A Tale Of Two Cities Is It True What They Say…"Jerusalem Prays While Tel Aviv Plays?"
By Simon Afriat
They're only a forty-five minute drive apart. Yet they're different as night and day...oil and water...matzah and croissant. One city is 3,000 feet high, clinging to the slopes of a cluster of mountains and valleys…the other is flat, sweeping along one of the most magnificent beaches in the entire Mediterranean.
Jerusalem was a grand metropolis three thousand years ago; Tel Aviv was founded only in 1909. Jerusalem is constructed of age-old limestone whose patina is transformed from cream to gold to pink as the sun makes its daily circle. Tel Aviv is white and concrete, glass and steel, the home of more 1930s Brauhaus architecture than any city on earth. Jerusalem has a mountain climate, with crisp, dry air, warm days and cool nights, while Tel Aviv is hot, humid, torrid and sultry. Jerusalem is holy to three religions, a beacon of passion and faith for billions of people around the world, while Tel Aviv is, like New York, NewYork, the city that never sleeps, Israel's vortex of tumult, business, clamor, glamour, grime and style.
There are Jerusalemites who shudder at the thought of journeying down to the heat, commotion, glitz and yuppiedom of Tel Aviv. And there are Tel Avivians who consider Jerusalem so overwhelmingly sacred and stuffy that they prefer to stay down by the deep blue sea. Both have a point of view. Yet, ultimately, both have it all wrong. Because Tel Aviv has its own ancientness, and Jerusalem has its own crush and bustle and razzmatazz. So for tourists to avoid one city in favor of the other means a sadly blinkered encounter with one of the most engaging, inspiring and intriguing countries in the world.
Undeniably, Jerusalem is Israel's Washington, D.C., while Tel Aviv is its New York City. Tel Aviv is Israel's business and financial center, impatient, growling, grimacing, buckchasing, irreverent, chic, glitzy. Yet it's a city that also exudes a mittel-European sense of calm, order and culture; where the vibrancy, quaintness, squalor and flowers of the Mediterranean merge with an all-American aura of malls, Cadillacs and basketball. And then there is that extraordinary beach…miles and miles of velveteen sand, miraculously raked, rinsed and delittered by night, lined by day with ranks of white chaise-lounges, flapping umbrellas, aerobic octogenarians and supermodel wannabees. It's a city where Versace, Polo and Prada nestle next to wagons piled high with pistachios…where Fendi meets falafal…where Mozart and Rembrandt meet Madonna and Warhol…a city where Hasidim shop for melons elbow to elbow with disco bunnies. It's the city that Theodor Herzl, Zionism's founder, dreamed - an idiosyncratic hodgepodge where Jews, safe and free to be themselves, could ultimately prove that they're just like everyone else.
Yet Tel Aviv is monumentally ancient too. Just blocks from the boulevards and skyscrapers, the Jaffa neighborhood harks back to the time before Abraham arrived in the Promised Land. Picturesquely founded after the flood by Noah's son, Japheth, Jaffa wrenches the hi-tech generation back a millennium to cobbled lanes, squawking flea-markets, pitas rising in brick ovens, steaming cauldrons of couscous, weathered men mending fishing nets - altogether the simple life replicated in just about every port in the Mediterranean. St. Peter's Church recalls the New Testatment, just as Jaffa's archaeological park reveals the presence of the Canaanites, Phoenicians and Philistines. Nearby is Neve Tzedek, the new city's oldest neighborhood, where downtrodden art nouveau hovels are being recast as tiny, art nouveau palaces. Even in central Tel Aviv, the modern curves of the Great Synagogue recall images of an art-deco children's book, not to mention the faith that was born in this very land four thousand years ago.
Jerusalem's other worldliness is apparent even before you arrive. As the highway snakes its way from the coastal plain up through the Judean Hills, glimpses of Jerusalem - beige colored swaths of houses coated across the hilltops - appear on the horizon, then disappear at the next hairpin turn. It is as if one is being tantalized by seeing the city, then having it snatched away again. After the last careening turn, the traveler is suddenly in Jerusalem. The first impression is the sameness of the stone with which everything is built. It's an elegant and comforting sameness, not for a moment monochromatic. The stone is so beautiful, and provides so ideal a backdrop for contemplating the city's significance that, in 1920, one of the first decrees of the new British regime was to insist that all Jerusalem construction be of the local stone. History was to prove the law so incontrovertibly wise that it is retained to this day by the State of Israel.
When one conjures up images of Jerusalem, the first scenario is, of course, the exotic Old City whose 16th century walls - built atop layers of earlier walls - enclose the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Old City's lanes are lined with hundreds of busy stores and stalls and the bazaars retain an uproar, aroma and fervor largely unchanged since the days of Solomon or Jesus. The holy places shine - physically and spiritually - as do the holy sites that are not within the walled city …the Garden of Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, Mount Zion, the Garden Tomb.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Old City was all there was of Jerusalem. The "new" city of Jerusalem, started in the 1860's, now sprawls across an area over twenty times that of the old town. Yet parts of "modern" Jerusalem are reminiscent of much earlier eras. Like Mishkenot Shaanaim, the 140 year old row houses with the romantic name of "The Dwelling Place of the Tranquil" that stand in the shadow of an old, never-ever-been-used windmill. Then there are the 120 year old Nahla'ot and Mea Shearim quarters, with their tiny, two story balconied stone houses and enclosed courtyards. There's a wonderful sleepiness, even an ancientness, in these neighborhoods of flapping laundry lines, purposeful housewives and fragrant aromas of Friday cooking for the Sabbath. Yet just blocks from their cobbled courtyards the twentieth-first century is alive and well in traffic clogged streets, video stores, ATM machines and fast food outlets.
Visitors expect - no, they yearn for, Jerusalem to be all holiness and hilltop scenes from an illustrated bible. And parts of it are indeed just that. But they forget that Jerusalem is not merely holy, but also the capital of a modern state that is home to close to three quarters of a million people. They overlook the fact that while many in Jerusalem are immersed permanently in the Talmud, Bible or Koran, most Jerusalemites lead lives as diverse and contemporary as people in Jacksonville and Johannesburg. And the modernity of Jerusalem is often accomplished with such class and panache that there's no jarring of new against old. Take that wonderful old stone building nestled beneath Mount Zion on the slopes of the Valley of Hinnom. What is it?
Seminary…monastery…museum of medieval icons? No, it's the cinematheque, Jerusalem's theatre for art and foreign language movies. And what's that flower-filled terrace thrusting from its side? A delightful restaurant, where visitors eat foccacia soaked in Galilee olive oil and dusted with the bible's hyssop spice mixture, as they gaze at a panorama reaching through the desert down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on the face of the earth. After lunch, take an afternoon stroll on leafy Emek Refaim Street,where cafes and caf� people cascade on to the sidewalks.
Later, shop in one of a hundred boutiques and dine in one of twenty restaurants in downtown Nahlat Shiva, its historic lanes, nooks and crannies now home to a world of baby boom generation chic. Much later, take in the pubs and clubs of the old Russian Compound where tiny, turn of the century, one story houses are now a parade of pubs and clubs, where Jerusalem comes to carouse, drink and dance. And if you're still not sleepy at 3 AM, venture to the suburb of Talpiot where cavernous factory floors have been converted into deafening discos.
Yes, superficially, the two cities - Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - are startling different. One beachy, one mountainous. One hedonistic, one holy. One fast, one slow. One leaping forward to the 21st century, the other often yearning to lurch back to the restraint of 21 centuries earlier. Yet the contrasts do blur…and that is the eventual charm of each. And so travelers inevitably come to understand that there's definitely more than a smudge of truth in the axiom that "Jerusalem prays while Tel Aviv plays." And equally, inevitably, that there are dozens of ways it can be just the other way around.
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