Florentin: A Day in the Hood - Not Your Ordinary Reality Show

Rene Attias
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Rene Attias

The Florentin: It is not a small city in Italy, a restaurant in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a foreign film, or a tropical island off the coast of the Mediterranean. It is rather a small neighborhood, the size of half a dollar bill on a map of downtown Tel Aviv.

The Florentin Quarter of Tel Aviv was first inhabited by a few hundred Greeks from Salonika, who established a haven for the Jews that survived the Holocaust and arrived during the 1930's.

In 1997, Eytan Fox launched the Israeli TV drama Florentin, which followed the lives of young Tel Avivians living in the area before and after the Rabin assassination.

It was then that Florentin achieved its cult-like status, and what started out as an exclusive neighborhood for "cruising" later turned into a struggling artist's quarter with familiar hotspots among hipsters and trend-spotters far and beyond the "spring hills."

At daylight, Florentin caters to the commercial businesses that purchase in bulk for wholesale prices, but the boutiques tend to bud and are sniffed-out on dreary Shabbat mornings when touring the hood crevices is the best thing since Matza with Nutella.

A sweaty fifteen-minute walk eastbound in the humid city will bring you to the biggest bus station in the Middle East, known to the natives as the Tahana Mercazit, equipped with a flea market where prices are shouted from smoke-filled lungs.

Just about fifteen minutes in the opposite direction, strike out for the neighborhood of Jaffa - or Yafo as Israelis call it - a port city of crumbling sandstone believed to have existed 4,000 years ago.

Return to Florentin for Ladino, the old language spoken among Sephardic Jews, and listen to the elder Turkish shopkeepers on Florentin Street - who sell spices, dried fruits, nuts and bourekas, and who don't mind when you nibble along with the birds.

It's here that you encounter the effect of the demographic split between Tel Aviv's north and south. North Tel Aviv is known for being affluent, European and snobbish in attitude. South Tel Aviv is a poor and working class area that contains a certain amount of mystery and gentrification, which feeds into the developing world feeling surrounding Florentin - the greasy pork that's a little raw around the edges, but well-done and sizzling inside - with the next generation of Israeli culture flourishing into a fruitful coup.

In this bohemian neighborhood the city-girl, metro-sexual, homosexual, or just plain freak can enjoy opening the front door - like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz - to a tornado spinning with life.

This is Florentin: Soho's ambiance and the sex-in-the-city sensation involuntarily exhaled by street revelers who reveal their besieged expressions and dress while frolicking in Florentin - the hood that struggles with stardom, but refuses to say goodbye to Hollywood.

Merely roam the streets for eateries you would never have known existed had you not discovered them yourself.

Bugsy, for example, not the American Jewish gangster, but a low-key ominous neighborhood joint - interiorly decorated with profane photos that take up air on a blind date and a menu that proposes hot chocolate made from imported bitter Swiss chocolate bars - it's straight out of the movies, an American said, while the Israeli snickered.

But all the while Florentin is geographically south, it is sociologically north - yet still hipper than Sheinkin where the poseurs can be found - because it's the real deal: cheap rundown flats in buildings with laundry draped outside beat-up and dirty storefront windows of metal and woodworking shops and deteriorating garages turned nightclubs bubbling with little mama's boys and girls - who merely know how to dress - on weekends that come only for the taste, to play and to be courted.

Not the ordinary reality show - nothing near MTV's The Real World, but the environment where one reveals their color, temperature, currency and degree of destitute, outside the residual norm and not yet absorbed by mainstream Tel Avivian culture.

What's more amazing is the haphazard shacks turned nightclubs, a barred mental health institute and boutiques conglomerated in one space where the sun sets over jagged rooftop and ramshackle buildings contaminated with asbestos, the reek of urine and the smell of sex-craved men exiting a brothel, cooped together with the noise of neighborhood renovations and the feel of a ridged and rugged but richly-cultured social atmosphere enveloped with the Israeli frenzy - the combination is enchanting.

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