Mediterranean Nights



135 MacDougal Street, ny, ny 10012

Neighborhood: West Village

I was a regular at the Café Feenjon, on MacDougal Street, in the West Village in the early ’70s. I was in my mid-twenties then and my older sister and I frequented the spot at least once a week. The club showcased Middle-Eastern Music: Israeli, Arabic and Greek. The menu featured non-Kosher Middle-Eastern food, which I couldn’t eat. But it was not the forbidden food that drew me; it was the excitement of the music, the ambience and the male performers that lured me in.

As soon as I began my descent into the cave-like setting of the club, the pulsating sensuality took over and cast its spell upon me. The rhythm of the instruments hit me in the stomach before I opened the door. The exotic beat of the music, the loud bouzouki and tambour entered my body and became my heartbeat, proof that I was alive. Each time I went, the mystique of the Feenjon enchanted me anew. It was music that made me feel I was as exciting and sexy as the sounds coming from the stage, as if I were in a nightclub in Casablanca.

It was a dangerous place, the polar opposite of the plodding safety of my daily routine, a teacher of Judaic Studies in an orthodox all-girls high school. I was expected to be more than a teacher, a perfect role model for my adolescent students, and someone who would protect them against the menacing outside culture, which surely included the Feenjon. The thrill lay in that danger.

My favorite performer was Mr. Gaby Shoshan. Today, thirty years later, his image is as vivid as ever and still stirs up memories of what I felt then. If I close my eyes, I see him towering over me. Long black curly hair, large liquid black eyes, a perfect face, angular, with a strong, chiseled chin. And his body. He was Man. Each player had his turn as soloist. But when Gaby stood up, electric guitar slung casually over his neck, it was a hypnotic experience. He was Sex. He exuded it from every inch of his body, from his black cowboy boots up to his black hair. He was an Israeli, a well-known entertainer in his native country. He sang popular songs on the radio and starred in the Israeli films, including the Hebrew production of Hair. His songs, all in Hebrew, were love songs. I was so mesmerized by him that I barely heard the words. When he got off his stool, I felt faint. His look was so intense, I squirmed in my seat, imagining that he could see through my modest clothing and directly into my immodest thoughts.

I was aware of the fact that he was a slick womanizer but ignored it. I think he took girls into the alley behind the Café during the breaks, a tiny space called Minetta Lane. I stuck to the frame and pattern of my being attracted to men who were totally inappropriate to my lifestyle and culture. Like Lady Chatterley, I always fell for the “Game Keeper.” The young men, rabbinical students, who I met through the proper communal channels, bored me to tears and I found them pale and pallid both in looks and personality. A longing for excitement was buried under my long sleeves and skirts and it drew me to forbidden men.

But I didn’t fall for doctors, psychologists, or attorneys. I needed the macho car mechanic who checked under the hood of my blue Buick, the cute van driver who took my 5-year old nephew to yeshiva (and me to the movies) and the outrageously sexy club singers. Only they satisfied the secret wildness that lived inside me, so hidden that I even didn’t acknowledge its existence. I never deviated from the observances, but I would have been unrecognizable to the people in my “world” in my Mediterranean Night Persona.

When Gaby stood up and took his place center stage, I was jealous of the microphone he held so tightly. I wanted to be that mike. Each time he stood, I felt like saying, “Don’t unleash it all. It’s way too powerful; hold something back.” Suddenly, without warning, he would flash a smile at me from the stage. He knew that I recognized many of his songs, and had seen and heard of him on Israeli records and films. I’d even bought some of his recordings on one of my frequent trips to Israel.

One night at the Café, during a break between sets, Gaby came to my table. He always sat next to a woman; he took it for granted that God created females for him, and vice versa. I was scared, terrified, excited. Sure enough, he asked me, “May I sit down on this chair?” As if I would answer, “No, it’s occupied.”

The minute he sat down, he moved his chair very close to mine. Our thighs became attached. I stopped breathing and could not move. My leg was getting numb, but I didn’t want the closeness to stop. Any motion on my part might make this real-life fantasy end. Gaby whispered in my ear. Who remembers what he said? My blood pounded in my head. Then the break was over. The lights dimmed. He stood up in all his Gaby Glory and invited me to sit with him the following evening during the break. I am not clear about what happened next, but somehow the words jumped out of my mouth: I volunteered to bake a chocolate cake for him. He accepted graciously, smiled that killer smile, and said, “Don’t disappoint me tomorrow.” Perhaps I offered the cake because I couldn’t believe that he could be interested in me. Or maybe I felt compelled to mute the danger with a dose of domesticity.

Although I was in my early twenties, I felt like a fourteen-year-old on her first date. It was an event I had never experienced, having been brought up religiously and strictly segregated from boys. What would I say to him? Who cared?

When he went back on stage I forgot about his singing — that body consumed my every thought.

The next day I baked the chocolate cake. That evening I took special care, three hours’ worth, with my make-up and long straight hippie-style hair. Jeans were taboo, so I chose attire that was as close as I could get to the look I strived for, flowered tiered-skirt, kind of gypsylike and an ecru-colored loose-fitting Indian woven cotton shirt with a drawstring closing at the neck.

When Gaby saw me enter that night, he winked from the stage. He remembered! I sat at my round table clutching the package containing the Sacrificial Offering of Cake, holding on for dear life. It contained the cake that I had prepared lovingly in exchange for Gaby’s favor. I could not enjoy the music the way I usually did. I was a bundle of nerves. How was I supposed to act? I’d had no experience or training for this.

Then the set ended, and the moment arrived. I wiped my hands. They were sweating from holding the paper bag. Gaby came toward me, stopped at my table and whispered, “I can’t tonight. My wife is here. She showed up unexpectedly. I can’t let her see me even speaking with you, let alone sitting next to you.”

My fall from exhilarating anticipation to speechless degradation was total. The humiliation of clutching that stupid cake. I threw it into the garbage. It had become a symbol of my disgrace. His wife? Who knew he was married? I was still so naïve that I held on to the belief that a married man could not possibly pursue other women. The words “my wife” killed my fantasy along with my dignity. He’s not even single? I thought, as if, were he unattached, it would make any difference in his relationship with me.

In the space of five minutes, this place of magic turned into the Café of Shame. It took me days to recover. But time passed, and I returned to the Feenjon and Gaby. And when he got off his stool and stood, it still made me breathless. And I still wonder what would have happened if his wife had not shown up that night.

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