by Ruby Comer
“Freedom is not something you are given, but something you have to take”—Méret Oppenheim, Swiss Surrealist Artist and Photographer.
As I read this at a recent exhibit in the Haifa Museum of Art, a surge of electricity rushed through my svelte body. I had already taken Méret’s advice! I seized the opportunity of an invite from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and hopped on a flight to Israel. The history of the State of Israel is astonishing and is well documented in the award-winning 1960 film, Exodus.
Hands-down, the place to stay in Haifa is the extraordinary and regal, Bay Club, a boutique hotel—small enough to be intimate, large enough to provide expertise service. (Nikolay Pertzel at the front desk is super-thoughtful.) The 1912 landmark building, an old police station, is located next to a park and just steps away from the Port of Haifa. The pristine grounds are adorned with flowing trees, vivid flowers, and a calming fountain. Vibrant jade-green doors to the guest rooms complement the aquamarine-blue furnishings and tiled walls.
My homey room is spacious, and careful attention has been given to design and accoutrements. My only gripe is that there is no tissue dispenser! The unbelievable view from my large balcony is a postcard of Haifa—it’s hills, edifices, and greenery; think San Francisco.
I spend my first day in Haifa at the Technion Institute of Technology, a center for HIV/AIDS research, where they are pioneering crystallographic work to advance HIV treatments. One of the folks on my tour is Eitan Baron, thirty-one, who’s visiting from Tel Aviv.
I learn that after receiving a B.A. in communications and a Master’s degree in Diplomacy, Eitan [pronounced “8-tan”] felt a calling to be an English
teacher. By day, he’s manager for a surveillance system company and by night, he studies for a teaching degree. Eitan is currently interning part-time in the classroom. At nineteen, while serving in the IDF (Israel Defense Forces—a requirement for both men and women), Eitan came out. It’s interesting to note that Israel was the first country to accept gays in the military way back in 1993. Americans can be so infantile and ignorant! Like Joan Rivers so growlingly used to say, “Oh, grow up!”
After meeting my first gay Israeli I wanted to find out more about his views on the epidemic. I invite him to the hotel’s daily afternoon “Happy Hour.” We partake of the complimentary aperitifs and sit in their glass enclosed vine-sprawled airy terrace, which is surrounded by foliage, a pond, and cascading water. There’s also a free ten-minute massage. Later, masseur Audrey Abitbol worked her magic on me and I hired her for a two-hour stint. This woman has incredible healing hands and a tranquil aura, a gracious personality, and eye-catching looks, as well.
Ruby Comer: These pillowy sink-into-chairs are so comfy. Eitan, when did you first hear about HIV/AIDS?
Eitan Baron: I was quite young. It was when Freddie Mercury died. Then later, when Magic Johnson spoke out and retired from the NBA. The epidemic really impacted me in 2000. For over a week the whole nation followed the news about the slow death of beloved Israeli singer Ofra Haza, who was HIV-positive. It was only after her death that it was officially announced that she had died of the disease. Rumors about her illness had run around like crazy while she was struggling for her life. It was a complete shocker! Everyone wondered how a woman with such a pure soul like Haza could have AIDS. It seems she was infected by a blood transfusion. After her death, a leading doctor criticized Haza for hiding the disease and was quoted saying, “She died of shame.”
Unfortunately I’m not familiar with her. You’ve piqued my interest though. Were you taught about HIV/AIDS in school?
Not really. HIV/AIDS awareness was not a high priority when I was in school. We were taught to wear a condom, but only to prevent unwanted pregnancy, not HIV.
Hmm….What’s your take on HIV in Israel?
I understand that there is an increasing amount of new HIV cases in Israel every year.
That sounds familiar. [I painfully force a smirk.] What is HIV prevention like here?
No one can say that awareness isn’t high. On Israel’s dating sites they publish various prevention campaigns and volunteers hand out free condoms in clubs. Outside the clubs, a lot of the times, there are free HIV testing points. [He pauses to think then sips his white wine.] Yes, a lot is being done and I think that most gays aren’t ignorant about HIV. It’s each individual’s responsibility to stay safe.
Speaking of testing, when did you first get tested?
I was twenty-two and my boyfriend and I decided after we had been together for a few months to get tested. We went to the Israel AIDS Task Force headquarters to get the quick test and a half hour later we were both pronounced [non-reactive]. It was a big relief because frankly, even though I didn’t do anything unsafe, I was still very stressed. All kinds of worst-case scenarios went through my mind.
It does create anxiety. Do you always play safe? You can be honest!
Yes…I… do. Sex shouldn’t be a death sentence and as long as I know that, I don’t see any reason to put myself at risk. [He takes a beat then presents an energetic boyish grin.]
Bravo! How do you keep safe? What’s your dating process like when it comes to HIV? [A waiter approaches and asks if we need anything before closing.]
Ya know, Ruby, when I’m on a date with a guy I’ll never directly ask about his HIV status. But before sleeping with him I may ask, “When were you last tested?” If our relationship becomes more serious, then we’d probably both be tested. It’s peace of mind.
Yesterday you commented that every summer you would visit your grandparents in Montreal and from there you traveled around the United States. In one sentence, what strikes you as the biggest difference between America and Israel?
One of the main differences I always notice between the U.S. and Israel is the mentality of the people. I feel that the Americans are very worried about being rude and politically correct, while Israelis have what we call “chutzpah,” which makes us very straightforward. I don’t know what’s considered better, but I like that Israelis are not afraid to speak their mind.
I prefer that also. [I gently sip my iced green tea.] Fortunately, Eitan, I have no experience with rockets being fired at me.…What is that like?!
I studied in Sderot between 2005–2008, a period of time when there were hardly any safe zones. I remember my landlord telling me not to be alarmed when the siren goes off. But if I hear the sound of a whistle, than that means the rockets are right above me—and I’m screwed. I can tell you that I heard the whistle sound a few times and it was scary as hell. But to be honest, you get used to the sirens pretty quickly. It goes off, you hide and count fifteen seconds, hear the boom, and continue on with your life. Usually this happened once or twice a day. Of course, this is not normal and no one should have to live like that, but the people down South have been living like this for the past fourteen years. It’s absolutely mad!
The last round of violence in Gaza in July and August was different. Living in Tel Aviv, I had a minute and a half to find shelter once the sirens went off. The magnificent Iron Dome protected us, which intercepted rockets that were aimed at random civilians.
I’m so sorry—and I hope I never need to go through that torture [furiously shaking my head to and fro, in disgust]. Any other remarks, Eitan, before I try the hotel’s free introduction massage?
Many people don’t realize how ashamed and lonely HIV-positive people feel because of the stigma attached to the illness. Modern medicine can deal with HIV, but we should all make the effort to refrain from blaming people. [Eitan tilts his head, briefly looks up at one of the romantic lit lanterns hanging above us, and gleefully exclaims] As an educator, I’ll have the power to promote important values such as tolerance. It’s exciting to think that I’ll be educating Israel’s future generation!
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]