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Destination: Tel Aviv

Israel's Fun City

The urban hub, and neighboring Jaffa, make enjoyment their focus--even on the Sabbath

April 19, 1998|KIM ZETTER | Zetter, a journalist based in Oakland, worked in Israel and returns annually

TEL AVIV, Israel — It was Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv. The Carmel Market was teeming with people shopping for Shabbat (the Sabbath), and I was stuck in the middle of it all, up to my ankles in chicken guts.

It was my fault. I heard the call of "Yalla! Yalla!" behind me but didn't turn quickly enough to see the boy bearing down with a heavy, three-wheeled cart loaded with discarded chicken parts. Yaron, my Israeli friend, moved to the right. I moved left. So did the chicken parts.

After the fishmongers and butchers who had gathered to gawk enjoyed their laugh at my expense, one of them sent a boy over with a hose. As he rinsed my feet, I was actually grateful for the accident that brought this cooling break from the sultry hothouse that is Tel Aviv in summer.

The Carmel Market is a shuk, a maze of shops and vendors at the intersection of Tel Aviv's crumbling old Yemenite Quarter and modish bohemian boulevards. Shabbat is the day God rested after six days of creating, and Jewish law mandates it as a day when no work may be done. In a few hours, a chorus of metal doors clanging down over the market stalls would signal Shabbat's approach. By 6 o'clock the buses would stop and the sidewalks would empty as the population retreated for a nap before the obligatory Friday-night family dinner.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 26, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Tel Aviv flights--Due to an apparent error in a computer airline reservation system program, incorrect information was given about El Al Israel Airlines flights to Tel Aviv ("Israel's Fun City," April 19). The airline flies there three times a week from LAX.

Yaron and I hurried to buy the food we would need through the weekend. We were looking forward to the evening--not to Shabbat eve but to Friday night in Israel's secular city.

*

On April 30, Israel will celebrate its 50th anniversary. (Independence was declared on May 14, 1948, on the Western calendar; the anniversary day varies on the Hebrew calendar.) More visitors than usual are expected to descend on the country for special events throughout the year, but few will consider Tel Aviv for more than a seaside break from Jerusalem. They'll be missing out. In the three years I lived and worked in Israel, the revered ancient capital city never attracted me the way gritty, lively Tel Aviv could.

To the uninitiated, Tel Aviv appears unsightly and chaotic. Stucco apartment facades are sullied from smog and laundry hangs from balconies. Rooftops are cluttered with water heaters and rusting solar panels. Architecture mixes Middle East Orientalism with Bauhaus functionalism.

There is little form to the city's design. Tel Aviv was originally supposed to be a small garden town, but bad planning failed to anticipate its rapid growth. Early maps called for streets to be laid out in the shape of a menorah (Jewish candelabra), but workers diverted Ben Gurion Boulevard (the center candlestick) to pass their favorite cafe instead.

Tel Aviv has always had a roguish mentality. It was in the early beachfront cafes that activists conspired to defy the British Mandate and smuggle European refugees ashore after World War II; it was here that David Ben Gurion declared statehood and established a provisional government. And it was here that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated after speaking at a peace rally in 1995.

Tel Aviv dates back only to 1906, when Jews living in nearby Jaffa decided to push northward and set up tents on the barren sand dunes. Thus, within the context of the Holy Land, it has no history. But in the context of the modern state, which to most Israelis is more important, it's the point from which everything else emanates. This is where the trends are set that the rest of the country follows; where the Hebrew dailies are published and the political parties are based and the national theater (Habimah) and modern dance companies (Batsheva and Inbal) are housed.

There are no stunning views here as in Jerusalem, no azure waters as in Eilat and little in the way of biblical landmarks. Yet once you become accustomed to its urban starkness, Tel Aviv's energy stands out.

Israel is home to immigrants from 92 ethnicities, almost all of whom can be seen mingling in the kettle that is the Carmel Market on Friday afternoons.

The stalls are piled high with pyramids of robust fruits and vegetables: ruby tomatoes and Jaffa oranges; plump melons and grapes; figs, pomegranates and dates. Mounds of pickled olives--green, red and black--gleam in the mid-day sun. Aromatic spices and seeds bulge from burlap sacks. Counters are stacked with flat breads--Persian, Yemen, Syrian--and pita so fresh it steams in the plastic shopping bag.

There is noise and chaos as crates are hauled from one end of the shuk to the other. Half-hourly news reports call out from boomboxes. Everyone knows everyone else, and greetings and political jokes are traded with ease. Above the tinny strains of piped-in Middle Eastern music, the shuk barkers engage in a rhythmic patter: "Three shekels, three shekels, one kilo for three." "Come see, come see, the pita Iraqi," they sing in spirited competition.

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