Letter from Tel Aviv: Borders and boundaries

Before I left for Israel a few days ago, the wonderful quote by the explorer Thor Heyerdahl popped into my head: “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”

From the skies, only natural borders exist. After take off, California quickly became Canada which became the Hudson Bay and then Greenland and Europe and so on and so forth. In physical geography, water and land divide, not class or race or gender or politics. And well, ice; the seemingly endless sheets of white that separate much of Greenland from the rest of civilization is a different kind of border entirely, not something one can really cross but a boundary to be observed. Israel brings to mind both: indeed its very existence seems to hinge on the security of its borders and the sustainability of its internal boundaries.

All of this came to mind since visiting Israel usually entails some mental preparation. It’s not a place you just visit, it’s a place you journey. Time in Israel tends to involve emotion, psychology, ancestry, ideology. It requires travel and learning, and encompasses challenge and connection. It means too much to be treated as a casual visit. And yet, two days in, the experience of being here often feels contrary to that notion.

I was invited to Israel for ten days by Tel Aviv University (TAU) because they are coming upon the 40th anniversary of their film department which they want to show off—and raise $20 million to expand. TAU has graduated some of Israel’s leading entertainers, many of whom have had success in Hollywood including Gidi Raff, creator of “Hatufim” upon which the Showtime series “Homeland” is based, Hagai Levy, creator of “BeTipul” which became HBO’s “In Treatment” and Ari Folman, director of the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir”. The aim of the trip is to introduce American journalists to TAU’s film department as well as other aspects of Israel’s entertainment industry, and, since it is co-sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, to also ensure that we see the country’s essential sights, eat delicious food, and learn a little history.

There are six other journalists on the trip, all women, mostly New Yorkers, all of whom have been writing or broadcasting for as many decades as I’ve been alive. One woman, who is wrapping up her sixth novel, has a PhD in French Literature which I’m unashamed to say I envy; when I excitedly told her I had just read “Story of O”, she responded with a deep-throated laugh that gave away her opinion of its literary merit. I was comforted that Susan Sontag limned an essay to the contrary.

Though all but one of the other journalists count themselves as Jewish in some form or another (only one described herself as religious, saying, “I definitely want to visit the Western Wall!”) none of them have previously been to Israel. Which made it all the more disappointing that on Shabbat, the itinerary included nothing in acknowledgment. Instead we walked nearly eight hours through Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood—the “Garden of Justice”, originally a suburb of Jaffa that was once home to writer S.Y. Agnon and the first chief Rabbi of Palestine, Rav Kook. Wandering the streets of a major Israeli city, despite the fact that it self-identifies as “secular” on the slowest, quietest day of the week here invited many questions about the customs of the day. The representative from the university was surprised by this but maintained that “with all the money the university is spending on this trip, we couldn’t possibly lose two full days to Shabbat.” I maintain, you cannot possibly experience the fullness of Israel without it. For here, it is not simply a religious ritual but a foundational cultural rhythm upon which the country’s sense of time, movement and pace pivots. 

Our walk concluded with an afternoon stroll along a stretch of Rothschild Boulevard, home to an array of Bauhaus architecture, countless cafes and shops and a swanky new condo development designed by architect Richard Meier, responsible for L.A.‘s Getty Center and Wolfgang Puck’s “Cut” restaurant at the Beverly Wilshire. We were told that when a Russian oligarch purchased three Meier units for $27 million, the sale catalyzed the massive social protest that took place here during the summer of 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding an end to economic inequality. According to our tour guide, housing prices in Tel Aviv have since gone down 5-10%.

And then there is the sea. At night the wine dark sea, by day deep blue. It breathes behind me, beneath me, as the rolling crash of waves and carried voices of beachwalkers float up through the tower where I’m perched, sitting with the view and my laptop. The visage erases pain, the breeze obliterates heat. As Nancy Huston wrote about the power of beauty, “Over the years, I have watched it attack and corrode borders, then take me with it into foreign territories. Borders are ideas erected between age groups, social classes, all sorts of hierarchical entities, in order that a society may function as predictably and as decently as possible. They are not solid brick walls. Beauty eats them away.”

I once heard it taught that Israel is not only history, memory, and piety, it is the summer day, the sunbather and the sea.