THE BOYS OF THE NEW ISRAEL, 1948
The English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976) stayed in Tel Aviv from about August to October 1948. He first wrote about the boys there briefly in his autobiography The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962), and then at much greater length in Some Boys (1969), his memoir more narrowly focused on Greek love. Both accounts are presented here, the shorter as a footnote.
The text is taken from pp. 51-59 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), the only significant difference with the British edition being the latter’s extraordinary omission in the third last paragraph of the only sentence in the whole chapter describing man/boy sensuality.
WHAT AN exquisite sampler of the world's boyhood Israel was! I say "was," because I'm writing of a summer exactly twenty years ago: when Israel the full-fledged sovereign State, only two or three months out of the nest, was fighting her first war against the Arab armies, and winning her first victory over them. Even then one was struck by the physical appearance of the young "sabras," the boys born on this soil of Zion—whose fathers and grandfathers too had often been born here—and reared to the open air and outdoor work on the land: Israel was already breeding a new race of what one might call Hebrew un-Jews: a breed of neo-Jews who, reacting biologically to the novel environment into which they were being born and to the different values and attitudes to which they were being bred, were discarding the characteristics, physical as well as moral, that had labelled their forefathers for thousands of years. This new race of un-Jews was growing up snub-nosed, fair-haired and blue-eyed; these neo-Jewish sabras were arrogantly proud of the nationhood they were building and the Hebrew they were speaking, but they neither resembled in feature, nor saw themselves reflected in, the old traditional Jewry they now only heard about like something out of history. But this was twenty years ago; today those sabra boys I knew and saw are between thirty and forty years old, and many of them the fathers of families: the sabras now must number tens of thousands and form the robust home-bred neo-Jewish core of the Israeli nation.
Already in those days, around the almost Nordic types of the sabra boys, one saw nearly every style the human mould was capable of producing—from the Spanish and Portuguese good looks of the Sephardic, through the ringleted puritans from the Rumanian ghettos and the "Arab" Jews of North Africa, to the beautiful Yemenites whose skins were as immaculately black as the Tamils of southern India. Missing only were Negro Africans and types from the Extreme Orient. Are there no Jews of Black African descent —no Jews from China, Japan or at least the Philippines? It seems a pity that the racial spectrum of Israel should be incomplete: what a perfect multiracial State the world could have here, embracing all the peoples of every kind and colour, united only by that mysterious quality and awareness, paradoxically both eclectic and exclusive, which we know as Jewishness. . . .
This delightfully variegated spectrum, though incomplete, could be seen most attractively and revealingly, I found, through the prism of the bathing place which spread then along the beach below the old Kaethe Dan Hotel—a hotel which, so excellent in those days, no longer exists, I have to my regret been told; though a new and grander "Dan Hotel" has arisen in another spot. There was a narrow lane, I seem to remember, which took one to the rear of the Kaethe Dan, and then, by a flight of stone steps, one ran down to the vast, glittering expanse of the Phoenician shore. On this stretch of the beach, a mile or two north of Jaffa and near the point where that famous arms-smuggling ship was wrecked in British days, with the baths of the new villadom of Tel Aviv looking down on them from embankment-height with averted suburban eyes, stood the old-fashioned wooden installations of the municipal "lido"—dressing-rooms, showers, and so on; all raised on lofty stilts above any onslaught from the sea, though the water here was so shallow and the Mediterranean tide so minutely varying that there didn't seem much danger. But to the boys who bathed there day after day through the long hot summer of 1948 these stilts, and the convenient height to which they raised the wooden flooring of the showers and dressing-rooms, were of the utmost importance: they allowed plenty of head-room for prowling or standing beneath the boards and peering up through the cracks between the planks. Water raining from the floor of any one segment of the women's showers, showed that that compartment was being used. . . .
There were private cabins for families or men who wanted one; but the boys, and myself always, used a great barrack of a dressing-room—it cost almost nothing to undress there and hang one's clothes on a peg: I never heard of any thieving while people were out on the sands, and certainly never experienced any myself.
After school in the afternoons, and all the morning during holiday, this vast changing-room—like a Malay longhouse, a visitor from those parts would say—was thronged with a wonderful assortment of naked boys' bodies: boys pulling off their shirts and pants and stretching for a moment in the joyous exemption given by nudity before stepping into their swimming trunks; boys wet from the sea with drops still quivering on their skins like dew, and others with a sopping forelock dripping into their eyes; boys towelling at their backs and shoulders as if manning a two-handed saw; boys sitting back naked on a bench, in an ecstasy of physical relaxation after the exertions of a long swim; boys sitting naked on a bench absorbedly fingering and eyeing their own genitals; boys exhibiting to each other the evidence of their approach to adulthood. . . . Dark-skinned boys with beautiful Arab faces; pug-nosed sabras with creamy skins and eyes the colour of the sky; the varying types of every branch of European Jewry; of all shades of colour and all stages of blossoming growth: an enthralling conspectus of circumcised boy. . . .
The sabras, and immigrant boys at the higher schools, spoke Hebrew, modernized as far as possible to fit the technological age: it was the language of the new Israeli elite; others spoke Yiddish, the lingua franca of Europe; and yet others the Jewish-Arabic dialect of their land of birth. I could rarely understand their conversation—and there was always the same sweet cacophony of shouting that a crowd of gabbling boys creates anywhere in the world. But sometimes I could get their meaning. I recall one afternoon when a lanky, lonely boy of about sixteen, drying himself with a leisurely, aloof sort of luxury, suddenly, and apparently without the slightest awareness, became dowered with an erection of such magnitude and aggressiveness as one wouldn't have guessed possible, looking at him a couple of minutes earlier. He continued calmly to towel himself in a fastidious and luxuriating way, apparently perfectly unmindful of the enormous phallus he was displaying; while the huge crowned organ itself, too rigid to be said to swing or sway, canted back and forth in accord with the delicate writhings of his arms and shoulders like a magnificent figurehead at the prow of a gently rolling ship. As soon as this was noticed by the other boys, it brought hoots of jeering and pretended horror and mock-modest vilification, but mostly of course, jeers and sarcastic obscenities—as I could tell from the crowd of scoffing faces and from my own familiarity with the behaviour of boys. But the owner of the subject of all this uproar wasn't in the least put out; he went on dabbing his damp hair with his towel and gazed at his yelling tormentors with serene disdain, while his immense penis, still flushed and proudly upstanding, seemed to regard them with similar scorn. And then, in what I took to be elegant Hebrew, he silenced them all with an authority and clarity which I had no difficulty in interpreting: "First of all what's happened to me is perfectly natural and happens to all of you, as you know; secondly, if I get the horn it's no business of yours just as it's none of mine if you get it; and thirdly, if my cock stands up, it's not the sight of any of you that makes it do so!" Anyway, the jeers and the shouting instantly stopped after his unruffled little speech, and without another glance at the others he leisurely began to put on his clothes.
Outside on the sands, the scene was that of any family seaside resort—except beneath the women's showers and dressing-rooms, where behaviour among the shadows between the concrete pillars which supported them must have seemed peculiar to anybody who didn't understand what was going on. Plump matrons, innocently unembarrassed by the volumes of flesh which seemed to spill over the confines of their swimsuits, sat like comfortable hens in the soft sand and nagged, clucking, at their infant families; charming children of all sorts dug with spades or played ball or ran dripping back from the sea to their mothers; middle-aged men, lean and fat, with dignified professorial faces, reclined beneath large sunshades and read volumes in German or Hebrew; dark-haired girls with crimson mouths and waggling breasts and buttocks tripped back and forth self-consciously wearing the latest beach-fashions to arrive from Europe. And all the while, with nobody visibly paying any attention, the most extraordinary semblance of a ballet was being danced by an all-male cast under the women's quarters—and especially beneath the flooring of the showers, from which a constant rain of water sprayed over the dancers and into the eyes of their upturned faces. A varying number of boys and young men—in age everything from twelve to twenty or even more—would all day be prancing and pirouetting, like entranced dervishes or a set of marionettes, over the rectangles of shadowed sand, uncannily chill and damp, from which the sun was for ever held off by the buildings above. These bands of agitated boys, made oblivious by their passionate absorption of everybody around them, performed a kind of cakewalk sideways, forwards and backwards: their knees bent, their spines curved rearwards almost to the point of overtoppling, and their heads tilted back upon their shoulders, their eyes starting from their sockets in the effort to discern something through what gaps could be found between the planking above their noses. Since all of them were wearing nothing but a clinging pair of trunks, it was for anybody to see when the emotional reaction of one of these eager young voyeurs to what he saw, or hoped to see, became physically manifest. . . . I have only once again, and in one other place, come across a similar display of public scopophilia; this was many years later, in Sicily, and I was instantly reminded of those curious, and rather exhilarating, scenes on the Tel Aviv shore. At Messina there took place every summer an important trade fair for which various buildings and installations were specially erected. Among these was a spacious platform or stage of wooden planks which, supported by an intricate scaffolding of steel tubing, jutted out to the sea's edge and over a narrow foreshore of rocks in whose crannies the boys left their clothes while they bathed—this was ordinarily an empty and rather scruffy part of Messina's northern extremity. But once the fair was underway, and the public was walking about this wooden platform, the boys would always be clambering over the scaffolding, hanging on with their toes like parrots, and peering up through the boards to see what they could see—at best, I suppose, a fleeting peep at a female knicker, and to get that would require a lot of luck. At Tel Aviv, I thought as I watched these frustrated Sicilian boys, there was at any rate a chance of real nudity. . . .
One morning, on that beach, I saw a boy—about fourteen he looked—sitting in a kind of bowl he'd scooped out of the sand, with his back against one of the concrete stilts and his legs stretched out in front of him—he was engrossed in the task of ploughing out with his heels a second cavity so that a kind of saddle was forming under his knees. I knew exactly what he was feeling; the warm, comfortable, relaxing restfulness of that hump of sand in the hollow of his knees—like throwing one's legs over the arm of a sofa this was just what I always found myself doing when daydreaming in the sand. He wore a dirty-white pair of running pants; a couple of ragged garments, rolled into a bundle, were beside him. His hair was very dark, above an almost ivory-white skin—the sort that only goes sallow with the sun; his charmingly undistinguished face, snubby and very boy-like, seemed to me vaguely central European— Polish, perhaps. He had dark grey-green eyes; if there were anything Semitic about his face, it was a faint fleshiness of the lips—a thick red mouth, it was: an exotic, even oriental, mouth. He was looking very solemn, frowning over the ploughing of his heels.
I thought he might speak Yiddish, which my German would let me mostly understand; but when I got talking to him I found he was a sabra and knew, besides a basic Hebrew (it can't have been more than basic), a kind of "menial English"—the English of messenger-boys and street-hawkers picked up in his fourteen years under British tutelage. So once we got started our conversation flowed. But my first approach was gingerly, not knowing what our conversational resources were: I simply sat down beside him as if that was just where I'd naturally want to sit, and held out my cigarettes under his nose as if that was what I always did wherever I was. This jerked him out of his mooning, and in the second of surprise his green eyes seemed to expand all round like Japanese paper lilies in water; then he gave me a sidelong pout of cautious evaluation which quickly turned into a doubtful half-grin—but he took a cigarette and leaned across for me to give him a light from mine.
His name was Shlomo, which delighted me: I always want charming boys to have charming names. I can't say he showed signs, while I knew him, of acquiring anything like the wisdom of his namesake, Solomon; but neither did he do anything downright silly. He'd been in Tel Aviv all his life and his parents, so far as I could understand, had come from some region of the Austro-Hungarian border—he wasn't sure himself what country his family's had been. He was born in Palestine; now he was Israeli—that was good enough for him.
By this time I'd left the hotel and had found a room in a private house—the room had its own entrance and an old-fashioned tin bath which one filled with a can. I wrote down the address for him and told Shlomo that if he called there I might have a job for him—emptying the bath and so on, I indicated. Then I had to be off. "S'long," he said; and I didn't expect to see him again. But that evening, just as I was filling the can for my bath, he appeared; and when I had to go out and he left for his home, he said: "S'long"—a kind of cross between "so long" and the Israeli hail-or-farewell shalom. It was his favourite bit of English: every time he went out of the room, he said "S'long," and always when he set off at the end of a day.
We got on very well. He was slow and stolid but always genuine. Behind those enticing lips there was no warmth; in his little dutiful heart there was absolute loyalty but little affection: he was like a gentle dog that's touchingly faithful to the hand that feeds it. For nearly two months he was my Argus—Argus as a puppy devoted and unfailing he seemed to have no desires more lofty or interesting than sweeping out my room and fetching water for the bath. He did enjoy that bath, I must say: he would always insist on doing all the processes of it himself – he would sponge me and soap me and rinse me, ordering me to turn this way or that, to bend so or so, to lean backward or bend double; and then he would dry me, dabbing and patting and gently wiping with the towel, and feeling my skin with his soft hand to see if I was dry. …
And then a cable came, ordering me to move to some other country at once. I came back to my room and found him waiting there, with the bath all laid out and the water heating. "Shlomo," I said, "I've got to go away at once. Here are all the wages I owe you, and here's this much more besides, as a present. Dear Shlomo, now we've got to say goodbye—"
"S'long," he said: gave a casual wave, and was gone. . . .
The World, The Flesh and Myself
I think I was the first journalist to write about the physical change occurring in Jews of the second and third generations born in Palestine. Many schoolboys in Tel Aviv in 1948—boys born, that is, in the '30s—had snub faces, fair hair and eyes blue enough to be 'nordic'; with perhaps a shadowy hint of orientalism in the mouth and nose. This must, I suppose, have been the consequence of climate and of an out-of-door life; if this is so, it seems extraordinary that the effect should so dramatically become manifest within two or three generations. But I hope that the ancient racial characteristics are not really tending to disappear; it will be a pity if the people of Israel become in time as nondescript in appearance as most Europeans. Shlomo—whom I met bathing on the wide shore where the leisured water is so shallow that you wade out for a furlong with it no higher than your shins—looked more like a pretty cockney than a child of the eastern Danube; he was a 14-year-old sabra ('cactus'—slang for Jews Palestine-bred) who knew almost no English and hadn't been to school; he couldn't tell me, as his educated contemporaries constantly did, that 'modern' Hebrew was going to be a language far superior in every way to English. There was nothing brash and boastful about Shlomo; he was a confiding friend, like a faithful dog.