What kind of Jewish State?

Lately, as some of you have noticed, I’ve felt rather down.  Job hunting is stressful- and job hunting in Israel is even more so.  Sending resume after resume, LinkedIn after LinkedIn, call after call.  It’s exhausting.  And knowing that the salaries here are so much lower than the U.S. doesn’t help.  As I’ve written about, Israel is one of the most expensive countries in the world.  Tel Aviv is the 9th most expensive city.  Yet the salaries don’t keep pace.  Out of the 34 OECD countries, Israel is ranked 23rd in purchasing powerAccording to Numbeo.com, an average meal at a low-cost restaurant is $14.78 in Tel Aviv and $20 in New York.  New York rent is also more expensive, although Tel Aviv is actually more expensive than the Big Apple if you want to buy an apartment outside the city center.

In that spirit, let’s compare apples to apples.  While most indices for New York are more expensive than Tel Aviv (although milk is 33% more expensive in Tel Aviv!), you have to remember the salary gap.  The average net salary, after taxes, is $4,505.72 per month in New York and just $2,294.76 in Tel Aviv.  And Tel Aviv is where most of the high paying jobs are in Israel.

All of which is to say that although New York is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, a place where most Americans couldn’t dream to live, Tel Aviv is actually worse off economically.  The average Tel Avivi has 14.96% less purchasing power than a New Yorker.

It’s an economic desperation you see on the streets here.  Today alone I noticed two different grown men rummaging in trash bins in the middle of the city.  Looking for food, I presume.  A degrading experience for them, and a deeply sad and disturbing one for me to see.  It makes me read signs like this one, which I saw at a bike store, with a bit of irony:

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Of course, these problems are not only happening in Israel.  Around the world, the gap between wealthy and poor has become a pressing issue.  When I was in San Francisco last month, I saw more homeless people than possibly any other city I’ve visited.  Rural Romania, where I spent some time hiking and backpacking, has largely been hollowed out by migration to London and Spain and Italy in search of work.  Village economy has dried up after joining the EU.

The thing is not everyone is suffering here.  In 2018, Israel counted over 30 billionaires.  In dollars.  High-tech firms here are some of the most successful in the world, with some of the highest salaries in Israel.  If you work in the start-up scene, Israel is the place to be and you could probably build a comfortable life here if you choose to make aliyah.

On the other hand, with the cost of living continuing to increase and other industries’ salaries failing to keep pace, Israelis are being left behind.  Including olim like me.  Who came here with a Master’s degree from Georgetown university, 8 fluent languages (including Hebrew), and 10 years of public relations experience.

I have some more meetings in the next few days.  I have been sending out my resume left and right, networking like a maniac.  Those of you who know me personally know I am an extremely proactive person.  Root for me, encourage me, I need it.

I want to share some stories from this journey.

Last week, I went from bookstore to bookstore in Jerusalem.  Calling, showing up in person, filling out forms.  I figured it’d be good to earn some money while searching for a job with a real salary.  No call backs.  I was even told by one bookstore that I was “overqualified”, even after explaining I was just looking for part-time work.  I also spoke to an employee of an Israeli travel company I was trying to network with.  With the hopes of collaborating on my blog, to hopefully earn some revenue and bring them business.  After I sent some English and Hebrew writing samples, the employee wrote to me: “it is hard to impressed by your writing.”  It was like a gut punch.  I know I’m a good writer- and the 50,000 people who read my blog are proof.  As are the wonderful comments you all share with me.  But it’s just demeaning.  How long should I fight for an underpaid job here?

Needing a break from the stress of job hunting- a hunt which at this point is extending to both Israel and the U.S. out of necessity- I headed to a museum.  Knowledge, history, learning- these things always light me up and give me hope.  Seeing the long spectrum of Jewish history and the beauty of art helps put my current struggles into perspective.  And fills the soul with light when people around you are swallowing your hope alive.

When I visited Italy last march, I learned about the unique history of Italian Jews.  A 2,000 year old community, they predate both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and have their own rite.  At the Jewish Museum of Rome (which I highly recommend visiting), I learned there was another place in the world where the Italian rite was used: Israel.

In one of the most miraculous stories I’ve ever heard, Italian Jews transported an entire historic synagogue to Israel in the 1950s.  In a bid to preserve this ancient Jewish heritage- seen as endangered even after the Holocaust- the building made its way to Jerusalem where it is now housed in the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art.  It’s a small but absolutely stunning museum.  With ancient and medieval Italian Jewish artifacts, and the synagogue itself.  It is used to this day- and has extremely rare Italian-rite prayer books which I got to hold and read up close.

The museum is a testament to Jewish history and the power and nature of Israel itself.  In the museum, I read from the Sereni Haggadah, a 15th century Italian book illustrated with Ashkenazi motifs and written according to their rites.  I read about how some Italian Jews even spoke and published in Yiddish.  A reminder of how all Jews are connected- that Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Italian flow into one other.  In the sun-soaked land of Italy, where all three communities have co-existed for centuries.

The synagogue and the museum are a reminder of the power of the Zionist ideal.  Without Israel, who knows what would have happened to these treasures, to the synagogue itself.  While some synagogues in Europe are preserved, the vast majority have been destroyed or lay in decay.  I saw some turned into restaurants and casinos and there is even one that was turned into a strip club.  But more than anything, they are usually locked and empty.  To prevent continuing theft and anti-Semitic attacks, an eerie testament to their largely emptied communities.

Israel was the logical place to send this synagogue.  It’s a place where the history of the Jewish people can sit safely, far out of the reach of anti-Semites.  It’s a place where the National Library of Israel preserves 5 million Jewish books, audio files, and other treasures.  An unmatched collection spanning continents and centuries.  A gold mine I got to explore this past week.  The only library of its kind.  I perused Judeo-Arabic versions of the Torah, Catalan-language books about Jewish history, dialect maps of Yiddish, and a book about the xuetes of Mallorca, Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  Who manage to maintain a separate, often persecuted, identity to this day.  Check out the library’s website and discover a digital collection that can transport you from your home to almost any Jewish community- past or present.  If you’re in Jerusalem, go visit!  There are real gems right under your nose- and it’s free!

While visiting the Italian museum, I met some foreigners, who were intrigued by the exhibit.  Including Jews.  I spoke with a British Jew whose parents are Israeli.  He only speaks a few words of Hebrew, but he connects to his Judaism by studying Italian Jewry.  The museum staffer himself had Mexican parents and we spoke in Spanish about the siddurim.

I also made a point of talking to several sabras, or native-born Israeli Jews.  This segment of the population tends to have the least appreciation of Jewish heritage.  Israeli schools teach a lot of biblical history and a lot about modern Zionism.  But Diaspora communities of 2,000+ years are often relegated to discussions about the Holocaust.  Undoubtedly a painful watershed event for world Jewry that a third of Europeans don’t know about.  But hardly the only thing worth mentioning in two millennia of history.  Marked by both persecutions and amazing perseverance and creation.  It leaves the average sabra deeply ignorant of Jewish communities outside of Israel, something I see reflected in the growing gap between American and Israeli Jewry.  Clearly a gap that has origins on both continents, but which I see little effort to tend to here in Israel.

More than this, it also leaves Israelis ignorant of where they come from.  Here our history dots the landscape.  Ancient Jewish archaeological sites sit in every corner of the country.  Ritual baths, or mikvahs, built two thousand years ago- the kind I have personally used at my synagogue in Washington, D.C.  I have even done a genetic test- and my DNA is closest to Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians.  Our guttural Semitic language was birthed in this land.  Yet we also were enriched- at times oppressed- by the cultures we have engaged with since our expulsion from here.  And without understanding the intermediate 2,000 years, the average sabra doesn’t really know a lot about how he or she came to be.  And what it means for the Jewish people- or our state- today.

Two sabra women I met had Iraqi parents.  I think being the children of olim, especially ones so ruthlessly expelled from Iraq, made them more open to learning about Diaspora history.  Perhaps just as importantly, they knew about their own rich heritage, so it might have made them more appreciative of other Jewish cultures.  I sensed their awe as they looked at the synagogue, admired its beauty, and stood in wonder at its journey from Italy to the capital of the State of Israel.  A journey Italian Jewish slaves in Rome 2,000 years ago never could have imagined.  Yet worked and prayed for- and whose descendants made a reality.

There was one young sabra in the museum, otherwise the latest generation was nowhere to be seen.  It’s a stark reminder that once you are cut off from your roots, and as you grow new ones, it is hard to inspire people to reconnect.  It’s a phenomenon I struggled with almost a year ago to the day.  My journey to learning Yiddish as an adult proves that reconnecting with the breadth of Jewish history is possible.  And some young Israelis, like the phenomenal Yemenite singers of A-WA, are joining me on that journey.  As they go around the world singing traditional Judeo-Arabic songs to sold-out clubs.  I personally have seen them three times on two continents- go experience the magic of Yemenite song!  They are keeping their chain of tradition alive while innovating along the way.  A fitting testament to two millennia of Yemenite Jewish heritage and to the fact that it has survived at all.  Thanks to Israel, where almost all Yemenite Jews live today after being expelled in the 1950s.

There is a certain push and pull, perhaps even an intertwined irony to having a Jewish state.  The state has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Jews.  Jews whose countries senselessly butchered them or confiscated their property and expelled them.  From the U.S.S.R. to Morocco, from Algeria to Poland, from Germany to Iraq.  While some Jews have come here voluntarily, the vast majority have come under major duress.  I couldn’t help but notice an Italian and Hebrew prayer in the museum this week dedicated to saving Alfred Dreyfus.  The French Jewish army captain ruthlessly persecuted by his countrymen, by anti-Semites just over a hundred years ago.  Reading that prayer in a museum in Israel reminded me of the importance of having the ability to protect ourself.  That while we work with allies wherever we can find them, we have just as much a right to defend our people as anyone else.  Which is why we have put our lives on the line to make sure the State of Israel exists for all of us.

At the same time, it’s clear that nationl-building has come at a price.  As it does in all states.  Where minority cultures, where immigrant cultures, where the “other” is often ruthlessly assimilated until it is almost unrecognizable.  To this day, France won’t sign a European treaty recognizing its minority languages.  Arab governments such as Morocco and Algeria have forcibly assimilated their native Berber populations linguistically and ethnically.  A deep marginalization that continues to this day.  Turkey for years claimed that Kurds were simply “mountain Turks” despite their completely different languages.

For Jews, the curious thing is we did it to ourselves.  While for sure in Diaspora communities, Russians, Americans, French, and others have pushed us to assimilate into their cultures, in Israel, Jews did it to other Jews.  In other words, the sabras already living in Israel identified as the “new” Jews- strong, masculine, assertive.  And the old “effeminate” and “bookish” Jews of the Diaspora arriving here had to be reformed.  Which is why ancient Jewish languages like Yiddish and Iraqi Judeo-Arabic and Ladino were basically thrown out the window.  Hollowed out.  Jews were forced to take on a new, uniform Israeli identity.  To be more sabra and less Shmuly.  In some sense, more Israeli and less Jewish.  At least as how Judaism had been conceived of until then.  An odd statement to digest.

Some of this is the price you pay for building a nation.  Without a certain degree of cohesion, could Israel have successfully resisted Arab invasion after Arab invasion?  Could a Yiddish-speaking commander have successfully (and quickly) communicated with a Moroccan Jew who spoke Arabic?  If Israelis had had the luxury of being the Switzerland of the Middle East (not coincidentally, a country with four official languages), maybe it would have been seen as more feasible.  To allow a bit more room for diversity.  But our nation was not given an easy start.  So practicality took precedence over preservation, and entire Jewish civilizations were wiped out or cannibalized.  A couple weeks ago, I entered a Persian restaurant in Jerusalem (Baba Joon by the Centra Bus Station- the best Persian food I have ever eaten) and the really friendly waiter was clearly proud of his heritage.  But he didn’t know how to say “you’re welcome” in the language his ancestors spoke for 2,500 years.  I taught him, which made him smile.  There are people who want to connect to their heritage here, but it is hard and there are those who resist.  Partially to avoid painful memories of persecution, but partially because they’ve been taught that that “Diaspora stuff” is worthless.  It’s the dustbin of history.

But that’s wrong.  To wander is to be Jewish.  Whether physically, as in the case of Jews across the centuries.  Or intellectually, by visiting the National Library, by learning your ancestors’ language, by going on an unexpected hike or to a new museum.  To explore, to devour knowledge, to take the untrod path- that is Judaism.  We’ve been wandering since Abraham and our legendary trek in the desert.  On our way to the Promised Land.  Just because we have a state now doesn’t mean we should stop our inquiry, our curiosity, our search for the unexpected connections that bind us together and enlighten our selves.

At the end of the day, I stood in line at the grocery store.  Feeling disillusioned, stressed, in need of a smile, I struck up a conversation with the friendly Russian Jewish clerk.  In Slavic-accented Hebrew, she asked me how I was doing and what I was up to.  Our conversation roamed.  We talked about aliyah, the struggles.  She told me how she was Russian but her parents were Polish.  And how she only thought there was sweet gefilte fish until she moved to Israel, unexposed to the salty southern varieties of Ukraine.  A country that in her own words, she inexplicably detests.  Israelis are full of contradictions like all people, but we have a bit more courage to say them out loud.

We laughed as I told her my great-grandparents used to make this food by hand.  Putting entire carp in their bathtub and making the delightful fish balls one by one.

She then asked the best question. “Redstu yiddish?”  Do you speak Yiddish?

And I said “yo!  Ikh ken Yiddish!”  I do speak Yiddish!

And right there, in the line at the grocery store, as an impatient sabra waited behind us, we chatted in mamaloshn, the mother tongue.  A tongue our ancestors have shared for generations.  Filled with warmth and love and the smell of rich chicken broth bathing kneydlakh in the Passover kitchen.  Not to mention a literary tradition that has produced thousands upon thousands of books filled with wisdom, now available for free digitally at the Yiddish Book Center.

In the end, my Yiddish and my Hebrew co-exist, if at times uneasily.  I am no less fluent in one because I speak the other.  In fact, one helps me understand the other, as the languages overlap and have enriched each other throughout Jewish history.

It’s a symbiosis I hope sabras can achieve.  That while building a state does require new models and sacrifice and adaptation, it doesn’t have to completely erase our rich and complicated Jewish past.  To relegate it to nothing but our Shabbat foods, to museums, to archives.

Judaism is alive and kicking.  Despite all the people and peoples who have stood in our way.

The question we face now is what kind of Judaism?  Having built the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, one that continues to require our vigilance to protect, perhaps we need to shift our focus.

Our focus was once state building.  But now the question is what kind of state we want to live in, or have as a safe haven?

Do we want a state where a few people earn millions of shekels in high tech while middle aged men scrounge for food in trash bins?  A state where Jews live disconnected from their own rich heritage, on whose very land Jews mostly spoke Yiddish and Ladino until the 1920s?

Or do we want a state where people can earn a living.  Where, if not rich, people can survive, can build a career.  Can contribute to our people and our economy and connect with the world no matter how wealthy they are.  Where the Russian grocery store clerks who have PhD’s in chemistry can practice the profession of their training.  Instead of giving preference to sabras, who are in some cases far less qualified.

Do we want a state where you can be both Israeli and Moroccan, the kind of hyphenated, hybrid identities that hold so much potential.  That have enriched Jewish history for millennia.  That might even enhance empathy and understanding among Jews of all backgrounds.  And now offer us the rare opportunity to fuse our past to present, without erasing where we’ve been.

My answer is I hope so.  I won’t say yes because most things are out of my control and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jewish history and from living in Israel, it’s that things are complicated.

But I believe, at the end of the day, that it’s better to strive for something better than to sit stationary, stewing in malaise.

I don’t know where my journey will take me.  I don’t control the Israeli economy, but I do care about contributing to its society.  And I will do so wherever I find myself, even if for economic reasons I find myself longing for a warm plate of jachnoon from the other side of the Atlantic.

One day, I hope to sit in the Museum of Italian Art in Jerusalem.  To guide tours for hundreds of bright young Israelis eager to learn about their heritage.  To connect them with Jews and non-Jews visiting the same museum from around the world, who value them as Jews and as human beings.  Who see their past and their present as intertwined with their own and worthy of their care.

I hope to sit in that museum with a budget.  A budget the government will dedicate not just to security, not just to elaborate national ceremonies, not just to the hundreds of rabbis it employs.

But also to our culture.  To our institutions.  To the humanities, to our humanity that has persisted over generations.  To educators, to social workers, to artists, to after-school programs, to scholars, and to social innovators.  Not just social media.

So that one day, a well-educated, passionately-Jewish oleh like me can find a well-paid job.  Preserving our heritage, educating for tomorrow, and not just running pay-per-click campaigns from the 9th most expensive city on the planet.

Im tirtzu, if you believe it, it is not a dream.  This is the next frontier.  May we be the pioneers.

My cover photo is a medieval Italian Jewish painting.  Proof that our creativity extends not only to high tech, but also to high art.

In search of a job

I’ve written before about the many challenges of making aliyah, of immigrating to Israel.  There are mammoth cultural differences, the hardest apartment search of my life, the air raid sirens (a false alarm, and then a real one), the LGBT Arab-Israeli refugee Jew-on-Jew political conflicts, and for me, healing from 30 years of abuse.  I’ve managed to overcome all of these obstacles while moving here alone at the age of 31- not a small task.  One that I’m proud to have accomplished and it has changed me as a person and made me realize my true strength.

There’s another challenge I didn’t have to face when I first arrived here but now seems rather daunting: finding a career.

I arrived here with fluent Hebrew (and Arabic and Yiddish) – something that facilitated my social relationships, my integration, my exploration of the country.  Something most olim don’t have- but that I invested in learning on my own initiative since I was 13.

This should also help finding a job, but I have to tell you the process is daunting even knowing the national language.  I was fortunate enough to arrive to Israel with a job- I’ve been doing digital marketing and public relations freelancing from home for 5 years.  And for my first year here, that worked quite well.  Due to the time difference between America and Israel, the fact that I was being paid in dollars, and the flexibility of my business, I was able to travel during the day and work at night.  Something that helped me build this very blog.

I put a lot of effort into building that business.  I got a graduate degree from Georgetown University in communications, something that to this day means I owe the U.S. government $40,000 in student loans.  I found clients, I networked, I presented at various conferences and built a reputation.

The problem is that that work is becoming harder for me to find at the moment.  Perhaps it’s due to me living halfway across the world- it’s harder to network and find new clients.  It’s also cyclical- there tends to be more work leading up to elections.  Now that the election is over, there seems to be a lull.  I’m still open to doing the work, but part of the risk you take on as a freelancer is that you have to find your own clients.  And I’ve been quite adept at it, but I think my geographical distance and the circumstances are making it harder now.  It’s hard to find a new client when your only connection is via LinkedIn or email.  I don’t live in America now, it’s hard to make those personal connections so crucial to getting your foot in the door.

So I find myself applying for jobs here.  It’d mean giving some of the flexibility I’ve enjoyed as a freelancer (or if projects come through, I could continue doing them on the side).  But it’d come with the security of a paycheck.  Something I need after some fulfilling travels that have left me with a great understanding of self (and some great blog posts) and unfortunately, a smaller bank account.

Unlike most folks, there is no family home to retreat to, eat ice cream, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and recuperate.  Send out resumes and make an important pit stop at home to recover and change direction.  If I were to do such a thing, it’d be to subject myself to living with people who sexually assaulted me my entire childhood.  And I moved halfway around the world precisely to heal from such abusive behavior, not to find myself dependent on the people who caused the pain in the first place.  My story, as much as it is about Israel and Judaism, is also one of being a survivor.  Never underestimate the challenges one faces when cutting off abusive family- it leaves you utterly alone in ways few people manage to understand.  It is to live trying to seek out emotional support and encouragement you never received, understanding it will never truly be the same as the love you’re supposed to get from your family.  It is giving up on their economic support for the sake of having a life.  Of having freedom.  It’s a decision I never regret.  It has made my life infinitely richer and healthier.  And it comes with pain and challenges that in areas that most people take for granted.

So I find myself in Israel hopping from friend’s house to hostel to who knows what.  I left my apartment before my recent travels so that I could afford to do it.  A smart choice (plus my landlord wouldn’t let me sublet).  Also, my old neighborhood was quite rough, the poorest part of Tel Aviv, so I wouldn’t want to move back there anyways, as interesting and life-changing an experience as it was.

All the while, I’m applying to jobs and networking.  With non-profits that support olim like me.  Cold calling, reaching out on LinkedIn, friends of friends of friends.  I’ve expanded my career search- everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, libraries, archives, museums, the tourist industry, marketing, politics, hi-tech, higher education, language teaching.  And I wouldn’t even limit myself to the ones I’ve mentioned (I’ve probably forgotten a few that I’ve applied to).

I’m ready and willing to use my 8 languages, my travel knowledge, my desire to support Israel and the Jewish people, my passion for research and learning, my teaching experience- all of it.  Just so I could build a fulfilling career and rebuild my bank account in the only country I really feel is home.

And it’s proving quite tough.  I’ve met with headhunters who say I have an amazing resume.  I worked for the Obama campaign in 2008, and then later in the Obama Administration.  I have 10 years experience working in marketing, community outreach, media relations, blogging, and social media.  Most of that time either in the non-profit sector or government, or with public relations firms consulting for them.  I have an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master’s degree from Georgetown, schools that any American knows are pretty great institutions.

The problem is jobs in Israel seem to be mostly about who you know.  In a country where, much to my delight, there is a strong sense of community, this can make it quite hard for a newcomer to break in.  I’ve met many people here who are still best friends with their crew…from kindergarten.  That’s not an exaggeration.  People serve together in the military- a difficult experience but one which brings lifelong connections, and jobs.  Sabras have family here, and they look out for each other.  It’s part of the reason the government won’t recognize French and Russian academic qualifications.  It’d put these highly educated immigrants in their appropriate fields, while competing against native-born Israelis in those same industries.  Which is why protektzia, or “connections”, reigns supreme.  It’s like having legacy at an Ivy League school- it protects insiders from generation after generation.  And it leaves quite a number of Russian physicists and French lawyers working as grocery store clerks or in late-night telemarketing.

Just to give you a full sense of the picture, understand that the cost of living in Israel is also extremely high.  Tel Aviv was recently rated the world’s 9th most expensive city.  Even if you don’t live in the city proper, the cost of housing, groceries, and other goods is disproportionately high to people’s salaries.  We’re hardly the only country to confront a wealth gap- Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 34%.  Capital around the world is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people– while most struggle.  The problem is Israel’s cost of living index is higher than all other developed countries except for ultra-wealthy Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.  So that while Geneva is more expensive than Tel Aviv, its residents earn more than twice as much as the average Tel Avivi, with 48% more purchasing power, as you can see in the graphics below from Numbeo.com:

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The hefty cost of living and minuscule salaries (especially in any industry outside of the famed Israeli high tech scene), is what drove 500,000 Israelis to the streets in the largest social protest in the country’s history.

Allow me to quantify this for you.  Recently, I was in the process of interviewing for a non-profit job at a well-respected NGO.  Knowing my full qualifications (and despite trying to negotiate, as a good Israeli does), the full-time job’s salary was fixed at 7,000 shekels a month- before tax obligations.  In Tel Aviv.  That’s $1,870 a month.  When I last lived in Tel Aviv, in the poorest neighborhood where literally prostitutes walked the streets, I paid 3,600 shekels a month for a one bedroom apartment.  About 3.7 shekels per dollar, so about a thousand bucks.  For Tel Aviv, this is an absolute steal.  I’ve seen one bedroom apartments advertised for 4,000-7,000 shekels- and above.   You could end up living with two roommates in the city center and still pay 3,000 shekels.  Something I’d rather not do at my age.  Or you could live further outside the city and perhaps save some money on rent, but then spend your money commuting and watch your social life shrink.  In a country where public transit doesn’t run from Friday night to Saturday night and Sunday is a working day, your weekend (i.e. the time you have to see friends) takes on new importance.  Where you live is where you’ll socialize, so unless you’re willing to buy a car (the car tax here is around 100%- 5 times higher than Europe), you need to live near your friends.  And let’s just say the young gay Reform Jews (and people who befriend them) aren’t usually living in the sticks where the housing is cheaper, like in most countries.  While new immigrants do get some breaks on the financial challenges, you start to see just how difficult it is to make a living here.

So to return to the calculations, let’s say I was able to find a similarly priced apartment to my last one.  That would leave $870 a month- to furnish the apartment, pay municipal property taxes, pay for your cell phone, pay for food, pay for transportation, pay for medical expenses, pay for life.  Oh yeah, and presumably have fun and maybe save a buck or two.  And that doesn’t include paying income taxes.  It’s worth noting the tax burden in Israel is significant.  There’s a debate about just how high, but this site rates it as one of the 15 highest in the world.  Higher than the U.S.  While the tremendous socialized healthcare system defers some tremendous costs I had to bear in the U.S., it does become a question of just what exactly is the trade off here.  And whether it’s worth it.

After this interview process and despite most of my background being in cause-based non-profit work, I immediately expanded my scope to the for-profit sector.  The salaries are higher.  I’ve met with headhunters and am applying diligently.  The higher salaries still pale in comparison with the States, especially as an oleh.  Someone with my background might be expected to find a job in the for-profit sector for somewhere around 10,000-15,000 shekels a month.  With 10 years experience, fluent Hebrew, native English, and a Master’s degree.  At the very high end, that comes out to $48,084 a year- pre-tax.  Consider that I’m 32 years old, would like to start a family, and that the average cost of an Israeli home is $415,000.  In Tel Aviv, it’s $582,442.  The average.  If you can manage to find it and beat out the sabras waiting in line with decades of family connections.  The latest statistics resulted in the following headline: “Buying a Home Will Cost an Average Israeli 146 Monthly Salaries“.  Chew on that for a while.  As difficult as my situation is, it’s hard to even comprehend how Israelis living in or near poverty make it work here.  A lot of them, unfortunately, don’t.

So the reality is this: in my own country, I feel I’m a wandering Jew.  Going from place to place, trying to find affordable AirBnBs and sofas to crash on as I fire away resumes.  A process that can take some time in any country, so I remind myself to put my head down, network, and apply apply apply.  And I’m incredibly grateful to my friends who are helping me along the way.  My friend Rotem who let me crash at her apartment for a week and a half while she was abroad.  The wonderful cashier at the market who, when his credit card machine wasn’t working, just let me bring him the money two days later.  And so many others.  The level of trust here can be truly heart-warming.

Nobody said immigrating would be easy, and I’m grateful I even have a country to move to.  It’s not easy to be a Jew anywhere now, as the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh showed- and as the rapidly increasing anti-Semitic violence in Europe reminds us.  There are good reasons Israel exists and why people like me come here despite all the challenges.  It’s a country with a lot of warmth, a spirit of survival, a generosity, a frankness that is refreshing.  Landscapes that totally melt the heart.  And more possibilities of finding a Jewish partner than anywhere else in the world.

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The problem becomes when the great things about this country start to obscure your other life goals.  Building a family, financial stability, and feeling fulfilled in your career.  Olim here often have to take jobs unrelated to their careers and are limited in our upward mobility by the Israeli “good ol boys” network.  I understand every change requires sacrifice, but I want to like what I do.  And I’m not fortunate enough to have parents to buy me a home.  Which is the main reason Israelis manage to get one in the first place- and why many olim don’t experience economic advancement here.

In the meantime, my search continues.  I believe in the idea of Israel and I like a lot about life here, which is why frankly I blog about it all the time.  Haters gonna hate, but the Jewish people deserve a homeland and I’ll defend that idea till the day I die.  The sometimes boorish economic policies of our government or the monopolies that stand in the way of our progress are in no way a critique of our right to be here.  Indeed, it is Israeli workers who bear the brunt of the economic inequality here- and that doesn’t make us any less Israeli.  It makes us more.  Sadly, these are problems many other workers face around the world.  That we much find solution for.  So please don’t consider this post an opportunity to hate Israel, because it’s not.  What I’m sharing is a critique of how we should make this place better so people like me can succeed here.  A hope that we can build a vision for how we want to live here with fairness and opportunity.

I’m open to a lot of different careers and I want to feel fulfilled in what I do, even if it’s different than my first choice or second choice or even third choice.  If you know of great opportunities, reach out to me, I’d be happy to chat and appreciate you keeping your eyes peeled.

The greatest irony of my aliyah process is that I discovered my passion is Israel, but that its very soil may be too poor for my roots to dig in.  To establish themselves, to build a solid foundation, to grow and flourish.

What I won’t accept is the situation my friend found himself in recently.  A couple years older than me, a fellow American oleh, he interviewed at an English tutoring company.  Obviously, it’s his native language so he’s got a pretty good handle on it.  The salary: 30 shekels an hour.  8 bucks.  And the worst part about this story is he didn’t even get the job.  As he bravely tries to raise a family in the land of his ancestors and pursue his dreams.

Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah.  The famous Zionist saying suggests that if we will it, it is not a dream.  I agree.  The dream becomes a hope, a goal, an aspiration, something you wish to achieve.  It’s a hope I’ve pursued since I was 13 years old learning Hebrew in the house of an Israeli woman in Washington.  The problem is that hope sometimes clashes with harsh reality.  With circumstances out of your control.

Do you continue to tell yourself that anything is possible?  Or do you look at your diminishing bank account, the salaries, the limited opportunities for advancement, and the $140,000 it costs to have a child here as a gay man and think:

My heart is in the east, but my wallet- and future- may be elsewhere.

Evangelical Gay Jewish San Francisco

I’d like to share with you some stories from a recent visit to San Francisco.

After making aliyah a year and a half ago, I came back to the States for the first time.

What I’ve liked most is speaking English.  Everywhere the signs are in my language.  I can pick up on nuance and norms that I just can’t in another language, no matter how fluent I am.

I like the delicious fortune cookies I tasted at a factory in Chinatown and the wonderful Chinese-American woman I met who really wants to go to Israel.  She just wants to travel in general and see “what’s the big deal about the Eiffel Tower”.

I like the Latina saleswoman at T-Mobile who, when I mentioned I was from Israel, was so excited.  She was really proud of me for moving halfway around the world and pursuing my dreams.  And she told me what it was like for her to visit Mexico, how friendly people were.

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I like the rainbow flags that adorn the Castro, a kind of mini gay state.  I even found street art honoring a Jewish victim of AIDS.  Having lived in the Jewish Holy Land, I wanted to visit the gay one.  And it was really interesting.  While a rather small area (I suppose I envisioned it being half the city), it was so colorful, so gay.  Sometimes a bit risqué for my tastes (I saw naked men strolling down the street…), but I enjoyed the occasional sexual pun.  Including the absolutely hilarious tank top that said “can you host?” and the funny Planned Parenthood bag.  If you don’t get the hosting joke, ask a gay friend 😉

The Bay Area is filled with tremendous wildlife.  Scenery out of a movie.  The waves of the Pacific lapping against the shoreline but with an ease that matches the calm of this city.  I’ve never been in such a large city with such a relaxed pace of life.  It’s kind of the Tel Aviv of North America, as one person put it.

I like the personal space, the quiet, the lack of rockets, the feeling of sexual freedom that I wish Israel had more often.  A place so inundated with religion and nationalism that sexual shame, even in “sin city” Tel Aviv, often feels so much stronger than I wish it would be.

Now I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this progressive paradise.

First off, I’ve never seen so many homeless people.  In a city that prides itself (almost to a fault) on being so liberal, it’s hard for me to understand why there are so many people without a roof over their heads.  For sure, it’s not as if the ordinary citizen can fix this problem.  Nor is homelessness an easy problem to fix- mental healthcare, economics, and so many other factors go into it.

But I can’t help but feel confused, at times disturbed, to see so many people walking by on their headsets, talking about the latest computer program or software, while people sit suffering right by their feet.  I’m not expecting people to fix the problem, but it feels quite different from Israel.  We have lots of homeless people too, but both I personally and lots of people around me gave them food and water and money.  I even talked with a homeless man in Tel Aviv who told me all the books he has read recently.  I just haven’t witnessed that kind of spontaneous interaction or generosity here.

This kind of distance or callousness is something I’ve noticed a few times.  The other day, I was in Chinatown.  An elderly Chinese woman had fallen, hitting her head on the sidewalk, with blood spilling everywhere.  Person after person after person just walked by.  Me being both who I am and an Israeli, jumped into help.  I bought her water and brought napkins to help stem the bleeding.  A wonderfully generous African-American woman came over and held the napkins against the woman’s head.  An Asian-American man translated for the woman as he tried to talk to the 911 operator.  It was a kind of generosity-filled melting pot that I love about this country.

The disturbing part was watching the people walk by.  The people on their phones or who didn’t want to get dirty (I personally got blood all over my sandals…yeah, it’s gross and risky, but was I going to let a woman die to keep my feet clean?).  The people who, after helping for a second, just walked away.  The woman still dazed and confused, babbling in incoherent Chinese (not that I’d know the difference).

I stayed with her until she got into the ambulance.  That’s how you behave like a human being.  Your meeting is not more important than a person’s life.

Walking around the Castro, I entered a gay book store.  Boy do I love to see gay book stores, the world needs more of them.  And more book stores in general.  A place I truly feel warm and inspired and at ease.  A place of learning and discovery where you don’t have to “look” for anything- you can just look 😉

A lot of the books were really, really left wing.  I grew up with these kinds of book stores in D.C.  Once they made me excited, now they make me nervous.  I think I’ve grown out of this mindset and I think the mindset here has solidified since I left.  While some of the material is interesting, it’s often steeped in the black-and-white thinking that plagues both extremes in this country.  And usually involves hating Israel.

I noticed some rainbow buttons that said “Proud Queer Muslim” and “Queers Against Islamophobia”.  Frankly, they’re pretty neat.  Just days after the Pittsburgh massacre (one which personally touched me), I wanted to know if they had any against anti-Semitism.

The store clerk said: “oh you know, I don’t think we do.  Somebody must have them.  We don’t have any timely buttons.”  As if anti-Semitism was a new issue.

To his credit, the store owner paused and said he’d look into it.  And steered towards his computer to search.  I hope he finds some and puts them out.  Anti-Semitism isn’t new and I hope we can count on his solidarity.  The moment showed both the deep ignorance that can pervade this country and that sometimes we can puncture it.  I hope I moved things in the right direction.

During my visit here, I’ve had a lot of conversations about Israel.  The difference between an American Jew and an Israeli is we can’t hide our Jewishness.  We’re out-of-the-closet Jews.  And as soon as you say you’re from Israel, the conversation begins.

The cool part is when you get awesome people.  One man, Nick, is someone who I actually befriended in Tel Aviv helping him buy a sandwich.  In town on a business trip, he was struggling to deal with the hectic line, so I stepped in and helped him order.  I sat with him and his coworker and had a great time.  We kept in touch and he invited me to stay with him for several days here in the Bay Area.  Since making aliyah, I often feel Americans are more distant.  This is the country where self realization is priority one, where the individual is the greatest unit of meaning.

But Nick shows that some Americans buck that trend and are capable of the spontaneous generosity I’ve come to love in Israel.  He’s a new American friend, and I’m happy to have met him and am grateful for his kindness.

Curiously enough (or perhaps not!), Nick and I did some genealogy together and discovered he’s a quarter Jewish.  Maybe one day he’ll make aliyah 😉  But in the meantime, I was really happy to help someone discover their roots and connect to our people.  I’m proud to have generous people like him as part of our tribe.

Other people are not so fond of the Jewish State.  At various moments here, I’ve met people who can’t say the word Israel without following it with the word Palestine (as if I wasn’t aware who my neighbors were).  I’ve met people (including Jews!) who said that Israel’s very existence is a fair question.  And that someone who doesn’t believe Israel should exist because of our “illegal occupation” is not an anti-Semite.  Telling Israelis how to live their lives while sitting in the richest city in the United States.  While ironically living in a state whose very name is Spanish and whose territory once was filled with Native Americans.  Who now live in abject poverty like the city’s homeless.

I talked to one person who, knowing full well I was Jewish and mourning the Pittsburgh terror attack, said: “I rarely see the Jewish community condemn actions when it isn’t a Jewish person.”  That we didn’t care about People of Color.  A statement profoundly callous and absurd.  Callous because this is our moment to mourn, not for you to politicize our tragedy, rant about Trump, or talk about other (equally heinous) hate crimes.  But just to let us be sad for one moment and yes, to make it about us.  And absurd because the Jewish community is at the forefront of human rights, civil rights, and immigrants rights in a way few members of these communities do so for us.  I can’t recall an LGBT, African-American, or immigrant march against anti-Semitism.  I suppose I’m a gay person marching against anti-Semitism, but I think my point about the rallies still stands.  I could be wrong, I just literally can’t think of one.  And I’m someone who in both the States and Israel has marched countless times for every minority group under the sun.  And will continue to do so.

I’ve met people (even left-wing Jews) who claim campus anti-Semitism is right wing propaganda.  That it doesn’t really exist.  Who believe this and this and this and this and this and this are “fake news”.

When you meet so much ignorance, it’s sometimes hard to feel safe, let loose, and enjoy yourself.  I’m a person who likes to talk to people, so when people around me are mean, I don’t have much fun.

I did flirt with a really cute guy in a bagel shop, so San Francisco has its good parts too 😉  If there are any sweet, reserved guys out there who like an ambivert who’s outgoing but also likes a long stroll and deep conversation, hit me up 😉

As evening came, I headed back on the BART train to where I was staying.  My Uber app wasn’t working, so I asked a bus driver where the next bus was to my destination.  The wonderful middle-aged Latina woman pulled me aside and showed me exactly what to do.  She, much like the Israelis I love, wouldn’t let me go until she showed me every step of the process.  And got my app running again.

She asked me: “where are you from?”

“Washington, D.C. and now I live in Israel.”

“But you speak Spanish, where are your parents from?”

“Also American.”

“So how do you speak such good Spanish?”

“I used to be a Spanish teacher.”

And in the most Israeli response ever: “used to be?”

It was that loving gnaw of guilt.  I miss it.  And I’m looking forward to feeling it again when I go home to the state I call my own.

The woman sent me on my way: “cuídate m’ijo”.  Take care my son.

I miss Latinos and I miss America.  I used to work for immigrant rights nonprofits and the best part of this country is its incredible diversity.  I miss the people who upend your prejudices and expectations, the random acts of kindness by Americans of every background.  The understated people who help, rather than the self-righteous who think doing you a favor indebts you to them.  If you want help, ask someone who has less.  Who knows what it’s like to struggle.  Because chances are that very lack is the pain that makes them more tender.  Find the heart bursting at the seams- it’s worth more than a wallet overflowing with cash.

On the train back home, tired of anti-Israel bullshit, I noticed the woman sitting next to me reading Fox News.  Just a year and a half ago, that would’ve scared me.  And to be honest, it’s not someone I’d probably talk gay marriage and immigrant rights with.  But I wanted to test a theory.

I pretended I didn’t know where I was going.  I told the woman I was from Israel and asked for directions.

“Israel?!  Israel!  Wow I was there just a few years ago!  What a beautiful place!  I saw…”

And then she named every biblical site imaginable.  And told me how gorgeous the Golan was.  And how she, as a Christian, stood by my country.

My heart is pulled in many directions.  As a gay person, I’m concerned about the rightward tilt of this country.  As someone who cares about women’s rights, immigrants rights, diversity, and equality, I’m concerned by voices who deny these freedoms.  Who justify punishing children stopped at the border.  Children who could be very well related to the wonderful bus driver who helped me tonight.  Fleeing chaos and violence in El Salvador, a country ridden with gangs and whose drug violence is partially fueled by American consumption.  And some of our own failed policies.  Whose own government cares so little for its own people.  Where the gap between rich and poor is extraordinary- and growing.

And as a Jewish Israeli, I’m concerned about the callousness some American progressives show towards my people.  Of course, the same callousness shown by neo-Nazis.  For some reason, Jews don’t deserve the compassion of the far left.  What drives millions of Americans to march for women, for refugees, for black lives- all of which I support- somehow doesn’t materialize for us.  Protesting against Donald Trump is not the same as protesting for Jews.  Maybe you don’t think we’re feeble enough for you to take care of us as you purport to do for other minorities.  But trust me- while we’re not feeble, our existence is at your behest.  As 2% of the population, we don’t live without your tolerance.  And if you’re not willing to fight for it, you’ll find more of your neighbors becoming mine in Israel.  If you don’t get why we spilled our blood to build a Jewish state now, you never will.  Although I’ll keep trying to explain.  And hope one day we’ll find ourselves on this sign too:

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So when it comes down to it, who should I count on?  I’m not just a blogger, I’m a person.  Should I go after the university-educated progressives- even some Jews- who think our very existence is up for debate?  Should I give up on progressives- knowing open-minded people like Nick are out there eager to learn?  Who don’t hate us?  Should I accept the support of evangelicals, who give it so freely?  Who make my train ride enjoyable, a conversation rather than a debate?  Even if it means their victory could put my other identities and values in jeopardy?

I’m not sure.  My instinct is to accept support wherever we can get it because frankly, we don’t have a lot.  If masses of progressive Americans stood with Israel, we wouldn’t need to rely on other groups’ support.  But as a matter of principle, should I reject anyone’s support?  The person who made me feel most loved as an Israeli was an Asian-American Christian, not a Jew and not an NPR listener.

November 6th is Election Day.  I’ll have you know I requested my absentee ballot from Maryland- but it has not yet arrived.  What’s going on Maryland?  I might not be able to vote because you’re not doing your job.  Here’s my request below:

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I hope my ballot does arrive but I’ll tell you what I’m thinking anyways.

My ballot is secret- so I won’t share all.  I will tell you this- I’m a registered Democrat and have been almost my whole life.  I’ve voted Democratic 95% of the time, with an occasional Libertarian and Green foray.  I worked on the Obama Campaign in 2008.  Was a Pledged Delegate for him to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.  I served in his Administration at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This year is going to be different.  I’m going to vote mostly Democratic.  I can’t look that Salvadoran woman in the face and punch a whole next to a bunch of R’s who’d like to see her deported.  Or her family suffer.  In some cases, even if they’re legal residents.  And I care about my own civil liberties and those of all Americans.  I’m disturbed by the state of healthcare, the arts, public transit, higher education, poverty, and so much more.

And I’m going to choose at least one, reasonable-sounding Republican (I am from Maryland- we have a few of those left) and I’m going to vote for them.  It’s a protest vote and a warning.  Democrats- stop taking me for granted.  I like a lot of what you have to say but your most radical members are starting to sound as black-and-white as the people they purport to oppose.

I care about myself as an American-Israeli Jew.  And if some of the people I met in San Francisco are at all representative of your party’s direction, you can count on my support going elsewhere.

Where, I don’t know.  In the perpetual Jewish conundrum of being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, I’m not sure where home is.  Other than perhaps the other side of the Mediterranean.

But I will say this- I’m an American citizen.  I pay taxes.  I was born here.  And I will continue to vote here, even if next election I have to request a thousand absentee ballots a year in advance to be heard.

And I want you to hear me clearly: I’m a swing voter.  And I’m not afraid to push the lever for a Republican once in a while if I feel the party I once called home doesn’t care about my safety and my well-being.

I’m Israeli and I’m American.  You might not want to rally for my rights, but you should want my vote.  It’s the only weapon I have.  Because just like a Latino voter or an African-American or a gay person- I’m going to ask you a question:

“Why is your party better for the Jewish community and Israel?”

Because in addition to all the other issues I care about, I care about myself.  That’s the basis of democracy.  Those are my interests.

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I miss you America, and I can taste the sweet fortune cookies on my lips.  The delicious dumplings and sushi and Thai food I sorely miss.  The Halloween outfits and pumpkins I never see in the Jewish State.  The interracial couples, the potpourri of cultures, the Chinese-language books in your storefront windows.  Teaching immigrants how to adapt to life here.  Just like my ancestors did, to give me life today.

I want you strong and I hope to be back soon.

In the meantime, give me some hope you’re going to pull through.  Because outside of Israel, the Jewish people has no better home.  And I’m still your son even if my heart beats seven hours ahead.

I don’t want to live torn in two.

My mouth closed in apprehension, afraid of how you’ll react when I say: “I’m Israeli.”

p.s.- my cover photo is me and Harvey Milk, a true gay rights hero.  What a great feeling to see my gay self represented in bright colors on city walls.

 

The main difference between Israel and America

No it’s not the fried chicken (everywhere in America, ehhh in Israel).  Nor the hummus (America’s is a joke).  Nor the Middle East conflict (yeah, America doesn’t have one of those, at least not at home).  Nor our dancing skills (sorry Israel, Americans are pretty good).

It’s one word: generosity.

Before I dig in, of course Americans can be generous.  Many are.  Americans have high levels of volunteerism and some have done truly heroic acts of altruism.

But there is a difference.  America is a society founded on individualism.  Individual aspirations trump almost all other considerations.  The realization of your dreams- your career, your family, your you- that takes first priority.  In America, people ask kids: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  Not “how do you want to be?”

While some groups have found safe haven in America- Catholics in colonial Maryland, Jews fleeing pogroms, Syrians and Iraqis fleeing war- the overarching theme of migration is the American Dream.  And the American Dream is $$$.  It is to strike gold, to build a career, to win the lottery, to work hard, to buy a house with a nice lawn.  Even to send money back to the motherland.  Whatever the shape it takes, money- even when understandable- plays a huge role in the American psyche.  As the largest and most powerful country in the world, with the most capital, how could it not.

It’s worth reminding Americans that this is not how most of the world thinks.  While I hardly begrudge someone their success- and I admire the dynamism of American entrepreneurs- I’ve learned in Israel that this is hardly the most important thing in life.

In Israel, you can flip almost every American social norm on its head.  Here, you can go into any restaurant and charge your phone and get free water- the latter, by law.  And without buying a thing.  In a desert country with water shortages.  In fact, the offer to pay for it would be seen as strange, unnecessary, maybe even insulting.  Why would you give me 5 shekels to charge your phone?  Do you think I’m stingy?  Israelis love to help and the idea that help should come at a financial cost, as a transaction, is disturbing to us.  It’s not that we never charge for things- we have a dynamic if not as wealthy economy.  It’s just that this business-like approach to life starts and stops at the office.  One of the reasons we don’t say “please” and “thank you thank you thank you” all the time is because it’s not necessary.  Help is not given because it deserves beatification.  It’s given because that’s how we live.

Before my American friends get defensive, let me give some concrete examples.  My friend Yarden worked at American Jewish summer camps.  She noticed that when a kid opened a bag of chips, the chips were for him.  If someone else wanted one, they had to ask- it was understood that he bought the chips, he received them, they were his.  In Israel, I worked at a summer camp years ago.  I remember being astonished that a group of 10 kids would share one water bottle.  Eww!  This is unsanitary.  Sure enough, the kids did get sick.  But guess what?  They also learned to share.  In Israel, when a kid opens a bag of chips, the chips are everyone’s.  And they dig in.

On the bus, people have asked me for my candy- and I’ve given it without second thought.  And on the train last week, a guy was trying to give his girlfriend candy, which she refused.  So I turned to him and said: “if she won’t have it, I will”.  And he happily gave me it.

My friend Dalia is a Reform rabbi in Haifa.  I met her at a Shabbat service in Tel Aviv, we talked for about 20 minutes.  A good chat 🙂  Days later, I was headed to Haifa and asked if I could stay with her.  Because that’s how things work here.  She apologized: “I wish I could host you, but my husband and I have plans.  Would it be okay if you stayed with my parents?”  Would it be okay?  Yes.  It was quite fine- her mom force-fed me homemade Iraqi kubbeh, talked with me about her Arabic class, and shared with me all her thoughts on Israeli politics.  I then went to my private air conditioned room.  I had never met her before and I felt totally at home.

I could tell you story after story- but I have thousands of them.  These are not unique stories- not to me, and not to other Israelis.  Generosity and a sense of community are paramount here- no one would even think to question them.  The idea that your self takes precedence over the well-being of your family- your nation- is a strange one here.  In America, there’s a sense that by realizing your aspirations, you are strengthening everyone.  Here, there’s a sense that your aspiration is never above the well-being of your neighbor.  Jew and Arab- this is the norm.  I’ve traveled to one hundred cities and towns here in a year- of every religion and culture- I would know.

While America was founded on rugged individualism (which has its advantages when it comes to individual rights), Israel was founded on community first.  The kibbutz, the original style of Israeli settlement, was a commune.  And to this day, even on the ones that have left the socialist model for a hybrid privatized one, the sense of communal identity is strong.  People in Israel of all backgrounds are very proud of their communities.  Many think the idea of moving an hour away is ridiculous.  They’d be too far from their friends and family.  The idea of moving from New York to California is an absurd one for most Israelis.  You’re going to see your family twice a year?  Here, that’s not a relationship.  I once met a Bedouin woman who lived 20 minutes from her brother in another village, and she hated visiting there, because it was far and not as nice.  20 minutes.  Pride of place.

Here the sense of community attracts people from all over the world.  It’s worth noting most Jews end up here as refugees.  Quite a different dream than a picket fence and a thick wallet.  As they say, if you want to make a small fortune in Israel, arrive with a large one.  Until the past two decades, the Israeli economy was a lot more third world than first.  And even now, salaries are much lower than America despite being quite an expensive place to live.  In short, nobody comes to Israel to get rich.

And the ethos reflects this.  The dream, at least as far as Jews go, is to live in a state where we control our destiny.  Our self-realization comes about by way of communal self-realization.  And whatever we do- whether it’s high tech or working with kids- we are taught that giving back is not really giving back.  It’s giving to ourselves, to each other, to us.  It’s a mitzvah.

I remember a friend in middle school saying there was no such thing as altruism because people still did it for some sort of personal satisfaction or gain.  Even if it was praise from someone.  While we can debate the merits of this (I just met with Sderot firefighters fighting Hamas blazes- I can’t imagine their salaries compensate for the fact they might lose their lives any day), I’d argue even if she’s right, she’s wrong.  Because in Israel, by making self-realization and communal realization synonymous, everything we do here benefits us both as individuals and as a society.  And it blurs the lines between those distinctions.  I once had a lawyer, a friend of my rabbi, who I had never met and still never have, review 3-4 long leases for me for free.  And other than a thank you, expected nothing.  It could have cost hundreds of dollars.  But what to most Americans would seem like an extreme act of generosity worthy of praise and praise (and reminders of how much it cost), to an Israeli seems so normal that such over-the-top exclamations seem excessive, even fake.  As I had to explain to a German guy who came to Israel to apologize to his forlorn lover- and wanted to give him money as an apology.  Not going to work here…

In other words, when an Israeli is generous, it doesn’t have to be self-less because it is helping our entire people.  In fact, by definition it is self-full- but not self-ish.  By pursuing our dreams, by sharing with one another, by loving each other- we are lifting all of us up including ourselves, for we are part of a collective.  Which succeeds when all its members, like a kibbutz, contribute in a sense of communal caring.

The other day I met the most fantastic Americans.  My friend Harry is a lone soldier from New Jersey.  He’s an an American Jew- now Israeli- who volunteered for the Israeli military with no family here and under no obligation to do so.  I met him on a bus a few months ago while he was trying to pick up a girl in his American-accented Hebrew.  Turns out it was his birthday, so I took him out to baklava and let him stay with me- that night.  And whenever the hell he wants.

He then invited me to stay in his room at a kibbutz up north, where he and other lone soldiers from the States stay when they’re off duty.  Which I did this past week.  Harry was not there, but his friends were.  Young, 20-something American Jews who made aliyah like me.  And volunteered to serve in our defense forces.  To work crazy hours, to sleep on beds without linens, to charge up hills, to barely sleep, to get yelled at in Hebrew- and to put their lives on the line for my ability, for our ability, to live safely as Israelis.  Surrounded as we are by Islamic terrorists of all sorts of stripes.

Maybe there’s no such thing as pure altruism, as my friend suggested.  My soldier friends get a sense of purpose, a great work out, life skills, and more from their experience.  And they also get from me a room in Tel Aviv and a fun night of food touring whenever the hell they want.  Because they are my brothers and sisters.  Like all Israelis.  Especially them.  Because the point is the benefit they’re getting from this experience benefits all of us- and shows courage, kindness, and a willingness to sacrifice.  Things you can’t quantify, but you can feel as my heart pulsates at the joy of seeing them laugh.  Even as I know they may go to war all too soon, just to keep our dream alive.

In Israel, we don’t really debate the nature of altruism nor of self-realization.  We don’t really have time.  We’ve got bigger things to care about.  We simply try to do what’s right.  Whether it’s to our individual advantage or not.  Towards a Jew or not, towards an Israeli or not.  It’s how we live.

When I made aliyah, I left America behind.  Especially living in Washington, D.C., perhaps the least altruistic place in America, I felt angry and ready to leave.  Unsure if I’d even come back and visit.

What I didn’t expect was to find my favorite Americans here.  Young people, like me or like the lone soldiers, who ventured out and tried something new.  Something not for your resume or your mortgage application.  Not for you- but for us.  For good.  To serve in the military, to build a new life, to explore.  As I’ve done with my blog which now helps thousands of people, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia to experience and understand Israel.  And I love writing and exploring- I feel satisfied and I help my community.  We grow and appreciate the hope that surrounds us.

Maybe the reason Americans live in angst about their futures is because they’re asking themselves the wrong question.

It’s not “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  It’s “Amir- share your potato chips”.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a store I found in Italy that sold American junk food.  I bought special Skittles we don’t have in Israel 😉

What I (still) like about Israel

Lately I’ve been writing some pretty critical posts about Israel.  I think they are necessary and true.

It’s been making me reflect on what I still like about Israel.  To be honest, I like a lot less about Israel than I did when I first came here.  The racism, aggression, sectarian hatred, and ignorance make my daily life here quite hard.  And hard for pretty much everyone here.  Not everyone embodies these problems and a lot of people do- more than I expected.  In every religious, political, and ethnic group here.  It’s sad to see the Holy Land so filled with hate.

So it got me thinking- what do I like about Israel?

I like the healthcare system.  Israeli healthcare is light years ahead of America, something I noticed when first arriving here.  Treatment is almost always cheaper and more often than not, free.  Even for going to specialists like allergists, sleep labs, and psychiatrists who are part of your kupah, or health network.  Dental work costs a miniscule amount of what it does in the States and there are no deductibles.  You don’t have to guess whether you’ll be covered.  All your records are digitized and you can make appointments on an app.  The system has varying degrees of access in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and French.

I like that you can talk to random people here and it’s not “weird”.  At least in Washington, D.C., where I lived before making aliyah, when I tried to help someone or make small talk, I often felt like I was imposing.  Or that the other person wanted to know what I wanted out of them.  As if a conversation itself wasn’t sufficient- there must be some other motive.  Here, you can talk with almost anyone, Jewish or Arab, sometimes for hours without having met before.  Things are a lot less formal.

The produce is absolutely fantastic and cheap.  And unlike in Washington, D.C., you don’t need to go to an expensive farmers’ market to get delicious vegetables.  In D.C., the veggies at the grocery store are kind of watery- most of them probably sent from warmer climes like California.  According to my friends in Cali the produce is great there.  But if you live in D.C., by the time they get to you, they don’t taste so great.  Unless you’re willing to shell out money to go to Whole Foods.  The market and shops near my house in Tel Aviv have affordable delicious produce all year round.  It keeps you feeling healthful and biting into one of those yummy carrots just makes me happier.

If you need help here, you just ask for it.  There’s no shame in asking for help and people- both Jewish and Arab- more often than not are willing to help.  I’ve been given a free room to stay in a number of times- sometimes by people I had just met- or never met.  In the U.S., I of course have crashed with friends but it felt like a much bigger “ask” than here.  I once saw a woman on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv offer to host someone who was worried she wouldn’t be able to catch the train home to Haifa.  They had just met 20 minutes beforehand.

There are also a series of things I both like and dislike depending on how they’re used.  For instance, I’m less worried about offending someone here when I say something that doesn’t come out right or they disagree with.  At times, I don’t feel like I have to “walk on eggshells”, which can be a relief- we all say things that we regret.  The downside is that I find Israelis much less empathetic than Americans.  So when you are actually offended, people more often than not tell you to stop being upset, rather than acknowledging your pain.

The same goes for rules and formality.  In Israel, I have never worn a dress shirt, tie, or suit.  Thank God- other than an occasional celebration, I hate these clothes!  Here jeans and a t-shirt are totally fine most of the time, even in synagogue.  Israelis generally don’t like rules- this is a place where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  That can be helpful in working out creative solutions for business, plans, or even activism.  D.C. often felt rigid to me and stifled my creativity at times.  The flip side is that Israelis’ lack of rules often results in less protections.  Renters here are regularly scammed by landlords- much more than anything I saw in the States.  I’ve been taken advantage of many times here- and it’s even a societal value.  Rather than be the “freier” or “sucker”, Israelis often prefer to strike first and take advantage of you before you them.  It’s a vicious cycle that explains a lot of the problems here.  Israelis often struggle when I say the word “no”.  Rules often have a purpose- boundaries need to be respected to treat each other with dignity.  So the informality and lack of rules that I like can also a problem.

The cultural diversity is amazing here and threatened.  I’ve met Jews from places I never expected- India, Norway, Switzerland, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Ethiopia- and so many other places.  With unique languages, traditions, and cuisine.  And non-Jews such as Druze (whose heart shaped falafel is in my cover photo), Arab Catholics, Arab Greek Orthodox, Arab Greek Catholics, Maronites, Alawites, Muslims, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, and Circassians.  Darfuris, Ertireans, Sudanese, Nepalis, and Chinese.  I speak all eight of my languages here- regularly.  This beauty that I love is what the government threatens by shaming Jews for speaking other languages, by discriminating against Arabs, and by expelling refugees.  It pains to me to see such a beautiful gift under attack.

In short, it’s complicated.  There are good things in Israel.  The nature is also gorgeous, the weather is better than anywhere in the Northeast U.S. or most of Europe.  The location is ideal for traveling the world.

Once the Israeli people do the hard work of pulling themselves away from the toxic ideologies that gave birth to their country, they might find themselves feeling freer.  Freer for a secular Jew to be friends with a Hasidic Jew.  For an Orthodox Jew to acknowledge Palestinian Arab history.  For a Mizrachi Jew to dance to Eritrean refugees’ music.  For a secular Ashkenazi to raise his kids in Yiddish.  Or an Iraqi Jew to do so in Judeo-Arabic.  For a Haredi Jew to see the good in Reform Judaism.  For a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon to return home to my neighborhood and for me to help renovate her mosque.  For a Christian to marry a Jew.  For a Jew to convert to Islam.  In short, to be the complex beautiful human beings hiding beneath the divisiveness.

For Hasidic Jews, tikkun olam or “repairing the world” begins within.  I couldn’t agree more.  To make the world a better place, we must start with ourselves.  So see the good things I wrote?  Grow them.  And where we find barriers in our souls towards our fellow human beings, join me in tearing them down.  Inside and radiating out towards the heavens.

Israelis often like to think of themselves as a “light unto the nations”.  The thing is to see a candle best, you must first turn off the lights.  Scary and necessary.  Flip the switch.  It’s time for a reset.  Let the flame illuminate our path.

Why social justice isn’t just economic

When it comes to economics, I believe the more equal we can make our society, the better.  Ideally, that’d mean less state and corporate control and more resources in the hands of the people.  And as we work towards that goal, I believe in a strong safety net- universal healthcare, guaranteed housing, access to healthful food, free public transportation, and more.

What I’ve come to realize, particularly due to my stay in Israel, is that economic justice is not enough.

What does that mean?  What I mean is economic justice is crucial- it helps people survive.  If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, economic justice provides people with the foundation in order to reach higher goals in life.  It provides for your physiological needs (air, water, food, shelter) and safety needs (financial security, health, safety).

If you look at the pyramid below, you’ll notice that more emotional needs, like love and esteem are built upon the foundation of the needs addressed by economic justice:maslow.jpg

In other words, you need economic justice to give people the opportunity to build their self confidence, to be able to focus on their love life, and to realize their dreams.

And yet, what’s also clear is that economic justice alone will not help someone achieve these higher needs in life.  Having a good salary certainly can make me feel happy and secure, but it won’t in and of itself make me feel loved.

Which is where we come to culture.  First, let’s define culture.  Culture, as I see it, is art, music, language, food, religion, customs, clothing, and so much more.  In short, it is a series of practices that gives life meaning.  It helps us feel rooted.  It doesn’t mean that culture stays stagnant- it always changes.  Yet if we don’t have some reference point for how we interact with the world, our self-esteem suffers and we can feel devalued.  Especially when the surrounding society demands we abandon our culture.

Incidentally, when I did a Google search on the psychological benefits of culture, an Israeli researcher appeared.  Dr. Carmit Tadmor studies the role of multiculturalism as it relates to conflicts in Israeli society.  Both she and the American Dr. Francois Grosjean, whose article helped me find her, argue that biculturalism is a benefit.  That people with more than one culture tend to be more creative, more flexible, more able to wrestle with ambiguity, and more professionally successful.  And quite important for Israel- they are more willing to acknowledge different perspectives and consider their merit.

Considering all the benefits of culture, one can imagine the great harm involved in destroying it.  If access to your culture (and the ability to add new ones) gives people confidence and creativity, stripping people of their culture causes psychological harm.  When a Yemenite child is forced by his Kibbutz to cut off his peyos, his sidelocks, one does not need a great deal of imagination to fathom the psychological harm.  Or, in the case of America, when newspapers advertised jobs saying “No Irish Need Apply“.

This last example is particularly illustrative.  Professor Richard J. Jensen at University of Illinois-Chicago published a book entitled “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization”.  He claims discrimination against Irish-Americans was exaggerated.  I’m pretty much always suspicious of someone who uses the phrase “myth of victimization” because it’s used to tell people their pain isn’t real.  To invalidate them.  Perhaps to invalidate themselves.

This attitude, unfortunately, is quite common in the U.S.  I once met a man of Irish ancestry- actually proud of his ancestry but not engaging with directly.  That is to say, he read books, he visited the country, but on a day-to-day basis, the food was cheese dip, the language was English, the music was Sweet Home Alabama- and that’s about it.  When I once asked him about his prejudices towards immigrants- why Latinos, for instance, couldn’t continue to speak Spanish- his answer was telling.

“When my grandparents came to America, they spoke Irish Gaelic.  But they never taught it to us because they were in America.  And here we speak English.  And I’m glad they never taught it to us because that’s not what you’re supposed to do here.”

In other words, he justifies his current prejudice towards immigrants who strive to maintain their culture by citing his own family’s pain- and even justifying that pain.  Invalidating the suffering his family endured.  That continues to leave his family rather rootless today.  And voting for politicians to expel his immigrant neighbors who suffer the same fate his family did.

Which brings us back to Prof. Jensen’s book.  As an American Jew and a Washingtonian, what I discovered made me so proud.  A 14 year old girl, Rebecca Fried, a student at D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School, wrote a thesis disproving Prof. Jensen’s claims.  It started with a simple Google search and she found tons of examples of discrimination, including racist job postings.  Prof. Jensen’s work was a sham- as other professors then began to discover he had an anti-Irish and anti-Catholic ideology.  It’s also sad because his last name is Scandinavian- he clearly has immigrant roots himself that maybe his own family was torn away from.  That he continues to inflict on others.

What makes me particularly proud about this?  First off, she’s a fellow Washingtonian.  We come from one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world and it definitely helped me become the multicultural person I am today.  It’s basically impossible for you to live in the D.C. area and not interact with people of different backgrounds and like Dr. Tadmor’s research indicates, this changes your mentality for the better.

Secondly, I’m going to make an assumption – hopefully correct – that Rebecca Fried, daughter of lawyer Michael Fried – is probably Jewish or at least of Jewish ancestry.  The name is so so American Jewish that I’d be surprised if she wasn’t somehow connected to our tradition.  Although America always finds ways to surprise you 🙂

Working off this assumption, a 14 year old girl of Jewish ancestry helped Irish Americans reclaim their cultural identity.  And unravel a hateful argument against them.

Why does this not surprise me?  Because American Jews- perhaps all Jews outside Israel- understand what it means to be a minority.  And- most importantly- if we continue to identify as Jewish in any way we are in fact maintaining our culture.  All American Jews are bicultural.  And therefore we enjoy the benefits of this identity- and understand the challenges.  While we faced (and continue to face) pressure to assimilate in the U.S., our resilience helps explain why American Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”  Which is to say that because we’ve maintained our culture, even though our economics should push us to vote Republican, we voted 71% Democrat in 2016.

Not to say people of different parties can’t be empathetic to immigrants, but in the current climate I think it’s fair to say Democrats are more open to multiculturalism.

I believe our biculturality helps explain why American Jews tend to be more empathetic to refugees and more open to diversity when compared with their Sabra counterparts in Israel.

When Jews came to Israel, they had their cultures ripped from their bosom by the Sabras who already lived here.  Yiddish, Judeo-Iraqi, Ladino- thousands of years of Jewish history were thrown out the window.  Kids were shamed for speaking Jewish languages!  Within just a few generations, many of these languages had become extinct or endangered.  Not because of anti-Semitism in another country, but rather because of other Jews who denied them the right to maintain their culture.  Because of bullies deeply insecure about their own cultural identity.

So how does this relate to social justice?  First off, we started by talking about economic justice.  The Israeli state- especially in its early years- did actually have quite a focus on economic justice.  The social safety net that developed far outpaced anything we have in America.  The government was pretty socialist- this is the origin of the Kibbutz- a commune.  There was (and is) a communist party in Israel- in the Knesset.

And yet there was a blind spot.  Racism.  Culture.  The government may have thought that if it simply erased Diaspora Judaism- the “icky” Moroccan superstitions, the “grating” noise of Yiddish- that it could entice people with money.  With jobs, with education, with healthcare.  To switch their identities.  Not to have both- for example- Moroccan and Israeli identities.  But rather “Israel #1 only amazing awesome nothing better”- that’s it.

Well guess what?  That has never worked in history.  Because what happens when you strip someone of their identity?  Let’s say they have their physiological and safety needs taken care of (not always the case here, but roll with me)- what’s missing?

What’s missing is culture.  Something to root you, to comfort you, to enrich your life.  Because Sabra culture is not a culture- by design.  Sabras when creating the State of Israel wanted to be the “anti-culture”.  That by negating their roots, they were making something new.  True- but the issue is you can’t create something out of nothing.  Your mentality, your traditions, no matter how much you hate them, impact the way you see the world.  And simply by telling yourself that that’s not OK turns you into a monster.  Into someone who hates both herself and- in particular- her neighbors who continue to hold on to the traditions she despises.

I think this explains why in Israel, and in the U.S., the people who tend to be most anti-minority and anti-diversity are the people who had their culture stripped from them.  Who continue to operate in a vacuum of Palestinian falafel they call Israeli and pizza they call American.

The reason Jews have been- and in some cases continue to be- hated in the Diaspora is because of our tenacity.  Our desire to hold on to our evolving traditions even when they’re not the norm.  To celebrate our holidays, to embrace our sense of humor, to learn about our history, to wear a yarmulke, to want to pass these traditions down to the next generation.

Our willingness to remain different while enjoying the best society has to offer, our biculturality, is what makes us queer.  It’s what makes us more complex than economic justice.  Because you can give me bread, but I want roses too.  I want a sense of identity.  And so do Mizrachi Jews and Sudanese refugees and Latinos and Black Americans and religious Jews and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim.  As do many people alienated from their cultures- take this opportunity to learn!

In short, the right to a cultural identity not only makes you a happier person, it makes you more empathetic to others, it makes society more progressive, and it makes for less bitter people for the state to rally to hate others.

This new secular year, let’s make it our mission to realize that economic justice is crucial and not enough.  Our cultural identity changes the way we see the world and when we have the right to exercise it, it can help us be better people and make our society one worth living in.

May it be so.

The hardest part of making aliyah

When I moved to Israel, I anticipated many challenges.  Israeli culture is very different from even American Jewish culture.  The directness, the sometimes harshness of people’s words can really catch an American off guard.  As can the practically non-existent social boundaries.  I knew I’d have to make adjustments to my career and make new friends.  I’d also sorely miss some of my favorite foods and cultures that are omnipresent in the diverse area I grew up in.  I’d be far from my existing support network and would have to build a new one- practically from scratch.  All this in a country I hadn’t visited for 12 years.

But the single hardest part of my journey, by far, was finding a home.  Not a metaphorical home, but an actual house.

Before arriving, I had reserved an AirBnB for a month to give me time to search for an apartment.  Little did I know that even though the woman advertised having air conditioning, she claimed that she was “allergic” to the machine so she wouldn’t turn it on.  As my Sabra friends told me, she was allergic to the electricity bill.  So there I was, a freshly minted Israeli arriving after 15 hours of travel (with only 1 hour of sleep on the plane) and a bedroom at 87 degrees Fahrenheit.  The final straw for this apartment was when I got food poisoning at four in the morning and rather than offering some words of consolation, the host complained about me waking her up.

After having received a refund for the remaining three weeks from AirBnB, I scrambled to find a place.  Still hung up on jet lag, I managed to find a generous lesbian couple who had also made aliyah from the States a year ago.  I slept in their office for a while while I searched for an apartment.  But as I think we all discovered, having three people, a dog, and multiple cats in a small apartment just doesn’t work.  And from the beginning, this was going to be a temporary place.

So I ran around trying to find a new place.  I found a sublet in the middle of the city.  I had a roommate- not ideal, but fine for a temporary stay.  My landlord, on the other hand, stole money from me that required endless hours of mediation and legal threats to be returned.  It’s not worth going into a ton of detail, but let’s just say that that’s one among many examples.

Needless to say, I was tired of hopping around apartments.  I wanted my own place- no roommates, no pets, no thieving landlords.  With a long term lease.  A home.

This is when I really discovered why Israelis protested en masse in 2011.  In particular in Tel Aviv, there is a massive housing shortage.  Most Israelis want to live in the Center of the country but the building hasn’t kept up.  As a result, demand is high and so are the prices.  Although prices are significantly lower in Tel Aviv than in places like Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York (which Israelis should realize- this is not a uniquely Israeli problem), there is a unique competitiveness to the market here.  When you show up to view an apartment, there are often multiple people viewing at the same time.  I can’t think of anything more awkward.  Everyone is trying to woo the all-powerful landlord while somehow pretending to like each other.  It’s super uncomfortable.

Then, the landlord will tell you there’s an extensive waiting list.  And to be honest, there usually is (although of course some lie).  The landlord can ask you any friggin question he wants.  In the U.S., there are extensive rental protections.  Where I lived in Maryland before aliyah, there was even a free service offered by the local government to investigate unscrupulous landlords.  Of course there were still bad apples, but at least there was legal recourse.

Here, the legal system is basically a load of crap.  When it comes to housing, the landlords know they run the show.  I was asked invasive questions about my salary, my family’s salary, my job, my religion, my national origin, my sexuality, my politics, and more.  What Israelis need to understand is that while this is par for the course in Tel Aviv, it is illegal in the U.S. and most civilized countries.  If you have the money and pass a background check, you can legally rent wherever you want in the U.S.

Could I have chosen not to answer these questions?  Sure.  But why would the landlord choose me, then, when she can simply pick someone else from a list of 30 people?  One guy, after grilling me for 30 minutes, ended by saying “you seem like a nice guy, but I have a whole list of people who work for the army and get great bonuses and benefits, so I’m just not sure we’ll choose you.”  With a smile.

I had landlords ask me to pay 6 months rent- up front.  I had landlords ask me to pay rent- in cash.  Leaving me with no paper trail of having paid the rent at all in an almost non-existent legal system.  I was offered one apartment that I’m pretty sure was tied to some sort of mafia.  I was told over and over again that the apartments were quiet- only to find construction projects (both existing and planned- there is a database) all around.

Trying to fix this situation, a new law was passed in the Knesset this past year to provide more rental protections.  What I then encountered were multiple landlords (illegally) inserting clauses into the leases stating that the new law did not apply.  Of course a lease doesn’t supplant the law of the land, but it certainly spoke to what kind of landlord they’d be.  One woman, when I asked her to revise the lease, said “but I’d never hurt anyone!”  And she refused to change it.

At the end of my rope and having seen literally dozens of apartments in person, I turned to the hated real estate agents here.  Real estate agents in Israel are nothing like real estate agents in the U.S.  Here, I don’t hate Arabs, I don’t hate Haredim (these are the usual targets).  No, who I absolutely detest in this country are real estate agents.

I had real estate agents (who I told I wanted a quiet place) try to sell me on illegal apartments inside a carpentry factory.  I had real estate agents tell me a place was too small for me only to call me frantically the next day and say we should go see it because it’s great.

I had a particular apartment I was ready to sign on.  I had had my lawyer review the lease in Hebrew twice.  I had prepared my checks (you have to pre-sign a year’s worth of checks here).  I had prepared my 5000 shekel deposit and my 4000 shekel pre-payment of the last month’s rent in addition to the 4000 shekels for the first month.  In addition to all that, I’d have to pay several thousand shekels to the real estate agent.  But two hours before the lease was supposed to be signed (the day before moving day), the real estate agent told me the landlord wanted to add a clause.  A clause that stated that if I left early, I needed to find a replacement (no problem, this was already in the lease), but also to give up 4000 additional shekels.

Of course I didn’t sign.  Adding a last minute clause is already a huge red flag.  Adding one that would rob me of 4000 shekels if, God forbid, I had a life emergency and needed to find a new renter- now that’s depraved.  The real estate agent yelled at me, a lot.  I told her I had to go.  And she called- I counted- 6 times in 10 minutes and texted over and over.  I wish I could say this was the only time, but I was also berated over the phone by at least two other real estate agents who felt this was somehow acceptable behavior.

The worst part of all of this is that based on the comments I heard from landlords and real estate agents alike, I knew I was being taken advantage of because I was an oleh chadash, a new Israeli.  Even though I have fluent Hebrew.  Nothing about this process is more revolting than that.  I made the sacrifice to make Israel my new home and to see fellow Jews manipulating me made me sick to my stomach.  And exhausted.

Tired of all the games, I decided that I’d look in South Tel Aviv.  It’s cheaper and more importantly, less competitive to find a place.  And when I say South Tel Aviv, I don’t mean the hipsters of Florentin- it’s also a mess to find an apartment there.  And I don’t mean Yafo- it’s in such high demand (and gentrification) that I found it quite hard too.

No, I live where the music is Mizrachi.  Which I love.  Where the streets are filled with diverse refugees from all over the world.  Where there are real, honest-to-God neighborhoods, not some sort of revolving door of young people trying to pay astronomically high rent.  Is my community super queer-friendly and packed with Reform synagogues?  No- although I haven’t gotten to know my neighbors yet and I know Israel can always surprise you.  I do know there are Shas posters nearby, which I find both amusing and frightening.  I’m thrilled that the food is cheap and absolutely delicious.  I even found a sushi place- and the maki rolls cost 9 shekels!  Try finding that in Dizengoff Center!

In the end, I come back to my name, Matah מטע.  It means orchard and I chose it because I’m planting roots to bear fruits, to blossom.  And what I realized is this- I was tired of the “no, no, no, no” I was hearing and wanted to get to the “yes”, like in my cover photo.  More than being in a central location packed with young people, what I needed was a home.  And what I started to realize is that having gone through so much in the States, this wasn’t really a new home so much as a first home.  I needed some soil so I could ease my bark into the ground and find some stability.  After four months here, I just needed a quiet, safe place to come home to at night and sleep.

And that is what I found.  I’m grateful for the help of friends and my lawyer, who supported me emotionally and with advice.  Was it easy?  Absolutely not.  If you’re making aliyah because you think it’s a piece of cake, you should immigrate to Ireland.  Or Belgium.  Or Japan.  Because Israel can be really friggin tough.  Not always for the reasons Sabras think, but it is hard.  I have to admit my faith and my hope were tested repeatedly while finding a home.  And I hope I can find some peace of mind by reconnecting to the Israelis who give me spirit, rather than the people who drained me of it.

On my way home Friday, I heard a song wafting through the air in my new neighborhood.  I recognized the melody.  And as I got closer, I sang along: “lecha dodi likrat kalah, pnei shabbat nekablah.”  The traditional Jewish song for welcoming Shabbat, the Sabbath bride.

I couldn’t help but think that for all the challenges I’ve been through- and the unknown ones that may lie ahead- that I made the right choice.  Because rather than hearing the boom boom boom of the middle of Tel Aviv, I’m hearing the songs of my people.  Prayers I’ve said since childhood.

There may not be a lot of Reform synagogues in South Tel Aviv, but you don’t always need one when your prayers fill the air of the market and you’re singing along.  With your new key in hand.  When you move to a new home, you’re praying with your feet.