The suicide attack at a crowded shawarma stand last April was particularly brutal, even by Israeli standards. The young Palestinian man whose backpack blew up near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station wounded dozens of people and killed 11, including a Florida high-school sophomore in town with his family for Passover. The bodies were swiftly bagged, and rabbis carefully collected flesh for burial. As day turned to evening, the nation braced for the army’s inevitable response, and the TV news crews went home.
But just a mile uptown from the explosion, the other Tel Aviv was getting ready for action: the Tel Aviv crammed with hipster bars and noisy cafés, chiseled gym rats and long-legged honeys. It’s a place where people obsess not over terror but over threesomes, not over bombings but over blow. Shielding themselves from their nation’s enemies and the quickly ascending religious right, these Israelis exist in a secular, apolitical purple haze. In the midst of the region’s mayhem, some call their world the Bubble. And for those inside the Bubble, ignoring sociopolitical realityliving in the moment rather than in fearis an instinctive, desperate strategy of survival.
“The Bubble allows us to live in a way the rest of the world simply calls normal,” says Gal Uchovsky, a film producer and a judge on Kohav Nolad (“Israeli Idol”), who sees Tel Aviv as an all-hours, anything-goes urban playgroundfree-spending Manhattan meets free-loving Berkeley, only with warm Mediterranean waves lapping year-round at its 10 miles of seashore. Living here is “about being as extreme as you can, without guilt and without thinking about tomorrow,” says Gil Shohat, a 33-year-old composer, conductor, and pianist. “In the Bubble,” he says, “the only sin is not being yourself.”
On an Ottoman-era square in south Tel Aviv’s Jaffo quarter sits a stunning Baroque church that keeps its doors open into the wee hours. Devout Christians come here to confess their late-night sinsperhaps even sins they’ve just committed next door at the Dungeon, the city’s only S&M club. On Thursday nights, when the weekend begins, the Dungeon writhes with hot wax, doctor-patient scenarios, and the occasional pool of chocolate milk. Thursday nights are also a transition point for Shape, a gym next to the U.S. embassy that sometimes morphs abruptly into a dance club with DJs, strobe lights, and skateboarders who slalom among the treadmills, even as runners are still using them.
One balmy winter evening on the posh Rothschild Boulevard, near the sites of rising office towers designed by Richard Meier and I.M. Pei, dozens of Bubble dwellers are jammed into Cantina, a restaurant heaving with male editors and ad execs and the models and actresses on their arms, dressed smartly in Y-3 tracksuits. Air kisses, gossip, and red wine flow freely. Kids in Chuck Taylors roll in on scooters, and a trio of babes cuddle in the corner. High on itself (and just plain high), the Cantina crowd is fueling up for another long night.