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Next Stop Tel Aviv

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.

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