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. Itâ€™s a little shocking at first, but then itâ€™s most refreshing. I think itâ€™s Israel. Something in the â€œhere and nownessâ€ of the place causes people to either make an almost instant and powerful connection or just not bother.
Itâ€™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 â€œpersonal spaceâ€ and â€œprivate life,â€ 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 wasnâ€™t adhering to any rules at all. This was Israel 2002 â€“ 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 Beâ€™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 dayâ€™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 Avivâ€™s nightlife.
Iâ€™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 donâ€™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 â€œafter partyâ€ is going on.
Everything was packed. I wondered what it would be like when there were actually tourists â€“ 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 Shaharâ€™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 Beâ€™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 heâ€™d lent us and left the apartment.
About five minutes after heâ€™d left, a sudden, unexpected and overwhelming wave of fear swept over me making me catch my breath â€œWhat the hell am I going to do now?â€
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.
â€œOf course you can stay in Israel if you want,â€ she insisted. â€œOf course you have a right to be here.â€ â€œNo youâ€™re not insane.â€ â€œYes, everythingâ€™s going to be okay.â€
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, â€œOh my God, Iâ€™m in the Middle East.â€
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 donâ€™t do army service and those who do do army service â€“ and just what you can tell about a person by the army service they did â€“ 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 blondesâ€¦