"The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." --Robert Louis Stevenson.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Tel Aviv Mix
We arrived for our Israel adventure in Tel Aviv, a sophisticated metropolis of skyscrapers and international trade that burgeoned on the Mediterranean Coast from nothing in the span of exactly 100 years. It was in 1909 that a group of six families purchased a plot of sand dunes just north of the ancient town of Yaffo, first calling it the "Housing Project" but shortly renaming it Tel Aviv, Spring Hill.
We had a lovely view from our room overlooking the coast on the 15th floor of the Dan Panorama Hotel, and when we arrived, my brother-in-law, a resident of Jerusalem, was awaiting us. He led us on a walking tour of the neighborhood, which offered some surprises. There was the modern skyline, curved buildings that reflected the steel-gray sea and the shape of the Bauhaus-style buildings that punctuate a town largely built up in the 1930s by German escapees. Intersperced with modernity, however, were hovel-esque, run-down buildings, sidewalk cafes, and everywhere, blue-spray-painted graffiti of a Star of David and the Hebrew words for "The People Israel Lives." A square framed with blossoming orange trees was immaculate. Some street-gutters, however, were strewn with trash.
I saw picturesque peeling-paint shutters and doors, magnets for any photographer. On a stucco wall, someone had pasted up hand-notated sheet music. Streets were narrow but sub-compact cars freely parked half on the sidewalk.
We found the main drag, Diezengoff Street, named after Meir Dizengoff, city founder and mayor from 1909-1937, in whose living space Israeli independence was declared in 1948. His thoroughfare is now a trafficky collection of tall apartment buildings, offices and street-level shops, some in need of sprucing. That's the general impression: The trendy alongside the frayed, the immaculate cheek-to-jowl with the ill-kempt. Almost a passive-aggressive air, industrious urgency brushing against the cavalier. Artsy and brash at times, European with its night-clubby exclusivity and at the same time exotic.
As tourists, we strolled through the open-air marketplace adjacent to the tall hotels, inhaling the rich sweetness of freshly-plucked strawberries, observing avocados stacked points-up and bins of brightly-colored spices. Plenty, variety and possibility greeted our every glance--sugar canes, fat artichokes, bags of oranges, shiny purple eggplants, giant grapefruits, pots of cooked corn, open boxes of just-roasted cashews, stalls featuring twenty kinds of olives.
Our first day was a harbinger of the lavish complexity we discovered of Israel. Stubbornly old-fashioned is honored and accepted as willfully as wildly innovative. Futuristic combined with ancient. A panoply of times, peoples and proposals.
We walked past the Bauhaus buildings the next morning to Independence Hall for a re-creation of that nation-forming day in May, 1948 when the United Nations voted in favor of the creation of Israel. What other nation gained its land, its birth by the concensus of other countries' votes? Israel was an aberration of history, and the crackly radio broadcast that was played for our group in which each nation's affirmation or negation of the creation of the new state provides ongoing proof that its formation grew from a democratic process, not racial aggession or a war waged by a kingdom-seeking tyrant.
The fact that Tel Aviv is new and vibrant doesn't detract from the timelessness the sand dunes evoke. The famous 1909 photo (top) of gathered investors surveying the dunes they'd just purchased emphasizes that the land given biblically by God to the Jews is also land with modern deeds and legal titles, developed and cultivated from scratch by people whose own determination switched dead sand into silicon and vacant swamps into the fertile orchards that now yield kiwis, mangos and persimmons; and 200 vinyards that now produce some of the most esteemed wines in the world.
A stroll in old Jaffa, just a few minutes from our hotel, however, offers less of the present and more history. Jonah's whale spit him up there and winding stone alleys of artist's studios and galleries remind that you're a tourist in a very old foreign land.
But Tel Aviv is but the first stop on our trip, and soon we board our buses heading for the north.