the richness of our civilization.  And offers insight into how we got here- and where we might be headed.  What’s unique about America, and what might be a bit uncomfortable to recognize.  That perhaps some things aren’t as unique as we hoped.

But either way, I speak from a place of increasing knowledge- and searching for it.

I’m proud of David Salisbury Franks, even if some of his companions were too cowardly to see his bravery.  I’m proud he put his life on the line for an uncertainty- for a hope that his country would treat him as an equal.  A hope his Portuguese ancestors were brutally denied.

I’m proud to be a Jew and I’m proud of Americans like George Washington who stood up for principles of religious freedom.  Principles that have contributed to this country’s development and rich cultural landscape.  And yes, freedom.

A freedom that is imperfect and like Mr. Washington himself, complicated.  A freedom that is far from guaranteed, but a freedom worth pursuing.

With that, I’d like to suggest a redefinition.  The word moderate these days is often used to suggest someone who splits the difference.  Someone who’s not too Democratic or not too Republican.  Someone in the middle.

What I’d like to suggest is moderation is a demeanor.  That while yes, certain patterns of political thinking can suggest black-and-white thinking, the most important indicator of moderation is how you treat others.  Your tolerance for difference.

If there’s one thing David Franks teaches us, it’s that it’s time for moderates to step forward.  It’s time we figure out a way to mobilize before the patients run the ward and we find ourselves spiraling into an inescapable and even deeper chaos.  A chaos that might start with the brutality of anti-Semitism but absolutely never ends with it.

Jews are a bellwether.  Society should be concerned when people start picking on us.  Yes, even other minorities.  Something even sadder.

But Jews- we’re also people.  And as George Washington made clear, we’re entitled to our rights beyond just being symbolic of waves of intolerance for the rest of the populace.

That as he said, we “merit the goodwill of the other inhabitants” and that “none shall make us afraid”.

I, for one, am afraid of people like Ms. Tlaib.  But I am not afraid to stand up for myself.

Jews have been walking the pine forests and city streets of this country since before it was a country.  And I’m not going to bow down before bigotry.

If you want to see our resilience, just go to the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati.  And learn about the brave members of our tribe who helped build one of the most fabulous countries on the planet.

American. Jewish. Israeli. Proud.

I suppose that’s four loyalties, but who’s counting? 😉

My first visit home

I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area.  Born in the city and raised in Suburban Maryland.  I went away for college, but found myself back in the area before immigrating to Israel a year and a half ago.  Out of my 32 years of life, I’ve spent at least 23 in this part of the world.

Because I grew up with a lot of abusive relatives, coming here wasn’t easy.  Since I moved to Israel, I haven’t been back.  In fact, when I chose to come visit the States a few months ago, I decided to go to California first because it would feel new.  And frankly, I had never been to the Bay Area and was curious.  You can read about my adventures on the West Coast here and here.

As circumstances would have it, I ended up back in the DMV, as some of us call it, this week.  It was a short visit, but a productive one.  Some things were hard– but empowering.  Some things were just hard.  And some things offered me a new perspective, a new appreciation for a place I was quite ready to leave not so long ago.

Here are some pictures from places that have filled my life with memories:

Some good, some bad, all a part of my life.

After an intense but meaningful reconnection with these deep memories, I decided I was in need of a good nosh.

Israeli food is interesting and quite delicious.  But it has basically nothing to do with the Jewish food I grew up with- unless you count some of the delicacies of Bnei Brak.

As a kid, every Sunday after Hebrew school, I went to “the deli”.  “The deli” because first off, this is a space, not a specific restaurant.  And secondly, because in this one tiny part of a Suburban Maryland shopping center, this Jewish deli has changed names and ownership about a half a dozen times in my childhood.  So calling it “the deli” just made sense.  The latest iteration of it is quite delicious, and I chowed down on my beloved whitefish salad, bagels, chocolate tops, dense American rugelach, a cheese omelette, and a poppyseed hamantaschen.  It was the best $25 I’ve ever spent:

The deli, in my view, is the most authentically Jewish space in America.  Whether my deli or someone else’s.  Because it’s a place where you bump into your neighbors, where you eat our food, where you seamlessly connect to Jewish culture, and where you see your American Jewish self represented.  It’s not for nothing you’ll find this deli covered in D.C. sports paraphernalia and Happy Chanukah signs- that’s what it means to be an American Jew.  And my heart felt as great as my stomach.

After some much needed soul food and reconnecting, I decided to go into the city.

Something really struck me about being in D.C. after a year and a half.  I’ve been going into the city since I was a kid.  And by the time I left, I was not particularly enamored with it.  There are downsides to living here- the endless politicking, the traffic, the dysfunctional metro, and the endless politicking.  Because yes, that’s worth mentioning twice.  It makes the vibe here a lot more “I’ll pencil you in” and a lot less “what are you doing tomorrow?”  The propensity for suits, for business cards- it’s not very me.

But what is very me is the beauty of this city.  Something I really didn’t feel when I left.  But even after having visited some astonishingly gorgeous cities in Europe and Israel, I think D.C. holds its own.  The historic homes, the courthouses, the museums, the monuments- there is a beauty to the architecture here.  It is an astonishingly clean city- especially after having trudged through the grossness that is Tel Aviv in the rain.  Even the Washington Monument and Capital building just seemed prettier than I remembered.

Another fascinating aspect of this area is how diverse it is.  You can find so many different races, religions, languages, and cultures.  And all the delicious food that accompanies them.  Melded together, mixed in a way that few countries manage to do.  Because when I’m outside America, I miss Thai food, I miss Chinese, I miss grilled cheese, I miss pizza.  Because for me, they’re all my food.  American food.  Because the beauty of America is its amorphousness.  I can feel that all of this is American because there’s no hard line dividing the Thai food I’ve eaten almost weekly (this week, twice!) since I was a teenager.  It’s a part of my American experience because the swirling stew of cultures is what it means for me to be from here.  As are my friendships with my friends from every background imaginable.  It’s not for nothing I actually keep in touch with my favorite Thai restaurant and send them pictures from my travels.  And they were so excited to see me and give me huge hugs!  It’s a reminder that home is not a physical space- at least not for me.  It’s a feeling of warmth and love and someone happy to see you.

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Feeling the urge for a little adventure, I called my friend Monica.  While America doesn’t have quite the same ruggedness or excitement for me as traveling in the Middle East or Europe, there are quirky things here.  One of them is the Mormon Temple, a huge edifice that looks like Disney World.  I’ve passed it probably hundreds of times in my life on the highway but never visited.  So I decided I should try something new on this trip back home and stop by.

And it was a strange but edifying and informative experience.

It’s worth its own blog post, but basically I learned a lot.  Mormonism, in case you didn’t know, is basically an American-grown religion.  Although the church itself sees it as a continuation of the Judaic tradition stretching back centuries.  And a certain fondness for Jews as a result.

Long story short, it was persecuted by other Christian denominations (some of whom view it as not Christian at all), until it made its way to Utah.  A state which is now dominated by the faith.  Which eventually became a global one, with the missionary zeal to match.

I had gone to high school with a couple Mormons, but didn’t know much about the faith.  Other than that Americans love to make fun of it.  I can’t imagine a musical called “The Torah” or “The Quran” would be particularly well-received by Jews or Muslims.  But “The Book of Mormon” delights audiences with laughs around the world.  And while I haven’t seen the play, it does seem like a bit of a double standard, and perhaps not fair to make an entire religion fodder for laughter.

Apparently the term “Mormon” is sometimes seen as derogatory- they are “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.  But until a better, shorter acronym is developed, I’m going to use it and preface it by saying I’m not intending it to be derogatory, simply a much shorter way of saying things on a blog.

I met several young missionaries- or “sisters”.  We talked for hours.  We talked a lot about Judaism- they knew some about it, but I shared more.  I certainly wasn’t trying to convert them (Jews don’t do that- note to those Christians and Muslims who think religion is about converting everyone else- that’s called supremacism).  But I was trying to share about myself as much as I was trying to learn about them, and have an entertaining and free evening.  It should be noted that since the religion is highly evangelical, everything is free.  I got free postcards and even a Mayan language Book of Mormon.  Because when you want to convert everyone, you need to learn their language.  Not my ideal use of language learning, but it does produce some interesting results, like a closet full of multilingual books.  Even different versions in Western and Eastern Armenian dialects.  A kind of polyglot paradise.  Also they have amazing Christmas lights:

In the interest of me getting some sleep tonight, I’ll leave it at this.  Mormonism, after a two or three hour long discussion with three missionaries, is an interesting faith.  The missionaries’ zeal was apparent- and the fundamentalism real.  No amount of smiles and kind words can change the fact that it was quite clear that they think they are right, and everyone else is lacking happiness for not being like them.  It’s a sad way to view the world.

That being said, I think there are some things to note.  First off, missionaries don’t represent everyone in a faith community.  As Mormons are human beings, I imagine some of them live with more doubt- and perhaps more pluralistic ideas- than the most zealous faithful.  Just like a lot of religions.  Frankly all faiths are based on stories, and to single out Mormons for having a “ridiculous” founding myth is mean.  Jews believe God parted a sea for us to walk across and then dropped bread from the sky for us to eat in the desert.  Christians believe a woman gave birth to a boy without being inseminated.  Who then walked on water.  Muslims think their prophet flew to Jerusalem at night- before airplanes.  We all have our stories- and I don’t begrudge any of them as long as they are used to motivate people for good.

Secondly, not all of the missionaries were the same.  In particular, one woman from Austria was quite fond of Yiddish- her father grew up in the Jewish quarter and was familiar with Jewish culture.  She herself had studied intercultural communication, my passion, and had her own honest and troubling relationship with American culture.  Which she sometimes found fake and indirect- something I can relate to after having experienced Israel.  Americans on a whole are not particularly forthright with their words- even if I’m able to read between the lines as a native in a way this woman couldn’t.  I don’t know if I’d characterize it as fake, but different and indirect it most certainly is.  And it leads to a lot of frustration.  Especially for someone like her meeting tons of people each day.

While all of the missionaries were trying their best to be friendly and welcoming, this one struck me as more authentically human.  In the sense that instead of relentlessly smiling, she was willing to open up about how life can be hard.  And she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.  Including how faith alone is not enough- that we use human observation, facts, and instinct to make choices too.  Which she admitted was valid after I prompted her to think it over a bit.  She just wasn’t as pushy as some of the other folks.  Who claimed to want to learn about other religions, but were hesitant to read the Torah- the very basis for all monotheistic faiths.  That is a kind of fakeness- don’t pretend to be interested in my community if it’s really just a talking point for assimilating me.  In the case of the Austrian woman, I felt she had a genuine interest in dialogue, rather than just repeating the word Jesus over and over again.  There are certainly things I don’t miss about America.

In the end, I can’t say I’m impressed with the Mormon faith as a way of life.  Nor do I think evangelizing people is ethical or kind.  If you think your religion (any religion) is superior to others, how is that any different from white supremacism?  I doubt most of these missionaries think of it in these terms, but I’m purposely raising this comparison to draw attention to how problematic it is.  And how it’s worthy reconsidering whether it’s fair to put one religion above others.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism- anything.

What I can say is that this Austrian woman, more than anyone I met, humanized Mormons for me.  That there are Mormons who live with doubt, or at least enough curiosity to hear other points of view.  And not just for the sake of convincing us.  In the end, whether you’re a Hasid in Bnei Brak, a secular Jew in Tel Aviv, or a Mormon in Washington, we are human.  And a willingness to go outside your comfort zone and try something new is difficult.  But worth doing sometimes to remember that relying on tired stereotypes won’t make this country, or the world, better.  I can now put a face to Mormonism, in fact several faces, and I don’t need to rely on a musical to teach me about a different society.  If the night’s goal was to convert me to Mormonism, it failed.  But if the goal was to put a human and complicated face on the Mormon faith, consider it mission accomplished.

Which gets to today.  The U.S. finds itself struggling with a government shutdown.  An absurd tug of war that ends up degrading public servants and slowing down the entire economy- not just of here, but of the world.  I don’t work with government budgets nor have I been following the situation closely- I have enough on my plate adjusting to being here.

But what I can say is this.  Everyone needs a bit of a bubble to feel safe.  I can’t imagine becoming Mormon, nor living in Utah.  I’m tired of people telling me I should accept Jesus Christ- he was a Jew and I really don’t have any interest in giving up my traditions to satisfy your zeal.

But nor am I content to sit only among those who I feel agree with me on everything.  It’s a phenomenon that liberals and conservatives can both be guilty of.  I can’t imagine many gay Jews visit the Mormon Temple, but I did.  I even found a Christmas ornament donated by Israel to stand alongside the ornaments of countries all over the world.  And I met an Austrian woman curious about Yiddish.  Even considering attending a Yiddish language program- curious about whether they let in non-Jews (we absolutely do- but just don’t try to evangelize us 😉 ).

In short, let go of the easy answers.  Donald Trump is a narcissist who plays too much on Twitter and has the temperament of a child- but with the arsenal of a nuclear power.  But even with his erratic and sometimes abusive character, I won’t automatically discount everything he says as wrong simply because he was the one who said it.  That is intellectually dishonest- and there are policies he has enacted that are outgrowth of the Obama Administration in which I served.  Some bad, some good.  And even though I never voted for him and never will, I’m not going to put my hands over my ears, live in isolation, and pretend that I’m always right or that everyone else is always wrong.

Because that’s fanaticism.  Whether it’s a gleeful Mormon missionary or a liberal bemoaning the “uneducated” masses of “ignorant” Americans in red states.

I live in the space where I am a committed and proud Jew, but open to learning about other religions.  I almost always vote Democrat, but I’m not diametrically opposed to everything a Republican has to say.  And I’m an American and Israeli even if some in both communities would like to have me only as their own.  That somehow me being physically present in America now means I’m “back from abroad” or that if I’m not stepping foot on Jerusalem’s streets I’ve “left Israel”.

There is no more stupid dichotomy in the world.  As a dual citizen, and a citizen of the world, I don’t belong to any one place.  I wasn’t on a “jaunt” in Israel- and I may yet return sooner than you expect.  Or to visit other countries.  Nor am I only Israeli- this trip helped me remember where I’ve spent so many formative years.  Why I love muenster cheese and chocolate chip cookies and cheap delicious Chinese food.  Why I still feel the effects of traumatic experiences even living far away.  And visiting places that triggered those memories precisely to integrate an understanding of my past into my present.  To help me be as full a person, as aware a person, as possible.

So in the end, my goal is wholeness.  Not holiness.  So rather than tell you what to do or what to believe, I’d rather you go out and explore for yourself.  Visit the Mormons, go to a synagogue, learn a new language, talk to a gun owner, eat vegan for a week.  Don’t rely on me or anyone else to be your only source of information.  Because the best news source is your own eyes, your own ears, your own heart.

Go exploring 😉

p.s.- that’s my third grade picture.  Not an easy one for me to put up given everything, but I’m proud to now understand myself as a whole person.  The good times and bad.  And I’m grateful to my teacher then, Mrs. Elrod, for being a stunning example of how to be a kind person.  And for all the great role models who inspired me to point myself towards a path of growth and compassion.  Which is part of how I ended up here today.

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):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does all of this matter?

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

The implications are enormous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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. 🙂