The Mediterranean is unlike any other sea in the world. Its seductive allure is only outmatched by its sedative properties. One dip into the silvery depths and you’re instantly buoyant, facing up toward the sky and pondering why you ever joined the rat race to begin with. Tel Aviv was born alongside the Mediterranean, forged from the sand and sweat of Arab and Jewish labor in a century untouched by digital mapping such that her growth was guided only by the hand-sketched plans of pioneers and the dreams of immigrants.
My first entry into the Mediterranean came well before I would fall in love with Jaffa, or the landscaped lining of her shore. In 2006 I went on the quintessential Birthright trip: the American-Jewish coming of age rite of passage known around the world to be the final bastion of the Jews’ attempt to convince its next generation that they are chosen. Upon my first bathe off the shores of Tel Aviv, I was surrounded by sun and sky and my new beautiful young Jewish friends, and within minutes I was fleeing from the sea, shrieking from a jellyfish sting and fighting back dizziness as my feet reconnected with solid land, the world spinning black in front of me.
This initiation to the sea seems appropriate in retrospect, given that my subsequent times in Israel would also be disorienting and peppered with the dramatic and unexpected amidst fun and natural beauty. But it’s also disparate: because all other affairs with Tel Aviv have been so lulling and ethereal: filled with love and heat, dancing, sex and salt. Salt from sweat and salt from sea.
People gather on the shores of the sea, and alongside them. Arabs and Jews, tourists and locals stroll the paved tayelet on Shabbat, speaking leisurely in their respective tongues, emitting exclamations and exchanging loving glances alongside the shining water as the sun sets farther and farther into the west. Little well-groomed dogs and mangy slinking cats dart around, tripping up the occasional bicyclist and stopping children for the necessary sniff around.
Arab children barbecue over tiny grills, darting forward to stoke the coals and jumping quickly back to avoid being singed by the sparks. They eye you mischievously as you pass, sometimes beckoning and calling in Arabic and sometimes laughing freely and uproariously to themselves, enjoying the company of their friends and the easy comfort in which they sit along the sea they’ve known since birth. Old wizened women in hijab sit nearby on benches, talking amongst themselves, gesturing gently and clucking their tongues at the tiny diapered children crawling around their swollen ankles.
I walked every Saturday afternoon with a friend up the length of the tayelet in search of Tamra ice cream on Gordon and Ben Yehuda, taking in glimpses of the turquoise Mediterranean and free hugs along the way. Jaffa’s silhouette stood proud, unyielding in the distance behind me, bathed in silver and golden light: like heaven guiding me to return home come dusk.