Category Archives: 21st Century Expat Essays

Excerpts from Julie Gray’s upcoming book – Israel: the Musical.

When Faith Sucks

carouselAfter my brother’s suicide in 2010, as I coped with a torn reality, with bottomless grief and resultant depression and anxiety, I sought comfort through studying a variety of spiritual traditions. Ever the Californian, and ever me, I drew from many outlooks until I found a way of looking at life that brought and brings me comfort, courage and meaning.

I love the mystery of life, I love that there are creatures in the sea and in the universe that we do not yet know about. I love the mystery. I love the beauty and the grace of life. I am coming to acknowledge that after grief rained down on me, it fertilized the earth beneath my feet.

My job is primarily to help distill information into something that makes sense and that is powerful. I help stories get told in a way that is impactful, effective and as entertaining as possible. I am a writer. I write books. I write for several blogs. I am also a writing teacher, a writing facilitator and a story editor. I work with fiction writers, screenwriters, filmmakers, people needing to cope with trauma and even start up and high tech companies who need to concisely express their projects. My job, my livelihood of many years is to tell stories, to shape narratives.

And yet in my day to day life for the past 18 days, I am living in a reality that is impossible to shape into a coherent story. So many clashing narratives and emotional impulses crowd my thoughts, battling for supremacy – to make sense of the unspeakable. I am struggling to maintain an even keel but it is a very fierce battle for me.

I have discovered that my body can only handle so many rushes of adrenaline and subsequent low level dread before a spinning wheel of numbness, fatigue and general despair sets in. Imagine, wherever you are right now, as you read this, not knowing whether in the next second, a siren will blare outside your window and that you have to stop what you are doing, grab your phone and your keys and run. Any second. And when it doesn’t happen? There’s dread in that. Because it might happen – why hasn’t it? When will it come? Will you be in the shower? Asleep? On the street doing errands, as I was today? And then where do you run? It’s very hard on a body, physically. Especially over a period of approaching three weeks.

[I pause here to note that there were just three loud booms as rockets were intercepted over a town quite close to me. House shuddered.]

I can recover pretty quickly now. But the shock remains in my bones and will, I suspect, for the rest of my life.

Emotionally – the irony of teaching writers how to finesse and express stories into a narrative that is pleasing and makes sense while not being able to accomplish this in my own mind on a daily basis is taking a toll as well.

I have blogged a lot about this experience, and shared on Facebook copiously, since it helps me to cope by writing it down, and perhaps suffering from a delusion of grandeur, I have felt that by sharing what this is like from my little ol’ point of view, that maybe I can provide some visceral if pedestrian realness from those watching this conflict from so far away.

But mostly I think I am shouting into the wind.

Every day is a carousel of emotions from fear to despair to hope to faith and back again. I think that this is what courage and faith is about. To get on that carousel and try to hang onto that brass ring of one’s fundamental beliefs even when everything around you seems to challenge them in a blur. I think this is the way it is supposed to feel. Confusing, scary, transitional. I think I am in many ways extraordinarily lucky to be witnessing such times in Israel – as it happens – because this experience is showing me how much I can handle. It is teaching me that some things cannot be distilled, necessarily, into parables or easily digestible lessons with pleasing endings.

If you have endured grief, you know this. If you have struggled with cancer you know this. If you have struggled with a reality so far from what you think you can handle, you have experienced this.

I realize that I am very, very late to the Obvious Party. That until you have really, really, truly suffered through the incomprehensible, you have not really tested your faith – of whatever ilk. That it’s terrific to post neat stuff on Facebook about faith and strength and stuff but the real test of that is when you feel an absence of comfort of your belief system. When you think – REALLY?! REALLY?!

I just had a conversation with a “peace advocate” who refused to include Israeli children in her project, since she “culturally boycotts” Israel. Children. Children will be excluded. I felt livid. And then I cried. Why on earth am I putting myself in the position of reaching out to people when sometimes the result is an emotional tear in the fabric? Who needs this? Forget it! I want to scream to the sky. JUST. FORGET. IT.

It’s NOT going to be okay, you stupid California, naive, earth mama idiot!

Because some people will EXCLUDE CERTAIN CHILDREN in peace advocacy.

I felt a streak of red hot anger race throughout my body like lava. WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?!

Oh – my heart. It hurts. This hurts more than death, to me. Because I have a hard time finding meaning in ignorance and hate. I have an impossible time finding meaning in war and cruelty. But – isn’t that the thing? The challenge? To try? Isn’t that the very essence of faith and grace?

angelMaybe it’s okay that right now I feel like am free falling into a blender that is NOT making margaritas. That I feel despair and fatigue. Maybe this is what we call in story telling, the dark night of the soul. The elixir is my love of the mystery and the grace and the unfolding wisdom and beauty of the universe – even when in certain periods of time it doesn’t look so wise or so pretty. I have to raise my eyes and let it go.

I believe in unicorns and mermaids and the Loch Ness monster and in peace and in love and glitter and bedazzlers. I believe we live many lives. And I do believe that in my next life, I would like to be a very wealthy sea slug of some sort. I need a break :)

Talking About Israel

Click here to listen to a discussion I had with Strength to Strength’s Sarri Singer and radio host Brian Jackson about the situation in Israel and the importance of narrative to influence, inform and sometimes even heal.

Discussion Link

Be a Conscientious Objector in a Social Media War

bradyWhen Mathew Brady published his photographs of the slain soldiers of the Civil War, America was shocked. Never before had we actually seen the torpid dead lying on the battlefield. Brady’s aching photographs brought war right into the living rooms of Americans and changed the face of warfare forever.

A lot has changed since Mathew Brady made war more personal. Never before have the opinions of so many been in the hands of so many – posting, sharing and disseminating opinions and inflammatory pictures and videos without taking the time to be analytic about just whose opinion we are championing or why beyond having had a knee-jerk reaction to it.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Or a video. But what picture? What words? In this age we have to ask if a picture has been doctored. Welcome to 1984. Orwell would be proud.

When social media and conflict collide, the result is a house afire. ISIS has a Twitter account. This is the age of “Performance terrorism”.

Violence. The word sounds just like what it means. Sharp but blunt, a cutting, tearing wound. And after the violence, blood, tears, trauma, pain.

There is a disturbing amount of verbal violence on Facebook about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am discounting the absolute hate-filled nutters – left, right and center. They are not worth discussing because they represent a vitriolic but tiny minority, in actuality. We know that.

No, I am talking about really nice, intelligent, caring people who think they are helping by reposting primarily pictures and videos the sources of which are not vetted, generally not credible, and most certainly not given in context. Context, you see, is everything. The chocolate ration is five grams today.

[Real time update: I just ran to a bomb shelter for what was, conservatively, the 25th time. I shall continue.]

For the most part, these helpful sharers of “information” about the conflict in Israel live comfortably thousands (and thousands) of miles from where this particular conflict is playing out.

I on the other hand, have no doubt in my mind that an invention called The Iron Dome is why I am alive to write this. And I am lucky. Because my fellow humans – 45 miles away from where I live? They do not have this invention. No. They are open to whatever falls from the sky.

One of many marked differences between me and my cousins in Gaza? Is that I have an air conditioner and a laptop and I can write this. And I write it for them. For all of us. Because you all out there? In Facebookland? You are missing the point.

With so much confusing and frightening us today, we are now offered a whole new way to cope – social media. But let us be cautious of these online pitchforks and torches.

Whether you are posting GO Israel! Go IDF! Or “My god, look at this video of Israeli soldiers doing this awful thing!”, you are not standing up for a problem, you just became a part of it.

I find myself posting on Facebook a lot – “I just ran from another siren! This happened to me! This is happening!” It’s my way of screaming WHY?!

And you? Who live thousands of miles away from the Middle East? You want to scream too. So you post something – some video – some logo – some protest. And you say LOOK AT THIS!

Social media is a powerful way for us to communicate and to express and it is good. Until it is bad. Every time you post something that isn’t your personal experience, you have just become a part of someone else’s agenda, of someone’s bias. Most often a bias like “kittehs are cute” or “this recipe looks great” or “I also liked this film” – but what if the bias is something larger, something really relevant – something that can even incite? If you incite for anything you should incite for peace, for understanding, for context and for compassion. Pointing out the likely photoshopped or out of context atrocity which rips your heart out of your chest is likely to incite someone to HATE whomever is deemed as responsible. Incite thought. Incite analysis. Incite critical thinking.

Before you repost something about any conflict anywhere, that you are not directly involved in, ask yourself a few questions about the source.

Warning: This all requires critical thinking, something that takes a moment. Bear with me: it’s worth it.

Is this a credible source? Is the source a person you actually know? A journalist? A peace organization? Or is the source an advocacy group? What or whom do they advocate for? Use Google to find out more.

Does the source have credentials? Does this source have academic, occupational, experiential or any kind of direct involvement in this issue? What do they stand to gain by your sharing the information? With whom are they affiliated?

Is context given? What else was going on in and around that picture, video, etc.? Be critical – LOOK for an agenda. What does your gut say?

What is the intention? What is the post seeking to have you now do? Share? Send money? Be angry? – what? Is/was there any attempt to speak to the other “side” of this issue or conflict? That was reasonable sounding?

Stop right now. Question me. Question what you are reading right this very moment. I have biases. I am a woman, a mother, a Jew, an American, an Israeli, a needer of sunscreen and a pretty good cook. I am from Northern California. I am a person with a history. Of course I have a bias about many things. Google my name. Check me out.

When it comes to the conflict in Israel many are being manipulated into thinking there ARE sides, and that you should – you must – take a stand. Because damn it, from all the way in Philadelphia or London or San Diego – you CARE!

It’s lovely that you care. We all care. But what shall we care about? Empathy fatigue sets in. We must choose something to care about. Abused animals, abused children, rape culture, the war in Ukraine, the war in Syria, the war in Israel, homelessness in the US (well, that one is too commonplace to get particularly worked up about anymore, isn’t it?)

How do we choose what to care about collectively and individually as our attention grows more and more splintered and overwhelmed. We humans tend to just pick up our pitchforks and join the crowd that seems to be going in a particular direction. That is easier, we don’t have to think.

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. ~ Aristotle

The stories that we tell ourselves collectively and individually are powerful.

hiroshimaAs an American, I was brought up to believe that the bombing of the civilian populations in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were necessary to end a terrible war. Somewhere between 130,000 and 250,000 individuals – civilians – women and children, were vaporized in seconds. But it was necessary, right? That is the story I was told.

Let me be perfectly clear, if there were no Iron Dome, I would not be writing this. This is a fact. Why does Hamas siphon millions of dollars in aid into housing their absent leaders in luxury in other places? Why did Hamas not use millions of dollars to build shelters for their citizens? My government protects me. I am grateful. But I am not happy about what is happening – do not mistake my gratitude for condoning a war waged in a civilian population.

If you are interested in a diversity of thoughts and opinions about this particular conflict – updates that are serious, funny, sad and articles that are vetted, credible and contextualized, I suggest you like the Facebook page Truth & Beauty in Wartime.

If you’d like to do some in-depth reading and thinking about the conflict in Israel, here is a beginner’s reading list: Damascus Gate (Robert Stone) From Beirut to Jerusalem (Thomas Friedman), Contested Land, Contested Memory (Jo Roberts) The Lemon Tree (Sandy Tolan)

You feel sad and upset? Me too. You want somewhere to focus your anxiety and fear about the state of the world today? Me too. Let’s think globally, act locally and rise above the strong urge to make the conflict in Israel a simple one, with good guys and bad guys.

Criticize your country, where your problems are. Embrace non-violent communication. Exchange ideas. Put down your Facebook and put on your shoes. Go give a helping hand in your community. We don’t need any more torches or pitchforks in the Middle East, in case you may have noticed.

socialwarMost importantly, don’t be a mouthpiece for those who are really pulling the strings. Divide and conquer – when you get the populace too riled up to think straight, when they believe in this or that rhetoric – you wield great power. Just ask Nazi Germany. How could that have happened, we ask? How could ordinary Germans, Poles and Austrians have acted so inhumanely? Believe you me, if Facebook had existed preceding and during the second World War, the culture of fear and violence that blossomed into the deaths of over 12 million people would have been twice as effective in half the time.

History repeats itself. Just say no. Object to verbal violence on Facebook through your peaceful dissent of being herded into feeling MORE afraid and MORE separate from the “other”.

It’s not easy – I am telling you it’s not easy. I have a pounding heart on a daily basis. Either from running when another siren goes off, or from reading the local news in Israel, or from thinking about the suffering so very close to where I live. I feel angry! I feel heartbroken!

But the very essence, the very meaning of faith and grace and beauty, is to resist becoming a part of the ugliness, isn’t it?

I think many of us feel almost paralyzed about some of the news today. We want to help but what shall we do?

Here is what you should NOT do: parrot or repost Facebook updates that are on either “side” and that do not use any context. Even better? You can have a look around at the issues in your community and start pitching in there. It might not seem as urgent or exotic as WAR but it is what you can do from where you are.

Think before you post or repost or share the point of view of a “side”. Be part of the solution. If you are a writer – write it down. If you are an artist, paint it. If you are a musician sing a song to someone who is lonely and if you are none of the above, just put on your shoes, walk out the door and find somebody in your community who would like to be read aloud to, or who needs food donated.

Stories matter. Narrative is everything. Be a part of a better story by being a conscientious objector of irresponsible, inflammatory social media wars.

In the words of Mother Theresa:

“I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

Moral Whiplash & Other Injuries

warIt is a truism (that most of us only reluctantly admit) that there are some experiences in life that we cannot actually feel or understand – ever – until they happen to us, personally.

Parenthood. Aging. Grief. War.

.לחצו פה להסבר על תרגום לעברית

About 45 miles from where I live, a ground invasion is happening in Gaza. It’s a hot July day, about 95F or so. While I am debating whether or not to use air conditioning, thousands of people are suffering – no – millions – all around me.

I decide to lie down and to try rest out the midday heat. My stomach clinches; my bedroom window faces the south and we haven’t had a rocket fired since yesterday, when we had three separate barrages. Will one happen now? As I am lying prone?

[Live update, nap abandoned, mid writing, five rockets did indeed arrive ingloriously, with house shuddering volume.]

How can I think such thoughts – it is obscene to be afraid myself when the people in Gaza are amidst rubble, and constant bombings and death. But I am afraid. Afraid and overwhelmed. Not for my personal safety – these cringes, this lurching stomach, these panic attacks are just my nervous system reacting to several shocks a day. It builds up and cascades into a rushing river coursing over saturated ground – it has nowhere left to go.

But I know the Iron Dome will protect me and I feel relieved and terribly guilty about that. Because the Palestinians don’t have an Iron Dome.

What I really feel is despair, I think. Existential despair that in the 21st century, war and violence are still actual methods of — no — I can’t finish that thought – it’s too precious and obvious. Of course war and violence are still the primary way we humans deal with conflict. I am not surprised at all. Are you?

I am despairing of the vitriolic level of public discourse about Israel’s conflict with Hamas. I am disappointed by the “fact”-flinging and soap boxes that seem to get pulled out of the garage and stood upon when the subject of Israel comes up. I am mystified that so many all over the world are obsessed with Israel but remain veritably silent when it comes to events in other places. Places like Syria, which, with a modest accounting of 170,000 dead in three years, has had more deaths than in all of every war, battle, or skirmish in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of 65+ years combined.

Ever the intrepid autodidact, I read as much as I can get my hands on. I realize that because I am a human being, I am prone to bias. I am an American living in Israel. I am an Israeli citizen. I am a Jew. I am a woman, a mother, a writer, a Californian, a Democrat, a righty, a redhead.

I have whiplash from reading this article and that – in support of Israel, condemning Israel, condemning Hamas, condemning Palestinians, condemning Israelis. I have read long, academic books and articles about the Middle East, Israel, Islam, strategy, fundamentalists and Zionism. About opinions and politics and media bias. About “moral” wars and “moral” armies. About the alluring belief in any kind of moral equivalency. Here’s a thing: war is immoral. Here’s another thing: it happens anyway.

Like anybody who hears thundering helicopters overhead and dull explosions and sirens on a daily basis for almost two weeks (with who knows how many weeks to come), I am having trouble sleeping. I am having trouble processing that this is real. I have a welter of unruly emotions ranging from guilt and shame that I should be so undeservedly frightened when I am not suffering in the same reality as the Gazans only miles away, to despair and anger to mystification and numbness. Shampoo, rinse, repeat.

I imagine some hardened soldier who looks like Christopher Walken glaring at me with narrowed eyes. You know nothing of WAR, he says with contempt before grinding his cigarette out under his boot. And he’s mostly right. But I know something of war now. Unfortunately.

I can imagine a tiny fraction of what Gazans are feeling. And what Israelis living just outside Gaza are feeling and going through. But only a paltry fraction. How DARE I complain, lo these many 45 miles away, of stress, fear or existential angst? I have no right. And yet these feelings are undeniably real for me, where I am. Just ask what remains of my nervous system.

Because of the cumulative mix of intense, unruly emotions and reactions within me, plus having 98% more adrenaline in my system than is medically okay at all times, I am sensitive to Facebook updates and comments from Americans and Europeans who weigh in on this conflict. Not necessarily friends of mine – I spend too much time on damnable Facebook, as I strive to understand – to connect.

How can you possibly comment – how can you possibly have an opinion when you have never lived the reality of this, I find myself thinking. SHUT UP SHUT UP you nice, neat, clean not-terrified person, I want to scream! It’s more complicated in the living of it than anything you can imagine. Anything.

Do YOU flinch every time you hear what sounds remotely like a boom or thud? Do you spring to your feet every time the whine of a motorcycle hits exactly the same pitch and tone of an air raid siren? Then shut your pie hole and go get a Starbucks!

I do not like this feeling. It’s not like me. It’s the stress, I’m pretty sure. True to my current state of emotional whiplash, I can see the value in outside opinions from those who are not currently shaking like a leaf but also the hypocrisy of same.

In particular, Americans – bless us – have an extraordinary ability to remain at arms length from the dirtiness of this world, the tragedy. We send drones into countries thousands of miles away and for us, “collateral damage” is an intellectual idea, not a horrible reality. America is big – so big – and we don’t know several people with brothers, cousins and friends in the fighting right this moment, as I do here in Israel. We do not feel the shift in the air, the gasp, the tear, when four young boys are killed playing on a beach, moments ago.

99% of Americans, if not more, do not know what I am feeling right now – nowhere close. But is that their fault? Of course not. Hard is hard said someone somewhere about something.

The problem with going through an extraordinary experience is that it automatically limits the number of people you can relate to about it. My world just got smaller.


When Stories Become Truth


.לחצו פה להסבר על תרגום לעברית

You’ve heard the advice a million times in your life - believe in yourself. Have confidence.

The stories that we tell ourselves, about ourselves, about our worlds, are very powerful. We need them. When we believe our stories, we can cope with what we think is truth. And we desperately need some truth to hang onto.

If the narrative – the story – you are creating and defining is that of your business, your success, your life – GREAT – create a good one! A strong one! Never a story of victimhood or anger. That won’t help you succeed.

But if you are creating a story or contributing to a narrative of a larger story, of a shared story – be careful. What are you adding to the narrative?

On Saturday, July 12th at 8pm, Hamas informed Israel that in one hour they would rain down hell on central Israel. They were late. It started at 9:07pm. But what Hamas lacked in punctuality they made up for in the number and capabilities of the missiles fired.

I was on a safe room floor with 7 other Israelis. Suffice to say my Hebrew is not good enough to understand the panicked chatter as the building shook and sirens wailed.

When I emerged and naturally gravitated straight to Facebook to update my friends all over the world, I noticed a private message had come in. It was from an acquaintance that I have never met in person. The woman apologized for just having to get some things off her chest. She just had to. I read her long, inflammatory, angry rant about how awful Israel is while picking safe room dust out of my hair and listening carefully for more sirens. I couldn’t wait to check the news to see what was going on. I was (and am) ill knowing that Israel would most certainly strike back powerfully after such a provocative and heavy attack.

I was appalled, of course, to receive such a message at such a time and also to be the target of an emotional rant that has nothing to do with me personally. Unless I am in charge of political/military decisions in Israel and if I am, I would have appreciated some notice and at least a few sick days.

The next morning – I received a heartfelt apology via email.

I see this as a teachable moment – a chance for dialogue not anger, a moment that I could try, at least, to wring some understanding out of. Be the change you want to see in the world. That kind of thing.

This is what I said:

First, thank you for your apology, that is very nice of you. I know this is a heated topic, for all of us. Especially those of us actually living through it.

Strong feelings don’t bother me at all – it is natural to have them over such an emotional topic.

But one-sided arguments and intellectual dishonesty or laziness does bother me very much. I don’t mean you personally – although your argument was intellectually lazy. You are parroting things you have read or heard without questioning them and poking around the edges to look for agendas or bias. This is something that many of us do. We pick a narrative that fits our fears and preconceptions perfectly.  It’s the Arabs! They are terrorists! It’s the Israelis! They are bullies! That’s the truth! 

Americans have a complicated and emotional relationship with the idea of bullies and underdogs both. Bullies pop up on the internet, they have their own shows on Fox. We hate them. We are them. I don’t think this is only an American proclivity, this underdog/bully dynamic. And it certainly isn’t only an American knee-jerk to hold a powerful belief without knowing – or examining – why. All humans share that tendency. I understand.

Here’s a truth: there is no one truth about this or any situation. Its much more complicated. There are no good guys or bad guys except the gutless, self-interested leaders on both sides. All of the people suffer as our fears and paranoia of “other” gets fanned.

We are all human beings in this part of the world, and in Israel, there is a bitter dispute not so much over land (as it would appear) but over who really owns the narrative of this land. It is an argument that can never be won but this argument is exploited by political leaders and terrorist groups to maintain power and control. We are all victims in it.

Do not conflate Israelis with our right wing government and our poor leaders. Do not conflate Palestinians with Hamas. Examine the news with more intellectual vigor. Just whose “news” is this? Questioning what you believe and why is painful but necessary.

I don’t have an easy answer. Wrongs have been committed on both sides. Terrible wrongs. We should stop electing leaders out of fear or coercion. Not just here – all over the world. What is causing ISIS to come into such power so quickly? Fear, inequity, greed, poverty, a power vacuum. It was ever thus.

What can we do as humans? How do we control this flood of information instructing us as to who or what is right or wrong? We have to exercise our cold intellects, we have to information gather from many sources, we have to examine what we believe and why, and much more difficult, we have to accept ambiguities. Which are very hard to live with. That’s why we crave popular entertainment, action movies and the like. Because that’s where ambiguity goes to die. In the third act. With a great soundtrack.

What Hamas is doing is wrong – very, very wrong. The Israeli response is heavy handed but born of huge frustration and fear. Also wrong. There has to be a better way. But that way is not to belch forth one’s own fears and frustrations on a person who just got up off a safe room floor, who is dealing with this ambiguity much more than you are. Because there’s nothing ambiguous about a long range missile almost striking your house and there’s nothing ambiguous about the 100+ Palestinian civilians who have died in this.

I wish I could send a team of negotiators to both sides to wave a magic wand and hand out cold drinks, medical aid and stern, down to earth advice. I wish we could all get along. I wish we could lock the leaders on all sides into a big room together where they could work it out themselves and leave all of us alone while they do. Maybe it would be a little bit more pressing if their own lives were at risk – not everybody else’s.

And if wishes were fishes the sea would be full.

Be intellectually honest.  Vet the stories you hear. Is this part of a narrative that, like a train, takes us inexorably in this or that direction? Question what you read. Analyze it. Gather information from many sources. Then ask yourself which narrative you want to be a part of.

“Every time you tell yourself a good vs evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ.”

-from Tedx Tyler Cowen: Be Suspicious of Stories.

I have to live with the ambiguity of this and so do you.

Let’s not fight. Let’s be the change we’d like to see in this world.


How You Know You Live in Israel

I often ask myself why on earth I moved to this place, when I had been living in the relative peace, prosperity and expanse of Los Angeles. I have, as it turns out, very good reasons for living here.

But when you ask me in a detailed way, what I prefer about life here, as I try to really boil it down to one or two sentences, I just can’t do it.

Is it easy to live anywhere? Or perfect? Los Angeles, for all it’s convenience and glamor and creativity, has another side. Every place has its good and bad, it’s livable and it’s insufferable, it’s ineffable personality and its social glue. Here there is a pragmatism, a directness and a frankness about life that really appeals to me. Sure, we have missiles pointed at us at all times and much of the world condemns us (unfairly, in my opinion) but I don’t know, pick your poison – the 405 is no picnic and tornadoes are awfully devastating, not to mention random shootings and terrible health care.flag

For me, it’s ultimately about the lifestyle, the good, the bad and the ugly.

I like living here. Why? Because….

  • If you could be living in a country where it is more or less permanent summer, with heat, flip flops, hopelessly dusty cars, windows flung wide open in the evening and the satisfied, sweaty, tired feeling of resignation and exhaustion after a long, hot day, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where everybody is working hard and yet hardly working, where everybody needs a new pair of shoes, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where each day it is a priority to find the best, freshest food for dinner because you love to eat and for no other reason, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where nothing is precious because everything is new and precarious and already broken, dented and dirty but it works, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where violence, confrontation and existential threats are normal and are of minimal, resigned concern because it’s too big to process or deal with, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where children are playing and shrieking everywhere and elderly people crowd the cafes in the afternoons playing chess and peering out from under their hats, you would be living Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where to hear French, Russian, English, Yiddish, Hebrew and Arabic on the bus is ordinary, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where there is a powerful  connectedness and community, where everybody knows everybody, where there are also class, race, religious, political and economic divisions that run deep, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where you every bit as likely to get ripped off in a heartbeat without a second thought because if you didn’t see that coming you deserve it, and also a country where a perfect stranger will give you 20 shekels without asking for it back, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the enjoyment of sun, sex, food, love and arguing for arguing’s sake not just enjoyed but reveled in, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where what you do for a living is not of primary or even secondary interest, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the national passion is food and being outdoors, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the sharpest minds go to work in shorts, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where to travel outside of your country is taking your life into your hands and you know it but you can’t live like that so you go anyway, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where you can in the space of one day stand in the vast and silent, withering heat of the desert and also at the edge of the turquoise Mediterranean Sea, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the private is public in every argument, every old garment on the laundry line, every old man sitting outside in a tattered lawn chair and the sounds of making love drifting frankly out the windows in the evening, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where nothing is taken for granted because nothing is guaranteed, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the technology and military are on par with those of every first world nation but the bureaucracy is akin to that of a banana republic/outpost in 1933, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the customer is not only not always right but a huge annoyance interrupting a text or phone call, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where ancient tradition and solemnity, where scholarly study and devotion co-exist uneasily with all night rave clubs and a hedonistic drug culture, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the evening doesn’t really begin until after 9pm, the work day starts at 7am and you always, always take one whole day off, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where everything is up for grabs all the time, where opportunities are huge and where dead ends are huger you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could be living in a country where the tahini is obviously the best part of the hummus, where you like potatoes with your rice, eggs in your everything and eight small salads with your breakfast, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could live in country that the whole world is watching, 24/7, and variously praises, idealizes, scrutinizes condemns and judges under a microscope, you would be living in Israel.
  • If you could live a life where every single day is hard – it’s just hard – you would be living in Israel.

I’ll tell you one thing for sure – when you’re in this country? You know it. It is not lost on me, not for one single day, not for one single moment, as I trudge through the heat, how extraordinary it is that I am able to live in a country aside from the one I was born in, that I am able, in this short life, to delve into another world altogether.

Because I write, I like to share about Israel. It is not what you think it is, this place. It is so, so much more. This is not the Israeli Tourist Board speaking, this is just me, an American living abroad in my flip flops.

From Hollywood to Israel, it’s a Funny Ol’ World

If I had a nickel for every time somebody asks me why on earth I moved to Israel from Los Angeles, I’d be very rich by now.  And I realized something odd – I write all the time, I have written much about living in Israel, but I have never really told the story of just what got me here and what keeps me here. Sometimes, a bit flippantly (and cryptically) I say that “death brought me to Israel”. Ever the story teller, I like to see a whetted appetite. And – it’s true. Death did bring me to this part of the world. But nothing is quite as simple as that, is it? hollywood

I had been living in LA for about 7 years or so, and I was really energized by it and had thrown myself into my life and my business there. I was experiencing a rapid climb in becoming known around town and in the screenwriting world, as this “guru” and I had an office on a studio lot. I hobnobbed with a lot of well known writers and was really flying high. I didn’t know it, but even then, there were things coming at me that would turn my world upside down.

A really talented and good friend of mine had taken a six month animation job at a company in Jerusalem and she invited me many times to come visit while she was there. Though I am Jewish, I had ZERO interest in going. All I could picture in my mind was a hot, dangerous, rocky place. Why the HELL would I go there?! I had nary a Zionist bone in my body and I like to think my bus will not explode. Call me crazy. She’d be home soon enough, we’d visit then. Besides, I was busy. So busy.

Then one day, Blake Snyder, of Save the Cat died. He just got up one morning and died. He was about 57, I think. I had just seen him about two months prior. I won’t pretend we were friends, but we’d spent some time together and he had mentored me, for which I will always be grateful. His death was very shocking to me in its suddenness. Blake just – died one day. It really scared me, the fragility of life. If it could happen to Blake, it could happen to anyone. I had just seen him. He looked fine.

I contacted my friend in Jerusalem and said okay I’m coming. I’m just coming. It’s the last place I want to go but I was just so shaken up, I decided it was stupid to miss an opportunity like this. So I went to Israel for about two weeks, including a few days in Egypt. Like most things that completely change your life, I didn’t recognize that something enormous had just happened. jeru

Egypt was chaotic and amazing but Israel – wow – the minute I arrived, I felt something deep within me, a very deep connection. I spent most of my time in Jerusalem  – the holy city. I’m not in the least bit religious but there is something in the air in Jerusalem that is inexplicable. A faint scent of oil and incense and flowers. The Jerusalem stone is dun colored and warm. Laundry flutters from windows and the streets are both crowded and quiet. I went back to Los Angeles, and I cried all the way home. I couldn’t figure out why. I thought it was a really bad case of jet lag. But I just couldn’t get Israel – and the way I felt when I was there – out of my mind.

I returned to my hyper-busy, life being the “script guru” in Hollywood, staying up too late and drinking too much and thinking myself all that, far beyond what I or what was going on around me really was. I was losing perspective inside of a bell jar of my own making.

Then a few things began to happen at once – I had no idea how they would gather to become the perfect storm, I really didn’t see the changes coming.

My friend Lynn began to die of breast cancer. She was fifty-three. Lynn had been ill for a long time but she began to decline sharply and it was clear she had only months to live. I visited and knitted at her side and brought her treats to make her feel better but she was dying and there was no use denying it. At the same time, my brother was experiencing a serious depression and struggling very much in his life. My family and I cycled in and out of helplessness, frustration and growing alarm.

At the time, one of my best, closest friends was the writer of a very famous comedy film that you know and love. And he had a drug problem and I knew it and it was no secret – he spoke of it openly, but I was so enamored of his fame and his wit that I naively figured it would be okay, that it didn’t matter, and we began seriously discussing starting a production company together. This idea was going to change my life forever and it was all quite heady. Then I went to England and taught and lapped up all of that recognition and came home having hired a new business consultant that I’d only just met there in London. He was tall, dark, handsome, smart as hell and I was sure he was what I needed to take my business to the next level. Things were happening really fast.

My brother was getting worse and worse and Lynn was confined to her bed. But I was moving at the speed of light and was traveling, teaching and feeling myself quite important. I went back to Israel to spend about 3 weeks in Jerusalem in a rented flat, to work on my screenwriting book. It was a welcome respite, so much more quiet than Hollywood and I shopped and cooked and hung out my laundry and felt a world apart from the hurly burly my life had become. I would go to the King David hotel and sip expensive coffee and write my book and look out on the Old City in awe. When the plane left the tarmac of Ben Gurion and headed toward Europe, I felt a great loss, a sadness that I could not fathom or understand. I wanted to stay in Israel more than I didn’t want to return to LA. I felt I was headed in the opposite direction of home.

I had returned to LA for about a week when I went to see Lynn. She had moved from her home in Santa Monica to a hotel by the beach so she could look at the sea while she died. She was only semi-conscious when I got there. So frail. She instructed me to sit precisely as I always did and to knit. She wanted me to knit because I always did when we visited. I was shaky and tearful – I had never been in such close proximity to death – I could feel its presence in the room – but I picked up my yarn and needles and sort of pretended for her sake. What I held in my hands was a ball of knots. Every few minutes I excused myself, went into the other room and sobbed for a couple of minutes, blew my nose and came back. I didn’t want her to see that.

Tell me about Israel, Lynn said, in her barely audible voice. She couldn’t even open her eyes. It seemed a terrible thing to me, to talk about a vacation while my friend lay dying. I protested that no, this time should be about her. But she was firm. She wanted to hear about my trip. She knew I’d gone to the Red Sea and she began to weakly, slowly, fill in the gaps – was it warm, she said? What did it feel like? `It took me a moment to realize how important this was to Lynn, this story, she wanted to be transported away from her death bed. So I told her all about it, in great detail. I told her about the Red Sea and how you can see the hills of the Saudi Kingdom from there. I told her about the creamy hummus with golden olive oil. I told her of the call of the muezzin over Arab villages. I felt like Sheherezade.

Lynn listened in near silence, she was barely able to speak.  Then, one tear slowly slid down her cheek and she whispered – it’s so ancient, so ancient. Those were the last words she said to me. Three days later, she died.

The man I’d hired as a business consultant, the one living in London, began to act more and more strangely. He missed Skype meetings, he texted me sometimes unintelligibly, he said that someone had broken into his home and he was looking over hours of CCTV footage to find the culprit.  He didn’t make sense. I got scared.

I talked it over with my lawyer and she said do you have an actual contract with this guy? Anything on paper? This is a frightening situation, Julie. So I took a deep breath, called him and cheerfully said, hey let’s get our agreement on paper, okay? What he said next still sends chills down my spine; he went from a growl to a scream: who have you been TALKING TO?! And he hung up. Now I was scared. This guy had every password, every bit of information about my company, he had the keys to the kingdom. And something was seriously wrong with him. What was I going to do?!

My brother continued his downward slide. According to my parents, he had lost a lot of weight. When I spoke to him which was several times a week, he went in circles and was agitated and anxious. Over the months I had sent him books, and affirmations and tapes and anything – anything to help him out of his slide. I called doctors and hospitals in his area, with his insurance information and looked for programs where he could stay for a few weeks and get better. He was going on and off medications like a merry go round, totally unsupervised. He was in danger. I found a hospital that was about an hour’s drive away but he couldn’t drive because of his condition and it was outpatient, he’d have to go four times a week – back and forth. It wouldn’t work.

I never really had the time to mourn for Lynn. But she was gone. One day, while in the shower, I felt Lynn – I felt her presence right over my head, and she said SMILE, Julie. SMILE, I am okay. grief

But the crazy guy in England has totally gone off the rails. He calls me late at night and threatens me. He asks me to send several thousand dollars immediately, or he will “ruin” me. He sends me emails detailing how he will “crawl through blood and broken glass” to get me. I am really scared. He calls the famous writer I was about to work with and tells him that I am telling everybody he has a drug problem. It’s not true –  of course I had not said anything to anybody – except to this increasingly frightening person, and only then lightly, that I had concerns. But my friend, probably scared that I was in fact telling everyone in Hollywood what they already knew, called me up, ended our friendship and canceled our business deal. The lost opportunity was not the worst of it. It was the lost friendship. That still hurts.

It was during this time that I thought more and more of Israel. Compared to hell I was going through – a death I didn’t even have time to mourn, a business partner who was spiraling into madness, my brother’s alarming slide into depression – all I could think was that I wanted to be in that warm country and just be quiet. I wanted to go away. But I couldn’t. I had to deal with what was in front of me.

On May 13th, 2010, at about 5:20pm my mother called me. She was hysterical. The sheriff had just been there – Pete had shot himself. No, I said. Put dad on the phone, thinking my mother had gone insane. My father confirmed it. I must have screamed or something – all I remember is slamming my hands down on my desk and saying - NO. One of my rings, that I had bought in Israel, is still bent where it made impact.

I think I was wailing or something, because people came running up the hall there on the lot – What? What? What? I had to be driven home, unable to stand.

It was true. Three days later, I was at my brother’s funeral. I hadn’t been able to help him. Nobody had. Why didn’t he call me that day? Why hadn’t I called him? It was too late. He was 48 years old. He shot himself in front of a bathroom mirror covered with post-its with affirmations.

My life changed forever.

None of this slowed down the crazy guy in England. My lawyer staunchly said no, we do not send money before we have a contract, we do not yield to blackmail and threats! So the guy went crazy. He sent out emails to all my clients saying I had cheated them and put my cell phone number in the email. He began to call other colleagues and telling them all sorts of stuff – he just made it up. And the sad part – the part that ultimately made me leave Hollywood – people were perfectly willing to believe a perfect stranger with an English accent, who said vague things, rather than ask me what was going on. The fact that he’d made the calls was enough for most people. There was no fact checking, there were no questions asked. People began to disassociate themselves from me. My book editor took her payment of several thousand dollars and then quit not having done her job. The guy had called her too. I don’t know what he said to her, she never told me. My assistant received an email from him. She quit too.  I’ll never forget, a very famous producer of a very famous movie called me up and told me we’d not associate with one another again because a “private detective from England” had called him with some serious allegations – Gary, I said, listen – this is a crazy guy who is threatening me! He’s nuts! But no, Gary was done. No questions asked. Nobody wants the stink of a scandal – even a completely fabricated one – anywhere near them. My business began to collapse.

My friend had died, three weeks later my brother had committed suicide, and my business was collapsing under my feet because of a crazy person in England who happened to have a nice accent. My legal fees were enormous. I carried on, best I could, which wasn’t very well – and a few months later, I took my brother’s ashes to Israel. jaffa

On a stormy day over the Mediterranean, I hired a drunk skipper (the only one willing to go out in the storm) to take me a kilometer or so off of Jaffa so I could scatter his ashes. My brother had never traveled in his life. Now you’ve traveled, you son of a bitch! – was all I could think of saying as I scattered his ashes into the same sea the Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans and Egyptians had sailed. When the boat chugged back to the pier, a bride and groom where braving the rising wind to take photos.

My life in LA was in tatters and nobody was interested in the aftermath, of how the FBI had opened a case file on the guy in England and barred him from entering the US because of his threats. Nobody was interested in the few people in England who came out of the woodwork and told me of similar behavior of his in the past. Turns out this very genteel, intelligent man was in fact a sociopath with a long history of freak outs and business ruining. But that was not of interest to anybody. So I mopped up the mess and tried to carry on, but I wasn’t able to.

I just wanted to go to Israel and heal. That was all I wanted to do. I knew it was a tough place and a dangerous place. I knew I couldn’t speak Hebrew at all, I knew these things would be tough. But I also knew, at least for awhile, I couldn’t go anywhere. My parents were hurting too much. My family was torn asunder. So I stuck it out for a couple more years, as my business evaporated and grief overtook me. I visited my parents at every opportunity and we’d sit in lawn chairs on the patio and listen to the wind in the trees.  empty

Finally I said, I’ve got to go. I have to go on living. So I sold everything I own – I mean – everything, my car, my furniture, I sold everything and came to Israel with three suitcases and a citizenship. I had little money on me, I didn’t speak the language and it was HOT. Hot, hot hot. Tel Aviv in the summer is something to reckon with. I got a little studio flat on a busy central street and just dived in. I was scared to go outside because people might speak to me and I couldn’t speak back.  I didn’t know how much a shekel was worth compared to a dollar, I had no idea where the sea was from my flat. I was totally lost.

Over time, I began to meet people, and took the state required language lessons and began to fit in a tiny bit. Not really though. Tel Aviv is a very urban, dense, chaotic city compared to Los Angeles. And my grief over all of it – my brother, Lynn, my business and reputation – it all weighed on me like a stone. You can’t outrun these feelings, I learned. But I had to cope. There I was. I had to learn the language, I had to hang out my laundry just like everybody else, I had to figure out the busses which was no mean feat for a life long car owner and one who didn’t know how to ask “where is bus number five” to save her life.

I began to make a life here. And oddly, improbably, the heat, the underlying tension, the intensity of Israel distracted me from the pain I had run from. One day I met an American girl with a dog on a leash and a floppy sunhat. Darcy had been living in Israel for a couple of years already. We became best friends. She was the polar opposite of everything I’d gone through – she heard my story, it was good enough for her, and she took me into her family and that was that. I think she is the best friend I have ever had in my life.

There is a saying about Israelis, that they will run you over with their car, back up and take you to the hospital. It’s true. Once an Israeli is your friend, once you have earned that? That’s it. Whereas, in my experience in Los Angeles, with a few exceptions to be sure, everyone is your friend – until that is no longer advantageous to them. Then – chick chack, as we’d say in Israel – you’re done. Don’t get me wrong; there are still a select few friends I have in LA who were there for me, who I cherish and always will. They believed in me, they tried to support me when I couldn’t stand on my own. But they couldn’t do much to help. This was my experience alone and that was never more plain to anybody than to me.

Nora, Theresa, Margaux, my darling Keith, Steve, Angela, Andrea Bari, Christine, David and Raven Sarnoff – these are amazing humans. And here and now, my beloved Darcy, the amazing Dahlia Lithwick, Lee Zahavi Jessup, Asaf and Yuval, Adi and Gil – so many Israelis who who never, ever pity me, but rather welcome me and make me know I am home now.

But during that terrible time, most of the other people I thought were friends –  were gone with the wind the minute I began to suffer to so much that I seemed contagious to them.  They just didn’t know what to do. I can’t really blame them.

The anniversary of my brother’s death comes and goes. I cry about it sometimes, wrenchingly. But here I am living on the razor’s edge, and Israelis don’t have time for crying. These are tough people and you have to be tough to earn their respect. This is not an easy place to live. Every single day is a struggle. The economy in Israel is good but is focused in one or two areas only. Start up being one of them. Outside of that, the middle class in Israel is several rungs lower than the middle class in the US, disappearing as it is. Here, outright poverty is much more common than in the US. For a country with the Iron Dome and Start Up Nation, the bureaucracy is something from a third world country. Israel is a strange place. A tiny, feisty, chaotic country, wedged between the sea and the desert, surrounded by enemies.  Israelis are like a big, quarreling family. Oh the arguments – sometimes I just….And there are millions of people living on the other side of a wall and they are angry. It is an untenable situation. But here we are. What will happen? I don’t know.

From the moment I first came here, I felt connected to this place. There is something I am here to do – something that matters. To show people that you can in fact traverse hell and come out alive? To give voice to writers who otherwise don’t have one? Does that sound self-important, to think that the universe is guiding you in something? Or deluded? I don’t know.  All I know is that I am here.

I started the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon and that makes me proud, and I’m slowly getting my writing program for Palestinian women off the ground (although, faced with a mountain of bureaucratic and security issues, this really will take some time) and I live with very little now.  No car, no fancy office, no weekly housekeeper, no spacious, 1920s LA apartment. It’s just me now. And Pete is still gone and Lynn is still gone and all I have is what I have.

But what I have could be worth something – I have the ability to get people to tell stories, and to tell them well. I am a teacher, I get people to talk. And that strikes me as something that is valuable in this place, where there are so many stories.  I miss my parents, they are grieving and aging back in the US. But I can’t do them any good there. I can’t help them no matter what I do, nothing will heal that gaping hole. So I have to think that I can help somebody else, somehow, someway.

I went back to LA about nine months after I moved to Israel. It seemed such a strange place to me. Sprawling and glittering and somehow, empty for me. I visited with friends still hell bent on breaking in to the entertainment business, with varying levels of success, and while I love and miss them, I could no longer connect with their ambitions. There had just been in Israel, a relatively minor conflict – Hamas had fired 1,500 missiles into Israel, it was the Operation Pillar of Defense. It was the first time in my life that I had heard the wail of sirens and had to run to a shelter and wait for the explosions. It was terrifying. This was not on TV. This was happening. It is an experience that one cannot fully explain or fathom until one has been in it, counting the seconds between the sirens and the explosions. You just keep thinking – this is real, this is happening right now – and your blood turns to ice in your veins and your heart pounds. For days later, the wail of a motorcycle at just the rich pitch makes you panic – is that the siren? Should I run? The Americans send warships to the Mediterranean and tell Americans they can leave if they wish. The Embassy sends out a dire warning. Your family begs you to come home. But, you realize, in what is surely the most extraordinary moment of you life – you are home. And one month later, I am in Los Angeles, having very expensive sushi, sitting with friends and speaking of this experience in ways that were utterly inadequate to describe it.

Oh my god – crazy! My friends say. And you feel yourself being that person – that insufferable person, thinking things like the traffic on the 405? Really? These are your worries?! But these were your worries too, in the Before Times. You are no better now, you just have a different set of worries. How can you live in such a dangerous place, people wanted to know, as we ordered another round of sake. The 405, random shootings, shifting friendships and ambitions, the fragility of life. Pick your poison. But I didn’t say that.

A well known colleague came to Israel from Los Angeles to speak at an event. Of course we met for coffee. You can take the girl out of LA but you can’t take the networker out of the girl. Her teeth were so white was the first thing I noticed. She was enthusiastic about Israel, having never been here before. She was bubbly and spoke, as Americans tend to do, much more loudly than anyone around. I felt slightly embarrassed for her and I didn’t know why. Hadn’t I been just like her? With bleached teeth and a bubbly attitude? I felt jealous as she mentioned this person and that event. That used to be my life. I looked down at my dusty sandals and distinctly unpedicured feet and then at her perfectly manicured hands, feet and outfit. What had I done?

My colleague was ebullient about how FUN Israel is and how GREAT it is and suddenly I heard myself reminding her that Gaza is about 60 kilometers away from where we were sitting. And that it’s not so fun there.wall

Suddenly, I felt somehow superior to this woman. Had she NO idea where she really was? But I couldn’t forget that not so long ago, before the death and the hurt and the pain, I had been just like her. Ambitious, single-minded and living in Los Angeles, the only town you can die of encouragement.

Hollywood is good and exciting and wonderful – but it’s only one way a writer might find satisfaction and reward in their writing. Just one way and one that in no way, shape or form can be attained through any consultant anywhere. The friends that I do have who have “made it” have done it by sheer perseverance. Years of focus and discipline and talent. You can’t really package that into a book or a talk. My colleague looked at her smart phone, made a frowny face of regret, then brightly announced that she had an important networking event at her Hilton and had to go. They have the BEST hummus there, she said. Unbelievable. I love Israel. We got the check and I was never so relieved in my life.

From the frying pan to the fire, I sometimes say. From Hollywood to Israel. I live in a place that has asked a lot of me and I have proven that I can do it. I can learn a language, I can live with the tensions and compartmentalize that like everybody else here does, I can go toe-to-toe with any Israeli (probably my proudest accomplishment) and I can heal from grief, wherever I am. I like the Mediterranean lifestyle here, I like the heat and the groups of old men who sit and sip tea in the heat of the day, in the shade, I like that nobody here gives a good god damn about Hollywood, I love the bath water warm Mediterranean Sea, I love that Israelis put a huge amount of stock in loyalty and good food. There’s no time here for pretense. You either walk the walk or you aren’t here. So different from Los Angeles – not better – just different. Why a person would go from pain and loss TO a place as intense as Israel is totally counter-intuitive, right? I should have moved to a farm in Nebraska. Having endured more than I thought I could possibly endure – I set myself up to go through even more challenges. There has to be a reason. People often tell me I am “brave” – but I am not brave. I am coping. I just cope in odd ways. Like moving to the Middle East.

I learned that you cannot outrun grief, that you cannot expect people to feel sorry for you in a cutthroat business, as glamorous as it seems, and I have learned that I don’t really care about the tinsel hamster wheel that Hollywood is. It isn’t for me. I only care now about truth – real truth. Truth via stories. And any writer anywhere who wants to express, that is a person after the truth. I happen to be good at sussing it out and at teaching how to write and most importantly, how to get writers to feel good about the story they are telling – about their very impulse to do it – and when you get a writer feeling GOOD, then they begin to tell the truth through their writing. And if they want to get famous doing that, okay, if they want to work in Hollywood doing that okay, but underlying all of that is only one true thing: to tell our stories, to write them down – is to curate the human experience as we see it.

My experience – and it continues – has given me a deep well of empathy, a toughness, an intellectual honesty that I had been lacking before. And I think that honesty, of having lived and suffered and still not suffered a fraction as much as so many others, gives me a certain obligation to help others tell their stories, whether via a novel, a blog or a feature film script. I feel obligated to repay the universe for the lessons I have learned about love and loss, about humility, starting over, authenticity and truth. If I could paint, I would paint this story, if I could weave, I would weave this story. But I am a writer, so that is what I do. JulieGrayBW

You want to write about loss? I have experienced loss. You want to write about joy? I have experienced joy. You want to write about failure – oh, have I failed.  You want to be brave – I’m right there with you, trying to be  brave too.


My book, I am Not Myself: A Year Grieving Suicide, is available as an ebook on Amazon.

Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, is available on Lulu.

If you need help dealing with the pain, loss and transition around grief, please seek the help that you need. You can’t do this alone.


Don’t Wait for Inspiration, Strike Up a Conversation

We were all sitting patiently in the bank with our numbers when Isaac shuffled in.

Isaac is, I would soon find out, 84 years old. He looks good, although his eyes are a bit rheumy.

Quite cheerfully, if slightly inaudibly, he asked where he could find the numbers. He was standing right in front of the machine, which he acknowledged with a laugh. Using his cane, he sat down next to me to wait patiently. We sat and we sat.

We are growing old together, in this bank, he said with a chuckle, in perfect English.

Isaac, as it turns out, speaks five languages: Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Arabic and French. He was born in Cairo in 1930 and came to Israel in 1950. cairo

1950, I said – wow, you must have seen a lot! In typical Israeli fashion, Isaac smiled mysteriously, tossed his chin up and shrugged.

We sat in companionable silence, but it was not lost on me that I was sitting next to the last of a generation of Israelis, who have lived through every major war, who were here before Israel was a nation.  I was sitting next to history.

What was it like growing up in Cairo in the 1930s and 40s I wondered? Isaac had lived through Mussolini’s invasion, British rule and Rommel’s attack.

What’s your number, Isaac asked, moments later, adjusting his cap.

878, I said, glumly.

I have 879, Isaac said, and laughed. We went back to our friendly silence, side by side in Bank Leumi, as the digital read out remained more or less stationary.

What had Isaac seen and experienced in his lifetime? Where was his wife? I was afraid to ask; I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

A few minutes later, we traded numbers in line.  I figured I’ve got a bit more time to grow old than Isaac does. As he left, Isaac tipped his cap, smiled, and said something in Yiddish. I think I understand what he said.

It’s amazing, the stories all around us, I thought, as I watched Isaac shuffle away, slowly. You just have to ask.

Where I Live Now

Something has shifted within me lately. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me.  I feel quietly but powerfully different.

Maybe it’s turning 50. Maybe it’s taken fully four years to come to grips with my brother’s death. Maybe it’s standing on the beach where I live now and knowing that when I look to the right, I am looking toward Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and beyond that Europe, and that when I look to the left, I am looking at Egypt, Libya, Algeria; the tip of a vast and storied continent.

For many years, I lived on the edge of another sea – an ocean, actually. I lived in a vast city that thinks itself the center of the world, so peaceful in the scheme of things, so deeply invested and prolific in creating and distributing stories from its navel unto a world hungry for distraction.  But the sound and the fury, the hurly burly of Los Angeles quiets quickly at a distance.

As I stand on the beach where I live now, in the deep quiet, I imagine the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Turks – all sailing this sea directly in front of me, their ships upon that celadon water, great civilizations, now gone. All around me where I live now, there are remnants of civilizations now gone while another one is being built atop it. I feel the passage of time here, marked by ruins, epochs and civilizations not pilot season, celebrities and academy awards.  A deeper connection to time and to my unfathomable, inconsequential place in that time. dust

I like the feeling of that – of not mattering, really. I like the communion with all that has come before me, and the yearning, bittersweet feeling of wanting my life to have meant something as most of us before me have yearned. To say something, to be something unique and original when really we are just dust motes in a vast slant of cosmic sunlight, living out the same dance over and over.

But that’s it, isn’t it? What drives us to create, to write films and music, to invent, to innovate, to cook and sing and dance – we all want to have left something behind, whether we live in the thick of it or on a distant shore.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life? 
Mary Oliver

The Good Girl

haderYesterday at dusk, as the call of the muezzin drifted from a nearby mosque, I walked into a courtyard of a sprawling concrete compound. A dog barked somewhere in the background.

At the door, my companion Amir turned to me quickly, and stubbornly pulled my sleeves further down my arms before knocking. A well dressed man answered and after exchanging some words in Arabic, Amir and I were led into a palatial and colorful interior that belied the flat, heat proof exterior of the home, which was oddly punctuated with Grecian detail.

The salon of Basim’s home was enormous, with a water fountain in one corner. Bright textiles covered every surface and sumptuous cushions were on the floor. Everything was in sharp contrast to the general poverty of the village we were in.

We were instructed to sit. And to wait.

A black Range Rover drove up outside in a cloud of dust and moments later Basim entered. I was instructed to stand. Then to sit. Then to take the hot mint tea handed me by a wait person of some kind.

Drink it, Amir hissed in my ear.

Basim sat near me at long last. Yalla, he said. You will help me, yes?

I had been dragged to this meeting a bit unwillingly by Amir. He had a friend, he said, a friend in the West Bank, a businessman, and he needed an American to help him.

Help him what? Amir didn’t know, exactly. Something about business.

Basim, as it turns out, is an extremely successful business man. He owns and operates a tour company and caters to Russian tourists of the Christian variety. He estimates that he brings approximately 70,000 Russian/Christian tourists into Israel and Palestine every year between May 1st and end of October.

So why was I there, I wondered?

Basim wants to grow his business, sababa? He wants to bring Americans on his tours, Amir explained hurriedly.

American Christians, Basim intoned, are very good business. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. It is like – it is like a how you say, a pilgrimage for them. As to Mecca.

Christian tourism is big business in Israel. Everybody knows that. Tour busses clog parking lots at every holy site and disgorge thousands of pale, camera-clicking Americans every day, in Bethlehem, the Jordan River, Jerusalem…

Basim is an Israeli-Arab, meaning he lives and works in Israel but also spends time at his property in the West Bank. Like most Palestinians, Basim dresses in modern garb and speaks at least some English. Unlike most Palestinians, Basim is economically – how you say – mobile. Advantaged. He travels between Israel and the West Bank almost daily. He has a special permit to do so. He enjoys the advantages of living in Israel but is culturally rooted in the West Bank.

But there is the problem, Basim continued. I have big problem.

Basim needs, it was revealed to me, an American to help him with a website and other materials so that he can sound good, trustworthy – safe – to Americans who “see Palestinians only with fearful eyes.”

A man I had not noticed before was sitting in a corner of the large room, listening to our conversation, his knees close together, a look of close concentration on his face.

Will you to help me, Basim asked? Can you to write my website so I sound like good man?

What a very strange situation I had found myself in. Well, I began, I am sure I can but this is not really my business – I am a writer, you see and–

Amir leaned forward emphatically - Julie, you should make a good business for Basim, a very good business. He looked at Basim a bit obsequiously. She can, habibi, I know her. Basim’s eyes did not leave me.

As I was saying, I tried again, glancing at the silent guy in the corner, I am a writer, yes, but I don’t usually do this type of thing -

But it wasn’t true. Of course I have done this type of thing. I have written copy for my own websites and consulting for years and I have written great copy, American style, for many an Israeli website. Why was I hesitating in this case?

Basim lit another cigarette and waited.

I realized that “no” wasn’t really the answer he was looking for.

Well, I stumbled – I guess I can look at your website…

Basim sprang up, his slight pot belly hanging over his expensive belt buckle.

Mohammed! He gestured to the silent guy. Bring Miss Julie Gray (gdddday, he pronounced it) to the door.

He turned his green eyes to me. Salaam. I will to call you. Yalla.

Amir led me back through the courtyard toward the towering iron gate inside of which the Range Rover was parked.

Yes, yes, you was good gehl, Amir exclaimed, beaming, the best, the best gehl! With Basim as your friend, you will never go hungry, never!

Amir, I said, I have to know, what are Basim’s politics? I don’t want to get involved with anyone who is hanging out with Hamas or anything. I stood, lamely. Was that not the right thing to say? Was that not how to phrase it?

No, no, no, Amir laughed. Basim is businessman!

I think I work for Basim now. I am not sure. And I’m not sure how I feel about it.

I had come to live and work in Israel not only as a Jew but as an experienced writer and teacher and I had wanted to – I want to – organize a creative writing group for Palestinian women outside of academic circles. Something informal. A way to reach out to often isolated and impoverished women and to give them voice.

Would it not be in a similar spirit, in the macro, for me to work with a Palestinian business man who wants to be taken seriously by tourists? Would I not be walking the walk by establishing trust despite our differences? Doesn’t trust and healing and a sliver of hope start one person at a time?

I didn’t have time to think about the whole episode all that much. Darkness had fallen and we had two checkpoints to get through, one for the Palestinian Authority and another at the Israeli border. The Palestinian Authority check point guards generally sit in lawn chairs and smoke amiably. Sometimes they jump to their feet and gesticulate but they didn’t that night.

At the Israeli border, the bus was stopped, which is a bit uncharacteristic. Both doors opened at once and two Israeli soldiers armed with AK47s boarded and walked up and down the aisle slowly, looking at each of us in turn. My heart was in my mouth. Had I done something wrong?

Yes, I most definitely had, I knew that. As an Israeli citizen, it is not kosher for me to cross the border into the occupied territories.

I’ve made this trip to this particular place many times. Amir meets met at a deserted bus stop and takes me into the small village, which has a central square full of date trees festooned with lights. We usually go to a large open air restaurant frequented by local Palestinian men who sip hot, cardamom scented Arab coffee and share hookahs. I am always greeted warmly – everyone knows I am Jewish but Amir warns me sternly to speak no Hebrew lest someone figure out I am not a tourist. You’d think they’d know by now, so many have been my visits. Perhaps they do know. I think we are all pretending.

I usually talk with a very small group of Palestinian women, two or three, including one who attends Birzeit University in Ramallah about stuff – about life – about writing. One particular young lady, Lina, really wants to create a salon in the village that is like my writing salon in Tel Aviv. But it is not possible for she or her peers to cross the border into Israel because a tiny but powerful handful of extremists have caused the border to be closed. Just a few bad apples but enough to take many lives and to limit those of others on both sides of the formidable border.

This makes me very angry but there is nothing I can do about it. So I go to them.

There are hundreds of peace activism groups in Israel with permits to cross the border into the West Bank for a variety of programs and activities. I shall have to formalize and join one if I want to continue in safety. I have doubts about whether they are making a difference, but then I should think change takes time. I also think that the internet has no borders and that if I can get a group of women together to write creative essays and short stories about their lives, that they can not only be heard, they can feel heard, which is at least as valuable.

Is it not also valuable to help a businessman into more prosperity by making him more credible, more palatable? Or is that at odds with my general vision? How will Basim spend his money? He seems to have no interest in what the women of the village have to say. But maybe it’s the price I have to pay to have more access – to gain some credibility of my own on Basim’s side of the border.

The soldiers left the bus and on we went, back to Jerusalem and the Central Bus Station where I had to catch another bus, back toward the relative safety of Ramat Gan, just outside of Tel Aviv, or, as Israelis call it, “the Bubble”.