Strangers in a familiar land

When you can’t walk down the street without recognizing a familiar face, you might finally be ‘home.’

Stranger (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
One of the things I used to love about visiting Tel Aviv was the anonymity. I would walk down the street and not know anyone and no one knew me – it was like being in a foreign country.
Alas, those days are no more.
Nowadays, walking the streets in Tel Aviv and not encountering a familiar face is a rare thing indeed. But there’s something to be said for losing your anonymity: it means that you can finally begin calling the place where you live “home.”
I finally realized that Tel Aviv was “home” on a recent trip to Jerusalem – my other home.
(I’m only prepared to relinquish that title for my former city when I stop recognizing people there in the streets.) I attended the event that is the highlight of Jerusalem’s social calendar – namely, the wine festival at the Israel Museum. The remarkable thing was that at least 80 percent of the people I knew there were Tel Avivians, arriving in droves for their once-a-year outing to the capital.
You can always tell a Tel Avivian from a Jerusalemite at the wine festival. The female of the species is likely to have donned heels for the occasion, something that any Jerusalem female worth her salt knows not to do on account of two things: (a) The sculpture garden at the Israel Museum is comprised of stony hillocks that make walking in heels a nightmare; and (b) It’s made all the worse by the fact that the order of the night is inebriation. The Tel Avivian males are distinguishable from their Jerusalem counterparts by the fact that they actually take the time to chat to the wine vendors (“Oh yes, I quite agree, 2002 was a wonderful year for concord grapes.”). From what I can tell, Jerusalemites – at least the ones belonging to the same age-range – aren’t particularly worried about honing their connoisseurship skills, and can usually be seen reaching for whichever bottle happens to be free.
So anyway, there I was sitting on Henry Moore’s Vertebrae sculpture and listening to a bunch of Tel Avivians chatting about – what else? – Jerusalem. “The weather is so nice here.” “Yes, but that’s about the only thing.” “Aw, don’t say that, I’m sure there are plenty of nice things about Jerusalem.” “Name one.” “The fact that wherever you go in Jerusalem, there are always signs to Tel Aviv.” “Ha ha! So true! I wonder why you don’t see signs in Tel Aviv for Jerusalem.” “Yeah, it’s not like it’s the capital or anything.”
At this point, I interjected. “You’re from Tel Aviv and you found your way to Jerusalem, right? People don’t need to know the way to Jerusalem, it’s in their hearts.”
My tone was rather indignant. I don’t like it when people diss Jerusalem. “And besides, there are plenty of weird idiosyncrasies about Tel Aviv that no one ever bothers mentioning.” “Name one.” I was stumped.
“Uh, the bats.” “The bats?” “Yeah, the bats, why does no one ever talk about the bats?” Seriously, how come whenever anyone talks about all things Tel Aviv – the sea, the humidity, the ridiculously high cost of living – no one ever mentions the bats? Is it some weird secret that they’re trying to keep from outsiders? Is everyone a vampire in Tel Aviv? The incessant nightlife seems to evidence that notion. And the fact that bats are everywhere. Sometimes it’s like being on the set of a horror movie. But 10 months since my move to Tel Aviv, and even the bats have become familiar by now.
It’s healthy to undergo a process of defamiliarization from time to time. I recently had that honor when I spent an evening with a bunch of fresh-off-the-boat olim. It was so great to see them getting enthusiastic about things I’d long taken for granted. “Isn’t it cool that every single building has a mezuza?” “Wasn’t getting in a sherut taxi for the first time totally weird? This woman tapped me on the shoulder and handed me six shekel and motioned to me to pass it to the driver, and I was like, ‘What, am I your servant?’” “Ha ha. Or how about passing an open doorway on the street and freezing up for a second from the A/C?” “Or getting hit by a matkot ball for the first time? What is that game?” I don’t often spend time with new immigrants, perhaps because I can only take their hyper-enthusiasm in small doses – just wait till they’ve been here for five years and all that – but this was an extraordinary occasion and it links up with my theme du jour of familiarity. I met a guy in the synagogue who mentioned that he studies Hebrew in ulpan along with a British guy who has the same last name as me.
There aren’t too many Brits with my Moroccan last name, so I could only conclude that he must be my long-lost cousin from Essex. Growing up, we never had much to do with this particular set of relatives, and the only familial connection we had was watching one of my cousins on TV. Paul, the middle son, had ended up becoming an actor on a British soap opera and occasionally we’d tune into the show and discuss whether he had a Danan nose or not.
So meeting the youngest of the family, Josh, was really special.
I think we were both touched to have discovered a cousin that we barely knew of, and the fact that both of us are strangers in a foreign city only added to that. What was incredible was how quickly we hit it off. I arrived at the apartment that Josh shares with his Israeli fiancée, and from the moment I entered, there was an instant kinship. He had a book about the Aben Danan family, and we began examining the family tree and showing off to the other guests about how we can trace our roots to Maimonides. I was struck by how easily I felt both a familiar and a familial bond with Josh, a person whom I might have passed a dozen times in the street and not looked at twice.
Of course, the opposite is also true. You think you know a person, but then you live with them and realize you don’t know them at all. I’m not only talking about marriage and neither am I necessarily talking about the negative things that surface after living with someone. Sometimes, it’s just about personal preferences. Take my roommate situation, for example: One roommate genuinely suffers from air-conditioning, while the other suffers without it. This is, of course, a common issue – not just between roommates but between spouses as well. The difference is that while “compromise” is up there along with “love” and “mutual respect” in regard to how to maintain a peaceful marriage, the same cannot be said for roommates.
It’s much harder to compromise on issues that are important to you with someone that you didn’t choose to spend your life with. In fact, you most likely made the decision to live with your roommate after spending only five minutes in their company. It’s an absurdly unnatural situation, but one that is certainly prevalent around here.
Often, the not-knowing can even continue when you live with someone. I know that my roommate isn’t a fan of air-conditioning, I know that my roommate doesn’t like the cupboard doors being left open, and I know she likes to double lock our front door. But apart from that, how much do I really know her? Even though we only spent a single evening together, I feel like I know my cousin infinitely more.