Travel + Leisure

July 2008, Travel + Leisure

Psychogram of an Israeli Metropolis

An influx of wealth and progressive culture reshapes Tel Aviv

On the afternoon I arrive in Tel Aviv, Palestinian militants step up their protracted barrage of missiles on the town of Sderot, a mere 40 miles to the south, this time killing a civilian. Amid such disturbing news, it seems appropriate that my first evening’s plans involve dinner with writer and film producer Gal Uchovsky, whose latest movie, The Bubble, is a drama about the way Tel Aviv’s pleasure-seeking residents cope with the surrounding turbulence by focusing on their personal lives. ‘[It’s in the back of your mind that you live in a war zone,'[ Uchovsky tells me as we settle in on the terrace of Cantina, an Italian restaurant on vibrant Rothschild Boulevard. ‘[But look around. Many people want to live apolitically and have a modern, Western life, as if this is London or Paris.'[ From our seats we enjoy a view of the boulevard’s central allée of graceful ficus trees. Hipsters clutching cell phones saunter by, new parents push Mercedes-like strollers, and so many yoga-mat-toting beauties appear that I can see why at least eight modeling agencies have opened here in recent years. A trendy young crowd clusters at an open-air espresso bar, one of dozens dotting the city. Uchovsky points out a few local celebrities at Cantina, which is frequented by television anchors, film directors, authors, and athletes. “People here are similar to the average New Yorker–the average American city person–in their interests, what they care about,” he says. Indeed, increased affluence and sophistication are enabling a great many Tel Avivans to take refuge in the bubble, or what Israelis call habuah. “What Mideast crisis?” the first-time visitor might ask after surveying the lively scene.

Despite the turmoil around it, Tel Aviv has enjoyed a boost in quality of life over the past decade. Jerusalem is Israel’s political and religious capital, but this, the nation’s second-largest city, is its hub of culture, finance, and media. The city’s European-style shopping streets and ebullient nightlife have long been a refuge from the ethos of self-sacrifice that characterized the Jewish state’s first settlers, and the infusion of wealth is adding a glossy surface. After completing their mandatory military service, an eager cadre of young Israelis has opted for a less onerous tour of duty: training as sous-chefs in France, then returning home to lead a culinary renaissance. Innovative new restaurants, patisseries, and fine chocolatiers are commonplace. Recognizing Tel Aviv’s appetite and appreciation for superior cuisine, star Parisian chef Joél Robuchon plans to open an outpost here. As a result of a high-tech boom (Israel has more companies on the NASDAQ than any other nation after the United States), many founders of start-ups live and work here. Glittering towers designed by Philippe Starck, I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Ron Arad are on the rise, and Donald Trump is said to be building a 70-story luxury apartment complex in the suburb of Ramat Gan. Alongside its laissez-faire attitude, beautiful beaches, and balmy Mediterranean climate, Tel Aviv has plenty of verve and style.

“This is one of the best-kept secrets in the world,” says Dov Alfon, editor-in-chief of Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz, when we meet the next day. “But still, in the hotels here you’ll find some Australians, French, and Canadians who are not Jewish, who have heard about Tel Aviv as a fun place, a place where people are generally very nice.”

While politics in Jerusalem skew toward the right, Tel Aviv’s voters are overwhelmingly liberal, with a greater proportion against continued construction of settlements in the occupied territories and in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Locals pride themselves on inhabiting “an island of progress and sanity in an ocean of irrationality and backwardness,” conservative Israeli academic Maoz Azaryahu writes with a hint of irony in his book, Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City.

The rainbow flag of gay liberation flies alongside Israel’s blue-and-white national banner on streets here; for the past seven years the Tel Aviv municipality has been the official sponsor of the annual gay pride parade. “Tel Aviv is one of the gayest cities I know of,” says Ivri Lider, one of Israel’s top pop singers, who came out a few years ago in a front-page interview for a leading tabloid. “You live your life and I live mine,” he says, “and we respect each other.” Lider, 34, created the sound track for The Bubble (which was released in the U.S. last September), and he knows intimately the psychological phenomenon the film chronicles. “We want to be New York, and we want to try to live as if there were nothing around us,” he says. “Everybody agrees about the importance of Israel for the Jewish people, but a lot of us are really depressed about going through so many phases of war and wishing for peace for so long. We all have this idea of Israel as a heaven with perfect weather and beaches, and especially in Tel Aviv people feel that the situation around them is interfering with the idea of becoming heaven.”

Yael Hedaya, an acclaimed writer whose tragicomic novel Accidents is set in Tel Aviv’s bohemian milieu, sees residents sharing a desire to be normal. Some may look at the city with disdain and say, “How, with all this going on, can you sit there asking if you want this pasta dish or another? But I think it’s healthy.” She adds wryly: “it’s very exhausting to be politically involved all the time. it’s a terrible responsibility to have to be informed all the time.”

Although Tel Aviv has been periodically rocked by suicide bomb attacks, violence has tapered off dramatically of late (as of this writing, the last terrorist act was in 2006), and the city has become increasingly safe since the construction of the controversial security barrier walling off Israel from the Palestinian territories it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. “Yesh l’chah neshek?” Hebrew for “Do you have a weapon?” is the question guards ask as they inspect bags at the entries of restaurants, cafés, shops, museums, and just about every other public building in town. The nonchalant query is but one of Tel Aviv’s vivid, sometimes unsettling contrasts and incongruities. During my stay, Israeli restaurants and wineries set up booths in Hayarkon Park to showcase delicacies in the annual Taste of Tel Aviv festival; the same park acts as a shelter for hundreds of evacuees from missile-plagued Sderot, who live in a tent city. Khaki-uniformed, machine-gun-toting off-duty soldiers window-shop along Sheinkin Street, where a kabbalah center sits next to the flashy Menz underwear shop. Hanging from an apartment just above a fashion boutique called Bullets are large Hebrew letters spelling out a mantra based on a revered Hasidic rabbi’s name, meant as a rallying cry for a return to traditional Judaism.

Tel Aviv, founded in 1909, also features the largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world. Long stretches are decrepit and begrimed, but many buildings have been pristinely restored since 2003, when the city’s extraordinary architectural legacy earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Bauhaus Foundation Museum, housing original furniture and other designs by the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, opened in April on Bialik Street. Gentrification is polishing the rough edges of the city center, where tranquil side streets of crisp white buildings, inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn, overflow with a lush tangle of palms and banana and orange trees.

Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky, a curator setting up a new museum of municipal history to mark Tel Aviv’s coming centennial, tries to put the city’s juxtapositions in perspective. “Tel Aviv has conflicts, but they live beautifully together,” she says. She recalls sitting on her balcony on Rosh Hashanah and simultaneously hearing one neighbor playing the shofar, the ram’s horn blown to mark the High Holy Days; another playing a Chopin melody on the piano; and a third listening to a soulful recording of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. “All this within 100 square yards, and it’s lovely,” she says.

I experience the urban cacophony myself when I check out the boisterous nightlife. Accompanied by my Israeli cousin Shira, a costume designer, I settle in first at a supper club called Nanouchka, where high-spirited women in their twenties (paying customers) dance atop the U-shaped bar. Later we drop in at a more subdued spot with the decidedly ironic name of Jewish Princess, where a medieval-looking portal leads to an invitingly gloomy space. The following day I wander the famous beach, eventually happening upon a secluded swimming area near the Hilton Hotel that is encircled by high walls. Here Orthodox Jewish men and women bathe on alternating days. In typical Tel Avivan fashion, this enclave of modesty is near the gay beach, where a gym-chiseled crowd in Speedos lounges in the afternoon sun.

By this point I’m starting to wonder if Tel Aviv is simply ground zero for escapism. Has Judaism’s prophetic tradition been jettisoned in favor of Dionysian revels in what Zionist leaders proclaimed the first Hebrew city? “There is escapism,” says Dov Alfon. “But it’s not exactly escapism. it’s a real will to live. it’s a hymn to life. Happiness is important for most Tel Aviv inhabitants. Not the American perception of finding happiness, but happiness on a daily basis–a good cup of coffee, a nice girl, or a day at the beach.”

The beach, of course, is central to the Tel Avivan ideal. “Every Jew, myself included,” wrote Yiddish-language author Sholem Asch in 1937, “has two requests from God: a place in paradise in the afterlife and a place on Tel Aviv’s beach in this world.” I get his drift as I stretch out on one of the many chaise longues lining the sand. A masseuse sets up shop under a nearby umbrella. A middle-aged Israeli puts himself in her hands while his wife goes for a swim in the warm, generally placid water.

Tel Aviv’s proponents claim it’s easier to get a proper espresso here than in Milan, so I order up a cup from one of the halter-topped waitresses who ply beachgoers with snacks and drinks. (Tel Aviv is one of the few foreign markets that Starbucks unsuccessfully tried to conquer.) Properly caffeinated, I get up for a walk along the promenade that runs the entire three-mile beach, from Jaffa in the south to the old port in the north. “Five years ago this was a desert” says city council member Zohar Shavit, who meets me in the port area, where warehouses have been converted into stylish, bustling restaurants and shops. One of the most popular is Shalvata, an open-air waterfront bar and restaurant named after a well-known Israeli psychiatric hospital. Tel Avivans throng here on weekends under an expansive canopy of woven palm fronds; the setting could just as well be Santa Monica. They sip the Israeli beer Goldstar as their children play in the restaurant’s sandbox.

Next door, at a chic retail and gallery space called Comme il faut, I’ve arranged to meet artist Ricki Puch, who takes me around a group exhibition installed in the atrium, which is surrounded by an emporium selling clothing made exclusively from natural fibers, an organic-food café, and a spa. The show, for which Puch created silicon breasts and a sculpture made of bras, has a feminist theme and includes works by provocative Palestinian artist Hanan Abu Hussein, who is displaying rubber molds of certain anatomical regions, adorned with razor blades.

Cultural experimentation has been on the agenda since Tel Aviv’s founding. Writers and musicians flocked here from Europe to help establish a new center of Jewish culture, liberated from the confines of shtetl life. By 1926, the city had built an opera house, where Yosef (the Hebraic form of Giuseppe) Verdi’s La Traviata was performed in the newly revived language of the Bible. Today Tel Aviv is inarguably one of the most culturally vital centers on the Mediterranean. The local weekly entertainment guide City Mouse out during my visit weighs in at 162 pages. It brims with listings for movies, art exhibitions, theater, cabaret, concerts by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and smaller classical music ensembles, jazz clubs, stand-up comedy, and scholarly lectures–an impressive array for a city of 380,000 people. (The metropolitan area population totals 3 million.)

Still, it’s not hard to detect the anxiety that lurks beneath the appearance of conviviality. Throughout my 10-day stay, local newspapers report extensively on Tehran-s advancing nuclear-enrichment program, amid ongoing threatening rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “The incredible intensity of Tel Aviv is due to the combination of celebrating life and a strong awareness that all this is really very brittle,” says Tel Aviv University professor of psychology Carlo Strenger.

Since I’m in Tel Aviv on Shavuot, the holiday marking God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people, I’m eager to experience how it’s celebrated here. The most traditional Jews observe Shavuot by staying up all night studying the Five Books of Moses. I attend an updated version of this marathon study session at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Several thousand people, many dressed in white as is customary during the festival, mob the sold-out event, which begins at 9:30 p.m. and continues until sunrise. Lectures on the Bible, contemporary literature, the environment, photography, and art–interspersed with jam sessions by popular Israeli musicians–are held in Modernist galleries filled with Bonnards, Rothkos, and Picassos.

The following day in the Bauhaus historical district I witness a young man putting handouts on car windshields advertising a Shavuot feast at the city’s only S&M club. A “white, sexy dress code” is mandated, coyly retaining an element of tradition for this walk on the wild side. Not for nothing have observant Jews been denouncing Tel Aviv as a new Sodom and Gomorrah since Israel was created in 1948. After the Lebanon war two years ago, newspaper columnist Ari Shavit accused Tel Aviv of embodying the demise of communitarian values and the loss of political will and direction on the part of the country’s elite. “They deceived themselves and those around them that Tel Aviv is in fact Manhattan,” he wrote in Haaretz.

Orni Petruschka, an alternative-energy entrepreneur who sold the optic communications company he cofounded to Lucent Technologies for $5 billion in 2000, takes exception to the accusation. “There are many people in Tel Aviv who are doing sacred work,” he says when we talk in his office. “Things that are in line with the traditional Israeli ethos–people who work in all sorts of NGO’s, or volunteering. Society is thriving because of these sectors, which take responsibility for issues where the government has abdicated it.” Petruschka is a cofounder of an Arab-Israeli peace initiative and a director of the Abraham Fund, which strives for greater civic equality between Jews and Arabs within Israel. “Despite the somewhat negative outlook regarding Iran, the never-ending conflict, and the dysfunctionality of the government,” he says, “there’s an excitement about what’s being created, materially, socially, and culturally.”

Political activist and award-winning graphic designer David Tartakover is also striving to make a contribution. Tartakover, who has created iconic posters opposing the occupation of the West Bank and the proliferation of Jewish settlements there, moved 28 years ago into the then-dilapidated neighborhood of Neve Zedek. Now the revived area is full of shops and cafés and is home as well to the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, where the celebrated Inbal and Batsheva dance companies are based. Tartakover takes me to see a brilliantly colored Pop-art mural he designed for the front of the building, illustrating the neighborhood’s early history.

Tartakover also designed the memorial to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing fanatic following a peace rally held at City Hall, and I decide to visit it with activist and curator Ami Steinitz on my last afternoon in Tel Aviv. The memorial consists of nine bronze CD-size discs affixed to the pavement where the murderer, the premier, and his entourage stood. Arrows on each disc indicate the direction each figure was looking at the fateful moment; the bodyguards were all facing away from the leader they were charged to protect. As Steinitz and I arrive at the site, a street musician is playing “Puttin’ on the Rit” on a clarinet, and half a dozen youths brandish placards offering free hugs. The unexpectedly exuberant scene at a spot commemorating a national tragedy indicates that the bubble isn’t about to burst anytime soon.