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.

20181015_174947

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.

20181015_1757441

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 🙂

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

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

beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gay-friendly Arab, homophobic secular Jew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you go in peace, wherever you go 🙂