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

nope, not a joke, just a regular afternoon 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, the most curious and beautiful thing happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

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

beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The North: where my Arabic can breathe

Who is wise?  He who learns from everyone.

That’s what my cover photo says.  That’s what Rabbi Ben Zuma said 2,000 years ago.

Did I find this in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem?  No.  I found it in a Druze village- Yanuh- with a Jewish population of 0.  An absolutely gorgeous place with stunning greenery all around.  Super friendly people.  And- at least when I was there- not a single tourist.  Due to my clothing and my fabulous blue sunglasses, everyone knew I was from out of town.

And when I opened my mouth to speak Arabic, the smiles were constant.  The laughter, the joy, the jokes- jokes with me.  Because I can speak to them in their native tongue.  I am a polyglot- I speak 8 languages fluently or proficiently.  I have an “ear” for language, undoubtedly, but I also use them.  A lot.  I don’t memorize vocabulary on my phone- I hang out in Druze villages.  I talk to cab drivers in Arabic.  The other day I got my friend a discount on strawberries at the market in my Jewish neighborhood because the Arab vendor was so excited that I spoke Arabic.

Why would Arabic speakers here be so excited to hear me speak it?  I can think of a few reasons.  For me, it honestly just feels natural.  I love speaking Arabic.  And unfortunately due to the extremists trying to tear down the border fence in Gaza to “liberate” my neighborhood, I’ve felt further and further from the language.  When certain Palestinians decide to fly burning kites over the border fence to set my country’s farms on fire, I have a hard time connecting to the language they speak.

Which reminded me- not only Palestinians speak Arabic.  A lot of times, the news media and even leftist Israelis who choose to learn the language are exclusively focused on Palestinians.  It’s not a bad thing to want to dialogue with them- the more people learning languages the better.  In all societies, especially here.

It’s just that Palestinians are not our only neighbors.  Certainly not our only neighbors who speak Arabic.  About 20% of the Israeli population- citizens- speaks Arabic as a first language.  And lucky for me, the Arabic-speakers up north, in the Galilee and Golan, speak the dialects closest to mine.  Syrian.

Why do I speak Syrian Arabic?  Besides the fact that it, perhaps alongside Lebanese, is in my opinion the most beautiful Arabic dialect, it was a bit due to circumstance.  At my university, I studied Fusha, Modern Standard Arabic (more of a literary language).  Only after 3 years did I have the chance to learn 3ammiyya, or spoken Arabic.  I had the choice of Egyptian or Syrian, and I chose the latter because it was mutually intelligible with Palestinian.  And I also care about dialogue.  My professor was from Damascus.  He was homophobic and somewhat anti-Semitic, but his Arabic was astounding and I learned so much.

Since then, Syria was plunged into civil war and I never got the chance to visit.  Though, along with Lebanon, it would be my dream to do so.  Inshallah- God Willing.  In the meantime, the closest thing I can get to speaking my Damascus Arabic is to simply hop on a bus up north.  Or speak with my Syrian refugee friends, which I do each week.

The Druze, in particular, migrated to northern Israel over the past 800 years.  From Aleppo, Lebanon, and beyond.  Of course the Druze in the Golan Heights were living in Syria just 50 years ago, so their Arabic is very close to mine too.

And to a person- everyone is excited to hear me speaking their language.  And their dialect.  Not Palestinian Arabic- Syrian Arabic.  Quite often people actually ask me if I’m Lebanese or Syrian.  The most flattering thing I’ve ever heard.

Today the coolest thing happened.  I was visiting Isfiya, a Druze village with significant Christian and Muslim minorities.  After visiting a Bedouin shop and some churches (the Christian dialects up here are also super close to my own and fun to hear), I had dinner at a Druze grocery store.  Yes, because the grocery store also doubled as a roadside food stand with kebabs.  I love my country.

While my kebabs were roasting, I popped over to the cellphone shop.  I want to buy a portable phone charger so I can travel at ease and get some extra juice when I need it.  I initially approached the young man in Hebrew.  And then, just like every Arab and Druze person does here millions of times a day, I slipped into Arabic.  Five Arabic words here, one Hebrew word there- it’s the most beautiful and fun thing.  Kind of an Arabic Yiddish with amazing wordplay.  A young kid said to me today: “ani rotzeh sheanja7“.  I want to win.  The italics Hebrew, the bold Arabic, and it flowed perfectly as we giggled at the combination.  It’s fun when you can enjoy the best of each other’s cultures.  To the point where they’re hummus and tehina.  You can’t fully separate them and they’re delicious together.

I’m at the phone store and my Arabic starts flowing and a Druze man, no more than 20 years old, lets out an “Allahu Akbar!” to shake the ground.  In such shock and delight at seeing a Jewish American-Israeli speaking his language, he simply praised God.

I had this deep inner sense of joy and satisfaction.  I felt so, so complemented.  It was funny.  It was sweet.  It was sincere.  And it was a beautiful way to take a phrase that radical Islamic terrorists use to blow people like me up- and instead use it to bring us together in unity.  In a cellphone store.  It tickled me.

This kind of reaction happens to me a lot, especially up north.  When I tell some of my Israeli Jewish friends about the villages I’ve visited- a good number of them have never even been.  Or in some cases, even heard of them.  Or even think they’re worth visiting.  It’s not universal- I’ve hitchhiked with Jews who were visiting these villages.  But it’s an extreme, extreme minority.  Jews here do not speak Arabic.  Other than older generations of Jews from Middle Eastern countries and a few dedicated young people who paid attention in school (or the army), Jews don’t care to learn Arabic here.

It makes me sad.  On a few levels.  One, because I understand why.  There is a 70 year old trauma-inducing conflict here, separate educational systems for Jews and Arabic-speakers, and largely separate residential patterns.  And while there are people in both societies who want to mix, overall there is a desire to retain communal identities.  Which can make it hard to learn each other’s languages.  Especially Arabic, whose spoken varieties aren’t standardized and really require in-person experiences.

And yet, only about 10% of Jews here speak Arabic but 77% of Arab Israelis speak Hebrew.  About 29% of Arabs here can’t read Hebrew- which is an issue for employment, social cohesion, and communication.  But let’s just say Arab citizens of Israel are way, way more invested in learning Hebrew than vice-versa.  Which is a national shanda.  That’s Yiddish for scandal.

While this may be par for the course for majority-minority relations (after all, how many non-Latino Americans speak Spanish?  Answer: about 10%, the same as Jewish Israelis with Arabic), it’s not acceptable.  While I value the smiles I get from young Druze and Christian Arabs and even Muslim kids (in those villages I feel are safe enough to visit- which is not all of them), I don’t want to be an oddity.  I want more of my countrymen to stop whining and pick up a book.  Take a class.  Visit your neighboring village.

Arabic speakers in Israel are almost universally happy to help.  And eager to see you give a shit.  I don’t really care how many times you voted for Meretz or how you do a once-a-year interfaith Seder.  Stop being a lazy (fill in the blank with something that will motivate you) and get to work!  If you spent half as much time learning Arabic as you did complaining about your salad dressing, you’d be fluent.  Arabic takes practice but it’s so much fun!  It will take you on new adventures- musically, socially, geographically, historically, and beyond.  It’s a true civilization.

And the good news is that even when some people who speak the language are becoming increasingly extremist, you can find great places in Israel to practice the language safely.  Basically, any Druze or Christian village, most Bedouin towns, and even some other Muslim villages like Abu Ghosh.  Or beyond, when the conditions are right.  I’ve traveled in some deeply conservative Muslim villages and had some close calls- so I can understand if you don’t want to start there.  The vast majority of people I’ve met in all places were cool.  It is true that it just takes one nutjob to end your life.  So do some research if you want to go far off the beaten path.

In the end, the North of Israel is the best.  It’s the place where I dabke dance on the street with Druze kids, where I counsel a bi-curious young man in Arabic, where I get private tours of churches followed by tons of homemade pastries.  It’s a land of generosity, of green hills, of smiles.

When I leave a Druze village, a place where my Judaism and my Israeliness and my Arabic-speaking identity are all validated, I hate getting on the bus.  Tel Aviv is a vibrant, energetic, queer-friendly coastal city.  With a beach.  There are things here that are unique and maybe it made sense for me to start here.

As I spend more time in other parts of the country, especially the North, I wonder if Tel Aviv will really be home for me.  Maybe I’ll split my time (perhaps people up north will want to trade apartments once in a while 😉 ).  Maybe I’ll live here but keep traveling a lot.  Maybe I’ll just move up north.

What I do know is this: Tel Aviv smells terrible.  And when I hop off the bus, the stench is overwhelming, the noise is loud, the nature is nonexistent.  Yes, there are exceptions.  There are beautiful areas near me just south of the city.

But would I rather have a late night pizza place or make some at home and sit in a forest and stare at the stars in awe?

Where my Arabic and my soul can breathe.

The Bi-curious Druze Boy

For starters, to protect the young person involved, no names or identifying information is used in this story, but all the essential facts are true.

The past few days, I went on a trip to what I call the Druze Galilee.  There’s an area largely north of Karmiel where there’s Druze village after Druze village and they’re all absolutely gorgeous.  Here’s a map and some pretty pictures:

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It’s a beautiful, peaceful place where I enjoyed practicing my Arabic.  I love speaking Arabic, but due to fanaticism among some sectors of society, I can’t speak it comfortably everywhere especially as a Jew and as an Israeli (and sometimes even an American).  What’s great about Druze villages is they, by and large, wholeheartedly accept me as a Jewish Israeli and are thrilled to see a Jew taking interest in their language and culture.

Early in my trip, I was walking up a hill and a young man, 17 almost 18 years old, pulled over his moped and said hi.  As with all my stories from this trip, pretty much everything was in Arabic with a sprinkling of Hebrew.  He asked where I was going and offered to get me in the right direction.  So I hopped on with him and he drove.

I felt free, riding around in the countryside, babbling in Arabic as the wind swept across my face.  A young Druze boy showing me around his beautiful neck of the woods.  Couldn’t get better.  I asked him to pull over to take some pictures.  He begged me not to get off- “we could go for a trip!”.  I asked him to wait a second as I took some pictures.  Because suddenly there were goats in the way!  Tons and tons of goats!  I was so excited- having spent most of my life in cities, it was pretty exciting to see goats on the road!

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While I took pictures of the goats, the young man started asking me questions- questions I often get from young Arab kids here.  “Do you have a girlfriend or boyfriend in Tel Aviv?”  I said no.  “But if you had one, would it be a boyfriend or girlfriend?” he said with hesitation.  “Boyfriend,” I said.  “Boyfriend?  Like male or female?  Or like the ones who change their gender?”  “Nope, just a boyfriend.  A man and a man together.”

I waited for the reaction.  It was a gamble on my part.  We were pretty much alone on a wooded path at least 100 meters from a main street.  I know absolutely nobody in the area.  He has a moped and I have…a cellphone?  In the end, you don’t know how people will react.  Druze, while extraordinarily accepting of my Judaism, are known for being quite socially conservative including on gay issues.  Not like certain right-wing Christians in the U.S. who try to influence the law because of it.  But conservative nonetheless.  And I was the only Israeli Jew for several miles around.  I had never been to this part of Israel.

Trusting my good instincts and what seemed to be his good nature, I stood there with him, next to his moped.  And it turns out, I not only made a good choice, I may have done a mitzvah.  A good deed.  He continued to ask me all sorts of questions about gay people and my life.  Dating, romance, sex, even the wild world of the internet.  Of course some things I just wasn’t comfortable sharing- to respect my privacy and to remember that he’s 17 years old.  But I did share what I thought was relevant and helpful and appropriate.

After the 20th question, I asked him: “are you asking me these questions because you yourself are curious?”  And he said: “maybe…could we do something?”

I smiled.  On some level, I was flattered.  Also intrigued that this guy knew I was gay simply by meeting me on the street.  And that he had a comfort level to ask me these (sometimes invasive but well-intentioned) questions.  We had a nice moment.  It makes me smile to think a Druze teenager propositioned me.  17 year old me would’ve loved such a moment.  If I weren’t being abused by my family and subjected to rabid homophobia at school, in sports, even sometimes in synagogue- I would’ve come out sooner and maybe I could’ve had more high school romances.  Maybe even with a Druze guy!

And the reality was that I was 32 and he was a minor.  I wanted to be supportive of his desire to learn more and also had to draw some clear limits.  I explained to him why we couldn’t have sex and he was disappointed.  He asked me: “there are other guys in the village- they have sex with men, but I’m not sure they’re gay.  If I have sex with a man, does it mean I’m gay?”

I told him: “you have to discover that for yourself.  Some people try things and it’s more of an experience.  Some people feel it fits them.  It’s up to you.”

I thought back to an earlier part of our conversation when he asked me how I knew I was gay.  I’ve gotten this question millions of times from liberal Americans and it frustrates the hell out of me.  Nobody asks them when they figured out when they were straight.  Because it’s something you feel, it’s not something you wake up in the morning and decide.  The only reason we have to discover it is because society assumes we’re not gay from the day we’re born.  And we have to uncover an identity hidden from us, that nobody will bestow upon us.  After often years of estrangement, many (though not all) of us come to realize who we are and what we like.  It can be exhausting and quite hard.

Before I realized this young man was curious about his own identity, I had told him: “well, I know I’m gay just like you know you’re straight.  You just are.  How did you know you were straight?”

And then I realized: he didn’t know.  He doesn’t.  And he may never know.

This young man was not any old Druze.  He’s a religious Druze.  There are secular and religious Druze- the latter take on many more responsibilities along with special dress and customs.  He’s dated girls some and seems to like it- I’m not sure to what extent.  If he lived in a more liberal society, perhaps he’d be out by now.  I don’t know.  Maybe he’s bi.  Maybe he’s gay.  Maybe he’s straight and just trying things out.  I don’t know.  And I hope, even with the pressures of the society around him- a society I love dearly- that he can figure out the best path forward for him.

If that’s coming out and risking family disapproval or being cut off- I wish him well.  He did mention one family in the village that had a gay son living elsewhere in Israel with a boyfriend- who accepted him.  That’s pretty awesome.  Maybe he’ll get married and have trysts (or maybe not)- I hope he’s happy.  I’m not here to judge him.  It’s hard to straddle multiple identities- and in the case of being Druze and (maybe) gay- it must be difficult.  You shouldn’t have to give up one part of yourself to be another.  And the reality is negotiating that balance, as hard as it is, might be worth it.  I pray for his well-being and his happiness.

I saw the disappointment on his face when I said no to a romantic tryst in the woods (but readers- I am single, so if you’re of age, I do like the idea of kissing under a cedar 😉 ).  I bid him goodbye with this blessing: “good luck habibi, bnjaa7!  find someone your age 😉  It’ll be OK”.

He smiled as he went down the mountain on his moped. Teenage Matt and Matah were smiling.  I hope I did for him what I wish more people had done for me at his age.

My milkshake brings all the Druze to the yard.  Now if only I can find one my own age… 😉

P.S.- the cover photo isn’t a pride flag, it’s a Druze one!  Now tell me that beautiful rainbow flag wouldn’t look fabulous in a pride parade some day carried by some exceedingly hot Druze guys? 🙂

Why reading the news is a waste of time here

Ok, first things first- yes, sometimes you do need to read the news.  I, for instance, when planning my trips, search the name of the town I’m visiting to check for safety.  When I heard air raid sirens in my apartment, I lit up my WhatsApp but I also checked news sites.  News has a purpose when used effectively.

And most people do not use it effectively.  For many years (and once in a while now), I just get caught up in the news.  Reading- whether on Facebook or on the news sites themselves- just depresses me.  I get that the media needs to make money so they focus on the most dramatic and often sad or offensive things.  Today, I glanced through articles about anti-Semites boycotting Israel, anti-Semites attacking Germans wearing yarmulkes, Jeremy Corbyn being anti-Semitic, Natalie Portman’s mess, and the likelihood of war with Iran and Syria.  I literally just cried.

It’s not because the words being written are untrue (although sometimes they are), it’s because they are true.  And they suck.  And they’re selective.

Because I’ll tell you what I did the past few days and was not in the news.  I took a bus from my low-income stereotyped neighborhood to three beautiful rural communities just around the bend.  I met an archivist who sat with me for an hour and a half to explain to me the history of his town.  I hiked through a forest in northern Israel to the Druze village of Daliat Al-Karmel.  When I asked some Druze women for directions, they sat me down, plied me with tea and coffee and salads and sweets.  They gave me a huge container of leftovers.  Drove me to the village and added me on Facebook and WhatsApp.  Today, I went to Zichron Yaakov, discovered a beautiful hidden trail, hitchhiked down the mountain to Maagan Michael’s gorgeous Caribbean-like empty beach.  Then, I walked on the sand to Jisr Al-Zarqa, a Bedouin village, where I was the only tourist visible.  I got to hear some pretty cool Bedouin Arabic, talked with a guy about Arabic music, and spent a peaceful bus ride hanging with some friendly Bedouin women.

In the course of about three days, I had been to national parks, a kibbutz, a moshav, a suburb of Tel Aviv, a Druze village, and a Bedouin Muslim one.  The main reason I write this blog is for me- it’s a record of my journeys, it’s therapeutic, and it’s fun.  I like writing, I enjoy it.  The other reason is because these kinds of stories- real and authentic- don’t make their way into the news.  The nuanced, the complicated, the fun, the moving, the heart-warming, the sad.  The full spectrum of the human experience.  Instead of reading like a laundry list of everything bad in the world, I prefer to share something a bit more real.

Because the sad stuff- the anger, the extremism both left and right, the aggression- those all exist.  And sometimes I touch on them.  And I feel that the media, perhaps in the quest for eyeballs and ad dollars, only focuses on the negative.  The things that make you click even though you (and I) don’t want to.  We’re hooked.

Living in a country plagued by terrorism and war, I’ve learned something from my fellow Israelis.  And I want to remind them of it- and teach my friends abroad.  Faced with crazy shit, you have two options.  One is to live in chaos.  Either a constant state of panic or burying your head in the sand and pretending nothing is happening.  The other option is to live in the here and now.  To be present, to enjoy what you can, to be grounded and live your life with gratitude for every moment you have.

That second path is the one I choose and strive for.  It’s the one many Israelis, both Arab and Jewish, manage to pursue much, much better than Americans during these difficult times.  Perhaps because we’re a more communal society.  Perhaps because we’ve been dealing with trauma for longer and know how to better cope with it.  Either way, my gift to Americans reading this blog right now is that spirit of embracing the present.  It’s not to completely detach yourself from worries nor to pretend that shit isn’t going down.  Sometimes, it is.

It’s just that on a day when everyone was talking about Natalie Portman and Iran, a Druze kid was practicing English with me.  I was taking selfies with cows.  I was taking selfies with sheep!  I was listening to the waves of the ocean as I walked towards a Bedouin village.

We all have choices about how we spend our time and energy.  We all have a right to our feelings and we make choices about how we live our lives.

I have opinions about all the “news” items I shared.  And I have a right to them, and maybe I’ll share them- and maybe I won’t.  Because maybe, like tonight, I’ll be too busy meeting other young people in my neighborhood at our first block party.  Organized by a friend I met in a sushi joint around the corner.

Shoot this, boycott that, yell this, scream that.  I don’t really care.  Because the music is blaring so loud around me that I just hope one day you’ll open your ears to listen.

Independence from black-and-white thinking

Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli.  And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil.  It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors.  To celebrate my progress.  It was a day to rejoice.

Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times.  There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers.  There was fun.  We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments.  In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction.  Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line.  About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria.  Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.

At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought.  Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.”  I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt.  Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back.  I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here.  Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are.  And we all deserve a seat at the table.

It got me thinking.  I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel.  All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined.  It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail.  Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.

So I wanted to just enjoy.  And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life.  In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague.  We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation.  No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.

The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians.  We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day.  The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence.  And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe.  The creation of my state.  While they still don’t have one.

I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel).  For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough.  And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years.  With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.

I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating.  I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village.  I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew.  Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back.  In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew.  Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against.  I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets.  The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.

In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here.  Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war.  We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out.  Just for being Jews.  And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here.  The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked.  A miracle.

You can go through this story with just about any Jew here.  This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew.  An out-of-the-closet Jew.  For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under.  And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences.  Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia.  And we’re not going to give it up.  Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.

As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  And they’re right.  When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish.  When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here.  Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”.  I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about.  And I also hate it.

I am proud to be Israeli.  I love my country and its people.  I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.

I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.

And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.

I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported.  And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.

I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here.  I have more rights in the States.  I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children.  And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population.  According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality.  The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%.  Palestinians come in at 3%.  Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians).  My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center.  Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.

In the end, living here is complex.  I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here.  If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place.  Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school.  We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box.  So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists.  While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property.  Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.

And it makes it much richer.  So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking.  When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all.  It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow.  Each with is unique shade.  Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.

In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity.  Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with.  Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior.  Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.

Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope.  It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity.  The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered.  At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis.  Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go.  Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything.  Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.

Happy birthday Israel.  May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.

I love you Israel.  When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better.  I’m glad to be home in your arms.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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An amazing day that can only happen here

Today, I had the most fascinating and fabulous day.

I started the morning in Shefa’mr (Shefaram) in Hebrew.  Shefa’mr is the most pluralistic city in Israel.  A community with Druze, Muslims, and Christians, it is one of the rare places in Israel where people of different faiths live next door to each other.  As a matter of practice.  Not like Jerusalem, where there are different groups largely in different neighborhoods.  Literally side by side.

It’s one of the reasons I wanted to visit.  The other reason is it, like the North, is absolutely gorgeous.  Take a look at a slideshow of some of my pictures:

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Before walking around town, I needed some breakfast and got delicious hummus and pita and falafel from a Druze restaurant.  According to the owner, apparently the town loves Argentina’s soccer team.  Someone even went to the World Cup in Brazil to cheer them on.  You’ll see from the pictures below I took today that he’s telling the truth, although you’ll also see there seems to be a (rival?) Brazilian fan club:

Not what I expected to find when I came to live in the Middle East.  Which makes it all the more interesting and fun to discover!  I love finding things that challenge my assumptions.

In the village, I visited churches, mosques, and a Druze holy site.  There’s even a synagogue.  There’s even an ice cream shop that sells KNAFE ICE CREAM!  If you don’t know what knafe is, it’s this.  And it’s delicious, even as ice cream.

I was the only tourist in town today.  Not sure how many come on other days, but I definitely didn’t meet another outsider- not even another Israeli Jew.  And by and large, people were really nice.  It’s important to remember there are toxic and kind people everywhere (and a whole lot of people somewhere in between).  I’ve learned that people of all backgrounds live in gray space and nuance- it has frankly allowed me to see Arabs as people.  Rather than exoticizing them as all good or all bad or “Christian ones are good and Muslims are bad” (as many, many Israeli Jews say)- I’ve worked really hard to get to the point where I just see them as people.  Complex, like me.  It has added a softness to my Arabic that makes the language gentler and even more fun to speak.

I met with all sorts of fascinating people today- the Muslim woman who keeps the keys to the synagogue, the zany ice cream store owner who couldn’t believe a Jew could speak Arabic like me, the Druze women who wanted me to explain Donald Trump to them.

There’s a gentleness to Shefa’mr.  It’s kind of a preview of how this place could look with more peace and harmony.  More mixing and less hatred.  Or perhaps a view into a past here that once was.  Like my cover photo of a Greek Catholic Cross in front of the mosque, Shefa’mr is about living together.  In the words of a Druze woman: “one of our neighbors is Christian, the other Muslim.  Yes there is racism like anywhere else.  But we share in our sorrows and we share in our joys together.”

Before I visited Shefa’mr, when I was deciding whether to go, a Jewish Israeli told me: “why would you go there?  What is there to see?”  When you meet someone like this, ignore them.  She’s missing out and it’s truly sad to live in such ignorance of the beauty at your doorstep.  Shefa’mr is gorgeous and I did some amazing peaceful thinking there today.

After a thoughtful and inspirational morning in Shefa’mr, I hopped on a bus and then a train back to Tel Aviv.  I hate coming back home to Tel Aviv these days.  The city is loud, the people are often rude, there is an intensity to life here that just sucks sometimes.

Luckily a friend had invited me out for Purim, today’s Jewish holiday.  In the U.S., we tend to eat hamantaschen, read the megillah, have carnivals for kids, dress up in costumes, and if you’re a young professional maybe go to a party.  It’s fun and it’s decidedly low-key compared to what I experienced today.

Tel Aviv Purim is Jewish Mardi Gras.  It’s Carnaval.  It’s Jewish Sao Paolo going nuts- and it’s amazing.  I don’t drink.  I do dance.  I do love to talk to random people, including shirtless Jewish boys who are feeling friendly.  Purim is party after party- in the street, in the club.  Everyone is happy.  I have never, ever seen so many Israeli Jews smile and laugh at once.  And it goes on for several days- today was just day one.

I’ve never been to a cooler Jewish party in my life.  It’s huge.  And fun.  And for this one moment in time, Israeli Jews let go of the stress and basically don’t give a f*ck.  They just relax and have fun.

I had such a great time.  I suppose the intensity I hate in Tel Aviv has its occasional advantages.  I can’t imagine a small town in Israel- Jewish or otherwise- putting together this level of festivity.  It’s amazing.

I haven’t yet experienced all the holidays in Israel.  I have experienced most of them.  Purim is now my favorite Israeli holiday.  It’s like New Orleans filled with cute Jewish boys, dance music, and silly (sometimes racist) costumes.

If I had it my way, every month, maybe even every week would be Purim.  Israeli Jews need release.  And perhaps if they had more of it, more of them would be nicer and relaxed.

My day started with Druze, Christians, and Muslims and ended with a street fair in Tel Aviv.  Few people here live like I do.  And I encourage more to do so in the way that they can.  Cross boundaries.  Speak Arabic in the morning in the hillsides and rock out to Britney Spears at night.  Discover the secret Argentinean fan club in an Arab village and then flirt with half naked men in Hebrew as the sun rises.

I’m happy I found my way today.  My way to a good day, a fantastic day.  A day that even ended with flirting with a non-Jewish German I met while walking home to my apartment- he’s a nurse at the hospital around the corner!

This place where I live is both terrible and full of magic.  As I drift to sleep after an incredible day, I’m glad I lived today the way I did.

May it inspire us to find the stars shining where we least expect them.