Tel Aviv at 100

Ruvik Rosenthal explains why Tel Avivians love their city

04ruviks224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Article in Issue 3, May 25, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Because of a scheduled meeting, Ruvik Rosenthal, author, journalist and quintessential Tel Avivian, is being interviewed, bemusedly, in a Jerusalem coffee shop. "I visit here often," he says, but he makes it very clear that, unlike the medieval Spanish-Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi, who wrote that his heart was always in the East, Rosenthal's own heart, and soul, are located in the West, on the shores of the Mediterranean. "I love Tel Aviv," he declares. "And so I don't explain or justify my love, and it's not objective. It's just part of my genetic code." Rosenthal boasts that "Tel Aviv is Israel's most Israeli and most secular city." It wasn't always that way. Until the mid-19th century, when the rabbis ruled that the Jews of Jaffa need not observe the second day of the pilgrimage festivals, incumbent upon Jews living in the Diaspora, it wasn't even clear that the area was part of the Land of Israel. Even after the ruling, the Jews of Jerusalem continued to look down upon and condescend towards their sister-city-by-the-sea, but at least they recognized that she was part of the family. The few Jews in Jaffa rejoiced. When Tel Aviv was founded, the Sabbath was strictly observed. Seven men blew the shofar throughout the fledgling town to announce that the Sabbath was about to begin and a metal-link chain prevented horse-drawn carriages and the few automobiles from entering the streets. The entire town would come to a rest, while groups of the faithful patrolled the narrow streets to ensure that no one was violating the Sabbath in public. And so it was until 1928, when the district court canceled a fine against a city resident who had violated the Sabbath and noted that since the British Mandate promised freedom of religion to all, and since enforcement of the Sabbath applied solely to Jews, these fines were discriminatory. And thus, Tel Aviv began to free itself from its religious obligations. Today, 81 years later, most Israelis do indeed regard Tel Aviv as Israel's freest city. They point to the 24/7 pace and traffic, the open-air art events on Saturday mornings, the busy seafood restaurants and crowded nightclubs open on Friday nights. And today, hip Tel Avivians look down on Jerusalemites, who, they condescend, are suffocating from religious coercion. In fact, Jerusalem is much less Sabbath-observant than Tel Avivians realize. And in fact, while Tel Aviv may seem to have a more secular style, it is not more secular in substance. Elhanan Meshi, head of the Business Licensing Department in the Tel Aviv Municipality, tells The Jerusalem Report that Tel Aviv, like all Israeli municipalities, is bound by the laws and regulations dictated by the Interior Ministry, which mandates fines against commercial establishments that open on the Sabbath, sell pork and otherwise flagrantly violate Jewish religious law. However, Meshi acknowledges, the municipality's interpretation of these laws is quite lenient. "We don't go out looking for violators," he says. "Tel Aviv has a uniquely live-and-let-live atmosphere. Ultra-Orthodox and secularists can live on the same street in Tel Aviv, because they respect each other's rights and because something in the atmosphere here breeds tolerance." "Israelis have come to believe that secularism and Jewish tradition are contradictory," says Rosenthal. "And so the secularists and the religious try to provoke each other and to take over each other's space. But that's not the way we do things here, in Tel Aviv. There is definitely a Sabbath atmosphere here - some of us interpret the Sabbath as a time for culture and leisure, some for religious observance. And it all works together." Contrasting and comparing what he refers to as "Jewishness" and "Israeliness," Rosenthal says that "Tel Aviv is a very Israeli city. Not only because there's balagan [chaos, mess] here, and that's very Israeli. But because there is a dialectical tension between Jewishness, which rests on tradition, conservatism and turning inward, and Israeliness, which is based on modernity and openness. "All Israeli cities have both, of course. But Jerusalem is more Jewish, while Tel Aviv is a magnet for Hebrew language and culture. Jerusalem may have what Jerusalemites like to call the 'cultural mile,' from the Eastern to the Western part of the city, but real Israeli culture is in Tel Aviv. Everything concentrates into Tel Aviv, it's a magnet for culture, finance, media and communications. And that creates a momentum of modernity that just can't be found anywhere else." Wondering aloud how Tel Aviv became what it is today, Rosenthal answers definitively, "Because of Hagymnasia Ha'ivrit Herzliya [the Herzliya Hebrew High School], the first Hebrew high school in the new Hebrew town. Sure, Tel Aviv had the sea and, later, the port, but without the gymnasia, it would have been just a small neighborhood with some 70 bourgeois families who tended their small gardens. But the gymnasia, which moved to Tel Aviv from Jaffa as the city was founded, and was housed in a magnificent building intended to evoke Solomon's Temple, was a magnet for talented youth and devoted educators. "The teachers who taught there! Philosopher and writer Ahad Ha'am, writer Yosef Haim Brenner, poet Shaul Tchernichovsky - these are the people who formed the foundations of Israeli-Hebrew culture, and they all taught at the gymnasia. And because of them, the city attracted the first movie house, the opera, the theaters. Tel Aviv grew as a cultural center, and as a magnet for everything that is creative and modern." Rosenthal bristles when reminded that the city is sometimes derogatorily referred to as "The State of Tel Aviv," as if it exists in a bubble, separated from the rest of the country. "That's nonsense," he retorts. "This country is like a dynamic living creature, with different organs. Tel Aviv pulls people in and so it is a central organ. But it's not a bubble. Bubbles are hermetically sealed, or they burst. If Tel Aviv weren't surrounded by the rest of Israel, and if Tel Aviv didn't interact with the rest of Israel, then Tel Aviv couldn't exist, either. Tel Aviv offers a sane option for living here, and Tel Avivians do sometimes turn their backs to some of the religious and nationalistic insanity that grips this country - but they are not living in a bubble. Politically, Tel Aviv is part of Israel's moderate mainstream. Not particularly left, except as compared to Jerusalem, of course." But maybe, he continues, there is another sort of bubble. "When I say Tel Aviv, I am referring to the northern sections, where the people are mostly Ashkenazim, part of the social hegemony. They live comfortably and well. They are not affected by poverty or suffering, and so they don't think about it very much." But poverty and suffering do exist in Tel Aviv. "Yes, of course they do," he responds. "There's no city without its poor sections, and in Tel Aviv, those sections are primarily in the south. The south of Tel Aviv is like the south of the country - on the social and economic and political periphery." Tel Aviv, he admits, remains a Jewish city; only a handful of Arabs live in Tel Aviv outside of Jaffa. "Tel Aviv was created to escape from Jaffa and escape from the Arabs. The founders said so explicitly, they wrote about it in their journals. Bureaucratically, Jaffa and Tel Aviv are united, but culturally and in every other way, they are separate cities. "Israel is part of the Mediterranean, but not part of the Middle East. When the founders built this city, they were thinking of Europe, not of the Levant. We are like Spain, or perhaps a bit like Greece. But we don't fit into this region. We are not like Cairo and, to be honest, most of Israel isn't like [the Israeli Arab city of] Umm el-Fahm, either. That is problematic, in many ways. But I only said I love this city, I never said I think it's perfect. And at least, in contrast to Jerusalem or other so-called 'mixed cities,' there isn't any phony attempt at 'peaceful coexistence' here." As self-satisfied as many Tel Avivians are with their city, it seems they can rarely discuss Tel Aviv without, at some point, comparing and contrasting - especially contrasting - with Jerusalem. "Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are in a constant dialogue with each other," Rosenthal explains. "Tel Aviv is a modern city, built on the sands that define it. Jerusalem is a city of history, built of massive stones. In a sort of Ying and Yang way, Tel Aviv cannot exist without Jerusalem and Jerusalem cannot exist without Tel Aviv." Attempting to draw their final trump card, Jerusalemites often note that Tel Aviv, its white Bauhaus buildings aside, is a very ugly city. "Yes, I suppose it is," Rosenthal concludes. But my genetic code demands that I deny that ugliness. I just don't see it. "Each of us has our place in the world, and, at some point in our lives, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between the person and the place. For 24 years, I lived somewhere else, yet it was always clear to me that I would return to Tel Aviv, and to the neighborhood where I grew up. So I did." • Article in Issue 3, May 25, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.