Tel Aviv Journal

Jay Nordlinger

When we land in Tel Aviv from Bucharest, some people on the plane — women! — are very, very rude: pushing, shoving, and yelling. I’m about to put my dukes up and the F-word hangs on my lips — and then I remember: “Ah, right: They’re Israelis. They’re supposed to be this way.”

And the same women who are trying to run you over to get to the overhead bins they want would probably cook you a meal and tuck you in at night.

And take up arms to defend you.

Culture, culture …

• Inside the airport, there is a sign — a tourism poster: Follow Your Sunshine, Visit Florida. Huh. Yet there’s plenty of sunshine here, isn’t there? Regardless, I should not overthink a tourism poster …

• The immigration official looks at my passport very, very skeptically. There is a sour look on his face. “What do you do?” he asks. I say that I’m a journalist. If possible, his expression gets more sour. “Do you have a journalist’s ID card?” he asks. No. I’m not from a Communist country.

“Where do you work?” he asks. “National Review magazine in New York,” I answer. “What kind of magazine is that?” he asks. I say that it’s a magazine of politics and culture.

With an air of both annoyance and boredom, he turns to his smartphone and fiddles with it for a while. Suddenly, his face is wreathed in smiles. He grins at me almost goofily, like a girl. I have never seen such a sudden change of countenance. He immediately hands me back my passport and sends me on my way.

Did he Google me? Had he received a billet doux from his girlfriend? I don’t know …

• Israeli cabbies are legendary — legendary for trying to rip you off. There is a reason for the legend; it is grounded in fact — and really too bad. Because a cabbie is often a person’s introduction to Israel. What a first impression, you know?

This is a matter of national honor …

• All the clichés about Tel Aviv are true: young, vibrant, hip, sensual. I am reminded of Miami. The beachtown sensuousness of Miami and the hipster vibe of Brooklyn (certain neighborhoods of).

It is humid as hell, by the way. The temperature is not high — only about 80 — but the humidity is very high.

Is it worth mentioning that the girls and women are beautiful, and often exotically so? That’s a little like mentioning that the bread in France is good, I know. But it’s still true.

Of course, the climate and the general beachtownness helps. Sundresses and all that.

A middle-aged Israeli man tells me, “The nation got seriously prettier once the Russians started coming.”

As the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, so is Israel. It is a Jewish state, yes — but a nation of immigrants at the same time. There are so many skin tones, so many hair types. Years ago, I had a visit here, and a colleague — a young Jewish American — said, “My Jewdar is all screwed up here.”

It ain’t Scarsdale.

• I am happy to see young mothers (and fathers, I guess) — young people with children. Sign of hope, some people think. Sign of a willingness to press onward.

Once, I asked Charles Krauthammer whether he thought Israel would survive. He said, “It depends on two things: the willingness of Israelis themselves to survive and the support of the United States.”

• Given the general looseness of Tel Aviv, I’m surprised to see pedestrians waiting for the light to change at intersections — even when there are no cars coming. Where are we, Salzburg? My Ann Arbor feet want to get moving …

• At a restaurant, a waitress approaches a table and talks to the couple seated at it. She says, “Are you from South Africa?” Yes, they are. “I’m from South Africa,” she says. Then they talk about places, etc., they know in common.

This is very Israel.

• Needless to say, one should go to various restaurants and order various dishes. Personally, I can’t stop returning to one restaurant, for one dish: spicy ground lamb on Yemeni bread (with a fresh salad, of course).

• Here is a Vietnamese joint — and I got a kick out of the sign, somehow:

• A jaunt to Jerusalem with friends, to see the Sharanskys — Natan and Avital. To read a little about it, go here. I did an article.

(After this article appeared, more than one person said, “He [Sharansky] is the greatest Jew alive.” And one of the greatest people, no question.)

• Bad news, and common news: There has been a stabbing this morning. More than one stabbing, by one terrorist, a young Palestinian. He carried out his attacks at the Damascus Gate, which is a main entrance to the Old City (Jerusalem).

Let me quote from a news report, published later on:

An Israeli man who sustained life-threatening stab wounds … was released from a Jerusalem hospital on Wednesday, vowing to reporters, “We will not be afraid.”

Gavriel Lavi, 47, said he struggled to remember the details of the stabbing attack … but believed he had been saved from death by prayers and charity given by fellow students at his yeshiva, or Jewish religious seminary.

• I attend a wedding, outside Tel Aviv. It’s a lovely evening, but not un-humid. Many of the men are in jackets and ties; many of them are not. One in the latter category tells me, “You can tell who was born here and who wasn’t. We sabras don’t wear jackets and ties to weddings.”

Happily, I shed my jacket, though keep the tie in place.

• Have I mentioned that the wedding is outdoors? Let me offer a quick shot of the scene:

• The father of the bride gives a warm, elegant toast. He is from Iraq. (What a story the Iraqi Jews have.) In his toast, he quotes a Turkish saying, and a Persian one. He is a worldly man, a worldly Middle Easterner — cosmopolitan, you might say. This is a bad word in some quarters, but not to me, it isn’t. The father of the bride is an Israeli patriot. He has also had a broad, rich experience of life.

So, sue ’im …

• It’s not like me to shoot food porn, but get a load of this spaghetti:

Where’s the beef? (Remember that slogan? It made its way into the 1984 presidential campaign.)

Put it on simmer, baby:

I could go on …

• At my table, there is a man named Moishe. “Oh, like ‘Moses,’” I say. “No,” he replies. “‘Moses’ is like ‘Moishe.’”

That is one of the greatest replies I have ever heard …

• In Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Boulevard is a major thoroughfare. Well, it should be. So is Begin Road. Ditto. (“Begin” as in “Menachem,” by the way, not as in “commence.”) I also see Levi Eshkol Street. Do you know about him? The third prime minister of Israel, serving from 1963 until his death in 1969.

(By the way, if you have any interest in Israeli politics at all, you will lovedevour — Yehuda Avner’s memoirs, The Prime Ministers. The book is like candy.)

There is also Rabin Square — where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. The square used to be called “Kings of Israel Square.” (Some people still call it that.)

• Ah, the beach, the Med — which makes me think of another late prime minister, Shimon Peres. He met with a group of us journalists in 2005. The location was Davos. Let me fish out, and quote from, my journal:

The Labor head speaks first about the need for the economic betterment of the PA [Palestinian Authority]: Europeans, and others, should invest there. In Gaza, for example, unemployment is over 45 percent. Someone asks, “What kinds of business would you like to see in the PA?” He answers — I like this phrase — “Everything that life calls for.” He then elaborates: “high tech, low tech, no tech.” He points out that Gaza, someday, should be ripe for tourism: It has “43 kilometers of the most beautiful beaches in the Mediterranean.” He wonders whether (abandoned) settlements can be converted to resorts.

Yeah, well …

• Tel Aviv’s waterfront is very, very friendly to people who want to walk. You can walk alongside the beach forever (though the surfaces change, not unpleasantly).

Care for a quick shot?

• One of the sequence of beaches here is (officially) “dog-friendly” — meaning that Fido can frolic unleashed, as his owners look on, grinning.

• Speaking of animals: I see five horses — beautiful thoroughbreds (I believe) — being walked by handlers on grassy areas (not knolls) just beyond a beach. Where are we, Kentucky?

• On the beach, a mother in a bikini throws a football to her two young receiver sons. She has a good arm. A native Israeli, too (as her Hebrew indicates). I’m impressed. I wonder if the boys appreciate that this is not entirely normal.

• Want to get some reading done?

And the other side:

• You can hear cries of muezzins all over the world, including here in Tel Aviv. One rises from the Great Mahmoudiya Mosque, near the beach …

• Speaking of religion: I see some Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their booth. I’m reminded that these people are banned and persecuted in Putin’s Russia, which burns me.

• Amid the buildings in Tel Aviv, the Trade Tower gleams, which makes me think, contentedly, “Up from the socialist past?”

• Have another beach scene:

And spot the cat? On the rocks, at about 5 o’clock?

• I appreciate a blunt sign. Hard to get blunter than “Danger of Death!”

• In my experience — limited, to be sure — Israelis are not great standers in line …

• You know where they learn to stand in line? The Zarkor School. It is my favorite school in Israel, and possibly in the world. It has just three grades, so far: pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade. I bet it will grow. Zarkor was founded by my friend Michael Friedman, and it is a pioneering effort. Learn about it here.

Michael — who is a phenomenal story all by himself — is married to another phenom, Rachel Zabarkes Friedman, a scholar who has three degrees from Harvard, but the pinnacle of whose life, surely, was her internship at National Review

(When I interviewed her, on the phone, I sat up a little straighter, because she was so authoritative, interesting, and compelling. She was just in college, mind you.)

• You are familiar with the pop song “Saturday in the Park”: “People dancing, people laughing, a man selling ice cream, singing Italian songs.” Well, Saturday, it seems to me, is a deader, or emptier, or quieter day in Tel Aviv — yes, even in Tel Aviv, to say nothing of Jerusalem and elsewhere. (Tel Aviv is regarded as a secular city.) Friday is probably more like “Saturday in the Park.”

• See the British embassy, here in Tel Aviv?

It reminds me that ours is now in Jerusalem. I wrote about this issue for years and years: from the point of view of U.S. foreign policy; from the point of view of the Arab–Israeli conflict; and from the point of view of U.S. politics. I should not repeat myself, as I’m trying to breeze through a journal. Maybe I could provide a link.

Hmmm — here’s a dollop.

• I meet a woman who has a daughter in the third grade. She sings in a chorus (the daughter). One of the songs they sing is a patriotic one, saying that, surely, some of the little boys in their midst will grow up to die in Israeli wars.

This is not a country bereft of realism, you might say (putting it mildly).

• It is also not a country bereft of stress. The difficulty of life in Israel is famous, or infamous. I meet a man who is hoping to emigrate to Canada. He is native-born (in Israel, I mean). After his military service, he went to Japan, where he worked for seven years. It is not uncommon for Israelis to do this kind of thing, he says. He loved Japan: its orderliness, its peacefulness. When he returned to Israel, he found the stress — the noise, the pressure, the tumult — almost unbearable.

Look, this is just one testimony, one story, one guy. But no Israeli would be surprised to hear him.

• I have not said anything about Prime Minister Netanyahu — and there is a lot of talk about him, among the people I meet. There was an election in April; there will be another in September. I’m just breezin’ along here, coming to a close. But let me say: Netanyahu is an interesting, impressive, and historic figure, with legions of admirers (including me). But even some of them say, or fear, that he has stayed too long.

This is an age-old problem. Leaders begin to equate their personal interests or desires with the national interest, you know?  L’état, c’est eux.

Anyway, a big, big subject. (I used to call Netanyahu “the Leader of the West.”  I also applied the phrase to Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada.)

• You want to see a funny sign? I don’t have a picture, but I can quote it for you: Please Avoid Unpleasantness Involved in Towing Vehicles.


• An Israeli tells me that shalom is used for goodbye in only one, special instance: when you are going away for a long, long time. Then it’s an adieu (rather than au revoir); an addio (rather than arrivederci).

• It still amazes me, after all these years, that people — modern people — call their dad “Abba,” just as in the Bible …

• One last shot of funkilicious Tel Aviv?

• When I get back to New York, an airport official is jawing at a man who is hawking a car service, and he responds, “I know my rights!”

Ah, America. See you, dear ones, and thanks for going to Israel with me.

One more thing, maybe. Four years ago, I wrote an essay called “Hung Up on Israel”: here. It answered the question, “Why do you care about Israel so much?” At least, it answered it as well as I can.

Thanks again, and see you.

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