Eating baklava with a Palestinian

This is going to be really hard to summarize in a blog, but I’m going to give it a go.

Tonight, I had baklava with a Palestinian.

On an evening stroll in Yafo, I stopped by the Abouelafia bakery.  It’s a renowned Middle Eastern bakery that attracts people of all faiths and backgrounds.  As I like to do, I started speaking Arabic with a middle-aged gentleman working there named Adnan.

Since we’re in the Middle East, instead of exchanging pleasantries and saying “nice to meet you”, I invited him to sat down with me and we talked for about two hours.  Also important to add that this conversation was fueled by lots of baklava and knafeh.  And it was delicious.

First things first- Adnan is a cool guy.  He helped me hand-pick the best baklava (there were easily two dozen kinds).  He put on Nancy Ajram for me.  He told me I spoke great Arabic.  He’s even letting me come back and pay him tomorrow since I didn’t realize they were cash only.  Because that’s how we do here.

We talked about everything.  Bibi (we both don’t like him).  Abu Mazen (we both don’t like him).  Hamas (we both don’t like them).  And politicians in general (we both don’t really like them).

We also talked about the shared history of Arabs and Jews, as carriers of two of the world’s oldest civilizations.  Our shared linguistic heritage (Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages).  Our love of learning.

I told him how half of the students in my college Arabic class were Jewish and that many spoke Hebrew, so when the Moroccan professor started speaking on the first day, many Jews were laughing and nodding along with him.  And the non-Jewish students were totally confused.  Because Jews and Arabs have a shared cultural heritage.

Then we delved deeper into politics.  First, he said that he has no problem with Jews.  Jews and Arabs are regular people who just want to eat, sleep, drink, educate their children, and live a happy life.  He said his family’s neighbors back in 1948 (before Israel’s independence) were Jewish.  His family is from East Jerusalem.

East Jerusalem.  We could unpack that phrase for literally eons and still be talking.  So let’s sum it up- in 1948, Israel’s Arab neighbors invaded the nascent country.  Israel won its independence and the parts of the U.N. mandate that were supposed to be a new Arab country were annexed by Egypt (the Gaza Strip) and Jordan (the West Bank).  Jerusalem was divided, with the western part in Israeli hands and eastern part in Jordanian hands.  In 1967, when Israel’s neighbors again tried to invade, they were rebuffed, and Israel won Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, home to many Jewish, Muslim, and Christian holy sites.

While Israel never formally annexed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it did so with East Jerusalem.  The political reasons are complex, but part of the rationale was that Jerusalem was Israel’s (now unified) capital and home to the holiest site in Judaism- the Temple Mount.  Under Jordanian rule, Jewish holy sites were neglected or destroyed and Israelis weren’t allowed to visit them.

The point of this isn’t to rehash history or to debate politics.  It’s to say that since Adnan is from East Jerusalem, he is different from other Arab citizens of Israel.  Arab-Israelis who live in pre-1967 Israel are full voting citizens and variously identify as Arab-Israelis, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, or Palestinian-Israelis.  More often than not in public discourse, they are referred to as Arab-Israelis, though people’s personal identifications may vary.

Folks from East Jerusalem, however, are largely permanent residents, which entitles them to many government services including healthcare.  They are eligible to apply for citizenship if they renounce foreign citizenships, which is a complicated issue involving national identity and bureaucratic red tape.

Going back to the story, Adnan tells me that even though he had Israeli citizenship, since he spent seven years abroad working in Romania (which, incidentally, is where some of my family lived before immigrating to America), when he tried to return to Israel, they told him he had lost his citizenship.  Even though he was born in Jerusalem and his family has lived there for who knows how many generations.

Eventually he got Romanian citizenship, came back, and then through a process of waiting for three years in Israel without being able to travel abroad, he became a citizen again.

I’ve tried to avoid writing about the Israeli-Arab conflict on this blog because I’m sick and tired of people thinking that’s the only thing that’s going on in this region.  There’s a lot of life and beauty here and I can’t think of a single friend who visited China showing concern over the plight of Tibetans (which they should- they’re being violently oppressed by the Chinese government).  The point is I want my journey to be about so much more than that- and I’m tired of the media turning both Israelis and Palestinians into monkeys for the world to watch while other countries deteriorate without notice.

And the conflict is here.  You can’t totally avoid it, no matter what you do.  It landed on my lap because I talked to a guy at a bakery for goodness sakes.

I’ve spoken to many Arab-Israelis in Yafo and had a great time.  Things aren’t always great for them either, but they’re pretty good.  I spent 30 minutes the other day in a McDonald’s talking to an Arab-Israeli girl who’s going to an Anime convention in Ramat Gan and speaks perfect Arabic, Hebrew, and English (in addition to the Japanese she’s learning).  If she lives abroad in Japan, she won’t lose her citizenship, thank God.

But Adnan is not an Arab-Israeli.  He’s a Palestinian (in his own words).  He’s a Palestinian with Israeli residency, caught between a right-wing Israeli government and the absolute insanity that is Palestinian politics.  He lives in a place claimed by two peoples and on some level, isn’t allowed to really fully be a part of either.

I am proud to have made aliyah.  Aliyah in Hebrew means “rising up”.  It is not just immigration.  It is a process by which a Jew returns to the Holy Land to live with his or her people.  It is an adventure and a blessing.  I am grateful to the Israeli people and the Israeli government for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime.

Adnan’s a great guy and also has some problematic and contradictory thinking.  He doesn’t like Zionists and likes Jews (a whole lot of us are Zionists especially here).  He said that Arabs have always treated Jews well historically and that hasn’t always been true.  When he went to get his citizenship back, he ridiculed the Ethiopian-Israeli at the embassy saying she didn’t look like she was from Israel.

The point is not to make Adnan out to be some idealized perfect person or some terrible anti-Semitic monster.  He’s a complicated person with a good heart.  The point of aliyah is to rise up.  I have a right to be here.  Jews have a right to be here and to protect ourselves from harm.  And Arabs – Palestinians – have a right to be here too.

I will use my aliyah to lift myself and my people up.  And I will use it to lift up Palestinians like Adnan who lose their citizenship when moving abroad while I gain mine for moving here.

If my government can support me in building a new life here, surely it can let Adnan keep his dignity.  Those are my Jewish values.

Sexy Jews

No, that’s not an oxymoron.  That’s a fact.

Tel Aviv is filled with a whole lot of sexy Jews.  Sexy men and sexy women.  Gay and straight and lesbian and bi.  Toned muscle, pecs, six-pacs.  Joggers, yogis, boxers, dancers, volleyball players.  Shirtless, sweating, smiling, swimming, sunbathing.  Hot. As. F*ck.

Many of them wear Star of David necklaces or sometimes yarmulkes.  And they speak the language of the Torah as their bodies gleam effortlessly in the sun.

It is a true paradise.

In the U.S., Jews are often portrayed on TV and in films as sex-less geeks.  Men are often portrayed as effeminate and too “bookish” to be sexy (think Ross on Friends) and women are often portrayed as overbearing and unbearable (think Fran on The Nanny).  We are good at being lawyers, doctors, professors- but we almost never thought of as sex symbols.  And even if there are Jewish sex symbols, such as Zac Efron, they are almost never talked about in connection with their Judaism.

That’s not because American Jews aren’t sexy- there are a lot who are!  It’s because the society we live in has told us we’re not and I think we’ve internalized it to a degree, as can be seen in items like the semi-satirical “Nice Jewish Guys” calendar.

Here, that doesn’t exist because we built this society.  The other day, I went to a gay beach in Tel Aviv.  So in other words, other than a few tourists, a gay Jewish beach.  The world’s only gay Jewish beach.  And it was amazing.  Besides the loads of hot guys, I just felt like I could be myself.  I didn’t feel self-conscious speaking Hebrew among gay people or speaking Yiddish to my Israeli friend who came along.  And I didn’t feel self-conscious about looking at the hot guys in a Jewish environment.

Since arriving 3 weeks ago, I’ve been to a gay rights rally, visited a gay art exhibition (including the cover photo for this blog), made friends with a lesbian rabbi, participated in an Orthodox LGBT Torah study group, started living with a lesbian couple, and so much more.  I can’t even think of them as separate items anymore because I don’t have to go out of my way to do them- they are just a part of my life.  As they should be.

For most of my life, my Judaism and my sexuality have felt like two separate worlds.  Identities that aren’t supposed to touch.  Here, in Tel Aviv, they are so intertwined that it finally feels natural.

I’m gay, I’m Jewish, and I’m sexy.  Wanna go for a jog?

 

A hopeful story from the Middle East

In case you haven’t been reading the news (don’t worry if that’s the case- I don’t read it either), the Middle East is heating up this summer, and I’m not just talking about the day it was 103 degrees on the heat index last week.

There are tensions on the Syria-Israel border (in addition to the whole civil war there).  There are also tensions on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem- the place where the Jewish temples of old stood and where the Al-Aqsa Mosque currently stands atop the Western Wall.  If you don’t know what those are- don’t worry.  The point is they’re all Jewish and Islamic holy sites.  Two Israeli Druze policemen were killed by Palestinian terrorists on the Temple Mount and other Palestinian terrorists murdered a family having Shabbat dinner in the West Bank.  Meanwhile, Palestinians are protesting the addition of metal detectors on the site of the first terrorist attack.  I honestly haven’t read enough to know the details, but needless to say, there are probably provocative politicians on all sides who’d like to take advantage of this moment to escalate things.

So the only thing that really matters from that whole paragraph for the purpose of this blog is: shit is intense here.  I am living in a powder keg.  A powder keg I love and is full of beauty.  And also lots of problems.  Good thing I found a new friend in my building today who was hula hooping outside at 3 in the afternoon to hip hop music, because I gladly joined him for a little break from the heaviness.

In the midst of this chaos, there is also hope and it’s the kind of good stuff you will never, and I repeat never, see in any newspaper- not in Israel and most certainly not abroad.  The thing you have to experience here.

The other day, I had a cab driver named Samir.  Samir is a clearly Arab name so as I like to do, I spoke with him in Arabic.  Turns out he’s Bedouin and from Haifa, which is quite interesting because most Bedouin live in the Negev Desert down south, a testament to their nomadic desert roots.  Turns out, he’s married to a Kavkazi Jewish woman who converted to Islam in order for them to be married.  In Israel, all marriage is through religious channels, so if you want an interfaith marriage, you have to go to Cyprus to get a civil marriage and come back.  We’ll save more details for a future blog.  He and his wife are raising their kids Muslim but they speak Hebrew at home and are sending their kids to a Jewish school (they could have opted for an Arabic-language school instead).  In addition, the kids are currently quadrilingual and are in elementary school.  They speak Hebrew, Arabic, Kavkazi (a Jewish language related to Persian), and Azerbaijani.  They will also learn English in school, making them quintilingual by middle school.

We talked about the immense cultural and religious diversity his children will experience.  He said he wants them to know about Judaism and Islam and other cultures and religions.  I told him how in the U.S., people of all different backgrounds study, play, and grow up together.  It was an amazing, complex, and beautiful bit of gray space in a land where all too often things seem black and white.

I’d like to encourage you to spend a little less time on NewYorkTimes.com or Haaretz and a little more time getting to know real people.  People in your neighborhood, people around the world.  If you have the chance to come here (or already live here), let’s explore together.  If you’re in another city, get to know your neighbors.  It is good to be well-read and it is also not the only way to be well-informed.  Step outside your comfort zone, embrace your humanity, and we’ll see our way out of this crisis.  Or at least get a well-deserved break in an oasis of peace.  One conversation at a time.

My first Israeli protest

Today I went to my first Israeli protest.  Not a pro-Israel protest, but an actual protest inside Israel.

Recently, the Israeli government announced that it recommended to the Supreme Court that gay couples not be able to adopt.  In twisted circular logic, they claimed it was because of the prejudice kids would face because of people who were anti-gay.  Just like the current government and this very policy they’re promoting.

Needless to say, LGBT Israelis and allies were really pissed off.  Including me, because I’m now one of those people.  Thousands of people protested with colorful signs, shouting chants, and cheering with speakers who affirmed their identities and criticized Benjamin Netanyahu’s backward government.

One thing that was interesting was that, being from DC, the crowd seemed small to me.  If I had to guesstimate, there were 5-10,000 people there maximum.  I’ve been in many, many rallies in D.C. that were over 200,000 people- on issues ranging from immigrants rights to pro-Israel to gay rights and beyond.  And I was at Obama’s first inauguration which had approximately 1.8 million attendees.  So my perspective is influenced by my personal experiences at much larger rallies.  That being said, Israel is a very small country compared to the U.S. (8.5 million vs. 323 million), so according to my Israeli friends, this was a sizeable protest.  Always good to consider how someone who grew up here might view things to put it in a new light.

What was very clear was this crowd was fired up.  People were angry and enthusiastic.  And there was a real sense of community and common purpose.  Their rally chants could be improved (some were really long and hard for people to follow)- but I feel confident that I can help with that.  Rally chanting is one of my favorite things to do, as some of my protestor friends in D.C. know.

The crowd was fairly diverse too- you had people from several different youth movements and political parties (although not a single coalition-member party was represented, which is shameful).  I was particularly proud that the rally was co-sponsored by the Reform Movement- my movement.  Not a single other religious organization was represented.  I was never prouder to be a Reform Jew.  You had all the colors of the LGBT spectrum present- and mentioned quite clearly in the speeches.  I’ve definitely been to some protests in the U.S. where the emphasis was quite clearly on the G in LGBT and not so much on the other letters.  Not here- everyone was welcome.

After I started feeling tired and hungry, I went to meet a friend for a happy hour.  There was this group of olim (new immigrants) and I started talking to one woman who was French.  I was really excited because I love speaking French so we got to talking.  She told me she was Modern Orthodox and that while people were more traditional in France, she preferred the more modern streams of Orthodoxy she had encountered in Israel.  She saw a gay rights sticker on my shirt and asked what it was about.  I explained that the government was against me adopting children because I was gay.  And she had the gall to actually say, to my face, that she didn’t think gay couples should be allowed to adopt either.  To put this in perspective, she was probably 25-30 years old, was finishing her Master’s thesis, and was looking for jobs in high tech.  Not exactly the stereotypical profile of a bigot.  But a bigot nonetheless.

She proceeded to tell me that actually she preferred gay couples to single people.  She thought single people absolutely shouldn’t be able to adopt.  She would rather a gay couple adopt than a single person.  And, in her opinion, straight couples should get preference over both because that’s what’s best.

I was in utter shock.  I thought Tel Aviv was this diverse, international, progressive Jewish paradise where people loved gays.  The prejudiced people live in the “other Israel” (read: everywhere outside of Tel Aviv- the periphery, Jerusalem, etc.).  And while there is a lot of truth to that (it’s an extremely gay city with a lot of progressive people and other parts of the country can be more conservative), there are also people who don’t fit that mold.  There are clearly people in Tel Aviv who are bigots.  There were also some Modern Orthodox people at the rally protesting for my rights (and in some cases, their own because they were gay themselves).

The point is Israel is not black and white.  There are confusing gray spaces that require careful navigating.  I thought I could count on a highly-educated young French Jew to support me and I was wrong.  I also saw Orthodox people at this rally wearing yarmulkes.

Israelis like to tell me that life in Israel is “lo pashut” – not simple, not easy.  Well no shit!  Life isn’t easy in America either, which is part of why I’m here.  We have our own insane politics, our expensive healthcare, our gun violence, our poverty.  We have our issues too.  And so does Israel.  And one of them is gay rights.  Israel is by far the most progressive country in the Middle East on gay rights and it also is not a place where I feel equal.  It has a lot of work to do and I intend to be a part of the community that makes it happen.  Join me, here or abroad, in fighting for my right to equality.  I was part of the movement to pass marriage equality in America and I intend to win here too.  “Yes we can” is not a dream- it’s a statement.

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Israeli socialized healthcare

Israel has many beautiful things: a gorgeous seashore, delicious Middle Eastern food, a sense of empowerment for the Jewish people, a multicultural society, and much more.  It also has its share of challenges- low salaries (relative to the U.S.), endless bureaucracy, regional conflict, and so much more.

I’d like to focus right now, though, on one of the best aspects of living in Israel: socialized healthcare.  In Israel, everyone, by law, has health insurance.  It is provided through one of several government-approved plans.  Approximately 4-5% of your salary is deducted automatically, on a progressive scale, and you simply have health insurance.  If you want the super-duper supplemental insurance which covers things like massages and acupuncture (yes, you read that right American friends), it costs…$32 a month!  There are no deductibles, no pre-existing conditions, and no premiums.

To an Israeli, this might hardly seem noteworthy.  But allow me to explain how healthcare works in America.  When I lived in the U.S., I was self-employed.  I paid $500 a month simply to have health insurance.  There are literally millions of Americans who have no insurance at all- which could result in emergency room visits costing many thousands of dollars if they get sick.  People literally go bankrupt in the U.S. because of healthcare costs- they could even lose their home.  In addition to my $500/month premium, I also had to pay what’s called a “deductible”.   A deductible is the amount of money you personally have to pay before the insurance company starts paying anything for your treatments.  Since my plan was very high-quality (by American standards), my deductible was fairly low: $1200 for in-network (doctors that worked with my insurance company) and $2000 for out-of-network (doctors that didn’t work with my insurance company but might be the best ones for what I need).  That means that, before the insurance company will even pay one cent for your treatment, you may have to pay as much as $3200 in addition to your monthly $500 fee.  Even after you “hit your deductible” (meaning you’ve paid these amounts), the insurance company only covers part of your treatment and you or your doctor have to submit paperwork to the insurance company each time, which may decide they don’t feel they should pay for your treatment.  Sometimes, they’ll only tell you what they’ll cover after you go to the doctor.  And sometimes, the insurance companies will not cover your treatment.  Please re-read that Israeli friends- sometimes, even with health insurance, you will not get any payments from the company.  In short, this is like playing Russian roulette and it can be very, very, very expensive.  I’ve had years where, including medicines, doctor’s appointments, and insurance payments, I’ve paid $15,000 for healthcare- or more.  Just for that one year.

So now perhaps you can see why I’m in awe of the Israeli healthcare system.  Today, I went to get my healthcare card.  It took all of 20 minutes.  There is an app I can use to schedule my appointments.  All medical records are digitized (oh yeah, Israeli friends- you often literally have to send pieces of paper between your doctors in the U.S. because there is no centralized healthcare system).  I’m only beginning to learn the system, but I can already say that it is leaps and bounds ahead of what we have in the U.S.

There are a lot of things Israel can learn from the U.S.  This is something Americans can learn from Israelis.  Socialized healthcare works.  It is not a theory, it is a fact.  At a time when the American government is cruelly trying to dismantle Obamacare (which in and of itself it not even that great of a system, but was at least in the right direction) and kick millions of people off insurance, Israel guarantees all of its residents healthcare.  Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian.  Rich and poor.  Young and old.

Healthcare is one of the reasons I made aliyah.  Some things are easier in the U.S. than Israel, but healthcare is absolutely, without a doubt, not one of them.  I was tired of my hard-earned money going to greedy insurance companies and wondering when or if my medical conditions would be treated.  I’ve made a long list of doctors I’m going to go see and I can’t wait.  I’m also going to get a lot of massages because they’re awesome and are a huge stress relief.

Health is life.  Without it, you can’t do anything.  I’m glad and grateful I live in a place that values it.  And I pray that the American government learns from its ally what it means to take care of your people’s health.

My New Minority Identity: American

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli folk dancing on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

A 10 minute walk to Yafo

I live a ten minute walk from Yafo (also called Yaffa in Arabic and Jaffa in English).  It is a town that has been inhabited since about 7500 BCE.  Take a moment to digest that, because I sure am.

Yafo is on the water- there is a beautiful beach.  And I now am blessed with the ability, when I’m feeling stressed or want to chill out, to walk half a mile and gaze at the Mediterranean Sea.

I’ve always wanted to live by the beach and I’m now living that dream.

I wasn’t sure what to do tonight, but a friend had mentioned there was a free festival in Yafo.  She wasn’t able to come in the end, but since it was so close, I made the walk anyways.

Along the way, I saw a boxing gym- I’m considering taking up the sport so I took down the information.  As with almost all doors in Israel (I’m still getting used to this, it’s pretty cool!), there was a mezuzah.  And inside were some sweaty (and ripped) people boxing.  Looked like fun.

I continued along the way until I got to a 15th century mosque that was broadcasting Islamic chanting.  It had an eerie and beautiful green light and I just stood, closed my eyes, and soaked in the chanting.  What a beautiful moment.

I made my way along the old brick streets until I came across a whole series of bustling outdoor cafes.  One of them had a man singing Greek music, so I stopped for a while and just listened.

Then I saw the most delicious-looking gelato place.  I went inside and there were all sorts of decadent flavors.  What most stunned me, as an American with many Indian friends, was to find KULFI gelato!  Not something you’d expect from a beachfront Mediterranean town.  I ate it and it was goooood.

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Post-gelato coma, I walked towards the beach.  I passed a Georgian Jewish restaurant and then came upon a beautiful promenade.  I saw a Muslim family (they were speaking Arabic and the woman was wearing a hijab- Yafo is a very diverse town of Muslims, Jews, and Christians).  I just approached them in Arabic and started asking about this beautiful town.

Turns out the father owns a grocery store.  The daughter speaks English, French, Arabic, and Hebrew- because she studies in ALL FOUR LANGUAGES at a Catholic private school with Jews, Muslims, and Christians.  Please, American friends, re-read how many languages she studies in.  Because I spoke with her in all of them and she really does speak them all.

Her family told me Yafo is known for its hummus (which they insisted was superior to Jerusalem hummus) and its seafood.  That, in their opinion, the three religious groups all got along well.  They even told me about how they make the hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca)- apparently there is a special treaty that allows Israeli Arabs to go to Jordan, get a special travel document, and then enter Saudi Arabia (which does not have official relations with Israel).

They were a truly friendly and approachable family and I love getting the chance to practice my Arabic and learn about my new home.  This will probably be worth many more blogs (people write books about it and only scratch the surface), but I do feel a special obligation to learn more about Arab culture here.  It is becoming more clear to me as the jet lag fades and reality sets in that I am not only a Jew coming to join the Jewish people here.  I am now also an Israeli- and not all Israelis are Jewish.  Just as I remember what it felt like to be a minority in the United States, I want to make a special effort to reach out to Arabs here because they are also a part of this society.  And they have their own unique culture, history, and identity which I want to better understand.

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After talking to the Arab family, I headed up to the festival.  In front of a historic Crusader church, there were parties, live music, and people from all over the world.  The Maccabiah Games were in town, which meant Jewish athletes from all over the world were in Yafo celebrating.  I met Germans, Russians, Canadians- I saw people from Uruguay, Argentina, France.  I spoke a million different languages- and heard a million more spoken.

As I walked home after this fun-filled multicultural evening, I stood in awe.  I come from one of the most diverse and international cities on the planet, Washington, D.C.  And I had to say that just taking a 10 minute walk from my apartment, I felt right at home.  Yafo is a vibrant, ethnically diverse, 10,000 year old city.  It’s right at my doorstep.  After the boxing studio, next to the Indian gelato stand, right above the sea.

 

Listening to bluegrass in Tel Aviv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking about the Holocaust over Indian food

Israel, as I’ve discovered, is a place where absolutely extraordinary life-changing conversations happen every single day in the most mundane places.  On the bus, in a restaurant, even with your taxi driver.  You don’t need to go to a synagogue to learn here, you just need to open your mouth and ears.

For example, the other day I met a friend’s friend.  She’s a sabra (native Israeli).  We’re eating at an Indian restaurant and as we’re chatting, just casually mentions she’s a third-generation Holocaust survivor from Poland.

I can’t really remember anyone saying something so profound, personal, and shocking over naan and chana masala in the U.S.  And she didn’t look visibly upset- more just like she was sharing a fact about herself.  I’m from Washington, D.C. and like sushi and she’s a third generation Holocaust survivor.

She told me how her grandparents, even after years in Israel, would eat every last scrap of food off their plates at every single meal.  Even when they weren’t hungry anymore.  She told me how she and her siblings would “sneak” food off their grandparents’ plates so they wouldn’t over-eat.

She told me how her parents didn’t want her to go on her school trip to the concentration camps in Poland (because yes, that is something every Israeli teenager does as part of the national curriculum).  Her parents were angry that their tourist dollars were going to a country that sadly still is home to many anti-Semites.

She told me how her grandmother could forgive the Germans for the Holocaust- they were from a foreign land killing foreigners.  But she couldn’t forgive the Poles who aided them- because they betrayed their neighbors and many did so willingly and joyfully.

We continued the conversation for a while, but then slipped into other topics like her job, the Reform Movement (incidentally she studied with a Reform rabbi I know here in Israel!), the food, and other things.  We laughed, we joked, we ate.

She rode the bus home with me and got off at her stop.  On her way to her boyfriend.  To chat, to watch TV, to drink tea, to go to bed.

Just another Israeli day.

 

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