Unlike Jerusalem, with its Biblical past, Messianic future and insoluble present, Tel Aviv exists in a subjective here and now, either loved or hated by all who pass through it.

It's easy for a tourist, pointed only in the direction of Ya'acov Agam's Whirling Sculpture at Dizengoff Circle, to think of Tel Aviv as a rather dirty, ugly city where restaurants serve fast food to aggressive teen-agers and everything is overpriced.

And a visitor using time in Tel Aviv for the few existing standard tourist sites -- Ben Gurion's home, with its massive private library; the Diaspora Museum at Tel Aviv University in Ramat Aviv, with its computerland data base of every Jewish community, past and present, in the world; or the Ha'aretz Museum with its ancient glass collection or demonstrations of Biblical-era crafts -- ends up with a memory of places that except for historical accident could just as easily have been seen in Jerusalem.

But to miss the Tel Aviv of nightlife or beach life, cafe' sitting or pub crawling, is to miss as important an aspect of Israel as Jerusalem's Western Wall or the view from the top of Masada.

For while it is in history that Israel finds its raison d'e~tre, it's in Tel Aviv, as libidinous a city as Jerusalem is pious, where a new secular Israeli culture -- as distinct from an internationally recognizable Jewish culture -- is in a constant process of evolution.

Not quite 80 years old, Tel Aviv is a city that still looks like Arthur Koestler's 1939 description. "Stand on any street corner," he said, "and look down a street. It looks like an open mouth with missing teeth."

The dominant architectural materials seem to be chipped plaster, sea-salt-eroded cement, glass, granite, brightly colored plastic, neon, fluorescent Formica, smog-colored stucco, peeling chipboard and rusting iron.

It is a visual landscape that has spawned an esthetic that in a major local art exhibit at the Tel Aviv Art Museum two years ago was called "The Poverty of Material."

Yet the same run-down look has the charm of intimacy, suitable for a city so small that after a week, a newcomer -- including a tourist -- becomes recognizable to locals, and a newcomer's complaints are the same as a 30-year resident of the burg. The center of Tel Aviv, which in its metropolitan form is, after all, practically the entire center of Israel, encompassing 1.5 million people -- nearly half the Jewish population of Israel -- is barely three miles wide and eight long, walkable from north to south in a half hour that includes window-shopping.

That tiny stretch from the Yarqon River in the north to the Old Port of Jaffa in the south, from the beach in the west to the main Tel Aviv-Haifa highway in the east, is the Manhattan of Israel, as much New York as Jerusalem is Washington.

If Jerusalem makes its living from miracles, the miracle in Tel Aviv is how anyone can make a living.

Yet, Tel Avivians do survive, indeed thrive, creating one of the most oft-asked questions of the newcomer to the city: How do people afford brand new cars, cars that in Europe or America would cost $10,000 and in Israel -- where incomes are a third less than in America, after taxes and customs -- cost upwards of $25,000 to as much as $50,000?

Unfortunately, I have yet to come up with the answer, and in any case find that as a resident of downtown Tel Aviv, the best mode of transport is by foot or bicycle. It solves the traffic and parking nightmare, and makes every excursion a discovery of a shop I'd never encountered before. The city is almost perfectly flat -- there are no steep hills and only a few slow grades -- a perfect bicycler's town.

But no matter how you get around, Tel Aviv is as subjective a place as can be imagined, and very much an insider's town. Getting inside, however, isn't too difficult, if you're not afraid to start a conversation -- or answer what may seem to be some rather personal questions, like "why don't you stay in Israel?" or "how much do you pay rent?" After all, Tel Aviv is a city where if you buy groceries from the same neighborhood grocer more than twice in the same week, it's likely that by the third visit he'll be offering you credit and asking if you have a marriageable son or daughter.

So this is a personal report, as befits a personal city, a subjective account of a few of the many parts of Tel Aviv that I love -- and occasionally hate.

Every Tel Avivian has a favorite cafe', or a favorite night spot for before or after the theater or a movie. Getting to know those cafe's and pubs, where often the question of who regularly eats there is as important as what is served, is one of the best ways to get to know the city, and through the city, to get to know an Israel that exists outside of the television news frame or the newspaper story.

Friday is the best day for cafe' crawling, for it's the last working day of a six-day week and at the same time the unofficial first day of the weekend. The major weekend newspapers come out on Fridays, and in Israel, the chairman of the News Exporting Countries, the weekend newspapers are something to be savored with an espresso or a beer and a view of the parade of people.

Indeed, Fridays are as special in Israeli Tel Aviv as in Jewish Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, of course, people are preparing for the Sabbath, when everything is closed on the weekend. In Tel Aviv, people are preparing for Friday night, when everything in the city seems to be open.

My Fridays usually begin at Kassit, one of the most famous of Tel Aviv's cafe's. It is on the western side of Dizengoff between Frishman and Gordon streets, close enough to hear when Agam's Circus Symphony starts up at 7 p.m., but not so close as to be in the heart of the fast-food, beer and hummus joints.

Kassit is much more than a sidewalk cafe'. It's an institution. In its heyday -- in the '30s, '40s and '50s -- it was the Elaine's of Tel Aviv. And it still keeps up the tradition, especially on Fridays when, starting around 1 in the afternoon, many of the city's poets, journalists, politicians, filmmakers, actors and an aging crowd of retirees who can remember Kassit in its past glory, take up their tables to watch -- and be watched by -- the passing crowds of pre-Shabbat shoppers and strollers. It's the kind of place where Allen Ginsberg, on a recent visit to Israel, spent quite a few mornings, and where personal feuds dating back to the War of Independence -- when this poet was in the Stern Gang and that artist was in the Hagannah -- can still inflame a political debate that encompasses half the tables inside and amuses all the tables outside.

Kassit's walls are decorated with the artwork of painters who have traded their work for meals, which at Kassit means Ashkenazi-Jewish cuisine: heavy, starchy and perfectly suited to be downed with Goldstar (not Maccabee) beer, in preparation for the Friday afternoon nap taken by any self-respecting Tel Avivian. (It's considered highly impolite -- unless you've been told otherwise -- to telephone anyone at home in the city on Friday between 3 in the afternoon and sometime after 5.)

From Kassit I often move up Dizengoff to the Kennedy Center of Tel Aviv -- the Habimah-Mann Auditorium complex. Habimah is the home of the National Hebrew Theater, and the Mann Auditorium is the home of the Israel Philharmonic. But for inveterate cafe' crawlers, the complex between the southeastern stretch of Dizengoff and the northern end of Rothschild Boulevard is also the home of three important meeting places.

Apropos, in the Mann Auditorium building, is a chrome and straw restaurant-cafe', where every dish on the menu is named for a musical number. Zubin Mehta often heads a table here after a concert. In the mornings, Apropos is a ladies' and businessmen's cafe', and in the evenings it's where the fur-and-gown subscription audience drops in, before or after a concert. (That, by the way, doesn't mean an informally dressed concertgoer is not appreciated at the Mann Auditorium. The last seats in the house -- and sometimes standing room -- are usually given away to soldiers on home leave, and there's always a liberal mix of jeans and T-shirts in the otherwise elegantly appointed subscription concert crowd. In general, the dress code in Tel Aviv is whatever's comfortable, and ties and jackets are not considered among the more comfortable wear.)

The Habimah restaurant-cafe', with its buffet-style dining and extensive bar, draws the theatrical crowd. Like Apropos, which has live piano entertainment in the evenings, the Habimah cafe' has a stage that is often occupied by a small jazz band or chamber music group. During the week, and especially on Thursdays, Habimah is where self-respecting journalists meet political sources for lunch, self-respecting performers meet their agents and self-respecting businessmen meet their clients. It's a very respectable joint.

Across the street from Habimah is the White Gallery, which has a Viennese-cafe' atmosphere, and a small and curious appendix. Next door is the New Age Music and Literature center of Israel, owned and run by the owner of the White Gallery.

From Habimah, I head up Rothschild to the corner of Sheinkin Street, into the heart of old Tel Aviv's most elegant residential district and the local stomping grounds of Tel Aviv's yuppies. In general, yuppies here are older than American yuppies, in part because the Israelis were delayed three years in the army before heading off on careers.

With many of Tel Aviv's major advertising agencies only a few blocks away, the Labour Party-owned Davar newspaper building a block down the street, and City Hall tax breaks for young couples moving into the neighborhood, Sheinkin has drawn some of the most fashionable and talented of Tel Aviv's professionals to find housing in the old, high-ceilinged apartment buildings of the area. Here, the favorite cafe' for the locals is Tamar, at the corner of Sheinkin and Ahad Ha'am.

The shops along Sheinkin range from tiny newspaper kiosks to those featuring avant-garde designs of housing accessories, from record shops to art supply shops. One of my favorites is down Sheinkin, toward Allenby Street. Twersky's Bookstore offers a strange combination of Judaica, Palestinica and first-edition Russian literature, and looks just like what an antique bookstore should look like: tiny and crowded with shelves stuffed to the ceiling with books of all sorts and ages. Twersky's is one of several bookstores on the same block, each seeming to specialize in something else.

Indeed, the browser does well to try one of dozens of used bookstores in Tel Aviv. Some, like Twersky's, are family businesses, founded in the '20s or '30s by then-young Jewish intellectual merchants arriving from Europe. These are shops that can locate first editions of Mark Twain's "Travels Through the Holy Land," a highly recommended narrative that clarifies for the reader some likely misconceptions about 19th-century Palestine before the Zionists arrived, or antique maps of the Holy Land.

But by late Friday afternoon, shops are closed, and the place to be is Bonanza (on Trumpeldor Street a block eastward from Ben-Yehuda). The weekend partying seems to start here at 3 in the afternoon, when Marcel, a former French partisan fighter who worked for 30 years as a waiter at Kassit, does his turn as a chanson as reserve army generals and spies, painters and poets, journalists and politicians, swirl about the room, waltzing to Marcel's singing.

Bonanza is where right-wingers and left-wingers in Israeli politics are able to drop the usually acrimonious Israeli debate to share a bottle and some songs from the pre-state days, even if it's for only a few hours a week on Friday afternoons.

Many of the wildly dancing and carousing people are genuine war heroes, and more than once I have thought that the lustiness of Bonanza's Friday afternoons is an expression of an ancient Jewish proverb that says simply, "Choose life."

But it's only coincidence that, as if to prove that proverb, just up Trumpeldor Street from Bonanza is a tiny walled cemetery where the names on the gravestones are of many of modern Israel's founding fathers or, in the case of David Ben Gurion, his father. Like any good old cemetery, there are historical tales told in the dates and names on the stones. During the week, there's a caretaker on the premises, and with little to do, he's ready to give a guided tour, explaining who is buried here.

Tel Aviv is still a young city, and many of the original buildings of the first neighborhoods are still standing in Neve Zedek. The neighborhood is on the southwest side of the tallest building in Israel, Migdal Shalom, where the first escalator in the Middle East was a tourist attraction in the early '60s, when the building was completed.

On your way to Neve Zedek, it's worthwhile to walk through the Carmel Market, where fruits and vegetables are in season year-round. Start with the spice shop at the entrance and zigzag through the market toward Migdal Shalom.

If you follow your nose southward -- in Tel Aviv, all you have to do is locate the sea, which is always in the west, to know which way you're facing -- you'll find yourself walking through the Tel Aviv garment district that has sprouted in the western shadows of Migdal Shalom. Hundreds of fashion boutiques and houses have sprouted in the neighborhood.

South of the fashion district is Neve Zedek. (To the north is the Yemenite Quarter, which every guidebook elucidates without any help from me.)

Knock on the door at the Rokach House, at 36 Rokach St., and the granddaughter of Shimon Rokach, the founder of the Neve Zedek neighborhood, might open the door. Lea Mintz, a sculptress whose cartoon-like clay characters dot the grounds of the house, has devoted the last several years to resurrecting the building's original Turkish-era architecture, and is often ready to interrupt her work for a few minutes to give a curious visitor a tour of the four-story building, which was once the grandest house in Neve Zedek and the site of the first town meetings of that tiny community.

A few blocks away, at Alroy 10, a young couple named Diane and Ze'ev Sokolowski have put together Design Center, a combination gallery and shop where talented young Israeli designers exhibit furniture and kitchenware, and where Israeli craftsmen in trades ranging from ironworks to carpentry are credited with the restoration of one of Neve Zedek's buildings. From the top-floor porch of Alroy 10, you can look out over the rooftops -- and into the courtyards -- of the neighboring buildings, and get a sense of how Tel Aviv grew northeastward and, with time, the architecture and construction changed from single-family housing to apartment buildings.

A few words about the central bus station, at the end of most of the Tel Aviv bus lines.

It's filthy, noisy and crowded, full of beggars, con men, stolen goods sold in the open, pickpockets, religious missionaries looking for secular Jewish men to browbeat into putting on tefillin (phylacteries), soldiers lugging duffel bags and rifles, shoe stores that sell knock-offs with cardboard soles, blaring oriental music, and a cross-section of Israeli society on the move. It is one of the places in town that reminds you that Tel Aviv, for all its pretentions to a quasi-European sensibility, is in the Middle East, where the bazaar is more natural than the shopping mall. One fascination of the central bus station is that out of the apparent chaos runs an extremely efficient interurban bus service that is heavily subsidized by the government and therefore quite cheap.

But the real fascination is the sheer heterogeneity of Israeli society as it moves through the central bus station. Jerusalem, with seemingly everyone in his costume of choice -- religious Jewish, religious Moslem, religious Christian -- and with a heavily North African population, does not prove the existence of the extraordinary diversity of the Israeli population as well as Tel Aviv's bus station, where within a few minutes you can hear dozens of the 70 different languages spoken between parent and child in Israel. Jerusalem is a city of stereotypes. Tel Aviv is a city of archetypes.

I like the central bus station for its smells and sounds and sights. I like it for the ridiculous household equipment for sale -- magnetized sponges, to wash the outside of windows; anti-stain creams sold by young men who squirt ink and ketchup all over their white shirts and then clean them off, all the while keeping up an incessant patter -- and I like it for the old barbers asleep in their chairs, the religious men sneaking peeps at the pornographic magazines, the mismatched mix of different kinds of music blaring from the loudspeakers of obviously cloned Japanese ghetto blasters. The beggars are frightening in their obvious despair, but a coin earns you a blessing as eloquent as Joseph's blessings of his sons.

I do not recommend any of the unpackaged food on sale, unless you have stainless-steel stomachs.

Tel Aviv is very much a late-night city, especially in the summer, when tens of thousands of city residents, unable to bear the heat and humidity, fill restaurants and cafe's, bars and pubs or stroll along the beach promenade licking ice cream or sipping cold drinks.

There are many places that are best seen only after midnight:

The on-the-beach restaurant-bar called Hof Hama'aravi, which inappropriately means "the western coast," since it's actually on the southern stretch of the Tel Aviv beach, on the way to Jaffa. Fifty huge round tables stretch along a flagstone terrace on the beach, and a favorite late-night snack for Israelis is watermelon served with the salty white Bulgarian cheese.

Deja Vu, which opens when Tamar, diagonally across the street from it, closes. Deja Vu closes about an hour before Tamar opens. Both places seem to share the same clientele.

Taboo, the northernmost commercial enterprise on Hayarkon Street, a nighttime joint that has lately been the favorite place to go at the end of the night for those who work in other late-night joints.

Hamisba's, the last enterprise at the northernmost end of Dizengoff. This is the kind of place where at 3 in the morning, more likely than not there will be dancing on tables to Israeli-Oriental music.

There also is late-night dancing at Herbie Sam's, a European-style discotheque that lately has been emphasizing rock 'n' roll; the Cinerama, which has live music and a dance floor big enough for 5,000; and various Jaffa nightclubs that specialize in Greek and Turkish music, including bellydancers. The best of these is Arianna, which any taxi driver knows how to find at the edge of (New) Old Jaffa.

The late-night possibilities in Tel Aviv are endless. However, one place should not be missed. Ask your driver or take a taxi to the Hatikva Quarter at 3 in the morning.

There's a street there with dozens of brightly lit restaurants serving grilled meats and spicy salads of every possible kind, from calf brains to bull testicles, skewered goose liver and plain old shishlik, which is Israel's version of Greek shish kebab.

All the restaurants are full, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, and if you pay attention you'll notice certain guests are welcomed with special attention. They are either regulars (and to become a regular, just go back more than twice in one week, if you can handle it) or local celebrities, ranging from American basketball stars playing for Israeli teams to performers dropping by for a bite before going home.

The only way to recuperate from all this is on the beach. Early in the morning, at the beaches between Gordon Street and Bograshov, you can see old-timers working out with medicine balls, doing yoga and taking early swims.

Later in the morning, secretaries and soldiers, high schoolers and the lazy -- in other words, anyone who can find a few minutes to take in some sun -- find their way to the beach. The surfers use the beach just outside the marina, and the Frisbee players go to the beach just north of Mograbi. Indeed, most people in Tel Aviv are regulars at a particular beach, becoming friendly with other regulars.

Take a stroll along the promenade. If you're with kids, stop at the beach with the most kids the same age as yours. It won't take long for them to make friends, and you may find you've made friends with the parents.

Oh, there's a somewhat annoying sport called matkot, which is a netless tennis game played with wooden rackets and a squash ball; it is played at the water's edge by people up and down the beach. It's annoying to those who can't let the rhythms of the game turn into background music, and especially annoying when the players near your beach chair keep missing the ball.

A last word of advice. Find a cafe' that you like. It doesn't have to be fancy or popular or famous. You're on vacation, and there's no place to run.

Show up at the same cafe' every morning, and within a couple of days they'll know your favorite drink -- espresso, hafuch (which means upside-down coffee and is sort of like cappuccino) or whatever.

Read the newspaper. The Jerusalem Post and the International Herald Tribune are available at almost every newspaper kiosk and hotel bookstore. On Fridays, the Post carries a local supplement called Metro, which has a pretty good listing of events.

Reading the newspaper in Israel is half of what being in Israel is all about, and there's nowhere better to do it than in a nice cafe', on the sidewalk, watching people watching you. And most of all, don't be shy. Nobody's shy in Tel Aviv.

Robert Rosenberg writes the "Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv" column for the Jerusalem Post.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: El Al, the Israeli airline, flies nonstop from New York to Tel Aviv daily except Tuesday (when there is a London stop) and Friday (when there is no flight). Most major European airlines serve Tel Aviv from New York with a stopover in Europe.

Both Pan Am and TWA offer flights from Dulles to Paris with a connection to Tel Aviv. Currently, Pan Am's flights are daily except Sunday and Monday. TWA flies on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Air fares to Tel Aviv vary by season. Pan Am is quoting a round-trip fare of $851 from now through March 23, which is the low season. The ticket requires a 14-day advance purchase, and travelers must stay a minimum of six days and no more than two months.

Pan Am's fares jump between March 24 and April 3 to $991 because this period includes both Easter and Passover this year, when travel is heavy to Israel. Pan Am is quoting a "shoulder" season fare from April 4 to June 12 of $971. During the summer, the fare ranges from $991 to a peak of $1,061.

Fares on some airlines may be lower when purchased with a lodging package. GETTING AROUND: If you're going to spend more than a couple of days in the city, it might be worthwhile to buy a used bicycle and lock for about 50 to 100 shekels ($35 to $70), which is what you'd end up spending on taxis if you were to use them all the time. (There are several bicycle shops in downtown Tel Aviv that sell used bikes.) If you do decide to take a taxi in downtown Tel Aviv, make sure the driver turns on the meter.

A bicycle also frees you from the usually overcrowded downtown buses, which may be efficient and cheap -- 70 agora (slightly more than $1) -- but are somewhat uncomfortable, especially in summer when full of people.

Outside Tel Aviv, taxis or buses are best for getting around. Taxi rides outside the city are according to flat rates, which you should agree upon before setting off. Have the concierge or someone else who knows Hebrew ask the driver to show them the flat rate as listed in the driver's book, before the trip begins. WHERE TO EAT:In the last few years, Tel Aviv has sprouted several good restaurants, including an excellent Chinese restaurant (Yin Yang, Rothschild Boulevard), a fine Indian restaurant (Tandoor, Zamenhoff Street) and, most significantly, several Israeli nouvelle cuisine restaurants specializing in local herbs and fruits and vegetables combined with veal, poultry and lamb (Keren, Ibn Gvirol Street; the Pink Ladle, Balfour Street; Ellen's, at the corner of Yarkon and Frishman).

Israeli cuisine means sauces and side dishes made from the extraordinary variety of fruits and vegetables grown year-round in Israel. And along with the improved cuisine has come an improvement in local wines. Highly recommended are Golan, Gamla and Yarden; but there are also other well-bred wines to be had, including the Ben-Ami label and some of the Carmel Mizrahi labels. In the late fall, it's worth trying the Israeli Beaujolais, called Hilulim in Hebrew, a robust, dry yet fruity wine with a nice kick.

There's a decent New York-style pizza joint (Domino) on Hameasfim, just below the intersection with Ibn Gvirol. And if you have a stainless-steel stomach, take a walk a few blocks east on Carlebach Street from Domino, to the fruit and vegetable wholesale distribution market, where more than a dozen restaurants serve absolutely fresh -- though somewhat greasy -- food to the hundreds of mostly Arab and Oriental Jewish workers from the market. Or, on the way, stop at Israel's version of Sans Souci, a Balkan restaurant called Olympia, at the corner of Carlebach and Kiryat Safer. On Thursdays, the power elite lunches there, and you'll need a reservation.

There's also been a resurgence of ethnic cooking (Nargilla, for Yemenite food, on King David Boulevard, across the street from City Hall; Esther's, for Ukrainian-Jewish food on Ibn Gvirol). There's a Mexican restaurant a block toward the beach from the intersection of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda.

The fish restaurants in the Old Port, just south of Old Jaffa, are worth a visit, especially after midnight in the summer, when many Tel Avivians escape the heat of their apartments for a seafood meal at the water's edge. Unlike in Jerusalem, where almost all the restaurants abide by the laws of kashrut, dozens of Tel Aviv restaurants have no such compunctions. Shrimp, for example, has become so popular among Tel Aviv diners that there's a restaurant (Hasilonit, Frishman Street) devoted to it. ART GALLERIES: Old Jaffa is reconstructed and unfortunately overcommercialized, but the one recommendation I have is Horace Rihter's art gallery, at 24 Simtat Mazal Arieh, where on Friday afternoons at around 4:30, Horace, an American who still hasn't learned Hebrew but has kept his South Carolina accent after 20 years in Israel, will invite you up to his roof for some light, live music, pastries and the most marvelous view of Tel Aviv and Jaffa to be seen from one place in town. Horace has been a patron of Israeli artists since his arrival and represents several excellent painters and sculptors.

Good art can also be found in the galleries on Gordon Street, between Dizengoff and Ben-Yehuda, while the most avant-garde art in Tel Aviv is on view at the politically conscious Bograshov Gallery at 60 Bograshov; Rega, in a downtown industrial loft at 113 Herzl St.; and Artifact, in the old brick factory building (brick stands out in a city with very little of it) at the intersection of Hamani and Y.L. Goldberg. INFORMATION: For information about accommodations or more information about Tel Aviv in general, contact the Israel Government Tourist Office, 3514 International Dr. NW, Washington, D.C. 20008, 364-5699. -- Robert Rosenberg