Divya Malhotra

The Flavour of Israel: Oscillating Between East and West

Lost in thought

In July this year, it was my third trip to Israel, albeit a different experience. During my previous visits in 2016 and 2018, I stayed close to the vicinity of the universities in Tel Aviv and Beer Sheba where I had work assignments. This time I was on a conference-cum-vacation trip with my husband. As we started planning our trip, we decided to book our stay with local families via airbnb – the latest online portal for home-stay based accommodations across the globe. Our flight was to land late at night so we wanted to park ourselves close to the airport. Among Airbnb’s highly rated choice was a couple based in Lod, in the suburbs of Tel Aviv. The name rang a bell since Ben Gurion airport was known as Lod Airport till 1973. We contacted the hosts – a young couple out of their military service into university, and they were quick enough to respond along with a generous offer to pick us up from the airport at night. It was a tempting deal and we were quick to finalise our stay without browsing further.

As we landed, the couple was at the airport to pick us up. Twenty minutes drive from the airport and we were in Lod – silent, deserted and dark. It certainly lacked the panache and charm of Tel Aviv. Our hosts parked their car in the parking space, and a horrible unwelcoming stench enveloped the stairs. “Was this choice a big mistake?” I thought to myself looking at my husband who had trusted my decision since I was not new to Israel. As we walked up four floors, I noticed some apartments had Arabic calligraphies while some had Hebrew name plates. Just then, an Arab lady walked by and greeted “Asalaam walekum” and hosts responded back with a calm smile. As we opened the door, it was a beautiful two-room apartment with a huge library of Jewish-Hebrew literature. Since it was late at night, we all retired for sleep. The next morning, as I headed to the kitchen for the morning cup of tea I noticed some research papers on Middle east and Israel politics spread all over the study table in the hall. I was glancing through the papers when the young lady told me it was a part of her graduate program. The couple joined us over tea and started explaining about their tenure in the military. “We met in service. After finishing our mandatory service, we both took a three-month long vacation in India.” I was not surprised. It is much known that India is a popular vacation spot for many Israelis who like to unwind themselves after their stressful military service. I was, however in mood for a different conversation, so I asked them, “I noticed this building has Arab and Jewish occupants. So how does it work here with such political and ideological tensions?” Her husband smiled and said, “It’s very normal for us. There’s always something happening at our borders, we all still greet each other and meet normally. We try to avoid discussing politics but we respect the differences.” They explained how they’ve been living in this mixed neighborhood for years and have never had a problem, despite the tense political undercurrents and ideological differences. Lod has been known for cultural and ethnic segregation. However in 2010, a wall was erected in the city to divide the Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods exemplifying the increasing tension between the two communities, the couple informed us. “There are problems. The wall signifies the deep-seated mistrust between us and the Arabs. But we continue to co-exist.” They shared how they have mourned the loss of friends and relatives in this never ending conflict over territory. But routine life in Israel is a choice between “less violent periods” and “more violent periods”. People seem to have found a way to live with it.

The next day we left for Tel Aviv and spent the day at the beaches along the Mediterranean Sea. It was a beautiful amalgam of cultures; young Jewish girls and boys – skinny dipping alongside Arabs, easily identifiable in their black abayas and long throbes, having a feast at the beach along the Mediterranean waters. The two communities seemed at ease on the same stretch of sand. Ironically, within their minds the same communities are engaged in perennial conflict over “who owns the land” and and few miles away, they are sworn enemies. We enjoyed our walk at the promenade along the Mediterranean Sea and relished the local delicacies in Old Jaffa, but the thought stayed within.

The next day we left for Jerusalem where we had booked our home stay with an Arab Christian lady who lived next to Mahane Yahuda – Israel’s most famous Shuk (open air market).

It was an independent house with a traditional architecture. The host was out for work, so we were welcomed by her handsome cat – Kitsu. We checked in and relaxed, and soon left for a tour of the Old City. I was familiar with the terrain and geography, yet it is easy to get lost in the maze-like corridors. We walked our way through all the four quarters – Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim quarter. However the tensions were most palpable in the Muslim quarter where we sat down to enjoy Falafel at a local restaurant.

By the time we were done exploring the architecturally magnificent and historically rich old city, it was 5 in the evening. We started walking back and few steps down the lane was Putin Pub. The name was fascinating enough to drag us inside. As we entered, we got in conversation with an elderly man who waved at us and shouted, “India?” We smiled and responded in positive. We had received similar attention in Old City also where people would guess our nationality and greet us with a “Namastey!” He was sitting there by himself in company of a drink and some Arabic calligraphy paintings. I enquired about the paintings, and he told he bought these from an Arab “mozleem” calligrapher in Nazareth. He started explaining how deep and profound the words were, and the conversation lingered on for about thirty minutes. We enjoyed our supper with live music and got back to Mahane Yahuda. From an open air market, the place had transformed into a party hall. Live music, mouth watering food, people – young and old, singing and dancing: it looked like a scene out of a Hollywood movie.

We passed through the joyous alleys of the shuk, back to the house where we finally got to meet our gracious host. She introduced herself as a gypsy traveler and exclaimed, “I was brought up in the US but I moved back to Israel few years back because I feel I belong to this place. I may be a Christian or an Arab, but I am an Israeli first. I have experienced the pains and joys of my nation’s upbringing”. She shared fascinating anecdotes from her travels across India years ago and discussed at length how Indians and Israeli societies are epitomes of cultural diversity.

The next morning we had to catch our train back to Lod from Jerusalem Malha – a deserted railway station on outskirts of Tel Aviv. There were just four passengers in the entire train and the 45 minutes drive to Lod via Bet Semes and Ramle, through the mountains, valleys and dried river beds was captivating.

It was Sabbath and we wanted to park ourselves back as soon as possible. While walking back to the apartment from the train station, we noticed the place was predominantly occupied by the African Jewish population. “This locality has a lot of Ethiopian Jews and Jewish Diaspora from African nations”, our hosts clarified as we asked them about the demographic profile of the area. I had read about the socio-economic disparity between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews but I wanted to hear first hand from the horse’s mouth. Being Ashkenazi Jews, the couple shared how the disparities have very subtle manifestations which are not as easily discernible to them as to the non-Ashkenazi Jews. “We may be very quick in dismissing such claims but the fact is that even our Sephardim friends feel the burden of socio-economic inequity, sometimes made to feel like second class citizens”, they added. Israel has the problem of racial profiling like many other societies and Ashkenazi Jewish population somehow has been more advantaged socially, the lady said, adding that the cost of living was lower here compared to urban cities and thus these population groups were predominantly based in that locality. The conversation lingered on as the couple got busy preparing their “Sabbath meal” and we sipped our hot black tea.

The next day we were to catch our flight back to India and the couple arranged for an Arab Muslim driver – Ahmad to drop us since they refrain from venturing out during Sabbath period. Fifteen minutes drive and we were at the airport. Between our stay at Lod and Jerusalem were three days of enriching conference in Tiberius and eight days of sight-seeing across the country. But the stays with local families had a special touch of warmth.

Spread across 22,000 sq km, Israel resembles the Indian state of Manipur in terms of size.  Yet every visit had something new to offer: a different landscape, a unique cultural experience, a new local cuisine. After exploring Israel’s urban cities during my previous trips, I was convinced that Israel is rightly posited in the league of developed nations. Often labeled as “jungle in the villa”, its infrastructure exemplified the glories of western civilisation. However Israel is also known as an amalgam of East and the West – the melting pot of Orient and Occident. This trip was my rendezvous with the other side of Israel; perhaps the “East” in the imperial parlance which is struggling to catch up with the “West”. Nevertheless, scintillating as always!

About the Author
Divya Malhotra is a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been associated with National Security Council Secretariat (PMO), New Delhi as a researcher. She frequently visits Israel for academic conferences and research work.
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