Cultural experimentation has been on the agenda since Tel Aviv’s founding. Writers and musicians flocked here from Europe to help establish a new center of Jewish culture, liberated from the confines of shtetl life. By 1926, the city had built an opera house, where Yosef (the Hebraic form of Giuseppe) Verdi’s La Traviata was performed in the newly revived language of the Bible. Today Tel Aviv is inarguably one of the most culturally vital centers on the Mediterranean. The local weekly entertainment guide City Mouse out during my visit weighs in at 162 pages. It brims with listings for movies, art exhibitions, theater, cabaret, concerts by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and smaller classical music ensembles, jazz clubs, stand-up comedy, and scholarly lectures—an impressive array for a city of 380,000 people. (The metropolitan area population totals 3 million.)
Still, it’s not hard to detect the anxiety that lurks beneath the appearance of conviviality. Throughout my 10-day stay, local newspapers report extensively on Tehran’s advancing nuclear-enrichment program, amid ongoing threatening rhetoric from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “The incredible intensity of Tel Aviv is due to the combination of celebrating life and a strong awareness that all this is really very brittle,” says Tel Aviv University professor of psychology Carlo Strenger.
Since I’m in Tel Aviv on Shavuot, the holiday marking God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people, I’m eager to experience how it’s celebrated here. The most traditional Jews observe Shavuot by staying up all night studying the Five Books of Moses. I attend an updated version of this marathon study session at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Several thousand people, many dressed in white as is customary during the festival, mob the sold-out event, which begins at 9:30 p.m. and continues until sunrise. Lectures on the Bible, contemporary literature, the environment, photography, and art—interspersed with jam sessions by popular Israeli musicians—are held in Modernist galleries filled with Bonnards, Rothkos, and Picassos.
The following day in the Bauhaus historical district I witness a young man putting handouts on car windshields advertising a Shavuot feast at the city’s only S&M club. A “white, sexy dress code” is mandated, coyly retaining an element of tradition for this walk on the wild side. Not for nothing have observant Jews been denouncing Tel Aviv as a new Sodom and Gomorrah since Israel was created in 1948. After the Lebanon war two years ago, newspaper columnist Ari Shavit accused Tel Aviv of embodying the demise of communitarian values and the loss of political will and direction on the part of the country’s elite. “They deceived themselves and those around them that Tel Aviv is in fact Manhattan,” he wrote in Haaretz.
Orni Petruschka, an alternative-energy entrepreneur who sold the optic communications company he cofounded to Lucent Technologies for $5 billion in 2000, takes exception to the accusation. “There are many people in Tel Aviv who are doing sacred work,” he says when we talk in his office. “Things that are in line with the traditional Israeli ethos—people who work in all sorts of NGO’s, or volunteering. Society is thriving because of these sectors, which take responsibility for issues where the government has abdicated it.” Petruschka is a cofounder of an Arab-Israeli peace initiative and a director of the Abraham Fund, which strives for greater civic equality between Jews and Arabs within Israel. “Despite the somewhat negative outlook regarding Iran, the never-ending conflict, and the dysfunctionality of the government,” he says, “there’s an excitement about what’s being created, materially, socially, and culturally.”
Political activist and award-winning graphic designer David Tartakover is also striving to make a contribution. Tartakover, who has created iconic posters opposing the occupation of the West Bank and the proliferation of Jewish settlements there, moved 28 years ago into the then-dilapidated neighborhood of Neve Zedek. Now the revived area is full of shops and cafés and is home as well to the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, where the celebrated Inbal and Batsheva dance companies are based. Tartakover takes me to see a brilliantly colored Pop-art mural he designed for the front of the building, illustrating the neighborhood’s early history.
Tartakover also designed the memorial to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing fanatic following a peace rally held at City Hall, and I decide to visit it with activist and curator Ami Steinitz on my last afternoon in Tel Aviv. The memorial consists of nine bronze CD-size discs affixed to the pavement where the murderer, the premier, and his entourage stood. Arrows on each disc indicate the direction each figure was looking at the fateful moment; the bodyguards were all facing away from the leader they were charged to protect. As Steinitz and I arrive at the site, a street musician is playing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” on a clarinet, and half a dozen youths brandish placards offering free hugs. The unexpectedly exuberant scene at a spot commemorating a national tragedy indicates that the bubble isn’t about to burst anytime soon.