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The View from Tel Aviv: I’m coming home

by | May 14, 2019

The View from Tel Aviv: I’m coming home

by | May 14, 2019 | 2019 Tel Aviv Blog, escgo at Eurovision, Eurovision, Featured

In a few hours, the first semi final of Eurovision 2019 will take place at the Expo Arena in Tel Aviv. It somehow feels like it was just a day ago when the rehearsals started, but also like it’s been ages. So far, it has been a very different experience for me than the previous Eurovisions I have attended, and not only because they were different in principle than this one. It does make a difference, though: in some ways, 1999 was the last of the old ESCs. The contest grew in scale considerably the following year and has never really looked back since. While I do remember being in the press room in the International Convention Center, it was the early days of the internet and the gathered press and fans weren’t anywhere near what they are now. The next editions I attended, in 2004 and 2005, were already much bigger, but ESC was still in an interim phase before it became branded the way it is now.

But the main difference for me is I simply hadn’t realized how exhausting it is to have Eurovision on home soil. Not only because of being the one helping foreign visitors to figure out the unapologetically direct and somewhat chaotic Israeli culture, or providing context and history to random things – like why the orange carpet was held where it was (it’s a square that hosts both our national philharmonic orchestra and our national theater, so it’s symbol of music and culture) – but also because of that sense of patriotism you find creeping up on you, where you want this Eurovision to be a really good one just because it’s your country, even though you’re not involved in the production in any way.

Attending the entire two-week Eurovision run is exhausting. That was never in doubt, because we know what to expect: 41 countries rehearsing over a long stretch of days, performing 5-7 run-throughs each. You do the math. And then there’s the dress rehearsals, and honestly, by the time you get to the live shows there’s very little you haven’t seen yet except the results. It’s a mix of heightened emotions – great pride in everything that is done right, and shame and embarrassment when things go a bit awry. Everything is felt through a magnifying glass, in a way that you don’t really have when the contest is held elsewhere. Partly because you lack the cultural context to be sensitive about the things you think your culture is weaker at, and partly because you just don’t care as much.

It borders on the surreal, to be honest. Today is my eleventh day at this Eurovision – when did that happen? – and I still find myself stopping randomly as I cross the street from the train station to the arena in disbelief. We’re hosting it. We’re actually hosting it. We’re hosting this television monster that we’ve seen growing on TV for so many years but that felt so very far away. Tonight, when the first Te Deum finishes at 22:00 local time, it’ll be our hall that you’ll see. And our hosts – with the varying degrees of Mediterranean volume and Hebrew accent that entails. And it’ll be that girl from last year, Netta, opening the show with the song she won with, the one that made an entire country fall in love with her. It will be that girl who was a nobody just a year and a half ago. And this year is the reason why EVERYTHING is Eurovision-themed, even the main Tel Aviv Independence Day Celebration. Talk about crazy levels of “you did this!” – I never really thought about how this must feel for the previous year’s winner, seeing the massive operation their country is putting together and realizing it’s all because, one year ago, they went on stage and managed to get Europe to vote for them.

And at a more selfish level, Netta is the girl who brought me home.

It’s not that I haven’t been back to Israel since I moved away. I’ve visited every year, or at least every other year. But truth be told, I’ve never felt completely at home in Israel. Maybe it’s my dual nationality that always impacted the way I behave – a little bit from here, a little bit from there. Maybe it’s just the way I am. But I always felt a bit like an outsider. When I was growing up, I had a hard time feeling like I belonged, and Eurovision was the first place where I felt comfortable being entirely me. It took a long time for me to grow into this person, a process that really started once I moved away, a year after the last Eurovision I attended, back in Kiev in 2005. And perhaps there’s no fuller circle than coming back, as the version of me I’m meant to be, to the place and the community that were the first to let me know who that is.

ESC 2019 has given me the opportunity to finally take some of my Eurovision friends to my hometown, Jerusalem – less than an hour away from Tel Aviv by public transportation, but a different planet in every other sense. It has given me the chance to show my friends a little bit of my world and my childhood, of a place that everyone in the world has heard of – that’s always a bit mind-blowing when you think about it – and to give them some small bits and pieces that they wouldn’t have seen on the news or learned about at church. Jerusalem is the city that the news presents as the backdrop to the mother all of wars, but that, in my heart and my memories, is a place where you can walk around in a skirt and a tanktop, where around you Orthodox Jews, monks, nuns, priests, Christian and Muslim residents of the city, and people from everywhere in the world walk past you as if a girl with all the colors in her hair is the most normal thing. And in a way, in Jerusalem of all places, having all the colors is normal.

When we arrived at the train station in Jerusalem and took the five massive flights of escalators from the depths of the earth to street level – incidentally, exiting right across from the International Convention Center, where both the 1979 and 1999 competitions took place – we ran into a group of young Orthodox Jewish men. My visitors didn’t really grasp what happened next, both because of the language barrier and because they didn’t have enough understanding to realize how monumental that moment was, but I’ll try my best to make a better job of explaining it here. You might recall that one of the main reasons against having Eurovision in Jerusalem was the objection of the Orthodox Jews – this is why the Shabbat was a problem, because the city has such a big community that would be bothered about doing it in Shabbat and would protest against it. It’s the community that is known for its intolerance towards gays and intolerance towards Jewish woman who don’t maintain a modest fashion style.

So when they turned to one of the tourists next to us and asked whether he was here for Eurovision, it was easy to worry that it wouldn’t end well. Except there was something in the tone that caught my ear, so as soon as that tourist explained that he wasn’t, I pointed at my friends and said that we were. Maybe it was a bit irresponsible to follow my gut instinct on this one, but I wanted to see where it was going. And their response to the Hebrew-speaking girl with the tanktop and the rainbow hair, and the group of gay Eurovision fans surrounding her, wasn’t the one you might expect.

“Welcome!” they said in English, the only bit of the language they knew. And then they turned to me and asked questions. Where were my friends from? Were they excited to be here? “Wish them a good stay,” they said excitedly, “and tell them we hope they enjoy the experience”. All my friends saw was a group of Israelis being welcoming and excited about Eurovision, like it has been pretty much everywhere around here. But I saw so much more. Eurovision can be such a huge thing to ask a country to host that it’s easy to wonder what the benefits are, especially when you look at all the things that can (and do) go wrong and all the inconveniences it can cause. But this is what Eurovision can do for you. It can make a complex, torn society come together and coalesce around the most unexpected of things. You did this too, Netta.

Still, it turns out that you can take the Israeli out of Israel, but you can’t take Israel out of the Israeli. Because I have no explanation as to how I can stand with an accreditation around my neck, surrounded by foreigners, and yet have people coming up to me and immediately talking to me in Hebrew while addressing everyone else in English. As I’m discovering, it’s something about the way we communicate even when we don’t talk – just the brazenness of never avoiding looking anyone, everyone, straight in the eye. It’s the way you end up having conversations with random strangers about Eurovision – I actually had to take a break while writing this, because the people at the table next to me in this small urban Tel Aviv park started talking about Netherlands leading the odds and how Kan picked Kobi’s song so we won’t win again. And they’re not Eurovision fans, just Tel Aviv residents who have been living and breathing Eurovision for the last year. I joined the conversation – which included the three people next to me and one more on the phone – before returning to my writing. I didn’t even tell them I was at the Expo every day, or that I know way more about the subject than they do. I was just another Israeli counting down the hours to tonight’s broadcast.

“It feels like a holiday, doesn’t it?”, the chocolatier in the candy store downstairs asked me.

Yes, it really does.

It’s been eleven days already, but in some ways, the real Eurovision starts with the first Te Deum. And tonight, in the country where I was born and raised, watching the broadcast of an event that’s taking place just across town, I’ll be truly home.

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