Faith, Food and Fashion
Photo credit: Ron Shoshani
Israel, the Holy Land, the land of milk and honey–whatever you may call it, most people will have an impression of Israeli culture and the country whether they have visited the country or not. Its near-constant appearance in the media across the globe has lead many people to have the impression of Israel as dangerous and war-torn.
But behind the conflict and drama of the headlines emerges the real Israel–a stunning country that takes just a few hours to drive from top to bottom yet encompasses a wealth of history, vast deserts, natural hot springs, mountain villages, the Dead Sea and two of the world’s most fascinating cities – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Within this exotic land the Palestinians and the Israelis live side by side; the majority of the country’s inhabitants simply want peace and the atmosphere across the land is lively and intoxicating. I have never encountered people who are so full of life, almost restless in their excitement to discover something new, to travel, to make new friends or take a trip away from home ‘just because.’ Nobody needs a reason in Israel to relish every part of life. It just seems like the obvious thing to do.
During my time living in the Holy Land, I had so many experiences that I will never forget. One day, I travelled into the desert to a tiny abandoned castle where my friends and I laid out a lavish meal as a surprise for a friend who was planning to propose. When his girlfriend–now wife–arrived, long after we had made ourselves scarce, he took her to the top of the castle for dinner, after which she looked out the window to see that he had spelled out ‘will you marry me?’ in candles on the desert floor. This is not the type of story that is out of place in this land. This is true Israel.
You Gotta Have Faith
Out of this vast landscape full of so much personality, there emerged for me three distinct features to Israeli culture – faith, food and fashion. Faith must surely be the first one to explore as this features so prominently and is in the true essence of the land. Faith in Israel is not just religion but about belief. Jerusalem is the religious home of Christians, Jews and Muslims, with the holy sites of the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. Yet just half an hour down the road, Tel Aviv could not be any more secular. In fact, it is one of the world’s most gay-friendly places, proving that any belief or way of life goes in Israel. When Tel Aviv was voted the world’s number one gay travel destination, Mayor Ron Huldai explained how it is “a city that respects all people equally, and allows all people to live according to their values and desires. This is a free city in which everyone can feel proud, and be proud of who they are.” And that is the beauty of Israel and Tel Aviv especially–the freedom. Whatever your way of life, your beliefs, and your ambition, there is more than enough space to express and enjoy it. This is a seductive, enticing country that draws you in and brings out the best part of everyone.
Faith is so intrinsic to Israeli culture, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in a quieter, self-assured style. The latter can be felt on the streets of Tel Aviv where pretty much anything is accepted. And then you travel to Jerusalem and experience a whole different world. It is a spiritual, beautiful city characterised by the famous white Jerusalem stone. This is where Orthodox Jews in traditional clothing wander past religious Muslims in their own religious dress, with also Christians travelling to the city on pilgrimage.
Israel is home to some lesser-known faiths too. The northern city of Haifa is the world centre of the Bahá’í faith – a monotheistic and spiritual religion that originated in Persia in the 19th century. The Bahá’í Gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and genuinely one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. The impeccable landscaped gardens begin high on the plains of Mount Carmel and tumble down the mountainside, covered in bright flowers and flanked by fountains, bridges and palm trees along the way.
The food of Israel is connected to the faith in many ways, as food has become a way for people of different religions to unite. Chefs such as Jerusalem-born Yotam Ottolenghi have brought this idea to the forefront, in particular with his series ‘Jerusalem on a Plate’. In the programme, he visited both Arabs and Israelis in the city to discover how this rich tapestry of heritages makes Israeli culture and everything it offers so unique.
All of the religions and cultures that come together to make Israel such an eclectic land are so apparent in the cuisine, even in the cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv. In the Yemenite quarter of the city is Gerdera 26 – run by a half-Swedish, half-Israeli chef, the menu includes a whole variety of influences with French, Arabic and fusion food. You can eat in any way you like in Israel. Practically every corner of Tel Aviv has a food stand selling falafel, the delicious deep-fried chickpea balls that are an Israeli staple with Egyptian origins. Along with hummus, this is one of the most popular snacks across the land and often eaten from street stalls. Another great aspect of eating in Tel Aviv is the sociable style: open kitchen restaurants such as La Shuk boast a fun and chaotic atmosphere and loud Arabic music. There is the chance to try cuisines from the many different cultures that make up the population, such as jachnun; a sweet, slow-cooked pastry served with boiled eggs, tomatoes and hot sauce that comes from the Yemenite Jews. Or perhaps the huevos rancheros style dish that is shakshuka and comes from the Libyan diet. One of my personal favourites is sabich; a dish made up of pitta bread stuffed with salad, eggs, aubergine, tahini, hummus and plenty of spices that was brought to Israel by Iraqi immigrants. The metaphorical flavours of the city infuse into one unified flavour with the bold tastes and colours of the meals expressing the feeling and heart of every nationality that calls Israel home.
I Wanna be a Supermodel
Finally, we have the fashion scene. Tel Aviv is fast becoming the rising star on the international fashion landscape and walking down the stylish hotspots of Shenkin Street, and Dizengoff Centre is a bit like being part of a cutting-edge catwalk show. Israelis are not shy people at the best of times and their fashion choices are bold, ambitious and dazzling. Israelis and Tel Avivians, in particular, stand out to me because of their innate sense of style, which is even much more inspiring in the surrounds of such a creative city. I just love how the city offers the option to shop across a variety of styles and to find something you might not have even known you were looking for.
Over in the Old City of Jaffa, just outside Tel Aviv, the Old Flea Market is one of my favourite spots to pick up some second-hand vintage clothes. Gusta, a small boutique outside the market, has some fantastic designer pieces from homegrown Israeli talent, and I love to rifle through the rails to find something that no one else will be wearing. Dizengoff and Sheinkin are the places to go for designer boutiques while HaTachana–a former train station–has undergone an extensive transformation into modern complex, housing some great, high-end boutiques and jewellery shops, and a collection of market stalls.
Where to Stay
In the city of style, you’ll be hard pushed to find somewhere more fashionable than the five-star Norman Hotel. Housed in a historic building within the famous White City–a UNESCO World Heritage icon of Bauhaus style structures–this hotel is a real gem. Its elegant and glamorous interiors include business facilities, a spa and wellness centre and a stunning rooftop infinity pool. The location is fantastic, with the hotel surrounded by Israeli culture in the form of museums, shopping, bars, restaurants close and the beach, within easy walking distance. It is also close to the peaceful neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek, where you will find some of the most creatively-run restaurants in the city.