A Young and Prancing 100 Years Old: Tel Aviv, Not What You Expected

On the eve of this Passover Seder—which, for so many Jews, in Israel and around the world, will be clouded by worry over the very personal implications of the financial crisis for them, their families, and their friends—we need a ray of sunshine to lift our spirits. For Israelis, there are added layers of concern. Many are dissatisfied with aspects of their new government and watched with some distaste the recent filibuster in the Knesset over the budget. We are troubled about the possibility that a new wave of terror may have begun, given the rising number of attacks (including a sad incident involving a 16-year-old Israeli Bedouin girl who surfed Islamist websites, decided she wanted to be “martyred,” obtained a gun, and was killed after opening fire on an IDF base). We are alarmed at the prospect of tensions with the Obama Administration and Europe over the peace process and by the level of hostility reflected in the Western media. The shadow of Iran hovers over our future. And yet this week is also a time of celebration—not only of our ancient deliverance from Egyptian bondage, but also of the one hundredth birthday of the city of Tel Aviv.

As implied by its full name, of course, Tel Aviv-Yafo is not quite so young, but rather is the inheritor of one of the world’s oldest cities, Jaffa. Moreover, its frequent designation as “the first Hebrew city” ignores the fact that Hebrew-speaking cities existed in this land some three thousand years ago, and that some of the Hebrew “villages” of the 1882 vintage are now cities, too. (My own family hails from Hadera, now a midsized town, established in 1891.) And yet the group that went out of Jaffa in 1909, to cast lots in the sand dunes and build a new modern urban project, did bring into being something so dramatically different from anything else in Jewish history that the celebration is very much in place. Rapidly, the new town became a city and, in its own way, the heart of the greatest metropolis the Jewish world has ever known. While the municipal area of Tel Aviv proper has no more than 400,000 inhabitants, ranging from the elegant neighborhoods of the north to the slumlike conditions in the southern areas where foreign workers, legal and illegal, now dwell, the broader expanse of the Tel Aviv conurbation—known as Gush Dan, from Ra’anana in the north to Rehovot to the south—is home to some three million inhabitants. With relatively small Arab communities (in Jaffa, Lod, and Ramle), it is thus home to many more Jews than live now in the New York metropolitan area, or ever lived in Warsaw and its environs.

The term “vibrant”—used, occasionally, by U.S. presidents envisioning Israel’s future as a Jewish state—seems to have been invented to describe this unusual city. (Much as some in Tel Aviv would argue that the term “dormant” was invented to describe Jerusalem, let alone Haifa.) Few metropolitan areas of any size, beyond New York and London, offer on a daily basis such a profusion of theatre, art, music, fancy shopping, and excellent food—the days when Israelis knew only two cheeses and drank only syrupy Kiddush wine once a week are long gone; the choices of cuisine are on par with any city. An American paper, perhaps touched by the efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “rebrand” Israel, once called Tel Aviv “the Mediterranean capital of cool,” and, frankly, the shoe fits. (When tensions are down, young Europeans are know to fly in for the weekend party scene.) Creative, irreverent, unencumbered by the legacy of sacred places, the “White City”—to the surprise of many Israelis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the large number of surviving Bauhaus buildings—may, in fact, be drab to look at, but is colorful in style and demeanor.

Serious business is done here: Most of the country’s corporations and financial institutions are based in Tel Aviv, and so are the Ministry of Defense and the IDF high command. At lunchtime, thousands of uniformed young women and men spill out, populating the sidewalk fast-food restaurants as if they had no care in the world, but heavy burdens are often placed on these young shoulders when they go back to their computer screens and the duties of intelligence work, planning, or managing the human and material assets upon which our survival may depend. It was from Tel Aviv that David Ben-Gurion conducted the desperate fighting during the War of Independence; and it is in Tel Aviv that fateful decisions may yet need to be made and their implementation monitored by worried officers in underground control centers. But even then, as now, Tel Aviv danced and dined; and it is this sheer exuberance that gives meaning to the grim work that still needs to be done.

Few poets and songwriters have touched the nature of our experience here as deeply as Natan Alterman, although he remains largely unknown to non-Israelis. In an elegant little popular song, when Tel Aviv was barely so, he offered the insight that “nevertheless, there is something to her.” Like a beautiful women walking into a room, where “the monsters” are forced to admit that she is striking; like the idea of love, which we are told is obsolete, but nevertheless grips us—so is Tel Aviv (in my own translation, which cannot do justice to the clever wordplay that was his hallmark):

They say about her in Jerusalem
That Tel Aviv is just “a wheel”—
No seriousness, no substance,
Few professors dwell there,
And no prophets ever will…
… Still, “there is something to her” –
And neither foe nor obstacle would stop her—
Somehow, she will make things happen!

Well said. I do not pretend to be objective. I spent my childhood years in the heart of Tel Aviv, and then in neighboring Ramat Gan (although I experienced the formative years of my youth in sleepy Haifa and still feel at home there). True, nothing really compares with the magic of Jerusalem, and we at AJC’s Israel office, Beit Moses, are proud to be AJC’s ambassadors in Israel, here in one of its finest houses. But Tel Aviv still makes things happen, and the sight of its new skyline, ambitious and dramatic, so different from what it was not so many years ago, can still—like the poet’s young lady (he had an eye for them), like love—make the heart dance. Happy birthday, kid.
Copyright 2013/2014 AJC