April 20, 2010
In Tel Aviv, Life Is (Unrelentingly) With People
There are cities you wander alone, and cities you don’t.
In Tel Aviv, you don’t.
It’s not that the streets are dangerous. Israel’s homicide rate is less than half that of America’s, and violent crime against tourists is all but unheard of. I’ve spent many nights alone in Tel Aviv, walking back to my hotel at 1, 2, 4 a.m. — and I never for an instant felt scared.
I just felt — alone.
Tel Aviv is a ridiculously convivial city. There are hummus and kebab dives, English-style pubs, cafes that date back to the pre-state reign of the Ashkenazi poet-warriors. There is a new wave of top-notch dining rooms serving inventive dishes prepared from local ingredients. There are a dozen open-air places on the beach. There are discos stuffed with Birthrighters and the Israelis who hit on them, an entire scene of late-night underground clubs and, in the north of town, the Old Port district, a newly renovated wonderland of eateries that never seems to close up or empty out. And as I walked past every one of these spots, one fact became more and more obvious: Nobody, but nobody, eats, drinks, smokes or sits alone.
This is the nation that gave the English language the word kibbutz, which translates literally as “gathering.”
And gather they do.
Come morning, Tel Avivians are drawn to smoke their a.m. cigarette and sip their café hafook — a coffee drink somewhere between a weak cappuccino and a strong latte — in numerous cafes. There is a deep attraction to what the novelist Aharon Appelfeld calls “the benevolent human environment” of the cafe — understandable in a country that faces such malevolence just beyond its borders.
At Café Tamar on Sheinkin Street, a circa-1941 lair of writers and other romantics, I most often see tables of two people or more taking their coffee and newspapers together — different newspapers, depending on the readers’ political bent, but sitting at the same table.
There, anyone who dares sit down alone soon draws the attention of Sara Stern, the septuagenarian owner. On my last visit, she seemed visibly perturbed that a stranger — me — had no one to worry over his eating habits. I had left my half-eaten grilled cheese untouched for a few minutes too long.
“Why aren’t you finishing that?” she asked, in a voice that channeled my long-dead bubbe.
“I’m not really that hungry,” I said.
“So I can reheat it for you.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll eat it.”
And I did, as Ms. Stern stood by me, keeping me company.
In every other big city, I have felt comfortable being alone. American bars venerate the loner as much as our movies do. Web sites like Yelp and Chowhound have busy sections devoted to solo dining, not
There’s no such Web site in Hebrew.
One night in the Old Port complex, I turned my solitude into a game. I was in the city for work and hadn’t made dinner plans. I walked the promenade, seeing how long it would take me to find someone eating alone.
I never did.
I settled for an outside table at Bnei HaDaiyag. There are better fish restaurants in the city — Mul Yam, Manta Ray and Shtsupak come to mind — but this place was packed, and it was 11 p.m., and I figured I would just blend in.
“You’re waiting for someone?” the hostess asked.
“Just me,” I said.
“Alone,” she said, and showed me to a table by the water. In Hebrew, the word for alone — levad — resonates like a biblical plague.
A waitress came over with an assortment of appetizers in individual dishes that begin a Middle Eastern meal — hummus, tahini, two kinds of eggplant salad, Moroccan spicy carrots, olives, roasted hot
“That’s fine,” I tried to stop her.
“It comes with the meal,” she said, continuing to deal me plates. “It’s meant to be shared. Do you still want to order a main course?”
The idea was ridiculous. Unbidden, she had just deposited more food on my table than I eat in a day. People strolling by — there were hundreds of them, two by two by two — glanced down at my table, then up at me, their faces registering surprise, or pity, or something terribly amiss in the universe.
But, tough. I was alone. I was happy to have a night out, 10,000 miles away from the routine of work, wife and kids, in a lively city by a beautiful sea. “Yes,” I said, “I’ll have the fish.”
I ate happily, never once looking up at the people looking down at me.
Then a young, attractive Israeli couple sat down for dinner — at midnight. Don’t these people ever give up?
The woman looked at my table full of food and actually snickered at the man. “What’s going on with him?” she whispered to him in Hebrew.
“Leave it,” he shot back.
They talked, I ate.
But halfway through my fish, my rugged American individualist façade cracked. I didn’t strike up a conversation, but I resorted to another ubiquitous and perfectly acceptable Israeli behavior: I reached for my cell phone in a good restaurant. It was 1 in the morning on the Old Port, but 3 p.m. in Los Angeles. I called my wife. We talked for an hour while I finished my dinner. I was in Tel Aviv, but I wasn’t alone.
The name sounds like what drains from the kitchen’s sink, but the place is a find. The chef only uses what’s fresh in the Carmel Market just down the street. The daily menu (hence, “fluid”) is on a blackboard and only in Hebrew. Whether you speak it or not, the meal begins with a conversation with the friendly staff and diners at nearby tables—What’s good? What’s that you’re eating? Hey, where are you from? Within minutes, voila, new friends.
The turnover is fast and the tables long. Shakshuka is eggs poached in a mixture of sautéed onions, peppers and crushed tomatoes. You sit and you wolf down the most acclaimed version of this dish in all Israel, then you leave.