A gay Reform ally for Haredim

To say my identity puts me on the other end of the Jewish spectrum from ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) communities is an understatement.  Reform Jews are seen by many in the Haredi world at best as misguided and at worst, ideological enemies.  And gay people, well, are seen as much worse.  Not every Haredi person is a homophobe.  I’ve met some, including through my blog, who see themselves as allies or in the case of one secret Facebook group I’m in, as gay themselves.  And yet a tremendous number of Haredi Jews condemn homosexuality in the most severe terms, making it nearly impossible for someone in their community to come out of the closet as a supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, let alone come out of the closet as queer.  Something which is slowly but hopefully changing for the better.

I share these observations not just from my intuition or news articles, but from lived experience.  Among all my progressive Jewish friends, I have by far spent the most time in Haredi communities.  To the extent where I have two “go-to” restaurants in Bnei Brak, including one where I get the greatest hugs.  I have explored the largest Haredi city in the world many times, and even found things to like.  I even met Hasidim who watch Game of Thrones and boxing on YouTube.  And more perplexingly, actually met Bedouin and chatted in Arabic on the streets of the world’s largest shtetl.

My adventures have taken me outside Bnei Brak as well, including to a cave of Lithuanian misnagdim in Tsfat, a conversation about marijuana and gay identity in Modi’in Illit,  I’ve visited Haredi communities in Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg, Antwerp, Me’ah Shearim, and more.

The adventures sometimes go well and sometimes don’t.  I once told a Breslover Hasid I was Reform and it didn’t register even the slightest expression of disapproval.  I once told a Yiddish teacher I was Reform and he berated me- during the lesson I was paying for.  I rarely have felt at ease as a gay person and often felt the need to be closeted when entering this community, which made me deeply uncomfortable.  And one Chabad rabbi’s wife I know identifies as an ally to the LGBTQ+ community.

All of this is to say that when we see attacks against our Haredi sisters and brothers on TV these days (of which there have been a lot), I understand why this is complicated.  Far too rarely do these communities stand in solidarity for my well being and human rights.  And yet- some do.  And furthermore, the philosophical question arises of whether we should only stand with those who stand with us.  Or whether we have an obligation regardless.  And perhaps, through some positive interactions, can even bring people together in new ways.

As a gay Reform Jew, I feel my tradition obligates me to stand with Haredi communities battling seemingly endless anti-Semitism.  Not just because it affects me as a fellow Jew (we should be realistic- hatred never stops at one community’s door), but because our tradition asks us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  To be brave.  To lock hands with someone different from you, and hopefully open all hearts involved in the process.

It is ideologically easy for liberal American Jews to stand with refugees, with immigrants, with the queer community, against climate change, and a whole series of other issues that fit neatly into our ideological profile.  Into my ideological profile as well.

It is much more challenging, and equally important, to push ourselves to extend our solidarity to our brethren whose politics, dress, and approach to faith differ from our own.

So in the end, that is my hope.  That liberal American Jews such as me can find it in our hearts to extend a hand to our Haredi brothers and sisters.  And that they will grasp it.  We both have much to gain from such a partnership.  And much to lose- for the people who hate us will hardly care how we pray or what we wear.  They care that we are different.  We are Jews.

The cover photo is one I took while visiting and learning at the Breslover Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel.

 

The funny, silly, and strange side of traveling

Oftentimes, I use my blog therapeutically.  It’s first and foremost a place to express myself, my observations, some of my deepest feelings.  It’s also a place to share and to give you insight into my world and how I see it.  And I often get inspirational comments from readers, which brings everything full circle and truly makes blogging a rewarding experience.  Thank you for being a part of it.

I’d like to use this blog to talk about some sillier or more mundane parts of travel.  Because that’s a part of my experience too.

Let’s start with “bris”.  Here in Spain, I see almost everywhere, in huge letters, the word “bris”.  Graffitied on walls, like street art or a gang sign.

But what you need to know, if you haven’t already caught why this is funny for me, is that “bris” is the Hebrew word for circumcision.  So everywhere I turn in southern Spain, I see beautifully graffitied, street-smart bold letters proclaiming “cut penis”.  It’s a joke lost on the entirely un-Jewish populace, but they say Spaniards have a lot of Jewish DNA from the forced conversions of the Inquisition.  So maybe even though they haven’t had a bris, once upon a time, their ancestors did. 🙂

Here’s a strange observation from Europe.  Europeans can have some pretty strong stereotypes about Americans.  Mostly based on Hollywood- often without ever having visited.

I often think in some ways Europeans are truly superior to Americans when it comes to certain policies.  Like healthcare.

One thing they are rather behind on is water.  Something you’ll never hear about in a foreign policy magazine 🙂 .  Almost everywhere you go in Europe, you have to buy bottled water.  In restaurants, tap water is usually not an option, even though it is almost always safe.  What a waste of plastic!

Now I’ll share a bit of a funny story.  In Israel, water, despite being a precious commodity in a desert country, has to be given to anyone in any establishment for free.  Even if you’re not patronizing it or buying anything.  It’s great.  America, while not quite on that level, is a big fan of tap water.

So I was quite surprised when I visited the Jewish Museum of Budapest.  I had paid to get some genealogical research done and while I was waiting, I went to fill up my water bottle at the cooler.

The researcher said: “you didn’t ask.”

I responded: “oh, OK…can I have some water?”

And her reply: “yes, in our country you ask first.”

Whew!  Next time you’re in Budapest, think twice before pressing the water tap!

Another funny thing.  In Brussels, you can ride public transit without buying a ticket- but at the risk a conductor will ask for it, and fine you accordingly.  The Belgians developed a rather clever app.  It lets you check online for the last time someone spotted an inspector on a particular route.  So when I got on the bus- unable to find a local ticket vending machine- my new Spanish-Jewish friend said: “don’t worry, they haven’t checked on this line for 20 minutes.”  I thought Israelis were lawless, but Belgians have their own little ways of rebelling 🙂

Slovenia is known for its dairy products.  I was staying in a suburb of Ljubljana, an outlying neighborhood.  I walked towards a mountain.

On the way, I spotted the most curious device.  It was a vending machine- the type you’d usually see filled with Kit Kats, Twix, and cookies.  But with fresh dairy products from the local farm- which you could see right next to it.

So, feeling thirsty, I bought some milk.  And feeling hungry, I got some yogurt.  B9, A12.

That’s how you do breakfast in Slovenia!

Speaking of vending machines, I’ve seen some interesting ones.  In several countries, including Spain, I’ve seen condom vending machines!  On the street.  Even some that sold lube.

The other day, walking around in Spain, I noticed the vending machine as I saw old women walking by.  Who, if they noticed it all, seemed to care far less about it than about the latest gossip in the neighborhood.

In a place where 50 years ago, the public schools were Catholic.  With crosses hanging in every room.

Belgium is known for a few things.  Chocolate, fries (don’t call them French!), and beer.  Mostly, carbohydrates.  But what you may not know is Belgium is the home to the best rugelach I’ve ever eaten.  Rugelach, for those who don’t know, is a Jewish pastry.  In Israel, the form it takes is kind of like a fluffy sweet croissant with some sort of filling- fruit, chocolate, etc.

In Belgium, I was in Antwerp, in the diamond district.  The Jewish part of town.  Even the shopping area is called “Meir”, a Jewish name.  Golda’s surname.

I was hungry and knew there was Jewish food.  Unlike in Eastern Europe where the food was quite familiar, but the dead Jews outnumbered the living ones, in Belgium, there is still a living community.  With amazing bakeries.

I bought three cinnamon rugelach.  On the outside, they look the same as they do in Israel.  But on the inside- it tasted like French Toast.  Gooey, sticky, delightful.  Warm, lip-smacking good.

So good that after four steps away from the shop, I made hard turn back and bought three more.

Belgium- home of waffles and delightful food that will clog your system for days.  Including the world’s best rugelach!  And a lot of cell phones whose ringtones are the Islamic call to prayer, where for a moment I felt time-warped back to Yaffo.

Romania.  Aaaaaaaah Romania Romania Romaaaaania Romania!  Romania is a silly place.  One of the things I love about Romania are the Gypsies (more properly termed, “Roma”).

Frankly, in Romania I kind of look like one.  I started to appreciate this highly stigmatized group after a cute Roma kid kept winking at me on a bus.  Romania’s public transit doesn’t seem to have improved much since communism- it mostly relies on really bumpy van rides that take twice as long as a car.  But are still shorter than the even slower train.  Romania is a good place for a scenic ride…

So this kid winking and smiling at me made my ride a bit better.  I started to learn that it was pretty easy to spot Roma.  Not just physically (although yes, both their skin color and facial features are a lot more like my Semitic ones than those of the typical Transylvanian).  Also, they wear the most interesting clothes.  As if they are out of a Western movie.

Roma men tend to wear cowboy boots and cowboy hats!  The women dress in colorful skirts.

I hardly expected to see men in Romania who reminded me of Chicanos in the Southwest, but that’s exactly what they look like.  Caramel skin, nice leather shoes.  And some of them I hear make great salsa.  I wish- I can’t say Mexican is my favorite food, but I miss a good quesadilla once in a while.

Which they make in San José, Spain, a seaside resort.  In a restaurant next to which lies a bakery.  From which I heard the word “Maramureș” shouted out loud.

Maramureș is a region of northern Romania.  And one of the cooks is from there.

Europe is a large, diverse place.  But it’s one where these days, you’re as likely to hear Romanian in Andalusia as you are in Bucharest.  A place where I had some of the best sushi of my life in Slovenia- with a chef straight from Osaka.  A place where I found my favorite Indonesian instant noodles in an Asian grocery store in the Flemish city of Antwerp.  Where right down the street, you can find the best rugelach in the world.

Europe- once a continent, now a global village.

To explore is to see things for yourself.

You’re welcome, Belgium

My trip to Benelux, as I like to call it, has been interesting.  The series of low-lying small countries- Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg- has long been a destination I wanted to visit.

I like small countries.  They have unique character and frankly they’re cute!  Not so overwhelming and often overlooked- just the way I like things sometimes.  People tend to be more appreciative too when you visit places a bit off the beaten path.  Brussels isn’t a village in Latvia, but it’s certainly not Rome or Paris either.  It’s cute- not too big, not too showy, interesting.  And for me, a French-speaker and a lover of languages, this is a fascinating part of the world.  With languages bumping up side-by-side- Belgium a truly multilingual country.  With all the good and challenges that poses for its society.

While unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Netherlands, I did visit Belgium and Luxembourg.

The good thing about small countries is you can see a lot in a short amount of time.  And things do tend to change a bit from place to place.

After flying into Charleroi Airport and staying over in Jumet, I visited Namur and the Ardennes.  The Ardennes is the site of tons of World War history- from both wars.  With tremendous casualties, including many Americans who died to liberate this part of the world from fascism.

The Ardennes are green and peaceful.  Some pockets of poverty.  And some gorgeous medieval villages like Dinant and Bouvignes.  Take a look:

 

While I didn’t plan on coming to the Ardennes for its military history, it kind of found me.

When you go to the cute village of Bastogne, you can see the war everywhere.  There are graveyards for soldiers, American tanks, a museum.  And mostly Western tourists coming to see it- sometimes to meet their departed relatives.

I knew my great uncle Barney Marcus was killed here in the war- he was an American soldier.  But I didn’t know where- it could’ve been Asia or Europe.  And I didn’t know exactly when.

Without wanting to go into the war traumas or history (I think seeing the destroyed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe was enough), I didn’t visit much.  But I did take a picture with an American tank.  And I noticed that one older woman, initially standoffish, was quite warm to me in French when I said I was American.  I could feel her gratitude.  For something I didn’t even think of when planning this trip.  But nonetheless, it felt good.  After experiencing so much stigma in Eastern Europe, it was nice to see some people who liked me for who I was.  And to think about good things my country has done.  Like liberating this part of the world from fascism- twice.

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I also made time to visit Luxembourg.  While so many Debbie Downers asked me over and over why I would go there, my answer is simple: it’s there.  It’s a tiny country, with something different, right at my doorstep.  It’s cute, quadrilingual (Luxembourgish is a language!), and I find it interesting.

From Bastogne, I hopped on a bus.  Now I’m going to sound pretty hipster when I say I didn’t even go to Luxembourg City.  I passed through towns and villages on the way to Ettelbruck, an even smaller city in a teeny tiny country.

My image of Luxembourg was wealth.  It is one of the richest places on the planet.

And I saw some of it- the native Luxembourgers (is that a word?) were readily recognizable, driving Mercedes and BMW’s.  Not all of them, but a lot.

What was shocking was that Ettelbruck is anything but wealthy.  The rest of the town is a melting pot of Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, Cape Verdeans- name a culture.  There to work, to somehow survive in the face of eye popping prices, to make a better life.  Ettelbruck isn’t scenic, but I did learn a lot.

What I learned is there’s a lot of racism here.  Europe, in general, feels really racist.  Not everyone, but it’s a deep feeling.

As someone with caramel, olive skin and Semitic features- I stand out.  To the people (usually on the far left) who claim all Jews are white- tell that to the Luxembourgers who looked at me like I was there to clean their houses.

Because of my appearance (and sometimes because I go to decidedly non-touristic spots), I often am approached with fear and suspicion.

I should say, by all those who aren’t themselves outsiders.

On multiple occasions, Arabs have approached me in Arabic here.  Confirming my thought that the white people around me also thought I was Arab.

In fact, one night, after a particularly miserable AirBnB I had to escape (like the wolf in the forest I had to run away from- that’s another story), I ended up at an expensive hotel in Bastogne.  The Arab employee comes up and starts speaking to me in Arabic.  I said I was American…needless to say that despite my bravery and pride, this was not the moment to say I was Israeli.  Just this week, a Jew was attacked in Germany.  Sometimes it’s neo-Nazis, and a lot of the times it’s Muslim extremists.  Europe isn’t as safe as I thought it would be.

The Arab man, from Tunisia (a cool accent I hadn’t heard much before outside of Jewish Tunisian music), immediately directed me to a Halal restaurant.  Assuming I was Muslim.  Not about to say “I respect everyone but actually I’m a secular Godless Jew”, I simply went to the shwarma restaurant.

There I met a Kurdish man, a Syrian refugee, and a Libyan guy.  We had a nice chat- again, they all pretty much assumed I was Muslim (whatever, I don’t really care, and the food was great).  At the end of the meal, they gave me a free dessert, namoura.  It was delightful.  Also, the Kurdish man gave me PKK literature.  That was a first.  Despite having lived in the Middle East, I have never been so generously offered terrorist literature after dinner.  I smiled, accepted the brochure, took a few pictures, and threw it in the trash in my hotel.  The last thing I need is more airport scrutiny.  I’ll take the flight over the flier.

To return a moment to Luxembourg, something really stunned me.  I found a synagogue!  Obviously, like most of Europe, an empty abandoned one.

It was an unexpected, somewhat invasive surprise.  I was hoping to get a break from seeing the ruins of my people (see my blogs about Eastern Europe), but here we were again.  The 47 families of Ettelbruck turned into ash.  According to the sign, by “villains”.  As if this were a murder mystery and we didn’t know that Nazis and their Luxembourger collaborators killed them.

 

It’s a reminder that our blood lies spilled over this entire continent, over centuries.  It’s depressing, although I’m glad something of our civilization here remains, in spite of so much continuing hatred.

While I tried to engage with some Luxembourgers (interestingly, Yiddish proves quite useful in talking to them), they mostly shied away or even laughed at me when I said I was Jewish.

Meanwhile, the Cape Verdean women loved talking to me.  We shared the Portuguese language- a reminder that my tribes include the languages I speak.  The foreign workers in Luxembourg, almost to a fault, were welcoming and kind to me.  Perhaps seeing me, on some level, as one of their own.  Or at a minimum, to not look down on others in need of directions or a laugh.  Poor people, at the risk of sounding tokenizing, tend to be a lot warmer than rich people.  In almost every place I visit.  I suppose it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.  And when you don’t have much, hopefully you have a bit more empathy for others in need.

One of the reasons I came to Belgium was that there are living Jews.  Unlike the communities in Eastern Europe where the headstones outnumber the heads, Belgium still manages to keep Jewish life alive.  Though not with ease, in particular because of rising anti-Semitism from many directions, including (though not exclusively) its Arab immigrants.

I had the pleasure of visiting Moishe House Brussels.  For those who don’t know this international institution, it’s a pluralistic, secular-minded communal house that Jews live in around the world.  I used to go in Washington and it’s great to have a place to meet other young Jews.  Which is exactly what I needed after a long dry spell the past few weeks.

It was so nice to talk to people who understood me.  Not because I love every Jew any more than you could say you love everyone in any group.  But because in the deepest sense, all Jews share something.  Especially those who take the time to cultivate it.  We share 4,000+ years of history, of food, of persecution, of cohesiveness.  Of survival.  Of humor.  Things you can’t just understand by taking a course or going to a Bar Mitzvah.  It’s in our shared experience.

And what was also awesome was that a few non-Jews joined us.  An Italian-Belgian guy, even an Azerbaijani woman studying Israel for her PhD!  Even the Jews were diverse- Spanish, Argentinian, Croatian, Algerian, Belgian, and me- Israeli.

It was so nice to make some new friends and to do Shabbat.  Not to pray, but to eat together.  That’s what nourished me.  The conversation, the togetherness.  The warmth.

One person who I particularly connected with was named Forster.  I don’t have his whole story yet- we’re hopefully hanging out again tomorrow.  Besides a shared sense of humor, a love of animals, and a strong passion for secular Jewish culture, I was moved to hear that he grew up on his family’s Holocaust survival stories.  I know my family was murdered in the Holocaust, but since I never knew them and they were across an ocean, it’s more of a puzzle I’m piecing together.  And one thing I notice about European Jews is that, with the exception of some Sephardic Jews who made their way here after the war, almost all are descendants of Holocaust survivors.  Or are survivors themselves.

After Brussels, I visited Antwerp.  While the Brussels Jewish community is quite secular (which is cool, and somewhat hard to find outside Israel these days), the Antwerp community is hard core Hasidic.

For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you know that the last time I stepped foot in Israel, I was pretty pissed off at this community.  A community, while diverse, whose leaders use religion to prevent me from building a family.  From adopting, from using surrogacy, from getting married.  Because I’m gay and the Torah blah blah.  Utter bullshit.  Even though I spent a lot of time in Bnei Brak, Mea Shearim, Modi’in Illit, and other Haredi areas, I stopped going once I saw how hated I really was.

Something about this trip changed that.  Not because I think Haredi parties are any different now than a month ago.  But perhaps because living in the Diaspora makes it a little warmer between us.

When the government isn’t tied to religion, we don’t have to fight about it as much.  And when our non-Jewish neighbors are so fixated on persecuting us for no apparent reason, it acts as a glue to bring us together.  I can’t say I enjoy persecution, but it feels kind of nice.

As I imagined the ruined Hasidic communities of Romania and Hungary, it felt nice to see living Hasidic Jews.  Speaking Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Flemish- name a language.  It’s a Diaspora chulent.  And it tastes good.  Almost as good as *the* best cinnamon rugelach I have ever eaten in my life from Heimishe Bakery.  Go!

I had a nice chat with the owners and a Hasidic man.  I wished them a gut yontif- it was Simchat Torah that night.  The day of celebrating our book.  I’m not always a fan of this book, but it’s definitely ours.  And it felt a bit like home to be among my people.  Alive.  It put a smile on my face when the baker told me she was from Israel.  With a broad smile of her own.  In this little shop, I didn’t have to lie.

As I pondered what to do tomorrow, I thought about how I will meet with Forster.  I want to know his family’s story- if he feels up to sharing it.  And it got me thinking about my own.

I’ve often told people on this trip that I’m the first member of my family back in this part of the world since the 1880s.  When we were kicked out.

But it’s not true.

As I discovered tonight, Barney Marcus, my great uncle, died liberating Europe.

Barney Marcus was drafted at age 22 from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  With World War II raging, he enlisted in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division.

Barney was a proud Jew.  He served as the secretary of the Phi Lambda Nu fraternity- an all-Jewish fraternity started in Pennsylvania when non-Jews didn’t accept us in their ranks.

His frat brothers held a going away party for him before he was drafted.

Barney’s regiment wasn’t any old regiment.  It freed Europe from fascism in the Battle of Normandy.  You can read the incredible story here and see a rough map of his experience:

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His brothers in arms pushed the Germans out to clear the way for Allied Troops to free France, to free Belgium, to ultimately conquer Germany and put its demons to rest.

Unfortunately, Barney never made it to Germany.  He was gunned down by Germans and their sycophants in La Haye-du-Puits, France.  Not only that, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star posthumously for dying while trying to save a wounded friend.  His particular regiment was cited for “outstanding performance of duty” on July 7, 1944.  The very day he died.  Fighting his way through “artillery and mortar fire and across dense mine fields”.  I’m not bashful at all to say that his regiment took German soldiers prisoner- he came to Europe a soldier and died a victor.  An American, a Jew, a freedom fighter, and a Nazi crusher.

Barney’s regiment went on to liberate eastern France, close to the border with Luxembourg, then conquered Germany near Cologne, and ultimately ended up managing post-war chaos in Sudetenland, where German Nazi aggression started this war.  Including some displaced persons camps, perhaps with Jews in them.

I’ve noticed in my travels here that a lot of Western Europeans have forgotten.  A cab driver, when I asked him about the local history in the Ardennes, said the young people don’t want to learn it anymore.  Maybe some do, but when I hear anti-American sentiment or prejudices in this part of the world, it rubs me raw when I know that my family shed blood to keep here free.

As hard as all this genealogy has been, I think it’s been worth it.  I wish I had known my great uncle, Barney Marcus.  Because he sounds like someone pretty cool.  Someone proud of his Jewishness, a brave American, someone who sacrificed his very future to save another life.  Someone I am proud to call my own.

Europe- Jewish and non-Jewish- you’re welcome.  Barney and I have sacrificed for you to exist.  Like the library I visited today in Leuven, rebuilt twice by the Americans for the people of Belgium.

Jews here have a longer historical memory- though I can’t pretend I haven’t experienced some anti-Americanism from them too (or perhaps playful jealousy fed by delusional interpretations of Hollywood as reality).  But the non-Jews here, although there are some truly admirable ones like Alexis who actually lives in a Moishe House and worked for Jewish radio, they have forgotten.

They have forgotten that Belgium (not to mention France) exists because of the United States- twice.  That Jewish soldiers liberated their countries even as not a small number of their citizens helped deport our Jewish relatives.

Every city on this continent has a “Jew Street”, abandoned synagogue, or largely empty Jewish quarter.  And I’m tired of hearing people say they know nothing about it.

Or in the case of Germans I met, that I should visit Chemnitz, the site of recent neo-Nazi rallies, to realize that the people really are great and they’re just protest voters.

Enough.  Europe- anti-Semitism is your problem, not the Jewish people’s.  Just like racism is not black people’s responsibility to resolve.

I’m willing to pitch in and help educate- and even to learn from you.  Which is why I’m starting a new project, Nuance Israel, to bring together Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad, to learn together.  To build connections between kind, open-minded people.  To help European non-Jews understand their Jewish neighbors- and Israelis.  For Israelis to understand their roots- and the importance of diversity.  For people across cultures to build a new tribe- a mindset of openness, tolerance, and moderation.  Join me.

In the end, I’m done hiding who I am.  Yes, I’m from Washington, D.C., but that’s not where I live now.  I’m Israeli.  And American.  And Jewish.  And gay.  And empathetic.  And a lot of things.  And I’m not a liar.

If you- whether you’re Moroccan or Belgian or whatever- can’t handle that, then too bad.  My family is part of the reason this continent isn’t called Germany.  And I’m tired of your worn-out excuses for why America or Israel are so terrible.

Your social safety net was set up by the Marshall Plan and your economies thrive in part because American tax dollars provide most of your defense.

I’m not suggesting America (or Israel) is perfect- it’s not.  We’re not a shining beacon of light for the rest of the world to emulate- we’re just another country.  But one that does some good.  And has things to learn from you too.

I thought about making a spontaneous trip to La Haye-du-Puits tomorrow to see where my uncle sacrificed himself for freedom.  For Europe, for its Jews, for tomorrow.  On some level, for me.  Thank you, Barney.  Today you gave me a little ray of hope- a connection to someone I’m proud to call my own.

Maybe one day I’ll visit- I’ve long been searching for specific places in Europe my family stepped foot on.  I have some I might visit one day, but I don’t know that I’ve reached them yet.

What I do know is tomorrow I’m hanging with Forster.  A living Jew.  A new friend.  Someone whose own destiny is tied up with my own.

Because even though we’ve barely met, I know we’re both survivors.  That when his family, wherever they were, were resisting Nazi fascism and anti-Semitism, holding on for dear life in the face of deep inhumanity.  My great uncle was working to set them free.  Because wherever we are, we don’t give up.

Which is why in the face of the deep inhumanity I’ve faced, especially from within my family, I choose life.  Am yisrael chai, the people Israel lives.

And if you don’t like it, I’m afraid you’ll never succeed in extinguishing our flame.  It burns as bright as the bombs my great uncle dashed between to set your country free.

Nuance Israel

Dear friends and readers-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Matt

The Jewish conundrum

I’m currently traveling through Romania.  Romania, for all its current and past political problems, is today a much, much more peaceful place in Israel.  You can’t really compare a 50,000 person demonstration in Bucharest with hundreds of rockets, racist legislation, land appropriations, occupation, and creeping fascism of Israel.  A state once semi-democratic but now plunging into the totalitarian fiesta that is the Middle East.  And once was Eastern Europe.  With vestiges creeping back today.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that the increasingly psychotic right-wing leaders of the former communist bloc have found themselves in bed with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Even as they spew anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries.  I suppose bullies attract bullies.

Before we dive in, here are some pretty pictures of my other homeland.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and I’ve loved traveling here.  This is my third visit this year- I’m the first member of my family to step on its soil since she left 130 years ago for the golden shores of America.

Romania is gorgeous.  Or in the case of Cheile Turzii, “gorges” 🙂 .  I’ve been to Cluj, the silicon valley of Romania.  Literally- both a valley surrounded by hills and also the high-tech hub of the country.  Filled with lots of young, progressive people working in high tech.  But with way less pent up aggression than people in Tel Aviv.

I’ve been to historic Transylvanian cities, old synagogues, beautiful mountains.  Romania is stunning.  My ancestors must’ve really been struggling to want to leave here.  (Turns out they were- the government passed anti-Semitic legislation and had various state-sponsored pogroms the years my family left)

And for those of you still living in Israel, the other day I bought ice cream, a large bag of oatmeal, apples, bananas, milk, several yogurts, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, a Romanian home-made candy, cascaval cheese, turkey, whole-grain bread, and I forget how many other things.  For a total of $10.  Israel is stupidly expensive and the quality of food is definitely not better than here- but I suppose that’s what you get when your country is ruled by a bunch of nepotistic politicians whose rabbi friends make an extra buck off of every piece of food by deciding God approves of it.  Nationalism costs money- I suppose if you pour every ounce of your being into conflict and the idea that your country is super awesome, then people can take advantage of your distraction and charge you money for the things you actually need to survive.  But keep believing that patriotism is awesome.

Romania also knows a thing or two about ethno-nationalism.  It’s a country where, to this day, there’s actually a political party calling for outlawing the Hungarian minority’s party.  Because they claim the Hungarians want to hand over Transylvania to Hungary again.  Does this sound familiar, Israel?

It’s also a place with a long, storied history of anti-Semitism.  One which, thankfully, is much, much better today.  As I have never felt physically threatened and have never even faced an aggressive comment here.  Frankly, Romanians are way more polite and respectful than Israelis.  I feel emotionally safer with the average Romanian than a Jew in Israel.  And not just because they say “please” and “thank you”- although that’s nice too.

And Romania does have a mixed record on its Jews.  As I’ve been here, I have seen a little bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, I’ve heard some yearnings for right-wing politics, I even saw a billboard promoting some sort of Mein Kampf theater production.  Hopefully with the goal of educating people, but I’m honestly not sure.  And I was rather shocked to see the words on a billboard.

I also visited a synagogue.  I was hesitant to- I’m here partially to get space from Israel.  But I was in Sighisoara and I just wanted to take a peek.  Perhaps it was partially because when I asked a young woman where it was, she said there was none.  Even as Romanian nearly-Klezmer-sounding music blared out of her store (which was awesome- she said she’d check out Jewish music after).  I don’t think she was ignorant out of hatred.  I think she simply didn’t know there was a synagogue.  In a town of 20,000 people.  Sad.

I have to note that I’ve mentioned to many people here I’m Jewish.  And sometimes I’ve noticed feelings of guilt.  One guy, when I said my family was killed in the Holocaust, said it gave “shivers down his spine” and he told me about an Israeli he’s met who actually moved to Romania.  And to return to the synagogue in Sighisoara, the non-Jewish custodian of the synagogue was so, so proud to show it to me.  She even hummed the tune to “Tzadik Katamar”, a Jewish prayer written on the wall of the synagogue.  As we both motioned the steps to the Israeli folk dance.  For those of you who think, as I was basically taught at home and at synagogue, that Eastern Europeans are just a bunch of lousy bigots- you’re wrong.  The lousy bigots would be the people who taught you this lie- and the idea that you can generalize about tens of millions of people.  Many decades of evolution after most of our persecution took place.  Things have undoubtedly changed here for the better.  I feel much safer in Cluj Napoca than in Tel Aviv or London.

And there are problems.  Today I was at some sort of folk festival and I met a guy who spoke Spanish.  I was ordering food and having trouble conveying how many grams of meat I wanted (that’s a thing here- everyone should pick up on this.  You don’t have to guess how big your food will be, or be disappointed!).  He, like many Romanians, has worked abroad.  In his case, Spain.  In many others’, Italy or elsewhere.  Part of the reason things are so cheap here for me is that their economy isn’t so great.  Sending thousands of young people abroad in search of work.  Sometimes, to return.  Sometimes, not.

He starts talking politics with me.  One of the things I *love* about Romania is how un-invasive people are.  When I say I’m American or Jewish or tall or short or religious or not religious- people don’t dig.  In Israel, you can say you dislike tomatoes and enter into a 15 minute argument about a fucking fruit. (or vegetable- again, keep arguing).  Israelis like to pretend that respecting people is such an American concept, that “politeness” is fake.  But actually, my experience is Eastern Europeans are way, way more polite than Israelis.  So their barbaric habits must have other roots, because it sure ain’t from here.  I tried to cross the road the other day at 10pm, with no cars coming, and my friend said we should wait.  I asked why and he said: “because we have to respect the rules.  And be fair.”  As he returned me the fifty cents I overpaid for our meal.  I actually laughed out loud because no one has treated me with such dignity in a long time.  Then he gave me hand-picked apples from his family’s farm.  You can be generous and polite- it’s not that hard.

Now to return to the first guy talking politics.  He starts telling me about Romania’s corrupt politics and economic woes.  And how things were *better* under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  While I can understand the former, the latter is a bit absurd.  While perhaps there was more economic stability under the communist dictatorship, this is a man who was executed by his own people for committing genocide and heinous war crimes.  Even Queen Elizabeth hid from him in bushes once.  A story so silly it has to be true.

What really irked me, besides the Middle East-style hijacking of the conversation to lecture me about politics, is that this dictator was a real ass to the Jewish people.  He confiscated over 1000 cemeteries and synagogues.  Jews had to *pay* to make aliyah, to leave the country.  While Jewish issues are hardly at the top of Romanians’ list of woes, to not even think about how this man made my people’s- any people’s- lives miserable is just abysmal.  And cruel.

I’m glad your pocketbook was better under your former dictator, but I’m not particularly happy he shat on my family’s heritage either.  Nor are the political prisoners he killed and tortured.

In the end, what I have to say is this: religion is a sham.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism- it’s all frankly an overcharged book club where everyone thinks their book is the best.  Nationalism, to me, is just another type of religion.  My flag, my country, my people are awesome, and everyone else comes next.  If at all.  Because all of these philosophies aren’t provable.  Like, frankly, the existence of God.  What evidence do you have for God existing?  If God was so self-evident, why do you have to teach children about it to believe in it?  And why do you need organized religion to enforce its tenants?

Religion, like all philosophies, can contain grains of truth.  It’s just that for me, they don’t come from an invisible deity who you’ve personally never met or seen.  But somehow miraculously spoke to a human being you don’t know thousands of years ago to tell you exactly how to live your life.  I presume among clergy there are some good people, but their profession lends itself to charlatans because they are selling something they cannot prove.  While not all things can be easily proven, I want the antibiotic I take to fix my stomach bug to have FDA approval.  And our societal ethics should be no different- based on facts or at least rational arguments.

When you’re convinced that your book is the best, you have to constantly beat people over the head with it.  Since, ironically, it is not self-evident that you are the best (which would go against the idea that you’re inherently awesome), you have to remind people over and over again.  Why would you need to evangelize something so blatantly obvious?

For example, did you know Unitarianism was born in Transylvania?  This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned in Romania.  I went one of their first churches.  Unitarianism, for those who don’t know, is today largely a peacenik left-wing church centered around social justice.  I even once went to a Ska concert at one in high school- pretty much anything goes.

Yet apparently, the first Unitarians were lunatics.  My tour guide told me they would go into churches and just start tearing down artwork and “idols” and burning shit.  Far from the birkenstock-wearing vegans that I know today.

So when I visited a Unitarian church here- one of the first- the pastor did exactly what every lunatic clergy in Israel did.  Tell me how they were the first, the best.

I had mentioned how I had Unitarian friends in America, that they would be thrilled to see I visited.  He smiled.  Genuinely.  And also proceeded to tell me how young the American church was and that the Hungarians were the first Unitarians.  Implication- the real Unitarians.  Unitarians!  Even the friggin Unitarians have to argue about who is the first in their book club.  And they are probably the most relaxed readers.

This kind of stupid narcissism is inherent to any ideology which believes it is perfect, the best, superior.  The 10 minute interaction with the Unitarian pastor was mostly harmful because it reminded me of much longer, more aggressive interactions with the brilliant Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith-peddlers of Israel.  Romanians, even at their worst, are still way less intense than the average Israeli.

I once posted an Arabic video in a Facebook group to have a guy from Yaffo randomly message me on Facebook voice notes of him saying “that’s great you want to learn Arabic.  Here’s the call to prayer.”  As he Allahu-Akbar’ed the hell out of my phone.  Many Muslims are shocked that I’ve read the Quran and not converted to Islam- because it’s such a perfect book I must have “seen the light”.  And claimed their religion has never persecuted Jews- despite centuries of evidence.  I had a Jewish guy ask me for money to buy food for Shabbat- and then tell me how awful the Sudanese “leeches” were in South Tel Aviv where I lived.  I even had a Jew tell me once that the worst Jew is better than the best goy.  And another Jew told me- knowing I was Reform- that Reform Jews are Christians (why is that an insult?).  Somehow Christians are stupid enough to get into this battle when they are 2% of the population.  I’ve met Orthodox Christians tell me they are the “original Christians”.  Not like those Catholics…  I’ve even had Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Christians say they are the real Arameans, not the Arameans in Northern Israel.  Christian priests literally get into fist-fights in Jerusalem every year over who gets to light some sort of flame in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Literally coming to blows over a fucking match.

In the end, I have religious friends and not religious friends.  I’m not religious- I used to identify as religious and am not anymore.  If this blog was hard for you to read as a religious person, I can understand.  I also feel it’s important to share my truth.  What I hope is that even if you read a different book from me (frankly, I’m a fan of reading everything), what I hope is you take from it kindness and generosity.  I personally have found it detrimental to limit myself to one book, one ideology in informing my world view.  And that the idea of a deity above me, rather than the human beings beside me, has led me to feel small and to make some poor choices.  And now, I feel more empowered and happy.

So in the end, when it comes to Romania, I’m not a Jew because I believe in God or because I think we are the best.  I’m not a nationalist.  I’m a Jew sometimes because people force me to be one.  When I see a desecrated cemetery, like I did in Cluj, my inner Jewish spirit arises.  My empathy for my people, for my ancestors, wells up.  My desire to protect.  Just like if I saw a Muslim cemetery being turned into an apartment building in Yaffo.  That is a true story.

What I believe in, then, is humanity.  Is treating each other with respect.  When someone yearns for an anti-Semitic dictator to my face, I am a Jew.  When someone bulldozes an Arab home, I’m an Arab.  When someone throws coffee in someone’s face for wearing a hijab, I’m a Muslim.  When ISIS butchers Christians in Iraq, I’m one of them too.

It’s not because of God or any book.  It’s because I’m against suffering.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I won’t be asking God for forgiveness or beating my chest or dressing in a suit to impress a congregation half-asleep as a rabbi preaches.  Sometimes a good message, sometimes not.  Always one which includes an appeal for donations.

What I will be doing this Rosh Hashanah is exactly what I try to do every day.  Be kind, give a smile to someone who needs it, explore, reflect, enjoy.

Because I’m not a religious leader, I won’t tell you how to spend your holiday- if you observe it at all.  Instead, I’ll hope that you follow the path that brings you joy and understanding.  Nuance and hope.  And the ability to feel sad and angry at hatred, compassion for those being hurt, and the realization that we make choices each day. Which can bring light into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

Instead of fighting over a flame, let’s grow its light.

p.s.- the cover photo is a synagogue in Targu Mures.  Because there are good people in Romania and around the world working to preserve Jewish heritage, even as others wish to destroy it.  I am grateful to them and honored to visit.

When life gives you lemons, find another fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some (last names redacted for privacy):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever I go, whatever I do.

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

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

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

What’s God got to do with it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribes gone wild

This blog might sound a bit strange after I just wrote one celebrating my first year in Israel.  The reality of being in Israel, though, is that I find my emotions yo-yo on a daily, often hourly basis.  Things go from very bad to very good to bad again- sometimes minute to minute.  The shifts in mood are palpable- and far more frequent than I experience in any other country I’ve visited.

In the past week, Israel has experienced multiple earthquakes, hundreds of Hamas rocket attacks, Syrian refugees crowding the northern border desperately trying to escape their own government, settlers attacking Israeli soldiers, Haredim attacking young women for being “immodest”, the increasingly psychotic government refusing to give gay men the right to surrogacy.  And trying to pass a law that would allow communities to bar members of the basis of religion, race, sexuality, or any of a number of identities.  It was subsequently watered down, but still pretty bigoted, and now is successfully winding its way through the Knesset.

Through all of this, I’ve tried to speak out, mostly in Hebrew.  One, because that’s what most people speak here- people who follow these events and can influence them.  Also, because there’s a problem.  The far-left in America and Europe has made it nearly impossible for left-wing and centrist Israelis to successfully rally support for their causes or criticism.

Why?  Because there are people who are committed to our destruction.  Who are unceasingly and at times irrationally critical of Israel.  In a way they aren’t of other countries- or sometimes even their own.  One can even view the recent shenanigans of IfNotNow in this light.  A far-left American Jewish group who, in the face of serious global challenges like the Syrian Civil War or Hamas rocket attacks, has instead decided to disrupt Birthright trips for not being left-wing enough.  Ruining the Israel experiences of other young people because the trips aren’t tailored exactly to their tastes like the SweetGreen salads they custom order at lunch for $15.  Excuse my cynicism- I just don’t think that just because someone has come to political conclusions about the situation here (which is their right), that means they get to force an entire organization to adopt their stance.  No one is forcing them to take a free trip to Israel.  If you want to see Palestinian and Arab perspectives, all you have to do is extend your ticket and hop on a bus to Bethlehem.  It’s not complicated and it’s way less confrontational than aggravating a bunch of young people on a trip with an explicit purpose that they simply don’t like.  Stop acting like entitled children.  If you’re really serious about your beliefs, you can buy your own plane tickets.

When people like IfNotNow or groups even more extremist dedicated to destroying Israel harm us, it makes it much harder for those of us on the inside to enact beneficial change.  Because when we speak out about discrimination against gays, Arabs, foreign workers, or refugees- some of these extremists use it as an opportunity to say everyone here is rotten.  Which then gives ammunition to the far right here to silence us- we must be traitors, just like those troublemakers abroad.  It’s not true- but it has resonance in a country under attack with little taste for nuance.

So I’m going to try to offer some criticism of Israel- but understand it’s with the purpose of actually making change.  To help steer this community in a stronger direction.  Not simply to make noise and masturbate my ideology.  I can’t control if you’ll take my words and use them to hurt me.  Just know that I will use every bit of my being to stomp you out and protect us- with the same level of passion that I use to fix what’s wrong here.

So what is wrong here?  A lot.  The earthquakes I can’t do much about- God, stop punishing us, we’ve had enough.  The Hamas rockets- I’m exhausted with our patience.  The world sits silently, mostly unaware as the media ignores our fate.  If Western Liberals showed one tenth of the passion for our lives as they do for immigrant children (which is justified), then the rocket fire would be condemned from wall to wall.  And maybe even pressure Hamas to stop.  Now would be the time to speak up.  For moral reasons.  For Israeli lives.  Frankly, also for Palestinian lives- they’re going to suffer increasing pain as they pay the price for Hamas’s games.  And if you want to get practical, 300,000 American citizens live in Israel.  And we vote.  So if you want our support, show that you give a shit.

Now on to our idiotic government.  I’m not a reactionary far-left voter.  At times in the past, I frequented this space.  I still find some of the ideas important.  And I’d say, while I don’t fit into a box, I’m somewhere left-of-center or centrist in Israeli politics.  And I appreciate some ideas that come from the right- I’m not orthodox in my politics.  Nor in my synagogue, though I have davvened in Bnei Brak.

But this government is leading Israel off a cliff.  The latest Nationality Law seeks to enshrine discrimination in Israel’s Basic Laws- laws that are not exactly a constitution, but are incredibly hard to repeal.  While the law did innocuous things like recognize national holidays, the controversial aspects surrounded a downgrading of the status of Arabic, restrictions on where people can live, and antagonistic attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Jews abroad and at home.  With strong implications for Arabs, LGBTs, and other minority communities.  Until the text was altered, I had to live with the idea that I could be denied residence in a community for being Reform or gay- an almost unthinkable legal reality.  If sadly, the unspoken truth in many places in the world, even democracies.  Enshrining it in law certainly would have given malignant social practice a dangerous boost.

The saddest thing about this law is not the text itself.  Nor is it the future it could portend.  It is that it describes an existing reality.  I’ve traveled extensively in Israel- over 100 different communities in one year.  From every single possible linguistic, ethnic, and religious background.  Places few Israelis visit- Israelis who’ve lived here all their lives in insidious narcissistic bubbles.  Bubbles sometimes created by fear- sometimes even understandable because of that fear.  Bubbles nonetheless.

This is the greatest problem with the law- it makes explicit existing social practice.  Israel is a tribalistic nightmare.  It is filled with rich ancient cultures.  Cultures preserved through insistence on maintaining community and tradition.  In ways unseen in the West, where cultures meld into creative fusions and, if we’re honest, mostly oblivion.  I’ve met rather few Irish-Americans who speak Irish, and not a small number of 3rd generation Latinos who can’t speak Spanish.  The gift of America is its vibrant churn.  Its curse is the evaporation of cultural heritage.

In Israel, that heritage is preserved.  To shocking degrees.  There are Christians in the north who pray in Aramaic- some actually speak it.  Just like the Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem.  And every day Hasidic Jews study 2,000 year old texts in the very same language.  That Jesus spoke.

The problem is that this preservation, this conservation comes at a price: social understanding.  Israel is divided into tribes: secular, traditional, Orthodox, Haredi, Druze, Christian Arab, Muslim Arab.  Left-wing, right-wing, center.  With lines that occasionally are breached, for example by my friends who grew up Orthodox and are now Reform.  But this is by far the exception.  When people plant themselves here, they leave themselves little room to wiggle.  And often little curiosity to explore other pastures.

This is the greatest problem with Israel.  One I recognized half a year ago.  And I have even more evidence for now.  This isn’t a society.  It is a collection of societies.  That mostly don’t talk to each other and are largely content to avoid each other.  From every possible direction, lest someone pretend their tribe doesn’t follow this pattern.  I’ve met Druze who say they keep their Muslim minorities “under control”.  I’ve met Christians who say they keep their Muslim neighbors “in line”- and if there are problems, they’ll “take care of them”.  Muslims have used religion as a wedge against Christians in Nazareth, of all places.  It’s safe to say almost no Muslim villages here would be thrilled to see Jews moving in.  With the exception of welcoming Abu Ghosh, where a woman wanted to know why I didn’t want an apartment there.  Unfortunately, a woman from there was beaten by Jewish girls in Jerusalem for being Arab this week.  When it rains, it pours.   You can extrapolate the same patterns of voluntary segregation among all types of Jews- among themselves and towards Arabs.  Lest you think it’s only right-wing Jews who feel this way, I’ve never ever met an Arab who was allowed to live on a Kibbutz.  And they largely understand they won’t be allowed on a moshav, or village.  I’ve yet to see my wealthy friends in North Tel Aviv show interest in setting up an African refugee community in their neighborhood.

People here are generous- about giving directions, about hosting strangers, about feeding you, about giving advice.  And they are utterly selfish when it comes to defending the interests of their community above the dignity of the individual or, for that matter, the well-being of the nation.

If America is far too individualistic, Israel is far too communal.  With pluses and minuses in both directions.  I’ve noticed that not all societies are so extreme- my travels in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have revealed places somewhere in the middle.

Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is what allows it to be a Jewish state.  The reckless, gung-ho attitude of its early pioneers, the native-born Sabras, is what allowed the state to get on its feet.

But those very pioneers contained a fatal contradiction.  Their disregard for rules, their utter contempt for the Diaspora and all things foreign- it has become limiting.  Because if you look at who can best contribute to the cultural dialogue here that could strengthen bonds and ease tensions- it’s people like me and thousands of olim who’ve chosen to make Israel our home.  People who, at our best, have the sensitivity of having been a minority, as well as the pride of choosing to make this our home.  People who know how to navigate various cultures and come with less preconceptions about different communities.  More often than not, understanding the value of pluralism, or at least the power of listening.  Something sabras struggle to do as they lecture us about how we’re wrong and they know better.  As the country they built rages with fire- fire from the outside, and fire kindled from within.

It’s high time the sabra realized he’s not the only fruit in the field.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a Druze village.  It says: “it’s my fault that I love my sect”.  A kind of Middle Eastern “sorry not sorry”.

The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

I come from a progressive background.  I grew up being taught to vote Democrat (and when I threatened not to do so as an 18 year old, got a series of heavy-handed lectures).  My DC suburban life was pretty liberal.  I knew Republicans- and they were a smaller minority than any ethnic or religious group I knew.  And decidedly quieter, for they knew the social consequences of being open about their identity.

I can imagine one could say the same thing in reverse about many other places in America.  I not know not a small number of liberal people who grew up in rural or conservative areas and faced bullying for their identity or beliefs.

When I worked for a variety of political and non-profit organizations, the rhetoric was quite clear: progressive=good, conservative=bad.  Even with regards to the moral standing of the person himself, not just the validity of her views.

One of the famous sayings of the labor movement, a movement that successfully improved living conditions for workers across America and the world, is: “which side are you on?”  There is even a catchy folk tune about it.  The idea was, politically speaking, to force people to choose between management (bad) and workers (good).  I can understand the need for rallying cries and I think the underlying ideology is problematic.

When you ask someone to choose between one human being and another, you set up a dynamic where someone will lose.  And while in some cases that might be necessary, it’s pretty black-and-white thinking that I think gets us into some trouble.  And perhaps gratifies our desire to feel right and just more than providing real solutions.  To the extent that solutions can be found- and they aren’t always so readily available.

Living in Israel and traveling the region has taught me some things.  For one, I’ve spent a lot more time with conservative people.  While I did go to college in the Midwest and summer camp in the South, I can’t really say I had deep relationships over many years with conservative Americans.  Here, my neighbors have pictures of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in their house.  As does almost every restaurant.  I do not live in the Tel Aviv of beach high rises.  I live in a place that loves Benjamin Netanyahu- it’s not on your Birthright itinerary.  Although it should be.

I have friends- not in the metaphorical sense- but actual friends, who have my phone number.  Who are Hasidic, who are Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who are Druze, who are Arab Christians, who are Arab Muslims, who are Modern Orthodox settlers.  The kind of people, in many cases, that I was taught to fear as an American Reform Jew.  Some of whom know I’m gay and/or Reform and are fine with it.  Some of whom don’t know- or don’t know yet- and it doesn’t particularly matter for me.

The point is I feel at home with these friends and I feel at home at queer parties in Tel Aviv.  Or leading Reform services.  Or going to pride parades.  Or vegan hippie Shabbats.  In fact, I sometimes feel more comfortable in my traditional Mizrachi neighborhood than I do at those vegan Shabbats.  But I try to find something to enjoy everywhere.  I also find it amusing to meet some vegans here who are just as “Orthodox” about their diet as any Haredi rabbi is about his Judaism.  Israel is an interesting place full of passion, contradictions, love, and curiosity.  I would never live anywhere else.

Which brings me back to my original point.  Living in Israel has opened my eyes- not only to insights about life here, but also about my former homeland.  America is increasingly polarized.  I see this also with regards to the absolute nonsense all too many progressives are spouting about Israel.  I met a young man the other day who goes to Williams College.  He told me, over some pasta in Tel Aviv, that activists on his campus put up an “Israeli apartheid wall” every year.  And then naively link the Israeli security fence to the American wall on the Mexican border.  Two rather different issues, but with one common thread: seeing the world through an American lens rather than understanding the nuances of other societies.  Like the fact that for all its complexities (including land disputes with Palestinian villages), the fence between Israel and the West Bank drastically reduced suicide bombings.  Saving who knows how many lives.

Israelis loved to tell me when I made aliyah that living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  Nothing could be more true.  The more you get to know this beautiful land, the more you see the struggle of the soldier, the identity see-saw of being Arab and Israeli, the hardship of checkpoints, the necessity of checkpoints, the suffering of refugees, the suffering of their neighbors who’ve been neglected for years.  The snobbery of wealthy “left-wing” white people, the identity void those people face because their own Yiddish-infused Ashkenazi identity was torn from them.  The anger of Mizrachim towards Arabs.  Because they are perceived as them by those same Ashkenazim who purport to advocate for them.  And because Arabs kicked them out of their countries.  And because the state suppressed their Arab-infused cultures when they arrived.  And because Palestinians mock them for being Arab- without understanding that Mizrachi Jews have lived in the Middle East long before Arabic was even spoken here.

In the end, if you really experience the full breadth of Israel, you understand there are no easy solutions.  Anyone who tells you there are is selling snake oil or perhaps listening to a little bit too much NPR.  Here’s the reality: if Israel simply “pulls out” of the entire West Bank, it will become militarized and extremists will use it as a launching point for terrorist attacks.  Just like what has happened in Gaza since Israel exited 13 years ago.  Many Palestinians simply want to make a living and too many Palestinians aren’t willing to let go of the past and move on.  And instead turn to violence, threatening Israeli lives and their own neighbors’ ability to provide for their families in peace.

There are groups out there that would like you to think there are simple solutions to the conflict here.  Or that there are simply “two sides” when there are as many opinions amongst both Israelis and Palestinians as there are stars in the sky.

IfNotNow is one of those groups.  I actually went to one of their events in the States because I was curious.  I’m open to hearing what pretty much anyone has to say and I think every government or ideology should be open to critique.

The problem with this organization is that its entire mission is framed in the negative.  Besides the fact that I have yet to hear a single positive thing about Israel from this group- which is both a moral and practical issue if you’d like us to hear your message- the message is simplistic.  In their own words, they want to “end American Jewish support for the occupation“.  Regardless of the merit of the argument, the framing is entirely negative.  Rather than advocating for peace or for anything- it’s about what they’re against.  Without defining what “occupation” even means.

This is more than a semantic point.  There are Israelis (and even some Arabs) who don’t see Israel as an occupier.  Or even see Arabs as occupying Jewish land.  Most Palestinians who would argue East Jerusalem is occupied- and many who live there want to hold on to their Israeli ID cards even if there’s a Palestinian state.  There are Arabs within Israel who don’t even identify as Palestinian, let alone want to live in a Palestinian state.  And others who do view their land as occupied- in pre-1967 Israel.  Who have citizenship.  There are Palestinians who similarly believe all of Israel is occupied territory.  Some Israeli Jews view the West Bank as occupied, Gaza as Palestinian-controlled, and want a Palestinian state in those two areas.  And other Jews who disagree to varying degrees.  Many Jews also support land swaps which would allow Jewish settlements to be fully integrated into Israel while giving equivalent land from within Israel to the Palestinians.  Largely Arab villages- many of whom despite their sympathies for Palestinians, don’t actually want to be swapped into a Palestinian state.  Who fear it will become an autocracy like all of its Arab neighbors.

So let’s take another look at the platform of this organization as an example of what’s going wrong with certain streams of progressivism.  On the webpage linked to above, they write: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood. We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

So in essence, the group is against the occupation- which they won’t define.  They won’t say if they support Israel’s existence, whether it can be a Jewish state, or even if people should boycott the country.  The only thing uniting this group is “ending the occupation”.  What that means- not only do I not know, they don’t know.  I can’t have a rational argument- or even find room for agreement- if I don’t know what somebody believes.  And it seems evident to me that these people are struggling with their Jewish identity, which I can empathize with.  I’m not sure they’re doing it in a way that’s advancing peace.

This past weekend, I spent a lovely Shabbaton with the Israeli Reform Movement’s biennial convention.  Young and old came together to celebrate the growth of, yes, progressive Judaism in Israel.  I enjoy both liberal Judaism and Hasidic Judaism and everything in-between.  They all have their ups and downsides.  Haredim need to work on their homophobia and judgmental attitudes.  And Reform Jews need work on, well, their Haredi-phobia and at times, anti-Mizrachi racism.  Which I did hear quite distinctly from several leaders at the conference.  One of whom decried the “Judaism of the ghettos of Poland and Casablanca.”  Haredim and Reform Jews both have beautiful passion for our religion and people.  And I get something out of all types of Judaism.  I had a great time and made good friends.

As we left the conference to take a shuttle to Tel Aviv, my friend Yarden checked her phone.  We had such a good time, she hadn’t looked for a while.  Turns out, Hamas was shelling her Kibbutz near Gaza- 3 rockets had fallen just that day.  I of course offered to let her crash at my place in Tel Aviv, but she said: “I appreciate it, but I have to get back for class.  I’m used to it at this point.  I was just hoping.  Hoping it had stopped.”  A week after 100 Palestinian Hamas rockets had landed in her area.

I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I’m praying for her and always here if she needs a place to stay.  And I plan on visiting her as well.  I sent her a cute message too after we left.

Do these words alone fix the Middle East crisis?  A crisis brewing in various forms for thousands of years?

No.  But nothing can.  Or at least I’m not sure what can.  Because I’m willing to admit, in a fashion I would’ve struggled to just a few years ago, that I don’t have easy solutions.  I’m not even sure what solutions there are.  And I hope things calm down.

What I did offer my friend- and I try to offer people around me- Arab, Jewish, Christian- whatever.  Is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is a joke.  Is a smile.  Is love.  Is a visit.  Is a cute emoji.

Some people, including my former self, might mock what I just said.  In the face of rockets and “occupation”, of suffering of so many varieties and cultures and religions.  What Matt, Matah, has to offer is kindness?  A joke?  Hah!  Why doesn’t he just go to a rally and stop the occupation!  What a blind superficial hypocrite who’s just trying to blind us to the reality of oppression.

Which side are you on?

To which I say: you’re asking an impossible question.  I’m a proud Israeli Jew.  That’s my side.  And I care what happens to my Arab neighbors.  And I care about refugees.  And I care about my neighbors even if they don’t like them.

In short, I care.  Not about “one side”.  About people.

In the end, there are some things I believe can help make our country greater.  I say greater because it’s already really awesome- in ways you’ll never see on the news.  The relaxing beaches, the Jews and Arabs who are friends, the gorgeous parks, the nightclubs, the life.  The vibrancy of this place and its people that makes New York look like a dull dirty boring rat-infested overpriced city with no beach.  That, OK, has better bagels than here.  But 10% of the soul.

I’d love to see more Jews learn Arabic.  I love to see more Arabs and Palestinians learn Jewish history and recognize our peoplehood.  I like to see more Ashkenazim learning about Mizrachi history- and learning Yiddish to understand their own.  And Mizrachim connecting to their Arabic-infused cultures and languages to realize they share a lot more in common with Arabs than some might like to admit.  Which I get.

Rather than offer easy solutions, I try to embrace that we can’t fix everything and there might not even be solutions to everything.  That can be scary to people who need certainty- I’ve been there before.  Now I’m proud that I am increasingly able to live with that discomfort and treat people with kindness whenever possible.

My wish is that progressives like IfNotNow, even if they continue to advocate in ways I disagree with, can understand where people like me are coming from.  Where my country is coming from.  And to advocate with a little more understanding and love.  And a little less yelling.

Because the one thing every visitor to Israel can agree on is we are already have enough of that.  Even if it’s just the guy selling tomatoes in the shuk.

My Haredi, Tibetan, Baptist, Sudanese, Israeli baseball kind of day

As a child of the Washington D.C. area, I grew up in a very “progressive” environment.  In some senses, it was great.  There’s an extraordinary diversity of food, languages, and cultures that I think helped me keep an open mind about the world.  On the flip side, I think a lot of black-and-white thinking predominated.  While progressives- and I’ve spent most of my life being quite an active one- love to rail against right-wing conservatives, they sometimes hold just as harsh judgments.  About Mormons, about evangelicals, about religious people in general.  About country music and rural people and southern accents.

And these days, Israel.  Lately my Facebook feed and the news have looked like some sort of horror movie.  People abroad who I thought actually liked my country have come out of the woodwork with all sorts of hatred and ignorance.  Often in the name of “progressive values”.  There’s the non-Jewish guy who used to come to a Hebrew group in D.C.  We loved him and he said he loved Israel.  And then I saw such hateful and gruesome content on his Facebook that I just had to end it.  I won’t for a second deny the challenges nor the pain of the situation in Gaza- nor will I put the blame exclusively on Israel’s doorstep.  Not when Egypt maintains its own blockade, not when the Palestinian Authority stops paying its people there due to a feud with Hamas, and certainly not when Hamas plants bombs on our border so they can massacre us.  Or in the words of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, they will “eat the livers” of those besieging the Strip.  I assume he means us, because I haven’t seen a single protest against Egypt.  Jews love chopped liver, just not the kind that comes from our bodies.  We’ll protect ourselves, thank you.

The point is I was often taught progressivism=good.  Conservativism=bad.  That you could judge someone’s moral character by these two words.  And it’s wrong.

Living in Israel has helped me realize how textured people are.  That I love certain progressive values like economic fairness, LGBTQ rights, women’s empowerment, and protecting the environment.  And that when taken to an extreme, some progressivism becomes just as hateful as the far-right rhetoric it purports to combat.

I live in a rather conservative neighborhood.  By far the most conservative part of Tel Aviv.  A place where Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is the left-wing, and Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party, is the right.  And guess what?  I like it.  I have friends here- from Sudanese, Darfuri, and Eritrean refugees to a smattering of progressive young people to Haredi and traditional Mizrachi families.  Who lovingly host me for Shabbat.

Few things in life are black and white.  Even the people who wear those colors 😉

I like some things about conservative thought.  I enjoy the innovation and creativity of Tel Aviv’s street art and gay scene.  And I love seeing people saying Kaddish in a Yemenite accent on my street as they dedicate a new Torah scroll.  Which I eagerly join in on.  Preserving tradition is something I love.  Not for a museum, although there are some great ones here, but for me.  It’s my tradition and I understand why people feel strongly about their- our- heritage.  A Jewish ethno-religious state with religious courts for Jews, Druze, Christians, and Muslims might not sit well with the American Civil Liberties Union.  And I get it.  And Israelis have all sorts of thoughts about how to change it- or keep it the same.  But we’re here, and we’re not particularly thrilled with your lack of support.  We’re going to do what we want.  And I suppose if you don’t like each and every thing we do, we don’t really care.  Which is the reaction you’re going to keep getting if you single us out with no particular compassion.  Where have you been to protect us from Iranian rockets and Hamas terrorists?  Where are your rallies for our lives?  Is liberalism only good to Jews when we’re mild-mannered doctors and lawyers with no claim to independence or a right to self-defense?  I know you like Seinfeld, but what should Jerry do if he’s walking through Brooklyn and is beaten to a pulp by anti-Semites, like some Hasidim the other day?  We’re sick of being your punchline and we’re sick of being punched.  And many more conservatives- conservative Americans- support us than progressives.

In short, I’ve decided to just be me.  I’m not locked into being progressive or conservative, I’m going to live my life ethically and kindly and inclusively.  With respect and faith and pride as a Jew and as a human being.  Willing and eager to find that gray space people often overlook.  And to bring it to light.  Those aren’t liberal or right-wing values- they’re mine.

Which brings me to today.  Today, I was feeling really stressed.  I’m feeling less and less American and I even struggle to speak English sometimes.  I spend almost all my time here in Hebrew and Arabic (or other languages) and English is directly tied to 30 years of trauma I experienced.  I think, I feel better in Hebrew and Arabic oftentimes.  It’s where I feel healed and strong.  And can express myself as who I am today.

Today I wandered Bnei Brak, a Haredi city outside Tel Aviv.  Neighborhoods I had never seen before where it was totally fine for me to be in shorts and a t-shirt.  I found some gorgeous palm trees and a neat sign for a women’s shiur, or religious class.  Which I took home 😉  I then wanted to go to Oranit, a settlement in Judea and Samaria, but the traffic was terrible.  So I popped over to Petach Tikva and Givat Shmuel, an area with a large Modern Orthodox community.

Tired of the tall buildings, I went in search of green.

I ended up in the most curious of places.  Kfar Habaptistim.  The Baptist village.  While in America, old me would have been horrified to go to a Baptist village.  As would many of my “progressive” friends.  New me thought it’d be kind of interesting.

So I walked the windy, beautiful, rural road.  With fields that reminded me of the Midwest.  And then, I saw the most curious thing: a baseball field.

I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.  Baseball isn’t the most Middle Eastern sport.  And I had a rough time playing it as a kid- as it was forced on me by my family and I never fully jibed with the intense masculinity and sometimes homophobia that went along with sports then.  And I was quite good at some.

I walked towards the field and watched as the largely American-Israeli guys and gals played.  With a Baptist female pitcher.

I felt this sense of redemption.  Like God was giving me a little glimpse of what things could’ve looked like if my childhood wasn’t so rough.  And a sense of satisfaction to be able to see it in action in my homeland, my new home.

Hearing the people chatter back and forth in Hebrew and English, seeing the scores posted in both languages.  Seeing the Baptist literature and knowing that it was kind of benign in a country where we’re 80% of the population and nobody can coerce me.  Like the anti-abortion activists with ketchup-covered beheaded baby dolls at my Missouri polling location.  Here, we run things.  So I actually thought seeing the New Testament in Hebrew was kind of cool.

I don’t think I’ll get into baseball now.  I think God was just trying to help me close a chapter.  And help me embrace the one I get to live now.

The one where I ate Nepalese momos with a Tibetan chef after the Baptist village.  Around the corner from my apartment.  Where I played with his three year old kid who speaks Tigre because he studies in school with Eritrean kids.

The one where I was walking home from the momos and stopped by the Darfuri fruit stand and chatted with the owner in Hebrew and Arabic.  He told me about his business ventures and life while I picked up cucumbers.  This is where I do my shopping.  He lives down the street from me.

This isn’t an exotic visit.  It’s not a diversity day.  It’s not a beautiful exhibit or a rally or a trip to Thailand.  It’s where I live.  It’s my home.  It’s my day-to-day beautiful life.

Once, I was American.  That’s where I was born, that’s where I lived for many years.  Some really tough and some moments of real gold slipped in between the familial abuse and the prejudice I faced in society for being both queer and a Jew.  I treasure the Amazigh New Year I went to.  The Asian art museums.  The queer Passover seders.  The vast array of cultures and the pure sense of quiet and calm you feel in a park.

And now, I’m Israeli.  Not a progressive Israeli, not a conservative Israeli, not an American-Israeli (maybe sometimes).  An Israeli.  The kind that hangs with Hasidim, the kind that wakes up to his neighbors’ Mizrachi music, the kind that sings Yemenite music in the shower, the kind that hangs with Druze, the kind that goes to queer Sarit Hadad parties, the kind that leads Reform services, the kind that eats gefilte fish in Bnei Brak on Thursdays.  The kind that helps Arab guys push a dead car, the kind that pushes onto a bus- but gets up and insists that an older person sit down.  The kind that that gestures and yells and talks with passion.  And who puts people up for a night he met on the bus.  That day.

The kind who does Shabbat with an Orthodox Ashkenazi and a secular Mizrachi Jew- a gay couple.  Several times a month.  And who dances dabke with Arab college students.

I don’t do these things to write a blog about it.  Nor do I do them to check off boxes and to feel I’ve fulfilled a diversity quota.

I do these things because they bring me joy.  And I like these people.  They are my friends.  My Hasidic, Druze, Muslim, Christian, Secular, Gay, Straight, blah blah blah friends.  Friends!  These are not people I simply say “please” and “thank you” to at a store.

So perhaps the lesson I’ve learned from Israel is I don’t really care what party you vote for nor how liberal or conservative you are.  I’m not really even convinced that elections are the biggest way we make change.  I care about my neighbor.  If your kindness is limited to only those who agree with you on everything, or those you feel are “in your camp”, you’ll soon find yourself sitting alone at home.  Chanting: “no tolerance for intolerance!”  Like I once did.  But now I see what life has to offer when your heart is ready to see the best in what’s around you.  Even in a Baptist baseball field.