Why Israel doesn’t always suck (and is sometimes good at things)

This is perhaps my most Israeli blog title yet.

I’m writing you from a hostel in Barcelona, an absolutely stunning city.  It’s my first visit back in Catalonia in 10 years, and unlike my last visit, I also speak Catalan in addition to Spanish.

My experience here has been fantastic.  I visited the medieval city of Girona, the absolutely phenomenal and peaceful gem of Perpignan in southern France, and am now in the throbbing yet relaxed metropolis.

The best parts of my visit here have been the nature, the serenity, the smiles at strangers, the cleanliness, the general respect for boundaries, and not having to answer millions of deeply personal questions only to be judged for your answers.  Speaking languages I love.  And the delicious food on every corner.

It’s also nice to take my air raid and terrorism alert apps off my phone for a while and not see 18 year old soldiers carrying guns in the street.  It’s just more peaceful.

For the first time in a while, I found myself missing things about Israel.  If you’ve read my recent blogs, you might find that as surprising as I did.  Israel is pretty awful when it comes to human rights, to respecting diversity, to preserving Jewish culture, to living up to Jewish values, to treating people with respect, and to pursuing peace both within society and with our neighbors.

And there are some things Israel does well.  One is helping each other.  Today I found myself sick in Barcelona.  Both physically sick and feeling lonely.  I messaged a few Israeli friends and within seconds they were helping me figure out my insurance, cheering me up, and taking care of me.  Thankfully I didn’t need a full hospital visit, but if I had, my travel insurance would have covered every expense above $50.  Which brings me to something else.  Israeli healthcare is leaps and bounds better than anything I experienced in America.  Health is not just wealth- it’s survival.  Everything else is details if you can’t live.  Israel is a super stressful place to live and one stress I don’t have is that I’ll go bankrupt because I’m sick.

It speaks to a certain social(ist) value in Israel.  And when I say Israel, I mean both Jews and Arabs.  In Israel, anywhere you go you can charge your phone or refill your water bottle.  For free- you often don’t even need to buy anything.  In the places I’ve visited in Spain and France (and much of the U.S.) you need to buy something to charge up or you need to buy actual (expensive and wasteful) bottles of water.  These examples are not anecdotal- when combined with Israeli willingness to host guests (and sometimes strangers) for long periods of time, you sense a pattern.  When it comes to certain things, Israelis display a generosity found in few places.

While in Spain/Catalonia/France, I’ve met some people who reminded me why some Israelis are so nationalistic and racist.  There’s the Dutch guy who told me he could probably understand Yiddish because “it’s just fucked up German.”  There’s the researcher in France studying medieval Jewry who, instead of dialoguing with me, started lecturing me about my own people’s history.  I appreciate his work and would prefer someone not pin me in a corner and try to teach me about…myself.  There are also the formerly Jewish houses in Girona where you can see where the mezuzahs once hung.  And the historic synagogue that now houses an architectural firm.  I think I can understand how Palestinian refugees must feel about the remnants of their village in my neighborhood.

This is not to say that most people here are bigoted.  Most people when I say I’m Jewish or live in Tel Aviv are either neutral, polite, or even show great interest.  I’m grateful to cities like Girona that are preserving my heritage.  And to their archives for preserving Judeo-Catalan documents I got to see first hand.  And many of them were improperly labeled.  To the archivist’s credit, I submitted some corrections and she gladly marked them down.  It’s just an apt metaphor that even when some people are trying to get Jewish history right, it can feel uncomfortable.  I don’t want to impose or discourage them and I also find it irritating that most of their archived documents are upside down.  The documents of the people they expelled.  Some of whom live in their veins.

That’s the complexity of Judaism in Europe.  For 2000 years, we’ve called it home.  To this day.  And not just during the Holocaust, but over and over again throughout that time, we’ve been mercilessly expelled, burned, and murdered.  Property robbed and now turned into moneymaking tourist attractions.  That keep bits of our heritage on the map.  When I visit the Jewish quarter of Girona, I’m not just visiting a tourist attraction, I’m a Cherokee visiting the Trail of Tears.  It’s complicated, to recall the words of a Palestinian friend I talked with before moving to Israel.

Which brings me to what else Israel does well- it gives me a place where if people are ignorant about my tradition, they can learn on my terms.  It gives me a place where I’m in a position of power- as fraught as that is.  A place where if people want to expel us or lecture us or deride us, we don’t have to grit our teeth and put up with it.  Some people take this power a bit too far- and spending a bit of time outside of Israel reminded me why they do so.  Even if it’s not justified.

While in Barcelona, I went to Reform services.  I’ve been pretty fed up with God lately, tired of Zionism, and not even really sure if I feel Jewish anymore.  So I decided to see if maybe Diaspora Judaism, the Judaism I grew up with, still fit.  The services were wonderful.  They were in Catalan, Spanish, Hebrew, and English- a polyglot like me couldn’t be happier.  And it adds a spiritual dimension to share our hopes in different languages.  Hebrew alone bores me.  The people of all ages were warm and welcoming and treated me to a free meal.  As good Jews, there was tons of food.

I can’t say every part of the service spoke to me.  There are problems with Jewish liturgy I’ve only fully understood while living in Israel.  The idea that we’re the “Chosen People” or asking God to bless “His people”- that doesn’t work for me any more.  It feels racist.  I’m tired of the idea that religion should be supremacist- as pretty much every Western religion is in some sense or another.  Our prophet is the best.  Only our people go to heaven.  God chose us above all other peoples.  Try reading the words of your Friday night Kiddush in English.

And it’s my capacity to read Hebrew and my living in Israel that has shed light on these problems.  Judaism is due for a new reformation.  It has beautiful sparks as evidenced by the parts of the service and the dinner that lit my spirit again.  The music, the poetry, the community, the evolving tradition.

Much like Israel, Judaism needs a revamp.  No need to throw everything out, but the way it’s going isn’t working- at least not for me.  As I watched two Israelis living in Barcelona learn the Reform liturgy Friday night- and engage in gentler, more peaceful ways than I usually see in Israel- I see a bit of light.  Jews outside of Israel need Israel.  Yes, it’s a deeply f*cked place and I would rather the world not have states at all.  And I’ll keep fighting for that.  And the reality is we don’t know the next time anti-Semitism will strike.  Israel is the only state on earth, for better or worse, that cares about my healthcare- about my ability to live- simply because I’m a Jew.  That formula is problematic and perhaps sometimes necessary.  While we can’t live in paranoia that everyone is out to get us, the fact is some people are.  And because we’re a minority easy to scapegoat, some people always will be.

At the same time, to return to the Israelis I met in Barcelona, Israel needs Jews (and non-Jews) outside of Israel.  Judaism outside Israel is gentler.  It’s more spiritual than secular Israelis and softer than much of the religiosity I see there.  It can offer Israelis an escape valve.  A reminder than life in the Diaspora can be hard due to prejudice and it can be enriching when it engages with the society surrounding it.  It can remind us of our roots and the need to be sensitive and compassionate towards minorities.  Including in Israel itself.  As my cover photo says in French: “shared route”.  Let’s lift each other up, Jew and non-Jew, Israeli or not.

When you go on a trip, you can buy one of those souvenirs that says “I went to Barcelona and all I got was this shirt”.  I went to Barcelona and all I got was a complex textured view of the pluses and minuses of having a Jewish state- and Diaspora life.

More than I expected on a birthday trip abroad?  You bet.  But don’t worry, I’ll be having some chicken paella too 😉


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.

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.



There is no racism in Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A New Year’s Resolution for Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s do this y’all. 🙂


Something my fellow Reform Jews don’t want to hear

This past Thursday, a group of Reform Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Israel tried to hold services in a plaza above the Kotel (Western Wall).  In an atrocious display of aggression, security guards roughed up the rabbis to try to prevent their prayers.  Sadly, Israel suffers from a deep lack of religious pluralism, where progressive Jews aren’t given any legal stake in the Jewish State.  Frankly, even a number of Modern Orthodox rabbis (including in the U.S.) have felt the consequences of this exclusion as the Rabbinate veers further and further rightward.  It’s hard to see how excessive state involvement in religion is good for our people- including our religion itself!

And yet.  I find something utterly audacious and disrespectful about the way the Reform Movement, of which I have been a part since birth, is handling this situation.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is not my favorite politician, is nonetheless the democratically elected leader of Israel.  In a democracy, leaders are selected on the basis of citizens’ votes.  It’s quite simple.  In the U.S., rather than a parliamentary system, we have Congress- but the principle is the same.

Reform Jews in the U.S. skew very liberal.  I myself am a progressive and a die-hard American-Israeli Reform Jew.  Name a Reform program, and I’ve done it.  Hebrew school, Confirmation, NFTY, my Temple youth group, serving on various boards, leading teen services, serving as president of my college’s Reform Chavurah, hosting the national Kesher convention, traveling with Reform students to Argentina, working at the Israeli Reform Movement’s summer camp, participating in the young professionals group at my Temple in D.C.  And on and on and on and on.  The movement’s values shape the way I see the world.

One of the movement’s points of activism is campaign finance reform.  I wholeheartedly support this endeavor.  The American political system is rife with corruption and the fact that corporations can essentially buy elections (and politicians) to me undermines the very nature of democracy.  You can read the movement’s positions here.

Yet when it comes to Israeli politics, Reform Jewish leaders in America confront the Israeli government as if they were citizens.  While I clearly believe all Jews have a stake in Israel no matter where they live, there is a substantive difference between someone who lives here and someone who doesn’t.  As an Israeli, you pay taxes, you serve in the army, you face the brunt of the government’s decisions, you take the risk of hopping on the bus every day knowing it could frankly be your last.  That is not how American Reform Jews live.  Which is fine, and their right.

But that changes the nature of the conversation.  When Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his coalition have insulted Reform Jews, progressives abroad were rightly outraged.  But what I found astonishing was that for many bigwigs in the progressive Jewish world, the reaction was to say they’ll use the “power of the purse“.  In other words, to either stop donating to Israeli causes or to shift their donations in different directions.  All of which is their right.

But what astonishes me is how tone deaf this argument is.  For a movement that fights day and night to protect American democracy and to get money out of politics, how do they think it sounds to the average Israeli when Americans say their going to use their dollars to influence the government?  Israelis are already fairly unfamiliar with Reform Judaism, viewing it as an American import (right or wrong), so it doesn’t exactly bolster our case to hear a bunch of rich American Jews threatening the Israeli government.

I have to reiterate- I favor a pluralistic solution at the Western Wall.  I am horrified by people attacking fellow Jews simply because they practice Judaism differently.  My movement deserves a place in Israel, just like every other faith.

I just don’t think that a bunch of unelected Reform leaders coming from America on their annual visit have a right to speak for me as an Israeli Reform Jew.  I know our movement prides itself on democratic values- so why on earth don’t Reform Jews get to vote for our leadership?  Rick Jacobs, the current president, may be an awesome guy- I have no reason to believe otherwise.  But as they say in the famous Monty Python and Holy Grail scene: “I didn’t vote for you.”

I work in public relations for a living so I know the value of a good protest to raise awareness of your cause.  And I think that at least in part motivated this recent activism.  And the absolute idiots who run the Western Wall Foundation gave the protestors a ton of free publicity by harassing them in front of a bunch of cameras.

The Reform leadership seems to think that this news will galvanize American progressive Jews to take action.  I think they’re wrong.  While among the core Reform and Conservative Jews, this may be true, the other 90% who show up twice a year for services are more likely to simply feel alienated from Israel.  And decide not to visit.  And maybe even decide to distance themselves from Judaism itself.

That is a huge problem.  For Israel itself (not just the current government) and for Reform Judaism both in America and especially in Israel.  In Israel, we’re facing the fight of our lives to grow the movement.  Rather than spending money on public relations and paying for American rabbis’ plane tickets- how about you give those dollars to our movement in Israel?  Help us build more schools, more young adult events, and more communities.  And send more people to visit, not give them a reason not to.

In the end, Israel, for all its faults, is a democracy.  And in a democracy, it’s not money that votes.  It’s people.  The Prime Minister, be it the current meshuggenah or another meshuggenah, calculates one simple thing: votes.  When building a coalition, which party has how many seats based on how many votes.  If American Jews are really serious about changing the political calculus in Israel- and helping Reform Judaism thrive here- they should pack their bags.  That’s probably not a popular thing to say- I’m sure I’ll get push back from a bunch of friends.  Of course you don’t have to make aliyah, but can you imagine how different the Knesset would look if a million Reform and Conservative Jews made Israel their home?  At the end of the day, 22% of Israelis are Orthodox (though please, let’s move beyond stereotypes and realize there are bridges to be built here too).  And 3% are Reform.

Do I foresee all my American friends packing their bags and making aliyah right now?  No.  Although if you do, you’d be most welcome and I think you’d find Judaism and life here rewarding.  We have a growing and energetic Reform Movement as well.  In the meantime, let’s do this.  Let’s democratize the Reform Movement so all of our voices are heard.  Let’s allocate more resources to the Israeli Reform Movement so we have a larger and legitimate voice in the political system and society.  And let’s avoid too many public confrontations that force American Jews to choose between their love of Judaism and their love of Israel.

This isn’t a one-sided issue- to my Orthodox friends reading this blog, I hope you understand the agony my movement is going through because we are being publicly humiliated by the Israeli government.  Please help us and raise awareness in your communities.  Israel will cease to exist if the sinat chinam, the baseless hatred, between all of our communities continues.

May we come to find a day when the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, is not a place of conflict or control.  But rather, a place of joy, a place of holiness, and a place of wholeness.  As my cover photo in an Ariel grocery store says: “If I forget thee oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”  Indeed- in loving our holy city, let’s just not forget our shared humanity in the process.  Amen.


South Tel Aviv is the Best Tel Aviv

Some of you may know that a couple weeks ago, I finally found a long-term apartment.  Everything about my identity- being Reform, being American, being progressive, and being queer- should lead me to live in the more secular center and north of the city.  But I feel utterly blessed that I ended up in the south.

When I first moved to my neighborhood (whose name I won’t reveal over the internet), I was apprehensive.  I knew absolutely no one there and there were posters advertising Shas concerts everywhere.  There are almost no young secular/Reform Ashkenazi people and I have yet to see a pride flag.  There are no pubs, nightclubs, cafes with WiFi- it is quiet.  Part of that is the beauty of the place and why I chose to live there.  Though at times, it was so quiet I felt lonely.

Today, I had no plans for Shabbat.  I had plans Saturday night, but during the day I figured I’d wander around and get to know my neighborhood.  And then I heard a boom.  And a tap tap.  Boom. And a tap tap…it was a darbuka!  I stepped outside and heard loud clapping and drumming and singing coming from across the street.  Not the utterly depressing slow moan of westernized Israeli rock (sorry guys- I do like some of it, but mostly it makes me want to cry!).  But rather the boom boom and ululating of Middle Eastern music.

I’m an outgoing guy, so I simply stood outside and listened- and as seems to be the Israeli custom, they immediately invited me inside.  When I say invited- I don’t mean a polite “how do you do?” and offering a cup of tea.  No- I was ushered into a room of 20 people, given a Mexican sombrero, plied with food and drink- all while I danced with people I just met to beautiful, soul-stirring Mizrachi music.

It was amazing and overwhelming all at the same time.  While I danced, the uncle tried to get me to drink whiskey (I don’t drink), then the cousin handed me pitas with hot dogs in them (which I shook while I danced), then the grandfather told me over and over again to keep eating!  I was living my dream of being in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Then, the most amazing thing happened.  The family asked me what song I’d like to sing.  I am an avid Mizrachi music fan.  This music is, hands down, the most unique cultural product to ever come out of Israel, although many (sometimes racist) Israelis wouldn’t realize that.  This music was born out of a fusion of the traditional Arabic, Turkish, Greek, Ladino, and Persian music brought by Jews to Israel in the 40s and 50s.  It then used the best of the West- drum sets, synthesizers, and electric guitars to imitate traditional instruments.  Add in a dose of Israeli folk tunes along with elements of Ashkenazi melodies and voila, you have the first “world music” before “world music” even existed!

So as I stood there, the first song that came to mind was “Mabruk aleek”.  It’s an Arabic-language wedding song.  And there I was dancing, having an absolute blast.  As with most things in Israel, life can go from quiet and lonely to exciting and heart-warming in the matter of seconds.

I was told I could sit and eat now- as relative after relative brought me food and water and food and water.  But things only got better- I discovered my new adoptive family is half Syrian and half Iraqi.  And with the exception of the youngest generation- everyone in the room speaks Arabic!  I specifically studied Syrian Arabic in college in the U.S. with a professor from Damascus- and now with Syrian refugees on Skype.  It was a dream come true!  Everyone’s smiling with each Arabic word I say.  And I’m spending Shabbat with Jews- in Arabic!!  For an American Ashkenazi Jew, this is a surreal experience, and one I’ll never forget (though I’ve been invited to come again over and over- so I doubt it’ll be the last!).

Then we moved to another room so I could meet the other 15 relatives.  I was asked at least three or four times if I was married, but the final time it was because they wanted to set me up with someone’s daughter.  The first few times I laughed off the question, but now I had a choice to make.  In the living room where we were banging on darbukas and recording videos on cell phones (things Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews don’t do on Shabbat), there were also at least half a dozen pictures of a rabbi who I presume was Rav Ovadia, who founded the Haredi Shas party.  Let’s just say the party isn’t generally a big fan of gays, Reform Jews, or really most of the things that people in the north of Tel Aviv support.

So I debated internally and did something brave: “you can set me up with her daughter, but it won’t work because I’m gay.”  I looked around and asked: “are you in shock?”  And without skipping a beat, one of the aunts says to me: “oh no, we have that in our family too.”  I started to smile as relative after relative starts thinking of men to set me up with.  One of the younger relatives actually pulls out her phone, calls her friend, and gets me the number of a gay guy to help me make friends in the community.

After helping one of the men download an app on his phone to turn YouTube videos into Mp3’s (he loves everything from Eyal Golan to Umm Kulthum), I hung out with the youngest kids- two 10-year-old girls.  We danced to Justin Bieber on the street and made funny videos.

Before I left, I was of course given a full container of homemade Iraqi kubbeh and rice.  They told me to come by whenever and one of the little girls even said, “come every Shabbat!” at least three times.  They took my number and said they’d introduce me to the neighbors, show me where I can volunteer, and feed me a lot.

My neighborhood is a lot browner, a lot more Middle Eastern, a lot more Arabic-speaking, and a lot more working-class than North Tel Aviv.  And you know what?  That’s not only “OK” by me- it’s fucking amazing.  Because the 14-year-old me who went by himself to a Sarit Hadad concert in Maryland is smiling from ear to ear.  Mizrachi music- Mizrachi culture- isn’t something new for me.  It’s something that, from the first days of when I learned Modern Hebrew after my Bar Mitzvah, gave me hope in dark times and energy and smiles.  It connected me to my Judaism and to Israel itself.

Unfortunately, there are many Israelis now and back in the early days of the State who are avidly racist against Mizrachim.  Even Mizrachi music was banned from the radio by the government in its early days.  And to the surprise perhaps of some of my fellow progressive American Jewish friends- this racism largely comes from secularized “progressive” Jews of Ashkenazi origin.  The kind who write for Haaretz or sit on the Supreme Court- two of our favorite institutions.

But let’s move beyond the politics.  What I’m trying to say is my neighborhood- this is not where the tourists are.  This is not where the wealthy people are.  This is not “trendy” and it’s not French-Vietnamese vegan fusion food.  These are people who have fought for their cultural and economic existence- and are here to tell the tale.  These are people whose Sephardic Judaism has a remarkable fluidity- even queerness- to it.

God bless them.  Because when a lonely newly-minted Israeli stumbled outside his house today, he didn’t just meet his neighbors.  He met family.

Because for all the beautiful luxury penthouses in North Tel Aviv, there’s one thing money can’t buy.