Secular in Tel Aviv

Two days after the demonstration of repentance in Jerusalem, we head off to Tel Aviv. We take a sherut and arrive midday. I’ve never been on a sherut before. They seat ten comfortably as long as you are not tall. Two double seats behind the driver, three singles on the other side and the bench at the back seats four. I am on the spot where my legs can stretch down the aisle.

The trip is a little under an hour. I am thankful, thankful for the guy sitting in one of the single seats in front of me. He has to be seven feet tall. His knees have been in his chin for most of the trip. It looks like he has done this before.

Once in Tel Aviv we decide we want a coffee and the beach – not necessarily in that order.

I’ve been looking forward to Tel Aviv. We have already been once for a few hours, but now we are planning on two days. Two full days away from Jerusalem. It is a drastic change from Jerusalem. There is a lack of religion. The presence of religion is less than New York; even less than Toronto. It’s refreshing. Another thing that jumps out, is the absence of Palestinians, again less than New York and for us, much less desirable than the absence of religion.

Taking it a step further, the military presence is much less in Tel Aviv. For the first time I understand why Tel Aviv is often described as being in a bubble. A limited presence of religion, Palestinians and the military – definitely three things I have come to identify with the Occupation.

If Tel Aviv is short on the components that are identified with the Occupation, it is not short on Israel’s obsession, and by obsession I mean the perceived threats to the Jewishness of the State.

As good as it gets?

In Tel Aviv the  threat is different. It has taken the form of an expanding African population. These people are referred to as asylum seekers by some, with the government calling them “illegal work infiltrators”. They have created an entirely new threat to the Jewishness of the State; neither external nor Palestinian.

Sign on post: Looking for caregiver
Help wanted

As with the Palestinians the reaction to this perceived threat comes in many forms one of which is pure unfettered racism. It isn’t long before we see the racism first hand.

We are at the central bus station, in an area we had learned on our previous trip is central to where the Africans have set up home. We are transferring from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv sherut to a local sherut, sherut number four; it will take us to the beach. Sheruts do no depart to their destination until the ten seats are full. One has just filled and is departing. There is an African family left waiting. There are seven members. We announce to the man who appears to be the father, that we are two and now we are nine. Nine people waiting for the next sherut.

“Ah, good, nine.” he replies in broken English.

The next number four to the beach arrives. It pulls into its spot, new people arrive and push their way to the door; this is the Israeli way I have been warned about. The father of the family makes his way to the front entrance; trying to block the other passengers while his family gathers up their stuff and make their way to the entrance. He and the Israelis who have pushed their way to the front of the line get into a loud exchange. It’s in Hebrew, so I don’t understand it. He looks into the bus and pleads with the driver for support. The people who have pushed their way to the front of the line continue their push until they are on the bus; in seats. The bus driver tells the man to get the next bus. The man pleads with the terminal director who had promised him and his family a space on the next bus.

I turn to my wife and tell her I do not want to get on this bus. There was room for us, but taking a seat would have been wrong; it would have ignored the family in front of us. It would have been participating in a type of discrimination we had no desire to be part of.

The terminal director comes to the front door of the bus and exchanges a few words with the bus driver. The bus driver gives in and allows the African family to get on the bus. The terminal director tells the father that they can now get on. The father objects to paying fares for seven people when there are only four seats. The terminal director assures him he will not have to pay for seats if the children are in laps. The family gets on the bus and off to the beach they go. I wonder if the beach will have a colour barrier.

And off to the beach we go!

Beach scene
Tel Aviv beach from across the fountain

We get on the next bus. They are frequent. The driver lets us off a block or so before the beach. We walk down the street looking for a café to have a drink in. Another difference with Tel Aviv, on Shabbat and other holidays, the city is not shut down. There is enough of a secular presence that businesses manage to open and profit.

We end up in a Russian café; we believe it is a Russian neighborhood. An older woman gets up from a table of two men drinking beer. She is Eastern European, migrated to Israel for a better life, but it doesn’t appear she has found it. She is rough around the edges but pleasant. She is ordered around by the Russian owner. We want coffee but the waitress tries to entice us into buying something to eat. A sandwich; a pastry anything more than what we have ordered? Not able to convince us to have more than what we have ordered, she goes off and returns shortly with our coffees. She drops them on the table and returns to the two men drinking beer and continues sipping from the straws sticking out of her bottle of coke.

The Russian owner, somewhat younger and less rugged, comes out from the inside of her shop and resumes her position on the stool that sits at the entrance to the inside of the café. She looks over at the slightly younger, slightly sexier woman sitting on a similar stool in front of the entrance to the café next door. Both of them smile alluringly at the pedestrians walking by their cafes.

The men drinking the beer, finish and pay their bills. Their table is now free. The older lady gets up, brings her coke over to the table with the lone man sipping vodka from a shot glass. He smiles at her knowing that he will not be lonely much longer. She grabs a rag from inside the café and goes out and wipes the table. She has barely finished before she has managed to entice a young couple into the empty seats. Her boss sitting on the stool smiles. We continue to sip our coffee, debating if we want a pastry or not.

I suggest that the thing we must order is the apple strudel. What other pastry could you possibly order from an Eastern European café? So we order the pastry and once again, both the owner and waitress smile. Today business is good. In Jerusalem, it would not be so good.

When we’ve finished our coffees and pastry, we order a carrot juice to go. We pay the bill and continue on our way down to the beach.

The beach reminds me of the Atlantic City boardwalk. There is a beach and there are hotels and shops, except here the hotels and shops are a mix of the present and the past. They are a mix of the run down and the newly built. It is somewhat perplexing.

On one side of the street there is the Opera Tower anchored by an Aroma café on the ground floor. Aroma cafés are a constant presence in Israel, like Starbucks in America – iconic and reliable. On the other side of the street, the side we are walking down, there is a corner complex of three stories with an assortment of shops and restaurants on the ground floor and two floors of motel rooms split between two different motels. One has a Russian name and the other is called “Miami”. This is probably a remnant of the cold war. The Americans and Russians, side by side fighting for a piece of the action in the Middle East. Perhaps it is reflective of today too. Russian and American immigrants fighting over control of Israel with neither group feeling any real sense of allegiance to their home country.

We pass by the restaurant under the Russian hotel and take note of the menu and prices. It looks very affordable but not inviting. It has tables and chairs outside so we could eat and people watch if we decide this is what we want to do. We continue pass the restaurant, across the street and onto the beach. We have our backpacks. We are not in beach mode. We are in travel mode, diverting to the beach.

The beach is full of people, sunbathing, swimming, drinking and playing some noisy version ping pong. Smack, smack, smack, smack. It’s noisy, but we are not trying to sleep and turn brown. We are trying to walk from where we are to the end of the beach off in the distance. My wife is in love with the beach; I am in love with my wife. The beach is soft, and damp. I am enjoying it, but not the smack, smack of the ping pong bats.

We have taken off our shoes and we walk along the cool sandy surface beneath our feet. The waves come roaring in. These are waves that my wife assured me did not exist. It was the Mediterranean, not the Pacific. I ask her what has happened and she is not sure. The waves come rushing up onto the beach; over our feet, up our rolled up pant legs until my wife lets out a yelp. The waves have reached the cloth bag that she carries dangling. She pulls me further away from the rushing tide, and before I know it, we are navigating our way past the sunbathers stretched out this way and that. They seek the brownness of skin that the bus driver attempted to reject. It is all so confusing.

People sitting on rocks at the beach
People sitting on rocks at the beach

Eventually we reach our goal, the rocks piled high at the end of this stretch of beach. We sit on them, resting. We both look at the bodies lying about. My wife lets me know that she has picked the spot we are in so that I can look at the three bathers in front of me. Perfect brown, navels exposed and wrinkle free. I pretend, and my wife knows I pretend, that I am not peaking, even gawking at their perfection; perfection that will surely disappear not in days, but years.

After a while, the hunger of our stomachs takes over the hunger of our eyes and we decide to set off in search of food. We could eat in a beach front café but decide that it will probably be very expensive and we are not interested in spending lots of money. We head back to the cheap-unappealing café under the Russian hotel across the street from Aroma.

Hotel in Tel Aviv
People around fountain in front of hotel.

We order food. My wife gets a falafel and I order a kebab sandwich. The falafel sandwich is ready in no time. We take a seat outside so we can watch people walk by and wait for mine. Mine will be more involved. For mine, the cook reaches into a fridge and pulls out some frozen meat. He places the meat in the microwave. It looks like he will thaw it and then put it on the grill. This is something that I often experience, higher expectations than the reality. The sandwich is eventually made but lacks the flavor or texture I had anticipated, but I am hungry so I eat it.

We watch the people walk up and down the street. We watch the sun beginning to set over the sea. We talk about what it is we will do next. We are going to stay with people that my wife knows, but not well, from her days in Israel.

“They will be fascinating,” she assures me. “You will feel right at home in Tel Aviv.”