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Next Stop Tel Aviv

Descending the stairs, I can make out through the strobe light a revolving disco ball, plastic grape leaves drooping from the ceiling, and Byzantine-style molding on the walls. It's nearly midnight, and the club has just started to fill up. Almost everyone is Russian and speaking the mother tongue.

At the bar, I meet the owner, Shai Stein, a Lithuanian who came to Israel as a teenager 40 years ago. Shai asserts that the "new Russians" are the best customers he's ever come across. "Most of these people," he says, "will spend three hundred shekels [$100] a couple. Then there are the special types. Like that guy over there who sends a waitress out for a pack of cigarettes, then gives her a hundred-dollar bill and tells her to keep the change." For most Israelis, to be a freier-- a sucker, or someone who overpays for something-- is a cardinal sin. Not among the arrivistes. "A guy will brag that he just bought a tie at a Paris boutique for two hundred dollars," says Shai, "and his friend will tell him he could have gotten it for three hundred somewhere else."

There's a hush as the star attraction, Svetlana, a devastating blonde with a Marlene Dietrich voice, takes center stage. Wearing a mock Russian navy uniform, she sings about a sailor on leave, his vodka bottle, and the woman he loves but whose name he cannot remember.

Israelis often joke that the Russians have helped heal the old rift between Ashkenazim and Sephardim: both groups now have a new immigrant community to complain about. In fact, the gulf between European and Middle Eastern Jews had been narrowing for years, through intermarriage, business ties, and military service.

For me, the new closeness was typified by the friendship between two prominent restaurateurs in Jaffa: Shaul Evron of the Yoezer Wine Bar, and Bino (he uses no other name) of a North African eatery known as Dr. Shakshuka. Shaul, of Eastern European extraction, was once the food critic for a leading newspaper, though his real claim to fame was as the man who introduced Israelis to Wild Turkey. The Libyan-born Bino, himself a teetotaler, remembered a favorable review that Shaul once gave Dr. Shakshuka in its early, struggling days, and found the ex-journalist a space a block away for his wine bar.

Having tried and liked the seafood appetizers-- served tapas-style-- at the wine bar earlier in the day, I join Shaul that night for dinner at Bino's place. Dr. Shakshuka spreads over a converted Ottoman-era warehouse and courtyard, between the Jaffa clock tower and the flea market. Instead of handing me a menu, Bino leans over the table and forcefully recites the day's specialties. "Tafrit te imot," responds Shaul, Hebrew for "Give us a bit of everything."

Within minutes, a half-dozen dishes are spread on the table: boiled potatoes lathered with a red pumpkin sauce; mafoun, beef ground with spices; a vegetable paste called chilcheh; kuklah, semolina and lamb fat; a spicy North African version of kishkes, beef intestines stuffed with meat, bread crumbs, and seasoning; pickled radishes. Reeling from the feast, I ask Bino for some Turkish coffee and the bill. He says the main courses are still to come.

At this point, we are rescued by divine intervention. Eliahu, a bearded, Moroccan-born Jewish holy man dressed in white mufti from head to toe, and apparently famished from recent fasting, greets us and accepts our invitation to eat. By his own admission, he had been a vagrant and a sinner until his sudden religious awakening nine years ago. No sect was rigorous enough to satisfy him, and besides, he wanted no intermediaries between himself and his Maker. Luckily for Bino and Shaul, Eliahu's conversion coincided with a career move: he became a first-rate plumber, capable of quickly repairing the turn-of-the-century pipes that serve their restaurants.

In case of emergency, Bino and Shaul know they can find Eliahu at the local Sephardic temple in the morning and at the Ashkenazi synagogue in the evening. But a few days ago, without leaving word, he went off to visit a prophet's tomb elsewhere in Israel, and Shaul, who desperately needed him to unclog a drain, is now upbraiding him. "Relax," says the holy man, tearing into the sea bass. "I prayed for your eternal soul while I was gone. And now I'm going to save your stomach."


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