I feel ambivalent about coming to Israel: I would never had considered coming here had I not learned about my Jewish ancestry. As a girl I was an avid boycotter of Jaffa oranges and supporter of Palestinian rights, and closed my mind to it – no doubt out of ignorance as much as anything else. But the discovery of two elderly cousins living in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem respectively has forced the U-turn in order to research my book, and also to reappraise my opinions with an open mind. I am told Israel is not as one might imagine. So let’s see!
On arrival I am surprised. As many people said I would be. After being unceremoniously dumped by the buggy at the long immigration line (I had played the cripple card to avoid the long walk and hopefully the queues, which are surprisingly disorganized and what I imagine to be un-Israeli although someone had said it was America in the the Middle East and pretty chaotic!) out of nowhere an elderly gent takes me by the arm and to a desk for ‘disabled’ and I am through in a flash, luggage following shortly after, and then an easy hop skip and jump to a cab.
First impressions of Tel Aviv are Middle East rather than America – ramshackle buildings, market stalls, rubbish, dirty, bustling. I am yet to see the beach front and the impressive skyline. The Rothschild 22 Hotel is bien située in one of the main thoroughfares, despite having one of the smallest rooms ever, it is comfy, modern and clean. The best bit is the business lounge with free drinks and snacks on 10th floor!
After speaking to the relatives and making arrangements for the next day (they are very worried about how I would entertain myself that evening) I sally forth in the direction of the Carmel market. Again Middle East rather than America, electric bicycles everywhere, including on the pavements creeping silently and dangerously up behind you, and large numbers of Africans everywhere: doing the manual and lifting work it seems; and being harassed by a couple of aggressive Israeli policemen who live up to stereotypes.
If you look up there are elegant Bauhaus buildings rising above the shop fronts, and set in gardens and behind gates in the more residential streets. The market itself is souk-like, trinkets and trashy pictures, clothes, icons and menorah for Hanukah, I assume, giving way to pastries, halva, fruit and veg and some street food. I plump for one of the ‘restaurants’ which turns out to be well-known and devour the most scrummy grilled cauliflower with tahini sauce accompanied by chimchirri, two types of pesto and a tomato salsa. No room for the bread! And a glass of wine (see main picture). People extremely friendly and nice and no problems eating on one’s own while reading the guidebook. And so to early bed, feeling exhausted by the mental effort of this adventure so far!
After a good night’s sleep in my comfy bed I get up to go to breakfast. Looked lovely and sunny but a cold wind blowing right through me. Delicious Israeli breakfast and then wait for cousin Eran to collect me. A big man, with a shaved head, looks very German (which is where he now lives), and a big smile. We drive to Jaffa and wander round the streets of the ancient port, and the flea market, piles of junk, recycled and new, where old men in kippahs sit on chairs in the sunshine, smoke, talk and sell things to the masses. A Friday so the weekend and heaving.
Then back to meet Kitty, my 84 year-old cousin (her grandmother and my great grandmother were sisters), who lives in a rather imposing block of sheltered housing: a one bedroomed flat, stuffed full of papers, photos and all the requirements of daily living. She has Parkinson’s (as did my father) but is remarkably mobile albeit with a stroller which seems more for reassurance than need. She had a very prestigious research job at the Weizmann Institute until she retired, and is extremely intelligent and on the ball. Strangely, or not so strangely, she has not lost her central European accent even though she was only a girl when she came to Palestine, and she sounds very like my grandmother.
She came to Tel Aviv with her parents in in 1939. Her father managed to get a leaving certificate signed on condition he indulged in no political activity as he was a Revisionist, opposite to the founding fathers of the Jewish state who were socialists. They were not bought up religious, rarely went to synagogue and did not keep kosher. She remembers weekly meetings on Fridays with my father’s aunt Gerta, who had come to Palestine herself in 1922 but, despite being a paediatrician, didn’t like the children so they were kept outside! It’s an extraordinary link to my past.
We had a scratch lunch from dips and breads, and after more chatting, and looking at photos, went to the beach for a sunset walk. Sea surprisingly warm despite the wind, and in the dying summer men still playing batball with vigour, in small organised groups, sitting around and drinking and chatting. Even some swimmers. It’s an ugly stretch of coast overshadowed by tower blocks lined up against the fine shell scatted shore. Later we return to have supper in one of the more upmarket restaurants there, Tayo, where we had some delicious fish.
The next day Eran arrives on the dot to pick me up and we drive off to Rishon le Zion where Kitty is waiting and we settle down to more chat, looking through documents and files. Leafing through her papers I find a letter from the sole survivor of the Jemnice transports which told of the deaths of my father’s favourite uncle, Ludwig Kohn, and his son Richard, who was briefly married to my grandmother in-between 1938 and 43, when he was murdered at Buchenwald. There are many other discoveries, transportation certificates, photographs etc to be shared.
I am consistently surprised by Israel – was told Shabbat was a seriously quiet day but restaurants and cinemas etc are heaving, car parks full though roads rather empty – only local traffic and no one going to work. One morning I was shocked by seeing three prone bodies sleeping rough, and one demented looking man doing the bins, almost at one point thought he was going to ‘do’ me he came perilously close. Meanwhile the middle classes sun themselves and drink coffee in Parisian kiosks and street cafes. It is also very multicultural, Jews and Arabs mingling freely.
As we were driving out of TA, through the African quarter (very rundown and dirty) – not just Eritreans and Ethiopians, but Sudanese, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ugandans, mostly illegal, the government doesn’t know what to do with them, we passed the old city bus station site, where hundreds of them were massing, looked like for something formal but maybe just for a Sunday gathering like with the Filipinos in Singapore and the Gulf. It was a bit strange and I wanted to find out what it was about but no chance.
I am exhausted by the end of my two days with Kitty and Eran; as Kitty says it’s because we are talking about ‘difficult things’: the death and disappearance of whole generations of relatives and I am trying to put all the pieces of the puzzling jigsaw together, rekindling memories that I’m sure she would rather forget. I am indebted to her for her forbearance, and Eran for his patience.
In the next blog, I travel to Jerusalem