Everyone warns you about the heat and humidity, and my reply is just as ritual — I work at home, I always dress comfortable, it doesn’t bother me. And what I say is not just a deflection, but true. Also true is that any time you step out to the post office or the supermarket, it’s a steam bath and the faces of the people seem grim and stoical. Now that we’ve built this City by the Sea, a mess of Hebrew signs, palm trees, and honking horns, we can all suffer together.
The other cliches are true, too — that whereas Jerusalemites are soulful, friendly, and personal, people here are more distant and brusque. A Jerusalem landlord will likely take seriously your complaint about a dripping faucet or a jammed shutter; a Tel Aviv landlord will more likely ward you off with a “Come on, do you really think I’m going to deal with that?” attitude. Which is not to say it’s as bad as A. E. Housman’s plaint about moving to London —
In many an eye that measures me
The mortal sickness of a mind
Too unhappy to be kind.
Undone with misery, all they can
Is to hate their fellow man;
And till they drop they needs must still
Look at you and wish you ill.
The falafel vendors here are less likely to wish you a thousand blessings, but there are some like that, too. The basic soulfulness that infuses all of Israel is here too; it’s just more muted.
Tel Aviv came under attack lately in the country’s media because few soldiers from here fell in the recent Lebanon war, suggesting lower motivation and patriotism. A couple of Tel Aviv columnists protested that the city has a large population of pensioners and of university students jointly renting expensive apartments, a lower population of families, hence less fodder for the army. The evidence from my apartment building supports the columnists — no kids or families here, just students and what look like younger adults who haven’t settled down yet.
But it’s also true that Tel Aviv is, or was, the capital of the peace ideology, the place where in the ’90s tens of thousands of people came to ecstatic demonstrations to sing and dance of eternal harmony with the PLO. The lapse of that ideology in the grim, apocalyptic 21st century may also be behind the atmosphere of dogged individualism, the impervious faces in the streets. The City by the Sea is lost now, suspended between vain hopes and the old Zionist toughness it still is not ready to return to. And the famous nightlife draws the tired and bored from their cramped apartments and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
But there comes a day in September when it’s less humid, and walking on the long seaside promenade you see the water is bluer, the waves sound sharper, the air force planes floating along the coast look clearer in the sun. In the weekday afternoon the beaches are far less populated, unlike the throngs of summer; Tel Aviv has managed to rouse itself to return to work and school. What the city may lack in purpose or spirituality it makes up for with the Mediterranean. A few blocks inland, you feel it mainly as damp oppression; but walk a little and the sight of it is always there, spreading and sail-filled. To walk here in an afternoon break from cooped-up work is to feel free and limitless, a whole new world, a new home.
P. David Hornik is a writer and translator now living in Tel Aviv.