Here are some last observations before I hop on a plane tomorrow.
There is no such thing as traditional Israeli food. Sitting down for lunch with a small group of friends highlighted the challenge here. Two were from Ukraine, another two from Moldavia, one was an Uzbek, and one a Pole. Only the Pole was born in Israel, the others had immigrated as children. These were not people who grew up eating feta and figs. For them it was cabbage and vodka. So when I brought up the topic of local food, they all sort of shrug and suggest that I was looking for Arab food. I didn’t bother mentioning that I thought Arab food was Israeli food. In Tel Aviv, Arab food was not as easy to find as I had thought. Neither the grocery store across from my hotel, nor the hotel itself, had pita for the hummus I’d bought earlier in the day. French baguettes, however, were available aplenty. I ended up eating the hummus with a loaf of white sandwich bread. I might as well have been in Iowa.
Which brings me to the institution known as Abu-Hassan. If you didn’t know any better you’d think it was a rundown hole in the wall that served little more than ground up chickpeas mixed with tahini, olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice. Well okay, you’d be right, but you’d also be missing the point. Abu-Hassan does one simple thing very well. The make the world’s best hummus. Across all of Israel, since the mid-60s, when someone wants to go out for the perfect hummus, they get in their car and drive down to Jaffa, the old Arab Quarter of Tel Aviv, and wait for a table at Abu-Hassan. Hummus here is not a side dish. It’s the only dish. You sit around your beat up old table, on cheap metal chairs, and scoop hummus by the mouthful. Note: this is not the sort of place you ask for a receipt.
I’ve seen three distinct types of checkpoints in Israel. The first control access to buildings and public transit. The simplest has the pencil thin Falasha Jew from Ethiopia who likely isn’t armed. He’s got a wand, checks your bag, and waves you through. At train stations they add in the typical x-ray bag scan and have pistols. If something goes down, I’m assuming they yell bloody murder and the police will come charging while the civilians scatter. The second type is the car checkpoint. There’s a fair bit more conversation about one’s purpose, and then a mandatory trunk check looking for bombs. My Canon 200mm great white lens in the trunk was the topic of conversation and slowed me down considerably. The guards at these checkpoints are armed with weapons bigger than pistols. If they find something that upsets them, you’re stuck behind a barrier and are likely going to get shot. On the highways the military handles the checkpoints and they carry assault weapons. A Caucasian Canadian who doesn’t speak Hebrew gets an easy wave through. Arab Israelis don’t have it so easy. There is very clear racial profiling happening here, but then that’s not wildly surprising given the frequency, in the late 90s, of Palestinians blowing themselves up. The final sort of checkpoint straddles the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories. These are the ones you really don’t screw around with. Purpose built and nasty looking, no one here is playing games. Battle ship grey, hung with barbed wire, and manned by heavily armed soldiers, they’re ready to stop an insurrection if need be.
Israelis don’t say Sabbath, they say Shabbat, and for those who follow it, what a wildly complex beast it is. I first noticed the effect returning to my hotel in Tel Aviv one Saturday night. Although the mechanized gate arm was still functioning, the revolving door was not. For reason I do not understand the former did not violate Sabbath, but the latter did. Three of four elevators were operating normally, and the forth had been configured to stop at every floor, over and over, so that a devout Jew need not press the buttons to actually make the blasphemous contraption do his bidding. Pressing an elevator button, after all, is a grave affront to God. Listening to a bastardized version of Sweet Child ‘o Mine by Guns ‘n Roses as you ride up, is not. Apparently it’s the little details that really get under God’s skin. The mechanical keycard to enter my room was okay, but turning on the lights was not. Opening the closet door which automatically turned on a light was also very, very bad. Only cold dinners were available, cooking after all would violate the rules, but opening the fridge door to get out the cold tuna salad did not. When the kitchen staff opened the fridge door to get the tuna, I wonder, did the light go on?
There’s a joke here, and it goes like this:
God: Moses, it is cruel to cook the meat of a cow in the milk of his mother.
Moses: So you’re saying we should not eat meat and milk together.
God: No. Just don’t eat the meat of a cow with the milk of that cow’s mother.
Moses: So you’re saying we should have two separate sets of plates, one for dairy, one for meat.
God: No. It is cruel, Moses, to cook the meat in the milk of the same cow’s mother.
Moses: So you want us to wait 6 hours after eating meat, before we have dairy.
God: Moses…fine, do whatever you want.
Jews and Palestinians.
The relationship between the Jews of Israel and the Palestinians of the occupied territories is complex. The relationship between the two ethnic groups within Israel proper is even more so. For the most part Jewish Israelis never call their Arab neighbors Palestinians, they call them Arabs. This, no doubt, is a deliberate attempt to remind the world that in Israel’s eyes there is no such thing as a Palestinian. Many of the Jewish Israelis, especially those from Tel Aviv which has almost no Palestinian population, are afraid of the Arab population, and are reluctant even to drive into Israel’s Arab areas, even if it means missing out on a good meal; Cabbage and Vodka can only go so far. Unlike their parents, many of the younger Israelis see the current problem along economic lines. They believe the Palestinians need a viable territory and jobs…a two state solution. They view the West Bank as Palestinian territory which should become a Palestinian nation. They don’t hold the West Bank and its religious sites in reverent awe, but then of course many of them also eat bacon. At the same time, they fear the Palestinians do not see the world in the same way. Jobs, they fear, are secondary to the politics of Israel’s existence. Still, with the younger generation there’s always hope. But then mortars, fired from Gaza, just landed in the south, a Palestinian has been shot trying to take hostages at the Turkish Embassy, and I am working in a conference room in the middle of a building which has a steel door and a ladder which runs both up and down to other similar conference rooms. Why I asked does it have a ladder? Because it’s also a bomb-shelter. Ah. Complexity.