Friday, September 14, 2012

Day Seven: Tel Aviv

August 21, 2012

We departed the athletic complex at 8, packed and ready to go for two days without a suitcase, traveling around Tel Aviv and then deep into the Negev.

As if to compensate for the night before, we began the day with further commemoration of a lost Jewish life, in this case, Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister, General, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.  On November 4, 1995, a right-wing zealot, protesting Rabin's peace talks, shot Rabin outside City Hall at the end of a rally supporting the Oslo Accords.  The plaza, host to major national celebrations and political demonstrations, was renamed Rabin Square, and the points where both Rabin and his assassin stood at the time of the murder are now marked.  Next to these footprints lie a set of large jumbled black stones, as if shaken by an earthquake.  It pays tribute to the man who perhaps came closest of anyone to making peace with the PLO but was unable to complete a lasting resolution before his assassination.  In the wake of the event, Israel was left somewhat unstable and leaderless, hence the earthquake metaphor.

After witnessing the memorial, we went back to celebrating what Israel has become, as we went on another scavenger hunt along Rothschild Avenue, a great modern thoroughfare through the center of the city.  Again, we needed to take a picture with a Tel Avivian, who would hopefully show us their ID in the picture.  As we soon found, hardly anyone carried ID on them, which I believe was supposed to show us that Tel Avivians felt safe walking around and didn't need to prove their residency.  We had to ask locals who was the most famous person living in Tel Aviv.  Some mentioned politicians such as the mayor or cabinet ministers.  Others mentioned singers and talk show hosts, and one orthodox couple we asked mentioned a great rabbi.  I think these different answers said more about the diversity of the city's residents than its celebrities.  The street was lined with restaurants serving a variety of cuisine, but perhaps half or more of them were coffee shops where Tel Avivians lingered with their newspapers and laptops.  Finally, we reunited as a group outside a not particularly distinguished-looking house where Israel declared its independence.  At the time of the declaration, the War Of Independence still raged outside of Jerusalem, so the resolution came together in Tel Aviv at the home of the city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, whose likeness is commemorated outside atop a statue of the horse he always rode.

Rabin Square, formerly Kings Of Israel Square, outside City Hall (left) in Tel Aviv. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Markers of Yitzhak Rabin and his assassin, Yigal Amir's, footprints at the time of the assassination.

Rabin Memorial. 

Rabin was shot at the bottom of the stairs to the right. [taken by Samantha Gellman]

International or Bauhaus architecture became a staple of Tel Aviv in the 1930s following the immigration of many German Jewish architects to Israel.

This newer Tel Aviv building (left) reminded me of Philadelphia's landmark International-style PSFS skyscraper (right).

For a change of pace, we spent the next hour at an art museum housing the work of Reuven Rubin, a Romanian-born Jew who, in his late teens, moved to what is now Israel, but at the time was still Ottoman-ruled Palestine.  He became one of the great artistic ambassadors of Israel, reflecting in his work the struggle of a people to build a new society.  He clearly drew from many influences, with long emotionless faces that echoed Modigliani, and broad brushstrokes that reflected Matisse.  He most admired Van Gogh and the post-impressionists, and all of this comes out in his art, which was at first fairly-muted in color and shape.  As time progressed, he earned money to buy more paint, Israel itself came to life, and his paintings reflected this change through greater use of color, vibrancy, life, and originality.  Each painting carries so much symbolism, mostly regarding the building of the Israeli state, mirroring the contemporaneous work of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who, like Rubin, spent much time in Paris.

While many of my peers were tired and not in the mood for an art museum amid our traipsing about the country, I found it a welcome respite from our largely outdoor activities.  I was unaware of Rubin's work going in and came away a great admirer.  If anything, I wished we could stay a bit longer to view more of the work.  In my experience, the art at the home museum of an artist—in this case literally the former house and studio of Rubin—is underwhelming, featuring lesser works, as the masterpieces are held by private collectors or larger institutions in Paris, New York, London, or elsewhere.  At Rubin's home we did not focus on preliminary sketches but rather great paintings presented chronologically through time across three floors.

A Romanian tailor, painted with dark muted colors by a young Rubin before he moved to Israel. []

A 1922 self-portrait depicting Rubin in a sparsely populated Israeli community, which contrasts the Romanian art with light colors of the desert while still being muted at this early point in his career.  The lone flower seems to indicate Israel's potential to bloom, covering the desert with greenery.  []
1928's "Orange Groves Near Jaffa" shows both Israel and Rubin's paintings coming to life through vibrant colors and texture. []

Rubin and his wife sit here in 1929's "Les Fianes," showing a bustling Tel Aviv, a true Mediterranean city that could easily be mistaken for Nice, save the inclusion of Old Jaffa in the background. []

1950's "First Seder In Jerusalem" portrays Jews from diverse backgrounds—including Rubin himself—coming together at the table with Jesus Christ, in an image that echoes Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," at a time when Israelis were first celebrating Passover with an Israeli state in Jerusalem after so many years of exile. []

1971's "Blue Rooster" shows the culmination Rubin's stylistic development, with lively colors and great texture that wouldn't be confused for post-impressionist. []

Those who were antsy got a break, as our next stop was to another great pedestrian street full of restaurants, shops, and, on the day we were there, an artist market.  I went with a group to a great burger restaurant, where I got one of the best burgers I've ever had the pleasure to consume.  As we'd noted throughout the trip, cows around Israel always looked happy, roaming around the countryside, which no doubt led to better beef.  (If that's true of the beef we ate I don't know, but it sure sounded good and tasted terrific.)  My burger came on a brioche-like roll with cheese embedded within the burger and topped with onion, lettuce, and goose breast, a rich, flavorful meat that evoked something in between thick-cut bacon and ham.  It was a memorable lunch.

I toured the artists' market for a bit afterwards but didn't see anything in particular that jumped out at me, and we soon reunited Team Shlomo, making our way down to the beach (top).  We had only an hour, but it was such a great time.  The water was quite warm and salty, which made us more buoyant atop the waves.  (This inspired a song I would write later on the bus ride.)  Some played a volleyball-like game in the shallow waters, trying to keep a soccer ball up in the air.  Others of us were just content to ride the waves or sit on the beach.  All had a smile across their faces.  Similar to our euphoric moment the night before: we were in Israel, in the Mediterranean, and sharing it with each other—a group of newfound friends.  What else could one ask for?

The Tel Aviv shopping district.

Team Shlomo arrives on the Tel Aviv beach. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Keeping the soccer ball atop the water. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

The old Arab city of Jaffa to the south, seen from the Tel Aviv beach. [taken by Samantha Gellman]

After the beach, most were tired and ready to nap aboard the Shlomobile as we departed Tel Aviv and made for the Negev, Israel's great desert, making up 60% of the country's land.  We would spend the night in a Bedouin tent—albeit one made for tourists—sleeping side by side in sleeping bags.  It was my first time in the desert, and we were afforded some gorgeous views.  The rolling dunes were not built entirely built of sand but were much more hardened and stone-like, covered by pebbles and a coat of chalky dust.

We arrived at the "Bedouin village" just as the sun was fading, giving us last daylight to get ourselves situated in the tent before heading off to dinner.  We sat on mattresses, much like I think of in Japanese dining, surrounding the legs and frame to a table, atop which a giant platter of food was set.  At the center was a great dish of rice, chicken, tomatoes, and potatoes, and around the edges were smaller bowls of dips and salads.  It reminded me a good bit of Ethiopian food, taking a piece of laffa from the side and dipping it into the item you wanted on the communal platter.  While the Israeli soldiers I ate with seemed mostly disgusted by the food, it was one of my favorite meals of the trip.  Dessert was served outside the meal tent at a little stand with coffee and cookies, which were less moist than what we are used to, being in the desert, but I found quite tasty.

After dessert, we went out into the desert, which was quite dark and allowed for great star-viewing.  Unfortunately, the lights of the Bedouin village were quite bright behind us, but I could see far more stars than in any metropolitan area.  We huddled up as a group, forming a giant circle of interlocking hugging arms, and Einat led us in two giant group screams for about ten seconds each before playing a recording of "The Circle Of Life."  It is one of those songs that everyone from our generation knows, but nobody really knows the words to, so we faintly and incoherently sang along until the title line came, and everyone broke into full-throat singing.

Before bed, we had one more activity where we went to meet a Bedouin man, who presented some of the culture to us.  Most memorably, he showed us his giant mortar and pestle which he would use to make coffee, but in his grinding motion he also made highly rhythmic music, presumably to keep the mind entertained during a monotonous task.  He then played a six stringed instrument called a semsemia, where each string played a single note.  He could make tunes out of it by strumming with his right hand and muting any unwanted strings with his left.  I would have liked to try this out myself, but I was happy enough to get a brief chance with the mortar and pestle.

Departing Tel Aviv and its skyscrapers.

Driving through the older city of Jaffa.

A granary in the desert.

Traffic through the Negev.

An actual Bedouin village of metal shacks.

...And then Easter Island seemed to appear in the middle of the desert.  I still have no idea what this is or what it symbolizes.  Everybody on the bus looked up and stared at it while we passed by, but we never got an explanation.

 Camels at the tourist "Bedouin village."

Sample Bedouin tent

Team Shlomo hangs out around the not-yet-lit campfire and gets settled in the tent.

Preparing to eat Bedouin food. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Bedouin table/platter. [taken by Stephanie Sherwood]

Team Shlomo gathers to hear about Bedouin culture. [taken by Natalie Nissan]

Nighttime camels.

Our Bedouin complex lights up the desert.

As the evening drew to a close, we gathered around the campfire outside our tent, and I presented the song I had written earlier in the day about floating in the ocean.  Several of my friends had seen me writing in my journal throughout the trip and often asked whether I was coming up with new music, curious to know what I would write, so on the ride into the Negev I took inspiration from our time in the Mediterranean and wrote a song about the buoyant experience we'd had, both in the literal sense and as a metaphor for our time in Israel as a group.  I got the group to snap along with me to the beat as I sang a cappella, and by the third go-round of the chorus, they began to join in with me.  I got the group to repeat this two more times at the end so that everyone would feel comfortable joining in and then brought it to a close, followed by a great ovation.  I was really moved by how much they appreciated the piece.  I had to bow twice before the applause finally died down, and then for the rest of the evening I received personal congratulations on it.

Embracing the outdoor atmosphere, I journeyed back into the desert with several other people, at first stopping where we had before to scream, and gaze at the stars, and then continuing with two other friends to the top of the nearby hill.  Along the ridge, the sky was colored purple from distant light pollution, and I think we'd hoped to see a small city on the other side, but the hill just plateaued, and the dark vista continued to the horizon.

Building on the moment, one of my peers in the group presented a rap he'd been working on later in the evening, accompanied by the deft beatboxing talents of Nadav, which received an equally stirring ovation.  Sensing the end of the trip, everyone hung out around the campfire, soaking in the moment and the time we had together as long as they could until sleep deprivation finally caught up with them.  For my part, I felt the day was not nearly as strenuous as those before, and I found myself awake, without need for sleep until nearly 1AM, all the while knowing I would want the rest later, after another early morning and long day of hiking and sight-seeing.

Adrian Bridges & The Solo Ensemble perform "Floatin'," first heard at the Bedouin campfire.  Pictures compiled from the members of Team Shlomo in Israel:

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