Tel Aviv, Israel
I live in quite a unique location in north London, called Stamford Hill. If I leave my flat to pop to the shops, it’s more than likely I’ll run into a pack of orthodox Jews. As it turns out, I see more of them in my daily routine than I saw in a whole week in Tel Aviv. Is it wrong to say Jews are hot right now? I’m not just talking about my neighbours – several Guardian articles have tried to coin the phrase “Jew-ish” in describing the bacon bagel eating Anglo-Jewry, and recent films like Eyes Wide Open and The Infidel are leading an increasing Jew-ish cultural movement. What was once the gay-unfriendly Middle East now has the tourist board of Israel encouraging gay tourists to invest their pink pounds in Tel Aviv, as the city is working harder than most to earn it’s fast-track position as a must-visit location for gay travellers.
With that in mind, any misconceptions you might have about visiting Israel are worth leaving at the check-in. Much like Brighton, London or Manchester, Tel Aviv is a mecca for just-out-the-closet youngsters moving to the big city, and due to the gay influx and contrast to the rest of Israel, is frequently called The Bubble. This name-sake is so popular it’s spawned a gay film and holds up the reputation it has, that if you throw a stone from a tall building it will hit an actor, a gay or a cat. This is also due to its surprisingly progressive attitudes towards homosexuality, though it shouldn’t be that much of a shock when you consider this is a country that sent Dana International to Eurovision and allows gays to serve in the army.
All of the tour guides and chaperones I encountered were quick to point out how life in Tel Aviv is not like the reporting on BBC News or CNN, just as the local satirical television show Our Fantastic
Country (Eretz Nehederet) has previously lampooned their overtly pro-Palestinian reporting. It might not seem a laughing matter, though you try telling that to a group of young Israelis outside a throbbing gay bar, intent on out-shocking each other in front of the British journalist new in town with some holocaust jokes. It’s not that the Israelis I’ve spoken to ignore or make light of these issues, it’s just such a complex situation that you won’t get one simplistic view point. Once you’re in Tel Aviv, it’s pretty hard to imagine what it’s like living outside the bubble.
For a typical example of the city’s diversity, you should visit Shenkin Street. Widely regarded as Tel Aviv’s yuppie area, this busy cosmopolitan street sees bustling t-shirt shops, juice bars and cafés teeming with a broad range of the city’s population, including a healthy dose of homosexuals. It’s an ideal starting point for exploring Tel Aviv, especially on Fridays (essentially their Saturday), sitting in a coffeeshop, watching the hot guys mingle with puppies being sold on benches and frolicking in baskets, next to pseudo-scientology stalls and student campaigners.
While you’re there, you should take a peek at the Nahlat Binyamin market, a mixture of cheesy touristy arts and crafts, juxtaposed with the nearby Carmel market (butchers keep their bottles of coke cold next to slabs of dead animal, while smoking) containing all manner of curiosities. Some bowl held what looked like separated egg yolks, but on closer inspection appeared to have veins. I suspect they were some form of testicle, but my Hebrew and constitution weren’t strong enough to enquire. But the spices and veg are fantastic, with snacks bars serving mini pita breads with feta and zahatar (a mountain thyme) and drinks like Sachlab, a thick milky drink flavoured with rose water, topped with coconut and pistachios. The food everywhere in Tel Aviv is delicious and you can find something tasty even in the early hours of the morning.
Not far away is Allenby street, a drag queen shopping heaven. They have loads of dress shops full of tacky, amazingly hideous dresses that try so hard to be chic they go off the scale and back again.
Basically, I want to live here. It’s even become part of the local lexicon, if someone is sporting a Dallas-esque trashy outfit, it’s described as an “Allenby Dress”.
While you’re there on a Friday, make sure you check out the “Lesbian Brunch” held at Radio Rosco, just off Allenby Street. Tucked away is a beautiful little courtyard, huge family-like gatherings of both gay men, women and their dogs congregate for great food and juicy gossip. There was one moment for me that gives you some idea about how different Tel Aviv inhabitants are to us Brits; there was one tiny little dog being bullied by considerably larger dog, barking, snarling and dragging chairs in it’s wake. The poor little dog looked like it was going to shit an internal organ – but instead of embarrassment, shame and gushingly insincere apologies, everyone was laughing. There’s an openness and warmth to the people of Tel Aviv which means once you’ve been there and seen it, you’ll be planning your next trip there before you know it. These little moments allow visitors a peek into the lives of locals and before long you’ll be sharing an Arak and lemonade (a Pernod style liquor) and your life story with a complete stranger. If you’ve already acquired some Israeli friends you’re bound to know someone who knows someone, as it feels like everyone is related, by blood, friendship or from serving in the army together.
Being a small city, you can walk pretty much everywhere, though if you get the chance, it’s worth taking a trip around the city on a moped, a popular form of transport among younger inhabitants. Wherever you end up, at some point you will find yourself strolling along Rothschild Boulevard, taking in the Bauhaus architecture, which is protected by law and often renovated by developers in exchange for building a massive tower block next door.
The unofficial, loosely designated gay village is roughly centred around this commercial Rothschild Boulevard, which attracts many a tourist. The beautiful thing about Tel Aviv is that is doesn’t need a gay village. It is a gay village. You can sit on Dizingoff Street, take in a coffee just off Ben Guiron street and you’ll see more local gays wandering the street that in the more conventional “gay” areas. You should definitely check out the vibrant gay scene, which has everything any other major city can offer, with the bonus of being populated by ridiculously attractive Israelis. The daddy of the gay bars is undoubtedly Evita (Yavbe 31), a shamelessly trashy camp venue that hosts everything from Eurovision love-ins to themed student nights. Elsewhere you can get gay hip hop or other beyond-pop genres at Ashmoret (Rothchild 10) or somewhere like Laika (Nachlat Benyamin 29) offers up a trendy mix of Berlin-chic, rivalling East London for arty projections and hipster disco. For bigger, clubbier places try Zizi Tripo (Karlibach 7) which has a gay night featuring pretentious electroclash performances and a joyously unpretentious pop room or Tel Aviv’s first bear club night, Beef (Triple, Hamasger 38) where the buff leather clad boys serving drinks, and a darkroom, reel in a hirsute crowd. Among the many choice phrases I picked up in Hebrew, it‘s worth learning the terribly polite “Slee-kha” for “excuse me”. Then, if you’re lucky, you might hear it followed up with “Ma slee-kha, teet pashet”, which is more or less “what excuse me? Take off your clothes”.
The Hilton Beach is where the gays go to catch some rays, sandwiched between the dogs’ beach and the ultra-religious gender segregated one, typical of how disparate groups of people get along without any concern. Outside the hotel is the Independence park (Gan Ha‘atzmaut) a notorious cruising ground. Even with the newly installed, unflatteringly bright street lamps, this is still a popular haunt for anonymous gay hook ups, if the Butt magazine blog is to be believed.
There is one gay publication, The City In Pink (Haer Bevarod) which you can pick up for free, at bar or somewhere like the Hamerkaz Hagee, a gay community centre funded by the city (not the State) and rejuvenating an otherwise dilapidated park of Meir Park (Gan Meir). It’s fantastic to see how blasé everyone is about having a massive gay community building and café here, as mothers with their kids and
gay-straights-and-whatevers with dogs all congregate in one place.
If all the gayness gets too much, a leisurely walk around the ancient port of Jaffa offers a calming, pleasant respite. It’s cobbled walkways are home to the artists quarter, filled with naff Napoleon figurines and numerous studios, where artists are encouraged to live and sell their wares. From my nosey explorations they have everything from classical vases to political cartoons hoping for peace. From Jaffa’s high vantage point you can see the whole of the main city of Tel Aviv, and after a short trip downhill you can find incredible flea markets, bursting full of kitsch furnishings, keys, colourful fabrics, nick-nacks, brick-a-brac and artistic prints. When hunger strikes, Dr Shakshuka is a restaurant in Jaffa where the head chef puts on quite a show rustling up his signature dish. Shakshuka is eggs cooked in tomato sauce, which can be spicy but always delicious.
There are two day trips definitely worth investing some time in if you’re more than a few days in Tel Aviv. One is Jerusalem, the other being The Dead Sea. On such a short trip, I stopped off on the Mount of Olives (Har Hazeitim) to simply glimpse a look over Israel’s capital, being given a squint-and-point run down of golden domes, wailing walls and grave stones. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all
stake a claim in the geography and history of Jerusalem which would take more than a travel article or day trip to explain.
Feeling guilty at my (bad) religious education, another stop en route to The Dead Sea was to Masada, a national park. It’s the location of a Roman siege, where the Jewish inhabitants decided to commit mass suicide instead of giving in and being forced into slavery (don’t worry this was back in 73. As in the year 0073). Playing over this grisly scene while wandering around in the sweltering heat, looking at remnants of the ancient walls and trying to block out the shrieks of fellow tourists, numerous questions come to mind as the story is filled with contradictory interpretations and unexplained details. Masada is a symbol of national freedom but I found my thoughts fixating on the couple of women and children who decided to go against their leaders wishes while the last remaining soldiers slaughtered each other. It’s a cheery distraction from the rocky cable cart ride on the way down.
All thoughts of a killing your own family will gently disperse once you’re floating face up in The Dead Sea. After wading in to a certain point you become unable to walk and instead are flipped into a floating position, submitting to the sea it‘s impossible to remain uptight. The high salt content actually feels surprisingly oily, and once you get out and start sunbathing, it hardens and whitens on the skin, making your own impromptu impersonation of a lightly salted peanut. Just don’t get the water in your eyes, everyone will tell you it stings. It really does.
Several people call Tel Aviv “the city that never sleeps” – which I always thought was New York. It can’t match NY’s frenetic pace, and is all the better for it. There are impressive structures, though they aren’t as claustrophobic as it’s American counterpart and the malls are relatively intimate. If anything, Tel Aviv shares more in common with Barcelona, with it’s beautiful boulevards and laid back ambiance.
Which ever way you look at it, it’s unlikely to be quite like any of your expectations of a deeply religious Jewish city, as the reality is modern, upbeat and vibrant as any of the aforementioned locations and makes a well overdue, welcome change from my dour daily grind in Stamford Hill.
GT flew with El Al Airlines, Elal.co.il, and stayed at the Leornado Boutique Hotel, Leonardo-hotels.com/boutique_tel_aviv and Vital Hotel, Vitalhotel.co.il. For more information log onto Visitgaytlv.com.