Hitchhiking on a Druze golf cart

Tonight was rough.  I had an amazing Shabbat which included hosting American students, Reform services, Libyan food, the beach, and an Israeli techno party.  After all that, I headed to the America Restaurant on Ibn Gvirol only to find all sorts of Trump-themed and racist paraphernalia.  It was an unwelcome surprise for someone who came here to get away from that.  I felt angry and typecast.  The only good part was my excellent company and the mac n cheese.  I headed home feeling deflated and wondering why I was here.  It’s hard to be a Jew in America and it’s hard to be American in Israel.

After blowing off some steam, I decided to write about my trip to Daliat Al Karmel and Haifa.  Because there, I felt the inspiration that can happen in Israel.

Let’s start in Daliat Al Karmel.  A beautiful Druze village, I loved exploring every nook and cranny.  I had heard there was a monastery nearby, so I made my way by foot.  Each person I asked for directions told me it was 5 minutes away.  I asked four people the same question, so needless to say it was more than 5 minutes away.  After 30-40 minutes in the heat, I saw a golf cart heading towards me.  I asked the man and his son in Arabic for a lift- and so I hitchhiked with the Druze family to the monastery.

This place is gorgeous.  On top of the roof, you can see all of Israel’s North.  It looks like this:


I felt at peace.  Tel Aviv is a disgusting dirty city.  It’s a fun place.  It’s filled with youth and queer people and the beach and a million and a half cultures.  But it’s gross.  And loud.  The North is peaceful.  It is where I go to meditate and connect with God.

Realizing I was far away from the village bus and in need of a way home, I talked to the Druze guy who worked at the front desk.  Since this is Israel, there is ALWAYS a solution.  A priest from the monastery was headed back to Haifa, where I was staying.

I ran after his car and hopped in.  The generous and kind Italian priest drove me the entire 45 minute ride.  He spoke decent Spanish and I speak Spanish so we talked that way- in “Itañol” as he called it 🙂 .  He works for a Roman Catholic church in Haifa that cooperates with Greek Catholics and Maronites- both of whom are also in communion with Rome.  He loves life in Israel and wants to stay.  He even did an ulpan- although he was frustrated that the teacher only explained things in Russian!  25% of Haifa is Russian so it makes sense.  Kind of funny that the words he learned in ulpan were zdrastvootie and pazhalsta haha.

I then went out in Haifa to check out the nightlife.  I connected with some Americans teaching English in Haifa, which was great.  It’s nice to get a dose of the motherland once in a while 🙂  I was then headed home when I heard Arabic music blasting from a sushi bar.  I immediately went inside and found an entirely Arab sushi restaurant singing and dancing.  I joined in, started clapping and dancing.  It is hands down the most fun I’ve had since arriving in Israel.  And there’s wasn’t a Jew in sight.  Because it would probably never occur to a Sabra to step foot in this place.  I’m pretty fearless and open-minded, so I said what the hell.

The next thing I know, the music stopped and the bartender starts belting out some amazing Arabic tunes.  And he. is. GOOD.  Everyone starts swinging and swaying and banging on the bar.

It’s 3:30am and I head home.  I can’t help but think now how my Americanness helped make these moments possible.  My multilingual interactions.  My trust of Druze and Arabs.  My appreciation for all religious traditions.

Because my American identity isn’t a metaphor.  And it’s not a Britney Spears concert or a goofy picture of Donald Trump or a selfie in Times Square.

It’s my appreciation for diversity.  My willingness to listen.  My open-mindedness and my love for my neighbors- Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, you name it.

When I made aliyah, some Sabras told me not to hang out too much with other Americans.  Not to be too diasporic.

Bullshit.  My American identity makes me a better Israeli.  Quite a number of Jews here speak better German than Arabic and know more about Berlin than Kafr Qasem.

I intend to be part of the solution here as an American-Israeli.  Instead of throwing shade, hop on the golf cart with me.  We’ll climb atop a monastery in the middle of nowhere.  We’ll stare out at the North and realize that anything is possible if you just let yourself dream.  The American-Israeli dream.

A Kavkazi soldier died in battle today

Tonight, after a delicious dinner of Kavkazi dumpling soup, I met Ruslan Yosifov.  Ruslan was killed 20 years ago today by a roadside bomb in Lebanon.

How did I get to meet this brave young man?  Let’s start from the beginning.

I was walking around exploring Ramat Gan, an interesting and diverse suburb of Tel Aviv.  I was feeling hungry after a day of trekking around so I got really excited when I saw the sign “Restaurant Uzbekistan”.  It’s a Kavkazi-owned restaurant that serves Kavkazi, Georgian, and Bukharan food.  I jumped in and ordered Dushpara.  Honestly, it kind of reminds me of a Central Asian wonton soup with a little vinegar.  De-licious!

I got to talking with a handsome young man who works in the restaurant.  His name is Adam and he’s half Kavkazi and half Russian.  He was born and raised in Israel but has relatives in Siberia and Vladivostok.

He just got back from a trip to Russia and he told how he had had an issue with his cell phone there but nobody in Russia would help him.  He spent an hour just trying to get someone to help him fix his phone before boarding a train to Siberia.  He told me this would never happen in Israel because we’re family here.  If you need something, you just ask for it and people help.

I told him I’ve had the exact same experience.  In the U.S., my experience is that people are more suspicious of each other.  If someone asks you for help, you often wonder what their motive is, especially if it’s a stranger.  To the contrary, today in Israel I hitchhiked for the first time in my life and it went…totally fine.  I had a great conversation too!  And to make things funnier, as Adam and I were talking about this, his phone charger wasn’t working so I simply took out mine and gave it to him.  We laughed about how our conversation became reality.

Adam is 17 which means next year, he’ll be drafted into the Israeli military.  Adam is an extremely fit guy- he trains twice a day (and if he could, he’d do more).  He told me he wants to be in a combat unit- the most prestigious and risky choice.  Prestigious because you’re serving your country with great honor.  Risky because you’re more likely to die.

He’s a sweet guy with a really optimistic attitude.  I noticed that everything he was wearing was made in America- his Billabong bracelet, his Adidas shoes, and his U.S. Marines t-shirt.  He asked me how cheap McDonald’s was in America and I told about him about bacon cheeseburgers (he doesn’t keep Kosher- he was fascinated by this American creation that doesn’t exist here).  He’s never been to America but wants to go one day, maybe after the army.

I was wrapping up my meal when another man walked in, a relative of Adam’s.  The man was showing Adam and another woman pictures and videos of something on his phone.  Because this is Israel and it’s perfectly acceptable to nose your way into something, I asked what it was all about.

That was when I met Ruslan.  Ruslan was Adam’s cousin.  Ruslan was also a Kavkazi Jew.  In 1997, at age 21, just one month before he was supposed to be released from the military, Ruslan was ambushed in South Lebanon and then killed by a roadside bomb.  20 years ago today.  I was overcome with sadness and shock.  Nothing like this has ever, ever happened to me in the U.S., especially not at a restaurant with people I just met.  People here are very open and I was honored to have his story shared with me.  I told them I would say Kaddish for Ruslan this week at synagogue and that I prayed his memory would be for a blessing.

I’m a fan of the teaching “pray as if everything depended on God and act as if everything depended on you”.  Which is to say, prayer is important and so are actions.

So now it’s time to act.  Ruslan was a brave soul who fought to keep Israel safe.  His cousin Adam, even in spite of this loss, wants to join a combat brigade and put his life on the line for me and my country- my family.

Please keep Ruslan’s memory alive by writing a message of hope, blessing, or encouragement below.  You can also check out his Facebook memorial page and post a note there.  If possible, write in Hebrew, but if not it’s ok, I will reply to your comment with a Hebrew translation so his family can understand.  I will share these hopeful sparks with his family on this tough day.

When I left the restaurant, Adam told me “we need more people like you here.”  After dozens of people giving me all sorts of grief about making aliyah- even some telling me to turn back and go to America- this is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.  It radiates kindness.

Let’s radiate some kindness back.  Adam- I’m glad there are people like you here to welcome me and keep me safe.  I’m glad your cousin was here and I’m sorry he’s not anymore.  We may have just met, but as far as I’m concerned we’re family.  We’re Israel.

How an Arab saved my Shabbat

Shabbat shalom!  I don’t typically blog on Shabbat.  I usually go to shul, have a meal, and chill with friends.  But tonight, I had a very unique night.

First, I started off at Reform services.  They were musical and fun.  They start at 6 so that ended pretty early, leaving me with an empty evening alone.

To avoid feeling lonely (aliyah is hard and this has been a hard week), I did something I don’t typically do on Shabbat which was to go to a movie!  It was my first time in a movie theater in Israel, so I said a Shehecheyanu and watched Logan Lucky, a film starring Channing Tatum (mmmm!) about some rednecks in West Virginia robbing a Nascar race.  Dudn’t get more ‘Murrican than that!  Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have seen it in the U.S. (although, Channing Tatum), but here it felt perfect.  I laughed at all sorts of things the audience didn’t get and I relished hearing some southern accents, which you don’t hear much around here.

After I left the theater, my friend invited me to Arisa, a gay Mizrachi music dance party.  I love Mizrachi music (it’s my favorite music in the world) and have been aching for months to go to this event.  My friend was running later than me, so I showed up alone.  The security guard patted me down and then asked me to empty my pockets.  I’ve been to a lot of clubs around the world and I appreciate the need for security, especially in Israel, so I did as I was told.

He then noticed my circular pill case.  Without my permission, he tried to open it.  He was opening it the wrong way so that all the pills would fall out if he succeeded.  I told him to stop and that I would open it for him.  Again, I was already feeling really uncomfortable with this invasiveness, but I understand the need to avoid drugs getting into the club.  I explained to him what the medications were for and the names of the prescriptions.  There is also some writing on the pills, as is typical for prescription medication.  At this point, the guard and his colleague, without my permission, start thumbing through my medications and grabbing the actual pills.  I told them to stop but they ignored me.  Meanwhile, I was having to explain my medical issues in front of other patrons who were waiting behind me.  A female guard even told me that I couldn’t enter the club with my pills.  Eventually they let me in, but I was so angry, embarrassed, and humiliated that I just left.  This is a disgraceful way to treat a customer and to handle someone’s medical needs.  If you can’t distinguish a prescription from ecstasy, you probably shouldn’t work club security.  I plan on contacting them through their Facebook page because I was so insulted.  I won’t complain if you join me 🙂 .

Feeling blue, I headed to Yafo, perhaps my favorite part of Tel Aviv.  My friend got tired so we didn’t end up meeting up.  I was just exhausted.  After a long week, the last thing I needed was some random guy grabbing my very personal medications.

I headed to my favorite baklava shop to see my friend Seger, an Arab from East Jerusalem.  He’s a wonderful, fun-loving guy in his early 20s.  And when I entered the shop, by coincidence, he was blasting Mizrachi music- the same music I was supposed to hear at Arisa.  He gave me free knafeh and we talked in Arabic and caught up.  He showed me his favorite Arab singers and I taught him some English.  I even came out to him and his immediate reaction was to show me on Facebook his gay Arab friend.  I had been nervous about coming out to him, but not a split second passed before I felt comfortable again.  It’s good to feel like you can be your full self.

The night was coming to an end as he closed up shop.  As this is Israel, things went from sour to sweet.  And not just because of the heavily discounted baklava he gave me.

Seger put on Sarit Hadad, whose first CD was my first CD when I was 13, and blasted the music.  We started to dance.  Then, people walking by start dancing.  And before you know it, I’m having my own gay Mizrachi dance party.

I gave Seger a hug and we wished each other Shabbat Shalom.  I told him my night really sucked before I walked into his store and that he made me feel happy.  Since we’re now Facebook friends, he might even be reading this blog.  Thanks man 🙂

Would it have been fun to dance in a room of 500 beautiful Israeli men singing to my favorite Mizrachi songs?  I think so.  And maybe I will find out one day if I’m treated with dignity there.

In the meantime, screw Arisa.  I don’t need to pay 120 shekels to have a gay Mizrachi dance party on Shabbat.  I just need to hang out with an Arab friend at a baklava shop.

You know you’re in Israel when an Arab saves your Shabbat.  Eid Mubarak indeed.

Everything is Better in America

Israelis love, love, love to tell me how much better and easier things are in America.  Aside from several seriously well-informed Sabras who understand the challenges of American healthcare, college education, crime, gun violence, public transportation (or lack thereof), and anti-Semitism, a lot of people here just don’t get it.  On the other hand, a lot of Israelis (including some who say America is better, in an act of serious cognitive dissonance) like to tell me how awful the food is, how naive the people are, and how fake everyone is in the U.S.

In the spirit of shedding light and dispelling myths, here’s my take on what’s better in America and what’s better in Israel.


  • America is the most diverse country on the planet.  430 languages are spoken in the U.S.  There are hundreds of Protestant denominations alone- not to mention Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians of all varieties, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Bahai, Rastafarians, Mormons, and Native American religions.  It’s extremely racially diverse- there are twice as many Asians in the U.S. as there are Israelis in the world.  And seven times as many Latinos.
  • Much more so than in Israel, Americans of different backgrounds work, play, pray, and learn together.  On my high school soccer team, white Christian kids were a minority (and somehow almost all of them were blond!).  Just on one team, off the top of my head 13 years later, we had kids from El Salvador, Korea, Iran, Israel (!), Georgia, Bulgaria, Peru, Cameroon, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Turkey, Russia, and a bunch of Jews.  There were no organized co-existence activities- this was just our normal life!
  • Pluralism.  In the U.S., thanks to the separation of church and state, religion is a personal rather than a legal matter.  This even benefits the Jewish community, where over the course of my life I became friends with Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and even Haredi Jews.  Are there debates between Jews?  For sure.  But the relationships between communities are much deeper in the U.S. than here and there is far, far less vitriol.
  • Ethnic food.  Yes, thanks to the tens of millions of immigrants from around the world, American food is amazing.  I’m really sorry (not sorry) for my Israeli friend who posted about her office in Denver not providing her with suitable vegetables for breakfast (side note- nowhere I’ve been outside of Israel eats vegetables for breakfast).  But the fact is, American food IS international food because we’re an international society.  Don’t come to America expecting your (albeit delicious) Israeli cheeses, yogurts, and tomatoes for breakfast- that’s not what we do.  But we do have immensely better, fresher, and cheaper Thai, Burmese, Indian (southern and northern), Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Laotian, Korean, Nepali, Japanese, etc etc.  Not to mention the best Jewish deli food in the world.  The point is that unlike in Israel, where I grew up, these are not seen as exotic tastes of foreign lands.  They become part of our diet and become American food.  When I spent a summer in Spain, I didn’t miss hamburgers.  I missed Chinese food.


  • Healthcare – I’ve already written a blog about this which I recommend reading.  Israeli health spending per capita is $2910 and in the U.S. it’s $9403.  The number one reason for bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical expenses.  Just two years ago, I had to spend $20,000 on medical care in one year- in addition to the $500/month I spent on medical and dental insurance.  Israel’s healthcare system is ranked 4th for efficiency- the U.S. is ranked 46th.  My friend Dave is battling a brain tumor and has to raise $68,000 for treatment, something unthinkable in Israel.  Please consider donating (and stop whining about Israel’s healthcare).
  • College education – in the U.S., college education ranges from about $9410-$32,410 a year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more dollars for housing or food.  Some schools like Bates are charging over $60,000.  The better the school, the better the job prospects.  Israeli tuition is about…$3000 a year.  Pretty sweet.
  • Fresh produce – yes I just touted American food, which is amazing.  Truth be told, the fruits and veggies here are better.  Perhaps because Israel is small and doesn’t ship grapes from California to New York, the produce is super fresh and extremely tasty.  Other than farmers markets, fruit in America tastes watery.  In Israel, it is full of flavor, inexpensive, and delicious.
  • Weather – this depends on where you are in the U.S. (I’m looking at you beautiful San Diego), but at least compared to D.C., the weather in Israel is much nicer.  Yes it can get very hot, but there is a beach.  There are beautiful rural places to escape to with nice breezes.  When there is three feet of snow on the ground during a D.C. blizzard, Tel Aviv is 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a February day.
  • Caring for one another – this might surprise Israelis, but I find Israelis to be much more willing to trust one another and to help one another than Americans.  I regularly see people step up and help people who are sick, lost, in need of a place to stay, etc- even if they’ve never met them.  These are things that would usually be met with suspicion in America, but here are totally normal.  If you have nowhere to go on Friday night for Shabbat, just tell someone and you’ll be eating a warm meal before you can remember their name.
  • Judaism – yes, the U.S. is pluralistic with a much bigger Reform community than Israel, but the fact remains that the entire country here is a synagogue.  When I walked down the street today, my friend and I heard a shofar.  There is biblical graffiti everywhere- done by hipsters.  My favorite Israeli dancing songs play on juice bar stereos.  All of my holidays are government holidays.  I can go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the morning and a gay Orthodox Torah study in Tel Aviv at night.  There is also unparalleled Jewish cultural diversity (and food!) here- with Jews from dozens of countries represented.  My identity is validated over and over and over again even in ways Sabras don’t recognize.  Here, I am normal.

We won’t even get into the economics of things, because while Israelis decry how much more Americans make, the fact is things are a bit more complicated.  The average Israeli household earns a net income of $56,892 a year.  In the U.S., the figure is $55,775.  For sure, there’s variation by region and industry, and there are different tax burdens.  But the point is- not all Americans are rich (most aren’t) and especially when you consider that significant sectors within Haredi and Arab societies here don’t work, there’s not as much of a gap between Americans and Israelis as some people here think.

In the end, I’m not writing this blog to declare victory or to engage in endless debate.  That feels a waste.  There are beautiful things in America and beautiful things here.  And shitty things in both places.  And I could give many more examples of both.

I chose to be here not because it would be easy, although in some ways it is easier than America.  I made aliyah because it would be meaningful, it would be validating, and it would be inspiring.  In short, because I think it’ll make me happy.  Much like this famous scene from Monty Python, let’s not bicker about who’s right.  Let’s just respect each other’s choices, including mine to become an Israeli.  Because in the end, I’m not asking for your approval or your advice.  I’m here.

Hasidic Game of Thrones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kosher Curry in Ramle

This morning, I felt like crap.  Making aliyah is hard.  I’m far away from my friends and my D.C. Jewish community.  I’m alone.  I’m adapting to a new culture and country.

To shake off the blues, I decided to go on a tiyyul (trip) to Ramle (which can also be spelled Ramla).  A small and fairly poor town, it’s not usually on Israeli or foreign tourist maps.  I went several hours without seeing a single tourist.  And that’s exactly what I needed- somewhere a little quieter and off the beaten path to unwind from the hectic and exciting energy that is Tel Aviv.

First off, Ramle reminds me of the D.C. suburbs where I grew up.  It’s quiet, has about 70,000 residents (almost identical to where I lived before Israel), it’s calm, and it’s diverse.  Much like Montgomery County where I’m from, there are mosques, synagogues, and lots of churches.  I kind of miss seeing churches sometimes.  Ramle is a “mixed city”, meaning there are significant Jewish and Arab populations (and even Karaites!).


I started my adventure at what American Jews might call a “tchotchke store”- odds and ends.  What immediately caught my eye were tons of cheap CD’s- of music I adore.  For 10 NIS a piece ($2.80), I bought Jewish music from Iraq, Tunisia, and Morocco.  As I paid for my CD’s, I noticed all sorts of amulets knows as hamsas.  Some were in Hebrew, obviously for Jews.  Yet I noticed some in Arabic.  I asked the store owners, who themselves were Russian Jews, whether the Arabic hamsas were for Arabs or Mizrachi Jews or both.  They gave the most beautiful answer: “they’re for everyone.  Jews, Muslims, and Christians all need protection from the evil eye.”

I then made my way to an Indian restaurant owned by Indian Jews.  It’s vegetarian and closed on Shabbat, which makes it Kosher in my book, but I’m not sure if it has a teudat kashrut.  I badly miss the ethnic cuisines of America- especially Thai (no, the Thai food in Tel Aviv is not that great), Chinese (cheap, delicious Chinese food of Rockville Pike), and Indian.  As soon as I entered the place, I knew I had made the right decision.  The smells wafted over me as I began to smile.  I sat down by myself and ordered pakora, palak paneer, and naan.  The waiter’s Hebrew wasn’t strong so I spoke to him in English.


At this point, a woman came over to me and asked if I was American.  Turns out, not only is she American too, she’s a half-Persian half-Indian Jew from…Bethesda, Maryland!  Exactly where I lived before making aliyah!  And she knows one of my rabbis from D.C.  The odds of this happening are infinitesimally small.  She’s a tourist, I don’t even live in Ramle.  There are 6 million American Jews and over 326 million Americans spread across 50 states.  What are the odds!  Reminds me of that famous Hebrew school song “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish“.  It’s cool to be part of an international 3,000 year old club.


After this amazing coincidence, I walked through a bustling marketplace, where unlike in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv there are no tourist traps.  Just lots of grapes and candy and tomatoes.  I stumbled upon a Turkish synagogue and then a Tunisian one.  Without asking permission (because that’s how we do in Israel), I just walked in and talked to the janitor who is also a congregant.  His name is Zion and he grew up in the synagogue.  He made aliyah from Tunisia at age 5.  He showed me an original Torah scroll, hundreds of years old, brought from Tunisia.  He also handed me a book which had all the traditional Tunisian Jewish piyyutim (liturgical poems).  Everything in the synagogue was handcrafted and beautiful, including the stained glass.  I told him maybe I’d come pray with them some day.  What a treat.


As I walked by a Crusader monastery, I heard a car blasting Middle Eastern music.  I thought it was Arabic music, since the town is 20% Arab.  But as I listened more closely, I realized it was Mizrachi music, the music of Middle Eastern Jews.  That’s Ramle for you- a town where you don’t know exactly whose culture the music belongs to.  Where ethnic boundaries are blurred and mixed.  Where Russians sell Arabic amulets, where Tunisian Jews pray next to Turkish Jews, where mosques and churches dot the landscape next to synagogues.  Where Indian Jews prepare American olim kosher curry.

Some people might say there’s not a lot to see in Ramle.  To which I’d say I suppose it depends on what you want to see.

As my bus headed back, all I know is my eyes gazed more towards the fields around the town than towards the skyscrapers awaiting me on the coast.



A gay Reform Jew goes to Bnei Brak

Today, I went to Bnei Brak and had a good time.

Bnei Brak is an almost entirely Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) city of nearly 200,000 people right on the footsteps of Tel Aviv.  It is the sixth most densely populated city in the world.  Door-to-door, it was a half hour ride.  Culturally, it’s a million miles away from the bikinis, hip-hop street performers, and pride flags of Tel Aviv.  Inhabited by a variety of Hasidic and misnagdic sects, with a smattering of Modern Orthodox, there are a lot of black hats, swaying peyos, and tons and tons of children.

To many of my more secular friends, the idea of a day trip to Bnei Brak is at best a waste of time and at worst, nauseating.  Please allow me to share what I, a gay Reform Jew, actually found to enjoy in this fascinating city:

Delicious Ashkenazi food – I sorely miss American Jewish food, which is almost entirely Ashkenazi.  I love me some jachnoon and falafel, but it is not what I grew up on.  I had delicious matzah ball soup tonight and it hit the spot.  Ashkenazi culture for secular Israelis has become nearly invisible.  This is due to repression from more hard line Zionists in the early years of the state, when Yiddish theaters and newspapers were shut down by protestors, and due to a desire to fit in in Israeli society.  For the majority of American Jews, Ashkenazi-ness is an essential part of our Judaism and I was happy to see people keeping it alive here.


Hot guys – perhaps it’s from growing up in a more religious Jewish community (progressive American Jews as a whole are more religious than left-wing Jews in Israel), but I find a cute non-bearded guy dressed in 17th century Hasidic garb and a kippah…hot!  I love that he’s boldly Jewish, that he loves Torah, and that he has a certain softness to him.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some strong Zionist men, but seeing a Hasid here reminds me a bit more of the Jews I know from home in the Diaspora.  Which is perhaps why they bug the h*ll out of secular Jews who don’t want much to do with the “old Jew” of the shtetl.

Good music – I love me some Hasidic music.  I bought a compilation of Vizhnitz niggunim sung by artists from Bnei Brak.  I found a really cool music store which has hundreds of different artists, mostly in Hebrew, but some in Yiddish.  Some of the artists were American Hasidim like Lipa Shmelzer who I knew from the U.S.  Quite a number of Mizrachi artists were popular in the store, like Zion Golan and the Revivo Project, which is interesting and shows there’s more cultural fusion going on here than meets the eye.  In general, I noticed more Mizrachi Jews in Bnei Brak than I expected to see and quite a number of shwarma joints, something you’d never find in Williamsburg.

It’s a city – I’ve visited Hasidic Brooklyn (Borough Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg).  You can read some of my thoughts about that community and my visit there in this blog.  One of the big differences between Hasidim there and in Bnei Brak is that the former is a community intertwined with its neighbors.  There are Jamaicans and hipsters wandering through.  It is a neighborhood, not a city.  Bnei Brak is an entire Haredi city and it is really cool to see.  I saw boys and girls playing together.  Both men and women were friendly and willing to talk to me (and I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt).  I had found it a bit more difficult to get people to open up in New York, especially women (even though I also speak Yiddish).  I couldn’t help but think that maybe if Hitler hadn’t succeeded, there would be cities like this all over Eastern Europe.  And I’m grateful that Bnei Brak is a living testament to our fearlessness and our willpower to survive despite antisemitism.

Are there problems in Bnei Brak?  Sure.  I saw a sign today with pictures of hellfire admonishing women to avoid evil and wear headscarves instead of wigs.  I also saw a sign lamenting secular education.  And there are almost no pictures of women anywhere for reasons of modesty.


At the same time, I saw tons of Haredi women wearing the wigs despite the signs.  I also saw secular people and foreign workers wearing short sleeves without anyone batting an eye.  I actually saw a Chinese guy completely shirtless in the middle of the street.  And yes, I saw a young woman in a sleeveless shirt and shorts walking down the street with no harassment.

I’m not here to tell you Bnei Brak is a bastion of progressive thought.  Or that there aren’t problems or that there aren’t Haredi people who are radical or violent.  These things exist (and not just among Haredim).  At the same time, I am concerned because I think the rest of the world tends to paint this community with a broad brush.  I am concerned that some of the anger towards Haredim in Israel isn’t about policies (like Shabbat laws, which are a real issue), but rather about longstanding ideological feuds among the Jewish people and, frankly, prejudice.

Just like any other group of people, there are Haredim who are more friendly, who are more open-minded.  And there are others posting signs admonishing women about their hair styles.  And many people who are somewhere in between.  In the end, we are people and when we start generalizing about hundreds of thousands of people, we are bound to foment prejudice rather than understanding.

I went to Bnei Brak today so that I could observe and I could learn.  Because I believe that if my only source of information about people is the news, then I’ve already lost.  Because my day ended not with stones being thrown at me for immodesty, but rather with a Hasidic guy winking at me and walking into a wedding where the band played beautiful Yiddish music.  Music I understood.  Because Israel is a 2,000 year old delayed family reunion.  We’re just getting to know each other.  Step outside your comfort zone and meet your relatives.  If a gay Reform Jew could find something to like in Bnei Brak, I bet you could too.


When God speaks through graffiti

Last night, I heard my first really racist comment in Israel.  Some people might be surprised at this.  Americans might think that people are way more racist here than they are.  And Israelis might think I might be deaf.  But the reality is, I have heard racist comments here, but this one felt more real.  It wasn’t just a comment, it was a diatribe and it was backed by a lot of emotion.

The very long story short is I was talking to a young guy, around 30 years old, Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern descent.  His entire point of view could be summed up in one comment he made: “Not all Arabs are terrorists, but all terrorists around the world are Arabs.”

There are variations of this phrase around the world.  Some people replace Arab with Muslim.  It is not a uniquely Israeli phrase, as any Google search will show you.

I was disgusted.  I vigorously pushed back against his thinking but it didn’t change his mind one bit.  It didn’t matter how many times I explained about non-Arab terrorists in America or Myanmar or Ireland or anywhere else.  This guy was inconvincible.

Anyone who knows me knows that my Zionism, that my Jewish identity, that my very way of interacting with the world is predicated on finding something to love in different cultures, not trashing them.

Feeling thoroughly discouraged, today I hung out in Yafo.  Yafo is a predominantly Arab town in the Tel Aviv municipality and it has an extensive multicultural history that includes everyone from Jews to ancient Egyptians to Greeks to Arabs.  I needed to be with my people- and today, that meant Arabs.

I talked with a new friend Samir at my baklava hangout.  A nice guy with mostly Jewish friends and an open mind.  Also some delusional thoughts about whether ISIS really attacked Barcelona (because “who are they?”).  And he didn’t believe that terrorists in the West Bank get paid for their acts (they do).  At the same time, he is extremely opposed to Palestinian terrorism and all violence.  And also radically not a radical- he said he won’t even go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, even though his religion demands it, because he’s so disgusted by their extremist and corrupt government.  I left semi-encouraged, though also feeling like there’s a lot of work to do here.


I wandered through Yafo eating Palestinian potato chips, hoping that eating a snack from Hebron would help me heal from the turmoil.  I decided to head to the sea.  I always find some quiet and nature calms my mind.  I had been feeling distant from God and spirituality and kind of hopeless.  The waves gave me some respite and a connection to the bigger things in life.

Then I noticed the most interesting graffiti.  It said in Hebrew “Ramsey loves Natali”.  To most people, this might just look like an ordinary graffiti.  To me, it was absolutely beautiful.  First off, Ramsey is an Arabic name and Natali is kind of a universal name, though my guess is this girl is Jewish because the graffiti is written in Hebrew.  So most likely a Jewish-Arab romance, which is heartwarming.


And there’s much more to it.  Almost two years ago, my friend Jad passed away.  I grew up with him in Maryland and he was my first Arab friend.  I had had other Arab acquaintances at school, but he was the first person I really connected with.  I learned a lot from him about his Lebanese culture and seeing as how he grew up in a suburb that’s 30% Jewish, he learned a lot about my culture too.  I remember him telling me he could understand a lot of the words at our friends’ Bar Mitzvahs because of his Arabic.  I was so sad to hear of his passing.  You can learn more about what his friendship meant to me in a blog I wrote at the time.

Jad’s younger brother, who I always remember hanging out with after our soccer games- his name is Ramsey, just like in the graffiti.  At a time when I’ve found it hard to bridge the distance between my past life in America and my current Israeli life, I felt like this graffiti was a spiritual lifeline.  A message from God and Jad that hope is found in the most unlikely places.

In my blog after Jad’s death, I wrote: “Just as Jad opened my eyes to his culture, I will make an extra effort to advocate for peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs.”

I love all cultures and all peoples.  There are good and bad individuals (and many in between) everywhere.  With every conversation I have, with every blog I write, with every song I sing I am keeping my promise I made to Jad.  To find people of good faith, an open heart, and willingness to listen no matter what their background.  To laugh with them and to make the world a better place.

I will be the hope this place needs.  Join me.

Druze make the best Zionists (and kubbeh)

Who are the Druze?  The Druze are an Arabic-speaking minority in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  They have their own secret monotheistic religion that was often persecuted by Muslim rulers.

By their creed, they are loyal to the state they live in.  Druze serve in the Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, and Israeli armies.  In Israel, they voluntarily signed a pact with the state for their sons to be drafted into the army.  Other Arabic-speakers are not legally obligated (some choose to volunteer).  It’s important to note that in Israel, many Druze simply identify as Druze and not as Arabs due to their Zionism, their previous persecution by Muslims, and societal pressure to distinguish themselves from the Arab minority.

Today I went to Daliat al-Karmel, a Druze village, to see what they’re all about.  First off, this place is gorgeous:


I started off the day by buying local Druze music.  Or as I like to call it, Druzic.  (The puns are innumerable- just think, if Druze drank, you could have a “Druze booze cruise”!)  At this little hole-in-the-wall shop, I got three CD’s by local singers in Arabic- two pop CD’s and one of wedding/folk music.  I can’t wait to pop them in my iPod.  If your only experience in a Druze village is eating hummus, you are an awful tourist.  Go try something new that expands your cultural boundaries.

I did go eat amazing Druze food, including the best kubbeh I’ve ever had.  For my American friends who’ve traveled in the South- it somehow tasted like hush puppies but better.  My waiter was an 18 year old man who was very excited to hear me speaking Arabic and also told me all about how he’s going into the army in December.

Then I wandered around and ended up at a Druze holy site- the cave of the Prophet Abu Ibrahim.  The Druze visitors kiss the doorway as they enter, much like Jews kiss mezuzahs.  Everyone must take off their shoes and wear long sleeves, including men (some women put a long-sleeved shirt on me).  I wandered into this stone cave where there were candles.  I was all alone, so I spoke out loud to God.  We had a good conversation.  It was one of the most spiritual moments I’ve ever had.  Me and God alone in a cave in a Druze village.


Then I came out and went to a memorial for Druze soldiers who were killed while serving in the IDF.  I was so moved.  These are non-Jews whose community chose to put their lives on the line to protect my right as a Jew to live here and their right to live in peace.  80% of Druze men serve in the Israeli military, a higher percentage than Jews.  As I stood at the wall of names, I said Kaddish out loud for these brave men as the breeze swooshed by and you could almost hear their souls rustling in the trees.  Another powerful spiritual experience.


The memorial is a reminder that not all Jews are Zionists and not all Zionists are Jews.  I’ve met a number of Jewish anti/non-Zionists in Tel Aviv.  Some are disaffected Israelis born here who are looking for a better life in another country or have political qualms.  I can understand that to an extent even if I disagree- this place can be difficult economically and there are real religious and political issues here.  Other anti-Zionists here are olim (new immigrants).  Now this frustrates the hell out of me.  You want to take advantage of the fact that you’re Jewish to receive money from the state, citizenship, and a free flight.  Then, you want to go around telling everyone how you’re not a Zionist?  You might not be a Zionist but you are a hypocrite.  Criticizing Israel out of the spirit of bettering the country is democracy.  Demonizing us is not.  Our people didn’t die for you to have the opportunity to enjoy the privileges of being Israeli only to use that privilege to trash us.  Against Zionism? Then don’t come to Zion.  There are plenty of English teaching jobs in Korea.

Meanwhile, non-Jews like Druze put their lives on the line for us to survive.  And at great cost.  There are even some Druze who are pushing back against military service because of the tensions it creates with their Arab neighbors and because of poorly-funded municipalities.  All Jews should become “Jews for Druze” (I’ve loved that name for years) and help our brethren feel appreciated for their sacrifices.

Before I headed off, I stopped into a store for some water.  As often happens with me here in Israel, this became a three hour Arabic and Hebrew discussion with a local Druze family.  Samir’s family runs the store.  In his own words, he is a secular Druze (something I’ve never heard of but piqued my curiosity).  His wife is a devout Druze woman.  According to Samir, this is legitimate in their community, but if it were the other way around, it’d be perceived as problematic.  He said this was very much “inside baseball” and I loved the insight he was sharing.  All his children are secular Druze and are doing some combination of army and school.  His daughter is studying to be an engineer.

I explained to him I was a Reform Jew (which surprisingly he understood- more than some Jews here I’ve met!).  As we were talking about spirituality and identity, I actually did something very brave and came out to him as gay.  In the middle of a rural Druze village.  I was nervous about his response, but to be honest, he barely made note of it.  We just continued our great conversation as his wife plied me with walnut-stuffed dates.  We even exchanged numbers and he said he’d invite me to a local wedding sometime.  Interesting things do happen here!

In short, we’re taught in the U.S. not to generalize about people.  And usually I agree.  But in this case, I’ll make an exception: Druze are awesome.  I love them.  They are righteous gentiles who support my people and my right to live in my homeland.  And they make delicious food.  I will support them as well.  They’ve earned it.  If you’re Israeli or Jewish or just a good person, support this fascinating minority.  We should never take such friends for granted.

What America can learn from Israel

Tonight, in the span of 5 minutes, I saw what Israel has to teach the world about tolerance and diversity.

Walking back from an outdoor movie in Yafo (which overlapped with the Islamic call to prayer halfway through), I heard a man on a microphone.

The man was talking to a crowd at a restaurant on the roof of a building.  He started to sing.  I figured it was just a guy playing music for tourists.

Then I started to recognize traditional Jewish wedding music, saw a chuppah, and realized it was My Big Fat Jewish Wedding.  People started to dance and shimmy as the music blared.  Definitely the only time I’ve ever walked by a rooftop restaurant and discovered it was a Jewish wedding- on a Wednesday!

Then I headed to a great spot where you can look out at the sea, just meters away.  And there I saw a group of Korean Christian tourists with a guitar singing their songs of praise.  A crowd of secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims watched with great interest.  Women in hijabs swayed back and forth as the Koreans sang their hymns.  Everyone applauded at the end while the song leader said “God bless you” to all of us.  It was beautiful.

As I headed over to a dessert shop, I could hear the ululating (in Hebrew “kululu”, in Arabic “zaghrada”) from the Jewish wedding.

The dessert shop is run by Arabs.  For the first time, I tried malabi, a creamy Israeli pudding dessert likely of Turkish origin.  It was de-licious.

As I chowed down, I noticed the shopkeeper, Zidan, was blasting “Shav El Admati” (I return to my land), a famous Zionist Mizrachi music song about Jews returning to Israel.  So this was an Arab man singing at the top of his lungs a Jewish song about returning to Israel.  While I, an oleh chadash (new immigrant), am singing all the words with him because I learned them while pining for Israel in America.

As the song ended, Zidan gave a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jew directions to the nearest Kosher restaurant.  When the man didn’t understand, the gay Reform Jew (me) showed him the restaurant.

All of this happened in a one-block radius in 5 minutes.  It was the best part of my day.

At a time when America is suffering, I can’t help but think that perhaps my former country has something to learn from Israel.  I’ve often spoken of ways Israel can learn from America, but I think it’s time to turn the tables for a moment.

Tolerance and coexistence don’t just happen at big elaborate ceremonies or through proclamations.

They happen in our day-to-day lives, when people least notice or expect it.  Organically, not by way of grandiose announcements or gestures.  If you put yourself out there in your own surroundings, you’d be surprised what you can find.

In some ways, Israelis are much better at this than Americans, probably better than Israelis even realize.  I’d love to see my fellow Israelis appreciate the miracle we’re living in.

At a time when Americans are struggling, understandably, to figure out how to repair their society, my advice from Israel is this: living your values in your day-to-day life is the best way to make change.  Forget the speeches and the rallies- there may be a time and a place for them, but their impact is temporary and can’t sustain long-term change.

Be the Korean Christian singing for Israelis.  Be the Muslim woman swaying to their music.  Be the Haredi guy asking directions from an Arab shopkeeper.  Be the new immigrant exploring new foods and new cultures.

There’s a lot you can’t control in life, but what you can- enjoy the hell out of it.  Look around you, there’s miracles happening everywhere.  Just look.

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