Beep Beep, Honk Honk. These sounds no longer faze us. This is city living and an Israeli city at that. People are invariably impatient and in a rush. Tune the noise out and turn your head though and you would never know it. Enter into view young hipsters (this city, it is said, belongs to the young people) decking the sidewalk cafés. Suede and leather knee-high boots (never mind that it’s a balmy 75 degrees), funky tunics, skinny jeans, cigarettes, frothy lattes, dark shades, plentiful salads, copious breakfasts, and a relaxed look that says we have all the time in the world.
In Tel Aviv, it seems, everyone is in a rush to get to the sidewalk café. It is a city that runs on highly charged nerves: enjoy life – or bust.
And on Fridays, as we say in Hebrew – פעמיים כי טוב! – all the more so. With a Sunday through Thursday workweek, Friday heralds the unhurried release that the weekend assumes.
One typical Friday, I decided to venture westward. I yearned to catch a glimpse of the glimmering sea and headed to the less crowded side of the beachside restaurant at Metzitzim Beach. No fashionable young Tel Avivians in my corner; just a few old guys (I’ve learned here that alterkakers is an “American” term) shootin’ the shit.
Here was a very different scene and one that I welcomed. The cappuccinos, baskets of fresh bread and supersize salads were transformed into home-packed peanuts, olives, and salami in Tupperware. One or two black coffees sat forlorn on the table as the five or six members of the חבורה (clan) that would keep growing, sunk into the upholstery and spoke in animated jibes. Only cigarettes were the great equalizer, spanning the generations. As the smell of fine salami wafted in the warm sea air, I smiled to myself and turned an attentive ear to the brusque Israeli sounds punctuated on occasion by the more precise register of Yiddish and German.
ארץ אוכלת יושביה “Eretz ochelet yoshveah” – “a country that eats its citizens” – is the fruitful theme. Or in other words: “Hakol Politika” – “everything is politics”.
The banter betrays disgruntlement pierced with humor, nostalgia, laughter, and brotherhood. Old School.
Problems and solutions to all of the nation’s ills are vigorously presented and debated. “They should bring Giuliani over here to clean up the corruption. Why not? They bring over basketball players from America, why not a police force huh?”
Membership to this clan, it appears, is exclusive but broad. Another old guy making his way along the promenade approaches the group.
“Did you hear about the shooting in Korea?”
“What’s new, there’s always shooting.”
“North or South?”
“What difference does it make, one’s a scoundrel, and the other’s a predator” (זה נבלה וזה טריפה)
“There’s nothing to eat but there’s an atomic bomb,” another one chimes in.
“All the states that have nothing to eat are like that… food – no, but a bomb they have,” rejoins another.
Still another starts out elucidating that these countries “train” their citizens to subsist on a bare minimum amount of food.
After a while, naturally, the conversation drifts back to the woes of this little nation. As if we don’t have enough.
“Seriously, what major city doesn’t have a subway system? You know why no one gets the process going, because it would take a number of years to build it, and by the time it’d get done his term would end and there’d be a new prime minister in office and the one who spent the energy building it won’t get the credit, that’s why.” Simply put.
The end, in view of this prolific exchange, is not surprisingly, grim: “there’s no chance for this nation; a country that eats its… eats its…” “Peanuts!”, a fellow chum completes the sentence, chomping on some nuts. ארץ אוכלת בוטניה! “Eretz Ochelet Botneiah” (In Hebrew, the rhyme engendered here between “botneiah” (its peanuts) and the “yoshveiah” (citizens) of the original axiom adds a bemusing twist.)
After a series of plaintive shakes of the head, a positive note concludes: “Look at this – summer in December ah? – only the weather they can’t ruin for us, these politicians.” The group gazes onto the sea and relishes their unhurried social encounter.
I too gazed out at the sea glimmering in the sunlight. Then I smiled, glanced at my watch and asked for the check. 12:30 pm. Time for the pickups. I set off to fetch the kids from their ganim, first Liliana, then Sebastian, anticipating the sweet taste of the mini challahs that they make and take home with them on Fridays.
Kids in tow, we walk down Basel, stopping at our neighborhood bakery to buy a big challah. We push, routinely, through the crowd and partake in the liberal exchange of “shabbat shalom”s. Then down Basel to Ibn Gvirol, where we are stopped on the street corner by an old man sitting on a chair in the middle of the sidewalk, who, charmed by the kids, extends a friendly hand, and promptly reaches into his plastic bag, extending a loaf of cake and a stainless steel knife and offers each of us a generous piece as he bids us “Shabbat shalom”. Next, our juice guy: A nod of the head: “Shalom Dana! How’s it going Sebastian?” Then a shake of the head: “It’s a travesty what happened in the North, huh?”, head now nodding to the television screen in the little threadbare store. Shabbat Shalom. Shabbat Shalom.
The collective and the personal here are eternally intermeshed. The collective seeps into the most mundane human interactions. The result is a sense of intimacy that is at once candid and perfunctory. All the same, it is a sense of intimacy that leaves one feeling good. That we are friends, neighbors, citizens, – alike in our mad and importunate need to relax and enjoy life.