tel aviv – a far cry
may 16, 1999
there's no place better in all of israel to escape the pressure and omnipresence
of fanatical religion than its cultural and feel good capital, tel aviv. trendy
sheinkin street - where every hipster, ex-pat, filmmaker and wannabe filmmaker
come to be seen on friday afternoon decked out like beatniks on bleecker in the
50s, hippies on haight in the 60s, punks on picadilly in the 70s, rockers on
melrose in the 80s, but completely israel in the 90s. dizengoff center - the
biggest american mall clone in the mideast: gaps, cokes, nikes, everyone trying
to be like mike-y, or rodman, madonna, shaq, leonardo - anyone, any thing mass
produced, mass marketed by hollywood, madison avenue - big dollars, big bucks,
the big american cancer spreading its big corporate greed and catchy conformist
product all over the hungry planet. ha yarkon, the glitzy, glamorous south miami
beach of the westernized mediterranean middle east - with yellow banana beach
pubs right on the sand, open all night long, techno music, neon sex shoppes
throbbing along allenby, gay clubs, euro clubs, bagel, falafel, kabob… come ons,
turn offs, tel aviv has whatever you want twenty four hours a day.
but i didn't know all this. not yet. benny and i have just gotten back from the
confrontational west bank, when the next day, raphy and maya have already
arranged a trip to tel aviv for us to see a children's opera composed by their
young and renowned friend, gil shohat. so… no questions asked… we're off. benny,
me, and the four moravs. i figure, what the hell, i'll take my bags - you never
know. fifty minutes later -- and here we are, back on another planet. tel aviv.
it's my first look at the city since my late night arrival almost a week ago.
the architecture is shockingly ugly. no white desert stone like jerusalem. just
concrete and steel. they call it "bauhaus" style, german functional, but i call
it lefrak city, tasteless condominiums jammed up next to one another like
residential prisons in queens, new york.
but there are people in the streets - lots of them. short-haired brechtian
looking dads wheeling cute little baby boys in tie-dyed indian garb; long,
wavy-haired israeli "sabra" women flaunting their sexuality in midriff after
midriff along the profane, lusty streets. the place feels alive. i don't know
where all the black bearded and robed guys went, but they ain't here. this place
is like they said - trendy, hip, happening... loose. i think - i might like it
gil's opera is beautiful, but a little musically weird for my taste - something
like bartok or stockhausen, those plunk-the-piano, atonal minimalist europeans.
afterwards we all go out to a local tel aviv fish restaurant slash tapas pub.
gil's a regular and we get the royal treatment: endless "topes" for hors
d'oeuvres, broiled fish, good local beer, obscenely creamy desserts. benny is
enamored of gil, especially when he finds out that he has been a musical prodigy
and studied with penderetsky. "vhat," he exclaims in his slightly
germano-twinged, excited english, "pen-der-ET-sky? vhat vas it like to study
with pen-der-ET-sky?" gil laughs, not knowing what to do with benny's gushing
enthusiasm, allowing him to turn the conversation into the macro aesthetics of
western musicology. beethoven, nein, according to benny. beethoven, ken, ken,
according to gil. john cage, lo for gil, yah for benny. wagner - yah, yah, ken,
benny can be a little like a laser surgeon with his meticulous curiosity. gil
tactfully escapes, and we manage to spill out of the pub out into the humid tel
aviv air. it's two in the morning, but even in this small neighborhood near the
concert hall, people are buzzing in the streets. it's a far cry from the
early-to-bed, early-to-rise boredom of LA. or the religious orthodoxy and
explosive politics of jerusalem. here people eat dinner at ten and start
partying at midnight - or two in the morning. it's a real city. cosmopolitan.
twenty four seven.
well, my traveler's instinct pays off, because as raphy, maya, and the boys head
back to jerusalem, i'm invited to bring my bags over to gil's and spend the
weekend in tel aviv. we drive back to ramat gan, i bring my things up to the
pink marble highrise, and after a quickie refresher shower, gil drops me off at
the opera tower, right at the end of allenby - on the beach. benny has told me
to meet him there at midnight, and as i walk along the brightly lit waterfront
with its trendy beer drinkers and wine tasters, i find benny sprawled out on his
sleeping bag, exactly in the spot he's promised to meet me in front of the life
guard stand. he's reading one of his robert anton wilson books with a flashlight
strapped around his head. benny's just one of those guys who has exactly the
right thing for every traveling need. what you would never think of, he has. so
we chat a bit - a little mediterranean beach talk about torah & topless
sunbathing - and then he corals me into his all-purpose mercedes and proceeds,
for the next two hours, to give me the thursday morning special: benny's offbeat
techno tour of tel aviv.
we cruise up allenby. the babes in their skin tight tube tops and thigh-flashing
mini-skirts line up in front of the clubs. the hair salons are full. red, pink,
and green hair. tatoos, nose rings. we can hear the throb and beat of the trance
music pouring out of the clubs. i'll bet they can hear it in jerusalem. israeli
techno music, which benny informs me is some of the best and most sophisticated
in the world, is blasting from the mercedes as we criss cross benny's tel aviv,
crawling north to the old port of jaffa. we stop at the all-night abulafia
bakery and score some killer sugar donuts and croissants. there don't seem to be
any fortified "quarters" here. we park and walk around, getting a strong sense
of the city's arab-palestinian smell, flavor, mixed ethnicity.
when it's almost three, we pull up to a place in the factory-laden florentine
distinct on abulafia street. we get out. the area is completely deserted, but
benny seems to know where he's going. we side-step into the entrance of an after
hours club. the thickly accented door people tell us "we're closed", but we can
see people inside the smoky room. we ask if we can just take a look. they say
"okay". upon instruction, we take off our shoes and roll into the joint. it's
name is something like "cannabis" or "reefer", and the early morning partakers
are sprawled all over the floor on cushions listening to "ambient" music whose
purpose is to either bring them slowly back to reality or to sustain them just a
wee bit longer in their drug-altered unreality. most are smoking "narghilas",
flavored tobacco water pipes, borrowed from the sociable arab custom. we order
one - apricot flavored - and draw in the strong, sensual smoke. i order an arak,
the local licorice-flavored liqueur equivalent to italian anisette, greek ouzo,
or french pernod. not bad...
"so this is israel", benny smiles at me, an expression, accommodating every
contradictory custom and practice, with which i will soon become quite familiar.
the next day gil drops me off at tel aviv university. he teaches in the music
department, and i have someone to meet in the film school with whom i've
exchanged e-mail. a fellow filmmaker, dan katzir, is a young, ambitious
documentarian, who having made a splash in israel with his first feature-length
documentary which captured the only footage of the rabin assassination, now has
his eyes on hollywood. dan's film is a "personal voice" documentary, similar in
genre to the one i've made, and we make a good connection. he has a sharp,
cut-to-the-quick take on people and culture, along with the innocence and
contagious laugh of a bright-eyed child. he also has a fascination with, and
love of, clowns, and – i used to be one!
he takes me to a cultural anthropology conference sponsored by the university,
and i'm introduced to many of the faculty of the school, along with the
legendary documentarian, ricky leacock. leacock, an outspoken, iconoclastic,
white-haired force of nature, somewhere in his ninth decade on the planet, has
seen and shot just about every famous personage of the twentieth century. and
he's not too modest to tell you so. nehru, dietrich, the kennedys. kings,
presidents, louise brooks, just a few of the names he drops at our tasty and
talkative indian dinner, giving us a much-needed break between the heavy handed
films about apartheid in south africa and labial surgery in the congo. leacock's
especially into telling dan and i about his life-long photographic collection of
his girlfriends in bathtubs. unusual poses. unique personalities. naked
character revelation. i feign interest while dan soaks it up more, but i delight and flatter myself in feeling part of three
generations of quirky, hard-headed, woman-loving documentarians.
i think maybe i could do something here in tel aviv. like apply for a fulbright
grant and teach film or theater at the university. israel is the only country i
see with a fulbright position for an "artist/writer-in residence". but israel?
this was just my fear before coming here - that having never wanted to come to
this complicated, jewish holy land, that somehow, as life would have it, i would
get caught/trapped/invited here to work and stay. receive an offer i couldn't
refuse. but israel? i'm the guy who fantasizes year after year of becoming an
american ex-patriot: hemingway, fitzgerald, my main man, henry miller. which
means paris, biensur! or at least europe. amsterdam, barcelona, rome, florence,
stockholm, copenhagen, edinburgh - any number of world class cities away from
the amero-centric, mass-marketed capitalization of the planet. some nice rolling
green, cobble-stoned, snow-capped, mountain-peaked kind of place. a place where
i could meet a smart, attractive woman who wasn't obsessed with career or
security and spend the rest of my life with her. a place where i would have to
put up or shut up -- where i would have to stop criticizing the greed and
superficiality of plastic, age-phobic LA - and see if i could just - live.
simpler. wiser. happier. but israel? would it have to be here? was this some
kind of cosmic joke? some reluctant jew "karma"? why, of all places on the
planet, would i have to be lured to this harsh, arid land where people have to
plant their own trees? where stones are thrown instead of walked on? where
everything is a battle, an argument, a debate? oh my God! please, any place but
here. shut up, man. you don't even believe in the dude.
to be continued…..