Over the years, we have lived in Beersheba (one year), Jerusalem (5 years), and in the Galilee at Shorashim (16 years). From each of those vantage points, Tel Aviv was far off and nasty: Secular, urban, western, polluted, crowded why would one want to go there unless s/he had to? OK, so it had a beach. But to the visitor from the periphery (or from Holy Jerusalem), the face of Tel Aviv was the old central bus station, hot and filthy, where pedestrians and buses dodged each other between stands piled high with pirated music and fake designer clothes, and you didnt have to ask where the restrooms were you could just follow the scent of stale urine. And this was the first modern Jewish city, the cultural capital of the Jewish state?
Tel Aviv, actually the name of a community of exiles in Babylonia (Ezekiel 3:15), was named for the translation of Herzls 1902 utopian novel Oldnewland: a tel is an ancient ruin, an archaeological mound; aviv means spring (the season). The pioneers who bought lots in the sand dunes in 1909 saw themselves as the creators of a renewed Jewish culture.
So [Judaism] seeks to return to its historic centre, in order to live there a life of natural development, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to develop and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity, in the future as in the past, a great national culture, the fruit of the unhampered activity of a people living according to its own spirit.
-Ahad Haam Jewish State and Jewish Problem, 1897
But to my judgmental eye, Tel Aviv was all new with no roots, all a daunting synthesis of global and middle eastern pop culture, built on sand dunes.
Today there is a new bus station, which is actually not much different from the old one except that the buses are kept away from the pedestrians, and there is air conditioning. The shady merchants and the smelly bathrooms have been lovingly preserved. Meanwhile, the old bus station, which was actually a tangle of streets and alleys, has become a community of thousands foreign workers, legal and illegal; a polyglot, multicultural neighborhood where poor migrant workers, idealistic social workers, and tough-guy immigration cops all dodge the Palestinian suicide bombers who seem to be drawn to the area.
As the years have gone by, however, it seems that my aversion to Tel Aviv has mellowed. Maybe its the prolonged quiet of life in the periphery; maybe its a more mature understanding of the nature of culture and Jewish culture. Whatever, when planning a recent two-day getaway, we decided to depart from our usual custom of seeking a bed-and-breakfast in a natural setting like the Golan or the Negev, and book a room in the heart of Tel Aviv.
And guess what? It turns out that secular, urban, western, crowded, polluted can be seen as vibrant, open, multi-cultural, and humming with life. Rich museums of art and archaeology, hundreds of cafés, interesting restaurants (even kosher), that magnificent beach, crowded open air markets piled with tempting produce and colorful textiles, graceful Bauhaus buildings on broad avenues and old stone houses on narrow alleys. Strip shows and synagogues, uncrossable streets and green parks, slums and mansions. A real city, with all the ills and beauties that are inherent in large modern cities. I think Ahad Haam, critical as he often was, would be impressed with the culture that Tel Aviv embodies and contains. Western as it is, it is in Hebrew. And the drama and literature and art and music that flourish in it do indeed draw from the Jewish experience, refracting it through a modern or post-modern lens. Which is, I suppose, what this whole exercise is all about.