The sidewalk tables at a fashionable cafe, the ubiquitous presence of two-wheeled conveyances (both the people-powered bicycles and the gasoline-fueled scooters) -- these things you find in the above pic are typical elements, along with the warm Mediterranean sea, of the Tel Aviv Minna and I got a taste of in a short visit there this week shortly before Yom Kippur (which starts this evening!).
The Tel Aviv of today is a bustling, diverse and economically booming city. While the newspapers we read there very much reflected the concern that is rising worldwide over declining stock market prices and other elements of the current international financial crisis, one of the major questions the papers addressed was one that would only be asked by people who are still looking optimistically foward to how they will spend their money: how the crisis would affect Israelis' overseas travel plans. It turns out Europe is looking real good because of the strong Shekel, but the United States is still a bargain for Israelis as well.
We used our time here in Tel Aviv to mix work and play, using the cafes as (wireless internet-equipped) workplaces. We walked along about two miles of beachfront one late afternoon and evening to the South Street Seaport-like old port complex where we sat and drank coffee by the sea for a bit and reread (on my phone courtesy of the cafe's wireless internet connection) a New York Times travel section article on Tel Aviv that came out this past summer. It was interesting to read how the writer described things that we had seen now with our own eyes. He starts his article at the "separated beach", which men and woman use on alternate days to accomodate Orthodox concerns about men and woman bathing together. I wasn't expecting the visceral negative reaction I had to seeing the beach itself. I think it was probably because -- and I wasn't expecting this -- the beach is not only separated, but they have built a wall around it so you can't even see it (or the sea) from the beachside pathway.
We also took a daytime walk through some of the once-downscale neighborhoods in the south that are becoming gentrified. This plaza at a renovated school complex in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood was a perfect place for some folks (and their children and their dogs) to pass a peaceful late afternoon:
While we were sitting in one cafe near Neve Tzedek, Minna found a flyer for an organization that is working to advocate for the interests of non-religious couples in Israel. One of the unusual characteristics of Israel is that the Orthodox rabbinate controls matters of family law for Jews. This means it can be very difficult, for example, for some people to marry legally in Israel. This has led to the phenomenon of some Israelis flying to Cyprus just to get married (Israel, as part of the practice of recognizing marriages legally performed outside the country, recognizes these marriages as legal). The organization is called משפחה חדשה/mispahah hadashah, or New Family.
I really enjoyed our time in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem has the spiritual force and focus that attracts me -- and countless others -- there for study and spiritual growth. But the future health of the state of Israel -- something very dear to my heart -- will depend much more on what happens in Tel Aviv than Jerusalem. It is here that Israel strives for its success in the "knowledge economy" that has become the key for success -- especially for a very small country without much in the way of natural resources -- in the world marketplace. Here are high-tech engineers and dealmakers. Here are the artists and media creators who can make export their products (like Betipul) to foreign markets.
More than once since I have been here in Tel Aviv I have felt reminded of the war that started on Yom Kippur exactly 35 years ago and that cost Israel dearly in lives lost before the invaders were beat back. As we enter Yom Kippur -- the holiday that more than any other in Judaism asks us to contemplate our own mortality -- I wish for peace for all. May war once and for all disappear from our earth and may it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that we will all come to see the wisdom of the peaceful ways in which the Holy One has instructed us.
[x-posted to smamitayim]