The incredible yo-yo of being a Jew

Lately, I’ve been traveling in Romania.  It’s my third time here since March- I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, delicious and cheap food, and overall calmer atmosphere than Israel.  A place with far more history than America but with no active warfare like Israel.  And a place where a quarter of me comes from 🙂

Well, here’s the conundrum of being a Jew.  Especially a gay one.  Romania has some pretty awful things too.  Just as I’m trying to get space from Israel (and its creeping fascist state, persecuting minorities), I get a reminder of how stupid people around the world convinced us we needed a state.  Like theirs- faulty, and usually creating more problems than solving them.  But understandably could seem better than being regularly persecuted.

Romania has a storied history of anti-Semitism.  There are brave non-Jews working to preserve our heritage now- I’ve met young people interested in Klezmer, old women doing Israeli folk dancing, people looking after our synagogues.  The ones that haven’t been turned into pizzerias.

It also has a lot of bigots.  On Rosh Hashanah, I was sitting in a restaurant.  I almost went to services, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t.  I don’t believe in God.  I considered going for the community, for the tunes, for maybe a bite of Jewish food.  But when I saw the historic-synagogue-turned-arts-center was fastidiously set up to separate men and women, I felt that an Orthodox Rosh Hashanah was the last thing I wanted to do now.  I talked to some of the non-Jewish staff members, which was nice.  And then I left to eat.

So I’m alone noshing in this restaurant.  And a woman, maybe 40 years old, is playing with her kid.  The kid waves at me and we say hi.  He’s super cute.  The mom starts talking to me in English.  She’s from Bucharest but moved to Cluj some years ago because it is nice and calm.  When she asked where I was from, I said I was both an American and Israeli citizen.

She then says: “I want to go to Gaza.”  I said that wasn’t possible now.  And she says: “I know, I want to go get arrested [to protest].”  I said: “it’s a difficult situation on all sides.  My friend lives on the Israeli side of the border with rockets falling on her house and I’m sure it’s hard for Gazans too.”

I tried to conclude the conversation, but she kept pushing.  While making every effort to smile, she told me: “I want to go to PalestinA”.  With an “A” as if she just needed to emphasize every last consonant.  Like somehow I didn’t pick up on her political message the first time she bluntly interrupted my holiday meal.

I said: “great, you can go.”

Romanian woman: “I want to go to Jerusalem and see the Orthodox Christian sites.”

Me: “you can do that, you should realize that the Christian sites aren’t so protected in Gaza under Islamist rule and that Jerusalem is a part of Israel.”

First things first, I could have gotten into a nuanced conversation about West and East Jerusalem, varying land claims, the suffering on all sides, the Christians caught in the middle of national conflicts, but I knew this woman wasn’t interested in nuance.

Instead, she said the strangest thing.  Besides not knowing Jerusalem was a part of Israel (again, even if you accept the contested nature of the land, most of the world recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli), she was astounded to hear rockets were falling on Israeli cities.  From Gaza.  She said the news said it only happened the other way around.  She said: “life is suffering.”  And when I tried to suggest there were good things in Israeli and Palestinian society too, she just kept to her message.

Feeling rather fed up with this idiotic woman ruining my first solo Rosh Hashanah meal, I said to her: “life is complicated.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and was kicked out for being Jewish.  The rest of my relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.  And now our synagogues here stand empty or turned into restaurants.  Nothing is simple.”

She made an awkward smile, maybe 10% out of guilt, 90% out of stupidity, and said have a nice night and left the restaurant.

Sometimes this happens when I leave Israel needing some space.  I go leaving disgusted at how the government abuses its citizenry, especially minorities, much like other societies abuse(d) Jews.  Even today, neo-Nazis are rallying in Chemnitz, Germany and physically attacked a Kosher restaurant calling the owner a “Jewish pig”.  In Germany.

And I sometimes find all the reasons that pushed us, as a community, to feel we need a state too.  Because after having been expelled from town after town, butchered senselessly and demeaned, we were tired.  And we felt there was no other solution.

It takes endless gall for a Romanian woman who has never met me, doesn’t know my politics, doesn’t even know it’s a Jewish holiday, to barge in and attack me.  While her own country sucks at the teat of my people’s abandoned houses, synagogues, and property.  The land they’ve ripped from our culture.  And tell me how bad I am.

How is it possible to hate us when you’ve already exterminated 95% of us?  When we’re not here to “oppress” you anymore with our difference?

Because, if I may be frank, Romania can be kind of a shit hole.  A place with gorgeous nature and some incredibly backwards people.  The young people, both due to economic despair and perhaps a desire to make their lives better, go to Italy, Spain, and the UK to work.  Sometimes in undesirable conditions, but to earn a decent living and progress.  Sometimes at great cost.

Meanwhile, the country, losing population and brainpower, stagnates.  68% of Romanians still want to reclaim Moldova, a territory first lost to the Russian Empire in 1812.  There are people who want to ban a Hungarian minority party for “secessionism”.  Some villagers literally burned Gypsies alive.  In my lifetime.

In one of the most open-minded parts of the country, I had a young computer programmer tell me I’m a sinner for being gay.  I had the husband of a reflexology therapist with an eco-house tell me: “niggers don’t work in America.”  Someone who at surface level would have fit in at a hippie commune in Vermont.   I had an Uber driver take me 20 km out of the way to rip me off and have been literally chased by wild dogs.  Who apparently are best dealt with by being neutered, but the corrupt government pays its friends to kill them.  Knowing it won’t get all of them, the problem resurfaces in a few years, along with the funds to wash, rinse, repeat.  Corruption at a stellar level.  The public transport is pretty abysmal, if your stomach can handle the bumpy ride.  And the village people suffer in poverty while the government miraculously has millions of dollars to build ornate new churches.

Textbook awful.  And the Romanian people deserve better- and they bear some responsibility for their country’s problems.  Not all of it- none of us can truly force our governments to change on our own.  If I grew up here, I think I’d be pretty miserable.  I suppose in a perverse way, I can thank the Romanian anti-Semites for inspiring my ancestors to leave this hole.

There are nice things in Romania- you could consider visiting.  I just know that it’s time for me to leave.

I do know that the push and pull of hatred- of anti-Semites towards us, and Israeli Jews towards the communities now reliant on them.  That is a dangerous see-saw and it is hard to escape both empathy and anger towards all sides.

There’s a reason there’s not a lot of Jews left here.  And a reason a lot of gays would probably like to leave (or do).  It can’t be fun to be a minority in hyper-religious, hyper-nationalist pit.  The kind of problem I was just trying to get space from.

It doesn’t speak highly to my hopes for humanity, though I do know some societies manage to balance addressing past woes and healing with more success.  Or so I hope.  Perhaps I’ve just been in this part of the world too long.  Yet I know our problems, whether in Israel or other countries, are not ours alone.  The inflamed nationalism of our times has even reached Sweden, where a party with neo-Nazi roots gained almost a fifth of the vote.  Sweden.  The Home of Abba.

Tonight, feeling kind of lonely, I got an unexpected call.  I was having trouble reaching friends in the States, and suddenly I saw the name “Muhammad” on my phone.  A young Bedouin man, 19 years old, from the Negev.  We had met while I was visiting his village several times and I asked him for directions.  A sweet guy, we’ve kept in touch over WhatsApp over the months.  And now, he’s doing something super brave- starting college in Tel Aviv.  A city he has been in for only one day his whole life.  With a culture completely alien to the one he grew up in- in language, in demeanor, in everything.

He’s having trouble finding an apartment- partially due to racism.  At some point on this call, it finally came up that I was gay.  He had a lot of questions, but in the end seemed somewhere between accepting and resigned.  He said: “I can’t control what others do or how they are, everyone has their own way.”  A kind of understanding that I wish our own Pharaonic Prime Minister could bring himself to feel.

In explaining to Muhammad how to find an apartment, I told him to be honest about who he was.  He said he’d go view apartments, and only after he showed up in person would people find all sorts of excuses for why it wouldn’t work.  Like this is 1950s America.

I told him that back in the States, I’d always include my volunteering in the gay community on my resume.  Because if a company wouldn’t like me for being gay, even though it’s illegal for them to discriminate, I wouldn’t want to work there.  Nor waste my time with their hatred.  And yes, even at liberal non-profits, this tactic has saved me from some deeply homophobic work environments.  Even from a female non-profit executive who also did consulting for gay rights groups.  Who told me to be closeted about my identity if I took the job!

So I said: “tell them you’re Muhammad.  In my opinion, it’s better not to waste your time with someone who won’t accept you the way you are.  It’s sad, but trust me, if they won’t give you the apartment without knowing your name, they’ll figure it out when they meet you.”

So while Romania was good for the first few visits, when I could enjoy the stunning scenery and surface-level conversations, it’s now worn out its welcome.  Because while I could go around this country and hide- or lie- about who I am, I’m tired of it.  I haven’t survived this much and lived this long to feel ashamed of something I am proud of.

I’m a Jew.  I’m gay.  I don’t believe in God (a no-no in this deeply religious country).  And I’m a kind person.  It’s Romania’s loss that I’m leaving- not mine.  Leaving like millions of young people tired of old dogmas and nationalism that has killed millions across the globe.  Take note, Israel- this is your fate if you keep burrowing your hopes in a ground soaked with blood.  There’s no such thing as a fair society where one group is esteemed above all others.  As we well know from our experience in places like Romania.

What I do know from tonight is when I was feeling at my worst.  Lonely, sad, still reeling from being chased by wild dogs and people saying the word “nigger”.  That a Bedouin friend named Muhammad called me on the phone, we talked about gay identity and racism and finding apartments, and I felt better afterwards.  As I started searching for ways to help him.  A simple call that changed my night.

You can keep reading the rags- the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Arutz Sheva, even the Washington Post, New York Times, and Fox News.  All with different politics but the same objective- fear and money.

I like when people like Muhammad challenge the way they were taught to think.  Living in a gray space of exploration and growth.

Israel is realizing my deepest fear, the abused spreading its abuse more than striving to heal from it.  Frighteningly reminiscent of the European nationalists it is now allying itself with.  That kicked us out.  That burned our homes.  And our bodies.

Muhammad makes me yearn for the country it could be.

==

The cover photo is of me in the Sighisoara synagogue.  Now empty, its members killed by Romanian and German fascists.  The remnants emigrated to Israel and America or assimilated under the pressure of communism.  The shul was rededicated by Jewish donors and some local non-Jewish allies.  A faded, almost barbarically quiet presence in places we once called home.  A sign of cooperation, and a sign of the times.  To be a Jew, more than anything else, is to know how to live in the bittersweet.

 

 

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The Jewish conundrum

I’m currently traveling through Romania.  Romania, for all its current and past political problems, is today a much, much more peaceful place in Israel.  You can’t really compare a 50,000 person demonstration in Bucharest with hundreds of rockets, racist legislation, land appropriations, occupation, and creeping fascism of Israel.  A state once semi-democratic but now plunging into the totalitarian fiesta that is the Middle East.  And once was Eastern Europe.  With vestiges creeping back today.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that the increasingly psychotic right-wing leaders of the former communist bloc have found themselves in bed with Benjamin Netanyahu.  Even as they spew anti-Semitism and racism in their own countries.  I suppose bullies attract bullies.

Before we dive in, here are some pretty pictures of my other homeland.  My great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and I’ve loved traveling here.  This is my third visit this year- I’m the first member of my family to step on its soil since she left 130 years ago for the golden shores of America.

Romania is gorgeous.  Or in the case of Cheile Turzii, “gorges” 🙂 .  I’ve been to Cluj, the silicon valley of Romania.  Literally- both a valley surrounded by hills and also the high-tech hub of the country.  Filled with lots of young, progressive people working in high tech.  But with way less pent up aggression than people in Tel Aviv.

I’ve been to historic Transylvanian cities, old synagogues, beautiful mountains.  Romania is stunning.  My ancestors must’ve really been struggling to want to leave here.  (Turns out they were- the government passed anti-Semitic legislation and had various state-sponsored pogroms the years my family left)

And for those of you still living in Israel, the other day I bought ice cream, a large bag of oatmeal, apples, bananas, milk, several yogurts, almonds, tomatoes, cucumbers, a Romanian home-made candy, cascaval cheese, turkey, whole-grain bread, and I forget how many other things.  For a total of $10.  Israel is stupidly expensive and the quality of food is definitely not better than here- but I suppose that’s what you get when your country is ruled by a bunch of nepotistic politicians whose rabbi friends make an extra buck off of every piece of food by deciding God approves of it.  Nationalism costs money- I suppose if you pour every ounce of your being into conflict and the idea that your country is super awesome, then people can take advantage of your distraction and charge you money for the things you actually need to survive.  But keep believing that patriotism is awesome.

Romania also knows a thing or two about ethno-nationalism.  It’s a country where, to this day, there’s actually a political party calling for outlawing the Hungarian minority’s party.  Because they claim the Hungarians want to hand over Transylvania to Hungary again.  Does this sound familiar, Israel?

It’s also a place with a long, storied history of anti-Semitism.  One which, thankfully, is much, much better today.  As I have never felt physically threatened and have never even faced an aggressive comment here.  Frankly, Romanians are way more polite and respectful than Israelis.  I feel emotionally safer with the average Romanian than a Jew in Israel.  And not just because they say “please” and “thank you”- although that’s nice too.

And Romania does have a mixed record on its Jews.  As I’ve been here, I have seen a little bit of anti-Semitic graffiti, I’ve heard some yearnings for right-wing politics, I even saw a billboard promoting some sort of Mein Kampf theater production.  Hopefully with the goal of educating people, but I’m honestly not sure.  And I was rather shocked to see the words on a billboard.

I also visited a synagogue.  I was hesitant to- I’m here partially to get space from Israel.  But I was in Sighisoara and I just wanted to take a peek.  Perhaps it was partially because when I asked a young woman where it was, she said there was none.  Even as Romanian nearly-Klezmer-sounding music blared out of her store (which was awesome- she said she’d check out Jewish music after).  I don’t think she was ignorant out of hatred.  I think she simply didn’t know there was a synagogue.  In a town of 20,000 people.  Sad.

I have to note that I’ve mentioned to many people here I’m Jewish.  And sometimes I’ve noticed feelings of guilt.  One guy, when I said my family was killed in the Holocaust, said it gave “shivers down his spine” and he told me about an Israeli he’s met who actually moved to Romania.  And to return to the synagogue in Sighisoara, the non-Jewish custodian of the synagogue was so, so proud to show it to me.  She even hummed the tune to “Tzadik Katamar”, a Jewish prayer written on the wall of the synagogue.  As we both motioned the steps to the Israeli folk dance.  For those of you who think, as I was basically taught at home and at synagogue, that Eastern Europeans are just a bunch of lousy bigots- you’re wrong.  The lousy bigots would be the people who taught you this lie- and the idea that you can generalize about tens of millions of people.  Many decades of evolution after most of our persecution took place.  Things have undoubtedly changed here for the better.  I feel much safer in Cluj Napoca than in Tel Aviv or London.

And there are problems.  Today I was at some sort of folk festival and I met a guy who spoke Spanish.  I was ordering food and having trouble conveying how many grams of meat I wanted (that’s a thing here- everyone should pick up on this.  You don’t have to guess how big your food will be, or be disappointed!).  He, like many Romanians, has worked abroad.  In his case, Spain.  In many others’, Italy or elsewhere.  Part of the reason things are so cheap here for me is that their economy isn’t so great.  Sending thousands of young people abroad in search of work.  Sometimes, to return.  Sometimes, not.

He starts talking politics with me.  One of the things I *love* about Romania is how un-invasive people are.  When I say I’m American or Jewish or tall or short or religious or not religious- people don’t dig.  In Israel, you can say you dislike tomatoes and enter into a 15 minute argument about a fucking fruit. (or vegetable- again, keep arguing).  Israelis like to pretend that respecting people is such an American concept, that “politeness” is fake.  But actually, my experience is Eastern Europeans are way, way more polite than Israelis.  So their barbaric habits must have other roots, because it sure ain’t from here.  I tried to cross the road the other day at 10pm, with no cars coming, and my friend said we should wait.  I asked why and he said: “because we have to respect the rules.  And be fair.”  As he returned me the fifty cents I overpaid for our meal.  I actually laughed out loud because no one has treated me with such dignity in a long time.  Then he gave me hand-picked apples from his family’s farm.  You can be generous and polite- it’s not that hard.

Now to return to the first guy talking politics.  He starts telling me about Romania’s corrupt politics and economic woes.  And how things were *better* under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.  While I can understand the former, the latter is a bit absurd.  While perhaps there was more economic stability under the communist dictatorship, this is a man who was executed by his own people for committing genocide and heinous war crimes.  Even Queen Elizabeth hid from him in bushes once.  A story so silly it has to be true.

What really irked me, besides the Middle East-style hijacking of the conversation to lecture me about politics, is that this dictator was a real ass to the Jewish people.  He confiscated over 1000 cemeteries and synagogues.  Jews had to *pay* to make aliyah, to leave the country.  While Jewish issues are hardly at the top of Romanians’ list of woes, to not even think about how this man made my people’s- any people’s- lives miserable is just abysmal.  And cruel.

I’m glad your pocketbook was better under your former dictator, but I’m not particularly happy he shat on my family’s heritage either.  Nor are the political prisoners he killed and tortured.

In the end, what I have to say is this: religion is a sham.  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism- it’s all frankly an overcharged book club where everyone thinks their book is the best.  Nationalism, to me, is just another type of religion.  My flag, my country, my people are awesome, and everyone else comes next.  If at all.  Because all of these philosophies aren’t provable.  Like, frankly, the existence of God.  What evidence do you have for God existing?  If God was so self-evident, why do you have to teach children about it to believe in it?  And why do you need organized religion to enforce its tenants?

Religion, like all philosophies, can contain grains of truth.  It’s just that for me, they don’t come from an invisible deity who you’ve personally never met or seen.  But somehow miraculously spoke to a human being you don’t know thousands of years ago to tell you exactly how to live your life.  I presume among clergy there are some good people, but their profession lends itself to charlatans because they are selling something they cannot prove.  While not all things can be easily proven, I want the antibiotic I take to fix my stomach bug to have FDA approval.  And our societal ethics should be no different- based on facts or at least rational arguments.

When you’re convinced that your book is the best, you have to constantly beat people over the head with it.  Since, ironically, it is not self-evident that you are the best (which would go against the idea that you’re inherently awesome), you have to remind people over and over again.  Why would you need to evangelize something so blatantly obvious?

For example, did you know Unitarianism was born in Transylvania?  This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned in Romania.  I went one of their first churches.  Unitarianism, for those who don’t know, is today largely a peacenik left-wing church centered around social justice.  I even once went to a Ska concert at one in high school- pretty much anything goes.

Yet apparently, the first Unitarians were lunatics.  My tour guide told me they would go into churches and just start tearing down artwork and “idols” and burning shit.  Far from the birkenstock-wearing vegans that I know today.

So when I visited a Unitarian church here- one of the first- the pastor did exactly what every lunatic clergy in Israel did.  Tell me how they were the first, the best.

I had mentioned how I had Unitarian friends in America, that they would be thrilled to see I visited.  He smiled.  Genuinely.  And also proceeded to tell me how young the American church was and that the Hungarians were the first Unitarians.  Implication- the real Unitarians.  Unitarians!  Even the friggin Unitarians have to argue about who is the first in their book club.  And they are probably the most relaxed readers.

This kind of stupid narcissism is inherent to any ideology which believes it is perfect, the best, superior.  The 10 minute interaction with the Unitarian pastor was mostly harmful because it reminded me of much longer, more aggressive interactions with the brilliant Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faith-peddlers of Israel.  Romanians, even at their worst, are still way less intense than the average Israeli.

I once posted an Arabic video in a Facebook group to have a guy from Yaffo randomly message me on Facebook voice notes of him saying “that’s great you want to learn Arabic.  Here’s the call to prayer.”  As he Allahu-Akbar’ed the hell out of my phone.  Many Muslims are shocked that I’ve read the Quran and not converted to Islam- because it’s such a perfect book I must have “seen the light”.  And claimed their religion has never persecuted Jews- despite centuries of evidence.  I had a Jewish guy ask me for money to buy food for Shabbat- and then tell me how awful the Sudanese “leeches” were in South Tel Aviv where I lived.  I even had a Jew tell me once that the worst Jew is better than the best goy.  And another Jew told me- knowing I was Reform- that Reform Jews are Christians (why is that an insult?).  Somehow Christians are stupid enough to get into this battle when they are 2% of the population.  I’ve met Orthodox Christians tell me they are the “original Christians”.  Not like those Catholics…  I’ve even had Aramaic-speaking Jerusalem Christians say they are the real Arameans, not the Arameans in Northern Israel.  Christian priests literally get into fist-fights in Jerusalem every year over who gets to light some sort of flame in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Literally coming to blows over a fucking match.

In the end, I have religious friends and not religious friends.  I’m not religious- I used to identify as religious and am not anymore.  If this blog was hard for you to read as a religious person, I can understand.  I also feel it’s important to share my truth.  What I hope is that even if you read a different book from me (frankly, I’m a fan of reading everything), what I hope is you take from it kindness and generosity.  I personally have found it detrimental to limit myself to one book, one ideology in informing my world view.  And that the idea of a deity above me, rather than the human beings beside me, has led me to feel small and to make some poor choices.  And now, I feel more empowered and happy.

So in the end, when it comes to Romania, I’m not a Jew because I believe in God or because I think we are the best.  I’m not a nationalist.  I’m a Jew sometimes because people force me to be one.  When I see a desecrated cemetery, like I did in Cluj, my inner Jewish spirit arises.  My empathy for my people, for my ancestors, wells up.  My desire to protect.  Just like if I saw a Muslim cemetery being turned into an apartment building in Yaffo.  That is a true story.

What I believe in, then, is humanity.  Is treating each other with respect.  When someone yearns for an anti-Semitic dictator to my face, I am a Jew.  When someone bulldozes an Arab home, I’m an Arab.  When someone throws coffee in someone’s face for wearing a hijab, I’m a Muslim.  When ISIS butchers Christians in Iraq, I’m one of them too.

It’s not because of God or any book.  It’s because I’m against suffering.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I won’t be asking God for forgiveness or beating my chest or dressing in a suit to impress a congregation half-asleep as a rabbi preaches.  Sometimes a good message, sometimes not.  Always one which includes an appeal for donations.

What I will be doing this Rosh Hashanah is exactly what I try to do every day.  Be kind, give a smile to someone who needs it, explore, reflect, enjoy.

Because I’m not a religious leader, I won’t tell you how to spend your holiday- if you observe it at all.  Instead, I’ll hope that you follow the path that brings you joy and understanding.  Nuance and hope.  And the ability to feel sad and angry at hatred, compassion for those being hurt, and the realization that we make choices each day. Which can bring light into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

Instead of fighting over a flame, let’s grow its light.

p.s.- the cover photo is a synagogue in Targu Mures.  Because there are good people in Romania and around the world working to preserve Jewish heritage, even as others wish to destroy it.  I am grateful to them and honored to visit.

Catching the bus at the Auschwitz train tracks

I just got back from an amazing trip to Hungary and Romania.

The blessing of living in Israel is that we’re so close to many other countries and it’s cheap to travel there.  My roundtrip flight was $90.  And I got to see my ancestors’ heritage up close- I’m part Hungarian and Romanian!

Two of my great-grandparents were from Hungary and one from Romania.  They immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s, about 130 years ago.  Nobody from my family has been back until now.

When I booked my travel, I was excited.  And then I got nervous.  Even a cursory glance at Jewish news will reveal anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, including in the East.  Where it has thrived for centuries– one of the reasons my ancestors left.

I almost didn’t go.  I needed a relaxing trip and I was worried that with the Holocaust sites (which there were many), the potential animosity, and even homophobia, it wouldn’t be so fun or safe- emotionally or physically.

In the end, I decided to go.  And I had a life-changing, amazing time.

First off, I went to the least touristy places in both countries.  Debrecen and Satu Mare, in Hungary and Romania respectively, are no Budapest and Bucharest.  They are beautiful and special in their own ways, but there are no people hawking tchotckes and souvenirs.

I kind of liked that, especially for a short trip.  Almost no tourist information was in English and few people spoke it.  Which, surprisingly for a multilingual person like me, made it kind of fun.  Using basic vocabulary, I was able to get around and actually have some nice conversations with people.  On a basic level and it helped me avoid anything precarious.  Although interestingly enough, in just three days, I used French, Portuguese (in both countries), and a bit of Catalan.  If you know Romance languages, you can piece together something intelligible to a Romanian.  Pretty cool 🙂

There’s something relaxing about not knowing what everyone is saying.  Could be perfectly nice stuff, could not be, but not knowing was kind of nice.  I was able to engage meaningfully- I visited Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and community offices.  Churches, restaurants, a farm, a romantic train through the countryside, and a university.  And I did talk to people- lightly and meaningfully.

And I have an interesting insight- I did not experience a single act of overt anti-Semitism.  And I told everyone I was from Israel.  And had roots in their country.  In fact, the only reaction other than a polite or neutral one was enthusiasm!  One teenage kid with amazing English- he learned from movies and music- said “wow, that’s cool!”  At a time when Jews are being physically assaulted and politically battered in such “liberal bastions” as the Netherlands, Britain, France, and Germany- not one negative comment.  Not from a young person or an old one, an English speaker or not.  I felt relaxed- and surprised.

It’s not because I’m under the illusion that there is no anti-Semitism- there is pretty much everywhere.  Find me a place without prejudice, and I’ll give you a lifetime of goulash.  The Jewish press does an important job in reporting anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, especially to protect our heritage sites.  Yet I wonder if by mainly reporting the bad stuff, Jews are left with a distorted impression of how these societies really are.  Today.

Because I was given a tour of a Hungarian Jewish cemetery- by a Protestant woman.  Who when I showed her a tombstone of a potential relative who was murdered in the Holocaust (which I did not expect), her face showed deep empathy.  When I told a young Hungarian woman visiting from London (who spontaneously invited me to sit with her at a restaurant- so nice!) that I found that tombstone- she also appreciated the gravity.  And then we went back to laughing with her and her two Brazilian friends about how she should make a YouTube channel of her silly catering stories.

When I told a Romanian guy I was there to exploring my Jewish Romanian roots, he said: “that’s really cool to come explore your heritage”.

Keep in mind these comments were during a time when Israel was in an active conflict with Hamas in Gaza.  In fact, Hamas launched 70 rockets at Israeli cities while I was on the trip- which I didn’t even know until after.  God protect them.  And it was a relief to have a break from the stress of living in Israel.

While more than a few of my “liberal” friends in America and Europe bashed Israel on social media, I didn’t see a single graffiti, hear a single comment, see a single flag- nothing while I was on this trip.  People were warm and welcoming and I had a really meaningful time.

I may write several blogs about the experience because there is so much to say- singing in an empty Satmar synagogue, getting a private tour of a Hungarian-Indian-Italian-Japanese-Egyptian art museum, meeting Romanian Jews, staying on a farm, touring Reform and Orthodox cemeteries, visiting gorgeous churches, and of course eating delicious food.  Food which could sit on a Jewish deli counter in New York and look perfectly in place.  The sliced cucumbers in vinegar, the braided bread, the rugelach-looking pastries.  I may not speak Magyar, but I sure eat the same food.

For now, I want to leave you with an image.  To help you understand that for any continuing problems, the Hungary and Romania of today are not the same as those of old.

Judith, a Jewish community leader in Satu Mare who gave me a tour of the synagogue and cemeteries, was walking me back to where I needed to catch the bus.  The bus to Hungary.

The bus was from a train station.  Not any train station- the train station where Nazis and their Hungarian fascist friends deported 18,000 Satu Mare Jews to their deaths.  Including Judith’s uncle and grandparents.

It’s also where I caught my shuttle.  As the driver called out our names- and asked for our passports- I couldn’t help but feel a bit disturbed.  Who are you to ask for my passport?  I’m from here!  And just 80 years ago, when my ancestors’ names were being called out, when their papers were being inspected- it was to send them to their death.

The difference is that now, thank God, thank those people Jewish and non-Jewish who’ve made things better- the only roll call was to make sure we were in the car and had paid.

When we got to the Hungarian border, the police were pretty tough.  Hungary is known for having a strict border policy right now.  And they took a hard look at my Israeli passport.

I could tell the Romanians in the van were having a laugh at them too- there’s some tension between the two countries.  Although it barely registers on my radar living in the Middle East.

After a long stop, the border police called my name.  Nervously waiting to hear what they had to say (I can’t imagine what my ancestors felt)- he simply handed me my passport and said “have a nice trip”.

Boy how times have changed.  For all the balagan, or mess, politically in Hungary right now, or the continuing prejudice Jews may face- there can be no doubt how much better things are today nor how grateful I feel for being alive in these times.  Where I can hear my name called at the train tracks to Auschwitz to catch a van to my AirBnB.

Anti-Semitism is alive and real in Eastern Europe, even if I didn’t personally experience it one bit.  And people are people.  Here’s the incontrovertible fact- I felt safer being an Israeli and a Jew in the Hungarian-Romanian borderlands than I would at a liberal arts college in the United States.  The former a place I was taught to fear, the latter a place I once called home.

But I suppose home is not just where you sleep.  It’s where you breathe, you love, you learn, you grow, you smile, even cry.  And I have a message: Romania and Hungary, you’re one of my homes again.  My family has been gone for a long time, and you surprised me with your warmth.  Thanks for the chance to visit- I have a feeling I’ll be back.

In the meantime, keep that braided bread ready for me.  I’m excited to see how it tastes on a Friday night compared to my challah.

challah hungary?.jpg

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

This is perhaps my most Israeli blog title yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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