Every sector of Israeli society in one day

Today, my day started with terrorism and ending with me and some Mizrachim singing Umm Kulthum.

I’m in the (very stressful) process of finding an apartment in Tel Aviv.  I’ve never had such a difficult time finding a place to live in any other city.  The loosely-regulated rental market here is super competitive with sketchy offers abounding.  I’ll find something, it’s just exhausting.

In need of a break, I did something most Tel Avivim would not do when in need of relaxation, and went to Jerusalem.

Having gotten a bit turned around, instead of taking a bus from the Central Bus Station, I actually ended up taking a bus to Kfar Chabad and then a second bus to Jerusalem.  I could detour here and tell you about the adventures of making a highly-improvised bathroom stop between bus rides, but I’ll save that for one-on-one conversations 😉  Israel constantly challenges your definitions of “gross”.

I hopped on the second bus, which incidentally took us partially through the West Bank/Samaria.

This particular route was gorgeous.  Unlike the main bus lines to Jerusalem, this was totally rural with no traffic whatsoever.  The scenes were idyllic.

I felt a bit nervous going through this area today as there was a terrorist attack this morning.  Three young men – an Ethiopian Jew, one (I believe) Mizrachi Jew, and one Israeli-Arab – were ruthlessly murdered as they did their job providing security for the community of Har Hadar.  Solomon, Yossef, and Or – may their memory be for a blessing.  I’m praying for their families.  And I was so sad this morning I was frankly at a loss for words- and I still am.

I almost didn’t go to Jerusalem, but in the end- fuck terrorism.  There’s only so much you can control in life and after taking reasonable precautions, I just want to live my life.  Just like these young people would’ve liked to.

Incidentally, we passed by a sign to Har Hadar on the way to Jerusalem.  It’s that small of a country.

I get to Jerusalem, a bit frazzled, and hop off the bus.  To my right is a sign with bunch of Hasidic posters, one of which was in Yiddish.  I approached two twenty-something Hasidim and asked in Yiddish for them to explain one of the signs.  Turns out, there is a Yiddish-language theater production being broadcast out of Brooklyn into movie-style screens in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which they invited me to.

The two young men were Belz Hasidim and for an hour and a half, we spoke in a mixture of Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.  One, Dovid, was born in London and the other, Yankev, grew up in Montreal, another one of my favorite cities.  Yankev was a bit shy, though we spoke a little French together since he learned some in Montreal (and so did I!).  Dovid was a real shmoozer and a sweet guy.  He told me all about yeshiva and how he lamented the lack of Kosher steak in Jerusalem.  He made a point of telling me he doesn’t go to political demonstrations, which reminded me of how I often felt in America having to show I wasn’t one of “those” people in my minority group.  We talked about our favorite Jewish texts.  They love the halachos of Shabbes and I shared with them my favorite Jewish teaching – which, much to my surprise, they didn’t know.  In fact, they asked me to translate it for them into Yiddish, which remarkably I did!

Before leaving, as some people are wont to do here, Dovid shared with me a little bit of prejudice.  He told me, in light of today’s attack, that Arabs aren’t very bright.  I of course challenged him on this and his response, while bigoted, was quintessentially Jewish and kind of funny: “The Arabs aren’t very good at terrorism.  Jews don’t do terrorist attacks but if we did, we’d be better at it.”  So basically, in a phrase that would make the alt-Right twist and squirm and vomit, he said that Jews would make better terrorists than Arabs.  As the father in My Big Greek Wedding would say “the Greeks invented everything.”  I couldn’t help but chuckle.

I headed towards the Old City as two Arab women stopped me.  They asked me in Arabic for directions (how cool is that??) – and surprisingly, thanks to my Arabic and the glory of modern transit apps, I helped them find their way!  In fact, I was headed in the same direction.

We hopped on the train and I froze.  I had walked with them 10 minutes speaking in Arabic but when I got on the train, I was scared to keep talking.  I looked around, and thinking about today’s terrorist attack, I was worried how people might react.  There are legitimate reasons I felt that way, as you can read about here.

As I got off the train, I walked towards the Old City.  I saw an Arab man selling sunglasses.  I approached him and I said I didn’t need any glasses, but I told him he was making me happy so I wanted to give him a gift and handed him some money.  He invited me to sit with him.  We spoke in Arabic (I felt more comfortable out in the open air instead of cramped public transit where, frankly, attacks are more likely so I can understand people’s fear).  Turns out he’s from Hebron in the West Bank/Samaria.  He comes to work in Jerusalem each day.  He doesn’t know any English, so I taught him some English words to help with his marketing.  The poor guy is 60, 70 years old with 10 kids and a two-hour commute each way.  I can’t imagine what today’s terror attack is going to do to his livelihood as transit will slow and work permits may be frozen.  I suppose the terrorist wasn’t thinking of his fellow Palestinians who need to make a living when he shot three people.

The man gave me a big smile and a warm handshake as I headed off to meet my friend Sarah, a Modern Orthodox/Traditional Jew from America.  We ate Kosher pizza and then wandered through the Armenian Quarter, where I had never been.  I love Armenians.  When I was in high school, a friend gave me an Armenian CD which I still have on my computer.  Armenians are so, so similar to Jews.  They are a Diaspora community that survived a genocide and manages to preserve their language and religion.  And they’re pretty cute!

We talked with several Armenian men about their visits to the homeland, their life in Jerusalem, the Armenian Church (they had strong opinions- and not positive ones!), and the Armenian-language schools down the street.  I even got to hear their Armenian-accented Arabic!  One man votes Meretz and his wife votes Likud.  I went to an Armenian restaurant and got a fascinating dessert made out of crushed grapes and walnuts with a string inside.  And, because this is how I roll, I got info on some Armenian tutors- because at some point, that would be fun.

On my bus back to Tel Aviv, I befriended a handsome American tourist named Nicolai.  Non-Jewish and from Wisconsin, we talked the entire hour-long trip about Israel, Judaism, America, Bernie Sanders (we’re fans), and so much more.  A truly open-minded fellow- which is not something to take for granted.  Too many people arrive to Israel with preconceived notions of what it is and isn’t.  He was pretty much an open book.

His phone didn’t have internet, so I walked him 20 minutes to his bus stop and got him on his way home.  Because that’s what we do in Israel- we go out of our way to help others.  I find the generosity that surrounds me here encourages me to be even kinder to people.

I hopped in a monit sherut cab and headed home.  What a day!  Hasidim, Modern Orthodox, Arab-Israelis, Palestinians, tourists, Reform Jews (that’s me!).  What else was missing?

As our Russian driver helped us wind through (largely) secular Tel Aviv, two Mizrachi guys up front started singing.  Koby Peretz, Sarit Hadad, Shimon Buskila- you name it.  Then, to their surprise, I made a request.

“Inta omri,” I said.

Pleasantly surprised that an Ashkenazi would request an Egyptian classic, they started to sing.  And to their delight- I joined in.

On a day when a deranged man tried to break the place I call home, I started the day with his hatred and I ended it by singing with Jews in Arabic.

And in-between, I hung out with every sector of Israeli society.

Want to write public policy papers about how to solve the Middle East conflict?  Go for it- maybe they could help.  Honestly, I don’t know.

What I do know is I probably won’t have time for your conference.  Because I’m going to be speaking Yiddish with Hasidim, training a Palestinian in marketing, and singing Mizrachi music in a cab.  I’ll be getting to know my neighbors.  Just like Solomon, Yossef, and Or would’ve wanted.

Norwegian-Persian Jews

I didn’t fully appreciate the diversity of Israeli Jews until I made aliyah.  Yes, I had visited on trips, but you don’t get to know people with the same degree of depth.  One of the things I love about American Jewry is the cultural cohesion and unity.  And one of the things I love about Israeli Judaism is how incredibly diverse it is.

Last week, I was in Jerusalem.  My friend and I went to a Thai restaurant.  We were joking around with the guy behind the counter.  Turns out, he’s a half Kurdish half Moroccan Jew.  We joked about him finding us a fourth person so we could all go on a double date.  He said he’d be happy to take us to a Kurdish restaurant down the street and then taught me some Kurdish.  Right, my Jewish Thai restaurant waiter offered to teach me the Kurdish his grandparents say around the dinner table.  Chew on that one for a while.

This past weekend, I hung out with a bunch of vegan hippie Jews at a commune in Tel Aviv.  As they munched on lentils and drank home-brewed Kombucha with shouts of “lechaim”, I met a half Norwegian half Persian Jewish filmmaker.  Yes, both halves are Jewish.  Apparently, her grandparents on either side only spoke their native language (Norwegian and Judeo-Persian), so they couldn’t communicate with each other!  Luckily, this talented young woman speaks both Norwegian and Farsi and even spent two years living in Norway.

Today I hung out in Bnei Brak.  While I was buying some books and music, I befriended the two salesmen.  One, who looked quite clearly Ashkenazi, was a Vizhnitzer Hasid and a Yiddish speaker.  We had fun shmoozing a bisl in the mamaloshn.  Turns out, he also understands Dutch- his mother’s family is from the Netherlands.  Oh and his father was born in Switzerland, where his parents were working for the Jewish Agency.  For people who know the politics of Hasidim and Zionism, take a moment to digest that one for a bit.

The other Hasid in the store looked more tan skinned, so I mistakenly assumed he was Mizrachi (there are Mizrachi Hasidim).  Turns out, he’s just like me- an Ashkenazi Jew who kept his Middle Eastern complexion even in the Diaspora 😉 .  Guess there isn’t just one “Ashkenazi look” after all.  Now brace yourselves for a real kicker.  His family made aliyah…from Mauritius.  Right, so basically his family escaped the Nazis but the British refused to let them into Mandatory Palestine.  So they sent them to a bunch of islands in the Indian Ocean.  To this day, his family likes to tell stories of what it was like there.

I could literally go on and on with examples- my friend who is half Serbian half Moroccan and works at a Kosher Georgian restaurant, my half Iraqi half Ashkenazi female rabbi, my half Italian half Ashkenazi friend married to a Cherokee Jew!  The diversity here is endless.  If your image of Israel is that everyone looks like Andy Samberg, you’re in for a major shock.  And I’m saying this as someone who would very much like a country of Andy Sambergs- what a cute Jewish boy!!

Israel is an incredible fusion of hundreds of Jewish cultures from around the world, preserved for 2,000 years and reuniting and reconfiguring meaning.  I definitely miss my American Yiddishkeit, a force that unites the 90% of American Jews who are Ashkenazi with a shared humor, cuisine, and dialect.  The good part about Israel is that in the absence of a unifying Judaism, there is the freedom to mix and match.  It’s truly a place where no one can say, as someone told me on a temple trip in 5th grade: “you don’t look Jewish.”


Hasidic Game of Thrones

No this blog isn’t about feuding Hasidic dynasties.  Rather, it’s about my dinner in Bnei Brak and a Hasidic man who likes Game of Thrones.

Last night, I was hungry.  I had a busy day and hadn’t eaten enough.  I reasoned that this justified eating a calorie-rich Ashkenazi meal and kugel.  So I hopped on a bus to Bnei Brak.

The restaurant was supposed to close at 10 so I hustled from the bus stop because it was 9:45.  Of course, this is Israel, so actually the place stayed open till past 11, so I was fine 🙂  Nice to know Jewish Standard Time really is an international thing.

I ordered grilled salmon, a potato blintz, apple kugel, and chicken soup.  Mmmmm.  Foods of my people and of my childhood.

I struck up conversation with Moti, the guy behind the counter.  Moti is a Belz Hasid, though it sounded like his family also had strong connections to the Vizhnitz community.

Much to the surprise of some people reading this blog, Moti speaks both Hebrew and Yiddish fluently.  Many people assume Hasidim only speak Yiddish in Israel.  I think he prefers Yiddish as he told me in the mamaloshn “Yiddish iz mayn shprakh” which means “Yiddish is my tongue”.  Also he called Hebrew “loshn koydesh” (the holy tongue), which is cool because I haven’t heard that phrase since I was at Yiddish camp last summer.  It’s the traditional way of saying “Hebrew” and could also be tied to Hasidic concepts of how to use the languages (Hebrew=holy tongue, Yiddish=daily tongue).  Yet here he was floating effortlessly between Yiddish and Hebrew with me.

Interestingly, he can only read and write in Hebrew.  He said Hasidim in Bnei Brak, with the exception of Satmarers, read and write in Hebrew even if they often speak in Yiddish.  Maybe next time I’ll offer to teach him how to read and write in Yiddish 🙂 .  If a queer Reform Jew teaching his new Hasidic friend how to write in Yiddish isn’t an incredibly rich and unexpected act of Jewish solidarity and continuity, then I don’t know what is.

As I was asking Moti about Thursdays (apparently that’s the day when the best food comes out, including homemade gefilte fish mmmm), another Hasid named Kivi approached me.  He needed help translating English on an appliance he bought.  He then told me he loves English and that even though he doesn’t get to speak it much, he loves reading it and watching…YouTube.

YouTube.  Hasidim watching YouTube.  What does Kivi watch on YouTube?  What’s his favorite show?  Game of Thrones.  The blood-soaked, sex-filled show that’s too gruesome for me to even watch.  He then asked me if I had seen the last “fight”.  I didn’t understand.  But then he explained that he’s a boxing fan and loves to watch the fights online.

Still processing everything I just heard, a Yemenite man invited me to synagogue to davven Ma’ariv.  Because there’s a synagogue around the corner, like around every corner in Bnei Brak.

Scared shitless and super excited, I said yes.  Keep in mind that I have never prayed at an Orthodox synagogue, much less a Hasidic one (yes, this was a Hasidic shtiebel).  I have also never prayed in a single-gender environment (Reform Jews sit with men and women together).  And this was a step beyond that- there were no women anywhere, just men davvening together.  Also, it should be said that as a gay person, I felt scared.  Clearly if nobody knew I was gay, nobody would do anything.  But having read stories of Haredim stabbing people at pride parades, pushing conversion therapy, and protesting against gays in the military, I felt nervous.  And I understood for a moment the pressure gay people must face in this community.  To be fair, I didn’t know exactly how they’d react (perhaps people wouldn’t harm me or might even be more open than I’d expect).  And I didn’t want to risk my safety or well-being by coming out.

My experience was really interesting.  First off, there is a beautiful rhythm and musicality to Hasidic prayer.  It is not just mumbling.  There is a beautiful entropy within the framework of fixed prayers, with people improvising and singing whatever words speak to them.  And I joined in.

Second, all the prayers were said by the chazzan (cantor) and the other men in the room in an Ashkenazi accent.  Even though the vast majority of American Reform Jews are Ashkenazi, under pressure from the Israeli pronunciation in the 1950s and 60s, we abandoned it.  It was perceived as “old world” and “backwards”.  And so we lost touch with a beautiful part of our heritage, much like Mizrachim in Israel were pressured to abandon their fascinating accents.  Here in this shul, the accent lives.  I felt like I was transported back to the shtetl where my ancestors came from.  The culture murderously ripped apart by Nazis.  The culture that lives to this day despite them.

I did miss the voices of women (and I did make a point of including the matriarchs in my prayers as well as sometimes using the female gender for God – bruchah at yah…).  At the same time, it was intriguing to pray with men.  When I came out of the closet at 18, I felt like my masculinity was ripped away from me by society.  I distinctly remember a moment in college where a female friend said “when are we going shopping?”  To which I said “I didn’t know we had plans.”  She responded: “oh we didn’t, I just know gay people like to shop all the time.”  I could literally give hundreds of examples like this.  I wasn’t allowed to define my gender as I wanted.  Just as hyper masculinity was thrust on me as a child, an invasive femininity was imposed on me as a queer person.  Here, in this shul, I actually felt like I could be a man.  No questions asked.  With my fellow Hebrew bros.

There were also moments when I felt like the prayer structure was rigid.  The man next to me kept pointing me to this page or that.  At first, I found this irritating because I wanted to go at my own pace and to speak the words in my heart.  I then came to realize that in this setting, prayer was very much a team effort even if there’s room for improvisation.  And secondly, that I think his intention was to help me participate more than to tell me what to do.  As a Reform Jew used to extensive independence and autonomy in prayer, I found this confusing at first.  I then just kind of observed it around me as I found new ways of expressing the prayer in my heart.  A different style, for sure, but not without its own merits.

The prayer concluded and the Yemenite man, who I was kind of concerned was going to proselytize me, simply came up and said: “it was nice to meet you, I hope to see you again.”  With that, I walked down the street and picked up a call from one of my rabbis in the States- a woman.  We laughed about my experiences in Israel and I told her how I was getting involved with the Reform community here.  And then I realized- I was practically shouting the word Reform over and over again in the middle of a Haredi city.  And literally nobody batted an eye.

Not because there aren’t conflicts here or prejudice.  But because perhaps there’s a more fluid co-existence than you might expect.  It’s a place where queer Jews speak Yiddish to Hasidim.  Where I can talk to my female rabbi on the phone after davvening with a bunch of men.  Where a Hasidic man loves English, and even watches Game of Thrones.