It was Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv. The Carmel Market was teeming with people shopping for Shabbat (the Sabbath), and I was stuck in the middle of it all, up to my ankles in chicken guts.
It was my fault. I heard the call of “Yalla! Yalla!” behind me but didn’t turn quickly enough to see the boy bearing down with a heavy, three-wheeled cart loaded with discarded chicken parts. Yaron, my Israeli friend, moved to the right. I moved left. So did the chicken parts.
After the fishmongers and butchers who had gathered to gawk enjoyed their laugh at my expense, one of them sent a boy over with a hose. As he rinsed my feet, I was actually grateful for the accident that brought this cooling break from the sultry hothouse that is Tel Aviv in summer.
The Carmel Market is a shuk, a maze of shops and vendors at the intersection of Tel Aviv’s crumbling old Yemenite Quarter and modish bohemian boulevards. Shabbat is the day God rested after six days of creating, and Jewish law mandates it as a day when no work may be done. In a few hours, a chorus of metal doors clanging down over the market stalls would signal Shabbat’s approach. By 6 o’clock the buses would stop and the sidewalks would empty as the population retreated for a nap before the obligatory Friday-night family dinner.
Yaron and I hurried to buy the food we would need through the weekend. We were looking forward to the evening--not to Shabbat eve but to Friday night in Israel’s secular city.
On April 30, Israel will celebrate its 50th anniversary. (Independence was declared on May 14, 1948, on the Western calendar; the anniversary day varies on the Hebrew calendar.) More visitors than usual are expected to descend on the country for special events throughout the year, but few will consider Tel Aviv for more than a seaside break from Jerusalem. They’ll be missing out. In the three years I lived and worked in Israel, the revered ancient capital city never attracted me the way gritty, lively Tel Aviv could.
To the uninitiated, Tel Aviv appears unsightly and chaotic. Stucco apartment facades are sullied from smog and laundry hangs from balconies. Rooftops are cluttered with water heaters and rusting solar panels. Architecture mixes Middle East Orientalism with Bauhaus functionalism.
There is little form to the city’s design. Tel Aviv was originally supposed to be a small garden town, but bad planning failed to anticipate its rapid growth. Early maps called for streets to be laid out in the shape of a menorah (Jewish candelabra), but workers diverted Ben Gurion Boulevard (the center candlestick) to pass their favorite cafe instead.
Tel Aviv has always had a roguish mentality. It was in the early beachfront cafes that activists conspired to defy the British Mandate and smuggle European refugees ashore after World War II; it was here that David Ben Gurion declared statehood and established a provisional government. And it was here that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated after speaking at a peace rally in 1995.
Tel Aviv dates back only to 1906, when Jews living in nearby Jaffa decided to push northward and set up tents on the barren sand dunes. Thus, within the context of the Holy Land, it has no history. But in the context of the modern state, which to most Israelis is more important, it’s the point from which everything else emanates. This is where the trends are set that the rest of the country follows; where the Hebrew dailies are published and the political parties are based and the national theater (Habimah) and modern dance companies (Batsheva and Inbal) are housed.
There are no stunning views here as in Jerusalem, no azure waters as in Eilat and little in the way of biblical landmarks. Yet once you become accustomed to its urban starkness, Tel Aviv’s energy stands out.
Israel is home to immigrants from 92 ethnicities, almost all of whom can be seen mingling in the kettle that is the Carmel Market on Friday afternoons.
The stalls are piled high with pyramids of robust fruits and vegetables: ruby tomatoes and Jaffa oranges; plump melons and grapes; figs, pomegranates and dates. Mounds of pickled olives--green, red and black--gleam in the mid-day sun. Aromatic spices and seeds bulge from burlap sacks. Counters are stacked with flat breads--Persian, Yemen, Syrian--and pita so fresh it steams in the plastic shopping bag.
There is noise and chaos as crates are hauled from one end of the shuk to the other. Half-hourly news reports call out from boomboxes. Everyone knows everyone else, and greetings and political jokes are traded with ease. Above the tinny strains of piped-in Middle Eastern music, the shuk barkers engage in a rhythmic patter: “Three shekels, three shekels, one kilo for three.” “Come see, come see, the pita Iraqi,” they sing in spirited competition.
Commerce is an intimate exchange. When I asked a seller for only a few ounces of cheese, he demanded to know if I was on a diet. When Yaron bought only one sabra (sweet cactus fruit) to taste, the burly merchant said to me with a warm wink, “Is that all he can afford? Sweetie, stick with him and you’ll never eat. But come with me and I’ll feed you like Pavarotti.”
We exited the shuk weighted with plastic sacks and passed through Nahalat Binyamin, a pedestrian mall filled with local artists on Tuesdays and Fridays. Soft Hebrew rock played in speakers overhead as buyers sifted through pottery and jewelry on display. At the end of a cross street, a dozen people had taken refuge from the sun in a quiet tented area furnished with Persian pillows and rugs. Outside, an Arab woman was cooking Iraqi flat bread over a wood fire.
The mall’s beautiful Mandate-era facades and ornate, Spanish-style balconies recall the area’s more elegant days as a haberdashery district. Tel Aviv is filled with unique neighborhoods such as this that invite exploration: Hatikva (Etsel Street), where Israelis flock for inexpensive grilled meats and Oriental breads; Florentin, a warehouse district now revitalized with design studios and restaurants; Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv’s first residential neighborhood; and Basel and Frishman streets, the core of the cafe and art gallery scene.
On Sheinkin Street a short block away, the bohemian masses, dressed in the international black uniform of the urban cool, congregate for the Friday ritual. Pop songs have been written about this street and the trendy young people who come here. But more interesting to me are the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who moved in years ago to stem the tide of hedonism. Every Friday they stand outside the cafes, averting their eyes from the exotic beauties in cutoffs and halter tops, and try to induce passing males to join them in prayer.
Shabbat evening is supposed to be a time of rest. But tell that to the masses who invade Tel Aviv on Friday night as the city awakens from its nap. Gone are the days when Israeli television wouldn’t broadcast after 11 p.m. so that workers could get to sleep early.
Today, restaurants don’t fill up until 10 p.m. and the downtown streets throb with life until 4 in the morning.
An old joke asks, “Where is the best place to be in Jerusalem on a Friday night?” Answer: “On the road to Tel Aviv.”
Tel Aviv is where the language of the Bible flashes in neon lights. It’s a city of fickle tastes, where cafes and clubs open and close at a dizzying pace, and where what’s hot (achla) and not (al hapanim) changes as quickly as the slang to describe them.
Yaron and I strolled the beachfront promenade--relaxing and romantic despite being filled with families--and watched the moonlit waves lap at the sand.
The smell of shakshuka, a simmered dish made with tomatoes, onions and egg, kindled our appetite. Food is a major pastime in Israel, and Tel Aviv offers an expanding list of establishments serving everything from pizza to foie gras (which is exported to France). For us, it was lamb cutlets on the upstairs veranda of Keren, a beautiful restaurant set in a 19th century wood house in Jaffa, a short taxi ride down the beach.
Jaffa, an Arab-Jewish town on the cusp of the crescent coastline, dates back to 1800 BC and is the world’s oldest working port. During the day, its flea market attracts interior designers hunting for antique treasures; at night, its walls shudder with the beat of discos. On the seafront wall, amateur anglers drop their lines into the dark waves where Jonah was swallowed by a whale (the town’s name comes either from Jonah’s son, Japhet, or the Hebrew word for “beautiful”).
After dinner, we wandered for hours through the winding, cobbled streets and galleries of the Artists’ Quarter set amid stone arches and Ottoman walls.
The clock tower on Yefet Street beckoned. It was 4 a.m. The discos were closing and Yefet Street was congested with cars and pedestrians, all headed to the same place we were: Said Abu Lafia and Sons Bakery.
From a window in the side of the building, Abu Lafia’s grandsons and great-grandsons dispensed Mediterranean munchies to the hungry crowd as they have for nearly 120 years. A teenager fed a steady stream of breads into the open furnace and retrieved the baked ones with a long-handled paddle--pizza with egg baked on top; triangular pies filled with potatoes or goat cheese; pita topped with olive oil and herbs.
We sidled between cars to make our selection, then retreated to a quiet curbside to enjoy. A puff of steam broke from the flaky pies as we bit into them, and we let out sated sighs. There’s still a lot of life to be lived in these modest old streets, and Tel Aviv is just starting to stretch its legs.
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GUIDEBOOK: City by the Sea
Getting there: TWA, Tower, Air France and Lufthansa fly direct from Los Angeles. Round-trip fares start at $1,536. El Al begins twice-weekly service this week.
Where to stay. Hotel prices fluctuate by holiday and season; these are starting rates, plus 15% for service. In Tel Aviv, locals recommend:
Basel, 156 Ha-Yarkon St.; telephone 011-972-3-524-4161; $118 double, with breakfast.
City Hotel, 9 Mapu St., off Ha-Yarkon; tel. 011-972-3-524-6253, $98 double, with breakfast.
Radisson Moriah Plaza, 155 Ha-Yarkon St. tel. 011-972-3-521-6666; tel. (800) 221-0203; $200 double, with breakfast.
Hometel Israel; tel. 011-972-3-647-4140; fax 011-972-3-647-1109, lists rooms and apartments for short-term rent.
Dining out: Some restaurants close on the Sabbath, from late Friday afternoon to Saturday evening, so call ahead.
Pastalina, 16 Elifellet St., Tel Aviv; tel. 011-972-3-683-6401. Italian, moderate. Daily, 7:30 p.m. to midnight; Friday, noon to 3 p.m.
Keren 12 Eilat St., Jaffa; tel. 011-972-3-518-1358. Upscale Mediterranean; expensive. Lunch Sunday through Thursday, noon to 4 p.m.; dinner daily, 7 p.m. to midnight.
Said Abu Lafia & Sons Bakery, 7 Yefet St., Jaffa; tel. 011-972-3-683-4958. Takeout; inexpensive. Monday through Thursday, 5 a.m. to 2 a.m.; later Friday and Saturday.
For more information: Israel Ministry of Tourism; tel. (800) 596-1199; https://www.goisrael.com