Tel Aviv, Israel: A Culture Filled with Colorful Contrasts
Sophie Lippert, concert pianist and All Classical Portland’s 2022 International Arts Correspondent, is living and working in Tel Aviv for the year. In this latest version of her Musician Abroad! series, she takes us on a journey through three distinct and colorful components of Israeli culture.
Over the past 30 years of playing classical music, I’ve come to be a huge appreciator of contrasts.
Music is full of them!
Contrasts in dynamics: from bombastic fortissimo to whispered pianissimo.
Contrasts in tempo: from scurrying presto to languid largo.
Contrasts in articulation: from sharp, piercing staccato to smooth, undulating legato.
Contrasts in emphasis: from melody weaving a narrative, to rhythm creating an infectious beat, to harmony emerging as a powerful unifying element.
Using these musical tools—dynamics, tempo, and articulation, plus melody and rhythm and harmony—performers are able to convey remarkably different moods, emotions, and ideas. And, often, it’s these contrasting elements that make a piece of music so compelling, exciting, and magical.
Chopin: will you provide us with an example?
To illustrate just how amazing contrasts can be, let’s take a section from Chopin’s 2nd Ballade. Chopin begins by employing a soft dynamic, a slow tempo, a legato articulation, and repetitive harmonic and rhythmic patterns to create a sensation of sublime calm and warmth. The soothing sound of this opening section reminds me, in fact, of rocking a baby in a cradle: the music gently undulates back and forth, back and forth.
Just 30 seconds in, however, Chopin does a 180-degree turn and transitions, abruptly and fantastically, to a flurry of right-hand arpeggios that move wildly up and down the keyboard! The mood is anything BUT soothing and calm; there is tremulous turbulence in the cascades of notes, a wild cacophony of emotional expression that sounds, to my ear, distraught and angry. Both the melodies and harmonies are ever-shifting and unsettled; the dynamics fluctuate between booming and explosive fortissimos to murmuring, muttering mezzo-pianos.
And then, amazingly, Chopin leads us back to calm again: drawing from the tropes he used in the first section to lull the piece back to peaceful repose. As the Ballade progresses, Chopin never stops to juxtapose these contrasting moods; the piece continually shape-shifts from one extreme to another, creating an amazing sensation of dynamism, scope, and excitement.
(Note: Chopin’s 2nd Ballade is an incredible representation of pianistic and compositional virtuosity and mastery; I encourage you to listen to all 7 minutes to get the full effect!)
From Chopin, to Tel Aviv!
My appreciation for contrasts leads me now to Tel Aviv, Israel, where I’ve been living since December 2021.
One of the most amazing things about creating a life in Tel Aviv has been observing and experiencing the many remarkable contrasts that Israeli culture contains.
Today, I’m going to focus on three areas in which the contrasts have been particularly astonishing:
- The Weather: the bright, searing sun and the expansive, cooling sea.
- The Sabbath: a calm weekly respite amidst the wildness of normal life.
- The People: the sharpness and softness found in cultural mannerisms.
Israelis often describe themselves as “rough on the outside, soft on the inside.” There is an undeniable abrasiveness in many of the verbal correspondences that take place here—detectable in the words spoken, the tones of voices used, and the accompanying mannerisms and body language cues. In all these areas, the energy and behavior is sharp, strong, loud, and sometimes even outright aggressive.
Underneath their tough exterior, though, most Israelis have hearts of gold. They are quick to share information, to help when help is needed, and to volunteer support of all stripes—even when the person they are engaging with is a total stranger. In one moment, they’ll honk loudly and impatiently while zooming down a busy city street; in the next, they’ll stop their car to help someone who’s visibly lost or confused. (Sometimes, that person is me!)
When my partner and I were looking for an apartment, a taxi driver spent our entire ride calling his friends in real estate, asking them what units they had available on our behalf. New friends have invited me to share beautiful Sabbath feasts with their families, welcoming me so warmly that I instantly feel at home. And I can’t tell you how many times fellow shoppers have helped me dissect food labels and pricing in the shops, bodegas, and street stands where I buy my groceries.
The Sabbath: Calm Amidst the Storm
Tel Aviv is a huge, dense, metropolitan city. There is, therefore, noise and activity all the time. Every hour of the day (and night!), people are out and about: walking, shopping, eating, hanging out at cafes, drinking coffee or cocktails. The sounds of the city have a distinct flavor during the middle of the night: the planes on international routes leave between the hours of 11pm and 6am, so the air is filled with sounds of huge jet planes in the wee hours of the morning. And even the cats make noise in the middle of the night—I often hear them yowling when I wake between dreams!
And then, Sabbath rolls around. Between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday, the majority of storefronts around the city close their doors and discontinue services. This includes all types of business: from restaurants and convenience stores, to record shops and even the cavernous, enormous, maze-like Dizengoff Mall in downtown Tel Aviv. The most common greeting you’ll hear during this 24-hour period is “Shabbat Shalom” —translating roughly to “Wishing you a peaceful Saturday.”
While observation practices vary, many people in Israel have adopted some form of a “Sabbath practice”. And things really do feel significantly different on Saturdays than any other day of the week. The popular walking streets are thronged with families, as are the beaches and the seaside promenade. And, while the pedestrian traffic increases, the car traffic decreases by over half!
Many people refrain from using any technology during the 24 hours of the Sabbath, which means a dramatic altering of lifestyle. The invitation to turn away from my phone and my computer, and to turn instead to nature, the people around me, and cooking and sharing a meal with loved ones, inspires me–and I hope to bring this inspiration with me when I return to the United States.
The Weather: Bright Sun and Cooling Sea
Arguably, Israeli weather contains very little contrast—especially in comparison to places where the weather varies widely between hot and cool temperatures. Here in Tel Aviv, there’s a pretty narrow window of variation, and there are a few things that are most pervasive:
Bright, oppressive sun,
Miles and miles of shoreline kissing the Mediterranean Sea!
Cold weather in Tel Aviv is classified by anything below about 65 degrees Fahrenheit; whenever temperatures dip into the low 60s, the majority of Tel Avivians don their big puffy jackets, winter hats, and fur-lined boots. In February and March, while I was swimming in the sea as much as possible, the people walking past me on the beach would be dressed in full winter attire. “It’s freezing!” my Israeli friends moaned.
And that’s because, for the rest of the year, it’s Really Darn Hot. The UV index is impressive, too—it takes only 10-15 minutes in the height of day to be gifted with a mean sunburn. So, one has to be careful—even when escaping into the sea for a much-needed cooling dip!
Speaking of: thank goodness for that water! The Mediterranean Sea is an incredibly important and tempering force in a region of oppressive heat. My daily swims provide welcome relief and respite from the heat hanging in the sky; the water is masterful at both cooling down my physical body, and pacifying the intense energy that the heat brings.
Israel is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on its entire west side, and though there are certainly less coastal regions of the country, the sea’s tempering, soothing energy is a powerful presence throughout the country.
In Conclusion: An Appreciation of Contrasts
There’s no question that my musical background has deepened my ability to appreciate—and celebrate—the contrasts contained in Israeli culture. Rather than seeing these opposing elements as disparate or conflicting, I see them as necessary equals; flip sides of the same coin; components that balance each other, and temper each others’ intensity.
Much like the incredible range and scope of Chopin 2nd Ballade, I love the way that Tel Aviv demonstrates the power that can be found in both hard and soft, calm and cacophony, oppressive heat and recentering cool. I’m eager to continue experiencing and embracing these contrasts, and the beauty they contain.
Again, music can be a teacher here: almost always, despite the intensity of contrasts contained within a piece of music, the composition closes with a unifying, stabilizing, and pacifying element: harmonic resolution.
Despite the dissonance and disparateness that precedes it, harmony prevails.
Stay tuned for the next blog in Sophie’s Musician Abroad! series coming in the fall! You can also learn more about Sophie at sophielippert.com