The Israeli solution to COVID

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man from Eilaboun

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

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

The answer lies in some happier times I experienced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a former die-hard Bernie supporter

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

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

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

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

This time around, I feel different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Jew and a Syrian refugee in Cyprus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Repose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!

A good example of why I’m a Reform Jew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The importance of community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.