Part One of â€œNot Jewish?!â€, ends in the winter of 2002, when I moved into a shared apartment in Tel Aviv and started working at Haaretz newspaper. Boaz did not accompany me to Tel Aviv; he returned to Ben-Gurion University in Beâ€™er Sheva and I moved in with a flatmate in the Big Orange. Part Two is the story of how and why we broke up.
So there I was in Tel Aviv, in the winter of 2002, dealing with my increasingly questionable sanity and generally failing health. My thyroid was malfunctioning and I suffered from anxiety attacks, sleeplessness and hiatal hernia â€“ all within the space of six months in 2002. I went to the doctor once complaining of an acidic burning in my stomach. He asked me if I was stressed at all, and then realised what he had said. Who wasnâ€™t stressed? My relationship with Boaz was also rapidly deteriorating.
We had met on a paragliding course in Peru and had traveled together for two months through luscious Amazon greenery and deserted white-sand beaches. The Middle East on the outbreak of war was never going to match up.
Itâ€™s tough on a relationship when one person moves to another country for the other. Thereâ€™s the language barrier and there are the culture differences. One feels too dependent, the other feels too responsible â€“and when that other country is Israel, the odds are really stacked against you: Stress and pressure, no-one to vent on but each other and too many questions for which neither of us had the answer.
But if you ask me, what really put the nail in the coffin of our couple hood was the two-month stint we lived with his parents.
Nitza and Yaakov were lovely really. They welcomed me into their home, fed me and watered me and Iâ€™m sure under any other circumstances would even have liked me. Itâ€™s just that I was going out with their only son. There was always awkwardness and a slight stiffness; although they smiled sweetly at me, the eyes betrayed their thoughts: â€œBUT SHEâ€™S NOT JEWISH!!!â€
Iâ€™m sure Nitza thought I was stealing her firstborn and that she would lose him to that dark world of Christianity or that, God forbid, I would bear her non-Jewish grandchildren. They smiled, but underneath they were deeply confused and not a little scared by what their son was getting himself into.
Before we made the insanely foolish decision to move in with them, we would go to them every Friday night for Shabbat dinner.
Every Friday night the same chicken, the same rice, the same vegetables, the same debate about whether the sauce with the fish was spicy, or not spicy, too spicy or spicy like Grandma used to make it. They spoke no English, and my Hebrew at the time consisted of toda (thank you) and taâ€™im (tasty) – which indeed it was.
After every Friday dinner Nitza would load us up with Tupperware containers, of shapes and sizes I didnâ€™t know existed. And she would rake through the fridge, pulling out cheeses and fruit and cakes and meatballs and cold pasta, a few chocolates and the odd bag of salad; cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, beef tomatoes â€“ are we sure we didnâ€™t want the canned tomatoes – and of course the hard boiled eggs, because Grandmaâ€™s had them in the oven overnight and someone really has to eat them. What about apples? Have you got apples? Take the apples.
And she would get out the plastic bags and more Tupperware and seal it all in and wrap it all up and pile them up in huge paper bags, with a few tea towels thrown in along with last weekâ€™s laundry, washed and ironed.
Nitza was what in England we call a Jewish mother and what in Israel they call a Polish mother, although she was actually from Turkey. She was all fluster and oy vey, would nearly hyperventilate if someone spilt something on their clothes and washed the dishes twice before putting them in the dishwasher.
Now Iâ€™m a big fan of family gatherings, and I truly admire how Israeli society values the importance of the family, togetherness, support and regular and close contact – a tradition that is rapidly disappearing in much of the Western world. But every Friday night? Every Friday night? Nitza would call Boaz every Wednesday to check we were coming, so she could be sure to cook enough â€“ as if she didnâ€™t cook enough for an IDF unit anyway â€“ and the minute I heard the phone conversation, my chest would start to constrict. If I proposed maybe going out just the two of us to a restaurant on Friday night, he would look at me as if Iâ€™d suggested dining on the moon. Who does such a thing?
Holidays were even worse. Nitza had four sisters, all of whom had three children. The plastic table that was set out in Uncle Itzik and Aunt Nuritâ€™s garden was banquet size and always heaving with food. So much food. It just kept coming. Plate upon plate of salads and soups and rice and sauces, pies and quiches; chicken legs, chicken breast, chicken nuggets, chicken liver, goose liver, kebabsâ€¦The house was bursting at the seams; they had to rent extra fridges.
Even when everybody had finished eating, the table still sagged under the weight of food so that it was hard to tell if the meal had just ended or not even begun. And just when I thought it had ended, Itzik would always come out with â€œAh but weâ€™ve saved the best for lastâ€ and throw another five prime rib-eye steaks on the barbeque.
Itzik was the steak man, you see. Pesach was his holiday. Conversation would revolve around how he had cooked the steaks this year. Overdone? Underdone? Were they worse than last year, better than last year:? And listen to what he had planned for next yearâ€¦
Now Shavuot, that was Yaakovâ€™s holiday and we all ooh-ed and aah-ed over his latest cheese creation; Uncle Nissim â€“ only he could chop a salad so fine, for all holidays. Rosh Hashana â€“ at Yossi and Karliâ€™s; Sukkot â€“ shared out between Itzik and Miriâ€™s and Shmuel and Levanaâ€™s. For months on end, it seems all I was saying was Hag Sameach (happy holidays) and eating.
Eating and smiling, smiling and eating. I must have put on 10 kilos for the sake of not offending. Eating and smiling amid the cacophony of stories, jibes and family jokes, catching a few words here and there but never enough to get the punch line.
They thought I was very hamuda (sweet), because I was blonde and quiet, but I would often catch them looking at me quizzically and I swear I could hear the churning of their thoughts: â€œSurely Boaz, the eldest, finest and tallest of all the cousins, wouldnâ€™t break his motherâ€™s heart by marrying a goya.â€ And if they could hear the churning of my thoughts, they certainly wouldnâ€™t be thinking I was very hamuda at all.
I was going crazy inside and making desperate â€œplease get me out of here looksâ€ at Boaz. But, of course, we couldnâ€™t leave before some of Karliâ€™s honey cake, biscuits, three tons of nuts, dried fruit, four cups of mint tea and a Turkish coffee.
And then when we did get out, Boaz was the only one available to be on the receiving end of all that pent-up frustration that had been grilling all afternoon, like one of Itzikâ€™s steaks.
When I think about it now, I donâ€™t know what on earth made me think it would be okay to move in with Yaakov and Nitza, but seriously it seemed like a good idea at the time. Boaz was on holidays from university and we thought that living nearer to Tel Aviv would at least spare me from the arid boredom of Beâ€™er Sheva â€¦ so we moved all our stuff into Boazâ€™s boyhood room, above his parentâ€™s bedroom in their tidy and precise apartment in Holon.
For two months! For two months I felt like I couldnâ€™t breathe. I didnâ€™t know where to put myself, what to do with myself, Boaz was equally stupefied and we were pacing around each other like tigers in a cage, all the while trying to keep on a good face for Yaakov and Nitza. The relationship was straining to breaking point.
The relationship was hanging by a thread… but still there was a thread. When the next semester started at Be’er Sheva, we decided that Boaz would go back there and I would rent an apartment in Tel Aviv – as I was now working in Haaretz, whose offices were in the south of the city. We would see each other at weekends. A girl I had met in Be’er Sheva ( a friend of a friend of a friend of Boaz’s) was also looking to move to the big city and we decided to move in together. And so I gathered up my paltry pay and Noa and I went flat hunting.
We rented from a highly-strung middle-aged woman in the downtown hubbub. She charged extortionate rent but I didnâ€™t care; we were young and free and we had a balcony that caught the breeze as it brushed off the Mediterranean. Thereâ€™s lots more to come on friendship and the Tel Aviv single scene. Stay tuned for Part Three of â€œNot Jewish?!â€