A Tale of Two Orthodox

Ok it’s really four Orthodox Jews, but you’ll get my point.

Last night, I was at a rally for refugee lives in Tel Aviv.  It was exhilarating- over 20,000 people.  Some estimate 30,000.  Considering Israel has only 8 million people, it’s quite sizable.  Although being from Washington, D.C., the capital of rallies, it still feels small 🙂 .

On my way home, I wore my yarmulke (head covering).  Foremost, because last time I walked home from a rally I got shouted down and followed by hateful people in my neighborhood, which was scary.  I have met neighbors for refugee rights and it’s probably a minority position where I live.  Since Judaism is a source of privilege here, I felt wearing a yarmulke might afford me a sense of safety from some people who might otherwise be angry at me.  People who can’t imagine why a religious Jew would even be at a refugee rally.  I suppose once I decided to put it on, I was glad to do so because it made me feel a little bit connected to a religion I increasingly feel distant from.  To put my yarmulke to good use for human and Jewish values.

Before I get to what happened on the way home, I’d like to share what happened the other day.

On my way to get kebabs, I heard English in my neighborhood.  I was so astounded- I am definitely the only American for several blocks around my house- that I asked the people in Hebrew what language they were speaking.

Turns out, they were Americans from nearby neighborhoods coming for food.  Both of them Orthodox Jews.  We bantered a bit, they made some uncouth remark about refugees, but honestly nothing too grave considering what I hear in Israel.  And other than that, it was fine.  I told them I was gay and a Reform Jew, which aroused curiosity- but really nothing beyond that.  When I said I was a religious Reform Jew- they simply pondered, asked a few questions, and said “OK cool, do you want to join us for dinner?”

Which brings us back to yesterday.  On the way back from the rally, wearing my yarmulke, two Orthodox men approached me to say they didn’t like my signs.  They said it was great there was a rally because finally there were enough police to keep the streets safe.  They told me: “it’s so hard to raise children here with these Eritreans around.”  Right in front of the Eritreans standing next to me.

I told them this: “I grew up with Eritreans in the U.S. and we get along fine.  Unlike in Israel, where everyone lives in their little bubble, I’m glad I have friends of different backgrounds.  That we learn and play together.  Here you have four separate school systems based on religion and race.  How many Reform Jews do you even know?”

And the man closest to me says: “None- thank God.”

My heart sunk- and I can’t say I was the least bit surprised because in Israel, I’ve heard this a lot.  I said “well you’re talking to one now.  I am disappointed by your hatred.  In the U.S. I have friends who are secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic.”

He said: “I’m not hateful.  Anyways, all of your mixing in the U.S. is why American Jewry is disappearing.”

At this point, I felt the discussion was useless and went to talk to some absolutely lovely Eritreans who exchanged numbers with me.  We live down the street from each other and are going to hang out.  Our values are infinitely more intertwined than those of the Israeli I just finished speaking with.

If you want to understand in one anecdote the major difference between American and Israeli Jewry- it’s this.  Are there open-minded Israeli Orthodox Jews (or Israeli Jews in general)- yes.  I regularly do Shabbat with a gay Orthodox Israeli Jew who loves to learn about Reform Judaism.

And are there bigoted American Orthodox Jews (or American Jews in general)?  For sure.

Do I believe there is a substantial difference between the two groups’ attitudes?  Yes.

In America, by and large, Jews get along.  Perhaps better than American Jews even realize.  Only by being here in Israel have I realized the degree to which Judaism is different here- and far more divisive.  And far too often hateful.

Where two American Orthodox Jews saw my queer and Reform identities as nothing more than curiosity and an entree to a dinner invite, two Israeli Orthodox Jews couldn’t even stand the thought of befriending me.  To thank God for not knowing a Reform Jew (let alone an Eritrean)- that’s a true perversion of religion.

It’s important to remember people come in all shapes and sizes, both here and in Israel.  I could have turned this blog into an opportunity to hate Orthodox Jews.  And believe me, I was very angry last night and felt some of that hatred.  Instead, my cover photo is my picture of a Hasidic kids book- based on Elsa from the Disney movie “Frozen“.  Because I like to look for the unexpected and to try to speak with nuance and understanding.

For many American Jews, pluralism, diversity, and respect are key values- regardless of religious affiliation.  And for many Israeli Jews, the idea of a school where an Eritrean, a Reform Jew, and an Orthodox Jew could learn together is so out of the norm, it can barely be imagined.  Even if they agree with it.

And that’s exactly the kind of school I grew up at.  Eastern Middle School is where I spent my teenage years in Silver Spring, MD.  To this day, I remember an Eritrean friend of mine there teaching me about Tigre.  And I remember an Orthodox friend who was one of the popular girls bouncing to Backstreet Boys- and who now lives in a Haredi community in London.

And it’s not only “not a big deal”- it’s cool.  Living together is nice.  It can be challenging and mostly, it’s just interesting.  And fun.  And enriching.  And I personally pray for the day when God will soften the hearts of the two Orthodox men who berated me.  So that instead of complaining about their Eritrean neighbors, they might see they have something in common with them.  Or even to learn from them.

May it be so.  May it be soon.


What I (still) like about Israel

Lately I’ve been writing some pretty critical posts about Israel.  I think they are necessary and true.

It’s been making me reflect on what I still like about Israel.  To be honest, I like a lot less about Israel than I did when I first came here.  The racism, aggression, sectarian hatred, and ignorance make my daily life here quite hard.  And hard for pretty much everyone here.  Not everyone embodies these problems and a lot of people do- more than I expected.  In every religious, political, and ethnic group here.  It’s sad to see the Holy Land so filled with hate.

So it got me thinking- what do I like about Israel?

I like the healthcare system.  Israeli healthcare is light years ahead of America, something I noticed when first arriving here.  Treatment is almost always cheaper and more often than not, free.  Even for going to specialists like allergists, sleep labs, and psychiatrists who are part of your kupah, or health network.  Dental work costs a miniscule amount of what it does in the States and there are no deductibles.  You don’t have to guess whether you’ll be covered.  All your records are digitized and you can make appointments on an app.  The system has varying degrees of access in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and French.

I like that you can talk to random people here and it’s not “weird”.  At least in Washington, D.C., where I lived before making aliyah, when I tried to help someone or make small talk, I often felt like I was imposing.  Or that the other person wanted to know what I wanted out of them.  As if a conversation itself wasn’t sufficient- there must be some other motive.  Here, you can talk with almost anyone, Jewish or Arab, sometimes for hours without having met before.  Things are a lot less formal.

The produce is absolutely fantastic and cheap.  And unlike in Washington, D.C., you don’t need to go to an expensive farmers’ market to get delicious vegetables.  In D.C., the veggies at the grocery store are kind of watery- most of them probably sent from warmer climes like California.  According to my friends in Cali the produce is great there.  But if you live in D.C., by the time they get to you, they don’t taste so great.  Unless you’re willing to shell out money to go to Whole Foods.  The market and shops near my house in Tel Aviv have affordable delicious produce all year round.  It keeps you feeling healthful and biting into one of those yummy carrots just makes me happier.

If you need help here, you just ask for it.  There’s no shame in asking for help and people- both Jewish and Arab- more often than not are willing to help.  I’ve been given a free room to stay in a number of times- sometimes by people I had just met- or never met.  In the U.S., I of course have crashed with friends but it felt like a much bigger “ask” than here.  I once saw a woman on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv offer to host someone who was worried she wouldn’t be able to catch the train home to Haifa.  They had just met 20 minutes beforehand.

There are also a series of things I both like and dislike depending on how they’re used.  For instance, I’m less worried about offending someone here when I say something that doesn’t come out right or they disagree with.  At times, I don’t feel like I have to “walk on eggshells”, which can be a relief- we all say things that we regret.  The downside is that I find Israelis much less empathetic than Americans.  So when you are actually offended, people more often than not tell you to stop being upset, rather than acknowledging your pain.

The same goes for rules and formality.  In Israel, I have never worn a dress shirt, tie, or suit.  Thank God- other than an occasional celebration, I hate these clothes!  Here jeans and a t-shirt are totally fine most of the time, even in synagogue.  Israelis generally don’t like rules- this is a place where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission.  That can be helpful in working out creative solutions for business, plans, or even activism.  D.C. often felt rigid to me and stifled my creativity at times.  The flip side is that Israelis’ lack of rules often results in less protections.  Renters here are regularly scammed by landlords- much more than anything I saw in the States.  I’ve been taken advantage of many times here- and it’s even a societal value.  Rather than be the “freier” or “sucker”, Israelis often prefer to strike first and take advantage of you before you them.  It’s a vicious cycle that explains a lot of the problems here.  Israelis often struggle when I say the word “no”.  Rules often have a purpose- boundaries need to be respected to treat each other with dignity.  So the informality and lack of rules that I like can also a problem.

The cultural diversity is amazing here and threatened.  I’ve met Jews from places I never expected- India, Norway, Switzerland, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Ethiopia- and so many other places.  With unique languages, traditions, and cuisine.  And non-Jews such as Druze (whose heart shaped falafel is in my cover photo), Arab Catholics, Arab Greek Orthodox, Arab Greek Catholics, Maronites, Alawites, Muslims, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, and Circassians.  Darfuris, Ertireans, Sudanese, Nepalis, and Chinese.  I speak all eight of my languages here- regularly.  This beauty that I love is what the government threatens by shaming Jews for speaking other languages, by discriminating against Arabs, and by expelling refugees.  It pains to me to see such a beautiful gift under attack.

In short, it’s complicated.  There are good things in Israel.  The nature is also gorgeous, the weather is better than anywhere in the Northeast U.S. or most of Europe.  The location is ideal for traveling the world.

Once the Israeli people do the hard work of pulling themselves away from the toxic ideologies that gave birth to their country, they might find themselves feeling freer.  Freer for a secular Jew to be friends with a Hasidic Jew.  For an Orthodox Jew to acknowledge Palestinian Arab history.  For a Mizrachi Jew to dance to Eritrean refugees’ music.  For a secular Ashkenazi to raise his kids in Yiddish.  Or an Iraqi Jew to do so in Judeo-Arabic.  For a Haredi Jew to see the good in Reform Judaism.  For a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon to return home to my neighborhood and for me to help renovate her mosque.  For a Christian to marry a Jew.  For a Jew to convert to Islam.  In short, to be the complex beautiful human beings hiding beneath the divisiveness.

For Hasidic Jews, tikkun olam or “repairing the world” begins within.  I couldn’t agree more.  To make the world a better place, we must start with ourselves.  So see the good things I wrote?  Grow them.  And where we find barriers in our souls towards our fellow human beings, join me in tearing them down.  Inside and radiating out towards the heavens.

Israelis often like to think of themselves as a “light unto the nations”.  The thing is to see a candle best, you must first turn off the lights.  Scary and necessary.  Flip the switch.  It’s time for a reset.  Let the flame illuminate our path.

There is no racism in Israel

Or so says the rabbi’s wife I met today.  This afternoon, I was doing some advocacy for the 40,000 refugees who live in my neighborhood.  After having heard incredibly racist remarks (and in a different circumstance, I was told “Reform Jews aren’t Jews”), I headed to a cafe to do so some work.  Something to distract me from the incredible pulsating hatred that surrounds me.

I noticed a Judaica shop.  For a while now, I’ve come to the conclusion that Israeli Jews and American/Diaspora Jews are not the same- I don’t even think we could say we practice the same religion.  All the values I’ve been taught about Judaism- compassion, caring for the stranger, justice, diversity, pluralism- they are close to non-existent in this country.  The few brave people who embrace them are ridiculed from left and right.  Almost every Jew I meet here has some community they hate- and they love to tell me about it.  Secular, Orthodox, Mizrachim, Reform and on and on and on.  It’s like Chinese water torture- you know you can always count on the next drop to fall.  It’s painful.

Growing up, I was taught in synagogue that Jews are a people- that we’re a religion and a culture.  There’s a lot of truth to that.  If we were simply a faith, we wouldn’t have Jewish languages, Jewish literature, Jewish cuisine, and so on.  I can’t recall seeing a Presbyterian deli.  And if we were just a culture, we wouldn’t have holidays based on the Bible.

As I’ve spent more and more time in Israel, however, I’ve come to realize I have next to nothing in common with the Jews here other than the fact that we call ourselves Jews.  For sure, I’ve met some amazing people- and in fact, often the less someone here identifies as a bona fide Israeli, the better we tend to get along.  Meaning, olim, Hasidim, Arabs, and even Sabras who feel disconnected from aspects of the dominant culture.  The less someone buys into the features of the “national” identity, the more open I find they are to my diverse background and to exploring other communities.  Something that’s probably true in most countries- the people more willing to break from nationalist orthodoxy tend to be me open-minded.  And you’d be surprised- someone could be quite secular and identify as left-wing here and still be utterly nationalistic and insistent on everyone speaking Hebrew, law and order, and other demands of the state.  After all, their sector founded it.

Which brings me to today.  I walked into the Judaica shop.  I wanted to know if the owners had an opinion on the refugees I live with.  I was hoping that perhaps there’s some hidden light binding us together and that actually we are all Jews.  That a few bad apples can’t spoil the bunch.

Wow was I wrong.  I had walked in saying I just wanted to browse around.  The Chabad rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) asked about my Jewish background.  I said I was Reform and that I like to visit all kinds of communities, including Chabad.  I also mentioned I had friends who were in Chabad.  She interrogated me about our practices and when she found out we use musical instruments and sometimes microphones on Shabbat- she launched into a tirade about how we were desecrating Shabbat and God’s name.

She then asked me what I felt my purpose was on Earth.  A pretty big question for a bookstore, but I answered.  I said I felt my purpose was to repair the world, to lessen the hate between us, to bring compassion.

And in an answer that broke my heart she said: “you’re wrong”.  She said my job was to learn the Lubavitcher Rabbi‘s teachings and fix myself.

Stuck in a state of shock and disgust, I slowly made my way to the door.  She asked what I meant by repairing the world.  I said that today, I had done some work to help refugees in my neighborhood.

And I quote: “These ‘so called’ refugees are infiltrators.  God gave us the Land of Israel.  They should go back to Africa and fix their own countries.”

I’m hoping around now your chin has dropped.  But there’s more.  When I told her to go talk to the people in my neighborhood, she said: “there’s no racism in Israel.  I don’t need to talk to them, I read about how they steal bikes on a website.”

Before I left, I asked one more question: “how many Africans do you know?”

The answer: “none, but I read online.”

If you want to know why the world is pulling at the seems these days, this is why.  Not because the internet isn’t a useful tool (it is, you’re reading this cool blog on it!).  But rather because it can’t be your only source of information.  Someone else’s opinion on a screen is an ineffective substitute for human interaction.  For gathering facts.  For meeting other people.  This lesson is as applicable to America or Europe or anywhere else.  This has to stop.

I told the rebbetzin (and her husband who came back by then) to go to my neighborhood and talk to the refugees.  To have compassion.  That Judaism is compassion.  To consider all the travails our people has been through.  Our people.  I struggled to say the “our” as I saw the utter indifference in their eyes.

Knowing a lost battle when I see one, I half-heartedly joked about “two Jews, three opinions”.  They laughed and I stepped outside.

I can’t lie- this experience made me hate Chabad and everything they stand for.  I had/have to work really hard to remember I have friends in Chabad who aren’t racist and that we can’t judge an entire group based on a couple people.  I also have always found myself welcomed by Chabad as a Reform and queer Jew in the States.  And I also grew to understand some of the resentment secular Israelis feel about how religion manifests itself here.

The past few weeks, I’ve never felt further from my Judaism.  As I discover the Palestinian village I live on top of and the depraved racism of many Israelis towards refugees, it becomes harder and harder for me to feel proud as a Jew.  Because it feels so far from my values and it makes me ashamed to call myself one.

The best thing I’ve done in the past few days is increase my involvement in advocating for justice here.  For everyone.  For the underdogs.  For the real “Jews” as I see it.  By standing up to my government who commits atrocities in my name, I can take back my pride in my heritage.  A heritage that consists of spiritual resistance, of community organizing, of literature, of fighting for civil rights.

The privilege I enjoy as a Jew here has helped me understand how my White Christian straight American friends with a conscience feel.  There is an uneasy guilt that can eat away at you as you see the harm being perpetrated towards your neighbors.  That oftentimes you’re spared because of your identity.

So I’ve decided to take that feeling of guilt and put it to use.  I’m talking to my neighbors about supporting refugees.  I’m doing more of my shopping at refugee-run businesses.    I’m going to eat less at Rabbinate-certified kosher restaurants because the Chief Rabbi has come out in favor of deporting my friends.  And instead eat more at refugee-owned restaurants.  And I’m going to keep talking and talking and protesting until somebody gives a shit.

Fortunately I’m not alone and other Jews here- who act like the label matters- are standing up for justice.

The question is when the police come to tear apart families like the Gestapo (or ICE)- which side will you be on?

Make some noise people.  Lest you find yourself re-reading rabbinical texts in a Judaica shop in Tel Aviv.  Selling wares from an empty wagon.


A bisl Hassidus a bisl queerus – a gay Hasidic day

In a playful way, my title means “A little Hasidism a little queerness”.  And that’s exactly what I did today.

My day started with a trip to Bnei Brak.  A Haredi city of about 200,000 people just a bus ride away from my house in Tel Aviv.  I’ve been many times and now know my way around, which is pretty cool.

I started my day by buying a 5 shekel siddur (prayer book) from Gur Hasidim.  In Bnei Brak I’ve seen on multiple occasions dozens of beautiful books left outside with nothing but a collection tin where you put in some very token amount of money and get delightful books.  I happened to choose an old little siddur because I thought it was neat.  For the same price (about $1.50) I could gotten an almost mint-condition book of the Talmud or the writings of Rabbi Elimelech.  Jews are truly people of the book 🙂  And I’m adding some amazing volumes to an already killer library.

I needed some change so I walked across the street and talked to Shlomo.  Shlomo was excited that I was American.  He was born in Israel and used to live in New York where he was a mashgiach– a kosher certifier.  I learned from him about how he apprenticed and then got into the profession.  He had been to my hometown of DC several times which is awesome.  I asked him what he really misses about America and he said: “sesame chicken- I can’t find it good and cheap anywhere in Israel!”  Amen brother!

I then popped into the Ponevezh yeshiva.  What I didn’t realize until writing this article is that Ponevezh is actually a Litvish yeshiva.  In other words, they are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) but not Hasidic.  In fact, back in the day the groups were intense rivals, but now there’s more overlap.

There I found something interesting amongst all the religious books and pamphlets- an ad for American e-cigarettes haha.

I then headed to the Breslov yeshiva around the corner.  I asked a man if I could take photos and, as is often the case in Israel, he said sure and then invited me in to learn with him.  For those who need some context- I have studied Torah as a Reform Jew.  I have never studied Torah in a Hasidic yeshiva.  Such a thing doesn’t exist in Washington, D.C. and even if it did, most people from my background probably wouldn’t step inside.  So basically, I’m brave and I strive to be open-minded.

Shlomo (a different Shlomo from Shlomo #1) sat with me and we studied Gemara.  Basically a foundational text of rabbinic commentary and part of the Talmud.

This is far outside the wheelhouse of even the most educated Reform Jews unless you’re studying to become a rabbi.  I’ve grown up in the movement and participated in almost every program imaginable and I can’t say I’ve ever taken an in-depth look at this aspect of Judaism.  We tend to focus on other very important aspects like social justice and the personal spiritual experience.  I do wonder if we lose something by not engaging some with these texts too.

Shlomo was a funny guy.  First off, he asked about my Jewish background.  Keep in mind I’m in the middle of a Hasidic yeshiva in Bnei Brak with hundreds of men around me I don’t know.  The image of Hasidim in the media here is anything but positive.  Violence and extremism are pretty much all secular Israelis know about their Hasidic neighbors.

So how did I answer his question?  I said: “I come from a somewhat traditional Reform home.”  BOOM.  Please re-read that absolutely everyone who tells me that if only Hasidim in Bnei Brak knew more about me, they wouldn’t accept me.  For sure I’ve had difficult experiences here and heard negative remarks about Reform Jews.  And I’ve also had moments like today when this guy didn’t bat an eye.  In fact, his follow up question was hilarious.  Trying to connect with me via the ancient tradition of Jewish geography, he asked if I knew his cousin in Monsey, NY!  This carries an extra level of funniness because Monsey Jews are very Hasidic and I can’t imagine many Reform Jews have ever stepped foot there.  But I appreciated his effort to connect with me- even after I said I was Reform.

As we’re studying Gemara, an old man came up and asked for money.  I forget exactly how it came up, but at some point he said about me in Yiddish, “he’s not a Vizhnitz Hasid!”  To which I responded in Yiddish: “that’s right, I’m not a Vizhnitz Hasid, but here take some change!”  He nearly fell on the floor in shock.  His smile grew and he starts telling everyone that I speak Yiddish with a look of intense naches- of pride 🙂  You have to keep in mind everyone there knows I’m not from the community- I’m wearing jeans and a green sweatshirt.  We had a good laugh together and shmoozed a bisl.

He then puts his hand on my head and blesses me.  Wow.  It gives me shivers and made me feel so loved.  I don’t know the last time someone blessed me.

Walking around Bnei Brak, I got hungry.  I stopped for some cookies and found a delicious bakery that even had shockingly good whole wheat cookies.

Still hungry, I continue walking and even helped some cute kids cross the street.  Each one wanted me to tell him that he did a good job crossing 🙂

Then something bashert happened.  Bashert is a word Hebrew wished it had.  In Yiddish (and Jewish English) it means something predestined, meant to be.  Either a person you fall in love with or connect with.  Or an event.

Some of you might remember Yisrael.  He’s my friend who gave me my first Haredi hug.  By chance, I happened upon his restaurant.  The past few times I was in Bnei Brak I tried to find it but I forgot where it was.  And this time my tummy- and perhaps a greater force- led me to him.

He instantly recognized me, even though it had been months.  He gave me a huge hug, told me I looked great, and asked me how I was doing.  We caught up, he of course gave me extra food for free, and I sat down to delicious gefilte fish and kugel.  Heimish, delicious Jewish food.

While I was sitting, I heard an interesting- and incredibly respectful- debate between a Chabad guy who claimed the Lubavitch rabbi was the messiah and the other Hasidim who disagreed.  This was absolutely fascinating.  And what is more- no blood was shed.  No blows were thrown.  In fact, Yisrael ended the debate by calling the rabbi a tzadik, or saint, and everyone went back to eating and asking me about America (they love to practice their English with me).

Hardly a story you’ll read in Haaretz or see on CNN, but it was real.  And it’s how many people live their lives here.

Heading out the door, I thought to myself that sometimes I wish I could be a part of this community.  Due to my queerness and my Reform identity and progressive values, I don’t know to what degree I could find acceptance as my full self.  It can make exploring Bnei Brak hard at times.

And yet it’s precisely because of these identities that I’m intrigued by this community.  And truth be told- I’m a part of it.  Just in a way that works for me.  Where I can participate in a way where I am learning the best this place has to offer and staying true to who I am.

Due to the Holocaust, Soviet anti-Semitism, American pressure to assimilate, and the Israeli government’s repression of Jewish cultures, my heritage suffered greatly the past 100 years.  An entire civilization, Ashkenazi Judaism, was nearly wiped out.  Yiddish almost forgotten.

When I made aliyah to Israel, I hoped to reconnect with my roots.  Sadly, this state doesn’t believe in Jewish culture.  Whatever remnants of my roots that are here exist in spite of a state that has shamed people for being Jewishly different.

The one group that more than any other has held on to their yiddishkayt- their Jewish roots- is Hasidim.  These Jews continue to speak the language of my ancestors for the past 2,000 years- Yiddish.  A language I now speak as well.  They maintain customs and wear clothing that are anathema to the society that surrounds them- to the state that wishes they’d just forget the Diaspora.

As I headed to a bar to meet a bunch of LGBTQ olim like me in Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help but think of what we have in common.  To hold onto your identity is a daily challenge.  When people around you ridicule you for your difference, for standing out, for being “out of the norm”- you have to find ways to cope.  So perhaps to the chagrin of some homophobic Haredim (not all) and some anti-religious gay people (not all)- we’re dealing with a much more similar problem than they’d like to believe.

Recently I saw a post in a Facebook group about Ramat Gan, a suburb that is squished between Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak.  There are political and religious tensions there between secular and Haredi Jews.  One particularly harsh post by a secular gay guy said: “Ramat Gan- we need to choose between Bnei Brak or Tel Aviv.”

That’s how he chooses to live his life.  Black and white.  Yes or no.  Secular or Orthodox.  Tel Aviv or Bnei Brak.

I have no doubt something caused this mentality and I hope he finds healing.

Because given the choice between Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv- I choose both.

The Bnei Brak of free Gemara lessons, kugel, sesame chicken fans, e-cigarettes, and whole wheat cookies.  The Tel Aviv of queer olim parties, hot guys on the beach, Reform synagogues, and Arab college students.

In short- gam vegam.  Both this and that.



Jesus and Jerusalem

Jerusalem, despite what Tel Avivis say, is an absolutely fascinating city.  This week I hopped on a bus for a day trip.  My dear friend from college was coming into town from New York.  And I’ve been itching to get to know a side of Jerusalem few people here talk about: the Christian one.

I love churches.  The more beautifully decorated and historic, the better.  In a foreign language?  Gold.  Some of the prettiest art I’ve seen has been in cathedrals and churches.  And I love learning about other faiths.

Jerusalem is a great place to visit churches.  While much of the world (and this country) likes to bicker about Jews vs. Muslims and Muslims vs. Jews and endless news clips that only feed the narcissism of both groups, the fact is this is a Holy Land for many peoples.  Including Christians, whose religion also comes from here.

Here’s how one day in Jerusalem went down.  Walking towards the Old City, I popped into a bookstore.  I LOVE books and especially used books in different languages and this store had exactly that.  I met a 15 year old Hasidic kid named Shmuel who was browsing the books.  An extremely friendly guy, we chatted as we perused.  Shmuel loves nature and knows every park in Jerusalem.  He loves hisboydedus (Modern Hebrew: hitbodedut)- going into nature and talking to God.  Something I find spiritual too.

He struggled with whether he should go to such a bookstore or not, since some of the books would be forbidden in his community.  I tried to show him some kindness and encouragement.  I hope he keeps reading 🙂

Then I came across a tall black man in a black robe with a cross.  Knowing a bit about Orthodox Christianity, my guess was he was an Ethiopian Orthodox priest.  And I was right 🙂  His name was Zion and we walked together to his favorite coffee shop.  Run by a very cute English guy with an Irish accent- with coffee from all over the world.  For those who don’t know, coffee was invented in Ethiopia/Yemen.  After a nice chat, I got info about an Ethiopian church I can visit next time, and I headed towards the Old City.

Jerusalem’s Old City has four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian.  Armenians are Christian, so not sure about how that distinction came about, but that’s the way it is.  I’ve visited much of the Old City but hadn’t spent much time in the Christian Quarter.

I wandered around asking shopkeepers in Arabic where the churches were.  I made my way to a Catholic church…in the middle of a mass.  The church was immaculate.  Catholics know how to decorate 🙂  And the mass- the sermon, the music, the prayers- were all in Arabic.  At a time when much of the Western World couldn’t imagine anything Christian being in Arabic, it’s a useful reminder that this language belongs to many people.  And this perhaps can shatter some preconceived notions about the Middle East- and about Christianity itself.

The prayers were beautiful- the priest even quoted the Talmud.  I can’t say my Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) is at a level where I can know word-for-word what he was quoting in his sermon (I’m not a Talmud expert either and it was echoey), but it was clear he was telling a story from Jewish religious literature.  The sermon was something about all the latest news regarding sexual harassment- a rather forward topic for a Middle Eastern church based on my own preconceptions.  I preferred, though, to look at the art and soak in the music.  What a unique experience.  Every religion has beauty to share.

Then I walked around the outside of a Greek Orthodox Church- closed but will visit next time.  I did get to use the Greek I’ve been learning to read the signs- there’s a lot of Greek in Jerusalem!  I wonder if the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding can prove that the word “Jerusalem” comes from Greek too 😉

I then used my Spanish to help two lost Christian pilgrims from Colombia find the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  According to Christian tradition, this site is where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried and resurrected.  What’s unique about it is that the church is actually multiple churches.  Every section of the building is controlled by a different denomination.  There are Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox areas.  Each decorated according to the traditions of the group and filled with beautiful artwork and quotes in their respective languages.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In the course of an hour or two, I talked with a Coptic priest, Armenian priests, and Catholic pilgrims from Chicago.  What a beautiful and awe-inspiring place.

On my way up the hill to meet my friend from college- who’s Modern Orthodox (kind of completing a day of almost every religious denomination imaginable)- I heard people speaking Spanish.  They were from Costa Rica!  Costa Rica is a very small country- I grew up with neighbors from there and my high school organized trips there.  What’s even more crazy is that the Costa Ricans…had bumped into other Costa Ricans.  In Jerusalem.  Add in one Brazilian guy and an Arab shopkeeper with a few words of Spanish, and all of us were chatting and having a good time.  I love Spanish- it was my major and I’ve used it in every job I’ve had since college, including as a Spanish teacher.  I love going back and forth between languages so speaking Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese was pretty neat 🙂

We even took a picture together:


After a heartwarming and laughter-filled dinner with my friends, I headed back to Tel Aviv.

The Holy Land is nothing if not complex.  There is such a richness here- a density of meaning- that is hard to find anywhere else.  It can lead to great strife.  And it can lead to absolutely miraculous days where you realize you’ve spoken six languages and met people from all over the world.

Jerusalem in Hebrew means “city of peace” and in Arabic it means “the holy one”.  In Tel Aviv, it’s used as a slur.

For me, Jerusalem is a fantastic place.  It’s a place where with a little imagination, you can hear Muhammad riding on his Buraq, you can hear the Jewish priests on the Temple Mount, and you can hear Jesus’s footsteps.

Where you can hear a priest talking in Armenian and then find Dutch tourists dancing to techno in the shuk.

Jerusalem- leave your assumptions at home 🙂


Straight talk about Israel

This may be my most dugri blog ever.  We need to talk about Israel and Jewish culture.

After 2,000 years of exile, idealistic pioneers started to resettle the land.  There had already been some Jews here – even some with continuous presence since the destruction of the Temple – but they were a small percentage of world Jewry.

The new pioneers, eventually called Zionists, set up all sort of agriculture and economic development and cultural enterprises.  For the latter, one of their best known accomplishments was the revival of spoken Hebrew.  It is an enterprise unmatched by any other linguistic revival movement.

A great deal of the pioneers’ energy was motivated by a desire to escape the “Diaspora” i.e. Jewish life anywhere outside of the Land of Israel.  It wasn’t just a physical escape (which is quite understandable- life was pretty rough for Jews being butchered across the world for 2,000 years).  It was also a psychological and cultural one.

In their minds, especially the Sabras (i.e. the pioneers’ Israeli-born children), the Diaspora Jew was weak, effeminate, overly polite, wordy, deferential, and too religious.  All words which if said by a non-Jew would probably be considered anti-Semitic.

Clearly they had been through trauma across generations and perhaps instead of resolving their pain, they passed it on to others.  In this case, other Jews (although perhaps in another blog I’ll explore how this affected relations with Arabs).

Sabras were largely of Ashkenazi extraction (i.e. their families immigrated from Europe), but their culture was not.  Over time, they rejected Yiddish, the Jewish religion, even changing their Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew.  These were the blunt, masculine, secular pioneers building a state.

When it comes to meeting their goals, one cannot deny their effectiveness.  They established a safe haven for Jews for the first time in 2,000 years.  They won war after war after war- at great cost.  They changed Jewish culture not only in Israel, but also across the world.

The question is at what expense?

When Jews came to Israel from across the world (and continue to do so), they were often escaping anti-Semitism, economic devastation, and war.  From Morocco to Yemen, from Poland to India.

Jews in most of the world are quite accustomed to being persecuted by non-Jews.  Coming to Israel, we thought, would finally protect our Jewish identity.

But the sad truth of it is that when many Jews arrived (and indeed, arrive) to Israel, Sabras greeted them with hatred.  Iraqi Jews were shamed for speaking Judeo-Arabic.  Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors were not only attacked for speaking Yiddish, they were also called “sabonim” or “soap”…because of the rumor that Hitler made soap out of their families’ bodies.  To many Sabras, Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors were weak Diaspora Jews who went “like sheep to the slaughter“.  Religious Jews arrived to Israel and some Sabras even cut off their peyos– their side locks.  I’ve seen videos of this from the 1930s…in Germany.  Did not expect that to have happened here.

While respect for diversity has certainly increased since the early years of the State, it is still an enormous problem.

For example, I live in a largely Mizrachi neighborhood- Jews who came to Israel from the Middle East.  There’s an Iraqi bakery and the Jewish woman there and I speak in Arabic.  Which is pretty friggin awesome.

A young man comes up, also presumably Mizrachi, and talks to the woman because they know each other.  She tells him: “look he’s American and he speaks Arabic better than me!”.  He gets a puzzled and angry look on his face and says: “What do you mean Arabic?  You’re Iraqi.”  The woman then explains to him that when her parents moved to Israel, they spoke Judeo-Arabic.  He wasn’t interested in the details: “Iraqis aren’t Arab.”  He bought his pitas and he left.

This is a guy who presumably has a similar story in his family.  With Judeo-Arabic, with Persian, with Bukharian- with something.  With his roots.  That he doesn’t understand.

When a person becomes un-rooted- as the Sabras did- they lose their sense of self.  One need only look to many million of Americans whose ancestors were shamed for speaking Irish, German, etc.- and now have no cultural bearings.  And take that hatred out on immigrants who keep them.

Culture evolves- that’s fine.  In fact, it can be good.  Not all of the Sabras’ ideas were bad.  God, YHVH, in Hebrew is a verb.  Spirituality and culture need to change but they also need a starting point.  You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The sad thing is that the Sabras’ initial behaviors have became Israeli cultural norms.  While Sabra once meant the first generation of Jewish pioneers born here, it now applies to any Jew born in Israel.  The ideology of the first generation of Sabras has now became fairly mainstream and so with each passing generation, the new cohort of Sabras passes the pain along.  And the pressure to conform.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “French olim are so annoying with their ‘hon hon hon’, in my neighborhood you’d think we’re in France!  Why do they come here?”  Or “Russians are lazy and don’t learn Hebrew.  Most of them aren’t Jewish anyways.”  Or “You speak Hebrew great!  Not like those Americans who live here 20 years with their terrible accents and can’t get a word out in our language.”

Are all Sabras like this?  No.  I’ve met some people here with a great respect for cultural diversity and a curiosity about the world.  Even their own roots, despite what they’ve been taught about them.

But is it more prevalent here?  It is more rooted in the ideology?  It is in fact a cultural value?


And it’s not only from my observations.  As a barometer, let’s talk intermarriage.  Not because you have to marry someone from a different background to not be prejudiced, bur rather it’s a question of whether it’s accepted.  It’s a reasonable point of data for understanding tolerance for diversity.

In the U.S., which has its own extensive history of racism (which sadly continues), only 9% of the public disapproves of interracial marriage.  To the folks who say this is simply a product of American “PC” culture and unwillingness to tell the truth, they’re wrong.  Three times as many elderly Americans are against interracial marriage as young Americans.  There is a definitive positive trend as time goes on.  Thank God.

Now let’s look at Israel.  Let’s put aside interracial marriage- upwards of 80% of both Arabs and Jews disapprove.   Every single sector of Jewish society here disapproves- by alarmingly high margins- of their children marrying someone from at least one other Jewish community.  Secular Jews, Hilonim, have almost identically high opposition to the phenomenon as their “menace”- Haredim.


How does this connect?  Diversity.  The predominant Sabra ideology (which by the way is not uniform and there are many alternate visions of Zionism- I’ve personally taken a recent interest in Judah Magnes) is vehemently against it- at least when it comes to Jews.  This helps explain both Israel’s struggle to accept cultural/linguistic diversity and to accept religious pluralism (or religion at all).

The sad thing is that Israel is one of the most diverse places on the planet.  Just in my neighborhood, I hear (or speak) Arabic, Tagalog, Cameroonian French, Turkish, Tigre, Amharic, Chinese, Bukharian, Russian, and so much more.  In the right neighborhood, Israel is a polyglot’s paradise.  Which is part of what I love about it.

It’s hard because what I love most about Israel is what the system itself tries to annihilate.  While I’m accustomed to Jews being diminished by non-Jews, I’m alarmed by Jews doing it to our own people.

Jews have arrived to Israel with the riches of thousands of years of civilization.  Culture, music, traditions, languages, religion.  So much unique richness- some of which cannot be found anywhere else.

And I’m glad that Sabras built a place to save Jewish lives.  Because no one else has.

The question is what does it mean to save a Jewish life if you can’t live Jewishly?  Why can’t someone be Israeli and speak fluent Hebrew and also insist on teaching their kids Yiddish or Kavkazi or Haketia?  And their grand kids.  And insisting these languages be taught in the public schools we fund?  And preserving multiple identities in addition to being Israeli?

I’m grateful Israel has amazing archives which I plow to learn about these ancient and precious communities.  But I’m not interested in being archived.  I’m interested in living as a free Jew in my land.  According to my traditions- evolving and ancient.

Because every time an Israeli sings Hatikvah, they’re singing a Romanian folk song in the Hebrew cadence of my forefathers in Poland.

That’s the thing about roots- they’re hard to undo.



A New Year’s Resolution for Israel

Today is the secular new year.  In Israel, fittingly but quite strange for me, they say “shanah tovah”, the typical Jewish greeting for Rosh Hashanah- the Jewish New Year.  It’s a fun night of celebration and also a chance to think of what’s ahead.

For me, this week marks my 6 month anniversary of arriving in Israel.  I’ve learned so much in such a little amount of time.  I’ve visited over 35 cities.  I’ve been to Hasidic dance parties, Mizrachi concerts, dabke dancing, Israeli folk dancing, Yiddish theater, a Russian puppet show, and a Yemenite concert.  I’ve eaten Bukharian, Moroccan, Persian, Ashkenazi, Romanian, Druze, Arab, Kavkazi, Georgian, Indian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Eritrean, Filipino, and so many other types of food.  I’ve davvened with Haredim, Reform Jews, Chabad, and hippie vegan Jews.  I visited a Druze shrine and a Karaite synagogue.  I got to watch Islamic prayer up close and personal in a mosque and I went to an LGBT Orthodox Torah study group.

Not bad for the half year mark!  I’m quite proud of all my accomplishments- moving across the ocean alone, making friends, finding an apartment, adjusting to a new culture, and using all nine of my languages and starting to add Greek!

There has been a lot of stress along the way.  Israel is an extraordinarily hard place to live- or so say Sabras who grew up here.  And while sometimes they exaggerate because whining here is kind of a national sport (and they don’t know much about the challenges faced by people elsewhere), the truth is in many ways they’re right.  And it’s all the more difficult for someone like me who moved here at 31 without an extensive support network.

What’s hardest about life in Israel is also the source of my New Year’s resolution.  The hardest part of life in Israel is the people.  More specifically, the intense and mean-spirited prejudice I experience on almost a daily basis.  Towards me as an American and towards other cultures- especially within Israel.  Don’t get me wrong- there are some fantastic people here, who mostly join me in complaining about the awful ones.  But boy- there is a mean streak to Israeli culture that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the world.  It’s not because I haven’t seen prejudice elsewhere- I’ve experienced it in places like Spain (anti-Semitism), Argentina (homophobia), and the U.S. (all of the above).

The difference in Israel is the intensity and the degree to which many people here celebrate judging others.  I’m someone who deeply values multiculturalism.  I’m well aware that there are limits to it and questions about how far it should extend.  But the basic principle of respecting- at times embracing- parts of every culture to me is second nature and a fundamental way I live in the world.  The good news is Israel is chock full of interesting cultures.  Sadly, that most Israelis know nothing about- and don’t care to appreciate.  While some Israelis are curious about Berlin or America, few are particularly curious about their neighbors who look or talk differently from them.  Let alone their own roots.

The truth is when the State of Israel was being built, its founders despised (and that is not too strong a word) multiculturalism.  Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic- these languages were vigorously and shamefully repressed by the state.  Kids grew up with shame about their roots.  And sadly some 2,000 year old beautiful Jewish cultures are going extinct as a result.

The un-rootedness of many Sabras fosters insecurity and prejudice towards those who maintain their heritage.  Just ask many a Sabra what they think of French Jews or Russians who continue to speak their languages here.

There has been somewhat of a resurgence in interest in cultural diversity, but it needs to be nourished.  And that’s where I- and you- come in.  There are Israelis like me who are proud of our origins.  There are Israelis- I’ve met them- who realize you can speak fluent Hebrew and still maintain (or re-learn) your French or Russian or Arabic or Romanian.  There are many who don’t realize that because they’ve been trained to revile the Diaspora.  And that’s very sad.

But in the end, I believe in multiculturalism and I’m convinced there are some people here who are ready to join me in this movement.  I want to celebrate the incredible cultural richness here- of Jews, of Arabs, of refugees, of everyone.  It is a gift that must be cherished to be protected.

It is no longer acceptable to me that when I tell my Sabra friends that I met Aramaic-speaking Christians or Samaritans who speak Ancient Hebrew or Eritreans with an awesome juice bar that their reaction is: “wow I didn’t know that was there- you’ve seen more here in 6 months than I’ve seen in a lifetime!”

Bullshit.  Time to get off your hummus-filled tuchus and get to know the richness of your country.  No- not the high-tech.  The cultural treasures right underneath your nose waiting to be discovered.

It’s time to leave behind the old-fashioned Zionist concept of the “effeminate”, “decadent”, “overly pious”, “cosmopolitan”, “weak” Diaspora Jew.  It’s 2018, time for a change.  It’s time to realize the “Diaspora” is The World.  And lucky for us, a whole bunch of people from all over the world have made this country their home.

Now it’s time to realize that if we understand where we came from, our cultures, our heritage- it doesn’t negate our Israeli identity.  It thoroughly enriches it.  Just like my delicious cover photo of Pringles, Russian sweets, Korean seaweed, and Israeli Bissli that co-exist at my neighborhood store.  Pluralism that begins with culture can increase respect between all sectors of society.  And instead of Jew hating Arab hating Zionist Orthodox hating Haredi hating Secular hating Mizrachi hating Ashkenazi- maybe, just maybe, we build just a little bit more understanding and a lot less hate.

Ken yehi ratzon – may it be God’s will.  Inshallah.  Ojalá.  Mirtsashem.

Let’s do this y’all. 🙂