My Life With a Tel Aviv Icon

Ruthy Ish Cassit, widow of Moshe—owner of the eponymous Café Cassit, hangout of Tel Aviv's beau monde—has written a memoir chronicling her life alongside the greatest celebrities of the 1970s. While prone, perhaps inevitably, to namedropping, "Kach Hayinu" is an honest account of a deservedly mythical age.

I fell in love with Ruthy before I knew who she was. After I had my eldest son, my partner and I interviewed potential nannies for a part-time position. As new parents, we had no idea what we needed from a nanny; but the moment we met Ruthy, we knew that she was the one. On writing out her first pay check, a month after she started caring for our precious baby, we asked her last name. “Ish Cassit,” she replied. Wait. What? Really??

Our surprise was twofold. Her idiosyncratic surname revealed her connection to Moshe Ish Cassit, the Tel Aviv legend, who we were surprised to learn was her late husband. No less surprising was the discovery that Ish Cassit was their official name, not just a nickname bestowed upon Moishele and Hatzkel, his father, by the patrons of Café Cassit, the legendary hangout for Tel Aviv’s literati which they ran (Ish Cassit means “Man of Cassit”; this is the spelling used by the family, while Kassit is also used widely).

In the summer of 1987, Moshe Ish Cassit died suddenly at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, shortly after checking himself in to ER with chest pains. He was 39 years old. Moshe was survived by his mother, two sisters, Ruthy and their three small children, and by the thousands of incredulous Tel Avivians who came to bid one of the city’s biggest celebrities farewell. Fourteen years after his death, his widow Ruthy quit her job as a travel agent to write a memoir about their life together. More than two decades on, Kach Hayinu (“The Way We Were”) has finally been (self) published.

Ruthy too was surprised to discover, when she first met Moshe, that Ish Cassit was not just a nickname. In an early chapter of the book, she recounts Moshe’s response to her disbelief. “In the 1950s everyone Hebraicized their names,” he told her. “Our surname was Weinstein. The original meaning in German is ‘wine and stone’. Cassit is a wine-colored stone. Avraham Shlonsky, the poet, sat with my dad and together they contemplated how to Hebraicize the name. In Hebrew, Cassit is a type of red coral from which the red gemstone is made. The name Cassit also sounds like Cossit [cup, or simply “a drink,” in Hebrew], which is connected to wine, and thus the name Ish Cassit was born.”

Café Cassit, for three decades the beating heart of Tel Aviv’s bohemian life, was established in the 1940s by Hatzkel Ish Cassit at Dizengoff 117, right at the center of the city’s most fashionable street. The café quickly became the stomping ground for the city’s in-crowd. In its early days, Café Cassit was frequented by poets, writers, and actors like Shlonsky, Natan Alterman, Leah Goldberg, Alexander Penn, and Hanna Rovina. In the 1960s and 1970s, the crowd broadened to include anyone who was somebody—from movie stars to pop singers, journalists to army generals and mobsters. They all hung out at Cassit, and they all knew Moishele from the minute he came into this world in 1947.

 

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Standing 194 centimeters (6ft 4in) tall and very much overweight, the good-natured Moshe Ish Cassit was known as “The Jolly Giant.” Ruthy (née Miyara)—short, slender, and pretty, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants—was taking her first steps in the Tel Aviv party scene when the two met. Best friends at first, they then fell in love, got married, and had three children. Living apart for a long time while remaining a couple, they led a very unconventional family life; one wouldn’t expect anything less from Tel Aviv’s bohemians-in-chief.

Ruthy describes Moishele the way he always was: kind hearted, a good friend, drop-dead funny. For a while, he tried his hand at acting, appearing in movies and TV, mainly in comedies. He aspired to become a serious actor, but his towering physique and thuggish looks meant that he was typecast as shady characters and never secured a romantic leading role. When his father died in 1979, Moshe took over Cassit, together with his mother and sister. Suddenly, he wasn’t just the owner’s son—he became the owner. Moishele was Cassit and Cassit was Moishele; his and Ruthy’s friends were the greatest cultural icons of their generation, including singer Arik Einstein and filmmaker Assi Dayan (who before his death wrote a beautiful foreword to the book).

Kach Hayinu begins before the author met the love of her life. In a casual and naïve style that reads very much like a young girl’s diary, she writes of her childhood and adolescence, and of her early escapades in Tel Aviv’s nightlife scene. Her life soon became intertwined with Moshe Ish Cassit’s; from the moment he comes on the scene, the book shifts into a second-person narrative, addressed to her late husband. Kach Hayinu is a love letter, a confession—and from a certain point on a farewell,

Ruthy looking back on their monumental love affair and loving family unit. Tragically, they were a family of five for just three months and 20 days, the age of their youngest daughter when her father died. Ruthy’s memoir starts before Moishele came into her life, but ends shortly after his death.

Some chapters recall unhinged episodes which nevertheless stand testament to the couple’s devotion to each other. There was the time Moshe and Ruthy threw glasses at each other in a bar; or the time they professed their love for each other by screaming out of their cell windows at the Abu Kabir Detention Center, where they were being held for drug possession. Other anecdotes tell a family story. These vignettes are all written in the same matter-of-fact style, stripped of artifice. The author vividly recounts the events one after the other, as though discovering them for the first time together with the reader. Ruthy, it seems, rolled with the punches; she offers up her experiences straight and unadorned, leaving it to the reader to make their own judgement.

No surprise, given the time and place, that Ruthy fell prey to sexual predators on more than one occasion. There is a degree of resignation in her descriptions of the assaults she endured. Sexual harassment—and sometimes worse—was rampant in the 1970s. Like many women of her generation, Ruthy’s descriptions of these incidents sometimes seem forgiving, as if to say that they were undesirable but also inevitable. The present-day reader might find this shocking; still the fact that her encounters don’t seem to have traumatized or scarred her attests to her steadfast character.

In Kach Hayinu, Ruthy Ish Cassit comes across as strong and independent, true to herself and happily going wherever life leads her. She does not relate any huge dreams or aspirations on her part. When she was young, she had wanted to become an actress, but never actually pursued this path. (Having been sexually harassed at an early audition probably didn’t help.) Typical for a young woman, she mainly wanted to have fun—and she was in the right time and the right place for this. She tells endless anecdotes of unbridled partying, sex, drinking, and smoking pot. Many around her, famous and anonymous alike, took this sybaritism too far and went off the deep end, ultimately falling into alcoholism or heroin addiction. With other people’s stories, names are sometimes changed to protect the guilty. More often, though, Ruthy keeps the names and places as they were.

The tone of the book changes abruptly after Moishele’s tragic death. Serious reflection over what had occurred only begins after she describes the shock of sudden bereavement. The last chapters of Kach Hayinu describe Ruthy’s sumptuous grief, her emotions sometimes approaching the scale of a Brontë Sisters’ melodrama. She holds posthumous conversations with Moshe; in one chapter, titled “The Madness,” she writes of her desire to excavate his body with her bare hands.

 

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Lacking the finesse that one would expect from a seasoned writer, Ruthy Ish Cassit’s unpolished style zigzags between low and high register, sometimes turning unwarrantedly lyrical. Fart jokes are followed by excessively poetic turns of phrases. No doubt the book would have benefited from more careful editing. Still, her amateurish writing does not lack charm. What the reader does get, though, is Ruthy’s unique voice, which goes hand in glove with the subject matter and adds a zest of authenticity.

Ruthy herself, I must emphasize, is no less interesting than the man that she married. A favorite section of the book recalls her time alone in 1974, in London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and a small village in the Netherlands. These passages resonate with feelings that would be familiar to Israelis walking through European streets, the oblivious looks on the locals’ faces suggesting their lack of any “real” problems. During the time she spent abroad, Ruthy and Moishele corresponded with each other; the letters are relayed in full in the book, another moving and unmediated glimpse into their love story.

As a memoir set in Cassit, once upon a time the epicenter of Tel Aviv’s beau monde, the book is filled to the brim with namedropping. Not just of people: night clubs, cafés, restaurants, songs, films, movie theaters, and shops too. One funny thing is that Ruthy uses a professional honorific with every famous person she mentions. This seems a bit silly (anyone interested in reading this book would recognize these names) and unnatural. Obviously, no one in her social circle would say something like “You won’t believe who I just bumped into! The author and poet Yehonatan Geffen.” Or, “I was late because I sat with the painter Uri Lifschitz.” This little affectation reminded me of the time my son asked me why I write people’s names next to their pictures in our family photo albums. I’m guessing Ruthy’s reason is the same as mine: half “for future generations” and half “just in case.”

The account of the couple’s last few years together is mostly about everyday matters—domestic squabbles, money issues, raising children, Moshe’s infidelity—and about coping with Moishele’s drug problems. These parts of the book are reminiscent of dialogues from Uri Zohar films of the 1970s, like Metzitzim (“Peeping Toms”) and especially like Einayim G’dolot (“Big Eyes,” in which Moishele had a role). In his work, Zohar, a prominent member of the Cassit artistic circle, also addressed the difficulty of maintaining a marriage and family life in the hedonistic, liberated, but essentially conservative Tel Aviv of the 1970s. Zohar laid out the male version, while Ruthy gives here the other perspective, as a woman left to fend for her kids while her husband struggled to give up his kicks; womanizing in Zohar’s case, drug abuse in Moishele’s. Just like in Zohar’s films, Ruthy’s style is realistic, grainy and rough around the edges.

The main strength of The Way We Were is its humanity. The writer is well aware of the weaknesses, passions and frailties that motivated her and everyone around her to act as they did, and of the underlying temptations of the liberated period in which they lived. It was, I suppose, no surprise that many of Ruthy’s protagonists in Kach Hayinu ended up paying the price for their lifestyles. This is a generation of people who lived before they died, many of them prematurely; those who are still alive carry the bittersweet memories of everything that had happened.

This is a book that every Tel Avivian should read. Others, curious about this particular part of Israeli history, would find things of interest in it as well. The value of the book lies not in its literary merit or in the fame of the author, but in the fact that she was a witness to a great moment in Israel’s folklore. The author takes you by the hand on a stroll through familiar streets but in a very different time, which she describes without mythologization or nostalgia. In this sense, the book has the sort of timelessness of real life. And just as in real life, you don’t feel the years go by while reading the book. Just like life, it feels stretched out and told in detail; but you also don’t understand how it whizzed by so fast.

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