The wonderful, the ignorant, and the outright anti-Semitic

I’m writing you from Spain.  The past week, I stayed in Almería, a small city in the southeast corner of the country.  This is my fourth visit to Spain.  When I was 13, I came with my school.  When I was 21, I did research here for my thesis (including a fair bit of research on Spanish beaches 😉 ).  This past year, I realized my dream of re-visiting Catalonia after having learned Catalan.  And now, I’m chilling in the south of Spain.

Spain has always been an important place for me.  Spanish is the first foreign language I learned and Spain is the first country I visited without my abusive family.  At a time in my life when I was suffocating, Spain and its wonderful, warm people gave me room to breathe.  And have fun.

I fell in love.  I majored in Spanish in college.  By accident.  I was supposed to major in sociology but my university closed the department midway through my studies (yes, that’s a thing).  And I so loved Spanish that just by virtue of my desire to learn it, I had already taken enough coursework to put together a major.  Follow your heart, not the curriculum.

Every language is a source of richness.  I speak a bunch, including minority languages like Catalan and Yiddish (and have studied Irish and Basque).  Sometimes people shit on these languages for not “being useful”.  As far as I’m concerned, the way you feel about a language (or accent) is mostly about what you feel about its speakers.  Every language, like every culture, has something to offer, to make you grow, if you choose to see it that way.  Perhaps that’s why subconsciously I chose to wear a Catalan t-shirt at the Alhambra on Spain’s National Day.  An unintentional but loud statement in Andalucía, where dissing Catalans is as common as eating Gazpacho.

What enchants me about Spanish in particular is how I fit in.  Most of the time.  Because of my olive skin and Semitic features (Spaniards are also very Mediterranean-looking and have a lot of Jewish blood), I often am seen as Spanish.  Or Latino in America.  Sometimes people overlook Mediterranean/Middle Eastern people, but we look different than the Swedish people in Minnesota or the Irish Americans in Boston.  We look ethnic.  In Belgium, people think I’m Arab (including Arabs).  And I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t look American.  Not the nicest thing, but maybe there’s some truth to it.  Most people in Abercrombie ads don’t look like me.

But in Spain, people think I’m one of them- or at least a native Spanish speaker.  Partially because I’ve got a great accent, but people over the past week thought I was anything from Catalan to Venezuelan to Chilean.  In America, someone once called me a “Spic” on the Metro.  I’ve had multiple cases where people I’ve already known discover I’m not Hispanic, tell me how surprised they are, and suddenly want to be friends with me.  Here, I feel a little more at home.

In Israel too I often felt that physically I more fit in.  My appearance, indeed my DNA (I’ve run tests that show my makeup is closest to Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians), is from there.  Trust me, nobody in Hungary mistook me for an ethnic Hungarian.  Even though my great-grandparents were from there.  Israeli clothing models, politicians, rabbis, studs at the beach look a lot more like me than Channing Tatum.  But don’t get me wrong, I do like Channing Tatum 😉 .

In Spain, I’ve met some incredible people.  I met a Spanish man who told me how proud me was of his town’s judería, or Jewish quarter.  I met a Russian guy married to a Taiwanese woman who owned a bubble tea store.  Who spent 10 minutes looking up directions for me to a Sephardic heritage site.  I told an Afghan baklava seller I was from Israel- and spoke some Farsi with him.  His eyes lit up. 🙂  I ate amazing Moroccan bastilla and chatted with the owners in Arabic.  I even met a very Catholic young man marching in a Semana-Santa-style procession who directed me towards the local Jewish museum.

There’s also a lot of ignorance.  Not necessarily outright prejudice, but for sure ignorance.  A lot of people have no idea where their town’s Jewish quarter is- even when the local municipality has developed it as a tourist attraction.  And it’s been there for over a thousand years.  This particularly struck me yesterday on El Día de la Hispanidad, the day “celebrating” Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New” World.  The same year Spain kicked out its Jews.

On this day, I saw a massive Catholic procession which (although it is not actually connected) looks like a much more elaborate and classy KKK march.  Even Spaniards joked with me about it.  It really does look similar, but it is not a hate parade.  I will say it momentarily jolted me.

Spain is known for being the most (or one of the most) anti-Semitic countries in Europe according to the Anti-Defamation League’s polling.  Not surprising given the legacy of the Inquisition, although neighboring Portugal had that too, and moreso than Spain, is undergoing a kind of Jewish renaissance, including a burgeoning philo-Semitism.  Strong ties with both Israel and the Jewish community make it a much more comfortable place to be a Jew, right next door.

Spanish municipalities, particularly those governed by left wing parties, have tried over and over again to boycott Israel.  Something I find ironic, at best, in a country covered with the blood of my ancestors.  Where I’ve seen synagogues turned into office buildings, where thousands of people fill the streets celebrating Christopher Columbus.  A man by all accounts a genocidal maniac.  Incidentally likely the descendant of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by Spain.  Hired by the royal family celebrated during this week’s holiday.  The family who ethnically cleansed my people from this land.

To return to the issue of these Catholic processions, I’d like to share my experience in Alicante, another city in Spain.  In the province of Valencia.

I was walking down the street and asked someone to explain the meaning of everything.  I’m a curious guy so I listened patiently as someone explained about the various teams that put together the saints displays.  Like I mentioned, some Spaniards like to joke about how it looks like a Klan rally (long robes, candles, crosses…).  I agreed it was a bit of a culture shock, and the rather nice Spaniards I spoke with said: “yeah, it has nothing to do with violence.”

But actually, that’s wrong.  Catholicism in Spain (frankly, Catholicism for most of its existence) has until recently been about violence.  Towards Jews, towards Muslims, towards apostates.  And while today, religious processions are mostly a cute cultural custom (it’s cool to watch, the music is neat too).  Not too long ago, they were a way for the church to impose its will on the people.  Including countless Jews it forced to convert or abandon this land under penalty of death.

After a relaxing bus ride up the coast to get here (the scenery in Spain is spectacular), I went out tonight.  It was a Saturday night and I wanted to talk to people.  Traveling alone can be so rewarding, I’m learning so much about myself.  And sometimes it’s nice to take a break and be with people.

I met an interesting mix of people just by chatting on the street.  Spaniards are known for being friendly and they live up to their reputation.  There are few better places I’ve visited for someone traveling alone.  Everyone is ready to chat.

I spent the night with a mix of Spaniards, Americans, Ukrainians, and one Argentinian man.

When I said I was from Israel, everyone was cool.  In fact, the Spanish guy knows his family has Jewish roots and he wants me to bring him to a synagogue.  And if you saw his cute punim, you could see he wasn’t lying.  He’d fit right in on a kibbutz.

The only person with a problem was the Argentine.  He said to me- to my face- “how do you feel as a Jew, controlling the world’s economy?”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but there was something in his silence when I said I was from Israel that told me he’d be an anti-Semite.  Perhaps a defense mechanism I’ve developed after dealing with so much bigotry.

I told him point blank: “that’s an anti-Semitic question based on stereotypes.”

He didn’t accept it.  When I tried to explain (as if you can reason with someone this insane) that actually Israel has a lot of poor people with one of the widest wealth gaps in the OECD, he pushed back:

“The Jews in Argentina control everything.”

I gave him a deep stare, told him I actually spent two weeks helping poor Jews in Argentina after the economic crisis, and reiterated that he was being anti-Semitic.  And to my great credit, he asked for the check and left.  Two hours later, he came back with free wristbands to go to a nightclub- for everyone in the group but me.  He said: “you don’t get one.”

Message understood.

I still love Spanish.  I love every language I learn.  Every culture has richness to share.

But I don’t fit in here.  For a visit, sure.  I suppose on some level I always thought I could be Spanish or in the words of my former coworkers at a Hispanic advocacy group, an “honorary Latino”.  Before moving to Israel, I spent most of my college years and professional career working for Latino and immigrant rights.  And I’m proud of it.  It reflects my values as a Jew and as a human being and a lover of Spanish-speaking cultures.

In the end, though, it’s not mine.  At least it can’t replace my Jewish identity, though at times I wished it would.  It felt easier- what an amazing global community to be a part of.  There’s a reason everyone’s listening to reggaeton these days- it’s infectious.  For all the wars and coups and discrimination and poverty and dictatorships, being Latino is fun.  I love French and I speak it when I want a sense of calm.  But let’s face it- when people want to get down, they put on salsa, not French folk music.  Although I listen to that too 🙂 .

I wish I could say my experience with the Argentinean man was unique, but it’s not.  In fact, when I visited Argentina, I saw authentic Nazi war medals being sold at the local fruit market.  My middle school Spanish teacher taught us that in her country of Guatemala, to call someone a Jew was to call them a “burro”, an “ass”.  As she laughed.  At a gay club in Spain, men excitedly guessed where I was from and when I finally said “Israel”, two of them fell silent and turned away.  One Spanish woman compared me to an Islamic terrorist because I don’t eat pork.  In Granada, I asked the tourist info booth why the Jewish museum was closed on Friday morning, even though it was listed as being open until 2pm that day.  And the woman sassily snapped: “you have to respect, it’s the Sabbath, that’s why they’re closed, it’s their norms.”  As if I couldn’t possibly know- or be Jewish.  I explained I was Jewish and that Friday morning is not the Sabbath- they chose to list the museum as open then.  The woman couldn’t care less as she ignored me and moved on to her next task.  Her much nicer colleague grimaced.  And tried to help me.  When I worked for a Latino advocacy group in Washington, they refused to give me Yom Kippur off in exchange for Christmas.  I appealed to the president of the group.  And got my vacation back almost a year later.

It’s not because all Latinos or Spaniards are anti-Semitic.  There are people here, as in all cultures, who are curious about Judaism.  Some who love it.  And some who are indifferent or ignorant but not hostile.  Some Latinos are Jews.

I’ve also experienced a deep strain of anti-Semitism in Spanish-speaking cultures.  No doubt a product of hundreds of years of Catholic-church-sponsored hate and Inquisitions.  Today, sometimes repackaged by far-left parties as anti-Israel fanaticism.  A kind of new religion in which Jews remain all-powerful and in need of constant reprimand.

In the end, I’ll always be a Spanish speaker.  It flows off my tongue better than any other, maybe even more than Hebrew.  The language is filled with warmth.  The people such friendliness.  The culture such a diverse and interesting history.  One in which Jews have always played a part.  Our blood flows through the veins of its people, our ruins dot the town squares.  Like the former synagogue in Guadix I visited that’s now an unemployment office.

Tonight, my best conversation was with an Algerian man.  Feeling distraught about the Argentinian anti-Semite as well as some homophobic comments I heard, I wanted a taste of home.  Shwarma.

I talked to the man in Arabic, and he was surprised.  “Where are you from?”

“Tel Aviv.”

“Tel Aviv?  Palestine?”

“Israel.  Palestine.  The Land.”

“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”

“No, I’m Jewish.  I’m Israeli.”

“But you speak Arabic!”

“I do, I love it.  It’s a beautiful language.  And I like Algerian Rai music and I have Algerian Jewish friends in Israel.”

“Wow!!  Rai?!?  And your friends- do they still eat couscous?”

“Yes they do.  Every Shabbat.”

Perhaps the world expects me to have more fun with a bunch of young Spaniards and expats at a bar.  Telling me how progressive and open they are, while spewing bile about Jews and gays after a few drinks.  Perhaps belying what they really think.

But my favorite conversation tonight was with an Algerian falafel man.  Because I’m the first Israeli he’s ever met.  And my language, my heart, brought him a smile from ear to ear.

So in the end, I’m not Latino, I’m not Spanish, and I don’t really want to be.  But I am a Spanish-speaker, an Arabic-speaker, and most importantly, a person who uses language to warm hearts.

Expel us, boycott us, ridicule us in a bar.  But Judaism is as Spanish as paella.

Queen Isabella could have never imagined me staring down an anti-Semite on the streets of Alicante 500 years later.  And winning.  Let alone a Jew and a Muslim speaking in Arabic.

Confuse me for a Latino, I don’t care.  Once it would’ve made me scared that you won’t like me.  Or I’d defiantly wear my honorary Latino badge, proud to be different.  Now, I just feel I’m a human being.  I’m a Jew- who I am and what society makes me.  And I’m happy to explore all cultures and stand with kind-hearted people no matter who they are.  I’ve learned to love my olive skin more.  And I’m grateful to have places like Spain where I look normal.

Libi bamizrach.  My heart is in the East, I’m in the far West.  And the person who brought me there was an Algerian shwarma man.

Yehuda Halevi would be proud.

==

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This picture is of a door in Granada’s Jewish quarter where you can still, 500 years later, see the marks of a mezuzah.  We’re everywhere.  Scatter us like seeds, but we sprout back up wherever we’re planted.

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.

It’s incredibly hard for me to think about these things.  For those of you who know my blog, you know I grew up in a deeply abusive family.  On both sides.  So the genealogy I’ve done over the past year has been brave.  It’s not easy to think about connecting with relatives, even those who have departed who I’ve never met, when I have to separate myself from the people we share in common.  To protect me.

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 Ari.  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.

It’s not easy to be a part of my family- I’m not really a part of it anymore, and that’s better for me.  Even though it comes at tremendous cost.

What I can say is that I wish I had known my great uncle, Barney Marcus.  Because of all the relatives I’ve heard of, 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, even when I can’t do so for the ones I know.

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.  I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my family, but today you gave me a little ray of hope- a connection to a person 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 Ari.  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 incredible yo-yo of being a Jew

Lately, I’ve been traveling in Romania.  It’s my third time here since March- I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, delicious and cheap food, and overall calmer atmosphere than Israel.  A place with far more history than America but with no active warfare like Israel.  And a place where a quarter of me comes from 🙂

Well, here’s the conundrum of being a Jew.  Especially a gay one.  Romania has some pretty awful things too.  Just as I’m trying to get space from Israel (and its creeping fascist state, persecuting minorities), I get a reminder of how stupid people around the world convinced us we needed a state.  Like theirs- faulty, and usually creating more problems than solving them.  But understandably could seem better than being regularly persecuted.

Romania has a storied history of anti-Semitism.  There are brave non-Jews working to preserve our heritage now- I’ve met young people interested in Klezmer, old women doing Israeli folk dancing, people looking after our synagogues.  The ones that haven’t been turned into pizzerias.

It also has a lot of bigots.  On Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting in a restaurant.  I almost went to services, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t.  I don’t believe in God.  I considered going for the community, for the tunes, for maybe a bite of Jewish food.  But when I saw the historic-synagogue-turned-arts-center was fastidiously set up to separate men and women, I felt that an Orthodox Rosh Hashanah was the last thing I wanted to do now.  I talked to some of the non-Jewish staff members, which was nice.  And then I left to eat.

So I’m alone noshing in this restaurant.  And a woman, maybe 40 years old, is playing with her kid.  The kid waves at me and we say hi.  He’s super cute.  The mom starts talking to me in English.  She’s from Bucharest but moved to Cluj some years ago because it is nice and calm.  When she asked where I was from, I said I was both an American and Israeli citizen.

She then says: “I want to go to Gaza.”  I said that wasn’t possible now.  And she says: “I know, I want to go get arrested [to protest].”  I said: “it’s a difficult situation on all sides.  My friend lives on the Israeli side of the border with rockets falling on her house and I’m sure it’s hard for Gazans too.”

I tried to conclude the conversation, but she kept pushing.  While making every effort to smile, she told me: “I want to go to PalestinA”.  With an “A” as if she just needed to emphasize every last consonant.  Like somehow I didn’t pick up on her political message the first time she bluntly interrupted my holiday meal.

I said: “great, you can go.”

Romanian woman: “I want to go to Jerusalem and see the Orthodox Christian sites.”

Me: “you can do that, you should realize that the Christian sites aren’t so protected in Gaza under Islamist rule and that Jerusalem is a part of Israel.”

First things first, I could have gotten into a nuanced conversation about West and East Jerusalem, varying land claims, the suffering on all sides, the Christians caught in the middle of national conflicts, but I knew this woman wasn’t interested in nuance.

Instead, she said the strangest thing.  Besides not knowing Jerusalem was a part of Israel (again, even if you accept the contested nature of the land, most of the world recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli), she was astounded to hear rockets were falling on Israeli cities.  From Gaza.  She said the news said it only happened the other way around.  She said: “life is suffering.”  And when I tried to suggest there were good things in Israeli and Palestinian society too, she just kept to her message.

Feeling rather fed up with this idiotic woman ruining my first solo Rosh Hashanah meal, I said to her: “life is complicated.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and was kicked out for being Jewish.  The rest of my relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.  And now our synagogues here stand empty or turned into restaurants.  Nothing is simple.”

She made an awkward smile, maybe 10% out of guilt, 90% out of stupidity, and said have a nice night and left the restaurant.

Sometimes this happens when I leave Israel needing some space.  I go leaving disgusted at how the government abuses its citizenry, especially minorities, much like other societies abuse(d) Jews.  Even today, neo-Nazis are rallying in Chemnitz, Germany and physically attacked a Kosher restaurant calling the owner a “Jewish pig”.  In Germany.

And I sometimes find all the reasons that pushed us, as a community, to feel we need a state too.  Because after having been expelled from town after town, butchered senselessly and demeaned, we were tired.  And we felt there was no other solution.

It takes endless gall for a Romanian woman who has never met me, doesn’t know my politics, doesn’t even know it’s a Jewish holiday, to barge in and attack me.  While her own country sucks at the teat of my people’s abandoned houses, synagogues, and property.  The land they’ve ripped from our culture.  And tell me how bad I am.

How is it possible to hate us when you’ve already exterminated 95% of us?  When we’re not here to “oppress” you anymore with our difference?

Because, if I may be frank, Romania can be kind of a shit hole.  A place with gorgeous nature and some incredibly backwards people.  The young people, both due to economic despair and perhaps a desire to make their lives better, go to Italy, Spain, and the UK to work.  Sometimes in undesirable conditions, but to earn a decent living and progress.  Sometimes at great cost.

Meanwhile, the country, losing population and brainpower, stagnates.  68% of Romanians still want to reclaim Moldova, a territory first lost to the Russian Empire in 1812.  There are people who want to ban a Hungarian minority party for “secessionism”.  Some villagers literally burned Gypsies alive.  In my lifetime.

In one of the most open-minded parts of the country, I had a young computer programmer tell me I’m a sinner for being gay.  I had the husband of a reflexology therapist with an eco-house tell me: “niggers don’t work in America.”  Someone who at surface level would have fit in at a hippie commune in Vermont.   I had an Uber driver take me 20 km out of the way to rip me off and have been literally chased by wild dogs.  Who apparently are best dealt with by being neutered, but the corrupt government pays its friends to kill them.  Knowing it won’t get all of them, the problem resurfaces in a few years, along with the funds to wash, rinse, repeat.  Corruption at a stellar level.  The public transport is pretty abysmal, if your stomach can handle the bumpy ride.  And the village people suffer in poverty while the government miraculously has millions of dollars to build ornate new churches.

Textbook awful.  And the Romanian people deserve better- and they bear some responsibility for their country’s problems.  Not all of it- none of us can truly force our governments to change on our own.  If I grew up here, I think I’d be pretty miserable.  I suppose in a perverse way, I can thank the Romanian anti-Semites for inspiring my ancestors to leave this hole.

There are nice things in Romania- you could consider visiting.  I just know that it’s time for me to leave.

I do know that the push and pull of hatred- of anti-Semites towards us, and Israeli Jews towards the communities now reliant on them.  That is a dangerous see-saw and it is hard to escape both empathy and anger towards all sides.

There’s a reason there’s not a lot of Jews left here.  And a reason a lot of gays would probably like to leave (or do).  It can’t be fun to be a minority in hyper-religious, hyper-nationalist pit.  The kind of problem I was just trying to get space from.

It doesn’t speak highly to my hopes for humanity, though I do know some societies manage to balance addressing past woes and healing with more success.  Or so I hope.  Perhaps I’ve just been in this part of the world too long.  Yet I know our problems, whether in Israel or other countries, are not ours alone.  The inflamed nationalism of our times has even reached Sweden, where a party with neo-Nazi roots gained almost a fifth of the vote.  Sweden.  The Home of Abba.

Tonight, feeling kind of lonely, I got an unexpected call.  I was having trouble reaching friends in the States, and suddenly I saw the name “Muhammad” on my phone.  A young Bedouin man, 19 years old, from the Negev.  We had met while I was visiting his village several times and I asked him for directions.  A sweet guy, we’ve kept in touch over WhatsApp over the months.  And now, he’s doing something super brave- starting college in Tel Aviv.  A city he has been in for only one day his whole life.  With a culture completely alien to the one he grew up in- in language, in demeanor, in everything.

He’s having trouble finding an apartment- partially due to racism.  At some point on this call, it finally came up that I was gay.  He had a lot of questions, but in the end seemed somewhere between accepting and resigned.  He said: “I can’t control what others do or how they are, everyone has their own way.”  A kind of understanding that I wish our own Pharaonic Prime Minister could bring himself to feel.

In explaining to Muhammad how to find an apartment, I told him to be honest about who he was.  He said he’d go view apartments, and only after he showed up in person would people find all sorts of excuses for why it wouldn’t work.  Like this is 1950s America.

I told him that back in the States, I’d always include my volunteering in the gay community on my resume.  Because if a company wouldn’t like me for being gay, even though it’s illegal for them to discriminate, I wouldn’t want to work there.  Nor waste my time with their hatred.  And yes, even at liberal non-profits, this tactic has saved me from some deeply homophobic work environments.  Even from a female non-profit executive who also did consulting for gay rights groups.  Who told me to be closeted about my identity if I took the job!

So I said: “tell them you’re Muhammad.  In my opinion, it’s better not to waste your time with someone who won’t accept you the way you are.  It’s sad, but trust me, if they won’t give you the apartment without knowing your name, they’ll figure it out when they meet you.”

So while Romania was good for the first few visits, when I could enjoy the stunning scenery and surface-level conversations, it’s now worn out its welcome.  Because while I could go around this country and hide- or lie- about who I am, I’m tired of it.  I haven’t survived this much and lived this long to feel ashamed of something I am proud of.

I’m a Jew.  I’m gay.  I don’t believe in God (a no-no in this deeply religious country).  And I’m a kind person.  It’s Romania’s loss that I’m leaving- not mine.  Leaving like millions of young people tired of old dogmas and nationalism that has killed millions across the globe.  Take note, Israel- this is your fate if you keep burrowing your hopes in a ground soaked with blood.  There’s no such thing as a fair society where one group is esteemed above all others.  As we well know from our experience in places like Romania.

What I do know from tonight is when I was feeling at my worst.  Lonely, sad, still reeling from being chased by wild dogs and people saying the word “nigger”.  That a Bedouin friend named Muhammad called me on the phone, we talked about gay identity and racism and finding apartments, and I felt better afterwards.  As I started searching for ways to help him.  A simple call that changed my night.

You can keep reading the rags- the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva, even the Washington Post, New York Times, and Fox News.  All with different politics but the same objective- fear and money.

I like when people like Muhammad challenge the way they were taught to think.  Living in a gray space of exploration and growth.

Israel is realizing my deepest fear, the abused spreading its abuse more than striving to heal from it.  Frighteningly reminiscent of the European nationalists it is now allying itself with.  That kicked us out.  That burned our homes.  And our bodies.

Muhammad makes me yearn for the country it could be.

==

The cover photo is of me in the Sighisoara synagogue.  Now empty, its members killed by Romanian and German fascists.  The remnants emigrated to Israel and America or assimilated under the pressure of communism.  The shul was rededicated by Jewish donors and some local non-Jewish allies.  A faded, almost barbarically quiet presence in places we once called home.  A sign of cooperation, and a sign of the times.  To be a Jew, more than anything else, is to know how to live in the bittersweet.

 

 

A Nation like All Others

A curious thing happened to me tonight.  I was sitting at a hostel in Israel eating dinner with a nice young Mexican woman.

She’s not Jewish and I explained to her in Spanish great Christian sites to visit in Israel.  We had a great chat for about an hour and a half about tolerance, the complexity of conflict here, and the beautiful sites to see in Israel.

Then she said it: “Mexican Jews are rich.”

I wish, wish, wish this was the first time I had heard this comment.  And for those who think this is some deep insight into the wealth gap in Mexico, she then followed up by saying: “like Jews in all countries”.

Israel is a place where it is pretty easy for an open-minded person to get discouraged.  The level of hatred here, if I’m honest with you, feels much higher than America where I grew up.  Particularly the diverse melting pot of suburban Maryland where people of all races and religions interact, date, learn, and play together.  Not that it’s without its problems, but it’s a pretty stable and peaceful place compared to the Middle East.

To be a progressive-minded Jew, or for that matter Israeli, is a difficult position.  On the one hand, I want to offer meaningful, important critiques of my government.  A government which, I feel, often seeks conflict rather than resolving it.  One that, for all the problems that surround this country, would sometimes rather pour fuel on the flames.  And sow internal discord by discriminating against Druze, Arabs, LGBTs, refugees, Reform Jews.  The “other”.  It should go without saying, but it must be said, that this government’s recklessness extends to its policies towards Palestinians.  Certainly a complex and multifaceted conflict (I’ve never seen a Tibetan suicide bomber), but one which this government exacerbates with great callousness.  We can’t live in peace or elevate moderate voices if all our neighbors are grouped together with terrorists, deprived of human rights, and live in a void of economic opportunity.

Now comes the other side.  Israel’s founders envisioned Israel as a paradox.  We were meant to be both an “or lagoyim”- a light unto the nations.  And also, to be a nation “like all others”.  Both exemplary and insistently normal.

The young woman’s comment tonight exemplifies this conflict.  For so many years- 2,000+- Jews have been subjected to some of the most horrific discrimination in world history.  Banned from owning land, kicked out of country after country, robbed of our property and our dignity.  Not to mention mass killings- the Holocaust is not the first of its kind.  It’s the grand finale of 2,000 years of Christian European incitement.  And a whole lot of trial runs.

And the Muslim World, while more tolerant than its Christian neighbors until recently, has certainly persecuted us as well.  Especially in the past 150 years.  It’s telling that almost every Syrian, Iraqi, and Yemenite Jew is in Israel and not in the place they called home for two millennia.  And these Israelis can’t even legally enter their homelands.

If we’re really honest, every nation is about colonialism and conquest.  To differing degrees, perhaps.  And certainly at different stages of history.  But no country is “natural”.  Borders shift- and not by accident.  Cultures are exterminated or promoted to suit political interests.  To this day, the French government won’t sign a treaty recognizing minority languages.  That almost every other European country has signed.  Because despite being a global power with 60 million people with a language spoken from Quebec to Senegal.  They are afraid French is “under attack”.  I’ve never heard something more absurd or colonialist in mindset in my life.

But if we’re honest, nationalism is built on fear.  I remembering campaigning for Barack Obama in the New Hampshire primary in 2008.  And door after door voters told me their number one concern: “illegal Muslims and Mexicans crossing the border.”  I had to do a double take because the only border between their state and a foreign country is Canada.  And I don’t see many Quebecois sneaking across the Washburn Forest to get inferior healthcare and higher-quality gun violence.

The point is not that international migration isn’t an issue.  It is- for the migrants, for the host countries facing rapid cultural and economic change, and for the countries that send them.  Which are often in chaos or devoid of opportunity.

It’s that New Hampshire is the third whitest state and the seventh wealthiest.  So why are people so worried about Mexicans and Muslims who aren’t even there?

For me, it’s the same reason Benjamin Netanyahu passed a racist law to protect the (already well-known) “Jewish nature” of Israel while alienating almost every minority here.  Why American settlers demonized and massacred Native Americans.  Why Arab countries kicked out their Jews and continue to suppress indigenous minorities like the Berbers, Coptic Christians, and Yezidis.

Fear.  But more particularly- fear is a tactic.  Used to divide people.  It is, in and of itself, not the goal.  The goal is control.  Perhaps living out wild psycho-dramas as well.  It’s to run things.  It’s greed.  It’s anger.  It’s a desire to be the boss.  And for others to show obedience.

So when I look at Israel, I see some exemplary traits.  Abundant hospitality, a creative spirit, flexibility, intimate relationships where when you really need help, your good friends provide it.  Not in a transactional way, nor with the feeling that you’re “imposing” on them.  Just because they want to help.

I also see things that are not so flattering.  Things that resemble other countries- but perhaps not in the way I would like.  When I see our policies towards Arab Israelis and Druze, and most certainly towards Palestinians, I can’t help but think of my other homeland- America.  It’s not by accident that there are only two Arab villages left on Israel’s entire northern frontier and the Jordanian border.  An Arab-less corridor.  For safety, perhaps, but also to steal in the name of safety.  Whatever security rationale people might propose dissolves when you realize Druze who served in the IDF can’t even build homes in their own towns.  While nearby Jewish villages are granted tons of acreage for building.  For, if we’re honest, colonization.  If you take even a brief look at Area C, the part of the West Bank Israel directly controls, you’ll see land use is not an incidental issue here.  Palestinians aren’t even allowed to build in this area, locking them into tiny corridors with limited freedom of movement.  A suffocating social and economic existence.  For the sake of territory- of control.

And then you hear voices like this young woman tonight.  A Mexican woman who- while speaking to a self-identified Jew- somehow thought it was appropriate to stereotype my entire people.  And it’s not coincidental.  Latin America shows one of the highest levels of anti-Semitism despite there being relatively few Jews.  Kind of like New Hampshire with its “Muslims and Mexicans”.  Maybe because since 1492, their own Jewish blood has been drowned in the flames of Catholicism.  A tactic by the ruling Spaniards to purify their country and exert control over their new empire.  At the expense of my people then.  And sadly, to this day.  As I was reminded of tonight.

A Palestinian friend of a friend told me recently that “Israel and America are the racist countries”.  Emphasis on the “the”.  First off, this demonizes millions of people in the name of their governments which they often don’t agree with.  Secondly, yes- these governments use racism to divide people.  Like every government on the planet does or has done to varying degrees.  To pretend this is only a problem is two countries is racist in and of itself.

Diversity is a threat to nationalism.  It’s a threat to the ability of cruel leaders to exert control over vast masses of people who know little about each other.  But are taught who to fear and what to hate.

I’ve seen this in practice in Israel and if we’re truly honest, there isn’t a nation on this planet that at some time hasn’t practiced such black magic.

So what I’m asking for is a little humility on all sides.  For my fellow Israelis to realize that for all our exemplary characteristics and our understandable desire to be normal, we ended up a bit too normal.  A bit too much like the people who oppressed us and a bit too callous.  Is it possible to avoid such cruelty in nation building?  Probably not- though it’d certainly be worth trying.  And other people’s crimes don’t excuse our indifference.

And for other people- look in the mirror.  The virulence of racism here is a reflection of your hatred of us for countless generations.  Mutated by extreme forms of Jewish nationalism, but with roots deep in your own bigotry.  The West isn’t wealthy because it’s smart.  It’s wealthy because it’s built on the BMWs that Jewish slave laborers built in World War 2.  It’s built on our synagogues and land robbed by Europeans and Arabs and turned into discotheques and barns.  Not to mention the dozens of countries they colonized.  And it’s built on my hometown of Washington, D.C.  An entire capital made by African slaves.

I’ve come to hate the tribalism here.  A tribalism yes, much stronger than in America.  Certainly with its social benefits of belonging and support.  But with warmth that often turns to fire when it brushes against the neighboring shrubbery.

So I’d like to suggest a new tribe I belong to: the tribe of reason and kindness.  When I’m with Israelis, I will encourage them to think of the “other”.  The Sudanese refugee who escaped genocide and has no rights here- who will perhaps be expelled if this government gets its way.  Perhaps to her death.

The Arab man I met in Beit Jala who is a citizen of Israel but whose wife is Palestinian.  And as a result, can’t get an Israeli driver’s license.  I.e. make a living.  While Jews like me are given instant passports.  Not that it’s easy for us either when Sabras ridicule our accents and culture like they’ve done for 70 years.

And I’ll encourage non-Jews to think of the other.  To think of us.  To think of our history, to think how they’ve benefited from our oppression.  For Palestinians to recognize us as fellow human beings and not stereotype us all as “killers”, thus justifying their own fanatical violence.  For Westerners to remember that the conflict here is complex and simplistic solutions and one-sided blame will only anger our spirit and make us feel justifiably scapegoated.  While you go on vacations to dictatorships like China without even the slightest pang of conscience.

I’d like to encourage us to be the voice of reason.  To challenge each other with the voice we need to hear.  The voice that encourages us towards nuance, towards understanding, towards texture.

For a long time I thought I was a hypocrite for telling Israelis to be more sensitive to Palestinians and Palestinians to be more sensitive to Israelis.  Was I just overly critical?  Was I somehow a hypocrite?  Inconsistent?  Never happy?

In reality, I’m just trying to be kind.  Every country is a contradiction.

What I want in the end is for the rest of the world to see us as a little more normal, and expect us to be a little less exemplary.

And I’d like us to be a little more exemplary and a little less normal.

Normal can be good and sometimes what’s normal isn’t right.

==

My cover photo is of a rock from a destroyed Palestinian well house in my neighborhood.  Where I put clothes to donate.  That’s my religion.

When life gives you lemons, find another fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some (last names redacted for privacy):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever I go, whatever I do.

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

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

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

I came for the Zionism, I stayed for the everything else

When I made aliyah to Israel, I had many reasons for coming.  Some, like the healthcare system, escaping abusive relatives, to travel, to speak languages, and to avoid harsh winters- these are still very relevant.  Especially at a time when the American government seems determined to make healthcare worse, when discrimination against Jews and minorities is on the rise, and I’ve felt increasingly healed being away from toxic people who’ve hurt me.  Not to mention the awesome cultural and travel opportunities- my flight to Cyprus over Christmas was $24 round trip.

Some reasons that I came with are no longer why I’m here.  I have serious doubts whether I’ll find a Jewish partner here- or if I want to.  The Jews here are frankly kind of nuts.  I’ve lived with Jews my whole life (being one), and I can assertively say that while we’re a zany bunch, Israeli Jews take it to a new level.  The nastiness, the harshness, the aggressive behavior- it’s not like anything I’ve seen in any other culture.  I speak 9 languages fluently.  You could say it’s tied to trauma- perhaps that’s a factor.  But I’ve met other people here and elsewhere who’ve been traumatized (including myself, I have PTSD) and some of this behavior can’t be explained by that alone.

Add to that the government’s blatant homophobia that prevents gay men from adopting children together and from using surrogacy, and you have a toxic mix.  I can’t get married, I can’t have children, I can’t I can’t, I suppose in the words of 200 rabbis who signed a public letter- I’m just a fucking pervert.  This country largely sucks for gay people, and don’t let some government brochure convince you otherwise.  It’s better than Russia, it’s better than Jordan, and it’s not better than the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe.  Not even close.  Once you leave Tel Aviv (or just visit my right-wing neighborhood), it’s a veritable desert for gay people much more comparable to our conservative neighbors.  A once-a-year awesome pride parade in Beersheva (which I went to) does not mean you could comfortably walk around that city holding hands with a man.  Good luck.

As for the Jewish part, I don’t believe in God anymore after the horrors I’ve seen here.  Mostly, how people use religion to harm others.  And I was nearly a rabbinical student.  To make matters worse, as a Reform Jew, this government doesn’t recognize my movement.  And if I wanted a religious wedding, they wouldn’t recognize my rabbi’s right to conduct it.  I’d have to join the thousands of Russian immigrants whose Judaism is “suspect” to the religious police i.e. rabbinate- and go get married in Cyprus.  I liked visiting on vacation, but I’d rather not have to pay for a plane ride to get a Jewish marriage that otherwise isn’t recognized.  In a Jewish state.  I have more religious rights as a Jew in America than I do in Israel.

So if I don’t believe in God, and I do find value in Jewish culture, but I find the men (and generally the Jews here) nuts- do I really want a partner here?  So we can get married and…we can’t.  And the sad reality is, I can’t build a family here without spending $140,000 to import a child.  And I don’t have that money- and won’t make that money in a country where unless you work in high-tech, you can’t afford a decent life.  It’s pretty strange that Tel Aviv is more expensive than Rome, Barcelona, Prague- so many European cities.  That frankly are a lot cooler and cleaner than it.

To add to this, while I’m feeling increasingly healed from past abuse, I find that Israeli Jewish culture is, as a whole, one shaped by abusive norms.  Not every Israeli Jew is abusive, nor is every norm.  It is, a whole, governed by the idea that to be gentle, to be delicate, to be sensitive, to be upset- these are signs of weakness rather than simply character traits or emotions.  You have to constantly push push push to survive or you will get trampled.  And dozens of people will tell you why it was actually your fault in the first place.  I have never seen so many different people guilt me, lecture me, shame me, and yell at me without reason.  As much as Israelis want to pretend that Americans are just as racist and abusive but just don’t say it out loud- they’re wrong.  This is a lie they tell themselves to convince themselves that the rest of the world is nuts, not them.  Unfortunately, they’re wrong.  There is a concentration of hatred here I have never seen.  It’s frankly a miracle that the nice people here survive- they are the strongest, sweetest you’ll find.  When you meet one, hang on to him.  Because she will nourish you with great kindness.  Israel has some of the sweetest and meanest people I’ve ever met- a society of true extremes.

Today on the bus, a teenager said “todah”- thank you.  I didn’t talk to him so I had no idea why he was thanking me.  He said: “because you waited a second for me to get out of my seat”.  He was so unaccustomed to someone letting him simply walk off a bus without pushing and shoving that he felt a need to say thank you.  For doing something so basic that I didn’t even know what he was talking about.  Kids like this deserve better- and I’m angry at the society that abuses them on a daily basis so they can be “tough”.

I just got back from a couple days in the North.  Every time I hate living here, I simply find an AirBnB up north and go.  The North is not exempt from Israel’s problems.  I met Christians who don’t like Christians down the road simply because they’re from another village.  And who like southern Bedouin but not northern Bedouin who are “rude”.  And I met Druze who said they are the strongest warriors defeating ISIS, that Obama was a turd (without realizing I worked for him twice), and that there are millions of Druze in India (no there are not).  Even a Bedouin guy had to tell me, while we looked across the Lebanese border, that the Lebanese villagers were “simple-minded people”, not like cosmopolitan Israelis.  Everyone feels a need to be the best.  Can’t we all just be good?

This being said, the North is still 1000 times cooler than Tel Aviv.  As a gay person, it’d be very hard to find a partner up there and some of the societies I love are quite sexually conservative.  But the people are just nicer.  For every Israeli Jew who wants to pretend that their society’s meanness is simply a product of trauma, I’d invite you to visit the Arabs of the North.  Sounds like a soap opera or the title of the next Lord of the Rings movie.

Arabs in the North have suffered many traumas.  In 1948, families that had lived together for hundreds of years were separated, sometimes killed.  Villages were destroyed.  The government regularly limits their ability to build housing, causing children to leave.  Employment is extremely tenuous in the North- the government invests much more in the Center, which not coincidentally is much more Jewish.  And when it does invest in the North, it’s mostly for the benefit of Jews who move there- to “Judaize” it.  The North has also suffered rocket attacks from Hezbollah for many years- including attacks on Arab villages.

With all this- Arabs in the North, as a whole, are just much much nicer than Israeli Jews.  They are both more polite and warmer.  Israelis Jews claim they are prickly on the outside and sweet on the in, unlike their “fake” American compatriots obsessed with politeness.  But they’re wrong- you can be kind inside and out.  And the Bedouin who literally hugged me in their village, the Christian Arabs who opened their bankrupt pizzeria at night just to give me a free pizza, and the Druze who smile and take care of me every time I visit- they are proof you can be both.  Both polite and deeply warm.  You don’t need to throw elbows to smile.

After a few days in the relaxing Arab north, I headed to Nahariya, a Jewish city, to then visit a Bedouin town on the Lebanese border.  That has suffered Hezbollah rocket attacks and from where you could literally throw a baseball and hit Lebanon.  And it is stunning.  But before I got there, I took a cab from Nahariya to Rosh Hanikra.  A beautiful outpost of rocks and shoreline before the Lebanese border.  First off, my driver was a caricature of a crude Jewish Israeli.  He repeatedly screamed and cursed at his friend on the phone and guilted me for not knowing where the place was (how could I know, I’m American and I just gave him the name- I don’t know every turn in Northern Israel).  I wish I could say this was unique- frankly, by Israeli standards, he’s not even being mean.  Maybe not even meaning to be mean.  But frankly it was a rude awakening to the cultural vastness separating Arab (and American) consideration and Israeli brutality even in something as simple as a conversation.

I got to Rosh Hanikra and I noticed the differences again.  Arab families were rather calm and smiling.  Jewish families were yelling- including one man berating his child for crying.  Holding her outside a restaurant and asking “do you want to keep crying?  You won’t go inside if you do.”  This is one of dozens of times I’ve seen this- never once have I seen an Arab behave this way.

This is not to suggest Arabs can’t be abusive- everyone can be.  My point is more that the Israeli Jewish ethos normalizes a lot of abuse and aggression.  In the name of “Sabra culture”, fairly global norms have been thrown to the wind.  Where the bully is rewarded and the victim ignored.  I could tell you story after story- including how I was physically threatened at my doctor’s office simply for wanting to keep my space in line.  After the man raised his fist at me (he wanted to cut in line), I called the police.  And rather than comforting me for feeling unsafe, people huddled to the man and comforted him.  That somehow screaming and threatening someone meant you needed to be coddled.  The more you live here, the more you’ll see this.  It’s baked into the mentality.  Some people get that it’s wrong, and they are a minority I deeply empathize with.

After Rosh Hanikra I practically fled to the Bedouin village of Al Aramshe.  When I got there, the bus driver was so kind as to find me a local man on the bus to guide me around.  I was so alarmed by the people’s friendliness.  I’ve met Bedouin before- they are famed for their hospitality.  But this was a new level.  Every villager I met talked to me.  Some hugged me, at least 3 or 4 people offered me rides to whatever I wanted to see.  I had never been to this place before- I was probably the first or one of the few American Jews to ever step foot in this village.  I can’t imagine many Sabras come here.  People were absolutely thrilled to see me.  I probably could’ve even gotten invited in for a holiday meal- today was Eid Al-Adha.

Israeli Jews can be friendly too.  Once you get through the initial layer of crap, Israeli Jews can be utterly generous.  In ways I’ve rarely seen in America.  Hosting people- for meals, for overnight stays.  Sometime people they barely know.  Giving directions in such depth that you could never get lost.  And following up to make sure you understood.  Israeli Jewish society has its problems, but it is not overly individualistic.  It has a sense of communal obligation that Americans could learn from.

The issue is is it really necessary to have the hard exterior to have the sweet inside?  Is it necessary to justify or excuse bullying when you see the little guy getting beaten up?  Let alone blame the victim?  Israeli Jewish society, if not all of its members, struggles with these questions.  Perhaps because the society is predicated on stealing what doesn’t belong to it.  To a degree, in 1948 when it expelled thousands of Palestinians in a morally complicated but sometimes purposeful fashion.  And to a much clearer degree, in 1967 when it occupied millions of Palestinians without their consent.  Who for four decades have lived under Israeli military occupation as the government finds lands to build Jewish settlements all around their cities.  Increasingly cutting them off from their own friends and family.  A purposeful stranglehold.

Perhaps if Israelis empathized too much with the plight of their faceless neighbors, they’d realize just how precarious their own presence is here.  In other words, Israelis are the bully.  Not because the entire Middle East conflict is their fault (it’s not), but because that’s how they’re positioned and often act.  By design- this country would probably not exist if it weren’t for this ethos, agree with it or not.  So for an Israeli to give up on justifying the behavior of a bully is to give up on the idea of Israel itself.  At least how it has been conceived of up until now.

There are brave and independent-minded Israelis who disagree with these norms and who see both Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians as human beings.  I have to be honest with you- they are a courageous minority.  Nearly half of Jews here want to expel Arab Israelis, their fellow citizens.  79% think the government should openly favor Jews over Arab citizens.  If Israelis think this simply a matter of them being more “blunt” than Americans, they are delusional.  5.64% of white Americans identify with white supremacy– even if you think that’s survey bias, that’s 1/16th of how many people think similarly in Israel.

These ideas of supremacy also extend to how Israelis treat olim, like me.  Our “diasporic” cultures- American, French, Ethiopian, Russian- are regularly ridiculed.  When I came seeking to feel at home as part of a majority, little did I realize that my American-ness would often become an anchor weighing me down.  Preventing my full integration into society- and acceptance.  I’ve had people yell at me on the bus for speaking English “too loudly”, while they scream at their friends on the phone in Hebrew.  I’ve had my accent mocked.  Something multiple friends have experienced.  Extrapolate from that, plus the Israeli tradition of hazing new immigrants, and you can imagine what it’s like.  Not to mention how they treat non-Jewish refugees.  Who, by the way, even having survived genocides, are often much nicer than my Jewish neighbors.

At this point, you might be wondering “why are you still here?”  The honest answer is I don’t know how long I will be.  I’m an Israeli citizen, I’m an Israeli resident, and I’m blessed to be able to travel here and abroad and remain both.  Even if my center of gravity may shift as my own feelings and the situation here evolves.

I will tell you what I still like about here.  More than anything else.  It’s the stuff Israel hates.  Much like when I lived in America and I loved its cultural diversity and pluralism, I also like the things that “don’t fit” with nationalism here.  In America, I liked the Vietnamese immigrants who taught me their language over pedicures.  I liked the interracial and interfaith couples- including a Jew and Palestinian I know who got married.  A Jew and an Egyptian Copt.  The vast majority of my friends are in relationships that cross race and religion- and that’s really unique.  Americans- please appreciate this gift, it is rather rare in much of the world.  Whether you personally pursue it or not, the option is a blessing.

There are Americans who don’t like that diversity.  Patriotism is a flag, a white guy in a pick up truck, and a lot of corn fields.  Some of that’s cool, but I always felt somewhat excluded from it, along with a lot of the people I care about.

Here, I’ve discovered, it’s no different.  In the sense that I love Arabic.  I love Druze culture.  I love meeting people who are half Bulgarian half Arab.  Who are Sudanese refugees who speak Hebrew, Sudanese Arabic, and Palestinian Arabic they learned here.  I like talking about my favorite Sudanese artists with them.  Artists I discovered at a Sudanese market in America.  I love my Tibetan friend whose son speaks fluent Tigre because he goes to school with Eritrean kids.  Kids who are forced into segregated schools away from Jews simply because they’re uncircumcised.  And with all that, the Tibetan dad (who speaks Nepalese, English, Hindi, Tibetan, and Hebrew) is still an online advocate for Israel.  A country that would never give him citizenship.

Rather than the self-assured chauvinistic sabra who stuffs his face with Palestinian falafel but has never visited most Arab villages in his own country, I much prefer the Arab girl who told me she loves learning Hebrew.  Who has a far more sophisticated understanding of pluralism than our own Prime Minister.  I like the Bedouin guy who married a Kavkazi Jew who then converted to Islam and then send their kids to a Jewish school.  The kids speak fluent Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Kavkazi.  And will learn English by the time they are teens.  Not unlike the Circassian kids in Rihaniya I met who *all* speak English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Adagi, their native language.

Basically, I love Israel for what its founders and leaders wished it were not.  The cosmopolitan, multi-faith, multilingual paradise that is- and can be.  It has some of the most fascinating and rich cultures in the world.  Cultures (including Jewish ones on the edge of extinction) that the government has tried really hard to suppress or stigmatize.  But have managed to make it to this day.

So in the end, what keeps me somewhat connected to this place is not Israel, it’s not really Judaism, and it’s not Zionism.  It’s what all of those things have sought to suppress.

In the swollen, in the valleys bereft of their former inhabitants, a new country arises.  In fact, it has always been there.  It gives this country’s leaders great anxiety.  And if I’m traveling abroad, it gives me a reason to think about buying a ticket.  To head to Ben Gurion Airport, hop off the plane, and as soon as humanly possible, get on a bus to the Deep North or the Bedouin South, and hang out with the people who make me feel at home.  The people you’re taught to fear.  The people I’d put on my travel brochure.

p.s.- the picture is from my trip today to the stunning Al Aramshe.  If you don’t know where that is and you’ve lived here your whole life, get on a bus and fix the problem.