Saturday, January 13, 2007

Visiting Tel Aviv

About 20 men and women in religious robes appeared on the beach in Tel Aviv the other day. They wore black from head to toe. For a few moments they stood at the water's edge and seemed to be conferring. Then one of the women took off her shoes, raised her skirts above ankle-height and tiptoed into the Mediterranean. The sea is chilly in January, and she entered hesitantly. Another woman followed her into the shallow water, and then two more. The men stayed on the sand, watching, talking among themselves.

Their clerical garments identified them as Christians. They wore the type of soft cap known as a skufia, with a Russian-style pointed top showing that they were from an Orthodox denomination.

A young man in non-religious dress accompanied them. He explained that he and they were part of a Ukrainian group of 52 tourists visiting Israel for one week. They came from Kiev, Odessa and even from places in Russia. They stayed in Jerusalem and traveled to Christian sites around the country. On their final day, they were exploring Tel Aviv.

Before leaving, the visitor responded to a question which locals may ask of tourists: How did he like it here?

"I would like to live here," he said.

By contrast with these Ukrainian Christians, a U.S. Jewish group that was visiting Israel did not make it to the beach in Tel Aviv. This group went to Jerusalem and other parts of the country where ancient Jewish history took place. Their itinerary ignored the first Hebrew city of the modern era.

Standard tourist itineraries treat Tel Aviv as a way station to or from the airport. For Jewish tourists, the Israel Ministry of Tourism suggests a sample 10-day itinerary which proposes Tel Aviv for sightseeing the day before the flight home. The itinerary advises, "See the dazzling New Opera House - part of the Golda Meir Center for the Performing Arts. Visit the Tel Aviv Museum. Admire the Art Deco and Bauhaus architecture of Rothschild Boulevard and revitalized Neve Tzedek. Visit Independence Hall where, in 1948, David Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel. And visit the beautifully restored 4,000-year-old city of Jaffa with its cobblestoned streets lined with artists' galleries and boutiques. Tonight, discover the bustling Tayelet promenade, abuzz with cafes, entertainment and crowds. Overnight in Tel Aviv."

A sample Tel Aviv itinerary for Catholics proposes only Jaffa and the beachfront Tayelet promenade. It recommends that the Catholic tourist visit St. Peter's Church and the House of Simon the Tanner in Jaffa.

For Protestants, the Tourism Ministry offers even less in Tel Aviv---only a quick visit to Jaffa after arriving at the airport: "Evening tour of Jaffa, an ancient port where Peter saw a vision atop the house of Simon the Tanner and from which Jonah the Prophet embarked. Rest from transatlantic flight."

One reason Tel Aviv does not get much play on tourist itineraries may be its Hebrew character. Its cultural, intellectual and business life are what make Tel Aviv an especially interesting city, and these take place almost entirely in Hebrew.

In 1997, the U.S. magazine Newsweek cited Tel Aviv as one of the ten best cities in the world for young Americans to advance their careers, experience new cultures and learn about the world.

Tel Aviv ordinarily does not receive media coverage. A big foreign news corps covers Israel, but most of its members are based in Jerusalem and don't know Hebrew. Some foreign journalists come to Tel Aviv for restaurants and entertainment, but few are likely to understand what is going on in the city's coffee houses, pubs, theaters, markets, shops, local weekly papers, night spots and business centers. Almost all of it happens in Hebrew.

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