Picture it, Tel Aviv, 2014. What an awesome trip! I had the pleasure of visiting my brother Shane at his home in Tel Aviv for the past month. Shane is currently a dancer in the Batsheva ensemble. This makes him famous - at least in Israel and insofar as everyone knows Batsheva.
I had a fantastic time!
I had been holding off on going to Israel for a long time. I had my misgivings, I had never been before, I didn’t go on Birthright, and I don’t particularly enjoy touristy activities. There are things in Israel I had always wanted to see - the Heights, the Negev, Tel Aviv - but I knew that most tourists miss out on these gems in favor of other outings - Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Masada. Luckily with my brother, we were able to skip out on all of the stuff I did not want to do and we were able to have a more tailored experience. This was exactly want I wanted.
Since both Shane and I were working the whole time, the weeks were structured such that we would work Sunday through Thursday. Friday morning we would leave for somewhere fun and return Saturday night.
There is something truly beautiful about this schedule. It places shabbat dinner right at the center of importance. Since people generally have Friday off of work (or as a half-day in the morning) this gives everyone time to prepare to spend an evening with friends & family - even if they are secular! Saturday during the day is quite relaxed giving one time to recover from the previous night’s feast. Then just as you start to get antsy the world comes alive again on Saturday night. This feels so much more right than the diurnal sabbath tradition in the West. In the U.S., I am often annoyed when a city isn’t awake until 11 pm everyday. In Israel, I barely noticed that almost everything was closed for a day and a half every week.
My Other Homeland
There is a cunning similarity between Israel and the best country in the Union: Texas. I am sure I am not the first person to note this. For me the comparison clearest along ecological, geological, and cultural axes. And what Austin is to Texas, Tel Aviv is most certainly to Israel. Needless to say, I felt very at home.
Israel is neatly divided into swampish hill country in the north and the desert in the south. Sound familiar? On my first weekend, we traveled to the north and stayed with Shane’s friend and fellow Batsheva dancer Ayelet and her family. They live in a tiny village about 3 km from the border with Lebanon. The terrain here was hilly with peaks between 100 - 300 m and the flora was mostly low-lying oaken forest. On Saturday morning we went for a beautiful hike down one of the canyons. The resemblance to Lost Maples or Pedernales is uncanny. A beauty matched is no less beautiful.
Geologically, Israel is also similar to Texas in certain ways. They both were under the ocean for a very long time. The earth in these places has the same tenor: gradually slopping hillsides, sandstone, and fossils coming from pushed up sediment. This landscape gives rise to some of the most vibrant sunsets I have ever seen.
The is very little light pollution in this area due to Mediterranean not being so far away (in absolute terms) and the aridness leading to low population density. Figure 4 was taken in Mitzpe Ramon on my second full weekend in Israel. We stayed at a place called Silent Arrow, which is a tent and hut hostel-ish place. Silent Arrow is holistic without being hokey. If anything it reminded me of a permanent version of a burn event camp. What is not to like? I highly recommend this place.
For our hike that weekend, we went down into the Makhtesh Ramon. This is jaw-dropping. There are no words in English to describe it. Seriously. The word ‘makhtesh’ doesn’t have an English equivalent. It can be loosely translated as ‘crater’ but that is not quite right since such it structures are not formed by meteor impacts. Texas, in all its vastness, does not have anything quite like this.
Culturally - from what I can infer - Israelis are about as home proud as Texans. My main metric for this is the number of state flags per capita that you see in public. Do car lots need hundres of flags wagging out in their wares? Does every other hook on every wall need a string of flags (as if you could forget where you were)? Is a lone star enough to symbolize your communal greatness? Yes, yes, yes!
I think the propensity for showing the standard is one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted things about Texas. It shows a gladness in the identity. I don’t think that it is arrogance as it is often thought to be (especially by outsiders). You don’t need to think that you are better than others to be happy in who you are. Moreover, if you are happy with who you are you should be happy to show it.
Politics aside, one of the things that makes Texas great is that Texans are generally happy to be Texans. I can’t say the same about California, where culturally they do think that they are better than others while simultaneously only very few people are particularly proud to be Californian. Israel shares this particular Texan idiosyncrasy. I think that there is a lot of value in being home proud.
In case you think that it is unfair to put politics aside here, it is important to note that every place has its own deep, unresolved issues. Texas, California, and Israel all live in seemingly infinite and inextricable quagmires. Through these divisions, some places still manage to be happy with themselves. I am not going to get into the business of comparing human suffering in this post. However, I bet that if one were to compare atrocities committed by these three states Israel would come out with the cleanest record. Not that this justifies it in anyway! This is simply to state that the U.S.A. does not have moral superiority and any belief to that effect is historically false.
Can I Buy A Vowel?
So other than the Texas connection, what makes Israel a great place to be?
At the top of my personal list is the accidental veganism. The Israeli diet is a Mediterranean one. Tahini is the staple. It is the glue that holds all meals together. Followed by hummus, cauliflower, beet root (selek), and salads it is extraordinarily easy to be vegetarian without ever intending to be. Since these core foodstuffs are all vegetables. You actually have to go a bit out of your way to get milk or egg products. Fish and meat is even farther afield. This is not to say that there are millions of ideological vegans walking around; there aren’t. Rather, the incidence of not eating in a vegan or vegetarian fashion is much lower than in the U.S. or Europe where is often seems that it a meal is not considered proper if there isn’t meat involved. The engineer in me is elated to see this. Widespread accidental veganism is much preferred over ubiquitous and antagonistic carnivorism.
Eating habits aren’t the only thing that Israelis seem to do right ‘accidentally.’ I didn’t see a single household that had a clothes dryer while I was there. Everyone hangs up their laundry to dry. Also, every hot water heater is on its own switch and some are even on timers. If you want hot water for your shower, you need to turn the switch one 20 minutes before hand. If this sounds annoying, it is! But I bet it is much more energy efficient than simply leaving it on all the time. These two things alone I am a sure lower the per capita carbon footprint by a ton.
Additionally, the public transportation system is pretty good. Inside of the cities it is mostly buses. Between cities there are charter buses and a rail system. The rail system is great and is widely used - unlike Amtrak. Still, inside of Tel Aviv it is generally easiest to walk or ride a bike. The roads were not made for cars.
The brilliant city planners designed a North-South corridor parallel to the coast. Many small neighborhoods exist along this where one-way streets make it clear that if you don’t know where you are driving then you probably shouldn’t be there. I much prefer this over the monolithic grid structure of Chicago. It feels more like you belong in the place that you are.
Shane and I took an excellent Bauhaus walking tour which explained a lot of the layout of the city in addition to the propensity for asymmetric buildings and balconies. Because Tel Aviv is a UNESCO world heritage site for its Bauhaus collection, the city has a height limit of five storeys in certain areas. Again, this serves to make the place more neighborly. Bauhaus put a lot of emphasis on social engagement. The focus was on street-facing balconies that were comfortable and close enough to the ground to have conversations with your neighbors and passers-by on the sidewalk. This led to the absolute best Freudian slip of the entire trip. The tour guide was explaining that in Bauhaus, the kitchens were often minimal and functional because “You are supposed to sit in the living room and be social-ist with your friends!”
Lastly, I have to mention that while the Hebrew was disorienting at first I gradually became more and more used to it. I could fairly easily follow simple conversations. What was maddening, however, was that if you asked me to translate them I couldn’t. I knew what happened, I knew what it meant, but not what was said. This got better over time as words came back to me and I started being able to have simple conversations myself. I blame this on learning and forgetting Hebrew so early in life. Everything sounded right and sublime but I was able to communicate less well than when I was in 2nd grade. I am fairly confident that if I spent some serious time there, I would really end up learning Hebrew (again).
Yalla, Let’s Bounce
There are about a million things I didn’t cover and about a million more that I want to. For example, Tel Aviv has absolutely amazing street art. I’ll leave you with one of the my favorite reminder mantras that is painted throughout the city, “Don’t forget to be awesome!”