Formed by the sea

Israel's main city lives happily with a mix of Middle Eastern Levantinism and high culture.

IAF independence day 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IAF independence day 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tel Aviv, so wrote its unofficial poet laureate Natan Alterman, was born a metropolis. From its inception it became a cultural center. In 1920, when the town numbered a few thousand inhabitants, Arthur Rubinstein appeared there in its first recital, in a garage-turned-concert hall, under a tin roof which amplified the sound of raindrops, and a crowd of 1,000 Tel Avivians - a majority of its adult population - crowded to listen and applaud the already world-famous pianist. Later, when Tel Aviv numbered less than 50,000 inhabitants, it already had an opera and a classical orchestra. In 1923, the municipality allotted land for a new opera house seating 25,000 - more than its adult population. The plan did not materialize but the opera did open its gates - to a premiere of La Traviata (in Hebrew!) in the Eden silent-movie cinema. This is the Tel Aviv paradox: A city which is synonymous with a facile and hedonist way of life - its nickname in the '30s was Tel Bluff - has always been also the center of high culture. This is the duality of Tel Aviv. Even when small, it incorporated the complexity of urbane cities, and above all it acquired a reputation - also synonymous with urbane cities - for live-and-let-live tolerance. What is the secret of Tel Aviv? Why is it so different from other towns in Israel? It seems - at least to me - that Tel Aviv's way of life and outlook was inspired by its seashore. The sea has always been the most popular recreation place for the city dwellers, especially on weekends. But bathing in the sea on the Sabbath - not to mention mixed bathing - is forbidden by Halacha, so de facto Tel Aviv was born and bred as a secular community, devoid of any pretension to holiness - as distinct, for instance, from Jerusalem. Moreover, Tel Aviv's seashore - in contrast with that of Haifa or our other coastal towns - is very close to the city's cultural and business centers, so they form one contiguous entity. The city, as it were, arose out of the sea, and bathers can reach, with a few minutes of walking, its many theaters, concert halls and fashionable cafés. In the summer, you can always see half-clad Tel Avivians walking on main street. This semi-nakedness has embellished the tolerance of the city. It makes Tel Avivians feel equal to each other. But this Mediterranean Sea atmosphere has also nourished the critics of Tel Aviv. Bialik loved Tel Aviv and settled in it, but he also warned against the lurking dangers: "As a seashore city, Tel Aviv is facing a looming danger of Levantinism: Like other maritime cities it may turn into a Levantine town inhabited by faceless people." Today, we can safely say that Israel's main city lives happily with a mixture of Levantinism - in reality Tel Aviv is the multicultural inheritor of bygone Alexandria - and high culture. This is part of the duality of the city. One more aspect: Because Tel Aviv's growth is really unprecedented - from a few solitary huts to a true metropolis within a few decades - it is natural that its inhabitants harbor a bittersweet nostalgia for the good old days, for little old Tel Aviv. A legion of songs and poems celebrate this hankering for the old place. Leah Goldberg's poem on the Tel Aviv that once was opens with the lines: Then she still had the smell of the sea Of sea shells and orange peels and a pre-summer hamsin, Light and sea surrounded her A hundred rings kept her salty yearning - The city which resides as a white island on green waves. In this poem, and in scores like it, the sea and its promenade appear as icons: The city is indeed seen as an island resting on the waves. Wherever you turn, there is one fact which explains the special character of Tel Aviv: It was born out of the sea and is cuddled by it. The writer is a professor of law at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a former minister of education and Knesset member, as well as the recipient of the 2006 Israel Prize in Law.