A holy bunch of hedonists

Expecting military checkpoints and religious fanaticism, Andrew Taylor instead discovers a land where culture, nightlife and the beach often take precedence over piety and politics.

DEEP inside the Teddy Stadium, below stands that fill with soccer fans waving Beitar's black-and-yellow flags or drape themselves in the red scarves of Hapoel, is a part of Jerusalem rarely seen on the nightly news.

There are no machinegun-wielding teenage soldiers, religious fanatics threatening Armageddon or politicians frothing with indignation in the New Gallery Artist's Studios. Instead lies a warren of studios containing the works of some of the city's young contemporary artists.

One wall of Palestinian artist Hanan Abu Hussein's studio is dominated by rows of bras dipped in concrete. Upstairs, Raz Gomeh hands out flyers depicting him lying naked in a bath, dribbling water from his mouth while urinating. It's performance art, says Gomeh, whose art also includes slicing up furniture from his mother's antiques shop.

Jewish mothers are famously indulgent towards their sons but surely Mrs Gomeh must draw the line at her son trying to be a human fountain? Not so, he assures me: "She comes to all my shows."

Earlier, our guide, Oded, observed: "This town is boiling all the time. Jerusalem challenges your morals, your values, everything."

But visitors expecting to be manhandled at military checkpoints, harangued by religious nutbags or caught in crossfire will be in for a surprise. Israel is not merely a country-sized firing range but rather an ethnically diverse, vibrant land where cultural and late-night pursuits often take priority over piety and politics.

Jerusalem's first pleasant surprise is the steep hills carpeted in pines and cypresses that guard the western approaches to King David's city. Thanks to the determination of Jewish settlers in the 1950s to "make the desert bloom", this side of Jerusalem resembles the alpine scenery of central Europe. It's a stark contrast with the arid eastern side sloping down to the Dead Sea.

Jerusalem in springtime blooms with white pear blossoms, which are as delicately beautiful and ephemeral as Japan's cherry blossoms. Less lovely is Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, which Oded says "has 120 ... members and 1 million problems". Nearby is the newly restored Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept in an oddly shaped white dome. It's meant to resemble the jars in which they were found on the same day in November 1947 that the United Nations voted to recognise the state of Israel.

Advertisement

Security is thorough. One guard asks if I have a weapon. I don't think it's a pick-up line.

The shrine is dimly lit, like a nightclub, and filled with baby-faced soldiers and American tourists with bumbags and faces lined like the scrolls' parchments.

In contrast, Ohad Meromi's five-metre-high statue, The Boy from South Tel Aviv, stands sentinel inside the museum naked, with a ferocious erection. Equally bold is Yitzhak Danziger's Nimrod, a sandstone sculpture depicting Noah's great-grandson as a naked hunter armed with a bow, uncircumcised and with a hawk on his shoulder.

Outside in the crisp spring air, we gather around a scale model of Jerusalem's Old City and Oded packs 5000 years of history into 15 minutes. He points out sights such as the Hebrew University, Monastery of the Cross, where a tree was cut to build the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, and the Valley of the Cheesemakers, a deep gouge in the landscape where Oded says Old City sewage was dumped.

Oded is not afraid to offer opinions. Some are insightful, a few are ridiculous. Take his fashion commentary: don't expect to see legs barely covered by miniskirts striding down fashionable Mamilla Street or skipping across the new tramlines on Jaffa Road, he says. Perhaps because it's 16 degrees, with a stiff wind?

"I've never walked with shorts in Jerusalem in my life," he says. "You just don't do this in the Holy City."

There are certainly no bare legs walking Me'a She'arim, in the heart of Jerusalem's Orthodox neighbourhood, where the dress code is broad-rimmed hats, heavy black overcoats and trousers too short in the leg for men and black wigs and prams for women.

Jerusalem's Old City is, of course, the honeypot around which tourists buzz. Three of the world's main religions can be found inside the Old City, with the fourth quarter claimed by Armenian Christians, and there is no shortage of pious package tourists retracing the Stations of the Cross, pausing between the third and fourth stations on Via Dolorosa to buy Dead Sea mud and rosary beads made of olive stones.

A detente appears to exist between the religions, helped no doubt by the hundreds of security cameras trained on the Old City's narrow alleys and plazas. The only thing disturbing the peace are the competing claims of street merchants flogging their wares. Hanif suggests his incense will please my wife, while Mustafa simply claims: "I make good felafel."

Neither can compete with the Spice Boys in the Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem's fresh-food bazaar, who shout: "Hello! Come here and try it! Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson ..."

They manage to hide their disappointment when I venture over to sample their delicious za'atar of pistachio, parsley, dried onion and countless other spices. Another culinary revelation is sahlab, a viscous milky concoction derived from orchids and flavoured with coconut, cinnamon and almond.

Internecine rivalries, however, rage unabated. Inside the Coenaculum on Mount Zion, where the Last Supper supposedly took place, Christian tour groups compete to sing Amazing Grace.

Their rivalry pales in comparison with the antagonism between the four sects that lay claim to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over what's claimed to be the site where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. In comparison, the Wailing Wall is a picture of serenity as Orthodox Jews, baby-faced soldiers and tourists plug the only remnant of Judaism's holiest shrine with prayers, while the devout rock back and forth in prayer.

There are more prayers for the baby boy being circumcised near the wooden fence that separates men from women. Modesty clearly plays no part in the brit milah circumcision ceremony as groups of women peer over the fence to watch this first airing of a little Jewish boy's manhood.

Above the Wailing Wall is Temple Mount, home to al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Mount, with its iconic golden roof. It's rarely open to visitors of other faiths but on a return visit I'm permitted to walk the wooden bridge above the Wailing Wall to Islam's third-holiest site.

A different guide, also named Oded, tells me that a bullet hole inside al-Aqsa marks the spot where King Abdullah I of Jordan was shot in 1951 for daring to suggest the Arabic world should negotiate with Israel. Only Muslims may enter the mosque these days. Oded suggests I could convert; it's far easier than becoming Jewish.

"Yes, you should do that," a passer-by tells me.

About 60 kilometres west and more than 700 metres below Jerusalem, Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv, stretches along the Mediterranean, its long beaches punctuated by high-rises, like the Gold Coast. It's youthful, brash and secular - a far cry from pious, weathered Jerusalem. If Jerusalem is a little Marie Osmond, Tel Aviv is definitely the Stevie Nicks of Israel.

The 2006 film Ha-Buah (The Bubble) explores Tel Aviv's hedonistic atmosphere and supposed isolation from conflicts raging around it. Other locals call their home Medinat Tel Aviv (State of Tel Aviv) to distinguish it from the rest of Israel.

Of course, the charred remains of the Dolphinarium, where 21 young people, mostly teenagers, queueing to enter the nightclub were killed by a suicide bomber in 2001, are a reminder that not even Tel Aviv's bubble can protect its residents from tragedy.

Despite such horrors, locals such as gallerist Emmy say Tel Aviv is a beach city, sun-drenched and bone-dry for most of the year. "You're naked most of the time. You're tanned."

Little wonder it has a lively bar scene centred on upmarket Rothschild Boulevard and Lilienblum Street. Other bars are woven into the city's different neighbourhoods, from Old Jaffa to arty Neve Tzedek, stay open late and are friendly. There's certainly no sign of the boorishness that led English writer A. A. Gill, in his latest book, Here and There, to label Israel as home to the rudest people.

We darken the doors of Abraxas, Milk and Shesek one night and find the waiters and bartenders happily translate Hebrew menus into English, explain mysterious dishes and recommend gin palaces to drink the night away.

Another night, we feast in the sublime Georgian restaurant Nanuchka, score free drinks at a nearby bar and dance off a hangover at the Breakfast Club.

With all these nocturnal shenanigans, Tel Aviv should be a ghost town until midday. But sunrise sees legions of joggers training for the city's coming marathon, while surfers bob in the water waiting for the perfect wave. In-line skaters glide along the promenade, while the beach reverberates to the rhythmic tap of madkot, a bat-and-ball game.

In contrast, I'm wobbling along the streets of Old Jaffa on a pink ladies' bike, past the Clock Tower and flea market, with Eytan Schwartz, who won the first series of Israeli reality TV show The Ambassador.

Now a host of talk show Ha-Olam Ha'Boker (The World Today), Schwartz provides a glimpse into his Tel Aviv, pointing out the Libyan synagogue where he was married, and takes me to Mutran on Yefet Street, where the sweet delicacies are a joy to the lips and a dental nightmare.

We cycle through Ajami, an Arabic neighbourhood that inspired the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name and featured local residents improvising their roles. He even allows me to visit the shrine where he worships - Abu Hassan's hummus shop on HaDolphin Street. People come from all over Israel to try Hassan's sole dish and Schwartz describes him as a "poet of hummus".

Food is serious business in the Middle East. Israel's claim to be the home of hummus is hotly contested by neighbouring Lebanon, while chefs from both countries compete to cook up the largest plate of the humble dip. The Lebanese are the current record-holders, Schwartz says with a tinge of regret.

Food can unite, too. The Nalaga'at Theatre in Jaffa Port stages plays performed by deaf and blind actors, Muslim and Jewish. Its Cafe Kapish is staffed by deaf waiters who hand customers a card with basic sign language. Next door is the acclaimed Blackout Restaurant, where customers eat in the dark and are served by blind waiters. Nearby warehouses have been taken over by cafes and galleries such as the extraordinary Jaffa Salon for Palestinian Art.

Tel Aviv's Bauhaus architecture, created by Jewish architects fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s, has earned it UNESCO recognition and the moniker the White City. Apartment living is the norm here and Schwartz says the spacious balconies on older buildings encouraged the city's porch culture of nightly alfresco gatherings of families around the dinner table.

He says the family bonds were strengthened by the fact Israel had only one television broadcaster until 20 years ago.

Times change for the better, too. Gan Ha'hashmal (Electric Garden) used to be a derelict area frequented by transsexual prostitutes. These days, its streets are filled with chic designer stores and boutiques.

With such a vibrant party scene, Tel Avivans need to dress well. Visitors should, too, Emmy advises, if you want to meet locals. You may just receive the late-night text message "Erah?" ("Are you awake?")

The writer travelled with assistance from Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Trip notes

Getting there

Flight Centre is offering return economy airfares from Sydney to Tel Aviv from $1765 for travel between September 1 and November 11. 13 31 33, flightcentre.com.au.

Staying there

Tel Aviv: a former cinema housed in an attractive Bauhaus building overlooking Dizengoff Square, the Cinema Hotel is centrally located, has comfortable, if small, rooms with free wi-fi and provides a fantastic breakfast. Rates start from $US183 ($170) a night, cinemahotel.com.

Jerusalem: well appointed, if characterless, the Dan Panorama hotel at least lives up to its name, with superb views across Jerusalem. Rates start from $US181 a night for a standard room, danhotels.com.

More information

goisrael.com.

Three things to know

1 Don't get stuck in Jerusalem after sunset on Friday, the Shabbat (Sabbath), as almost the entire city shuts up shop and public transport stops until sunset on Saturday. You will not be welcome in an Orthodox neighbourhood during Shabbat. You can find refuge in the Muslim and Christian quarters in the Old City. Tel Aviv is less strict and you can drink to celebrate Shabbat but many shops still close.

2 In the Holy Lands, the Bible is as useful as a Rough Guide or Lonely Planet.

3 Check out the movies The Bubble and Ajami for insight into life in contemporary Tel Aviv. My Israeli film critics also recommended the 2004 English-language film Walk on Water, by The Bubble director Eytan Fox.

- Sun-Herald

CORRECTION: The map with the print version of this story should have indicated the occupied Golan Heights and the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The article should have noted that East Jerusalem, the location of many historical sites mentioned, is claimed by Israelis and Palestinians.

Comments