The Primary Axis is Empathy

Ok so one of the most confusing aspects of living here, perhaps of life itself, is understanding the context for what people say.  And what it reveals about their intentions.

Most of our public discourse is focused on quotes- and not just here in Israel.  “Gotcha” moments dominate our news cycles and rarely do we consider the surrounding environment.  Critical thinking is not a skill valued by the news media these days- nor by many of its consumers.

So rather than talking public policy or the latest headlines, I’d like to delve into a less-discussed aspect of the conflict here- and its implications for politics everywhere: the axis of empathy.

For most people, the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is broken down into pro-Arab/Palestinian and pro-Israel.  To be one is not to be the other- or at least a lot less.

What I’ve come to realize, both through living here, through spending lots of time in Arab villages in Israel and meeting Palestinians, is that this breakdown is a distraction from the real conflict.

It’s not meaningless, but it obscures the most important dividing line.

When I’m abroad- Europe, America- my primary orientation is to be wary of hardcore pro-Palestinian activists and to feel more empathy for Israel.  For two reasons.  One is that generally speaking, if someone is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel outside of this land, they are an anti-Semite.  And if someone is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish outside of Israel, they are empathetic towards Jews.  And generally, though not always, empathetic in general.  The exception to this rule would be people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish or pro-Israel and extremely anti-Arab, to the point of being an extremist.  There are people who are pro-Israel and anti-Jewish- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would be a prime example of one.  And there are certainly people who are pro-Israel and hate all Arabs- I met a Dutch guy on CouchSurfing who liked Israel (and gay rights, interestingly enough) because he hated Arab immigrants.  But when it came down to it, he was actually kind of homophobic.  The flowery gay rights rhetoric was merely a convenient tool to oppose (indeed, sometimes homophobic) Arab immigrants in his own country.  Not out of genuine concern.

What is important to note is that this dynamic flips on its head while living here.  In Israel, the least empathetic Jews are unquestioningly pro-Israel and anti-Arab.  And I have more empathy for Arabs here who oppose Israeli government policy than the Algerian man I met in Spain who claimed Israel and America started the Syrian civil war.  And claimed Russia and Iran hadn’t killed anyone.

In other words, the very same sentence in two different contexts can mean two completely different things.  Making identifying toxic people a challenge for someone like me who straddles multiple cultures- often in the same day.

For example, I’ve met Americans and Europeans visiting Israel who only want to visit Palestinian areas and show no interest in Israeli history and narratives.  I once met a German exchange student at Tel Aviv University who came to dance dabke with Arab students- and me.  While I was there out of empathy and a desire to learn more about my neighbors, he was there because he hates Israel and Jews.  But I didn’t catch this at first, which ended up really hurting me.  I figured that because we’re both in the same place and we both have empathy for Arabs, therefore we must both be empathetic people.  The problem is that when we sat in a cafe after dancing, he asked me: “why do Israelis talk so much about the Holocaust?  It’s old history.”  When I tried to explain that in the same city he was sitting, there were actual Holocaust survivors, his response was to defer: “but that happened so long ago”.  In his country.

So here’s the rub.  We’re going to the same event.  We would both probably agree with the sentence: “I’m concerned about the human rights of the Palestinian people”.  But I’m doing it as an Israeli concerned about my neighbors’ well being.  And he’s doing it because he doesn’t like Jews.  My words are out of empathy, and his out of antipathy.

The same can go for Arabs themselves.  Many people throw around the word “Arabs” as if 300 million people were the same.  Yet the experience and positioning of Arabs can be radically different.  When a Moroccan immigrant to Belgium says “Israel is a racist state”, it is without a doubt coming from anti-Semitism.  It is rather unlikely he’d say Morocco is racist for having persecuted its Jewish citizens whose quarters now lie largely empty.  Nor for oppressing its 30% Berber minority.

Yet when an Arab citizen of Israel complains about racist discrimination, it is usually based on first-hand experience.  And unlike the Moroccan in Belgium, who has almost certainly never even been here, the Arab Israeli has felt this in her own life.  So again, the very same sentence, two completely opposite meanings.  In the case of the Moroccan immigrant, anti-Semitism.  And the Arab living here, concern for his well-being and the state of society.  Antipathy and empathy.

Of course there are nuances.  There are Arabs here who care a lot of about racism and injustice, but ask them about gay rights, and sometimes you get a deep silence.  Or in the case of one Palestinian: “I think we should throw them off of buildings like ISIS”.  So the question is whether their concern about racism is because they are concerned about people being hurt, or whether it is only because it affects them.  All other suffering be screwed.  Whether it’s from a place of empathy and solidarity or narcissism.

Which is why I’ve met Americans who care a lot about Palestinians, but know literally nothing about Jewish history.  Whose only experience with Judaism is maybe eating challah at a friend’s house.  But knows nothing about why or how their Jewish friends ended up in Minnesota.  Or why there are more Polish, Romanian, and Iraqi Jews in Israel than in any of those countries.  Whose combined Jewish communities numbered 4,1326,000 before the Holocaust.  Today, standing at 25,000 according to the most generous estimates.  Meanwhile, 4.5 million of their descendants live in Israel, where they found refuge.  While the rest lie buried in foreign soil, millions upon millions in overgrown cemeteries.  That’s if they’re lucky- sometimes our burial grounds are turned into soccer fields.

It’s also important to remember our own positioning.  In other words, when I’m in Israel I feel differently than I do in America or Europe.  Both because of the surrounding environment, my own political interests, and of course, which direction empathy flows.

In other words, when I’m in Israel, again depending on circumstance, but I’m at my most empathetic when I’m able to find concern for Arab Israelis and for Palestinians.  Not an easy thing- it’s not as if these communities don’t have their own extremism.  As I sit in a Palestinian bookstore in East Jerusalem, I am staring at a book entitled: “Victory for us is to see you suffer”.  Whose WiFi code is “JerusalemIsOurs”.  Just miles away from where a Palestinian shot six Israeli civilians two days ago.  Just last month I lived through a terrifying air raid siren in Beersheva, as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli towns.

I can’t say I felt terribly empathetic to Palestinians then.  Though I imagine life is excruciating for them under Hamas rule and faced with harsh conditions imposed by basically every government in the region- their own, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Egypt.  Suffocating.  Palestinian extremists storm the Israeli border, some of whom have been quoted as saying they want to get to the other side to rape and murder.  And in the meantime, ordinary Gazans who just want to put food on the table are caught in the crossfire, as are their Israeli counterparts on the other side.  Some of whom are concerned for their Palestinian neighbors as well.

Basically, what it comes down to is empathy.  When someone is an anti-Semite, I’m going to defend Israel and talk about what’s good with the country.  When someone is anti-Arab, I’m going to share why its complex and we can’t generalize about millions of people.  And because the context for identifying these people is extremely hard to pinpoint, it is not so easy.  Because words that have the potential to sound empathetic coming out of the mouth of an Arab citizen of Israel sound horrifying coming out of a far-left European or a Tunisian living in Paris.

And the same goes for pro-Israel.  When I hear someone passionately defend the Jewish people’s right to a refuge and homeland outside this country, it touches my heart.  And when an Israeli rages about anti-Semitism and how the world hates us, but has never left this country, it’s usually indicative of a deep narcissism.  Because someone who has grown up in the Diaspora or has spent significant time abroad experiencing anti-Semitism has a basis for their anger.  But the man I met who has never left Kiryat Gat is raging about anti-Semitism, it is because he is repeating what he read in the newspaper or what he learned in school.  Because he is a fervent, unquestioning nationalist.

So when I hear an American Jew frustrated with his right-wing relatives who shut his progressive Israel views down, I feel empathy.  But when a British non-Jew tells me that “British Jews are ridiculous, why do they care about Israel without ever having been there?”, I know she’s an anti-Semite.  It’s the positioning.

Therefore, to return to the original point, the positioning of “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” obscures the most important axis of this conflict.  Indeed, of human society in general.  The axis of empathy.  Of kindness.  Of care.

Because when you re-orient the conflict this way, you see that the potential allies are much different than what the news media and politicians on all sides would prefer for us to see.  That the Muslim girl in Tira who appreciates Jewish women’s freedom to choose their clothing is as much my ally as the Jewish kid in Tel Aviv of Syrian ancestry blasting Arabic music in his coffee shop on Ibn Gvirol.  He doesn’t understand a word- but he told me he wants to learn and he loves the music.

What unites them is not a nationalistic goal, nor is it a sense of fidelity to a tribe.  It is their desire to see humanity in the other.  To show compassion, empathy, and openness.

It’s the tribe I love the most.  It’s the tribe that no matter where I find myself in the world I want to belong to.  That I strive to strengthen and be a good member of.  The empaths.  Like Marko, the young Slovenian cell phone salesman who was excited to discover a Jewish museum in his city.  And as soon as I told him about it, he scribbled the name on a piece of paper.  We shared about our cultures and our personal experiences with discrimination and overcoming it.

He told me at the time, a moment that was quite hard for me after seeing a Nazi salute in his town’s square: “Grab your heritage and explore! Go for it!”

This is what it means to be a person.  At the time I wrote:

“Then it really hit me. What Marko and I shared in common was not a religion, not a nationality, not much in terms of the typical labels we hear each day. On Tinder, in our passport, when people introduce themselves.

What we shared in common is that we’re members of a tribe I’ll call the ’empaths’. People who care about other people. And not just those who fit their worldview. The people who, instead of spewing hatred at a cafe or boxing people in, encourage others. Growing, changing, and living mostly in those colorful shades between black and white.

While national and cultural labels matter- and to some degree protect and connect us- I’ve discovered that the degree of a person’s empathy is the biggest predictor of whether I will like her. That your warmth and kindness is at least as important to me as how you vote for or to whom (or if) you pray.”

This tribe is the most important one in the world.  More than Israel, Jews, Arabs, Americans, left and right.  And it is the hardest to organize.  Because even after you’ve identified them, there are so many forces pulling us apart.  Telling us the colors of our flag matter more than those of our heart.

But if we are to have a future on this planet, it is a must.  It’s necessary to be like the liberal Washingtonian I read about who visited a gun store in Virginia- just to talk to people.  It’s necessary to be like the Arab from East Jerusalem I met who studied Hebrew on his own to get to know his neighbors.  It’s necessary to be like me, an American Israeli Jew who studied Arabic for years and years because it’s the best way to understand Arab people.  To build bridges in the impossibility that is the conflict which embroils us.  Because my deepest hope is for a day when I can hop on a train from Tel Aviv to Damascus.  And maybe stop over for a night of partying in Beirut.  And then sit sipping tea in the Lebanese mountains overlooking the Jewish towns of the Galilee.  As if the past 70 years have been just a bad dream.

It is not easy.  There are times when I am afraid- and sometimes justifiably so.  There are extremists on every side here and abroad.  There are people who’d rather us- all of humanity- sit in silos.  Easy to market to, easier to divide and conquer.  While both “progressive” and right-wing billionaires continue to rake in our resources.  Palestinians and Israelis fight for crumbs, but who really gains?  Why are there 30 Israeli billionaires but the average New Yorker, in one of the most expensive cities on earth, has 17% more purchasing power than a Tel Avivi?  Why is there a Palestinian billionaire while 32% of his countrymen sit in abject poverty, unemployed?

In the end, the people at the top care very little for the people at the bottom.  If I wanted to indulge my most cynical side, I’d say that’s how they got there.  But I’m really not sure.  What I can say that what interests me less are peace declarations, foundations, donations, and projects.  What interests me more is the well being of the average human being.  And while people here- indeed around the world- rally around the ethnic group or religious community or political party they are supposed to defend- who is really winning?

I’m not suggesting billionaires are necessarily bad people, though.  I’m not sure life is so simple.  There are really mean poor people and generous wealthy ones.

But what I am suggesting is it’s not fair.  And that efforts to focus us exclusively on identities at the expense of our shared human empathy are driving us into a hole.  So while liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has been held up as an exemplary clean energy enthusiast, how often do the organizations who receive his donations wonder where he got his money?  Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and eventually his own investment firm which invested millions in private prison companies.

But let’s join Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in storming the office of Nancy Pelosi about climate change and rail against Republicans who receive coal money.  While The Latino Victory Fund which supported her partners with Tom Steyer’s SuperPAC.

To what extent this is purposeful, I don’t know.  I do appreciate Ms. Cortez’s critique of money in politics, but I fear the judgmental fire in her belly may scorch us as a society.  Maybe Tom Steyer and other donors’ views are situational.  Some people earn a lot of money to then try to do a lot of good.  People’s motivations are hard to discern.  And I don’t want to support a witch hunt or class warfare, or to suggest people are purely good or evil.

But I do think the result is a game of smoke and mirrors.  Where I should spend my time hating Palestinians or Republicans or Muslims or right-wingers or left-wingers, when in the end most people can’t make ends meet.  Around the world.

So I’ll say this.  If there is a solution to this problem, it’s the empaths.  Whether it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Benjamin Netanyahu, the BDS movement, or anyone else dominating the headlines these days, let’s focus our attention elsewhere.  Maybe they can join us later, but in the meantime, instead of gazing up at them, let’s look sideways.  Ahead- at the people in front of us.

Those are our allies.  Our potential friends are the people who don’t buy into this warfare.  They’re the Republican willing to buck the party on gay rights.  They’re the Democrat who who dialogues with her anti-abortion neighbors.  They’re the Tunisian who writes about the Jewish history of his land– in collaboration with a Jewish historian.  And the Israelis like me who empathize with the challenges facing our Arab countrymen and our Palestinian neighbors.  Who rather than tearing up at every Ben Gurion quote and saluting the flag, would prefer to talk with the Arab man who cleans their school.  They’re the American Christian who visits this land to understand both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than coming with a pre-set agenda.  Who is willing to confront anti-Semitism with as much vigor as racism or Islamophobia.  To confront their own prejudices.

Because we all have them.  And if we’re honest, if we’re empathetic, we can acknowledge that.  I, for one, have been learning more about transgender experiences.  I don’t know much- and it’s a deeply stigmatized identity and community I don’t know much about.  But I’m putting myself out there and realizing I have a lack of knowledge.  And that doesn’t make me weak, it’s makes me kind.  Because to acknowledge our own gaps in knowledge is to point us in the direction of what we need to learn.

So in the end, I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.  I’m not interested in whether you’re pro-life or pro-choice.  I’m not interested whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a left winger or right winger.

What I’m not interested in is “or”.  What I’m interested in is “and”.  Because an empath lives in the and.  The ability to see that the identities we are supposed to defend are only part of the story.  That the words we use aren’t as important as what they indicate- given our position.  That the sentiment behind them, the context is much more important than the vocabulary itself.

So give me pro-Israel Europeans and Israeli Jews who rail against racism.  Give me Americans who fight against BDS and anti-Semitism and give me Israelis who fight against an unquestioning Zionism.  Give me Palestinians learning Hebrew and Israeli Jews learning Arabic.

Give me the and.  Because the real way forward, as I see it, is to step outside our silos.  And find the people whose orientation is towards compassion, who are willing to question orthodoxies, and are struggling to live in the gray space at a time when polarization would make it so much easier not to.

Who are willing to give up the simplicity of living enclosed in the safety of a walled-in tribe.  Whether that tribe be NPR listeners, secular North Tel Aviv, a gun show, or a West Bank settlement.

Because where things get a porous is where life gets dangerous.  And when boundaries become frontiers, they can become markers for progress more than barriers separating us from each other.

Don’t tell me what you think, show me how you care.  Don’t tell me where you’re from, show me where you’re going.  Because perhaps what I’ve learned is it’s not so much where you are so much as how you’re oriented.

The bad news about today’s world is that we’re increasingly divided along national, political, and religious lines.  Which can make it incredibly hard for a double minority gay Jew like me to find a safe and welcoming home.  When I look at a map, my heart wishes I could live everywhere and my mind knows that I can’t.  It’s a force that pulls me apart and forces me to choose between the well being of my identities and my curiosity about the world.  Although as I write this article I wonder if perhaps the most important identity of all, someone’s kindness, may lead me in different directions than I’m “supposed” to pursue.  Maybe it already has.

The strain of trying to find a home, a career, a place where you feel safe, fulfilled, and stable is real and intense.  It’s a lot to handle at once and can feel excruciating.  Especially when your primary communities are targets for so much antipathy and hate.  What I’m discovering is there’s a way to view things a bit differently that can help me find a way forward.  Because when you understand the most important (if not only) characteristic of someone you’ll like is their compassion, you realize that exists in every corner of the planet.  And while it requires some sifting, some risk taking, some potential hurt, you can find people everywhere who will treat you with dignity and compassion.

Israeli identity is not so portable.  Tied to this land, there is nowhere else on the planet that feels exactly like this.  Where Jews live in the majority.  Where Hebrew signs dot the skyline, where Hatikvah is blasted at every sports game.  Where Judaism isn’t something to be hidden at home or behind synagogue security guard.  Where it carries both the power and responsibility of running things.  It exists like this nowhere else on the planet, which is why so many Israelis have trouble adapting to life, including Jewish life, elsewhere.  Perhaps this will change- groups like the IAC are trying to help Israelis build a Diaspora identity, as strange as that sounds.  I can understand why it’s necessary for their well being.

Jewish identity, on the other hand, is the most portable identity in the history of mankind.  It changes and mutates everywhere we go, adapting in extraordinary and creative ways to both fulfilling and extremely scary circumstances.  Sometimes it’s snuffed out- it can’t plant its roots everywhere due to the cruelty of some people.  But it does show an incredible adaptivity that few cultures have managed to replicate.

It is challenging to be an Israeli or Jew in much of the world.  But there are some things you can uncover anywhere.  And can bring to any society.  What you can carry with you to every corner of the globe is a desire to help, to understand, to bring hope and kindness.  And to find people willing to share that warmth with you and to join you in the task of building a gentler, more caring human society.

Because when we understand the meaning of the words others say, we realize that it’s the intent behind them that matters most.  That help us sift through the distractions to see the direction their heart points in.

May we all find the words to bring us peace.  In our own lives and in the lives of the people around us, to the extent we can.  This Christmas, this Chanukah, this Kwanzaa, is the season when the sun sets early, the darkness sets in, and the contrasting blackness surrounds us.  Which presents us with the challenge of finding warmth.  And if we manage to kindle a flame, also gives us the chance to make our little bit of light shine even brighter.  Not as bright as the sun, but brighter than if we try to be a lamppost at noontime.  We can’t choose when the sun sets- nor can we choose when it rises to cover us and glow.  When you find yourself in darkness, you can’t expel all of it.   So rather than struggle against its very existence, perhaps the key is to find someone else willing to light a candle with you.  To make some space for warmth.  Until the morning breaks again.

What kind of Jewish State?

Lately, as some of you have noticed, I’ve felt rather down.  Job hunting is stressful- and job hunting in Israel is even more so.  Sending resume after resume, LinkedIn after LinkedIn, call after call.  It’s exhausting.  And knowing that the salaries here are so much lower than the U.S. doesn’t help.  As I’ve written about, Israel is one of the most expensive countries in the world.  Tel Aviv is the 9th most expensive city.  Yet the salaries don’t keep pace.  Out of the 34 OECD countries, Israel is ranked 23rd in purchasing powerAccording to Numbeo.com, an average meal at a low-cost restaurant is $14.78 in Tel Aviv and $20 in New York.  New York rent is also more expensive, although Tel Aviv is actually more expensive than the Big Apple if you want to buy an apartment outside the city center.

In that spirit, let’s compare apples to apples.  While most indices for New York are more expensive than Tel Aviv (although milk is 33% more expensive in Tel Aviv!), you have to remember the salary gap.  The average net salary, after taxes, is $4,505.72 per month in New York and just $2,294.76 in Tel Aviv.  And Tel Aviv is where most of the high paying jobs are in Israel.

All of which is to say that although New York is known for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, a place where most Americans couldn’t dream to live, Tel Aviv is actually worse off economically.  The average Tel Avivi has 14.96% less purchasing power than a New Yorker.

It’s an economic desperation you see on the streets here.  Today alone I noticed two different grown men rummaging in trash bins in the middle of the city.  Looking for food, I presume.  A degrading experience for them, and a deeply sad and disturbing one for me to see.  It makes me read signs like this one, which I saw at a bike store, with a bit of irony:

WhatsApp Image 2018-12-02 at 1.09.17 AM

Of course, these problems are not only happening in Israel.  Around the world, the gap between wealthy and poor has become a pressing issue.  When I was in San Francisco last month, I saw more homeless people than possibly any other city I’ve visited.  Rural Romania, where I spent some time hiking and backpacking, has largely been hollowed out by migration to London and Spain and Italy in search of work.  Village economy has dried up after joining the EU.

The thing is not everyone is suffering here.  In 2018, Israel counted over 30 billionaires.  In dollars.  High-tech firms here are some of the most successful in the world, with some of the highest salaries in Israel.  If you work in the start-up scene, Israel is the place to be and you could probably build a comfortable life here if you choose to make aliyah.

On the other hand, with the cost of living continuing to increase and other industries’ salaries failing to keep pace, Israelis are being left behind.  Including olim like me.  Who came here with a Master’s degree from Georgetown university, 8 fluent languages (including Hebrew), and 10 years of public relations experience.

I have some more meetings in the next few days.  I have been sending out my resume left and right, networking like a maniac.  Those of you who know me personally know I am an extremely proactive person.  Root for me, encourage me, I need it.

I want to share some stories from this journey.

Last week, I went from bookstore to bookstore in Jerusalem.  Calling, showing up in person, filling out forms.  I figured it’d be good to earn some money while searching for a job with a real salary.  No call backs.  I was even told by one bookstore that I was “overqualified”, even after explaining I was just looking for part-time work.  I also spoke to an employee of an Israeli travel company I was trying to network with.  With the hopes of collaborating on my blog, to hopefully earn some revenue and bring them business.  After I sent some English and Hebrew writing samples, the employee wrote to me: “it is hard to impressed by your writing.”  It was like a gut punch.  I know I’m a good writer- and the 50,000 people who read my blog are proof.  As are the wonderful comments you all share with me.  But it’s just demeaning.  How long should I fight for an underpaid job here?

Needing a break from the stress of job hunting- a hunt which at this point is extending to both Israel and the U.S. out of necessity- I headed to a museum.  Knowledge, history, learning- these things always light me up and give me hope.  Seeing the long spectrum of Jewish history and the beauty of art helps put my current struggles into perspective.  And fills the soul with light when people around you are swallowing your hope alive.

When I visited Italy last march, I learned about the unique history of Italian Jews.  A 2,000 year old community, they predate both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and have their own rite.  At the Jewish Museum of Rome (which I highly recommend visiting), I learned there was another place in the world where the Italian rite was used: Israel.

In one of the most miraculous stories I’ve ever heard, Italian Jews transported an entire historic synagogue to Israel in the 1950s.  In a bid to preserve this ancient Jewish heritage- seen as endangered even after the Holocaust- the building made its way to Jerusalem where it is now housed in the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art.  It’s a small but absolutely stunning museum.  With ancient and medieval Italian Jewish artifacts, and the synagogue itself.  It is used to this day- and has extremely rare Italian-rite prayer books which I got to hold and read up close.

The museum is a testament to Jewish history and the power and nature of Israel itself.  In the museum, I read from the Sereni Haggadah, a 15th century Italian book illustrated with Ashkenazi motifs and written according to their rites.  I read about how some Italian Jews even spoke and published in Yiddish.  A reminder of how all Jews are connected- that Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Italian flow into one other.  In the sun-soaked land of Italy, where all three communities have co-existed for centuries.

The synagogue and the museum are a reminder of the power of the Zionist ideal.  Without Israel, who knows what would have happened to these treasures, to the synagogue itself.  While some synagogues in Europe are preserved, the vast majority have been destroyed or lay in decay.  I saw some turned into restaurants and casinos and there is even one that was turned into a strip club.  But more than anything, they are usually locked and empty.  To prevent continuing theft and anti-Semitic attacks, an eerie testament to their largely emptied communities.

Israel was the logical place to send this synagogue.  It’s a place where the history of the Jewish people can sit safely, far out of the reach of anti-Semites.  It’s a place where the National Library of Israel preserves 5 million Jewish books, audio files, and other treasures.  An unmatched collection spanning continents and centuries.  A gold mine I got to explore this past week.  The only library of its kind.  I perused Judeo-Arabic versions of the Torah, Catalan-language books about Jewish history, dialect maps of Yiddish, and a book about the xuetes of Mallorca, Jews forced to convert to Christianity.  Who manage to maintain a separate, often persecuted, identity to this day.  Check out the library’s website and discover a digital collection that can transport you from your home to almost any Jewish community- past or present.  If you’re in Jerusalem, go visit!  There are real gems right under your nose- and it’s free!

While visiting the Italian museum, I met some foreigners, who were intrigued by the exhibit.  Including Jews.  I spoke with a British Jew whose parents are Israeli.  He only speaks a few words of Hebrew, but he connects to his Judaism by studying Italian Jewry.  The museum staffer himself had Mexican parents and we spoke in Spanish about the siddurim.

I also made a point of talking to several sabras, or native-born Israeli Jews.  This segment of the population tends to have the least appreciation of Jewish heritage.  Israeli schools teach a lot of biblical history and a lot about modern Zionism.  But Diaspora communities of 2,000+ years are often relegated to discussions about the Holocaust.  Undoubtedly a painful watershed event for world Jewry that a third of Europeans don’t know about.  But hardly the only thing worth mentioning in two millennia of history.  Marked by both persecutions and amazing perseverance and creation.  It leaves the average sabra deeply ignorant of Jewish communities outside of Israel, something I see reflected in the growing gap between American and Israeli Jewry.  Clearly a gap that has origins on both continents, but which I see little effort to tend to here in Israel.

More than this, it also leaves Israelis ignorant of where they come from.  Here our history dots the landscape.  Ancient Jewish archaeological sites sit in every corner of the country.  Ritual baths, or mikvahs, built two thousand years ago- the kind I have personally used at my synagogue in Washington, D.C.  I have even done a genetic test- and my DNA is closest to Syrians, Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians.  Our guttural Semitic language was birthed in this land.  Yet we also were enriched- at times oppressed- by the cultures we have engaged with since our expulsion from here.  And without understanding the intermediate 2,000 years, the average sabra doesn’t really know a lot about how he or she came to be.  And what it means for the Jewish people- or our state- today.

Two sabra women I met had Iraqi parents.  I think being the children of olim, especially ones so ruthlessly expelled from Iraq, made them more open to learning about Diaspora history.  Perhaps just as importantly, they knew about their own rich heritage, so it might have made them more appreciative of other Jewish cultures.  I sensed their awe as they looked at the synagogue, admired its beauty, and stood in wonder at its journey from Italy to the capital of the State of Israel.  A journey Italian Jewish slaves in Rome 2,000 years ago never could have imagined.  Yet worked and prayed for- and whose descendants made a reality.

There was one young sabra in the museum, otherwise the latest generation was nowhere to be seen.  It’s a stark reminder that once you are cut off from your roots, and as you grow new ones, it is hard to inspire people to reconnect.  It’s a phenomenon I struggled with almost a year ago to the day.  My journey to learning Yiddish as an adult proves that reconnecting with the breadth of Jewish history is possible.  And some young Israelis, like the phenomenal Yemenite singers of A-WA, are joining me on that journey.  As they go around the world singing traditional Judeo-Arabic songs to sold-out clubs.  I personally have seen them three times on two continents- go experience the magic of Yemenite song!  They are keeping their chain of tradition alive while innovating along the way.  A fitting testament to two millennia of Yemenite Jewish heritage and to the fact that it has survived at all.  Thanks to Israel, where almost all Yemenite Jews live today after being expelled in the 1950s.

There is a certain push and pull, perhaps even an intertwined irony to having a Jewish state.  The state has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of Jews.  Jews whose countries senselessly butchered them or confiscated their property and expelled them.  From the U.S.S.R. to Morocco, from Algeria to Poland, from Germany to Iraq.  While some Jews have come here voluntarily, the vast majority have come under major duress.  I couldn’t help but notice an Italian and Hebrew prayer in the museum this week dedicated to saving Alfred Dreyfus.  The French Jewish army captain ruthlessly persecuted by his countrymen, by anti-Semites just over a hundred years ago.  Reading that prayer in a museum in Israel reminded me of the importance of having the ability to protect ourself.  That while we work with allies wherever we can find them, we have just as much a right to defend our people as anyone else.  Which is why we have put our lives on the line to make sure the State of Israel exists for all of us.

At the same time, it’s clear that nationl-building has come at a price.  As it does in all states.  Where minority cultures, where immigrant cultures, where the “other” is often ruthlessly assimilated until it is almost unrecognizable.  To this day, France won’t sign a European treaty recognizing its minority languages.  Arab governments such as Morocco and Algeria have forcibly assimilated their native Berber populations linguistically and ethnically.  A deep marginalization that continues to this day.  Turkey for years claimed that Kurds were simply “mountain Turks” despite their completely different languages.

For Jews, the curious thing is we did it to ourselves.  While for sure in Diaspora communities, Russians, Americans, French, and others have pushed us to assimilate into their cultures, in Israel, Jews did it to other Jews.  In other words, the sabras already living in Israel identified as the “new” Jews- strong, masculine, assertive.  And the old “effeminate” and “bookish” Jews of the Diaspora arriving here had to be reformed.  Which is why ancient Jewish languages like Yiddish and Iraqi Judeo-Arabic and Ladino were basically thrown out the window.  Hollowed out.  Jews were forced to take on a new, uniform Israeli identity.  To be more sabra and less Shmuly.  In some sense, more Israeli and less Jewish.  At least as how Judaism had been conceived of until then.  An odd statement to digest.

Some of this is the price you pay for building a nation.  Without a certain degree of cohesion, could Israel have successfully resisted Arab invasion after Arab invasion?  Could a Yiddish-speaking commander have successfully (and quickly) communicated with a Moroccan Jew who spoke Arabic?  If Israelis had had the luxury of being the Switzerland of the Middle East (not coincidentally, a country with four official languages), maybe it would have been seen as more feasible.  To allow a bit more room for diversity.  But our nation was not given an easy start.  So practicality took precedence over preservation, and entire Jewish civilizations were wiped out or cannibalized.  A couple weeks ago, I entered a Persian restaurant in Jerusalem (Baba Joon by the Centra Bus Station- the best Persian food I have ever eaten) and the really friendly waiter was clearly proud of his heritage.  But he didn’t know how to say “you’re welcome” in the language his ancestors spoke for 2,500 years.  I taught him, which made him smile.  There are people who want to connect to their heritage here, but it is hard and there are those who resist.  Partially to avoid painful memories of persecution, but partially because they’ve been taught that that “Diaspora stuff” is worthless.  It’s the dustbin of history.

But that’s wrong.  To wander is to be Jewish.  Whether physically, as in the case of Jews across the centuries.  Or intellectually, by visiting the National Library, by learning your ancestors’ language, by going on an unexpected hike or to a new museum.  To explore, to devour knowledge, to take the untrod path- that is Judaism.  We’ve been wandering since Abraham and our legendary trek in the desert.  On our way to the Promised Land.  Just because we have a state now doesn’t mean we should stop our inquiry, our curiosity, our search for the unexpected connections that bind us together and enlighten our selves.

At the end of the day, I stood in line at the grocery store.  Feeling disillusioned, stressed, in need of a smile, I struck up a conversation with the friendly Russian Jewish clerk.  In Slavic-accented Hebrew, she asked me how I was doing and what I was up to.  Our conversation roamed.  We talked about aliyah, the struggles.  She told me how she was Russian but her parents were Polish.  And how she only thought there was sweet gefilte fish until she moved to Israel, unexposed to the salty southern varieties of Ukraine.  A country that in her own words, she inexplicably detests.  Israelis are full of contradictions like all people, but we have a bit more courage to say them out loud.

We laughed as I told her my great-grandparents used to make this food by hand.  Putting entire carp in their bathtub and making the delightful fish balls one by one.

She then asked the best question. “Redstu yiddish?”  Do you speak Yiddish?

And I said “yo!  Ikh ken Yiddish!”  I do speak Yiddish!

And right there, in the line at the grocery store, as an impatient sabra waited behind us, we chatted in mamaloshn, the mother tongue.  A tongue our ancestors have shared for generations.  Filled with warmth and love and the smell of rich chicken broth bathing kneydlakh in the Passover kitchen.  Not to mention a literary tradition that has produced thousands upon thousands of books filled with wisdom, now available for free digitally at the Yiddish Book Center.

In the end, my Yiddish and my Hebrew co-exist, if at times uneasily.  I am no less fluent in one because I speak the other.  In fact, one helps me understand the other, as the languages overlap and have enriched each other throughout Jewish history.

It’s a symbiosis I hope sabras can achieve.  That while building a state does require new models and sacrifice and adaptation, it doesn’t have to completely erase our rich and complicated Jewish past.  To relegate it to nothing but our Shabbat foods, to museums, to archives.

Judaism is alive and kicking.  Despite all the people and peoples who have stood in our way.

The question we face now is what kind of Judaism?  Having built the first Jewish state in 2,000 years, one that continues to require our vigilance to protect, perhaps we need to shift our focus.

Our focus was once state building.  But now the question is what kind of state we want to live in, or have as a safe haven?

Do we want a state where a few people earn millions of shekels in high tech while middle aged men scrounge for food in trash bins?  A state where Jews live disconnected from their own rich heritage, on whose very land Jews mostly spoke Yiddish and Ladino until the 1920s?

Or do we want a state where people can earn a living.  Where, if not rich, people can survive, can build a career.  Can contribute to our people and our economy and connect with the world no matter how wealthy they are.  Where the Russian grocery store clerks who have PhD’s in chemistry can practice the profession of their training.  Instead of giving preference to sabras, who are in some cases far less qualified.

Do we want a state where you can be both Israeli and Moroccan, the kind of hyphenated, hybrid identities that hold so much potential.  That have enriched Jewish history for millennia.  That might even enhance empathy and understanding among Jews of all backgrounds.  And now offer us the rare opportunity to fuse our past to present, without erasing where we’ve been.

My answer is I hope so.  I won’t say yes because most things are out of my control and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Jewish history and from living in Israel, it’s that things are complicated.

But I believe, at the end of the day, that it’s better to strive for something better than to sit stationary, stewing in malaise.

I don’t know where my journey will take me.  I don’t control the Israeli economy, but I do care about contributing to its society.  And I will do so wherever I find myself, even if for economic reasons I find myself longing for a warm plate of jachnoon from the other side of the Atlantic.

One day, I hope to sit in the Museum of Italian Art in Jerusalem.  To guide tours for hundreds of bright young Israelis eager to learn about their heritage.  To connect them with Jews and non-Jews visiting the same museum from around the world, who value them as Jews and as human beings.  Who see their past and their present as intertwined with their own and worthy of their care.

I hope to sit in that museum with a budget.  A budget the government will dedicate not just to security, not just to elaborate national ceremonies, not just to the hundreds of rabbis it employs.

But also to our culture.  To our institutions.  To the humanities, to our humanity that has persisted over generations.  To educators, to social workers, to artists, to after-school programs, to scholars, and to social innovators.  Not just social media.

So that one day, a well-educated, passionately-Jewish oleh like me can find a well-paid job.  Preserving our heritage, educating for tomorrow, and not just running pay-per-click campaigns from the 9th most expensive city on the planet.

Im tirtzu, if you believe it, it is not a dream.  This is the next frontier.  May we be the pioneers.

My cover photo is a medieval Italian Jewish painting.  Proof that our creativity extends not only to high tech, but also to high art.

The single best moment of my entire trip

Today, I visited Vila Joiosa, a village in Valencia, Spain.  I went there because they speak Valencian (or as most people call it, Catalan).  I studied Catalan in America at Georgetown University.  I fought my way into the class, which had nothing to do with my Master’s program, because I love Catalan.  I did my undergraduate thesis in Spanish on the Madrid and Barcelona educational systems’ approaches to immigration.  And in Barcelona, I fell in love with Catalan.  A beautiful Romance language filled with x’s and mysterious accent marks.  To me, it looked like a sophisticated, intriguing, sexy Spanish.

So nearly 10 years after my undergraduate education, I found myself at Georgetown studying communication.  And they have a wonderful Catalan program funded by the Ramon Llull Foundation, to promote their culture and language abroad.  And the professor generously let me into the class 😉

I’ve been visiting Alicante, a major city in the province of Valencia.  What’s so striking about Alicante is that it is in the heart of an area that has spoken Catalan for generations (some locals distinguish it as Valencian, but they are essentially varieties of the same language, whatever you wish to call it).  Yet today, almost nobody speaks the language.  The street signs are in Valencian, but you hear nothing but Spanish on the streets.  As if the words are a formality, a reminder of the past, but more of a museum than a living heritage.

So I went searching online to find a village that spoke Valencian, to this day.  I love Valencian Catalan.  I love dialects and accents.  And when I lived in America, I used to watch Valencian-language public TV.  It’s a beautiful variety of Catalan.  And despite what some Catalanists claim, many of its differences can be traced to historical settlement patterns, not just hispanification of the language.  Indeed, I learned today that parts of Valencia use the same unique definite articles as the Balearic Islands.  The only place in the former Roman Empire to keep this unique variety of Latin grammar alive.  Just like one of my favorite bands, Antònia Font.

So it was with great sadness when I saw Spanish nationalists shut down the Valencian-language TV station a few years ago and also stopped broadcasts of TV3 from Barcelona.  I love TV3- I was interviewed on it about my connection to Judaism and Catalan and my gay identity.  You can watch it here and here and test how much Catalan you can understand 😉 .

Every year, I’d check Wikipedia to see whether Valencian activists had succeeded in getting the station up and running again.  Desperately wanting to hear the beautiful Valencian dialect from far away- my only way to engage with it.

Well the station is back up and running.  And it’s thanks to people like City Councilor Josep Castiñeira of Vila Joiosa that it survived.  Along with the Valencian dialect of Catalan.

Vila Joiosa means “joyful town”, and today I had a most joyous experience there.

Walking around town, I noticed a bookstore.  Its name was in Catalan: “Vila Llibres”.  I got excited- this was just why I came to this seaside village.

Upon entering, I noticed a sign that says “here, we’ll serve you in Valencian”.  Whew!  Unfortunately some Spaniards can get prickly when you address them in a minority language, but here I knew I was safe to speak Valencian.

I did get a bit nervous at first.  I noticed a rainbow flag.  As a gay person, you might think this would make me feel at ease.  But in fact, a large portion of the European left, who is generally pro-gay rights has become anti-Semitic.  Quite a number of them, as Josep pointed out later, are quite content to be interviewed on Russian and Iranian TV, but can’t fathom the existence of Israel.  As if our state is somehow less legitimate than the haphazard mess of Middle Eastern states randomly carved out by colonialism.  If you believe your country should exist but Israel shouldn’t (I’ll give a pass to equal opportunity anarchists), you’re an anti-Semite and I don’t like you.

So when I saw this was essentially a left-wing Valencian nationalist bookstore, I got nervous.  Indeed, on the tram on the way to Vila Joiosa, I saw large graffiti calling Israel a murderous state.  Needless to say, there was no accompanying graffiti suggesting Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Spain were similarly murderous despite both past and current colonialism, murder of LGBT people and minorities, and ethnic cleansing (including of Jews).

My conversation with Josep, the bookstore owner, started about Valencian.  I told him I was an American who had studied Catalan and I was excited to see his bookstore.  Stunned that I spoke Catalan without an accent, he welcomed me in and showed me a map of Catalan dialects.  I stood in wonder as he taught me dialectal differences.  I can’t imagine a more exciting experience than chatting in Valencian while learning about the amazing map of Catalan varieties.  Phonetics, grammar, cultural diversity- this is what I love.

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Turns out, it wouldn’t be the only thing I loved about Josep.

I asked about buying a book specifically written the way Valencians speak Catalan.  He pointed me to some, and I went exploring.  Then I noticed a book about the dybbuk, the mythical Jewish spirit creature, in Catalan!  As I brought the book to his attention, he said it wasn’t specifically in the Valencian dialect.  And then I came out as a Jew- not an easy thing here if you’ve read my previous blogs, including from here in Alicante.

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I told him how cool it was to see a Jewish book in Catalan.  And as I spoke with him, I started to notice Jewish books everywhere.  About Jewish history and culture.  I noticed a little sign that even said “shalom”- something I was so used to that I hardly recognized how unique it was in Valencia!

Josep then did the most amazing thing.  He pulled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo that said: “leshanah haba’ah beyerushalayim”.  Next year in Jerusalem.  A phrase we sing at the end of our Passover Seders dreaming of returning to our Holy Land.  A phrase we’ve sung for thousands of years.  Zionism is not a new concept, it is built into our very prayers.  Now is no longer a dream, but a delicate reality we strive to preserve for ourselves and future generations.

I was in the most glorious shock.  Turns out Josep, in his own words, is a Zionist.  And like me, is gay.  And left wing.  And a progressive Valencian nationalist.  In fact, he is a city councilor for the Compromís political party.

After a trip filled with so much anti-Semitism that I often feel afraid to reveal my Jewish Israeli identity here, I can’t tell you how relieved and thrilled I was.  To feel accepted.  Not only because, as some right-wing Europeans feel, that they like Israel because they hate Arabs.  Which puts me in an awkward position as who believes in human rights for all, including Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.  Something I fight for- as an Israeli.  Even when significant elements of those societies hate me for being gay and Jewish.  It’s simply my value system, regardless of whether all the people I fight for support my own human rights.  Though some of them do.  What’s great about Josep is that we share progressive values.  And support Israel for this reason, and promote the people within it, like me, who are working to make it more and more a reality.

Josep is a hero.  Several years ago, I remember seeing headlines that Valencians were boycotting American Jewish singer Matisyahu purportedly because of Israel.  Where he doesn’t even live.  It’s pure anti-Semitism and it left me feeling distant from this culture that I spent so much time and love connecting to from across an ocean.  It’s beyond hypocritical for Spaniards to boycott Israel when their entire country is built on the bloodshed and expulsion of Jews and Muslims.  And it’s classic anti-Semitism when this hypocrisy is used to target someone who isn’t even Israeli!

Josep told me that he worked with his allies in Compromís to counter this boycott.  Even educating ignorant people in his own party.  He is against the BDS movement which seeks to destroy the State of Israel.  Not alter policies, not debate nuance, but to eliminate an entire country because it is Jewish.  A group of people so delusional that they have no problem traveling to China, meeting Russian academics, or enjoying the fruits of their own colonialism.  But somehow Israel is worthy of the utmost and disproportional criticism.  A 2,000 year old hatred rooted in the New Testament itself is hard to get out of your bones.  Fortunately some Christians today, like Josep’s priest friend in Vila Joiosa who loves Israel, are working as allies of our community to rid their culture of this hatred.

While I was across the ocean learning Catalan and embracing Valencian culture, Josep was here defending my heritage.  We honor each other.  And it is through the grace of our spirit that we met today.  Recently, I’ve felt I don’t believe in God.  And I still feel that the way God is portrayed in religious texts is erroneous and even dangerous.  But perhaps for the first time in months, I felt a connection to my inner God.  Because it’s by following my inner compass that I made my way to Josep’s bookstore today.  And made a new friend, hopefully for life.

Josep made me feel accepted.  He warmed my heart and put a huge smile on my face.  And so I took a piece of paper and wrote him a poem.  In Hebrew and in Catalan.  Here it is:

 

Josep and I are bibliophiles.  Lovers of the written word.  So perhaps it’s no surprise given our many shared passions that we really clicked.  People who love kindness, who seek to learn, who reject black-and-white thinking, that’s my kind of people.  That’s who Josep is, that’s who I am, that’s my life aspiration.  The fuel that keeps me going and pointed in the right direction.

As I read my poem out loud, I could feel his smile.  I live for moments like these.  Faced with so many challenges, these experiences give me a reason to live.

I want to feel accepted.  I’m an unorthodox thinker, but at my heart I’m basically a moderate left libertarian.  Unfortunately, some of the people who claim to carry this banner are anti-Semites.  Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.

It has made me feel isolated from my own natural community.  People who believe in human rights, individual freedom, less imposition of the state, economic fairness, LGBT rights, and compassion.  Something the extremes of our community have twisted so much they’ve ended up allied with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

What’s so great about Josep is that with him, I can be myself.  While right-wing Jews and Zionists often demand I put my gayness aside and the far left demands I put my Jewish identity aside, Josep lets me be both.  A gay Jewish progressive.  And a lover of Catalan, unfortunately a language community where some speakers are anti-Semitic as well.  And Josep stands as a brave counterexample to their ignorance.  Proudly carrying the banner of a long Catalan philosemitic tradition.

Like most people, I just want to feel accepted.  And people like Josep make me more convinced than ever about how important it is for Jews to engage open-minded people like him.  To support his efforts against anti-Semitism and to empower his own fight for cultural rights.  So that his village won’t end up like Alicante.  A place with Valencian signs but no Valencian speech.

The Spanish state has waged relentless war on cultural minorities.  First, Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.  But later groups like Catalans, Valencians, Basques, and Galicians.  Certainly nationalism is a delicate question.  If you read my blog, more often than not I’m against it.  Because in its most extreme forms it leads to division and violation of human rights.

What I’ll say, since I am an unorthodox thinker, is that sometimes nationalism is necessary.  As a minority group in the age of globalization, I have yet to find a better solution to preserving our identity than to have our own state.  It’s imperfect, it can lead to abusing other minorities when left unchecked, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen work.

I’m not interested in Jewish museums nor is Josep interested in a museum of Valencian history.  Indeed, when they start making museums about you, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington (which I love), you better start worrying.  Because you’ve become mundane and weak enough that it’s OK to stop persecuting you and just remember you.  As if you’re a gentle reminder of the past.  We can weep together, but deny you the right to live differently.

Josep and I, while lovers of learning and certainly of museums, that’s not what we want.  We’re interested in being living communities.  It might be inconvenient for your ideology to recognize that nationalism is the only way for us to continue to be who we are.  Indeed, it’s somewhat inconvenient for my own ideology at times.

But it’s a solid fact.  And until you can show me a better way to ensure a Jewish and Valencian future, a little nationalism is what keeps us alive.  As the socialist hymn goes, I want bread and roses.  I don’t just want bread to survive, I want roses.  The beauty, the higher-level fulfillment of cultural identity and passing down my heritage.  As a part of my existence.  Not to go the way of the Shakers, but to be imperfect but real.

If you’re Spanish or American or Chinese or Russian or Arab, you’re not worried for the survival of your culture.  You’re global superpowers with hundreds of millions of adherents.  But Catalans and Jews and Basques and Tibetans- we’re not so lucky.  And we’re not content to rely on your goodwill to survive.  Because we’ve seen that even though there have been periods where you’ve granted us tolerance, there are others where you extinguish us.  And we want the self-determination to protect ourselves when you decide to scapegoat us.  We want self-empowerment.

It’s messy, but it’s sometimes necessary.  Of course, we must be mindful that our own self-empowerment doesn’t turn into the same hatred we’ve experienced.  A delicate balancing act, but one which I’m willing to engage in to ensure my people’s future.

All of my life decisions led to this sweet moment today.  My decision to study Spanish- which led to my decision to study Catalan.  My decision to pursue an active progressive Jewish life in America and Israel.  My decision to move to Israel, and then travel the world exploring myself and discovering new aspects of Jewish identity.  My decision to come out of the closet as gay.

None of today would have happened without me making these powerful life choices.  Nor without Josep making similarly brave decisions that led him to connect with me.  Standing up for his beliefs, for my people, for his own sense of self, even when it was inconvenient or led to threats.  He recently was attacked by fascists, as vicious in their black-and-white prejudice as the far left.  Like me, he remains squeezed between extremes but pursues his identity with vigor.  And I am grateful for his resilient pursuit of purpose.

I have never, ever recommended a specific restaurant or store on this blog as far as I can remember.  I’m not Trip Advisor, I’m here to share my experiences, not plug businesses- nor have I accepted ad revenue from them.  But I’m going to recommend Josep’s bookstore, because it is an oasis of wisdom and kindness.  Whether you speak Catalan or not, go visit.  Tell him I sent you.  And enjoy wonderful conversation and buy something to support such a kind heart who supports us.

At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and anti-Semitic, I have never been more convinced of the need to engage open-minded people like Josep.  I often feel like giving up on the Left, but there are people like him who bravely stand with us.  Or are curious to learn.  This is why I’ve started my new initiative Nuance Israel to empower them.  If you’ve liked this blog and my other writing, contribute to my new project to make my ideas a reality.  To bring together moderate, open-minded people to support a textured engagement with Israel and the Jewish people.  To put a stop to anti-Semitic boycotts which seek to shut down conversation and destroy my country.  Engagement is the way forward for a progressive Israel and to defeat anti-Semitism abroad.

On the bus back to Alicante, some Arab kids in front of me were listening to loud YouTube videos of Arabic music.  I told them: “ana kamaan ba7ibb al-musiqaa al-3arabiyeh, bas biddi naam.  Min fadlak.”

I also love Arabic music, but I wanna sleep.  Please 🙂

They smiled and turned the volume down.

I can see multilingual Maimonides and the other greats of Spanish Jewish history smiling down on me.

A day in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew.  A moment of connection to a great Iberian past.  That Josep and I brought to life again today.

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

Nuance Israel

Dear friends and readers-

Over the past year and a half, you’ve grown accustomed to seeing this space being used to tell stories.  You’ve seen me traveling Israel and Europe.  To places many people never visit- the Bedouin village of Al-Aramsha, Hasidic Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit, Taibeh, Kiryat Gat, and almost every single Druze village.  And in Europe, places like Salerno, Italy; Debrecen, Hungary; and Sibiu, Romania.  Off the beaten path and exciting.

If you follow my blog, you know how much I like to talk to people.  About being Jewish, American, Israeli, gay.  In different languages and in different cultures.  And learning about the people I meet.

Sometimes, it goes great and sometimes it’s really hard.  On this blog, I’ve shared 137 posts and counting.  192,085 words.  Completely free of cost for you to explore.  Filled with my passion for life and learning and growth.  I have spent thousands of dollars and hours on this project- and it is so worth it.  I’m proud to have connected with 70,000 readers from Libya to Poland, Taiwan to Pakistan.  I even have 22 readers in Saudi Arabia!

Every story I hear from readers inspires me too.  The Libyan woman learning Hebrew on her own.  The Lebanese gay guy in Germany who loves Israel.  The Kurdish Muslim who wanted to serve in the IDF!  Where physical borders exist, technology sometimes helps us break down barriers and warm hearts.  In all directions.

My new project, Nuance Israel, is all about this.  I want to create travel, language, and cultural exchange programs to build human connections between Jews and non-Jews in Israel and around the world.  To show that Israel is not black-and-white.  My country is good, bad, and mundane.  It has beautiful texture, like life itself.  Together, we can grapple with the challenges and grow.

I’d be so grateful if you take the time to learn about my new venture and to consider making a donation.  If you’ve loved my blog, it’s more than fair to ask for a little help to keep things going 😉  Your donation will help me build infrastructure- a website, staff, volunteers, grant writing.  To be able to set up language classes, exchange programs, and more.  It’ll give me the time to start this important work.  Even $5 can help.

With your help, we can bring some nuance to the world’s understanding of Israel and promote the value of understanding in Israel itself.  At a time of increasing polarization, let’s cross boundaries, not each other.

Thank you for your support.  Join me in my next adventure 😉

-Matt

One year as an Israeli

Today, July 4th, marks my aliyahversary- one year since I hopped on a plane from New York to Tel Aviv and became an Israeli citizen.

It’s a day that will always be filled with great importance for me.  Making aliyah was not an experience- it was a life choice.  To tie my future to the future of the Jewish people in our homeland.  Fraught and fun, stressful and meaningful- that’s what it means.  It’s not to immigrate- I returned to my ancestors’ home.  To live amongst my people.  As the norm, as the majority, in the only place like it on the planet.  Not as a tolerated (or persecuted) minority- but as the people steering the ship.  With all the empowerment and responsibility that entails.  There’s really no other process like it in the world.

There are many ways I could have lived this year in Israel.  I looked into getting a full-time job here, I looked into grad school and rabbinical school, I looked into living on a kibbutz, I looked into living up North, I even considered doing some shepherding (I think I’m still gonna make that happen 😉 ).  Ultimately, I decided to continue doing my digital public relations freelancing.  Which gave me the opportunity to work from home (and the challenge of building a social network without in-country colleagues).

One of the best aspects of this was that I could travel.  One of the reasons I made aliyah was to see the world, and my homeland.  And boy did I.  I saw over 100 different Israeli cities, towns, and national parks.  All via public transit or hitchhiking.  While people abroad only see my country in terms of conflict, they are sorely missing out.  It’s by far the most gorgeous place on the planet.  Prettier than some Israelis even recognize.  Naturally beautiful, accessible by public transit, filled with ancient cultures and history, and one more very important thing: deep generosity.

Traveling in Israel, the way I travel, can be challenging.  I love it.  You have to navigate all sorts of cultures and politics- not to mention fluid schedules (this ain’t Switzerland) and new terrain.  I’ve gotten growled at by wild boars in the Galilee at midnight, I was chased around the Arab village of Tira by a crazy man only to get a ride to the bus stop from a basketball player who’s friends with a Jewish lawyer in Baltimore, I got evangelized in Spanish by a Mexican missionary who said I was going to hell for being Jewish, I tripped and fell in a forest and with a broken sandal and my knee bleeding hobbled on one shoe to a bus.  Only to have an awesome bus driver and 20 year old Arab law student chatter with me in Arabic as we drove through the mountains.

For every challenge here, there are been countless blessings.  When I was in the Druze village of Sajur, I visited an ancient rabbi’s tomb.  There were dozens of Hasidim praying.  The rabbi, a Vizhnitz Hasid, chatted with me.  Then gave me two beautiful books- one siddur and one book of songs for Shabbat.  The other day I was in the Christian village of Eilaboun.  And on two separate occasions, when I asked for water, old men in their 70s simply handed me gigantic bottles of their own.  In Tarshiha, an Arab village in the North, I stared at a house’s beautiful door.  The Bedouin woman comes out, gestures to me to come in, and plies me with coffee and sweets while she folds her laundry.  Her preferring to speak in Hebrew, me in Arabic.

I have been hosted- for free- countless times in Israel.  Sometimes by people I had never met.  Both overnight and for numerous Shabbat meals.  I was once on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and a young woman wondered aloud what she’d do if she missed the train to Haifa.  And the woman next to her said: “you’ll stay with me”.  They had never met.  I was heading to Haifa once for a trip and I had met a rabbi up there.  Literally for 20 minutes at a Shabbat in Tel Aviv.  I asked if I could crash with her- because that’s normal here- and she said: “I’m sorry I can’t host you because we made plans, would it be ok for you to stay with my parents?”  Would it be ok…yes. 🙂  And I did, and got fed incredible Iraqi food and awesome stories by her mom.

This blog would be endless if I recounted every act of incredible generosity in my country.  Druze who helped me hitchhike to a Christian village.  Where then I knocked on someone’s door to get into a church.  But the key was nowhere to be found.  So they invited me in to watch Christian prayers from Lebanon on TV and eat eat eat.  Or the Jewish man I met in a parking lot in Beit Jann, asked him where Rameh was, and simply told me to get in the car.  And took me.  I can’t even count how many times Christian Arabs have opened their village churches just for me.  Or how many mosques have let me film their prayers- from Abu Ghosh to Kfar Qasem to Kababir in Haifa.  And how many dozens of others I’ve visited in Tel Aviv, Yaffo, Akko, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Jisr Al-Zarqa, and more.  I know now proper etiquette in a mosque- from visiting them 🙂  I enjoy the call to prayer while I eat Georgian food in Yaffo.  It’s part of my life.

There are people here who look after me.  My Hasidic friend Yisrael in Bnei Brak who asked for my phone number to see how I’m doing.  Who always gives me a huge hug when I come to see him.  My Reform rabbis- all of them women- who nudge me, love me, and gently guilt me like good surrogate Jewish mothers.  And whose services (and mine- because here I lead them) fill me with song and love.  My Orthodox gay friend and his secular partner whose house I invite myself to for Shabbat.  Just like I do to my Iraqi neighbors.  Because not only is that acceptable here- it’s the norm.  Love is the norm.  Personal space and boundaries- that’s not how we do things here.  And you find, after some acclimating, that it’s better.  It fills you with warmth.  That sacrificing a little autonomy gets you a whole lot of community.

There are incredibly difficult moments in Israel.  Whoever wants to be Israeli- to choose to become Israeli- should think hard before doing so.  This year, I heard an air raid siren on my first day in my new apartment.  I stood in the stairwell and googled: “what to do in an air raid?”  On two separate occasions I had to deal with suspicious objects.  In one case, I was locked inside the library while it was diffused.  In another, the street was closed off.  And in both cases, the police, God bless them, were extraordinarily calm and professional.  Thank you for your service.

I’ve been racially profiled as Arab (which was awful- and I also understand why it’s not such a simple question).  I once took the bus to Jerusalem, heard about a terrorist attack along the way, and looked out the window to the see the name of the town it had just happened in.  I’ve witnessed the burnt fields of Sderot- crisped to blackness by Hamas terrorist fires.  And then got sushi with a friend who lives even closer to Gaza.  On Kibbutz Nahal Oz which has seen dozens of Hamas attacks recently.  And where she’s studying for final exams that will determine her professional future.

If you add to this the personal, bureaucratic, and cultural transition of building a life in a new country as a new citizen- boy it can be hard.  Especially arriving alone with no family.  If you’ve made aliyah and never cried, I don’t think you really did it.

But what you need to understand is that there’s a reason I live here.  And that, for the wild prejudice (in all directions), the terrorism, the predatory real estate market, the ideologies which sometimes spin out of control, and the very real tensions in my own neighborhood between refugees and veteran residents- the fact is Israel is where I feel at home.  People here exhibit an incredible generosity I have never seen anywhere else.  A sense of caring, responsibility, and even cohesion.  Much greater than you might expect from reading CNN.  People here- we- have a certain toughness to be able to get through the challenges of living in the most difficult neighborhood in the world.

And we also have an incredible ability to take those hardships and turn them into sweet sweet baklava.  This country is a country of survivors- of the Holocaust, of Arab expulsions of Jews, of the Soviet Union.  Arabs and Jews who’ve lived through many wars, cultural and familial separations, terror, and economic recessions.

What you find- and what I identify with as an abuse survivor healing from PTSD- is that people here know better than anywhere else how to move forward.  How to not only survive, but to take that pain endured and manage to build something.  To become sweet in spite of it all.  So that unlike in America where every tweet becomes a news story for a week, in Israel, we just don’t have the time or care.  We’re too busy living our lives and being in the moment to stew in it.

And living in such a generous and warm culture has fostered my own compassion.  So that when I see a woman eating grapes off the ground, I give her thirty shekels and tell her to get a real meal.  When I see a 15 year old Filipina girl working day and night, I tell her I’m going to take her on an excursion to relax.  And she lights up with excitement.  When I meet a lone soldier on a bus who was celebrating his birthday alone, I take him out to baklava and invite him to spend the night.  When I meet an American Christian in Jerusalem who’s coming to visit Tel Aviv, I invited him to do likewise.  The same day.  And last night, when I saw a homeless man in my neighborhood sleeping on a bench, I bought him rugelach and sat it next to him.

Because living in Israel is not always sweet- but you can choose to be.  And I find most Israelis do.  Once you peel back the tough exterior- the gentleness, kindness, and warmth beneath far exceeds anything I had ever experienced before.  Becoming Israeli has given me a place to be more generous, has taught me to appreciate people from all walks of life and ways of thinking, and has helped me grow into a stronger and balanced person.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me make this transition and grow.  My friends I made on the plane while making aliyah- who I’m still friends with.  My Reform community.  My neighbors.  My friends at my local Kosher sushi restaurant, who have become like family.  The people of every background who have supported me, fed me, and encouraged me.  Who’ve given me countless opportunities to speak the beautiful languages of this land.  My American friends who from many times zones away made an effort to keep in touch and showed they cared.  Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates American aliyah, for making the process as smooth as possible.  For answering dozens of questions.  For being there both before and after my landing.  For helping me feel like I had a place to call on when I needed help.  Like when my AirBnB fell through, I got food poisoning, and you showed up on my doorstep with food 🙂 .  Ein aleychem- you rock.  Misrad Haklitah and the Israelis whose tax dollars funded my transition- thank you.  I’m absorbed- by your kindness and by our country.  Especially my fabulous aliyah counselor Lauren who talks with me about everything from bureaucracy to cute guys- and always puts a smile on my face.

Aliyah, for those who don’t know, is the Hebrew word that describes when a Jew like me returns to Israel and becomes a citizen.  It literally means “rising up”.  The idea being that moving back to Israel elevates your spirit and is a process by which you grow.

Nothing could be more true.  While I feel I’m quite thoroughly absorbed into Israeli society, I will always keep rising.  There are new places to go, people to meet, experiences to have.  You can never finish exploring this country- or loving it.

What I can say is I arrived as an oleh, and now I’m Israeli.  Because today when I met a young American and helped him find the right bus, he said: “you have really good English”.

I made it.

The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

I come from a progressive background.  I grew up being taught to vote Democrat (and when I threatened not to do so as an 18 year old, got a series of heavy-handed lectures).  My DC suburban life was pretty liberal.  I knew Republicans- and they were a smaller minority than any ethnic or religious group I knew.  And decidedly quieter, for they knew the social consequences of being open about their identity.

I can imagine one could say the same thing in reverse about many other places in America.  I not know not a small number of liberal people who grew up in rural or conservative areas and faced bullying for their identity or beliefs.

When I worked for a variety of political and non-profit organizations, the rhetoric was quite clear: progressive=good, conservative=bad.  Even with regards to the moral standing of the person himself, not just the validity of her views.

One of the famous sayings of the labor movement, a movement that successfully improved living conditions for workers across America and the world, is: “which side are you on?”  There is even a catchy folk tune about it.  The idea was, politically speaking, to force people to choose between management (bad) and workers (good).  I can understand the need for rallying cries and I think the underlying ideology is problematic.

When you ask someone to choose between one human being and another, you set up a dynamic where someone will lose.  And while in some cases that might be necessary, it’s pretty black-and-white thinking that I think gets us into some trouble.  And perhaps gratifies our desire to feel right and just more than providing real solutions.  To the extent that solutions can be found- and they aren’t always so readily available.

Living in Israel and traveling the region has taught me some things.  For one, I’ve spent a lot more time with conservative people.  While I did go to college in the Midwest and summer camp in the South, I can’t really say I had deep relationships over many years with conservative Americans.  Here, my neighbors have pictures of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in their house.  As does almost every restaurant.  I do not live in the Tel Aviv of beach high rises.  I live in a place that loves Benjamin Netanyahu- it’s not on your Birthright itinerary.  Although it should be.

I have friends- not in the metaphorical sense- but actual friends, who have my phone number.  Who are Hasidic, who are Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who are Druze, who are Arab Christians, who are Arab Muslims, who are Modern Orthodox settlers.  The kind of people, in many cases, that I was taught to fear as an American Reform Jew.  Some of whom know I’m gay and/or Reform and are fine with it.  Some of whom don’t know- or don’t know yet- and it doesn’t particularly matter for me.

The point is I feel at home with these friends and I feel at home at queer parties in Tel Aviv.  Or leading Reform services.  Or going to pride parades.  Or vegan hippie Shabbats.  In fact, I sometimes feel more comfortable in my traditional Mizrachi neighborhood than I do at those vegan Shabbats.  But I try to find something to enjoy everywhere.  I also find it amusing to meet some vegans here who are just as “Orthodox” about their diet as any Haredi rabbi is about his Judaism.  Israel is an interesting place full of passion, contradictions, love, and curiosity.  I would never live anywhere else.

Which brings me back to my original point.  Living in Israel has opened my eyes- not only to insights about life here, but also about my former homeland.  America is increasingly polarized.  I see this also with regards to the absolute nonsense all too many progressives are spouting about Israel.  I met a young man the other day who goes to Williams College.  He told me, over some pasta in Tel Aviv, that activists on his campus put up an “Israeli apartheid wall” every year.  And then naively link the Israeli security fence to the American wall on the Mexican border.  Two rather different issues, but with one common thread: seeing the world through an American lens rather than understanding the nuances of other societies.  Like the fact that for all its complexities (including land disputes with Palestinian villages), the fence between Israel and the West Bank drastically reduced suicide bombings.  Saving who knows how many lives.

Israelis loved to tell me when I made aliyah that living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  Nothing could be more true.  The more you get to know this beautiful land, the more you see the struggle of the soldier, the identity see-saw of being Arab and Israeli, the hardship of checkpoints, the necessity of checkpoints, the suffering of refugees, the suffering of their neighbors who’ve been neglected for years.  The snobbery of wealthy “left-wing” white people, the identity void those people face because their own Yiddish-infused Ashkenazi identity was torn from them.  The anger of Mizrachim towards Arabs.  Because they are perceived as them by those same Ashkenazim who purport to advocate for them.  And because Arabs kicked them out of their countries.  And because the state suppressed their Arab-infused cultures when they arrived.  And because Palestinians mock them for being Arab- without understanding that Mizrachi Jews have lived in the Middle East long before Arabic was even spoken here.

In the end, if you really experience the full breadth of Israel, you understand there are no easy solutions.  Anyone who tells you there are is selling snake oil or perhaps listening to a little bit too much NPR.  Here’s the reality: if Israel simply “pulls out” of the entire West Bank, it will become militarized and extremists will use it as a launching point for terrorist attacks.  Just like what has happened in Gaza since Israel exited 13 years ago.  Many Palestinians simply want to make a living and too many Palestinians aren’t willing to let go of the past and move on.  And instead turn to violence, threatening Israeli lives and their own neighbors’ ability to provide for their families in peace.

There are groups out there that would like you to think there are simple solutions to the conflict here.  Or that there are simply “two sides” when there are as many opinions amongst both Israelis and Palestinians as there are stars in the sky.

IfNotNow is one of those groups.  I actually went to one of their events in the States because I was curious.  I’m open to hearing what pretty much anyone has to say and I think every government or ideology should be open to critique.

The problem with this organization is that its entire mission is framed in the negative.  Besides the fact that I have yet to hear a single positive thing about Israel from this group- which is both a moral and practical issue if you’d like us to hear your message- the message is simplistic.  In their own words, they want to “end American Jewish support for the occupation“.  Regardless of the merit of the argument, the framing is entirely negative.  Rather than advocating for peace or for anything- it’s about what they’re against.  Without defining what “occupation” even means.

This is more than a semantic point.  There are Israelis (and even some Arabs) who don’t see Israel as an occupier.  Or even see Arabs as occupying Jewish land.  Most Palestinians who would argue East Jerusalem is occupied- and many who live there want to hold on to their Israeli ID cards even if there’s a Palestinian state.  There are Arabs within Israel who don’t even identify as Palestinian, let alone want to live in a Palestinian state.  And others who do view their land as occupied- in pre-1967 Israel.  Who have citizenship.  There are Palestinians who similarly believe all of Israel is occupied territory.  Some Israeli Jews view the West Bank as occupied, Gaza as Palestinian-controlled, and want a Palestinian state in those two areas.  And other Jews who disagree to varying degrees.  Many Jews also support land swaps which would allow Jewish settlements to be fully integrated into Israel while giving equivalent land from within Israel to the Palestinians.  Largely Arab villages- many of whom despite their sympathies for Palestinians, don’t actually want to be swapped into a Palestinian state.  Who fear it will become an autocracy like all of its Arab neighbors.

So let’s take another look at the platform of this organization as an example of what’s going wrong with certain streams of progressivism.  On the webpage linked to above, they write: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood. We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

So in essence, the group is against the occupation- which they won’t define.  They won’t say if they support Israel’s existence, whether it can be a Jewish state, or even if people should boycott the country.  The only thing uniting this group is “ending the occupation”.  What that means- not only do I not know, they don’t know.  I can’t have a rational argument- or even find room for agreement- if I don’t know what somebody believes.  And it seems evident to me that these people are struggling with their Jewish identity, which I can empathize with.  I’m not sure they’re doing it in a way that’s advancing peace.

This past weekend, I spent a lovely Shabbaton with the Israeli Reform Movement’s biennial convention.  Young and old came together to celebrate the growth of, yes, progressive Judaism in Israel.  I enjoy both liberal Judaism and Hasidic Judaism and everything in-between.  They all have their ups and downsides.  Haredim need to work on their homophobia and judgmental attitudes.  And Reform Jews need work on, well, their Haredi-phobia and at times, anti-Mizrachi racism.  Which I did hear quite distinctly from several leaders at the conference.  One of whom decried the “Judaism of the ghettos of Poland and Casablanca.”  Haredim and Reform Jews both have beautiful passion for our religion and people.  And I get something out of all types of Judaism.  I had a great time and made good friends.

As we left the conference to take a shuttle to Tel Aviv, my friend Yarden checked her phone.  We had such a good time, she hadn’t looked for a while.  Turns out, Hamas was shelling her Kibbutz near Gaza- 3 rockets had fallen just that day.  I of course offered to let her crash at my place in Tel Aviv, but she said: “I appreciate it, but I have to get back for class.  I’m used to it at this point.  I was just hoping.  Hoping it had stopped.”  A week after 100 Palestinian Hamas rockets had landed in her area.

I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I’m praying for her and always here if she needs a place to stay.  And I plan on visiting her as well.  I sent her a cute message too after we left.

Do these words alone fix the Middle East crisis?  A crisis brewing in various forms for thousands of years?

No.  But nothing can.  Or at least I’m not sure what can.  Because I’m willing to admit, in a fashion I would’ve struggled to just a few years ago, that I don’t have easy solutions.  I’m not even sure what solutions there are.  And I hope things calm down.

What I did offer my friend- and I try to offer people around me- Arab, Jewish, Christian- whatever.  Is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is a joke.  Is a smile.  Is love.  Is a visit.  Is a cute emoji.

Some people, including my former self, might mock what I just said.  In the face of rockets and “occupation”, of suffering of so many varieties and cultures and religions.  What Matt, Matah, has to offer is kindness?  A joke?  Hah!  Why doesn’t he just go to a rally and stop the occupation!  What a blind superficial hypocrite who’s just trying to blind us to the reality of oppression.

Which side are you on?

To which I say: you’re asking an impossible question.  I’m a proud Israeli Jew.  That’s my side.  And I care what happens to my Arab neighbors.  And I care about refugees.  And I care about my neighbors even if they don’t like them.

In short, I care.  Not about “one side”.  About people.

In the end, there are some things I believe can help make our country greater.  I say greater because it’s already really awesome- in ways you’ll never see on the news.  The relaxing beaches, the Jews and Arabs who are friends, the gorgeous parks, the nightclubs, the life.  The vibrancy of this place and its people that makes New York look like a dull dirty boring rat-infested overpriced city with no beach.  That, OK, has better bagels than here.  But 10% of the soul.

I’d love to see more Jews learn Arabic.  I love to see more Arabs and Palestinians learn Jewish history and recognize our peoplehood.  I like to see more Ashkenazim learning about Mizrachi history- and learning Yiddish to understand their own.  And Mizrachim connecting to their Arabic-infused cultures and languages to realize they share a lot more in common with Arabs than some might like to admit.  Which I get.

Rather than offer easy solutions, I try to embrace that we can’t fix everything and there might not even be solutions to everything.  That can be scary to people who need certainty- I’ve been there before.  Now I’m proud that I am increasingly able to live with that discomfort and treat people with kindness whenever possible.

My wish is that progressives like IfNotNow, even if they continue to advocate in ways I disagree with, can understand where people like me are coming from.  Where my country is coming from.  And to advocate with a little more understanding and love.  And a little less yelling.

Because the one thing every visitor to Israel can agree on is we are already have enough of that.  Even if it’s just the guy selling tomatoes in the shuk.

A Jew, 2 Druze, and a Christian walk onto a train…

nope, not a joke, just a regular afternoon 😉

Today was tiring, so I thought it’d be nice to remember a really hopeful story from my travels in Israel.

I had gone up to Haifa to explore and was taking the train back to Tel Aviv.  The train in Israel is not just a vehicle- it’s the town square.  People chat, gossip, exchange numbers- even make friends.  It’s a place that reflects the warmth of this country more than any other place on the planet I’ve visited.  You’re never really alone on the train.  Sometimes that means loud music and conversations, but it’s never boring and it just feels like home.

There was one seat left in a four seat area.  The three 20-something guys were talking in Arabic.

I sat down and after about a minute I chimed in in Arabic.  They were stunned.  I love sharing how I speak Arabic with Arabs here.  I recently made a video in Arabic about how and why I learned the language.  In short, I learned Syrian Arabic with a professor from Damascus in America and then with Syrian refugees on Skype.  Which you can do too.  For an Arab here to hear an American-Israeli Jew speaking Syrian Arabic is a bit like an American hearing a North Korean speaking like a native New Yorker.  People are often in amazement.  It’s great 🙂  I like melting hearts.

One guy was a Christian from Mi’ilya, one of my favorite villages in Israel.  It’s a Greek Catholic Arab village that I’ve visited twice.  They have a beautiful historic church and it’s near a Crusader castle I want to visit.  The people are so warm.  They even have a cool locally-made chocolate shop!  For the linguistically inclined among us, they also speak with a “qaf” or what we write in English as a “q”- usually a trait of Druze villages here.  It was really cool to find that out.

And to find out that one of the Druze guys comes from Yarka, a village that despite being Druze, actually doesn’t use the “qaf” but instead uses a hamza, or “hiccup” sound.  So for instance, the word “qalb” or “heart” in Arabic would be pronounced ‘alb.  In short, the Christian speaks like the Druze and the Druze like the Christian- at least on this train 😉

Except for the super hot Druze guy next to me.  See the Christian and the Druze guys across from me are in school together in the south of Israel.  It can be hard to tell with Arab men because they have very intimate male friendships, but I actually kind of wondered if they were a couple.  They’d make a cute one 😉  I noticed a lot of physical and emotional closeness.  It was sweet either way.

Back to the hot Druze guy.  He uses the “qaf” like most Druze 😉  He wasn’t in school, he was in the army.  He had a gorgeous, warm, inviting smile.  A beautiful laugh.  And a kind heart.  And an outside just as beautiful.

We talked a lot.  All of us.  Turns out each village even has its own kubbeh, a Middle Eastern food usually involving meat stuffed into a kind of fried covering.  What I didn’t know is that there are villages up north with RAW kubbeh.  Yes, the kubbeh meat isn’t cooked!  I joked with them that if they opened a restaurant in Tel Aviv and called it Arab Sushi, they’d make a million bucks.  We laughed 🙂

When they got off the train, I was sad to see them go.  I gave the Druze soldier my number and told him and his friends to be in touch when they come to Tel Aviv.

Then, the most curious and beautiful thing happened.

Two Sephardic Haredi men- also pretty young- moved over to my section.  They study in Yeshiva, seminary, in Ofakim.  They needed help figuring out possible routes home, so I opened my app.  They don’t have smartphones- a lot of ultra-Orthodox don’t.  In order to keep out unwanted internet content, etc.  They were really nice and I helped them find some ways home.

Both of them are of Moroccan origin.  We talked about their yeshiva- I was familiar with Shas yeshivas in that they tend to be modeled after Lithuanian ones.  The ones my ancestors prayed in 🙂  We talked about Sephardic culture- they didn’t know about Ladino!  Ladino was less of a Moroccan thing (although they had a dialect called Haketia which was similar), but they were astounded to learn about this Judeo-Spanish language!  And they’re going to search for Ladino music at home…because I think they have Youtube there.  I didn’t ask 😉

Then the best question came up: “so, what were you talking with those kids about in Arabic?”  I smiled.  But before I could answer, they said: “we think you were talking about food!”

And they were right!  I told them all about our conversation.  Their eyes lit up.  They were eager and willing to learn about all that we discussed.  And in a spirit of curiosity.  About their neighbors.

As I left the train, I couldn’t help but feel satisfied.  I was the bridge between 2 Druze, a Christian, and 2 ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.  When people ask me what I do with my eight languages (expecting that I work for the military or make loads of money)- this is what I do.  If people want to work in other fields, that’s great.  We need multilingual people in intelligence.  The intelligence I’m doing is on how to bring people together.  I use my Hebrew, my Arabic, and other languages to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.  That hopefully shares some of that joy with others.

I couldn’t have had this experience without speaking both Hebrew and Arabic.  One thing I’ve realized lately is that I can’t translate some of my feelings to English.  I’m thoroughly Israeli.  I think and feel in Hebrew- and in Arabic.  Often better than in English.  This is where my soul breathes and lives to the fullest.  America feels cold to me- distant, polite, dull, preoccupied with the self.

Israel is a place of great warmth.  Among every sector of society.  It’s astounding and a beautiful thing to be a part of.  I’m grateful for the dozens of people who host me for meals and to stay in their homes.  I pass that warmth on to the people around me.  Like when I met a lone soldier on the bus the other day from New Jersey, far from home on his birthday.  And took him out to baklava and Eritrean food and hosted him for the night.

Find me an American- in America- who does that.  It just doesn’t happen.  I’m sure there are sociological reasons, fear, crime, who knows.  There are reasons for everything, sometimes valid and sometimes that don’t match up with the facts.

All I know is that in Israel, we are direct, we are generous, we are honest.  I never have to guess what an Israeli is thinking.  Even if I don’t like what they say- I know they’ll speak their mind.  And I can say I don’t like it either.  We can be truthful.

And the honest truth is this: at a time when America is crumbling- when Republicans and Democrats struggle to even be friends.  When my liberal friends bash evangelicals.  And right-wingers pretend anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview is “fake news”.

In Israel, we have a glue that keeps us together.  Perhaps out of necessity, but also just because this is a special place with special people.  Who tend to have a real depth of kindness and a zest for life.

You might like to hate on us for what’s going on in Gaza or barely utter a peep when Iran launches missiles at the Golan.  But in the end, for all the conflict here, Israelis- we’re a hell of a lot better than Americans (or Europeans) at actually getting along.

That’s a sentence that might be hard to stomach- or maybe to believe.  If that’s the case, you’re probably not Israeli 😉  It’s true- there’s a lot of beef between all the sectors of society I spoke to on that train.  But you know what?  You’re never going to see my interaction on CNN.  Because they’ve decided that only dead bodies are sexy.

But guess what?  So are Druze soldiers talking, smiling at an American-Israeli whose life is now a whole lot more hummus than grilled cheese.

P.S.- that’s the Druze flag with a Magen David, the Star of David.  Because I love Druze 🙂