So detached is life in Tel Aviv from that in the rest of Israel and the Middle East that this city is often (most famously in the 2006 film of the same name) referred to as “the bubble.”
For much of last month, however, I exchanged this bubble for my former Anglo-Jewish one – a bubble no less – giving me the opportunity to redirect my blogging eye and (more so) ear from the Israeli to the British Jew (Jews in general being such a wonderful source of material for observational bloggers), and to consider in which bubble I best now fit . . .
The couple (who had been visiting Israel for a wedding) seated next to me on the easyJet flight to Luton provide the perfect reacquaintance with the harsh daily realities of Anglo-Jewish life: After sharing with me their disappointment that their fancy Stanmore development didn’t work out quite as they might have hoped – “Our entire floor is Asian,” declares the wife in unapologetic disgust, not caring how many other passengers can hear – they rejoice in the savings afforded by easyJet over El Al. “It was three hundred more pounds to spend in Israel,” cackles the husband, as I ponder, cynically, where the cuts might have had to come had they flown instead with Israel’s national carrier. And I afford myself a wry smile an hour or so later as the wife kvetches, Beattie-like, about the paucity of easyJet’s leg room: “Sitting’s no good. Standing’s no good . . .”
I spend that Saturday night at an old friend’s house in London, and – before catching my lunchtime flight to Inverness – join him and his kids for their Sunday morning outing to Tesco. And just when I am thinking how well-mannered English children are compared to their Israeli counterparts, my friend’s seven-year old yells at him from the back of the brat carrier, “You’re going the wrong way, you shmock!”
I haven’t yet decided which part of the Highlands I will be exploring over the next four days. Reading in my Rough Guide, on the flight, that Ullapool was “founded at the height of the herring boom,” I am happily reminded of my late grandfather – who would return from shul with his opinion not of the Rabbi’s sermon . . . but of the herring – and of my all-time favourite quote, “A kind word is no substitute for a piece of herring” (Shalom Aleichem). On this fishy whim, I resolve, on this trip (I try to visit the Highlands once a year), to cover the north-west and north coasts. And, whilst not a patch on the west coast, I enjoy four serene (the reason I tend not to take women) days, before returning to London to join my 39 fellow Norwood cyclists (there were eighty on the first ride, the week before) for the Thursday night flight to Nairobi.
On hearing that I have come from Tel Aviv, I am greeted by the Norwood representative – on my arrival at Heathrow Terminal 4 – in eerily similar fashion to the way that I had been in Saigon on my last bike ride for the charity, three years ago: “I’ve got a flat in Herzliya Pituach.” Unfortunately, I have left my medals at home, but it becomes apparent – during the course of the next week and a half – that a number of the riders have purchased holiday homes in Israel (South Netanya and Poleg appear to be the current “in” locations), with many of them blaming their other halves (“If it was up to me . . .”) for their continuing sojourn in the UK. But even after witnessing our group spontaneously respond to a rendition, by local schoolchildren, of the Kenyan national anthem with one of Hatikva (as opposed to God Save the Queen) – extremely weird, and interesting, I thought – I still don’t buy it.
There is mutual delight a few minutes into the flight when my neighbour, an ex-Hasmo (who had left the school before I joined), discovers that I am melchett mike (my delight, however, turns to under-my-breath muttering when Peter states that he “prefers the Hasmo stuff”). Overhearing our conversation, another rider then declares himself the nephew of Mitch Taylor, no less (whom, he informs me, passed away in 2000). This results, quite naturally, in Paul being hounded for the next week and a half for any snippet of inside information on the Legend (some memorabilia, he says, may be forthcoming). And when, on the Friday evening, Masai warriors enter the lounge of our safari lodge to perform their tribal dance – pogoing and yelping may be a more accurate description – I cannot help but recollect another fine Holders Hill Road pedagogue, Joe Paley, who, on displaying a photograph of African tribesman to our 2AB geography class, announced, “These, my boys, are schwarzes.”
Norwooders are a fine bunch who, for their generosity and selflessness, can be forgiven their occasional preoccupation with boxes at football, home swimming pools and private yachts – the irony being, of course, that, when they really need them, their 4x4s are parked outside Waitrose Brent Cross – and for their dependence on their iPhones: After passing a herd of elephants, one afternoon, one incredulous rider exclaimed to me, “Here we are, on safari in Africa, and they’re checking share prices and the results from Chepstow!” There is also more, and pricier, cycling paraphernalia on show than at your average Tour de France, with some riders – and I jest thee not – even providing Kenyan game parks with their first exposure to “sat nav.”
The ride, however, is a huge success, and – for anyone contemplating a Norwood Challenge – it really is a fantastic way to get/stay fit and to experience a new country, both while raising money for a wonderful cause. And witnessing the joy that participants with learning difficulties, riding on the back of tandems, get from these rides is always extremely special.
Observing every type of Anglo-Jew enter Luton Airport Departures on Tuesday morning, I am given more pause to consider where (if at all) I now fit in: From the family of pasty, young Stamford Hill hassidim – with the wife who might as well be a travelling childminder for all the attention her husband gives her – to the Bushey (formerly Edgware) 2010 Edition becks, chewing gum as if their jaws are on a spring, and everything in-between, I watch them all as if on a safari of the British Diaspora. And I am only drawn out of my study by the unforgettable sight of the NW11 (at an educated guess) twenty-something who, in attempting to persuade the check-in commandant that her hand luggage really is within the maximum size, forces it into the easyJet test-frame by bringing down to bear upon it her not inconsiderable toches.
While there are flights to numerous destinations, a mere two to Tel Aviv (there is also an El Al one) is enough to guarantee that the Luton Duty Free might just as easily be Golders Green Road on a Friday morning . . .
In WHSmith, a middle-aged gentleman – clearly overcome with naches that a fellow Anglo-Jew has made it onto the front shelf – feels it incumbent upon him to announce to the entire store that Howard Jacobson’s new novel has “just won the Booker Prize.” My panic, however, that he is about to recite aloud the full list of Jewish Nobel Prize winners since 1901, proves unfounded as his wife whisks him off to find the latest Elton John CD.
Taking a break from Anglo-Jew Watch, I inquisitively, though furtively, on my haunches, explore the nether shelves of Boots’ disingenuously-named Family Planning section – fruit-flavoured condoms, lubes and vibrating rings (“to stimulate both partners”) – before glancing up in horror to find a black-hatted, bearded sixty-something (above) standing over me. For a second, I expect to be pulled up by my ear lobes or sideburns and dragged off to see Rabbi Roberg. In spite of my relief that this doesn’t happen, I refrain from asking him what the vibrating rings are for, or whether – under certain circumstances – one would have to say a bracha on the fruity prophylactics.
While feeling further alienated from the Anglo-Jew with each passing visit to Blighty, my continuing interest in him would suggest that we still have a lot more in common than I may sometimes care to admit. Nonetheless, I am relieved, eventually, to make small talk – in the queue for boarding – with a religious Israeli kibbutznik.
The uncomfortable truth for me, and, I suspect, other olim, is that we no longer neatly fit into any one bubble, finding ourselves somewhere in that narrow corridor between bubbles that – like those blown by children – are separating . . . but have not quite, yet, split.