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.

A Jew, 2 Druze, and a Christian walk onto a train…

nope, not a joke, just a regular afternoon 😉

Today was tiring, so I thought it’d be nice to remember a really hopeful story from my travels in Israel.

I had gone up to Haifa to explore and was taking the train back to Tel Aviv.  The train in Israel is not just a vehicle- it’s the town square.  People chat, gossip, exchange numbers- even make friends.  It’s a place that reflects the warmth of this country more than any other place on the planet I’ve visited.  You’re never really alone on the train.  Sometimes that means loud music and conversations, but it’s never boring and it just feels like home.

There was one seat left in a four seat area.  The three 20-something guys were talking in Arabic.

I sat down and after about a minute I chimed in in Arabic.  They were stunned.  I love sharing how I speak Arabic with Arabs here.  I recently made a video in Arabic about how and why I learned the language.  In short, I learned Syrian Arabic with a professor from Damascus in America and then with Syrian refugees on Skype.  Which you can do too.  For an Arab here to hear an American-Israeli Jew speaking Syrian Arabic is a bit like an American hearing a North Korean speaking like a native New Yorker.  People are often in amazement.  It’s great 🙂  I like melting hearts.

One guy was a Christian from Mi’ilya, one of my favorite villages in Israel.  It’s a Greek Catholic Arab village that I’ve visited twice.  They have a beautiful historic church and it’s near a Crusader castle I want to visit.  The people are so warm.  They even have a cool locally-made chocolate shop!  For the linguistically inclined among us, they also speak with a “qaf” or what we write in English as a “q”- usually a trait of Druze villages here.  It was really cool to find that out.

And to find out that one of the Druze guys comes from Yarka, a village that despite being Druze, actually doesn’t use the “qaf” but instead uses a hamza, or “hiccup” sound.  So for instance, the word “qalb” or “heart” in Arabic would be pronounced ‘alb.  In short, the Christian speaks like the Druze and the Druze like the Christian- at least on this train 😉

Except for the super hot Druze guy next to me.  See the Christian and the Druze guys across from me are in school together in the south of Israel.  It can be hard to tell with Arab men because they have very intimate male friendships, but I actually kind of wondered if they were a couple.  They’d make a cute one 😉  I noticed a lot of physical and emotional closeness.  It was sweet either way.

Back to the hot Druze guy.  He uses the “qaf” like most Druze 😉  He wasn’t in school, he was in the army.  He had a gorgeous, warm, inviting smile.  A beautiful laugh.  And a kind heart.  And an outside just as beautiful.

We talked a lot.  All of us.  Turns out each village even has its own kubbeh, a Middle Eastern food usually involving meat stuffed into a kind of fried covering.  What I didn’t know is that there are villages up north with RAW kubbeh.  Yes, the kubbeh meat isn’t cooked!  I joked with them that if they opened a restaurant in Tel Aviv and called it Arab Sushi, they’d make a million bucks.  We laughed 🙂

When they got off the train, I was sad to see them go.  I gave the Druze soldier my number and told him and his friends to be in touch when they come to Tel Aviv.

Then, the most curious and beautiful thing happened.

Two Sephardic Haredi men- also pretty young- moved over to my section.  They study in Yeshiva, seminary, in Ofakim.  They needed help figuring out possible routes home, so I opened my app.  They don’t have smartphones- a lot of ultra-Orthodox don’t.  In order to keep out unwanted internet content, etc.  They were really nice and I helped them find some ways home.

Both of them are of Moroccan origin.  We talked about their yeshiva- I was familiar with Shas yeshivas in that they tend to be modeled after Lithuanian ones.  The ones my ancestors prayed in 🙂  We talked about Sephardic culture- they didn’t know about Ladino!  Ladino was less of a Moroccan thing (although they had a dialect called Haketia which was similar), but they were astounded to learn about this Judeo-Spanish language!  And they’re going to search for Ladino music at home…because I think they have Youtube there.  I didn’t ask 😉

Then the best question came up: “so, what were you talking with those kids about in Arabic?”  I smiled.  But before I could answer, they said: “we think you were talking about food!”

And they were right!  I told them all about our conversation.  Their eyes lit up.  They were eager and willing to learn about all that we discussed.  And in a spirit of curiosity.  About their neighbors.

As I left the train, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied.  I was the bridge between 2 Druze, a Christian, and 2 ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.  When people ask me what I do with my eight languages (expecting that I work for the military or make loads of money)- this is what I do.  If people want to work in other fields, that’s great.  We need multilingual people in intelligence.  The intelligence I’m doing is on how to bring people together.  I use my Hebrew, my Arabic, and other languages to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.  That hopefully shares some of that joy with others.

I couldn’t have had this experience without speaking both Hebrew and Arabic.  One thing I’ve realized lately is that I can’t translate some of my feelings to English.  I’m thoroughly Israeli.  I think and feel in Hebrew- and in Arabic.  Often better than in English.  This is where my soul breathes and lives to the fullest.  America feels cold to me- distant, polite, dull, preoccupied with the self.

Israel is a place of great warmth.  Among every sector of society.  It’s astounding and a beautiful thing to be a part of.  I’m grateful for the dozens of people who host me for meals and to stay in their homes.  I pass that warmth on to the people around me.  Like when I met a lone soldier on the bus the other day from New Jersey, far from home on his birthday.  And took him out to baklava and Eritrean food and hosted him for the night.

Find me an American- in America- who does that.  It just doesn’t happen.  I’m sure there are sociological reasons, fear, crime, who knows.  There are reasons for everything, sometimes valid and sometimes that don’t match up with the facts.

All I know is that in Israel, we are direct, we are generous, we are honest.  I never have to guess what an Israeli is thinking.  Even if I don’t like what they say- I know they’ll speak their mind.  And I can say I don’t like it either.  We can be truthful.

And the honest truth is this: at a time when America is crumbling- when Republicans and Democrats struggle to even be friends.  When my liberal friends bash evangelicals.  And right-wingers pretend anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview is “fake news”.

In Israel, we have a glue that keeps us together.  Perhaps out of necessity, but also just because this is a special place with special people.  Who tend to have a real depth of kindness and a zest for life.

You might like to hate on us for what’s going on in Gaza or barely utter a peep when Iran launches missiles at the Golan.  But in the end, for all the conflict here, Israelis- we’re a hell of a lot better than Americans (or Europeans) at actually getting along.

That’s a sentence that might be hard to stomach- or maybe to believe.  If that’s the case, you’re probably not Israeli 😉  It’s true- there’s a lot of beef between all the sectors of society I spoke to on that train.  But you know what?  You’re never going to see my interaction on CNN.  Because they’ve decided that only dead bodies are sexy.

But guess what?  So are Druze soldiers talking, smiling at an American-Israeli whose life is now a whole lot more hummus than grilled cheese.

P.S.- that’s the Druze flag with a Magen David, the Star of David.  Because I love Druze 🙂

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

Last night, after a day of doctor’s appointments (including randomly cancelled ones), I didn’t want to eat dinner alone.  I felt immense gratitude for the Israeli healthcare system- I didn’t pay a dime for my visits.  And also running from doctor’s office to doctor’s office isn’t the most relaxing experience, though I did get a solid hour at the beach in Herzliya, which is stunning.  Can’t say I ever got to watch the sea while hustling between meetings in Washington, D.C.

beach

I have a favorite (well, two favorite) restaurants in Bnei Brak, a Haredi (ultra-Othodox) city outside Tel Aviv.  I knew I wanted to see my friend Yisrael who works at one.  He always warms my heart.  The thing about Yisrael is he’s kind of a mystical Hasid- I keep forgetting the name of his restaurant but every month or two I manage to find my way there.  In the past month, I so wanted to see him that I started calling restaurants in Bnei Brak asking for Yisrael (a futile task- there are a lot of Yisraels in Bnei Brak).  I couldn’t find him!  But I knew he was there.

So last night I wandered.  I went to a shtiebl, a small synagogue (with a whole bunch of rooms).  Outside, they always have ridiculously cheap Jewish books.  Nice Jewish books.  I got an old, beautiful one for 5 shekels that has the Torah in Hebrew with Yiddish commentary.  That’s $1.39.  There’s nothing better in the world.  And nowhere better to be a Jew.

As I perused Hasidic CD’s at the store next door, a young man in a black hat asked me where the shtiebl was.  And I pointed him to the building to my right and said: “you’re here”.  Bnei Brak is not a tourist destination for me, it’s a part of my life.

I was getting hungry so I headed to what I *thought* was Yisrael’s restaurant, only to find a grumpy man.  When I asked for Yisreal’s whereabouts, he asked me: “what do you want, Mashiach?”  The messiah?  Eventually after some prodding, he did know about the restaurant (competition?) and I headed up the street.  As soon as I saw the sign, I knew I had arrived.  Some things you feel your way towards.

Yisrael greeted me with the biggest hug ever.  He is so so warm!  He overloaded my plate with salmon and kugel and pasta and I grabbed a seat.  Yisrael periodically chimes in when I talk with other people.  The people I sat down with were a Yemenite Jew and a 16 year old Litvak, or Lithuanian Jew.  I’m part Lithuanian- we’re probably cousins.  Not a metaphor- we probably are related.

Here’s the shocking thing- the kid doesn’t speak Yiddish.  Well, he understands some but his parents mostly speak it (and English) so he can’t understand.  Interestingly, Eliezer (pseudonym) also knows how to count in Arabic.  Pretty damn well.  He says he learned from undocumented Palestinian workers who live in the city.

Meanwhile, the Yemenite guy- he speaks astoundingly good Yiddish!  As does his father.  From living with Ashkenazi Hasidic friends.  He even understands the nuances of Litvish and southern Yiddish dialects.  We had a lot to talk about.  Including my love for Yemenite language and culture.  I just recently bought Yemenite Judeo-Arabic books and music from a store in Bnei Brak.  So we sat there, me and the Yemenite guy, helping to teach the Lithuanian Jew some Yiddish.  Find me that in another country.

The Yemenite guy had to go back to Jerusalem, so I sat with Eliezer.  Eliezer is a precocious kid.  He goes to yeshiva all day.  He has 10, yes 10, siblings.  And, he says, he likes it.  It’s fun.  When I asked if it’s ever quiet, he laughed and said “maybe around 2am”.

Eliezer was enchanted by something you might not expect.  I needed to charge my phone so I pulled out my brand new portable charger.  He was enamored.  Not because he had never seen one.  Lehefech, to the contrary, he knew it inside and out.  And he doesn’t even have a phone.  He grabs it from me and starts teaching me how to use it.  Things I didn’t even know about it.  So once he had found a new way to charge my phone, he asked me how much it was.  150 shekels.  Oy, I don’t have that kind of money.  And I bet he doesn’t- while his dad is the head of two yeshivas, 11 kids is a lot of mouths to feed.

But Eliezer is not easily deterred.  He wanted to see my smartphone.  I got a bit nervous- not just because generally I don’t like children browsing my cell phone- but also because I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it.  I was wearing a small black yarmulke and they knew I was from Tel Aviv and not Hasidic.  But the last thing I wanted was for little Eliezer to stumble upon a racy WhatsApp chat (yes he opened my WhatsApp) or something he’d find not so “kosher” and it might ruin my vibe in the restaurant.

I showed him pictures of my hiking in Haifa, which he loved.  But what he really wanted was to go to eBay.  Yes, eBay.  The kid who doesn’t have a phone, let alone a smartphone, knew what eBay was and that that would be where he could find a portable charger.  He browsed through the list of chargers with ease.  He knew the megahertz or whatever.  I don’t even know what he was talking about.  He spent a good minute or two looking, but nothing suited him.  He knows he doesn’t have the money now, but he wanted to see what was out there.  A curious kid, like I was.

I told him he could work a little on the side to make some money.  He said he already owed some friends money, including this restaurant.  His dad won’t let him work because the dad wants them to be “super strong” Haredim.  I told him people worked in the Torah, that Haredim work in Bnei Brak, like Yisrael.  He knows- in fact, he said if his father permitted it, he’d consider working.  But as a 16 year old, he doesn’t have much say in the matter and it’s his family.  What’s he supposed to do?

We had a good laugh about many things- he has a great sense of humor.  I told him he’d make a great stand-up comedian, and he smiled.

As the evening drew to a close (11pm on a weeknight- Bnei Brak is not a sleepy suburb), another Hasid asked Yisrael why I made aliyah.  Yisrael, who I met not long after I arrived here almost a year ago, recounted in perfect detail all the reasons I had told him.  9 months ago.  With a depth of emotion and appreciation that warmed my heart.  I know Yisrael is happy I’m here and I’m grateful he’s in my life.  The other Hasid, seeing how I talked and hearing my story said: “atah yehudi cham”.  You’re a warm Jew, a Jew with heart.

Knowing Eliezer owed the restaurant money and grateful for his companionship and his humor, I bought him dinner.  Before I left, Yisrael asked me for my phone number.  He wants to call me from time to time, see how I’m doing.  From his Kosher phone.

Before I left, I told Yisrael I missed him and I’d be back.  He knew.  And he said: “there’ll be two here waiting for you,” as Eliezer winked at me.

I headed back to Tel Aviv with a warm tummy.  Not just because of the delicious kugel, but because the people I spent my night with filled me with warmth and love.

When I was a kid, I was curious about Orthodox Judaism.  I wanted to go to a service.  My family wouldn’t let me because they said Orthodox Jews aren’t feminist.  While my family members abused me– which I don’t find particularly feminist either.

The fact is coming to Israel has allowed me to build a relationship with Hasidic Judaism.  In fact, all kinds of Judaism- Mizrachi, traditional, Israeli Reform, secular, Litvish- everything.  It’s the one place on the planet where we all come together.  And you’ll find a Yemenite speaking Yiddish.

Some people tell me it’s ludicrous for me to spend time with Hasidim.  I’m gay, I’m Reform, I’m progressive- they’d hate me if they knew who I was.  But they’re wrong.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man in Hasidic communities.  And there are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man with secular people, and certainly times I feel uncomfortable as a religious person.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a Jew with Arabs.  Or as an Arabic-speaker with Jews.

Should I live my life in a ghetto where I only go where no prejudice exists?  Where there’s no conflict?  Where everyone agrees with me?

Guess what?  No such place exists.  Anywhere.  Not in Tel Aviv, not in Bnei Brak, not in Ramallah.  The fact is we’re people.  And some places are more comfortable than others, for certain aspects of what I believe and how I am.  And, I get something out of pretty much everywhere I go.

Do I wish the Hasidic community was more gay-friendly?  Yes.  I’d probably spend more time there.  Do I think things are changing and that the community is not monolithic?  Absolutely, as I found earlier this week when I met a gay-friendly Hasid.

And I also believe that the fact that I’m gay isn’t a reason for me not to embrace my Hasidism.  Yeah, I’m kind of Hasidic.  And Haredi.  And Modern Orthodox.  And Reform.  I connect to all sorts of things.  So why should I give up what I love about Hasidic Judaism to satisfy a secular militant in Tel Aviv who believes my identity should be held hostage to their “tolerance”?

The point is we’re all entitled to enjoy what we enjoy.  I like Haredi Bnei Brak.  I like Druze villages.  And Christian ones and Muslim ones and gay pride parades in Tel Aviv.  I like my neighbors with Shas rabbis posted all over their house, who set me up with guys.  Each one of these communities, some more than others, poses challenges for me.  And has something unique to offer.

Lately I’ve been questioning if I want to keep living in Tel Aviv.  Do I want to move North?  I love Haifa and the Galilee and the Golan.  So peaceful, green, co-existency, Arabic-speaking.  That part of me flourishes there.  But what about Tel Aviv?  The convenience, the energy, the international vibe, the interesting cities like Bnei Brak that surround it?  Not to mention its gay life.  And Jerusalem- probably not going to live there, but don’t want to be too far.  Its history and spiritual vibe pulls me in and fills me with wonder.

In the end, what I’ve decided is where you live is not where you pay rent.  That’s an aspect.  Where you live is where you step, where you spend time, where you laugh, where you hike, where you pray.  Where you live is where you bring joy into the world and where you feel filled with wonder.  Even where you cry.

I can’t live anywhere in Israel.  Because I live everywhere.

p.s.- that’s me sticking my tongue out in Kiryat Tivon, the most non-Haredi place in Israel, because I’m going to have a good time wherever I go!

Talking gay with a Breslover Hasid

Today, as you might have seen in the news, was a tense one for Israel.  Hamas organized 50,000 Palestinians in Gaza to charge the border fence with Israel, in some cases burning tires, hurling rocks, and even setting Israeli farmland on fire with kites laden with fuel.  The army even stopped men planting a bomb.  Peaceful protests these were not.  They were specifically timed to counter the American Embassy dedication in Jerusalem.  No doubt taking advantage of Gazans’ misery and poverty, Hamas chose to direct their attention towards Israel as the source of their problems.  While I couldn’t and wouldn’t argue that Israel bears no responsibility for the problems in Gaza, so does Hamas and so does the Palestinian Authority (which is in a feud with Hamas), and so does Egypt which also closes its border to Palestinians.  Yet not a single Gazan is charging the Egyptian border.  While Hamas feeds people fantastical notions that they will redeem and liberate Palestine (i.e. present-day Israel)- a Palestine that hasn’t existed for 70 years.  Its traces here and there but mostly gone.  Memory.  Sad and true.  And complex- because they might still be there if Arabs had agreed to a two-state solution in 1948.  And definite gray space because some Arabs were kicked out against their will, even after agreeing to live as Israelis.  My heart goes out to my friends living in the villages near Gaza, including my friend at Nahal Oz, just on the border, trying to study for exams with the stench of burning tires surrounding her.  I try to mourn the loss of all human life, even those humans who angered me and tried to harm me.  I empathize with the families of those Palestinians whose lives were lost today- and hope this sad moment inspires more to seek peace and not violence.  So we can all live in safety and tranquility.

In the face of this tense day, I wasn’t sure where to travel.  I kind of wanted to go to Jerusalem to see the opening of the new American embassy.  As an American-Israeli, it gave me great pride to see my other homeland offering such strength to my country.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and has been in the prayers of Jews for thousands of years.  It is also holy to Muslims and Christians.  The new embassy is in the western part of the city, Israeli territory since 1948 and not a part of the contested West Bank or East Jerusalem, site of a probably Palestinian capital in a future peace agreement.  I’m not a fan of Donald Trump on so, so many issues and I did not vote for him.  But I’m grateful to him for his courage on this issue because, whatever his motivations- he is right.  We can’t have honest peace negotiations until we recognize that Israel is here- and here to stay.  Hopefully alongside a brighter and freer future for Palestinians.

It was late in the afternoon so I couldn’t make it to Jerusalem.  Instead, I took the bus to possibly the least touristy place in Israel- Modiin Illit.  The city is almost entirely Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, and is located east of the Green Line that demarcates the boundary between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria.

Other than checking with a friend to see if it was safe to visit and reading the Wikipedia article, I had no idea what to expect.  Turns out, it’s really cool.  First off, the Haredim who live are almost entirely Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews- like me!  Religiously speaking, they are ultra-Orthodox but different from Hasidim in that they focus more on intellectual learning rather than feeling.  Part of my ancestry is Lithuanian so it was kind of like a belated coming home.  We both made our way to Israel to reunite 🙂

I’ve spent time in Haredi communities here before, including Bnei Brak (many times) and briefly in Mea Shearim and Tsfat.  What was so unique about this community was how green and calm and almost suburban it was.  The bus driver was Haredi.  The people driving cars were Haredi.  There were huge green parks, well-kept and clean.  The air was fresh.  While the housing was clearly dense due to the large families, there was never a sense of congestion or pressure.  It was quite tranquil on an otherwise tense day in my country.

I stopped into a bakery to get some food.  While the friendly young man made me a sandwich, a goofy (and really cute) guy was making silly noises.  “Artikim 10 shekel, leShabbaaaaAAAT!”  Making fun of some guy who sells 10 shekel popsicles on Fridays.  He had all these silly voices and everyone was just laughing.  I joked with the employees that he should do PR for the restaurant.  Incidentally, one of the employees told me he put their bakery on Google Maps- which, to his delight, is exactly how I found it.

When I told one of the guys I was American, to my great surprise he said: “what are you doing here?  Why wouldn’t you stay in America?”  This is a response I’ve gotten from many, many (mostly secular) Israelis.  A kind of envy of America’s wealth and opportunity.  At no point had I heard this from an Orthodox Jew here, who view this as the Promised Land.  An obvious choice for a Jew.

He was quite serious about it- he wanted me to find him a job as a mashgiach, or a Kosher certifier.  I told him I didn’t know of anything, but that I’d look into giving him my passport.  We laughed.

As I headed out, I noticed a sign: “Matityahu”.  This was really cool for me to see because my name in English- Matthew- that’s from Matityahu in Hebrew.  So all of a sudden I started seeing signs with my name everywhere- in Hebrew!  Turns out there is a village next to Modiin Illit by my very name.

I walked up the hill and found it to be stunning.  Apparently a lot of Americans live there, so if I can’t be in Jerusalem for the opening, at least I could be with my kin 😉

I noticed a very attractive 20-something Orthodox guy.  A woman was taking pictures of her daughters, he said he was jealous because nobody took pictures of him!  I laughed and said I’d take one.  And I did.  And it turned out really cute and he agreed.

Because this is Israel, we then talked for about two hours.  He grew up Orthodox and now identifies as a Breslover Hasid.  He went through periods of intense doubt approaching atheism and has many secular friends.  He says at this point, more than Orthodox.  He serves in the army.  And he’s trying to open his own business.

One of the things that alarmed me about Israelis at first, but now I love as one, is that we get down to the point.  No lame chit-chat- tell me who you are, what you’re about, what you believe, what you want.  You get to the meat of a person very quickly and can figure out how to relate to them and connect.

In this case, Shmuel (pseudonym) and I talked about everything.  I came out as a gay Reform Jew (not a trivial thing in the middle of an Orthodox settlement alone).  He said he had never met an openly gay person before, but didn’t show the slightest bit of phobia or aggression.  Mostly curiosity.  As a Haredi Jew, he had ideological issues with both Reform Judaism and homosexuality- but was utterly open to hearing what I had to say about them.  And I really felt listened to- and I listened to him.  There wasn’t the slightest bit of disrespect nor hatred.  We laughed, we debated, we walked- it was nice.  He looks good in a kippah, it’s a shame he’s not gay 😉

We talked about his shidduch dates (he’s too busy for them, plus he has the army, and he doesn’t want to feel pressured).  We talked marijuana (he smokes but says a lot of people don’t approve).  He reads a lot of modern literature about business and how to grow your intellect.  The most important thing for him in a partner is someone who wants to grow, something I found really admirable.

He gave me a ride to the gate so I could catch the bus.  I encouraged him to read Orthodox rabbis’ opinions on homosexuality because there are some that are increasingly accepting.  He said he didn’t know about it but he’d check it out.  Without any resistance to my suggestion.

Shmuel has had trouble praying.  He goes to synagogue but he just can’t read the words, it feels forced to him and he wants it to feel real again when he’s ready.  I offered him a suggestion: “praying isn’t just what you do in a synagogue.  Praying is what we’re doing now.  Two Jews, two people from very different backgrounds talking together, learning from each other, growing together.  Realizing we have a lot more in common than we thought.  And choosing to listen and debate rather than rip apart each other’s differences.”

He nodded and then he asked: “I forgot to ask, what’s your name?”

I said: “Matt in English, Matah in Hebrew”.

“Pleasure to meet you”

“You too man!”

On a day when the world sat fixated on CNN sated with blood and terror, a Hasidic Jewish settler and a gay Reform Tel Avivi had a really nice chat.

Now you know the news they don’t report.  Don’t give up hope 😉

p.s.- my cover photo is of Breslover graffiti I found in Bnei Brak.  The rainbow filter is my addition 😉

Gay-friendly Arab, homophobic secular Jew

Recently I was up in Haifa and I met Ahmed, a young Muslim man from Nazareth.  He’s open to marrying a Jew, a Christian, or a Muslim.  When I asked him to keep his eyes peeled for a partner for me, he laughed and said he didn’t know anyone.  And when I said: “that you know of.  Maybe they’re afraid to share it”- he said “maybe you’re right.”  Without hesitation, just an honest recognition that his preconceptions were faulty and he was willing to listen and learn from others’ experiences.  And in the end, he said he’d let me know if he met someone for me.

Sometimes here it can be excruciatingly hard to differentiate between group dynamics and individuals.  The fact remains, despite Ahmed’s kindness, that it is much more dangerous to be gay in a Muslim village here than in largely-Jewish Haifa or Tel Aviv.  Or even Jerusalem, whose Judaism trends more conservative, but only rarely violent against LGBTQ people.  And while these generalizations are important in protecting yourself or at least being aware before entering a place, generalizations they are.

Because individual psychology matters.  And bigotry exists in all quarters- so does hope.  I personally know straight Arabs from Kfar Qasem, the birthplace of the Israeli Islamist movement, who help gay Arabs in their community come out.  In my heavily conservative South Tel Aviv neighborhood, I’ve met neighbors with ultra-Orthodox Shas rabbis pictures all around their houses.  Who then set me up with guys on Shabbat.  On the other hand, in the middle of the day yesterday I walked by two men who laughed out loud at me as I walked by.  At my clothes, my sunglasses, my hair- my “purple shirt”- that’s what they said when I asked.  Was it at me being gay or my difference?  How easy it is to separate the two?  All I know is they couldn’t stop laughing and it hurt.  Just like the teenagers shouting homophobic things late at night while I walked home alone.  I didn’t feel so safe.

Last night, I went to a hippie Shabbat.  I love certain things about my neighborhood and how it can surprise you.  And I love traveling to Arab and Druze villages, where people also have surprised me- like the bi-curious Druze boy.  Sometimes, I just want to be in a place where I can be queer and gay and laugh out loud and not have to be worried about being judged, being exemplary, being offensive.  I can just be me, an individual who is queer and creative and funny and thoroughly myself.

When I say hippie Shabbat, I really mean it.  Dreadlocks, incense, candles, namastes- and Jewish prayers.  It’s really cool and I have never seen anything like this outside of Israel.  Everyone is young, aside from a few 40 or 50 year olds who totally blend in.  Nobody cares.  In America, Judaism often felt so formalized to me.  So ritualized and rigid.  Perhaps if trying to maintain a tradition in the face of a society gobbling it up, it’s necessary to maintain some things for the sake of continuity.  Or because Americans themselves are more formal, it’d seem out of place for a synagogue to sit in a circle and chant Jewish mantras.  There are a few places in American Judaism I’ve seen that are somewhat similar- and they trend older.  Mostly people in their 60s and beyond who still have that renewal, hippie vibe.  But what I saw last night- people meditating and chanting and dancing and veganing all while people’s kids were crying and screaming and cell phones were going off- that was thoroughly Israeli.  And somehow, rather Zen.

A friend of mine brought a guy she was starting to see to the event.  I met him- a secular, pretty vanilla guy from the center of the country.  He had a kind of gentleness to him, a soft speech, a very bland body frame.  His family was American and made aliyah when he was a child.  Young, educated, open enough to try a hippie Shabbat.  We chatted for a bit- he was excited to hear I was American too- he prefers American culture.  Apparently for the politeness which I now find somewhat superficial.

As we were talking, for some reason drag shows came up.  He said: “I don’t have a problem with it, but…” which is always a solid sign that someone does have a problem with it.  He didn’t like that men dressed as women because it’s not “manly”.  And he claimed that that’s because the Torah prohibits it.  While the Torah does indeed prohibit cross-dressing, I’ve never- never- heard a secular person use this argument.  He felt it was disingenuous for a man to dress as a woman on the street because it could deceive someone.  My friend and I patiently- perhaps too patiently- explained to him why this is bullshit- and he just repeated the same argument.  With an odd gentleness of speech for someone spewing hatred.

He then also said he was opposed to same-sex couples, also because that’s written in the Torah.  I explained it’s not- what’s written in the Torah is about same-sex sex, not marriage, and even that interpretation is challenged by Conservative and Reform Jews like me.  Many of whom believe the prohibition was in relation to pagan cults where there was same-sex rape.  And who also believe rules evolve with time.  We don’t stone people anymore either.  It’s also worth noting the Torah does not even mention lesbians, let alone prohibit their relations, sexual or matrimonial.

When presented with these facts- along with the idea that it’s perhaps a bit hypocritical for him to use the Torah to bash gays when he doesn’t even keep Shabbat.  A commandment mentioned repeatedly throughout our Bible.  His answer: “a prohibition is a prohibition.  Where does the same-sex prohibition come from?  Who said it?”

At this point, the conversation was futile.  He doesn’t like gay couples or cross-dressing yet can’t even point to the Bible verse that deals with it.  Nor does he observe anything else in Judaism other than fasting on Yom Kippur.  And yet this secular guy found it convenient to bash my identity based on something he doesn’t even know.  While I have Orthodox friends who study in yeshiva and accept me as I am.  I felt angry, deflated, and sad.  Perhaps proud at how calm I remained despite such provocation in a place I thought was safe.  And angry that I wasn’t showing more anger.

I don’t know if this guy realized I was gay from the outset.  And it doesn’t really matter.  Though by the end, I made it clear.  The point is anyone could be gay- why would you speak with such cruel audacity?  It shouldn’t matter who I am, just that I deserve to be talked to with respect.

I grew up in a deeply homophobic family.  And in many cases, society.  Which can make it hard to find that adequate middle ground where I’m standing up for myself and neither being overly accommodating nor aggressive.  I hope this man takes this experience and uses it to grow and treat others with more kindness than he treated me.  In the one place I thought I would be safe on Shabbat.

In addition to trying to find that healthy space where I’m proud and assertive, understanding and protective- I had another thought.  Nowhere is totally safe.  Even a normal-looking secular guy with a soft voice can use that voice to voice hatred.  And an Arab Muslim from Nazareth can show me great kindness and more willingness to learn than the Jew at hippie Shabbat.  I’ve met Hasidim who chewed me out for being Reform and others who simply accepted me.  I’ve met Arabs who were deeply homophobic and others who were gay themselves.  And afraid their families would kill them.  And others, who help Arabs come out.

Point is this- there is a reason why we Israelis have to generalize about people.  For all the pie in the sky rhetoric I hear from some Americans, the truth is some places- some groups of people- are less safe.  It’s a fact.  A pride flag in Hebron- either the Palestinian or the Jewish side- is not likely to be well-received.  A whopping 4% of Palestinians accept gay people.  And I’ve met some who do.  More Arabs in Israel are open-minded, but it’s still pretty taboo.  And while secular Jews can be ruthless homophobes, it’s usually easier to be gay in that segment of society.

At the same time, I think it’s important to remember we are individuals.  Generalizing serves a purpose- often to protect ourselves- and it doesn’t always match up with the facts.  As a gay Jew, I felt safer in a baklava shop with Ahmed than I did with a secular Jew at a hippie Shabbat.  A sentence I couldn’t have imagined myself saying a year ago.  And here I am.  Because having in-person experiences with different types of people- that’s what helps me stay rooted and realize that generalizing has its limits.  That when it comes to gays, for every society we expect to be safe, there are holes of darkness.  And for every community filled with fear, there are rays of hope.

My cover photo is a rainbow-colored mural in the Bedouin Muslim village of Jisr Al-Zarqa: “hope, culture, creativity”.  That’s what I believe in.

Here are some other photos that fill me with hope, I encourage you to read the captions:

May you go in peace, wherever you go 🙂

Bedouin Arabic…in Hasidic Bnei Brak

Yes, the title is exactly what you think.

As an appropriate sequel to my blog “Bedouin Yiddish“, in which I discovered a Bedouin man who speaks Yiddish in Rahat, I found Bedouin speaking Arabic in Bnei Brak!

Before we get to that, let’s start at the very beginning.

Today, I was planning on visiting the West Bank.  Area C, where Israelis can visit, is where I’ve made contact with a Palestinian practitioner of non-violence who partners with Israelis (including settlers).  However, feeling rattled after yesterday’s “preview of a terrorist attack“, I decided I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make the most out of the experience.

Instead, I made my way to Bnei Brak.  I’ve written a lot about this Haredi city of 200,000 people on the doorstep of Tel Aviv.  My first Haredi hug, my first time praying in a Hasidic shtiebl, Satmar Yiddish newspapers, the hot guys, and the time I got a blessing from a Vizhnitz Hasid.

Speaking of Vizhnitz, that’s exactly where I went today.  Kiryat Vizhnitz, named after the town in Europe where the Hasidic dynasty was founded, is a part of Bnei Brak I knew less about.

Knowing that there was a renowned Vizhnitz bakery AND a Yemenite Haredi bookstore, I knew this was my destination for the day.  Quench the thirst of my soul and my stomach!

I started at Nosach Teiman, a Yemenite Jewish bookstore and Judaica shop.  The riches of this small store are innumerable.  I bought loads of Yemenite music, a Judeo-Aramaic calendar (!!), prayers written in Judeo-Arabic, and a book of Judeo-Arabic expressions translated into Hebrew.  It does not get any better than this.  Here are some pics:

They even had Yemenite Jewish clothing, make-up, and perfume for sale.  For a community that had to escape by the skin of its teeth from fanatical neighbors who wanted to exterminate them, they’ve sure done an amazing job of preserving their culture upon arriving to Israel.  While unfortunately fewer and fewer Yemenites here speak their unique language, I did hear a few words in the store- which I could mostly understand with my Arabic!

Energized, I headed to the Vizhnitz bakery, sure that I’d also find new adventures on the way.  On my way there, I came across several yeshivas.  The first, a Sephardic one, where I got a free book called “Mishnah Brurah”.  It’s old and beautiful- and free.  Bnei Brak is one of the few places on the planet where you’ll find timeless beautiful books simply sitting outside waiting for you to grab them.  For free or minimal cost.  These are the Jews who truly continue to embody that we are the “People of the Book”.  Looking for Jewish knowledge?  Skip Amazon and head to shuls in Bnei Brak.

Down the street, I saw the Belz Yeshiva.  There’s a famous song about the shtetl, or Jewish village, of Belz that once existed in Eastern Europe.  So to see the town recreated in front of my eyes- its Jewish presence in Europe exterminated- was awe-inspiring.  As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches in Israel, I couldn’t help but let out a huge smile.  As the famous Yiddish resistance song says: Mir zaynen do.  We are here.  In the face of Nazi persecution, Christian annihilation, Islamic fundamentalism, ever-shifting anti-Semitism on both left and right- we exist.  We survived.  We. are. here.

To see my heritage continue in the face of 2,000 years of European brutality is a miracle.  It fills me with hope, wonder, amazement, and joy.  Our mere presence is a victory in and of itself.

I headed to the bakery with a fulfilled soul and a hungry stomach.

The bakery was delicious.  It was nothing but challahs left and right.  Some huge, some small and all a bit sweet.

While I noshed on my challah, I noticed something interesting- a sign with baking instructions in Arabic.  Bnei Brak is 1000% Jewish.  A mixed city this is not.  A secular person moving here would be considered a mixed population.

Then I noticed a tan-skinned man yelling in Hebrew at a Hasid.  Something about business.  Given how everyone yells in my neighborhood- even when not angry- I didn’t make much of it.  Must just be a Mizrachi guy who does business with Vizhnitz bakers.

Then I heard the most unexpected thing ever: Arabic.  And not Yemenite Judeo-Arabic.  Arabic from here.  I approached the tan men in Arabic.  Their eyes widened with excitement and surprise.  You have to remember I’m wearing a black yarmulke, a kippa, a head covering.  I look, for all intents and purposes, Modern Orthodox.

Turns out, they’re Bedouins.  I told them I had been to Rahat (where I discovered the Yiddish speaker).  They said they lived in a nearby town of Ad-Dhahiriya, whose name at first I confused with Nahariya, a city in the North of Israel.  Only once I google its name right now did I realize…it’s a Palestinian city.  In the West Bank.

We had a great talk about the Bedouin dahiyye music I like (they’re going to teach me the dance next time) and I was proud to hear, as I walked away, them say “wallahi bye7ki 3arabi mnee7”.  Wow he really speaks Arabic well.  My smile inside and out could not be bigger even as I write this now.

While Yemenite Arabic in Israel is struggling, I found Bedouin Palestinians who are keeping Arabic alive in Bnei Brak.  While my trip to the West Bank didn’t happen today, I did end up meeting Palestinians.  And having fun.  And hopefully warming a few hearts, like they did mine.

Still hungry, I grabbed a sweet for the road.  The man at the store turned out to be a fellow polyglot.  He spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and English.  And a straight-up Haredi Jew.  We shared a fantastic short conversation in all languages.  I bet you didn’t expect that in Bnei Brak.  Or the gluten-free falafel I found.  Or the multilingual dictionaries for learning Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Farsi, and Yiddish (the latter possibly for Mizrachi Jews).  All alongside a side for “kosher” phones that filter out “non-kosher” content.

What I hope you take from this adventure is the unexpected mystery and glory of finding new places and new people.  Bnei Brak is an awe-inspiring place.  With things that will surprise you if you open your mind and heart to the possibilities.

On my way back to Tel Aviv for a Eurovision concert headlined by Dana International, Israel’s first transgender superstar, I felt sad taking my yarmulke off.  I like my black yarmulke.  It suits me.  Not as a decoration and not just as a sign of respect for Bnei Brak.  But because I like that part of me.  That heimish, passionately Jewish, bookish, dancing-down-the-aisles Matt.  The Hasidic part of me.  The Haredi part of me.

And I don’t like feeling that I need to take it off when I come back to Tel Aviv, especially at an event with a lot of gay people.  Who- and I understand why- will be afraid to talk to me because of it.

This is what I hope we can one day overcome- on all sides.  I long for the day when I can be a gay Hasidic Jew- with the flexibility to still pray Reform and to go to gay parties.  And find a gay partner.  I long for the day when secular gay people will accept my passion for Judaism, including Orthodox Judaism, as a part of me.

I shouldn’t have to sacrifice bits of my soul to keep other people happy.  Nobody fits into a box- boxes are boring.  I’m glad I explore different things and my life is much, much richer for it, even with the challenges.

When I go to Bnei Brak now, I’m not just a visitor.  I know this place.  And I like some of it.  I hope it continues to passionately preserve its Judaism and I hope it can find ways to be more inclusive of people like me.  And I don’t know how possible it is to do both.  I would like to try- I suppose I already am.

So next gay party, don’t be surprised if I put on my yarmulke for a bit- just to see how it feels.  And to see how you react.

And next visit to Bnei Brak, don’t be surprised if I linger a bit under your city’s rainbow-colored flag to take a selfie.  Because inside it feels really queer.

Just like speaking Bedouin Arabic in the middle of a Hasidic bakery.

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