Paris Lights: Tel Aviv A La Carte
In the final installment of her adventures in Israel, PJM's Paris editor Nidra Poller immerses herself in Tel Aviv life and discovers "a very special vitality, an immensely endearing sociability, awe-inspiring courage, tremendous human resources, intensity, creativity, industriousness, joie de vivre, sense of humor, a hotbed of humanity, a miracle."
July 22, 2007 - 12:00 am
Home was a bright, clean, efficient, comfortable, tastefully decorated studio on Emmanuel Haromi St. in the heart of Bauhaus Tel Aviv.
I woke up to birdsong, cooled myself with cross ventilation, bought my Jerusalem Post every morning at a little shop around the corner on Arlozorov St., and walked from home to everywhere. Ten minutes on Ibn Gvirol to Kikar Rabin, fifteen minutes on Arlozorov to Dizengoff, another ten in the same direction to the beach. Buses and taxis are plentiful.
Strong sunshine from early morning-I had to wear sunglasses when I washed the breakfast dishes–to nightfall. Flowering treetops outside my 2nd floor windows, voluptuous, opulent, resplendent vegetation everywhere. Bougainvillea, hibiscus, smashing red mimosa, mountain laurel, jasmine, banyan trees, and a hundred other varieties I cannot name.
It was dynamically hot. Walking was a kind of sunbathing, though I tried to be reasonable and cross to the shady side of the street once in awhile. I carried a bottle of water as advised by the natives, avoided the beach during the hottest hours, took three or four showers a day, and flourished like the flowers. Every item on my calendar-a walk, a shopping expedition, a meeting, a dinner-is enveloped in memories of hot skin-drenching sun. I love it, I miss it… I was welcomed home with 11 sunless days… it seemed like an eternity.
Copious meal of stuffed eggplant with tahina at Keter Hamizrach–a boui-boui near my apartment, rightfully recommended by Allison [Kkaplan Sommer, PJ's Tel Aviv editor]–with my friend Roman Yanushevsky, a student in international relations at Tel Aviv University who translates my articles for popular Russian magazines in Israel.
Fresh grapefruit juice with my Makor Rishon editor and soul mate, Amnon Lord, at Martha’s Caf√© in the ZOA building. Midway into our conversation, he asks if I want to move away from the window. I make the sublime foreigner’s faux pas–No, it’s ok. But the declining sun is hitting his head, and now he’s the one who keeps saying it’s ok. I feel terrible. What if he gets sunstroke? We have so much to say to each other…
I move from the (air-conditioned) interior to a comfortable wicker armchair on the outdoor terrace and rendez-vous with PJM’s Allison. My focaccia with olive oil, herbs, and crushed coriander is more like pita and all the better. Allison and I get acquainted, criss-crossing our stories of emigration, motherhood, career tracks. Her cell phone rings off the hook. It’s the kids, squabbling. She negotiates, I commiserate. She thought I might come across some F√™te de la Musique activity at Kikar Rabin on my way home along Ibn Gvirol. The street is jiving with restaurants, snack bars, caf√©s, people enjoying life…but no outdoor concerts. Friday morning I catch up with Thursday’s Jerusalem Post and discover that the music was on Rothschild Boulevard.
I spend the morning writing… rush out, buy wine and cakes for the evening… drop them off at home…dash over to Dizengoff St. for a bit of fast shopping before the stores close for Shabbat, and bag a pair of fashion slacks and chocolate brown wedge-heel sandals.
My second cousin Alice drives in from her moshav for a late-evening secular Shabbat. Her young adult daughters call with pressing demands– one needs to buy cigarettes, the other wants to go to the movies, Mom has the car, when will she be home? Alice asserts her rights, threatens to turn off her phone if they keep nudging her. We drink wine, eat pastries, laugh at her romantic misadventures (she’s divorced), trace out her new career plan, talk far into the night.
Mornings are for writing, sifting through e-mails, catching up on the news, underlining and clipping, creating an “ironies of the Fatah-Hamas war” file. “We won’t negotiate with those bestial murderers.” Hmm. “They can’t be trusted.” Uhuh? “They have a choice: surrender or die.” Is that so? Last summer I arrived in Israel the day after the Gaza Beach hoax and left the day after Gilad Shalit was kidnapped. Now I get to follow authentic Gaza massacres, covered in detail by the J Post, smoothed over in international media.
I walk to the beach in the midday heat, don’t dare stay as long as I’d like to, and walk home because I didn’t take money for the taxi (no buses on Shabbat). Shower, dress, and walk half way to Neve Tsedek. When I decide to take a cab the rest of the way, there’s none in sight. Finally find one, and reach the elegant abode of my main man Tom Gross. We have dinner in a nearby restaurant. Michal, a laid back e-financial wizard in a low cut dress, daughter of a haredi family from the Bronx, joins us. As night falls we walk over to the David Intercontinental to meet Naomi Ragen, in from Jerusalem for a literary symposium organized by a group from Beverly Hills. We enjoy a long, leisurely nightcap with Naomi and her husband…our own literary-political symposium! Inside stories from Naomi’s novels, updates on her combat against relegating women to the back of the bus and other such tyrannies. The Ragens are building a home in the Galilee, thinking of giving up the house in Jerusalem, wondering where to establish their pied √† terre. We’re all fascinated by Michal’s business acumen.
Lunch with Anat Berko, author of The Path to Paradise; the inner world of suicide bombers and their handlers (Praeger Security International). I met Anat–a retired IDF Lieutenant Colonel with a long braid like an Indian dancer– in January on the fringes of the Herzliya Conference. We got together a few days later in Ramat Gan, and forged a “tender combatant” friendship. Anat updates me on press conferences, interviews, book reviews, and contacts with mutual friends in the U.S.. Maybe we’ll get on the same speaking circuit, meet in the US in the near future? As it turns out we met by chance two days later at Kikar Hamedina.
A real coffee and another dip into the ongoing conversation with Tom at Landwerk Caf√©. Quick lunch with Roman at the Druze cr√™perie downstairs at Gan Ha’ir… 16 shekels for a big thin pancake cooked on a dome-shaped grill and filled with Mediterranean delights… and a free lemonade in the bargain. Roman gives me magazines with his Russian translation of my Sarkozy articles. Dinner with Zippy at Gootcha’s on Dizengoff. The same dish I enjoyed so much in January was disappointing this time.
J. will be here soon, and we’ll have to move out of the studio on the 29th. Originally someone else had reserved for one night on the 28th followed by a tenant arriving on the 29th, who would stay for ten days. But I mentioned in several e-mails, with what turns out to be uncanny intuition, that if there was a cancellation for the 28th, we’d like to stay on. I was still in Jerusalem when Tova Ichai wrote to say there was a cancellation. And I launched the running joke-if the next person cancels… I check out other possibilities for the last two nights-”luxury” studio apartments on ben Yehuda St., the fengshui Hotel de la Mer on Nes Ziona, and my absolute favorite, the Cinema Hotel. Zippy is like family…she says we can stay with her. Yes, no, I can’t make up my mind. Truth is, I just don’t want to pack up and move again until it’s time to go back to Paris.
Late lunch with Mike Gerver at Shido, an excellent Moroccan restaurant in the business district of Ramat Gan. Mike, who made aliyah from the U.S., wrote a letter to Commentary Magazine in response to my “Betrayed by Europe,” inviting me to settle in his corner of Israel…which happens to be Ra’anana. His daughter Molly, who recently finished her military service, likes to debate with me. (Stay tuned for her phone call, received ten minutes before we left for the airport.) A visit to the Laundromat on Ibn Gvirol-no graffiti, no creeps-and some grocery shopping. Cold Israeli beer in the refrigerator to welcome J.
J. arrives, loves the studio, complains about the heat. We manage a harmonious share plan of on-off air conditioning but I warm him, “when we get back to Paris I’m going to complain all the time, I’m cold, I’m cold, I’m cold. “Haile (Gebreselassie) made a world record at the Golden Spike in Ostrava.” J. “covers” the Meet via cable TV.
I accompany J. to a stand on Ibn Gvirol for his take-out falafel and then walk down Arlozorov, thinking I’ll find a bus to Azrieli Towers where I have a lunch appointment with Aharon Horwitz and Ariel Beery from the Creative Zionist Institute. I’m at a loss for a “Tel Aviv Indispensable,” a complete guide to the bus routes without which the city does not really belong to me. I take a cab. The mall is throbbing with life, snack bars, shops, conversation, young soldiers from the nearby base. I meet Aharon and Ariel on the upper floor. The classic aliyah conversation takes us back & forth between Israel and the U.S. and I realize I’m talking to the “Columbia Unbecoming” guys. We probably crossed paths at an SPME meeting on campus two years ago. They’re churning some high power startup & hasbara projects…including a Speaker’s Bureau. It’s a deal!
Because I have more than enough time to get to my appointment with that tireless multitasker Barry Rubin –director of the Gloria Center– I dally a bit in the mall. Miscalculation compounded by bad luck-fifteen minutes before the appointed hour I can’t find the taxi dispatching center. I go back and forth, come upon three shady drivers sitting on a wall, and get into a cab knowing the guy is going to take me for a ride. I give him the address, show it to him on the map, tell him how to get there. But he says he can’t get onto Kaplan from here, he’ll have to take Ayalon. He drives through the underground parking lot, passes a checkpoint…I clearly see the Kaplan exit. He takes Ayalon…and drives miles out of the way on the busy highway …The minutes are ticking, the meter is clacking, we’re stuck in traffic jams, and I start grumbling. At least he’ll know I know he’s cheating. Forty minutes later, when we finally arrive at my destination, which was ten minutes from the starting point, I ask for a receipt. He gives me a torn piece of the automatic receipt spit out by the meter. Not so fast, buddy. I want a real receipt that tells the whole saga. You write down where you picked me up, where you dropped me off, how long it took, how much you charged!
Later, Barry looks at the receipt. Says the driver is nearly illiterate in Hebrew. Says I should have called him from the cab. Of course, but I should have trusted my intuition from the get-go. That’s the point of the story. And I shouldn’t have been as limp as a peace processor! My meeting with Barry is truncated, we don’t have time to get to the heart of matters. We promise to keep in touch. And I decide to walk home from there, stopping on the way to explore the shops at Kikar Hamedina (where I bump into Anat).
Drinks before dinner at our vital hub, chez Tom Gross in Neve Tsedek. Tonight we meet Haviv Rettig, Jewish World correspondent for the Jerusalem Post–who lived a few years in of all places Milwaukee (where I have ex-family ties)–and Paul, a handsome giant who writes for the Economist. Paul and J. talk rugby, Haviv fills me in on the intricacies of religious politics in Israel. His wife Rachel, Esquire, joins us and we go over to Tazza d’Oro for dinner. It’s the white night–la nuit blanche–another French invention – where the city keeps going till dawn. The street music festival – La F√™te de la Musique – was initiated by then Culture Minister Jack Lang, and this all-night party comes to us from the current mayor of Paris Bertrand Delano√´ who was stabbed in the belly on the first edition, by a Muslim who doesn’t like homosexuals. A hundred people were arrested for acts of violence at this year’s F√™te de la Musique in Paris. After dinner we walk up Rothschild Boulevard with Tom and a friend from Sotheby’s. The night is sultry and perfectly peaceful. This is Israel. Where else, what other big city, what other crowd could fill the streets with no ill intent from anyone? No drunks, no evil dogs, no fights, no graffiti, no cars plowing through the crowd, no snide remarks, no riot police, no sirens. Shalom.
Around 2 AM Tom walks us over to Allenby Street to find a ride home. A steady stream of taxis passed, all filled. Tom finally gets us a cab, we jump in the back seat, he sticks his head in the front window and asks the driver to turn on the meter. “I can’t.” “Why not?” “It doesn’t work.” A few seconds later my phone rings. It’s Tom, advising me to pay 30 shekels, 35 at the most. Further on a young woman hails the taxi. Do we mind? She jumps in, gives the driver some coins, oohs and ahs when she discovers that J. is Japanese, then engages in a long conversation with the driver (who is going out of our way to drop her off). Suddenly she asks us “Do you love Arabs or hate Arabs?” Before I can reply, she goes into a riff about how she is proud to display an End the Occupation bumper sticker. Her husband is a graphic designer, he does all kinds of projects [to end the Occupation], Hevron is the place where [the Jews] are causing all the trouble…” I say “We live in Paris, we can’t talk about these things in a taxi.” And our end-the-Occupation passenger blurts; “yes, I was in Paris. I was surprised, there are so many Muslims there.” The driver asked for 40 shekels. I gave him 33, said that’s all I had. Didn’t ask him if he loves or hates Arabs, Japanese, or Americans.
Friday evening– Tova stops in to make arrangement for our departure tomorrow morning. The young woman gets in from Brussels at 5 AM…her father wanted Tova to put us out so his daughter could move right in. Theoretically we could defend our rights, insist on a normal check out time, but we sportingly agree to leave at 10 AM. A half hour later, just as we are about to walk out the door, my phone rings. It’s Tova. “You won’t believe it. They cancelled!” Youpie! We can stay!
Dinner at the old port, transformed into a trendy spot with restaurants, caf√©s, shops, and a boardwalk. I meet Dannie Schwammenthal’s fianc√©e, Liora, and dozens of interesting people who will be attending their wedding on Sunday. It’s warm, but there’s a sea breeze. Waves crash against the rocks. We cluster, branch out, rejoin, mix and match. Tom tells us about his conversation with Liora’s cousins. From a distance you see two pretty young ladies with long blond hair. Close up they are young Israelis, serving in the army, shouldering tremendous responsibilities. “You heard about the soldier who was ‘wounded’ today in Gaza…in fact he lost his leg.” That’s Israel. Young people risking life and limb to defend their country. Young lives cut short, young bodies maimed for life, a few words in the news, a lifetime of sorrow…a treasure trove of heroism. A lifeline!
I had hoped to clear the decks and enjoy a few days of dolce far niente, but I want to finish my PJM article before we leave Israel…. And that was the morning and the noon of the next to the last day.
No buses on Shabbat, so we take a cab to Zippy’s apartment in the colorful Agam building on the coast near Herzliya. Tel Aviv is sprucing up in all directions. Traditional Bauhaus buildings in the city are renovated, new buildings are going up all along the coast, real estate is booming, the economy is flourishing, energy is sparking and bounding, high-tech companies are bustling…and at this very moment, a stone’s throw away, Palestinians mired in hatred are killing each other and still thinking they can kill us. This Middle Eastern focal point is a living metaphor. Look there: this is what they think, this is what they preach, this is what they have become. Look here, this is how we think, this is how we live, this is what we have become.
Can you see it? Just remove the seven veils of accusation against the Jews. Just suppose, for a minute, that free human beings must take responsibility for the consequences of their thoughts and acts. Just assume, for the sake of argument, that Israel is what it seems, Palestinian society is what it seems.
Zippy closed the yoga center yesterday. Twelve years of utter devotion, deep satisfaction, and spent energy. A chapter she felt had to be closed, but she’s taking it like a blow to the midsection. She receives us gracefully. Offers food and drink. A friend drops in. J. and I go down to the Olympic pool for some real swimming, can’t make it to the beach this time. Zippy joins us. A charming young grandmother recently back from a few years in the States, where her husband was on an official mission, chimes in and the conversation bubbles. Friendship forms so quickly in Israel. You always feel like you’re tearing yourself away.
We watch the sunset over the sea from Zippy’s balcony. A large stretch of dunes with scraggly vegetation between the beach and the built-up area stands as a reminder of Tel Aviv’s origins. We shower and dress and drive into town to meet friends for dinner. Traffic is blocked. There’s a huge demonstration at Kikar Rabin in protest against the public prosecutor’s decision to let President Katsav off the hook with a plea bargain in the face of rape and sexual harassment accusations. Zippy gives us the dirt on Katsav’s lawyers.
We couldn’t get a table at NG, recommended as the best steak house in Tel Aviv, so we enjoy another meal at Tazza d’Oro. Israel Feldman and Maryse came in from their moshav near Yavne. Our buddies Tom and Paul join us. Maryse is from Martinique, lived in Paris-actually we moved in some of the same circles in the 70s-met Israel and embarked on a singular course. She has converted to Judaism, speaks Hebrew with natural ease, is beautifully integrated into Israeli society. She recently opened a small studio on ben Yehuda Street where she designs and makes wedding gowns for a refined French client√®le. Israel is a psychoanalyst, specialized in victimology… needless to say his services are needed in this brave country, assailed by shahid operations, Qassam and Katyusha attacks, and assorted genocidal projects. He offers me a copy of his new book, La Deuxi√®me √©tape du sionisme: Justice restauratrice.
Sunday morning we finally set out for the beach…but I make a mistake, we take the wrong minibus-in fact it’s the one that goes to Neve Tsedek. We walk up the promenade toward Frishman. The sea is in an uproar. J. notices a police boat trolling. “Someone’s lost.” Four or five young Ethiopian women, visibly distressed, stand with a policeman who seems to be communicating with the boat. Obviously the reply is negative. I look into the face of despair vast as the sea. One of the young ladies sobs. The others hug her. We pass by, leaving a page of human drama unfinished-maybe the person is on dry land, looking for these friends who are looking for her, or him?
We go down to the beach, spread our pagnes on the sand, stretch out in the sun. The lifeguards are like Jewish mothers with biceps, never taking their eyes off the churning waters, calling out to bathers one by one, come in closer, don’t go out so far, watch out for the undertow, stay away from the rocks. At least I assume that’s what they are saying. I wade in up to my knees. The current almost knocks me over.
Hey, we’ve got to leave. Just time enough to walk home at a fast clip, with a quick stop Cup O’Joe’s for a takeout iced coffee (the best, we tried them all) shower and dress, and walk down Arlozorov to lunch at Giordana Gregio Levi’s. We admire the sleek modern renovation of her new apartment, enjoy the cross ventilation, delight in the pasta al dente, munch grapes, stroll through the wedding album and have to rush off without seeing Raphi. J. goes back to our place, and I find a bus that takes me close to Mike’s Place where I have an appointment with Richard Landes (The Second Draft and The Augean Stables).
We’ve worked together and separately on the al Dura blood libel. Stubborn stain! No Shabbat dinner with Richard and Esther this time around in Jerusalem; he was in the U.S. We have to be satisfied with a cold drink and quick catch up on his news, my news, ongoing projects, stymied projects. Richard and Esther are going to a 3 AM concert at Masada. And I have to get ready for a wedding.
Kibbutz Palmachim, half an hour from Tel Aviv, 20 kilometers from Gaza, spreads on a soft rolling hill overlooking the sea. Founded in 1949 by members of the Palmach it has evolved from agriculture to industry, looks like a country club, and offers facilities for weddings and other celebrations. The weather is perfect. We’re greeted by a small jazz ensemble, Liora’s sister is the singer, the ambiance is international, young, relaxed, charming and generous in the image of the bride and groom. Israeli-European-American warmth, grace, and freedom. The chupa stands against a majestic background of sea and sky. The rabbi wears a bright red Snoopy tie “to put the bride and groom at ease. The ceremony is short and sweet, the buffet is bountiful. Conversation flows like wine in our “press center,” with Daniel Doron, Tom, Paul, James Cantor from the IHT, and mutual table hoppers.
Bittersweet pleasures of our last night in Israel, promises to meet soon again here, there, wherever. This summer night at Palmachim by the light of the full moon in the joys of our friend’s matrimony, is a gem, a blessing in itself.
We’ve lovingly cleaned the studio, packed our bags, closed our computers and are about to leave for the airport when I get a phone call from Molly Gerver who wants to tell me about her experience helping Sudanese refugees. They’re great people, they want to learn, they want to have a decent life, they have been persecuted, our government doesn’t want to help them, they’re going to send them back, it’s too cruel, I don’t want to live in a country that turns its back on these people in need. Sudanese and other African refugees are pouring into Israel. Muslims fleeing Muslim persecution in Muslim countries, seeking refuge in Israel! You know, Israel-the-apartheid-country? And this lucid young Israeli who is perfectly aware of the impossible logistics, who knows about illegal immigrants by the thousands, the tens of thousands washing up on the shores of Europe, who knows that many of these refugees carry the disease of genocidal hatred of Jews, can’t condone the refusal of her country to open its arms.
Countless volunteers like Molly have stepped forward to offer the refugees food, shelter, medical care, schooling, jobs. But they know that their benevolence is stimulating what would become an overwhelming flow of distressed victims fleeing the cruelty and indifference of their own people. And I should tell Molly to harden her heart?
What is the sum total of my twelve days in Tel Aviv? Why did I overcome my profound reserve and expose my public-private life? Is it fair to write in this offbeat way about friends who exist publicly in their own right? At the risk of offending, glorifying, shortchanging, overdoing these tablecloth sketches? How can I justify this long detour when pressing political issues are knocking at my door? Couldn’t I just cherish fond memories of Israel and keep them to myself?
If those were only my days, my friends, my pleasures and encounters, I could not justify the self-indulgent reproduction of a slice of my delicious life. But it’s not just me, it’s Israel. A very special vitality, an immensely endearing sociability, awe-inspiring courage, tremendous human resources, intensity, creativity, industriousness, joie de vivre, sense of humor, a hotbed of humanity, a miracle.
This is the Israel that Arab-Muslim nations have been trying to destroy ever since the rebirth of political Zionism. This is the Israel that Ahmadinejad and cohorts are promising to wipe off the map. This is the Israel that is condemned by the U.N., trashed by international opinion, demonized by the Left, abandoned by people who should know better. This is the Israel, the tiny Israel, that peace processors want to destroy by serial amputations. This is the Israel that so-called Palestinians have been ceaselessly attacking with barbaric cruelty.
And look how sweet and beautiful is Israel. Look how it prospers, look at its strong healthy children, listen to the birds, look at the flowers cascading in voluptuous abundance.
What is the solution to the Middle East crisis? That’s the solution–that indomitable vitality, pleasure, and resilience embodied in the individuals, one by one, who make up Israeli society.
So you want to destroy Israel? Well buzz off buddy. Kick yourself in the pants and swallow your tongue! It’s about time somebody told you the truth: you’re melting down in your own cauldron. You guys think you’re so scary? You know what? You’re nothing but pathetic, mediocre pipsqueaks!