Jerusalemites escape to Tel Aviv for sun, fun and dining

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Like residents of other great cities, Jerusalemites have a tendency to think of their city as the center of the universe. But even die-hard fans of Jerusalem can get weary of the chilly winter weather and the political and religious intensity that permeates the Holy City.

Seeking sunshine, sea vistas and a more carefree environment, my husband and I opted for a weekend getaway to Tel Aviv. It turned out to be one of our more inspired decisions.

An hour's drive away from Jerusalem by bus or car, Tel Aviv is the capital's younger, more vibrant sister. Renowned for its beaches, which extend in pristine splendor for miles, the city boasts countless clubs, pubs, discos. It is also home to the country's best theater companies (the Cameri features simultaneous English translation every Tuesday), the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and excellent museums.

We planned an itinerary that enabled us to try out some new restaurants, visit an off-the-beaten-track museum, attend a street fair and simply explore some of the city's ethnically rich neighborhoods.

We began our getaway on Thursday evening, when we checked into the Howard Johnson Shalom Hotel. Seeking a really good meal, we left our car at the hotel and flagged a taxi to Ma Cuisine, a fine kosher French restaurant in the nearby municipality of Ramat Gan (1 Jabotinsky St.).

The food was delicious. We started with baked filo dough filled with goose breast and sautéed vegetables. I ordered the mallard breast in rosemary, my husband the broiled chicken steak in honey and pearl onions. We shared a chocolate fudge cake and halva-coffee parfait. The bill (without wine) totaled $80 for two.

On Friday morning we drove to the luxurious David Intercontinental Hotel, our headquarters for Shabbat. After parking the car in the hotel's lot, it took us 10 minutes to walk to Nahalat Binyamin, an old, very colorful neighborhood in the southern part of the city. Every Tuesday and Friday, weather-permitting, this area hosts an arts and crafts fair that attracts even more locals than it does tourists. Some of the more sought-after items include stained glass kaleidoscopes, painted wooden toys and one-of-a-kind pieces of silver jewelry.

About a block from the fair, we made a serendipitous discovery: an eatery called Cafe Birnbaum (31 Nahalat Binyamin St.). In contrast to the area's many greasy shwarma joints, Birnbaum is a bright, clean vegetarian restaurant adorned with valuable original oil paintings. Choosing the Friday morning buffet, we feasted on savory pies, cauliflower in tehina, potatoes in soy sauce, pasta with basil. Cost: $9 per person plus drinks.

With Shabbat nearing, we headed to the Intercontinental via the Carmel open-air food market. Packed and smelly but filled with the freshest food imaginable, the shuk is the place where real Tel Avivians buy their produce.

While I watched the sun set over the sea from our room's terrace, my husband went in search of a local synagogue for Shabbat services.

What he discovered was a little Yemenite "shul" secreted behind a cluster of houses on 42 Degania St., no more than a five-minute walk from the hotel. He told me that "finding the synagogue itself was like threading a maze in an Escher print. I followed one of the men who was going inside. I was welcomed to join a service that was exotic and familiar at the same time. It was wonderful."

The next day we decided to attend services in the hotel, after one of our fellow guests invited us to a bar mitzvah. Later — stuffed from Shabbat brunch — we gladly set out by foot for the five-minute walk to Neveh Tzedek, a late 19th-century neighborhood near the beachfront that is now in the process of rapid gentrification. Comprised of quaint one- and two-story dwellings, it is an oasis of quiet streets and gardens in the shadow of skyscrapers.

Being Shabbat observers, we had ordered tickets to the Nachum Guttman art museum (21 Rokah St.) by credit card the day before (price: $3.50 per ticket). Located in a fine old building in Neveh Tzedek home, this small gem of a museum contains many of his better oils and sketches. During our visit, several works by Reuven Rubin were also on display.

Guttman's paintings, which were completed from the 1920s until his death in 1980, are a glimpse into Israeli life before and after the founding of the state. His richly colored landscapes depict veiled Arab women, olive trees, old stone houses, donkeys. An Israel that, for the most part, no longer exists.

We left the museum and continued to walk — minus our sweaters in the warm sunshine — through Neveh Tzedek's narrow streets, admiring the newly renovated homes and shops painted in shades of beige and burnt orange. Several non-kosher neighborhood restaurants were packed with families. We munched on the dates and oranges we had bought at the Carmel market.

Though our hotel was nearby, we made a detour to the waterfront, where the promenade leads to the ancient port city of Jaffa, to the south; and to central Tel Aviv, to the north. We joined people with small children and dogs in tow, all of us savoring the gorgeous winter day.

Wishing to extend our mini-vacation through the evening, we drove to Jaffa as soon as Shabbat ended. Nearly 4,000 years old and reminiscent of the Old City of Jerusalem, Jaffa has been expertly refurbished. Though commercialized, it has some wonderful shops and restaurants.

When we arrived, several shops were still open, as was the Ilana Goor Museum. Housed in a huge, fabulously renovated 250-year-old inn that also serves as the sculptor-designer's home, it is a museum-display-gift shop for Gur's brash creations, some whimsical, some disturbing. Gur's own works are offset by her collection of artwork, furniture and literature, all of which she shares with the public for a $5 entrance fee.

As soon as we returned to chilly Jerusalem we wanted to turn around, anxious for another getaway to balmy, free-spirited Tel Aviv.