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:

20170817_13124620170817_14222120170817_145014

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.

20170817_143505

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.

20170817_145136

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:

20170810_18395120170810_18524520170810_184855

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.

Anti-Semites who visit Israel

Tonight, I went to an English-Hebrew practice group.  Not because I particularly need to practice my Hebrew, since I’m surrounded by it all day and I speak it at every opportunity.  But because I wanted to make friends.

There was an interesting cast of characters, including a guy who claimed for 20 minutes he was a porn producer, only to say later he was not.  I spoke some Hebrew, others spoke English, all was fine.

Then I met an exceedingly handsome French guy whose Hebrew accent was to die for.  Even after he revealed he had a girlfriend, I couldn’t stop looking at his beautiful skin and face and smile.  Oulala!

Let’s call him Pierre.  Pierre has a very cushy job at a pharmaceutical company who has asked him to work in Israel for four months before moving him to London.  Not a bad life.  Pierre is actually not Jewish!  This surprised me, because actually there are a ton of French Jews here, many of whom are escaping rabid anti-Semitism in France.  He asked some thoughtful questions about Israeli politics, religious identity, and had an impressive command of Hebrew for someone who’s been here for a few weeks.

I decided he might make a good friend, so we walked for a while together after the event.  Sadly, it didn’t take long for the garbage to come out.  Perhaps feeling liberated from being away from a larger group, he started to tell me all. about. the. settlements.  Please don’t get me wrong- talking about the Jewish presence in the West Bank is a very legitimate political issue and one that is far more complex than the Western media makes it out to be.  I can understand why there are people critical of the settlements (their word) and- just as critically- I can understand why Jews choose to make their home in Judea and Samaria (their words).  There are genuine concerns about human rights violations and there are very real religious and historical reasons why Jews want to live in these places.  I’ll save the political debate for a future blog- the point is I try to have empathy towards different types of people.

Pierre was not so interested in empathy, but more in lecturing me.  The truth is I found it shocking, but not too shocking.  I’ve had many non-Jews, especially those visiting Israel, jump into long-winded speeches about their political beliefs.  Before really even knowing much about me or frankly, Israel.  Unfortunately, so many people around the world view this place solely through the prism of news articles and not through their own personal experiences and relationships here- both with Israelis (Jewish and Arab) and Palestinians.

I often feel like the world expects Israelis and Palestinians to entertain them, like a circus.  One person dies here (doesn’t matter the religion or nationality), and the BBC cameras race to the scene.  It’s front page news.

Yet when a black kid is shot on the streets of D.C. or when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered or when Tibetans are colonized by the Chinese government, the world barely blinks.  The conflicts go on, untended and unresolved.

It’s not that I’m arguing we shouldn’t pay attention to what happens here- we should.  It’s just that the amount of attention that the world puts on this tiny little place is absolutely out of proportion and exacerbates the problem rather than solving it.

In the end, non-Jews who visit here from Western countries should treat this place with respect- including the Jews who live here.  If you want to understand why Jews return to their homeland, you need to learn something about Jewish history.  Plenty of American Christians know what Chanukah is (vaguely), but most couldn’t tell you about the pogroms that brought my ancestors to the U.S.  Or Martin Luther’s antisemitism.  Or the laws that prohibited Jews from owning land in Europe.  Or forced conversions of Jews to Islam in Iran.  Or the myriad blood libels, burnings, discriminatory clothing, or expulsions you can read about here.  And before my American friends chime in with “oh well this is foreign to the U.S.”, you can read this.

My point is this- before you rush to judge another culture (because yes, Jews are both a culture/people and a religion), learn something about it and show some humility.  When I met Pierre, I didn’t rush to ask him to condemn France’s myriad expulsions and massacres of Jews over the course of 2,000 years.  Nor did I ask him to condemn the extensive French collaboration with Adolf Hitler (as an aside, I had a highly educated French teacher who thought the first time French people did something antisemitic was the Holocaust).

Why?  Because I don’t even know him!  If I met a Chinese person, would I launch into a tirade about Tibet?  Is that socially acceptable?  Is that kind?

No.  Because everyone is a human being first and foremost.  If you really want to get to know Israel, you have to get to know Israelis.  Just like anywhere else on the planet.  You have to accept that things aren’t always black and white and that there are reasons why things are the way they are- even if you don’t always agree.  Empathy isn’t about morally approving of everything another person or another culture does- it’s simply understanding where it comes from and acknowledging that all behavior is caused.

There’s a reason why if I hear a Jewish Israeli criticizing settlements it bothers me less than if a French Christian does it.  There are historical reasons for that.  Jews have had to band together over the course of two millennia to survive oppression without a state.  Now that we have a state, we still find our situation fragile as we’ve endured war after war for our existence.  This is a place with eons of trauma that we’re trying to heal from- even as we try to make peace with our neighbors, who have their own issues they’re sorting out.

Let’s say you have a zany uncle.  You laugh about your uncle with your mom, with your cousin, even with your aunt.  But the second some random person at a gas station laughs at him, your back straightens and you’re ready to defend him.  Because you’re family.

For Jews and especially for Israelis, we are a family.  If I’m gay and I use the word queer, it feels safe.  If a straight person uses it, I start to worry that it might be an insult.  I think the same concept applies.

You don’t have to dance around things all the time- let’s talk.  But you do have to be sensitive to my people’s historical experience if you want to talk with me.  Try to understand where we’re coming from.  The fact that you have a Jewish friend and like challah does not mean you understand my history and my identity.  I’d in particular recommend the book “A Short History of The Jewish People” as a great place to start learning.

A while after my conversation with Pierre, I looked at his Facebook profile.  Hoping to find some sign of nuance or interest in Judaism that would abate my anger, I instead found a homophobic quote, a picture of Hitler, and an article posted that mocked Jews who were concerned about antisemitism.  I blocked him.

All goes to show that yes, you can ask good questions about Israeli identity, you can speak some Hebrew, you can be intellectually curious about Judaism, and even visit Israel.  And be an anti-Semite.

 

One Night in Jerusalem

Tonight in Jerusalem was the most jam-packed, exciting night I’ve had in Israel.

It all started with an act of startling generosity.  I was checking out some artists’ studios in Jerusalem and found this particularly beautiful one.  I talked with the artist about her work- including this amazing painting where at first you don’t notice there are people built into the painting and then as soon as she pointed them out, it became obvious.  She said she was inspired by the Exodus from Egypt.  When I told her I was an oleh chadash (new immigrant), she congratulated me and told me “you’ve already made your Exodus”, perhaps the nicest thing anyone has said to me about my aliyah.  She told me she made aliyah from Russia when she was six years old and I felt an instant bond.

We talked about art- I told her I was a poet and a singer and we connected on Facebook so she can see my work.  She asked if I drew and I said I have done a little bit but nothing serious because I hadn’t been taught the techniques.  She said one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.  She said when you’re looking for an art teacher, don’t look for technique.  Look for someone who can help you deliver a child.  That sounds strange in English but beautiful in Hebrew.   “Leyaled” in Hebrew means “to midwife”.  Her point was that the person who teaches you art is supposed to help bring something out that already lies within you and needs to be discovered and nourished.  To help you give birth to a new sense of creativity.  I love it!

On my way out, she gave me a free handmade notebook she had created so I could write my poetry.  I made a new friend in the course of 20 minutes in a way that could take literally years in the U.S.  If you’re reading this Dina, thanks for making my night great 🙂

Then, I asked for directions to the central bus station, but I noticed there were lots of police cars.  I asked the security woman what was going on and she said there was a concert.  I asked who and she said “Shlomi Shabat“, one of my all-time favorite Mizrachi singers.  I bought a ticket immediately and headed to the concert with a new sense of energy and excitement.  Also, the concert was held in a stadium inside a 2,000 year old pool called Breychat Hasultan (The Sultan’s Pool).  So it pretty much doesn’t get any better than that.

Except it does.  On the way to the concert, you have to walk downhill.  On the way, I discovered there was some sort of international festival going on.  There were vendors from all over the world- just off the top of my head, I saw artisans from Panama, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and so much more.  I made a special point of stopping at the Spanish-speaking countries’ booths because I miss speaking Spanish and Latin culture.

I spent a good 15 minutes speaking with a Chilean woman who was really amazed at the cohesiveness of Israeli society.  This is interesting because a lot of Israelis feel we have a very divided society.  She pointed out that a lot of countries in Latin America feel unstable and on the brink of civil war.  She talked about Venezuela and how she feared the country would descend into further chaos (a conflict Americans know little about even though it’s in their own hemisphere).  That she felt there wasn’t any glue that bound that society together.  It’s an interesting thought- that for all the conflict here, there is most definitely a strong social connection here that keeps things together despite the tensions.  I think the United States would benefit from such a glue right now, because I had the distinct feeling when I lived there that there wasn’t really anything that united us.  There are sociological reasons for it, but I hope that Americans can learn something from Israel which is that a sense of social solidarity- even with people you don’t always agree with- can help you overcome difficult moments in history.

Then, I headed to the concert.  It was amazing!  Thousands of people singing and cheering.  Israeli flags waving.  Song after song that I’ve sung- some of which I remember listening to on a CD in my living room as a 13-year-old- 18 years ago!  Some Israelis like to hate on Mizrachi music.  I can understand that everyone has different tastes, but for me it is literally the best music on the planet.  It’s danceable, it’s full of religious imagery, it’s fun, it’s upbeat, and it’s full of emotion.  Here’s a song I like by the artist I saw tonight to give you an idea of what it sounds like.

After the concert, I grabbed a cab to the Central Bus Station.  The driver was Arab, so I spoke to him in Arabic, which made him very happy.  Ahmed and I talked about dialect differences between Yafo and Jerusalem, his relationship with Jews (pleasant but not very deep because their neighborhoods are so separate in the city), and the importance of language in building relationships (he decided to learn Hebrew to learn about his neighbors).  We talked about how crappy politicians are and that the real key to building peace is what we were doing- talking to each other.  I tried to give him a tip but he wouldn’t let me.  A truly kind and open-minded person.

Before getting on the bus to Tel Aviv, I heard loud music.  Sure enough, behind me were a bunch of Breslover Hasidim dancing to techno music about their patron rabbi, Nachman of Uman.  I started filming them and then just joined in.  Because life is fun if you jump in!

I then headed to the bus.  Now this part sucked at first.  The ticket people oversold the bus- and this ride is over an hour long- so some people were standing or sitting in the aisle.  I was one of those unlucky people.  The bus was bumpy and it felt really unsafe.  Frankly, it was the most unsafe I’ve felt in Israel.  Which is interesting consider how the news media obsessively cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when really bad drivers are a way bigger threat to security.

Things in Israel often rapidly shift from amazing to awful and back to amazing again.  My evening had been going great and then BOOM this was my plummet downwards.  Once I got tired of my head banging against the seats as I sat, I stood up and started talking to the people in front of me.  I chatted with one woman who, when I told her I was an oleh, told me her niece just moved here from New York.  She said she is a soccer player and doesn’t know anyone here.  Turns out she lives around the corner from me and I offered to show her around.  A new potential friend.  The woman also told me I had great Hebrew, which helped lift my spirits.  Meanwhile, the young woman next to her was worried about missing her train back to Haifa at 1am, so the woman I was speaking with simply offered her a place to stay.  They literally just met on the bus.

And just like that, my spirits began to lift as we approached the bus station.  Any time I feel down in Israel (which, to be honest, happens almost every day at some point), I remember that things here turn on a dime.  And that if I’m feeling sad or angry, things will turn for the better quickly and suddenly.  And it works.  It really happens.

This is a place with some serious sense of social solidarity, generosity, and kindness.  Not words you’d typically associate with the Middle East, but they are absolutely true so please stop reading the New York Times and just come and experience it yourself.

A free notebook.  A Mizrachi concert.  Chileans.  An Arab cab driver learning Hebrew.  Dancing Hasidim.  And new friends on a bumpy bus.

One night in Jerusalem.

Free baklava as the police sirens wail

Today, I had a stressful day.

I lost my debit card in the Golan Heights, my phone’s data plan stopped working, and I had a long bureaucratic meeting at the Ministry of Absorption.  And that was all before noon.

It ended up working out, but I just felt exhausted and stressed.  So, as has become my custom, I went for a walk by the beach.  I called my friend Jack in Minnesota to wish him a happy birthday and made my way down the boardwalk to Yafo.

I miss Yafo.  I’ve since moved to a new apartment in another part of town, but I used to live right by this beautiful 10,000 year old city.  Every time I went, I just felt the stress lifted off my shoulders as I stared at the Mediterranean, listened to the waves, and talked with the people.

After eating some delicious schwarma, I headed to the Abouelafia bakery, site of my first in-depth Arabic conversation in Israel which you can read about here.  I was in desperate need of a good talk with my friend Adnan but instead I found his much younger coworker Sager who I had met with him.

When I first met Sager a few weeks ago, he was quiet.  I tried to engage, but Adnan and I did most of the talking and Sager looked uninterested.

When I came back this time, from the second our eyes met, Sager looked excited to see me.

He invited me in and we got to talking.

Over the past week, there has been rioting in Yafo.  There have been Arabs protesting against the police, sometimes violently.  I honestly don’t know all the details because I hate listening to the news.

Sager didn’t wait one moment to tell me his opinion.  He is an Arab Muslim.  He is from East Jerusalem.  And in his experience, the police do ethnically profile here and it is quite unpleasant.  At the same time, he is furious with the protestors, who are burning things and causing problems.  He feels that they are unnecessarily damaging relations between Arabs and Jews, who he views as brothers.  In addition, he is concerned for the livelihood of the bakery’s owners and his own job.  If Jews and tourists are afraid to visit Yafo, then there won’t be any business.  This pain will also hurt the dozens of Arab businesses in the area.

We talked about our shared hatred for extremism on all sides.  How the rest of the world likes to obsess over every last problem between Israel and the Palestinians but the world is silent when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered.  I shared with him an Arabic poem I wrote in the Golan overlooking the Syrian border, which he loved.  In his words, the Golan Heights it the most beautiful place on the planet and I think I agree with him.

We talked about what it’s like to be a minority.  Most Jewish Israelis don’t know what it is to be a minority as a Jew.  Part of that is a good thing- it’s a product of Zionism and it’s part of the blessing of having one small place on this planet where we are normal.  Part of it is problematic- I think some folks here have lost sight of the Jewish experience and the sensitivity we’ve often had for other minorities.  My minority identity, which was undoubtedly a burden in the U.S., is to my advantage here.  I can enjoy all the blessings of a validated identity while showing empathy and kindness to the minorities I share this country with.

In between us singing Nancy Ajram and dancing dabke together (yes, this actually happened), Sager thanked me for speaking Arabic with him.  Our whole conversation was in Arabic and while, like in any second language you speak, there were times I didn’t remember this or that word, we got our points across.  My speaking Arabic has made living in Israel a much, much richer experience and frankly I think every Israeli should speak it.  A fifth of the population already speaks it as a native language, not to mention our millions of Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese neighbors.  You don’t have to speak it perfectly to speak it well- give it a shot.  When you speak to someone in their language, their heart opens up.  You will do more for peace by getting to know your neighbors than any lobbying effort or protest.

Finally, as we wrapped up, I wanted to head home and get some rest after a long day.  I kept trying to pay, but he was attending to other customers.  I was getting a little annoyed but he’s a good guy so I waited.

Then the sirens came.  Firetrucks and police cars drove by, racing down the street and wailing.  Sager told me they were dealing with the protestors again.  Our hearts sunk for a moment.

Honestly, I felt pretty safe.  In fact, I felt safer than in most areas of D.C. where I am originally from.  Yeah I might choose to read the news a bit more, but also I might not.  There’s some sense of tranquility with just being able to live in the moment and trust your instincts.

My instincts said that Sager was a good guy.  I tried to pay for the baklava but he just nodded his head and told me to take it for free.  We smiled at each other, gave each other a bro-ish high five, and I grabbed a cab home (better not to mess with buses when there’s rioting).

That’s Israel for you.  Intercultural dialogue.  Baklava.  Racial profiling.  Rioting.  Sirens.  Kindness.  Brotherhood.

You can have your quiet suburb of Kansas City.  I’ll take a place where a piece of baklava means so much more than Baskin Robbins.