Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jerusalem Vs. Tel Aviv: And the Winner Is...

The best things in life aren't free. (Trust me, you get what you pay for, and in Israel, one of the most expensive countries I've ever visited, you pay a lot). The best things in life are totally unexpected.

Which brings me to Jerusalem. I'm so glad that four days ago, a bus brought me here from Tel Aviv, a city that had hovered near the top of my travel bucket list for years, ever since I dated Amir, a guy from there, in whose Brooklyn apartment I spent the Y2K New Year's Eve. I'd always made the same mistake that I suspect many others do, thinking of Tel Aviv as being synonymous with Israel, the way many foreigners associate New York City and the United States.

If you've seen Tel Aviv, you've seen Israel, right?


If my day trips to Galilee and Akko (with those gorgeous views of Haifa along the way toward the latter) inspired the realization that Tel Aviv is but one of Israel's multiple sides, Jerusalem has driven that point home. A recurring theme during my time here has been the friendly competition between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Israel's two largest cities, only an hour or so apart by bus. The rivalry was pretty much unspoken during my four weeks in Tel Aviv, but then, as with Sydney vs. Melbourne, it's always the underdog that's most vocal about the dog race.

Whether visitors prefer Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is entirely a matter of taste. On a purely superficial level, if you love the beach, and partying is a priority, you'll probably appreciate Tel Aviv more. It's the Los Angeles of Israel: glamorous, easygoing and perhaps just a little bit shallow. The bartender at basher, a cool, cavernous restaurant in Jerusalem's hipster/boho Mahane Yehuda district compared Tel Aviv to a beautiful lady who doesn't have much to say. Bingo!

(The basher bartender also asked if Jerusalem was what I thought it would be. "Did you expect to see people riding around on camels?" The beasts of burden hadn't actually crossed my mind, but two days later, I did see several of them and a young boy riding a donkey on Mount of Olives.)

I'd take the human analogy a bit further (and gayer) by comparing "The White City" (as Tel Aviv is affectionately called, due to its dominant color scheme) to a buffed and bronzed Chelsea boy in New York City -- and not just because the men in Tel Aviv (especially the ones you see running along the beach) are so perfectly sculpted, if you are into that sort of plucked, bemuscled gay beauty. Tel Aviv, though one of the most gay friendly places I've ever been to, is totally mainstream, as so many cities that revolve around beach culture are, from the music you hear when you go out (Katy, Rihanna, Britney, Gaga -- again) to what people are wearing (or not wearing).

One of the most surprising things about Jerusalem (aside from how much I love it) is its countercultural presence, which extends beyond one corner (Dizengoff and Frishman in Tel Aviv, my favorite intersection there) and permeates pockets throughout the city. There are fewer perfect bodies (or perhaps they're hidden under the extra layers that Jerusalem's cooler climate requires), but I see guys wearing long dreadlocks, people with nose rings and so many tattoos. When I was walking through an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, four young schoolgirls actually stopped me to tell me how much they loved the bull tattoo on my right arm.

That's the sort of thing that probably would never happen in Tel Aviv, from the compliment right down (and up and down and up) to the experience of ascending and descending steep inclines through Arab neighborhoods. I'd read that Jerusalem is the intersection of three monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- so I came here expecting a confluence of religious cultures more than camels.

But aside from sections of the old city dedicated to each of those three religions, I hadn't seen much evidence of Jerusalem's diversity until I checked out of Hillel 11, my hotel in the city center, after three nights there and walked to Commodore Hotel, a "four-star" accommodation in the eastern part of the city. Over there, Jerusalem becomes almost an entirely different place, with Arab print on the storefronts and Muslim women walking up and down the hilly terrain to their destinations.

Standing on the top of the hill on the corner of Sultan Suleiman and Derech Yeriho at the northeastern edge of the old city for the first time, looking down at the various city pockets below and over at the other hills in the distance, it finally hit me: What a massive metropolis! In some ways, the hilly eastern part of Jerusalem reminds me of Istanbul, another Muslim-dominated metropolis, only with far more dramatic inclines.

The most dramatic one I encountered was the one leading up Mount of Olives to the top of the city, where there's a look-out point with the most stunning view of the Dome of the Rock in the old city. It's the shot I've seen on the cover of so many Jerusalem travel guides and in countless professional photos of the city.

Standing on the top, I thought about how odd it is that a city that's been the disputed capital of both Israel and the State of Palestine for years, with Israel claiming it within its boundaries, has as its most iconic structure, an Islamic building to which Jewish Israelis and other non-Muslims have severely restricted access. (I was tersely turned away by a guard when I attempted to walk up the steps of the old city leading to the grounds leading to the entrance on my first day in town.) It's an almost poetic sort of justice, considering the bureaucratic process that Palestinians must negotiate to enter Jerusalem at all.

The great irony is that the Holy Land-defining conflict between the two sides, Israel and Palestine, is tied to the Jewish and Islamic presence and influence in the city that both countries call their capital, which are precisely what make Jerusalem such a distinctive experience. I'm thankful for the annoyance of having had to change hotels (due to Hillel 11's lack of vacancy my two final nights in Jerusalem), for had I not had to go east to get to the Commodore, I might have missed a side of Jerusalem -- and perhaps its best view, too -- that contributes so greatly to its landscape, literally and more figuratively.

Who do I love now? Tel Aviv or Jerusalem? I love both, almost equally. Tel Aviv has less cultural, historical, political and religious significance and far fewer sights, but its easily negotiable grid set-up, Mediterranean running route, and flatter terrain, make it the more livable of the two, a quality it shares with Melbourne, one of my Top 3 favorite cities.

If I were to move to Israel (and believe me, I've considered it a few times in the last nearly five weeks), it would be to Tel Aviv, in large part for its livability but also because it's not as dominated by religion as Jerusalem, where I've been asked by strangers about my own beliefs several times. Considerably more secular, Tel Aviv doesn't shut down entirely on Shabbat, which I'm told is devoutly observed in Jerusalem, almost to a very inconvenient fault. Rani at 5th of May told me that if you don't close up shop by 4pm on Friday, you run the risk of being ostracized, vandalized or, worse, damned to hell for all eternity.

On every other day of the week, Jerusalem is more like Rome, also in my Top 3, brimming with religion, culture, history and unbelievable views. Walking through it, I keep having to stop and gasp, as breathless from what I'm seeing as I am from the steep climb to see it. I wouldn't necessarily want to live here (something else it has in common with Rome), but as a visitor, it's been a richer, more rewarding travel experience than Tel Aviv.

Thank God I didn't cram it into a two-day tour package including stopovers in Bethlehem and the Dead Sea. No visit to Israel would be complete without at least several days spent here. You haven't seen Israel until you've done more than just see Jerusalem. It's going to be so hard to leave tomorrow.

Five Stunning Jerusalem Views

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