Talking about the Holocaust over Indian food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just another Israeli day.

 

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What’s this blog all about?

 

One week ago to the day, on July 4th, 2017, I made one of the boldest decisions of my life: to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen.  In Hebrew, this process is called “aliyah”.  Every Jew (even if someone is a quarter Jewish) has the right to this opportunity enshrined in the Israeli “Law of Return”.  As long as you go through the (heavily bureaucratic) process and your ducks are in a row, you are free to make aliyah.  No matter what country you’re from, whether you’re Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or not religious at all.  Actually, even if you profess another faith like Christianity but have 1/4 Jewish roots.  We’ll go into the Law of Return another day in more depth, but for now let’s just say this is truly a unique process.  Immigrating to the United States this is not.  Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike tend to view this not as immigration so much as a homecoming.

When I told my friends I was making aliyah, I got a wide spectrum of reactions.  I heard such varied responses as “congrats!  That’s awesome, good luck!”, which was probably my favorite.  I inevitably heard “are you going there to help Palestinians?” (I love all people, including Palestinians, but this is a bit like asking someone moving to China if they’re going to help Tibetans- probably a worthy cause, but a kind of strange initial reaction to someone moving to another country).  I got asked whether I was concerned about Israeli politics (indeed, a veritable mess, but hardly worse than the batshit bonanza going on in the United States right now).  I was asked about the “demographic threat” (their words, not mine- and asked by a left-wing non-Jew), what I would do for a living, would I feel safe, where would I live, do I have family there, etc. etc.  People were stunned, excited, thrilled, anxious, sad, happy- you name it.

One thing I wanted to make sure to do was to make the process my own.  Everyone had their own reaction to my moving, and in the end, my friends, even with their sometimes frustrating questions, stood behind me and supported me.  But I wanted to make sure the process was mine first and foremost.

One of the reasons I made aliyah was to be with my people.  This is probably first and foremost why I came to Israel.  Having experienced a lifetime of antisemitism and being a minority, I wanted a place where I could be my true authentic self.  A place where I didn’t have to constantly explain or justify my culture, my holidays, my tradition, my mannerisms.  It’s not that all Americans are bigots- as Donald Trump would say “and some, I assume, are good people“.  There’s a lot to like about America- its diversity, its fluidity, its grassroots activism, and of course its delicious ethnic food.  In the end, I will always be American.  But my people have been Jewish a lot longer than being American.  The roots of my culture go back literally thousands of years.  My ancestors have been in the U.S. for about 100-130 years maximum.  It has clearly had an influence, but first and foremost, I’m a Jew.  Why is that?  Because the holidays I enjoy the most are the Jewish ones.  Because I’ll always choose kugel over a hamburger.  Because I feel more at home in a synagogue than a boy scouts den, a church, or a Rotary Club.  Because I talk with my hands and because “mazel tov” slips off the tongue more easily than “congratulations”.

It’s not that I dislike all things American, it’s just that I never really fully felt at home.  When I had to take unpaid leave from a progressive Latino non-profit to observe Rosh Hashanah.  When I was thrown out of a Lyft for being a gay Jew.  When I was berated by a classmate in high school for being a “rich Jew” because I wore a Fossil watch.  When I was told by another high school classmate that she couldn’t believe I was Jewish because I wasn’t a “loudmouth” like the other ones.  When a guy broke up with me because I wouldn’t eat pork.  When a woman I met at a happy hour in DC sent me David Duke videos on Facebook.

Thank God my friends aren’t like that, but this has also been my reality as an American Jew- I could literally write blog upon blog of similar experiences.  When you’re 2% of the population, it can be really hard to feel safe, appreciated, and respected.  Which is why perhaps I’ve always felt close to other minorities.

Hence why I’m here now.  I also came to Israel to find a Jewish partner (very hard to do so in the U.S.- 5% of 2%!), to travel Europe and the Mediterranean, to speak a bunch of languages, to never deal with Winter again, and so much more.

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So back to the point- I wanted to make this process my own.  Many people when they make aliyah take a Hebrew name.  Mine is Matah מטע, which means “orchard” or “plantation” (without the creepy American slave connotation).  I could’ve taken a more typical Israeli name like Matan, Mati, Matityahu- all of which come from the same root as Matt (which is in itself a Hebrew name).  But I wanted something more special.  Matah sounds like Matt but comes from a different root.  It is a biblical word but is an extremely modern sounding name.  It is truly unique, just like me 🙂

When talking to an Israeli friend about my name, I explained that I liked the idea of trees bearing fruit, just like I hope to do when I’m here- to bloom and grow.  She said that was interesting because her first impression was that I was using the name to indicate I was setting down roots.  I loved it.  The truth is, I’m doing both.  I hope to set down my roots so I can bear fruit- to feel a sense of belonging and stability so I can contribute to society and flourish.

That is what this blog is about- it is about the journey of an American Jew to his ancestral homeland to build a new life.  It’s also about maintaining connections with the life he left behind- because I’m not just an Israeli, I’m an American-Israeli.  It’s about exploring the myriad benefits that life in Israel has to offer- and the challenges.

Join me on my journey as I plant my roots to bear new fruit.

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