The Aramaic-speaking gay Iraqi in Tel Aviv

Lately, living in Israel has kind of sucked.  My government has turned into some sort of slimy festering poop mobile, spurting out nothing but shit whenever it opens its mouth.  A law against gay surrogacy, a law against the Arabic language, a law against non-Jewish minorities, arresting a liberal rabbi for performing a marriage, the list is almost endless.  Also, there’s something about pollution in the Mediterranean which I haven’t had the time to read about.  Plus the normal pressures of life here- like Hamas rockets and Iran threatening to obliterate us.  Not to mention thousands of Syrian refugees crowding our border trying to escape their murderous government.  A government that makes ours look like sheep.

When things suck here (yes, they sometimes really do- and if you’re considering moving here, you should be ready for that), I try to think of what I like about this place.  Am I just insane or did I find something here that makes me stand in awe despite all the idiocy that surrounds me?

And a story came to mind.  A few months ago, I went clubbing.  I love to dance and need to more often, but I don’t go clubbing that much.  I’m 32, I don’t have a lot of friends who like to club, and it’s not like I feel up for it every weekend.  It’s energizing and it takes a lot of energy.

But one weekend I went.  In the club, I was very friendly.  It was a gay night and there were tons of cute guys!  I’ve been so busy doing everything here- learning about Israeli culture, making friends, exploring identity, finding housing, getting important healthcare, and sweating a lot- that I haven’t dedicated a lot of time to men.  Although I am single- so if you’re cute and smart and like an adventure, hit me up 😀

But this night I did go out.  And in the club there is this very cute guy.  Very typically Jewish looking- yes we come in all shapes and sizes, but I mean that kind of “I know you’re a Jew from a mile away” look.  Typically Semitic.

I go over to him and start dancing with him.  Turns out he’s from Germany.  Surprise number one.  Because I speak Yiddish, I could communicate with him.  I wondered if he was a German Jew.

But as I got to talking to him, the surprises kept coming.  He’s German, but actually Iraqi.  His family became refugees after the absurd American war in 2003.

What’s particularly strange is why he was in Tel Aviv.  At a gay club.

Iraq and Israel have no diplomatic relations, so I presume he entered on a German passport.

But why did he look so Semitic?  I mean Arabs are Semites, so I spoke to him in Arabic and he said he understood a little.  Huh.  So maybe because he was born in Germany?

No.  He was born in Iraq.  I asked what languages he spoke.  German, some English, and- prepare to be in awe- Aramaic.

Aramaic.  The language of the ancient Middle East, the Talmud, many Jewish prayers, Jesus Christ, yeah.  Aramaic.

I was so turned on.  Intellectually and yeah, the other kind too.

And guess what?

He’s gay!!!!

GAY!!!  An Aramaic-speaking Iraqi Christian German GAYYYYYYY.  The cute guy who looks like a Jew looks like a Jew because we’re from the same neck of the woods.  And boy would I like to be in HIS neck of the woods.

You might be thinking, well duh, he’s at a gay club.  But many straight people in Tel Aviv go to gay parties.  And all of his German friends with him were straight.  In fact he wasn’t even out to them, which is why I’ll use the Aramaic pseudonym Michel when talking about him.

It was simply some sort of Semitic gaydar that allowed me to connect with him.

He loves Tel Aviv and actually came back for Pride.  It’s probably the closest Michel can get to a queer Semitic vibe, as his homeland is plagued with homophobic violence.

For me, this story is nothing but romantic.  Ancient cultures, beautiful languages, the unexpected- combining in one thrilling moment in Tel Aviv.  You couldn’t have written a sexier story if you tried.  Israeli independent film doesn’t even have the imagination to concoct such a scenario.

And there we were.  One gay Aramean Christian, one gay American-Israeli Jew.  But at a certain point, the labels didn’t matter.  He was cute and we liked to dance.

So that night in Tel Aviv reminds me of the unexpected surprises and glorious nuggets of hope that lie in this land.  A land tortured by fanatical power-hungry idiots who unfortunately run it.  And the psychotic neighboring powers who torture us and their own peoples.

For one moment that night, all of that didn’t matter.  Because I was dancing at a gay club in Aramaic.  And the 21 year old Matt who downloaded his first Iraqi Aramaic song a decade ago was smiling ear to ear.

Sometimes I yearn for a calmer life- in America, abroad, traveling, or even elsewhere in Israel.  Who knows where I will roam.  What I know is this kind of night- that’s what makes this place special.

p.s.- the cover photo is a Syriac church in Jerusalem.  If you can’t read it, it’s because it’s in Aramaic 🙂

Tribes gone wild

This blog might sound a bit strange after I just wrote one celebrating my first year in Israel.  The reality of being in Israel, though, is that I find my emotions yo-yo on a daily, often hourly basis.  Things go from very bad to very good to bad again- sometimes minute to minute.  The shifts in mood are palpable- and far more frequent than I experience in any other country I’ve visited.

In the past week, Israel has experienced multiple earthquakes, hundreds of Hamas rocket attacks, Syrian refugees crowding the northern border desperately trying to escape their own government, settlers attacking Israeli soldiers, Haredim attacking young women for being “immodest”, the increasingly psychotic government refusing to give gay men the right to surrogacy.  And trying to pass a law that would allow communities to bar members of the basis of religion, race, sexuality, or any of a number of identities.  It was subsequently watered down, but still pretty bigoted, and now is successfully winding its way through the Knesset.

Through all of this, I’ve tried to speak out, mostly in Hebrew.  One, because that’s what most people speak here- people who follow these events and can influence them.  Also, because there’s a problem.  The far-left in America and Europe has made it nearly impossible for left-wing and centrist Israelis to successfully rally support for their causes or criticism.

Why?  Because there are people who are committed to our destruction.  Who are unceasingly and at times irrationally critical of Israel.  In a way they aren’t of other countries- or sometimes even their own.  One can even view the recent shenanigans of IfNotNow in this light.  A far-left American Jewish group who, in the face of serious global challenges like the Syrian Civil War or Hamas rocket attacks, has instead decided to disrupt Birthright trips for not being left-wing enough.  Ruining the Israel experiences of other young people because the trips aren’t tailored exactly to their tastes like the SweetGreen salads they custom order at lunch for $15.  Excuse my cynicism- I just don’t think that just because someone has come to political conclusions about the situation here (which is their right), that means they get to force an entire organization to adopt their stance.  No one is forcing them to take a free trip to Israel.  If you want to see Palestinian and Arab perspectives, all you have to do is extend your ticket and hop on a bus to Bethlehem.  It’s not complicated and it’s way less confrontational than aggravating a bunch of young people on a trip with an explicit purpose that they simply don’t like.  Stop acting like entitled children.  If you’re really serious about your beliefs, you can buy your own plane tickets.

When people like IfNotNow or groups even more extremist dedicated to destroying Israel harm us, it makes it much harder for those of us on the inside to enact beneficial change.  Because when we speak out about discrimination against gays, Arabs, foreign workers, or refugees- some of these extremists use it as an opportunity to say everyone here is rotten.  Which then gives ammunition to the far right here to silence us- we must be traitors, just like those troublemakers abroad.  It’s not true- but it has resonance in a country under attack with little taste for nuance.

So I’m going to try to offer some criticism of Israel- but understand it’s with the purpose of actually making change.  To help steer this community in a stronger direction.  Not simply to make noise and masturbate my ideology.  I can’t control if you’ll take my words and use them to hurt me.  Just know that I will use every bit of my being to stomp you out and protect us- with the same level of passion that I use to fix what’s wrong here.

So what is wrong here?  A lot.  The earthquakes I can’t do much about- God, stop punishing us, we’ve had enough.  The Hamas rockets- I’m exhausted with our patience.  The world sits silently, mostly unaware as the media ignores our fate.  If Western Liberals showed one tenth of the passion for our lives as they do for immigrant children (which is justified), then the rocket fire would be condemned from wall to wall.  And maybe even pressure Hamas to stop.  Now would be the time to speak up.  For moral reasons.  For Israeli lives.  Frankly, also for Palestinian lives- they’re going to suffer increasing pain as they pay the price for Hamas’s games.  And if you want to get practical, 300,000 American citizens live in Israel.  And we vote.  So if you want our support, show that you give a shit.

Now on to our idiotic government.  I’m not a reactionary far-left voter.  At times in the past, I frequented this space.  I still find some of the ideas important.  And I’d say, while I don’t fit into a box, I’m somewhere left-of-center or centrist in Israeli politics.  And I appreciate some ideas that come from the right- I’m not orthodox in my politics.  Nor in my synagogue, though I have davvened in Bnei Brak.

But this government is leading Israel off a cliff.  The latest Nationality Law seeks to enshrine discrimination in Israel’s Basic Laws- laws that are not exactly a constitution, but are incredibly hard to repeal.  While the law did innocuous things like recognize national holidays, the controversial aspects surrounded a downgrading of the status of Arabic, restrictions on where people can live, and antagonistic attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Jews abroad and at home.  With strong implications for Arabs, LGBTs, and other minority communities.  Until the text was altered, I had to live with the idea that I could be denied residence in a community for being Reform or gay- an almost unthinkable legal reality.  If sadly, the unspoken truth in many places in the world, even democracies.  Enshrining it in law certainly would have given malignant social practice a dangerous boost.

The saddest thing about this law is not the text itself.  Nor is it the future it could portend.  It is that it describes an existing reality.  I’ve traveled extensively in Israel- over 100 different communities in one year.  From every single possible linguistic, ethnic, and religious background.  Places few Israelis visit- Israelis who’ve lived here all their lives in insidious narcissistic bubbles.  Bubbles sometimes created by fear- sometimes even understandable because of that fear.  Bubbles nonetheless.

This is the greatest problem with the law- it makes explicit existing social practice.  Israel is a tribalistic nightmare.  It is filled with rich ancient cultures.  Cultures preserved through insistence on maintaining community and tradition.  In ways unseen in the West, where cultures meld into creative fusions and, if we’re honest, mostly oblivion.  I’ve met rather few Irish-Americans who speak Irish, and not a small number of 3rd generation Latinos who can’t speak Spanish.  The gift of America is its vibrant churn.  Its curse is the evaporation of cultural heritage.

In Israel, that heritage is preserved.  To shocking degrees.  There are Christians in the north who pray in Aramaic- some actually speak it.  Just like the Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem.  And every day Hasidic Jews study 2,000 year old texts in the very same language.  That Jesus spoke.

The problem is that this preservation, this conservation comes at a price: social understanding.  Israel is divided into tribes: secular, traditional, Orthodox, Haredi, Druze, Christian Arab, Muslim Arab.  Left-wing, right-wing, center.  With lines that occasionally are breached, for example by my friends who grew up Orthodox and are now Reform.  But this is by far the exception.  When people plant themselves here, they leave themselves little room to wiggle.  And often little curiosity to explore other pastures.

This is the greatest problem with Israel.  One I recognized half a year ago.  And I have even more evidence for now.  This isn’t a society.  It is a collection of societies.  That mostly don’t talk to each other and are largely content to avoid each other.  From every possible direction, lest someone pretend their tribe doesn’t follow this pattern.  I’ve met Druze who say they keep their Muslim minorities “under control”.  I’ve met Christians who say they keep their Muslim neighbors “in line”- and if there are problems, they’ll “take care of them”.  Muslims have used religion as a wedge against Christians in Nazareth, of all places.  It’s safe to say almost no Muslim villages here would be thrilled to see Jews moving in.  With the exception of welcoming Abu Ghosh, where a woman wanted to know why I didn’t want an apartment there.  Unfortunately, a woman from there was beaten by Jewish girls in Jerusalem for being Arab this week.  When it rains, it pours.   You can extrapolate the same patterns of voluntary segregation among all types of Jews- among themselves and towards Arabs.  Lest you think it’s only right-wing Jews who feel this way, I’ve never ever met an Arab who was allowed to live on a Kibbutz.  And they largely understand they won’t be allowed on a moshav, or village.  I’ve yet to see my wealthy friends in North Tel Aviv show interest in setting up an African refugee community in their neighborhood.

People here are generous- about giving directions, about hosting strangers, about feeding you, about giving advice.  And they are utterly selfish when it comes to defending the interests of their community above the dignity of the individual or, for that matter, the well-being of the nation.

If America is far too individualistic, Israel is far too communal.  With pluses and minuses in both directions.  I’ve noticed that not all societies are so extreme- my travels in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have revealed places somewhere in the middle.

Preserving a Jewish majority in Israel is what allows it to be a Jewish state.  The reckless, gung-ho attitude of its early pioneers, the native-born Sabras, is what allowed the state to get on its feet.

But those very pioneers contained a fatal contradiction.  Their disregard for rules, their utter contempt for the Diaspora and all things foreign- it has become limiting.  Because if you look at who can best contribute to the cultural dialogue here that could strengthen bonds and ease tensions- it’s people like me and thousands of olim who’ve chosen to make Israel our home.  People who, at our best, have the sensitivity of having been a minority, as well as the pride of choosing to make this our home.  People who know how to navigate various cultures and come with less preconceptions about different communities.  More often than not, understanding the value of pluralism, or at least the power of listening.  Something sabras struggle to do as they lecture us about how we’re wrong and they know better.  As the country they built rages with fire- fire from the outside, and fire kindled from within.

It’s high time the sabra realized he’s not the only fruit in the field.

p.s.- the cover photo is from a Druze village.  It says: “it’s my fault that I love my sect”.  A kind of Middle Eastern “sorry not sorry”.

Israeli pride

Today was my first Tel Aviv Pride.  Every year, thousands of Israelis and tourists gather to celebrate the LGBTQ community here in Israel.  There are floats and sexy guys and it’s awesome.

For the first time in my life, I got to experience it.

In America, I marched in many pride parades- almost always with Jewish groups.  This time, the parade itself was Israeli, so the idea of a Jewish group marching is obsolete- we are the parade.

The parade itself was actually slightly more sexually conservative than in Washington, D.C., which may amaze my Israeli friends.  And its energy was amazing.  There was such a sense of community.

Rather than marching with organized floats, the parade was Israeli- everyone could join in.  There’s no “order”- it’s just splendid flowing chaos of hot guys (and gals).

I came wearing an Israeli flag and ended up buying a Star of David pride flag along the way.  Because Israel is the only country in the world where it is totally safe- even blessed- to be a gay Jew.  And to be proud of it.  Without worrying if people will throw you out of the parade for liking Israel.  Which is a thing unfortunately abroad.

While Tel Aviv pride was smaller than Washington (although still quite large), it felt special.  First off, it went off smoothly and safely.  Not something to take for granted here.  I want to thank the brave policeman and policewomen who every day keep us safe.  Whether it’s some crazy person within Israel- or a terrorist coming from without- sadly too many people want to harm both Israelis and the LGBT community.  I’m grateful that I live in the *only* country in the Middle East where you can count on the police to protect the pride parade rather than break it up.  I hope one day my queer Arab neighbors fighting for their rights will be able to enjoy the same sense of security.

What was also incredible about today, other than the sunny weather, the post-parade swim at the beach, and the pride Shabbat services I went to, was who I went to pride with.

I first started by making plans with my friend Miriam.  A Spanish Jew who I befriended in D.C., she wisely followed me to Israel 😉  My friend Daniel was also in town from America, so we had a trio.  Then I got a message from Ezequiel, a gay Argentinian-Israeli friend of mine, so he and his Arab friend Ahmed joined us.  This was Ahmed’s (pseudonym) first pride parade- you could tell he was a bit nervous and perhaps somewhat closeted.  And wow am I proud of him for being brave and coming.  Being a gay Arab is not easy- as several friends of mine in their community have shared with me.  One Arab lesbian friend of mine stays in the closet for fear her family will kill her in an honor killing.  There are Arab families who do accept their children and unfortunately a lot who don’t.  Forcing queer Arabs into a difficult identity dance in both (largely Jewish) LGBTQ culture here and their background.  I’m glad Ahmed found a sense of belonging in the parade- you could see him flitting back and forth, often losing track of us as he made new friends.

We were joined by Kate, an Australian soon to be Israeli.  And along the way, we met a Ukrainian girl named Natasha (pseudonym).  Natasha is a lesbian from Haifa of Ukrainian background- this was her first pride.  She’s Jewish and not religious in the slightest.  Sadly, her Catholic girlfriend is still living with a lot of stigma so she wouldn’t attend.  She was alone- and I invited her to join us.

Later on, we were joined by an exceedingly hot Argentinian-Israeli named Ariel and his wife.

Kitzer, or “in short”, there we were: gay (me, Natasha, Ahmed, and Ezequiel) and straight (everyone else).  Australian, Argentinian, Spanish, Israeli, American, Ukrainian, Arab, Jewish and not.  A melting pot of newcomers and veterans (Miriam has marched with me on two continents!).  The beauty of Tel Aviv 2018.

There are people who reduce Israeli queer life, the most vibrant in all of Asia- the biggest continent on Earth- to “pinkwashing”.  This phrase is meant to say that when Israelis talk about their queer pride, they are simply using it to “cover up” the difficult reality facing Palestinians.  That we don’t deserve credit for our advances even if in other areas things aren’t so simple.

This is what I have to say: fuck you.  Do Palestinians face hardships?  Of course.  Some of those caused by Israel and not a small number caused by their own extremists or surrounding Arab nations.  And I pray for a day when they will be able to celebrate their own pride parades- and when their society will accept queer youth.  And when our two societies can live in peace.

Here’s the reality: while it’s true that the Israeli government uses gay rights as a promotional tool (often without giving us the full rights we deserve), our country is hands-down the most progressive one in the Middle East.  While some people want to turn our pride parade into a discussion about conflict, that doesn’t change some incontrovertible facts.  Palestinian society has harbored strong strains of homophobia long before the State of Israel even existed.  Homosexuality is illegal- sometimes punishable by death- in Syria, Egypt, Palestinian Authority/Gaza, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  If you really think this is because of Israel or Jews, it’s conspiratorial and anti-Semitic.  Believe it or not, other societies in the region sometimes have problems that have nothing to do with us.  And noticing that Israeli LGBT people openly serve in the military, enjoy anti-discrimination laws, and even serve as out-of-the-closet elected officials- that’s not pinkwashing- that’s the truth.

Some people are not capable of letting Israelis celebrate a single accomplishment without dragging us down.  We know- I know- that my country, like any other country, has things we need to change.  Guess what?  Your country does too.

While the far-left in Western countries continues to point the finger at us and tries to deny us even one day of enjoyment of our loving society, I’d like to point to an incontrovertible fact.

Today, I marched in pride with a Ukrainian lesbian and an Arab bisexual man- both citizens of Israel.  In their respective societies or homelands, their identity is often punished.  In Ukraine, by far-right thugs and in Arab society, sometimes even by your own family.

Israeli society isn’t perfect and the homophobia here exists as well.  Every society suffers this malignancy.

The main thing I want to point out is that despite the security risks today, the associated costs involved with putting it on, the rockets Hamas continues to rain down on us- Ahmed and Natasha could march in pride.  With me.  In peace and safety.

So rather than telling us how terrible Israel is, try asking yourself: “what have I done today to help people like Natasha and Ahmed?”  Because if you have the privilege of reading this from a nice laptop in a Western democracy, you’re pretty fucking lucky.  Because people like my friends don’t have many places to run.  And they don’t have the luxury of obsessing over every tweet.

They’re exploring their identity- and by the grace of the State of Israel- they can do without fear that this parade will be their first.  And last.

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

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

beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking gay with a Breslover Hasid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleasure to meet you”

“You too man!”

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

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

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

Gay-friendly Arab, homophobic secular Jew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you go in peace, wherever you go 🙂

The Bi-curious Druze Boy

For starters, to protect the young person involved, no names or identifying information is used in this story, but all the essential facts are true.

The past few days, I went on a trip to what I call the Druze Galilee.  There’s an area largely north of Karmiel where there’s Druze village after Druze village and they’re all absolutely gorgeous.  Here’s a map and some pretty pictures:

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It’s a beautiful, peaceful place where I enjoyed practicing my Arabic.  I love speaking Arabic, but due to fanaticism among some sectors of society, I can’t speak it comfortably everywhere especially as a Jew and as an Israeli (and sometimes even an American).  What’s great about Druze villages is they, by and large, wholeheartedly accept me as a Jewish Israeli and are thrilled to see a Jew taking interest in their language and culture.

Early in my trip, I was walking up a hill and a young man, 17 almost 18 years old, pulled over his moped and said hi.  As with all my stories from this trip, pretty much everything was in Arabic with a sprinkling of Hebrew.  He asked where I was going and offered to get me in the right direction.  So I hopped on with him and he drove.

I felt free, riding around in the countryside, babbling in Arabic as the wind swept across my face.  A young Druze boy showing me around his beautiful neck of the woods.  Couldn’t get better.  I asked him to pull over to take some pictures.  He begged me not to get off- “we could go for a trip!”.  I asked him to wait a second as I took some pictures.  Because suddenly there were goats in the way!  Tons and tons of goats!  I was so excited- having spent most of my life in cities, it was pretty exciting to see goats on the road!

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While I took pictures of the goats, the young man started asking me questions- questions I often get from young Arab kids here.  “Do you have a girlfriend or boyfriend in Tel Aviv?”  I said no.  “But if you had one, would it be a boyfriend or girlfriend?” he said with hesitation.  “Boyfriend,” I said.  “Boyfriend?  Like male or female?  Or like the ones who change their gender?”  “Nope, just a boyfriend.  A man and a man together.”

I waited for the reaction.  It was a gamble on my part.  We were pretty much alone on a wooded path at least 100 meters from a main street.  I know absolutely nobody in the area.  He has a moped and I have…a cellphone?  In the end, you don’t know how people will react.  Druze, while extraordinarily accepting of my Judaism, are known for being quite socially conservative including on gay issues.  Not like certain right-wing Christians in the U.S. who try to influence the law because of it.  But conservative nonetheless.  And I was the only Israeli Jew for several miles around.  I had never been to this part of Israel.

Trusting my good instincts and what seemed to be his good nature, I stood there with him, next to his moped.  And it turns out, I not only made a good choice, I may have done a mitzvah.  A good deed.  He continued to ask me all sorts of questions about gay people and my life.  Dating, romance, sex, even the wild world of the internet.  Of course some things I just wasn’t comfortable sharing- to respect my privacy and to remember that he’s 17 years old.  But I did share what I thought was relevant and helpful and appropriate.

After the 20th question, I asked him: “are you asking me these questions because you yourself are curious?”  And he said: “maybe…could we do something?”

I smiled.  On some level, I was flattered.  Also intrigued that this guy knew I was gay simply by meeting me on the street.  And that he had a comfort level to ask me these (sometimes invasive but well-intentioned) questions.  We had a nice moment.  It makes me smile to think a Druze teenager propositioned me.  17 year old me would’ve loved such a moment.  If I weren’t being abused by my family and subjected to rabid homophobia at school, in sports, even sometimes in synagogue- I would’ve come out sooner and maybe I could’ve had more high school romances.  Maybe even with a Druze guy!

And the reality was that I was 32 and he was a minor.  I wanted to be supportive of his desire to learn more and also had to draw some clear limits.  I explained to him why we couldn’t have sex and he was disappointed.  He asked me: “there are other guys in the village- they have sex with men, but I’m not sure they’re gay.  If I have sex with a man, does it mean I’m gay?”

I told him: “you have to discover that for yourself.  Some people try things and it’s more of an experience.  Some people feel it fits them.  It’s up to you.”

I thought back to an earlier part of our conversation when he asked me how I knew I was gay.  I’ve gotten this question millions of times from liberal Americans and it frustrates the hell out of me.  Nobody asks them when they figured out when they were straight.  Because it’s something you feel, it’s not something you wake up in the morning and decide.  The only reason we have to discover it is because society assumes we’re not gay from the day we’re born.  And we have to uncover an identity hidden from us, that nobody will bestow upon us.  After often years of estrangement, many (though not all) of us come to realize who we are and what we like.  It can be exhausting and quite hard.

Before I realized this young man was curious about his own identity, I had told him: “well, I know I’m gay just like you know you’re straight.  You just are.  How did you know you were straight?”

And then I realized: he didn’t know.  He doesn’t.  And he may never know.

This young man was not any old Druze.  He’s a religious Druze.  There are secular and religious Druze- the latter take on many more responsibilities along with special dress and customs.  He’s dated girls some and seems to like it- I’m not sure to what extent.  If he lived in a more liberal society, perhaps he’d be out by now.  I don’t know.  Maybe he’s bi.  Maybe he’s gay.  Maybe he’s straight and just trying things out.  I don’t know.  And I hope, even with the pressures of the society around him- a society I love dearly- that he can figure out the best path forward for him.

If that’s coming out and risking family disapproval or being cut off- I wish him well.  He did mention one family in the village that had a gay son living elsewhere in Israel with a boyfriend- who accepted him.  That’s pretty awesome.  Maybe he’ll get married and have trysts (or maybe not)- I hope he’s happy.  I’m not here to judge him.  It’s hard to straddle multiple identities- and in the case of being Druze and (maybe) gay- it must be difficult.  You shouldn’t have to give up one part of yourself to be another.  And the reality is negotiating that balance, as hard as it is, might be worth it.  I pray for his well-being and his happiness.

I saw the disappointment on his face when I said no to a romantic tryst in the woods (but readers- I am single, so if you’re of age, I do like the idea of kissing under a cedar 😉 ).  I bid him goodbye with this blessing: “good luck habibi, bnjaa7!  find someone your age 😉  It’ll be OK”.

He smiled as he went down the mountain on his moped. Teenage Matt and Matah were smiling.  I hope I did for him what I wish more people had done for me at his age.

My milkshake brings all the Druze to the yard.  Now if only I can find one my own age… 😉

P.S.- the cover photo isn’t a pride flag, it’s a Druze one!  Now tell me that beautiful rainbow flag wouldn’t look fabulous in a pride parade some day carried by some exceedingly hot Druze guys? 🙂

Independence from black-and-white thinking

Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli.  And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil.  It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors.  To celebrate my progress.  It was a day to rejoice.

Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times.  There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers.  There was fun.  We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments.  In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction.  Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line.  About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria.  Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.

At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought.  Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.”  I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt.  Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back.  I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here.  Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are.  And we all deserve a seat at the table.

It got me thinking.  I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel.  All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined.  It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail.  Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.

So I wanted to just enjoy.  And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life.  In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague.  We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation.  No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.

The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians.  We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day.  The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence.  And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe.  The creation of my state.  While they still don’t have one.

I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel).  For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough.  And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years.  With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.

I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating.  I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village.  I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew.  Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back.  In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew.  Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against.  I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets.  The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.

In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here.  Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war.  We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out.  Just for being Jews.  And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here.  The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked.  A miracle.

You can go through this story with just about any Jew here.  This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew.  An out-of-the-closet Jew.  For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under.  And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences.  Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia.  And we’re not going to give it up.  Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.

As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  And they’re right.  When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish.  When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here.  Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”.  I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about.  And I also hate it.

I am proud to be Israeli.  I love my country and its people.  I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.

I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.

And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.

I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported.  And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.

I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here.  I have more rights in the States.  I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children.  And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population.  According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality.  The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%.  Palestinians come in at 3%.  Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians).  My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center.  Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.

In the end, living here is complex.  I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here.  If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place.  Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school.  We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box.  So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists.  While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property.  Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.

And it makes it much richer.  So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking.  When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all.  It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow.  Each with is unique shade.  Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.

In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity.  Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with.  Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior.  Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.

Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope.  It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity.  The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered.  At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis.  Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go.  Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything.  Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.

Happy birthday Israel.  May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.

I love you Israel.  When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better.  I’m glad to be home in your arms.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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Bedouin Arabic…in Hasidic Bnei Brak

Yes, the title is exactly what you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A New Year’s Resolution for Israel

Today is the secular new year.  In Israel, fittingly but quite strange for me, they say “shanah tovah”, the typical Jewish greeting for Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year.  It’s a fun night of celebration and also a chance to think of what’s ahead.

For me, this week marks my 6 month anniversary of arriving in Israel.  I’ve learned so much in such a little amount of time.  I’ve visited over 35 cities.  I’ve been to Hasidic dance parties, Mizrachi concerts, dabke dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Yiddish theater, a Russian puppet show, and a Yemenite concert.  I’ve eaten Bukharian, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazi, Romanian, Druze, Arab, Kavkazi, Georgian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Eritrean, Filipino, and so many other types of food.  I’ve davvened with Haredim, Reform Jews, Chabad, and hippie vegan Jews.  I visited a Druze shrine and a Karaite synagogue.  I got to watch Islamic prayer up close and personal in a mosque and I went to an LGBT Orthodox Torah study group.

Not bad for the half year mark!  I’m quite proud of all my accomplishments- moving across the ocean alone, making friends, finding an apartment, adjusting to a new culture, and using all nine of my languages and starting to add Greek!

There has been a lot of stress along the way.  Israel is an extraordinarily hard place to live- or so say Sabras who grew up here.  And while sometimes they exaggerate because whining here is kind of a national sport (and they don’t know much about the challenges faced by people elsewhere), the truth is in many ways they’re right.  And it’s all the more difficult for someone like me who moved here at 31 without an extensive support network.

What’s hardest about life in Israel is also the source of my New Year’s resolution.  The hardest part of life in Israel is the people.  More specifically, the intense and mean-spirited prejudice I experience on almost a daily basis.  Towards me as an American and towards other cultures- especially within Israel.  Don’t get me wrong- there are some fantastic people here, who mostly join me in complaining about the awful ones.  But boy- there is a mean streak to Israeli culture that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world.  It’s not because I haven’t seen prejudice elsewhere- I’ve experienced it in places like Spain (anti-Semitism), Argentina (homophobia), and the U.S. (all of the above).

The difference in Israel is the intensity and the degree to which many people here celebrate judging others.  I’m someone who deeply values multiculturalism.  I’m well aware that there are limits to it and questions about how far it should extend.  But the basic principle of respecting- at times embracing- parts of every culture to me is second nature and a fundamental way I live in the world.  The good news is Israel is chock full of interesting cultures.  Sadly, that most Israelis know nothing about- and don’t care to appreciate.  While some Israelis are curious about Berlin or America, few are particularly curious about their neighbors who look or talk differently from them.  Let alone their own roots.

The truth is when the State of Israel was being built, its founders despised (and that is not too strong a word) multiculturalism.  Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic- these languages were vigorously and shamefully repressed by the state.  Kids grew up with shame about their roots.  And sadly some 2,000 year old beautiful Jewish cultures are going extinct as a result.

The un-rootedness of many Sabras fosters insecurity and prejudice towards those who maintain their heritage.  Just ask many a Sabra what they think of French Jews or Russians who continue to speak their languages here.

There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in cultural diversity, but it needs to be nourished.  And that’s where I- and you- come in.  There are Israelis like me who are proud of our origins.  There are Israelis- I’ve met them- who realize you can speak fluent Hebrew and still maintain (or re-learn) your French or Russian or Arabic or Romanian.  There are many who don’t realize that because they’ve been trained to revile the Diaspora.  And that’s very sad.

But in the end, I believe in multiculturalism and I’m convinced there are some people here who are ready to join me in this movement.  I want to celebrate the incredible cultural richness here- of Jews, of Arabs, of refugees, of everyone.  It is a gift that must be cherished to be protected.

It is no longer acceptable to me that when I tell my Sabra friends that I met Aramaic-speaking Christians or Samaritans who speak Ancient Hebrew or Eritreans with an awesome juice bar that their reaction is: “wow I didn’t know that was there- you’ve seen more here in 6 months than I’ve seen in a lifetime!”

Bullshit.  Time to get off your hummus-filled tuchus and get to know the richness of your country.  No- not the high-tech.  The cultural treasures right underneath your nose waiting to be discovered.

It’s time to leave behind the old-fashioned Zionist concept of the “effeminate”, “decadent”, “overly pious”, “cosmopolitan”, “weak” Diaspora Jew.  It’s 2018, time for a change.  It’s time to realize the “Diaspora” is The World.  And lucky for us, a whole bunch of people from all over the world have made this country their home.

Now it’s time to realize that if we understand where we came from, our cultures, our heritage- it doesn’t negate our Israeli identity.  It thoroughly enriches it.  Just like my delicious cover photo of Pringles, Russian sweets, Korean seaweed, and Israeli Bissli that co-exist at my neighborhood store.  Pluralism that begins with culture can increase respect between all sectors of society.  And instead of Jew hating Arab hating Zionist Orthodox hating Haredi hating Secular hating Mizrachi hating Ashkenazi- maybe, just maybe, we build just a little bit more understanding and a lot less hate.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.  Inshallah.  Ojalá.  Mirtsashem.

Let’s do this y’all. 🙂

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