The Worst of Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 😉

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 🙂