Gabriel Sandler and I pop into Adams Morgan’s D Light Cafe one Friday afternoon to chat about his time in Madagascar, the signs that you belong in a community, and one of life’s greatest pleasures: Lunch. I leave with the impression that Gabriel is an incredible dinner guest. He can tell a story about an “avoidable, but intense” moment with street dogs. He can make an olive marinade. As a fellow CRhead, there’s a good chance he has strong opinions on the newest season of The Bear – you’ll just have to ask him the next time he pulls up a chair.
Samuel: You were in the Peace Corps right before the pandemic. What was that experience like?
Gabriel: I always knew I wanted to go abroad to work. I left for Madagascar in Fall 2018 as an English teacher, but in the Peace Corps your job really is what you say yes to. I taught, tutored, did some photography, and spent time on the beach. Lots of rowdy times. It’s hard to really say what it was like, because once you’re there, you’re in it. I could describe my routine, I could describe what I like about the town, but it’s really full body and full mind.
Samuel: How did you find your community during that time?
Gabriel: You really earn it. You demonstrate you’re not just a tourist, you live there. Small talk becomes familiar conversation. When people see you enough, you become part of their “normal.” I wasn’t impatient with my time. If I was buying food from someone, and they were excited that I could speak some Malagasy, the extra five minutes having that conversation instead of running to my next errand is what made me part of the community.
Samuel: Were there any moments where that sense of belonging was particularly strong for you?
Gabriel: Madagascar has a big “stop-by” culture. People could stop by and say hey, and I could stop by and say hey. I had a schedule of lunches throughout the week – I’d always bring something, of course. But I got good at finding families to eat with. Once, I was sick for a week, so I didn’t go to the lunch that usually happened with my friend and her mom. The next week, her mom made soup specifically because she knew I’d been sick. Little check-ins like that make you feel cared for.
When I first got [to Madagascar], the Peace Corps volunteers in that region were like a big welcoming committee. They really set me up for success…and then eventually I was the welcoming committee. I was the one meeting people at the airport, feeling comfortable and showing other people around.
Samuel: So then, the pandemic. How’d you end up settling in the DMV?
Gabriel: Covid crept up on us – Madagascar’s a big island, but it’s an island, and everything seemed far away. Then, it’s time to go, and within a week I’m at my brother and sister-in-law’s place in the Catskills and it’s snowing. Through friends of friends being kind and generous with their time, I got my first job in DC with the Department of Transportation, and moved.
Samuel: What is your perfect day in the DMV?
Gabriel: I’m lucky – I think I hit this day a lot. I’d go to the Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant farmers’ markets. I go to RavenHook and get good sourdough bread. Then, I do a long run in Rock Creek Park and along Beach Drive. After that, a different park hang with some friends, probably at Malcolm X Park, before we head to a beer garden like Midlands.
Samuel: We talked about that moment feeling like you were home in Madagascar — what was the corresponding moment here in DC?
Gabriel: This was the first time I moved somewhere where I already knew people, including my brother and a lot of other Peace Corps volunteers. So, I had some community right away. One of my roommates and I became really good friends – I actually found that apartment through Gather. He introduced me to his broader friend group, who was my first Jewish group of friends since I’d been a kid. That was exciting. I started running with a friend who grew up here, and the city became familiar quickly. It was the easiest place to learn.
Samuel: How has Jewish community figured into your life here?
Gabriel: I grew up in San Francisco, but we moved to Oregon right before high school, going from a fairly robust congregation to no congregation. I didn’t know many Jews, so Judaism was just not a part of my life that got a lot of oxygen. When it did, it was because I was explaining something to somebody else. It’s really refreshing in DC to be Jewish among Jews.
Samuel: How else has your relationship with Judaism evolved over time?
Gabriel: When I was in the Peace Corps, I tried to read [the Hebrew Bible] alongside the weekly parashah. But it was just not enriching by myself. For me, Judaism works best in a community. Part of it is just me being a social person. Seeing other people in love with their Judaism and being taught by people who are excited to share makes me excited. It’s a lovely domino effect of seeing people in a community enriched by Judaism and realizing that I can do that, too. It’s like seeing the welcoming committee again.
Samuel: What makes you feel close to your Judaism? What feeds that part of your identity?
Gabriel: I mean, literally fed. I’d never made latkes before, but my friends here have made latkes with me. I never thought I’d be a big host guy, but I love hosting. I hosted a break-fast last year, which was a big culmination: not just being a guest in someone else’s set-up, but to create the environment. Choosing [Judaism] and providing space has been so exciting.
Samuel: What’s your go-to hosting recipe?
Gabriel: We do potlucks a lot. If I’m a guest, I make this olive marinade. People like that. I’ve done Friendsgiving and done the turkey, which is ambitious. I’m a big pasta guy.
Samuel: Favorite shape?
Gabriel: I like bowties. They’re so formal. Or fusilli. They’re easy to stab into, or you can scoop them up.
Samuel: What’s a skill you want to develop this year?
Gabriel: I’m trying to learn how to run in a healthy way. I ran myself into the ground in the last couple years, so I want to learn how to run in a way that I can rev up for a race without being in pain.
Samuel: How do you avoid running yourself into the ground? Like, literally running, but that applies more broadly, too.
Gabriel: For running, I read Born to Run. It’s such a basic runner’s mantra book, but people love quoting it, and I guess now I do, too. I’ve started running without music. Hearing my stride makes me a better runner. [I can be] steady, consistent, and meditative.
Samuel: When you run, where does your mind go?
Gabriel: I think about movies and books. I’ll unpack interactions I had throughout the week and think about my goals. It’s time I’ve designated to do this one thing without distraction, which creates space for all the things I’ve distracted myself away from.
Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now?
Gabriel: I feel really proud of my personal, social community. Work is important, health is important, but I have so many people I care about and make time for, and so many people who care about me and make time for me. My brother, my girlfriend, my friends from Peace Corps, my Jewish friends, my new friends through old friends. I feel so lucky. Not everyone gets to make those formative relationships after a certain point in time. I think it’s probably the most important, wonderful thing about me: this community.
Samuel: What’s the greatest piece of art you’ve encountered recently?
Gabriel: At the risk of being just like a million other people, I loved Succession [Editor’s note: Spoiler warning on the link!] and Jury Duty. Then, it’s not the most enlightened answer, but Top Gun was just so dope.
Samuel: You can invite three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are you bringing?
Gabriel: George Saunders. Tenth of December is so good. He seems empathetic, kind, and fun. Next, José Andrés. The dude’s a hero, he’s exciting, and he’s a DC guy. And then, Chris Ryan. We watch all the same shows.
Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence for me. When Jews of the DMV gather…
Gabriel: We have a silly good time.
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