Postcard From Tel Aviv

The “Thermometer House” Tel Aviv

Greetings from the heart of Tel Aviv. I am in Israel on vacation, visiting family and working on my book. I thought it might be nice to take a break from my never-ending review of Anthony Le Donne’s The Wife of Jesus to send you a note telling you how I am.

I am fine.

Life here is … normal. Most Israelis are not living in minute-by-minute proximity to the issues that dominate U.S. media coverage of the Middle East, or the books we read about Israel, or even what I hear about Israel in synagogue. The most obvious sign here of Israeli – Palestinian strife is the security presence. Bags are x-rayed at the train stations and shopping malls; street fairs are marked at start and end by checks of purses and backpacks. But even when conducted in Hebrew, a language I cannot understand, the security here feels relaxed and confident. “We know what we’re doing,” the security officials seem to proclaim, and the people being screened pay it no mind. There is none of the anxiety here that is so palpable during the screening process at any American airport. No one is screaming here to remove shoes or empty pockets of every last gum wrapper.

My Israeli friends tell me that the country is exhausted by the struggle to co-exist with their Palestinian and Arab neighbors — a struggle that goes back to the beginning of “modern” Jewish life here nearly 150 years ago. Yes … the peace process IS that old. Some of my Israeli friends are disturbed by the disconnect they sense between ordinary Israelis and the imperative to make peace. But the attraction and concerns of ordinary life are too strong to be resisted forever.

Zigi Ben-Haim, "Looking Good" (credit:
Zigi Ben-Haim, “Looking Good” (credit:

So … what we’re experiencing here is an outsider’s view of Israeli ordinary life, and that’s what I have to share with you here. Ordinary life in Tel Aviv is extraordinary. For one thing, there’s a great art scene here. You could spend a week just touring galleries showing work of current Israeli artists. The quality of the art strikes me as being as high as anywhere else in the world (as are the prices). The art scene here may be as self-impressed as it is in New York and Los Angeles, but it also seems more open. At the Alon Segev Gallery on trendy S’derot Rothschild, a few questions about the art displayed there led us to a back tour of the gallery and an invitation to preview their next exhibition. That’s a very nice way to treat two Californians who stumbled into the gallery off the street. At least, I think they’re being nice. I don’t think the gallery sees us as likely buyers – not with the way I dress, that’s for sure.

If you’re traveling to Tel Aviv, I’ll give you a fashion tip no one gave me before I left. For men in Tel Aviv, the “new black” (as they say) is black. Or gray. I’m not exactly the most colorful dresser in the world, but the clothes I wear have enough spectrum so that I’m handed a menu in English as I approach a kiosk for coffee. I brought a red sweater on the trip, and when I wear it in Tel Aviv I stand out like Santa Claus. Today I purposely dressed monochromatically, and finally Tel Avivers are addressing me first in Hebrew.

More random observations:

Cats are everywhere on the small residential streets in Tel Aviv, seemingly ownerless except that they’re well kept. They are thinner than I’m used to. As are the people. The cats are solo; people mostly move in pairs during the day (pairs, not “couples”) and packs in the evening.

Judging by store windows, people in Tel Aviv subsist largely on fresh fruit and baked goods. Judging by what I see in cafes, they subsist largely on coffee and cigarettes.

As an American, I am accustomed to the sight of women in military uniform. But I may never get used to the sight of Israeli women in military uniform. I know it’s sexist, but my image of a woman soldier is that of an athlete in khaki, possessing a certain swagger born (I imagine) from the need to survive in a more-than-usually predominantly male culture. But with near-universal military service in Israel, the women (girls, from my aging male point of view) who serve in the Israeli armed forces seem … well, ordinary. Soldiering is nothing more than something girls do here. It’s the ordinariness of women soldiers here that makes them seem so unusual to me. They are congregated on Tel Aviv street corners, trying to agree where to go for dinner. They are on the train across the aisle from me, carrying small bags of expensive cosmetics. They look impossibly small to me, as if the military gave them uniforms two sizes too large (they didn’t). Maybe it’s the army boots, or the size of the automatic rifles they carry.

Tel Avivers walk everywhere, and my wife and I are walking too. We have seen more yoga studios, Indian restaurants, electric guitar stores, independent bookstores and coin laundromats than we’ve seen synagogues. In fact, we’ve yet to see a single synagogue in Tel Aviv. I know they must be here, because we do see the occasional traditionally-dressed Orthodox Jewish man, and he must be praying somewhere. But I think I’m less likely to run into a “black hat” here than near my home in Hollywood, California. Tel Aviv is a secular city, and proud of it.

Tel Avivers speak with their hands. The characteristic gesture seems to be the table tap, with one finger or two. I cannot understand their Hebrew, but the table tap seems to indicate the point in the dialog when the speaker indicates that he or she is right. There’s not much in the way of conversational equivocation here. Sometimes the speaker circles her hand in the air before making the table tap — I assume the circle indicates the progress of the speaker’s logical project, like the circling of a bird of prey before the kill is made.

The hand gestures are helpful, because language is a barrier here. American Jews are used to reading their printed Hebrew with vowel marks, called “nikud.” But in Israel, nikud are rarely seen. Hebrew is a language traditionally written only with consonants, and that’s the way the language appears here on street signs, in newspapers, on menus, in advertisements and everywhere else. It’s easy enough to recognize words I already know, but I can’t learn new words here as I might in France, or Germany, by first reading them. So my wife and I spend a lot of time trying to sound out words. It’s not easy, and it’s made not easier by the odd business that some Hebrew letters are “silent” — they indicate a place where a vowel is supposed to be said – and some of these letters are silent at some times but not at others. It’s confusing for an outsider. For example: the Hebrew word for opera is “opera”, and they spell it with five letters, but three of them are silent. It took us ten minutes to figure out the word, even though it appeared above a building we’d already identified as the Opera House.

Despite the language barrier, in spite of the fact that I’m 8,000 miles from home, notwithstanding the deep misgivings I feel about the rightward drift of Israeli policy, I feel comfortable here. It is “normal” to be Jewish here. I know that doesn’t sound particularly profound. But here, being Jewish does not require an explanation. It’s like being a fish in water, a round peg in a round hole, a Roman in Rome doing as the Romans do. As an American who did not make it to Israel until he was 40, the feeling of being “normal” is surprising — most surprising for the fact that I don’t ordinarily think about how “not normal” it is to be Jewish anywhere else. It’s like discovering that all your life you’ve been buying your shoes one size too small.

I’ll close now, from the pedestrian median in the middle of S’derot Rothschild where I have my first morning coffee and do my first morning people watching. There is a man sitting across from me on a park bench in a rust-colored sweater. I check; the book he’s reading is in English. Yup. He’s an American tourist who like me arrived here fashion-clueless.

  • I want to go.

    • lbehrendt

      Then go! Stay at the Diaglihev. Ask for Miriam, tell her I recommended you. Eat at Cafe 49, order the short rib sandwich. Take the tour of Tel Aviv Bauhaus architecture. Dress so that you look like a black-and-white photograph.