Monday, May 31, 2010

Yalla, bye

My very special year in Israel is coming to a close; this June blog will be my last from what my friend and tour guide Zvi Levran calls "The Over-Promised Land". It is almost impossible—no, make that it is impossible—to describe how transformative being in Israel has been: to live here and not be a tourist; to make new friends; to join a synagogue and become part of that community; to try experience Israeli life as fully as possible; to become fluent again in Hebrew; to not just see but to be. The year has been all that we hoped for and more. Now as I prepare to come back to Toronto, I am thinking about the best and the worst of life here, and have compiled for this last blog my list of hits and misses. These musings are in no special order of importance.

What will I miss most about Israel?
  • Real humus, and people pronouncing it correctly (versus middle Americans who call it hum-us instead of hoo-moose)
  • Living on Jewish calendar time
  • Not having to explain what Shmini Atzeret is
  • Throwing Biblical and Talmudic expressions into every-day Hebrew
  • Making reference to what portion of the week it is and people being interested
  • Being an hour away from the Mediteranean (and 2 hours away from Greece and Turkey, 4 hours from Paris and London)
  • Fruit trees in public spaces
  • Never having to try and “pass” for not being Jewish
  • Never having to say your sorry for being Jewish (though sometimes what Jews do here will embarrass and distress you, see below)
  • Eating locally and in season all year long without having to eat only potatoes and turnips from November to March
  • Intense Shabbat dinner-table conversations about politics, people, passion, power
  • Intense bus conversations with total strangers about war, women, weather, work
  • Intense feelings and intense experiences
  • A shul on every corner (and most of them quite good)
  • Being invited by almost total strangers for Shabbat dinner or Pesach Seder
  • The parade of monks, nuns, and other assorted religious types in in the Old City in their various robes, cloaks, and hoods
  • Being able to study any day of the week with any number of “celebrity” Torah teachers
  • The Friday night walk home from shul
  • The joie de vivre of most Israelis, and of Tel Aviv
  • Interesting caves and springs where you least expect them
  • The feeling that you are part of something large and historic and important
  • Feeling like everyone is family
  • Beggars who use Bible quotes to get at you
  • The ability to speak your mind freely and not be considered impolite
What will I miss least?
  • Feeling like everyone is family
  • Beggars who use Bible quotes to get at you
  • The ability to speak your mind freely and not be considered impolite
  • Constant pushing, shoving, yelling —and the excuses people make for incredibly bad, rude behaviour under the rubric of “well, thats Israel...”
  • The scandalous behaviour of the government
  • The infighting, power struggles, and near-enmity between almost all sectors of Israel
  • The car-honking that follows as soon as the light turns green and you haven’t had a nano-second yet to put your foot on the gas
  • The incompetence, attitude, and inability of most public servants to see past their own buracracies.
  •  The frustration of not being smiled at, served, or even acknowledged in a store or restaurant
  • The opposite: being hounded, harrassed and hassled by overly aggressive salespeople and shopkeepers
  • Being yelled at while trying to daven at the Kotel and not being able to wear my tallit there freely
  • No seasons and no leaves changing colours
  • Overly salted food
  • Bus drivers who see you running for the bus and then pull away
  • Bad singers and even worse musicians playing downtown on the pedestrian mall
  • Constant comments and questions about my being a Rabbi
  • Large groups of religious Christian tourists blissfully unaware of the modern Jewish connection to the “holy land” they are touring
  • Those same groups laughing and taking pictures of how funny they look in paper yarmulkes at Jewish holy sites
  • Large groups of (“what? There’s no Starbucks here?”) Jewish tourists who act as if they “own” the hotel, the restaurant, the site; in fact, the whole country
  • Taxi drivers who overcharge and then yell at you for being difficult
  • The Jerusalem light-rail that may never be
  • Fundamentalists on either (or any) side
  • The conflict and all its complications

Yikes, looks like its about even...

So what am I taking with me from this year? (You mean besides a jar of cherry tomato jam, some real stone-ground tehina from the Old City and some new jewelry?) The feeling of understanding so much better what being a part of Jewish history is; what it means to struggle, and to triumph, and to be a victim and a victor; the danger of being a triumphalist or a victim or a victor; what it means to long for peace and what it means to work for peace and what it means to compromise for peace; how to dream bigger, and how to live smaller; how to reach higher and stand more firmly planted; in short—what the “real” in Israel means.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it monthly. As they say in Israel- “yalla, bye.”

And now...some personal "faves":
Favorite humus place in Jerusalem: Ben Sira (on Ben Sira Street)- really the real deal; 2nd prize goes to Pinati on 13 King George but don't think to linger there, its just for a quick bowl of warm yummy humus.
Favorite humus place in Tel Aviv: Bahadunus on 175 Dizengof
Favorite Tel Aviv hotel: Alexander Suites near the port or Cinema Hotel in town. Also Park Plaza Orchid on Hayarkon has a gorgeous view from the lobby and a nice breakfast but only stay in their renovated rooms.
Favorite Jerusalem Hotel: Mt. Zion (renovated rooms are better)
Favorite BEST EVER spa: Carmel Forest Spa near Haifa
Favorite bed and breakfasts: Villa Lilya near Rosh Pina; second place goes to Yekev Smadar in Zichron Yaakov
Favorite Emek Refaim sushi: Sushi Bar
Favorite downtown veggie restaurants: Tmol Shilshom or Village Green. For a "fancier" veggie meal go to Te'anim on Emile Botta.
Favorite Machane Yehuda fishmonger: Dagim shel David
Favorite Machane Yehuda breakfast place: Emil (try the shakshuka; see below) or Mizrachi (try Moran's leek-apricot quiche.)
Favorite BEST EVER Challah covers, tallitot, and many other great souvenirs, too many to name,  is Yad Lakashish (Lifeline for the Old), 14 Shivtei Yisrael. Beautiful hand made products done with love by 80-90 year olds. Shopping is a pleasure and a mitzvah.
Favorite shops on Ben Yehuda mall: Vizon (ask for Rami) or Bat Sheva gifts (ask for Oved). Worth going around the corner to Ganz on Rivlin Street; ask for Suri. There are so many places that have lots of chazerai, these have some finer things.
Favorite jewelry stores: Thats a hard one; there are so many. Our fave is Nahalat Benyamin crafts fair on Tuesdays or Fridays in Tel Aviv. Also check out the hand made jewelry at Yad Lakashish (see above.)
Favorite health food store: there aren't that many, but among the better ones is Z'mura on Amatzia (off Emek Refaim) or its sister store with a little cafe on Yad Harutzim (off Rivka.) Anise is more common and overpriced; Teva Net in Machane Yehuda leaves alot to be desired.
Favorite shakshuka: hands-down best is at Moma in Jaffa (Oleh Tzion 7). Second prize goes to the green shakshuka at Emil's.
Favorite croissant and hot chocolate: Cafe Betzalel on Shatz Street, across from Betzalel Academy. The hot chocolate is made with hot milk and truffles, need I say more?
Favorite bakery: Bet-Lehem on Derech Bet Lehem. Say hello to Sigal for us.
Favorite Friday flowers: the guy at the gas station on the corner where Keren Hayesod becomes Emek Refaim. Also sometimes the guy in front of Super Moshava on Emek Refaim. Actually any guy selling flowers on any street corner.
Favorite ice cream: Arlequin in Tel Aviv. Forget ice cream in Jerusalem; Aldo is everywhere and its just ok.
Favorite Old City humus: Abu Shukri, aboslutely. The small one across from Lina (its direct competition) is better than the big one near the Austrian Hostel.
Favorite Old City shopping: Just wander around. Go deep into it to get past the more touristy places, and then forget about ever finding the same place again.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tel Aviv: The City that Doesn't Sleep

Something you don't see every day: An Arab woman in full face covering buying halva from a secular Israeli at a Tel Aviv street fair.

In his book A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz writes, “It’s not just that the light of Tel Aviv was different than the light in Jerusalem, more than it is today, even the laws of gravity were completely different. People walked differently in Tel Aviv: they leaped and floated, like Neil Armstrong on the moon...Sea. Light. Sand, scaffolding, kiosks on the avenues, a brand-new white Hebrew city, with simple lines, growing up among the citrus groves and the dunes. Not just a place that you buy a ticket for and travel to on an Egged bus, but a different continent altogether.”
My friend and tour guide Zvi Levran puts it this way— Tel Aviv: sand, sea, and the search for identity.
    Jerusalem, on the one hand, is a poet’s playground. It is mythic and mystic. It isn’t just a place, it is larger than life. It is one big synagogue, one big Jewish think-tank. It is a boiling pot of Christian sects arguing over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre together with secular Jews fighting for a movie theatre open on Shabbat together with female Conservative Yeshiva students proudly wearing kipas on the bus together with Haredim briskly walking to the Kotel together with wide-eyed Korean tourists snapping pictures at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. Jerusalem is exactly what you would picture it to be when you sigh and say “Jerusalem.” You miss Jerusalem even if you’ve never been there. Cynthia Ozick put it best, I think: “...despite its pavements, sewage systems, electric companies, bureaucracies, schools, offices, garbage disposal, all the data that would define a real city, Jerusalem is now, right now, what it has always been: a sustenance, an aspiration, an ascendancy, an idea, a city of the mind.” But Jerusalem can also drive you crazy. In fact, there is something real called The Jerusalem Syndrome in which seekers come here, think they are the Messiah or King David, and end up in the psychiatric ward. The religious tension is palpable and the operative word is “intense.”
    Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is New York with a beach. Walk down Shenkin Street and all you’ll see is English. Unlike Machane Yehuda, the fruit and vegetable open-air market in Jerusalem which takes up several city blocks and has a life of its own, the Carmel Market seems a pale, old-fashioned shuk which doesn’t really fit in anymore; one long row of vendors who don’t really mean it when they hawk at you and a kind of embarrassment that there “still” is an outdoor market at all. Tel Aviv screams: new port, downtown, boutique supermarket, Nahalat Benyamin upscale crafts fair. There’s no Arab shuk, no colourful exotic-looking Christians in hoods and robes. Of course there’s no Kotel, no locus of holiness, and the Chasidim look utterly out of place. It has a vibe, a young, hip, I’m-oh-so-cool-Telavivian kind of vibe, even on Friday nights when the stores are closed and the streets are quiet. Unlike Jerusalem where you hear z’mirot as you walk home on Friday night, in Tel Aviv you hear guitars and radios. Tel Aviv is Paris, and people dress the part. Unlike Jerusalem where the “look” is as many layers and long skirts as you can wear with a big head-scarf, in Tel Aviv the “look” is black on black, skinny girls in tight dresses and guys in “I’m-just-coming-from-the-beach” board shorts.
    We get on a bus in Tel Aviv and the driver is a woman, short butch haircut and lots of tatoos. We pass a store called “Kingdom of Pork.” Openly gay couples hold hands and you have to ask first if the restaurant is kosher. But Tel Aviv can also drive you crazy. What is Jewish here besides for hearing some Hebrew? Who is thinking about Jewish identity here that goes beyond building a city out of sand dunes?
    Jerusalem is Biblical history, where Abraham walked and King David sang. You feel old there, not old in a bad way but part of some ancient story that includes you and makes you feel part of something that goes back a long, long time. Jerusalem is all sweeping vistas, gorgeous golden light at dusk and the Golden Dome and the walls of the Old City which draw you in and make you want to connect. Jerusalem is about Shabbat which feels natural. Jerusalem tells you stories about your past, about a time you didn’t know you were a Jew. 
    Tel Aviv is Zionist history. You meet The Great Names there: Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ahad Haam. You meet them in their top hats and Sunday suits and walking sticks in the cafe, and you have intellectual debates over the normalization of Jewish history “now that we have a State.”  You sit with them in the park on Shenkin and discuss the Jewish character of a Jewish country as Filipino nannies wheel their elderly charges around and you say to yourself “that old man danced in the streets here when Ben Gurion declared the State...that old woman planted the trees here on Rothschild Boulevard.” Tel Aviv makes you breathe and smile and laugh. Tel Aviv makes you want to learn the new Israeli dances. Tel Aviv also tells you stories about your past, about a time you didn’t know you could live free as a Jew.
    I don’t know where I would choose to live, in the City That Doesn’t Sleep or in The City of Light. Which one is “a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there?” What a blessing to have the choice.