The guys warned me about Tel Aviv. They mentioned it in the same breath along with places like Sitges and Mykonos, and when I heard them speak, it was either accompanied by gushing adulation or a tinge of disdain. In my mind was the overawing image of a bacchanalian playground: an urban sprawl of sweaty sculpted bodies ready to devour men whole with unapologetic hunger. They drew me in with an aplomb at once entrancing and intimidating. As I pussyfooted into this paradise of sorts, I prayed I wouldn’t be one of those they spat back out, left alone to loiter in disillusionment.
My impatience got the best of me that first night. I didn’t sleep. As I connected to the Wi-Fi, the messages poured. All of Tel Aviv was wide awake. At three in the morning, I understood then why they called it the Non-Stop City. A cornucopia of hellos and היי flooded my screen and filled me with ecstasy. Each ping was a badge of desire, acceptance, and belonging. I basked in the glare of the grinding screen light. It was better than any dream I could have dreamt. I sought them out, fumbling euphorically from the groove of one bed to the temptation of another. I remember squinting at house numbers on dimly lit streets, stone-cold floors and portable heating units, swirls of flaxen hair, and honeyed lips dripping with interjections I couldn’t understand. In those twilight hours, I feared nothing. I felt only the limitlessness of the city. It was nearing ten by the time I shuffled back up the stairs of the Abraham Hostel. Breakfast was just ending, and I hastily snatched up some pieces of sweet halvah before returning to the dormitory and burrowing into my bunk.
What little recollection I have of daytime Tel Aviv perplexed me. At first glance, everything appeared alien. The cacophony of the Carmel Market, the city’s biggest souk, was a confronting sight. As far as I could see, things I didn’t know: rows of unfamiliar produce accompanied by indecipherable Hebrew. I loitered along the crowded thoroughfare before trading a handful of shekels for a cup of freshly pressed pomegranate juice and slipping away to quieter spaces.
By the waterfront of Jaffa, or Yafo, Tel Aviv’s oldest district, the minaret of the Sea Mosque and the lapping waves painted a wistful portrait of the city’s past incarnations. On its rocks, fiction nestle comfortably with fact. The Greeks say that the beautiful Andromeda was chained here as a sacrifice to appease an enraged Poseidon. And it was at Jaffa’s port that Jonah boarded the ship which would lead to his famous biblical encounter with the whale.
As I walked, I began to feel like I had known this city all my life. If I squinted just right, I could see the San Francisco Bay. They didn’t call it Silicon Wadi for nothing. Here they were, the same palm trees and mission bells, the same hipster coffeeshops and nonplussed residents. The same construction cranes and spiritless condos that will forever be out of my reach, and me. I closed my eyes and I was fourteen, strolling down the wide boulevards under a dry Californian sun, Frappuccino in hand, wondering which used CD I would buy with next week’s allowance. On the dusty streets of Tel Aviv, I stumbled upon memories of a childhood that was now far behind me.
I didn’t have time to dwell in my nostalgia, as Rami pulled up by the hostel in loose sweatpants and a massive Toyota pickup. We had been exchanging texts and pictures, and when I told him I was leaving for Jerusalem that day, he offered to take me. Drive with me. It was a commanding directness that I found common here, and I liked that immensely. We blew out of the city, leaving the libertine bustle of Tel Aviv behind, and suddenly the subdued shades of sea, sand, and cement were replaced by fertile hills of olive and forest green. Turning off the freeway, we parked for a pit stop to marinate in the nature.
“You’re brave,” he said as our joyride came to an end and Jerusalem loomed into view, “getting into a stranger’s car your first time in Israel.” With a look I interpreted as a mixture of amusement and surprise, he chided, “Don’t be doing that again.”
“Aren’t they all good Samaritans like you?” I quipped. We laughed, wished each other good journeys, and as he drove off, I couldn’t help but smile at this unimaginably awry and wanton adventure across the Holy Land.