Why reading the news is a waste of time here

Ok, first things first- yes, sometimes you do need to read the news.  I, for instance, when planning my trips, search the name of the town I’m visiting to check for safety.  When I heard air raid sirens in my apartment, I lit up my WhatsApp but I also checked news sites.  News has a purpose when used effectively.

And most people do not use it effectively.  For many years (and once in a while now), I just get caught up in the news.  Reading- whether on Facebook or on the news sites themselves- just depresses me.  I get that the media needs to make money so they focus on the most dramatic and often sad or offensive things.  Today, I glanced through articles about anti-Semites boycotting Israel, anti-Semites attacking Germans wearing yarmulkes, Jeremy Corbyn being anti-Semitic, Natalie Portman’s mess, and the likelihood of war with Iran and Syria.  I literally just cried.

It’s not because the words being written are untrue (although sometimes they are), it’s because they are true.  And they suck.  And they’re selective.

Because I’ll tell you what I did the past few days and was not in the news.  I took a bus from my low-income stereotyped neighborhood to three beautiful rural communities just around the bend.  I met an archivist who sat with me for an hour and a half to explain to me the history of his town.  I hiked through a forest in northern Israel to the Druze village of Daliat Al-Karmel.  When I asked some Druze women for directions, they sat me down, plied me with tea and coffee and salads and sweets.  They gave me a huge container of leftovers.  Drove me to the village and added me on Facebook and WhatsApp.  Today, I went to Zichron Yaakov, discovered a beautiful hidden trail, hitchhiked down the mountain to Maagan Michael’s gorgeous Caribbean-like empty beach.  Then, I walked on the sand to Jisr Al-Zarqa, a Bedouin village, where I was the only tourist visible.  I got to hear some pretty cool Bedouin Arabic, talked with a guy about Arabic music, and spent a peaceful bus ride hanging with some friendly Bedouin women.

In the course of about three days, I had been to national parks, a kibbutz, a moshav, a suburb of Tel Aviv, a Druze village, and a Bedouin Muslim one.  The main reason I write this blog is for me- it’s a record of my journeys, it’s therapeutic, and it’s fun.  I like writing, I enjoy it.  The other reason is because these kinds of stories- real and authentic- don’t make their way into the news.  The nuanced, the complicated, the fun, the moving, the heart-warming, the sad.  The full spectrum of the human experience.  Instead of reading like a laundry list of everything bad in the world, I prefer to share something a bit more real.

Because the sad stuff- the anger, the extremism both left and right, the aggression- those all exist.  And sometimes I touch on them.  And I feel that the media, perhaps in the quest for eyeballs and ad dollars, only focuses on the negative.  The things that make you click even though you (and I) don’t want to.  We’re hooked.

Living in a country plagued by terrorism and war, I’ve learned something from my fellow Israelis.  And I want to remind them of it- and teach my friends abroad.  Faced with crazy shit, you have two options.  One is to live in chaos.  Either a constant state of panic or burying your head in the sand and pretending nothing is happening.  The other option is to live in the here and now.  To be present, to enjoy what you can, to be grounded and live your life with gratitude for every moment you have.

That second path is the one I choose and strive for.  It’s the one many Israelis, both Arab and Jewish, manage to pursue much, much better than Americans during these difficult times.  Perhaps because we’re a more communal society.  Perhaps because we’ve been dealing with trauma for longer and know how to better cope with it.  Either way, my gift to Americans reading this blog right now is that spirit of embracing the present.  It’s not to completely detach yourself from worries nor to pretend that shit isn’t going down.  Sometimes, it is.

It’s just that on a day when everyone was talking about Natalie Portman and Iran, a Druze kid was practicing English with me.  I was taking selfies with cows.  I was taking selfies with sheep!  I was listening to the waves of the ocean as I walked towards a Bedouin village.

We all have choices about how we spend our time and energy.  We all have a right to our feelings and we make choices about how we live our lives.

I have opinions about all the “news” items I shared.  And I have a right to them, and maybe I’ll share them- and maybe I won’t.  Because maybe, like tonight, I’ll be too busy meeting other young people in my neighborhood at our first block party.  Organized by a friend I met in a sushi joint around the corner.

Shoot this, boycott that, yell this, scream that.  I don’t really care.  Because the music is blaring so loud around me that I just hope one day you’ll open your ears to listen.

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What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?

No, there’s no racist punchline 😉

This is a question I get a lot.  Sometimes “well meaning” American progressives come here and start calling every Arab they meet a “Palestinian”.  Perhaps out of a desire to validate their identity, but without considering that it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For starters, there are Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  There are also Palestinians in other countries like Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere.  Those in the West Bank are largely governed by the Palestinian Authority and those in Gaza by Hamas.  Israel exerts partial military control within the West Bank/Judea and Samaria and at border crossings.  Gaza is entirely independently governed by Hamas and entry to Israel or Egypt is strictly controlled by the respective governments.  All of those people are pretty clearly Palestinian.  Maybe a few Samaritans in Hebron would identify otherwise- not entirely sure.  But almost to a T, regardless of religion (almost all Palestinians there are Muslim, there is a small Christian minority), these people are Palestinian.

Now, moving westward from the West Bank, there is East Jerusalem.  East Jerusalem came under Israeli control after the Six Day War in 1967.  Because of the sacredness of this city for Jews, Israel treats it differently for legal purposes.  While West Jerusalem was already part of Israel in 1948, East Jerusalem, which was primarily Arab, became officially annexed to the city in 1967.  Meaning, its Arab population has Israeli residency cards.  This allows them greater job opportunities, freedom of travel both within Israel and abroad, and more contact with Jewish Israelis.  There is still discrimination and it’s not on a level that you can compare with the West Bank, for example.  The vast majority of East Jerusalem Arabs would probably identify as Palestinian.  I’ve noticed this anecdotally through my travels there and I believe polls would back this up.  That being said, since East Jerusalem Arabs are eligible to work in Israel, some actually end up working for the government and even volunteering for national service.  Or the Israeli military.  So I think the layers of identity for them would be a bit less straightforward than someone in Ramallah.

Now, on to pre-1967 Israel.  There are several groups of Arabic-speakers in Israel.  First, there are Jews.  Jews have lived in predominantly Arab countries for two millennia.  They lived there, by and large, before the Arabs even arrived.  They then mixed their Hebrew and Aramaic with Arabic to create their own unique Judeo-Arabic languages.  From Morocco to Iraq to Yemen.  Often written in the Hebrew alphabet, like Yiddish.  Sometimes intelligible to their Muslim and Christian neighbors- and sometimes not.  In recent decades, the number of Judeo-Arabic speakers has declined.  And there still are many Jews in Israel who speak Arabic.  Not just those who learn it at school.  But also those, like my Syrian and Iraqi neighbors, who grew up with the language.  The vast, vast, vast majority of these Jews do not identify as Arab.  While some of that is tied to the stigma of being Arab, discrimination against Mizrachim, and the conflict with the Palestinians, there are other factors at work too.  First, there is the fact that Arabs committed massacres against their indigenous Jewish communities in the 1950s and 1960s, which forced Jews to come to Israel.  Most Jews lost their Iraqi, Egyptian, Yemeni citizenship and all their property.  It’d be hard for them not to come to Israel angry and wanting some distance from the people who were supposed to protect them.  Only to find their new Arab neighbors here blowing themselves up in pizzerias.  The other factor is that the Middle East wasn’t always Arab.  Arabs are from Arabia and conquered the region to spread Islam.  Jews have been living in Iraq, for example, since the Babylonian Exile, 600 years before Christianity.  Over a thousand years before Islam.  So to call an Iraqi Jew Arab- that could be a real invalidation of their identity and history.  A small minority of Mizrachim do identify as Arab Jews, often as a way of contrasting with the European elite.  But I would strongly recommend not calling Mizrachi Arabic-speakers Arab and certainly not Palestinian.

Notice we haven’t even gotten to the Christians, Muslims, and Druze.  In general, Arabs who are citizens of Israel do not define themselves as Palestinians.  Here is some polling data:

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Here’s another poll with similar but sometimes contradictory data (perhaps depending on the phrasing of the question- also the first poll doesn’t include East Jerusalem):

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What overlaps is that about 15-20% of Arabs who have Israeli residency identify as Palestinian.  Sometimes hyphenated or attached to the word “Israeli”.  A larger portion identify as some variation of Arab, again sometimes hyphenated as Arab-Israeli or Arab citizen of Israel.  And a significant number just identify as Israeli.  For what it’s worth, there are also Arabs here who primarily identify by their religion, not their language or ethnicity.  Food for thought for people who are looking for a simple black-and-white breakdown.

Druze, Christians, Circassian Muslims, and Bedouin Muslims tend to identify more with Israel and less with Palestinian identity.  There is also a strong contingent of Christians who feel strongly about their Arab or Palestinian identity.  And other Arabic-speaking Christians who don’t even identify as Arab.  Many Druze, contrary to Israeli popular belief, feel they are both Druze and Arab.  I believe I got that info from a Pew survey, but am having trouble tracking it down (feel free to send it!).  Very, very, very few Druze would call themselves Palestinian (though a few do like Maher Halabi).  And many would be quite offended at the statement.  And they are native Arabic speakers.

Among these groups, Druze and Circassians crafted agreements with the Israeli government for their sons to be drafted into the military.  By agreement.  An increasing number of Bedouins and Christians- and even Arab Muslims- are choosing to volunteer or do national service, even though they are not legally obligated.  There are even Arab Christian priests encouraging it.

It’s worth noting the Druze mentioned here are the ones in pre-1967 Israel.  The ones in the Golan Heights were formerly citizens of Syria- and some now are taking Israeli citizenship in light of the brutal civil war.  They are not obligated to serve in the military and would almost certainly identify themselves as Syrian rather than Palestinian.  My friend’s dad says he’s a “Syrian now living in Israel”.  And I imagine people in his community have a variety of ways of describing their multifaceted identities.

If you’d assume that Israeli Muslims would be the most likely to identify as Arab or Palestinian and less so as Israeli, you’d be correct.  With some very important qualifications.  As mentioned, Bedouins and Circassians- both Muslims, are much less likely to identify as Palestinian in any form.  In the Bedouins’ case, Islam is generally much more important than nationalism and they’ve often been discriminated against by their sedentary Arab neighbors.  Circassians are quite fully integrated into the society and while many speak Arabic as a second language, they tend to be much more Israeli.

It’s also worth noting that if someone identifies as Arab or Palestinian here, there is a difference.  When someone says “Arab-Israeli” or “Arab citizen of Israel”, there are a few potential reasons why.  First off, there are Arab nationalists here who are against Palestinian identity.  Pan-Arab nationalism, which believes in an Arab identity stretching from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, is less a fan of state-based nationalism (e.g. Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian nationalism).  There is the concept of bilad al-sham- the Levant.  Some Arabs here prefer to think of themselves as part of the greater Arab culture rather than the particularistic Palestinian identity.  Palestinian identity- like every other country in the region- is a modern concept.  Not because the people didn’t exist here (before anyone goes there), but rather because this area didn’t have borders before colonialism. Which is why the Arabic spoken in northern Israel is almost identical to Syrian or Lebanese and the Bedouin Arabic in the Negev has a Saudi or Jordanian tint to it.

Another reason why people here might prefer Arab over Palestinian is because there is pressure here to dissociate themselves from the conflict.  Someone might even choose one label in one context and another in another.  Identity can be relative.

A final, and important reason, is that some Arabs here just don’t identify with Palestinian nationalism.  And not because, in the case I described, they are pan-Arab nationalists, but because they simply want to live a good life here.  They don’t like politics.  They don’t like violence.  Some may even feel that if they took on the label Palestinian, it does a disservice to the real suffering of people in the West Bank and Gaza.  That basically if you have Israeli citizenship, things might be rough sometimes, but overall the quality of living is quite good.  And to compare yourself to someone living in abject poverty and misery- that’s not quite so fair.

Sometimes when American and European progressives come here, they try to correct me when I call someone Arab.  “Don’t you mean Palestinian?”  or they’ll just work the word “Palestinian” into their response- even though I just said Arab.  Maybe it’s not their intention, but I feel there’s a kind of “let me educate you” haughtiness.  That somehow if I’m calling someone Arab instead of Palestinian- someone who’s a citizen of Israel- it must be because I’m a hyper nationalist intent on denying their identity.  And thank God for the Western Liberal who can come teach me civilization.

And they’re wrong.  Because I have a basic rule- I identify you the way you want to be identified.  If I meet an Arabic-speaker here in Israel who prefers to be called Palestinian, Palestinian-Israeli, Palestinian citizen of Israel- I will call them that.  Or Arab.  Or Arab-Israeli.  Whatever they choose I validate that.  And I’m not going to impose my New York Times Huffington Post NPR podcast understanding of the Middle East on them.  Because newspapers are printed in black and white.  Which is about the depth that they can offer of a society thousands of years old halfway around the world.

So I encourage you- don’t put me or my Arab/Palestinian/Arab-Israeli/Arab citizens of Israel/Christian/Muslim/Druze/Bedouin friends in a box.  Because boxes are for shoes.  And unless you’re willing to walk in ours, you should probably return them to the store.

What do you call people in Israel who speak Arabic?  Ahmed, Maryam, Ovadia.  Even Matt or Matah.

Or as the cover photo says: friend.

 

Independence from black-and-white thinking

Today concluded my first Independence Day as an Israeli.  And the first one I’ve celebrated on my homeland’s soil.  It was an independence day for me, a chance to declare my freedom from my own oppressors.  To celebrate my progress.  It was a day to rejoice.

Rejoice I did- I danced to Mizrachi music in the streets, I hung out with friends, I wore my Israeli flag as a cape, I got congratulated for becoming Israeli many, many times.  There were goofy people dressed up as Israel’s founding mothers and fathers.  There was fun.  We deserve a day to just have fun and be proud of our accomplishments.  In 70 years, we’ve managed to do more than some countries do in 200- and under the near constant threat of destruction.  Just today, I was grocery shopping and read a newspaper article while in line.  About Iran wanting to attack us from Syria.  Welcome to life in Israel, where every day we’re alive is a victory.

At some points, I felt I should be happy but wasn’t quite as happy as I thought.  Maybe it was when the tour guide at Independence Hall said: “we’re all Jews here, so feel free to interrupt.”  I totally get the sense of humor and I had to wonder how the Filipina woman and her child behind me felt.  Or perhaps a Druze man sitting in the back.  I think growing up in the Diaspora made me more sensitive to including others- we have some work to do here.  Because most of us are Jews- and not all of us are.  And we all deserve a seat at the table.

It got me thinking.  I really wanted this day to just be about celebrating Israel.  All year long we talk politics and people around the world hammer us for problems both real and imagined.  It can be hard to tell whether some foreigners are criticizing us out of a desire to make this a better place or because they single us out and want us to fail.  Trust me- I’ve met both kinds of people.

So I wanted to just enjoy.  And at some point, I realized nothing is 100% happy or sad in life.  In the Passover Seder, we dip our fingers in our joyful wine 10 times- once for each plague.  We put that wine or grape juice on our plates to symbolize our empathy for innocent Egyptians who suffered on our way to liberation.  No Jewish holiday is black-and-white, we’re a people who knows how to meld the bitter and sweet to the extent that it can be hard to even untwine the two.

The most obvious elephant in the room on Yom Ha’atzmaut, our Independence Day, is the Palestinians.  We are neighbors and the people right across the border have no independence day.  The reasons are complex- and it would be incorrect and even prejudiced to suggest that all of the blame falls on one side of the fence.  And it’s sad that while I’m celebrating today, some Palestinians are mourning what they see as a catastrophe.  The creation of my state.  While they still don’t have one.

I can empathize with why this day is hard for Palestinians (and Arab-Israelis/Arab citizens of Israel).  For someone whose village was destroyed in 1948, sometimes purposefully sometimes not, this day must be rough.  And the wound is still unhealed as our region has been in a near constant state of war for the past 70 years.  With bloodshed all around, including 37 soldiers from my neighborhood alone.

I also wish my neighbors across the border would try to understand why we’re celebrating.  I’ll tell you personally- I’m not celebrating the destruction of any village.  I’m celebrating the fact that I feel free here as a Jew.  Even in America, I’d feel scared or embarrassed to walk around with a big Israeli flag on my back.  In America, I felt self-conscious as a Jew.  Laughed at, picked on, discriminated against.  I felt my Judaism belonged in synagogue or a community center, not on the streets.  The idea of praying in public or being visibly Jewish was scary and anathema to what I felt we were supposed to do to be “respectable” and “cool”.

In Israel, we also have Jews who survived the Holocaust, with no family members, only to build new families here.  Some of whom then lost their children to terrorism or war.  We have Jews here from Egypt whose government stole their property, robbed them of citizenship, and kicked them out.  Just for being Jews.  And now they’ve managed to build themselves a new life and home here.  The place that would offer them refuge, no questions asked.  A miracle.

You can go through this story with just about any Jew here.  This is the only place on the planet where I feel safe being a Jew.  An out-of-the-closet Jew.  For 2,000 years we’ve been at the mercy of whatever ruler we lived under.  And all too often, turned into scapegoats like Roma/Gypsies or African-Americans- and suffered the violent consequences.  Here, we are empowered to choose our own fate for the first time in millennia.  And we’re not going to give it up.  Our greatest threat is our greatest strategic advantage- we have no other place to go.

As Israelis like to say, living here is “lo pashut”- it’s not simple.  And they’re right.  When I saw a person dressed up as Ben Gurion today, I was laughing and also thinking back to when he derided Yiddish.  When I celebrated by dancing to Mizrachi music in my neighborhood last night, one of the women said: “I want to go to America, it’s terrible here.  Well, it’s not the Jews who are terrible…”.  I empathize with her- there are a lot of reasons why a Mizrachi Jew might be prejudiced against refugees or Arabs, as I’ve written about.  And I also hate it.

I am proud to be Israeli.  I love my country and its people.  I’m blessed to be a Jew and I think we have contributed so much to the world and this region.

I’m also sad that many of my Palestinian neighbors live in deep poverty, are ruled by the corrupt Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and are subject to a largely unaccountable and undemocratic Israeli control over their lives.

And I’m sad that Arab-Israelis are basically caught between the two worlds because to a degree they identify with both.

I’m sad that refugees are discriminated against and might be deported.  And I’m sad that their neighbors- my neighbors- have been utterly neglected by the government for 70 years, fomenting their anger.

I’m sad that as a Reform Jew I have no religious rights here.  I have more rights in the States.  I’m sad that as a gay person, I can’t adopt children.  And I’m grateful to live in the only place in the Middle East where being gay is not only legal, it is accepted by a large part of the population.  According to one poll, 40%+ of Israelis say we should accept homosexuality.  The next closest Arab country is Lebanon at 18%.  Palestinians come in at 3%.  Those numbers also obscure a lot of gray space (including among Palestinians).  My city, Tel Aviv, is one of the gayest places on the planet and has a city-funded LGBTQ center.  Almost 80% of Israelis support gay marriage or civil unions.

In the end, living here is complex.  I’ve learned to become a more empathetic and textured thinker by living here.  If you want to come here and try to break things down into good and evil, right and wrong, black and white- you’re coming to the wrong place.  Like the Bedouin man married to a Jew who converted to Islam and are raising their kids in a Jewish school.  We are awesome and diverse and not easy to fit into a box.  So put down your placards and get to know us before boycotting us or telling us we’re all fascists.  While you sit on Native American land or, in the case of Europeans and some Arabs- on our Jewish property.  Life is not so simple when you start to empathize with everyone.

And it makes it much richer.  So on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, let’s declare our independence from black-and-white thinking.  When you start to live in the gray space, you start to realize it’s not gray at all.  It’s the many, many colors of the rainbow.  Each with is unique shade.  Sometimes too bright to stare at, and often too beautiful to gaze away.

In a note to my American friends struggling with a difficult time in history, join me in embracing the complexity.  Get to know your Appalachian neighbors, gun owners, evangelicals- people you don’t agree with.  Not to convince each other or approve of toxic behavior.  Rather, simply to understand what might cause someone to think that way.

Embracing complexity can bring with it a lot of emotions- sadness, fear, joy, anger, hope.  It is eye-opening and sometimes even overwhelming to see the full spectrum of humanity.  The easy solutions don’t look so easy and sometimes, I feel as helpless as I do empowered.  At that point, I invite you to learn from Israelis.  Because what Israelis are astoundingly good at is just letting go.  Give yourself a chance to celebrate- anything.  Because all people- no matter the race, religion, or country- we all deserve time to celebrate.

Happy birthday Israel.  May year 71 bring us, our friends, and our neighbors peace, prosperity, hope, and strength.

I love you Israel.  When I criticize you, it’s because I want to make you better.  I’m glad to be home in your arms.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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This Independence Day, I belong in Hatikvah – שכונת התקווה מעל כולם

Today was Yom Ha’atzmaut.  Israeli Independence Day.  My country, my home turned 70 today- every day and every year a true miracle.  We’ve got our problems and we manage to survive and learn and grow.  And should continue to do so.

This morning, not really knowing what to expect (are stores open?  are restaurants open?  are museums open?  are buses running?), I ended up going for a stroll.

Lately, I’ve been learning more about the areas south of my neighborhood.  Yesterday I discovered Ariel Sharon Park, which is a former waste site turned into a gorgeous park reminiscent of a rural farm or orchard.  Stunning and hard to believe it’s in Tel Aviv.

park ariel

Today I was walking down Etzel Street, the main street in Hatikvah, when I bumped into a woman I had met earlier when we laughed at a guy screaming on the phone.  I asked her what was to the left at the end of the street.  She said it was her neighborhood, Ha’argazim.  I asked if there were restaurants and such there and she walked with me to show me.  On the way, she made some racist comments about Eritreans.  I explained I was against expelling refugees, but basically decided to leave the conversation be because I don’t want to lecture people and in Israel, you have to let some things slide.  Also, she’s from this neighborhood and it’s a seriously neglected part of town.

We bid each other a chag sameach, a happy holiday, and went our separate ways.  One particular quote of hers stood out: “they care more about the Eritreans than they do about the people who live here.”

I thought more and more- what if she’s right?  We’ve been so focused on our activism- have we forgotten the people who’ve lived here for 70 years?  Who are neglected by the city and the State?  And most certainly the wealthy North Tel Aviv “liberals” who never venture down to these neighborhoods?

As I strolled through Ha’argazim, I couldn’t help but agree with her.  The houses are shacks.  Literally shacks.  With piles of trash all around the neighborhood, never cleaned up by the city.  In America, it’d be called a shantytown.  Somehow they manage to give the houses some charm.  And that doesn’t excuse the utter indifference the residents have to face.  Any more than their poverty excuses racism.

It was important for me to see where this woman lived.  It was somehow poorer, dirtier, and smellier than my own part of town- which has its own special stench.  I would never agree with or justify her bigotry- and I also feel I have greater empathy for her now that I know her situation.  I feel her anger is misdirected at the refugees, but the anger itself- boy is that justified.  These pictures should outrage anyone in Tel Aviv.  Likud, Labor- no government has helped these people and it’s a stain on our society’s values.  And I want to be a part of fixing it.

Since Israel can sometimes surprise you, I wandered my way into a beautiful park nearby- Begin Park.  There, there are two lakes, one of which has water skiing where you are pulled via cable above your head.  There is a petting zoo.  And it’s just calm and green and wonderful.  There are even roosters that crow!  And people practicing acrobatics from trees!

This park is what Israel looks like when people care.  I hope one day Ha’argazim and all of South Tel Aviv will benefit from such consideration.  And I’m excited to try water skiing right by my house!  Who knew?!

Eventually, I made my way up North to Kikar Rabin, Rabin Square for the “premier” celebration tonight.  I was supposed to meet a friend of a friend.  Who knew I was going alone.  The friend cancelled part of the plans- fine that happens.  Then, he was supposed to come at 9:30.  No show.  Then, he says he’s coming at 10:30.  Already feeling deeply left out- I was alone standing in a see of families (and I have none)- I empowered myself to leave.  And good thing I did- I didn’t get a message from the other guy until 10:45 saying he was “on his way”.  Would’ve been miserable.

Being in Israel- being anywhere- by yourself is hard.  Israel is such a family-oriented society- which is part of why I want to find a partner here.  And part of why I love how willing people are to take you in as their own.

So a note to Sabras.  One of the great things about being Israeli is our flexibility.  When you cancel plans, you figure the other person can figure something else out.  That’s often true- but remember that olim, in particular ones who come here alone, we don’t always have a back-up plan.  We don’t have friends upon friends to call.  So don’t blow us off.  Take it seriously when we’re waiting for you.  You don’t have to make the plans in the first place and half the time we expect you to cancel anyways- it’s OK.  But when it’s a holiday, especially one with family, please don’t leave us hanging alone.  It’s inconsiderate at best and mean at worst.

Sick of standing alone, I hopped into a cab and headed to my neighborhood.  Tired of the yuppie North Tel Aviv vibe, the utterly boring concert, and the loneliness, I felt my neighborhood would have the answer.

And boy was I right.  As soon as I got out, I noticed a store selling Israeli flags.  I had never gone in, but they were blasting Mizrachi music, so I popped in.  I was wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Without even two words of introduction, we pumped up the music and danced.  Me and the three young women.  One of whom put bunny ears on me.  People walking by smiled and joined in.  A confused old lady kept coming in and out, so I gently helped her walk towards her house.  We exchanged phone numbers- one of the women, Sivan, lives right down the street from me!  And she has a cute guy she’s going to try to set me up with 😉

Once when I was at a Reform Movement event in Israel, a decidedly “liberal” environment, someone laughed when I said I lived by Shuk Hatikvah and grew up in Washington, D.C.  He was amused by the “contrast” between living in “amazing” D.C. and (fill in the blank) Hatikvah.  People giggled.

My response: “you obviously haven’t spent much time in D.C.”  That’s true on many levels- one, because D.C. is a much, much more violent place than my neighborhood.  And while it has its pluses, it’s an utterly sterile “networky” work-obsessed city that’s not that fun.  I’m happier here than I think I’d ever be in D.C.

So on Israel’s 70th, I have a few thoughts.  Refugees and low-income Mizrachim- we can and should care for them both.  Not just theoretically or with slogans, but with real kindness and action.  Someone’s prejudice shouldn’t preclude us from caring for their well-being.  And it might even soften some hearts.

To my fellow progressives, liberals, left-wingers, etc.  Walk the fucking walk.  Compassion and kindness, which I view as fundamental values of our movement, shouldn’t just be extended to people we agree with.  Lehefech, to the contrary, the real test of our values is when they need to be applied to those who disagree with us.

Want to laugh at Shchunat Hatikvah?  Think America or Ramat Aviv or your well-kept kibbutz is better than my neighborhood?

Alek!  Yeah right!  My neighborhood has something your high-tech stock options can’t buy: soul.

My neighborhood sometimes smells like crap, but at least it isn’t full of it.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, I got the greatest gift of all: I know I live where I belong.  May you find your own sense of belonging wherever you call home.  Chag sameach 😉

Yom Hazikaron Shidduch – שידוך יום הזכרון

Ok- for those who don’t know what a shidduch is, it’s when a matchmaker (or a friend these days) “sets you up” with a potential partner.  Or a “connection”.  There are even professionals who get paid to do this.  It’s a very, very Jewish concept that some other similarly “ethnic” cultures embrace.

Tonight, April 17, began Yom Hazikaron.  It is a day to honor fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism here.  About 30,000 people since the founding of the State 70 years ago.  An astoundingly high number when you consider just how small of a country Israel is- and was at its founding.  With a population of just 806,000 in 1948 to 8.8 million today, 30,000 lives lost is a lot.  More than an American or European can possibly understand in recent history.

Having never observed this holiday in Israel, I decided to go to the community center by my house- Beit Dani.  The center itself is named after a fallen soldier Daniel whose family lit a flame in his honor tonight.  There were several hundred people gathered.  With a solemnity I haven’t seen in Israel- not even on Yom Kippur.

A choir sang sad songs.  Flames were lit by families of the deceased.  A Member of the Knesset, incidentally an openly gay one which was kind of cool, read a moving speech.  His name is Amir Ohana and he’s the first LGBT parliamentarian of the Likud.  I’m not usually a fan of his party, but I admire his courage in being himself and today isn’t really about politics.  It’s about memory.  He was really nice and we took a cute selfie.

ohana

I walked over to the other side of the event where a screen showed a slideshow of all 37 young people whose lives were lost- from my neighborhood alone.  You simply can’t understand the magnitude.  It has only 11,480 residents, like a small town in America.  Everyone either lost someone in their family or knows someone who did.  It’s a moving and sad experience to watch the names and pictures of these young people scroll down.  Over and over.

I noticed a middle-aged woman alone- tears welling up.  She asked how I knew how to zoom in on my camera.  I showed her and then told her, being a good Israeli, that I’d just take the picture for her.

The picture she needed was of her brother.  Yoram Hayu.  Killed in 1977 in a helicopter crash at the age of 18.  He started the army a year early because he was that motivated.  While he grew up in Hatikvah, he also was a kibbutznik- perhaps during his army service.  He was Smadar’s older brother, apparently a hit with the ladies, and now he was gone.

chayal

Smadar, the woman, she’s from my neighborhood.  She was at the ceremony alone, with her mom at home.  This was the first time she had been to the memorial ceremony in our community.  Since 1977 when her brother was killed.  She had been to other events, but not right here where they grew up together.  She was visibly moved and sad.

In America, when you see a stranger who’s sad you probably just say you’re sorry.  People are protective of boundaries and also more distant.

Here, seeing Smadar alone and sad, I simply hugged her.  And she held me, we swayed, we shared in the sadness and I tried to bring her some comfort.  Because a greeting card doesn’t say I love you.  That’s how Israelis do.

I told her that I was grateful to her brother and all the soldiers who made it possible for me to live here.  She stopped me: “don’t say thank you.  You don’t need to.  It was an obligation- his service.  It’s our obligation as Israelis.  If you want to honor his memory, live your life to the fullest.  Enjoy and appreciate every moment you breathe.”

It was so affirming.  So brave.  She asked me about my aliyah and my life.  Of course, she asked me if I was married.  When I said no, she said she’d look for someone.  And I said: “I’m gay, it needs to be a guy.”  She said: “hmm, that can be tricky in Hatikvah, but I have a hairstylist who’s gay and has a partner- I’ll ask him for names.”  Then, she told me she’d ask her friend if I could go to his Independence Day barbecue.

As the evening drew to a close, I told her: “only in Israel can you make a shidduch on Yom Hazikaron!”  We laughed and laughed.  It’s really true- we’re a people more than any other that knows how to draw out the honey from the wound.  And make the best of life.  With Syria and Iran threatening us, with slides of fallen soldiers still scrolling behind us, Smadar and I smiled as we said goodbye.  Her second shidduch may be finding me a nice guy.

But her first one was becoming my friend.

How one haggadah makes the case for Israel

This week will mark Israel’s 70th birthday.  If she was a Jewish lady in South Florida, she’d be relaxing by the pool playing mahjong telling her grandkids to visit.  She has matured and grown into herself.  Confident and stronger than ever.

One of the ways Israel really failed in its early days was with regards to cultural diversity.  In particular, Jewish diversity.  I’ve talked about it with regards to Yiddish and Mizrachi cultures.  And the rather egregious stereotypes the early Sabras (and some today) spread about Diaspora Jews.  I understand the challenges facing a new state under attack seeking unity to protect itself, but at times the State was overzealous and ended up hurting its own people.

What I’m happy to say is that despite the challenges that still exist, Israel has grown into its diversity a bit.  Its diversity, which I see as one of its greatest assets.

I’ve written extensively about how the State has worked against this diversity and today I’m excited to share how in some ways, that has changed for the better.

Today, I went to Rehovot, a city outside Tel Aviv.  My friend studies at the Weizman Institute there, so before meeting him for dinner, I headed to the Yemenite Heritage Museum.  I can’t recommend this museum highly enough.  While you’ll miss part of the content without Hebrew, it’s still worth checking out.  And if you speak Hebrew, you’ll get a deeper glimpse into a several thousand year old heritage worth exploring.

Rehovot is one of those places in Israel where even Israelis will say “there is nothing to see”.  But they are wrong, as you’ll see.  Because exploring, finding wonder in the world is not just about where you go.  Though certainly some extraordinary places will inspire even the most cynical of people.  Discovering the awe that surrounds us, the interesting, the curious- that’s about how you see where you are.  With an open heart and a curious mind, there are sparks of meaning and light in every town on this planet.  In unexpected places.

As I wandered the museum, I learned about the history of this ancient community.  I was already a fan of Yemenite music back in the States and recently went to a Yemenite store in Bnei Brak to get more of it.  Yemenite Jews have several unique dialects of Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic music and literature, extensive Hebrew poetry, special clothing, folk dancing, and all sorts of other cool culture.

I learned at the museum that as far back as 400 years ago, Yemenite Jews, who I had assumed were pretty geographically isolated, were in direct contact with Jews in Israel.  Rabbi Zecharia Dhahiri traveled all the way from Yemen to Jerusalem, Tsfat, Hebron, and Tiberias.  He met with famous rabbis and even brought back their mystical Kabbalistic influence and prayer styles.  And rabbi after rabbi continued to visit our homeland and some Jews even moved there, well before the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Jews’ presence in Yemen is documented from 110 B.C.E. although it may go back even further.  They have been there since before the Islamic conquest and before the peoples of the country were Arabized.  Alongside Hebrew for prayer and learning, they spoke a unique Judeo-Arabic dialect which some still speak in Israel to this day.

In the mid-20th century, amid pogroms and anti-Semitic violence, Yemenite Jews were airlifted to Israel en masse.  Many Yemenite Jews and Muslims remember their two millennia relationship with love and longing.  I have a number of Yemeni Muslim friends who have great relationships with Jews.  Unfortunately, Islamic extremists and Arab nationalists had to ruin that, just like they are ruining Yemen itself today.

Walking around the museum, I was in awe at the Shabbat candle sticks, the Havdalah spice boxes, the circumcision knife- in short, all the ritual objects we share.  And that they did in their own special way going back many centuries.

What most struck me, as is often the case, were the books.  Jews are the People of the Book- that’s even what we’re called in Islam.  After 2,000 years without a state, our empire, our knowledge, our territory became the written word.

The museum includes some very, very old books.  Including Torah scrolls hand-written in Yemen over 500 years ago.  Brought to Israel and saved amidst the chaos of 1950s anti-Semitic violence.

One book in particular struck me.  It was a haggadah, a book Jews all around the world use to tell the Passover story at our Seders each year.  The haggadah text itself is believed to be 1700 years old, possibly older.  Its sources rooted in the Torah itself, going back hundreds and hundreds of years before.

The page the haggadah was turned to was one that I immediately recognized.  It begins “kadesh, urchatz, karpas, yachatz…”- it is the 15 part step-by-step recitation of what the Seder will include.  A kind of preview or table of contents.  Here’s what it sounds like when a kid sings it 😉

Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is Jewish and goes to a Seder will hear this.  And if they practice the religion at all, they will know it.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Moroccan or Ashkenazi or Yemenite or from Transylvania.  This is shared meaning.

What’s so astonishing is that we kept it all alive and preserved the same text for almost two millennia.  Like the Torah itself.

As Yom Haatzmaut, Israeli Independence Day, comes upon us- I ask this question.  If Jews are not from this place- from where I sit writing this blog now- how do you explain why we all prayed in the same exact language for 2,000 years in the Diaspora?  In places without Whatsapp or Facebook to check in with each other.  And in a Semitic language- a language quite obviously from here and directly related to Aramaic and Arabic and Amharic.

There are those who try to discredit the Jewish people’s connection to this land and to each other.  They claim Ashkenazi Jews are Greek converts- or Turkish (competing theories that might make both of those countries laugh given their tortured relationship).  They claim Ashkenazi Jews and Yemenite Jews aren’t related- even though we have particular, unique vowel sounds we share in common in Hebrew not heard in other communities.  Despite being separated by an unforgiving geography.  They claim we’re simply a cooked-up movement with no real connection to this place.

And they are wrong.  Besides various genetic studies that have shown disperse Jewish communities to be related, and the fact that a Druze friend says I look like someone from his town not an American, despite the fact that in America people are more likely to think I’m Latino than white.  Besides our genetic diseases and our curly hair that reminds me of my Lebanese friends.  Besides the fact that we sometimes look a lot like our Arab and Palestinian neighbors here.

They still say we’re not from here.

Well, to be fair, we’re a mixed people.  There have always been converts to Judaism.  There’s no such thing as a “pure people” on this planet- a concept so racist and absurd I hope we can leave it aside.  My own DNA kit analysis shows me to be 91% Ashkenazi, with several percent coming from Asia Minor, Eastern European non-Jews, and oddly enough South Asia- I do like a good chicken tikka masala.  And have been known to have some killer Bhangra moves.

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Some of this test is statistical white noise, though I used some other advanced sites to decipher the data.  What was most fascinating was that even though my ancestors immigrated to America from Eastern Europe, my DNA was closest to that of Mediterranean people such as Cypriots, Lebanese, Sicilians, Greeks, Kurds, and even Palestinians.

Palestinians themselves are likely to have some Jewish blood.  The few Jews who managed to escape Roman expulsion sometimes converted to Christianity.  Some of them converted to Islam later.  And were Arabized or mixed with the conquering Muslim tribes.  It’s not for nothing that sometimes I’ve hit on Arab guys here thinking they were Jewish.  And in the end, not really caring too much either way because they were pretty hot 😉

My point is we’re all mixed.  And given the history, both Jews and Arabs are tied to this land.  And even related to each other.

I can understand the Palestinian fellah, or peasant, who saw masses of Jews returning to join their brethren living in Israel.  And felt confusion, nervousness, and sometimes anger.  What was this all about?  Why are my landlords in Lebanon selling my land?  Who are these people?

So let me explain.  We’re here because we’re from here.  We were kicked out, against our will- and not because of you.  Although sometimes we took our anger out on you.  The Babylonians and then the Romans oppressed us and dispersed us around the world.  Where we kept praying in our holy tongue- a language completely unrelated to most of the cultures that surrounded us, at least in Europe.  We kept celebrating the same holidays and even using the same book on Passover to retell the story of our redemption.

Why would we come to this place if we’re not from here?  I can think of 10,000 calmer, richer, more peaceful lands for us to (re)settle in if it was simply a matter of escaping persecution.  And persecution there was a lot of.

We’re here because it’s home.  Because there are Arab villages named after Hebrew words that make no sense in Arabic.  And there are now Israeli villages that replaced prior Arabic names with similarly-sounding Hebrew words.  In my own neighborhood, Kfar Shalem comes from the Arab village “Salameh”.

Jews lived in this land before Arabs were even a people.  And there were other peoples here before the Jews.  And the Arabs came after the Romans expelled most of the Jews.  And generally treated them better than Europeans did.  And some Jews managed to stay here despite it all.  And now we’re back in a big way.

Jews are from here.  The English place names for various holy cities here derive from the Hebrew.  Jerusalem from Yerushalayim.  Hebron from Hevron.  Bethlehem from Bet Lehem.  Safed from Tsfat.  This is not a modern phenomenon, it’s from our Bible and our history.

Arabs are now from here too.  Even if they arrived in the 700s, that’s still a solid 1300 years.  Now we’re back and living together in the same land.  All too often in hatred and violence, though in smaller quantities that people outside this land realize.  There is true beauty here you’ll never read in a public policy paper or in the New York Times.

So on Israel’s 70th birthday, I say “hooray!”  We’re home.  Like the Yemenite haggadah and my own haggadah says, we escaped persecution and made it to our Holy Land.  We’ve been reading it separately for 2,000 years and now I can go to a museum, chat with Yemenite Jews, and feel like I’m back at a family reunion.  What a miracle.

As we enter year 71, let’s remember our history and acknowledge the history of our neighbors.  On both sides.  We share this land- whether we want to or not, we’re both here and we’re both, in our own unique ways, from here.

Happy Birthday Israel!  We deserve it.  To my Palestinian friends- I can understand if this is a day of sadness for you.  I hope one day we can find something to celebrate together.  In the meantime, I’m going to party.  This year, with a bit of a Yemenite step 😉

When Jews defend themselves

Yom Hazikaron is around the corner.  It’ll be my first time honoring this day here in Israel.  Once a year, Israelis gather and remember their loved ones who died in battle or were murdered by terrorists.  I am not sure what to expect other than a lot of sadness.  Memorial Day in the U.S. often felt distant, like a day to have picnics.  I think in Israel, both because of the scope of the killing here and its immediacy, it’ll feel quite different.

Soon after I made aliyah, I made friends with a young man named Adam.  18 years old, training to be a combat soldier, graduating from high school this year.  His family owns a Kavkazi restaurant in Ramat Gan, where I “met” his cousin Ruslan, who was killed by a roadside bomb two decades ago- at the age of 21.  I met him because I happened to be in the restaurant on the anniversary of his death.  The dumplings were delicious.  Welcome to Israel.

When I think of young men and women like Ruslan, it makes me sad.  He’d be about 42 today, maybe married with children, working, building a life for himself.  And instead he’s turning to dust in the ground.  Like over 23,000 other Israelis.  With more added each and every year.

The sadness is hardly limited to our borders.  Just north of us in Syria, thousands upon thousands of people are being killed while the world sits in silence.  Where are the mass demonstrations?  Of anyone?  Of Palestinians?  Of Western liberals?  Of Israelis?  Of European activists?  Of Muslims?  Where?  Where is everyone?  People love to kick and scream about Israel, but I just don’t hear their voices when hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians are being gassed to their deaths.

Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians- everyone here has their own sadness.  My own country, Israel, has sometimes caused that sadness.  And our sadness has sometimes been caused by them.  I mourn the loss of every life and support people’s remembrance of their loved ones.

This is our day to do it here and we deserve it.

One particular person stood out as I wrote this blog.  And it was not a soldier.  It was Mireille Knoll.  Mireille was an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Paris.  Having survived Nazi genocide, she lived a long and beautiful life in France.  Until two Muslim men walked into her apartment this year and stabbed her 11 times while yelling “allahu akbar”.  That’s not what I said, that’s what one of the actual suspects said.  Along with neighbors.  The same suspect shared that his accomplice said: “She’s a Jew. She must have money.”

I wish I could pretend this was the only anti-Semitism in France or America or any of a number of countries this year, but that’s not true.  In America, we have a rise in neo-Nazism and in anti-Semitic behavior on the left.  Including a large swath of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement (BDS), which encourages people to target Israel, and only Israel, for economic boycott.  Not targeted boycotts, not against certain politicians or policies, but against my entire country.  Some of the activists, which include some Jews, are simply trying to push my country in a more progressive direction, even if some (though maybe not all) of their tactics are misguided.   And others among them are flat-out anti-Semites- and this is based not only on news reports, but on actual comments I’ve heard from them.  Rothschild conspiracies and beyond.  To criticize Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic- Israelis do it on a daily basis.  When you single out Israel among all nations for a never-ending stream of hatred while never mentioning even more drastic human rights abuses elsewhere- you’re a bigot.

I have a friend- and I don’t use the word lightly, he’s an actual friend- who shared with me an insight lately.  Eric is an American Christian and he said: “I have Jewish friends at home who’ve barely, if at all, been to Israel, but want to volunteer for the army there.  I have no idea why they’d do that.”  Because he loves culture and diversity, he added: “I know it’d be difficult, I just wish the Jewish Diaspora was stronger- I wish their communities could go back- to India, to Afghanistan, and beyond.”

He is well-intentioned- I know him.  And I need to address these questions.  First off, I think Israeli Jews whose families came from places like Morocco and Iran- whose families were kicked out of there- also wish they had a connection with those places.  Due to the anti-Semitism of those governments, who stole their property and citizenship, it’s not so easy.  I know Eric knows this, but nobody in Israel particularly wants to go back to a Muslim-majority country that kicked them out and where not a small number of people would still be happy to see them killed.  One friend’s Syrian-Israeli family knows that their historic house has been turned into a luxury hotel.  One day, God willing, if there’s peace, I’m sure Israeli Jews would love to visit and reconnect with their heritage.  In the meantime, it’s the sin of the Muslim world that we can’t do that.  I know Eric understands this and it was more of a wish.  It’s just that he’s pining for something we’ve already had to move past.  None of my relatives are left in Poland.  If we could’ve lived peacefully in the Diaspora, we would’ve done it.  We tried for 2,000 years and our neighbors never succeeded in securing our lives.

Now, to the second part.  Why would an American Jew- even one with little or no direct connection to Israel- want to volunteer for the IDF, our military?  A good question given this holiday.  I personally am somewhat of a pacifist, so I don’t think I’d volunteer for any military.  And I totally understand the volunteers.  Jews- despite our relative economic and political success- are a small and sometimes belittled minority even in America.  Jewish characters in the media are portrayed as effeminate.  The women- overbearing.  Few as sexy or powerful.  We’re only accepted in so far as we don’t act “too Jewish” and aren’t visibly identified as such.

There are many good things about Jewish life in America and about America in general.  And there is one basic thing that Jews have the right to do only in Israel: defend ourselves.  Christians and Muslims alike didn’t give us this right.  Only after 2,000 years can we protect ourselves and not be at the mercy of whatever people or ruler has control over us.  Which gets to Eric’s comment about returning to the Diaspora.  It’s certainly a cultural loss for both us and the friendlier of our former neighbors.  But why would we go back?

Israel made and makes mistakes.  Politically misusing soldiers and sometimes even harming innocent civilians.  Kicking Arabs out of their homes.  The First Lebanon War was in many ways a disaster, even in the eyes of the Israeli public.  And our current quagmire in the West Bank continues to put both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian lives at risk- without an easy solution.

So why would a Diaspora Jew want to be a part of this?  Why would they volunteer for my military?

Mireille Knoll.

That’s why.  Mireille Knoll’s granddaughter Keren Brosh made aliyah from France to Israel, arriving in 1997.  Incidentally, the year Ruslan was killed.  Keren became an IDF intelligence officer, something her grandmother was very proud of.

Mireille Knoll survived the Holocaust only to be murdered by anti-Semites in a self-righteous country that loves to lecture my own about human rights (while taking basically no responsibility for its own colonialist past).  And that bans headscarves and can’t even protect its Jewish citizens’ lives.  Over and over and over again.

Mireille was defenseless.  I pray for her soul’s peace in the High Heavens.  She did nothing wrong, she didn’t deserve to die.  And I’m tired of my people being made into sheep for the slaughter.  We look great as victims, but too many Westerners don’t like to see us with a gun.

So when a Jew grabs a gun and says “enough!”- understand where it comes from.  Understand what it feels like for us to see Keren Brosh strong and protecting our people here while her grandmother was butchered in France.  Even thousands of miles away, we see our people suffering and we remember our history.  We want to help and we want to define our own destiny.  Not by being a sidekick, not by being a punchline, and not by being the overbearing caricature of a Jewish woman that is The Nanny.  Not by being tolerated.  But rather by being free to set our own course, even at great sacrifice.

I’m grateful for the soldiers who’ve sacrificed for me.  I honor the bravery of all victims of terror.  I long for a day when soldiers and security checkpoints won’t be necessary- for anyone who lives here, Israeli, Palestinian, or otherwise.  When the water guns will outnumber the real ones.

In the meantime, I’m not going back to live in the Diaspora.  And I’m glad I have soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect me.

I wish Mireille Knoll had had soldiers to protect her.  So she wouldn’t have been a helpless grandmother stabbed to death for being a Jew.

That’s why I’m Israeli.