Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Tel Aviv: The City that Doesn't Sleep

Something you don't see every day: An Arab woman in full face covering buying halva from a secular Israeli at a Tel Aviv street fair.

In his book A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz writes, “It’s not just that the light of Tel Aviv was different than the light in Jerusalem, more than it is today, even the laws of gravity were completely different. People walked differently in Tel Aviv: they leaped and floated, like Neil Armstrong on the moon...Sea. Light. Sand, scaffolding, kiosks on the avenues, a brand-new white Hebrew city, with simple lines, growing up among the citrus groves and the dunes. Not just a place that you buy a ticket for and travel to on an Egged bus, but a different continent altogether.”
My friend and tour guide Zvi Levran puts it this way— Tel Aviv: sand, sea, and the search for identity.
    Jerusalem, on the one hand, is a poet’s playground. It is mythic and mystic. It isn’t just a place, it is larger than life. It is one big synagogue, one big Jewish think-tank. It is a boiling pot of Christian sects arguing over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre together with secular Jews fighting for a movie theatre open on Shabbat together with female Conservative Yeshiva students proudly wearing kipas on the bus together with Haredim briskly walking to the Kotel together with wide-eyed Korean tourists snapping pictures at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. Jerusalem is exactly what you would picture it to be when you sigh and say “Jerusalem.” You miss Jerusalem even if you’ve never been there. Cynthia Ozick put it best, I think: “...despite its pavements, sewage systems, electric companies, bureaucracies, schools, offices, garbage disposal, all the data that would define a real city, Jerusalem is now, right now, what it has always been: a sustenance, an aspiration, an ascendancy, an idea, a city of the mind.” But Jerusalem can also drive you crazy. In fact, there is something real called The Jerusalem Syndrome in which seekers come here, think they are the Messiah or King David, and end up in the psychiatric ward. The religious tension is palpable and the operative word is “intense.”
    Tel Aviv, on the other hand, is New York with a beach. Walk down Shenkin Street and all you’ll see is English. Unlike Machane Yehuda, the fruit and vegetable open-air market in Jerusalem which takes up several city blocks and has a life of its own, the Carmel Market seems a pale, old-fashioned shuk which doesn’t really fit in anymore; one long row of vendors who don’t really mean it when they hawk at you and a kind of embarrassment that there “still” is an outdoor market at all. Tel Aviv screams: new port, downtown, boutique supermarket, Nahalat Benyamin upscale crafts fair. There’s no Arab shuk, no colourful exotic-looking Christians in hoods and robes. Of course there’s no Kotel, no locus of holiness, and the Chasidim look utterly out of place. It has a vibe, a young, hip, I’m-oh-so-cool-Telavivian kind of vibe, even on Friday nights when the stores are closed and the streets are quiet. Unlike Jerusalem where you hear z’mirot as you walk home on Friday night, in Tel Aviv you hear guitars and radios. Tel Aviv is Paris, and people dress the part. Unlike Jerusalem where the “look” is as many layers and long skirts as you can wear with a big head-scarf, in Tel Aviv the “look” is black on black, skinny girls in tight dresses and guys in “I’m-just-coming-from-the-beach” board shorts.
    We get on a bus in Tel Aviv and the driver is a woman, short butch haircut and lots of tatoos. We pass a store called “Kingdom of Pork.” Openly gay couples hold hands and you have to ask first if the restaurant is kosher. But Tel Aviv can also drive you crazy. What is Jewish here besides for hearing some Hebrew? Who is thinking about Jewish identity here that goes beyond building a city out of sand dunes?
    Jerusalem is Biblical history, where Abraham walked and King David sang. You feel old there, not old in a bad way but part of some ancient story that includes you and makes you feel part of something that goes back a long, long time. Jerusalem is all sweeping vistas, gorgeous golden light at dusk and the Golden Dome and the walls of the Old City which draw you in and make you want to connect. Jerusalem is about Shabbat which feels natural. Jerusalem tells you stories about your past, about a time you didn’t know you were a Jew. 
    Tel Aviv is Zionist history. You meet The Great Names there: Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ahad Haam. You meet them in their top hats and Sunday suits and walking sticks in the cafe, and you have intellectual debates over the normalization of Jewish history “now that we have a State.”  You sit with them in the park on Shenkin and discuss the Jewish character of a Jewish country as Filipino nannies wheel their elderly charges around and you say to yourself “that old man danced in the streets here when Ben Gurion declared the State...that old woman planted the trees here on Rothschild Boulevard.” Tel Aviv makes you breathe and smile and laugh. Tel Aviv makes you want to learn the new Israeli dances. Tel Aviv also tells you stories about your past, about a time you didn’t know you could live free as a Jew.
    I don’t know where I would choose to live, in the City That Doesn’t Sleep or in The City of Light. Which one is “a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there?” What a blessing to have the choice.

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