Saturday, November 3, 2012

An Evening With Idit

Winter Term at Elon University is essentially an extension of Christmas vacation. A catalog of challenging courses are available to students, such as: Knittin' Mittens for Kittens, The Oval Office: Decorating Eggs to look like Presidents, How to Creatively Hide Your Meth Lab, etc.. You know, rigorous academia. Okay, maybe these are a slight exaggerations. Keyword slight. Moral of the story--take a joke class every day for ~15 days and BAM! four shamefully titled credits added to your transcript.

Junior year my winter term looked to be no different. Enrolled in Israeli Cinema, I returned from the holidays expecting some Jewish professor from the School of Communications to show us Schindler's list and feed us bagels. Wrong. I walked into class late, reeking of late night whiskey and nursing a hangover, aka: I blended in. Who was that in the front? Fiery red hair and hipster glasses, the instructor was way ahead of her time, aka: she doesn't even go here. Alright, now my interest was piqued. Five hours later I walked out of the classroom in awe. This Winter Term was going to be different. I was going to actually learn something and wait...was I excited about it? The subject matter sounded interesting enough, but the professor was the real story. Her name was Idit Shechori, and she was incredible.

Where to begin with such an interesting person? A former Lieutenant in the Israeli Army, she later founded and presided over her own screenwriting school in Tel Aviv. She had written, produced, and directed her own films and won numerous international awards and recognition in the process. She lectured about cinema all over the world, published an anthology of women's literature, and authored an almanac of Israeli cultural institutions. As impressive as her background was, it was her personality that truly stole the show. Her straightforward and insightful commentary about Israeli society accomplished something few professors managed to do, we were learning...and excited about it.

She planted a seed that grew into an idea: I needed to visit Israel.

Fast forward two years...

I walked out of my Tel Aviv hostel and was greeted by a familiar not-found-in-nature-but-trendy-enough-to-pull-it-off red head jogging toward me. “Hurry, the cab is waiting and we have so much to see!” And away we went. Via facebook, Idit had helped me in every way possible make my journey to Israel a reality. On my fourth day in Israel, my former instructor had agreed to be my travel guide for the evening. Correction: the BEST damn travel guide anyone could ask for.

Appropriately, our journey and Tel Aviv's modern history began in the same place, HaTachana. This brilliantly revamped train station, now a visitors center, marked where the first rail line connected Jerusalem to Jaffa. Tel Aviv was birthed in the surrounding neighborhood as a small Jewish community that emerged from Jaffa, Tel Aviv's Arab municipal counterpart. We strolled through the streets of the restored station and stopped at a 50's style fountain shop where we drank mint soda with a side of left-wing politics.

From there, we ventured to Neve Tzedek, a gentrified artists colony adjacent to my hostel. It's hard to accurately express how chic this neighborhood is. Simply put, it makes West Village look hoodrat. Mediterranean architecture, meters from the sea, lined with cafes and bougie botiques—some of my fraternity brothers would be in heaven. Pit stop # 2: Cafe Nina. Politics evolved into history over coffee and cake (sorry, diet) and an inevitable topic emerged. Her family's first-hand, tragic experience with the Holocaust brought a greater sense of reality to Israel's short-but-ancient history. We left the heavy conversation at the coffee shop and made our way to Rothschild, one of Tel Aviv's main thoroughfares.

There, she led me through various centers of art and culture, including the National Theater, Opera House, Philharmonic, and library. Tel Aviv is dubbed “The White City” in reference to it having the world's largest collection of era-appropriate Bauhaus structures, and many of the buildings we visited were awesome representations of this style. 
To me, the most meaningful stop on our tour was Tel Aviv's municipal building.  It was here in 1995 where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  I'm in Israel to earn my Master's in Peace and Conflict Management Studies, which makes this location particularly powerful.  Rabin was the ultimate champion of Palestinian-Israeli peace, and it cost him his life.  Walking down a staircase after a rally celebrating the signing of the Oslo Accords he was shot and killed.  Bronze footprints mark his final steps. 
It was near there where Idit treated me to my first proper Israeli dinner. A ridiculously large assortment of salads and dips (picture below) were presented to us before the main course; this practice has proven standard in many meals since. American restaurants, please take note.

Hours from when it began, our perfect evening ended at the Marina. Like any waterfront commercial area, over-the-top eateries and stores lined the boardwalk. Idit pointed out subtle differences amongst varying levels of Jewish Orthodoxy I would have never been able to identify myself. “You see her? She's not on her period. Or she's pregnant.” 'scuse me? A couple clad in conservative attire was holding hands, and apparently there was symbolism behind that. Further down she pointed out orthodox parents eating tables away from arranged yet universally awkward first dates. I learned outdoor restaurants are ideal for this because unwed, unrelated couples can't be in a “room” alone, so everybody wins with this arrangement. As we meandered to the end of the boardwalk where the city meets its end at the Hayarkon River, Idit continued telling her history of the city she so endearingly and rightfully loved.

It was there I realized I had been going about Israel all wrong. Reading points of interest on a website and walking to them by myself, digesting the sights and sounds, and moving on to the next thinking I fully understood the place was as much a disservice to myself as it was the nation hosting me. An Anthony Bourdain quote surfaced from somewhere in my brain. “Be a traveler, not a tourist.”

As we walked back to the cab I made the most poignant realization of my trip thus far. I had arrived in a country halfway around the world where I only knew one person: Idit. Somewhere between dinner and the marina everything stopped feeling foreign. Was it while we were laughing over the insanity of Mormonism and a certain someone  awaiting to be forgotten in the pages of history with every other failed presidential candidate? Maybe it was learning about the darker side of Elon's administration (Princeton Review, if you're reading, take that #1 'School Runs like Butter' ranking away ASAP). Perhaps it was joking about Bibi's history as a furniture salesman. When doesn't matter, but the lesson does: even the strangest of places can feel like home when you are with a friend.

Thank you, Idit.
Restaurant at the entrance of HaTachana
The best calories are pretentious calories.  Cafe Nina, Neve Tzedek.
Neve Tzedek by day...
Neve Tzedek by night.
Opera Bau-House.
National Theater
Just a casual canvas-topped perfectly lit walkway
When better than a Monday night to folk dance in a pituresque plaza?
Star of the show: Idit in the right corner
Tel Aviv Municipal Building
Yitzhak Rabin Memorial. שלום, חבר
Appetizers.  Suck it, Applebee's.
Tel Aviv Boardwalk
aka: copyright infringement. Sorry Photobucket, I forgot to take a pic.

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