The texture of letting go of “easy answers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which side are you on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I can’t live anywhere in Israel

And it’s not for the reason you think 😉

Last night, after a day of doctor’s appointments (including randomly cancelled ones), I didn’t want to eat dinner alone.  I felt immense gratitude for the Israeli healthcare system- I didn’t pay a dime for my visits.  And also running from doctor’s office to doctor’s office isn’t the most relaxing experience, though I did get a solid hour at the beach in Herzliya, which is stunning.  Can’t say I ever got to watch the sea while hustling between meetings in Washington, D.C.

beach

I have a favorite (well, two favorite) restaurants in Bnei Brak, a Haredi (ultra-Othodox) city outside Tel Aviv.  I knew I wanted to see my friend Yisrael who works at one.  He always warms my heart.  The thing about Yisrael is he’s kind of a mystical Hasid- I keep forgetting the name of his restaurant but every month or two I manage to find my way there.  In the past month, I so wanted to see him that I started calling restaurants in Bnei Brak asking for Yisrael (a futile task- there are a lot of Yisraels in Bnei Brak).  I couldn’t find him!  But I knew he was there.

So last night I wandered.  I went to a shtiebl, a small synagogue (with a whole bunch of rooms).  Outside, they always have ridiculously cheap Jewish books.  Nice Jewish books.  I got an old, beautiful one for 5 shekels that has the Torah in Hebrew with Yiddish commentary.  That’s $1.39.  There’s nothing better in the world.  And nowhere better to be a Jew.

As I perused Hasidic CD’s at the store next door, a young man in a black hat asked me where the shtiebl was.  And I pointed him to the building to my right and said: “you’re here”.  Bnei Brak is not a tourist destination for me, it’s a part of my life.

I was getting hungry so I headed to what I *thought* was Yisrael’s restaurant, only to find a grumpy man.  When I asked for Yisreal’s whereabouts, he asked me: “what do you want, Mashiach?”  The messiah?  Eventually after some prodding, he did know about the restaurant (competition?) and I headed up the street.  As soon as I saw the sign, I knew I had arrived.  Some things you feel your way towards.

Yisrael greeted me with the biggest hug ever.  He is so so warm!  He overloaded my plate with salmon and kugel and pasta and I grabbed a seat.  Yisrael periodically chimes in when I talk with other people.  The people I sat down with were a Yemenite Jew and a 16 year old Litvak, or Lithuanian Jew.  I’m part Lithuanian- we’re probably cousins.  Not a metaphor- we probably are related.

Here’s the shocking thing- the kid doesn’t speak Yiddish.  Well, he understands some but his parents mostly speak it (and English) so he can’t understand.  Interestingly, Eliezer (pseudonym) also knows how to count in Arabic.  Pretty damn well.  He says he learned from undocumented Palestinian workers who live in the city.

Meanwhile, the Yemenite guy- he speaks astoundingly good Yiddish!  As does his father.  From living with Ashkenazi Hasidic friends.  He even understands the nuances of Litvish and southern Yiddish dialects.  We had a lot to talk about.  Including my love for Yemenite language and culture.  I just recently bought Yemenite Judeo-Arabic books and music from a store in Bnei Brak.  So we sat there, me and the Yemenite guy, helping to teach the Lithuanian Jew some Yiddish.  Find me that in another country.

The Yemenite guy had to go back to Jerusalem, so I sat with Eliezer.  Eliezer is a precocious kid.  He goes to yeshiva all day.  He has 10, yes 10, siblings.  And, he says, he likes it.  It’s fun.  When I asked if it’s ever quiet, he laughed and said “maybe around 2am”.

Eliezer was enchanted by something you might not expect.  I needed to charge my phone so I pulled out my brand new portable charger.  He was enamored.  Not because he had never seen one.  Lehefech, to the contrary, he knew it inside and out.  And he doesn’t even have a phone.  He grabs it from me and starts teaching me how to use it.  Things I didn’t even know about it.  So once he had found a new way to charge my phone, he asked me how much it was.  150 shekels.  Oy, I don’t have that kind of money.  And I bet he doesn’t- while his dad is the head of two yeshivas, 11 kids is a lot of mouths to feed.

But Eliezer is not easily deterred.  He wanted to see my smartphone.  I got a bit nervous- not just because generally I don’t like children browsing my cell phone- but also because I couldn’t remember exactly what was on it.  I was wearing a small black yarmulke and they knew I was from Tel Aviv and not Hasidic.  But the last thing I wanted was for little Eliezer to stumble upon a racy WhatsApp chat (yes he opened my WhatsApp) or something he’d find not so “kosher” and it might ruin my vibe in the restaurant.

I showed him pictures of my hiking in Haifa, which he loved.  But what he really wanted was to go to eBay.  Yes, eBay.  The kid who doesn’t have a phone, let alone a smartphone, knew what eBay was and that that would be where he could find a portable charger.  He browsed through the list of chargers with ease.  He knew the megahertz or whatever.  I don’t even know what he was talking about.  He spent a good minute or two looking, but nothing suited him.  He knows he doesn’t have the money now, but he wanted to see what was out there.  A curious kid, like I was.

I told him he could work a little on the side to make some money.  He said he already owed some friends money, including this restaurant.  His dad won’t let him work because the dad wants them to be “super strong” Haredim.  I told him people worked in the Torah, that Haredim work in Bnei Brak, like Yisrael.  He knows- in fact, he said if his father permitted it, he’d consider working.  But as a 16 year old, he doesn’t have much say in the matter and it’s his family.  What’s he supposed to do?

We had a good laugh about many things- he has a great sense of humor.  I told him he’d make a great stand-up comedian, and he smiled.

As the evening drew to a close (11pm on a weeknight- Bnei Brak is not a sleepy suburb), another Hasid asked Yisrael why I made aliyah.  Yisrael, who I met not long after I arrived here almost a year ago, recounted in perfect detail all the reasons I had told him.  9 months ago.  With a depth of emotion and appreciation that warmed my heart.  I know Yisrael is happy I’m here and I’m grateful he’s in my life.  The other Hasid, seeing how I talked and hearing my story said: “atah yehudi cham”.  You’re a warm Jew, a Jew with heart.

Knowing Eliezer owed the restaurant money and grateful for his companionship and his humor, I bought him dinner.  Before I left, Yisrael asked me for my phone number.  He wants to call me from time to time, see how I’m doing.  From his Kosher phone.

Before I left, I told Yisrael I missed him and I’d be back.  He knew.  And he said: “there’ll be two here waiting for you,” as Eliezer winked at me.

I headed back to Tel Aviv with a warm tummy.  Not just because of the delicious kugel, but because the people I spent my night with filled me with warmth and love.

When I was a kid, I was curious about Orthodox Judaism.  I wanted to go to a service.  My family wouldn’t let me because they said Orthodox Jews aren’t feminist.  While my family members abused me– which I don’t find particularly feminist either.

The fact is coming to Israel has allowed me to build a relationship with Hasidic Judaism.  In fact, all kinds of Judaism- Mizrachi, traditional, Israeli Reform, secular, Litvish- everything.  It’s the one place on the planet where we all come together.  And you’ll find a Yemenite speaking Yiddish.

Some people tell me it’s ludicrous for me to spend time with Hasidim.  I’m gay, I’m Reform, I’m progressive- they’d hate me if they knew who I was.  But they’re wrong.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man in Hasidic communities.  And there are times I feel uncomfortable as a gay man with secular people, and certainly times I feel uncomfortable as a religious person.  There are times I feel uncomfortable as a Jew with Arabs.  Or as an Arabic-speaker with Jews.

Should I live my life in a ghetto where I only go where no prejudice exists?  Where there’s no conflict?  Where everyone agrees with me?

Guess what?  No such place exists.  Anywhere.  Not in Tel Aviv, not in Bnei Brak, not in Ramallah.  The fact is we’re people.  And some places are more comfortable than others, for certain aspects of what I believe and how I am.  And, I get something out of pretty much everywhere I go.

Do I wish the Hasidic community was more gay-friendly?  Yes.  I’d probably spend more time there.  Do I think things are changing and that the community is not monolithic?  Absolutely, as I found earlier this week when I met a gay-friendly Hasid.

And I also believe that the fact that I’m gay isn’t a reason for me not to embrace my Hasidism.  Yeah, I’m kind of Hasidic.  And Haredi.  And Modern Orthodox.  And Reform.  I connect to all sorts of things.  So why should I give up what I love about Hasidic Judaism to satisfy a secular militant in Tel Aviv who believes my identity should be held hostage to their “tolerance”?

The point is we’re all entitled to enjoy what we enjoy.  I like Haredi Bnei Brak.  I like Druze villages.  And Christian ones and Muslim ones and gay pride parades in Tel Aviv.  I like my neighbors with Shas rabbis posted all over their house, who set me up with guys.  Each one of these communities, some more than others, poses challenges for me.  And has something unique to offer.

Lately I’ve been questioning if I want to keep living in Tel Aviv.  Do I want to move North?  I love Haifa and the Galilee and the Golan.  So peaceful, green, co-existency, Arabic-speaking.  That part of me flourishes there.  But what about Tel Aviv?  The convenience, the energy, the international vibe, the interesting cities like Bnei Brak that surround it?  Not to mention its gay life.  And Jerusalem- probably not going to live there, but don’t want to be too far.  Its history and spiritual vibe pulls me in and fills me with wonder.

In the end, what I’ve decided is where you live is not where you pay rent.  That’s an aspect.  Where you live is where you step, where you spend time, where you laugh, where you hike, where you pray.  Where you live is where you bring joy into the world and where you feel filled with wonder.  Even where you cry.

I can’t live anywhere in Israel.  Because I live everywhere.

p.s.- that’s me sticking my tongue out in Kiryat Tivon, the most non-Haredi place in Israel, because I’m going to have a good time wherever I go!

Independence from black-and-white thinking

Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli.  And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil.  It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors.  To celebrate my progress.  It was a day to rejoice.

Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times.  There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers.  There was fun.  We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments.  In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction.  Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line.  About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria.  Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.

At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought.  Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.”  I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt.  Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back.  I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here.  Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are.  And we all deserve a seat at the table.

It got me thinking.  I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel.  All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined.  It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail.  Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.

So I wanted to just enjoy.  And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life.  In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague.  We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation.  No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.

The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians.  We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day.  The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence.  And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe.  The creation of my state.  While they still don’t have one.

I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel).  For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough.  And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years.  With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.

I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating.  I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village.  I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew.  Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back.  In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew.  Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against.  I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets.  The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.

In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here.  Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war.  We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out.  Just for being Jews.  And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here.  The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked.  A miracle.

You can go through this story with just about any Jew here.  This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew.  An out-of-the-closet Jew.  For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under.  And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences.  Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia.  And we’re not going to give it up.  Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.

As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  And they’re right.  When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish.  When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here.  Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”.  I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about.  And I also hate it.

I am proud to be Israeli.  I love my country and its people.  I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.

I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.

And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.

I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported.  And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.

I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here.  I have more rights in the States.  I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children.  And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population.  According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality.  The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%.  Palestinians come in at 3%.  Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians).  My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center.  Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.

In the end, living here is complex.  I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here.  If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place.  Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school.  We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box.  So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists.  While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property.  Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.

And it makes it much richer.  So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking.  When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all.  It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow.  Each with is unique shade.  Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.

In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity.  Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with.  Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior.  Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.

Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope.  It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity.  The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered.  At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis.  Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go.  Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything.  Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.

Happy birthday Israel.  May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.

I love you Israel.  When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better.  I’m glad to be home in your arms.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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The Holocaust

For lack of a better title, that’s what I’m calling this blog.

Today is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is my first time spending this remembrance in Israel.

I knew in the back of my head it was coming tonight, but I was surprised with the speed.  I was going shopping in the Shuk and as early as 4pm everything started to shut down.  With no food at home, I scrambled and even convinced the mini-mart to sell me a milk carton as the tarp was being pulled down.

Living alone here, I wasn’t sure quite what to do.  I’ve been to Holocaust remembrance ceremonies in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers in the States, but you don’t get the feeling that the whole country is coming to a stop.  Quite the opposite, the average non-Jewish American wouldn’t even notice.

After deciding to cook some lentils I had lying around from the Eritrean corner store, I got to thinking.

This past year, I started doing genealogy of my family.  It’s not easy- I come from a deeply toxic and abusive family across several generations so to “reconnect” with long-lost relatives is hard.  I don’t know how they were as people and if they gifted me the torture I survived as a child.  What I hope, on some level, is that someone up the family tree was brave and hopeful like me.  Someone who aspired, who made it to America, who overcame obstacles.  Whose courage runs through my blood and brought me to my homeland.  Their very distance from me and my not knowing them allows me to imagine such a scenario.  To enjoy that several of them were Yiddish teachers.  That one was a rabbi.  That they spoke Yiddish and English and Romanian and Hungarian and Russian.    It gives me a little sense of rootedness when I sometimes experience loneliness and a sense of detachment.

It also helps me understand where I come from when Nazi Germans and their Polish, Hungarian, Russian, etc collaborators murdered my family.  Because while some of my Palestinian neighbors want us to just “go home”, it’s not quite so simple.  The truth is the homes we had before the Holocaust no longer exist.  There were 17,000 synagogues in Europe on the eve of the Holocaust and now there are 850.  European Jews numbered 9.5 million in 1933- and today barely 1.4 million- 85 years later.  You cannot find an Ashkenazi Jew who didn’t lose relatives in the Holocaust- whether they know their names or not.

And in Israel, they know their names.  Because about 90% of the State’s initial population was either Holocaust survivors or their relatives.  While the vast majority were Ashkenazi, a number of Sephardic communities were annihilated by the Germans, including the beloved Salonika which is now basically empty of Jews.

Some people do not get the Holocaust.  Many, many, many non-Jews I’ve met, including people I grew up with in the U.S., think the Holocaust is the only major act of anti-Semitism to befall the Jewish people.  I even had a French teacher in the States who genuinely thought no anti-Semitic violence happened before the Holocaust.  Wrong.  The Holocaust is the climax.  It’s the climax of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, which later morphed into race-based anti-Semitism.  The reason Yiddish has Hebrew, Aramaic, Italian, French, German, Polish, and Russian in it is because we’ve been expelled from all those lands (and others) over and over again.

Something few Americans I know want to acknowledge is their privilege as Christians.  Or as descendants of Christians even if they don’t practice the religion.  My point here, by the way, is not to suggest Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic nor to blame individuals today for the acts of other people.  Rather, I want to suggest that people need to understand the way being not Jewish gives them privilege over Jews everywhere in the world except Israel.

There are the basic things like when public holidays take place to the likelihood that a Jew will be elected President (in America- I’m not holding my breath).  Then there are the country clubs that wouldn’t admit Jews, the universities that had quotas, the lynchings, the job discrimination, the Hollywood surnames that lost their “skys” and “mans” and “bergs”.

I’ve personally been discriminated against- classmates calling me a rich Jew, people telling me Jews were loudmouths, having bomb threats called into the Jewish Community Center, even being thrown out of a taxi by an anti-Semitic driver yelling rants.  Being called “similar to an Islamic extremist” for keeping kosher.  A guy I was dating once even broke up with me after he found out that I didn’t eat pork.  Read between the lines.

It should be said that American anti-Semitism, even with its recent scary rise in cemetery desecrations, is relatively mild compared to other countries like France and Russia, from where Jews continue to flee.  It should be said, though, that there was a 57% increase in American anti-Semitic acts in 2017.  Something I believe American Jews should keep in mind and at least consider taking a glance at the Nefesh B’Nefesh website as an option.

The fact that American Jews, as a whole, have achieved great success- much like our German counterparts prior to Adolf Hitler- is not primarily to your credit, America.  It’s to ours for overcoming the obstacles you often put in our way.  The fact that my family was excluded from institutions didn’t just give you an advantage- it gave us a disadvantage which we bravely overcame.  And still overcome.  Discrimination is never neutral.

As I continued to do genealogy, I mapped out where my ancestors lived in Europe before coming to America starting 130 years ago.  I’m still working on it, but here’s my map so far:

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As I found my relatives’ birthplaces, I came across other databases.  The Nazis, to their credit, were diligent Germans.  The kind who keep good notes.  Who keep the trains running on time and the logs well-written.  There are entire databases, I discovered, of the names of Jews who Germans murdered.  And what I found, to my shock, was people with the same surnames as my relatives from the very same towns- killed by the Nazis.  In some cases, they were the only people in the town with the same surname.  My family.

While for many Israelis, Holocaust remembrance day is very direct- they remember their immediate relatives.  In some cases, they remember themselves in concentration camps.  American Jews, with the exception of post-war refugees, are another generation separated from the pogroms we escaped.  And we don’t necessarily know the names of our lost relatives, even if we realize they must have died.  With the help of the internet and Nazi record-keeping, I can now say I do.  It makes it much more personal and makes me a whole lot angrier.  And sad.

A while back, I met a young German man here studying for a semester.  I took him under my wing, showed him Tel Aviv, talked about Jewish history, and even brought him to a Yiddish Klezmer performance.

I think he was well-intentioned but supremely ignorant.  We talked about the Holocaust, which I welcomed.  I’ve struggled to find non-Jewish Germans willing to dialogue (partially because I don’t know many) and I think we both need it.  The young man asked me: “Why do Israelis keep talking about the Holocaust?  It happened so long ago.  It’s old history.”

My heart sunk.

If this is the kind of German that makes his way to Tel Aviv- which initially gave me hope- I started to wonder what the German back home thought of me.  I know rationally that it’s not wise to judge an entire people based on a few interactions (I’ve had some other problematic ones with Germans here- including one who complained about our holidays and our “weird-looking language”).  And emotionally I just get so angry.

In the end, Europeans, white people, Christians, whatever you want to call them.  The people across the pond who aren’t Jews.  They- not all of them- but they caused our trauma.  And, to a certain extent in recent years, you could say the same of Muslim-majority countries, though historically they treated us better relatively speaking.

So when Europeans – because it was not just Nazis, it was also millions of their collaborators – caused us trauma, it has become a generational problem.  Especially here, when combined with the wars and terrorism that followed.

So when French activists or Swiss protestors lament our aggressiveness or “disproportional force”, it’s hard for me to take them seriously.  Not because they don’t have a point- sometimes the trauma heaped on us has gotten passed on to Palestinians and our Arab neighbors.  But rather, because it’s the pot calling the kettle black.  When Europe is ready to compensate us and restore the property – and, impossibly, the lives – of our people, I’ll be ready to talk.  I just can’t really handle a German lecturing me about disproportionate force.  Who doesn’t even know about the tortured Jewish history of his town.  And if that’s hard for you to hear, good.  Because at least we’re being honest now.  And you have to take our feelings into consideration if we’re going to build something better here.

On our side, we haven’t gotten a moment to breathe.  Israelis, in particular those who have lived here many years, haven’t gotten a respite since the Holocaust.  Nearly non-stop warfare and violence.  We deserve a rest.

We also need to remember that because of all the traumas our people has been through, we must be extra cautious not to harm others.  As I’ve written about before, there have been times when Israelis, in particular in 1948, passed their trauma on to Palestinian civilians.  For the first time in 2,000 years, we have the power to abuse others.  Including refugees.  Few things are black-and-white, we just must remember that with power comes great responsibility.  The kind of responsibility and sensitivity that Europeans rarely showed us.  Such as the Polish politician who called Jews “animals” on social media.  Last week.

On many levels, I identify with Holocaust survivors.  Of course as a Jew and as a human being, but also as a survivor of torture and abuse by my relatives.  I’m an only child and I pulled my way out of that swamp with every last bit of my energy until I made it to the Holy Land.  Where those survivors and this survivor now live together, building a new life of hope, health, and joy.

Israel is an imperfect place, like every other country.  If you want to know why, despite all our very loud and vociferous differences, Jews here feel we need a homeland, all you need to do is count the number of Jews in Poland.  Or to try to find the synagogue where my great-grandfather prayed in Latvia.  Or to find the Jewish community of Pacsa, Hungary where my great-grandfather Adolf Adler lived.

Guess what?  You’re going to be in for a lot of tears.  Because our heritage there was erased.  And it’s because we have a new homeland, a complicated and blessed place, that we are still alive.  Israel struggles with many things- preserving Jewish culture, guarding human rights, and even sometimes pursuing peace.

One thing we’re good at is saving Jewish lives.  Something Europeans never really could figure out.

Have a meaningful Yom Hashoah.  May this remembrance find the existing survivors treated with more dignity.  May it find all victims of genocide treated with respect.  May it find us living in a world where while I remember my people being gassed, I don’t have to think about my neighbors across the border in Syria suffering the same fate.

One Holocaust, many genocides.  Never, ever again.

p.s.- if you’re wondering what the cover photo is, it’s the flag of the German-American Bund.  The American Nazi party.  Because Nazism wasn’t just Hitler.  We all must stand up for what’s right.

*Image by Paloeser

Bedouin Arabic…in Hasidic Bnei Brak

Yes, the title is exactly what you think.

As an appropriate sequel to my blog “Bedouin Yiddish“, in which I discovered a Bedouin man who speaks Yiddish in Rahat, I found Bedouin speaking Arabic in Bnei Brak!

Before we get to that, let’s start at the very beginning.

Today, I was planning on visiting the West Bank.  Area C, where Israelis can visit, is where I’ve made contact with a Palestinian practitioner of non-violence who partners with Israelis (including settlers).  However, feeling rattled after yesterday’s “preview of a terrorist attack“, I decided I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make the most out of the experience.

Instead, I made my way to Bnei Brak.  I’ve written a lot about this Haredi city of 200,000 people on the doorstep of Tel Aviv.  My first Haredi hug, my first time praying in a Hasidic shtiebl, Satmar Yiddish newspapers, the hot guys, and the time I got a blessing from a Vizhnitz Hasid.

Speaking of Vizhnitz, that’s exactly where I went today.  Kiryat Vizhnitz, named after the town in Europe where the Hasidic dynasty was founded, is a part of Bnei Brak I knew less about.

Knowing that there was a renowned Vizhnitz bakery AND a Yemenite Haredi bookstore, I knew this was my destination for the day.  Quench the thirst of my soul and my stomach!

I started at Nosach Teiman, a Yemenite Jewish bookstore and Judaica shop.  The riches of this small store are innumerable.  I bought loads of Yemenite music, a Judeo-Aramaic calendar (!!), prayers written in Judeo-Arabic, and a book of Judeo-Arabic expressions translated into Hebrew.  It does not get any better than this.  Here are some pics:

They even had Yemenite Jewish clothing, make-up, and perfume for sale.  For a community that had to escape by the skin of its teeth from fanatical neighbors who wanted to exterminate them, they’ve sure done an amazing job of preserving their culture upon arriving to Israel.  While unfortunately fewer and fewer Yemenites here speak their unique language, I did hear a few words in the store- which I could mostly understand with my Arabic!

Energized, I headed to the Vizhnitz bakery, sure that I’d also find new adventures on the way.  On my way there, I came across several yeshivas.  The first, a Sephardic one, where I got a free book called “Mishnah Brurah”.  It’s old and beautiful- and free.  Bnei Brak is one of the few places on the planet where you’ll find timeless beautiful books simply sitting outside waiting for you to grab them.  For free or minimal cost.  These are the Jews who truly continue to embody that we are the “People of the Book”.  Looking for Jewish knowledge?  Skip Amazon and head to shuls in Bnei Brak.

Down the street, I saw the Belz Yeshiva.  There’s a famous song about the shtetl, or Jewish village, of Belz that once existed in Eastern Europe.  So to see the town recreated in front of my eyes- its Jewish presence in Europe exterminated- was awe-inspiring.  As Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches in Israel, I couldn’t help but let out a huge smile.  As the famous Yiddish resistance song says: Mir zaynen do.  We are here.  In the face of Nazi persecution, Christian annihilation, Islamic fundamentalism, ever-shifting anti-Semitism on both left and right- we exist.  We survived.  We. are. here.

To see my heritage continue in the face of 2,000 years of European brutality is a miracle.  It fills me with hope, wonder, amazement, and joy.  Our mere presence is a victory in and of itself.

I headed to the bakery with a fulfilled soul and a hungry stomach.

The bakery was delicious.  It was nothing but challahs left and right.  Some huge, some small and all a bit sweet.

While I noshed on my challah, I noticed something interesting- a sign with baking instructions in Arabic.  Bnei Brak is 1000% Jewish.  A mixed city this is not.  A secular person moving here would be considered a mixed population.

Then I noticed a tan-skinned man yelling in Hebrew at a Hasid.  Something about business.  Given how everyone yells in my neighborhood- even when not angry- I didn’t make much of it.  Must just be a Mizrachi guy who does business with Vizhnitz bakers.

Then I heard the most unexpected thing ever: Arabic.  And not Yemenite Judeo-Arabic.  Arabic from here.  I approached the tan men in Arabic.  Their eyes widened with excitement and surprise.  You have to remember I’m wearing a black yarmulke, a kippa, a head covering.  I look, for all intents and purposes, Modern Orthodox.

Turns out, they’re Bedouins.  I told them I had been to Rahat (where I discovered the Yiddish speaker).  They said they lived in a nearby town of Ad-Dhahiriya, whose name at first I confused with Nahariya, a city in the North of Israel.  Only once I google its name right now did I realize…it’s a Palestinian city.  In the West Bank.

We had a great talk about the Bedouin dahiyye music I like (they’re going to teach me the dance next time) and I was proud to hear, as I walked away, them say “wallahi bye7ki 3arabi mnee7”.  Wow he really speaks Arabic well.  My smile inside and out could not be bigger even as I write this now.

While Yemenite Arabic in Israel is struggling, I found Bedouin Palestinians who are keeping Arabic alive in Bnei Brak.  While my trip to the West Bank didn’t happen today, I did end up meeting Palestinians.  And having fun.  And hopefully warming a few hearts, like they did mine.

Still hungry, I grabbed a sweet for the road.  The man at the store turned out to be a fellow polyglot.  He spoke Hebrew, Yiddish, French, and English.  And a straight-up Haredi Jew.  We shared a fantastic short conversation in all languages.  I bet you didn’t expect that in Bnei Brak.  Or the gluten-free falafel I found.  Or the multilingual dictionaries for learning Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, Farsi, and Yiddish (the latter possibly for Mizrachi Jews).  All alongside a side for “kosher” phones that filter out “non-kosher” content.

What I hope you take from this adventure is the unexpected mystery and glory of finding new places and new people.  Bnei Brak is an awe-inspiring place.  With things that will surprise you if you open your mind and heart to the possibilities.

On my way back to Tel Aviv for a Eurovision concert headlined by Dana International, Israel’s first transgender superstar, I felt sad taking my yarmulke off.  I like my black yarmulke.  It suits me.  Not as a decoration and not just as a sign of respect for Bnei Brak.  But because I like that part of me.  That heimish, passionately Jewish, bookish, dancing-down-the-aisles Matt.  The Hasidic part of me.  The Haredi part of me.

And I don’t like feeling that I need to take it off when I come back to Tel Aviv, especially at an event with a lot of gay people.  Who- and I understand why- will be afraid to talk to me because of it.

This is what I hope we can one day overcome- on all sides.  I long for the day when I can be a gay Hasidic Jew- with the flexibility to still pray Reform and to go to gay parties.  And find a gay partner.  I long for the day when secular gay people will accept my passion for Judaism, including Orthodox Judaism, as a part of me.

I shouldn’t have to sacrifice bits of my soul to keep other people happy.  Nobody fits into a box- boxes are boring.  I’m glad I explore different things and my life is much, much richer for it, even with the challenges.

When I go to Bnei Brak now, I’m not just a visitor.  I know this place.  And I like some of it.  I hope it continues to passionately preserve its Judaism and I hope it can find ways to be more inclusive of people like me.  And I don’t know how possible it is to do both.  I would like to try- I suppose I already am.

So next gay party, don’t be surprised if I put on my yarmulke for a bit- just to see how it feels.  And to see how you react.

And next visit to Bnei Brak, don’t be surprised if I linger a bit under your city’s rainbow-colored flag to take a selfie.  Because inside it feels really queer.

Just like speaking Bedouin Arabic in the middle of a Hasidic bakery.

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A family reunion with Haredim in a cave in Tsfat

I just got back from an absolutely fascinating and fantastic trip up North.  The North is truly the most beautiful part of this Land.  A place where mountains and hills, covered in green, soothe the city dweller’s soul.  A place where mysticism, hospitality, and quiet evenings can almost make you feel like you’re living in different country.

My friend and I were visiting the city of Tsfat.  Tsfat has been a center of Jewish mysticism and kabbalistic learning for 500 years.  And its Jewish community has both Biblical and Medieval roots.

It’s a place where you can just feel spirit.  Not because of any particularly grandiose buildings, but rather because of the air itself.  Tsfat is a place you can’t see- it’s a place you feel.

As we were walking on top of a Crusader castle, we heard singing.  Coming from below.  We approached some sort of round opening in the ground and could hear it very clearly.  It was niggunim- word-less Jewish melodies carried through the ages.  And they were coming from inside the hill.  I could make out the white shirts of men walking in a circle and singing.

I found a Haredi man and his family and asked if it was a synagogue in the mountain.  He said no, it was a cave.  And, being the consummate Israeli, ushered me over to him and took me to it.  Something I truly love about this place.

We headed down the hill and I entered the dark cave with the old man.  I found a circle of teenage boys holding hands, belting out the songs of my ancestors.  I came to Tsfat seeking some respite from the city and some calm.  And instead, I found God.

At a time when I had been feeling distant from Judaism and the concept of spirituality, I found something extraordinary.  Without hesitation, the old man and I stepped into the circle and started singing.

The cave magnified our song as each yai dai dai bounced off the walls and meshed with the others.

Before I had started dancing, I asked the man if the kids were Hasidic.  After all, Hasidim are known for their niggunim.  The man said, “no, they are Litvaks”.  Misnagdim.  Lithuanians.  Lithuanians- like me.

Suddenly I was no longer just singing beautiful Jewish melodies.  I was holding the hands of my cousins.  My family.  Separated by oceans and traumas and the Holocaust, reunited in a cave in Tsfat.  And just like the niggunim themselves, no words needed.  You just feel the power and the love.

What’s so extraordinary is that even though the Misnagdim and I come from pretty radically different Jewish traditions, the power of Jewish music brought us together.  Ashkenazi Jewish music has particular modes.  It’s not by accident that many of our songs sound similar.  So that even over a hundred years after our relatives were separated, we can reunite to the same sounds in a cave in the Land of Israel.

Feeling so moved that my face couldn’t help but smile non-stop for minutes afterwards, I headed out.  As my friend and I and the Haredi family walked out of the cave, the old man did the appropriately Jewish thing and asked me a bunch of questions.  Which, to his great pleasure, I answered in Yiddish.  Who was I?  Where was I from?  Where were my ancestors from?  What was my last name?  And, as is the case in many places I visit here, “are you married?”  When I told some Reform friends here I get asked that a lot, they laughed and couldn’t believe it.  And it also shows that there are a lot more traditional people here that I manage to spend time with.  Because I think I manage to get asked that question 3-4 times a day when I travel here, from Arabs and Jews alike.

When I told the man my last name was Adler, his eyes lit up.  “Adler!  You have a famous rabbi in your family!  You don’t know?  Oy, come to my house in Bnei Brak anytime- you are most welcome.”  And he gave me his address.  Because when people here invite you to something, they really mean it.

In Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a concept of elevating sparks of holiness.  For Jewish mystics, tikkun olam, or repairing the world, is not just about social justice (as it is usually seen in Reform Judaism), but rather about taking the profane, the mundane and making it whole again.

I’ve traditionally associated Hasidim, rather than Lithuanians, with Kabbalah and a kind of anarchic and unbridled mysticism.  Yet Litvaks too have a relationship with this famous book.  Long have I wondered if they sang niggunim and what they sounded like.

And now, at a 130-year-old delayed family reunion in the most mystical city of all, I now know.

Nice to meet you fam.

p.s. I was humming this Hasidic-inspired song all the way down the hill, if you want to take a listen.

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Why Israel doesn’t always suck (and is sometimes good at things)

This is perhaps my most Israeli blog title yet.

I’m writing you from a hostel in Barcelona, an absolutely stunning city.  It’s my first visit back in Catalonia in 10 years, and unlike my last visit, I also speak Catalan in addition to Spanish.

My experience here has been fantastic.  I visited the medieval city of Girona, the absolutely phenomenal and peaceful gem of Perpignan in southern France, and am now in the throbbing yet relaxed metropolis.

The best parts of my visit here have been the nature, the serenity, the smiles at strangers, the cleanliness, the general respect for boundaries, and not having to answer millions of deeply personal questions only to be judged for your answers.  Speaking languages I love.  And the delicious food on every corner.

It’s also nice to take my air raid and terrorism alert apps off my phone for a while and not see 18 year old soldiers carrying guns in the street.  It’s just more peaceful.

For the first time in a while, I found myself missing things about Israel.  If you’ve read my recent blogs, you might find that as surprising as I did.  Israel is pretty awful when it comes to human rights, to respecting diversity, to preserving Jewish culture, to living up to Jewish values, to treating people with respect, and to pursuing peace both within society and with our neighbors.

And there are some things Israel does well.  One is helping each other.  Today I found myself sick in Barcelona.  Both physically sick and feeling lonely.  I messaged a few Israeli friends and within seconds they were helping me figure out my insurance, cheering me up, and taking care of me.  Thankfully I didn’t need a full hospital visit, but if I had, my travel insurance would have covered every expense above $50.  Which brings me to something else.  Israeli healthcare is leaps and bounds better than anything I experienced in America.  Health is not just wealth- it’s survival.  Everything else is details if you can’t live.  Israel is a super stressful place to live and one stress I don’t have is that I’ll go bankrupt because I’m sick.

It speaks to a certain social(ist) value in Israel.  And when I say Israel, I mean both Jews and Arabs.  In Israel, anywhere you go you can charge your phone or refill your water bottle.  For free- you often don’t even need to buy anything.  In the places I’ve visited in Spain and France (and much of the U.S.) you need to buy something to charge up or you need to buy actual (expensive and wasteful) bottles of water.  These examples are not anecdotal- when combined with Israeli willingness to host guests (and sometimes strangers) for long periods of time, you sense a pattern.  When it comes to certain things, Israelis display a generosity found in few places.

While in Spain/Catalonia/France, I’ve met some people who reminded me why some Israelis are so nationalistic and racist.  There’s the Dutch guy who told me he could probably understand Yiddish because “it’s just fucked up German.”  There’s the researcher in France studying medieval Jewry who, instead of dialoguing with me, started lecturing me about my own people’s history.  I appreciate his work and would prefer someone not pin me in a corner and try to teach me about…myself.  There are also the formerly Jewish houses in Girona where you can see where the mezuzahs once hung.  And the historic synagogue that now houses an architectural firm.  I think I can understand how Palestinian refugees must feel about the remnants of their village in my neighborhood.

This is not to say that most people here are bigoted.  Most people when I say I’m Jewish or live in Tel Aviv are either neutral, polite, or even show great interest.  I’m grateful to cities like Girona that are preserving my heritage.  And to their archives for preserving Judeo-Catalan documents I got to see first hand.  And many of them were improperly labeled.  To the archivist’s credit, I submitted some corrections and she gladly marked them down.  It’s just an apt metaphor that even when some people are trying to get Jewish history right, it can feel uncomfortable.  I don’t want to impose or discourage them and I also find it irritating that most of their archived documents are upside down.  The documents of the people they expelled.  Some of whom live in their veins.

That’s the complexity of Judaism in Europe.  For 2000 years, we’ve called it home.  To this day.  And not just during the Holocaust, but over and over again throughout that time, we’ve been mercilessly expelled, burned, and murdered.  Property robbed and now turned into moneymaking tourist attractions.  That keep bits of our heritage on the map.  When I visit the Jewish quarter of Girona, I’m not just visiting a tourist attraction, I’m a Cherokee visiting the Trail of Tears.  It’s complicated, to recall the words of a Palestinian friend I talked with before moving to Israel.

Which brings me to what else Israel does well- it gives me a place where if people are ignorant about my tradition, they can learn on my terms.  It gives me a place where I’m in a position of power- as fraught as that is.  A place where if people want to expel us or lecture us or deride us, we don’t have to grit our teeth and put up with it.  Some people take this power a bit too far- and spending a bit of time outside of Israel reminded me why they do so.  Even if it’s not justified.

While in Barcelona, I went to Reform services.  I’ve been pretty fed up with God lately, tired of Zionism, and not even really sure if I feel Jewish anymore.  So I decided to see if maybe Diaspora Judaism, the Judaism I grew up with, still fit.  The services were wonderful.  They were in Catalan, Spanish, Hebrew, and English- a polyglot like me couldn’t be happier.  And it adds a spiritual dimension to share our hopes in different languages.  Hebrew alone bores me.  The people of all ages were warm and welcoming and treated me to a free meal.  As good Jews, there was tons of food.

I can’t say every part of the service spoke to me.  There are problems with Jewish liturgy I’ve only fully understood while living in Israel.  The idea that we’re the “Chosen People” or asking God to bless “His people”- that doesn’t work for me any more.  It feels racist.  I’m tired of the idea that religion should be supremacist- as pretty much every Western religion is in some sense or another.  Our prophet is the best.  Only our people go to heaven.  God chose us above all other peoples.  Try reading the words of your Friday night Kiddush in English.

And it’s my capacity to read Hebrew and my living in Israel that has shed light on these problems.  Judaism is due for a new reformation.  It has beautiful sparks as evidenced by the parts of the service and the dinner that lit my spirit again.  The music, the poetry, the community, the evolving tradition.

Much like Israel, Judaism needs a revamp.  No need to throw everything out, but the way it’s going isn’t working- at least not for me.  As I watched two Israelis living in Barcelona learn the Reform liturgy Friday night- and engage in gentler, more peaceful ways than I usually see in Israel- I see a bit of light.  Jews outside of Israel need Israel.  Yes, it’s a deeply f*cked place and I would rather the world not have states at all.  And I’ll keep fighting for that.  And the reality is we don’t know the next time anti-Semitism will strike.  Israel is the only state on earth, for better or worse, that cares about my healthcare- about my ability to live- simply because I’m a Jew.  That formula is problematic and perhaps sometimes necessary.  While we can’t live in paranoia that everyone is out to get us, the fact is some people are.  And because we’re a minority easy to scapegoat, some people always will be.

At the same time, to return to the Israelis I met in Barcelona, Israel needs Jews (and non-Jews) outside of Israel.  Judaism outside Israel is gentler.  It’s more spiritual than secular Israelis and softer than much of the religiosity I see there.  It can offer Israelis an escape valve.  A reminder than life in the Diaspora can be hard due to prejudice and it can be enriching when it engages with the society surrounding it.  It can remind us of our roots and the need to be sensitive and compassionate towards minorities.  Including in Israel itself.  As my cover photo says in French: “shared route”.  Let’s lift each other up, Jew and non-Jew, Israeli or not.

When you go on a trip, you can buy one of those souvenirs that says “I went to Barcelona and all I got was this shirt”.  I went to Barcelona and all I got was a complex textured view of the pluses and minuses of having a Jewish state- and Diaspora life.

More than I expected on a birthday trip abroad?  You bet.  But don’t worry, I’ll be having some chicken paella too 😉

Yiddish softens the heart?

Two weeks ago, I approached my friends at FluenTLV about starting a Yiddish table.  FluenTLV is a fabulous event (my favorite in Tel Aviv) where people get together to exchange languages.  I offered to represent the language and they were thrilled.

Last week, the first week we did Yiddish, probably 3 or 4 people came and it went well.  One German guy, a couple Jewish Americans, and an Israeli.  Given how stigmatized my heritage language is in Israel, I was pretty happy.

Last night, Yiddish came to life.  At the beginning of the night, an Israeli came in and tried to take one of the three chairs at my tiny table.  I said: “actually that chair is for Yiddish.”  He said “well, nobody is going to come anyways, so I’ll take it.”  I said: “nope, this chair belongs here, you can leave now.”  I asked him if he wanted to learn something and he said “sure, teach me a word.”  I did, he laughed, gave me one of those “everything is OK dude” Israeli high fives and left.  Probably without a further thought about what he had said.

The best part of the evening is that this guy was totally wrong.  Group after group came over to my table.  We didn’t have enough chairs.  When all was said and done, about 15-20 people had visited my table.  A German guy and two Dutch men explained how Yiddish had made its way into their languages!  A Brazilian Jew talked about Yiddish in her family.  I met Israelis whose parents or grandparents spoke the language and remembered some phrases.  Together, we read my copy of “Der Blat”, a Satmar Hasidic newspaper.  And I could see the glow in their eyes when they realized they could understand some of it.

What was also astonishing was how willing people were to learn.  I often find Israeli culture frustrating because of the bravado.  So many people here feel the need to be right trumps all.  Hence often endless debate, even when the facts used are minimal.  I’ve even had Israelis try to correct my English- knowing I’m American.  We often laugh that off, but after a while it wears on you.  It’s tiring having to constantly defend yourself.  Humility is not an Israeli value.

Yet at the Yiddish table, Israelis came to learn from me.  And subsequently shared about themselves.  Their families, their stories, their grandparents’ Yiddish phrases.  For the first time, I actually felt in dialogue with Israeli Jews rather than a lecture.  Or an argument.  There was a softness to our conversation that made me happy.  It warmed my heart and it gave me hope.

In a society where, as I see it, traumatized Jews faced 2,000 years of violent persecution with few options for safety and survival.  Sadly, some of these Jews ended up traumatizing and displacing Palestinian Arabs in a bid for a homeland.  Some of these traumatized Palestinians subsequently re-traumatized the Israelis.  And now we’re stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

That’s how I see it on regel aches- or “one on leg” as we say in Yiddish.  My Tweet-length version of the conflict here.  The saddest part is the trauma on both sides continues.  Anti-Semitism is not just the Holocaust.  It’s a two-millennia phenomenon that continues to this day from America to France to Iran.  I’ve personally experienced it in the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C.  When Jews are persecuted, we often have nowhere to go, which is why some people believe in a Jewish state.  I’m not sure it’s the best solution and I completely understand why people feel we need it.  It’s not by accident that there’s a lot of French people in Israel- they’re Jews fleeing violence and bigotry.  Palestinian terrorist attacks on pizza shops and buses and schools only feed this narrative as we feel under attack yet again.  Trauma piled upon trauma.

And for the Palestinians, you have those who are citizens of Israel yet continue to face discrimination, racism, and often poverty.  Whose lands were robbed of them- and are still in the hands of the Israeli state 70 years later.  You have those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who live in immense poverty, have little right to travel, have few if any civil liberties, and often face violence from the Israeli military.  And even some settlers who burn their trees, deface their houses of worship, and physically assault them.  And you have Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere who can’t even come back to the land they once called home.  Who have no rights in the villages they come from and whose host states often extensively discriminate against them.

Sometimes its enough to just make you cry and cry and weep for humanity.  With no end in sight.  Ya Allah, God please send us all healing.

So in the face of all this sadness, what gives me hope?  Yiddish.  Because tonight, I saw the softer side of Israeli Jews.  When they don’t have to be “tough”- not against Arabs, not against other Jews, not against their own heritage.  Rather, by connecting to their roots- roots violently uprooted both by European anti-Semites and the Israeli state– they felt warmth.

I hope politicians can figure out a solution to this problem.  Given their proclivity for narcissism and greed, I’m not sure what they’ll do.  In the meantime, perhaps part of the solution is culture.  When you feel connected to something bigger- especially something a part of your heritage- it puts things in perspective.  Rather than having to show how “Israeli” you are, you can be the multifaceted Jew beneath the uniform.  The Jew whose family was persecuted by Polish Nazi collaborators, the Jew whose family escaped to Israel, the Jew who lives on Palestinian land, the Jew who wishes to reconnect with his heritage.  A complex one, of persecution and co-existence.  Of perseverance and of trauma.

A little less prickly sabra and a little more soft kneydlach.  Those fluffy yet durable matzah balls that comfort you when you feel sick.

Cover photo by Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31812266

A Jew, a German, and an Italian walk into a bar

No, this isn’t a punchline.  It’s exactly what I did tonight.

Tonight I was helping people practice their English at an event in Tel Aviv.  I love going there to speak other languages and what I’ve realized is sometimes I want to speak my native tongue.  And teach people about my culture.

It’s so nice to be validated as an American, an American Jew, and an English speaker in a place where these identities regularly lead people to discriminate against me.  To try to take advantage of me.  Or to tell me to leave my identities “in the Diaspora”.

So when I sit at the English table to help people practice, it’s nice to meet folks who are genuinely interested in where I’m from.

Tonight, after having fun at the Arabic table, I walk over to the English table.  A young woman, Mara, is sitting smiling at me.  Nothing reminds me of the world outside Israel more than a welcoming smile.  We start talking and it turns out she’s from Sardinia.  Sardinia is a fascinating island that’s part of Italy with its own unique history and languages.  I’ve learned some about it before, I’m very eager to visit, and I was thrilled to meet my first Sardinian!

We talked all about the language of her island– sometimes so distinct from Modern Italian that other Italians can’t understand.  She said she and her husband will speak in their dialects when they don’t want anyone in Tel Aviv to catch on.  Something a great many American Jews may recall about their grandparents and Yiddish.

Shortly thereafter, another woman joins us.  Corinna is German so I launched into a bit of Yiddish which made her smile 🙂  I love doing this with Germans.  It’s a friendly way to show something we have in common- the languages are distinct but share many words- and it’s also a way of showing pride that my identity survives.

Turns out Corinna is fascinated by Yiddish.  We talked about Germanic words in Yiddish and Yiddish words like meshugga and kosher that are in German.  We even had a good laugh at the word “blitzpost”.  In Yiddish, it means “email”.  In German, it’s a phrase you’d say if your snail mail arrived quickly.  Hence the connection.  But really neat to learn from my new German friend about our shared and different identities.  Really cool 🙂

Sometimes it can be hard to see progress when you’re living in the Middle East or watching the absolute catastrophe going on in my homeland right now where the government is literally shut down.

And sometimes you experience little miracles that make your spirits fly.  Who could’ve imagined, just 72 years after the worst genocide in Jewish history, that a Jew, a German and an Italian would be sitting in Israel speaking English?  At a bar?  Laughing?  Exchanging phone numbers.

And Mara and Corinna aren’t just ordinary Italians and Germans- Mara’s husband works at the Italian Embassy and Corinna interns at the German one.  They literally work for their governments.

From a Jewish perspective, you have to understand that if my grandparents met people from the German or Italian governments in Europe, they would’ve been dead.

And here we are.  Sharing a beautiful moment, a quotidian moment, a peaceful moment.  Making friends with each other.

I’d like to remember this experience for the days when I feel really sad.  There are things I see and experience here that are depressing.  I don’t think many Israelis or Palestinians or Syrians or really many people in the region right now feel optimism.  It just seems to be getting worse by the day.  And given the wars, the terrorism, the displacements, the cutthroat politics- I can understand it.  Trauma here is real- and in every group imaginable.

I would like to share a bit of hope.  If you were to ask someone in 1945, just after the Axis powers murdered 6 million Jews, if they could envision a day in which a Jew, a German, and an Italian would be hanging out in a Jewish homeland- they would say you’re fucking nuts.

And they’d be wrong.  Because that’s what happened tonight.  Because progress sometimes passes under our noses unnoticed.  I feel it is a real blessing to have met Mara and Corinna tonight.  We’ve buried the old Axis and made a new one- one that will hopefully be filled with visits to Sardinia, with learning about the German language, with visiting Yiddish libraries and concerts.

Because the seemingly impossible does happen sometimes.  When you lose hope, open up this blog or find something around you that makes you look in awe.

Don’t give up.

Why social justice isn’t just economic

When it comes to economics, I believe the more equal we can make our society, the better.  Ideally, that’d mean less state and corporate control and more resources in the hands of the people.  And as we work towards that goal, I believe in a strong safety net- universal healthcare, guaranteed housing, access to healthful food, free public transportation, and more.

What I’ve come to realize, particularly due to my stay in Israel, is that economic justice is not enough.

What does that mean?  What I mean is economic justice is crucial- it helps people survive.  If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, economic justice provides people with the foundation in order to reach higher goals in life.  It provides for your physiological needs (air, water, food, shelter) and safety needs (financial security, health, safety).

If you look at the pyramid below, you’ll notice that more emotional needs, like love and esteem are built upon the foundation of the needs addressed by economic justice:maslow.jpg

In other words, you need economic justice to give people the opportunity to build their self confidence, to be able to focus on their love life, and to realize their dreams.

And yet, what’s also clear is that economic justice alone will not help someone achieve these higher needs in life.  Having a good salary certainly can make me feel happy and secure, but it won’t in and of itself make me feel loved.

Which is where we come to culture.  First, let’s define culture.  Culture, as I see it, is art, music, language, food, religion, customs, clothing, and so much more.  In short, it is a series of practices that gives life meaning.  It helps us feel rooted.  It doesn’t mean that culture stays stagnant- it always changes.  Yet if we don’t have some reference point for how we interact with the world, our self-esteem suffers and we can feel devalued.  Especially when the surrounding society demands we abandon our culture.

Incidentally, when I did a Google search on the psychological benefits of culture, an Israeli researcher appeared.  Dr. Carmit Tadmor studies the role of multiculturalism as it relates to conflicts in Israeli society.  Both she and the American Dr. Francois Grosjean, whose article helped me find her, argue that biculturalism is a benefit.  That people with more than one culture tend to be more creative, more flexible, more able to wrestle with ambiguity, and more professionally successful.  And quite important for Israel- they are more willing to acknowledge different perspectives and consider their merit.

Considering all the benefits of culture, one can imagine the great harm involved in destroying it.  If access to your culture (and the ability to add new ones) gives people confidence and creativity, stripping people of their culture causes psychological harm.  When a Yemenite child is forced by his Kibbutz to cut off his peyos, his sidelocks, one does not need a great deal of imagination to fathom the psychological harm.  Or, in the case of America, when newspapers advertised jobs saying “No Irish Need Apply“.

This last example is particularly illustrative.  Professor Richard J. Jensen at University of Illinois-Chicago published a book entitled “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization”.  He claims discrimination against Irish-Americans was exaggerated.  I’m pretty much always suspicious of someone who uses the phrase “myth of victimization” because it’s used to tell people their pain isn’t real.  To invalidate them.  Perhaps to invalidate themselves.

This attitude, unfortunately, is quite common in the U.S.  I once met a man of Irish ancestry- actually proud of his ancestry but not engaging with directly.  That is to say, he read books, he visited the country, but on a day-to-day basis, the food was cheese dip, the language was English, the music was Sweet Home Alabama- and that’s about it.  When I once asked him about his prejudices towards immigrants- why Latinos, for instance, couldn’t continue to speak Spanish- his answer was telling.

“When my grandparents came to America, they spoke Irish Gaelic.  But they never taught it to us because they were in America.  And here we speak English.  And I’m glad they never taught it to us because that’s not what you’re supposed to do here.”

In other words, he justifies his current prejudice towards immigrants who strive to maintain their culture by citing his own family’s pain- and even justifying that pain.  Invalidating the suffering his family endured.  That continues to leave his family rather rootless today.  And voting for politicians to expel his immigrant neighbors who suffer the same fate his family did.

Which brings us back to Prof. Jensen’s book.  As an American Jew and a Washingtonian, what I discovered made me so proud.  A 14 year old girl, Rebecca Fried, a student at D.C.’s Sidwell Friends School, wrote a thesis disproving Prof. Jensen’s claims.  It started with a simple Google search and she found tons of examples of discrimination, including racist job postings.  Prof. Jensen’s work was a sham- as other professors then began to discover he had an anti-Irish and anti-Catholic ideology.  It’s also sad because his last name is Scandinavian- he clearly has immigrant roots himself that maybe his own family was torn away from.  That he continues to inflict on others.

What makes me particularly proud about this?  First off, she’s a fellow Washingtonian.  We come from one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world and it definitely helped me become the multicultural person I am today.  It’s basically impossible for you to live in the D.C. area and not interact with people of different backgrounds and like Dr. Tadmor’s research indicates, this changes your mentality for the better.

Secondly, I’m going to make an assumption – hopefully correct – that Rebecca Fried, daughter of lawyer Michael Fried – is probably Jewish or at least of Jewish ancestry.  The name is so so American Jewish that I’d be surprised if she wasn’t somehow connected to our tradition.  Although America always finds ways to surprise you 🙂

Working off this assumption, a 14 year old girl of Jewish ancestry helped Irish Americans reclaim their cultural identity.  And unravel a hateful argument against them.

Why does this not surprise me?  Because American Jews- perhaps all Jews outside Israel- understand what it means to be a minority.  And- most importantly- if we continue to identify as Jewish in any way we are in fact maintaining our culture.  All American Jews are bicultural.  And therefore we enjoy the benefits of this identity- and understand the challenges.  While we faced (and continue to face) pressure to assimilate in the U.S., our resilience helps explain why American Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”  Which is to say that because we’ve maintained our culture, even though our economics should push us to vote Republican, we voted 71% Democrat in 2016.

Not to say people of different parties can’t be empathetic to immigrants, but in the current climate I think it’s fair to say Democrats are more open to multiculturalism.

I believe our biculturality helps explain why American Jews tend to be more empathetic to refugees and more open to diversity when compared with their Sabra counterparts in Israel.

When Jews came to Israel, they had their cultures ripped from their bosom by the Sabras who already lived here.  Yiddish, Judeo-Iraqi, Ladino- thousands of years of Jewish history were thrown out the window.  Kids were shamed for speaking Jewish languages!  Within just a few generations, many of these languages had become extinct or endangered.  Not because of anti-Semitism in another country, but rather because of other Jews who denied them the right to maintain their culture.  Because of bullies deeply insecure about their own cultural identity.

So how does this relate to social justice?  First off, we started by talking about economic justice.  The Israeli state- especially in its early years- did actually have quite a focus on economic justice.  The social safety net that developed far outpaced anything we have in America.  The government was pretty socialist- this is the origin of the Kibbutz- a commune.  There was (and is) a communist party in Israel- in the Knesset.

And yet there was a blind spot.  Racism.  Culture.  The government may have thought that if it simply erased Diaspora Judaism- the “icky” Moroccan superstitions, the “grating” noise of Yiddish- that it could entice people with money.  With jobs, with education, with healthcare.  To switch their identities.  Not to have both- for example- Moroccan and Israeli identities.  But rather “Israel #1 only amazing awesome nothing better”- that’s it.

Well guess what?  That has never worked in history.  Because what happens when you strip someone of their identity?  Let’s say they have their physiological and safety needs taken care of (not always the case here, but roll with me)- what’s missing?

What’s missing is culture.  Something to root you, to comfort you, to enrich your life.  Because Sabra culture is not a culture- by design.  Sabras when creating the State of Israel wanted to be the “anti-culture”.  That by negating their roots, they were making something new.  True- but the issue is you can’t create something out of nothing.  Your mentality, your traditions, no matter how much you hate them, impact the way you see the world.  And simply by telling yourself that that’s not OK turns you into a monster.  Into someone who hates both herself and- in particular- her neighbors who continue to hold on to the traditions she despises.

I think this explains why in Israel, and in the U.S., the people who tend to be most anti-minority and anti-diversity are the people who had their culture stripped from them.  Who continue to operate in a vacuum of Palestinian falafel they call Israeli and pizza they call American.

The reason Jews have been- and in some cases continue to be- hated in the Diaspora is because of our tenacity.  Our desire to hold on to our evolving traditions even when they’re not the norm.  To celebrate our holidays, to embrace our sense of humor, to learn about our history, to wear a yarmulke, to want to pass these traditions down to the next generation.

Our willingness to remain different while enjoying the best society has to offer, our biculturality, is what makes us queer.  It’s what makes us more complex than economic justice.  Because you can give me bread, but I want roses too.  I want a sense of identity.  And so do Mizrachi Jews and Sudanese refugees and Latinos and Black Americans and religious Jews and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim.  As do many people alienated from their cultures- take this opportunity to learn!

In short, the right to a cultural identity not only makes you a happier person, it makes you more empathetic to others, it makes society more progressive, and it makes for less bitter people for the state to rally to hate others.

This new secular year, let’s make it our mission to realize that economic justice is crucial and not enough.  Our cultural identity changes the way we see the world and when we have the right to exercise it, it can help us be better people and make our society one worth living in.

May it be so.