My fist thrusts into the air when no one is looking and I’ve just turned a phrase well. I celebrate: I’ve done it: used the correct tense, the correct declension, the proper adjectival form, spoken however briefly as one speaks in the street today in Tel Aviv. In my sillier moments I really believe I’ve fooled them, the sabras with whom I interact, at least into thinking I am a recent immigrant and not just a tourist. At least for a few words or sentences, if I keep it simple and to the point, “I belong here,” I say, beaming to myself.
Superficial conversations with strangers can be boring, though, after a while: therein lies another therapy session’s (or three’s) thematic curl. But stretching the envelope is where things get built, and so I asked my waiter in the Almonit restaurant about a bit of philology. Almonit sounded to me like the Hebrew words for widow and widower: אַלמן /אַלמנה. So I inquired if the shoresh, (the usually three-letter root) of the words was the same. It struck me that when one loses a spouse one loses one’s name, becomes literally anonymous. One would not ask a random waiter in New York about English etymology immediately after hearing the specials of the day…
Bits of religion, philosophy, and sociology mixed with philology in my mind, producing an inflammable inspiration about which I just had to inquire of this 20-something boy with a razor-cut hairdo. So I asked about the words in pretty darn good Ivrit and was met with what I understood as a quick “No, they’re not related.” He quickly thought the better of it and trotted off to ask other wait staff, while offering me a Hebrew-language colored xerox page with a history of the founding of the little alley by the Shapira family. Ten minutes later the boy re-appeared, his face all smiles, his lanky length striding towards me in the gravel-covered garden under giant date palms and humongous fig trees. Yes, I was indeed correct, and so the day, lonely and questionable, suddenly was perfect to a satisfied me.
Take a walk in Tel Aviv, down Dizengoff, over in Old Port, where the nightclubs abound, down on the beach, or on Sderot Rothschild. See if you agree with me about one thing. I’ve noticed that men don’t bother women on the street in Israel, in general. No cat calls, no whistles, no honks from passing cars. It’s just not cool, apparently, and I gather that Israeli men know that they will be met with derision, forcefully expressed, if they cross the line. The society, hardly perfect, seems, at least, more egalitarian, women more confident of saying what they want, toe to toe with men, on fields of battle. Army service jumps to mind. Certainly there are employment inequalities and discrimination, sexual harassment cases abound, both in the military and in general society. But all in all, excepting the ultra-religious of all faiths, women seem to me at first (and perhaps ignorant) glance to enjoy more respect and more equality in Israel than most places on the earth.
Because Lonely Planet can be dubiously reliable as to phone numbers, and its middle east politics prone to maudlin, head-in-the-sand posturing; it was with a bit of skepticism that I phoned an off the beaten track ovo-lacto regetarian restaurant in the run-down Florentine section of south Tel Aviv given a big send-up in the latest edition of LP to make sure that it still existed (NOT the case when I visited another of the recommended cafes in the crunchy granola friendly familiar blue guide). To my delight, Esrim v’arba Rupees (24 Rupees) indeed still exists down on Rehov Shoken 16.
Would that NYC still possessed such a place. Barely within human memory: in the early 1970s, when NYC hit its nadir and the blight of Times Square stretched its tentacles east towards Fifth Avenue, Reverend Moon acquired the lease to the northwest corner ground floor space at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue and opened a vegetarian health food cafeteria named The Good Food Cafe where generous portions of kookshit were served up with the brown rice and seaweed at nominal cost…The descendant lives on at 35th Street and Fifth Avenue.
The cuisine far better than its New York spiritual ancestor, and with no sign at street level, 24 Rupees sits on the second floor of a concrete warehouse above a moto-sport dealership along a half-vacant strip of crumbling pre-WW II buildings on a desolate, divided Tel Aviv thoroughfare. Various scenes from Midnight Cowboy could well have been shot nearby; the street resembles the blocks of 12th Avenue in Harlem under the Riverside Drive viaduct BEFORE Fairway and Dinosaur Barbecue showed up. Littered, battered truck loading docks spill onto the street from half-stories above curb level; stray cats wander in and out of cracked doors. Windows in the dangerous tilting walls of the vacant warehouse across the street from the restaurant stare vacantly through their half-sealed sockets in the nighttime gloom at my arrival, the splashes of mortar sloppily applied to the concrete block crumbling before my eyes as I waited for beer to arrive at table-side.
Up the stairs one hies oneself, and off with the footwear. One wouldn’t want to expose the soles of one’s shoes to what seems to be ground into the carpets covering the plain concrete floors, but all in all a sense of friendly filth envelopes one’s soul as you take your seat at one of the low tables and park your arse on a floor cushion or a re-purposed beach recliner waiting to be smiled upon by the feel-good waitstaff.
In short order a smiling girl greets you, offering menus in Ivrit and English. The language matters not: the main choice is between the “Special” and the “Special Plus,” an assortment of dals and rice dishes whose elevation to Plus means one more stainless steel cup of spectacularly well-cooked vegetarian heaven proferred, low fat and hot off the stove a few feet away, where many huge pots sit simmering.
My first essay of this spot was made late in the evening with my classmate D. from the Tel Aviv University summer Yiddish program. My bad: a questionable choice but better than going it alone, I thought… A novice at the town, D. is 66 years old, a doctor born and raised in Long Island, but a long-time resident of a foreign land, where his personal life resembles, by the account offered to me, that of Swede Levov in Roth’s American Pastoral. Company is company, understood, but I regretted it after five minutes at table, despite the euphoria I felt at actually finding the place in the dark, using public transportation without a wrong turn.
I sensed it coming as the server approached our table, a perky young 20-something from the sub-continent with a nose-ring and a 100-watt smile. D. Melted as if a blow torch had been applied to his brain. Disequilibrated:she could have fed him manifest poison and he’d have scarfed it down. What a desperate, hungry soul. The youngster went over the menu and asked our druthers. I could feel D.’s heart pounding as he leered back “Bring me anything, just so long as you keep smiling at me like that.” I cringed and looked away. Did this have to be? Luckily the room was uber-busy; an early round of the Mundial was on the large screen in the room, Chile vs. Brasil, and D. had been a varsity soccer player at Cornell. I managed to mostly distract him for the rest of theevening with a string of questions about the game on the wall. Every time the girl came to check on us, though, I took a deep breath, steeling myself for the next bit of D. Making, at best, a fool of himself and embarassing me. When it was time to go, though, D. insisted on taking care of the check (perhaps an attempt to buy a friend?). Stupid me allowed this, and I ran to the restroom while D. approached the cash register his credit card aloft.
Out I came a few minutes later, and I spied my dining partner ensconced at the register, pinning down yet another young female whose job it is to smile at everyone, plying her with too many questions, giving her too much information, too large a smile. I mused upon the proper size crow-bar to extract his face. What does one do with a slob and a creep? I could have throttled him; what could have been a pleasant drunken evening turned in to a slough of shame. I avoided D. for the rest of the summer, a pox upon him.
The celebrated YIVO founder and philologist, Max Weinreich, once defined the Yiddish nation state: a kingdom with neither an army nor a navy, but a kingdom nonetheless. New York City and suburban Rockland County’s Kiryas Joel community may be home to more native Yiddish speakers than anywhere else in the world, but I now feel that Tel Aviv is true north. There to study Yiddish language and literature this past summer with the world’s pre-eminent scholars, my program included numerous cultural performances at venues downtown. I’ve sat through innumerable concerts and plays in mammaloshen New York, and when they end, I step out into the night, usually excited, kvelling, mumbling senselessly, “Yiddish lives…” The feeling is transient, though , as I come up for air. New York isn’t really a Jewish place. Tel Aviv is. Thus, true north.
At the Felijia Blumenthal Music Center on Rehov Bialik, we were entertained one evening with Yiddish love songs. Members of the center took turns presenting, Young and old, they tried to pose. Several were excellent, most were middling, but the sense of possession, of a cultural territory that is owned, made up for what otherwise palled. “Yiddish belongs here…” I whispered to myself softly as I left the hall and went outdoors. Jews aren’t others here, that’s the difference. Most whom I see, dance at the ball. The songs may be corny, the singers way too old for their roles, but what matters is simple, a truth to be told. In Israel, despite Ben Yehuda and the Ivrit language police of yore, the connection remains unbroken. Di Goldene Keyt, a golden chain, six million links strong. Unlike New York, Yiddish here is a higeh,, a local personage, one who belongs.
Despite its secular reputation, Tel Aviv is in one sense frum; 544 synagogues, by one count, dot the streets of a city of 400,000 that looks more, from its count of skyscrapers, like downtown Chicago. The peace of Shabbat descends Friday at sundown and traffic withers. Perhaps the owners of the public bus lines are observant. The Egged and Dan systems shut down tight, leaving the secular to rely on their private autos, if they own them, or the expensive white taxis that roam this seaside town like hungry flocks of white seagulls, swooping down for fares. A new choice has recently surfaced: through some halakhic loophole, it seems that some of the same companies that operate the main buses also operate sheruts all seven days of the week and late into the night, plying the same routes and only slightly more costly.
Accomodating ten, these huge bumblebees buzz by, their drivers scouring the curbsides along the entire route for flag-downs. With no official bus-stops, the sheruts cruise the right-hand lanes, just like the dollar vans on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn’s Jamaican center, bobbing, weaving, suddently stopping when two driver buddies encounter each other in the clogged streets, a healthy slice of conversation chewed and swallowed to break the monotony of the day.
After a couple of bungled late-night misreadings of regular bus route signs, The 4-אַ became my lifeline to downtown Tel Aviv, a 30-minute, jolting jaunt from my end of the line toward the University, then over the bridge from Ramat Aviv to the center of town. I quickly figured out that I should head to the back once I boarded and paid my fare. Otherwise one becomes a human link in a curious daisy chain exercise in honesty: Most of the people boarding take a seat before paying their 7 shekel fare. The driver is too busy trying not to run over Vespa drivers to make change right away. Then an elaborate ritual transpires, the latest passenger proferring coins or bills, even a 200 shekel note, all passed seat to seat along the five row aisle until it reaches the driver’s right hand, stretched out backwards for saftey’s sake, and the passenger calling out how many people he or she is paying for. Then the reverse: the change is handed back, palm to palm, not a wink or a nod, just trust and faith. God help the dozer along the route; one is soon roused if one fails to play ball.
In New York one sees them occasionally, the Lubavitch Chabadniks in their mitzveh tanks, blaring Hasidic rock music over the loud speakers, idling at the curb as the bearded passengers stand outside and solicit Semitic-looking men to step inside and wrap tefilin and pray. The price of admission is in one sense steep. Tel Aviv lowers the ante: along the promenade at the Mediterranean shore, in the shadow of the high-rises, bars, and seedy hotels, up and down the tayelet a minivan plies its route, American top-40 blasting from the hi-fi, young men in payes and no headcovering save the mandatory yarmulke crammed inside. Whoa ! What are these guys doing now? Up over the curb the van pulls, its driver side wheels aloft, the other two six inches lower on the street. Thrown in park, the fun begins. Around the sound a crowd of shirtless young men gather, their bikini-clad girlfriends stepping back five paces from the vacant eyes of the pious. The roof of the van carries a platform, and several boys, naked to the waist, clamber up the tailgate ladder, standing aloft, their bodies swaying to the music, the van rocking and pitching in a cacophony of lust. I wonder if Reb Nakhman of Bratslav really had this in mind….
The sherut, long distance from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, traverses one of the most storied routes on the face of the earth. Until 1967, the corridor to the Israeli owned part of Jerusalem was a skinny highway through Jordanian land, much like the autobahn that snaked through East Germany to reach West Berlin from 1945-1990. God forbid if you ran off the road. Somewhat less forbidding today, the road much improved from its former condition, the extension of the old Jaffa Road into a superhighway still carries one past dozens of Arab villages perched on hillsides that are a throwback in time.
One of my major accomplishments early in my trip to Israel was figuring out how and where to catch the sherut back to Tel Aviv on a Saturday afternoon. The streets downtown were dead, hardly a car stirring in the blazing Sabbath heat. I persevered and was doubly rewarded. Searching along the Jaffa Road, I came upon Rehov Rav Kook, and there, sure enough, at 15:00 on Shabbat afternoon, a yellow sherut idled, filling up as customers came along. Parked off the main road to avoid Haredi censure, we quickly maxed out and off we rolled. Seated next to me, the last to board, was a tall young boy from Eritrea. Between the two of us we managed, in Ivrit and English. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m alive. The story he told me shook my bones.
A few days before The New York Times published an article about Eritrea’s young men, who have fled the country in droves recently to try and avoid conscription into life-time civilian government service. Leaving families and friends behind, they escape through the desert. Many end up in Israel, where political asylum is part of the country’s heritage. My seat mate had spent five years traveling there, way-laying in Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt and then Israel, smuggled over borders, fearing for his life. With a final push, he’d made it to Israel, where his application for political asylum was granted. He now chops vegetables in a restaurant in Petakh Tikvah, saving money when he can, waiting, with little hope, for the situation in Eritrea to change so that he can return to family and home. What awesome bravery: coyote’d through Somalia and those other violent lands. Sometimes I feel little, polluted in spirit. Imagine the guts this guy has inside. I felt blessed by the anonymity of the sherut. Here I was, a wealthy American Jew, but dressed like any down-market tourist, riding on the cheap. We sat squished together. I would have paid just to listen to his story. Somehow I feel bigger for having been on board.
The jitney dumped us all off on a random street corner near Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Out I clambered into the late afternoon heat, onto a littered curbside near Rehov Na’ave Shanan. The street is an open air pedestrian plaza, the permanently closed to vehicular traffic.Shabbat had hours to go still, the day of rest for workers, Jewish and gentile alike not yet over.. I quickly grasped just where I was. An extra bonus had come my way. An extraordinary shuk spread out before my eyes.
On Shabbat, the immigrant workers who make Israel run congregate here on their day off, drinking beer, eating roasted watermelon seeds, listening to the American pop songs blaring from dingy bars, dubbed in Tagalog, Xhosa, and more. Barber shops and seedy cafes line the edges of the plaza, along with arcades to back buildings where young men pair off hand in hand to who knows where. The sidewalks are bedecked with well-used goods ostensibly for sale. I never, in three visits, saw ANYONE buy a thing, but if you want computer cables from pre-laptop days, 8-track tapes, or household appliances from 1972, Na’ave Shanan is the place to go. The vibe is a safe one; you’d have to be out of your mind to risk arrest for some petty crime in Israeli if you aren’t a citizen. Security is an art form in this land. One slip and you’re out, for good.I felt safer than anywhere in New York.
What better way to introduce oneself to the mise en scene of Israeli cities than by public transportation? The Egged Bus 480 to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv’s Arlozoroff Bus Station (amisnomer if there ever was one) is a case in point. Perhaps in ancient times a station building once stood where the Masaf Alpayim (Gathering 2000) parking lot now sits on the eastern edge of Rehov Arlozoroff in central Tel Aviv. A single wide, beat-up aluminum trailer sits at the edge of the asphalt lot, its ticket windows closed, no public restrooms, no sign of human habitation. Like so many things in Israel so poorly signed, one just asks around. Turns out you pay on board, look at the somewhat functional outdoor tote-board to determine the schedule, and walk across the lot to the Savidor train station if you really need to go…
I traveled twice this way to Jerusalem on Friday afternoons before Shabbat. Everywhere in Israel, those hours are filled with young soldiers hurrying home, their weapons carefully slung over their shoulders, huge government-issue backpacks strapped on their backs. The constant reminder of the importance of the IDF to Israel’s daily existence confronts one at every step. Universal service obtains at age 18, excepting only Arabs, the Haredi, (ultra-orthodox), conscientious objectors, and married women, be they pregnant or not yet.
The state is vitally interested in Jewish procreation. Children are everywhere, not just tolerated, and pregnant bellies abound, Jew and not. Free medical care for life and a modest government subsidy to new parents encourage this breeding. I neglected to inquire if the 100 NS per month comes only to Jewish new parents.
The outcry over religious hegemony in Israel is enormous; nowhere is it more pronounced than in Jerusalem, where the Haredi (literally, those who fear God) are everywhere and rule the road. Flocks of black hats beteem downtown streets, and the proximity of the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Geulah to the main drag Jaffa Road only emphasizes their numbers.
What’s so different in Israel, as opposed to Brooklyn, is how I was treated by the religious guys. I wander frequently in Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and my fluency in Yiddish makes it easy for me to converse with friendly local men, who abound in the middle of the day, most of them ready to help explain to me a Hebrew religious acronym on a Yiddish broadside with which I am not familiar. Half the time they try to convert me, inquiring thoroughly if at least my ancestors were frum. If so, I’m deemed to still have a chance…
In Israel, though, I am a shtik treyf , beyond salvation, and when I ask directions (like in Jerusalem, standing outside the central bus station “Which way is the Jaffa Road?” to which any fool knows the answer, as the station sits right on top of it) the guy hanging out outside the station with payes and a velvet kapelyush (a minimal skullcap in lieu of the larger black hats of various sizes worn by various sects) shakes his head at me: “I dunno…” It’s not a matter of language: I asked in three of them. What rudeness.
In Mea Shearim it was 180 degreees different from the bonhommie of Brooklyn, my apparent worldliness in dress and body language as well as lack of head covering marking me for a zar, a stranger. No one would make eye contact with me in Mea Shearim, and all the broadsides were in Hebrew, not Yiddish. There was no spark to start a flame, and I felt distinctly unwelcome on its public streets. The Haredi own the streets in Mea Shearim; their level of authority over daily life in Israel is enormous and they know it. In Israel they have EVERYTHING TO DO with the government and are supported with tax dollars in great disproportion to their demographic count. In Brooklyn it’s exactly the opposite: any contact with the government is shunned or at least minimized. Taxes go unpaid, religious schools are entirely separate and unsupported by tax dollars; the less the government knows about one, the better. In Yiddish when one counts people in a room one rolls off not one, two, three, but rather nisht eyns, nisht tsveym, nisht dray… giving a false count out loud. The devil or some other soyne Yisroel (an enemy of Israel) might be watching. We can throw him off, whether it be the IRS, the NYPD, or just a random malicious goy, by remaining anonymous, going uncounted. False license plates are widespread. Take a look at this Borough Park flyer tucked under windshield wipers that I snagged a while back warning the community against that practice, the DA being said to be going around now, taking names…. It says it all about the difference between Israel and the USA:
Where but in Jerusalem are the orthodox so comfortable as to use public restrooms with aplomb? It’s been my experience, both in Israel and the US, that black-hats eschew the use of these facilities, preferring to hold it til they’re among their own. One day a few years ago in Rockaway Beach, NY, when I was at a kosher amusement fair, hol hamoed Sukkes (the interrmediate days of the Feast of Tabernacles that immediately follow Yom Kippur) I witnessed a five year-old little boy, clutching his crotch and screaming in pain, with no father around to accompany him to the porto-sans, who managed to convince his babushka clad 22-year old mother, standing behind a triple stroller with his three younger siblings in tow, that it was safe for him to go inside because, as he pleaded in geshmak Polish Yiddish S’DU YIDN ARAYN…!!! (There are Jews inside !).
No problem, though, in the holiest city of Jews worldwide: there in the new Central Bus Station on the Jaffa Road, even the porcelain is kosher. My foray inside the facilities proved rich. If only I had a secret camera with me. I must need counselling, but I confess the sight remains striking to me. At one urinal stood a Hasid in full dress regalia, minding his business and more importantly, taking his time. On my other side, stood an IDF soldier, a rugged looking red-headed gever (a hunk) his weapons pointing where they ought to be; an extra clip for his M-16 ready and waiting if the need arose. You all know what concerns the vast majority of men when it comes to caliber. Standing between these two I just didn’t measure up.
It was 2:00 pm when I arrived in the Golden City, so I took my time walking to my accomodations, cater-corner from the King David and hard by the YMCA. The El Dan Hotel is convenient and the breakfast fabulous; I’d stayed there before five years before, and I felt unadventurous in my choice this time. Same-same would provide me with an emotional base to go out and explore. Though it was Friday and the Muslim-owned shops would be closed for their Sabbath, I quickly showered and headed down to the Jaffa Gate.
There have been huge “improvements” in the roads and parks adjacent. Broad urban plazas and landscaped berms furnish a vista of the forbidding walls. One hikes up a hill to approach the Gate; construction trenches slow one’s entry to what is already a narrow passage into an antique world. Suddenly one is thrust into a place whose layout has changed little since the 16th century; The Ottoman Turks reconstructed the Old City walls in those times, and they remain essentially the same. Very few “streets” can accomodate even motor scooters; the main thoroughfares are perhaps eight feet wide, made of worn marble steps, and packed on each side with metal-shuttered kiosks… Hummus stands, spice shops and trinket stores pack the busiest lanes, interspersed along the slightly wider Via Dolorosa. Down it to the Lion’s Gate I wandered Friday afternoon, its lower stretches offering blank stone walls and quiet respite from the hubub of the shuk nearby. Suddenly I heard the muzzein’s cry, and as if by magic, the faithful started to pour into the streets from all directions, Sunni Muslims, men in burnooses and Western street clothes, their women and girls clad in exotic colorful long clothing, heads covered in gorgeous veils but faces all shown. One might call it modest, the way these women dressed. I’d call it gorgeous: the older women dressed the most ornately; the teeneage girls skirting the line: tight designer jeans, fitted tops, but a modest headcovering that only emphasizes their beauty and desirability. As worshippers poured through the Lion’s Gate from the Muslim precincts outside the walls, I soon realized that it sits close to one of the access points to the Dome of the Rock. I knew better than to approach the metal stanchions in the plaza that leads farther in..
Saturday is a busy day in the Old City, no different than any other in the density of foot traffic, as the Orthodox Jews flock to the Wailing Wall to pray on their Sabbath, and gentile summer tourists crowd the alleys and bazaars. On the sides streets off the main drag, Shalshelet, local commerce goes on, oblivious to the tourist trade that dominates the larger allee. The vendors cries are all in Palestinian Arabic; no call for English or Ivrit in these lanes. Barber shops, butchers, spice shops, and green grocers line the narrow cul de sacs; Men sit cross legged on the paving stones to the side, puffing non-chalantly on hookahs, and sipping bitter coffee from tiny mugs. Wizened faced elders poke slowl along, canes in hand, their heads crowned with the black bands of snow-white burnooses, 1001 nights never passed.
Down a side street I wandered, deep in the Muslim Quarter, quiet blank walls surrounding me as I explored. Ten yards ahead of me, men worked in the middle of the pavement with picks and shovels, but there was plenty of room for me to pass by. All of the sudden two little Arab boys appeared and motioned to me insistently “Street Closed!” they cried, “Street Closed!” I took a harder look, saw that this was untrue, and started to pass them. They would not permit it. “Street Closed! What you want?” was all they could muster in English, but the look in their eyes told me I’d better obey. I turned and retreated, figuring it safer. Later I sorted it out with a map.
Since the end of the second intifada there has been an agreement: non-Muslims are not allowed on the Temple Mount. Though technically speaking, the older treaties provide for shared access, the single non-Muslim entrance to the Mount has been off-limits to Jews and Christians for years. Proceeding downhill, I was coming dangerously close to one of the entrances to the Temple Mount reserved for Sunni Moslems (Shiites do not pray there; The Dome of the Rock is a shrine to Mohammed, not Ali, the prophet whom the Shiites revere instead of Mohammed. The little boys were trying to tell me that I was too close. Sometimes a look in the eyes tells all.
I returned on Saturday morning, my guidebook and Ivrit dictionary in hand, ready for more. Down in the Armenian Quarter I turned a corner into a quiet cul de sac. On my left a well-dressed man with a short gray haircut approached me. “Excuse me,” he spoke in quiet broken English. “I am learning for my tourist guide license here. May I show you around? You don’t have to pay me. I need to practice.” Eager to practice my Ivrit, I fell for his dodge. Off we traipsed. The hook was in.
What is the difference in this kind of hustle from that of a streetwalker in high-heel boots?
To climbers preferring Babel to the mons veneris, looks are not everything, sex not the reward. This mountain guide’s solicitation dictated our commerce. The fellow sized me up in the blink of an eye, his entreaty a sophisticated “Hey, good-looking” to a language john. Time for the soft sell; these Americans dislike aggressive hustle. “You don’t have to pay me…” was quite a creation: It was I who was going to be doing the favor. Like a kid glove, he fit himself around my hand, knowing instinctively, only through my expression and body language, how and when to take the next step as we sauntered along, him teasing me with foreplay, gentility, interest in my personal thoughts. Deftly, gently, he got me aroused.
Needless to say, we finally arrived there, the goal he’d always had in mind. My guide soon suggested that we “just look” in a shop of his friend. Again I was greeted with the uber soft-sell. Turkish coffee was instantly served. The six-foot wide shop, crammed with jewelry and religious objects of a tasteful variety , was empty of customers save I, my accompanist, and the owner, a dark haired, close-cropped Arab in his early 50s, quick to size me up, also, but coming on a bit too strong. Like a piece of road kill, he pecked at my carcass, softening his manner instantly, not taking offense with each “no, thanks” I shot back, as he urged various items upon me, “just for inspection.” Slowly but surely, though, he wore me down, pushing, probing, finding the G-spot of guilt and curiosity inside my soul. Squeezed out of me easily that my wife was not with me on this trip to Israel, he sugggested to an all-too-willing audience that I return with a gift for her, “something small but precious.” The hook dug further in. I wriggled with joy.
“A Khamsa would be perfect,” said I, trepidatiously. His eyes glistened. His ears stiffened visibly. “Gold plate, gold-filled, or would you like solid gold?” The emphasis on the final world resonated like a gently tapped kettle-drum. I chose the middle ground, it most likely a fraud. Out he trotted three large display trays, much like type-cases, with each delicate pendant individually displayed. From among them I selected a mixed gold and silver filigreed item, a beauty I thought would decorate the nape of my missus’ neck quite nicely. How much was the question. I tried to stay calm. “650 shekels for you, my friend.” came back the reply. No claim of a bargain. A college try. The ultimate pussy responded with candor, “I know I’m supposed to bargain with you but I just don’t want to.” His face remained motionless his expression blank. Perhaps he’d never heard that one, ever before. The bills were peeled off. No mercy was shown to a lamb led to slaughter. The knife was again lifted, forthwith, ever sharp: “What about your two daughters, surely something small for them too?” I was breathless and sheepish but hadn’t the moxie. From somewhere I summoned the strength to say no and then no, five times no. After pleasantries and good wishes my guide and I left with smiles all around. Behind the shop- owner’s face might have sat hate.
Outside on the sidewalk, my man led me onward. What do these guys think? I’m made of money? It’s never enough, they’ll bleed you dry gleefully. I got out with my life, a bit shaken, but stirred. We did a slow two step up to the Damascus Gate. My good fellow and I had walked more and chatted, but the wind had changed. It was time to bid adieu and parry his final thrust. I knew I had to pay him some for his time. An hour and a half had already gone by. “I’d like to give you something,” I offered in parting. “500 shekels, please,” instantly came his reply. I cringed with his khutspeh. The sum seemed outlandish. He’d get a nice kickback from his friend the jeweler. He didn’t care that I knew. $125 was a lot for 90 minutes, given the fact that we’d kept our clothes on and never touched. I offered him 300 and said that would tap me, showing him my remaining single 20-shekel note. Ever the gentleman, my man offered to walk outside the Gate with me to a nearby cash machine. What a gracious fellow! I declined. His last sally came out quite weakly. I should take a taxi to my next stop, he said. The Damascus Gate is teeming with Arab drivers. I declined the offer and he sauntered off, head down, visibly disturbed.
Back in Tel Aviv, down at the seashore, I gazed into the Mediterranean waters lapping the sand, littered with other dangers: meduzot, jellyfish, all about. The word’s French etymology only enlivens the sight of these hideous local creatures, grown in summer waters to the size of inflated plastic grocery bags, their tentacles shining through translucent rubbery hides. Swimmers avoid them when they can: stings are painful and cause welts. Those allergic can swell horribly. I come as close as I dared.
In Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaCarmel, twisting and turning off Allenby Street, again in Mahne Yehuda’s covered aisles off the Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, the vendors’ cries deluged me, the urgent business of making one’s way through the crowds overwhelming all other thoughts. From a given hawker’s lips a cornucopia of languages poured forth, whatever he surmised the passerby spoke: Ivrit, Arabic, French, Russian, even English poured forth in the words needed to make a sale: a cup of fruit juice, a mound of fresh halvah. A knife sharpener sat in front of a shuttered kiosk, business slow at noon on Sunday, but but spiritual matters deeply occupied his mind. The Levantine cast of the pious Jew’s quiet face provided a curious counterpoint to the hubbub surrounding him.
For the equivalent of four dollars, one can ride the clouds on a magic carpet at a random food stand in the middle of the Shuk HaCarmel; all differences of culture and ethnicity and religion evaporate over the counter of commerce. The Palestinian proprietors are there to do business; Jew and Arab are welcome alike to savor the lamb kebabs sizzling on an open flame. In a minimum of space, a grill, sink, refrigerator and salad washer all sit; silken hummus and jasmine scented rice are served with the freshest of pita and salad. Friends drop by, credit is extended to known faces; the noises and smells surround one; the ambience infinite, the price near zilch.
As I made my way out of the narrow lanes at the south end of the shuk, a bakery stood before me, its proprietors a couple in traditional modest Yemenite dress, their swarthy faces straining as they struggled to produce some kind of living from the sale of life’s basics. I knew to ask permission before taking a photo, and was just as pleased to be able to do so totally gramatically and fluently and be told it’s forbidden as if I’d been granted an ok..
Over and over I asked myself a question: what would I capture and what would it mean? Nearby the answer screamed out to me, plain as the handwriting on the wall. But the words were different, not the famous mene mene tekl upharshin (You’ve been weighed in the balance and found wanting), from the book of Daniel at Balthazzar’s feast. No, the handwriting drew from me something different, not an abengation of self, but a showing of the way. Like the lamp unto my feet spoken of in Isaiah, graffiti appeared on a warehouse wall. Could I listen to the famous voice of the Hasidic Master, Reb Nakhman of Bratslav, urging me to value myself above all: Na, Nakh, Nakhma, Nakhman M’Uman: “Peace, Tranquility and Comfort… from Nakhman of Uman.”
Once years long ago, my godfather, Uncle Miltie, sat as the sandek at my bris, charged with holding me ready for the moyel’s knife. His family had come over to the New York from Reb Nakhman’s burial place, Uman, only a few decades after the Rebbe’s death. I survived the delicate procedure, but ten years and more ago Uncle Miltie gave up holding me, and what’s left of my soul is a vegetable peel, the proverbial klipeh of Kabbalah, an empty shell. I am game for the handwriting, if just for an instant. My days are unpeaceful. I am alone.
Out I walked into the blazing sunlight, headed to Old Jaffa along the beach side. Down on the beach I avoided the jellyfish, my mantra adopted, having made it my own: Na, Nakh, Nakhma, Nakhman M’Uman. May peace and gladness come to me soon.