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.


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.

A New Year’s Resolution for Israel

Today is the secular new year.  In Israel, fittingly but quite strange for me, they say “shanah tovah”, the typical Jewish greeting for Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year.  It’s a fun night of celebration and also a chance to think of what’s ahead.

For me, this week marks my 6 month anniversary of arriving in Israel.  I’ve learned so much in such a little amount of time.  I’ve visited over 35 cities.  I’ve been to Hasidic dance parties, Mizrachi concerts, dabke dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Yiddish theater, a Russian puppet show, and a Yemenite concert.  I’ve eaten Bukharian, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazi, Romanian, Druze, Arab, Kavkazi, Georgian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Eritrean, Filipino, and so many other types of food.  I’ve davvened with Haredim, Reform Jews, Chabad, and hippie vegan Jews.  I visited a Druze shrine and a Karaite synagogue.  I got to watch Islamic prayer up close and personal in a mosque and I went to an LGBT Orthodox Torah study group.

Not bad for the half year mark!  I’m quite proud of all my accomplishments- moving across the ocean alone, making friends, finding an apartment, adjusting to a new culture, and using all nine of my languages and starting to add Greek!

There has been a lot of stress along the way.  Israel is an extraordinarily hard place to live- or so say Sabras who grew up here.  And while sometimes they exaggerate because whining here is kind of a national sport (and they don’t know much about the challenges faced by people elsewhere), the truth is in many ways they’re right.  And it’s all the more difficult for someone like me who moved here at 31 without an extensive support network.

What’s hardest about life in Israel is also the source of my New Year’s resolution.  The hardest part of life in Israel is the people.  More specifically, the intense and mean-spirited prejudice I experience on almost a daily basis.  Towards me as an American and towards other cultures- especially within Israel.  Don’t get me wrong- there are some fantastic people here, who mostly join me in complaining about the awful ones.  But boy- there is a mean streak to Israeli culture that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world.  It’s not because I haven’t seen prejudice elsewhere- I’ve experienced it in places like Spain (anti-Semitism), Argentina (homophobia), and the U.S. (all of the above).

The difference in Israel is the intensity and the degree to which many people here celebrate judging others.  I’m someone who deeply values multiculturalism.  I’m well aware that there are limits to it and questions about how far it should extend.  But the basic principle of respecting- at times embracing- parts of every culture to me is second nature and a fundamental way I live in the world.  The good news is Israel is chock full of interesting cultures.  Sadly, that most Israelis know nothing about- and don’t care to appreciate.  While some Israelis are curious about Berlin or America, few are particularly curious about their neighbors who look or talk differently from them.  Let alone their own roots.

The truth is when the State of Israel was being built, its founders despised (and that is not too strong a word) multiculturalism.  Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic- these languages were vigorously and shamefully repressed by the state.  Kids grew up with shame about their roots.  And sadly some 2,000 year old beautiful Jewish cultures are going extinct as a result.

The un-rootedness of many Sabras fosters insecurity and prejudice towards those who maintain their heritage.  Just ask many a Sabra what they think of French Jews or Russians who continue to speak their languages here.

There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in cultural diversity, but it needs to be nourished.  And that’s where I- and you- come in.  There are Israelis like me who are proud of our origins.  There are Israelis- I’ve met them- who realize you can speak fluent Hebrew and still maintain (or re-learn) your French or Russian or Arabic or Romanian.  There are many who don’t realize that because they’ve been trained to revile the Diaspora.  And that’s very sad.

But in the end, I believe in multiculturalism and I’m convinced there are some people here who are ready to join me in this movement.  I want to celebrate the incredible cultural richness here- of Jews, of Arabs, of refugees, of everyone.  It is a gift that must be cherished to be protected.

It is no longer acceptable to me that when I tell my Sabra friends that I met Aramaic-speaking Christians or Samaritans who speak Ancient Hebrew or Eritreans with an awesome juice bar that their reaction is: “wow I didn’t know that was there- you’ve seen more here in 6 months than I’ve seen in a lifetime!”

Bullshit.  Time to get off your hummus-filled tuchus and get to know the richness of your country.  No- not the high-tech.  The cultural treasures right underneath your nose waiting to be discovered.

It’s time to leave behind the old-fashioned Zionist concept of the “effeminate”, “decadent”, “overly pious”, “cosmopolitan”, “weak” Diaspora Jew.  It’s 2018, time for a change.  It’s time to realize the “Diaspora” is The World.  And lucky for us, a whole bunch of people from all over the world have made this country their home.

Now it’s time to realize that if we understand where we came from, our cultures, our heritage- it doesn’t negate our Israeli identity.  It thoroughly enriches it.  Just like my delicious cover photo of Pringles, Russian sweets, Korean seaweed, and Israeli Bissli that co-exist at my neighborhood store.  Pluralism that begins with culture can increase respect between all sectors of society.  And instead of Jew hating Arab hating Zionist Orthodox hating Haredi hating Secular hating Mizrachi hating Ashkenazi- maybe, just maybe, we build just a little bit more understanding and a lot less hate.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.  Inshallah.  Ojalá.  Mirtsashem.

Let’s do this y’all. 🙂

A tale of two Jews

Peki’in is a beautiful Druze village in the north of Israel.  Or, should I say, a Druze and Jewish village.

This picturesque town is filled with delicious Syrian-style food you can literally eat out of a family’s kitchen.  The Arabic of the villagers mingles with the Hebrew of the tourists.

What you might not know is that Jews are not just visitors to this town.  Peki’in is the site of a Jewish community that has continuously lived there- since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.  It’s something I knew little about when I arrived- and learned a lot about when I visited.

My first glimpse into the Jewish past of this town was that there’s a rabbi’s cave.  What is a rabbi’s cave?  Well Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) was hiding from the Romans in 70 C.E., who forbade the study of Torah.   So he came to this cave and hid to keep his traditions- our traditions- alive.  It’s utterly fascinating how every corner of this land is filled with my history.

Here’s his digs and a taste of the town:

After this delightful Jewish surprise, my friend and I headed to eat Druze food out of the backyard of a man’s home (the guy in my cover photo).  This is not a restaurant- there is no menu.  There is delicious food that they bring you from their home kitchen, you eat, and then pay for.  And mostly you moan in pleasure the whole time as you devour delicious salads, fresh pita, and meat.

I had a great time talking with the Druze family in Arabic.  Not only is our Arabic very close (I learned the Syrian dialect and most Israeli Druze migrated to present-day Israel from Syria), but I feel very affirmed by them Jewishly.  For example, an old Druze woman (in Hebrew) wished me a Rosh Hashanah sweeter than apples and honey.  The Druze people know the Jewish holidays, they respect Jewish holy sites, they frankly just love Jews.  Given all the traumas that Jews have experienced- and the subsequent sectarian bitterness that can come between us- I sometimes feel safer as a Jew with Druze than as a Jew with Jews!

Thinking I had finished my adventure, I came across two elderly women.  I thought both were Druze.  But one woman- in Druze Arabic- tells me she’s Jewish.  Say what?  She then tells me (again, this is all in Arabic) that there is a synagogue in the town built at the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

She grabbed her keys and said she’d open it for me.

At this point, Jewish tourists start crowding around us as I explain what’s going on in Hebrew.  We head to the synagogue and lo and behold- there is one.  And inside, she explains, are fragments from Jerusalem at the time of the Temple- maybe even from the Temple itself.  I didn’t take pictures because it was the Sukkot holiday and even though nobody was praying, I felt it was disrespectful.

But man was it awesome.  I gingerly asked her if I could touch one of the menorah-shaped stones from the time of the Temple.  She said of course.  And so I touched the stones my ancestors carved 2,000 years ago.  I’ve never felt so connected to my past- or to the reasons I came to live here.  Judaism is not a metaphor in Israel- it is both past and present.  I brought my soul home to where it came from.  I think my ancestors would be proud.

Still in awe of this experience (and having had the chance to climb to the roof of the synagogue, which was also cool), I strolled down the street.  A man sat on his porch and we started to talk.  At first we talked in Hebrew, and then in Druze Arabic.  Turns out he’s from the same family as the elderly woman who let me into the synagogue.

And, of course, because “two Jews, three opinions”, they don’t talk!  The man’s family had left the village for a few years because they were uncertain what might happen in Israel’s War of Independence.  They feared that the Arab armies might kill them.  So as a child, he moved with several other Peki’in families to the Israeli city of Hadera.  He told me how as a kid, since his native tongue was Arabic, he often felt afraid to talk lest the other kids think he was the “enemy”.  So he learned Hebrew in school and spoke Arabic at home.

As an adult, he chose to return to Peki’in to look after his family’s lands.  And due to who knows what kind of internal politics involving the Jewish Agency and the village synagogue etc etc, he and the old woman down the street- the only other Jew in town- don’t talk.

Sometimes there are valid reasons not to talk to others.  I know this from having dealt with toxic relatives myself.  That being said, there’s something about this story that just disturbs me.

You’ve got a community of Jews who despite invader after invader after massacre after persecution managed to remain present in the land of Israel for 2,000 years.  And yet, the last two Jews there just can’t make it work.

Here’s my thought.  Peki’in is a beautiful town.  If you haven’t gone, stop going to the same goddamn bar in Tel Aviv and get off your ass and visit your past.  The air will fill your soul and you can just be in the moment.  No yoga needed.

And if you’re a Jew, remember the lesson of Peki’in.  Diversity is good, survival is crucial, and so is tolerance.  If we get to a place where we’re so few yet so divided, how will we ever move forward?  Extend the olive branch, step outside your bubble, and show your neighbor some love.

If we can’t learn it from ourselves, then learn it from the Druze.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Always with kippah, sometimes with one, or without one.  Secular, Reform, Orthodox.  In Arabic.  In Hebrew.  In your heart.



The diversity of (non-Jewish) Israel

I just got back from an amazing trip up north.  The North is the most beautiful part of an already stunning country.  It is also the area with the most non-Jews.

When some foreigners think of Israeli non-Jews, perhaps they picture an old Bedouin man with a kufiyyeh sitting in the desert.  While that certainly exists, that hardly scratches the surface of non-Jewish diversity here in Israel.  For my previous post about Jewish diversity here, click here.

In one trip spanning less than a week, I personally met and spoke in Arabic with non-nomadic Bedouins, Greek Catholics, Maronites, Druze, Greek Orthodox, Copts (ok, they were tourists from Georgia, but still!), and Sunni Muslims.  I’ve even met self-identified “secular Druze” and “secular (Greek) Orthodox”.  The latter sounds hilarious in Hebrew because “Ortodoksi Hiloni” sounds like an Orthodox Jew who is secular.  I’m sure someone out there identifies that way, but man it sounds funny in Hebrew 🙂

In Yafo, for instance, on a brief walk around town, I even noticed the Church of Scotland (presumably Presbyterians).  In Jerusalem, I sat and talked with Armenians in a mixture of Hebrew and, believe it or not, Armenian-accented Arabic.  And both men were not big fans of their own church!

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Haifa, where there is the Bahai world headquarters as well as the center of Ahmadi Muslims, a small sect persecuted in many predominantly Muslim countries.  This sect has the unique distinction of having translated the Quran into Yiddish in 1987.  I’m sheppin naches that these people like the mamaloshn!

And we haven’t even begun to talk about lifestyles, language, or politics.  In Haifa, there’s an entire young Arab hipster culture.  There are also three different Arab parties in the Knesset (now under one umbrella): one Jewish-Arab communist party, one Arab nationalist party, and one Islamist party.  Just to be clear, if these parties were running against each other in any other Middle Eastern country, they’d be considered intense political and ideological rivals.  Regardless of your views on the parties, the fact that they now comprise a single unit in Israel is quite unique and shouldn’t mislead you into thinking there’s uniform thinking in this sector.  Oh also, 24% of Arab Muslims vote for explicitly Zionist parties.

Sometimes in the West people are tempted to view Middle Easterners, Jewish or Arab, as “stuck in the past”.  That if we’re keeping age-old traditions, we must be divorced from the modern world.  Rather, I’d like to posit that we live in a world where the beautiful heritage that brought us to this day is kept alive precisely by integrating it with the tools of the modern world.  That’s why the pictures below, all of which were taken in centuries-old (sometimes millenia-old) Arab communities, shouldn’t surprise you.  Because you can hold onto tradition and adapt.  My Arab friends aren’t caricatures.  If you really want to embrace all Israelis, including non-Jews, let go of the exoticism and realize that this is also the face of Arab Israel:

In the end, the best thing you can take from visiting non-Jewish communities here (not all non-Jews are Arabic speakers, but we’ll save that for another blog) is that if you try to speak about them as a whole, you’ve already missed the point.  These are extremely diverse communities- religiously, ideologically, and even linguistically (every village and even religious community can have its own dialect).

My best advice?  Pick up an Arabic textbook, find a good teacher (yes I do tutor 😛 ), and get to know your neighbors.  Move beyond the transactional nature of your favorite Arab hummus joint or falafel stand.  If your only source of information about Arab-Israelis is the newspaper, you’ve got a lot to learn.  And so do I, which is why I intend to continue visiting these communities and making friends.

In the end, the only way to really experience another culture is with your own two eyes, your feet planted firmly on the ground, and your mind open as wide as the sky above the Galilee.

My Druze, Muslim, Orthodox, Reform Rosh Hashanah

Tonight, Rosh Hashanah ended.  As a Reform Jew, I observe one day of the holiday, which you can read about here.  I had amazing meals with friends, went to services for a taste of home, was greeted everywhere with Shanah Tovah, and even ate sushi 😉

This evening, I decided to go Israeli dancing.  Anyone who’s known me for a while knows that I love Israeli dancing- it’s one of the first things I did in Israel.

I go to this marathon event (it goes till 6am!) and there are hundreds- I mean hundreds- of people.  All ages, all attires (I even saw a bustier), and tons of enthusiasm.  There’s even a guy I know from dancing in DC.  Because, Jews 🙂  The music was booming- there was even a live band to accompany the music!  They had a screen that showed a picture of each singer, the name of the song, and a running clock of how long the marathon had gone on!  I recognized so many of the songs I danced to at home- it was fantastic.

During couples dancing (which I tend to avoid unless I’m with a friend- some of the middle aged women can get frisky!), I stepped aside to rest.  I saw this cute guy so I started talking to him.  I wished him “chag sameach”, a happy holiday.  He said “what holiday?”  I said “oh are you not Jewish?”  And turns out, he wasn’t.  He was just working the event.  In fact, he’s an Arab Muslim from Nazareth named Muhammad Abbas.  Poor guy’s name is so, so close to the name of the leader of the Palestinian Authority that pretty much nobody, Arab or Jewish, really likes.

He’s a student at Tel Aviv University studying English literature.  He only listens to American music and he loves dark, intense American novels.  We talked in Hebrew and Arabic about American film and literature (I recommended he watch Office Space for a clever satirical movie), and he stepped outside to work.

Then it hit me- I owed him an apology.  Growing up as 2% of the American population, I was constantly barraged with “Merry Christmas” for a two month period every year.  I don’t begrudge anyone saying Merry Christmas- I just don’t want it said to me because it’s not my holiday.  I stepped outside and I apologized to him for assuming he was Jewish.  He took it totally in stride and laughed it off.  We also both knew that this year, the Muslim New Year falls on the same day, so I ended up being right in wishing him a Happy New Year 🙂 .  In the end, I do feel like I owed him an apology because I made an assumption about him and it wasn’t the way I like to treat people (or be treated).  Just goes to show that you can’t assume a cute Semitic-looking boy here is Jewish!

At this point, a man selling food in Hebrew with an Arab accent starts talking to me saying not to worry about my holiday faux pas.  That we’re all people and it’s good to wish each other blessings.  This man, Ramzi, is from the magical place called Daliat Al Karmel.  This place entrances me.  If you’ve followed my blog, you know that in the course of 2 months in Israel, I’ve been there twice.  That it has a special magic- the people, the trees, the view- that I have seen in few places in the world.  And this man, just for this event, happened to be selling Druze pita in Tel Aviv!  He lives up North!

We switch over to Arabic (and back and forth to Hebrew and English) as we talk about life and his village.  He invited me to come visit him.  You ready for a real twist?  He owns a Matah – an orchard.  My Hebrew name, which I chose when making aliyah and is extremely unique, is also Matah מטע.  He invited me to come up whenever I want and we’re going to hang out on his orchard.

As if my night couldn’t get any more fabulous or diverse, on my way home I see an Orthodox family by an ambulance.  In America, you’d pretty much say a prayer for them in your head and move on- not wanting to invade their space.  Since this is Israel, I did the exact opposite.  I walked over and asked if I could help.  One woman said she couldn’t ask because I was Jewish (Orthodox Jews believe that it is not permissible to make another Jew work on a holiday).  The other woman, perhaps in an act of pragmatism, simply told me they needed a cab, so I ordered it.  I’ve spent enough time in pluralistic Jewish circles to know that even if Orthodox Jews can’t ask me to do something on Rosh Hashanah, if I just do it, it’s acceptable.

I ordered a cab but just in time, another one came by and they got in.  Luckily it was nothing life-threatening, but it looked like their little girl had a wound on her head.  I hope she’s feeling better.

As I walked away, I wished them a Shanah Tovah.  I knew they were celebrating my holiday 🙂 .  They shouted back with a smile “ktivah vechatimah tovah” – may God write you a good year in the Book of Life.

On my way home, I realized just what an amazing holiday I had had.  In the course of one day, I went from Reform services to Israeli dancing to hanging out with a Muslim friend to talking with Druze and helping Orthodox Jews.

This is my country.  Where every fiber of my being is filled with meaning.  I couldn’t be prouder to start a new life and a new year in Israel.  My diverse, caring, and wonder-filled home.

Shanah tovah from the place where miracles aren’t on 34th street- they’re on every corner.

Hitchhiking on a Druze golf cart

Tonight was rough.  I had an amazing Shabbat which included hosting American students, Reform services, Libyan food, the beach, and an Israeli techno party.  After all that, I headed to the America Restaurant on Ibn Gvirol only to find all sorts of Trump-themed and racist paraphernalia.  It was an unwelcome surprise for someone who came here to get away from that.  I felt angry and typecast.  The only good part was my excellent company and the mac n cheese.  I headed home feeling deflated and wondering why I was here.  It’s hard to be a Jew in America and it’s hard to be American in Israel.

After blowing off some steam, I decided to write about my trip to Daliat Al Karmel and Haifa.  Because there, I felt the inspiration that can happen in Israel.

Let’s start in Daliat Al Karmel.  A beautiful Druze village, I loved exploring every nook and cranny.  I had heard there was a monastery nearby, so I made my way by foot.  Each person I asked for directions told me it was 5 minutes away.  I asked four people the same question, so needless to say it was more than 5 minutes away.  After 30-40 minutes in the heat, I saw a golf cart heading towards me.  I asked the man and his son in Arabic for a lift- and so I hitchhiked with the Druze family to the monastery.

This place is gorgeous.  On top of the roof, you can see all of Israel’s North.  It looks like this:


I felt at peace.  Tel Aviv is a disgusting dirty city.  It’s a fun place.  It’s filled with youth and queer people and the beach and a million and a half cultures.  But it’s gross.  And loud.  The North is peaceful.  It is where I go to meditate and connect with God.

Realizing I was far away from the village bus and in need of a way home, I talked to the Druze guy who worked at the front desk.  Since this is Israel, there is ALWAYS a solution.  A priest from the monastery was headed back to Haifa, where I was staying.

I ran after his car and hopped in.  The generous and kind Italian priest drove me the entire 45 minute ride.  He spoke decent Spanish and I speak Spanish so we talked that way- in “Itañol” as he called it 🙂 .  He works for a Roman Catholic church in Haifa that cooperates with Greek Catholics and Maronites- both of whom are also in communion with Rome.  He loves life in Israel and wants to stay.  He even did an ulpan- although he was frustrated that the teacher only explained things in Russian!  25% of Haifa is Russian so it makes sense.  Kind of funny that the words he learned in ulpan were zdrastvootie and pazhalsta haha.

I then went out in Haifa to check out the nightlife.  I connected with some Americans teaching English in Haifa, which was great.  It’s nice to get a dose of the motherland once in a while 🙂  I was then headed home when I heard Arabic music blasting from a sushi bar.  I immediately went inside and found an entirely Arab sushi restaurant singing and dancing.  I joined in, started clapping and dancing.  It is hands down the most fun I’ve had since arriving in Israel.  And there’s wasn’t a Jew in sight.  Because it would probably never occur to a Sabra to step foot in this place.  I’m pretty fearless and open-minded, so I said what the hell.

The next thing I know, the music stopped and the bartender starts belting out some amazing Arabic tunes.  And he. is. GOOD.  Everyone starts swinging and swaying and banging on the bar.

It’s 3:30am and I head home.  I can’t help but think now how my Americanness helped make these moments possible.  My multilingual interactions.  My trust of Druze and Arabs.  My appreciation for all religious traditions.

Because my American identity isn’t a metaphor.  And it’s not a Britney Spears concert or a goofy picture of Donald Trump or a selfie in Times Square.

It’s my appreciation for diversity.  My willingness to listen.  My open-mindedness and my love for my neighbors- Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, you name it.

When I made aliyah, some Sabras told me not to hang out too much with other Americans.  Not to be too diasporic.

Bullshit.  My American identity makes me a better Israeli.  Quite a number of Jews here speak better German than Arabic and know more about Berlin than Kafr Qasem.

I intend to be part of the solution here as an American-Israeli.  Instead of throwing shade, hop on the golf cart with me.  We’ll climb atop a monastery in the middle of nowhere.  We’ll stare out at the North and realize that anything is possible if you just let yourself dream.  The American-Israeli dream.

Druze make the best Zionists (and kubbeh)

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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