As the clocks throughout Tel Aviv's constellation of liquor stores struck 23:00 last night, and the townspeople lugged home their final bottles of 35-to-40-shekel Arak, a rare summertime sadness settled over the city.
"Arak is considered the cheap and good and everyone can afford it, and it's always available," said Itay Zecharia, a 20-year-old clerk closing down his nondescript corner store, a couple blocks off Rothschild Boulevard, for the night. "Now it's not going to be like that. It's just crazy."
The morning of Monday, July 1 marks the start of a bleak new era for Israel: Today is the day that the country's only cheap liquors, Arak and vodka, almost double in price to around 70 and 100 shekels per bottle, respectively. This, thanks to a new alcohol tax under former talk-show host and current Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a barrel-chested "most interesting man in the world" type with a strong brow and a taste for scotch and cigars. The trade-off? The Ministry of Finance has in turn decided to lower the tax on premium liquors — to a price, of course, that the rest of us still can't afford. (Although for the record, Lapid is backtracking a bit on his support for the law in the news today.)
There are very few cheap thrills left in Tel Aviv — among them a spot in the sand, a dip in the sea and a plastic cup full of Arak-grapefruit. In the blazing Mediterranean summer, locally brewed Arak runs in the veins of the Israelis; normal resting blood-alcohol content is approximately two cups of Arak.
So naturally, the new alcohol tax has been widely mourned as an assault on the national identity. Wrote Liel Leibotvitz in his eulogy for Tablet Magazine:
True New Yorkers are the ones who know that a slice tastes best when folded in half. You belong in Paris if your idea of a sandwich is ham and butter, nothing else. And Tel Avivis drink Arak, the anise-flavored liquor that turns milky white with an ice cube and a splash of water. In part, we love it because of how seamlessly it blends in with our environment: that strong and sweet taste goes well with the strong light and the blue sea. But the real reason is far less poetic: Arak is Tel Aviv’s official drink because Arak costs 35 shekels a bottle.
Or, at least, it will until July 1st.
As it stands, ordering a vodka-anything at your average bar or club along Rothschild, the drunkest strip of Israel's sin city, will cut you back $10 to $15. And various bar managers and bartenders told me last night, the last night, that they'll have to bump those prices even higher under the new tax. (They weren't sure how much yet, and didn't want to scare anyone off, but their eyes were grim.)
Worse still, the new tax might mean a free-shot shortage. "Maybe we have to keep it a little more mellow about putting out chasers out for everyone," said Uvi, a bartender at Polly bar on Rothschild.
This is all part of an awkward power struggle in Tel Aviv — not unlike the one raging in Istanbul — between the hip young seculars and the religious forces emanating from the east. (See also: "Sabbath in sin city: Keep the shops open".) Although God's presence can still be felt over here, in the wicked thunderstorm sunrises and the breeze over a topless French girl on the beach, his touch is softer and more open to interpretation than on the cold synagogue stones of Jerusalem. Although this new alcohol tax isn't distinctly religious (just like the Turkish prime minister's tightening of alcohol sales in May wasn't distinctly Muslim), it makes Tel Aviv feel a little less like the Western party metropolis it claims to be and a little more like, well, the Middle East. The Israeli government's official reasons for raising taxes on cheap alcohol is 1) to help fill the deficit and 2) to make booze less accessible to minors, but in the end the decision gives this place the air of a sultan state.
"It sucks, because when we go out, we can't have fun without drinking. It's a stupid thing, but that's how it is," said Shir, an 18-year-old in a gold sequin tank top enjoying her last night of cheap(-ish) drinks along Rothschild. "The prices are already high — so now it will be really expensive."
"This sucks!" echoed her friend Nitzan, fake-sobbing into her purse.
The happy, casual religion of Tel Aviv is tied intrinsically to a slight buzz: Arak, like wine during Seder, has come to symbolize freedom and prosperity. In fact, explained liquor-store clerk Zecharia, cheap Arak is the only way he makes it through the Jewish holidays.
"On Pesach [Passover], the Jewish can't drink or eat chametz [food or drink made with fermented grains]," he said. "And it turns out that one of the single drinks that doesn't have chametz is Arak. So all Pesach, we always drink Arak."
Local band Shmemel drew the Middle East dictator comparison in a recent music video with over 85,000 views on YouTube.
Their harsh warnings for Lapid and his cronies, as translated by Haaretz:
“Hey fatsos, take it all, but if you want to survive, let us drink, god dammit. If you make us sober — we’ll make you like Mubarak. If you want to survive, don’t touch our arak.
"You don’t think things through, if we don’t get drunk, the designated driver won’t have any friends. We won’t be able to get through a family dinner with the parents. What’s the matter? Is this Iran? You couldn’t find anything else to demand?
"When we get to the bottom of the bottle, how will we calm our heads, when all we’ve got left is grape juice?
"You all don’t bat an eyelash – because it doesn’t affect your whiskey. Yes you’ve found a solution, you don’t need to be a genius — you get to drink and give us the bill.”
The song was dedicated to the country's most popular rebel blogger, Eishton, who called on his vast following — or "we the Arak people" — to shove the Finance Minister's cigar up his butt.
But will a pricier drunk be enough to send Tel Aviv's more-or-less comfortable middle class into the streets, a la Istanbul? Is our cheap summertime Arak worth the tear gas?
"I don't think people will drink less, I just think they'll be more bitter," said Itay Haza, the 28-year-old manager of Va'ad Habayit, one of the best dance bars along Rothschild. Asked how the tax will affect him on a personal level, he said ominously: "Ask me next week. But I hope it's not going to be what I think it's going to be."
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