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Jewish Journal

Tel Aviv Emerges From Capital’s Shadow

by Amy Klein

June 3, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Braun House, 49 Ahad Ha'am St. Architect: Zaki Chelouche, 1933.

Braun House, 49 Ahad Ha'am St. Architect: Zaki Chelouche, 1933.

Why aren't you living in Jerusalem?"

I used to date a guy from Tel Aviv, and whenever we'd spend the weekends in my city, the capital of Israel, he'd get this question thrown at him every place we went.

"Are you a student?" people would ask, bemused. My Anglo immigrant friends could not understand why anyone would move to Israel and choose to live in Tel Aviv instead of the capital.

So many American Jews -- from the ones that live in Israel to those who visit occasionally -- love Jerusalem but know nothing about Tel Aviv, which is a sister city to Los Angeles.

"It's just like New York, and if I want New York I'll stay home," they say, ignorantly.

Tel Aviv is one of the hippest cities in the world. Unfortunately, probably the only people who know this happen to live there. Tel Avivians are a breed unto themselves: cosmopolitan, fashionable, absurdist and cynical, these hipsters are so phat they make cool seem outdated. They are a new category of Israeli stereotype, different from the ones we are with: the kibbutznik, the Chasid, the settler, the soldier, etc.

Israel has always been somewhat of a stereotype or ideal to those who don't live there. And Jerusalem -- its capital status not always recognized by the rest of the world -- is the epitome of that ideal. With its religious icons like the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and its sparkling white architecture of Jerusalem stone, in history, appearance and political importance it has outshined for years its sister city of Tel Aviv.

But now Tel Aviv's second-tier status may change, as UNESCO -- The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization -- will inaugurate Tel Aviv as a World Heritage Site on June 6, 2004, for its treasure of Bauhaus architecture.

Tel Aviv includes 4,000 buildings representative of the modern movement -- a synthesis of architectural styles popular in Europe during the early 20th century, heavily influenced by the Bauhaus School of Art and Design. These buildings, built between 1931-1948, were designed by immigrant architects trained in Europe, who adapted the modern style to suit Tel Aviv's culture and climate.

Bauhaus, which is also called International Style, is typified in Tel Aviv by right angles, flat roofs, stilt columns, balconies and asymmetry. Tel Aviv, which was established as a suburban alternative to Jaffa in 1909, with Jaffa becoming part in 1949, adapted Bauhaus because of the emphasis on practicality over style, and its stress on the social aspects, like housing for workers. Bauhaus was also quicker and cheaper to build; in addition, 17 Bauhaus architects lived in Tel Aviv. The buildings were painted white, giving Tel Aviv the nickname "The White City."

The city was constructed based on an urban plan by Sir Patrick Geddes. Today, though, many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair. With its new designation as a World Heritage site, some might be restored. As part of the World Heritage Convention treaty adopted by UNESCO in 1972, the organization works to protect and preserve cultural and natural sites around the world considered of outstanding value to humanity.

"In these challenging times, receiving this extraordinary honor from UNESCO not only helps preserve our rich architectural heritage, but also reaffirms Tel Aviv's place on the map as a choice cultural destination," said Ron Huldai, mayor of Tel Aviv, prior to the June 6-8 celebration, which will include photography and urban planning exhibits, an architectural conference, a folk-song singalong, a party at the Tel Aviv Port and a boat race from Jaffa to Herzliya.

Tel Aviv is also the business capital of Israel. With more than 50 percent of Israel's jobs in banking and finance, the city provides an overall source of employment for 14 percent of Israel's workforce. Tel Aviv-Yafo is home to 400,000 residents, spread over an area of 50 square kilometers. That's what gives the city its hustle -- and at times pretentiousness: we are important people, with important ad campaigns/diamond deals/stock trades/TV shows to get done.

But Tel Aviv is really not like New York. In contrast to the more "uptight" Jerusalemites -- as Tel Avivians call the politically charged city residents -- Tel Aviv really has the most laid back people in the world.

It's easy to see this combination of business and pleasure, for example, at the strip of hotels on Hayarkon Street. The Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel & Towers, named the best business hotel in Tel Aviv by Travel & Leisure, September 2002 edition, overlooks the sparkling Mediterranean and the lively promenade, not too far from Old Jaffa.

Just across the street from the Sheraton, modestly hidden behind a small storefront, is Israel's top hairdresser, Shai Greenberg, who has won awards around the world for his innovation. But his real claim to fame is in North Tel Aviv, at Spa2b, one of the country's first "day spas." While Israel has long had spas at the Dead Sea, and two new ones up north, Spa2b represents the latest trend in Israeli health/wealth/fitness, the one-stop-shop day spa.

"We try to be first, the best in everything," says Sharon Epstein, chair and marketing director of the spa, which offers hair, nail, waxing, massage and beauty treatments, a unique concept for the Israeli market.

Some of the latest and unique treatments include a Euyurveda Water treatment: After you change and robe yourself up in plush terry and slippers, you enter a small, softly lit room and lay on a hot marble slab. A masseuse scrubs you down with hot water and soap for five minutes. Then you step into a small rectangular mikvah-like station and submerge in hot water as a torrential outpouring covers your head, like a waterfall. The final five-minute station is a shower with dozens of hot-spraying jets. The procedures are designed to open pores, for whatever your main treatment is. Package prices run the gamut from about $80 to $400.

Spas, in a way, are about creating a market for Israelis, who only in the past few decades have acquired wealth and the habits of the wealthy. While there are now a number of day spas in Tel Aviv, it's less about competition, Epstein says, than introducing to Israel the concept of pampering yourself.

"We're trying to teach clients to understand that [to get treated] on a regular basis that changes everything," Epstein said.

In these trying times, with the second intifada coming up to its fourth year, even the generally business-oriented, politically removed Tel Avivians feel terror's toll.

"I'll tell you something: during the hardest times of the pigua," Epstein says, using the Hebrew word for terror attack, "we were in our peak. There's something contrary -- the worse things are, the more they'll run away to a spa."

For more information contact on Spa2b, visit www.spa2b.com or call 011-972-3-644.0090. For more information on Tel Aviv celebrations, visit www.white-city.co.il. For information on booking a Bauhaus tour, contact either the Association for Tourism in Tel Aviv-Jaffa 011-972-3516-6188, or the Bauhaus Center, 011-972- 3-522-0249. For more information on the Sheraton Tel Aviv visit www.sheraton-telaviv.com .

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