Building Bridges Through Language and Culture: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic

An Interview with Reform Jewish Author Matt Adler
September 14, 2020Chaim Harrison

In a world where travel is currently limited, books can serve as a much-needed getaway to countries and cultures unlike our own. Matt Adler, who speaks eight languages, including Arabic, recently detailed his own experiences living in Israel in his book More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic.

We spoke with Adler to learn about his time in Israel and the way his intersecting identities impacted his experience there. What was the spark that inspired you to write this book?

Matt Adler: I’ve noticed that in North America, we often discuss Israel without the spice and vivaciousness of its people. We view it solely as a public policy issue, without the context of the diverse people who make it such a vibrant and complicated society. Israel is a colorful place with people who will surprise you, and this book is about those incredible people.

We often primarily associate Israel with Hebrew; what made you want to incorporate Arabic as a focus for this book?

Hebrew is a beautiful language; sometimes I can only express certain emotions and concepts in Hebrew. But Arabic is also a Jewish language! Maimonides spoke it natively and even wrote Jewish texts in it. Jewish communities throughout North Africa and the Middle East developed unique Judeo-Arabic dialects, some of which are still preserved in Israel today by descendants of Jews expelled from Middle Eastern countries after the establishment of Israel.

How does the diversity of language impact who you are and how you interact with others?

I speak eight languages, each one offering new insight, friendships, and ways of understanding life. When you speak with someone in their native language, you completely change the dynamic. It's a sign of respect and kindness to learn someone else's language, and people really appreciate it.

It's for that reason I've also learned minority languages such as Catalan and Yiddish, which some people dismiss as irrelevant. When I speak these languages, whether in Barcelona or Brooklyn, people smile at me. With a few words, you can melt someone's heart and build a connection.

How did speaking Arabic impact your experience in Israel?

When I lived in South Tel Aviv, I once celebrated Shabbat in Arabic. Sitting at home alone on a Saturday, I was feeling lonely. Suddenly, I heard singing and the tap-tap-tap of a darbuka, or hand drum. I went outside to investigate and was grabbed by the arm and pulled inside a house with some 20 different people speaking Arabic, laughing and eating. I was immediately handed pitas with hot dogs inside, and someone put a sombrero on my head. They told me to start dancing as they sang Arabic songs. It was like a scene out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

That sounds hysterical!

Oh, absolutely. I learned they were Syrian and Iraqi Jews; I speak Syrian Arabic, so it was like a dream come true. They fed me kubbeh, or meat fritters, and we chatted in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.

When it came time to try to set me up with a woman, I told them I was gay… right beneath the pictures of famous ultra-Orthodox Shas rabbis. Dead silence. I asked if they were shocked, and they said, "Oh no, we've got that in the family too!" as one girl pulled out her phone to set me up with guys instead. Israel is never short on surprises!

Has that been the majority of your experience as a gay man in Israel?

Being a gay, Arabic-speaking Jew gave me a special vantage point for engaging with every religious tradition in the country: Jewish, Druze, Muslim, and Christian. It’s also a challenge to be gay and explore these sometimes-conservative communities, but one that thoroughly enriched my experience and helped me meet people I'll never forget.

Tell us about some of those people.

Once, I was lost in a tiny village in the Galilee, and this young man rode up to me on a moped. I asked for directions and he told me to hop on, so I did! He was a religious Druze man, complete with the white skullcap emblematic of piety.

Our ride together was exhilarating; he asked me questions about life in Tel Aviv, including if I was single; I said yes. He apparently had a girlfriend and asked if I was dating anyone. I said, with not a small amount of hesitation as I was on his moped in the middle of the countryside, that I dated men.

How did he respond?

He had so many questions about what that meant, and it turned out that he was questioning his own sexuality. I'm probably the first person he ever shared that with, and if it weren't for the fact that I spoke Arabic, I probably never would've been in his village and met him.

I hope my conversation with him brought him greater clarity and happiness. He was clearly struggling, but there is always hope, and I like to think I brought him some the way others brought me hope when I was a gay teenager.

It's a hope I have for every LGBTQ+ Jewish person struggling to accept themselves – and, as this young Druze Israeli reminds us, it's a struggle we share with people of all faiths.

What can LGBTQ+ Jews and allies take away from your book?

Something I found really salient in Israel is how much we can all learn from one another. I built meaningful relationships in sectors of society where my Reform and gay identities were not always accepted. Engaging with those who practice differently than us gives us the capacity for well-rounded identities and to ultimately become peacemakers in a world that needs it.

I adore Judaism’s ability to evolve with greater awareness and societal changes. I’ve been out of the closet for 16 years, and I still sometimes find it hard to accept my own gay identity when the Torah seems to stand in opposition to it. But I also remind myself that the Torah is a product of human attitudes and imperfections as much as it is a spiritual document reflecting God's ruach, or spirit.

Sometimes people choose to interpret the Torah in a such a literal fashion that it allows for little of the debate and discussion that make Judaism special, but I love how so many Jewish communities, from Reform to a growing amount of Orthodox, affirm the human beauty and spiritual strength of LGBTQ+ people. I hope my book can help affirm our LGBTQ+ Jewish community as strong, adventurous, and compassionate.

To see more of Matt Adler's amazing journeys, you can follow him on Twitter at @matahadler and Instagram at @morethanjusthummus.

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