A tale of two capitals

While Jerusalem is the country's official capital, Tel Aviv is convinced it has all the fun.

April 28, 2009 03:40
A tale of two capitals

jerusalem tel aviv good contrast 248 88. (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Ariel Jerozolimski\AP)

Tel Aviv has really gone to town, as it were, with its centennial celebrations. Looking at photos of the barren sand dunes 100 years ago and comparing them to images of today's vibrant metropolis, I can understand the civic pride of the city's roughly 400,000 residents. But permit me a little smile at the Tel Avivian festivities. After all, what's 100 years to a Jerusalemite? When the capital celebrated its 3,000th anniversary in 1996, those on the coast smirked as if it confirmed Jerusalem's image as the absolute opposite of trendy. But a thought struck me as I watched the news footage of Tel Aviv doing what it does so well - party. The proximity of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - an hour's drive away, a different world - is typically Israeli. Here is a city which still mourns the destruction of the two Temples 2,000 years ago; there is an urban legend whose ups and downs seem to be dictated by the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. The two taken together, however, are as quintessentially us as the juxtaposition between Remembrance Day and Independence Day. The solemn and the spontaneity. Jerusalem symbolizes Jewish survival against the odds. Tel Aviv encapsulates Israel's spirit of freedom. Despite growing up in London of the swinging Sixties and slightly less swinging Seventies, I have always been rather intimidated by Tel Aviv. I speak the language, but I don't get the mind-set. My first visit to the city was in the summer of 1977. I was a teenage tourist, two years before emigrating. An older friend was showing me the sights. She had been wowed by London's Carnaby Street, and, as an ultra-chic native Tel Avivian, was not sure where to take me in her hometown. She settled for a walk along the Mediterranean shores and an unforgettable nighttime tour of Jaffa. Walking down to the beach she vented, in a Tel Avivi style I was later to recognize well, on the "disastrous" election results. The Likud had just ascended to power and North Tel Avivians (a concept which even has a name, Tzfonim) felt threatened. Her diatribe halted midflow as we approached the newly installed Agam fire-water-and-music fountain on Dizengoff Street (another concept at the time). My friend stood and stared, not at the work of art that most Jerusalemites would still consider gaudy: The road development had been finished and for the first time she saw vehicles driving underneath the circle. "It's amazing," she thrilled. Tel Avivians have a thing about traffic and the lack of parking places. It's part of the Big Orange's way of imitating the Big Apple. The year 1977 went down in local history, by the way, not for Agam's fountain and the traffic diversions, but for Maccabi Tel Aviv's big win against CSKA Moscow. That's when basketball player Tal Brody so quotably declared in his American accent: "Anahnu al hamapa ve'anahnu nisharim al hamapa!" (We're on the map and we're staying on the map!). AS A Jerusalemite, I think Tel Aviv is the city that you either love or love to hate. I fall into the latter category. I find the "City That Never Stops" too hot, too humid and too full of itself. Nonetheless, it's a must for every tourist who wants to appreciate the complexity of the country and see the side least portrayed in the foreign media. Over the years, I have visited it more for work than for pleasure. Tel Avivians would be shocked to know that those of us who live near the capital's Emek Refaim Street do not lack nightlife or cafes. (A street named Valley of the Ghosts, on the other hand, would not suit Tel Aviv in a million years, let alone a century.) I used to stay overnight with a friend who moved into the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood just as it was becoming fashionable. She was the epitome of the Tel Avivian - she'd grown up on a moshav and moved to the big city after army service. "You can just be yourself here," she used to tell me. "You can do your own thing." She did her own thing exactly the same way as other young Tel Avivians, dressing according to the dictates of the latest fashion and going to the beach "to get away from it all" - and hopefully meet someone. Like other Jerusalemites, I used to joke that the two cities were so different that I felt I should produce a passport at Sha'ar Hagai, about halfway between the official and unofficial capitals on the main highway. Traveling past security checkpoints on Route 443 recently, however, it didn't seem funny any more. For all its fun-loving nature, Tel Aviv has known dastardly terror attacks just like Jerusalem. And you can't help thinking that if the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were to put their efforts into building up their nascent state(s) instead of trying to destroy ours, 100 years down the line we'd all have more to celebrate. A few of my Tel Aviv experiences are entwined with the country's history. One of my most memorable trips was during the 1991 Gulf War. Singer-songwriter Yehuda Poliker, who had released a new album, agreed to be interviewed only on condition I travel to Tel Aviv to meet him. It wasn't a superstar's ego. On principle, he refused to leave the city (unlike many of his local fans) just because Saddam's Scuds were falling down on it. The interview-cum-conversation was so pleasant (and long) that when by chance we ended up sharing a Tel Aviv taxi some six years later we were able to pick up where we left off (proudly discussing our cats). That wartime visit was the only time I felt fashionable. The Post had equipped its staff with canvas tote bags made to fit our gas-mask kits. Apparently the bags were so hip that in that only-in-Israel way strangers came up to me on the street and begged me to sell them mine. Or, perhaps, only the untrendy had stayed in the Scud-hit urban jungle. I was also in the city on election night in 1996 when, in a faint echo of the Likud's first victory, Binyamin Netanyahu scraped past Labor's Shimon Peres. North Tel Aviv, where I was staying, seemed to be in shock the next morning. My Jerusalem neighborhood, whose No. 18 bus had been blown up by suicide bombers on two consecutive weeks, had, however, been discussing the likelihood of a Likud win for a while. It seemed symptomatic of the disconnect between Habu'a (The Bubble) and the capital. One Tel Aviv scene is now a part of our collective memory: The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the square now named for him and then known as Kikar Malchei Yisrael. The shots in 1995 served as warning. Jerusalemites might look down on Tel Avivians, and definitely vice versa, but heaven help us if we ever forget that the two cities - like the rest of Israel's cities and towns - need each other to be complete. And the resulting whole has collectively at least 100 reasons to celebrate this Independence Day.

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