An oasis in a riven region

Arriving midday at Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv, I see:

A shirtless fellow on a skateboard gliding his way down the busy, narrow street.

A pair of Israeli soldiers ambling along, looking a lot more relaxed than they do at checkpoints in Palestinian areas.

A cafe customer holding a cellular phone to each ear, having two conversations at once.

A woman, wearing mostly black, carrying a framed color photograph of a recumbent woman wearing nothing at all.

Leaning on a scooter parked outside his shop, his hair curly, his ear pierced, his arm tattooed, young Avshalom Biton looks like the stylish, engaging sort. He is also a shoe salesman.

I ask him whether he thinks much about the violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the past half-year.

"Everyone thinks about the intifada, because it affects everyone," he says. "When there is no intifada, there is a much better feeling. Now it's sort of sad and depressing."

I think of newspaper clippings I have read about two Sheinkin restaurateurs who went shopping for flower pots in the West Bank town of Tulkarem in January. Assailants abducted and killed them. The murders may have occurred in retaliation for the Israeli assassination of a Palestinian leader in the same town.

I take in young Avshalom's tattoo - a Matisse-like scene of happy people dancing in a circle.

Isn't it possible to forget the intifada here on Sheinkin Street, I wonder aloud, thinking about the cafes, the bead shops, the shops selling handmade soaps, selling handicrafts from Asia, selling stud collars, selling music, selling hardware, selling jewelry, selling juice. What about the arm-in-arm strollers, the baby-carriage pushers, the convertibles angling for parking spaces, the dog-walkers?

"Maybe on Sheinkin," Avshalom concedes. "This is the most happy street in all of Tel Aviv." But he adds: "When you walk out from here, it's coming back." He means thoughts of what both Israelis and Palestinians call "the situation."

Sitting at a cafe, I amuse myself by considering what a "safe" look might be for Sheinkin Street.

For a woman: tight pants and a tight top. The exposure of some skin between hip and sternum. Thick-soled shoes. Silver rings.

For a man: jeans and a tight, sleeveless T-shirt, preferably black. Spiky, gelled hair. Wraparound sunglasses. Something pierced.

Many people appear on Sheinkin Street in just these ways. They fit in with ease. Others look as though they have spent too much time preparing to come to Sheinkin Street. The two are easy to distinguish.

I also consider what I am not seeing on Sheinkin Street. A man in a business suit. A police or military vehicle. A man or woman wearing the clothing of practicing ultra-orthodox Jews.

The dearth of suits is a sign that Sheinkin Street is even more casual and relaxed than the rest of Israel. The absence of the security forces suggests that the Israeli guard is down just a little bit here. Most striking of all is the lack of on-your-sleeve religiosity.

It's such a short drive from Jerusalem - just one hour, not counting the time to park in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem, people wear their religion, eat according to it, broadcast it from loudspeakers.

It occurs to me to count yarmulkes. Grand total: two.

Sitting next to me are two young women, visitors from London. They have come to Israel to see family, to feel the warmth of the sun. To Sheinkin Street they have come to buy shoes.

"I do love Jerusalem, it's a wonderful place, but not for more than a day," says Kat Mansoor, a student of English literature and film.

Relaxed, secular Tel Aviv has its stresses.

Kat says she herself, on visits to Tel Aviv in years past, has heard the explosions of Palestinian bombs on Allenby Street, which is just around the corner.

"It's what you expect, it's how they live here," says her friend Shirit, who works in public relations and has the same last name, even though they are not related. Both order cheese toast for lunch.

I get up and take a walk along Sheinkin Street.

In a shop I see something my wife might like. I buy it and have it gift-wrapped. It will be a souvenir of a happy place in difficult times.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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