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.

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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 😉