The “Jew Bill” and America’s Future

Proud to share my latest piece, published in the Baltimore Jewish Times:

The ‘Jew Bill’ and America’s Future

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the Maryland Historical Society. I’ve always liked Baltimore. As a suburban Marylander from Montgomery County, I suppose I should have some sort of enmity towards my ever-so-slightly northerly neighbor, but I like your town. I’m so Maryland that I once sat in the Annapolis harbor and tried to take a “shot” of Old Bay — the handful of powder quickly suffocating my taste buds as I laughed in disgust and glee. No matter where I am, I’m always a Marylander and a Jew through and through.

What, then, brought me to this interesting archive? A simple question: What is the future of American Jewry? Or, on a more primal level, my passion for archives. What’s hidden in history’s past that can en-lighten our present and stabilize our future?

I learned an interesting lesson. The ambiguous, if fruitful, relationship between Jews and the rest of America has its roots as far back as our state’s founding. And that if we want to understand the trajectory of our people, we need to know our local history as well as we do our Torah, our tikkun olam or our favorite falafel stand in Tel Aviv.

In 1826, the Maryland General Assembly passed what is commonly called the “Jew Bill.” Fifty years after independence, our beautiful black, red, gold and white state was the last one where Jews couldn’t legally serve as legislators. It’s a notion difficult to understand. In a country marked by the separation of church and state, how is it that our enlightened sliver of beach, mountains, ports and piedmont could deny our community the right to serve?

Oddly enough, the debate raged. Some argued against our rights, some for. I had the great blessing of holding some of these original documents in my hands, including the very statements by both our opponents and our supporters made before the assembly.

What struck me most is how the case for us was made. One of our most ardent supporters, Mr. H. M. Brackenridge, made his case for us based on our Americanness. In an argument that would grate on the ears of some today, he argued that American Jews should be able to serve because we’ve assimilated American values. That we were superior in character to the “Jews of Portugal and Turkey.” But there is a bit more to this argument.

In fact, Mr. Brackenridge, who wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in today’s “gotcha” culture, was making a sophisticated argument, if one that bodes a bit poorly for our future here. He argued that when a culture oppresses its Jews, the Jews become more deficient. He even said, “Will one seriously compare the Jews of England of the present day with the same people a few centuries ago, when degraded and op-pressed by the British kings?” In other words, while I find fault with the assumption that western countries were inherently more enlightened towards their Jews than eastern ones (indeed, history shows that was not always the case), he has an interesting framework, that if he overstates his culture’s “enlightenment” of our people (after all, we contribute to the societies we’re in too), he is arguing that oppression of Jews is wrong. America’s openness to our people is precisely what improves our condition to the point where we are suitable members of the legislature, having Americanized, yet retained our Jewishness in a manner that necessitates changing the law to include us.

In the end, what remains is a fascinating paradox. American Jews are worthy, in Mr. Brackenridge’s argument, by virtue of our Americanness. But also because of our Jewishness. In his words: “[Is there] nothing in the Jewish race … in the religious doctrines which necessarily disqualifies the Jew from discharging the duties, and fulfilling all the obligations of a citizen of Maryland?” For him, the answer is no. We are entitled to serve just as anyone else. Both by virtue of us being thoroughly American(ized) and because our Jewishness is seen as acceptable. Our similarities and differences are the source of our rights. If it was a simple issue of civic equality, then there’d be no need to make an argument based on our Judaism — why not simply say all religions are welcome? And if it was a matter of including us because of our acceptable Jewish values, why vouch for us in terms of our Americanness?

These are complicated questions. I don’t have easy answers. Mr. Brackenridge, as I see it, is making a difficult argument that continues to grant us both privilege and pain in this country. That our positive uniquely Jewish essence makes us good potential Americans, and that our assimilation into American society makes us better than Jews elsewhere. It’s a paradox that today sometimes manifests itself in questions about our loyalty. Because our perceived fidelity to American values is what makes people like Mr. Brackenridge grant us the very rights that make us free to be different.

In other words, our right to be different is contingent on a certain level of assimilation, which creates endless opportunities for us on a level not experienced in any other civilization. But it also creates a tension that can undermine our ability to preserve our distinct traditions in peace.

All of this was best summed up by my conversation with a cab driver the other day. When I said how I loved being in Israel, surrounded by my culture, he asked “well isn’t American culture your culture?” It is. But it’s not my only culture. I’m thoroughly American and thoroughly Jewish. It’s what makes us rich contributors to both civilizations.

In a phrase you’ll hear a lot in Israel, we’re “gam vegam.” Both this and that. And that will continue to confound people who try to put us in boxes. But it’s a dual and overlapping identity worth preserving, for the sake of our peoples, American and Jewish.

Before my visit to the archives, I can’t say I knew much about Maryland Jewish history. But I know this — handling it myself and reading the words in my own way has opened up new inquiries and ways of understanding myself, and new questions to probe and perplex.

If you find yourself curious about where we’re heading as Jews and Americans, perhaps a visit to your local archive will shed some light, or at least keep you entertained and engaged on a rainy afternoon in Charm City. I wish you a fruitful exploration.


Help someone today

Today I found myself in a Jewish deli.  I love Jewish delis.  Severely lacking in the Jewish State, Jewish delis still dot the streets of major American cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and L.A.  Filled with matzah ball soup, kreplach, black and white cookies, rugelach (the dense American kind made with cream cheese), and all of my favorite childhood foods.  Including whitefish salad.

In need of a pick me up after a rough hour or two, I slurped on my chicken soup.  The salty savory flavor filling my taste buds with joy and warmth.  The kind of warmth sometimes lacking in America.  A place so rigid and overly burdened by rules that when I emailed a local archive about visiting, they told me they couldn’t accommodate me for the next two weeks.  I’ve traveled to 10 countries in the past two years and I’ve never even had to make an appointment to visit an archive.  I even walked in unannounced and held Inquisition-era documents from the 1200s in the city of Tortosa.  God forbid you slightly disturb an American archivist- their schedules seem to be made years in advance.

On the contrary, while Israel is a place that lacks rules (hence the chaotic man-eats-man rental market), it does not lack warmth.  Once I visited a small moshav that now forms part of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.  Unannounced, I walked in to a tiny museum showcasing the area’s history.  Filled with amazing knickknacks and chotchkes, I stood in awe and perused.  The man staffing- and I use that word liberally, he was just sitting in a chair writing some notes and answering calls- told me to come on in.  You don’t have to “sign in” or wear business clothes or make an appointment.  He welcomed me in and proceeded to show me the tiny two room archive- for two hours.  No cost, no rush.  He regaled me with stories of the moshav- when the area used to be agricultural as opposed to part of a 2 million person metro area.  He showed me pictures of fallen soldiers he knew himself.  When he apologized for having to grab the phone after two hours of chatting, I then wandered alone for another hour.  Unsupervised, trusted.  Allowing my mind and my spirit to be guided by what I saw.  This is the best way to learn and experience.  Rather than goose-stepping through a syllabus or knowing “what you’re looking for”, sometimes you let your mind wander and discover amazing things.

Organization, then, is America’s greatest strength and weakness.  I never have to push in grocery lines here.  Americans might laugh at this, but this is the reality of living in Israel and not a small number of countries around the world.  You have to constantly advocate for yourself.  Rules are only as valid as your will to enforce them.  And if you’re not prepared to cut someone off in line at the grocery store, you simply won’t get to pay.  Apply this to literally every aspect of life in Israel and you can see why it is tiring.  Assuming someone else will respect the rules simply because they are there is an American value- not one to take for granted and not one to presume the rest of the world plays by.

This organization is a great weakness when it comes to creativity, spontaneity, and resilience.  The ability to plan is predicated on stability.  If you know that two weeks from now at 2pm you’ll be free, alive, and have enough money, you can make plans to grab coffee with a friend.  It’s a soothing stability that can allow for truly great long-term plans to come to fruition.  A stability often lacking in Israel, where things seem to shift from moment to moment.  You need to reconfirm that your friend is going to show up on the day you’re supposed to meet- or oftentimes they won’t show up.  Plans are a suggestion unless reconfirmed- and even then, not a small number of times people won’t show up.  It’s not seen as socially rude because you’re entitled to do it too without any repercussion.  To see how you feel.  It’s a different culture.  Flexibility can be a two way street both frustrating and liberating.  Plans in Israel are plans- not etched-in-stone commitments hovering above Moses’s head.

In America, the impulse to plan is so strong sometimes that Americans don’t realize how strange they are.  One Friday, an Israeli friend said that he asked an American here to play basketball together.  The American said sure.  Thinking that meant now, the Israeli suggested they play the next day.  The American, looking puzzled, pulled out his Google Calendar and (without thinking it odd- which it is) suggested they play in two weeks.  Two weeks- this cursed amount of time that apparently both archivists and basketball players live by on this dreaded continent.  Why is it so hard to live in the moment and play basketball when you feel like it?  How do you even know you’ll want to play in two weeks, or what the weather will be like?  Of all the places I’ve visited, Americans are some of the most rigid, placid, uncreative people I’ve ever met.  Perhaps that’s why immigrants to the U.S. are disproportionately credited with inventing new patents.  What would it look like to invite someone to coffee and go…the next day?  Would it be “too soon”?  Would it be too spontaneous or erratic or confusing or disrupt your yoga schedule?  There’s nothing natural about American hyper organization- and the fact that so few of you see that is a testament to your inability to see other ways of doing things.  It’s a rigidity that hampers the growth of this country- economically, socially, and politically.  On both sides of the aisle.

After yet another archive telling me I had to schedule an appointment to sit down with a book, I found myself noshing on my kreplach in the Jewish deli.  I had met nice Americans (an odd phrase to have to write- but I sometimes feel like an immigrant in my own country), but I was frankly tired of them.  I needed some good Jewish cooking to feel at home and bask in a bit of my own culture.

Then, the most incredible thing happened.  A black man walked in with a young presumably white man (although he was kind of olive skinned like me).  The black man was almost certainly homeless.  And the white man was dressed like he worked in a nearby law office.

The white man approached the counter- but it was the black man who ordered.  “One brisket sandwich, some chips, and a coke”.

The cashier repeated the order and gave the white man the check.  The latter paid, shook hands with his grateful (new?) friend, said “we have to stick together” and left.

It was the most beautiful thing.

I raced to pay my bill to try to meet this incredible young man.  This was the kind of American, the kind of person, I’d like to be friends with.  Spontaneous, generous, humble.  Like I see myself.

I rushed out the door, but the young man was nowhere to be found.

I looked left and right, walked around the block, but this mysterious hero disappeared, like a character from a Baal Shem Tov story.

I felt inspired.  Disappointed that I couldn’t find him, I realized I could do the same thing.  I walked up to a homeless man begging by a street corner.  I asked him if he’d like some food.

“Oh, wow, yes that would be nice.”

“Ok, no problem.  What would you like?”

He stared at the cart on the street selling the usual- Skittles, M&Ms, water, Coca Cola.

“Oh, I’d like a Pepsi and some CheezIts.  I love CheezIts!”

“They are good!” I said.

He looked sheepish.  “I’d really like…the flavored ones,” as he pointed to the white colored chips below the chemically orange ones.

“Sure, no problem, whichever ones you want.”

I asked the Indian man behind the plastic window if he accepted credit cards.

“Only over ten dollars.”

I sighed.  Short on money myself and not really having use for ten dollars of candy, I reached for my cash.  I only had one dollar and the Pepsi and CheezIts cost two.

The homeless man said: “Oh no, don’t worry about it, I’m OK.”  As if he didn’t need the food, as if his desire to be treated with an ounce of generosity required him to plead his strength.  It’s a degrading facet of American society that I hate.  It reminds me of the other day when I tried to take a bus but I was 50 cents short and the driver made me get off at the next stop.  I can’t count how many times in Israel I didn’t have the right change and was allowed to ride the whole way.  I was never asked to step off.  There is more to life than money, and it doesn’t cost a cent to be nice.

I insisted that I get the homeless man something despite his insistence that he was “OK”.

I gave the Indian man the one dollar I had and told my friend to grab the CheezIts.

He was thrilled.

He said “God bless you, thank you, have a blessed day.”  And I wished him the same.  I love moments like these.

America is the land of the dollar bill.  The question is whether you’d like to use it as a reason to kick someone off a bus, or take the spare one in your pocket and make someone happy.

You can wait for “policy makers” to fix your problems, or you can do something today to be nice to someone.  You can resent people for being poor, or you can show a little generosity.

Tweeting and “liking” and raising awareness don’t bring joy to people’s hearts.  Looking someone in the eyes and treating them like a human being does.

Today was a reminder for me that Americans are people too.  That some are rigid and unforgiving and cruel, and some are spontaneous, kind, and warm-hearted.  For all the cultural differences, there are nice and mean people everywhere- and it’s sometimes hard to figure out who is who.  What is kind in one culture could be cruel in another.  There are also cultural norms which aren’t moral even if they’re common.  And there are of course the individuals within this haze, whose kindness I’m trying to evaluate.  When you are able to have that clarity, it really makes life a lot better.  To avoid the mean people, and to merge your light with that of other bright souls.  To illuminate some space for each other in a sometimes dark world.

I hope that this story is a reminder for you that you don’t need to schedule a time to help people.  You don’t need to make an appointment to smile.  You don’t need a new law or politician to show someone kindness.  There’s nothing polite about keeping your distance when someone is in need.  It’s rude.

Generosity is something we’re all capable of, no matter how much we have.  Do it- it’s the best medicine one can find besides a warm bowl of matzah ball soup.  For yourself, and for the people you’ll help.  Do it now.

This time, the air raid siren was real

Almost a year ago to the day, I experienced my first air raid siren.  For sabras who grew up here, this is simply a part of life here.  For me, it was terrifying.  I remember, three days after moving into my apartment, praying in a dark stairwell googling “what to do in an air raid”.  The longest five minutes ever.  Fortunately, that time it was a false alarm.

This time, it wasn’t.

I was down south, just four days after arriving in Israel after a blockbuster two months abroad.  Adjusting to life back in Israel is hard.  I love being back- the delicious hummus, the sense of humor, the fact that I don’t have to hide that I’m a Jew.  The land itself has a beauty unparalleled.  I missed here.  In ways I never thought I would.

In all my adventures in Israel, I found it hardest to get to the South.  First off, the public transit is more limited.  Secondly, I really like trees and there are a lot more in the North.  I felt the desert was kind of boring, depressing.

And I was wrong.  The desert is enchanting, and while at times it feels utterly empty, sometimes that’s exactly what fills me with peace.

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When you look out at the desert, you can just forget the linguistic barrier, the culture shock, the impending life decisions.  And imbibe the emptiness- filling the soul with the space of a breath.

This is the beauty of Israel.  The homeland of the Jewish people.  And, at least for now, my home.  I can’t really imagine living anywhere else.  It’s not the affordability nor the amazing politics nor the peaceful region that surrounds it.  It’s that quite simply, I can’t see myself anywhere else.  Not as home.

Wandering around Beersheva, the capital of the desert, I made my way to meet a friend after eating some sushi.  I actually find myself missing Israeli sushi.  The sushi sandwiches, which I’ve never seen anywhere else, and something about the taste.  I’ve always been a sushi fan.  Having lived in Japan as a child, I’ve eaten it since my very first memories.  A place feels like home when I miss its Asian food. 🙂

Walking down the street, I peered at some graffiti.  Looked at a yellow-white wall next to the train tracks.  And heard the word over my right shoulder:


Azakah is the Hebrew word for an air raid siren.  An alarm.  An alert.  Time to duck and cover.

It’s a word I learned during my first experience a year ago.  Something you don’t typically learn in Hebrew lessons at the age of 13, when I learned the language.  But that’s the reality of being a Jew– wherever we go, we have to be prepared.  We have to live in the moment because we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.

I asked a young man in the streets if the slow wailing I started to notice was in fact an air raid siren.  And he said yes, and invited me in.

I stepped inside a nicely-organized Israeli apartment.  A young woman named Tal, her boyfriend, and his roommate.  All students at Ben Gurion University, a place where I spent the afternoon looking at Yiddish treasures, books preserved from the 1920s and before.  A time when world Jewry was also on the precipice of fiery violence.

One book that stood out to me was this one, published in Warsaw in 1901.  A city that was once 41% Jewish.  300,000 Hebrew souls before World War II.  Out of over 3 million Polish Jews.  Today, 10,000 remnants of Israel inhabit the entire country.

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After spending two months in Europe, seeing more dead Jews than living ones, I can’t help but be moved.  My eyes continuously drawn to the Jewish letters lining the bookshelves.  If you want to see Judaism both alive and preserved, you’ll find more Jewish books in an Israeli library than anywhere on the continent my family called home for 2,000 years.

Traveling there- and in the States when an American man murdered 12 Jewish souls in Pittsburgh- convinced me you can’t escape your identity.  You can run away, you can disown Judaism and our only state, but they’ll find you.  You can only embrace yourself and fight back, or twist yourself into knots trying to please anti-Semites, only to find yourself persecuted along with the rest of us.

I looked nervously at the TV.  I asked Tal’s boyfriend to explain to me what was going on.  The screen looked like this:

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Those little dots in the middle, rockets.  The subtitle: “Rocket attack on Israeli communities near Gaza.”

As if it were some sort of sick basketball game, statistics started popping up on the right.  “Alert: Nahal Oz”.  “Alert: Kibbutz Nir Am”.  “Alert: Sderot”.  “Alert: Sderot.”  “Alert: Sderot.”

I felt distant from the attacks watching them on TV, but in reality, I was a 30 minute drive.  In some cases, closer.  In fact, last month a rocket hit Beersheva itself.

And I’ve been to all the places these alerts mentioned.  Sderot has my favorite sushi place in Israel.  Nir Am is where I met families affected by Hamas’s scorching of Israeli fields.  And Nahal Oz is where my friend Yarden is studying social work.  With rockets falling overhead.

Next time you complain about how hard it is to choose the right color paint for your house or a 30 minute traffic jam, pause and think of the other.

Tal’s boyfriend explained where the rockets were falling.  All three of them had heard the azakah before.  The sound of an air raid siren is something every Israeli knows.  Far from a shock, it is as much a part of life here as prom is for an American teen.

What was most astounding, besides my rather inspirational dose of calm mixed with my anxiety, was how my three new friends reacted.  Anger, some texting with family to say they were OK, and then…life continued.  They offered me water.  We talked about life.  I still don’t even know the names of the two young men.  One of them wants to visit Australia.

I then hopped in my friend’s car to stay on a nearby kibbutz.  As the alerts continued to pour in from neighboring communities and her parents called her to check in.

To be Israeli is to persist in the face of relentless, stupid violence.  It is the most concentrated form of Judaism and a beautiful reflection on how to live with verve in spite of almost constant threats.  Life is short, go do what you want because no one will do it for you.  Live now.

As I hopped in my friend Yael’s car, she told me that she was scared of the rockets and also felt bad for the Palestinians suffering on the other side.  A shocking statement of humanity in the midst of literally being attacked by ruthless terrorists.  I also wish the Palestinians of Gaza peace and prosperity rather than the 44% unemployment rate that Hamas has delivered them.

The next time overzealous anti-Semites abroad want to tell you that boycotting us is somehow progressive or justified, think of Yael.  Who in the midst of a terror attack, is also concerned with the well-being of people on the other side of the fence.  Will you boycott her humanity?

And the next time someone tries to convince you that supporting Hamas is supporting justice, think of the Israelis smattered to smithereens by their rockets.  The 60 year old killed this week.  And the Palestinians they are supposed to govern, but instead ruthlessly repress.

There is nothing revolutionary about supporting murder.

There are some people abroad who are naïve enough to think firing 460 rockets is some sort of organic, spontaneous reaction.  It’s not.  It’s what a military does- an armed terrorist organization.  It’s not a poor kid lashing out in anger- it’s professional militants launching expensive rockets at targeted locations to kill civilians.  No matter how angry I’ve been in my life, it has never occurred to me to press a button and fire a rocket at a nameless civilian.  Absolutely nothing justifies it.  If you wouldn’t do it, you shouldn’t excuse someone else doing it either.

Conflict is complicated and hardly black-and-white, but aimlessly launching projectiles at children is never OK.  I’m still waiting for the statements of solidarity from “justice warriors” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who issue authoritative statements of support for Palestinians.  Or anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory who are best buds with Louis Farrakhan, but can’t bring themselves to recognize the humanity of Israelis.  Not a word when Israeli children are sitting at home scared of rockets falling on their houses.  For shame.

Before I left America, I visited the Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley.  A fantastic tiny exhibit about Jewish life in the Western U.S. and around the world.  Worth a visit if you find yourself in sunny California.

I noticed an exhibit about Jewish socialism and communism.  In the 20th century, many Jews turned to these ideologies as potential sources of liberation at a time when conservative forces like the Tsar and the church were persecuting them.  The extensive collection of Yiddish socialist and anarchist writing is what initially drew me to learn the language.  You can check out digitized Yiddish books here for free.

While I am empathetic to their impulses, the results were awful.  The Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies became some of the most anti-Semitic states in history.  Their own ideologies of “liberation” failing to include the Jews.  And while the marriage of socialism and Zionism brought cool innovations like the kibbutz, overall, the non-Jewish left has persecuted Jews as much as the right.  A warning to my American friends putting all their faith in progressives to save them.  It has never worked- and never will.  It is always good to seek alliances and to praise bold allies, but in the end we must count on ourselves first to protect our lives.  We cannot entirely rely on people who advocate for us only when it is convenient for their political agenda.

That’s why I’m a Zionist.  Israel’s existence is affirmative action for the Jewish people. Which is why today, it is the only place in the world with a growing Jewish community.

American Jewish friends- do not distance yourselves from us.  You will not outrun the anti-Semites.  So whatever your (sometimes justified) frustrations with the current Israeli government, which I often share, do not keep the country as a whole at arm’s length to protect yourselves.  In the long run, it won’t work, and it does anger us.  We aren’t just here to be a place for you to vacation and kiss the Western Wall.  We are a country whose blood and tears preserve the only insurance policy for the Jewish people.  At a time when we need it as much as ever.  Advocate for us in our time of need.  Do not be silent or complicit as the rockets rain down on our homes.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it nicely:

“One of the enduring facts of history is that most anti-Semites do not think of themselves as anti-Semites. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the Middle Ages, just their religion. We don’t hate Jews, they said in the nineteenth century, just their race. We don’t hate Jews, they say now, just their nation state.”

If you’re one of those Jews trying to distance yourself, take a glance back at history and see if you’re doing what’s right.  If you’re a non-Jew guilty of saying (like my college Arabic professor told me): “I have no problem with Jews, there are also Jews who don’t like Israel.”  Then look in the mirror and realize you’re staring at an anti-Semite.  Time to hit the books and raise your awareness.  Realize that if you’re disproportionately angry at Israel or deny our right to exist, you’re continuing in a long line of anti-Semitism and it’s your job to interrupt it.  Condemn the rockets, speak up for us.  Pittsburgh is one face of anti-Semitism, and these attacks are quite simply another.  You can, and should, care about Palestinian and Israeli lives- and Hamas cares for neither.

On my way to Yael’s kibbutz in the car, my phone kept buzzing.  It buzzed all night with the rocket alert app indicating every place a projectile landed.  Reeeeeeeeeeaaaar, reeeeeeear, wailing all night.

At a certain point, I did the most Israeli thing.  I took off the app and went to sleep.

Being Israeli, for me, is about rolling with the punches and realizing that life is about living.  I think it’s important to feel afraid, and it’s also important to live in spite of the irrational hatred that would have you stop.

As I glanced out the next day at Machtesh Ramon, the huge crater in Israel’s desert, I caught a glimpse of a Bedouin man climbing the stairs to the viewpoint.

I greeted him in Arabic.  Turns out, he’s Jordanian and this was his first visit to Israel.

Some secular girls took our picture together as an Orthodox couple looked on.

This is the Israel you don’t see in the news.  Because the news isn’t perfect, which is why I help fill these gaps.  Help me tell these tales.

Because while Hamas fanatics rained rockets down on our kindergartens and pizzerias and shopping centers, a Bedouin Jordanian Muslim and a gay Israeli Jew stood hands over each other’s shoulders.  Smiling as the desert breathed a sigh of relief.

I don’t have to live here, but I do.  Not just because anti-Semitism is inevitable, as Pittsburgh showed.  And because we only have the choice of how to respond to it.

But also because of these moments.  A brilliant, lively country that has survived despite it all.  Where each moment is the most valuable currency of all.  And life itself takes on a new meaning every step you take.

It’s not always easy, but it is good to be back.

Shalom Israel 🙂

What I’ve learned from my travels

September 1st, 2018 I left my apartment in Tel Aviv, ended my lease, and packed a single backpack.  This backpack would be my luggage for the entirety of my 2+ month backpacking trip throughout Europe and the U.S.

I had traveled a lot in Israel the past year and a half- and in extremely adventurous ways.  More than ever before.  I had amazing experiences like talking with Druze teens about what it’s like to be gay.  Stunning new experiences like davvening in a Hasidic synagogue in Bnei Brak.  Awe-inspiring experiences like dancing with Litvak Jews in a cave in Tsfat.  Empowering experiences like dancing to Mizrachi music at a Tel Aviv gay party.  Scary experiences like being chased by a violent Arab man in the village of Tira.  Scarier experiences when I found myself lost on the wrong side of the West Bank border area as the sun was setting.  Scariest experience when I heard air raid sirens on the first night in my new apartment.

So when I set off to Europe, I figured this would be a piece of cake.  And in some ways, it is much easier than traveling in Israel.  Nowhere I went in Europe has active violent conflict.  There are no air raid sirens, nor suspicious packages, nor soldiers walking around- a constant reminder of the state of the region.  You also can’t watch or hear the Syrian Civil War.  You just meet Algerian men who are convinced that the whole thing was started by Israel and America.  And you meet left-wing Belgians and Romanians convinced Israel is an apartheid state- but who have never been there.  Europe- a great place to be ignorant but be really convinced you’re right.  Maybe they’d make great Israelis 😉  Though they might not be so happy to hear that…

So what are the challenges of traveling in Europe?  First off, Europe is not all the same.  That’s like saying “what’s it like traveling in Asia?”  I started my trip in Romania.  Traveling in Romania is in some ways probably more similar to traveling in a relatively safe third world country.  This is not a place where you can buy your train tickets in English.  Maybe in Bucharest, but in hardcore Transylvania, you kind of mouth some words and they nod along and it works.  But this is no Paris.  It’s what makes it special, authentic, at times lonely, and challenging.

What’s cool about going to a place like Romania is not the wild dogs who chased me.  (that’s a thing- one of the many natural threats I survived)  But it is cool to see the unexpected.  I always enjoy this.  Cluj Napoca, for instance, is in the middle of Transylvania, a region with a rich Hungarian, Saxon (there are German settlers in Romania!), Romanian, Roma, and Jewish history.  And today, unlike most of the largely decaying country, it is a high tech hub.  Filled with young computer programmers.  Many of whom are the avant-garde progressives of the country.  There are even vegan restaurants.  And some of these programmers are deeply religious Christians (like most Romanians).  Who smile, say thank you, offer you rides, and then tell you you’re sinning for being gay.  One of the hardest parts about traveling is the cues you’re used to for protecting yourself might not match up with the local culture.  And so while I wouldn’t expect the average Silicon Valley computer programmer to be a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian homophobe, in Romania, that’s a real possibility.

Having escaped the wild dogs of Romania, I headed to Hungary, another of my ancestral homelands.  Budapest is a strange place.  Gorgeous architecture, amazing Jewish history, sweet views of the Danube.  Gay clubs (I went to one with a Jordanian girl I met on CouchSurfing!).  Something severely lacking in rural Romania.  On the other hand, Hungary is really intense.  Not the pace of life- Budapest is actually one of the quietest, most easy-going cities I’ve visited for its size.  But the people.  Boy!  This is a place, quite unlike Israel, where following the rules is religion.  It’s a bit hard to describe, but the incident where I was scolded for taking water from a water cooler- in an office where I was paying for genealogical research- might demonstrate the point.  After I paused and asked permission to take the water, I was granted some drops with a scowl.  I left Israel missing politeness, but Hungary showed me that when it’s imposed with fascist efficiency, it can be just as stifling.  Thank God for the woman at a sandwich shop who helped me call a cab while I carried my heavy backpack.  She was a bit nicer than the cashiers who repeatedly threw my change at me!

Slovenia.  In Slovenia, in some ways I got the best of both worlds.  Friendlier than Hungary and more modern than Romania, it was a step forward.  And the mountains, wow.  I have to say, I think I’ll be back here and I’ll head straight to the hills.  Stunning.  It takes your breath away.  It was in Slovenia I realized how brown I am.  You see, some Romanians and certainly some Hungarians can look kind of olive skinned at times.  Or at least a bit less Aryan.  Brown hair, brown eyes.  Maybe a bit different from me, but not drastic.

Slovenians look (and consider themselves) some sort of Slavic Austrians.  Having Austria on their northern border and being the wealthiest of the post-Yugoslav Republics, Slovenians definitely have a sense of difference.  And if you take a look at them, you quickly realize how much you stand out as a Mediterranean-looking Jew.  Their skin so fair, I was often considered to be a foreign worker.  Frankly, it made me more empathetic to Arabs and other immigrants from post-Yugoslav republics that come here.  Slovenians even have a slur for the latter.  Because physically, you stand out right away.  And while I enjoyed the amazing dairy vending machines and the cute cows and horses, I knew my stay would be temporary because I just didn’t fit in.  In case there was any doubt, I saw a young man give a Hitler salute in broad daylight in the capital during my walking tour.  I much prefer the wonderful young man selling cell phones- half British half Slovenian- who was excited to learn about the small Jewish museum.  Who, when I told him about it, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down the address to visit.  One of the hardest things about travel- especially as a minority- is protecting yourself.  Staying away from the neo-Nazis (because yes, that’s still a thing), and trying to meet more of those wonderful young cell phone salesmen who tell you “grab your heritage and go forward with it!”  Thanks Thomas 🙂

Belgium.  Belgium is, unlike most of Eastern Europe, a place with living Jews.  Other than the fact that small countries fascinate me and that I like speaking French, I came to Belgium to hang with real Jews.  Not just the ones in abundant abandoned cemeteries all over Romania and Hungary.  Often physically blocked off and locked to prevent desecration- vandalism that happens to this day.  Despite the brave Jews and non-Jews who help us keep our heritage alive.  Or at least preserved.

Belgium is where I discovered that I look Arab.  Well, in Israel sometimes Arabs thought I was Arab, especially when I spoke the language.  But in Belgium, let’s say Belgians know even less about the differences between Semites, so I was quite often assumed to be Algerian, Moroccan, Syrian- you name it.  Even often by Arabs, who sometimes just as ignorant, couldn’t fathom a Jew who looked like them.  Although one night, it got me delicious Halal food recommended by a Tunisian man concerned for my Islamic diet.  The meal was followed by a free delicious dessert and a Kurdish man giving me PKK terrorist literature.  I took some pictures then threw it out- an interesting memento, but not worth long conversations in airport security.  I’ll have you know it was written in 6 languages- can’t say I approve of killing civilians, but I do like a nice multilingual brochure.

Belgium is also home to a lot of different languages.  While in the news, you might hear about French vs. Flemish tensions (indeed, Belgium is a country almost constantly on the verge of dissolving, having set a record for the longest time without a government), there are lots of others as well.  Before French arrived, southern Belgium had (and in some cases still has) a ton of Romance languages.  Walloon, for instance.  Even Brussels has its very own language- Bruxellois!  I went to an adorable antique bookstore and bought a book about the history of the language from an older couple who still speak it!  They even had Tintin translated into various Belgian languages- indeed “languages” because if you just know French you won’t even understand half of them!  Travel guides portray Brussels as a veritable gangsters paradise, but I actually found the city rather quaint, with the absolute best, gooey waffles I’ve ever eaten.  Step aside, IHOP.

In Belgium, I also learned the value of sitting put for a while.  Traveling is exhausting.  Even when you’re learning so much about yourself, it’s just overwhelming to be recovering from PTSD and abuse, thinking about big life decisions, making travel plans, and adjusting to local culture and language.  Also, the random people who think you’re a millionaire because you’re traveling alone.  Or a weirdo.  I’m neither- my bank account is quite low, but I view travel as a strategic investment in me.  And I’ve learned so much about myself in the process.  Maybe these people will when they’re 60 and retire- but I’d rather not wait to experience the world.  Also, traveling alone forces you to really think about what you want and gave me ample time to reflect without distraction.  I’ve gone nearly two months barely using social media at all, and while occasionally I miss it, I find myself building deeper connections with friends- even from afar.  By sharing with them directly rather than passively assuming everyone sees something I posted to my Facebook page.  Even when it’s hard- like when don’t like where I ended up- not relying on social media helps me realize I need to go somewhere new.  If you’ve never thought to pause your social media, I have to say it’s one of the wisest and healthiest things I’ve done.  Give it a try 😉

So the benefit of sitting put in Belgium was that I had ended up in Antwerp.  I was supposed to go to the Netherlands but I realized this city was better for me and I was tired.  Indeed, I ended up spending several days in Antwerp.  Slowing down, enjoying the abundance of East Asian food.  Fixing my SIM card.  Hanging with Hasidic Jews (and reconnecting with why I like them- something exorcised from my system due to tensions in Israel).  Realizing that Jews really do stick together more in the Diaspora and the intense sectarian battles of Israel don’t really flare up as much in Belgium.  When your whole community is 30,000 strong and a lot of the people around you hate you for just being different.  I stayed with a wonderful Rwandan family in Jumet, a part of Charleroi.  Just this week, a Jewish woman was threatened at gunpoint 10 minutes down the road in an anti-Semitic attack.  It makes you appreciate just how special it is to be an American and Israeli Jew when you see how hard it is in other countries.  And it certainly scares you into questioning when, if ever, you really reveal who you are.  A kind of Jewish closet.

Luxembourg.  The tiniest country I’ve ever visited.  I’m so hipster that I didn’t even visit Luxembourg City.  Instead, I hopped on a bus from Bastogne, Belgium and went to Ettelbruck.  Passing through pristine forests along the way.  I expected to see limos and fancy homes, but instead realized that it’s basically a foreign worker city.  While you could tell the ethnic Luxembourgers by their luxury cars, almost everyone else was Portuguese, Chinese, African, or Cape Verdean.  I was definitely the only tourist there- probably the only tourist ever.  I got the most stares of my life.  I did manage to meet an ethnic Luxembourger, who mostly laughed at me being Jewish.  I did make friends with Cape Verdean women who loved my Portuguese and my passion for Kompass and Cesaria Evora.  A reminder that while Judaism and being American and gay are my primary identities, my languages are also a sense of pride.  And of connecting with people.  A kind of safety, a tribe of sorts.  One that helped me laugh and smile while waiting for the bus back to Belgium.  I still haven’t been to Portugal, but I did use the language in Luxembourg!

Now onto Spain.  While I enjoyed the beautiful historic sights of Belgium (not to mention discovering my great uncle was an American soldier killed in World War II liberating the country- while I was there!), I was ready for some sunshine.  Belgium, although filled with delightful treats, is a rather rainy place.  And Spain is warm and delightful- the people and the weather.

Spain is a place I’ve been many times, whose language- indeed languages- I speak.  Spanish, Catalan, even some Basque 😉  Andalusia, the South, is filled with warmth.  And also, a shitton of invernaderos.  Greenhouses.  Hardly a word you learn in Spanish class!  Almería, where I spent a lot of my time, is home to thousands of them.  Hundreds of thousands of Andalusians were forced to migrate to Catalonia and Germany and indeed Latin America during colonialism.  Explaining why Cubans and Puerto Ricans sound a lot like people in Granada.  The economy, frankly, sucked.  And still sucks.  While I still consider myself deeply empathetic to Catalan concerns for cultural continuity, I can see why Andalusians have their own pain.  You don’t leave a region of the country this pretty because things are going well.  Also, some people here live in caves, but I’ll come back to that in a future blog.

It is thanks to these invernaderos that some Andalusians could stay put.  I learned this from a nice man who I hitchhiked with out of a beautiful rural village (people told me there were buses back- there aren’t- a reminder that travel is full of the unpredictable, even if you read every guide book.  And I don’t.)  He even called his family and offered to give me a tour of the bell peppers and tomatoes.  I politely declined- he seemed nice but it was getting late and you have to understand that while most people are quite generous, some people are looking to make a buck or worse.  And you need to protect yourself.  Hitchhiking is a delicate art, I’ve done it some.  At its best, you’re riding through Romania with a really cool entomologist.  At worst, you’re riding through Slovenia with an anti-Semite.  It can be a real time saver, even a life saver.  And it can be quite scary to be stuck in someone’s car.  Frankly, I’m not sure how black people survive on this continent.  I’ve faced enough prejudice for being a Jew.  I can’t imagine the average Spaniard letting a Senegalese man hitchhike.  When I told a woman from Jerez that I studied immigration to Spain, she told me (as if I would agree with her): “wow, did you predict just how bad it would get?”  Like the thought had never entered her mind that I was studying the topic out of empathy.

Indeed, Andalusia is naturally beautiful and filled with friendly people.  Frankly, some of the hottest guys I’ve ever seen.  With smiles as sweet as their thighs.  But for a moment, I’d like to validate other Spaniards’ stereotypes about the region.  It is not the most cosmopolitan.  People yell really loud, talk constantly, and quite a number of them have never stepped outside Spain.  The friendliness was certainly a welcome change after Belgium, but I have to say I discovered that actually I don’t mind a little distance.  Having people repeat directions three or four times is at first charming, and later gets kind of annoying or patronizing.  Probably not the intent, but even warmth has its limits when you’re trying to go somewhere or get something done.  I can’t say I’ll validate one Andalusian woman’s comment that people there don’t like to work, but it’s hardly Germany either.

In Alicante, in the province of Valencia, I was reminded why I love minority languages.  When I left Israel, I felt rather dejected about languages.  I’ve spent my whole life studying them and I saw in the Middle East that they alone will not bring peace.  Morals, values, ideologies, personalities- are at least as important as knowing language.  I once had a Hebrew professor suggest that if all Jews and Arabs spoke each other’s languages, there’d be peace.  But now I’m fairly convinced this is not the case.  Even if I believe it would sincerely help.

But when I came to Valencia and met a gay Zionist and bonded with him in Catalan, I knew languages were magic.  I had a reason for falling in love with them- and for choosing to learn not only global languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and French.  But also Yiddish and Catalan.  Yiddish surprisingly useful in Luxembourg and with German tourists.  And Catalan in melting the heart of a wonderful Valencian bookstore owner who frankly made my day.  Maybe even my month.

After hearing British leftists say that Israelis deserved to die in terror attacks, to being berated by a Belgian man on an airplane for living in an “apartheid state”, to being strangely followed by an Iraqi man insistent on finding out where I was from- it’s not been easy being a Jew here.  Certainly not being Israeli.  So to find a Valencian man with a Hebrew tattoo was one of the most refreshing things to ever happen.  Thank you Josep- visca Valencia, visca la llengua catalana!

One of the things I’ve learned on this trip (and noticed in Israel too) is that whenever someone says “I have nothing against…” or “I don’t see color”, it means they’re a bigot.  It’s odd- but actually the need to articulate this is usually, if not always, a sign of deep hatred.  I’ve seen this with comments against Jews, against Arabs, against gays.  Consider this my travel tip 😉

My travels have revealed something very deep for me.  When I left Israel, I left rather bitter.  That’s putting it lightly.  If I’m honest with you, I’ve thought more than once that I’d never return.  But my experiences in Europe have shown me that indeed, every country has its problems.  And frankly, there are reasons why 2,000 year old Jewish communities in Belgium and France are emigrating to Israel.  And why almost no Jews remain in Romania- where 750,000 lived in 1939.  Europe has a Jewish problem- and it’s not the Jews.  This is a terrible place to be a Jew.  I met wonderful young Belgian Jews who were accustomed to the fact that their synagogues are under lock and key and heavily guarded, inaccessible to the public except for prayers.  In Europe, to visit a cathedral you just walk in.  To go to synagogue, you need to provide your passport.  Often a week in advance.

Anti-Semitism, along with other problems (Belgium’s teetering existence, Romania’s massive killings of wild dogs, poverty in Wallonia Belgium, discrimination against Roma almost everywhere), makes you realize that everywhere is a trade-off.  And while Israel certainly has its unique problems, I think I underestimated the challenge of being a gay Jew in Europe.  A place where the people who like gay people often hate Jews.  A place where the people who like Israel often hate gays.

It’s for this reason I had one of my core beliefs in Israel validated: it’s always better to see things with your own eyes.  If I had gone on an organized tour (or not traveled at all), I would’ve wondered in the back of my head if Europe would really be a better place for me to live.  A lingering doubt that would’ve eaten me alive- especially because I could pay a few thousand dollars, learn Magyar, and become a Hungarian citizen.  Gaining an EU passport through the suffering of my ancestors- and the intense nationalism of the Hungarian government.

But what I discovered is that there is no future for me in Europe.  Visiting, engaging in activism, supporting Jewish communities, exploring- oh yes.  I will be back.  But living?  I suppose that what I’ve realized is that while I’d feel suffocated to spend 365 days a year in Israel, I can’t live without it either.

Israel is imperfect.  Sometimes awful.  But it’s really a lot more normal than I thought.  And despite the claims of boycotters, every country has issues.  While one Belgian man said Israel should be boycotted because Arabs don’t have equal rights (a point I conceded- and fight against in Israel)- you could say the same about every country.  Roma don’t have equal rights anywhere in Europe.  Jews are being persecuted for wanting kosher food.  Many governments, including France and Spain, give millions of dollars in tax money to the Church.  The same church that covers up sexual abuse to this day and in the case of Spain, actually supported a dictatorship.  For decades.  And while I’d hardly suggest the issue of Muslim integration or Syrian refugees in Europe is easy (not a small number of Muslims in Europe are polled as saying Sharia law is superior to civil law), it is quite apparent that they suffer intense discrimination.  But I’m hardly going to boycott Britain because the UKIP party wants to kick out immigrants.  It’s counterproductive, it scapegoats the entire British public for a portion of the society’s thoughts, and I think it’s childish.

As childish as saying an Israeli scientist can’t come share life-saving research in Britain.

Whatever problems Israel has, I try to be part of the solution.  And I’d encourage high falutin’ British leftists to start at home before judging my country so harshly.  After all, 40% of your country’s Jews are thinking of leaving home because the Labor Party is led by an anti-Semite.  It’d do you well to worry as much about your own country’s human rights abuses as you do about my own.  Because believe me, it’s the definition of privilege for a powerful country built on colonialism to boycott a small country of Holocaust survivors.  Who you actually detained in prison camps when they reached Israel’s shores.  I’ll be just as thrilled when European leftists protest for the rights of Jews expelled from Arab lands with half as much enthusiasm as they do for Palestinian refugees.  Empathy can’t be selective for it to effective- or just.

Tonight reading about the challenges solo travelers face, I saw a lot of myself in the commentary.  And I felt proud.  While some people have called my trip a “privilege” or that I must be “rich”, the truth is it was a bold move.  With little money in my bank account, I left my apartment and carried only a small backpack for two months.  I escaped an actual wolf in Belgium, a viper in Romania, and a psychotic AirBnB host who put me on the streets at 9pm because I complained about animals crawling around my room.  I managed to make it to 6 countries.  Some places where I spoke the languages, others where I didn’t.  Some I had visited, some I hadn’t.  I made new connections, I protected myself from scary people.  I saw nuance.  I met anti-Semites, Arab and European, and met wonderful Syrian refugees and curious Polish neuroscientists who welcomed me as a Jew.

I left Israel with the sounds of Hebrew and Arabic grating to my ear.  And now I use them to talk to friends, a sometimes warm reminder of my past life.

If you wish you could travel, just do it.  Unless you live in a slum in India, you can make it happen- even just for a week or two.  There are inexpensive ways to do it and you don’t *have* to have a lease.  You don’t *have* to have an office job.  You don’t *have* to study.  You make choices.  We all do.  With pluses and minuses.  I decided to drop everything and go.  Not knowing where I’ll end up.  Still not really knowing what’s next.

Truth be told, reading the articles tonight about solo travelers, I realize I’ve always been one.  Surrounded by hostile family, I’ve always been on my own.  So the only real difference between this trip and the rest of my life is now I realize it.  That while most people miss home and yearn for their family’s hugs or can’t wait to get back, I realize I have nowhere to go back to.  Not if I want to live my life the way I want and to feel respected.  I can only go forward.

That’s why I made aliyah.  That’s why I built a new life.  And for all its imperfections, Israel is one of my homes.  Maybe my only real one right now.  I’d like to build more of a connection to my American identity without the baggage of people telling me how to feel it.  As an independent adult.  I’m just as American as I am Israeli and I feel the pain and gain of having two homelands.  Something people on both sides might want me to choose between but which I refuse to do so.  They are both mine, they shape me, and I contribute to them.  I’ll have my falafel and pumpkin pie, thank you very much.

When I’m in Europe, I miss two things.  The delicious fresh rice noodles of Pad See Ew from my favorite Thai restaurant in Washington.  And the slow quiet of a Tel Aviv street on Shabbat.

Sometimes it takes seeing what you don’t have to realize what you do.

As my cover photo says in Spanish: “shoot for the moon, if you fail, at least you’ll be among the stars”.  In the village of Vícar, a white town covered in poetry that I never knew existed until a week ago.  Go explore 😉



The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

I come from a progressive background.  I grew up being taught to vote Democrat (and when I threatened not to do so as an 18 year old, got a series of heavy-handed lectures).  My DC suburban life was pretty liberal.  I knew Republicans- and they were a smaller minority than any ethnic or religious group I knew.  And decidedly quieter, for they knew the social consequences of being open about their identity.

I can imagine one could say the same thing in reverse about many other places in America.  I not know not a small number of liberal people who grew up in rural or conservative areas and faced bullying for their identity or beliefs.

When I worked for a variety of political and non-profit organizations, the rhetoric was quite clear: progressive=good, conservative=bad.  Even with regards to the moral standing of the person himself, not just the validity of her views.

One of the famous sayings of the labor movement, a movement that successfully improved living conditions for workers across America and the world, is: “which side are you on?”  There is even a catchy folk tune about it.  The idea was, politically speaking, to force people to choose between management (bad) and workers (good).  I can understand the need for rallying cries and I think the underlying ideology is problematic.

When you ask someone to choose between one human being and another, you set up a dynamic where someone will lose.  And while in some cases that might be necessary, it’s pretty black-and-white thinking that I think gets us into some trouble.  And perhaps gratifies our desire to feel right and just more than providing real solutions.  To the extent that solutions can be found- and they aren’t always so readily available.

Living in Israel and traveling the region has taught me some things.  For one, I’ve spent a lot more time with conservative people.  While I did go to college in the Midwest and summer camp in the South, I can’t really say I had deep relationships over many years with conservative Americans.  Here, my neighbors have pictures of ultra-Orthodox rabbis in their house.  As does almost every restaurant.  I do not live in the Tel Aviv of beach high rises.  I live in a place that loves Benjamin Netanyahu- it’s not on your Birthright itinerary.  Although it should be.

I have friends- not in the metaphorical sense- but actual friends, who have my phone number.  Who are Hasidic, who are Sephardic ultra-Orthodox, who are Druze, who are Arab Christians, who are Arab Muslims, who are Modern Orthodox settlers.  The kind of people, in many cases, that I was taught to fear as an American Reform Jew.  Some of whom know I’m gay and/or Reform and are fine with it.  Some of whom don’t know- or don’t know yet- and it doesn’t particularly matter for me.

The point is I feel at home with these friends and I feel at home at queer parties in Tel Aviv.  Or leading Reform services.  Or going to pride parades.  Or vegan hippie Shabbats.  In fact, I sometimes feel more comfortable in my traditional Mizrachi neighborhood than I do at those vegan Shabbats.  But I try to find something to enjoy everywhere.  I also find it amusing to meet some vegans here who are just as “Orthodox” about their diet as any Haredi rabbi is about his Judaism.  Israel is an interesting place full of passion, contradictions, love, and curiosity.  I would never live anywhere else.

Which brings me back to my original point.  Living in Israel has opened my eyes- not only to insights about life here, but also about my former homeland.  America is increasingly polarized.  I see this also with regards to the absolute nonsense all too many progressives are spouting about Israel.  I met a young man the other day who goes to Williams College.  He told me, over some pasta in Tel Aviv, that activists on his campus put up an “Israeli apartheid wall” every year.  And then naively link the Israeli security fence to the American wall on the Mexican border.  Two rather different issues, but with one common thread: seeing the world through an American lens rather than understanding the nuances of other societies.  Like the fact that for all its complexities (including land disputes with Palestinian villages), the fence between Israel and the West Bank drastically reduced suicide bombings.  Saving who knows how many lives.

Israelis loved to tell me when I made aliyah that living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  Nothing could be more true.  The more you get to know this beautiful land, the more you see the struggle of the soldier, the identity see-saw of being Arab and Israeli, the hardship of checkpoints, the necessity of checkpoints, the suffering of refugees, the suffering of their neighbors who’ve been neglected for years.  The snobbery of wealthy “left-wing” white people, the identity void those people face because their own Yiddish-infused Ashkenazi identity was torn from them.  The anger of Mizrachim towards Arabs.  Because they are perceived as them by those same Ashkenazim who purport to advocate for them.  And because Arabs kicked them out of their countries.  And because the state suppressed their Arab-infused cultures when they arrived.  And because Palestinians mock them for being Arab- without understanding that Mizrachi Jews have lived in the Middle East long before Arabic was even spoken here.

In the end, if you really experience the full breadth of Israel, you understand there are no easy solutions.  Anyone who tells you there are is selling snake oil or perhaps listening to a little bit too much NPR.  Here’s the reality: if Israel simply “pulls out” of the entire West Bank, it will become militarized and extremists will use it as a launching point for terrorist attacks.  Just like what has happened in Gaza since Israel exited 13 years ago.  Many Palestinians simply want to make a living and too many Palestinians aren’t willing to let go of the past and move on.  And instead turn to violence, threatening Israeli lives and their own neighbors’ ability to provide for their families in peace.

There are groups out there that would like you to think there are simple solutions to the conflict here.  Or that there are simply “two sides” when there are as many opinions amongst both Israelis and Palestinians as there are stars in the sky.

IfNotNow is one of those groups.  I actually went to one of their events in the States because I was curious.  I’m open to hearing what pretty much anyone has to say and I think every government or ideology should be open to critique.

The problem with this organization is that its entire mission is framed in the negative.  Besides the fact that I have yet to hear a single positive thing about Israel from this group- which is both a moral and practical issue if you’d like us to hear your message- the message is simplistic.  In their own words, they want to “end American Jewish support for the occupation“.  Regardless of the merit of the argument, the framing is entirely negative.  Rather than advocating for peace or for anything- it’s about what they’re against.  Without defining what “occupation” even means.

This is more than a semantic point.  There are Israelis (and even some Arabs) who don’t see Israel as an occupier.  Or even see Arabs as occupying Jewish land.  Most Palestinians who would argue East Jerusalem is occupied- and many who live there want to hold on to their Israeli ID cards even if there’s a Palestinian state.  There are Arabs within Israel who don’t even identify as Palestinian, let alone want to live in a Palestinian state.  And others who do view their land as occupied- in pre-1967 Israel.  Who have citizenship.  There are Palestinians who similarly believe all of Israel is occupied territory.  Some Israeli Jews view the West Bank as occupied, Gaza as Palestinian-controlled, and want a Palestinian state in those two areas.  And other Jews who disagree to varying degrees.  Many Jews also support land swaps which would allow Jewish settlements to be fully integrated into Israel while giving equivalent land from within Israel to the Palestinians.  Largely Arab villages- many of whom despite their sympathies for Palestinians, don’t actually want to be swapped into a Palestinian state.  Who fear it will become an autocracy like all of its Arab neighbors.

So let’s take another look at the platform of this organization as an example of what’s going wrong with certain streams of progressivism.  On the webpage linked to above, they write: “We do not take a unified stance on BDS, Zionism or the question of statehood. We work together to end American Jewish support for the occupation.”

So in essence, the group is against the occupation- which they won’t define.  They won’t say if they support Israel’s existence, whether it can be a Jewish state, or even if people should boycott the country.  The only thing uniting this group is “ending the occupation”.  What that means- not only do I not know, they don’t know.  I can’t have a rational argument- or even find room for agreement- if I don’t know what somebody believes.  And it seems evident to me that these people are struggling with their Jewish identity, which I can empathize with.  I’m not sure they’re doing it in a way that’s advancing peace.

This past weekend, I spent a lovely Shabbaton with the Israeli Reform Movement’s biennial convention.  Young and old came together to celebrate the growth of, yes, progressive Judaism in Israel.  I enjoy both liberal Judaism and Hasidic Judaism and everything in-between.  They all have their ups and downsides.  Haredim need to work on their homophobia and judgmental attitudes.  And Reform Jews need work on, well, their Haredi-phobia and at times, anti-Mizrachi racism.  Which I did hear quite distinctly from several leaders at the conference.  One of whom decried the “Judaism of the ghettos of Poland and Casablanca.”  Haredim and Reform Jews both have beautiful passion for our religion and people.  And I get something out of all types of Judaism.  I had a great time and made good friends.

As we left the conference to take a shuttle to Tel Aviv, my friend Yarden checked her phone.  We had such a good time, she hadn’t looked for a while.  Turns out, Hamas was shelling her Kibbutz near Gaza- 3 rockets had fallen just that day.  I of course offered to let her crash at my place in Tel Aviv, but she said: “I appreciate it, but I have to get back for class.  I’m used to it at this point.  I was just hoping.  Hoping it had stopped.”  A week after 100 Palestinian Hamas rockets had landed in her area.

I gave her a hug goodbye and told her I’m praying for her and always here if she needs a place to stay.  And I plan on visiting her as well.  I sent her a cute message too after we left.

Do these words alone fix the Middle East crisis?  A crisis brewing in various forms for thousands of years?

No.  But nothing can.  Or at least I’m not sure what can.  Because I’m willing to admit, in a fashion I would’ve struggled to just a few years ago, that I don’t have easy solutions.  I’m not even sure what solutions there are.  And I hope things calm down.

What I did offer my friend- and I try to offer people around me- Arab, Jewish, Christian- whatever.  Is empathy.  Is kindness.  Is a joke.  Is a smile.  Is love.  Is a visit.  Is a cute emoji.

Some people, including my former self, might mock what I just said.  In the face of rockets and “occupation”, of suffering of so many varieties and cultures and religions.  What Matt, Matah, has to offer is kindness?  A joke?  Hah!  Why doesn’t he just go to a rally and stop the occupation!  What a blind superficial hypocrite who’s just trying to blind us to the reality of oppression.

Which side are you on?

To which I say: you’re asking an impossible question.  I’m a proud Israeli Jew.  That’s my side.  And I care what happens to my Arab neighbors.  And I care about refugees.  And I care about my neighbors even if they don’t like them.

In short, I care.  Not about “one side”.  About people.

In the end, there are some things I believe can help make our country greater.  I say greater because it’s already really awesome- in ways you’ll never see on the news.  The relaxing beaches, the Jews and Arabs who are friends, the gorgeous parks, the nightclubs, the life.  The vibrancy of this place and its people that makes New York look like a dull dirty boring rat-infested overpriced city with no beach.  That, OK, has better bagels than here.  But 10% of the soul.

I’d love to see more Jews learn Arabic.  I love to see more Arabs and Palestinians learn Jewish history and recognize our peoplehood.  I like to see more Ashkenazim learning about Mizrachi history- and learning Yiddish to understand their own.  And Mizrachim connecting to their Arabic-infused cultures and languages to realize they share a lot more in common with Arabs than some might like to admit.  Which I get.

Rather than offer easy solutions, I try to embrace that we can’t fix everything and there might not even be solutions to everything.  That can be scary to people who need certainty- I’ve been there before.  Now I’m proud that I am increasingly able to live with that discomfort and treat people with kindness whenever possible.

My wish is that progressives like IfNotNow, even if they continue to advocate in ways I disagree with, can understand where people like me are coming from.  Where my country is coming from.  And to advocate with a little more understanding and love.  And a little less yelling.

Because the one thing every visitor to Israel can agree on is we are already have enough of that.  Even if it’s just the guy selling tomatoes in the shuk.

How one haggadah makes the case for Israel

This week will mark Israel’s 70th birthday.  If she was a Jewish lady in South Florida, she’d be relaxing by the pool playing mahjong telling her grandkids to visit.  She has matured and grown into herself.  Confident and stronger than ever.

One of the ways Israel really failed in its early days was with regards to cultural diversity.  In particular, Jewish diversity.  I’ve talked about it with regards to Yiddish and Mizrachi cultures.  And the rather egregious stereotypes the early Sabras (and some today) spread about Diaspora Jews.  I understand the challenges facing a new state under attack seeking unity to protect itself, but at times the State was overzealous and ended up hurting its own people.

What I’m happy to say is that despite the challenges that still exist, Israel has grown into its diversity a bit.  Its diversity, which I see as one of its greatest assets.

I’ve written extensively about how the State has worked against this diversity and today I’m excited to share how in some ways, that has changed for the better.

Today, I went to Rehovot, a city outside Tel Aviv.  My friend studies at the Weizman Institute there, so before meeting him for dinner, I headed to the Yemenite Heritage Museum.  I can’t recommend this museum highly enough.  While you’ll miss part of the content without Hebrew, it’s still worth checking out.  And if you speak Hebrew, you’ll get a deeper glimpse into a several thousand year old heritage worth exploring.

Rehovot is one of those places in Israel where even Israelis will say “there is nothing to see”.  But they are wrong, as you’ll see.  Because exploring, finding wonder in the world is not just about where you go.  Though certainly some extraordinary places will inspire even the most cynical of people.  Discovering the awe that surrounds us, the interesting, the curious- that’s about how you see where you are.  With an open heart and a curious mind, there are sparks of meaning and light in every town on this planet.  In unexpected places.

As I wandered the museum, I learned about the history of this ancient community.  I was already a fan of Yemenite music back in the States and recently went to a Yemenite store in Bnei Brak to get more of it.  Yemenite Jews have several unique dialects of Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic music and literature, extensive Hebrew poetry, special clothing, folk dancing, and all sorts of other cool culture.

I learned at the museum that as far back as 400 years ago, Yemenite Jews, who I had assumed were pretty geographically isolated, were in direct contact with Jews in Israel.  Rabbi Zecharia Dhahiri traveled all the way from Yemen to Jerusalem, Tsfat, Hebron, and Tiberias.  He met with famous rabbis and even brought back their mystical Kabbalistic influence and prayer styles.  And rabbi after rabbi continued to visit our homeland and some Jews even moved there, well before the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Jews’ presence in Yemen is documented from 110 B.C.E. although it may go back even further.  They have been there since before the Islamic conquest and before the peoples of the country were Arabized.  Alongside Hebrew for prayer and learning, they spoke a unique Judeo-Arabic dialect which some still speak in Israel to this day.

In the mid-20th century, amid pogroms and anti-Semitic violence, Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel en masse.  Many Yemenite Jews and Muslims remember their two millennia relationship with love and longing.  I have a number of Yemeni Muslim friends who have great relationships with Jews.  Unfortunately, Islamic extremists and Arab nationalists had to ruin that, just like they are ruining Yemen itself today.

Walking around the museum, I was in awe at the Shabbat candle sticks, the Havdalah spice boxes, the circumcision knife- in short, all the ritual objects we share.  And that they did in their own special way going back many centuries.

What most struck me, as is often the case, were the books.  Jews are the People of the Book- that’s even what we’re called in Islam.  After 2,000 years without a state, our empire, our knowledge, our territory became the written word.

The museum includes some very, very old books.  Including Torah scrolls hand-written in Yemen over 500 years ago.  Brought to Israel and saved amidst the chaos of 1950s anti-Semitic violence.

One book in particular struck me.  It was a haggadah, a book Jews all around the world use to tell the Passover story at our Seders each year.  The haggadah text itself is believed to be 1700 years old, possibly older.  Its sources rooted in the Torah itself, going back hundreds and hundreds of years before.

The page the haggadah was turned to was one that I immediately recognized.  It begins “kadesh, urchatz, karpas, yachatz…”- it is the 15 part step-by-step recitation of what the Seder will include.  A kind of preview or table of contents.  Here’s what it sounds like when a kid sings it 😉

Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is Jewish and goes to a Seder will hear this.  And if they practice the religion at all, they will know it.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Moroccan or Ashkenazi or Yemenite or from Transylvania.  This is shared meaning.

What’s so astonishing is that we kept it all alive and preserved the same text for almost two millennia.  Like the Torah itself.

As Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, comes upon us- I ask this question.  If Jews are not from this place- from where I sit writing this blog now- how do you explain why we all prayed in the same exact language for 2,000 years in the Diaspora?  In places without Whatsapp or Facebook to check in with each other.  And in a Semitic language- a language quite obviously from here and directly related to Aramaic and Arabic and Amharic.

There are those who try to discredit the Jewish people’s connection to this land and to each other.  They claim Ashkenazi Jews are Greek converts- or Turkish (competing theories that might make both of those countries laugh given their tortured relationship).  They claim Ashkenazi Jews and Yemenite Jews aren’t related- even though we have particular, unique vowel sounds we share in common in Hebrew not heard in other communities.  Despite being separated by an unforgiving geography.  They claim we’re simply a cooked-up movement with no real connection to this place.

And they are wrong.  Besides various genetic studies that have shown disperse Jewish communities to be related, and the fact that a Druze friend says I look like someone from his town not an American, despite the fact that in America people are more likely to think I’m Latino than white.  Besides our genetic diseases and our curly hair that reminds me of my Lebanese friends.  Besides the fact that we sometimes look a lot like our Arab and Palestinian neighbors here.

They still say we’re not from here.

Well, to be fair, we’re a mixed people.  There have always been converts to Judaism.  There’s no such thing as a “pure people” on this planet- a concept so racist and absurd I hope we can leave it aside.  My own DNA kit analysis shows me to be 91% Ashkenazi, with several percent coming from Asia Minor, Eastern European non-Jews, and oddly enough South Asia- I do like a good chicken tikka masala.  And have been known to have some killer Bhangra moves.

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Some of this test is statistical white noise, though I used some other advanced sites to decipher the data.  What was most fascinating was that even though my ancestors immigrated to America from Eastern Europe, my DNA was closest to that of Mediterranean people such as Cypriots, Lebanese, Sicilians, Greeks, Kurds, and even Palestinians.

Palestinians themselves are likely to have some Jewish blood.  The few Jews who managed to escape Roman expulsion sometimes converted to Christianity.  Some of them converted to Islam later.  And were Arabized or mixed with the conquering Muslim tribes.  It’s not for nothing that sometimes I’ve hit on Arab guys here thinking they were Jewish.  And in the end, not really caring too much either way because they were pretty hot 😉

My point is we’re all mixed.  And given the history, both Jews and Arabs are tied to this land.  And even related to each other.

I can understand the Palestinian fellah, or peasant, who saw masses of Jews returning to join their brethren living in Israel.  And felt confusion, nervousness, and sometimes anger.  What was this all about?  Why are my landlords in Lebanon selling my land?  Who are these people?

So let me explain.  We’re here because we’re from here.  We were kicked out, against our will- and not because of you.  Although sometimes we took our anger out on you.  The Babylonians and then the Romans oppressed us and dispersed us around the world.  Where we kept praying in our holy tongue- a language completely unrelated to most of the cultures that surrounded us, at least in Europe.  We kept celebrating the same holidays and even using the same book on Passover to retell the story of our redemption.

Why would we come to this place if we’re not from here?  I can think of 10,000 calmer, richer, more peaceful lands for us to (re)settle in if it was simply a matter of escaping persecution.  And persecution there was a lot of.

We’re here because it’s home.  Because there are Arab villages named after Hebrew words that make no sense in Arabic.  And there are now Israeli villages that replaced prior Arabic names with similarly-sounding Hebrew words.  In my own neighborhood, Kfar Shalem comes from the Arab village “Salameh”.

Jews lived in this land before Arabs were even a people.  And there were other peoples here before the Jews.  And the Arabs came after the Romans expelled most of the Jews.  And generally treated them better than Europeans did.  And some Jews managed to stay here despite it all.  And now we’re back in a big way.

Jews are from here.  The English place names for various holy cities here derive from the Hebrew.  Jerusalem from Yerushalayim.  Hebron from Hevron.  Bethlehem from Bet Lehem.  Safed from Tsfat.  This is not a modern phenomenon, it’s from our Bible and our history.

Arabs are now from here too.  Even if they arrived in the 700s, that’s still a solid 1300 years.  Now we’re back and living together in the same land.  All too often in hatred and violence, though in smaller quantities that people outside this land realize.  There is true beauty here you’ll never read in a public policy paper or in the New York Times.

So on Israel’s 70th birthday, I say “hooray!”  We’re home.  Like the Yemenite haggadah and my own haggadah says, we escaped persecution and made it to our Holy Land.  We’ve been reading it separately for 2,000 years and now I can go to a museum, chat with Yemenite Jews, and feel like I’m back at a family reunion.  What a miracle.

As we enter year 71, let’s remember our history and acknowledge the history of our neighbors.  On both sides.  We share this land- whether we want to or not, we’re both here and we’re both, in our own unique ways, from here.

Happy Birthday Israel!  We deserve it.  To my Palestinian friends- I can understand if this is a day of sadness for you.  I hope one day we can find something to celebrate together.  In the meantime, I’m going to party.  This year, with a bit of a Yemenite step 😉

Sexy Jews

No, that’s not an oxymoron.  That’s a fact.

Tel Aviv is filled with a whole lot of sexy Jews.  Sexy men and sexy women.  Gay and straight and lesbian and bi.  Toned muscle, pecs, six-pacs.  Joggers, yogis, boxers, dancers, volleyball players.  Shirtless, sweating, smiling, swimming, sunbathing.  Hot. As. F*ck.

Many of them wear Star of David necklaces or sometimes yarmulkes.  And they speak the language of the Torah as their bodies gleam effortlessly in the sun.

It is a true paradise.

In the U.S., Jews are often portrayed on TV and in films as sex-less geeks.  Men are often portrayed as effeminate and too “bookish” to be sexy (think Ross on Friends) and women are often portrayed as overbearing and unbearable (think Fran on The Nanny).  We are good at being lawyers, doctors, professors- but we almost never thought of as sex symbols.  And even if there are Jewish sex symbols, such as Zac Efron, they are almost never talked about in connection with their Judaism.

That’s not because American Jews aren’t sexy- there are a lot who are!  It’s because the society we live in has told us we’re not and I think we’ve internalized it to a degree, as can be seen in items like the semi-satirical “Nice Jewish Guys” calendar.

Here, that doesn’t exist because we built this society.  The other day, I went to a gay beach in Tel Aviv.  So in other words, other than a few tourists, a gay Jewish beach.  The world’s only gay Jewish beach.  And it was amazing.  Besides the loads of hot guys, I just felt like I could be myself.  I didn’t feel self-conscious speaking Hebrew among gay people or speaking Yiddish to my Israeli friend who came along.  And I didn’t feel self-conscious about looking at the hot guys in a Jewish environment.

Since arriving 3 weeks ago, I’ve been to a gay rights rally, visited a gay art exhibition (including the cover photo for this blog), made friends with a lesbian rabbi, participated in an Orthodox LGBT Torah study group, started living with a lesbian couple, and so much more.  I can’t even think of them as separate items anymore because I don’t have to go out of my way to do them- they are just a part of my life.  As they should be.

For most of my life, my Judaism and my sexuality have felt like two separate worlds.  Identities that aren’t supposed to touch.  Here, in Tel Aviv, they are so intertwined that it finally feels natural.

I’m gay, I’m Jewish, and I’m sexy.  Wanna go for a jog?