What’s God got to do with it?

For those of you who don’t watch the news regularly, Israel has been super stressful.  Between Hamas’s rocket launches, the Syrian refugee crisis brewing on our border, the Syrian civil war which you can hear from Israel’s north, plus earthquakes and the usual backdrop of yelling and frenetic bargaining.  There’s cool stuff here and beautiful nature, but let’s not kid ourselves- between all these problems plus recent homophobic and racist legislation, living in Israel is “lo pashut”.  It ain’t simple.

So many times people come here to “solve the conflict”.  The first question to them should be “what conflict?”  As in which one.  Between secular and Orthodox Jews?  Between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim?  Between LGBTs and the conservative religious establishment?  Between Arabs and Jews in Israel?  Between Israelis and Palestinians?  Between Druze and Muslims and Christians and Jews?  The religious conflicts or the ethnic ones?  The wealthy and the poor?  These are not “stam”, as we say in Hebrew.  They are not just the conflicts of every country.  They are a blend unique to here.  Israel has the widest gap in wealth among developed countries with the exception of the United States.  And a much higher rate of political violence and terrorism than any Western nation.

When I arrived to Israel, I came as a deeply religious Reform Jew.  I would never have called myself deeply religious (although some friends having jokingly called me ReFrum, a pun on the Yiddish word for “pious”), but most of my friends would say I’m pretty Jewish.  I’ve lived and loved Judaism since I was a young kid and discovered its heritage and magic.  And through many tough times, I’ve used that magic to try to pull me through and give me hope.  And many times, it did give me hope and a sense of community when I lacked one at home.

Although it’s taken me experiencing Israel to understand the limitations, even the disadvantages of religion.  Judaism and all faiths.  For religion to me is not something inherently bad (or inherently good).  The way you interpret religious text says at least as much about you as it does about the text itself.  Someone can look at the Bible, Torah, or Quran and come to radically different conclusions, some much more humane than others.

It’s also true that not all conflicts are about religion.  The Soviet Union was an atheist government (Russians today are still disproportionately not religious compared to the rest of the world).  And it still managed to butcher millions of people.  Atheists can manage to be quite violent and extremist- even orthodox in their rejection of faith.  A kind of new religion to supplant their old one.

What I’ve noticed in Israel is that religion is quite often a force for evil.  Not because religion itself has to be evil (although by definition it leaves some people in and some out).  It’s because in practice, it often leads to conflict.  While sociological factors often underlie what appear to be purely religious strife, it would be naive to pretend religious dogma plays no role.

Look at the main faiths here- the monotheists- Judaism, Islam, and Christian.  Each one has elements of humaneness and kindness.  Tzedakah, Sadaqa, charity.  Compassion for the weak, the stranger.  Even at times calls for varying degrees of religious pluralism.  And a repeated emphasis on being morally upright and treating your neighbor with respect.

At the same time, we need to be intellectually honest and recognize each of these faiths’ proclivity for exclusivity and superiority.  In Christianity and Islam, this revolves around recognizing the holiness of the main prophet (Jesus or Muhammad) and pursuing the conversion of all nonbelievers.  Sometimes this was done by sword, other times by incentive, but the final goal, even among the most pacifistic believers, is for everyone to believe in your religion.

In Judaism, the superiority plays out differently.  We are God’s “chosen people”.  Israel, our promised land.  These are birth rights.  For being Jewish.  If you want to join us, you can, but it’s quite hard.  It has always been.  And is increasingly so in Israel where the rabbinate veers far to the right of the Jewish mainstream.

In other words, the superiority argument in Judaism is an exclusive one.  It’s not that we want everyone to be like us- we’re explicitly not an evangelical religion (which I like).  The flip side, however, is that we’re quite an exclusive club.  It’s hard to join and harder to be accepted.  And we have a sense, at least among the religiously inclined, that God chose us, our language, our beliefs above all other peoples.  If you think I’m making this up, simply look at the aleynu prayer or Friday night kiddush.

There are progressive religious Jews who have, to varying degrees, changed the liturgy and how it’s taught to be more inclusive.  That’s cool.  The same could be said with certain Christian sects and a small but emerging community of Muslims.

Overall the same problem continues though.  These progressive-minded communities are, without a doubt, small small minorities in the scheme of world religions.  The vast majority of the world’s religions and religious people are against gay marriage.  Even progressive traditions struggle to incorporate women equally in religious leadership.  While you could say that there are cultural factors at work (understood), it’s also true that on these and other issues, “nonbelievers” far outperform their religious peers.

In the United States, the only religious group that is more supportive of gay marriage than non-theists is Buddhists.  Jews, interestingly, are not far behind, perhaps owing to their decidedly progressive religious tendencies compared to their Israeli brethren, where only 40% of the public believes we should accept homosexuality at all.  It’s worth noting that a large portion of American Jews are not religiously Jewish as well.

When I think of specific examples here, I have too many to choose from.  The Muslims who looked at me in disbelief when I said I had read the Quran (and not converted to Islam).  The Muslims who told me Arabic was the first language and all languages come from it (an absurd claim to make to a polyglot- that’s sacrilegious).  The Muslims who laughed at the idea that Jews had ever lived here.  The Muslims whose Facebook profiles were adorned with Palestinian flags, the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Islamist iconography.  Not to mention the one guy who had written Arabic posts mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day- that was a difficult one for me to confront, but confront it I did.  This Jew speaks Arabic.

Before you indulge yourself in bashing Muslims, let me tell you about the Jews who said the Torah *justifies* expelling refugees, even Arabs.  The Christians who told me not to waste time dialoguing with Muslims because they could give me a more “realistic” picture of what’s going on here.  Or the Christians who said Muslims are animals who breed entire tribes of children to take over the land.  Or the Druze man who cut off all contact with me when I told him I was gay- he threatened that if I didn’t do so, he’d cause me “problems”.  Not sure what those would be, but considering I travel a lot in Druze country, I wasn’t ready to take the risk to my safety.

Are secular or atheist people just as capable of hatred?  Perhaps- depends on the individual, religious or not.  In fact, some atheists can be just as orthodox in their certainty and thinking as any religious extremist.  Herein lies the danger.

It’s just that most of the world’s extremism and orthodox thinking is concentrated in religion and perhaps hardcore nationalism.  Of which there is a potent mix here among so many elements of society in many different directions.  Solving Israeli and Jewish nationalism by way of Palestinian nationalism, for instance, will do nothing but create more conflict and bloodshed.  And I do believe that in the end, most people, religious or not, really do want a good life.  Even if some of their beliefs are getting in the way of that.  Humans are nothing if not complex.  But I do have hope.

The point is religiosity is in the eye of the beholder.  We could argue that the examples I gave of egregious hatred are based on a selective reading of religious texts.  True.  But so is reading texts only looking for acts of kindness.  Conquest is written into the Bible, Torah, and Quran.  It is not a new phenomenon, nor one that religious people need to invent today.  The Crusades, the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and parts of Europe, and Isreal’s expansion into the depths of the West Bank (in some respects, its founding)- these are all rooted in long religious traditions.  We can say distorted, complex, for sure.  But eminently present.

In the end, religion can provide comfort, community, and hope.  It can, and does, mobilize some people for good.  Do I personally think it’s worth all the conflict it contributes to?  Maybe not.  What good is the continuation of Judaism if it becomes nothing more than a series of rituals devoid of ethical meaning?  What does Christianity mean when it is used to force gay youngsters into “conversion therapy”, and often suicide?  Why is Islam ultimately beneficial when it is used to massacre Yezidis, Christians, Jews, and others?  Even other Muslims who don’t agree with them?

It’s not because all religious people are like this.  Or that atheists are saints.  I’m not exactly sure where I fall myself.  I’d say that as I write this, perhaps I just don’t believe in God.  I believe in what uplifts the human spirit.  I believe in kindness.  And I don’t believe in divine retribution nor in the sacrosanct nature of a document so clearly written by humans thousands of years ago.  Which may contain some wisdom, but not exclusive authority nor the right to use it to butcher other human beings.

My overall point is that orthodox thinking, the idea that one set of value is always right- that is a problem.  Even if not all religious people end up overly protective of their sect’s interests (as opposed to those of humanity as a whole), the idea behind it is problematic.  When put into practice, religion more often than not divides people who could share other things in common.

Even though Judaism today in Israel is becoming more and more nationalistic and, with the state’s help, more uniform, it was not always this way.  What’s most perplexing about the degradation of religion in Israel is that Judaism was once the playground of questioners.  Of people who debated and divided and built energy off diversity.  So that whether you believed in the God of Abraham or not, the process itself was unique for its depth of heterodoxy.  And at times, its willingness to make room for dissent.  Moreso than any other religion of its time.

So one of the greatest casualties of religious conflict in Israel is not just the Filipino kids who will never get citizenship.  Nor the Sudanese refugees who will be deported.  Nor the Reform Jews who can’t pray together at the Western Wall.

It’s Judaism itself.  And perhaps, perhaps my belief in it.

The universe is full of possibility and I’m exploring.

The Aramaic-speaking gay Iraqi in Tel Aviv

Lately, living in Israel has kind of sucked.  My government has turned into some sort of slimy festering poop mobile, spurting out nothing but shit whenever it opens its mouth.  A law against gay surrogacy, a law against the Arabic language, a law against non-Jewish minorities, arresting a liberal rabbi for performing a marriage, the list is almost endless.  Also, there’s something about pollution in the Mediterranean which I haven’t had the time to read about.  Plus the normal pressures of life here- like Hamas rockets and Iran threatening to obliterate us.  Not to mention thousands of Syrian refugees crowding our border trying to escape their murderous government.  A government that makes ours look like sheep.

When things suck here (yes, they sometimes really do- and if you’re considering moving here, you should be ready for that), I try to think of what I like about this place.  Am I just insane or did I find something here that makes me stand in awe despite all the idiocy that surrounds me?

And a story came to mind.  A few months ago, I went clubbing.  I love to dance and need to more often, but I don’t go clubbing that much.  I’m 32, I don’t have a lot of friends who like to club, and it’s not like I feel up for it every weekend.  It’s energizing and it takes a lot of energy.

But one weekend I went.  In the club, I was very friendly.  It was a gay night and there were tons of cute guys!  I’ve been so busy doing everything here- learning about Israeli culture, making friends, exploring identity, finding housing, getting important healthcare, and sweating a lot- that I haven’t dedicated a lot of time to men.  Although I am single- so if you’re cute and smart and like an adventure, hit me up 😀

But this night I did go out.  And in the club there is this very cute guy.  Very typically Jewish looking- yes we come in all shapes and sizes, but I mean that kind of “I know you’re a Jew from a mile away” look.  Typically Semitic.

I go over to him and start dancing with him.  Turns out he’s from Germany.  Surprise number one.  Because I speak Yiddish, I could communicate with him.  I wondered if he was a German Jew.

But as I got to talking to him, the surprises kept coming.  He’s German, but actually Iraqi.  His family became refugees after the absurd American war in 2003.

What’s particularly strange is why he was in Tel Aviv.  At a gay club.

Iraq and Israel have no diplomatic relations, so I presume he entered on a German passport.

But why did he look so Semitic?  I mean Arabs are Semites, so I spoke to him in Arabic and he said he understood a little.  Huh.  So maybe because he was born in Germany?

No.  He was born in Iraq.  I asked what languages he spoke.  German, some English, and- prepare to be in awe- Aramaic.

Aramaic.  The language of the ancient Middle East, the Talmud, many Jewish prayers, Jesus Christ, yeah.  Aramaic.

I was so turned on.  Intellectually and yeah, the other kind too.

And guess what?

He’s gay!!!!

GAY!!!  An Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Christian German GAYYYYYYY.  The cute guy who looks like a Jew looks like a Jew because we’re from the same neck of the woods.  And boy would I like to be in HIS neck of the woods.

You might be thinking, well duh, he’s at a gay club.  But many straight people in Tel Aviv go to gay parties.  And all of his German friends with him were straight.  In fact he wasn’t even out to them, which is why I’ll use the Aramaic pseudonym Michel when talking about him.

It was simply some sort of Semitic gaydar that allowed me to connect with him.

He loves Tel Aviv and actually came back for Pride.  It’s probably the closest Michel can get to a queer Semitic vibe, as his homeland is plagued with homophobic violence.

For me, this story is nothing but romantic.  Ancient cultures, beautiful languages, the unexpected- combining in one thrilling moment in Tel Aviv.  You couldn’t have written a sexier story if you tried.  Israeli independent film doesn’t even have the imagination to concoct such a scenario.

And there we were.  One gay Aramean Christian, one gay American-Israeli Jew.  But at a certain point, the labels didn’t matter.  He was cute and we liked to dance.

So that night in Tel Aviv reminds me of the unexpected surprises and glorious nuggets of hope that lie in this land.  A land tortured by fanatical power-hungry idiots who unfortunately run it.  And the psychotic neighboring powers who torture us and their own peoples.

For one moment that night, all of that didn’t matter.  Because I was dancing at a gay club in Aramaic.  And the 21 year old Matt who downloaded his first Iraqi Aramaic song a decade ago was smiling ear to ear.

Sometimes I yearn for a calmer life- in America, abroad, traveling, or even elsewhere in Israel.  Who knows where I will roam.  What I know is this kind of night- that’s what makes this place special.

p.s.- the cover photo is a Syriac church in Jerusalem.  If you can’t read it, it’s because it’s in Aramaic 🙂

One year as an Israeli

Today, July 4th, marks my aliyahversary- one year since I hopped on a plane from New York to Tel Aviv and became an Israeli citizen.

It’s a day that will always be filled with great importance for me.  Making aliyah was not an experience- it was a life choice.  To tie my future to the future of the Jewish people in our homeland.  Fraught and fun, stressful and meaningful- that’s what it means.  It’s not to immigrate- I returned to my ancestors’ home.  To live amongst my people.  As the norm, as the majority, in the only place like it on the planet.  Not as a tolerated (or persecuted) minority- but as the people steering the ship.  With all the empowerment and responsibility that entails.  There’s really no other process like it in the world.

There are many ways I could have lived this year in Israel.  I looked into getting a full-time job here, I looked into grad school and rabbinical school, I looked into living on a kibbutz, I looked into living up North, I even considered doing some shepherding (I think I’m still gonna make that happen 😉 ).  Ultimately, I decided to continue doing my digital public relations freelancing.  Which gave me the opportunity to work from home (and the challenge of building a social network without in-country colleagues).

One of the best aspects of this was that I could travel.  One of the reasons I made aliyah was to see the world, and my homeland.  And boy did I.  I saw over 100 different Israeli cities, towns, and national parks.  All via public transit or hitchhiking.  While people abroad only see my country in terms of conflict, they are sorely missing out.  It’s by far the most gorgeous place on the planet.  Prettier than some Israelis even recognize.  Naturally beautiful, accessible by public transit, filled with ancient cultures and history, and one more very important thing: deep generosity.

Traveling in Israel, the way I travel, can be challenging.  I love it.  You have to navigate all sorts of cultures and politics- not to mention fluid schedules (this ain’t Switzerland) and new terrain.  I’ve gotten growled at by wild boars in the Galilee at midnight, I was chased around the Arab village of Tira by a crazy man only to get a ride to the bus stop from a basketball player who’s friends with a Jewish lawyer in Baltimore, I got evangelized in Spanish by a Mexican missionary who said I was going to hell for being Jewish, I tripped and fell in a forest and with a broken sandal and my knee bleeding hobbled on one shoe to a bus.  Only to have an awesome bus driver and 20 year old Arab law student chatter with me in Arabic as we drove through the mountains.

For every challenge here, there are been countless blessings.  When I was in the Druze village of Sajur, I visited an ancient rabbi’s tomb.  There were dozens of Hasidim praying.  The rabbi, a Vizhnitz Hasid, chatted with me.  Then gave me two beautiful books- one siddur and one book of songs for Shabbat.  The other day I was in the Christian village of Eilaboun.  And on two separate occasions, when I asked for water, old men in their 70s simply handed me gigantic bottles of their own.  In Tarshiha, an Arab village in the North, I stared at a house’s beautiful door.  The Bedouin woman comes out, gestures to me to come in, and plies me with coffee and sweets while she folds her laundry.  Her preferring to speak in Hebrew, me in Arabic.

I have been hosted- for free- countless times in Israel.  Sometimes by people I had never met.  Both overnight and for numerous Shabbat meals.  I was once on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and a young woman wondered aloud what she’d do if she missed the train to Haifa.  And the woman next to her said: “you’ll stay with me”.  They had never met.  I was heading to Haifa once for a trip and I had met a rabbi up there.  Literally for 20 minutes at a Shabbat in Tel Aviv.  I asked if I could crash with her- because that’s normal here- and she said: “I’m sorry I can’t host you because we made plans, would it be ok for you to stay with my parents?”  Would it be ok…yes. 🙂  And I did, and got fed incredible Iraqi food and awesome stories by her mom.

This blog would be endless if I recounted every act of incredible generosity in my country.  Druze who helped me hitchhike to a Christian village.  Where then I knocked on someone’s door to get into a church.  But the key was nowhere to be found.  So they invited me in to watch Christian prayers from Lebanon on TV and eat eat eat.  Or the Jewish man I met in a parking lot in Beit Jann, asked him where Rameh was, and simply told me to get in the car.  And took me.  I can’t even count how many times Christian Arabs have opened their village churches just for me.  Or how many mosques have let me film their prayers- from Abu Ghosh to Kfar Qasem to Kababir in Haifa.  And how many dozens of others I’ve visited in Tel Aviv, Yaffo, Akko, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Jisr Al-Zarqa, and more.  I know now proper etiquette in a mosque- from visiting them 🙂  I enjoy the call to prayer while I eat Georgian food in Yaffo.  It’s part of my life.

There are people here who look after me.  My Hasidic friend Yisrael in Bnei Brak who asked for my phone number to see how I’m doing.  Who always gives me a huge hug when I come to see him.  My Reform rabbis- all of them women- who nudge me, love me, and gently guilt me like good surrogate Jewish mothers.  And whose services (and mine- because here I lead them) fill me with song and love.  My Orthodox gay friend and his secular partner whose house I invite myself to for Shabbat.  Just like I do to my Iraqi neighbors.  Because not only is that acceptable here- it’s the norm.  Love is the norm.  Personal space and boundaries- that’s not how we do things here.  And you find, after some acclimating, that it’s better.  It fills you with warmth.  That sacrificing a little autonomy gets you a whole lot of community.

There are incredibly difficult moments in Israel.  Whoever wants to be Israeli- to choose to become Israeli- should think hard before doing so.  This year, I heard an air raid siren on my first day in my new apartment.  I stood in the stairwell and googled: “what to do in an air raid?”  On two separate occasions I had to deal with suspicious objects.  In one case, I was locked inside the library while it was diffused.  In another, the street was closed off.  And in both cases, the police, God bless them, were extraordinarily calm and professional.  Thank you for your service.

I’ve been racially profiled as Arab (which was awful- and I also understand why it’s not such a simple question).  I once took the bus to Jerusalem, heard about a terrorist attack along the way, and looked out the window to the see the name of the town it had just happened in.  I’ve witnessed the burnt fields of Sderot- crisped to blackness by Hamas terrorist fires.  And then got sushi with a friend who lives even closer to Gaza.  On Kibbutz Nahal Oz which has seen dozens of Hamas attacks recently.  And where she’s studying for final exams that will determine her professional future.

If you add to this the personal, bureaucratic, and cultural transition of building a life in a new country as a new citizen- boy it can be hard.  Especially arriving alone with no family.  If you’ve made aliyah and never cried, I don’t think you really did it.

But what you need to understand is that there’s a reason I live here.  And that, for the wild prejudice (in all directions), the terrorism, the predatory real estate market, the ideologies which sometimes spin out of control, and the very real tensions in my own neighborhood between refugees and veteran residents- the fact is Israel is where I feel at home.  People here exhibit an incredible generosity I have never seen anywhere else.  A sense of caring, responsibility, and even cohesion.  Much greater than you might expect from reading CNN.  People here- we- have a certain toughness to be able to get through the challenges of living in the most difficult neighborhood in the world.

And we also have an incredible ability to take those hardships and turn them into sweet sweet baklava.  This country is a country of survivors- of the Holocaust, of Arab expulsions of Jews, of the Soviet Union.  Arabs and Jews who’ve lived through many wars, cultural and familial separations, terror, and economic recessions.

What you find- and what I identify with as an abuse survivor healing from PTSD- is that people here know better than anywhere else how to move forward.  How to not only survive, but to take that pain endured and manage to build something.  To become sweet in spite of it all.  So that unlike in America where every tweet becomes a news story for a week, in Israel, we just don’t have the time or care.  We’re too busy living our lives and being in the moment to stew in it.

And living in such a generous and warm culture has fostered my own compassion.  So that when I see a woman eating grapes off the ground, I give her thirty shekels and tell her to get a real meal.  When I see a 15 year old Filipina girl working day and night, I tell her I’m going to take her on an excursion to relax.  And she lights up with excitement.  When I meet a lone soldier on a bus who was celebrating his birthday alone, I take him out to baklava and invite him to spend the night.  When I meet an American Christian in Jerusalem who’s coming to visit Tel Aviv, I invited him to do likewise.  The same day.  And last night, when I saw a homeless man in my neighborhood sleeping on a bench, I bought him rugelach and sat it next to him.

Because living in Israel is not always sweet- but you can choose to be.  And I find most Israelis do.  Once you peel back the tough exterior- the gentleness, kindness, and warmth beneath far exceeds anything I had ever experienced before.  Becoming Israeli has given me a place to be more generous, has taught me to appreciate people from all walks of life and ways of thinking, and has helped me grow into a stronger and balanced person.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me make this transition and grow.  My friends I made on the plane while making aliyah- who I’m still friends with.  My Reform community.  My neighbors.  My friends at my local Kosher sushi restaurant, who have become like family.  The people of every background who have supported me, fed me, and encouraged me.  Who’ve given me countless opportunities to speak the beautiful languages of this land.  My American friends who from many times zones away made an effort to keep in touch and showed they cared.  Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates American aliyah, for making the process as smooth as possible.  For answering dozens of questions.  For being there both before and after my landing.  For helping me feel like I had a place to call on when I needed help.  Like when my AirBnB fell through, I got food poisoning, and you showed up on my doorstep with food 🙂 .  Ein aleychem- you rock.  Misrad Haklitah and the Israelis whose tax dollars funded my transition- thank you.  I’m absorbed- by your kindness and by our country.  Especially my fabulous aliyah counselor Lauren who talks with me about everything from bureaucracy to cute guys- and always puts a smile on my face.

Aliyah, for those who don’t know, is the Hebrew word that describes when a Jew like me returns to Israel and becomes a citizen.  It literally means “rising up”.  The idea being that moving back to Israel elevates your spirit and is a process by which you grow.

Nothing could be more true.  While I feel I’m quite thoroughly absorbed into Israeli society, I will always keep rising.  There are new places to go, people to meet, experiences to have.  You can never finish exploring this country- or loving it.

What I can say is I arrived as an oleh, and now I’m Israeli.  Because today when I met a young American and helped him find the right bus, he said: “you have really good English”.

I made it.

The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which side are you on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Haredi, Tibetan, Baptist, Sudanese, Israeli baseball kind of day

As a child of the Washington D.C. area, I grew up in a very “progressive” environment.  In some senses, it was great.  There’s an extraordinary diversity of food, languages, and cultures that I think helped me keep an open mind about the world.  On the flip side, I think a lot of black-and-white thinking predominated.  While progressives- and I’ve spent most of my life being quite an active one- love to rail against right-wing conservatives, they sometimes hold just as harsh judgments.  About Mormons, about evangelicals, about religious people in general.  About country music and rural people and southern accents.

And these days, Israel.  Lately my Facebook feed and the news have looked like some sort of horror movie.  People abroad who I thought actually liked my country have come out of the woodwork with all sorts of hatred and ignorance.  Often in the name of “progressive values”.  There’s the non-Jewish guy who used to come to a Hebrew group in D.C.  We loved him and he said he loved Israel.  And then I saw such hateful and gruesome content on his Facebook that I just had to end it.  I won’t for a second deny the challenges nor the pain of the situation in Gaza- nor will I put the blame exclusively on Israel’s doorstep.  Not when Egypt maintains its own blockade, not when the Palestinian Authority stops paying its people there due to a feud with Hamas, and certainly not when Hamas plants bombs on our border so they can massacre us.  Or in the words of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, they will “eat the livers” of those besieging the Strip.  I assume he means us, because I haven’t seen a single protest against Egypt.  Jews love chopped liver, just not the kind that comes from our bodies.  We’ll protect ourselves, thank you.

The point is I was often taught progressivism=good.  Conservativism=bad.  That you could judge someone’s moral character by these two words.  And it’s wrong.

Living in Israel has helped me realize how textured people are.  That I love certain progressive values like economic fairness, LGBTQ rights, women’s empowerment, and protecting the environment.  And that when taken to an extreme, some progressivism becomes just as hateful as the far-right rhetoric it purports to combat.

I live in a rather conservative neighborhood.  By far the most conservative part of Tel Aviv.  A place where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is the left-wing, and Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, is the right.  And guess what?  I like it.  I have friends here- from Sudanese, Darfuri, and Eritrean refugees to a smattering of progressive young people to Haredi and traditional Mizrachi families.  Who lovingly host me for Shabbat.

Few things in life are black and white.  Even the people who wear those colors 😉

I like some things about conservative thought.  I enjoy the innovation and creativity of Tel Aviv’s street art and gay scene.  And I love seeing people saying Kaddish in a Yemenite accent on my street as they dedicate a new Torah scroll.  Which I eagerly join in on.  Preserving tradition is something I love.  Not for a museum, although there are some great ones here, but for me.  It’s my tradition and I understand why people feel strongly about their- our- heritage.  A Jewish ethno-religious state with religious courts for Jews, Druze, Christians, and Muslims might not sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union.  And I get it.  And Israelis have all sorts of thoughts about how to change it- or keep it the same.  But we’re here, and we’re not particularly thrilled with your lack of support.  We’re going to do what we want.  And I suppose if you don’t like each and every thing we do, we don’t really care.  Which is the reaction you’re going to keep getting if you single us out with no particular compassion.  Where have you been to protect us from Iranian rockets and Hamas terrorists?  Where are your rallies for our lives?  Is liberalism only good to Jews when we’re mild-mannered doctors and lawyers with no claim to independence or a right to self-defense?  I know you like Seinfeld, but what should Jerry do if he’s walking through Brooklyn and is beaten to a pulp by anti-Semites, like some Hasidim the other day?  We’re sick of being your punchline and we’re sick of being punched.  And many more conservatives- conservative Americans- support us than progressives.

In short, I’ve decided to just be me.  I’m not locked into being progressive or conservative, I’m going to live my life ethically and kindly and inclusively.  With respect and faith and pride as a Jew and as a human being.  Willing and eager to find that gray space people often overlook.  And to bring it to light.  Those aren’t liberal or right-wing values- they’re mine.

Which brings me to today.  Today, I was feeling really stressed.  I’m feeling less and less American and I even struggle to speak English sometimes.  I spend almost all my time here in Hebrew and Arabic (or other languages) and English is directly tied to 30 years of trauma I experienced.  I think, I feel better in Hebrew and Arabic oftentimes.  It’s where I feel healed and strong.  And can express myself as who I am today.

Today I wandered Bnei Brak, a Haredi city outside Tel Aviv.  Neighborhoods I had never seen before where it was totally fine for me to be in shorts and a t-shirt.  I found some gorgeous palm trees and a neat sign for a women’s shiur, or religious class.  Which I took home 😉  I then wanted to go to Oranit, a settlement in Judea and Samaria, but the traffic was terrible.  So I popped over to Petach Tikva and Givat Shmuel, an area with a large Modern Orthodox community.

Tired of the tall buildings, I went in search of green.

I ended up in the most curious of places.  Kfar Habaptistim.  The Baptist village.  While in America, old me would have been horrified to go to a Baptist village.  As would many of my “progressive” friends.  New me thought it’d be kind of interesting.

So I walked the windy, beautiful, rural road.  With fields that reminded me of the Midwest.  And then, I saw the most curious thing: a baseball field.

I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.  Baseball isn’t the most Middle Eastern sport.  And I had a rough time playing it as a kid- as it was forced on me by my family and I never fully jibed with the intense masculinity and sometimes homophobia that went along with sports then.  And I was quite good at some.

I walked towards the field and watched as the largely American-Israeli guys and gals played.  With a Baptist female pitcher.

I felt this sense of redemption.  Like God was giving me a little glimpse of what things could’ve looked like if my childhood wasn’t so rough.  And a sense of satisfaction to be able to see it in action in my homeland, my new home.

Hearing the people chatter back and forth in Hebrew and English, seeing the scores posted in both languages.  Seeing the Baptist literature and knowing that it was kind of benign in a country where we’re 80% of the population and nobody can coerce me.  Like the anti-abortion activists with ketchup-covered beheaded baby dolls at my Missouri polling location.  Here, we run things.  So I actually thought seeing the New Testament in Hebrew was kind of cool.

I don’t think I’ll get into baseball now.  I think God was just trying to help me close a chapter.  And help me embrace the one I get to live now.

The one where I ate Nepalese momos with a Tibetan chef after the Baptist village.  Around the corner from my apartment.  Where I played with his three year old kid who speaks Tigre because he studies in school with Eritrean kids.

The one where I was walking home from the momos and stopped by the Darfuri fruit stand and chatted with the owner in Hebrew and Arabic.  He told me about his business ventures and life while I picked up cucumbers.  This is where I do my shopping.  He lives down the street from me.

This isn’t an exotic visit.  It’s not a diversity day.  It’s not a beautiful exhibit or a rally or a trip to Thailand.  It’s where I live.  It’s my home.  It’s my day-to-day beautiful life.

Once, I was American.  That’s where I was born, that’s where I lived for many years.  Some really tough and some moments of real gold slipped in between the familial abuse and the prejudice I faced in society for being both queer and a Jew.  I treasure the Amazigh New Year I went to.  The Asian art museums.  The queer Passover seders.  The vast array of cultures and the pure sense of quiet and calm you feel in a park.

And now, I’m Israeli.  Not a progressive Israeli, not a conservative Israeli, not an American-Israeli (maybe sometimes).  An Israeli.  The kind that hangs with Hasidim, the kind that wakes up to his neighbors’ Mizrachi music, the kind that sings Yemenite music in the shower, the kind that hangs with Druze, the kind that goes to queer Sarit Hadad parties, the kind that leads Reform services, the kind that eats gefilte fish in Bnei Brak on Thursdays.  The kind that helps Arab guys push a dead car, the kind that pushes onto a bus- but gets up and insists that an older person sit down.  The kind that that gestures and yells and talks with passion.  And who puts people up for a night he met on the bus.  That day.

The kind who does Shabbat with an Orthodox Ashkenazi and a secular Mizrachi Jew- a gay couple.  Several times a month.  And who dances dabke with Arab college students.

I don’t do these things to write a blog about it.  Nor do I do them to check off boxes and to feel I’ve fulfilled a diversity quota.

I do these things because they bring me joy.  And I like these people.  They are my friends.  My Hasidic, Druze, Muslim, Christian, Secular, Gay, Straight, blah blah blah friends.  Friends!  These are not people I simply say “please” and “thank you” to at a store.

So perhaps the lesson I’ve learned from Israel is I don’t really care what party you vote for nor how liberal or conservative you are.  I’m not really even convinced that elections are the biggest way we make change.  I care about my neighbor.  If your kindness is limited to only those who agree with you on everything, or those you feel are “in your camp”, you’ll soon find yourself sitting alone at home.  Chanting: “no tolerance for intolerance!”  Like I once did.  But now I see what life has to offer when your heart is ready to see the best in what’s around you.  Even in a Baptist baseball field.

A Jew, 2 Druze, and a Christian walk onto a train…

nope, not a joke, just a regular afternoon 😉

Today was tiring, so I thought it’d be nice to remember a really hopeful story from my travels in Israel.

I had gone up to Haifa to explore and was taking the train back to Tel Aviv.  The train in Israel is not just a vehicle- it’s the town square.  People chat, gossip, exchange numbers- even make friends.  It’s a place that reflects the warmth of this country more than any other place on the planet I’ve visited.  You’re never really alone on the train.  Sometimes that means loud music and conversations, but it’s never boring and it just feels like home.

There was one seat left in a four seat area.  The three 20-something guys were talking in Arabic.

I sat down and after about a minute I chimed in in Arabic.  They were stunned.  I love sharing how I speak Arabic with Arabs here.  I recently made a video in Arabic about how and why I learned the language.  In short, I learned Syrian Arabic with a professor from Damascus in America and then with Syrian refugees on Skype.  Which you can do too.  For an Arab here to hear an American-Israeli Jew speaking Syrian Arabic is a bit like an American hearing a North Korean speaking like a native New Yorker.  People are often in amazement.  It’s great 🙂  I like melting hearts.

One guy was a Christian from Mi’ilya, one of my favorite villages in Israel.  It’s a Greek Catholic Arab village that I’ve visited twice.  They have a beautiful historic church and it’s near a Crusader castle I want to visit.  The people are so warm.  They even have a cool locally-made chocolate shop!  For the linguistically inclined among us, they also speak with a “qaf” or what we write in English as a “q”- usually a trait of Druze villages here.  It was really cool to find that out.

And to find out that one of the Druze guys comes from Yarka, a village that despite being Druze, actually doesn’t use the “qaf” but instead uses a hamza, or “hiccup” sound.  So for instance, the word “qalb” or “heart” in Arabic would be pronounced ‘alb.  In short, the Christian speaks like the Druze and the Druze like the Christian- at least on this train 😉

Except for the super hot Druze guy next to me.  See the Christian and the Druze guys across from me are in school together in the south of Israel.  It can be hard to tell with Arab men because they have very intimate male friendships, but I actually kind of wondered if they were a couple.  They’d make a cute one 😉  I noticed a lot of physical and emotional closeness.  It was sweet either way.

Back to the hot Druze guy.  He uses the “qaf” like most Druze 😉  He wasn’t in school, he was in the army.  He had a gorgeous, warm, inviting smile.  A beautiful laugh.  And a kind heart.  And an outside just as beautiful.

We talked a lot.  All of us.  Turns out each village even has its own kubbeh, a Middle Eastern food usually involving meat stuffed into a kind of fried covering.  What I didn’t know is that there are villages up north with RAW kubbeh.  Yes, the kubbeh meat isn’t cooked!  I joked with them that if they opened a restaurant in Tel Aviv and called it Arab Sushi, they’d make a million bucks.  We laughed 🙂

When they got off the train, I was sad to see them go.  I gave the Druze soldier my number and told him and his friends to be in touch when they come to Tel Aviv.

Then, the most curious and beautiful thing happened.

Two Sephardic Haredi men- also pretty young- moved over to my section.  They study in Yeshiva, seminary, in Ofakim.  They needed help figuring out possible routes home, so I opened my app.  They don’t have smartphones- a lot of ultra-Orthodox don’t.  In order to keep out unwanted internet content, etc.  They were really nice and I helped them find some ways home.

Both of them are of Moroccan origin.  We talked about their yeshiva- I was familiar with Shas yeshivas in that they tend to be modeled after Lithuanian ones.  The ones my ancestors prayed in 🙂  We talked about Sephardic culture- they didn’t know about Ladino!  Ladino was less of a Moroccan thing (although they had a dialect called Haketia which was similar), but they were astounded to learn about this Judeo-Spanish language!  And they’re going to search for Ladino music at home…because I think they have Youtube there.  I didn’t ask 😉

Then the best question came up: “so, what were you talking with those kids about in Arabic?”  I smiled.  But before I could answer, they said: “we think you were talking about food!”

And they were right!  I told them all about our conversation.  Their eyes lit up.  They were eager and willing to learn about all that we discussed.  And in a spirit of curiosity.  About their neighbors.

As I left the train, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied.  I was the bridge between 2 Druze, a Christian, and 2 ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.  When people ask me what I do with my eight languages (expecting that I work for the military or make loads of money)- this is what I do.  If people want to work in other fields, that’s great.  We need multilingual people in intelligence.  The intelligence I’m doing is on how to bring people together.  I use my Hebrew, my Arabic, and other languages to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.  That hopefully shares some of that joy with others.

I couldn’t have had this experience without speaking both Hebrew and Arabic.  One thing I’ve realized lately is that I can’t translate some of my feelings to English.  I’m thoroughly Israeli.  I think and feel in Hebrew- and in Arabic.  Often better than in English.  This is where my soul breathes and lives to the fullest.  America feels cold to me- distant, polite, dull, preoccupied with the self.

Israel is a place of great warmth.  Among every sector of society.  It’s astounding and a beautiful thing to be a part of.  I’m grateful for the dozens of people who host me for meals and to stay in their homes.  I pass that warmth on to the people around me.  Like when I met a lone soldier on the bus the other day from New Jersey, far from home on his birthday.  And took him out to baklava and Eritrean food and hosted him for the night.

Find me an American- in America- who does that.  It just doesn’t happen.  I’m sure there are sociological reasons, fear, crime, who knows.  There are reasons for everything, sometimes valid and sometimes that don’t match up with the facts.

All I know is that in Israel, we are direct, we are generous, we are honest.  I never have to guess what an Israeli is thinking.  Even if I don’t like what they say- I know they’ll speak their mind.  And I can say I don’t like it either.  We can be truthful.

And the honest truth is this: at a time when America is crumbling- when Republicans and Democrats struggle to even be friends.  When my liberal friends bash evangelicals.  And right-wingers pretend anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview is “fake news”.

In Israel, we have a glue that keeps us together.  Perhaps out of necessity, but also just because this is a special place with special people.  Who tend to have a real depth of kindness and a zest for life.

You might like to hate on us for what’s going on in Gaza or barely utter a peep when Iran launches missiles at the Golan.  But in the end, for all the conflict here, Israelis- we’re a hell of a lot better than Americans (or Europeans) at actually getting along.

That’s a sentence that might be hard to stomach- or maybe to believe.  If that’s the case, you’re probably not Israeli 😉  It’s true- there’s a lot of beef between all the sectors of society I spoke to on that train.  But you know what?  You’re never going to see my interaction on CNN.  Because they’ve decided that only dead bodies are sexy.

But guess what?  So are Druze soldiers talking, smiling at an American-Israeli whose life is now a whole lot more hummus than grilled cheese.

P.S.- that’s the Druze flag with a Magen David, the Star of David.  Because I love Druze 🙂

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

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

beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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