In August in Tel Aviv there are at last days when the heat and humidity slightly relent, a breeze blows in from the sea, and you can walk to the supermarket and back — at least in the morning — without breaking into a sweat. There’s a mood both of summer — which began quite some time ago — lengthening into endlessness and of intimations of its inevitable demise.
The seafront area seems to get more crowded than ever, and it would make sense with much of the world on vacation and particularly France. You hear so much French down there in August that I nickname the area “Little France.” Many of them are French Jews who have bought apartments in Tel Aviv and come to live in them only in August. It’s created a scarcity of apartments in the city and driven rentals sky-high, a reality I’m all too familiar with. Yet I’m happy to hear the French down at the seafront — it not only sounds nice but means that we who live here all year round have given French Jews an Israel they can be connected to and visit, and maybe even come to permanently if things get rough enough in France.
At night, though, the seafront becomes so enjoyable that it’s possible — for intervals — to remove even thoughts on that level of “ideology” from my head. Particularly charming are the cafes that spread chairs out on the beach next to red or orange cone-lights, so we can sit under the stars watching the waves and the airplane lights float in — it goes well with a glass of cabernet sauvignon. There’s trouble even in paradise: this summer these cafes have decided it’s most profitable for them to attract a youthful clientele and so they play awful music over their PA systems, brute rhythms and ugly electronic sounds; still, troubled paradise is not a bad place to be.
If someone were to come at these moments and ask me some of the questions that have been plaguing me for almost three decades — How successful is the Zionist experiment? How does a country of mostly secular Jews fit into Jewish history? Is it a break with the past or a continuation of it? — I’d probably answer: I don’t know, I’m having too much fun. That Israel could be this much fun was one of the discoveries of coming here — and there are certain more or less objective reasons for it. The Tel Aviv seafront, for instance, is crowded with hotels and cafes but without strip joints and the like, and it’s not at all unusual to see families with little kids here at midnight and beyond. This blend of nightlife and wholesomeness, the lack of menace, produces a sense of freedom — a sense almost of regained youth, being able to go where you want when you want; and in that there’s a lot of elation.
It can’t last too long, of course, the suspension of “ideology”; a different kind of menace hangs over this place, even more than in the past, and it takes on depths and dimensions beyond spontaneity and fun. With fall will come the High Holidays, the profound optimism of Rosh Hashanah and profound somberness of Yom Kippur, phenomena felt throughout the society from the most pious to the most liberated. I’ll keep reading ever-more-perturbing reports about weapons development and weapons smuggling, and I’ll stick with my questions — What is the meaning of the Jewish state? Does God care about it? Did it make Jews normal or even more different? — even though by now I’ve at least made enough progress to know I’m never going to answer them and they’re with me for good like a counterpoint, a tune.
Still I’ll take what August in Tel Aviv gives me — a sense of largesse (summer will last forever) and a sense of reassurance (it won’t last forever, it won’t always be this humid), a teeming seafront at night, a patter of French and Hebrew, airplane lights floating in, that sense of festive spontaneity I love without knowing what it means.