My Love Af­fair With Is­raeli Smok­ing Was One Cig­a­rette Long

Forward Magazine - - Fast Forward - By Avi­tal Nor­man Nath­man Avi­tal Nor­man Nath­man is a free­lance writer whose work has been fea­tured in the New York Times, CNN, Bitch Magazine, Cos­mopoli­ and more. She is the ed­i­tor of the 2014 Seal Press an­thol­ogy, The Good Mother Myth.

Ismoked my first cig­a­rette in Is­rael, the land of milk, honey and Marl­boro Reds. I was 10 years old and stretch­ing my al­most-tween free­dom. There was some­thing so ef­fort­lessly cool about it all, the way peo­ple smoked on the beach in be­tween dips into the crys­tal-clear, blue wa­ter. Or how soldiers at the bus stop would share a cig­a­rette be­tween them like some sort of se­cret club ini­ti­a­tion. Or the hyp­no­tiz­ing curl of smoke that would un­wind around my Is­raeli un­cle as he slowly sipped his cof­fee be­tween puffs.

These scenes were very far re­moved from my sub­ur­ban New Eng­land up­bring­ing, where cig­a­rette smok­ing was ad­mon­ished and

I watched chil­dren of no more than 14 or 15 smoke at the bus stop.

cig­a­rettes never seen. Back in Con­necti­cut, anti-smok­ing cam­paigns ruled the late ’80s, and pic­tures of black, de­cayed lungs were enough to keep me far away from Joe Camel. But in Is­rael? It seemed like ev­ery­one was smok­ing, and the stub­born kid in me needed to see what the hype was about, necrotic lungs be damned!

It was a week or so into our fam­ily trip when I watched my un­cle flick his cig­a­rette onto the walk­way be­fore he let him­self into the apart­ment. I checked to make sure no­body was look­ing, and then sprinted to­ward it. I care­fully cra­dled it in the palm of my hand, not want­ing to burn my­self, but clearly aware that if I let it snuff out, I’d be out of luck. I en­tered the stair­well, and af­ter re­as­sur­ing my­self that no­body was head­ing in my di­rec­tion, I placed the still smol­der­ing cig­a­rette to my lips.

It tasted amaz­ing.

I in­haled again, this time tak­ing in as much as I could. My lips brushed against the dry, cot­ton­like fil­ter as bit­ing smoke filled my lungs, leav­ing a sharp, sting­ing sen­sa­tion in its wake. It tasted dis­gust­ing. This one hit me good, and I stag­gered back like I’d been punched. My chest squeezed tight, and I started wheez­ing. My heart beat fast, al­most too quickly, and I felt dizzy. It was ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing all at once. Is this what it felt like to be a grown-up? I was all in, but then re­al­ized I would be in a hell of a lot of trou­ble if my par­ents found out.

I gave my­self a few more min­utes, and even­tu­ally started feel­ing nor­mal again. My head had stopped feel­ing cloudy, and de­spite my rac­ing pulse, I rushed up five flights of stairs to my grand­par­ents’ apart­ment, ig­nor­ing shouts of greet­ing un­til I was locked be­hind the bath­room door. I had to de­stroy all ev­i­dence of my crime. I washed my hands three times, con­vinced I could still de­tect the acrid stench be­neath my chewed nails.

In the end, no­body was the wiser, and if my par­ents knew some­thing was up with their squir­rely 10-year-old, they never said any­thing. Later, in col­lege, I re­al­ized that, whoa, there are peo­ple in Amer­ica who smoke. They had just been hid­ing out in Econ 101.

I’ve been back to Is­rael mul­ti­ple times since then, and I re­cently re­turned for the first time with my own child. My son is al­most 8, and he in­stantly fell in love with the coun­try. He also seemed to no­tice, much like his mother al­most 25 years prior, how preva­lent the smok­ing cul­ture is there. But this time around, nei­ther of us was en­am­ored of it.

While at first all I saw were at­trac­tive adults and swirls of gray smoke, now it all felt rather de­press­ing. The free ash­trays that are kindly of­fered at city beaches don’t seem to stem the ti­dal waves of cig­a­rette butts buried in the sand along­side seashells. De­spite re­cent ef­forts like a strict 2012 anti-smok­ing law that bans smok­ers from light­ing up in var­i­ous pub­lic places, such as bus stops and train sta­tions — com­plete with hefty fines — I still saw plenty of peo­ple puff­ing away in pub­lic. And I’ve seen friends and rel­a­tives deal with real-life health is­sues that crush any no­tion of per­ceived chic­ness.

“But don’t they know they won’t have as much breath to swim and run?” my son asked me as we walked down the Tel Aviv beach. Hours later he held up a lol­lipop stick to his lips and pre­tended to smoke, much to my cha­grin.

I be­came the con­cerned old lady as I watched packs of chil­dren — they couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 — smoke cig­a­rettes at the bus stop. I wanted to ask where their par­ents were, but they were prob­a­bly off smok­ing, too.

I’ve since dis­cov­ered that a few other friends have had their first ex­pe­ri­ence with Big To­bacco while in the Holy Land. Some were there on a youth-group-led trip while in col­lege; oth­ers had been vis­it­ing friends and fam­ily, like I was. All these peo­ple were older than 10, but they felt sim­i­larly about the seem­ing om­nipres­ence of smol­der­ing cig­a­rettes. And like me, upon re­turn­ing to the states, none of them be­came a life­long smoker.

I’m still not quite sure what it is about Is­raelis and cig­a­rettes. It’s clearly a part of their cul­ture, and per­haps re­flects the cul­ture of the re­gion, too: Smok­ing is huge in the Arab world. I still re­mem­ber star­ing in awe at a claw-ma­chine game near the Tel Aviv bus sta­tion. In­stead of stuffed toys or plushy balls, the prizes were boxes of Marl­boros. Today I no longer want to play the game. I hope that my son feels the same way and man­ages to es­cape the al­lure the next time we visit, or at least holds out longer than I did.


Blow­ing Smoke: A woman smokes a cig­a­rette in the Ma­hane Ye­huda mar­ket in Jerusalem.

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