Congratulations! You’ve made your first Israeli friend. I know it wasn’t easy. You’ve bridged an enormous cultural gap. But wait, what’s this? An invitation to said friend’s house for dinner. Tonight?? Well, not really an invitation. More like a, “If you aren’t doing anything tonight come on over. The wife is making some stuffed peppers. No big deal”. Whoa. Slow down. I know what you’re thinking. This is all so last minute. I don’t have time to buy a gift. Or iron my button down shirt. Or cancel my colonoscopy. Meh. You don’t need a gift. Or an ironed shirt. Or to have yet another object inserted into your rectum. You rush, rush, rush so you can arrive, as per the “invitation”, at 8 PM. Here’s how this lovely Friday dinner at your (new) Israeli friends’ apartment will inevitably play out:
• Even before you get to his apartment on the fourth floor (no elevator) you notice that some of the neighbors have left gross-looking, awful smelling trash bags outside their door. Do not fret. This is a religious offering to the prophet Elijah who protects the interior of your house/apartment/mobile home from any foul smelling rubbish. He comes in for the ceremonial wine and takes the trash to the bin on the way out.
• You notice strange magnets on the door. Lots of them. With your broken down Hebrew you make out advertisements for plumbers, exterminators and locksmiths. A buttload of locksmiths. What are these magnets for? Well not what you would think. They’re actually part of an elaborate scheme by burglars to ascertain whether or not you are home so they can break in. This is done, of course, in complete collaboration with the aforementioned locksmith. So either take them down immediately or never, ever take them down.
• You are about to knock but it’s only 7:55 PM. Is it too early? Hell yeah. Your host is still sleeping. In the meantime you notice another very strange item on the door. It says something like: “Living here and loving it are: Michal, Yossi, Little Itay and Pinchi the Dog.” But wait your friend never mentioned anything about a son. Or a dog named Pinchi. His name isn’t even Yossi. Did he give you the wrong address? Turns out it belonged to the former tenants who have since moved. Your friend has been too lazy to take it down. But rest assured Michal, Yossi, Itay and Pinchi are living somewhere and loving it. Just not here.
• While your host starts cooking dinner you notice the sparse decorations on the walls. OK so they’re not big art lovers. No need to judge. But wait, what’s that? A life-size framed photo of the two of them from their wedding? In sepia tones? Creepy? Maybe, but not in this country. No, here it’s a thing. And do they bear any resemblance to the couple all dressed in white in that huge blow up? Well, kinda. He’s packed on like twenty kilos and lost most of his hair. She kinda looks the same. Except for the hair. She’s now a brunette. Oh, and she’s had a boob job. And a nose job. On second thought she looks nothing like that blushing bride.
• But there’s another picture on the wall. A kindly old grandfather? An avuncular distant relative? A terrorist from Al Qaeda? No you silly American. It’s the Baba Salli, a religious leader renowned for his ability to work miracles through his prayers. Aha. So you pray for the food to be ready because you’re effing starving and it’s almost ten PM.
• Your blood sugar is dangerously low. You are dizzy. You start to pass out but bump into another extraordinary item you’ll only find only in an Israeli home. A rack for drying clothes in the middle of the living room? Could it be? Yes. It could be. It is! And are those her underpants? Who knew that she wore granny panties? I pictured her more of a thong girl. Well you learn something new every day.
• Just when you are at your lowest your friend lights a cigarette. He notices your sudden discomfort at smoking in a closed room and he opens the window. “You don’t mind, do you?” Why should I mind? It’s the clothes on the drying rack that I’m worried about.
• Dinner is served! Sit down and dig in. There are various types of salads, stuffed peppers (as promised), pitas, hummus, tehina, rice, olives, pickles… but remember your manners. You put the napkin in your lap slowly and pour yourself a glass of water. In this short interval your friend has used his nicotine stained fingers to pick out every diced fennel from the salad and eat it, grabbed a pita and double dipped it in the hummus and the tehina. If that’s not bad enough he coughed so hard an actual part of his lung flew into the stuffed peppers dish. You’re so hungry you eat those peppers anyway, phlegm and all. Oh and you are ashamed of yourself. So ashamed. But hunger plays tricks on your mind.
• The wife clears the dishes. You offer to help but you’re friend gives you a nasty look as if to say, “That’s her job”. He lights a cigarette and asks if you want coffee. Yes. You’d love a cup of Nescafe. No can do. We keep kosher. No dairy until two hours after you’ve eaten meat. How about some Turkish coffee? But just as you are about to contemplate the paradox of how someone keeps kosher yet watches TV on Shabbat, his lovely wife comes out with a bowl of sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and pistachio nuts. Oh great… now we have to sit through a football match?
• If you were expecting an after dinner digestif or some deep conversation at the fireplace you’d be a complete idiot. Or you’d be Swiss. Your friend turns on the news on Channel 2 and watches while spitting out sunflower seed shells and cursing the effing Arabs or the effing government or the effing banks.
• It’s past midnight and your host is passed out on the couch. The Mrs. has been playing Candy Crush for hours and lost track of you sometime during the news. You take one last pistachio for the road and wish your hosts a good night.
Well done. You made it through your first dinner with Israeli friends alive. You are still a bit hungry, your clothes smell like smoke, you know intimate details about your friend’s wife’s underwear and you are pinching a huge, colossal dump that threatens to completely destroy your pants (and your sense of self respect) thanks to the Turkish coffee. All in all a wonderful night out. Hopefully you’ll be invited back again soon. Or better yet, that you too, after living here long enough, might one day leave a trash bag outside your door for Elijah, get a sign with other people’s name on it from Nahalat Benyamin or hang up your wife’s underwear (and yours) on a rack in the living room. God knows I have. But I draw the line at hanging up a blow up from our wedding in sepia tones.
That’s just tacky.