Putin Things In Perspective: Lessons I Learned On Election Night In Tel Aviv

“I need the sea because it teaches me.” — Pablo Neruda

SLEEPING WITH RUSSIANS, SITTING BY THE SEA

As the results of the 2016 American presidential election began to roll in, I was in a Tel Aviv hostel on the last leg of my solo backpacker’s journey in Israel, sleeping in a room the size of a ping pong table and surrounded by Russians; one snoozed in the bunk above mine, and her two friends from Moscow slumbered to my right.

They were quiet and the room was dark around 5 AM local time, when I woke in a hurry and grabbed a thin black cord, fishing my phone towards me just as hope for the Democratic party began to nosedive. I had been rooting for Hillary and, a week earlier, had even put a prayer in the Western Wall asking for her victory. Maybe the fact that I scrawled it on the back of a receipt put a wrench in things, but my request wasn’t granted, and Hillary lost the election.

I lay in bed for an hour or so afterwards. I hardly moved, as if I had been in a crash. I had no thirst and no hunger. Only a single thought clung: the beach. I would go to the beach. The shore of the Mediterranean Sea off of Allenby Street, to be exact.

I had slipped into this sea for the first time the day before the election. My ankles led the way, slowly at first, and schools of fish darted near them, tempting me with the tiny lightning of their scales. I tried to grab one but failed, then swam towards the unselfconscious bubbes (grandmas) who gossiped in the deep as their heads bobbed above it and their bright suits hid below. We reveled in the pale, clear green of the water, and its warmth in the month of November.

As it turned out, the young women with whom I was sharing my hostel room were drawn to the same shore, and they visited a few hours later. The beach weather was actually the reason they had traveled from Moscow (a city which was suffering from highs in the 20-degree Fahrenheit range). I learned this that evening, when, finished with our day’s adventures, my new friends and I exchanged tales of the day.

Our talk remained mostly light. But, considering that we were Russians and Americans occupying the same territory, the discussion inevitably turned to politics, and I asked one of them — a young woman named Anna* — if she liked Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.

“No,” she answered abruptly, as if it went without saying.

I asked Anna if she favored Trump or Hillary for America’s leadership. She replied, “They’re both bad, don’t you think?”

No, I didn’t think that, and I made a stand for Hillary Clinton, as I had done a million times during the course of my two-week stay in Israel. My first megaphone moment arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, where I hopped on a bus to Jerusalem. Upon hearing my American accent, the driver turned to me and said, “Trump, eh? He could win.” We talked politics for ten minutes and then I walked to another bus stop for my transfer, pelted by rain the whole way. Soaked and jet-lagged, I stood as the woman next to me (who was in town to further her study of Jewish law) explained that, “G-d is for Trump, because things will get very bad under him, and this will prompt ​Moshiach (messiah) to come.”

My only rejoinder was a strong desire to go to bed. Generally, though, I was not shy about announcing my opinions. Most Israelis I met responded by echoing Anna’s sentiment (“both candidates are bad — but Trump shouldn’t win”). Some tacked on, “Clinton won’t be good for Israel.” In Eilat, one man called Trump crazy, then added, “Crazy is good!”

I did meet a handful of locals who strongly favored Hillary Clinton, but, as one of them expressed this, she shook her head and gestured towards the Western Wall, saying, “Trump is just like Herod.” Herod, a Roman-appointed client king, was a megalomaniac builder who played a role in expanding Jerusalem’s Second Temple, and the likening of him to Trump alarmed me because it conveyed an ancient precedent for a real-estate-salesman-cum-politician.

All of which (somewhat) prepared me to be disappointed by the results of the 2016 presidential election. It was already nighttime in Tel Aviv as Americans surged to the polls, and I readied myself for bed alongside my Russian comrades, who — with their upbeat chattiness — offered me hope that, even if Trump were to win, my life would go on, as theirs had gone on under Putin. For them, living under an authoritarian was like living with one kidney: the situation wasn’t good, but they functioned around it because they had to.

Of course, the next morning, I found out that I was going to be living with one kidney for the next four years. The only thing I could do was to return to the sea, and seek consolation from the original, primordial fluid that birthed the entire human race (and which bathes our organs, still).

This time, the beach felt different. The sun was behind me rather than above, and its light felt weak. But, then, a toddler near the shore — teetering, trying on his own legs — grinned at me. A sailboat far in the distance made a joke about loneliness. The blue of the Mediterranean Sea appeared as a shade of music. And my feet succumbed to the tenderness of the sand. This assembly of delights was a thing Donald Trump couldn’t thieve from me — not now, or ever.

I understood this especially because I was in Israel, where thriving-under-threat is a part of the culture. The sentiment that lingers there (as I experienced it, at least) is that haters — be they anti-semites, racists, misogynists, or dictators — may aim to take many things from you, including your life. But, they cannot entirely confiscate your joys, especially those contained in memory. Joy — recalling it and creating it, even for just a few moments — is a form of resistance.

In their own way, my Russian roommates understood this, too. The morning after the election, I found them eating breakfast at the hostel. They hovered together like birds, conversing as they dissected a mango. Though they would soon be returning home to live under a despot, Putin’s kids were intent on finding some happiness in Israel to hide in the lining of their pockets during Moscow’s winter. Maybe the sea had whispered to them about the importance of doing this, or, maybe, because they already knew of its importance, they had sought out the pleasures of the sea, and of a sweet, bright mango. Either way, they gently said “good morning” to me, and carried on.

*not her real name

Photo: Tel Aviv, November 2016