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.

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”.

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.

The Worst of Israel

Every country, every society has its pluses and minuses.  In Israel, the sweet tends to be sweeter than honey and the bitter nastier than rotten horseradish.  I’ll probably write a blog after about “The Best of Israel”, but for today, here’s the worst.

Once I visited the Arab village of Tira.  It’s a non-touristy place and it was interesting to walk around.  I spoke to a woman about her family’s history over baklava. I met a young girl in a hijab who loved American movies and studying Hebrew.  And then I headed up the hill to buy some Arabic music.

On my way to the store, a man asked me where I was from.  I answered in Arabic that I was a Jew originally from the U.S.  He immediately starts screaming, almost incomprehensibly, and starts rousing up the village.  I run into a store and ask the man in Arabic: “huwwe khateer?” (is he dangerous?).  And he said “ahh” – yes.

I ran into another store, the music store, and explained the situation.  My heart was racing, this is the closest I had come to being attacked so far in Israel- for absolutely no reason.  The guys in the store were great and one man, who was somehow a former basketball player who was friends with a Jewish lawyer in the States, offered to take me to the bus stop.  A true mensch.  This was an extremely scary moment and it could’ve been deadly.

Another time I was visiting a Druze village.  I befriended some 20-something men who liked to take selfies with me.  One asked to be my friend on Facebook.  He had seen my various photos of the Tel Aviv Pride Parade (I could tell because they were on my “Facebook story”).  I make no secret of being gay on Facebook.  At some point I asked him on WhatsApp whether me being gay would be a barrier to doing volunteer work to help Druze.  A reasonable question since it’s a conservative society, but one that has extensive relationships with Jews.  His response: “no one will accept you.”  When I switched from Arabic to Hebrew to make sure I was explaining myself well, he said: “speak Arabic.”  I indicated I was sad about the situation.  His final response: “do not contact me again or I will make problems for you.”  An eerie threat considering I spend a lot of time in Druze villages.  I said I’d block him on Facebook…and he thanked me.  I’ll never hear from him again.  Because I’m gay.

The Jews here are often no better.  I was once walking in my neighborhood when some sort of conflict broke out between a faloudeh salesman and his friend (a sentence I definitely have only written here).  Another man tried defending the salesman.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but at some point he just started saying: “what, am I a fag?  Am I a fag?  Are we fags?”  I’m standing right next to him, hoping this will blow over.  He keeps repeating himself over and over.  Fag fag fag fag fag.  I’m getting nervous- not that I think the guy will do anything to me, because he doesn’t notice I’m gay.  But that’s the point, as long as I’m certain not to give off any vibe, I’m safe.  I don’t even wear bright clothing in my conservative neighborhood anymore because people glare at me.  Let’s just say I would’ve felt scared to death wearing a rainbow t-shirt at this point.  Like my friend who got denied service at a Jerusalem restaurant for being gay.  At some point he hugged his friend, promising to defend him from the other guy.  And left.

I wish I could say this was the only homophobia I experienced- by the way, in Tel Aviv.  But it’s not.  I know a Reform Jew who once told me that the key was to “restrain my inclination”.  Another Reform woman once told me: “it’s a shame you’re gay, here’s such a beautiful young woman.”  I once had two Reform Jews- one a rabbinical student and one the spouse of a rabbi- tell me that my friend who got kicked out of the Jerusalem restaurant was being “disrespectful” for wearing a rainbow shirt.  Not a far leap from “her skirt was too short”.  There’s a lot, lot, lot of internalized sexual shame here.  And a tendency, especially among Jews, to let their sympathies linger a bit too long with the abuser rather than the victim.

My neighborhood, for those who follow the blog, is filled with refugees from all over the world, especially Eritrea and Sudan.  It’s a complex issue- a poor neighborhood purposefully flooded with refugees- and a lot of ensuing conflict.  I’m personally an activist against the government’s plans to deport the refugees.  While I can empathize in many directions here, I have seen some pretty unbridled racism that goes beyond trying to fix the situation.

I was once leading a demonstration down Rothschild Blvd, the main drag in wealthy Tel Aviv.  A young, secular-looking woman comes up to us and says she was sexually assaulted (maybe by a refugee- not clear).  We said that was terrible.  I even told her I was a sexual assault survivor.  Before we could get a word in, she noticed my friend’s American accent.  She said: “unlike you, my mommy and daddy didn’t buy me an apartment.  I hope the refugees rape you.  I hope they rape you.”

I have been to many demonstrations in many places and never before had someone told me they wished someone raped me.  Sick.

There’s certainly a lot of low-key racism as well.  Whenever I tell a Jewish friend I’m going to a Druze or Arab village, the usual response (80% of the time) is “but what is there to see?”  Like it’s a trash pit.  I’ve had secular Jews tell me: “Druze are chameleons.  They are liars and untrustworthy.”  One ultra-Orthodox man told me: “the best goy is worse than the worst Jew.”  If that’s not straight out of a neo-Nazi playbook, I don’t know what is.  And this was after I gave him money to buy food for Shabbat.  After I told him I had refugee friends.

Lest you think this is limited to the political right, I was once at the house of an activist in Women Wage Peace, a non-profit activist group.  We were talking about the expulsions- sometimes forced- of Arabs from their villages in 1948.  A complex issue (indeed, some villagers were shooting at Jews), but for me, certainly once that aroused sadness.  Losing home is a hard thing and it’s hard for me to believe that everyone who left was a threat and that nobody should be let back.  The woman, who was a self-aggrandizing super-leftist said: “yeah, but it was necessary.”  Acknowledging that yes, forced expulsions had happened, but they were necessary.  My jaw dropped.  There’s something about Israeli bluntness that’s disarming, sometimes charming, but in this case, just left me stupefied.

The tribalism here is unhinged.  While it gives the nation some of its unique flavor and cultural traditions, it carries the price of sometimes intense bigotry.  I once met a secular guy reading a Japanese comic in a bookstore.  I told him I wanted Yiddish books- he points to the two in the store and says: “why do you want them?”  I explained I speak the language.  He says: “it’s dead, who would you speak to?”  I said I often go to Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, along with secular Yiddish institutions.  He says: “Bnei Brak?  Why would you want to speak with them?”  He goes on to tell me how terrible Haredim are and I said: “how many do you know?”  None.  But he tells me a whole bunch of things he read in the news.  News stories about people who live 20 minutes away.  Who he knows less about than Japan.

I’ve met Christians who won’t marry Christians from the neighboring village- because there was once a feud.  And Christians who told me they keep their minority Muslim neighbors “in line”, or they’d show them who’s boss.  I’ve heard the same thing from Druze about their Muslim minorities.  And then, this was surprising to me, there have been blood feuds between Christians and Druze.  Two relatively well-integrated minorities, but because of a bunch of religious symbolism and tribal honor, somehow got involved in a decade long killing spree.

Many times when visiting mosques, Muslims have tried to convert me- as if I didn’t know what that process was.  It was opaque and manipulative.  Not every time, but many times.  When people ask if I’ve read the Quran and I say yes, they are shocked that I haven’t converted.  They repeat the question.  This is a problem with Islam itself- the idea is the Quran is so perfect that anyone who reads it would obviously convert.  I once, oddly enough given their pro-Israel leanings, had an Ahmadi Muslim tell me the government was abusing the Torah to “let in a bunch of Russian atheists”.  He suggested this was similar to when extremist Muslims like Hamas misinterpreted the Quran.

I was once in Bnei Brak taking a Yiddish lesson.  I was paying an ultra-Orthodox man to learn.  He knew I wasn’t Orthodox- and I told him that from the beginning.  On his “non-Kosher” phone- he also has a Kosher one with censorship.  I was learning a lot and at some point the question of my Jewish background came up.  I said I was a Reform Jew.  This really set him off- he told me all the reasons I was wrong, that I was destroying Judaism, that it wasn’t really Judaism, and that in their eyes, I was more dangerous than a secular Jew.  Because I was laying claim to being religious which, in his eyes, I was not.

The chutzpah of the conversation would not have been surprising (though it’s worth mentioning I have had more positive interactions in Bnei Brak, even once when I’m saying I was Reform).  But for the fact that I was paying this man!  And he was otherwise unemployed- but enjoying the state benefits I pay to him and to his yeshivas.  I tried to reason with him to no avail.  He then tried to extort me by asking for more money for the initial lesson- because (due to this debate) we went over time.  Without him having specified a time limit beforehand.  It was simply a flat fee for a trial lesson.

I went to an ATM to get money and came back.  Deflated, angry.  I told him here’s your money.  He asked, in my view completely delusional, when I’d be coming back!  I said: “I’m not sure I will, I’ll think about it.”  Surprisingly, I got him to apologize to me over text (from his non-Kosher phone).  I accepted his apology and told him I wasn’t comfortable coming back.

Israelis have a propensity for always wanting to be right.  I was once at a board games night- the other players knew I was American.  Seeing a card marked “peaches”, a player said this meant “boobs” in English.  I said no.  He argued with me and when I reminded him that I was American, he said he had visited the White House and was “verrrry fameeeeliar with zee American culture”.  It’d be hilarious if it weren’t for the fact that he was dead serious.  I’ve had Israelis try to tell me how much college costs in America (without having studied there).  One woman tried to tell me I didn’t come to Israel for upright Zionist reasons because I also wanted good healthcare.

Speaking of healthcare, I was at my doctor’s office the other day.  I’m waiting patiently in line when a man comes in, complaining of some sort of ache.  The woman behind the desk tells him to lower his voice.  The man keeps yelling and tries to get in front of me in line.  To make things easier, I tried to schedule an appointment for the next day with the receptionist, which would make my life and the man’s life easier and resolve the issue.  But unfortunately there were no good times and I was about to be let in to see the doctor.  So I decided to keep waiting.

At this point, the man starts screaming to get in front of me.  This is the Israeli way for many people- yell until you get what you want.  It has actually happened to me at another doctor’s office too.  I told the man my appointment would be quick but I had been waiting patiently and wanted to go in.  A pretty reasonable approach.

Instead, the man raises his fist, threatening to hit me.  He calls me an animal.  I’m used to Israeli aggression, but there was something disconcerting about his tone and his physical posture.  I called the police.  What was most alarming is that the people around me, rather than scolding the man for threatening me (when I had done nothing wrong)- they rushed over to make sure he was OK.  While they glared at me.  This is a fundamental Israeli problem- focus your attention on soothing the aggressor rather than enforcing rules to protect everyone.

Eventually, I canceled my complaint to the police, because I realized they wouldn’t do anything anyways.  And sure enough, the doctor let the man in to see him.  While I walked home.

Simple trips to the grocery store or pharmacy can be a struggle here.  Lines are not a thing.  People are jockeying and pushing and fighting to get there first- desperate not to be a “fraier” or “sucker”.  I once saw a fist fight nearly break out at the post office just over who would be seen first.  Consideration is not an Israeli value.  My neighbors behind me run some sort of a kids program and at 9am on the weekend, they blasted techno music with subwoofers while I was trying to sleep.   My downstairs neighbor shouts to Beyonce at 2am on Wednesdays- until I went downstairs and explained that some of us have to work.  He was perplexed and annoyed that I would even care.  I’m pretty sure he’s the neighbor whose pet seems to leave little brown gifts in the hallway, though I haven’t figured out that smelly mystery yet.

Personal lack of consideration often bleeds into the political.  I once met an Arab actor at a bilingual theater guild whose Facebook profile mocked Holocaust Remembrance Day.  He was outraged that I had looked at his page- when he had added me.  He started talking about the Nakba and how we have to respect both- which is clearly not what he wrote.  As I see it, sadness is sadness and there’s no justification for mocking anyone’s tragedy.  And he should probably find a job where he’s not working with the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

A strange thing about Israel is that while the State (and most of Jewish society) wants olim, or new immigrants, like me, there is a lot of prejudice against us.  I was once held up by security guards at the Central Bus Station who just wanted to mock American accents in Hebrew.  I really wanted to get my bus, so I played along at first, but after a few minutes of denigrating my countrymen, I really wanted to go.  And they just kept laughing.  Until I did a pretty spot-on Israeli accent in English.  Then they weren’t laughing- thin skinned much?

Israelis, sabras in particular, love to put down olim.  I’ve heard lots of complaints about how much French is heard in Tel Aviv.  How Americans “stick to themselves in a bubble” (usually couched in a compliment about my Hebrew for not being “like theirs”).  How Russians aren’t really Jewish.  Even as they escaped the Soviet Union for being perceived as such.

The organizing principle of Jewish society is that the Sabra, the native-born Israeli, is superior.  And olim have to be “taught” and put in our place.

I speak fluent Arabic- much, much better than most Israeli Jews who have lived here their whole lives.  With 1.8 million Arabs.  I was once in Ein Hod, an artists colony founded on top of an emptied Palestinian village.  I was speaking to some Arab men in Arabic.  A Jewish woman interjects and starts telling me “about Arabs”- in the third person.  In front of actual Arabs.  Then, a Jewish man comes over, again not party to the conversation, and says to the Arabs: “his accent isn’t native, is it?”  Pointing to me.  I asked the man if he even spoke Arabic.  “Oh a few words from my Iraqi parents.”  But he just had to show he was better than me- even though he literally had no idea what we were talking about.  I’d be more offended if it weren’t for the fact that the most frequent question I get from Arabs is whether I’m Syrian or Lebanese.

The lack of rules and respect here, while occasionally offering opportunity for creativity, is usually a burden.  Rental protections are meager, at best.  Everything is a negotiation- an exhausting and unnecessary process.  My first landlord in Israel once stole a thousand shekels from me and said she’d “give it back later”.  When I asked for the money, she doubled down and it took five days of arguing and talking to my lawyer to get the money back.  Which was never hers.  In her words: “you can have it back.  I’m done with this.”  Was it ever her choice to make?

There’s a lot of distrust here.  Both landlords and tenants don’t really have strong enforceable rules to protect both parties.  A metaphor for a lot of problems here.  General distrust has made it hard for me to travel.  Sadly, it often has historical roots.  In Druze and Arab villages, people tell me a lot of the time they worry I’m an undercover cop.  I’ve gotten mean, sometimes scared stares from Jews when speaking Arabic on my phone in Tel Aviv- so I don’t do so anymore.  It’s not comfortable.  Oddly enough, perhaps given the xenophobia and anti-olim prejudice, I’ve even gotten yelled at for speaking English on the phone on the bus.  While someone shouts into their cellphone in Hebrew next to me.

All of this doesn’t even touch the issue of terrorism and war.  Trust me, that adds to the tension here too.  So does the threat to deport my refugee neighbors.  When I eat at their restaurants, I sometimes don’t know if it’ll be the last time I see them.  Homophobic and racist legislation became an afterthought when writing this post because there were so many other things to share.  Believe me, that’s rough too.

The invasion of personal space (this is not an Israeli concept), the fat shaming, the sexual harassment, the racial profiling (I was once profiled as an Arab), the heavy-handed judgments and overflowing advice peering at you from every corner.  It’s rough.  Some of these things happen everywhere- and I feel they happen more here than I’m used to seeing.  And I speak 9 languages.

Are there good things about Israel?  This is a silly question.  Of course.  There is warmth, there is cultural preservation, there are languages, there is beautiful nature, there are kind people, there are people willing to host you and go out of their way for you.  Even never having met you.

Everyone have unique experiences.  Yours may be different- these are some of mine.

In Israel, be aware that you may have similar ones.  This is not a miniature America nor is it Italy.  This is a rough and tumble Middle Eastern country with an active conflict and a ton of social tension.  Some really important values and others that make me cringe or cry.

I’m proud and strong to have overcome these and many, many other obstacles.  I now find traveling in other countries much easier and have become keenly aware of how to build trust with people- and who to avoid.

Wherever your journeys take you, may they bring you joy, hope, wisdom, and health.

p.s.- my cover photo is of graffiti saying “Kahane was right”.  Meir Kahane was a rabbi who proposed expelling Arabs and Palestinians.  Such graffiti can be found in my neighborhood, sometimes with graffiti opposing it.