The square around the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, near the bustling Rothschild Boulevard, has long since been a symbol of secular entertainment. But only a handful of the hipsters who frequent its bars realize that, less than 200 meters (about 650 feet) away, there’s an entirely different scene – one with a real claim to being home of the real Tel Aviv underground.
You’ll find a different crowd at the foot of the synagogue, one that’s rare to find in the nightlife district: a mix of the ultra-Orthodox, secular, religious, newly secular, newly religious and Tel Aviv celebrities – and, rumor has it, a number of respectable Hasidic leaders in disguise – all dancing together until the wee hours, to deep bass sounds that wouldn’t shame one of the city’s top nightclubs. Hanging above the short path leading to this unique place is an enigmatic sign: “Hithavut” (“Becoming”).
Cigarette smoke mingles with sacred texts on the shelves. The soundtrack – alt-J and Thom Yorke – would seem to contradict the cup for ritual handwashing that sits by the bathroom sink. Near the price list on the bar, a sign promises that the blessing is “mezonot” (used for non-bread baked goods). Hithavut doesn’t match any known definition of religious or secular affiliation.
“I’m more secular than you,” says Yuval Dayan, the beating heart behind the space. Although he sports a long beard and ritual fringes – and despite the title “revered rabbi” with which several people address him during the course of our chat – Dayan insists, “We are not religious. The facade is deceptive. People see someone with a skullcap and a beard, or alternatively without a skullcap and a beard – and they automatically make assumptions,” he says.
Dayan, 48, grew up in Sinai and became religious along with a wave of Israeli celebrities in the 1990s. The story of his return to religion, alongside that of his wife, writer Noa Yaron Dayan, is described in her book “Mekimi” and a TV series of the same name. The two have seven children and live in Tel Aviv.
Dayan is a prominent figure in the Bratslav community. Over the years, the diverse group that has gathered around him has been called everything from “wearers of transparent skullcaps” to “rock ’n’ roll Judaism.” In fact, his secular Tel Aviv roots are clearly evident when he speaks.
He sits in the corner of the room, chain smokes and opens a bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch whisky. His guests treat him with respect – if not exactly like a rabbi, then like a rock star with fringes, or simply a respected guru. Soon he will go onstage and deliver his biweekly lecture about the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav.
Hithavut was established in 2014, in a side room at the back of the synagogue. The cornerstone of the synagogue itself, which is the largest in Tel Aviv, was laid 90 years ago. Heading the committee that advanced its construction was Meir Dizengoff, who eventually became the city’s mayor. The original purpose was to build a place with which both religious and secular people could identify.
Filling the void
It’s almost 10 P.M. and about 30 people have gathered for Dayan’s lecture. Despite arriving late, he looks relaxed as he sits on the stage. At this point the audience is composed mainly of young women in religious attire, who are sipping Pepsi and casting admiring glances toward him. Dayan speaks for almost an hour, and peppers Rabbi Nachman’s philosophy with many Western references – from Freud and Raskolnikov (from “Crime and Punishment”) to Maccabi Tel Aviv, Islamic State, millennials, the Tokyo Convention and Nietzsche. More and more people enter silently and sit down. After the lecture, three men with electric guitars take to the stage and begin to rock the joint.
Itzik, a newly religious man of 28 from Jerusalem, explains the secrets of Hithavut’s attraction for the religious-lite (observant, but not strictly so) and the newly religious public. “It’s a warm place. Bar culture is not inviting for me, and nightlife is alien. Here, there’s warmth, a good atmosphere.”
Rivka, 20, sits on the other side of the room. An Israeli of Ethiopian origin who works in marketing, she has come from Afula with her sister, Leah, 28, an office manager. Both grew up in a religious home. When I ask Rivka about her crop top and jeans, she scolds me: “Don’t fall into stereotypes, you’re missing the point.”
Rivka lived abroad for several years and recently returned to Israel. “I come to Tel Aviv, the most bustling and amazing city in Israel, and yet I feel emptiness, a vacuum that doesn’t get filled,” she says. “Here, there’s a response to that need. It’s something you don’t get from work, from alcohol, from friends.”
Leah says Hithavut actually helped her connect to the Jewish experience that spurred her parents to leave Ethiopia in the first place. “Their faith was so crazy,” Leah recalls, “it’s not something that you and I are capable of comprehending. You believe so much that you’re capable of walking through the desert all the way to Jerusalem. It’s not because they’re primitive; it’s something deep in a person’s soul that shouts, something that brings redemption.”
Perhaps Hithavut is another place that looks egalitarian and open, but in fact masks religious coercion and preaches a return to religion, I suggest. “It’s not missionary or anything. I’ll still go out to have fun,” asserts Leah.
“Yesterday, I went to Pasaz [The Passage] bar; I got drunk, I danced like crazy, I’ve had a hangover all day,” says Rivka. “Judaism is deeper than what you wear or how you look – it’s how your heart is,” adds Leah.
Sharon, a 46-year-old marketing director from Ramat Gan, stands out among this eclectic group of young people. She has been a regular attendee at Dayan’s lectures for over six years – prior to and following the launch of Hithavut. “At first, I thought it was a sect,” she laughs. “I have two degrees – but I’ve never heard talk like that.”
When she began visiting Hithavut, she says she was in a difficult place, her marriage of 17 years having just ended in divorce. “I came like a mummy, zero energy,” she recalls. “But from one lecture to the next, I started to wake up.” Now she never misses a lecture. “At first I was a serious person. Recently, though, my sister-in-law saw me jumping on the dance floor and asked what I was taking.”
However, the idyllic image of equality and acceptance that arises from conversations with patrons doesn’t tally with the fact that women’s singing is prohibited at Hithavut. According to Dayan, though, these are restrictions imposed by the synagogue – which means that mixed dancing or fashion events are also nixed.
If it were up to him, women’s singing and a mixed dance floor would be allowed. “I personally observe halakha [Jewish religious law], but that doesn’t necessarily cause me to act similarly in the public domain. If you use halakha in order to protest, to separate, to cause rifts or to harass – I’m totally against that,” he says.
And despite the restrictions, he adds, occasionally there is a wild women’s evening in the center, when Haredi girls from Safed party until dawn with secular Tel Aviv girls. Dayan also insists that his venue isn’t just for Jews. “It’s also the only place in Tel Aviv where the homeless are received with a blessing,” he adds.
Dayan says his biggest problem is the cost. A ticket for the evening costs 35 shekels ($9), and the alcohol is sold at cost price. He says he could accept donations from Jewish organizations or philanthropists, but those who have offered to donate always had conditions. For example, Dayan turned down one man who offered a generous donation in exchange for a list of names and phone numbers of religiously observant visitors.
“We’re dedicated, we don’t make money on it,” concludes Dayan. “Nobody gives money today just like that, everyone’s doing business. I don’t want to turn it into a business. If I wanted to [do that], I would open a peep show. I know how to make money.” Instead, the staff of Hithavut decided to begin a Headstart crowdfunding project and to raise the money for maintaining the place by themselves. Holy work, indeed.