When God speaks through graffiti

Last night, I heard my first really racist comment in Israel.  Some people might be surprised at this.  Americans might think that people are way more racist here than they are.  And Israelis might think I might be deaf.  But the reality is, I have heard racist comments here, but this one felt more real.  It wasn’t just a comment, it was a diatribe and it was backed by a lot of emotion.

The very long story short is I was talking to a young guy, around 30 years old, Israeli Jew of Middle Eastern descent.  His entire point of view could be summed up in one comment he made: “Not all Arabs are terrorists, but all terrorists around the world are Arabs.”

There are variations of this phrase around the world.  Some people replace Arab with Muslim.  It is not a uniquely Israeli phrase, as any Google search will show you.

I was disgusted.  I vigorously pushed back against his thinking but it didn’t change his mind one bit.  It didn’t matter how many times I explained about non-Arab terrorists in America or Myanmar or Ireland or anywhere else.  This guy was inconvincible.

Anyone who knows me knows that my Zionism, that my Jewish identity, that my very way of interacting with the world is predicated on finding something to love in different cultures, not trashing them.

Feeling thoroughly discouraged, today I hung out in Yafo.  Yafo is a predominantly Arab town in the Tel Aviv municipality and it has an extensive multicultural history that includes everyone from Jews to ancient Egyptians to Greeks to Arabs.  I needed to be with my people- and today, that meant Arabs.

I talked with a new friend Samir at my baklava hangout.  A nice guy with mostly Jewish friends and an open mind.  Also some delusional thoughts about whether ISIS really attacked Barcelona (because “who are they?”).  And he didn’t believe that terrorists in the West Bank get paid for their acts (they do).  At the same time, he is extremely opposed to Palestinian terrorism and all violence.  And also radically not a radical- he said he won’t even go to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, even though his religion demands it, because he’s so disgusted by their extremist and corrupt government.  I left semi-encouraged, though also feeling like there’s a lot of work to do here.


I wandered through Yafo eating Palestinian potato chips, hoping that eating a snack from Hebron would help me heal from the turmoil.  I decided to head to the sea.  I always find some quiet and nature calms my mind.  I had been feeling distant from God and spirituality and kind of hopeless.  The waves gave me some respite and a connection to the bigger things in life.

Then I noticed the most interesting graffiti.  It said in Hebrew “Ramsey loves Natali”.  To most people, this might just look like an ordinary graffiti.  To me, it was absolutely beautiful.  First off, Ramsey is an Arabic name and Natali is kind of a universal name, though my guess is this girl is Jewish because the graffiti is written in Hebrew.  So most likely a Jewish-Arab romance, which is heartwarming.


And there’s much more to it.  Almost two years ago, my friend Jad passed away.  I grew up with him in Maryland and he was my first Arab friend.  I had had other Arab acquaintances at school, but he was the first person I really connected with.  I learned a lot from him about his Lebanese culture and seeing as how he grew up in a suburb that’s 30% Jewish, he learned a lot about my culture too.  I remember him telling me he could understand a lot of the words at our friends’ Bar Mitzvahs because of his Arabic.  I was so sad to hear of his passing.  You can learn more about what his friendship meant to me in a blog I wrote at the time.

Jad’s younger brother, who I always remember hanging out with after our soccer games- his name is Ramsey, just like in the graffiti.  At a time when I’ve found it hard to bridge the distance between my past life in America and my current Israeli life, I felt like this graffiti was a spiritual lifeline.  A message from God and Jad that hope is found in the most unlikely places.

In my blog after Jad’s death, I wrote: “Just as Jad opened my eyes to his culture, I will make an extra effort to advocate for peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs.”

I love all cultures and all peoples.  There are good and bad individuals (and many in between) everywhere.  With every conversation I have, with every blog I write, with every song I sing I am keeping my promise I made to Jad.  To find people of good faith, an open heart, and willingness to listen no matter what their background.  To laugh with them and to make the world a better place.

I will be the hope this place needs.  Join me.


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.

Sexy Jews

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

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

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

It is a true paradise.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Israeli folk dancing on the beach

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

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

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

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

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

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