The most diverse Israeli day ever

Today, I did too many things to write a story.  So I’m going to list them:

-I spent a train ride talking in French with an Orthodox Jew of Moroccan origins who immigrated from France.

-I hung out in an underground pool with arches built in 789 by the Abbasid Caliphate in a boat.  And then I wrote an Arabic poem while inside!

-I met Peruvian (Jews?) and talked in Spanish about my friend Claudia who did Peace Corps in Peru.

-I visited a church from the 1200’s with a super hot Arab security guard whose smile and kindness melted my heart.  Can you say “return visit”?

-I bought a CD of Iraqi music in Arabic sung by an Iraqi-Israeli Jew back in the day who was born in Iraq- for 10 shekels!

-I talked about Ethiopian music and Sigd in a store covered in Amharic and Hebrew signs.

-I watched Karaite Jews pray Ma’ariv evening prayers.  Most of them are of Egyptian origin, so I chatted with them in Syrian and they responded in Egyptian Arabic.

-I made friends with an Israeli soldier when our trains got messed up and delayed and we had to switch lines.

-I did dinner in a mixture of Hebrew, English, and French with a Sabra and a French non-Jewish PhD student…whose family is from Guadeloupe!   We talked about our shared love of Zouk.

-I danced dabke for easily three hours with young Arab students.  A German exchange student came and I helped a talented dancer in a hijab translate dabke instructions into English (and a little Yiddish, which he can largely understand!).

-I then hung out with said wonderful German exchange student for another three hours walking around Tel Aviv and talking about life here.  He is one of the most open-minded, non-judgmental, kind people I’ve met here.  He’s not Jewish and I couldn’t imagine that a non-Jewish German would make my night…in Tel Aviv!

-Thinking no more cultural richness was possible, I hopped into a cab.  The Israeli man turned on the music (without lyrics) and asked me to guess where it was from.  Within 5 seconds I said “Thailand!”  I love Thai music and used to buy it at the Thai grocery store back home.  He was shocked.  His wife is Thai and he lives in Thailand with his children, only coming back to Israel to care for his parents.  He speaks fluent Thai- as do his biracial children.  He was mightily impressed that my favorite Thai dish is Pad See Ew- he says everyone says Pad Thai!

This is what I have to say- today I spoke English, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, French, and Yiddish.  Just last week I also spoke Catalan, Portuguese, and Farsi (with both Persians and Bukharans).  If you have the curiosity, the passion, and the will- you can experience more cultures here than you can count.  I live in a neighborhood where I regularly meet Iraqis and Moroccans and Syrians (Jews) and Burmese and Sudanese and Eritreans (non-Jews)- I even had someone tell me her friend is half Ghanaian half Filipina.

When people find out I’m a polyglot, they often tell me “what do you do with your languages?”  Sometimes it feels accusatory- “why aren’t you making a ton of money off of them?  Why aren’t you working for the government or the military or the CIA?”

You know what?  What I do with my languages is what I did today.  I explored ancient civilizations, made new friends, learned about other cultures, danced, sang, wrote poetry, and built bridges of peace.  I felt happy 🙂

If you can show me something more valuable or enriching than that, be my guest.

In the meantime, I’m just happy to live in one of the most diverse countries on the planet.  Where the combination of things I did today is only possible here.  One person today said to me “but honestly what is there to see in Ramle?”- one of today’s destinations.

The answer: “everything, if you’d just open your mind.”


The hardest part of making aliyah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norwegian-Persian Jews

I didn’t fully appreciate the diversity of Israeli Jews until I made aliyah.  Yes, I had visited on trips, but you don’t get to know people with the same degree of depth.  One of the things I love about American Jewry is the cultural cohesion and unity.  And one of the things I love about Israeli Judaism is how incredibly diverse it is.

Last week, I was in Jerusalem.  My friend and I went to a Thai restaurant.  We were joking around with the guy behind the counter.  Turns out, he’s a half Kurdish half Moroccan Jew.  We joked about him finding us a fourth person so we could all go on a double date.  He said he’d be happy to take us to a Kurdish restaurant down the street and then taught me some Kurdish.  Right, my Jewish Thai restaurant waiter offered to teach me the Kurdish his grandparents say around the dinner table.  Chew on that one for a while.

This past weekend, I hung out with a bunch of vegan hippie Jews at a commune in Tel Aviv.  As they munched on lentils and drank home-brewed Kombucha with shouts of “lechaim”, I met a half Norwegian half Persian Jewish filmmaker.  Yes, both halves are Jewish.  Apparently, her grandparents on either side only spoke their native language (Norwegian and Judeo-Persian), so they couldn’t communicate with each other!  Luckily, this talented young woman speaks both Norwegian and Farsi and even spent two years living in Norway.

Today I hung out in Bnei Brak.  While I was buying some books and music, I befriended the two salesmen.  One, who looked quite clearly Ashkenazi, was a Vizhnitzer Hasid and a Yiddish speaker.  We had fun shmoozing a bisl in the mamaloshn.  Turns out, he also understands Dutch- his mother’s family is from the Netherlands.  Oh and his father was born in Switzerland, where his parents were working for the Jewish Agency.  For people who know the politics of Hasidim and Zionism, take a moment to digest that one for a bit.

The other Hasid in the store looked more tan skinned, so I mistakenly assumed he was Mizrachi (there are Mizrachi Hasidim).  Turns out, he’s just like me- an Ashkenazi Jew who kept his Middle Eastern complexion even in the Diaspora 😉 .  Guess there isn’t just one “Ashkenazi look” after all.  Now brace yourselves for a real kicker.  His family made aliyah…from Mauritius.  Right, so basically his family escaped the Nazis but the British refused to let them into Mandatory Palestine.  So they sent them to a bunch of islands in the Indian Ocean.  To this day, his family likes to tell stories of what it was like there.

I could literally go on and on with examples- my friend who is half Serbian half Moroccan and works at a Kosher Georgian restaurant, my half Iraqi half Ashkenazi female rabbi, my half Italian half Ashkenazi friend married to a Cherokee Jew!  The diversity here is endless.  If your image of Israel is that everyone looks like Andy Samberg, you’re in for a major shock.  And I’m saying this as someone who would very much like a country of Andy Sambergs- what a cute Jewish boy!!

Israel is an incredible fusion of hundreds of Jewish cultures from around the world, preserved for 2,000 years and reuniting and reconfiguring meaning.  I definitely miss my American Yiddishkeit, a force that unites the 90% of American Jews who are Ashkenazi with a shared humor, cuisine, and dialect.  The good part about Israel is that in the absence of a unifying Judaism, there is the freedom to mix and match.  It’s truly a place where no one can say, as someone told me on a temple trip in 5th grade: “you don’t look Jewish.”


Nigerian Hebrew on Tisha B’Av

Today is Tisha B’av, a somber holiday where Jews recall the destruction of both holy Temples in Jerusalem   According to tradition, they were both destroyed on this particular date of the Hebrew calendar.  For some Jews, today is marked by fasting and reading from the Book of Lamentations.  For others, it’s a day to contemplate the baseless hatred that supposedly brought about the destruction of the Temples, the infighting among Jews that purportedly gave our enemies the opportunity to destroy us.  For some Jews, it’s just an ordinary day of the week, but where almost all the stores are closed for the holiday, making them frustrated that the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate has so much power in this country to impose their vision of Judaism on others.  On the night when Tisha B’Av starts, the Rabbinate has the power to fine businesses that open.  I’m starting to understand why secular Jews bristle at the power of this theocratic governmental institution.

That all being said, today for me was about moving.  While I had planned to go to synagogue last night, I didn’t end up going because I was looking at apartments, scrambling to find a place to live.  I successfully found a new place (yay!) and am now writing you from my new room!

To get my things to my new apartment, I took a cab.  The driver spoke English with some sort of African accent that sounded familiar.  I asked where he was from and he said Nigeria.  Nigeria!  I knew there were foreign workers here but never knew there were Nigerians!  I grew up with several Nigerian friends, so we bonded over our love of foo-foo (a Nigerian food).

Then, we started speaking in Hebrew.  I have spent my entire life doing Jewish things and have never heard someone speak Hebrew with a Nigerian accent.  It was unique and beautiful and a sign of true respect for my culture like I have rarely experienced.  To hear him say he was turning left on “Rechov Yud Lamed Peretz” (a street named after a famous Yiddish author) gave me the tingles.  I realized that my culture really is the dominant force here- like it is in no place on the planet.  Something that both excited me and make me kind of curious what life was like for this man.  I can’t imagine being a foreign worker in most places is particularly hospitable and I know the Israeli government doesn’t have a great track record with guest workers or refugees.  I felt empowered and privileged and fortunate and I also felt confused and uncertain.  All valid feelings.  I’m proud to see my identity validated after a lifetime of pain and discrimination.  And I am concerned about the fate of this man, my neighbor, considering he has lived here for 20 years and may not even have citizenship.

As we pulled up to my new place, I heard something curious.  The man was speaking in Ibo, a Nigerian language, but I recognized some of the words.  Not just the English words, but also Hebrew ones!  He’d slip in “balagan” (a mess), “chashmal” (electricity), and other Hebrew words into sentences he was speaking in Ibo.  It reminded me of how American Jews sprinkle our English with Yiddish sayings or how Latinos in the U.S. do likewise with Spanish.

This place is a melting pot.  Judaism has always been a place where different cultures come together.  Long ago in the days of the Temple it may have been Moabites and Canaanites.  Today in Israel it’s Polish Jews and Russian Jews and Moroccan Jews and Ethiopian Jews and American Jews and yes, even Nigerians.

As I got out of the car, I heard a politician on the radio say “today, our Temple is the Knesset, it’s modern Israeli society.”  An interesting thought.  Rather than waiting for us to rebuild the Temples of old, perhaps we should consider that we live in a time where we once again control our own destiny.  What should that look like?  Who belongs to our people?  How do we want to contribute to the world?

As it says in Leviticus: כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ

“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”

If the State of Israel is in some ways our new Temple, then can we make space for those who tie their fate to us, for those non-Jews who join us in peace along the journey?  Can we give them a holy space in our house?

I very much hope so.