In Tel Aviv: Tastes of Israel's Happening City
    
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller
   
My eyes are welling up with tears. No other national anthem can elicit emotion like the Hatikvah! The music track is abruptly interrupted by a sharp clunk as our plane touches down at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. The anthem brings back old memories. I am returning to my homeland for the second time since immigrating to America in 1951. I look at my husband as he squeezes my hand. Should I kiss the ground again after we land, I ponder. No, I decide. I already did that in 1969, two years after the six-day war that liberated Jerusalem. That trip was consumed by visits with Aunt Shulamit and Uncle Tsvi, ardent Zionists who left Lithuania just before the Nazis invaded and our next door neighbors when we lived in Netanya, as well as assorted cousins and family friends. With most of our time commandeered by relatives, our exploration of the country was very limited. This time, we decided, we are going to simply be anonymous tourists, ready to discover the new Israel that has flourished since the war.

It's just past midnight as we make our way to passport control. Israel operates the most comprehensive and efficient entry operation in the world. "I see you were born in Jerusalem in 1941. A Sabra, eh," says the agent. "Have you ever served in our army?" he queries. "No, I am an American citizen," I reply. "Madame, you were born an Israeli and you are still an Israeli," he replies as he takes my passport into an inner office. Fifteen minutes later, he reemerges. "OK, your passport is stamped and you may pass through," he proclaims officiously. "I wonder why this didn't happen in 1969," I mutter to my husband. "It's a different era now," he assures me.
    



The Melody is a well-appointed boutique hotel located off Hayarkon Street near the beach.

   
Our taxi speeds toward north Tel Aviv in the black of night. We are holding reservations at the Melody off Hayarkon Street near the beach, a boutique property that came highly recommended. Just steps from the Hilton, it features a rooftop lounge with sweeping views of the sea, comfortable rooms and an impressive breakfast buffet. The day is all ours to relax and explore since our traveling companion, Elinor, will not be arriving from London until evening. We stretch out on our beds for some restorative shuteye. But sleep eludes me. After all, Tel Aviv is out there waiting for us.

"Is there a nearby falafel stand you can highly recommend?" I ask Noam, the efficient, curly-haired youth behind the desk. "Of course, in Israel there is always falafel within easy reach. Go up a couple of streets north to Nordau Boulevard. There is a kiosk in the middle of the street at Ben Yehuda that makes the freshest falafel imaginable," he proclaims with authority. "Sounds great," says my husband. The kiosk is a popular place surrounded by customers. Its well-practiced owner-attendant dips into a mash of delicately seasoned chickpeas and drops tablespoon-sized balls into a pot of bubbling oil. In just minutes these crispy mounds of deliciousness are slipped into freshly baked pita and we select from a wide array of condiments and veggies to pile on top. He slathers the pitas with house made tahini and hands them over on paper plates. "Amazing," says my husband. "The best I have ever had." Let's falafel our way through this entire trip," he suggests. I couldn't agree more. Israel's ubiquitous street food is the healthiest and most satisfying meal in the world. I watch a lineup of other customers awaiting their turn, soon devouring each morsel with the same gustatory delight that we just experienced. "Oh wow," I sigh. "It's so good to be home again!"
   



At a popular kiosk on Nordau and Ben Yehuda, a falafel-filled pita is Israel's culinary classic.

   
Back at the hotel, I ask Ariel to make suggestions for a nice walk toward the center of Tel Aviv. A young Israeli woman overhears me and comes forward. "Hello, I have taken many walks here. My name is Nurit and I would love to show you some of my favorite spots," she offers. Apparently, Nurit is a frequent hotel guest from Haifa who comes to Tel Aviv regularly on business and also to unwind. "It would be a pleasure and thank you," my husband replies. We head south on Hayarkon Street which runs parallel to the coastline. "Tel Aviv is known as the city that never sleeps," Nurit explains. "Today it is a crowded place filled with high-rise buildings, trendy clubs, museums and high tech companies, but the city was first built on the sands of the Mediterranean in 1909 by a group of settlers who chose a spot north of ancient and crowded Jaffa. In 1950 Jaffa was annexed to Tel Aviv and the city's total area expanded to 42 square miles." "I'm guessing that Tel Aviv is what Jerusalem is not," I observe. "For sure," says Nurit. "It is a happening, liberal place, with refined cuisine, bars and night clubs that never stop, and a self-assured, youthful population that believes anything is possible."

We walk past a small bakery displaying an array of French pastries, including miniature chocolate croissants that exude a seductive aroma. "You absolutely have to sample them," Nurit suggests. "Oh, wow!" I sigh as I wipe the last crumb off my face. "We have several dozen bakeries in Tel Aviv," Nurit notes. Each one reflects the baking traditions of its owner family-from German and Hungarian to Iraqi, Yemenite and Moroccan. The abundance of pastries is in dramatic contrast with my memory the newly-forged Israel of 1948, when I waited with my mother in a long line to buy bread at a depleted Netanya bakery only to have the very last remaining loaf sold to the customer ahead of us. Not far from here is the house of David Ben-Gurion, the first president of Israel. It was in Tel Aviv that Israel was first proclaimed a nation in May 1948. On the other side of Hayarkon Street, the city's five-star hotels command unobstructed views of the sea. Here stretches its popular 8.7-mile boardwalk, the "tayelet." We head over for a peek. Joggers, bikers, seniors and children of all ages populate the site, frolicking in the sun and enjoying the sea breeze as white sails bob on the waves. Cafes are packed and Tel Aviv's sabra youths show off the latest in bikinis and beach attire. Israel's popular playground is its own version of the Cote d'Azur!
   



Tel Aviv's famous beaches are a world-class playground, ideal for surfing, sunning, strolling and casual dining.

   
"We are now walking on Gordon Street where you will find many of Tel Aviv's top art galleries," Nurit mentions. "There is a vibrant contemporary art scene here that is growing steadily." We take time to pop into a few avant garde galleries before we head back in the direction of the Melody. "Thank you so much, Nurit. That was an absolutely wonderful walk," says my beaming husband. The Melody lobby area is abuzz during Happy Hour and we sit back, sip an Israeli Golan red and watch the comings and goings of the clientele. Elinor is due in at any time. "It was an easy flight," she announces with a big smile as she bursts into the lobby minutes later. Of all our traveling companions on our frequent trips to Greece and Turkey, Oxonian Elinor has always been the most amenable and adventurous. "How about a short stroll to look for a good place for dinner," I suggest once she has caught her breath. "By all means," she chirps with enthusiasm.

Back on Hayarkon, I notice a variety of casual eateries among glitzier, upscale restaurants. On our earlier trip in 1969, Israeli restaurants had not even begun to hit their stride. I distinctly remember being very disappointed by the quality of the cooking, the unimaginative presentation and the limited menus at several places we tried. Forty-two years later, it's a brand new world. Restaurants often have star chefs at their helm and menus that utilize European and Asian techniques to leverage Israel's Mediterranean fare, showcasing the full gamut of Israel's extraordinary produce. Meat and fish are locally sourced, and the country's traditional Arab cuisine is interwoven, but kicked up a notch or two. Recently eleven Israeli establishments were included in the list of the world's 1000 best restaurants. Among those are Hasalon in Tel Aviv, Dallal in Neve Tzedek and Mashya at the Mendelli Hotel. Some chefs have become outright celebrities. It won't be long before Michelin stars will be awarded here, I am convinced. We return to Ben Yehuda Street where an unpretentious eatery, Barbunia, strikes the right tone for the evening. Sea bream and garlic prawns paired with the freshest chopped salad evoke some memorable meals we've had in Greece, yet with an Israeli twist.
   



In Dizengoff Square, a kinetic sculpture known as "Fire and Water" is the symbol of Tel Aviv.

   
It's a warm spring morning without a cloud in the sky. The three of us head out toward Dizengoff Square, the traditional heart of the city. The iconic landmark is positioned on the corner of Dizengoff, Reines and Pinsker Streets. "This place is named after Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff," I explain to Elinor. "It has a famous fountain called 'Fire and Water' which has become the city's symbol. In the old days this was the Champs-Elysees of Israel. At its far end is the Habima Cultural Center which attracts big crowds who come to people-watch and enjoy its many cafes." As we stroll around the area, I notice a handful of the city's numerous vegan restaurants that have earned Tel Aviv its reputation as the vegan capital of the world. Habima serves as the cultural hub of the city and includes the renowned Charles Bronfman Auditorium and a beautiful sunken garden and reflecting pool. I glance at Dizengoff's enormous shopping complex, a popular mall that includes cafes, boutiques and many designer shops that are magnet to both locals and tourists. "Wow, too bad we won't have time to check it out," says Elinor, always the diehard shopper.

Leaving Dizengoff behind, we continue south toward Tel Aviv's colorful Carmel Shuk, the city's equivalent of Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda Market, but even larger and brimming with eye-popping displays of fresh produce, exotics teas, spices and every food item imaginable. It even has labyrinthine offshoots where you can buy clothing, electronics and almost any item your heart desires. "How do they keep the spices so fresh?" my husband asks as he sniffs one vendor's mounds of cinnamon, cardamom and tumeric. Nearby, an Iraqi immigrant woman with well-practiced hands is turning out large flatbreads in rapid succession and a persistent vendor urges us to sample his exquisite cache of olives marinating in extra virgin oil.
    



Carmel Shuk, Tel Aviv's popular food market, is a feast for the senses.
   
South of Carmel's frenzied shuk, the city grows calmer as Jaffa looms ahead. We pause to admire a large mosque built 1914 during the Ottoman reign on the edge of the Neve Tzedek neighborhood near the sea. The Hassan Bek Mosque is considered a masterpiece of Turkish design. It is the last remnant of the Palestinian presence in the area and now serves as an administrative building. Beyond, the approach to Jaffa is decorated with dozens of flags fluttering in the ocean breeze. We turn back toward Tel Aviv for a sweeping view of its hotel skyline and waves crashing in the afternoon high tide.
   


Rising on a promontory, historic Jaffa dates back to biblical times.

   
Jaffa is as ancient as Tel Aviv is brand new. Its history traces back to biblical times when Noah's son, Japheth, chose to settle in Jaffa. It was here that King Solomon received shipments of cedar for his new temple and where Andromeda was chained to a rock off the coast until she was rescued by Perseus on his winged white horse. Throughout history wave after wave of occupiers swept through the city, from ancient Egyptians, Philistines and Napoleon to Ottomans and the British. Jaffa finally returned to Jewish control in 1948 when the new nation was forged. Today its population is a blend of Jewish and Christian Arab. A stroll through its cobbled lanes reveals a decidedly Eastern vibe, with narrow streets winding behind enormous fortifications that still enclose the city. We wander down one lane draped with bougainvillea past several charming art galleries and studios under grape arbors and wisteria. There are arty souvenir stores and plenty of seafood restaurants that are continuously busy. At night, Jaffa comes alive at several popular clubs where modern jazz and international pop are enlivened by belly dancers and Arab medleys. At the waterfront area local fishermen still haul in their daily catch at dawn. "Who knows how long this will last," comments Elinor having witnessed the gradual decline of Greek fishing communities. We pause to admire the Clock Tower of Yefat located near the Jaffa Museum of Antiquities housed in a former soap factory that is operated by a Greek Orthodox family. Nearby, two pita bread emporiums serve as a gateway to a warren of alleyways that make up Jaffa's popular flea market. It's a cornucopia of trash and treasure, all of it seductive, and I have to restrain myself. "We all made a promise to travel light," I remark to Elinor.

By now it is mid-afternoon and we are as weary as we are hungry. A taxi deposits us on Rothschild Boulevard, home to Tel Aviv's most expensive real estate and the city's premier address. It is a walker's haven, with shade trees, benches and refreshment kiosks. The neighborhood is dotted with buildings in a variety of styles, from Bezalel to Bauhaus to Mediterranean. We pause in front of Breuer House, once the Soviet Embassy and then pass by several Bauhaus buildings that exude a distinctive retro charm. Over 4,000 Bauhaus-style structures were built in Tel Aviv between 1920 and 1940 by German-Jewish architects who immigrated to the region. Today the area still boasts the largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings in the world. "What exactly is the Bauhaus style?" asks my husband. Elinor is up on the subject and explains: "It is often asymmetrical and consists of smooth, straight lines and has a minimalist quality." "What's not to like," he replies. "Simplicity is good."

It's well past mid-afternoon and we are long overdue for lunch. An attractive restaurant situated at the north end of Rothschild has a few empty tables and looks inviting. Even though their menu is classic American deli, we pass on the pastrami in favor of juicy house burgers and a made-to-order salad bursting with vegetables from their own garden. The place is jumping and it is fun to watch the clientele come and go. "We are still a long way from the Melody, but how about if we head in the direction of the Tel Aviv Art Museum?" I suggest.
   



The Tel Aviv Art Museum has amassed a world-class collection in a very short time.
   
Located on Saul HaMelech Boulevard, the museum is fronted by a large Henry Moore bronze and is known for its excellent contemporary art. Many benefactors from America and elsewhere have added important pieces to the museum's holdings. Inside the entrance, we pause by a two-panel work by Roy Lichtenstein that he created expressly for the museum. A major focus is the Peggy Guggenheim collection that includes choice pieces by Jackson Pollock and Andre Masson. The museum is distinguished by many masterpieces, including Van Gogh's "Shepherdess," Klimt's "Portrait of Friederike," choice Chagalls, and Picassos from his various periods. "I am amazed how quickly a brand-new city in a newly-formed nation has amassed such an important collection," I mutter out loud. "Israel has made up for two millennia of diaspora at lightning speed." "The same success story can be applied to science, engineering, medicine and even irrigation and agriculture," Elinor observes. I walk out of the museum overcome by a great sense of pride.
   


Tel Aviv's popular boardwalk, "The Tayelet," is a magnet for locals and tourists.

    
We decide to make our way back to the beach and unwind. A leisurely stroll on the boardwalk reveals big and small differences among Tel Aviv's 13 beaches, each exuding a specific vibe that attracts a specific clientele. Of those, southernmost Aliyah Beach is very private and has strong tides for windsurfing. Frishman Beach is a favorite of fitness buffs with its volleyball courts, workout equipment and quick access to 24-hour cafes and restaurants. Did I already mention that Tel Aviv is known as the city never sleeps? Continuing north, Gordon Beach boasts a saltwater pool and volleyball nets on grassy lawns where locals play maktot, the local version of paddle tennis. There is a café right on the sand at Tel Baruch Beach and Hilton Beach near the Melody has three sections, each geared to a different audience. The southernmost is for surfers, the central beach is the city's official gay beach, jammed to capacity after Tel Aviv's annual gay parade, and the third is set up for dogs who romp unleashed through its waves. It has been a very long day, and we unwind over ice cream sundaes at the Hilton. "Tomorrow, Avital, our Israeli guide, is meeting us in the lobby for a drive through the city," I announce. "En route to Jerusalem, we will also be visiting Israel's historic Fort Lutron, a vestige of the British Mandate that honors the soldiers lost in the War for Independence."

"Wow! What a day it has been," my husband exults as we board the elevator to our room. "I wish we could spend more time here." Avital is already waiting in to the lobby when we arrive for breakfast. "Please, take your time," he insists. "You won't be eating again until we get to Jerusalem late in the day." We take his advice and feast on the Melody's lavish spread. As we board his van, Avital explains that he will be pointing out Tel Aviv's important landmarks and buildings on our drive through the city. The final stop will be Ben-Gurion's house before heading out on the highway to Jerusalem.
    



A staggering number of high-rise buildings pack the Tel Aviv' skyline.
   
"I live here but I am always surprised by all the new buildings that keep turning up," Avital brags. "One place you have heard about is good old Migdal Shalom which dates from 1963 and was the tallest structure in the Middle East when it was completed. It is considered a relic of the past today. At the moment, the tallest structure is the Azrieli Center Circular Tower at 590 feet. The Rom Tel Aviv is not far behind at 571 feet, the Alton Tower is 541 feet, and Park Tzamereit is a high-end high-rise that is part of a residential neighborhood. All told we have an impressive number of buildings that approach 500 feet, with more on the way." He takes a spin through Dizengoff and heads toward the Tel Aviv Art Museum. "I understand you visited the museum yesterday," Avital comments. "Isn't it remarkable? A new building is about to open alongside the original structure," he explains. I take a minute to imagine how much my parents would have been awed by today's Tel Aviv skyline scraping the clouds. Idealistic kibbutzniks who worked tirelessly to build the nascent nation, they had high hopes for Israel but also went through very hard times. My father spent months draining the swamps of Lake Huleh and came down with malaria twice. Later, he joined the British Police Force that administered Palestine during the Mandate.
   


Ben-Gurion's 20,000-volume library is testimony to the brilliance of Israel's founding father.
   
"I am taking you to Ben-Gurion's house now," Avital announces. "There we will go inside and you can learn all about our remarkable founding father, the first premier of Eretz Yisrael. More than 20,000 books in several languages remain in place just as he left them, bearing witness to his brilliance and scholarship. The building itself is a nice example of Bauhaus architecture. Don't miss his bedroom with a blocked-in window. It served as a bomb shelter." As we peruse Ben-Gurion's incredible library, I am eternally grateful that the nascent nation had such a pragmatic polymath at its helm during a very dangerous time.
   


Fort Latrun was part of the British Police Patrol Network during the Mandate.
   
Back in the van, we climb out of greater Tel Aviv toward Fort Latrun. It will be my second visit here. My father was briefly stationed at Latrun as part of the British police patrol that protected the area until May 15, 1948. I remember romping happily in the wasteland around the fort littered with spent bullets and empty tins of prophylactics. "Pfeh!" my mother had said, dragging me inside. Today, Latrun honors the fallen heroes of the War of Independence and subsequent battles and is especially known for its display of tanks deployed in Israel's various wars. The Fort was assaulted on May 24, 1948, and again on July 18, by Israeli soldiers who were largely Holocaust survivors, but the Jordanians remained firmly in control. Ariel Sharon, a platoon commander at the time, was wounded here. The defeat necessitated the building of a bypass road to Jerusalem known as Burma Road. It was not until the Six-Day War in 1967 that Latrun was finally captured and the road to Jerusalem that it obstructed cleared and declared safe. We head directly to the lineup of tanks, a sight to behold. David, a young American-born soldier who made recent Aliyah (move to Israel), gives us a rundown on the various tanks on display. Some are rather primitive, but the newest are very high tech with command and control capabilities. At Latrun's Armored Corps Museum, we pause by a memorial wall inscribed with the names of soldiers fallen in Israel's various battles. It is a very moving moment.
    


Latrun's enormous tank display ranges from World War II relics to the latest command and control models.

    
"Are you ready to shift gears?" asks Avital. "We will be in Jerusalem within minutes." The three of us are fully focused as we enter a tunnel going into the city. I am filled with both angst and excitement. It was here at Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus that I was born during the Mandate and where my parents lived for several years. But then, timeless Jerusalem holds special meaning for much of the world. "Here we go,"' I whisper as Avital maneuvers his van around the perimeter of the Old City and up Hebron Road toward the Mt. Zion Hotel.