Everything is Better in America

Israelis love, love, love to tell me how much better and easier things are in America.  Aside from several seriously well-informed Sabras who understand the challenges of American healthcare, college education, crime, gun violence, public transportation (or lack thereof), and anti-Semitism, a lot of people here just don’t get it.  On the other hand, a lot of Israelis (including some who say America is better, in an act of serious cognitive dissonance) like to tell me how awful the food is, how naive the people are, and how fake everyone is in the U.S.

In the spirit of shedding light and dispelling myths, here’s my take on what’s better in America and what’s better in Israel.


  • America is the most diverse country on the planet.  430 languages are spoken in the U.S.  There are hundreds of Protestant denominations alone- not to mention Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians of all varieties, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Bahai, Rastafarians, Mormons, and Native American religions.  It’s extremely racially diverse- there are twice as many Asians in the U.S. as there are Israelis in the world.  And seven times as many Latinos.
  • Much more so than in Israel, Americans of different backgrounds work, play, pray, and learn together.  On my high school soccer team, white Christian kids were a minority (and somehow almost all of them were blond!).  Just on one team, off the top of my head 13 years later, we had kids from El Salvador, Korea, Iran, Israel (!), Georgia, Bulgaria, Peru, Cameroon, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Turkey, Russia, and a bunch of Jews.  There were no organized co-existence activities- this was just our normal life!
  • Pluralism.  In the U.S., thanks to the separation of church and state, religion is a personal rather than a legal matter.  This even benefits the Jewish community, where over the course of my life I became friends with Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and even Haredi Jews.  Are there debates between Jews?  For sure.  But the relationships between communities are much deeper in the U.S. than here and there is far, far less vitriol.
  • Ethnic food.  Yes, thanks to the tens of millions of immigrants from around the world, American food is amazing.  I’m really sorry (not sorry) for my Israeli friend who posted about her office in Denver not providing her with suitable vegetables for breakfast (side note- nowhere I’ve been outside of Israel eats vegetables for breakfast).  But the fact is, American food IS international food because we’re an international society.  Don’t come to America expecting your (albeit delicious) Israeli cheeses, yogurts, and tomatoes for breakfast- that’s not what we do.  But we do have immensely better, fresher, and cheaper Thai, Burmese, Indian (southern and northern), Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Laotian, Korean, Nepali, Japanese, etc etc.  Not to mention the best Jewish deli food in the world.  The point is that unlike in Israel, where I grew up, these are not seen as exotic tastes of foreign lands.  They become part of our diet and become American food.  When I spent a summer in Spain, I didn’t miss hamburgers.  I missed Chinese food.


  • Healthcare – I’ve already written a blog about this which I recommend reading.  Israeli health spending per capita is $2910 and in the U.S. it’s $9403.  The number one reason for bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical expenses.  Just two years ago, I had to spend $20,000 on medical care in one year- in addition to the $500/month I spent on medical and dental insurance.  Israel’s healthcare system is ranked 4th for efficiency- the U.S. is ranked 46th.  My friend Dave is battling a brain tumor and has to raise $68,000 for treatment, something unthinkable in Israel.  Please consider donating (and stop whining about Israel’s healthcare).
  • College education – in the U.S., college education ranges from about $9410-$32,410 a year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more dollars for housing or food.  Some schools like Bates are charging over $60,000.  The better the school, the better the job prospects.  Israeli tuition is about…$3000 a year.  Pretty sweet.
  • Fresh produce – yes I just touted American food, which is amazing.  Truth be told, the fruits and veggies here are better.  Perhaps because Israel is small and doesn’t ship grapes from California to New York, the produce is super fresh and extremely tasty.  Other than farmers markets, fruit in America tastes watery.  In Israel, it is full of flavor, inexpensive, and delicious.
  • Weather – this depends on where you are in the U.S. (I’m looking at you beautiful San Diego), but at least compared to D.C., the weather in Israel is much nicer.  Yes it can get very hot, but there is a beach.  There are beautiful rural places to escape to with nice breezes.  When there is three feet of snow on the ground during a D.C. blizzard, Tel Aviv is 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a February day.
  • Caring for one another – this might surprise Israelis, but I find Israelis to be much more willing to trust one another and to help one another than Americans.  I regularly see people step up and help people who are sick, lost, in need of a place to stay, etc- even if they’ve never met them.  These are things that would usually be met with suspicion in America, but here are totally normal.  If you have nowhere to go on Friday night for Shabbat, just tell someone and you’ll be eating a warm meal before you can remember their name.
  • Judaism – yes, the U.S. is pluralistic with a much bigger Reform community than Israel, but the fact remains that the entire country here is a synagogue.  When I walked down the street today, my friend and I heard a shofar.  There is biblical graffiti everywhere- done by hipsters.  My favorite Israeli dancing songs play on juice bar stereos.  All of my holidays are government holidays.  I can go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the morning and a gay Orthodox Torah study in Tel Aviv at night.  There is also unparalleled Jewish cultural diversity (and food!) here- with Jews from dozens of countries represented.  My identity is validated over and over and over again even in ways Sabras don’t recognize.  Here, I am normal.

We won’t even get into the economics of things, because while Israelis decry how much more Americans make, the fact is things are a bit more complicated.  The average Israeli household earns a net income of $56,892 a year.  In the U.S., the figure is $55,775.  For sure, there’s variation by region and industry, and there are different tax burdens.  But the point is- not all Americans are rich (most aren’t) and especially when you consider that significant sectors within Haredi and Arab societies here don’t work, there’s not as much of a gap between Americans and Israelis as some people here think.

In the end, I’m not writing this blog to declare victory or to engage in endless debate.  That feels a waste.  There are beautiful things in America and beautiful things here.  And shitty things in both places.  And I could give many more examples of both.

I chose to be here not because it would be easy, although in some ways it is easier than America.  I made aliyah because it would be meaningful, it would be validating, and it would be inspiring.  In short, because I think it’ll make me happy.  Much like this famous scene from Monty Python, let’s not bicker about who’s right.  Let’s just respect each other’s choices, including mine to become an Israeli.  Because in the end, I’m not asking for your approval or your advice.  I’m here.

Hasidic Game of Thrones

No this blog isn’t about feuding Hasidic dynasties.  Rather, it’s about my dinner in Bnei Brak and a Hasidic man who likes Game of Thrones.

Last night, I was hungry.  I had a busy day and hadn’t eaten enough.  I reasoned that this justified eating a calorie-rich Ashkenazi meal and kugel.  So I hopped on a bus to Bnei Brak.

The restaurant was supposed to close at 10 so I hustled from the bus stop because it was 9:45.  Of course, this is Israel, so actually the place stayed open till past 11, so I was fine 🙂  Nice to know Jewish Standard Time really is an international thing.

I ordered grilled salmon, a potato blintz, apple kugel, and chicken soup.  Mmmmm.  Foods of my people and of my childhood.

I struck up conversation with Moti, the guy behind the counter.  Moti is a Belz Hasid, though it sounded like his family also had strong connections to the Vizhnitz community.

Much to the surprise of some people reading this blog, Moti speaks both Hebrew and Yiddish fluently.  Many people assume Hasidim only speak Yiddish in Israel.  I think he prefers Yiddish as he told me in the mamaloshn “Yiddish iz mayn shprakh” which means “Yiddish is my tongue”.  Also he called Hebrew “loshn koydesh” (the holy tongue), which is cool because I haven’t heard that phrase since I was at Yiddish camp last summer.  It’s the traditional way of saying “Hebrew” and could also be tied to Hasidic concepts of how to use the languages (Hebrew=holy tongue, Yiddish=daily tongue).  Yet here he was floating effortlessly between Yiddish and Hebrew with me.

Interestingly, he can only read and write in Hebrew.  He said Hasidim in Bnei Brak, with the exception of Satmarers, read and write in Hebrew even if they often speak in Yiddish.  Maybe next time I’ll offer to teach him how to read and write in Yiddish 🙂 .  If a queer Reform Jew teaching his new Hasidic friend how to write in Yiddish isn’t an incredibly rich and unexpected act of Jewish solidarity and continuity, then I don’t know what is.

As I was asking Moti about Thursdays (apparently that’s the day when the best food comes out, including homemade gefilte fish mmmm), another Hasid named Kivi approached me.  He needed help translating English on an appliance he bought.  He then told me he loves English and that even though he doesn’t get to speak it much, he loves reading it and watching…YouTube.

YouTube.  Hasidim watching YouTube.  What does Kivi watch on YouTube?  What’s his favorite show?  Game of Thrones.  The blood-soaked, sex-filled show that’s too gruesome for me to even watch.  He then asked me if I had seen the last “fight”.  I didn’t understand.  But then he explained that he’s a boxing fan and loves to watch the fights online.

Still processing everything I just heard, a Yemenite man invited me to synagogue to davven Ma’ariv.  Because there’s a synagogue around the corner, like around every corner in Bnei Brak.

Scared shitless and super excited, I said yes.  Keep in mind that I have never prayed at an Orthodox synagogue, much less a Hasidic one (yes, this was a Hasidic shtiebel).  I have also never prayed in a single-gender environment (Reform Jews sit with men and women together).  And this was a step beyond that- there were no women anywhere, just men davvening together.  Also, it should be said that as a gay person, I felt scared.  Clearly if nobody knew I was gay, nobody would do anything.  But having read stories of Haredim stabbing people at pride parades, pushing conversion therapy, and protesting against gays in the military, I felt nervous.  And I understood for a moment the pressure gay people must face in this community.  To be fair, I didn’t know exactly how they’d react (perhaps people wouldn’t harm me or might even be more open than I’d expect).  And I didn’t want to risk my safety or well-being by coming out.

My experience was really interesting.  First off, there is a beautiful rhythm and musicality to Hasidic prayer.  It is not just mumbling.  There is a beautiful entropy within the framework of fixed prayers, with people improvising and singing whatever words speak to them.  And I joined in.

Second, all the prayers were said by the chazzan (cantor) and the other men in the room in an Ashkenazi accent.  Even though the vast majority of American Reform Jews are Ashkenazi, under pressure from the Israeli pronunciation in the 1950s and 60s, we abandoned it.  It was perceived as “old world” and “backwards”.  And so we lost touch with a beautiful part of our heritage, much like Mizrachim in Israel were pressured to abandon their fascinating accents.  Here in this shul, the accent lives.  I felt like I was transported back to the shtetl where my ancestors came from.  The culture murderously ripped apart by Nazis.  The culture that lives to this day despite them.

I did miss the voices of women (and I did make a point of including the matriarchs in my prayers as well as sometimes using the female gender for God – bruchah at yah…).  At the same time, it was intriguing to pray with men.  When I came out of the closet at 18, I felt like my masculinity was ripped away from me by society.  I distinctly remember a moment in college where a female friend said “when are we going shopping?”  To which I said “I didn’t know we had plans.”  She responded: “oh we didn’t, I just know gay people like to shop all the time.”  I could literally give hundreds of examples like this.  I wasn’t allowed to define my gender as I wanted.  Just as hyper masculinity was thrust on me as a child, an invasive femininity was imposed on me as a queer person.  Here, in this shul, I actually felt like I could be a man.  No questions asked.  With my fellow Hebrew bros.

There were also moments when I felt like the prayer structure was rigid.  The man next to me kept pointing me to this page or that.  At first, I found this irritating because I wanted to go at my own pace and to speak the words in my heart.  I then came to realize that in this setting, prayer was very much a team effort even if there’s room for improvisation.  And secondly, that I think his intention was to help me participate more than to tell me what to do.  As a Reform Jew used to extensive independence and autonomy in prayer, I found this confusing at first.  I then just kind of observed it around me as I found new ways of expressing the prayer in my heart.  A different style, for sure, but not without its own merits.

The prayer concluded and the Yemenite man, who I was kind of concerned was going to proselytize me, simply came up and said: “it was nice to meet you, I hope to see you again.”  With that, I walked down the street and picked up a call from one of my rabbis in the States- a woman.  We laughed about my experiences in Israel and I told her how I was getting involved with the Reform community here.  And then I realized- I was practically shouting the word Reform over and over again in the middle of a Haredi city.  And literally nobody batted an eye.

Not because there aren’t conflicts here or prejudice.  But because perhaps there’s a more fluid co-existence than you might expect.  It’s a place where queer Jews speak Yiddish to Hasidim.  Where I can talk to my female rabbi on the phone after davvening with a bunch of men.  Where a Hasidic man loves English, and even watches Game of Thrones.

Kosher Curry in Ramle

This morning, I felt like crap.  Making aliyah is hard.  I’m far away from my friends and my D.C. Jewish community.  I’m alone.  I’m adapting to a new culture and country.

To shake off the blues, I decided to go on a tiyyul (trip) to Ramle (which can also be spelled Ramla).  A small and fairly poor town, it’s not usually on Israeli or foreign tourist maps.  I went several hours without seeing a single tourist.  And that’s exactly what I needed- somewhere a little quieter and off the beaten path to unwind from the hectic and exciting energy that is Tel Aviv.

First off, Ramle reminds me of the D.C. suburbs where I grew up.  It’s quiet, has about 70,000 residents (almost identical to where I lived before Israel), it’s calm, and it’s diverse.  Much like Montgomery County where I’m from, there are mosques, synagogues, and lots of churches.  I kind of miss seeing churches sometimes.  Ramle is a “mixed city”, meaning there are significant Jewish and Arab populations (and even Karaites!).


I started my adventure at what American Jews might call a “tchotchke store”- odds and ends.  What immediately caught my eye were tons of cheap CD’s- of music I adore.  For 10 NIS a piece ($2.80), I bought Jewish music from Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco.  As I paid for my CD’s, I noticed all sorts of amulets knows as hamsas.  Some were in Hebrew, obviously for Jews.  Yet I noticed some in Arabic.  I asked the store owners, who themselves were Russian Jews, whether the Arabic hamsas were for Arabs or Mizrachi Jews or both.  They gave the most beautiful answer: “they’re for everyone.  Jews, Muslims, and Christians all need protection from the evil eye.”

I then made my way to an Indian restaurant owned by Indian Jews.  It’s vegetarian and closed on Shabbat, which makes it Kosher in my book, but I’m not sure if it has a teudat kashrut.  I badly miss the ethnic cuisines of America- especially Thai (no, the Thai food in Tel Aviv is not that great), Chinese (cheap, delicious Chinese food of Rockville Pike), and Indian.  As soon as I entered the place, I knew I had made the right decision.  The smells wafted over me as I began to smile.  I sat down by myself and ordered pakora, palak paneer, and naan.  The waiter’s Hebrew wasn’t strong so I spoke to him in English.


At this point, a woman came over to me and asked if I was American.  Turns out, not only is she American too, she’s a half-Persian half-Indian Jew from…Bethesda, Maryland!  Exactly where I lived before making aliyah!  And she knows one of my rabbis from D.C.  The odds of this happening are infinitesimally small.  She’s a tourist, I don’t even live in Ramle.  There are 6 million American Jews and over 326 million Americans spread across 50 states.  What are the odds!  Reminds me of that famous Hebrew school song “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish“.  It’s cool to be part of an international 3,000 year old club.


After this amazing coincidence, I walked through a bustling marketplace, where unlike in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv there are no tourist traps.  Just lots of grapes and candy and tomatoes.  I stumbled upon a Turkish synagogue and then a Tunisian one.  Without asking permission (because that’s how we do in Israel), I just walked in and talked to the janitor who is also a congregant.  His name is Zion and he grew up in the synagogue.  He made aliyah from Tunisia at age 5.  He showed me an original Torah scroll, hundreds of years old, brought from Tunisia.  He also handed me a book which had all the traditional Tunisian Jewish piyyutim (liturgical poems).  Everything in the synagogue was handcrafted and beautiful, including the stained glass.  I told him maybe I’d come pray with them some day.  What a treat.


As I walked by a Crusader monastery, I heard a car blasting Middle Eastern music.  I thought it was Arabic music, since the town is 20% Arab.  But as I listened more closely, I realized it was Mizrachi music, the music of Middle Eastern Jews.  That’s Ramle for you- a town where you don’t know exactly whose culture the music belongs to.  Where ethnic boundaries are blurred and mixed.  Where Russians sell Arabic amulets, where Tunisian Jews pray next to Turkish Jews, where mosques and churches dot the landscape next to synagogues.  Where Indian Jews prepare American olim kosher curry.

Some people might say there’s not a lot to see in Ramle.  To which I’d say I suppose it depends on what you want to see.

As my bus headed back, all I know is my eyes gazed more towards the fields around the town than towards the skyscrapers awaiting me on the coast.



A gay Reform Jew goes to Bnei Brak

Today, I went to Bnei Brak and had a good time.

Bnei Brak is an almost entirely Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of nearly 200,000 people right on the footsteps of Tel Aviv.  It is the sixth most densely populated city in the world.  Door-to-door, it was a half hour ride.  Culturally, it’s a million miles away from the bikinis, hip-hop street performers, and pride flags of Tel Aviv.  Inhabited by a variety of Hasidic and misnagdic sects, with a smattering of Modern Orthodox, there are a lot of black hats, swaying peyos, and tons and tons of children.

To many of my more secular friends, the idea of a day trip to Bnei Brak is at best a waste of time and at worst, nauseating.  Please allow me to share what I, a gay Reform Jew, actually found to enjoy in this fascinating city:

Delicious Ashkenazi food – I sorely miss American Jewish food, which is almost entirely Ashkenazi.  I love me some jachnoon and falafel, but it is not what I grew up on.  I had delicious matzah ball soup tonight and it hit the spot.  Ashkenazi culture for secular Israelis has become nearly invisible.  This is due to repression from more hard line Zionists in the early years of the state, when Yiddish theaters and newspapers were shut down by protestors, and due to a desire to fit in in Israeli society.  For the majority of American Jews, Ashkenazi-ness is an essential part of our Judaism and I was happy to see people keeping it alive here.


Hot guys – perhaps it’s from growing up in a more religious Jewish community (progressive American Jews as a whole are more religious than left-wing Jews in Israel), but I find a cute non-bearded guy dressed in 17th century Hasidic garb and a kippah…hot!  I love that he’s boldly Jewish, that he loves Torah, and that he has a certain softness to him.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some strong Zionist men, but seeing a Hasid here reminds me a bit more of the Jews I know from home in the Diaspora.  Which is perhaps why they bug the h*ll out of secular Jews who don’t want much to do with the “old Jew” of the shtetl.

Good music – I love me some Hasidic music.  I bought a compilation of Vizhnitz niggunim sung by artists from Bnei Brak.  I found a really cool music store which has hundreds of different artists, mostly in Hebrew, but some in Yiddish.  Some of the artists were American Hasidim like Lipa Shmelzer who I knew from the U.S.  Quite a number of Mizrachi artists were popular in the store, like Zion Golan and the Revivo Project, which is interesting and shows there’s more cultural fusion going on here than meets the eye.  In general, I noticed more Mizrachi Jews in Bnei Brak than I expected to see and quite a number of shwarma joints, something you’d never find in Williamsburg.

It’s a city – I’ve visited Hasidic Brooklyn (Borough Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg).  You can read some of my thoughts about that community and my visit there in this blog.  One of the big differences between Hasidim there and in Bnei Brak is that the former is a community intertwined with its neighbors.  There are Jamaicans and hipsters wandering through.  It is a neighborhood, not a city.  Bnei Brak is an entire Haredi city and it is really cool to see.  I saw boys and girls playing together.  Both men and women were friendly and willing to talk to me (and I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt).  I had found it a bit more difficult to get people to open up in New York, especially women (even though I also speak Yiddish).  I couldn’t help but think that maybe if Hitler hadn’t succeeded, there would be cities like this all over Eastern Europe.  And I’m grateful that Bnei Brak is a living testament to our fearlessness and our willpower to survive despite antisemitism.

Are there problems in Bnei Brak?  Sure.  I saw a sign today with pictures of hellfire admonishing women to avoid evil and wear headscarves instead of wigs.  I also saw a sign lamenting secular education.  And there are almost no pictures of women anywhere for reasons of modesty.


At the same time, I saw tons of Haredi women wearing the wigs despite the signs.  I also saw secular people and foreign workers wearing short sleeves without anyone batting an eye.  I actually saw a Chinese guy completely shirtless in the middle of the street.  And yes, I saw a young woman in a sleeveless shirt and shorts walking down the street with no harassment.

I’m not here to tell you Bnei Brak is a bastion of progressive thought.  Or that there aren’t problems or that there aren’t Haredi people who are radical or violent.  These things exist (and not just among Haredim).  At the same time, I am concerned because I think the rest of the world tends to paint this community with a broad brush.  I am concerned that some of the anger towards Haredim in Israel isn’t about policies (like Shabbat laws, which are a real issue), but rather about longstanding ideological feuds among the Jewish people and, frankly, prejudice.

Just like any other group of people, there are Haredim who are more friendly, who are more open-minded.  And there are others posting signs admonishing women about their hair styles.  And many people who are somewhere in between.  In the end, we are people and when we start generalizing about hundreds of thousands of people, we are bound to foment prejudice rather than understanding.

I went to Bnei Brak today so that I could observe and I could learn.  Because I believe that if my only source of information about people is the news, then I’ve already lost.  Because my day ended not with stones being thrown at me for immodesty, but rather with a Hasidic guy winking at me and walking into a wedding where the band played beautiful Yiddish music.  Music I understood.  Because Israel is a 2,000 year old delayed family reunion.  We’re just getting to know each other.  Step outside your comfort zone and meet your relatives.  If a gay Reform Jew could find something to like in Bnei Brak, I bet you could too.


When God speaks through graffiti

Last night, I heard my first really racist comment in Israel.  Some people might be surprised at this.  Americans might think that people are way more racist here than they are.  And Israelis might think I might be deaf.  But the reality is, I have heard racist comments here, but this one felt more real.  It wasn’t just a comment, it was a diatribe and it was backed by a lot of emotion.

The very long story short is I was talking to a young guy, around 30 years old, Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern descent.  His entire point of view could be summed up in one comment he made: “Not all Arabs are terrorists, but all terrorists around the world are Arabs.”

There are variations of this phrase around the world.  Some people replace Arab with Muslim.  It is not a uniquely Israeli phrase, as any Google search will show you.

I was disgusted.  I vigorously pushed back against his thinking but it didn’t change his mind one bit.  It didn’t matter how many times I explained about non-Arab terrorists in America or Myanmar or Ireland or anywhere else.  This guy was inconvincible.

Anyone who knows me knows that my Zionism, that my Jewish identity, that my very way of interacting with the world is predicated on finding something to love in different cultures, not trashing them.

Feeling thoroughly discouraged, today I hung out in Yafo.  Yafo is a predominantly Arab town in the Tel Aviv municipality and it has an extensive multicultural history that includes everyone from Jews to ancient Egyptians to Greeks to Arabs.  I needed to be with my people- and today, that meant Arabs.

I talked with a new friend Samir at my baklava hangout.  A nice guy with mostly Jewish friends and an open mind.  Also some delusional thoughts about whether ISIS really attacked Barcelona (because “who are they?”).  And he didn’t believe that terrorists in the West Bank get paid for their acts (they do).  At the same time, he is extremely opposed to Palestinian terrorism and all violence.  And also radically not a radical- he said he won’t even go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, even though his religion demands it, because he’s so disgusted by their extremist and corrupt government.  I left semi-encouraged, though also feeling like there’s a lot of work to do here.


I wandered through Yafo eating Palestinian potato chips, hoping that eating a snack from Hebron would help me heal from the turmoil.  I decided to head to the sea.  I always find some quiet and nature calms my mind.  I had been feeling distant from God and spirituality and kind of hopeless.  The waves gave me some respite and a connection to the bigger things in life.

Then I noticed the most interesting graffiti.  It said in Hebrew “Ramsey loves Natali”.  To most people, this might just look like an ordinary graffiti.  To me, it was absolutely beautiful.  First off, Ramsey is an Arabic name and Natali is kind of a universal name, though my guess is this girl is Jewish because the graffiti is written in Hebrew.  So most likely a Jewish-Arab romance, which is heartwarming.


And there’s much more to it.  Almost two years ago, my friend Jad passed away.  I grew up with him in Maryland and he was my first Arab friend.  I had had other Arab acquaintances at school, but he was the first person I really connected with.  I learned a lot from him about his Lebanese culture and seeing as how he grew up in a suburb that’s 30% Jewish, he learned a lot about my culture too.  I remember him telling me he could understand a lot of the words at our friends’ Bar Mitzvahs because of his Arabic.  I was so sad to hear of his passing.  You can learn more about what his friendship meant to me in a blog I wrote at the time.

Jad’s younger brother, who I always remember hanging out with after our soccer games- his name is Ramsey, just like in the graffiti.  At a time when I’ve found it hard to bridge the distance between my past life in America and my current Israeli life, I felt like this graffiti was a spiritual lifeline.  A message from God and Jad that hope is found in the most unlikely places.

In my blog after Jad’s death, I wrote: “Just as Jad opened my eyes to his culture, I will make an extra effort to advocate for peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs.”

I love all cultures and all peoples.  There are good and bad individuals (and many in between) everywhere.  With every conversation I have, with every blog I write, with every song I sing I am keeping my promise I made to Jad.  To find people of good faith, an open heart, and willingness to listen no matter what their background.  To laugh with them and to make the world a better place.

I will be the hope this place needs.  Join me.

Druze make the best Zionists (and kubbeh)

Who are the Druze?  The Druze are an Arabic-speaking minority in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  They have their own secret monotheistic religion that was often persecuted by Muslim rulers.

By their creed, they are loyal to the state they live in.  Druze serve in the Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, and Israeli armies.  In Israel, they voluntarily signed a pact with the state for their sons to be drafted into the army.  Other Arabic-speakers are not legally obligated (some choose to volunteer).  It’s important to note that in Israel, many Druze simply identify as Druze and not as Arabs due to their Zionism, their previous persecution by Muslims, and societal pressure to distinguish themselves from the Arab minority.

Today I went to Daliat al-Karmel, a Druze village, to see what they’re all about.  First off, this place is gorgeous:


I started off the day by buying local Druze music.  Or as I like to call it, Druzic.  (The puns are innumerable- just think, if Druze drank, you could have a “Druze booze cruise”!)  At this little hole-in-the-wall shop, I got three CD’s by local singers in Arabic- two pop CD’s and one of wedding/folk music.  I can’t wait to pop them in my iPod.  If your only experience in a Druze village is eating hummus, you are an awful tourist.  Go try something new that expands your cultural boundaries.

I did go eat amazing Druze food, including the best kubbeh I’ve ever had.  For my American friends who’ve traveled in the South- it somehow tasted like hush puppies but better.  My waiter was an 18 year old man who was very excited to hear me speaking Arabic and also told me all about how he’s going into the army in December.

Then I wandered around and ended up at a Druze holy site- the cave of the Prophet Abu Ibrahim.  The Druze visitors kiss the doorway as they enter, much like Jews kiss mezuzahs.  Everyone must take off their shoes and wear long sleeves, including men (some women put a long-sleeved shirt on me).  I wandered into this stone cave where there were candles.  I was all alone, so I spoke out loud to God.  We had a good conversation.  It was one of the most spiritual moments I’ve ever had.  Me and God alone in a cave in a Druze village.


Then I came out and went to a memorial for Druze soldiers who were killed while serving in the IDF.  I was so moved.  These are non-Jews whose community chose to put their lives on the line to protect my right as a Jew to live here and their right to live in peace.  80% of Druze men serve in the Israeli military, a higher percentage than Jews.  As I stood at the wall of names, I said Kaddish out loud for these brave men as the breeze swooshed by and you could almost hear their souls rustling in the trees.  Another powerful spiritual experience.


The memorial is a reminder that not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews.  I’ve met a number of Jewish anti/non-Zionists in Tel Aviv.  Some are disaffected Israelis born here who are looking for a better life in another country or have political qualms.  I can understand that to an extent even if I disagree- this place can be difficult economically and there are real religious and political issues here.  Other anti-Zionists here are olim (new immigrants).  Now this frustrates the hell out of me.  You want to take advantage of the fact that you’re Jewish to receive money from the state, citizenship, and a free flight.  Then, you want to go around telling everyone how you’re not a Zionist?  You might not be a Zionist but you are a hypocrite.  Criticizing Israel out of the spirit of bettering the country is democracy.  Demonizing us is not.  Our people didn’t die for you to have the opportunity to enjoy the privileges of being Israeli only to use that privilege to trash us.  Against Zionism? Then don’t come to Zion.  There are plenty of English teaching jobs in Korea.

Meanwhile, non-Jews like Druze put their lives on the line for us to survive.  And at great cost.  There are even some Druze who are pushing back against military service because of the tensions it creates with their Arab neighbors and because of poorly-funded municipalities.  All Jews should become “Jews for Druze” (I’ve loved that name for years) and help our brethren feel appreciated for their sacrifices.

Before I headed off, I stopped into a store for some water.  As often happens with me here in Israel, this became a three hour Arabic and Hebrew discussion with a local Druze family.  Samir’s family runs the store.  In his own words, he is a secular Druze (something I’ve never heard of but piqued my curiosity).  His wife is a devout Druze woman.  According to Samir, this is legitimate in their community, but if it were the other way around, it’d be perceived as problematic.  He said this was very much “inside baseball” and I loved the insight he was sharing.  All his children are secular Druze and are doing some combination of army and school.  His daughter is studying to be an engineer.

I explained to him I was a Reform Jew (which surprisingly he understood- more than some Jews here I’ve met!).  As we were talking about spirituality and identity, I actually did something very brave and came out to him as gay.  In the middle of a rural Druze village.  I was nervous about his response, but to be honest, he barely made note of it.  We just continued our great conversation as his wife plied me with walnut-stuffed dates.  We even exchanged numbers and he said he’d invite me to a local wedding sometime.  Interesting things do happen here!

In short, we’re taught in the U.S. not to generalize about people.  And usually I agree.  But in this case, I’ll make an exception: Druze are awesome.  I love them.  They are righteous gentiles who support my people and my right to live in my homeland.  And they make delicious food.  I will support them as well.  They’ve earned it.  If you’re Israeli or Jewish or just a good person, support this fascinating minority.  We should never take such friends for granted.

What America can learn from Israel

Tonight, in the span of 5 minutes, I saw what Israel has to teach the world about tolerance and diversity.

Walking back from an outdoor movie in Yafo (which overlapped with the Islamic call to prayer halfway through), I heard a man on a microphone.

The man was talking to a crowd at a restaurant on the roof of a building.  He started to sing.  I figured it was just a guy playing music for tourists.

Then I started to recognize traditional Jewish wedding music, saw a chuppah, and realized it was My Big Fat Jewish Wedding.  People started to dance and shimmy as the music blared.  Definitely the only time I’ve ever walked by a rooftop restaurant and discovered it was a Jewish wedding- on a Wednesday!

Then I headed to a great spot where you can look out at the sea, just meters away.  And there I saw a group of Korean Christian tourists with a guitar singing their songs of praise.  A crowd of secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims watched with great interest.  Women in hijabs swayed back and forth as the Koreans sang their hymns.  Everyone applauded at the end while the song leader said “God bless you” to all of us.  It was beautiful.

As I headed over to a dessert shop, I could hear the ululating (in Hebrew “kululu”, in Arabic “zaghrada”) from the Jewish wedding.

The dessert shop is run by Arabs.  For the first time, I tried malabi, a creamy Israeli pudding dessert likely of Turkish origin.  It was de-licious.

As I chowed down, I noticed the shopkeeper, Zidan, was blasting “Shav El Admati” (I return to my land), a famous Zionist Mizrachi music song about Jews returning to Israel.  So this was an Arab man singing at the top of his lungs a Jewish song about returning to Israel.  While I, an oleh chadash (new immigrant), am singing all the words with him because I learned them while pining for Israel in America.

As the song ended, Zidan gave a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew directions to the nearest Kosher restaurant.  When the man didn’t understand, the gay Reform Jew (me) showed him the restaurant.

All of this happened in a one-block radius in 5 minutes.  It was the best part of my day.

At a time when America is suffering, I can’t help but think that perhaps my former country has something to learn from Israel.  I’ve often spoken of ways Israel can learn from America, but I think it’s time to turn the tables for a moment.

Tolerance and coexistence don’t just happen at big elaborate ceremonies or through proclamations.

They happen in our day-to-day lives, when people least notice or expect it.  Organically, not by way of grandiose announcements or gestures.  If you put yourself out there in your own surroundings, you’d be surprised what you can find.

In some ways, Israelis are much better at this than Americans, probably better than Israelis even realize.  I’d love to see my fellow Israelis appreciate the miracle we’re living in.

At a time when Americans are struggling, understandably, to figure out how to repair their society, my advice from Israel is this: living your values in your day-to-day life is the best way to make change.  Forget the speeches and the rallies- there may be a time and a place for them, but their impact is temporary and can’t sustain long-term change.

Be the Korean Christian singing for Israelis.  Be the Muslim woman swaying to their music.  Be the Haredi guy asking directions from an Arab shopkeeper.  Be the new immigrant exploring new foods and new cultures.

There’s a lot you can’t control in life, but what you can- enjoy the hell out of it.  Look around you, there’s miracles happening everywhere.  Just look.

Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic in “occupied” Akko?

Thursday I had a fun, frustrating, and complex experience in Akko.

Akko is a 4000+ year old city continuously inhabited since the Bronze Age.  It has been home to Canaanites, Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs (Christian and Muslim), Crusaders, Ottomans, Brits, and most recently, Israelis of all stripes.  It also has a Druze and Baha’i population, being home to the resting place of the founder of the Baha’i religion.  So basically it’s diverse and historic as f*ck.

My initial intent was to write about my experience on a boat.  I was exploring the historic city and noticed something curious- almost everywhere around me, people were either Arab or ultra-Orthodox (Haredi).  From now on, I’ll use the term Haredi since that’s preferred by people in that community.

It was interesting to see women in hijabs flowing by men in black hats.  Very Jerusalem-esque, but at least in this part of town, absent any other secular or traditional Jewish communities that you’d find in the capital.

Honestly, I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable.  You might expect a gay Reform Jew to head for the hills at this point, but frankly I found it more interesting than threatening.

Then, I found a boat.  It was a 10 shekel ($3) boat tour.  The boat was being driven by an Arab man and was blaring Hasidic pop music (which I happen to like).  On board were two Haredi families…and me!  The scenery was exquisite.  Here are some pictures from the ride:


I started talking with Haredi family #1 in Hebrew.  They were super sweet and congratulated me on my aliyah.  They live in Bnei Brak, a Haredi city right next to Tel Aviv.  When I said I lived in Tel Aviv, they said “oh we’re neighbors!”.  They also helped me find a legit Ashkenazi restaurant in their city so I can get my fill of the foods I grew up on.  He even said I could just come to their house some time for a home cooked meal!  Falafel is great, but I miss my whitefish salad and kugel.

Then I overheard Haredi family #2 but they weren’t speaking Hebrew- their girls were laughing and taking selfies…in Yiddish!  Whoa!!  This got me very excited!  I started talking to them in Yiddish and it turns out they’re Vizhnitzer Hasidim from Borough Park in Brooklyn and were in town for a wedding.

They were polite but a little less warm than the other family.  I think it’s because they thought I might be ex-Hasidic (seeing as so few non-Hasidic American Jews speak Yiddish anymore).  The father kept asking me for my Hasidic lineage, to which I kept replying that I don’t have any (that I know of).  At first, I was kind of annoyed for having to repeat this over and over again.  Then, I realized he was playing the timeless game of Jewish geography.  Turns out, he knows some Adlers and was trying to see if we were related.

Before I got off the boat, I made some chit chat with the Arab driver in Arabic.  But he was too busy taking pictures of the other boats (should you be doing while driving?) for anything too in-depth.  But a friendly guy.

So there I was, on a boat, speaking Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish.  The progressive gay Jew hanging out with Haredim and Arabs.  While to a number of secular Israelis and even some Modern Orthodox Jews, a city teeming with Arabs and Haredim is their worst nightmare for Israel’s demographic future, I actually found the experience fascinating and rather benign.  I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate concerns for Israel’s future, but in the end we’re all people.  Among groups that, at least if all you do is read The New York Times, you’d think would be ripping each other’s throats out, there was a pretty basic coexistence that was refreshing.

Then, I made the mistake of the internet.  On my way home from Akko (Israel has a pretty clean, efficient, and cheap inter-city train system, something America might get around to one day), I opened Youtube to find dabke music from Akko.  Dabke is an Arab folk dance found in Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and Jordanian culture.  It sometimes has nationalist overtones.  Overall, it is fun.

There are videos of dabke in Akko on Youtube, but several of them had (in my opinion) inflammatory titles like “Dabke in occupied Palestinian Akko”.  There was even a video from neighboring Haifa, which has a recorded Jewish history going back to 200 C.E., about 450 years before Arabs conquered the area.  The Haifa video was entitled “Palestinian dabke in ‘Haifa’ in the heart of Israel”.  I’m not sure exactly why Haifa was in quotes, but if the angry back and forth in the comments section was an indication, the title was meant to be provocative.  Side note: never read the comments section of anything ever.

I then read an article that said an Arab man in Akko claimed Jews were pushing his people out so they would go live in Europe instead of Akko.  He said Jews were given preference for new housing.  The first sentence seems specious because if Jews are trying to push Arabs out of Akko, they’re not doing a very good job because there are a lot of Arabs everywhere.  Unlike in everywhere else I’ve seen in Israel, I even saw signs with Arabic on top and Hebrew on the bottom.  That being said, it’s true that during Israel’s War of Independence, many Arab communities including Akko were displaced- sometimes voluntarily and sometimes under pressure from Israeli troops.  It’s also true that there has been discriminatory housing policy, so even if this man was exaggerating, there may be truth to what he is saying.

Then, for things to get more depressing, apparently there used to be a larger Jewish population in Old Akko, going back a long time.  However, due to demographic changes they moved to other parts of the city.  Then, apparently the Islamic Movement, an Islamist organization, removed the signs to historic synagogues and replaced them with quotes from the Quran.  If this is true, this is truly depressing.

I began to feel deflated.  Was the coexistence I was seeing everywhere just a facade?  Do Israeli Arabs really just see me as an occupier like the videos on Youtube indicated?  Do they know nothing about Jewish history in this land (or elsewhere)?  Were Jews really pushing Arabs out of Akko or discriminating against Arabs in housing?

These are all complex questions that deserve sophisticated and well-researched answers.  I don’t have the expertise at this moment to answer them all right now.  I do believe people are entitled to different narratives so long as they respect each other and empathize.

What I can say is this: Arab identity in Israel is diverse.  Half of Arab citizens of Israel recognize the right to a Jewish state.  Half don’t.  26% identify as Palestinian, 36% percent as Palestinians in Israel, and the plurality (37%) as Israeli-Arabs.  Another survey found 64% believe Israel is a good place to live and 43% favor their Israeli-Arab identity over a Palestinian one.  Perhaps surprising to the Western ear is that 24% of Arab Muslims in Israel vote for Zionist parties.

Do some of those numbers sound contradictory or confusing?  Welcome to the complexity that is Arab-Israeli identity.  There are anti-Semites, there are Islamists, there are people who volunteer to serve in Israel’s military, there are Zionists, there are secularists, there are communists, there are feminists, there are nationalists, there are pragmatists.  And some people fit into multiple categories.

So in the end, is the coexistence I saw on that boat a facade?  Are my conversations with Arab-Israelis merely window dressing to deeper prejudices?

Sure, I think that there are some prejudices here that are merely beneath the surface.  When you read about Arabs throwing rocks at Jewish worshipers in Jerusalem or that between 32-48% of Jewish citizens would favor expelling or “encouraging emigration” of their Arab neighbors, you know there is prejudice here.

Was that Haredi man who invited me to his house really just a bigot against secular or Reform Jews?  Was the Yiddish-speaking family that joked around with the Arab driver just faking it?  Are my secular friends reading this blog rolling their eyes and thanking God they weren’t on that boat with me?

Perhaps- we’ll never know.  But rather than stew in cynicism, I’d like to enjoy the moment I had in Akko.  A moment where people pretty much got along.  A gay Reform Jew, two Haredi families, and an Arab boat driver.  Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic in Akko.

One Night in Jerusalem

Tonight in Jerusalem was the most jam-packed, exciting night I’ve had in Israel.

It all started with an act of startling generosity.  I was checking out some artists’ studios in Jerusalem and found this particularly beautiful one.  I talked with the artist about her work- including this amazing painting where at first you don’t notice there are people built into the painting and then as soon as she pointed them out, it became obvious.  She said she was inspired by the Exodus from Egypt.  When I told her I was an oleh chadash (new immigrant), she congratulated me and told me “you’ve already made your Exodus”, perhaps the nicest thing anyone has said to me about my aliyah.  She told me she made aliyah from Russia when she was six years old and I felt an instant bond.

We talked about art- I told her I was a poet and a singer and we connected on Facebook so she can see my work.  She asked if I drew and I said I have done a little bit but nothing serious because I hadn’t been taught the techniques.  She said one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.  She said when you’re looking for an art teacher, don’t look for technique.  Look for someone who can help you deliver a child.  That sounds strange in English but beautiful in Hebrew.   “Leyaled” in Hebrew means “to midwife”.  Her point was that the person who teaches you art is supposed to help bring something out that already lies within you and needs to be discovered and nourished.  To help you give birth to a new sense of creativity.  I love it!

On my way out, she gave me a free handmade notebook she had created so I could write my poetry.  I made a new friend in the course of 20 minutes in a way that could take literally years in the U.S.  If you’re reading this Dina, thanks for making my night great 🙂

Then, I asked for directions to the central bus station, but I noticed there were lots of police cars.  I asked the security woman what was going on and she said there was a concert.  I asked who and she said “Shlomi Shabat“, one of my all-time favorite Mizrachi singers.  I bought a ticket immediately and headed to the concert with a new sense of energy and excitement.  Also, the concert was held in a stadium inside a 2,000 year old pool called Breychat Hasultan (The Sultan’s Pool).  So it pretty much doesn’t get any better than that.

Except it does.  On the way to the concert, you have to walk downhill.  On the way, I discovered there was some sort of international festival going on.  There were vendors from all over the world- just off the top of my head, I saw artisans from Panama, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and so much more.  I made a special point of stopping at the Spanish-speaking countries’ booths because I miss speaking Spanish and Latin culture.

I spent a good 15 minutes speaking with a Chilean woman who was really amazed at the cohesiveness of Israeli society.  This is interesting because a lot of Israelis feel we have a very divided society.  She pointed out that a lot of countries in Latin America feel unstable and on the brink of civil war.  She talked about Venezuela and how she feared the country would descend into further chaos (a conflict Americans know little about even though it’s in their own hemisphere).  That she felt there wasn’t any glue that bound that society together.  It’s an interesting thought- that for all the conflict here, there is most definitely a strong social connection here that keeps things together despite the tensions.  I think the United States would benefit from such a glue right now, because I had the distinct feeling when I lived there that there wasn’t really anything that united us.  There are sociological reasons for it, but I hope that Americans can learn something from Israel which is that a sense of social solidarity- even with people you don’t always agree with- can help you overcome difficult moments in history.

Then, I headed to the concert.  It was amazing!  Thousands of people singing and cheering.  Israeli flags waving.  Song after song that I’ve sung- some of which I remember listening to on a CD in my living room as a 13-year-old- 18 years ago!  Some Israelis like to hate on Mizrachi music.  I can understand that everyone has different tastes, but for me it is literally the best music on the planet.  It’s danceable, it’s full of religious imagery, it’s fun, it’s upbeat, and it’s full of emotion.  Here’s a song I like by the artist I saw tonight to give you an idea of what it sounds like.

After the concert, I grabbed a cab to the Central Bus Station.  The driver was Arab, so I spoke to him in Arabic, which made him very happy.  Ahmed and I talked about dialect differences between Yafo and Jerusalem, his relationship with Jews (pleasant but not very deep because their neighborhoods are so separate in the city), and the importance of language in building relationships (he decided to learn Hebrew to learn about his neighbors).  We talked about how crappy politicians are and that the real key to building peace is what we were doing- talking to each other.  I tried to give him a tip but he wouldn’t let me.  A truly kind and open-minded person.

Before getting on the bus to Tel Aviv, I heard loud music.  Sure enough, behind me were a bunch of Breslover Hasidim dancing to techno music about their patron rabbi, Nachman of Uman.  I started filming them and then just joined in.  Because life is fun if you jump in!

I then headed to the bus.  Now this part sucked at first.  The ticket people oversold the bus- and this ride is over an hour long- so some people were standing or sitting in the aisle.  I was one of those unlucky people.  The bus was bumpy and it felt really unsafe.  Frankly, it was the most unsafe I’ve felt in Israel.  Which is interesting consider how the news media obsessively cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when really bad drivers are a way bigger threat to security.

Things in Israel often rapidly shift from amazing to awful and back to amazing again.  My evening had been going great and then BOOM this was my plummet downwards.  Once I got tired of my head banging against the seats as I sat, I stood up and started talking to the people in front of me.  I chatted with one woman who, when I told her I was an oleh, told me her niece just moved here from New York.  She said she is a soccer player and doesn’t know anyone here.  Turns out she lives around the corner from me and I offered to show her around.  A new potential friend.  The woman also told me I had great Hebrew, which helped lift my spirits.  Meanwhile, the young woman next to her was worried about missing her train back to Haifa at 1am, so the woman I was speaking with simply offered her a place to stay.  They literally just met on the bus.

And just like that, my spirits began to lift as we approached the bus station.  Any time I feel down in Israel (which, to be honest, happens almost every day at some point), I remember that things here turn on a dime.  And that if I’m feeling sad or angry, things will turn for the better quickly and suddenly.  And it works.  It really happens.

This is a place with some serious sense of social solidarity, generosity, and kindness.  Not words you’d typically associate with the Middle East, but they are absolutely true so please stop reading the New York Times and just come and experience it yourself.

A free notebook.  A Mizrachi concert.  Chileans.  An Arab cab driver learning Hebrew.  Dancing Hasidim.  And new friends on a bumpy bus.

One night in Jerusalem.

Free baklava as the police sirens wail

Today, I had a stressful day.

I lost my debit card in the Golan Heights, my phone’s data plan stopped working, and I had a long bureaucratic meeting at the Ministry of Absorption.  And that was all before noon.

It ended up working out, but I just felt exhausted and stressed.  So, as has become my custom, I went for a walk by the beach.  I called my friend Jack in Minnesota to wish him a happy birthday and made my way down the boardwalk to Yafo.

I miss Yafo.  I’ve since moved to a new apartment in another part of town, but I used to live right by this beautiful 10,000 year old city.  Every time I went, I just felt the stress lifted off my shoulders as I stared at the Mediterranean, listened to the waves, and talked with the people.

After eating some delicious schwarma, I headed to the Abouelafia bakery, site of my first in-depth Arabic conversation in Israel which you can read about here.  I was in desperate need of a good talk with my friend Adnan but instead I found his much younger coworker Sager who I had met with him.

When I first met Sager a few weeks ago, he was quiet.  I tried to engage, but Adnan and I did most of the talking and Sager looked uninterested.

When I came back this time, from the second our eyes met, Sager looked excited to see me.

He invited me in and we got to talking.

Over the past week, there has been rioting in Yafo.  There have been Arabs protesting against the police, sometimes violently.  I honestly don’t know all the details because I hate listening to the news.

Sager didn’t wait one moment to tell me his opinion.  He is an Arab Muslim.  He is from East Jerusalem.  And in his experience, the police do ethnically profile here and it is quite unpleasant.  At the same time, he is furious with the protestors, who are burning things and causing problems.  He feels that they are unnecessarily damaging relations between Arabs and Jews, who he views as brothers.  In addition, he is concerned for the livelihood of the bakery’s owners and his own job.  If Jews and tourists are afraid to visit Yafo, then there won’t be any business.  This pain will also hurt the dozens of Arab businesses in the area.

We talked about our shared hatred for extremism on all sides.  How the rest of the world likes to obsess over every last problem between Israel and the Palestinians but the world is silent when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered.  I shared with him an Arabic poem I wrote in the Golan overlooking the Syrian border, which he loved.  In his words, the Golan Heights it the most beautiful place on the planet and I think I agree with him.

We talked about what it’s like to be a minority.  Most Jewish Israelis don’t know what it is to be a minority as a Jew.  Part of that is a good thing- it’s a product of Zionism and it’s part of the blessing of having one small place on this planet where we are normal.  Part of it is problematic- I think some folks here have lost sight of the Jewish experience and the sensitivity we’ve often had for other minorities.  My minority identity, which was undoubtedly a burden in the U.S., is to my advantage here.  I can enjoy all the blessings of a validated identity while showing empathy and kindness to the minorities I share this country with.

In between us singing Nancy Ajram and dancing dabke together (yes, this actually happened), Sager thanked me for speaking Arabic with him.  Our whole conversation was in Arabic and while, like in any second language you speak, there were times I didn’t remember this or that word, we got our points across.  My speaking Arabic has made living in Israel a much, much richer experience and frankly I think every Israeli should speak it.  A fifth of the population already speaks it as a native language, not to mention our millions of Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese neighbors.  You don’t have to speak it perfectly to speak it well- give it a shot.  When you speak to someone in their language, their heart opens up.  You will do more for peace by getting to know your neighbors than any lobbying effort or protest.

Finally, as we wrapped up, I wanted to head home and get some rest after a long day.  I kept trying to pay, but he was attending to other customers.  I was getting a little annoyed but he’s a good guy so I waited.

Then the sirens came.  Firetrucks and police cars drove by, racing down the street and wailing.  Sager told me they were dealing with the protestors again.  Our hearts sunk for a moment.

Honestly, I felt pretty safe.  In fact, I felt safer than in most areas of D.C. where I am originally from.  Yeah I might choose to read the news a bit more, but also I might not.  There’s some sense of tranquility with just being able to live in the moment and trust your instincts.

My instincts said that Sager was a good guy.  I tried to pay for the baklava but he just nodded his head and told me to take it for free.  We smiled at each other, gave each other a bro-ish high five, and I grabbed a cab home (better not to mess with buses when there’s rioting).

That’s Israel for you.  Intercultural dialogue.  Baklava.  Racial profiling.  Rioting.  Sirens.  Kindness.  Brotherhood.

You can have your quiet suburb of Kansas City.  I’ll take a place where a piece of baklava means so much more than Baskin Robbins.


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