I love Tel Aviv. I love its unrelenting sunlight and its effervescent nighttime. I love its iconic combination of edginess and (occasional) elegance. And I love that it’s by the sea and seems so free.
But Tel Aviv is a reckless place. True, much of Israel lives on the edge — the lengthening reach of terrorism, the devil may care drivers, and the prevalent willingness to dare makes for an all too dicey place. Tel Aviv, though, is all that and more.
The more is found on the sidewalks — a misnomer if there ever was one. They’re neither to the side of things, nor much for walking, at least at ease and without drama. Because everything happens on those “side” walks in this gritty and exciting city. They’re at the heart of a robust and frenetic way of life.
Take the motorcyclists — they roar down the sidewalk at will and you’d better take care to watch your back, your front, your left and your right. Same with the bike riders, with those aboard all sorts of scooters, to say nothing of the baby carriages, the dogs and the cats — they too crowd the sidewalks, some speeding, some dawdling, almost all zigging and zagging. The bikers and cyclists constantly check their email or talk on their phones from one zig to the next zag.
Then there are the hoards of the young everywhere you look. They spill out from the cafes and congregate in the congested sidewalks, twenty- something Israelis and Americans alike. Their frenzied, happy bustle has created a whole new night life. I think they own the joint.
Truth is, you just about take your life in your hands when you walk in this crazy busy city. And literally so sometimes, as it’s prudent to remaining slightly on guard for the terrorists who’ve struck here again recently, wielding their knives and rifles, intent on stealing life from the lively alive. Should you head out for a stroll, or anything else, best to be watchful on that score, too.
There’s a flip side, though, to this wild city by the sea and its dicey sidewalks. It’s called Life.
It bursts out all over the place in Tel Aviv, starting with the young and extending across generations, languages and lifestyles, and it just goes and goes from the morning’s first light. On these sidewalks you can meet anyone and everyone — from long lost childhood friends to Jews and others from the most exotic of locales.
People make deals and plans by the streets, they argue with one another one minute and hug and kiss the next. On these sidewalks you hear snatches of Israel’s many languages, Hebrew, Russian, French, English, various African and Southeast Asian languages and dialects to begin. Even Yiddish occasionally. Usually all at once. The Tel Aviv beat is lively and loud and doesn’t let up.
On these sidewalks nobody much cares how they’re dressed: the sun is hot, the beach is down the block, so dress as you wish and do as you will. The pulse never lets up; it spreads like a contagion from wherever you try and walk to wherever you go throughout the city. For that matter, do you want to demonstrate for a cause — any cause, any time? This is your place, too.
And, of course, the cafes! By proximity, sharing space with the motorcyclists and the rest, the cafes are where much of life is conducted. Stay as long as you like: the food is good, the coffee too, and the ambiance, while borrowing from Vienna and Paris, is gritty, noisy, and smells of the sand and the sea. The cafes are quintessential Tel Aviv — they’re unquiet and happy places.
Where did this frenzied and robust place, the epicenter of Israel’s engine of innovation, come from?
Tel Aviv is an “edge city”, and carries echoes of other such cities. Think Odessa or Trieste towards the end of the nineteenth century, Los Angeles in the 1920’s and 1930’s, or San Francisco in the ’60’s — places away from the centre in which the music beats differently. Destinations often on the water with contrary horizons, affording the adventuresome and those in need the chance to shed their past, along with the strictures of normative society.
Such cities have the sense of the reckless — necessarily so because they’re new and at the endpoint of civilization. And, ironically, because they’re situated on the edge, they afford a better view and deeper understanding of life and society. All of which means that edge cities often hold out the promise of a new and freer life, where the conventions of the past can no longer hold sway or hold back the future. Tel Aviv has been this way since its founding in 1909. Now it’s more so than ever: newer, maybe more reckless, but undeniably alive, churning and creative. No surprise then that Tel Aviv — paradoxically so here in the Holy Land — is the very future of Israel and the Jewish People.