Let’s talk about occupation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

מטע אדלר

Matt Adler

Jew. Jueu. יהודי.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s explore together. 🙂

The single best moment of my entire trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They smiled and turned the volume down.

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

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

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

The wonderful, the ignorant, and the outright anti-Semitic

I’m writing you from Spain.  The past week, I stayed in Almería, a small city in the southeast corner of the country.  This is my fourth visit to Spain.  When I was 13, I came with my school.  When I was 21, I did research here for my thesis (including a fair bit of research on Spanish beaches 😉 ).  This past year, I realized my dream of re-visiting Catalonia after having learned Catalan.  And now, I’m chilling in the south of Spain.

Spain has always been an important place for me.  Spanish is the first foreign language I learned and Spain is the first country I visited without my abusive family.  At a time in my life when I was suffocating, Spain and its wonderful, warm people gave me room to breathe.  And have fun.

I fell in love.  I majored in Spanish in college.  By accident.  I was supposed to major in sociology but my university closed the department midway through my studies (yes, that’s a thing).  And I so loved Spanish that just by virtue of my desire to learn it, I had already taken enough coursework to put together a major.  Follow your heart, not the curriculum.

Every language is a source of richness.  I speak a bunch, including minority languages like Catalan and Yiddish (and have studied Irish and Basque).  Sometimes people shit on these languages for not “being useful”.  As far as I’m concerned, the way you feel about a language (or accent) is mostly about what you feel about its speakers.  Every language, like every culture, has something to offer, to make you grow, if you choose to see it that way.  Perhaps that’s why subconsciously I chose to wear a Catalan t-shirt at the Alhambra on Spain’s National Day.  An unintentional but loud statement in Andalucía, where dissing Catalans is as common as eating Gazpacho.

What enchants me about Spanish in particular is how I fit in.  Most of the time.  Because of my olive skin and Semitic features (Spaniards are also very Mediterranean-looking and have a lot of Jewish blood), I often am seen as Spanish.  Or Latino in America.  Sometimes people overlook Mediterranean/Middle Eastern people, but we look different than the Swedish people in Minnesota or the Irish Americans in Boston.  We look ethnic.  In Belgium, people think I’m Arab (including Arabs).  And I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t look American.  Not the nicest thing, but maybe there’s some truth to it.  Most people in Abercrombie ads don’t look like me.

But in Spain, people think I’m one of them- or at least a native Spanish speaker.  Partially because I’ve got a great accent, but people over the past week thought I was anything from Catalan to Venezuelan to Chilean.  In America, someone once called me a “Spic” on the Metro.  I’ve had multiple cases where people I’ve already known discover I’m not Hispanic, tell me how surprised they are, and suddenly want to be friends with me.  Here, I feel a little more at home.

In Israel too I often felt that physically I more fit in.  My appearance, indeed my DNA (I’ve run tests that show my makeup is closest to Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians), is from there.  Trust me, nobody in Hungary mistook me for an ethnic Hungarian.  Even though my great-grandparents were from there.  Israeli clothing models, politicians, rabbis, studs at the beach look a lot more like me than Channing Tatum.  But don’t get me wrong, I do like Channing Tatum 😉 .

In Spain, I’ve met some incredible people.  I met a Spanish man who told me how proud me was of his town’s judería, or Jewish quarter.  I met a Russian guy married to a Taiwanese woman who owned a bubble tea store.  Who spent 10 minutes looking up directions for me to a Sephardic heritage site.  I told an Afghan baklava seller I was from Israel- and spoke some Farsi with him.  His eyes lit up. 🙂  I ate amazing Moroccan bastilla and chatted with the owners in Arabic.  I even met a very Catholic young man marching in a Semana-Santa-style procession who directed me towards the local Jewish museum.

There’s also a lot of ignorance.  Not necessarily outright prejudice, but for sure ignorance.  A lot of people have no idea where their town’s Jewish quarter is- even when the local municipality has developed it as a tourist attraction.  And it’s been there for over a thousand years.  This particularly struck me yesterday on El Día de la Hispanidad, the day “celebrating” Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New” World.  The same year Spain kicked out its Jews.

On this day, I saw a massive Catholic procession which (although it is not actually connected) looks like a much more elaborate and classy KKK march.  Even Spaniards joked with me about it.  It really does look similar, but it is not a hate parade.  I will say it momentarily jolted me.

Spain is known for being the most (or one of the most) anti-Semitic countries in Europe according to the Anti-Defamation League’s polling.  Not surprising given the legacy of the Inquisition, although neighboring Portugal had that too, and moreso than Spain, is undergoing a kind of Jewish renaissance, including a burgeoning philo-Semitism.  Strong ties with both Israel and the Jewish community make it a much more comfortable place to be a Jew, right next door.

Spanish municipalities, particularly those governed by left wing parties, have tried over and over again to boycott Israel.  Something I find ironic, at best, in a country covered with the blood of my ancestors.  Where I’ve seen synagogues turned into office buildings, where thousands of people fill the streets celebrating Christopher Columbus.  A man by all accounts a genocidal maniac.  Incidentally likely the descendant of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by Spain.  Hired by the royal family celebrated during this week’s holiday.  The family who ethnically cleansed my people from this land.

To return to the issue of these Catholic processions, I’d like to share my experience in Alicante, another city in Spain.  In the province of Valencia.

I was walking down the street and asked someone to explain the meaning of everything.  I’m a curious guy so I listened patiently as someone explained about the various teams that put together the saints displays.  Like I mentioned, some Spaniards like to joke about how it looks like a Klan rally (long robes, candles, crosses…).  I agreed it was a bit of a culture shock, and the rather nice Spaniards I spoke with said: “yeah, it has nothing to do with violence.”

But actually, that’s wrong.  Catholicism in Spain (frankly, Catholicism for most of its existence) has until recently been about violence.  Towards Jews, towards Muslims, towards apostates.  And while today, religious processions are mostly a cute cultural custom (it’s cool to watch, the music is neat too).  Not too long ago, they were a way for the church to impose its will on the people.  Including countless Jews it forced to convert or abandon this land under penalty of death.

After a relaxing bus ride up the coast to get here (the scenery in Spain is spectacular), I went out tonight.  It was a Saturday night and I wanted to talk to people.  Traveling alone can be so rewarding, I’m learning so much about myself.  And sometimes it’s nice to take a break and be with people.

I met an interesting mix of people just by chatting on the street.  Spaniards are known for being friendly and they live up to their reputation.  There are few better places I’ve visited for someone traveling alone.  Everyone is ready to chat.

I spent the night with a mix of Spaniards, Americans, Ukrainians, and one Argentinian man.

When I said I was from Israel, everyone was cool.  In fact, the Spanish guy knows his family has Jewish roots and he wants me to bring him to a synagogue.  And if you saw his cute punim, you could see he wasn’t lying.  He’d fit right in on a kibbutz.

The only person with a problem was the Argentine.  He said to me- to my face- “how do you feel as a Jew, controlling the world’s economy?”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but there was something in his silence when I said I was from Israel that told me he’d be an anti-Semite.  Perhaps a defense mechanism I’ve developed after dealing with so much bigotry.

I told him point blank: “that’s an anti-Semitic question based on stereotypes.”

He didn’t accept it.  When I tried to explain (as if you can reason with someone this insane) that actually Israel has a lot of poor people with one of the widest wealth gaps in the OECD, he pushed back:

“The Jews in Argentina control everything.”

I gave him a deep stare, told him I actually spent two weeks helping poor Jews in Argentina after the economic crisis, and reiterated that he was being anti-Semitic.  And to my great credit, he asked for the check and left.  Two hours later, he came back with free wristbands to go to a nightclub- for everyone in the group but me.  He said: “you don’t get one.”

Message understood.

I still love Spanish.  I love every language I learn.  Every culture has richness to share.

But I don’t fit in here.  For a visit, sure.  I suppose on some level I always thought I could be Spanish or in the words of my former coworkers at a Hispanic advocacy group, an “honorary Latino”.  Before moving to Israel, I spent most of my college years and professional career working for Latino and immigrant rights.  And I’m proud of it.  It reflects my values as a Jew and as a human being and a lover of Spanish-speaking cultures.

In the end, though, it’s not mine.  At least it can’t replace my Jewish identity, though at times I wished it would.  It felt easier- what an amazing global community to be a part of.  There’s a reason everyone’s listening to reggaeton these days- it’s infectious.  For all the wars and coups and discrimination and poverty and dictatorships, being Latino is fun.  I love French and I speak it when I want a sense of calm.  But let’s face it- when people want to get down, they put on salsa, not French folk music.  Although I listen to that too 🙂 .

I wish I could say my experience with the Argentinean man was unique, but it’s not.  In fact, when I visited Argentina, I saw authentic Nazi war medals being sold at the local fruit market.  My middle school Spanish teacher taught us that in her country of Guatemala, to call someone a Jew was to call them a “burro”, an “ass”.  As she laughed.  At a gay club in Spain, men excitedly guessed where I was from and when I finally said “Israel”, two of them fell silent and turned away.  One Spanish woman compared me to an Islamic terrorist because I don’t eat pork.  In Granada, I asked the tourist info booth why the Jewish museum was closed on Friday morning, even though it was listed as being open until 2pm that day.  And the woman sassily snapped: “you have to respect, it’s the Sabbath, that’s why they’re closed, it’s their norms.”  As if I couldn’t possibly know- or be Jewish.  I explained I was Jewish and that Friday morning is not the Sabbath- they chose to list the museum as open then.  The woman couldn’t care less as she ignored me and moved on to her next task.  Her much nicer colleague grimaced.  And tried to help me.  When I worked for a Latino advocacy group in Washington, they refused to give me Yom Kippur off in exchange for Christmas.  I appealed to the president of the group.  And got my vacation back almost a year later.

It’s not because all Latinos or Spaniards are anti-Semitic.  There are people here, as in all cultures, who are curious about Judaism.  Some who love it.  And some who are indifferent or ignorant but not hostile.  Some Latinos are Jews.

I’ve also experienced a deep strain of anti-Semitism in Spanish-speaking cultures.  No doubt a product of hundreds of years of Catholic-church-sponsored hate and Inquisitions.  Today, sometimes repackaged by far-left parties as anti-Israel fanaticism.  A kind of new religion in which Jews remain all-powerful and in need of constant reprimand.

In the end, I’ll always be a Spanish speaker.  It flows off my tongue better than any other, maybe even more than Hebrew.  The language is filled with warmth.  The people such friendliness.  The culture such a diverse and interesting history.  One in which Jews have always played a part.  Our blood flows through the veins of its people, our ruins dot the town squares.  Like the former synagogue in Guadix I visited that’s now an unemployment office.

Tonight, my best conversation was with an Algerian man.  Feeling distraught about the Argentinian anti-Semite as well as some homophobic comments I heard, I wanted a taste of home.  Shwarma.

I talked to the man in Arabic, and he was surprised.  “Where are you from?”

“Tel Aviv.”

“Tel Aviv?  Palestine?”

“Israel.  Palestine.  The Land.”

“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”

“No, I’m Jewish.  I’m Israeli.”

“But you speak Arabic!”

“I do, I love it.  It’s a beautiful language.  And I like Algerian Rai music and I have Algerian Jewish friends in Israel.”

“Wow!!  Rai?!?  And your friends- do they still eat couscous?”

“Yes they do.  Every Shabbat.”

Perhaps the world expects me to have more fun with a bunch of young Spaniards and expats at a bar.  Telling me how progressive and open they are, while spewing bile about Jews and gays after a few drinks.  Perhaps belying what they really think.

But my favorite conversation tonight was with an Algerian falafel man.  Because I’m the first Israeli he’s ever met.  And my language, my heart, brought him a smile from ear to ear.

So in the end, I’m not Latino, I’m not Spanish, and I don’t really want to be.  But I am a Spanish-speaker, an Arabic-speaker, and most importantly, a person who uses language to warm hearts.

Expel us, boycott us, ridicule us in a bar.  But Judaism is as Spanish as paella.

Queen Isabella could have never imagined me staring down an anti-Semite on the streets of Alicante 500 years later.  And winning.  Let alone a Jew and a Muslim speaking in Arabic.

Confuse me for a Latino, I don’t care.  Once it would’ve made me scared that you won’t like me.  Or I’d defiantly wear my honorary Latino badge, proud to be different.  Now, I just feel I’m a human being.  I’m a Jew- who I am and what society makes me.  And I’m happy to explore all cultures and stand with kind-hearted people no matter who they are.  I’ve learned to love my olive skin more.  And I’m grateful to have places like Spain where I look normal.

Libi bamizrach.  My heart is in the East, I’m in the far West.  And the person who brought me there was an Algerian shwarma man.

Yehuda Halevi would be proud.

==

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This picture is of a door in Granada’s Jewish quarter where you can still, 500 years later, see the marks of a mezuzah.  We’re everywhere.  Scatter us like seeds, but we sprout back up wherever we’re planted.

You’re welcome, Belgium

My trip to Benelux, as I like to call it, has been interesting.  The series of low-lying small countries- Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg- has long been a destination I wanted to visit.

I like small countries.  They have unique character and frankly they’re cute!  Not so overwhelming and often overlooked- just the way I like things sometimes.  People tend to be more appreciative too when you visit places a bit off the beaten path.  Brussels isn’t a village in Latvia, but it’s certainly not Rome or Paris either.  It’s cute- not too big, not too showy, interesting.  And for me, a French-speaker and a lover of languages, this is a fascinating part of the world.  With languages bumping up side-by-side- Belgium a truly multilingual country.  With all the good and challenges that poses for its society.

While unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Netherlands, I did visit Belgium and Luxembourg.

The good thing about small countries is you can see a lot in a short amount of time.  And things do tend to change a bit from place to place.

After flying into Charleroi Airport and staying over in Jumet, I visited Namur and the Ardennes.  The Ardennes is the site of tons of World War history- from both wars.  With tremendous casualties, including many Americans who died to liberate this part of the world from fascism.

The Ardennes are green and peaceful.  Some pockets of poverty.  And some gorgeous medieval villages like Dinant and Bouvignes.  Take a look:

 

While I didn’t plan on coming to the Ardennes for its military history, it kind of found me.

When you go to the cute village of Bastogne, you can see the war everywhere.  There are graveyards for soldiers, American tanks, a museum.  And mostly Western tourists coming to see it- sometimes to meet their departed relatives.

I knew my great uncle Barney Marcus was killed here in the war- he was an American soldier.  But I didn’t know where- it could’ve been Asia or Europe.  And I didn’t know exactly when.

It’s incredibly hard for me to think about these things.  For those of you who know my blog, you know I grew up in a deeply abusive family.  On both sides.  So the genealogy I’ve done over the past year has been brave.  It’s not easy to think about connecting with relatives, even those who have departed who I’ve never met, when I have to separate myself from the people we share in common.  To protect me.

Without wanting to go into the war traumas or history (I think seeing the destroyed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe was enough), I didn’t visit much.  But I did take a picture with an American tank.  And I noticed that one older woman, initially standoffish, was quite warm to me in French when I said I was American.  I could feel her gratitude.  For something I didn’t even think of when planning this trip.  But nonetheless, it felt good.  After experiencing so much stigma in Eastern Europe, it was nice to see some people who liked me for who I was.  And to think about good things my country has done.  Like liberating this part of the world from fascism- twice.

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I also made time to visit Luxembourg.  While so many Debbie Downers asked me over and over why I would go there, my answer is simple: it’s there.  It’s a tiny country, with something different, right at my doorstep.  It’s cute, quadrilingual (Luxembourgish is a language!), and I find it interesting.

From Bastogne, I hopped on a bus.  Now I’m going to sound pretty hipster when I say I didn’t even go to Luxembourg City.  I passed through towns and villages on the way to Ettelbruck, an even smaller city in a teeny tiny country.

My image of Luxembourg was wealth.  It is one of the richest places on the planet.

And I saw some of it- the native Luxembourgers (is that a word?) were readily recognizable, driving Mercedes and BMW’s.  Not all of them, but a lot.

What was shocking was that Ettelbruck is anything but wealthy.  The rest of the town is a melting pot of Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, Cape Verdeans- name a culture.  There to work, to somehow survive in the face of eye popping prices, to make a better life.  Ettelbruck isn’t scenic, but I did learn a lot.

What I learned is there’s a lot of racism here.  Europe, in general, feels really racist.  Not everyone, but it’s a deep feeling.

As someone with caramel, olive skin and Semitic features- I stand out.  To the people (usually on the far left) who claim all Jews are white- tell that to the Luxembourgers who looked at me like I was there to clean their houses.

Because of my appearance (and sometimes because I go to decidedly non-touristic spots), I often am approached with fear and suspicion.

I should say, by all those who aren’t themselves outsiders.

On multiple occasions, Arabs have approached me in Arabic here.  Confirming my thought that the white people around me also thought I was Arab.

In fact, one night, after a particularly miserable AirBnB I had to escape (like the wolf in the forest I had to run away from- that’s another story), I ended up at an expensive hotel in Bastogne.  The Arab employee comes up and starts speaking to me in Arabic.  I said I was American…needless to say that despite my bravery and pride, this was not the moment to say I was Israeli.  Just this week, a Jew was attacked in Germany.  Sometimes it’s neo-Nazis, and a lot of the times it’s Muslim extremists.  Europe isn’t as safe as I thought it would be.

The Arab man, from Tunisia (a cool accent I hadn’t heard much before outside of Jewish Tunisian music), immediately directed me to a Halal restaurant.  Assuming I was Muslim.  Not about to say “I respect everyone but actually I’m a secular Godless Jew”, I simply went to the shwarma restaurant.

There I met a Kurdish man, a Syrian refugee, and a Libyan guy.  We had a nice chat- again, they all pretty much assumed I was Muslim (whatever, I don’t really care, and the food was great).  At the end of the meal, they gave me a free dessert, namoura.  It was delightful.  Also, the Kurdish man gave me PKK literature.  That was a first.  Despite having lived in the Middle East, I have never been so generously offered terrorist literature after dinner.  I smiled, accepted the brochure, took a few pictures, and threw it in the trash in my hotel.  The last thing I need is more airport scrutiny.  I’ll take the flight over the flier.

To return a moment to Luxembourg, something really stunned me.  I found a synagogue!  Obviously, like most of Europe, an empty abandoned one.

It was an unexpected, somewhat invasive surprise.  I was hoping to get a break from seeing the ruins of my people (see my blogs about Eastern Europe), but here we were again.  The 47 families of Ettelbruck turned into ash.  According to the sign, by “villains”.  As if this were a murder mystery and we didn’t know that Nazis and their Luxembourger collaborators killed them.

 

It’s a reminder that our blood lies spilled over this entire continent, over centuries.  It’s depressing, although I’m glad something of our civilization here remains, in spite of so much continuing hatred.

While I tried to engage with some Luxembourgers (interestingly, Yiddish proves quite useful in talking to them), they mostly shied away or even laughed at me when I said I was Jewish.

Meanwhile, the Cape Verdean women loved talking to me.  We shared the Portuguese language- a reminder that my tribes include the languages I speak.  The foreign workers in Luxembourg, almost to a fault, were welcoming and kind to me.  Perhaps seeing me, on some level, as one of their own.  Or at a minimum, to not look down on others in need of directions or a laugh.  Poor people, at the risk of sounding tokenizing, tend to be a lot warmer than rich people.  In almost every place I visit.  I suppose it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.  And when you don’t have much, hopefully you have a bit more empathy for others in need.

One of the reasons I came to Belgium was that there are living Jews.  Unlike the communities in Eastern Europe where the headstones outnumber the heads, Belgium still manages to keep Jewish life alive.  Though not with ease, in particular because of rising anti-Semitism from many directions, including (though not exclusively) its Arab immigrants.

I had the pleasure of visiting Moishe House Brussels.  For those who don’t know this international institution, it’s a pluralistic, secular-minded communal house that Jews live in around the world.  I used to go in Washington and it’s great to have a place to meet other young Jews.  Which is exactly what I needed after a long dry spell the past few weeks.

It was so nice to talk to people who understood me.  Not because I love every Jew any more than you could say you love everyone in any group.  But because in the deepest sense, all Jews share something.  Especially those who take the time to cultivate it.  We share 4,000+ years of history, of food, of persecution, of cohesiveness.  Of survival.  Of humor.  Things you can’t just understand by taking a course or going to a Bar Mitzvah.  It’s in our shared experience.

And what was also awesome was that a few non-Jews joined us.  An Italian-Belgian guy, even an Azerbaijani woman studying Israel for her PhD!  Even the Jews were diverse- Spanish, Argentinian, Croatian, Algerian, Belgian, and me- Israeli.

It was so nice to make some new friends and to do Shabbat.  Not to pray, but to eat together.  That’s what nourished me.  The conversation, the togetherness.  The warmth.

One person who I particularly connected with was named Ari.  I don’t have his whole story yet- we’re hopefully hanging out again tomorrow.  Besides a shared sense of humor, a love of animals, and a strong passion for secular Jewish culture, I was moved to hear that he grew up on his family’s Holocaust survival stories.  I know my family was murdered in the Holocaust, but since I never knew them and they were across an ocean, it’s more of a puzzle I’m piecing together.  And one thing I notice about European Jews is that, with the exception of some Sephardic Jews who made their way here after the war, almost all are descendants of Holocaust survivors.  Or are survivors themselves.

After Brussels, I visited Antwerp.  While the Brussels Jewish community is quite secular (which is cool, and somewhat hard to find outside Israel these days), the Antwerp community is hard core Hasidic.

For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you know that the last time I stepped foot in Israel, I was pretty pissed off at this community.  A community, while diverse, whose leaders use religion to prevent me from building a family.  From adopting, from using surrogacy, from getting married.  Because I’m gay and the Torah blah blah.  Utter bullshit.  Even though I spent a lot of time in Bnei Brak, Mea Shearim, Modi’in Illit, and other Haredi areas, I stopped going once I saw how hated I really was.

Something about this trip changed that.  Not because I think Haredi parties are any different now than a month ago.  But perhaps because living in the Diaspora makes it a little warmer between us.

When the government isn’t tied to religion, we don’t have to fight about it as much.  And when our non-Jewish neighbors are so fixated on persecuting us for no apparent reason, it acts as a glue to bring us together.  I can’t say I enjoy persecution, but it feels kind of nice.

As I imagined the ruined Hasidic communities of Romania and Hungary, it felt nice to see living Hasidic Jews.  Speaking Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Flemish- name a language.  It’s a Diaspora chulent.  And it tastes good.  Almost as good as *the* best cinnamon rugelach I have ever eaten in my life from Heimishe Bakery.  Go!

I had a nice chat with the owners and a Hasidic man.  I wished them a gut yontif- it was Simchat Torah that night.  The day of celebrating our book.  I’m not always a fan of this book, but it’s definitely ours.  And it felt a bit like home to be among my people.  Alive.  It put a smile on my face when the baker told me she was from Israel.  With a broad smile of her own.  In this little shop, I didn’t have to lie.

As I pondered what to do tomorrow, I thought about how I will meet with Forster.  I want to know his family’s story- if he feels up to sharing it.  And it got me thinking about my own.

I’ve often told people on this trip that I’m the first member of my family back in this part of the world since the 1880s.  When we were kicked out.

But it’s not true.

As I discovered tonight, Barney Marcus, my great uncle, died liberating Europe.

Barney Marcus was drafted at age 22 from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  With World War II raging, he enlisted in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division.

Barney was a proud Jew.  He served as the secretary of the Phi Lambda Nu fraternity- an all-Jewish fraternity started in Pennsylvania when non-Jews didn’t accept us in their ranks.

His frat brothers held a going away party for him before he was drafted.

Barney’s regiment wasn’t any old regiment.  It freed Europe from fascism in the Battle of Normandy.  You can read the incredible story here and see a rough map of his experience:

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His brothers in arms pushed the Germans out to clear the way for Allied Troops to free France, to free Belgium, to ultimately conquer Germany and put its demons to rest.

Unfortunately, Barney never made it to Germany.  He was gunned down by Germans and their sycophants in La Haye-du-Puits, France.  Not only that, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star posthumously for dying while trying to save a wounded friend.  His particular regiment was cited for “outstanding performance of duty” on July 7, 1944.  The very day he died.  Fighting his way through “artillery and mortar fire and across dense mine fields”.  I’m not bashful at all to say that his regiment took German soldiers prisoner- he came to Europe a soldier and died a victor.  An American, a Jew, a freedom fighter, and a Nazi crusher.

Barney’s regiment went on to liberate eastern France, close to the border with Luxembourg, then conquered Germany near Cologne, and ultimately ended up managing post-war chaos in Sudetenland, where German Nazi aggression started this war.  Including some displaced persons camps, perhaps with Jews in them.

I’ve noticed in my travels here that a lot of Western Europeans have forgotten.  A cab driver, when I asked him about the local history in the Ardennes, said the young people don’t want to learn it anymore.  Maybe some do, but when I hear anti-American sentiment or prejudices in this part of the world, it rubs me raw when I know that my family shed blood to keep here free.

It’s not easy to be a part of my family- I’m not really a part of it anymore, and that’s better for me.  Even though it comes at tremendous cost.

What I can say is that I wish I had known my great uncle, Barney Marcus.  Because of all the relatives I’ve heard of, he sounds like someone pretty cool.  Someone proud of his Jewishness, a brave American, someone who sacrificed his very future to save another life.  Someone I am proud to call my own, even when I can’t do so for the ones I know.

Europe- Jewish and non-Jewish- you’re welcome.  Barney and I have sacrificed for you to exist.  Like the library I visited today in Leuven, rebuilt twice by the Americans for the people of Belgium.

Jews here have a longer historical memory- though I can’t pretend I haven’t experienced some anti-Americanism from them too (or perhaps playful jealousy fed by delusional interpretations of Hollywood as reality).  But the non-Jews here, although there are some truly admirable ones like Alexis who actually lives in a Moishe House and worked for Jewish radio, they have forgotten.

They have forgotten that Belgium (not to mention France) exists because of the United States- twice.  That Jewish soldiers liberated their countries even as not a small number of their citizens helped deport our Jewish relatives.

Every city on this continent has a “Jew Street”, abandoned synagogue, or largely empty Jewish quarter.  And I’m tired of hearing people say they know nothing about it.

Or in the case of Germans I met, that I should visit Chemnitz, the site of recent neo-Nazi rallies, to realize that the people really are great and they’re just protest voters.

Enough.  Europe- anti-Semitism is your problem, not the Jewish people’s.  Just like racism is not black people’s responsibility to resolve.

I’m willing to pitch in and help educate- and even to learn from you.  Which is why I’m starting a new project, Nuance Israel, to bring together Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad, to learn together.  To build connections between kind, open-minded people.  To help European non-Jews understand their Jewish neighbors- and Israelis.  For Israelis to understand their roots- and the importance of diversity.  For people across cultures to build a new tribe- a mindset of openness, tolerance, and moderation.  Join me.

In the end, I’m done hiding who I am.  Yes, I’m from Washington, D.C., but that’s not where I live now.  I’m Israeli.  And American.  And Jewish.  And gay.  And empathetic.  And a lot of things.  And I’m not a liar.

If you- whether you’re Moroccan or Belgian or whatever- can’t handle that, then too bad.  My family is part of the reason this continent isn’t called Germany.  And I’m tired of your worn-out excuses for why America or Israel are so terrible.

Your social safety net was set up by the Marshall Plan and your economies thrive in part because American tax dollars provide most of your defense.

I’m not suggesting America (or Israel) is perfect- it’s not.  We’re not a shining beacon of light for the rest of the world to emulate- we’re just another country.  But one that does some good.  And has things to learn from you too.

I thought about making a spontaneous trip to La Haye-du-Puits tomorrow to see where my uncle sacrificed himself for freedom.  For Europe, for its Jews, for tomorrow.  On some level, for me.  Thank you, Barney.  I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my family, but today you gave me a little ray of hope- a connection to a person I’m proud to call my own.

Maybe one day I’ll visit- I’ve long been searching for specific places in Europe my family stepped foot on.  I have some I might visit one day, but I don’t know that I’ve reached them yet.

What I do know is tomorrow I’m hanging with Ari.  A living Jew.  A new friend.  Someone whose own destiny is tied up with my own.

Because even though we’ve barely met, I know we’re both survivors.  That when his family, wherever they were, were resisting Nazi fascism and anti-Semitism, holding on for dear life in the face of deep inhumanity.  My great uncle was working to set them free.  Because wherever we are, we don’t give up.

Which is why in the face of the deep inhumanity I’ve faced, especially from within my family, I choose life.  Am yisrael chai, the people Israel lives.

And if you don’t like it, I’m afraid you’ll never succeed in extinguishing our flame.  It burns as bright as the bombs my great uncle dashed between to set your country free.

Nuance Israel

Dear friends and readers-

Over the past year and a half, you’ve grown accustomed to seeing this space being used to tell stories.  You’ve seen me traveling Israel and Europe.  To places many people never visit- the Bedouin village of Al-Aramsha, Hasidic Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit, Taibeh, Kiryat Gat, and almost every single Druze village.  And in Europe, places like Salerno, Italy; Debrecen, Hungary; and Sibiu, Romania.  Off the beaten path and exciting.

If you follow my blog, you know how much I like to talk to people.  About being Jewish, American, Israeli, gay.  In different languages and in different cultures.  And learning about the people I meet.

Sometimes, it goes great and sometimes it’s really hard.  On this blog, I’ve shared 137 posts and counting.  192,085 words.  Completely free of cost for you to explore.  Filled with my passion for life and learning and growth.  I have spent thousands of dollars and hours on this project- and it is so worth it.  I’m proud to have connected with 70,000 readers from Libya to Poland, Taiwan to Pakistan.  I even have 22 readers in Saudi Arabia!

Every story I hear from readers inspires me too.  The Libyan woman learning Hebrew on her own.  The Lebanese gay guy in Germany who loves Israel.  The Kurdish Muslim who wanted to serve in the IDF!  Where physical borders exist, technology sometimes helps us break down barriers and warm hearts.  In all directions.

My new project, Nuance Israel, is all about this.  I want to create travel, language, and cultural exchange programs to build human connections between Jews and non-Jews in Israel and around the world.  To show that Israel is not black-and-white.  My country is good, bad, and mundane.  It has beautiful texture, like life itself.  Together, we can grapple with the challenges and grow.

I’d be so grateful if you take the time to learn about my new venture and to consider making a donation.  If you’ve loved my blog, it’s more than fair to ask for a little help to keep things going 😉  Your donation will help me build infrastructure- a website, staff, volunteers, grant writing.  To be able to set up language classes, exchange programs, and more.  It’ll give me the time to start this important work.  Even $5 can help.

With your help, we can bring some nuance to the world’s understanding of Israel and promote the value of understanding in Israel itself.  At a time of increasing polarization, let’s cross boundaries, not each other.

Thank you for your support.  Join me in my next adventure 😉

-Matt

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.

2 nice Slovenians and 2 deranged British leftists

Today was interesting.

I started the day by going to the Jewish Museum of Ljubljana.  A place well worth visiting.

The director of the museum was out, but a technician from the puppet theater next door (!!) showed me around.  While I feel sad to see Jewish community spaces in disrepair, I’ve noticed a couple times in this part of the world that art spaces are sometimes next door.  Or inside.  And if I had to choose one kind of entity to inhabit our space, it is definitely this.  Better than the Slovenian Jewish cemetery turned into a casino.

The man was very nice, let me walk around for a bit.  There were some artifacts, which was cool.  And also a short video outlining how the center uses culture- rather than religion- to bring together Slovenians and tourists to learn about tolerance.  Using the Jewish experience as a way to build shared values and make life better.  A message I thoroughly enjoyed.  If you visit here, check out the tiny but heartfelt space.  A reminder how a small group of people can use history for good.  To keep a struggling Jewish community alive while contributing to the broader culture- a generous message this part of the world seriously needs.

After I finished, we stood outside for a few minutes.  We just chatted- about everything.  Ljubljana, his upcoming journey to New York (he’s very excited), his collaboration with Jewish institutions, and how he still lives at home at the age of 40 (!!), mostly for financial reasons.  He was also really cute 🙂  To find a non-Jew so kind, friendly, and organically curious about my culture was sincerely refreshing.  When he talked about Judaism, it was like he was talking about his favorite fruit or a fun trip last weekend.  Not forced, not against, just kind of natural.  It felt great.

Outside, I noticed a 20-something year old man with a very Jewish face.  We come in all shapes and sizes, but this guy looks like he eats gefilte fish.  Standing at his side is his female partner.

I chatted them up, turns out they were British.  We talked about Jews and talked about what life was like for me in Tel Aviv.  Turns out the female partner, Alice, was not Jewish but had spent 3 months volunteering with NGOs in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  It made me a bit nervous- some of these crusading goyim I’ve met in Israel are quite anti-Semitic, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe she was just a well-intentioned do-gooder.  Plus sometimes I share their distaste for human rights abuses.  Maybe we had political differences but I hoped that here in no-man’s land they wouldn’t matter so much and we could find common ground.  I’ve heard dire warnings about the anti-Semitic European left, but people are diverse and I prefer to understand things from my own experience.

I won’t defend an “us vs. the world” Jewish isolationism- a paranoia that is playing out in the creeping fascism of the Israeli state towards its “internal enemies”.  And I also won’t tolerate a bunch of privileged Europeans lecturing me about who I am and why my country is so terrible.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what they did.  The woman told me about the awful settlers, how I can agree or disagree with international law but there is no doubt it holds an “objective truth”.  That she boycotts Israeli settlement products.  And she’s so brave for “fighting” anti-Semitism in leftist circles- including friends of hers who refused an AirBnB guest because of his Jewish name.  She did scold them.  Good for her!  While the far right in Israel may be so paranoid that they start to resemble their oppressors, they are on to something here.  The far left in Europe, if it is anything like these two young people, is quite sick.

I asked them if they also boycott Chinese goods because of China’s occupation of Tibet.  Over and over again they kept saying “it’s not the same”.  While admitting some similarities, apparently the major difference is China is a big country and the “international community” has decided Palestinians deserve a state, while Tibetans do not.  After I shot down their assertions that China wasn’t really so bad about colonizing Tibet (it is), they finally admitted “there should” be demonstrations for Tibetans.  But they couldn’t answer why so few of their friends seem to care.  Or why so few leftists take to the streets to protest the chemical weapons massacres in Syria, the oppression of Kurds, or the forced assimilation and dispossession of Berbers.

Any time I tried to encourage them to rethink their double standards, they kept saying I was “deflecting”, evading Israel’s responsibility for the occupation.  No matter how many times I said I was against human rights abuses, that I was deeply concerned about expanding settlements, and that Palestinians lived under fear of Israeli violence and land appropriations, it didn’t matter.  Even though I want equality and freedom for Palestinians, including from my own country’s military and government, it didn’t matter.  I was either their brand of pro-Palestinian or, in not so many words, a fascist.  When I prefer to think of myself as pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and above all, pro-human being.

The Jewish guy was even worse than his partner.  He claimed that Muslim anti-Semitism was understandable because when they saw their Palestinian counterparts from the Islamic Nation (the Ummah) being oppressed, they got angry.  That their suffering meant more to them because they were fellow Muslims.  An argument practically carbon copied from the Islamic Brotherhood- and frankly, a nationalistic and deeply illiberal one.  Why should someone in Morocco be justified in hating Jews because of the Israeli state’s policies towards Palestinians?

I told them this: “the Israeli government’s oppression of Palestinians does contribute to their hatred of us.  And it makes many of them angry- often justifiably so.  And it fuels sadness, extremism, and desperation in their society.  And some of their hatred predates Israel or is unrelated to our existence.  There were Moroccan Muslims killing Jews in 1033.  Long before the State of Israel existed- hardly because of it.  Sharing a religious text with someone is never a justifiable reason to hate someone else.”

But they didn’t buy it.  In their view, Muslim attacks on British soil were “different” than Hamas.  Israelis deserve it and they don’t.  That suicide bombings were somehow similar to American slave revolts.  The Muslim world was “complex”- its growing fanaticism “not clear” and ultimately caused entirely in reaction to colonialism and the Cold War.  Certainly Western intervention is a factor in the development of extremist Islam, but fanaticism is hardly a new concept.  The circumstances around us influence our choices and all people and peoples have the agency to choose our behavior.  While in the Jewish guy’s view, Palestinians were “justified” in being anti-Semitic, I think that infantilizes them.  I know Palestinians who’ve worked very hard to overcome anti-Semitic stereotypes to become peace activists.  Just as Jews have overcome racism they were taught about Arabs.  And to suggest hatred as an acceptable default is to simply elevate the most extreme voices in society.  And to not expect anything better from people.  To devalue our ability to make choices and to disempower people striving for something better.

In the Jewish guy’s view (his name was Adam), Israel’s “existence” was the cause for Arab hatred of Jews.  When I asked him whether he believed all of Israel was occupied Palestine, he giggled and said he “wouldn’t dive into that debate now”.  I suppose it would ruin his two week vacation to Slovenia- a privilege few Israelis and Palestinians enjoy.

When I talked about Jews expelled from Arab countries, their passions barely lifted.  “That was bad too.”  But they returned immediately to their talking points.  Without a even sigh of sympathy for my friend’s Syrian Jewish family whose old house has been turned into a nightclub.  Who lost their possessions and their citizenship in the name of a rabid Arab nationalism now tearing that country to shreds.

In Alice’s view, the difference between Israel and China is that Israel claims to be a European-style democracy.  She expects more from us.  When I told her that not a small number of (in my view, mistaken) Israelis would prefer a Jewish state over democracy, she said “that’s the point”.  Not realizing I had undermined her entire argument.  Very few Israelis consider their country European- some sort of Middle Eastern Sweden.  For us, Israel is a safe haven, a place where yes, civil liberties and peace are quite fragile and often under attack.  A place where we don’t have the luxury of sitting on a quiet Oxford lawn sipping tea while we discuss the state of the world.  ISIS is on our border, not just the news cast.  This doesn’t excuse extremism in my country, but it’s also not a reason for ignorant Europeans to come parading telling us how bad we are at being like them.  As if that’s all we truly wanted to be.  What I don’t want to be is a British law student whose tuition is subsidized by the War in Iraq and 400 years of colonialism lecturing the world about human rights.  Next time you’re in Israel, visit Atlit, the prison camp your country dumped Holocaust survivors in while you colonized our homeland.  To the detriment of both Arabs and Jews.  The effects still felt today.  Look in the mirror first.

The mirror is not a place she wanted to look.  At a time when 40% of British Jews are so scared of left-wing anti-Semitism in their country they’re considering leaving, she had not a word to say about the topic.  Only that British Jews were hypocrites for feeling so emotionally attached to Israel, for being irrational, for not allowing what she would consider adequate debate of the issue.  The sad thing is I wish we did have more open debate about Israel in Jewish communities and there are people stifling it.  It’s because of people like Alice that those people have the upper hand and fear dominates our discussion.  It’s because of her that their fear is partially based on reality, even if it ends up hurting Jews as we’re forced to whisper our views for fear of outsiders using our words against us.  To attack us.  As Jews.  As Israelis.  She refuses to see that she is an outsider or that she has any privilege as a non-Jew.  Being a human rights lawyer apparently gives her free reign to evangelize like her colonial forefathers, to decide the acceptable limits of debate in a community not her own.  Persecuted by her own to this day.

What was particularly baffling is that Alice is herself a product of colonialism.  Though perhaps this explains her chaos.  She is an Anglophone living in Wales, a territory violently subjugated and conquered by the British.  The majority of Wales now speaks English- both because of British colonists like Alice’s family and because of the state’s suppression of the language.  When I suggested she was being a bit of a hypocrite for the disproportionate attention she places on Israel rather than tending to her own backyard, she grew incredulous.

“You don’t know anything about my family!  My mom wasn’t even born in Wales, she was born in Kenya.”

My jaw dropped so hard it almost broke through the table.  “Your mom was born in Kenya?  When it was a British colony?”

“Yes, but it’s not my fault.”

I suppose it’s not.  Just like it’s not the fault of millions of Jews who’ve made their way to Israel to escape oppression.  When no other country would have us.  Even from countries like Slovenia where to this day, Jews are struggling for government support in reclaiming our Holocaust and Communist-era property.  In a continent that just weeks ago saw a massive neo-Nazi march in Germany, is it too much to ask for a little empathy?

As if these two hooligans couldn’t get any dumber, part of the reason they came here was to learn about the “glories” of Slovenian socialism.  A country so utterly decimated by this hapless system that to this day, you can quickly recognize which cities the communists ruined.  By their ugly architecture, environmental degradation, and plaques commemorating thousands of political prisoners.  I suppose Slovenian socialism would make for a fun dinner table conversation at a British potluck, but Slovenians are too busy healing from this nightmare to attend.  Perhaps their friends in other poor Eastern European EU countries are cleaning up after your party.  After all, wealthy Brits do like this part of the world for cheap labor.  Quite a number of Romanians I’ve met used to work in London- and many made a point to say they had never made a British friend.  One man actually told me he made more Pakistani and Arab friends than native-born Brits.

After reaching a crescendo where I started to notice our volume was disturbing the other patrons, I felt bad for the people sitting near us and brought things to an end.  Despite Alice’s repeated begging for me to just see how I was wrong, how my feelings weren’t justified.  How Israeli expansionism was somehow different and worse than the British in Wales or the Chinese in Tibet.  That we were just so terrible- and that I was ridiculous for feeling she had something “against me”.

By this point, any benefit I got from the conversation had evaporated.  I dug deep and skillfully managed to wrap up the conversation politely by wishing them safe travels.  We parted ways.

The main benefit- and it was quite insightful- was that I got was to understand the mentality of left-wing authoritarians.  Well-educated, polite anti-Semites.  People happily defending the Islamic ummah, justifying anti-Semitism, celebrating the 1950s, and using nationalism as the primary basis for people’s rights.  People oddly reminiscent of the far-right they hate.  The main difference being who they hate, not that they hate.

I left fuming.  Fuming because I had just been berated by lousy anti-Semites dressed in chique clothing and shrouded in law degrees and fancy language.  But no different in mentality than any other anti-Semite.  Their weapon may be their pocketbook and their Amnesty International meetings.  Rather than the crowbar of a neo-Nazi.  But their effect is the same- to degrade the Jewish people and hold us to an unfair, unequal, and unjustifiable standard applied to no other nation.  That’s why every other nation’s problems are “different”, but ours are worthy of boycotts.  Adam even suggested that Israel should be an “or lagoyyim”, a light unto the nations.  Something I told him is actually a racist concept and holds us to an unreasonable standard.  As if him mouthing two Jewish words made him less of a bigot towards his own people.

I also felt quite proud afterwards.  In the face of senseless hatred, rather than getting sucked into the vortex of black-and-white abusive thinking they wanted me to step into, I had managed to show empathy and nuance.  In one conversation, I managed to defend the humanity of Palestinians, settlers, Jews, linguistic minorities, Muslims, and Israelis.  And to challenge the myths behind many cookie cutter narratives about each of these groups.  I’ve only shared a piece of the conversation, but I noticed that I held my middle ground and showed understanding for myself, my people, and all the groups mentioned.  Groups that are known for tearing each other to pieces.

I walked around until I found a cell phone store.  A young man was behind the counter and we started talking.  He was Slovenian but with quite a beautiful British accent.  Marko’s father was British- apparently other Slovenian kids made fun of him for it.  Why?  I’m not quite sure.  I suppose simply because he was different, a minority, a Brit where the British weren’t King.

We talked about my travels and my roots.  He told me about non-Slovenian Slavic immigrants discriminated against in Slovenia.  People, in his view, now increasingly woven into the fabric of his country.  Which he liked.  He listened attentively and kindly as I shared my family’s experience with anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.

He was so empathic.  I suggested he visit the Jewish Museum and he enthusiastically looked it up in front of me and said he’d visit.  He was really impressed that I was visiting local sites, not just popping by to see the big castle and move on to Vienna.  It’s worth noting here that the British folk, when I suggested they visit the Jewish museum, gave a polite nod and seemed rather disinterested.  Would that they had just one ounce of compassion for the Jews of the country they’re visiting that they have for Palestinians.

Marko taught me about a lot Slovenia.  Its history, its problematic expulsions of minorities including ethnic Germans, and his feeling that things are getting better.  He even showed me crazy long spreadsheets he has to deal with at work.  And we laughed at the passive-aggressive notes his colleagues leave in the Google Docs.

As I left, Marko said something that really struck me.

“Grab your heritage and explore!  Go for it!”

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

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

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

At a time when societies are increasingly polarized and people search for the comfort of orthodoxy- be it the Bible or international human rights law- I’d rather wander with Marko and the technician from the puppet theater.

It’s hard to live without a concrete set of rules.  To sometimes use “maybe”.  To realize things aren’t as simple as “if Israel immediately exits the West Bank there will be peace”.  Even as you agree with the thrust of the argument.  Even as you have to protect yourself from people who mouth similar words to you but in order to destroy you rather than lift humanity up.  That the reasons you think the way you do are just as important as what you actually think.  I choose to struggle in the space where I have to create meaning and relationships for myself rather than having it dished to me by circumstance or creed.

I think religious dogma is still a problem and I’m coming to realize dogma itself is perhaps the greater problem.  Someone’s “religion” could just as well be UN resolutions instead of the Quran.

Shared ideology or imagined national identity can provide a sense of community, something hard for people living in the rich textured space of the “in between”.  At a time of increasing displacement, migration, and alienation from our surroundings.  Where Facebook likes take precedence over human sight.

After the absurd hatred of these British anti-Semites, I’m not suddenly about to vote for Bibi and move to a settlement deep in the West Bank.  Nor do I think all British people are anti-Semites.  Or even all leftists, though this definitely makes me rather cautious about engaging with them.

What it does clarify for me is that my new tribe is hard to find because we’re the most loosely organized.  For by our nature we are not group-thinkers.  We are coherent, diverse individuals trying to live with kindness and conscience, just doing our thing.  We don’t have a flag.  We just grab our heritage, our art, or our heart and live.  And let live.

We may never make the news because bombings bring ratings.  As do wild accusations and extremist thought.  Moreso than a half-Slovenian half-British guy becoming friends with a wandering Jew at a cell phone store.  In need of warmth after being battered by people who, on paper, are more like him.

This story is a whole lot richer than Donald Trump’s latest tweet and some European extremists shouting about Israel as if we’re the only problem in the world.  As if our very existence is the issue, rather than thousands of years of conflict and a complicated situation.  Nuance isn’t in their vocabulary, which is how they make the front page.  Or in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, into Parliament.

My story matters.  And next time I meet a smug, privileged European who wants to lecture me about how strong and powerful and irrational Israel is, how Palestinians aren’t anti-Semitic, that we deserve to be killed.  Instead of sitting with them until I can pay the bill, I’ll walk inside, settle, and leave.  I have nothing to say to people like this anymore.

I’ll be talking with actual Muslim friends instead of waxing sentimental about the Ummah.  I’ll be socializing with real Slovenians or Romanians instead of reminiscing about the socialism that harmed their families.  And I’ll be standing up for the Jewish people and all people wherever you come to harm them.  No human being deserves hatred and violence.

That’s empathy.

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