In a land that oozes holiness, watching my wife Michelle, a long distance lover of Israel, rediscover the Holy Land has been fascinating.
Michelle traveled here many times previously including an extended stay one summer during college, trips as National Director of the College department at the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, family trips, and some tours with Congregation Or Ami. Yet her subsequent work and the kids seemed to preclude a visit in recent years. So while I traveled here often (3 times in a year and a half) with Congregation Or Ami trips and CCAR Rabbinic conventions, for the last eleven years, she has been an ohevet yisrael (lover of Israel) from afar.
Our first days in Tel Aviv have reignited a fascination and a love. In fact, these first days have been filled with one shehecheyanu moment after another for us. Of course there’s a blessed irony in it all. We are experiencing reclaimed love of our Holy Land while walking through the intentionally secular city of Tel Aviv. That too was a shehecheyanu moment!
Tel Aviv is a city that always feels like it’s on the move. To us Californians, Tel Aviv seems like Santa Monica, Long Beach, and San Francisco all rolled into one. Once Tel Aviv was the last place in Israel I wanted to waste time; why go to Israel’s Miami Beach when I could visit the greenery of the Galilee or the holy spaces of Jerusalem? But ever since my colleague Rabbi Meir Azari of Tel Aviv’s Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism – a massive Reform synagogue and community center – began to push our CCAR rabbinical organization to recognize the unique value of this secular yet extraordinary place, I have increased time in Israel’s cosmopolitan city, wandering its back streets and enjoying its diverse citified beauty.
Tel Aviv is an energetic amalgamation of glorious experiences: beach walks and strolls down the shdeirah (walking path between the streets) on Chen and Rothschild Boulevards, hidden pubs and cafes offering up equal measures of refreshment and relationship building, and a diverse mixture of delicious restaurants, serving every flavor of food from upscale to pop up.
Walking the city with our two nieces, seeing the city through their eyes, made each day exquisite. We quickly embraced the relaxed open atmosphere where people seem freer, less encumbered. (I love, for instance, that Tel Aviv hosts one of the largest gay pride parades in the world, testifying to the LGBTQ openness and inclusion that has grown deep roots here.)
The Shehecheyanu moments started piling up in the most unsacred of pursuits.
Ice cream: Tel Aviv – and Israel as a whole – now boasts delicious ice cream. This finally addresses a necessary component of any vacation for my wife. Back in 2007, Israel’s ice cream offerings were sickly sweet and too pedestrian for a traveler whose gelato-eating once seemed to provide the structure for a whole Italian vacation itinerary. But all that has changed today. So much so that at Anita, an underground ice cream haven in the chic Sarona neighborhood, Michelle struggles to choose two of a trifecta of sumptuous flavors. Endlessly and insistently creative in her pursuit of the sweet succor, Michelle surprisingly receives special dispensation to put three scoops into one cup. The g’lida (ice cream) became a first gastronomic shehecheyanu moment of the trip.
Restaurants: Few restaurants stick out in our memories from a pair of early 2000’s tours of Israel. We recall Mama Mia, an Italian place and Don’t Pass Me By Tea and Pie, both in Jerusalem. Today in Tel Aviv, the gastronomic experience is fabulous. Sarona boasts food stands run by some of Tel Aviv’s most accomplished chefs. Back alley restaurants in the “in” neighborhood of Florentine and along its Nachalat Binyamin walkways keep the taste buds watering. The Port of Tel Aviv gave us plenty to kvell about as we consumed flavorful fish in Benny HaDayag. Shehecheyanu for all those friend encounters which ended with lists of “must visit” restaurants.
Port-side Shabbat: Imagine welcoming Shabbat seaside with lively beautiful music, warm communal embrace and a never ending reunion with friends old and recent. That’s what we discovered at Beit T’filah Yisraeli, the pop up Shabbat service in Tel Aviv’s renovated Port. Usually held in the summer months, our friends clued us into a special Todah (thankfulness) service on the Shabbat after Yom Haatzmaut. There we sang with piano, drums, clarinet and beautiful voices. There we met friends from college days, students on exchange from Michelle’s de Toledo High School. There we bumped into our intern’s aunt, friends from Camp Newman and Swig, many rabbinic colleagues, and one of our kid’s friends now a cantorial student. In fact, the service became an unexpected Shehecheyanu moment rolling Shabbat, old and recent Jewish community, and a return to Israel all into one.
Whether walking along the beach from the port to Jaffa, meandering through Shuk Hacarmel, listening to great jazz in Beit Haamudim, or enjoying a Shabbat stroll with the rest of city’s inhabitants, the enjoyment we found at every turn in Tel Aviv, a city once overlooked in our itinerary, was refreshingly Shehecheyanu-worthy.
All that from only the first three days here. Wow!