ýý ýý Apartment Hunting in Tel Aviv Karen Alkalay-Gut,




The facade is always unfathomable,

a united front of blinds closed to the street,

at least at midday when we arrive to weigh

the possibility of living on the inside, to be

part of the scene


When you walk round the side

you can see it clearly—

rubbish and laundry—

rich information

of the life within.

Like a urologist

I try to gauge the neighbors

from their street productions,


Once inside, it is much easier.

From each window we can view

a different family, busy with their lives

and ours. Friday afternoon and the mother

of the soldier is hanging his weekend fatigues

to be ready for ironing in the morning. She leans

a bit further over the clothes lines than she needs to

so she can see us evaluating the empty bedroom.

Friday afternoon and the young man in the opposite living room

is playing at seducing a girl who says she’s just come by to hang out.

We hear her giggles, amplified by the knowledge of an audience.

Friday afternoon and it is the end of a long, hard week

for the school children whose kitchen is opposite.

Mother warns them to hush but they are thrilled by the company,

strangers who may well become very

very intimate.

“And how do you like it,” the agent asks eagerly,

having given up his afternoon sleep for the chance

of a sale. “It’s what you asked for, an old house

with character.”

“It’s an interactive museum!”

“Yes, that’s Tel Aviv, all right.”


Once inside

and your eyes slink through the darkness

down the long hall through the tall parlor doors

past the plush sofa the highboy

the miscellaneous Grandmother

brought with her from Hungary, or Father

traveled from Carlsbad to order,

too big, too pretentious

for the immigrant space in little Israel—

and out to the balcony,

where the bougainvillea kisses all your senses

at once. Forget the parched earth below, the

stained walls and rusted railing. Remember

the moment you emerged into the sun.




The bed is still there, but the mattress

is gone. You know what that

means. The old lady, they say

has just moved to a Home. Look

how sweet she keeps this apartment.

She must have been a fine woman,

I think, but I am sure she died,

in this shelter she created

from the storm of Europe,

with as much travail as childbirth.




Some people don’t even bother to dress

when we come to call, sure, after years

of living in Tel Aviv, they are invisible.

Even on the street they wear slippers,

so when they sell their home, underwear is fine.

And if you have a problem with it,

live somewhere else



We all have our roles –

mine is to look and not

form any connection with the property

until I take out my wallet.

And really what can I say—

a lady who has not peed all day,

who does not dare pretend

even for a moment she is a friend

who’s only stopped by to say hello

and incidentally would appreciate

powdering her nose




No matter how many flats we see

my heart keeps going back

to the house on Sholom Aleichem.

It doesn’t belong in this country, the old

noble building on a hill

with a round balcony fit

for a princess waiting

to be rescued. I see her long wheat braids

calling his name into the sea breeze.

So what if the walls have holes so big

a man could walk through. So what

if the plumbing precedes the Mandate.

So what if the gangsters selling the place

will renege on all their promises to renovate.

“Go back and make them another offer,”

a voice calls, waking me at night from a deep sleep,

“When does convenience come

before character? I thought

you were a zionist not

a venture capitalist…”


It hits me that we’re seeing all of Tel Aviv

from within. The family portraits on the dresser,

neglected by the children, show the history

of a people—staged portraits of new immigrants

in 1905 for the folks back in Cracow—

seated by a nargilah and wearing tarbush or kaffiyeh.

Look, Ma, I fit in here in Palestine. Next to these men,

a seated suited husband and standing wife

in starched shirtwaist and posed posture. The man

appears in another photo on the other dresser,

this time with a different woman but

the same suit.

Then the next generation – the children

now in the elaborate costumes of glittering weddings

— the same faces as the seated man and standing woman—

but this time laughing and tanned.

And then their children first in Purim costumes and then in fatigues…

Sketches on the wall

by this dead woman’s bed

are dedicated to her by artists

I’ve seen in museums.

The scenes are local, three women

selling produce in the Carmel Market,

The old water tower from Maze Street,

children waving from the train that used to stop

on Herzl Street, families exiled during the first world war.


No one wants to sell

except the desperate. Prices

must go up sometime. For now,

everyone in this business pretends

all is as it was.

“Fools!” The man in the Tel Aviv land auction

of 1909 screamed out to the crowd

aching to be part of the new city.

“There’s no water here!”

This picture, framed in narrow dark wood,

stands behind an mahogany desk, pushed to the wall,

in what was once someone’s office on Rothschild Boulevard.

We decide to keep looking, sure

we will find an apartment that fulfills

our limited funds and our enormous dream.


A Palestinian and an Israeli are talking.

The Palestinian complains: “Oy

I’ve got so many problems coming up—

we’re going to have a state so we have to start

paying taxes, fines, all those burdens we’ve managed to escape.”

“You’ve got problems? We’ve been facing them for years!”

“Yes, but with you the end is in sight!”




Even a truly empty flat is not tabula rasa.

Even if the furnishing and photos have been cleared,

The windows and shades drawn

from the Tel Aviv hum, and the cats are asleep

for the day, under the jasmine, under the bougainvillea,

on the other side of the date tree,

there is still

something of the sand of the beach, the red clay

from beneath the sidewalks, the earth

that first created the human form.




Even the ceilings look like they’ve been beaten down.

The dust of plaster long gone stills fills the air,

and everything metal has been gnawed green by the sea.

We glide gingerly through the rooms

careful not to touch the knobs, the jams,

the window hanging on one creaky hinge

to the booming voice of the Indian-accented Agent.

“Look how much you can do here, knock down this wall,

close that balcony, replacing the lighting, change the door

and you’ve got a palace!”

It’s his usual shtik, but today I listen.

For some reason it seems possible.

Maybe because he’s fasting

in memory of the destruction of the Temple

and the exile of the Jews and his voice is clearer

I want to hear.


To see Sali Ariel's moving drawings of Tel Aviv click here

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