There should be a Birthright America, to let the never-left-Zabars set see Appalachia, the Eugene, Oregonians sent to the evangelical exurbs, and so on. Because much of the value of Birthright Israel is that you see the places you would never have booked a trip to otherwise, even if you were already set on heading to Ben Gurion. That said, when it came to booking a trip myself… I’m more a fan of sitting in cafes watching people go by, checking out book stores, and contemplating buying those amazing Israeli platform shoes, than I am of hiking or praying. I’d long been intrigued by Tel Aviv, which I’d read is an Israeli Jewish city the way that Paris is French and Catholic, in other words, a city with cultural specificity but not, as with Jerusalem, thousands of years worth of spirituality, rendering the city itself as it exists in 2007 almost irrelevant. You go to Jerusalem because it’s Jerusalem, not because of some particular cafe with especially good espresso.
Also, the particular history of Tel Aviv–modern political Zionism, Herzl in particular–interests me much more than does religious Judaism. I consider myself more of an Israelophile than a Zionist, since Zionism suggests the wish for a Jewish state to be created in Palestine, whereas Israelophilia is an appreciation of the existing state; plus, Zionism is about politics and religion, whereas Israelophilia includes cultural and aesthetic angles. For whatever reasons, I’m far more excited to see a nationally and culturally Jewish beach than to know that the Kotel is once again in Jewish hands. Of course these two elements of Israel are related–thus Old-New Land–but it’s the new bit I find compelling.
Why the new and not the old? Before visiting Tel Aviv, I stopped, among other places, in Paris and Brussels. Both of these cities have Jewish museums, both of which I saw for the first time this trip. In the Paris museum, interspersed with Judaica and other typical exhibition materials are photos of “real,” contemporary French Jews, often accompanied by quotes from these individuals on being a Jew in France today. I’m not sure what to make of this: it takes away from the accusation that Jewish museums in the Diaspora exist to document a now-dead civilization, but it’s also a bit odd, as though if “normal” faces weren’t put on this entity, Judaism, then who knows what the French populace would think the Jews might be.
The Brussels museum is all the more bizarre. Aside from Judaica and Holocaust information (along with what ranges from an idiot’s guide to Judaism to something a notch more sophisticated), it’s filled with what are basically family photographs and ordinary documents of more or less contemporary Jews, some in Belgium and some elsewhere. Amusingly, a wedding contract of two New York Jews is part of the exhibition. Not famous people, just Jews. The bottom of the barrel has officially been scraped.
The problem with these museums is not with the museums themselves but the oddity of European Jewish existence in 2007. Jews, being people, are bound to wind up all over the world, depending on where careers, spouses, or flukes of postcolonial migration may take them. And so there are indeed Jews in both France and Belgium, even when I’m not there visiting. But the specifically Jewish future–as opposed to the future that includes, among many others, Jews–is in Israel. Israel, and perhaps West 96th Street.
Given its architecture, climate, beaches, cuisine, and language, comparing Tel Aviv to Paris, New York, or Chicago, the other cities I know decently well, is impossible. These qualities are what make Tel Aviv seem so different. That Tel Aviv is located in the country CNN International, BBC, and Le Monde can’t get enough of discussing, that the violence not far afield happens to be the violence that most interests the rest of the world, is something you’d never guess from visiting the city. Tel Aviv feels (and by all accounts is) a far safer city, crime-wise, than those others. The well-guarded cafes and pre-shopping bag searches are all that hint at something being a bit different. The city is pleasant–probably something to do with the beach, the outdoor cafes, and the ridiculously good-looking population–but without an Eiffel Tour, with not a single hotel particulier, without a Morgan Library or a Frick, Tel Aviv simply does not feel Important. Fabulous, yes, but not cutting-edge. It doesn’t have enough of a past for suit-wearing elderly women from “old families” to cluster with their sweater-draping offspring, setting themselves off from the rest of the population as an aesthetic elite. Now, I was in Tel Aviv for less than a week; if the city does indeed have such a population, feel free to correct me. Yes, I am commenting on a city I know effectively nothing about, but this is all I’ve got.
Unlike even the most famously Jewish (but non-Hasidic) neighborhoods in NYC–i.e. Upper West Side– Tel Aviv shuts down on Jewish holidays. Why does this matter to the non-observant who do not observe these holidays, and whose first choice would be for a city that never closes? It just does. As Albert Memmi writes in his “Portrait of a Jew,” a country that shuts down for holidays not of your religion will never feel like your country. There is a confidence that comes from knowing that the religious version of whatever it is you are is the dominant way of being religious. I can’t explain why, but there is. This is where the “old” bit comes in, in what is 99% a new land.