The first time that I visited Israel was on a Chabad solidarity mission with members of my local community. The tour was a life changing experience as it is for any Jew who visits Israel for the first time. We had a wonderful tour of most of the country and it included many of the religious, historical and political highlights of an educational and supportive visit to the Holy Land. But the itinerary included little time in Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city. Our local rabbi, who traveled with us to Israel, was almost too careful in making sure that our group of American men were not too distracted by whatever secular activities might be going on in Tel Aviv. We spent about 3 hours total in Tel Aviv touring the art district of Jaffa and visiting one of our traveling companion’s condo — that was it.
Ironically, several years later I found myself doing business in Israel. I couldn’t wait for my first business trip. While all of my work would be in Tel Aviv, I was careful to plan some time in Jerusalem to visit the Old City and the Kotel and Safed — some of my most potent memories from my first trip. Tel Aviv seemed like a third world city: dirty, not very Jewish, lacking character and definition and disorganized. While I loved the idea of coming to Israel, Tel Aviv was a place I tried to spend time away from — just like my tour on my first trip. But I couldn’t escape Tel Aviv, and my trips became more frequent and longer in duration. After a while, Tel Aviv became familiar and comfortable. I started to enjoy the food, understand the people and appreciate some of the chaos and disorganization. But I always considered Tel Aviv to be Israel’s secular left wing city — in some ways even more secular than my home in the USA. While I was in shul on Yom Kippur, all of Tel Aviv was enjoying a day of no traffic and riding bicycles in the streets. Most Jews in Tel Aviv were “Jews” but it was hardly the same as the orthodox image that most American expect after visiting Jerusalem or other religious cities in Israel.
Two visits, then three, then six, then… I can’t count them anymore – Tel Aviv began to grown on me. It started to feel like home. I felt like I understood a little better the charms of Tel Aviv and its residents. And this past year, it occurred to me, that Tel Aviv — in spite of its image, is filled with the energy of Torah and Kabbalah, every bit as much as Jerusalem or Safed — and in some ways perhaps the analogy of Tel Aviv is more similar to Kabbalah than Safed or Jerusalem because there is both a superficial understanding of the people and the place, and a deeper level of understanding that reveals the essence of Tel Aviv and its importance to the Jewish people and our mission.
So here is my observation on the Kabbalah of Tel Aviv:
1. Residents of Tel Aviv generally live in the moment. They go to the beach. They windsurf. They stand idle at 7pm every night admiring the sunsets over the Mediterranean Sea. They have a beer. They party all night. They enjoy a long meal with friends and family. They pursue the arts. They pursue start ups and making a living by starting a risky business. They are educated and highly cognizant of the realities that surround them. They understand that there is always the possibility that what they have is impermanent and may disappear tomorrow. That what they own now, is not really permanently theirs and that what they can take with them are only the their relationships and the mitzvahs that they perform. They are surrounded by enemies and know it can be over tomorrow. Seize the day. Seize the moment. Be mindful. Kabbalah.
2. Tel Aviv dwellers like to pride themselves on not being religious or observant in any way. Admittedly, they sometimes look down on more religious Jews which is more a factor of Israeli politics than value judgments. But they do judge based on level of observance nonetheless. But… if you take a stroll through Tel Aviv on Friday morning, where is everyone? They are at Shuk Carmel buying fish or challah or meat. Why? Because instinctually, no matter how non-Jewish Tel Aviv residents might think they are, they are unintentionally preparing for Shabbat. Preparing for a Friday night meal and preparing for a Saturday afternoon meal. No shul required, but the family meal, the pause in the week — this is something that every Jew must be ready for. When I have asked my local friends about this, there is almost a look of confusion because they believe it has nothing to do with Shabbat. And yet, as secular as Tel Aviv is — and as controlling over Israeli politics as it can be – it is Friday and Saturday that represent the weekend in Tel Aviv, not Saturday and Sunday as it is in the USA and the rest of the world. Any day of the week in Tel Aviv, someone greeting you will say “Shalom” or “Manish Ma”. But on Thursday afternoons until Friday afternoon there is only one greeting in Tel Aviv: “Shabbat Shalom”. Tel Aviv will not give up Shabbat no matter how cool it thinks it is.
3. At Sundown on Friday evenings in Jerusalem, a horn sounds and Shabbat begins. The city is closed. In Tel Aviv it is much more gradual and requires a careful examination to see what is happening. There is no horn to advise residents to stop working. Instead, magical sunsets begin to materialize over the Sea, and all of Tel Aviv seems to slow down to first appreciate and honor the sunset, and then to rest. Most of the restaurants are closed. Many of the bars and clubs are closed. People are walking. Most of Tel Aviv is quiet. It is not the same dogmatic shutdown as Jerusalem or Safed but it is almost like an honor system — everyone knows it is time to slow down. Work stops. Offices empty out (many on Thursday), storefronts are long closed. Even if you were intent on not observing Shabbat, it would be difficult to find something to do in violation. Yes, there are taxis and some cars — but where are they going? Probably to someone’s house for a family dinner. Because that is what Shabbat is; taking a pause in the week to appreciate what we have, which at the core is our family. No work and a chance for families to reconnect. A chance to breathe. A chance to appreciate. You can’t get more Shabbat than that. No candles or kiddush required.
4. On Shabbat, most things in Tel Aviv remain closed. If the weather is good, it’s a beach day. A day to appreciate nature. A day to appreciate friends. A day to appreciate family. Maybe a day four wheeling in the desert. Shabbat is still a day of rest to those who live in Tel Aviv. Whether it is a long afternoon outdoors for a family meal — or a day out in nature appreciating the beauty of the Holy Land — it is Shabbat. No distractions. It is pure.
5. Tel Aviv is charitable. I help technology start ups. The CEO of one of the startups that I help asked if I would approve of him setting aside a portion of the company’s equity for tzedakah. I had never heard of such a thing, especially from someone from Tel Aviv where everyone is seeking to make it big. But there it was, a full fledged organization dedicated to capturing equity from Israeli startups for the sole purpose of creating an equity fund for the less fortunate. Tzedakah, Tel Aviv style.
6. Tel Aviv has empathy. They genuinely care for and worry about the Palestinians. They heartbroken and conflicted over their confusing situation. They want to find a solution. They want peace. They want unity for humankind.
7. Tel Aviv is Zionist. They may not be observant, but they believe in the right of the Jewish people to inhabit the land of Israel. This is a confusing observation since Tel Aviv seems to be perpetually at odds with Jerusalem in political forums. But Tel Aviv parents send their kids to the IDF in the same or greater numbers than the rest of Israel. No questions asked. No matter how left of left they may be, the common denominator is that this is their home and they know they must honor and protect it. There are no draft dodgers. They all believe in the Jewish Nation. They all believe Am Yisrael Chai.
What I know of Kabbalah is the many layers of interpretation and understanding of the text of the Torah. There are the written “stories”, and then there is what is underneath, what it means as metaphor, what it means for me, what it means for this world and what it means for the other worlds. Tel Aviv is a test in Kabbalah as it is not immediately evident that the story is a Jewish one, but after peeling the layers away, Tel Aviv is every bit as representative of Jewish values as any other Jewish community in Israel or anywhere else in the world — and in some ways, since it is unbounded by the traditional observances, its values may even be a purer representation.