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.

Israeli pride

Today was my first Tel Aviv Pride.  Every year, thousands of Israelis and tourists gather to celebrate the LGBTQ community here in Israel.  There are floats and sexy guys and it’s awesome.

For the first time in my life, I got to experience it.

In America, I marched in many pride parades- almost always with Jewish groups.  This time, the parade itself was Israeli, so the idea of a Jewish group marching is obsolete- we are the parade.

The parade itself was actually slightly more sexually conservative than in Washington, D.C., which may amaze my Israeli friends.  And its energy was amazing.  There was such a sense of community.

Rather than marching with organized floats, the parade was Israeli- everyone could join in.  There’s no “order”- it’s just splendid flowing chaos of hot guys (and gals).

I came wearing an Israeli flag and ended up buying a Star of David pride flag along the way.  Because Israel is the only country in the world where it is totally safe- even blessed- to be a gay Jew.  And to be proud of it.  Without worrying if people will throw you out of the parade for liking Israel.  Which is a thing unfortunately abroad.

While Tel Aviv pride was smaller than Washington (although still quite large), it felt special.  First off, it went off smoothly and safely.  Not something to take for granted here.  I want to thank the brave policeman and policewomen who every day keep us safe.  Whether it’s some crazy person within Israel- or a terrorist coming from without- sadly too many people want to harm both Israelis and the LGBT community.  I’m grateful that I live in the *only* country in the Middle East where you can count on the police to protect the pride parade rather than break it up.  I hope one day my queer Arab neighbors fighting for their rights will be able to enjoy the same sense of security.

What was also incredible about today, other than the sunny weather, the post-parade swim at the beach, and the pride Shabbat services I went to, was who I went to pride with.

I first started by making plans with my friend Miriam.  A Spanish Jew who I befriended in D.C., she wisely followed me to Israel 😉  My friend Daniel was also in town from America, so we had a trio.  Then I got a message from Ezequiel, a gay Argentinian-Israeli friend of mine, so he and his Arab friend Ahmed joined us.  This was Ahmed’s (pseudonym) first pride parade- you could tell he was a bit nervous and perhaps somewhat closeted.  And wow am I proud of him for being brave and coming.  Being a gay Arab is not easy- as several friends of mine in their community have shared with me.  One Arab lesbian friend of mine stays in the closet for fear her family will kill her in an honor killing.  There are Arab families who do accept their children and unfortunately a lot who don’t.  Forcing queer Arabs into a difficult identity dance in both (largely Jewish) LGBTQ culture here and their background.  I’m glad Ahmed found a sense of belonging in the parade- you could see him flitting back and forth, often losing track of us as he made new friends.

We were joined by Kate, an Australian soon to be Israeli.  And along the way, we met a Ukrainian girl named Natasha (pseudonym).  Natasha is a lesbian from Haifa of Ukrainian background- this was her first pride.  She’s Jewish and not religious in the slightest.  Sadly, her Catholic girlfriend is still living with a lot of stigma so she wouldn’t attend.  She was alone- and I invited her to join us.

Later on, we were joined by an exceedingly hot Argentinian-Israeli named Ariel and his wife.

Kitzer, or “in short”, there we were: gay (me, Natasha, Ahmed, and Ezequiel) and straight (everyone else).  Australian, Argentinian, Spanish, Israeli, American, Ukrainian, Arab, Jewish and not.  A melting pot of newcomers and veterans (Miriam has marched with me on two continents!).  The beauty of Tel Aviv 2018.

There are people who reduce Israeli queer life, the most vibrant in all of Asia- the biggest continent on Earth- to “pinkwashing”.  This phrase is meant to say that when Israelis talk about their queer pride, they are simply using it to “cover up” the difficult reality facing Palestinians.  That we don’t deserve credit for our advances even if in other areas things aren’t so simple.

This is what I have to say: fuck you.  Do Palestinians face hardships?  Of course.  Some of those caused by Israel and not a small number caused by their own extremists or surrounding Arab nations.  And I pray for a day when they will be able to celebrate their own pride parades- and when their society will accept queer youth.  And when our two societies can live in peace.

Here’s the reality: while it’s true that the Israeli government uses gay rights as a promotional tool (often without giving us the full rights we deserve), our country is hands-down the most progressive one in the Middle East.  While some people want to turn our pride parade into a discussion about conflict, that doesn’t change some incontrovertible facts.  Palestinian society has harbored strong strains of homophobia long before the State of Israel even existed.  Homosexuality is illegal- sometimes punishable by death- in Syria, Egypt, Palestinian Authority/Gaza, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.  If you really think this is because of Israel or Jews, it’s conspiratorial and anti-Semitic.  Believe it or not, other societies in the region sometimes have problems that have nothing to do with us.  And noticing that Israeli LGBT people openly serve in the military, enjoy anti-discrimination laws, and even serve as out-of-the-closet elected officials- that’s not pinkwashing- that’s the truth.

Some people are not capable of letting Israelis celebrate a single accomplishment without dragging us down.  We know- I know- that my country, like any other country, has things we need to change.  Guess what?  Your country does too.

While the far-left in Western countries continues to point the finger at us and tries to deny us even one day of enjoyment of our loving society, I’d like to point to an incontrovertible fact.

Today, I marched in pride with a Ukrainian lesbian and an Arab bisexual man- both citizens of Israel.  In their respective societies or homelands, their identity is often punished.  In Ukraine, by far-right thugs and in Arab society, sometimes even by your own family.

Israeli society isn’t perfect and the homophobia here exists as well.  Every society suffers this malignancy.

The main thing I want to point out is that despite the security risks today, the associated costs involved with putting it on, the rockets Hamas continues to rain down on us- Ahmed and Natasha could march in pride.  With me.  In peace and safety.

So rather than telling us how terrible Israel is, try asking yourself: “what have I done today to help people like Natasha and Ahmed?”  Because if you have the privilege of reading this from a nice laptop in a Western democracy, you’re pretty fucking lucky.  Because people like my friends don’t have many places to run.  And they don’t have the luxury of obsessing over every tweet.

They’re exploring their identity- and by the grace of the State of Israel- they can do without fear that this parade will be their first.  And last.

Bedouin Yiddish

Yes, you read that right.  We’ll get to it- read the whole way through 🙂

Today I went South.  I’ve explored a lot of Israel’s Center and North- with plenty more to discover.  And I’ve ventured a little south since making Aliyah to Ashdod.  Now was the time to learn about another region.

I hopped on the train and headed to Be’er Sheva.  It is a city actually mentioned in the Torah and there is a well there that according to tradition was dug by Abraham himself.  I wanted to visit but it’s one of the very few places in Israel you need to call in advance!

I visited the city market which was cool.  An amazing diversity of cultures that reminded me a lot of my neighborhood in Tel Aviv.  Just with less traffic and yelling 🙂

I went into an electronics store and asked in Arabic where I could buy Bedouin music.  For those who are wondering, Bedouin are substantially different in culture, language, and religiosity from many other Arabs in Israel.  Therefore, their music is different as well.

The young man made me a deal and custom burned me a CD with MP3’s of dahiyye music.  It’s basically happy Bedouin dance music- take a look.  Somewhat reminiscent of the dabke I’ve learned- but in the words of the Bedouin man: “that’s fellahi music”.  Fellahin were the villagers and farmers of the region- as opposed to the nomadic Bedouin.  Most Arabs in Israel today are descendants of Fellahin and have distinct dialects from the Bedouin, who speak a bit more like Fusha, the standard Arabic which was likely modeled after them.

I was then peppered with questions about why I wasn’t married.  Lest you think this is only a Bedouin phenomenon, it has been a frequent first question amongst Jews, other Arabs, even Samaritans here.  It is extremely difficult for me- as a queer person, as an American (where this is considered invasive), and a survivor of partner abuse.

Eventually I shrugged it off by saying I was new to the country and needed time to settle in.  Having gotten my Bedouin music, I decided to keep exploring.

I then came upon a bona fide music shack.  A shack because it looks like one.  And bona fide because this man knew his music.  No CD burning here.  He had hundreds of CDs.

I felt much more at ease here- Ahmed, also Bedouin, was gentle and friendly.  And never asked me about my marital status.  We bonded over Arabic music as he showed me tons of options.  Eventually I bought an Israeli Bedouin CD (with songs from both the North and the South), Syrian dialect music (that’s the one I speak!), and another Bedouin CD from a town near Be’er Sheva.  I personally find it miraculous to find Syrian-dialect music in a Bedouin shop in Be’er Sheva.  First off, most Arabic music is not recorded in Syrian, even when the artists are from there.  Egyptian tends to dominate.  In addition, ten years ago when I took my Syrian dialect class, I could never have imagined this scenario.  And I love it.  When the stars align, language and culture bring me closer to good people like Ahmed.

Be’er Sheva’s Jewish community is also very diverse.  Walking around, I found several Indian and Ethiopian Jewish stores.  There were tons of Russian signs.  I even found a sign publicizing a concert at a Tunisian synagogue from the famed isle of Djerba.  Around the corner from the beautiful mural in my cover photo- showing how the ancient and modern co-exist and feed off each other in this beautiful land.

I toured a bit of the Old City, which I hope to return to- in particular to see the Grand Mosque/Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures.  Like nearly everything in Israel, this place is not without its controversy.  An Ottoman-era building, the mosque is no longer used for prayer, although local Muslims would like to do so.  Instead, the city of Be’er Sheva wanted to turn it into a general museum.  The Israeli Supreme Court, perhaps weaving between the two, decided it could be a museum but it had to be dedicated to Islamic history.  I’m looking forward to visiting, being a fan of Islamic art and history, and would be happy to see it peacefully resume its role as a house of prayer.

Having the desire to see more Bedouin culture, I hopped on a bus and went to Rahat.  An entirely Bedouin city, it is a fantastic place to go to experience their culture.  Since it was already dark and my transportation options were dwindling to go back home (this can be a stressful part of spontaneous travel), I focused on my goal: food.  Before I sat down to eat, though, I met a wonderful young man named Mohammed who is studying English.  I had asked him for directions, one thing led to another, and we decided to stay in touch and exchange languages.  In particular, I’m dying to learn his Bedouin dialect.  And I can help him with English 🙂

I sat down to eat a feast.  This is not an exaggeration.  For 25 shekels, approximately $7.30, I got to eat this:


The picture doesn’t really do it justice- it’s huge.  I didn’t finish half the rice (chicken is buried in it)- and I was very hungry.  The bread is delightful- kind of like Druze pita i.e. nothing like the pita you’d find in a grocery store.  The full bowl of soup that came with it was tomato-ey, a little spicy, and delicious.  The rice kind of tasted like Biryani, for any of my fellow South Asian food fans.  And it was covered in peanuts, peas, veggies, and delicious sauce.  My doggy bag was enormous.

The people there were so kind.  I have to paint this picture for you- there are 0 Jews anywhere.  I can’t imagine many Jews come to Rahat to dine in one of the Arab restaurants that often sit at the footsteps of their villages for Jews to eat at without going “too far in”.  I could be wrong, maybe some come.  All I can say for sure is that when I was there, I was the only one around.  And a totally novel figure.

People were so curious to talk to me.  I was asked a million questions (fortunately nothing about marriage).  All of them kind and welcoming.  We mostly spoke in Arabic.  I asked them to teach me some Bedouin- they said I spoke fellahi! 🙂  We used a few Hebrew words but they truly loved to practice their English 🙂  People knew I was American, Jewish, and Israeli.  And I have to say, and this repeatedly shocks me, being American has been a huge plus to my travels in the Middle East.  Despite the fact that the American government has a very long history of bullying other countries, so many people here still love America.  Jews, Arabs- doesn’t matter.  It’s fascinating and frankly really encouraging.  It’s also a great way to disarm the people who are, in fact, suspicious of you, because I can play the innocent stranger.  To be fair, I pretty much am one 🙂

Before my sated self headed to the bus (and then an exceedingly long train ride because I missed the more direct train- note to self for next trip), a man grabs my phone and insists we take a selfie.  Apparently some concepts are universal:


As I headed to the bus, a man asked me what languages I spoke.  One of them is Yiddish.  And in a moment that you couldn’t even dream of in the wildest of scenarios, the Bedouin man tells me there’s a guy in their town…who speaks Yiddish.  In shock and amazement, I asked why.  He said that the man, back in the day when Yiddish was more widely spoken here, learned it just as he did every common tongue in the area.  My grin, inside and out, could not have been bigger.

In pure cultural ecstasy, I headed home on a very slow train.  With a lot of time to digest a rich and exciting day.

Intercultural exploration and communication can be very challenging.  One does not come out of the womb with the skills necessary to make it happen- even if you may have some characteristics that help.  I’ve spent my whole life communicating across cultures.  From the my early years in Japan to my schooling in Maryland with so many immigrant friends to my work for refugee rights to the dozen or so languages I’ve studied (8 or 9 of which I can currently speak).  None of this happened by osmosis nor just because I have “an ear” for it.  I do have an ear for it- but just like a concert violinist doesn’t magically pick up a bow and play a concerto, I have honed these skills over years of practice and joy.

Today is the kind of day I’m proud to call myself a cultural explorer.  One who learns, who tries new things, who makes people smile, who grows, who creates, who makes the world a better place.

If you’re looking for new adventure, the world is your backyard.  And your backyard just may have a Bedouin Yiddish speaker.

Russian Jews 101

Depending on how you count, there are about 900,000-1.5 million Russians in Israel.  I’ve explored many cultures in Israel and this one is next on the list.  I was initially hesitant to explore Russian culture in Israel.  First of all, I felt it was not particularly Jewish or Middle Eastern (we’ll explore how I’ve changed my mind).  Second of all, I felt Russian was a language of oppression.  I remember stories told in my family of ancestors who fled from there (because- and this is a crucial point- I’m also a Russian Jew just several generations back).  Ancestors who felt the Russian language, Russian rule, and Russian anti-Semitism was forced on them.  Because it often was.  Most Russian Jews, several generations back, were Yiddish speakers- just like in the U.S.

So on some level I felt guilt about learning Russian.  I knew that in fact Russian had become one of the most widely spoken languages amongst Jews – I grew up with many Russian Jewish friends.  As a teen, I learned a bunch of their slang and unique sense of humor.  My suburb of Washington accepted thousands of post-Soviet refugees.  I also felt that Russian was a harsh language, a language of stern people with no smiles.  And one with not so great cuisine.

These stereotypes are rooted in fact or personal experience.  Russia has an exceedingly bad record when it comes to anti-Semitism, which is why many more Russian Jews live outside Russia than in.  I also can’t help but wonder if the Cold War – which technically was still going on when I was a young child (I remember maps with the Soviet Union) – influences the way I perceive Russia.  To this day, the U.S. and Russia are embroiled in conflict and it is actually one of the few countries where it is easier for me to travel on an Israeli passport than an American one.

So the conundrum of me learning Russian is this- the 1.5 million Israelis (largely Jewish or married to Jews, though some not) who speak it are the ones who also fled these problems.  In other words, if I want to explore this culture (which is so rich- for many years I enjoyed exploring Russian art in D.C.), I need to learn the language that many of our persecutors spoke.  And that many Russian Jews today speak as well.  It’s the language of anti-Semites, it’s a language of Communist Jews (who were quite prominent), it’s the language of Tolstoy, it’s the language that influenced so much Yiddish and even Israeli folk songs.  And it’s the language of millions of people I don’t know yet- and who maybe aren’t all as prejudiced today as I’ve been taught.

In other words, complex.  So how did I get to a point where I want to learn Russian – and about Russian culture (here and in the Motherland)?

Oddly enough, Greek.  Over Christmas, I went to Cyprus.  I’ve long been a fan of Greek language, music, history, and food.  So I started learning the language.  And interestingly enough, once you can read Greek, you’re well on your way to reading Russian.  You can thank Saint Cyril for that 🙂 .  So when I got back to Israel and I noticed several identical letters in Russian on signs (because Russian is everywhere here), I started learning the alphabet.

Once I’m hooked on a language, everything else falls into place.  I’ve started listening to Russian music, buying Russian books (there are a lot of them in Israel!), and ultimately meeting Russians 🙂  And it turns out, some of them smile, some of them are Jews, some of them are really cute!, some of them like to dance (like the woman in the bookstore who put on a CD for me and started wiggling!).  In other words, the stern babushka who scolds and never smiles- I’m sure someone is like that, but like most images, this is merely a snapshot and not daily reality.

Which gets us to the word Russian.  In Israel, what exactly does that mean?  Well, it’s a bit complex (which will also bring us to the food question!).  As Israeli Sabras are not known for their nuance, “Russian” here tends to mean anyone who speaks Russian or whose family came from a post-Soviet republic.  Well, guess what?  That’s Belorussians, Lithuanians, Georgians, Bukharians (Central Asia), Latvians, Ukrainians- and so many more.  In some cases, Jews who have completely different cultures and delightfully delicious cuisines.  In some cases, Jews who only speak Russian as a second language.  In some cases, people who the Israeli government doesn’t even consider Jewish.  And in some cases, people who the Russian government wouldn’t consider ethnically Russian.  In short, the word “Russian” in Israel doesn’t tell you much.  Which is why it’s important to learn about this community in more depth.

Much like Russian Israelis are actually an incredibly diverse array of cultures, so too is Russia.  There are 25 *official* languages in Russia.  Most people are Orthodox Christians or secular.  And there are also about 10-14 million Muslims.  700,000 Buddhists.  And 1.7 million are pagans or shamans!  The latter a word I might associate with Native Americans more than Russians.

And importantly for me- there are a ton of direct flights to Russia from Tel Aviv.  I hope to take one one day, perhaps with a new Russian-Israeli friend.

My ancestors who came to America from today’s Lithuania and Latvia/Belarus- they were listed often as Russian because it was part of the Russian Empire.  Their relationship with the predominant culture and language were complex- sometimes a source of incredible hardship and also a source of richness.

What I’ve come to realize about Russian Jews in Israel (and I define the term broadly unlike the bureaucrats in the Chief Rabbinate) is that when I’m learning about their culture, I’m not learning about China or India or Bolivia.  All places I love where my ancestors probably never stepped foot.  When someone recently asked me if I was Russian, I paused for a second and said “yes”!  Because I am.  It’s just that my family had the good fortune of escaping to America.  But we are from the same place.  When I speak to a Russian Jew here, I’m speaking to a long lost cousin.

When I arrived to Israel and discovered the dearth of Jewish food I was raised on, I scrambled to find whitefish salad.  In a land filled with falafel stands being eaten by people whose grandparents largely didn’t know what the food was, I couldn’t find a bona fide Jewish spread!  Someone suggested I go to a Russian grocery store.  I did- and the woman behind the counter smiled.  She was Russian and her Polish grandma would prepare such a salad.  She walked around the counter and brought it to me.

It looked like whitefish salad, with the same texture, yet it had a bit of a tang to it.  Interesting- not quite what I was hoping for, but a good find.  Similar, yet not quite the same.

This is how I feel about Russian Jews.  We come from the same place, our foods are similar, our cultures are similar.  And we’ve spent some time apart- them in the Soviet Union, me in America.  And now we’re back together here in Israel.  Getting to know each other.  Sometimes over whitefish, sometimes over kebabs, sometimes at a Yiddish musical in Tel Aviv reminiscing about our shared civilization.

Perhaps to the chagrin of Israel’s founders, many of whom fled Russia and their Russian identities, coming to Israel is reconnecting me with mine.  And who knows the amazing places it’ll take me spiritually, culturally, and physically.

My cover photo is of a 1986 book- from the year I was born – “A Dictionary of Cybernetics and Applied Mathematics”.  Published in Communist Russia at a time when our countries were still at odds, it’s a bilingual book to help Russians learn English vocabulary.  I bought it (for 3 shekels!) because of what it represents.  Sometimes, changes are happening that you could never imagine.  And someone, somewhere, is learning about you in a place you’d least expect.  That conflict is neither interminable nor inevitable.

And that one day, an American Jew would renew his hope via an old book in a Tel Aviv bus station because he’s starting to learn the Russian his ancestors spoke.  And that his neighbors speak now.

To recall a phrase an old Russian friend from the U.S. taught me: Отлично.  Awesome 🙂