Tel Aviv

(From my Israel journal, 10 March 2008.)

Tel Aviv doesn’t care.

Yeah, there were people shot and killed by Muslim extremists in a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem on Tuesday. So? Yeah, conditions in Gaza are worse today than they were in the 1960’s. What’s that have to do with me? Yeah, we have a conflict between Arab and Jew that goes on and on and on, maybe since the beginning of time, definitely for the last century.

Tel Aviv says this: “Look, you and I aren’t going to solve these problems today. Today, we party.”

The saying in Israel, I was told before arriving here, goes: “You go to Haifa to work, to Jerusalem to pray, to Tel Aviv to play.” I chuckled at the idea before I touched down in Israel. I finished the day feeling like, for the first time in my life, I’d been on Spring Break. It was all there – the beach, the youth hard at play, way too little clothing for the coast in March, the cramped housing and hotels on the coastline – why ISN’T that the Florida Gulf Coast? The fact that it’s the western coast of Israel on shabbat is of no consequence. I feel no more threatened here than I would in Panama City. Honestly, I feel less threatened.

Leave the beach, go into the city, not much changes. The streets are packed – far more packed than you’d expect for the Sabbath. Only everyone’s headed to the parks and public places, so deliberately you begin to wonder if they’re just cruising. Picnics and cookouts abound. Games are everywhere. Even as the plane touches down, deafeningly close to the taxiway – football! Goals are being scored, with NARY A NET TO THE GOAL. RIGHT NEXT TO THE TAXIWAY. You wonder how loud the laughter will be if the ball rolls into the runway.

There’s soccer everywhere. Basketball hoops. Volleyball nets. For crying out loud, teenagers on roller skates. Four wheels in blocks, not the inline kind; I’m talking the kind that went out of style in 1979 and that my daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in. But just fine for Tel Aviv.

And then tennis. And paddleball. And more tennis. And more paddleball. And still more tennis. And paddleball EVERYWHERE.

The Israelis have a name for it that I never learned; for our purposes, let’s just call it “paddleball” and be done with it. When you arrive at the beach, it’s the first sound you hear. Close to the buildings, to the beachfront shops, you find the people who take it most seriously, but even they show no evidence of playing formal games – they just hit the ball back and forth, with forceful abandon, as if they’re playing ping-pong over ten times the space with no table, oversized paddles and where the point is only lost if you’re the one who allows the ball to hit the ground. The games are energetic, passsionate, and seemingly endless.

On the beach, more casual games. Some between boyfriend and girlfriend, gently lobbing the ball to and fro. Some between brothers, showing off for one another (and attractive female passersby) in typical brotherly fashion. Some between random acquaintances, maybe even strangers, volleying back and forth at first, but now swinging their shots towards one another with brute force. One or two clearly could play with the serious athletes on the pavement, but they choose to be on the beach – more accessible to their friends, maybe to the opposite sex, maybe to the bongs that seem to start popping up as the day gets later – some emitting tobacco smoke, some other grasses of the land, and some…well, you just wonder about their content…

And this is JUST the beach. This is JUST the paddleball. Tennis is, of course, the more respectable game, better organized and properly competitive. So the tennis courts are everywhere as well, and the games show that same range of activity – from husband and wife simply knocking a ball back and forth to fit competitors desperately wanting to win the game.

Our first site visit in Israel was to an old Philistine city, Tel Qasile, under the auspices of the Eretz Israel Museum. The archaeological site sits on a hill. It’s been restored somewhat, but has fallen into disrepair in turn – “it’s a ruin of the restoration of a ruin”. All the while, while we’re at this poorly kept site, you can look off the hill at the well-kept courts and see the tennis games go on.

It’s only as I get away from Tel Aviv that I begin to really feel like I’m in another land, and it’s only as I am within site of the Sea of Galilee that it really starts to hit that I’m truly approaching hold ground. Tel Aviv may just be more Americanized than anything in Ontario. As relatively young as the city is, it stands to reason. But it’s still at once comforting and sad.

Not that Tel Aviv cares.

After all, there are still games to be played.

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