Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Tastes and Colors of South Tel Aviv

When tourists come to Tel Aviv they spend time on the sandy beaches, eat in tasty restaurants, visit galleries and museums, stroll through ancient Jaffa, and enjoy a city with thriving nightlife. But for many Israelis, even someone like me who commutes to Tel Aviv for work every day, there are parts of the city that I don’t know at all.

My wife and I signed up for a three-part visit to the markets of Tel Aviv, with a focus on the special tastes and foods available. The course is run by Zman Eshkol, the leading operator of leisure studies in Israel, and our guide for the day is the very knowledgeable Or Rein.

The tour starts at the iconic Shalom Tower, once the highest skyscraper in the entire Middle East. Let's step inside for a little bit of history about Tel Aviv's origins, and then we'll begin tasting the special foods that Tel Aviv has to offer.

The first Jews moved out of the city of Jaffa, known since Biblical times as Yafo, and set up their own neighborhood of Neve Tsedek in 1887. Twenty-two years later, in 1909, 66 families left Yafo altogether and created Ahuzat Bayit, the first neighborhood of the new city of Tel Aviv. The first five streets of the Jewish city are still well known today: Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, Lilienblum, Rothschild, and Yehuda Halevy.

Tel Aviv's first public building was Gymnasia Herzliya, which stood until 1958. The structure was torn down by the Meir family from Romania when they built Migdal Shalom Meir, which opened in 1965. The Shalom Tower was the first building in Israel with an escalator, an amusement park, and an observatory. Inside the lobby are colorful mosaics by artists Nahum Gutman and David Sharir.

Model of Tel Aviv in its early years, on display inside the Shalom Tower

Neve Tsedek is today a luxury neighborhood, with property going at an exorbitant rate of $12,000 per square meter. Alongside the picturesque old buildings, now home to fancy restaurants and boutique shops, are glitzy high-rise buildings with apartments only affordable to the uber-rich.

Our first tasting is at Yehezkiel's small hole-in-the-wall shop. We eat spicy debayel sticks, an Indian food imported to Israel via Yemen. The snack, highly addictive, is somewhat like Bissli, which is so popular with Israeli youth. In Arabic the name of this snack translates as "mice shit". Yehezkiel is the last place in Tel Aviv that makes this spicy treat.

Spicy debayel sticks. You might get addicted to them.

What else is in Neve Tsedek? Lilienblum Street, once the black market Tel Aviv where dollars could be exchanged into Israeli currency by mysterious looking men, is today a street filled with popular bars. The homes of some of Tel Aviv's famous founders, including Meir Dizengoff and Shimon Rokach, are located here.

We cross busy Yafo Street and we're in the neighborhood of Florentin. Here we begin to explore the Levinsky Street Market. Florentin, named for David Florentin, a Greek Jew who purchased the land in the late 1920s, was settled by Balkan Jews, primarily from Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece. The neighborhood's buildings display Bauhaus architecture, but it's hard to see above the traffic-filled streets and noisy commerce.

Each street in the area was originally known for selling a specific type of product. You find furniture exclusively on Herzl Street. Kfar Giladi Street has toy stores. In other areas you can find light fixtures, clothing or textiles.

Following the Greek Jews, Turkish Jews began to move into Florentin. They were followed by immigrants from Eastern Europe. From the 1970s, foreign workers began to arrive. Then young people moved in, helping revitalize the neighborhood.

We stop for a tasting at Gargar Hazahav, a hummus restaurant set up by young people from Misgav in the Galilee. There are no other real hummus restaurants in the area, and now this place is recognized as one of the best in Tel Aviv. We taste the Galilee-style hummus served with whole chickpeas and other tasty dishes.

Tabuli Salad

We visit the Haim Rafael delicatessen. Rafael, an Auschwitz survivor, was born in Salonika. The place opened in 1958 and its pickled goods include kalamata olives imported from Greece.

Next stop is Meir's Persian dry fruit store, with its unique Persian products including Nabat crystallized sugar and Persian cookies. We bite into dried apricots, dates, raisins, prunes, and gooseberries.

Following that we visit Burekas Panso, a bakery which serves Turkish pastries. The Turks specialize in products made of phyllo dough. The burekas are filled with cheese, extremely delicious, and one per person is certainly enough.

How can you visit an Israeli market without stopping in at a spice store? Pereg Spices was established in 1906 by a family that arrived from Tripoli in Libya. This is their factory store, but Pereg has outlets in supermarkets all over the country. A uniquely Libyan spice display is the tower of paprika set in oil. This paprika is the secret ingredient of Libyan shakshuka.

We don't have time to visit all the eateries in the Levinsky Street Market. There are shops that specialize in cheeses, Polish food, cakes, and the ubiquitous 'munchies' (sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and nuts).

Our final stop is at the Albert Confectionery, established in 1935 and located at this spot for over 50 years. This is an old style bakery; you enter with a sense of going back in time. On sale are Salonika pastries, including meringue kisses and marzipan, which melts in your mouth. Everything here is made with a loving touch; the almonds are peeled by hand. There is, unfortunately, no generation to continue the traditions of Salonika baking. Already the bakery is closed some days during the week as the owners get older.

Peeling almonds by hand

What is going to happen in the future to these neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv? Along with the revitalization, rental prices are rising. The young people who moved in when prices were cheap are now moving out to bring life to new places. Tel Aviv's light rail transport system will one day run through the streets here. There is a proposal to close the Levinsky Street Market in its present format and transform it into an open air market on a pedestrian-only street, an idea that has met opposition from the storeowners.

Whatever the future of south Tel Aviv may bring, I can only hope that the neighborhoods' unique tastes and colors will continue to attract visitors to explore the varied cultures on display.

Related Stories:

Tasting the Yemenite Quarter of Tel Aviv

A Day on the Beach in Tel Aviv


  1. I can almost smell and taste the delicious foods you describe. Old Tel Aviv would be a wonderful place to explore. A beach you can find almost anywere, but old cities hold a charm all their own. I will add Tel Aviv to my bucket list.

  2. Thank you for sharing. History, culture, food, all bundled into one - tantalizing!

  3. After reading your sharing, i wanted to be at Tel Aviv for taking a breath...Beach, exotic foods and shopping...adorable...thank you Ellis Shuman...