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.

Everything is Better in America

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

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

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL

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

ERETZ YISRAEL YAFFA – THE BEAUTIFUL LAND OF ISRAEL

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

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

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

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

Israeli socialized healthcare

Israel has many beautiful things: a gorgeous seashore, delicious Middle Eastern food, a sense of empowerment for the Jewish people, a multicultural society, and much more.  It also has its share of challenges- low salaries (relative to the U.S.), endless bureaucracy, regional conflict, and so much more.

I’d like to focus right now, though, on one of the best aspects of living in Israel: socialized healthcare.  In Israel, everyone, by law, has health insurance.  It is provided through one of several government-approved plans.  Approximately 4-5% of your salary is deducted automatically, on a progressive scale, and you simply have health insurance.  If you want the super-duper supplemental insurance which covers things like massages and acupuncture (yes, you read that right American friends), it costs…$32 a month!  There are no deductibles, no pre-existing conditions, and no premiums.

To an Israeli, this might hardly seem noteworthy.  But allow me to explain how healthcare works in America.  When I lived in the U.S., I was self-employed.  I paid $500 a month simply to have health insurance.  There are literally millions of Americans who have no insurance at all- which could result in emergency room visits costing many thousands of dollars if they get sick.  People literally go bankrupt in the U.S. because of healthcare costs- they could even lose their home.  In addition to my $500/month premium, I also had to pay what’s called a “deductible”.   A deductible is the amount of money you personally have to pay before the insurance company starts paying anything for your treatments.  Since my plan was very high-quality (by American standards), my deductible was fairly low: $1200 for in-network (doctors that worked with my insurance company) and $2000 for out-of-network (doctors that didn’t work with my insurance company but might be the best ones for what I need).  That means that, before the insurance company will even pay one cent for your treatment, you may have to pay as much as $3200 in addition to your monthly $500 fee.  Even after you “hit your deductible” (meaning you’ve paid these amounts), the insurance company only covers part of your treatment and you or your doctor have to submit paperwork to the insurance company each time, which may decide they don’t feel they should pay for your treatment.  Sometimes, they’ll only tell you what they’ll cover after you go to the doctor.  And sometimes, the insurance companies will not cover your treatment.  Please re-read that Israeli friends- sometimes, even with health insurance, you will not get any payments from the company.  In short, this is like playing Russian roulette and it can be very, very, very expensive.  I’ve had years where, including medicines, doctor’s appointments, and insurance payments, I’ve paid $15,000 for healthcare- or more.  Just for that one year.

So now perhaps you can see why I’m in awe of the Israeli healthcare system.  Today, I went to get my healthcare card.  It took all of 20 minutes.  There is an app I can use to schedule my appointments.  All medical records are digitized (oh yeah, Israeli friends- you often literally have to send pieces of paper between your doctors in the U.S. because there is no centralized healthcare system).  I’m only beginning to learn the system, but I can already say that it is leaps and bounds ahead of what we have in the U.S.

There are a lot of things Israel can learn from the U.S.  This is something Americans can learn from Israelis.  Socialized healthcare works.  It is not a theory, it is a fact.  At a time when the American government is cruelly trying to dismantle Obamacare (which in and of itself it not even that great of a system, but was at least in the right direction) and kick millions of people off insurance, Israel guarantees all of its residents healthcare.  Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian.  Rich and poor.  Young and old.

Healthcare is one of the reasons I made aliyah.  Some things are easier in the U.S. than Israel, but healthcare is absolutely, without a doubt, not one of them.  I was tired of my hard-earned money going to greedy insurance companies and wondering when or if my medical conditions would be treated.  I’ve made a long list of doctors I’m going to go see and I can’t wait.  I’m also going to get a lot of massages because they’re awesome and are a huge stress relief.

Health is life.  Without it, you can’t do anything.  I’m glad and grateful I live in a place that values it.  And I pray that the American government learns from its ally what it means to take care of your people’s health.