Rarely is one so revised by experience, which like a river washes away the calcified sand of the soul to describe itself there anew. Rare, too, is the ability to recognize this revision.
School had just ended, its shoulder-weight just dissolved, and I was sitting at a glass table beside the long drive-way leading behind the house of my professor. The sun was light; the trees around the table were light. My classmates and the professor sat across from and beside me, eating pizza and peach cobbler. Few of us had interacted over the course of the semester, aside from the rare, stilted discussion of ideology or identity; this provided for an odd learning experience consisting only of thimble-thin teacher-student relationships like a wheel’s spokes, and also for an uncomfortable scene at dinner. The silence hung from the leaves like rusted chain-mail, silently raking.
We played a tense circle-game, around the table announcing our Summer plans. It was disorienting to hear of so many activities—travelling to or across various continents, ego-tripping to work at some local diner—in such little time: the compression of many months into a moment, a few meaningful phrases. Each announcement was met with a score of nods like old, rusty hammers.Oh, cool. Sweet, dude. That’s so interesting! You know Ha’aretz is a reputable rag. What will you be doing there? Editing, writing—things of substance. Oh, cool! Where will you be living? Tel-Aviv. I hear Tel-Aviv has incredible beaches, the most wonderful sand. I hate the beach. How can you hate the beach?! It’s pure fun. Eh, not for me; let’s agree to disagree—
It was very easy for me to hate the beach, as is true for anything foreign. Once, wading off of Florida with my family in the Atlantic on a gray day in February, I was stung by salt-water and had to waddle ashore. I have hardly returned since. I can hardly swim and absolutely cannot boogie-board. With skin like fresh mozzarella and an existential unease brought on anytime the red nudges 80, I was not born to enjoy the sun or warmth. Indeed, I often flee them into long-sleeves and shade. I loathe flip-flops, though little riles me more than half-dry sand crumbling against the insoles of my sneakers. Sand has always rankled, since the days of my thundering across the playgrounds of my youth, and the sight of it alone, like the sun, is disturbing. More conceptually, the sculpted, slick, almond bodies of the babes, strapped to the boys with their million-dollar shades, did not endear. The sun-tanning and surf-boarding, and their emotional stasis, did not endear. The plasticine sun and the ersatz sand and the sky, blue like an amateur cartoon on the telly, dulled my bones and soul perfectly and filled me with no awe. Often, during the Winter, my family leaned toward Florida, with its profligacy of sea, sex, and sun, and I met their lean each time with protests of its “lack of culture,” its “lack of educational value.” I longed for Europe’s cold cobblestones, cold museums and demeanor. The beach was indulgent, materialistic, misogynist. It was wrong.
Though very excited about travelling, I dreaded Tel-Aviv’s weather. Online, on one of those prophetical websites, I read that the months of June and July—the months I would travel—boasted an average temperature uncomfortably over 90. To wander the city was my dream, always, but the thought of the sun trailing me for hours was worrisome.
Gradually, my classmates evinced these deep-seated fears from my bowels—
questions limping from mouths from here, then there, then there, mouths that felt oddly obliged to prolong my turn. They thought these deep-seated fears of mine were cute and quirky. My fear of the sun and the beach was a sort of tiny, furry orangutan in a cage at a zoo–there to be tickled and provoked with long, awkward sticks. You wouldn’t even like just lying on a really luxurious yacht? Nope. *Giggles* You wouldn’t even like just lying on the beach, reading a classic novel? You love reading! Nope. Not at all. *Snickering* Fifteen minutes later, when I announced, sadly, I had to depart, they sent me off with hips and blessings of coastal bliss, still ogling like johns the cheese of my penned-in limbs.
I have a number of such aversions that quirk when rubbed against the norm, aversions to monsters I’ve never truly encountered. Along with the sun and warmth and the beach, I hate shorts and short-sleeves. I’ve never had a hamburger or steak, but I’m sure I would hate both. I do not like spices—an aversion that perpetuates itself. What else? I had never had coca-cola or ketchup or salsa or guacamole until last Summer, and ended up despising the first two and adoring the last two. Mexican and Indian food terrifies me, though I am the most tolerant of beings. Often, I play up these quirks for their cuteness and abnormality, claiming they reflect little about my character other than a simple lack of interest. In truth, I’m poop-scared of experimentation: I’m thoroughly comfortable where I am—physically, culinarily, sartorially—and no evolutionary force is lobbying for my adaptation. (I should say, very clearly for my critics, that this is not complacence; it is a basic level of human comfort that provides for the daily growth of my intellect.)
But I was going to Israel, and if I didn’t want to squat my bum in my well-furnished apartment all day, I was going to have to confront the sun and stare it down. A rare moment, in these post-colonial times, of wilderness, if then wilderness brought about by advanced inter-continental travel and digital publication. Perhaps happy is too bright a word, but I was grateful for this sandy, heated foisting, for it allowed me to retain my nonconformity, my non-interest in the beach. (I could thus deflect any accusations of my beach-aversion being fake: I had no choice!) I was interested in learning the city, and Tel-Aviv, like Lisbon midway through the last millennium and all port cities ever, is birthed each day by the sea’s prophetic speech, its electric life conducted evermore by the waves rolling in; and further, and secretly, I was interested in the beach, if not as a locus of pleasure, then at least as an object of study, of leisurely observation and research, for it had been many years and many miles since the sting of Florida stumbled me ashore, seemingly to stay.
Two days after I arrived in the country, having returned from work in the middle of the afternoon to my unlit apartment, to a soft-enough mattress seducing my jet-lag, and fearful of succumbing, I sauntered out bleary-eyed onto the street, Ha’aliyah, the rising–up to Israel, out of bed, into knowledge. I walked north, toward the beach and the city’s tonier zones, up Ha’aliyah to Allenby to Ben-Yehuda, to a street whose name is muddled in my mind and which tireless recollection can only express in sound: Bo-gah-shlav-ah, the fragments of a nation.
Where I lived, in Florentin, the edges of the streets and sidewalks are lined with rubbish, the storefronts chipped, faded, and falling. It is not decrepit—indeed, some areas are undergoing substantial gentrification—but years of neglect and waves of immigration have prevented this neighborhood, and much of South Tel-Aviv, from developing alongside the prosperous North. Forgive me, though: there are no neighborhoods, no sections of the city so clearly defined. And this is the most noticeable feature of the city as a whole, the way architectural and socioeconomic change is expressed so quietly, the way all types of people exist in all places. Inequality is immense in Israel, and nowhere more intense than Tel-Aviv, but it is less physically entrenched and defined than, say, New York. A person transported in an instant from north to south will be shocked by the disparity, but for someone who witnesses the progression on the ground, as I did, this disparity does not occur psychically and, thus, only in memory. Perhaps this hinders efforts to close the wealth-gap—that the extremes do not adjoin and thus do not express the other’s extreme, evoking certain emotions that bode well for charity and activism. But I did notice the inequality, precisely because of its invisibility, and so in a way more aligned with the situation’s complexity.
Even the streets along the shore, Ha’yarkon, that same Bo-gah-shlav-ah, under the slung long shadows of towering hotels, were, in my mind, the same as the streets in Florentin, only with Mercedes instead of trash along the curb. As I walked past them, my sociological observation for a moment forgotten, I was overcome by anticipation and remembrance, hope from the past. I hear Tel-Aviv has incredible beaches, the most wonderful sand. Or, Mann, breathless on the beach: “At the edge of the world there was a strewing of roses, an ineffably beautiful shining and flowering, there were childlike clouds, transfigured, translucent, and a crimson radiance fell upon the sea, its rolling waves seeming to drive it forward, and golden spears flashed from below to the heavenly heights, the gleam turning to fire, soundlessly, the glow and heat and blazing flames billowing skyward with godlike potency, as the sacred steeds of her brother rose with grappling hooves over the planet.” Or, Keret and Geffen’s Jellyfish. These benevolent lights shone from behind me toward the sea. Another, greater light warmed the streets leading me there. And so, blessed by those memories, I quickened my step down Ha’yarkon, where the beach was still invisible, and turned sharply east, its unending, soft figure at last coming into sight.
And what did I see? A large, cement plaza, milling with couples and families in swim-wear; hundreds of cars squeezed into a thin street, stopping every few meters to let the swell of beach-goers cross, followed by a wide boardwalk stretching the length of the coast, from Yaffo all the way north; beyond that was the beach, strewn with so many bodies and umbrellas and chairs that I could hardly see the sand. And the sea? It shimmered slightly beneath the absolute sun, and its horizon wavered in the heat. But the rolling waves were full of children and their parents, laughing, running, playing the hugely popular paddle-game, matkot, and whatever visible spirit the water might have shored was there contaminated.
To my left was a McDonald’s, advertising free Wi-Fi. Below it was a cafe, with open seating overlooking the sea, its bamboo seats filled with the bums of middle-aged couples, smoking; a portly security guard with wand and ragged hat stood before it, as gatekeeper. The faces of the luxury hotels were now visible, and their heavenly, gardened terraces beckoned like I imagine heaven might. Conscious of my purse, and put off by the guard, I turned briskly and walked toward the golden arches.
The McDonald’s in Israel are not as obscene as those in America: their coloring is subtler, their greasy stench less overwhelming, less greasy. Unlike America, overrun by KFC and Taco Bell, very few restaurants here are of such an offensive quality or, more accurately, such a uniquely offensive quality; and those that one might call ‘low end’ are not so for profit, but simply to survive. This McDonald’s was low slung and drab, gray, blue; the lights were dim. I sat in a booth facing the sea, millions of meters from it, facing a tinted window over which hung a ratty, striped awning. For four or five hours I labored to compose a reflection on my first days, nursing a thick “Blizzard” to smile; all the while I tried to ignore the sand-caked burgermen and questionable stick of my seat. Around six, having written enough and hungry, I stumbled out into the noon-time sun. Its light glinted sharply in the water, which remained abuzz with play and noise. A caravan of bicyclists streamed and teemed down the boardwalk, north, parting the thick pedestrian crowd which, like the Lethe, erased the parting. It all repelled me unrelentingly. But what was repelling me wasn’t it, I reminded myself; it was everything on and in and around it, the gunk. Benjamin writes of the “narrow gate” in history by which the Messiah carries the light of His magnificent epoch. The beach is messianic and alight. It gazes prophetically toward the sea, toward the city, from golden, infinite eyes. Those eyes are time; whole families are in them. There are gates in my mind for these liminal images. That day, they were not open, but the sun that sparkled on their mighty bolts spoke clearly toward a more benevolent future in which they might.
As it happened, that future was imminent; indeed, it was present in the failure of the past. The next day, an old friend, whom I had not seen for some time, visited. It was a happy reunion and, in truth, one born of surprise, of the spontaneity that seems immanent in Israel, a certain always-willingness to go. (This stems in part from the well-founded expectation of hospitality on the other end and the activity of the Army [and its reserves], as well as, perhaps, from the ethos of Abraham’s journey into the unknown.) It was a scorching Friday and all the stands and shops were closing for the Sabbath. The rubbish lifted from the curb and blew down the street.
Hunger had settled in our stomachs like food, but my refrigerator offered no solutions—the remains of a kilo of green beans, crumpled in a plastic bag, wouldn’t do. Unfortunately, restaurants abide by the same principle of scenic development earlier discussed, and so we walked north toward the city’s outdoor arcade, Shuk Ha-Carmel, where we found a small falafel stand that was still open. We were the only customers. I ate quickly and my stomach started to hurt. I do not remember why we then continued north and arrived at the beach, as motive is vague and fades quickly—but we did. And though deep in my mind I had recognize the messianic future in the beach, it was not present in my consciousness—I did not know it, really—and so I sulked along grumpily.
My sulk was justified when we arrived to a scene of millions of bodies and much greater racket than the day before. Fridays here are the American Saturday, a day of family and leisure, of late lunches and long hours at the beach. Which is wonderful. Absolutely wonderful: family is wonderful; fun is wonderful; bodies are wonderful. I could not knock the beach babies’ hustle, but for me, at that moment, the beach was nothing but impeccable sign of misery. For her sake, I repressed my sadness, further burying that messianic vision below the thick silt of consciousness. We continued along the boardwalk. It was hot and I was uncomfortable and squinting.
Do you want to walk on the sand? It’s much nicer. I didn’t, for doing so would only bring me closer to the terrible bustle. If I wore shoes, they would fill with rough grain; if I took them off, my mozzarella feet would burn like the sun. Yeah, word, I said. Cleverly, I thought, I could walk such that my feet were at all times covered in sand. Untying my laces on the descending steps, I felt a twinge of excitement, of daring, of adventure, of high-stepping out of my comfort zone. I am barefoot never. I am walking in sand hardly ever. This was new. I strung my shoes together and over my neck, like a bona fide street-baller, and took my first step. Was it ecstatic? Not at all. Was it pleasure? The sand-walk is unparalleled in the world of bipedalism. The earth’s texture becomes apparent as it surrounds your delicate toes; the earth forms to your toes. From a distance, the beach appeared abuzz and swarming, fast, frenetic, anxious, but upon it, I felt at ease. The sand, by its weight, depth, and impressionability, slowed my walk. My mind slowed in the heat. Facing the sea, time itself slowed by at least half, and this vivified the rub of each grain upon my tender soles. My mind slowed even more to process each rub. Was it pleasure? It really wasn’t. But it was a real experience and edifying. And I felt connected to something and, because I was aware of both sides of that connection, I was moved by it toward self-awareness, toward psychic self-realization. Despite the continued presence of dislocative noise and motion, I was able to isolate that realization and, then, like a slender, gestating geyser, the messianic sense slithered toward my skull’s tip.
Exhausted by the sun and my senses, I demanded we return to the ice of my apartment. Exhausted by the sun, she agreed. In our sleep-hungry fatigue, dreaming of resting, we walked quietly back. I hopped into my pjs, hopped into bed, read, and fell happily asleep.
When I woke, it was dark and cold. I woke my friend, who, limbs tangled spidery, had fallen asleep on the couch. We slinked outside. The streets were empty—of rubbish, too. Hungering, we walked the side-streets, under the moon, in search of some terrestrial light to signal for us nourishment. Rothschild Street was the street-lamp, a twenty-four hour breakfast joint named Benedict’s was the bulb. Rothschild is one of the few pretty streets in Tel-Aviv: its two lanes of soft-flowing traffic separated by a wide, grassy foot- and bike-path, the city’s banal storefronts replaced by radiant cafes, outdoor seating, thin wisps smoke and conversation, and the soft, white curves of the 1930s. I had French toast and fruit. The night was cool and a salty breeze swam through the streets, invitingly.
We walked down Rothschild, away from the sea, to a colorful, rusted-out fountain by a popular mall. We walked back, through red-lights and traffic circles, down Shenkin, Allenby, Ben-Yehuda, and came once more to the now-delicate flickering of the beach. From the same promenade of our first meeting, I now looked out on its quiet desolation. There was only moonlight. There were no people, just the waves rolling in against low jetties in the night. There were no cars or bikes, no nice bodies—just the water, the wa-ter, the moonbeams dancing in it, the wa-ter dancing, the sand, cool and unmoved.
Two gray clouds floated on either side of the moon. The moonlight swam between them and they were illumined. Down the sky, like a silent brook through silt. In a way, it was like being on the moon, staring out into space, the ultimate nothing that fills the self with so much. The sea felt like space—it is unfathomably deep, and wide, and full of life, and dark. The sea is magnificent. I was standing at the edge of the world; I was the edge of the world, the man on the moon. What does Nietzsche say? Something about staring into the abyss and having the abyss stare into you. My soul, like silt, was shifted by the tide. The sea is the natural articulation of the soul, in its endless motion and life and reach, its interaction with other humans and animals and air, in places stormy and elsewhere silent, light and dark. The soul is the juncture of the spirit and the body. It mediates and translates their exchange. Sitting on the edge of civilization, and on the edge of the sea, the beach is that juncture, speaking the language of both to all. People are there, but so too are jellyfish stings, blistering sun, and immense waves that can wash away human life just by receding. The beach is on the fragile limit of the power of nature and the power of man. The sea and the city are parallel—vast and alive against each other; just as the sea moves its creatures in currents, the city’s streets ferry its citizens back and forth with the sun. Between them lies this strip of slow-time, or timelessness, which is the only place at which both sea and city might be known, for they are invisible to each other.
During the day, the beach’s beautiful work is veiled by those who experience it—the millions of people and decibels and rays. As with most beautiful things in the world—poetry, say—it has the capacity to also be made the most ugly. And it is, often: at the edge of the soul of the world, utter soullessness, utter physicality; at the edge of the wonders of humankind, animalism and violence. At night, though, all that is washed away clean. I stood there alone; my friend was beside me, but I was alone. It was just me and the sea and the city.
As I stared out and in, I felt that through me was mediated their infinity, that it moved through me, like light through a prism, or eternity through the “narrow gates.” The form of mediation, the beach, entered into me, too, and I knew its even greater power of straddling the Mediterranean—”the middle of the earth,” “between lands”—and Tel-Aviv—a spring from the past. My early disgust at the beach was born of not seeing. Its beauty had been obstructed by those who partook in it, with their toys and tans. Dusk and its colors had now carried that away. At that moment, the magnificent process by which structure interacts with abyss, by which humanity comes to know everything that isn’t human, that other life, oft-forgotten but as vital toward knowing thyself as loving your neighbors, became apparent.
There are so many things in the world. They are most of what we know and what we feel. We live and interact with other humans by and through them, conduits to our loves and losses, vessels full of experience, tools for change. We carry them with us through all time and to the end of time. All the while, they carry us, too. I stood on the beach.
Before me, fatigue rose from the water. I was submerged in fatigue, mine like the body of an inmate after electrocution. We began walking home. We walked down the coast, toward the lights of Yaffo. We talked about something I can’t remember. I was only listening to the sea against the rocks. I looked back and forth, between the high-rises to my left and the horizon to my right. The beach was dark. I liked this.