On the afternoon I arrive in Tel Aviv, Palestinian militants step up their protracted barrage of missiles on the town of Sderot, a mere 40 miles to the south, this time killing a civilian. Amid such disturbing news, it seems appropriate that my first evening’s plans involve dinner with writer and film producer Gal Uchovsky, whose latest movie, The Bubble, is a drama about the way Tel Aviv’s pleasure-seeking residents cope with the surrounding turbulence by focusing on their personal lives. “It’s in the back of your mind that you live in a war zone,” Uchovsky tells me as we settle in on the terrace of Cantina, an Italian restaurant on vibrant Rothschild Boulevard. “But look around. Many people want to live apolitically and have a modern, Western life, as if this is London or Paris.” From our seats we enjoy a view of the boulevard’s central allée of graceful ficus trees. Hipsters clutching cell phones saunter by, new parents push Mercedes-like strollers, and so many yoga-mat–toting beauties appear that I can see why at least eight modeling agencies have opened here in recent years. A trendy young crowd clusters at an open-air espresso bar, one of dozens dotting the city. Uchovsky points out a few local celebrities at Cantina, which is frequented by television anchors, film directors, authors, and athletes. “People here are similar to the average New Yorker—the average American city person—in their interests, what they care about,” he says. Indeed, increased affluence and sophistication are enabling a great many Tel Avivans to take refuge in the bubble, or what Israelis call habuah. “What Mideast crisis?” the first-time visitor might ask after surveying the lively scene.
Despite the turmoil around it, Tel Aviv has enjoyed a boost in quality of life over the past decade. Jerusalem is Israel’s political and religious capital, but this, the nation’s second-largest city, is its hub of culture, finance, and media. The city’s European-style shopping streets and ebullient nightlife have long been a refuge from the ethos of self-sacrifice that characterized the Jewish state’s first settlers, and the infusion of wealth is adding a glossy surface. After completing their mandatory military service, an eager cadre of young Israelis has opted for a less onerous tour of duty: training as sous-chefs in France, then returning home to lead a culinary renaissance. Innovative new restaurants, patisseries, and fine chocolatiers are commonplace. Recognizing Tel Aviv’s appetite and appreciation for superior cuisine, star Parisian chef Joël Robuchon plans to open an outpost here. As a result of a high-tech boom (Israel has more companies on the NASDAQ than any other nation after the United States), many founders of start-ups live and work here. Glittering towers designed by Philippe Starck, I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Ron Arad are on the rise, and Donald Trump is said to be building a 70-story luxury apartment complex in the suburb of Ramat Gan. Alongside its laissez-faire attitude, beautiful beaches, and balmy Mediterranean climate, Tel Aviv has plenty of verve and style.
“This is one of the best-kept secrets in the world,” says Dov Alfon, editor-in-chief of Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz, when we meet the next day. “But still, in the hotels here you’ll find some Australians, French, and Canadians who are not Jewish, who have heard about Tel Aviv as a fun place, a place where people are generally very nice.”
While politics in Jerusalem skew toward the right, Tel Aviv’s voters are overwhelmingly liberal, with a greater proportion against continued construction of settlements in the occupied territories and in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Locals pride themselves on inhabiting “an island of progress and sanity in an ocean of irrationality and backwardness,” conservative Israeli academic Maoz Azaryahu writes with a hint of irony in his book, Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City.
The rainbow flag of gay liberation flies alongside Israel’s blue-and-white national banner on streets here; for the past seven years the Tel Aviv municipality has been the official sponsor of the annual gay pride parade. “Tel Aviv is one of the gayest cities I know of,” says Ivri Lider, one of Israel’s top pop singers, who came out a few years ago in a front-page interview for a leading tabloid. “You live your life and I live mine,” he says, “and we respect each other.” Lider, 34, created the sound track for The Bubble (which was released in the U.S. last September), and he knows intimately the psychological phenomenon the film chronicles. “We want to be New York, and we want to try to live as if there were nothing around us,” he says. “Everybody agrees about the importance of Israel for the Jewish people, but a lot of us are really depressed about going through so many phases of war and wishing for peace for so long. We all have this idea of Israel as a heaven with perfect weather and beaches, and especially in Tel Aviv, people feel that the situation around them is interfering with the idea of becoming heaven.”
Yael Hedaya, an acclaimed writer whose tragicomic novel Accidents is set in Tel Aviv’s bohemian milieu, sees residents sharing a “desire to be normal. Some may look at the city with disdain and say, ‘How, with all this going on, can you sit there asking if you want this pasta dish or another?’ But I think it’s healthy.” She adds wryly: “It’s very exhausting to be politically involved all the time. It’s a terrible responsibility to have to be informed all the time.”