The single best moment of my entire trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They smiled and turned the volume down.

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

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

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I joined in their conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He almost didn’t know how to respond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Eastern Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Slovenia

After having escaped Romania, I headed to Hungary, which was a better experience. Not fantastic- there’s a lot of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and surprisingly unfriendly people.  But definitely easier to live in as a gay man than anywhere in Romania I’ve been.  And, unlike Romania, has actual living Jews to commiserate/celebrate with- which makes all the difference.  Plus some gorgeous synagogues.

After having experienced Budapest, I hopped on a bus to Slovenia.  Slovenia- what do you know about Slovenia?  Slovenia is a tiny, tiny country.  Population of about 2 million people.  And, after Finland, the greenest country in the world.  Forests are everywhere, the air feels clean, and, as a major plus, it is much friendlier than Hungary.  Which kind of puts to bed the idea that all post communist countries need to be filled with rude people.  Because Slovenia was not only communist, it survived the semi-apocalyptic breakup of Yugoslavia- and the people are much nicer on average than the women chucking my change back at me in Hungarian grocery stores.

Slovenia is naturally beautiful- the mountains are obscenely gorgeous.  Some, deep green, are similar to mountains in Israel.  Others, so high, have no vegetation and even when it’s not cold, look like they have snow on top.  The contrast between the lower, wooded mountains and the grey/white tops of the Alps is stunning.

More consistently than anywhere else on my travels, I have been able to find relaxing moments.  To sleep.  And to hear my voice.  Not overwhelmed by dogs chasing me in Romania or homophobes or crowds of anti-Semites, Slovenia is a lot more chill.  Which has been healing.

Slovenia certainly has its problems.  I was on a guided tour- on Yom Kippur- in Ljubljana.  The super-environmentally-friendly capital whose old town is entirely pedestrian walkways.  Not a car in sight.  For an avid walker like me, this is paradise.

On the tour, the guide was describing artwork on the cathedral.  It included depictions of the Crusades.  For those who don’t know, the Crusades largely consisted of Christian soldiers butchering Jews on their way to the Holy Land, where they then engaged in a mutual bloodbath with Muslims over the same strip of land people continue to fight for today.  It was not a pleasant time to be a Jew.

The guide said: “the Crusaders are celebrated on this Cathedral- a new piece of artwork- because they built hospitals and schools here.  Some people don’t like the religion and warfare aspect- I think it’s subjective.”

The Crusades may be many things, but their benefits are not particularly subjective.  Murdering thousands of people in the name of an invisible God is not what I’d call anything other than horrifying.  And you can certainly find some other artwork for your cathedral that doesn’t involve mass murderers.

At the end of the tour- by the way, the guide’s English was fantastic and most young people here speak the language quite well- I asked about the Jewish quarter.  While Slovenian Jews are few in number, their history is quite old.  And there is a medieval Jewish quarter, along with remnants of a community mostly butchered in the Holocaust.

The guide had failed to mention Jews at all when talking about the Second World War, so I was curious to hear her response, which was underwhelming: “here in Ljubljana, the Jews lived freely in the war, there was no ghetto.”

While the situation was complex here- in fact Slovene partisans suffered heavy losses and managed to carve out some hold outs despite the fascist invasion- the Jewish community never lived here freely.  And under German occupation, almost all of them were annihilated. When I pointed this out to her, she said “yes, some died.”  Understatement of the century doesn’t quite do it justice.

In the middle of the tour, a teenage boy walked by- seemingly perturbed.  A few times during the tour, locals harassed our tour guide.  Xenophobia is real here- as are neo-Nazis.  And perhaps because she was speaking in English or because we’re foreigners, or who knows what- some people didn’t like it.  And the boy, looking at our group, shouts in an angry voice something in Slovenian.  As he lifts his arm in a recognizably, crystal clear Heil Hitler salute.

I have never in my life seen a Nazi salute.  Europe, if I’m totally honest, is not a great place to be a Jew.  It’s had its moments- we’ve been here for over 2,000 years with some great successes.  But do not kid yourself- most European Jewish communities now define safety as absence of violent attacks the likes of which are rocking France.  Rabid societal hatred is seen as an unfortunate and growing norm.

The strange thing about Slovenia is there have never been many Jews here- and aren’t many now.  Making the hatred all the stranger, and for me this emphasizes the Christian roots of anti-Semitism here.  Because if we’re not even here, what else explains the depth of hatred?  I’ve never heard of Buddhists or Hindus persecuting Jews because nothing in their holy books condemns us.  Sociology and context matter- but so does ideology.  And if you’re fed a lie for generations in church, at home, in school- it infects your brain and society.  And it is not so easily dislodged- many don’t even want to remove it.

Tonight, I was asking for directions on the train.  Lately, I’ve been using my phone a lot less, I’ve totally disconnected from social media, and I’m finding myself increasingly connecting to people around me.  And to feel present in my surroundings.  It really impacts my day- and causes me to interact with more people.  And make different decisions about where to spend my time.

On the train, a nice young woman gave me a ton of advice about Slovenia.  Places to visit, food, everything.  She even walked with me to a restaurant to get a burek- a kind of savory pastry that we eat in Israel too.  This woman, let’s call her Alenka, was so nice.  Bubbly, friendly- warm.  She reminded me a bit of myself when I helped tourists in Israel.  It felt great.

Alenka is in a church choir.  Catholic.  As you’ll see from my previous blogs, I’m rather fearful of religious people at this point.  Certainly I have friends who are.  But when meeting someone new, unfortunately religiosity is often a sign that I should back away.  Especially in this part of the world, the more religious you are, the more likely you are to hate gays and Jews- i.e. me.  That’s not a theory- it’s reflected in public opinion polling in almost every European country (oddly enough, I believe the Netherlands or somewhere in Scandinavia is the only place where occasionally religious people polled as *more* tolerant).

Alenka asked if I was Catholic.  And I said: “no, I’m Jewish.”  She said: “oh, we have a Jewish community in the north east of the country.”  So simple.  No hate, no commentary, it was as if she was describing where the North Pole was.  And, compared to the brutal comments I heard in Budapest and my tour guide’s decided revisionist history, it felt great.

It’s a reminder that people are complex.  Yes, religious people are more likely to hate me.  And, some are pretty cool.  This is what makes life hard.  I want to protect myself and if I completely shut out a group of people based on a characteristic- then I might miss out on moments like tonight.  When I’m laughing my way through Ljubljana with a new friend.

On the bus to Slovenia, I met a young Polish guy named Greg.  A neuroscientist from Warsaw.  Poland, in case you didn’t know, has pretty much the worst record of Jew hatred of any country.  In a part of the world where it has quite a few competitors.

So, again, I was feeling nervous.  When I mentioned I was from Washington, D.C., he made some odd remark about how the city was “empty of people”.  And then he went to sleep.

I was prepping myself mentally for keeping my distance.  If that’s how he reacted to Washington, D.C., I can’t imagine what he would say about Tel Aviv.

Later on the bus ride, after he took a nice nap, we talked again.  Turns out he was exhausted from a 16 hour bus ride, explaining the earlier grumpiness.  When I mentioned Israel, he actually showed curiosity.  Apparently, he wants to visit.  I told him some exciting and harrowing stories and also about my Polish ancestors.

He loved it.  In fact, we shared a lot in common- just as people.  We’re adventurous, spontaneous, like to travel solo, and are intellectually curious.  I really liked him.  And after I told him some Israel stories, he said one of the nicest things someone has said to me this whole trip.  Possibly that someone has said to me in longer than I can remember.

“Your stories of Israel make me want to visit.”

The world is losing its mind.  Especially if you read the cherry-picked, profit-driven clips in the news.  That show the worst of humanity.  Not outright lies- there are a lot of nutsy people in the world and to pretend we’re all great is just as dangerous as saying we’re all terrible.

Nationalism, including in Slovenia, in Israel, in America, everywhere- is on the rise.  Nationalism, in my view, is a kind of collective narcissism which says our group is the best- because we happen to be here.  Together.  It doesn’t really hold up to much logic.  There are certainly differences between countries, but it hardly justifies pretending the place you happen to live is the best in the world.  It’s not a gentle or benign concept- it literally leads to killing people.  I’m frankly baffled that I should have to explain this in a part of the world that saw an actual genocide in my lifetime.  Which I remember watching on TV.

But it’s happening.

And so I offer you Greg and Alenka.  Not because they invalidate other people’s hatred.  Nor should we ignore signs of danger- there are dangerous people out there.  And their power is growing.  I recently read a story about Indian tourists in Slovenia being chased by neo-Nazis yelling “white power” as the police looked on indifferently.  Being different here is hard- and frankly, unlike in the Mediterranean, I sometimes feel my caramel skin stands out here.  In ways that could make me a target.

I’m glad people like Greg and Alenka are out there being kind to complete strangers.  I try to do the same.  It helps put the news in perspective so we can remember that if 27% of Slovenians are die-hard anti-Semites (that’s an actual statistic from the ADL)- that means the vast majority of the country is not so bad.  Maybe even some ignorant people who are persuadable.

We have a right and responsibility to protect ourselves and I will never forget seeing a Hitler salute in the middle of downtown Ljubljana.

We also have to do the nearly-impossible balancing act of remembering the good people.  The people trying for something kinder, more open, compassionate, and welcoming.  The people who go out of their way to smile and guide you when your phone is turned off, you don’t speak the language, and you need directions.  And you end up eating bureks together and laughing in the street.

Traveling as a Jew- as a gay Jew- is not easy.  In this part of the world, harder than I expected.  And I’ve traveled to some pretty hardcore places.

I suppose what helps me feel a little safer, a little more loved is when people who I least expect make an effort to make me feel at home.  Walking to a mountain today, as I bought fresh yogurt from a farm’s vending machine (that’s a thing!), I saw a sign:

“Home is not a place.  It’s a feeling.”

For someone who grew up in an abusive family, who is wandering as a nomad, who doesn’t always feel welcomed.  Not in this part of the world, sometimes not anywhere.  Being so many different minorities is hard.  Rewarding, and sometimes kind of scary and frustrating.

This message was for me.  This Yom Kippur I didn’t fast, in fact I haven’t fasted in years.  And, for the first time since I can remember, I didn’t go to synagogue.  And I didn’t pray the liturgy.

I’m calling this my first Un-Kippur.  The holiday still matters to me because I’m a Jew.  It’s part of my me.  Even if I don’t go to shul, I’m no less a Jew than someone else.  Something I had to say myself to a man wearing a yarmulke harassing me to go to synagogue in the middle of Ljubljana.  Proof that simply wishing someone a meaningful holiday can bring on a load of coercion- not just in downtown Jerusalem.

This was an un-Kippur but not a fun-Kippur. It was a chill Kippur.  I relaxed, I explored, I learned, I shared, I smiled.  If that’s not in a prayer book, then I don’t want to read it.

If religion makes you act like Alenka and causes you to perform acts of kindness, do what you’ve got to do.  For me, I suppose I don’t think I should bottle up all of my apologies for one day a year and pour them out.  Perhaps next year I’ll want to spend the holiday with some secular or open-minded religious Jews.  Just for community.  Maybe I’ll apologize to some people this week- maybe I’ll just apologize when I hurt someone.  I can’t say having a particular day to do so is a bad idea.  Just that you don’t need a particular day to do it.  Consideration of others’ feelings should be built into our ordinary experiences.

Writing a blog about your personal experiences, ideas, challenges, pains, joys- is hard.  It’s super rewarding and, because I’m the kind of person who is open to changing my ideas- it can be tricky.  Sometimes, people will like one blog because it validates their opinion, only to find me sharing something quite different a week later.  And they get angry.

I will never claim to be a one-stop-shop for cookie-cutter ideology.  There are many news outlets out there for you if that’s what you want.

What I will do is share.  Reflect, observe, remark.  Build.  Paint.  A picture that continues to develop.  Like the photos from my disposable camera I’m using.  Another one of my new life experiences- or at least the first time since I was 12.  It’s cool- it forces you to stop and think when you really want to take a picture.  And it keeps me away from the temptations of my smartphone.

This new year- or even if you don’t feel it’s a new year- this is my hope for you and for us.  To try to new things, to keep the good stuff that works, to dare to be different.  And to accept when you’re the same.  To live in a world where rigid thinking is overrated.  To fight for what’s right- and sometimes to take a break or consider other views.

Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Slovenian, communist, Zionist, Palestinian, etc.  These are words we use to describe ourselves.  But I tend to think that their utility is limited.  Not irrelevant, but certainly stunted.  Because the deep meanings we attach to these words could never possibly describe the depth of our experiences.

So while we need to protect ourselves- and labels can help us do that- it’s important to describe.  Not in one word, but in full thoughts.  Who we are, what we hope for, what we want.

If your identity, your ideology, can fit in one word- perhaps the best gift to give yourself this Rosh Hashanah is the freedom to speak your truth in more than 140 characters.

Because if all I knew about Greg and Alenka is that they’re Slavic, then I might never have opened myself up to knowing them.

I can’t say I’ll stay much longer in this part of Europe.  I am happy that I saw it with my own two eyes.  No article, no travel guide, not even my blog is a replacement for human experience.

 

 

The Jewish conundrum

I’m currently traveling through Romania.  Romania, for all its current and past political problems, is today a much, much more peaceful place in Israel.  You can’t really compare a 50,000 person demonstration in Bucharest with hundreds of rockets, racist legislation, land appropriations, occupation, and creeping fascism of Israel.  A state once semi-democratic but now plunging into the totalitarian fiesta that is the Middle East.  And once was Eastern Europe.  With vestiges creeping back today.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that the increasingly psychotic right-wing leaders of the former communist bloc have found themselves in bed with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Even as they spew anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries.  I suppose bullies attract bullies.

Before we dive in, here are some pretty pictures of my other homeland.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and I’ve loved traveling here.  This is my third visit this year- I’m the first member of my family to step on its soil since she left 130 years ago for the golden shores of America.

Romania is gorgeous.  Or in the case of Cheile Turzii, “gorges” 🙂 .  I’ve been to Cluj, the silicon valley of Romania.  Literally- both a valley surrounded by hills and also the high-tech hub of the country.  Filled with lots of young, progressive people working in high tech.  But with way less pent up aggression than people in Tel Aviv.

I’ve been to historic Transylvanian cities, old synagogues, beautiful mountains.  Romania is stunning.  My ancestors must’ve really been struggling to want to leave here.  (Turns out they were- the government passed anti-Semitic legislation and had various state-sponsored pogroms the years my family left)

And for those of you still living in Israel, the other day I bought ice cream, a large bag of oatmeal, apples, bananas, milk, several yogurts, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, a Romanian home-made candy, cascaval cheese, turkey, whole-grain bread, and I forget how many other things.  For a total of $10.  Israel is stupidly expensive and the quality of food is definitely not better than here- but I suppose that’s what you get when your country is ruled by a bunch of nepotistic politicians whose rabbi friends make an extra buck off of every piece of food by deciding God approves of it.  Nationalism costs money- I suppose if you pour every ounce of your being into conflict and the idea that your country is super awesome, then people can take advantage of your distraction and charge you money for the things you actually need to survive.  But keep believing that patriotism is awesome.

Romania also knows a thing or two about ethno-nationalism.  It’s a country where, to this day, there’s actually a political party calling for outlawing the Hungarian minority’s party.  Because they claim the Hungarians want to hand over Transylvania to Hungary again.  Does this sound familiar, Israel?

It’s also a place with a long, storied history of anti-Semitism.  One which, thankfully, is much, much better today.  As I have never felt physically threatened and have never even faced an aggressive comment here.  Frankly, Romanians are way more polite and respectful than Israelis.  I feel emotionally safer with the average Romanian than a Jew in Israel.  And not just because they say “please” and “thank you”- although that’s nice too.

And Romania does have a mixed record on its Jews.  As I’ve been here, I have seen a little bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, I’ve heard some yearnings for right-wing politics, I even saw a billboard promoting some sort of Mein Kampf theater production.  Hopefully with the goal of educating people, but I’m honestly not sure.  And I was rather shocked to see the words on a billboard.

I also visited a synagogue.  I was hesitant to- I’m here partially to get space from Israel.  But I was in Sighisoara and I just wanted to take a peek.  Perhaps it was partially because when I asked a young woman where it was, she said there was none.  Even as Romanian nearly-Klezmer-sounding music blared out of her store (which was awesome- she said she’d check out Jewish music after).  I don’t think she was ignorant out of hatred.  I think she simply didn’t know there was a synagogue.  In a town of 20,000 people.  Sad.

I have to note that I’ve mentioned to many people here I’m Jewish.  And sometimes I’ve noticed feelings of guilt.  One guy, when I said my family was killed in the Holocaust, said it gave “shivers down his spine” and he told me about an Israeli he’s met who actually moved to Romania.  And to return to the synagogue in Sighisoara, the non-Jewish custodian of the synagogue was so, so proud to show it to me.  She even hummed the tune to “Tzadik Katamar”, a Jewish prayer written on the wall of the synagogue.  As we both motioned the steps to the Israeli folk dance.  For those of you who think, as I was basically taught at home and at synagogue, that Eastern Europeans are just a bunch of lousy bigots- you’re wrong.  The lousy bigots would be the people who taught you this lie- and the idea that you can generalize about tens of millions of people.  Many decades of evolution after most of our persecution took place.  Things have undoubtedly changed here for the better.  I feel much safer in Cluj Napoca than in Tel Aviv or London.

And there are problems.  Today I was at some sort of folk festival and I met a guy who spoke Spanish.  I was ordering food and having trouble conveying how many grams of meat I wanted (that’s a thing here- everyone should pick up on this.  You don’t have to guess how big your food will be, or be disappointed!).  He, like many Romanians, has worked abroad.  In his case, Spain.  In many others’, Italy or elsewhere.  Part of the reason things are so cheap here for me is that their economy isn’t so great.  Sending thousands of young people abroad in search of work.  Sometimes, to return.  Sometimes, not.

He starts talking politics with me.  One of the things I *love* about Romania is how un-invasive people are.  When I say I’m American or Jewish or tall or short or religious or not religious- people don’t dig.  In Israel, you can say you dislike tomatoes and enter into a 15 minute argument about a fucking fruit. (or vegetable- again, keep arguing).  Israelis like to pretend that respecting people is such an American concept, that “politeness” is fake.  But actually, my experience is Eastern Europeans are way, way more polite than Israelis.  So their barbaric habits must have other roots, because it sure ain’t from here.  I tried to cross the road the other day at 10pm, with no cars coming, and my friend said we should wait.  I asked why and he said: “because we have to respect the rules.  And be fair.”  As he returned me the fifty cents I overpaid for our meal.  I actually laughed out loud because no one has treated me with such dignity in a long time.  Then he gave me hand-picked apples from his family’s farm.  You can be generous and polite- it’s not that hard.

Now to return to the first guy talking politics.  He starts telling me about Romania’s corrupt politics and economic woes.  And how things were *better* under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  While I can understand the former, the latter is a bit absurd.  While perhaps there was more economic stability under the communist dictatorship, this is a man who was executed by his own people for committing genocide and heinous war crimes.  Even Queen Elizabeth hid from him in bushes once.  A story so silly it has to be true.

What really irked me, besides the Middle East-style hijacking of the conversation to lecture me about politics, is that this dictator was a real ass to the Jewish people.  He confiscated over 1000 cemeteries and synagogues.  Jews had to *pay* to make aliyah, to leave the country.  While Jewish issues are hardly at the top of Romanians’ list of woes, to not even think about how this man made my people’s- any people’s- lives miserable is just abysmal.  And cruel.

I’m glad your pocketbook was better under your former dictator, but I’m not particularly happy he shat on my family’s heritage either.  Nor are the political prisoners he killed and tortured.

In the end, what I have to say is this: religion is a sham.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism- it’s all frankly an overcharged book club where everyone thinks their book is the best.  Nationalism, to me, is just another type of religion.  My flag, my country, my people are awesome, and everyone else comes next.  If at all.  Because all of these philosophies aren’t provable.  Like, frankly, the existence of God.  What evidence do you have for God existing?  If God was so self-evident, why do you have to teach children about it to believe in it?  And why do you need organized religion to enforce its tenants?

Religion, like all philosophies, can contain grains of truth.  It’s just that for me, they don’t come from an invisible deity who you’ve personally never met or seen.  But somehow miraculously spoke to a human being you don’t know thousands of years ago to tell you exactly how to live your life.  I presume among clergy there are some good people, but their profession lends itself to charlatans because they are selling something they cannot prove.  While not all things can be easily proven, I want the antibiotic I take to fix my stomach bug to have FDA approval.  And our societal ethics should be no different- based on facts or at least rational arguments.

When you’re convinced that your book is the best, you have to constantly beat people over the head with it.  Since, ironically, it is not self-evident that you are the best (which would go against the idea that you’re inherently awesome), you have to remind people over and over again.  Why would you need to evangelize something so blatantly obvious?

For example, did you know Unitarianism was born in Transylvania?  This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned in Romania.  I went one of their first churches.  Unitarianism, for those who don’t know, is today largely a peacenik left-wing church centered around social justice.  I even once went to a Ska concert at one in high school- pretty much anything goes.

Yet apparently, the first Unitarians were lunatics.  My tour guide told me they would go into churches and just start tearing down artwork and “idols” and burning shit.  Far from the birkenstock-wearing vegans that I know today.

So when I visited a Unitarian church here- one of the first- the pastor did exactly what every lunatic clergy in Israel did.  Tell me how they were the first, the best.

I had mentioned how I had Unitarian friends in America, that they would be thrilled to see I visited.  He smiled.  Genuinely.  And also proceeded to tell me how young the American church was and that the Hungarians were the first Unitarians.  Implication- the real Unitarians.  Unitarians!  Even the friggin Unitarians have to argue about who is the first in their book club.  And they are probably the most relaxed readers.

This kind of stupid narcissism is inherent to any ideology which believes it is perfect, the best, superior.  The 10 minute interaction with the Unitarian pastor was mostly harmful because it reminded me of much longer, more aggressive interactions with the brilliant Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith-peddlers of Israel.  Romanians, even at their worst, are still way less intense than the average Israeli.

I once posted an Arabic video in a Facebook group to have a guy from Yaffo randomly message me on Facebook voice notes of him saying “that’s great you want to learn Arabic.  Here’s the call to prayer.”  As he Allahu-Akbar’ed the hell out of my phone.  Many Muslims are shocked that I’ve read the Quran and not converted to Islam- because it’s such a perfect book I must have “seen the light”.  And claimed their religion has never persecuted Jews- despite centuries of evidence.  I had a Jewish guy ask me for money to buy food for Shabbat- and then tell me how awful the Sudanese “leeches” were in South Tel Aviv where I lived.  I even had a Jew tell me once that the worst Jew is better than the best goy.  And another Jew told me- knowing I was Reform- that Reform Jews are Christians (why is that an insult?).  Somehow Christians are stupid enough to get into this battle when they are 2% of the population.  I’ve met Orthodox Christians tell me they are the “original Christians”.  Not like those Catholics…  I’ve even had Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Christians say they are the real Arameans, not the Arameans in Northern Israel.  Christian priests literally get into fist-fights in Jerusalem every year over who gets to light some sort of flame in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Literally coming to blows over a fucking match.

In the end, I have religious friends and not religious friends.  I’m not religious- I used to identify as religious and am not anymore.  If this blog was hard for you to read as a religious person, I can understand.  I also feel it’s important to share my truth.  What I hope is that even if you read a different book from me (frankly, I’m a fan of reading everything), what I hope is you take from it kindness and generosity.  I personally have found it detrimental to limit myself to one book, one ideology in informing my world view.  And that the idea of a deity above me, rather than the human beings beside me, has led me to feel small and to make some poor choices.  And now, I feel more empowered and happy.

So in the end, when it comes to Romania, I’m not a Jew because I believe in God or because I think we are the best.  I’m not a nationalist.  I’m a Jew sometimes because people force me to be one.  When I see a desecrated cemetery, like I did in Cluj, my inner Jewish spirit arises.  My empathy for my people, for my ancestors, wells up.  My desire to protect.  Just like if I saw a Muslim cemetery being turned into an apartment building in Yaffo.  That is a true story.

What I believe in, then, is humanity.  Is treating each other with respect.  When someone yearns for an anti-Semitic dictator to my face, I am a Jew.  When someone bulldozes an Arab home, I’m an Arab.  When someone throws coffee in someone’s face for wearing a hijab, I’m a Muslim.  When ISIS butchers Christians in Iraq, I’m one of them too.

It’s not because of God or any book.  It’s because I’m against suffering.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I won’t be asking God for forgiveness or beating my chest or dressing in a suit to impress a congregation half-asleep as a rabbi preaches.  Sometimes a good message, sometimes not.  Always one which includes an appeal for donations.

What I will be doing this Rosh Hashanah is exactly what I try to do every day.  Be kind, give a smile to someone who needs it, explore, reflect, enjoy.

Because I’m not a religious leader, I won’t tell you how to spend your holiday- if you observe it at all.  Instead, I’ll hope that you follow the path that brings you joy and understanding.  Nuance and hope.  And the ability to feel sad and angry at hatred, compassion for those being hurt, and the realization that we make choices each day. Which can bring light into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

Instead of fighting over a flame, let’s grow its light.

p.s.- the cover photo is a synagogue in Targu Mures.  Because there are good people in Romania and around the world working to preserve Jewish heritage, even as others wish to destroy it.  I am grateful to them and honored to visit.

I came for the Zionism, I stayed for the everything else

When I made aliyah to Israel, I had many reasons for coming.  Some, like the healthcare system, escaping abusive relatives, to travel, to speak languages, and to avoid harsh winters- these are still very relevant.  Especially at a time when the American government seems determined to make healthcare worse, when discrimination against Jews and minorities is on the rise, and I’ve felt increasingly healed being away from toxic people who’ve hurt me.  Not to mention the awesome cultural and travel opportunities- my flight to Cyprus over Christmas was $24 round trip.

Some reasons that I came with are no longer why I’m here.  I have serious doubts whether I’ll find a Jewish partner here- or if I want to.  The Jews here are frankly kind of nuts.  I’ve lived with Jews my whole life (being one), and I can assertively say that while we’re a zany bunch, Israeli Jews take it to a new level.  The nastiness, the harshness, the aggressive behavior- it’s not like anything I’ve seen in any other culture.  I speak 9 languages fluently.  You could say it’s tied to trauma- perhaps that’s a factor.  But I’ve met other people here and elsewhere who’ve been traumatized (including myself, I have PTSD) and some of this behavior can’t be explained by that alone.

Add to that the government’s blatant homophobia that prevents gay men from adopting children together and from using surrogacy, and you have a toxic mix.  I can’t get married, I can’t have children, I can’t I can’t, I suppose in the words of 200 rabbis who signed a public letter- I’m just a fucking pervert.  This country largely sucks for gay people, and don’t let some government brochure convince you otherwise.  It’s better than Russia, it’s better than Jordan, and it’s not better than the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe.  Not even close.  Once you leave Tel Aviv (or just visit my right-wing neighborhood), it’s a veritable desert for gay people much more comparable to our conservative neighbors.  A once-a-year awesome pride parade in Beersheva (which I went to) does not mean you could comfortably walk around that city holding hands with a man.  Good luck.

As for the Jewish part, I don’t believe in God anymore after the horrors I’ve seen here.  Mostly, how people use religion to harm others.  And I was nearly a rabbinical student.  To make matters worse, as a Reform Jew, this government doesn’t recognize my movement.  And if I wanted a religious wedding, they wouldn’t recognize my rabbi’s right to conduct it.  I’d have to join the thousands of Russian immigrants whose Judaism is “suspect” to the religious police i.e. rabbinate- and go get married in Cyprus.  I liked visiting on vacation, but I’d rather not have to pay for a plane ride to get a Jewish marriage that otherwise isn’t recognized.  In a Jewish state.  I have more religious rights as a Jew in America than I do in Israel.

So if I don’t believe in God, and I do find value in Jewish culture, but I find the men (and generally the Jews here) nuts- do I really want a partner here?  So we can get married and…we can’t.  And the sad reality is, I can’t build a family here without spending $140,000 to import a child.  And I don’t have that money- and won’t make that money in a country where unless you work in high-tech, you can’t afford a decent life.  It’s pretty strange that Tel Aviv is more expensive than Rome, Barcelona, Prague- so many European cities.  That frankly are a lot cooler and cleaner than it.

To add to this, while I’m feeling increasingly healed from past abuse, I find that Israeli Jewish culture is, as a whole, one shaped by abusive norms.  Not every Israeli Jew is abusive, nor is every norm.  It is, a whole, governed by the idea that to be gentle, to be delicate, to be sensitive, to be upset- these are signs of weakness rather than simply character traits or emotions.  You have to constantly push push push to survive or you will get trampled.  And dozens of people will tell you why it was actually your fault in the first place.  I have never seen so many different people guilt me, lecture me, shame me, and yell at me without reason.  As much as Israelis want to pretend that Americans are just as racist and abusive but just don’t say it out loud- they’re wrong.  This is a lie they tell themselves to convince themselves that the rest of the world is nuts, not them.  Unfortunately, they’re wrong.  There is a concentration of hatred here I have never seen.  It’s frankly a miracle that the nice people here survive- they are the strongest, sweetest you’ll find.  When you meet one, hang on to him.  Because she will nourish you with great kindness.  Israel has some of the sweetest and meanest people I’ve ever met- a society of true extremes.

Today on the bus, a teenager said “todah”- thank you.  I didn’t talk to him so I had no idea why he was thanking me.  He said: “because you waited a second for me to get out of my seat”.  He was so unaccustomed to someone letting him simply walk off a bus without pushing and shoving that he felt a need to say thank you.  For doing something so basic that I didn’t even know what he was talking about.  Kids like this deserve better- and I’m angry at the society that abuses them on a daily basis so they can be “tough”.

I just got back from a couple days in the North.  Every time I hate living here, I simply find an AirBnB up north and go.  The North is not exempt from Israel’s problems.  I met Christians who don’t like Christians down the road simply because they’re from another village.  And who like southern Bedouin but not northern Bedouin who are “rude”.  And I met Druze who said they are the strongest warriors defeating ISIS, that Obama was a turd (without realizing I worked for him twice), and that there are millions of Druze in India (no there are not).  Even a Bedouin guy had to tell me, while we looked across the Lebanese border, that the Lebanese villagers were “simple-minded people”, not like cosmopolitan Israelis.  Everyone feels a need to be the best.  Can’t we all just be good?

This being said, the North is still 1000 times cooler than Tel Aviv.  As a gay person, it’d be very hard to find a partner up there and some of the societies I love are quite sexually conservative.  But the people are just nicer.  For every Israeli Jew who wants to pretend that their society’s meanness is simply a product of trauma, I’d invite you to visit the Arabs of the North.  Sounds like a soap opera or the title of the next Lord of the Rings movie.

Arabs in the North have suffered many traumas.  In 1948, families that had lived together for hundreds of years were separated, sometimes killed.  Villages were destroyed.  The government regularly limits their ability to build housing, causing children to leave.  Employment is extremely tenuous in the North- the government invests much more in the Center, which not coincidentally is much more Jewish.  And when it does invest in the North, it’s mostly for the benefit of Jews who move there- to “Judaize” it.  The North has also suffered rocket attacks from Hezbollah for many years- including attacks on Arab villages.

With all this- Arabs in the North, as a whole, are just much much nicer than Israeli Jews.  They are both more polite and warmer.  Israelis Jews claim they are prickly on the outside and sweet on the in, unlike their “fake” American compatriots obsessed with politeness.  But they’re wrong- you can be kind inside and out.  And the Bedouin who literally hugged me in their village, the Christian Arabs who opened their bankrupt pizzeria at night just to give me a free pizza, and the Druze who smile and take care of me every time I visit- they are proof you can be both.  Both polite and deeply warm.  You don’t need to throw elbows to smile.

After a few days in the relaxing Arab north, I headed to Nahariya, a Jewish city, to then visit a Bedouin town on the Lebanese border.  That has suffered Hezbollah rocket attacks and from where you could literally throw a baseball and hit Lebanon.  And it is stunning.  But before I got there, I took a cab from Nahariya to Rosh Hanikra.  A beautiful outpost of rocks and shoreline before the Lebanese border.  First off, my driver was a caricature of a crude Jewish Israeli.  He repeatedly screamed and cursed at his friend on the phone and guilted me for not knowing where the place was (how could I know, I’m American and I just gave him the name- I don’t know every turn in Northern Israel).  I wish I could say this was unique- frankly, by Israeli standards, he’s not even being mean.  Maybe not even meaning to be mean.  But frankly it was a rude awakening to the cultural vastness separating Arab (and American) consideration and Israeli brutality even in something as simple as a conversation.

I got to Rosh Hanikra and I noticed the differences again.  Arab families were rather calm and smiling.  Jewish families were yelling- including one man berating his child for crying.  Holding her outside a restaurant and asking “do you want to keep crying?  You won’t go inside if you do.”  This is one of dozens of times I’ve seen this- never once have I seen an Arab behave this way.

This is not to suggest Arabs can’t be abusive- everyone can be.  My point is more that the Israeli Jewish ethos normalizes a lot of abuse and aggression.  In the name of “Sabra culture”, fairly global norms have been thrown to the wind.  Where the bully is rewarded and the victim ignored.  I could tell you story after story- including how I was physically threatened at my doctor’s office simply for wanting to keep my space in line.  After the man raised his fist at me (he wanted to cut in line), I called the police.  And rather than comforting me for feeling unsafe, people huddled to the man and comforted him.  That somehow screaming and threatening someone meant you needed to be coddled.  The more you live here, the more you’ll see this.  It’s baked into the mentality.  Some people get that it’s wrong, and they are a minority I deeply empathize with.

After Rosh Hanikra I practically fled to the Bedouin village of Al Aramshe.  When I got there, the bus driver was so kind as to find me a local man on the bus to guide me around.  I was so alarmed by the people’s friendliness.  I’ve met Bedouin before- they are famed for their hospitality.  But this was a new level.  Every villager I met talked to me.  Some hugged me, at least 3 or 4 people offered me rides to whatever I wanted to see.  I had never been to this place before- I was probably the first or one of the few American Jews to ever step foot in this village.  I can’t imagine many Sabras come here.  People were absolutely thrilled to see me.  I probably could’ve even gotten invited in for a holiday meal- today was Eid Al-Adha.

Israeli Jews can be friendly too.  Once you get through the initial layer of crap, Israeli Jews can be utterly generous.  In ways I’ve rarely seen in America.  Hosting people- for meals, for overnight stays.  Sometime people they barely know.  Giving directions in such depth that you could never get lost.  And following up to make sure you understood.  Israeli Jewish society has its problems, but it is not overly individualistic.  It has a sense of communal obligation that Americans could learn from.

The issue is is it really necessary to have the hard exterior to have the sweet inside?  Is it necessary to justify or excuse bullying when you see the little guy getting beaten up?  Let alone blame the victim?  Israeli Jewish society, if not all of its members, struggles with these questions.  Perhaps because the society is predicated on stealing what doesn’t belong to it.  To a degree, in 1948 when it expelled thousands of Palestinians in a morally complicated but sometimes purposeful fashion.  And to a much clearer degree, in 1967 when it occupied millions of Palestinians without their consent.  Who for four decades have lived under Israeli military occupation as the government finds lands to build Jewish settlements all around their cities.  Increasingly cutting them off from their own friends and family.  A purposeful stranglehold.

Perhaps if Israelis empathized too much with the plight of their faceless neighbors, they’d realize just how precarious their own presence is here.  In other words, Israelis are the bully.  Not because the entire Middle East conflict is their fault (it’s not), but because that’s how they’re positioned and often act.  By design- this country would probably not exist if it weren’t for this ethos, agree with it or not.  So for an Israeli to give up on justifying the behavior of a bully is to give up on the idea of Israel itself.  At least how it has been conceived of up until now.

There are brave and independent-minded Israelis who disagree with these norms and who see both Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians as human beings.  I have to be honest with you- they are a courageous minority.  Nearly half of Jews here want to expel Arab Israelis, their fellow citizens.  79% think the government should openly favor Jews over Arab citizens.  If Israelis think this simply a matter of them being more “blunt” than Americans, they are delusional.  5.64% of white Americans identify with white supremacy– even if you think that’s survey bias, that’s 1/16th of how many people think similarly in Israel.

These ideas of supremacy also extend to how Israelis treat olim, like me.  Our “diasporic” cultures- American, French, Ethiopian, Russian- are regularly ridiculed.  When I came seeking to feel at home as part of a majority, little did I realize that my American-ness would often become an anchor weighing me down.  Preventing my full integration into society- and acceptance.  I’ve had people yell at me on the bus for speaking English “too loudly”, while they scream at their friends on the phone in Hebrew.  I’ve had my accent mocked.  Something multiple friends have experienced.  Extrapolate from that, plus the Israeli tradition of hazing new immigrants, and you can imagine what it’s like.  Not to mention how they treat non-Jewish refugees.  Who, by the way, even having survived genocides, are often much nicer than my Jewish neighbors.

At this point, you might be wondering “why are you still here?”  The honest answer is I don’t know how long I will be.  I’m an Israeli citizen, I’m an Israeli resident, and I’m blessed to be able to travel here and abroad and remain both.  Even if my center of gravity may shift as my own feelings and the situation here evolves.

I will tell you what I still like about here.  More than anything else.  It’s the stuff Israel hates.  Much like when I lived in America and I loved its cultural diversity and pluralism, I also like the things that “don’t fit” with nationalism here.  In America, I liked the Vietnamese immigrants who taught me their language over pedicures.  I liked the interracial and interfaith couples- including a Jew and Palestinian I know who got married.  A Jew and an Egyptian Copt.  The vast majority of my friends are in relationships that cross race and religion- and that’s really unique.  Americans- please appreciate this gift, it is rather rare in much of the world.  Whether you personally pursue it or not, the option is a blessing.

There are Americans who don’t like that diversity.  Patriotism is a flag, a white guy in a pick up truck, and a lot of corn fields.  Some of that’s cool, but I always felt somewhat excluded from it, along with a lot of the people I care about.

Here, I’ve discovered, it’s no different.  In the sense that I love Arabic.  I love Druze culture.  I love meeting people who are half Bulgarian half Arab.  Who are Sudanese refugees who speak Hebrew, Sudanese Arabic, and Palestinian Arabic they learned here.  I like talking about my favorite Sudanese artists with them.  Artists I discovered at a Sudanese market in America.  I love my Tibetan friend whose son speaks fluent Tigre because he goes to school with Eritrean kids.  Kids who are forced into segregated schools away from Jews simply because they’re uncircumcised.  And with all that, the Tibetan dad (who speaks Nepalese, English, Hindi, Tibetan, and Hebrew) is still an online advocate for Israel.  A country that would never give him citizenship.

Rather than the self-assured chauvinistic sabra who stuffs his face with Palestinian falafel but has never visited most Arab villages in his own country, I much prefer the Arab girl who told me she loves learning Hebrew.  Who has a far more sophisticated understanding of pluralism than our own Prime Minister.  I like the Bedouin guy who married a Kavkazi Jew who then converted to Islam and then send their kids to a Jewish school.  The kids speak fluent Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Kavkazi.  And will learn English by the time they are teens.  Not unlike the Circassian kids in Rihaniya I met who *all* speak English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Adagi, their native language.

Basically, I love Israel for what its founders and leaders wished it were not.  The cosmopolitan, multi-faith, multilingual paradise that is- and can be.  It has some of the most fascinating and rich cultures in the world.  Cultures (including Jewish ones on the edge of extinction) that the government has tried really hard to suppress or stigmatize.  But have managed to make it to this day.

So in the end, what keeps me somewhat connected to this place is not Israel, it’s not really Judaism, and it’s not Zionism.  It’s what all of those things have sought to suppress.

In the swollen, in the valleys bereft of their former inhabitants, a new country arises.  In fact, it has always been there.  It gives this country’s leaders great anxiety.  And if I’m traveling abroad, it gives me a reason to think about buying a ticket.  To head to Ben Gurion Airport, hop off the plane, and as soon as humanly possible, get on a bus to the Deep North or the Bedouin South, and hang out with the people who make me feel at home.  The people you’re taught to fear.  The people I’d put on my travel brochure.

p.s.- the picture is from my trip today to the stunning Al Aramshe.  If you don’t know where that is and you’ve lived here your whole life, get on a bus and fix the problem.

 

 

 

The Worst of Israel

Every country, every society has its pluses and minuses.  In Israel, the sweet tends to be sweeter than honey and the bitter nastier than rotten horseradish.  I’ll probably write a blog after about “The Best of Israel”, but for today, here’s the worst.

Once I visited the Arab village of Tira.  It’s a non-touristy place and it was interesting to walk around.  I spoke to a woman about her family’s history over baklava. I met a young girl in a hijab who loved American movies and studying Hebrew.  And then I headed up the hill to buy some Arabic music.

On my way to the store, a man asked me where I was from.  I answered in Arabic that I was a Jew originally from the U.S.  He immediately starts screaming, almost incomprehensibly, and starts rousing up the village.  I run into a store and ask the man in Arabic: “huwwe khateer?” (is he dangerous?).  And he said “ahh” – yes.

I ran into another store, the music store, and explained the situation.  My heart was racing, this is the closest I had come to being attacked so far in Israel- for absolutely no reason.  The guys in the store were great and one man, who was somehow a former basketball player who was friends with a Jewish lawyer in the States, offered to take me to the bus stop.  A true mensch.  This was an extremely scary moment and it could’ve been deadly.

Another time I was visiting a Druze village.  I befriended some 20-something men who liked to take selfies with me.  One asked to be my friend on Facebook.  He had seen my various photos of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade (I could tell because they were on my “Facebook story”).  I make no secret of being gay on Facebook.  At some point I asked him on WhatsApp whether me being gay would be a barrier to doing volunteer work to help Druze.  A reasonable question since it’s a conservative society, but one that has extensive relationships with Jews.  His response: “no one will accept you.”  When I switched from Arabic to Hebrew to make sure I was explaining myself well, he said: “speak Arabic.”  I indicated I was sad about the situation.  His final response: “do not contact me again or I will make problems for you.”  An eerie threat considering I spend a lot of time in Druze villages.  I said I’d block him on Facebook…and he thanked me.  I’ll never hear from him again.  Because I’m gay.

The Jews here are often no better.  I was once walking in my neighborhood when some sort of conflict broke out between a faloudeh salesman and his friend (a sentence I definitely have only written here).  Another man tried defending the salesman.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but at some point he just started saying: “what, am I a fag?  Am I a fag?  Are we fags?”  I’m standing right next to him, hoping this will blow over.  He keeps repeating himself over and over.  Fag fag fag fag fag.  I’m getting nervous- not that I think the guy will do anything to me, because he doesn’t notice I’m gay.  But that’s the point, as long as I’m certain not to give off any vibe, I’m safe.  I don’t even wear bright clothing in my conservative neighborhood anymore because people glare at me.  Let’s just say I would’ve felt scared to death wearing a rainbow t-shirt at this point.  Like my friend who got denied service at a Jerusalem restaurant for being gay.  At some point he hugged his friend, promising to defend him from the other guy.  And left.

I wish I could say this was the only homophobia I experienced- by the way, in Tel Aviv.  But it’s not.  I know a Reform Jew who once told me that the key was to “restrain my inclination”.  Another Reform woman once told me: “it’s a shame you’re gay, here’s such a beautiful young woman.”  I once had two Reform Jews- one a rabbinical student and one the spouse of a rabbi- tell me that my friend who got kicked out of the Jerusalem restaurant was being “disrespectful” for wearing a rainbow shirt.  Not a far leap from “her skirt was too short”.  There’s a lot, lot, lot of internalized sexual shame here.  And a tendency, especially among Jews, to let their sympathies linger a bit too long with the abuser rather than the victim.

My neighborhood, for those who follow the blog, is filled with refugees from all over the world, especially Eritrea and Sudan.  It’s a complex issue- a poor neighborhood purposefully flooded with refugees- and a lot of ensuing conflict.  I’m personally an activist against the government’s plans to deport the refugees.  While I can empathize in many directions here, I have seen some pretty unbridled racism that goes beyond trying to fix the situation.

I was once leading a demonstration down Rothschild Blvd, the main drag in wealthy Tel Aviv.  A young, secular-looking woman comes up to us and says she was sexually assaulted (maybe by a refugee- not clear).  We said that was terrible.  I even told her I was a sexual assault survivor.  Before we could get a word in, she noticed my friend’s American accent.  She said: “unlike you, my mommy and daddy didn’t buy me an apartment.  I hope the refugees rape you.  I hope they rape you.”

I have been to many demonstrations in many places and never before had someone told me they wished someone raped me.  Sick.

There’s certainly a lot of low-key racism as well.  Whenever I tell a Jewish friend I’m going to a Druze or Arab village, the usual response (80% of the time) is “but what is there to see?”  Like it’s a trash pit.  I’ve had secular Jews tell me: “Druze are chameleons.  They are liars and untrustworthy.”  One ultra-Orthodox man told me: “the best goy is worse than the worst Jew.”  If that’s not straight out of a neo-Nazi playbook, I don’t know what is.  And this was after I gave him money to buy food for Shabbat.  After I told him I had refugee friends.

Lest you think this is limited to the political right, I was once at the house of an activist in Women Wage Peace, a non-profit activist group.  We were talking about the expulsions- sometimes forced- of Arabs from their villages in 1948.  A complex issue (indeed, some villagers were shooting at Jews), but for me, certainly once that aroused sadness.  Losing home is a hard thing and it’s hard for me to believe that everyone who left was a threat and that nobody should be let back.  The woman, who was a self-aggrandizing super-leftist said: “yeah, but it was necessary.”  Acknowledging that yes, forced expulsions had happened, but they were necessary.  My jaw dropped.  There’s something about Israeli bluntness that’s disarming, sometimes charming, but in this case, just left me stupefied.

The tribalism here is unhinged.  While it gives the nation some of its unique flavor and cultural traditions, it carries the price of sometimes intense bigotry.  I once met a secular guy reading a Japanese comic in a bookstore.  I told him I wanted Yiddish books- he points to the two in the store and says: “why do you want them?”  I explained I speak the language.  He says: “it’s dead, who would you speak to?”  I said I often go to Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, along with secular Yiddish institutions.  He says: “Bnei Brak?  Why would you want to speak with them?”  He goes on to tell me how terrible Haredim are and I said: “how many do you know?”  None.  But he tells me a whole bunch of things he read in the news.  News stories about people who live 20 minutes away.  Who he knows less about than Japan.

I’ve met Christians who won’t marry Christians from the neighboring village- because there was once a feud.  And Christians who told me they keep their minority Muslim neighbors “in line”, or they’d show them who’s boss.  I’ve heard the same thing from Druze about their Muslim minorities.  And then, this was surprising to me, there have been blood feuds between Christians and Druze.  Two relatively well-integrated minorities, but because of a bunch of religious symbolism and tribal honor, somehow got involved in a decade long killing spree.

Many times when visiting mosques, Muslims have tried to convert me- as if I didn’t know what that process was.  It was opaque and manipulative.  Not every time, but many times.  When people ask if I’ve read the Quran and I say yes, they are shocked that I haven’t converted.  They repeat the question.  This is a problem with Islam itself- the idea is the Quran is so perfect that anyone who reads it would obviously convert.  I once, oddly enough given their pro-Israel leanings, had an Ahmadi Muslim tell me the government was abusing the Torah to “let in a bunch of Russian atheists”.  He suggested this was similar to when extremist Muslims like Hamas misinterpreted the Quran.

I was once in Bnei Brak taking a Yiddish lesson.  I was paying an ultra-Orthodox man to learn.  He knew I wasn’t Orthodox- and I told him that from the beginning.  On his “non-Kosher” phone- he also has a Kosher one with censorship.  I was learning a lot and at some point the question of my Jewish background came up.  I said I was a Reform Jew.  This really set him off- he told me all the reasons I was wrong, that I was destroying Judaism, that it wasn’t really Judaism, and that in their eyes, I was more dangerous than a secular Jew.  Because I was laying claim to being religious which, in his eyes, I was not.

The chutzpah of the conversation would not have been surprising (though it’s worth mentioning I have had more positive interactions in Bnei Brak, even once when I’m saying I was Reform).  But for the fact that I was paying this man!  And he was otherwise unemployed- but enjoying the state benefits I pay to him and to his yeshivas.  I tried to reason with him to no avail.  He then tried to extort me by asking for more money for the initial lesson- because (due to this debate) we went over time.  Without him having specified a time limit beforehand.  It was simply a flat fee for a trial lesson.

I went to an ATM to get money and came back.  Deflated, angry.  I told him here’s your money.  He asked, in my view completely delusional, when I’d be coming back!  I said: “I’m not sure I will, I’ll think about it.”  Surprisingly, I got him to apologize to me over text (from his non-Kosher phone).  I accepted his apology and told him I wasn’t comfortable coming back.

Israelis have a propensity for always wanting to be right.  I was once at a board games night- the other players knew I was American.  Seeing a card marked “peaches”, a player said this meant “boobs” in English.  I said no.  He argued with me and when I reminded him that I was American, he said he had visited the White House and was “verrrry fameeeeliar with zee American culture”.  It’d be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that he was dead serious.  I’ve had Israelis try to tell me how much college costs in America (without having studied there).  One woman tried to tell me I didn’t come to Israel for upright Zionist reasons because I also wanted good healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I was at my doctor’s office the other day.  I’m waiting patiently in line when a man comes in, complaining of some sort of ache.  The woman behind the desk tells him to lower his voice.  The man keeps yelling and tries to get in front of me in line.  To make things easier, I tried to schedule an appointment for the next day with the receptionist, which would make my life and the man’s life easier and resolve the issue.  But unfortunately there were no good times and I was about to be let in to see the doctor.  So I decided to keep waiting.

At this point, the man starts screaming to get in front of me.  This is the Israeli way for many people- yell until you get what you want.  It has actually happened to me at another doctor’s office too.  I told the man my appointment would be quick but I had been waiting patiently and wanted to go in.  A pretty reasonable approach.

Instead, the man raises his fist, threatening to hit me.  He calls me an animal.  I’m used to Israeli aggression, but there was something disconcerting about his tone and his physical posture.  I called the police.  What was most alarming is that the people around me, rather than scolding the man for threatening me (when I had done nothing wrong)- they rushed over to make sure he was OK.  While they glared at me.  This is a fundamental Israeli problem- focus your attention on soothing the aggressor rather than enforcing rules to protect everyone.

Eventually, I canceled my complaint to the police, because I realized they wouldn’t do anything anyways.  And sure enough, the doctor let the man in to see him.  While I walked home.

Simple trips to the grocery store or pharmacy can be a struggle here.  Lines are not a thing.  People are jockeying and pushing and fighting to get there first- desperate not to be a “fraier” or “sucker”.  I once saw a fist fight nearly break out at the post office just over who would be seen first.  Consideration is not an Israeli value.  My neighbors behind me run some sort of a kids program and at 9am on the weekend, they blasted techno music with subwoofers while I was trying to sleep.   My downstairs neighbor shouts to Beyonce at 2am on Wednesdays- until I went downstairs and explained that some of us have to work.  He was perplexed and annoyed that I would even care.  I’m pretty sure he’s the neighbor whose pet seems to leave little brown gifts in the hallway, though I haven’t figured out that smelly mystery yet.

Personal lack of consideration often bleeds into the political.  I once met an Arab actor at a bilingual theater guild whose Facebook profile mocked Holocaust Remembrance Day.  He was outraged that I had looked at his page- when he had added me.  He started talking about the Nakba and how we have to respect both- which is clearly not what he wrote.  As I see it, sadness is sadness and there’s no justification for mocking anyone’s tragedy.  And he should probably find a job where he’s not working with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

A strange thing about Israel is that while the State (and most of Jewish society) wants olim, or new immigrants, like me, there is a lot of prejudice against us.  I was once held up by security guards at the Central Bus Station who just wanted to mock American accents in Hebrew.  I really wanted to get my bus, so I played along at first, but after a few minutes of denigrating my countrymen, I really wanted to go.  And they just kept laughing.  Until I did a pretty spot-on Israeli accent in English.  Then they weren’t laughing- thin skinned much?

Israelis, sabras in particular, love to put down olim.  I’ve heard lots of complaints about how much French is heard in Tel Aviv.  How Americans “stick to themselves in a bubble” (usually couched in a compliment about my Hebrew for not being “like theirs”).  How Russians aren’t really Jewish.  Even as they escaped the Soviet Union for being perceived as such.

The organizing principle of Jewish society is that the Sabra, the native-born Israeli, is superior.  And olim have to be “taught” and put in our place.

I speak fluent Arabic- much, much better than most Israeli Jews who have lived here their whole lives.  With 1.8 million Arabs.  I was once in Ein Hod, an artists colony founded on top of an emptied Palestinian village.  I was speaking to some Arab men in Arabic.  A Jewish woman interjects and starts telling me “about Arabs”- in the third person.  In front of actual Arabs.  Then, a Jewish man comes over, again not party to the conversation, and says to the Arabs: “his accent isn’t native, is it?”  Pointing to me.  I asked the man if he even spoke Arabic.  “Oh a few words from my Iraqi parents.”  But he just had to show he was better than me- even though he literally had no idea what we were talking about.  I’d be more offended if it weren’t for the fact that the most frequent question I get from Arabs is whether I’m Syrian or Lebanese.

The lack of rules and respect here, while occasionally offering opportunity for creativity, is usually a burden.  Rental protections are meager, at best.  Everything is a negotiation- an exhausting and unnecessary process.  My first landlord in Israel once stole a thousand shekels from me and said she’d “give it back later”.  When I asked for the money, she doubled down and it took five days of arguing and talking to my lawyer to get the money back.  Which was never hers.  In her words: “you can have it back.  I’m done with this.”  Was it ever her choice to make?

There’s a lot of distrust here.  Both landlords and tenants don’t really have strong enforceable rules to protect both parties.  A metaphor for a lot of problems here.  General distrust has made it hard for me to travel.  Sadly, it often has historical roots.  In Druze and Arab villages, people tell me a lot of the time they worry I’m an undercover cop.  I’ve gotten mean, sometimes scared stares from Jews when speaking Arabic on my phone in Tel Aviv- so I don’t do so anymore.  It’s not comfortable.  Oddly enough, perhaps given the xenophobia and anti-olim prejudice, I’ve even gotten yelled at for speaking English on the phone on the bus.  While someone shouts into their cellphone in Hebrew next to me.

All of this doesn’t even touch the issue of terrorism and war.  Trust me, that adds to the tension here too.  So does the threat to deport my refugee neighbors.  When I eat at their restaurants, I sometimes don’t know if it’ll be the last time I see them.  Homophobic and racist legislation became an afterthought when writing this post because there were so many other things to share.  Believe me, that’s rough too.

The invasion of personal space (this is not an Israeli concept), the fat shaming, the sexual harassment, the racial profiling (I was once profiled as an Arab), the heavy-handed judgments and overflowing advice peering at you from every corner.  It’s rough.  Some of these things happen everywhere- and I feel they happen more here than I’m used to seeing.  And I speak 9 languages.

Are there good things about Israel?  This is a silly question.  Of course.  There is warmth, there is cultural preservation, there are languages, there is beautiful nature, there are kind people, there are people willing to host you and go out of their way for you.  Even never having met you.

Everyone have unique experiences.  Yours may be different- these are some of mine.

In Israel, be aware that you may have similar ones.  This is not a miniature America nor is it Italy.  This is a rough and tumble Middle Eastern country with an active conflict and a ton of social tension.  Some really important values and others that make me cringe or cry.

I’m proud and strong to have overcome these and many, many other obstacles.  I now find traveling in other countries much easier and have become keenly aware of how to build trust with people- and who to avoid.

Wherever your journeys take you, may they bring you joy, hope, wisdom, and health.

p.s.- my cover photo is of graffiti saying “Kahane was right”.  Meir Kahane was a rabbi who proposed expelling Arabs and Palestinians.  Such graffiti can be found in my neighborhood, sometimes with graffiti opposing it.