I never thought I would learn life lessons from a fish taco in Tel Aviv.
Let me back up. When I moved into my first post-college apartment in Ventura two years ago, I was “that girl” in her early 20s just trying to find her sea legs. My classics degree had been fun, but I still didn’t know who I was. What made me tick?
I got a taste of it in 2011 watching the Arab Spring protests on my company’s television in the break room. The women in Tahrir Square were fearless. I was in awe. Ventura was a breath of fresh air. No stranger to the ocean, I had still never managed to live by the beach and soak up that devil-may-care attitude the sun bakes into you. Ventura does it so well. A jaunt down the pier or a late-night swing on the playground next to Eric Ericsson’s (the one kids commandeer during the day) was always enough to put my existential woes into perspective. How can you worry when dolphins are frolicking before your eyes?
Those days, I was wrapped up in my own struggles. I had moved to Ventura to find myself, and in the year that I lived within walking distance of Spencer Makenzie’s on Thompson, I discovered two things. The first was my undying love for the World Famous Giant Fish Taco.
Discovering Spencer Makenzie’s was an epiphany, and taco runs became as religious as a pilgrimage to Mecca. With each beer-battered delight, I sank further into the subtlety of flavors, and life was simply good. Even the plasticware was the perfect size, not that I wasted time with delicacy.
Months after Mubarak fell, I was in my cubicle at lunch, listening to a report on the loss of women’s rights in Egypt since the revolution. Something snapped. The time had come to tackle the nagging thoughts that drove me so often to Spencer Makenzie’s. What did I care about? That I could sit there in a bikini and eat a fish taco without fearing for my safety.
The second thing I discovered at Spencer Makenzie’s was my determination to work for women’s rights in the Middle East. That meant a master’s degree in Israel, where fish tacos are scarcer than a ham and cheese sandwich. I packed my bags, waved a tearful goodbye to Spencer Makenzie’s, and hopped three planes to Tel Aviv.
I decided I would eat falafel and shawarma as if there were no tomorrow, but I would search for a fish taco to rival Spencer Makenzie’s. Even if I never found it — surely there was virtue in the struggle?
Before leaving the U.S., I had learned some Hebrew phrases. But no sooner did I step off the plane than I hit a tangle of sound. After frenziedly finding my apartment, food became top priority. I wandered the aisles of what I would learn was the most expensive grocery store in town. Emptying my wallet of the few shekels I had, I caught an employee’s eye. Something in my face must have prompted him to say, “Hakol beseder.” There it was, the first Hebrew phrase I recognized — “everything is OK.” And in that moment, it was. Despite the fish-out-of-water feeling that would persist for months to come, I learned to rely on the ubiquitous phrase that encapsulates the Israeli spirit: The sun is too hot, the rent too high, the country too often on the brink of war, but hakol beseder.
My studies and daily life were constant reminders of gender inequality. Somehow, the persistent dearth of good fish tacos became synonymous with women’s liberation. There are no decent fish tacos in Tel Aviv! Women are not free!
One day, there was a bright spot on the horizon. A friend who knew of my quest had alerted me to a renowned Mexican restaurant downtown. Previous places had proven bland disappointments, but I would keep my newfound Israeli skepticism at bay and meet her there for dinner.
The humidity had sapped my energy. I rambled down Allenby Street, addled brain making neither heads nor tails of whichever unpronounceable cross street I was supposed to find. Meanwhile, my friend was waiting, the bus had been late, I’d seen a husband yell at his wife, and I was homesick.
Flopping down at the table, I ordered immediately. The two tidbits that arrived made my heart clench with nostalgia. These tacos were not Giant. I gingerly bit into one — and saw heaven. It wasn’t Spencer Makenzie’s, but it was divine. The taco smacked my skepticism in the face, and I realized I’d been fighting the wrong tide.
The day I sank my teeth into a celebration of cod, cilantro and cabbage in an out-of-the-way Tel Aviv taqueria (fittingly named “Taqueria”), I learned to appreciate Israel for what it was, and not condemn it for what it wasn’t.
Finding good fish tacos didn’t mean I’d won the feminist fight, but it did mean I could relax for two seconds and enjoy where I was. Tel Aviv was not Ventura, but accepting my new city was not betraying my old one. And in the uphill battle for women’s rights, I would need a lot more fish tacos as fuel. For now, Tel Aviv is my city, but I’m sure Spencer’s will take me back, and then hakol will be beseder.