Report From Israel, 1957 – Part One

Jerry F, Going Postal
Map of Israel.
Unknown artist, reproduced with permission

In 1957 my uncle, John Alldridge visited Israel for the Birmingham Mail. This is the first of his reports. – Jerry F

You can learn a lot about a man in 24 hours. Particularly when you are cooped up together in an elderly airliner that has been falling farther and farther behind schedule all the way from New York.

So by the time we reached Tel Aviv I had learned pretty well all there was to know about Sam Appleby.

In a thousand miles of hard talking we discovered we felt the same way about the doleful events of last November, cold beer, the Little Theatre movement, cold beer, contemporary architecture (Sam is an architect), Mr. Foster Dulles, cold beer.

As far as I can see the only important difference between Sam and me is that I am a Gentile, and Sam is a Jew.

You could have said much the same thing about most of the other fifty or so passengers. The comfortable couple from Los Angeles, the playful boys from the Bronx who sat up all night smoking cigars and eating Salami sausage, the prim little spinster from Newcastle on Tyne, for ever worrying about her passport – they looked and behaved exactly like the usual parcel of tourists who have been too long on the way until about three o’clock on the afternoon of the third day.

Then the interminable blue of the Mediterranean under the port wing was suddenly broken by an arc of land, as green as an English field, planted, not with mushrooms, but with rows and rows of little white cubes.

One of the boys from the Bronx pointed downwards, looked for what seemed a long, long time then breathed “Is-rye-el.”

In that moment what I can only describe as a holy hush settled over that crowded, stuffy cabin. The little spinster from Newcastle was crying softly and making no attempt to dry her tears.

The comfortable couple from Los Angeles shook hands, then kissed as if they never expected to meet again. The elderly Rabbi in the black skull-cap, who had spoken not a word since he left Paris, smote his breast and began to pray softly and urgently.

Such joy there was in that aircraft, such an overflow of pent-up feeling, that I felt lonely and lost because I did not belong and could not share in it.

It was Sam, the easy-going, free-thinking Canadian who sensed, my embarrassment.

“It gets you, doesn’t it?” was all he said. And for all his free-thinking, there were tears in his eyes, too.

Yes, it gets you…

And it gets you even more when, a little later, you stand in the airport lounge, drinking the almost ritual orange juice they offer you, and watch them re-united, mother with daughter, father with son.

You see a burly Glasgow fitter salute the Star of David, flying over the control tower, and this time you are not embarrassed.

For already you have begun to learn what the Jews mean when they talk – as they have talked for 2,000 years – about “coming home”.

And when you have learned that, you are halfway to understanding that other mystery, how it is possible for a Jew from Birmingham and a Jew from Madrid and a Jew from Outer Mongolia still to think of themselves as first and foremost Israelis.

If I were a Jewish immigrant, with my way to make in this brave new State of Israel, I think I should aim to be a cab driver.

The word for taxi is “sherut,” and it is almost the first word of Hebrew you learn. Since travelling by communal taxi (room for seven inside) is cheaper and quicker than going by bus, everybody wants to travel by “sherut.”

That makes the Israeli cabby a very superior person indeed. He drives around in a brand new Pontiac, sometimes with his girlfriend for company, dressed as for an afternoon at the beach. As you quickly learn, he is very much a law unto himself.

It was one of these dashing young men who drove me into Tel Aviv. There being no girlfriend present, I was given the place of honour beside him.

The comfortable couple from Los Angeles were squeezed in behind, but as they had a strapping son, a sun-burned daughter-in-law and two brand new grandchildren to occupy them, they were happy enough.

Tel Aviv, the commercial capital of Israel, is a clean, healthy, modern and very ugly town. Like much of modern Israel it appears to have been built in a towering hurry, out of a great many concrete egg boxes turned oven on their sides and raised on stilts.

For all its determinedly cosmopolitan atmosphere it is a very American town. It belongs much more in the Middle West than the Middle East.

Parts of it look like New Jersey, and Hollywood and Atlantic City and the Bronx, all rolled into one.

For the moment I am staying in a hotel so modern that it might be something left over from the Festival of Britain. It has a roof garden, a private beach, air conditioning and five-channel radio in every room.

Furthermore it has a head waiter who once upon a time was a professor of primitive languages at a Russian university, and a positively old-world staff who refuse to be tipped.

For all that I consider its tariff – £5 a day and upwards – a little steep.

With the possible exception of Naples, Tel Aviv is the busiest, noisiest city on the Mediterranean. From dawn to dusk it is full of busy little men in open-necked shirts, clutching briefcases and scuttling along as if their lives hung on them.

It is also full of some of the loveliest girls I have seen anywhere. They are usually escorted by sunburnt young men, who all look as if they have just come from a Commando assault course and didn’t think much to it.

So far I have seen only one beggar in Tel Aviv. And he was skillfully manipulating a guess-your-weight machine.

I have yet to come across a man in need of a shave or a woman who didn’t look as if she had stepped straight out of a bath.

For all the breathless to-and-fro, so reminiscent of New York in the rush hour, everyone seems to know exactly where they are going.

All the same, I don’t think your true Israeli cares much for Tel Aviv. It is too big, too brash, too slick, too much like the old world they have firmly turned their backs on.

They feel about it, I imagine, rather as the men of the Eighth Army used to feel about Cairo: a good place for a spot of leave. And then a good place to get away from – a thought that was firmly planted in my head by the daughter-in-law of the Los Angeles couple as I paid off my share of the taxi.

She was a slim-waisted, long-legged American girl, black hair impatiently cropped, whose firm, brown fingers looked capable of dealing equally efficiently with a vacuum cleaner or a Tommy gun.

“Remember, Tel Aviv isn’t Israel. If you want to see Israel as she really is, come and see us. We’re 50 miles back of nowhere. There’s no Coca-Cola and no ice. But you’ll be welcome.”

So tomorrow, or the day after, that’s where I’ll go…

Reproduced with permission
© 2023

Jerry F 2023