Monday, June 21, 2010

It's Just an Ocean

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Some of you are old enough to remember this hoary maxim (although in my day, more cynical minds had shortened it to “All work and no play makes jack [money]). We in the Casden household are firm believers in that aphorism – in its original form – for we are neither dull nor wealthy. Even though neither of us is gainfully employed, we are still putting in a lot of effort and have well-established routines, which we can easily get caught up in to the exclusion of life around us. A simple remedy for the I-can’t-do- such-and-such-today; I-have-to-do-the-laundry syndrome is to get off our duffs and go on a tiyul to somewhere in The Land; although it’s usually Barbara who has made the initial suggestion and yours truly who is initially resistant (every marriage needs a pusher and a pushee). Often my hesitation stems from financial considerations; but that was not the case as far as the proposed trip to the old city of Jaffa was concerned. Here it had to do with the need for us to be on a bus out of Ma’ale Adumim at 6:15AM, an hour which I normally don’t ‘do.’ Of course, in the end, I succumbed to my sweet wife’s wishes. We could, after all, sleep on the bus (we did; we did). And Jaffa was left on a diminishing list of places which we visited in 1980 and have not been back to since. No doubt, there would be plenty to photograph, and the laundry and the shopping would wait another day.
And so, on the day after my efforts with my Ethiopian student, chronicled in my most recent article, we set out on the frightfully early bus which would take us straight to Tel Aviv, where we would get a second bus, one which would meander through that city and forty minutes later bring us to the best known landmark in Jaffa, the migdal schaon (the clock tower). Fond memories of this Ottoman monument, in whose shadow we had some unforgettable couscous and chicken thirty years ago. I have remarked to Barbara about our failure to have kept better records of some of the places we went to on our first trip. Not that this restaurant, or other places of fond recall would still be there today; but it would be nice to know where things were and what’s there now. (What isn’t there now in old Jaffa is the kind of kosher place where one can get a coffee and a pastry at 9AM, so I wound up spending eight shekels for a four and a half shekel container of yogurt, although the Arab grocer did throw in a plastic spoon at no extra charge.)
It turns out that there were two English-speaking tours which began at the aforementioned clock tower at 9:30 that Wednesday morning: one, the regular tour which goes on every Wednesday and is FREE, and a private tour sponsored by an organization which is held every so often and for which there is a forty shekel charge. Now I’m convinced that some of you are running out to place your bet with your favorite bookie as to which one we went on; but, not so fast, because for once you would be wrong. Barbara, not even thinking about the regular tour, had signed us up for this special tour, touted as going to unusual places which the regular tour wouldn’t go to.
Sometimes I have no choice but to reveal details that are not so pleasant, all in the service of ‘a fair and accurate account,’ a stern taskmaster in the best of times. Otherwise, I would gloss over the way our tour began. The woman who was our guide began by climbing onto a two foot high pedestal to address the group and ten seconds later, descended and put her head between her knees, in obvious distress. One of the other women led her off to ‘the facilities,’ from which she emerged fifteen minutes later, having up-chucked whatever had offended her digestive system, ready to resume her work. But she was not herself; or at least we hope she would have been more in command of the situation on another day. The group reassembled and we headed off through a side street, definitely off the beaten track, where stopped for an explanation of where we were. As our guide began speaking, Barbara pointed out to me a doorway with the following legend in large white letters on a sky blue background written vertically and horizontally: B-R-O-N-X. (Homeland, homeland, you’re forever in my memory…) I sensed that there was a fine photograph there, but I couldn’t take it just yet. Half of our group was blocking my view. No matter. The sign wasn’t going anywhere; I would wait until the lady was finished talking and would move on. She continued to talk and continued to talk, and after a while, those of us with cameras began peeling off, in search of something to photograph. I moseyed around, keeping an eye on the group. Sometimes one has to be patient. F-i-n-a-l-l-y, she finished talking and moved on, leaving me to get my photograph.
The pattern continued. The guide would stop somewhere and talk and talk. Barbara, whose role it is on tours to actually listen in case the leader is saying anything of interest, reported that whatever message she had, she was not staying on it. People would distract her with irrelevant questions, and off she would go on a tangent, like the fact that the eucalyptus is the second tallest tree in the world (only the California redwood is bigger). Now I’m not writing this to complain. Half of her group chose to listen, and the rest of us were free to wander around, fairly confident that if we returned ten minutes later, she would still be there. Thus I got to take many more photographs than I would if I were constantly running to keep up with the guide.
And what a place to wander around in! What a collection of amazing streets with eclectic stores! There were shops chocked filled with wild stuff like a 1920 vintage windup Victrola (why do they always ruin it by putting an LP on a machine that was designed to play 78 RPM shellac disks?). Some had huge collections of lesser-value items (a/k/a junk). I could have been back at a Brighton Beach flea market, where one man’s drek is another man’s gelt. There were stores with legitimately old furniture in better or worse condition, and I suspect that every restaurant in town was furnished with idiosyncratic tables and chairs obtained locally. Another block was filled with restaurant supplies, second hand stainless steel sinks of all sizes and shapes, just the place if you want to buy a machine to make the sludgy ice café that is ubiquitous here in The Land. In fact, as we passed one of these stores, the proprietor came out with little cups of some kind of iced desserts to cool us off. But how did it happen that all these stores wound up on adjoining streets in this old city? There is a story here, and while the tour leader was trying to explain the history of the area, in general, her audience was too distracted to discern a coherent thread to her narrative about a city dripping with history.
Then we changed direction and began walking up a hill, and suddenly we were passing some beautiful buildings in the Bauhaus style. What were they doing there, when were they built, and by whom? At that precise moment in time, someone spotted an ice cream store across the street. “Ooooh, can we stop for ice cream?” The entire group including the leader traipsed across the street. I looked at my watch and then at Barbara. It was now twelve noon, and the tiyul was scheduled to end at 12:30. The nutritional effect of the eight shekel yogurt I had eaten at 9:15 was dissipating rapidly, as was my attention span. It was time for lunch, not ice cream. We said goodbye to the group and headed off.
Earlier in the morning, we had spotted a kosher dairy restaurant on one of the streets, and we made a note of where it was, trying to create the same kind of mental map that you would need if you had deposited your car in an enormous parking lot. (My friend Ron tells this great story of when his parents were at Disneyland and his mother thought she had everything under control. She knew exactly what section their car was parked in, except the sign didn’t say 1N, it said IN…) Because this was, all in all a good day, the restaurant was exactly where it was supposed to be, and we hastened inside, out of the sun and into the air-conditioning. We had our choice of tables, all different, with similarly mismatched chairs; again, this being de rigueur in Jaffa. The English speaking waitperson came over to explain what was on their extensive menu and to give his personal recommendations – it took him almost as long as our tour guide, but for him I was all ears. The food was very good, but the coffee was, as they say, to die for, probably the best cup of cappuccino available on the planet.
[Note: the following is an official, authorized digression: When we arrived in 1980, the only coffee available here, as far as we could tell, was ‘bots’ (mud), Turkish strength coffee that you would prepare like instant. By 2004, the world-wide coffee revolution had arrived in Israel, and now you can get better coffee here than I was getting back in The States. Regular American style is not as common in restaurants, but cappuccino or hafuk is ubiquitous and generally speaking is better than what you would get at Starbuck’s. Technically, there is a distinction between cappuccino and hafuk (opposite or upside down), and it has to do with whether the coffee or the frothed milk is poured in first and the strength of the coffee, but it’s all the same and it’s all irresistible – which is not good for my reflux disorder.]

After a leisurely lunch, we were ready to resume our perambulation – this time self-guided – through Old Jaffa, heading up to the park and down to the beach, passing a series of inexpensive meat and fish restaurants along the way. Oh yes, we passed by what looked like the beginning phase of an archaeological dig. Wouldn’t you know it; several days later, we read about the week’s Hareidi riot. Where? In Jaffa. About what? An archaeological dig. I showed the article to Barbara and said, “I’ll bet you I know where they were rioting. How did I know???
It was definitely déjà vu all over again as that well-known man of letters, Yogi Berra once put it. We were walking up a hill with a wooded park area to our left, and, yes, I remembered that exact spot from 1980 although I hadn’t been certain where it was. Here we were in the non-commercial, restful part of the old city, filled with monuments, statues, artifacts, old Christian churches and monasteries for those of that persuasion, small museums, something called the Wishing Bridge, an amphitheater. Simply a wonderful place to take in the scenery, which includes a stunning panoramic view of the Mediterranean, looking as blue as ever, and the shoreline of Tel Aviv. It was there, sitting on a bench out of the direct sun, when we met a couple with their two sons, one post-bar mitzvah and one pre. I had noticed the man because, even though he was wearing a cap, he looked a tad too sunburned for comfort and I assumed he was a tourist. We noticed that they were speaking proper American English, and they noticed that we were doing the same, so we got to talking. He told us that the he was born in The Land and his parents had moved to The States when he was a young child. They had spent the day running all over the place. His two sons thought that the Palmach Museum, which they had visited in the morning, was cool; but by the middle of the afternoon, their attention spans were in dwindling in the heat of the day. The father called his older son over to the edge of the promenade to look at the view. The boy reluctantly walked over and returned to his mother moments later. “It’s just an ocean,” he announced. The father tried something similar with his younger son, with about as much success.
Time for them to call it a day. They told us, but I don’t remember, where they were staying, but it was somewhere in the area near the shore. The fellow, who was involved back in Atlanta in the financial sector, was talking about booting up his computer and getting some work done. For what he needed to do, it mattered not a whit if he was in an office with his tie on or on the deck several thousand miles away in shorts. No one would know, or needed to know where he actually was; as far as anyone knew, he was a phone call or a computer screen away. The marvels of the modern world! I have no idea if he actually intended to get to work or whether he was merely ruminating on the possibility. But I have seen that expression, that wistful look, too often here not to recognize it. “I could be here; I’d like to be here; in truth, I want to be here. But my being here is an illusion. I am chained to my life in Atlanta/Teaneck/Cleveland/London. My children, who go to ‘Zionist’ schools, are as interested in living here as they are in the blue waters of the Mediterranean. My wife is the co-chairperson of our Sisterhood; the thought of any of her children serving in the IDF horrifies her. We have three more days here, during which I can engage my fantasy that I am here to stay. Then we are going back to reality. By the time Father’s Day arrives in a few weeks, we’ll be in the backyard having a barbecue, and the whole trip will be a distant memory. Maybe we can get back here for a week or two in four or five years, or when one of my sons spends his one and only year in yeshiva here.”
Barbara and I took our last look around before heading back to the bus stop. I kept thinking of what the older boy had said, “It’s just an ocean. It’s just, it’s just. The two most dismissive words in the language. It’s just our homeland; it’s just The Land we’ve been yearning for the last two thousand years. It’s just that spot where the enormity of the world’s water meets the tiny bit of land we are trying to hold on to, to develop, to live in. Is it air conditioned? Is it in 3-D? How far is it?
The stop for the bus which would return us to the Arlozeroff station in Tel Aviv was not near where we had gotten off in the morning, and we spent fifteen minutes looking for it before we stumbled on it. It was on Yerushalaim Boulevard. Of course. The street in Jerusalem which begins at the gates of the Old City and keeps going is……Jaffa Street. It’s the same street. In days of yore, one would disembark in Jaffa after a perilous journey across the It’s just Ocean, and head east on that to the City One Could Only Dream About. Today that old road has been superseded by modern highways and you don’t get the same effect as you would making the final ascent to Jerusalem – on a donkey. It’s just a road.

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