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 😉

Gay-friendly Arab, homophobic secular Jew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May you go in peace, wherever you go 🙂

Independence from black-and-white thinking

Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli.  And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil.  It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors.  To celebrate my progress.  It was a day to rejoice.

Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times.  There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers.  There was fun.  We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments.  In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction.  Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line.  About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria.  Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.

At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought.  Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.”  I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt.  Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back.  I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here.  Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are.  And we all deserve a seat at the table.

It got me thinking.  I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel.  All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined.  It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail.  Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.

So I wanted to just enjoy.  And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life.  In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague.  We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation.  No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.

The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians.  We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day.  The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence.  And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe.  The creation of my state.  While they still don’t have one.

I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel).  For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough.  And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years.  With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.

I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating.  I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village.  I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew.  Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back.  In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew.  Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against.  I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets.  The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.

In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here.  Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war.  We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out.  Just for being Jews.  And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here.  The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked.  A miracle.

You can go through this story with just about any Jew here.  This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew.  An out-of-the-closet Jew.  For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under.  And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences.  Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia.  And we’re not going to give it up.  Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.

As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  And they’re right.  When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish.  When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here.  Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”.  I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about.  And I also hate it.

I am proud to be Israeli.  I love my country and its people.  I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.

I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.

And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.

I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported.  And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.

I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here.  I have more rights in the States.  I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children.  And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population.  According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality.  The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%.  Palestinians come in at 3%.  Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians).  My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center.  Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.

In the end, living here is complex.  I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here.  If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place.  Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school.  We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box.  So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists.  While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property.  Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.

And it makes it much richer.  So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking.  When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all.  It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow.  Each with is unique shade.  Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.

In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity.  Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with.  Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior.  Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.

Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope.  It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity.  The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered.  At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis.  Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go.  Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything.  Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.

Happy birthday Israel.  May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.

I love you Israel.  When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better.  I’m glad to be home in your arms.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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This Independence Day, I belong in Hatikvah – שכונת התקווה מעל כולם

Today was Yom Ha’atzmaut.  Israeli Independence Day.  My country, my home turned 70 today- every day and every year a true miracle.  We’ve got our problems and we manage to survive and learn and grow.  And should continue to do so.

This morning, not really knowing what to expect (are stores open?  are restaurants open?  are museums open?  are buses running?), I ended up going for a stroll.

Lately, I’ve been learning more about the areas south of my neighborhood.  Yesterday I discovered Ariel Sharon Park, which is a former waste site turned into a gorgeous park reminiscent of a rural farm or orchard.  Stunning and hard to believe it’s in Tel Aviv.

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Today I was walking down Etzel Street, the main street in Hatikvah, when I bumped into a woman I had met earlier when we laughed at a guy screaming on the phone.  I asked her what was to the left at the end of the street.  She said it was her neighborhood, Ha’argazim.  I asked if there were restaurants and such there and she walked with me to show me.  On the way, she made some racist comments about Eritreans.  I explained I was against expelling refugees, but basically decided to leave the conversation be because I don’t want to lecture people and in Israel, you have to let some things slide.  Also, she’s from this neighborhood and it’s a seriously neglected part of town.

We bid each other a chag sameach, a happy holiday, and went our separate ways.  One particular quote of hers stood out: “they care more about the Eritreans than they do about the people who live here.”

I thought more and more- what if she’s right?  We’ve been so focused on our activism- have we forgotten the people who’ve lived here for 70 years?  Who are neglected by the city and the State?  And most certainly the wealthy North Tel Aviv “liberals” who never venture down to these neighborhoods?

As I strolled through Ha’argazim, I couldn’t help but agree with her.  The houses are shacks.  Literally shacks.  With piles of trash all around the neighborhood, never cleaned up by the city.  In America, it’d be called a shantytown.  Somehow they manage to give the houses some charm.  And that doesn’t excuse the utter indifference the residents have to face.  Any more than their poverty excuses racism.

It was important for me to see where this woman lived.  It was somehow poorer, dirtier, and smellier than my own part of town- which has its own special stench.  I would never agree with or justify her bigotry- and I also feel I have greater empathy for her now that I know her situation.  I feel her anger is misdirected at the refugees, but the anger itself- boy is that justified.  These pictures should outrage anyone in Tel Aviv.  Likud, Labor- no government has helped these people and it’s a stain on our society’s values.  And I want to be a part of fixing it.

Since Israel can sometimes surprise you, I wandered my way into a beautiful park nearby- Begin Park.  There, there are two lakes, one of which has water skiing where you are pulled via cable above your head.  There is a petting zoo.  And it’s just calm and green and wonderful.  There are even roosters that crow!  And people practicing acrobatics from trees!

This park is what Israel looks like when people care.  I hope one day Ha’argazim and all of South Tel Aviv will benefit from such consideration.  And I’m excited to try water skiing right by my house!  Who knew?!

Eventually, I made my way up North to Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square for the “premier” celebration tonight.  I was supposed to meet a friend of a friend.  Who knew I was going alone.  The friend cancelled part of the plans- fine that happens.  Then, he was supposed to come at 9:30.  No show.  Then, he says he’s coming at 10:30.  Already feeling deeply left out- I was alone standing in a see of families (and I have none)- I empowered myself to leave.  And good thing I did- I didn’t get a message from the other guy until 10:45 saying he was “on his way”.  Would’ve been miserable.

Being in Israel- being anywhere- by yourself is hard.  Israel is such a family-oriented society- which is part of why I want to find a partner here.  And part of why I love how willing people are to take you in as their own.

So a note to Sabras.  One of the great things about being Israeli is our flexibility.  When you cancel plans, you figure the other person can figure something else out.  That’s often true- but remember that olim, in particular ones who come here alone, we don’t always have a back-up plan.  We don’t have friends upon friends to call.  So don’t blow us off.  Take it seriously when we’re waiting for you.  You don’t have to make the plans in the first place and half the time we expect you to cancel anyways- it’s OK.  But when it’s a holiday, especially one with family, please don’t leave us hanging alone.  It’s inconsiderate at best and mean at worst.

Sick of standing alone, I hopped into a cab and headed to my neighborhood.  Tired of the yuppie North Tel Aviv vibe, the utterly boring concert, and the loneliness, I felt my neighborhood would have the answer.

And boy was I right.  As soon as I got out, I noticed a store selling Israeli flags.  I had never gone in, but they were blasting Mizrachi music, so I popped in.  I was wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Without even two words of introduction, we pumped up the music and danced.  Me and the three young women.  One of whom put bunny ears on me.  People walking by smiled and joined in.  A confused old lady kept coming in and out, so I gently helped her walk towards her house.  We exchanged phone numbers- one of the women, Sivan, lives right down the street from me!  And she has a cute guy she’s going to try to set me up with 😉

Once when I was at a Reform Movement event in Israel, a decidedly “liberal” environment, someone laughed when I said I lived by Shuk Hatikvah and grew up in Washington, D.C.  He was amused by the “contrast” between living in “amazing” D.C. and (fill in the blank) Hatikvah.  People giggled.

My response: “you obviously haven’t spent much time in D.C.”  That’s true on many levels- one, because D.C. is a much, much more violent place than my neighborhood.  And while it has its pluses, it’s an utterly sterile “networky” work-obsessed city that’s not that fun.  I’m happier here than I think I’d ever be in D.C.

So on Israel’s 70th, I have a few thoughts.  Refugees and low-income Mizrachim- we can and should care for them both.  Not just theoretically or with slogans, but with real kindness and action.  Someone’s prejudice shouldn’t preclude us from caring for their well-being.  And it might even soften some hearts.

To my fellow progressives, liberals, left-wingers, etc.  Walk the fucking walk.  Compassion and kindness, which I view as fundamental values of our movement, shouldn’t just be extended to people we agree with.  Lehefech, to the contrary, the real test of our values is when they need to be applied to those who disagree with us.

Want to laugh at Shchunat Hatikvah?  Think America or Ramat Aviv or your well-kept kibbutz is better than my neighborhood?

Alek!  Yeah right!  My neighborhood has something your high-tech stock options can’t buy: soul.

My neighborhood sometimes smells like crap, but at least it isn’t full of it.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, I got the greatest gift of all: I know I live where I belong.  May you find your own sense of belonging wherever you call home.  Chag sameach 😉

A Muslim pluralist

One of the great frustrations I’ve faced when dealing with dialogue here is that some people aren’t pluralists.  Being a pluralist, as I see it, is about saying “I have one way of doing things, you have another, let’s co-exist.”  It means legally allowing people to do things you don’t agree with.  It’s not about getting into a war of whose tradition is better, it’s just accepting that we’re all in this together with some right to autonomy.

In the Jewish World, this is a frequent dilemma.  There are Orthodox Jews who see Reform Jews as inadequately Jewish (hence why my movement is not recognized by the Israeli government).  There are secular Jews who think Orthodox Jews are overly superstitious, conservative, and backwards and should just modernize with the times.  While in the U.S. Jewish pluralism is stronger than Israel (perhaps because it’s not tied up with a government), there are still issues in places like Hillel and Hillel and Hillel.

That being said, you can’t even being to compare American pluralism with what goes on in Israel.  Here, there is no separation of Church/Synagogue/Mosque and State.  Which means progressive Jewish movements are put at a disadvantage financially, legally, and politically.  The same could be said for people who feel Jewish and aren’t recognized as such and also people who just aren’t religious at all.  Of any background.

I find that communities here struggle- on all sides- with the idea of letting someone else do something you disagree with.  You’ll find militant vegans protesting Hasidic kapores rituals but not protesting the hamburger joint on their block.  You’ll find Reform Jews railing against Hasidic intolerance, while making fun of their clothes, their language, and their religiosity.  If you replace Hasidic with Hispanic, I doubt my fellow Reform Jews would make fun of their culture.  Of course you also have the more well-known bigotry of Haredim who throw stones at cars and “immodest” women, etc etc.

These circles of intolerance extend to other religions here.  I’ve met Greek Orthodox Christians who claim they came before the Catholics.  I’ve met Catholics who railed against Evangelicals.  I’ve met Evangelicals who told me I’m not being a good Jew.  I’ve met Muslims who said Arabic was the world’s first language, as uttered by God.  And couldn’t believe I didn’t convert to Islam after reading the Quran.  I’ve met Arab Christians who don’t particularly like Muslims.  And Arab Muslims who don’t believe Jews have any connection to this place- and told me this to my face.  And I’ve met Arab Muslims who get ridiculed by other Arab Muslims for being half-Romanian or immodest or even for being Bedouin.

And of course, you have the Palestinians who want to wipe Israeli Jews off “their land”.  And the Israeli Jews who don’t recognize Palestinians even exist.

It’s enough to make your head spin.  Probably like yours is now.

So at times like these, when people here just fill you with sadness and anger, I like to think of strong counterexamples.  At a time when Islam is turning increasingly fundamentalist- or at least its fundamentalist elements are growing in prominence- I met the most unlikely Muslim pluralist.

I visited the Arab village of Tira, which you can read about here.  I briefly mentioned my interaction with Jamila.  Jamila is a high school student.  She works at a toy store.  I had never been to an Arab toy store, so I wanted to see what it looked like.

She was super sweet.  While I came in trying to show my deference to her culture, all she wanted to talk about was Israeli and American culture.  She really wants to visit Tel Aviv more.  She loves American movies.  Hebrew is her favorite subject, Harry Potter- not the Quran- her favorite book.  Nothing wrong with liking the Quran- I personally love parts of it.  Just that Jamila is not who you might expect to say this.

Because Jamila wears a hijab.  A headscarf.  Generally a sign of religious conservatism or perhaps devotion to tradition.  And a bone of serious contention in Western Europe.

When she kept talking about how much she liked Jewish culture here, I asked why.  Her answer contains a grain of truth we all should pay attention to.

She said: “what I really like is that when you go to the beach here, the Jewish women can wear whatever they want.”

Before you launch into a Western-style approbation of hijabs, that’s not what’s going on here.

I asked her: “so you mean you wish you didn’t have to wear a hijab?”  After all, I have met Arab girls here who have told me that.

She said: “no, I wear a hijab because that’s my tradition.  I’m Muslim.  What I like is that they don’t have to.  The Jewish women have the choice.  I like riding my bike, but some people here don’t approve because I’m a woman.”

In other words, Jamila is a pretty awesome example of a pluralist.  She wears a hijab- and would continue to do so- she just likes that Jews here tend to have more choice.  That she could wear a hijab but maybe her sister wouldn’t.  Or would change her mind according to her views over time.

Jamila, surprisingly, is a good example for all of us.  We do not have to agree on many things.  I admire the Hasidic community for keeping Yiddish alive, for preserving certain customs, and for their birthrate to be honest.  I see other things in the community, such as homophobia or gender politics, as quite problematic.  And people ask me: “well Matt, you’re a queer Reform Jew, how could you possibly like Hasidim?  They won’t accept you.”

To which I say: “I’m a pluralist.”  I can like what I like about certain communities and not like what I don’t like.  I can accept that both aspects exist.  And I’m entitled to my feelings on them.  Unlike some of the more militant secularists here, I don’t want Haredim to abandon their traditions because they’re “backwards”.  I do want more of a separation of religion and state.  And there are things I like about their community.  The things I don’t- well, sometimes you have to find other avenues for making your case rather than imposing laws.  And- this is the tough one for many people- sometimes you just acknowledge that it’s there, whether you agree or not.  And that it’s maybe not my role to change everything about how someone else lives.

Like Jamila and her hijab, I don’t want everyone to be like me.  I want people to be free to choose their own path, even when I don’t want to follow it.  It’s important to remember coercion can flow in all directions, left and right.  Muslim and Christian.  Orthodox, Reform, and Secular.  Israeli and Palestinian.  My respect for conservative traditions is not necessarily at the expense of my progressive values.

Lehefech, as we say in Hebrew.  “To the contrary”.  It is because of them.

A family reunion with Haredim in a cave in Tsfat

I just got back from an absolutely fascinating and fantastic trip up North.  The North is truly the most beautiful part of this Land.  A place where mountains and hills, covered in green, soothe the city dweller’s soul.  A place where mysticism, hospitality, and quiet evenings can almost make you feel like you’re living in different country.

My friend and I were visiting the city of Tsfat.  Tsfat has been a center of Jewish mysticism and kabbalistic learning for 500 years.  And its Jewish community has both Biblical and Medieval roots.

It’s a place where you can just feel spirit.  Not because of any particularly grandiose buildings, but rather because of the air itself.  Tsfat is a place you can’t see- it’s a place you feel.

As we were walking on top of a Crusader castle, we heard singing.  Coming from below.  We approached some sort of round opening in the ground and could hear it very clearly.  It was niggunim- word-less Jewish melodies carried through the ages.  And they were coming from inside the hill.  I could make out the white shirts of men walking in a circle and singing.

I found a Haredi man and his family and asked if it was a synagogue in the mountain.  He said no, it was a cave.  And, being the consummate Israeli, ushered me over to him and took me to it.  Something I truly love about this place.

We headed down the hill and I entered the dark cave with the old man.  I found a circle of teenage boys holding hands, belting out the songs of my ancestors.  I came to Tsfat seeking some respite from the city and some calm.  And instead, I found God.

At a time when I had been feeling distant from Judaism and the concept of spirituality, I found something extraordinary.  Without hesitation, the old man and I stepped into the circle and started singing.

The cave magnified our song as each yai dai dai bounced off the walls and meshed with the others.

Before I had started dancing, I asked the man if the kids were Hasidic.  After all, Hasidim are known for their niggunim.  The man said, “no, they are Litvaks”.  Misnagdim.  Lithuanians.  Lithuanians- like me.

Suddenly I was no longer just singing beautiful Jewish melodies.  I was holding the hands of my cousins.  My family.  Separated by oceans and traumas and the Holocaust, reunited in a cave in Tsfat.  And just like the niggunim themselves, no words needed.  You just feel the power and the love.

What’s so extraordinary is that even though the Misnagdim and I come from pretty radically different Jewish traditions, the power of Jewish music brought us together.  Ashkenazi Jewish music has particular modes.  It’s not by accident that many of our songs sound similar.  So that even over a hundred years after our relatives were separated, we can reunite to the same sounds in a cave in the Land of Israel.

Feeling so moved that my face couldn’t help but smile non-stop for minutes afterwards, I headed out.  As my friend and I and the Haredi family walked out of the cave, the old man did the appropriately Jewish thing and asked me a bunch of questions.  Which, to his great pleasure, I answered in Yiddish.  Who was I?  Where was I from?  Where were my ancestors from?  What was my last name?  And, as is the case in many places I visit here, “are you married?”  When I told some Reform friends here I get asked that a lot, they laughed and couldn’t believe it.  And it also shows that there are a lot more traditional people here that I manage to spend time with.  Because I think I manage to get asked that question 3-4 times a day when I travel here, from Arabs and Jews alike.

When I told the man my last name was Adler, his eyes lit up.  “Adler!  You have a famous rabbi in your family!  You don’t know?  Oy, come to my house in Bnei Brak anytime- you are most welcome.”  And he gave me his address.  Because when people here invite you to something, they really mean it.

In Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a concept of elevating sparks of holiness.  For Jewish mystics, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is not just about social justice (as it is usually seen in Reform Judaism), but rather about taking the profane, the mundane and making it whole again.

I’ve traditionally associated Hasidim, rather than Lithuanians, with Kabbalah and a kind of anarchic and unbridled mysticism.  Yet Litvaks too have a relationship with this famous book.  Long have I wondered if they sang niggunim and what they sounded like.

And now, at a 130-year-old delayed family reunion in the most mystical city of all, I now know.

Nice to meet you fam.

p.s. I was humming this Hasidic-inspired song all the way down the hill, if you want to take a listen.

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Why Israel doesn’t always suck (and is sometimes good at things)

This is perhaps my most Israeli blog title yet.

I’m writing you from a hostel in Barcelona, an absolutely stunning city.  It’s my first visit back in Catalonia in 10 years, and unlike my last visit, I also speak Catalan in addition to Spanish.

My experience here has been fantastic.  I visited the medieval city of Girona, the absolutely phenomenal and peaceful gem of Perpignan in southern France, and am now in the throbbing yet relaxed metropolis.

The best parts of my visit here have been the nature, the serenity, the smiles at strangers, the cleanliness, the general respect for boundaries, and not having to answer millions of deeply personal questions only to be judged for your answers.  Speaking languages I love.  And the delicious food on every corner.

It’s also nice to take my air raid and terrorism alert apps off my phone for a while and not see 18 year old soldiers carrying guns in the street.  It’s just more peaceful.

For the first time in a while, I found myself missing things about Israel.  If you’ve read my recent blogs, you might find that as surprising as I did.  Israel is pretty awful when it comes to human rights, to respecting diversity, to preserving Jewish culture, to living up to Jewish values, to treating people with respect, and to pursuing peace both within society and with our neighbors.

And there are some things Israel does well.  One is helping each other.  Today I found myself sick in Barcelona.  Both physically sick and feeling lonely.  I messaged a few Israeli friends and within seconds they were helping me figure out my insurance, cheering me up, and taking care of me.  Thankfully I didn’t need a full hospital visit, but if I had, my travel insurance would have covered every expense above $50.  Which brings me to something else.  Israeli healthcare is leaps and bounds better than anything I experienced in America.  Health is not just wealth- it’s survival.  Everything else is details if you can’t live.  Israel is a super stressful place to live and one stress I don’t have is that I’ll go bankrupt because I’m sick.

It speaks to a certain social(ist) value in Israel.  And when I say Israel, I mean both Jews and Arabs.  In Israel, anywhere you go you can charge your phone or refill your water bottle.  For free- you often don’t even need to buy anything.  In the places I’ve visited in Spain and France (and much of the U.S.) you need to buy something to charge up or you need to buy actual (expensive and wasteful) bottles of water.  These examples are not anecdotal- when combined with Israeli willingness to host guests (and sometimes strangers) for long periods of time, you sense a pattern.  When it comes to certain things, Israelis display a generosity found in few places.

While in Spain/Catalonia/France, I’ve met some people who reminded me why some Israelis are so nationalistic and racist.  There’s the Dutch guy who told me he could probably understand Yiddish because “it’s just fucked up German.”  There’s the researcher in France studying medieval Jewry who, instead of dialoguing with me, started lecturing me about my own people’s history.  I appreciate his work and would prefer someone not pin me in a corner and try to teach me about…myself.  There are also the formerly Jewish houses in Girona where you can see where the mezuzahs once hung.  And the historic synagogue that now houses an architectural firm.  I think I can understand how Palestinian refugees must feel about the remnants of their village in my neighborhood.

This is not to say that most people here are bigoted.  Most people when I say I’m Jewish or live in Tel Aviv are either neutral, polite, or even show great interest.  I’m grateful to cities like Girona that are preserving my heritage.  And to their archives for preserving Judeo-Catalan documents I got to see first hand.  And many of them were improperly labeled.  To the archivist’s credit, I submitted some corrections and she gladly marked them down.  It’s just an apt metaphor that even when some people are trying to get Jewish history right, it can feel uncomfortable.  I don’t want to impose or discourage them and I also find it irritating that most of their archived documents are upside down.  The documents of the people they expelled.  Some of whom live in their veins.

That’s the complexity of Judaism in Europe.  For 2000 years, we’ve called it home.  To this day.  And not just during the Holocaust, but over and over again throughout that time, we’ve been mercilessly expelled, burned, and murdered.  Property robbed and now turned into moneymaking tourist attractions.  That keep bits of our heritage on the map.  When I visit the Jewish quarter of Girona, I’m not just visiting a tourist attraction, I’m a Cherokee visiting the Trail of Tears.  It’s complicated, to recall the words of a Palestinian friend I talked with before moving to Israel.

Which brings me to what else Israel does well- it gives me a place where if people are ignorant about my tradition, they can learn on my terms.  It gives me a place where I’m in a position of power- as fraught as that is.  A place where if people want to expel us or lecture us or deride us, we don’t have to grit our teeth and put up with it.  Some people take this power a bit too far- and spending a bit of time outside of Israel reminded me why they do so.  Even if it’s not justified.

While in Barcelona, I went to Reform services.  I’ve been pretty fed up with God lately, tired of Zionism, and not even really sure if I feel Jewish anymore.  So I decided to see if maybe Diaspora Judaism, the Judaism I grew up with, still fit.  The services were wonderful.  They were in Catalan, Spanish, Hebrew, and English- a polyglot like me couldn’t be happier.  And it adds a spiritual dimension to share our hopes in different languages.  Hebrew alone bores me.  The people of all ages were warm and welcoming and treated me to a free meal.  As good Jews, there was tons of food.

I can’t say every part of the service spoke to me.  There are problems with Jewish liturgy I’ve only fully understood while living in Israel.  The idea that we’re the “Chosen People” or asking God to bless “His people”- that doesn’t work for me any more.  It feels racist.  I’m tired of the idea that religion should be supremacist- as pretty much every Western religion is in some sense or another.  Our prophet is the best.  Only our people go to heaven.  God chose us above all other peoples.  Try reading the words of your Friday night Kiddush in English.

And it’s my capacity to read Hebrew and my living in Israel that has shed light on these problems.  Judaism is due for a new reformation.  It has beautiful sparks as evidenced by the parts of the service and the dinner that lit my spirit again.  The music, the poetry, the community, the evolving tradition.

Much like Israel, Judaism needs a revamp.  No need to throw everything out, but the way it’s going isn’t working- at least not for me.  As I watched two Israelis living in Barcelona learn the Reform liturgy Friday night- and engage in gentler, more peaceful ways than I usually see in Israel- I see a bit of light.  Jews outside of Israel need Israel.  Yes, it’s a deeply f*cked place and I would rather the world not have states at all.  And I’ll keep fighting for that.  And the reality is we don’t know the next time anti-Semitism will strike.  Israel is the only state on earth, for better or worse, that cares about my healthcare- about my ability to live- simply because I’m a Jew.  That formula is problematic and perhaps sometimes necessary.  While we can’t live in paranoia that everyone is out to get us, the fact is some people are.  And because we’re a minority easy to scapegoat, some people always will be.

At the same time, to return to the Israelis I met in Barcelona, Israel needs Jews (and non-Jews) outside of Israel.  Judaism outside Israel is gentler.  It’s more spiritual than secular Israelis and softer than much of the religiosity I see there.  It can offer Israelis an escape valve.  A reminder than life in the Diaspora can be hard due to prejudice and it can be enriching when it engages with the society surrounding it.  It can remind us of our roots and the need to be sensitive and compassionate towards minorities.  Including in Israel itself.  As my cover photo says in French: “shared route”.  Let’s lift each other up, Jew and non-Jew, Israeli or not.

When you go on a trip, you can buy one of those souvenirs that says “I went to Barcelona and all I got was this shirt”.  I went to Barcelona and all I got was a complex textured view of the pluses and minuses of having a Jewish state- and Diaspora life.

More than I expected on a birthday trip abroad?  You bet.  But don’t worry, I’ll be having some chicken paella too 😉

A Tale of Two Orthodox

Ok it’s really four Orthodox Jews, but you’ll get my point.

Last night, I was at a rally for refugee lives in Tel Aviv.  It was exhilarating- over 20,000 people.  Some estimate 30,000.  Considering Israel has only 8 million people, it’s quite sizable.  Although being from Washington, D.C., the capital of rallies, it still feels small 🙂 .

On my way home, I wore my yarmulke (head covering).  Foremost, because last time I walked home from a rally I got shouted down and followed by hateful people in my neighborhood, which was scary.  I have met neighbors for refugee rights and it’s probably a minority position where I live.  Since Judaism is a source of privilege here, I felt wearing a yarmulke might afford me a sense of safety from some people who might otherwise be angry at me.  People who can’t imagine why a religious Jew would even be at a refugee rally.  I suppose once I decided to put it on, I was glad to do so because it made me feel a little bit connected to a religion I increasingly feel distant from.  To put my yarmulke to good use for human and Jewish values.

Before I get to what happened on the way home, I’d like to share what happened the other day.

On my way to get kebabs, I heard English in my neighborhood.  I was so astounded- I am definitely the only American for several blocks around my house- that I asked the people in Hebrew what language they were speaking.

Turns out, they were Americans from nearby neighborhoods coming for food.  Both of them Orthodox Jews.  We bantered a bit, they made some uncouth remark about refugees, but honestly nothing too grave considering what I hear in Israel.  And other than that, it was fine.  I told them I was gay and a Reform Jew, which aroused curiosity- but really nothing beyond that.  When I said I was a religious Reform Jew- they simply pondered, asked a few questions, and said “OK cool, do you want to join us for dinner?”

Which brings us back to yesterday.  On the way back from the rally, wearing my yarmulke, two Orthodox men approached me to say they didn’t like my signs.  They said it was great there was a rally because finally there were enough police to keep the streets safe.  They told me: “it’s so hard to raise children here with these Eritreans around.”  Right in front of the Eritreans standing next to me.

I told them this: “I grew up with Eritreans in the U.S. and we get along fine.  Unlike in Israel, where everyone lives in their little bubble, I’m glad I have friends of different backgrounds.  That we learn and play together.  Here you have four separate school systems based on religion and race.  How many Reform Jews do you even know?”

And the man closest to me says: “None- thank God.”

My heart sunk- and I can’t say I was the least bit surprised because in Israel, I’ve heard this a lot.  I said “well you’re talking to one now.  I am disappointed by your hatred.  In the U.S. I have friends who are secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic.”

He said: “I’m not hateful.  Anyways, all of your mixing in the U.S. is why American Jewry is disappearing.”

At this point, I felt the discussion was useless and went to talk to some absolutely lovely Eritreans who exchanged numbers with me.  We live down the street from each other and are going to hang out.  Our values are infinitely more intertwined than those of the Israeli I just finished speaking with.

If you want to understand in one anecdote the major difference between American and Israeli Jewry- it’s this.  Are there open-minded Israeli Orthodox Jews (or Israeli Jews in general)- yes.  I regularly do Shabbat with a gay Orthodox Israeli Jew who loves to learn about Reform Judaism.

And are there bigoted American Orthodox Jews (or American Jews in general)?  For sure.

Do I believe there is a substantial difference between the two groups’ attitudes?  Yes.

In America, by and large, Jews get along.  Perhaps better than American Jews even realize.  Only by being here in Israel have I realized the degree to which Judaism is different here- and far more divisive.  And far too often hateful.

Where two American Orthodox Jews saw my queer and Reform identities as nothing more than curiosity and an entree to a dinner invite, two Israeli Orthodox Jews couldn’t even stand the thought of befriending me.  To thank God for not knowing a Reform Jew (let alone an Eritrean)- that’s a true perversion of religion.

It’s important to remember people come in all shapes and sizes, both here and in Israel.  I could have turned this blog into an opportunity to hate Orthodox Jews.  And believe me, I was very angry last night and felt some of that hatred.  Instead, my cover photo is my picture of a Hasidic kids book- based on Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen“.  Because I like to look for the unexpected and to try to speak with nuance and understanding.

For many American Jews, pluralism, diversity, and respect are key values- regardless of religious affiliation.  And for many Israeli Jews, the idea of a school where an Eritrean, a Reform Jew, and an Orthodox Jew could learn together is so out of the norm, it can barely be imagined.  Even if they agree with it.

And that’s exactly the kind of school I grew up at.  Eastern Middle School is where I spent my teenage years in Silver Spring, MD.  To this day, I remember an Eritrean friend of mine there teaching me about Tigre.  And I remember an Orthodox friend who was one of the popular girls bouncing to Backstreet Boys- and who now lives in a Haredi community in London.

And it’s not only “not a big deal”- it’s cool.  Living together is nice.  It can be challenging and mostly, it’s just interesting.  And fun.  And enriching.  And I personally pray for the day when God will soften the hearts of the two Orthodox men who berated me.  So that instead of complaining about their Eritrean neighbors, they might see they have something in common with them.  Or even to learn from them.

May it be so.  May it be soon.

A New Year’s Resolution for Israel

Today is the secular new year.  In Israel, fittingly but quite strange for me, they say “shanah tovah”, the typical Jewish greeting for Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year.  It’s a fun night of celebration and also a chance to think of what’s ahead.

For me, this week marks my 6 month anniversary of arriving in Israel.  I’ve learned so much in such a little amount of time.  I’ve visited over 35 cities.  I’ve been to Hasidic dance parties, Mizrachi concerts, dabke dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Yiddish theater, a Russian puppet show, and a Yemenite concert.  I’ve eaten Bukharian, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazi, Romanian, Druze, Arab, Kavkazi, Georgian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Eritrean, Filipino, and so many other types of food.  I’ve davvened with Haredim, Reform Jews, Chabad, and hippie vegan Jews.  I visited a Druze shrine and a Karaite synagogue.  I got to watch Islamic prayer up close and personal in a mosque and I went to an LGBT Orthodox Torah study group.

Not bad for the half year mark!  I’m quite proud of all my accomplishments- moving across the ocean alone, making friends, finding an apartment, adjusting to a new culture, and using all nine of my languages and starting to add Greek!

There has been a lot of stress along the way.  Israel is an extraordinarily hard place to live- or so say Sabras who grew up here.  And while sometimes they exaggerate because whining here is kind of a national sport (and they don’t know much about the challenges faced by people elsewhere), the truth is in many ways they’re right.  And it’s all the more difficult for someone like me who moved here at 31 without an extensive support network.

What’s hardest about life in Israel is also the source of my New Year’s resolution.  The hardest part of life in Israel is the people.  More specifically, the intense and mean-spirited prejudice I experience on almost a daily basis.  Towards me as an American and towards other cultures- especially within Israel.  Don’t get me wrong- there are some fantastic people here, who mostly join me in complaining about the awful ones.  But boy- there is a mean streak to Israeli culture that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world.  It’s not because I haven’t seen prejudice elsewhere- I’ve experienced it in places like Spain (anti-Semitism), Argentina (homophobia), and the U.S. (all of the above).

The difference in Israel is the intensity and the degree to which many people here celebrate judging others.  I’m someone who deeply values multiculturalism.  I’m well aware that there are limits to it and questions about how far it should extend.  But the basic principle of respecting- at times embracing- parts of every culture to me is second nature and a fundamental way I live in the world.  The good news is Israel is chock full of interesting cultures.  Sadly, that most Israelis know nothing about- and don’t care to appreciate.  While some Israelis are curious about Berlin or America, few are particularly curious about their neighbors who look or talk differently from them.  Let alone their own roots.

The truth is when the State of Israel was being built, its founders despised (and that is not too strong a word) multiculturalism.  Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic- these languages were vigorously and shamefully repressed by the state.  Kids grew up with shame about their roots.  And sadly some 2,000 year old beautiful Jewish cultures are going extinct as a result.

The un-rootedness of many Sabras fosters insecurity and prejudice towards those who maintain their heritage.  Just ask many a Sabra what they think of French Jews or Russians who continue to speak their languages here.

There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in cultural diversity, but it needs to be nourished.  And that’s where I- and you- come in.  There are Israelis like me who are proud of our origins.  There are Israelis- I’ve met them- who realize you can speak fluent Hebrew and still maintain (or re-learn) your French or Russian or Arabic or Romanian.  There are many who don’t realize that because they’ve been trained to revile the Diaspora.  And that’s very sad.

But in the end, I believe in multiculturalism and I’m convinced there are some people here who are ready to join me in this movement.  I want to celebrate the incredible cultural richness here- of Jews, of Arabs, of refugees, of everyone.  It is a gift that must be cherished to be protected.

It is no longer acceptable to me that when I tell my Sabra friends that I met Aramaic-speaking Christians or Samaritans who speak Ancient Hebrew or Eritreans with an awesome juice bar that their reaction is: “wow I didn’t know that was there- you’ve seen more here in 6 months than I’ve seen in a lifetime!”

Bullshit.  Time to get off your hummus-filled tuchus and get to know the richness of your country.  No- not the high-tech.  The cultural treasures right underneath your nose waiting to be discovered.

It’s time to leave behind the old-fashioned Zionist concept of the “effeminate”, “decadent”, “overly pious”, “cosmopolitan”, “weak” Diaspora Jew.  It’s 2018, time for a change.  It’s time to realize the “Diaspora” is The World.  And lucky for us, a whole bunch of people from all over the world have made this country their home.

Now it’s time to realize that if we understand where we came from, our cultures, our heritage- it doesn’t negate our Israeli identity.  It thoroughly enriches it.  Just like my delicious cover photo of Pringles, Russian sweets, Korean seaweed, and Israeli Bissli that co-exist at my neighborhood store.  Pluralism that begins with culture can increase respect between all sectors of society.  And instead of Jew hating Arab hating Zionist Orthodox hating Haredi hating Secular hating Mizrachi hating Ashkenazi- maybe, just maybe, we build just a little bit more understanding and a lot less hate.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.  Inshallah.  Ojalá.  Mirtsashem.

Let’s do this y’all. 🙂

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