Just Above Sunset
July 9, 2006 - Jaffa, Gate to the Sea

Home | The Weird | Quotes

A new photo essay from Our Man in Tel-Aviv - Sylvain Ubersfeld - a visit to Jaffa, full of history, and more. A dozen high-resolution photos accompany the text.

Narrow street in old Jaffa -
Narrow street in old Jaffa -

He who says that Israel is the private property of one given cultural group is wrong.  I say that loud and clear, even if the risk of doing a "Hiloul Ha Shem (*)" may place my eternal life in "Ha olam Habaa" the world to come as opposed to this world) in jeopardy.


Jaffa (Yafo) lies south of south Tel Aviv.  There is no border there to be crossed, or at least if there is one, it is not visible.  Yafo (Jaffa) belongs to the municipality of Tel-Aviv, and to history for ever and ever, going back to the building of King Solomon's temple .


It took a lot of research to find that the "border" between Tel-Aviv and Jaffa lies, invisible, very close to my apartment.  It is an imaginary line that crosses from the Paz gas station to the new building close to Neve Tzeddek (that's what the gas station owner says).  The eyes do not see the border, but the nose can smell it.  I am not convinced that the garbage collectors of Tel-Aviv put as much energy in collecting overflowing garbage cans from the Jaffa area as they do when it comes to picking up garbage in Ramat Aviv - but this may be because it is further south, and everyone wants to return home as quickly as possible to watch the football games during the World's Cup.


Jaffa is first of all an Arabic town, then it is a small derelict harbor in which activity is now limited to a few fishing boats and the comings and goings of the two small passenger ferries taking Tel-Avivians on a forty-five minute ride along the seashore - a magnificent view of modern Tel-Aviv for the pleasure of the beer-drinking passengers.  On the pier of the harbor lie old fishing nets, untouched for years but yet to be removed, waiting possibly for some entrepreneurial fisherman to come - and scrap metal rusting away, old bits of rope possibly used to tie boats during an era long gone by, and blocks of concrete used as a deterrent against wild Israeli drivers who have a tendency to park just about anywhere.


A few tourist-trap type restaurants are open during the evening and serve (fresh) fish at an indecent price, which only recently-arrived visitors can afford.  They probably think that this is the "real" Tel-Aviv, little aware that Jaffa has long ago lost its real power of attraction.  Then there is the big building, an empty metallic structure, rusting away, fascinating because of its silence and the memories of past passenger activity which goes back to the days when Tel-Aviv was nothing and Jaffa was the gate onto the sea.


King Solomon knew of it of course as when he asked his chief builder Hiram to set up plans for the building of a huge Temple in Jerusalem.  Jaffa was designated as a port of entry for the cedar wood coming by sea from neighboring Lebanon.  The wood was then hauled on the thirty-six miles separating Jaffa from Jerusalem.  Knowing that boats coming from Tyr  ended up in Jaffa long ago always amazes me as I try to imagine how the harbor looked in those days.  Then there is the "old Jaffa," that one part of the town which has been rebuilt and refurbished for tourists and for the few "rich and wealthy" who can afford to buy an apartment or a house there.  Narrow alleys, small streets, mysterious doors behind which one can find Christina Orthodox or Roman Catholic religious establishments, and secluded gardens full of flowers,  birds and silence .


When God finished creating the world, He certainly included Jaffa in his plans and decided that, as in Jerusalem, several religions would have to live a few meters away from one another.  Allah's holy house overseas the water, Christ's representatives have a couple of monasteries hiding behind big white walls, as for Jehovah's meeting houses, there are a few spread in the neighborhood to cater to the needs of the "newly immigrated" population which as elected to live in recent buildings erected on the edge of "old Jaffa."  In the narrow main street of old Jaffa you will find the shop of Abulafiah, the baker.  Every day of the week, except on Friday night, the street is completely blocked with cars double parked as neighbors from Tel-Aviv take the short ride from downtown to this Jaffa landmark to buy bagels, pitah bread and Arabic Danish-style pastries, or should I say Danish pastries Arabic style, filled with poppyseed, apple and nuts and other delicacies, reminding you that Jaffa is above all an Arabic town.  If one sets foot in the shawarmah (**) place across from Abulafiah, one will be surprised to face an Arab owner with wonderful green eyes, a telltale sign that that European crusaders who invaded the Holy Land in the 11th century did not only come here in the name of God.


Jaffa is a very unique place and it surprisingly appears that time really stopped for good here.  Returning to Jaffa in 2005 I found it exactly as it was when I left Israel in 1999.  In a time when Israel is changing from one day to the other, Jaffa appears to be an exception, and lovers simply enjoy it when they climb on the top of Jaffa hill to dream about their future while looking at the Tel Aviv shoreline.  Just as in Neve Tzeddek, there are cats, and just as in Neve Tzeddek there are derelict houses, and just like in any harbor, there is the smell of rotten fish and moisture permeating everything.  But the memories of days past are still hanging on there, as in many places in Israel .  Could it be because this land is really holy and has been touched by grace long time ago, or is it simply my imagination?


Jaffa's red and white lighthouse has been freshly painted to take away the damage from the salty mist flying around the neighborhood in winter, but the lighthouse does not guide ships anymore.  It has not be used for years.  It is just there, standing, reminding visitors that Jaffa's harbor was once the gate to the sea, long before Tel-Aviv even became a real town, when Jaffa port was the only  place for trading ships to safely dock on the Holy Land. On the top of Jaffa hill lies a small manicured garden regularly soiled by barbequing communities (***) of all kinds, ranging from school trips to Russian pre- or post-wedding parties.


In order to access the area when coming from Jaffa harbor, one has to cross over "the Bridge of Wishes," a small suspended wooden bridge with handrails engraved with the signs of the zodiac.  The legend is that if one holds one's hand on one's own sign while making a wish, the wish will come true.  I tried it, but it did not work for me.  Who knows?  Maybe I did not put  enough "kavannah" ( ****) in my prayer!





(*) Hiloul Ha Shem - an offence to God, something done or said which can be offending God's commands, or perceived as such by orthodox or observant people


(**) shawarmah - roasted lamb shredded into small pieces (either with a knife or with a special electrical razor) and served either in a Pitah bread or on a plate. It is usually accompanied by … French fries!


(***) Israelis, like many Middle-Eastern groups of people, love to have BBQ parties just about anywhere.  Carmel market has several shops lined up with small portable BBQ's - cheap and locally made.


(****) kavannah - a Hebrew word which, when applied to praying attitude, means "conviction and spiritual energy."  A prayer performed without kavannah has no chance to reach God's ears.

Behind closed doors there are Christian monasteries -

Behind closed doors - Christian monasteries

Breathtaking sight for lovers on top of Jaffa hill -

... on top of Jaffa hill

Derelict buildings in Jaffa, a common sight -

Derelict buildings in Jaffa, a common sight -

Jaffa harbor and its few fishing boats -

Jaffa harbor and its few fishing boats -

Jaffa Mosque, refurbished and operational -

Jaffa Mosque, refurbished and operational -

No doubt that Jaffa is an Arab town -

No doubt that Jaffa is an Arab town -

Refurbished buildings on Jaffa port, for the wealthy -

Refurbished buildings on Jaffa port -

Silent buildings full of memories - Jaffa port has lost its glory -

Silent buildings full of memories, Jaffa

Tel-Aviv shoreline as seen from the port at Jaffa -

Tel-Aviv shoreline as seen from the port at Jaffa

The Bridge of Wishes on Jaffa hill -

The Bridge of Wishes on Jaffa hill -

The hilltop of old Jaffa, for tourists only -

The hilltop of old Jaffa, for tourists only -

Photos and Text, Copyright 2006 - Sylvain Ubersfeld

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
Timestamp for this version of this issue below (Pacific Time) -

Counter added Monday, February 27, 2006 10:38 AM