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 🙂


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.


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.



Bedouin Yiddish

Yes, you read that right.  We’ll get to it- read the whole way through 🙂

Today I went South.  I’ve explored a lot of Israel’s Center and North- with plenty more to discover.  And I’ve ventured a little south since making Aliyah to Ashdod.  Now was the time to learn about another region.

I hopped on the train and headed to Be’er Sheva.  It is a city actually mentioned in the Torah and there is a well there that according to tradition was dug by Abraham himself.  I wanted to visit but it’s one of the very few places in Israel you need to call in advance!

I visited the city market which was cool.  An amazing diversity of cultures that reminded me a lot of my neighborhood in Tel Aviv.  Just with less traffic and yelling 🙂

I went into an electronics store and asked in Arabic where I could buy Bedouin music.  For those who are wondering, Bedouin are substantially different in culture, language, and religiosity from many other Arabs in Israel.  Therefore, their music is different as well.

The young man made me a deal and custom burned me a CD with MP3’s of dahiyye music.  It’s basically happy Bedouin dance music- take a look.  Somewhat reminiscent of the dabke I’ve learned- but in the words of the Bedouin man: “that’s fellahi music”.  Fellahin were the villagers and farmers of the region- as opposed to the nomadic Bedouin.  Most Arabs in Israel today are descendants of Fellahin and have distinct dialects from the Bedouin, who speak a bit more like Fusha, the standard Arabic which was likely modeled after them.

I was then peppered with questions about why I wasn’t married.  Lest you think this is only a Bedouin phenomenon, it has been a frequent first question amongst Jews, other Arabs, even Samaritans here.  It is extremely difficult for me- as a queer person, as an American (where this is considered invasive), and a survivor of partner abuse.

Eventually I shrugged it off by saying I was new to the country and needed time to settle in.  Having gotten my Bedouin music, I decided to keep exploring.

I then came upon a bona fide music shack.  A shack because it looks like one.  And bona fide because this man knew his music.  No CD burning here.  He had hundreds of CDs.

I felt much more at ease here- Ahmed, also Bedouin, was gentle and friendly.  And never asked me about my marital status.  We bonded over Arabic music as he showed me tons of options.  Eventually I bought an Israeli Bedouin CD (with songs from both the North and the South), Syrian dialect music (that’s the one I speak!), and another Bedouin CD from a town near Be’er Sheva.  I personally find it miraculous to find Syrian-dialect music in a Bedouin shop in Be’er Sheva.  First off, most Arabic music is not recorded in Syrian, even when the artists are from there.  Egyptian tends to dominate.  In addition, ten years ago when I took my Syrian dialect class, I could never have imagined this scenario.  And I love it.  When the stars align, language and culture bring me closer to good people like Ahmed.

Be’er Sheva’s Jewish community is also very diverse.  Walking around, I found several Indian and Ethiopian Jewish stores.  There were tons of Russian signs.  I even found a sign publicizing a concert at a Tunisian synagogue from the famed isle of Djerba.  Around the corner from the beautiful mural in my cover photo- showing how the ancient and modern co-exist and feed off each other in this beautiful land.

I toured a bit of the Old City, which I hope to return to- in particular to see the Grand Mosque/Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures.  Like nearly everything in Israel, this place is not without its controversy.  An Ottoman-era building, the mosque is no longer used for prayer, although local Muslims would like to do so.  Instead, the city of Be’er Sheva wanted to turn it into a general museum.  The Israeli Supreme Court, perhaps weaving between the two, decided it could be a museum but it had to be dedicated to Islamic history.  I’m looking forward to visiting, being a fan of Islamic art and history, and would be happy to see it peacefully resume its role as a house of prayer.

Having the desire to see more Bedouin culture, I hopped on a bus and went to Rahat.  An entirely Bedouin city, it is a fantastic place to go to experience their culture.  Since it was already dark and my transportation options were dwindling to go back home (this can be a stressful part of spontaneous travel), I focused on my goal: food.  Before I sat down to eat, though, I met a wonderful young man named Mohammed who is studying English.  I had asked him for directions, one thing led to another, and we decided to stay in touch and exchange languages.  In particular, I’m dying to learn his Bedouin dialect.  And I can help him with English 🙂

I sat down to eat a feast.  This is not an exaggeration.  For 25 shekels, approximately $7.30, I got to eat this:


The picture doesn’t really do it justice- it’s huge.  I didn’t finish half the rice (chicken is buried in it)- and I was very hungry.  The bread is delightful- kind of like Druze pita i.e. nothing like the pita you’d find in a grocery store.  The full bowl of soup that came with it was tomato-ey, a little spicy, and delicious.  The rice kind of tasted like Biryani, for any of my fellow South Asian food fans.  And it was covered in peanuts, peas, veggies, and delicious sauce.  My doggy bag was enormous.

The people there were so kind.  I have to paint this picture for you- there are 0 Jews anywhere.  I can’t imagine many Jews come to Rahat to dine in one of the Arab restaurants that often sit at the footsteps of their villages for Jews to eat at without going “too far in”.  I could be wrong, maybe some come.  All I can say for sure is that when I was there, I was the only one around.  And a totally novel figure.

People were so curious to talk to me.  I was asked a million questions (fortunately nothing about marriage).  All of them kind and welcoming.  We mostly spoke in Arabic.  I asked them to teach me some Bedouin- they said I spoke fellahi! 🙂  We used a few Hebrew words but they truly loved to practice their English 🙂  People knew I was American, Jewish, and Israeli.  And I have to say, and this repeatedly shocks me, being American has been a huge plus to my travels in the Middle East.  Despite the fact that the American government has a very long history of bullying other countries, so many people here still love America.  Jews, Arabs- doesn’t matter.  It’s fascinating and frankly really encouraging.  It’s also a great way to disarm the people who are, in fact, suspicious of you, because I can play the innocent stranger.  To be fair, I pretty much am one 🙂

Before my sated self headed to the bus (and then an exceedingly long train ride because I missed the more direct train- note to self for next trip), a man grabs my phone and insists we take a selfie.  Apparently some concepts are universal:


As I headed to the bus, a man asked me what languages I spoke.  One of them is Yiddish.  And in a moment that you couldn’t even dream of in the wildest of scenarios, the Bedouin man tells me there’s a guy in their town…who speaks Yiddish.  In shock and amazement, I asked why.  He said that the man, back in the day when Yiddish was more widely spoken here, learned it just as he did every common tongue in the area.  My grin, inside and out, could not have been bigger.

In pure cultural ecstasy, I headed home on a very slow train.  With a lot of time to digest a rich and exciting day.

Intercultural exploration and communication can be very challenging.  One does not come out of the womb with the skills necessary to make it happen- even if you may have some characteristics that help.  I’ve spent my whole life communicating across cultures.  From the my early years in Japan to my schooling in Maryland with so many immigrant friends to my work for refugee rights to the dozen or so languages I’ve studied (8 or 9 of which I can currently speak).  None of this happened by osmosis nor just because I have “an ear” for it.  I do have an ear for it- but just like a concert violinist doesn’t magically pick up a bow and play a concerto, I have honed these skills over years of practice and joy.

Today is the kind of day I’m proud to call myself a cultural explorer.  One who learns, who tries new things, who makes people smile, who grows, who creates, who makes the world a better place.

If you’re looking for new adventure, the world is your backyard.  And your backyard just may have a Bedouin Yiddish speaker.


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.



Wherever I stand, I stand with refugees

As some of my long-time friends know, I’ve always been an advocate for refugees.  My very first internship in college was with Jews United for Justice, a DC organization promoting economic and civil rights.  I personally lobbied my boss to make our Summer “Labor on the Bimah” workers rights event about immigrants rights.  The year was 2006 and Republican Congressmen were pushing a horrific law that would’ve even punished Americans who helped undocumented immigrants.  Even pastors that fed them.

My boss agreed and we organized 30 events around the D.C. area on Labor Day to mobilize Jews- alongside Christians and Muslims- to support immigrants rights.

Part of my job was to find Jewish texts to explain why our tradition asks us to speak out on this issue.  This is what I compiled.

You may be familiar with the verse from Exodus 12:49: “There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you.”  Or “you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger.” (Deut. 24:14)  Or any of dozens of similar commandments.

I spent much of my career in the U.S. fighting for immigrant and refugee rights.  In the government, at NGO’s, and as a private citizen.  The struggle there continues.  Even this month hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees may be deported if the DREAM Act isn’t passed and TPS isn’t renewed.  When I left for Israel, Donald Trump was pushing to ban refugees (and even entire countries’ citizens from visiting).  Not by coincidence, these countries were largely Muslim and the refugees increasingly Syrian.

I rallied and rallied for humanity.  I screamed till my voice was lost.  I was invigorated but also scared and exhausted.  In my favorite moment from one of the rallies by the White House, I met up with a Syrian refugee friend Remi who I had met on Facebook months before and we fought for justice together.

rally pic

This picture is what I believe.  All of us have suffered.  Few peoples more than the Jews.  Having been banished from country after country for over 2,000 years- and butchered along the way- we should be the most compassionate towards those fleeing suffering.  It’s a biblical mandate and it’s rooted in our history.

Many of the Jews living in Israel are refugees themselves- from the Holocaust, from Arab governments who expelled them, from the Soviet Union, from war and famine and anti-Semitism.  Sometimes when people experience trauma, it can be hard to empathize with others.  And there are some people who, after putting in a great deal of effort to heal, are able to see the humanity of the other.  To realize that the Jewish story, while unique, is not the only story of suffering.  And that our own pain must become a source of compassion towards others.

One of the reasons I made aliyah frankly was to get away from the refugee rights struggle.  I was tired.  It’s painful and the American government is eagerly attacking both the foundations of our democracy and of my friends’ human rights.  Since making aliyah, I’ve continued to talk to Syrian refugees in Arabic via Skype through a fantastic program called Natakallam.  Since moving to Israel, it’s now easier to schedule since I’m in the same time zone as my Skype partner Shadi in Iraq 🙂 .  One day, inshallah, we’ll be able to visit each other in peace, as we both want to do.

In the meantime, I thought I had escaped.  And then I met Sadiq.  Sadiq is a Darfur refugee living in Tel Aviv.  I had signed up to tutor refugees in English, but as a newly arrived oleh with my own stress, I didn’t realize just how hard it would be.  Sadiq was sweet and wanted to party at the beach and improve his English.  He worked twelve hour days every day of the week.  And he hadn’t seen his family in 20 years.  I heard about the relatives killed, the homes abandoned, and the pain.  He had survived a genocide.

Yet somehow he had a positive attitude and a beautiful smile.  And a willingness to learn.  I enjoyed learning some Sudanese Arabic from him.  I was just too overwhelmed to continue tutoring.  So I explained to him why I needed to pause our work together and I took some time to reflect and get my life in order.  He understood and I focused on finding an apartment and adjusting to life here.

About two months ago, I found some more stability when I got my own apartment.  I took advantage of some cheap flights and took my first post-aliyah vacation to Cyprus.  Cyprus is amazing and for all its historical problems, the area I was in was peaceful and relaxing.  I was away from the Middle East, from loud Israelis, and from conflict.

Then I saw a woman in a hijab trying to ask a Greek-speaker something.  I went up and talked to her in Arabic.  She was looking for a grocery store.  With my Arabic and my nascent Greek, I helped her communicate with some locals to find it.

We then started chatting.  She asked where I was from, I said Israel.  Turns out Fatima and her family are from Idlib.  They were excited to hear my Syrian accent.  She had a son Muhammad and I chatted with him for a bit.  And another woman, Jamilah, stood beside them.

After they thanked me for directing them to the grocery store, I asked if they were all family.  That’s when Jamilah started crying.  She told me, as she bawled, that she had lost all her family in a bombing in Idlib.  She came to Cyprus from Syria with Fatima and her son, family friends.  And they arrived two weeks ago.

Then everyone started crying.  And telling me about their injuries.  I didn’t know what to do.  I was sad for these people- my neighbors.  And angry at the people who had harmed them.

I did my best to offer words of comfort and gave them information for aid organizations.  Then I handed them a bunch of Euros and got their contact info to pass on to my friends in the field.

In an astonishing act of gratitude, they asked for my phone number because they wanted to invite me to dinner.  Refugees fleeing war, only 2 weeks in Cyprus.  From Syria.  Inviting an Israeli to their house for a meal.  I tear up when I think of the incredible kindness.  What utterly generous human beings, an example for us all.

If our interaction brings some peace and understanding between our peoples, I’m all the happier for it.  And I hope with all my heart they get the help they deserve.  And a future their boy Muhammad can enjoy.

Because in the end, we are all people.  I was recently at a Shabbat dinner and I told a Sabra that I was upset when someone here made a racist comment about African Americans.  She said: “aval zeh lo pogea becha.”  But it doesn’t hurt you.  To which I said: “of course it does.  African Americans are my friends, my classmates, my neighbors.  We are all Americans.”

Which is the point.  We’re all Americans and we’re all humans.  It davka does pogea bi.  The question shouldn’t be “why does this offend you?” it should be “why doesn’t it?”

I live in South Tel Aviv.  Not Florentin, Real South Tel Aviv.  And in my neighborhood, there are a lot of refugees.  From Eritrea, from Sudan, from all over the world.  And despite the hubbub you hear in the news, not only is this neighborhood safer than any major city I’ve lived in in the U.S., but a lot of local residents get along fine.

I’ve met a Sabra girl who only hangs out with African friends.  I’ve met Filipino and Eritrean kids who speak Hebrew fluently- and to my dismay, not their families’ languages.  My elderly neighbors with pictures of Rav Ovadia all over there house love their non-Jewish caretaker.  I’ve met Sudanese Christians who could quote the Torah better than most Jews (in a know-it-all kind of way that suits them as Israelis).

So whether it’s Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu trying to oppress refugees and migrants.  When they’re ignoring our Torah and abusing people fleeing tyranny.  And when the Prime Minister, in the name of my country and my people, is prepared to spend 504 million shekels* to deport refugees.

There is only one answer: no.  Refugees are the world’s problem.  I can’t explain human suffering.  I just know that when someone in is pain, when someone is fleeing death, we should open our hearts and help them.

Your Judaism may be only about helping Jews.  If someone insults or harms another group, you may not see it as your problem.  But my Judaism and my Israeli identity is about helping my people and helping my non-Jewish neighbors.

My own suffering and the suffering of my people is part of why I care so deeply about helping vulnerable people in need.  My Judaism doesn’t stop at the doors of my synagogue nor the borders of my country.


*The government announced a budget that will allot $3,500 dollars to each refugee deported.  And it’s about 3.6 shekels to the dollar.  There are about 40,000 refugees.