The Israeli solution to COVID

The past few months have been a mess in many respects.  I don’t need to be another person to tell you about the massive amount of death, of political idiocy, and economic disaster.  You know it- you’re living it with me.

Coronavirus is tiring.  Not just the news (which I have limited myself to viewing one day a week).  It’s the seeing little children wearing masks.  It’s the hour I spend wiping down my groceries.  It’s the fear I feel when there’s a leak in my apartment.  Not from the leak itself, but from the fact that building maintenance will have to come and how will I keep my social distance.  Will they be wearing a mask?  Will I have to disinfect my (soaking wet) couch that they moved since they touched it?  Can I even disinfect a couch?

It’s the endless litany of questions you ask yourself every day to stay safe but still build a life worth living.  Balancing that need for safety with the desire to see friends, to go outside, to live in a lively way at a time when there is so much pain and fear.  When you find yourself avoiding people on the sidewalk as if they were the plague itself.  Because what if…

In a lot of ways, America has proven utterly inept at responding to this crisis.  Our fierce independence and distrust of authority, which helped us create this country, become liabilities when communal responsibility is required to survive.

This push and pull between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, libertarian and communal that can be a source of creative tension.  Or destruction.  It lends itself to an interesting question.  How honest are Americans as they have this debate and what does it have to do with COVID-19?

Having lived in Israel, one of the most common tropes I heard about Americans was that we were fake.  That when we asked “how are you?” we didn’t expect a real answer.  I often found myself pushing against this notion, because clearly Americans are a diverse lot, capable of being as fake or authentic as everyone else.

And yet as I watch people coping with the COVID-19 crisis here, I can’t help but think there’s a grain of truth to this Israeli stereotype.  Because the expected answer to “how are you?” in American culture is “I’m fine, thanks”.  Which is not an answer.  It’s a lie.  Especially at a time like this- nobody’s fine.  Some days might be good, some days might be shitty.  But none of them are just fine.  Well and swell.  It’s just not real.

My question is as we debate the political and social ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis here, could we learn something from Israeli directness?  Could we, instead of packaging our comments in “please” and “thank you” just drop the charade and let ourselves be angry, be sad, be surprisingly happy in the face of it all.  Whatever we’re actually feeling.  And share that with those who agree with us- and yes, with those who don’t.

It’s not because I live in a dream world where I think emotional honesty will all by itself heal the rift tearing our country apart, as Democrats and Republicans fall ever deeper into ideological pits harder and harder to climb out of.  Nor does it mean assigning the blame 50-50 to each side.  Hardly- I’m a Democrat and I think 95% of the irresponsible political behavior over the past few months has to be owned by Donald Trump and Republican governors disregarding public health experts by opening their states too soon.  I also believe all of us have ideological biases and gaps in our logic.

But see that’s the thing- I was honest.  I didn’t sugarcoat.  And it doesn’t make me any less willing to engage with (or want to persuade) someone who disagrees.  I didn’t take my ball and go home.  Because what I learned in Israel is you can be direct and respectful.  That being upfront about our personal emotions and opinions can do good not only for ourselves, but perhaps for society.  It’s not easy at first, but once you get used to it, it’s hard to go back.

Back to the “I’m fine, thanks!” era.  That era is over.  Thank God.  The new one is up to us to define.  May we do it wisely.

The man from Eilaboun

The past month has been stressful.  Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m not alone in coping with this stress.  The whole world is suffering.  Quarantines, layoffs, sickness, death- it’s nauseating and depressing.  I’ve given up on reading the news, except for my favorite site.  I mostly count on my mom to filter in the information I actually need to know to protect myself.  We’re living in, if not unprecedented, then supremely strange and difficult times.

So how do we respond to such confusion and chaos?  Pain and suffering?

The answer lies in some happier times I experienced.

One day I found myself on a bus from Tel Aviv headed northward.  I had long wanted to visit the Christian Arab town of Eilaboun.  It is absolutely stunning in beauty.

The town is surrounded by orchards and olive trees.  The scenery didn’t disappoint.  But just as importantly, neither did the people.  When I knocked on someone’s door to see if I could visit the church, the elderly gentleman was quick to not only open the building, but also to be my tour guide.  The tiny building was beautifully decorated. And I got to go on the roof and see where the old man had, as a child, been the one responsible for ringing the church bells.  He regaled me with stories of his naughty childhood antics- he was such a sweet man.

After having visited the church, I decided to roam the fields a bit- I like doing that kind of thing.  Just communing with nature and being in touch with my surroundings in a way that was hard to do in Tel Aviv except when I’d go to the shore.

Suddenly, as has happened to me a few times on my travels, I found myself a bit too long in the bright Middle Eastern sun and my water was running dangerously low.  With no store in sight, I wasn’t sure what to do.  It’s not exactly like there’s a cab waiting alongside an olive grove that you can hail.

Starting to get a bit worried, I came upon another elderly man.  This man was working by his shed in the fields.  He must’ve been at least 75.  I greeted him in Arabic and told him I was trying to find water.  I noticed he had a large two-liter bottle next to him.  He reached for it.  I figured he’s pour me a cup – he had some.  And that, to quote the spirit of our recent Passover holiday, would have been enough.

Instead, he handed me the whole bottle.  Without hesitation, without asking where I was from, who I was, what I was doing wandering an olive grove.  No questions.  Just handed me the bottle.

I was shocked.  I had seen tremendous generosity in Israel but this was a new record.  I asked him if he was absolutely sure he could part with the water.  And he insisted I take it.

In the Middle East, water isn’t a fun thing to sprinkle on your plants or to fill a bathtub with or to fill pools with in every neighborhood.  It is a precious commodity.  It is quite simply life.

So as we’re faced with our own societal drought- a drought of reason, a drought of compassion, a drought of knowledge to combat a disease we know precious little about.  Focus on what we do know.  And what we can do.  And what we can do is share our bottles.  Since we can’t hand someone a drink, find another way to contribute.  Call a friend.  Teach someone a new skill.  Help your neighbor navigate the unemployment system.  And even as we all ask for help ourselves – and rightly so – be sure to find your water bottle and give it away.  Like the man in Eilaboun did for me.

Because that’s the reason I’m sitting here typing this blog.

From a former die-hard Bernie supporter

As I’m sure all of you know by now, if nothing else because of the surge of ads, the Democratic primary is underway.

Among the slew of Democrats who have competed (and the not-so-small number still competing), each candidate has his or her strengths and flaws.  Personally, I’ll be happy to have anyone new in the White House who is a functioning adult and doesn’t make foreign policy via Twitter.

That being said, not all of the candidates are equal in my mind.

But first, a bit of context.  In 2008, I worked on the Obama Campaign and was a pledged delegate for him at the Democratic National Convention.  In 2016, I not only voted for Bernie Sanders, I held a house party for the campaign.  I became so upset with the party’s treatment of him that I (albeit in the very safe blue state of Maryland) voted for the Green Party in the general election.

This time around, I feel different.

It’s not because Bernie doesn’t have some good policies.  His approach to higher education and healthcare is correct and would put us in the same category as Israel or most Western European countries.  It’s a crying shame that there are un- and under-insured people in this country.  And if countries with fractions of our GDP can do it, so can we.  It’s time to stop pretending we’re so different from the rest of the world that it just “couldn’t be done” here.  It can- and should.

That being said, especially after having spent time in Israel, there is something grating about the way Bernie talks about the world.  It’s so utterly black-and-white in its approach, when the world is shaded in so many hues of gray.

It’s the half-Norwegian half-Persian Jew who celebrates Passover with smoked fish and steaming kabobs.  It’s the Bedouin man who married a Jewish woman who converted to Islam but are raising their kids Jewish- with Arabic spoken at home, and Hebrew at school.  It’s the far right-wing man I saw on TV saying he’d vote for Lucy Aharish, an Arab TV celebrity, for Prime Minister.  It’s the Hasidic Jew I met who fixed my cell phone!  And will almost certainly go to the voting booth to vote for the most homophobic party in the Knesset.  Meanwhile, I bought him dinner.

Life, my friends, is not simple.  And while sometimes there are clear victims and perpetrators, oftentimes, especially when talking about masses of people, it’s not so simple.  The Palestinian kid in the refugee camp is not the Hamas leader launching rockets, nor is the Israeli settler attacking Palestinian farmers the same as the settler who engages in peaceful dialogue with his or her neighbors.  Because yes, settler-Palestinian dialogue is a thing.

But much as Bernie boils down the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days to a matter of a lofty giant trouncing a powerless foe, he does so with pretty much every issue he can talk about.  I’m not a particular fan of the way wealth is distributed in our society, but I also would like to lose the “millionaires and billionaires” line he constantly repeats.  It’s old and it’s not going to move us forward.

And what it also won’t do is attract a single centrist Democrat or Republican vote when ultimately a (theoretical) President Sanders has to actually pass legislation, rather than just give a rowdy stump speech.

Again, I’ll be happy if anyone can begin to bring order after what has been perhaps the most chaotic and unruly presidency we’ve seen in my lifetime.  If the person to bring that order is President Sanders, then the people will have spoken.

But my hunch is that if he’s the nominee, the people will look at Trump and Sanders and millions will vote with their feet and stay home.  That’s not my plan- I’ll vote for Bernie if that’s what’s on the menu.  But don’t get me wrong- I think it’s a mistake to nominate him and I think that he jeopardizes the Democrats’ chances of winning the White House.  And we’d do well to nominate someone a bit more nuanced and a little less angry.

Just some thoughts from a former “Bernie or bust” kind of guy 🙂

A Jew and a Syrian refugee in Cyprus

Today, the White House released its long-awaited “peace plan”.  It’s also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And on top of that, impeachment proceedings continue to plod along in the Senate.  It would be what you’d call a heavy news day, at least if you’re following my particular Facebook feed.

The barrage of information, even sometimes important and valuable information, can leave me feeling hopeless.  Hopeless because sometimes it’s just too much to hold in one person’s body and not feel out of control.  Like the world is spinning, I’m meant to be “aware” of everything, and as one individual, I get little say.

So here’s a short story about how we can all make a little difference without being glued to the news- or social media.

I found myself about three years ago in need of a vacation.  Having not long ago moved to Israel, I was exhausted.  The process of getting adjusted to Israeli culture, bureaucracy, housing, and bureaucracy (yes, that deserves two mentions) left me feeling exhausted.  I needed a break.  A moment to celebrate my accomplishments in moving halfway around the world.  And also a chance to breathe in another culture that I had long been interested in.

I hopped on a $24 flight (yes, that’s not missing a zero, I paid as much for dinner the other night) and went to Cyprus!  The Greek part.  Because Cyprus, like Israel, has a Green Line and its own conflict with a Turkish-occupied region in the north.

Cyprus is a beautiful island.  In December, around Christmastime when I was there, the island was almost empty of tourists.  Which is odd because it’s reasonably warm and its crystalline waters even attract Russian bathers used to the frigid north.

The country is filled with ancient history alongside modern street art.  Paphos, where I stayed, reminds me a lot of Israel, or at least some hybrid of Tel Aviv’s hipster Florentine neighborhood mixed with the Roman ruins of Caesarea.

I stayed in a tiny hostel in the center of Paphos, the ancient capital of the island.  One day, I found myself hiking up a street on the outskirts of town.  A woman in a hijab approached me.  Speaking broken Greek (about my level!), she kept asking about a grocery store.  I tried my Arabic, and turns out she was Syrian.

When I spoke Arabic, her eyes lit up.  Not only because we could now communicate, but because we spoke the same Arabic- Syrian.  Turns out she was asking directions to a grocery store and I had no idea where it was.  I found a local clerk who spoke English and translated between them to get directions to the Halal store.

The woman was elated.  She, along with her three children, were alone in Cyprus.  Her husband had been killed by the Assad regime in Syria, in what is truly a sort of modern-day Holocaust since today is about remembering.

She asked if I could come to the store with her.  I asked if she was worried she’d get lost, but I could tell by the way she hesitated that what she needed was money.  She had no job and they were barely subsisting on this new island away from their home.  Trying to build a new one.

I didn’t have much.  Once I took out my bus fare, I had 20 Euros left, so I handed them to her.  She asked me where I was from and I said “I’m Jewish, I live in Tel Aviv- I’m from Israel”.  She was surprised but not an iota less grateful.

As I walked along the road, I bid them goodbye.  They kept waving, shouting ma3 assalameh, shoukran- goodbye, thank you.  Over and over before I headed my way and they headed theirs.

It breaks my heart.  I wish I could’ve given them so many things- residency, a job, their dead family members back, enough money to build a life.  A clock that could wind back time and bring them back to the home they once knew.

But I couldn’t do that- none of it.  So rather than drowning myself in sorrow or a constant news feed of the world’s troubles, I just took 10 minutes and tried to be human.  To show a bit of compassion to make someone else’s day better.  What countless people do for me.

To those friends I know- and those I don’t- that have helped me make my sojourn better: thank you.

And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the days ups and downs and the latest news cycle, don’t give up.  Gently pull yourself away and remember this story.  Because I have a feeling, or maybe just a hope, that that woman’s family is giving someone else directions now.

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Repose

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the concept of rest.  And with it, the concept of work.  Shabbat, after all, is about ceasing to work.  And yet we do all sorts of things on Shabbat even in the most Orthodox setting- walking, eating, drinking, chopping fruits and veggies, talking, and more.  Sometimes these activities require real effort- conversation doesn’t always come easy, especially with certain guests at your table.  And inevitably, walking to synagogue or a friend’s house could be quite a shlep depending on where you live.  Shabbat is about ceasing to work- but it’s not about ceasing to do.

Which leaves open the question of what is work?  The traditional understanding of the concept is that one should not be productive on Shabbat.  In other words, no cooking, no receiving money, nothing that involves creating new things.  From this point, new laws evolved that today are deeply contentious among various types of observant Jews- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and otherwise.  For example, Reform and Conservative Jews typically use electricity whereas Orthodox Jews do not believe this is Shabbat-appropriate behavior.  This is related to the concept of kindling a flame, which in olden times was typically used to cook.  Most liberal Jews would say Orthodox observance takes the concept too far and many Orthodox Jews feel it is simply religious law taken to its logical next step.

So let’s work from the premise that while we have differing interpretations of productivity, the concept of work in Judaism derives from this fraught word.  In the modern world, being “productive” is sometimes valued above concepts clearly more important.  And more critically, productivity is defined according to a certain sliding scale where certain professions and courses of work are valued above others.  After all, why does a banker or lawyer make many times the salary of a teacher?  Is an unemployed person firing off resumes every day less productive than the career coach being paid to help her?  And finally, do we sometimes come to a juncture in life where certain other goals, be it health, relationships, or something else unmonetized should take priority over productivity?  Are these other paths of living less worthy because they are unpaid?

The answer is no.  Sometimes the doing we do isn’t work in the traditional sense.  Reconnecting with a long lost friend, apologizing to someone you’ve hurt, going to the doctor to get a scary lump checked.  These are all things that require courage, action, and perseverance.  And yet our society doesn’t monetize them so the people doing these brave activities often go unnoticed.  Especially in such a heavily capitalist culture like the United States.

This Shabbat, I propose we redefine work and productivity.  Sometimes the work we do is personal in nature or is unpaid.  That’s OK- it counts as effort too.  And if you’ve created something new in the process, you’ve been productive.  If you’ve gotten new answers to important questions, you’ve been productive.  If you’ve helped someone in need, you’ve been productive.  It’s time to let go of our calculators and realize there are many ways to make a difference and to create.  Sometimes intangible things that last a lifetime.

Shabbat teaches us to take a break from productivity.  It’s not enough to simply not go to an office.  It’s about creating an intentionality dividing the hard work you do during the week- whatever it may be and however you define it- and cultivating the inner self.  Finding a time for repose, relaxation, song, meals with loved ones, and a deep breath before the cycle begins anew.

This Shabbat, I wish you the courage to acknowledge all the ways you’ve been productive this week, even if they aren’t written on a pay stub.  And to allow yourself also to breathe, to take a break, and recharge.  We aren’t robots- we have to recline from time to time and let ourselves enjoy.  Let ourselves smile.  And let ourselves rest.

Shabbat shalom!

A good example of why I’m a Reform Jew

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei.  It is filled with lots of rules, more mitzvot (commandments) than any other portion- about a tenth of the 613 listed in the Torah.  Some of them are truly amazing, such as not gleaning your fields- designating part of your harvest “for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.”  It’s a reminder that we can’t do everything on our own.  When we farm, we benefit from soil, from rain, from other people’s labor and efforts- and a whole series of factors outside our control.  So harvesting grapes or any other plant is an intensive process that relies on a mix of luck, God’s good Earth, and hard work.  In acknowledgement that not all of this is in our control, we give back to the community and leave part of our fields for their benefit.  It’s an incredibly progressive concept and one we should continue to keep in mind today as we consider ways to give back to the community and people in need.

There are a series of other commandments in this portion that fit into a category which I find personally meaningful and contribute to society.  There are others, such as the need to wear tsitsit (the knotted fringes you might see some Jews wearing to this day) that seem either neutral or potentially positive depending on how you utilize the tradition.

And then there are those that are abhorrent and morally repulsive.

This portion includes a verse commanding men to wear men’s clothing and women to only wear women’s clothing – which some Jews to this day interpret as meaning women can’t wear pants and of course against the concept of men in any sort of “feminine” clothing or drag.  It’s something I consider personally offensive, retrogressive, and repressive of individual freedom of expression and identity.  If you consider the time it was written, we can perhaps dismiss it as a vestige of ancient ways of thinking about gender.  Ways we’re glad are being reformulated today in a more open society.

Where does this portion get really rough for the liberal-minded reader?  As Rabbi Suzanne Singer points out, there are some violently sexist portions of this text, including commandments that say:

A soldier may possess a captive woman and forcibly marry her (Deut. 21:10-14)

A bride accused of not being a virgin sullies her father’s honor, so proof of her virginity must be brought forth (Deut. 22:13-21)

A woman who is raped in a town is presumed to have given her consent if she did not scream (Deut 22:23-27)

A rapist must marry his victim; adultery involves a married woman with a man other than her husband, whether he is married or not, as the crime involved is messing with a husband’s property (Deut. 22:28-19)

A widow who has not produced a male heir must marry her dead husband’s brother to produce a son who can carry on the name of the deceased (Deut. 25:5-10)

These are verses so aggressive that I can barely read them and consider them a part of my tradition.  And yet they are.

So what do we do when our sacred text not only doesn’t match our values, not only offends, but also intrinsically opposes our most basic human ethics?

There are a variety of possible responses.  Some people prefer to interpret literally- which scares me.  Some people prefer to reinterpret- a route I sometimes find valid and other times find to be too much of a stretch.  And some people, like me in this case, prefer to say it’s just not right or relevant.

Some people would argue that I’m picking and choosing my Judaism.  It’s a criticism you’ll hear of Reform Jews by both religious fundamentalists and some hardcore atheists.  Aren’t I just molding Judaism into the value system I want, instead of reading the text for what it is?

The answer is yes.  To a degree, I am taking the text and adapting it to my values system.  Which simultaneously stems from the same text and the multigenerational tradition of which I am a part.  Otherwise, we’d still be stoning people for adultery.  In reality, every stream of Judaism (and every human being) picks and chooses the values that she or he finds meaningful and uses that wisdom to live wisely and happily.  So while one can absolutely reinterpret this text (as almost all Jews do with or without acknowledging it), the reason I’m a Reform Jew is that I accept and embrace the fact that I’m discarding part of the text.  With the insights of the modern world, sometimes there are verses that just don’t fit anymore- in fact, they never really were ethical.

None of this is to say Conservative or Orthodox or any other types of Jews are in favor of these punishments- that’s not true.  Although perhaps some rare and extremely fanatical flavors of Judaism might be.  The difference here is in approach to the text.  I am making a choice to disregard part of our tradition in favor of what I feel is an evolving, modern Judaism- one in which I could dress in drag, a woman has full rights as a human and not property, and in which rape is (or should be) properly criminalized regardless of gender.  A choice made with pride, not guilt or equivocation because a man-written text is sometimes erroneous.

Whatever branch of Judaism we come from, whatever our faith tradition, I think we can find common ground, perhaps ironically around the harshest parts of our heritage.  However we come to the appropriate conclusion that these gender-based punishments are sexist and immoral, let us find ways as Jews and as human beings to work towards a world which is more egalitarian for all.

My cover photo is of a gay rights rally I went to in Tel Aviv.  The sign says: “everyone deserves a family.”  Because the biblical prohibition on gay sex is bogus too 🙂

 

The importance of community

These days you can truly can almost anything you “need” through convenient apps.  I personally get my groceries delivered, and living without a car in a major city, it’s a blessing.

Yet there are certain things an app can’t deliver.  I’ve often talked about this in terms of skill sets, such as language learning.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who tell me (since I’m a polyglot) “oh I’m trying to learn Arabic on DuoLingo but it’s not really working”.  With a despairing, frustrated look.

That’s because language learning requires communication to become truly proficient.  So while apps can aid, it doesn’t remove the need for old-school conversation, immersion, and instruction from a skilled teacher.

Much like apps can’t “teach you” Arabic or Chinese as if they were a product in a grocery store to put in your online cart, they can’t substitute the need for community.

That isn’t to say online communities aren’t real- they are and should be appreciated.  I am able to keep in touch with friends across continents in ways unimaginable just 10 years ago.  If we can agree that tools like social media can facilitate connection, then perhaps it’s a matter of the type of connection you’re building- and how.

One of the things that has become apparent to me over the past few years is the importance of deep-seated and authentic community.  Where you share your troubles and your joys- and are there to listen to others and show gratitude for their friendship.

For me, that community has often centered around Judaism.  In particular, Israeli folk dancing, synagogue, language practice groups, and young professional spaces (such as Moishe House).  When you see the same people over and over again on a regular basis, you’re bound to make friends of all types.  It’s natural- it’s the kind of friendships many of us miss from our college days when you could bump into people spontaneously on campus.

What I’ve found is that these friendships can be supplemented by online communication, whether it’s inviting people to Facebook events, talking on messenger to stay in touch or make plans, etc.  The internet can also help you find new groups to get involved in, such as MeetUp.com or various organizations’ social media pages.  What seems clear to me is that, generally speaking, if digital media is used to connect to other people in “real life”- or to keep in touch with friends you’ve met face-to-face, then it is a net plus.  The key is that there be some component that connects you to a face-to-face interaction- past, present, or future.

What I can say is that I’m very grateful for the communities I’m a part of.  It’s the dozens and dozens of times I’ve been invited to Shabbat meals, to crash on someone’s couch, to hop in someone’s car to Israeli dancing, and more.  It makes me feel cared for, part of something bigger.  And it gives added meaning to life in a sometimes harsh and hyper-individualistic world.

Communalism is, perhaps for that reason, making a bit of a comeback.  Sometimes it takes an ugly tone, when its extreme forms lead to exclusion or racism.  Sometimes it takes a political tone, such as a resurgence of interest in socialist politics.  Sometimes it is simply reflected in individuals bucking the “apps solve life” trend and pitching in and helping another human.

Perhaps more than anything else, it’s a series of mini rebellions against the idea of the “self-made man”.  The idea that one individual can do it all on his or her own, just given the right smartphone and bank account.  Because even if you can do many things with greater convenience, it can’t replace the warmth of a hug nor singing Israeli folk songs in the car with my friends Yisrael and Penina.

It’s a rebellion against loneliness, against isolation and hyper self-sufficiency.  And a step towards a recognition that we are dependent on each other and even if we do so imperfectly, it’s better to be part of a community than stand in purity without one.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned and incorporated into my life.  If you’re one of the many people who’ve welcomed me into their homes, their cars, their meals, their lives- I’m grateful for you.  Whether it was last week or last decade.

Because humans are social animals (yes, we are animals).  And we’re meant to spend time together.  And even if there’s a lot we can do on our own, and sometimes should, life is easier and richer when you can count on others.  And when they can reach out to you.

Wishing you a strong sense of togetherness with people who bring you enrichment, love, and kindness.  And grateful for all my blog readers who have made my journey more beautiful and hopeful.  L’shalom – towards peace, Matt.