When you bump into a high school friend in your neighborhood

For those of you who’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know my neighborhood is a bit off the beaten path for American immigrants to Israel.  It’s off the beaten path for most Israelis.  My particular street is quite quiet, kind of like a Mizrachi kibbutz, but a two minute walk away finds you in the poorest neighborhood of Tel Aviv.  And one of the most interesting.  Filled with Moroccans and Iraqis and Eritreans and Bedouin (still figuring that one out) and Yemenites and Russians.  And me.

The first reason I moved to my neighborhood was financial.  The rest of Tel Aviv was too expensive for me to find a place by myself.  Tired of living with roommates and not willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money, I looked where less people “like me” look.

I happened upon a great apartment and snatched it up.  The price was right, it came mostly furnished, it included most utilities, and I was able to negotiate a good lease.  A lot of hard work went into that- I saw easily 40 different apartments in person before finding this one.  You can read about my process here.

One of the downsides to my neighborhood is it’s far from…everyone.  Well, not everyone.  Certainly not my Iraqi neighbor downstairs who likes to “role play” Abu Mazen in Arabic yelling at Israel (my neighborhood is many things but boring is not one of them).  But it is far from other young professionals- some of whom flat out told me they’d be scared to visit me.  Fortunately, I have many friends who feel otherwise and have come to my park for picnics.  But as we say in Jewish English “it’s a schlep“.

That can make me feel lonely sometimes.  Especially on Shabbat when there is no public transit and people are even less willing to make the trek.  And it also becomes hard for me to visit them.  I’ve spent more than a few Shabbat afternoons alone and bored.

My neighborhood has a lot of amazing things.  It’s amazingly diverse, it has great food, it’s cheaper, it’s authentic.  The owner of the Mizrachi music store around the corner was Zohar Argov‘s producer.  It’s a place where almost all aspects of the conflict in this country come together and somehow things manage to stick together.

At night, better than anywhere in North Tel Aviv, you can truly see the stars.  The moon calls out to you.  It calms me to look towards the heavens after a hectic day, no skyscrapers around, and to just breathe.

Tonight, the most unexpected thing happened: I bumped into a friend.  Feeling kind of lonely, I left my apartment and headed towards “the city”.  “The city” because my neighborhood doesn’t feel like the rest of Tel Aviv.  You wouldn’t know it was the same city if you visited here.

On my way there, I saw a group of young people.  I was a bit surprised.  I knew there were a few in the neighborhood, often living with their families, but rarely in large groups.  As I got closer, a bearded man gave me a huge hug.

I was in shock.  Who was this guy??

After a look at his sheyne punim, I knew: it was Omer!  Holy crap!  Omer is an Israeli friend from Beit Shemesh, a suburb of Jerusalem.  We met in high school because his city was paired with my hometown of Washington, D.C. for an exchange program.  We hung out in D.C., I believe I saw him when I came several years later to visit Beit Shemesh, and then reconnected on Facebook.  Once I made aliyah, we got to see each other again in person.

Omer is an avid board games player.  Turns out, so is someone in my neighborhood who was hosting a board games event!  Delighted to bump into someone who knew me, someone who hugged me- spontaneously- in my neighborhood, I immediately asked him to invite me to the next event.

Living alone in a foreign country can be hard.  And I don’t just live here, I immigrated here.  I’m a citizen.  I have no particular plans to move back to the U.S. although as a dual citizen I legally can.  And since my work happens to be done remotely, I can bounce between countries, which is great.  It’s also true that it feels different to live here as opposed to visiting or being on a program.  Washington, D.C. will always be one of my homes.  And what I’m starting to realize, to whatever extent I choose to stay here short or long term, Israel has become one of my homes too.

A place where I bump into an old friend on an unexpected street who cheers me up.  A place where, just twenty minutes later, I bumped into another friend I met outside a nightclub weeks ago.

A place where for all its insanity and its toughness, I guess I just don’t feel like as much of a stranger as when I stepped off the plane on the Fourth of July almost a year ago.  Hopeful, confused, anxious, and inspired.  Jet-lagged and later coping with food poisoning and being stalked by toxic relatives and being yelled at daily by Sabras for no particular reason and being racially profiled as Arab and waking up to 3 A.M. air raid sirens and all sorts of traumas big and small.

Israel is whack.  That’s how I’d say it in American.  And Israel, I’m just not sure I can entirely live without you.  And if you don’t think that’s the most Israeli way of saying “I love you”, then you’re probably not one of us 🙂

p.s.- my cover photo is a picture of teddy bears from the Arab village of Tira because this is a feel good story 🙂


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.

When you’ve sat at every table at the Eritrean restaurant

Tonight, I tried to make plans to go out.  Thursday is the start of the weekend in Israel, but unfortunately my friends were busy.  After talking with an American friend on the phone, I headed home.

As I walked around Shchunat Hatikva, I heard something strange: English.  I literally did a double take and was so unsure what language they were speaking, I asked the two young men – in Hebrew – what they were speaking.  Sure enough, they were American-Israelis!

You have to understand my neighborhood is nothing like the glitzy boulevards of North Tel Aviv.  And it’s really not much like the hipster neighborhood of Florentin in South Tel Aviv.  My Tel Aviv is a low-income cultural melting pot.  Sometimes a bit too loud and always interesting.  Very very rarely do I hear English.  The only other languages I hear besides Hebrew are Russian, varying dialects of Judeo-Arabic and Palestinian Arabic, Tigre, Tigrinya, Amharic, and Bukharan.

I got excited and talked to the two young men.  It was strange speaking English in my neighborhood and quite fun.  Unfortunately, the guys were not my cup of tea.  They made some rude remarks about refugees and were rather brusque with the nice guys at my shwarma stand.  I didn’t want to spend my night with them.  So I politely bid them adieu and walked down the street.

On Etzel Street, there’s an amazing Eritrean restaurant.  I’m giving a tour of my neighborhood tomorrow so I wanted to see what time they’d be open.

After I talked with the owner, I saw another man eating.  Woldu invites me to sit with him.  I grab a chair and we start talking.  Turns out he met me the other day when I brought an American friend there for dinner.  We talked about the refugee crisis, demonstrations, the importance of humanity, racism, and of course Eritrean music and dance.  Of which I’m a fan 🙂 .  He showed me his favorite artists, Helen Meles and Tesfalem Arefaine.

I want to highlight one very specific and important thing that happened tonight.  When I sat with Woldu, he insisted I eat with him.  As in, eat his food.  I felt a little awkward- I know people in this part of the world are very hospitable, but Woldu is a very low-income refugee and I had already just stuffed my face with kebabs.  I didn’t want to take advantage of him and frankly, I wasn’t that hungry.  I was very moved by the gesture.  Doesn’t get much more humble and loving than that.

What I came to realize, however, was this wasn’t just a gesture.  It was an order.  Like a top-notch Jewish mother, he gently scolded me for not eating enough.  Over and over again.  And even though I wasn’t that hungry, I gave in because frankly tibs are delicious.

Besides being utterly hospitable and kind, Woldu said something very important to me: “I’m not just asking you to eat- when I come here after a long day and have to eat alone, I want to eat with someone.  A friend.  So sit and eat with me.”

Wow.  I’m at a loss for words.  We weren’t just chatting or breaking bread together.  We were keeping each other company.  Because I like him.  And he likes me.  And I like this restaurant.  Not just because of the delicious food, but because of the beautiful people that work and eat there.  I identified with Woldu’s statement because I’m alone here too.  Thank God I have more legal protections than him and I hope he gets the justice he deserves.  When it comes down to it, we’re just two human beings, from opposite sides of the earth who met halfway in Tel Aviv.  And now are friends.  That is love.

Demonstrations are important.  I’ll be protesting Saturday night- please join me.  Supporting refugees is the right thing to do.

If Israel deports Woldu, I’ll be sad to see his pain, I’ll be furious at my government.  And I’ll feel lonely.  I’ll have one less friend here.  Refugees aren’t a news item for me.  I hang out with them.  They make me happy.  And in their struggle, I see a piece of mine too.  Newcomers in a faraway land.  Who don’t want to eat alone.

You know you love your Eritrean friends when you laugh with them because you realize you’ve sat at every table in their restaurant.

Cover photo: Daniele Bora


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.


Who’s the real infiltrator?

If you’ve been following my Facebook feed or the Israeli news, you will have noticed that the government is deporting thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees.  And according to the reports in Rwanda, where they’re being sent, many of them are being killed, raped, or robbed.  It’s a potential death sentence- from a country built on the ruins of the Holocaust.  It’s appalling.

I’m proud to have joined with friends who support the refugees to advocate for them- and with them.  I helped organize an Olim for Refugees rally (the first ever!) and I helped hang up signs against the deportation another night.  For the first time in many months, I feel Jewish again.  The leaders speaking in the name of my religion who were deporting my refugee friends- they made me feel isolated and distant from my own Judaism.  But no longer- because what I’ve come to realize is they don’t represent me, my values, or Judaism itself.  And I’m representing mine by opposing them.

One of the interesting features of the debate about refugees is how residents of my neighborhood in South Tel Aviv refer to them as “mistanenim” or “infiltrators”.  It’s graffitied throughout my area, along with requests to deport them.  To send them “back where they came from.”

The more I’ve come to learn about my Palestinian neighborhood, the more incongruous these calls sound.  Yes, you read that right- Palestinian neighborhood.  Do any Palestinians live here today?  No.  But, as I’ve come to discover, almost the entirety of South Tel Aviv was once covered by the Arab village of Salameh.  The entirety of its 7,807 residents were expelled by Zionist forces in 1948- on purpose.  In the initial stage of the depopulation in the winter, the Palmach militia’s orders were: “attack the northern part of the village to cause deaths, to blow up houses and to burn everything possible.”

Several months later in April 1948, the Haganah militia succeeded in completely depopulating the town in an operation known as “Mivtza Hametz”.  This phrase bears explaining.  Mivtza is “operation”.  And hametz, or how American Jews might write it- chametz- well that’s the bread we get rid of before Passover.  When we can only eat matzah and unleavened products.  Because the bread is not kosher, it’s not fit for the holiday.  There’s even a ceremony known as bedikat chametz– checking for the chametz- that many Jews do to make sure no corner of your house has any bit of bread in it before the holiday.  The symbolism of cleansing couldn’t have been lost on the commanders choosing such a specifically Jewish name for the operation.  Using symbolism from a holiday about freedom to describe expelling villagers is enough to make this Jew nauseous.

These days, few physical objects remain from the village, although I’ve discovered some important ones and keep finding more clues in my neighborhood.  As I described in a previous blog, I found a mosque and mukhtar’s house covered in graffiti, trash, and shit.  I also found a well about a 30 minute walk away, also filled with graffiti, trash, and shit.  And here’s the kicker- I discovered what used to be another Palestinian well.  As confirmed by both internet research and talking to area residents.  It’s a 4 minute walk from my apartment- and is today largely a trash-filled parking lot.

The more I dig I notice bizarre street patterns- swirly avenues with lots of empty space.  Suspicious in a city with exorbitantly high real estate.  And illogically rounded streets for communities supposedly built in the days of automobiles.  I’ve started to notice some older stones at the bottom of newer walls.  With bullet holes.  And stones in the park near my house with markings indicating they were likely used in a building before.  And an article explaining how the stones of the destroyed well near my house were used to decorate local gardens…perhaps even in my park.  I have to do more digging and am doing some investigating, but I think there are many more remnants of Salameh in my neighborhood than people might expect- or even notice.

What’s particularly interesting is how in many neighborhoods in Israel, including in South Tel Aviv, there are signs congratulating “veteran residents”- havatikim.  The Jewish Israelis who have been there a long time.  The thing is that’s absurd.  The vast majority of Jews in my neighborhood didn’t step foot here until the 1930s or 40s- or later.  The village of Salameh is listed in the 1596 Ottoman Census– and who knows how long before that it existed.  Meanwhile, its former residents and their families, now estimated at over 40,000 people, can’t even come back.


So here’s what really irks me.  A bunch of flag-toting nationalists in my neighborhood are complaining about African refugee “infiltrators”.  When their own grandparents weren’t even born in this country.  When some of them, like me, were actually born abroad in Iraq or Morocco or Uzbekistan.

This land doesn’t belong to Israel.  I’m not even sure about the extent to which I believe people can or should own land- I feel that Native Americans had it right when they said the land belongs to Mother Earth.  And we need to share it.  And I think people should be free to live where they want, including Jews who feel connected to this place.  To the extent the soil beneath my feet does in fact belong to someone, it belongs to the villagers of Salameh who lived here hundreds and hundreds of years before being expelled by Zionist militias.

So to each and every Israeli who has the chutzpah- the gall- to call my refugee friends “infiltrators”: look in the mirror.  Because if you think that only my neighborhood is built on the ruins of Palestinian villages, you’re wrong.  So is Tel Aviv University, so is the awkwardly named “Conquerors Park” (Gan Hakovshim) in my cover photo, so is all of Florentin, and huge swaths of Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and so many other places.  Here’s a map in case you’re curious whose community you’re living on: http://zochrot.org/en/site/nakbaMap.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it.  This country has tried to erase its Arab past- sometimes with great success.  Although because of me and other activists, that task will be quite difficult to complete.  Because you can bulldoze entire villages, but you can’t erase people’s memory.  Nor change the truth.

In the end, on some level every Israeli Jew is an infiltrator.  Including me.  That’s telling it to you dugri– or straight.  We have a connection to this land and most of us haven’t been here for 2000 years.  We’re hardly qualified to tell refugees to “go home”.

So to every Moroccan or Algerian or Libyan in my neighborhood who says “send them back to Africa”, my response is quite simple: pack your bags.  Because guess what?  You’re African too.


I found my people

Today was Friday.  Friday in Israel is the weekend, so I had the whole day to relax.  The problem was I couldn’t get myself to leave the house.  This has been a pattern lately.  Granted there isn’t a whole lot to do on a Friday afternoon because most things close for the Sabbath, but it’s best to get out of the house a bit.

After several hours of hemming and hawing I realized why I didn’t want to go out.  I was afraid of Israelis and don’t like spending time with them.  I am tired of being yelled at for no reason.  Or being told not to feel my feelings.  Or being cheated.  Or being lectured at about why Israel is great and being lectured at about why Israel is terrible.  Being told Americans are fake, Arabs are terrorists, Haredim are leeches, and on and on and on and on.  It’s just exhausting and I’m over it.  There are reasons for it and it doesn’t justify the behavior.  Some Israelis like to say they treat it each other “like family” which is why they’re so hard on each other.  To which I say if that’s how you treat your family, you need a therapist.  Take it from someone who has one.  It’s messed up.  And it’s only here.

So after looking at flights to Cyprus (they’re cheap!) and almost booking a flight, I realized I was just too tired to get everything ready.  If I wanted to hang out with non-Israelis, I needed another plan.

Remembering a few pleasant visits to Neve Sha’anan, an immigrant neighborhood, I headed that way.  When I say immigrant, I mean non-Jews.  Name a nationality and they’re there.  Just tonight, with minimal effort, I met a Moldovan, a Tibetan, Turkish Muslims, Hindu Nepalis, an Eritrean, a Gujarati, and yes- one Israeli, a Kavkazi Jew.  He was the only Israeli I talked to all night- and it felt great.

I started the night off at a Nepali restaurant eating the best momos I’ve had in Israel.  Momos are Nepalese dumplings, but quite different from the Chinese variety most people know.  They have intriguing spices and a spicy red sauce and are delightful.  I used to eat them all the time in D.C., which has a large Nepalese community and some fantastic restaurants.  At $5 for 10 dumplings, they were a steal and infinitely better than the shit momos I have eaten in Israeli Tel Aviv for at least twice the cost.

I chatted with some nice Turkish Muslim men about Tarkan (one of my favorite Turkish singers, in their words a “superstar”).  I pulled out my few Turkish words and between them, English, and Hebrew, we had a fun conversation.  I then noticed the chef was wearing a Tibet shirt.  Tibet is a place and cause dear to my heart.  Tibetans are persecuted much the way Jews have been over the centuries.  They have a beautiful culture and I admire Tibetan Buddhism.  Plus the amazing food.  When I lived in D.C., I would visit the International Campaign for Tibet headquarters and camp out in their basement library and read.  I also participated in their Tibet Lobby Day a few years ago alongside Tibetan-Americans to convince Congress to support human rights.

Turns out the chef is actually Tibetan.  I didn’t expect to meet a Tibetan in Tel Aviv, but here he was!  We talked about khatas, his excellent momos, and my favorite Tibetan singer, Ani Choying Drolma, who I saw in concert in D.C.  I first got to know her music via the Tibet Store in D.C. and grew even closer to her as I discovered she’s a fellow abuse survivor and just a beautiful human being.

The Tibetan guy, the Kavkazi Jew, and I took a cute selfie (probably the first time that sentence has ever been said!):


As I left the restaurant, I heard the most beautiful music.  I saw a light and some signs and headed down a ramp.  Next thing I knew, I was in Nepal!  Surrounded by beautiful saris and offerings and chatter in Nepalese, I felt at ease.  People were so kind.  They let me take pictures of their shrine and to pray at it.  Which I did.  Because my Judaism- and frankly my spirituality- extends to the best of all faiths.  Why limit myself with such beauty at my doorstep?

The only non-Nepali in the room, I aroused some curiosity.  Most of which resulted in huge smiles, a ton of free food, and some great conversation.  More than any other time in Israel, I felt treated like a human being.  There wasn’t one raised voice, aside from an occasional emphatic part of the priest’s sermon, when everyone raised their hands in enthusiasm.  Like a Baptist church, but a little calmer, and full of the smell of incense.

Everyone spoke Nepalese, English, and Hebrew.  English far, far better than the average Israeli, with a beautiful accent.  While for some people this might be an exotic experience (and certainly finding it in Tel Aviv was a surprise), for me it reminded me of home.  Back in D.C. I spent a lot of time exploring the Nepali community.  Every weekend, I would tune in to the local MHz program “Nepal Darshan Television”.  It’s a program produced in the Washington area for Nepalis (and me).  The beautiful scenery of the country enchanted me.  I will visit that place before I die.  Lumbini in particular calls to me, the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

In addition, my friend Kristle and I for several years would go to Lhochar, the Tamang New Year celebration.  The Tamang in America are a minority within a minority (like me, as a queer Jew).  An ethnically Tibetan group in Nepal, they speak their own language in addition to Nepalese.  And they are Buddhist whereas most of the country is Hindu.  Although they frequently go to each other’s festivals, in a good example for the people of this region.

Kristle is a black Caribbean-American and I’m a queer Jewish-American.  We became friends on the Obama campaign in 2008 in Florida, where she was my intern.  And then became my friend 🙂 .  We would get tickets to Lhochar through our friend who owned a Nepalese restaurant.  And it was amazing.  Buddhist priests would bless us.  Dancers would perform.  A people preserving their culture within a culture in a foreign land.  It warms my heart- they’re my people.  And I pray for their success.

Going back to the Nepalese event, I met a guy named Padam.  We got to chatting and he asked if I spoke Hebrew.  I said yes and he said he also spoke Arabic (along with Japanese and Korean).  I asked how.  He said he learned it in Kuwait.  Probably as a migrant worker- I’m not an expert, but I’ve heard the working conditions can be pretty terrible.  Then I surprised him by responding in Arabic.  And here we were- in the most sacred moment I’ve had in this land- a Jewish American and a Nepali speaking Arabic.  We had a belly laugh about it.  It’s worthy of a shehecheyanu– the blessing Jews say for the first time something happens.  Because if you know another Jew and Nepali who speak in Arabic, feel free to let me know 🙂

As I headed out, I noticed music playing from a cell phone store.  I recognized the melodies but couldn’t place it.  I listened and listened and then approached the salesman.  “This is Vietnamese music, isn’t it?”  “Yes!  How did you know?”  I just smiled.  I know Vietnamese music- I listen to it.  I’ve bought many CD’s in Annandale, Virginia- Little Saigon.

Next to his Arab coworker was a sign.  I had to read it twice to make sure I could believe my eyes.  Here it is:


That’s right- in Tel Aviv, there is a Tamang association.  Even as I write it, I feel it is a miracle.  If God speaks, this was how.  And through the magic we make between each other- the improbable.  The Nepali who speaks Arabic with me and the Arab store owner who has a Tamang sign in his doorway.

With an enthusiasm that words cannot describe, I asked him to give my phone number to the organization.  I even explained to him a bit in Arabic about the Tamang- almost certainly a first in this land.  He gave me a nice smile and we said ma3 asaalameh.

This is only a taste of this night.  I danced with an Eritrean guy to Tigrinya music in a supermarket while I bought Thai sauces for pad see ew.  I told a Moldovan woman my great-grandmother was born in Bucharest and she eagerly told her co-workers in Romanian.  Her smile grew when I asked if she was from Chisinau- her hometown.

People often ask “what I do” with my languages and my knowledge of culture.  People tell me to work for the CIA or the Mossad.  That wouldn’t work so well since I’m pretty much a pacifist- but people insist nonetheless as if they know what’s best for me.  Better than I do.  This is all you have to know- what I did tonight, that’s what I do with my languages.  I explore cultures, I make friends, I learn, I bring joy.  I’m the multilingual Ba’al Shem Tov so while you dream about how much money I could make helping the government, I’m going to be hanging out with my neighbors eating momos as the sounds of Hindu prayer fill the air.  Smiling as we connect heart to heart.  Because that’s what life’s about.  It’s not about your paycheck or your business card or the size of your apartment.

It’s about the size of your heart.

One of the reasons I came to Israel was to live with my people.  What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t have one.  I have many.  God leaves little miracles waiting for you where you least expect it.  Keep your eyes open and your heart warm and who knows what- or who- awaits you.



Jewish Supremacy

Ok, so before a bunch of neo-Nazi trolls get excited, I need to define a few things.  First off, every country and most cultures have some similar manifestation.  Whether it’s the alt-right in America, the Front National in France, even Buddhists.  If you think your country is immune- you’re wrong.  It’s a global phenomenon.

Secondly, there are varying degrees of this philosophy.  Not all Israeli Jews agree with this approach.  And certainly not all Jews elsewhere.

In this post, I’m going to discuss both what is Jewish Supremacy and how it ultimately hurts both Jews and non-Jews.  And how it operates in ways you may not expect.

Let’s start with an anecdote.  Lately, I have been advocating for African refugees in my neighborhood.  The Israeli government, in the name of “national security” has decided to deport them- likely to their deaths or torture.  These are people who already live and work in Israel, who largely speak Hebrew, whose children ask them if there will be hummus and bamba in Rwanda.  That’s where they’re likely to be deported.

Not a single one has committed an act of terror.  And I can tell you from living in my neighborhood, the economy depends on them and takes advantage of them.  Which is why the Israeli government is negotiating with the Philippines to send more low-wage workers to replace the Africans already here.  And issuing more permits to Palestinian workers.

The Israeli government, then, is willing to deport these people who it views as economically beneficial.  Why?  Jewish supremacy and racism.

Let’s actually start with racism.  Some of my friends or blog commenters have been hesitant to use this word.  I get it- when you’re a persecuted minority (as Jews have been for thousands of years)- it’s hard to admit when our compatriots are being racist.  So many anti-Semites will rejoice at our introspection and it’ll make us feel protective and vulnerable.

And yet it’s the truth.  I’ve met people here who’ve called African torture and genocide survivors “infiltrators”, “fake refugees”, “rapists”, “criminals”, “n*ggers”, and worse.  Who’ve said: “if I wanted to live in Africa, I’d go move there.”  I heard an out-of-the-closet lesbian say the Africans need to be “cleaned up” and deported.  Lest you think it’s only poor Mizrachim who feel this way, I’ve met Ashkenazi Reform Jews who also “aren’t sure” about letting them stay.  As they munch on cheese in North Tel Aviv.

Even among some of the people who oppose the deportation, the racism is palpable.  To quote Haim Moshe from South Tel Aviv: “If they all walk away, it will be bad for the economy because they take all the jobs no one wants.  There are a lot of non-Jewish people living and working here, but when the Sudanese and Eritreans came it was like an invasion because they live together and are black.”

Save their lives to protect my pocketbook.  But damn, they sure are black.

It’s telling that the government isn’t stepping up enforcement of the thousands of Romanian or Ukrainian or Filipino workers.  Just the really black ones.

So now that we’ve defined the racist aspect, let’s move on to the stickier topic: Jewish supremacism.  One commenter on my last blog suggested deporting African refugees isn’t racist because Israel “absorbed” Ethiopian Jewish immigrants.  The first issue is that actually a lot of Ethiopian Jews here do experience racism.  In words perhaps even I would struggle to say, Ethiopian-Israeli actress Tahunia Rubel said: “Israel is one of the most racist countries in the world.”  And fellow community-member Revital Iyov: “Some people say that in other countries the situation is much worse, so we shouldn’t criticize Israel but only praise it because we’re better than the non-Jews.”

After having established that in fact there is a lot racism towards Ethiopian-Israelis, let’s go a step further.  The commenter does have a point.  Why is it that an Ethiopian Jew- also black, from a country bordering Eritrea (in fact Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia)- is allowed to legally immigrate to Israel.  Whereas an Eritrean refugee, sometimes even speaking the same Tigre language as some Ethiopian Jews, is about to be deported.  Why?

Because the Eritreans are not Jews, and the Ethiopians are.  This may not be racism.  It is Jewish supremacy.  For the simple fact that these Ethiopians are identified as Jews, they are given a passport, Hebrew lessons, healthcare, job training- all the benefits I had.  It should of course be noted the Ethiopian Jews had a particularly tumultuous journey to Israel that was substantially more dangerous than someone coming from America like me.  But the contrast between how they can legally enter the country versus the deportation of their non-Jewish Eritrean neighbors stands.  The Jews get to stay.  The non-Jews must go.  Demographic threat.

This principle of course can be applied to both Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.  There’s even an online database of over 65 laws that explicitly or implicitly discriminate against Arabs, including in land use, language, due process, religion, and politics.  If you have the courage, here it is.  I’ll have to save that for another day because I’m gonna need a lot of foot massages or punching bags to let out the stress after reading it.

To be a Jew in Israel is a privilege.  In the good sense, it gives our people a home when the world has turned its back on us for generations.  As we suffered and were expelled.  Much like the refugees living in my neighborhood now.  Or the Palestinians who used to live here before the establishment of the state.

Which is why it’s complicated.  Because when you establish a new nation state, it often displaces the people not considered a part of it.  The thing many Jews like about Israel- that it’s a “Jewish home”- is the very thing that hurts the people not considered Jewish.

“Not considered” Jewish because this even hurts Jews who don’t fit the society’s definition of Judaism.  Whether it’s a woman who converts with a Reform rabbi (which is not recognized by the state), whether it’s a French Jew who continues to speak French (instead of becoming a “real” Israeli who speaks Hebrew), whether it’s the Orthodox Jew who arrived with peyos (and whose kibbutz subsequently cut them off)- if you go outside the norm here, there are consequences.  For everyone.  This is how the state operates.  And it’s not entirely unique to Israel.  Think about how minorities, how “deviants” are treated in your country.

Put it this way- as a Reform Jew I have more civil rights in the U.S. than in Israel.  A pretty astonishing fact for a supposedly Jewish State.

Because in the end, when you build a state, you always exclude someone.  You may say it’s worthwhile, I’m not so sure.

And when you exclude someone, you put someone on top.  Privilege isn’t neutral.

In Israel, who’s on top?  Jews.  And specifically, the more “Israeli” or “sabra” a Jew is, the more privilege she has.  European (but not too Jewish-looking), physically fit, masculine, a loyal soldier, blunt, and aggressive.  Imitating Arabs but never being one.  This doesn’t describe all Israelis, but it does describe many of their ideals.  The darker you are, the more Diasporic you are, the more pacifist or effeminate you are- the more push back you’ll get.

In short, the Israeli ideal is not just different from the Judaism I grew up with in America- it’s the opposite.  It despises my Judaism.  My compassion for the other.  My social justice.  My love for diversity and all cultures, religions, and language.  It despises my interest in Hasidim as much as it despises my empathy for Palestinian refugees.

Which is why it despises my solidarity with African refugees.  Because I’m crossing three lines.  One, I’m helping people who are dark-skinned, vulnerable, and foreign.  Two, I’m helping people who are not Jewish “infiltrate” our land.  And three, I’m doing this in the name of my progressive American Jewish values.

Three strikes and you’re out.

Sometimes it can be scary to see the bigger picture.  If you’re new to my blog, I encourage you to read my other posts.  I’m not a troll and I’m a lifelong Jew who speaks fluent Hebrew.  I’m not here on a program, I immigrated to Israel.  I live in Tel Aviv and have traveled every corner of this land and met every community.  I’ve been involved at every level of Jewish life abroad and in Israel.  Accepting this difficult reality helps me realize my role in the process, uncomfortable as this might be.  It can help me figure out ways to make things better.

Other than the refugees themselves, the people who’ve inspired me the most the past few weeks have been Holocaust survivors.  Dozens of them are speaking out in favor of the refugees and offering up their homes to protect them.  An Israeli survivor, Veronica Cohen, said: “This Holocaust survivor remembers what it means to be a Jew, and remembers what it means to be an asylum-seeker.  Tell me, how is it possible for Jews to forget their past and join in this crime?”

Exactly.  Because a real Jew knows his history and remembers her oppression.  Because a real Jew doesn’t put himself above non-Jews.  Because a real Jew strives to accept and learn from all different races and cultures.

The reason I often don’t feel Israeli is because I feel Jewish.