Michael Chernick
Michael Chernick

Tel Aviv’s an exquisite bubble . . . except when it isn’t

Tel Aviv is very beautiful.

It has the sea; when there are storms — and there were quite a few during my recent stay — it is absolutely magnificent in its wildness.

The Mediterranean’s blue-green remains when there are storms, but the waves rise to 30 and 40 feet and flow over the seawalls onto the boardwalk. The yoga studio I go to on the North Port faces the sea, and Iris, my yoga teacher, is as calming and as beautiful a force as the sea’s lapping ebb and flow.

Tel Aviv has Yarkon Park, which abuts the now cleansed Yarkon River. Water fowl bathe in the river, fly above it, or show themselves off on the shores. Boats, rowing teams, and water bicycles float on the Yarkon’s surface. Walkers, runners, dogs and their owners, kids and their parents, sunbathers, and picnickers traverse the paths or loll on the grassy areas of the park. This bit of green heaven in the midst of the “city that never stops” is Tel Aviv’s Central Park.

Tel Aviv has a sister city, Yafo, which is dotted with beautiful Ottoman Empire synagogues, mosques, and churches. It is the site of lovely Arab homes and villas and ritzy new unaffordable apartments. Its promontory overlooks the part of the Mediterranean that surrounds seven stones, creating a picture of ineffable splendor. Sunsets there are unforgettable.

In Yafo you might even believe that there is no such thing as an Arab-Israeli conflict. Girls in hijabs pass Jewish shoppers who are looking for bargains and odds and ends in the Yafo flea market. Arab and Jewish fishermen bring in their catch to be sold in each other’s fish stores, and Jews buy Abulafia’s famous Arab breads while Arabs buy Bambas and ice cream from Jewish kiosks.

Tel Aviv has innumerable cafés. It does not let its café society atmosphere be ruined by too much ideological wrangling. Most Tel Avivi’im are leftists, who according to the polls clearly are in the political minority. Nevertheless, Tel Avivi’im think the polls must be wrong, since most of their friends are leftists, too.

While Jerusalem’s citizenry goes to war with each other over ideology, Tel Avivi’im overwhelmingly remain calmly disgusted with the political, religious, and diplomatic situation their country is in. They wait for the next elections. While waiting, however, they go to the opera, the theater, the concerts, the lectures, the galleries, the museums, the malls, the restaurants, the bars, and, it seems at all hours of the day, the cafés. There no doubt are ideological arguments among the residents of Tel Aviv, but they tend to be civil when croissants and Danish pastries are involved. And usually they are.

Of course, not all is beautiful and wonderful in Tel Aviv. There is the poverty-stricken southern Tel Aviv and Shekhunat Hatikvah (the Hatikvah neighborhood), which despite its hopeful name has been a pretty hopeless quarter of Tel Aviv for as long as I can remember. There is plenty of sex-trafficking of foreign women in the seamier parts of the city, and there are areas that are rife with crime. Foreign workers are exploited regularly, despite the best efforts of the central and city governments to prevent this, and there is no lack of homelessness, poverty, and begging on the streets and in the synagogues of Tel Aviv.

Slummy areas, however, aren’t always what they appear to be. For example, there is a neighborhood called Florentin. They are made up of crumbling factory buildings and decaying block housing; you would think the only decent thing to do would be to tear down these eyesores, just for safety’s sake. But behind the façade of decay are some of the city’s most avant garde art studios and galleries. Where else but in Florentin could you find an exhibition called “Totafot” (phylacteries), created by an observant Jewish artist, in which he both extols and criticizes Jewish religiosity using images, sculptures, and artistic structural arrangements based on tefillin?

Tel Aviv, called “Sin City” by the pious, is changing. Yes, there still are tawdry business cards, promising love and the services of escorts and masseuses, littering the sidewalks almost everywhere. Nevertheless, there is a growing interest in Jewish tradition and Jewish spirituality in Tel Aviv. Witness: The seaside Kabbalat Shabbat service that draws hundreds of participants welcoming the Sabbath with song, poetry, and dance. Witness: The so-called secular batei midrash, “houses of study of traditional Jewish texts,” that have sprung up like mushrooms after the rain all around Tel Aviv. Witness: The modern Orthodox “Yakar-Tel Aviv” congregation that packs 400 to 600 mostly young people into the Ateret Tzvi synagogue on a Friday night for what must be described as an ecstatic neo-chasidic prayer service. Witness: The proliferation of high-end kosher restaurants in a city where just a few years back a kosher restaurant of any sort was a needle in a haystack. There are even occasional Shabbat shtreimelakh and bekishes, the chasidic fur hats and silk caftans, to be seen in Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv, however, is a bubble. Much of the violence that takes place in other parts of the country is a distant reality in Tel Aviv. Being in Tel Aviv is like being outside Israel but speaking Hebrew and living the Jewish calendar all the time.

Still the bubble bursts when terrorism occurs there. Acts of that sort are greeted not only with horror, but with disbelief. How could this happen here? This isn’t Jerusalem. We don’t live in the territories. It is then that Tel Aviv becomes part of Israel again. Then it ceases to be a Middle Eastern version of Vienna.

I love Jerusalem for many things. For my Jerusalemite friends and relatives who live there. For the wonderful Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues that I attend there. For its history, its archeology, its idiosyncratic characters, and its colorful and diverse ethnic groups. But Jerusalem often disappoints me. You expect the city to be like Heaven. Instead it is ill-managed and often ill-mannered. Sometimes I feel it is too holy to be normal.

Tel Aviv makes no claims to holiness. It claims only to be the first major modern city in Israel to be built by Jewish labor. It is the city of the Jew turned cosmopolitan — for better or worse.

Jerusalem demands perfection. Tel Aviv demands a good patisserie.

I place Heavenly Jerusalem above my highest joys. Nevertheless, let my right hand wither if I forget the sacred and (kosher!) secular pleasures I have experienced in earthly Tel Aviv.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Chernick holds a doctorate in rabbinic literature and semikhah from Yeshiva University, and he is the chair of the executive committee of Ruach Hiddush (Rabbis and Cantors for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel).He served as professor of rabbinic literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for forty years.He is an oleh hadash with continuing close ties to the United States. Rabbi Chernck regards himself as "a Jew for all Jews."
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