Whole Grain Judaism Part 2

Almost exactly three years ago, I wrote a blog post on a previous site of mine called “Whole Grain Judaism“.  I proposed some radical ideas that reflected both where I was politically and personally.  While some of the ideas have faded into my past subconscious, some seem relevant today.  In particular, the very title of the article.

The previous article focused a lot on the financial structure of Judaism and how it keeps us unnecessarily apart.  Some of the ideas no longer resonate as much with me, but some do.  There is a hyper-financialization of Judaism especially in the liberal settings I know best.  It’s one of the reasons that the Chabad financial model attracts so many Jews.  More Jews, less dues, more do’s, less inhibition to give on your own accord.

Nonetheless, acknowledging that life is more gray than black-and-white (liberal congregations are striving for financial stability, and I support their efforts), I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Whole Grain Judaism.

That aspect is our ability to cross the boundaries which keep us apart Jewishly.  Not financially, but socially and interpersonally and religiously.  Culturally.  How can we take our Judaism and make it a source of connection rather than isolation?

Isolation, as I define it, is when you keep to your own- exclusively.  Now everyone does this to a degree and if you never preferred one institution over another, you wouldn’t be telling the truth.  We all have our preferences and I think that’s healthy.  Different ideologies and life choices can strengthen the dynamism of the Jewish community and all religious and cultural groups.  Even sometimes when it creates tension.

However, when taken to an extreme, it can lead to the destruction of the Jewish people.  Or at a minimum, a severe exacerbation of the internal conflicts we experience.  Which, if left unchecked, stretch the creative tension to the kind of dissension and chaos that allows external threats to tear us apart.  It’s not a light subject- there have been multiple anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. in recent months (not to mention in Europe, Israel, and around the world, where they are sadly more accustomed to them).  If we don’t manage to have a bare minimum of internal solidarity, how are we supposed to face such threats?  We are two percent of the U.S. population- on a good day.  There are times we need to put aside our differences and work for our common good.  It’s not as if an anti-Semitic shooter is going to distinguish us based on where we pray, how progressive (or not) we are, nor our belief in God itself.

That being understood, what does this mean in practical terms?

It’s not as if any of us have a magic wand and can magically rearrange the Jewish world to institutionally promote the kind of ahavat yisrael, love of your fellow Jew, that would be needed to build such solidarity on a national level.

And yet, we all do have the capacity to make a difference.

My theory is that while institutional change is necessary, that shouldn’t get in the way of the little daily actions that, when combined, can create the kind of safety net of kindness that can preserve our people for generations.

I grew up in a Reform community.  Not in a small way- I became incredibly involved on my own accord.  I taught Hebrew school, led teen services, was on my youth group board, went to synagogue almost every week, and even almost went to rabbinical school.  I’ve visited or led services at Reform congregations from St. Louis to Barcelona, Budapest to Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires to Washington, D.C.  The Reform Movement’s intense fervor for caring about the other, for inclusion, for ethical living, for fervent prayer (as best embodied by its youth group NFTY)- those values still resonate with me in many ways.

I go to an Orthodox synagogue.  Not in a small way- I’ve become incredibly involved.  Especially for someone who has absolutely no Orthodox upbringing, relatives, or anything of the like.  I go weekly to synagogue on Saturday mornings.  I almost always go to mincha and maariv and havdalah.  I am usually at a shul member’s house for Shabbat lunch.  I rarely use my phone and I usually walk.  I love the rabbi.  He knows I’m gay.  I feel largely accepted and welcomed and I go because I love the people there.  It is not out of rejection of my past nor of the Reform values I still identify with.  I would still say I am a Reform Jew.  And I’m kind of an Orthodox one too.

This seeming dichotomy is how I live.  I am a fully-out-of-the-closet gay man who loves marching in Pride parades (and has done so two or three times under the banner of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center).  I am the same gay man who savors every bite of gefilte fish at the restaurant Shtiesel in ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak (the famous show is named after it!).  And who savors that gefilte fish at Chabad in the States.  Who speaks Yiddish at both a secular socialist summer camp and in Hasidic book stores in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

If you can’t untangle where one part of my Judaism starts and another stops, good!  Because I’ve prayed in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, and Litvish communities.  I am just as happy accepting my culturally-Jewish friends who may not believe in God as I am davvening at shul on a Saturday morning.  Not because we have the same preferences all the time- we don’t.  But because we share important things in common.  And out of a love for my fellow human being, not to mention my fellow Jew, I try to focus on those commonalities as a way to build connection.

I don’t run the American Jewish Committee nor the Jewish Federations of North America.  I don’t sit on a synagogue board and I am not a rabbi.  I am a writer.  I’m an adventurer, an explorer, and every-day Jew trying to make a difference through words and actions.  Just like you- wherever you work or play.

I’m grateful to all the Jewish professionals, lay leaders, and ordinary citizens who try to bridge the gaps on a daily basis.  Who, instead of bemoaning the news or incessantly refreshing the page of the Jerusalem Post or Ha’aretz (it’s tempting, I’ve done it!), decide to take some power into their own hands.  To be the moderate-tempered person willing to talk to reasonable people of different backgrounds.  So that if we don’t have to deny our differences, we shouldn’t be prisoner to them either.

Do you.  Live Jewishly in a way that lets you experience the best of all worlds- from Hillel to Chabad, from peaceful protests to quiet Shabbat reflection.  Or just some of the worlds, but with a desire to respect people who inhabit the others.  And if you’re not Jewish, try taking this idea and applying it to your own community.  After all, we’re all part of the human community.  And if we don’t find a way to explore other cultures and ways of thinking and be those bridges of sanity during this time of confusion, then we will collapse.  Bring the healing yourself, and find yourself both challenged and rewarded for it with the richness a textured understanding of life has to offer.

To conclude, I’ve seen a lot of signs in both America and Israel with the same gist: “ve’ahavta le’reacha kamocha”.  Love your neighbor, your companion, your colleague, your friend, your stranger, your person squishing over into your seat on the bus.  Love.

It’s not easy.  And sometimes, there are other emotions we should allow ourselves to feel.  I don’t love when people are cruel and I don’t love when people threaten innocent human beings or animals.  Love is a commandment, but not the only one.

And love we must.  Because if we don’t take it upon ourselves to get to know each other, it’s not as if our newspaper will do it for us.

Grab the only thing you can control, your self, and go for a ride somewhere you’ve never been.  And your open eyes are the best gift you can endow your soul, two little holes that let it breathe fresh air.  An air whose wisdom may eventually, God willing, come out of our mouths a little cooler than usual.  As kindness.  And whose spirit will allow us all to live Whole Grain lives.

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You can always return

One of the most fascinating things about Portugal is its Jewish community.

Jews have lived here for 1,500 years. Then forcibly converted 400 years ago during the Inquisition, sometimes burned at the stake. In the late 1800s, the community was revived by the migration of Moroccan Jews. Most of whom had roots in the very communities expelled from the Iberian peninsula. But according to my friend Eduardo, who I’ll tell you more about later, native-born Portuguese of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to return to the faith of our ancestors. This only changed a few decades ago.

Which led to the most fascinating phenomenon I have ever witnessed in a Reform synagogue.

It was Friday night. I spent a long day visiting Tomar, a medieval town two and a half hours outside Lisbon. I went because it is beautiful and has a medieval synagogue- a pre-Inquisition remnant of Israel. With 5th century Hebrew tombstones. And an attendant who complained about me and an Israeli couple asking for one Hebrew brochure each. As if three pieces of printer paper was just a bridge too far.

“Vocês querem três?” she said with a grimace.

“Sim, e é o nosso património religioso, acho que está bem.”

It’s our religious heritage, so I think it’s perfectly normal.

She quietly pursed her lips in the tiniest of frowns as we perused the small, but fascinating museum.

I think it’s fantastic that Portugal and other countries are working to preserve Jewish heritage, it’s a link to our shared past and critical for understanding where we’ve been- and where we’re going. But much as I would suggest a white tour guide for a slavery museum not give black visitors a hard time for asking for leaflets, I think the person working a Jewish museum should show a little compassion. We’re not asking for the building back- we simply want to read what it’s about. You’re lucky we’re here- and given your country’s penchant for persecuting us, so are we.

I headed back to Lisbon, somewhat despairing. I had just written a blog yesterday about how much I loved Portugal. And before I visited the museum, I had a truly magnificent experience hiking in the mountains nearby and strolling the medieval walkways.

On the long train ride, I debated what to do that night. I had given my passport information to Reform synagogue Ohel Jacob to go to services. Because that’s the reality in Europe- and it won’t be long before it’s the reality in America too. Due to anti-Semitism, every synagogue in Europe has extensive security and unlike cathedrals, you can’t simply pop in. You have to fill out a visitor form with your personal info and send a picture of your passport. It’s to prevent us from being butchered- much as we have been on this continent for millennia. To this very day.

Running on 3 hours of sleep, up late thinking about big life decisions, and having traveled 5 hours on a train, I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and prepare for my flight to America the next morning.

But something in my soul told me to go.

So I grabbed a cab, with a rather wily driver who couldn’t believe I didn’t know where the street was. I told him I hoped he never got lost in New York if he visits sometime 😛 . Try to be the understanding person and realize not everyone knows your country like the back of their hand. Which is why I’ve often found myself directing tourists around Tel Aviv, sometimes sitting down with them for hours helping them plan their visits. Be the kind person who helps someone find their way.

I often visit synagogues around the world. And for Friday night services, although I can’t say I particularly believe in the actual message of the prayers (I’d much rather be singing in the forest of Tomar), I find something magical about the moment. For me spirituality is where I feel free to dance, to sing, to express my innermost fears, hopes, and spontaneous desires. It’s not being told what words to say when and how and singing in unison. It goes against every grain of my being- there’s no way that the human spirit was built to conform. Or that the words of someone 2,000 years ago should or could possibly express my full sentiments.

What I find magical about prayer, then, is the act itself. For me, Jewish history and survival is the most miraculous phenomenon. So the fact that we’re sitting in a room, using the same ancient words, melding with the symbols our ancestors have known for centuries, that is magical. Something we share with Jews everywhere.

This kesem, this enchantment, reaches new heights in Portugal. And this night more than any other.

Because to sit praying with Jews in Portugal 400 years after the genocide of our people is the most spiritually connecting thing I’ve ever done in a synagogue. The fact that it’s the first and only Reform one here is an added bonus that made it particularly salient for me. Familiar, comfortable, known but different.

For most of the melodies I knew by heart. But the accents pronouncing them were Portuguese, not American or Israeli. The resh taking on that particular Lisboan roll. The siddur itself from Brazil, half in the holy tongue, half in the language of Camões. It was beautiful to hear the congregants read out loud prayers I knew- but in a lilting and soothing Portuguese. Next time you get a chance to visit a synagogue abroad, go. Because even hearing the words you know in a different language can really change the way you see them. Only for the better.

Everyone in the room looked like Jewish faces I had seen before. In Maryland, in Argentina, in Barcelona, in Belgium, in Israel. They even invited me to lead some of the prayers, which I found quite fulfilling. Because even if the words themselves aren’t my dogma, the act of sharing them with the people around me was electric. And sometimes I found myself slipping into a spiritual state, where I couldn’t quite separate my past religiosity, my current spirituality, the heightened significant of the current moment, and my desire to separate them all in the name of rationalism. It’s healthy to live in the gray space rather than forcing yourself to conform to an all-or-nothing vision of the world. And so I found myself belting out Adon Olam as my own prayer, even as I questioned why it resonated for me so much. But living and love the hypocrisy. Neat lines are for buying a ticket at the movie theater. At least in America. Not in Israel, where there is no line at all. Or in Portugal, where the line exists but elegantly and gently and without compulsion. It’s the middle ground I’ve been searching for, and I flow into the veins of Portugal in a way I’ve never settled in any other country.

At the end of services, I was invited to make kiddush, the blessing over the fruit of the vine. It’s a prayer with complicated words that sometimes engage my own mixed feelings about Jewish theology. But is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.

So to do honor to this tiny and bold community, I grabbed the cup and blessed it. With a gusto and a sense of pride. I loved my own voice. And for someone who grew up being senselessly criticized left and right, it felt whole to enjoy myself. And the congregants loved it- one man gave me a big thumbs up 🙂

Then we sat down to an oneg, as is often the case on Friday night.

As we began to eat, the stories began to flow as much as the wine.

The conversation quickly turned to the Inquisition and how many of the Portuguese were descended from Jews forced to convert. Apparently many of whom took the surnames of trees, which is how you can recognize them today. Such as Oliveira, or olive tree, the last name of one of the congregants, Eduardo.

I looked around the room and asked how many of the people were Bnei Anusim, or descendants of forced converts.  And wish an almost embarrassed look, every single one said yes.  A bashfulness undeserved- I find it extraordinary that someone would want to dig up their roots and reconnect with the very faith that led to their family being persecuted.  And then rejoin it.  To those in the Jewish world who are unwilling to engage with this community I have a message.  Perhaps if you dedicated one tenth of the time you spend on trying to get apathetic Jews to do Jewish things and put it towards engaging these people who want to be Jewish, things might be going better for us.

Their stories were fascinating.  I didn’t get to talk with everyone- there was one really kind older woman who sat with me during services but I didn’t get to chat with her much after.  Especially in a group setting it can be hard to make time to talk with the quieter folks, but they often have the most interesting stories to tell.  And when I go back, I’d like to sit down with her more.

The stories I did hear were moving.  People who had grandparents or parents tell them they were Jewish- on their deathbeds.  DNA tests that showed Sephardic ancestry.  One man from Brazil- because remember, a lot of forced converts fled to the Americas- told me his father refused a Catholic funeral.  No crosses were present when he was buried- and he told his daughter (who then told this man) that they were Jews.  And every person in that room wouldn’t make you bat an eye if you saw them on the streets of Tel Aviv or in synagogue in San Francisco.

As the night winded down, it was about 10:30pm and I was tired.  But I stayed a bit longer to say goodbye to the congregation, and then Eduardo invited me to see their museum.  Museum?  This was a one room apartment, where was there a museum?

But sure enough, a tiny room behind where we prayed held something I can barely find words to describe.  Eduardo had buried the lede.

In this antique-looking room filled with old wooden bookshelves was the library of Polish and German holocaust survivors.

Because Ohel Jacob was not started as a congregation for Bnei Anusim.  It was, in a fashion typically cyclically Jewish, started by Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  And so it was actually an Ashkenazi synagogue, now being prayed in by Sephardim.  Whose founders, when they eventually fled to America, handed the keys to the first generation of Bnei Anusim in Portugal to “come out of the closet”.

As a deep bibliophile and lover of Jewish history, I couldn’t imagine a more potent or exciting moment.  The books lay largely in tatters, but still coherent.  I opened some.  I found books from Lublin, Poland, from Vienna, from Germany.  In Hebrew, in German, in Yiddish.  Sometimes with a touch of Polish or Russian.  They had all the character of an old, bound book you’d find in the corner of a 19th century library.  With all the Jewish spirit you could possibly ask for.  Here are some pictures:

Eduardo is learning how to read Hebrew.  He can sound out some of the words (and prays quite well- he lead services for the first time this week!).  But he couldn’t understand what the books meant.

So I opened them and began to explain.  It was this beautiful Jewish moment of transmission- of taking my knowledge, imparting it to someone thirsty to learn.  And of living in this precious moment together, with the spirit of the Holocaust survivors hovering over us.  And in the thin air that separated our two physical selves, even as our souls drew closer together.

As if the books themselves weren’t enough of a find, it turns out there was more.  There was a Torah scroll burnt to a crisp, covered with a tallit to protect it.  Eduardo thinks it may have been destroyed in Kristallnacht.

Nearby was a megillah, or the Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim.  Commemorating our survival of an attempt to annihilate us in ancient Persia.  I read the words aloud to him, a poignant moment that reminds us that our present circumstances are nothing new.  A long view of Jewish history reveals how fragile our existence is- and how our persistence has kept us alive.

Back in the main prayer room were five more Torah scrolls.  As Eduardo unveiled the ark that held them, he pointed to one in particular:

“This one is 500 years old.  From Iraq.  I’m not sure exactly how it got here.”

I stood in absolute awe- and distilled silence.

Here were these treasures of Jewish history, rotting but still alive.  And the only thing stopping them from having made it to a trash pit is this dedicated congregation.  Descendants of forcibly converted Sephardim preserving the Yiddish books of Holocaust survivors.  It’s a higher order humanity that’s hard to find if you scroll the front page of the news these days, but it’s as real as it is crucial.

The congregation has about 50 people these days.  Most, but not all, Bnei Anusim.  And they have a volunteer librarian who is helping catalogue the books.  You can see it online here.

If you find yourself in Lisbon, I can’t think of a better place to spend a Friday night.  Visit them and strengthen this beautiful community.  At a time when anti-Semitism has pushed some Jews to disaffiliate or dislike their own faith, Ohel Jacob is a reminder of the gifts our tradition has to offer.  And the strength of the Bnei Anusim in digging through layers of family history and prejudice to reconnect to it.  Bruchim habaim habayta- welcome home to the Jewish people.  Here’s a picture of me and some of my new friends from Ohel Jacob:

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Sometimes I ask myself (or others ask me) why I wander.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just go with a set plan and stick to it?  To craft a life itinerary?  Some people want to know where I’ll be in a month, in a year.  I don’t know.  That’s part of what makes exploring magical.  If I had stuck to my original plans a year and a half ago, I’d be in rabbinical school in Jerusalem.  I probably never would’ve written my blog.  I wouldn’t have had time to travel to 10 countries and 120 villages in Israel.  My Arabic wouldn’t have become fluent, I wouldn’t have learned Italian and beefed up my Portuguese.  I wouldn’t be able to understand as much Romanian.  Nor know how to dance dabke.  Nor realize some important things about myself.  That I like quiet time.  That I love exploring different cultures, and sometimes I just want to speak English.  That I actually like some things about America that I didn’t have the context to appreciate before.

And many of the experiences that have so enriched me might not have happened.  If I had stuck to my original plan, would I have sung in the great synagogue of Satmar?  Would I have befriended Roma in rural Romania?  Or eaten Hungarian Jewish pastries in Budapest?  Or discovered that my great uncle was killed liberating Europe from Nazis?  Or that there are people in Andalucía who live in caves?  Or learned the Spanish word “invernaderos” while exploring Almería, a city covered in greenhouses?

Probably not.  I might had other adventures.  But I wouldn’t have had as much time for these.  And I probably wouldn’t have ended up everywhere I did if I simply stuck to a plan.  I doubt I would’ve made my way to Romania three times if I had sat in Washington, D.C. and crafted a year itinerary.  But having been there once, I liked it, and it drew me to go again.  Giving myself the flexibility to change plans has opened up doors to me that remain shut for folks who insist on everything going according to schedule.

So as I write this blog, I find myself not in Tel Aviv, not in Portugal, but in New Jersey.  A place I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting even a month ago.  It’s perhaps appropriate that I first started writing the post on a plane from Portugal- in the airspace that is neither here nor there.  A real wanderer is willing to milk that middle space.  And live with the understanding that the borders, or rules, we are taught to respect sometimes need a little massaging.  Because to find richness, you’ve got to be willing to throw away some of the expectations.  As much as you have to be willing to realize that sometimes they have value.

Today I found myself in the curious position of peering at Google Maps and realizing that directly across the street from where I’m staying is a Jewish cemetery.

After getting a solid American bagel with whitefish salad (please, Israel, learn the value of real bagels!), I strolled into the graveyard.

As you can probably tell from this blog, I’m in America for now.  Not sure exactly how long (again, see my wandering comment).  Could be three months, could be longer.  And maybe less.  Who knows.  Wherever I find myself, I find myself with a bit of yearning mixed with sorrow.  That Portuguese feeling of saudade, where you reach for the best of the past, with the sadness that is it not here now.  In my case, I think it means knowing the beauty and the sorrow of each place, of each experience I’ve had.  And realizing it’s not entirely possible to separate them.  Am I a different, more healed person today because I grew as an individual or because I was in Israel?  I might be able to parse some of that out, but I’m not certain they are so easily picked apart.  Going to Israel was a wise choice, because as I sit here now, I feel like I have grown as a person.  That the hardships are not something I’ll particularly miss while I’m away, and if I had never stepped on that plane, I can’t imagine I would’ve learned nearly as much about myself or the world.  About where I’m from, and who I am.

In the end, I’m still an Israeli citizen, I still pay my bituach leumi, I can come and go whenever I want.  Israelis do it all the time- to work abroad, to go on long trips after the army, to explore.

The difference in my case is that I’m also from here.  So it feels different to come here than someone who didn’t grow up American.  It feels eagerly comfortable for me to see muenster cheese, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies worthy of the name, to eat New York style pizza, to eat real cheddar cheese.  And not to break the bank doing so.  As you can tell, cheese is pretty crucial- and while I love European and some Israeli cheeses, I have to say I gave a “come and get me” look to a stack of American cheese the other day.  I missed you America.

So I live in that space of saudade.  Because however long I’m here, it’s different.  It’s pleasant to be back, it’s hard to reconcile my past with my present, and as much as I love exploring different cultures, it can be difficult to emotionally prepare yourself for the jumping back and forth.

Feeling an emptiness, a fear of losing my passion- for travel, for adventure, for Jewish exploration- I headed across the street to the cemetery.

And the most curious thing happened.

The very first grave I saw said “Adler”.  And I have to double check my genealogical research, but this New Jersey town’s name sounded familiar.  It was one of those bashert, “meant to be” moments that reminded me I’m from here too.  And American Jewry has a story to tell as well.  It’s my story.  And I’m glad to contribute to it while I’m here.  And to the best of my ability, wherever I am.

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What my experience in Israel- and my short time here so far- has taught me is that you can always return.  The Jews of Portugal, of Ohel Jacob, know this better than anyone.  Life, like history, is full of surprises.  Who knows when I’ll be hopping on a plane or a train or digging through an archive again.  Or finding new ways to explore.

You can always return, but you can never go back.  Because as you grow and develop, if you strive for health and wholeness and understanding of self, you won’t feel the same.  Which is why when I needed a little dose of the confidence I developed in Israel while ordering pizza today, I talked to some friends on WhatsApp in Hebrew.  And I felt my backbone straighten and my warmth grow within.

To be a Jew, to be me, is to wander.  Maybe physically, maybe intellectually.  To enjoy where you are, but never get too comfortable.  To always have a suitcase packed because you don’t know what might happen.  Or what might motivate you to go somewhere else.

Life is like a rubber band.  There’ll always be different feelings pulling you in different directions, and you evaluate how far you can stretch.  Whether you want to stretch in a different direction.  Or whether the gap between the ends is too tense and might snap.  In Israel, the diverse cultures and languages pull me in, the economy, the pressure to assimilate, and the conflict pull me out.  Although my desire to fix things pulls me in sometimes.  It might take some time to see how my rubber band stretches here.  But I’d say that the ease of life, the consideration, the lack of air raid sirens, the comfort of speaking my native language, and the well-paying jobs pull me in.  And the lack of directness, the sometimes suppressed emotions, the healthcare system, the anti-Semitism, and the constant smiling pull me out.  As does the fact that unlike in Israel, Jewish customs and our own physical appearance are not the norm, are not celebrated, are not public.  As I learned when I mistakenly tried an anti-“frizz” shampoo yesterday that “tamed” and suppressed my wavy Jewish hair which I’ve come to love.

I’ve seen in Israel and other places that every place has different ways of doing things.  Sometimes better, sometimes not.  I’m a richer and more aware person for knowing that, and not assuming the way I was raised, or the society I grew up in, is necessarily the only or best way to live.  Or the worst.

My rubber band will continue to stretch in different directions as the circumstances of my life and the societies around me change.  And may propel me, like the rubber bands we used to fling in elementary school, to new places and new situations.

Stick with me.  What I’ve realize is my spirit of adventure, of exploration, of intellectual curiosity is with me to stay.  So don’t be surprised when you find me speaking Yiddish to Amish people, or reading American Jewish archives from the 1800s, or talking to the Latinos who served me my bagel in Spanish today.  I’m happy to say that even if my life changes over the coming period, that part of me is ingrained.  And if the manner of exploration may change, the curiosity and desire to do so will not.

And Israeli friends, Romanian friends, Spanish friends, Catalan friends- miss me, but don’t despair.  Not only are we blessed with amazing communication tools these days, we’re blessed with amazing transit.  And while seeing your faces every day is not the same, stay in touch.  We haven’t broken up, we’re in a long distance relationship for now.  I don’t know when I’ll be back, but don’t be surprised if I’m messaging you “I’m coming to Kfar Sumea” or “I’m on my way to Valencia” with a few days notice.  Or even from your city itself.  That’s how I roll.  Be prepared for the unexpected- or not.  Just flow.

I’m an Israeli citizen.  I’m American- but not just.  I’m Romanian and Hungarian- and I’ve visited those places.  But I’m also Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Polish- and I haven’t stepped foot there- yet.  I’m an Arabic speaker and I’ve visited almost every Druze village in the Galilee- but I haven’t been to Julis yet.  Or to neighboring Jordan.  Or to the tiny Israeli villages that sit on the border with Egypt, facing the Sinai peninsula.  Where Moses himself wandered for 40 years.

If that sounds like a lot of exploring done, and a lot yet to do- you’re right.  Just don’t ask me for a plan- because for me, to know what you’re going to do the next 15 years is anathema to the way I experience the world.

As the cover image says in Portuguese: “volto já”.  I’ll be right back.  Or more literally “I’m already returning”.  Because perhaps to return is not to go back to where you were.  In fact, it’s not a place.  It’s to orient yourself in the direction of your soul.

The word “tshuva” in Hebrew means both repentance and return.  So that perhaps living in a state of self awareness is to continually strive to point ourselves in the direction of  our authentic desires and hope.  Being itself.

So I haven’t “gone back” to the U.S. nor have I “left” Israel.  It’s a childish dichotomy that doesn’t fit with the modern world, nor our capacity to be more than one thing.  Plus I feel the vibe of Portugal more than both- so who knows where life will take me.  I simply am where I am.  And where I sit right now is only one part of the story, if an important one.

I go where I go and I do what I do not to go back.  But to turn and re-turn and turn again until I find myself wandering again in a direction that brings me a sense of wonder, of joy, of fulfillment, of sadness, of challenge, of comfort, of growth, of repose.  Of healing.  Of life itself.

Keep journeying.  The Bnei Anusim of Portugal have been doing it for 400 years- and their story is still unfolding.  So is mine.

P.S.- here are some surprisingly beautiful pictures of New Jersey, a reminder to leave stereotypes at the door and explore for yourself.  As the picture says: “I never fold”.

Sabra supremacism

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called “Jewish Supremacy“.  This post is an attempt to update, and expand upon the initial theory.

In the midst of a tumultuous and difficult immigration to Israel, I was trying to understand why things were the way they were here.  In Israel, as in every country, there is a hierarchy.  And, as articulated by the nature of the state itself, here the concept is that this is the land of the Jews.  Everyone else has some degree of rights (or in the case of African refugees, basically none at all), but ultimately this country was created for Jews.  It is no different than how France is for the French or Germany for the Germans- which is why third generation Moroccans in Marseilles are still considered “Moroccan”.  There are degrees of French-ness and if your ancestors are Moroccan, you can certainly become more French (to the extent you distance yourself from your exotic roots), but you can’t become fully French.  Because, although this will irritate the hell out of French republicans, French civic identity cannot and has not ever entirely replaced French ethnic identity.  Which is why the racist Front National continues to gain in popularity as the most manifest, but hardly the only, representation of this problem.

In the case of Israel, I got it wrong.  Not entirely wrong, but I misunderstood who is actually at the top here.  I hinted at it, but my understanding of the structure here needs a little updating.  I wrote:

“In Israel, who’s on top?  Jews.  And specifically, the more ‘Israeli’ or ‘sabra’ a Jew is, the more privilege she has.  European (but not too Jewish-looking), physically fit, masculine, a loyal soldier, blunt, and aggressive.  Imitating Arabs but never being one.  This doesn’t describe all Israelis, but it does describe many of their ideals.  The darker you are, the more Diasporic you are, the more pacifist or effeminate you are- the more push back you’ll get.

In short, the Israeli ideal is not just different from the Judaism I grew up with in America- it’s the opposite.  It despises my Judaism.  My compassion for the other.  My social justice.  My love for diversity and all cultures, religions, and language.  It despises my interest in Hasidim as much as it despises my empathy for Palestinian refugees.”

All of this is correct, but one part is off.  Jews are not on top here.  The sabra, or “native-born Israeli” is.  And in fact, in order for him or her to be so, it requires colonizing and indeed disfiguring Jews themselves.

In other words, the rest of the social hierarchy stands- but the word “Jew” here is problematic.

What few people understand about Zionism, and I’ve only been able to articulate recently, is that it is as much a colonialism of Judaism itself as it is of the various non-Jewish minorities in our midst.  Not just of Judaism, but of the Jewish human being.  While some refer to this phenomenon as the “negation of the Diaspora”, I think it should be more properly termed “negation of the Jewish self”, or simply negation of self.

Every country on the planet is a product of some form of colonialism.  By colonialism I mean the imposition of an elite which uses the pressure of the state to enact a certain conformity that allows it to rule.

Often this takes the shape of cultural hegemony- or homogenization.  In most countries, this is reflected in the imposition of an official language, even though the very concept of a language is relative and every country consists of multiple tongues or at a minimum, dialects.  In fact, in countries where people consider themselves as speaking the same language, a specific dialect is held up to be superior.  It is often the dialect of the capital, or power center, like Parisian French.  Or at times it is usually a composite dialect that nobody actually spoke as a native language, like Hochdeutsch, or as you know it, “German”.  American Broadcast English, which many Midwesterners mistakenly think is their own, is the same concept.  (A quick visit to your maaaam and dyeaaads in Chicoaaaago will disabuse you of this nonsense).  Standard Yiddish follows the same concept.  As developed by YIVO, is primarily based on the Lithuanian prestige dialect, but with features that nobody in Lithuania actually used, such as the “oy” in “broyt”, or bread.  Which a Litvak would’ve pronounced “breyt”.

Yiddish is an instructive example here.  What you might notice in the case of Parisian French, the composite “Hochdeutsch” German, or American Broadcast English, is the presence of the state.  None of these dialects would have been able to take root as admired speech without the intervention of the state.  If it weren’t for state control, students in Provence would still be learning in Provençal (as they had for centuries), Bavarian would the medium of education in southern Germany, and Americans wouldn’t giggle at Southern accents for sounding so different than the “educated” folks they hear on the news.

An American sits waiting for his brain surgeon to arrive and then hears him say: “well, we’re gonna get up in there and give it a lil twist and a bump and we’ll git r outta there, dontchu worry!”  And the patient, if he is anything like me or most Americans, would smile and nervously ask for a new doctor.  Prestige dialects have massive implications for social relations, and tend to privilege certain people over others.  Namely, those who master the dialects over those who for a variety of reasons, don’t.

Which brings us back to Yiddish.  In the case of France, Germany, and the U.S., the state had the power to impose its preferred dialect via the media, schooling, and the manifold ways in which it directs social interactions.  In the case of Bavarian, a dialect I admittedly know little about, there is an interesting tidbit in the Wikipedia article:

“In contrast to many other varieties of German, Bavarian differs sufficiently from Standard German to make it difficult for native speakers to adopt standard pronunciation. All educated Bavarians and Austrians, however, can read, write and understand Standard German, but may have very little opportunity to speak it, especially in rural areas. In those regions, Standard German is restricted to use as the language of writing and the media.”

This paragraph is followed by the following sentence:

“Bavaria and Austria officially use Standard German as the primary medium of education.”

In other words, the only reason Bavarians speak Standard German is because of schools and the media.  It was never a native language in Bavaria, a region that nobody today would doubt is thoroughly German.  So German it is the land of lederhosen and beer and frankly most things you’d associate with being German.  Yet the language spoken in official settings is not its own.  It’s questionable whether, until the advance of the German state, its dialect (or as some would define it, language) would have even been called German.  An interesting paradox that leads to more questions, especially as Bavaria is one of the most nationalistic regions of the country.  It’s a common theme- people forced to distance themselves from their own identities often become un-rooted and aggressive.  Which is why some of the angriest, most nativist Americans today are descendants of 19th century Irish immigrants who weren’t even considered white at the time.

Which brings us back to Yiddish.  Unlike standard French, German, and English, Yiddish never had a state apparatus.  So while the standard dialect is used for instruction in a variety of Yiddish programs (including the one I did), it never took hold like the other languages.  It influenced Yiddish literature, but it never became a received pronunciation.  Which is why Yiddish, somewhat akin to Arabic (which has no standard spoken dialect), has managed to retain impressive phonological linguistic diversity.  Arabic has a standard literary form based on the Quran that every educated Arab has knowledge of, but because Arab political entities never constituted a single state in modern times, it has never caught on as a spoken language.  There was no power strong enough in the Arab world to wield this prestige form as a uniform dialect.  Which is why it is relegated to newspapers, formal speeches, and Al Jazeera.  Nobody actually speaks it.

Even in states where there is official linguistic pluralism, such as the quadrilingual Swiss, still exert linguistic boundaries.  Which is why Romansch, a native tongue, is an official language with 40,299 speakers, but Serbian with 161,882, is not.

Standardization in the case of minority tongues such as Yiddish and Catalan serves a slightly different function without a State to back it.  In this case, it can help preserve the existence of the language itself under the onslaught of the various assimilating forces.  Yet I have no doubt that if you were to put a YIVO Yiddishist or a Catalan linguistic planner in office in a theoretical Yiddishland or Catalan State, they would enthusiastically suppress alternate dialects.

Most national languages take the name of the state they inhabit.  French in France, German in Germany, Italian in Italy, etc.  The colonialist impulse is internal- to exterminate Provençal, Bavarian, and Venetian in the name of the new power.  The homogenization is of cultures lying without the boundaries of the new polity.  Such as Italy, a country only 150 years old, composed of regions so diverse that they literally used to war with each other.   The notion of an Italian language would probably seem laughable to a 19th century Venetian.  A language only about as old as the Italian state itself.

Yet in the case of nations established through external colonialism, such as the United States, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela, or Israel, the prestige language almost always takes a different name.  Which is why English (or English and French) is the official language of the U.S. and Canada.  Spanish, that of Argentina and Venezuela.  And in Israel’s case, Hebrew.  Although there are some heterodox scholars who have chosen to call it “Israeli”.  This is because the new state’s elite arrived from elsewhere.  After having tamed diversity in their backyard, the English set their sights on the “New World”.  And the new elite there, who initially were considered part of England itself, consequently called their language English.  Which leads to the daft situation in which American nativists shout at newly arrived refugees: “you’re in America, speak English!”  An irony unfortunately not lost on far too many Americans.

The case of Israel is similar, but in a sense unique.  Because Jews did not have a state of our own for 2,000 years, when coming to a new land, what would the new elite speak?  If they brought their languages from the Diaspora, not only would you have a mishmash of tongues, you’d also be speaking languages “distorted” by the very Diaspora oppressors Zionists were escaping.  In other words, for Zionists reaching for a new reality, to speak Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) would be to speak languages infiltrated by the vocabulary of non-Jewish oppressors.  The languages, as I see it, are unique testaments to the ability of Jews to fuse (and re-fuse) the influence of other cultures while creating something uniquely ours.  But to the Zionists seeking to create a Jewish state, they reeked of the influence of the oppressor.  A very real oppression, as the history of anti-Semitism shows.  Which is why, ultimately, their political plans have succeeded in part.  Without the persistent past (and sadly, present) existence of anti-Semitism, a Jewish state would have been unlikely to succeed.  Its political program is dependent on the need of Jews to escape, a need which anti-Semites have continued to provide in excess.

The problem is that in establishing a claim to the ancient Land of Israel, Zionists would have a tougher image to uphold if they continued speaking the natural languages of Jews in the Diaspora.  Because to speak Yiddish is to acknowledge coming from somewhere else.  That even if our ancestors indeed roamed this land ages ago, Yiddish itself is part and parcel of our life outside this land.  It is hard to stake a claim to a place while speaking the language you’ve spoken in the intervening two millennia- outside of it.

Some early Zionists proposed Yiddish as the language of the infant national project.  Indeed, you can find archival documents throughout Israel, though rarely on display, of early settlers writing in Yiddish through the 1920s.  Like I found in Zichron Yaakov, one of the first modern Zionist cities.  It’s the natural, native, and heritage language of Ashkenazi Jewry, so why wouldn’t you speak it?  Yet the internal paradox was too strong.  And perhaps the prospect of future migrations from non-Ashkenazi communities would make Yiddish more of a liability and cultural lightning rod than an asset to building a coherent state.  If everyone had to give up their Jewish cultures, then perhaps it’d be easier to build a new national identity.

Hebrew, a language nobody had spoken for well over a thousand years, became the new national language of Israel.  Its Semitic vocabulary a kind of verbal testament to its residents’ connection to the land.  Yet its underlying Yiddish foundations, including entire phrases translated from Yiddish, show the underlying tension in Zionism.  And of the early Zionists themselves- even of Israelis today.

Because Israeliness, like all national identities, is built on a series of illogical contradictions.  What is different, though, is that Zionists colonized their own people as much as they colonized the existing non-Jewish residents of this land.  “Their own people” at least as much as how it is portrayed today.  In other words, most Israelis identify as Jewish.  The target for their settlement enterprise was other Jews.  So in the case of America, descendants of English settlers ridiculed the Irish as non-white foreigners.  No American nativist of the 1800s saw the Irish as one of their own.

Eventually, however, as the Irish assimilated economically and adopted American English, they were granted access to whiteness.  American integration has always been about sacrificing your existing culture in order to become closer to the mainstream prestige identity.  As in every country.  So the Irish had to give up their language or if they spoke English, their brogue.  And gradually become part of the dominant white majority.  At the expense of their distinctness.

In Israel, the only difference is that Israelis have always viewed “Diaspora” Jews as their own.  Just lesser than them.  In other words, the concept of Israel is built upon “aliyah”.  The word is translated as “Jewish immigration”, but it literally means “rising up”.  Because the concept is that Jews outside of Israel are inferior, and “below” those who live here.  Especially the mythical sabra, who was born here.  The word for Jews emigrating from here (which has always existed, even before the State), is “yerida”, or “going down”.  Because to relegate yourself to a “Diasporic” existence is to live beneath the dignity and strength of the Sabra.  Of the Jews who made this country their home.

Therefore, rather than an Irish immigrant being berated by an American of English descent, here you have sabras denigrating olim like me.  The same concept, but the difference being that by necessity (since only Jews can freely immigrate here and build the nation), Jews are both object of hatred and desire.  What do I mean by that?  Because Israel needs Jewish immigrants to grow, it emphasizes its Jewishness and its leadership in the Jewish world.  That it is the most Jewish place for a Jew to live.  Come join us, brethren.

But the contradiction, the underlying paradox of Zionism, is that nation building here requires hating Jews too.  Because if Hebrew-speaking, falafel-eating sabras aren’t *better* than their Diaspora counterparts, why should Jews move here?  If we’re not better, why should we stay rather than enjoying an almost universally more comfortable life in America?

In other words, Israel has to love and hate other Jews to exist.  If it only hates them, nobody will move here and the national project will collapse.  If it only loves them, their own new identity is thrown into question (why fix something that isn’t broken?) and it raises the question of why to live here at all.  There are Jewish communities elsewhere- as thousands of Israelis discover each year when they move abroad.  Nobody would claim living here is easy.

Therefore, when a new oleh (“one who rises up”) moves here, like me, they have to be both welcomed and shunned.  Welcomed as a new participant in the national project, but shunned and pressured into becoming like the sabra ideal.  Aggressive, masculine, Hebrew-speaking, confident, proudly symbolically Jewish.  Wearing a Jewish star and serving in the IDF, muscular.  But not too bookish, not too interested in Yiddish or gefilte fish or the very Jewish identity they held dear outside this country.

Of course, it should be said that not all sabras vigorously hold to this ideal.  There are sabras who question the national narrative, including the wonderful Yael Dekel who makes Yiddish YouTube videos and songs.  Interestingly, where the Yiddish persona she has constructed is overtly religious to a fault- even though most 20th century Yiddishists were not religious at all.  In other words, the persona itself is a representation of Israeli understandings of Diaspora Jews as pious, even though that doesn’t match up with reality.  The early sabra was secular, rejecting this vision of Judaism.  Which explains some of the intense conflict because the secular elite here and the rising religious minority that threatens its standing.  Using the same nationalist language (to an extreme) that the early sabra used to establish himself here.  Now having established himself, wishing its spawn would refocus on the national project’s stability.  Rather than protruding into the West Bank, where 3.5 million Palestinians threaten Israel’s Jewish majority.  But to what degree can you really fault a religious settler in a West Bank outpost for simply expounding upon the founding principles of the country?  Isn’t hityashvut, or settlement, the very process that brought this state into being?  Indeed, every state that today lines the map of the Americas?

So the point is not that all sabras hate Jews outside of Israel.  Indeed, I hope that if more sabras follow Yael’s model and try to connect to their Jewish roots from outside this land, they might soften a bit and gain some authentic confidence.  Something I noticed when I taught Yiddish in Tel Aviv.  What I want to highlight is that the concept of push and pull (love and hatred of the “foreign” Jew) is the extant organizing concept for the society.  You can choose to adhere to it or reject it to varying degrees, as Yael bravely does to an extent when she sings in the “Diasporic” Yiddish language.  But it is the principle by which one measures your degree of Israeli-ness, and the ease with which you’ll integrate into society.  And enjoy the benefits of having power within it.

One of the points that western leftists often miss in this debacle is that Arabs, even having been colonized by Zionists, are just as capable of colonialism.  Indeed, the very concept of “the Arab world” is colonialist in its most simple sense.  Throwing aside minorities such as Copts, Assyrians, Kurds, Berbers, and indeed Jews, Arab nationalism has shown itself to just as (sometimes more) violent than Zionist nationalism.  Just the other day, at a baklava stand in Yaffo, I met a Palestinian from Ramallah working there.  Who told me the “Jewish and Christian masons” of America were going to take over the U.S. in 2022.  In Jerusalem, the WiFi password for a Palestinian cafe is “JerusalemIsOurs”.  In a city that has been multicultural since time immemorial, with a Jewish, Armenian, Muslim, and Christian quarter.  So what exactly makes this ancient city Arab or Palestinian or, for that matter, exclusively Jewish?  Arabs are not infants nor are they demons.  They are people capable of action like anyone else.  And extremist claims to territory as the exclusive possession of one group is no less colonialist than the settlers planting Israeli flags on their village lands.  We can debate the chicken and the egg until our faces turn blue, but Arab nationalism is not unique to Palestinians, nor is it entirely caused by Israeli actions.  As Arab colonialism in other countries demonstrates.  In the end, Palestinian national identity is just as fraught as any other.  And individual Palestinians choose to what degree to accept or question it, just as Israelis do with their own.  The western left makes a big mistake when it uncritically waves Palestinian flags, without realizing the irony in supporting one nationalism to supplant another.  Has that ever worked in bringing true justice and peace to workers, to the masses?

If you study the history of colonialism as it relates to the Jewish world, there are two primary forces.  One is the colonialism which targets Jews as settlers.  Often conflated with Israel, but having taken other forms in other countries.  Baron de Hirsch set up Jewish settlements in Canada and Argentina, the latter of which I’ve visited.  There’s even a cute town in Entre Ríos named Moisesville whose streets are arranged in the pattern of a Jewish star.  Built on the very real need of Jews to escape persecution and poverty in Eastern Europe, these agricultural communities were supposed to offer them a solution.  In some sense, just like Israel, they did.  Their descendants are alive, while their European cousins were not so lucky.

In another sense, though, these settlements were failures.  The Baron, often held up as an example of Jewish philanthropy, set up banks to give these Jews loans to work the land.  Yet oftentimes, the land wasn’t fertile and the banks came calling.  At times, the Baron’s institutions demanded repayment of these loans from desperately poor Jews.  There are even instances in which poor Jewish settlers in Argentina and elsewhere resented and resisted the Baron’s demands.  To what extent his intentions were noble or purely economic, I don’t know.  But there is something fishy beneath the surface when nearly every agricultural colony you establish fails.  Just like most kibbutzim.  And you receive payment from the desperate Jewish settlers, who eventually found actually profitable work in the cities.  Who actually gained here?  Clearly the Jews on some level, for having escaped persecution.  But did the Baron, and his counterparts in the land of Israel, also benefit?  It wouldn’t be the first instance of the wealthy preying on their own community- as Bernie Madoff showed.  The extensive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sometimes overshadows the ways in which wealthy Israelis and Palestinians prey on their own people.  The “two sides” are perhaps a bit different than what we’re taught to see.

One can see traces of this conflict in the clashes between the Israeli government and American Jewry over the kotel, or Western Wall.  American Jews, who are overwhelmingly Reform, Conservative, and Secular, were promised a mixed-gender prayer space at the holiest site in Judaism.  Which has been turned into a synagogue, where men and women have to pray separately according to Orthodox tradition.  Before it was called a synagogue, men and women can be seen in photos praying their side-by-side in the 1930s.

American Jewish advocacy has been centered on three things since the advent of the state of Israel.  Combating anti-Semitism, Holocaust education, and Israel.  Jewish education has also increasingly followed these norms.  Including the education which I received.  We learned a mainstream Israeli narrative of history, about persecution in the Holocaust, and the need to strengthen our identity to combat anti-Semitism and persist as a community today.

It’s not that all of this is bad, it’s just that it’s incomplete (and some of it is dangerously so, as in the case of under-learning the difficult experiences faced by Arabs during the creation of Israel).  Jewish culture is of course partially about resisting anti-Semitism and bravely continuing our traditions in the face of adversity.  But it is also about our culture itself.  Yiddish, Ladino, Jewish art, Jewish music, our culinary innovations- these are all part of our heritage.  Yet they barely appear on the agenda of mainstream Jewish communal organizations.  Perhaps not coincidentally, they are also deeply ignored or outright opposed by much of the Israeli state apparatus.  Despite them being integral parts of Jewish experience and, as I see it, pride.

There once was a time in which American Jews loved Yiddish.  Yiddish schools dotted the land.  Our press was mostly in Yiddish (and for Sephardic Jews, Judeo-Spanish remained prominent).  I even once found a trilingual English-Yiddish-Ladino dictionary in New York.  We kept our traditions as natural outgrowths of our civilizations.

But with the establishment of the State of Israel, often with American Jewish funds and support, something changed.  Israeli teachers, sometimes shlichim or “emissaries”, were sent from the nascent state.  To teach us, ironically, how to be Jewish.  When their own state was sending policemen to break up Holocaust survivors gathering to watch Yiddish theater in Tel Aviv.

The historic accents that colored the Holy Tongue were expunged from our identity by these missionaries, and their followers.  Whereas we once said “gut shabbos”, it became fashionable to say “shabbat shalom”, a completely invented phrase.  Whereas we once talked about mitzvahs, today it’s “mitzvot”.  And our communal identity, rooted in the natural evolution of Jewish experience, became submerged by an Israeliness determined to shape us.  To shape us into potential “them”.  Falafel is in, and kugel is out.

Jewish Federations and communal organizations tried to rally American support for the nascent Israeli state, and its culture.  Not always out of malice- I think there’s reason for an American Jew to be proud of Israel in spite of all the balagan and cultural contortions here.  It’s a state that for all its complicated feelings towards Judaism itself, has managed to save countless Jewish lives when other countries neglected or outright persecuted us.  We are no less entitled to our pride than anyone else.

The problem is that because Israeli nationalism, or Zionism, is predicated on both love and hatred of Jews elsewhere, it ends in a lot of pain too.  So American Jews, who waited patiently for years to simply have a place to pray at our holy site, ended up with a slap in the face when Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled the deal.  And all the careful attempts of Jewish organizations to educate American youth to love Israel seemed fruitless.  How are we supposed to love a government that so demeans us?  That so publicly humiliates us and our identity?  Obviously many sabras feel likewise- not everyone adheres to the government line.  But in the end, the organizing principle is evident, and a lot of people support it.

The organizing principle is American Jews are great for financial support for Israel.  They are great for lobbying the American government to support Israel.  They are great for coming and settling Israel (so long as they eventually give up speaking English in their irritating Jerusalem enclaves).  They are great for paying for Israeli emissaries to come educate their Jewish youth to love Israel and to be like Israelis.

But they are not great for being American Jews.  Because to be an American Jew is to be a challenge to the notion of Zionism itself.  It is to be a paradox.  Because a good Jew is supposed to move here, to shed his layers of toxic Diasporic self, and become like us.  Which is why some Israelis would question whether you can even be a Zionist and not live here.  Which is why the sabras I met on the beach 13 years ago in Ashkelon asked me over and over again when I was making aliyah.  Something deeply confusing, if slightly flattering, at the time.  And now makes a lot of sense.  Israelis are educated about the Bible, the Holocaust, and the past 70 years of Israeli history and taught that their country is the most Jewish, best place in the world for a Jew to live.  So why wouldn’t someone move here?  Or if they do move here, maybe we should laugh at them for being suckers, for being naive Diaspora Jews *stupid* enough to buy into the Zionist narrative.  Either way, we’re lesser, whether we end up as passionate Zionists or not.

The problem is sabras aren’t educated about Jewish life outside of this country.  Not Jewish life today, nor Jewish life for the past 2,000 years.  Leaving a gaping gape in their knowledge.  About American Jews and frankly, about themselves.  That leads to a frightened nationalism that does nothing but contribute to further conflict here.  And ends up alienating the millions of American Jews who’ve been rooting for them all these years.  Striving to find the good in their society, and to support it.  Sometimes overzealously and sometimes with our own dose of American missionary attitudes, but earnestly.

So the next time a well-meaning Jewish Federation professional asks an American Jew for a donation to Israel, for a state which doesn’t permit them to worship freely at their own holy site, what is she supposed to say?  It leads to angst for both the Federation and for the Jew.  Because we feel that Israel should be a unifying, a motivating factor.  But it has now become an anchor.  And the very Federations which worked so hard to reshape American Jewish identity in the form of the sabra are now coming to realize that perhaps its a more fraught venture than they expected.  Because if American Jews want to love Israel, we don’t hate ourselves enough to support a government that denies who we are.  While sabras are taught to negate the Diaspora (and that all Jews must want the same), most American Jews are not about to give up our identity for the sake of pleasing the pushke holders in Jerusalem.

Perhaps it’s time for a new approach from Jewish communal organizations.  Many of whose professionals are simply Jews passionate about their Judaism and looking for ways to strengthen our community.  I see a new approach potentially taking shape as they become more assertive about their interests.  I long for the day when they fund more Jewish cultural initiatives, maybe it’s coming soon.  The whole enterprise is evolving now, as masks are slowly removed and reality takes a different form than many of us expected.

To go back to an earlier point, there are two forces of colonialism acting on the Jewish people.  One is from those seeking to turn us into settlers- be it Zionism or the likes of Baron de Hirsch in Argentina and elsewhere.  The other force is gentile anti-Semitism and forced assimilation.

In every country, including in the U.S., there is a strong push for Jews to abandon who they are for the sake of fitting in.  Even in America, the friendliest country to Jews perhaps in the history of our people, we have always been outsiders.  Which is why until a few decades ago, universities had Jewish quotas, fraternities didn’t let us in, and country clubs posted signs that said “no Jews, no blacks, no dogs”.

As American Jews, through sheer persistence, managed to grab hold of a bit of whiteness and become socially acceptable.  We now find ourselves represented in every facet of society, from Congress to the media to Hollywood to higher education to Silicon Valley.  We are one of the most successful Jewish communities in the history of the world.

And yet, our whiteness is contingent and incomplete.  As the terror attack on the Jewish community of Pittsburgh shows.  Not only that though.  It is that our very acceptance in society, in whiteness itself, is contingent on maintaining a certain distance from our Jewishness.  Which is why Clarkstown Councilman Peter Bradley referred to progressive Jews as “normal Jews” in contrast with the (presumably) backwards, “old world” Orthodox Jews he’s supposed to represent.  Our integration into American society is contingent on not being “too Jewish”.  Whether that’s visibly, in the case of peyos and yarmulkes, verbally in the case of our mocked “New York” accents, or politically in the case of our support for Israel itself.  America First is not just a motto for the far right- it’s one that the American left is just as capable of demanding from Jews whose loyalty it questions through faux nuance.  As Linda Sarsour recently commented that anti-Semitism is not “systemic”.  A virulent bigotry whose false sense of “nuance” is probably lost on the millions of dead Jews whose bodies line the European continent.  Sarsour claims “there are more important forms of prejudice and hate to combat” than anti-Semitism.  A claim so bigoted that if you replaced “anti-Semitism” with the word “racism”, she would been banned from every progressive circle under the sun.  It’s a claim so ironic and duplicitous that only an anti-Semite herself could say such a statement.  But I have no doubt millions of progressives, even self-hating Jews, will march with her regardless of her hatred.

Therefore, you find some Jews who abandon their Judaism in search of acceptance from the gentile society that surrounds them.  Not because acceptance is bad or that all non-Jews are bigots, but because systemically (are you listening Linda?) it is incentivized for them to do so.  The organizing principle of Christian and Islamic societies, even if not everyone chooses to fully embrace it, is that everyone should ultimately adopt their faith.  And so Jews, no matter how cultured or assimilated we become, always have to calculate just how far we need to distance ourselves from our selves to become accepted.  It leads to contorted dialogue about Judaism and Israel, especially from Jews.  Some of whom find themselves leveling criticism at Israel not for the sake of building a better future for Jews and Arabs (which is what I aspire to do), but rather to receive acceptance of anti-Semitic peers.  It is a fine narrow to thread, as of course there are legitimate criticisms of Israel (most of this blog is that, I hope).  But when it is done out of a desire to appease anti-Jewish sentiments, it becomes anti-Jewish in and of itself.

In other words, anti-Semitism seeks to colonize Jewish bodies.  By forcing us to adopt their culture and norms, or suffer the consequences.  In America, it’s usually some degree of social stigma.  In many other countries, it has taken the form of violence and persecutions.  Let’s hope American non-Jews will work hard enough to avoid that fate.

In the end, being a Jew is hard.  We’re not the only ones who have it hard.  When I find myself with a bit more time and a laptop whose battery isn’t slowly winding down, I’d like to address how these phenomena manifest themselves in the lives of Arab Israelis and Palestinians.  Not to mention cultures all of the world that are neither Arab nor Jewish.  It’s not as if we’re the only oppressed, nor the only oppressors.

I’ve written about some of these themes before, if you peruse my previous blog entries.

I’m also a person, at the end of the day, not just a blogger or a social commentator.  I write and explore to try to understand myself and the world around me.  Why I am where I am, and what might be next.  I can look around me and ponder and raise questions.  And I also have to make practical decisions.  About work, about home, about friends, about life itself.  I can observe and I also live within what I’m observing.  Which is part of what makes it interesting- there’s a reason I write a lot about Judaism because it has personal relevance for my life.  And yet it contains so many nuggets of truth that can be applied to a variety of other circumstances, from the polarization of American politics to linguistic minorities in Nepal.

I think that the countervailing forces of colonialism which the average Jew faces puts us in a tough position.  We have to calculate, if we’re wise, which prejudice to face head on and with how much effort.  Is gentile anti-Semitism or Zionist conformism a greater threat to our identity, to our sense of self, at any given moment?  And which are we better prepared to resist in order to hopefully live a fulfilling life?

Hard questions.  I suppose that in the end it’s best to embrace our Jewishness for ourselves first.  And if that’s speaking Yiddish or praying with men and women together, that’s cool.  If it’s wearing a black hat and peyos, it’s not my thing, but I like that you’re doing you. Because in the end, being true to yourself is the most human, and most Jewish thing in the world.  At least the kind of world I’m striving to create.

As for me, I suppose I hedge my bets.  As a dual American and Israeli citizen, I have the privilege and challenge of being able to live in either society.  Or, to the great frustration of some who would make me “choose”, in both.

Because in neither do I have the full freedom to be me.  But in both I find subcultures and countervailing ways in which I can express myself.  In ways the other culture might not find acceptable.

So if you see me in Tel Aviv praying on a Friday night saying “gut shabbos” or in New York questioning a white hipster waving a Palestinian flag, you’ll know that I’m living out my truth.  Wherever I find myself, doing my best to be who I am.  And wading towards who I want to be.

Ken yehi ratzoin.  May it be so.

 

What’s right with America

Recently, I took a trip to Berkeley.  Known as a hotbed of far-left activism and anti-Israel hatred, I wanted to see what was up.

While a friend of a friend had suggested there was no such thing as campus anti-Semitism there, I wanted to see what it was like first hand.

Going in with rather low expectations, I found a lot to like there.  Berkeley is a cute town.  I found my way to a delicious little restaurant that sold onigiri, or Japanese rice balls.  As a kid who lived in Japan (and then stayed connected to the culture back in the States), I grew up with this as comfort food.

In the restaurant, I chatted with a nice young man behind the counter.  I made a point of mentioning I was from Tel Aviv- a risky proposition in a city where not a small number of people boycott our existence.

Turns out, he was a Jew!  His father had volunteered on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv years ago.  And he told me he might go on Birthright!  I told him to check out my blog and contact me if he visits- if you’re reading this please message me!  I will hook you up 😉  It was a refreshing reminder of vibrant Jewish life here- a life that both as an American and an Israeli I support.  That I urge the Israeli government to back with full force- not just rhetoric.  Bibi- recognize progressive Judaism in Israel and abroad- as a living community which strengthens our state and our people.  If we’re Jewish enough to be shot by anti-Semites, we’re Jewish enough for the Jewish State.

As I headed to campus, I decided to visit Hillel, the Jewish campus organization.  I met some wonderful young students, who told me about the active Jewish life on campus.  About their trips to Israel- and their desire to return.  And unfortunately, some of the rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic students they have to deal with.  As they noshed on some pretty tasty looking shakshuka.

Frankly, I felt lucky to have graduated from college 10 years ago, where anti-Semitism was unheard of at my Hillel and where the scary rhetoric of today’s campus extremists was barely in its infant stages.

One particular story stood out to me.  Speaking with an Israeli, she told me about a non-Jewish student who came to a discussion about the various types of Zionism.  And, apparently innocently and sincerely, asked “but what does Zionism have to go with genocide?”

The Israeli thought she meant the Holocaust.  But apparently the student, having heard all sorts of inflated rhetoric on campus, thought Zionism was a form of genocide.  A blatant lie and a sad reflection on the rhetoric of the anti-Israel movement.  That does a disservice to Jewish and Israeli history, the complexity of the conflict, and to Palestinians themselves as these “activists” push our peoples further and further apart.

I stand in admiration of Israel educators and Jewish students who patiently answer such questions.  I have to say if someone asked me this question in earnest, I’d assume they were simply attacking me.  Because in some cases, they are.  But when you see someone so earnestly manipulated, it breaks the heart.  And I’m so proud of our Jewish activists and non-Jewish allies who are standing up for truth, for nuance, and for engagement in today’s increasingly toxic environment.

One student named Judith particularly stood out to me (hi Judith, if you’re reading!).  She is a Berkeley native so she is used to the screaming, often irrationally hateful activists who populate her campus.  Like the Christian minister I saw on a street corner shouting in a megaphone that “Jesus wasn’t afraid of the Jewish culture.”  As people walked by completely indifferent.

Her bravery and her ability to ignore such people remind me of Israelis.  She is used to it, and she lives her life despite it.  It reminds me of young Jews I met in Belgium who were used to having their synagogues under armed guard.  Where you submit your passports a week in advance to visit.  To get a background check.  A reality unthinkable in European cathedrals, open to the public without even a cursory glance.  It’s a reality American Jews will have to get used to.  After Pittsburgh, you can expect enhanced security at American synagogues.  Where, sadly, I think they will one day resemble the fortress-like congregations that dot the European continent my family once called home.

The age of American Jewish innocence- where we lived in security and prosperity- is evolving.  What was once the safest and most prosperous Diaspora community since medieval Spain is in the midst of a monumental change and I fear for its future.  I will not be surprised to see armed guards outside American synagogues next visit- and it will make me a bit sad.  One Jewish community advocate estimates it could cost $1 billion to secure American synagogues.

We once thought we were exceptional, that our bagels were as American as apple pie.  But as is often the case in Jewish history, if we ever forget who we are, the anti-Semites arise to remind us.  If you are a non-Jewish ally reading this, the hour is late and if you don’t mobilize with us now, American Jewry is at tremendous risk.  Speak up, show your solidarity, stand with us- lest we become the next France.  Where Jews fear to walk around with yarmulkes on and Jewish centers are regularly attacked.  Where Holocaust survivors are burned to death in their homes.  If you think this is alarmist, you don’t know much about Jewish history.  The ethnocentric view places this recent attack only in the context of American hate crimes like heinous attacks on black churches or immigrants.  But if you read Jewish history, you’ll realize this analogy is relevant but incomplete.  Violent anti-Semitism isn’t new- and it didn’t start with Donald Trump.  Although I’d invite him to stop complaining how attacks against us “slow” his political momentum.  We’ve been dealing with this for 2,000 years and counting and across dozens of countries.  I’m not a huge fan of the (seemingly endless) privilege discourse, but as a non-Jew, it’d benefit you to consider the ways you’re fortunate to not be one of us.  And to find ways to help.

As I wandered around Berkeley’s campus, I felt more comfortable than I expected.  There is something about coming in with low expectations that gives you the freedom to be pleasantly surprised.  To have your preconceptions splendidly upended.  Like when I met pro-Israel libertarians with buttons that said “BDS=BS”!  So thankful to have you advocating for us in the belly of the beast 🙂 .

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Yet some expectations are based in reality.  I met a man tabling for a Muslim Student Association volunteer program- run in conjunction with an anti-Semitic professor.  Berkeley is about to host a Marxism conference.  With speakers on Palestinian liberation- likely predicated on the destruction of Israel.  A terrible false dichotomy that speaks more to their black-and-white destructive thinking than any sort of genuine attempt at dialogue or peacemaking.  Signs abounded about the “Trump-Pence Regime” and “resistance.”  As if our President, as narcissistic and callous as he may be, was somehow installed by a putsch.  As opposed to the democratic elections he won.  Someone you oppose becomes an illegitimate enemy of humanity rather than a candidate or ideology you want to defeat.  The former requires nothing but anger.  The latter requires organizing, analysis, and persuasion- real work that requires you to engage with people you disagree with.  You can tell what I think is more productive.

This kind of black-and-white thinking is something I’ve dabbled in, especially in college.  There’s something about this time in your life, free from obligations, where you can experiment with radical ideas.  And on some level it’s healthy.  Some ideas accepted as normal in our society need to be challenged and changed.  I also feel that my abusive upbringing pushed me into defensive and judgmental thinking as a way to protect myself and to make sense of inexplicable hatred.

And I’m proud to have worked hard to grow out of this mentality, as befits my age and my process of healing from abuse.  And my engagement with a wide range of cultures and political views.  So that when I meet an American-born Cambodian student whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge, but who is excited about the Marxism conference, I feel a mixture of emotions.  Anger, sadness, and pity.  It takes a lot of mental acrobatics to justify the way she thinks, but all I can say is that I hope she can one day escape the ideological labyrinth in which she wanders.

Because for me, resistance is not about slogans or yelling at people who disagree with you.  It’s about standing for your values while resisting the urge to do evil when it has been done to you.

As I prepared to leave Berkeley, I told Judith that I thought she was brave for having adjusted to life in her town.  As a proud Jew and a lover of Israel, to be surrounded by such political extremism can’t be easy.  And like Jews have done for centuries, she got used to it and lives her life.

And I left her with a warning: “Jews in Europe are now used to armed guards and soldiers protecting their synagogues.  Like fortresses.  They’ve gotten used to it to- it’s necessary and it’s sad.  So be careful- don’t get too used to it.  Because you deserve better.”

She nodded in agreement as she boarded the bus to a fun date with her boyfriend.  The kind of care-free evening that makes America so fun.  And makes Americans so lucky.  With all your problems, remember this is the wealthiest and one of the most stable countries on the planet.  And don’t forget it.  It’s a blessing.  Hamas fired 30 rockets on Southern Israel last week and Catalan political leaders sit in Spanish prison.  Even as you push for change, count your lucky stars and remember there are problems outside this country too.

At night, I headed into San Francisco.  Having seen the good, bad, and neutral of Berkeley (including some amazing burritos made by Asian students), I wanted Shabbat.

Shabbat is not something to take for granted.  It’s only a feeling that happens if you make it happen, especially outside of Israel.  On my travels, I found myself gravitating towards Jews when I wanted that feeling of community.  It wasn’t really about religion in the traditional sense of the word.  It was about being a Jew with people who understood me.  And sharing in our customs, food, and talk.

One organization that has brought this to life for me is Moishe House.  They organize communal houses for Jews across the world, which then hold programs for both Jews and non-Jews.  A pluralistic cultural space, it is a great complement or alternative to synagogue, as it doesn’t require a particular belief and all are welcome.

I’ve written before about how I visited Moishe Houses in Brussels and Barcelona.  And now it was San Francisco’s turn.

The folks at Moishe House Nob Hill put on an amazing Shabbat dinner.  There’s a special feeling when you’re with Jews.  To put it in the words of a man named Ben I met- it’s intangible.  You just feel at home.  You know something links you even if you’ve never met.

When I walked in the house, I was greeted with the smell of chicken shnitzel, of hummus, and I even made my own challah.  For the first time!

Turns out one of the housemates’ friends even read my blog about San Francisco!  It’s an amazing feeling of connection when you see just how small of a people we really are.  And I’m grateful to both Moishe House and its energetic residents for building this safe, vibrant space.

A space where for just one night, I can worry a little less about saying I’m Israeli.  Where I talk about Judaism without worrying about sounding “too Jewish”.  Where I can count on empathy after this week’s Pittsburgh terror attack.  An empathy I sometimes found lacking among non-Jewish folks I met in San Francisco.

It was interesting- I had actually forgotten about the attacks until the dinner.  The dinner was advertised as a Pittsburgh solidarity dinner, a great idea.  It’s just that as an Israeli, I had mourned, been angry, and moved on to the next thing.  A zen-like way of living in the moment that I learned to do more and more in the Jewish State, where hundreds of Pittsburghs have happened.

So where I expected just a Shabbat dinner, I got a lore more.  It was nice to see the tender side of American Jews.  Israelis, so accustomed to terror attacks, move on rather quickly out of necessity.  It was both heartbreaking and moving to see how the attacks affected the young Jews here.  The softness of American Jews is a real treasure- unique in Jewish history for having enjoyed so much freedom and safety.  And it’s something I fear will have to change.  As the country and the world increasingly scapegoats us, American Jewry would be wise to connect more with European Jews and Israel to learn coping skills.  It’s not easy- but the good (and bad) thing is we have a lot of experience dealing with terror.  And we can be there to support each other during this transition.  What I fear may be a new normal.

A curious thing happened at dinner.  A young man requested we do kiddush, the traditional blessing over wine or grape juice.

The Moishe House residents looked around, looking for volunteers.  Having led Reform services my whole life (including in Tel Aviv), I know the blessing by heart.

When I left Tel Aviv two months ago, I could barely utter it.  So disenchanted with both Judaism and Israel itself in such a tense region of the world, I wasn’t even sure if I was a Jew.  Although, as you’ll see with my previous blogs, Europe reminded me I was.

So I found myself with a choice.  Having gone from religious to atheist, to agnostic, to spiritual.  Where did I stand now?

I wasn’t sure.  But I sang.

And I sang with love.

And people joined in.

I hadn’t sung a kiddush in two months.  And it felt great.

As I write this blog, I think I do believe in God.  Maybe not the way others do, but who cares?  It’s my belief, and while I can’t find myself obsessing over details of Jewish law or ignoring the problems of literalism or religious tribalism, I believe.  I don’t know- I believe.  That’s why we use that word.  Because someone with perfect faith is a liar- and a demagogue.  Leaving room for doubt is the most Jewish thing in the world- and allows us to till the fertile gray space our minds can thrive in.

What inspired my faith this Friday?  A lot of things.  The human spirit, the need for connection, nature, change, my accomplishments, gratitude, and just a feeling.  A spiritual connection that complements, even creatively contradicts, my rational thought.  To make me who I am.

And what also inspired it are the great people I’ve met along the way.  Judith, Moishe House, Hillel, Israel educators, the young Jew making Japanese food.  Korean burritos, amazing taco chips, and the people who accept me as the Israeli I am.

This morning, I met a 70-something year old hippie at my hostel.  When she asked where I was from, I was nervous at first.  I’ve had some bad experiences with anti-Semites when I said I was Israeli.

But much to my surprise, like the young man making Japanese food, Lynn was Jewish.  A Reform Jew, like me 🙂 .  I don’t go to services as much now, but the synagogue I don’t go to is definitely Reform 😉 .  Lynn had been to Israel in 2006 and loved it.

We had a great conversation as I made delicious pancakes drenched in the kind of authentic maple syrup you only really find here.  It’s America’s hummus- something I just won’t eat in my other homeland.  It doesn’t taste right.

I gave Lynn my email and told her to come visit.  And I mean it- I hope she comes and I will set her up with whatever she needs.

Because I won’t give up on Jews anywhere.  And no matter who my Prime Minister is, no matter who attacks our people, no matter what- I believe in us.  And I want to be the progressive, open-minded Israeli who gives you pride in the Jewish State.  Who works tirelessly on the other side of the world to make space for people like us.  For a Jewish vision that supports LGBT rights, Arab empowerment, consideration for minorities, inclusion for refugees, and equality for progressive Judaism.  For a strong homeland that welcomes all of us.  Because there are Israelis like me who are your allies.  Forget the headlines and stand with us.  Because together we can strengthen the Israel and Diaspora community that makes us feel at home.  That lives out values we identify with.  And yes, that empathizes with people who disagree with us.

And in the meantime, I ask you to stand with us.  When you’re in Berkeley and people spout irrational, inaccurate hatred against Israel, to fight back.  To educate.  To realize that your fate depends as much on me as mine does on yours.  That Israel is your insurance policy- just as it has been for Moroccan and Polish and Ethiopian Jews forced from their homes for decades upon decades.

I need a strong America for a safe Israel.  And you need a strong Israel when you don’t have a safe America.

The world is changing, and who knows what will happen.  Enjoy this moment- who knows what tomorrow holds.  That’s the Jewish way.  And whether you’re Jewish or not, it can enrich your life to realize this basic fact.

Whatever you want to do, don’t wait.  There are no guarantees.  Dance in the streets, speak your mind, smile, cry, hug.  Like Lynn hugged me before she left- a precious gift for someone traveling alone.  Both on this trip, and in life.

What I’ve discovered is that what makes me feel less alone is finding empathetic people along the way who take you in.  Who make you feel loved and warmed.  Who feel your humanity.  Who share with you.

At a time when empathy is faltering, challenge yourself to show it.  And to find it where it appears to have disappeared.

Because next time I visit America, I want it strong.  This week, try to find a moment to talk to someone different, as hard as it might be.  Because Twitter and Facebook are great, but they won’t smile at a woman on the train.  And a news feed can’t feed a heart’s desire for acceptance.

America is a great country.  I hope its residents embrace the beautiful privilege of living there.  Despite it all, still one of the calmest and most prosperous places on the planet.

We are.  Black white, Jewish Muslim, gay bisexual, Republican Democrat, conservative centrist, straight and working class.  Christian, Native American.  Vegan and wealthy.

The next time your hand reaches for the screen.  Ready to type a comment on Facebook.  To agitate, to vent, to express.  Flip it like a pancake, fingers pointing ahead, thumb towards the sky.

Reach out and meet your neighbor.  Try.  It won’t always go well, but it’s worth it and it’s what we need.

This hand was made for you and me.

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What it means to be Israeli

It was a Friday night in Barcelona.  Just hours before, I had spontaneously decided to board a train from Tortosa to Barcelona.  At 4:30pm, to be precise.  I had thought about visiting other medieval cities and Jewish quarters, but I felt that this Friday night, I wanted to be with living Jews.  Much how I felt in Belgium.

So I went to services.  Like I’ve mentioned recently, I don’t really feel religious.  I started my journey to Israel weeks away from starting Reform rabbinical school, only to pursue my exploring and blogging instead.  But I remained an active Reform Jew, even leading services regularly in Tel Aviv.  And to this day, even if I’m not religious in the textbook definition of the word, if I’m going to a synagogue, it’s going to be Reform.  It’s my flavor of religious Judaism.

While for a while I came pretty close to being an out-and-out atheist, I’d say at this point I’m secular and spiritual.  I have issues with organized religion (although I sometimes see its benefits both in motivating people to do good and in building community) and I don’t believe in the God of reward and punishment as written in the Torah or any religious text.

But I do believe in spirit, and while I value science and logic, I think some things are a bit beyond our comprehension.  And that feelings are also valid.  And sometimes hard to explain.  Perhaps representing bits of truth beyond our conscious recognition.  It is impossible to truly know everything, so with humility I bow to the unknown even as we pursue it.  In the meantime, I’ll be singing in the forest, poring through inspiring archival documents, and trying to cross cultural barriers to bring kindness into the world.  For me, culture, history, art, music, nature, dance, hope, the unexpected- these are all spirit.  And they ignite me in a way that gives life purpose.  As a Jew and generally, as a human being.

With this in mind, I headed to synagogue.  The prayers generally didn’t speak to me.  I don’t really like the idea of standing together, singing the exact same words, the choreography or the conformity of organized prayer.  Even so, I found myself sometimes bursting into song and some of the texts do speak to me.  Occasionally, I even tried to sing some of the prayers, replacing the word God with something that rhymed.  Sometimes the word God didn’t bother me.  I sometimes sang harmony- a way for me to retain my difference while being part of a community.  I can’t say it made me want to pray in the traditional way.  I even stepped outside for some of the prayers that I really don’t connect with.  I’m kind of a hippie and would rather be singing wordless melodies while strolling the beach.  Like I was in these photos.  But what’s clear now, after traveling in Europe, is that where I found myself questioning if I even felt Jewish two months ago, now I feel quite Jewish.  And have either rediscovered or found new ways of connecting to my spiritual, cultural, and political identities.

I came to Barcelona without any hotel reservation.  In Hebrew, I call myself “ben adam zorem”.  A guy who goes with the flow, who improvises, who’s in touch with his spirit, confident and willing to try new things.  Some of this confidence stems from my own skills and intuition.  Some of it comes from counting on others to help me along the way- being brave enough to reach out to them.  And being grateful for their support.

After services, there was a wonderful dinner and I found myself talking to the other community members.  Everyone was so kind- it really felt like a family meal.  The kind I never really got to have, where I felt respected and included.  Big hugs that made me feel loved and welcomed.

One person in particular made my night.  There was one other Israeli at services.  A young woman named Reut from Hod Hasharon, a city decidedly not on anyone’s tourist map, but I of course had visited 😉 .  We got to talking.  There’s something about being Jewish- especially being Israeli- where you just trust someone.  Maybe it’s a shared heritage, understood customs, experienced persecution.  Maybe it’s a feeling in your kishkes, as I shared with a wonderful, spirit-filled American named Anne sitting next to me.  Anne if you’re reading this your email didn’t go through, send it again! 🙂  We had so much in common yet had never met.  It’s a great feeling.  I even got to play Jewish geography- I met a Hungarian woman who knows a Hungarian friend of mine in Tel Aviv!  And I’m a quarter Hungarian.  How’s that for full circle?

So back to Reut.  We found ourselves outside in the rain.  I told her I didn’t have a hotel booked for the night, so without even prompting, she got to helping me.  That’s how Israelis are.

We walked around asking at hostels- everything was full or over 100 Euros.  After some funny moments (including this odd Moldovan guy working the front desk who seemed to be hitting on me but then didn’t want to go out with us the next night- wherever you are Iulian, you’re really cute and I hope you come to Israel!), we headed to the Metro.

It was very simple- Reut said I could stay with her.  Reut isn’t even from Barcelona- she’s just here doing some Israel education.  It needs to be said again for the benefit of my friends in other countries- we had never, ever met before.  No known friends in common.  Although we both happen to be Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian- so in all likelihood, we’re probably related several times over.

We stayed up all night talking, having a blast.  We had so much in common.  Sharing love stories, stories of loss, making our way through the Barcelona rain, trying not to slip.

When I got to her apartment, Reut got to setting up my bed.  Putting on a new sheet, feeding me, taking care of whatever I needed.  And because I’m a fellow Israeli, I understood that this is how we do things.  I’ve hosted people I’ve met the same day several times in Israel.  It’s something I rarely see in other countries (although it has happened to me in Barcelona incidentally).  There’s just a sort of trust and bond.  A deep generosity, hospitality, a sense that wherever you find one of your own, you’re home.

It’s not because all Israelis are great.  Some are pretty awful.  Every country has its good and bad, every culture too.

But there are certain overall cultural differences that really stand out.

Israelis, as a whole, are kind of lone travelers like me.  Or once were.  Holocaust survivors who sometimes lost their whole families only to start anew in a completely new country.  And build once again.  Jews kicked out from Arab lands thrown into the tumult of conflict, cultural loss, and war.  We’re survivors, we’re scrappy, and we use whatever we can to move forward and to make the best out of life.  In that sense, I’ve always been Israeli, even when I was across the ocean.  It’s just that moving to Israel, I found millions of other people like me who had overcome (or are striving to overcome) deep hardship and using every last skill to squeeze the sweetness out of life.

In this sense, I feel my personal story as an individual and a Jew parallels the experience of the Jewish people.  In particular, of Israel itself.  A scrappy start-up nation where, for the most part, people understand that a Shabbat meal with people you love is more important than the size of the home it takes place in.

Today I enjoyed a street fair with Reut and some of her friends from synagogue.  An Argentinian Jew and a Turkish Jew- themselves wanderers like me.  Here we were- at face value, nothing in common.  But in reality, everything.  Our Jewishness brought us together and if I’m honest with you, made us instant friends in a way no other identity can for me.  Although some come close.  It’s not that we’ll necessarily be best friends- thought we might.  It’s just that there’s a certain baseline comfort that’s beyond words that you can just feel with another Jew.  It’s in your kishkes.

My experience with Reut’s generosity- even as I write this, I don’t even know her last name- got me thinking.  This trip and my experience in Israel has tested my original thesis.  My first thought when coming to Israel, when starting this blog, was that one needs roots.  That’s why my chosen Hebrew name, Matah, means orchard.

Yet what I discovered is no single place, no single culture, can fully satisfy me.  In fact, I discovered I have roots all over the place.  Directly, in 8 different European countries.  Indirectly, basically all over Europe and the Mediterranean.  Renewed, in my appreciation of my American identity.  And kindled and rekindled in my Israeli one.  In addition to all these roots, my linguistic communities and my passions for art and music and nature and kindness connect me to all sorts of people, Jewish and not.  And I look forward to developing those connections as well.

So perhaps, in the end, I don’t need to be rooted in one place.  By virtue of my identities, my diversity, my curiosity, my past, my intellect, and my sense of adventure, I don’t think I ever will be.  Although we can never be quite sure what the future holds.

This thirst for a multifaceted life is my strength and my challenge.  I’m a wanderer, an explorer- as Jews have been for over 2,000 years.  This is who I am.

While I might not need roots, what I did discover is I need a home.  Traveling is amazing- I’ve been carrying only a small backpack (not even one of those big ones you buy for Nepal) for 2 months.  I have three t-shirts.  A sweater.  One pair of shorts.  A pair of shoresh sandals which an Israeli can spot from a mile away.  No sneakers.  One pair of socks.  My jeans got torn up, so I threw them out.  This is how I travel.  I love it.  It’s what I need, and I’d rather have a lighter backpack to explore more places.  I’m rugged, flexible, and I think I have my priorities straight.  For me, it’s about the journey, not the froufrou.  Although I will say I’ve learned to appreciate the value of a a once-in-a-while well-timed stay in a 3 star hotel.  Quiet is something frankly you have to buy.

Traveling this way has taught me a lot.  And the most stressful thing about traveling without a home to recharge in is the constant movement.  Adapting to new languages and cultures and emotional norms.  But also the transit, the not knowing what the city will be like, the not knowing how quiet your sleep will be- if you’ll be able to sleep at all.  The motion.  It’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, occasionally really stunning when you look out the window and see a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean on a 10 Euro bus ride taking you through the mountains.

So in the end, I’m sure I will keep traveling.  To be honest, each day is a bit of an adventure to me.  Whether it’s physically going to another city or chatting with people at the library, I find ways to engage in new and exciting directions.  Sometimes my friends ask me how these stories happen to me.  But they don’t- I am the kind of person who these stories were made for.  Sometimes I seek them out, sometimes they find me.  And I connect with people in a way, I reach for the kind of people and places that fill me with joy.  I search for understanding.  It can bring the unexpected, both good and bad.  I was made to discover.  Myself, others, and the world.  And I love sharing it with you.  And am inspired by what you share with me.

I hope you’ll continue to join me on my journey as I turn my blog into my career.  As my cover photo says, “what happens on Earth stays on Earth”, so I intend to make my mark.  By donating $20 now, you will get your first year’s subscription free.  Soon, the starting rate will go up to $36.

So I may not need roots that stick me to the ground and restrict my movement.  Some Zionist thinkers might not like this- that I choose not to give up my other identities, my Diasporic features.  But I’d rather be like Israeli poetess and fellow olah Leah Goldberg who speaks of the pain and joy of having two homelands.  I’m grateful to my friend Leora for sending me that poem when I needed it.

By understanding my varied roots around the world, I better understand myself, my people, my countries.  Israel itself.  An ongoing process and one in which I feel I’ve made great progress.

What does it mean to be Israeli?  That’s the title of this blog.  For me, after going several months without seeing another Israeli, Reut embodies what it means to be one.  In the best way.  It’s someone who after a short conversation, helps you find a hotel.  When you realize there is none, invites you to stay.  Who feeds you, who hugs you, who makes a bed for you.  And invites you out to hang with her friends the next day.

Roots can be tangled, messy.  But a home- you need one.  To venture out from, to explore from, to come back to at the end of the day or after a long and exciting trip.

The world is my oyster.  Who doesn’t like to taste a little treyf?  But most of the time, I don’t eat shellfish.  Which is why more and more, I feel Israel is my home.

The Jewish conundrum

I’m currently traveling through Romania.  Romania, for all its current and past political problems, is today a much, much more peaceful place in Israel.  You can’t really compare a 50,000 person demonstration in Bucharest with hundreds of rockets, racist legislation, land appropriations, occupation, and creeping fascism of Israel.  A state once semi-democratic but now plunging into the totalitarian fiesta that is the Middle East.  And once was Eastern Europe.  With vestiges creeping back today.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that the increasingly psychotic right-wing leaders of the former communist bloc have found themselves in bed with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Even as they spew anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries.  I suppose bullies attract bullies.

Before we dive in, here are some pretty pictures of my other homeland.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and I’ve loved traveling here.  This is my third visit this year- I’m the first member of my family to step on its soil since she left 130 years ago for the golden shores of America.

Romania is gorgeous.  Or in the case of Cheile Turzii, “gorges” 🙂 .  I’ve been to Cluj, the silicon valley of Romania.  Literally- both a valley surrounded by hills and also the high-tech hub of the country.  Filled with lots of young, progressive people working in high tech.  But with way less pent up aggression than people in Tel Aviv.

I’ve been to historic Transylvanian cities, old synagogues, beautiful mountains.  Romania is stunning.  My ancestors must’ve really been struggling to want to leave here.  (Turns out they were- the government passed anti-Semitic legislation and had various state-sponsored pogroms the years my family left)

And for those of you still living in Israel, the other day I bought ice cream, a large bag of oatmeal, apples, bananas, milk, several yogurts, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, a Romanian home-made candy, cascaval cheese, turkey, whole-grain bread, and I forget how many other things.  For a total of $10.  Israel is stupidly expensive and the quality of food is definitely not better than here- but I suppose that’s what you get when your country is ruled by a bunch of nepotistic politicians whose rabbi friends make an extra buck off of every piece of food by deciding God approves of it.  Nationalism costs money- I suppose if you pour every ounce of your being into conflict and the idea that your country is super awesome, then people can take advantage of your distraction and charge you money for the things you actually need to survive.  But keep believing that patriotism is awesome.

Romania also knows a thing or two about ethno-nationalism.  It’s a country where, to this day, there’s actually a political party calling for outlawing the Hungarian minority’s party.  Because they claim the Hungarians want to hand over Transylvania to Hungary again.  Does this sound familiar, Israel?

It’s also a place with a long, storied history of anti-Semitism.  One which, thankfully, is much, much better today.  As I have never felt physically threatened and have never even faced an aggressive comment here.  Frankly, Romanians are way more polite and respectful than Israelis.  I feel emotionally safer with the average Romanian than a Jew in Israel.  And not just because they say “please” and “thank you”- although that’s nice too.

And Romania does have a mixed record on its Jews.  As I’ve been here, I have seen a little bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, I’ve heard some yearnings for right-wing politics, I even saw a billboard promoting some sort of Mein Kampf theater production.  Hopefully with the goal of educating people, but I’m honestly not sure.  And I was rather shocked to see the words on a billboard.

I also visited a synagogue.  I was hesitant to- I’m here partially to get space from Israel.  But I was in Sighisoara and I just wanted to take a peek.  Perhaps it was partially because when I asked a young woman where it was, she said there was none.  Even as Romanian nearly-Klezmer-sounding music blared out of her store (which was awesome- she said she’d check out Jewish music after).  I don’t think she was ignorant out of hatred.  I think she simply didn’t know there was a synagogue.  In a town of 20,000 people.  Sad.

I have to note that I’ve mentioned to many people here I’m Jewish.  And sometimes I’ve noticed feelings of guilt.  One guy, when I said my family was killed in the Holocaust, said it gave “shivers down his spine” and he told me about an Israeli he’s met who actually moved to Romania.  And to return to the synagogue in Sighisoara, the non-Jewish custodian of the synagogue was so, so proud to show it to me.  She even hummed the tune to “Tzadik Katamar”, a Jewish prayer written on the wall of the synagogue.  As we both motioned the steps to the Israeli folk dance.  For those of you who think, as I was basically taught at home and at synagogue, that Eastern Europeans are just a bunch of lousy bigots- you’re wrong.  The lousy bigots would be the people who taught you this lie- and the idea that you can generalize about tens of millions of people.  Many decades of evolution after most of our persecution took place.  Things have undoubtedly changed here for the better.  I feel much safer in Cluj Napoca than in Tel Aviv or London.

And there are problems.  Today I was at some sort of folk festival and I met a guy who spoke Spanish.  I was ordering food and having trouble conveying how many grams of meat I wanted (that’s a thing here- everyone should pick up on this.  You don’t have to guess how big your food will be, or be disappointed!).  He, like many Romanians, has worked abroad.  In his case, Spain.  In many others’, Italy or elsewhere.  Part of the reason things are so cheap here for me is that their economy isn’t so great.  Sending thousands of young people abroad in search of work.  Sometimes, to return.  Sometimes, not.

He starts talking politics with me.  One of the things I *love* about Romania is how un-invasive people are.  When I say I’m American or Jewish or tall or short or religious or not religious- people don’t dig.  In Israel, you can say you dislike tomatoes and enter into a 15 minute argument about a fucking fruit. (or vegetable- again, keep arguing).  Israelis like to pretend that respecting people is such an American concept, that “politeness” is fake.  But actually, my experience is Eastern Europeans are way, way more polite than Israelis.  So their barbaric habits must have other roots, because it sure ain’t from here.  I tried to cross the road the other day at 10pm, with no cars coming, and my friend said we should wait.  I asked why and he said: “because we have to respect the rules.  And be fair.”  As he returned me the fifty cents I overpaid for our meal.  I actually laughed out loud because no one has treated me with such dignity in a long time.  Then he gave me hand-picked apples from his family’s farm.  You can be generous and polite- it’s not that hard.

Now to return to the first guy talking politics.  He starts telling me about Romania’s corrupt politics and economic woes.  And how things were *better* under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  While I can understand the former, the latter is a bit absurd.  While perhaps there was more economic stability under the communist dictatorship, this is a man who was executed by his own people for committing genocide and heinous war crimes.  Even Queen Elizabeth hid from him in bushes once.  A story so silly it has to be true.

What really irked me, besides the Middle East-style hijacking of the conversation to lecture me about politics, is that this dictator was a real ass to the Jewish people.  He confiscated over 1000 cemeteries and synagogues.  Jews had to *pay* to make aliyah, to leave the country.  While Jewish issues are hardly at the top of Romanians’ list of woes, to not even think about how this man made my people’s- any people’s- lives miserable is just abysmal.  And cruel.

I’m glad your pocketbook was better under your former dictator, but I’m not particularly happy he shat on my family’s heritage either.  Nor are the political prisoners he killed and tortured.

In the end, what I have to say is this: religion is a sham.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism- it’s all frankly an overcharged book club where everyone thinks their book is the best.  Nationalism, to me, is just another type of religion.  My flag, my country, my people are awesome, and everyone else comes next.  If at all.  Because all of these philosophies aren’t provable.  Like, frankly, the existence of God.  What evidence do you have for God existing?  If God was so self-evident, why do you have to teach children about it to believe in it?  And why do you need organized religion to enforce its tenants?

Religion, like all philosophies, can contain grains of truth.  It’s just that for me, they don’t come from an invisible deity who you’ve personally never met or seen.  But somehow miraculously spoke to a human being you don’t know thousands of years ago to tell you exactly how to live your life.  I presume among clergy there are some good people, but their profession lends itself to charlatans because they are selling something they cannot prove.  While not all things can be easily proven, I want the antibiotic I take to fix my stomach bug to have FDA approval.  And our societal ethics should be no different- based on facts or at least rational arguments.

When you’re convinced that your book is the best, you have to constantly beat people over the head with it.  Since, ironically, it is not self-evident that you are the best (which would go against the idea that you’re inherently awesome), you have to remind people over and over again.  Why would you need to evangelize something so blatantly obvious?

For example, did you know Unitarianism was born in Transylvania?  This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned in Romania.  I went one of their first churches.  Unitarianism, for those who don’t know, is today largely a peacenik left-wing church centered around social justice.  I even once went to a Ska concert at one in high school- pretty much anything goes.

Yet apparently, the first Unitarians were lunatics.  My tour guide told me they would go into churches and just start tearing down artwork and “idols” and burning shit.  Far from the birkenstock-wearing vegans that I know today.

So when I visited a Unitarian church here- one of the first- the pastor did exactly what every lunatic clergy in Israel did.  Tell me how they were the first, the best.

I had mentioned how I had Unitarian friends in America, that they would be thrilled to see I visited.  He smiled.  Genuinely.  And also proceeded to tell me how young the American church was and that the Hungarians were the first Unitarians.  Implication- the real Unitarians.  Unitarians!  Even the friggin Unitarians have to argue about who is the first in their book club.  And they are probably the most relaxed readers.

This kind of stupid narcissism is inherent to any ideology which believes it is perfect, the best, superior.  The 10 minute interaction with the Unitarian pastor was mostly harmful because it reminded me of much longer, more aggressive interactions with the brilliant Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith-peddlers of Israel.  Romanians, even at their worst, are still way less intense than the average Israeli.

I once posted an Arabic video in a Facebook group to have a guy from Yaffo randomly message me on Facebook voice notes of him saying “that’s great you want to learn Arabic.  Here’s the call to prayer.”  As he Allahu-Akbar’ed the hell out of my phone.  Many Muslims are shocked that I’ve read the Quran and not converted to Islam- because it’s such a perfect book I must have “seen the light”.  And claimed their religion has never persecuted Jews- despite centuries of evidence.  I had a Jewish guy ask me for money to buy food for Shabbat- and then tell me how awful the Sudanese “leeches” were in South Tel Aviv where I lived.  I even had a Jew tell me once that the worst Jew is better than the best goy.  And another Jew told me- knowing I was Reform- that Reform Jews are Christians (why is that an insult?).  Somehow Christians are stupid enough to get into this battle when they are 2% of the population.  I’ve met Orthodox Christians tell me they are the “original Christians”.  Not like those Catholics…  I’ve even had Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Christians say they are the real Arameans, not the Arameans in Northern Israel.  Christian priests literally get into fist-fights in Jerusalem every year over who gets to light some sort of flame in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Literally coming to blows over a fucking match.

In the end, I have religious friends and not religious friends.  I’m not religious- I used to identify as religious and am not anymore.  If this blog was hard for you to read as a religious person, I can understand.  I also feel it’s important to share my truth.  What I hope is that even if you read a different book from me (frankly, I’m a fan of reading everything), what I hope is you take from it kindness and generosity.  I personally have found it detrimental to limit myself to one book, one ideology in informing my world view.  And that the idea of a deity above me, rather than the human beings beside me, has led me to feel small and to make some poor choices.  And now, I feel more empowered and happy.

So in the end, when it comes to Romania, I’m not a Jew because I believe in God or because I think we are the best.  I’m not a nationalist.  I’m a Jew sometimes because people force me to be one.  When I see a desecrated cemetery, like I did in Cluj, my inner Jewish spirit arises.  My empathy for my people, for my ancestors, wells up.  My desire to protect.  Just like if I saw a Muslim cemetery being turned into an apartment building in Yaffo.  That is a true story.

What I believe in, then, is humanity.  Is treating each other with respect.  When someone yearns for an anti-Semitic dictator to my face, I am a Jew.  When someone bulldozes an Arab home, I’m an Arab.  When someone throws coffee in someone’s face for wearing a hijab, I’m a Muslim.  When ISIS butchers Christians in Iraq, I’m one of them too.

It’s not because of God or any book.  It’s because I’m against suffering.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I won’t be asking God for forgiveness or beating my chest or dressing in a suit to impress a congregation half-asleep as a rabbi preaches.  Sometimes a good message, sometimes not.  Always one which includes an appeal for donations.

What I will be doing this Rosh Hashanah is exactly what I try to do every day.  Be kind, give a smile to someone who needs it, explore, reflect, enjoy.

Because I’m not a religious leader, I won’t tell you how to spend your holiday- if you observe it at all.  Instead, I’ll hope that you follow the path that brings you joy and understanding.  Nuance and hope.  And the ability to feel sad and angry at hatred, compassion for those being hurt, and the realization that we make choices each day. Which can bring light into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

Instead of fighting over a flame, let’s grow its light.

p.s.- the cover photo is a synagogue in Targu Mures.  Because there are good people in Romania and around the world working to preserve Jewish heritage, even as others wish to destroy it.  I am grateful to them and honored to visit.

A Nation like All Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

==

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