tel aviv take two – synchronicity, violence, & facades
june 28 - july 4, 1999
wow. i'm chillin’ in my own apartment in neve tzedek, the formerly old world,
yemenite, now trendy, tel aviv neighborhood between the bright lights of
downtown and jaffa, just about three blocks from the glistening mediterranean
beach. well, maybe not quite my own. you see, i lucked out. on the way to the
russian compound from the moravs in jerusalem, i made a few calls from a phone
booth in rehavia and i hooked up with roni myers from south africa. i had met
her at the shantipi world music festival, and she had enthusiastically arranged
a screening of my film (sight unseen) one night in jerusalem at her parents home
in yemin moshe. it had been a very cool and cultural evening with a wildly
provocative question and answer session afterwards, and now roni was on her way
back to tel aviv from her parents - did i want to come along? synchronicity.
traveler's luck. “did i want to come along” (in her cool british/south african
accent)? and stay at her place in neve tzedek? and meet her at the bus station
in jerusalem in an hour? "right," (in my quasi-british imitation accent), "don't
mind if i do. see you there. thanks!"
and so now roni is off at work, and i'm here alone straightening up her place
which is still full of boxes because she never really moved in properly and she
doesn't know if she should really stay or move back in with her brother, or get
a bigger place on her own, or...
anyway, you get the picture. and besides, i like to straighten - and make order
out of chaos - and i really don't care one way or the other if she goes or stays
- because i'm here now, and why not make a home out of a shambles and clean up
the bathroom and consolidate the boxes and wipe off the counters and move the
sofa and make the beds...? it's fun. and i'm a homebody again. and i'm chillin'
in tel aviv, getting ready for my ambivalent re-entry to LA, city of fallen
i discover that there's a daily market about a block away from the apartment. it
has everything. fruits, vegetables, yogurt, fresh eggs, flowers, flat bread,
paper towels, light bulbs, a stopper for the kitchen sink. i stock up and bring
my load back to the apartment, climbing the two flights of stairs like a human
camel. i dig out a few pots and pans from the maze of boxes, find a vase for the
flowers, and cook up a little asparagus, fennel, and cheese omelet. not bad. i
decide to go out for an early afternoon walk and dip in the mediterranean. i
take the key roni's left me, go off to make her a copy, climb back up the stairs
to leave it for her under the mat, and i'm off. not bad at all. how 'bout that
israeli trust and hospitality?
the day is fine. a little hot and humid compared to jerusalem, but there's a
cool sea breeze down by the water. and the local beers over at the banana beach,
and the girls in their bikinis, and the bathtub temperature of the sea - it's
all a perfect mix of new scenery and welcome relaxation. hell, i've been on the
go for seven weeks straight; i deserve a little r&r. well, okay, it hasn't been
all that tough, but hey, here i am in tel aviv, why not enjoy? so i do. i walk
home from the beach just before sunset, stopping off at the local beachfront,
white-marbled mosque (another surprise), and i climb the stairs. the key's still
in place, no roni in sight. i dig out a towel from the "bathroom" box, scrub the
shower, and then get in it. nice. clean. vacation. it's now late afternoon, and
after struggling through a few more pages of agnon, i scour roni's bookshelves
for a less challenging, more relaxing book to read. however, before i can settle
on anything in particular, my cell phone sings out its crazy computerized
musical imitation of beethoven.
alright, i admit it. i've had a cell phone for seven weeks - the entire time
i've been in israel. mea culpa - encore. what can i say: when in israel, do as
the israelis do. so what if i truly hate these instruments of technological
destruction and dependency? so what if i absolutely refuse to have one in LA, no
matter how practical they can be in times of emergency - or lateness - or
lostness? i mean, how many more trendy, teeny-bop high fashion poseurs do i have
to see walking down the street next to their trendy, teeny-bop friend -
simultaneously chatting to some invisible, no-doubt trendy, teeny- bop friend
walking down another street next to their no-doubt trendy, teeny-bop friend -
none of them actually talking to the human being next to them! or what about all
those chic mercedes and BMW drivers cruising down the avenue or the highway or
the unfrequented country road - glued to their cell phones? or the motor scooter
daredevils zipping around the corner, one hand on the accelerator, the other on
- their cell phones. or the countless teenage girls and boys barricaded up in
their rooms, sprawled out on their beds, wasting their adolescent time in
oh-so-important conversations - on their cell phones?
anyway, my rented one rings. it's leora of the desert, the tough, trendy trance
dj from tel aviv who i met in the sinai bedouin camp. i've called her just
before going out and taking my walk. and now she's called me back - on my cell
phone. embarrassingly - cool. it turns out she lives right here in neve tzedek;
do i want to meet her at the white mosque on the beach in five minutes? of
course, why not? i grab an apple and start walking. in about two minutes, i see
leora of the desert walking up ahead of me in her pink baggy shorts, tight
spandex top, and desert flip flops. "hey, leora," i call out. she turns. "hey."
amazing. it turns out she lives not only here in neve tzedek, but literally,
around the alley way from roni. she invites me over. tells me to relax, take a
shower, make myself comfortable. i do. her place is just as immaculate and
aesthetically arranged as roni's is not. it's spare and very -zen-like: shoji
screens, tall fern-like plants. i feel like we're back in the desert -
psychically speaking - only things are citified -and less sandy. she spins some
music for me. i love it. blue room. groove armada. paul oakenfield. i've never
heard of any of them, but they are fantastic. she makes dinner, we have some
wine, some local herb. the night unfolds languidly and deliciously. she invites
me to stay over -- she can walk over to her brother's on sheinkin, he's out of
town for the week. i say thanks but decline for tonight; i figure i better get
back to roni's and be a responsible and grateful guest. we say good night, leora
- and el arik - of the neve tzedek desert.
the next day(s) are more of the same. roni and leora work all day, and i roam
the beaches, swim, shop, cook, eat, read, and generally continue to chill. i've
moved over from roni's to leora's because i can have complete privacy there. i'm
enjoying my leisurely days and balmy nights, and i'm thinking, hey, i could get
used to this.
one morning i'm doing my now-daily street market shopping. i have about eight
different plastic and paper bags dangling from my arms - a different bag from
each different vendor - a bag for tomatoes, a bag for nectarines, one for
asparagus, onions, bread, eggs, flowers etc. i decide to consolidate and put one
bag inside the other. the street is crowded; there are no check out stands, just
tons of people, vendor stands, and merchandise. so i decide to put my bags on
top of a stand of hard candies. i'm not thinking much about it, and i'm in the
middle of my consolidation, when the candy stand vendor starts screaming at me -
in arabic. oh no. deju vu. kings’ highway, jordan. it doesn't take me long to
figure out that he's angry that my things are on top of his things. i apologize
and start picking up my bags as quickly as i can. apparently, i'm not quick
enough. he continues ranting, fueling his own rage, and adds the two words of
heavily accented english i do recognize, "fuck you". what! what did he say? i
can't believe it. in a split second, i completely and instantaneously - lose it.
bing! i pick up one of his nearby apples and i start to hurl it at him. but as i
follow through, something instinctively stops me - and i break the violence of
the throw and toss the apple gently up in the air so he can easily catch it -
which he does. however, this sends him further into an irate fury. he bends down
furiously, and grabbing a baseball bat-size club from the ground, he runs out
from behind the stand with it - straight at me.
thirty seconds before i was just casually shopping in the daily market in neve
tzedek for fresh fruits and vegetables; now suddenly i have an out-of-control,
arab maniac wielding a club over his head trying to smash my brains out. i throw
up my hands to protect myself, dropping my bags around me. there's instantly a
huge crowd parting around us like the red sea, and i'm suddenly the target in a
sudden swirl of chaos. i feel like in the next mili-second, i'm going to get
smashed in the face - or on my skull - with a baseball bat. i cower for the
blow. my head whips around and my glasses go flying to the ground. i don't know
exactly what happens next. maybe the flying glasses make him pause, maybe he
catches himself in mid-violent frenzy, maybe he somehow impulsively realizes
that it's not a good idea for an arab vendor to bludgeon an american tourist in
the middle of down-town tel aviv; but somehow, he holds the moving club back
before delivering the blow - barely - and still trembling with fury, he
violently and decisively - spits in my face.
my god! i'm not struck. i grab my spit-on face and whip around to the ground to
grab my glasses. i have no instinct to strike back, only to flee for my life. i
bump into people, the crowd separates, then closes back around me. i go hurtling
off in one direction, back towards leora's; the lunatic street vendor is thrown
in the opposite direction, swallowed up into the crowd. it's over. just as
suddenly as it began.
holy shit! what was that? i'm trembling. walking down the street and trembling.
i have my glasses back on my face. i have all my bags of groceries. there are
swarms of people around me again - shopping, talking, smiling. everything is
back to normal - like it was three minutes ago. as if nothing happened at all.
wait, what did i say? "normal"? this was normal. violence erupting in the middle
of a bright sunny day. in a common market place. in the middle of tel aviv. not
in explosive jerusalem. not in the contested west bank. but in “secular”,
“modern” - tel aviv. violence - an inch under the skin. a casual beat under the
surface. i put my things on his things. property. ownership. antagonism. hatred.
an inch under the skin. sure, i was stupid. i shouldn't have reacted to his
cursing me. i should have known better. but i didn't. i put my fruits on his
candies. that's all it took - a casual error in judgment - an unprovoked,
ordinary, every day act -and bam! i could have been dead - or lying there in a
pool of blood -a headline, a casualty - or - nothing at all. just a blip, a
blink, a spit in the eye of intolerance, brutality... history.
it takes me a few hours to settle down. i bring my groceries back to leora's and
run down to the beach. i shake my hands at my sides and try to fling off all the
pent up and absorbed violence inside my head and chest. soon the sun, the surf,
and the familiarity of my routine has me back in the swing of things. a little
breakfast, some more exercise, a distracting and refreshing dip in the sea, and
i'm back to “normal”. of course, what i soberly realize is that normal in the
mideast is not normal in america. and that as smart and sophisticated as i try
to be, that i am only a babe in the woods in the world of international
relations and cultural differences. and that if i truly value my life, i'd
better watch my p's and q's a bit more carefully while i'm cavalierly dashing
about on my ethno-centric trips around the globe. otherwise, in a split second,
i may very well no longer have that life.
that afternoon, with a clearer head and a calmer heart, i take a walk over to
the suzanne dallale art & cultural center. nestled gracefully in the corner of
crumbling, but gradually gentrifying neve tzedek, the busy center is a
well-groomed, multi-building, former religious complex that has now become a
high powered, government-subsidized art institution. it is the busy home of
hard-working dance companies, avant garde theater ensembles, art galleries,
rehearsal halls, administrative offices, and even a coffee shop and restaurant.
just what we don't have in america. subsidized art.
it suddenly strikes me. the whole time i've been in israel and the region, i
have done everything but investigate or develop any professional opportunities.
well, a couple of times, upon invitation, i did screen my documentary film. and
that was stimulating and exciting. but i was not here for work; i was here for
travel, history, perspective, and adventure. but now, unexpectedly discovering
myself in this slow-paced corner of un-touristy tel aviv, suddenly immersed into
the working reality of an entire arts scene i didn't even know existed, i am
starting to think. hey, what if i stayed on for the rest of the summer? changed
my plane ticket, got a substitute teacher for my LA summer classes, rented a
little place here in neve tzedek, borrowed or rented a lap top computer, and
tried to meet some local artists? i could get involved, write a story about my
trip, maybe even teach some classes. here in tel aviv. wow, what a novel idea.
as i'm contemplating all this and my new career in tel aviv, i see a dark-haired
woman sitting by herself over in the grass against the white plastered wall. i
walk over to say hello. she greets me enthusiastically - as if she knows me.
it's very nice, but i don't recognize her. i figure it's just the standard
israeli warmth and gregariousness. however, it turns out that she does know me.
i've apparently bought something from her just yesterday in the craft market - a
five fingered arabic totem hand - and she remembers me because i was her last
customer of the day. she had decided to stay later than her fellow vendors, and
then i came along. i was good luck. her name is orlee, and she's a sephardic
moroccan jew who turns out to be a veritable philosopher-poet-outsider with a
unique perspective on all things israeli - and otherwise.
we fall into a comfortable conversation. she takes me on a tour of suzanne
dallale, and then of all of neve tzedek. it's one of her favorite places. she
points out the historical buildings, the all-night bagel shop, the beautiful
homes and gardens, and... we talk. "everyone in this area looks so hip, so
fashionable," i say. "and comfortable with themselves at the same time." "oh
really," she says, smiling enigmatically at me. "yeah, they all look like middle
eastern modern hippies to me. or artists. i feel like i could be friends with
them all." "looks can be deceiving," she says, as she continues walking. "look
at that fuscia bougainvillea climbing so cleverly up that wall. it's beautiful."
i look. it is. "what do you mean 'deceiving'?", i say. "oh," she sort of sing
songs her reply, "israelis are not as free as they like to make themselves
appear. fashionable yes, artists no." "what do you mean?" i protest again, my
perception being called to question. "these people are not very free in their
minds. look more carefully. beyond the facade. they are very provincial,
conformist; they all just dress this way because they think it's cool." i tell
her about shantipi. i tell her about the rave on the dead sea. "that's it," she
says, smiling again, "it's the same thing here in tel aviv, but worse. people
are full of ego, full of themselves. they know very little about individuality.
they're just showing off, imitating the east, imitating each other. it's sad."
she's so eloquent. and unsparing. her language has the ring of truth about it.
could i be so off? could i simply be projecting everything i'd like these
beautiful people to be onto them? maybe... i recall very clearly how unconnected
and alone i felt at those trendy raves and music festivals. how unfriendly those
baggy-panted, loose-shirted people were. but i assumed that it was me. i was the
outsider; i didn't speak the language. but now orlee's saying that no, maybe it
was them. certainly partially them. they were not interested in me; they were
interested in themselves. and the same thing here in tel aviv; people are not
open or friendly. when i introduce myself, they're polite - but disinterested.
oh c'mon now, pal, everyone is interested in themselves. not everyone wants to
know the story of your life. but wait. this woman is interested. she's friendly
and curious. smart, open, and articulate. we're talking about things. cultural
differences. world travel. And it's not sexual or romantic. it's just - human.
we're two world citizens, we're vital and alive, and we're talking.
we end up back on sheinkin street. she takes me to her favorite coffee shop, a
storefront backyard with picnic tables, and we order two lattes. i tell her
about my work. i tell her about my idea to maybe stay here in tel aviv for the
summer. "i think your work could be very valuable here," she says. "you say you
teach creativity and self expression. film, theater, writing. well that's just
what israelis need. and originality. and individuality. they need to learn how
to get in touch with themselves. how to look inside. how to break away from the
pack." really? i'm starting to get excited all over again. could i really afford
to give up my LA summer job and rent a place here? what about a computer to
write with? could i maybe get work here and make some money too? what about a
work permit? oh man, so many ideas swirling around in my head. too many
unknowns. maybe i should just take the leap and trust that the universe will
catch me with her big, beautiful net.
"do you think i should really do it," i ask her -- orlee -- my new
philosophical, psychic prognosticator. "well," she says with another enigmatic
smile, "there's a right time for everything." "what does that mean?" i say
truculently. "well, just that. that there's a time and a season for everything
under heaven." oh great, now she's quoting bob dylan. wait, no, that's the
bible. whatever. "what should i do? my plane leaves tomorrow night." "oh,
really," she croons, "that's interesting." right. interesting. my classes
started last week back in LA, tomorrow is july 4th, and i've actually invited
twenty people over to my home in elysian park by e-mail for a barbecue and the
fireworks from nearby dodger stadium. what the hell should i do?
i walk orlee to a bus stop, say goodnight and thank her for a full and
thought-provoking day, and i invite her over tomorrow to my last night's film
screening at dan katzir's back on sheinkin. and i walk home to leora's. well, i
don't literally make it to leora's. i head down to the water and walk south
towards jaffa. i walk and think. it's another balmy night and there are many
arab/muslim families out on the cool grass along the stretch of beach between
neve tzedek and jaffa. the water reflects the orange fluorescent light from the
in-vogue globes lining the pedestrian boardwalk. it's another perfectly soft and
seductive night. what should i do? get on my plane - or stay? come home to my
all-too-familiar routine - or leap into the unknown? superficial, loveless LA -
or stimulating, tempting tel aviv? i can't decide. one second it's one, the next
it's the other. practical or adventurous? the left side of my brain says, "go
home, you've had your vacation and adventure, don't push your luck." the right
side says, "you know there's something here for you; you don't know exactly what
it is, but you can feel it. take a chance. go for it." left or right? right or
left? i walk all the way to jaffa. i stop at the abulafia bakery and scarf down
a couple of chocolate glazed donuts. mmmm, good. i walk all the way back to neve
tzedek. at four o'clock in the morning, still wide awake but also extremely
tired, i open leora's door.
that morning i have a strange dream. a nightmare. i'm back in benny's mercedes.
we're driving somewhere -- up the northern israeli coast to haifa -- i don't
know. there's rocket fire. "katushyas," i say to benny. "we need to find a bomb
shelter." "no worries," says benny, sounding more like crocodile dundee than
moshe tzipper. we start speeding north and end up in a jeep. it's a jeep from
jimmy's jeep tours, and we're up on the golan. the rocket fire is getting worse.
benny's disappeared, and now tzipper is driving the jeep. we're hurtling along
off-road, and i'm holding on for dear life, almost being bounced from the jeep.
"slow down," i scream at tzipper. but when i look over it's not tzipper anymore,
it's my mother. she's totally frantic and she screams, "he's getting closer,
he's getting closer!" "who is, Mom?" i scream back. she turns around and points
hysterically. i whip my head around to look. it's adolf hitler. he's standing
straight up in his jeep, and he has his right arm rigidly extended in the
frighteningly recognizable nazi "heil hitler" gesture. a baseball bat-size club
ominously appears in his tightened fist. oh crap. we're going to be beaten,
killed, wiped out, annihilated. and then my mother's gone, and it's just – me.
and i’m hurtling along - faster and faster - it feels like towards the death
camps or the gas chambers - and i can't stop -- and hitler's getting closer -
and closer - and -- and -- i wake up.
it’s noon. i drag myself out of bed, feeling disoriented and exhausted. i force
myself to do my daily stretches and crunches, take a shower, fire up an omelet,
and decide. i'm going home. i'm disappointed in myself. but i don't have the
stamina. the nightmare has taken it out of me. i guess the self conscious,
beautiful israelis will just have to survive without me.
besides, i miss my dog....