In search of a job

I’ve written before about the many challenges of making aliyah, of immigrating to Israel.  There are mammoth cultural differences, the hardest apartment search of my life, the air raid sirens (a false alarm, and then a real one), the LGBT Arab-Israeli refugee Jew-on-Jew political conflicts, and for me, healing from 30 years of abuse.  I’ve managed to overcome all of these obstacles while moving here alone at the age of 31- not a small task.  One that I’m proud to have accomplished and it has changed me as a person and made me realize my true strength.

There’s another challenge I didn’t have to face when I first arrived here but now seems rather daunting: finding a career.

I arrived here with fluent Hebrew (and Arabic and Yiddish) – something that facilitated my social relationships, my integration, my exploration of the country.  Something most olim don’t have- but that I invested in learning on my own initiative since I was 13.

This should also help finding a job, but I have to tell you the process is daunting even knowing the national language.  I was fortunate enough to arrive to Israel with a job- I’ve been doing digital marketing and public relations freelancing from home for 5 years.  And for my first year here, that worked quite well.  Due to the time difference between America and Israel, the fact that I was being paid in dollars, and the flexibility of my business, I was able to travel during the day and work at night.  Something that helped me build this very blog.

I put a lot of effort into building that business.  I got a graduate degree from Georgetown University in communications, something that to this day means I owe the U.S. government $40,000 in student loans.  I found clients, I networked, I presented at various conferences and built a reputation.

The problem is that that work is becoming harder for me to find at the moment.  Perhaps it’s due to me living halfway across the world- it’s harder to network and find new clients.  It’s also cyclical- there tends to be more work leading up to elections.  Now that the election is over, there seems to be a lull.  I’m still open to doing the work, but part of the risk you take on as a freelancer is that you have to find your own clients.  And I’ve been quite adept at it, but I think my geographical distance and the circumstances are making it harder now.  It’s hard to find a new client when your only connection is via LinkedIn or email.  I don’t live in America now, it’s hard to make those personal connections so crucial to getting your foot in the door.

So I find myself applying for jobs here.  It’d mean giving some of the flexibility I’ve enjoyed as a freelancer (or if projects come through, I could continue doing them on the side).  But it’d come with the security of a paycheck.  Something I need after some fulfilling travels that have left me with a great understanding of self (and some great blog posts) and unfortunately, a smaller bank account.

Unlike most folks, there is no family home to retreat to, eat ice cream, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and recuperate.  Send out resumes and make an important pit stop at home to recover and change direction.  If I were to do such a thing, it’d be to subject myself to living with people who sexually assaulted me my entire childhood.  And I moved halfway around the world precisely to heal from such abusive behavior, not to find myself dependent on the people who caused the pain in the first place.  My story, as much as it is about Israel and Judaism, is also one of being a survivor.  Never underestimate the challenges one faces when cutting off abusive family- it leaves you utterly alone in ways few people manage to understand.  It is to live trying to seek out emotional support and encouragement you never received, understanding it will never truly be the same as the love you’re supposed to get from your family.  It is giving up on their economic support for the sake of having a life.  Of having freedom.  It’s a decision I never regret.  It has made my life infinitely richer and healthier.  And it comes with pain and challenges that in areas that most people take for granted.

So I find myself in Israel hopping from friend’s house to hostel to who knows what.  I left my apartment before my recent travels so that I could afford to do it.  A smart choice (plus my landlord wouldn’t let me sublet).  Also, my old neighborhood was quite rough, the poorest part of Tel Aviv, so I wouldn’t want to move back there anyways, as interesting and life-changing an experience as it was.

All the while, I’m applying to jobs and networking.  With non-profits that support olim like me.  Cold calling, reaching out on LinkedIn, friends of friends of friends.  I’ve expanded my career search- everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, libraries, archives, museums, the tourist industry, marketing, politics, hi-tech, higher education, language teaching.  And I wouldn’t even limit myself to the ones I’ve mentioned (I’ve probably forgotten a few that I’ve applied to).

I’m ready and willing to use my 8 languages, my travel knowledge, my desire to support Israel and the Jewish people, my passion for research and learning, my teaching experience- all of it.  Just so I could build a fulfilling career and rebuild my bank account in the only country I really feel is home.

And it’s proving quite tough.  I’ve met with headhunters who say I have an amazing resume.  I worked for the Obama campaign in 2008, and then later in the Obama Administration.  I have 10 years experience working in marketing, community outreach, media relations, blogging, and social media.  Most of that time either in the non-profit sector or government, or with public relations firms consulting for them.  I have an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master’s degree from Georgetown, schools that any American knows are pretty great institutions.

The problem is jobs in Israel seem to be mostly about who you know.  In a country where, much to my delight, there is a strong sense of community, this can make it quite hard for a newcomer to break in.  I’ve met many people here who are still best friends with their crew…from kindergarten.  That’s not an exaggeration.  People serve together in the military- a difficult experience but one which brings lifelong connections, and jobs.  Sabras have family here, and they look out for each other.  It’s part of the reason the government won’t recognize French and Russian academic qualifications.  It’d put these highly educated immigrants in their appropriate fields, while competing against native-born Israelis in those same industries.  Which is why protektzia, or “connections”, reigns supreme.  It’s like having legacy at an Ivy League school- it protects insiders from generation after generation.  And it leaves quite a number of Russian physicists and French lawyers working as grocery store clerks or in late-night telemarketing.

Just to give you a full sense of the picture, understand that the cost of living in Israel is also extremely high.  Tel Aviv was recently rated the world’s 9th most expensive city.  Even if you don’t live in the city proper, the cost of housing, groceries, and other goods is disproportionately high to people’s salaries.  We’re hardly the only country to confront a wealth gap- Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 34%.  Capital around the world is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people– while most struggle.  The problem is Israel’s cost of living index is higher than all other developed countries except for ultra-wealthy Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.  So that while Geneva is more expensive than Tel Aviv, its residents earn more than twice as much as the average Tel Avivi, with 48% more purchasing power, as you can see in the graphics below from Numbeo.com:

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The hefty cost of living and minuscule salaries (especially in any industry outside of the famed Israeli high tech scene), is what drove 500,000 Israelis to the streets in the largest social protest in the country’s history.

Allow me to quantify this for you.  Recently, I was in the process of interviewing for a non-profit job at a well-respected NGO.  Knowing my full qualifications (and despite trying to negotiate, as a good Israeli does), the full-time job’s salary was fixed at 7,000 shekels a month- before tax obligations.  In Tel Aviv.  That’s $1,870 a month.  When I last lived in Tel Aviv, in the poorest neighborhood where literally prostitutes walked the streets, I paid 3,600 shekels a month for a one bedroom apartment.  About 3.7 shekels per dollar, so about a thousand bucks.  For Tel Aviv, this is an absolute steal.  I’ve seen one bedroom apartments advertised for 4,000-7,000 shekels- and above.   You could end up living with two roommates in the city center and still pay 3,000 shekels.  Something I’d rather not do at my age.  Or you could live further outside the city and perhaps save some money on rent, but then spend your money commuting and watch your social life shrink.  In a country where public transit doesn’t run from Friday night to Saturday night and Sunday is a working day, your weekend (i.e. the time you have to see friends) takes on new importance.  Where you live is where you’ll socialize, so unless you’re willing to buy a car (the car tax here is around 100%- 5 times higher than Europe), you need to live near your friends.  And let’s just say the young gay Reform Jews (and people who befriend them) aren’t usually living in the sticks where the housing is cheaper, like in most countries.  While new immigrants do get some breaks on the financial challenges, you start to see just how difficult it is to make a living here.

So to return to the calculations, let’s say I was able to find a similarly priced apartment to my last one.  That would leave $870 a month- to furnish the apartment, pay municipal property taxes, pay for your cell phone, pay for food, pay for transportation, pay for medical expenses, pay for life.  Oh yeah, and presumably have fun and maybe save a buck or two.  And that doesn’t include paying income taxes.  It’s worth noting the tax burden in Israel is significant.  There’s a debate about just how high, but this site rates it as one of the 15 highest in the world.  Higher than the U.S.  While the tremendous socialized healthcare system defers some tremendous costs I had to bear in the U.S., it does become a question of just what exactly is the trade off here.  And whether it’s worth it.

After this interview process and despite most of my background being in cause-based non-profit work, I immediately expanded my scope to the for-profit sector.  The salaries are higher.  I’ve met with headhunters and am applying diligently.  The higher salaries still pale in comparison with the States, especially as an oleh.  Someone with my background might be expected to find a job in the for-profit sector for somewhere around 10,000-15,000 shekels a month.  With 10 years experience, fluent Hebrew, native English, and a Master’s degree.  At the very high end, that comes out to $48,084 a year- pre-tax.  Consider that I’m 32 years old, would like to start a family, and that the average cost of an Israeli home is $415,000.  In Tel Aviv, it’s $582,442.  The average.  If you can manage to find it and beat out the sabras waiting in line with decades of family connections.  The latest statistics resulted in the following headline: “Buying a Home Will Cost an Average Israeli 146 Monthly Salaries“.  Chew on that for a while.  As difficult as my situation is, it’s hard to even comprehend how Israelis living in or near poverty make it work here.  A lot of them, unfortunately, don’t.

So the reality is this: in my own country, I feel I’m a wandering Jew.  Going from place to place, trying to find affordable AirBnBs and sofas to crash on as I fire away resumes.  A process that can take some time in any country, so I remind myself to put my head down, network, and apply apply apply.  And I’m incredibly grateful to my friends who are helping me along the way.  My friend Rotem who let me crash at her apartment for a week and a half while she was abroad.  The wonderful cashier at the market who, when his credit card machine wasn’t working, just let me bring him the money two days later.  And so many others.  The level of trust here can be truly heart-warming.

Nobody said immigrating would be easy, and I’m grateful I even have a country to move to.  It’s not easy to be a Jew anywhere now, as the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh showed- and as the rapidly increasing anti-Semitic violence in Europe reminds us.  There are good reasons Israel exists and why people like me come here despite all the challenges.  It’s a country with a lot of warmth, a spirit of survival, a generosity, a frankness that is refreshing.  Landscapes that totally melt the heart.  And more possibilities of finding a Jewish partner than anywhere else in the world.

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The problem becomes when the great things about this country start to obscure your other life goals.  Building a family, financial stability, and feeling fulfilled in your career.  Olim here often have to take jobs unrelated to their careers and are limited in our upward mobility by the Israeli “good ol boys” network.  I understand every change requires sacrifice, but I want to like what I do.  And I’m not fortunate enough to have parents to buy me a home.  Which is the main reason Israelis manage to get one in the first place- and why many olim don’t experience economic advancement here.

In the meantime, my search continues.  I believe in the idea of Israel and I like a lot about life here, which is why frankly I blog about it all the time.  Haters gonna hate, but the Jewish people deserve a homeland and I’ll defend that idea till the day I die.  The sometimes boorish economic policies of our government or the monopolies that stand in the way of our progress are in no way a critique of our right to be here.  Indeed, it is Israeli workers who bear the brunt of the economic inequality here- and that doesn’t make us any less Israeli.  It makes us more.  Sadly, these are problems many other workers face around the world.  That we much find solution for.  So please don’t consider this post an opportunity to hate Israel, because it’s not.  What I’m sharing is a critique of how we should make this place better so people like me can succeed here.  A hope that we can build a vision for how we want to live here with fairness and opportunity.

I’m open to a lot of different careers and I want to feel fulfilled in what I do, even if it’s different than my first choice or second choice or even third choice.  If you know of great opportunities, reach out to me, I’d be happy to chat and appreciate you keeping your eyes peeled.

The greatest irony of my aliyah process is that I discovered my passion is Israel, but that its very soil may be too poor for my roots to dig in.  To establish themselves, to build a solid foundation, to grow and flourish.

What I won’t accept is the situation my friend found himself in recently.  A couple years older than me, a fellow American oleh, he interviewed at an English tutoring company.  Obviously, it’s his native language so he’s got a pretty good handle on it.  The salary: 30 shekels an hour.  8 bucks.  And the worst part about this story is he didn’t even get the job.  As he bravely tries to raise a family in the land of his ancestors and pursue his dreams.

Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah.  The famous Zionist saying suggests that if we will it, it is not a dream.  I agree.  The dream becomes a hope, a goal, an aspiration, something you wish to achieve.  It’s a hope I’ve pursued since I was 13 years old learning Hebrew in the house of an Israeli woman in Washington.  The problem is that hope sometimes clashes with harsh reality.  With circumstances out of your control.

Do you continue to tell yourself that anything is possible?  Or do you look at your diminishing bank account, the salaries, the limited opportunities for advancement, and the $140,000 it costs to have a child here as a gay man and think:

My heart is in the east, but my wallet- and future- may be elsewhere.

Goodbye America, for now

It’s appropriate that I write this blog on the eve of America’s midterm elections.  As my country prepares to pivot, so do I.  Tomorrow, I board a flight to say goodbye.  For now?

I find myself feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety.  Excitement because I think Democrats will take back the House of Representatives.  And if it’s truly a blockbuster night, even the Senate.  I think Donald Trump needs a wake-up call that he can’t govern this country alone.

Anxiety because I worry about the future of the Democratic Party and what it means for this nation.  The extremes of the Democratic Party, as best represented in the Trump-like antics of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   Someone who on the surface level, I agree with 80% of the time.  But who takes her positions- and most importantly her rhetoric- to extremes.

Ms. Cortez, almost certainly to win her election tomorrow, supports a variety of policies that are fairly standard in Israel and Western Europe.  Socialized medicine, environmental protections, affordable higher education, and civil liberties for LGBT people.

The problem is she takes public policy and turns it into a bombastic crusade in which anyone who disagrees with her is the enemy.  And in which purity Trumps all.

Ms. Cortez compared the threat of climate change to that of Nazi Germany.  She supports impeaching Donald Trump without considering the consequences to her party or the national discourse.  Or the potential counter-reaction of angry armed Americans who will doubtless double down on hunting down minorities.

She criticized Israel for having “massacred” innocent Palestinians in Gaza- without showing any understanding of the fact that many of them were armed Hamas members.  And that while all killing is a travesty and some of the deaths may have been avoidable, it’s not so simple here.  I’d like to see how she’d react as an 18-year-old soldier when people volley rockets and flaming kites at you and your family’s neighborhoods.

The most audacious and Trump-like aspect of this accusation is that Ms. Cortez’s response to criticism was: “I am not the expert…on this issue”.  A bizarre and deeply narcissistic approach to politics.  You are a future lawmaker- if you’re not an expert on an issue, you probably shouldn’t make such wild and factually incorrect claims.  You sound a lot like our Tweeter-in-Chief.  Shooting from the lip.

Lest you think this is an isolated incident, I found the most shocking flier walking around Berkeley.  Although if you’re from the area, you won’t be surprised.

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At face value, I agree with some of the flier.  I would like to see more black women in politics.  Minorities are perpetually underrepresented and it changes the discourse to have different people in the room making decisions.

On the other hand, this is no better than Donald Trump’s extremist rhetoric.  “Abolish every jail”.  “Black radical revolution”.  “Justice for PALESTINE”- and the word Palestine written in Arabic.  “Black ballot”.

It’s not that each of these words on their own are necessarily bad.  I advocate for Palestinian human rights.  I want black empowerment.  I think the prison industrial complex needs reform.

But the way it’s presented is so fundamentalist.  It’s a “with-me-or-against-me” rhetoric that is dangerous in and of itself.  It is imbued with a fanaticism, a sense of infallibility reminiscent of a Puritan more than a public policy debate.

I don’t believe in abolishing every jail.  Some people are dangerous and need to be behind bars.  Not everyone can be rehabilitated and I want want serial killers and rapists off my streets.  I also don’t think that any ballot should be all about one group.  I don’t vote a “Jewish ballot” or a “gay ballot”- it’s exclusionary it is very phrasing.  And the Palestine piece- it’s telling that there wasn’t a call for peace, nor was there a condemnation of anti-Semitism.  Let alone an acknowledgment that Israel, that the Jewish people are entitled to empowerment too.  Especially days after the worst anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.  I have never seen an attack so clearly demonstrate the need for a State of Israel or for solidarity with our people.  Yet where are the grandiose words, the empathy for us?

We’re not on the agenda for the far left- and I feel it.  I see poster after poster here in California.  “Hate has no place here”.  “Against hate”.  “Immigrants, Muslims, LGBTs are welcome here”.  But not on one single sign have I seen the word “Jew”.  Out of hundreds I saw, one sign had “you are welcome here” written in Hebrew- a reminder that some people care.  But if I’m honest, I leave California with a deep sense of disappointment and a feeling that most of the left doesn’t feel we are worthy of their solidarity.  I am inspired by the thousands of Jews and non-Jews who came together to #ShowUpForShabbat, but I have yet to see progressive activists put us on their agenda.  We are worthy of our own discussion- not just in terms of Trump, not just in terms of gun control, not just in terms of hate crimes.  All of these are valid issues and related- but they are not the same.  This was an anti-Semitic attack during a period of rising anti-Semitism around the world.  And I expect progressive activists to step outside their comfort zone and learn about us on our own merits- not just when it’s convenient for their ideological agenda.  If the attack makes them reconsider their reflexive support for Palestinians over Israel (as if one should have to choose), then I’m glad it makes them uncomfortable.  Because if you’re upset about Pittsburgh, imagine what Moroccan Jews and Polish Jews feel like about thousands of Pittsburghs and having no home left to go to.  That’s why Israel exists- and you need to face the fact that your society is failing to protect us.  The extremes on both sides.  Which is why a wise Jew will never give up on the state that is our only insurance policy.

Black-and-white thinking results in aggression and a breakdown in communication.  A young Jewish student at Florida State threw chocolate milk at Republican volunteers while invoking the Pittsburgh massacre.  I share her frustration at the rise of the far right and its racist and anti-Semitic elements.  I also will offer some humility in saying its different analyzing this from afar than living here.  I’m American, but I am not here most of the year and it’s different to physically be here.  I think that as a (somewhat) outside observer, I can illuminate things that are hard for you to notice when your surroundings shadow your vision.  And I bow to the fact that we live in different, overlapping existences and I recognize that you bear certain consequences more directly than me.

I will offer this advice- do not behave like the people you hate.  Of all the times people have said nasty things to me (and again- I don’t know what, if anything, the Republicans said to arouse her anger), I have never considered launching my beverage at someone’s face.  It’s not that I thought about it and decided not to- it just never occurred to me.  Everyone has a right to their feelings- but we don’t have a right to attack people.  Even people we disagree with or think are damaging society.  The greatest challenge of being oppressed is not to become the oppressor in fighting back.  I’m a double minority and a survivor of three decades of abuse.  I get it on a gut level- it’s hard.  And I hope this young woman can learn from this experience and realize that she has further poisoned debate rather than showing courage.  We’ve all been impulsive students once, but it’s important to remember our actions have consequences.  And I can’t imagine her behavior has made Jews any safer at a time of deep discomfort about our place in society.

Empathy is about understanding where others come from- not necessarily agreeing with them.  So in that spirit, I’d like to offer this.  I am American-Israeli.  I feel more American in Israel and more Israeli in America.  I am a hybrid.  Some people share my observations, and sometimes people disagree with them.  I address a mostly progressive audience because that’s part of who I am and it’s who I know best.  Its whose actions hurt me the most because I care what they, what you, think.  Many of my observations about extremism apply to the far right as well- it’s just that I don’t have much cachet with them.  I can’t imagine they’re particularly interested in hearing the voice of a queer Jew at this point in history.

There are distinct cultural differences between Israel and America.  Israelis are famously direct, Americans famously polite.  Israelis will message you pretty much non-stop, Americans think you’re in love (or desperate) if you message someone the day after a date.  The words we use, the emotions we feel, the way we convey them- our behavior- is deeply influenced by the culture we live in.  And I live in both.

American friends expecting me to conform to American cultural norms- to always remember them- please consider that I don’t live here.  I’m not an American abroad, I’m not an expat, I’m not on some jaunt or program.  I’m an Israeli, an out-of-the-closet Jew running by completely different norms.  And if I sometimes am too direct for you, consider my reality too.  I shouldn’t (and can’t) always revert to your way of thinking because it’s hard- it’s not fair, it’s not who I am, and it’s not how I live.  If you’re offended by my bluntness, I won’t always say I’m sorry- because sometimes you need to hear some straight talk.  That’s my Israeliness.  But I will say I never intend to hurt you and I care about what you think.  Otherwise I wouldn’t write this blog.

As we sit on the eve of great change- for me personally and for America my country- I want to share my hopes.  I predict Democrats will gain power this week.  Not sure how much, but it will change the discourse and perhaps even bring some balance to the national debate.

The question for my progressive friends is how will you wield this power?  After several years of hearing worn-out tropes from the far right, after being wounded, will you be the adult or the child?  Will you govern with a gavel or a sledgehammer?

I hope you govern wisely.  Yelling at people doesn’t change their opinions.  Some people we can’t dialogue with- but some people are not only open to hearing your thoughts, they could teach you something too.  Protect yourselves, but don’t close off your hearts entirely.  And check in with yourself to see if you’re becoming the domineering person you’re fighting against.

This is something I personally wrestle with, especially in Israel.  A place packed with tension.  Beauty, for sure.  But it’s not for nothing people are angry there- rockets are falling on my friend’s kibbutz this week.  Ideologies, religions collide.  This is not suburban California- it is a country the size of New Jersey with ISIS on its borders.

The best thing I can offer you is to evaluate ideas on their own merit.  Just because Donald Trump likes Israel, doesn’t mean you should hate it.  And just because Alexandria Cortez doesn’t like Donald Trump, doesn’t mean you should join her in hating Israel.

Find the counterexamples.  When I get angry at Arabs or Muslims (I have a lot of reasons- I have a high likelihood of being killed for being gay, American, Israeli, or Jewish in their societies), I find someone who reminds me.  Who reminds me that there is good too.

My friend Muhammad is a Bedouin student who just moved to Ramat Gan.  He’s having a rough time- it’s not a particularly diverse city and he has experienced racism.

He told me he felt Jews only care about their own.  And I got angry.  I reminded him that I’m a Jew and I helped him find an apartment and adjust to life in his new home.  Hours upon hours of expensive long distance calls from abroad.  And that I was proud to do so.

He relented that it was politics, the TV, the blowhards who got him down.  And I told him I understood- if I went by what the TV told me, I’d think all Muslims want to kill me for being a gay Jew.

And that’s where we found our common ground.  We remind each other of our humanity.

He apologized, which of course I accepted.  And I wrote him in Hebrew:

“No worries, bro.  Remember there are Jews like me, and I’ll remember there are Muslims like you.”

His response: “Exactly!” and a kissy emoji.  Which, to remind my American readers of cultural differences, is not a romantic gesture.  Arab men (and a lot of straight Israelis) show a lot of intimacy towards their male friends.  That in an American setting would make you think we’re heading for the sheets.

But we’re not.  We’re friends.  We’re each other’s alarm clock, a reminder of the people who don’t fit our preconceptions.  The people who value us the way we are.

America- that’s what I hope for you November 7th.  No matter what happens, no matter what you advocate for, do it with humanity.  Remember the other, remember the exception.

I hope next time I visit, instead of a “black ballot” or a “white ballot”, I’ll see people talking to each other face to face.  Instead of a voiceless flier slapped on a cold brick wall.

I believe in you.  And I want you to succeed.

What’s right with America

Recently, I took a trip to Berkeley.  Known as a hotbed of far-left activism and anti-Israel hatred, I wanted to see what was up.

While a friend of a friend had suggested there was no such thing as campus anti-Semitism there, I wanted to see what it was like first hand.

Going in with rather low expectations, I found a lot to like there.  Berkeley is a cute town.  I found my way to a delicious little restaurant that sold onigiri, or Japanese rice balls.  As a kid who lived in Japan (and then stayed connected to the culture back in the States), I grew up with this as comfort food.

In the restaurant, I chatted with a nice young man behind the counter.  I made a point of mentioning I was from Tel Aviv- a risky proposition in a city where not a small number of people boycott our existence.

Turns out, he was a Jew!  His father had volunteered on a kibbutz near Tel Aviv years ago.  And he told me he might go on Birthright!  I told him to check out my blog and contact me if he visits- if you’re reading this please message me!  I will hook you up 😉  It was a refreshing reminder of vibrant Jewish life here- a life that both as an American and an Israeli I support.  That I urge the Israeli government to back with full force- not just rhetoric.  Bibi- recognize progressive Judaism in Israel and abroad- as a living community which strengthens our state and our people.  If we’re Jewish enough to be shot by anti-Semites, we’re Jewish enough for the Jewish State.

As I headed to campus, I decided to visit Hillel, the Jewish campus organization.  I met some wonderful young students, who told me about the active Jewish life on campus.  About their trips to Israel- and their desire to return.  And unfortunately, some of the rabid anti-Israel and anti-Semitic students they have to deal with.  As they noshed on some pretty tasty looking shakshuka.

Frankly, I felt lucky to have graduated from college 10 years ago, where anti-Semitism was unheard of at my Hillel and where the scary rhetoric of today’s campus extremists was barely in its infant stages.

One particular story stood out to me.  Speaking with an Israeli, she told me about a non-Jewish student who came to a discussion about the various types of Zionism.  And, apparently innocently and sincerely, asked “but what does Zionism have to go with genocide?”

The Israeli thought she meant the Holocaust.  But apparently the student, having heard all sorts of inflated rhetoric on campus, thought Zionism was a form of genocide.  A blatant lie and a sad reflection on the rhetoric of the anti-Israel movement.  That does a disservice to Jewish and Israeli history, the complexity of the conflict, and to Palestinians themselves as these “activists” push our peoples further and further apart.

I stand in admiration of Israel educators and Jewish students who patiently answer such questions.  I have to say if someone asked me this question in earnest, I’d assume they were simply attacking me.  Because in some cases, they are.  But when you see someone so earnestly manipulated, it breaks the heart.  And I’m so proud of our Jewish activists and non-Jewish allies who are standing up for truth, for nuance, and for engagement in today’s increasingly toxic environment.

One student named Judith particularly stood out to me (hi Judith, if you’re reading!).  She is a Berkeley native so she is used to the screaming, often irrationally hateful activists who populate her campus.  Like the Christian minister I saw on a street corner shouting in a megaphone that “Jesus wasn’t afraid of the Jewish culture.”  As people walked by completely indifferent.

Her bravery and her ability to ignore such people remind me of Israelis.  She is used to it, and she lives her life despite it.  It reminds me of young Jews I met in Belgium who were used to having their synagogues under armed guard.  Where you submit your passports a week in advance to visit.  To get a background check.  A reality unthinkable in European cathedrals, open to the public without even a cursory glance.  It’s a reality American Jews will have to get used to.  After Pittsburgh, you can expect enhanced security at American synagogues.  Where, sadly, I think they will one day resemble the fortress-like congregations that dot the European continent my family once called home.

The age of American Jewish innocence- where we lived in security and prosperity- is evolving.  What was once the safest and most prosperous Diaspora community since medieval Spain is in the midst of a monumental change and I fear for its future.  I will not be surprised to see armed guards outside American synagogues next visit- and it will make me a bit sad.  One Jewish community advocate estimates it could cost $1 billion to secure American synagogues.

We once thought we were exceptional, that our bagels were as American as apple pie.  But as is often the case in Jewish history, if we ever forget who we are, the anti-Semites arise to remind us.  If you are a non-Jewish ally reading this, the hour is late and if you don’t mobilize with us now, American Jewry is at tremendous risk.  Speak up, show your solidarity, stand with us- lest we become the next France.  Where Jews fear to walk around with yarmulkes on and Jewish centers are regularly attacked.  Where Holocaust survivors are burned to death in their homes.  If you think this is alarmist, you don’t know much about Jewish history.  The ethnocentric view places this recent attack only in the context of American hate crimes like heinous attacks on black churches or immigrants.  But if you read Jewish history, you’ll realize this analogy is relevant but incomplete.  Violent anti-Semitism isn’t new- and it didn’t start with Donald Trump.  Although I’d invite him to stop complaining how attacks against us “slow” his political momentum.  We’ve been dealing with this for 2,000 years and counting and across dozens of countries.  I’m not a huge fan of the (seemingly endless) privilege discourse, but as a non-Jew, it’d benefit you to consider the ways you’re fortunate to not be one of us.  And to find ways to help.

As I wandered around Berkeley’s campus, I felt more comfortable than I expected.  There is something about coming in with low expectations that gives you the freedom to be pleasantly surprised.  To have your preconceptions splendidly upended.  Like when I met pro-Israel libertarians with buttons that said “BDS=BS”!  So thankful to have you advocating for us in the belly of the beast 🙂 .

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Yet some expectations are based in reality.  I met a man tabling for a Muslim Student Association volunteer program- run in conjunction with an anti-Semitic professor.  Berkeley is about to host a Marxism conference.  With speakers on Palestinian liberation- likely predicated on the destruction of Israel.  A terrible false dichotomy that speaks more to their black-and-white destructive thinking than any sort of genuine attempt at dialogue or peacemaking.  Signs abounded about the “Trump-Pence Regime” and “resistance.”  As if our President, as narcissistic and callous as he may be, was somehow installed by a putsch.  As opposed to the democratic elections he won.  Someone you oppose becomes an illegitimate enemy of humanity rather than a candidate or ideology you want to defeat.  The former requires nothing but anger.  The latter requires organizing, analysis, and persuasion- real work that requires you to engage with people you disagree with.  You can tell what I think is more productive.

This kind of black-and-white thinking is something I’ve dabbled in, especially in college.  There’s something about this time in your life, free from obligations, where you can experiment with radical ideas.  And on some level it’s healthy.  Some ideas accepted as normal in our society need to be challenged and changed.  I also feel that my abusive upbringing pushed me into defensive and judgmental thinking as a way to protect myself and to make sense of inexplicable hatred.

And I’m proud to have worked hard to grow out of this mentality, as befits my age and my process of healing from abuse.  And my engagement with a wide range of cultures and political views.  So that when I meet an American-born Cambodian student whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge, but who is excited about the Marxism conference, I feel a mixture of emotions.  Anger, sadness, and pity.  It takes a lot of mental acrobatics to justify the way she thinks, but all I can say is that I hope she can one day escape the ideological labyrinth in which she wanders.

Because for me, resistance is not about slogans or yelling at people who disagree with you.  It’s about standing for your values while resisting the urge to do evil when it has been done to you.

As I prepared to leave Berkeley, I told Judith that I thought she was brave for having adjusted to life in her town.  As a proud Jew and a lover of Israel, to be surrounded by such political extremism can’t be easy.  And like Jews have done for centuries, she got used to it and lives her life.

And I left her with a warning: “Jews in Europe are now used to armed guards and soldiers protecting their synagogues.  Like fortresses.  They’ve gotten used to it to- it’s necessary and it’s sad.  So be careful- don’t get too used to it.  Because you deserve better.”

She nodded in agreement as she boarded the bus to a fun date with her boyfriend.  The kind of care-free evening that makes America so fun.  And makes Americans so lucky.  With all your problems, remember this is the wealthiest and one of the most stable countries on the planet.  And don’t forget it.  It’s a blessing.  Hamas fired 30 rockets on Southern Israel last week and Catalan political leaders sit in Spanish prison.  Even as you push for change, count your lucky stars and remember there are problems outside this country too.

At night, I headed into San Francisco.  Having seen the good, bad, and neutral of Berkeley (including some amazing burritos made by Asian students), I wanted Shabbat.

Shabbat is not something to take for granted.  It’s only a feeling that happens if you make it happen, especially outside of Israel.  On my travels, I found myself gravitating towards Jews when I wanted that feeling of community.  It wasn’t really about religion in the traditional sense of the word.  It was about being a Jew with people who understood me.  And sharing in our customs, food, and talk.

One organization that has brought this to life for me is Moishe House.  They organize communal houses for Jews across the world, which then hold programs for both Jews and non-Jews.  A pluralistic cultural space, it is a great complement or alternative to synagogue, as it doesn’t require a particular belief and all are welcome.

I’ve written before about how I visited Moishe Houses in Brussels and Barcelona.  And now it was San Francisco’s turn.

The folks at Moishe House Nob Hill put on an amazing Shabbat dinner.  There’s a special feeling when you’re with Jews.  To put it in the words of a man named Ben I met- it’s intangible.  You just feel at home.  You know something links you even if you’ve never met.

When I walked in the house, I was greeted with the smell of chicken shnitzel, of hummus, and I even made my own challah.  For the first time!

Turns out one of the housemates’ friends even read my blog about San Francisco!  It’s an amazing feeling of connection when you see just how small of a people we really are.  And I’m grateful to both Moishe House and its energetic residents for building this safe, vibrant space.

A space where for just one night, I can worry a little less about saying I’m Israeli.  Where I talk about Judaism without worrying about sounding “too Jewish”.  Where I can count on empathy after this week’s Pittsburgh terror attack.  An empathy I sometimes found lacking among non-Jewish folks I met in San Francisco.

It was interesting- I had actually forgotten about the attacks until the dinner.  The dinner was advertised as a Pittsburgh solidarity dinner, a great idea.  It’s just that as an Israeli, I had mourned, been angry, and moved on to the next thing.  A zen-like way of living in the moment that I learned to do more and more in the Jewish State, where hundreds of Pittsburghs have happened.

So where I expected just a Shabbat dinner, I got a lore more.  It was nice to see the tender side of American Jews.  Israelis, so accustomed to terror attacks, move on rather quickly out of necessity.  It was both heartbreaking and moving to see how the attacks affected the young Jews here.  The softness of American Jews is a real treasure- unique in Jewish history for having enjoyed so much freedom and safety.  And it’s something I fear will have to change.  As the country and the world increasingly scapegoats us, American Jewry would be wise to connect more with European Jews and Israel to learn coping skills.  It’s not easy- but the good (and bad) thing is we have a lot of experience dealing with terror.  And we can be there to support each other during this transition.  What I fear may be a new normal.

A curious thing happened at dinner.  A young man requested we do kiddush, the traditional blessing over wine or grape juice.

The Moishe House residents looked around, looking for volunteers.  Having led Reform services my whole life (including in Tel Aviv), I know the blessing by heart.

When I left Tel Aviv two months ago, I could barely utter it.  So disenchanted with both Judaism and Israel itself in such a tense region of the world, I wasn’t even sure if I was a Jew.  Although, as you’ll see with my previous blogs, Europe reminded me I was.

So I found myself with a choice.  Having gone from religious to atheist, to agnostic, to spiritual.  Where did I stand now?

I wasn’t sure.  But I sang.

And I sang with love.

And people joined in.

I hadn’t sung a kiddush in two months.  And it felt great.

As I write this blog, I think I do believe in God.  Maybe not the way others do, but who cares?  It’s my belief, and while I can’t find myself obsessing over details of Jewish law or ignoring the problems of literalism or religious tribalism, I believe.  I don’t know- I believe.  That’s why we use that word.  Because someone with perfect faith is a liar- and a demagogue.  Leaving room for doubt is the most Jewish thing in the world- and allows us to till the fertile gray space our minds can thrive in.

What inspired my faith this Friday?  A lot of things.  The human spirit, the need for connection, nature, change, my accomplishments, gratitude, and just a feeling.  A spiritual connection that complements, even creatively contradicts, my rational thought.  To make me who I am.

And what also inspired it are the great people I’ve met along the way.  Judith, Moishe House, Hillel, Israel educators, the young Jew making Japanese food.  Korean burritos, amazing taco chips, and the people who accept me as the Israeli I am.

This morning, I met a 70-something year old hippie at my hostel.  When she asked where I was from, I was nervous at first.  I’ve had some bad experiences with anti-Semites when I said I was Israeli.

But much to my surprise, like the young man making Japanese food, Lynn was Jewish.  A Reform Jew, like me 🙂 .  I don’t go to services as much now, but the synagogue I don’t go to is definitely Reform 😉 .  Lynn had been to Israel in 2006 and loved it.

We had a great conversation as I made delicious pancakes drenched in the kind of authentic maple syrup you only really find here.  It’s America’s hummus- something I just won’t eat in my other homeland.  It doesn’t taste right.

I gave Lynn my email and told her to come visit.  And I mean it- I hope she comes and I will set her up with whatever she needs.

Because I won’t give up on Jews anywhere.  And no matter who my Prime Minister is, no matter who attacks our people, no matter what- I believe in us.  And I want to be the progressive, open-minded Israeli who gives you pride in the Jewish State.  Who works tirelessly on the other side of the world to make space for people like us.  For a Jewish vision that supports LGBT rights, Arab empowerment, consideration for minorities, inclusion for refugees, and equality for progressive Judaism.  For a strong homeland that welcomes all of us.  Because there are Israelis like me who are your allies.  Forget the headlines and stand with us.  Because together we can strengthen the Israel and Diaspora community that makes us feel at home.  That lives out values we identify with.  And yes, that empathizes with people who disagree with us.

And in the meantime, I ask you to stand with us.  When you’re in Berkeley and people spout irrational, inaccurate hatred against Israel, to fight back.  To educate.  To realize that your fate depends as much on me as mine does on yours.  That Israel is your insurance policy- just as it has been for Moroccan and Polish and Ethiopian Jews forced from their homes for decades upon decades.

I need a strong America for a safe Israel.  And you need a strong Israel when you don’t have a safe America.

The world is changing, and who knows what will happen.  Enjoy this moment- who knows what tomorrow holds.  That’s the Jewish way.  And whether you’re Jewish or not, it can enrich your life to realize this basic fact.

Whatever you want to do, don’t wait.  There are no guarantees.  Dance in the streets, speak your mind, smile, cry, hug.  Like Lynn hugged me before she left- a precious gift for someone traveling alone.  Both on this trip, and in life.

What I’ve discovered is that what makes me feel less alone is finding empathetic people along the way who take you in.  Who make you feel loved and warmed.  Who feel your humanity.  Who share with you.

At a time when empathy is faltering, challenge yourself to show it.  And to find it where it appears to have disappeared.

Because next time I visit America, I want it strong.  This week, try to find a moment to talk to someone different, as hard as it might be.  Because Twitter and Facebook are great, but they won’t smile at a woman on the train.  And a news feed can’t feed a heart’s desire for acceptance.

America is a great country.  I hope its residents embrace the beautiful privilege of living there.  Despite it all, still one of the calmest and most prosperous places on the planet.

We are.  Black white, Jewish Muslim, gay bisexual, Republican Democrat, conservative centrist, straight and working class.  Christian, Native American.  Vegan and wealthy.

The next time your hand reaches for the screen.  Ready to type a comment on Facebook.  To agitate, to vent, to express.  Flip it like a pancake, fingers pointing ahead, thumb towards the sky.

Reach out and meet your neighbor.  Try.  It won’t always go well, but it’s worth it and it’s what we need.

This hand was made for you and me.

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Evangelical Gay Jewish San Francisco

I’d like to share with you some stories from a recent visit to San Francisco.

After making aliyah a year and a half ago, I came back to the States for the first time.

What I’ve liked most is speaking English.  Everywhere the signs are in my language.  I can pick up on nuance and norms that I just can’t in another language, no matter how fluent I am.

I like the delicious fortune cookies I tasted at a factory in Chinatown and the wonderful Chinese-American woman I met who really wants to go to Israel.  She just wants to travel in general and see “what’s the big deal about the Eiffel Tower”.

I like the Latina saleswoman at T-Mobile who, when I mentioned I was from Israel, was so excited.  She was really proud of me for moving halfway around the world and pursuing my dreams.  And she told me what it was like for her to visit Mexico, how friendly people were.

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I like the rainbow flags that adorn the Castro, a kind of mini gay state.  I even found street art honoring a Jewish victim of AIDS.  Having lived in the Jewish Holy Land, I wanted to visit the gay one.  And it was really interesting.  While a rather small area (I suppose I envisioned it being half the city), it was so colorful, so gay.  Sometimes a bit risqué for my tastes (I saw naked men strolling down the street…), but I enjoyed the occasional sexual pun.  Including the absolutely hilarious tank top that said “can you host?” and the funny Planned Parenthood bag.  If you don’t get the hosting joke, ask a gay friend 😉

The Bay Area is filled with tremendous wildlife.  Scenery out of a movie.  The waves of the Pacific lapping against the shoreline but with an ease that matches the calm of this city.  I’ve never been in such a large city with such a relaxed pace of life.  It’s kind of the Tel Aviv of North America, as one person put it.

I like the personal space, the quiet, the lack of rockets, the feeling of sexual freedom that I wish Israel had more often.  A place so inundated with religion and nationalism that sexual shame, even in “sin city” Tel Aviv, often feels so much stronger than I wish it would be.

Now I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this progressive paradise.

First off, I’ve never seen so many homeless people.  In a city that prides itself (almost to a fault) on being so liberal, it’s hard for me to understand why there are so many people without a roof over their heads.  For sure, it’s not as if the ordinary citizen can fix this problem.  Nor is homelessness an easy problem to fix- mental healthcare, economics, and so many other factors go into it.

But I can’t help but feel confused, at times disturbed, to see so many people walking by on their headsets, talking about the latest computer program or software, while people sit suffering right by their feet.  I’m not expecting people to fix the problem, but it feels quite different from Israel.  We have lots of homeless people too, but both I personally and lots of people around me gave them food and water and money.  I even talked with a homeless man in Tel Aviv who told me all the books he has read recently.  I just haven’t witnessed that kind of spontaneous interaction or generosity here.

This kind of distance or callousness is something I’ve noticed a few times.  The other day, I was in Chinatown.  An elderly Chinese woman had fallen, hitting her head on the sidewalk, with blood spilling everywhere.  Person after person after person just walked by.  Me being both who I am and an Israeli, jumped into help.  I bought her water and brought napkins to help stem the bleeding.  A wonderfully generous African-American woman came over and held the napkins against the woman’s head.  An Asian-American man translated for the woman as he tried to talk to the 911 operator.  It was a kind of generosity-filled melting pot that I love about this country.

The disturbing part was watching the people walk by.  The people on their phones or who didn’t want to get dirty (I personally got blood all over my sandals…yeah, it’s gross and risky, but was I going to let a woman die to keep my feet clean?).  The people who, after helping for a second, just walked away.  The woman still dazed and confused, babbling in incoherent Chinese (not that I’d know the difference).

I stayed with her until she got into the ambulance.  That’s how you behave like a human being.  Your meeting is not more important than a person’s life.

Walking around the Castro, I entered a gay book store.  Boy do I love to see gay book stores, the world needs more of them.  And more book stores in general.  A place I truly feel warm and inspired and at ease.  A place of learning and discovery where you don’t have to “look” for anything- you can just look 😉

A lot of the books were really, really left wing.  I grew up with these kinds of book stores in D.C.  Once they made me excited, now they make me nervous.  I think I’ve grown out of this mindset and I think the mindset here has solidified since I left.  While some of the material is interesting, it’s often steeped in the black-and-white thinking that plagues both extremes in this country.  And usually involves hating Israel.

I noticed some rainbow buttons that said “Proud Queer Muslim” and “Queers Against Islamophobia”.  Frankly, they’re pretty neat.  Just days after the Pittsburgh massacre (one which personally touched me), I wanted to know if they had any against anti-Semitism.

The store clerk said: “oh you know, I don’t think we do.  Somebody must have them.  We don’t have any timely buttons.”  As if anti-Semitism was a new issue.

To his credit, the store owner paused and said he’d look into it.  And steered towards his computer to search.  I hope he finds some and puts them out.  Anti-Semitism isn’t new and I hope we can count on his solidarity.  The moment showed both the deep ignorance that can pervade this country and that sometimes we can puncture it.  I hope I moved things in the right direction.

During my visit here, I’ve had a lot of conversations about Israel.  The difference between an American Jew and an Israeli is we can’t hide our Jewishness.  We’re out-of-the-closet Jews.  And as soon as you say you’re from Israel, the conversation begins.

The cool part is when you get awesome people.  One man, Nick, is someone who I actually befriended in Tel Aviv helping him buy a sandwich.  In town on a business trip, he was struggling to deal with the hectic line, so I stepped in and helped him order.  I sat with him and his coworker and had a great time.  We kept in touch and he invited me to stay with him for several days here in the Bay Area.  Since making aliyah, I often feel Americans are more distant.  This is the country where self realization is priority one, where the individual is the greatest unit of meaning.

But Nick shows that some Americans buck that trend and are capable of the spontaneous generosity I’ve come to love in Israel.  He’s a new American friend, and I’m happy to have met him and am grateful for his kindness.

Curiously enough (or perhaps not!), Nick and I did some genealogy together and discovered he’s a quarter Jewish.  Maybe one day he’ll make aliyah 😉  But in the meantime, I was really happy to help someone discover their roots and connect to our people.  I’m proud to have generous people like him as part of our tribe.

Other people are not so fond of the Jewish State.  At various moments here, I’ve met people who can’t say the word Israel without following it with the word Palestine (as if I wasn’t aware who my neighbors were).  I’ve met people (including Jews!) who said that Israel’s very existence is a fair question.  And that someone who doesn’t believe Israel should exist because of our “illegal occupation” is not an anti-Semite.  Telling Israelis how to live their lives while sitting in the richest city in the United States.  While ironically living in a state whose very name is Spanish and whose territory once was filled with Native Americans.  Who now live in abject poverty like the city’s homeless.

I talked to one person who, knowing full well I was Jewish and mourning the Pittsburgh terror attack, said: “I rarely see the Jewish community condemn actions when it isn’t a Jewish person.”  That we didn’t care about People of Color.  A statement profoundly callous and absurd.  Callous because this is our moment to mourn, not for you to politicize our tragedy, rant about Trump, or talk about other (equally heinous) hate crimes.  But just to let us be sad for one moment and yes, to make it about us.  And absurd because the Jewish community is at the forefront of human rights, civil rights, and immigrants rights in a way few members of these communities do so for us.  I can’t recall an LGBT, African-American, or immigrant march against anti-Semitism.  I suppose I’m a gay person marching against anti-Semitism, but I think my point about the rallies still stands.  I could be wrong, I just literally can’t think of one.  And I’m someone who in both the States and Israel has marched countless times for every minority group under the sun.  And will continue to do so.

I’ve met people (even left-wing Jews) who claim campus anti-Semitism is right wing propaganda.  That it doesn’t really exist.  Who believe this and this and this and this and this and this are “fake news”.

When you meet so much ignorance, it’s sometimes hard to feel safe, let loose, and enjoy yourself.  I’m a person who likes to talk to people, so when people around me are mean, I don’t have much fun.

I did flirt with a really cute guy in a bagel shop, so San Francisco has its good parts too 😉  If there are any sweet, reserved guys out there who like an ambivert who’s outgoing but also likes a long stroll and deep conversation, hit me up 😉

As evening came, I headed back on the BART train to where I was staying.  My Uber app wasn’t working, so I asked a bus driver where the next bus was to my destination.  The wonderful middle-aged Latina woman pulled me aside and showed me exactly what to do.  She, much like the Israelis I love, wouldn’t let me go until she showed me every step of the process.  And got my app running again.

She asked me: “where are you from?”

“Washington, D.C. and now I live in Israel.”

“But you speak Spanish, where are your parents from?”

“Also American.”

“So how do you speak such good Spanish?”

“I used to be a Spanish teacher.”

And in the most Israeli response ever: “used to be?”

It was that loving gnaw of guilt.  I miss it.  And I’m looking forward to feeling it again when I go home to the state I call my own.

The woman sent me on my way: “cuídate m’ijo”.  Take care my son.

I miss Latinos and I miss America.  I used to work for immigrant rights nonprofits and the best part of this country is its incredible diversity.  I miss the people who upend your prejudices and expectations, the random acts of kindness by Americans of every background.  The understated people who help, rather than the self-righteous who think doing you a favor indebts you to them.  If you want help, ask someone who has less.  Who knows what it’s like to struggle.  Because chances are that very lack is the pain that makes them more tender.  Find the heart bursting at the seams- it’s worth more than a wallet overflowing with cash.

On the train back home, tired of anti-Israel bullshit, I noticed the woman sitting next to me reading Fox News.  Just a year and a half ago, that would’ve scared me.  And to be honest, it’s not someone I’d probably talk gay marriage and immigrant rights with.  But I wanted to test a theory.

I pretended I didn’t know where I was going.  I told the woman I was from Israel and asked for directions.

“Israel?!  Israel!  Wow I was there just a few years ago!  What a beautiful place!  I saw…”

And then she named every biblical site imaginable.  And told me how gorgeous the Golan was.  And how she, as a Christian, stood by my country.

My heart is pulled in many directions.  As a gay person, I’m concerned about the rightward tilt of this country.  As someone who cares about women’s rights, immigrants rights, diversity, and equality, I’m concerned by voices who deny these freedoms.  Who justify punishing children stopped at the border.  Children who could be very well related to the wonderful bus driver who helped me tonight.  Fleeing chaos and violence in El Salvador, a country ridden with gangs and whose drug violence is partially fueled by American consumption.  And some of our own failed policies.  Whose own government cares so little for its own people.  Where the gap between rich and poor is extraordinary- and growing.

And as a Jewish Israeli, I’m concerned about the callousness some American progressives show towards my people.  Of course, the same callousness shown by neo-Nazis.  For some reason, Jews don’t deserve the compassion of the far left.  What drives millions of Americans to march for women, for refugees, for black lives- all of which I support- somehow doesn’t materialize for us.  Protesting against Donald Trump is not the same as protesting for Jews.  Maybe you don’t think we’re feeble enough for you to take care of us as you purport to do for other minorities.  But trust me- while we’re not feeble, our existence is at your behest.  As 2% of the population, we don’t live without your tolerance.  And if you’re not willing to fight for it, you’ll find more of your neighbors becoming mine in Israel.  If you don’t get why we spilled our blood to build a Jewish state now, you never will.  Although I’ll keep trying to explain.  And hope one day we’ll find ourselves on this sign too:

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So when it comes down to it, who should I count on?  I’m not just a blogger, I’m a person.  Should I go after the university-educated progressives- even some Jews- who think our very existence is up for debate?  Should I give up on progressives- knowing open-minded people like Nick are out there eager to learn?  Who don’t hate us?  Should I accept the support of evangelicals, who give it so freely?  Who make my train ride enjoyable, a conversation rather than a debate?  Even if it means their victory could put my other identities and values in jeopardy?

I’m not sure.  My instinct is to accept support wherever we can get it because frankly, we don’t have a lot.  If masses of progressive Americans stood with Israel, we wouldn’t need to rely on other groups’ support.  But as a matter of principle, should I reject anyone’s support?  The person who made me feel most loved as an Israeli was an Asian-American Christian, not a Jew and not an NPR listener.

November 6th is Election Day.  I’ll have you know I requested my absentee ballot from Maryland- but it has not yet arrived.  What’s going on Maryland?  I might not be able to vote because you’re not doing your job.  Here’s my request below:

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I hope my ballot does arrive but I’ll tell you what I’m thinking anyways.

My ballot is secret- so I won’t share all.  I will tell you this- I’m a registered Democrat and have been almost my whole life.  I’ve voted Democratic 95% of the time, with an occasional Libertarian and Green foray.  I worked on the Obama Campaign in 2008.  Was a Pledged Delegate for him to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.  I served in his Administration at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This year is going to be different.  I’m going to vote mostly Democratic.  I can’t look that Salvadoran woman in the face and punch a whole next to a bunch of R’s who’d like to see her deported.  Or her family suffer.  In some cases, even if they’re legal residents.  And I care about my own civil liberties and those of all Americans.  I’m disturbed by the state of healthcare, the arts, public transit, higher education, poverty, and so much more.

And I’m going to choose at least one, reasonable-sounding Republican (I am from Maryland- we have a few of those left) and I’m going to vote for them.  It’s a protest vote and a warning.  Democrats- stop taking me for granted.  I like a lot of what you have to say but your most radical members are starting to sound as black-and-white as the people they purport to oppose.

I care about myself as an American-Israeli Jew.  And if some of the people I met in San Francisco are at all representative of your party’s direction, you can count on my support going elsewhere.

Where, I don’t know.  In the perpetual Jewish conundrum of being squeezed between a rock and a hard place, I’m not sure where home is.  Other than perhaps the other side of the Mediterranean.

But I will say this- I’m an American citizen.  I pay taxes.  I was born here.  And I will continue to vote here, even if next election I have to request a thousand absentee ballots a year in advance to be heard.

And I want you to hear me clearly: I’m a swing voter.  And I’m not afraid to push the lever for a Republican once in a while if I feel the party I once called home doesn’t care about my safety and my well-being.

I’m Israeli and I’m American.  You might not want to rally for my rights, but you should want my vote.  It’s the only weapon I have.  Because just like a Latino voter or an African-American or a gay person- I’m going to ask you a question:

“Why is your party better for the Jewish community and Israel?”

Because in addition to all the other issues I care about, I care about myself.  That’s the basis of democracy.  Those are my interests.

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I miss you America, and I can taste the sweet fortune cookies on my lips.  The delicious dumplings and sushi and Thai food I sorely miss.  The Halloween outfits and pumpkins I never see in the Jewish State.  The interracial couples, the potpourri of cultures, the Chinese-language books in your storefront windows.  Teaching immigrants how to adapt to life here.  Just like my ancestors did, to give me life today.

I want you strong and I hope to be back soon.

In the meantime, give me some hope you’re going to pull through.  Because outside of Israel, the Jewish people has no better home.  And I’m still your son even if my heart beats seven hours ahead.

I don’t want to live torn in two.

My mouth closed in apprehension, afraid of how you’ll react when I say: “I’m Israeli.”

p.s.- my cover photo is me and Harvey Milk, a true gay rights hero.  What a great feeling to see my gay self represented in bright colors on city walls.

 

I’m from Pittsburgh

This blog is hard to write.

I sit writing in America, a place I haven’t visited in 1.5 years since I made aliyah and became an Israeli citizen.

This trip, hard-earned, is something I’ve waited for for a long time.  A chance to reconnect to my American-ness, to eat delicious affordable Asian food, to see signs in English, to feel at home.  Israel is my home, and America, even if I’m not here most of the year, is also my home.  And it always will be in some sense.  It is a part of who I am no matter where I go.

So it was to my great shock that just a few days after landing, I heard about the anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is not any city for me- it’s where half of my family is from.  It’s a place I’ve visited since I was a little kid.  A place somewhat fraught for me, like all places associated with my childhood.  But one that is distinctly a part of my life experience.  My cover photo is a picture of my grandfather’s grave in Adath Jeshurun Cemetery, right outside Pittsburgh.

Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the attack took place, is a place I’ve visited and heard about many times.  A place I’ve eaten good Jewish deli food.  A place where I still know people.  One friend I spoke to stayed locked in her home for the day with her kids, afraid to go outside.  And in all likelihood, some of the terror victims are probably related to me in this tight-knit community.  A community shattered by a never-ending hatred increasingly rearing its head in the Land of the Free.

This is America in 2018.

When my family, on both sides, came to America, it was to escape persecution.  Anti-Semitism is not new- and to the chagrin of some folks turning this into a political spectacle- it is not something miraculously awakened by Donald Trump.  I do think Trump and his most extreme supporters have made things worse by normalizing bombastic, hateful speech.  With little care for the consequences.  Words matter- and can inspire crazed people to harm others.  But I think we must be careful to remember this tragedy is first and foremost about Jews.  Indeed, the psychotic animal who killed 12 people this Shabbat actually hated Trump for being “controlled” by Jews.  Anti-Semitic attacks by both neo-Nazis and Islamic extremists have been happening all across Europe and indeed America.  For generation after generation.

The mainstream media rarely covers these stories.  Or gives them the attention they deserve.  Just this past year, an elderly Holocaust survivor was murdered in her Paris apartment for being a Jew.  The Belgian Jewish Museum was attacked by Islamic terrorists just a couple years ago, killing several people.  And, perhaps to your surprise, Jews are the single largest target for hate crimes in the United States.  And in the United Kingdom.  And not just the past two years.  For what it’s worth, two UK politicians have blamed Israel for the attack in Pittsburgh.  As they stand on the precipice of electing the most anti-Semitic leader in the Western World- Jeremy Corbyn.

Of course, the debate right after the attack turned to gun control, to Trump, to elections, to the never-ending arguments plaguing this country that I so love.  For what it’s worth, I support gun control and think it’s patently absurd how easy it is to get guns in this country.  It is immoral, it is dangerous, it is stupid.  I don’t care if you want to go hunt a deer- do whatever you want.  But you don’t need 20 semi-automatic weapons without a background check.  America- grow up.  This isn’t the 1700s and you don’t need a militia- your government has nuclear weapons.  If things get so bad, your rifle won’t really help.  I’m frankly more scared of you.

But I think it’s worth pointing out that gun control is only one piece of the picture.  And frankly, I think starting the debate about this terror attack in this fashion is demeaning.  This attack is about one thing and one thing only: Jews being killed for being Jewish.  This isn’t a school shooting- it’s a synagogue.  Both are heart-wrenching, but this was done with a different intent.  It targeted Jews for being Jews, purposefully.  And even if we have (necessary) gun control, it won’t stop anti-Semitic terror.  Just ask European Jews who have to have armed guards and soldiers protect their synagogues.  When I visited synagogues across the continent, I often had to provide my passport info a week in advance, provide Jewish references, and be screened for entry.

It’s a reality Jewish institutions across Europe have sadly become accustomed to as they try to preserve life on the continent my family called home for 2,000 years.  With the highest levels of anti-Semitism since the Holocaust.  What a short memory this continent has.

It’s a reality that American Jews are about to face themselves.  They- we- are already facing it.

My synagogue growing up had huge boulders outside the sanctuary to prevent Islamic terrorists from driving car bombs into our prayers.  But you could always come visit for services without background checks- just as open as any church around the corner.

Now, that is over.  American Jewish innocence is gone.  Whereas we were once the envy of European Jews under siege by far-left anti-Semites calling for the destruction of Israel and far-right neo-Nazis smashing Kosher restaurants to bits.  Today, we are no different.  Today, we remembered that in the end, we’re Jews.  Sometimes the world forces this identity on us.  We might wish to be accepted, to be welcomed, to be tolerated.  And sometimes and by some people, we truly are.  But in the end, we are at the mercy of the majority.  And while a majority of Americans might not hate us, they also don’t care enough to protect us.

That’s blunt talk for you.  And I’ll explain what I mean.

I don’t think most Americans are anti-Semites.  I grew up with anti-Semitism- yes even in liberal suburban Maryland- but it was mild compared to what we saw in Pittsburgh and certainly compared to the violent attacks plaguing Europe.  I think America, perhaps due to our founding principles and our large Jewish community, is still a better place to be a Jew than Europe.  Something I’m thankful for.  I’m glad my great-grandparents didn’t stay in Romania to become nothing but dust in desecrated cemeteries.  It is thanks to their bravery I am alive and American and now living in our homeland.

But I do want to know where are the Americans today?  At a time when you see thousands upon thousands of Americans- rightly in my opinion- rallying for immigrants, for refugees, for Muslims, for women.  Where are the massive protests for Jews?  Not a couple thousand people.  Masses.  Not framed as gun control, or mental healthcare, or election rallies.  But for Jews as Jews.  And fellow Americans.

I don’t want vigils.  I want protests.  I want action.  I want justice.  And your sympathy doesn’t interest me.  I want to know what you’re going to do to help us.  Because we’re 2% of the population and we can’t protect ourselves without your support.  Republican and Democratic, liberal and conservative, Christian and Muslim, everyone.

Jews put our lives on the line to defend others.  I, along with many Jews, are active in supportive refugees’ rights.  HIAS, the Jewish refugee rights group attacked in the shooters’ social media posts, is a group I’ve been involved with for years.  When I lived in Washington, I used to tutor Latino immigrants for their citizenship exams.  With HIAS and other young Jewish professionals.  Dedicating our time and energy to help people who remind us of our great-grandparents who made this country our home.  Who HIAS brought here, to safety.

The question is- where are these communities when we need support?  Some of them are rallying, and I appreciate it.  Muslims have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Tree of Life synagogue.  No doubt, Latinos, African-Americans, White Americans, and others have spoken out for our rights.

But I do not see the kind of mass movement necessary to stop this phenomenon.  That puts Jews at the center of this conversation as opposed to a convenient political tool to smash your ideological opponents in either direction.

So I want to hear more.  I want to see more refugees demonstrating as refugees thanking us for our support.  Support that cost us lives to save theirs.  Something I still believe in.

I want to see mosques raising Israeli flags in solidarity.  Money is great- but I also want to see that you understand why we have Israel now.  That when we face these kinds of attacks on a massive scale, Israel is the refuge we can go to.  Which is why there are 4,000 Jews left in Morocco and 300,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel.  Who lost everything they own to a corrupt and anti-Semitic regime, no less brutal than the shooter in Pittsburgh.

I want to see more non-Jews studying Judaism.  Not just the Holocaust, but 2,000 years of persecution.  And not only that, but our civilization, our culture, our life.  To understand us.  Jews know so much more about our Christian neighbors than most of them bother to learn about us.  We are not just a Bible verse- we are your neighbors.  Your countrymen.  And you owe it to us to take some time out of your today to learn something about us beyond what a Menorah looks like.  Our history is valuable, our culture meaningful, and you could stand to learn something from our persistence and our worldview.  We are not just to be tolerated- we have something to teach you.

The people who gather to rally against Israeli “apartheid”, who decry Jewish “privilege”- where are you now?  Where are your protests?  Where is your anger?  I don’t want your sadness, I want your passion.  I want you to care as much about us as you do about people you’ve never met in a news story from halfway around the world.

If I’m honest with you, I sometimes think about moving back to America.  I’m enjoying visiting now and although I’m not in Pittsburgh, I feel the aches and pains of this country no matter where I am.  Even sitting on the shores of the Mediterranean.  Because I care about the place where I spent 30 years of my life living.  Where my ancestors found refuge.  Where we built the greatest Jewish civilization since 1500s Spain.  One that, much like the latter, is showing signs of fragility in a way that scares me.

One thing I’ve learned from this trip, these two months of exploration, is that anti-Semitism will follow you whether you like it or not.  When I needed a break from Judaism and Israel, I soon found myself defending my people as I roamed Europe.  Relentlessly stereotyped and aggressively attacked by anti-Semites.

It’s not because all Europeans (or Americans) are anti-Semitic.  I met wonderful, open-minded people curious about our culture.  And I appreciate them more than you can imagine.

It’s just that this ancient hatred is everywhere.  And you can’t avoid it.  That’s not the time we live in.  I’m not sure we have ever been able to avoid it, but the fantasy we lived in is over.  The fantasy that America was immune, was different- it’s gone.  It may have never been the paradise we dreamed of- anti-Semitism has a not-so-subtle past here too.  But if we’re honest, we thought that those times were mostly over.  And our country had progressed beyond these wild sentiments to become a place where Jews are leaders in commerce, in law, in politics, in media, in academia- in all the places anti-Semites claim we control.  Fueling the world’s conflicts, crashing economies, manipulating and conspiring.  Although oddly we can’t manage to prevent people from shooting up our synagogues or blowing up pizzerias in Tel Aviv.

In the end, I’m from Pittsburgh.  Three generations of my family have lived there and for both the good and the bad, it is a part of my life.  I remember the special smiley cookies I used to get there as a kid, I remember the incline you can take up the cliffs to see the three rivers converge, I remember the white chocolate cheesecake I loved at the train station-turned-restaurant on the waterside.  I remember the botanical gardens.  I remember the Church Brew Works.

I remember the deli where I ate delicious whitefish salad in Squirrel Hill.  A neighborhood now missing a dozen souls.  Whose lives were crushed by anti-Semitic hatred, a fiery malevolence we can never truly understand.

I implore my fellow Americans to stand with us- and not silently.  To act with the same urgency that you do when a school is shot, when a mosque is defaced, when women are demeaned by our public discourse and our legislation.  Rally.  March.  Speak up.

I don’t want your Facebook posts, I want your heart.  And your feet pounding the pavement demanding answers from ideological firebrands attacking us from both extremes.

This shooting was about Jews- first and foremost.  Put aside your ballot for just one moment.  Mourn with us, march with us.  We’ll get to the other issues- I promise.  We care about them too.

But today isn’t about you.  It’s about us.

I can hardly pretend that seeing a terror attack against Jews in America is surprising as an Israeli (we’re used to anti-Semitic terror- I had an almost eerily calm reaction when I first heard about it).  But it did shock me as an American.  This is the worst anti-Semitic attack on American soil, in our entire history.

I feel blessed to be heading on an airplane in a few days back home.  From home to home.  From past to present.

Because while I will continue to advocate for my American Jewish brothers and sisters, for me there is only one place on the planet where I feel empowered to protect myself.  Where I don’t have to rely on the good will of the people around me to survive and thrive and be my Jewish self.

It’s a place that’s complicated, that’s difficult to live in, but at the end of the day, when someone points a gun at my Jewish soul, we can point a gun right back.

It’s called Israel.  And if you don’t support its existence, you’re no better than the man bludgeoning my people to death for daring to pray in Hebrew in a city my family called home.

America- if you didn’t understand why we need such a state before this massacre, I hope you get it now.  But in the end, even if you don’t, that’s why I live there and not here.  Because my existence there isn’t dependent on your understanding, however much I still want it.

It’s dependent on us.

May the memories of the dead be for a blessing.  And may it inspire the Jewish people everywhere to live, to come together, to grow.  And for our non-Jewish neighbors to stand up for us before they find our once-thriving communities turned into the history exhibits that fill the European continent with tourist attractions.  Rather than living beings.

Bediavad – in retrospect

Bediavad is one of my favorite Hebrew words.  Possibly because it’s the name of one of my favorite songs– a song I’ve been listening to on my iTunes for over a decade.

It means “in retrospect”.  Looking back.

After traveling in Europe for almost two months, I have some thoughts on Israel I didn’t have when I left.

When I left Israel, I was pretty angry.  After seeing my hopes for gay rights shrivel in the face of self-righteous rabbis, after seeing my government go after refugees and Druze and Arabs for being non-Jewish minorities, after seeing some particularly egregious and abusive behavior, I had had it.  I had had two different landlords try to steal money from me.  Israel sucked.  And it was time to get out.

I expected Europe to be much easier.  And I was wrong.  That’s Israeli humility- acknowledging when things aren’t what you expected.  When a new perspective helps you change course.

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Europe is a really, really hard place to a Jew.  An ever harder place to be an Israeli.  While it is certainly relaxing to enjoy gorgeous nature, to reconnect with the concept of personal space, and to take the rocket alert apps off your phone, it is not as easy here as I expected.  Take a quick look at my posts from here and you’ll see there is a lot of hardship for Jews here.  A lot of irrational hatred of all things Israel.  Especially by people with fancy degrees, fashionable clothes, hipster attitude- far leftists.  Like the ones yesterday who chastised me for wanting to take a photo of leftist graffiti on their house.  I apologized, I didn’t understand it was their home.  And I said I wouldn’t take a picture.  One woman then told me it was “more radical” to graffiti churches, town hall, and banks.  Their fancy historic home in the Barcelona suburbs didn’t mean they were “rich”, it was the fruits of their hard work, and it was “rude” to desecrate it.  But to do so to other people’s property was totally acceptable- and encouraged.

When I suggested that damaging property is generally a bad thing all around, the woman grabbed my arm, twice.  Completely unprovoked.  After telling her not to after the first time.  She then laughed at me for asking not to be touched.  I doubt she’d feel the same if I violated her space.  As I walked away, they shouted things about me being American.  It’s a good thing I didn’t tell them I was Israeli.  To be an Israeli in Europe is to often live a closeted identity.

The psychology of the far left is the same as the far right in that they are abusive.  The only difference I can tell is the people they hate.  The far right hates gays, immigrants, Muslims, diversity.  The far left hates Israelis, banks, corporations, rich people, and quite often the religious.  And they both hate Jews.  Perhaps the only group they hold in common.  Both groups demand extreme sensitivity to their issues and evade empathy for anyone outside the purview of what they deem as morally acceptable.  It’s a childlike black-and-white thinking perhaps in some ways is meant to protect.  On some level, I understand it- certain groups of people are more likely to be a source of pain than others.

But this thinking alone is ineffective as it immediately renders millions of people off limits and condemned, creating more pain and suffering.  People who boycott Israel have this mentality- lumping together 8 million different people under the category of “wrong”.  While never bothering to consider whether their own countries are worthy of boycotts- or whether boycotting an entire country is ever really fair to the diverse people and perspectives residing within it.  Privilege can be a useful concept in understanding people’s power relative to one another.  But when it becomes weaponized as an entire ethical system, it falls short because nobody is wholly privileged or unprivileged.  And it just creates a lot of guilt instead of progress.  Perhaps not coincidentally, it is often wielded by ultra-wealthy highly educated people who are unwilling to acknowledge or grapple with the benefits they themselves enjoy.

So I’d like to return a moment to the story I shared above about the psychotic left-wing woman grabbing my arm at night in a suburb of Barcelona.  Ranting about how great it is to desecrate other people’s property, complaining about it being done to her, and invading my own space in the process.  This is all true- and important to share.  If you’re a Jew, if frankly you’re any kind of “undesirable” traveling through Europe, you need to be aware that certain types of people are more likely to hate you.  The far left is one of them.

At the same time, I’ve been looking over my writings from when I left Israel for this trip.  It’s clear to me the writings were therapeutic- my blog always is.  Which is why I love it.  And after seeing the depth of anti-Semitism camouflaged as anti-Zionism, I realize it’d be quite easy for someone to weaponize my words against me and my people.  I didn’t understand the intellectual vacuum some people on this continent live within- and how my genuine, heartfelt critiques of Israel could be used against the country as a whole.  Rather than seeing them for what I intended them to be- thoughtful, emotional, personal critiques of a place I love and want to make better.

So in that spirit, first off, I’m going to say that I’m going to try to keep in mind my experiences here when writing about Israel in the future.  Not because I intend to shy away from critiquing my government or society- I think it’s important to do so.  I’m not a voice for conformity or silence in the face of barbarity, nor is outside hatred an excuse to paper over real problems.  What I will say is I’m worried about people taking my words out of context.  I do not under any circumstances want them to be construed as supporting boycotts- which are definitionally anti-Semitic in only targeting the Jewish State.  While dozens of other states do the same or far worse- even in Europe.  Where Jewish cemeteries are regularly desecrated, where synagogues have been turned into casinos, and anti-Semitism is at levels not seen since the Holocaust.  With little public outcry.

If you are only boycotting Israel, you are engaging in anti-Semitism, whether you realize it or not.  And after seeing the psychology of boycotters here in Europe, I understand that better than I did while in Israel.  A stressful place where it can be hard to remember the very real problems occurring outside the country.  The bigotry and hatred that lives in other corners of the planet.  Sometimes shrouded in a soft-spoken “please” and “thank you”, but at its core, sometimes as vicious as anything I’ve seen in the Middle East.

At the same time, I want to take this lesson and apply it to this very post.  I’ve shared with you my experiences with anti-Semitism here in Europe.  It is very difficult to be a Jew or Israeli here and my posts these two months show that.  It’s also important to remember not to deny and not to feed the flames.

In other words, it is equally abusive to deny the existence of hatred as it is to suggest it is the only thing out there.  So I’m concerned about extremist Israeli Jews targeting minorities.  And about Europeans hating, boycotting, and attacking Israelis and Jews.  And I’m inspired by Israeli Jews who show compassion and kindness.  Who care about their neighbors of all backgrounds.  Jews who learn Arabic, who see nuance in spite of conflict.  Who have their own pain to digest.  And I’m inspired by European non-Jews who preserve our heritage and care about us.  I also like people like Greg, the Polish neuroscientist who wants to visit Israel and made my bus ride to Slovenia one of the best conversations of my life.  Like Marko, the Slovenian cell phone salesman who now wants to visit his city’s Jewish museum after chatting with me.  Like Amira, the queer Jordanian girl who went to her first gay club with me, knowing I was Israeli.  I even met a Romanian girl who wants to learn Yiddish!

In the end, I will not claim, as some do, that most people are good people.  And not to fear.  Because there are scary people out there and anti-Semitism dressed as anti-Zionism is very much a real thing.  There is also Arab anti-Semitism here in Europe that has nothing to do with Israeli policy.

I will also not fuel the flames that suggest everyone hates us.  Because not everyone does.  There are non-Jews I’ve met here who are open-minded, who are even actively engaged in keeping our heritage alive.  A heritage sometimes painful for us Jews to connect to, but one that has deeply enlightened me as to my place in the world.  A tough trip at times, but well worth it.

I would wish this same nuance for my friends on the far left.  To see that Israelis are not as simple as black and white.  That we come in all shapes and sizes, with different ideologies and identities.  Some perhaps to be feared or condemned.  And others not.  And a whole lot of people in-between.  Perhaps what I wish more than anything is for Europeans to understand us.  And to understand the Jewish history under their very feet.  Not to necessarily love or hate us, just to actually know something that might prevent them from jumping on us, from thumping us.  To be less like Jeremy Corbyn and more like Josep, the gay Valencian left-winger with a Hebrew tattoo and a nuanced passion for Israel.

As an Israeli, I’m offering you my ideas.  Not to wholly agree or disagree with them, but simply to share my perspective and hope you’ll consider my experiences.  That my stories will give you insight and inspire kindness and understanding.

Because when you live in the middle space, you realize that it’s detrimental to always categorize people.  And that sometimes, to protect yourself, it’s wise to.

An eerie and scary space where reality can be as hard to manage as the rigid ideologies that separate us from it.  In a time of increasing polarization, a space I believe is worth fighting for.

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My cover photo is a picture I took in Blanes, Catalonia.  A surprising pro-Israel graffiti that says “am yisrael chai”, the people Israel lives.  In a place where no living Jewish community exists.  Our hope sprouts even in the most arid soil 🙂

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.