Real Israelis

A36 semgirl6

Sami and I began making plans once a week, meeting up after the last bus had run from my neighborhood to the city center. Once we walked through the marketplace at two a.m., going north from Agrippas to Yafo Street. I often pushed through the crowds during the day, but had never seen the stands naked and boarded up, or realized how wide the walkway was without streams of men in big hats and women whose bellies were huge and full with future.

Sami and I were quiet at first, but then we pointed out our favorite spots to each other, sharing tips for getting cheap pitas and the saltiest pickles. We took one of the small side passageways over to the covered market, and as we stepped onto the thoroughfare we heard a saxophone. Just around the corner a man was sitting outside of a stand that sold nuts and dried fruit during the day. A metal gate had been padlocked in front of the bins of produce, and the man’s folding chair was set up against the gate, his sax case shoved under his seat and the instrument tucked to the side of his legs. Next to him were three other men, holding a trumpet, a guitar and a flute.

As we stood there watching they tuned up and then began to play. The first song was spare and quiet – silence outlined by a few fuzzy notes from the sax – but they built up into songs that were faster and more playful. About ten other people were gathered, watching from their seats in ancient folding chairs they were dragging up from all around. More and more people joined the audience, until we were off to the side of a crowd of thirty, all listening to the sad sweet bossa nova the men were playing with a loose, calm grace. I felt the melody swinging lightly in my hips, and looked over at Sami to see what he thought. His eyes were guarded but wide; his lips parted slightly and dry from his slow deep breath. After a few more songs I touched his side and we moved down the walkway toward Yafo.

The following Wednesday night Sami took me to a cliff where we could see the whole of the messy, livid city below us, run through with walls. He chain-smoked Camels and told me he wanted to live in Canada where it got cold and there was nothing holding anyone in. Overhead something boomed, a sound huge enough that I caught a scream as it slipped out of my mouth. My eyes read the horizon for a series of red flashing punctuation marks and then Sami touched my arm and pointed up, where a jet was careening past, faster than sound and breaking all kinds of barriers. “You get used to it,” he said in Hebrew, and crushed out his cigarette.

The night before I left for Israel my brother Ari sat me down and told me not to become one of those seminary girls that all the yeshiva guys roll their eyes at. “Be careful not to be one of those girls who squeals and giggles whenever any of her friends walk into the restaurant, okay?” Ari said, sitting back against the desk chair in my room, surveying the stacks of folded clothes I had piled on everything. His hair was getting shaggy, and his kipah was clipped at a funny angle, all the way forward on his head and off center, so that it flopped a little to the right. “And don’t spend too much time on Ben Yehuda or Emek Refaim at all. Try to find real Israelis to hang out with.”

“As opposed to fake Israelis?” I said, offended that Ari was seriously warning me about this.

“You know what I mean. You’re going to Israel, so it would be nice if you met some actual Israelis and didn’t spend all your time with girls from New Jersey.”

“I’m not going there to hang out with my friends, anyway.”

“Good. I’m glad you know that. I’m just saying, lots of girls end up spending every Thursday night on Ben Yehuda eating ice cream and hoping some HaKotel guy will ask them out, and you shouldn’t be one of those girls.” He looked smug as he said this, his frame imposing and his smile obviously restrained.

“I can’t believe you think I ever would be.”

“I think you’ll probably change a lot this year, and I just wanted to warn you, because those girls are stupid, and I don’t want you caught up in that bullshit.” Ari scratched his chest through his University of Maryland t-shirt, and for a second the material bunched in a way that hid some of the letters so it read Marla.

“I’ll be fine,” I said, refolding a pile of long-sleeved shirts.

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Author of Jewrotica's Double Mitzvah column, Tamar Fox is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She will try anything once, including open relationships, dating someone who is chalav yisrael, and going to Suriname.