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.

My mysterious new identity

As some of my readers know, I’m really into genealogy.  I’ve done lots of research on my family’s roots and have even created a Google Map showing the various villages in Europe they lived in.  I’ve done a DNA test and am about 93% Ashkenazi Jewish, which squares with the Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Romanian locations I was able to piece together on my family tree.  I did extensive research, including using Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Ellis Island records, and more.  Technically speaking, this project really started in my childhood Hebrew school class when we did family trees.  Jews love knowing where we’re from.  And as the name of my site suggests, roots matter to me- big time.

Roots place us in a moment in time.  Ultimately, all people are from the same creation, from the same roots.  But there’s something about knowing where your ancestors lived, breathed, ate, cried, laughed, and lived that puts things in context.

And this week I got a new piece of information that totally scrambles my sense of self.

As confirmed by a relative, my great-grandmother (father’s mother’s side) Baila/Beile/various spellings of “B” names, was descended from Romanian gypsies.  The more correct term (which I’ll use from now on): Roma.

Not familiar with this group of people?  You might have heard someone “gypped” you.  It’s a degrading colloquial expression (not coincidentally synonymous with “to Jew” someone) that means to rip someone off.  And is based off the word gypsy.  Maybe you’ve seen countless bands or stores or brands use the word “gypsy” (considered a slur by many in the community) to market their products.  Anything wandering, mysterious, unsettled, and filled with smells of the East.  A metaphor for something exotic, not from here.

I’ve met Roma.  Other than the fortune tellers I’ve sometimes seen in American cities, I met Roma when studying immigrant students in Spain.  Parts of Spain (as well as apparently Hungary according to a friend from there) actually have separate schools for Roma- both Spain-born and migrants from elsewhere in Europe.  While in Spain this is billed as a “progressive” tactic for “integration” into the marketplace (instead of presumably wandering into a life of crime), in Hungary my friend explained it was simply a racist tactic.  One with which we’re familiar in the American public school system.

I’ve also met Roma in Romania.  For my frequent blog readers, you may have noticed I’ve been to Romania three times.  More than any other country in the past two years other than Israel.  It’s a country that has intrigued me for over a decade.  When I was 21, I first discovered the magic that is manele music.  This Romanian gypsy pop is infectious, and you can see I actually wrote a blog about it years ago on my previous website, Culturally Curious.  To this date, people continue to read the post to get an introduction to this unique style of music.

I fell in love with this music before I really knew about my Romanian roots.  I have 15 hours of it on my iTunes and another 4 hours on my phone.  It’s fun and ingrained into my soul, like somehow this rather obscure style of music was perhaps meant to be a part of my life.  Or blood.

Something drew and continues to draw me to Romania.  Its music, its mamaliga, its incredible Jewish history and civilization.  Its gorgeous mountains, some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  It’s a complicated place worth visiting and I highly recommend it for a more raw, authentic view of Europe than going up the Eiffel Tower.

What threw me for a loop, then, was that my Romanian roots aren’t just Jewish.  In fact, they may not be Jewish at all.

Beile D. (as most of her records show her name) was born in Bucharest.  One of her parents was from Galicia (a highly Jewish region of Eastern Europe) and one was from Romania.  She spoke Romanian according to American Census records.  Nowhere have I been able to find her last name or birth records.  Given her possibly nomadic, highly oppressed background, this is less surprising.  Roma are known for being wanderers in many cultures and for being highly discriminated against, even today.  So 1880s birth records for this community may be scarce, although I’ll continue to look now that I realize the papers may not be in Jewish community archives.

Now my grandmother on this side of the family grew up speaking Yiddish, so her father was clearly Jewish.  And perhaps her mother was of a mixed Roma-Jewish marriage, or a Roma who converted to Judaism- it’s not clear.  What is clear is that if Beile D. was in fact Roma and *not* Jewish, then technically my entire dad’s branch of my family tree is not Jewish by Orthodox standards.  In Judaism, with the notable exception of my own branch (Reform), Judaism is matrilineal, meaning it is passed down exclusively by your mother.

For me personally, it doesn’t matter according to Jewish law.  My mother’s family is 100% Jewish (though really, after learning about this revelation, should we really assume anyone is?  Haven’t we been a mixed people since the time of Ruth’s conversion?), which means by even the strictest standards I’m a Jew.  And certainly culturally both sides of my family are Jews by both self-definition and practice for generations.

On some level, the question is a bit irrelevant.  For the reasons above, I’m Jewish no matter what my genealogical research has revealed this week.  And yet something gnaws at me.  That DNA survey I did showed I was 93% Ashkenazi Jewish.  What about that extra 7%?  As much as it excites me to be part of a new ethnic group, does it make me less Jewish?  Does it explain why when I was a kid someone at my synagogue teased me for not looking Jewish?  Does it explain my caramel skin- or is that simply a function of my Mediterranean genes going back 2,000 years?  Or both?

When I did several further analyses on GEDMatch.com, it was clear that most of my ancestry was in fact Mediterranean.  That my Ashkenazi DNA was most similar to that of Syrians, Lebanese, Sicilians, Greeks, and yes, Palestinians.

What was also strange at the time, but makes more sense now, is why “South Asian” and “Anatolian” kept coming up as well.  Which matched with what my FamilyTreeDNA.com results showed for 6% of the non-Ashkenazi component.  The remaining 1% being “other European”, whatever that might mean.

At first, I thought this was statistical noise.  After all, while I love bhangra music and mango lassis, I couldn’t be South Asian.  And while people have always noted my darker skin and facial features (I’m usually confused for Hispanic in the U.S.), I thought this test must have just been a bit off the mark.

And yet, while I have a lot more research to do about this new revelation, most experts agree that the Roma originally come from Punjab and northern India.

Furthermore, if in fact one of my great-grandmother’s parents was Roma, that person would account for approximately 6.25% of my own DNA.  Which matches starkly well with the 6-7% figure of non-Ashkenazi material detected by the test I did.

Some of this is conjecture.  I can’t know for sure because my great-grandmother isn’t alive, a reminder to all to do this kind of research while you can talk to the living, not just research the dead.

Yet the numbers seem to add up.  Beyond the metaphysical element of me liking Romanian Gypsy pop and then turning out to have precisely this descent (does feel a bit bashert, right?), family folklore, my own research, and my DNA test seem to match up.

Where does that leave me?  On a new journey.  That ties me to a new people, to a new culture, to a new part of me.  To the shared struggles and cultural heritage of Roma and Jews, including musical traditions that apparently led to more than a few musicians intermarrying.

I hope it leads me to love even more my olive skin, to wonder exactly when and where it came from, and to embrace who I am as a full person.  And as a unique mix of human cultures.  And to want to explore my difference.

So who am I?  I’m Matt.  I’m Matah.  I’m a Jew.  Like the Russian Jews in Israel, like the Ethiopian Jews, like the many others who have mixed heritage- or heritage viewed with suspicion by the Israeli Rabbinate.  It leaves me more empathetic to people who’ve been excluded from our people for looking differently or intermingling with their neighbors.  Nobody is pure-bred anything- we’re all from Africa after all.  A poignant reminder in a time of rising nationalism around the world.

So perhaps that’s part of the message I take away.  While I’m no less Jewish (who knows, maybe Beile even converted!), a part of me feels a bit “lesser”.  And that’s a part I want to work on and understand.

Because in the end, Roma, Jewish, or both- I’m a person.  Just like everyone reading this.  And if the Jewish people (including myself) can focus a little less on who looks “like one of us” and more on what makes us a great people, then that’ll be a positive influence on humanity.

In the meantime, I’ll be wandering.  It’s something both Jews and Roma have been doing for years.  For all our roots are, in the end, portable.  Even as their shape changes with each bit of new soil they seep their foundations into.  Deeper and deeper until the new generation of seedlings flock to far flung pastures.  Keeping some of the old and integrating the new.  Like my ancestors at Ellis Island, me at Ben Gurion Airport, or anywhere in between.

The “Jew Bill” and America’s Future

Proud to share my latest piece, published in the Baltimore Jewish Times: https://jewishtimes.com/90308/the-jew-bill-and-americas-future/opinion/.

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.

WhatsApp Image 2018-11-14 at 11.19.53 AM(1)WhatsApp Image 2018-11-14 at 11.19.52 AM(1)

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.”

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.

WhatsApp Image 2018-11-14 at 11.36.16 AM

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:

WhatsApp Image 2018-11-12 at 7.22.24 PM

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 🙂