Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Instant Gratification Day - Tel Aviv, Wednesday December 20

Somebody give me a freakin' orange.

For three days now we've been talking about how amazing the produce is here, how proud Israel is of its agriculture, of it's oranges. And we've been driving past huge orange groves and banana forests and every morning at breakfast and every night at dinner all I see is that goddamn salad with the cut up cucumbers and tomatoes and hummus! My goodness, don't you people ever get sick of all the hummus!

We had lunch at this Druse village Tuesday afternoon, before Dir el Asad. The Druse are...well they're some other religious group that lives in villages in Israel and we didn't learn much about them, we just ate in their village. And they had oranges the size of my head, but only for juicing. I don't want juice, I want the orange. I can say it in Hebrew, will that help? Ani lo rotzeh mitz, ani rotzeh hatapuz. Nope.

Tuesday night, after the Druse, after Dir El Asad, after another fruitless dinner, after the Israeli dancing, we sat in circles and evaluated the trip so far - what we like, what we don't like, what we want more of, what we want less of. And before the circle gets around to me, Jess says "we keep hearing about all the fruit they grow here, and we haven't had, like, any of it."

I could have kissed her, but I didn't, 'cause I know her husband and all he talks about is Brazilian jujitsu and cage fighting. But anyway, she asked about fruit, too. There were other requests for more physical activity and less sitting on a bus all day, for optional hikes or walks, for shorter lunch breaks and more shopping time. Ran addressed our wishes, promising to try to make the reasonable ones come true. "We'll get some fruit for the bus."

The next morning, after another breakfast without oranges, we left for our day in Tel Aviv. We began at the Independence Museum, where we learned about the beginnings of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv.

The city of Tel Aviv was built out of nothing. Really. Outside the walled Arab city of Jaffa, there was sand. And in 1909, a small group of Zionists left the walled city, scraped together $50 million or so, and began building what is now the most modern city in the Middle East and the center of Israeli urban life.

The museum itself is the former home of Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv's first Mayor (and our guide presented this information in all of its homophonic glory) In 1948, while Jerusalem was blockaded by Arab armies, the home became the temporary seat of the Israeli government, and the site from which David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence.

We sat in the room where Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state and listened to an impassioned speech from our guide, as he connected us as American Jews to the formation of the Jewish homeland. For thousands of years, he said, Jews all over the world were without an address. Now, they have one. You have one. For many in that room, this was the defining moment of the Birthright experience. Something clicked, and it made sense why we felt at home even though we'd never been here before. Then we heard Ben-Gurion's speech fill the room, followed by the playing of Hatikvah - "The Hope", and the national anthem of Israel.

If this had happened in Philadelphia, it would have gone like this: some guy in a Ben Franklin costume would read the words of the Declaration of Independence in a phony voice and rant about liberty and all men are created equal. Then the same schmoe would make everyone stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance while I rolled my eyes.

But here in Tel Aviv, we stood and we listened. I started to sing along when I heard the Israelis behind me start to do the same. I saw people tearing up. "You have an address here, always." Dude, you had me at "Mayor Meir."

As we leave Independence Hall, Ran asks me to carry something outside. It's a box of fruit (cue heavenly angel music)! But before I can get the chance to grab and devour an orange, I am handed something entirely different.

"This is the traditional Israeli winter snack," says Ran. "It's called a Crembo, and you eat it like this. You open it up the foil, and there's a cookie at the bottom for later, and you bite into the top and then, you it." Double One-ers reading this can match Ran's voice to his very detailed instructions. The rest of you, well, I guess you had to be there. But anyway, the Crembo was worth putting off my orange craving for a few more minutes. Instead I walked back to the bus experiencing the sheer deliciousness of the Israeli winter snack. We need Crembo in the U.S.
And then, I got my orange, and thoroughly satisfied my craving on the short bus ride to Jaffa, the Arab city adjacent to Tel Aviv. There, at the port, we met our Israeli soldiers - 7 of the nicest, sweetest, most compassionate people in the world. They quickly inserted themselves among the 36 Americans and we were whisked off to a park for more circle games, link tag and a picnic lunch, oranges included. (somebody ask for physical activity? picnic lunches?) The instant gratification continued as we had time to shop (too much time) the Jaffa flea market for piles of junk, and more importantly, acquaint ourselves further with our new Israeli friends.

After Jaffa, we took our more-crowded bus to Rabin Square, the site where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995. Anat, one of our soldiers, remembered being in that place for the Peace rally in 1995, singing the songs, then watching the Prime Minister leave the stage and take his final steps. Every Israeli remembers where he/she was when it happened.

The day has been a roller coaster of serious and fun, as we go from Rabin's assassination to - snack time, it's very strange. But this is normal in Israel, I'm learning. So we enjoy our Sufganiyot in honor of Chanukah and Will's birthday (second birthday of the trip, we celebrated for Emily back at Kibbutz Gonen) as the sun starts to set on our long day in Tel Aviv.

And of course, when the sun sets in Tel Aviv, the day is just beginning. This is Israel's city that doesn't sleep. We have an optional walk to the beach to watch the sunset (somebody ask for optional walks?), hardly an option, why would you miss out on that? And later we return to the Tayellet, Tel Aviv's boardwalk, for dinner and drinks. Our group has gelled by now, these are my 40 new friends I'm out with, remember?

Even the bus driver can't resist the spirit of the amazing Double One. And this is how I'll end this report on Tel Aviv, with a joke, as told by Surin, our faithful driver. It goes something like this:

"A rabbi and a bus driver die and meet God at the gates of Heaven. The bus driver goes in right away, but the rabbi has to wait."

[long pause]

"Hang on, that's not the end. I got confused cause you used to be able to turn left here but now I can' second."

[he turns right]

"Ok, so, the rabbi says 'why does he get to go in, who is he? He's just a bus driver.'"

[pause. some laughter]

"Wait wait, that's not the end, I just have to make this turn...OK, so the rabbi says 'why, he's just a bus driver. I pray every day and I keep kosher and I lead my congregation, all he does is drive a bus.' And God says 'In your synagogue, you lead the service and all the people fall asleep. But when he drives them around the Golan Heights, they are all praying! That's the end."

5 days gone by...
more importantly: 5 more days to come.

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