Blowing Bubbles

60 Minutes just spent a month in Tel Aviv. They plan to run a 12-minute segment that presents the city as “a vibrant, liberal, and attractive city.” An “island of sanity within the burning Middle East.” I don’t live in Tel Aviv; I live in Jerusalem. It’s the St. Paul to Tel Aviv’s Minneapolis—if St. Paul shut down and closed everything for 24 hours every Friday night. Jerusalem is the older sister who buttons her shirt up to her collar and shows up to class every day on time with her homework done. Tel Aviv’s the one out back with a joint. Jerusalem wears glasses; Tel Aviv has a laugh and a smile that drives boys crazy. Jerusalem reads Plato and Heschel and maybe, maybe some of the more highbrow literature—like, I dunno, Faulkner or Nabokov (wait, scratch that. Lolita? In Jerusalem? Are you kidding me?). Tel Aviv would read Lolita. In fact Tel Aviv loves Lolita. It’s her favorite book.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Jerusalem. There’s a seriousness and an urgency in this city that jibes better with my temperament. And hey, librarians can be sexy! We’ve all seen those commercials. But sometimes you don’t want to be serious, or to hit on the librarian; sometimes you just want the beach and a nice margarita. So in honor of the 60 Minutes feature, I present my own feature on the first truly Jewish metropolis.
First of all, kudos to the team that designed the streets. For the most part, you can walk up one street, make a left, then a right, and be on a parallel street. In Jerusalem you can make a left, then a right, and end up lost. Tel Aviv was conceived as a metropolis and built like one. Jerusalem expanded piecemeal as the population expanded.
(The first people to build houses outside the walls of the Old City were, depending on who you talked to back then, either pioneers or suicidal. Nobody thought they’d make it long before the dragons came and ate them.)
(Ok, only part of that was true… some people thought they’d make it.)
The Tel Aviv streets are not only straight, but beautiful and wide. The sidewalks are clean, without the pockmarks of tarred gum that dot New York City sidewalks. They’re lined with trees, providing both shade and that twinkling of sunlight that bathes everything in warm fuzzies. People walk down the streets with smiles on their faces and gelatto in their hands. Nobody wears eight hundred layers for 95-degree heat. In fact, most people try to dress in as few layers as socially acceptable, which, this being Tel Aviv, is not much. Check out some pictures from last week’s Pride Parade if you don’t believe me.
(By the way, I might be wrong on this, but no other city in the Middle East hosts a Pride Parade, much less a whole Pride Week. Can you imagine Ramallah doing that? Or Damascus? And definitely not Tehran, but that’s mainly because there aren’t any gays in Iran.)
I wasn’t in Tel Aviv for Pride Week, but I saw plenty during the weekend I was there. I saw straight guys playing beach soccer in Speedos. I saw a guy rollerblade down three flights of stairs. I saw a guy walking down a main Tel Aviv thoroughfare with his hand completely down his pants. I saw gay guys, gay girls, straight guys, straight girls, guys with gorgeous girls who clearly settled, or liked him for his “personality.” I saw blacks, whites, browns, yellows, guidos (arsim, in Hebrew slang), religious men (a whole five of them!). I saw skirts shorter than anything I will ever let my daughter wear (but I’d like to thank whatever role model, or lack thereof, inspired those outfits). I saw a Punk bar next to a Hawaiian bar, down the street from a Top 40 club, around the corner from a wine bar, across the street from a late-night Shawarma shop—all hopping at 1am, and 2am, and 3am. I saw people eating breakfast at 2pm (ok, maybe that was me), and dinner at midnight. I saw specialty shops like you wouldn’t believe: a Spanish language bookstore, a Russian souvenirs shop, and multiple restaurants that serve nothing but hummus.
My weekend was progressing like a chilled glass of beer on a hot day; I felt free and uninhibited, completely recharged. But then, on my last night, I saw a three-legged dog hobbling down the boulevard, and it just broke my heart. Israelis outside Tel Aviv say that the Tel Avivim live in a bubble. Tel Aviv is the place people go to forget the problems facing the rest of the country. And I definitely forgot my problems while there. I spent my time at the beach, drinking beer and taking in the sun. But that dog reminded me that beach life isn’t real life, and even Tel Aviv has problems. Yaffo, filled mostly with immigrants, has its problems just like any ugly stepbrother of a vibrant city. Drugs, violence, decay. You name it. Go anywhere near the old central bus station and you’ll find an area of the city where even the undesirables find people to look down on. But that’s not a reason not to visit, because Tel Aviv is awesome. Go. Just because there are problems doesn’t mean you’re obligated to seek them out. Go. Relax at the beach. You have your own problems, and there’s no city like Tel Aviv to make you forget them (It’s like Las Vegas without the sickening feeling that you’re being robbed by a clown). Just please, for me, stay away from the Scientology center. Now that’s a real problem.
(Photo: Alexis Rosenblatt)