Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Big City, Jewish City

In 1997-8 I spent 10 months in Israel with a Jewish youth movement. The first five months were based in Jerusalem and consisted mainly of a custom-designed education programme. The purpose of the programme was essentially to strengthen the participants' (Reform, Zionist) Jewish identity and train them to become even better leaders in the movement.

I remember one seminar they ran called 'Big City, Jewish City'. We were driven from our home in Jerusalem to spend a full day in Tel Aviv, where we visited sites (Independence Hall, where Ben Gurion officially declared the State of Israel; the ultra-trendy Sheinkin Street; an early neighbourhood; one of the largest synagogues in the city; the street-side food and clothes market) and were to consider what made a city Jewish. Tel Aviv is obviously not yeshiva-bochering, historically saturated, Shabbes-stalling Jerusalem. It's just a big city in the Jewish state. This I knew back then. It's just a truth, factually. But it was only this Saturday night that I really felt it.

Immediately after Shabbat went out, Alex, Randy, Kerry and I travelled to Tel Aviv and celebrated Purim 24 hours earlier than everyone in Jerusalem. At first I had my doubts about how the night might turn out. Someone at the yeshiva had mentioned parties on the beach, but in the taxi from the Tel Aviv bus station to the Basel hotel (where, I'm told, there is a decent heart hospital on the second floor) the streets looked reasonably quiet. I reckoned the few people in Purim costume were probably tourists. The social dynamic was weird. We were all over-excited and clamouring for attention. We had grand, vague plans to go to unspecified clubs. But none of us knew the city that well.

Last minute I called my 20-year old cousin who lives in Tel Aviv. Dana was really happy to hear I was around. She was going out to meet a few friends herself. We should just meet her at a bar in Dizengoff Square.

We had a superb night. Dana was a big hit. Her two friends, Yossi and Amir, were fun, good people. She took us round one of the major bar areas and pointed out all the best places. She said of Jerusalem: "I spent a year there with the army and I hate that city." Of Tel Aviv: "Things have been hard the last three years. We've been at war, but the worse the situation gets the better this city parties and the more creative its people seem to become."

The bar we drank in put most of the London places I know to shame. The architecture was gorgeous, with thin tables hanging from the ceiling by iron cables. The crowd was casual and stylish. The music was funky and up-beat. There was hip-hop to whet Alex's appetite.

It hit me that Tel Aviv is not just a normal city. It's positively cosmopolitan, a sophisticated, worldy place. Why did this come as a shock? Maybe I didn't know the city before or maybe it really has come on in the last few years. Or maybe it was the specific experience of going from the capital's rarefied air to this liberated metropolis. As we went on to a cool, inexpensive hip-hop club I felt like I was breathing again ... but hadn't even realised I'd been having trouble before. Much like coming down from Oxford to London for the weekend: you have to get out to realise it's what you need.

This is not a 'Jerusalem bad / Tel Aviv good' polemic. I'm more conflicted than that. I don't want to live an entirely secular life any more than I do an entirely religious one. In Tel Aviv the biggest night to go out is Friday. Amir and Yossi were shocked when Randy showed them he was wearing tzitzit, the fringes religious Jews have at the corner of their shirt to remind them of their obligation to God. It's good that Randy challenged their view of who can be religious. A view that forms part of that very dichotomy that pulls me in two directions, encapsulated in Israel's foremost two cities, an hour away from each other but more different than I could imagine.


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