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Tel Aviv Modern

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Photo: Martin Morrell

Although Tel Aviv has been periodically rocked by suicide bomb attacks, violence has tapered off dramatically of late (as of this writing, the last terrorist act was in 2006), and the city has become increasingly safe since the construction of the controversial security barrier walling off Israel from the Palestinian territories it has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. “Yesh l’chah neshek? ”—Hebrew for “Do you have a weapon?”—is the question guards ask as they inspect bags at the entries of restaurants, cafés, shops, museums, and just about every other public building in town. The nonchalant query is but one of Tel Aviv’s vivid, sometimes unsettling contrasts and incongruities. During my stay, Israeli restaurants and wineries set up booths in Hayarkon Park to showcase delicacies in the annual Taste of Tel Aviv festival; the same park acts as a shelter for hundreds of evacuees from missile-plagued Sderot, who live in a tent city. Khaki-uniformed, machine-gun–toting off-duty soldiers window-shop along Sheinkin Street, where a kabbalah center sits next to the flashy Menz underwear shop. Hanging from an apartment just above a fashion boutique called Bullets are large Hebrew letters spelling out a mantra based on a revered Hasidic rabbi’s name, meant as a rallying cry for a return to traditional Judaism.

Tel Aviv, founded in 1909, also features the largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world. Long stretches are decrepit and begrimed, but many buildings have been pristinely restored since 2003, when the city’s extraordinary architectural legacy earned it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Bauhaus Foundation Museum, housing original furniture and other designs by the likes of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer, opened in April on Bialik Street. Gentrification is polishing the rough edges of the city center, where tranquil side streets of crisp white buildings, inspired by the work of Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelsohn, overflow with a lush tangle of palms and banana and orange trees.

Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky, a curator setting up a new museum of municipal history to mark Tel Aviv’s coming centennial, tries to put the city’s juxtapositions in perspective. “Tel Aviv has conflicts, but they live beautifully together,” she says. She recalls sitting on her balcony on Rosh Hashanah and simultaneously hearing one neighbor playing the shofar, the ram’s horn blown to mark the High Holy Days; another playing a Chopin melody on the piano; and a third listening to a soulful recording of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. “All this within 100 square yards, and it’s lovely,” she says.

I experience the urban cacophony myself when I check out the boisterous nightlife. Accompanied by my Israeli cousin Shira, a costume designer, I settle in first at a supper club called Nanouchka, where high-spirited women in their twenties (paying customers) dance atop the U-shaped bar. Later we drop in at a more subdued spot with the decidedly ironic name of Jewish Princess, where a medieval-looking portal leads to an invitingly gloomy space. The following day I wander the famous beach, eventually happening upon a secluded swimming area near the Hilton Hotel that is encircled by high walls. Here Orthodox Jewish men and women bathe on alternating days. In typical Tel Avivan fashion, this enclave of modesty is near the gay beach, where a gym-chiseled crowd in Speedos lounges in the afternoon sun.

By this point I’m starting to wonder if Tel Aviv is simply ground zero for escapism. Has Judaism’s prophetic tradition been jettisoned in favor of Dionysian revels in what Zionist leaders proclaimed the first Hebrew city?“There is escapism,” says Dov Alfon. “But it’s not exactly escapism. It’s a real will to live. It’s a hymn to life. Happiness is important for most Tel Aviv inhabitants. Not the American perception of finding happiness, but happiness on a daily basis—a good cup of coffee, a nice girl, or a day at the beach.”

The beach, of course, is central to the Tel Avivan ideal. “Every Jew, myself included,” wrote Yiddish-language author Sholem Asch in 1937, “has two requests from God: a place in paradise in the afterlife and a place on Tel Aviv’s beach in this world.” I get his drift as I stretch out on one of the many chaise longues lining the sand. A masseuse sets up shop under a nearby umbrella. A middle-aged Israeli puts himself in her hands while his wife goes for a swim in the warm, generally placid water.

Tel Aviv’s proponents claim it’s easier to get a proper espresso here than in Milan, so I order up a cup from one of the halter-topped waitresses who ply beachgoers with snacks and drinks. (Tel Aviv is one of the few foreign markets that Starbucks unsuccessfully tried to conquer.) Properly caffeinated, I get up for a walk along the promenade that runs the entire three-mile beach, from Jaffa in the south to the old port in the north. “Five years ago this was a desert,” says city council member Zohar Shavit, who meets me in the port area, where warehouses have been converted into stylish, bustling restaurants and shops. One of the most popular is Shalvata, an open-air waterfront bar and restaurant named after a well-known Israeli psychiatric hospital. Tel Avivans throng here on weekends under an expansive canopy of woven palm fronds; the setting could just as well be Santa Monica. They sip the Israeli beer Goldstar as their children play in the restaurant’s sandbox.

Next door, at a chic retail and gallery space called Comme il faut, I’ve arranged to meet artist Ricki Puch, who takes me around a group exhibition installed in the atrium, which is surrounded by an emporium selling clothing made exclusively from natural fibers, an organic-food café, and a spa. The show, for which Puch created silicon breasts and a sculpture made of bras, has a feminist theme and includes works by provocative Palestinian artist Hanan Abu Hussein, who is displaying rubber molds of certain anatomical regions, adorned with razor blades.

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