My New Minority Identity: American

When I decided to make Aliyah and come live in Israel, one of my main reasons was to live with my people- the Jewish people.  As a minority in the U.S., I’ve been subject to a great deal of antisemitism throughout my life and while there are some beautiful things about being a minority, it can also be extremely hard.  I often felt, even in good circumstances with good people, like I had to explain who I was and what I believed in.  Having talked to other minorities in the U.S.- Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, etc.- I know that my struggles were shared by many people.

Part of the reason I came to Israel was to not be a minority anymore.  To live in a Jewish-majority state and in Tel Aviv, where the LGBT community is so numerous that even if it’s not a majority of the city, it’s a very high percentage.  Where my identities would be validated.

This has been true for these identities in many ways.  I am constantly surrounded by hot Jewish men who I glance at- and often glance back!  I am surrounded by street signs with the names of Jewish leaders on them and I hear my favorite Israeli music blasting out of the windows of cars passing by.  In many ways, I couldn’t ask for a more validating space to live in.

At the same time, I’ve discovered I have a new minority identity that I didn’t fully expect when I moved here: American.  It never seemed particularly noteworthy or clear to me in the U.S. that, even as a double minority, I was also part of the majority as an American.  Never has that been more clear to me than in Israel.

The other day, I was talking to a gay guy who noticed all my pictures on Facebook of me going around Israel.  He knew I was an American oleh chadash (new immigrant).  He told me I looked like a “tourist” and laughed.  I told him I didn’t find it funny- that there are many other ways I could’ve visited Israel, but I made a very tough decision to uproot my life and live here as a citizen.  He told me “not to take it that way” and thought it was funny how I was “such a new immigrant”.

Last night, I was at a board games night and this guy told me that in English, “peaches” means “boobs”.  I told him I was American and that’s not a thing.  He told me he was in front of the White House two weeks ago yelling at Trump so he “emmmm, reeeeeally knowwwwz Eeeeenglish fluent”.  Just to clarify this for everyone- I had an Israeli correct me on my English- after I told him I was American.

I was sitting in a cafe with a new friend talking about Israelis’ favorite complaint about Americans- that we were too “PC”.  I asked him to explain exactly what he meant by that.  The friend, a well-intentioned and left-wing guy, told me “you guys have this whole debate about using the word n*gger and I don’t understand it”.  I proceeded to summarize the 400 year history of this racist term after which, to his credit, he finally admitted there are legitimate reasons why people don’t like this word.

Today, however, may just take the cake.  I was at a gay Torah study and this older man, seemingly out of nowhere, starts telling the group how all the “kushim” (an Israeli word somewhere between “colored” and “n*gger”) in the U.S. are homophobic bigots even though gay people always supported them.  My blood pressure shot sky high.  When I wanted to respond, the young rabbi in the room told me I could do so in “one sentence”.  I said “sorry I’m going to take a few”.  I tried to explain that not only is this a gross overgeneralization and racist, but that there are a ton of LGBT black people too and “black” and “gay” aren’t mutually exclusive categories.  I also mentioned that the NAACP, among other groups, actively supported the LGBT community’s fight for marriage rights.  Instead of any sort of acknowledgement of my much needed nuance, I was shouted down by younger participants who told me, the only American in the room, that black people in my country are homophobes.  Because I suppose when watching rap videos on YouTube is your only reference point for actual African Americans, you’ll come to such thoughtful conclusions.

I could channel my legitimate anger, sadness, hurt, and loneliness into a bunch of sweeping generalizations about Israelis, but then I’d be just like people who stereotype me and my (other) country.  Instead, I’ll say this: some Israelis are raging racist anti-American bigots.  Others are open-minded, eager to learn, and sweet.  And many fall somewhere in the middle.  People, in the end, are people.  You can find good and bad ones (and mediocre ones) any and everywhere.  It takes some filtering, but I hope I get to the point where I’ve built a really solid social circle here that validates all my identities: gay, Jewish, Reform, progressive, and yes, American.

To Israelis’ credit, even if their main point of reference about American culture is a trip to New York, Lady Gaga, and Game of Thrones, at least many are trying to learn about my other culture.  Most Americans know much less about Israel than Israelis know about America.  That being said, I’d encourage Israeli to dig a little deeper about my country.  It’s one thing to know the pop culture of another place and quite another to understand its social intricacies.  Ask me questions, dive in- don’t be afraid.  I’m open to talk, just like I was with my friend who didn’t understand the word n*gger and was open to listening to me.  That’s dialogue.  I’m eager to learn about you and eager to share about me.

In the end, I came to this country to be changed- to grow, to experience, to live in a new part of the world that is deeply connected to my identity.  I thank the Israelis who are making this journey possible.  At the same time, I am an oleh chutzpani – an outspoken new immigrant.  I didn’t just come to be changed- I came to change.  There are things about this society that must evolve, and that includes the way it treats its minorities- Arabs, Druze, Russians, French, and yes, Americans.

You can count on me to raise my American-Israeli voice.  I’m just getting started.

Israeli folk dancing on the beach

Yes, you read that right.  Tonight, I spent 4 hours Israeli dancing on the beach.  Israeli dancing consists of line, circle, and couples dances that are rooted in traditional Jewish dancing and fused with modern songs and steps.  Here’s an example.

I’ve been dancing since I was 14 years old, when I would go to the Israeli dancing club in a small windowless room at my high school during lunch.  It was so fun that my friends suggested I start going to a weekly session in Rockville, MD, so I did!  I danced with the Israeli dance troupe at my college, called Magniv, and even choreographed for them.  After a few year break from dancing, I reconnected with the community last year in DC and have been going weekly ever since.

My first week in Israel was so chaotic, I didn’t get a chance to dance.  But this week, I made sure to go.  It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.  It’s hard to describe to you what it feels like to dance to the songs of your people on the beach as you watch the sun set over the Mediterranean.  There was such an energy that the fact that I was sweating every ounce of liquid out of me didn’t matter.  I met some really nice people- it was so welcoming and people I literally just met were grabbing me to dance circles and couples dances with them.  And what really struck me was how young everyone is.  I’d say 50% of the dancers were under 35, something that will astonish my American friends who dance.  It was so nice to hear many songs I knew- connecting my American Jewish life to my new Israeli life.  We Jews really are an international club!

Beyond that, a few things stood out to me and moved me.  One, dozens and dozens of people- tourists, Israelis, young, and old- gathered around us and just watched.  Some would make their own goofy dance moves.  Others took video clips.  And most just simply watched and enjoyed.  I’ve never felt so appreciated and validated in my life.  Other than one very special instance where a Catalan TV crew filmed my Israeli dance session in Maryland (that video will come out in January- I’ll keep you posted), I’ve never felt like this very treasured activity or my Judaism in general was worthy of a spectacle.  And I don’t use the word spectacle in a negative way- I mean that I felt highly appreciated.  It made it even more special.  In addition, it gave me great naches (pride) to see that the Municipality of Tel Aviv sponsors the dancing.  Therefore, it is 100% free of cost.  This is the benefit of being in a place where your passions, your traditions, and your culture are actively supported.  Not tolerated, not enjoyed, not accepted (those are all good too though!)- but financially supported by the government.  You’d be hard-pressed to find another place in the world where the government funds Israeli dancing.

For all the issues that surround the State of Israel, Zionism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and what have you (and I’m not denying those issues exist), there’s one simple fact: this is a place where my faith and culture is valued in a way that nowhere else can truly replicate.  I wish that for all peoples- it’s an incredible feeling that we all deserve.

I’d like to give a major shout-out to my Israeli dancing family in DC.  Next time you find yourself in Israel, which I hope is soon, please please please let me take you dancing.  It will be a memory you never forget.

Listening to bluegrass in Tel Aviv

I had a rough time sleeping last night.  Lots of pent-up emotions that I’ve felt over the past week came pouring out.  It has been really hard- meeting dozens of new people, escaping an abusive AirBnB host, finding new housing (then finding housing after that housing), hours of bureaucracy, jet lag, adjusting to the heat, and so much more.

There have of course been amazing and life-changing moments as well.  Even those have the potential to stress you out as much as you enjoy them.  When even the street art in Tel Aviv plays on biblical motifs, it is hard to escape Judaism even in Israel’s most secular city.  It’s part of what makes it so cool to be here.

And so hard.  In America, if I wanted to engage my Jewish identity, I could prepare myself.  I could go to a synagogue or a Jewish Community Center, to Moishe House or a friend’s Shabbat dinner- and I could tap into my Jewishness.  I knew what to expect and how to behave, even if I had never met the people.  Because it was my American Jewish culture.  And as soon as I stepped outside the event, I was back in American non-Jewish society.  Sometimes that made me sad, as I felt I needed to check part of my self at the door.  And sometimes it was refreshing as I could recharge myself in the broader society.

Here, everything is Jewish.  When I say everything, I’m not exaggerating.  Israelis might not see it this way.  For me, as an American-Israeli, it feels that way.  All the signs are in Hebrew.  For instance, next to a parking garage, there’s a sign that says “Boachem Leshalom” which means “come in peace”.  To a religious American Jew, however, this reads differently.  It’s the beginning of a famous verse of the prayer Shalom Aleychem, something we sing on Shabbat.  Next to a parking garage!!!  I can’t think of an equivalent in the U.S. but perhaps it’d be like seeing “He is Risen” on an elevator.

It’s awesome and totally exhausting.  I’m not used to having Judaism everywhere in my life.  And such heavy duty politics mixed into casual conversations (and this is coming from someone who grew up in Washington, D.C.).

Sometimes, you just need a break from it all.  This morning, I put on some bluegrass music from one of my favorite bands that I saw in Charlottesville, VA years ago.  Something you will never, ever hear in Israel.  Something thoroughly American and beautiful.  I called an American-Israeli friend and made plans to talk about light, apolitical, non-religious things.  I don’t know- football, college stories, old flames, who knows!  The point is nothing serious!

As I sat down to eat breakfast (boy am I missing my shredded wheat, trying to find some in Israel), I went to Google Advanced Image Search and googled “pictures of hamburgers”.  And I felt a wave of relief and comfort come over me as I scrolled through picture after picture of hamburgers, cheeseburgers, bacon burgers, you name it.  Some of which I don’t eat.  And to be honest, I didn’t really eat hamburgers much in the U.S.

But it just felt like home.  Where I don’t have to extend myself, to explain myself, to go into the depths of politics and religion, where I could just be.  I felt out of place often in America.  And I also miss it.  It took moving to Israel to make me feel truly American.

What’s this blog all about?

 

One week ago to the day, on July 4th, 2017, I made one of the boldest decisions of my life: to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen.  In Hebrew, this process is called “aliyah”.  Every Jew (even if someone is a quarter Jewish) has the right to this opportunity enshrined in the Israeli “Law of Return”.  As long as you go through the (heavily bureaucratic) process and your ducks are in a row, you are free to make aliyah.  No matter what country you’re from, whether you’re Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or not religious at all.  Actually, even if you profess another faith like Christianity but have 1/4 Jewish roots.  We’ll go into the Law of Return another day in more depth, but for now let’s just say this is truly a unique process.  Immigrating to the United States this is not.  Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike tend to view this not as immigration so much as a homecoming.

When I told my friends I was making aliyah, I got a wide spectrum of reactions.  I heard such varied responses as “congrats!  That’s awesome, good luck!”, which was probably my favorite.  I inevitably heard “are you going there to help Palestinians?” (I love all people, including Palestinians, but this is a bit like asking someone moving to China if they’re going to help Tibetans- probably a worthy cause, but a kind of strange initial reaction to someone moving to another country).  I got asked whether I was concerned about Israeli politics (indeed, a veritable mess, but hardly worse than the batshit bonanza going on in the United States right now).  I was asked about the “demographic threat” (their words, not mine- and asked by a left-wing non-Jew), what I would do for a living, would I feel safe, where would I live, do I have family there, etc. etc.  People were stunned, excited, thrilled, anxious, sad, happy- you name it.

One thing I wanted to make sure to do was to make the process my own.  Everyone had their own reaction to my moving, and in the end, my friends, even with their sometimes frustrating questions, stood behind me and supported me.  But I wanted to make sure the process was mine first and foremost.

One of the reasons I made aliyah was to be with my people.  This is probably first and foremost why I came to Israel.  Having experienced a lifetime of antisemitism and being a minority, I wanted a place where I could be my true authentic self.  A place where I didn’t have to constantly explain or justify my culture, my holidays, my tradition, my mannerisms.  It’s not that all Americans are bigots- as Donald Trump would say “and some, I assume, are good people“.  There’s a lot to like about America- its diversity, its fluidity, its grassroots activism, and of course its delicious ethnic food.  In the end, I will always be American.  But my people have been Jewish a lot longer than being American.  The roots of my culture go back literally thousands of years.  My ancestors have been in the U.S. for about 100-130 years maximum.  It has clearly had an influence, but first and foremost, I’m a Jew.  Why is that?  Because the holidays I enjoy the most are the Jewish ones.  Because I’ll always choose kugel over a hamburger.  Because I feel more at home in a synagogue than a boy scouts den, a church, or a Rotary Club.  Because I talk with my hands and because “mazel tov” slips off the tongue more easily than “congratulations”.

It’s not that I dislike all things American, it’s just that I never really fully felt at home.  When I had to take unpaid leave from a progressive Latino non-profit to observe Rosh Hashanah.  When I was thrown out of a Lyft for being a gay Jew.  When I was berated by a classmate in high school for being a “rich Jew” because I wore a Fossil watch.  When I was told by another high school classmate that she couldn’t believe I was Jewish because I wasn’t a “loudmouth” like the other ones.  When a guy broke up with me because I wouldn’t eat pork.  When a woman I met at a happy hour in DC sent me David Duke videos on Facebook.

Thank God my friends aren’t like that, but this has also been my reality as an American Jew- I could literally write blog upon blog of similar experiences.  When you’re 2% of the population, it can be really hard to feel safe, appreciated, and respected.  Which is why perhaps I’ve always felt close to other minorities.

Hence why I’m here now.  I also came to Israel to find a Jewish partner (very hard to do so in the U.S.- 5% of 2%!), to travel Europe and the Mediterranean, to speak a bunch of languages, to never deal with Winter again, and so much more.

19693560_10101465322224342_6424622048240295837_o.jpeg

So back to the point- I wanted to make this process my own.  Many people when they make aliyah take a Hebrew name.  Mine is Matah מטע, which means “orchard” or “plantation” (without the creepy American slave connotation).  I could’ve taken a more typical Israeli name like Matan, Mati, Matityahu- all of which come from the same root as Matt (which is in itself a Hebrew name).  But I wanted something more special.  Matah sounds like Matt but comes from a different root.  It is a biblical word but is an extremely modern sounding name.  It is truly unique, just like me 🙂

When talking to an Israeli friend about my name, I explained that I liked the idea of trees bearing fruit, just like I hope to do when I’m here- to bloom and grow.  She said that was interesting because her first impression was that I was using the name to indicate I was setting down roots.  I loved it.  The truth is, I’m doing both.  I hope to set down my roots so I can bear fruit- to feel a sense of belonging and stability so I can contribute to society and flourish.

That is what this blog is about- it is about the journey of an American Jew to his ancestral homeland to build a new life.  It’s also about maintaining connections with the life he left behind- because I’m not just an Israeli, I’m an American-Israeli.  It’s about exploring the myriad benefits that life in Israel has to offer- and the challenges.

Join me on my journey as I plant my roots to bear new fruit.

19702981_10101465459439362_1814913696015792447_o