One year later…

On Rosh Hashana, I celebrated the success of checking items off my list of ‘Things to do this year in Tel Aviv.’

deborah danan cartoon (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
deborah danan cartoon
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
I’m celebrating a year since I moved from Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. What can I say? All in all, the White City has been kind to me, and it’s been a weird and wonderful ride so far.
It’s appropriate that the anniversary of my move coincides with this period of the Jewish calendar in which reflection is the order of the day. It’s a time when I’m able to look back and examine some of the failures and successes of this city as a whole and, more specifically, of my place within it.
This past Rosh Hashana, I had the privilege of celebrating a couple of personal successes from my first year in Tel Aviv. A year ago, I had no idea where or with whom I would be eating my Shabbat meals in Tel Aviv – something that caused me to hesitate before making the move from Jerusalem. By a lucky twist of fate, I ran into a friend from Jerusalem one Friday when I was stuck without a place to eat. He then introduced me to Eytan, a fellow Shabbat lover whose table always has room for one more guest. I was that guest in my initial months here, and for that I am eternally indebted to him. Eventually, we transplanted our Shabbat meals to the local shul. Every few weeks, Eytan and I partnered up to organize Shabbat meals for White City Shabbat for 120 people. Due to the massive need for it in Tel Aviv – the city of proverbial “orphans,” where so many people don’t have family around – we decided to host a Rosh Hashana meal as well.
During a stolen moment in the kitchen, after the rabbi had gone through all the New Year symbols, Eytan and I raised our glasses and made a lehaim to our success in providing “orphans” like us with a place to celebrate Yom Tov.
The next day, I celebrated the success of checking another item off my list of “Things to do this year in Tel Aviv” – namely, to look into the synagogues in the vicinity. I had chosen to pray at the Greek Recanati synagogue, Heichal Yehuda, on Ben-Sorek Road. A beautiful building shaped like a seashell, the synagogue resembles the Sydney Opera House. Prayers there finished at 11:15 a.m., so I had plenty of time before lunch to go shul hopping. I went to the New Central Synagogue on Ben-Yehuda – the one where we host our White City Shabbat meals – and the prayers were being led by a cantor singing the mournful Rosh Hashana melodies that brought back memories of synagogues from my hometown of London, England.
Hazanut not really being my thing, I moved on quickly. Because of its “audience participation” approach, the Moroccan synagogue on Arnon Street, called Yehezkel, was more up my alley. Everyone chants the texts in unison, so it’s harder to fall asleep mid-prayer.
For something completely different, my next stop was the Kozhnitzer shtiebel off Hamedina Square – the most exclusive part of town. You wouldn’t know it, though, if you were just in the shtiebel. It was like being straight back in Jerusalem – or, more precisely, in Mea She’arim. It was a pokey brown room, lit with fluorescents and heaving with bookshelves and people.
Most of the women wore double-decker head coverings – i.e., wigs with scarves on top – and the children that were scurrying underfoot all conversed in Yiddish. The cantor sang very slow, hassidic melodies with an extraordinary balance of upbeat and somber tones. It soon became obvious that there was no way they would be finishing anytime before 3 p.m., so I moved on. I stopped off at a couple of the local national-religious synagogues – one on Clay Street, the Ma’aleh Eliyahu kollel on Dafna Street; and Heichal Moshe on Smuts Street, where former chief rabbi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau prays.
A few minutes’ walk from Smuts Street, behind some sprawling villas adjacent to the luxury Yoo Towers, is another Sephardi synagogue. The simplicity with which the prayers were conducted belied the obvious wealth of some of its worshipers, many of whom were tycoons I recognized from the business pages.
IT’S HARDER to spill my personal failures in this article, since they are, well, personal. Instead, perhaps a look at some of the city’s failures of the past year is in order.
The first one that springs to mind is the colossal failure of this year’s summer protests. I’m happy the tent dwellers in my local park succeeded in getting an extension from the municipality to remain there until November. My New Year’s gift to the leftover dregs of the social protest movement was to testify to the mayor that it’s not annoying having the tent city across the road from where I live. Not nearly as annoying as the new plasma screen that’s been put up outside the train station.
There’s also the failure to deal with the sea of African migrants flooding South Tel Aviv. Once again, the issue has captured the headlines after it was reported that 20- year-old IDF Cpl. Netanel Yahalomi was shot and killed by terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula when he and other soldiers had left a fortified position to give some water to a group of migrants on the Egypt-Israel border. As a result, our interior minister, Eli Yishai, has imposed a blanket ban on IDF soldiers having any contact with people whom he calls “infiltrators.” Unfortunately, Tel Aviv has become the primary destination for many of those “infiltrators.” It’s not the city’s failure per se, since the municipality doesn’t have the jurisdiction to do anything about it, but it’s still a black mark on Tel Aviv’s reputation. Especially its reputation as a safe city.
A few days ago, I went to the beach at night for the first time since I’d moved here. The place was teeming with groups of Africans milling around. I sat on a deck chair and placed my handbag on the chair next to me. As I was looking in the other direction, I sensed someone next to me. I whipped around to see that a young African had placed his hand in my open bag and was extracting my wallet. In my surprise, I slapped his hand and shouted in Hebrew, “What are you doing?” Shocked, he dropped the wallet and mumbled something about a cigarette. “Get lost! I don’t have a cigarette,” I shouted back at him, and he stumbled away, swaying in all directions.
I couldn’t believe the audacity. In more than a decade of being here, I’d never witnessed anything like it in Israel. That sort of thing happened in the rough neighborhood where I grew up, but not here in Tel Aviv – the metropolis where girls feel safe enough to go jogging at 2 a.m. I knew I was lucky to still have my wallet. I’d heard countless tales of iPhones and bags being stolen at night on the beach since the influx of migrants.
I sat there, sucking on a candy and watching the waves and thinking about how much the country had changed since my arrival. I thought about Eli Yishai’s contact ban and considered myself lucky that as a nonsoldier, I don’t have the same imposition placed on me.
A couple of Africans with expensive cameras were taking pictures of something they’d written in the sand.
Needless to say, I was curious, so I approached them. The two young men, who turned out to be Eritrean, were pleasantly surprised that I had come over to talk to them and answered my questions.
One of them told me it was his birthday and he had written “Happy birthday” in Tigrinya in the sand. He was taking pictures with a camera he had borrowed from the owner of the Banana Beach restaurant, where he worked in the kitchen. After a few minutes of broken conversation, I wished him a happy birthday and good luck with the photography. As an afterthought, I added that I hoped everything in his country works out. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I felt like a fool. But the birthday boy seemed touched at the sentiment and asked to take a picture with me. I complied, and after wishing him goodnight, I set off for home. In my mouth, the taste of sand and salt mixed together with the sweetness of the candy.