Response to Mr. Rafael Castro.

Dear Mr. Rafael Castro,

I read your “open letter” to me and my people. While I appreciate the sentiment, your love for our land and your advice, I feel you misunderstand Israel and Jewish people in a few very important ways.

You see, I have been to Mexico. And while I love tacos and tequila, but I would never say to you, that you and all Mexicans without exception should make Tequila and Tacos your sole purpose in life because you are the originators and masters of tacos and tequila. I believe that you, like many people who come to Israel, see Israel and Jewish people through a specific prism — a personal prism of your personal life. While you saw the land and culture that created the Freud, the Einstein and the religion of Abraham and Moses, you missed the fact that those are exceptions to the rule, not the rule. Just as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are not the average Americans, those figures that you spoke of, are not the average Jews, they are the rare but very important exceptions. In fact, the entire reason for Israel as conceived by Theodore Herzl, is so that for once, Jewish people would not be expected to rise to be special to be valued, but instead could be like Mexican, Indian and Russian people in Mexico, India or Russia: free to be mediocre.

You see, I believe that in your time in Israel, you missed the very things that I through my prism saw when I first came to Israel: Jewish cab drivers, Jewish street workers, Jewish artists. And not the great ones, but terrible street artists who will never be great and always have the freedom to be happy and mediocre. This is because for all the time that we lived without a nation, we had to prove ourselves as being worthy of having land, of having a place to live, of being given a chance at life. For that reason we had to prove to people that we are somehow special. We showed as evidence for that Abrahamic faith and our great science exploits. However, we are not unique in inventing a religion, nearly every culture had one, and no less interesting and important than ours. You yourself will know that Aztecs and Mayans had amazing written language, science, culture and religion. While we do have many science and engineering prizes, and do slightly better than others, but that was by necessity, not by choice. Furthermore, we do not have even close to the most inventions, China, France, Russia and America outnumber our inventions by many factors.

We are good at marketing ourselves that is true, but that is again, by necessity, in order to survive centuries of antisemitism as we sought refuge in distant lands. It is thanks to Israel, to the blood we shed in pure and simple warfare, through hard fought diplomacy and persistence of Jewish farmers, the simple people, that all Jewish people are now valued, regardless of their adherence to Jewish faith or their success in arts and sciences. It is in Israel that Jewish people aspire to create a nation where all Jews are valued just as Mexicans aspire to create a country where all Mexicans are valued and America where all Americans are valued, regardless of their economic, artistic, or scientific contribution.

I hope that you will take these words to heart, and take away the high bar of expectations that you placed on us, and allow me and my people, the simple benefit of being simple people, in our land, without any expectations other than being human, as imperfect as we are.

As for the liberal ideas of humanity, there are plenty of people of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist and all other backgrounds, who are equally capable of spreading the simple idea of kindness, compassion and respect. 

Sincerely yours,

Sam Litvin

SamTheJewishGuy.com

Writer and Photographer of Your Story, Our Sipur

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Cloudy With a Chance of Missiles

Bars are full, 5 minutes after an alarm and a missile that landed a few hundred meters from this spot.

It’s nine o’clock on Thursday night. Friday night in the Middle East. The weekend’s here and all are heading home or with their kids, or out and about at bars. I’m with my fellow students, walking on wet walkways of our University. The skies are almost clear, the moon is out. It’s fresh and quiet when the siren begins to make its whine. We freeze. We are between the buildings and three thoughts stream to our minds: is this a real siren, which building do we go to, are our loved ones safe?

We see a building ahead of us where I know to be a shelter, we walk towards it as we call our loved ones. “Go to a shelter,” I tell my wife. She runs down the stairs. The shelter is closed. “I don’t have a key. I don’t have a key.” The line goes dead. We are in front of the doors, the guard on the other side, won’t let us in. We stare at him as one of the girls, falls into a panic attack, flack back to a previous terror attack. Then we hear it. Explosive boom, not far, it shakes the ground. Then siren is quiet. I call and call and call. No answer. What have I done I think, bringing her here?

We make our way to parking structure under a Natural History Museum resembling a Noah’s Ark. We get in a car and I get a message, “go to the shelter”. We stop the car and check if this is true if another siren sounded while we were in the parking lot. “I’m at a neighbor, in the basement.” I am relieved and want to get home fast.

We drive through the city, half silent because of rain, half out and drinking because it is a Thursday night. Out as if nothing happened. My fellow students, field calls from parents, spouses, kids. They do their best to calm them. We get messages from Arab friends, emails from bosses, from the school. “Elections are near, some people are interested in making an issue,” one email says.

We drive through the quiet night and frantically search for news on Twitter, Facebook, Google. Two rockets passed through the night sky, Islamic Jihad is blamed, they deny it. Some Israelis began with humor at the situation, a kid fell off his electric scooter in front of Dizengoff fountain because of a siren, people laugh on twitter at the video. Other jokes abound: “One rocket intercepted, the other one is still looking for parking.”

But thoughts creep in as I arrive at home. How do we sleep? I’m wearing a shirt, my shorts are at the ready. How do I shower? Do I make it quick? What if another alarm goes off? We now discuss where to hide, which way our windows face. These questions grip the city, every family and home. The shelter rooms are opened and cleaned out in the new homes. Old homes review their procedures and shelters in their basements are opened up again. Parents of kids who have been through this before, calm their children who are at shock’s door. The ones for whom this is a first, are shocked and are on edge. New parents are faced with a brand new fear they never had. Parents with older kids face a fear that lay dormant for two years. Parents of kids in the Army, await the morning and commanders orders.

Meanwhile, the families on the other side of the fence, wonder, what hell hath fury brought. What will be a response from a mighty military that a nation will expect to have a swift response? We are all hostages, we are all in terror, brought out of the comfortable life, oblivious to how one bleary oscillating sound and one big boom can snap you into action, terror, flight.

A boy of ten years old, ran for shelter, was hit by a car driven by a parent on their way home. We cannot be afraid, but we cannot stop it either. We are the Russian kids of 1942 Leningrad, of 1941 Pearl Harbor, of 1939 Warsaw and London. We hear the sirens that they heard, we hear the explosions that promise death. We wonder if this will be a one-off thing or something that’s much longer, deadlier and sinister. We go to bed, clinging to each other, not really sleeping, not resting.. waiting, for tomorrow. And yet, in the New York Times, in Boston Herald, on NPR and Guardian, there’s no mention of the rockets, of fears, our terror. All is quiet in the west, we are alone, we wait alone, together.

Update: it was an accidental firing in North Gaza. Bibi knew this but bombed poor Gazans in the south all night to make himself look good for election. Gaza bombed poor people of Sderot in retaliation. All is quiet and we all feel as pawns in this silly game.

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The 2500 killed in Israel every year that no one talks about.

Yeshiva boys walking outside of pollution haze of Haifa in the background.

It’s an early Wednesday morning when I put on my shoes and pop in my head phones. I turn on my running app and begin my morning stride down a street in south Tel-Aviv. By the time I get to Eilat Street near the beach, in spite of years of running, my lungs fill up with heavy air and I have to slow down. At the same time, at home my wife is sick again. It seems every two weeks or so she comes down with respiratory disease of some sort. We’re both suffering from same thing that many Israelis who fear terrorism, suffer without knowing it: the air is rich in particulate matter.

In spite of all the wonderful news about Israel and their environmental tech, they are still reliant on coal, 50% as of 2014 with plans to eliminate it by 2030 according to Times of Israel. However today, there are still over 2000 people a year who die in the area between Ashdod and Tel-Aviv every year according to Haaretz. In Haifa, 15% of cancer cases are attributed air pollution. Israel is dead last of all OECD countries in quality of air. How can StartUp Nation, an intelligent and small country, afford to lose so many people while expending so many resources to fighting the comparatively rare occurrence of terrorism? The Jewish diaspora is quick to defend Israel from outside hate and threats, but it seems to be ignorant of the internal threats and self inflicted harm that costs Israel every year 3.3% of the country’s GDP.

The damage is not just from coal, but from heavy reliance on diesel which powers the large amount of trucks, trains and buses that pass through Tel Aviv narrow streets. The city and it’s surroundings account for 42% of Israel’s population . All of them are exposed to high pollution from cars and passing planes which have been linked to premature deaths, Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

What are some of the reasons for this? One reason is protectionism. While Israel now has the natural gas to solve the issue, enough that it exports it to Egypt and Jordan, the several hundred coal jobs hold heavy sway in politics, which is why it will take 12 years to transition away from coal, gas and diesel. The temporary jobs of a thousand Israeli workers will cost as many as 30,000 Israeli lives in the next 12 years. This is nearly 10 times more than all the Israelis killed in all the combat since 1948. A few hundred jobs and a few million dollars in profit for a few individuals will cost Israeli citizens $42,000,000,000 US Dollars. That’s twice the entire annual spending of Israeli government.

I love living in Israel. So does my wife. Having lived on three continents and traveled to over 40 countries, there’s no place that makes me feel at home like Israel. After making Alija and putting in the hard work to become Israelis, we thought long and hard about whether we can make a home here and how that will be living far from our parents and friends in US. But health is important, and so we have to ask ourselves, is our health and children’s health is more important than comfort. Do we stay and be sick or leave and be healthy? That is a question that no Israeli should every have to ask themselves.

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The Challenge of Learning Hebrew

I always felt that I was good at languages until I came to Israel.

I was born in Ukraine and learned to speak Russian and Ukrainian almost simultaneously. I moved to the US at ten and learned English to a point that most don’t know I was born outside of the United States. In middle school and high school, I took French, and I can still converse in it. Conversational Spanish and Portuguese I picked up in my travels. I even took Chinese and thought it to be fairly simple and easy to learn. But Hebrew, the language of my forefathers, In Hebrew I learned my match.

I faced difficulty learning it while traveling and working on the book. I looked into the prayer books and tried to make it out. I wrote down the alphabet but that didn’t help. I finally decided to go to classes where once a week, I learned to read, letter by letter, I learned to pronounce foreign words. Each word came out slowly, laboriously. I thought I was ready for Israel, but I soon learned that being to read HaTikva, means nothing. It means nothing when trying to get around when paying for services or reading a menu. I also learned that hundreds of hours spent on Duolingo made me no more capable of answering people when they asked for directions. After a year in Israel, I thought I would be virtually fluent, but I was virtually mute.

You see, most Israelis that I work with, have no patience to teach me. We have to work and converse and so we switch to English after a few pleasantries. I use Google translate for difficult things and so I learned to get by. I was waiting also for my Alija (immigration) to come through. I was waiting because I thought that Ulpan (Hebrew School) is expensive. I was sad to find out that the government Ulpan is generally very good and very affordable compared to University and private classes. And so it was a year after arriving in Israel that I began my Hebrew journey.

Twice a week in a class full of French and Russian young people, I waded through the learning of how to read and write, how to speak, how to answer questions. Let me tell you, it is no piece of cake.

Hebrew is an ancient language. It is built to “make sense” which makes it very difficult to learn. It lacks vowels to save space and is written left to right, both reasons thought to be because it was a language developed before paper, and so was etched into stone. It has fewer consonants as well, this makes words look and sound similar to each other as there are fewer sounds. Then the grammar, which has prefixes, suffixes, and endings. The prefixes and endings sound also the same and vary a lot for the female and male gender. The female and male gender are not consistent and neither are endings for the nouns, adjectives, and verbs. The verbs can be irregular and they modify the adjectives and nouns depending on who or how many people speak. The adjectives also switch their placement compared to English. It is the upside-down language that requires a consistent practice that is hard to find when working on two simultaneous graduate degrees.

After four months, it is starting to come together. I am starting to hear more words when people speak and I am starting to find it easier to speak with others. I find it also with a little effort, possible to read more complex text at a faster rate. I have a long way to go but one of my big goals and greatest challenges is starting to make progress. With effort and practice, I hope to be conversational, come October, our two-year mark.

As a Jew in Israel, there are many difficult things I find here. The language is the toughest. It gives me perspective on my parents and others who emigrate in their mid-thirties, the difficulties they find in learning a language and providing for their family. These are not weak people, this takes hard work and America and Israel are lucky to have the type of people who were able to do so. Because from first-hand experience, by the number of people I saw drop out of my Hebrew classes and give up on learning the language, it is far from everyone who can adapt, learn and thrive.

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Jewish Kochin

Kochin

Jewish Kerela

I land in Kochin and the curry and smoke smell of India hits me as I step off the plane. I’ve been to India twice before, but this is the first time to the long awaited south. The airport is new and clean, with lots of light reflecting off the polished marble, a staple of Indian high class. It’s like the usual India but better, a stark difference to previous trips. A life-size statue of a decorated elephant greeted me before I reached the immigration. The electronic visa area was set up to the side of regular visa area. It had plush couch seats and a gentleman was talking to me in a chair of a desk that was not quiet done well, with a railing and a camera strangely in a way. A superior came over and they asked me questions about my business and what I would be doing. Once I gave them my business card, they let me through.

I was out of the airport and when I didn’t see a sign for Sam, I was slightly disappointed. I also realized that I did not know what my guide looked like! I thought of alternatives, maybe the Mariya, the Russian steward from Qatar Airways might help? All of a sudden, a man with short hair who looked a bit like Mohannad, asked if I was Sam. It was Deepak! I was saved!. Our driver came to get us and we plunged into the mess that is Kerela streets. The road was an ever present city with cars , motorcycles, trucks and busses passing eachother . No stop signs, no dividers, no stoplights. Just ever moving chaos, the only thing possible in a country with so many people.

After about an hour we reached our first destination. A quiet village with an old old cemetery near an old quarry. Overgrown and slowly disappearing except for the few tombs at the entrance. A few headstones around the perimeter as well with hewbrew inscriptions. I couldn’t make most out but I could now read names. Very different from my previous travels.

We drove over to the synagogue nearby. The village was buitlt around it. The village didn’t have a road before, it had a ferry station which was the village port and how all villages began back in the day, by being next to a waterway. The synagogue, white with angled roof. You had to pay an entrance fee as they are under the care of the government and the cultural authority. It was small with seating according to Masorti tradition, on the sides with a slated beemah in the center. Not too hot and windows made such that air would pass through and cool. The ark was wood and decorated. Woman’s section was at the top. The circular window that usually at the front was a Bharati wheel.

Next to the synagogue is the home of Bezalel Eliahu and his wife Bat Zion. They met in Israel, both emigrated there, made a living in Ashqelon working in developing the agriculture capability of Israel. The dining room wall in his home was covered with pictures of his family and dignitaries. Him with Ben Gurion, Narendi Modi and many other officials. He bought this house next to the synagogue after decades being away, which was the house he grew up in and he comes here for the summers. His daughter lives in Vancouver and grand daughters passed up American college for service IDF and Hebrew University.

He said he taught them all to give, as he was brought up and was asked by the President of India: “give back something to the motherland”. In this town four religions lived side by side in peace. The Muslims built a mosque on the side o of the street as to not disrespect the synagogue. He said once a group of Americans came and asked how this was possible. He said: “Four words: we give respect to all, and all give respect to us.” She was a holocaust survivor.

We drove to the next largest synagogue about 40 minutes away. It was in another river town with a Jewish street where hundreds of Jews lived. The synagogue had several parts, an entrance around which rabbis house was built, a store room with a women’s study above, from which there was an elevated walk way to the main women’s section. There was access to a secret room above the hall. From the women’s section you could walk down a staircase into a large hall with an intricately carved wooden ark with a crown top. There was a simple carved beam made out of slots and a wooden carved and flower decorated ceiling, a staple of their architecture.

Coppies of copper plates that made the contract with the Kerela king and the community were on display.

This synagogue was rebuilt in 1600’s after destruction by the Portuguese even before the inquisition. The Kerela people called it a shame and abomination. Synagogue was rebuilt according to Kerela architectural style with wooden ellipses under the sloped roof, just like the Taj. The street with similar houses used to be where many Jews lived. Who all left in 1948.

We made an hour drive to new Kochin which lined the river and bay with large new buildings where we got onto a ferry to old cochin. Old Cochin was on other side of the wide bay with the Taj in the middle, made in the Kerela architectural style. We passed large transport tanker ships docked waiting to relieve their load and for new ones. The old Kochin was all small one or two story buildings and narrow chaotic streets. Our rick shaw navigated the chaos with honks of the horn, sometimes getting stuck. As we neared the jewish area, more and more Muslims appeared. We reached “Jew Town” with a large sign. The street was wide with foreigners being seen for the first time. We walked through one of the trinket shops that became a cafe then a bookstore and turned out to be a shortcut to the parades synagogue. The entrance again was apart from the main building. In front of the building was a large clock tower with a distinctive watch tower above it. To the side of th entrance was a room with large panels showing the history of the Kochin Jews with back ground on who they were and how they settled in Kochin, and how they were nearly wiped out in 1100’s in a great event where 40,000 Jews were killed, only 11,000 surviving.

The synagogue was a beautiful blue with gold embroidered cloth on the beemah and an intricately carved ark and roof but with bright colors. Blue ceramic tiles on the ground with pictures. There were many people in this one. With a group of Israelis on a side praying and giving Kadish. No pictures were allowed, the man in charge, not Jewish was collecting money for a copy of copper plates and small crapy pictures.

We walked down the street lined with trinket sellers and found Sarah, the 97 year old last living Jew in Jew town. She was nice and smiled. She looked even older. She said “you bring us food and we will eat it” Her helper Tada was there with her. I took pictures of them. He had been helped by Ralphy and other Jews in town and was now taking care of Sarah and her legacy. He showed us the living accommodations showing that same floorr plan was for most Jews in Kochin. He gave me a copy of history of Jews and signed it and then took us to an old synagogue that was taken apart and now sits in the Israel Museum. There was some Jewish street art with hebrew writing on it and inside, stripped bare, holes in the roof allowed the hundreds of pidgeons to make it a home. We also stopped by the post office where I got a stamp stamped with a date and a magen david. The only post office in India that has a magen david as their official stamp.

We got back on a rickshaw and made for the ferry. The driver had lived here among the Jews when they were still here. I asked what people felt after Jews left. I assumed it was a stupid question. I assumed he would say nothing happened, things were same. But that’s not what he said. “Jewish people were nice and friendly people. When they left, the happiness left with them.” He said. This profoundly struck me.. I felt that somehow Jewish people abandoned their Indian hood. We got off the rickshaw, got a ticket for the ferry in the mens line and then got into the waiting cage for the people who are getting on the ferry. The ferry, or a boat that is like a water bus, came over. We got on. At this point we had an issue, Deepak’s phone was no longer working. How do we contact the driver? We got a safety pin from a woman in a sari sitting across from us to pop the sim card from his phone and put it into mine. But I didn’t have his contacts. We decided we’d wait for his driver to call and in the mean time we would go to the last stop to meet Babu at his synagogue. The synagogue was a five minute ride by rickshaw. We walked down a marketplace alley where everything is sold that comes from the dock at much cheaper rate than when it is sold in mumbai or other stores. As we walked down a narrow alley, it opened up. On the right side among all the shops, behind a fence was a interesting looking building with red bricked outlines around windows. This was a synagogue. We walked around and entered an alley way where the entrance was under a red roof. At the entrance were different plants, part of Babu’s plant store. Once we enter, there were dozens of aquariums. Babu ran the aquarium store in the front room. Then we walked in and entered a beautiful synagogue. Unlike Pradesi synagogue which was accented with blue colts inside, this one was accented in red. With red cloth magen david decorated Beema, red tiles on the floor and red carvings on the ceiling.

At the synagogue was Babu and an old couple who we saw in the outskirts of cochin synagogue. The balding white haired man was hunched and took many pictures with his SLR while his wife talked to Babu. The old man and his wife live in Minaseret Zion, where my uncle lives. They were visiting because the old man was born in India and saw himself as an Indian Jew. The synagogue moved him to tears and he thanked Babu for keeping it open and for restoring it. Babu showed how a Hindu master donated important things as did a Muslim man donated the beautiful lights. He told us how a friend of a friend made oil lamps just as the ones that used to light the synagogue. I talked to him about why Jews left. I said Jews were persecuted in so many places, why would they leave this place if they are happy. “They were not happy, they were at peace but not happy.” “They never purchased land or made large investments. They were very religious and knew that one day they could move back. “

This made so much sense. Babu then spoke of a few other Jews who live around India, each with a large business today and that is why they stay. He also talked about his hope that this synagogue, would be replicated in Israel where 500,000 Jews live. He hoped that this beauty would be appreciated there because nearly no one shows up to this one.

I asked about the Chabad and Babu said the Chabad rabbi was kicked out by the Muslims who are in much control of the city and are not as friendly as they once were. Sadly and ominously, the day after the Chabad rabbi left, the muslim cleric’s sons died in an auto accident. Hopefully god is not so callous, but if he is, the cleric may need to rethink his actions.

We left with much feeling after such a beautiful synagogue and such heart felt conversations. We walked down the market street, bought a Cochin delicacy, of coconut oil fried bananas and spicy nuts. We got me some cash and a sim card and met with the driver as Deepak had a chance to charge his phone at the synagogue. We got in the car at 18:55. I thought I had an hour, plenty of time to catch the train. But I checked the time and was shocked to realize that my train left at 19:00! Deepak tried to relax me saying the train is always late, but Danesh stepped on it and the two of them got me to the trainstation where my train was waiting for me and began to move as I stepped onto the train car. My stay was brief, but my stay and experience was as rich as the culture of Jewish people in the state of Kerela.

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Jews and MLK

The story of the wealthy Jew, the influential Jew of United States would not be a reality if not for MLK. Remember that before the civil rights act, before the work of Martin Luther King Jr, a Jew (Leo Frank) could be strung up in Georgia in front a crowd and nothing would happen to those who killed him. Before Martin Luther King, Jews could be singled out the way Mexican and Central Americans are today, and prevented from emigrating even in the midst of Genocide, as was the reality due to the Immigration act of 1924. Before MLK and his work, Jewish people could be excluded from buying homes in areas like La Jolla California, attending Universities like Harvard, participating in Fraternities like Pi Kappa Alpha or being part of country clubs like Rancho Santa Fe country club. 

Jewish communities often speak that they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Reality is that they did not march for him or for black people, they marched for their own rights which at the moment were not guaranteed and often trampled on. If it was not for the sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who are in fraternities, who are country club members, who live in wealthy neighborhoods of New York, Los Angeles and San Diego, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who contribute to politics and Israel, whose kids attend Stanford and Harvard, these people, simply would not exist. 

So as a Jew and an American, I owe a deep deep debt of gratitude to the work and sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if you are Jewish, you do as well. 

The story of the wealthy Jew, the influential Jew of United States would not be a reality if not for MLK. Remember that before the civil rights act, before the work of Martin Luther King Jr, a Jew (Leo Frank) could be strung up in Georgia in front a crowd and nothing would happen to those who killed him. Before Martin Luther King, Jews could be singled out the way Mexican and Central Americans are today, and prevented from emigrating even in the midst of Genocide, as was the reality due to the Immigration act of 1924. Before MLK and his work, Jewish people could be excluded from buying homes in areas like La Jolla California, attending Universities like Harvard, participating in Fraternities like Pi Kappa Alpha or being part of country clubs like Rancho Santa Fe country club.

Jewish communities often speak that they marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Reality is that they did not march for him or for black people, they marched for their own rights which at the moment were not guaranteed and often trampled on. If it was not for the sacrifice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who are in fraternities, who are country club members, who live in wealthy neighborhoods of New York, Los Angeles and San Diego, the wealthy and influential Jewish people who contribute to politics and Israel, whose kids attend Stanford and Harvard, these people, simply would not exist. 

So as a Jew and an American, I owe a deep deep debt of gratitude to the work and sacrifices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And if you are Jewish, you do as well. 

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As Linda Sarsour Speaks, Jews of America Need to Consider Plan B

BDS is dehumanization of Jewish people of Israel. It states that the beginning of peace cannot come until an end of Jewish habitation of their ancient homeland. Sarsour stating this at the women’s march is the definition of normalized antisemitism because it takes Jewish people and makes them less than human, makes them the only ethnicity on earth that a large portion of America feels that they are not deserving of their own homeland and that the path to that is Ethnic Cleansing. Normalization of antisemitism is exemplified here publicly and proudly: genocide and ethnic cleansing is ok against Jewish people in Israel. The two sides, the majority of Trump’s supporters and Linda Sarsour now agree on one thing: their antisemitic feelings. And the people in the middle are going along with it. It is now more unpopular to defend Jews than to go after them. What is worse is that majority of American Jewish people are not aware of the feelings of their fellow Americans toward them. This shift has been slow and steady. The attacks have been slow and increasing and constant.
So the question of what to do at this point? Well, those who see what is happening have to do two things: they have to fight and plan for the worst. They need to understand that Jewish people who don’t see what is happening, are choosing not to see and will not see it. They need to work for a better day but also remember history and begin making plans for leaving the United States. I do not say this lightly, I say this because I have seen and spoken with too many people who lost their families because they did not see Germans becoming genocidal maniacs, because they did not see their neighbors turning to murder, but Germans did become genocidal maniacs and their neighbors in Germany, France, Netherlands, Hungary, turned them in and their neighbors in Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Poland slaughtered them. We are the survivors of those who survived. We know better, we must prepare, because we just witnessed a major tipping point in escalation against us, and it is not likely to go back. We have witnessed a full normalization of hate. It is time to protest, it is time to fight, it is also time to prepare to flee or perish.

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Yom Kippur Tel Aviv- The Holiday Israeli Kids Love

In America, kids’ favorite holiday is Christmas. Jewish American kids prefer Purim and Hannukah. Purim because of treats and dressing up and Hannukah because of presents. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is the one kids like the least. They have to fast, they skip a day of school for an even longer day at the synagogue. You have to apologize to people. It’s a drag!

However, Israeli kids like the holiday that is the one you’d least expect. They love and eagerly await for Yom Kippur. Why?

Yom Kippur in Israel, and especially in Tel Aviv, becomes something completely different from what it is in the United States; it transcends religion. At sundown on Yom Kippur, all traffic stops. All cars, buses, scooters, and motorcycles stop driving. People, human beings, are no longer restrained by the dangerous snarling and belching metal beasts roving the streets. They spill from the buildings like water down the sidewalks and wash the entire pavement surfaces. They flood the streets on bikes, roller blades, skateboards and on foot. Children of all ages, race on the streets with their parents sitting together and chatting, unafraid of cars. The kids feel the freedom that children in rural areas and suburbs feel every day and they lap it up with the hunger of a released prisoner.

People begin to spill out onto the streets of Tel Aviv as cars stop driving.

Most Israelis are secular. As such, they don’t go to synagogue to pray and most of them do not fast. They spend the day with their families and explore their city. They sing and they dance at Rabin Square where hundreds of kids ride on bikes on the square and on the streets. They ride skateboards on Rothchild and bikes on Ibn Gvirol. They stay out late into the night even though there are no bars visibly open, but some underground bars are open where people go to drink and have fun as if it was the prohibition.

The holiday extends into the next day. Kids are out unsupervised, riding around all parts of Tel-Aviv, from the African kids in the south near Tahana Merkazit (central bus station), to the wealthy kids in north Ramat Aviv, to the Arab kids of Jaffa. The adults also ride around: some ride their bikes along the tranquil and quiet Ayalon, the main freeway that cuts across Tel Aviv. The generally congested Ayalon is eerily quiet. Every once in a while, an ambulance or police car or a lone car with an emergency, quietly drive along the road, careful to watch out for the bikers and walkers on the wide highway.

All is quiet on the Ayalon

Not everywhere are streets empty and shops closed. In Arab Jaffa, some shops are open on Jerushalaem street, in open defiance to the Jewish holiday. Kids ride back and forth on the streets with a tree-lined walking path in the center. For some reason motorcycles and a few cars blasting music also ride up and down the streets flanked by kids on bikes, in an open protest to the Jewish holiday. On the unoccupied walkway in the center, Arab families sit in plastic chairs. The mustached men with long traditional garb and the women with long religious skirts and head-covering. They smoke shisha and drink tea as kids run around them. This is the biggest chaos of Tel Aviv, and yet, it is still peaceful.

A girl on a skateboard and Arab kids on Jerusalem Street of Jaffa.

As the day comes to a close, Jewish men and women in bright white holiday clothing walk along the Arab streets of Jaffa with tzit-tzit flowing in the quiet wind, tallis under their arms. Their kids trail them on bikes and skateboards. They walk past the Arab kids and shops on their way to the hundreds of synagogues that pock-mark all of Tel-Aviv. The synagogues are packed, standing room only with men near the Torah and women at the back. Everyone is crowded and prays for the last two hours of the Hag (holiday). Everyone is smiling and everyone in the synagogues represents their countrymen as they ask forgiveness for a year’s worth of not asking permission, for a year’s worth of yelling at each other and being generally rude and pushy Israelis from Israel, apathetic Israelis from Russia, always too loud in public Israelis from America and isolated from everyone in their superiority Israelis from France. Together they packed the synagogue in suits and in shorts, in fancy shoes and in flip-flops, in hats and yarmulkes, with beards and shaved faces, with piercings and tattoos.

Packed synagogue in north Jaffa, south Florentine

At 6:30, the city beasts awaken, they creep onto the streets. Kids leave the streets and they are replaced with incessant noise of honks and revving of buses. The peace and quiet are gone, but the feeling remains. Because for 24 hours, Muslim, Christian or Jew,  we were all Israelis, we were all one nation experiencing a communal peace and calm, we all felt and experienced a connection to ancient Israel, celebrating Yom Kippur as we did, 2000 years ago.

Am Chai Israel.

Take a look at some pictures in Instagram

open shops in Jaffa

Kids ride in bands without parents in central Tel Aviv

African kids in south Tel Aviv on Levinsky street.

African kids and religious Jews leaving Synagogue near Central Bus Station in South Tel Aviv.

Couples late at night on Ibn Gvirol

Kids on bikes in front of the cultural center on Yom Kippur Evening.

Tel Aviv residents walking on streets along the beach.

Kids and parents and adults on Rothchild Boulevard.

Jaffa on Yom Kippur

Arab boy on bike in Jaffa on Jerushalaem Street

Arab boys riding bikes along side a runner on Yerushalaem Street.

Israeli and Druze flag in Jaffa/Florentine

Jaffa Florentine residents after Yom Kippur Services

 

 

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A Few Updates!

 

So as some may know, I am living in Israel and attending the graduate program at Tel Aviv University working on Bat Research for world-renown Professor Yossi Yovel to get a Master’s in Environmental Science and on my Executive-MBA from the Northwestern Kellogg and Tel Aviv University Recanati School of Business.

Past year has not been easy, as I have been writing about my experience, taking courses, working on research, training Israelis in American Folk wrestling and so many other things.

A few big things I wanted to share:

A) I’m an Israeli now! Waiting for my passport but my wife and I have officially gotten our Alija!

Steph and I in Jerusalem right after getting our Alija.

 

 

 

B) In July I  was lucky to get the Addesman Scholarship which allowed me to travel to Namibia to study under Prof. Berry Pinshow, Prof. Scott Turner, Dr. Eugene Morais, and Prof. Nurit Agam Biophysical Field Methods. Two of the toughest and hardest working weeks in beautiful Namibia. The trip allowed me to visit the Jewish community in of Windhoek about which I wrote in my Jewish Namibia post.

Our Namibian and Israeli students at Gobabeb with Prof Pinshow, Prof Turner, Dr. Maurais and Prof Agam

C) I’m very honored to have been the recipient Don P. Jacobs scholarship for the business school. It’s an honor as he was the longtime dean of Kellogg business school and he developed the first global MBA with Israel being the first chapter. I am very honored to be one of the recipients for this year.

I am applying to many scholarships for the business school and the goal for the business school is $80,000 ($65,000 tuition and $15000 in travel costs for the global electives). Currently, I have raised $20,000. I created a little thermometer here so you can keep up to date with my progress.

 

Thanks for stopping by! Feel free to write me to litvins on my gmail e-mail with any comments, suggestions and thoughts!

 

Tel Aviv American Folkstyle Wrestling Club at Team Bert

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Jewish Namibia

Nikita came to the hostel door. I saw him behind the security personnel. He was a lanky man with thin features, tall and glasses. He said his name was Nikita and I switched to Russian immediately.

He drove me down the dark night streets of Windhoek. It was a full moon but if felt darker than the dunes of Gobabeb. The lights of buildings and streetlights showed us the way. The cars zoomed on what was the wrong side of the road for me.

We entered a suburb, recognizable by tall walls and electrified fences, a staple of developing country. The door was opened by a round-faced black man with a kippa and a grey beard about two inches long. I shook his hand and saw three other men around a beautiful painted granite table. A quiet professorial type, a native Herero, Zochar, an Israeli with a blue kippa, Tova sandals and a long black beard which moved as he spoke. At the center was a jolly man that looked like Santa with a South African British. This was Zvi, the caretaker of the Namibian Jewish community.

For the next two hours, we discussed the history of the Jewish community of Namibia, their connection to the  Herero people and other topics concerning Judaism.  Most people come to Namibia for animals and nature, but I feel that it is a place for people.

According to Zvi, the Jewish community began with Litvaks arriving to join the German Jews who arrived during the colonial days. Jews arrived to escape Germany as they fled to South Africa which at the time administered Namibia.

South Africa took over Namibia after WWII. It lied to Namibians telling them they can vote for independence, but in reality, gave them the option of voting for SA to be free or to stay in the commonwealth. The community was a lively one although one with many arguments. German Jews liked things to start on time, Lithuanian Jews not so much. 

Their synagogue was in the center of Windhoek. Windhoek means wind corner in Afrikaans is the capital and it had 5 mayors of Jewish descent.  The community boasted a lot of influence, many Jews who came made money in diamonds and infrastructure. Most, however, moved out. Windhoek did not have a University until recent times, Namibia received independence from SA only in 1992, so as Namibian young left for Johannesburg, they rarely returned. Thus one by one, the community slowly shrank as Jews moved to Israel or America or anywhere.

Today there are 40 Jews in Windhoek. 7 are members of the synagogue which rarely has a minyan.  Zvi does his best, putting on Seders, often cooking himself and shipping kosher meat from Johannesburg. He has often tried to develop an industry of Kosher meat. Meat is a staple of Namibian food. With the dry savannah environment, it can be compared to Argentina and Texas. Lots of game and beef, so much so that many people rarely eat anything other than meat. However, because the Namibian government was supported and supported Palestinians while Israel supplied support and arms to South Africa, the government today has a consulate but not an embassy, and thus no official diplomatic ties to Israel, making trade difficult and costly.

We ate butternut soup, a Namibian vegetable, prayed and enjoyed each other’s company. At the end of the night, the professor drove me home. He stayed in Bulgaria while in exile and married a Bulgarian woman. He converted to Judaism after the many Jewish mathematicians helped him and he saw the similarity between Jews and Herero.

Few know of the carnage the Herero felt and the prequel they would be to the suffering insured by the Germans upon Europe. The final solution was not first implemented on Jews, but on Herero, who after rebelling for being abused, was nearly wiped out when Germans killed the men and marched the women and children en masse into the desert. More than half the population died before they were lead back into concentration camps. The concentration camps were slave labor camps where thousands of Herero died of malnutrition and starvation. Many also died due to scientific experiments conducted on them. The only thing to stop the German barbarity was the end of 1st world war when they handed over the land to Britain. However, the racism of the world would not go unpunished. Because Germans were killing local indigenous people, no one stepped in to argue on his or her behalf. German government felt nothing at the actions of their Generals. The generals and the soldiers were promoted. Europe would soon know the barbarity of these soldiers when Hitler would take these very soldiers as the architects of his army and the final solution. The concentration camp designer would perfect his designs, General Goering’s son would lead the Luftwaffe and the protege of the Namibian Concentration Camp doctor/butcher, Dr. Mengele would continue with the sadistic live human experiments he called science at Auschwitz.

There is a lesson in Namibia, there is no evil we can ignore, evil unchecked spreads and soon envelops everyone. Racism, in the end, causes us all harm. This is what we spoke of at the table of Zvi, the musician, and one-time nightclub owner. We spoke of Apartheid of yesterday and of BDS movement today, to isolate Jews from the world, to dehumanize them, to repeat the butchery of yesterday upon the population today. We spoke of the changing world and the old Torah. These are the stories that flow in a Jewish home, thousands of miles from my home in Tel Aviv and San Diego.

Today, the congregation still meets at the old Synagogue in downtown Windhoek. They sold the Synagogue which will be converted into a Jewish Museum, as they hope to buy a new place, closer to where the community lives so that it might awaken again. Until then, the prized hospitality of Namibian people, including the Jews, was shown to me in the Herrero, in the Afrikaans and yes, the Jews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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