A sensory account of Israel’s Soul Center tells the tale of a place where the past and future are evident in the present day.
By Monica Haim
In human beings, the solar plexus is essentially one’s center, the pit in the stomach to where each of our inhales travels, and the mysterious hub where all of our emotions are stored. Our center is our core; it is wherewe feel,where we ground, and where we turn when we need information about ourselves. This deep, internal spot is essentially who we are. That said, the solar plexus of Israel is the city of Tel Aviv, a beachside playground rooted in history, spirituality, and multiculturalism, ruled by the sun and by the reliable ebb and flow of theMediterranean Sea. But Tel Aviv is also the heartbeat, the breath, the soul, and the very sensual personality of this dynamic and textured little country, a place where the ancient secrets from every corner of Arabia converge with a unique approach to urban modernity, and together encounter a mystical expanse of both desert and beach. Like the most interesting characters one ever comes across, Tel Aviv is a robust hybrid of attitudes, all mingling and melting into one another under a hot, ferocious sun. Imagine a city where you can at once encounter the cultures of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia, and beyond, a mélange of flavors and traditions that all come alive every day on the shores of its beaches, in the surrounding desert dunes, and in the labyrinthine alleyways of the city markets.
There is an ongoing, energetic bustle on theweekday streets, a constant buzz of activity alongside the perpetual sound of grizzled and throaty-voiced men arguing over just about everything. These men, the Elders of the city, sit with ashy cigarettes dangling precariously from their lips, the lines in their faces deeply etched with the not-so-distant memories of war, triumph, fortitude and loss. They sit waiting for the sediments of strong Turkish coffee to settle to the bottom of their tiny glasses as they watch their bygone city of ritual and tradition each day transform herself into a flashy, forward-looking phenomenon of theMiddle East.
Along the grand and broad tree-lined boulevards, children alsowatch as street performers explore new antics, the theatrics giving a cheerful smile to the whole aura of the street. Young parents stroll with new babies and panting dogs, everyone stimulated by the casual sense of joy that always comes with a group jaunt downRothschildAvenue, an avenue that stands for the people’s freedomto be happy, or to be free at all. Down the boulevard you might find punk rockers, hip fashionistas and haggard hippies, art school sketchers andmusicmakers—and everything in between. You’ll likely take in themasculine aromas of strong cologne and fresh coffee brewing, and you’ll behold art projects, social experiments, protests and parties, each one in its own glory and in full effect. Like a great artery flowing with life and culture, the boulevard pumps the city with diversity, feeding all of its different parts with new oxygen and new life.
Ifwe accept TelAviv as the belly of the country, then eating in TelAviv is part of understanding her secrets, as every turn of every black-dusted corner takes you toward yet another unexpected gastronomical gem, somemorsel of flavorwith an elaboratemyth of yore associatedwith its origin. Though yourmindwants to categorize the pungent amalgam that it knows the nose smells, perhaps ending up with “Israeli food” stamped somewhere in the thought process, a closer look shows a blend of somany varieties ofArabic and European culinary traditions enmeshed together onto one giant, olive oil-laden frying pan—a hodgepodge of flavors and spices that can knowno label or categorization. It is a country where mealtimes are sanctified, andmenus are as personally curated and crafted as each person’s individual prayers. This is a diverse group of eaterswho understand that a kitchen is nothingwithout an abundance of fresh herbs; they are seasoned eaters who have always consumed the most amazing selection ofwhite cheeses and yogurts fromnearby farms; and savvy, resourceful eaterswho have known how to make a perfect white rice since they were twelve years old.
Tel Aviv, being the rural center, is where all of the palates from the rest of the country and the neighboring Arabic countries all meet and intermingle, finding their expression on the tables of family tabletops, and in the fanciest of restaurant kitchens alike. It is a place where you can get lost in the spice market scouring the kiosks of elderly bearded Bedouins—and later find yourself enjoying said spices at some of the hippest chef restaurants in town. The city’s young and old both reap the benefits of living in such close proximity to an institution such as the Carmel Shuk, a roaring, thunderous little market that sells, among other things: fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, nuts, meats and cheeses, fish, olives, herbs, pastries, hummus, juices and trinkets and wares of every variety, imaginable and unimaginable. On Levinsky Street, the aptly named Shuk Levinsky is a side street littered with tiny kiosks boasting exotic spices and other eclectic goods and fare. Obscurities such as carob syrup, dried strawberries and rose petal tea are just a sampling of the daily sensory buffet forever on display on Levinsky Street.
Tel Aviv, perhaps the eclectic and funky little sister of Jerusalem, is a metropolitan oasiswhere everyday life is underscored by a roots culture of homegrown vineyards, olive oil presses, and all varieties of the freshest of produce in abundance; a place where the aroma of cumin and fried onions breaks the stillness of each dawn, and where the chick pea is nothing less than sacred. It is a place where you can in one afternoon understand the fundamental aesthetic of the legendary German Bauhaus movement and simultaneously embark on a regional and culinary study of humus in all of its glorious manifestations. The divinemagic of TelAviv, this place ofmany paradoxes, is its intrinsic duality—a city that is at once sacred and savage, old and new, modern and rustic, dirty and sexy, tranquil as the waves that lap its shore, but also always a bit on edge. Behold Tel Aviv: truly vivid every time.
5 MUST-SEE LOCALES TO TAKE IN THE LOCAL SIGHTS
An elegant boulevard flanked by trees, coffee shops and restaurants, where all generations can meet for an afternoon of pure leisure.
A funky little street lined with cafés and boutiques, where you can sip freshsqueezed lemonade from a nearby kiosk while perusing hip Israeli fashions.
CARMEL SHUK This market is a Tel Aviv staple, a bustling maze where you can do all of your fresh-fare shopping and witness the heart of Tel Aviv in its fullest effect.
This beachfront promenade is where all the spring and summertime action thrives, replete with joggers, cyclers, strollers and cafés and restaurants that are all perfect for sunset drinks.
This is the neighborhood for forward-thinking style, where the work of Israel’s rising stars of fashion are on display in various shops throughout the area.