Upon my return from a week's vacation this past summer in Tel Aviv, my friends and family appeared visibly impatient as I bragged about the city's beaches (" ... the sand? Like talcum powder!"), fascinating architecture, great shopping, as well as chic restaurants that serve splendid, fresh Mediterranean cuisine and excellent Israeli wines.
No sooner did I pause for air, then they quickly interrupted, and always with the same two questions. "Did you feel safe there?" Answer: Yes, completely, despite several vivid reminders of Israel's perilous geopolitical status. And, "Don't you have to be religious to enjoy a visit to Israel?" No, but it deepens the experience.
My skittish social circle is not alone in its trepidations, of course, which is why Israel's Ministry of Tourism is launching its biggest-ever advertising campaign (tagline: "You'll love Israel from the first 'Shalom' ") in the United States this fall, totaling an unprecedented $11 million.
One of the print ads features a ballet dancer performing en pointe on Tel Aviv's shore, a phalanx of glittering high-rises arrayed behind her.
"Ever since the time of King David, Israel has been a tourist destination. For many Jews, Christians and Muslims, it is a lifelong dream to come here," says Arie Sommer, Israel's tourism commissioner for North and South America. "We are not going to neglect our religious pilgrims, but today, the country is being marketed as the Holy Land plus fun!"
Ah, but what do you consider fun?
The Dead Sea has glamorous spas such as Ein Gedi Resort Hotel; vineyards such as Tishbi and Golan Heights Winery offer wine-tasting opportunities; and mysteries of the world's three great monotheisms are illuminated by a visit to Jerusalem. For my shekels, however, the best place to begin a tour of Israel is Tel Aviv.
Work and play
For many decades, before El Al airlines began service, most pilgrims to Israel arrived by boat, so the coastal cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa were the first sight of the Holy Land they saw. Now home to more than 3 million people; 600,000 in the metro area alone, Tel Aviv / Jaffa (the cities were united in 1950) is Israel's largest municipality.
Like other world-class urban areas that are set directly on the sea -- Rio de Janeiro, say, or Nice, France -- Tel Aviv seductively balances work and play. The Israeli Stock Exchange is in Tel Aviv, yet it's not unusual to see people walking around downtown carrying surfboards.
A pedestrian promenade, its stone surface a rippled wave pattern of ochre and beige, hugs the shoreline.
Toward dusk, Tel Avivians gather here to see and be seen. Sunsets are glorious, and restaurants and cafes take advantage of this nightly light show by clustering comfortable sofas and chaise lounges so that they face the water.
The scene is louche, sexy and buzzing into the early-morning hours -- the same time that surfers, beach bums and yoga enthusiasts begin to congregate along the shore.
Think sunbathing isn't kosher? Think again. In Tel Aviv, one stretch of the beach called Nordau is reserved for Orthodox Jews, where women and men swim on alternate days. Other areas are considerably more free-
wheeling, such as Mezizim, which is just slightly north of downtown, and a favorite of young people.
As it gears up for a 100th-anniversary celebration in 2009, Tel Aviv is basking in pride over all it has accomplished in one short century.
From the beginning, Tel Aviv was a place of high culture. Within five years of its founding, there was a theater, and an opera company began shortly thereafter.
Today, of 35 performing-arts centers in all of Israel, 18 are located in Tel Aviv. A magnet for progressive architecture, Tel Aviv was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 by UNESCO because of its wealth of "international style" buildings constructed in the 1930s and '40s to house refugees fleeing Hitler.
One morning, I rented a bicycle and went for a pleasant spin along Rothschild Boulevard, which is shaded by intertwined ficus trees and boasts some of the city's most intriguing residences.
Some of the architects who created these rectilinear and sharply angled homes trained in Weimar, Germany, at the Bauhaus School of Design, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius.
With an estimated 5,000 low-rise buildings done in this manner, Tel Aviv has the largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world.
"Tel Aviv was conceived in the spirit of a fresh beginning," says Ilan Pivko, a local architect with whom I shared a cup of caffe afook (Israel's version of cappuccino) one afternoon. "A non-ornamental essence of architecture proved to be the blank canvas on which the 'new Jew' could project himself or herself into the future."
That the city still leads Israel in design trends was evident when I strolled about fashionable neighborhoods such as Neveh Tzedek. Merging restaurants with retail is much in vogue here, such as at Elya on Amzaleg Street.
Hidden behind a shaded courtyard and bubbling fountain, Elya serves cakes, pastries and a sumptuous Israeli breakfast all day, and sells everything from leather club chairs to bed linens and infant couture.
"Tel Aviv is a young city, but it has a place in the world in the realms of fashion, nightlife, interior design and culinary arts," says Dalit Nemirovsky, who compiled City Guide Tel Aviv, an indispensable new directory.
"We don't have the history of Paris or Rome. When you travel to those places, you see things that are big and splashy," she says. "In Tel Aviv, things are more intimate and unique. We have a feeling of innovation."
On to Jaffa
On my last day, I became lost while wandering around the port of Jaffa. If Tel Aviv is the new kid in town, Jaffa is a wise, crafty codger.
The Old Testament says that it was through Jaffa that King Solomon imported cedar wood for building the first temple in Jerusalem. And cowardly Jonah, the biblical prophet, was said to have departed from Jaffa on the sea voyage that saw him swallowed by a big fish.
Until the 1800s, Jaffa was protected by a moat and high stone walls. Even so, archaeological excavations have discovered evidence of the port's many conquerors: Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Egyptians, Ottomans and British.
Traces of all these diverse influences are tossed into Jaffa's excellent flea market, where, unlike many other bazaars in the Mediterranean region, there is a notable lack of hard-pressure salesmanship.
Instead, rug dealers sit outside in the shade, calmly making repairs on antique kilim, and antiquarians read the newspaper while surrounded by rotary telephones made of Bakelite, oddments of Wedgwood china, dusty menorahs and embroidered yarmulkes.
Along the market's main artery, several restaurants offer patrons not only food, but a chance to buy every fork, plate and chair in the place. If you like the tabbouleh, maybe you want the table on which it was served?
Also of historical note in Jaffa's port, my guide Daniel Rosenblum now informed me, is the house of Simon the leather tanner. Mentioned in the book of Acts, this was the spot where St. Paul was a house guest as he engaged in missionary work to broadcast the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
I ask Rosenbaum about the many, many tour groups composed of American evangelical Christians that I've seen in Israel.
"I adore working with them," he says. "Evangelicals love Israel, and they love all of us who live here from the moment they arrive."
Pressing the point, I wonder aloud if perhaps there isn't something a bit apocalyptic in this affection -- aren't these believers fired up by end-of-time scenarios from the book of Revelation? Don't they really love Israel for having, to their way of thinking, set the clock ticking toward the battle of Armageddon?
Rosenblum laughs, obviously having given this some thought. "Well, the good news, as far as I see it, is this is not going to happen," he says. "In the meantime, let them come here, have fun, and spend their money so they can support me while they wait for the end of the world."
Don't expect Israel's Ministry of Tourism to use this as an advertising tagline any time soon.
IF YOU GO
Israel's main airport, Ben Gurion International, is just a few miles southeast of Tel Aviv. In North America, New York City offers, by far, the highest number of nonstop flights to Tel Aviv, on carriers such as El Al, Continental and Delta.
The Dan Tel Aviv,
99 Hayarkon St., 972-3-520-2525, dantelaviv@ danhotels.com. The first luxury hotel built in Israel, the seaside Dan Tel Aviv opened in 1953. Indoor/outdoor pools, a newly renovated spa. Rooms start at $265.
Hotel de la Mer,
62 Hayarkon St., off Nes Tziona Street, 03-5100011, delamer.co.il. A boutique hotel in a historic 1930s Bauhaus building, a block from the beach. Rooms start at $95.
1 Hazchuhit St., in Old Jaffa neighborhood, 03-5184668. Celebrity Chef Nir Zook cooks up some of Israel's most delicious contemporary cuisine. cordelia.co.il. Entrees start at $14.
57 Nachalat Binyamin St., 03-5665505. Food critics agree this is one of best restaurants not only in Tel Aviv, but in Israel. Fusion of Italian and French cuisines. Entrees start at $18.
40 Pinsker St., 03-6293796. Taste Middle Eastern fast-food - including hummus and eggplant platters - at its very best. Entrees start at $4.
between Allenby and Kalisher streets. Marvel at Israel's agricultural material, including stacks of jewel-like fruits and vegetables that are proudly piled high.
Eretz Israel Museum,
2 Levanon (University) St., 03-641-5244, eretzmuseum.org.il. A fascinating look at Israel's culture, as shown in exhibits on ethnography, folklore and handicrafts.
Tel Aviv Museum of Art,
27 Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, 03-6961297, tamuseum.com. International as well as Israeli art, including a very good collection of French impressionists and a Roy Lichtenstein mural commissioned for this spot.
Tel Aviv University Campus (Gate 2) Klausner Street, Ramat Aviv, 03-640-8000, bh.org.il. It has 2,500 years of history, focused on the settling of Jews outside of Israel.
Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance & Theater,
5 Yehieli St., 03-5105656, suzannedellal.org.il. One of Israel's most vibrant art centers, with a variety of live performances happening nightly.
Comme il Faut,
Bait Banamal, Hanger 26, Tel Aviv port, 03-6025530, comme-il-faut.com. A unique retail experience that somehow combines fashion, home decor and an art gallery into a forum for social activism.