a different side of Israel

Not Jewish?! What are you doing here? (Part Three)

Jill Cartwright

Sweet Tel Aviv
by Jill Cartwright

Part Three of Jill Cartwright’s memoir about moving to Israel as a non-Jew at the height of the second intifada focuses on her first months as a newly single woman in Tel Aviv, one of the world’s great party cities.
Part one; part two.

Friendships are formed hard and fast in Israel. It seems that people here have neither the time nor inclination for social niceties; they would rather get down to the genuine article without any fake politeness or pretending. It’s a little shocking at first, but then it’s most refreshing. I think it’s Israel. Something in the “here and nowness” of the place causes people to either make an almost instant and powerful connection or just not bother.

It’s not just with Israelis. I have friends here from many countries – Canada, South Africa, the U.S. and France – and our friendships were formed quicker and deeper than many relationships I spent years cultivating in England.

Maybe because we liked and adopted the Israeli directness, maybe because after living here for a while, we too started to forget the meaning of “personal space” and “private life,” or maybe because it takes a certain kind of mentality, Jewish or not, to up and move to Israel and we all need to connect with like-minded eccentrics.

And back then in particular, when I first moved to Tel Aviv, it seemed no one saw the point in adhering to the normal rules of social behaviour in the western world. That was at the height of the second intifada, when suicide bombings averaged five per week. Nobody visited Israel except journalists, diplomats and the occasional intrepid businessperson; the hotels were empty. All around, the world wasn’t adhering to any rules at all. This was Israel 2002 – and, to a certain extent, the post 9/11 world.

Noa and I hit it off immediately; from the time we agreed I would have the bigger room at the front and she the smaller one next to the kitchen, to the time she moved out to live with the sensitive doe-eyed Ziv about a year later, and all the time in between.

And what a time it was. No more Be’er Sheva; no more Holon. I was breathing in the sweet warm sea salt-tinged air of Tel Aviv and my life felt like my own again. I started to make my own friends and my own plans. I had a job and bank account. I even had my own mobile phone – without which you may as well not exist in Israel.

The kitchen cupboards in our apartment were stocked with rice cakes and spices Noa had brought back from India and the huge stand-up fridge had nothing more than a tub of hummus and cottage cheese on its sparse shelves. Friday evenings, as the day’s heat started to fade into dusk, I would stroll home from the beach through the emptying streets, through that magic stillness that descends upon the city as the Sabbath delicately announces its arrival, and I would walk into the house with the sand still clinging to my feet and order myself takeaway for dinner.

And later on in the night, at about the same time that all the bars and pubs in England were ringing the bell for last orders, we would meet up with our fast-talking, fast-thinking South African friend Shahar (who does the best impression of Israelis in duty free that I have ever seen) and head out to the smoke-filled whisky-fuelled exhilaration of Tel Aviv’s nightlife.

I’ve heard people say that Tel Aviv goes one better than New York in terms of its night scene; it certainly leaves Harrogate, North Yorkshire in the dust.

The city is just teeming with bars, clubs and pubs; as soon as one closes down, another opens in its stead and there is something to suit every taste: gay bars, jazz bars and wine bars; S&M dungeons, Bohemian taverns and pounding mega-clubs; exclusive cocktail lounges and sleazy beer pits.

And it goes on all night. Tel Avivians don’t even start getting ready to go out before 1 a.m., and at 3 a.m. the streets are filled with young people, chomping on food from one of the snack food joints whose neon signs and bright lights spill into the night, wandering from bar to bar and club to club until well into the next morning, when someone in the know will tell them just where the best “after party” is going on.

Everything was packed. I wondered what it would be like when there were actually tourists – where would they put them all. The places could barely hold all the locals.

And we would join in with the crush, shout over the roar, indulge in Shahar’s penchant for tequila shots and by the third or fourth drink I would even stop thinking about how the single security guard at the door would never have a chance of stopping a terrorist from entering.

Later we would make our way back home, eyelids heavy as the sun started to rise, and I would climb into bed until halfway through Saturday.

I was having a good time. I was having such a good time that I was forgetting about Boaz, and when he called me to say he was coming to Tel Aviv for the weekend or whether I wanted to go to Be’er Sheva, I felt my oxygen supply starting to cut off.

A few months after I moved into the flat in Tel Aviv, the fine thread that had been holding my relationship with Boaz together finally snapped.

One Friday morning he came over and we had a long talk; then he took the DVD player he’d lent us and left the apartment.

About five minutes after he’d left, a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming wave of fear swept over me making me catch my breath “What the hell am I going to do now?”

And Noa stepped up to the rescue.

Noa was a big believer in talk therapy and was having none of my reserved English reticence and tendency to keep things in and bury them deep. Even by the second week of us living together, she knew the names of all my ex-boyfriends, what motivated me, scared me and humiliated me and had pretty much analyzed the details of my relationship with my father. So when things fell apart with Boaz, she knew just what to say and when to say it.

“Of course you can stay in Israel if you want,” she insisted. “Of course you have a right to be here.” “No you’re not insane.” “Yes, everything’s going to be okay.”

And so I stayed.

There were times when it was really weird. Sometimes I would be walking down the street and all of sudden I would be struck by the very absurd yet very real thought that I was in Israel. Just like that I would freeze in the middle of the pavement and think, “Oh my God, I’m in the Middle East.”

At least when I was with Boaz I had a half-reasonable explanation for people when they asked me what had taken hold of my senses, and could fend off all the questions with by telling them that I had an Israeli boyfriend. But now? Now there was just me. Now what could I say?

Thank God for Noa.

Noa became my shrink, teacher, personal historian, social commentator and best friend all rolled into one.

For hours we would sit on our breezy balcony, as it slowly began to clutter with coffee cups and water bottles, expounding on life, religion and politics as I tried to understand something of the subtleties and nuances of the culture that I had somehow found myself a part of.

Noa gave me my first insight into the differences between Jews who wear black skullcaps and those who wear knitted skullcaps, those who don’t do army service and those who do do army service – and just what you can tell about a person by the army service they did – between kibbutzniks and moshavniks, right-wing and left-wing and just why it is that Israelis love the Eurovision song contest so much.

And, of course, we would always talk about men.

Next in the series, Israeli men prefer blondes…



  2. One might find pockets of night life such as found in Tel Aviv in Australia particularly Sydney and melbourne. The night life in Adelaide can get hectic at times of the year when the city hosts festivals, sporting events and other community activities. February through to April is such a time. Many just dont sleep at all for days as they move from one activity to another, one venue to another or one booze-up to the next.
    Skull caps?….I thought the knitted skull caps were just being trendy….so you see, as a non-jew I know nothing at all!!
    Its not only Israeli men that prefer blondes…I tend to gravitate to blondes as a rule…even at my age.

    Shalom and Le’hitraot

  3. As a woman married to a non-tribe member, a gracious nod and deep bow in your direction.

  4. Thank god you stayed! It wouldn’t be the same without you.

  5. Thank God for Noa…

  6. Yeah a toast to Noa! Jill this series is just absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait til part 4. Lol, you do realize that in about 10 years we’re all going to be waiting for part 24 🙂

    Oy and do they prefer blondinis!

  7. Wow. This gets better all the time. As someone who spent as much time in Israel as North America there is so much we share in common. It must be the country that does it. That “here and nowness” you mention, I call it the missing plastic layer. That feeling in Israel that daily life rubs up against you without anything to dull the experience. For better or worse. But it is addictive.
    Thank you for sharing and please go on.

  8. I’m with Yael, and what about a book? I too have noted the absolutely blessed “here and nowness” of most jewish people here in the U.S. This is such a big part of the “light” that has always been intended for them to shine. There is so much we can learn from them! The problem is, the ignorant preceive it as arrogant. Nothing could be further from the truth! I say… Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine! Hallelu Yah, HaShem Bless-Amen. LOVE TO ISRAEL!

  9. Great story (all three parts) and you got me curious abou the legal aspects now. Under wich conditions does Israeli law allow people who are neither Jewish nor Israeli citizens nor related to or in a relationship with Jews or Israeli citizens to stay and live in Israel? (I mean, if they are not businesspeople or diplomats or foreign media correspondents.)

  10. You better stop all this cuz you’re really making me want to drag my husband back to Israel!

    As for the ignorant people thinking the Israeli’s are arrogant, you have that one right on. Poor Guy has been judged not so nicely by lots of American’s for his cocky-ness. He’s definitely missing the plastic layer that American’s assume we all should have… so yucky!

  11. I defnitely think you have a book in this. Such great writing.

  12. Your writing and perceptiveness are both terrific. I have never been able to describe the Israeli experience as well as you, and I am jealous! But also delighted!

  13. Raphael,

    Presumably Jill has a working visa. You don’t have to be Jewish to live there.

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