69 reasons why I love and support Israel

Happy Birthday, Israel

1. Because visiting Israel for the first time changed my life
2. Because no matter where you live you can be at the beach in an hour
3. Because if you need a 2nd mother, you will always find a good Jewish ima
4. Because the fear of being a “freier” makes you stronger
5. Because you are never alone
6. Because there is never “between the lines” in Israel
7. Because of the noise of the “matkot” (though I fear you will hit me once)
8. Because the word “Mishpaha” (family) really means something to you
9. Because I can say I am Christian and be welcomed at the most intimate Shabbat dinners
10. Because visiting Israel made me an atypical Eastern European
11. Because of “hummus chips salad”
12. Because of that incredible strength that lies behind you all
13. Because I can go from a street that is 2000 years old to a street that is 2 years old
14. Because we can curse and then be best friends in the next moment
15. Because taking a taxi is like going to a spiritual shrink
16. Because when there is “azaka” and I am alone, I know you will take care of me even if you don’t know me
17. Because you fall in love with me that I can order my coffee in Hebrew
18. Because Israeli women are intimidatingly strong
19. Because every name has a meaning
20. Because I will always feel safe around you as you either was a soldier, are soldier or just about to be one
21. Because you are the most innovative brains I have ever met
22. Because you welcome multikulti but don’t let go of your culture
23. Because you raise your kids to aspire and be confident
24. Because I can sit in a coffee for hours and you won’t kick me out
25. Because I can ride a camel on high-heels and you will get me
26. Because eating healthy is so damn easy
27. Because you continuously take me out of my comfort zone
28. Because I can have meaningful conversations
29. Because being around you makes me confident
30. Because of those sunsets
31. Because you gave me my boyfriend
32. Because you remember how far you have come
33. Because you appreciate life every day
34. Because you live in constant terror but it does not make you resentful
35. Because the more I learn about your history, the more Zionist I become
36. Because Zionism isn’t a curse word, we just call it patriotism in Europe and you are finally catching up
37. Because I can go to a shabbat service and you will fix up my Bible when I hold it upside-down
38. Because you dance on the streets as there is no tomorrow
39. Because you pushed me to learn more about myself
40. Because of your “mangal” culture
42. Because of Gaga dance
42. Because I envy your community sense (even if you deny having that)
43. Because you guys are helpful
44. Because you taught me if I want something I need to ask for it (bluntly)
45. Because you gave me more dreams
46. Because without knowing you I wouldn’t be in NYC now
47. Because of driving through the Negev is something incredible
48. Because of Shlomo Artzi (and Idan Raichel, and Rita, and Idan Amedi and…)
49. Because you made me aware of so many things that I didn’t see before
50. Because you made me a more grateful person
51. Because Judaism is spirituality and you don’t need to be an orthodox Jew to let it touch your life
52. Because Ben-Gurion was a genius and you all should get to know his story more to appreciate him (even if he was a socialist)
53. Because you know how to charm a woman
54. Because supporting you makes me the target of anti-semitism and that makes me understand you even more
55. Because the moment you say “yallah”, you become half Israeli
56. Because you have this beautiful chaotic disorder that everyone follows
57. Because there is nothing Jews would like more than a good argument – and that is so refreshing
58. Because being Jewish means something else to each one of you and yet you are all so similar
59. Because of the Kotel
60. Because of those incredible views of nature
61. Because of Waze, Wix, Viber and all that
62. Because you let me be me
63. Because you are few against many and you never give up
64. Because you won over 22% of all Nobel Prizes
65. Because Israeli women prove that you can have it all
66. Because Israel has more museums per capita than any other country in the world
67. Because everybody is a potential president – as you all always know better
68. Because when you say hi, you actually say peace on you
69. Because I keep on wishing I would be one of you

What did I miss?

What happens when a Christian enters a Shabbat service? Tears!

Originally published on The Times of Israel 

I was thinking which pants to put on: the dark leather one or that black one that isn’t so tight on my body. I went with the second one.

It was a chilly Spring evening as I walked through Central Park, up until 68th Street. Turned left, walked a few more steps and as I saw the building I stopped before entering. I had too many feelings messing with me. Suddenly the security guy told me: “Shabbat Shalom,” opened the door, ushered me in and there I stood: a Christian in a synagogue entering her first Jewish service.

At the entrance, there was a man and a woman welcoming everyone and handing a Bible to all. I automatically stepped towards the woman. Not sure why I did that. Maybe because I often have no idea what level of Jewishness I am entering to when I meet Jews. It really is an issue.

She looks at me, smiles and hands me a Bible. I wasn’t sure what to do. Frankly, my first unconscious thought was ‘this is not my Bible; I don’t know what to do with yours.’ So I quickly told her: “Well, look, I am not Jewish, I’m here as a Christian who is on a journey.” And boy, that felt awkward. I felt more confident on my first dates than entering this Shabbat service.

“Welcome!” She was smiling even more by now. Then she directed me towards the chairs and explained that I could sit ANYWHERE I want. “Except on my chair, my dear, don’t sit on my place there.”

OK, I thought, she is really cool, I’m safe.

The service had already started as I entered and I wasn’t sure how this whole thing was going to make me feel, so I sat in the last row. It also gave me a good view of the synagogue, and I wanted to look around and observe.

And to observe I wasn’t shy of.

As I sat down, the first thing I did was to open my phone and…and then it hit me: ‘you idiot, you’re at a Shabbat service.’  I looked around rather embarrassed, but I concluded that nobody saw it. I felt relieved. And then the lady from the entrance appeared from nowhere handing me another Bible that she opened for me somewhere in the middle: “Here, this the song now. You can see it in Hebrew, then in phonetic and then here, in English. Enjoy.” With that, she left and I then realized, she did see me touching my phone.

I finally found my place and looked at the Bible, then looked up and saw that there is a whole band and it suddenly seemed that I was at a Klezmer band concert, not a religious service. I looked down to the Bible again, and there, I had my first epiphany: ‘Ah, this is what it means when they tell me “I speak only ‘Service Hebrew’.’” You know, I never understood when Jews told me they didn’t speak Hebrew just service Hebrew. I was like how is that even possible? Tonight, I understood and tonight I was fluent in (Service) Hebrew for a full hour.

The cantors (who lead people in singing,) had such beautiful voices that I sat there mesmerized. In Christian services, we would have a person accompanying the songs on a piano, but apart from a Gospel service in Harlem, I didn’t think services can be actually joyful and not sorrowful. Meanwhile, people were walking around, welcoming each other, and singing. And I was trying to sing too, and I can only imagine how bad I actually sounded. While they were reciting the Hebrew songs, I quickly read the English translations and it didn’t feel strange. I felt quite OK and I thought to myself:  ‘I’ve never felt such a comfort in any Christian service.’ As I write this down, it hurts a little. But then again, why would I lie to you? Or to myself?

I was a regular church-goer until I turned 15 when I stopped going. My grandfather was the priest, and I always felt that all eyes were on my brother and me whenever we were at the church. I was observed how I sat, how I prayed, what I wore. I was questioned why I am not attending Sunday schools; I was humiliated at the Bible class because I could not prepare enough as I was doing ballet professionally. So I decided, I didn’t need church for me to have a conversation with God. I stopped going to church services but I never stopped believing, and whenever I needed a moment of silence, I would enter any church that had an open door.

Here, as a complete stranger both in town and in the community, I was free. I didn’t need to satisfy anyone.

And then the rabbi arrived. The rabbi was a she. My thoughts took over again; I don’t recall attending any service with a woman priest. She was really casual as she was talking about the injustice in our lives and the Torah. She was great, and I liked how she talked to us as if we would be friends not sitting somewhere ‘below’ her. I remember my church visits as a kid; I always felt it was a theater with hierarchical stands and pitches and grandiose arm movements, and I often needed my father to translate what the talk was really about.

So again, I liked this rabbi.

In the midst of it all, I saw a girl, checking her phone. And not only was she checking her phone, but she was also wearing a mini skirt without tights. And when I say mini, imagine MINI. I wasn’t sure what to do with this picture. Then I turned to the left, and I saw that guy reading something on his phone. I really wanted to tell them, you know guys, we are at a Shabbat service – but of course, I didn’t.

The rabbi left, and frankly, I missed her punch line. I was too occupied with these weird acts and mobile phones during Shabbat that I actually missed the rabbi’s point about the injustice. I really wasn’t proud of myself at this point.

A new song started, and I was so clumsy that I actually opened the Bible upside down and backward. Never mind. I asked my neighbor where we were: “Page 248.” – She said. I go to page 248, but it was clear that we weren’t singing the song I found there. She came to my rescue and said “the other page 248”. If I was even following something until now, I lost it all at this point. What to make of two 248 pages in one book? Later, after the service, I learned that it was one for the Hebrew and one for the English counting. Yeah, not confusing at all.

Then I saw the first woman in a yarmulke. Learned about it, but never saw one before. And then I saw the first man without it.

The rabbi told us to rise. So we all rose. This we do in the church as well, but only if you sit on the ground floor, if you sit on the elevated floors, you don’t stand up. And as my family was always up there, I was rather jealous of those sitting down as I felt they had some special role that they needed to rise.

We started to sing a new song. It was beautiful. I got goosebumps all over my body. Then suddenly people took a 180-degree turn, and from the last row, I became the first and 80 people were looking at me eye to eye. So seeing that this is no game here, I followed the wave diligently, and I turned, now starring at the wall. I assume we turned towards Jerusalem. Correct me if I’m wrong.

The service continued with a prayer to the sick; the rabbi read the names we pray for in the community. Then we prayed for the recently deceased ones. And while due to the page issue, I didn’t find any of the prayers, there was something comforting in the community litany. To tell the truth, Christians do this too.

Before the service ended, we had one more song for a great Shabbat: “Unwind for 25 hours, and welcome Shabbat with love.” – said the rabbi.

And man, that last song broke me down. I saw that old couple holding hands, that mother caressing her son, and I don’t’ know why but tears started to flow on my face. I didn’t only weep, but I really cried. I cried, and I couldn’t care if anyone even sees me. I cried not knowing the why.

I put back the Bible to its place and left the room with everyone else. The same woman who welcomed me now handed me a little plastic glass with a red juice in it. I tried to ask her what this was for, but she was passing by too quickly. There was a short prayer outside of the service room, and then everyone shouted Shabbat Shalom and drank up the liquid. It wasn’t wine, as it would be for a Christian service, and I still don’t know what it meant, but that was the end of my first Jewish Shabbat service.

Then the woman appeared again: “Did you like it?” 

“I loved it.” 

She didn’t answer, and I was wondering again if it was appropriate to say this at all.

Then a guy stepped to me and asked: “Are you new here? You looked a little lost.”

All I could say was: “You have no idea… I’m a Christian.”

“Oh, welcome, it doesn’t matter. Hope to see you soon.”

Am I a ‘freier’?

I was just on my way home from a lawyer visit about how to move to Israel as a Christian when I saw an event: The Secret Ingredient Workshop – How to feel local and create the life you want in Israel organized by Citizen Cafe TLV

They say when you’re in line with your authentic self, synchronicities appear in your life. Since I had one of those days when calmness and clarity overrule all other things, I took this as a sign. So I registered.

I was running late. Like very late. And the sheer irony is that while heading to a workshop aiming to introduce me to how to feel local in Israel, I was just thinking how local I felt already. Driving up from Netanya, I honked, I cursed, I ‘yallah’-ed, I broke all possible rules. (And I loved it). And then I was late, which I would never be in my culture. (And it felt just right). Then I ordered my tea in Hebrew. (And it was a little triumph). Then I felt that inner confidence as I entered the unbearable humid but cozy café room. (And it was genuine). Then I texted my Israeli boyfriend: akol besseder motek – all good my dear. (And it was just business as usual).

As I sat down, I felt as I was about to have a coffee with my friends. Except that everybody was drinking tea. Ten women and a man. And some great vibes around. All of us with a special journey behind and a special story on why we were in Tel Aviv. To be frank, I was expecting everybody to be an alien like me. But it turned out that I was the only alien. Yet again. The only one, who was not yet living in Israel, who does not have any Israeli roots, who is not even Jewish, and who, therefore, can’t be in love with Israel because of pure ideology.

However, all this didn’t matter. Not for me at least.

This lifestyle workshop is the brainchild of Tamar Pross, whose quick recap of her life revealed a versatile, frank, and inspiringly bold woman. She started to talk with passion and confidence. Funnily enough, these are my automatic two words when I try to describe Israelis: passion and confidence. And soon enough, I learned how correct I was.

Living with an Israeli for four years (by now six), traveling up and down the country for the 10th (now 16th) time, making business with Israelis, having Israeli friends left me curious as to what new she could still tell me.

We began by exploring other cultures from an afar glance. I’ve majored in cultural differences, verbal and non-verbal communications, so once again, I was keen to learn something new. From a British-rooted attendee, we heard how we should prepare for a high-level meeting in the UK. Be concise and to the point. Don’t be late, dress appropriately.

Clear-cut. Nothing striking for me, a European. Moving on to France, a French-born young guy told us that today there are no crucial cultural differences when it comes to behavior and rules at meetings. (I need to admit, living around French and French speakers for years, I couldn’t agree. There are crucial differences between a Hungarian and a French interaction. But we were not there to discuss my intra-European matters).

Tamar took over, and things got exciting very quickly. ‘Living in Israel is like living in the Jungle,’ she said, ‘the strong survives the weak doesn’t.’ And it hit me.

The constant strength-showing that I feel around me. As unconscious as it is, it is everywhere. I often joke with my boyfriend (or Mr. D. as he likes to be called in my writing) that he must be afraid to starve because he is eating as if we would be in some sort of competition. And then Tamar interrupts my aha moment: ‘What would an Israeli do if there are three people for one bowl of soup?’ I answered quickly: ‘It would be a who-can-grab-it contest.’ I referred to the story my boyfriend told me about his culture shock upon returning to Israel as a child.

While in Europe kids would queue well-mannerly for their turn during school lunch, in Israel, kids would cut the queue with a motive that the ‘stronger I am, the faster I get to my food’. My answer was not fully accurate, though.

‘Israelis are very tribe people‘, continues Tamar. You are either their friend or their enemy. If you are in their tribe, they will find the way to share the bowl of soup with you. If they connect with you, they will be the first to help you. And it touched me closely again.

Ever since I am coming to Israel, my boyfriends’ friends became my friends. When I moved to New York, they were the first to help me. When I started my magazine, they were the first to support it. Whenever I am here, they reassure me that I would be fine if I moved here. They would make sure I was fine. This kind of belonging to a tribe is what I miss in my own culture the most. We walk over each other so easily. But after all, it all makes sense if we recall history. While Israelis need to survive from the moment they are born, Hungarians were forced to spy on each other for over 50 years under the Soviet era. And some things just doesn’t disappear in a few generations.

‘Have you heard this word, freier?’ – Tamar asks me with great excitement.

‘Nope,’ I shake my head.

Freier, that best translates as mug or sucker is the core essence of Israeli culture. You never want to be a freier, and so each move you take you think of the mantra: I get this, and he loses that.

It is not to say the Israelis are aggressively seeking to screw you up, but it is certainly something not to get surprised by. There are no travel guidebooks that wouldn’t tell you that if you go to a shuk (market), you better start a negotiation on the price. But what travel books don’t tell is that this unwritten prize-fight stretches beyond the za’atar shopping.

As one person put it: he sets up a yearly freier-budget. That is an amount of money that he puts aside for being screwed. As Tamar concluded: “you either accept these things, or you can try fighting them, but fighting them will make little sense.” And though, I did not know the word itself, I was familiar with the concept. Hungarians are no different. We need a freier budget, too. We just forgot to name it.

“What would you advise to someone, who goes for a meeting with an Israeli CEO?” we continue our cultural sightings.

“Be super-confident,” I said. “Here, you all act so confidently that it is already intimidating.” We laughed. And it was true. You have to have a go-getter attitude. Otherwise, you get lost in the jungle. Confidence, in Israel, is a feature you are born with. From the moment you arrive, you have a sense of ‘temporality.’ You are born into a tribe whose right to exist is questioned each and every day.

Rules are here to… ‘break them.’

It was something that we needed no explanation on. It is not to say, Israelis are breaching legal clauses day after day, but it does mean that there is no strict guidance for life. As opposed to my very Eastern European culture, where manners, values, customs are taught and checked upon from very early age, in Israel, people tend to be more authentic. They leave the superficial shell and see through you. They simply radar your authenticity. And this is something I value greatly but also find undeniably challenging. I am not only coming from a post-communist country, but also from the world of ballet dancers. Both of which engraved in me the urgency to satisfy others, fulfill society’s rules and all in all, to act in a way that is required.

After a 2-hour stirring discussion, Tamar drew some conclusive points:
Accept: you can battle or accept. But you are surely better of with the latter one.
Don’t take things personally: a honking on you while driving, a heated sentence while you are shopping, a passionate gesture while you’re talking to a stranger, is not about you. It is about them. This is part of them. And that’s all you need to know.
Make it personal: listen carefully and relate. Ask the questions you want to ask, break the wall that makes you either a friend or an enemy. Being a friend can win you opportunities. Being a friend gives you entry to the tribe.
Knowledge: order impresses Israelis. Know about it, and build on it.
Be authentic: If you have the gut to be who you are, you are going to be OK!

And finally, remember, that coming to live in Israel is the greatest empowerment you can give to an Israeli. For a nation, who feels that the big world is out there, and who questions why would you choose to live in a country where so many things are going on, when you have the whole world out there, your answer is a mirror. A mirror that reflects what deep inside everybody knows: because living here is sexy!

I left the workshop with several aha moments. I left with things I might have noticed before but was unable to define. I left with things that I might have known but was unable to connect the dots of whys. I left with a better understating of my relationship with my boyfriend. I left knowing why every meal with him is a struggle for survival. And I left knowing that now, I can either accept his fight-for-my-life-eating-habits or fight it. But I am certainly better of with accepting it.

Do you have a good ”frier’ story to share? Leave a comment and I’ll share it on AlmostJewish Facebook page!


Get in touch with Tamar if you want to know about her upcoming programs!

That Jewish man who made my grandfather a priest

Originally published in the Times of Israel on 9/6/2016

I haven’t seen my grandfather in the last five years. But it wasn’t his fault. And it wasn’t my fault either. It was life and all its complexities around it.

I moved away from Hungary for the second time. After a Russian boy, I partnered up with a Jewish boy. He saw my Russian boy once or twice. He didn’t say a word. But I know it was hard on him. My great-grandfather was taken by the Russians one night, and nobody saw him ever after. My grandmother was hiding in the attic from the Russian soldiers, who came and conquered, sexually assaulting women as they wished. History was just too close. They lived in an era I’ll never fully understand no matter how many books I read.

He never saw my Jewish boy.

* * *

I haven’t seen my grandfather during the last five years. But it wasn’t his fault. And it wasn’t my fault either. It was life and all its complexities around it.

Then my grandmother was taken to the hospital.

The day before that I went to visit my grandparents. I don’t know why. It was a gut feeling.

As a child, I often visited them only to show my father that I loved him. That day — after five years of not visiting and a day before my grandmother was taken to the hospital — I visited my grandparents because I wanted to show them that I loved them no matter what. To show them that I’ve forgiven. To show them that it’s okay that they didn’t hold my hand, that they didn’t call on my birthdays, that they smiled at every child but me and my brother. I wanted to show them it’s all okay; I understand now.

Once I left, my grandfather called up my father to tell him he’d forgotten to tell me a story and if I could pass by tomorrow.

I couldn’t go the next day. Because that was the day when my grandmother was taken to the hospital.

But I did go a few days later.

I have no recollection of ever spending two hours with my grandfather alone. In fact, I’ve no recollection of anything more than five minutes.

He was waiting for me with pictures.

Pictures from the era I’ll never understand. He told me his father was a soldier. I didn’t know that. He told me he grew up in Budapest. I didn’t know that either. He told me about what happened with them during the second World War, then during the Communism, and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Grandfather
My grandfather with his parents

* * *

But all this is not the story I wanted to tell you. The story I wanted to tell you is about three Jewish men. Two of them died. One of them survived.

The one that survived was saved by my great-grandfather. A man I’ve never met.

“We came home from the city,” said my grandfather, “when this woman was waiting at our doorway. She went down on her knee and kissed my father’s hand.” My grandfather paused for a second, and I saw that he was crying. I was choking on my inner tears. I tried to hold up. I knew if I didn’t, thirty years of tears would come out.

That woman was the wife of the Jewish man that survived. Years later — once her husband had already passed away — she came to my grandfather’s home to say: ‘Thank you for saving us. Thank you for risking your life and hiding us when you shouldn’t have.’

This was my great-grandfather. He risked his life to save a Jewish family. (Like so many Hungarians back then — something, we should talk about more often.) The first time in my life I felt closer to my grandfather; to the little boy in that picture who saw how his father saved this Jewish family.

The other two Jewish men died. And we’re around 1944 when they did.

“I was somewhere in Germany with my unit. We’re marching towards Hungary. They didn’t let us walk during the day, only by night, in the dark. We walked kilometers upon kilometers. Some of us never returned home. One night they gave us a few minutes of rest by a dike. I sat down with my mates as I felt my boots were touching something, but I couldn’t see what. I looked for my small torch and made some light. It was a Jewish man. He was shot. Right in his head.”

He pauses, and I see how much I don’t know my grandfather.

“I remember clearly; that was the first moment I knew I wanted to be a priest.”

The other Jewish man also died.

“He was shot. Right there, on the street. They said: don’t feel sorry, he was Jewish.”

Somewhere between the words, I’ve learned that my priest grandfather knew about my Jewish man. He didn’t say anything.

So I talked.

I told him how my trip to Israel in 2011 changed my life. How I started to learn Hebrew and how I love being in Israel. I told him that nobody ever wanted to convert me yet. (Except that Hasidic Jew in Times Square. But I didn’t tell him this). That I, the gentile is treated with love and care by the Jewish people. That I, the Christian is going to Shabbat dinners.

I couldn’t read him. He listened but didn’t say anything.

* * *

Two hours passed when I said bye.

But before could leave he said: ‘Next time bring your Jewish man with you. I’d love to meet him. They’re good people; the Jews.’

I said fine and put my sunglasses on before it’s too late. Before he would see that thirty years of pent-up tears are finding their way out.

This is the story I wanted to tell you. The story of my priest grandfather who became a priest because of the cruelty he saw against the Jewish people. The priest who smiled at every child but me. The priest who made me stop going to church and with that made me connected to Judaism.

And no, he has no idea about this latter one…