I was 23 when I left Tel Aviv for New York. It’s around that age when you truly take possession of your city, when it stops being a chessboard around which your mother and father move you—from basketball practice to dentist appointment to piano lesson—or a playground for you and your college buddies, stumbling stupidly from one unlit bar to another, but a real place, the soil in which you will soon set down roots. My memories of my hometown, therefore, are like a stack of old postcards, snapshots of streets and parks and people frozen in time, the sensation of ever having physically embodied this city slowly fading away. Did I really live there? I did. But with each return visit, my neurotic affiliations, to borrow a line from the poet, felt weaker and weaker, and I looked at Tel Aviv as at an old classmate from grade school, remembering it fondly but not feeling particularly compelled to rekindle the good old times now long gone.
With one exception.
It sounds silly, I suppose, that the spot in which I felt forever present was a restaurant. A natural landmark, like a beach or a park, would’ve been more dignified, not to mention a high school or the home of a dear friend. But I’m one of those sorry souls who understand the world by ingesting as much of it as they can, chewing their way, both figuratively and literally, through any problem or opportunity. And Orna and Ella was where I went to gorge on Tel Aviv’s ample charms.
I was hardly alone. Orna and Ella was always—to borrow another line from another poet—writhing with portentous life. Leaning against its soothing white walls, perched above its little garden, squinting in its pleasant darkness were filmmakers and writers and actors, men and women who watched as their friends flocked to the neon halls of high tech, taking their lunches and their dinners at fancier, noisier restaurants that boasted big concepts and bigger bills.
Opening its doors for business in 1992, the café established its complicated relationship with space and time right from the start. The two women who gave it its name, Orna Agmon and Ella Schein, met as students of philosophy and psychology. They cut their teeth as pastry chefs in a few trendy Tel Aviv spots, but when a toy store in the lively Sheinkin Street, beloved by the town’s small but resilient bohemia, went out of business, Orna and Ella moved in. They had seven tables and many ideas. For one, they vowed never to cut corners, and to make everything, from bread to ice cream, in-house. For another, they thought it was about time that Tel Aviv had a restaurant with an all-male wait staff while the women ran the kitchen and the business. In a city where going out for a meal still meant, for too many muddle-minded machos, harassing the exhausted young waitresses just trying to make a living, this policy immediately made the café a much more pleasant, equitable place. It also helped that Orna and Ella kept the prices within range of what their habitually underemployed patrons could afford.
The restaurant’s first years dovetailed with the wild abandon that followed the Oslo Accord, a brief and shining period when most of us walking around town believed that all animosity had ended and that prosperity and peace would be the order of the next hundred years. But while other culinary and cultural establishments took this opportunity to do their best and resemble London or Berlin, Orna and Ella wanted their place to feel like Tel Aviv, or, more accurately, like the Platonic ideal of the White City on the Mediterranean. Instead of Asian fusion or Italian chic, they served Israeli goodness. Dishes like sweet potato latkes with a delicate dollop oF sour cream and chives became the memorable madeleines for two generations of Tel Avivis, and every salad you served at a dinner party was immediately compared to the café’s celebrated “Everything Salad,” which was drizzled with an herb dressing that could make even the proudest Green Goddess admit that maybe she wasn’t quite so divine after all.
When the peace process faltered and the Palestinians launched the Second Intifada and terror returned to Tel Aviv’s streets and the mood grew more somber, Orna and Ella grew ever more essential. Theirs was now the town’s preferred sanctuary, not a cheap escape into transient thrills of the flesh but an oasis that reminded you that, at its core, life in this city was good, and that if you focused on your tea and your Pavlova peace eventually will come, if not from without then from within. In 2006, when a hit Israeli film sought to capture this sense of hopefulness by telling a story of a love affair between two men, one Israel and one Palestinian, it used the café as its backdrop. It was aptly named The Bubble.
And, remarkably, the bubble never burst. The city grew thicker and richer. Its café culture, revolving around idle mornings of inspired conversation, was decimated by a generation glued to its smartphones and uninterested in communion. Big business meant less time for leisurely meals. Nevertheless, Orna and Ella persisted. Some years ago, they even published a cookbook, allowing those faithful who, like me, had moved away a slice of serenity far away from Sheinkin Street.
It’s just as well: This week, Orna and Ella announced that they are closing the café in March. The building they have occupied for 26 years will soon undergo renovation, and they couldn’t imagine their haven desecrated by the dust and the noise. Besides, they thought it only fitting that their institution should enjoy a death, so rare in Israel, not by sudden violence or slow and lamentable deterioration but softly, peacefully, a sad and sweet goodbye. Those of us who called it home will be hard to console. But as we retire to our own homes in different cities and line up those sweet potatoes on the kitchen counter and get busy cooking and realize, as we adjust the seasoning and close our eyes and remember happy days, that some things never fade away.
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