The First Hebrew City
Tel Aviv, the “first Hebrew city,” as it was once the fashion to call it, will soon turn one hundred—and, like the United States at that age, its frontier is shutting down.
Until now, the city has kept running forward. Ever since it was officially founded on sand dunes in 1909, originally with the name of Ahuzat Bayit, as a Jewish offshoot of predominantly Arab Jaffa to the south, it has continued to break away, stage by stage, from itself. Bordered on the west by the sea, it has developed by discarding its old neighborhoods, leaving them to those who could not afford to keep up with it and moving on, mostly northward.
Hence the stereotypical distinction of south versus north Tel Aviv that is basic to Israeli popular culture. The south is tenement housing, poverty, neglect, congestion, crime, Arab and “Sephardic” ethnicity—but also small industry, open-air markets, street life, warmth, intimacy, and hustle. The north is affluence and upward mobility (the word tsfoni, “a northie,” has become the Hebrew term for a yuppie), and, where Tel Aviv ends, beyond the Yarkon River, high-rise apartments and aloofness. Between them, lively, rundown-looking, yet prosperous, is a city center that partakes of both.
But Tel Aviv, which has long been blocked to the east by middle-class towns like Givatayim and Ramat Gan, into which its streets run seamlessly, has now also advanced as far as wealthy Herzliya to the north. For years now, the approaching end of its geographical expansion has been reflected by the stirrings of gentrification and the rise of the first Manhattan-size residential towers in its older areas. The city has gone as far as it can. From now on, it can only double back on its tracks.
Although a young city, Tel Aviv has never within recent memory looked like one. Always in a hurry to push ahead, it rarely paused to demolish and rebuild with any thoroughness what it left behind. Old buildings were knocked down for new ones, but never whole Jewish neighborhoods. Although the past has been smudged in many places, it has nowhere been erased.
This is what makes it possible to trace on foot the entire history of Tel Aviv by simply walking for several hours in a more or less straight line. No other major city of the world has such an experience to offer. Manhattan also grew from south to north and eventually united with the boroughs around it—less completely than did Tel Aviv in a physical sense, being an island, but more so politically, since Tel Aviv never merged with other parts of its metropolitan area. But the Manhattan of the first European settlers was demolished in the distant past. Hardly anything standing on its site today predates the 20th century. Indeed, very little standing anywhere in Manhattan predates the Civil War.
Much the same can be said of many great cities that are far older than New York. There are large capitals, like Athens, that were little more than ruins and hamlets until the 19th century; others, like Paris or Tokyo, in which massive urban renewal or destruction has wiped out most or all of anything earlier than that. When one considers that Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhood, Nevei Tsedek, founded in 1887 and later incorporated into the municipality, has survived nearly intact, the city, with 120 years behind it, does not compare unfavorably—or would not were not so much of its past hidden by grime, fallen plaster, and a general dilapidation that make whole swaths of it look, at one and the same time, more ancient than they are and of no age at all, since their identifying details are blurred by disrepair. Poor building materials, the salt air from the sea, and little or no investment in maintenance have reduced much of the city to a shabbiness of which parts, it would appear, were almost coeval with its founding. In his new book, Tel Aviv: The Mythography of a City,* Maoz Azaryahu of Haifa University cites a 1935 editorial in the newspaper Haaretz complaining that “Tel Aviv is twenty years old—and already . . . the city has become old. . . . Wrinkles furrow its face, its bones have been calcified, its clothes are wearing out and fall off its fresh body.”
Even before that, in the 1920’s, the unkempt city impressed some of its visitors with its “dismal external appearance,” as the cultural historian Barbara Mann notes in another recent book, A Place In History: Modernism, Tel Aviv, and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space.† Yet in the old areas where widespread renovation is taking place today, the results can be magical. All at once—in Nevei Tsedek; in parts of next-door Florentin; along the southern ends of main thoroughfares like Lilienblum, Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Rothschild, and Nahalat Binyamin, and on the side streets connecting them—the same sullen gray façades that one might have passed time and again without noticing their features have been restored to a bright whimsicality typical of what has been called the “eclectic style” of early Tel Aviv.
Best described as a kind of Levantine Victorianism, in which turrets, domes, porticos, and other flamboyant elements from a variety of architectural idioms were deployed with a naïve exuberance, this style has a willful playfulness, as if the first Hebrew city had allowed its builders to indulge, within their limited means, in the fantasies that life in European environments planned and built by others had prevented Jews from acting out. Marrying a sense of newfound freedom to an Orientalizing romanticism, “eclecticism” did not please everyone; in his own new book on Tel Aviv, White City, Black City (Hebrew), the Israeli architect Sharon Rotbard tells us that the early 20th-century Hebrew poet David Shimonovitz disparagingly described it as “a mixture of Berdichev and Baghdad.”
Further north, as one enters the business and commercial center that surrounds a now-decayed Dizengoff Circle, once Tel Aviv’s most fashionable plaza, restoration takes Shimonovitz’s side. There, the crisp white lines and geometries, restored to visibility, are those of the “international style” of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. Brought to Palestine in the 1930’s by prominent Jewish architects who had studied with some of the great modernist masters, this sleekly functional approach dominated building in Tel Aviv for the next decade, banishing what the new designers viewed as eclecticism’s sentimental extravagance.
Yet so deteriorated had most of this construction become, its once stark definitions further obscured by patchwork repairs and additions made over the years, that later residents paid it no attention—at least until the 1990’s, when their city took to advertising that it held the highest concentration of “Bauhaus architecture” in the world, with over 4,000 extant examples. Even when UNESCO announced in 2003 that the grungy streets touted by municipal publicists as the White City of Tel Aviv had been declared a “world heritage site” worthy of strict protection and conservation, most Tel Avivians still felt more bemused than honored.
The international style fades as one proceeds further north, with the city’s large seafront hotels and beach promenade to one’s left. One has now entered the more solidly residential areas of the 1950’s and 60’s. Here the architecture might be called “Israeli standard”—three- and four-storied, stuccoed, middle-class walk-ups, often on concrete pillars, with space for a bit of greenery beneath the overhang. Undistinguished but presentable, especially now that cable TV has swept away the welter of rooftop antennas that made them look like bulls pierced by picadors, these houses, in generally good condition, run along tree-lined streets as far as the Yarkon—a stream, largely flowing with industrial waste and partially treated sewage, that was a popular boating site until a bridge collapsed during the 1997 Maccabiah or “Jewish Olympics,” killing several athletes who died from swallowing the polluted water.
Beyond the Yarkon begin the high-rises, the first of which date to the 1970’s. If there is an actual “white city” in Tel Aviv today, it is here, since many of these buildings are faced with gleaming white tiles. They have landscaped lawns, well-tended gardens, parking lots, pedestrian walkways, and security buzzers. They surround Tel Aviv University, whose modern campus occupies the former site of the Arab village of Sheikh Munis and has the disadvantage of being neither downtown where the action is nor out-of-town in rural seclusion. Ramat Aviv, the neighborhood in which the university stands, lent its name a few years ago to a popular TV soap modeled on Dallas. While there is no doubt more alienation and dysfunctional wealth in Texas, Ramat Aviv Gimmel played to packed and sometimes shocked living rooms, providing, for many poorer Israelis, their first intimation that money can buy oodles of unhappiness.
Tel Aviv’s first break was with Jaffa, 19th-century Palestine’s main port, which, by the time the first Hebrew city was founded, had a sizable Jewish minority. The motivations of the founders were several. Apart from wishing to create an entirely Jewish, Hebrew-speaking urban equivalent of the Zionist agricultural settlements that had existed in Palestine since the 1880’s, there were economic and hygienic considerations as well. In Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and the Struggle for Palestine, 1880-1948 (2005), Mark LeVine of the University of California quotes a 1907 prospectus for the new city:
Life in Jaffa has become so expensive [under the impact of Jewish immigration] that it rivals the great cities of Europe. . . . The result has been that we have quarters in which all the owners are Arabs and the renters are Jews. . . . If we take into consideration the detestable sanitary state of the city of Jaffa, the lack of air in the Arab houses, and the frequent eye diseases that have resulted, we will understand that for the Jewish population of Jaffa the question of housing has reached the crisis stage.
Tel Aviv was thus born as an anti-Jaffa, a demonstration of what Jewish planners and builders could do with modern conceptions of cleanliness, order, space, and light, all missing from Jaffa’s warren of streets. Although Jewish neighborhoods outside of Jaffa already existed, they were still under its municipal jurisdiction. Tel Aviv was the first full-blown secession.
And yet, especially after the destruction of much of Jaffa in Israel’s 1948 war of independence and the flight of most of its Arab population, it has been less as an anti-Jaffa than as an anti-Jerusalem that Tel Aviv has existed in Israeli consciousness. Even in its early years, the contrast between the two cities was a staple of social commentary. One city was an ancient mountain fortress built on and out of rock, its air dry and severe, its winters sometimes harsh; the other, its climate milder but oppressively damp in summer, was a new seaside town, standing on the sand that its concrete was made from. Jerusalem was rooted in history, sanctified by tradition, home to a large and in part fiercely anti-Zionist religious population; Tel Aviv was predominantly secular from the start, free of sacred associations. In Jerusalem, the passions and claims of Judaism and Islam clashed continually; in Tel Aviv, Jews and Arabs lived apart.
There was more. Jerusalem was inward-looking, Tel Aviv looked outward. Jerusalem was heights and vistas, Tel Aviv flat and close to the horizon. Jerusalem was the university on Mount Scopus, Tel Aviv the bohemian life of its cafés. Jerusalem was a stronghold of the political Right, Tel Aviv leaned Left. Jerusalem was study and prayer, Tel Aviv commerce and play. Jerusalem was the world of the spirit, Tel Aviv the life of the flesh. And so forth.
The alleged oppositions, some realer than others, were endless; nearly all, as Barbara Mann writes, were “at the center of larger debates over the cultural and political identity of the Jews as a national community.” It was even said, semi-humorously, that the boundary between Europe and Asia ran not, as held by the geographers, through the Dardanelles, but between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The two cities were barely an hour’s drive apart. Yet they had different personalities, atmospheres, styles, even literatures. The writers of Jerusalem, it was said, were refined, restrained, subtle; those of Tel Aviv direct and sensual. In the folklore of Tel Aviv, Jerusalemites were pale-skinned, conservative, inhibited, snobbish. In that of Jerusalem, Tel Avivians were coarse, materialistic, frivolous.
Many countries have such pairs of putatively antithetical cities. One thinks of Florence and Siena, Moscow and St. Petersburg, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, Tokyo and Kyoto. These rivalries have usually been friendly, and so for a long time was the one between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In its early years the dynamism of Tel Aviv, in which most of the important institutions of Jewish Palestine were based, made it the place to be in the eyes of its inhabitants; but Jerusalem’s symbolic primacy was never contested. After Israel’s 1948 war of independence, when the seat of government was moved to Jerusalem, a more equitable balance was struck. Jerusalem, the country’s academic capital (Tel Aviv did not acquire a university of its own until 1964), now became its political and administrative one as well. Tel Aviv remained its commercial and cultural center, the home of its main newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, theaters, musical ensembles, art galleries, cabarets, and night life. Tel Avivians could joke that the sidewalks in Jerusalem were rolled up at 9 p.m. and Jerusalemites could banter back that this was because the city’s sole prostitute had moved to Tel Aviv to be less lonely, but there was an understanding on both sides that the two cities were complementary and that it was a matter of taste which you preferred.
This sense of parity began to break down after the 1967 war. Now Jewish Jerusalem was no longer, in an almost literal sense, at the end of the world, a narrow wedge into the kingdom of Jordan and a city split down its own middle. Instead, as a capital should be, it lay in the middle of the country, at the heart of the occupied territories, and reunited with its own Arab half in which lay its formerly lost holy and historical sites: the old, walled city with its ancient Jewish quarter, the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, Mount Scopus. Everything was new, exotic, and exciting: the Arab bazaars and alleys of the Old City, the ancient Jewish remains from the First and Second Temple period, the new neighborhoods springing up across the old border to double and triple the city’s size, the easy access to Bethlehem, Jericho, and a Palestinian countryside of biblical pastorality. It was a heady time. Foreign tourists flocked to Jerusalem, spending a week there and a day, if at all, in Tel Aviv.
Jerusalem was now “in,” Tel Aviv “out.” Why live in a dingy, muggy, ordinary city, untouched by the great events unfolding? Why choose Tel Aviv’s prose over Jerusalem’s poetry, its swampy weather over pure mountain air? Jerusalemites spoke as if living anywhere else were an evident misfortune. Some Tel Avivians sold their apartments and moved to Jerusalem; some merely dreamed of it.
But then, by the late 1980’s, Jerusalem, at least for secular, liberal Israelis, began to lose its charm.
The complaints were legion. Jerusalem had grown too big. Its downtown streets were clogged with traffic. Jewish-Arab tensions were getting worse, and the first intifada had put the Old City and the West Bank out of bounds. The nationalist Right was gaining strength; nowhere in Israel did Likud, which had come to power for the first time in the 1977 elections, have a more faithful following. Religious immigrants from abroad were buying up property and forcing up prices. And while Jerusalem was growing more expensive, it was also growing poorer, because its tax base was narrowing and the jobs were all in Tel Aviv. The ultra-Orthodox were reproducing at Malthusian rates and invading one neighborhood after another; secular Israelis felt under siege. The city was growing shrill, grim, intolerant. The romance was gone from it.
Such was the litany. And meanwhile, there, an hour away, was Tel Aviv, a beckoning oasis of normality. No zealots stalked its streets. Arabs were rarely seen in them; black-hatted Jews were not common, either. Palestinian-Israeli and secular-religious tensions seemed far away. Even the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin could be seen as an import. Did not the assassin, though from the coastal plain, have a Jerusalem mentality?
And so, played out against the background of the polarization of Israeli society in those years, Tel Aviv, which was thriving economically, was “in” again. Its ordinariness had become its great virtue; its prose was a refuge from the impassioned dithyrambs of history. For just such a city, in which it was possible to relax and enjoy life, secular Israelis now yearned. Now it was Tel Avivians who felt sorry for Jerusalemites; Jerusalemites who dreamed of the move to Tel Aviv.
Even today, conversations in Jerusalem keep coming back to this theme in the way that conversations among the elderly revert to illness and death. Recently, a couple I know sold the apartment they had been living in for the past five years in the German Colony, one of Jerusalem’s most upscale neighborhoods, and bought a home in a renovated building in south Tel Aviv. The wife wrote a poem for the occasion. “I live in a city, a city of stone,” it began, going on to speak of how, though she had once felt “caressed” and “protected” by Jerusalem’s hardness, she now felt “bloodied” by it, so that
I’m packing my bags
For another town,
A place of concrete,
Glass and water.
“What I like best about Tel Aviv,” she said to me, “is that it absorbs nothing and forgets everything.”
It has been said that whereas Jerusalem is constantly posturing before the mirrors of history, Tel Aviv simply goes about the business of living. Yet precisely this, as all four of the authors I have quoted from point out in their different ways, is the posturing of Tel Aviv.
In reality, Tel Aviv has from its founding been intensely concerned with its own image. Its perception of itself as a “quintessentially synchronic” city that lives only in the present is, as Maoz Azaryahu justly observes, no less “mythic” than Jerusalem’s glorying in its ancient past, and its belief that it represents “secular, liberal, and enlightened Israel” is every bit as strong as religious Jerusalem’s conviction of being the country’s Jewish backbone. In contemporary Israel’s Kulturkampf, with its common notion that Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are no longer just rival cities but also profoundly antagonistic states of mind, the outlook called “Tel Aviv” can be as extreme as its opposite.
Witness the well-known Tel Aviv poet Meir Wieseltier, who is reported to have remarked not long ago that he would be willing to take up arms in defense of his country only when an Arab army reached the banks of the Yarkon. For Wieseltier, Jerusalem is, if only metaphorically, a foreign land, one not worth fighting for because it is responsible for having perpetuated a territorial conflict with the Palestinians that Tel Aviv has not been part of.
Indeed, as all four authors observe, a belief in its territorial innocence, predicated on its having been built on empty sand dunes whose development hurt no one, has always been basic to Tel Aviv’s narrative. And, to one degree or another, all four challenge this version of the past.
To begin with, as both Mark LeVine (in Overthrowing Geography) and Sharon Rotbard (in White City, Black City) argue on the basis of old Ottoman maps and records and early aerial photographs, only a small part of Tel Aviv was actually built on sand. Most of the land north of Jaffa that was to become Tel Aviv was heavily cultivated with Palestinian citrus orchards and vineyards, and populated by Arab villages. Even the famous 1909 photo of the city’s founders casting lots for their future properties in Ahuzat Bayit on what seems a vast emptiness was deliberately posed to screen out nearby signs of civilization—the motive being to substantiate Zionist claims that the Jews, “a people without a land,” were returning to Palestine, “a land without a people.”
Neither LeVine nor Rotbard disputes the fact that, until 1948, all the land occupied by Tel Aviv was acquired legally from its owners. Rather they contend, first, that Tel Aviv’s founders sought from the outset to minimize the extent of Palestinian economic development, both in Jaffa and in its agricultural hinterland, in order to contrast Arab backwardness with Jewish progress; and, second, that by cutting Jaffa off from the countryside around it, Tel Aviv blocked the former’s physical growth and isolated it geographically in a way that made it easily conquerable by Jewish forces in the 1948 war—in which most of Jaffa’s population fled and Arab villages like Salameh and Sheikh Munis were quickly overrun and ultimately razed to the ground.
LeVine and Rotbard go farther. Jaffa, they both maintain, with its 8,000 Jews alongside 30,000 Arabs at the time Tel Aviv was founded, was a model of Arab-Jewish co-existence, its two peoples living in a close proximity that was ruptured by Tel Aviv’s establishment as an all-Jewish city to which most of Jaffa’s Jews moved. It was Tel Aviv’s founding, they contend, that seriously launched the social and economic self-segregation that Zionism successfully sought to impose on the Jews of Palestine, and that after 1948 and 1967 was extended to their relationship with all of the country’s Arabs.
Finally, bringing their account up to the present, LeVine and Rotbard attempt to show how, in its policies toward Jaffa, which it formally annexed in 1954, Tel Aviv has discriminated against Arab residents, denying them, on the one hand, the level of services and infrastructure received by the city’s Jewish neighborhoods, while seeing to it, on the other hand, that any improvements made have served only the Jews. Both authors cite the example of Jaffa’s now chic waterfront, which—extensively restored and physically quite stunning—is today for the most part lived in by well-off Jews who have replaced the original population.
LeVine and Rotbard are openly hostile to Israel and Zionism. And yet, on a strictly factual level, one cannot fault most of their account. True, many of Jaffa’s Jews were already living in all-Jewish neighborhoods like Nevei Tsedek before Tel Aviv was established; true, too, one can question the quality of Jewish-Arab ties in Jaffa in light of the bloody anti-Jewish riots that broke out there in 1921. Still, there is no denying that Zionism did paint a deliberately unflattering picture of Palestinian Arab life, did claim to be settling Jews on land more desolate than it actually was, and did seek to create an autarkic Jewish community that would not be dependent on the Arab sector. Nor is it debatable that Arab life in Jaffa was devastated by the military defeat of 1948, that the remaining Arab inhabitants were treated poorly, that deserted Arab villages were bulldozed as part of Tel Aviv’s expansion, and that Jaffa’s gentrifiers have mostly been Jews. These things, though viewable in different perspectives, are a matter of record.
In the final analysis, however, it is not so much at Zionism that Overthrowing Geography and White City, Black City aim their barbs. Their real target is the fantasy life of post- or anti-Zionist Tel Avivians like Meir Wieseltier. Tel Aviv, these two books avow, is not innocent. Instead, it has been an accomplice in the “crimes” of Zionism from the outset, and there is no “good Tel Aviv” as opposed to a “bad Jerusalem” for leftist Israelis to salve their consciences with. The Zionist project must be viewed as a totality, of which Tel Aviv was an integral part.
In this, it must be said, LeVine and Rotbard are entirely correct. Tel Aviv, as its inhabitants were once well aware, owes its existence to Zionism and to Zionism’s success in creating a Jewish state, just as it owes its future to that state’s continued welfare. The story of its relations with Jaffa before 1948, which were of necessity competitive, is the same as the story of all of Jewish Palestine’s relations with Arab Palestine in the late Ottoman period and the years of the British Mandate. Nor was there any fundamental difference between Israel’s policies toward Jaffa’s Arabs after 1948 and its policies toward its other Arab citizens. To enjoy Tel Aviv’s riches while dissociating oneself from Zionism, like the son who happily spends his father’s inheritance while disapproving of how it was earned, is sanctimonious.
And what riches they are! “There’s more going on in Tel Aviv than in Paris,” a visiting French friend once said to me, and there is more going on in it now than there was then. Leaf through The City Mouse, the most widely circulated weekly entertainment guide for this town of 360,000 people. A recent issue picked at random has 154 pages. In a very partial summary of its contents, you would find written up, listed, or advertised in it a week-long festival of Irish music; 18 movie houses showing 58 different films; 35 rock and pop performances; 36 jazz and blues concerts; 27 classical music concerts; 29 evenings of Israeli singing; 46 plays, including Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Antigone, and Death of a Salesman; nine dance concerts; 28 art-gallery exhibits; ten special museum exhibits; hundreds of places to eat and drink, among them nine newly opened pubs, thirteen newly opened restaurants, and six newly opened cafés; a lecture series on Tolstoy, Orhan Pamuk, Agnon, Flaubert, Bialik, and Walt Whitman; 34 stand-up comedy performances; 32 shows and story-telling performances for children; and over 100 workshops and courses in such subjects as wine connoisseurship, the martial arts, art appreciation, cooking and baking, body building, pregnancy, marital relationships, yoga, Judaism and Kabbalah, coaching, fashion, creative writing, music, acting and psychodrama, psychology, modern dance, belly dancing, and photography.
Granted, the figure of 360,000 people is misleading. Tel Aviv’s metropolitan area has closer to 1.5 million. Comparatively speaking, however, that’s still not a lot.
Tel Aviv has always had what Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem, described as a “pulsating energy,” even when it was much smaller than today. Visitors to it in the 1920’s and 30’s were already struck by this: a “continual festivity,” it was called by them, a place of “permanent restlessness,” a “vigorously alive, boundlessly ambitious town.” Its streets and cafés seemed always full. Tourists commented on how Tel Aviv struck them as a bigger city than it was because so many of its inhabitants were visible at one time.
Tourists tended either to hate Tel Aviv or to love it, and generally for the same reasons. It inhabitants were unruly, self-important, noisy, aggressive—or spontaneous, lively, communicative, intensely curious. These were all Jewish traits, and there were those who saw both sides of them. After a visit in 1932, the non-Jewish, anti-fascist German writer Armin Wegner called Tel Aviv “this unfinished, ugly, megalomaniac, cheerful, magnificent city.”
No city, of course, is ever finished entirely, and some—Manhattan is again a good example—will keep remaking themselves forever. But there are cities that may begin to approach an ideal balance, any upsetting of which would only spoil things. And Tel Aviv, although much of it looks a mess, is closer to such a point than would superficially appear to be the case. Despite its many problems—poverty, crumbling buildings, antiquated infrastructure, high rents, congested traffic, insufficient parking space—it has almost no violent crime, is safe to walk in at all hours, and offers a mix of architecture, neighborhoods, inhabitants, markets, shopping, cafés, and restaurants that many larger cities can only envy.
So far, the fabric of these has not been badly damaged by those arch-enemies of contemporary cities: massive “urban renewal,” dreary housing projects, cut-through highways, shopping malls, and chain stores. Tel Aviv is still a city of small shops and businesses in which little is standardized and surprises are frequent. Just the other day, dropping in for an espresso at a down-at-the-heels-looking café in the city’s south, I noticed a handwritten sign on the counter: “We make the best marzipan in the world outside of Spain.” This led to a discussion with the proprietor, who turned out to have been born in Salonika, about his family history and about the technique and history of marzipan-making; and the espresso was first-rate. You are unlikely to find this sort of thing in Starbucks—which, incidentally, failed miserably when it tried opening in Tel Aviv, where café-goers have high standards for their coffee and would no more drink it from a paper cup than they would eat with a paper knife.
And this is without even mentioning the sea. Much has been made of the fact that Tel Aviv was planned and built without taking its waterfront into account, so that its main streets run north-south, parallel to rather than toward the sea, access to which has been blocked in much of the town’s center by large hotels. Tel Aviv, it has been said by its critics, is a Mediterranean city that ignored the Mediterranean, Jews being a traditionally land-locked people.
But this is rather unfair. Ahuzat Bayit was cut off from the Mediterranean by the Arab village of Manshiyeh to its west and had to race northward to outflank it, so that by the time Tel Aviv reached the sea, its basic orientation had already been established. And as for the hotels, where else in a seaside city would a tourist want to stay? Moreover, Tel Aviv has a ruler-straight coast with no natural anchorage, and never grew around a port as did most Mediterranean towns. (A small, artificial harbor was constructed in the city’s north in the late 1930’s and fell into disuse in the 60’s.)
And yet the sea is there, with a marina full of sailboats, and rocks and seawalls that are fished from, and a promenade, and a fine, well-maintained beach that stretches for miles, reaching from Jaffa to nearly the Yarkon and crowded with sunbathers, swimmers, and strollers in warm weather—which in Tel Aviv means nine months a year. And while “Mediterranean” as a descriptive adjective is an elusive term suggesting anything from the taking of siestas to mediating culturally between Europe and the Levant, if by it one means a city that likes being outdoors, sitting in cafés, shopping in the open, talking in loud voices, eating fish and seafood, drinking wine with one’s meals, staring unabashedly at people who interest or attract one, striking up conversations with strangers, and staying up late at night, Tel Aviv is as Mediterranean as Marseilles or Palermo.
It is a great place, and it should not be tampered with too much. What it needs is a great deal of fresh paint and plaster, new plumbing and electrical wiring, more stringent zoning and preservation laws, better financial incentives (some already exist) for owners wishing to renovate, more tax breaks for small businesses, and a rapid-transit system (work on the first stage of which is soon to begin). What it does not need is growth for growth’s sake or, especially, more residential towers, which are wonderful for contractors, city treasurers, and the rich who hanker for a panoramic view, but can wreak havoc with a neighborhood and, if unrestrained, kill a city like Tel Aviv faster than anything else.
Soon to celebrate its hundredth birthday, Tel Aviv can stop and look back. When it does, one hopes it will realize that, from Jaffa northward, it is not only a historical city, as much of one in its own way as Jerusalem, but a city whose attachment to its history can preserve the nicest things about it and convey to its inhabitants that they are indeed not living entirely on sand. Lucky is the here-and-now that still has its there-and-then.
* Syracuse, 288 pp., $29.95.
† Stanford, 336 pp., $55.00.