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“Not Jewish?! What are you doing here?” (Part Two)

JillPart One of “Not Jewish?!”, 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 Be’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 – 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 wasn’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.

It’s tough on a relationship when one person moves to another country for the other. There’s the language barrier and there are the culture differences. One feels too dependent, the other feels too responsible –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 I’m sure under any other circumstances would even have liked me. It’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: “BUT SHE’S NOT JEWISH!!!”

I’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 ta’im (tasty) – which indeed it was.

After every Friday dinner Nitza would load us up with Tupperware containers, of shapes and sizes I didn’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 – are we sure we didn’t want the canned tomatoes – and of course the hard boiled eggs, because Grandma’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 week’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 I’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 – as if she didn’t cook enough for an IDF unit anyway – 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 I’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 Nurit’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, kebabs…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 “Ah but we’ve saved the best for last” 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 year…

Now Shavuot, that was Yaakov’s holiday and we all ooh-ed and aah-ed over his latest cheese creation; Uncle Nissim – only he could chop a salad so fine, for all holidays. Rosh Hashana – at Yossi and Karli’s; Sukkot – shared out between Itzik and Miri’s and Shmuel and Levana’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: “Surely Boaz, the eldest, finest and tallest of all the cousins, wouldn’t break his mother’s heart by marrying a goya.” And if they could hear the churning of my thoughts, they certainly wouldn’t be thinking I was very hamuda at all.

I was going crazy inside and making desperate “please get me out of here looks” at Boaz. But, of course, we couldn’t leave before some of Karli’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 Itzik’s steaks.

When I think about it now, I don’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 Be’er Sheva … so we moved all our stuff into Boaz’s boyhood room, above his parent’s bedroom in their tidy and precise apartment in Holon.

For two months! For two months I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I didn’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 didn’t care; we were young and free and we had a balcony that caught the breeze as it brushed off the Mediterranean. There’s lots more to come on friendship and the Tel Aviv single scene. Stay tuned for Part Three of “Not Jewish?!”

10 Comments

  1. A truly fun read. The get-together & food descriptions are luscious and spot on. Awaiting the next sequence…slf

  2. I can totally feel your pain! When my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I decided to move in together, we were living on a moshav that was five minutes’ drive from his parents’ apartment. They wanted us for Friday lunch, Friday dinner, Saturday lunch, and one night during the week. It’s amazing that our relationship survived those early days!

  3. You write like a dream!
    SO evocative.

    My Israeli boyfriend’s parents refused to acknowledge that I had started to understand hebrew and continued to talk about me in front of me (“she’s getting fat – let’s hope she’s not pregnant”).

  4. So many, including myself can relate to the disintegration of a relationship brought about by the imposition of family rituals over the dining table …I feel for you.

    You are a wonderful story teller.I am truly addicted!

    Shalom and Le’hitraot

  5. Michael, London, UK

    February 24, 2006 at 4:49 am

    Hello Jill,

    I love your story about the issues related to being a non-Jewish person living in Israel. Keep telling us more on this particular topic if you do not mind.

    Now on money. Would you earn the same or a similar amount if you would work at the same position in London? Or is it really much lower? Your feedback on this would be interesting.

    Keep being open in the description of your adventure in Israel. It is so refreshing to read you.

    G.od bless you, Jill. And the G.od of Israel does not differentiate between a Jew and a non-Jew (most of the time) but G.od is more focused on differentiating only between a good and a bad person. In your case, you seem to be a GREAT girl to me.

    All the best to you in the land of Israel. You enrich Israel by your presence, Jill. Be stubborn in your desire to live in Israel if it is what you really want and, if it is also what you want, build a great Israeli family one day is all I wish you (BUT do not wait to reach 41 to start a family!).
    You and your (coming) children (if you want to have a few) are likely to be more Jew in spirit than many Israeli who are registered as being Orthodox Jews (Peres, Lapid (!!!), and whoever)!!!

    Haaretz, I read the online version but it is so leftist! I hope you are smart enough to make your own points of view on many issues that are discussed on Haaretz without being too influenced by the leftist positions taken by the writers of Haaretz. Haaretz is very anti-Jew in many ways I could say .

    May the G.od of Israel bless you on the Land that the G.od of Israel gave to the Jewish people.

  6. I’m also from the UK, met my Israeli boyfriend travelling, and have now spent the last year in Israel with no Jewish or family links here.

    Sitting with groups of people that are all speaking in Hebrew while I’m clueless and bored is definitly the worst thing for me. Its definitly encouraging to know someone else has been there.

  7. Hey Jill, so glad to see you’re continuing to share. And I so hope you’ll find the support you need to put a book together. Family intervention in love relationships is certainly a topic all can relate to; but I have to tell you, my heart goes out to Boez here. How torn he must have felt. Most likely still does. Loves heart does not see Jew/non-Jew and his family sounds like the kind of family that would love who he loves, because he loves them if for no other reason.
    But you’ve moved on from there?? Awaiting part three.

  8. oh my GAWD!! You mean, there are OTHER women on this earth who have been through this SAME. EXACT. THING. ???

    Well, ulai lo culcach bidiuk aval…

    wowo… I found you through jerusalem wanderings then through rinat from brazil..

    I absolutely love my Israeli husband’s family and they love me (truly, I’m PRETTY sure cuz I was in the Ulpan and have been around Israeli’s for 10 years so they really can’t share “secret” conversations around me anymore) … but we still live in the US but my husband is BURNING to move HOME and I tell him, “whatever will make you happy. I can live anywhere”… the problem is, I have become closer to my own family in recent years and am a bit sad to think about being a 10 hour flight from them and living without snow and temperatures below freezing (we live in NYC) AND we are trying to grow our own business which seems like it should be easier to do this in the US rather than Israel..

    Ugh… decisions decisions. …

    anyways, thanks for letting me vent. Glad to know there are more of US out there. Lovely writing, too! I’ll have to read more!

    And.. Shalom Shabat!! I know the correct way is to say Shabat Shalom but I prefer to say it my way!

    Lila Tove

    Slainte! (Irish – my home language)

  9. As an American living in Russia, with a Russian boyfriend, I can relate to a lot of this. 🙂

  10. I’m a New Yorker who is pals with your sister Niki ( who I think the world of ). Great to read what her sister is doing!

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