Something my fellow Reform Jews don’t want to hear

This past Thursday, a group of Reform Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Israel tried to hold services in a plaza above the Kotel (Western Wall).  In an atrocious display of aggression, security guards roughed up the rabbis to try to prevent their prayers.  Sadly, Israel suffers from a deep lack of religious pluralism, where progressive Jews aren’t given any legal stake in the Jewish State.  Frankly, even a number of Modern Orthodox rabbis (including in the U.S.) have felt the consequences of this exclusion as the Rabbinate veers further and further rightward.  It’s hard to see how excessive state involvement in religion is good for our people- including our religion itself!

And yet.  I find something utterly audacious and disrespectful about the way the Reform Movement, of which I have been a part since birth, is handling this situation.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is not my favorite politician, is nonetheless the democratically elected leader of Israel.  In a democracy, leaders are selected on the basis of citizens’ votes.  It’s quite simple.  In the U.S., rather than a parliamentary system, we have Congress- but the principle is the same.

Reform Jews in the U.S. skew very liberal.  I myself am a progressive and a die-hard American-Israeli Reform Jew.  Name a Reform program, and I’ve done it.  Hebrew school, Confirmation, NFTY, my Temple youth group, serving on various boards, leading teen services, serving as president of my college’s Reform Chavurah, hosting the national Kesher convention, traveling with Reform students to Argentina, working at the Israeli Reform Movement’s summer camp, participating in the young professionals group at my Temple in D.C.  And on and on and on and on.  The movement’s values shape the way I see the world.

One of the movement’s points of activism is campaign finance reform.  I wholeheartedly support this endeavor.  The American political system is rife with corruption and the fact that corporations can essentially buy elections (and politicians) to me undermines the very nature of democracy.  You can read the movement’s positions here.

Yet when it comes to Israeli politics, Reform Jewish leaders in America confront the Israeli government as if they were citizens.  While I clearly believe all Jews have a stake in Israel no matter where they live, there is a substantive difference between someone who lives here and someone who doesn’t.  As an Israeli, you pay taxes, you serve in the army, you face the brunt of the government’s decisions, you take the risk of hopping on the bus every day knowing it could frankly be your last.  That is not how American Reform Jews live.  Which is fine, and their right.

But that changes the nature of the conversation.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his coalition have insulted Reform Jews, progressives abroad were rightly outraged.  But what I found astonishing was that for many bigwigs in the progressive Jewish world, the reaction was to say they’ll use the “power of the purse“.  In other words, to either stop donating to Israeli causes or to shift their donations in different directions.  All of which is their right.

But what astonishes me is how tone deaf this argument is.  For a movement that fights day and night to protect American democracy and to get money out of politics, how do they think it sounds to the average Israeli when Americans say their going to use their dollars to influence the government?  Israelis are already fairly unfamiliar with Reform Judaism, viewing it as an American import (right or wrong), so it doesn’t exactly bolster our case to hear a bunch of rich American Jews threatening the Israeli government.

I have to reiterate- I favor a pluralistic solution at the Western Wall.  I am horrified by people attacking fellow Jews simply because they practice Judaism differently.  My movement deserves a place in Israel, just like every other faith.

I just don’t think that a bunch of unelected Reform leaders coming from America on their annual visit have a right to speak for me as an Israeli Reform Jew.  I know our movement prides itself on democratic values- so why on earth don’t Reform Jews get to vote for our leadership?  Rick Jacobs, the current president, may be an awesome guy- I have no reason to believe otherwise.  But as they say in the famous Monty Python and Holy Grail scene: “I didn’t vote for you.”

I work in public relations for a living so I know the value of a good protest to raise awareness of your cause.  And I think that at least in part motivated this recent activism.  And the absolute idiots who run the Western Wall Foundation gave the protestors a ton of free publicity by harassing them in front of a bunch of cameras.

The Reform leadership seems to think that this news will galvanize American progressive Jews to take action.  I think they’re wrong.  While among the core Reform and Conservative Jews, this may be true, the other 90% who show up twice a year for services are more likely to simply feel alienated from Israel.  And decide not to visit.  And maybe even decide to distance themselves from Judaism itself.

That is a huge problem.  For Israel itself (not just the current government) and for Reform Judaism both in America and especially in Israel.  In Israel, we’re facing the fight of our lives to grow the movement.  Rather than spending money on public relations and paying for American rabbis’ plane tickets- how about you give those dollars to our movement in Israel?  Help us build more schools, more young adult events, and more communities.  And send more people to visit, not give them a reason not to.

In the end, Israel, for all its faults, is a democracy.  And in a democracy, it’s not money that votes.  It’s people.  The Prime Minister, be it the current meshuggenah or another meshuggenah, calculates one simple thing: votes.  When building a coalition, which party has how many seats based on how many votes.  If American Jews are really serious about changing the political calculus in Israel- and helping Reform Judaism thrive here- they should pack their bags.  That’s probably not a popular thing to say- I’m sure I’ll get push back from a bunch of friends.  Of course you don’t have to make aliyah, but can you imagine how different the Knesset would look if a million Reform and Conservative Jews made Israel their home?  At the end of the day, 22% of Israelis are Orthodox (though please, let’s move beyond stereotypes and realize there are bridges to be built here too).  And 3% are Reform.

Do I foresee all my American friends packing their bags and making aliyah right now?  No.  Although if you do, you’d be most welcome and I think you’d find Judaism and life here rewarding.  We have a growing and energetic Reform Movement as well.  In the meantime, let’s do this.  Let’s democratize the Reform Movement so all of our voices are heard.  Let’s allocate more resources to the Israeli Reform Movement so we have a larger and legitimate voice in the political system and society.  And let’s avoid too many public confrontations that force American Jews to choose between their love of Judaism and their love of Israel.

This isn’t a one-sided issue- to my Orthodox friends reading this blog, I hope you understand the agony my movement is going through because we are being publicly humiliated by the Israeli government.  Please help us and raise awareness in your communities.  Israel will cease to exist if the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, between all of our communities continues.

May we come to find a day when the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is not a place of conflict or control.  But rather, a place of joy, a place of holiness, and a place of wholeness.  As my cover photo in an Ariel grocery store says: “If I forget thee oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”  Indeed- in loving our holy city, let’s just not forget our shared humanity in the process.  Amen.

South Tel Aviv is the Best Tel Aviv

Some of you may know that a couple weeks ago, I finally found a long-term apartment.  Everything about my identity- being Reform, being American, being progressive, and being queer- should lead me to live in the more secular center and north of the city.  But I feel utterly blessed that I ended up in the south.

When I first moved to my neighborhood (whose name I won’t reveal over the internet), I was apprehensive.  I knew absolutely no one there and there were posters advertising Shas concerts everywhere.  There are almost no young secular/Reform Ashkenazi people and I have yet to see a pride flag.  There are no pubs, nightclubs, cafes with WiFi- it is quiet.  Part of that is the beauty of the place and why I chose to live there.  Though at times, it was so quiet I felt lonely.

Today, I had no plans for Shabbat.  I had plans Saturday night, but during the day I figured I’d wander around and get to know my neighborhood.  And then I heard a boom.  And a tap tap.  Boom. And a tap tap…it was a darbuka!  I stepped outside and heard loud clapping and drumming and singing coming from across the street.  Not the utterly depressing slow moan of westernized Israeli rock (sorry guys- I do like some of it, but mostly it makes me want to cry!).  But rather the boom boom and ululating of Middle Eastern music.

I’m an outgoing guy, so I simply stood outside and listened- and as seems to be the Israeli custom, they immediately invited me inside.  When I say invited- I don’t mean a polite “how do you do?” and offering a cup of tea.  No- I was ushered into a room of 20 people, given a Mexican sombrero, plied with food and drink- all while I danced with people I just met to beautiful, soul-stirring Mizrachi music.

It was amazing and overwhelming all at the same time.  While I danced, the uncle tried to get me to drink whiskey (I don’t drink), then the cousin handed me pitas with hot dogs in them (which I shook while I danced), then the grandfather told me over and over again to keep eating!  I was living my dream of being in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Then, the most amazing thing happened.  The family asked me what song I’d like to sing.  I am an avid Mizrachi music fan.  This music is, hands down, the most unique cultural product to ever come out of Israel, although many (sometimes racist) Israelis wouldn’t realize that.  This music was born out of a fusion of the traditional Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Ladino, and Persian music brought by Jews to Israel in the 40s and 50s.  It then used the best of the West- drum sets, synthesizers, and electric guitars to imitate traditional instruments.  Add in a dose of Israeli folk tunes along with elements of Ashkenazi melodies and voila, you have the first “world music” before “world music” even existed!

So as I stood there, the first song that came to mind was “Mabruk aleek”.  It’s an Arabic-language wedding song.  And there I was dancing, having an absolute blast.  As with most things in Israel, life can go from quiet and lonely to exciting and heart-warming in the matter of seconds.

I was told I could sit and eat now- as relative after relative brought me food and water and food and water.  But things only got better- I discovered my new adoptive family is half Syrian and half Iraqi.  And with the exception of the youngest generation- everyone in the room speaks Arabic!  I specifically studied Syrian Arabic in college in the U.S. with a professor from Damascus- and now with Syrian refugees on Skype.  It was a dream come true!  Everyone’s smiling with each Arabic word I say.  And I’m spending Shabbat with Jews- in Arabic!!  For an American Ashkenazi Jew, this is a surreal experience, and one I’ll never forget (though I’ve been invited to come again over and over- so I doubt it’ll be the last!).

Then we moved to another room so I could meet the other 15 relatives.  I was asked at least three or four times if I was married, but the final time it was because they wanted to set me up with someone’s daughter.  The first few times I laughed off the question, but now I had a choice to make.  In the living room where we were banging on darbukas and recording videos on cell phones (things Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews don’t do on Shabbat), there were also at least half a dozen pictures of a rabbi who I presume was Rav Ovadia, who founded the Haredi Shas party.  Let’s just say the party isn’t generally a big fan of gays, Reform Jews, or really most of the things that people in the north of Tel Aviv support.

So I debated internally and did something brave: “you can set me up with her daughter, but it won’t work because I’m gay.”  I looked around and asked: “are you in shock?”  And without skipping a beat, one of the aunts says to me: “oh no, we have that in our family too.”  I started to smile as relative after relative starts thinking of men to set me up with.  One of the younger relatives actually pulls out her phone, calls her friend, and gets me the number of a gay guy to help me make friends in the community.

After helping one of the men download an app on his phone to turn YouTube videos into Mp3’s (he loves everything from Eyal Golan to Umm Kulthum), I hung out with the youngest kids- two 10-year-old girls.  We danced to Justin Bieber on the street and made funny videos.

Before I left, I was of course given a full container of homemade Iraqi kubbeh and rice.  They told me to come by whenever and one of the little girls even said, “come every Shabbat!” at least three times.  They took my number and said they’d introduce me to the neighbors, show me where I can volunteer, and feed me a lot.

My neighborhood is a lot browner, a lot more Middle Eastern, a lot more Arabic-speaking, and a lot more working-class than North Tel Aviv.  And you know what?  That’s not only “OK” by me- it’s fucking amazing.  Because the 14-year-old me who went by himself to a Sarit Hadad concert in Maryland is smiling from ear to ear.  Mizrachi music- Mizrachi culture- isn’t something new for me.  It’s something that, from the first days of when I learned Modern Hebrew after my Bar Mitzvah, gave me hope in dark times and energy and smiles.  It connected me to my Judaism and to Israel itself.

Unfortunately, there are many Israelis now and back in the early days of the State who are avidly racist against Mizrachim.  Even Mizrachi music was banned from the radio by the government in its early days.  And to the surprise perhaps of some of my fellow progressive American Jewish friends- this racism largely comes from secularized “progressive” Jews of Ashkenazi origin.  The kind who write for Haaretz or sit on the Supreme Court- two of our favorite institutions.

But let’s move beyond the politics.  What I’m trying to say is my neighborhood- this is not where the tourists are.  This is not where the wealthy people are.  This is not “trendy” and it’s not French-Vietnamese vegan fusion food.  These are people who have fought for their cultural and economic existence- and are here to tell the tale.  These are people whose Sephardic Judaism has a remarkable fluidity- even queerness- to it.

God bless them.  Because when a lonely newly-minted Israeli stumbled outside his house today, he didn’t just meet his neighbors.  He met family.

Because for all the beautiful luxury penthouses in North Tel Aviv, there’s one thing money can’t buy.

Warmth.

The hardest part of making aliyah

When I moved to Israel, I anticipated many challenges.  Israeli culture is very different from even American Jewish culture.  The directness, the sometimes harshness of people’s words can really catch an American off guard.  As can the practically non-existent social boundaries.  I knew I’d have to make adjustments to my career and make new friends.  I’d also sorely miss some of my favorite foods and cultures that are omnipresent in the diverse area I grew up in.  I’d be far from my existing support network and would have to build a new one- practically from scratch.  All this in a country I hadn’t visited for 12 years.

But the single hardest part of my journey, by far, was finding a home.  Not a metaphorical home, but an actual house.

Before arriving, I had reserved an AirBnB for a month to give me time to search for an apartment.  Little did I know that even though the woman advertised having air conditioning, she claimed that she was “allergic” to the machine so she wouldn’t turn it on.  As my Sabra friends told me, she was allergic to the electricity bill.  So there I was, a freshly minted Israeli arriving after 15 hours of travel (with only 1 hour of sleep on the plane) and a bedroom at 87 degrees Fahrenheit.  The final straw for this apartment was when I got food poisoning at four in the morning and rather than offering some words of consolation, the host complained about me waking her up.

After having received a refund for the remaining three weeks from AirBnB, I scrambled to find a place.  Still hung up on jet lag, I managed to find a generous lesbian couple who had also made aliyah from the States a year ago.  I slept in their office for a while while I searched for an apartment.  But as I think we all discovered, having three people, a dog, and multiple cats in a small apartment just doesn’t work.  And from the beginning, this was going to be a temporary place.

So I ran around trying to find a new place.  I found a sublet in the middle of the city.  I had a roommate- not ideal, but fine for a temporary stay.  My landlord, on the other hand, stole money from me that required endless hours of mediation and legal threats to be returned.  It’s not worth going into a ton of detail, but let’s just say that that’s one among many examples.

Needless to say, I was tired of hopping around apartments.  I wanted my own place- no roommates, no pets, no thieving landlords.  With a long term lease.  A home.

This is when I really discovered why Israelis protested en masse in 2011.  In particular in Tel Aviv, there is a massive housing shortage.  Most Israelis want to live in the Center of the country but the building hasn’t kept up.  As a result, demand is high and so are the prices.  Although prices are significantly lower in Tel Aviv than in places like Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York (which Israelis should realize- this is not a uniquely Israeli problem), there is a unique competitiveness to the market here.  When you show up to view an apartment, there are often multiple people viewing at the same time.  I can’t think of anything more awkward.  Everyone is trying to woo the all-powerful landlord while somehow pretending to like each other.  It’s super uncomfortable.

Then, the landlord will tell you there’s an extensive waiting list.  And to be honest, there usually is (although of course some lie).  The landlord can ask you any friggin question he wants.  In the U.S., there are extensive rental protections.  Where I lived in Maryland before aliyah, there was even a free service offered by the local government to investigate unscrupulous landlords.  Of course there were still bad apples, but at least there was legal recourse.

Here, the legal system is basically a load of crap.  When it comes to housing, the landlords know they run the show.  I was asked invasive questions about my salary, my family’s salary, my job, my religion, my national origin, my sexuality, my politics, and more.  What Israelis need to understand is that while this is par for the course in Tel Aviv, it is illegal in the U.S. and most civilized countries.  If you have the money and pass a background check, you can legally rent wherever you want in the U.S.

Could I have chosen not to answer these questions?  Sure.  But why would the landlord choose me, then, when she can simply pick someone else from a list of 30 people?  One guy, after grilling me for 30 minutes, ended by saying “you seem like a nice guy, but I have a whole list of people who work for the army and get great bonuses and benefits, so I’m just not sure we’ll choose you.”  With a smile.

I had landlords ask me to pay 6 months rent- up front.  I had landlords ask me to pay rent- in cash.  Leaving me with no paper trail of having paid the rent at all in an almost non-existent legal system.  I was offered one apartment that I’m pretty sure was tied to some sort of mafia.  I was told over and over again that the apartments were quiet- only to find construction projects (both existing and planned- there is a database) all around.

Trying to fix this situation, a new law was passed in the Knesset this past year to provide more rental protections.  What I then encountered were multiple landlords (illegally) inserting clauses into the leases stating that the new law did not apply.  Of course a lease doesn’t supplant the law of the land, but it certainly spoke to what kind of landlord they’d be.  One woman, when I asked her to revise the lease, said “but I’d never hurt anyone!”  And she refused to change it.

At the end of my rope and having seen literally dozens of apartments in person, I turned to the hated real estate agents here.  Real estate agents in Israel are nothing like real estate agents in the U.S.  Here, I don’t hate Arabs, I don’t hate Haredim (these are the usual targets).  No, who I absolutely detest in this country are real estate agents.

I had real estate agents (who I told I wanted a quiet place) try to sell me on illegal apartments inside a carpentry factory.  I had real estate agents tell me a place was too small for me only to call me frantically the next day and say we should go see it because it’s great.

I had a particular apartment I was ready to sign on.  I had had my lawyer review the lease in Hebrew twice.  I had prepared my checks (you have to pre-sign a year’s worth of checks here).  I had prepared my 5000 shekel deposit and my 4000 shekel pre-payment of the last month’s rent in addition to the 4000 shekels for the first month.  In addition to all that, I’d have to pay several thousand shekels to the real estate agent.  But two hours before the lease was supposed to be signed (the day before moving day), the real estate agent told me the landlord wanted to add a clause.  A clause that stated that if I left early, I needed to find a replacement (no problem, this was already in the lease), but also to give up 4000 additional shekels.

Of course I didn’t sign.  Adding a last minute clause is already a huge red flag.  Adding one that would rob me of 4000 shekels if, God forbid, I had a life emergency and needed to find a new renter- now that’s depraved.  The real estate agent yelled at me, a lot.  I told her I had to go.  And she called- I counted- 6 times in 10 minutes and texted over and over.  I wish I could say this was the only time, but I was also berated over the phone by at least two other real estate agents who felt this was somehow acceptable behavior.

The worst part of all of this is that based on the comments I heard from landlords and real estate agents alike, I knew I was being taken advantage of because I was an oleh chadash, a new Israeli.  Even though I have fluent Hebrew.  Nothing about this process is more revolting than that.  I made the sacrifice to make Israel my new home and to see fellow Jews manipulating me made me sick to my stomach.  And exhausted.

Tired of all the games, I decided that I’d look in South Tel Aviv.  It’s cheaper and more importantly, less competitive to find a place.  And when I say South Tel Aviv, I don’t mean the hipsters of Florentin- it’s also a mess to find an apartment there.  And I don’t mean Yafo- it’s in such high demand (and gentrification) that I found it quite hard too.

No, I live where the music is Mizrachi.  Which I love.  Where the streets are filled with diverse refugees from all over the world.  Where there are real, honest-to-God neighborhoods, not some sort of revolving door of young people trying to pay astronomically high rent.  Is my community super queer-friendly and packed with Reform synagogues?  No- although I haven’t gotten to know my neighbors yet and I know Israel can always surprise you.  I do know there are Shas posters nearby, which I find both amusing and frightening.  I’m thrilled that the food is cheap and absolutely delicious.  I even found a sushi place- and the maki rolls cost 9 shekels!  Try finding that in Dizengoff Center!

In the end, I come back to my name, Matah מטע.  It means orchard and I chose it because I’m planting roots to bear fruits, to blossom.  And what I realized is this- I was tired of the “no, no, no, no” I was hearing and wanted to get to the “yes”, like in my cover photo.  More than being in a central location packed with young people, what I needed was a home.  And what I started to realize is that having gone through so much in the States, this wasn’t really a new home so much as a first home.  I needed some soil so I could ease my bark into the ground and find some stability.  After four months here, I just needed a quiet, safe place to come home to at night and sleep.

And that is what I found.  I’m grateful for the help of friends and my lawyer, who supported me emotionally and with advice.  Was it easy?  Absolutely not.  If you’re making aliyah because you think it’s a piece of cake, you should immigrate to Ireland.  Or Belgium.  Or Japan.  Because Israel can be really friggin tough.  Not always for the reasons Sabras think, but it is hard.  I have to admit my faith and my hope were tested repeatedly while finding a home.  And I hope I can find some peace of mind by reconnecting to the Israelis who give me spirit, rather than the people who drained me of it.

On my way home Friday, I heard a song wafting through the air in my new neighborhood.  I recognized the melody.  And as I got closer, I sang along: “lecha dodi likrat kalah, pnei shabbat nekablah.”  The traditional Jewish song for welcoming Shabbat, the Sabbath bride.

I couldn’t help but think that for all the challenges I’ve been through- and the unknown ones that may lie ahead- that I made the right choice.  Because rather than hearing the boom boom boom of the middle of Tel Aviv, I’m hearing the songs of my people.  Prayers I’ve said since childhood.

There may not be a lot of Reform synagogues in South Tel Aviv, but you don’t always need one when your prayers fill the air of the market and you’re singing along.  With your new key in hand.  When you move to a new home, you’re praying with your feet.

My first Haredi hug

Tonight started bad and ended amazing, so read to the end.

I had my first Yiddish lesson in Israel tonight.  I already speak pretty good Yiddish but I wanted to learn more and I specifically want to get accustomed to the Hasidic accent, which is distinct.  I love visiting Bnei Brak, a Haredi community next to Tel Aviv.

I headed there for a lesson with a young Hasidic man, perhaps not above the age of 25.  The lesson started off great as we got to know each other.  Yosef’s family is made up entirely of Holocaust survivors.  One of his grandparents actually grew up in the town of Auschwitz before escaping to Russia and then being forced by the Soviets to move to Siberia.  Eventually they made their way to the U.K. and U.S. after the war and subsequently to Israel.

We spoke about 70% in Yiddish, 20% in Hebrew, and 10% in English over the course of two hours.  We got to a point in the lesson where we were talking about music and I told him how I wrote a piyyut (liturgical poem) combining Hasidic words and melody with my own Arabic words.  He was impressed.  Then he asked me what kind of synagogue I go to.  And, being the Israeli that I am, I told him it was Reform.  Because hell if I’m not going to be myself in the country I worked so hard to come to- and now build.

His first response: “I would never go to a Reform synagogue if you invited me.”  Like a bullet through my heart.  I’ve worked so hard to protect my Judaism- from toxic relatives, from anti-Semites, even from Israelis antagonistic to religion.  And here I was, the bravest Reform Jew I know, in the middle of Haredi city of 200,000 people, and the teacher (who I’m paying) is insulting my community.  He proceeded to say all sorts of ignorant things.  I tried to appeal to Jewish unity and desire for mutual respect, but it just didn’t really work.  In his words, he practices “authentic Judaism” and I practice something “worse” than secular Jews.

You could probably draw a straight line from his grandparents’ Holocaust trauma to his rigid and judgmental attitudes, and I do empathize, but in the end I was pissed off.  And in the end, we all make decisions about how to live our lives, just like I have.  I did calmly explain to him how he hurt me and he apologized, but I’m just not sure I’d feel comfortable working with him anymore.

Feeling angry at Haredim, I started blasting music into my earphones and walking around Bnei Brak.  This jerk of a teacher- he takes my tax dollars to sit around studying Torah and then has the audacity to lecture me about how I practice my faith!

I felt distant from Judaism and hurt, so I stopped into a Haredi bookstore hoping to find some solace.  I love books and music and they really can heal.  I picked up a Hasidic Yiddish children’s book (they’re publishing new ones all the time!) and a CD.  It felt fine, but it didn’t really heal this kind of a wound.  Although I got a major kick out of seeing 15 black hats turn towards me in shock as I asked the cashier where the CD’s were…in Yiddish.

I then got to the restaurant I was looking for.  Home-cooked Ashkenazi food.  Just what I wanted.  The guy behind the counter, Yisroel, had a nice smile and a kind voice.  He gave me extra food (for free) as we chatted.  We talked about what it was like in Tel Aviv.  He was surprised to hear from me that there are a lot of Jewish things in the city including biblical graffiti and the guy playing hinei mah tov on an electric guitar in Kerem Hateimanim last week.

His friend then walked in the restaurant and then started singing a niggun – a word-less melody – and then Yisroel, a Hasidic guy eating pasta, and I joined in.  It was a surreal moment that happens nowhere else in the world.

They asked me why I was in Bnei Brak and I told them I had a Yiddish lesson that didn’t go so well.  They asked why and I explained that the teacher was really judgmental.  Yisroel asked me if the teacher was Haredi, like him.  And I said yes.  I could see the look of embarrassment on their faces.  He said he could understand why I wouldn’t want to work with him and started asking around the restaurant to find me a new teacher.

Feeling lifted by Yisroel’s kindness, I told him this: “after my teacher hurt me, I could’ve just gone back to Tel Aviv and felt like all Haredim are mean.  I could’ve chosen to close my heart.  But instead, I decided to wander around and find someone to warm my heart, to show me that there are good people in this community too.”

Without skipping a beat, he grabs me by the neck and gives me the warmest, tightest, most generous hug I’ve received in my entire time in Israel.  It was so filled with love I was almost taken aback, especially given the way some of my relatives used touch to hurt me.  This man, who despite having to take the bus home to Ashdod, was keeping the restaurant open past 11pm just to keep me happy.  Yisroel may be the kindest person I’ve met in Israel.  And he is my first Israeli Haredi friend.

Lest you venture into the “oh but these must be less religious Hasidim” territory, you’re wrong.  Yisroel is a Ger Hasid and his friend is a Bobover.  They explained to me they don’t watch movies and they showed me they don’t have smartphones.  And they told me why.  And even though I practice Judaism differently, I listened respectfully and learned about their beliefs.  Like a human being.

What brought me back from tonight’s pain was love.  Every Shabbat in synagogue we pray the “ve’ahavta” – a prayer that starts “and you shall love…”.  Tonight, a young Jew in jeans and a t-shirt and a Hasidic man in Bnei Brak embodied that verse.  Because love wins.

Will I keep learning Yiddish?  You bet!  Because I want to know my Hasidic neighbors like Yisroel and it’s my heritage too, despite my teacher’s claims that he is the arbiter of Jewish identity.

It is said that Israel is the land of milk and honey.  Wrong.  Israel is the land of maror and honey.  Maror is the horseradish we eat on Passover.  The bitter people here are some of the bitterest you’ll meet.  And there’s years of trauma behind that but it doesn’t change their toxicity- or your need to sometimes avoid them.  But the honey- oh man.  The honey here is the sweetest you’ll taste anywhere.  The people here who love God by loving their fellow man- they are unparalleled the world over.

It can be so hard to remember that each person truly represents themselves first and foremost.  It’s tempting to paint with a broad brush to protect yourself.  To think that rather than an individual, an entire community hurt you- or will hurt you again.  But in the end, if you go too far down this road, you won’t be protecting yourself, you’ll be hurting yourself.  By denying yourself the chance to know some truly amazing friends.

Yisroel, perhaps aptly named, is now part of my chevreh, my “peeps”.  He’s someone who brought me back to life tonight.  So if you’re someone who likes to trash talk Haredim- I’m sure there’s a reason why.  Maybe someone hurt you like I got hurt tonight.  Or maybe someone taught you fear and prejudice.  But I will not tolerate that hatred in my life and you’d better believe I’ll call you out on it.  Because my tribe just got thickened and got its first Haredi member.  And as far as I’m concerned, if you’re messing with him, you’re messing with me.  Am yisrael chai.  The People Israel lives.

As for my teacher- I have this drash, this spiritual note to offer.  On my way to Bnei Brak I was listening to a Hasidic niggun on my phone, a melody from Vizhnitz.  I recognized the tune but couldn’t place it.  It reminded me of a secular Yiddish song I knew.  Hours later, with the help of a French Jewish friend I met at Yiddish camp last summer, we discovered it was a 1960’s song by the legendary Barry Sisters.  This kind of cultural overlap was once common when Jews truly lived together.  Folks songs, Klezmer music, pop songs, Hasidic niggunim- there was a beautiful interplay at work.  My hope is that this fluidity can be revived and we can enjoy the best of each of our communities while respecting our right to live differently.

Yisroel’s Bobover friend, impressed by my Hebrew, looked at my outfit and my flipflops and said “you look like a Sabra“.  Perhaps, as we say in Yiddish, it’s bashert that I got my official Israeli ID card today.  Because I’ve arrived.  And I’m doing mitzvahs every step I take.

Reform is a verb

I grew up as a Reform Jew active in every possible aspect of the movement.  When I made aliyah, I was certain to connect with Reform communities- I would never live in a city without one.

Another reason I chose to live in Tel Aviv was because of the queer community.  It is a city that is arguably gayer than anywhere I’ve ever lived- and I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Madrid, and Barcelona.

Oftentimes, I felt like my sexual identity and my Jewish identity had to be separate.  When I was in one community, I was almost always still a minority due to my other identity.  While Reform Jews are largely accepting of LGBT people (in particular the NFTY youth group), I faced sometimes intense homophobia in my community.  I once had a Reform clergy person tell me bisexual people don’t exist and a Hebrew school teacher who giggled about which person was the “real man” in a gay relationship.  I even had another Hebrew school teacher posit that there was something strange that caused more Jews to be gay than non-Jews.  When visiting a Reform synagogue in another city, a 30-something rabbi told me all about how he likes gays to help with his fashion because that’s what we’re good at.  Not to mention my toxic relatives.  And all of this isn’t even including those among the more conservative elements of the Jewish community who twist texts to guilt and harm people like me.

And in the gay community, I also at times faced anti-Semitism or felt excluded.  I remember going on several dates with a non-Jew and everything seemed to be going well and then suddenly he broke off the relationship because I didn’t eat pork.  At the time I didn’t really care if he ate pork, so it seemed rather odd and when I pressed him on it, it was clear there was an anti-Jewish sentiment behind it.  One guy implied he couldn’t date me because I was “really Jewish”.  A non-Jewish ex-partner’s father – to my face – defended the KKK as an organization supporting Confederate soldiers, not racism and anti-Semitism.  His son, my ex’s brother, dressed up as a Hasidic Jew for a college Halloween party- peyos and all.  In addition to the more recent political anti-Semitism in the LGBTQ community, I think it’s just hard to be a minority within a minority.  Oftentimes LGBT events are scheduled without regards to Jewish holidays and people don’t necessarily know about Jewish culture.  It’s not necessarily malicious, but it does make it hard.  And sometimes, I felt like the gay community really prized white “straight-acting” gay men above other members of the community, including physically.  Above blacks, Latinos, bisexuals, trans, and- in my experience- Jews.  While I strongly believe that most LGBT people in the U.S. are not anti-Semitic, I can’t deny that at times I felt uncomfortable or out of place in the community.

Which brings us to tonight.  Tonight, as usual, I went to Reform Shabbat services which were lovely.  We had a communal dinner and then I went home.  When I got home I realized it was only 9:15pm and I was bored as hell.  It can be hard to make plans for Shabbat when you’re new to Israel and don’t know a lot of people.  And it can feel lonely.

I found a friend going to a gay pop music party.  I usually just chill with friends and eat on Shabbat and walk around.  But having no great alternative tonight and having the itch to get out of the house, I made a move and I went.

What a great decision.  First of all, it was my first Tel Aviv gay party.  And it was fun.  The music was also great.  Hearing a bit of American pop music was a nice escape from the stress (even the interesting stress) of everyday life here.  Also there were some cute guys- not the super muscle-y ones you see on the beach, more like cute nice Jewish boys.  It felt comfortable.  Also, pretty much everyone was Jewish- a completely unique experience.  I really felt this when the music switched from Britney Spears to Israeli pop.  Even to the first Israeli singer I ever got a CD from at age 13- Sarit Hadad.  That felt powerful.

For Sabras – Israelis who grew up here – there is absolutely nothing novel about what I just said (which in and of itself is kind of cool).  But I’d like to remind them of something.  There is nowhere else in the world where a queer Jew can hear Hebrew on the dance floor all around him.  There is nowhere else in the world where every weekend there are gay dance parties and most of the people in the room are Jewish.  There is nowhere else in the world where when you take a picture with a drag queen (my cover photo) you say to them “todah”.

Only in Israel – only in Tel Aviv – do I feel my queer and Jewish identities meld.  Not at a conference, not at an event, but rather in my day-to-day life.  I don’t have to compromise on either important aspect of my self to live here.  And that is a gift – one that I hope I can inspire my Sabra friends to recognize and my American Jewish friends to respect.

There are some beautiful things about being a minority.  The solidarity, the awareness, the empathy you can develop for others.  The secret codes we use to find each other and protect our culture.  But honestly, a lot of the time it sucks.  And being a double minority makes it that much harder to feel at ease.

On a Friday night, I’m almost always at Reform services.  And oftentimes at a dinner afterwards, sometimes even with Orthodox friends.  Frankly, I feel more at ease at a Modern Orthodox Shabbat meal than with a lot of secular Jews.  I love zemiros and I love the many hours of chatter and fun.  As I see myself, I’m an “all-Israel Jew”.  I like to find the beauty in every community of the People Israel (and even the non-Jewish communities of the State of Israel).

And tonight I added a new community.  The queer Tel Avivi community is also my community- and also a part of my spirituality.  It’s a place I feel affirmed in every way and it’s a fun way to blow off steam after a long week.

I’m a Reform Jew because reform is a verb.  When Judaism or any religion becomes too static, its vitality withers.  Today I reformed my Judaism.  And I realized that while some Shabbats I’ll want to do long meals with singing and just be in the moment, sometimes, after a good hearty sing at services, I might just want to slip out at one in the morning and dance my heart out till the sun comes out.

That’s my Judaism too.

Why do so many Israelis know nothing about each other?

This is a question that confounds and deeply frustrates me.  If we’re going to live together and thrive and appreciate each other, we certainly can’t do it living in silos.

I’d like to share a few examples from people who I think are well-intentioned:

Yaniv is a Jewish doctor (every mom’s dream!).  Growing up in a secular Persian and Moroccan family, he’s now partnered with an openly gay Ashkenazi Orthodox man- already showing he’s pretty open-minded.  I was telling him about my trip up north last week, where I visited many Arab villages, including some Christian communities.  He actually lived for several years in Haifa as well so he has spent time in this part of the country.  I started talking about the different groups in Israel- Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Maronites, etc.  And I noticed he didn’t really react.  I asked him if he had learned about Christianity in school.  He and his partner basically explained that in their schools, they learned only very basic information and didn’t get any exposure to the different types of Christianity.  In the country where the religion was born!  They were surprised, for instance, to learn that in the U.S. there are hundreds of different types of Protestantism alone.

Ahmed is an Arab Muslim cab driver.  We were talking about our backgrounds and he asked about my origins.  I explained that I’m Ashkenazi from Romania, Austria, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus.  He asked why my family came to America.  I explained that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, there were massive pogroms in Eastern Europe along with crushing poverty that motivated Jews to move to America.  Ahmed asked me: “They killed Jews in Russia too?  I thought they just did that in Germany during the Holocaust.”  I was shocked, although I had heard similar things from European Christians in whose countries anti-Semitic violence took place, which is all the more problematic.  There is 2,000 years worth of anti-Semitic massacres and discrimination which you can read about a bit here.  Ahmed was sorry to hear about the anti-Semitic killings and genuinely surprised.

Yoav is a 26 year old Jewish guy from a moshav near Jerusalem.  An open-minded guy, he told me about how he thought it was important for Jews to get to know Arabs and vice-versa.  I told him how I visit all parts of the country, including nearby Bnei Brak, a Haredi city you can read about here and here.  He said he’s never been there (he lives 20 minutes away) and was considering a trip sometime, but he’d need time to think about whether he was up for it.  As an aside, I met an 18 year old from Ramat Gan, a 5 minute walk from Bnei Brak, who had never even stepped foot there, even to buy a bottle of water.  Yoav said he had seen on the news that someone paraded around Bnei Brak with an Israeli flag and got negative reactions from people, so he was afraid to go (a number of Haredim are not Zionist for religious reasons).  I told him that first of all, I’ve been a number of times and never had any issues- in fact, I found a lot of interesting food, music, and people.  I also told him that if your first interaction with someone is to delve into several-hundred-year-old political debates, you’re not going to have a very good discussion.  Rather than getting your information about your neighbors from the news, I said, just go and meet people for yourself.  He nodded in agreement.

Yair is a 20-something man from Jerusalem.  I believe he either is or was Modern Orthodox.  I had told him I was Reform and he and his Haredi friend asked me a bunch of (sometimes provocative) questions about the movement.  I do think that they were well-intentioned and curious but had not met many Reform people before.  Again- their sources were the news.  I did ask Yair: “What personal experiences have you had with Reform Judaism?”  He said: “Oh well I went to a Reform synagogue in London once and it did nothing for me.  Sorry, but Reform Judaism is kind of hollow.”  I then said to him: “There are millions of Reform Jews in the world and over 1,000 synagogues.  If I ate one bad schwarma in Jerusalem, would that be fair to say all Jerusalem food sucks?”  He said I made a good point and listened as I explained a bit about my community.

I could write a whole separate blog about ignorance I hear from tourists here (I met a Christian American tonight here for business who was absolutely shocked that Sunday is a day of work here and he wondered what Christians do here.  My answer: “they adapt”.  I had to spend a solid 15 minutes explaining how Jews in the U.S. adapt to a calendar that doesn’t reflect our holidays and traditions- he had no idea).  But I’d like to focus on my neighbors for a moment.

The examples I gave above are of Israelis who I truly believe have good hearts and are open-minded people.  These are not people who are hardcore bigots or full of hate (although those exist in every society).  These are people who know almost nothing about their neighbors, but who I believe have some curiosity about them.

I don’t have an easy answer to this problem.  Unlike in the U.S. where people go to school together with kids of all different races and religions, here there are separate schools for each sector of society.  Setting up a genuinely pluralistic multilingual public school system could take quite a bit of energy and time (although it’s perhaps an interesting outside-the-box idea to explore).

In the meantime, I do have a suggestion.  We need to step outside our bubbles and find one way each week in which we reach out to someone new.  Someone from a background we know little or nothing about- or are even afraid of.  It could be as simple as asking your Orthodox co-worker how the holidays were and what her family did.  Or asking the secular guy in your office what music he likes.  It could be opening up Wikipedia and reading about Arab Christians in Israel.  It could be watching this amazing dabke dance from Nazareth or asking your favorite Arab falafel guy to teach you a few words of Arabic.

The point is if we wait for the government or politicians or the media or NGO’s to do this work for us, it’ll be too late.  If we’re really going to make Israeli society work, we need to get to know each other.  You don’t need a program.  You don’t need a tour guide.  Gently step outside your bubble (knowing it’s still there when you need to reflect and regroup) and embrace the possibilities.

No law can make someone like you.  That only comes from an opening of the heart.

Samaritans, Russian Puppet Cabaret, and Hasidim

Today I heard or spoke Hebrew, ancient Samaritan Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English, Arabic, and Ukrainian.  Today I danced with Hasidim, watched a Russian man dance with life-sized puppets, and davvened in a messianic Chabad shul.

Here’s how it went down.

I wanted to get out of the house and explore.  Missing the fun of trekking up north, I decided to explore Gush Dan, or Central Israel (near Tel Aviv).  I went to the decidedly not-so-touristy Holon and Bat Yam, both a short bus ride away.

I had no plans and really no idea what to expect.

I got off the bus in Holon and noticed a sign pointing to the “Shomronim” neighborhood.  That’s the Hebrew word for “Samaritans“.  Maybe you learned about the “Good Samaritan” in your Bible class.  Yes, that’s them.  They claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe, who are in turn tied to Samaria (Hebrew: Shomron).  Hence their name.

I immediately asked around and found my way to their neighborhood.  To give you an idea of how unique this is- there are 800 Samaritans in the entire world.  They are keepers of pre-rabbinic Judaism and they use an ancient form of Hebrew, including an alphabet much closer to the original since rabbinic Judaism adapted an alphabet based on Aramaic.

Here are some examples from today:

Because this is how I roll, after knocking on four or five doors (all of which had Samaritan Hebrew on them!), I got referred to Benny Tsedaka, a leader in the community.  He was sleeping, but his brother told me to walk in and wake him up.  So, to the horror of my friends in America, I walked into a total stranger’s home and basically kept talking and knocking on the door till the old man woke up.

He invited me in and gave me quite the lecture about the history of the Samaritans and their “original Judaism” (a phrase, incidentally, told to me several times by Haredim, but this guy might have them beat).  He, along with the other older men on the street, wore a white robe.  He showed me their prayer books, still written in the Samaritan script that I recognize from ancient Jewish tablets.  I almost asked him who their rabbi was, but caught myself 😉  It was like peering into the past, even as he told me to grab my smartphone and take pictures.

He chanted Torah for me using the Samaritan pronunciation and their trop, or cantillation system.  And he did it from memory.  Incidentally he chose the first day of Bereishit, or Genesis- the parashah I used to chant at synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.  The reason he could do it from memory is that unlike rabbinic Jews, like myself, they don’t read Torah in synagogue.  Instead, people pair off and go read in people’s homes- both men and women.  That way, he said, everyone learns to read.  A nice idea indeed.

He is very proud of his tradition and he has every right to- his community has survived conquest after conquest for thousands of years.  Before there were Christians or Muslims or Arabs or Byzantines or Persians here, Samaritans were here- and they managed to survive.  Or perhaps better put, since we are all Israelites, we managed to survive.  When I told him I was an oleh chadash- a newly minted Israeli- he made a point of saying “welcome home”.  A long delayed reunion, indeed.

He’s not a fan of Haredi Judaism because he feels it’s not traditional or authentic enough.  That it’s a product of Eastern Europe and interactions with Christians, unlike his authentic Judaism from here.  He also said he likes that in his community, women read Torah too and that if God didn’t want women to be front and center, why did Miriam sing as we crossed the sea?  An interesting point.  I won’t delve into the debate about what Judaism is best other than to say I think there’s something beautiful in all varieties.  I will say, though, that someone who wants to argue about what the most “original” form of Judaism is is going to have a tough time beating someone who prays in paleo-Hebrew script.

Still digesting my interaction with ancient Judaism, I hopped on a bus to Bat Yam to see the sunset.  I liked learning about Samaritan Judaism, but sometimes the conversation veered into (very) right-wing politics and religious debates that are less interesting to me.  Benny could certainly make Bibi (or a rabbi) blush.

As I made my way to the sea, I saw this ridiculous man dancing around with busty life-sized female puppets (and later, Jewish puppets with peyos!).  To disco music, to Russian music, to Mizrachi music, and even to Yiddish classics!  I can’t tell you how much this made me laugh and smile.  What a nice way to unwind after the meaningful but at times overwhelming experience I had in Holon.  Apparently his grandfather grew up with similar shows in the Soviet Union in the 50’s.  I was thoroughly entertained.  I gave him a nice tip and we exchanged words and smiles in Hebrew and a bisl Yiddish.  These are the people who make the world go round.

After some delicious kebabs, I grabbed a bus home.  Except that on the way, I heard Hasidic music blasting.  I hopped off the bus and ran and joined in dancing with a bunch of men in a circle.  Speakers blasted Hasidic hits (some of which I knew and are on my phone) as we oy yoy yoy’ed and danced.  Just when it couldn’t get any cooler, they started blasting Mizrachi music, including songs entirely in Arabic.  I swerved my queer Jewish hips and my hands suavely bounced around.  I felt a little out of place (I think some of the men just didn’t know what to think of me- it’s not every day someone like me is at a Hasidic street party in Bat Yam), but in the end, it’s my God too so I rolled with it.  And although I wish that the women and men could dance together, I had some fun.

Based on the signange, I knew it was Chabad that put on the event for Sukkot, the holiday currently being celebrated.  Chabad is a Hasidic group focused on kiruv, or outreach to other Judaism.  As Judaism is not evangelical, they only reach out to other Jews.  I don’t identify as Chabad, but I do appreciate some of the work they do.  Anywhere you go in the world, Chabad is there to give you a kosher meal, a place to pray, a place to do Jewish.  In my neighborhood, I frequently stop by to buy supplies for various Jewish holidays.  The best part about Chabad is whether it’s your style of Judaism or not, they’re always there.  And that is a mitzvah.

Now as my sweaty body prepared to hop back on the bus, a cute young Chabadnik asked me if I had davvened arvit (evening prayers).  I hadn’t (because that’s not usually how I approach Judaism), but I told him I’d join their minyan.  Jews are supposed to pray in groups of 10 (men only for Orthodox- men or women for progressive Jews).  I haven’t generally found the Orthodox prayer style meaningful for me (it feels too fast for what I’m used to), but I think it’s a mitzvah to help these people out so I joined in.

We went downstairs into a shtiebel (small synagogue) and prayed.  The cute guy helped me keep up with the pages (they move really fast!) and before you knew it, we were done.  By the way, when I say cute, he’s not a cute kid- he’s a cute adult.  He’s a “your kippah is super sexy I’d like to daven maariv and make a mitzvah” adult.

I digress.  As I’m leaving, another hot young Chabadnik starts talking with me.  He’s from Ukraine and the woman sitting next to us is half Georgian half Ukrainian.  They are both olim like me- new Israelis.  I’m starting to think I might want to learn Russian for an even richer Israeli experience.  I notice a sign in the synagogue about the former leader of Chabad, Rabbi Schneerson being the moshiach (messiah).  Not the typical generic “moshiach” signs, but much more direct and specific.  There are some Chabadniks who think he was just a great leader and others that veer into messianism, thinking this particular rabbi will come back as the moshiach.  Playing dumb, I ask the Ukrainian guy if the sign meant that the rebbe was the moshiach and he said yes.  I am far, far, far from an expert on Chabad, but I’m pretty sure I just prayed in a synagogue of the more messianic stream of the movement.

As I headed back to Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help but think what a messy, meaningful, and deeply satisfying day I had had.  I had been lectured about my progressive politics and rabbinic Judaism by a man who speaks ancient Hebrew.  I had felt kind of out of place as a Hasidic dance party as a queer person and a Reform Jew.  And I ended up praying with (maybe?) messianic Chabadniks when I absolutely never would have prayed with them if that’s what their synagogue was about.

And on the same day, I met an ancient relative of mine.  I saw ancient Hebrew script written on doors and flyers.  I danced to Hasidic music – for free – in public.  I saw a Russian guy dance around with ginormous puppets to Yiddish and Slavic dance music.  In short, I experienced thousands of years of history in the course of minutes.  I lived it up.

Sukkot is, in English, called the “Feast of Booths”.  It’s one of the few holidays that doesn’t commemorate an event.  Rather, by setting up sukkot, temporary structures, we remind ourselves of the fragility of life and of our wandering in the desert for 40 long years.  Wandering in search of a home, a more permanent structure than the ragtag hut of a sukkah.

This Sukkot, I’ve found my home.  A home where yes, things are sometimes complicated and messy and take a while to untangle.  And also a home filled with more meaning per square foot than anywhere else on the planet.

Some Israelis ask me if Americans make more money.  “You’re crazy!” some say, “you’d make so much more money there and have a bigger house!”.  So the f*ck what?  You can give me the biggest mansion on the highest hill with the best view, and I’m not interested one bit.  Because there’s no way in hell I’m going to spend Sukkot there with a Samaritan, a Russian puppet dancer, and Hasidim.

America has better air conditioning and cleaner toilets.  But I don’t really care.  I’ll be too busy out and about exploring thousands of years of history, dancing and laughing along the way.

Every sector of Israeli society in one day

Today, my day started with terrorism and ending with me and some Mizrachim singing Umm Kulthum.

I’m in the (very stressful) process of finding an apartment in Tel Aviv.  I’ve never had such a difficult time finding a place to live in any other city.  The loosely-regulated rental market here is super competitive with sketchy offers abounding.  I’ll find something, it’s just exhausting.

In need of a break, I did something most Tel Avivim would not do when in need of relaxation, and went to Jerusalem.

Having gotten a bit turned around, instead of taking a bus from the Central Bus Station, I actually ended up taking a bus to Kfar Chabad and then a second bus to Jerusalem.  I could detour here and tell you about the adventures of making a highly-improvised bathroom stop between bus rides, but I’ll save that for one-on-one conversations 😉  Israel constantly challenges your definitions of “gross”.

I hopped on the second bus, which incidentally took us partially through the West Bank/Samaria.

This particular route was gorgeous.  Unlike the main bus lines to Jerusalem, this was totally rural with no traffic whatsoever.  The scenes were idyllic.

I felt a bit nervous going through this area today as there was a terrorist attack this morning.  Three young men – an Ethiopian Jew, one (I believe) Mizrachi Jew, and one Israeli-Arab – were ruthlessly murdered as they did their job providing security for the community of Har Hadar.  Solomon, Yossef, and Or – may their memory be for a blessing.  I’m praying for their families.  And I was so sad this morning I was frankly at a loss for words- and I still am.

I almost didn’t go to Jerusalem, but in the end- fuck terrorism.  There’s only so much you can control in life and after taking reasonable precautions, I just want to live my life.  Just like these young people would’ve liked to.

Incidentally, we passed by a sign to Har Hadar on the way to Jerusalem.  It’s that small of a country.

I get to Jerusalem, a bit frazzled, and hop off the bus.  To my right is a sign with bunch of Hasidic posters, one of which was in Yiddish.  I approached two twenty-something Hasidim and asked in Yiddish for them to explain one of the signs.  Turns out, there is a Yiddish-language theater production being broadcast out of Brooklyn into movie-style screens in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which they invited me to.

The two young men were Belz Hasidim and for an hour and a half, we spoke in a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.  One, Dovid, was born in London and the other, Yankev, grew up in Montreal, another one of my favorite cities.  Yankev was a bit shy, though we spoke a little French together since he learned some in Montreal (and so did I!).  Dovid was a real shmoozer and a sweet guy.  He told me all about yeshiva and how he lamented the lack of Kosher steak in Jerusalem.  He made a point of telling me he doesn’t go to political demonstrations, which reminded me of how I often felt in America having to show I wasn’t one of “those” people in my minority group.  We talked about our favorite Jewish texts.  They love the halachos of Shabbes and I shared with them my favorite Jewish teaching – which, much to my surprise, they didn’t know.  In fact, they asked me to translate it for them into Yiddish, which remarkably I did!

Before leaving, as some people are wont to do here, Dovid shared with me a little bit of prejudice.  He told me, in light of today’s attack, that Arabs aren’t very bright.  I of course challenged him on this and his response, while bigoted, was quintessentially Jewish and kind of funny: “The Arabs aren’t very good at terrorism.  Jews don’t do terrorist attacks but if we did, we’d be better at it.”  So basically, in a phrase that would make the alt-Right twist and squirm and vomit, he said that Jews would make better terrorists than Arabs.  As the father in My Big Greek Wedding would say “the Greeks invented everything.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle.

I headed towards the Old City as two Arab women stopped me.  They asked me in Arabic for directions (how cool is that??) – and surprisingly, thanks to my Arabic and the glory of modern transit apps, I helped them find their way!  In fact, I was headed in the same direction.

We hopped on the train and I froze.  I had walked with them 10 minutes speaking in Arabic but when I got on the train, I was scared to keep talking.  I looked around, and thinking about today’s terrorist attack, I was worried how people might react.  There are legitimate reasons I felt that way, as you can read about here.

As I got off the train, I walked towards the Old City.  I saw an Arab man selling sunglasses.  I approached him and I said I didn’t need any glasses, but I told him he was making me happy so I wanted to give him a gift and handed him some money.  He invited me to sit with him.  We spoke in Arabic (I felt more comfortable out in the open air instead of cramped public transit where, frankly, attacks are more likely so I can understand people’s fear).  Turns out he’s from Hebron in the West Bank/Samaria.  He comes to work in Jerusalem each day.  He doesn’t know any English, so I taught him some English words to help with his marketing.  The poor guy is 60, 70 years old with 10 kids and a two-hour commute each way.  I can’t imagine what today’s terror attack is going to do to his livelihood as transit will slow and work permits may be frozen.  I suppose the terrorist wasn’t thinking of his fellow Palestinians who need to make a living when he shot three people.

The man gave me a big smile and a warm handshake as I headed off to meet my friend Sarah, a Modern Orthodox/Traditional Jew from America.  We ate Kosher pizza and then wandered through the Armenian Quarter, where I had never been.  I love Armenians.  When I was in high school, a friend gave me an Armenian CD which I still have on my computer.  Armenians are so, so similar to Jews.  They are a Diaspora community that survived a genocide and manages to preserve their language and religion.  And they’re pretty cute!

We talked with several Armenian men about their visits to the homeland, their life in Jerusalem, the Armenian Church (they had strong opinions- and not positive ones!), and the Armenian-language schools down the street.  I even got to hear their Armenian-accented Arabic!  One man votes Meretz and his wife votes Likud.  I went to an Armenian restaurant and got a fascinating dessert made out of crushed grapes and walnuts with a string inside.  And, because this is how I roll, I got info on some Armenian tutors- because at some point, that would be fun.

On my bus back to Tel Aviv, I befriended a handsome American tourist named Nicolai.  Non-Jewish and from Wisconsin, we talked the entire hour-long trip about Israel, Judaism, America, Bernie Sanders (we’re fans), and so much more.  A truly open-minded fellow- which is not something to take for granted.  Too many people arrive to Israel with preconceived notions of what it is and isn’t.  He was pretty much an open book.

His phone didn’t have internet, so I walked him 20 minutes to his bus stop and got him on his way home.  Because that’s what we do in Israel- we go out of our way to help others.  I find the generosity that surrounds me here encourages me to be even kinder to people.

I hopped in a monit sherut cab and headed home.  What a day!  Hasidim, Modern Orthodox, Arab-Israelis, Palestinians, tourists, Reform Jews (that’s me!).  What else was missing?

As our Russian driver helped us wind through (largely) secular Tel Aviv, two Mizrachi guys up front started singing.  Koby Peretz, Sarit Hadad, Shimon Buskila- you name it.  Then, to their surprise, I made a request.

“Inta omri,” I said.

Pleasantly surprised that an Ashkenazi would request an Egyptian classic, they started to sing.  And to their delight- I joined in.

On a day when a deranged man tried to break the place I call home, I started the day with his hatred and I ended it by singing with Jews in Arabic.

And in-between, I hung out with every sector of Israeli society.

Want to write public policy papers about how to solve the Middle East conflict?  Go for it- maybe they could help.  Honestly, I don’t know.

What I do know is I probably won’t have time for your conference.  Because I’m going to be speaking Yiddish with Hasidim, training a Palestinian in marketing, and singing Mizrachi music in a cab.  I’ll be getting to know my neighbors.  Just like Solomon, Yossef, and Or would’ve wanted.

My Druze, Muslim, Orthodox, Reform Rosh Hashanah

Tonight, Rosh Hashanah ended.  As a Reform Jew, I observe one day of the holiday, which you can read about here.  I had amazing meals with friends, went to services for a taste of home, was greeted everywhere with Shanah Tovah, and even ate sushi 😉

This evening, I decided to go Israeli dancing.  Anyone who’s known me for a while knows that I love Israeli dancing- it’s one of the first things I did in Israel.

I go to this marathon event (it goes till 6am!) and there are hundreds- I mean hundreds- of people.  All ages, all attires (I even saw a bustier), and tons of enthusiasm.  There’s even a guy I know from dancing in DC.  Because, Jews 🙂  The music was booming- there was even a live band to accompany the music!  They had a screen that showed a picture of each singer, the name of the song, and a running clock of how long the marathon had gone on!  I recognized so many of the songs I danced to at home- it was fantastic.

During couples dancing (which I tend to avoid unless I’m with a friend- some of the middle aged women can get frisky!), I stepped aside to rest.  I saw this cute guy so I started talking to him.  I wished him “chag sameach”, a happy holiday.  He said “what holiday?”  I said “oh are you not Jewish?”  And turns out, he wasn’t.  He was just working the event.  In fact, he’s an Arab Muslim from Nazareth named Muhammad Abbas.  Poor guy’s name is so, so close to the name of the leader of the Palestinian Authority that pretty much nobody, Arab or Jewish, really likes.

He’s a student at Tel Aviv University studying English literature.  He only listens to American music and he loves dark, intense American novels.  We talked in Hebrew and Arabic about American film and literature (I recommended he watch Office Space for a clever satirical movie), and he stepped outside to work.

Then it hit me- I owed him an apology.  Growing up as 2% of the American population, I was constantly barraged with “Merry Christmas” for a two month period every year.  I don’t begrudge anyone saying Merry Christmas- I just don’t want it said to me because it’s not my holiday.  I stepped outside and I apologized to him for assuming he was Jewish.  He took it totally in stride and laughed it off.  We also both knew that this year, the Muslim New Year falls on the same day, so I ended up being right in wishing him a Happy New Year 🙂 .  In the end, I do feel like I owed him an apology because I made an assumption about him and it wasn’t the way I like to treat people (or be treated).  Just goes to show that you can’t assume a cute Semitic-looking boy here is Jewish!

At this point, a man selling food in Hebrew with an Arab accent starts talking to me saying not to worry about my holiday faux pas.  That we’re all people and it’s good to wish each other blessings.  This man, Ramzi, is from the magical place called Daliat Al Karmel.  This place entrances me.  If you’ve followed my blog, you know that in the course of 2 months in Israel, I’ve been there twice.  That it has a special magic- the people, the trees, the view- that I have seen in few places in the world.  And this man, just for this event, happened to be selling Druze pita in Tel Aviv!  He lives up North!

We switch over to Arabic (and back and forth to Hebrew and English) as we talk about life and his village.  He invited me to come visit him.  You ready for a real twist?  He owns a Matah – an orchard.  My Hebrew name, which I chose when making aliyah and is extremely unique, is also Matah מטע.  He invited me to come up whenever I want and we’re going to hang out on his orchard.

As if my night couldn’t get any more fabulous or diverse, on my way home I see an Orthodox family by an ambulance.  In America, you’d pretty much say a prayer for them in your head and move on- not wanting to invade their space.  Since this is Israel, I did the exact opposite.  I walked over and asked if I could help.  One woman said she couldn’t ask because I was Jewish (Orthodox Jews believe that it is not permissible to make another Jew work on a holiday).  The other woman, perhaps in an act of pragmatism, simply told me they needed a cab, so I ordered it.  I’ve spent enough time in pluralistic Jewish circles to know that even if Orthodox Jews can’t ask me to do something on Rosh Hashanah, if I just do it, it’s acceptable.

I ordered a cab but just in time, another one came by and they got in.  Luckily it was nothing life-threatening, but it looked like their little girl had a wound on her head.  I hope she’s feeling better.

As I walked away, I wished them a Shanah Tovah.  I knew they were celebrating my holiday 🙂 .  They shouted back with a smile “ktivah vechatimah tovah” – may God write you a good year in the Book of Life.

On my way home, I realized just what an amazing holiday I had had.  In the course of one day, I went from Reform services to Israeli dancing to hanging out with a Muslim friend to talking with Druze and helping Orthodox Jews.

This is my country.  Where every fiber of my being is filled with meaning.  I couldn’t be prouder to start a new life and a new year in Israel.  My diverse, caring, and wonder-filled home.

Shanah tovah from the place where miracles aren’t on 34th street- they’re on every corner.

The Mediterranean is my mikvah

Today, I really started feeling Rosh Hashanah.  I did some reflecting on the holiday and decided I wanted to adapt a Jewish tradition I learned about in the States.  Some people go to the Mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath, before the start of the New Year.  The idea is to cleanse yourself- to leave behind the sins, the hurt, the “shmutz”.

When I was in America, I would go to what most religious Jews would recognize as a mikvah- an indoor space where you disrobe and go through a series of ritual dunks and blessings.

Here in Israel, I tried something different.  I bought five rolls of old bread from the grocery store and headed to the beach.  I looked for something sweet to eat along the way for a sweet New Year and drank my first Israeli bag of chocolate milk (yes, that is a thing!).  I felt it was appropriate because as I’m keeping my Jewish customs alive I’m also adding to them.  A nice modern and Israeli twist.

I started by doing the Tashlich ceremony.  Tashlich is where we symbolically cast away our sins by throwing them into flowing water.  With the first few rolls, I hurled them into the sea as I thought about how I had hurt others or myself during the past year.  Then, I did something unconventional (I’m a Reform Jew and reform is a verb- so we believe in an ever evolving Judaism)- I threw a few rolls to chuck away the sins others had committed against me.  I asked God for forgiveness for the hurt I had caused and for justice to be served towards those who had hurt me.  I asked for healing for my body and soul from the pain and I asked God to send healing to those who I had hurt.

Then, I undressed (except for my bathing suit- a dunk in the mikvah is usually naked but I had to adapt since people were still walking along the beach- even Tel Aviv has limits 😉 ).  In an indoor mikvah, there are seven steps you walk down to get into the water.  So I simply walked seven steps into the Mediterranean, talked out loud to God about my hopes for the year, made the bracha, and took a dunk.  Each time I felt lighter and lighter.  I looked up at the stars, listened to the waves crashing, and thought to myself that really everything is bigger in Israel.  Instead of an aisle dedicated to your food at the grocery store, the whole store is your food.  Instead of holiday greetings being limited to the walls of a synagogue, you can say “shanah tovah” to any stranger on the street. Instead of a mikvah inside a synagogue, you’ve got the entire Mediterranean where your ancestors sailed.

There are things I miss about American Judaism.  For one, it took me two separate trips to grocery stores here to get ingredients for dairy kugel!  And literally one store didn’t even have sour cream- thank God the Russians here appreciate this food so I found it at one of their stores.  I miss the rituality of American Judaism- I even found myself watching Youtube videos of Rosh Hashanah services at Reform synagogues to hear my favorite melodies and prayers.

What is amazing about Israel is that you can take these traditions and, in a completely spontaneous fashion, riff off of them.  Theoretically, I could’ve done a mikvah dunk in the Potomac River (although it might’ve required a lot of showers afterwards!), but I never thought of it.  Here, this whole country is a Jewish playground.  The sky is the limit.  Especially when you’re staring at it from your planet-sized mikvah.

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