The Tel Aviv I Never Knew

I’ve spent seven years in this city, but it was only after reading a new book that I realized the Cafe Kassit spirit is still alive and kicking,

In the blink of an eye – meaning in just four hours – I read Yuval Ben-Ami’s new (Hebrew) book “The Tel Aviv Comedy” from cover to cover. There was a sense of urgency to my reading because I had to finish the book before I attended an event called “Mishpat Sadeh” (“Field Trial”) last Thursday at a Tel Aviv club, hosted by Yoram Kaniuk. The invitation (issued by publishers Ahuzat Bayit) said that the characters from Ben-Ami’s book would have an opportunity to express their opinions about what the author wrote about them. Besides the free alcohol, the invitation also promised that the author would be performing a live version of his YouTube hit “Shak li Yvet” (“Kiss my (arse), Yvet” a reference to Avigdor Lieberman).

It sounded quite tempting, as does just about anything hosted by Yoram Kaniuk – especially since it was going to take place in some dimly lit bar in Jaffa, with a bunch of young cultural hotshots that I didn’t know. Also because I’d read a very intriguing piece about Ben-Ami in one of the weekend magazines. And now here I was, seven years after moving to Tel Aviv, finally getting a first chance to witness “the scene” and not in a theater.

Right off the bat, I decided to read the book so I’d have a reason to go to the event. In so doing, to my surprise, I found that a strange sensation overcame me. It was very intense, a feeling of being thrust into a sort of surrealistic experience in a world in which I understood the words but not the syntax that connected them. The book contains a certain magic that I can’t quite explain to myself.

As in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” there is nothing funny in “The Tel Aviv Comedy,” though it’s impossible to ignore Ben-Ami’s highly developed self-humor and his forgiving attitude toward those whom he portrays. Instead of Dante’s Inferno, we have a sort of underworld, populated not by criminals but actually by young poets, editors of literary journals and artists of various stripes. If you always thought of poets as intellectual types with greater-than-average suicidal tendencies, here you’ll find poets that are just as motivated by hatred, strange schemes and dark impulses as the characters in any gangster movie.

Someone who is not a part of this scene might have imagined that the used-book store depicted in the book, which also housed a cafe called “The Little Prince,” was the site of social-cultural happenings at least on a par with those of the cafes along Paris’ Boulevard Saint-Germain in the 1950s, with the “elders of the tribe” in this case being Gabriel Moked, Aharon Shabtai and Kaniuk before whom the poets from one underground literary journal are struggling with the poets from another, more innovative journal. And the question hovering above everything is: Who is this woman poet named Tzela? Is she dead? Or maybe she never lived?

And why did key figures in the poetry scene conspire to thwart Ben-Ami when, as a journalist, he sought to unlock the key to this riddle? Which hallowed poet stole his friend’s beloved? And are the poems of one writer really plagiarized from another’s work or are they perhaps a tribute to it? And is one prominent poet truly a genius devoid of all emotion, or in fact a fellow whose exquisitely-tuned sensitivity attracts all the pretty women who like to hang around the poets?

All in all, it’s a fascinatingly gossipy work, and I say this in all due appreciation, of course. I never believe anyone who says they don’t like gossip. Everybody likes gossip, with the difference between good gossip and bad solely dependent upon the way in which it is recounted. And in Ben-Ami’s book, it is very well told. I found myself extremely curious about people I don’t know, just as I am about the people who feature prominently in the newspaper gossip columns, despite my lack of personal acquaintance with them.

Sure, you could say there was never any danger that I would become a model, although I have had plenty of opportunity to get acquainted with poetry and books, and with poets and writers but here is where the book’s real charm lies, in my view: Ben-Ami’s Tel Aviv is almost like the Tel Aviv of a certain era, of the 1950s and ’60s, when at Cafe Kassit on Dizengoff Street, Natan Zach got into a dustup with Alterman, and Orland and Alexander Penn got drunk; editor Moked fought with Menachem Perry; everyone argued over who “discovered” Yona Wallach; and the bitterest rivalries raged between the people from the dueling literary monthlies Siman Kriya and Akhshav.

Just like back then, when people used to leave the house to engage in literary debates and didn’t make do with sending text messages, e-mails and posting comments on websites, today, too, there are still meeting places where creative types can argue about poetry and hurl metaphors at one another.
I barely know any of the young characters depicted in the book. I don’t recall if I ever read Ma’ayan or Ketem, but I once had a cup of coffee at The Little Prince without realizing the place’s historical importance as a hub of culture and intellectual activity.

I know Ben-Ami only through his newspaper writing, and it only barely reflects the impressive literary ability which makes his book so bewitching. And that’s not only because of the honesty that drips from each line, the great courage that it takes to describe such amusing situations, terrible crises, deep depressions, crushing failures, sexual encounters and the big questions of self- and gender-identity – and all without any palpable effort to conceal or suppress the evidence, or to prettify it in any way.

In this sense, “The Tel Aviv Comedy” reminded me a bit of Kaniuk’s “Life on Sandpaper,” in which the main players are Billie Holiday, Marlon Brando and the city of New York.

Kaniuk actually didn’t note the similarity or perhaps out of politeness, decided to ignore the comparison but he also feels that Ben-Ami is a most talented writer.

“I was quite intrigued and awestruck by how much energy and plotting could be devoted to writing about a poet who doesn’t really exist, this Tzela Katz,” Kaniuk told me, adding that he wouldn’t be able to attend the event.

In the end, I skipped it too. Because I suddenly had the feeling that if this other Tel Aviv does in fact exist, it’s not really for someone my age.