Tel Aviv kicked off its centennial celebrations last Saturday night with a huge concert in Rabin Square attended by over 200,000 people. The city has only just begun celebrating its 100th birthday with art shows, outdoor concerts, a marathon and the inevitable all-night street party. For a place founded a century ago to be the world's first Jewish city, the atmosphere was decidedly unkosher. Christmas decorations lined the bars and delis that were open, selling pork. In the clubs, the dancers dripped sweat. Outside, tipsy women in revealing fashion stumbled in the streets, and at 2 a.m. drivers were hunting in vain for parking spots. Inside the "Zizitripo" lounge, Omer Gershon downed a shot of vodka. "The nightlife here is crazier than anywhere in the world. I've got people drinking here all night long," the 34-year-old owner yelled over the thumping electronic music. "There's a lot of escapism involved. 'Carpe diem' takes on a whole Baruch Kipnis, a geography professor who recently published a book celebrating Tel Aviv's centennial, said the city "controls almost every aspect of life" in Israel and has become "an enormous head on a shriveled body." Some critics say Tel Aviv's dominance has cut a wedge between it and the rest of the country. Some deride it as "the bubble," detached from the "other" Israel of religious purists, kibbutzniks, and the communities under missile attack from Gaza. While Jerusalem suffers from bouts of religious and Arab-Israeli strife, Tel Aviv's defenders counter that their city is leaping forward into the future. "Tel Aviv is the model for what Israel needs to be," said Yael Dayan, chairwoman of the city council and daughter of Moshe Dayan. "Jerusalem is not a city, it's a symbol, it's a place people are leaving. We are the exact opposite. We are a city of live-and-let-live." Tel Aviv has always prided itself on being both a bastion of secular life and a place where the religious live in peace alongside their bohemian neighbors. Trendy Rehov Sheinkin has an unwritten agreement: On Fridays it's open to gay parades, tattoo parlors and fresh fruit juice stands; on Saturdays it shuts down to respect Shabbat. It's a city where young religious men on street corners beckon secular Jews to say a prayer to the beat of techno music. It has separate beaches for religious women, religious men and gays. It is a city of refuge for Arab homosexuals rejected by the conservative societies in which they have grown up. But while there is nothing to bar Arabs from living in Tel Aviv, only a few hundred do, city officials say. The Arab population is concentrated in Jaffa, and the two are merged under the name Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In November's mayoral election, a third of the vote went to Dov Henin of Hadash, but incumbent Mayor Ron Huldai retained his title. Seated on a motorcycle outside the cafe he runs, 31-year-old Oren Chen says "living in a bubble" is not necessarily a bad thing. "People say 'bubble' in a negative context, but this is actually an island of sanity," he said. "It's a place of freedom, in the most Israeli way possible." For all of Tel Aviv's desire for normalcy, it can never truly escape the troubles around it. The Hassen Bek Mosque, built by the last Turkish ruler in the Holy Land before World War I, is virtually unused today by Muslim worshippers. Wedged between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, lit up in green as part of the nighttime seaside skyline, it serves as a stark, mute reminder of the absence of Arabs in the neighborhood it stands in. After Israel's independence, Tel Aviv spread to encompass several Arab villages whose inhabitants had fled or been driven out in the 1948 war. Still, having been founded as an entirely Jewish city on empty land purchased from its Arab owners, "In that regard it is not a Zionist city, because in no way was it based on the oppression of the Arabs," said Henin. Unlike biblical cities such as Jerusalem, where Jews resettled after thousands of years of exile, Tel Aviv was the first attempt to build a Jewish city from scratch, and Dan Karmon, a 33-year-old marketing manager, is glad of it. "It's a place where you can live a secular life, without having to escape your Jewish past," he said. "Tel Aviv best represents the struggle to live a normal life in Israel." - Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.