This summer has been a difficult one in Israel, to say the least. One of Israel’s most precious gems, the Mediterranean Sea, was under-utilized during the conflict. Photos and videos of parents and children fleeing the shoreline for shelter have been heartbreaking. With summer coming to an end at least here in the U.S., I’m growing nostalgic for the beaches that are truly unique to Israel.
I recently spent a few days in the coveted Hamptons on Long Island’s coast. The scenery was serene and picturesque. The rhythmic sound of the waves breaking on the white sands, and the chirping of the endangered birds from their nesting grounds in the sand dunes, punctuated the otherwise silent surroundings. Very few amenities are offered at the public beaches, where the usual greasy seaside cuisine dominates the food shacks. The private beaches offer no food services, restrooms or lifeguards, in exchange for solitude and isolation. Even the rich and famous must find a way to schlep beach chairs and food to the shore. And the water is frigid. With our lounge chairs planted amidst all the peace and quiet, my sister and I shared a good laugh (and some tears), reminiscing about last summer’s Tel Aviv beach experience.
Most beaches along Israel’s warm Mediterranean shoreline offer unparalleled amenities. Some complain that the beaches are crowded and loud, and not very peaceful. For me, the throngs of sun-loving humanity, and the supporting cast of characters employed at these venues, create an endless source of high energy entertainment.
The experience begins from the moment you step foot onto the scorching sand. You need not speak a word of Hebrew in order to avail yourself of the beach offerings. If you look the slightest bit confused as you approach the designated swim area, you will be greeted by a concierge of sorts, eager to rent and assemble lounge chairs, a table and an umbrella. You can also expect a menu — that’s right — a real menu, to be placed on the end table. The restaurant designated to your beach of choice can send fresh salads, grilled meats, and a variety of relatively healthy items, including kid-friendly options right to your lounge chair. No one is relegated to hot dogs, french fries, and burgers, unless by choice. Drinks and ice cream come and go all day, you need not move a muscle — making a trip to the restrooms seem like a chore. Most seaside restaurants have tables and comfortable chairs set up right on the sand, dispensing attitude and fun in the shade. Your sandy lotioned body is welcomed for lunch or dinner, sans cover-up, shoes or shower.
Israeli lifeguards are an entertaining bunch. I suspect most Israelis are immune to the instructions and shouts that constantly emerge from their loudspeakers, but we expats look forward to the cultural sarcasm and banter. I’ve actually heard a lifeguard tell a kid through the loudspeaker, that because he didn’t listen, he will have to navigate the riptide back to the designated area on his own. I’ve also witnessed deeply tanned, Speedo clad lifeguards rescue a young surf-boarder to shore, and watch over him cautiously, exhaling cigarette smoke into his oxygen mask. When we visit, my kids ask to sit within earshot (as if anywhere on the beach is outside earshot) so that they won’t miss any part of the show. And I should mention that one summer I saw something suspicious, and reported it to the lifeguards, who were not only aware, but already working on it. They’re the true keepers of the beach.
An American friend who recently visited complained that the Matkot scene (beach tennis) is noisy and dangerous. It’s hard to disagree, especially since I’ve been slammed by the occasional ball while walking along the shore. But it’s also difficult to quash the spirit of this national sport and its enthusiasts. To avoid the errant balls, simply set up shop closely nestled between rows of fellow beach-goers. The game is typically played along the shore or between designated swim areas.
It’s a rainy Labor Day weekend here in the U.S., and my longing for the crowds, the noise, the warm waters and the Mediterranean grub, has increased exponentially. Next year in Jerusalem — with a long weekend at the beach.