Winter is taking its time arriving in the Middle East this year, or so I was told by a worried kebab shop owner – and, it turns out, former Brookynite – just off the main drag in Ramallah. “By now we should be having cold and rain, but no, we see nothing but sunshine and 30, 35 degrees (86-95 F) day after day.”
Having recently arrived from a chilly New York and chillier London, I didn’t see the point in complaining about beach weather in mid-November, apart from the fact that I’d neglected to bring either shorts or a swim suit, having opted instead to lug around a completely superfluous jacket and hoodie. The beaches of Tel Aviv, while hardly packed, sported a respectable sprinkling of sunbathers and swimmers; I would have bought a suit and joined them but decided it would be a better use of my time to wander the streets and, in the slightly less than two days I’d have there, try to get some sort of handle on the city.
Almost immediately my preconceptions had been shattered; for no particular reason I’d always pictured Tel Aviv as an overgrown and overbuilt new town with little of interest to offer the tourist or casual visitor. Even though the briefest of glances at a map would reveal its enviable setting on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, I’d never conceived of it as anything resembling a beach resort, let alone a pleasantly laid back and relaxed one, but along the several miles that hug the coastline, that’s exactly what it is. Not unlike Miami or Sydney, where the hard chargers may be grinding out their deals and working on their ulcers in the business district’s glass and stone towers, but you’d never know it from the locals and visitors lolling about the cafes and bars and working on a late-autumn tan.
You’d also be hard pressed to realize that you’re in the principal city of what many of its citizens consider to be a fundamentally religious state. With the exception of certain quarters, Tel Aviv is thoroughly secular. Booze, drugs, sex, gambling and their concomitant delights and/or tribulations are all on copious and unabashed offer here. It’s not Las Vegas, granted, but it’s a far cry from Salt Lake.
It felt laid-back and easy-going, the kind of place where I could happily lose a week or two in the sunshine, and I was immediately sorry that I’d planned to spend so little time there. What had I been thinking of when I’d decided to spend the lion’s share of my time in Jerusalem, with no beach, minimal night life, which was overrun with not one but three different kinds of religious extremists, and where my chances of getting blown up by one faction or another were distinctly greater?
It was too late to change the reservations I’d made, but what the heck, I thought: Jerusalem was only an hour away; I could zip back to the coast for the day anytime the sanctity and antiquity began to weigh too heavily on the soul. In the meantime, I set out to make the most of Tel Aviv, beginning with what was to be the first of many fine falafel dinners.
At a get-together hosted by friends of friends, I met my first religious fanatic, a young fellow just out of rehab. I was unclear as to whether Chaim had acquired his rather rigid convictions in the course of taking drugs or kicking them, but immediately upon ascertaining that I wasn’t Jewish, he inquired what had brought me to Israel.
I’m interested in the history and the culture, I told him. I’d heard so much about Israel, both positive and negative, and I was here to see for myself what was going on.
But what did I know about Judaism, he persisted? Not a whole lot, I admitted, apart from bits and pieces I’d picked up from Jewish friends, and of course I did live in the city Jesse Jackson had infamously derided as “Hymietown.” Besides, I added, I had been raised a strict Catholic, and as far as I could tell the two religions had a lot in common.
“They have nothing in common,” he interrupted.
“Oh, come on,” I protested. “If nothing else, they both specialize in guilt. And don’t forget, our founder was a Jew.”
Having resolved to come into this journey with as few preconceptions as possible and to listen more than I talked, I tried to dismiss the subject on an agree-to-disagree basis, but he launched into a Talmudic demonization of Jesus Christ, coupled with a declaration that what I thought I knew about Judaism couldn’t possibly be true because “Jews don’t talk to non-Jews.”
I was pleased with myself for not pointing out the obvious, that he was doing just that, and he went on to argue that my supposedly Jewish friends back home, being mostly Reform or non-practicing – he virtually spat the latter words – were no more Jews than Jesus had been, and in fact were “worse than atheists.” I took this as a cue not to question him about the possibility of Israel reaching a happy accommodation with its Muslim, Christian, and non-religious citizens, chatting instead with the others, a mixture of locals and visitors from America and England, most of them Jewish, even if, by Chaim’s standards, inadequately so.
Yitzhak, a businessman in his 30s was bright, enthusiastic, and loved Israel passionately even though his work kept him in the USA most of the time. Within minutes of meeting me he’d invited me to accompany him on a trip to Masada, leaving in about two hours. We’d drive through the rest of the night, he said, pounding down a triple espresso, arriving in time to hike to the top of the ancient fortress at sunrise.
“You can’t say you’ve really experienced Israel till you’ve done this,” he told me. The others agreed, saying how lucky I was to have such an opportunity fall in my lap on my first night in the country. I thought so, too, and I came very close to saying what the hell and jumping in the car. The trouble was, I had had almost no sleep the night before, and according to the itinerary Yitzhak was outlining – the climb up Masada would be followed by a dip in the Dead Sea – by the time we got back, most of the day I’d reserved for seeing Tel Aviv and Jaffa would be gone, not that I’d be in fit condition to do anything other than sleep until it was time to leave for Jerusalem.
He told me he’d be hanging out at a café until 2 am, and that I could meet him there if I wanted to go. Reluctantly, and after considerable agonizing, I decided to tell him thanks but no, and wandered down to the waterfront to give him the news. We sat there for half an hour as Yitzhak plowed through some more high-octane coffee and I, having been informed that the decaf I normally stick to was barely heard of in Israel, sipped orange juice, watched a re-broadcast of a European football match, and tried to make heads or tails out of the several rapid-fire Hebrew conversations swirling around me.
It wasn’t just the unfamiliar words that left me befuddled; harder still was the writing. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that so many menus and street signs and, well, so much of everything, would be written in Hebrew only. I have a passing familiarity with a few European languages, and many of the others have at least enough in common with English that I can decipher the more basic stuff. But when it’s a completely different alphabet, the effect can be highly disorienting, even when you’re not running on a couple hours sleep in the wee small hours of the morning.
Was it culturally imperialistic of me, I wondered, to wish that Israel had chosen English as its lingua franca instead of attempting – successfully, as it turned out – to revivify the half-moribund Hebrew language? Most likely it was, I admitted, but still… I’d found myself thinking the same thing about India, which by the time it had gained independence – a year prior to Israel – was well on its way to being an English-speaking country, and continued on that way until nationalists feeling their oats decided its 1.2 billion people – even those who’d grown up with an entirely different language – would be better off learning Hindi.
Ultimately, of course, I was most concerned with my own convenience, since as much as I’d like to learn at least something of the language of any country I visit, it’s just not practical when we’re talking about learning a whole new alphabet as well as vocabulary and grammar. And with Israel, of course, it’s not just Hebrew; its second language is Arabic, which in spoken form apparently has many similarities to Hebrew, but has another, completely different alphabet. English is the third most common language, followed by Russian, with yes, still another alphabet.
Thankfully, most street signs are rendered in Hebrew, Arabic and English, or even the best of maps would not have saved me from becoming hopelessly lost. As it was, the next morning I found my way down to Jaffa without going too far astray, but only because it was simply a matter of staying within sight of the Mediterranean and following the shoreline south.
Jaffa is renowned as one of the world’s first seaports, dating back more than 3,000 years, but as with nearly everywhere I visited in Israel, it’s not always easy to distinguish among the genuinely ancient, the merely venerable, and the relatively brand new. Much of Tel Aviv, for example, consists of clunky 1970s-style apartment blocks that wouldn’t be out of place in nondescript sections of Los Angeles; when I pointed this out to Yitzhak, he directed me toward the neighborhoods of “old” Tel Aviv where, he assured me, I “wouldn’t find anything much newer than the 1920s.”
I refrained from pointing out that there were large swathes of New York where anything from the 1920s would look new; I hadn’t come to Tel Aviv for the architecture anyway, and regardless, something – maybe the ubiquity of whitewashed surfaces coupled with the dazzling sunlight and offset by the palm trees and aromatic flowering shrubs – gave the place an undeniable charm.
Jaffa was equally charming, but in an entirely different way. It’s a predominantly Arab city, full of old and/or old-looking buildings, some remarkably well-kept and preserved, others in various, sometimes picturesque states of collapse. The ancient port itself was a bit of a dud: interesting, yes, but face it, boats are boats and docks are docks, and there’s only so much variation you can work into them no matter how many centuries they’ve been around.
But then I wandered up the hill into the market, a riotous cacophony of sights and sounds that might not qualify as a full-fledged souk, but was as close to one as I’d yet experienced outside of the movies. On its outer edge, in a relatively quiet and untraveled street, I witnessed my first – and, as it would turn out, only – example of ethnic strife.
At least that’s what I think I saw; I’m still not quite sure what was happening. My attention was drawn by loud shouting. Across the street, a group of maybe eight Jews in Hasidic garb were gathered around a brown-skinned workman in t-shirt and trousers who looked to be an Arab, but could easily have been a Sephardic or Mizrahi Jew. He was barring the way to a door that led through a fence to what looked like a construction site; periodically one of the Hasids would grasp at the door and try to open it. The Hasids completely outnumbered him and could have overpowered him at any time they chose, but for some reason only one at a time would press his advantage. As soon he’d get too close, the watchman would push back, snarling, and the Hasid would flee all the way back to the street. At the risk of sounding insensitive, it bore a striking resemblance to a number of dogfights I’ve seen, where one determined combatant manages to see off half a dozen less resolute attackers.
I set about trying to construct a scenario to explain what I was witnessing. Did the Hasids represent some property consortium trying to intimidate some poor but honest Arab out of his property? Or was it some more prosaic matter, perhaps an unpaid rent bill? What if the watchman wasn’t an Arab at all? Because by now I’d noticed two things that made little or no sense: one of the Hasids actually seemed to be taking the dark man’s side, standing with him to bar the door, and in the middle of all the chaos stood what looked to be a European tourist taking pictures of the contretemps.
Everything I’d read in preparation for my trip recommended getting out of the way – and quickly – upon encountering anything that smacked of an ethnic, political or cultural clash, and for that reason, I stayed at a safe distance on the far side of the street. Had this guy not read the advisories, or was he some foolhardy Frenchman who was going to end up with his camera smashed if he were lucky or a scimitar protruding from his innards if he was not?
The spectacle seemed so surreal – by now a number of other tourists had either passed by or stopped to watch – that a new scenario suggested itself. Perhaps these were actors shooting a scene from a movie? Or one of those bizarre anti-fashion layouts one sees in the edgier magazines?
A car screeched to a stop in front of me and four tough-looking guys in t-shirts and jeans piled out. They had cop written all over them, but not only was their car completely unmarked, so were they. They didn’t even have guns as far as I could see (knowledgeable Israelis later explained that they could have been secreted in the smalls of their backs), but they strode manfully to where the trouble was and started shoving the Hasids over to the other side of the street.
A small traffic jam had begun to build up, and a taxi driver, first in the queue, leaned on his horn (I should have mentioned that the horn is the first resort of nearly every Israeli driver, with the brake pedal and steering wheel a distant second or third). Tough guy/cop/whatever he was gave a meaningful glance at the cabbie and, finger across his lips, shushed him the way you would a small child. The honking stopped instantly and did not resume, something else I would see once and once only during my time in Israel.
I spent the rest of the day finding my way, in fits and starts, back to my hotel via the back streets of Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Convinced that I couldn’t get too lost as long as the city was bounded by water on one side and desert on the other, I deliberately chose the most mysterious and obscure-looking routes, and was rewarded with a number of vistas I suspect most tourists don’t encounter, and might be just as happy not to.
Nothing that shocking or sordid, I hasten to add; just a mingling of the mundane and the profane, the commonplace and slightly squalid sights associated with life in any big city worth its salt. Once again, I felt sad that I’d have so little time here, and even though I was still running a substantial sleep deficit, I stayed out late that night, almost intoxicated with the subtropical sea air that swirled ever so gently around me.
I’d pay for it in the morning, when I had to be up early to set off for Jerusalem, but it felt like a price worth paying. And as it happened, I was wide awake and raring to go, so raring, in fact, that I walked the three miles across town to the Central Bus Station, a shabby, sprawling complex that combines several floors of shops on the bottom with three floors of buses at the top. As with every public building – banks, shopping centers, government offices, etc. – you don’t get inside without passing through a metal detector and having your bags either x-rayed and/or searched by hand.
The only exception is if you’re carrying a weapon – did I mention that you can’t go far in any direction without seeing someone armed with a rifle, machine gun or pistol? – the theory being that if you’ve passed Israel’s rigorous vetting process, you must be on the right side. I paid 20 shekels (about $5.50) for a one-way ticket to Jerusalem, found a comfortable seat on a nicely appointed bus, and almost on time – even after the bus had started backing out, passengers still kept showing up and demanding to be let on – we were on our way across the semi-arid center of the country.
It was actually a lot greener than I’d expected. I’d heard Israelis brag about “making the desert bloom,” and they weren’t exaggerating. There’s still a lot more desert than bloom, but at the rate they’re going, and barring more wars or similar catastrophes – a large ask, admittedly – it’s likely to bear an ever-increasing resemblance to the Biblical land of milk and honey. Like the Europeans who came to America, they’ve built and are building quite a country for themselves; the only trouble being that they seem to have overlooked, also like the Europeans who built America, that somebody else was already living on the premises before they got there.
To be continued