Being Jewish In Bali, Dubai, And The U.S.: Dangerous, But Necessary

Being Jewish In Bali, Dubai, And The U.S.: Dangerous, But Necessary

This summer, for over 5 weeks, I was immersed in cultures far from home both geographically and psychologically: 4 weeks in Bali (based in the city of Ubud) and 8 days in the United Arab Emirates (UAE): mostly Dubai. I hoped to experience, enjoy, and soak in new ideas, people, lifestyles, and spiritual concepts.

For once, my goals were actualized in a beautiful way. I hung out in traditional Balinese homesteads, meeting all the generations who lived there, from elderly grandparents to infants. I watched and even participated in traditional Balinese healing rituals. During the most dramatic example, I yelped as a small, wiry, fit-looking, bone-oriented healer squeezed my hips and legs in an attempt to tweak my system towards optimal health. I also attended several community-wide cremation rituals involving gorgeous costumes and the fabulousness of an entire neighborhood coming together to support a grieving family and a soul that has recently ended a life.

Later, in the UAE, I chatted with locals and expats in cafés and malls, visited mosques in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and asked a few talkative locals what they think happens after we die (their thoughts accorded with the standard Muslim notions that individual human souls are immortal, and that most human consciousnesses wind up in a very positive state after death). Familiar as Dubai’s built-up Western-style malls felt in some ways, in other ways, they differed radically from anything I had experienced in the U.S., with men in the traditional, local dress and women in modest Muslim clothing of various sorts filling the corridors (though they were actually a minority, since most who live in Dubai are expats from all over the world).

While I was away, my Jewish background influenced my thinking more than I had anticipated, though it often felt irrelevant at least on the surface. I was fascinated that the Balinese man who led a workshop I attended and introduced me to several Balinese priests and healers was quite familiar with Judaism and had several Jewish friends. With him, the fact that I’m Jewish came out organically, with little thought. His wife is from California, and they spend roughly half their time in Bali and the other half in Capitola, CA: a popular tourist town with a beach and trendy shops and restaurants. So his exposure to Jews makes sense. He’s attended several Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations and felt at home there, because Balinese Hinduism greatly values celebrations of key life events and milestones. A now-deceased close friend of his from Bali was born Jewish and converted to Balinese Hinduism as an adult; this man had discussed his Jewish background with my workshop leader.

Simple exposure to Judaism and Jewish culture was intriguing enough for a Balinese man, but, at one point, he tapped into my thoughts on Judaism in a way that stunned me. He, my two classmates from a short workshop he taught on Balinese healers, and I were watching a healer use a stick to work on locals’ bodies. Supposedly, the process drew both from physical technique and spiritual energy. It was fascinating and very much in line with my interests in health and mystical powers.

But I shocked myself at this point, because I started remembering that many of the observant Jews I knew would be horrified by my presence here. Right on the family compound where these healings were happening was a Hindu temple with holy statues: completely different from Judaism, which would see these statues as idolatrous. The healer’s methods felt crude and even a bit scary to me, and I was sure that many of my Orthodox friends would say that this kind of approach to health was wrong and even dangerous because it attempted to manipulate energies that were better left alone. Many of them had expressed similar thoughts regarding mediums, tarot cards, and other attempts to access spirituality in ways not authorized by traditional Judaism.

I told myself that I wasn’t worried about any of this; I was simply exploring the interesting phenomenon that many of my Orthodox friends would be unnerved and even, in some cases, horrified. But, truthfully, I felt some of these thoughts in my gut. This suggested to me that, despite myself, I was genuinely worried, or at least concerned, about my presence here. I was upset with myself for thinking this way, but it was what it was.

Just as I started going deeper into these thoughts and acknowledging my real emotion surrounding them, our workshop leader looked at me and said: “Stephanie, I wish I could give you a Torah right now.”

In its own way,  this was amazing. I hadn’t shared one iota of my thoughts; it all remained in my own head. But the workshop leader knew, somehow, that this would be the perfect thing to say. His comment made me feel much more at peace with the whole situation. I figured that if he could be this open to my fears, concerns, and attachment to my religious background, this experience he was leading couldn’t possibly be harmful. I also figured that, if he was going to extend himself to this degree to understand my thoughts, I should simply bask in this exposure to a new culture — his own culture — and not worry about potential dangers. He was a good man who knew what he was doing.

Beyond all of this… I wondered about some kind of psychic connection. I am always looking for signs of this kind of thing: evidence that there is more to the world and to our lives than soulless scientific law and random chance. That this situation might have provided evidence along those lines just occurred to me now, a few months after it happened. The more I think about it, it was quite bizarre.

Of course, it’s possible that I looked unhappy, which could have spurred the workshop leader to surmise that I was feeling homesick and thinking about my Jewish heritage. But, from the calm vantage point of my living room here in Cambridge, MA, that sounds unlikely. If my expression was open, he might have realized that I was a bit anxious, but, to hit on that added element about Judaism and mention the Torah seems incredible, in that quiet, no-fireworks way that all my potentially mystical experiences to date have shared. I hadn’t discussed Judaism much at all with him; I had mainly shared my happy excitement about exploring Balinese Hinduism. This was no holy lightening bolt from the sky, but it did seem potentially mystical, in the sense that the workshop leader seemed to tap into thoughts that he had no way of accessing through typical means.

Other than my work with this man, I didn’t mention being Jewish to anyone in Bali except a tourist from Montreal who alluded to being Jewish herself, and a few other tourists who showed an interest in my writing. I didn’t actively try to hide it; it just didn’t come up. I could have mentioned it at various points, to compare my religious background with the locals I was getting to know, but I figured it wasn’t worth going into a whole explanation about my background when I wanted to focus my interactions on the new world I was exploring.

Dubai presented new dilemmas, challenges, and potential adventures in this realm. Several friends had warned me to keep quiet about being Jewish in Dubai because of the longstanding tensions between Arabs and Jews, and Muslims and Jews, in the Middle East. Those fears had certainly occurred to me even before my friends brought them up. I quietly decided that I wouldn’t mention being Jewish during those 8 days.

It didn’t feel like a big sacrifice. In fact, I have this idea that, sometimes, withholding certain information from certain people facilitates a more valid impression, because the information in question would influence them in ways that would throw them off the track of accurate perception. For instance, if someone assumes that Jews are inherently untrustworthy or unkind or some such, the knowledge that I’m Jewish would stop them from judging me based on my actual behavior and words.

I liked Dubai in many ways. I doubt it would be a place for me to live — it was too materialistic overall, for one thing. I suspect I’d have trouble finding the quirky souls I tend to seek out as friends. But the city was vibrant and alive, with fabulous, activity-filled malls and a Middle Eastern flavor that appealed to me on a core level. I adored the Middle Eastern restaurants and tea house near my hotel; I could spend hours there nibbling on snacks, sipping drinks, and getting work done.

But I love to speculate about scenarios, and I had fun imagining myself living in Dubai. I found myself wondering how it would feel to settle in there, immersed in some kind of long-term situation with a job and a social context, feeling that I should hide the fact that I’m Jewish. Immediately, I had a strong negative reaction. I wouldn’t like that at all. A lonely feeling hit me hard. Then my mind went towards imagining some kind of Jewish community in Dubai. Did one exist? I didn’t see any signs of it, but I guessed that at least a few Jews did live there, and that at least a few of them would have the desire to get together for relevant activities and such. If for some odd reason I wound up living in Dubai, I would fall into that camp for sure.

Even during my short 8-day stay, I found myself sharing that I was Jewish with a Muslim woman who had lived in Dubai for many years. In response to my curiosity-filled questions, she had discussed quite a bit about her background and beliefs. Finally, at the end of our conversation, I gave her my business card, which shares my very Jewish last name (she grew up in a fairly urban area in the U.S. so was very possibly familiar with Jewish names) and, perhaps more telling, advertises my book about Hasidic teenage girls. I could tell she got it immediately… and that she hadn’t put it together before, despite my questions about locals’ attitudes towards Jews and Israel. At that point, she went out of her way to be even more friendly, making sure I felt welcome to visit the educational center where she worked on reaching out to tourists and expats who wanted to know more about Islam and the area’s local culture.

That reaction gave me some hope that it would be possible to thrive in Dubai long-term as an openly Jewish person. But, a few days later, I made a quick but loaded decision to keep my Jewishness to myself. I was chatting with a man from a local family in the lobby of the ultra-upscale Burj Al Arab Hotel, where I’d splurged on a special lunch. I told him that I do a lot of writing, and he asked me about book projects. I froze, subtly but surely. My book that’s already been published has a screamingly Jewish theme. I decided to tell him about my spiritual quest book project, eliminating any obviously Jewish elements, and I did not bring up my published book even though I normally love discussing it.

I’m guessing that a more open response would have been fine. This guy actually mentioned the fact that Muslim men can marry Jewish (or Christian) women, because all 3 faiths are monotheistic. But I was a bit intimidated by his traditional Arab dress, and I was so happy that I had managed to spark this relatively intimate conversation with him. I didn’t want to risk closing things down or ruining the spirited energy we had cultivated. Despite the thrill of getting to talk to a born-and-bred Dubai man about his childhood, interests, and values, I sensed a kind of emptiness that only could have been filled by my own honesty about my life and myself.

Shortly after returning home, I discussed my trip with a fellow member of a Facebook group, and he said that he’d been to Dubai and felt squeamish about mentioning his Jewishness… and was thrilled that he lived in the United States, which he called the best country in the world because here, he didn’t have to worry about sharing his heritage. But, of course, the United States was recently slapped with proof that, sometimes, being Jewish can be very dangerous here. How ironic that I worried about anti-Jewish sentiment because I was away from my home turf, in unknown territory, and then, two short months after I returned to my own country, a killer went on a rampage against Jews here, in a once-peaceful synagogue, as congregants welcomed a newborn boy into the Jewish community.

I’ve been thinking about whether I’d knowingly risk my safety by sharing that I’m Jewish or going to a Jewish place or event. In theory, the answer is a resounding no. My first concern is always safety and minimizing risk. But, in practice, if I truly wanted to maximize my safety along these lines, I wouldn’t discuss being Jewish at all, in my writing or in my face-to-face conversation. For that matter, I wouldn’t open up about all kinds of other things that jeopardize my safety at the hands of violent haters, like my unorthodox takes on gender and sexuality. My qualities that are most likely to inspire hatred are, potentially, hideable.

Ultimately, it seems I value self-expression too much to take the very safest route when it comes to questions of openness along all kinds of dimensions. Self-expression is, after all, the key way for one human personality to connect with another… and human connection seems key to the reason we’re all here, making our way through our confusing, humbling, but also, with some luck, deeply rewarding lives. May we all enjoy safety from now on as we explore and share whatever feels essential about ourselves. It’s hard to feel convinced that this will actually happen, but it’s tragic to let fear squelch our deepest selves.

Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

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