The Birthright to be Jewish

Recently I had the blessing to lead a Birthright trip.  When I was 18, I went on my first trip to Israel.  At age 13, after my Bar Mitzvah, I decided to learn Modern Hebrew with a private tutor.  It’s not a step most teenagers take, let alone on their own initiative.

I fell in love with the country.  A country I had not yet been to, but a culture so alluring, so filled with life that I went by myself to a Sarit Hadad concert in suburban Maryland as a high schooler.  And loved it.

My own Birthright experience as a participant was mixed.  My tour guide was pretty right-wing and the group of people on my trip were so wild that they hooked up in front of the rest of the group…multiple times.  It was not my scene.

What I did love was Israel itself.  The landscapes, the history, the smells, the food, the Judaism, the curious nature of a country halfway around the planet somehow tied to those Hebrew lessons I took every week for three years in Maryland.

This time, the tables were flipped.  Whereas once I was an engaged participant, this time I was a leader.  While as a teenager and college student I had been an avid community organizer and counselor at various summer camps and activist institutes, it had been a long time since I had led a group of people.  I work in communications and public relations, but corralling a group of 50 college students with only two other staffers is a challenge.  At age 33.

The first few days were exhausting.  Between the jet lag, the hectic pace, being in a completely new social structure with nobody I knew, and the heavy responsibility of watching out for dozens of people’s lives, I was exhausted.  And frankly, not having a very good time.

All that changed with Shabbat.  The trip came to a slow, gentle pause as we joined the country in resting and reflecting.  As I had many times before in other places, I led the group in Kabbalat Shabbat services, a challenging and exciting opportunity given the very diverse backgrounds of the participants.  Some of them had never observed Shabbat before.

But what was so amazing, and indeed is the magic of Jewish wisdom and tradition, is how it completely transformed both the group and the trip for me.  Physically, we had a chance to practice the self care our bodies desperately needed.  No hikes, no bus rides, no planes.  Just rest.

Spiritually, we had a chance to come together as a new community.

One thing I mentioned to my participants at the end of our trip (by which time we really had become a loving, kind, tight-knit group of people who I really miss) was the difference between an experience and a community.  An experience is something that ignites, that binds people together in a moment.  Birthright is definitely that and I highly recommend going if you haven’t had the chance to yet.

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A community, however, is something deeper and more long-term.  It is a valley filled with overlapping emotions, care, and responsibility.

It’s something that only happened for me once we had a chance to celebrate Shabbat.

Because Shabbat is not a place, is not an attraction, is not a sight to see.  It is a time to behold the spirit and to feel its presence in our selves and in those around us.

That is what I saw happen on Shabbat.  A group of 50 thoughtful college students started to share their inner feelings and ideas with each other.  They started to look more at each other than at their phones.  And I started to feel more connected to them as they made themselves vulnerable talking about their families, the complexity of intermarriage, their Jewish values, and so much more.

What started as a moment in time became the seed of a growing community.  A community that initially I felt I was responsible for.  But eventually stood in awe as it became responsible for itself.  For each other.  Even for me.

This is the magic of Judaism.  Judaism is not a thing you can touch nor buy.  It is something you can practice anywhere at any time.  Even just by sharing an act of kindness.

It is something you have to do to make real.

At least if you live outside Israel.

What is so special about Israel is that by experiencing life in a majority-Jewish country, you don’t have to do Jewish.  You can simply be Jewish.  The nature of the place is that the street signs carry the names of famous rabbis, the boulevards of Jewish heroes.  The Hebrew language is plastered on every pizzeria and we hold our fate in our own hands with the ability and responsibility of having an army to protect ourselves.

That is the nature of Judaism in Israel.  You don’t need to do anything to feel Jewish- it’s just around you all the time.  The degree to which you engage it is up to you, but the holidays and culture will happen whether you participate or not.  It’s a miracle of the complicated and sometimes fraught ideology we call Zionism.  That for all its varying shades, victories, and failures is ultimately the only ideology that successfully found a way for people to simply exist as a Jew by virtue of being one.  And to succeed to passing that unique state of being on to future generations.

If my words are unclear, think about it this way.  If you want to be Jewish in America, you can certainly choose to identify as a Jew and do nothing to actively pursue that identity.  However, that identity will ultimately not find any manifestation in your day-to-day life unless you act on it.  Lighting Shabbat candles, learning about the Holocaust, studying Jewish texts, having Jewish friends- these are some of a myriad of ways in which you can “do Jewish” in the Diaspora.  And if you don’t find some way to do so, Judaism as a faith, tradition, and culture will not be a visible part of your life.

So the gift (and challenge) of Israel (and of Birthright) is the uniqueness of Judaism in this place.  Israel allows Jews to exist as Jews while doing nothing (consciously) Jewish.  It is the only place on the planet where all schools shut down for Jewish holidays and you feel the presence of Shabbat by the absence of buses on the roads every Friday night.  Whether you like it or not, or whether you pray or not.  You’re a Jew.

So I want to share a special message with my Birthright participants (Bus 354 woo woo olé!) and with the secular Israelis who move to the States and with Jews in America looking for a way to engage.

My message is you have to do Jewish to be Jewish.  Unless you live in Israel, Judaism won’t happen for us the way it did on Birthright.  It’s something I’m sure you’ll miss when you go back home and it’s truly a special experience to walk the streets of Jerusalem emptied of cars on a Saturday afternoon.

The good news is your Judaism doesn’t have to stop there.  Obviously it’s great to go back to Israel and there are many ways to do so, including subsidized programs through MASA.  Explore in more depth.  Learn about the complexity of Israel, including its diverse non-Jewish communities such as the Druze, Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Circassians, Bedouin, and more.  The tent we stayed at in the desert is only a meager taste of what these amazing communities have to offer.

But also take Judaism with you in your own way.  It could be choosing to put your phone on airplane mode for a few hours on Shabbat to get that feeling of mindfulness you got during our trip.  It could be taking a stroll with a friend in nature.  It could be finding time to catch up with friends from the trip, keeping our newfound community alive.  It could be learning about Jewish history or music or news or visiting a museum.

It also could mean plugging into your local Jewish community.  Places like Hillel on campus, Moishe House after you graduate, or the dozens of organizations and synagogues in your local Jewish Federation– these are places where you can find fellow Jews to connect with wherever you are.  And get that feeling of togetherness we had on our trip.

My greatest hope for you and for all Jews outside Israel is to see that the magic of Judaism doesn’t have to stop at Israel’s borders.  Although it will never be exactly the same and there is something so unique and special about the spontaneous Judaism that happens there.

The spirit of Shabbat and of Jewish life that you experienced is all around us if you access it.

Take the moment, take the experience, and build it into a community.  A community of our bus, of our friends, of our people.  And let it nourish you now and for many years to come.

Amen.  Miss you guys 🙂

Nuance Israel

Dear friends and readers-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Matt

When life gives you lemons, find another fruit

The old adage is “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  It’s sometimes a sweet sentiment- turn the difficult into the delightful.  The hard into the soft.  Swords into ploughshares.  Yada yada.

My experience living here has taught me this is mostly a bullshit philosophy.  There are some lemons so sour you simply can’t digest them- and shouldn’t try to.  When you bite in, the bitterness overwhelms your mouth and your taste buds go dead.

Like yesterday.  I’m walking in my neighborhood with a friend.  We sit down to eat and the men behind us start rambling on about gays taking over the neighborhood like they do “in London and Paris”.  Without even stopping to consider that I might be gay- or their neighbor.  Also ironic because almost no gay people live in my deeply conservative part of Tel Aviv- frankly if they had more, maybe it’d be a better place.  I wish I could turn their comments into some sophisticated commentary on gentrification, but I could tell from their tone that wasn’t all that was at work.

We then finished up our meal and headed to a bakery.  The man at the bakery indicated he was from Ramle, a city with a large Arab population I’ve visited several times.  I said “shoo akhbaarak?”  How are you?  He responded “fine, you speak Arabic?”  Aiwa, yes I do.

At this point in the conversation with many people, they get excited.  How did you learn Arabic?  Why do you speak with a Syrian accent?  Bravo, you speak great!

But instead, this man’s response was: “you’re not Arab so I think you just be who you (really) are.”

Like a sword through my heart.  A punch to the gut.  Rather than seeing my speech as a gesture of kindness, this man sought to put me in my place.  You’re not one of us, so stop trying to be.  He might as well have slapped me across the face instead because it might have stung less.

I’m not Arab, nor was I suggesting I am.  I happen to love Arabic and have been learning it since I was 17 years old– the only teenager in an Arabic class at my Jewish Community Center.  And then in college and with Syrian refugees on Skype and now in Israel- with Arabs in Israel, Israeli Jews, and Palestinians.  I love the language and am a firm believer that learning languages is a source of richness and communication.  That I have Arab friends now, that I listen to Arabic music, dance dabke, and travel to their villages- I may not *be* Arab but I love Arabs like I love all other people on this planet.  And I’m proud to be a fan and active participant in Arab culture.  A not insignificant statement about our shared humanity in a country where so many people hate each other.  It’s a statement most Arabs have told me they appreciate deeply.  And some, like this man, just choose to hate.

At times like this, I get really sad.  It’s hard to even hear or remember the positive experiences I’ve had when the hatred overwhelms and clouds the heart.  Because it really hurts to be profiled, to be discriminated against, to be hated simply for being who you are.

So I decided to look at the notes on my computer.  I keep a special place where I put positive comments on my blog.  People who’ve written on Facebook about how I’ve helped, healed, and contributed to their understanding and hope.

Here are some (last names redacted for privacy):

Orian: “I really like reading your posts and seeing all the beautiful places you visit in Israel.”

Jordan: “I know you are probably busy, but I just wanted to take a moment and say thank you so much for your beautiful writing. I relate to you so much more than I thought. Your experiences have been healing and have helped me feel like I wasn’t alone.  Your blog has also helped me out of the deep depression I am going through being in the USA in these strange times.”

Irene: “You were awesome with him btw, I wish I had someone to talk and guide me through these issues when I was younger.”

Debbie: “I’ve been in Israel for 30 years this September. It sounds as though you’ve broken barriers and understood this society in ways that other people don’t in a lifetime. Kol Hacavod! I remember my days in Israel as a single person, and how lonely and frustrating it can be. Please pm me if you’d like to be in touch.”

Max: “I love hearing the stories of your adventures in Israel thank you for posting.”

Elias: “As a Swede and an American, who’s studied Arabic for over a decade now, I wholeheartedly agree.”

Richard: “What a lovely, thoughtful article. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I hope you have many, many more like it.”

David: “As an older, gay Jew who is planning on Aliyah I have much to learn from your writings. So I am very happy I found them.”

Nancy: “I have not heard Arabic music before but listening to this I’ve grown to love it! So, I’m listening to it over and over again in my car!!! Todah, Matt.”

Goldie: “When I hear of Haredi in Jerusalem, I think of the women blowing whistles, screaming and pounding on tables when Reform Jews are trying to pray at the Kotel. Thank you for giving me Yisroel, a better image of a Haredi.”

David: “Very interesting, especially as I gradually became more dugri after making aliyah (many years ago) – but I am more dugri when I am abroad, and more English-polite when I am at home in Israel.”

Jordan: “Great read! It brought context to things I was already feeling as well gave me entirely new insights. I’m a non-Jewish American living here with my Israeli partner, and even though I also lived and traveled extensively abroad before I came here, I still struggle with the communication style here quite a bit. Perhaps it’s time to become more sabra myself. :)”

Louise: “Very interesting from a sociolinguistic perspective. Thanks.”

Diego: “Great post, I had been waiting for another entry, missing your key insights into Israeli society and the mixture of culture and languages.”

Laura: “Matt, your posts are so honest and profound. Thanks for sharing them here.”

Ruth: “Hi Matt. Your blog posts are very moving to me.And I’m very impressed with you being ready to confront the ‘hard stuff’.  I’m an American Jew who saw your post in Jewish Spirit, although I don’t know think I’ve also seen them elsewhere.I just told a Palestinian friend of mine, Kefah who lives in Shu’fat, about your posts. I think they’ll please her.  I sent one of your posts to a Palestinian friend of mine (Palestinian – American, grew up in Jordan and Lebanon, now lives in Cyprus) and she said ‘Wow! Thank you for giving me heart.'”

Ann: “Very interesting. Your field research Matt Adler is invaluable. Kol Hakavod.”

Howard: “Thanks, Matt, for this powerful, and important, article.  You are a treat to know, and learn from.”

Joanne: “You brought me back in time to my grandmother’s Seder 55 years ago thank you so much for the precious remembrance of my very happy memories .”

Trond: “As always, your thoughts and commentary are amazing. Your observations, the conclusions you draw, and how they seem to inform you worldview and actions (if I may be so presumptuous) really give my hope for humanity a boost (and it isn’t high to begin with).”

Marilyn: “I don’t always agree with Matt Adler’s blog posts, but they are always worth reading. This balanced and poignant article deserves your attention!”

These comments give me a much-needed boost.  When people rain down on you, stop eating the lemon!  Maybe instead of struggling to make the lemon taste good by drowning it in sugar, pick up a new fruit.

People like the Arab guy in my neighborhood exist in every society.  There are Jews here who’ve made me feel like an enemy for liking Arabs or refugees.  There are refugees here who, after telling me how racist Israel is, tell me they like Donald Trump because he’s against Muslims.  There are Muslims here who try to convert me and say deeply anti-Semitic garbage.  And Jews who are just fine deporting Arabs or refugees, even to their deaths.  Homophobic Jews and Arabs, Arabophobic Druze, Druzophobic Arabs, LGBTs against refugees.  The list of hatred is not small here- so let’s stop pretending 99% of people in the world are great.  Because frankly, that’s a lie as dangerous as pretending 99% of the world is your enemy.

And if I’m totally honest, the level of hatred in Israel seems much higher to me than many places I’ve lived or traveled.  Every society has its problems, but here it burns with an intensity of a forest fire.  The trees, never consumed by the flames, simply pass on the burn and soon you find yourself surrounded by heat and ash, struggling to breathe.  Running to gasp for a breath of fresh air while your eyes stay alert for the next spark.  Deep rest is not something you’re likely to find here.

Faced with an unrelenting and increasingly powerful flame, I’ve realized I can’t exactly douse it.  I’ve most certainly put out a lot of ignorance and hatred here- the comments above show that I’ve been a source of hope.  And for every moment of joy and spirit I have been able to bring, I’m proud and glad.  And I hope you pass that understanding and kindness on so perhaps together we can keep a little oasis fresh with water.  Withstanding some of the heat, pushing it back sometimes, and keeping the tinder from catching on fire.

The Arab man told me to just “be who you are”.  To stop playing games.  To him and people who think like him I say: “you are being who you are.  Not Arab, not Jewish- callous.  Hard-hearted and mean.”

I’m not pretending to be Arab nor am I pretending to be anything.  I’m being exactly who I am.  A kind, 32-year-old human being who likes cultures, languages, and aims to improve himself and be generous to people around him.

Wherever I go, whatever I do.

My greatest accomplishment in Israel is that I’ve managed to maintain my humanity in a place where so many wish to rip it away.

Keep doctoring your lemons.  I’ll have some mango.

p.s.- that’s my mango, my friend Molly whose family owns my favorite sushi joint in Israel 🙂

What’s God got to do with it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to be a Gay Jew

For those of you who haven’t been following the news lately, Israel has been a hot mess.  After I came back from vacation from Romania- a peaceful, mountain-filled vacation- I turned off the airplane mode on my phone.  And saw 200 Hamas rockets hit my friend’s Kibbutz near Gaza, that Netanyahu’s government had banned gay surrogacy, and that his friends in the Knesset passed a law downgrading Arabic and non-Jewish citizens.  Also, Israeli police arrested a liberal rabbi for performing a (non-legally-binding) wedding at 5am.  Befitting of some of our more theocratic neighbors- and perhaps more authentically Israeli than we’d care to admit.

In the course of just 48 hours, I felt like my entire identity was under attack.  As a Reform Jew, I can’t get married here with my rabbi.  As a gay person, I now have no affordable legal way to build a family.  And I can’t get legally married.  As an Arabic speaker and lover of Druze and Arab culture, I saw my identity and my friends under attack.  Somehow, the people doing the attacking- Netanyahu and his allies- somehow think they are the victim.  As if it’s 1939 and the entire world is out to get them.  While in the meantime, they are the ones sitting in positions of power, using that power to persecute innocent people.

The word for this phenomenon is “siege mentality”.  The idea, psychologically speaking, is that you feel the entire world is against you, so you act irrationally, refusing to see gray space, and delineate between “us” and “them”.  And boy you’d better hope you’re not a “them” because you become a living target.  For unbridled and illogical hatred.  We’re hardly the only society to experience this and it has a special intensity here.

That’s partially because siege mentality has deep roots.  Often in a combination of trauma (the Jewish people has had a lot of that), nationalistic feelings, and according to many studies, religiosity.  Not the kind of religiosity where you simply enjoy celebrating holidays and connecting with God.  But the kind of religiosity that bleeds exclusivism and at times paranoia.

As a PTSD survivor, I can relate.  On some level, siege mentality is about siege.  When you feel you’re under attack- as our people has been for centuries for no logical reason- you hunker down.  You put up walls to protect yourself.  Mentally mostly, since as a minority you often have no other recourse.  Though, as we see with time, some of these walls become quite visible and physically manifest.

What at one time was a useful skill to be able to protect ourselves has now become a liability.  Not because we have nothing to protect ourselves from- we traded 2,000 years of Christian persecution in Europe for some pretty rough neighbors.  Iran and Syria are hardly puppy dogs.  And you certainly can’t blame all their societies woes on us- though some people find creative anti-Semitic ways to do so.

What is harder to admit for those who engage in siege mentality paranoia is that sometimes they, we, you, me, people- do make mistakes.  That in fact, while the Palestinians have dangerous streaks of extremism, they are not the Nazis.  And not all of them want to kill us- even though some do.  That Arab citizens of Israel are by and large law-abiding citizens whose roots here often go back hundreds of years.  And that for every extremist among them, you can find dozens of productive, kind, responsible citizens.

Which leads me to today.  Today there was a Druze demonstration in Tel Aviv.  I went- anyone who has read my blog before knows I LOVE Druze 🙂 . The Druze are feeling increasingly angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for relegating them (and other non-Jewish minorities) to a second class status.  Despite, in their case, having served in the military for 70 years- like any Jewish citizen.  Their loyalty to this country is not only being ignored by this government, it is being thrown in the trash.  A shame and a serious error.

The rally was invigorating.  Over 100,000 people crowded Rabin Square- for the first time I heard Arabic on the loudspeaker right in the center of Tel Aviv.  Since I spend a lot of time with Druze, I even bumped into two different Druze friends at the rally.  I stand with you my sisters and brothers- we will win.

Why has our Prime Minister, when facing *real* threats from Iran, Syria, and Hamas, decided to make the Druze our enemies?  Why has this government diminished and attacked Reform Judaism?  Why does this government deny basic human rights to the LGBTQ community and all non-Jewish minorities in this country?  Something, by the way, many Israelis like me are working to fix.  For ourselves and all who we love.

Because Prime Minister Netanyahu is living in a contorted fantasy.  More like a nightmare.  In which someone’s difference becomes a source of anxiety.  Rather than a challenge to overcome and learn from.  To build a better society.

Which leads me to the title of this blog.  I am a gay Jew.  Always have been.  Being one is not so easy- I’ve discussed it here many times before.  In the States, I often felt like the odd Jew out at LGBT events (not to mention that some are starting to ban Jewish pride flags).  And at many Jewish events, I was in the minority as a gay person.  Often while the singles meat market churned around me.  It was lonely at times.  And sometimes, worse.  I once had a guy dump me because I didn’t eat pork…I didn’t need to read between the lines because it wasn’t particularly subtle.

One of the challenges of being a gay Jew is that our identity pulls us in two very different directions.  Judaism, even in its liberal forms, is essentially about preservation.  It is conservative in the sense that it aims to keep our history and traditions alive.  And we know that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen on its own and we will disappear.  To become the next Akkadians or Shakers.

To be gay is not to invent an identity- we’ve been around forever, as ancient cave pictures show.  It is, however, in modern society, to be an innovative force.  Because our identity is crafted on top of the modern landscape and the people who most reliably support our freedom are the most innovative.  The progressives.  The people who are open to change- rather than focusing on conserving sometimes ineffective or outdated norms.

This is an internal conflict that’s hard to resolve.  Because the instinct to preserve and conserve can be quite repulsive to the progressive elements of society.  And our desire to feel accepted and change some aspects of our traditions to include us- that can deeply offend conservative sentiments.

This past week, I saw this play out.  Before going to Kabbalat Shabbat services, I saw a Facebook post in which a man described how a Jerusalem restaurant refused his friend service because he was gay.  Turns out, perhaps not by coincidence, that both Ben Rosen and his gay friend Sammy Kanter, are American rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.  Fellow Reform Jews.  In Sammy’s case, a fellow gay Reform Jew.  In my experience, my movement, more than any other, strives to balance modernity and tradition and breeds some pretty amazingly self-confident queer people and allies.  We’re not perfect, but we’re the closest thing to a home that I have found as a gay Jew.  Who likes to conserve and innovate and feel welcome.

I contacted them immediately and have been helping them navigate the bizarre and chaotic world of Israeli politics, press, and advocacy.  They both- Ben as an ally an Sam as advocate- really impress me.  I sometimes miss the rambunctious and proud progressive Jewish queer identity that flourishes in America.  While here, I still encounter (even among some friends in my movement) a sense of deep unresolved sexual shame and conservatism.

I will continue helping them pursue justice.  Nobody deserves to be kicked out of a restaurant for who they are.  Anywhere.  In the meantime, please don’t frequent “Ben Yehuda 2” in Jerusalem.  They don’t deserve your business.

How does this tie together?  Sammy, if he were an oleh like me moving to this country, would probably live in Tel Aviv.  There aren’t a heck of a lot of Reform gay Jews in Jerusalem- for good reason.  It’s a deeply conservative city.

So why is he there?  He’s there, for a year, for the same reason I’m in Israel: we love our Judaism.  And for Jews, nowhere is more Jewish than Jerusalem- black hats or not.

So his desire to conserve his Judaism has landed him- and many gay Jews- in conflict with our queer identities.  Because where we wish to conserve and evolve, some people simply want a deep dive into a protective fortress.  An idea that Judaism never changes- even while their own practices demonstrate that it does.  And which has resulted in untold incitement against their queer brothers and sisters.  Including an article this week that called for us to be killed.

How do you bring folks out of that fortress or at least allow it a bit more room to breathe?  So that it can still be protective- and not necessarily the same as mine- and recognize that not everything they see as a threat is in fact dangerous.  That we have a powerful army and while some people wish us harm, not everyone does.  Least of all from within.

I don’t have a solution at hand.  Perhaps I can suggest to my friends on the far right (and occasionally those who live with this mentality on the far left) to find counterexamples.  Whenever I get nervous about a group of people, I try not to discount my fear, and I try to find some examples of people I feel safe with.  So when I just read an article about anti-Semitism in Romania, I recalled a woman there who asked me for klezmer groups because she likes Yiddish.  Doesn’t take away from the scary nature of persistent anti-Semitism.  And it does give me a nuanced perspective.  That makes me feel a little more relieved and better able to protect myself without isolating my mind from the world.

Whether it’s Sammy or the Druze or Arabs or anyone else- I’m not doing this for you.  Although of course I am- Sammy is a wonderful person who I’ve only talked to a few times, but already see his great courage and resilience.  And sense of humor.  And of course my experiences with Druze and other peoples inspire me to reach out and show some love.

But I’m not doing it for you.  And I’m not doing it for me.  Of course I am, because I’m a queer Reform Jewish Arabic speaker who values diversity.  So yeah, I am protecting myself and want a better life for me here where I feel safe and valued and equal.

But then who exactly am I doing this for?

Us.  Sammy, the Druze, me.  Us.  Because we share a bond, we share a love, we share identity, and together, we might not be able to defeat the siege mentality.  But we will certainly give it a shot.  Because sitting at home complaining, while justified and sometimes necessary, will not alone resolve this pain.

So grab my hand, and let’s give this a shot.  Because I don’t go down without a fight and a bit of hope that we won’t go down.

p.s.- the cover photo is of me with a Druze flag.  Which looks a lot like a pride flag.  So that’s awesome 🙂

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.