Old Jaffa, one of the most ancient ports in the entire world, just isn't the same anymore.
Of course, the stunning azure Mediterranean kisses the white sand, just as it always has. And the lush palm trees gracing the skyline weren't planted yesterday. But Old Jaffa – the jewel of Israel – is all-new, ready to assert itself as a key destination all on its own.
It's easy to confuse Old Jaffa with Tel Aviv, since Jaffa is just a tiny area on Tel Aviv's extensive coastline, but whatever the legalities of the boundaries are, once you see it, you won't confuse the two: If Tel Aviv is a bustling modern city, Old Jaffa is a garden, bedecked with vistas, artists, exquisite shops and innovative eateries, all tucked into curving stone alleys and walkways.
It wasn't always so. Not all that long ago, Jaffa – known as Yafo to Israelis – was virtually a hellhole.
Just ask the legions of immigrants who came to "Palestine" in the early 1900s. The port of Jaffa is where they disembarked, and where they perched until they could find more suitable homes elsewhere. Jaffa was an Arab city then, and few Jews had any desire to linger any longer than was absolutely necessary. Jaffa was enough to discourage the most ardent Zionist.
"The streets of Jaffa were deep in filth," writes Robert St. John, in his biography of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was instrumental in settling newcomers. "There were no sewers. Rainwater and slops stood stagnant in the thoroughfares, with the heat of the sun making the stench almost unbearable.
"Flies and mosquitoes thrived, stray cats and dogs poked their noses into the refuse that littered the city. Malaria, typhus and typhoid were as common as the common cold. Predatory trachoma caused crossed eyes and blindness and (almost everyone) had serious skin diseases, all of them infectious."
The men, St. John writes, set out to travel the countryside, looking for land to settle, leaving their wives and children in Jaffa, where they lived in hovels, with no schools, no places to rest or get away from the filth and stink. Some of the women almost went insane.
Today, almost 100 years later, the only thing that might inspire insanity in Jaffa is having to pick just one single restaurant to have dinner.
The Town and the Bible
Much of the fascination of Old Jaffa comes from its ancient history – the city is mentioned several times in the Bible: The book of Kings tells us that the port of Jaffa is where the rafts bearing the cedars of Lebanon came to port, during the construction of the First Temple.
The huge logs had been floated there, and were taken ashore and then dragged the 40 miles to Jerusalem.
Then, too, Jaffa was where Jonah hopped a ship to Tarshish, when he was trying to escape Hashem's order to go preach to Nineveh. If today you gaze out from Jaffa's lookout point, you'll see pretty much the same scene Jonah did, when he rejected the idea of challenging the wealthy Ninevites. The ruins of Nineveh are indeed about a three-day walk, lying north, beyond Haifa, in modern-day Iraq, just across the Tigris River from Mosul.
Jaffa's status as a port dates back to the Bronze Age (3300 BCE). The name "Ya-Pho" first appears in an Egyptian letter dated 1470 BCE. The Egyptians ruled the area until around 800 BCE, and left numerous fingerprints.
In 1991, the city erected an intricately carved replica of the Egyptian gate lintels on its original site, in a park on the top of the hill.
Today, the park is still close to heaven, and offers a magnificent 360-degree view, plus benches, shade trees and grassy places to relax and picnic.
Greek influences abound as well, especially out in the bay, where a jagged mass of rock juts out of the water. Greek myth is that this is where the Ethiopian princess Andromeda was chained in an attempt to appease a sea monster before being rescued – and then married by – Perseus.
When the Greek names start to blur, it's time to shop. No visitor will need help finding shops and galleries of all kinds, featuring Judaica, jewelry, ethnic or elegant clothing and accessories, crafts and art. The best idea is to just wander the labyrinth of narrow passageways and alleys – it's a time-honored tradition, and very safe.
Just remember how to find your way back. It helps to note that the streets are named after the signs of the Zodiac – your "sign" might be your sign.
Restaurants and cafes of every price range and ethnicity abound, but why not go native?
Locals love Dr. Shakshukah, at 3 Beit HaEshel, where you can dine on their lovely outdoor patio. The specialty is, of course, that wonderful concoction called shakshukah – an incomparable North African dish of sautéed tomatoes and peppers, topped with hard-cooked egg, and eaten by dipping hunks of hot-out-of-the oven bread into the frying pan with the sauce.
It's both kosher and a bargain – a dual blessing in the pricey Tel Aviv area.
And, just to clarify something from the start: The name Jaffa is traced to several possible origins: Some say it's after Noah's son, Jepeth, said to have built the city after the Great Flood. The Greeks say it comes from Iopeia – that is, Cassiopeia, the mother of the chained Andromeda.
The simplest idea seems best: In Hebrew, yofi means beautiful. If ever a place on earth is yofi, it's Yafo!