Tel Aviv began sprouting coffee shops in the 1920s. The city was growing, establishing itself as a vibrant centre of Jewish culture and commerce. Journalists, businesspeople, architects and intellectuals opened – and frequented – cafes that were stylishly designed and offered an exciting array of drinks, such as mocha, espresso and cold coffee.
By the 1930s, poets such as Hayim Bialik and Nathan Alterman were making reference to Tel Aviv café culture in their work. In the 1940s, the beach became a centre of free, flexing Jewish bodies enjoying year-round sunshine – with Dizengoff and Allenby streets a new locus of trendy places to sit and see and be seen. The 1950s saw a more bohemian turn with cafés attracting actors, theatre directors, literary types and so on.
In short, an atmosphere in which friends and associates gather to eat and drink and gab and set the world to rights, strike deals, or to dance and flirt is in Tel Aviv’s DNA. Over time, especially as political, military and religious trouble and strife came to define Jerusalem – just an hour down the road – Tel Aviv acquired the dubious nickname of “the bubble”. As Tali Kushir, the owner of a vintage clothes boutique, put it long before October 7: “When we sit here, we don’t feel Gaza and we don’t feel the settlements. We feel the beach breeze and watch people walking half naked in the streets.”
October 7 changed everything within and outside Israel. The Tel Aviv bubble burst along with all illusions that the status quo would somehow just hold and life would go on – bar the odd terrorist attack.
But I was curious: as time drew on, would the bubble repair? How long would it take for the Middle East’s most good-time city to return to normal? Is normal, post 7/10, even possible – especially while hostages are still in Gaza?
And so, six weeks on from the Hamas onslaught, with Israel still reeling, I went to Tel Aviv to take its temperature. I wanted to show solidarity to my friends there who feel beleaguered as well as disgusted by foreign coverage of the conflict. But could I sit and eat and drink with them as I did in days of yore?
I have been going to Tel Aviv regularly for about 20 years and it has invariably provided the same combination of delights: food, drink, sea, friends, parties, late nights, roof terraces. I fell in love with the city at 21 after a night out in delightful, friendly bars and eateries that were simply unimaginable in London. For 15 years I have exclusively had my hair cut by Zohar, a camp, cake-loving, pot-smoking part-time klezmer musician who lives on Sokolov Street in north Tel Aviv, since nobody in the UK or, as far as I can tell, Europe can do a decent cut on curly hair.
This time I went to pay my respects. I flew on El Al from Heathrow, the only direct route now offered from the UK. I booked a last-minute Airbnb, which was cheap, as you might expect, because the only foreigners there now are journalists and others with a professional interest in the conflict. Hotels, however, are full with the many thousands that have been evacuated from their homes in the north and south, due to rocket fire.
I took a train from Ben Gurion – which was nearly silent – to the Azrieli towers, which was illuminated with the Israeli flag against the night sky. It was late and streets were quiet, but warm and fragrant; the few passers-by were police or other uniformed people. As I neared my Airbnb off Dizengoff Circle, dog-walkers appeared and I heard the burble of people having late-night snacks at pizza joints and finishing off glasses of wine in bars with chairs and tables already stacked.
The next morning I awoke to birdsong and the sound of rubbish trucks. I made my way the few steps to Dizengoff Circle, which is now a shrine to the kidnapped, complete with hourglasses filled with red sand for every hostage. I sat at a café known for its delicious, expensive coffee. It was hard to get a seat, but I wedged myself in next to two tables of women quietly talking. Solitary men read the papers, others stared at laptops.
Next I went to Tamara, the legendary juice stand, on Dizengoff Street, to meet a friend. Everything was opening up: bars and restaurants are now resuming normal opening hours. But I watched closely: did this mean people were giving themselves permission to enjoy themselves? How can you eat, drink and be merry when your fellows have been brutally killed or captured by Hamas, with children and loved ones trapped underground in Gaza?
My friends explained it to me. They are all in mourning and in shock. Tears are never far away. For several weeks people barely left the house. So now, while they meet friends out, or seek some distraction or escape with a couple of cocktails or beers in a cool bar “a part of us is always with the hostages”.
The doubleness is everywhere. I sat with friends, usually apolitical friends, over wine and pitta and halva-stuffed cinnamon buns. What they wanted to talk about was the future of Israel. “If we don’t get the hostages – every single hostage – back,” said Daniela, a mother of three who lives in central Tel Aviv, “then what is the point of living here? What is the point of Israel? The whole point of it was for a place where Jews could live safely, not fear being kidnapped and murdered in their own homes.” Another friend, a left-wing musician, said that his core belief in a peaceful solution with Israel’s Palestinian neighbours had been profoundly shaken. “The attack was so awful, so awful, we have to do what it takes for it to never happen again, which means more use of force than I ever wanted,” he said. Interestingly, long-standing fury at Netanyahu and his far-right coalition – all of my friends had been regularly protesting against the judicial overhaul – has taken a backseat to the task in hand. “There has to be an election and praise God he will go,” said one. “But not till the war is over. All the focus has to be on that.”
I went to the Nilus (The Nile) on Allenby Street, billed as Tel Aviv’s coolest bar. Run by Moran Alon, a 42-year-old mum and former social worker from Jerusalem – a survivor of a terrorist bomb attack 22 years ago, the Nilus was shut for nearly a month after October 7. Alon wanted to wait until “ten people asked me to reopen”. It didn’t quite happen, and eventually she couldn’t afford to stay shut any longer. I went on a Wednesday night and while the outdoor tables were all quietly occupied, indoors most tables were empty.
The beach, closed for swimming for weeks, first because of the war and the absence of lifeguards, and then because of the pollution, was all but deserted despite beautiful weather. Nobody seemed to know if the water was clean enough to swim in, so I took my chances. I dried off looking at the perfect sunset, feeling lonely – I’ve never seen the beach so bare. But the next day I went to the Gordon Pool to do some lengths, and here there were more people, quietly and grimly ploughing up and down. Groups of middle-aged friends sat chatting on deckchairs by the pool.
That night, I stopped by an ice-cream shop on Dizengoff Street called Mystic Artisan Ice Cream, lured by the promise of a home-made licorice flavour. The proprietor, a Frenchman from Paris formerly in the dressmaking trade, said he had remained open the whole time because he couldn’t bear to stay home with the news. “I knew this is not a time for people to eat ice cream,” he told me, “but I couldn’t stay at home and watch what was happening. I needed to come and make ice cream, to stay sane.”
As I wended my way home, I found a young man was playing guitar and singing in the Circle. A grateful group gathered around, sitting or standing and watching in a mellow, muted fashion, unusual for this city. Some were evacuees staying in hotels nearby.
Tel Aviv is reopening for business; there are signs of a return to a kind of business as usual. But it seemed that the places in which people still feel most at home are the ones dedicated to those who still have not come home.