Tel Aviv, Jaffa: "Roots"
June 13, 2007
Dear Family and Friends,
Boker tov. Good morning.
I just finished a tasty Israeli salad and a satisfactory cup of coffee at an outdoor café on the campus of Tel Aviv University.
The University sits on a hillside, and from the cafe I have a fine sunny view of the suburbs. In the distance I count at least four tall construction booms swaying back and forth over this busy city that seems to be growing in all directions.
I am shocked at what I see here at the University. In a good way. Despite the fact that too many of the kids are smokers, there is not one cigarette butt anywhere. The students are neatly dressed and attractive. There are no scruffy outfits or torn jeans or gatkes hanging out. The lawns are green and smooth. The trees are pruned. There is not a paper bag or plastic cup rolling around. Not one poster or handbill is pasted on any wall or lamppost. No graffiti defaces any building. This campus is a clean and beautiful parkland.
Colorful modern sculptures sit on the lawns and pathways and at the entrances to the classrooms. The buildings are modern and architecturally diverse. On the wall of each building is the name of the man or woman or family who donated funds for its construction. The names are Jewish names, Jewish philanthropists from around the world who feel responsible to support a university and the diverse people of a nation that struggled for two thousand years to build a safe and successful homeland.
On the campus of Tel Aviv University is the Beth Hatefutsoth - The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. The inscription at the entrance reads: "This is the story of a people which was scattered all over the world and yet remained a single family; a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet, out of the ruins, rose to new life."
The museum presents two thousand five hundred years of Jewish life in the Diaspora (the settling of Jews outside of Israel). Beginning with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem (587 BCE) and chronicling such major events as the exile to Babylon (587-537 BCE) and the expulsion from Spain in 1492, the museum also covers Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.
Recent exhibitions include "The Jews of A" and "The Jews of Mexico" and "By the Shores of the Black Sea -- Jewish Farmers in the USSR, 1922-1941."
One of my favorite exhibits is the permanent collection of replica synagogues, both those destroyed and those still functioning. The synagogues in China, India, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and The Americas all retain the traditional religious elements. The local architects, of course, added local and contemporary styles of both simplicity and grandeur.
The bright yellow and white Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curacao is surely "Carribean." Founded in 1651, it is the oldest active Jewish congregation in the Americas. (By the way, other synagogues in the Caribbean include one more in Curacao, one in St Thomas, three in Cuba, one each in the Virgin Islands, Barbados, Aruba, and Freeport in The Bahamas, and two in Puerto Rico. *
The replica of Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, a suburb north of Philadelphia, is pure Modern American. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It is the only synagogue he designed yet it is considered to be one of his finest houses of worship. The whole structure looks like it is about to take flight. And yours truly, as a former Philadelphian, had the privilege of attending services there once, once upon a time.**
I knew that several Jewish writers had won the Nobel Prize for Literature: Boris Pasternak, Saul Bellow, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. I was surprised to see a very long list of names, twelve in all, including the Bulgarian Elian Canetti, the South African Nadine Gordimer, the Hungarian Imre Kertesz, and most recently, in 2005, the English playwright Harold Pinter. In fact all the Jewish Nobel Prize Laureates in all categories are listed in the museum -- one hundred and sixty-one men and women: 48 in Biomedicine, 23 in Chemistry, 20 in Economics, 47 in Physics, 12 in Literature, and 9 for World Peace.***
The biggest surprise for me at the museum was information regarding my own "roots." My Grandfather and Grandmother on my mother's side, Harry and Pauline Lifson (Lifschitz) were born in a town called Grodno, now in Belarus, a former Soviet state. Depending on historical events, Grodno was a Polish city or a Russian city, so I thought of myself as just a bit Russian or Polish. (My paternal Grandparents are from Czechoslovakia, as you can tell from my names.)
You can imagine my surprise when I accidentally investigated the Lithuanian Jewry exhibit at the museum. It seems that Grodno was at one time a part of the Greater Lithuanian Jewish Community. Am I part Polish? Part Russian? Now it appears I am part Lithuanian! ****
Actually, my tour of Israel began at Ben Gurion International Airport where I was cheerily welcomed by the Tourist Board with pamphlets, brochures and maps. I took a taxi to downtown Tel Aviv and I noticed Israeli flags draped from balconies and shops. Why should this be such a shock? Well I have seen an Israeli flag with its distinctive blue Star of David and two blue stripes on a white background . . . I have seen this flag only occasionally in a synagogue or on an Israeli consulate building. But to see them everywhere? This was a happy surprise.
The second surprise was in the hallway of my hotel. On every door is a mezuzah! Every Jewish home has one attached to the doorpost. We are instructed by G-d . . . . "And you shall inscribe them (My Commandments) upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates . . . ." To see mezuzot (pl.) all in a row on both sides of the hallway . . . now that is a visual jolt as well.
I take my first stroll downtown. In front of the department stores are several musicians playing for handouts. And these guys are good: a flute, a trombone, a violin. The older guys may be Russian émigrés. Many skilled Russian musicians have come to Israel . . . a small country after all . . . and there are only so many orchestras with openings.
At the entrance to the malls and department stores and banks and any shop with expensive merchandise, in front of every train station there are armed, armed, armed security guards and metal detectors. Everyone opens her handbag or his briefcase for inspection. I am asked for my passport, and when I can't produce it, the young guy grunts but accepts my Florida Drivers license.
On every street, on every train and bus, in every town are the young members of the Army -- skinny, casual girls and boys in loose-fitting green uniforms. The boys carry menacing looking automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. (I asked one of the kids if he had any bullets.) Usually these kids are in groups headed home or back to their base. They chat and smile like teenagers everywhere, but they are soldiers.
Everyone serves here. After High School graduation, the boys go for three years, the girls for two. (I met one sweet, dark-haired slip of a girl, my cousin Adi who is a Hummer Instructor. I met a lovely blonde girl, my cousin Ofir who is a specialist in reading aerial reconnaissance maps.) When their time in the Service is up, they may take an extended journey. (With her boyfriend, Ofir is off to India and Thailand.) After several months of backpacking, they return to university in Israel and go on with their lives.
Of course I see young men and women in their twenties and thirties, and I see adults on my strolls. (I met one jovial man who is a jet fighter pilot.) It occurs to me that almost everyone here has been in the armed forces. So I guess everyone here can shoot a rifle and defend herself. Why anyone would pick a fight with the Israelis is beyond my understanding. The whole country is an Army.
More than eighty percent of this country of six and a half million citizens is Jewish. From the bank president to the hotel manager to the shop girl to the taxi driver to the lady picking up plastic bottles from the garbage to the guy talking to himself at the downtown café. The young guy at the falafel sandwhich shop piles on the overflowing ingredients and insists, "Don't worry. You'll finish it! Don't worry."
I stroll to the beach which is the eastern end of The Mediterranean Sea. I haven't seen the Mediterranean in many years and my previous destinations were far to the west, in the south of Europe. Here the wind blows in my face and then beyond into the streets of Tel Aviv. Yes it's a big city but the air is clear and breezy at this time of the year.
The air is also breezy but hot in Jaffa. I took the bus south, too far south, so I first walked toward the sea and then north along the hilly coast road. In the hot sun.
Jaffa is a multi-ethnic city. Many Arabs live here and I stopped at a few Arab shops. On the coast are several Muslim and Eastern Orthodox cemeteries. The hillside gravesites overlook the sea and have elaborate statues and carvings of angels, and inscriptions in Arabic and Cyrillic. One large area is so old that the inscriptions have been eroded by the wind.
Jaffa is an ancient, Biblical port city. Jonah sailed from here. St. Peter raised Tabitha from the dead here. Napoleon invaded and later, the Turks.
In the center of Jaffa is the San Antonio Roman Catholic Church; a castle hosts a French Roman Catholic girls' school; and next door is the Presbyterian Church of Scotland Tabitha School. Just up the street is a The El-Mahmoudiye Mosque with two large domes and a tall minaret. And just up the street from the mosque I stop for lunch.
At the next table is a young woman who is traveling alone. "Where are you from?" . . ."Boston." . . . "Where in Boston?" . . . "Newton" . . . "Which Newton?" . . . "Newton Centre." . . . "Where did you go to school?" . . . "Newton North." . . . "University?" . . . "University of Massachusetts." Something clicked in my neural pathways. "Your name is Miriam!" Miriam is shocked. Miriam is the daughter of my good friend Larry in Boston. Is it a small world? Is Israel at the crossroads?
Israeli faces. To steal a quote, it's a rainbow coalition. From the porcelain white of the Russians, to the basic white of the Europeans, to the tan of the North Africans, to the brown of the Cochin Indians, to the jet black of the Ethiopians. Add to this stew the yellow of the Filipino and the Thai guest workers. It's quite a tsimmes.
Speaking of Thailand . . . Living in Thailand as I do, I have had to adjust my verbiage and especially my humor to the Thai Style. As far as I can tell, Thailand humor lacks irony, sarcasm and wit, caustic or otherwise. Any normal American-style sarcasm would be taken as a serious insult and loss of face. There are jokes to be sure, but the comedy is mostly slapstick, outrageous costumes and lots of loud giggles.
So, in Tel Aviv, when I met Amichai Neeberg, the sixty-year-old owner of my small hotel in Dizengoff Center, and a real character, I had a chance to re-sharpen my natural Bronx, New York City wit. Amichai and I spent many happy and challenging moments together in biting conversation. And the sharper it got, the more he enjoyed it. The sharper I got, the more he respected me. At one point I do believe I was getting the better of him. He said loudly and in frustration, "Are you staying at this hotel?" I responded without missing a beat, "I hope not!" He smiled and said, "Very good. I like that!"
In Thailand I feel like a human being. Everyone smiles and says hello. I am respected as a foreigner. And a good espresso coffee costs about a buck.
And in Israel, I also feel welcome. Israelis smile and joke and feel what they say, and say what they feel. It's refreshing to hear such honesty. And this honesty makes a big difference. This is more like home.
Am I home? I don't know. To be fair to myself, this is my first trip to Israel. I am happy to be here. But am I home? I don't know.
To be honest, with a cup of coffee at an outdoor café selling for $3.00 or $4.00 or more, I'm not smiling that much.
Next stop, Jerusalem.
* www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/syncarib.html. Caribbean synagogues.
** www.delmars.com/wright/flw8-16.htm. Frank Lloyd Wright.
*** www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/nobels.html. The comprehensive list of Jewish Nobel Laureates.
**** www.grodnoonline.com/lost_worlds/section_1_test.html. Grodno.