An American in Tel Aviv – Israel Day Two

On Wednesday I wake up to a sun-filled room, almost well-rested. The sun overwhelms here in Israel, in a way that is different than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s not a tropical sun, seeping through thick humidity and bouts of intermittent showers. This sun is hot, dry, and insistent. Last time I was here it was September. It was hot every day that trip, relentlessly hot, and sunglasses-seem-less-effective-here bright. Now it is December, and it must be at least 70 degrees. I head to reception to talk about checking out (I’ll have to move to the official hotel around noon) and the man at the desk is wearing a North Face parka. “How can you be cold?” I ask, and he becomes the first of several Israelis to apologize for the “unseasonably cold, bad weather”. It’s all relative I suppose. I marvel at the Mediterranean climate, and he tells me that people who work in the tourist industry are hopeful that the economic troubles in Greece will increase the number of travelers coming to Tel Aviv over the next year. I forget sometimes, aside from all of the politics, Tel Aviv is a beach town. And so I walk down to the beach. I obsessively take photos of stray cats on the way (I get over this soon, I promise) and document the graffiti I pass. There are many disorienting things about not being able to understand the primary language of a nation, and not being able to read the graffiti is one I hadn’t thought of before. Are the words political? Do I agree with them? Or no? So I stick to images. Or tags in English. Post-beach I stop in a small café for a coffee and fresh squeezed carrot-orange juice. The man asks me where I am from and when I tell him the US he tells me he has been to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. He also recently travelled to India. “US—very materialistic! India—very spiritual!” he exclaims. I can’t argue with his assessment, but also wonder why, wherever I travel, folks from other countries either tell me about their desire to visit Las Vegas or about having visited “Sin City” at some point. Do they understand that Vegas is weird even to Americans? After making the transfer to the official hotel (right on Dizengoff Square) I set off on a meandering walk to Jaffa. On my first visit to Israel—again, twelve years ago—I stayed for a week in a hostel in Jaffa. I want to see what I remember, what views, if any, seem familiar. I think about the life bookends these two trips create for me. Last time I’d finished college some four months earlier. I was living in New York and had planned the trip with funds from a travel grant from school. I was essentially starting my adult life—living with a roommate in NY, waiting tables to pay rent, searching for answers about what would come next. The trip to Israel allowed me to escape lousy brunch shifts and post-college malaise; and really, I had nothing pulling me back, no obligations, no real job, no ties. This time it’s very different. I have five days here. It’s a work-trip, I will go back to that job with loads of catch-up to do, and I’ll start rehearsals for a play outside of my main artistic home. But I have an artistic home! I have a community around me! A husband and two cats! I am immensely grateful for these ties, and I am also grateful to have had that time pre-commitments.

The Great Synagogue was designed by Yehuda Magidovitch in 1922 and completed in 1926.

I pass the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street, then cross over into the outskirts of Jaffa—one of the oldest ports in the world, allegedly built by Noah’s son after the great flood (yes, that flood); now an increasingly hip area with trendy cafes and shops emerging from the dust. I remember this view: turn my head left and see the ancient Port, turn my head right and see the modern city. I walk through the flea market and make a few quick purchases, but roll my eyes at the high priced boutiques edging up along the souk-like atmosphere. No offence Tel Aviv hipsters, I roll my eyes at Anthropology as well. I will not pay $100 for your ornithological book mark, no matter how cute it is.

A cafe in Jaffa.

Finally I have my first falafel of the trip: this is the first of several, which will average out to at least one a day by the end of the trip. I love watching them load on everything I point to (hummous, spicy sauce, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, fries!) and then filling my own dish with pickles, to add as I choose. I hurry back to Dizengoff to meet with one of our favorite Israeli designers, Kinereth Kisch. I loved working with Kinereth on MIKVEH, and greatly appreciated her astute sense of composition and story-telling. We catch up on life, and she tells me about some of the frustrations she’s been having with her own life in the Israeli theater. She feels the plays are becoming increasingly commercial (I get that) to the exclusion of anything more relevant or challenging (I actually don’t feel that so much in the US). Her adorable son naps on the stool next to us as we ask the questions that all artists ask at some time: if we are not doing this for the money (and surely, realistically, we’re not) then why are we doing it?

Ari and Jennifer at the Cameri.

On to the opening reception for the festival where we’re greeted with remarks from the leadership, and then a walk over to the Cameri for Hillel Mittelpunkt’s play, GROCERY STORE. It’s a recent rewrite from the original script, first produced in 1982, about the Marinsky family: refugees who came to Israel soon after 1948 and lived with a foot in the past while struggling to pull themselves into an imagined future. And then, in the mid-1970s, what would that future be? To be free of their crumbling Jaffa grocery store; to move to the suburbs; to leave old Tel Aviv for a dreamed-of New Israel. But a combination of forces keeps this from happening.

After the show there is a discussion with the playwright. Hillel mentions Sean O’Casey as one of his influences and a light-bulb goes on inside my head. Of course! A family building a future on false promises, the practical mother and the dreamer father spending on credit to create an illusion of identity–so much JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK here. And still GROCERY STORE tells a distinctly Israeli story. Achieving both the specific and the Universal–that will be a theme for this week, as it’s necessary when bringing national theater to the international community.

After the show I sit down for a beer with Jennifer, and Stephanie, from Germany, joins us. We talk about the EU and I tell her about the Planet Money  podcasts I’ve listened to as they track the euro crisis. We talk about the German school system, and religion in Europe and the US, and we nibble on heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella. These kinds of conversations also emerge as a theme for the week, as we all quickly realize that this trip is as much about the cultural conversations and exchanges between participants as it is about the theater we are seeing.