Seeking Illumination in Israel, Part Three: Beauty and the Beach
“Jerusalem prays, while Tel Aviv plays,” locals say of the Israeli coastal city famous for its beachfront resorts. And why shouldn’t it? With the azure waters of the Mediterranean hugging its white sand, sun worshippers have been flocking to Tel Aviv — known as the most open of Israeli cities, and the LGBT capital of the Middle East — for centuries.
After several days in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and getting turned away at the Allenby Bridge Border Crossing on my way to Jordan the day before (the border was closed for reasons that could not be disclosed, leading me to suspect a security operation the Israeli military routinely conducts in the area), I was in desperate need of a day at the beach. And that’s exactly what Tel Aviv promised.
Israel’s largest metropolitan area, the so-called “White City” (derived from the fact it boasts the largest collection of Bauhaus buildings in the world) has the second-largest economy in the Middle East (after Dubai). Tel Aviv receives about 2.5 million international visitors annually, and the 24-hour “city that never sleeps” was first described in letters from around 1470 BC that record its conquest by the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III. Unlike most other Israeli cities, it is mentioned only three times in the Bible, and even then only in passing.
But what Tel Aviv lacks in religious significance, it more than makes up for in culture and recreational opportunities. Soaring palm trees line avenues crowded with stucco apartments, intimate cafes and eateries, and boutique shops. Locals prefer to dress in light-colored breezy garments, which they might wear both to work and for a night out afterward. Pets are plentiful, and it’s not uncommon to see panting dogs being walked through small parks located every few blocks. Almost everyone seems to own a car, and the heavy traffic combined with a tropical setting and Mediterranean architecture quickly calls to mind Los Angeles.
It was the promise of a carefree day by the Mediterranean Sea that lured me. Hopping off long-distance bus number 480 — run by the Egged cooperative that maintains a virtual monopoly on long-distance bus transport in Israel — that cost a mere 19 shekels ($5.50; 4.06 euros) one-way from Jerusalem, I made a beeline down palm tree-lined avenues and past fashionable bars and cafes for the beach. I had no idea where I was heading, but walked in the direction from where a moderate breeze was coming. I knew a breeze often came in from a large body of water. And that, of course, would mean I’d find the beach. By pure happenstance, I wound up about 15 minutes later at among the most scintillating venues of Tel Aviv’s sizzling beach scene: uber-trendy Gordon Beach. It was a fortunate coincidence indeed.
Gordon Beach is mythical, partially as a result of its support from LGBT visitors. Named the “best gay city in the world” by American Airlines, Tel Aviv’s thriving LGBT community is the stuff of legend. Journalist David Kaufman has described the city as “packed with the kind of ‘we’re here, we’re queer’ vibe more typically found in Sydney and San Francisco.” The city’s pride parade is the biggest in Asia, attracting more than 100,000 people each year. In 2013, Gordon Beach was the location of a party hosted by Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, an event that drew international attention when Refaeli posted a photo of herself on social media standing in front of a urinal in a men’s restroom with the caption: “Gay, lesbians, bisexual, transgender: ALL EQUAL TLV #gayweek.”
Translation: Gordon Beach is a place where people can be who they want to be, without judgment.
But such things were far from my mind as I changed into my swimsuit and waded out into the cool waters of the Mediterranean. The view all around was of bikinis, taut flesh, and more bikinis. The thick, hot sand was as soft as potato flour; it was like walking across a giant piece of warm bread dough. But once in the sea, the water’s shock of iciness was a pleasing jolt to my system, almost as pleasurable as the gentle rising and falling of the waves. The air smelled salty, the sounds of seagulls and sea occasionally drowned out by the deafening roar of airplanes from the nearby Ben-Gurion International Airport flying so low one could read the name of the airline written on the side of their cylindrical bodies. Time was at a standstill. This was Heaven; pure, unadulterated paradise. I could stay here forever, I thought.
And things would only get more otherworldly. Returning to shore — the sun’s rays quickly evaporating any traces of moisture from my dripping body — and taking a seat on one of the few unoccupied white beach chairs with green coverings, I admired the view. Men and women in various styles of swimwear lounged about, sporting everything from loose swim trunks with surfing company logos on them to yellow string bikini tops made of Lycra with matching high-cut bottoms and extraordinarily skimpy blue and white polka dot “microkinis” that left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Regardless of attire, almost everyone’s face was fixed in a dazed stare behind more pairs of sunglasses than I’d ever seen in my almost two years of living in Germany. Here and there, small groups clustered around little tables stocked with beer, vodka and pitchers of fruity punch that they’d brought with them to the beach, drinking as they chatted amongst each other or on smartphones. Turning my head toward a flock of pretty girls — attention drawn by the sound of uproarious laughter, one woman in an aquamarine bandeau-style top and dark blue bottom offered a smile. The conversation sounded like it was in Italian, and from what I understood, it centered on someone named Gemma. Apparently, she had recently made a foolish decision when washing a dress, or something of the sort. Either way, the whole scene made me feel as if I were in a bed of kittens, all warm fuzziness and contented relaxation without a care in the world. Complicated politics of Israel be damned.
The sun was still high overhead as I took further stock of my surroundings, noticing a Gisele Bündchen clone sitting next to me, who had a chest large enough to land a plane on. Her dark eyeshadow went well with her bright red lips that looked straight out of a Lancôme or Vichy ad, painting a face that was darkly alluring — a colorful contrast to her bikini top that was whiter than Leave it to Beaver at an alpine lodge, it was so blindingly bright I had to squint.
But I passed on the chance to strike up a conversation. This day was too perfect, too blissful, to risk disaster. Besides, I’d already had my share of awkward attempts at flirtation, be it with hotel receptionists in Budapest or Croatian revelers at vampire-themed parties in Berlin, to want to add onto the list. And besides, I was due to return to Jerusalem and my friend Ally later that day anyway. What would she say were I late?
But there would be no feeling of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a German term that basically means “coping with the past”) as I passed up on the opportunity, and my thoughts wandered elsewhere to the tranquility of the sea and how nice it would be to enjoy a meal along its lapping shores. If my time among the waves and women had done anything, it was working up an appetite for some Mediterranean cuisine.
Tel Aviv is a rather underrated foodie destination, if the sheer number of cafes and restaurants are anything to go by. In a sign of its cosmopolitan culture, over 100 sushi joints can be found within its city limits, for instance. There’s also a dearth of fusion restaurants whipping up traditional Israeli and international fare, often with homegrown ingredients (such as Manta Ray, a casual eatery at the southern end of Tel Aviv where owner Ofra Ganor blends Eastern European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes). In keeping with its Mediterranean culture, dishes are often light, and to be eaten very, very slowly.
I was, of course, in no hurry, and I moseyed into the informal eatery La La Land with a slowness that would have probably gotten me killed in Manhattan.
Low couches and wooden tables were framed by large bay windows, which offered a perfectly unobstructed view of Gordon Beach. Both real and artificial plants were placed throughout, most prominently atop bookcases which held a variety of volumes covering everything from art and fashion to travel and photography. It was my kind of place, both open and cozy at the same time, with a library that could leave me distracted for a period far beyond my return flight to Berlin in two days’ time. Among the books that any patron of the restaurant can read was Hiking in the Pacific Northwest, a title that immediately caught my eye — namely because the cover featured none other than Multnomah Falls, the waterfall roughly an hour’s drive from my parents’ farm near Portland, Oregon. But I settled on a book of old Vogue articles, all archived and including the original photography that accompanied them. Seeing what the fashion trends of the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and other decades were — and reading about them (an inordinate amount of coverage seemed to be devoted to pillbox hats and Jayne Mansfield) as they were reported in what was (then) the present tense — was about as close as one could get to taking a time machine back to that era. It gave new meaning to a fashionable day at the beach.
But I really did require sustenance, and had a tuna sandwich with a hard-boiled egg, hummus, lettuce and tomato in a pita bread for 52 shekels ($15.06; 11.12 euros). The price may have been a tad high, but the postcard-perfect setting and the taste that had a certain homemade, uncomplicated quality to it more than made up for financial consternation. Accompanied by a mildly tart cappuccino for 13 shekels ($3.76; 2.78 euros), it was downright divine.
Divine. The word seemed an apt description. I’d been in the Holy Land nearly a week — visiting sites such as the Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre that some religions consider the most sacred on earth — but it was here that I felt closest to Heaven. Was this the illumination I sought? Perhaps, it was. Then again, maybe the illumination was that Israel is a multilayered, multifaceted place where past, present and future combine every day in a collision not found anyplace else. Or maybe it was that the future of Palestine and the West Bank is directly tied to the future of Israel itself.
No, that would be inaccurate. Flipping through the Vogue book, what I had learned was far simpler: Twiggy really was a style icon.
The photo gallery is best viewed in full-screen mode (far upper-right icon).