I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area. Born in the city and raised in Suburban Maryland. I went away for college, but found myself back in the area before immigrating to Israel a year and a half ago. Out of my 32 years of life, I’ve spent at least 23 in this part of the world.
Because I grew up with a lot of abusive relatives, coming here wasn’t easy. Since I moved to Israel, I haven’t been back. In fact, when I chose to come visit the States a few months ago, I decided to go to California first because it would feel new. And frankly, I had never been to the Bay Area and was curious. You can read about my adventures on the West Coast here and here.
As circumstances would have it, I ended up back in the DMV, as some of us call it, this week. It was a short visit, but a productive one. Some things were hard– but empowering. Some things were just hard. And some things offered me a new perspective, a new appreciation for a place I was quite ready to leave not so long ago.
Here are some pictures from places that have filled my life with memories:
Some good, some bad, all a part of my life.
After an intense but meaningful reconnection with these deep memories, I decided I was in need of a good nosh.
Israeli food is interesting and quite delicious. But it has basically nothing to do with the Jewish food I grew up with- unless you count some of the delicacies of Bnei Brak.
As a kid, every Sunday after Hebrew school, I went to “the deli”. “The deli” because first off, this is a space, not a specific restaurant. And secondly, because in this one tiny part of a Suburban Maryland shopping center, this Jewish deli has changed names and ownership about a half a dozen times in my childhood. So calling it “the deli” just made sense. The latest iteration of it is quite delicious, and I chowed down on my beloved whitefish salad, bagels, chocolate tops, dense American rugelach, a cheese omelette, and a poppyseed hamantaschen. It was the best $25 I’ve ever spent:
The deli, in my view, is the most authentically Jewish space in America. Whether my deli or someone else’s. Because it’s a place where you bump into your neighbors, where you eat our food, where you seamlessly connect to Jewish culture, and where you see your American Jewish self represented. It’s not for nothing you’ll find this deli covered in D.C. sports paraphernalia and Happy Chanukah signs- that’s what it means to be an American Jew. And my heart felt as great as my stomach.
After some much needed soul food and reconnecting, I decided to go into the city.
Something really struck me about being in D.C. after a year and a half. I’ve been going into the city since I was a kid. And by the time I left, I was not particularly enamored with it. There are downsides to living here- the endless politicking, the traffic, the dysfunctional metro, and the endless politicking. Because yes, that’s worth mentioning twice. It makes the vibe here a lot more “I’ll pencil you in” and a lot less “what are you doing tomorrow?” The propensity for suits, for business cards- it’s not very me.
But what is very me is the beauty of this city. Something I really didn’t feel when I left. But even after having visited some astonishingly gorgeous cities in Europe and Israel, I think D.C. holds its own. The historic homes, the courthouses, the museums, the monuments- there is a beauty to the architecture here. It is an astonishingly clean city- especially after having trudged through the grossness that is Tel Aviv in the rain. Even the Washington Monument and Capital building just seemed prettier than I remembered.
Another fascinating aspect of this area is how diverse it is. You can find so many different races, religions, languages, and cultures. And all the delicious food that accompanies them. Melded together, mixed in a way that few countries manage to do. Because when I’m outside America, I miss Thai food, I miss Chinese, I miss grilled cheese, I miss pizza. Because for me, they’re all my food. American food. Because the beauty of America is its amorphousness. I can feel that all of this is American because there’s no hard line dividing the Thai food I’ve eaten almost weekly (this week, twice!) since I was a teenager. It’s a part of my American experience because the swirling stew of cultures is what it means for me to be from here. As are my friendships with my friends from every background imaginable. It’s not for nothing I actually keep in touch with my favorite Thai restaurant and send them pictures from my travels. And they were so excited to see me and give me huge hugs! It’s a reminder that home is not a physical space- at least not for me. It’s a feeling of warmth and love and someone happy to see you.
Feeling the urge for a little adventure, I called my friend Monica. While America doesn’t have quite the same ruggedness or excitement for me as traveling in the Middle East or Europe, there are quirky things here. One of them is the Mormon Temple, a huge edifice that looks like Disney World. I’ve passed it probably hundreds of times in my life on the highway but never visited. So I decided I should try something new on this trip back home and stop by.
And it was a strange but edifying and informative experience.
It’s worth its own blog post, but basically I learned a lot. Mormonism, in case you didn’t know, is basically an American-grown religion. Although the church itself sees it as a continuation of the Judaic tradition stretching back centuries. And a certain fondness for Jews as a result.
Long story short, it was persecuted by other Christian denominations (some of whom view it as not Christian at all), until it made its way to Utah. A state which is now dominated by the faith. Which eventually became a global one, with the missionary zeal to match.
I had gone to high school with a couple Mormons, but didn’t know much about the faith. Other than that Americans love to make fun of it. I can’t imagine a musical called “The Torah” or “The Quran” would be particularly well-received by Jews or Muslims. But “The Book of Mormon” delights audiences with laughs around the world. And while I haven’t seen the play, it does seem like a bit of a double standard, and perhaps not fair to make an entire religion fodder for laughter.
Apparently the term “Mormon” is sometimes seen as derogatory- they are “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. But until a better, shorter acronym is developed, I’m going to use it and preface it by saying I’m not intending it to be derogatory, simply a much shorter way of saying things on a blog.
I met several young missionaries- or “sisters”. We talked for hours. We talked a lot about Judaism- they knew some about it, but I shared more. I certainly wasn’t trying to convert them (Jews don’t do that- note to those Christians and Muslims who think religion is about converting everyone else- that’s called supremacism). But I was trying to share about myself as much as I was trying to learn about them, and have an entertaining and free evening. It should be noted that since the religion is highly evangelical, everything is free. I got free postcards and even a Mayan language Book of Mormon. Because when you want to convert everyone, you need to learn their language. Not my ideal use of language learning, but it does produce some interesting results, like a closet full of multilingual books. Even different versions in Western and Eastern Armenian dialects. A kind of polyglot paradise. Also they have amazing Christmas lights:
In the interest of me getting some sleep tonight, I’ll leave it at this. Mormonism, after a two or three hour long discussion with three missionaries, is an interesting faith. The missionaries’ zeal was apparent- and the fundamentalism real. No amount of smiles and kind words can change the fact that it was quite clear that they think they are right, and everyone else is lacking happiness for not being like them. It’s a sad way to view the world.
That being said, I think there are some things to note. First off, missionaries don’t represent everyone in a faith community. As Mormons are human beings, I imagine some of them live with more doubt- and perhaps more pluralistic ideas- than the most zealous faithful. Just like a lot of religions. Frankly all faiths are based on stories, and to single out Mormons for having a “ridiculous” founding myth is mean. Jews believe God parted a sea for us to walk across and then dropped bread from the sky for us to eat in the desert. Christians believe a woman gave birth to a boy without being inseminated. Who then walked on water. Muslims think their prophet flew to Jerusalem at night- before airplanes. We all have our stories- and I don’t begrudge any of them as long as they are used to motivate people for good.
Secondly, not all of the missionaries were the same. In particular, one woman from Austria was quite fond of Yiddish- her father grew up in the Jewish quarter and was familiar with Jewish culture. She herself had studied intercultural communication, my passion, and had her own honest and troubling relationship with American culture. Which she sometimes found fake and indirect- something I can relate to after having experienced Israel. Americans on a whole are not particularly forthright with their words- even if I’m able to read between the lines as a native in a way this woman couldn’t. I don’t know if I’d characterize it as fake, but different and indirect it most certainly is. And it leads to a lot of frustration. Especially for someone like her meeting tons of people each day.
While all of the missionaries were trying their best to be friendly and welcoming, this one struck me as more authentically human. In the sense that instead of relentlessly smiling, she was willing to open up about how life can be hard. And she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. Including how faith alone is not enough- that we use human observation, facts, and instinct to make choices too. Which she admitted was valid after I prompted her to think it over a bit. She just wasn’t as pushy as some of the other folks. Who claimed to want to learn about other religions, but were hesitant to read the Torah- the very basis for all monotheistic faiths. That is a kind of fakeness- don’t pretend to be interested in my community if it’s really just a talking point for assimilating me. In the case of the Austrian woman, I felt she had a genuine interest in dialogue, rather than just repeating the word Jesus over and over again. There are certainly things I don’t miss about America.
In the end, I can’t say I’m impressed with the Mormon faith as a way of life. Nor do I think evangelizing people is ethical or kind. If you think your religion (any religion) is superior to others, how is that any different from white supremacism? I doubt most of these missionaries think of it in these terms, but I’m purposely raising this comparison to draw attention to how problematic it is. And how it’s worthy reconsidering whether it’s fair to put one religion above others. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism- anything.
What I can say is that this Austrian woman, more than anyone I met, humanized Mormons for me. That there are Mormons who live with doubt, or at least enough curiosity to hear other points of view. And not just for the sake of convincing us. In the end, whether you’re a Hasid in Bnei Brak, a secular Jew in Tel Aviv, or a Mormon in Washington, we are human. And a willingness to go outside your comfort zone and try something new is difficult. But worth doing sometimes to remember that relying on tired stereotypes won’t make this country, or the world, better. I can now put a face to Mormonism, in fact several faces, and I don’t need to rely on a musical to teach me about a different society. If the night’s goal was to convert me to Mormonism, it failed. But if the goal was to put a human and complicated face on the Mormon faith, consider it mission accomplished.
Which gets to today. The U.S. finds itself struggling with a government shutdown. An absurd tug of war that ends up degrading public servants and slowing down the entire economy- not just of here, but of the world. I don’t work with government budgets nor have I been following the situation closely- I have enough on my plate adjusting to being here.
But what I can say is this. Everyone needs a bit of a bubble to feel safe. I can’t imagine becoming Mormon, nor living in Utah. I’m tired of people telling me I should accept Jesus Christ- he was a Jew and I really don’t have any interest in giving up my traditions to satisfy your zeal.
But nor am I content to sit only among those who I feel agree with me on everything. It’s a phenomenon that liberals and conservatives can both be guilty of. I can’t imagine many gay Jews visit the Mormon Temple, but I did. I even found a Christmas ornament donated by Israel to stand alongside the ornaments of countries all over the world. And I met an Austrian woman curious about Yiddish. Even considering attending a Yiddish language program- curious about whether they let in non-Jews (we absolutely do- but just don’t try to evangelize us 😉 ).
In short, let go of the easy answers. Donald Trump is a narcissist who plays too much on Twitter and has the temperament of a child- but with the arsenal of a nuclear power. But even with his erratic and sometimes abusive character, I won’t automatically discount everything he says as wrong simply because he was the one who said it. That is intellectually dishonest- and there are policies he has enacted that are outgrowth of the Obama Administration in which I served. Some bad, some good. And even though I never voted for him and never will, I’m not going to put my hands over my ears, live in isolation, and pretend that I’m always right or that everyone else is always wrong.
Because that’s fanaticism. Whether it’s a gleeful Mormon missionary or a liberal bemoaning the “uneducated” masses of “ignorant” Americans in red states.
I live in the space where I am a committed and proud Jew, but open to learning about other religions. I almost always vote Democrat, but I’m not diametrically opposed to everything a Republican has to say. And I’m an American and Israeli even if some in both communities would like to have me only as their own. That somehow me being physically present in America now means I’m “back from abroad” or that if I’m not stepping foot on Jerusalem’s streets I’ve “left Israel”.
There is no more stupid dichotomy in the world. As a dual citizen, and a citizen of the world, I don’t belong to any one place. I wasn’t on a “jaunt” in Israel- and I may yet return sooner than you expect. Or to visit other countries. Nor am I only Israeli- this trip helped me remember where I’ve spent so many formative years. Why I love muenster cheese and chocolate chip cookies and cheap delicious Chinese food. Why I still feel the effects of traumatic experiences even living far away. And visiting places that triggered those memories precisely to integrate an understanding of my past into my present. To help me be as full a person, as aware a person, as possible.
So in the end, my goal is wholeness. Not holiness. So rather than tell you what to do or what to believe, I’d rather you go out and explore for yourself. Visit the Mormons, go to a synagogue, learn a new language, talk to a gun owner, eat vegan for a week. Don’t rely on me or anyone else to be your only source of information. Because the best news source is your own eyes, your own ears, your own heart.
Go exploring 😉
p.s.- that’s my third grade picture. Not an easy one for me to put up given everything, but I’m proud to now understand myself as a whole person. The good times and bad. And I’m grateful to my teacher then, Mrs. Elrod, for being a stunning example of how to be a kind person. And for all the great role models who inspired me to point myself towards a path of growth and compassion. Which is part of how I ended up here today.