For the remainder of the trip, I just wanted to lie on the beach, swim in the Mediterranean, go on an occasional run, eat in outdoor cafes, dance in crowded clubs, take naps, and watch the beautiful people go by. In short, I wanted a Semitic Spain: una España sin carne de cerdo.
Unfortunately, Asaph had a schedule! We woke up late the next day (around 10:30), and I only had time to run and get an ice coffee and a croissant before we had to head out for a tour of Israeli Army Radio (גלי צה"ל). Asaph had arranged this tour because I routinely listen to their popular music station, Galgalatz (גלגל"צ -- an acronym, because they absolutely love acronyms in Hebrew) over the internet while I am at work. One of Asaph's sisters had worked for this radio station during her obligatory military service, and she made history by being the first person to transfer out of the station to another job. Normally, working at Israeli Army Radio is extremely desirable. But Asaph's sister is quite special.
We drove to Jaffa.
There was an archaeological dig in the middle of the street as we walked to the station.
There was a banner in Arabic that said something about Jerusalem. I thought it might say something like "One Jerusalem" or "United Jerusalem" or "Jerusalem First" or something. I couldn't imagine Arabs having put up a sign promoting Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, and I couldn't imagine a sign promoting Palestinian sovereignty over Jerusalem being allowed to remain on the fence around an archaeological dig being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority. So the sign was a mystery.
Maybe in a few years I will be able to read it. I was afraid to ask any Arab friends what it said, since it would probably upset them.
There are still some Arabs left in Jaffa, although it is getting gentrified and therefore increasingly Jewish.
The street where Israeli Army Radio is located is not gentrified, however.
We called the person who had been arranged to guide us, and he came out to let us in. He was very tall and fair, although his last name implied Moroccan ancestry.
He led us inside. The overwhelming majority of persons were very young and were wearing olive-drab uniforms. Some had guns. It was our guide's last day in the army, so he was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and backless sandals. We sat in an office while he got some last-minute signatures for his discharge. There were several serious girls in uniforms making phone calls in an exasperated manner. I thought about the global problem of child soldiers.
Our guide was finally ready to give us a tour. He was very friendly and funny. It seemed like he had done these tours often, since he was very well prepared. He went into a lot of detail; Asaph interrupted him and told him that we didn't need so much information. I did learn that the only other country with a similar military radio station is South Korea, a fact that I will have limited opportunities to share.
He led us through the building. It was quite chaotic and messy. He joked about this, and about how the most popular radio station in Israel is basically run by children. Occasionally one saw an un-uniformed adult, however.
We went into the studios of the popular music station, where the presenter was saying farewell to her listeners, as it was her last day in the army as well.
I recognized her voice.
Asaph noted that there were some religious soldiers -- that is, soldiers wearing skullcaps. Our guide told us that there had been efforts to bring in more minorities: religious, Druze, etc. I thought about how angry many New York non-heterosexual new atheists would be to hear religious people described as a minority worthy of affirmative action. They would rant about invisible sky monsters or whatever term they are now using to mock religious belief and practice.
We went to the room where the music was digitized. There were some soldiers sitting at computers doing the work. A very young man in uniform, who we learned was in charge of music programming, talked to us about how the station can only play so-called hits but is also in the position of deciding which songs become so-called hits. He noted that some recording artists resent the fact that a bunch of kids decide what becomes a hit in Israel. The young man in uniform kept staring at the cross around my neck as he talked to me. He was very friendly and kept talking to us for some time, showing us the racks of compact discs and answering questions we hadn't asked.
As we left, Asaph provided some sordid speculation on the motivation for this young man's friendliness. I though he was just being a nice boy.
Our guide led us outside. He pointed to my crucifix necklace. "I can see that you are not Jewish. Why do you listen to [Israeli Army Radio]?" he asked. I didn't have a satisfactory answer, other than "it's interesting". I also said that I liked Israeli pop music, even though it is a bit on the sad side. He agreed. We thanked him and wished him well on his upcoming year of travel in India, a typical path for young Israelis. India is one of the few countries that is slightly friendly to Israel, using a the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend calculation.
We decided to go to the Jaffa flea market (שוק פשפשים) to have lunch at a cutesy restaurant. We took a seat outdoors. Asaph ordered us a large pitcher of lemonade.
He found it to be too sour.
I ordered a gentrified version of sabih (סביח).
We walked around the stalls but didn't buy anything. I am a very picky shopper, and also cannot bargain, so it wasn't the place for me to be buying anything.
Asaph had some business to do, so I was on my own for the rest of the day. It was already Thursday, the last day in the Israeli workweek. I had already been to Tel Aviv so many times that I started noticing and making comments about the progress of public works projects. I was happy that they were finally renovating the Habima Theater complex, and that they had finally finished redoing our section of Ibn Gvirol Street, the street that Israelis don't pronounce correctly, since the dagesh is not generally used in writing, so בּ looks like ב, and the ibn (ابن) which is Arabic for ben (בן) ends up coming out as evan. It's a real problem.
I have never acquired a taste for the Slavic languages, despite some half-hearted attempts at Croatian, like learning the word they invented in the 1990s for airplane: zrakoplov.
I liked our apartment.
It had a large balcony.
I called my friend Paul, with whom I went to college, who was living in Tel Aviv for the summer. We arranged to go to the beach. The non-heterosexual beach is right next to the sex-segregated religious beach.
We waited until it was later in the day and a little bit cooler. It was still sweltering hot. The non-heterosexual beach in Tel Aviv is pretty filthy. Cigarette butts emerge from the sand to jump up onto your towel. It's quite disgusting. Still, I love the Med, which is the fancy, Tyler-Brule way to refer to the Mediterranean. There were some attractive beach-goers, although the crowd is always a bit trashy there, like the sand. It's nice to be able to walk straight into the warm water, unlike in Fire Island, where the water is much colder, yet the beach much cleaner.
You could hear the lifeguard at the religious beach screaming orders and warnings at the bathers. I noted that it was a women's day, but that the lifeguard was male. Later I learned that the lifeguards' union in Tel Aviv is extremely powerful, and they would never let the religious dictate the sex of the lifeguard on duty. I also learned that many of the women bathers, despite being in an all-female environment, go into the water fully clothed, so they end up drowning a lot. Or, almost drowning, until saved by a male lifeguard who is a member of the powerful Tel Aviv lifeguards' union.
Later that night Asaph and I went to Asaph Ben-Artzi's place. We were greeted by his bomb-sniffing ferret. We gave him the cheese we had bought in Safed, and he offered us wine and the narghile. I declined, even though I am not anti-smoking (although I am fervently anti-littering), since it was apple-flavored tobacco. Even though flavored tobaccos have a long history in the Middle East, I am so disgusted by fruit-flavoring in general (see my one-man crusade against the abomination called raspberry vinaigrette), that I was afraid to try it, lest I vomit. I just had wine. Asaph Ben-Artzi had another non-heterosexual male guest, who was expecting a child with a non-heterosexual woman. He couldn't drink the wine because it wasn't kosher, so he smoked the narghile and drank a beer.
Asaph Ben-Artzi told us many stories from his extensive military service. He is a complicated person, since he is extremely pro-Israel yet sometimes identifies as a Bedouin.
He had a humorous shirt from his military unit that I couldn't understand. I wondered if the stories about Jägermeister's Nazi origins were true.
The friend who was expecting a child left, and a friend who was moving to New York to get an advanced law degree arrived. He and Asaph Ben-Artzi cuddled on the sofa.
Asaph Ben-Artzi told us a story about how his unit had rescued a group of Palestinian non-heterosexuals who were about to be executed by Muslim fundamentalists. I wondered if it was true.
Asaph the Younger brought up the subject of moving to Israel with a non-Jewish spouse, for some reason. Asaph Ben-Artzi said that the non-Jewish same-sex partners of Israelis were given residency rights if they moved to Israel. I asked what would happen if the partner was from Syria, Iran, or Lebanon.
"Well, if it was an opposite-sex partner, no, since we have a law that prevents spouses from enemy states from getting residency rights, but if it was a same-sex partner, they could apply for asylum," said Asaph the Older. I wondered why Asaph the Younger had brought up this odd topic.
We left and went out a bit, since it was Thursday night. We ran into a guy who we had met last year. He was a bit of an ars (عرص/ערס), Israeli slang for a lower-class male of Mizrahi/Sephardic origin who wears tight clothing and prominent jewelry. They resemble the people we call New Jerseyans, although it is hard to tell in the non-heterosexual context, as these cultural characteristics are associated with masculinity, and most non-heterosexuals try to exaggerate their masculinity as much as they can, when they aren't exaggerating their femininity. For example, I wear a crucifix necklace and have a tattoo, things that would make my Presbyterian ancestors commit ritual suicide, and possibly homicide too.
His pectoral muscles were bursting out of his button-front shirt, and I could see several chains nestled amidst his thick chest hair.
"What's up, man!" he screamed, punching me.
Later he asked me how old I was. "Wow, we are 20 years apart, that's incredible, man," he said, shaking his head.
"I said 39! Did you really think I was 49?!" I was alarmed.
"I don't know, man," he said.
I found out that his mother was Tunisian and his father was Dacian. This seemed correct.
The next morning Asaph went to take a yoga class with some of his siblings. I puttered around, and then foolishly tried to go for a run in the mid-day heat. It was a disaster. I barely made it to the Yarkon River. Later I learned that there had been a terrible tragedy in 1997 when four Australian athletes who were in Israel for the Maccabiah Games fell into the river and died, not from drowning, but from exposure to toxic chemicals in the water. This river continues to flow into the Mediterranean, not far from the non-heterosexual beach.
Coincidentally, the Maccabiah Games were going on while we were in Israel.
Asaph's brother Amos came to pick me up on his motorcycle. I thought he was picking me up in a car, so I was not dressed appropriately. Luckily, my backless sandals did not fall off.
He had a sticker on his bike that related to motorcyclist rights. I recognized the word for "enough". Israelis combine the Hebrew words for "enough" and "already" in an obvious Yiddishism.
Asaph's oldest sister had abandoned the yoga class early, so Amos, she, and I went to get something to drink. I had a delicious icy lemonade with mint.
Asaph and the other brother finished their yoga class. I presented the other brother with a bottle of alcohol-based antiseptic mouthwash, since he had given me one from his car the first night we were in Jerusalem. "You have such a Polish mother for a boyfriend," said the other brother to Asaph. I never learned what that meant.
We walked around in the heat for a while until we found somewhere to eat. Finally, a satisfactory option was located. We waited for Asaph's youngest sister to arrive. She was driving the car that had been hit by the bus. Amos and Asaph's oldest sister stayed outside in the sweltering heat for a while, to smoke.
I wondered if Amos was hungover. It was probable.
As we were eating, I realized that we were next to the Eden Cinema, the first cinema in Tel Aviv. I believed that I had read about this cinema in the book, One Palestine, Complete, a book I recommend for understanding everything about Israel. I stole this book from the wife of my college roommate.
It was sad to see it empty. Signs of the new Tel Aviv were visible sprouting up behind it.
"In the 1980s, we didn't even really have restaurants in Israel," said Asaph's oldest sister, who is my age. "When you wanted to go out for a special occasion, you had to go to a Chinese restaurant located in a gas station. That's where you went on your birthday." It sounded awful.
We all got in the damaged car and drove back to the apartment. "You should try to get some money out of the bus company because of the accident," said Asaph's older brother, to me.
"He won't, and doesn't know how to do things like that anyway," said Asaph.
"No, I'm a Christian," I said. "I don't know how to make money. I only know how to give money away. To the poor."
Asaph had to go meet his father for sabbath dinner. He had to drive a bit up north, where, coincidentally, our friend Alfred Pasha, who was spending several months in Israel and who had a friend (Jewish, with family in an illegal-according-to-the-United-Nations settlement in the West Bank) visiting from New York, needed to go for sabbath dinner. Asaph picked them up and then dropped me off by our place. I watched the three of them drive away. I thought about the concept of freedom, and what it meant to me.
I called my friend Paul, who agreed to meet me by the sea. He was going to attend a very touchy-feely Reform sabbath service held on the new boardwalk along the Med.
I walked over to Mare Nostrum.
I watched the sun set and thought of Phoebus Apollo. And Aten.
He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down. Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
I saw Paul's group. They made me think of penguins on an ice floe.
Things were ending as I arrived. It was the only place in Israel where I saw women wearing skullcaps, something you see all of the time at the non-heterosexual synagogue (συναγωγή) in New York. When a Turkish friend who went to graduate school at Brandeis saw women wearing skullcaps, he couldn't believe it.
Paul was wearing a shirt that I had to think about for a while until I got the joke.
We ate dinner at one of the new restaurants by the water. We were served an absurd Israeli version of a mojito.
Later we walked along the new boardwalk. We saw an Arab family, something unusual in Tel Aviv. "It's nice that they've come out to see what we did with their country," said Paul. I love Paul.
There were new glowing panels in the walkway.
I think you were supposed to go to a website or type something into your mobile phone or something.
You could see the lights of ships far out in the sea, spaced at regular intervals. "That's the navy, just making sure we don't get any more uninvited visitors from Lebanon," he said.
Later Asaph and I went out to a bar with Alfred's friend from New York (Alfred would not go out on the sabbath) and Boaz, who borrowed a communal kibbutz vehicle to come down to Tel Aviv, according to his needs. A young person with a botched eyebrow piercing started talking to me when the others went outside to smoke marijuana, something I can't do, since it is very confusing. I would later regret being friendly to this person, since he was an annoying presence for the entire night.
We decided to go on to a big non-heterosexual dance club. "Can I come with you?" said the irritating young person with the bleeding eyebrow.
It's a free country, I thought, unless you are Palestinian or from an enemy state.
The club was extremely packed with shirtless young non-heterosexual Israelis, many in extreme stages of drunkenness. Asaph unwisely decided to order us drinks. I learned two years ago never to attempt to order drinks in an Israeli club, unless you have 90 minutes to spare, or more.
There was an outdoor area, where people went to smoke cigarettes. There were drunk young things staggering around everywhere. Alfred's friend from New York commented on this. "It's the Middle East," I said. "They have low tolerance."
Later we ran into an Israeli intellectual who is my age who we had met in New York while he was teaching at an Ivy League school.
"What do you think of this?" he asked.
"It's fine," I said. "It's interesting."
"This atmosphere must rankle Asaph's upper-class sensibilities," he said.
Asaph is upper class? I thought. This was news to me. His family wasn't rich.
"I don't really understand the class structure here in Israel," I told the intellectual. "In the same way I wouldn't be able to discern the castes in a group of Indians, or the social hierarchy if I was visiting the Maasai of Kenya."
I knew that the original Zionist founders were from Russia but that now the newish Russian arrivals were quite looked-down-upon. Their Jewishness was often called into question, and they were seen as being involved in organized crime and prostitution. When someone once mentioned that they had gone to a strip club in Israel, I had asked where they were able to get Israeli strippers, and the response was: Russians. Another person told me that there hadn't been crime in Israel until the Ethiopians and the new Russians had arrived. Someone had once told me that the Moroccans were stereotyped as arsim, although I had met many people of Moroccan descent who were very proper and educated and not at all like people from New Jersey. Like our friend Nadav, although he looks as if he would be a rowdy tough. I think he is only rough and tough in certain specific situations.
Asaph's family was mostly of German background, so maybe this was what put him on the top of the social order, despite middle-class incomes. Since money is pretty much the sole determinant of class in the United States at this point (see: reality television), it's hard to orient oneself to other systems. I would have a lot of trouble in medieval Japan, for example, where farmers were supposedly on top.
The young person with the botched eyebrow piercing had been hovering in the background all of this time. I had been politely ignoring him, occasionally flashing him a smile but not bringing him into any conversations, since he was obviously awful.
He leaned in to me. "You don't have to be afraid; I'm not going to rape you," he said. No you are most certainly not, I thought. I smiled politely again.
Someone to whom I had been introduced earlier came up to me. "I wish I had some [gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid]," he said. I was sure the botched-eyebrow kid did as well, for raping purposes.
Even later we went to a mostly deserted other club where I was introduced to a non-Jewish German who had moved to Israel for a boyfriend. He told me that he was drunk for the first time in many months.
"I am very anti-Israel," he said. "I'm a real Nazi. Everything happens for a reason." He gave me a knowing smile.
I was surprised and nonplussed.
The next morning we were supposed to have Saturday brunch (which is like Sunday brunch, for us, unless you are religious) with an Israeli friend of Asaph's and his non-Jewish boyfriend who had moved to Israel. "I really want you to meet and talk to this boyfriend," said Asaph, for some strange reason.
I was slightly woozy from the night before, but we managed to make it back to the area by the sea where I had had dinner with Paul. It was boiling hot.
We greeted the Israeli and his foreign Gentile boyfriend, who were sitting outdoors with their two dogs. They had bred their bitch to have puppies, and kept one. We discussed the care of the dogs.
"It's easy in the first few weeks after they are born, since you don't even have to clean up after them. The mother licks their anus and they poop into her mouth, and she licks their penis and they pee into her mouth," said the Gentile boyfriend. Suddenly, I was in love with this guy.
I couldn't place his accent. He spoke like a native speaker of English, yet there was an unrecognizable layer of foreignness. "Where are you from?" I asked.
"Ireland," he said.
Ireland! I love the Irish accent. It is pretty much the best accent in the English-speaking world, if you exclude the few Irish who speak in the stereotypical leprechaunish manner. When I went to Ireland with Centfocs and his mother back in 2003, I was surprised by the accent of the majority of the people. It was clean and crisp and clear. I can't really stand the accent of most Americans, with the possible exception of Diane Sawyer. Apart from a few posh English persons like Joanna Lumley and those with extreme regional accents, I also can't stand to listen to English people -- the so-called Estuary English of Victoria Beckham and her ilk is absolutely nauseous. The Scottish accent is fine, but it's like listening to non-native speakers -- it's like hearing Swedes or Latvians speak English. And despite my love of quasi-antipodean actresses like Naomi (נעמי) Watts and Nicole Kidman, I don't really care for the way they talk, except in certain specific situations.
The way this Gentile spoke was wonderful.
Several us ordered something on the menu that was listed as "eggs with tomatoes", even in Hebrew, and we were all annoyed when it ended up just being shakshouka (שקשוקה). We got more information about this Israeli guy and his amazing Irish boyfriend. They had met in New York, but Israel was the only place where they could legally be together. The Irish guy said he had arrived in Israel, and after four months in an ulpan (אולפן), paid for by the State of Israel, he could speak Hebrew fluently. He had a job in financial services where he spoke Hebrew all day long, and he even spoke Hebrew at home with the boyfriend. I was shocked. Although he was in his twenties, I was still amazed that he had learned Hebrew so quickly. And I couldn't believe that he and his boyfriend had switched the language of their relationship. I thought of the Japanese violist and the Greek Cypriot soprano whom I had known as a child: they lived in Ohio and spoke Italian at home, since they had met in Rome.
After brunch we all walked over to the non-heterosexual beach with their dogs. The dogs loved swimming. Asaph kept telling me to ask the Gentile about life in Israel, for some reason. The Gentile said that he had had some problems -- during a time when he was unemployed, he arrived at the government-run employment center one day to be told that, since he was registered as a Christian, they couldn't help him that day, as it was a Christian holiday. I thought of how furious an American or British new atheist would be to be registered as a Christian against their will. I remembered an exercise we had done in my Arabic class: we had to fill out a scholarship application from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. You had to list your religion. "None" was not an option, just as you couldn't leave your nationality blank.
Their dogs loved to roll in the sand after being in the water.
When we were ready to leave, they went to wash the seawater off their dogs.
As I looked over at the Gentile, I thought: that dog is so cute.
That's what I thought.
Asaph told me that later that night we would be having dinner with the most famous person in Israel. Tzipi Livni? Benjamin Netanyahu? Shimon Peres? I asked.
"No, the most famous person inside of Israel," Asaph said, correcting himself.
It was a famous non-heterosexual popular music singer. Asaph had known him several years ago. In spite of my interest in Israeli pop music, I wasn't much of a fan of this singer, as his music was a bit too melancholy, even for me. He had one slightly electronic song that I liked.
As the time for dinner approached, I got increasingly nervous, since I am very intimidated by celebrity. What if he doesn't show up? What if I make a fool of myself? What will we talk about? I was a wreck.
"Drink some wine," said Asaph.
We had arranged to meet him at a slightly fancy restaurant named after the first Jewish High Commissioner of Palestine. He was supposedly bringing his new American boyfriend.
"He's not going to show up," I said as we sat down at the bar. "I bet this is just a prank."
"Order another drink," said Asaph.
Amazingly, he really showed up. We ended up having a pleasant dinner, although the non-heterosexual popular music celebrity and his American boyfriend both seemed very tired and didn't talk much. Asaph and I spoke continuously and nervously throughout the meal. The non-heterosexual popular music celebrity nodded and smiled politely. I wondered if he was interested in anything I had to say. Many say that celebrities are only interested in themselves, and, since I didn't know enough about him to make him the subject of the conversation, perhaps he found the conversation quite tedious. However, he did laugh when I told him about the time that Asaph asked me to "lower the restaurant" when he wanted me to move a suitcase out of the way of the air conditioner vent. It is evidently quite funny if you speak Hebrew better than I do.
I didn't like my food. The American boyfriend and I both ordered an anti-Semitic dish: lobster ravioli in a light cream sauce, with chestnuts.
Occasionally people would come up to the table to speak with the non-heterosexual popular music celebrity in a familiar manner, ignoring the rest of us. This is what it's like to eat with celebrities, I thought. I wondered if we would be photographed for an Israeli celebrity gossip magazine, but we weren't.
The meal finished relatively successfully. We said our goodbyes, and Asaph and I decided to walk to a non-heterosexual party held every Saturday night (which is like Sunday night, for us) at a bar on the beach. We were going to meet Alfred Pasha there.
As we walked by a mosque, the sleeve of the shirt I had purchased at the Muji store and to which I had developed an unhealthy attachment, in the Buddhist sense, got caught on a palm tree and tore. The shirt was ruined.
I wondered if this was a message from the God of the Muslims. In any case, I was wearing a tank top underneath, so I just said goodbye to my lovely Japanese shirt and tossed it in a trash can.
We arrived at the beach party. There were arsim galore.
We had a great time. As we walked back to the apartment, I saw a bat.
I hoped that I hadn't brought any of the fungus that is killing all of the bats in the United States with me to Israel.
The next day, our last, we went back to the beach again. More cigarette butts popped up out of the sand to cover my towel. I tried to analyze the class structure of the beach-goers. An obese older man started to talk to me. He was from Greece, and he had been teaching Greek history and classical literature at Hebrew University. "I am sorry that I have let my body go," he apologized to me. "I used to be very fit." I nodded in sympathy, although this struck me as a very odd and sad thing to say to a stranger on a non-heterosexual beach.
Asaph was talking with a group of his friends some distance away. He bellowed for me to come join them, since he doesn't like for me to talk to people he doesn't find attractive. "I saw that you needed to be rescued," he said. Did I?
We stood in the water near a group of swarthy, muscular men who were having an animated conversation. Asaph was listening intently. "They just said, 'Sometimes Ashkenazi guys are good in bed, but not usually,'" he told me. I guess this was the same as in the United States: everyone wants to have sex with the guido, and not the white so-called Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
At the non-heterosexual beach, people usually stood around or floated in groups in the water, talking and laughing, or shouting and cackling. Sometimes they had inflatable rafts, something I always identified with the lower classes. I liked to swim out as far as possible, by myself. The water was deep and clean. I loved the feeling of being enveloped and rocked by the cool sea. I imagined myself floating off to some Greek island, away from the cigarette butts and the screaming, away to a peaceful place of clear blue water and sky and hot white sun and sand, and no sound but the gentle lapping of the waves.
Then I was called back to the shore.
I looked wistfully at the beach as we left.
We returned to New York that night.