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a different side of Israel

Not Jewish?! What are you doing here? (Part 12)

Jill Cartwright

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven

Shalom to all that (4) by Jill Cartwright

I slouched over to the open window of the lounge that Grizzly and I shared. Our apartment was on the fourth floor and looked out over a square on a little side street where Israel’s national poet Bialik once lived. A sculpture of blue tiles honored this fact and the area had drawn musical academies and galleries to set up home there. On some nights, light piano music or the high vibratto of an operetta would drift through our window and mingle with the voices from the television. Today, it was serenely quiet; warm, sun-filled and serenely quiet.

When I was growing up in England, Sundays used to be like this – although not so much sun-filled. The shops were closed, public transport took the day off, parents eased into the Sunday papers or slept off large Sunday lunches and as children we were always told not to go knocking on our friends’ doors and disturbing the neighbours. Not now. Now England’s shops are open, cashing in on another day of business, and transport and people chug their way round the high street chains like it was any other day.

Even though in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, the cafes are open and filled with people and the streets and beaches are bursting with couples and pushchairs and children, there is still a sense that this is a day of rest. The buses don’t run and the shops are all closed, people sleep in late and take the day easy.

There’s many here who want to see the tradition stopped, to fight what they protest as another sign of the religious control over the country and there are some huge furniture and DIY stores that have opened on the outskirts of towns that draw in crowds of families – complete with screaming babies, bored toddlers, little patience and a whole pile of stress. Like I’ve said before, I’m not religious but here I think they’ve got a point – have a day of rest; who needs to buy shelves on Shabbat?

Anyway, I was looking out of the window, trying to imprint the smells and the emotions into my brain so that I would be able to conjure up the feelings of Tel Aviv on a Shabbat late into my life – and then I decided to get my camera and headed out into the streets, just in case my mental powers of recollection should fail me late in life and pictorial evidence should be required.

It was hot. I strolled down to the end of the road where the coffee shop that had been blown up was now up and running and full of people. It had been up and running and full of people about 3 days after the terror attack – the speed of recovery was astonishing. There’d had even been a piece about it in the local paper. “Café Oleh” was the title of the article (oleh means to go up in Hebrew – Nice headline, I remember thinking to myself, as the first worrying signs of the newsdesk cynic started to show – but again that’s material for a whole other chapter in itself…)

I wandered up Allenby Street, whose sleazy bars were all locked up and neon signs switched off; metal shutters covered the entrances to the stores where during the week cheap, bright clothes spilled out of the boxes at the front and deeply tanned and bleach blonde sales women stood around smoking cigarettes and shouting to each other over the happy pop music that blared from speakers all round the shop.
Grafitti scrawled on the wall next to the shop shutter promised purveyors that designer items could be found inside: Gap, Banana Republik and Calvin Kline, they assured.

Taking a right off Allenby and at the end of the street, the sea greets you, gently rippling, sparkling into the distant horizon.

I walked into a side street, into the old and crumbling Yemenite Quarter. On its flaking walls, faded posters from some local election were slowly, and over the windows of the jumbled apartments, swathes of material acted as makeshift curtains to hold off the October sun. Slight rips in the fabric offered a glimpse into the darkness, as the inhabitants – most of them foreign workers from China and the Philippines – shuffled sleepily about inside.

Outside, old women with wrinkles running like deep grooves through their face sat still and silent on the doorsteps, their hands folded in their laps, lifting them occasionally, as if in slow motion, to waft away a fly.

I sat down on a low wall, the heat of the stone seeping through to my skin. From one of small stone houses next to me, men started to sing, three or four voices – a simple harmony. I don’t know what it was, I don’t know if it was a religious psalm or an old folk song, but as the melody floated gently from the darkened room and the smell of black coffee with cardamum mingled with the warm silent air, a heaviness settled on my chest and my heart felt ready to break.

I started picturing the sights around me, but knew a photo would never capture this so I picked myself up and walked away from the singing back up towards home. I walked up through the deserted Carmel Market, where stray cats and pigeons were picking between the bare stalls at the fallen fruit that had been trampled underfoot in Friday’s hectic sales, and back to my street.

I had plans for that night to go out with friends. I only had about two weeks left in Israel and had planned to spend them saying good-bye to them and to Tel Aviv.

But as it turns out, Tel Aviv had different plans for me …..

12 Comments

  1. To hold the audience on a walk and end with great suspense! This will be a book yet. Somehow, you’ve made Boaz seem so long ago.

  2. Ahhhhh you are killing me Jill! Where’s part 13?! I need part 13!! oy va voy.

  3. This country is chocked full of stories of non-Jews coming here on their own and trying to make it in an environment that is often not friendly towards them. This goes for families as well as for individuals. Women (and men) who marry Jewish Israelies have problems as well – especially in regards to getting health care. This is nore so for women as sooner or later they want to have a family.

    I’m not trying to discourage anyone from doing this, but if they do, they have to take all these factors into consideration.

    With more than a quarter million non-Jewish Russiam olim here, this situation has resulted in their creating a ‘sub-culture’ within the one already in existance. They socialize within their own group and even marry each other, skipping over to Cyprus or other locals to officially tie the knot.

    Without legal civil marriage, this is the reality of living in Israel.

    As far as the title of your articles go, even Jews often get asked the same question (what are you doing here?) especially those from North America.

    I wish you well and all the best.

  4. Okay, let’s hear some answers to that question from all audiences; Jewish, non-Jewish. Arab, etc. Just what ARE YOU doing there? For all the hearts that are with you and long to be there too.

  5. i’m not sure who virginia is but she needs to quit posting. it almost ruins a spectacular piece for me. – wonderful imagery, i felt as if i was there. what self-control not taking pictures, so very impressive. i think you display a high form of appreciation or sensory reception or something…. i look forward to reading the rest.

  6. are you really going home? I haven’t been here in awhile (to read you lovely stories) but now will print a few out to read on the train ride home. … thanks for what you do!

    from a Catholic married to an Israeli (he says he’s not Jewish, he’s Israeli!)

  7. funny about virginia

  8. Oh Michael, that hurts. Just what have I said to offend you?

  9. Jill,

    I am 31, not Jewish and not even blonde, but involved with an Israeli guy too. It is scary what sensible old me have done in my new life.

    My family objects to it even as visions of being taunted as a shiksa floats in my head (earlier on, he said that his mother will not do anything to make him angry, but I always wonder … )And my friends, Jewish or otherwise, overwhelmingly tell me what a bad idea it is, with the Jewish landlady taking it upon herself to let me know that the charming young man concerned may just see me as an exotic and fashionable little piece of baggage, to be used and discarded.

    So far, we are mostly living in the middle ground known as NYC, with a lot of questions hanging in the air between us, where talk of marriage and children is taboo, and even something as innocent as the holidays and our aspirations for the next 5 years are probably flashpoints of tension. It makes me wonder about the easy camaraderie, friendship and innocent banter and kisses of earlier days.

    I have considered the inevitable of permanently living in Israel and having children brought up in a culture that is very alien from mine, and might possibly teach them to turn away from outsiders like myself, even as they themselves would probably be always discriminated against. So the tears come with the laughter, the happiness with the fears.

    It’s been an emotional roller-coaster, but a tad more exciting than working in a cubicle in my own little corner of the world, and dating and marrying an appropriate guy from an appropriate family – if I am that kind of person, I would never have the memories of the funny, kind and tall Israeli who gave me shelter one cold winter night and spent days in hospital with me, along with other equally kind and interesting characters.

    I’m thinking of packing my bags for another exotic locale to experience a part of my own distant and mixed heritage – alone if necessary, but happy to have him along if he wants to come.

    — from a mixed-up girl who dared to say that she loved an Israeli guy

  10. Please dont stop writing because of the war, as devesataying as it is! I am hooked!!! We all need some distraction, so keep on writing. What happened next????

  11. yah, what happens next?

  12. ok. if this is it, and there is no part 13, somebody should tell us, because we are all waiting… c’mon…. you’re torturing us here…

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