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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Country Mouse III

GalileeDiary #184
May 7, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the Lord's service. He went down to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish...

-Jonah 1:1-3

...For Torah will come forth out of Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem

-Isaiah 2:3

Already in biblical times, the contrast between Yafo and Jerusalem was obvious. Jerusalem was the center of the cult and the monarchy, the axis mundi - the center of the world, the one place in the world where communicating with God was only a local call. Yafo, as the main seaport, was the place you went in order to get away from the burdens of God's demands. Jonah was ordered to travel east to Assyria, by land. He went to Yafo and caught the first boat heading west. Jerusalem was our window to heaven; Yafo was our window to the world.

Jerusalemsits on the border with the desert. You can stand on Mt. Scopus or the Mount of Olives, with your back to the city, and see nothing but a panorama of barren wilderness all the way to the Dead Sea. Jerusalem's climate, its topography, its location - are not particularly inviting. It was a place of pilgrimage - from which one went back home afterwards. An intense, holy place, spiritual, forbidding, beautiful. Psychologists speak of "Jerusalem syndrome," a disorder in which the intensity of the city seems to push certain people "over the edge" into messianic delusions.

Yafo, on the other hand (the historical core from which the founders of Tel Aviv sought to escape but which ultimately became part of the Tel Aviv metropolis), was, like any seaport, a cosmopolitan town, where different cultures and religions rubbed up against each other. Jerusalem looks out over the desert; Tel Aviv-Yafo is built along a beach and looks out across the sea - and the humid climate and flat topography of the coastal plain encourage the growth of lush vegetation. Yafo is where the pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th century encountered Palestine for the first time. For them it represented the middle east - of which they hoped to become a part; Jerusalem, with its poor communities of ultra-Orthodox living on the halukkah charity, represented the life they were trying to leave behind. Interestingly, the link between the two so different cities was strong. Note that the main street of Jerusalem outside the old city is Yafo Road - the end of the highway to Yafo; and symmetrically, at the other end, this road, in Yafo, was Jerusalem Street.

Today, while it is to some extent an oversimplification, the dichotomy between Tel Aviv-Yafo and Jerusalem still exists as a perception in popular culture. Jerusalem is the holy city, a symbol of our spiritual connection to and historical roots in this land - and even though it boasts a world class university and a high tech industrial park, it is one of the poorest cities in Israel, largely because of its large ultra-Orthodox population. For all its symbolic importance, and its fabled beauty, it remains in the minds of most people a place of pilgrimage, not a place of real life. The best known street name today is Bar Ilan, the street where periodically the ultra-orthodox have held violent demonstrations against sabbath desecration.

Tel Aviv's motto, on the other hand, is the "city that never stops." It's where you go to taste Europe in the middle east, for jazz and rock and classical music, for avant garde fashion, to buy any esoteric thing you need from anywhere in the world, to eat any kind of non-kosher food, to see the latest in art and film and architecture. Today the most famous street in Tel Aviv is Sheinkin, a symbol of openness and youth and hedonism and avant garde (and, coincidentally, a homonym for word for ham).

And as you drive along the highway (which is constantly being widened) between the two cities, you find yourself wondering where our center really is.

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