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 🙂


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.


Yiddish softens the heart?

Two weeks ago, I approached my friends at FluenTLV about starting a Yiddish table.  FluenTLV is a fabulous event (my favorite in Tel Aviv) where people get together to exchange languages.  I offered to represent the language and they were thrilled.

Last week, the first week we did Yiddish, probably 3 or 4 people came and it went well.  One German guy, a couple Jewish Americans, and an Israeli.  Given how stigmatized my heritage language is in Israel, I was pretty happy.

Last night, Yiddish came to life.  At the beginning of the night, an Israeli came in and tried to take one of the three chairs at my tiny table.  I said: “actually that chair is for Yiddish.”  He said “well, nobody is going to come anyways, so I’ll take it.”  I said: “nope, this chair belongs here, you can leave now.”  I asked him if he wanted to learn something and he said “sure, teach me a word.”  I did, he laughed, gave me one of those “everything is OK dude” Israeli high fives and left.  Probably without a further thought about what he had said.

The best part of the evening is that this guy was totally wrong.  Group after group came over to my table.  We didn’t have enough chairs.  When all was said and done, about 15-20 people had visited my table.  A German guy and two Dutch men explained how Yiddish had made its way into their languages!  A Brazilian Jew talked about Yiddish in her family.  I met Israelis whose parents or grandparents spoke the language and remembered some phrases.  Together, we read my copy of “Der Blat”, a Satmar Hasidic newspaper.  And I could see the glow in their eyes when they realized they could understand some of it.

What was also astonishing was how willing people were to learn.  I often find Israeli culture frustrating because of the bravado.  So many people here feel the need to be right trumps all.  Hence often endless debate, even when the facts used are minimal.  I’ve even had Israelis try to correct my English- knowing I’m American.  We often laugh that off, but after a while it wears on you.  It’s tiring having to constantly defend yourself.  Humility is not an Israeli value.

Yet at the Yiddish table, Israelis came to learn from me.  And subsequently shared about themselves.  Their families, their stories, their grandparents’ Yiddish phrases.  For the first time, I actually felt in dialogue with Israeli Jews rather than a lecture.  Or an argument.  There was a softness to our conversation that made me happy.  It warmed my heart and it gave me hope.

In a society where, as I see it, traumatized Jews faced 2,000 years of violent persecution with few options for safety and survival.  Sadly, some of these Jews ended up traumatizing and displacing Palestinian Arabs in a bid for a homeland.  Some of these traumatized Palestinians subsequently re-traumatized the Israelis.  And now we’re stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of violence.

That’s how I see it on regel aches- or “one on leg” as we say in Yiddish.  My Tweet-length version of the conflict here.  The saddest part is the trauma on both sides continues.  Anti-Semitism is not just the Holocaust.  It’s a two-millennia phenomenon that continues to this day from America to France to Iran.  I’ve personally experienced it in the liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C.  When Jews are persecuted, we often have nowhere to go, which is why some people believe in a Jewish state.  I’m not sure it’s the best solution and I completely understand why people feel we need it.  It’s not by accident that there’s a lot of French people in Israel- they’re Jews fleeing violence and bigotry.  Palestinian terrorist attacks on pizza shops and buses and schools only feed this narrative as we feel under attack yet again.  Trauma piled upon trauma.

And for the Palestinians, you have those who are citizens of Israel yet continue to face discrimination, racism, and often poverty.  Whose lands were robbed of them- and are still in the hands of the Israeli state 70 years later.  You have those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who live in immense poverty, have little right to travel, have few if any civil liberties, and often face violence from the Israeli military.  And even some settlers who burn their trees, deface their houses of worship, and physically assault them.  And you have Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and elsewhere who can’t even come back to the land they once called home.  Who have no rights in the villages they come from and whose host states often extensively discriminate against them.

Sometimes its enough to just make you cry and cry and weep for humanity.  With no end in sight.  Ya Allah, God please send us all healing.

So in the face of all this sadness, what gives me hope?  Yiddish.  Because tonight, I saw the softer side of Israeli Jews.  When they don’t have to be “tough”- not against Arabs, not against other Jews, not against their own heritage.  Rather, by connecting to their roots- roots violently uprooted both by European anti-Semites and the Israeli state– they felt warmth.

I hope politicians can figure out a solution to this problem.  Given their proclivity for narcissism and greed, I’m not sure what they’ll do.  In the meantime, perhaps part of the solution is culture.  When you feel connected to something bigger- especially something a part of your heritage- it puts things in perspective.  Rather than having to show how “Israeli” you are, you can be the multifaceted Jew beneath the uniform.  The Jew whose family was persecuted by Polish Nazi collaborators, the Jew whose family escaped to Israel, the Jew who lives on Palestinian land, the Jew who wishes to reconnect with his heritage.  A complex one, of persecution and co-existence.  Of perseverance and of trauma.

A little less prickly sabra and a little more soft kneydlach.  Those fluffy yet durable matzah balls that comfort you when you feel sick.

Cover photo by Jonathunder – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31812266


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.


The internal struggle

Today I went to Tira, a Palestinian village in Israel.  I’d be shocked if any of my Israeli Jewish friends have been here (maybe a brave or open-minded one or two!).  This is not Abu Ghosh or Yaffa.  This is not a tourist area.  This is simply a Palestinian town- not for outside consumption.

Tira, even when I asked locals about it, does not have any particularly old mosques or historical sites.  It has old homes from the original residents, but let’s just say the Ministry of Tourism probably doesn’t mark this on their map.  Although it should.

Why wouldn’t the ministry mark it?  Because the more people know about what actually happened- and still happens- here, the less they may want an Israeli Ministry of anything.

Tira is actually quite pretty, despite one of my Arab friends calling it the “Detroit” of the Arab Triangle, a region abutting the West Bank.  It’s literally an hour walk to the border.

Today I met all sorts of interesting people.  I met a high schooler in a hijab who loves Harry Potter and says Hebrew is her favorite school subject.  She she said likes how Israeli Jews are “freer” to wear what they like and to ride bikes- apparently women in her community get flak for doing so.  I also met an adorable 6 year old obsessed with Real Madrid and even had a book about their players.  Since he’s 6 and super cute, I’ll let his poor taste in soccer teams slide (I’m a Barça fan) 😉  I even met a basketball player with Jewish friends in Baltimore and absolutely amazing English.  My bus driver was a Bedouin who loves Akon and American hip hop- and the Quran.  We listened to some of our favorite Quranic verses on our empty bus until an Israeli Jew got on the bus and started complaining about bus schedules.

I also met a scary guy who started yelling at me for no apparent reason, which was alarming, and fortunately having honed good survival skills, I reached out to local residents who got my back.  Turned out fine, but basically cross-cultural travel can be hard- stay aware of your surroundings and resources.  And build your skills over time.

I want to share a particular story from today.  Fatima is an absolutely amazing pastry maker.  Her shop makes the mouth drool.  I’ve eaten tons of types of baklava here and her cashew baklava was so good I moaned out loud.

She asked what I was doing in Tira- a question I frequently get in Arab villages.  Mostly because other than visiting a restaurant or a weekly market, Israeli Jews rarely interact with Arabs.  Even less so on their own turf or in their language.  I spent the entire day in Arabic and loved doing so.  If you’re Israeli and don’t speak Arabic, you’re not a very good Israeli so pick up a fricking book.  It’s the native language.

When I shared with Fatima that I made aliyah and have since become disillusioned with Zionist nationalism, she started to smile.  She asked why.  I explained that my Judaism is founded on social justice, compassion, and diversity.  And that I see the government doing the opposite- in my name- including the expulsion of Arabs from their lands.  Lands on which I now reside.  That it offends my Judaism and my humanity and I want to show my friends around the world the reality here so we can make it better.

She started to open up to me.  She said her family is not actually from Tira, but rather Miska.  Haven’t heard of Miska?  That’s because the village was depopulated by the Haganah Zionist militia in 1948.  Everything was destroyed except for a boys school and a mosque.  It once had 880 residents and today is empty and in ruins.  With not a single human life living on its soil.  In 2006, after the government realized Palestinians and their Jewish allies used the site to hold remembrance ceremonies, they destroyed the school house.  All that remains is the mosque in the cover photo (credit: Michael Jacobson).  The neighboring kibbutz is named Ramat Hakovesh- Conqueror’s Hill.  And since 1948, the government has forbidden Palestinian citizens of Israel from rebuilding their town.

Fatima said her family used to own land in the village.  Orchards and other property that sustained them through generations.  The village itself is believed to date back to the 7th century.  And today, in Fatima’s own words: “we live in poverty.  We do our best, we have a nice bakery and we’re poor.  We go each year to Miska to remember and to cry together.”

My heart sunk.  I told her about how my neighborhood is built on the Palestinian village of Salame, as I’ve written about earlier.  She knows about the town and finally, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m on the same page with someone here.  Because we both get it.  No need to convince each other- we both realize what is right and what is wrong.  And we connected.

That’s the beautiful part of it.  That my empathy opened her up and hopefully offered some healing.  And that her opening up showed me the problem here isn’t that all Arabs are reflexively anti-Semitic- it’s that the system here has hurt them.  There are real reasons for their anger.  Nothing justifies violence on any side.  And I can understand why Arabs, why Palestinians are pissed off.  Because I am too.

This state is built on so many lies.  And on deep-seated racism- a word I heard over and over again today and frankly agree with.

I’d like to end on a queer note.  For the first time in a while, I was on Tinder today.  And when I told an Israeli Jewish guy what I did today and my concerns about racism, he said “oh well my part of Tel Aviv is a lot less racist, I live in the liberal center of the city.”  And I said: “well, if you walk just a few blocks south, you’ll be in Al Manshiyya.  If you take the bus to Tel Aviv University, you’ll be in Sheikh Muannis.  If you meet me for dinner, you’ll be in Salame.  All Palestinian villages beneath our feet.  Destroyed.

His response was to talk about U.N. resolutions authorizing Israel’s creation and faults on both sides etc. etc.  I asked him- “what do you know about these neighborhoods?”  He said “not much but…”  Which pretty much says it all.

I’m not asking for Israeli Jews to vacate their homes and hop on a ship.  We’re here.  We’ve built lives.  We have a historic connection to this land that our government wrenched violently from the hands of our neighbors.

What I am asking you to do is Google.  Yes, just Google.  Google the Arab villages you live on top of.  Where your university is, your favorite kibbutz, your nightclub, your life.  Know where you stand and know the people- some of whom are your neighbors- who are suffering because they can’t return to that land.  Because of our government.

Put down the “end the occupation” signs, take a deep breath, and do the hard work of realizing that the occupation isn’t just in the West Bank.  And it’s not just in the past.  It’s here and now as I’m typing this blog on someone’s orchard.  The occupation will end- and freedom will begin for all peoples here- when we change our mindset.  To recognize historical facts and let go of the propaganda we’ve been taught- myself included.  It’s hard.  It’s an internal struggle.

When we let go of what others expect us to be, we can be ourselves.  And we can let others be themselves.  Like Fatima.  Who I pray will live to see the day when she can rebuild Miska and we’ll sit together underneath her orange tree eating cashew baklava.  Looking back at today’s chaos as if it were just a bad dream.


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.