12 February 2012


A few years ago, I dreamt a guy I'd gone to high school with was telling me that, though he was studying Israeli culture, no one cared about it.

"I took a class in Israeli art history," I said to my douchebag interlocutor.

The next mise-en-scène is Cafe LuLu in Milwaukee's Bayview neighborhood almost a year before the dream at a neighbor's birthday party. I am talking to a woman who has recently been in Paris. Her perfume wafts at me, and for a moment I'm rather convinced I'm in Tel Aviv, not Milwaukee. She is wearing Cabotine, a fragrance my brain apparently will forever associate with the European girls with whom I attended ulpan.*

I realized several years ago how influential Israel was on my own sense of style. I can admit that outfits in the college photos of myself before I went to Israel are--frankly--tragic. I didn't spring to life, Athena-like, with a fully developed sense of line and proportion! I returned from Tel Aviv at the age of 21 with a pair of Naots, a watch with a domed blue crystal, a pair of velour hip-huggers with fuschia flowers on a black background, a strappy LBD I bought from a chain they don't have in the U.S., a hippie skirt in several shades of blue brocade and a pair of black patent Guess platforms. It was in Israel that I (unconsciously) developed the three-pair rule of jeans from observing my German roommate. (Germans do figure interestingly in my style trajectory. I had begged a German friend coming to visit for my 20th birthday to buy a perfume I couldn't get in the U.S. as a birthday gift. He gave me Cerruti 1881. I still had it when I left for Israel a year later, of course. Girls of all nationalities asked what it was.) Inspired by the Ethiopian Jewish girls I'd befriended at Tel Aviv University, I immediately set out in search of a long a-line black skirt and tall black shoes when I returned to the U.S. In short, I'd pretty much had to go across the world to get a style clue.

And I can admit that the summer after I returned in 1997 my friends and I were insufferable as only (self-conscious) undergrads who have studied abroad can be. Ah! those days--of walking to the art-house video rental to pick a Spanish movie and wait while my friend Paul whipped up a flan. Of Paul twirling me around in the living room of the house Mary and I shared that summer to remixes of "Don't Cry For Me Argentina." I insisted on vodka and absolutely no beer in 40-oz bottles for our parties. Luis and I both fell asleep in front of Jeunet's Delicatessen on our only "date." There was a great deal of socializing that summer--evidently--to the neglect of some academic obligations. Though Mary did do well enough on the LSAT to enter law school (though she ended up in med school), and I did finish the paper I was writing on Harlem Renaissance lit ahead of schedule. And very interestingly, I actually didn't know anything about Harlem Renaissance novels before I wandered into the Overseas Student Program office at Tel Aviv University and borrowed Nella Larsen's Passing. This is all true; I couldn't make it up if I wanted to.

Twentysomething pretensions aside, the culture and style of Israel affected me in other ways. I had always had "artistic" interests. In the same OSP office I borrowed what is my favorite novel of all time, Black Box, which I have rhapsodized about sufficiently in previous posts. And wandering around the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood Neve Tzedik is where I first heard of Batsheva, which I've also banged on about.

* An ulpan is an intensive Hebrew course.