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Fear and Loathing in the Holy Land

Being the gonzo travelogue of Rob Spectre on a journey to Tel Aviv, Israel.

Suffering in the Old City (Part One)

It was the first I’d seen of real poverty in Tel Aviv during the week I was there.  I’d come across a homeless person here or there of course on the beach, but after living in San Francisco as long as I had, homelessness requires a certain level of density before it will command my attention.  An assocciate and I had even stumbled on a trio who had built a makeshift tent duplex, but I recall them looking so out of place. She - my associate upon seeing my eyes linger on the a moment - had even described them as “new.”  Like they were artificial colors on the landscape as unnatural looking as the powerlines baked into the mortar of Jerusalem’s alleys.  All I had seen up until the Saturday morning before I left was a few poor people.  It took going to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station to get any real taste of poverty.

It was Shabbos, the night followed by day when God and this holy state takes to rest - the day before I’d head home. The Sabbath struck me as an opportune time to visit Jerusalem, for if ever there was a good time for a guy like me to be in a place like that, it was likely when the Almighty was napping.  Of course, much of the Jewish state’s infrastructure closes in weekly observance of the tradition, but as any student who went to college in the Biblebelt, hijinks can still be had on holy days if one had a few shekels in his or her pocket and the tolerance for a certain level of static.  The static that day in Tel Aviv was the bus station where no buses were running, but for 30 NIS one could hop on a sherut (sp?) and hire a Gentile to buck the local custom and carry thine heathen ass forthwith to Christ’s former stomping grounds.  

The Bus Station was on the south end of town (as near as I could tell) where the buildings start looking a lot more Middle Eastern and the graffiti becomes a lot more competent.  Having seen the abject brand of destitution that gives rise to one’s breakfast in foreign cities like St. Petersburg and Warsaw and San Francisco, Tel Aviv’s ghetto was still fairly tame, even for a Western prude.  But I was struck while waiting for our short bus to fill up with heretics trying to reconcile the city had seen all week and the scene at this central terminal.  Was all I had seen a show, I wondered?  No more Manhattan to The Bronx I imagined as we gathered up the last to go, whisking us quickly and discreetly from the wrong side of the tracks.

The ride up was Process of Belief and Generator, partly for the obvious (if adolescent) poetry and partly to keep the spirits up. There were two real worries coming in to Jersualem knotting my gut and surprisingly none of them had to do with personal safety.  The fears were 1) I’d get spun up in the hysteria surrounding that town and have some sort of life changing come-to-God moment that would send me down the path of the nutters or 2) something I viewed as infinitely worse - nothing at all. In a sense, I felt a bit like an aboriginal tribesman getting flown by Oprah to Disneyland. Some quiet benefactors had sent me to this circus completely out of my element, while transparently reaping some reward for the contrast spectacle of being so out of place. It was a lot of apprehension - don’t remember feeling much anticipation.

Like an idiot, I got off at the first stop the sherut made, making the hike to the Old City a good couple miles. It did offer a picture of the Jerusalem-that-came-a-good-damn-while-after-Jesus on the Sabbath, which was to say like Raccoon City after the first cut scene - eerily bereft of life and promising an epic boss fight. There were very, very few people out in the streets as I plodded along with backpack in tow and they all looked like me - transients who patently did not belong.

The upshot of the long walk, I figured, was a glorious approach to the Old City.  Being able to witness on foot the gradual shift from modernity to antiquity should make for memory more valuable than any keepsake bauble, I reckoned, though a a squashed shekel or my name written on a grain of rice wouldn’t hurt.  So I followed the English signs that said “Old City” and wormed my way inside of Jersualem.

But such a romantic jaunt wasn’t going to be.  Instead of following some Biblically scenic path, I somehow got sucked into some commercial vortex - a mall, a new, clean, high priced, despicably material mall.  Every was closed, of course, due to the day of the week, but nevertheless it was a mall labyrinthine and winding with the latest American addictions hanging sharply behind windows washed daily.  I had been expecting impossibly ancient ramparts and huge stone walls.  I was imagining parapets older than my country and graffiti older than my ancestry.

But all I could see as I knew I drew near was this fucking shopping center.  I don’t know what it was precisely I expected at Jerusalem’s gates, but I knew it sure as shit wasn’t savings.

Soon I’d discover it seems this is a tradition in this town.

The Expatriates

By that point in the week, Irish whiskey was as welcome a sight as a lover leaving the bedroom at two in the afternoon.  It had been a tense, long burn so far for the day gig with the promise of more to come.  Deadlines tightened like nooses around our necks and flurries of life and death choices were nested in every subroutine and silent prayer woven into every line of code.  Our backs were flat against the wall - we all knew it.  And while we were managing better than most in similar circumstance, the time was nigh for us all to do for a proper drink.

The bottle might have been Protestant but it was present, which would have to do for this stranger dimly wandering in this strange land.  Thirty-two shekels for a double seemed a tourist price, surprising for this thoroughly local sidewalk cafe.  Further off the beaten path than I had managed in the trudge between apartment and work, it may have been the first legitimately Middle Eastern joint I’d seen since arriving in Israel.  They had whiskey and an outside seat on real cobblestone, I reckoned.  As ever home as abroad, those who beg cannot choose.

It was nine in the evening when I had stole from the office, excusing myself with a phrase even I had trouble buying.  ”A birthday party of a friend of a friend of a friend," I had told my colleagues.  They were rightfully suspicious of the oblique motive; some spiky haired dude with zero grasp of the language or geography was headed towards the wrong part of town for a crew as connected to him as Kevin Bacon.  And the real truth was even more sad than that, as this friend of a friend of a friend I had known in the flesh for maybe - maybe - three and a half hours.  Meeting people I didn’t know through the generous introduction of someone I barely met at a place I had scribbled on a napkin in a land that didn’t care for me one bit.

"It’s cool," I shrugged, dismissing their concern.  "I’m a people person."

It only took a couple drinks before I’d discover that confidence was well placed.  Let me take you around the room.

Cara: Fair haired with a tomboy face, the young lady from Maryland was the first to find me at the bar.  Possessed of an impossibly valuable last name and a nervous, husky laugh, she had been the first connection I made in Tel Aviv that wasn’t related to my labor.  She had been straight edge in her youth and, like me, still bore a bit of resentment for the disillusionment that inevitably follows the subscription to any extreme lifestyle.  How the sXe set treated women ended up being the dealbreaker for both her and me.  You can imagine my astonishment at having to travel to the other side of the planet to find someone who had the same broken heart from living that kind of lie.

Ari: As hospitable as he is coarse, Ari carried his position in the crew as “That Guy” with no small measure of pride.  He had fully intended to get together for beers even before my jet lag wore off, but unexpectedly found himself at the business end of an all-you-can-drink wine special instead.  I’ve always held a special sympathy for the unashamed drunk - perhaps its my genetics, but I knew from jump street we were going to see eye-to-eye.  Also likely the only source of good Hitler jokes in that part of the world.

Noa: The birthday girl and seeming matriarch of the bunch, Noa worked the room like a starlet from the golden age of cinema.  Surprisingly graceful for a Rutgers grad, she had come to Tel Aviv for grad school and to fight the good fight with the UN Refugee Agency.  Confronting the consequences of this conflict neverending every day, hers was a story so uncommon as to be invaluable.  A journalist turned human rights activist, Noa struck me as the sort that wouldn’t know what a sideline even looked like.  By comparison, my own conviction felt so academic. 

Yishai: A real man’s man, Yishai was an editor for Haaretz and Noa’s main squeeze.  The cat scored a fellowship in Berlin for two months for which we’d later celebrate his going away.  Quick with a joke and a kind word, he had the pure brand of hospitality I’ve associated with Judaism - the kind that made giving seem as much fun as receiving.  He’d pay me one of the better compliments I’d receive over the entire trip after over a shot of Jameson.  ”I like Rob.”

Goldstein: It might be his last name.  It might be his first name.  It probably doesn’t matter, but I always thought he should walk around with a hairless cat and a monocle.  He’d be a great Bond villain if he weren’t so affable.

Ben: An Austin kid with a Bad Brains shirt walked up to the party and says, “Nice hair.”  I casually replied, “Thanks man” until I came to my fucking senses and realized where it had just happened.  Swapping stories about Stubbs and Emos shows and comparing scenes with an Austin punk could be a Thursday night for me anywhere in New York.  To find the same a full ocean and a continent away?  It may still have been a mirage.

Ami: Had I stayed a few extra days, I’d have been able to roadie for a bluegrass band playing at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Yet another surreal combination that seemed the hallmark of this set, Ami was using American folk and bluegrass music to explore Israeli culture and identity.  Building a scene out of nothing with a geographically tragic musical taste commands an instant respect with me.  I’ve dug that well before, and give a wide berth and due credit to those who dig still.

—-

And these were just a smattering of the larger-than-life stories powered by completely singular personalities that had gathered for one another’s company and kick off the weekend right.  Punks and drunks, hippies and humanitarians, writers and critics, paupers and princes, barons and dukes and earls. Some had come to study and some had come to work.  Some called this place home and some called it good enough for now.  

But as patchwork a tapestry as that set presented, a common fiber made their collection seem obvious.  Where that fiber hid underneath the loud, primary color politics and identities and personalities wouldn’t be found in a single night, but had to be acknowledged if only by their existence.

Whatever thread it is that bonds such an authentic humanity, I could tell it is not the kind of fabric you can buy in the States.

Buying the Hair Dryer

  • Rafi: He says it is a very good hair dryer. Made in Italy.
  • Me: What does that mean?
  • Rafi: It means it was not made in China or some place shit. It is greater quality.
  • Me: So it's a good hair dryer then?
  • Rafi: How the *fuck* should I know?

Into Your Veins

We were on the roof of the office and speaking as men do, briefly trading the heatless glare of liquid crystals for a still-oppressive-in-October Israeli sun and remaining grateful for the exchange.  The gents commented as we sat down on the comfortable set of couches (obviously exposed and unafraid of rain on the roof) that the week before had been unbearable and the downturn in temperature was welcome.  Autumn was coming to Israel, they said, which felt closer to summer on Mercury to me.

They had come above for a smoke break while I had come for the shit talk.  Having never seen these colleagues of mine in the flesh before despite working with them several times a day, a big part of the experience for me was putting names to faces, faces to brains, and brains to personalities.  But perhaps more important than the networking was the longing I’ve had for months for the exclusive company of geeks and the special fraternity such brings.

Only a few drags in, I start hearing a story from a week earlier how one - in the barely conscious haze of rising early after a long night at the ranch - had copped a feel on his wife, who instantly retaliated with a Circadian rhythm jolting shot to the mean bean machine.  Of course among men, a tale about getting dickpunched by one’s girl is not irregular.  Manhood, after all, is little more than a red carpet for the exclusive trampling of women, but they could tell I was registering a very American alarm at the speed of which our conversation had turned to matters of the South.

"Oh," he said, as one who had let a belch rip at a funeral or wore a Blink 182 shirt to a punk show.  "It’s an Israeli thing, man.  We get into your veins."

He was referring to the uncommon speed of familiarity in the local culture.  I’d been advised in my research and by all who had visited the country before to expect a conspicuous disregard for prudence in first conversations.  The FAQs and travel guides all warned not to take probing questions personally; that I should fully expect to be asked how much I made, when I was planning on getting married and how much tail my haircut does (or more likely does not) attract. 

"We get into your veins" meant that an Israeli wastes little time getting to know someone.  The phrase was endemic of the experience that followed.  I ended up telling a hefty part of my life’s story more times in my week in Tel Aviv than all my days in New York, a compression that was at the same time startling and satisfying.

But unlike the reception I received coming into the country, their etiquette felt less like scrutiny and more like hypercuriousity.  When meeting these people, one gets the sense Israelis have a born impulse to consume a person’s whole, a bred obsession for the full story.  There was a childlike wonder to their penetrating questions and their inappropriate stories that made whatever prudishness one carries with the yoke of Western culture strain.  They were offenses easily forgiven and a part of the landscape as darling the poor English graffiti.

The part I didn’t get from the brevity of my stay was the root cause.  Little of the Mediterranean has such a reputation for discarding conversational propriety like Israel - what makes the people of this place so forthcoming and demanding of the same?  Is it the youth of the nation that condenses its courtship?  Does the constant threat of war make small talk an unnecessary luxury?

A week is hardly enough time to know.  But it is enough time to get its thorough taste, and appreciate it for what it is.  And be ready to order more next time.

Israel: Undisputed King of Local Band Names

One of the first things I do when traveling anywhere abroad is find a show poster to check out the local band names.  Regardless of how far from the Prime Meridian you end up, there are going to be some bands who give themselves English names and those names are going to be effing great.

In all my travels, however, I have never found a locale as rich in hilarious band names as Tel Aviv, earning Israel the most favored nation for naming your local band.

Consider the following evidence, all actual band names taken from posters I surreptitiously snitched:

  1. Yes We Smoke Crack
  2. Do You Like My Shoes
  3. The Love Boat with Captain Satan
  4. I Was Young and I Needed The Money
  5. Death by PMS
  6. Chick on a Bike
  7. Lemon Incest
  8. Snorkel Hysteria!
  9. Madam Tampoon

and Israel’s crown jewel:

Bourbon Sprinkled Sphincters

On the Corner of Damnation and Grace Everlasting

You don’t expect the end of the world to be beautiful.  You don’t expect a warzone to look normal.

Such were the first proper impressions of Tel Aviv gathered on a morning run of a lovely Mediterranean beach after a 12 hour coma to recuperate from jet lag.  The previous day had fuzzed out into a static TV screen of sleeplessness, but on that run after the first real sleep I’d had in some 36 hours the full scope of where I was desperately tried to reconcile with what I found.  The mind reeled finally not from sleep deprivation but from the realization of here I fucking was on the corner of Damnation and Grace Everlasting. Here I was were beginnings begin and endings end.

If the place you are headed is worth traveling to at all, expectations should be well confounded.  Preconception is the teddy bear you carry into Wal-marts and into McDonalds; security blankets that get snatched away on more worthy endeavors.  And if that maxim serves as any indicator of value, Tel Aviv was evidencing its pricelessness an hour into that run on that beach. 

Of course, some those surprises were entirely ordinary.  Once passed by a dozen superior atheletes, the disappointment from that deep bred American jaundice that nobody could possibly dress as cool as us swelled.  The cleanliness of the taxis and the filthiness of their sidewalks ran reverse of their usual values for such found east of Europe.  Fords and Toyotas were surprisingly popular and KFC and McDonalds relievingly less so.  The city was younger than I imagined, both in construction and population.  It felt very much like a new house freshly purchased by a young couple with their best days ahead. 

More frequent than not, however, was extraordinary stupefaction.  With a few miles behind me and several random turns into the city proper, the only place of worship I had passed was an elegant mosque.  A surprising secularism, I estimated there were likely more temples in my neighborhood in Brooklyn than all I saw on that entire first day.  Further, the Americana seemed so certain and capably reproduced.  Tel Aviv was not a place where screen prints were comically irrelevant by five or six years, but faithfully representative of the same hipster fads one can see on Bedford Ave.  American pop culture manifested itself as competently as California - a jarring landscape to find oneself in after a 12 hour flight.

The most surprising element was the air.  Having spent a brief amount of time in Northern Ireland, I was expecting to feel a tension from the conflict that so synonymous with this part of the world.  Even though I had visited Armagh well after the peace deals and the disarmament, the Catholic / Protestant dispute was still something you could feel in the air.  It was like a yoke you willfully embraced as soon as you came over the border, a flak jacket that was part of the local dress code.

Such was not the air one breathes in Tel Aviv.  Were it not for the broadcasts and the newspapers, one would have little idea this city was situated in the center of endless war.  It didn’t seem like a city that was threatened.  Indeed, it didn’t seem like a city that could be threatened, as calm and cosmopolitan as any you could find along the Mediterranean sea.

But when I got back to the apartment, all I had to do was flip on the TV to know it wasn’t.  That morning it felt better to leave it off and not think of Tel Aviv as such a heavy place.

I wanted to make it to breakfast not knowing a place this lovely was sitting 20 kilometers from the start of the next World War.

Fair Warning

  • Dan: I'm like the new Jesus.
  • Rob: I'd be careful about saying that in this part of the world.
  • Dan: Why? They don't care.
  • Rob: I'm just saying. Last guy who said that around here ended up stapled to a 2x4.

A Warm Israeli Welcome

"Is this your first time visiting Israel?"

"Yes."

"What is the purpose of your visit?"

"Work."

"What kind of work do you do?"

"Software development."

"And what is your occupation?"

"Software developer."

"Did you bring anything for any one in Israel."

"Yes."

[pause] “Can you come with me, please?”

—-

And that was the moment I’d like to have back.  Everything that came before I thought was fine.  The stupid stuff I said during the security theatre that followed  I wouldn’t have changed, indeed it was some of my finer work.  Even the flirtatious wink to the fairer of the two guards who escorted me on to the plane by myself before any other passengers made it aboard was something that will definitely not add any weight to my shoulders.

But that one bit about bringing a gaming headset for one of my co-workers into Israel - that one I would like back.

It should be said I was walking in with a pretty strong sense of humor about what I had been thoroughly warned was going to be a penetrating travel experience.  After all, I told myself, would you want to let a guy this good looking and intelligent in your country with ample cause to deny entry so readily available?  They are surely fearing for their whiskey and their women, I reasoned.  An al-Qaida terrorist won’t drink a sip and have poor complexion from all that time living in Afghan caves.  But a strapping dork punker?  Shit.  No telling what a guy like that could do up in this piece.

But when the odometer rolled over the third hour of their inquisition and I had not yet made it to the American security checkpoint, I was feeling about as funny as Pee Wee Herman cracking jokes to the wank police booking him downtown.  I can appreciate the unique security concerns of a nation as steeped in conflict and dispute in Israel and I can respect their right to run an airline how they wish.  But, after they ran my passport and bombsniffed my underroos in front of God and everybody, I don’t know what kind of probing insight they were looking to get with another 120 minutes of asking the same ten questions different ways with the same four people.

The following two hours it seemed they were underscoring a phrase.  In their timbre, in their body language, in their asperation, in their script, they were trying to send a clear message.  I have spent more time than most being the object of suspicion and with that veteran distinction I’ve developed a sense for when the guy with the badge is doing his job and when he’s doing a job. After the first hour, they had what they needed.  They looked for a criminal record.  They looked for terrorist ties and associations.  And down to ever fiber and stitch of my undergarments, they looked at these things I was bringing into their country.

They knew everything they needed to know in the first hour.  It became clear as the clock wore on that this airline wasn’t just an additional security layer as their tone became more rote and benign, like their role had shifted from gatekeeper to face control.  By that point, they were a courtesy committee for the different.  And the phrase they were tasked to undercore was “Not welcome.

The guy on the plane next to me said I got “a warm Israeli welcome.”  It will be hard to not let that travel experience not color the journey that follows.

The Unpilgrimage

Looking around the plane as we begin our final approach into Ben Gurion, it’s hard to pinpoint which domino it was exactly that kicked off the Rube Goldberg machine called my professional development that would bring me to a place like Israel.  Entering this hotly contested, war weary patch of Mediterranean coast, I was awash with a queer, distantly familiar impulse.  It could be best described a profound sense of unbelonging.  That this place - quite unlike the other crazy locales stamped in my passport - was one place I just wasn’t meant to understand. I felt like a high schooler again - a true outsider, again a stranger in a strange land.

There was no earthly explanation for a guy like me ending up in a place like Israel.  But here it is and here I was, all courtesy of the combination of global economy and this Hell’s Internet.  Never mind this being the kind of thing that wouldn’t ever happen to the son of single mother raised in Shitneck, Nowhere zipcode 60666. 

This is the kind of thing that just doesn’t seem like it can happen.

I was packed uncomfortable in a planeful of exhibits upon which this prosecution could safely rest.  Little crews of Hasidic men gathered are the fore and aft of the plane making their twice hourly penitance, well worn religious paraphenalia wrapped about their persons and shivering in their hands.  College co-eds were already pairing off like they were headed into Noah’s Ark, getting a fall break abroad on the Birthright dime.  Every possible stripe of down home country Christian having cashed in their bake sales to get closer to God than allowed by renewal baptisms and Michael W. Smith concerts.  And for the smattling others were here for the ordinary, less divine, it was pilgrimage of a different sort - a honeymoon, an anniversary or similar romantic celebration.

By comparison, my avowed goal of kicking ass on the Web seemed so pedestrian.  The air these people carred seemed so lofty.  They were all here to find God or find Jesus or find the one whom their Jewish mothers would finally approve (or at least resign to accept by virtue of shared origin alone).  This was a life-changing experince they were after.  I was after finding elegant solutions to real problems in a land where mankind has consistently elected to introduce unduly complex half-measure to needless calamities of his own creation.

This brief travelogue of one Irish punk getting dropped into this Holy land is written from that prism and to be consumed with that dichotomy in mind.

What happens when you go to work where the world goes to worship and wage war?

Let’s find out.