For me, it started not so dissimilar to the current situation. Conflict, and stress that continued to grow until life was feeling overwhelming and I needed advice and relief. In the wake of the recent Israel/Palestine conflict, I’ve found myself glued to social media outlets. Israel is a special place for me, but I didn’t always feel this passionate. I often wondered what was so special about a land that has endured countless wars, and yet continues to be the most sought after real estate in the world. I certainly didn’t understand.
I have a wonderful friend, Danielle, who always calls it like it is. She’s the friend who tells you: “I’m sorry, I love you, but you’re wrong.” And “Take a Xanax, calm down, and then we’ll talk.” She’s amazing, and had Israeli chutzpah long before she ever stepped foot in the Holy Land. I was at a stressed out point in my life, and I needed Danielle, her guidance, and ability to weed out my bullshit. Unfortunately, for me at this time, Danielle was living in Tel Aviv. I was texting her one day, joking that I needed some Danielley time, and that her recent visit a few months prior to the States for Christmas/Hanukkah was far too brief. She laughed, and suggested that I come visit for Passover next month. I chuckled, as if this was a far-fetched dream, and responded, “I can’t do that. You work, have your life, and only so much vacation time.” She informed me that she would be off for 10 days for the holiday, and if I could find a cheap flight, I should come. I decided to email my boss for the heck of it, and see what she said. I was expecting her to say “no,” but then the phone at my desk rang 10 minutes later, and she told me: “Go! This is an amazing opportunity.” I told her I’d look at some flights, and let her know when and if this was really happening. I went on Expedia and magically found an amazing flight. I texted Danielle: “Are you sure this is okay with you and your roommates?” Danielle responded “yes,” and knowing her personality, she meant it. “Am I really going to do this?” I asked myself. I booked my ticked, and 5 weeks later, I was off!
I arrived on a Friday afternoon, the wake of Shabbat. I really didn’t know what to expect from my visit, and figured this would be a ten-day counseling session, followed by visiting a few sites, and maybe some time at the beach. I arrived at her apartment in the Florentine section of Tel Aviv, and walked to the top, yes top, of her walk-up apartment with all of my luggage. (ADHD side note, the customs officers who are EXTREMELY brutal in Israel questioned my “large” amount of luggage. My answer was, “I’m gay.” He laughed, which for an Israeli border officer, is huge.) Her roommate and friend were preparing a Shabbat dinner for my arrival. I instantly felt special! I took a quick shower to wash the plane away, and suddenly the house was full of dinner guests. I ate the delicious food and chatted. These young adults in their 20s and 30s were from all over the world, yet appeared to have a connection. I was curious as to what they all had in common, and how they were friends, as I instantly sensed they were bonded in a way I hadn’t exactly experienced before.
The next morning, better known as Shabbat, we walked around the silent… well sort of silent city of Tel Aviv. Ninety-five percent of shops and restaurants in the country are closed for religious observation, and I found the quietness of the massive concrete metropolis very calming. The employees in the stores and cafes that were open greeted me warmly, asking where I was from, how I liked Israel, and if people being nice to me (many Israelis believe they have a reputation of being rude). I found the latter question hysterical, and reported the truth: that I felt most people I encountered could not have been more kind and warm!
As the days went on, and I journeyed to Jerusalem and the far north, I realized several key things about myself. I was calm, present, and most importantly, I was ME. Being “one hundred percent me” was okay, and being gay, was okay. I remember seeing gay men with full tattoo sleeves holding hands, greeting an orthodox rabbi “Shalom,” as they passed in the streets. The rabbi motions them over to come and wrap tefillin. They follow his lead to a table with the standard leather straps, boxes, and prayer books, and begin the centuries-old tradition. Apparently Israel encourages gay men to pray as well. I realized, as a gay man, I felt accepted here, and dare I say it… safe? Yes, that’s right. Now that I was considering this insane notion, I realized I felt safer, being gay, in one of the most unstable countries in the world than I do in the center of New York City. My feeling of security and safety brought up many questions… questions that I didn’t yet know how to form, but I knew I craved answers to. I remember seeing a sign on a synagogue: “My House Shall Be the House of Prayer For All People.” For some reason, the words echoed true in Israel. G-d really was open to everyone here. People are open to everyone. Gay men and lesbians hold hands openly while orthodox mothers usher their children into schul all while the call to prayer wails from the minarets in Jerusalem. Somehow, this all works here. Their values regarding others are different…again, being me was okay.
I began to listen closer to the people I was interacting with. One night over wine, a group of Danielle’s friends were discussing with me the issues with asylum seekers from Africa flooding into Israel, and how the country was dealing with a mass entrance of people without any resources. One guy spoke up and said: “We need to at least do something. Most of us are here because we had nowhere else to go.” The words were so honest they startled me. “Nowhere else to go?” What an awful feeling….and yet a feeling that at times, I am not so unfamiliar with. Any gay man can relate to feeling “out of place”, “unwanted”, and almost being “put up with.” I suddenly had this thought that Israel for Jews, might be what it felt like for gay men to be in the San Francisco Castro in the 1950s and 60s. The world was not safe for gay men, and people didn’t want us around. However, there was community in San Francisco where things were “okay.” Walking down the street and being authentic wasn’t dangerous. People were part of a community. You wouldn’t be discriminated against in this neighborhood, and you may even be celebrated.
It became clear that Israel was a beautiful oasis. A place where Jews can be Jews, and not only is it not shameful, it’s also celebrated. If you’re not a minority, you won’t get it, but Israel gets it. The country was created by minorities from all over the world who have been on the “other side,” with too many knowing the horrible feeling of being “tolerated.” I realized, when you’re always struggling against systemic shame, to be recognized, to grow, and to survive, your priorities are clear, and you always choose life. I felt embraced by everyone. The embrace was different than others in my past. It wasn’t a feeling of: “I accept you.” It was “You’re you. And you’re perfect.” I soaked up every moment. A friend described the vibe of the country to me as walking around in the most beautiful fragrance you can imagine, and wanting to breathe in as much as you can before you leave. I found myself wishing I had a part of this beautiful place. I wanted to share in the passion that these people shared, and feel this acceptance and community every day and call it “life.”
Although it was only ten days, it was hard to return to my life in the United States. I was quickly reminded we’re not a community, and we’re not in anything together. I remember feeling very isolated. I missed the camaraderie I felt in the streets in Israel regardless of the vast differences in backgrounds, careers, and incomes. I longed to grab onto the feeling that I was a part of something, a greater good, and a purpose that would assist those around me.
I went to Israel when I was confused, and wanted direction. I never thought I would come home so clear. There has not been a day when I don’t think about going back. About standing in the streets and once again feeling like it’s completely okay to be me. People would ask me when I returned: “Did you feel safe?” The truth is, I have never felt safer in my life! I would internally ask myself: “Do I feel safe here in the U.S.? Really safe to be my authentic self all the time?” The answer always, unequivocally: “no.” Israel has a sense of community. An eye contact you make with strangers that says: “Yeah I get it.” People are tough, but they’re warm, and if they’re fighting, it’s because they’re fighting for survival and recognition… and yes, I now understand.