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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

American Nazis, Syrian refugees, and baklava

Today on many levels was just a normal Israeli day.  I ran around doing errands, dealing with Israeli bureaucracy, hearing my favorite songs blasted from cars on the streets, and walked down the beach to Yafo.

That is exactly what made today so weird.  In America, today was not a normal day.  As I could tell from post upon post from my friends in the States, something big was happening.  Neo-nazis and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a rally in Charlottesville, VA, a beautiful, musical college town which I have fond memories of.  I’ve been there twice, heard great live bluegrass music, and hiked in the nearby mountains.

One of the Nazis literally drove their car over a counter-protestor, killing the woman.

On the one hand, this was shocking.  I lived in the U.S. almost my whole life and I’ve never heard of a massive Nazi rally, even in the most conservative parts of the country.  Estimates are that 1,000 people came.  For something that’s supposed to be fringe, that’s a shockingly large number of people to come to a random town in rural Virginia.  For any Israelis shaking their heads saying this is “overblown” (מוגזם), you are naïve and literally know nothing about America other than Britney Spears and Times Square in New York.  You complain all the time how Americans are so “polite” and never say what they think.  So if that’s true that we keep our opinions to ourselves, then 1,000 Nazis showing up at a public rally (not approved by the police) is a very big deal.  Get your heads out of the sand and realize that if this phenomenon grows in the U.S., it’s going to affect Israel and the rest of the world big time.

While this rally was shocking, it was not surprising.  I’ve experienced a lot of bigotry in the United States.  I went to a sleep away camp in North Carolina for many years and I actually met a camper who told me he was in the KKK youth group.  I told him I was Jewish and he said “I don’t mind the Jews as much, I just hate those n*ggers”.  While riding the Metro in D.C. I’ve been called a spic.  At my progressive liberal arts college, Wash U, my roommates once had to defend me from a fellow student who was homophobic and trying to attack me- in my dorm.  At the same school, I wanted to go with another gay guy to a dance and the people there told me “it’d be better if you didn’t, they won’t like it.”  At my diverse suburban high school, a girl once told me “you’re cool, you’re not like the other Jews who are all loudmouths and stingy.”  I was holding hands with a guy once in the D.C. area and a man followed us yelling “faggot” until we snuck into a restaurant.  As recently as a year ago, I was literally thrown out of a taxi cab by an evangelical pastor for being a gay Jew.  To this day, I still find it hard to wear the rainbow yarmulke I wore on my head in that car.   And that makes me sad.

The examples I gave above- I could give many dozens more.  I think every minority in America can.

That’s because Nazism and bigotry are not new to America.  There was a pretty strong Nazi Party in America in the lead-up to World War II, to such an extent that many believe it caused Franklin Roosevelt to reject Jewish refugees who were later sent to death camps.  Of course the Ku Klux Klan has been murdering minorities for 150 years- African Americans, Jews, Catholics, Latinos, you name it.

My point is this- while in some ways we’re witnessing a new and scary phenomenon, in other ways, it is a revival of long-standing American social movements.  What this means is this is not about any one person alone, it is about a movement.  You can’t extinguish a movement with an impeachment or an election.  You have to solve deep-rooted societal issues (I think many of which are economic and addressed by neither political party) and ultimately extinguish the hatred.

To my friends in the U.S.- my heart is with you.  Remember that with all the anger, it can be easy to misdirect it towards people who might otherwise be open to your message.  Practice self-care and keep an open heart as you try to build a better society.  Focus on what you can control and accept that there are things you can’t.

I found it strange today.  I couldn’t figure out why I was so upset.  I knew I was upset about what was going on in America- that I was worried for my friends.  But things were great here.  The sun was shining, I was eating a delicious chicken shnitzel, and I felt safe.  Everywhere around me were Jewish songs, Jewish signs, Jewish policemen, Jewish everything.  While Nazis marched in America, I couldn’t have felt safer.

I felt all sorts of conflicting feelings.  The pride for having predicted this would happen.  The relief and happiness that come with having made a good choice to make aliyah to escape these problems.  Deep sadness for the state of America.  Fear for my friends’ safety and well-being.  Anxiety for my non-Jewish friends who can’t make aliyah and hoping they’ll find a sense of security.

Overwhelmed with emotion, the 103 degree heat index, and the LOUDNESS of every Tel Aviv street, I raced towards the beach.

The beach at night is perhaps the only (fairly) quiet place in Tel Aviv.  Tel Aviv is a city smaller than D.C but with the energy of three New Yorks.  Sometimes, I just want some friggin’ peace and quiet.

I hopped on the phone with my friend Shadi, a Syrian refugee living in Erbil, Kurdistan in Iraq.  Shadi is my Arabic conversation partner, even going back to when I lived in the States.  Through the organization Natakallam, I pay to practice my Arabic and Shadi earns a living.

Shadi is awesome- he’s Kurdish, so we love talking about our minority experiences.  He’s also extremely open to my Judaism and my gay identity.  Whenever I’m in need of some positive energy and affirmation, I hop on Skype.

Today, I told Shadi all about what was going on in America.  How I felt happy in Israel and how I felt scared for my friends.  How I felt guilty for feeling happy with my life here while my friends suffered.  I compared notes with how his experience was as a refugee.

And then he opened up.  Turns out, Shadi’s mom and dad still live in Qamishli, Syria where he grew up.  Four years ago, he fled to Erbil, a Kurdish city in Iraq, both because of the civil war and because his wife has leukemia.  Apparently, treatment is much less expensive in Iraq.  So as to allow him to focus on helping his wife with chemo, his daughter stayed seven months with his parents in Syria- in the midst of a civil war.  Thankfully his daughter is reunited with him and his wife now and he is learning coding so he can be a computer programmer.  One day he hopes to return to Syria.

Interestingly, Shadi and I both chose to escape bigotry (there is intense persecution of Kurds in Syria) by going to places where our peoples are the majority.  There’s something about living in a place where you’re normal that’s healing and gives you a great sense of security and validation.

I don’t share Shadi’s moving story to try to minimize my own pain or that of my friends in the U.S.  Rather, I share it to put things in perspective.  Things are bad in America right now.  Fortunately not yet to the extent that they are in Syria, which makes me count my blessings and helped calm my anxiety.

Yet things in America will get worse.  Several years ago, when I told my friends Donald Trump would become President, they thought I was nuts.  Putting aside the question of whether you support him or not, my prediction was correct.  All the babbling idiots on CNN and MSNBC and the pompous writers in the Washington Post didn’t see it coming because they live in a bubble.

Now they ponder how the courts or the elections or this and that will help.  It won’t.  Time to accept reality- American democracy is unraveling.  Either it will be stitched back together by an engaged and powerful citizen movement.  Or it will die.

To my American friends- I’m praying for you.  Even as I write this.  I love you and I want you to be safe.  You have to decide how to move forward.  Want to stay and fight for a better America?  Absolutely your right and your choice and I applaud you.  Want to get the hell out and build a life elsewhere like I did?  I totally support you.  Just understand what’s going on so you can make an informed decision.  I think there is a substantial possibility that the U.S. is headed for a civil war or intense civil strife.  I hope to G-d almighty I’m wrong, but just be prepared that this is a real possibility and plan accordingly.  If there’s any way I can help, in particular for those considering aliyah, I’m here.

To my Israeli friends- wake up and smell the coffee.  I’ve talked to several sabras (native-born Israelis) today and nobody seemed to get why this was a big deal.  Even on the website of Yediot Achronot there was no mention on the front page, although there was an article about a woman who became a Jewish food guru.  What happens in America affects us- our foreign aid, our diplomatic support, aliyah (I’d bet there was a spike in applications today), etc.  An America where Nazis are gaining power is bad for Israel and bad for American Jews.  Start paying attention and realize that listening to Rihanna and having a cousin in L.A. doesn’t mean you understand America.  Read JTA, Huffington Post, even the radical left-wing Socialist Worker and the right-wing Washington Times.  You could even go further off the deep end and look for extreme right-wing blogs, but I won’t recommend that on my blog 🙂  The point is be informed because this affects our friends, ourselves, and the world.  I’m always happy to suggest resources or chat.

After my conversation with Shadi I made my way to Yafo, enjoying the summer breeze as it hit my face.  I made my way to my favorite baklava spot, hung out with my friend Sager who works there, and bit into a delicious slice of heaven.  I could’ve sat for two hours telling him all about America, but I just relaxed and soaked in the fun.  The tension in my body faded and I felt safe.

Something I hope my friends in America will feel soon too.

Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic in “occupied” Akko?

Thursday I had a fun, frustrating, and complex experience in Akko.

Akko is a 4000+ year old city continuously inhabited since the Bronze Age.  It has been home to Canaanites, Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs (Christian and Muslim), Crusaders, Ottomans, Brits, and most recently, Israelis of all stripes.  It also has a Druze and Baha’i population, being home to the resting place of the founder of the Baha’i religion.  So basically it’s diverse and historic as f*ck.

My initial intent was to write about my experience on a boat.  I was exploring the historic city and noticed something curious- almost everywhere around me, people were either Arab or ultra-Orthodox (Haredi).  From now on, I’ll use the term Haredi since that’s preferred by people in that community.

It was interesting to see women in hijabs flowing by men in black hats.  Very Jerusalem-esque, but at least in this part of town, absent any other secular or traditional Jewish communities that you’d find in the capital.

Honestly, I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable.  You might expect a gay Reform Jew to head for the hills at this point, but frankly I found it more interesting than threatening.

Then, I found a boat.  It was a 10 shekel ($3) boat tour.  The boat was being driven by an Arab man and was blaring Hasidic pop music (which I happen to like).  On board were two Haredi families…and me!  The scenery was exquisite.  Here are some pictures from the ride:

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I started talking with Haredi family #1 in Hebrew.  They were super sweet and congratulated me on my aliyah.  They live in Bnei Brak, a Haredi city right next to Tel Aviv.  When I said I lived in Tel Aviv, they said “oh we’re neighbors!”.  They also helped me find a legit Ashkenazi restaurant in their city so I can get my fill of the foods I grew up on.  He even said I could just come to their house some time for a home cooked meal!  Falafel is great, but I miss my whitefish salad and kugel.

Then I overheard Haredi family #2 but they weren’t speaking Hebrew- their girls were laughing and taking selfies…in Yiddish!  Whoa!!  This got me very excited!  I started talking to them in Yiddish and it turns out they’re Vizhnitzer Hasidim from Borough Park in Brooklyn and were in town for a wedding.

They were polite but a little less warm than the other family.  I think it’s because they thought I might be ex-Hasidic (seeing as so few non-Hasidic American Jews speak Yiddish anymore).  The father kept asking me for my Hasidic lineage, to which I kept replying that I don’t have any (that I know of).  At first, I was kind of annoyed for having to repeat this over and over again.  Then, I realized he was playing the timeless game of Jewish geography.  Turns out, he knows some Adlers and was trying to see if we were related.

Before I got off the boat, I made some chit chat with the Arab driver in Arabic.  But he was too busy taking pictures of the other boats (should you be doing while driving?) for anything too in-depth.  But a friendly guy.

So there I was, on a boat, speaking Hebrew, Arabic, and Yiddish.  The progressive gay Jew hanging out with Haredim and Arabs.  While to a number of secular Israelis and even some Modern Orthodox Jews, a city teeming with Arabs and Haredim is their worst nightmare for Israel’s demographic future, I actually found the experience fascinating and rather benign.  I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate concerns for Israel’s future, but in the end we’re all people.  Among groups that, at least if all you do is read The New York Times, you’d think would be ripping each other’s throats out, there was a pretty basic coexistence that was refreshing.

Then, I made the mistake of the internet.  On my way home from Akko (Israel has a pretty clean, efficient, and cheap inter-city train system, something America might get around to one day), I opened Youtube to find dabke music from Akko.  Dabke is an Arab folk dance found in Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, and Jordanian culture.  It sometimes has nationalist overtones.  Overall, it is fun.

There are videos of dabke in Akko on Youtube, but several of them had (in my opinion) inflammatory titles like “Dabke in occupied Palestinian Akko”.  There was even a video from neighboring Haifa, which has a recorded Jewish history going back to 200 C.E., about 450 years before Arabs conquered the area.  The Haifa video was entitled “Palestinian dabke in ‘Haifa’ in the heart of Israel”.  I’m not sure exactly why Haifa was in quotes, but if the angry back and forth in the comments section was an indication, the title was meant to be provocative.  Side note: never read the comments section of anything ever.

I then read an article that said an Arab man in Akko claimed Jews were pushing his people out so they would go live in Europe instead of Akko.  He said Jews were given preference for new housing.  The first sentence seems specious because if Jews are trying to push Arabs out of Akko, they’re not doing a very good job because there are a lot of Arabs everywhere.  Unlike in everywhere else I’ve seen in Israel, I even saw signs with Arabic on top and Hebrew on the bottom.  That being said, it’s true that during Israel’s War of Independence, many Arab communities including Akko were displaced- sometimes voluntarily and sometimes under pressure from Israeli troops.  It’s also true that there has been discriminatory housing policy, so even if this man was exaggerating, there may be truth to what he is saying.

Then, for things to get more depressing, apparently there used to be a larger Jewish population in Old Akko, going back a long time.  However, due to demographic changes they moved to other parts of the city.  Then, apparently the Islamic Movement, an Islamist organization, removed the signs to historic synagogues and replaced them with quotes from the Quran.  If this is true, this is truly depressing.

I began to feel deflated.  Was the coexistence I was seeing everywhere just a facade?  Do Israeli Arabs really just see me as an occupier like the videos on Youtube indicated?  Do they know nothing about Jewish history in this land (or elsewhere)?  Were Jews really pushing Arabs out of Akko or discriminating against Arabs in housing?

These are all complex questions that deserve sophisticated and well-researched answers.  I don’t have the expertise at this moment to answer them all right now.  I do believe people are entitled to different narratives so long as they respect each other and empathize.

What I can say is this: Arab identity in Israel is diverse.  Half of Arab citizens of Israel recognize the right to a Jewish state.  Half don’t.  26% identify as Palestinian, 36% percent as Palestinians in Israel, and the plurality (37%) as Israeli-Arabs.  Another survey found 64% believe Israel is a good place to live and 43% favor their Israeli-Arab identity over a Palestinian one.  Perhaps surprising to the Western ear is that 24% of Arab Muslims in Israel vote for Zionist parties.

Do some of those numbers sound contradictory or confusing?  Welcome to the complexity that is Arab-Israeli identity.  There are anti-Semites, there are Islamists, there are people who volunteer to serve in Israel’s military, there are Zionists, there are secularists, there are communists, there are feminists, there are nationalists, there are pragmatists.  And some people fit into multiple categories.

So in the end, is the coexistence I saw on that boat a facade?  Are my conversations with Arab-Israelis merely window dressing to deeper prejudices?

Sure, I think that there are some prejudices here that are merely beneath the surface.  When you read about Arabs throwing rocks at Jewish worshipers in Jerusalem or that between 32-48% of Jewish citizens would favor expelling or “encouraging emigration” of their Arab neighbors, you know there is prejudice here.

Was that Haredi man who invited me to his house really just a bigot against secular or Reform Jews?  Was the Yiddish-speaking family that joked around with the Arab driver just faking it?  Are my secular friends reading this blog rolling their eyes and thanking God they weren’t on that boat with me?

Perhaps- we’ll never know.  But rather than stew in cynicism, I’d like to enjoy the moment I had in Akko.  A moment where people pretty much got along.  A gay Reform Jew, two Haredi families, and an Arab boat driver.  Hebrew, Yiddish, and Arabic in Akko.