At sunset in Tel Aviv, the neon signs atop the high-rises on Dizengoff, Hayarkon, and the other main thoroughfares begin to flash the familiar litany of global brand names: Sony, Hyundai, McDonald's. Cars slow to a rush-hour crawl. On the Tayelet, the promenade along the Mediterranean, a Madonna look-alike draws a crowd of rollerbladers. In the bustling pubs and coffeehouses, every other patron seems to have a cellular phone. It's Thursday evening-- everybody's favorite night out-- and I'm sitting in the Golden Apple, enjoying the kind of eclectic European-Asian food that appears on menus in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, at equally painful prices. It's my first trip to Israel in a dozen years, and my host is making the point that the country has become a rather normal place. As evidence, he ticks off some of the luminaries at the other tables: the Chinese ambassador, a group of prosperous Egyptians, an Israeli former general now more renowned for his business deals than his tank charges.
For some years, Israelis have been trying to shed their siege mentality, in the hope of finally being considered by the rest of the world as a nation like any other. While terrorism and up-and-down negotiations with the Palestinians may conspire against this goal, progress is being made. Gone is the old socialist creed linked to the early kibbutz movement, and the buoyant economy has given Israel a Western look and living standard. The arrival of more than 600,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union has muted fears about underpopulation.
Next year, Israel will celebrate its 50th anniversary, and Tel Aviv is the best vantage point from which to experience the country on its own terms. True, the city has none of the biblical or architectural charisma of Jerusalem, where pilgrims will continue to mass in search of roots and redemption (and which will never be viewed as "normal"). But Tel Aviv revels in its secular image. Founded in 1909 on the Mediterranean dunes, it became a real city within two decades, with shopkeepers and intellectuals, coffeehouses and theaters-- just the sort of decadence that back-to-the-soil Zionist kibbutzniks thought they'd left behind in Europe. By those straitlaced standards, the thriving Tel Aviv of today is Gomorrah all over again.
Here as elsewhere, money isn't synonymous with taste, but the rising disposable income has energized nightlife, launched a construction boom, and dramatically improved the quality of the city's restaurants. Tour guides point out the landmarks of newfound affluence: the chic boutiques, the suburban villas and condos of North Tel Aviv, the new opera house and art galleries, the heavily restored ancient port of Jaffa (pronounced "ya-fo" by locals) on the southern edge of the city, and the beaches named after the nearest luxury hotels-- Hilton, Sheraton, Carlton.
Such highlights may make sense for travelers doing a quick sweep, but for a more leisurely visitor, this leaves a great frontier: the older, sometimes shabbier, central and southern neighborhoods, away from what the guidebooks have consecrated as "must-see"; places where Tel Avivians might argue there's nothing much for outsiders even to see.
When I made my intentions known to Ze'ev Chafets, an old friend and successful novelist who lives in Tel Aviv, he immediately suggested a walk through the Shapira district. About a dozen blocks from the beach, Shapira is an amalgam of the Ashkenazic (Eastern European Jewish) and the Sephardic (Middle Eastern Jewish)-- New York's Lower East Side crossed with a souk.
There are barrels of sour pickles next to sacks of sweet dates, falafel stands cheek by jowl with chicken soup joints. An Iraqi store owner beckons clients to run their hands over his bargain bolts of cashmere, while across the road, behind a picture window, an elderly Polish tailor wearing a yarmulke hunches over his sewing machine. The narrow streets are clogged with small delivery trucks and pushcarts. No wonder taxi drivers hate the neighborhood and tour buses stay away. But for pedestrians, the small shops offer a tantalizing lantern-slide show: silk brocades, jewelers' chisels and drills, lamps from Ottoman Empire days, buttons displayed in Mondrian-like geometric patterns.
On Wolfson Street, we stop in at Elimelech, an old-fashioned, blue-collar watering hole. The beer is heavy, frothy, oily-- and delicious. Chopped liver and crunchy sauerkraut are irresistible. The wise-guy humor is not to everyone's taste: asked if she has run out of the homemade crackers I remember from my previous visit, the proprietor answers, "Yeah, about twelve years ago," and shoves over a basket of rye bread.
West of Shapira, the bustle suddenly ends. The streets are just as narrow, but they're almost bereft of traffic. The low-slung buildings, dating back to the British Mandate between the world wars, are former warehouses. This is the Florentin district, sometimes expansively compared to New York's SoHo circa 1975 because its generous loft spaces and low rents have lured artists, architects, and filmmakers. The gentrification goes only so far: there are still crumbling gray façades, debris-strewn doorways, rusted iron balconies with wet laundry flapping like distress flags in the wind.
From its beginnings, Tel Aviv has been famous for its cafés, where devotees spend hours trading gossip, solving the world's problems, or divining the secret lives of passersby. On this particular Friday afternoon, I visit some cafés on Sheinkin Street, in a neighborhood of tree-shaded town houses and funky clothing and jewelry boutiques. Seated at the front window of the Café Kazze, I'm treated to a running commentary by Ze'ev and Hila Alpert, a young television personality who has also signed on as my guide. "You can tell the out-of-towners, because they look around like they're amazed," says Hila. The locals dress skimpily in summer, and hide their eyes behind dark glasses. A bearded, black-suited Hasid passes by almost at a trot, determined to avoid distractions. It's easy enough to surmise that he's on his way to synagogue for Shabbat services. The short haircuts on many of the male teenagers give them away as soldiers on weekend leave.
Hila explains that the better-dressed couples-- in designer slacks and skirts-- are probably executives and their spouses back on vacation from foreign postings, wandering down Sheinkin because it's a likely place for chance encounters with old friends and acquaintances who might not merit a phone call. Just then, a young man smiles broadly at her and walks in from the street. He grew up on Hila's kibbutz and is now a Brussels-based businessman.
As the Sabbath approaches and the workweek ends, Sheinkin draws many obvious non-Israelis-- guest workers from Africa, India, and East Asia who have recently given Tel Aviv the sophisticated multicultural complexion of a European or American city. They stay on when their visas expire, exploiting a loophole in Israeli law by claiming to be Christian pilgrims. With the economy booming, the authorities look the other way. Few of these foreigners frequent the Sheinkin cafés; they husband their hard-earned shekels and view the spectacle from the sidewalk.
The cavalier way so many in Tel Aviv spend the Sabbath-- why pray when you can play?-- has long fueled their city's image as the irreverent sibling of Jerusalem. But now that two-day weekends (Friday and Saturday) have increasingly become the norm, many Tel Avivians prefer to treat Thursday as their night out and set aside Shabbat for dinner at home with friends. Flouting the Sabbath has been left to the new Russian immigrants, and there is no better place to witness their gusto than Rendezvous, a cabaret.
Descending the stairs, I can make out through the strobe light a revolving disco ball, plastic grape leaves drooping from the ceiling, and Byzantine-style molding on the walls. It's nearly midnight, and the club has just started to fill up. Almost everyone is Russian and speaking the mother tongue.
At the bar, I meet the owner, Shai Stein, a Lithuanian who came to Israel as a teenager 40 years ago. Shai asserts that the "new Russians" are the best customers he's ever come across. "Most of these people," he says, "will spend three hundred shekels [$100] a couple. Then there are the special types. Like that guy over there who sends a waitress out for a pack of cigarettes, then gives her a hundred-dollar bill and tells her to keep the change." For most Israelis, to be a freier-- a sucker, or someone who overpays for something-- is a cardinal sin. Not among the arrivistes. "A guy will brag that he just bought a tie at a Paris boutique for two hundred dollars," says Shai, "and his friend will tell him he could have gotten it for three hundred somewhere else."
There's a hush as the star attraction, Svetlana, a devastating blonde with a Marlene Dietrich voice, takes center stage. Wearing a mock Russian navy uniform, she sings about a sailor on leave, his vodka bottle, and the woman he loves but whose name he cannot remember.
Israelis often joke that the Russians have helped heal the old rift between Ashkenazim and Sephardim: both groups now have a new immigrant community to complain about. In fact, the gulf between European and Middle Eastern Jews had been narrowing for years, through intermarriage, business ties, and military service.
For me, the new closeness was typified by the friendship between two prominent restaurateurs in Jaffa: Shaul Evron of the Yoezer Wine Bar, and Bino (he uses no other name) of a North African eatery known as Dr. Shakshuka. Shaul, of Eastern European extraction, was once the food critic for a leading newspaper, though his real claim to fame was as the man who introduced Israelis to Wild Turkey. The Libyan-born Bino, himself a teetotaler, remembered a favorable review that Shaul once gave Dr. Shakshuka in its early, struggling days, and found the ex-journalist a space a block away for his wine bar.
Having tried and liked the seafood appetizers-- served tapas-style-- at the wine bar earlier in the day, I join Shaul that night for dinner at Bino's place. Dr. Shakshuka spreads over a converted Ottoman-era warehouse and courtyard, between the Jaffa clock tower and the flea market. Instead of handing me a menu, Bino leans over the table and forcefully recites the day's specialties. "Tafrit te imot," responds Shaul, Hebrew for "Give us a bit of everything."
Within minutes, a half-dozen dishes are spread on the table: boiled potatoes lathered with a red pumpkin sauce; mafoun, beef ground with spices; a vegetable paste called chilcheh; kuklah, semolina and lamb fat; a spicy North African version of kishkes, beef intestines stuffed with meat, bread crumbs, and seasoning; pickled radishes. Reeling from the feast, I ask Bino for some Turkish coffee and the bill. He says the main courses are still to come.
At this point, we are rescued by divine intervention. Eliahu, a bearded, Moroccan-born Jewish holy man dressed in white mufti from head to toe, and apparently famished from recent fasting, greets us and accepts our invitation to eat. By his own admission, he had been a vagrant and a sinner until his sudden religious awakening nine years ago. No sect was rigorous enough to satisfy him, and besides, he wanted no intermediaries between himself and his Maker. Luckily for Bino and Shaul, Eliahu's conversion coincided with a career move: he became a first-rate plumber, capable of quickly repairing the turn-of-the-century pipes that serve their restaurants.
In case of emergency, Bino and Shaul know they can find Eliahu at the local Sephardic temple in the morning and at the Ashkenazi synagogue in the evening. But a few days ago, without leaving word, he went off to visit a prophet's tomb elsewhere in Israel, and Shaul, who desperately needed him to unclog a drain, is now upbraiding him. "Relax," says the holy man, tearing into the sea bass. "I prayed for your eternal soul while I was gone. And now I'm going to save your stomach."
By Jonathan Kandell, Martin Rapp and Nicole Whitsett
For travelers staying at the main beachside hotels, walking is the best way to get around. Tel Aviv is generally safe, and many residents speak English. For such farther-flung destinations as Jaffa (an older sister city to Tel Aviv), take a taxi.
Sheraton Tel Aviv 115 Hayarkon St.; 800/325-3535 or 972-3/521-1111, fax 972-3/523-3322; doubles from $298. The most intimate of the big hotels.
Tel Aviv Hilton Independence Park; 800/445-8667 or 972-3/520-2222, fax 972-3/527-2711; doubles from $252. The executive amenities on the upper floors give the Hilton an edge with the corporate crowd. Families come for the tennis courts and separate children's pool.
Astor 105 Hayarkon St.; 972-3/522-3141, fax 972-3/525-7247; doubles from $136 with breakfast. A no-frills, mid-priced hotel right on the beach.
Best Value City Hotel 9 Mapu St.; 718/253-9400 or 972-3/524-6253, fax 972-3/524-6250; doubles from $126 with breakfast. A couple of blocks from the beach; the lobby beats the Astor's. Corner rooms have balconies with partial sea views.
Golden Apple 40 Montefiore St.; 972-3/5660931; dinner for two $145 (service charge included). The city's most fashionable restaurant, serving serious French food in a Bauhaus-style town house.
Keren 12 Eilat St., Jaffa; 972-3/518-1358; dinner for two $115. Nouvelle Mediterranean fare in a dramatic 1860's wooden house.
Dr. Shakshuka 3 Beit Eshel, Jaffa; 972-3/682-2842; dinner for two $50. Good North African food. No menus; just take the kitchen's suggestions.
Yoezer Wine Bar 2 Yoezer St., Jaffa; 972-3/683-9115; dinner for two $70. A converted warehouse with the appealing look of a wine cellar. It's cheaper if you stick to the Israeli wines and the seafood tapas.
Spaghettim 7 Rival St.; 972-3/687-6099; dinner for two $30. Serving all kinds of pasta.
Elimelech 35 Wolfson St.; 972-3/681-3459. A beer-and-lunch hangout.
Cafés and Nightlife
Café Kazze 19 Sheinkin St.; 972-3/ 629-3756. Where the hip sip latte.
Antiques Coffee Bar 8 Olei Zion St., Jaffa; 972-3/682-3057. Relax after elbowing through the flea market. And then buy the chair you're sitting on.
Espresso Bar 18 Yazne St.; 972-3/ 566-3905. A handy café downtown.
Rendezvous 77 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/524-8034. This Russian cabaret, located in a glitzed-up cellar, is best on Fridays, beginning around 11:30 p.m. A prix fixe menu for two is about $70 (includes a bottle of vodka).
It's like rummaging through an attic: if you look hard enough, something will turn up. Three of the better-stocked antiques and jewelry shops on the 10-block stretch of Ben Yehuda Street (between Gordon and Bograshov Streets), are Sinai Antiques (52 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/528-8685), Yosef Zakai Antiques (58 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/620-1796), and Lilian Antiquities (84 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/ 523-5015). Rug stores are also concentrated on Ben Yehuda. Don't stop bargaining until the dealer has agreed to knock one-third off his initial offer. Try Farzam Carpets (115 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/523-1407), Ruth Carpet House (164 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/523-1960), and Israel Ovadiya Carpets (170 Ben Yehuda St.; 972-3/522-9354).
Daytrips Israel by Earl Steinbicker (Hastings House)-- Walking tours of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Eilat, along with easy excursions outside the cities.
Knopf Guides: The Holy Land (Alfred A. Knopf)-- An in-depth look at the region's art, architecture, literature, and history.
-- Martin Rapp
On the Web
Interactive Israel (www.inisrael.com)-- For detailed city guides (including one on Tel Aviv) and useful links.
Israel: No One Belongs Here More Than You (www.goisrael.com)-- Official information on how to find everything from ATM's to spas.
-- Nicole Whitsett
A Jerusalem tour guide faxed this message to a U.S. travel agent last July: "There's absolutely no problem, security or otherwise, in Jerusalem or in Bethlehem or anywhere else in our pilgrimage itinerary." Four weeks later, suicide bombers blew up Jerusalem's central market, killing 15 people.
However unpredictable Israel can be, travel agents say travelers rarely cancel their plans after such events; they evidently measure their chances of getting caught in the crossfire as minuscule. But it would be naive to assume violence is out of the question. Since there's no knowing when and where a suicide bomber might strike, here are a few ground rules, gleaned from tourists and U.S. officials:
- Before going, check the State Department's Internet site, where travel warnings are updated daily.
- Once there, follow the news so you're aware of potential trouble.
- Avoid crowded shopping areas at rush hour, and all political demonstrations, which can turn violent without warning.
- When in the West Bank, stay close to the JerusalemJericho highway, and diverge only for major tourist spots.
- Stick to established roads and trails in the Golan Heights, where land mines still exist.
- Steer clear of the northern border with Lebanon, the site of fairly regular rocket attacks.