Tel Aviv Syndrome

The wartime aliyah brings to light an urban phenomenon.
January 18, 2023
Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv, Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer

Of all the great cities in which I have lived, only in Tel Aviv do I fully experience the sweet delusion of being freed from history. My most recent visit, in November 2022, centered around the launch of my Russian poetry collection “Stikhi iz aipada” (“Poems from the iPad”) at Babel Bookstore on Allenby Street, one of the main coordinates of Israel’s Russophone cultural life and, since the outbreak of the War in Ukraine, increasingly a publisher of Russian books in exile.

In the course of four very full days, I did research about my ancestor, the early Israeli writer Batya Kahana who wrote in Russian and published in Hebrew; purchased an Italian-made dress for my wife from an Iranian-born shopkeeper (a ritual); gorged on a conversation with my father’s first cousin David Sharir, a visual artist born in Tel Aviv in 1938 to immigrants from Ukraine; drank vodka with my close friend Maxim Krolik at an outdoor Ukrainian restaurant as we celebrated his deliverance from Putin’s Russia; and visited the dairy farm that the family of my maternal grandfather’s sister had started in the 1940s at Be’er Tuvia. I had only one day for the Tel Aviv version of dolce far niente, and this day resulted in an anthropological discovery.

On the late morning of that day I strolled to a coffee shop on Ben Yehuda, then cut across to the beach on Trumpeldor Street, thinking of the last words of the one-armed Shiva of Zionism who died while defending a Jewish settlement from an attack by an armed band from Jabal Amila in Southern Lebanon. “It’s sweet to die for one’s country.” Did the dying Joseph Trumpeldor utter a tongue-twisting Russian damnation to the enemies of Israel or a Horace-infused line in Hebrew? It was Erev Shabbat on the Tel Aviv waterfront. I paid the machine and handed a ticket for a beach chair to a man who spoke no English and practiced strong gestural Hebrew. Another Russian-speaker, a tall tanned fellow in skimpy shorts, appropriately asked me if I was from “Ukraine or something,” and was amused to learn that I was from Moscow by way of thirty-five years in New England. He claimed to know the Moscow neighborhood where I grew up near the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. The idler told me that he went swimming every morning and that life in Tel Aviv was “honey cake.”

All around me, strands of Russian speech interwove with Hebrew, French and English, forming a tetralingual braid of Tel Aviv locals, tourists and recent repatriates. Easily one fourth of the November beachgoers and definitely a majority of the autumnal swimmers were Russian speakers, although their accents betrayed not only members of the Moscow intelligentsia (from the ranks of those who only left when Putin and his henchmen started pumping the last gallons of freedom from Russia’s atmosphere) but also refugees from war-ravaged Ukraine. Prior to fleeing home, some of the Ukrainian repatriates had learned for the first time what Israelis live with: the sound of missiles of hate and despair. And yet the afternoon in Tel Aviv was so peaceful and serene that it seemed that nothing would ever harm this young city and these “Russian” and “Ukrainian” escapees basking in the November sun like prodigal children of the Levant.

It was then, in the midst of this happy, unthreatening place, the term “Tel Aviv syndrome” entered my mind, and I’ve since been finding more and more evidence of its validity. Did I invent the term? Perhaps I did, but I cannot be sure. An extensive literature review revealed no evidence of the term’s prior existence. Features of “Tel Aviv syndrome” include: hedonism, denialism (or is it denihilism?), gourmandism, beachfrontism, casual athleticism, and nonmilitant secularism. The false if comforting sense of carpediemism, characteristic of those with Tel Aviv syndrome, may be defined both oppositionally—in contrast to the amply-described Jerusalem syndrome—and as essential to the city and its aura.

Psychiatrists and cultural historians have been aware of Jerusalem syndrome for quite some time. The term refers to obsessive and/or delusional behavior associated with visiting Jerusalem and experiencing its special hyperreligious and densely layered historical atmosphere. In “Jerusalem Syndrome,” a 2000 case report published in The British Journal of Psychiatry, Dr. Yair Bar-El and colleagues state that “since 1980, Jerusalem’s psychiatrists have encountered an ever-increasing number of tourists who, upon arriving in Jerusalem, suffer psychotic decompensation.” In “Jerusalemski Sindrom,” a more recent article published in Psychiatria Polska, Drs. Katarzyna Prochwitz and Artur Sobczyk define the syndrome as “an acute psychotic state observed in tourists and pilgrims who visit Jerusalem. The main symptom of this disorder is identification with a character from the Bible and exhibiting behaviors which seem to be typical for this character.” Dr. Bar-El et al. expected the number of those carrying Jerusalem syndrome to grow in the new millennium. The eleven months following the start of the War in Ukraine have amply corroborated their forecast while also throwing into sharper relief the prevalence of another urban Israeli syndrome.

I have become especially aware of the existential reality of Tel Aviv syndrome as the “emergency aliyah” has flooded the gates of Israel. My good colleague Mark Tolts of Hebrew University, a leading demographer of post-Soviet Jewishness, recently pointed me to the most current Israeli population data: As of December 2022, of the total of 73,000 repatriates, over 60,000 had come to Israel from Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. While the geography of the wartime olim is as diverse as Israel herself, and certainly encompasses the north with Haifa and Upper Galilee and the south with Ashdod and Ashkelon, the newly arrived, trend-setting “Russians” fall into Jerusalemites and Telavivians as they embody salient features of Jerusalem syndrome vs. Tel Aviv syndrome.

I have become especially aware of the existential reality of Tel Aviv syndrome as the “emergency aliyah” has flooded the gates of Israel.

I was hardly surprised when Alisa Nagrodskaya, a friend of my Soviet youth who came to Israel in 1990 from then the not yet un-re-renamed Leningrad and settled in Jerusalem, decided to riff on the subject of Jerusalem syndrome. Mother of twin girls completing their IDF service, a blogger with a following, and an inveterate Jerusalemite, on 24 May 2022 Nagrodskaya published a short and piquant Russian-language manual-cum-intro to her city’s gestalt. Since its publication on Facebook, Nagrodskaya’s explication of Jerusalem syndrome for the newly-arrived Russian speakers has received over 1000 likes and has been shared more than 50 times: “Well, the most important thing, perhaps, is that each denizen of Jerusalem is proudly wrapped in a plume of being slightly messed-up. And, truth be told, not always slightly. … Jerusalemites like difficult paths. … Material flashiness isn’t our thing. … One can’t for the life of it determine the status of our city based on clothes. … So if you’re weird and low-maintenance, our city joyfully awaits you” (my literal translation).

In Nagrodskaya’s presentation, Jerusalem’s viscous intensity is juxtaposed to Tel Aviv’s glitter, vanity and lightness. In her analysis, bearers of Russian culture would immediately recognize the trappings of the old St. Petersburg-Moscow rivalry—and here I speak as a product of both the Moscow lore and the St. Petersburg mythology. What Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote about the Venice of the North applies so well to Jerusalem: “the most abstract and deliberate city on earth”; “the most fantastical city.” In contrast, recall the opening chapters of “Anna Karenina” and think not just of Moscow but also of Tel Aviv. Dostoevsky’s greatest competitor, Leo Tolstoy, evoked the bustling yet cozy atmosphere of old Moscow, to which Levin ascends from his country estate. I keep imaging poor Levin driving in a pickup truck to Tel Aviv from a moshav in central Israel, hopeful as he is yet burdened by the fear of Kitty’s rejection.

Born to a Muscovite mother and a father from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), I’m familiar with the museumist atmosphere of St. Petersburg, an atmosphere that I reexperience while spending time in Jerusalem. But I also know the native Moscow vibe of being on the cutting edge and nonchalant about it, and when I return to Tel Aviv, I feel more and more like a former Muscovite regaining a home rather than a Bostonian losing one. Please don’t get me wrong: I love Jerusalem. I feel a sense of transcendent relief when I press my forehead to the Kotel, and this feeling is akin to what I used to experience while visiting family graves at the Preobrazhenskoye Jewish Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Still, it’s not in Jerusalem but in Tel Aviv that I retire in my brightest fantasies. Being here infallibly accords a sense of sudden and, perhaps, unjustified calm in view of history’s calamities. I call this condition “Tel Aviv syndrome.”

Maxim D. Shrayer is an author and a professor at Boston College. His recent books include “A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and “Of Politics and Pandemics.” Shrayer’s new memoir “Immigrant Baggage is forthcoming in 2023.

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