What do you know about refugees in Israel?

Sunday November 10th and Monday November 11th, I had the privilege to attend the American University Center for Israel Studies’s first ever Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel Conference.  For my long-time readers, you know this is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I’ve marched and organized and written about this topic over and over again.  You can read about some of my adventures with Burmese, Darfuris, Eritreans, Tibetans, West Africanspro-refugee activism, racism, more racism, politics, and the Palestinian refugee tie-in.  I was one of the lead organizers of Olim and Internationals for Refugees, including organizing a march we did through the streets of Tel Aviv and our participation in broader rallies.

All of which is to say I was thrilled to find out that the message activists had been fighting for in Israel had reached America.  This conference was academic in nature but including the voices of passionate activists such as Mutasim Ali, Dawit Demoz, and Julie Fisher.  Furthermore, this was the first conference of its kind.  While the issue is hotly debated in Israel, it is barely on the radar screen of American Jewry.  But that is changing, as this conference attests.  In addition, I recently attended the J Street conference which held a session on refugees in Israel as well.  I am happy to see American Jews standing up and taking notice as the Netanyahu government excludes, criminalizes, and represses African refugees who are seeking safety and freedom from persecution.

Here are a few basic takeaways from the conference and about the refugees and asylum seekers:

  1. There were over 60,000 refugees in Israel at their peak.  Today, the number is about half, at approximately 32,000.  This is due to the government pushing people to take the risky journey to repatriate to third party countries such as Rwanda and Uganda as well as building a border fence between Israel and Egypt.  There are no new arrivals due to this fence.
  2. Almost all refugees were forced into detention facilities upon their arrival to Israel.
  3. Israeli society was ambivalent or non-hostile towards refugees initially, but as the government ramped up incitement and refugees were put in already impoverished areas of South Tel Aviv, the conflict between existing residents and the new arrivals reached new heights.  Today, incitement is so grave that an African refugee childcare center had its playground defaced with feces and dead rodents and the Minister of Culture referred to Africans as a “cancer”.
  4. While perhaps a minority, thousands of Israelis are standing up for refugees and engaging in meaningful activism alongside them.  Numerous NGO’s have sprouted up over the past few decades and rallies in the tens of thousands have been held, including a massive one I attended in 2018 as the government tried to deport Sudanese and Eritreans.
  5. Israel’s draconian immigration and refugee policies are not unique.  Australia has offshore detention facilities.  The U.S. is separating children from their families.  Hungary built a fence around its border to stop Syrians from entering.  Even Denmark was mentioned as a country now taking a hardline.  The world as a whole is seeing an increase in nationalism and exclusionary policies towards refugees and Israel is one among many countries experiencing this trend.
  6. What is unique is that Israel brands itself as a country to which refugees (who are Jewish) can escape.  Like the U.S., when ruled by gentler politicians.  Yet despite the horrific history which plagued the families of Israeli Jews for centuries, many Israelis oppose non-Jewish refugees’ presence in their country.  Due to the fear of the “other” (both Arab and, in this case, largely African) and the “demographic threat”, many Israelis are reluctant to give non-Jewish refugees a home.  This was to many panelists a disappointment, as many of the original writers of U.N. refugee laws were Jews and Holocaust survivors.

There were many other topics discussed at the conference, including a fascinating art exhibit which you can still visit at the Katzen Center.  These items above are just a few I’m taking away with me.

Another thing I’m taking away with me is our capacity to make a difference.  In a world increasingly charred by cruelty and shaped by leaders who lack basic empathy, we can do something to counter this trend.  Write, read, listen, march, or attend a conference like this one.  Because if you don’t educate yourself, no one will do it for you.

 

An Israel contingent on justice

This week’s Torah portion is Shoftim, or “judges”.  The word, when used as a verb, also means “they judge”.  You can read the text here.

In this portion, the famous quote “justice, justice shall you pursue” makes an appearance.  What stands out to me, though, is the rest of the quote.  Few people disagree with the concept of justice, even if we might have radically different concepts of what it means.  It is the rest of the quote which particularly intrigues me.

In the Reform translation, it reads: “justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Eternal your God is giving you.”  The Jewish Publication Society’s version reads: “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

In today’s political climate, the difference between the word “inherit” and “occupy” is everything.  For now, I’ll leave it at that, but the verse clearly complicates your point of view no matter where you stand politically.  “Inherit” is a gentle word.  When someone passes away, you may find yourself with a “yerusha” or inheritance, the same root as the word used in this famous Torah quote.  It is something passive, something that comes to you- that you do not conquer.

Occupy, on the other hand, is a very different way to put things.  And without delving too deep in the morass that is Middle Eastern politics, if you’re on the progressive side of the spectrum, this biblical dictate certainly complicates our relationship with the Divine.  And our engagement with Torah itself.

And yet what intrigues me the most about this particular verse is the connection made between pursuing justice and receiving political autonomy.  In other words, the Land of Israel isn’t simply given to the Jewish people in the Bible.  This verse makes abundantly clear that it rests on the pursuit of justice for it to be fully realized.  After all, one could simply say “justice, justice shall you pursue” without any mention of the Land of Israel.  But this verse makes the connection explicit.  That our gift of self-determination is contingent, indeed dependent, on doing the right thing.

The implications are enormous.  The Bible, after all, is an incredibly political document.  To pretend otherwise is to ignore the text itself.  And the text has enormous implications for today’s world.  After all, the early Zionist movement explored other locations for a Jewish homeland, including in Africa.  But the heart pulled us in the direction of our ancestral land.  A land which did not lay empty- which is still precariously shared between two peoples.  If the text of the Torah did not include verse after verse promising the Jewish people this sliver of territory, today’s politics would be quite different.  And we might be eating yams instead of hummus.

The implications also extend to how we engage as a people in this Land.  It is, in my view, not enough that we are simply promised a piece of territory by an ancient document.  This ancient document, filled with wisdom (if sometimes in need of an update), makes clear that any society which is to flourish, to “thrive” in this Land must pursue justice.  It is far from a free pass to do as we will without regard to humanity- both our own and that of other peoples in the region.  The humanity of the poor, the humanity of refugees both Jewish and not, the humanity of Palestinians, the humanity of olim, the humanity of the stranger among us.  The humanity of every person in need.  That is the mandate we are given to pursue over and over again in the Torah.

So where does that leave us today?  It might be enough for me to suggest it as an interesting lesson for our personal lives.  To be good people, and to seek out justice however we can as individuals on a daily basis.  Something I absolutely believe in and strive to pursue.

Yet we can’t ignore the fact that Israeli elections are around the corner.  On September 17, the Israeli public will decide the next chapter of our history.  Far be it from me to endorse a particular political party, I will simply suggest that justice be a metric for our decision-making process.  Does this political party stand for the greater good of society?  Does this party seek peace and pursue it?  Does this party balance our need for security with our need to treat all humans with kindness and humaneness?

That is the barometer our Torah sets out.  There is no more repeated commandment than that which asks us to welcome the stranger.  So this election season, as frustrating as it can be, let us find an opportunity to search our hearts for compassion and wisdom.  So that Israel, the Jewish people, and all humankind can progress in a fashion worthy of the justice we must build.  And to use our self-determination responsibly, on foundations of truth and hope.

The cover photo is of me and an African refugee in Tel Aviv at a rally to support their human rights.

My best friend I’ve never met

I love to speak Arabic.  It’s a language I started learning in high school at the Jewish community center.  Then took in college.

One of the curious things about my Arabic is it’s very Syrian.  Of course, this naturally raises curiosity in Israel, a country Syria doesn’t even recognize.  As an Israeli, even if there was no war in Syria and I traveled on my American passport, I am not allowed into Syria.

So once I found myself in Haifa, northern Israel, talking to some Arab men on the street.  I asked where a restaurant was.  And the one man said to another: “fi hon 3arabi ajnabi”.

Translation: “there’s a foreign Arab here.”

Meaning I obviously speak fluent Arabic, therefore I am Arab, but my accent is such that I’m clearly not Palestinian or an Arab citizen of Israel.

First off, this is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given.  When I told the man I was Jewish the shock was audible- and delightful.

Secondly, the reason I have a different accent is because I speak Syrian.

How does an American Jew wandering northern Israel speak Syrian?  How does an Israeli citizen at all speak Syrian, especially one who is not a Syrian Jew?  After all, it’s a bit like a North Korean walking around New York City with a noticeable accent from Pyongyang.  How did you get here?

It’s a question that puzzled many of my Arab friends.  And my answer made them smile.

It’s because I learned Syrian Arabic from refugees.

As a college student, my senior year, after three years of Modern Standard Arabic, I had the opportunity to learn a dialect.  And I had a choice.  I could’ve learned Egyptian, the largest dialect of Arabic.  The most well-known, the dialect of a lot of popular media, of songs, a kind of spoken lingua franca of the Arab world.

Or I could learn Syrian.

Because part of my desire to learn Arabic was to get to know my neighbors (at the time, I didn’t realize how literal this would be), I chose Syrian.  Because Syrian, Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Arabic are all part of one family.  And mostly mutually intelligible.

After a semester of Syrian Arabic in college, my Arabic lay mostly dormant.  There aren’t a lot of opportunities to practice it in Washington, D.C., other than the occasional pleasantly-surprised taxi driver.  Who sometimes gave me a free ride 🙂

So a few years ago, when the Syrian Civil War erupted, I found my Arabic suddenly useful.  The story I’m about to tell is an important one if you want to understand how to learn a language.  Learning a language effectively is 90% about your passion.  If you’re motivated to use it- doesn’t matter when or where- then you find a way to learn it.

And motivated I was.

The Trump Administration had begun limiting Syrian refugee arrivals to the States.  And most of the world stood silent- including Syria’s allies Iran and Russia- as Syrians were massacred by their own government.

I participated in a lot of protests, but I decided there were other ways I wanted to help too.

I found a brilliant program online called “Natakallam“, run by American entrepreneurs.  Natakallam means “we speak” in Arabic.  And the premise is that because people can use Skype anywhere and refugees are on the move, there is a way to help them make a living.  And that way is by pairing refugee teachers with Syrian dialect learners, who then pay for lessons and conversations over Skype.  It’s a fantastic way to learn the spoken dialect, especially at a time when we can’t visit Syria.  And besides providing a much-needed income to the refugees, it builds emotional and social bonds between people around the world.

I’ve done the program for several years now.  I’ve met inspiring people.  Young people displaced from their homes.  Now living in Lebanon, in Germany.  Curious about Jews- and about Israel.  In fact, wanting to establish relations with Israel and one day visit.  It shattered all sorts of stereotypes I had been taught about Syrians- and I’m sure ones they had been taught about me.

Over the past two years, I’ve been speaking with Shadi.  Shadi is a refugee from Syria.  He is Kurdish, a minority ruthlessly repressed by the Syrian government.  Whose language was forbidden to be spoken in public.  Whose very people have been butchered by Turkey, by Iran, by Syria, and by Iraq.  The latter, with chemical weapons.  They are a stateless people in search of safety.  A minority whose culture and identity have been viciously silenced- a silence matched only by the indifference of most western liberals to their fate.

And yet Shadi, despite being displaced from his home in Syria.  Being separated from his parents.  Despite a wife who is suffering from cancer.  Manages to see the bright side of life too.

Talking to him, besides making my Arabic fucking fantastic, always reminds me of what I have.  I’ve faced- and face- very real problems.  I am an unemployed survivor of decades of abuse with PTSD, currently going through a lot of culture shock.  And talking to Shadi reminds me that alongside these problems, I have a lot to be thankful for too.  I have friends who host me, I have food, I have two passports, I am not from a country in the midst of a civil war.  It reminds me of very good things I have, and to remember the millions of people who don’t have them.  Including my dear friend.

I’ve been spending the past few weeks recovering from jet lag, looking for a job, looking for a home, running out of money, figuring out my identity, healing from abuse, and so much more.  And I felt, as I often do, that a call to Shadi might put things in perspective.

What’s so remarkable about Shadi is that he’s so empathetic.  That his woes don’t stop him from seeing other people’s challenges.  In fact, they illuminate his heart even more.  Which is why for about an hour he wanted to know how I was doing, to hear what it was like being back in America for now, how my job search was going.  He wanted to hear about the challenges of finding a job in Israel, he wanted to hear how I was doing.  And he genuinely cares.

It felt so good.  I miss Arabic, I miss Shadi, and I find that speaking in another language helps me access different feelings I have trouble expressing in English.  Every language contains unique knowledge and creative expressions, fun twists of phrase.  It’s fun, it opens the mind, it engages me and my deepest passions.  I sometimes prefer to speak in other languages.  I haven’t spent much of the past several years speaking in English.  And now that I’m surrounded by it, I occasionally have trouble finding the right words.  Life sometimes imitates reality- I originally wrote that sentence: “I occasionally having trouble finding the right words”.

English is also the language in which most of my abuse happened.  Words carry a certain weight, a certain connotation for me in English.  A weight I’ve managed to make progress lifting through hard work.  But still feels different.  In other languages, my thoughts feel a bit freer, a bit more creative, and sometimes lighter.  Even easier than my mother tongue.

So after giving him a thorough update on my life, he wanted to update me on his.

Boy was it an update.

Shadi has waited patiently for five years as UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has processed his application to move abroad.  And hopefully build a new life while the country he called home is torn to pieces.

During those five years, he has been teaching students like me with Natakallam.  He has also been volunteering at an NGO, trying to get a paid job.  He has been living in a refugee camp, subsisting on the little aid the U.N. and foundations give him.  Even as his wife works at another NGO, bringing in a little extra income to make ends meet.

I should add that calling me a student of his is a disservice to our relationship.  Shadi is someone who is my friend.  Someone who I share very deep feelings with.  He is even someone who convinced me to go to Israel when I wasn’t sure.  He is someone who is supporting me now that I find myself, for the time being, in the States.  I also know a lot about him- his family, his wife, his parents, his Kurdish identity.  And the challenges that come with living in a refugee camp in Iraq.  You know your lot is pretty rough when you’re escaping to Iraq.

Because of the inanity of Middle Eastern politics, I can’t see Shadi.  Entering Iraq on an Israeli passport is suicide.  While it is potentially feasible through the Kurdish airports in the North (Kurds have had excellent relations with Jews over the centuries), the Iraqi government periodically shuts down their airports.  Also, ISIS is around.  In short, now is not the ideal time to visit Shadi, even if I had the money to do so, which I don’t.

So for two years, we’ve been talking almost every week.  Every year for my birthday, the only gift I ask my friends is to buy conversations for me so I can keep talking to him and he can keep earning a living.  I can’t imagine my life without Shadi in it.  And I’ve never met him.

But I know him well and he knows me in ways some people I’ve met face-to-face never have- or will.  We have a special bond- as minorities, as empathetic people, as survivors.  As friends.  And I’m grateful to him, to Natakallam, and to my friends who make this connection possible.

So now for Shadi’s update.

In the past few weeks, Shadi was given notice by the United Nations that his refugee application was rejected.  Countries are cutting back their refugee intakes- Shadi wondered outloud if some people took a look at his wife’s cancer diagnosis and didn’t feel like footing the bill.  Even though he is one of the hardest working people I know, and has so much to contribute to any country he’d live in.  I suppose even the most “enlightened” countries make a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to human lives.

In addition, Shadi’s wife’s NGO lost its funding and shut down.  His own NGO where he volunteers, in a truly Orwellian story, is ending his volunteer position.  They are not going to continue his job- which they don’t even pay for.  It’s an absurd situation straight out of an Adel Imam film.  It’s like telling someone they have to stop cleaning your house for free.  I don’t even have words for how asinine this is.  If only I hadn’t seen some things just as stupid during my own time working in the non-profit sector.

On top of this, Shadi’s wife is about to have a baby.  Obviously something that started well before this woe befell him.  And, in a kicker, the various foundations working in his part of Iraq have cut back food supplies.

I was in shock.

It’s moments like these where I realize that even as I hop from couch to couch, apply to jobs, get faceless rejections from jobs, and harness every ounce of my being to move forward, I have a lot to be thankful for.  And I frankly stand in deep admiration of Shadi’s strength in the face of such chaos and uncertainty.

Meeting people like Shadi has made me much more thankful for the gifts I enjoy as an American.  For the freedom I experience on a daily basis that I almost don’t think about.  For the food I eat.  And to remember that with all the challenges we face, other people are struggling alongside us.  Don’t forget them.

So with that, I told Shadi I’d schedule more times to chat so he could make a bit more income in the coming weeks.  When I said this, he made very clear that he wasn’t asking for help.  He might even be annoyed that I wrote this post.  He simply wanted me to tell me what was going on in his life- we’re friends and I care about him.  But I’m going to risk his anger and put this out here anyways because he deserves better.  I wish I had the money and the political power to give him the decent opportunities he merits.  But the one thing I can do is keep talking to him- to keep us both moving forward and give us hope.  And to give him a chance to earn a living against unimaginable odds.

So I’d like to ask one basic thing.  I’m in the middle of a job hunt, I have none at the moment.  But I don’t want your money.  I want you to help Shadi.  I want you to go to Natakallam’s website and purchase one or more conversations- whatever you can afford- and make sure they’re put under my name.  So I can spend that money and time with Shadi.  And help him move forward in building a life during such a stressful and uncertain time.

Survivors have to stick together.  And to help each other survive.  Shadi does that for me, and I do that for him.  And you can help.  Away from the mind-numbing political debates and legislation and policies, this is one concrete thing you can do to make someone’s life better.  Put aside for a moment your feelings about the headlines and do something to help a human being in need– today.

There is nothing more beautiful than the gift of language.  Learning Arabic has opened me to new cultures, new music, new food, new history, new ways of seeing the world- and my self.  It has even enlightened my own view of Judaism- not a small number of our own works are written in this language.

Most of all, Arabic has helped me make friendships.  Friendships like mine with Shadi that shatter stereotypes, that build love, that move beyond the angry headlines.  And into our homes and our hearts.

Please, to whatever extent you can, purchase conversations for me and Shadi to keep talking.  To keep his hope- and his family- alive.  Go to Natakallam and direct anything you’re able to give in my name, “Matt Adler”.  And besides keeping my Arabic fresh for future videos and adventures, you’ll give one of the kindest people I know a bit more money to survive.  And the compassion he deserves to move forward.

My birthday is in two months.  Consider it an early birthday present.  For me, for Shadi, for the idea that two people who’ve never met should care about each other.

May this year be a happy new year for everyone.  Especially for my Syrian refugee friends like Shadi, who deserve every ounce of happiness they can find amidst the turmoil on God’s good earth.

One day I’m sure Shadi and I will be sharing a cup of tea, laughing after overcoming so many hardships.  Basking in the sunlight of the mountains of Kurdistan, or maybe even in Tel Aviv.

But that day isn’t here yet.  So I hope I can count on you to help the best friend I’ve never met.

My cover photo is of me at Rosh Hanikra, Israel’s northern border.  One day I hope it will be open so I can visit Lebanon, hop over to Syria, and meet my neighbors face-to-face.

Are Israelis Jewish?

Before we delve into one of the least discussed aspects of life here, I’d like to clarify a few things lest you misunderstand my intent.  Or go wandering off into anti-Israel or anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, pretending identity issues don’t complicate every culture.

I am not questioning whether there is a genetic connection between Jewish people.  Various studies have shown extensive shared DNA among Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and other Jewish populations.  Obviously conversions, conquest, and migrations have diversified our phenotype, but by and large, Jews today share a great deal of genetic heritage.  Anecdotally, I have moments here where I think I see a Jewish friend from home, until I come closer and hear them speaking Hebrew.  While Jews come in all shapes and sizes (and of course, this observation doesn’t extend to Jews by choice), there are clearly ancestral connections between us.  My ancestors migrated to the U.S. from Eastern Europe, but people in Cyprus speak to me in Greek.  My own genealogical research has shown my DNA most similar to Sicilians, Palestinians, Syrians, Greeks, and Lebanese.  No ethnic Pole would mistake me for one of them.

In addition, I am not suggesting there aren’t cultural links between Israelis and Jews around the world.  Shared holidays, cuisine, religious texts, history, and family ties bind us.  Nor am I raising this critique to carry the banner of Palestinian nationalism (or any nationalism).  Sometimes accepted truths need to be questioned.  Every people’s narrative, including theirs, is worthy of critique and reevaluation to help understand our modern world better.  I’m just better positioned to talk about my own.

There is nothing significantly more natural about one country’s existence versus another.  Whether it’s the French nation, the Moroccan nation, or the American nation- borders are fairly arbitrary and cultural boundaries are far more porous than you might expect.  Until World War II, most French citizens didn’t even speak French as their first language.  Until 1549, present-day Morocco was actually ruled by Berbers, not Arabs.  For the past 2800 years, the country has been ruled by Arabs for only about 350 years, half of which was under strong European influence.  Yet today, almost everyone would think of Morocco as an Arab country, despite its significant 30% Berber minority that has not yet assimilated into Arab culture.  When Ellen DeGeneres was born in 1958, Hawaii wasn’t even a state.  The American flag had 48 stars.  And over 1/3 of Louisiana spoke French, not English, as a native language.

So now, back to Israel.

Israel is defined as a Jewish state.  Its various symbols, including the Star of David, the menorahs you see dotting every street corner this winter, the Hebrew signage, are all readily recognizable to any Jew around the world.

Yet there exists a bit of an internal paradox.  You see Israel was founded to be unlike the Jews of the Diaspora.  The express purpose of Israel is to “ingather” the “exiles”- to bring Jews to the Land of Israel.  Ideologically, presented as the only true, authentic home of the Jewish people.

This nation-building project is largely a product of both frustration with 2,000 years of Christian and Muslim persecution and the nationalism that swept the 19th century world.  It doesn’t take a great deal of creativity to see deep desires in Jewish texts and prayers to return to Zion.  It’s not as if the effort came out of nowhere.  But it was a minority movement until the 20th century and there needed to be a narrative to build the nation.

Every nation has founding myths, often rooted in a bit of truth and a lot of imagination.  America is the land of promise and opportunity, a country of hard-working immigrants that gives refuge to those seeking persecution.  An imperfect, but consistently improving place, bringing the promise of ever-greater democracy.  Of upward mobility to those willing to put their heads down and work.  A lousy narrative that the past two years has shown to be fallible, at best.  Which is why so many American progressives are baffled by the Trump phenomenon.  Because having been taught that the arc of history bends towards justice, they now see that it’s more like a chaotic pendulum that swings from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Voting Rights Act to the Muslim travel ban.  That while gay marriage is now legal, real wages haven’t changed in 40 years, income inequality has consistently increased since 1980.  Including under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  Anti-gay and anti-Semitic hate crimes are increasing at an alarming rate.  But in good news, the number of bilingual immersion schools has increased fourfold in a decade.  Reminiscent of the plethora of German-language schools that dotted America until World War I paranoia led to their persecution and eventual demise.

In short, the American mythos, like all national mythos, is based on a little bit of fact and a lot of ideology.  And the more unquestioningly you buy into it, the more you’ll be disappointed when you realize that rather than America constantly progressing towards a better future, it’s complicated.  And that it’s OK- it might actually help us find better solutions to our problems if we accept the non-linear and unpredictable nature of history.

So what’s Israel’s founding mythos?  The Jewish people are from here.  OK, that much I agree with.  We have had a continuous presence here since biblical times.  Again, true- as a visit to Peki’in showed me.  After 2,000 years in which most Jews suffered in “exile” (a charged word, but let’s say “outside of Israel”), we returned, struggled, made the desert bloom, revived the Hebrew language, and re-established the Jewish state.  Bidding adieu to the insufferable and contorted Jewish cultures of the Diaspora and starting a strong, independent Israeli future.

This part presents a conundrum.  First off, while Jewish tradition does speak extensively of exile and the Land of Israel, most Jews didn’t see living here as a practical step.  While rabbis over the centuries have been buried here, and there has always been a Jewish community here, the vast majority of Jews have lived elsewhere for two millennia.  While small populations of Jews moved here over the centuries, 99% of world Jewry did not.  Even during intense persecutions.  And not simply because they couldn’t make it here.  Sephardic Jews in the 1500s made their way to Tsfat– it was possible.  But most Jews fled Inquisition Spain to Turkey, Greece, the Netherlands, and other far-flung destinations.

Jews have indeed experienced intense, mindbogglingly irrational persecution for centuries.  At the mercy of the latest ruler’s whims, our mixed languages are testament to how many times we’ve been ruthlessly expelled.  Which is why Yiddish contains ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, medieval French, medieval German, Polish, Russian- and today new English and Modern Hebrew loanwords.  And why Judeo-Spanish (popularly known as “Ladino”) contains medieval Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese influence supplemented by Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.  Our linguistic heritage, one of our greatest accomplishments, shows both our resilience and our willingness to incorporate the best of surrounding cultures while building our own.  It is an archaeology of our past.

The question is whether the past 2,000 years have been nothing but suffering.  And the answer, as even a cursory trip to Europe or the Middle East would show, is no.  Grand synagogues, survivors of genocide and annihilation, dot the European and Middle Eastern landscape.  For centuries, Jews have served as royal advisors, as traders, as doctors, as Prime Minsters, as Senators, as Congresspeople, as Supreme Court Justices.  While most Israelis know Poland only from their high school trip to learn about the truly horrific experiences of the Holocaust, they probably don’t know that for about 500 years, Poland was known as “paradisus iudaeorum“.  The Paradise of the Jews thanks to the welcoming and tolerant Polish leaders who invited them to their kingdom.  Which until the Holocaust was the single largest Jewish community on earth.  Home to beautiful hand-crafted wooden synagogues, economically vibrant shtetls, and a multicultural society.  With religious freedom far more advanced than many Western European countries.

None of this whitewashes anti-Semitism.  Both Christian (and to a slightly lesser but still potent degree) Muslim leaders found ample opportunities to scapegoat Jews.  While Jews often enjoyed prosperity during times of hope and progress, when things went awry, they were (and are) often first in line to receive the unwarranted blame.  Besides discrimination in occupations, inferior legal status, and frequent violence, Jews have been routinely kicked out of their homes for eons.  Take a look at this map (sourced from here):

1920px-Expulsion_judios-en.svg.png

And this map *only* covers 500 years of Jewish history.  It doesn’t include the Babylonian Exile, the Roman Exile, and certainly not the modern expulsions of Jews from Arab states.  Here’s a more extensive list for when you need a depressing read.

So it’s not surprising that Jews would at some point want the safety and stability of a homeland.  The problem is that when you base the premise of that claim on the idea that everyone hates us and the only thing we experienced for two millennia was persecution, you miss out on a huge part of the story.  It’s a lie.  It erases amazing Jewish resilience and creativity, our sometimes productive relations with our non-Jewish neighbors, and it distorts the way modern Israelis see themselves and the rest of the world.

Recently, I watched a couple of Corey Gil-Shuster’s YouTube videos.  Corey had the creative idea of letting Israelis and Palestinians speak for themselves, so he solicits questions from his fans and interviews people on the street.  The ones I saw this week were about Israelis of Polish and Romanian descent.  By and large, the respondents emphasized they have no connection to these countries or cultures.  While a few displayed some curiosity about visiting, most detested the cuisine, the languages, and the heritage.  It’s sad- while our history in these countries is certainly bittersweet, you can’t really understand yourself without knowing your history.  It’s worth showing empathy for Israelis struggling with this conundrum- the vast majority of Ashkenazim here are descendants of Holocaust survivors whose families were obliterated.

One respondent caught my eye in particular.  He had no interest in Eastern Europe because “all of our history is here”.  In Israel.

This is an extraordinary and deeply ignorant thing to say, with huge political ramifications.  Jews have lived outside Israel longer than we have lived inside.  His own family didn’t return here until two generations ago.  Every aspect of modern Israeli culture is fused from another source.  From our shnitzel to our jachnoon, from the Yiddish word “balagan” to the Arabic “yalla”.

To the Hebrew language itself.  While Israel’s founding myth suggests the ancient Hebrew language was “revived”, many scholars see this phenomenon in a different light.  In the late 1800s, Zionists began writing newspapers and books in Hebrew throughout Europe.  Occasionally salons took shape where people tried to converse in the language, a language they had often learned in yeshiva and which had, at various times, served as a kind of basic trading tongue between Jewish communities.  In other words, spoken Hebrew had ceased to be the mother tongue of Jews since ancient times.  It did, however, continue as a written religious language, a source of vocabulary for Jewish languages, and a kind of very basic spoken language when Jews met from different cultures.

Therefore, when Zionists proposed a Jewish national project, they turned to Hebrew as a unifying language that had continued in one form or another to be present in communities around the world.  The problem was nobody spoke it as a mother tongue.  So when sitting in salons (or eventually classrooms in what is today Israel), Jews had to formulate this ancient tongue in terms of the ones they already spoke.  For the vast majority of early Zionists, this foundational native tongue was Yiddish.  The beautiful, underappreciated, nuanced language of Ashkenazi Jewry for over 1000 years.

In fact, with the exception of some Yemenites, almost all early Zionist pioneers were native Yiddish speakers.  I recently visited Zichron Yaakov again.  This beautiful city was one of the first Jewish town re-established in the ancient land of Israel in the late 1800s.  And as makes logical sense, much of its early documentation was written in the language of its residents- Yiddish.  Here’s a 1902 city archives document…in the mamaloshn.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Zionist icon, raised his son as the first monolingual native Modern Hebrew speaker.  But he, like the many teachers spreading the language, had to rely on his native language both consciously and subconsciously to build a vocabulary.  To build sentences.  There’s not nearly enough content in the bible and medieval rabbinic writings to cover modern topics like electricity, trains, and even gossip at the market.  You don’t hear Moses asking God “hey, how’s it going?” in the Bible.  Which is why the modern Hebrew phrase “ma nishma?” is actually a direct translation of the Yiddish “vos hert zakh?”  What is heard…or, as we might say more colloquially, “how are you?”

The influence of Yiddish (and to a smaller degree Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, Palestinian Arabic, Russian, and other languages) on Hebrew is substantial.  Far beyond what the average Israeli knows.  Mah pitom, mah atah omer, tachles, kitzer, nu- these words and so many others are either direct loanwords from Yiddish or translations of Yiddish phrases not found in old Hebrew texts.  While it’s far beyond my expertise, the influence extends to rather fundamental things like syntax as well.

In other words, Modern Hebrew is a kind of fusion language.  Some claim Hebrew revivalists murdered Yiddish, simply relexifying the language with Semitic words.  Even as its speakers were in fact persecuted by fanatics like the Battalion for the Defense of the Language.  On the other hand, the average Israeli accepts the national mythos that he or she speaks the revived Semitic language of their ancestors.

But the truth perhaps lies somewhere in-between.  Israeli linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann claims that Modern Hebrew is not Hebrew at all.  Nor is it Yiddish.  It’s actually “Israeli”.  That’s right, just like the French speak French, he claims Israelis speak Israeli.  And that rather than being simply Yiddish overlaid with Semitic vocabulary or a “miraculously” revived dead language, it is quite simply another language.  With elements of both our Semitic and Diaspora past- Hebrew and Yiddish.  A very Jewish approach to building a language- it’s how all of our tongues have been formed.  One built on another.

It’s a fascinating thesis and I encourage you to visit his website to get a better understanding of his perspective.

To me, it makes a lot of sense.  When I hear Israelis speaking Hebrew, I hear the intonations of Yiddish and the Yiddish-infused English I grew up with.  But the words are largely Semitic, indicative of a major linguistic and cultural shift.

So why does all of this matter?

Because if Israelis in fact speak Israeli, and not a revived exotic language nor simply a dialect of Yiddish, then that has big implications.  It means that the despised Diaspora Jew lives in every sentence we speak here, unwittingly.  It means that Jewish history took a rather drastic turn here- that indeed our Semitic vocabulary has overwhelmed all our other languages.  So that even if much of the language is influenced by Yiddish, the words themselves are largely constructed from the Bible, from medieval rabbis, from new innovations using ancient texts.

The implications are enormous.

Visiting the Zichron Yaakov “First Aliyah Musem”, I learned about the discourse surrounding the first wave of pioneers to resettle the Land of Israel in the 1880s.  More than anything else, it was an interesting opportunity to see the Israeli mythos at work- and to understand its fault lines.

Here are some pictures from a video telling the tale of a prototypical family as they’re leaving Eastern Europe.  Read the captions:

The accompanying audio basically said: oy, the persecution!  We’re leaving to escape it because the Diaspora is miserable, but our real reason for leaving is our desire to build a homeland.  Beware- the angry natives.  Don’t worry, we’ll befriend them.  We’ll be manly, not like those effeminate Diaspora Jews.  We’ll work the empty land and make the empty desert bloom.  But don’t push the mother too much- she’s bearing a future Israeli baby in her tummy.  We’re fiercely independent but still rely on donations from Jews abroad to survive.  We could go join the Jews living comfortably in America, but instead we bravely suffer for the good of the nation here.

The over-the-top rhetoric is not much different than the romanticized stories I learned in grade school about American pioneers.

And its just as problematic if it’s not analyzed.  It contains numerous contradictions.  If the main reason for olim arriving was to build a homeland, why didn’t they come earlier?  If the main reason was to escape persecution, why wouldn’t they go somewhere more economically promising?  Early Zionists here struggled.  Which is why of the 2.5 million Jews who escaped 1880s pogroms, only 35,000 came here.  Of whom indeed 40-90% did leave.  If the land was empty and in need of restoration, how was it that there were Arabs here?  How were they making a living?  And in fact, how were they making a living if the conditions were so rough that most Jews left?  Why were the Arabs to be both feared and befriended- without even having met them?  How was mother going to give birth to an Israeli when the State of Israel didn’t exist yet?  How are the pioneers so independent and strong if their livelihood is dependent on donations from Jews abroad?  Why did they think life was so easy for Jews in America, where most toiled in sweatshops?  And why did some choose to stay in the Holy Land despite the hardships?

You’ll probably have to re-read that paragraph a few times, it’s enough to make your head spin.

These are difficult questions.  The kind of questions few Israelis think to ask.  The kind of questions most people fail to raise about their own national identities which are just as fraught.

As I see it, there’s some truth to all of these questions.  Clearly, some pioneers were so ideologically motivated that even disease and poverty didn’t stop them from staying.  It’s also clear that some people came primarily to escape pogroms, and then hopped on the next boat to more prosperous countries.  That they weren’t really as motivated by Zionism.  That while it took guts and courage to come here, you’re not really strong and self-sufficient if your enterprise is being funded by charitable donations from Jews abroad.  That those Jews abroad are maybe not all suffering as much as you suggest if some have money to give you.  The land was clearly underdeveloped and impoverished, explaining why so many Jews left.  But it was also not simply empty and in need of Jews to make it “bloom”.  As evidenced by the newcomers’ concurrent fear of and desire to befriend the local Arabs, of whose presence they were aware.

Or so suggests the video.  It’s just a video, but one whose contradictions haunt this land to this day.  It explains why Israeli governments both rely on and dismiss Diaspora Jews.  We deserve their charity but really they should be living here like us.  We ran away from their identity, but we want their money.  The Bank of Diaspora.  But boy, things must be terrible for them.  And somehow, worse for us, but our country is better.  A series of spiraling thoughts that manifests itself in today’s Diaspora-Israel relations crisis.

It explains the common Israeli stereotype of Arabs as backwards, but also as worthy of admiration.  A source of fear, but also a source of slang, of Israeli cuisine, and in earlier times, even a new style of clothing.  The land was empty, fallow, deserted, in need of our industrious might to improve it.  But the people here, in the supposedly empty land, will both not like us and become our friends.  Representing both an intense realism and a far-fetched optimism, perhaps delusion.  An acknowledgement that even the most justified or necessary national project will entail changes or displacement that the existing population may not like.  But that we will find a way to live with them as brothers.  A hope not yet realized.  And a complicated, contradictory view of history not yet reckoned with.  A pain largely unacknowledged and festering.  As conflict and misunderstanding here mars the future of both peoples.

And lastly, the identity question.  One that holds particular resonance for me.  The ideology suggests that Diaspora Jews are weak and suffering.  But the very Jews who came here, to become Israeli, were from there.  The video itself portrays the pioneers speaking Modern Hebrew, a language that was not spoken in Poland.  The mother is meant to give birth to an Israeli child, who she conceived in Europe.  In Israel, a state that in 1880, did not yet exist.  So how is this baby Israeli?  And why are these people speaking what is the 1880s was a non-existent language where they lived?  As children in this museum look on trying to learn about their history?

It’s the central identity question for Zionism and for Jews like me who come to live here.  We are seen as a source of weakness, but of potential hope.  Rather than acknowledging that early Jewish communities here spoke Yiddish, that they came from a real place that had culture.  That it contained suffering but also life.  This video, much like the Zionist imagination that surrounds it, misleads.  It erases Judaism itself.  Because the miraculous thing about Israel is that people brought their cultures here and managed to build on top of them.  To fuse them.  To find creative ways of building a new future, with all the complexity that came with it.  But by erasing these people’s Judaism, the video demonstrates the central problem of Zionism.  You can’t mold a people that isn’t there.  Most discourse about Israel focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  What is being missed is how the country’s development necessitated an internal paradox that has yet to be solved.  How do you turn a Jew into an Israeli, while needing the Jewishness to justify the Israeliness?  How do you leave behind his Jewishness in order to create a new identity that is founded on it?  In other words, Zionism posits that we are entitled to live in this land due to our connection to it.  But for 2,000 years, most of us have lived outside it, and we’re the population being encouraged to return to it.  In order to make the “New Jew” to populate this country, you have to both take the Jew out of his old land and pretend that he was something different all along.  Because somebody had to start this process.  And that somebody was living in Eastern Europe, not Israel.  Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzchak Perlman in Belarus.

So if Ben Yehuda’s premise was that we need a new type of Jew, one who speaks Hebrew, one who puts aside his Diasporic identity in favor of an Israeli one, how do you do that?  How do you do that when Eliezer himself wasn’t born in Israel, his own culture was one of gefilte fish and kugel and yeshiva studies?  His Hebrew language itself carried across generations through religious texts and countless phrases in the Yiddish language itself.  Which he then used to build Israel’s national tongue.

The way you do it is to stop being a Jew.  Eliezer was the same human being who grew up in Luzhki.  Undoubtedly scared and angered by anti-Semitic violence, he had a different vision.  To leave- not just to move, but to leave his actual identity behind.  Perhaps a response to the intense pain he experienced as a minority, the countless persecutions.  But his response was to disavow himself of his self.  Or, more generously put, to invent a new identity.

But not just any identity.  There was no Jewish country for him to go to.  So for him to build it, for others like him to build it, necessitated a different kind of values.  Polar opposites, mirror images of what he had been taught.  So while Jewish identity for millennia had been built on the interplay of local cultures and Jewish traditions, his identity would be independent and disconnected from the Diaspora.  While Jewish identity for millennia had accommodated the powers-that-be out of necessity, his Israeli nation would be blunt, would be muscular and direct.

In short, for Ben Yehuda and thousands of other early Zionists, and the many olim who followed them, to become Israeli in the fullest sense meant disavowing who they had been.  It meant becoming Israeli instead of Jewish.  A blunt sentence that many of my Israeli friends will find hard to digest.

Because there’s nothing congruous about the countless Romanian and Polish Jews in Corey’s YouTube video deriding their own cuisines.  While feeling that hummus and falafel are what it means to be Jewish.  Because unless your grandparents worshiped in a synagogue in Aleppo, hummus has about as much to do with Judaism as sushi.

Which is the point.  Israeli identity is about a new start.  A new state.  A new place where we control our destiny and not live at the behest of the fragile grace of different rulers.

The challenge for Israelis today, though, is to realize that this new start came at a price and to realize its full potential, it must be understood.  To realize that there’s nothing inherently more logical about being Israeli versus being a Jew in America.  To not be surprised that most American Jews don’t speak Hebrew- because the only Jewish language our ancestors spoke when arriving on Ellis Island was Yiddish.  And sometimes Ladino.  To realize that your national project is unique- but that its foundations, however much you try to untether them, are rooted in Jewish experience.  And not just the ancient Bar Kochba revolt or the Kotel, but also 2,000 years of engaging with the rest of the world.

To realize that your grandparents and great-grandparents are from rich cultures.  Yes, marred by persecution, but also enriched by life.  That there’s no shame that they spoke different languages or ate kreplach or wore turbans.  That your identity today is dangerously fragile and wants for empathy because you don’t understand where you come from.  Because the lifeless stones in Jerusalem don’t explain why your Hebrew accent is a fascinating mishmash of Sephardic and Ashkenazi pronunciation.  Or why you hate Haredim for using the Ashkenazi accent your ancestors did, or for wearing 17th century Polish clothing.  They don’t explain why ayins and alefs magically appear to flesh out the phonetics of foreign words.  But that Yiddish does- because those letters serve as vowels in that language.  In a way that no Hebrew prophet would possibly have understood 2,000 years ago speaking the language you supposedly speak to this day.

None of this is to discredit Israel or Israelis.  Although I’m sure someone will twist my words to try to harm us- an inevitable risk when writing about Judaism and the Jewish people.  Lehefech, to the contrary, my purpose is to help Israelis, including myself, understand.  That when you pretend you can so thoroughly untie yourself from your roots, you don’t understand why you are the way you are.  You don’t understand why American Jews might not want to move here, but care a lot about this place.  You don’t understand why some of your Arab neighbors care what you call chopped tomatoes and cucumbers.  Even as some of them fail to realize that some of the foods they call their own have been eaten by Jews for centuries in the Middle East.

You don’t see that the Ashkenazi Israelis in the YouTube clips I saw are shadows of themselves.  Proclaiming how thoroughly Israeli they are for eating falafel.  Distancing themselves from their Judaism when they make faces of disgust at the mention of the foods their families actually ate for centuries.  It’s an act of self-hatred that Israelis have had to do for generations, a price they pay for building a new identity, but also one worth questioning the value of today.

The question facing us is immense.  If Israelis (and olim) continue to have to distance themselves from their past, from Judaism itself, what will remain of our people?  While this article asks whether Israel and “Diaspora” Jews can survive as one people, my question is were we ever one?  Or do you by definition stop being Jewish in order to be fully Israeli?  Do you have to fully reject the other half of our people in order to be accepted here?

It’s a daunting question.  One that haunts me as an immigrant.  Someone who came here precisely to be able to be more Jewish.  To avoid the awkward and sometimes scary anti-Semitism I experienced.  To be free to be me.  To accept some changes that come with integrating into a new society.  But certainly not to reject who I am, where I come from, and my heritage.  That’s the exact opposite of what I want to do.

So therein lies the rub.  Can I become fully Israeli while remaining fully Jewish?  A seemingly preposterous question, but a relevant one.  As I asked museum staff in Zichron Yaakov where I could find Yiddish documents from the early settlement, and received puzzled and disgruntled looks.  As if it were something I shouldn’t ask about.

In the end, I don’t have an answer.  But I have an inkling.  Judaism is an irrepressible force with thousands of years of history.  Including coping with some of the most challenging and disturbing moments of humanity, and surviving.

Zionism is one way that some Jews have approached solving that problem.  And in some ways, it has succeeded.  Israel is the only growing Jewish community in the world and the only country with a majority Jewish population.  At a time when anti-Semitism is growing and Jews rely on this country for refuge.

But it is also is a ticking time-bomb for Judaism itself.  For what has enriched Judaism over the years was not the sacrifices on the Temple Mount nor the Land of Israel itself.  Rather, it has been our ability to balance, to live in tension with our identity as different and strategically synced with that of our neighbors.  To our benefit, for our growth, and for the enrichment of humanity.  Which is why when I speak Yiddish, I can understand almost any German.  And he can understand me- when I choose to use words he’ll know.  And when I want to have a bit more privacy or protect myself, I throw in some Aramaic and Hebrew and Polish and he has no idea what I’m saying.  It’s the creative Jewish balancing act that has made us who we are.  And allows us to both engage the world and have some distance from it.

To be a Jew is to push in two seemingly opposite directions. To fight to conserve your culture, and to fight for humanity to progress so the former is possible.

Once upon a time, Zionists maybe needed space from the traumas they had experienced to build a new identity.  I can relate to that.  But at a certain point of maturity, it’s beneficial to look back and see where you’ve come from.  To do anything less is to empty yourself of part of who you are.  And to live in perpetual confusion about the state of the world and the meaning of your identity.

I posit that Israelis are Jews, even if some of them would prefer not to be, at least in the sense of the Diaspora identity they have been taught to loathe.  Which is why in Zichron Yaakov, a place that almost entirely spoke Yiddish at its foundation, there is almost no trace of the language today.  But a short visit to the local library and a talk with the friendly librarian helped me find a copy of “Le Petit Prince” in the language of my ancestors.  One of our languages.

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The foundations of Jewish history are underneath our feet.  They are in the Steins and Skys and Mans and Bergs that run in your families.  They lie in my English name, Matt, my Hebrew name, Pesach, and my Israeli name, Matah.  And I lost nothing for calling the last one Israeli and not Hebrew.  They’re all a part of me and my journey.

So my hope for Israel, for my Israeli friends, is that you can synthesize these varying aspects of self.  Not to pretend they don’t exist- nor to pretend it’s an easy task.  There are reasons we give ourselves space from the past.  And there are times to reconnect to it, to better understand ourselves, and to build a better future.

Israel will better connect to American Jews, to Europeans, to our Arab neighbors, and to themselves when we have a better sense of what actually happened here and who we are.  Not in the sense of pretending Israeli identity is fake- it’s not.  That’s an anti-Semitic trope in and of itself.  But rather to see how we got to where we are.  And to realize that it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe even good, to put the pieces of the puzzle back together again.  To see the fascinating kaleidoscope of who we are.

So that the man in the YouTube video can be proud of our ancient history here, his family’s perseverance in Europe, and his own life here.  That it’s a multilayered, rich, complex story worthy of every chapter.  Because you can’t return to a land if you’ve never left it.  And you can’t live there successfully without some of the wisdom you gained while you wandered.

 

In search of a job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye America, for now

It’s appropriate that I write this blog on the eve of America’s midterm elections.  As my country prepares to pivot, so do I.  Tomorrow, I board a flight to say goodbye.  For now?

I find myself feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  Excitement because I think Democrats will take back the House of Representatives.  And if it’s truly a blockbuster night, even the Senate.  I think Donald Trump needs a wake-up call that he can’t govern this country alone.

Anxiety because I worry about the future of the Democratic Party and what it means for this nation.  The extremes of the Democratic Party, as best represented in the Trump-like antics of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   Someone who on the surface level, I agree with 80% of the time.  But who takes her positions- and most importantly her rhetoric- to extremes.

Ms. Cortez, almost certainly to win her election tomorrow, supports a variety of policies that are fairly standard in Israel and Western Europe.  Socialized medicine, environmental protections, affordable higher education, and civil liberties for LGBT people.

The problem is she takes public policy and turns it into a bombastic crusade in which anyone who disagrees with her is the enemy.  And in which purity Trumps all.

Ms. Cortez compared the threat of climate change to that of Nazi Germany.  She supports impeaching Donald Trump without considering the consequences to her party or the national discourse.  Or the potential counter-reaction of angry armed Americans who will doubtless double down on hunting down minorities.

She criticized Israel for having “massacred” innocent Palestinians in Gaza- without showing any understanding of the fact that many of them were armed Hamas members.  And that while all killing is a travesty and some of the deaths may have been avoidable, it’s not so simple here.  I’d like to see how she’d react as an 18-year-old soldier when people volley rockets and flaming kites at you and your family’s neighborhoods.

The most audacious and Trump-like aspect of this accusation is that Ms. Cortez’s response to criticism was: “I am not the expert…on this issue”.  A bizarre and deeply narcissistic approach to politics.  You are a future lawmaker- if you’re not an expert on an issue, you probably shouldn’t make such wild and factually incorrect claims.  You sound a lot like our Tweeter-in-Chief.  Shooting from the lip.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, I found the most shocking flier walking around Berkeley.  Although if you’re from the area, you won’t be surprised.

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At face value, I agree with some of the flier.  I would like to see more black women in politics.  Minorities are perpetually underrepresented and it changes the discourse to have different people in the room making decisions.

On the other hand, this is no better than Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric.  “Abolish every jail”.  “Black radical revolution”.  “Justice for PALESTINE”- and the word Palestine written in Arabic.  “Black ballot”.

It’s not that each of these words on their own are necessarily bad.  I advocate for Palestinian human rights.  I want black empowerment.  I think the prison industrial complex needs reform.

But the way it’s presented is so fundamentalist.  It’s a “with-me-or-against-me” rhetoric that is dangerous in and of itself.  It is imbued with a fanaticism, a sense of infallibility reminiscent of a Puritan more than a public policy debate.

I don’t believe in abolishing every jail.  Some people are dangerous and need to be behind bars.  Not everyone can be rehabilitated and I want want serial killers and rapists off my streets.  I also don’t think that any ballot should be all about one group.  I don’t vote a “Jewish ballot” or a “gay ballot”- it’s exclusionary it is very phrasing.  And the Palestine piece- it’s telling that there wasn’t a call for peace, nor was there a condemnation of anti-Semitism.  Let alone an acknowledgment that Israel, that the Jewish people are entitled to empowerment too.  Especially days after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.  I have never seen an attack so clearly demonstrate the need for a State of Israel or for solidarity with our people.  Yet where are the grandiose words, the empathy for us?

We’re not on the agenda for the far left- and I feel it.  I see poster after poster here in California.  “Hate has no place here”.  “Against hate”.  “Immigrants, Muslims, LGBTs are welcome here”.  But not on one single sign have I seen the word “Jew”.  Out of hundreds I saw, one sign had “you are welcome here” written in Hebrew- a reminder that some people care.  But if I’m honest, I leave California with a deep sense of disappointment and a feeling that most of the left doesn’t feel we are worthy of their solidarity.  I am inspired by the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who came together to #ShowUpForShabbat, but I have yet to see progressive activists put us on their agenda.  We are worthy of our own discussion- not just in terms of Trump, not just in terms of gun control, not just in terms of hate crimes.  All of these are valid issues and related- but they are not the same.  This was an anti-Semitic attack during a period of rising anti-Semitism around the world.  And I expect progressive activists to step outside their comfort zone and learn about us on our own merits- not just when it’s convenient for their ideological agenda.  If the attack makes them reconsider their reflexive support for Palestinians over Israel (as if one should have to choose), then I’m glad it makes them uncomfortable.  Because if you’re upset about Pittsburgh, imagine what Moroccan Jews and Polish Jews feel like about thousands of Pittsburghs and having no home left to go to.  That’s why Israel exists- and you need to face the fact that your society is failing to protect us.  The extremes on both sides.  Which is why a wise Jew will never give up on the state that is our only insurance policy.

Black-and-white thinking results in aggression and a breakdown in communication.  A young Jewish student at Florida State threw chocolate milk at Republican volunteers while invoking the Pittsburgh massacre.  I share her frustration at the rise of the far right and its racist and anti-Semitic elements.  I also will offer some humility in saying its different analyzing this from afar than living here.  I’m American, but I am not here most of the year and it’s different to physically be here.  I think that as a (somewhat) outside observer, I can illuminate things that are hard for you to notice when your surroundings shadow your vision.  And I bow to the fact that we live in different, overlapping existences and I recognize that you bear certain consequences more directly than me.

I will offer this advice- do not behave like the people you hate.  Of all the times people have said nasty things to me (and again- I don’t know what, if anything, the Republicans said to arouse her anger), I have never considered launching my beverage at someone’s face.  It’s not that I thought about it and decided not to- it just never occurred to me.  Everyone has a right to their feelings- but we don’t have a right to attack people.  Even people we disagree with or think are damaging society.  The greatest challenge of being oppressed is not to become the oppressor in fighting back.  I’m a double minority and a survivor of three decades of abuse.  I get it on a gut level- it’s hard.  And I hope this young woman can learn from this experience and realize that she has further poisoned debate rather than showing courage.  We’ve all been impulsive students once, but it’s important to remember our actions have consequences.  And I can’t imagine her behavior has made Jews any safer at a time of deep discomfort about our place in society.

Empathy is about understanding where others come from- not necessarily agreeing with them.  So in that spirit, I’d like to offer this.  I am American-Israeli.  I feel more American in Israel and more Israeli in America.  I am a hybrid.  Some people share my observations, and sometimes people disagree with them.  I address a mostly progressive audience because that’s part of who I am and it’s who I know best.  Its whose actions hurt me the most because I care what they, what you, think.  Many of my observations about extremism apply to the far right as well- it’s just that I don’t have much cachet with them.  I can’t imagine they’re particularly interested in hearing the voice of a queer Jew at this point in history.

There are distinct cultural differences between Israel and America.  Israelis are famously direct, Americans famously polite.  Israelis will message you pretty much non-stop, Americans think you’re in love (or desperate) if you message someone the day after a date.  The words we use, the emotions we feel, the way we convey them- our behavior- is deeply influenced by the culture we live in.  And I live in both.

American friends expecting me to conform to American cultural norms- to always remember them- please consider that I don’t live here.  I’m not an American abroad, I’m not an expat, I’m not on some jaunt or program.  I’m an Israeli, an out-of-the-closet Jew running by completely different norms.  And if I sometimes am too direct for you, consider my reality too.  I shouldn’t (and can’t) always revert to your way of thinking because it’s hard- it’s not fair, it’s not who I am, and it’s not how I live.  If you’re offended by my bluntness, I won’t always say I’m sorry- because sometimes you need to hear some straight talk.  That’s my Israeliness.  But I will say I never intend to hurt you and I care about what you think.  Otherwise I wouldn’t write this blog.

As we sit on the eve of great change- for me personally and for America my country- I want to share my hopes.  I predict Democrats will gain power this week.  Not sure how much, but it will change the discourse and perhaps even bring some balance to the national debate.

The question for my progressive friends is how will you wield this power?  After several years of hearing worn-out tropes from the far right, after being wounded, will you be the adult or the child?  Will you govern with a gavel or a sledgehammer?

I hope you govern wisely.  Yelling at people doesn’t change their opinions.  Some people we can’t dialogue with- but some people are not only open to hearing your thoughts, they could teach you something too.  Protect yourselves, but don’t close off your hearts entirely.  And check in with yourself to see if you’re becoming the domineering person you’re fighting against.

This is something I personally wrestle with, especially in Israel.  A place packed with tension.  Beauty, for sure.  But it’s not for nothing people are angry there- rockets are falling on my friend’s kibbutz this week.  Ideologies, religions collide.  This is not suburban California- it is a country the size of New Jersey with ISIS on its borders.

The best thing I can offer you is to evaluate ideas on their own merit.  Just because Donald Trump likes Israel, doesn’t mean you should hate it.  And just because Alexandria Cortez doesn’t like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean you should join her in hating Israel.

Find the counterexamples.  When I get angry at Arabs or Muslims (I have a lot of reasons- I have a high likelihood of being killed for being gay, American, Israeli, or Jewish in their societies), I find someone who reminds me.  Who reminds me that there is good too.

My friend Muhammad is a Bedouin student who just moved to Ramat Gan.  He’s having a rough time- it’s not a particularly diverse city and he has experienced racism.

He told me he felt Jews only care about their own.  And I got angry.  I reminded him that I’m a Jew and I helped him find an apartment and adjust to life in his new home.  Hours upon hours of expensive long distance calls from abroad.  And that I was proud to do so.

He relented that it was politics, the TV, the blowhards who got him down.  And I told him I understood- if I went by what the TV told me, I’d think all Muslims want to kill me for being a gay Jew.

And that’s where we found our common ground.  We remind each other of our humanity.

He apologized, which of course I accepted.  And I wrote him in Hebrew:

“No worries, bro.  Remember there are Jews like me, and I’ll remember there are Muslims like you.”

His response: “Exactly!” and a kissy emoji.  Which, to remind my American readers of cultural differences, is not a romantic gesture.  Arab men (and a lot of straight Israelis) show a lot of intimacy towards their male friends.  That in an American setting would make you think we’re heading for the sheets.

But we’re not.  We’re friends.  We’re each other’s alarm clock, a reminder of the people who don’t fit our preconceptions.  The people who value us the way we are.

America- that’s what I hope for you November 7th.  No matter what happens, no matter what you advocate for, do it with humanity.  Remember the other, remember the exception.

I hope next time I visit, instead of a “black ballot” or a “white ballot”, I’ll see people talking to each other face to face.  Instead of a voiceless flier slapped on a cold brick wall.

I believe in you.  And I want you to succeed.

Evangelical Gay Jewish San Francisco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She asked me: “where are you from?”

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

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

“Also American.”

“So how do you speak such good Spanish?”

“I used to be a Spanish teacher.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t want to live torn in two.

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

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

 

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.

A trip to Hungary

Sometimes life truly surprises you.  Having left Romania (see posts), I decided I needed somewhere nearby, more gay-friendly and with more *living* Jews.  So I headed to Hungary, another one of my ancestral homelands.

I am a quarter Hungarian.  My great-grandparents were from Pacza, which today is either Pacsa, Tornyospálca, or the (formerly Hungarian) Slovakian village Pača.  I’m still doing extensive research- finding Jewish genealogy here is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.  Due to both the time passed (130 years) and the killer job Nazis did in burning our archives, it can be quite hard.  An entire continent uprooted us over ages, so it’s hard to feel rooted here, even as we’re the oldest religion on the continent and our empty houses of worship dot the landscape.  Sometimes turned into trendy cafes or Italian restaurants, without so much as a word of our consent.

Budapest is an interesting place.  Gorgeous scenery, grand buildings, and a surprising calm for a city of its size.  The screaming and chaos of Tel Aviv this is not.  Cute cafes (including one that has cats in it!), affordable prices, and phenomenal safety make it a good place to spend a few days.  Not to mention Hungary’s 1700-year-old Jewish community that I’m a part of.  Before the frickin Huns even arrived.

As a Jew, some things stood out to me.  First off, there are actual Jews here.  Most parts of Romania I visited had almost no Jews left, or a very old (as in gray hair) community.  In a place that was once home to over 700,000 Jews, dating back to Roman times.

Secondly, the people here are really…brusque.  Maybe that’s not the word- I’ll be blunt: they’re assholes.  No, not everyone.  But most people.  There is a deep politeness to Hungarian society.  At first, this was refreshing, having experienced so much rudeness in Tel Aviv.  But you soon start to see that it’s a big facade.  People here have literally thrown my change at me in stores, they stare a lot (until I stare back), a woman I was paying for genealogical research berated me for taking water from a water cooler.  In the office I was paying her to sit in.  To quote: “in our country, you ask for water first.”  Message understood.

While this brusqueness is pretty much thrown at everyone (especially if you’re a foreigner), it has at times manifested itself towards me as a Jew.

I visited a beautiful library the other day.  It was so peaceful- quiet, relaxing, a great place to think and reflect.  The architecture here is marvelous and the tranquility truly, aggressively silent.  There is no neighbor blaring Beyonce at 3am on a Wednesday.  Yes, that has happened to me in Israel.

It’s in fact a branch of the Hungarian National Library.  Hoping to find some books to relax (I love books!), I went exploring.  I found most books were in Magyar, the local language.  But some were in French, German, Romanian, English, and other languages.  I even found a small book on Judaism.

I approached a young man working behind the information desk.

In my best American-polite voice, I asked: “excuse me, sir, do you have any books in Yiddish?  Or on Hungarian Jews?”

His answer: “this is the Hungarian National Library.  We only have books about Hungarians.  In Hungarian.  You can try one of these other libraries to try to find what you’re looking for.”

As he handed me a scrap of paper.

This is Hungary.  A place so reminiscent of the nationalism that plagues the Middle East, it might as well live there.

The fact that the city he lives in was a quarter Jewish just 70 years ago didn’t seem to factor into his commentary.  Or maybe it did.  After all, the Jewish quarter today is a bunch of bars and hipster cafes.  This kind of appropriation and abuse happens a lot with nationalism- it’s just that in America, you don’t often *see* the Native American ruins turned into a nightclub.  Perhaps it would sensitize Americans to how they achieved their great wealth.  Or perhaps they’d end up bland and desensitized like far too many Hungarians.  Despite having nearly cleared their country of Jews (in collaboration with Nazis), an astonishing 41% of the country is anti-Semitic.  The highest number in all of Eastern Europe.  A region famed for hating me.

The other day I heard an American voice.  A woman was taking a picture of a synagogue, I thought she might be Jewish.  “It’s beautiful,” I said.  She said back: “indeed!  Where are you from?”  I said: “I’m originally from Washington, D.C., and going back 130 years I’m Hungarian.”

She laughed: “well yeah, if that’s how we’re counting, I’d be speaking Irish right now.”  Chuckle, chuckle.  Completely unaware that maybe one of my ancestors worshiped in this synagogue.

I said: “my ancestors were kicked out of this country for being Jews.”

A dead silence.  “Oh, ok.”  She then stepped inside, maybe 10% embarrassed, 90% too focused on the lens on her camera.  Never to be seen again.

Feeling decidedly unconnected to most locals, I used the Couch Surfing app to find some internationals to hang with.

I’m really here to get away from the Middle East for now- to get some space.  But to my surprise, I found a young Jordanian woman (let’s call her Amira for privacy’s sake).  Who wanted to go to a gay bar!

Thank God, I really wanted to see some cute guys and connect to that other community I’m a part of- the fun one 🙂 .

A little nervous that politics might come up (it says that I’m Israeli on the app), I didn’t know what to expect.

But instead of a long drawn out conversation about the region’s ongoing PTSD, we ended up sitting down with two queer Macedonian girls.  And dancing with some British people.  And giggling.  And singing.  And frankly having a fantastic time.  It gave me a little hope that especially when we’re away from the mess, we can have a little more fun.

I met a few nice Americans here as well.  It was kind of refreshing to speak English and to share the same culture.  I can’t pretend Israeli culture hasn’t impacted my life- it has.  In a lot of ways, traumatically.  In some ways, kind of cool.  At heart, I’m still pretty American- more than you might expect.  And it was nice sharing that with people on kind of a neat neutral ground here somewhere in between corn bread and challah.

Friday night I went to Reform services.  I do not believe in God.  It’s something I’ve fully realized lately, and my experiences in Israel have convinced me of.  But I really miss community.  And when you’re traveling, Jews are better than anyone else at being nomads.  We’ve been doing it for 2,000 years.  And we find each other everywhere 🙂 .

I went to the services and found myself liking some of the same melodies (for those who don’t know, I’m really, really Jewish- I’ve led Reform services in varying locations since I was 14).  I especially love the old tunes- the ones from this part of the world.

And I found myself unable to mouth the word “God”.  I found some of the words I could kind of reinterpret or recreate with my meaning.  But the God piece- it really angered me.  I don’t believe in God- and the concept makes me furious.  I feel it’s an abusive one- not that all people who believe in it are abusive, but the idea of an invisible being telling us what to do- often to the detriment of our self-worth- really irritates me.  Especially when you see that conflict up close literally killing people.

I excused myself for the latter half of the service and came back for the meal.

The meal was great- a potluck, with some Hungarian surprises.  Hungarians love paprika.  I don’t know why, but they do.  And to be honest, it was found in nearly every dish I ate as a child.  So I guess my family brought it with us across the ocean.

The rabbi taught me all about Hungarian Jewish food.  And her congregant told me all about Hungarian Jews.  Apparently 19 out of 20 Nobel Prize-winning Hungarians were Jewish.  No wonder so many of them can’t stand us 😛 .

The rabbi has a fascinating story.  Her parents hid in the forests near Budapest during the Holocaust.  While her grandfather was deported to Buchenwald, her parents buried a suitcase under a tree each night.  And pretended to go to work each day.  Sleeping in the dirt under the moonlight.  Until the war ended.  And 565,000 out of 800,000 Hungarian Jews were evaporated.  An entire civilization, a race, loving parents with their little children- burnt to a crisp.  To supply a bunch of Germans with BMW’s.  And to satisfy Hungarian blood lust with the active participation of their fascist government.

What was so astonishing was how normal the rabbi was.   How kind, how gentle, how welcoming.  How easy it was to talk with her about one of the hardest things to talk about.

A deep note to my Israeli friends- losing loved ones in the Holocaust is not an excuse to be abusive yourself.  Not to other peoples or to other people.  This rabbi proves that.  If anything, it is a reason to work extra hard not to be that way.  This is an incredibly difficult hurdle- as someone who has been abused for decades myself, I know that.  And in the end, we’re responsible for our behavior, even as we know what has caused it.  And we can choose to pass that abuse on or to break the chain and strive to treat others better than we were treated.  Stop weaponizing the Holocaust to excuse bad behavior and instead, let’s heal.  Evidently, without the help of many countries that caused our pain.

In the end, while I don’t believe in God, I loved the Shabbat dinner.  Not for religious reasons, but for culture.  For history.  For conversation.  Yes, for continuity and change.  A Reform service- a tradition deeply rooted in Central Europe.  Where Neolog synagogues still stand.  And where, despite the best efforts of more than a few miserable neighbors, we still exist.  We are here.  I think I’ll keep seeking out, maybe creating, Jewish culture because I like some of it.  It’s mine, and I’m proud of our survival and our thriving in the midst of sometimes unbelievable pressure.  Perhaps something we share in common.

For ages upon ages, Christian Europeans denied us the right to own land.  To practice everyday professions.  Forced into banking and jobs that goyim didn’t want.  So more people would hate us than the actual governments oppressing them.  To then pay taxes to go to church and learn why we’re awful- and burn us on Christmas Eve as tradition.  No Christmas tree for me, I think.

Jews were stereotyped as “rootless”- a people wandering miserably, punished for killing Jesus.  When in reality, it was Christians themselves who regularly uprooted us.  Stealing our homes, killing us, even enslaving us at times.  Which is how a bunch of people with Mediterranean features and DNA ended up in bitter-cold Poland instead of on a beach on the Dead Sea.

We’re not rootless.  We are from here- me too.  My tradition, my very blood is Middle Eastern, it has stained the soil of Hungary, and I am no guest.  Do not throw plastic bags at me in your grocery stores or tell me your libraries are “just for Hungarians”. And stop complaining about how hard it is for you.  Communism sucked, you’ve been through a lot.  The economy isn’t great.  But I’ve literally met Darfur genocide survivors more cheerful than you.  Have a little perspective.  At least you’re here to complain unlike the rabbi’s grandfather.  Turned to dust.

Now a word to my Palestinian friends.  Through a mutual friend, I had been dialoguing some with a Palestinian woman from Hebron online.  One of the most violent and chaotic focal points where Israeli extremism and Islamic fanaticism meet in utter despair.  Where settlers bemoan the existence of Arabs- and sometimes physically attack them.  And not a small number of practically caged-in Palestinians throw bombs, stab babies, and shoot Jewish civilians.  If you want to really feel bad about humanity, this is a good place to take a peek at the darkness.

This woman, let’s call her Fatima, is religious.  I tried dialoguing and it went well for a while until she starting erupting at me- kind of out of nowhere.  Having seen some of the conditions in the West Bank, I displayed a lot of empathy.  Including sharing about the documentation I’ve done about Palestinian villages destroyed in Israel.  My empathy was several times thrown viciously back in my face.  Which really hurt.  Sometimes she managed to listen and acknowledge.

Fatima shared she was excited to go to Austria to teach Palestinian culture.  I told her my family was Austrian- in fact, all of Hungary once was.  And she said “oh, that’s random, you’re American and Israeli though.”  And I said: “yes, they were kicked out for being Jews- and the ones who remained were mostly massacred in the Holocaust.”

She said: “I hate Hitler and all his ilk.”  The “ilk” part floating softly in the air, its full meaning to this day not entirely clear to me.  Did she mean me?  Did she mean Israel?

Despite a lot of hateful rhetoric she spewed at me without even knowing me- despite me frankly trying to be an ally for a better future for her and her people in ways that gets me into trouble with a lot of Jews.  I told her this: “if you really want to understand why Jews feel we need a state, ask the Austrians what happened to the Jews there.  Why there are barely any Austrian Jews left.  You might not want to learn Jewish history now- that’s OK, maybe you’re not ready.  But you won’t understand a thing about us if you don’t understand why we left the wealthiest continent on the globe to colonize a conflict-ridden strip of desert.”

To the Palestinians desperate for support and solidarity- you deserve humanity and you deserve a better life.  In peace.  And watch out who you ally yourselves with.  Just as I bemoan Bibi becoming friends with anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim nationalists in Europe (that’s a thing), I encourage Palestinians to think twice before cheering our former oppressors.  In some cases, our current ones.  You may think they’re coming to show you solidarity- some of they may be.  And some might be coming to help you just because they hate us.  And if you’re really smart, you’ll realize they helped create the very conflict you live in.  By smashing us for generations and by colonizing you too.  Not a small number of them and their families and friends are just as happy to hate Muslims in Europe as they are to see you and I go head to head to realize their anti-Semitic blood fantasies.  Even if you think they’re on “your team.”  Every time you bring your case against Israel to the E.U., even if you don’t mean to, you’re revitalizing our trauma.  I don’t have a lot of great alternatives, but you might want to think about how you do what you do if you’re really serious about successfully solving things.

I don’t believe in God, I believe in accountability.  Not theoretical after-death accountability from above.  Accountability in the here and now.  That we must take into our hands if it is to happen at all.

As a survivor of abuse, I often wondered to what degree that abuse- widespread in my family across generations- was caused by anti-Semites.  Every individual is responsible for his behavior- and that includes my family members.  No amount of systemic or individual oppression justifies heaping that hurt on someone else.  Over and over.  And that’s why I have worked so amazingly hard to be a better person than the people who abused me.  And why I’ve cut toxic people out of my life, at great cost that has brought me impressive progress.

I do notice a lot of abuse in Jewish families.  And I wonder to what degree this pattern, if it is one, is tied to our less-than-generous neighbors who belittled us and uprooted us for generations.  It has to have had an effect.  I wonder if similar toxins have infected African American and Native American communities for the same reasons.  I’m not sure, but I’ve heard some arguments that it has.

I have skin in the game.  I want to know why I had to suffer for so long- with so many horrendous consequences for my health and well-being.  And while I can hold my family and my fellow Jews accountable (especially Israelis, whose society has turned a lot of abusive behavior into social norms- a scary development), I want to know why so many bigots here in Europe demeaned us.  And I want to call them to account.

I’m grateful for the brave non-Jews here who are allies to us and other minorities.  And I ask you to realize just how bad it can be here.  That it is still one of the most anti-Semitic regions of the world despite being practically Judenrein.  That large percentages of almost every country hate Gypsies, gay people, and increasingly Syrian refugees.  A problem admittedly complex (a number of them have perpetrated violent anti-Semitic attacks), but hardly one that justifies hatred and racism towards suffering people.

While taking a break tonight from genealogical research and writing this blog, I stepped outside for some food.

I found myself in front of a kebab store.  With the famous spinning shwarma machine.  Just the kind of culture I was trying to get some space from, to rest.

I found myself walking and re-walking the block debating whether to buy it.

And feeling so angry at Hungarians (the only other options around) and really hungry, I went in.

Turns out, the owner is a Syrian refugee.  And I told him I’m American and Israeli and we had an awesome conversation.  He told me my Arabic is as sweet as baklava.

As I bid him a warm goodbye, I couldn’t help but think to myself that the best people I’ve met on this trip are not Romanians and they’re not Hungarians.  Even though I am “from” these places- and they do have some fun stuff to offer in addition to the hardships.

The people who made me smile the most were a queer Jordanian girl who had never been to a gay club and a Syrian refugee.

Dear Europe- you may have gotten rid of us Jews.  But like a racist Israeli cab driver once told me: “you killed 6 million Jews and got 50 million Muslims.”

To which I say: “if you won’t show us the kindness we deserve, then I will help every refugee I can.  Because you uprooted us- but you will not uproot them.  My pain- the way I see life- my job is to turn it into honey.  Or at least not bitterness and bile.  So if it helps a Syrian refugee feel a little happier to chat, I’ll do it.  And I support their right to a safe life.  If it causes you a little pain to live with the ‘other’, then I’ll be blunt with you: you’ve earned it.  Grow up.  The grand Hungarian Empire is never coming back.  And it’s your turn to show a little kindness where you showed indifference towards my family.  An indifference I feel I continue to pay for to this day.”

You kicked me out 130 years ago.  I’m the first of my bloodline back.  With an American and Israeli passport- something you could envy.  You can choose to live in misery wailing about the communism that was, quivering about “Muslim invasions” that do not exist outside of your TV screen.  There hasn’t been a Turkish soldier here since the 1600s.  Or you can do something Jews have had to do for a long time in the shadow of your pitchfork: adapt.  If you don’t want to change, at least give me mine with a smile.

p.s.- the picture is of the Great Neolog Synagogue on Dohany Street.  If there’s one reason to come to Hungary besides great affordable food- it’s this.

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.