An Israeli Party Crasher Says Farewell

Writing columns about ostensibly common Israeli events over the last three years was truly an education. Now I realize how little I knew about the separate, yet somehow connected universes right at my doorstep. A postscript.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Despite the fact that both Daniel and Senait hail from the same town, and that their families know each other, the two never actually met until sharing a maintenance gig in Tel Aviv.
Despite the fact that both Daniel and Senait hail from the same town, and that their families know each other, the two never actually met until sharing a maintenance gig in Tel Aviv.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

The task at hand, or so it seemed to me a little over three years ago, was a simple one: I was to visit various family events – smachot, or simchas – and report about them to the general public. And indeed it was often just that simple, albeit a very strange undertaking: showing up, accompanied by photographer Gil Cohen-Magen, at what many would consider very private, intimate affairs and writing about them for the newspaper.

My intention was, as I explained time and again to mystified wedding guests and confused family members, to expose that side of Israel often overlooked in the “grand-narrative” stories that seem to flood out of the country and the region. To show how everyday Israelis thought and felt about their lives, including religion, ethnicity and family, without resorting to the drama, perhaps melodrama, that seems to haunt this tiny speck of land tucked away somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. To show the world what it was missing.

And yet, going to all these lengths to write about what seems like a common wedding never ceased to seem strange. Often, this strangeness would not elude the eyes of those whose simchas I was attending. “What’s so special about this wedding?" "What's so unusual about our bar mitzvah?” – these are questions I was asked more than once, holding my pen and pad, jotting away while family and friends were busy dancing, eating and sharing their moment of joy. Again, it was supposed be quite straight forward.

However, things did not go exactly as planned.

What was supposed to be an attempt to view Israeli life, one meant for an external eye looking in, very soon became one of the most significant educational experiences of my life. I came, or so I thought, to watch and report, but was slowly and profoundly hit by my own ignorance of my country and my culture. In many ways, that ignorance had something to do with the fact that I thought I knew my country, and could recognize its culture.

What I did end up recognizing, through the deceptively modest subject of weddings, bar mitzvahs, Ramadan dinners, and any one of the many other types of happy occasions I encountered in this three-year span, is just how rich, diverse and dynamic that culture is. And, perhaps beyond that, recognizing that what I had thought was Israeli culture was probably the result of my own tiny stake in that larger mosaic, one that ignored completely separate, yet somehow connected, universes right at my doorstep. Universes with different customs, different clothes, different languages and radically different views on what it is that makes them Israeli, if at all.

The time has come, however, after dozens of such forays, to set aside the immense project Someone Else’s Simcha has become, and to begin something new.

It was never easy to encounter ways of life so different than my own, and my education often came at the price of feeling quite out of my element. But the experience was always that – educational – and also often quite moving and inspiring, prompting changes in how I viewed the ceremonies personally. More concretely, it changed the way in which I celebrated the birth of my daughter, Na’ama, at a ceremony that incorporated elements from at least three different types of simchas that I had the pleasure of covering.

And so, with the last column already behind me, it is only fitting that Someone Else’s Simcha’s last hurrah will highlight just a handful of these events, and disclose, in a true SES fashion, the contents added by these events to my “spiritual doggy bag.”

1. Eyal and Tatyana’s wedding

To be honest, this wedding was special mainly because it was my first, back when crashing such events was even stranger and more daunting to me than it is today. However, that statement is only halfway true, since I was also blessed to have such a peculiar, charming, not to say unlikely couple as my debut: A former kibbutznik and musician who relocates to Berlin, changes his name, and ends up marrying a young German woman of Ukrainian extract. Oh, of course, there was the added charm of them meeting in Israel while the budding bride was volunteering at a retirement home here. This story had most everything that makes Israeli and Jewish life as complicated as it is, all quite nonchalantly overridden by the sheer amount of joy and laughter the couple exuded.

2. Eliav and Osnat’s Kurdish henna

It is almost always true that one has very little idea just how much is waiting around the bend when you just show up at another family’s event. But, it was rarely as true as it was in this case. It often seems that culture, folklore and tradition matter more to parents and grandparents than they do to younger generations, but what I encountered here, for the first time, was a young couple bent on preserving every last bit of those influences in their lives. From the food to the music, the dancing and the ceremony itself, it was this occasion that made me realize that not only is Israeli culture made up of endless little particles, but that it is the duty of my generation to learn of those traditions and preserve them as one would any cultural treasure.

3. Breaking Ramadan with the Alians

The most grandiose and easily dissected events are always the weddings, since they embody the traditional, religious and cultural aspirations of not one family, but two – differences that infuse them with an almost disproportionate amount of meaning. On the other side of the scale, however, is the intimate family dinner, such as this quite astounding visit to the Alians' Jerusalem home. All it involves, really, is five people (plus a reporter and a photographer, naturally). Nothing seems to happen aside from a family sitting down to eat, but, as with everything in Israel, that’s far from being the case, as the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, generational gaps, coexistence and religion exude from every detail.

4. Senait and Daniel’s wedding

This event, really just a glimpse into a week-long string of events, may have been the source of one of the greatest revelations – for the quite simple reason that it took place a mere five-minute drive from my home. And yet, despite, or perhaps because of this proximity, I was struck by the complete and yet somehow familiar "otherness" of the ritual. This, of course, was added to the fact that Daniel and Senait’s stories gave a very human, painful face to the ongoing and hot-button issue of migrant workers and asylum seekers in Israel.

5. Turning the Tables fundraiser

I tried, as much as I could, during the time I wrote this column, to avoid attending the type of event that any other reporter/publicity person would cover, attempting to stick mostly to family affairs, since those offered the personal stories I was usually after. However, this gallery event was quite different, for two main reasons: The first was that the personal story that did shine through, that of “Anat,” a trans-sexual prostitute working in Tel Aviv, was one that, again, told me something I didn’t know, or perhaps didn’t want to know about my society. A story of great pain, and yet also of great hope. The other reason was, of course, the event’s timing: Weeks into last summer's Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, with incoming missiles and their interception, it became a kind of mild form of entertainment for gallery-goers. That seems to me to be a truly Israeli experience, if there ever were one.

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