Ever needed someplace to go just to get into trouble? Tel Aviv, the little cauldron of Israeli cool on the way to essentially nowhere, is custom-made for it. Let yourself be seduced by the ribbons of beach and the smooth concrete curves of the Bauhaus. May the sultry Mediterranean air stop you in your tracks. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays will melt away faster than the latest Middle East peace plan… you’ll see.
I’ve lived in plenty of cities, but none ever seized my soul like Tel Aviv, and that’s not hyperbole. The natives must have a saying for it, though I don’t know what it is. The sunsets are pink with puffy white clouds, the sunrises probably occur somewhere, in the stormy winter season the thunder crackles inches from your ears. The beach is a series of curves, almost caressable. They served as background for no movie that I know of. No screen could contain them.
There are no mountains or hills, just a general low sweep to the coast, encrusted with white Bauhaus apartment blocks cut through by narrow lanes thick with implausible tropical vegetation and flown over in the twilight hours by big-winged fruit bats who will not hesitate to show you their little bat teeth. They have some chutzpah, those bats…
Tel Aviv lives for money, of course – this is Israel – but it lives by light and lust too and for a city this size it is well-supplied with both. The golden curls extend for some ten miles from the Jaffa south side up to the Tel Aviv Port complex in the north, and even beyond. Showing some bronzed skin pretty much all year long is de rigueur.
Psychologically, it is a dangerous city. A kind of nirvana has been known to fold over everyone who moves there. People extend their hotel stays and procure apartments in which they intend to pour all their love. But after buying the basic chairs, beds and tables, they forget the rest and leave the caps off their toothpaste. Writers may go there to write. Most don’t, though I myself, a workaholic, worked harder in Tel Aviv – writing, producing, speaking – than in Paris or New York, what with no landline phone, no television worth a glimpse, no movies. There is a movie or theater or two in Tel Aviv, and museums, but you only go to Tel Aviv for culture if you have to.
To live in Tel Aviv is to inhabit a city with almost no history… sure, primitive kitchens from Chalcolithic times were once found in Jabotinsky street, a tradition which carried through to the modern age as my apartment in nearby Nordau Street had no kitchen at all. Four thousand years ago, there were semi-nomads near Sde Dov airport but today there are nomads of a different stripe: jetting in from Sydney or San Francisco or Somewhere, and probably Jewish, very possibly rich or on the make or on a Taglit Birthright trip or some other scripted journey of quietly Zionist tilt.
While you’re in Tel Aviv, your personality strikes everybody with punishing force. You’re flattered by how much people know and care. Once you’ve flown away, it’s as if you were never there. A gal in New York told me, “You’re going to Tel Aviv! Give my love to Omri who runs front of house at Mizlala. Just say ‘Sarah,’ and watch his expression.” So I did.
“Hello Omri. Sarah asked me to give you her love.”
“Sarah. Sweet. Long hair, brown. Upper West Side.”
“Oh yeah—I remember her…I think she sent me a card for Rosh Hashanah.”
Tel Aviv is a city without memory. There are no days to the week. The natives know it’s Sunday because that’s the day after Shabbat, and everything is open again. The foreigners never quite adjust to it – by the time Tel Aviv gets to Monday, the Israelis are already miles ahead of them. Come Thursday, the weekend is about to begin and the ceaseless whirl winds up to an unmistakable n roar. Nobody speaks on the phone – they either text or shout. The television is either bad news about the latest from Israel’s regional enemies or long-cancelled American sitcoms with Hebrew subtitles. There is just talk. Loud talk. Morning talk usually consists of inquests about what deal came through last week or what went on in your friend’s apartment the night before.
“I did! Oh my God!”
“You did. Your pants are still hanging on the volleyball net at Gordon Beach.”
“Jeremy needed four stitches.”
“Oh my God!”
“Roi told me if I saw you to tell you not to come back to his bar.”
“Oh my God!”
If a great book was ever written about Tel Aviv, I don’t know what it is. Jan Morris called it the world’s first Jewish metropolis, and once devoted a few pages to it. But that was years ago and it will never be Venice, where her heart is. Jerusalem is another story altogether and Israel is a saga, but Tel Aviv? Assessments are usually found in in-flight magazines, your “Israeli capital of cool” and so on, or relegated to cheeky kernels of what’s hot or not in 230 characters or less.
Though Tel Aviv has by no means been spared the slings and arrows of Middle Eastern turmoil, and is probably more vulnerable than it cares to admit, its scars are mostly unseen. I remember distinctly on one of my early trips seeing images of Golda Meir plastered randomly over several building walls: but this was spray-painted street art iconography and Golda sported blue hair, a pink party hat and birthday blowpipe between her graffiti-glazed lips.
Tel Aviv has social contrasts that are remarkable for such a tiny sliver of land. Apart from the beaches which are flung like a line of sandy pearls along a north-south axis, and which act as a great leveler allowing billionaire tycoon and falafel vendor alike to blow off some steam, there are a handful of small, but quite different urban districts. The leafy north is Tel Aviv’s Upper West Side and mainly residential, but encompassing the lively Tel Aviv Port which is not a port at all but a waterfront shopping and dining playground and a family favorite. The Old North rubs up against rambling Independence Park, Tel Aviv’s best, which sits on a bluff with views out over the Mediterranean that will never fail to take your breath away. Below it is the gentle curve of Hilton Beach, which is Tel Aviv’s gay beach par excellence, and goes 24 hours a day in summer.
Southward from there, and starting with the ungainly Hilton Hotel itself, mostly lackluster midrise hotel towers line the seaside promenade opposite the beach, almost all the way down to Jaffa. But as you venture east on Ben-Gurion Boulevard, you veer into central Tel Aviv’s white kingdom of Bauhaus buildings, not achingly charming but not unlovely either, and full of easy curves. This classic Tel Aviv look reaches its apotheosis in and around Rothschild Boulevard, though the toniest drag in town retains an earthy vibe. But between frenetic Allenby Street and the sea you’ll find Kerem HaTeimanim, the one-time “Yemenite vineyard” where there were once vines but is now a latticework of low-slung villas of almost Lilliputian proportions, stacked up behind the boisterous Shuk HaCarmel market. It’s exceedingly earthy, an almost Bedouin counterpoint to the posher huts and boutiques of Neve Tzedek, a magnet for the French, to its south.
As for Florentine, I must tread carefully. I once got into trouble with the Florentinians by describing their gritty neighborhood as “treeless, semi-filthy, and largely inhabited by white neo-liberal post-Zionist characters who in between gulps of organic coffee oscillate between taking a trip to Berlin and taking up some new cause.” I thought I was being accurate and maybe it was my use of the word oscillate but I was persona non grata for quite a while in nearly every Boho café in the Levinsky Spice Market, which is the ramshackle open-air social center here. Creative types and others live in Florentine. Maybe they’ve cleaned it up somewhat, but you’ll still be hard pressed to spot a tree.
Old Jaffa is very old indeed, and less romantic than slightly nerve-wracking, with its tangle of stony alleys that lead to up to Kedumim Square or wind down to the little, mostly gentrified port. This is where the Mediterranean history of Jaffa, which predates Tel Aviv by several thousand years, was wrought. Phoenicians and Greeks, Jonah and Tabitha, cedars and whales, Arabs, Napoleon, Turks, Britons, Israelis and now above all the gaggles of tourists who are as likely to come from South Korea as they are from California.
On the other side of this antediluvian stone jumble lies the dusty and mesmerizing flea market. You might get fleeced or in rare cases worse but navigate sensibly and you might walk away with a vintage turntable or original copy of The Alexandria Quartet signed by the author, and dor a song.
But let me get back to the center, Lev Hair (ha-eer) —this is where everything happens. The ships don’t come in because there is no port here either, but in the labyrinth of the 4,000 or so original Bauhaus buildings you’ll find the core Tel Avivian topography of cafés, where dealings are discussed, the stock exchange, where deals are made, tony boutique hotels beckon, newspapers used to be published, the trendiest restaurants, the 24/7 whoosh of youthful nightlife hopping along the southern side streets of Rothschild Boulevard. The Habima Theater, for those who go to the theater.
Who lives in Tel Aviv? The permanent foreign residents are, in order, Americans, Russians, French… many have dual nationality. The 400,000 or so native Tel Avivians mix easily, or by default, with the foreign brigades who shore up much of the start-up scene and the tourists, students and others who keep café culture buzzing. There are Arabs in Jaffa who can be said to coexist, if not mix easily, with the Israeli Jews and others there.
There are the African migrants who live in the south, the Russian-Israeli oligarchs who snap up luxury condominiums in the center and facing the beach, and then the old guard of Tel Aviv bohemia, almost exclusively left-wing politically, and socially liberal off the charts, whose members inhabit the squat but on the inside rather roomy old apartment blocks that ripple up from the center, held back only by the manicured edge of the little Hayarkon River what flows east into the sea. They drive Kias and Fiat 500s and more importantly, their unlovely buildings harbor secret beauty spots in the form of that rare Tel Aviv commodity: parking.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Tel Aviv “Tayelet” or seaside promenade sprouted a rash of gimcrack hotel building. Never pretty, the mid-rise towers worked in unwitting concert with a clumsy north-south street grid to essentially seal off the beach from the rest of the city: so unlike say, Rio de Janeiro, here you’re either in the beach zone or you’re not. Of course, since its inception if not before, the State of Israel has had more substantive concerns than aesthetics on its mind, so the very fact of Tel Aviv, stern-looking hotels and all, is something. And now the old hotel blocks look almost kitsch, their brutalist concrete miens somehow in keeping with the Israeli character, so hard and resolute, yet tickled by the beach and the suggestion of softness.
I mentioned Venice: in Tel Aviv, if Rothschild Boulevard is its Rialto, then the Tayelet is its Grand Canal. Here the pageantry isn’t architectural, but water is naturally involved: the sea after all is what lets Tel Aviv be. And there are no gondolas but how the people glide by, less noiselessly but exuding an unaffected exuberance… you’re so in the now here that sometimes you don’t even know what’s hit you until the next wave of whatever’s new has come your way: a wave, an orange juice bar, an invitation…
The psychotic ‘70s left several legacies. At the end of Ben-Gurion Boulevard there’s an urban concrete ruin of almost Ozymandian grandeur. It was part of a shopping and nightclub complex rushed up so quickly that the builders didn’t realize quite how useless and ugly it was…at its center, a circular structure called the Coliseum, which in its heyday was a nightclub of note and experienced a brief 21st century revival before falling to the wayside once more. It’s surrounded by a charmless concrete plaza culminating on one side in a wide staircase that descends to the beach bike path. The obstruction behind them, locals move on to the large outdoor Gordon swimming pool or pedal north to Hilton Beach or south to the central chunk of Tel Aviv beaches, down to the Jaffa shore.
You can’t have an urban beach setting without beach bars and Tel Aviv has plenty of them: usually Tel Avivi-honky tonk and overpriced, and right on the beach, or English pub-style tacky and across the street from it. Both breeds are for tourists; locals bring their own watermelon wedges and beers to the beach.
Tel Aviv is known as the White City, mostly for the Bauhaus buildings in its compact center, although I would also make the argument that the puffy bleach-white clouds that on any given day drift in from the Mediterranean imbue the town with some of that famed white gleam from above. Tel Aviv is as masculine as orchids. Whenever I leave Tel Aviv, I feel a curious sensation and it’s like the feeling that comes from leaving Ibiza. It is…fear. I don’t want to go. Not really. There is an easy voIuptuousness about the city that you don’t find in too many places these days. So my ambivalence about airplanes comes to the fore.
Even if it rarely works, I’m not alone. I could name dozens others who feel the same. For example, there’s an American writer who once wrote a good book, and has spent the last 15 or so years writing his second without ever leaving Tel Aviv for very long. Once in Tel Aviv time becomes a roller coaster and memory stops.
Considering the predatory tendencies of Israel’s neighbors, which may sometimes be out of sight but are never out of mind, the people of Tel Aviv are incredibly liberal-minded and laid back. The men dress in cargo shorts, T-shirts with witty expressions and sandals most months of the year, and for women it scarcely gets more formal.
Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is a largely secular city, but that doesn’t mean the rhythms of the Shabbat do not apply. They do. Thursday is the end of the work week and in terms of energy release, it’s the Night of Nights. The frenzied pace kicks in around sunset and is still going strong the next morning: Friday morning is brunch time and pre-Shabbat shopping par excellence, because already by the early afternoon hours things begin to close up and by sunset and the start of Shabbat a great hush envelops the city – traffic drops off, footsteps recede, where did everybody go? True, not everything shuts down, and the restaurants along busy stretches like Ben Yehuda Street and Ibn Gavirol still serve tourists and locals until the wee hours, but a calm sets in overnight and by Saturday morning you may as well be on a farm or kibbutz. Only on Saturday evening does activity pick up again, and by nightfall whatever respite the city took in the previous 24 hours is gone for good – until the following week.
In Tel Aviv freedom is the most cherished tradition. Money means something, possessions do count (connections count for more), but more than anything else it’s the freedom to do what you want pretty much when you want, and it’s the freedom from as well. Freedom from the trappings of home and family, and from religious constraint (no simple feat for a city in such proximity to that old faith-whore, Jerusalem.)
Freedom can take the form of release from the work grind, from sexual inhibition, from anything that gets in the way of the proper (or preferably, improper) exercise of individual liberty. Yet there is still something of the Israeli pioneer spirit, for example in the sherut, the shared communal taxi service that runs yellow vans up and down Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff streets, and a few others. You hail them in the street and must board and take your seat quickly. Supposing you don’t have time to pay the driver your six and half shekels on entry – no problem! You take your seat in the back and pass your handful of change to the person sitting in front of you. Eventually it makes it way to the driver in the front, and if you have any change coming it will make its way back to you as well. So a system that would descend into total chaos on a New York City bus is in Tel Aviv just another part of the civic routine.
When I moved in to a third-floor studio in Nordau Street, I asked the owner, a woman attorney of a certain age, for a print-out of the lease agreement. She looked at me amazed. “You want a print-out? Give me the first month in cash, and I’ll see about your print-out.”
Nice Jewish girls come to Tel Aviv wishing to become slightly less nice, even though they don’t admit it. When winter daylight in Moscow or Bucharest dwindles to a couple hours, and Helsinki freezes over, and Paris’s garbage workers go on strike, girls migrate to Tel Aviv like lemmings. Once they feel the sunshine on their eyelids they find they can’t leave. Then there are the Americans on “educational” trips who don’t actually come for education, and end up staying for what amount to extended vacations. Usually they have loud voices and a license, issued by their mothers in Massapequa or Oak Park, to find a nice Jewish husband. In the interval there’s the beach.
The camaraderie of Tel Aviv is something remarkable. Nobody quite remembers, but nobody forgets. A girl might ask a hung-over bartender to keep his ears open for a job and receive no reply. Three days later, he’ll call out to her in one of the busy sidewalks, “There’s an Italian family that wants someone to talk in English to their son. Pays 500 shekels a week.” Tel Aviv means people. In the world’s great cities people are armored against people by offices, apartments, the anonymity of rush hours. Rain and snow fall on roofs, not on heads. Well, Tel Aviv does have roofs and walls, but it’s more social than a high school prom, and there is the beach promenade and the beach, and you don’t need Snapchat here because the place is Snapchat, on high heat.
The best and one of the most rewarding experiences in Tel Aviv is to get lost. Wandering off the main thoroughfares with their swirl of buses and cafés, you find yourself in a wonderland mashup of urban decay and sporadic Bauhaus renovation, frangipani trees and jasmine flowers, a hidden synagogue and the sound of lovers’ exertions through an open window and at any given time of night day – no room for rectitude here. Maybe you’ll end up at a stretch of sand you haven’t seen before, strip down to your underwear on the fly and splash around in the liquid blue. I recommend that.
There’s one other group without which no account of Tel Aviv is complete – aside from the nightclubbing tribes with their internationally feted DJ shamans, of course. I mean the Big Orange’s fuzzy rainbow of cats, unlike cats anywhere else in the world. They run the town. They’re not our pets. We’re their pets. They get rid of us. They’re always on the prowl and you’ll never see a rat. They brawl and mate in the wee hours and there’s nothing you can do because they are everywhere, and tolerated everywhere. Mysterious people leave silver bowls of food out for them.
Tel Aviv must be the only place on earth where feral cats potter about like feline, semi-delinquent matrons. Black, white, caramel, charcoal, calico: all colors and demeanors are represented. Some want your love, most think a stare one second too long means you want to catch them and boil them in a pot. If one who lingers by your hotel or apartment entrance grows on you, and it happens, you might wish to corral your little tiger and take it home, but they don’t travel well, and I’ve never heard of a Tel Aviv cat living outside of Tel Aviv.
Up on Nordau Street, I was part-time owner of two or three cats. Tel Aviv must be the only place where cats parcel themselves out. You can go away for three weeks or more, perfectly confident you’ll return to find your non-pets well-fed, lazing in the sun, appreciative of a pat or more than that, a treat.
So that’s Tel Aviv, described to the best of my admittedly biased ability—crazed, scruffy, non-historic, workaholic, alcoholic. Tel Aviv is too rich for where it is and also too poor, paradoxically compassionate and completely indifferent. It’s on the move and in the now, and prefers not to ask the hard questions – if not for lack of interest, then for lack of time. Every so often, the omission catches up with it.
In Tel Aviv priorities are different. It’s a green, messy jungle with parking spot predators below and green parrots flitting from one treetop to another above and it seizes you just so: nobody who’s been there ever leaves completely. I know that at any given moment the new company will be born that will reset the Internet (again), that another day will break with a ribbon of azure sea blowing kisses to the seafront skyline and that Shlomi and Sagi and Ronit and maybe Mohammed too are texting one another right now to meet for coffee in some boho dive in Lilienblum Street, and to register just how badly they behaved the night before.
Note: You can’t book a room at the Hotel Tel Aviv but you can check out more of what’s going down at the inn at the author’s Instagram.