Tel Aviv, a City Abuzz

24 hours in the White City

By / November 2013

Out of all the ancient marvels of Israel–the lush oasis of Ein Gedi and the sun-washed slabs of the Masada; the pastoral stomping grounds of the Negev Bedouin; the self-sustaining Kibbutz; the strange, beautiful Red Sea; and age-old Jerusalem–Tel Aviv crept into my skin the most. It rooted itself there–and has yet to leave me.

When I was 24, my family headed to Israel to watch my uncle and cousin bike across the country, through the Negev Desert from Jerusalem to Eilat in the baked summer heat. Over a period of five days, we made our way from northern Israel to the southernmost tip. The landscape was alternatively lush and arid. We passed sprawling date plantations and mineral seas. We traveled on winding, precipitous desert roads. Israel is roughly the size of New Jersey, which makes even the farthest reaches attainable in relatively little time.

Throughout the first few weeks, I dreamed of our last two days, which would be spent in Tel Aviv. Before touching down in Israel, I imagined the city as a sun-bleached strip of beach clubs, much like Miami, seedy, neon-lit. After several days spent following the herds of cyclists, I relished the idea of being alone, of getting lost in a new, unknown scape. And for one whole, glorious day, I did.

My guide was Boris, one of my best friends from childhood. Boris, an American, had just joined the Israeli army. He had decided to make Aliyah, the Hebrew term for the return to the Holy Land, out of a resolute love of Israel. Later, he would be chosen for an elite unit that discovered and monitored secret underground tunnels–but our day in Tel Aviv was spent only months after he had moved to Israel.

It had always been impossible to resist adventure around Boris. The sense of exuberance that surrounds his penchant for discovery is irresistible, and this day was no exception. With no itinerary, broken (but improving) Hebrew, and the giddiness of our reunion in this strange land, we set out on the cobbled curves of Tel Aviv, a city of both age-old history and an enterprising sense of new.

Tel Aviv, the so-called White City, was founded by the Jewish community in a burst of immigration in 1909. Built on the outskirts of the ancient port city of Jaffa, it is a coastline peopled with the shining, timeworn structures of centuries past and the newer high-rises of a burgeoning economic hub and flourishing art culture. Now, divided into nine districts, Tel Aviv is a merging of the antiquated and the modern.

The Shuk Ha’Carmel, our first stop, was a feast for the eyes. Rows of richly-hued spices, fruits and vegetables, and any kind of houseware you could imagine crowded the bustling Tel Aviv shopping district. With only three months of learning the Hebrew language under his belt, Boris had our market interactions down, ordering fresh-pressed grapefruit juices with ease. His inherent ability to acclimatize to any cultural setting he put himself into was a skill that often overshadowed fluency of language.

Taking a turn out of the market, we found ourselves on a quiet, narrow thoroughfare, shadows and bright sun mingling on the smooth stone road and surrounding shops and houses. In an open air home-turned-cafe, we ordered steaming plates of homemade stew and shakshuka, a traditional Israeli dish made with poached eggs and tomatoes. Lunch-seeking professionals and newspaper-toting regulars filed in to fill the unassuming space. The setting was simple, and the food deeply comforting.

Our conversation moved, as it had of late, to Boris’ choice to live in Israel. He said he had initially been hooked by the lifestyle. “The first time I traveled around as a tourist, it was amazing. Breathtaking. The nature is beautiful. And the people are some of the most open people I’ve ever met,” Boris said. “They grow up happy, more so than anywhere I’ve seen in the world. They are incredible; so comfortable with themselves and open to new experiences–everyone is looking to experience new things here. For 2000 years, very few people spoke Hebrew. Bringing a country back to a people that had the country thousands of years ago is something I wanted to be a part of.”

He told me that every time someone asked him what he loved most about Israel he gave a different answer. This time, he focussed on the ethnic diversity. “Tel Aviv,” he said, “is so important in terms of being a melting pot: everyone ranging from Ethiopian Jews, Argentinian Jews, Italian Jews, American Jews, Russian Jews–today there are people who have come from China, South Africa, New Zealand–people from every country are coming to a tiny country of 6 million, and every little group provides a major change to the country.”

He called Tel Aviv, a city with deep Jewish roots, incredibly liberal. You could find hippies, metalheads, entrepreneurs. “Religion feels virtually non-existent,” Boris said. “Culturally, everyone is Jewish. On holidays like Yom Kippur, you won’t find a car on the road, because it’s tradition. But I would guess that half the people in Tel Aviv don’t fast. Most restaurants aren’t kosher, even though right outside of Tel Aviv, you’ll find a Hasidic neighborhood.”

Boris told me about Herzliya, a city in the central coast of Israel at the Northern part of the Tel Aviv district that has become the high-tech capital of Israel, earning the nickname “Silicon Wadi.” Companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft all have headquarters here, and start-ups and the entrepreneurial spirit flourish in its climate. “It says a lot about the people of Israel being adventurous,” he said.

As we readied ourselves for a day of walking, clearing our café table and walking back out into the sunlight, Boris revealed another major reason for his move to Israel. “As crazy as it might seem to do this,” he explained, “I truly feel that as a Jew I need Israel as much as any Israeli needs it–Jews all over the world need Israel. Jews in Israel have to serve in the army, and I feel that I owe the same.”

Boris’ sentiments of Israel’s inherent vivacity and sense of discovery resounded throughout the day. Snaking through the streets of Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s old city, we stumbled into an unlikely corner cafe, pulsing with the sound of New Orleans dixieland jazz, where friends sprawled around tables clutching sweating glasses of crushed-mint cocktails.

The joyful horn bursts reminded me of New Orleans, a favorite city of mine, and it struck me that Tel Aviv and New Orleans are quite parallel: both pulse with the life of pride, history, and culture; both face fear of sudden war, whether it be from mankind or mother nature, perpetually. Maybe this is why both cities celebrate an exuberant zest for life with clubs that stay open until dawn and the screech of brass bands around the clock.

This same spirit is constantly evident in the people of Tel Aviv. Rows of convivial bars and cafes line the streets, with all likes of people lingering around tables of food and beer, seemingly suspended in an uninhibited siesta. We made our way through Neve Tzedek, a modern, art-centric neighborhood, where the streets were filled with the young and fashionable walking their dogs or sipping coffee outside the plentiful and unassuming cafes. Art galleries and textile shops teemed with casual afternoon strollers. On Rothschild Boulevard, a wide, tree-lined, city-splitting road, we passed an abundance of buildings in the Bauhaus style.

Our aimless romp through town led us next to the coast, to a sea of deserted beach chairs at the expansive coastal clubs. Usually, the sand is traced with footprints of games of pickup soccer and the tread of beach haunters, but Boris and I wove in and out of the perfected lines as dusk set in and the beach had momentarily emptied, taking our pick from the cream of the crop of striped beach chairs.

Our day finished on a cafe patio lit by draped string lights, the energy of a city abuzz around the criss-crossing streets. It had been perfect–yet I knew there was so much more to it, so much more I could learn from it by spending more than 24 hours there.

It’s the melding of all of Tel Aviv’s seemingly conflicting qualities that make Tel Aviv what it is–a shining, wild, yet culturally-rooted White City. To me, my time there was the taste of mint leaves steeped in steaming water; the first bite into fresh falafel drizzled with tzatziki; the machine-gun strung soldiers next to the free-spirited crowd of teenagers; the miraculous gathering of adventurous people from every edge of the world; and an effervescence that vibrated through the city 24 hours a day. It was fishing boats docked by the old stone of Jaffa, and the shadow of the modern, contrasting monoliths just down the coast.

It was a feeling of being somewhere that was home to some small part of me, an awakening of a comfortable spirituality I didn’t know was there.


Samantha Alviani is a writer based in Denver, with a focus on food, music, and travel storytelling.