We left Jerusalem and headed for Tel Aviv. Though it was relatively late at night as we drove through the centre of the city, it was immediately clear that Tel Aviv is much more than just a different city in Israel. This is a different planet, an alternate universe.
Our friends in Jerusalem had told us to expect Tel Aviv to be very different from Jerusalem. They told us that each time they visited the city was like leaving Israel and going to another country.
But this is Israel. The other Israel.
Jerusalem is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. To walk in the Old City is to tread on thousands of years of human history. It is a beautiful, fascinating (and safe) place, but it feels heavy there; tight and tinged always with a bit of tension.
Little more than a century ago, Tel Aviv was literally nothing. Vast, rolling dunes of sand that melted into the Mediterranean just outside the city of walls of Jaffa. And it had been that way for millennia. Jaffa was the city that mattered. Even forty years after Jews had started to build a new neighbourhood just outside of Jaffa in the 1880s, Tel Aviv looked like a desert settlement lying next to Jaffa’s green expanse of citrus groves.
A 1918 aerial photo of Jaffa (the green part on the right) and the first developments of Tel Aviv
(in the dunes on the left). This map hangs on the wall of Tel Aviv’s Gutman Museum.
Jaffa is the most important city you have likely never heard of
Jaffa is a ten-minute walk from the beaches of Tel Aviv. Old doesn’t begin to describe it. Humans have lived here since 7500 BC. That’s about seven thousand years before the first texts of the Bible began to be composed.
Countless numbers of ancient peoples have made Jaffa their home: Canaanites, Philistines, and Egyptians; Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians and Phoenicians; Arabs, Ottoman Turks, and Jews. People settled and built sophisticated cities here that were razed and rebuilt numerous times as empires have fought over this location through thousands of years.
Today Jaffa (known in Hebrew as Yafo), is basically a large tourist attraction. Once populated almost entirely by Palestinian Arabs, after the 1948 war, Jaffa’s alleys are renovated, its buildings are home to artists’ studios and cafes. Parts of the original city (as it stood in Ottoman times) are still there, including the old Customs House, the port, a few original homes, St. Peter’s Church, and Al-Bahr or The Sea Mosque.
We met our friend Issy 11 years ago in Thailand. Now a professional guide in Israel, he graciously showed us around Jaffa.
The front door of the the house of Simon the Tanner. In Hebrew and Arabic,
the sign says that entry is restricted to members of the Zakarian family.
Among the oldest homes is the house of Simon the Tanner. According to the New Testament, while Saint Peter was living in the house of a local tanner named Simon, he had a vision. Peter interpreted the vision as an instruction from God to convert non-Jews to the message of Jesus. This marks the formal split of Christianity from Judaism, and marks Saint Peter as the first Pope. It was also here that Peter performed a miracle, resurrecting Tabitha from death.
Now a part of Tel Aviv, Jaffa is surrounded by the spectacular growth of its modern neighbour.
Compared to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is the other side of the galaxy.
Tel Aviv is light, hip and young. There are more vegans here per capita than anywhere else in the world. Its downtown streets overflow with young people crowding thousands of sidewalk cafes and bars.
Like many desirable places nowadays, it is experiencing the unpleasant effects of real estate development and speculation. But it is among the world’s friendliest cities for LGBTQ people. It feels diverse, tolerant, and welcoming of change and the future.
A tel is a heap of civilization, layers upon layers of human habitation and history. Aviv is a spring. Tel Aviv is something new grounded in a long history; it’s forward-looking, mindful of a rich and complex past. A phoenix.
As you walk around, at first, you might be in West Palm Beach or Southern California – Santa Monica, Venice or Long Beach. Except that Tel Aviv is also cultured and intelligent. It is Silicon Wadi, the high tech centre the Middle East.
The city’s ocean front boardwalk and beaches are amazing. We are not beach people. We don’t like laying out in the sun on a sandy beach. I have seen several of the world’s most beautiful beaches, however. Hawaii, Thailand’s small island oases, Vietnam’s beaches along the South China Sea, even Vancouver’s Kitsalano Beach. They are all beautiful. If baking yourself on a beach is your thing, you owe it to yourself to visit Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv’s spectacular beach. This is as rocky as it gets and was taken in an area where swimming is not allowed.
Mile upon mile of the finest sand beaches along the Mediterranean coastline. The sand isn’t that fine, dry and scratchy stuff that gets between your toes and finds it’s way into your pants. This is moist, cool talcum powder. When you’re ready to put shoes back on and leave, you wipe your feet clean and walk away. The water at 7:00 am was almost 29° C. This is the first place I could imagine taking an ocean dip. It’s spectacular.
Its hard to believe when you see the place, but little more than a century ago, Tel Aviv was literally nothing. Vast, rolling dunes of sand that melted into the Mediterranean. And it had been that way for millennia. Even forty years after Jews from neighbouring Jaffa had started to build a new neighbourhood in the 1880s, Tel Aviv looked like a desert settlement lying next to Jaffa’s green expanse of citrus groves. Officially Tel Aviv was founded as a city in 1909.
By the 1930s, Tel Aviv had attracted some of the world’s best architects. They were steeped in the modernist aesthetic of international Bauhaus style. Given an almost wholly blank slate, these women and men made the most of it and designed a meticulously planned city.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tel Aviv’s wide beautiful boulevards, modernist traffic circles, and thousands of public and private International and Bauhaus designs represent one of the world’s most stunning collection of modernist architecture.
The city was designed to create a comfortable environment in the age before air conditioning. Buildings were painted white to reflect away heat from the almost perpetual sunshine. They were sited with ample space between buildings to allow the breeze coming off the Mediterranean to flow through the city. Apartment blocks incorporated open verandas and window shutters into their design.
Many of Tel Aviv’s beautiful Bauhaus buildings remain in abandoned condition, awaiting revitalization.
Over the years, due to strict rent controls in the city, many landlords allowed buildings to fall into disrepair. The rent controls were put in place to protect the Jewish immigrants who moved to Tel Aviv from Europe and other parts of the world. While it facilitated the overall dilapidation of most of these buildings in the city, it also had a positive perverse effect: It protected them from development. While most cities around the world destroyed their architectural heritage in the 1970s and 1980s, Bauhaus Tel Aviv survived. Today, recognizing the value of the city’s heritage, many people and organizations, public and private, are renovating these buildings.
Ruth’s family, their Bauhaus home and the story of Tel Aviv
Our time in Tel Aviv was spent staying at the home of a Vipassana meditator named Ruth. Ruth’s family story is really the story of Tel Aviv itself, including the Bauhaus architecture.
In 1935, Ruth’s great grandfather sent his daughter – Ruth’s grandmother – by train from Warsaw to Constantinople. From there, she boarded a ship to Haifa and then made her way to Tel Aviv. He had sent her on a family mission: to purchase some property; an apartment that would generate some income and be an investment in the future. They were a relatively well-to-do family in Warsaw. But her great-grandfather could sense the dark menace that was coming and he wished to plan a way out. Her grandmother purchased a newly-built apartment building in the centre of Tel Aviv, one of the many designed and built by architects in the Bauhaus style. After making all the arrangements and finalizing the purchase, Ruth’s grandmother returned to Poland. The family made plans to leave.
When they arrived at the port of Haifa, just north of Tel Aviv, by ship in 1939, the Germans were invading Poland from the west, the Soviet Union invaded it from the East. The Poland ceased to exist and the Holocaust started in earnest. Not many survived apart from Ruth’s immediate family. Her aunts and uncles and their families who decided to stay in Poland were not heard from again after 1941. They were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps.
Ruth has meticulously documented her family’s history in Tel Aviv. She is well known for owning and maintaining a great example of Bauhaus architecture in the city. Tel Aviv is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding collection of Bauhaus architecture. Ruth’s family history and the building’s relationship to Tel Aviv’s history has been featured in international television programmes. Tour guides bring tourists to see the building and to see the photo installation she has in the stairwell of the building. The photographs tell the story of her family and the building and the early years of the city. Most of the photographs were taken by her father, a dentist who loved photography.
Ruth lives in the house built atop the building that she owns. It’s one of the most incredible apartments we’ve ever seen. She often hosts visiting teachers that come to conduct 10-day Vipassana courses in Israel. We were lucky we got to stay with her. We spent many hours chatting about her family and their incredible story. She is an accomplished cook. And she loves art and film. Her house deserves to be in Architectural Digest, and she has an immense collection of beautiful art.
A hallway viewed standing in the kitchen. To the right, the hallway leads to the entry and the elevator.
Wandering in the desert…just like Jesus.
From Tel Aviv, we also took a day to explore the desert and the lowest place on earth with friends, Racheli and her son Ran. They gave us an incredible tour. We started in the Judean desert outside of Jerusalem, stopping for early breakfast tea.
We watched the Bedouins herding sheep. We drove along the coast of the Dead Sea and visited the ancient ruins of Masada. On our way back, we stopped at En Gedi, the green oasis of seven cascading waterfalls that is now a National Park.
It was really hot. We wandered in the desert, just like Jesus. He walked forty days out there, facing his demons, fighting off temptation, and emerged with deep and clear insight. We were driven around in an air-conditioned car. The only demon we faced was not being able to find lunch around the Dead Sea. After a few hours, we gave up and went home to veggie burgers and a shower.
Finally, our time in this fascinating region came to an end. One could be here a hundred years and still not discover or understand everything. We hope very much to be able to return someday. I would come back just for some of Ruth’s cheesecake.
With help from Israeli friends we got to Ben Gurion Airport and through all the security checks without any trouble. We boarded a midnight flight to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.
We’ve been here now for a week. I have long been in love with one Armenian. Now I have to say I am in love with Armenia, too. We’re here because Karen wished very much to explore her heritage, and so far it has been a very enlightening experience.
Karen will have much more to say soon.