The Scene

My ongoing exploration of Tel Aviv’s social life has found me at more gallery openings and cocktail soirees than I care to admit.

Exploring Tel Aviv's social scene 521 (photo credit: Deborah Danan)
Exploring Tel Aviv's social scene 521
(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
I’ve just passed the half-year mark since moving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It’s been an interesting and fun ride so far, and my horizons just keep expanding. I often get asked if Tel Aviv has changed me at all, though what I’m to infer from such a question isn’t always clear to me. Has living in Sin City desensitized me on any level? I don’t think so. Have I changed physically? You bet. A healthy bronze hue now shrouds the alabaster skin of my Jerusalem days.
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve assimilated into Tel Aviv life relatively seamlessly.
Yet while I’ve embraced many of the staples that shape the character of this city, I’ve rejected others. I love whizzing around town on my bike; I love discovering new cultural enclaves; I love the beach at sunset. But I haven’t embraced the “bubble” life that some Tel Avivians covet.
The old adage of “you can take the girl out of” – Jerusalem, in this case – definitely applies to me. I’ll still chat to random strangers even though they look at me as if I have three eyes. I also haven’t quite embraced the cost of things here. On an ordinary day I’m likely to spend in excess of NIS 150 with nothing to show for it besides a moldy pizza crust and an expanded waistline.
One of the reasons I used to love visiting Tel Aviv was the feeling of anonymity that enveloped me as soon as I’d step off the bus. It was totally liberating.
While Jerusalem hums along to the Cheers melody, “Where everybody knows your name,” it was songs like Elmore James’s “Stranger Blues” that provided the soundtrack for those frequent trips to Tel Aviv.
But since moving here, that feeling of anonymity is rapidly diminishing. I still don’t know the shopkeeper’s name in my local corner shop, but by this point he recognizes me at least enough to greet me with something akin to a smile when I purchase a liter of milk.
More significantly, however, is the phenomenon of recognition within “the scene” that has been getting stronger with each week that passes. I’m starting to recognize people and they are in turn recognizing me.
I’ve made a concerted effort to tap into “the scene” in Tel Aviv and I encounter a lot of the same faces on the events circuit – which is both comforting and unsettling at the same time. Even if the smiles and “how-are-yous?” sometimes seem disingenuous, it’s still nice to be acknowledged. But it’s unsettling because it makes you realize that despite Tel Aviv’s burning ambition to be a multifaceted megalopolis, with only so many people belonging to any particular social group, the city suddenly seems rather provincial. To my mind, the worst thing that can happen to an urban area is for it to become a “bitza.”
Translated literally, bitza means quagmire or swamp, but in modern colloquial Hebrew the term is used to refer to an area populated by people of roughly the same age group who share similar socioeconomic status. Givat Shmuel and the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem are classic examples of religious bitzot, and they are quite possibly my least favorite places in Israel – after Dimona. Everyone attends the same synagogue and has had at least one date with every single member of the opposite sex within the bitza’s community.
It’s probably worth expounding on “the scene” I refer to, since Tel Aviv has so many. This particular one is an amalgamation of different events that cater to Tel Aviv’s young professional community. The Tel Aviv International Salon – a staple of this scene – hosts a “Great Debate” series in which bigwigs from the world of politics or culture address a crowd of young international professionals.
Its status as being “off the record” makes it more intimate than other debating forums and also contributes to its success in attracting high-profile speakers. There aren’t too many places left in which an oleh can rub shoulders and drink complimentary cabernet with Tzipi Livni or Natan Sharansky.
My ongoing exploration of “the scene” has found me at more gallery openings and more cocktail soirees than I care to admit – for fear of being perceived as a precocious high-brow wanna-be. But despite the whiff of elitism that sometimes sweeps the atmosphere at these affairs, there are always a couple of sledgehammer moments in which I am reminded that I am, after all, still in Israel.
Take the recent pre-Passover reception that was held under the auspices of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai in Beit Ha’ir on Bialik Square. The mayor gave an impressive speech in which he listed the White City’s achievements over the past year, including the success of Tel- O-Fun – the green bicycle service. After the speech, the crowd made its way to the roof of the building which boasts a rare view of the cityscape.
I found myself chatting to Ron about this and that, taking occasional sips of my champagne in an attempt to look casual while secretly praying that my skirt wouldn’t fly up in the sea breeze or that my stomach wouldn’t rumble.
Did I mention I was starving? I resisted the urge to ask Ron if he could arrange a refund for my subscription to the Tel-O-Fun bikes and instead stuck to neutral subjects like the issue of refugees in south Tel Aviv. But all the while I couldn’t stop thinking about how hungry I was. It didn’t help that the waitresses kept approaching us with platters laden with “mini-food.”
Why is it that the posher the party, the smaller the food? Amazingly, I managed to conquer my heathen impulse to wolf down half the platter of teaser-food and opted instead for one miserable scallion-and-goat-cheese canapé – which only made me salivate more.
But the sledgehammer moment came when another man joined the circle to chat to the mayor. Something about him reeked of “oligarchy-ness” and his attire indicated that he was a man well versed in the social graces. At least, that was what I thought until he caught sight of a waitress behind me and practically shoved me aside to get to her as he yelled, “Wait a sec there, sweetheart!” A minute later he returned armed with no fewer than six canapés, and this time I did not resist my impulse to laugh.
“What to do? They’re just so tiny,” he smiled unabashedly, his teeth adorned with flecks of smoked salmon and pesto.
“My sentiments exactly,” I said, swallowing the last of my champers before setting off downtown in search of a felafel joint.
The events of “the scene” can be fun or interesting or even both, but sometimes they’re just plain boring. On these occasions, my mind starts to wander as I draw up mental surveys of the crowd. How many people here regard these events as a less sleazy alternative to a pick-up bar? Just watching people’s eyes sweep the crowd in anticipation lets me know that a large number have come for no other reason than to scout for potential partners.
And then there are those that come only to have their own voices heard.
You know the type, those show-stealing wanna-bes who always interrupt speeches with inane comments, blissfully unaware of the people around them squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
One such occasion in which I again broke social decorum by guffawing out loud happened during the Q&A session with British Ambassador Matthew Gould. A man with an Australian accent raised his hand and was called upon by the emcee to ask his question.
The Aussie then launched into the most nonsensical, pseudo-political diatribe that lasted a full two minutes and had no point whatsoever.
All the while the emcee kept muttering under his breath, “I don’t hear a question, give us a question, I don’t hear a question.”
Through the microphone, the emcees mutterings were heard by everyone – everyone, it seemed, except for the question-poser. Unfettered by the ripple of snickering that was slowly filling the room, the man rambled on and on
until I could no longer contain myself and I ran from my seat and into the back room, choking with laughter.
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