I’m going to declare my interest from the start. I’m about to make Aliyah, so my passion for Israel, and above all Tel Aviv, can be taken for granted. It’s easy and correct for me to say that I’m enamoured with the place; what isn’t so straightforward is knowing where to begin.
I came to Tel Aviv for the first time in March 2010. It had been nearly 15 years since my last visit to Israel, which hadn’t involved any time in the city. I was drawn back to the land by many things – a desire for a steadying hand for my first faltering steps into researching my family history and exploring my Jewish identity; Tel Aviv’s apparently sudden flowering as a liberal, cosmopolitan, gay-friendly destination, and, rather more prosaically, easyJet’s unexpected launch of cheap flights to the city from my local airport in the UK. I went expecting a good time, some meaningful moments and perhaps a few new friends.
It won’t come as a surprise that every item on my list was checked several times over. I found what I was looking for in Tel Aviv – history, incredible people, great bars and excellent food. Above all, however, I found a sense of self, and in spite of the litany of praise I had read for Tel Aviv, I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me feel about myself. If you want to see the whole world and yet feel at home; if you want to drift down the street in a unity of outsiders; if you want to feel a city which pulsates with a glorious confusion of colours, textures, beats and languages; if you want to be part of a mass which wanders as one and thinks as a hundred thousand, then come to Tel Aviv. It’s a place to fall in love with, a place to fall in love in, a place to find yourself and others. It’s a place whose people are defined by where they’ve been, but to whom nothing matters so much as where they’re going. Tel Avivians understand the world but don’t necessarily want to be understood, if indeed such a thing is even possible. These paradoxes form the base for the shifting sands of the city’s character and complexion.
This was what greeted me on my first trip to Tel Aviv. It took a year for the impressions it made on me to percolate, and I left first time round believing I’d found a new regular holiday destination; when I returned 12 months later, I knew I had a problem. I had readied myself for my second visit to be an anticlimax, lacking the novelty of the first time. Not so – Tel Aviv confounded my expectations again (something it has a habit of doing frequently). Gradually, in the shadow of the technicolour, kinetic starburst of Israel’s modern cosmopolis, something strange began happening to life ‘back home’ in my mind’s eye. The light started draining out, the colours becoming desaturated as the realisation dawned that I’d found a place where I felt like myself, and it wasn’t where I lived. The notion crystallised as I sat in the departure lounge at Ben Gurion airport, thinking to myself that sitting there in order to go home wasn’t something I was prepared to go through many more times.
So Tel Aviv made its siren call to me, and I’ve responded. Two years after my first visit there, almost to the day, I will be making Aliyah. Of course, there is a lot more behind that decision than my love affair with the ‘White City’. But for me, the story started on my beloved Ben Yehuda Street, with coffee and halva, new friends with old souls, and a bakery on the corner.