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Jewish Journal

50 reasons to love Tel Aviv (and never, ever leave)

by Simone Wilson

April 17, 2014 | 6:00 am

A lighting store on Sheinkin Street (No. 14).

One year and five months ago, I stepped from an airport taxi into the mad cloud of exhaust fumes, cafe steam and kitty dreams that is Tel Aviv. My boyfriend and I moved into a pre-Holocaust apartment with closets full of skeletons, in the shadow of a parking garage on a street named after the great Spanish Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi. We had no idea how long we would stay.

The transition wasn't all smooth — and we've since re-settled into a rooftop combina in the city's notorious south, overlooking Tranny Alley — but one year and five months in, I'm not going anywhere. (Except maybe 10 minutes south to Jaffa for some superior meats.) Sorry everybody at home!

Tel Aviv has its haters. There is, and probably always will be, a deeply personal and painful debate between Israelis and Palestinians over the rights to the land Tel Aviv sits on. To Israel's critics, Tel Aviv represents the farthest-West point in an aggressively Western, even colonial state. But not everything is about the conflict. This city has its own irrepressible soul now — and I can say from experience that there's nowhere else like it.

Here are my top 50 reasons to love Tel Aviv and never, ever leave.

50. The beach! Duh. Who could argue against the smooth, warm waters of the Mediterranean as nature's best adult kiddie pool? And the Med's five-mile shoreline along Tel Aviv wins as its most lively. Israelis are, bless their hearts, very un-American in that they gravitate toward the spot on the beach with the most people on it, not the least. This herd mentality makes every beach day into a big Israeli reunion — soundtracked by the happy pings of 10,000 games of matkot (No. 23).

49. Da club. In Tel Aviv, "last call" only comes when the final patron has finished his drink and stumbled out the door. In this tradition, Tel Aviv nights become Tel Aviv mornings before you know it. And no matter where you've ended up — twinkly beach club, S&M club, scary Russian club, Euro laser club, gay Palestinian night at the warehouse club, Britney Spears night at the Central Bus Station club —  there's another venue around the corner for another whim, and an after-hours underground for your finale. (Pro tip: If you're the planning type, check DIY Tel Aviv for the week's events.)

48. The layers. Tel Aviv's buildings look like calico cats. Most surfaces have at least three layers of history peeling off them — a textured, old-and-new mashup of street art, fliers, cheap plaster and half-assed coats of paint. (Or as Tel Aviv's hippest tour guide, the linguist Guy Sharett, calls it, "the archeology of graffiti.") This constant state of decay makes Tel Aviv an anti-paradise for those with a burning case of ruin lust, of which a curator at the Tate once said: "It’s a way of us thinking through time."

47. Sherut rides. As we speak, there is a soothing ritual taking place within Tel Aviv's hundreds of shared taxi vans, or moniot sherut. Upon boarding, each passenger will take a seat and pass his six-and-half shekel fare from person to person, until it reaches the driver — who then clinks the coins into a row of Mancala cups and passes back the change, person to person. The whole procedure is quite meditative; everyone gets really into it. Because for 10 to 20 minutes, they are a shared-taxi family.

46. Weddings. Israeli weddings are the original crowdfund: Each guest gifts the couple at least enough cash to cover his own placemat, and thus the total wedding cost is covered. Genius! For more wonderful things about Israeli weddings, see comedian Benji Lovitt's "Idiot's Guide to Israeli Weddings." An excerpt: "The invitation process works as follows: from a height of 40,000 feet, a blimp drops several thousand invitations over population centers of the country. Whoever picks one up then invites everyone he has ever known."

45. The Na Nach. There is group of party Jews who rage around Tel Aviv in a fleet of white creeper vans at all hours of the day and night. They blast Hebrew techno, blow into sheep's horns and occasionally jump out to dance at intersections. They are the Na Nach clan — disciples of the happy-go-lucky Rabbi Nachman of Breslov — and they're a reliable fixture of every street party and traffic jam. You've got to see them to believe.

44. The wiring. For better or worse, most of Tel Aviv looks like it was built in a day. Bunches of pipes and electrical lines cling to the walls and poles of the city like determined weeds. And as long as they work, no one really cares how they're arranged. This haphazard construction style even has its own word in Hebrew: hurbash. Function over form — that's Israel.

43. Yom Kippur. For 24 hours each year, on the Jewish day of atonement, honky, crazy Tel Aviv goes completely still. No cars, no smog, no commerce — just a bunch of city people strolling the streets, looking up at the stars, watching their curtains flutter or (for the young and secular) getting drunk with old friends in cramped apartments with the music on whisper. In which other world metropolis can you just switch off all the noise, witness a mock End of Days and emerge a better person in one 24-hour cleanse?

42. Macro- and micro-problemsIn a city clouded by fears of impending nuclear war with Iran or long-range rockets from Lebanon or Gaza, it's kind of sweet that everyone is also so picky and complainy — in a very first-world, Venice Beach way — about daily stuff like airplane noise and youth who play their music too loud. Living here, you feel the weight of the world and the neighborhood, in equal parts.

41. The cats. On top of the two fleaballs I took home in shoeboxes and now sleep with at night, I get to quasi-own each of the zillion cats of the city. There's the black lady-cat in the dumpster below my house, plus her skinny kittens; there's the fat orange cat who sits on my lap at Loveat; there's the shy gray kitty that follows me all the way down Barzilai Street. (Or is it me who belongs to them?)

40. The ideas. The whole "Startup Nation" thing is a massive cliche, but don't knock it until you've witnessed firsthand the pure kinetic energy generated by a group of brainstorming Israelis. Some of their ideas might seem outlandish at first, but therein lies their beauty: Israelis will run with things that others are too embarrassed to even say out loud. They're like kids who were never told "No." And it's obviously working for them, seeing as Tel Aviv has grown into the No. 2 startup ecosystem in the world (second only to Silicon Valley). 

39. The relentless diversity. Despite the best efforts of the Israeli Ministry of Interior, an insane mix of ethnicities and religions today stir through Tel Aviv. There are girls like Ashley Anokye, a Pentocostal Christian from Ghana celebrating her Bat Mitzvah this month at a local church. There's "the Aroma barista who sells overpriced coffee after serving three years in the occupied territories" working alongside a cook who escaped the war in Darfur. There are the 750 students from 48 different countries at Bialik Rogozin, a K-12 school near the Central Bus Station. There are the Palestinians, the Ukrainians, the Indians, the Thai. Life can be brutal for minorities in Israel, especially non-Jewish ones, but Tel Aviv is where they come together to fight against the dull vision of a one-shtick state.

38. Anti-gravity. In his personal history of Israel, currently being adapted to film by Natalie Portman, beloved Israeli author Amos Oz described his fascination with Tel Aviv as a young boy: “It's not just that the light in Tel Aviv was different from the light in Jerusalem, more than it is today, even the laws of gravity were different. People didn't walk in Tel Aviv: they leaped and floated, like Neil Armstrong on the moon.”

37. Beautiful mermaid people. Again, I'll let Oz do the talking: "There were great sportsmen in Tel Aviv. And there was the sea, full of bronzed Jews who could swim. Who in Jerusalem could swim? Who had ever heard of swimming Jews? These were different genes. A mutation."

 

36. The fruit. There are as many fruit juice stands sprinkled throughout Tel Aviv as there are Starbucks in America. Only instead of $5 asshole coffee, they sell giant cups of life-giving fruit smoothies that taste like they were squeezed from the vine of Eden. Even better, each stand is decked with elaborate fruit arrangements that put Chiquita Banana Girl's hat arrangement to shame.

35. The tourists. Hate 'em or love 'em, Tel Aviv's 3 million annual tourists inject new life into the city and help awaken us jaded residents to its charms. Most of all, let's hear it for the legions of Frenchmen and -women who descend like a locust cloud in the summer to sun topless on our Mediterranean sands, sending local boys into early onset puberty and offsetting the burkas.

34. Arsim. (And I mean this in the most affectionate sense of the slur.) The first Hebrew term my Israeli friends taught me was arse, or a member of the lower classes — kind of like a redneck or a Guido in America, or a flaite in Chile. These arsim, oh fauxhawked ones, have since become my favorite members of Tel Aviv society. They're the dudes who will offer you a plastic cup of special juice in the sherut on a Friday night, or sing along loudly to Hebrew classics through janky speakers on the beach. Annoying, yes, but you kind of miss them back on the quiet shores of Santa Monica.

33. Summer in general. There's a feeling in summertime Tel Aviv, even on a workday, that you can kind of just roll out of bed in your sandy calves and cut-offs, throw back an avocado every few hours for sustenance and keep your eyelids at half-mast all day, in an endless cycle of warm nights and scorching afternoons.

32. Nature parties. Tel Aviv nightlife is hard to beat, but every once in a while, it's worth it to rent a car and head north or south for one of the country's famed "nature parties," or wilderness raves. No one dances quite like an Israeli on acid at a desert oasis or the Sea of Galilee. In the words of one Israeli-turned-international DJ: "The Israelis are very enthusiastic. They jump, and they scream, and they're really getting into it — it's nice to have some Israeli crowd, because they really put everybody in excitement. The Europeans are more, like, holding themselves together."

31. Proximity. Downtown Tel Aviv is situated only 45 minutes from the world's holiest city, one hour from Jordan, a couple hours from Lebanon and Syria, a few hours from Egypt and 15 minutes from an international airport with short, cheap flights to Istanbul, Italy and beyond. 

30. The sex. Because Tel Aviv exists as a rebellion to tight-laced Jerusalem, phallic images and innuendo ooze from its billboards and shop windows. And once you're in the mood, whichever way you like your sex — with whips and chains or in large groups, arranged via Tinder or spur-of-the-moment in a nightclub bathroom with a soldier — your kink will be embraced.

29. Your favorite hummus place. (Mine is Abu Adham on Carlibach Street.) Nothing sops up a hangover like a stack of pita, a bowl of creamy chickpea puree and some pickles/onions/peppers on the side. Tel Aviv and Jaffa are filled with hummus joints as good as any in the Middle East. But best of all, on those days when you feel like you can't look at another bowl of hummus without throwing up a little in your mouth, a Western mecca of burger joints, delis and pizza places are waiting nearby to cleanse your palette.

28. Purim. This springtime Jewish holiday is Israel's Halloween, and Tel Aviv's excuse to party itself to death for an entire week while dressed in a progression of outrageous costumes. During Purim, waking up in a ditch wearing a mankini and a rubber unicorn head is not only accepted, it's encouraged. Eat your heart out, Isla Vista!

27. The survivor's mentality. A sense of purpose and patriotism that is so hard to find in America runs thick in the veins of Tel Aviv's youth. As I wrote last Fourth of July: "Love of country is much more clear-cut for young people in the Middle East. It's a matter of survival. How much simpler it is to pledge allegiance to your little flag-on-a-stick when you're under the constant threat of war; when it's the people vs. the occupier; when your entire national identity is at stake."

26. Street parties. On any given holiday, there is a street party going down somewhere in Tel Aviv — and as long as you know the right people to text you the location, all its spontaneous joy can be yours. Even the municipal government throws street parties (not just PG outdoor concerts or food festivals, but full-on ragers) like the world's coolest mom. 

25. Chill old people. In the same vein, as you stumble home at 6 a.m., those ancient Israelites already taking their morning strolls often congratulate you with an approving smile — reassuring you with their eyes that partying too hard is a healthy part of growing up. Helicopter parents of America, take note.

24. Those humbling moments, most happily shared with a close Israeli friend on a rooftop, when you look out across Tel Aviv's sea of buildings and skyscrapers and realize that none of it was here 100 years ago.

23. MatkotSo entrenched is the game of matkot, or Israeli paddle ball, in Tel Aviv beach tradition that a dude named Amnon has built the World's Only Matkot Museum in his tiny Neve Tzedek apartment to pay tribute. Join the fun or be shunned from all future Israeli beach reunions.

22. Bauhaus architecture. Tel Aviv is home to the world's largest collection of Bauhaus-style buildings, built by German Jewish architects in the years leading up to the Holocaust as a retreat from Nazi sentiment. About a decade ago, UNESCO designated this "White City" of Bauhaus buildings a World Cultural Heritage site — giving Tel Aviv yet another excuse for a street party. (Having lived in one of these historic specimens, I can tell you that they're highly overrated and often downright ugly. But there's also something cozy about hanging out on your balcony with someone else's balcony as your ceiling. It's very communal, in the way that Tel Aviv needed to be during the dark 1930s and '40s.)

21. Urban Shabbat rituals. You literally cannot say more than three words to a Tel Aviv stranger on Friday morning without an invite to their family's Shabbat dinner later that night. Really, if you don't have an obligatory Shabbat dinner to complain about attending every weekend, you're doing something wrong.

20. Neve Tzedek. A few hundred meters in from the beach, the Neve Tzedek neighborhood's skinny Parisian streets are clogged with brides posing for wedding photographs and Tel Aviv's elite chatting over leafy greens. And it really is lovely — a magical fairyland of astronomical rents and boutiques that sell three lonely purses on pedestals.

 

19. Florentin. Tel Aviv's population of artists and hipsters has overtaken Florentin, a once working-class neighborhood at the far southern tip of the city, and filled it with yoga studios and whiskey bars. But there are still plenty of grimy graffiti alleys to explore. And if you want some true grit, the run-down Central Bus Station area is just a 10-minute walk east.

18. Allenby Street. Once the shining Main Street of Tel Aviv, Allenby has devolved into a nasty mash-up of underage drunks sharing communal punch buckets at Drinkpoint and bums displaying their festering leg wounds to passerby. You'll come out the other end dazed and deflated, but with a tad more street cred.

17. Shuk HaCarmel. Allenby's buzzing central market is draped in canvas and filled with all the 99-cent wonders, ironic T-shirts and ripe produce you can stuff in your knapsack. The shuk is also a great place to hone your bartering skills and "Don't fuck with me just 'cause I'm a foreigner" face.

16. Rothschild Boulevard. If you need an insta-party or just a friendly stranger to talk to, the grassy meridean that runs down the center of Rothschild Boulevard is something of a 24-hour city mixer — complete with angry bicyclists, throngs of Birthright kids, street musicians and the strong-willed bachelor who refuses to leave without your number.

15. That one night, an initiation of sorts, when you climbed onto the giant horse statue on Rothschild and got spooned by a bronze rendering of the late Meir Dizengoff. You haven't been able to look him in the eye since.

14. Sheinken Street. Running from Shuk HaCarmel to Rothschild, this cutesy window parade of health food, lighting options and street fashions is a great way to spend a day pretending you've got thousands of shekels to spend on perfecting your own brand of boho chic. Kind of like Melrose, with more cats.

13. The constant construction. Tel Aviv's horizon is an absolute clusterfuck of towering cranes and apocalyptic craters in the Earth — a grand effort to expand the city in both directions. The dust and noise is maddening, but it's hard not to feel hopeful in the presence of so much growth.

12. Cafe culture. How does a city of 415,000 people have enough adorable holes-in-the-wall to fill 10 Parises? No matter how many cafes or bars I check off my list, there are always a few hundred more alleged must-sees. I give up, and happily.

11. Arak cultureAmong Tel Aviv's cheap thrills are a spot in the sand, a dip in the sea and a plastic cup full of Arak-grapefruit. (Or even plain old Arak-water.) In the blazing Mediterranean summer, locally brewed Arak, an anis-based alcohol, runs in the veins of the Israelis; normal resting blood-alcohol content is approximately two cups of Arak.

10. The trash chutes. In which dozens of trash cans are stacked, like party cups, from a dumpster on the sidewalk all the way up to a top-story window (pictured above). Never stops being hilarious.

9. Epic thunderstorms. Confronted with the gut-punching bolts and rumbles of thunderstorm season (Novemberish), one can't help but feel that the Holy Land does lie a little closer to God. And after a long night of thundery drama, the clouds always do this thing where they split open just a crack, inviting down a few rays from heaven and showering the city in gold.

8. The Central Bus Station. The little-known bottom half of Tel Aviv's gargantuan Central Bus Station is home to an abandoned arcade, six underground movie theaters, a bunker that can withstand nuclear holocaust and an unfinished bus tunnel so overtaken by bats that it has been declared a nature preserve. (Only in Israel.)

7. Jaffa. Crossing the border from South Tel Aviv to Jaffa, an old Arab port town annexed into Tel Aviv back when Israel became a Jewish state, you can feel the wind shift a little. City life becomes village life. Buildings are made with thick slabs of stone and Arabic archways, and every few hours, the muezzin — or Muslim calls to prayer — echo through the crooked streets. There are of course some on the right who wish to turn Jaffa more Jewish, and natural gentrification is slowly taking care of that, but today it still stands as a stubborn tribute to those who came before. 

6. The taxis. Taking a taxi in Tel Aviv is refreshingly cheap and easy compared to New York or Los Angeles (thanks in large part to Israeli smartphone app GetTaxi), but it comes with a price: the driver. Tel Aviv's taxistas are a special breed — eternally grumpy, 100 percent closed off to suggestions and furious that you had the audacity to flag them down in the first place. Unless of course you're a foreign girl traveling alone, in which case they'll hit on you unmercifully. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

5. The gay scene. Not to pinkwash or anything, but I can attest: Tel Aviv is a glorious sanctuary in the Middle East for the out-and-proud. On the eve of the city's annual gay pride parade last year, as I was boarding a flight back to Tel Aviv from the Istanbul airport, a group of dolled-up Turks on my flight felt safe to pull off their track pants and reveal the parade attire beneath: metallic spandex booty shorts. At that point, I was feeling pretty proud, too.

4. The babies. Lord help the children of Tel Aviv, whose parents dangle them over public planters to tinkle and walk them down the city's various ramblas on baby leashes (while their dogs run free). In the land of family and fertility, they are the ultimate fashion accessory: Before a baby is done with a single day's cafe loop, his cheeks will have been pinched by a thousand strangers. If a baby can make it here, he can make it anywhere.

3. The gorgeous Tel Aviv Museum of Art, along with a lot of other fancy design houses and galleries that travelistas (and Time Magazine) often mention, but that I'm not really qualified to talk about because I'm broke, uncivilized and under 30.

 

2. The volatility. One feels so much more alive and relevant as part of a civilization in a state of awkward growth and pain and self-realization, over one that has stagnated. Los Angeles has some of this volatility; Tel Aviv has more. As local photographer David Havrony wrote in a recent photo series for Vice: "Tel Aviv is a complicated place, warm and unexpected. The most interesting things take place beneath the radar, in small spaces and narrow alleyways. As a photographer, I'm always searching for that moment when things are about to change; in Tel Aviv, they are changing all the time."

1. Tel Avivians. The No. 1 reason to love Tel Aviv is also the No. 1 reason it will make you crazy: the natives. He's the innocent old man in the sherut who claims he can't find the shekels you passed him. She's the scowly Russian lady at the train-ticket window who doesn't understand the meaning of personal space, or the concept of a line. He's the laundromat owner who won't let you leave with your clothes before asking after each member of your extended family and brewing you some lemon-honey tea for the cough. They're rough, pushy and brimming with chutzpah, but if you push back and drop the American bullshitery, the people of Tel Aviv will take you in as one of their own. And once that happens, it's pretty impossible to say your goodbyes.

For more, follow me on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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