Still Shabbat: A Visit to the Old Cemetery

Six students went to the Dean in self’s absence to say they didn’t know where or when they were supposed to take their final (thereby putting her in the equivalent of Dean Dog-House). Self had arranged for a sub, she had waited until the last day of the quarter to leave for Tel Aviv, and still the unexpected always finds a way to trip her up. Now, self knows she must put all thoughts of school out of her head. One thing’s for certain: she’s never going to have this experience again, this traveling (mostly alone) in this strange and heartbreaking city. And all her emotions are pitched to such a fine point here, she should be writing like crazy, not worrying about what awaits her (probably anxiety, probably exhaustion) back home.

Self spent the entire afternoon with Ying. Afterwards, it took her a long time (almost 30 minutes) to hail a cab, because first she sat on a bench in a bus stop and read a book, being none too excited to head back to the apartment on Ruppin Street. When she did finally stand up and flag down a cab, he said he would charge her 30 shekel, which was five more than what she usually pays for the exact same route. So, thinking fast, self asked if he wouldn’t mind just dropping her off at Trumpeldor Cemetery instead. Whereupon, the following conversation ensued:

Taxi Driver: That’s the old cemetery.

Self: Yes. Can you take me there?

Taxi Driver: Why you want to go there?

Self: I want to see it. I’m curious.

Taxi Driver: It is closed. Closed for Shabbat.

Self: But can’t I peek through a gate or something?

The driver took off. Suddenly, we passed a long wall of light-colored stone. The cab stopped in front of an iron gate. The driver laughed, almost delightedly (self thought): “Here it is!”

Suddenly, he asked self, “You like Arabic music?” Self gawped at him with her mouth open. “This music (on the radio) — you like it?”

Self said she liked it, very much in fact.

The driver said, “It is Arabian lute. You know? We call it oud. I play it.”

Self said, “You do??? Where? In a club? Can I listen?”

And, the floodgates opened, dear blog readers. What ensued next was this: self got the address of a music store in Old Jaffa that sells CDs of Arabic music, and the titles of the driver’s three favorite CDs. Then, the address of the home of the driver’s music teacher (“Very famous!” the driver said. “Give him my name!”). Then, the address to the home of the French ambassador, on Toulouse Street in Old Jaffa. Then, the taxi driver’s telephone number. Then, the telephone number of the taxi driver’s son, who he said is “a famous comic book artist” in Tel Aviv, and who is only 25 years old!

Then, taxi driver asked self what she did. And self said (for the first time not even thinking twice) that she was a writer. And the taxi driver again laughed delightedly and pounded his steering wheel. And he asked, “From where?” And self would have said, “The Philippines,” but whenever she does, here, people always say, “You talk like an American.” So now she simply says, “California.”

And, eventually, self does get out of the cab, and the driver gives her many instructions on how to walk back to Ruppin street, and then she’s peering through the old iron gates, and she is fascinated by the fresh wreaths she sees on many of the graves, and she stays a long time because she wants to take it all in, even the views of the surrounding tenements and narrow alleyways, and self finds herself taking many, many pictures.

Then, she finds her way back to Ben Yehuda street and starts walking home. And on the way, she passes no less than three youth hostels, and stops at each one to inquire about their rates, for son has expressed a desire to visit Tel Aviv someday with Kramer. Now, because it has been such a moving day, self wishes to quote a passage about the Trumpeldor Cemetery from the Barbara Mann book, A Place in History:

The cemetery was founded during the 1902 cholera epidemic in Jaffa. Ottoman officials forbade the burial of the dead within the city walls, particularly given the proximity of the Jewish cemetery in Adjami to the center of town. Jewish community leaders requested an alternative, and Shimon Rokach was granted permission to purchase twelve dunam of land in the name of the Committee of the United Communities of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Groups, in what was then called the Lands of North Jaffa. According to a story, the area consisted largely of shifting sand and was thus difficult to cultivate. Legend also has it that holy books were buried in a special grave and two “black weddings” were held at the site in an effort to halt the epidemic. (It was believed that these community-sponsored ceremonies, in which orphans were married off, would lead God to look favorably upon the charity of the community, and have mercy, thus easing the epidemic) It was only five years later that the first plan to build a modern Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa was announced. In essence, then, Tel Aviv began with its dead. In the words of a historian, “the city followed its graves.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.

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