Israel Uncovered First Look at Tel Aviv: Old and New

By Cedric Kenney, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Israel Uncovered Bus 4 I was a bit groggy as my second day in Israeli started off, as the New Years festivities from the night before had taken its toll on me. Celebrating the arrival of 2016 in Tel Aviv was an unforgettable experience, one that further advanced for me a sentiment that had been present from the very beginning: Israel is a society that truly blends the old and the new with powerful results. Since our first tour stop yesterday in the 4,000 year old port of Jaffa overlooking the gleaming towers of Tel Aviv, I have been struck by how Israel strives to build a modern society on an ancient foundation. The name Tel Aviv itself is composed of the Hebrew words "Tel," denoting a site that contains archaeological ruins from previous civilizations, and "Aviv," meaning spring, symbolizing renewal.

Though I was tired, I certainly enjoyed the morning speakers at Tel Aviv-Jaffo Academic College. The first speaker was Ruth Calderon, a former Member of Knesset, who discussed the historical and religious significance of the State of Israel. She explained just how important the idea of Israel was for the many generations of Jews who lived in exile, often under oppressive circumstances. While she did talk at length about the virtues of Israel, she did not shy away from discussing the challenges inherent in translating religious ideals into a modern nation-state. Her experience in the Israeli Knesset proved invaluable as she elaborated on the tensions between various religious factions in its national politics.

The second speaker was Assaf Luxembourg, the CEO of Crowdmii and an expert on Israel tech and start-ups. He broke down the story of the Israeli economy, especially with respect to the booming high-tech sector. Luxembourg firmly believes in the idea that Israel is a "startup nation;" an experimental country which has succeeded against all odds. He credited the age-old Jewish value of "chutzpa," meaning inability to accept no for an answer, for granting Israel its success in the world of tech startups. This chutzpa has given Israel the highest rate of tech startups per capita in the world, and Tel Aviv has been declared the second best place in the world for tech startups after Silicon Valley.

After listening to these speakers, our group traveled to HaCarmel shuk, an open-air marketplace where I consumed the best hummus I have ever had in my life. Our stay there was cut short by the closing of the shops in preparation for Shabbat, the traditional Jewish day of rest. In Judaism, God rested on the seventh day after creating the world, and therefore the Jewish people also rest from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. For those who observe Shabbat, this means that no electronic devices are used all day, no driving is allowed, and no work or creation is done. The 24-hour period of Shabbat is dedicated to spending time with friends and family, praying, and relaxing. Even the elevators in our hotel stopped automatically at every floor, allowing observant Jews to use them without pressing any buttons. I found this modern adaption to a several thousand-year-old practice to be particularly interesting.

We had planned on visiting a synagogue for Shabbat services, but unfortunate circumstances prevented our visit. A shooting at a bar in downtown Tel Aviv caused the city to be put on lockdown, and we stayed in the hotel to discuss the significance of what had happened. Reflecting upon Jewish history helped us to contextualize today’s attack. Violence has accompanied the state of Israel since it’s inception, and it can be seen as yet another chapter in a seemingly endless struggle for a safe, peaceful, and prosperous Jewish society.

The evening ended on a happy note with a beautiful Shabbat celebration. Some of the Jewish David Project students were happy to teach us traditional Shabbat songs and toasts. For example, I learned that Shabbat is not just a responsibility, but also a time of joy and festivities. As the date was still January 1st, our continuing New Years celebrations would blend with the beginning of our Shabbat festivities.

Celebrating an ancient holiday in a new city on an ancient land exemplifies Israel for me. Israel – and the Jewish people – is all about blending the old and the new. It is the mixing of new secular and old religious occasions, of the antique and the contemporary, and of old and new.

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