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 at times abusive chilhood 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.

What’s God got to do with it?

For those of you who don’t watch the news regularly, Israel has been super stressful.  Between Hamas’s rocket launches, the Syrian refugee crisis brewing on our border, the Syrian civil war which you can hear from Israel’s north, plus earthquakes and the usual backdrop of yelling and frenetic bargaining.  There’s cool stuff here and beautiful nature, but let’s not kid ourselves- between all these problems plus recent homophobic and racist legislation, living in Israel is “lo pashut”.  It ain’t simple.

So many times people come here to “solve the conflict”.  The first question to them should be “what conflict?”  As in which one.  Between secular and Orthodox Jews?  Between Ashkenazim and Mizrachim?  Between LGBTs and the conservative religious establishment?  Between Arabs and Jews in Israel?  Between Israelis and Palestinians?  Between Druze and Muslims and Christians and Jews?  The religious conflicts or the ethnic ones?  The wealthy and the poor?  These are not “stam”, as we say in Hebrew.  They are not just the conflicts of every country.  They are a blend unique to here.  Israel has the widest gap in wealth among developed countries with the exception of the United States.  And a much higher rate of political violence and terrorism than any Western nation.

When I arrived to Israel, I came as a deeply religious Reform Jew.  I would never have called myself deeply religious (although some friends having jokingly called me ReFrum, a pun on the Yiddish word for “pious”), but most of my friends would say I’m pretty Jewish.  I’ve lived and loved Judaism since I was a young kid and discovered its heritage and magic.  And through many tough times, I’ve used that magic to try to pull me through and give me hope.  And many times, it did give me hope and a sense of community when I lacked one at home.

Although it’s taken me experiencing Israel to understand the limitations, even the disadvantages of religion.  Judaism and all faiths.  For religion to me is not something inherently bad (or inherently good).  The way you interpret religious text says at least as much about you as it does about the text itself.  Someone can look at the Bible, Torah, or Quran and come to radically different conclusions, some much more humane than others.

It’s also true that not all conflicts are about religion.  The Soviet Union was an atheist government (Russians today are still disproportionately not religious compared to the rest of the world).  And it still managed to butcher millions of people.  Atheists can manage to be quite violent and extremist- even orthodox in their rejection of faith.  A kind of new religion to supplant their old one.

What I’ve noticed in Israel is that religion is quite often a force for evil.  Not because religion itself has to be evil (although by definition it leaves some people in and some out).  It’s because in practice, it often leads to conflict.  While sociological factors often underlie what appear to be purely religious strife, it would be naive to pretend religious dogma plays no role.

Look at the main faiths here- the monotheists- Judaism, Islam, and Christian.  Each one has elements of humaneness and kindness.  Tzedakah, Sadaqa, charity.  Compassion for the weak, the stranger.  Even at times calls for varying degrees of religious pluralism.  And a repeated emphasis on being morally upright and treating your neighbor with respect.

At the same time, we need to be intellectually honest and recognize each of these faiths’ proclivity for exclusivity and superiority.  In Christianity and Islam, this revolves around recognizing the holiness of the main prophet (Jesus or Muhammad) and pursuing the conversion of all nonbelievers.  Sometimes this was done by sword, other times by incentive, but the final goal, even among the most pacifistic believers, is for everyone to believe in your religion.

In Judaism, the superiority plays out differently.  We are God’s “chosen people”.  Israel, our promised land.  These are birth rights.  For being Jewish.  If you want to join us, you can, but it’s quite hard.  It has always been.  And is increasingly so in Israel where the rabbinate veers far to the right of the Jewish mainstream.

In other words, the superiority argument in Judaism is an exclusive one.  It’s not that we want everyone to be like us- we’re explicitly not an evangelical religion (which I like).  The flip side, however, is that we’re quite an exclusive club.  It’s hard to join and harder to be accepted.  And we have a sense, at least among the religiously inclined, that God chose us, our language, our beliefs above all other peoples.  If you think I’m making this up, simply look at the aleynu prayer or Friday night kiddush.

There are progressive religious Jews who have, to varying degrees, changed the liturgy and how it’s taught to be more inclusive.  That’s cool.  The same could be said with certain Christian sects and a small but emerging community of Muslims.

Overall the same problem continues though.  These progressive-minded communities are, without a doubt, small small minorities in the scheme of world religions.  The vast majority of the world’s religions and religious people are against gay marriage.  Even progressive traditions struggle to incorporate women equally in religious leadership.  While you could say that there are cultural factors at work (understood), it’s also true that on these and other issues, “nonbelievers” far outperform their religious peers.

In the United States, the only religious group that is more supportive of gay marriage than non-theists is Buddhists.  Jews, interestingly, are not far behind, perhaps owing to their decidedly progressive religious tendencies compared to their Israeli brethren, where only 40% of the public believes we should accept homosexuality at all.  It’s worth noting that a large portion of American Jews are not religiously Jewish as well.

When I think of specific examples here, I have too many to choose from.  The Muslims who looked at me in disbelief when I said I had read the Quran (and not converted to Islam).  The Muslims who told me Arabic was the first language and all languages come from it (an absurd claim to make to a polyglot- that’s sacrilegious).  The Muslims who laughed at the idea that Jews had ever lived here.  The Muslims whose Facebook profiles were adorned with Palestinian flags, the Al-Aqsa mosque, and Islamist iconography.  Not to mention the one guy who had written Arabic posts mocking Holocaust Remembrance Day- that was a difficult one for me to confront, but confront it I did.  This Jew speaks Arabic.

Before you indulge yourself in bashing Muslims, let me tell you about the Jews who said the Torah *justifies* expelling refugees, even Arabs.  The Christians who told me not to waste time dialoguing with Muslims because they could give me a more “realistic” picture of what’s going on here.  Or the Christians who said Muslims are animals who breed entire tribes of children to take over the land.  Or the Druze man who cut off all contact with me when I told him I was gay- he threatened that if I didn’t do so, he’d cause me “problems”.  Not sure what those would be, but considering I travel a lot in Druze country, I wasn’t ready to take the risk to my safety.

Are secular or atheist people just as capable of hatred?  Perhaps- depends on the individual, religious or not.  In fact, some atheists can be just as orthodox in their certainty and thinking as any religious extremist.  Herein lies the danger.

It’s just that most of the world’s extremism and orthodox thinking is concentrated in religion and perhaps hardcore nationalism.  Of which there is a potent mix here among so many elements of society in many different directions.  Solving Israeli and Jewish nationalism by way of Palestinian nationalism, for instance, will do nothing but create more conflict and bloodshed.  And I do believe that in the end, most people, religious or not, really do want a good life.  Even if some of their beliefs are getting in the way of that.  Humans are nothing if not complex.  But I do have hope.

The point is religiosity is in the eye of the beholder.  We could argue that the examples I gave of egregious hatred are based on a selective reading of religious texts.  True.  But so is reading texts only looking for acts of kindness.  Conquest is written into the Bible, Torah, and Quran.  It is not a new phenomenon, nor one that religious people need to invent today.  The Crusades, the Islamic conquest of the Middle East and parts of Europe, and Isreal’s expansion into the depths of the West Bank (in some respects, its founding)- these are all rooted in long religious traditions.  We can say distorted, complex, for sure.  But eminently present.

In the end, religion can provide comfort, community, and hope.  It can, and does, mobilize some people for good.  Do I personally think it’s worth all the conflict it contributes to?  Maybe not.  What good is the continuation of Judaism if it becomes nothing more than a series of rituals devoid of ethical meaning?  What does Christianity mean when it is used to force gay youngsters into “conversion therapy”, and often suicide?  Why is Islam ultimately beneficial when it is used to massacre Yezidis, Christians, Jews, and others?  Even other Muslims who don’t agree with them?

It’s not because all religious people are like this.  Or that atheists are saints.  I’m not exactly sure where I fall myself.  I’d say that as I write this, perhaps I just don’t believe in God.  I believe in what uplifts the human spirit.  I believe in kindness.  And I don’t believe in divine retribution nor in the sacrosanct nature of a document so clearly written by humans thousands of years ago.  Which may contain some wisdom, but not exclusive authority nor the right to use it to butcher other human beings.

My overall point is that orthodox thinking, the idea that one set of value is always right- that is a problem.  Even if not all religious people end up overly protective of their sect’s interests (as opposed to those of humanity as a whole), the idea behind it is problematic.  When put into practice, religion more often than not divides people who could share other things in common.

Even though Judaism today in Israel is becoming more and more nationalistic and, with the state’s help, more uniform, it was not always this way.  What’s most perplexing about the degradation of religion in Israel is that Judaism was once the playground of questioners.  Of people who debated and divided and built energy off diversity.  So that whether you believed in the God of Abraham or not, the process itself was unique for its depth of heterodoxy.  And at times, its willingness to make room for dissent.  Moreso than any other religion of its time.

So one of the greatest casualties of religious conflict in Israel is not just the Filipino kids who will never get citizenship.  Nor the Sudanese refugees who will be deported.  Nor the Reform Jews who can’t pray together at the Western Wall.

It’s Judaism itself.  And perhaps, perhaps my belief in it.

The universe is full of possibility and I’m exploring.

It’s hard to be a Gay Jew

For those of you who haven’t been following the news lately, Israel has been a hot mess.  After I came back from vacation from Romania- a peaceful, mountain-filled vacation- I turned off the airplane mode on my phone.  And saw 200 Hamas rockets hit my friend’s Kibbutz near Gaza, that Netanyahu’s government had banned gay surrogacy, and that his friends in the Knesset passed a law downgrading Arabic and non-Jewish citizens.  Also, Israeli police arrested a liberal rabbi for performing a (non-legally-binding) wedding at 5am.  Befitting of some of our more theocratic neighbors- and perhaps more authentically Israeli than we’d care to admit.

In the course of just 48 hours, I felt like my entire identity was under attack.  As a Reform Jew, I can’t get married here with my rabbi.  As a gay person, I now have no affordable legal way to build a family.  And I can’t get legally married.  As an Arabic speaker and lover of Druze and Arab culture, I saw my identity and my friends under attack.  Somehow, the people doing the attacking- Netanyahu and his allies- somehow think they are the victim.  As if it’s 1939 and the entire world is out to get them.  While in the meantime, they are the ones sitting in positions of power, using that power to persecute innocent people.

The word for this phenomenon is “siege mentality”.  The idea, psychologically speaking, is that you feel the entire world is against you, so you act irrationally, refusing to see gray space, and delineate between “us” and “them”.  And boy you’d better hope you’re not a “them” because you become a living target.  For unbridled and illogical hatred.  We’re hardly the only society to experience this and it has a special intensity here.

That’s partially because siege mentality has deep roots.  Often in a combination of trauma (the Jewish people has had a lot of that), nationalistic feelings, and according to many studies, religiosity.  Not the kind of religiosity where you simply enjoy celebrating holidays and connecting with God.  But the kind of religiosity that bleeds exclusivism and at times paranoia.

As a PTSD survivor, I can relate.  On some level, siege mentality is about siege.  When you feel you’re under attack- as our people has been for centuries for no logical reason- you hunker down.  You put up walls to protect yourself.  Mentally mostly, since as a minority you often have no other recourse.  Though, as we see with time, some of these walls become quite visible and physically manifest.

What at one time was a useful skill to be able to protect ourselves has now become a liability.  Not because we have nothing to protect ourselves from- we traded 2,000 years of Christian persecution in Europe for some pretty rough neighbors.  Iran and Syria are hardly puppy dogs.  And you certainly can’t blame all their societies woes on us- though some people find creative anti-Semitic ways to do so.

What is harder to admit for those who engage in siege mentality paranoia is that sometimes they, we, you, me, people- do make mistakes.  That in fact, while the Palestinians have dangerous streaks of extremism, they are not the Nazis.  And not all of them want to kill us- even though some do.  That Arab citizens of Israel are by and large law-abiding citizens whose roots here often go back hundreds of years.  And that for every extremist among them, you can find dozens of productive, kind, responsible citizens.

Which leads me to today.  Today there was a Druze demonstration in Tel Aviv.  I went- anyone who has read my blog before knows I LOVE Druze 🙂 . The Druze are feeling increasingly angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for relegating them (and other non-Jewish minorities) to a second class status.  Despite, in their case, having served in the military for 70 years- like any Jewish citizen.  Their loyalty to this country is not only being ignored by this government, it is being thrown in the trash.  A shame and a serious error.

The rally was invigorating.  Over 100,000 people crowded Rabin Square- for the first time I heard Arabic on the loudspeaker right in the center of Tel Aviv.  Since I spend a lot of time with Druze, I even bumped into two different Druze friends at the rally.  I stand with you my sisters and brothers- we will win.

Why has our Prime Minister, when facing *real* threats from Iran, Syria, and Hamas, decided to make the Druze our enemies?  Why has this government diminished and attacked Reform Judaism?  Why does this government deny basic human rights to the LGBTQ community and all non-Jewish minorities in this country?  Something, by the way, many Israelis like me are working to fix.  For ourselves and all who we love.

Because Prime Minister Netanyahu is living in a contorted fantasy.  More like a nightmare.  In which someone’s difference becomes a source of anxiety.  Rather than a challenge to overcome and learn from.  To build a better society.

Which leads me to the title of this blog.  I am a gay Jew.  Always have been.  Being one is not so easy- I’ve discussed it here many times before.  In the States, I often felt like the odd Jew out at LGBT events (not to mention that some are starting to ban Jewish pride flags).  And at many Jewish events, I was in the minority as a gay person.  Often while the singles meat market churned around me.  It was lonely at times.  And sometimes, worse.  I once had a guy dump me because I didn’t eat pork…I didn’t need to read between the lines because it wasn’t particularly subtle.

One of the challenges of being a gay Jew is that our identity pulls us in two very different directions.  Judaism, even in its liberal forms, is essentially about preservation.  It is conservative in the sense that it aims to keep our history and traditions alive.  And we know that if we don’t do it, it won’t happen on its own and we will disappear.  To become the next Akkadians or Shakers.

To be gay is not to invent an identity- we’ve been around forever, as ancient cave pictures show.  It is, however, in modern society, to be an innovative force.  Because our identity is crafted on top of the modern landscape and the people who most reliably support our freedom are the most innovative.  The progressives.  The people who are open to change- rather than focusing on conserving sometimes ineffective or outdated norms.

This is an internal conflict that’s hard to resolve.  Because the instinct to preserve and conserve can be quite repulsive to the progressive elements of society.  And our desire to feel accepted and change some aspects of our traditions to include us- that can deeply offend conservative sentiments.

This past week, I saw this play out.  Before going to Kabbalat Shabbat services, I saw a Facebook post in which a man described how a Jerusalem restaurant refused his friend service because he was gay.  Turns out, perhaps not by coincidence, that both Ben Rosen and his gay friend Sammy Kanter, are American rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College.  Fellow Reform Jews.  In Sammy’s case, a fellow gay Reform Jew.  In my experience, my movement, more than any other, strives to balance modernity and tradition and breeds some pretty amazingly self-confident queer people and allies.  We’re not perfect, but we’re the closest thing to a home that I have found as a gay Jew.  Who likes to conserve and innovate and feel welcome.

I contacted them immediately and have been helping them navigate the bizarre and chaotic world of Israeli politics, press, and advocacy.  They both- Ben as an ally an Sam as advocate- really impress me.  I sometimes miss the rambunctious and proud progressive Jewish queer identity that flourishes in America.  While here, I still encounter (even among some friends in my movement) a sense of deep unresolved sexual shame and conservatism.

I will continue helping them pursue justice.  Nobody deserves to be kicked out of a restaurant for who they are.  Anywhere.  In the meantime, please don’t frequent “Ben Yehuda 2” in Jerusalem.  They don’t deserve your business.

How does this tie together?  Sammy, if he were an oleh like me moving to this country, would probably live in Tel Aviv.  There aren’t a heck of a lot of Reform gay Jews in Jerusalem- for good reason.  It’s a deeply conservative city.

So why is he there?  He’s there, for a year, for the same reason I’m in Israel: we love our Judaism.  And for Jews, nowhere is more Jewish than Jerusalem- black hats or not.

So his desire to conserve his Judaism has landed him- and many gay Jews- in conflict with our queer identities.  Because where we wish to conserve and evolve, some people simply want a deep dive into a protective fortress.  An idea that Judaism never changes- even while their own practices demonstrate that it does.  And which has resulted in untold incitement against their queer brothers and sisters.  Including an article this week that called for us to be killed.

How do you bring folks out of that fortress or at least allow it a bit more room to breathe?  So that it can still be protective- and not necessarily the same as mine- and recognize that not everything they see as a threat is in fact dangerous.  That we have a powerful army and while some people wish us harm, not everyone does.  Least of all from within.

I don’t have a solution at hand.  Perhaps I can suggest to my friends on the far right (and occasionally those who live with this mentality on the far left) to find counterexamples.  Whenever I get nervous about a group of people, I try not to discount my fear, and I try to find some examples of people I feel safe with.  So when I just read an article about anti-Semitism in Romania, I recalled a woman there who asked me for klezmer groups because she likes Yiddish.  Doesn’t take away from the scary nature of persistent anti-Semitism.  And it does give me a nuanced perspective.  That makes me feel a little more relieved and better able to protect myself without isolating my mind from the world.

Whether it’s Sammy or the Druze or Arabs or anyone else- I’m not doing this for you.  Although of course I am- Sammy is a wonderful person who I’ve only talked to a few times, but already see his great courage and resilience.  And sense of humor.  And of course my experiences with Druze and other peoples inspire me to reach out and show some love.

But I’m not doing it for you.  And I’m not doing it for me.  Of course I am, because I’m a queer Reform Jewish Arabic speaker who values diversity.  So yeah, I am protecting myself and want a better life for me here where I feel safe and valued and equal.

But then who exactly am I doing this for?

Us.  Sammy, the Druze, me.  Us.  Because we share a bond, we share a love, we share identity, and together, we might not be able to defeat the siege mentality.  But we will certainly give it a shot.  Because sitting at home complaining, while justified and sometimes necessary, will not alone resolve this pain.

So grab my hand, and let’s give this a shot.  Because I don’t go down without a fight and a bit of hope that we won’t go down.

p.s.- the cover photo is of me with a Druze flag.  Which looks a lot like a pride flag.  So that’s awesome 🙂

The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which side are you on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

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

beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking gay with a Breslover Hasid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleasure to meet you”

“You too man!”

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

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

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