Friday, January 06, 2006

Just Ask Someone

We went to Jaffa, the day before yesterday. In the Bible it is known as Joppa (it’s where Jonah embarked to get away from God, and ended up getting swallowed by a whale), but Israelis call it Yafo. It is much older than Tel Aviv, which now surrounds it with urban sprawl, and from what I’ve seen it’s also one of the more interesting parts of the city. These days it is mostly occupied by Christian Arabs and new-agey potters. The harbour used to be the major Palestinian seaport, and at its mouth you can see the rocks where Greek Myth says Andromeda was chained (as a sacrifice to one of Poseidon’s sea monsters) and then rescued by Perseus on his flying horse. The Old City is a small area on the hill above the port, dominated by St. Peter’s Church, which is where Napoleon slept when he and his army arrived to conquer the country. The narrow steps and alleys around it are all named after signs of the zodiac, and there are hundreds of cats hanging out there. We had dinner at a fish restaurant several blocks away called The Old Man and the Sea.

After dinner we had plans to go to visit Karen’s aunt Yushinka and her family in a city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The problem was that nobody seemed to know how to get there. Karen’s mother gave us her car, but she didn’t know the way. We went to pick up Karen’s cousins Avivit and Efrot who, we figured, would be able to direct us, but their notions of the geography of their city were vague at best. And when we called Yushinka, her sixteen-year-old daughter gave us cursory directions which ended up sending us in entirely the wrong direction. It seems that Israelis have a slight allergy to the use of street addresses and city maps. I had already noticed this in Karen’s mother, whose preferred navigational method in Jerusalem was to roll down the window and yell questions at the people in the other cars at the stop light. In fact, Yushinka just told us that when we got close to her city we should ask someone the way to the center, and when we got to the center she said we should ask someone the way to her neighbourhood. I didn’t understand why she was so reluctant to explain it to us herself. Perhaps it was a test, I suggested. Perhaps the next time we called she would tell us we had to find a hideous dragon who would transform into a beautiful princess, whom we could then ask for directions. We did manage to end up near her house, but we couldn’t find her street. So we called, again, and instead of telling us the way to her home, she insisted on walking the two blocks to meet us. Perhaps when she gets here we will be blindfolded, I said.

Yushinka’s family is modern orthodox, meaning that they don’t, for example, operate light switches on Saturday, but they do, for example, let non-family-members of the opposite sex touch them. Religion permeates their lives, and many of their actions and opinions are dictated by strict rules, but aside from the fact that the men wear kipas, it’s not obvious. They seemed very excited to see Karen and were very warm to me as well; we were greeted by Yushinka and her husband and four of her children and her new daughter-in-law, and we were plied with humus, vegetables, borekas, and RC Cola. A party atmosphere ensued. The conversation was lively and ranged from Liron and Chani’s recent wedding to the size of New York apartments to “Brokeback Mountain”. Chani told us the story of how she met her prince charming (Liron), and Bosmat, the 16-year-old, told us how she learned Spanish by watching tele-novelas every afternoon. Of course, I didn’t understand what anyone was saying because everyone was speaking Hebrew. I know a few words, and Karen translated for me here and there, and with the help of non-verbal cues I was able to stay in the loop. I’ve found it strange, since arriving in Israel, to be following conversations in a language I don’t know, using context and intonation to make guesses about what people are discussing. When I want to make a comment, it’s no problem, because most people I’ve met speak at least a little English. And I should be learning Hebrew at an astonishing rate, but so far it seems I’m only capable of talking about vegetables.

The only time our hosts’ conservatism visibly surfaced was when the conversation touched on politics. For example, Liron mentioned that he was attending university in a settlement in the West Bank, and when I asked whether it posed any difficulties to cross the border every day, he basically denied that there was a border. For him it goes without saying that the occupied Palestinian territories are a part of Israel. He insisted that the wall built by Israel to enclose the West Bank was really just a fence, as if that made it normal. More sadly, Karen’s young cousin told her that she suspected that, if they weren’t cousins, Karen wouldn’t like her because of her beliefs. Karen said, “But you are so cute. How could I not like you?”, and she said, “Because I hate Arabs.” It had just been announced on the news that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being rushed to the hospital after having another stroke, so the conversation turned to his political legacy, and then it segued from politics to the importance of religious orthodoxy: for some people in Israel, political issues are essentially religious issues. But by that point nobody was translating for me.

When we returned home (after getting lost once more), Karen’s grandmother Tamar, who spent most of her life working with the progressive Labour Party and who is not really religious, had a very different take on the career of Ariel Sharon. Sharon had always been fairly far to the right (he had been a revered general in the army), but after he was elected, in order to advance the peace process, he started to make concessions that some of his supporters saw as betrayals. Yushinka’s evaluation of him was basically, “We believed in him, but he deceived us,” whereas what Tamar said was “I didn’t trust him at first, but he did some good things.” Yushinka is on Karen’s father’s side, and Tamar is her mother’s mother. I asked how her mother’s and father’s families ever got along. But in Israel it seems it’s not unusual for opposite political views to be found in the same family.


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