Tel Aviv at 100: forever young.
The occasion? The auctioning of residential lots for a new "Hebrew neighborhood" to be erected on those very dunes, a short distance from the ancient, predominantly Arab port of Jaffa. Nine months later, by a vote of 35 to 20, the infant city was renamed Tel Aviv, literally "Hill of Spring," the title Nahum Sokolow had chosen for his translation of Herzl's Altneuland from German into Hebrew. Sokolow's source was Ezekiel (3:15) which begins with exile and ends with a vision of Jewish redemption: "Then I came to them at Tel Aviv, that lived by the River Chebar, to where they lived; and I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days." That is to say that after the time of mourning (i.e., the seven days) is fulfilled, a new spring or rebirth of Jewish life will eventually come to fruition in the historic Jewish homeland. For the majority of these founding fathers, their suburb-to-be represented an actualization of the new Zionist homeland. It's worth noting, however, that had the minority of 20 somehow prevailed, 2009 would have been the centennial of Neve Yafo (New Jaffa), thereby occluding the symbolism of restoration.
S. Y. Agnon fleshed out the tentative vision of these Jewish defectors from teeming Jaffa:
This place that once was desolate and barren will be filled with large and good houses and pleasant trees and in the center of the quarter we will build a synagogue and a library, a town hall and schools, and the streets will be full of boys and girls. The Herzliya Gymnasium [high school] has already begun to build its home in our suburb and anyone wanting to give his sons and daughters a Jewish and general education will send them to us; with them he will send their mother and after them even he will come.
The shaping idea behind the city's Great Synagogue on Allenby Street--proposed in 1918, completed in 1926--was for its time innovative: it should serve all Jews irrespective of religious observance or communal identification. That it adopted the standard Orthodox service as a matter of course would, naturally, undermine its fondest expectations, but that is less significant for a grasp of the Tel Aviv spirit or gestalt than their having been expressed. Indeed, in the first decades of the city, it did seem natural for perhaps most residents to attend at least the Friday evening service either on Allenby or at one of scores of neighborhood synagogues (today Tel Aviv counts upwards of 500). Thereafter, when many young, growing families deserted the city for its suburbs, in their wake they left behind numerous elderly, congregations that had to struggle for a minyan, and, unless (not for the first time) I am deceived by Agnon's subtlety, increasing numbers of residents were at increasing odds with our Nobel laureate's seeming endorsement of middle-class conventionality. By the late 40s and early 50s, the city's bourgeois origins had been decisively surpassed.
Having recast itself as Manhattan-on-the-Med, an urban hive abuzz with intellectuality, enterprise, innovation, and beach paddle-ball (matkot) by day; awash with play, performance, and sensuality after dark descended. Not for nothing do devout Telavivians relish residing in "The City that Never Sleeps" and enthusiastically embrace the bustle, the hustle, the materialism and the in-your-face hedonism associated with living at the vortex of where, whatever it was, was happening.
Now a seeming paradox: the latest demographic figures declare that the percentage of the Israeli population above the age of 65 runs at about 10%, yet in Tel Aviv it hovers around 15% which argues that the age of its population is well above the average. A moment's thought reveals the cause: the two Israeli population segments with the largest families--the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox--scarcely register on the local scene. If that may be considered normal, then so should the percentage of Tel Aviv's senior population. Statistics aside, however, Tel Aviv's collective persona generally reflects the values and temperament of its younger element, a great many of whom have, as with Manhattan, migrated there from the sticks (i.e., anywhere else in the country) and some of whom will drift to the suburbs after they have married and started raising a family.
As already clear, for a variety of reasons, when wandering about Tel Aviv's 20 square miles, Manhattan, all 23 square miles of it, springs readily to mind. Both cities grew south to north, and to this day many of their most fascinating areas are found in the original, more jumbled and higgledy-piggledy quarters. Tel Aviv's version of the Lower East Side is the lively, multi-ethnic district adjacent to its seven-story Central Bus Station. Billed when it opened in 1993 as "the biggest bus terminal in the world," as though such an oddball distinction would knock our eyes out, its planners mistook elephantine dimensions for architectural merit. Standing near the site of the former "terminal" reeking with exhaust fumes, an amorphous, glorified parking lot for buses to everywhere that spread like an infection over nearby streets infested by prostitutes and petty criminals--its cavernous indoor replacement, while truly a boon for travelers, was from the very start a commercial flop.
Yet today, within its chaotic lower reaches, what seem like hundreds of vendors cater to the taste and needs of thousands of Filipinos (the predominant foreign group), Nigerians, Sudanese, Zambians, Thais, and others, some holding temporary or (far fewer) permanent visas, possibly the greater number here irregularly. These provisional residents of Tel Aviv reside and congregate in the shadow of the great white elephant, shop there or at the nearby Carmel outdoor market where some food stalls serve up dishes to please their palate, send their children to the neighborhood school (where they become fluent Hebrew-speakers), amuse themselves at ethnic bars and discoteques, and on Sundays attend church services in Jaffa. No other Israeli city comes close to matching the municipal resources Tel Aviv devotes to the health and education of dislocated foreign nationals.
Like a standing rebuke to Agnon, this exotic zone near the huge hodge-podge of a bus station cum souk feels like another country. On a recent visit, after a day of meandering around the city and standing for the light to change at a street corner across from the station entrance, I was accosted by attractive, polite, well-dressed young persons distributing glossy "Jews for Jesus" material. After disengaging, I paused to watch: over a period of five minutes, about one in four persons pocketed a brochure. (Serving those too fastidious to penetrate this multi-cultural arena is another inter-city bus terminus; out-of-doors, it stands adjacent to Arlozorov-Central Train Station.)
Though somewhat faded, not far north of "another country," the cafes, shops, and ambiance of legendary Rehov Sheinkin and its immediate environs are still Tel Aviv's closest counterpart to Greenwich Village and Soho. Stretching north of Sheinkin, like Manhattan north of West 4th Street, the city's Topsyish origins succumb to the almighty grid, brainchild of Patrick Geddes, a brilliant city planner who before taking notice of Tel Aviv had earlier designed the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University. Like my wife, he was a native of a land renowned for order and rationality--Scotland. Invited by Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv's first and longest ever serving mayor, to draw up a master plan for the growing city, the 71-year old city planner lost little time. He projected major lines of transportation to run north and south along what would become the city's five major boulevards. These were intersected at regular intervals by major east-to-west arteries (today's Frischman, Gordon, Ben-Gurion, Arlosoroff, Jabotiinsky, and Nordau Streets where traffic lights hold sway). In the quieter, densely interstitial, residential streets, the Scotsman confirmed Tel Aviv's founding fathers commitment to pleasant, family homes surrounded by grape vines and almond and fig trees.
Submitted in 1926, Geddes's comprehensive master plan won general approval and, at first anyway, earned respectful adherence. His orderly scheme would prove invaluable in making Tel Aviv, far more than Israel's other major cities, a paradise for pedestrians. True, this is partially due to the accident of topography. Nevertheless, both for pleasant, capacious boulevards so well suited to ambling, cycling, and the culture of the sidewalk cafe and for direct and easy access to Mediterranean beaches from almost anywhere in the city, to this day Tel Aviv remains infinitely indebted to the Scotsman's foresight.
Geddes also designated an industrial zone and a central area for Tel Aviv's cultural center. Today it still accommodates the Habima National Theater and, the Mann Auditorium, the home of the Israel Philharmonic, both of which are currently being refurbished. Opened a few blocks to the east in 1994 is the newer, much grander Performing Arts Center, home to the New Israeli Opera and the Israeli Ballet.
Tel Aviv's official centenary celebration kicked off on April 4, 2009 in Rabin Square, the broad plaza that fronts its unadorned City Hall. This, alas, is a dreary fortress of functionalism totally at variance with the baroque, Middle European rathaus Agnon surely had in mind. More than 300,000 persons gathered to enjoy a predictably splendiferous sound & light show, pop and classical musical performances (featuring Zubin Mehta leading the Philharmonic performing Tschaikowsky) and capped by a fireworks show of shows. But hey, how often does one celebrate a centenary, and since April Altneuland's "first Hebrew city" has been gorging at a non-stop cultural and sporting smorgasbord consisting of hundreds of special appearances and events. Consider, for example, visiting performances by the Berliner Ensemble and the National Theaters of Norway and the Czech Republic; Milan's La Scala Opera Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, performing Verdi's Requiem (out of doors and free to all comers); and Aida, directed by Zefferelli, at the Performing Arts Center. At Rosh Hashanah, the City of Brussels will be carpeting this same Rabin Square with 800,000 blossoms to celebrate not Tel Aviv alone but, more universally, nature conservancy and environmental protection. Let these stand as a sampling of scores of splendid displays and performances that, taken together, are marking the onset of a new millennium for what may be viewed, perhaps, as much as the State itself, as the most successful Zionist undertaking of all.
Tel Aviv's intimidating self-confidence may be underscored by an instructive coincidence. In the self-same year of 1909, a competing image of the Herzliyan vision first saw the light of day: the establishment on the shores of Lake Kinneret of Degania, mother of all kibbutzim. Although the kibbutz movement, by its very nature elitist, never aimed to compete directly with the massive coastal network of urban communities, for the better part of three generations, in vital ways, the collectivist, self-denying, land-and-toil centered spirit of Degania became the standard bearer of Zionism. Since the 1980s, however, the kibbutz movement, now numbering only 120,000 members, has been undergoing a high profile crisis of confidence. Although quite recently experiencing a modest revival, for good cause, the media have been mute about how, if at all, it has been commemorating its centennial.
From the start, the only urban rival to Tel Aviv's commercial and cultural hegemony and its aggressively anti-establishmentarian elan has been Jerusalem, Israel's spiritual magnet, historic capital, and, at least technically, its largest city. With over 800,000 residents, Jerusalem more than doubles the official headcount for Tel Aviv-Jaffa. On the other hand, Tel Aviv's metropolitan area embraces nine substantial cities, four of them numbering over 100,000 persons. Spreading north to south 15 kilometers along the coast and another 15 kilometers inland, this so-called "Dan Bloc," embraces some one-and-a-quarter million inhabitants, or 20% of the country. Since to all extents and purposes, there is no "Greater Jerusalem," the capital's ascendancy based upon numbers may be viewed as questionable.
The contrast in temperaments between these antithetical centers may be exemplified by a telling juxtaposition. For the eleventh year running, in June, as the centerpiece of Gay Pride Month, Tel Aviv hosted its festive Gay Pride Parade as an integral component of its centennial celebration. Under the benign aegis of Mayor Ron Huldai, around 20,000 celebrants cavorted for hours along central arteries of the city, culminating their procession with a massive beach party (and the "marriage," not officially recognized by clerical authorities, of course, of four gay couples). All this good-natured boisterousness is standard operation procedure in the undisputed capital of Israeli laissez faire.
By chance, at the same time over in Jerusalem a cantankerous inversion of the above Parable of Good Will and Good Times played out with a display of rancor and discord. (No, this year the issue was not gay rights; in 2009, about 2,000 gays of Jerusalem paraded peacefully.) The bone of contention was, as usual, the sanctity of Shabbat. Jerusalem's recently elected secular mayor was constrained to close a parking lot he had authorized in order to accommodate secular visitors on Shabbat. Eidah Haredit, a militant, anti-Zionist slice of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox population, orchestrated violence. In the following weeks, secular activists protested their mayor's pusillanimity. With the re-opening of the parking lot, once again Eidah Haredit reacted violently. As of this writing, there is no denouement, and given the governing temper of the holy city, where compromise is the equivalent of defeat and this sort of nasty business is endemic, it's difficult even to imagine one.
However, neither do things always run smoothly in the first Hebrew City. As in Jerusalem, the parking problem can also serve as a flash point for social pathology. Why? Well, unanticipated by Geddes, the metastasis of the automobile cancer has become the city's most intractable distraction. Tel Aviv is reported to lack an astonishing 300,000 necessary public parking places. Under these dire conditions, parking lot lessees freely behave as laws unto themselves. In June, for example, after ten years, residents of a neighborhood desperately short of green space received approval from the Planning Commission to create a park on two unused acres. Jubilant residents then planted trees and installed benches and an environmental structure. Soon afterwards, out of nowhere, a bulldozer materialized that proceeded to demolish all their work. The villain was a parking lot czar with connections in the City Hall. Neighborhood activists were furious, but now months later, the planning commissioners seem impotent to intervene effectively.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that, over the long haul, the "Hebrew" values embodied by laissez-faire Tel Aviv, capital of "normalcy of the Jewish People," are more consonant with Herzlyian Zionism than the doctrinaire, irreligious, internationalist orientation of mainstream kibbutz movements. All the more is this so for Jerusalem, at least one-third of whose Jewish residents lead lives oblivious of or inimical to Zionist values. Instead of Hebrew, the casual walker on the streets of the nation's capital will be as likely to overhear Yiddish or English. The Jerusalem Post remains an organ pre-eminently designed for English-language readership. Over in Tel Aviv, however, it is difficult even to find copies for sale. As for spoken English, of course many Tel Aviv residents know it well, but once beyond the orbit of the tourist hotels and the city's motley "Lower East Side," Hebrew is universally spoken. Who can doubt which model of Zionism would win Herzl's approbation as a better reflection of his own?
Returning to times when camels were loaded with buckets of sand in order to level sites for new homesteads or, a decade later, when Mayor Dizengoff rode about astride a white mare, I again return to Agnon's evocation of the city's origins for my cue. The celebrated Herzliya Gymnasium (whose first valedictorian was my father's cousin), was razed in 1962 to make room for the Shalom Meir Tower, a 34-story office building. Occurring four years before Shmuel Yosef Agnon was awarded his Nobel Prize for Literature, this mindless demolition, apparently unrecorded by any photographer, must have grieved his sensibility.
When I came on aliyah in 1976, Shalom Tower was touted as the tallest building in the Middle East. Today it still soars in solitary ascendancy over the more unassuming structures on shop-lined Herzl Street, still is a vital commercial artery of the original core of the city.
Shalom Tower harbors not a ghost in the attic but yet another startling skeleton in the cellar: a station for Tel Aviv's much needed subway system. Planned in the 60s, the project was abandoned as too costly, but because of the stranglehold of the automobile on the city's development, it was resurrected in modified form in 2000. The first of four proposed lines, running for fourteen miles (six of them underground constituting ten of its 33 stops) have been approved. Excavation is supposed to begin later this year (but no one is holding his breath). Ironically, it is uncertain whether the ready-made station under Shalom Tower will actually be exploited for its original purpose.
In today's Tel Aviv, whose sky has now been breached by several dozen towers, Meir Shalom seems rather unassuming. Moreover, since the eye encounters high-rise luxury excrescences such as the three Akirov Towers mainly in the city's northern reaches or eastern fringes, thus far their aesthetic impact has been modest. (A sign of the times: Akirov's best known tenant, the Defense Minister, has recently put his humble pad up for sale for 40 million shekels.) A brilliant exception to the general run of uninspired spires are three that are geometrically poised and stunningly conceived, each dramatically rising between 40 and 50 stories on land that formerly had been a dump. Like fabulous sisters in a fairy fable, one is triangular, the second rectangular, and, tallest of them all, the third is circular. Together they comprise the Azrieli Center to which Shalom Station, one of Tel Aviv's four intercity train stops, offers direct access. The circular, most graceful sister is a lady bountiful who displays her goodies in the largest shopping mall of the city.
One stop north of Shalom brings the rider to Alozoroff, Tel Aviv's Central Station. Unabashedly utilitarian, Alozoroff evokes none of the stateliness of Manhattan's Grand Central Station or any of the palatial European terminals. Yet, upon detraining here, one joins an uncharacteristically disciplined line of Israeli passengers who rarely surrender to the temptation of edging forward aggressively or queue-jumping at the escalator. Inexplicably, arrival in Tel Aviv's Central Station is a civil experience. Stepping off the escalator, rather than to the inauspicious right, this out-of-towner's primal urge is to join the throng striding leftwards towards a mighty wall of skyscrapers.
Turn right, I command my disbelieving feet. Right!
Why the dissonance? Well, even after many Alozoroff arrivals, I still must consciously call to mind that Tel Aviv, "The Big Orange," lies supine to the right. Leftwards rises downtown Ramat Gan, a separate city of 135,000 where a bloc of skyscrapers, starring 240-meter Moshe Aviv Tower, Israel's tallest structure and home to the world's largest diamond exchange, reigns supreme.
As with Paris or London, the central core of Tel Aviv feels human in scale, down-to-earth, almost Mittel-European. The central swath of the city still consists of block after block of four- and five-story residential buildings. Their signature is a most particular architectural era, style, and even hue, one much vaunted by current city fathers. In 2003 UNESCO proclaimed Tel Aviv's legacy of over 4,000 structures conceived in the Bauhaus idiom--the International Style that flourished in the 1920s and 30s--a World Cultural Heritage site. Tel Aviv, which boasts the highest concentration in the world of buildings of this style, was credited for "its unique adaptation of modern international architectural trends to the cultural, climatic, and local traditions of the city." This distinction also endorses yet another of Tel Aviv's sobriquets--The White City.
There is no small irony in all this architectural hoopla. It has little to do with the original mandate of creating "a garden suburb" of Jaffa, i.e., last century's model of a "Green City." Its source lay mainly in historical accident: the flight from Germany of a fairly homogenous clique of talented Jewish architects who arrived at the propitious moment to impress their stylized, unified vision on the rapidly expanding urban center. It's a bit of a stretch to attribute a priori cultural or local traditions to the rounded corners and balconies of the humanistic Bauhous style. As for climatic adaptations, one must search assiduously to spot even a few commodious terraces that, over the decades, have not given way to indecorous, often hideous varieties of plastic siding installed in order to endow their inhabitants with privacy or an additional room. Beyond all that, the original white plaster, long ago succumbing to damp, salty conditions, has shed its smooth white skin, peeling most unappealingly into strips and cracks. What once was pale, exemplary, and fine is now grimy, gritty, and gray.
And yet, wherever renovations have proceeded successfully, whenever one glimpses the fully restored vision of the Bauhaus architects, moments of architectural grace shine forth, and one appreciates the honorable intent of UNESCO. However modest, its bestowal seems, at least thus far, to have exercised a modicum of constraint upon the city's architects and planners. Though most of the buildings themselves are now flawed through time and circumstance, the original flow and rhythm of the Bauhaus lines still lend unity to parts of the older, poorer, southern half of Tel Aviv. If only as a flawed idea, this virginal White City can still be very moving.
Ah, but how will Tel Aviv look at 125? If current trends of cost, profit, and demand prevail, much, much different. It will probably come as a surprise to most that, although housing prices retreated almost everywhere during the first quarter of this year, Israel is one of just five markets where, even in inflation adjusted terms, prices rose. (The others? Switzerland, Austria, Thailand, and Shanghai. In contrast, American prices, declined by a whopping 19%.) Given the limited space, the pressures of demography, and the clout developers exert at Tel Aviv's City Hall, additional skyscrapers will inevitably finesse their way to approval by the city's Planning and Building Committee, overcoming the objections of well-intentioned citizenry, conservationists, and sentimental journalists who justly despair of the devastating effect on the Bauhaus base of an epidemic of ziggurats.
Of course precisely where skyscrapers get situated can make a great difference. The signs, however, are not promising. One 38-story tower already lords it over the low density, gentrified houses, shops, and narrow streets of the seaside Neve Tsedeq district, home ground of the Suzanne Dellal Dance Center. Together with adjacent Florentin, these two southern districts rank as the oldest, most charming in the city. The 38-story slab, however, is just a portent. Earlier this year, while awarding "protected" status to 30 period buildings as a sop to preservationists, not one, not two but five additional 30-to-40-story buildings wangled their path to approval for construction on the north-south thoroughfare separating these two vulnerable neighborhoods. Like half-a-dozen Chrysler Buildings penetrating the fabric of Greenwich Village, they would comprise half-a-dozen lethal spikes driven into the living flesh of this unique area. Further proliferation of high-risers will surely destroy the human-scale ambiance that makes for so much of the appeal of Tel Aviv.
As for the original behemoth, Migdal Shalom's principal legacy will likely be that it occupies the site of the historic gymnasium that Tel Aviv was too ravenous to preserve but whose absentminded destruction served to elevate public consciousness of the value of its irreplaceable historic landmarks. On a walk westwards from Azrieli Center along Rehov Kaplan, for example, one soon passes Hakirya, the large campus occupied by the Defense Ministry. It was the original site of Sarona, a tidy, 19th century agricultural community of German Protestant Templars who moved to Palestine in anticipation of the imminence of the Second Coming. In the 1930s, however, most Templars shifted their primary allegiance from Jesus to Hitler; the British shipped them off to a camp for enemy aliens in Australia.
During the past year, on a site just across from Hakirya, Tel Aviv installed eighteen meticulously restored, two-story Templar houses. In the shadow of the Azrieli towers, across from the original settlement site, restored Sarona is visually elegant, a triumph of historical preservation. It also raises a number of auxiliary issues, not the least of which is how much sense does it make for one of the principal strategic targets in the entire country to continue to occupy forty acres of prime Tel Aviv real estate?
By now, the astute reader may have remarked that I have said preciously little about miles of Tel Aviv beachfront which, even though nearly monopolized by look-alike hotels, are one of the glories of the city. Is it because I have an aversion to the sea? Not at all. The cause is akin to why in years of yore I never bothered taking the D train from the Bronx to Manhattan to visit a zoo or to see a ballgame. Simply, there are nicer, less crowded beaches elsewhere in Israel, so I've no reason to have recourse for a splash in Tel Aviv's surf.
On our most recent wedding anniversary, my children installed my wife and me for several days in the Grand Beach Hotel located in Tel Aviv's northernmost seafront salient. (Including the protrusion of a small thrust of land, it is the precise geographical counterpart of Manhattan's Inward district. Similarly, just as the Harlem River divides Manhattan from the Bronx, in its meandering to the sea, Tel Aviv's Yarkon divides Geddes-planned city proper from its newer Ramat Aviv neighborhood to the north.) One afternoon, we strolled down Rehov Hayarkon to Herbert Samuel Promenade and then all the way to Jaffa, hardly ever losing sight of waves, swimmers, bikinis, and seekers after the perfect tan. Most fascinating was a curious jumble of muscle-building apparatus for the exclusive use of guys who enjoy pull-ups and lifting weights in sight and sound of the pounding surf.
Of the 66 original Tel Aviv freeholders of 1909, reportedly all but nine were Ashkenazim. In the 1920s, an influx of Sephardi newcomers crowded into the poorer, low profile Shapira district of South Tel Aviv, so the proportions shifted somewhat. What are they today? Since the critical definitions are self-referential and fluid, and since inquiry into the question is sensitive and politically incorrect, it is difficult to ascertain the percentage of Sephardi Jews among Tel Aviv's population of Israelis, 98% of whom (exclusive of Jaffa) reportedly are Jewish. Nevertheless, no one questions or would dispute the proposition that secular, Ashkenazi elements set the general tone in the city. And yet, as is almost always the case at Israeli hotels on Shabbat, the minyan at the Grand Beach was predominantly Sephardi.
Well, if not to acquire a tan, what do I, or rather we do on the day on the town? In fact, nothing more mysterious than what this Bronxite used to do in Manhattan. A visit to Tel Aviv usually embraces a bit of niche shopping; a show, concert, or offbeat film (one of the two multiplexes at the Dizengoff Mall is almost certain to feature something of interest); a cafe stop and a meal out. That particular mall, by the way, set in the very heart of Tel Aviv, is both the city's oldest and, in its interior design, most architecturally distinctive. To catch my drift, think, if you would, of the special pleasures afforded by Manhattan's Guggenheim.
There is one notable exception to the usual bill of fare in Tel Aviv: attendance at a conference or lecture in Ramat Aviv, the academic stronghold on the nether side of the River Yarkon that serves as the seat of Tel Aviv University, which has Israel's largest student body. In its way, it is the legatee of the hopes Agnon had invested in the Herzlyia Gymnasium. And sure enough, as he curiously prophesied, after the children have grown and gone, some of their more interesting mothers indeed do come there to pursue studies of their own.
Of course Tel Aviv has dozens of good, relatively inexpensive restaurants, especially in and around the Carmel Market, but we currently have just two favorite cafes: in North Tel Aviv there is Card Henrietta located, naturally, close to the entrance of Rehov Henrietta Szold; in South Tel Aviv we enjoy Cafe Ginzburg on Rehov Ahad Ha'am. (If you don't immediately grasp the connection, go back five spaces, 87 years, and lose a turn while you google Ahad Ha'am.)
Now nearing the end, I come to what seems to me the unique, vital transactional role Tel Aviv plays in leveraging the national psyche. Here's a story relayed to me some years ago by an American-born friend about his father who was born in Jerusalem to a large, ultra-Orthodox family. As a teenager, he realized that the Haredi life style did not suit him, so one day, he removed himself to Tel Aviv, removed his Hasidic garb, and joined pre-State Lehi, an illegal, underground organization that violently opposed negotiations with the British. Faced in 1948 probably with imprisonment by the new Israeli government for some of his past activities, the young man fled to America where he would earn his living as a congregational rabbi.
Here's a parallel narrative: in Arad, the small, pleasant, Negev city where I now reside. I have befriended a member of a Hasidic dynasty. He has recounted how, as a young man, his grandfather, defecting from his family and his close-knit community in Jerusalem, escaped to Tel Aviv, stripped off his black costume, and thereafter led a wholly secular life. In broad outline, a similar tale informs much of the fiction of now secular Israeli novelist Haim Be'er; it surely echoes the pilgrimage of hundreds, if not thousands of Israelis for whom Tel Aviv for much of the century has served as a contemporary incarnation of the Biblical "city of refuge." (Simultaneously, of course, has there been a constant, if indeterminate, counter-flow of spiritual seekers from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, B'nei Brak, Tsefat, India, and, in more recent times, yeshivot on the militant West Bank. (I could not even hazard a guess as to the volume of these respective streams, but I surmise that, at times, it's heavier headed downstream, at other times, upstream.)
In addition, Darfurians, Sudanese, and other foreign aliens now clustering in South Tel Aviv are far from the first refugees to have sought and gained asylum in this city of freedom and self-actualization. The influx of escapees from the constraints of ultra-Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, kibbutz orthodoxy, small town small-mindedness, sexual orthodoxy, and family repressiveness has been ceaseless. Tel Aviv is the California of the Israeli imagination, a zone of liberation from doctrinaire ideas, systems, and practices where all kinds of Israelis arrive daily to reinvent themselves as they please and begin their lives afresh.
What began a century ago under conventional bourgeois auspices has long since morphed into a borough of individuality, creativity, liberty, and yes, in its own fashion, of "Jewish normalcy." Not really designed for tourists, this Hebrew city is an exhilarating locus of regeneration, a city-state of its own devices, a perpetual spring by the sea. AS it enters its second century, may dynamic, hospitable Tel Aviv persevere in transcending the exhausted rhetoric of Left versus Right and, in the original spirit of its Great Synagogue, carry on with its experiment of inclusiveness, continue to shine forth its beacon of freedom, and, in echoing the sentiments of Robert Allen Zimmerman (a.k.a. Bob Dylan), who has from time to time exhibited suggestively Zionist proclivities, may it stay, may it stay, may it stay, forever young.
HAIM CHERTOK, who made aliya in 1976, has since published hundreds of articles on literary, Jewish and political matters. In addition to Midstream, they have appeared in journals as various as Commentary, Tikkun, Granta, The New York Times, Moment, Jerusalem Post, Congress Monthly, Hadassah, and Judaism. He has also published five books, one of which, Stealing Home, won a National Jewish Book Award in 1989. His most recent book, He Also Spoke as a Jew (2006), is a full-length biography of James Parkes (1896-1981), a historian and Anglican cleric who devoted his life to the service of the Jewish people. Since 1986 Chertok has been teaching at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. Prof. Chertok's most recent article for Midstream was on a three-day conference in Israel on its 60th anniversary arranged by President Shimon Peres. The article appeared in our Winter 2009 issue.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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