The Birthright to be Jewish

Recently I had the blessing to lead a Birthright trip.  When I was 18, I went on my first trip to Israel.  At age 13, after my Bar Mitzvah, I decided to learn Modern Hebrew with a private tutor.  It’s not a step most teenagers take, let alone on their own initiative.

I fell in love with the country.  A country I had not yet been to, but a culture so alluring, so filled with life that I went by myself to a Sarit Hadad concert in suburban Maryland as a high schooler.  And loved it.

My own Birthright experience as a participant was mixed.  My tour guide was pretty right-wing and the group of people on my trip were so wild that they hooked up in front of the rest of the group…multiple times.  It was not my scene.

What I did love was Israel itself.  The landscapes, the history, the smells, the food, the Judaism, the curious nature of a country halfway around the planet somehow tied to those Hebrew lessons I took every week for three years in Maryland.

This time, the tables were flipped.  Whereas once I was an engaged participant, this time I was a leader.  While as a teenager and college student I had been an avid community organizer and counselor at various summer camps and activist institutes, it had been a long time since I had led a group of people.  I work in communications and public relations, but corralling a group of 50 college students with only two other staffers is a challenge.  At age 33.

The first few days were exhausting.  Between the jet lag, the hectic pace, being in a completely new social structure with nobody I knew, and the heavy responsibility of watching out for dozens of people’s lives, I was exhausted.  And frankly, not having a very good time.

All that changed with Shabbat.  The trip came to a slow, gentle pause as we joined the country in resting and reflecting.  As I had many times before in other places, I led the group in Kabbalat Shabbat services, a challenging and exciting opportunity given the very diverse backgrounds of the participants.  Some of them had never observed Shabbat before.

But what was so amazing, and indeed is the magic of Jewish wisdom and tradition, is how it completely transformed both the group and the trip for me.  Physically, we had a chance to practice the self care our bodies desperately needed.  No hikes, no bus rides, no planes.  Just rest.

Spiritually, we had a chance to come together as a new community.

One thing I mentioned to my participants at the end of our trip (by which time we really had become a loving, kind, tight-knit group of people who I really miss) was the difference between an experience and a community.  An experience is something that ignites, that binds people together in a moment.  Birthright is definitely that and I highly recommend going if you haven’t had the chance to yet.

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A community, however, is something deeper and more long-term.  It is a valley filled with overlapping emotions, care, and responsibility.

It’s something that only happened for me once we had a chance to celebrate Shabbat.

Because Shabbat is not a place, is not an attraction, is not a sight to see.  It is a time to behold the spirit and to feel its presence in our selves and in those around us.

That is what I saw happen on Shabbat.  A group of 50 thoughtful college students started to share their inner feelings and ideas with each other.  They started to look more at each other than at their phones.  And I started to feel more connected to them as they made themselves vulnerable talking about their families, the complexity of intermarriage, their Jewish values, and so much more.

What started as a moment in time became the seed of a growing community.  A community that initially I felt I was responsible for.  But eventually stood in awe as it became responsible for itself.  For each other.  Even for me.

This is the magic of Judaism.  Judaism is not a thing you can touch nor buy.  It is something you can practice anywhere at any time.  Even just by sharing an act of kindness.

It is something you have to do to make real.

At least if you live outside Israel.

What is so special about Israel is that by experiencing life in a majority-Jewish country, you don’t have to do Jewish.  You can simply be Jewish.  The nature of the place is that the street signs carry the names of famous rabbis, the boulevards of Jewish heroes.  The Hebrew language is plastered on every pizzeria and we hold our fate in our own hands with the ability and responsibility of having an army to protect ourselves.

That is the nature of Judaism in Israel.  You don’t need to do anything to feel Jewish- it’s just around you all the time.  The degree to which you engage it is up to you, but the holidays and culture will happen whether you participate or not.  It’s a miracle of the complicated and sometimes fraught ideology we call Zionism.  That for all its varying shades, victories, and failures is ultimately the only ideology that successfully found a way for people to simply exist as a Jew by virtue of being one.  And to succeed to passing that unique state of being on to future generations.

If my words are unclear, think about it this way.  If you want to be Jewish in America, you can certainly choose to identify as a Jew and do nothing to actively pursue that identity.  However, that identity will ultimately not find any manifestation in your day-to-day life unless you act on it.  Lighting Shabbat candles, learning about the Holocaust, studying Jewish texts, having Jewish friends- these are some of a myriad of ways in which you can “do Jewish” in the Diaspora.  And if you don’t find some way to do so, Judaism as a faith, tradition, and culture will not be a visible part of your life.

So the gift (and challenge) of Israel (and of Birthright) is the uniqueness of Judaism in this place.  Israel allows Jews to exist as Jews while doing nothing (consciously) Jewish.  It is the only place on the planet where all schools shut down for Jewish holidays and you feel the presence of Shabbat by the absence of buses on the roads every Friday night.  Whether you like it or not, or whether you pray or not.  You’re a Jew.

So I want to share a special message with my Birthright participants (Bus 354 woo woo olé!) and with the secular Israelis who move to the States and with Jews in America looking for a way to engage.

My message is you have to do Jewish to be Jewish.  Unless you live in Israel, Judaism won’t happen for us the way it did on Birthright.  It’s something I’m sure you’ll miss when you go back home and it’s truly a special experience to walk the streets of Jerusalem emptied of cars on a Saturday afternoon.

The good news is your Judaism doesn’t have to stop there.  Obviously it’s great to go back to Israel and there are many ways to do so, including subsidized programs through MASA.  Explore in more depth.  Learn about the complexity of Israel, including its diverse non-Jewish communities such as the Druze, Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Circassians, Bedouin, and more.  The tent we stayed at in the desert is only a meager taste of what these amazing communities have to offer.

But also take Judaism with you in your own way.  It could be choosing to put your phone on airplane mode for a few hours on Shabbat to get that feeling of mindfulness you got during our trip.  It could be taking a stroll with a friend in nature.  It could be finding time to catch up with friends from the trip, keeping our newfound community alive.  It could be learning about Jewish history or music or news or visiting a museum.

It also could mean plugging into your local Jewish community.  Places like Hillel on campus, Moishe House after you graduate, or the dozens of organizations and synagogues in your local Jewish Federation– these are places where you can find fellow Jews to connect with wherever you are.  And get that feeling of togetherness we had on our trip.

My greatest hope for you and for all Jews outside Israel is to see that the magic of Judaism doesn’t have to stop at Israel’s borders.  Although it will never be exactly the same and there is something so unique and special about the spontaneous Judaism that happens there.

The spirit of Shabbat and of Jewish life that you experienced is all around us if you access it.

Take the moment, take the experience, and build it into a community.  A community of our bus, of our friends, of our people.  And let it nourish you now and for many years to come.

Amen.  Miss you guys 🙂

Gratitude

Gratitude is not an easy concept when you’ve been through a lot of hard experiences.  I’m not someone who falls for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “it happened for a reason” ideas.  Some people find those valuable, and from time to time I suppose I can too, but I don’t think it’s a useful organizing principle.  What doesn’t kill you can still hurt and wound you and create painful consequences.  Everything “happens for a reason” but I don’t necessarily buy that it was preordained nor that good can only come out of evil or harm.  Something bad doesn’t have to happen in order for good experiences to be enjoyed later.  If it’s something you’ve come to the conclusion of, then that’s fine.  It’s not for everyone or for every experience- and certainly not an idea to push on others feeling pain.

Gratitude is a difficult but important concept.  And two stories come to mind when I think of the ways in which I’m fortunate.

One time in Belgium I felt someone else’s gratitude open my heart.  I was in the village of Dinant in the French-speaking region of Wallonie.  I had dreamed of going to Belgium for years.  I love tiny countries, especially multilingual ones like Belgium, and it’s a great place to speak French.

I was trying to get directions somewhere and I asked this older woman for help in French.  She gruffly pointed and told me where to go.  It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.  As any solo traveler knows, relying on locals for help and kindness is a crucial part of making your adventure a success- and feeling good.  And I wasn’t very happy with how she treated me.

My French is quite good, so I thought perhaps she thought I was a tourist from France, and maybe Belgium and France have some sort of rivalry.  Maybe she was old and miserable and in a bad mood.  I really wasn’t sure- I just knew I didn’t really want to be around her, so I made my way up a funicular to the top of a cliff to see the town from above.

It was a beautiful, beautiful place.

After chatting with some other tourists, I made my way down.  And who did I see at the bottom of the cable car?  The grumpy woman.

She approached me, perhaps feeling guilty for her rude behavior earlier, and we chatted for a moment in French.  She pointed me towards an interesting village she had mentioned earlier.  And asked where I was from.

While during my travels I sometimes vary in whether I say American, Israeli, or both, this time I decided to say American.

And her eyes lit up.

She thanked me.  Thanked me?  For what, you might ask?  She is from a generation of Belgians that remembers the sacrifices Americans made to protect their country in both World War I and World War II.  Sacrifices like those of my great uncle Barney.  For those who don’t know, Belgium was a battleground in both- and large parts of its countryside laid desolate and decimated.  The graveyards are still present to this day, often flanked by American and British flags.

Her gratitude was palpable.  It was a beautiful moment, one which I totally didn’t expect.  Traveling as an American or Israeli abroad is often tricky, especially in Europe where both logical and deeply illogical negative reactions abound.  Before I have a chance to share who I am as a person.

In this case, I felt nothing but love.  It was this immediate bond and I thanked her for her kind words.  She then, like a cute little grandma, made sure I knew exactly how to get to the next village and even followed me for a bit just to help.

It’s stories like these that make you realize the power of a word.  Her gratitude made my day so much better.  I’m thankful for people like her, willing to open their hearts to a stranger.

Stranger is one of the most repeated words of the Torah, for those who don’t know.  The commandment to welcome the stranger is so incredibly present in the text.  And Jews, as one of the most mobile people on the planet, have often been treated as “the other”.  As strangers, sometimes even centuries after our arrival.

Which makes my second story all the more important.

I found myself in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  I hadn’t really come to this country for its Jewish community- it numbers only 1,000 and its main historic synagogue which I wanted to visit was quite far from the capital city.  I really came to this country for its mountains- and mountains it really does have.  It’s the second greenest country by percentage of land covered in forest after Finland.

I spent about a week in Ljubljana and at this point in my journey, I started feeling a bit lonely.  Lonely not only because traveling alone can be hard, but also because I saw a Hitler salute in the middle of the town square.  While I wouldn’t want to suggest that most Slovenians are anti-Semitic, the experience of seeing a teenage boy dabble in Nazism in front of my face at noon in the town square was horrifying.  While in the end I didn’t feel physically unsafe, I certainly felt alone and kind of sad.

Which led me to seek out Jewish community.

I googled and found the local Jewish museum.  Being originally from D.C., I think of the Smithsonian or other large institutions when I hear the word.  After traveling to other countries (and other American cities), I realize how lucky I was to grow up with such a dazzling institution for free at my doorstep.

Because this museum was a simple two room set up.  The size of an apartment.  Yet its power is much greater than its size.

In a country with only 1,000 Jews, the most prominent message displayed in this little space was one of tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

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It really astounded me.  I think if I lived in such a small community, while I would want positive relations with my neighbors (who in some cases collaborated with Nazis- so not an easy feat), my focus would be on Jewish continuity.  I would probably double down on building strong Jewish-centric institutions.

Yet this museum managed to find a delicate and thoughtful balance between introspection and outward engagement.  There were old relics of Torah scrolls and ritual objects and histories of the Jewish community.  Right alongside the very active programming the center does to engage the broader Ljubljana community in educating not only about Jews, but generally building a cultural of tolerance for all.  It’s a complex and nuanced approach to Jewish community that far exceeds the size of the building.  It’s one that much larger communities continue to grapple with- where does the particular intersect with the universal- if at all?

All of which made me feel both impressed and grateful.  Impressed at how this tiny community had taken such a small space and turned it into a meaningful educational endeavor.  At their resourcefulness and at their interconnectedness.  All in the space of two rooms.  You don’t need fancy equipment or huge fundraisers to make a difference- you need willpower and a strong moral fiber more than anything else.

My gratitude goes to the Jewish Museum of Ljubljana for reminding me of this lesson.  And it made me even more grateful to be part of the two largest Jewish communities in the world- America and Israel- where we have so many resources to explore our identity and pass it on to the next generation.  Something we should not take for granted.

To be part of these communities is a privilege that some Jews don’t enjoy.  Some Jews have fewer members of our tribe in their country than live in just one American suburb or an Israeli kibbutz.  Yet, as the Jews of Ljubljana show, it is possible even with such a small, dedicated group of people to make a difference in the world.

May they continue to remind me, and all of us, of the power of one.  Of the power of a small group.  Of the spirit of the Jewish people.  And, in the case of the woman from Belgium, the power of just one word to change someone’s day: thanks.

Dialoguing in the face of hopelessness

Let’s face it- things look dire when you read the news lately.  North Korea this, Iran that, the Middle East generally speaking a mess.  Democrats who won’t speak to Republicans who won’t speak to Democrats who won’t speak to moderates who won’t speak to liberals.  It’s a dizzying and dismaying amount of isolation and siloing of society.

A friend recently messaged me upset about this breakdown in communication.  A liberal herself, she found it frustrating when she met people on her own side of the aisle who refused to recognize the humanity of those who disagreed with them.  That while some people clearly lie outside the pail of rational debate, there is room for disagreement in a democratic and pluralistic society.  And that if we resort to the tactics of extremists on the other side, what do we, in the end, become?

To this end, I’d like to share a story.

I found myself in need of an adventure.  And my adventure begins with Yiddish.  Yiddish is a Jewish language I speak, the language my own ancestors have used on a daily basis for countless generations.  A mishmosh (a Yiddish word itself!) of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, Old French, medieval German, Polish, Russian, and more- it is a mixed language much like English.  Enriched by its various components.  It allows for a degree of nuance.  For instance, the word in Yiddish for an acquaintance is “froynd” (“friend” in German), whereas a close friend is a khaver, which means friend in Hebrew.  It indicates a lot about the society Yiddish speakers lived in and how social and familial ties developed.  As did persecutions.

So Yiddish, for all its various components, is probably about 70% comprised of medieval Germanic words (words which occasionally differ in meaning from their Modern German counterparts, but bear a strong similarity).  Pennsylvania Dutch, as the famous scene from The Frisco Kid goes, is remarkably similar to Yiddish.  As a pre-standardized form of German passed down from generation to generation here in the U.S., I’ve found it rather comprehensible to me.  I tested my theory out by speaking Yiddish to an Amish woman in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia- she smiled from ear to ear and responded back in Pennsylvania Dutch.  She said she had heard of similarities between the languages and you could tell she was tickled to find out it was true.  As was I 🙂 .

A few weeks later, I hopped on a train to Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish heartland.  I went to another market and tried out my Yiddish while buying some whoopie pies (a delightful cream-filled dessert made by the Amish- they are really good at making dessert!).  Some young women smiled and liked chatting with me.  A few didn’t speak Pennsylvania Dutch, but were nonetheless happy to see me reaching out to learn and share about our shared cultural heritage.

And one woman was just mean.

After buying her decidedly delicious whoopie pies and complimenting her on them, I tried out my Yiddish-Amish experiment.  Her response was to tell me a story about a Jewish woman she knew who she used to call a “dummer yud”.  That’s German for “dumb Jew”.

Dumb-founded, I didn’t know what to say.  I tried to ask her why she would use such a mean phrase, even about a woman she may not have liked.  She simply smiled, my religious or social or emotional arguments completely ignored.

I left deflated.

This dichotomy explains the rough terrain we’re operating in today.  Especially when it comes to dialoguing across cultures.  Faced with mistrust, I understand the impulse to protect yourself.  It’s actually a positive one because we all deserve safety and to be treated with respect.

It can also be a negative one if taken to an extreme.  If I don’t ever make myself vulnerable, then I won’t see moments of light, like when the young woman smiled from ear-to-ear in the market while I spoke Yiddish.  The first time she had ever heard my language or experienced my culture.

And if I always make myself vulnerable- or hadn’t distanced myself from the mean anti-Semitic woman- well, then I won’t be particularly happy or self-fulfilled.

This is the great challenge of communicating in a time of deep polarization.  It’s not easy and I’m always learning and re-learning my boundaries and trying to protect myself while putting myself out there.  Because if we never take risks, we never reap rewards.  For ourselves or for those lives we could touch with compassion and kindness.

So be the voice of love.  When in a group of like-minded people, offer a word of kindness about “the other”.  Whether that other be a Republican or a Democrat, a Muslim or a Jew, an atheist or a religious person, an African American or a white straight cis-man from Appalachia.  We are people.  It doesn’t mean all ideas fly or should be accepted as true.  It means that we ultimately share a lot in common with more people than we think- and should take advantage of that to build more compassion in our society.

If there is a solution to our polarization, perhaps it lies in each of us stepping just enough outside our comfort zones to provide some meaningful contact with people of different backgrounds.  Even some backgrounds that could make us feel scared- sometimes justifiably, sometimes maybe surprising us with their kindness.  Or a combination of both.

And it lies in being understanding.  Having spoken with five or six different Amish people in Yiddish and gotten positive or neutral reactions from all but one of them, I am better able to see nuance.  So that instead of sitting only with the “dumb Jew” comment (which should, nonetheless, be noted to protect myself), I can also recall the smiles of the young women touched by my actions.

As I left Lancaster filled with whoopie pies, I felt a dash of hope.  A hope I wish for all of you.  That nuance need not mean being neutral, nor negating our fears or feelings.  But that stepping outside and adventuring and getting to know our neighbors as equals- that is a true step towards happiness and wholeness.  For us, and for the greater society we share.

The Donald- and other people whose names begin with D

In the year and a half since starting this blog, I have never used Donald Trump’s name for the title of a post.  Knowing full-well that more people would click on the post, I still resisted.  First off, because I think there are more interesting, textured things in the world to talk about.  And secondly, because…basically the first point.  Enough people are kicking and screaming (in both directions) about this one individual that I decided that when I did comment on him, it’d be in the context of a post.  Not the title.

Until today.

Being in America now has been odd.  On the one hand, it’s been great.  America is a very calm place compared to Israel, and indeed much of the world.  It has nothing close to the level of crime of Latin America and not nearly the level of terrorism that you see in the Middle East.  If you’re American and reading this and tempted to say “of course, but…”, realize how lucky you are.  If you’ve never lived through an air raid siren or personally grown up in a favela, you’re doing better than most of the world.  And shouldn’t take it for granted.  Stop whining.

On the other hand, America is a rough transition.  I know I said stop whining, but indulge me for a moment.  Israel, for all its faults, is home to a very direct yet flexible culture.  People say what they think, which is refreshing.  Even if sometimes you wish people would say less.  In addition, people find creative solutions.  The end result is much, much more important than the formalities of the process.  And while sometimes, in excess, that leads to abuse (like the lack of rental protections for apartments), at its best it means creativity and even empathy.

To give an example.  I was on the train the other day.  Oddly enough, some trains in America still use paper tickets you buy on board.  I bought a ticket from a station to one about 15 minutes away.  First off, it costs $5, which is absurd.  Then I realize that I needed to go one more stop.  One stop.  The conductor comes over and says I need to buy a whole new ticket.  I showed him my prior ticket and asked if I could just pay the difference.  His response:

“Now that we’ve passed the other station, your ticket is invalid.  You need to buy a new one.”

No matter the irrationality of the rule (I was going one extra stop and clearly hadn’t been on this train before), he stuck to it.  And charged me another $5.  To go one stop.

This hyper awareness of rules- and their enforcement- is part of what makes it easier to understand boundaries in America.  And to protect yourself.

It’s also what makes this place dull and heartless at times.

In Israel, I’ve found myself at countless train stations where my card didn’t work or I bought the wrong ticket and the people simply let me in.  I have never, ever been fined anything.  The assumption in Israel is that you’re well-intentioned until you prove otherwise.  I feel the assumption in America is the rules are the rules and if you didn’t know them or broke them, you pay the price.  For better and worse.

There’s a rigidity to this place that is both calming and deeply irritating.  I know how the rules work, and I’m angry that they never bend when they should.

As I’m in the States for the time being, I’ve also done a little looking for sublets.

My inclination is to live by myself (re-adjusting to life here and healing from 30 years of trauma is hard enough without tacking on a roommate relationship to manage).  But given both my budget and my need for flexibility, I figured I wouldn’t rule out a roommate.

I found a neat ad on Craigslist.  Mostly furnished place, ready for move-in now.  I emailed with the guy, seemed reasonable.  Talked on the phone, and also no red flags.  I headed over.

I was in for a surprise.

First off, Mark had a huge American flag in his living room.  Nothing alarming, but a bit odd.  I can’t remember ever seeing one in previous apartments I had lived in.

Then, Mark tells me he dresses up in cammo and does some sort of military reenactments with his friends.  Something akin to paintball, I didn’t quite catch the name.

A bit off the beaten path, but he was being open about it and didn’t want me to be alarmed when I saw him all decked-out.  To each his own.

Mark was also excited that I was Israeli.  He himself was half Jewish and his landlord was in the IDF.  I was already rather nervous coming back to the States.  Especially liberal areas where I’ve spent most of my life, where Israel has become a curse word.  Rather than a country with its ups and downs like all others.  So that was refreshing- check that box off the list.

When I mentioned I was also gay, he said something to the effect of he’s too busy to care what other people do and he has lived with gay roommates in the past.  All right- not a super answer, but an offensive one either, as best I could tell.

Then came the kicker.

He showed me his assault rifle.

I really didn’t know what to say.

Those of you who know me know I’m probably one of the most adventurous people out there.  I have friends from every background- yes, including Republicans.  But this was…new.

I told him as much.  He told me he wanted to show me to be up front with me and it was just a hobby- or to shoot intruders.  The last part added like kind of a side note, that later flashed brightly in front of me.  The red flag slowly starting rising.

I told him I don’t drink.  Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m a sober alcoholic- I haven’t drunk in years.  So while I don’t mind being around people who drink, it has to be in moderation and no loud parties in my apartment.  Or people pressuring me for not drinking.

He said he was a “one beer after work” kind of guy and rarely held parties.  A kind of reasonable sentiment, until I started looking around.  A quick glance in the living room revealed some 12 large bottles of liquor.  In the kitchen, more.  In the refrigerator, beer vodka vodka beer.

I started to realize that while Mark was a rather soft spoken and actually quite flexible person (he was even willing to switch rooms if it was quieter for me), he was deeply unaware of himself.  And if the small Trump sticker on his bulletin board didn’t seal the deal, his assault rifle meters away from his alcohol did.

I left.

Let’s take things in the other direction.

I recently found myself at a university library.  One of the staff members was a cute young gay guy.  We found ourselves chatting and I mentioned something about living in Tel Aviv and my passion for Jewish history.  He seemed excited about the latter, yet the conversation quickly turned to politics.  I can’t remember the exact sequence of events, but it ended up there.

Using the most polite, sophisticated words he waxed about the fragility of American democracy, the threat of social media to mankind, the glories of the midterm elections, and you can basically discern the rest.  It was like an NPR story had sex with the Liberty Bell.  And all the beautifully crafted words basically could be summarized as this: Republicans are evil, Democrats are America’s last hope, and woe to our country.  Trump is the anti-Christ.  We’re truly disintegrating into oblivion.

While I admit I agree with some of his sentiments, I don’t identify with such a black-and-white worldview.  I wondered whether my nuance would stand here as tall as it stood in Israel, and while I’m not yet sure of its height, stand it does.

Because while I probably vote 90% the same way as this man, our worldviews feel quite distant.  When I told him about problems in other countries, he almost seemed surprised.  As if America’s woes were number one.  Everywhere else must be easier.

Except that’s ridiculous.  For all the issues here (and there are real ones- healthcare, mass shootings, etc.), this country is pretty well off.  It’s one of the richest, safest places on the planet.  What’s odd here is that the people complaining the most, the people most absorbed by their angst, tend to be the most comfortable.  The highly educated, high-income crowd- just the one that went to Harvard instead of Vanderbilt.

Which leads me to an interesting story.

On New Year’s Eve I found myself alone at a hotel.  It was lonely.  Between the intense jet lag, the hours upon hours of travel, the job hunt, and the apartment hunt- I was tired.  I actually forgot it was New Year’s- it wasn’t high on my agenda.  And in Israel, it’s a minor day, so much like Thanksgiving, I didn’t feel it much there.

But here, I felt alone.  Everyone was dressed up or with friends, and I was in a new place by myself.  And while I like spending time with myself, the potency of the moment made my aloneness strike deeper.

I went for a stroll in the rain.

Coming back, I decided to do something that often lifts my spirits (and would be a nice lesson for the cute gay guy wallowing in his sorrow).  I decided to do something nice for someone else.

At the front desk of the hotel was a woman named Donna.  Donna is African-American, super friendly, and has been really supportive of me during my apartment/job/life search.  No matter what time of day I saw her, she had a big smile and a warm heart.

How warm of a heart, I was about to find out.

I didn’t have much to give.  My bank account is dry.  My possessions few- they all fit in my two suitcases.

So I sat down and made her a New Year’s card.  I got some colored markers and wrote her name in about 20 different languages.  And drew a pretty picture.

Then I gave her the card.  I told her how much it meant to me how supportive she had been this week.  And that it must suck to be working on New Year’s so I wanted to say thank you.

She was moved.  She thanked me and talked about why she loved working in a hotel.  That she enjoyed customer service- even if some of the customers were rough.  She had such a holistic attitude and resilience.  And you can see why she likes working with people- she’s a warm-hearted and outgoing person.

She asked what all the languages were and then told me she’d frame the picture with the new picture frames she got as a gift.

Then, Donna and I had a great three hour conversation.  About everything.  Donna lives in a part of town that does have real problems.  Gangs, violence, drugs.  She’s worried for her kids’ lives.  Including her daughter who was turning 16 that night.  And who Donna, being a fantastic mom, treated to a night at the hotel with all her cousins and friends.

I told Donna about my own challenges.  About living without my family.  About air raid sirens and bomb scares and my dwindling back account.  About being alone in so many ways.  In a new town, re-adjusting to life in a country I never thought I’d be in right now.

And she was deeply empathetic.

What was so remarkable is that she didn’t want to talk about Trump.  When I mentioned the nutsy guy with the assault rifle, she was compassionate towards me.  She thought he was nuts.  I mentioned he had a Trump sticker and that while I had all different types of friends, he kind of was a living caricature of his voters.  But the funny thing is that Donna didn’t bite.  While it’s hard to imagine her being a Trump voter (although it’s possible), she just didn’t care to get into a political discussion or a “woe is me” fiesta.

She kept commenting how crazy it was for him to have a gun next to alcohol and that she was glad I was looking for somewhere else.

As our marathon conversation drew to a close (along with some impromptu Destiny’s Child karaoke), I didn’t realize I was in for such a treat.

Her daughter came down, we all sang Happy Birthday, and she gave me some cake.

So I sat there, one Jewish guy and about 15 black kids in a hotel lobby.  Singing Happy Birthday- and feeling at home.  Realizing that home isn’t about self-pity and it’s not about a physical place.  It’s about a total stranger who welcomes you and makes you feel like you matter.

Donna is that kind of person.  Despite going through real, rather than imagined, hardships, she keeps her head up.  She’s self-aware- she knows the challenges facing her and her family.  But she has hope and resilience and knows that the problem is bigger than one person.  Even if I agree that that person (yes, Donald Trump) is obviously making most of America’s problems worse.

What struck me about Donna is that she was a naturally curious and welcoming person.  When I talked about Israel or Judaism or languages or D.C. or anything- she didn’t argue or judge.  She just cared.  And treated me like the human being I see her as.

Because what this country needs- what everyone needs- is not just a new political system nor a new leader.  Although Lord knows the way things are going won’t work.

What this country needs is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is love.

Not just for people who look, who pray, who think like you.  But for everyone.

And that doesn’t mean forfeiting your personal safety nor pretending that all ideas are equally valid.  After all, I didn’t end up rooming with the Trump supporter.  Alcohol and firearms are a bad idea, and even if I’d honestly be curious to learn more about his views over coffee, it’s nothing I’m going to risk in the place I call home.

What it means is just being a human being.

And what strikes me about being here is that my loyalties and identities are challenged from two poles.

On the one hand stand people like Mark, infatuated with a kind of preconceived notion of what Israel is.  As if we all walk around with Uzis and a ceaseless masculinity.  While it’s nice to feel accepted as an Israeli, it’s a one dimensional view of a complicated and interesting place with eight million different people.  A place where I spent so much time with Druze and Arabs and queer people.  The kind of people Mark doesn’t think of when he thinks of Zion.

On the other hand stand self-righteous but ultimately no less scary people like the library guy.  While he appeared to show deep interest in Judaism, it was only insofar as it related to his political agenda.  So he railed against right-wing anti-Semitism, but didn’t have anything to say about Israel.  His repeated silence in and of itself a kind of answer.  In fact, from the moment I sat down, I almost felt interrogated as to how much I agreed with him.  A kind of litmus test, perhaps a loyalty test that Jews have faced for centuries.  Am I one of the good Jews who embraces his politics?  Perhaps not his intention, but certainly how I felt.  Because while he was enthused to rail about gender and race and Trump and anti-Semitism, he had not a word to say about Israel even though I mentioned it multiple times.  A silence that speaks.

Basically, my identity, like in Israel, stands pulled in multiple directions.  My progressive, gay, culturally curious self veering towards the people who dislike me for being Israeli.  And my Israeli, assertive, not-always-left-wing nuance landing in bed with people like Mark who think that means I share an entire set of values.  Which I don’t.

So where does that leave me?

Torn, confused, tired, pleased (I did eat macaroni and cheese pizza today- God bless America).  Safe, scared, whole, calm, anxious.

The one thing reassuring in this process are some of the open-minded people I’ve met that show how great this country can be.  And how we can’t fall prey to the extremes who rest self-confident in their judgment of each other- and of all of us.

Waiting for the train the other day, my phone data was low, so I asked a guy for directions.  The young man, Dylan, is originally from the Philly area but now lives in Dallas.  He was equally lost but, in a move that is straight from an Israeli playbook, he walked with me to find the answer.

Dylan is a great guy.  I have no idea what his politics are- if I had to guess, he’s probably left-of-center.  Maybe similar to me.  Maybe not.  I really don’t know.  Which is the point.

Because Dylan opened his Google Maps, chatted with me, made me feel at home while lost.  Not because of my politics nor my Israeliness (or Americanness).  But because I was a fellow human being who was lost.  Because he is a nice, compassionate person.

So we ended up spending the train ride together.  And it was great.  He was intellectually curious, he listened to my stories from my travel (without jumping to conclusions or rushing to categorize what was progressive or not).  He basically was just a human being.

So if one thing gives me hope about America, it’s people like Dylan and Donna.  That while people are focused on Donald, there are other people whose names start with D worthy of talking about.  I’ll take Donna and Dylan over Donald.

That while there’s a time and a place to be angry and to rage.  And there’s a time to protect yourself (again, no assault rifles + alcohol).  There’s also a time to treat the people around you as people rather than voters.  As fellow travelers rather than someone who needs to be heading in the same direction as you.

As people you’re willing to help to find their way, even if it leads to a different station.

I miss Israeli directness.  I miss the creativity, the energy, the diverse cultures, the immense amount of things to do.

But I like American quiet sometimes.  And while the rules are a bit unruly, they sometimes serve a purpose.

And while the political extremes here have gotten much more extreme since I was last here, there is hope.

The hope that while our views matter, our shared humanity matters most.  And the unsung heroes of this country are the people who live out their values in their daily lives.  Without a reason to beg for praise or highlight their virtue.

The kind of people who invite you to their 16 year old daughter’s birthday party.  Or help you find your train station and make you feel welcome.

Because life is not about your destination.  Nor where you start.

And much like the rusty, overpriced train I took, it’s not about the vehicle.

It’s most of all about the direction.

May you find fellow travelers willing to help you get there.  And don’t be afraid to be the one to guide someone in need.  Not to the station of your choosing, but towards the hope they call home.

Wishing you a fulfilling New Year wherever you roam.  With people who light your path and lighten your burden.

p.s.- that’s me and Donna in the cover photo.  She says I’m her new BFF and we’re going karaokeing soon.  I can’t wait 😉

My first visit home

I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area.  Born in the city and raised in Suburban Maryland.  I went away for college, but found myself back in the area before immigrating to Israel a year and a half ago.  Out of my 32 years of life, I’ve spent at least 23 in this part of the world.

Because I grew up with a lot of abusive relatives, coming here wasn’t easy.  Since I moved to Israel, I haven’t been back.  In fact, when I chose to come visit the States a few months ago, I decided to go to California first because it would feel new.  And frankly, I had never been to the Bay Area and was curious.  You can read about my adventures on the West Coast here and here.

As circumstances would have it, I ended up back in the DMV, as some of us call it, this week.  It was a short visit, but a productive one.  Some things were hard– but empowering.  Some things were just hard.  And some things offered me a new perspective, a new appreciation for a place I was quite ready to leave not so long ago.

Here are some pictures from places that have filled my life with memories:

Some good, some bad, all a part of my life.

After an intense but meaningful reconnection with these deep memories, I decided I was in need of a good nosh.

Israeli food is interesting and quite delicious.  But it has basically nothing to do with the Jewish food I grew up with- unless you count some of the delicacies of Bnei Brak.

As a kid, every Sunday after Hebrew school, I went to “the deli”.  “The deli” because first off, this is a space, not a specific restaurant.  And secondly, because in this one tiny part of a Suburban Maryland shopping center, this Jewish deli has changed names and ownership about a half a dozen times in my childhood.  So calling it “the deli” just made sense.  The latest iteration of it is quite delicious, and I chowed down on my beloved whitefish salad, bagels, chocolate tops, dense American rugelach, a cheese omelette, and a poppyseed hamantaschen.  It was the best $25 I’ve ever spent:

The deli, in my view, is the most authentically Jewish space in America.  Whether my deli or someone else’s.  Because it’s a place where you bump into your neighbors, where you eat our food, where you seamlessly connect to Jewish culture, and where you see your American Jewish self represented.  It’s not for nothing you’ll find this deli covered in D.C. sports paraphernalia and Happy Chanukah signs- that’s what it means to be an American Jew.  And my heart felt as great as my stomach.

After some much needed soul food and reconnecting, I decided to go into the city.

Something really struck me about being in D.C. after a year and a half.  I’ve been going into the city since I was a kid.  And by the time I left, I was not particularly enamored with it.  There are downsides to living here- the endless politicking, the traffic, the dysfunctional metro, and the endless politicking.  Because yes, that’s worth mentioning twice.  It makes the vibe here a lot more “I’ll pencil you in” and a lot less “what are you doing tomorrow?”  The propensity for suits, for business cards- it’s not very me.

But what is very me is the beauty of this city.  Something I really didn’t feel when I left.  But even after having visited some astonishingly gorgeous cities in Europe and Israel, I think D.C. holds its own.  The historic homes, the courthouses, the museums, the monuments- there is a beauty to the architecture here.  It is an astonishingly clean city- especially after having trudged through the grossness that is Tel Aviv in the rain.  Even the Washington Monument and Capital building just seemed prettier than I remembered.

Another fascinating aspect of this area is how diverse it is.  You can find so many different races, religions, languages, and cultures.  And all the delicious food that accompanies them.  Melded together, mixed in a way that few countries manage to do.  Because when I’m outside America, I miss Thai food, I miss Chinese, I miss grilled cheese, I miss pizza.  Because for me, they’re all my food.  American food.  Because the beauty of America is its amorphousness.  I can feel that all of this is American because there’s no hard line dividing the Thai food I’ve eaten almost weekly (this week, twice!) since I was a teenager.  It’s a part of my American experience because the swirling stew of cultures is what it means for me to be from here.  As are my friendships with my friends from every background imaginable.  It’s not for nothing I actually keep in touch with my favorite Thai restaurant and send them pictures from my travels.  And they were so excited to see me and give me huge hugs!  It’s a reminder that home is not a physical space- at least not for me.  It’s a feeling of warmth and love and someone happy to see you.

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Feeling the urge for a little adventure, I called my friend Monica.  While America doesn’t have quite the same ruggedness or excitement for me as traveling in the Middle East or Europe, there are quirky things here.  One of them is the Mormon Temple, a huge edifice that looks like Disney World.  I’ve passed it probably hundreds of times in my life on the highway but never visited.  So I decided I should try something new on this trip back home and stop by.

And it was a strange but edifying and informative experience.

It’s worth its own blog post, but basically I learned a lot.  Mormonism, in case you didn’t know, is basically an American-grown religion.  Although the church itself sees it as a continuation of the Judaic tradition stretching back centuries.  And a certain fondness for Jews as a result.

Long story short, it was persecuted by other Christian denominations (some of whom view it as not Christian at all), until it made its way to Utah.  A state which is now dominated by the faith.  Which eventually became a global one, with the missionary zeal to match.

I had gone to high school with a couple Mormons, but didn’t know much about the faith.  Other than that Americans love to make fun of it.  I can’t imagine a musical called “The Torah” or “The Quran” would be particularly well-received by Jews or Muslims.  But “The Book of Mormon” delights audiences with laughs around the world.  And while I haven’t seen the play, it does seem like a bit of a double standard, and perhaps not fair to make an entire religion fodder for laughter.

Apparently the term “Mormon” is sometimes seen as derogatory- they are “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.  But until a better, shorter acronym is developed, I’m going to use it and preface it by saying I’m not intending it to be derogatory, simply a much shorter way of saying things on a blog.

I met several young missionaries- or “sisters”.  We talked for hours.  We talked a lot about Judaism- they knew some about it, but I shared more.  I certainly wasn’t trying to convert them (Jews don’t do that- note to those Christians and Muslims who think religion is about converting everyone else- that’s called supremacism).  But I was trying to share about myself as much as I was trying to learn about them, and have an entertaining and free evening.  It should be noted that since the religion is highly evangelical, everything is free.  I got free postcards and even a Mayan language Book of Mormon.  Because when you want to convert everyone, you need to learn their language.  Not my ideal use of language learning, but it does produce some interesting results, like a closet full of multilingual books.  Even different versions in Western and Eastern Armenian dialects.  A kind of polyglot paradise.  Also they have amazing Christmas lights:

In the interest of me getting some sleep tonight, I’ll leave it at this.  Mormonism, after a two or three hour long discussion with three missionaries, is an interesting faith.  The missionaries’ zeal was apparent- and the fundamentalism real.  No amount of smiles and kind words can change the fact that it was quite clear that they think they are right, and everyone else is lacking happiness for not being like them.  It’s a sad way to view the world.

That being said, I think there are some things to note.  First off, missionaries don’t represent everyone in a faith community.  As Mormons are human beings, I imagine some of them live with more doubt- and perhaps more pluralistic ideas- than the most zealous faithful.  Just like a lot of religions.  Frankly all faiths are based on stories, and to single out Mormons for having a “ridiculous” founding myth is mean.  Jews believe God parted a sea for us to walk across and then dropped bread from the sky for us to eat in the desert.  Christians believe a woman gave birth to a boy without being inseminated.  Who then walked on water.  Muslims think their prophet flew to Jerusalem at night- before airplanes.  We all have our stories- and I don’t begrudge any of them as long as they are used to motivate people for good.

Secondly, not all of the missionaries were the same.  In particular, one woman from Austria was quite fond of Yiddish- her father grew up in the Jewish quarter and was familiar with Jewish culture.  She herself had studied intercultural communication, my passion, and had her own honest and troubling relationship with American culture.  Which she sometimes found fake and indirect- something I can relate to after having experienced Israel.  Americans on a whole are not particularly forthright with their words- even if I’m able to read between the lines as a native in a way this woman couldn’t.  I don’t know if I’d characterize it as fake, but different and indirect it most certainly is.  And it leads to a lot of frustration.  Especially for someone like her meeting tons of people each day.

While all of the missionaries were trying their best to be friendly and welcoming, this one struck me as more authentically human.  In the sense that instead of relentlessly smiling, she was willing to open up about how life can be hard.  And she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.  Including how faith alone is not enough- that we use human observation, facts, and instinct to make choices too.  Which she admitted was valid after I prompted her to think it over a bit.  She just wasn’t as pushy as some of the other folks.  Who claimed to want to learn about other religions, but were hesitant to read the Torah- the very basis for all monotheistic faiths.  That is a kind of fakeness- don’t pretend to be interested in my community if it’s really just a talking point for assimilating me.  In the case of the Austrian woman, I felt she had a genuine interest in dialogue, rather than just repeating the word Jesus over and over again.  There are certainly things I don’t miss about America.

In the end, I can’t say I’m impressed with the Mormon faith as a way of life.  Nor do I think evangelizing people is ethical or kind.  If you think your religion (any religion) is superior to others, how is that any different from white supremacism?  I doubt most of these missionaries think of it in these terms, but I’m purposely raising this comparison to draw attention to how problematic it is.  And how it’s worthy reconsidering whether it’s fair to put one religion above others.  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism- anything.

What I can say is that this Austrian woman, more than anyone I met, humanized Mormons for me.  That there are Mormons who live with doubt, or at least enough curiosity to hear other points of view.  And not just for the sake of convincing us.  In the end, whether you’re a Hasid in Bnei Brak, a secular Jew in Tel Aviv, or a Mormon in Washington, we are human.  And a willingness to go outside your comfort zone and try something new is difficult.  But worth doing sometimes to remember that relying on tired stereotypes won’t make this country, or the world, better.  I can now put a face to Mormonism, in fact several faces, and I don’t need to rely on a musical to teach me about a different society.  If the night’s goal was to convert me to Mormonism, it failed.  But if the goal was to put a human and complicated face on the Mormon faith, consider it mission accomplished.

Which gets to today.  The U.S. finds itself struggling with a government shutdown.  An absurd tug of war that ends up degrading public servants and slowing down the entire economy- not just of here, but of the world.  I don’t work with government budgets nor have I been following the situation closely- I have enough on my plate adjusting to being here.

But what I can say is this.  Everyone needs a bit of a bubble to feel safe.  I can’t imagine becoming Mormon, nor living in Utah.  I’m tired of people telling me I should accept Jesus Christ- he was a Jew and I really don’t have any interest in giving up my traditions to satisfy your zeal.

But nor am I content to sit only among those who I feel agree with me on everything.  It’s a phenomenon that liberals and conservatives can both be guilty of.  I can’t imagine many gay Jews visit the Mormon Temple, but I did.  I even found a Christmas ornament donated by Israel to stand alongside the ornaments of countries all over the world.  And I met an Austrian woman curious about Yiddish.  Even considering attending a Yiddish language program- curious about whether they let in non-Jews (we absolutely do- but just don’t try to evangelize us 😉 ).

In short, let go of the easy answers.  Donald Trump is a narcissist who plays too much on Twitter and has the temperament of a child- but with the arsenal of a nuclear power.  But even with his erratic and sometimes abusive character, I won’t automatically discount everything he says as wrong simply because he was the one who said it.  That is intellectually dishonest- and there are policies he has enacted that are outgrowth of the Obama Administration in which I served.  Some bad, some good.  And even though I never voted for him and never will, I’m not going to put my hands over my ears, live in isolation, and pretend that I’m always right or that everyone else is always wrong.

Because that’s fanaticism.  Whether it’s a gleeful Mormon missionary or a liberal bemoaning the “uneducated” masses of “ignorant” Americans in red states.

I live in the space where I am a committed and proud Jew, but open to learning about other religions.  I almost always vote Democrat, but I’m not diametrically opposed to everything a Republican has to say.  And I’m an American and Israeli even if some in both communities would like to have me only as their own.  That somehow me being physically present in America now means I’m “back from abroad” or that if I’m not stepping foot on Jerusalem’s streets I’ve “left Israel”.

There is no more stupid dichotomy in the world.  As a dual citizen, and a citizen of the world, I don’t belong to any one place.  I wasn’t on a “jaunt” in Israel- and I may yet return sooner than you expect.  Or to visit other countries.  Nor am I only Israeli- this trip helped me remember where I’ve spent so many formative years.  Why I love muenster cheese and chocolate chip cookies and cheap delicious Chinese food.  Why I still feel the effects of traumatic experiences even living far away.  And visiting places that triggered those memories precisely to integrate an understanding of my past into my present.  To help me be as full a person, as aware a person, as possible.

So in the end, my goal is wholeness.  Not holiness.  So rather than tell you what to do or what to believe, I’d rather you go out and explore for yourself.  Visit the Mormons, go to a synagogue, learn a new language, talk to a gun owner, eat vegan for a week.  Don’t rely on me or anyone else to be your only source of information.  Because the best news source is your own eyes, your own ears, your own heart.

Go exploring 😉

p.s.- that’s my third grade picture.  Not an easy one for me to put up given everything, but I’m proud to now understand myself as a whole person.  The good times and bad.  And I’m grateful to my teacher then, Mrs. Elrod, for being a stunning example of how to be a kind person.  And for all the great role models who inspired me to point myself towards a path of growth and compassion.  Which is part of how I ended up here today.

You can always return

One of the most fascinating things about Portugal is its Jewish community.

Jews have lived here for 1,500 years. Then forcibly converted 400 years ago during the Inquisition, sometimes burned at the stake. In the late 1800s, the community was revived by the migration of Moroccan Jews. Most of whom had roots in the very communities expelled from the Iberian peninsula. But according to my friend Eduardo, who I’ll tell you more about later, native-born Portuguese of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to return to the faith of our ancestors. This only changed a few decades ago.

Which led to the most fascinating phenomenon I have ever witnessed in a Reform synagogue.

It was Friday night. I spent a long day visiting Tomar, a medieval town two and a half hours outside Lisbon. I went because it is beautiful and has a medieval synagogue- a pre-Inquisition remnant of Israel. With 5th century Hebrew tombstones. And an attendant who complained about me and an Israeli couple asking for one Hebrew brochure each. As if three pieces of printer paper was just a bridge too far.

“Vocês querem três?” she said with a grimace.

“Sim, e é o nosso património religioso, acho que está bem.”

It’s our religious heritage, so I think it’s perfectly normal.

She quietly pursed her lips in the tiniest of frowns as we perused the small, but fascinating museum.

I think it’s fantastic that Portugal and other countries are working to preserve Jewish heritage, it’s a link to our shared past and critical for understanding where we’ve been- and where we’re going. But much as I would suggest a white tour guide for a slavery museum not give black visitors a hard time for asking for leaflets, I think the person working a Jewish museum should show a little compassion. We’re not asking for the building back- we simply want to read what it’s about. You’re lucky we’re here- and given your country’s penchant for persecuting us, so are we.

I headed back to Lisbon, somewhat despairing. I had just written a blog yesterday about how much I loved Portugal. And before I visited the museum, I had a truly magnificent experience hiking in the mountains nearby and strolling the medieval walkways.

On the long train ride, I debated what to do that night. I had given my passport information to Reform synagogue Ohel Jacob to go to services. Because that’s the reality in Europe- and it won’t be long before it’s the reality in America too. Due to anti-Semitism, every synagogue in Europe has extensive security and unlike cathedrals, you can’t simply pop in. You have to fill out a visitor form with your personal info and send a picture of your passport. It’s to prevent us from being butchered- much as we have been on this continent for millennia. To this very day.

Running on 3 hours of sleep, up late thinking about big life decisions, and having traveled 5 hours on a train, I wasn’t sure I was up for it. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and prepare for my flight to America the next morning.

But something in my soul told me to go.

So I grabbed a cab, with a rather wily driver who couldn’t believe I didn’t know where the street was. I told him I hoped he never got lost in New York if he visits sometime 😛 . Try to be the understanding person and realize not everyone knows your country like the back of their hand. Which is why I’ve often found myself directing tourists around Tel Aviv, sometimes sitting down with them for hours helping them plan their visits. Be the kind person who helps someone find their way.

I often visit synagogues around the world. And for Friday night services, although I can’t say I particularly believe in the actual message of the prayers (I’d much rather be singing in the forest of Tomar), I find something magical about the moment. For me spirituality is where I feel free to dance, to sing, to express my innermost fears, hopes, and spontaneous desires. It’s not being told what words to say when and how and singing in unison. It goes against every grain of my being- there’s no way that the human spirit was built to conform. Or that the words of someone 2,000 years ago should or could possibly express my full sentiments.

What I find magical about prayer, then, is the act itself. For me, Jewish history and survival is the most miraculous phenomenon. So the fact that we’re sitting in a room, using the same ancient words, melding with the symbols our ancestors have known for centuries, that is magical. Something we share with Jews everywhere.

This kesem, this enchantment, reaches new heights in Portugal. And this night more than any other.

Because to sit praying with Jews in Portugal 400 years after the genocide of our people is the most spiritually connecting thing I’ve ever done in a synagogue. The fact that it’s the first and only Reform one here is an added bonus that made it particularly salient for me. Familiar, comfortable, known but different.

For most of the melodies I knew by heart. But the accents pronouncing them were Portuguese, not American or Israeli. The resh taking on that particular Lisboan roll. The siddur itself from Brazil, half in the holy tongue, half in the language of Camões. It was beautiful to hear the congregants read out loud prayers I knew- but in a lilting and soothing Portuguese. Next time you get a chance to visit a synagogue abroad, go. Because even hearing the words you know in a different language can really change the way you see them. Only for the better.

Everyone in the room looked like Jewish faces I had seen before. In Maryland, in Argentina, in Barcelona, in Belgium, in Israel. They even invited me to lead some of the prayers, which I found quite fulfilling. Because even if the words themselves aren’t my dogma, the act of sharing them with the people around me was electric. And sometimes I found myself slipping into a spiritual state, where I couldn’t quite separate my past religiosity, my current spirituality, the heightened significant of the current moment, and my desire to separate them all in the name of rationalism. It’s healthy to live in the gray space rather than forcing yourself to conform to an all-or-nothing vision of the world. And so I found myself belting out Adon Olam as my own prayer, even as I questioned why it resonated for me so much. But living and love the hypocrisy. Neat lines are for buying a ticket at the movie theater. At least in America. Not in Israel, where there is no line at all. Or in Portugal, where the line exists but elegantly and gently and without compulsion. It’s the middle ground I’ve been searching for, and I flow into the veins of Portugal in a way I’ve never settled in any other country.

At the end of services, I was invited to make kiddush, the blessing over the fruit of the vine. It’s a prayer with complicated words that sometimes engage my own mixed feelings about Jewish theology. But is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.

So to do honor to this tiny and bold community, I grabbed the cup and blessed it. With a gusto and a sense of pride. I loved my own voice. And for someone who grew up being senselessly criticized left and right, it felt whole to enjoy myself. And the congregants loved it- one man gave me a big thumbs up 🙂

Then we sat down to an oneg, as is often the case on Friday night.

As we began to eat, the stories began to flow as much as the wine.

The conversation quickly turned to the Inquisition and how many of the Portuguese were descended from Jews forced to convert. Apparently many of whom took the surnames of trees, which is how you can recognize them today. Such as Oliveira, or olive tree, the last name of one of the congregants, Eduardo.

I looked around the room and asked how many of the people were Bnei Anusim, or descendants of forced converts.  And wish an almost embarrassed look, every single one said yes.  A bashfulness undeserved- I find it extraordinary that someone would want to dig up their roots and reconnect with the very faith that led to their family being persecuted.  And then rejoin it.  To those in the Jewish world who are unwilling to engage with this community I have a message.  Perhaps if you dedicated one tenth of the time you spend on trying to get apathetic Jews to do Jewish things and put it towards engaging these people who want to be Jewish, things might be going better for us.

Their stories were fascinating.  I didn’t get to talk with everyone- there was one really kind older woman who sat with me during services but I didn’t get to chat with her much after.  Especially in a group setting it can be hard to make time to talk with the quieter folks, but they often have the most interesting stories to tell.  And when I go back, I’d like to sit down with her more.

The stories I did hear were moving.  People who had grandparents or parents tell them they were Jewish- on their deathbeds.  DNA tests that showed Sephardic ancestry.  One man from Brazil- because remember, a lot of forced converts fled to the Americas- told me his father refused a Catholic funeral.  No crosses were present when he was buried- and he told his daughter (who then told this man) that they were Jews.  And every person in that room wouldn’t make you bat an eye if you saw them on the streets of Tel Aviv or in synagogue in San Francisco.

As the night winded down, it was about 10:30pm and I was tired.  But I stayed a bit longer to say goodbye to the congregation, and then Eduardo invited me to see their museum.  Museum?  This was a one room apartment, where was there a museum?

But sure enough, a tiny room behind where we prayed held something I can barely find words to describe.  Eduardo had buried the lede.

In this antique-looking room filled with old wooden bookshelves was the library of Polish and German holocaust survivors.

Because Ohel Jacob was not started as a congregation for Bnei Anusim.  It was, in a fashion typically cyclically Jewish, started by Jews fleeing the Holocaust.  And so it was actually an Ashkenazi synagogue, now being prayed in by Sephardim.  Whose founders, when they eventually fled to America, handed the keys to the first generation of Bnei Anusim in Portugal to “come out of the closet”.

As a deep bibliophile and lover of Jewish history, I couldn’t imagine a more potent or exciting moment.  The books lay largely in tatters, but still coherent.  I opened some.  I found books from Lublin, Poland, from Vienna, from Germany.  In Hebrew, in German, in Yiddish.  Sometimes with a touch of Polish or Russian.  They had all the character of an old, bound book you’d find in the corner of a 19th century library.  With all the Jewish spirit you could possibly ask for.  Here are some pictures:

Eduardo is learning how to read Hebrew.  He can sound out some of the words (and prays quite well- he lead services for the first time this week!).  But he couldn’t understand what the books meant.

So I opened them and began to explain.  It was this beautiful Jewish moment of transmission- of taking my knowledge, imparting it to someone thirsty to learn.  And of living in this precious moment together, with the spirit of the Holocaust survivors hovering over us.  And in the thin air that separated our two physical selves, even as our souls drew closer together.

As if the books themselves weren’t enough of a find, it turns out there was more.  There was a Torah scroll burnt to a crisp, covered with a tallit to protect it.  Eduardo thinks it may have been destroyed in Kristallnacht.

Nearby was a megillah, or the Scroll of Esther, which we read on Purim.  Commemorating our survival of an attempt to annihilate us in ancient Persia.  I read the words aloud to him, a poignant moment that reminds us that our present circumstances are nothing new.  A long view of Jewish history reveals how fragile our existence is- and how our persistence has kept us alive.

Back in the main prayer room were five more Torah scrolls.  As Eduardo unveiled the ark that held them, he pointed to one in particular:

“This one is 500 years old.  From Iraq.  I’m not sure exactly how it got here.”

I stood in absolute awe- and distilled silence.

Here were these treasures of Jewish history, rotting but still alive.  And the only thing stopping them from having made it to a trash pit is this dedicated congregation.  Descendants of forcibly converted Sephardim preserving the Yiddish books of Holocaust survivors.  It’s a higher order humanity that’s hard to find if you scroll the front page of the news these days, but it’s as real as it is crucial.

The congregation has about 50 people these days.  Most, but not all, Bnei Anusim.  And they have a volunteer librarian who is helping catalogue the books.  You can see it online here.

If you find yourself in Lisbon, I can’t think of a better place to spend a Friday night.  Visit them and strengthen this beautiful community.  At a time when anti-Semitism has pushed some Jews to disaffiliate or dislike their own faith, Ohel Jacob is a reminder of the gifts our tradition has to offer.  And the strength of the Bnei Anusim in digging through layers of family history and prejudice to reconnect to it.  Bruchim habaim habayta- welcome home to the Jewish people.  Here’s a picture of me and some of my new friends from Ohel Jacob:

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Sometimes I ask myself (or others ask me) why I wander.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just go with a set plan and stick to it?  To craft a life itinerary?  Some people want to know where I’ll be in a month, in a year.  I don’t know.  That’s part of what makes exploring magical.  If I had stuck to my original plans a year and a half ago, I’d be in rabbinical school in Jerusalem.  I probably never would’ve written my blog.  I wouldn’t have had time to travel to 10 countries and 120 villages in Israel.  My Arabic wouldn’t have become fluent, I wouldn’t have learned Italian and beefed up my Portuguese.  I wouldn’t be able to understand as much Romanian.  Nor know how to dance dabke.  Nor realize some important things about myself.  That I like quiet time.  That I love exploring different cultures, and sometimes I just want to speak English.  That I actually like some things about America that I didn’t have the context to appreciate before.

And many of the experiences that have so enriched me might not have happened.  If I had stuck to my original plan, would I have sung in the great synagogue of Satmar?  Would I have befriended Roma in rural Romania?  Or eaten Hungarian Jewish pastries in Budapest?  Or discovered that my great uncle was killed liberating Europe from Nazis?  Or that there are people in Andalucía who live in caves?  Or learned the Spanish word “invernaderos” while exploring Almería, a city covered in greenhouses?

Probably not.  I might had other adventures.  But I wouldn’t have had as much time for these.  And I probably wouldn’t have ended up everywhere I did if I simply stuck to a plan.  I doubt I would’ve made my way to Romania three times if I had sat in Washington, D.C. and crafted a year itinerary.  But having been there once, I liked it, and it drew me to go again.  Giving myself the flexibility to change plans has opened up doors to me that remain shut for folks who insist on everything going according to schedule.

So as I write this blog, I find myself not in Tel Aviv, not in Portugal, but in New Jersey.  A place I wouldn’t have imagined myself sitting even a month ago.  It’s perhaps appropriate that I first started writing the post on a plane from Portugal- in the airspace that is neither here nor there.  A real wanderer is willing to milk that middle space.  And live with the understanding that the borders, or rules, we are taught to respect sometimes need a little massaging.  Because to find richness, you’ve got to be willing to throw away some of the expectations.  As much as you have to be willing to realize that sometimes they have value.

Today I found myself in the curious position of peering at Google Maps and realizing that directly across the street from where I’m staying is a Jewish cemetery.

After getting a solid American bagel with whitefish salad (please, Israel, learn the value of real bagels!), I strolled into the graveyard.

As you can probably tell from this blog, I’m in America for now.  Not sure exactly how long (again, see my wandering comment).  Could be three months, could be longer.  And maybe less.  Who knows.  Wherever I find myself, I find myself with a bit of yearning mixed with sorrow.  That Portuguese feeling of saudade, where you reach for the best of the past, with the sadness that is it not here now.  In my case, I think it means knowing the beauty and the sorrow of each place, of each experience I’ve had.  And realizing it’s not entirely possible to separate them.  Am I a different, more healed person today because I grew as an individual or because I was in Israel?  I might be able to parse some of that out, but I’m not certain they are so easily picked apart.  Going to Israel was a wise choice, because as I sit here now, I feel like I have grown as a person.  That the hardships are not something I’ll particularly miss while I’m away, and if I had never stepped on that plane, I can’t imagine I would’ve learned nearly as much about myself or the world.  About where I’m from, and who I am.

In the end, I’m still an Israeli citizen, I still pay my bituach leumi, I can come and go whenever I want.  Israelis do it all the time- to work abroad, to go on long trips after the army, to explore.

The difference in my case is that I’m also from here.  So it feels different to come here than someone who didn’t grow up American.  It feels eagerly comfortable for me to see muenster cheese, macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies worthy of the name, to eat New York style pizza, to eat real cheddar cheese.  And not to break the bank doing so.  As you can tell, cheese is pretty crucial- and while I love European and some Israeli cheeses, I have to say I gave a “come and get me” look to a stack of American cheese the other day.  I missed you America.

So I live in that space of saudade.  Because however long I’m here, it’s different.  It’s pleasant to be back, it’s hard to reconcile my past with my present, and as much as I love exploring different cultures, it can be difficult to emotionally prepare yourself for the jumping back and forth.

Feeling an emptiness, a fear of losing my passion- for travel, for adventure, for Jewish exploration- I headed across the street to the cemetery.

And the most curious thing happened.

The very first grave I saw said “Adler”.  And I have to double check my genealogical research, but this New Jersey town’s name sounded familiar.  It was one of those bashert, “meant to be” moments that reminded me I’m from here too.  And American Jewry has a story to tell as well.  It’s my story.  And I’m glad to contribute to it while I’m here.  And to the best of my ability, wherever I am.

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What my experience in Israel- and my short time here so far- has taught me is that you can always return.  The Jews of Portugal, of Ohel Jacob, know this better than anyone.  Life, like history, is full of surprises.  Who knows when I’ll be hopping on a plane or a train or digging through an archive again.  Or finding new ways to explore.

You can always return, but you can never go back.  Because as you grow and develop, if you strive for health and wholeness and understanding of self, you won’t feel the same.  Which is why when I needed a little dose of the confidence I developed in Israel while ordering pizza today, I talked to some friends on WhatsApp in Hebrew.  And I felt my backbone straighten and my warmth grow within.

To be a Jew, to be me, is to wander.  Maybe physically, maybe intellectually.  To enjoy where you are, but never get too comfortable.  To always have a suitcase packed because you don’t know what might happen.  Or what might motivate you to go somewhere else.

Life is like a rubber band.  There’ll always be different feelings pulling you in different directions, and you evaluate how far you can stretch.  Whether you want to stretch in a different direction.  Or whether the gap between the ends is too tense and might snap.  In Israel, the diverse cultures and languages pull me in, the economy, the pressure to assimilate, and the conflict pull me out.  Although my desire to fix things pulls me in sometimes.  It might take some time to see how my rubber band stretches here.  But I’d say that the ease of life, the consideration, the lack of air raid sirens, the comfort of speaking my native language, and the well-paying jobs pull me in.  And the lack of directness, the sometimes suppressed emotions, the healthcare system, the anti-Semitism, and the constant smiling pull me out.  As does the fact that unlike in Israel, Jewish customs and our own physical appearance are not the norm, are not celebrated, are not public.  As I learned when I mistakenly tried an anti-“frizz” shampoo yesterday that “tamed” and suppressed my wavy Jewish hair which I’ve come to love.

I’ve seen in Israel and other places that every place has different ways of doing things.  Sometimes better, sometimes not.  I’m a richer and more aware person for knowing that, and not assuming the way I was raised, or the society I grew up in, is necessarily the only or best way to live.  Or the worst.

My rubber band will continue to stretch in different directions as the circumstances of my life and the societies around me change.  And may propel me, like the rubber bands we used to fling in elementary school, to new places and new situations.

Stick with me.  What I’ve realize is my spirit of adventure, of exploration, of intellectual curiosity is with me to stay.  So don’t be surprised when you find me speaking Yiddish to Amish people, or reading American Jewish archives from the 1800s, or talking to the Latinos who served me my bagel in Spanish today.  I’m happy to say that even if my life changes over the coming period, that part of me is ingrained.  And if the manner of exploration may change, the curiosity and desire to do so will not.

And Israeli friends, Romanian friends, Spanish friends, Catalan friends- miss me, but don’t despair.  Not only are we blessed with amazing communication tools these days, we’re blessed with amazing transit.  And while seeing your faces every day is not the same, stay in touch.  We haven’t broken up, we’re in a long distance relationship for now.  I don’t know when I’ll be back, but don’t be surprised if I’m messaging you “I’m coming to Kfar Sumea” or “I’m on my way to Valencia” with a few days notice.  Or even from your city itself.  That’s how I roll.  Be prepared for the unexpected- or not.  Just flow.

I’m an Israeli citizen.  I’m American- but not just.  I’m Romanian and Hungarian- and I’ve visited those places.  But I’m also Lithuanian, Latvian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, and Polish- and I haven’t stepped foot there- yet.  I’m an Arabic speaker and I’ve visited almost every Druze village in the Galilee- but I haven’t been to Julis yet.  Or to neighboring Jordan.  Or to the tiny Israeli villages that sit on the border with Egypt, facing the Sinai peninsula.  Where Moses himself wandered for 40 years.

If that sounds like a lot of exploring done, and a lot yet to do- you’re right.  Just don’t ask me for a plan- because for me, to know what you’re going to do the next 15 years is anathema to the way I experience the world.

As the cover image says in Portuguese: “volto já”.  I’ll be right back.  Or more literally “I’m already returning”.  Because perhaps to return is not to go back to where you were.  In fact, it’s not a place.  It’s to orient yourself in the direction of your soul.

The word “tshuva” in Hebrew means both repentance and return.  So that perhaps living in a state of self awareness is to continually strive to point ourselves in the direction of  our authentic desires and hope.  Being itself.

So I haven’t “gone back” to the U.S. nor have I “left” Israel.  It’s a childish dichotomy that doesn’t fit with the modern world, nor our capacity to be more than one thing.  Plus I feel the vibe of Portugal more than both- so who knows where life will take me.  I simply am where I am.  And where I sit right now is only one part of the story, if an important one.

I go where I go and I do what I do not to go back.  But to turn and re-turn and turn again until I find myself wandering again in a direction that brings me a sense of wonder, of joy, of fulfillment, of sadness, of challenge, of comfort, of growth, of repose.  Of healing.  Of life itself.

Keep journeying.  The Bnei Anusim of Portugal have been doing it for 400 years- and their story is still unfolding.  So is mine.

P.S.- here are some surprisingly beautiful pictures of New Jersey, a reminder to leave stereotypes at the door and explore for yourself.  As the picture says: “I never fold”.

The wonderful melancholy of Portugal

Portugal, for those who have never visited, is an awesome place.  But don’t hype it too much or you’ll sound like you don’t get the vibe.

One of the interesting things about Portugal, something I connect with, is the deep friendliness paired with an honest relationship with hardship.  Fado, the traditional music of this country, is exactly that.  Unlike the vibrant Flamenco of its Spanish neighbors, Fado is a slowly melding pot.  It doesn’t force you to separate the happy from the sad, it lets you feel where the two intersect.  And none of this prevents Portuguese people from smiling, giving you directions, and making conversation with you.  They kind of remind me of me.  To be “happy” is not to be joyous all the time.  It’s to treat others with kindness and warmth and compassion- and also to protect yourself and realize the pain too.  Rather than hiding it or gritting your teeth and smiling, pretending it’s not there.

While for me personally, I find a lot of Lisbon’s tourist attractions crowded and kind of dirty, other parts of the country (and even the city) are magical.  Just take a look:

Portugal is a land that has known both great sorrow and joy.  It was once home to one of the largest empires in the world.  Despite Romance language learners gravitating towards Spanish and French, Portuguese has 260 million speakers on four continents.  With a sound that just makes my ears feel at ease.  It’s kind of a sexy tongue.

It’s one that I learned in a semester in undergrad in a course “Portuguese for Spanish speakers”.  And this is my first time getting to speak it in a Lusophone country.  That’s the cool word for “Portuguese-speaking”.  What’s interesting is that although I learned Brazilian Portuguese and there are differences between the two dialects, I actually sometimes find myself understanding people here even better.  The pronunciation is a bit more similar to the Castilian Spanish I learned first.  And interestingly enough, it shares both grammatical features and phonology with Catalan.  For example, while some Spanish verbs have stem changes, i.e. dormir becomes duermo, in Catalan it’s dormo and in Portuguese it is also dormo.  In fact, in both Catalan and Portuguese the final “o” becomes a “u” sound.  And what’s more, in the continental variety of Portuguese, the “l” carries a particular weight to it that sounds kind of like Russian…or Catalan!  Geographic distance is not the only factor in linguistic similarity, and Portuguese and Catalan are proof of this, despite sharing no borders.

Portugal has known good and bad, both in its imperial endeavors as well as its domestic politics.  While I am far from an expert on Portuguese history (I really didn’t come here to be sad, there’s enough of that in the Middle East), I do know they had a modern dictatorship.  And much prior to that, they had the violence of the Inquisition.

After having enjoyed some of the delicious pastries, the nature, and some art, I decided to wander through some local neighborhoods to an archive.  I love archives- I’ve written about this before.  I’ve visited them in Girona, Salerno, and Tortosa.  They are always a source of inspiration and an opportunity to hold history in your hands, to connect physically to the past.  And they’re always free.

There’s not a lot of visible Jewish sites left in Lisbon.  There are some elsewhere in the country, but kind of far for a relatively short trip, so I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to see.  I tried wandering the Alfama, the former Jewish quarter, and while there are apparently walking tours, there’s not a lot of Jewish things left to see.  Although you will notice the sign for the Jewish museum being constructed, apparently against the wishes of some neighbors.  Who are slowing down the process and whose motives aren’t entirely clear.  Some suspect anti-Semitism.  I am not an expert on Portuguese architecture, but the claim that the museum will disrupt the neighborhood vibe seems specious at first glance.  The neighborhood is dirty and a new building could probably do them some good.  Here’s the construction sign:

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In the Alfama, I asked a shop keeper for any advice about Jewish sites.  And to my great pleasure, he was kind enough to tell me his friend runs tours.  And he looked visibly pleased to be speaking with a Jew.  He was proud to tell me his friends visited Tel Aviv recently and loved it.  And irrespective of my own feelings about Tel Aviv (it’s not my favorite place in Israel), what was awesome is that he clearly liked Jews.  And I showed my warmth in kind.  He also said I spoke really good Portuguese 🙂

I’m an out-of-the-closet Jew and so while it doesn’t come up in every conversation I have (and sometimes I purposely say I’m American to avoid prejudice), it comes up often.  Naturally.  So I tend to get a good feel for the attitude of a culture towards Jews pretty easily.  And what I can say is that at least up until now, I haven’t felt any noticeable animosity.  While that might sound understated, it’s actually incredibly positive for today’s Europe.  A place where anti-Semitism is spreading like wildfire and a third of people don’t know what the Holocaust is.  What’s so interesting about Portugal, then, is how little of this animosity I feel.  Something reflected in the fact that polls show it having relatively low levels of anti-Semitism, despite the global trends in the opposite direction.  Even its next door neighbor Spain was rated the society with the highest levels of anti-Semitism in all of Europe.

When I visited the public library in Sintra, a city outside Lisbon, I asked about what Jewish books they had.  While it’s not a scientific study, it’s often instructive to see if local libraries have books on X or Y topics as a sense of their communal importance.  And it’s just as interesting to see what books they are and how they’re categorized.

In the case of Sintra, the librarian patiently wrote down the information of several books.  While at first, I had been disappointed at the two lonely Jewish books smushed between tons about Christianity and Islam in the religion section, I soon learned something else was at work.

In the Sintra public library, most Jewish books were found alongside (or within) books about Portuguese history.  The National Library in Budapest told me they didn’t have books about Jews because, “we only have books about Hungarians here”.  But the Sintra public library had Jewish knowledge integrated into their sections about Portugal itself.  A kind of anecdotal example that has so far paralleled my experience in both countries.  I found Hungary quite anti-Semitic and xenophobic.  And here, not as much.  Even though in both countries, Jews have played an outsize role in their history.  Well, in Portuguese history.  Because apparently in Hungary, Jews aren’t Hungarian.

So today, feeling an itch to look at some old documents and see if I could find some Jewish ruins, in the metaphorical sense, I headed to an archive.

At the archive, I managed to find archivists’ notes on the Inquisition.  According to the staff member, these notes were pretty old- and they were what the archivists saw in original Inquisition documents.  Everything was beautifully handwritten, even if the contents themselves were saddening.  A kind of writing Portuguese were made for.

For those who don’t know much about the Inquisition, when the Catholic kings conquered the Iberian peninsula from the Moors, they sought to unify disparate lands and consolidate power.  While initially they had tolerated and even co-existed with the Jewish communities- some of which dated back to Roman times- this changed.  In 1492, the Spanish conquered the last Moorish outpost and Catholicism was made the only state religion.  Jews who had lived on this land for thousands of years were forced to flee their homes, and many did- to Turkey, Morocco, Greece, Serbia, and elsewhere.  Leading to today’s Sephardic Jews.  Some of whom still speak Judeo-Spanish.  I even have a friend who teaches it in America- so if you find yourself at Binghamton, look up Prof. Kirschen.

The remaining Jews were tortured into converting to Catholicism.  Those who didn’t, were murdered, sometimes en masse.  And others converted to Catholicism, sometimes secretly practicing their ancient faith.

Spain imposed the Inquisition first, leading many of its remaining Jews to flee to Portugal.  Where unfortunately, a few years later, the country followed in Spain’s footsteps.

With brutal consequences I saw first hand today.

I found 5 shelves full of beautifully bound books.  I peered closer and found they were Inquisition records from the city of Évora.  The shelves contained no less than 113 separate volumes.  From a city that today has 56,000 people in a country of 10.3 million.  So it hardly represents the entirety of the Inquisition.  I’m not even sure it represents all of this records from this one city.

I opened one up.

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I couldn’t have imagined me using my Portuguese to read Inquisition documents when I learned it back in St. Louis, but this is how I roll.  And it’s always eye opening and fulfilling to see things first hand.

It didn’t take long to find the first person accused of the “crime of Judaism”.  That’s a direct quote.  For today’s anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour who claim hatred of Jews “isn’t systemic”, all they have to do is go to a library to realize they’re wrong.  It’s absurd to have to even say that.  The Inquisition documents were so brutally detailed and organized they seemed no different than the Nazis years later.  Perhaps even an inspiration.

The stories were heartbreaking.  I felt my emotions rising, unhindered by my American stiff upper lip nor my Israeli “who gives a shit”.  It was my inner Portuguese saudade mixed with a lot of sadness.  I felt connected to these people from ages ago, I wallowed in their pain, I held my hand to the text as I lifted their message into my life today.

The first condemned Jew I met was Alfonso Álvares.  He was 55 years old from Évora, the son of Lourenço and Constança.  Married to Inés de Miranda.  His crime: “judaísmo”.  He was arrested on November 12, 1654.  A full 118 after the arrival of this torturous regime to Portugal.  162 years after it’s initiation in Spain, where some of the Jews fled from.  The Inquisition was not a one year event- it lasted centuries to expunge the Jewishness from the entire peninsula- and its colonies in America.

What was Alfonso’s punishment for being a Jew?  He was imprisoned, all of his property was confiscated, and he was burned as a heretic 10 days later.  I wonder if this qualifies for Ms. Sarsour’s definition of “systemic”.  It only involved the state, the Catholic church, the prison system, and the organized confiscation of property.  You know, totally spontaneous.

Page after page was filled with people burned alive, imprisoned, and tortured for the “crime of Judaism”.

There was even a man, oddly enough, who wasn’t persecuted for being Jewish, but rather for making a “silver Jesus with the face of John, the Negro”.  A weird story that the archivist on staff didn’t even understand.  But clearly an example of how persecution of Jews is often the precursor to even more acts of hatred.  As senseless as the ones that started it.WhatsApp Image 2018-12-20 at 9.26.17 PM(1)

Then there was Branca Alvares, a Jew arrested on January 21, 1586, burned alive August 2, 1587.  In the intervening time, sentenced to prison, stripped of her clothes and her dignity.  A martyr for our faith, a defender of our right to be who we are.  I never met you, Branca, but I admire your bravery in the face of stupid hatred.  Our people persist because of people who resist, like you.  May your memory and those of all our people burned at the stake be for a blessing.  I dedicate this blog to you.  I hope that my work in the world does honor to your courage.

It’s worth noting here that many of the victims had their property confiscated by the Church, acting in concert with the state.  A common theme in Jewish migrations (and expulsions) is that we are often invited to countries for our trade networks and knowledge.  And subsequently expelled when the state decides it needs our property.  Portugal and Spain are no exception- their imperialism in the Americas was funded by persecuting Jews and stealing their money.  Which is why the Inquisition couldn’t end even with the conversion of the remaining Jews.  Denunciations of New Christians, or “conversos”, continued for centuries, allowing the state to intimidate people into conformity and compliance.  And simultaneously, rob Jews of their money to finance conquest around the world.

This aspect of anti-Semitism is one that confounds liberals to this day.  An overly simplistic understanding of rich=abuser, poor=victim does not help them understand the nature of anti-Semitism, which doesn’t fit this model.  Jews historically have been placed in the position of middle men.  Almost never in the history of Western civilization have we been allowed to lead a nation, but we are often invited to partake in slightly lesser but well remunerated jobs like lawyers, doctors, or in olden times, court advisors.  But never the king himself.  Which is why today in America, you have a strong representation of Jews in Congress, in entertainment, and in any number of prestigious professions.  Yet never has there been a Jewish president- nor do I think there will be.  Western civilization has not reckoned with anti-Semitism yet, and until it does, we will not be allowed at the top.

What are the implications?  Jews are stereotyped as rich.  I’ve heard this trope from Brazilians, Argentinians, Belgians, and even people I went to high school with.  Part of the reason for that is rulers could put certain Jews in these kind of prominent positions and divert the disgruntled populace’s anger towards them.  Rather than the ruler himself.  All the while, maintaining Jews’ inferiority by denying them access to the top of the system.  Often reinforced by discriminatory clothing, restricted living quarters, brutal violence, and more.  Christmas was traditionally a time to persecute Jews.

It’s a lesson progressives today need to learn if they want to understand the nature of anti-Semitism, because it operates in a different fashion from racism.  But with no less destructive results, as we’ve seen lately in Pittsburgh, across Europe, and elsewhere.

In other words, while some Jews are poor, the success of other Jews economically is used by rulers to eventually rally the populace to execute their genocide and expulsion.  Giving the ruler access to Jewish capital to finance his latest endeavor, and of course never actually helping the angry pitchfork-bearers themselves.

What’s curious about Portugal is the Jews are back.  In fact, while I’m not sure exactly why, Jews were back here sooner than in Spain.  Already in the early 1800s, after a thorough cleansing of anything Jewish here, Jews were allowed to return to the land they once called home.  It’s a brave and risky act I can’t even imagine.  You can still find today in Lisbon Shaare Tikva, a synagogue built by these returning Portuguese Jews.  In a twist of history few would have expected when Branca and Alfonso were being burned at the stake for the crime of Judaism.

I’m not sure what brought them back.  It’s a crazy thought- how could you trust the Portuguese people after all that hurt?  Maybe Portugal wanted Jewish capital again.  After all, today with its economy facing issues, it’s inviting descendants of expelled Jews to re-apply for citizenship.  An Orwellian, if perhaps well-intentioned, process.  In which Jews are having to collect documents 500 years later to get citizenship to a country their ancestors were expelled from.  An odd and uniquely Jewish scenario, but one that is leading quite a number of people to apply.  I hope the law is applied fairly and liberally if it is truly meant to make recompense for the past.  And that if the country wants us back this time, I hope it ends better today.

What’s truly amazing about the whole thing is how normal Portugal is today.

I’ve visited a lot of countries in Europe over time.  Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Switzerland, Italy (twice), Hungary (twice), France (twice), Spain (four times), Romania (three times).  And now Portugal.

And what I can say is, as of today, I can’t think of a single country where I’ve felt more at ease as a Jew.  Italy comes close.  Perhaps their Mediterranean cultures, where my DNA and my gentle curls flowing over my olive skin help me feel at home among my distant cousins.  Indeed, a third of Portuguese are estimated to have Jewish blood, in addition to us being from the same part of the world.  It’s certainly more comfortable than the sometimes awkward stares I’d get in pastier countries like Romania or Switzerland, where a border guard thought I was an illegal Mexican immigrant because I spoke Spanish.

But there’s a little extra something here too.  The Portuguese, perhaps having slogged through the Inquisition, imperialism, and a dictatorship, have found a way to let their sadness mingle with their joy.  To let their emotions become a part of who they are, rather than something to suppress.

So that when these barriers eventually fell, Portuguese often found themselves researching their own Jewish history.  In fact, the town of Belmonte is full of Portuguese with Jewish roots- who have re-embraced their faith and built a synagogue.

There is ignorance everywhere, and Portugal is no exception.  Sometimes curiosity about us is naïvely, though sometimes innocently, mentioned in the same breath as masons or the capitalist system.  Like we’re some sort of curious phenomenon worth exploring or perhaps an exoticism.  A less textured way to see us.  But honestly I don’t know enough about it to fully understand.  All I can say is that even the ignorant comments here have stung less than in other places and so far seem to be said with less malice.

Yet Portugal is one of the few European countries that I feel is headed in the right direction with regards to its Jewish past- and present.  And hopefully future.  While supposedly enlightened nations like France and Germany and Sweden experience an ever-increasing amount of anti-Semitism, Portugal is not joining the crowd.

Hanging out in the far west of Europe gazing towards America, Portugal is doing what it has always done.  Mixing its pain with its joy.  Creating that unique blend where it doesn’t need to deny its faults, nor deny itself pleasure.  Here, you can’t isolate one from the other.  It’s a psychologically healthy phenomenon that perhaps explains why this country, even with hundreds of years of anti-Semitic persecutions, is able to reconcile this with welcoming Jews back.  Much better so than their Spanish neighbors next door.

So as I dedicate this post to all the brave Jews here who persisted and resisted in the face of anti-Semitic hatred, to their descendants living out their Judaism- or returning to it- I’d like to offer a hope.

Portugal is evidence of the wily and often surprising twists of history.  The proverbial arc that bends towards justice is a messianic lie that is put to rest by the rollercoaster that is the Portuguese Jewish experience.  An experience filled with pain and with surprising hope.  Could a Portuguese Jew 400 years ago have ever imagined me reading his death sentence in an archive- alive?  The inspiring quirks of history are as noteworthy as the failures.

So as I watch the world spin in unexpected and sometimes scary directions, hope accompanies my fear.

A hope that Europe becomes more like the Portugal of today than the Portugal of four centuries ago.