There is something familiar about this Italian restaurant, just a few blocks from Dizengoff Center, these twenty-somethings in sequined rompers or collared shirts only bothering to use crosswalks (here referred to as “zebras”) because of the armed policemen casually patrolling intersections, and even this Israeli soldier (Meir) looking at me from across the table. There is something uncannily familiar about Tel Aviv, something disconcertingly American in the preteen boys at the beach who yell vulgar things at us (“Just like Miami,” says my roommate from Florida), the falafel or schwarma stands on every corner (“Just like Philly’s hotdogs and hamburger joints,” says my roommate from Pennsylvania), and the Black Keys songs blaring from dirty Buicks (“Just like Columbus,” says my roommate from OU). Even the ultra-Orthodox Jews braving the 106°F heat in black pants, jackets, and hats would not look so very out of place in the US (“Just like the Amish,” I think).
In class, we complain to Dr. Haworth about our disappointment, our fear that we’ve traveled so far east only to find the West waiting for us. “You don’t get it,” he explains. “In Tel Aviv, there are gourmet Jewish restaurants and dumpy Jewish restaurants. There are Jewish cops catching Jewish criminals. There are Jewish garbage men, and Jewish litterbugs.” After seeing Jerusalem, I think I know what Haworth means. In East (Jewish) Jerusalem, on Shabbos (Saturday, the Sabbath), no one uses electricity, travels, or goes in public, really, besides to walk to the synagogue for worship. The holiness of the day is visible, beautiful. But Tel Aviv is beautiful on Shabbos as well, with beachgoers healing hangovers in the sun, supermarkets doing the week’s best business in the evening, late breakfasters lingering over coffee and pastries in the cafes. There is something sacred in the sinning, something profound in the deliberate profanity, something remarkable in Tel Aviv’s normalcy.
My eyes, Meir tells me, are “like Mossad camouflage”. He is doing exactly as I am—building bridges on awkward similes, trying to bring Athens, Ohio closer to Tel Aviv. For Tel Aviv, the color comparison is fitting, significant for its realism, not its romance. We eat a decidedly treif meal, Jew and goy, Israeli and American, sharing Focaccia bread from a country neither of us has ever seen, creating communion from unwashed hands trusted more than the polished silverware.
As he walks me home later, a van of “Na Nachs”, members of a somewhat eccentric branch of Hassidic Judaism, pull up to a crowded curb just in front of us. Men with long sidecurls begin playing music, jumping ecstatically, and convincing random people standing by to join in the dance. As Haworth tells us in class, “sometimes, prayer is dancing”. I watch the celebration, deciding that maybe this city, usually so similar to America, is after all just as much the epitome of Israeli culture as Jerusalem. Because there is something liberating, something distinctly Israeli in Meir’s ability to roll his eyes at kosher guidelines and the Na Nachs, but still proudly wear the uniform of the Jewish state.