This Year (finally) in Jerusalem!
This Year (finally) in Jerusalem! An old yeshiva bocher’s musings on visiting Israel for the first time
Lifelong indifference transforms into passion
I peer through the jet’s window and it’s there: Eretz Israel. Like a heat-seeking missile, the ground rushes up, filling the oval pane, and my consciousness.
Israel! My first trip. And, finally, a riposte to years of endless digs: “What? You’ve never been? You!”
The nose wheel kisses then perfectly aligns with the runway center-line, the jet slows and judders towards the gate. Finally.
Israel: The Prequel: “You Are Coming” She commanded!
Okay, let me ‘fess up. Our original holiday plans called for lying low, maybe a jaunt to Amsterdam to escape Paris’s claggy blahs. A home game. Israel wasn’t in the cards.
But, just shy of the holidays, my Tsunami-willed sis-in-law, Sophie* calls and lobs in a last-minute travel grenade from her crazy blue yonder: “You Must Come to Israel with me!” She orders her sister over the cell. Stifling any debate, she offers to pony up for everything. Lox, stock, and bagels. Too good to pass on.
*(Real name used as childish payback.)
Despite a lifetime of Sophie’s histrionics, my wife finds sororal resistance futile, but she’s gamely mounting a delaying tactic while staring at me. Though a safe two meters away, Sophie’s stentorian command erupts from the cell: “You Need to Visit! Come!”
I searched my wife’s eyes for a sign.
“Yes or no! It’s your choice.” She lied. The latter said lovingly despite daggers dancing behind her irises.
“Yes! Of course Sophie, We’ll come!” I yelled.
“Yes?? Of course, ‘Yes’, What’s to think?!” Buying tickets even before hanging up.
Result: Paris-Tel-Aviv flights & hotel booked but 12 days hence.
Not to go around paganizing cherished vacation deities, but visiting Israel was never a thought. I am Israel-indifferent. Other venues always shone brighter in my travel firmament. Despite previous opportunities, Israel was a forever non-starter. But now I began to wonder: Why?
Though unsure how this indifference arose, I had a few suspect causes. And as I-Day neared, a stream of dormant memories started willing themselves up from some antediluvian realm and into my very Parisian present. Doing dishes one night I started swaying and singing fragments of the Birkat Hamazon. It’d been decades. “Where’d that come from?” I thought.
Then, different images: A series of micro-vignettes starting with my old rabbis waxing on about Israel which then cut to faded memories of friend’s parents breathlessly describing their latest Israeli adventures….and always, always…the fruit – “..oranges the size of watermelons! Huge! You can’t imagine...!”
And there it was! My Israel indifference the result of prolonged over-exposure during my yeshiva and teen years. A suppressed reaction to an infinite series of “Come visit! Go! You need to go!” “Why haven’t you gone”?! Possibly a freak Yeshiva-PTSD thing? I asked my doc wife who suggested ‘mental defects’ or being dropped at birth as more likely causes. “Both probably!”
Then, in the shower one morning (mangling a chorus of Adon Olamm) it came to me, that one uber-offending experience above all others: The ‘Post-Israel Home Movie Nights. In the Pre-internet, pre-Trip Advisor world, these were reverential soirées chock-full of breathless exhortations usually ending with “Go. You’ll Go! Meet an Israeli girl!” And Israeli ‘fruit‘ always making the final edit. Dozens and dozens of these nights.
Mise-en-scène (Montreal late ’70’s): My girlfriend’s father, Benny, is in the living room with the film projector whirring away: Benny (savvy, Polish, and ‘camp’ survivor) is narrating his Israeli vacation movie….
“…Such a garden, look…so green! Israelis! The energy! The life! They turned a dessert into a garden! Wow! …and the fruit…oranges, see!..Ah..you can’t believe how big Israeli oranges are. Huge! Oy. Like watermelons. And strawberries the size of their oranges! You can’t imagine! ..”
After umpteen such nights any mention of visiting Israel instantly lead to images of stadium-lit, uniform-clad marching bands with cheerleaders rhapsodizing about Israeli life. Each holding a….large...orange!
“GIMMIE AN ‘I’ ”!
“I” The fans roared back.
‘GIMMIE AN ‘S’ …”
You get my drift.
Never Too Late to Learn
To delete these fakata notions and gain at least a nodding acquaintance with reality, I leapt into some phenomenal Israeli resources. One of the more illuminating is someone named ‘Oren‘* an engaging, realistic champion for Israel. His many travelingisrael.com posts (Life In The Israeli Army, A Personal Perspective & Living Costs in Israel to cite but two) offer funny, genuine, and well-researched videos.
(Also worth clicking are riveting are posts by Medium’s Daniel Rosehill).
Reborn, I was primed to visit Israel in a way few other trips had produced. (And I’ve been through a few passports).
Tel Aviv: Swimming In Hebrew & Rabbi Brodi
Fleeing the airport, our first stop was the uber-cool and swanky Back-Stage hotel (a tale in itself). We dropped our bags, ooohed over the room, then bolted for the great Tel Aviv veldt.
We were soon immersed in the balmy and iconic Dizengoff Square (really, a circle and a vibrant cultural and artistic hub…bub). Dizengoff hums with a palpable, life-affirming, and bracingly refreshing vibe. Of lives in full blossom.
Once there you sense an indefinable, undeniable energy…like being in the left ventricle of the heart of a pulsating, spirited, and utterly unique metropolis. (A sensation not limited to Tel Aviv). Yet beyond Endenic weather and superlative urban perks (coffee, noshes, people-ogling) lay a unique experience for me: The language.
There was simply no way of knowing how pleasurable hearing Hebrew all around me could be. Like suddenly remembering words to a cherished song you’d even forgot you’d forgotten (…that make sense?)
As our troop sipped coffee and gawked about, my eyes closed as waves of spoken Hebrew washed over me. Despite my Jurassic-era Yeshiva days, the sounds were an immediate joy (as was not having to recite a passuk (shudder) to Rabbi Brodi). My mental cylinders hyper-alert, my mind began picking out words amid the lilting cadences, like friends meeting after ages apart and reveling in some atavistic connection. Hebrew. Buried deep, awaiting a renaissance.
“I know you!” I said to snippets floating past from a chat on my right. Other terms sprang to mind…pronounced with that unmistakable and uniquely curved vowel intonation only Israelis can produce – like transforming an old 1950’s AM-radio monotone ‘A’ sound into the digitally re-mastered sound as heard in…
“I know” אני יודע
…yodaaaaare. I was loving it.
Language Speakers Cum Pianos
As I’m listening to the sounds – a soothing symphony of intonations and elongated vowels, a visual springs to mind: Massive steamed wooden beams, curved to create a piano’s ethereal sound. “So many language speakers,” I say to myself, “are like basic studio-apartment uprights. But, Hebrew speakers all seem like Steinway Grands…”. (Ninety minutes on Israeli terra-firma and I’m already biased).
My eyes flicker open and I notice a family at the next table. A Yarmulke-topped tow-headed kid is reading a comic and swaying while munching a half-kilo donut. (“Israeli donuts.” I think.. “…huge!”). As I stare, time reverses….
There he is, ducking low in the back row, hoping for invisibility, for safety in Rabbi Brodi’s class. Praying he doesn’t get called on to read the next passuk, which he can probably stumble through if only he knew which one to read! ‘Did they jump ahead?….No, back here…?’
Then, dread. “Dovid, Next!” Rabbi Brodi barks. (FYI: Brodi was a card-carrying member of the Wooden Ruler club).
The student’s face flares crimson and he’s about to plead being mentally AWOL when friend Yehuda stealthily inches his chewed Bic across the desk, pointing to the waiting passuk. Saved! He starts reading…
Back in the present, I refocus on tow-head. No evidence of the half-kilo pastry save some crumbs. As the author of my flashback and near-death experience, he is oblivious despite the red draining from my cheeks.
Exploring Tel Aviv this was but one of many poignant memories which leapt unbidden to mind. Long buried, they would pop up, frail ephemeral flowers after a spring rain, eagerly put on a show, then vanish.
A 15 Mile Saunter
In the dawn mist, we are off to fully explore the city. Among other sights are City Hall, a museum, and Yad Vashem (a detachment of Ukrainian soldiers, all solemn faces, taking it in, perhaps drawing connections). It is a day of meandering and discovery.
We wade into Old Jaffa, rife with hidden and visible histories. Into the crushed humanity of its Flea Market, wandering into boutiques, drooling at micro eateries all crammed into a small urban footprint. Aromas assail, sights inveigle, and finally flagging we surrender to something called Dr. Shakshuka – a restaurant that seems part cave, part abandoned embassy. (The waiters were a bit tetchy and dismissive till Tsunami-Sophie materialized, and rattled off our order in Hebrew).
As is my wont, I chatted up the cook, a celebrity of some stripe and a presence, which ended in fist-bumps and selfies. He just oozed goodwill and his positive-energy needle was vibrating in the red zone. His coterie seemed like old buddies.
Another day, another gratifying Tel Aviv insight. Walking blithely along it hits me how the streets and avenues act as indexes to seminal eras and events. Sauntering along a verdant, tree-lined avenue I glance up and see ‘Rothschild Boulevard’. Yes, we know who he is, but being under its canopied splendor helps catapult that past to my present.
Later, sipping coffee I see ‘Herzl Street’. Yeah, that Herzl. The Paris journalist of the prestigious Vienna Neue Freie Presse who, while covering the infamous L’affaire Dreyfus, and hearing endless chants of ‘Death to the Jews’ realized that Jews needed a land to call their own. On Allenby Street I am back in professor Shulman’s intro Poli Sci class “..the military campaigns which resulted in the Brits ending the Ottoman Empire and taking over Palestine..”). And on and on….
New Year’s Eve. We are moseying along the beach. Sophie, a one-time resident, slows and with a wistful look in her eyes sweeps her arm out, taking in a phalanx of gleaming towers (think: Manhattan financial district viewed from Jersey). “Not one of those buildings was here 20 years ago.” She says. “Amazing”.
An unrivaled skyline
Other images of Tel Aviv spring to mind: City as perpetual construction site. And, city of vivid contrasts – the ancient Jaffa port sitting cheek-to-architectural-jowl with those towers. We cover more beach, sip wine, and wade into more markets where yes, I marvel at “oranges the size of…”
We trekked 15 miles that day. (And despite wolfing down kilos of oily Za’taar bread and a mystery pastry with more sugar than stars in the universe, my diabetes held firm).
“Why Yes, I don’t know Hebrew.”
Just as I start feeling giddy at being able to read more Hebrew, the absurdity of my small victory hits. Sure, I can read (Shin, Sin, and Tzadik soffit aside) but have no idea what it means. A Pyhrric win. Though humbled, little flickers of meaning do slowly start trudging back. My scattered troop of semantic soldiers, cashiered a lifetime ago, finally meeting up.
A Murmuration of Cousins
Dinner with one wing of the clan. Though I’ve just met them all I feel connected. Especially so with clan matriarch Peninnah. Some 5 years shy of the century mark, she was born before Israel existed. She is spry, and a fierce presence.
Peninnah walks the walk and was doing it decades before anyone coined the cliché. She is bristling with old-school cred forged from her kibbutz and Haganah experience. (Met her hub on a military assignment). Lives on the 4th floor in a non-elevator building and gets out every damn day.
If the US has enshrined its WWII-era folks as the Greatest Generation, what sobriquet for all of Israel’s Peninnah’s and others from her generation? (Suggestions welcome). Young men and women all tougher than nails and scarily talented. Spend enough time with Peninnah and you wonder if you’d have had the Right Israeli Stuff to survive back in the day.
Later, checking my watch I see we’re two and a half glasses of Cabernet into dinner. The clan is chatting away in French (the lone Hebrew word tossed in like a log to clear a language barrier). While sharing a joke my wife slips into English and the group, an undulating murmuration of language starlings…immediately follows. Then, Hebrew. Mesmerizing but, intimidating. (I was about curse the lot of’em when I realized, ‘Hey I’m related to this!’ Of course, I probably rank on the left side of the curve, but…My Family!).
In vino Israeli, Veritas
As the night unfolded, and my confidence was buoyed by wine, I figured it was time to yank off the rose-colored specs and leap into the deep end of the family dinner conversation. I had buckets of questions.
“What are your daily lives like? How many hours do you work a day? And the job market? Buying a house? A car? It seems insanely expensive here! (– I’d seen a pitcher of beer going for the price of a small Fiat). And taxes, health-care, …anxieties over ongoing wars? Another Intifada? Are there sugar-free stores? And, what about knitting stores (…asking for a wife)?”
Their candor was refreshing and unsurprising: Most put in more hours than many of my crowd in Paris, (yet nothing compared to the serfdom hours logged slogging it out in Manhattan’s brutal media trenches). On vacations, nolo contendere…not as much, ergo, a tougher grind. Ditto on home ownership. “Buying a house takes far longer here than many other places”, confided a 30’ish son-in-law. “But, that’s just how it is. You want something, you need to go get it.”
As our trip coincided with the still-warm Israeli election results (the 400-kilo gorilla in the room) I couldn’t resist touching the third rail of any family gathering: Politics! “So, what do you think of .….”.
The views pretty much covered the political waterfront: From a) Pessimistic – ‘look, we’re facing dire, looming consequences’ to b) Comparative & Diplomatic – ‘let’s wait and see what he does. Populism swings one way, then back. Who knows?’ And then, c) Hardcore – “Sure, “he‘s not ideal but maybe he’s necessary.” It was soon apparent this wasn’t their first go-round on the subject, especially when the comments faded into family short-hand, then flat-lined entirely the second dessert appeared.
Later, on the balcony, I button-holed a soulful, struggling actor, “What about if we moved here?” He was staring into the nightscape. “Listen, be honest with yourself. What I think doesn’t matter. It’s not what Tel Aviv is like, but what you’re like and why you’d move here. You know the cliches, ‘we’re pushy, blunt, overly aggressive, you know, in your face’, is that a game-changer for you?”
“Not at all.” I lied.
“Bull.” He said.
A Tel Avivian Je Ne Sais Quoi
My decidedly unscientific take of Tel Aviv is of a bustling ultramodern, turbo-charged city-cum high tech start-up mecca punching way above its weight in any match-up on the planet. Beyond bristling with high-tech chops and offering an architectural cornucopia (a plethora of Bauhaus structures), there’s culture in spades! Net: A confident society with many an awesome arrow in its urban quiver. To boot, there’s weather to slay for and achingly good food – all your current faves, and some you’ll soon add. First impressions …sure! Thus the need to re-visit!
Jerusalem: Up Close & Personal
Bright and too early under a lavender sky, we board a minibus and, deeply caffeinated, head to Jerusalem. Our guide regales us with a steady patter of humor, Hebrew, and history 101. We arrive in what seems like 20 minutes. An actual stretch of some 50k’s (33 real miles) using the crow app.
We’re taken to a lookout. Sloping hills with every freighted historical and religious landmark imaginable painted across an undulating canvas. Momentous…impressive. I’m searching for a metaphor to symbolize the moment. Trying to absorb the totality of it. And then it simply pops out. Despite groping for that seminal insight, sometimes it’s just a plain image, caught by accident, that best captures the reality.
Turning from the main view, I see an old two-story home nestled just behind and below the lookout. It needs some work around the windows, and the bricks are chipped. Otherwise a simple home blithely unaware of its being in the heart of one of the planet’s most contested geopolitical flash-points. On the paint-chipped black railing, orange primer peaking out, leans a mop struggling to dry out in the chilled air. Even simple things are tougher here. A faded pink pail, rags draped over the rim, sits sheltered in the balcony doorway.
Fractious, contested history, wars, and political gyrations aside, people live here and attempt daily life. They wake, go to work, make bread, drive a bus, study at school, then try to make it safely home for dinner. Maybe grab a last smoke on that balcony before calling it a night. Maybe wake up in a different country. This too, I sense, is history.
“Jerusalem, M. Zuckerberg is the real Metaverse”.
More history buff than religious fan, I’m utterly enthralled being here. One reason is that while I’ve plowed through a wodge of books over the decades, my grasp of history is still an arms-length one. But, not here. Here it pulsates on every corner, each narrow alley is secreted with tomes of history…with individual chapters bullet-chiseled into beleaguered facades.
Mental Visual: Future archaeologists, armed with some Braille-like AI tech are reading the scarred buildings and learning about their past.
Being in Jerusalem is having a VIP backstage pass to a premier history concert. You are up close and personal with its pan-dimensional, intermingling, and overlapping past. Stick out your hand and you can easily touch history, its gritty message rubbing on your fingers. It’s in the air, the dust, you are breathing in the past. Cramped, condensed, compact, vibrant. Imagine thousands of French Bayeaux Tapestries sprung to life with each offering entry and exploration.
As if to make a point, we grasp a bit of this reality when visiting the Pool of Siloam. Our guide explains how a fresh discovery, revealing more of the pool’s original layout, will mean digging under contested land. And that protests will undoubtedly follow. I’m thinking about this when Sophie and my wife decided to head back via a long serpentining tunnel – a choice that also circumvents a contentious area. It is a dank, claustrophobic but thoroughly thrilling experience. (And not once did anyone yell “Earthquake”!).
The Western Wall
At the end of a second visit to Jerusalem’s varied quarters, churches, the Stations of the Cross, and synagogues we spill into a plaza…and the wall. It is familiar, yet out of mental reach. I’m finally here and, if but for a moment, am between the myth and the reality. (The latter is far better).
I can’t know what other tourists experience, but scanning the clearing I feel adrift in a sea of rabbis. The majority, it seems, with serious etched across their faces as they double-march along. I am soldered to the ground. Something nameless clicks deep within. I glide to the wall entrance and venture in. Inside and yarmulke-clad I gaze up. No words. No prayers. Only feelings. As others pray and explore, my past, Houdini-like, again slips into view. I’m strapping on tefillin and starting to daven. “Where’d that kid go?” I wonder. I watch him for a few minutes desperate for any inkling of his inner thoughts. “Please tell me what you’re thinking!”
Later, the guide and I are eating alone. He is affably unpretentious and informative. I question him non-stop: “What’s it like living in Jerusalem? The city seems like the religious alter-ego of its cosmo-coastal cousin up north.”
“Yeah.. its definitely not Tel Aviv. Which is an advantage, as its less expensive here. We’ve some tough issues over jobs, land, and who knows what.” Mid-40’s he is refreshingly open about the realities of life in the capitol. “It’s complex. No one has all the answers. And often the ones who might aren’t in a position to act on them. Life can be dangerous here and hard, and plenty of social & political drawbacks. But…”
“But, you’re content here?” I ask.
“Yes. Very. To be honest…” He pauses. “Look, it’s just my view. I’ve lived in other countries, you know, seen the choices and my take is, it’s like that American expression ‘Choose Your Hard‘. This is mine and I love it.”
‘Choose Your Hard‘. Later talking with my wife I ask her, ‘why not Israeli hard’?
“Why not indeed?” She says.
Back in Paris, in our routine, we are aware of a change. Not a Cortés burning his boats nor students mounting desks as Mr. Keating leaves in Dead Poets, but our souls’ molecular structure has been realigned with something ineffable, inescapable. A connection.
Since returning we’ve started serious Hebrew lessons. Six days a week. (Practicing with each other and, sometimes the cats).
האם אתה רוצה לאכול משהו…
(Do you want to eat something?)
We had neighbors over for drinks recently. The ones we always talk about vacationing with. When the subject arose this time I heard myself saying, “Nope. We’re heading back to Israel. In June. You should visit.”
“Israel, wow. We’ve never been! It’s supposed to be an amazing place.” The husband said. “The history, the culture, the whole ambiance.”
“You need to go.” I said. Then added… “Oh, and Israeli fruit…oranges the size of….
Far from my first impressions, my going to Israel was anything but a ‘finally‘. It is a beginning.