In search of lost time in Israel
Like you, I am very, very old, facing forward while bending backward through the crooked channels of time, disappearing into the sea of Am Yisroel, and yet this is the first time I am visiting Israel in my current corporeal incarnation. And like many of you, my family has endured many captivities – in Babylon, Poland, Russia, and New York – the last of which has been less imposed from without than a captivity of mind and spirit. Sitting here, in a café in Tel Aviv, I cannot help but chalk my tardiness up to yet another series of foolish moves in a life marked by bad decisions. And so, here I am, in search of lost time.
Although abstractly supportive of Israel, it was more an afterthought than the locus of my Jewish childhood. This was before the birthright program, and for a family living within modest means, sending any of us was simply out of the question. As a kid, “The Holy Land” was The Lower East Side and “The Promised Land” was Bloomingdale’s. And not everyone would make it to Bloomingdale’s. (I’ve personally only gone as far uptown as Alexander’s, and that was a while back.) In my childhood and today, I hear more bits of Yiddish than Hebrew in the day-to-day.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve become more knowledgeable of the geopolitical realities of Israeli life, yet I hadn’t visited until now. Intimidated by the sheer expense, I waited, hoping to justify the outlay by combining it with my marriage or an invitation to a film festival. As neither have materialized, and Hashem, it seems, often favors the bold, I look to sow the seeds of each as I go.
After my grandfather died and a genuinely painful period of mourning, my grandmother brought my great-aunt (her sister) and my great-uncle with her on a visit to Israel’s Holy Sites and the beach. My parents eventually also visited Israel, just once. On tour with other Americans and staying at hotels, they didn’t see much of Israeli society.
In contrast, I take the temperature of Israeli society from the vantage of Florentin, a ramshackle neighborhood reminiscent of trendy sections of Bushwick or the Lower East Side. For Israel, the area has a reputation as young and brash, but my room over a bar is hardly loud by New York standards – the soft roar of polite inebriation rocks me to sleep at night. While the internet affords universal access to bad ideas, its geographic port-of-entry within Israel is Florentin, which is conspicuously outward-looking, sporting many signs of Western youth culture, including an intoxication with the political and cultural left. While I might hope that recent wars, acts of terror, and enduring threats of from Iran would inoculate Israeli youth against the derangement of Western media and the excesses of its academic scene, I was dismayed to see communist and anarchist graffiti. Then I remind myself that Tel Aviv is not Florentin, Tel Aviv is not Israel, and graffiti, however shocking, need not actually speak for very many people. Israel is so small and its margin of error so slight that Antifa terrorism could be deeply problematic in time of crisis. However much I recognize that the current rash of demonstrations is emblematic of a complex tangle of issues, as an American, I am embarrassed that my government has underwritten some of it.
To the foreigner, Israelis are often friendlier than expected and always helpful – except for taxi drivers, who are not to be trusted anywhere in this world. (Be mindful of taxi rates for airport pickup.) Israelis also seem more publicly-minded than Americans, with multiple points of civic engagement in a robust civil society, including the arts, athletics, and, of course, spirituality, although Tel Aviv is distinctly more secular than Jerusalem, which glimmers with the otherworldly. And Tel Aviv’s café scene easily rivals New York or Los Angeles, with open facades and the sidewalk seating of a European city, like Paris or Naples, only less formal.
For my first weekend I stayed local, attending shul at the Grand Synagogue of Tel Aviv, a magnificent Art Deco structure whose failed 1970s-era facelift is going to be (thankfully) reversed. At shul, I met a very nice fella who invited me to his home for Shabbat lunch with his lovely family after what had been an ample kiddish. His wife, it turns out, is a post-academic friend of a friend of mine in Toronto. Playing, and winning in, “Jewish geography” in Israel is especially satisfying.
Tel Aviv’s west coast is almost entirely taken up with public beaches and a winding boardwalk harboring running and scooter trails. Even in the winter, people can be seen kitesurfing, sometimes tossed twenty feet in the air. My first run along the Mediterranean made me so happy that I laughed joyously for the full two-mile lap. As a Jew in exile from American academia, a personal encounter with the body of water that has facilitated the cross-fertilization of ideas, art, people, goods since antiquity – civilization itself – was remarkably affirming.
On the walk back to Florentin, I perused Jaffa’s Old City, as well as its market, which is good for costume jewelry, bric-a-brac, though smaller than expected. I scored a gift there for my nephew in advance of his forthcoming bar mitzvah. I also walked to the Carmel Market, which has food items that are cheap and high quality, including succulent smoked salmon and ridiculously inviting halavah, along with a wide assortment of nicely priced dry goods. I grabbed a pair of primo Michael Jordan track pants for 40 NIS ($13), which I wore during the remainder of my seaside runs.
Yes, Israel is expensive as regards food and taxis, though it depends upon how you play it. Bear in mind that the exchange rate is roughly three to one (the Shekel is three times as inflated as the dollar, even now, owing in part to the need to import food stuffs, cost of water, a generous welfare state, benefits for soldiers, and the burdens of needing to protect the country from predatory neighbors). As a hedge against the cost of food, I rented an Airbnb with a kitchen. So, while Israel is well-regarded for its restaurants, I punted, and will have to reserve my opinion for now. I did, however, check out some truly independent film in the form of Itay Ganot’s dance-based critique of the covid lockdown at Cinema Canada, a marvelous vest-pocket film house in Florentin.
My first trip outside Tel Aviv was to Tzfat (Safed), a mystical hamlet nestled in mountains two hours north and a half hour east by train and bus. Israel is tiny, the size of New Jersey, but it contains a surprising array of topographies – desert, sea, lakes, and a northern region akin to New England’s steep, rocky, tree-covered terrain. The air in Tzfat is among the purest I have ever breathed, noticeably sweeter than Tel Aviv’s vaguely diesel aftertaste, its refinement expressive of the elevated spirituality of the town itself. On the bus, I met a young Chabadnik who knows my cousin. They met in Cabo San Lucas, where my cousin was assistant to the shaliach. The Jewish world continues to astound in its intimacy.
Tzfat has been home to Jewish scholars and mystics since the Middle Ages, and dead Jews have been interred there since the 4th century BCE. Its cemetery still draws pilgrims. Davening beside Hasidim draped over tombs, deep in meditative prayer, is a completely singular experience. Tzfat’s artist colony seems geared seems for tourists, offering fun, kitschy art, some of it featuring Kabbalistic words and depictions of the Sefirot. While walking down to the cemetery from the old town, I heard a crack and turned to find a young man in a lemon tree. He climbed down and walked over with two lemons, one of which he offered me. What was I to do? I could not put the lemon back in the tree and hectoring him on the ethics of his gesture seemed wrong as I don’t know its context. I accepted the gift and still feel guilty for it.
The next several days were spent taking Israel’s clean, safe, fast, and punctual trains to and from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’d booked an eight-hour walking tour of the Old City, which was canceled on the morning it was to take place, but I went to Jerusalem anyway. My first experience of the city was via ultra-modern train station, from 278 feet below the surface, but the walk to The Kotel, across two and a half miles of Jerusalem, took me through neighborhoods whose spiritual devotion was palpably distinct from the capital city in tone and texture. The Old City next to the Kotel, fully made of Jerusalem stone, is also a neat treat, but its shops are a bit pricey and its dealers really put on the squeeze.
Visiting “The Western Wall” for the first time was different, though no less compelling, than anticipated. Considering the generations of my family who never had the opportunity to daven at The Wall, I thought I would be very emotional, but I found the experience to be calming and familiar. Rather than break down into a puddle, I felt unusually relaxed, comforted, and deeply cognizant, a sensation that continued throughout much of my time in Israel. Afterward, I met up at a café with Simcha Gottlieb, a friend from the States who was also visiting, along with Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb, his lovely and genius wife.
For my second excursion to Jerusalem, I took a tour beneath The Wall, which exceeded even my already high expectations. Catacombs beneath the Old City are ample and exotic in the extreme, as, it seems, remnants of a much older Old City lay buried beneath much of Jerusalem. Afterward, I davened, and then climbed into an expensive taxi ride to Yad Vashem. By chance, my progress through the exhibits was in sync with a squad of young women in the IDF also taking a tour of the museum. Contrasting these happy, healthy women in national service with the horrors of the camps and the terrors threatening Israel today was the emotional crescendo of my sojourn. I took refuge in a bathroom to collect my face. Upon leaving Yad Vashem, I was engaged by group of Japanese tourists in a very intense conversation about the politics of hate and political violence more broadly.
For my second Sabbath in Israel, I was invited to the home of Rabbi Shaul Raytetz, an associate of my old boss, Rabbi Efraim Mintz, of the Jewish Learning Institute in Brooklyn. Rabbi Raytetz and his family were fun, the food was tasty, and the children were smart and cute. Afterwards, I was invited to sing niggunim, snack, and drink booze with some other Hasidim at 20 Borochov Street, which was among the most fun I had on the trip.
The following day, I rented a scooter to cover some real ground around Tel Aviv. Even with a helmet (as per Israeli law), cruising the cracked asphalt on a scooter is a bit risky if you are new to the city, and ill-advised if you are tired or impaired.
My final full day was spent in Jerusalem. After davening at the Kotel, I ran into a co-worker from Brooklyn who just happened to be there at the same time. The rest of my time in Jerusalem was well-spent at a “City of David” guided tour of archeological sites. Among its highlights were a walk inside an ancient cistern, the remains of an ancient luxury home, and a chilling vista of an Arab section of east Jerusalem built atop an ancient Jewish necropolis.
Israel is manifestly young and energetic, a place of great possibility. It has endured myriad foreign invasions from independence until the present. The unity of its people has been an uncanny and sublime source of strength throughout. If Israel can manage its many internal fissures, it is the obvious future of the Jewish people. And, G-d willing, it will be mine as well one day.