When mythological Greek hero Perseus saved Princess Andromeda from the sea beast, he did so in the port of Jaffa. Look out into the harbor and you’ll see the rock she was supposedly chained to, near a long trail of stones jutting from the water, the remains of the dragon’s tail according to local legend. Biblical Jonah also made an appearance, sailing forth to tangle with the whale from here, as did the New Tdisciple Peter who resurrected the widow Tabitha and experienced visions about dietary laws in Jaffa. And those cedars from Lebanon used to build King Solomon’s temple? They were shipped into this very harbor.
The only famous tale that doesn’t seem to have some landmark associated with it in Jaffa is that of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. And yet it’s this myth that may be most emblematic of Jaffa today.
A mere decade ago this once-celebrated seafaring town was a slum, its old town crumbling, its residents scared to leave their homes due to the area’s high crime rate. Starting in the mid-90’s, however, the government of Tel Aviv (Jaffa is now a neighborhood of that younger city) began pouring money into Jaffa’s redevelopment, with some $100 million shekels (approximately $26 million dollars) for the revitalization of the port area alone. Crews cleared out the massive mounds of trash that used to blight squares, and the government encouraged artists to move into the buildings of the Old Town.
Today, Jaffa’s the poster child for urban renewal, an area so vital, so joyous it’s become a must on the Tel Aviv tourist trail.
That ebullience comes, most potently, from Jaffa’s artistic community, which has dotted the old city (arguably the most beautiful in Israel) with works of public art. A favorite is the live orange tree that artist Ran Morin suspended about two feet off the ground in one cobbled courtyards. Yes, one can see the cables holding the tree, but the effect is magical nonetheless.
|Julian Roux at work|
Visitors see art being made at both the Hand Factory (15 Netiv Amazalot St.) and at Adelina Plastelina (23 Netiv Hamazalot St.). At the first, owner Julian Roux sits in a corner of the gallery drawing Bosch-esque visions of modern life. Chat him up—for a guy who paints dystopias, he’s a very friendly and accessible fellow. Nearby is the little factory for polymer clay goods (jewelry, household items) mentioned above. Along with watching the artisans at work, a highlight here is the tiny museum the owners have created in back, which showcases the archeological finds (from the 2nd century BC) they accidentally dug up when renovating their basement in 2006.
And one cannot leave Jaffa without enjoying a serene interlude at the Ilana Goor Museum (4 Mazal Dagim St.), a 250-year-old house that’s now a museum but also serves as a residence for this internationally recognized artist. I could have hung out on the sculpture-packed terrace at the top of the house all afternoon, simply enjoying the views of the sea and Tel Aviv in the distance. But then I might have missed Goor’s extraordinary collection on the other floors, which includes her own art and furniture, a masterpiece-laden assortment of African sculptures as well as works by such Goor pals as Henry Moore and Francisco Zuniga.
Not all artists are visual artists, of course, and Jaffa boasts one of the most unusual theaters and dinner experiences in Israel, if not the world. Called the Nalaga’at Center, it presents shows written and performed by its troupe of blind and deaf performers. In the same waterfront complex is Black Out, a restaurant in which diners have their meal entirely in the dark, served by blind waiters. Though it sounds hokey, dining here and seeing a show may be one of the most profound, moving experiences you’ll have in Israel.
I’ve focused on the artistic side of Jaffa, but of course the town’s overflowing with delightful cultural and historic experiences, from walking tours (head to www.visittlv.com for a list of free ones) to the shopping frenzy at Jaffa’s chaotic flea market to eating at one of many excellent restaurants here. On that last item, I’ll put a plug in for Dr. Shaksuka (4 Beit Eshel St.), which serves up Libyan tomato casseroles with poached eggs on top and a choice of dozens of inclusions. If you’ve ever thought kosher food was bland, you’ll change your mind after digging into one of these fiery, vivacious stews.