From Ashdod to Tel-Aviv via Yavne, Rehovot and Jaffa, the final leg.
The sun is setting over Ashdod, where Ruthie and I came to relax following the hospital experience. There is nothing wrong with Ashkelon, but Ashdod, a fifteen minute drive up the super-urbanized coast, somehow turned into our romantic getaway over the past few months. We even came here for our Valentine’s Day date.
If you wonder about this strange attraction to a modern mammoth of a port city, ask our taste buds. Ashdod is Israel’s answer to Palestinian Nablus: a culinary paradise of a town, and while Nablus is about local tradition, Ashdod is about foreign ones, brought here by Jewish immigrants from their native lands.
An exception is Israel’s best Chinese restaurant, Chon Lee. A Chinese Jewish diaspora does exist, with centers in Harbin and Shanghai, but the owner at Chon Lee happens to be from Taiwan. In any case, his children all served in the IDF, so he’s as good as Jewish by the local book.
The only way to improve on a dinner at Chon Lee is by grabbing a pint at “Nash Miesto” (“Our Bar”), the best Russian bar in Israel. It was here that I ended the full day I devoted to Ashdod on the September Journey, as well as the day I dedicated to the Russian community on the Christmas journey.
Ilya is in the house and so is his wife, whose name I never catch, and they are both surprised at the size of my beard. This is what a man looks like near the end of a long journey. I am truly near the end now. In fact, I am determined to conclude the journey tonight, despite the concussion and having lain on a hospital bed only this morning. It’s around 10:00 p.m. right now, and for the moment there’s still time to relax in Nash Miesto. Ilya brings out a guitar and I take my best shot at singing “Exhausted Sum.”
Before leaving Ashdod I take a photo of another culinary palace. The Mamounia building was designed to host Moroccan weddings and henna parties, but is also home to a wonderful Indian restaurant named Namaste. Ok, that’s enough food and drink for now. Time to take the sherut (minibus) north, minding the head this time.
Everyone on the sherut but us has roots in the Ethiopian Jewish community. At least one fellow is clearly out to paint Tel Aviv red.
Ruthie continues to the city, while I get off at an interchange near the town of Yavne. No need to rush now that I am so close to my goal. The highways are grand here. The hum of the metropolis is heard. I am at a point on its external ring of suburbs.
Yavne itself is alight with Independence Day decorations.
Independence Day is over – what now? Can we really hold on to all this pride and joy on regular days? Spending an evening in Ashdod with a fork in hand helps me feel good about this place, but while the Szechuan duck gets digested quickly, other things I have seen, felt and learned over the past three weeks do not.
This was a journey full of tall fences, some invisible, like the one that kept Umm Jihad away from her home for 30 years. It was a journey full of watchful eyes, some seeing all, like the balloon flying over Gaza. It was a journey full of weapons, some simply strewn about, like the landmine apparatus that Rami found on the beach near Shfayim.
The Hebrew University’s first president, Rabbi J. L. Magnes, left Israel in 1948. From my reading of Magnes, he foresaw that the Jewish state could only exist in a state of perpetual violence, and felt that in such a case, he could no longer take part in the Zionist endeavor. History seems to support his prediction, though his personal conclusion remains his own. I am tempted to adopt it about twice a day, I even tried to emigrate in my 20s, first by traveling Europe as a musician for five years, then by settling in the United States for three. It was to no avail.
I may eventually acquire another citizenship, but I have no other identity. Magnes was an American. He had somewhere to go. I am stuck here with the landmine apparatus, and I carry it with me to Boston and to Helsinki. My only choice may be to learn to stop worrying and just love the bomb.
The teenagers that hang around Yavne’s central square at night certainly seem relaxed in their whereabouts.
Curious about the camera, they come over to pose and poke fun, then strike a real conversation and I am impressed. They are intelligent, kind and eloquent. Some of them take special art classes in highschool, others study “advanced physiology” as a first step to becoming physical education teachers. If this is our future generation, “what’s next” should not be such a worrying question. I leave them with my card, so they can check for their photos online, and tread on more calmly.
Hold on. Someone us running to reach me. It’s a redheaded tenth-grader named Ephraim. He noticed something on the card. His finger points to the website’s description. “Independent reporting and commentary from Israel and the Palestinian Territories.”
“What’s that?” he asks. “Palestinian?”
“Well, there’s a bunch of us bloggers who share this site,” I explain. “Some of us are Israelis, others are Palestinian, and we write about things that happen here and in the territories.”
“So it’s a leftist site, right?”
“You could say so, in the sense that it concerns itself with the equality of all human beings.”
“Delete my photos.”
Other kids have joined by now. They are angry. They are yelling. “A good Arab is a dead Arab!” exclaims a boy named Li’av, who so far had been the group’s cheerful clown. The others voice their agreement loudly.
I may be a leftist, but I’m still a grown up, and eventually I manage to hush them. “Look you guys,” I say, “I am a bit saddened by what I see here. I was very impressed by all of you, and here you come and say insensitive and even racist things. Please tell me this isn’t true, that you are exaggerating your reactions to provoke me, and that you know all human beings deserve to be treated with respect.” I am paraphrasing David from Netivot, who grew up among Moroccans and worked with Gazans. Do his children and grandchildren also praise the added value of dead Arabs?
“But they are terrorists! They blow themselves up to kill us!” Li’av insists.
He is being sincere. These kids speak out of fear, a fear that has been sparked in them and is fueled each day: by the education system, run by right-wing extremist Minister Gideon Saar, by their prime minister in his television appearances, likely by their parents and certainly by their peers. Who would dare to voice a different opinion before so many like-minded classmates?
Ephraim is pale. He is truly terrified that his face might appear in a “leftist” site. I respect his feelings and delete before his eyes each photo in which he appears. Li’av then makes the same demand, and then do the others, to the point that I am left only with one photo of kids who sat on further benches. The youths of Yavne forced me to delete about twice as many photos as did the muhabarat of Egypt.
I have to get out of here and go somewhere that is kind to my spirit. A taxi takes me to the nearby city of Rehovot, and drops me off at 13 Rojansky Street. Where my grandparents, now passed away, had lived for decades.
The road that began in Europe, then led through the barracks of Atlit and the tents of Beit Yosef, came here to a comfortable end. When my own family moved frequently over my teenage years, my grandparents’ second floor apartment in this standard block remained stable. It was home in a different sense then were our various abodes, a home where “Shalom Aleichem” was sung every Friday night, where tradition, indeed Judaism, was alive as poetry, as food, as family and as values.
My grandparents were humanists as much as they were Jewish. Ben-Ami means “son of my people” – of the Jewish people, but also of the family of humanity. It occurs to me that tonight is a Friday night. I came back here on the Sabbath to gather hope, to forget both Minister Saar, who I know is wrong, and Rabbi Magnes, whom I hope was wrong. If my grandfather, the pacifist that he was, did not follow Magnes, if he chose to stay here even after the war of ’67, and witness the occupation, which caused him great grief, if he believed that it was possible to change this place without giving up on the old dream, then Magnes may indeed have been wrong. Dear God, please tell me he was wrong.
I look behind me and see two trees. I used to play around them with Yaron when we were kids, pretending to be Asterix and Obelix. One of the trees has felled, the other has aged by 30 years. Even a big tree, an old tree, looks different after 30 years.
Israel was nearly felled in 1948, when the Middle East made a joint effort to eradicate it. Again it was nearly felled in 1973. It survived and it aged – ungracefully. Now it is giving up its democracy in order to keep the fences where it wants them to be and maintain its questionable ethnocratic nature. What will it look like 30 years from now? What will it look like in five?
Perhaps it is time for another drink, one that would comfort. I step into one of Rehovot’s few bars, called “The Drinking Fountain,” and am stunned by the amount of activity inside. This place is hot.
The good ambiance and pint of Paulaner Salvator both get me in the mood for hitting the proper city, but before I do, I must make a small tribute. Rehovot is the hometown of a dear friend of mine whom I have lost, not to death, but to hurt. This friend loves Bauhaus architecture and dirty things. I dedicate to her this photo of a Bauhaus building on Herzl street, made dirty by unregulated signage.
At 1:00 a.m. I step into a sherut to the real Bauhaus city, and land in Tel Aviv’s terrible central bus terminal.
It’s a terrible place indeed, and not only architecturally. Nearby is the park where Kyubran used to rough it. Just as he told it, it is still carpeted with sleeping asylum seekers. They are not only at risk of catching pneumonia. Two nights ago, in a coordinated attack, arsonists threw molotov cocktails into three houses where asylum seekers live and a kindergarten serving the community. No one was hurt but the buildings were damaged and a sinister statement was made.
The Israeli media ignored the events for the most part. Unfortunately, I happen to write for a website of scary leftists. So I got wind of it.
The park is encircled by a ring of prostitution. Kidnapped Moldovan girls offer their bodies by the old, defunct bus terminal, while Israeli transvestites walk Hagdud Haivri Street.
Damn, the city is bringing me down again, and only just after the Drinking Fountain finally spunked up my night a bit. What’s next? How will I regain my trust in my own city? It isn’t an easy task. Some streets are eerily silent at this hour,
while others are aflame with mindless, escapist partying, which by now I find harder to relate to. There was some joy about stepping into the little suburban bar, which the proper city could never recreate.
But this city is more than one city. I continue west to Jaffa, only fifteen minutes by foot from here. This is a wonderful town to hit at night, so long as one manages to avoid the Nakba blues. Everywhere are the imposing remains of what once was an important center of Arab life, and now is a neglected quarter of greater Tel Aviv.
So far, I managed to avoid this blues fairly well. I haven’t even mentioned the Palestinian disaster when describing Independence Day, which is also commemorated as Nakba day. (Though officially Nakba day is on May 15th, while Independence Day adheres to the Jewish calender.) Since then, however, I got news of some disagreeable related events that took place in this city on that occasion.
It appears that the police blockaded the offices of “Zochrot”, an Israeli historical society devoted to educating the public about the Nakba. Zochrot’s activists intended to quietly present a photo exhibition on the sidelines of Tel Aviv’s Independence Day celebration on Rabin square. The cops kept them indoors for four hours, the duration of the celebration, in order to prevent “public disturbance.”
As of last year, commemoration of the Nakba in Israel has been highly impeded. What’s next? My spirit sinks again, then rises high, when I bump into two dear friends next to Abulafia’s famous bakery.
It’s Ami Yares, Jaffa’s main blues and folk man, and Noa Yachot, +972’s trusty editor. Like Mairav, who drove me into the Arava, so did Noa edit many of these posts and was a true partner on this journey. Here’s what coming back to town is all about.
Noa and Ami have friends with them: a cute gay couple somehow here from Ramallah. It’s already 3:30 or so, and the four have just emerged from the AnnaLouLou, Jaffa’s finest bar. Now is my turn to head there.
The AnnaLouLou is still popping when I enter.
The mainly Arabic playlist is picked and played by Mohammed Jabali (known to all simply as Jabali) and Eyal Bizawe. The former is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, the latter a Jewish Israeli, but this is no Hasbara idyll. These two are both activists. They know that there is a government here that is working hard to keep teenagers scared and hateful, that this government fans flames of racism which are then thrown through windows into kindergartens, that this government tries to keep dark memories silent, and that people fall for its treachery and support it. They also know that Hamas is awful and the PA is corrupt, that international interests have been ravaging this place from the days of colonialism to the Cold War and on to the present. They know that economic lies intermingle with political and military ones, both here and across the lines, that there are too many fences, too many weapons, too many watching eyes and too little music. This is why they play music. This is why they make movies. This is why they educate.
Alright. I am inspired. I can go to bed now. Outside the muezzins call for the prayer of dawn, but it is still dark as I follow the beach towards Tel Aviv’s lights.
It is still dark when I reach Allenby Street. and the city-bike station from which I departed on this entire journey.
But what comes next, as always, is dawn, rising cobalt blue over our street and the apartment in which Ruthie sleeps,
and growing stronger and stronger, until its soft light enters through the curtains and I can clearly see that I am home.
The Round Trip, completed!
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