TEL AVIV — For most visitors the words holy, historical, archeological and ancient are used to describe this land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.
Rarely would one consider describing the life of its people and the pulse of its cities as thriving or bustling. Yet Israel, a country filled with a paradoxical blend of peoples, is also the setting for a paradoxical night life in its three major cities.
According to its denizens, Tel Aviv is a "Mediterranean New York." The heartland of Israel's artistic community keeps its new restaurants, pubs, cafes and nightclubs open until 3 or 4 in the morning on any given weekend night. Thursday night is particularly popular with the theater, opera and music people who live in the district.
Miri Paz, a theater critic for Davar, the Labor newspaper, stays out late most nights of the week to view openings, attend theater parties and stroll on the beach.
"There is usually some new show or exhibit opening to attend," she said. "I feel very safe going anywhere in Tel Aviv by myself at night since there is very little street crime here or in Israel's other major cities."
Three years ago the city built a beige and brown stone walkway along the shore between the major hotel district and Hayarkon Street. Chairs were provided for people to gaze at the sea or watch the parade of people strolling by. The Tayelet (Boardwalk) was an instant hit. At 1 a.m. on a typical Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, one is hard pressed to find an empty seat on it or at an adjacent cafe.
One of those cafes, the Avatichim (Watermelons), is famous throughout the country for the huge wedges of ripe, red watermelon with triangles of feta cheese that it has made into a popular new all-night delicacy. Patrons include some of Israel's most famous actors, actresses, directors, musicians and some well-known underworld figures.
Moving farther south on the Tayelet, one reaches the busy Bograhof, a cafe on the beach. Its tables and chairs extend far onto the sandy shore. There you can drink Mediterranean or American coffee, Guinness Stout or Macabee Biera and listen to live entertainment. Lively singers and musicians keep the audiences interested, while the sea's waves add a varying rhythm to the music.
Lining the opposite side of the road are several open-air cafes such as Galgallim (Wheels) and Balloons, adorned with neon facades and populated by Israel's younger generation.
Dizengoff Street, the shopping and restaurant center a few blocks east of the Tayelet, is packed with Israelis on Friday night and offers the visitor a scene reminiscent of Times Square on New Year's Eve. One gets the impression that most Israelis celebrate the Sabbath by meeting and greeting at the ice cream stores, blintz shops, cinemas and coffeehouses that line this major thoroughfare.
The street is closed to traffic on the Sabbath, but that doesn't stop younger Israelis, out in full force on that night, from dancing, "shmoozing" and enjoying themselves. At 3 or 4 a.m. you can buy hot french fries at the MacDavid's dispensing machine on Frishman Street at Dizengoff.
But Tel Aviv is no longer the only city in Israel that boasts late-night attractions. Haifa, farther north on the Mediterranean, has always been the "working man's city." Many Israelis recite a maxim referring to the three major cities of Israel: "Tel Aviv plays, Jerusalem prays and Haifa pays." It appears that Haifa is paying for, and getting, a good time.
A visitor to this triple-terraced city can choose from many dining places. Humpty Dumpty, a fast-food cafe near the new Dan Panorama Hotel, serves ice cream, blintzes and coffee. The Rondo at the Dan Carmel serves elegant Middle Eastern and continental entrees in an exquisite setting that offers a panoramic view of Haifa to each diner.
HaSefinah (the Boat) is a 500-seat restaurant/disco/cafe constructed from the hull of a boat. Moshe Sagiv, the manager, says that HaSefinah was the result of three men's holdings and dreams: "One had a boat, one could build an island and one could manage a restaurant."
Dine, Dance and Dream
They built their small island in the waters of Bat Galim (Daughter of the Waves) on the Mediterranean. Diners enjoy simple salads or drinks while listening to the waves lap against the boat, or they may enter the vessel and join in the disco dancing.
One can get to HaSefinah by taking the newest tourist attraction in Haifa, the Swiss-designed cable-car system on Mt. Carmel. Riding from the heights of the mount near the Carmelite Nunnery over Elijah's Cave, the visitor gets a magnificent view of the city and the sea. The Piano Bar, in the base of the cable-car system, offers the over-35 crowd a chance to listen to live music while sipping sherry or wine.