Tel Aviv impressions

Blogger Steve Kelman reports on the interesting cultural make up of Tel Aviv and ponders the future of Israel.

I spoke with this young consultant about Israel's future. He agrues that the "strategic" question for Israel during the next decades is whether large proportions of the young, secular, well-educated people -- those who populate the Tel Aviv "bubble" -- will leave the country. These people are very international, and they speak several languages. There are lots of opportunities outside Israel, and pay is much higher. Add to this the threats that terrorism might reappear and that the ultra-Orthodox Jews, with very high birth rates, will come to be ever-more influential over the country's culture and politics. Other friends in Israel assure me that the bonds even these young people feel with Israel are strong, and will keep them in Israel. But as I look at Israel's situation, the most important reason for Israel to take risks for peace with the Palestinians -- and indeed this does involve risks for Israel -- is that the bigger risk, over the long term, is that Israel's most-productive citizens will give up and leave, and that peace could have an important influence on that equation.

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are the cultural poles in Israel. A large proportion of the Jerusalem population is religiously observant or even ultra-Orthodox; Jerusalem is also on the front lines of terrorism dangers in Israel because of its proximity to the West Bank. By contrast, Tel Aviv, basically due west of Jerusalem less than one hour away by car, is often called "The Bubble."

It was largely -- although not 100 percent -- free from terrorism even during the time of many terrorist bombs several years ago. Its population is largely secular -- most downtown restaurants are open during the Jewish Sabbath, and auto traffic is pretty heavy. And the area around Tel Aviv is the center both of Israel's high-tech industry and also its hot, late night life. (By the way, one sign of the decreased perception of the risk of terrorist attacks has been the transformation of the guards outside hotel entrances. Several years ago, they were burly guys with machine guns. Now they seem generally to be middle-aged slugs with beer bellies.)

Thirty years ago Israeli food was utilitarian and undistinguished. Now, many Israelis, especially in Tel Aviv, have become proud foodies, with cuisine based often on fresh fish and on really flavorful fruits and vegetables that remind one of the problems created in the U.S. by breeding fruits and vegetables for transportability rather than taste.

Last night I had dinner with a young consultant at a restaurant called Salon, started only a year or so ago by a celebrity chef named Eyal Shani. Much of the food is cooked with an emphasis on fresh Israeli vegetables, especially the succulent and flavorful tomatoes common here whose deep taste evokes what a tomato is capable of being. The food is good, but the restaurant is also a stage. It was incredibly loud, with American pop and soul music from the sixties and seventies mixed with Israeli folk-like songs that reminded me of music played at Jewish weddings. Particularly for the Israeli music, large parts of the restaurant crowd clapped and sang, giving the restaurant a communal feel. For the beef carpaccio, the chef himself appeared at people's tables to pound the meat into paper-thin slices with repeated, very loud hammer blows.