Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: In Which I Don't Talk About Food
Writing about his childhood in Ben Gurion’s Israel, Amos Oz describes the two great cities of his country as continents, even worlds, apart. “In Jerusalem,” he writes “people always walked rather like mourners at a funeral, or latecomers at a concert… But Tel Aviv! The whole city was one big grasshopper. The people leaped by, and so did the houses the streets, the squares, the sea breeze, the sand, the avenues, and even the clouds in the sky.”
Coming to Israel, after weathering the onslaught of emotional narratives that was my birthright trip, it’s these two cities, and their immense difference, that has become my new obsession.
Jerusalem was first presented to us as a holy and a serious place, one where every brick is laid down with meaning and where the simple act of living there, be you Jewish, Arab, or Christian, is a political statement. More than 60 years after Oz’s childhood I saw Jerusalem as he did, a city of deep religiosity and political difficulty. Though we spent three nights there on birthright, we were largely confined to our hotel for security reasons. We prayed at the kotel, wept at Yad Vashem, and were taught national pride in the graveyards of Mount Herzl.
What we didn’t see was an old city teeming with arab life, the great confusing mass of christian practice along the footsteps of christ, or the rich combative Israeli life in the Yehuda markets. A second unguided trip would show me those sides of the city, though I think I will never be fully able to understand the place.
Tel Aviv was not so political. There was no need for it to be. It’s a city which in most mainstream ideas about Israel-Palestine is not up for debate. It’s relaxed and jovial but hardworking and determined. A legacy of its secular settler past. It is constantly under construction and turning into one of the great burgeoning metropolises of the Mediterranean.
My first experience of Tel Aviv began in Jaffa, exploring the flea market, eating Hummus Ful, and watching the sea crash along Tel Aviv’s beaches. That ancient city, a site of anti-Jewish riots and mass Arab expulsions around 1948, has become one of the few great examples of Arab-Jewish coexistence. At 5am on a Friday morning the call to prayer echoes from Jaffa across the whole south of Tel Aviv. In a country torn apart by religion people seem to view it’s call as oddly apolitical.
The carmel market to the north, and the wide boulevards of Allenby and Rothschild evoke somewhere between Istanbul and Paris. The traffic, both car and foot, is chaotic but the lifestyle seems decidedly european. There seems time for a coffee while your neighbour watches the storefront.
It’s hip too. Full of well dressed men and beautiful women who could fit into any Queen west or Williamsburg cafe. Vegetarian cafes like the amazing Xoho off Ben Yehuda street serve buckwheat pancakes and tempeh sausages on a patio decorated by a rainbow flag. Women in long black tops and blue jeans ride vintage bikes across the alleys of Neve Tzedek. Surf bums and stoners spend days by the beach walking into the city at sunset with sand falling out of their dreads.
Jerusalem is, in some ways, more diverse. It certainly has more American Jews, not to mention a hearty contingent of Russians. But within the Jewish neighbourhoods Jerusalem shifts between the young modern orthodox, indistinct from any European 20-something save for their kippot, and the black clad chasidim. Going into Arab neighbourhoods adds a whole new, crucial dimension to the city. Poverty is very apparent in these areas, but so too is a widely varied picture of Arab life. Khafia wearing men happily walking next to giggling young Arab girls without any kind of head covering.
I am only a tourist in these cities, and far too ill informed to speak with real authority. What I’ve found and am writing though is a first (and second) impression of both cities. Each one is key to trying to understand this country and to coping with it. So far I’ve dealt with the formula that every day of long walks and serious contemplation in Jerusalem has to be matched by at least two days on the beach in Tel Aviv. They hardly capture the full complexity of this place but starting with them, much as Amos Oz does, we may be able to reach out and discover more.