By H. ALFORD
I’m riding bikes along the beach with my friend James. James is 12, and moved to Tel Aviv from New York with his Israeli mother two years ago.
“That’s the separated beach,” James tells me matter-of-factly, pointing at a group of some 30 Orthodox men on the edge of a placid, gorgeous Mediterranean not far from the Hilton. I read a sign that states: “The Separated Beach. Bathing days for women: Sun, Tues, Thurs. Bathing days for men: Mon, Wed, Fri.” Then, pointing at a different group of men just 50 yards down the sand, James adds, “And that’s the gay beach.”
A couple of hours later, eager to see what other strange bedfellows I’ll find huddled on the edges of the water, I conduct an informal census: I walk the two miles or so of beach from the Orthodox section all the way down to Jaffa, the old Arab port of Tel Aviv. Just south of the gay section I find a stretch of sand-and-sun worshipers that I instantly dub the Ambiguous Male Friendship beach; just south of that I find the I Hate What I’m Wearing beach. I walk farther, and proceed to find concentrations of, variously, surfers, young families, volleyball players, Ethiopians, hippie drummers and irritable girlfriends.
I’d earlier been told by the illustrator and author Maira Kalman, who was born in Tel Aviv and still has an apartment there, that I’d find “old men in their underpants” on the beach in front of the Dan Hotel (“Old men in their underpants: what can be wrong with that?” she’d said with some excitement). So, in front of the Dan, I search for boudoir chic; I find only one such exhibitor, but many examples of dermal creping.
Down toward the southernmost part of the beach near Jaffa, the population turns increasingly Arab, and I see more and more head wraps on the women. On the beach’s edge, I sit on a park bench and fall into conversation with a warm, bearded 54-year-old gentleman who tells me he’s an imam and a muezzin. We discuss the auspiciousness of the date — the day before, on Independence Day, Israel had celebrated its 60th anniversary with a semi-terrifying dazzle of air force maneuvers over the water — and the man tells me: “Peace is good for us all. Jews, Christians, Muslims. ...”
Just then a young beachgoer zooms by us on his Vespa, his surfboard ingeniously strapped onto the side of the motorbike, so I add, “... and surfers.”
The man exults, “Everyone!”
Tel Aviv is a home at the end of the world. Celebrating its 100th year in 2009, the capital of Mediterranean cool has been getting more and more practice at being a host over the years, and it’s starting to show.
First came the brain trust: many say that the Israeli economy’s growth of 5 percent a year since 2003 is a result of the million or so highly educated and entrepreneurial Russians who immigrated in the early 1990s and buoyed the country’s auspicious high-tech sector. (Ms. Kalman says, “Babies had cellphones in Tel Aviv before the U.S. did.”) And then came the builders: current or recent construction in the city has brought a small swirl of brand-name architects and developers like Philippe Starck, I. M. Pei, Donald Trump and Richard Meier (and meanwhile the foodies of Tel Aviv are already buzzing about the projected 2010 arrival of a Nobu restaurant and hotel in the suburb of Herzilya).
All these new people and buildings add to the city’s fundamental charms: good flea markets, terrific food and lots of witty and complicated natives. As Ms. Kalman would say, What could be wrong with that?
But if the intermingling of many different kinds of people is what gives Tel Aviv its pulse, it’s the clash of old and new that still gives this city its surprising and slightly uneven gait. On trendy Sheinkin Street, a store called SeXso Jeans is cheek-by-jowl with the Kabbalah store; on the edges of Neve Tzedek — the first neighborhood the Jews started when they left Jaffa in 1887, and now the loveliest and most villagelike part of town — a 44-story skyscraper looms like a gangly, unwanted bodyguard.
The modernist feeling you get from walking around what is the largest collection of Bauhaus buildings in the world is unmoored by the realization that you are just a mile or two away from the ancient port of Jaffa, from which Jonah sailed en route to his intimate encounter with a whale. Or consider Agenda, a restaurant devoted to the age-old practice of skewering meat. A sign hanging on its facade — “Agenda: The Shawarma” — sounds like a Tom Clancy book about some very, very dangerous pita.
Tel Aviv is “half Iran, half California; it’s a synagogue meets a sushi bar,” says the writer and lifelong Tel Aviv resident Etgar Keret, whose mordant and hilarious short stories in books like “The Nimrod Flipout” have often won him the encomium “the voice of young Israel.” The son of Holocaust survivors — his father saved his own life by living in a hole in Russia for two years — Mr. Keret is party to his own dichotomy: his brother is an extreme left-wing anarchist who is head of the Israel’s movement to legalize marijuana, and his sister is an ultra-Orthodox mother of 11 who formerly lived in a settlement.
“This is a country that on the one hand is so conservative that we don’t have public transportation on Saturdays, but on the other hand is so open that we sent a transsexual to the Eurovision Song Contest,” says Mr. Keret. “Israel is full of contradiction. In Jerusalem, this contradiction means separation. But it doesn’t in Tel Aviv.”
For Israelis, the 45 minutes that separate Jerusalem from Tel Aviv are a fitting metaphor for the cultural gulf they see between, on the one hand, the hidebound, pious cradle of world religion and, on the other, the libertine, nightclub-filled Mediterranean idyll. But for us visitors, the proximity of the two cities is a huge boon — it’s rare that you can pair a beach vacation with 5,000 years of history. And while the memories I developed during the course of my weeklong, first-ever trip to Tel Aviv are pleasant and strong, the ones I concurrently made during my eight-hour-long, first-ever trip to Jerusalem are permanently scarred into my brain.
You don’t have to be devout, or even a believer, to be moved to tears by a visit to Jesus’ Stations of the Cross or to the Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem. At the latter, the Children’s Memorial is a single room in which five candles are reflected in 500 mirrors, creating the impression of an infinity of candles; meanwhile a voice slowly intones the individual names and nationalities of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by Nazis. The effect is bone-chilling.
Tel Avivans are quick to point out that their city is less suffused with history than Jerusalem, and that that is what makes their city so hospitable to newcomers and to people who don’t fit in elsewhere. Perhaps, like others in the Middle East, Tel Avivans must perforce set their gaze on the present.
“People always say, ‘Live every day as if it’s your last,’ and in Tel Aviv it might actually be true,” says Mr. Keret. “The fear of the future makes the present more vibrant. But you cannot ignore that your existence is fragile.”
Indeed, when I contacted James’s mother, the former fashion editor Ricky Vider, to tell her that I was going to Tel Aviv, she wrote back that I better hurry “before they push the button.”
A single mother — Ms. Vider lost her husband, James’s father, on 9/11 — she says she moved back to Tel Aviv with her son because “I needed some sunshine and a change”; the move also put her back in close proximity to her mother and sister. For Ms. Vider, this home at the end of the world is one filled with golden-hued restaurants offering wonderful, innovative Mediterranean cuisine (Herbert Samuel, Toto), hip places to meet for a coffee or drink (Brasserie, Coffee Bar) and a city safe enough that she can let James ride his bike for hours unsupervised in certain areas.
Ms. Vider trafficks in the ambivalence so endemic to the region. She says, “James and I are only here temporarily,” yet when I ask her to show me her favorite part of town, the unstated theme of our tour quickly reveals itself to be Landmark Buildings I Have Tried to Buy Into.
We start on the leafy, Bauhaus-lined pedestrian walkway in the middle of stately Rothschild Boulevard, and hang a right on becalmed Nachmias. Ms. Vider says of one building: “This beauty was bought by a son of the mayor. I snuck in while they were renovating.”
On this same block we also see Ms. Vider’s favorite building in the city (No. 25, where episodes of the Israeli version of “In Treatment” were shot), its immediate neighbor (“I call the architect daily”) and a building with interiors by Andree Putnam (“I’ve tried to get in. It cannot be done.”).
Perhaps an intense connection to real estate and its attendant comforts is only logical in a region where the threat of uprooting looms. In fact, some of your best experiences in Tel Aviv may very well be real estate based. It was thoroughly heartening, for instance, to come back to the balmy, sun-dappled roof deck of the Cinema Hotel after a day of sightseeing or beachgoing. The Cinema, a handsome Bauhaus building from 1930 and a former cinema that offered the first central air-conditioning in Tel Aviv, provides its guests with a lavish spread of teas and cakes every afternoon; to sip and snack on the walled rooftop terrace is to know a wonderful and high-caloric form of succour.
AN equally relaxing way to spend an afternoon is to poke around the tiny, space-starved boutiques and cafes that have sprouted up in the Greenwich Village-like Neve Tzedek, a tranquil area of about a dozen tiny streets. I tell a woman who is selling jewelry in the ground floor of the building that she lives in that I am impressed that she doesn’t work in her pajamas, as I would do in her situation. She tells me: “I have to be dignified. For jewelry, dignity.”
On the eve of Independence Day, Ms. Vider takes me to the building in the basement of which James’s surfing instructor, Shay, and his girlfriend, Naamah, live. On arriving at the building, Ms. Vider and James and I gaze over a sunken garden filled with impossibly good-looking 20-something surfers and hipsters — Shay and Naamah and their friends.
Ms. Vider says: “There are two parties going on in this building. Upstairs will be dinner and fireworks-watching. And this ...” — she casts her eyes downward, where we see the stirrings of a hootenanny featuring two guitars, improvised singing and the mournful tones of the didgeridoo — ”... will be a den of iniquity.”
Mr. Keret says: “It’s a city where the dominant age group is 20 to 40. Most people don’t realize that it’s a city that many people just pass through. Very few people are born and die here.”
This impermanence can be an intensifier. I think of the hour I spent at a club called Levontine 7. Started by three musicians (including Ilan Volkov, the Israeli-born conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), the dark and underdecorated two-level club is in Gan Ha Hashmal, Tel Aviv’s former unofficial red-light district, which is sprouting those kinds of hyper-groovy stores — one was selling a lamp made out of forks and spoons — that fascinate but baffle. For the recent national basketball finals, Levontine 7 hired two groups of six musicians who each improvised music to go with one team’s movements, in the manner of a silent movie.
The night I went to the club I lasted only an hour — it had been quite an exhausting afternoon lording over the baked goods on the Cinema roof deck — but somehow the fact that I wasn’t hip or hardy enough to last till the 11:30 p.m. offering of difficult, John Zorn-like noodling only made my one hour that much more potent. I felt like a very happy, twittering bird in some other species’ nest.
The other comfort-providing commodity that one attaches oneself to in Tel Aviv is, of course, food. Ms. Kalman had told me about a restaurant directly on the beach called Manta Ray. (“It’s where Madonna ate,” she’d said. My brain instantly brought forth Madonna’s Hebrew name, and I said, “You mean, Esther?”)
Like a haut beach shack on stilts, Manta Ray is a fan-shaped pavilion that opens onto the sea. One of the five mezzes that we order is an elegant column of four layers of ingredients that sound all wrong for each other — crabmeat, feta, dates, harissa peppers — but are in fact Il Divo of food. I order a gin and grapefruit juice, and the juice is fresh-squeezed. Happiness trickles through my body as my companion and I watch the sun slowly slip over the edge of the Mediterranean; I contemplate having a T-shirt made that says, “I’m with Esther.”
Eager to see what other unlikely ingredients would be served with seafood, I order calamari on subsequent trips to Toto and Herbert Samuel. At Toto, it comes with red and yellow cherry tomatoes, chick peas, slivers of onion and radish, mint and cilantro; at Herbert Samuel, with white beans, mint and tahini. The next time I see a plate of tumescent, foreskin-like calamari shrivelings, I will laugh knowingly in the manner of a French prostitute. Because I can.
In Tel Aviv, you hold onto what you can hold onto. Which, when I go bike riding with James, happens to be my dear life. We zoom over the dips in the wooden boardwalk up in the Old Port area, where the recent addition of restaurants and kid-friendly shops — all in vast hangarlike warehouses — has given the area a South Street Seaport kind of feel and made it popular with the local tzfonim (yuppies, or, literally, “Northerners,” since the affluent neighborhoods are in the north of the city and the poorer in the south). The pedestrian traffic is thick, and at one point a mother with a double-wide stroller almost clips me. I whoop with alarm, and James counsels, “Dude, trust me — you’re not going to get in an accident.”
I ask James if he wants to stay in Tel Aviv or move back to New York, and he says: “I want both. When I think of the surfing, I want to be here. But most of my friends are in New York.”
We whiz past a cafe, a sporting goods store, a jazz club. I ask James, “And do you feel like an Israeli, or do you feel like an American?”
“I feel like this is home,” he says. “For now.”
AT HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Continental, Delta and El Al fly direct to Tel Aviv from Newark Liberty and Kennedy airports. A random Web search in July for mid-August flights turned up a $1,502 nonstop on Delta.
WHERE TO STAY
Cinema Hotel (2 Zamenhoff Street; 972-3-520-7100; www.cinemahotel.com) is a short walk from the beach and well situated near the center of town. Bikes are available free. This 82-room hotel, converted from a theater, is decorated with movie posters and equipment from its previous incarnation. Doubles from $163.
Nina Cafe Suites (29 Shabazi Street; 972-52-508-4141; www.ninacafehotel.com), wonderfully located in the heart of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, is a newer hotel that is long on charm but short on efficiency. There’s no front desk per se — you walk into the cafe and then they lead you back to a desk inside the crammed space full of espresso sippers. The décor is a little Greenwich Village-basement-apartment-circa-1972, but you’re a five-minute walk from the Suzanne Dallal theater, 10 minutes from the beach and the Manta Ray restaurant, and 20 from the Jaffa flea market. Doubles from $270.
WHERE TO EAT
Herbert Samuel (6 Koifman Street; 972-3-516-6516; www.herbertsamuel.co.il) is just across from the beach at the southern end of the city near Neve Tzedek. The high-ceilinged space manages to be warm despite its spare, minimalist look. Mostly new Mediterranean cuisine, with lots of fish. Seats by the windows are booked well in advance; if you sit at the bar, you can still look out at the sunset. Dinner for two about 300 shekels (about $90 at 3.35 shekels to the dollar).
Toto (4 Berkovich Street; 972-3-693-5151) is behind the art museum, and offers Mediterranean cuisine with an Italian influence. Dinner for two about 285 shekels.
Manta Ray (972-3-517-4773), is right on the beach behind the Etzel House Museum. Plenty of fresh fish, but it’s possible to eat only mezzes. Dinner for two, about 295 shekels.
Abu Hasan (also known as Ali Karavan), at 1 Hadolphin Street, is a hole in the wall that serves the best hummus in Israel, according to Food and Wine magazine and every cabdriver you talk to in Tel Aviv. Some opt for the masabacha — crushed chickpeas and tahini, with spicy sauce on the side; dishes come with pita, raw onions and a zippy lemon-garlic sauce. Abu Hasan opens at 8 a.m. every day except Saturday and stops serving when the food runs out, usually in midafternoon. Lunch for two, about 30 shekels.
WHAT TO DO
The Bauhaus Center (99 Dizengoff Street; 972-3-522-0249; www.bauhaus-center.com) offers tours of Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture in English on Friday mornings at 10. The tours last about two hours and cost $15.
The Jaffa flea market is the only remnant of the bazaars that surrounded Jaffa’s clock tower in the mid-19th century. This blocks-wide hagglefest is better for tchotchkes and effluvia than for treasures, but it’s great fun to browse, and to see women trying clothes on directly over their clothes. Local lore has it that vendors, first thing Sunday morning, like to make a quick and not-to-their-advantage sale to give them good luck for the coming week.
This article appeared originally in the New York Times.