11 June 2019
The Russians showed up midmorning at the Arab market in Tel Aviv. We and they converged at the same halva stand at the same time…the halva not yet sweaty from Tel Aviv’s heat and humidity, as it would have been by the middle of the day. The older of the two Russians, head-shaved, a dead ringer for Mr. Clean, was there with a younger friend. They both knew halva. One asked for a sample of the pistachio halva, not sweet, no sugar. “No, no, no…not sweet.” He shook his head for emphasis. The vendor gave him a small taste. “Not bad”, he said to us, but he clearly was not transported by it. He aimed an explicit “take my word for it” look in our direction..schooling us neophytes, as he could tell we were…the hoi polloi, who probably wouldn’t know burgundy from sangria, lemonade from champagne.
Make sure you don’t get too sweet. He corrugated his forehead in distress at the mention of chocolate or mocha or other “inauthentic” flavors for that matter. He asked the price of a kilo. He and his friend wandered off, aware that you never buy the first house you see or the first halva you come across at the market.
We came upon them a few minutes later and a few stalls down the market at another halva stand, more substantial, with not a tinhorn hawker of halva, as at the first stand, but with a proprietor conversant in halva, displaying more substantial blocks of halva and more different kinds. But the pistachio slab was the one that had been cut into more than the others. Mr. Clean acknowledged us, thinking we must be attaching ourselves to them as the acolytes we were, conceding their expertise in halva. Since it was my first encounter with it, I was grateful.
Again, one asked for a sample of pistachio, evidently the standard for judging all halva. The proprietor sliced bigger samples for each of them. The Russians lit up, they had breached halva nirvana. They nearly collapsed in ecstasy. I could only think how constricted their lives must have been, if it was halva that sent them into ecstasy. One pursed his lips in a smile and nodded to us that this was the good stuff. He asked the price, finagled a bit in English (this was an Arab market, so there was a little bit built into the price to make a bargain). Satisfied, he had the Pasha of Halva cut a half-kilo slab…pistachio only…and had it adorned with a few different types of baklava. He and his companion parted, quick-footing it off to a halva debauch on Aeroflot, winging it back to the Federation that afternoon. His parting goodwill gesture was to ask the proprietor to extend the same price he had negotiated to us halva hayseeds. We, too, not wanting to appear anything less than connoisseurs, we had him slice a half-kilo of the same good stuff that would be on the wing to Moscow.
Russian-American relations reached a post-Soviet high-water mark that morning. Agreeing has to start someplace. Da?