What it means to be Israeli

It was a Friday night in Barcelona.  Just hours before, I had spontaneously decided to board a train from Tortosa to Barcelona.  At 4:30pm, to be precise.  I had thought about visiting other medieval cities and Jewish quarters, but I felt that this Friday night, I wanted to be with living Jews.  Much how I felt in Belgium.

So I went to services.  Like I’ve mentioned recently, I don’t really feel religious.  I started my journey to Israel weeks away from starting Reform rabbinical school, only to pursue my exploring and blogging instead.  But I remained an active Reform Jew, even leading services regularly in Tel Aviv.  And to this day, even if I’m not religious in the textbook definition of the word, if I’m going to a synagogue, it’s going to be Reform.  It’s my flavor of religious Judaism.

While for a while I came pretty close to being an out-and-out atheist, I’d say at this point I’m secular and spiritual.  I have issues with organized religion (although I sometimes see its benefits both in motivating people to do good and in building community) and I don’t believe in the God of reward and punishment as written in the Torah or any religious text.

But I do believe in spirit, and while I value science and logic, I think some things are a bit beyond our comprehension.  And that feelings are also valid.  And sometimes hard to explain.  Perhaps representing bits of truth beyond our conscious recognition.  It is impossible to truly know everything, so with humility I bow to the unknown even as we pursue it.  In the meantime, I’ll be singing in the forest, poring through inspiring archival documents, and trying to cross cultural barriers to bring kindness into the world.  For me, culture, history, art, music, nature, dance, hope, the unexpected- these are all spirit.  And they ignite me in a way that gives life purpose.  As a Jew and generally, as a human being.

With this in mind, I headed to synagogue.  The prayers generally didn’t speak to me.  I don’t really like the idea of standing together, singing the exact same words, the choreography or the conformity of organized prayer.  Even so, I found myself sometimes bursting into song and some of the texts do speak to me.  Occasionally, I even tried to sing some of the prayers, replacing the word God with something that rhymed.  Sometimes the word God didn’t bother me.  I sometimes sang harmony- a way for me to retain my difference while being part of a community.  I can’t say it made me want to pray in the traditional way.  I even stepped outside for some of the prayers that I really don’t connect with.  I’m kind of a hippie and would rather be singing wordless melodies while strolling the beach.  Like I was in these photos.  But what’s clear now, after traveling in Europe, is that where I found myself questioning if I even felt Jewish two months ago, now I feel quite Jewish.  And have either rediscovered or found new ways of connecting to my spiritual, cultural, and political identities.

I came to Barcelona without any hotel reservation.  In Hebrew, I call myself “ben adam zorem”.  A guy who goes with the flow, who improvises, who’s in touch with his spirit, confident and willing to try new things.  Some of this confidence stems from my own skills and intuition.  Some of it comes from counting on others to help me along the way- being brave enough to reach out to them.  And being grateful for their support.

After services, there was a wonderful dinner and I found myself talking to the other community members.  Everyone was so kind- it really felt like a family meal.  The kind I never really got to have, where I felt respected and included.  Big hugs that made me feel loved and welcomed.

One person in particular made my night.  There was one other Israeli at services.  A young woman named Reut from Hod Hasharon, a city decidedly not on anyone’s tourist map, but I of course had visited 😉 .  We got to talking.  There’s something about being Jewish- especially being Israeli- where you just trust someone.  Maybe it’s a shared heritage, understood customs, experienced persecution.  Maybe it’s a feeling in your kishkes, as I shared with a wonderful, spirit-filled American named Anne sitting next to me.  Anne if you’re reading this your email didn’t go through, send it again! 🙂  We had so much in common yet had never met.  It’s a great feeling.  I even got to play Jewish geography- I met a Hungarian woman who knows a Hungarian friend of mine in Tel Aviv!  And I’m a quarter Hungarian.  How’s that for full circle?

So back to Reut.  We found ourselves outside in the rain.  I told her I didn’t have a hotel booked for the night, so without even prompting, she got to helping me.  That’s how Israelis are.

We walked around asking at hostels- everything was full or over 100 Euros.  After some funny moments (including this odd Moldovan guy working the front desk who seemed to be hitting on me but then didn’t want to go out with us the next night- wherever you are Iulian, you’re really cute and I hope you come to Israel!), we headed to the Metro.

It was very simple- Reut said I could stay with her.  Reut isn’t even from Barcelona- she’s just here doing some Israel education.  It needs to be said again for the benefit of my friends in other countries- we had never, ever met before.  No known friends in common.  Although we both happen to be Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian- so in all likelihood, we’re probably related several times over.

We stayed up all night talking, having a blast.  We had so much in common.  Sharing love stories, stories of loss, making our way through the Barcelona rain, trying not to slip.

When I got to her apartment, Reut got to setting up my bed.  Putting on a new sheet, feeding me, taking care of whatever I needed.  And because I’m a fellow Israeli, I understood that this is how we do things.  I’ve hosted people I’ve met the same day several times in Israel.  It’s something I rarely see in other countries (although it has happened to me in Barcelona incidentally).  There’s just a sort of trust and bond.  A deep generosity, hospitality, a sense that wherever you find one of your own, you’re home.

It’s not because all Israelis are great.  Some are pretty awful.  Every country has its good and bad, every culture too.

But there are certain overall cultural differences that really stand out.

Israelis, as a whole, are kind of lone travelers like me.  Or once were.  Holocaust survivors who sometimes lost their whole families only to start anew in a completely new country.  And build once again.  Jews kicked out from Arab lands thrown into the tumult of conflict, cultural loss, and war.  We’re survivors, we’re scrappy, and we use whatever we can to move forward and to make the best out of life.  In that sense, I’ve always been Israeli, even when I was across the ocean.  It’s just that moving to Israel, I found millions of other people like me who had overcome (or are striving to overcome) deep hardship and using every last skill to squeeze the sweetness out of life.

In this sense, I feel my personal story as an individual and a Jew parallels the experience of the Jewish people.  In particular, of Israel itself.  A scrappy start-up nation where, for the most part, people understand that a Shabbat meal with people you love is more important than the size of the home it takes place in.

Today I enjoyed a street fair with Reut and some of her friends from synagogue.  An Argentinian Jew and a Turkish Jew- themselves wanderers like me.  Here we were- at face value, nothing in common.  But in reality, everything.  Our Jewishness brought us together and if I’m honest with you, made us instant friends in a way no other identity can for me.  Although some come close.  It’s not that we’ll necessarily be best friends- thought we might.  It’s just that there’s a certain baseline comfort that’s beyond words that you can just feel with another Jew.  It’s in your kishkes.

My experience with Reut’s generosity- even as I write this, I don’t even know her last name- got me thinking.  This trip and my experience in Israel has tested my original thesis.  My first thought when coming to Israel, when starting this blog, was that one needs roots.  That’s why my chosen Hebrew name, Matah, means orchard.

Yet what I discovered is no single place, no single culture, can fully satisfy me.  In fact, I discovered I have roots all over the place.  Directly, in 8 different European countries.  Indirectly, basically all over Europe and the Mediterranean.  Renewed, in my appreciation of my American identity.  And kindled and rekindled in my Israeli one.  In addition to all these roots, my linguistic communities and my passions for art and music and nature and kindness connect me to all sorts of people, Jewish and not.  And I look forward to developing those connections as well.

So perhaps, in the end, I don’t need to be rooted in one place.  By virtue of my identities, my diversity, my curiosity, my past, my intellect, and my sense of adventure, I don’t think I ever will be.  Although we can never be quite sure what the future holds.

This thirst for a multifaceted life is my strength and my challenge.  I’m a wanderer, an explorer- as Jews have been for over 2,000 years.  This is who I am.

While I might not need roots, what I did discover is I need a home.  Traveling is amazing- I’ve been carrying only a small backpack (not even one of those big ones you buy for Nepal) for 2 months.  I have three t-shirts.  A sweater.  One pair of shorts.  A pair of shoresh sandals which an Israeli can spot from a mile away.  No sneakers.  One pair of socks.  My jeans got torn up, so I threw them out.  This is how I travel.  I love it.  It’s what I need, and I’d rather have a lighter backpack to explore more places.  I’m rugged, flexible, and I think I have my priorities straight.  For me, it’s about the journey, not the froufrou.  Although I will say I’ve learned to appreciate the value of a a once-in-a-while well-timed stay in a 3 star hotel.  Quiet is something frankly you have to buy.

Traveling this way has taught me a lot.  And the most stressful thing about traveling without a home to recharge in is the constant movement.  Adapting to new languages and cultures and emotional norms.  But also the transit, the not knowing what the city will be like, the not knowing how quiet your sleep will be- if you’ll be able to sleep at all.  The motion.  It’s sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting, occasionally really stunning when you look out the window and see a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean on a 10 Euro bus ride taking you through the mountains.

So in the end, I’m sure I will keep traveling.  To be honest, each day is a bit of an adventure to me.  Whether it’s physically going to another city or chatting with people at the library, I find ways to engage in new and exciting directions.  Sometimes my friends ask me how these stories happen to me.  But they don’t- I am the kind of person who these stories were made for.  Sometimes I seek them out, sometimes they find me.  And I connect with people in a way, I reach for the kind of people and places that fill me with joy.  I search for understanding.  It can bring the unexpected, both good and bad.  I was made to discover.  Myself, others, and the world.  And I love sharing it with you.  And am inspired by what you share with me.

I hope you’ll continue to join me on my journey as I turn my blog into my career.  As my cover photo says, “what happens on Earth stays on Earth”, so I intend to make my mark.  By donating $20 now, you will get your first year’s subscription free.  Soon, the starting rate will go up to $36.

So I may not need roots that stick me to the ground and restrict my movement.  Some Zionist thinkers might not like this- that I choose not to give up my other identities, my Diasporic features.  But I’d rather be like Israeli poetess and fellow olah Leah Goldberg who speaks of the pain and joy of having two homelands.  I’m grateful to my friend Leora for sending me that poem when I needed it.

By understanding my varied roots around the world, I better understand myself, my people, my countries.  Israel itself.  An ongoing process and one in which I feel I’ve made great progress.

What does it mean to be Israeli?  That’s the title of this blog.  For me, after going several months without seeing another Israeli, Reut embodies what it means to be one.  In the best way.  It’s someone who after a short conversation, helps you find a hotel.  When you realize there is none, invites you to stay.  Who feeds you, who hugs you, who makes a bed for you.  And invites you out to hang with her friends the next day.

Roots can be tangled, messy.  But a home- you need one.  To venture out from, to explore from, to come back to at the end of the day or after a long and exciting trip.

The world is my oyster.  Who doesn’t like to taste a little treyf?  But most of the time, I don’t eat shellfish.  Which is why more and more, I feel Israel is my home.

Let’s talk about occupation

I want to share an experience I had in Tortosa, Catalonia.  Some call it Spain, for now I’ll stick with Tortosa 😉 .

Tortosa is a city that used to have a sizable Jewish population.  Before the Inquisition and related persecutions, Tortosa had a “call”.  That’s pronounced “caly” (for lack of a better way to write it in English)- and it means “Jewish quarter”.

I decided I wanted to go for a hike.  Tortosa is surrounded by gorgeous mountains, take a look:

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I love nature, but I found myself increasingly drawn to the signs around me that said “call”.  They’re everywhere.  Something I love about Catalonia is that quite a number of cities make preserving their Jewish heritage a priority.  Unlike the mostly derelict synagogues of my great-grandmother’s Romania, Catalans seem generally proud of their Jewish heritage.  Because quite a number of them are Jews themselves- or were hundreds of years ago.  And they know it.

I wandered the call, finding where the synagogue once stood, the kosher butcher shop, even a plaza named after a rabbi, Menahem Ben Saruq.

I found myself humming Jewish tunes, including one of my own creation, and being stared at by some Moroccan men.  Almost the entire neighborhood now is filled with Moroccan Muslim immigrants.

I then headed to the town archives.  I love, love, love archives.  And I want to give a huge shout-out to archivists everywhere.  You keep heritage alive.  Science is amazing and can heal and grow our planet- but without humanities and a sense of morality, it is useless.  Ben Carson is a great example of why science is not a religion, it does not have all the answers any more than any other field of study.  Scientists need ethical systems just as much as humanists need biology and medicine.

The best thing about town archives, other than the ancient documents they contain, is that they are free!  So here’s my travel tip: if you find yourself itching to see unique, cool texts and really learn about where you’re traveling, head to an archive.  If it’s a rainy day (as it was for me), even better.  I walked around Tortosa with a piece of generously donated cardboard over my head until I could find a 9 buck Mickey Mouse umbrella. 🙂  Archives are my refuge.  And unlike museums, you won’t be shelling out tons of cash to wait in line and crowds.  Archives are often quite empty- sad for the state of humanity, but great for someone like me who likes a little peace and quiet.  All you need to do is fill out a form, show your passport, and next thing you know you’re looking at a hand-written 900 year old document.

That’s where I found myself.  The archivist brought me the “Carta de Poblament”.  It’s a Catalan document that the Count of Barcelona had offered the town during the medieval Christian conquest of Spain.  It basically offers new settlers various land privileges and natural resources for settling the territory.  Until then, it had had Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  But with the eventual imposition of the Inquisition, both Jews and Muslims had to convert, leave, or face torture and death.  Their empty houses became the Christian settlers’ homes we see today.  Occasionally, as in Granada, you can still see where the mezuzah was once hanging.

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I then looked at the next documents I had requested.  I wanted to see Jewish documents.  And in some cases, you can still find them in Catalonia.  I once visited the Girona Jewish archive (the city has a particularly well-preserved call) and got to see documents in Judeo-Catalan!  Catalan written in Hebrew letters- and in some cases, with Hebrew phrases.  For a Jewish speaker of Catalan like me, there is nothing cooler.

The first document was in medieval Catalan (did I say archives were cool??) and was about the Jewish community of the city.  The next document was from 1323 and detailed how the local rulers had imposed a tax on the Jewish community to repair a broken wall.  I’m not sure exactly what happened, but Christian rulers (and Muslim ones) often imposed discriminatory taxes on Jews either as “protection money” or simply to raise cash.

The third document is the one that stirred my soul.  It was called “Població de convertits”.  A list of the Jews who had converted to Christianity.  Often under penalty of death.  From the early 1400s.  I have to say that seeing the hand-scribed names really moved me.  I felt deep sadness as my finger scrolled through the names of Jewish souls lost to an ever-encroaching Christian hegemony.  I wish I could say this was only a Christian problem, but it’s not.  Even the relatively tolerant Muslims of Al-Andalus engaged in pogroms, massacring the Jews of Granada in 1066.  A thousand years before the State of Israel, for people who think Muslim anti-Semitism is a recent phenomenon, purely a product of colonialism.

As I flipped through the pages, I wanted to find a specifically Jewish name.  It’s almost as if part of me couldn’t actually believe this document was real.  That maybe I had been given the wrong one.  Persecutions of Jews are often invalidated, ignored.  This must be just history books, it doesn’t feel totally real.  I couldn’t believe I was holding an ancient text of suffering, of my people, for free in a municipal library.

And there it was- Abram.  Abram and his son converted to Christianity.  I paused looking at the name.  I thought about how awful it must have been to be a Jew at that time.  What must have been going through his head and he decided between expulsion, death, and embracing a faith that so hated his identity.

And there it was, his conversion.  I felt sorry for him- and kind of angry.  How could he give up on our tradition so easily?  I’m sure it wasn’t easy.  But I felt torn.  And I felt furious at the authorities who forced him to give up who he was.  His soul, and those of his ancestors, are forever lost to the Jewish people.  Like so many others.  So when quite a number of Latinos or Spaniards I’ve met say that Jews are “racist” or “closed off” for only marrying “their own”, this document is my bold counterargument.  We only exist because we preserve ourselves.  Your people have been nothing but obstacles in our way for hundreds of years and I won’t apologize for keeping my identity alive.  I’m grateful to the non-Jews I’ve met here in Catalonia and Spain who are working to keep our heritage visible.  Thanks to them I can connect to my past- and they connect to me, as you’ll see in my recent post about a gay Valencian man I met with a Hebrew tattoo.  Who changed my life.

Before I left the archive, I thought if there was something creative I could do to bridge the past.  To make my Jewish ancestors proud.  To connect to Abram and to show the vitality to Judaism to this day, despite all of the hatred placed in our way.

When I left Israel for my travels two months ago, I could barely utter a Hebrew (or Arabic) word.  I was so tired of the region, the hatred, the intense pressure to assimilate into Israeli society.  I had chosen a name, Matah, when I made aliyah.  It means orchard.  It sounds like Matt, but is different- it’s about planting roots.  The name of this blog.

In Europe, I’ve been going by Matt.  Occasionally, Mateo.  But this day, I was going to reconnect.  I took a piece of paper, and added a nice touch to the 600 year old remnant of my civilization:

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Right next to Abram’s name, the second line from the top, I wrote my names.

מטע אדלר

Matt Adler

Jew. Jueu. יהודי.

I think Abram would have been proud.  I certainly was.  Half a millennia since the expulsion of Jews from this land, I was here, a proud Israeli visiting from the land of our ancestors.  Living with self-determination after two millennia.  Something Abram could have never even imagined.  And here I was alive in his home of Tortosa.

It’s a reminder that the impossible is sometimes possible.  History changes.  And each one of us can make a difference.

As I left the archives (still with the cardboard box over my head- one of the funnier moments of my trip until my feet were soaked in rainwater), I headed to the cathedral.  There I found a 1300-year-old Jewish gravestone in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.  With a Menorah and, interestingly, a *5* pointed star:

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What’s so amazing is I could mouth out some of the words.  “Kever”- grave.  “Shalom”- peace”.  And “livrachah”- for a blessing.  The last word something we say to this day as we remember loved ones in synagogue.  A stunning reminder that even when the most hateful among Christians and Muslims stole our land, expelled us, and killed us- we held on to the one thing that kept us alive: words.  Evidence of our continuous presence on this continent, one that has tortured us.  But where we have ultimately persevered in existing.  Even if our current existence there is tenuous.  How many people can see a 6th century tombstone and recognize the words from today’s liturgy?    We’re a truly special people with an incredible historical memory.

As I headed home, I felt hungry.  I stopped into a kebab place.  As with many stores here, it was run by Muslim immigrants.  In this case, from Pakistan.  I have had some difficult experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I was curious before going on this trip what it would be like- both figuring that Europe was kind of a neutral space for potential dialogue and aware that there were many reports of anti-Semitism.  I was also keenly aware that I had to be careful in saying where I was from.  While an American Jew can hide behind their red, white, and blue passport, when you say you’re Israeli, people know you’re a Jew (even if you’re not!).

I’ll start by saying I’ve had some incredible experiences with Muslims in Europe.  I went clubbing with a queer Jordanian girl, who had never been to a gay club.  And she knew I was from Tel Aviv- and we’re still in touch.  Our sexy curves swerving on the dance floors of Budapest.  I also met a Syrian refugee there, who lifted my spirits as we chatted in Damascene Arabic late at night over shwarma.  And who I told I was from Tel Aviv.  And had a great time.

I’ll also say I’ve had a difficult time here.  More often than not, I don’t reveal I’m Jewish or Israeli to Muslims here.  By the decoration of their stores and their clothes, I can tell they are quite often devout.  And just the other day, a woman 10 minutes down the road from where I stayed in Belgium was threatened at gunpoint by a “bearded man” for being Jewish.  I wish I could say this was the only incident of Muslim anti-Semitism here, but it’s not.  Just a few years ago, the Belgian Jewish Museum I strolled by was attacked by Islamic terrorists, killing several civilians.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe (including from neo-Nazis), and many Muslims’ pointed questions about where I was from didn’t make it any easier.  More than a few times, they didn’t believe me when I said I was American- I didn’t “look” American.  Sometimes they think I’m Arab, other times they ask me what my religion is.  Repeatedly.  Which is incredibly uncomfortable and invasive.

Just the other day, an Algerian immigrant told me Israel and America *started* the Syrian Civil War and he didn’t believe Iran or Russia was killing civilians.  Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t tell him I was Israeli in his kebab shop at 11pm.

I’ll add that I find it doubtful that many of these immigrants know the Jewish history of the land they live on today.  Despite the many signs covering their neighborhood explaining it.  Quite a number of Christian Europeans don’t either.  It struck me as bizarre and sad to see hundreds of Moroccan men walking around the Jewish quarter of Girona.  Seeing them wasn’t bizarre- what was more bizarre was the fear I felt in even singing a Jewish song there.  I couldn’t even get out the melody as two men stared.  Maybe they didn’t know what I was singing- but if they did, would I even feel safe?  Do they care that they live on this land bathed in the stains of our blood?  In fact, both of our blood?

It’s times like these where I feel distant from Muslims, from Arabs.  I’m someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in dialogue and exploring this civilization, as you can see from my previous blogs.  Sometimes it is fruitful and lot of times, it is painful.  We’re like two conjoined siblings who wish they could get away from each other, but can’t escape our shared past- and present.  I sometimes wonder whether learning Arabic was a waste of time, even as I miss the sounds of the language, the beats of its music, even fighting for the rights of Arab-Israelis and my Palestinian neighbors.  Some of whom would rather see me dead.  Who some extremist Jews wouldn’t mind dead.  It’s an odd yin-yang of hope, fear, love, and hatred.

So it was timely that my friend Muhammad called.  Muhammad is a 20-something kid from Rahat, a Bedouin city in southern Israel.  I met Muhammad while asking for directions in his town- I was trying to find a restaurant.  A delicious, delicious restaurant.  Bedouin food is quite different from other Arab food- if you’re in Israel, go to Mansaf restaurant at the entrance to Rahat.  Your life will be changed and your taste buds will thank you.  As will the friendly people there who wanted to take selfies with me.

Muhammad and I have kept in touch over the past 6 months or so.  We even met up again in person.  I knew he was studying for his college entrance exams- he wanted to study accounting.  A few months ago, he got in!  I’m so proud of him.  He just moved to Ramat Gan and starts school this week.  Love you man!

To say this is a culture shock and a brave move is a deep understatement.  Rahat is extremely traditional and entirely Bedouin.  Despite living in the same country as Jews, Muhammad has had limited interaction with them.  So moving to Ramat Gan, perhaps one of the cities with the highest percentage of Jews in the country, will be quite a shock.  Some ways good, but a huge change nonetheless.

Muhammad has managed to get an apartment (something that took me months in Tel Aviv) and find two jobs!  On his own.  I helped him along the way- on WhatsApp.  From my AirBnB in Oradea, Romania, from Hungary, from Almería, and from Tortosa.  I’m so proud of him.

Which is why it was a punch to my gut to hear what he had to say on the phone.  Muhammad went for a job interview in Ramat Gan.  He was offered the job, but the boss said: “our establishment has a lot of religious people, so we need to give you another name.”  Muhammad was a name some people just can’t bear to hear as they’re munching on their hummus and falafel.

Heartbroken, he almost decided to change his name.  He asked me what to do.  I first offered my sympathies.  This is one of the saddest things I can hear- that a young, aspiring young man is being told to cut off his identity.  I’m with you Muhammad.

Secondly, I shared some stories of discrimination I had faced as a Jew and a gay man- in America and in Europe.  The Lyft driver who threw me out of his car for being a gay Jew.  The Muslim man and the Belgian Christian who said I was an apartheid occupier, an ethnic cleanser.  The Argentinian who said Jews control the world.  The Algerian who said Israel did.

He was shocked.  And I think somewhat comforted to feel he wasn’t alone.  See while the reasons we were discriminated against were different, in the end they were the same.  People who hate difference.  People who refuse to see nuance or to empathize with others.

I told him that I love him as Muhammad.  As whatever he chooses to call himself.  And nobody has the right to decide that for him.  He has the right to choose to fight racism, to call a lawyer, to speak with an NGO.  And he has the right to put his energy towards finding a better job where people will appreciate him.  And choosing between the two strategies is not always easy.  I know- I never got a dime from Lyft despite a huge public relations campaign, but I was featured in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for gay rights.  For a case we lost.  I support Muhammad in being himself, however he chooses to find his way forward.

So you have to ask yourself after all this, what’s in a name?  Abram converted to Christianity- and seeing his name hundreds of years later I spotted him as my landsman.  Matah was a sign of hope for me when I made aliyah, then became a grating sound on my ears.  Until I saw Abram and realized how lucky I was in certain ways to be a Jew at this time, in this place.  With a homeland we can call our own.  And Muhammad- how a brave young Muslim Bedouin man is forging his path forward in Ramat Gan.  Weighing his past identity with his present as he pursues a new future and faces racism.  Holding on to his name even as he wrestles with how to live as a minority.  Something I try to help him manage as someone who can draw on the rich reservoir of Jewish history and gay identity.  Minority persistence.

Muhammad gives me hope that despite my experiences in Europe, there are Muslims out there who like me.  As I am.  A gay Israeli American Jew.  I can’t pretend there are masses of them, but even knowing someone like Muhammad is out there, striving for more, caring about me, relying on me- that gives me a bit of hope.  And warms my soul.

There is a place on this planet where Jews and Arabs live together.  It’s not Spain of 500 years ago.  It’s Israel.  For all its problems, Israel is a place where Arabs know Jews as people.  Not caricatures or cartoons or characters on a soap opera.  Nor memories of 70 years ago, when they used to inhabit the same quarters in Morocco and Damascus.  No, in Israel we live together.  Not always in harmony, but knowing each other.  In a way that, perhaps better than anywhere else in the world, allows me to find people like Muhammad who I can breathe my breathy “habibis” and my deep s “sadeeqs” with.  Where I feel my Arabic is sometimes quite worthwhile.

In the end, what’s in a name?  Occupation is the word you’ll hear most in the news about Israel.  And I’m not going to evade and suggest that Palestinians are not real (that’s a thing), that they aren’t facing human rights abuses (they are), or that some of them weren’t expelled from their lands (some were).  What I will say is that occupation is complex.  As I travel around Europe, I notice all the Jewish lands occupied.  The Jewish bodies and souls emptied.  The synagogues turned into casinos and strip clubs and Italian restaurants.  The Muslim immigrants occupying our former quarters- either oblivious to our former past or some outright hostile to our current existence.

At a time when Catalans feel Spain occupies them (and Spain denies their difference), just how objectively clear is this word?  The far left would have you believe things are black and white, that Israel is an occupier, Palestinians are natives.  But rarely in life are things so clear.  When you visit Peki’in and meet Jews who have been there continuously since the Second Temple.  When you meet Arabs from Ramle who migrated from Libya a hundred years ago.  It’s not to suggest the current situation is good- but it is to suggest it is not entirely one-sided and it does not present simple solutions.

In the end, I also think about this word.  As I travel, one of the great questions on my mind is my own occupation.  How I occupy my time, what I like to do, what I want to do going forward.

Perhaps it’s telling that I recently found this cute sign in Catalan that says: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

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And I’ve come to what I feel is the next step.  As I write this blog, it strikes me that when I left Israel, I wasn’t sure if I’d continue writing it.  Yet I found myself over and over again enjoying the therapy of sharing my experiences, of writing things down so for years on end I’ll be able to remember my adventures.  To share my thoughts, to bring a little understanding to the world, and hopefully to engage you with exciting, unexpected stories from cultures and languages you want to explore.

Which brings me to today.  I’ve written about 140 blog posts, hundreds of thousands of words.  I’ve received the most wonderful, heart-warming comments from readers in San Francisco, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, and Bethlehem.

And I’ve shared it for free, out of love and a desire to make the world better.

This is how I occupy myself.  I love exploring and want to keep sharing meaningful stories and thoughts with you.

The way I do that is by asking you to contribute to making it possible.  Thousands of miles crossed doesn’t happen for free.  I’ve invested so much of my own time and money, and to keep things going, to be a member of my community, you now have the opportunity to contribute.

Soon, I’ll be making my blog a subscription site.  The format is being determined, but in one fashion or another, you’re going to have to pay to access this well of hope.  It’s fair and I can’t wait to connect with you on an even deeper level as we use this blog to connect open-minded people around the world.

If you’d like to join now, you have a chance to subscribe at a one-time, more affordable rate.  If you go to my GoFundMe page and contribute $20 or more, you will get your first year subscription free.  Everyone who has donated up until now will be grandfathered in and given a free subscription as well.  If you wait until I transition the site, the price will start at $36.

I want to keep you along for the journey.  I want to show you amazing archives and diverse people.  The unexpected twists and turns.  In 8 languages.  With a queer angle, an open-minded lens.  Proud of Judaism and Israel and willing to engage in nuance.  To make my communities better, kinder.  Understood and understanding.

I invite you to join me.  Or you can always find another gay Jewish blogger who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish and read his blog instead 😉

Let’s explore together. 🙂

הפריווילגיה הישראלית

שלום לכם ושנה טובה.  אני פונה לחבריי הישראלים בפוסט הראשון שלי בעברית.  למי שמנסה לתרגם את זה דרך גוגל טרנסלייט, יהיה לו קשה ולא יתפוס את המשמעות העיקרית.  אז מומלץ יותר לקרוא בלוג דומה (אבל כן, קצת שונה) באנגדלית פה.  או, אפילו יותר טוב, תלמדו עברית

😉

אז בואו נתחיל מזה שאני לא גדלתי בכלל עם עברית בבית.  ההורים שלי הם לא ישראלים.  הייתי בארץ רק פעמיים לפני שעליתי.  ולמדתי עברית בוושינגטון עם מורה פרטית ישראלית כי דווקא אני רציתי.  בעצם היו אנשים במשפחה שלי שלא אהבו את זה שלמדתי עברית וגם התנגדו לעובדה שאהבתי ללכת לבית כנסת.  מי שחושב שזה לא הגיוני שיהודים יתנהגו ככה, הוא צודק.  אבל אין שום דבר הגיוני בהתעללות.

זה בדיוק הנושא שאני רוצה לדבר עליו עכשיו.  אני שורד התעללות מינית, רגשית, ופיזית.  והאנשים הראשונים שהתעללו בי היו במשפחה שלי.  ולצערי לא רק אחד או שתיים.  לא פעם אחת, לא “בטעות”, וכן מתוך רוע.

סיבה אחת גדולה שעליתי לארץ היה כדי לברוח מהאנשים שהתעללו בי.  מגיל 6 אני יכול לזכור טוב טוב את מה שעשו לי.  אני יכול לזכור כשאנסו אותי במשפחה שלי.  חברי המשפחה שלי.  ובוודאי היה נמאס לי.  תמיד היה לי חלום ציוני שרציתי להגשים אותו, אז שתי הסיבות האלה בנוסף להרבה סיבות אחרות הספיקו.  בגיל 32, לבד, עליתי לארץ לפני שנה וחצי. כמעט בלי להכיר שם אף אחד.  אני בנאדם אמיץ.

היו לי חוויות נהדרות בארץ.  אם עוד לא קראתם את הפוסטים שלי בבלוג, אני ממליץ בחום.  דיברתי עם צעירים דרוזים בערבית על הזהות ההומואית שלי.  התפללתי בבית כנסת חסידי בבני ברק- ואני יהודי רפורמי כל החיים שלי.  הלכתי למסיבות גייז עם מוזיקה מזרחית- מוזיקה שנתנה לי כוח לחיות בארה”ב.  כשרקדתי לבד לצלילי שרית חדד בחדר שלי במקום להקשיב לצעקות מהסלון.

ישראל זה מקום מיוחד מאוד ואני מעריך אותה אפילו יותר עכשיו, כשאני מטייל באירופה וחוויתי פה אנטישמיות ברמה שאף פעם לא ראיתי.  נגיד שמאוד נהניתי כאן אבל ממש לא פשוט להיות יהודי או ישראלי (לדעתי, ישראלי זה מן יהודי חוץ לארון כי יודעים מיד שאתה יהודי כששואלים מאיפה אתה).  היה לי ממש מעניין כאן- אתה יכולים לקרוא על כל מה שגיליתי בפוסטים שלי באנגלית.  אבל בואו נגיד שעכשיו הבנתי למה ישראלים מעדיפים לטייל בנפאל.  לא מעט אנשים פה יודעים על ה”אפרטייד הישראלי” אבל בכלל לא יודעים על היהודים שהיו פעם גרים במדינות שלהם.  שעכשיו יש יותר בתי קברות יהודים מאשר יהודים חיים.

אבל גם נכון שאני מטייל באירפה ולא נמצא בארץ.  כי הבנתי שהחיים כל כך קשים שם- במיוחד בשביל מישהו שסבל התעללות משפחתית.  אתם אך ורק מדברים על משפחה.  ואתם ממש אוהבים לשאול שאלות.  בלי סוף.

מצד אחד זה נחמד.  אני מעריך שבארץ יש חום- גם במשפחה וגם בין חברים.  והאמת שאחרי שהתרגלתי לחיים שם, אני כן קצת נמאס לי מהנימוס האירופאי-האמריקאי.  דוגריות לפעמים עושה לי טוב.

מצד שני, זה נורא.  כל הזמן אומרים לי שאני מטומטם כי עליתי לארץ.  שיותר טוב באמריקה.  ואיפה המשפחה?  ווואי אתה ממש מתגעגע אליהם, נכון?  קשה קשה.

לפעמים זה בא ממקום טוב, אפילו אם זה כן תמים.  אם זה שעליתי מארץ 1000 פעם יותר עשירה ומוצלחת ויש לי שני תוארים ואני דובר 8 שפות, כנראה ש*שי* סיבה שבאתי למדבר שלנו.  כן, להגשים את החלום הציוני (שהוא לפעמים יותר חלום ולפעמים יותר סיוט- זה משתנה אפילו משעה לשעה).  אבל הרבה פעמים, לא יצא לכם לחשוב למה דווקא הייתי עושה דבר כזה “מטומטם”.  שאולי דווקא כן יותר טוב לי בארץ מסיבות די טובות.  סיבות שגורמות לי לחשוב עכשיו שאולי אני אמור לחזור.

אז אולי ברגע הזה אתה רוצה לשאול אותי “אבל למה לא אמרת משהו?”  אבל כמה פעמים אני כן שיתפתי.  ורוב הזמן אנשים היו אומרים *לדבר* עם האנשים שאנסו אותי, לסלוח, לשכוח.  או שקשה אבל מה לעשות.  אפילו כזה צחוק מוזר מדי.  מישהו אמר פעם “אםםםם יאללה אז מי רוצה לדבר על אונס?”  אולי מן הומור שחור אבל ממש לא מתאים למי ששרד התעללות.

ולמי שלא מבין- זה מפני שאני כבר לא בקשר עם המשפחה שהצלחתי לא להפוך להיות כמוהם.  להיות בן אדם מכבד ואוהב.

היו כמה אנשים שכן הבינו אבל הגיע כזה רגע שהבנתי שזה כבר לא הגיוני להמשיך לספר אם זה יותר יכאיב לי מאשר יעזור לי להרפא.  אז יצאתי.

ולמרות שקשה כמו יהודי באירופה, אני כן למדתי הרבה על עצמי והצלחתי להבין למה אני איך שאני.  אפילו השתניתי מכמה בחינות. זה עזר לי להרפא.  להתקדם.  וימשיך להיות תהליך.

אז אם אפשר לשאול למה לא אמרתי, גם אפשר לשאול למה לא חשבתם?  האם זה באמת מורכב לחשוב שלבנאדם אחר יש סיבות שמסבירות את ההתנהגות שלו, את הבחירות שלו?  שעולים אמריקאים אנחנו לא *כל כך* תמימים ושאולי יש עוד סיפורים כמו הסיפור שלי (יש- אני מכיר)?

בזכות שיש לישראל כל כך הרבה דברים שהבנתי שאני כן אוהב, אני כותב את הבלוג הזה.  כי יש גם אנשים שהם לא מתנהגים כמו אלה שכתבתי עליהם פה.  כי יש אנשים אוהבים שמשתדלים להבין.  כי אני לא מוותר על המדינה שלי ועל החיים החדשים שביניתי.  וברור, כי אני כבר לא רוצה לספר את הסיפור שוב פעם ושוב פעם.  אז פשוט אשלח לכם את הלינק.  אתם אנשים חמים ואוהבים אבל לדבר איתכם לפעמים מעייף.  אני לא צריך להצדיק את החיים שלי אז יאללה, תמשיכו לקרוא ותבינו.

עכשיו אני מטייל באירופה.  כמה חברים שלי בארץ ממש מבינים ומעריכים את הבחירה שלי. לעזוב דירה ולצאת לבד.  בלי לדעת לאן ולכמה זמן ואיפה אני אשאר בסוף.  אין בית של אמא לחזור אליו בסוף.  סליחה, אבל זה לא הטיול שלכם להודו.  זה מאמץ כדי להרפא מ30 שנה של התעללות.  וכן, להינות קצת.

וזה לא שאני עשיר- להיפך.  אין לי שום תמיכה משפחתית ורק נותר לי כזה 2000 דולר בחשבון שלי.  בנוסף ל40000 דולר שאני צריך להחזיר לממשלה האמקריקאית על התואר השני שלי.  שם ללמוד זה לא זול כמו בארץ- ואני משמלם על זה לבד.

כמה חברים שלי בארץ אמרו לי “איזה פריווילגיה יש לך לטייל בחו”ל”.  ואם אתה אחת מהחברים האלה, אל תדאג, לא אקח את זה אישית ולא היית היחיד שחשב ככה.

אבל זה כן חרא של הבנה.  לכל אחד יש פריווילגיות.  העובדה שיכולתי לעלות לארץ זה מן פריווילגיה.  וגם העובדה שאני אמריקאי.  וגם שיש לכם משפחה (למרות שאני מניח שיש עוד ישראלים כמוני).  שיש לכם את שפת העברית מגיל 0.  ולצברים- שלא הייתם צריכים לעלות לארץ.  שיש לכם חבר’ה מהצבא ואפילי חברים מהגן שאתם עדיין יוצאים איתם למסיבות.  זה לא כולכם- אבל זה קיים.  אני אישית מודע ומודה על זה שלא גדלתי עם פיגועים ומלחמות.  ואני ממליץ לכם להודות על הפריווילגיות שלכם.  כי הזמנה לארוחת שבת לעולה בודד זה ממש לא דבר כמובן מאילו.  גם לכם יש מזל לפעמים.  תודה לכל מי שאירח אותי בשמחה ובאהבה.  בזכותכם הרגשתי פחות לבד.

אז בסופו של דבר, אני לא כל כך אוהב את השיח על “פריווילגיה” כי זה דבר די רלטיבי.  למרות שלפעמים עוזר לחשוב עליו.

אז בואו נגיד את זה ככה.  יש לי את הפריווילגיה להיות ישראלי ולתרום לחברה חדשה.  תודה לכל מי שנלחם על החלום והבית שלי.  עד עכשיו.

ויש לכם את הפריווילגיה לגור במדינה שגדלתם בה.  עם התמיכה של שכונות, משפחות, וחבר’ה.  לדבר את שפת המדינה מגיל אפס, להרגיש בבית ולא להתבלבל כל פעם שמישהו משתמש במילה חדשה שלא למדתם באולפן.

קשה להיות ישראלי.  אני יודע- פשוט מנקודת מבט אחרת.  אז בואו נעריך את הפריווילגיה להכיר אחד את השני.  כי למרות מה למדתם בבית הספר, לא באתי לארץ כדי להיות כמוכם, אלא להיות איתכם.

ליבי מזרח ואנוכי בסוך מערב.

אני מוסר לכם ד”ש, לרחוב יהודה הלוי מהארץ שבו הוא גדל.  איש גלותי מוכשר ומוכר. מתגעגע.

 

The single best moment of my entire trip

Today, I visited Vila Joiosa, a village in Valencia, Spain.  I went there because they speak Valencian (or as most people call it, Catalan).  I studied Catalan in America at Georgetown University.  I fought my way into the class, which had nothing to do with my Master’s program, because I love Catalan.  I did my undergraduate thesis in Spanish on the Madrid and Barcelona educational systems’ approaches to immigration.  And in Barcelona, I fell in love with Catalan.  A beautiful Romance language filled with x’s and mysterious accent marks.  To me, it looked like a sophisticated, intriguing, sexy Spanish.

So nearly 10 years after my undergraduate education, I found myself at Georgetown studying communication.  And they have a wonderful Catalan program funded by the Ramon Llull Foundation, to promote their culture and language abroad.  And the professor generously let me into the class 😉

I’ve been visiting Alicante, a major city in the province of Valencia.  What’s so striking about Alicante is that it is in the heart of an area that has spoken Catalan for generations (some locals distinguish it as Valencian, but they are essentially varieties of the same language, whatever you wish to call it).  Yet today, almost nobody speaks the language.  The street signs are in Valencian, but you hear nothing but Spanish on the streets.  As if the words are a formality, a reminder of the past, but more of a museum than a living heritage.

So I went searching online to find a village that spoke Valencian, to this day.  I love Valencian Catalan.  I love dialects and accents.  And when I lived in America, I used to watch Valencian-language public TV.  It’s a beautiful variety of Catalan.  And despite what some Catalanists claim, many of its differences can be traced to historical settlement patterns, not just hispanification of the language.  Indeed, I learned today that parts of Valencia use the same unique definite articles as the Balearic Islands.  The only place in the former Roman Empire to keep this unique variety of Latin grammar alive.  Just like one of my favorite bands, Antònia Font.

So it was with great sadness when I saw Spanish nationalists shut down the Valencian-language TV station a few years ago and also stopped broadcasts of TV3 from Barcelona.  I love TV3- I was interviewed on it about my connection to Judaism and Catalan and my gay identity.  You can watch it here and here and test how much Catalan you can understand 😉 .

Every year, I’d check Wikipedia to see whether Valencian activists had succeeded in getting the station up and running again.  Desperately wanting to hear the beautiful Valencian dialect from far away- my only way to engage with it.

Well the station is back up and running.  And it’s thanks to people like City Councilor Josep Castiñeira of Vila Joiosa that it survived.  Along with the Valencian dialect of Catalan.

Vila Joiosa means “joyful town”, and today I had a most joyous experience there.

Walking around town, I noticed a bookstore.  Its name was in Catalan: “Vila Llibres”.  I got excited- this was just why I came to this seaside village.

Upon entering, I noticed a sign that says “here, we’ll serve you in Valencian”.  Whew!  Unfortunately some Spaniards can get prickly when you address them in a minority language, but here I knew I was safe to speak Valencian.

I did get a bit nervous at first.  I noticed a rainbow flag.  As a gay person, you might think this would make me feel at ease.  But in fact, a large portion of the European left, who is generally pro-gay rights has become anti-Semitic.  Quite a number of them, as Josep pointed out later, are quite content to be interviewed on Russian and Iranian TV, but can’t fathom the existence of Israel.  As if our state is somehow less legitimate than the haphazard mess of Middle Eastern states randomly carved out by colonialism.  If you believe your country should exist but Israel shouldn’t (I’ll give a pass to equal opportunity anarchists), you’re an anti-Semite and I don’t like you.

So when I saw this was essentially a left-wing Valencian nationalist bookstore, I got nervous.  Indeed, on the tram on the way to Vila Joiosa, I saw large graffiti calling Israel a murderous state.  Needless to say, there was no accompanying graffiti suggesting Saudi Arabia, Syria, or Spain were similarly murderous despite both past and current colonialism, murder of LGBT people and minorities, and ethnic cleansing (including of Jews).

My conversation with Josep, the bookstore owner, started about Valencian.  I told him I was an American who had studied Catalan and I was excited to see his bookstore.  Stunned that I spoke Catalan without an accent, he welcomed me in and showed me a map of Catalan dialects.  I stood in wonder as he taught me dialectal differences.  I can’t imagine a more exciting experience than chatting in Valencian while learning about the amazing map of Catalan varieties.  Phonetics, grammar, cultural diversity- this is what I love.

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Turns out, it wouldn’t be the only thing I loved about Josep.

I asked about buying a book specifically written the way Valencians speak Catalan.  He pointed me to some, and I went exploring.  Then I noticed a book about the dybbuk, the mythical Jewish spirit creature, in Catalan!  As I brought the book to his attention, he said it wasn’t specifically in the Valencian dialect.  And then I came out as a Jew- not an easy thing here if you’ve read my previous blogs, including from here in Alicante.

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I told him how cool it was to see a Jewish book in Catalan.  And as I spoke with him, I started to notice Jewish books everywhere.  About Jewish history and culture.  I noticed a little sign that even said “shalom”- something I was so used to that I hardly recognized how unique it was in Valencia!

Josep then did the most amazing thing.  He pulled up his sleeve to show me a tattoo that said: “leshanah haba’ah beyerushalayim”.  Next year in Jerusalem.  A phrase we sing at the end of our Passover Seders dreaming of returning to our Holy Land.  A phrase we’ve sung for thousands of years.  Zionism is not a new concept, it is built into our very prayers.  Now is no longer a dream, but a delicate reality we strive to preserve for ourselves and future generations.

I was in the most glorious shock.  Turns out Josep, in his own words, is a Zionist.  And like me, is gay.  And left wing.  And a progressive Valencian nationalist.  In fact, he is a city councilor for the Compromís political party.

After a trip filled with so much anti-Semitism that I often feel afraid to reveal my Jewish Israeli identity here, I can’t tell you how relieved and thrilled I was.  To feel accepted.  Not only because, as some right-wing Europeans feel, that they like Israel because they hate Arabs.  Which puts me in an awkward position as who believes in human rights for all, including Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.  Something I fight for- as an Israeli.  Even when significant elements of those societies hate me for being gay and Jewish.  It’s simply my value system, regardless of whether all the people I fight for support my own human rights.  Though some of them do.  What’s great about Josep is that we share progressive values.  And support Israel for this reason, and promote the people within it, like me, who are working to make it more and more a reality.

Josep is a hero.  Several years ago, I remember seeing headlines that Valencians were boycotting American Jewish singer Matisyahu purportedly because of Israel.  Where he doesn’t even live.  It’s pure anti-Semitism and it left me feeling distant from this culture that I spent so much time and love connecting to from across an ocean.  It’s beyond hypocritical for Spaniards to boycott Israel when their entire country is built on the bloodshed and expulsion of Jews and Muslims.  And it’s classic anti-Semitism when this hypocrisy is used to target someone who isn’t even Israeli!

Josep told me that he worked with his allies in Compromís to counter this boycott.  Even educating ignorant people in his own party.  He is against the BDS movement which seeks to destroy the State of Israel.  Not alter policies, not debate nuance, but to eliminate an entire country because it is Jewish.  A group of people so delusional that they have no problem traveling to China, meeting Russian academics, or enjoying the fruits of their own colonialism.  But somehow Israel is worthy of the utmost and disproportional criticism.  A 2,000 year old hatred rooted in the New Testament itself is hard to get out of your bones.  Fortunately some Christians today, like Josep’s priest friend in Vila Joiosa who loves Israel, are working as allies of our community to rid their culture of this hatred.

While I was across the ocean learning Catalan and embracing Valencian culture, Josep was here defending my heritage.  We honor each other.  And it is through the grace of our spirit that we met today.  Recently, I’ve felt I don’t believe in God.  And I still feel that the way God is portrayed in religious texts is erroneous and even dangerous.  But perhaps for the first time in months, I felt a connection to my inner God.  Because it’s by following my inner compass that I made my way to Josep’s bookstore today.  And made a new friend, hopefully for life.

Josep made me feel accepted.  He warmed my heart and put a huge smile on my face.  And so I took a piece of paper and wrote him a poem.  In Hebrew and in Catalan.  Here it is:

 

Josep and I are bibliophiles.  Lovers of the written word.  So perhaps it’s no surprise given our many shared passions that we really clicked.  People who love kindness, who seek to learn, who reject black-and-white thinking, that’s my kind of people.  That’s who Josep is, that’s who I am, that’s my life aspiration.  The fuel that keeps me going and pointed in the right direction.

As I read my poem out loud, I could feel his smile.  I live for moments like these.  Faced with so many challenges, these experiences give me a reason to live.

I want to feel accepted.  I’m an unorthodox thinker, but at my heart I’m basically a moderate left libertarian.  Unfortunately, some of the people who claim to carry this banner are anti-Semites.  Jeremy Corbyn, for instance.

It has made me feel isolated from my own natural community.  People who believe in human rights, individual freedom, less imposition of the state, economic fairness, LGBT rights, and compassion.  Something the extremes of our community have twisted so much they’ve ended up allied with authoritarians like Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez.

What’s so great about Josep is that with him, I can be myself.  While right-wing Jews and Zionists often demand I put my gayness aside and the far left demands I put my Jewish identity aside, Josep lets me be both.  A gay Jewish progressive.  And a lover of Catalan, unfortunately a language community where some speakers are anti-Semitic as well.  And Josep stands as a brave counterexample to their ignorance.  Proudly carrying the banner of a long Catalan philosemitic tradition.

Like most people, I just want to feel accepted.  And people like Josep make me more convinced than ever about how important it is for Jews to engage open-minded people like him.  To support his efforts against anti-Semitism and to empower his own fight for cultural rights.  So that his village won’t end up like Alicante.  A place with Valencian signs but no Valencian speech.

The Spanish state has waged relentless war on cultural minorities.  First, Jews and Muslims during the Inquisition.  But later groups like Catalans, Valencians, Basques, and Galicians.  Certainly nationalism is a delicate question.  If you read my blog, more often than not I’m against it.  Because in its most extreme forms it leads to division and violation of human rights.

What I’ll say, since I am an unorthodox thinker, is that sometimes nationalism is necessary.  As a minority group in the age of globalization, I have yet to find a better solution to preserving our identity than to have our own state.  It’s imperfect, it can lead to abusing other minorities when left unchecked, but it’s the only solution I’ve seen work.

I’m not interested in Jewish museums nor is Josep interested in a museum of Valencian history.  Indeed, when they start making museums about you, like the Museum of the American Indian in Washington (which I love), you better start worrying.  Because you’ve become mundane and weak enough that it’s OK to stop persecuting you and just remember you.  As if you’re a gentle reminder of the past.  We can weep together, but deny you the right to live differently.

Josep and I, while lovers of learning and certainly of museums, that’s not what we want.  We’re interested in being living communities.  It might be inconvenient for your ideology to recognize that nationalism is the only way for us to continue to be who we are.  Indeed, it’s somewhat inconvenient for my own ideology at times.

But it’s a solid fact.  And until you can show me a better way to ensure a Jewish and Valencian future, a little nationalism is what keeps us alive.  As the socialist hymn goes, I want bread and roses.  I don’t just want bread to survive, I want roses.  The beauty, the higher-level fulfillment of cultural identity and passing down my heritage.  As a part of my existence.  Not to go the way of the Shakers, but to be imperfect but real.

If you’re Spanish or American or Chinese or Russian or Arab, you’re not worried for the survival of your culture.  You’re global superpowers with hundreds of millions of adherents.  But Catalans and Jews and Basques and Tibetans- we’re not so lucky.  And we’re not content to rely on your goodwill to survive.  Because we’ve seen that even though there have been periods where you’ve granted us tolerance, there are others where you extinguish us.  And we want the self-determination to protect ourselves when you decide to scapegoat us.  We want self-empowerment.

It’s messy, but it’s sometimes necessary.  Of course, we must be mindful that our own self-empowerment doesn’t turn into the same hatred we’ve experienced.  A delicate balancing act, but one which I’m willing to engage in to ensure my people’s future.

All of my life decisions led to this sweet moment today.  My decision to study Spanish- which led to my decision to study Catalan.  My decision to pursue an active progressive Jewish life in America and Israel.  My decision to move to Israel, and then travel the world exploring myself and discovering new aspects of Jewish identity.  My decision to come out of the closet as gay.

None of today would have happened without me making these powerful life choices.  Nor without Josep making similarly brave decisions that led him to connect with me.  Standing up for his beliefs, for my people, for his own sense of self, even when it was inconvenient or led to threats.  He recently was attacked by fascists, as vicious in their black-and-white prejudice as the far left.  Like me, he remains squeezed between extremes but pursues his identity with vigor.  And I am grateful for his resilient pursuit of purpose.

I have never, ever recommended a specific restaurant or store on this blog as far as I can remember.  I’m not Trip Advisor, I’m here to share my experiences, not plug businesses- nor have I accepted ad revenue from them.  But I’m going to recommend Josep’s bookstore, because it is an oasis of wisdom and kindness.  Whether you speak Catalan or not, go visit.  Tell him I sent you.  And enjoy wonderful conversation and buy something to support such a kind heart who supports us.

At a time when the world is increasingly polarized and anti-Semitic, I have never been more convinced of the need to engage open-minded people like Josep.  I often feel like giving up on the Left, but there are people like him who bravely stand with us.  Or are curious to learn.  This is why I’ve started my new initiative Nuance Israel to empower them.  If you’ve liked this blog and my other writing, contribute to my new project to make my ideas a reality.  To bring together moderate, open-minded people to support a textured engagement with Israel and the Jewish people.  To put a stop to anti-Semitic boycotts which seek to shut down conversation and destroy my country.  Engagement is the way forward for a progressive Israel and to defeat anti-Semitism abroad.

On the bus back to Alicante, some Arab kids in front of me were listening to loud YouTube videos of Arabic music.  I told them: “ana kamaan ba7ibb al-musiqaa al-3arabiyeh, bas biddi naam.  Min fadlak.”

I also love Arabic music, but I wanna sleep.  Please 🙂

They smiled and turned the volume down.

I can see multilingual Maimonides and the other greats of Spanish Jewish history smiling down on me.

A day in Catalan, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew.  A moment of connection to a great Iberian past.  That Josep and I brought to life again today.

Vila Joiosa, a joyful village indeed.

The wonderful, the ignorant, and the outright anti-Semitic

I’m writing you from Spain.  The past week, I stayed in Almería, a small city in the southeast corner of the country.  This is my fourth visit to Spain.  When I was 13, I came with my school.  When I was 21, I did research here for my thesis (including a fair bit of research on Spanish beaches 😉 ).  This past year, I realized my dream of re-visiting Catalonia after having learned Catalan.  And now, I’m chilling in the south of Spain.

Spain has always been an important place for me.  Spanish is the first foreign language I learned and Spain is the first country I visited without my abusive family.  At a time in my life when I was suffocating, Spain and its wonderful, warm people gave me room to breathe.  And have fun.

I fell in love.  I majored in Spanish in college.  By accident.  I was supposed to major in sociology but my university closed the department midway through my studies (yes, that’s a thing).  And I so loved Spanish that just by virtue of my desire to learn it, I had already taken enough coursework to put together a major.  Follow your heart, not the curriculum.

Every language is a source of richness.  I speak a bunch, including minority languages like Catalan and Yiddish (and have studied Irish and Basque).  Sometimes people shit on these languages for not “being useful”.  As far as I’m concerned, the way you feel about a language (or accent) is mostly about what you feel about its speakers.  Every language, like every culture, has something to offer, to make you grow, if you choose to see it that way.  Perhaps that’s why subconsciously I chose to wear a Catalan t-shirt at the Alhambra on Spain’s National Day.  An unintentional but loud statement in Andalucía, where dissing Catalans is as common as eating Gazpacho.

What enchants me about Spanish in particular is how I fit in.  Most of the time.  Because of my olive skin and Semitic features (Spaniards are also very Mediterranean-looking and have a lot of Jewish blood), I often am seen as Spanish.  Or Latino in America.  Sometimes people overlook Mediterranean/Middle Eastern people, but we look different than the Swedish people in Minnesota or the Irish Americans in Boston.  We look ethnic.  In Belgium, people think I’m Arab (including Arabs).  And I’ve actually had people tell me I don’t look American.  Not the nicest thing, but maybe there’s some truth to it.  Most people in Abercrombie ads don’t look like me.

But in Spain, people think I’m one of them- or at least a native Spanish speaker.  Partially because I’ve got a great accent, but people over the past week thought I was anything from Catalan to Venezuelan to Chilean.  In America, someone once called me a “Spic” on the Metro.  I’ve had multiple cases where people I’ve already known discover I’m not Hispanic, tell me how surprised they are, and suddenly want to be friends with me.  Here, I feel a little more at home.

In Israel too I often felt that physically I more fit in.  My appearance, indeed my DNA (I’ve run tests that show my makeup is closest to Lebanese, Greeks, Sicilians, and Palestinians), is from there.  Trust me, nobody in Hungary mistook me for an ethnic Hungarian.  Even though my great-grandparents were from there.  Israeli clothing models, politicians, rabbis, studs at the beach look a lot more like me than Channing Tatum.  But don’t get me wrong, I do like Channing Tatum 😉 .

In Spain, I’ve met some incredible people.  I met a Spanish man who told me how proud me was of his town’s judería, or Jewish quarter.  I met a Russian guy married to a Taiwanese woman who owned a bubble tea store.  Who spent 10 minutes looking up directions for me to a Sephardic heritage site.  I told an Afghan baklava seller I was from Israel- and spoke some Farsi with him.  His eyes lit up. 🙂  I ate amazing Moroccan bastilla and chatted with the owners in Arabic.  I even met a very Catholic young man marching in a Semana-Santa-style procession who directed me towards the local Jewish museum.

There’s also a lot of ignorance.  Not necessarily outright prejudice, but for sure ignorance.  A lot of people have no idea where their town’s Jewish quarter is- even when the local municipality has developed it as a tourist attraction.  And it’s been there for over a thousand years.  This particularly struck me yesterday on El Día de la Hispanidad, the day “celebrating” Columbus’s “discovery” of the “New” World.  The same year Spain kicked out its Jews.

On this day, I saw a massive Catholic procession which (although it is not actually connected) looks like a much more elaborate and classy KKK march.  Even Spaniards joked with me about it.  It really does look similar, but it is not a hate parade.  I will say it momentarily jolted me.

Spain is known for being the most (or one of the most) anti-Semitic countries in Europe according to the Anti-Defamation League’s polling.  Not surprising given the legacy of the Inquisition, although neighboring Portugal had that too, and moreso than Spain, is undergoing a kind of Jewish renaissance, including a burgeoning philo-Semitism.  Strong ties with both Israel and the Jewish community make it a much more comfortable place to be a Jew, right next door.

Spanish municipalities, particularly those governed by left wing parties, have tried over and over again to boycott Israel.  Something I find ironic, at best, in a country covered with the blood of my ancestors.  Where I’ve seen synagogues turned into office buildings, where thousands of people fill the streets celebrating Christopher Columbus.  A man by all accounts a genocidal maniac.  Incidentally likely the descendant of Jews forced to convert to Catholicism by Spain.  Hired by the royal family celebrated during this week’s holiday.  The family who ethnically cleansed my people from this land.

To return to the issue of these Catholic processions, I’d like to share my experience in Alicante, another city in Spain.  In the province of Valencia.

I was walking down the street and asked someone to explain the meaning of everything.  I’m a curious guy so I listened patiently as someone explained about the various teams that put together the saints displays.  Like I mentioned, some Spaniards like to joke about how it looks like a Klan rally (long robes, candles, crosses…).  I agreed it was a bit of a culture shock, and the rather nice Spaniards I spoke with said: “yeah, it has nothing to do with violence.”

But actually, that’s wrong.  Catholicism in Spain (frankly, Catholicism for most of its existence) has until recently been about violence.  Towards Jews, towards Muslims, towards apostates.  And while today, religious processions are mostly a cute cultural custom (it’s cool to watch, the music is neat too).  Not too long ago, they were a way for the church to impose its will on the people.  Including countless Jews it forced to convert or abandon this land under penalty of death.

After a relaxing bus ride up the coast to get here (the scenery in Spain is spectacular), I went out tonight.  It was a Saturday night and I wanted to talk to people.  Traveling alone can be so rewarding, I’m learning so much about myself.  And sometimes it’s nice to take a break and be with people.

I met an interesting mix of people just by chatting on the street.  Spaniards are known for being friendly and they live up to their reputation.  There are few better places I’ve visited for someone traveling alone.  Everyone is ready to chat.

I spent the night with a mix of Spaniards, Americans, Ukrainians, and one Argentinian man.

When I said I was from Israel, everyone was cool.  In fact, the Spanish guy knows his family has Jewish roots and he wants me to bring him to a synagogue.  And if you saw his cute punim, you could see he wasn’t lying.  He’d fit right in on a kibbutz.

The only person with a problem was the Argentine.  He said to me- to my face- “how do you feel as a Jew, controlling the world’s economy?”

I wish I could say I was surprised, but there was something in his silence when I said I was from Israel that told me he’d be an anti-Semite.  Perhaps a defense mechanism I’ve developed after dealing with so much bigotry.

I told him point blank: “that’s an anti-Semitic question based on stereotypes.”

He didn’t accept it.  When I tried to explain (as if you can reason with someone this insane) that actually Israel has a lot of poor people with one of the widest wealth gaps in the OECD, he pushed back:

“The Jews in Argentina control everything.”

I gave him a deep stare, told him I actually spent two weeks helping poor Jews in Argentina after the economic crisis, and reiterated that he was being anti-Semitic.  And to my great credit, he asked for the check and left.  Two hours later, he came back with free wristbands to go to a nightclub- for everyone in the group but me.  He said: “you don’t get one.”

Message understood.

I still love Spanish.  I love every language I learn.  Every culture has richness to share.

But I don’t fit in here.  For a visit, sure.  I suppose on some level I always thought I could be Spanish or in the words of my former coworkers at a Hispanic advocacy group, an “honorary Latino”.  Before moving to Israel, I spent most of my college years and professional career working for Latino and immigrant rights.  And I’m proud of it.  It reflects my values as a Jew and as a human being and a lover of Spanish-speaking cultures.

In the end, though, it’s not mine.  At least it can’t replace my Jewish identity, though at times I wished it would.  It felt easier- what an amazing global community to be a part of.  There’s a reason everyone’s listening to reggaeton these days- it’s infectious.  For all the wars and coups and discrimination and poverty and dictatorships, being Latino is fun.  I love French and I speak it when I want a sense of calm.  But let’s face it- when people want to get down, they put on salsa, not French folk music.  Although I listen to that too 🙂 .

I wish I could say my experience with the Argentinean man was unique, but it’s not.  In fact, when I visited Argentina, I saw authentic Nazi war medals being sold at the local fruit market.  My middle school Spanish teacher taught us that in her country of Guatemala, to call someone a Jew was to call them a “burro”, an “ass”.  As she laughed.  At a gay club in Spain, men excitedly guessed where I was from and when I finally said “Israel”, two of them fell silent and turned away.  One Spanish woman compared me to an Islamic terrorist because I don’t eat pork.  In Granada, I asked the tourist info booth why the Jewish museum was closed on Friday morning, even though it was listed as being open until 2pm that day.  And the woman sassily snapped: “you have to respect, it’s the Sabbath, that’s why they’re closed, it’s their norms.”  As if I couldn’t possibly know- or be Jewish.  I explained I was Jewish and that Friday morning is not the Sabbath- they chose to list the museum as open then.  The woman couldn’t care less as she ignored me and moved on to her next task.  Her much nicer colleague grimaced.  And tried to help me.  When I worked for a Latino advocacy group in Washington, they refused to give me Yom Kippur off in exchange for Christmas.  I appealed to the president of the group.  And got my vacation back almost a year later.

It’s not because all Latinos or Spaniards are anti-Semitic.  There are people here, as in all cultures, who are curious about Judaism.  Some who love it.  And some who are indifferent or ignorant but not hostile.  Some Latinos are Jews.

I’ve also experienced a deep strain of anti-Semitism in Spanish-speaking cultures.  No doubt a product of hundreds of years of Catholic-church-sponsored hate and Inquisitions.  Today, sometimes repackaged by far-left parties as anti-Israel fanaticism.  A kind of new religion in which Jews remain all-powerful and in need of constant reprimand.

In the end, I’ll always be a Spanish speaker.  It flows off my tongue better than any other, maybe even more than Hebrew.  The language is filled with warmth.  The people such friendliness.  The culture such a diverse and interesting history.  One in which Jews have always played a part.  Our blood flows through the veins of its people, our ruins dot the town squares.  Like the former synagogue in Guadix I visited that’s now an unemployment office.

Tonight, my best conversation was with an Algerian man.  Feeling distraught about the Argentinian anti-Semite as well as some homophobic comments I heard, I wanted a taste of home.  Shwarma.

I talked to the man in Arabic, and he was surprised.  “Where are you from?”

“Tel Aviv.”

“Tel Aviv?  Palestine?”

“Israel.  Palestine.  The Land.”

“Oh, you’re Palestinian?”

“No, I’m Jewish.  I’m Israeli.”

“But you speak Arabic!”

“I do, I love it.  It’s a beautiful language.  And I like Algerian Rai music and I have Algerian Jewish friends in Israel.”

“Wow!!  Rai?!?  And your friends- do they still eat couscous?”

“Yes they do.  Every Shabbat.”

Perhaps the world expects me to have more fun with a bunch of young Spaniards and expats at a bar.  Telling me how progressive and open they are, while spewing bile about Jews and gays after a few drinks.  Perhaps belying what they really think.

But my favorite conversation tonight was with an Algerian falafel man.  Because I’m the first Israeli he’s ever met.  And my language, my heart, brought him a smile from ear to ear.

So in the end, I’m not Latino, I’m not Spanish, and I don’t really want to be.  But I am a Spanish-speaker, an Arabic-speaker, and most importantly, a person who uses language to warm hearts.

Expel us, boycott us, ridicule us in a bar.  But Judaism is as Spanish as paella.

Queen Isabella could have never imagined me staring down an anti-Semite on the streets of Alicante 500 years later.  And winning.  Let alone a Jew and a Muslim speaking in Arabic.

Confuse me for a Latino, I don’t care.  Once it would’ve made me scared that you won’t like me.  Or I’d defiantly wear my honorary Latino badge, proud to be different.  Now, I just feel I’m a human being.  I’m a Jew- who I am and what society makes me.  And I’m happy to explore all cultures and stand with kind-hearted people no matter who they are.  I’ve learned to love my olive skin more.  And I’m grateful to have places like Spain where I look normal.

Libi bamizrach.  My heart is in the East, I’m in the far West.  And the person who brought me there was an Algerian shwarma man.

Yehuda Halevi would be proud.

==

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This picture is of a door in Granada’s Jewish quarter where you can still, 500 years later, see the marks of a mezuzah.  We’re everywhere.  Scatter us like seeds, but we sprout back up wherever we’re planted.

This one’s for the abuse survivors

One of the things that has struck me throughout my journey is the degree to which being a victim and survivor of abuse has shaped my world.

I’ve blogged about it before- noting how this experience influenced my decision to move to Israel.

I received some really amazing feedback from people about that blog.  Friends who had made aliyah themselves and, in the words of one person, “it’s been 7 years since I did it and I just now realized that’s why.”  That my blog had helped him put together the pieces of his story.  I even had a reader in California message me that he too was a victim of abuse and a gay Jew and was empowered to see someone like him speaking up.

I’m not one for trigger warnings, but in this case, I’ll say that I’m going to share some very personal and possibly hard-to-read content.  So if you’re not up for it, maybe come back to this post later, or not- do what feels right to you.

I dedicate this blog post to all the survivors out there.

Some survivors can’t speak out or are afraid to.  Understandably.  The stigma is enormous- sometimes our abusers will try to punish us.  Or sometimes people are still being abused.  One friend of mine in Israel, whose name I of course will keep private, is in this situation.  And to hear him talk about how his family is stalking him brought back so many bad memories.  And I’m so proud of him for surviving and progressing towards his goals despite the many people trying to hold him back.  Ari (pseudonym)- I’m with you.

I’m fortunately on the other side.  Not that you ever stop encountering abusive people- just a few weeks ago a Belgian woman chased me out of her AirBnB at 8pm in a rural village because I complained about insects in my room.  She claimed it was normal to have bugs and (her words) mice in her house- that meant it was a healthy home.  When I asked for help in dealing with bees buzzing around my room, she went ballistic saying I was a “child” and she wanted me gone.  There’s no logic- it’s literally as crazy as it sounds.  That’s how abuse works.  I had to spend 40 euros on a cab to the nearest town and another 100 on a last minute hotel room.

I could add to this list my bank, Bank of America.  I’ve been with this bank since 2004- 14 years.  While over the past few years I had heard troubling stories about their mortgages and the bank bailout, I had personally never run into issues with my simple checking account.

Until now.  Two months ago, I noticed some crazy expenditures on my bank account.  Someone had bought just over $1400 in fried chicken and other goods in Rishon LeZion and Eilat, Israel- two cities I had never visited.  I like chicken, but not that much.

I called a Bank of America representative immediately- within 24 hours, as you’re supposed to do.  The agent agreed these charges were way out of character and gave me a temporary credit to cover the fraud while they investigated.

Then, about a week ago, while in Belgium I noticed suddenly my account went way down.  I called the bank- again, on my own dime using foreign minutes- to figure out what was going on.  Turns out the bank needed to clarify several expenditures in the fraud claim in order to wrap up the investigation.  In the meantime, with no message or notice, they had withdrawn the temporary credit, explaining the drastic drop in funds.  I gave them the appropriate information, the customer service agent laughing (along with me) about the ridiculous fried chicken purchases.  She said it made her day to see something so silly.  She expected the money back in my account soon- perhaps as quick as 2 days.

I again followed up, using the last of my sim card minutes, when I saw the strangest message the next day.  Bank of America sent me a short message (with no proof) that actually my fried chicken disaster was valid!  That I had bought who knows how many hundreds of pounds of fried chicken in cities I’ve never visited.  Despite having spent $50 in phone calls speaking to multiple agents for several months, Bank of America had decided to steal my money.

In a last ditch effort to fix things, I took to Twitter (because this sometimes works) and I filed a report with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (the “CFPB”- thanks Elizabeth Warren!).  I even shared visuals of the dates of purchase alongside my Google Maps timeline showing I was never in those places.  Four different people on their social media team responded- all of whom told me to call a phone number whose extension doesn’t work.  It’s four digits long and it’s supposed to be six- so I couldn’t get a human being and they refused to share any written info.  I then got someone on the phone from the staff that deals with CFPB complaints.  She told me they’d try to get back to me in two weeks- two weeks without my money to cover my travel and my life expenses.

I’ve now called this customer service rep back on her personal line three times during her working hours with no response.  I can’t check any messages she may have left before because my sim card minutes have now run out.  And I’m not about to spend another $50 on wasted calls- and stress.  I’m supposed to be enjoying my trip, not wading through Bank of America’s labyrinth of people who try to discourage me from getting my money back.  To give up due to the stress of the process- which is a smart strategy because it is getting really stressful and I’m now in a pinch while abroad.  Despite having done everything by the book.

I’m hoping somehow there’ll be a resolution in the next few days, but I’m not holding my breath.  I’ve waited two and a half months and have been given the run around over and over again.  The fried chicken story isn’t funny anymore- give my money back.

Sadly, if you go a cursory Google search, I’m hardly the only one getting screwed by their bank.  Purposefully.

So you see, abusive behavior doesn’t end when you leave the primary abusive relationships you were stuck in.  New people or institutions come along and hurt you- and it hurts twice as bad because you’re still trying to heal from the previous abuse while managing to stay afloat- financially, emotionally, physically.

I’ve heard all sorts of reactions, in Israel, America, and elsewhere (especially in Israel, which is such a family-oriented society) when I say I’ve cut out my family.  Some people just want me to “move on”.  Others show genuine empathy.  Others, like one of my childhood rabbis I bumped into a few months ago, told me to try to reconcile with relatives who sexually abused me.  My answer: “have you ever been sexually abused?”

His: “no”.  He backed off.

So let me tell you a bit what it was like for me to abused.  To lift my voice up and to share my story when so many others can’t.  To maybe make you a bit more empathetic.  Or, if you’re a survivor yourself, to advocate for us.

And due to laws stacked against victims, I am not going to name any names.  Just share the experiences.

Today, the hardest experiences for me are usually the easiest for everyone else.  See, I’m fantastic at foreign languages (several Spaniards told me recently they thought I was from Barcelona or Chile).  I travel the world- 8 countries in the past year alone.  Often places that few people visit- I’m adventurous.  Sibiu, Salerno, Chloraka, Mataró, Cabo de Gata, Debrecen, Perpignan.  Just to name a few.  If you don’t know most of the names, that’s probably because instead of waiting in line at the Vatican, I was chilling with rugby players in Bracciano, Italy.

What’s hard for me are the basics.  Peeing, pooping, drinking water, breathing, eating, looking at myself in the mirror, sleeping.  Bright lights, loud sounds.  When someone enters a door unexpectedly, or bangs on it.

When growing up, relatives would regularly walk in on me in the bathroom.  While urinating, taking a bath, you name it.  Sometimes when I was naked.  And when I protested, one relative’s response (even well into my teens) was “don’t cover your penis up, it’s nothing I haven’t seen.”

My relatives used food as a weapon against me.  I distinctly remember being in a restaurant for my birthday and ordering a dessert.  When the dessert came, one relative shouted out loud, in front of the whole restaurant: “Matt, Matt the fat water rat.”  While the rest of my family said nothing or laughed.  I could give hundreds of examples.

So then I worked hard to be slim and fit.  But when I looked svelt, my family (who was sexually abusing me) would comment on how hot I looked.  Which frankly scared the shit out of me.  So I then ate more.  Because if I looked more attractive to them, maybe they’d sexually abuse me more.  Like when one relative, well into my teen years, would slap my ass and say “I’m playing tushy drums”.  Years of protests did nothing- I just received laughter in my face.  And when your literal existence- your food, your water, your housing, your transportation- is at their behest, there’s not really much you can do about it.  “Suck it up”, as one relative would say.  Or “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Well put by someone whose entire worldview is about saying nasty things to people.  So nasty that they apparently they were recently detained by security at a hospital while visiting a sick relative.  For screaming out of control at other family members.  Not surprised- I had to call the police on this relative multiple times as a child.  For the loud screaming I had to endure.  And for thinking they were going to hit me.  Which one time, they actually did.  The neighbors, I can picture their faces, looked on outside as the police spoke to my relatives.  Nothing changed.

During all of this, I was a child.  Children have a lot of needs, including supportive family members.  Or at least ones who won’t make them miserable.  Typing away on a loud computer keyboard till three in the morning in sex chat rooms next to my bedroom.  So loud I couldn’t sleep.  Of course my needs didn’t matter.  And the chatting continued- I even bumped into some of the filthy transcripts while using the computer.

And my mornings are still difficult.  I can recall relatives who were sexually abusing me, waking me up at times.  Touching me inappropriately- even when I told them to stop.  Guilting me for when I woke up and for taking too long to get ready.  When I basically lived in a dungeon- some relatives wouldn’t let me sleep at night, others made my mornings time for touching my body.

Some studies have compared sleeplessness to being drunk.  That sleep deprived teenagers shouldn’t really be driving to high school so early.  For me, this was my entire reality.  And sometimes still is, though thanks to a lot of hard work, a bit less.  As a 6 year old I remember family screaming so loud- in different houses, on different occasions, even different family members.  So loud that I could hear them screaming 3 floors up.  And couldn’t sleep a wink.

To this day, one of the scariest times for me is when I close my eyes.  And I check to make sure my hotel room or apartment door is locked.  Because frankly, I have it in my system to be scared that someone will come in and hurt me.  For you, it might be normal to close a door.  For me, it’s an emotional necessity.

Returning to the metaphor of sleep deprivation to alcoholism, yes, that has been a problem too.  Only in my early 30s did I discover I was an alcoholic, using alcohol, as many abuse victims do, to temporarily soothe the pain.  Pain that can feel non-stop at times.  Both when people are being actively abused- I was stalked by multiple relatives via phone, social media, in person, and even via my friends.  And when you see things that remind you of the abuse, even years later.  Could be a food you used to eat on your birthday, a sign for a restaurant you used to go to, even a phrase someone says that your abuser used to say.  And you’re not always sure if they mean it in the same way.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes the original phrase itself wasn’t abusive, but the person saying it was.  And I have to decipher what all of this means for me now.  What’s right?  Emotional abuse is just as scarring as any other type, and incredibly hard to heal from.

I’m proud to have not drunk a single drop of alcohol since I realized I was an alcoholic over 2 years ago.  Even as a few months ago I discovered it runs in my family- something nobody bothered to tell me that could have saved me a lot of pain.

And a few months before I realized I was an alcoholic, I realized my boyfriend at the time was too.  Unfortunately, when you grow up surrounded by abuse, you’re often initially attracted to people who behave the same.  It’s what you know.  And I’ve discovered it’s not what I want for myself.  In fact, seeing his behavior helped me realize my own challenge.

Usually when you have these kind of problems you go to your therapist.  When I had told my therapist I thought my (ex) boyfriend had a drinking problem (he drank excessively, emotionally, and even drove while drunk), the psychiatrist’s response was: “don’t worry, it’s just a cultural thing.  His family is from a part of the country where that is common.”  Another therapist, when I told them that my ex was repeatedly pressuring me to have unprotected sex and touching me when I didn’t want, was equally nonchalant.  I’m glad I chose to protect myself in spite of the voices around me telling me I was worth less.

You see therapists can be abusive too.  I’ve actually found most of the ones I’ve worked with are.  One therapist I worked with liked to tell me stories about his narcissistic mother- even after I told him I didn’t want to know about his personal life.  He then wanted to tell me how much he disapproved of his daughter’s career- as if somehow this was relevant to my life.  Or the hundreds of dollars I was paying him.

Another therapist prescribed me the wrong medication in the wrong doses.  And lost my prescriptions.  I’m proud to say I’m almost entirely off these medications- which I discovered were most likely improperly and unnecessarily prescribed- with years of side effects.  Weight gain, fuzzy memory, stunted emotions, and more.  My therapist even told me I could drink while on them- which a much better doctor informed me down the line could’ve ruined my liver.  For life.

The therapist would often arrive 30-45 minutes late to sessions- or sometimes, not show up at all.  This doesn’t even cover the therapist who told me, to my face, that she would not “validate my sexual abuse.”  Despite the fact that she was obviously not there when it happened (and I was).  And I had told her about relatives playing with their genitalia in front of me.  Sometimes screaming at me while fully naked.  Well into my teenage years.

Reading this you might wonder: “well why didn’t you get out of this?”  First of all, I did.  Despite growing up in an entire environment of abusive family, family friends, and the therapists they chose for me.  Family has the most control over your life during your most vulnerable and formative stages.  And even if you start to realize how damaging they are, you’re dependent on them and it hurts you psychologically.  It takes years- maybe even a lifetime- to recover.  And things that seem strange to you might seem normal to someone who has been abused.  While you might view someone grabbing your ass as highly inappropriate, to me it just reminds me of my family.  That’s what I grew up with.  Not a pinch- grabs.  Slaps.  Spanks.  Gross.

Obviously when you grow up like this, you both don’t understand other people’s boundaries nor how to protect your own.  I was taught that I didn’t deserve boundaries or autonomy.  And so why should I think other people are different?

Years later, I realized that I had hurt other people.  To give an example, on several occasions I tried to grab straight friends’ bodies.  And they didn’t want it.  It’s a violation of their body and self- and it’s wrong.  It’s harassment.  So once I had this realization of how I had hurt others, I had some serious moments of repentance and disgust.  I went through the names in my head and I started apologizing.  I wrote messages to people who in some cases I hadn’t seen in years.  Detailing specifically what I was sorry for and asking for their forgiveness, promising that I had learned from the experience.

And I was relieved to see when people forgave me.  Some didn’t view what happened nearly as seriously as I did.  And some were upset- and were glad I apologized.  It was the right thing to do.  And it’s important to reflect and respect others’ feelings- not to tell them how to feel.  And to apologize when you’ve hurt then.  While I’m angry and ashamed to have hurt others, I’m proud to have realized the wrong and brought some healing to them.  And frankly, to me too.

It was brave.  Abusers never look themselves in the mirror.  I saw my worst fear being realized- that if I didn’t change my behavior, I was going to become like the people who hurt me.  For someone to escape the path they were taught- the abusive path of hurting others and self- you have to do some serious soul searching.  And question almost everything you were taught.  Like you’re Jim Carrey in The Truman Show– everything you thought was real and normal was an illusion.  I always was moved by that film as a kid- an in retrospect, I see why.  It was my life.  To escape this is mind-bending and thoroughly exhausting. And I’m extremely proud of myself for choosing this more difficult but morally right path.

We all make mistakes and I continue to do so like all human beings.  But I’m proud to say that in spite of an entire ecosystem that taught me to harm others, I’ve chosen a path oriented towards respect, kindness, sincerity, sensitivity, self protection, strength, and growth.  What to many people might seem natural is something I had to learn on my own.  Through observing other people, through researching things, through going to an AA meeting, through asking people for advice.  I raised myself.  And I think for having overcome such incredible hatred, I’ve ended up even sweeter and kinder than the average person.

So that rather than being like the abusive relative who pumped my rabbi for personal information about me- which he gave- I try to respect people’s confidence.  So that rather than being like my relatives who told me playing music and ice skating was “effeminate” and “not normal” (they put an end to those activities), I try to let people do what they want.  And if they find a passion, to encourage them to pursue it.  Rather than being like the relatives who’d degrade my appearance, saying I was overweight or too skinny, or caressing my hair over and over again, or grabbing my inner thigh near my crotch.  I don’t touch people if they don’t want me to.  It’s not hard, but for someone who has had this done to them for years, it is.  And the fact that I’ve chosen a different way of being is a testament to my strength of character and hopefulness.

So for you, taking a chug of water isn’t hard.  For me, it reminds me of relatives saying I was irresponsible for drinking too little.  Even though drinking water is good for me, I associate it with people who hurt me.  Whose basic advice I couldn’t trust.  And who told me this actually important advice in really degrading ways.  The same relatives who touched my body.  The same relatives who wrote me out of their will.  Not long after I came out of the closet.  I didn’t receive a penny.

How should I know, as a child, that their advice about drinking water is any different from their advice about punching kids back on the playground?  Or about not being a degenerate effeminate “fag” while they flashed their penis at me, told me how masculine jock straps were, and left their homoerotic Men’s Health magazines lying on the bathroom floor?  Perhaps being an alcoholic isn’t the only thing that runs in my family.  Boy did that revelation screw up my understanding of my gay identity.

Narcissists make everything about them.  My relatives, almost to a person, fit that description.  If I accomplished something, I knew I had to thank them a million times, because it was really their accomplishment.  If they were feeling down, it was my job as a child to comfort them.  To give them skin-to-skin massages.  To listen to them tell me highly personal stories about their friends and their friends’ children- who I knew.  Which then made it super awkward when I’d see them, knowing about their clinical depression or dating issues or their own abusive relationships.  That I’m quite sure they never wanted me to know about.  But my relatives respected no one’s boundaries, and I know it all.  More than a child should ever have to know.

So for you, maybe languages are hard.  Maybe traveling is difficult.  Maybe living or traveling alone is even harder.  I’ve now been on the road for 6 weeks by myself.  And while there have been ups and downs, frankly it doesn’t feel much different from the rest of my life.  I’ve always had to rely on myself.  And even with the challenges of travel, I feel pretty good right now.  At least this journey on my own is by choice.

For me, what’s really hard is going to the bathroom worried someone will barge in.  What’s really hard for me is choosing what to eat- hearing my relatives’ voices in my head about what will make me fat, what will make me attractive, what’s good and what’s bad.  What I do and don’t deserve to put in my body.  Which they then violated.

For me what’s hard is the loneliness.  Even though I’m grateful to myself for separating from such toxic and mean-spirited people, I’ve had to build a support network on my own.  The things you might take for granted.  That your family can help you financially or let you crash for a while when you’re in-between jobs.  Or give you advice.  Or just have a place to visit.  A place to call home.

I don’t have that.  I didn’t choose it.  I was born into it.  And if I had decided to stay a part of it, I would’ve become like it.  And you wouldn’t like who I am- and I wouldn’t either.

It’s not a choice.  It’s a mandate between becoming abusive or spending thousands of hours and dollars and effort in building yourself into something better.  Breaking a chain likely going back generations.  So that the next one, if I make one, won’t have to suffer.

And so that I, even with all the years of pain I’ve endured and will continue to feel, can hopefully live a better life.

I can’t say it’s easy.  When friends talk about cousins or missing their siblings or going to a relative’s wedding, I can’t relate.  I’m an only child and I was abused by so many relatives.  I have no family get togethers- not that I’d ever want to go to.  I don’t have any weddings and I don’t have anyone to crash with.

If I do, it’s because I found these people.  Deprived of even the most basic elements of unconditional love family should give, I’ve had to find them on my own.

So that while I’m still stewing in a mess of Bank of America shit, a friend in Israel asked me the most amazing question.  “Matt, how are you doing financially?”

Because there are times I really question whether having come to Israel was the right choice- and who knows where the future will take me.

But one thing is for sure- this friend.  Whether he actually offers me money or a place to crash, I know he’s got my back.  And he won’t let me fall.  I earned it through our friendship- and he knows I love and support him too.

This kind of kindness will never replace the hatred and lack of care that I received as a child- even well into my adult years.  When you still need your family in various ways.

What it does is help me feel that I’m not alone.

At my core, I’m a hopeful person.  A realist- there are some pretty awful people in the world and sometimes I feel I’ve met all of them.  But I haven’t- there are a lot.  The maxim “most people are good people” is not one that speaks to me.  Not because I think most people are evil, but I think “good” is a relative and fairly opaque term.  And because a lot of people aren’t so great to others.  You have to protect yourself from them.  And some people are shining beacons.  And others are somewhere in between, with their behavior even changing based on the circumstances they find themselves in.  A world of “good” and “bad” people is a dangerous oversimplification, a black-and-whiteness I resist.

So in the end, why am I traveling?  Why do I put in so much effort to heal?  In the face of almost impossible odds- I’ve almost died many times during my life.  From the stress, from the anxiety, from the degradation.  From eating disorders, from alcoholism, from risky ways I lashed out to just have some release.  To at times, thinking life was too hard to live.

And in the end, I never took that step.  Even though there was sometimes part of me that just wanted to end it, I didn’t take the jump.  I didn’t lose hope.  Not because life is always great.  But because I believed it could get better.

And one thing I can say is that even with the insanity of certain parts of the past year and a half- being chased by a violent Arab man in Israel, escaping an actual wolf in Belgium, seeing a viper in Romania, having landlords steal my money, having my bank steal my money, living through air raid sirens, being chased by a pack of wild dogs, and having a Druze man threaten me because I was gay.  I am here.  I am alive.  I know more.  I’ve grown.  I do despair- and I don’t give up.

I’m Matt Adler.  I’m an abuse and incest survivor.  An abuse and incest victim.  Those words carry such weight, such stigma- but it’s not me who did it.  So why should I bear the weight of the sins?

I’m a person who has risen above the fate that was planned for me to be someone kinder, more caring, more daring, and more loving than the people who’ve tried to sink me along the way.

If they don’t give you a boat, if they don’t give you a raft, swim.

I can’t promise where you’ll find land.  But wherever you can pause and grab a piece of wood, rest.  Wherever someone helps you along the way, give thanks.  Enjoy the moment- you don’t know when the next good one will come along.  Breathe, take in the sights when you can.  Who knows what tomorrow holds.

All I know is I’d rather be swimming, sometimes gasping for air, struggling and getting stronger.  Than living in a bitter sea built of someone else’s tears.

You’re worth it.  I love you guys- don’t give up.  I won’t either.

You’re welcome, Belgium

My trip to Benelux, as I like to call it, has been interesting.  The series of low-lying small countries- Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg- has long been a destination I wanted to visit.

I like small countries.  They have unique character and frankly they’re cute!  Not so overwhelming and often overlooked- just the way I like things sometimes.  People tend to be more appreciative too when you visit places a bit off the beaten path.  Brussels isn’t a village in Latvia, but it’s certainly not Rome or Paris either.  It’s cute- not too big, not too showy, interesting.  And for me, a French-speaker and a lover of languages, this is a fascinating part of the world.  With languages bumping up side-by-side- Belgium a truly multilingual country.  With all the good and challenges that poses for its society.

While unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Netherlands, I did visit Belgium and Luxembourg.

The good thing about small countries is you can see a lot in a short amount of time.  And things do tend to change a bit from place to place.

After flying into Charleroi Airport and staying over in Jumet, I visited Namur and the Ardennes.  The Ardennes is the site of tons of World War history- from both wars.  With tremendous casualties, including many Americans who died to liberate this part of the world from fascism.

The Ardennes are green and peaceful.  Some pockets of poverty.  And some gorgeous medieval villages like Dinant and Bouvignes.  Take a look:

 

While I didn’t plan on coming to the Ardennes for its military history, it kind of found me.

When you go to the cute village of Bastogne, you can see the war everywhere.  There are graveyards for soldiers, American tanks, a museum.  And mostly Western tourists coming to see it- sometimes to meet their departed relatives.

I knew my great uncle Barney Marcus was killed here in the war- he was an American soldier.  But I didn’t know where- it could’ve been Asia or Europe.  And I didn’t know exactly when.

It’s incredibly hard for me to think about these things.  For those of you who know my blog, you know I grew up in a deeply abusive family.  On both sides.  So the genealogy I’ve done over the past year has been brave.  It’s not easy to think about connecting with relatives, even those who have departed who I’ve never met, when I have to separate myself from the people we share in common.  To protect me.

Without wanting to go into the war traumas or history (I think seeing the destroyed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe was enough), I didn’t visit much.  But I did take a picture with an American tank.  And I noticed that one older woman, initially standoffish, was quite warm to me in French when I said I was American.  I could feel her gratitude.  For something I didn’t even think of when planning this trip.  But nonetheless, it felt good.  After experiencing so much stigma in Eastern Europe, it was nice to see some people who liked me for who I was.  And to think about good things my country has done.  Like liberating this part of the world from fascism- twice.

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I also made time to visit Luxembourg.  While so many Debbie Downers asked me over and over why I would go there, my answer is simple: it’s there.  It’s a tiny country, with something different, right at my doorstep.  It’s cute, quadrilingual (Luxembourgish is a language!), and I find it interesting.

From Bastogne, I hopped on a bus.  Now I’m going to sound pretty hipster when I say I didn’t even go to Luxembourg City.  I passed through towns and villages on the way to Ettelbruck, an even smaller city in a teeny tiny country.

My image of Luxembourg was wealth.  It is one of the richest places on the planet.

And I saw some of it- the native Luxembourgers (is that a word?) were readily recognizable, driving Mercedes and BMW’s.  Not all of them, but a lot.

What was shocking was that Ettelbruck is anything but wealthy.  The rest of the town is a melting pot of Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, Cape Verdeans- name a culture.  There to work, to somehow survive in the face of eye popping prices, to make a better life.  Ettelbruck isn’t scenic, but I did learn a lot.

What I learned is there’s a lot of racism here.  Europe, in general, feels really racist.  Not everyone, but it’s a deep feeling.

As someone with caramel, olive skin and Semitic features- I stand out.  To the people (usually on the far left) who claim all Jews are white- tell that to the Luxembourgers who looked at me like I was there to clean their houses.

Because of my appearance (and sometimes because I go to decidedly non-touristic spots), I often am approached with fear and suspicion.

I should say, by all those who aren’t themselves outsiders.

On multiple occasions, Arabs have approached me in Arabic here.  Confirming my thought that the white people around me also thought I was Arab.

In fact, one night, after a particularly miserable AirBnB I had to escape (like the wolf in the forest I had to run away from- that’s another story), I ended up at an expensive hotel in Bastogne.  The Arab employee comes up and starts speaking to me in Arabic.  I said I was American…needless to say that despite my bravery and pride, this was not the moment to say I was Israeli.  Just this week, a Jew was attacked in Germany.  Sometimes it’s neo-Nazis, and a lot of the times it’s Muslim extremists.  Europe isn’t as safe as I thought it would be.

The Arab man, from Tunisia (a cool accent I hadn’t heard much before outside of Jewish Tunisian music), immediately directed me to a Halal restaurant.  Assuming I was Muslim.  Not about to say “I respect everyone but actually I’m a secular Godless Jew”, I simply went to the shwarma restaurant.

There I met a Kurdish man, a Syrian refugee, and a Libyan guy.  We had a nice chat- again, they all pretty much assumed I was Muslim (whatever, I don’t really care, and the food was great).  At the end of the meal, they gave me a free dessert, namoura.  It was delightful.  Also, the Kurdish man gave me PKK literature.  That was a first.  Despite having lived in the Middle East, I have never been so generously offered terrorist literature after dinner.  I smiled, accepted the brochure, took a few pictures, and threw it in the trash in my hotel.  The last thing I need is more airport scrutiny.  I’ll take the flight over the flier.

To return a moment to Luxembourg, something really stunned me.  I found a synagogue!  Obviously, like most of Europe, an empty abandoned one.

It was an unexpected, somewhat invasive surprise.  I was hoping to get a break from seeing the ruins of my people (see my blogs about Eastern Europe), but here we were again.  The 47 families of Ettelbruck turned into ash.  According to the sign, by “villains”.  As if this were a murder mystery and we didn’t know that Nazis and their Luxembourger collaborators killed them.

 

It’s a reminder that our blood lies spilled over this entire continent, over centuries.  It’s depressing, although I’m glad something of our civilization here remains, in spite of so much continuing hatred.

While I tried to engage with some Luxembourgers (interestingly, Yiddish proves quite useful in talking to them), they mostly shied away or even laughed at me when I said I was Jewish.

Meanwhile, the Cape Verdean women loved talking to me.  We shared the Portuguese language- a reminder that my tribes include the languages I speak.  The foreign workers in Luxembourg, almost to a fault, were welcoming and kind to me.  Perhaps seeing me, on some level, as one of their own.  Or at a minimum, to not look down on others in need of directions or a laugh.  Poor people, at the risk of sounding tokenizing, tend to be a lot warmer than rich people.  In almost every place I visit.  I suppose it doesn’t cost anything to be nice.  And when you don’t have much, hopefully you have a bit more empathy for others in need.

One of the reasons I came to Belgium was that there are living Jews.  Unlike the communities in Eastern Europe where the headstones outnumber the heads, Belgium still manages to keep Jewish life alive.  Though not with ease, in particular because of rising anti-Semitism from many directions, including (though not exclusively) its Arab immigrants.

I had the pleasure of visiting Moishe House Brussels.  For those who don’t know this international institution, it’s a pluralistic, secular-minded communal house that Jews live in around the world.  I used to go in Washington and it’s great to have a place to meet other young Jews.  Which is exactly what I needed after a long dry spell the past few weeks.

It was so nice to talk to people who understood me.  Not because I love every Jew any more than you could say you love everyone in any group.  But because in the deepest sense, all Jews share something.  Especially those who take the time to cultivate it.  We share 4,000+ years of history, of food, of persecution, of cohesiveness.  Of survival.  Of humor.  Things you can’t just understand by taking a course or going to a Bar Mitzvah.  It’s in our shared experience.

And what was also awesome was that a few non-Jews joined us.  An Italian-Belgian guy, even an Azerbaijani woman studying Israel for her PhD!  Even the Jews were diverse- Spanish, Argentinian, Croatian, Algerian, Belgian, and me- Israeli.

It was so nice to make some new friends and to do Shabbat.  Not to pray, but to eat together.  That’s what nourished me.  The conversation, the togetherness.  The warmth.

One person who I particularly connected with was named Ari.  I don’t have his whole story yet- we’re hopefully hanging out again tomorrow.  Besides a shared sense of humor, a love of animals, and a strong passion for secular Jewish culture, I was moved to hear that he grew up on his family’s Holocaust survival stories.  I know my family was murdered in the Holocaust, but since I never knew them and they were across an ocean, it’s more of a puzzle I’m piecing together.  And one thing I notice about European Jews is that, with the exception of some Sephardic Jews who made their way here after the war, almost all are descendants of Holocaust survivors.  Or are survivors themselves.

After Brussels, I visited Antwerp.  While the Brussels Jewish community is quite secular (which is cool, and somewhat hard to find outside Israel these days), the Antwerp community is hard core Hasidic.

For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you know that the last time I stepped foot in Israel, I was pretty pissed off at this community.  A community, while diverse, whose leaders use religion to prevent me from building a family.  From adopting, from using surrogacy, from getting married.  Because I’m gay and the Torah blah blah.  Utter bullshit.  Even though I spent a lot of time in Bnei Brak, Mea Shearim, Modi’in Illit, and other Haredi areas, I stopped going once I saw how hated I really was.

Something about this trip changed that.  Not because I think Haredi parties are any different now than a month ago.  But perhaps because living in the Diaspora makes it a little warmer between us.

When the government isn’t tied to religion, we don’t have to fight about it as much.  And when our non-Jewish neighbors are so fixated on persecuting us for no apparent reason, it acts as a glue to bring us together.  I can’t say I enjoy persecution, but it feels kind of nice.

As I imagined the ruined Hasidic communities of Romania and Hungary, it felt nice to see living Hasidic Jews.  Speaking Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Flemish- name a language.  It’s a Diaspora chulent.  And it tastes good.  Almost as good as *the* best cinnamon rugelach I have ever eaten in my life from Heimishe Bakery.  Go!

I had a nice chat with the owners and a Hasidic man.  I wished them a gut yontif- it was Simchat Torah that night.  The day of celebrating our book.  I’m not always a fan of this book, but it’s definitely ours.  And it felt a bit like home to be among my people.  Alive.  It put a smile on my face when the baker told me she was from Israel.  With a broad smile of her own.  In this little shop, I didn’t have to lie.

As I pondered what to do tomorrow, I thought about how I will meet with Forster.  I want to know his family’s story- if he feels up to sharing it.  And it got me thinking about my own.

I’ve often told people on this trip that I’m the first member of my family back in this part of the world since the 1880s.  When we were kicked out.

But it’s not true.

As I discovered tonight, Barney Marcus, my great uncle, died liberating Europe.

Barney Marcus was drafted at age 22 from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  With World War II raging, he enlisted in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division.

Barney was a proud Jew.  He served as the secretary of the Phi Lambda Nu fraternity- an all-Jewish fraternity started in Pennsylvania when non-Jews didn’t accept us in their ranks.

His frat brothers held a going away party for him before he was drafted.

Barney’s regiment wasn’t any old regiment.  It freed Europe from fascism in the Battle of Normandy.  You can read the incredible story here and see a rough map of his experience:

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His brothers in arms pushed the Germans out to clear the way for Allied Troops to free France, to free Belgium, to ultimately conquer Germany and put its demons to rest.

Unfortunately, Barney never made it to Germany.  He was gunned down by Germans and their sycophants in La Haye-du-Puits, France.  Not only that, he was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star posthumously for dying while trying to save a wounded friend.  His particular regiment was cited for “outstanding performance of duty” on July 7, 1944.  The very day he died.  Fighting his way through “artillery and mortar fire and across dense mine fields”.  I’m not bashful at all to say that his regiment took German soldiers prisoner- he came to Europe a soldier and died a victor.  An American, a Jew, a freedom fighter, and a Nazi crusher.

Barney’s regiment went on to liberate eastern France, close to the border with Luxembourg, then conquered Germany near Cologne, and ultimately ended up managing post-war chaos in Sudetenland, where German Nazi aggression started this war.  Including some displaced persons camps, perhaps with Jews in them.

I’ve noticed in my travels here that a lot of Western Europeans have forgotten.  A cab driver, when I asked him about the local history in the Ardennes, said the young people don’t want to learn it anymore.  Maybe some do, but when I hear anti-American sentiment or prejudices in this part of the world, it rubs me raw when I know that my family shed blood to keep here free.

It’s not easy to be a part of my family- I’m not really a part of it anymore, and that’s better for me.  Even though it comes at tremendous cost.

What I can say is that I wish I had known my great uncle, Barney Marcus.  Because of all the relatives I’ve heard of, he sounds like someone pretty cool.  Someone proud of his Jewishness, a brave American, someone who sacrificed his very future to save another life.  Someone I am proud to call my own, even when I can’t do so for the ones I know.

Europe- Jewish and non-Jewish- you’re welcome.  Barney and I have sacrificed for you to exist.  Like the library I visited today in Leuven, rebuilt twice by the Americans for the people of Belgium.

Jews here have a longer historical memory- though I can’t pretend I haven’t experienced some anti-Americanism from them too (or perhaps playful jealousy fed by delusional interpretations of Hollywood as reality).  But the non-Jews here, although there are some truly admirable ones like Alexis who actually lives in a Moishe House and worked for Jewish radio, they have forgotten.

They have forgotten that Belgium (not to mention France) exists because of the United States- twice.  That Jewish soldiers liberated their countries even as not a small number of their citizens helped deport our Jewish relatives.

Every city on this continent has a “Jew Street”, abandoned synagogue, or largely empty Jewish quarter.  And I’m tired of hearing people say they know nothing about it.

Or in the case of Germans I met, that I should visit Chemnitz, the site of recent neo-Nazi rallies, to realize that the people really are great and they’re just protest voters.

Enough.  Europe- anti-Semitism is your problem, not the Jewish people’s.  Just like racism is not black people’s responsibility to resolve.

I’m willing to pitch in and help educate- and even to learn from you.  Which is why I’m starting a new project, Nuance Israel, to bring together Jews and non-Jews, in Israel and abroad, to learn together.  To build connections between kind, open-minded people.  To help European non-Jews understand their Jewish neighbors- and Israelis.  For Israelis to understand their roots- and the importance of diversity.  For people across cultures to build a new tribe- a mindset of openness, tolerance, and moderation.  Join me.

In the end, I’m done hiding who I am.  Yes, I’m from Washington, D.C., but that’s not where I live now.  I’m Israeli.  And American.  And Jewish.  And gay.  And empathetic.  And a lot of things.  And I’m not a liar.

If you- whether you’re Moroccan or Belgian or whatever- can’t handle that, then too bad.  My family is part of the reason this continent isn’t called Germany.  And I’m tired of your worn-out excuses for why America or Israel are so terrible.

Your social safety net was set up by the Marshall Plan and your economies thrive in part because American tax dollars provide most of your defense.

I’m not suggesting America (or Israel) is perfect- it’s not.  We’re not a shining beacon of light for the rest of the world to emulate- we’re just another country.  But one that does some good.  And has things to learn from you too.

I thought about making a spontaneous trip to La Haye-du-Puits tomorrow to see where my uncle sacrificed himself for freedom.  For Europe, for its Jews, for tomorrow.  On some level, for me.  Thank you, Barney.  I can’t say I’m particularly proud of my family, but today you gave me a little ray of hope- a connection to a person I’m proud to call my own.

Maybe one day I’ll visit- I’ve long been searching for specific places in Europe my family stepped foot on.  I have some I might visit one day, but I don’t know that I’ve reached them yet.

What I do know is tomorrow I’m hanging with Ari.  A living Jew.  A new friend.  Someone whose own destiny is tied up with my own.

Because even though we’ve barely met, I know we’re both survivors.  That when his family, wherever they were, were resisting Nazi fascism and anti-Semitism, holding on for dear life in the face of deep inhumanity.  My great uncle was working to set them free.  Because wherever we are, we don’t give up.

Which is why in the face of the deep inhumanity I’ve faced, especially from within my family, I choose life.  Am yisrael chai, the people Israel lives.

And if you don’t like it, I’m afraid you’ll never succeed in extinguishing our flame.  It burns as bright as the bombs my great uncle dashed between to set your country free.