Matt Adler launched his blog PlantingRootsBearingFruits.com upon making aliyah in 2017. The goal: to chronicle his adventures exploring Israel. Adler, 34, is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, less so in Yiddish, and deployed them to interact with the people he encountered.
After two years, the Potomac native returned home. He lives in the District where he works as a language teacher and freelance public relations specialist. Last month, he self-published “More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic.”
Why did you decide to focus on your interactions with Arabic speakers in Israel for the book?
I think it’s a very unique vantage point for a gay Jew to be exploring Israel in Arabic. And I think that it offered me a lot of opportunities to engage with people. I engaged with, for example, a Druze boy who was questioning his sexual identity in Arabic. That’s not something that is very common. And it was a really life-changing experience for us both to be able to talk about that. We have people working on the big level of trying to write peace agreements and trying to come up with plans for the Middle East. But I think that the best solution that the average person can come up with is to reach out to someone new. And so that’s what this book is really about.
What’s the core theme of the book?
The core theme of the book is to not be afraid of the other, to find people who are different from you and to reach out to them. Get to know them. People you don’t expect to necessarily agree with you, or look like you or talk like you. And I think that for me, Israel is one of the best places in the world to experience that because you have cultures so radically different.
What are your thoughts on the Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in Israel?
So this is really interesting, because a lot of people don’t know that there are Jews that speak Arabic in Israel, either as a second language or as a first language. But the neighborhood that I lived in in Tel Aviv had a lot of Mizrachi Jews. And it would be very common to hear Mizrachi Jews speaking Arabic both in their homes and on the street, especially for the older generation, or of a mix of Hebrew and Arabic. And I think there’s a misconception that that’s dead. That those unique varieties of Jewish Arabic, like Iraqi Arabic for example, have disappeared, but they’ve not. Certainly the younger generations are less connected to it. But I met people who, for instance, were of Moroccan descent who are taking Moroccan language classes. In Israel people our age, 20s, 30s, were reconnecting to their roots. And I think it’s fantastic.
What are your thoughts on the Arabic-speaking non-Jewish communities in Israel?
I think they’re really fascinating. I had a chance to visit Muslim, Christian and Druze communities. And there are people who just surprised the heck out of you. Certainly there are more conservative elements to these communities. And traveling as a gay person, that can be a challenge. When do you reveal that you’re gay? Or do you reveal that you’re gay? It’s a real question, and that’s something that the book deals with.
What surprised you the most from your time in Israel?
What really surprised me is just how connected we all are. You’ll meet young people watching more Netflix shows than I’ve ever heard. And I met with this one young woman in a hijab, which is associated with more conservative forms of Islam. And the young woman told me that her favorite subject in school was Hebrew. And that really surprised me. If you think about the level of distrust and conflict in the region, that a young Muslim girl’s favorite subject in school is Hebrew, and all she wanted to do was talk to me about Hebrew. And here I am trying to practice my Arabic. But it was just really touching and, in some sense, we were reflections of each other, trying to learn about each other’s cultures. And that was just a really beautiful moment.