Finding a new gender and religion

Courtesy of Gavin Wyer at his Beit Din

 

Originally published on SD Jewish News and World

 

I learned of Gavin through a comment he made on my Facebook page. He remarked there ought to be Birthright Trips for older people, especially Jews like him, ones who learn of their heritage later in life. Because I love stories of Jewish self-discovery, I reached out to Gavin to talk about his Jewish experience.  As I spoke to Gavin, the simple story quickly become complex. The more complex the story became, the more interesting his story was to me. Interesting people are rarely simple, living simple lives. Gavin is no exception.

In his fifties, Gavin Wyer went through a process of freedom and liberation, in some ways, not unlike Pesach. Religious holidays like Hanukkah, Pesach, and the Muslims’ Ramadan are holidays that take a person on a journey that changes them each year in little ways. Pesach, for instance, takes a Jew through a figurative reliving of a transition from bondage to freedom. Through the multi-day process, the holiday makes people think and ponder their history, their people’s history and their connection to God and other people in their life. Gavin’s story was also a journey of liberation from the woman he thought he should be, to the Jewish man he really was and the work it would take to realize what was there all along.

But let us go back to how it all began: Gavin was born in San Jose to an American father and Canadian mother. Soon after, they moved to San Francisco where his parents divorced and Gavin at the age of three, moved with his mother to her native Canada. Growing up with a brother, two half-sisters and a half-brother, there were two things that Gavin wasn’t allowed to do: look into Judaism and question his gender identity. He lived with the mentality of avoidance for 52 years: he got married to a man, had children, and divorced, twice. At 31 Gavin made a step towards his true self, he came out as a lesbian. He moved to a remote part of Regina Saskatchewan at 35 where he worked in corrections. By fifty, most people seem like they have had things figured out.  For Gavin, a life of never quite fitting in culminated at this point where he would face his greatest challenges and changes.

At 52, Gavin happened to see Chaz Bono on TV. Chaz is Sonny and Cher’s son who had gone through a female to male transition. For the first time, Gavin could see who he really was, something he knew since as far back he could remember but was forced to hide and pretend. Seeing Chaz, the door opened to self-realization to become who he truly is:  “That’s me, this is who I am!” he said to himself. Because even though Gavin was divorced and living as a lesbian, he always felt that this identity didn’t fit him. All of his life Gavin felt that he failed as a woman. It never fit. In fact, when he was seven months pregnant, a maternity store clerk called him a “Sir”. “How many pregnant men do you have coming to this place?” he said to her. Even when he was a lesbian woman and men at his work asked him for advice with women, Gavin’s response was: “I have no idea.” He simply couldn’t relate or understand women even after years of living with them. However, seeing Chaz Bono gave him that final insight into who he really was, and with that insight and clarity, Gavin’s transformation began.

Although the physical change was not without its hardships and complications, the psychological transition was “by far more difficult” and not necessarily because of other people’s reactions. For instance, Even though a prison is a place of violence and macho aggression, Gavin felt immediate acceptance and respect from co-workers and prisoners when they learned of his choice to accept his male identity. The transition overall was difficult emotionally, not because Gavin had to learn to act like a man, but because difficulty lay in determining what kind of man he wanted to be, something that most men figure out over the course of their lives, but Gavin had to figure it out within a matter of months. He quickly realized that calm, quiet people are those whom he respected and that example he learned to follow.

In spite of those difficulties, what Gavin did not account for and which took a great emotional toll on him was that coming to terms with one truth about himself would require coming to terms with all truths. What Gavin did not foresee was that the most important challenge he would face was coming to terms with Judaism.

Gavin’s relationship with Judaism is similar to that of many modern Jews: complicated from an early age. One of his earliest Jewish memories was as a child. Somewhere in the house was a book with a Star of David. When his mother saw him with it she slapped him and threw the book in the fireplace and told him that he was to have nothing to do with Judaism. He doesn’t know why she acted this way, she was not antisemitic. He thinks perhaps a feud with his grandmother caused the reaction. Whatever the reason, the traumatic experience made him run from Judaism for the rest of his adult life. When a high school boyfriend invited him to a dinner with his parents and Gavin realized it was Shabbat from the candles and religious regalia around the house, he abruptly left and joined a Christian club the next day. He took a religious studies course in college and skipped the lecture on Judaism. He continued to run from Judaism until the day it all changed.

In Regina, Canada where Gavin lived during the time he began his transition, he had a mentor to help him with the process. One day his mentor said that he wouldn’t be available for a few days due to the High Holidays. Gavin realized that his mentor was Jewish and his first reaction was to run. However, for the first time, Gavin decided to not react and analyze his reaction. Gavin decided to explore this desire to run from Judaism. “What’s going on?” he asked himself. “Why am I running from this?” When he mentioned this to his mentor Joel (not a real name), Joel’s very Jewish response was: “I think you might be Jewish.” Gavin didn’t believe it.  This idea seemed absurd. However, Gavin decided to go online and learn about Judaism.  As Gavin learned about Judaism, he realized that he felt a kinship to morality, to people, to history and the religion.

Gavin’s next step was to call a rabbi for a talk. When they met, he told his story and the rabbi laughed and said: “Of course this makes sense, you’re Jewish!” This reaction was baffling to Gavin but he wasn’t persuaded, he decided to hire a genealogist. The genealogist mirrored the rabbi and without any prior sleuthing agreed with what everyone else said: “You’re Jewish.”  The genealogist explained that in his experience, 100% of the time, a suspicion of being Jewish resulted in finding Jewish roots. With Gavin, however, the story was a bit more complicated. His father’s family came from Germany. It was thought that they changed the pronunciation of the name from German “Veyer” to Whyer in order to mask themselves as Swedes. However, the genealogist thought that this might be a false lead as they found that part of the family to be living in the US for five generations, making it impossible for them to be from Nazi-era Germany. On his mother’s side, things were even murkier.

Gavin’s grandmother who had passed long ago was Christian and vehemently denied being Jewish. She changed her name, refused to discuss family history and died before he could find out her past. No one knows why she did this, one theory is that this behavior is common in many survivors of large trauma. Heavy trauma sometimes caused people to close up about their past. One can understand this when taking into account that when his grandmother was growing up, America was a less inclusive place for Jews. At that time being Jewish could cost people jobs, exclude them from educational opportunities and make it difficult to find a place to live. Many people in the United States and Canada hid their Jewish past if they could.

They seemed to hit a dead end. However, as Gavin learned about Judaism, he realized that while Hebrew had no effect on him, Yiddish did; old memories resurfaced. He remembered a large gathering a little after his little brother’s birth, and his baby brother crying. He remembered old Yiddish words that his grandmother used to say and holidays where food was restricted and eating bread that they never cut but always ripped with their hands. Gavin reached out to his siblings with whom he lost touch and he was surprised to find out that they were battling the same issues: years earlier his half-sister also searched for her Jewish past and while she did not find anything, his brother embraced the Jewish life. These revelations, even in the absence of Jewish genealogy, told Gavin everything he needed to know and felt to be true. The new revelation about himself made Gavin angry. He was angry at God for doing this to him, especially at this time: “Are you kidding me? I’m in transition!” He said to himself when first facing the possibility of being Jewish. What made acceptance easier was a list Gavin wrote many years ago “25 Things About Me.” He remembered how when he read the list, he could not stop the tears from flowing because not one thing on that list was true anymore. He realized that everything he thought was permanent and core to who he was at the time, was in fact not unchanging and not ever-present. However, Judaism, whether he accepted it or not, was a core part of him.  Gavin decided to accept it and go through the  conversion process to make it official.

This return to Judaism coincided with Gavin’s move to Victoria, British Columbia, after the completion of a serious operation. His return to Judaism was physically easier but emotionally tougher than his gender return. Gavin had to learn everything about his people’s history and face the broad opinions that exist in Judaism. On the other hand, for the first time in his life, he felt he had a culture and a people, something that when he had asked his mother about, she always denied. Here was his birthright, something that he was born to and would finally have.

Accepting Judaism did not make things easier for Gavin; life’s roads are never smooth. After studying under a supervision of a rabbi, Gavin joined a Conservative synagogue in Victoria. While his synagogue seemed to be welcoming to him and his identity, Gavin was troubled when he noticed that other converts were sailing through the process while his conversion was continuously delayed.  When he asked the rabbi, there was always a reason for a delay: the rabbi was busy, or it was a bad time, or he was traveling or it’s the holidays. Gavin began to feel a bit like the Shabbos Goy, helping synagogue setup the kiddush on the Sabbath but never accepted as a Jew. When he mentioned this to one of the community members, the member became uncomfortable and  attempted to relax Gavin by saying: “There’s nothing bad about being a Shabbos Goy.”  This sent Gavin over the edge. Gavin felt a frustration that many converts and half-Jews feel of not feeling acceptance by the world and the Jewish community. One quiet day at the synagogue, the feelings boiled over to the point where he ripped his kippah off and threw it at the bima in front of the ark. The kippah flew with the precision of a plastic bag and undramatically landed at his feet. He then threw his Magen-David necklace and yelled: “I’m not Jewish!!!” And walked out.

As days passed and there was time for reflection, Gavin realized that being Jewish is something that one is and is not something that one can cast off. No matter how hard it might be, regardless of the treatment from Jews or non-Jews, being Jewish is something that is within you because it is you.  Gavin realized that no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t stop being Jewish just as he couldn’t stop being a man. Gavin said, “This is not something I can deny and believe me, I tried.”  Gavin went back to the synagogue and found his Magen David, still on the floor, waiting for him.

Learning about Gavin, I realized how important it is to discern between Judaism as a religion and as an ethnicity. To some, both are important, to some they cannot see past religion while others stay away from religion. For Gavin, the religion was important and this slight from his synagogue was the final straw. Yet, instead of turning his back on his heritage and religion, he chose to approach a different rabbi: if some in the community were not ready for people like him, it was on him to find those who embraced him.

It was just Gavin’s luck that a rabbi he met in California when he first became Jewish- curious, had recently moved from Boston to Seattle. The rabbi had also gone through the gender reassignment process and she was happy to help. With her, Gavin went through the final conversion, with an all-trans Beit-Din, something the rabbi believed to be a historic first.

After conversion, Gavin felt no ill feelings towards his community in Victoria and returned to the synagogue where he was accepted as a Halachic Jew. However, for some time after, Gavin could not shake the feeling that he wasn’t always treated as fully equal. Then one day, one of the children at the synagogue came out as trans while preparing for Bar Mitzvah. Perhaps it is because the times are changing, or maybe it was because of Gavin having been at the Synagogue all those years, that her friends, rather than removing themselves from her, embraced their friend with their support through the transition. The girl completed her bat mitzvah and afterward, Gavin felt that members of the synagogue became more accepting of him as well.

Gavin also never blamed the rabbi. He understood that the rabbi did what he could at a time when society itself was different. He stayed at the synagogue and continued to be himself, and because of people like him who lived their truth, he helped the synagogue and in a small way, society change as well. In a sense, they all transitioned: Gavin, the synagogue, and even society transitioned over time from a prison of a body and a prison of a mind. Similarly to how the Jewish people transitioned from a prison in their own land during Hanukkah, during Yom Kippur, or Pesach. Freedom passed like the light from shamash to the rest of the candles, from Gavin to the synagogue.

At the beginning of the transition, he found that there were many small but important details that required thought and change. One of those details was what would his granddaughters call him. Grandmother? Grandfather? This discussion occurred about a week before Gavin’s Jewish discovery began, which made his Jewish discovery all the more poignant because one of the granddaughters resolved the issue with one word: “saba!” It made so much sense, but how did she know this word which meant grandfather in Hebrew, Gavin asked his daughter. “I don’t know why, but she really wants to learn Hebrew” Gavin’s daughter told him.

Sadly, the path to acceptance is not always direct or pleasant. It is common for people in the trans community to lose their families as a result of announcing their truth, and Gavin was no exception. Although his kids were accepting at first, once the physical changes began to take shape, they began to feel that they were losing their mother. In spite of being part of the LGBTQ movement, they could not face Gavin in his new form and became estranged from him for many years.

But all things heal with time: recently, Gavin’s daughter got in touch with him about their genealogy. As with Gavin’s children, not all people in our society and community accept people like Gavin, but with time, like the Jews who followed Moshe who also needed time to accept their freedom and break the bonds of slavery, they will embrace the freedom of acceptance, and accept all people into the human brotherhood.

 

Poem by Gavin Wyer

Birthrite

Is this my birthright
to stand with these men
whose sacred brotherhood
goes across time and space
to the very beginning of G-d
and whose unrelenting pain
scars the souls of all men?

Is their truth also mine
in a final deception cleared
and long awaited homecoming
beckoning from generations lost?

Is my final name revealed
to be known at last as one
and claim this heavy burden
of title drenched in blood
to join the endless chain
of unbroken family pride
that comes at such a cost
and gives no quarter?

Is this the secret knowledge
tattooed upon my soul
that my bone and blood and skin
remember still in quiet places
where G-d awaits discovery?

Does this thing lay claim to me
while I yet with hesitance
explore forbidden texts
only to find name unspoken
resides within the seeking?

(c) Gavin Wyer

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Jumping Head First Into Israel’s Politics

My final transformation from a visitor to Israel, to a student in Israel to a citizen of Israel, culminated in going to an election talk by an Israeli politician.

In the basement of the ZOA* House on Ibn Gvirol Street, Asaf Zamir, the Tel-Aviv deputy mayor had his chance to make a case for himself in front of the two hundred or so English speaking Olim (immigrants). He had a short beard that didn’t quite connect to his mustache and an untucked button-up shirt. Although he lived in Florida for part of his childhood giving him accentless English, he lived in Israel most of his life making it hard for him to remember some words, getting help from the crowd for words like opportunity or workers. He was presented as a very different kind of politician, and to me, he embodied the Israeli politician.

So what did he propose? The things which were important to him: bike lanes and pre-k education. He wants to get cars off the streets and make it more affordable to raise children in the city. He explained that Tel-Aviv population is becoming older and younger at the same time because as young people don’t move to the periphery and decide to start and raise families in the city. The public option he hoped would offset the expense of private education pre-k.

After giving an introduction that included stats on voting (30% of the electorate) and logistics (election day is a day off and there is no need to register), he made his case for why it is time for new leadership and what he will do. Afterward, he opened up for a Q&A which in spite of being full of Olim, was extremely Israeli. First Zamir called on a man by calling him “Waldo” because the man wore glasses and a hat similar to the character in a kids’ puzzle book. The man named Nick asked if he would enforce a ban smoking, ban smoking near bike lanes and introduce math textbooks in the English language “because they are written better”. Zamir’s answer was “I’ve spoken over 500 times and I thought I heard everything.” He followed that up with “I’m a smoker, they are people too.” He also said that no he will not go after smokers and no we will not change textbooks.

Zamir laughed at the man asking the questions and said no, breaking two of the cardinal rules of American politics. A woman asked him about dog poop and class sizes. He didn’t answer the question on dog poop, which is what interested me, and told her how some schools have more, some less, it depends on the popularity of school and that 34 students per class are so much better than the 40 there used to be.

Next, a man asked about developing a park and changing the ratio of commercial to residential from a ratio of 70/30 commercial to residential to 30/70. To which Zamir responded that the city needs 70/30 to pay for the services for the 30% and “you say you want cheaper housing but you don’t want me to build in a parking lot, which one do you want?”

When someone asked about the drugs, crime, and poverty in South Tel Aviv, Zamir went into a long tirade about how African refugees arrived in Israel, why they don’t leave, why they are abandoned and how because they are not leaving, we might as well make their lives as normal as possible to help them be a productive part of society. Although, he didn’t say anything about how he would do that.

When Zamir spoke of making the city better than ok, he did not mention how to get rid of plastic in the sea, cigarettes butts off the beach or how to help end the mountains of trash in the streets due to infrequent trash pick up and undersized trash bins. He did tell us however how much of the responsibilities of a city in Israel is handled by the central government including transportation and safety, which is why all he can do about lack of transportation on Shabbat is offer a free shuttle.

The moderator of the event decided to bring the discussion back to issues specifically concerning Olim and asked Zamir what had he done for Olim in the past five years and what will he do. The first question Zamir didn’t answer and to the second his response was his most American politician answer yet: jobs and improved social life. Which seemed like a terrible answer because he as a politician in a city can’t really provide either one. What he can provide is a hotline or a telephone system that answers people in English and gets a person to an English speaking operator instead of hanging up on the caller. With so many foreign Olim and people from abroad who all share English as a first or second language, Israel’s insistence on Hebrew with people who don’t yet speak Hebrew can often feel downright cruel!

In the end, I actually liked Zamir. He stayed late to answer all the questions as promised. I thought it was to seem him crack a joke about building a wall and having Egypt pay for it. He was very Israeli: saying no to people, expressing the things he will not do like recycling or better public safety, things he will do like a light rail (which is already being built) and bike paths (which are also being installed). So what will Asaf Zamir bring as the young new face? I’m not sure, but he did say that he is likable.

*Zionist Organization of America

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Rosh Hashanah in Israel

Ashdod Beach on Rosh Hashanah

 

In the year 5778, I became an Israeli citizen. I get to celebrate Rosh Hashana here. In the United States, I would have gone to a synagogue to connect to God, to connect to my people. In Israel, I drove across the country to be with my family. I rested, contemplated, met with friends. I am among my people, I did not feel a need to go to a synagogue, to see another service I’ve seen before. In the United States, it is these holidays that act to bring us together, to remind us that we are a community with a history, ethnicity and a culture. We use religion to remind us that even if we don’t really believe in it. Here, those who believe go to the synagogue, the Jews who do not, celebrate it as secular Americans celebrate Christmas: together, with family and friends.

On the day of Rosh Hashanah eve, the streets are empty, stores are closed, the buses have many open seats. The parts of Tel-Aviv with young people become sparse as the young people go to see their parents in the suburbs or other cities around the country as young people fly around America to go home and visit their friends and family for Christmas. In the evening you see religious families walking to synagogues, men with a Tallit around them dressed in white with their sons next to them. Often you see the Orthodox men walking with a Torah open in front of their faces, oblivious to their kids as they pray and walk. By evening everything is quiet, only the last stragglers are driving as they do in the US on the way to someone’s house for a Christmas Dinner. The tables are full of food, with apples and honey and nuts. Men tend to the Mangal or the BBQ, cooking chicken or lamb shishkabobs. Women set the table with one-time use plates, the tables are loaded with appetizers and foods from Morocco, Soviet Union, America, Yemen and all places from which Jews came to Israel, representing a fabric of the diversity of our exile.

Underground Jazz club in Tel Aviv

On the morning of Rosh Hashana, again the streets are empty of cars with religious families making their way back to the synagogues. Most stores and businesses are closed, all public transport sits quietly in the parking lots. Some restaurants, usually those owned by the Russian emigres are open along the beaches of Ashdod and Tel Aviv. Russian and secular Israelis enjoy a less crowded beach day. Surfers glide on waves. Paragliders pass through the blue sky with their neon parachutes. Tanker ships sit idly on the azure waters off the coast, awaiting re-opening of the ports. By evening, nightclubs and bars open, young people back from their family dinners go out for drinks, listen to live music in the nightclubs across the city. Tomorrow is another day off, the city will rest meeting the new year, celebrating the end of the summer heat, looking forward to cooler temperatures that will give a reprieve from the daily escape from the sun that Israelis had to undergo for the past five months. This beginning of fall new year makes the passing of the past year less somber, less sad than passing the year in the winter months. We feel less resentment about past year, we feel more gratitude for making it through, for the bounty, we have on the table and we look forward to the better weather, for the new opportunities for the new people that we will become with each day.

Every day is a chance to correct the wrongs, make things better. Every new year is a chance to re-assess what we’ve done well and what we haven’t. Jews who live in diaspora and in Israel, as a community, dislike it when someone from our community is criticized. Old wounds are still fresh and we fear that an attack on one is an attack on all. Because of this, we must be vigilant with our own so that the ones who make bad choices that reflect on all of us, understand that we do not stand for actions that cause harm to others, cause harm to people who are in the same position we once were.

This Rosh Hashana I will remember that no one will care about how much money I made, but people will speak for ages about what you made them think, how you made them feel. I will remember that I am not as smart as I think I am, but with every day, if I work at it, I will become wiser.

Shana Tova to all who come here and read these posts. May the year be sweet to you and your family and I hope that you make every day a good day in your book of life or at least do your best to make it better than the day before.

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Israel, You’re Funny- Banks

There is so much that I love about Israel: drinking laws that allow you to walk on the streets with open containers, bars that are open all night, the safety of the streets. However, banks in Israel are the absolute worst of any modern country as far as I can tell. In fact, Israeli banks remind me that Israeli for all their claims of being a startup nation and technological prowess is far more similar to a developing country in the Middle East, and not even the most developed in the Middle East.

I have tried to get an account with every bank and settled on Discount Bank because it’s the only one that does accounts for international speakers, and the only one in Tel Aviv where staff acknowledged and actually talked to me once I began speaking in English. Discount is one of the nicer banks as far as Israeli banks, but that doesn’t make it nice.

Israeli banks make you realize that Israel is still a developing nation. Their hours are terrible, often closing at 1pm and never open on Friday and Saturday (Israeli Weekends). You are lucky if they employ people who speak English, in fact, most don’t speak English and I even walked out of a bank because a banker was sitting on her phones checking facebook for fifteen minutes instead of helping. You can’t just go into a bank to get help, you have to go to the specific branch where you opened your account for everything as if your banker was primary care doctor.
You can simply change an account, they have to close it and then open it again, making you have to change all of your payment options like your rent checks and bills. This is a big issue because usually, you give your landlord checks for the year. So if anything is modified, you have to give them a new set of checks. Worse, once you do go to your branch, assuming you are lucky that they are open, they cannot do something as simple as changing your debit card pin. They have to send the new code to your house, meanwhile, you have to go the branch to get cash which means they charge you fees. They charge fees for using your debit card, they charge fees for getting cash from the bank, they charge fees for talking to your teller and transferring money between your accounts.

Israel’s bank system makes me wonder how anything works in Israel and made me realize why Israel is an older country than a place like Dubai and Singapore but is so far behind. There are a lot of things I dislike about the US but after Israeli banks, I really appreciate the American banking system. Israeli banks made me realize how ridiculous the concept is of Jews controlling the banks, and boy is the world lucky that we don’t.

There are many things that are amazing about Israel, but the banking system is not one of them. Get it together Israel! Your banks are not funny.

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Update- My Thoughts Three Years Later.

It’s a hot summer night and I am sitting in my apartment, in Tel Aviv and I am going through my inbox deleting old emails. 2018, 2017, 2016 and in 2015, I start seeing the emails. I suddenly realize that it is nearly three years since I began the campaign to print a book of my photographs and stories from the travels around the world. It is nearly six years since those travels took place. I begin reading the emails from that campaign when friends, family and community members from around the world, banded together around me and the project and funded the printing of the Your Story, Our Sipur book

I am transported back three years ago and the feelings return. I remember being moved, I remember being stressed, I remember being grateful, I remember being focused and confident that we would meet the goal. Going back over those emails of notifications of friends, family and acquaintances who gave to the project $5, $10, $15, $100 or more and realizing just how much more I appreciate their help. Every single person, regardless of how much they gave, I appreciate it, I appreciate them wanting to give, to help, to care.

The book today is in eight stores around the country. It did not sell out, but it did help some people understand what I understood by traveling to all those places. Today, living in Tel Aviv, I see the book just as clearly as I saw it when I first envisioned it, but even more so. I see my people, imperfect. I see my people, diverse. I see the country of my ancestors for what it is, for what makes it wonderful, for everything that it is because of all the people who live here: Jews, Druze, Christians, and Muslims. I see it for the people who created it its original history, for the people who created its new history through Islam and Christianity, living here for 2000 years through Roman, Ottoman and Crusader rulers. I see it and I love it. It makes me realize how few there are of us and after almost a year, I can say that I developed a true love for all the people, in spite of their faults, for their faults. I love them regardless of their political views, their religion, their temperament. I love this country, even its weather, and bureaucracy. That is unconditional love, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want it to improve, it just means I love it regardless of whether it improves or not.

I am here living with my wife Stephanie, I know that without her help, I would not make it through this year as well as I have, who is so adventurous as to come here and brave the journey and the sacrifices to be here. Without her, it is not certain I would have passed the mark to print the book. I realize that it is her, my parents and my friends who made my dream possible in so many ways. It makes me realize that lonely dreamers remain dreamers, but dreamers who are lucky to love and be loved, see their dreams become a reality.

As I read the emails, I realize that I fill with gratitude and a disire to thank, to thank everyone for their help. The past six years included many talks with many communities about the travels, but mainly, it is the book that spoke for me and it did so thanks to all of you. Because of you, it was able to speak to you and through you.

Things are certainly uncertain these days, for all people around the world. However, looking through the emails from so many people, one thing is certain: humanity. Our love for each other is our humanity; love that makes us come together, to believe in ideas and dreams and to help each other make those dreams a reality. Dreams are purpose, they are essential for our lives, and making them come true is the true gift of life.

Thank you, friends. Please feel free to write me your thoughts and comments and if you have a dream, don’t hesitate to ask for help, because all dreams are bigger than us, and so they require more than just us, they require all of us.

Much love,

Sam

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Ten Ways Israel’s Gay Pride is Better than US Gay Pride

Pride Tel Aviv 2018

1 It’s bigger
The enitire city turns up to support Gay people of Israel and the World. It is unbelievable and the whole city is dressed in flags for weeks before the event. Looking both ways at 250,000 people was unbelievable, the sea of humanity at the parade and then the party after. The support, the atmosphere, it was bigger in every sense of the word.

2 It’s more international
All of Europe and Middle East flies in for it. You can see the flags of every country. Gay people around the world are celebrating the freedom to love and express that love. As far as America, I saw American flags as shorts but not one American flag was waived. There is no respect for America because there is no more pride in being American. It’s very very sad.

3 It’s more fun
It’s a party, everyone walks and it is massive. It’s more like carnival where cars pull up, everyone dances and then the next float pulls up and everyone dances.

4 It’s on the beach
While people walk down the street of Hillcrest in San Diego, in Tel Aviv it is a walk down the beach. It feels amazing to see the ocean, the beach and a huge party that makes it more like Carnival in Ipanema. The wonderful thing about it being on the beach is you can go and jump into the water! And it felt so good!

5 The party at the end is free and huge
In San Diego you had to buy a wrist band to go in and pay for expensive alcohol and listen to bad music. It honestly isn’t very good and the only benefit is expensive food stalls. Here the food was limited but the party was immense and all of it free!

6 No BDS idiots.
There are no BDS assholes waving flags and chanting anti semitic slogans who under the auspices of helping Palestinians are there not to support gay rights but to support the repression of gay people in Palestine and a genocide in Israel. Not every gathering is about Palestinians. It’s gay pride! Not a free Palestine rally!

7 Selling things is allowed

It was a hot hot day in June and it was a godsend to be able to buy water on the street.

8 Everyone Walks and Dances
People aren’t standing on the side watching the procession of lame businesses and organizations passing by and politician photo-ops. It’s a celebration and a party and everyone feels that they are part of it.

9 Alcohol is allowed
American dry policy sucks. You can’t drink! You have to be carded and here, nada, the id policy makes sense, when someone is younger than 18 don’t sell but you are free to walk around drinking. People are responsible when you believe they are responsible and the police quickly take care of those who are not.

10 It feels more inclusive
Gay arab, palestinians, muslims, Jews Christians come from around the world. You can see the Christian church of Jaffa and the mosque on Ha Yarkon as the procession passes it. Muslims in hijabs are on the beach and do not seem bothered and the secular ones are part of it. Jews with skullcaps mix with arabs and Europeans with Africans and people from Asia. Straight, gay, trans, everyone feels the love.

 

The one way it is not better: the few stupid people who brought their poor dogs into the heat and onto the pavement. Very inhumane.

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Itzkor and Yom Hatzmaut

Yom Hatzmaut Tel Aviv

Memorial day in the United States is virtually indistinguishable from July fourth. They are set a few months apart. Memorial day begins summer sales with barbeques and July fourth celebrates mid-summer with fireworks, barbeques, and mid-summer car sales. It wasn’t until I came to Israel that I discovered what it is like to be in a country that honors and mourns its fallen. It wasn’t until I came to Israel that I realized what it is like to be in a country that still remembers its founding after 2000 years of exile.

Yizkor begins at sundown. As the last buses drive down the empty streets, the shops are closed. All shops. There are no sales, there are no banners, there are no barbeques. The city comes to a quiet. Families go home and light candles. The city makes its way to the city hall. I’m sure not the whole city is here but it feels like it. The stage is dark with hundreds of candle lights lit behind the speakers, poets, singers. They all wear black. As each speaker speaks the crowd is quiet. There are young and old, families and single people. They watch stories of soldiers who were killed in the line of duty trying to save the country from invaders. Pictures of young women and men, conscripted at 18 to defend their homeland appear on screens. Their stories are told by their families, happy pictures of children, families, girlfriends. Not an eye is dry. They are mostly Jewish eyes, the Arabs are upset that all is closed. It’s a complicated country. Then Hatikva plays, everyone sings as they all feel the pain together. Young women and men stare at tattoos that represent their fallen friends, kids think of uncles who passed away, mothers and fathers think of their kids and kids friends who would be alive, if not for the endless wars, whose true targets were all of us. We all know that in each person we mourn, there is a Jesus, someone who died for us, so we could live.

The next day a siren sounds, the city stops. People look out on the frozen city from rooftops and drivers step out from their cars, thinking of the fallen in unison. They head to cemeteries and remember the young soldiers who died, the country remembers them, it’s the least we can do.

Six pm, the grief turns to extasy. Decorations and flags cover the city in white and blue. Fireworks explode around the city and the same Rabin Square is transformed from a black and orange place of mourning to an explosion in laughter and celebration. 2000 years they waited and this is 70 years since Jews had the ability to feel free. 70 years since Jews could be poor without being called a Dirty Jew, be rich without being called a stingy Jew, be smart without being called a scheming Jew, 70 years of being just Jewish. Jewish with the ability to have a country, to stand up for each other, to celebrate our holidays, to pray as we wish without anyone’s approval. To have a country is to be free, no matter how many laws that country makes. It is the realization that a country is us coming together to say, this is us, this is our land and we band together to make sure no one tells us how to be.

Bars are open and full all around the city. Kids walk around with inflated hammers hitting each other and little stars of David bouncing on their heads attached to a halo like the antennae of a bee. Israeli flags are draped on shoulders of girls and boys. The streets are closed. We walk the city like we own it, with beers in hand, unafraid and happy. We bounce from rooftop party to street party. Following our ears and eyes to places where people are happy, where people set up music blaring Israeli rock, Israeli rap, Israeli anything and American if they feel like it. We walk past punk bands and techno raves. We dance together, as Israelis until early morning.

The morning comes with jets ripping the air along the beach with an air show. F-35 and F18 perform maneuvres for a packed beach where no foot is skinny enough to find a piece of sand. The city is there to see their ability to defend themselves, 70 years after running from plans, we now have planes to defend us from planes and rockets and any other hateful threat.

The city comes noon is enveloped in the smell of chicken and lamb as mangal’s or barbeques are fired up around the balconies and Israelis, like their American counterparts, celebrate their freedom like cavemen did, by cooking delicious meat and drinking beer.

This is Israel at 70, this is what it’s like, to experience Independence day, in Israel.

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Passover in Israel

My cousin took out the Hagada and began to read. The first prayer read: “Today we are here, but next year we will be free in Israel.”  We all laughed. This is clearly a Hagada written for a Passover abroad. But here we were, my aunt, wife, grandmother, cousin, uncle and mother in law, in Israel, less than 20 km from where Abraham put down his roots, not far from where he nearly sacrificed Isaac. We were in the land of Israel. I didn’t realize it, but I had never been in Israel for actual holidays. In all the times I had been here, I had never spent time to see the holidays, and here I was witnessing them, season to season, day after day, and I was learning things about Judaism so much more than I ever expected.

Passover, is the most important holiday for Jews. This importance is especially felt in Israel where everyone celebrates it, not just your local temple. Passover is important because it is not just a Jewish day of independence or emancipation, it is the Jewish day of nationhood. Passover celebrates Jews getting the stone tablets that gave the Jews the first constitution, the culture, codified us as a people and made us who we are. Before the tablets, we were tribes– after,  we became a people with a belief system, with rules, and laws. More importantly, this was not just man’s laws, but laws of God, laws of nature. The laws of god is a first draft of laws of nature.

During Passover in Israel, you feel that you are not alone following these rules, but as part of a bigger whole, for the first time I celebrated as a majority. Even though Jews are often most under attack at this time, in Israel Jews are also more united than ever. You feel it all around as every person wishes you a good holiday, and they wish you not in an abstract way, but in a way that they understand is your day and their day. They will go home and have a feast just like you will, with their family, just like you will with yours. For a full week neighbors invite neighbors, friends invite friends for eight days of gatherings and celebrations.

Driving across Israel on the first eve, I saw fires rage with black smoke of bread as the religious across the country burned all that is hametz (bread). All counters in stores and coffee shops that had bread at one point are empty. Entire sections of stores are closed while sections filled with of matza are open.  On the eve of the holiday, people are streaming home and many are arriving from abroad. Getting a car at the car rental is beyond difficult, lines have formed for hours and bickering and laughter is incessant, depending on the temperament of the person.

On the day of passover, especially when it falls on Shabbat, all streets are empty:  everything is quiet, stores are closed, no one calls, no one in religious homes checks phones. Families flock to homes of patriarchs and matriarchs for large dinners.

Of all experiences which I thought would happen to me in Israel, it is this connection to Judaism that I expected the least. After all I had travelled to so many countries, experienced so many seder’s and so many events. And yet, every time I learn something new, I realize that I have but scratched the surface of 5000 years of traditions and culture that I am privileged to be born into.

So again, we celebrate our freedom, by remembering our bondage. This memory and celebration, makes me grateful and makes me appreciate the freedom that I have, especially in Israel.

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New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv

Happy New Year Tel Aviv

Decorations of a bar in Florentine

I love New Year’s Eve. I love it because I grew up in Soviet Union where it was the biggest holiday of the year. It was not religious or ideologic, it was all about family. Families saved up food for a feast for this holiday. We once even had bananas, bananas! The whole family would come together, we ate, we sang, my grandmother played the piano, we watched tv and shows. Every year we would get  a pine tree which we decorated and on January 1st we got presents! (The presents were not under the tree because we didn’t have wrapping paper, so they were always a surprise.)

After coming to US, I still remember our first tree. We got it on the cheap after Christmas. It was 5 foot tops and with maybe ten branches extending wide to fill up most of our living room: the stalk in the middle clearly visible through the thin branches. A really sad thing but it was ours and it reminded us of the home we left.  We decorated it and our family came together for the first New Year in a new country.
Over time, the cultrure of the country seeps in. America doesn’t celebrate the way Russia did. In US the holiday is not a family event. You celebrate with friends and it’s ok to bring in the new year at midnight and then go home. So I started to have my own celebration. Bringing in my friends to my house, having good music and food. We had some amazing New Year’s celebrations, an epic time every year. So this is why when I came to Israel, I realized that this holiday, that the whole world decided to celebrate, is a no holiday in Israel. Probably the only country in the world that doesn’t care for it. Even though there are over a million Soviet Jews here who celebrate, the country refuses to recognize it. It felt like in someways Israelis try to deny that they are part of the world, isolating themselves on something special, that could make them a part of the global community. This is why in Israel schools are open the next day and all businesses, there are no fireworks, no official celebrations.
BUT, unofficially, some still try. Because we are new and don’t know many Israelis who celebrate the holiday, we decided to have our own celebrations in my apartment in Florentine. South Tel Aviv area of  Florentine is secular and worldly. There are a lot of bars and there are regular graffiti tours of the area. So it is easy to find   new year’s trees on display in stores and restaurants here (they are not called Christmas trees) as well as happy new ear signs and decorations in English and Russian.
That’s one thing that I love about Israel. There is no commercialism. Every week all decorations change, they don’t have happy holidays, they have happy Hanukkah. Once Hanukkah is over, they have Merry Christmas signs up. Once Christmas is over, they have Happy new year decorations up. But it feels festive. There are no sales, no pushy decorations, it feels festive, not commercial exploitation.
As I took the bus home on December 31st and I saw shop  keepers getting their tips ready, putting up lights and decorations, I was starting feeling the spirit. The same spirit I used to feel in Ukraine as my family was getting ready for the company to come over, cooking all day and decorating and cleaning the house.
In a few hours, my American, Australian, Dutch and Israeli friends came over. We poured champagne, we ate, we had conversations and at 11:30, we went up to the rooftop to dance and bring in the year. It has been my favorite thing to do every year, to bring everyone outside, to meet the new year in the nature. It had been raining like crazy all day but by midnight it cleared up and we had a beautiful new years. There were no fireworks, but we had our poppers, our whistles and our funny hats. We yelled and cheered. We could see people in apartments around us who were sitting at home. It felt lonely. It actually made us a little lonely to see people at home alone as if it was just another night.
So we took off to find a place to dance. We lost some of our members as they had to head home to get ready for the work day. We walked the quiet streets of Florentine surrounded by the graffiti, permanent street decorations. However, when we got to Rothchild, it was packed with people. A corner bar on a street had the music blasting outside and maybe a dozen people were dancing on a corner. We joined the circle and danced until people cleared while a religious jew with a big knitted kippa and long peyyut handed out pamphlets and collected hugs.
We walked home and I passed out drunk, woke up with a hangover and sadly, had to go to work and school. Sitting on a bus for an hour while hung over was cruel, it was sad, but it was worth it.  I thought about how originally, this holiday, celebrated the bris of the worlds most famous jew and 2000 years since the end of Jewish homeland. Today though, as we are back, that’s not what we celebrate. We celebrate making it another year, together, the world alive, all of us alive, Israel is alive.
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Christmas in Tel Aviv

A few years ago I spent a couple days in Haifa. I was there around Christmas time and I was amazed at all of the Christmas decorations, the Christmas trees, the Santas. I forgot that there are Christian and Muslim Arabs and that Christian Arabs do celebrate Christmas. In Tel Aviv, there was nothing of the sort that I could remember or noticed. This seemed to have changed, a lot.

Now that I live here, I’m able to see a lot more or maybe there is a lot more. For one thing, Christmas trees are a thing now. From stores in Jewish areas to large trees in Arab Jaffa, you can now actually see the trees. You can also see people walking around in Santa hats and Christmas decorations are sold in stores and hung in stores. It is strange to think that only a few days ago was Hannukah, and now Christmas seems to have sprouted.

Of course, it is not like in the US. There are no big sales, the decorations I talk about are seldom and not overdone. The 2% of Christian Israel seems to be over-represented, especially compared to the amount of Hanukkah things you see in the US, which is virtually non-existent.

On the actual Christmas Steph and I went out. We went to a Christmas event at a local food court where we saw a Jewish take on Christmas: everyone had weird glasses with Santas wabbling off of them like antennas. There was a Christmas tree, egg nog and everything was festive. Families were eating, people were drinking wine and beer and playing games, which seems to be a specialty at this food court. The big difference, of course, is that in the US, everyone is at home and virtually nothing is open. It was one of the things that made me feel like such an outsider, I had nowhere to be and thus felt completely alone as all others seemed to be spending something important with their family.

We went to a huge party at the Abraham Hostel. People were streaming in dressed up in Santa hats and cheesy sweaters. We played a round of pool after getting some beers. The special was three shots for 36 shekels ($10 bucks). The place was packed with American ex-pats, Europeans, birthright trippers, and Israelis. It felt strange to be at such a huge party on Christmas. It reminded me of the annual party for Jews in San Diego, but bigger and more fun. It made me happy. As we left the drunken debauchery, we walked along a street. This was a Sunday night and the stores were full. We dropped by a Max Brenner Chocolate place, full to the brim. Then we went and got some waffles and ice cream.

After we indulged in this delicacy, we walked and passed a lot of American Jews in the streets. It seemed that all Israelis were home and American Jews had a need to be out on this Christian holiday. I had a realization of just how deep American culture permeated American minds. Even Jews, with their desire to be different and abhorrence of Christmas because of the thousands of years of persecution, had a need to feel Christmas, the spirit and culture that they grew up with, even if they never got to participate. Only in Israel, I thought, would Jews feel free and normal celebrating Christmas.

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