One of my favorite eating locations is dining inside or along the ancient-looking buildings in Jaffa (Yaffo in Hebrew), a city believed to have been founded by Japheth, son of Noah. The city’s 4,000-year-old history is an integral part of the eating experience; dining there can’t be just another vacuous eating stop, all about filling your stomach or quenching your thirst, because it’s more like an adventure that is jam-packed with flavor as well as reflection. Some of the structures surrounding the city have survived wars and the elements, but the blemishes of time add to the overall appeal — for centuries, people sustained and engaged with these structures, their way of life imbue the city with character and pervade every alleyway. While they’ve passed on, some of those buildings and walls remain standing for the next generation of inhabitants. Their new way of life naturally drew from the area’s bountiful past that included a long list of conquerors that date back to the Canaanites and Egyptians, Romans, Hebrews, Greeks, Byzantines, Crusaders, Saracens, Mamlukes and Ottomans.
The last time we were in Yaffo, my sister and I ate at Abulafia — a family-run Arab restaurant. We received 15 different mezze salads with fresh pita from their bakery across the street, and all this before our entrées arrived. It was joyous, but also a bit of a nerve-racking ordeal as the two of us devoured the food on the table, and my brief departure in order to capture that moment on film meant that I would possibly forfeit an extra bite. For this reason, there aren’t many photos of our meal. By the time our fish and chicken shishlik had arrived, we were completely full.
Feeling satiated from our feast, we went for a walk in the nearby Ottoman-era flea market, known as Shuk HaPishpushim. We stopped by a group of men who were conducting a live auction for the purchase of an ugly, old-looking sofa. Neither one of us understood the excitement and interest in that particular piece of furniture, but we became fully absorbed by their conduct. We watched them oscillate between prices; their voices loud and passionate as though their entire existence depended on that miserable sofa, until one of them made an offer the owner couldn’t refuse, and the others weren’t prepared to match. Just as fascinating to watch were elderly men sitting in front of a sheshbesh (backgammon) board, sipping Turkish coffee and tea with nana (mint), rolling their dice, and conversing with intensity that was hard to ignore.
Moving away from the clock square, we walked to the promenade, built atop a cliff that juts from the shoreline and azure-colored sea. We continued walking along the arched alleyways featuring an array of charming little galleries with artwork and jewelry inspired by the views of Yaffo. There was something that captivated us from every angle we looked; colorful plants, carved doors, beautiful shutters, and interesting paintings drew our eyes in every direction. The Mediterranean Sea served as a permanent, dramatic backdrop to the unfolding narrative. When we were teens growing up in Israel, in the ‘80s, Tel Aviv and Yaffo were in the midst of getting another facelift, a much needed restoration to an area that had lost some of its original beauty. At the turn of the 20th century, more structures were built, the style was a mixture of Middle Eastern and Western architecture. Some of the buildings had ornate tile flooring and iron works — the doors stood tall, wooden shutters actually opened, and the balconies were long and rounded.
Later on, the Bauhaus style of architecture became the main influence and incorporated more of a restrained style of building, geared towards functionality. But the buildings still had interesting geometric lines, and lovely balconies that wrapped around the buildings — the rooftops were flat. With war, and an influx of new immigration and economic constraints the Bauhaus style was dropped in favor of the box-like, featureless structures, those were considered even more practical for the times. Slowly, the older, beautiful structures from the turn of the century were completely neglected and in dire need of repair. They remained unoccupied for years, abandoned, a silent elegy and an eyesore for anyone who felt nostalgic and understood that those structures epitomized Tel Aviv in its time of glory. Thankfully, a few interesting streets had maintained their character such as Rothschild Boulevard, with rows of aged trees and gardens that have lined its path for decades and architecture recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are benches along the boulevard, kiosks, well-known restaurants — a lovely framework for street life that has never changed in Tel Aviv. The layout encourages locals to congregate outside, share a cup of coffee, play a game of some sort, discuss politics and literature while the elderly have a place to sit outdoors and continue taking part in a rapidly developing new world. However, in other parts of town, dilapidated buildings couldn’t be ignored for long, it was the very look of a once stylish building that roused new interest as people slowly began to move back to areas that were overlooked for years. Someone had suddenly wiped their eyes from a fog, so they could finally see the beauty in these old structures. Nachlat Binyamin was one of the first places to undergo gentrification.
Those who took advantage of low rent opened cafés, restaurants, and boutiques. They knew how to create an appealing atmosphere with soft lighting at night, lively music in the background, and a sophisticated menu that generated a renewed interest and appreciation for old structures as they became the newly emerging chic parts of town. Places like Sheinkin Street had transformed into haunts for artists and writers, and Sarona, a Templar colony that dates back to 1871 became a focal point for diners and shoppers. The distinctive buildings were designed by German Protestants who arrived in the Holy Land in order to carry out their messianic vision. Later, they were influenced by Nazi ideologies and that too is part of Sarona’s history. The indoor culinary market is both, a flashback to another time as well as a stroll and taste of innovative market flavors. When I stood in the beautiful, serene garden area I captured the ambrosial scent of oranges hanging from trees nearby, the sight of a tall skyscraper, and the tip of a tower that I remembered in the center of the Kirya — my old army base.
Tel Aviv means “Hill of Spring,” but it’s not just any hill; a tel is a place built on the ruins of another city, and in many respects the city continues to live up to its name by combining old and new. One of my favorite areas has always been Neveh Tzedek where some of that old elegance has been restored, and revamped. When my Yemenite family had immigrated to Palestine around 1910, this was where they settled before moving to other parts of Israel; their history adds an extra layer of appeal whenever I zigzag across neighborhoods. Glimpses of their shadows are palpable; they ignite fascination, also outrage, and tell a story.
In Neveh Tzedek there are plenty of trendy shops, restaurants, and wine bars but not far is Levinsky Street, where vendors specialize in herbs, spices, teas, and dried fruits — an effective reminder that you’re not sitting at a bistro in Paris, and this is without a doubt the Middle East. Sharon and I walked to the renovated old Jaffa train station, known as Ha-Tachana, another indication that beautiful architecture makes you happy. The railway line extended between Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1892, a time when I can only imagine a journey with spectacular views of natural beauty. We sat at a café soaking up the atmosphere around us, our minds wandering through the alleys and sights of days long past.
As we exited the train station, a familiar sadness dulled our mood. We realized how much we’d miss this chaotic amalgamation of past and present, and it would be at least 12 more months before we could do it all over again. Jaffa gazed at us from a distance, so we decided to walk back in order to indulge in one more helping of Dr. Shakshuka’s famous tomato and egg dish. At the end of the day, the doctor always makes things right again. Dr. Shakshuka is situated in a very old structure and the inside décor is a blunt indication of the nonchalant attitude of those who know their food is great. The absence of beautiful tables and chairs elude the owner as well as his patrons who deem that type of detail a mere distraction from the main event: the Shakshuka. We each ordered a portion of shakshuka, and while waiting for our food to arrive we spotted the doctor himself sitting at one of the tables eating shakshuka, what else. We walked up to say hello and thank him for a perfect ending to a wonderful trip down memory lane.