Tel Aviv Parties While Israel Burns

Never mind the suicide bombings or the Religious Right. Inside “the Bubble,“ all the world’s a rave.

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 reality—living in the moment rather than in fear—is 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 playground—free-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 sins—perhaps 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.

Drugs are everywhere in Tel Aviv, though curiously, drug-related crime and violence are not. “Hashish, coke, marijuana—everything happens in the Bubble,“ chortles Danny Reichental, a 38-year-old musician. “It’s like eighties America here,“ he adds. “We’re still living in Boogie Nights.“

Never mind the Jewish fundamentalists in nearby Jerusalem, raging with increasing fervor against secular Israelis like those at Cantina. Or the homemade Palestinian missiles landing a mere 25 miles away, or the violent clashes with Hezbollah, or the looming possibility of a nuclear conflict between Israel and its neighbors. (“That problem with Iran,“ one Cantina regular muses, “what is it again?“) Even during last summer’s war with Lebanon—which killed 43 Israeli civilians and displaced 300,000, just a few dozen miles north of town—Bubble haunts like Riff Raff and the Notorious G.A.Y. never blinked. “We were turning people away at the door,“ says Adam Horowitz, the Sid Vicious–skinny owner of the Breakfast Club, an after-hours Bubble bar. “People were still downing Red Bulls and vodka at seven in the morning.“

Tel Aviv didn’t invent the Bubble. Look back to Belgrade’s ethnic cleansing in the nineties, or to Bogotá’s narcoterror in the eighties, or to Beirut’s civil war in the seventies: Bubbles exist wherever and whenever militarized politics collides with restless individualism. But only in Israel have such forces been felt so intensely from Day One. For some in this fragile nation, born of war and surrounded by hostile neighbors, Tel Aviv has emerged as a refuge. “You come to understand that you can’t rescue the nation,“ says 34-year-old Dotan Halbreich, whose restaurant empire is giving the Bubble a much-needed epicurean upgrade. “So you create a world where those problems are left outside—a place where you can just have a good time.“

Naturally, many in Tel Aviv enjoy the Bubble horizontally. “Maybe because we really could die tomorrow,“ says Uchovsky, “there’s this attitude of ‘Fuck it—let’s fuck.’“ Gay, straight, bi, stilettos-and-whips—sex is just another exercise in escapism, a consequence-free contact sport. Add in the endless summer climate, and you begin to see the Bubble as one huge, horny steam bath. “Even at straight clubs, the bathroom floors are covered with condoms by 3 a.m.,“ says Tomer (not his real name), 32, a gay army major who spent much of last summer commuting between the Lebanese battlefront and Tel Aviv’s homo after-parties. “It’s like a safari, a sex safari,“ Reichental says. “You’re going to see action—it’s just a matter of time.“

Time stands still most afternoons at Shine, a café in the heart of central Tel Aviv’s historic Bauhaus district. A short stroll from what was until recently a gay sex club—and from the site of a bus bombing that killed 21 a decade ago—Shine has emerged as the headquarters of the Bubble’s next generation: a crowd of MySpace girls and YouTube guys, vegans and Vinyasa devotees, perfecting the art of the all-afternoon espresso. Clad in aviator glasses and oversize scarves worthy of the East Village, these café dwellers were tweens when the suicide bombings began ripping through nearby streets in the mid-nineties. Now they’re numb to their nation’s pain. In fact, some even dodged mandatory reserve duty during the war with Lebanon. While Hezbollah rockets were hitting Israel, the Bubble delighted in the escapism of public sex scandals, including a rape accusation against Moshe Katsav, Israel’s president, and a sexual-harassment charge against justice minister Haim Ramon, who allegedly gave a woman an unwanted French kiss.

Living in the Bubble doesn’t make them bubbleheads, though. Everyone here served in the military just after high-school graduation. They know Israel’s enemies are real. It’s just that they’ve got other priorities. “Give me a call when Syria starts to invade,“ says Itay Valdman, a 27-year-old deputy editor of Time Out Tel Aviv who moonlights as a DJ when he’s not studying psychology and international relations at Tel Aviv University. (Multitasking is big in the Bubble.) Valdman says many of his peers have little interest in shaping the future of his nation. “It’s just so passive,“ he says of his crowd. “No one protests, we don’t demonstrate. It’s like we just can’t be bothered.“ But his pansexual Bubble posse stays out all night, digging into Shine’s tofu and organic greens and glancing at the sports pages to catch up on current events (though Reichental cheerfully admits he rarely gets past the daily horoscope).

Still, the Bubble is far from shiftless—indeed, it pulses with creative energy. “It feels like a laboratory,“ says 33-year-old pop star Ivri Lider, Israel’s answer to Justin Timberlake. “You have a freedom to create here, and an ability to express ideas with ease.“ And though a temporary lull in terrorism last year raised real-estate prices somewhat, the city’s relatively low cost of living is another stimulus. “You can still afford to paint all day and drink all night here,“ says Guy Yanai, 29, an artist whose massive studio would be the envy of his counterparts in lower Manhattan. The city’s pressure-cooker conditions give his community an intimacy and familiarity, he says, “that allow you to maintain your anonymity without ever feeling alone.“

The Bubble phenomenon has been examined in a movie: Eytan Fox’s Buah, Ha- (The Bubble), a 2006 drama produced by Uchovsky that’s slated for a U.S. release this summer. In its hypersexual, neo-utopian portrayal of Tel Aviv, The Bubble explores the break in the social equilibrium that occurs when a Jewish protagonist falls for a Palestinian (and its ending is predictably tragic).

The film conveys the fragility of a culture in which conflict and consequence are the worries of another people, in another place, at another time. In the real-life Bubble, there are few Palestinians, though Tel Aviv has become a popular destination for gay Palestinians who manage to escape here. If more Palestinians were in the Bubble, Tel Aviv’s free love might not flow so freely—even during periods of uncertain calm.

The hardest of the hard-core sometimes succumb to Bubble fatigue. “The drugs, the drinking, and all that screwing around would kill normal people,“ says Dahlia Scheindlin, a Brooklyn-born political consultant. Valdman, the editor-student-DJ, recharges his batteries every other week with visits to his parents deep in the Israeli countryside. “It becomes tedious and competitive after a while,“ he says, “like we just don’t know what to do with ourselves.“

On January 29, inside a bakery in the resort town of Eilat, a bomber killed three people, shattering Israel’s nine-month hiatus from suicide attacks. The explosion reminded some why they need a safe haven. “The day Israel is no longer isolated from the Western world,“ says Horowitz, the club owner, “that is the day we will come out of the Bubble.“

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