Holy city vs. sin city

I’m starting to learn that, in the coastal city, looks can be deceiving.

Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
After residing for more than a decade in the Holy City of Jerusalem, I arrived at an uninvited juncture in my life that compelled me make the (terrifying) move to Tel Aviv – otherwise known as Sin City.
As for the aforementioned “juncture,” more about that later – possibly. For now, my aim is to record a firsthand account of a hard-core and hardened Jerusalemite’s ongoing journey into the warmer climes of Tel Aviv. But first, a very basic outline is necessary by way of providing a backdrop.
I arrived in Israel in 2000, with the freshness of every other fresh-faced teenager fresh out of high school.
Eager to prove to my parents that I could live out the Zionist Dream and make it on my own in the land of my forefathers, like many new olim in the capital city, I struggled fiscally and prospered spiritually – more or less in equal measure.
Growing up, I had always identified more strongly with Israelis than any of my compatriots. And indeed, Israel was not new to me. I was born in Netanya and moved overseas at a young age, coming back only for visits to my father’s family before returning permanently at the wonderfully delusional age of 18.
Jerusalem, however, was new to me. Yet it didn’t take very long to feel like I’d been there forever. Much like the city itself, I felt new and old at the same time.
More than a decade later, Jerusalem now runs through my blood, and for better and for worse, I can’t be rid of it. So that when my new neighbors in Tel Aviv ask me where I’m from, it no longer occurs to me to give the name of my hometown abroad, or to utter anything but the word Yerushalayim. But over the years, my relationship with the capital often veered into the “bad romance” category, bringing to fore the immortal words of the great Gaga: “I want your drama/ I want your love/ And I want your revenge/ I want your horror/ I want your design.” And when I finally made the decision that I no longer wanted Jerusalem’s design or drama or sheer intenseness, along with it came the decision to move to Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv is ostensibly a far less dramatic city, and with its laid-back, fancy-popping-down-the-beach-for-an- hour-before-work attitude, it is also quite the opposite of intense. But one thing I’m starting to learn in the month that I’ve been here is that the clichés of “looks can be deceiving” and “never judge a book by its cover” certainly apply when it comes to the coastal city.
Here’s just one example: I always thought – rather facetiously – that Tel Aviv lacked soul. Whereas the Eternal City’s soul oozed out of each and every crack in every single Jerusalem stone, Tel Aviv had always seemed like an empty shell: a transit city that accommodates the young and restless for brief periods of time until they settle down and move onto more meaningful pastures elsewhere, like the suburbs.
But with every day that passes, I learn just how misinformed I was.
Indeed, Tel Aviv will never share Jerusalem’s bountiful but rather in-your-face soul, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have a unique soul of its own – it’s simply of a subtler kind. Embedded beneath layers and layers of external trappings, Tel Aviv’s soul requires one to peel off those layers in order to gain a glimpse of it. Don’t get me wrong: the external trappings – which, among other modern maladies, include healthy dollops of materialism – are not to be dismissed. They are part of what makes life in Tel Aviv so darn fun.
Israelis can often be heard taxing the maxim that Tel Aviv is ir lelo hafsaka. Literally translated to mean “a city with no breaks,” this is to say that Tel Aviv is a 24- hour city – like New York. But anyone who believes the literal meaning of that maxim clearly hasn’t walked around central Tel Aviv in the middle of the day. If they did, they would discover that in actual fact, Tel Aviv is ir behafsaka – a city that is always on break.
For starters, why does it seem like 80 percent of Tel Avivians are whiling their time away in restaurants and coffee shops all day, every day? Being that my job requires nothing more than a laptop and some strong coffee, my presence in coffee shops is somewhat justified.
But surely it can’t be that all of these coffee addicts are either writers or unemployed – or more commonly, unemployed writers? There are, of course, a few rational explanations that come to mind: They could either be self-employed, night-workers or else rich enough not to have to work a regular 9-to-5. Some of them no doubt hail from the ladies-who-lunch club, comprised of bored housewives from Ramat Aviv Gimmel. Perhaps some of them are actually at work, attending one of those critical board-meeting-cum-extended-lunch-breaks that corporate Tel Aviv is renowned for.
Whichever it is, it’s very different from Jerusalem’s daylight-dining scene. Outside of tourist season, downtown Jerusalem in the middle of the day is pretty much a ghost town. You walk into the average Jerusalem coffee shop any time before 5:30 p.m. and you’ll find that all the tables are empty and the waiter is busy working the cash register, or, if he’s a student, he might be reading a book. He’ll look at you as you enter with an expression that reads, “Patrons.
What a nuisance. Why can’t you come back in two hours like normal people?” While I do sorely miss the neighborhood dives in Jerusalem – you know, the type of places where everybody knows your name and where pretzels are still complimentary – I am beginning to understand the appeal of lazing in a coffee shop on Ibn Gvirol Street for hours on end. While I might not be able to strike up a conversation with someone else in the coffee shop – at least not with the same ease as with a Jerusalemite stranger – there is something distinctly serene about people-watching without actually interacting with them. The feeling of being ever so slightly “distanced” is probably part of what lends Tel Aviv its European-esque charm.
I sip my Americano and watch a couple on bicycles ride by with their two small children strapped to kiddie chairs. It makes me smile and I wonder if there is a single other city in the entire Middle East where this scene is just as commonplace.
I pay my bill and get up to leave the bustling coffee shop, my legs creaking after having sat for so long.
The lack of hills, pleasant weather, and relatively close proximity of everything makes riding a bus in Tel Aviv simply not worth it, so I walk home at a leisurely pace.
I pass Rabin Square, the sunlight bouncing off the still green surface of the lily pond. I walk up Chen Boulevard, in between towering trees whose thick branches are wrapped around their trunks like boa constrictors, until I reach Habimah – the national theater.
Cutting across the theater’s courtyard, I continue down Rothschild Boulevard, where old couches and stray coffee tables – the surviving vestiges of what was once Tent City – line the boulevard.
It strikes me that you can really find anything in this city – not just 24-hour coffee. I’m learning that, yes, there is sin, but there is also soul. And to go one step further, I’m learning that Tel Aviv is not only a soulful city, it is also – dare I say it – a spiritual one.