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Tel-Aviv, the First Century: Visions, Designs, Actualities

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Tel-Aviv, the First Century brings together a broad range of disciplinary approaches and cutting-edge research to trace the development and paradoxes of Tel-Aviv as an urban center and a national symbol. Through the lenses of history, literature, urban planning, gender studies, architecture, art, and other fields, these essays reveal the place of Tel-Aviv in the life and imagination of its diverse inhabitants. The careful and insightful tracing of the development of the city's urban landscape, the relationship of its varied architecture to its competing social cultures, and its evolving place in Israel's literary imagination come together to offer a vivid and complex picture of Tel-Aviv as a microcosm of Israeli life and a vibrant modern global city.

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1 Telling the Story of a Hebrew City

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Tel-Aviv did not want to be a city. In fact, it was afraid to be a city. The fear arose from the anti-urban trend and the negative image of the city—“the dark city”—in the nineteenth century, as well as the Zionist concern that the city would attract most of the new immigrants and would compete with the agricultural settlements for resources. Only in the 1930s did Tel-Aviv realize that it was becoming a city after all.

What it really meant to be was a suburb, or a modern small town, but certainly not something on the order of the average European city. Even today, Tel-Aviv, with 390,000 residents, is certainly not a large city.

From the perspective of the world outside Europe, there is nothing special about the founding of Tel-Aviv one hundred years ago. During the nineteenth century, outside the continent, and especially in the United States, many cities were established, and not as a result of government initiative. Within Europe, however, the situation was different; the only new city in the last 200 years is Odessa, which was founded by the Czarist government at the end of the eighteenth century.1 Within Eretz-Israel the situation was also different. Tel-Aviv is the only new city since Ramle was established in 717 BCE by the Umayyad caliph Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik. It is the first so-called “Jewish city” since King Herod built Caesarea in 20–10 BCE and Tiberias was founded by King Herod Antipas in 22–17 BCE. Thus Tel-Aviv was the first city founded in Eretz-Israel in 1,200 years, and it was the first Jewish city founded there in some 2,000 years.

 

2 Tel-Aviv’s Birthdays: Anniversary Celebrations, 1929–1959

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On 2 May 1929, for the first time in its history, Tel-Aviv celebrated the anniversary of its founding in 1909. In 1934 it commemorated its silver jubilee, and in 1959 its golden jubilee. As civic celebrations, anniversaries commemorate significant events in the history of a nation, a political regime, a religion, an institution, or culture in general. Unlike national holidays that celebrate the founding of states and regimes, the anniversaries of the founding of cities are not celebrated annually, but rather in association with outstanding years. Jubilees, centennials, and bi-centennials are common, though not an obligatory norm.

As with a birthday, a city anniversary commemorates the beginning of the city and provides a calendric framework for the celebration of historical continuity that culminates in the present. Potentially shrouded with pathos and notions of destiny, the celebration of a city anniversary is saturated by the rhetoric of commitment to the city, pride in its history, and optimism about its future. Anniversary celebrations are not spontaneous. They are officially sponsored cultural productions. Promoted and produced by local elites, birthday parties of cities evince specific political priorities, ideological agendas, economic interests, and cultural conventions that underlie the form and content of the commemorative fabric and festive texture of the anniversary celebration.

 

3 Tel-Aviv’s Foundation Myth: A Constructive Perspective

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Many historical cities have invented their “sense of place” through myths of origin, which mark symbolic borders between chaos and cosmos, or nature and culture.1 In modern cities with rapidly changing physical cityscapes, myths are used to create a sense of continuity in the form of local traditional practices, local sites of memory, shared beliefs about the city’s unique “climate” (intellectual Boston, romantic Venice, effervescent Tel-Aviv, etc.), and foundation myths.2 As in every other “mnemonic society,” newcomers and the next generation are socialized into the city’s collective memory by “libraries, bibliographies, folk legends, photo albums, and television archives . . . history textbooks, calendars, eulogies, guest books, tombstones, war memorials . . . pageants, commemorative parades, anniversaries, and various public exhibits of archaeological and other historical objects.”3

In this context, my concern is the construction of the urban anniversary and its own kind of identity construction through retrospective myths of origins. Commemorating a specific moment of creation, the anniversary signifies the border between chaos and cosmos not only in time, but also in space. It symbolically differentiates the city from the chaos that preceded the city’s existence and the chaos that still surrounds it. Occurring on the same calendar date, it makes a clear connection between the past moment of a city’s creation and its ongoing creation in the present. On the other hand, it also demonstrates a linear narrative of continuous development from the modest beginning in the past to the massive present, emphasizing the rapid changes in urban landscape, thus evoking nostalgia. The existence of a city’s active and functioning foundation myth can thus indicate the existence of a sense of place, that is, its functioning as a social site of identity construction through “mnemonic socialization” or “mnemonic tradition[s].”4

 

4 From “European Oasis” to Downtown New York: The Image of Tel-Aviv in School Textbooks

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In his book Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum describes the adventures of Dorothy and her friends on their way to a place regarded as the center of the world—the Emerald City—where the most powerful ruler of the Land of Oz dwells.1 The sight of the city, which appears before them after an exhaustive and dangerous journey to remote locations, left them in awe. The brightness of the light, the joy and splendor of the city, the magnificent houses along the paved streets, the beautiful people strolling among the shops—all engendered a feeling of respect toward the city and its great ruler. Baum uses a familiar motif taken from the biblical story of wandering in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. In his point of view, for those living in the Midwest of the United States, the Emerald City symbolizes New York and its skyline, its wealth, the aspirations and dreams it arouses among the people living in the periphery.

Ten years after this book was written the neighborhood Ahuzat Bayit was founded upon the dunes along the Mediterranean shore of what would later become the Land of Israel. Within approximately one decade, in 1918, the image of the new neighborhood (that had no more than 200 houses) was portrayed in stereotypes that recall the descriptions of the mythical Emerald City created by Frank Baum. Already, at that stage, the neighborhood was compared in a geography textbook that appeared in Kishinev to a “European Oasis in the Asian desert.” In its description, the author uses the elements of sunlight, beautiful houses, and wealth in order to emphasize its unusual European-like characteristics within its Oriental location.2

 

5 Subversive Youth Cultures in Mandate Tel-Aviv

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In September 1934, Shoshanna Persitz, head of the Department of Education and Culture, and the new welfare department of the Tel-Aviv Municipality (hereafter TAM), forwarded an indignant letter to K. Reynolds, the chief probation officer of the mandate government:

You know the material that we have to deal with in Tel-Aviv: children of 12 or 15 years without any parental supervision [original emphasis—T.R.], or runaways from home in opposition to sometimes unreasonable parental control, roaming about in the streets . . . eventually led by the temptation of other boys or by hunger to commit a petty theft—this is the type of boys who need guidance and supervision.1

Her letter was intended, as were many other correspondences between the TAM and the mandate government, to secure the government’s recognition of and financial support for the numerous welfare enterprises that the TAM was engaged in.

In this case the welfare department (titled “The Department for the Treatment of the Child” until 1939) was attempting to found a home for vagrant and neglected boys in Tel-Aviv. As in many other cases, their request for financial support was denied by the government, which nonetheless expressed its deep appreciation for these initiatives and for the general zeal manifested by the municipality in establishing a modern welfare system in the city. As in most of the other instances of being denied financial support, the TAM went ahead with its plans and established an institution for vagrant children, intending to save them from the streets and to turn them into “honest, hard-working, and productive citizens.”2

 

6 Dirt, Noise, and Misbehavior in the First Hebrew City: Letters of Complaint as a Historical Source

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Files in the Tel-Aviv Historical Archive contain hundreds of letters of complaint dating from the Mandate era. Some, regarding a variety of issues, were filed by the Tel-Aviv Municipality (hereafter TAM) secretary under “Complaints.” Many others were filed under the specific topic of the complaint. Such letters, sent to the TAM by residents, officials, firms, local organizations, and visitors, can be found in files regarding gardening and cleaning, commerce and industry, licenses and transportation, to mention but a few examples. These letters serve as useful historical sources for reconstructing the daily reality in pre-state Tel-Aviv. The complaints reveal some of the less representative facets of the first Hebrew city, unattractive elements that were rarely photographed or filmed, hardly mentioned in formal presentations of the growing city, and, of course, never used in tourist brochures or Zionist propaganda.

However, we should treat these sources—like any historical documents—with some skepticism. A letter of complaint has its own generic rules. In order to gain the reader’s full attention, and to increase the chances of the complaint ever being addressed, the writers have to put their case forcefully. In other words, letters of complaint are likely to include somewhat inflated descriptions, disproportions, and exaggerations. To make their point, writers often use a tone of sarcasm, dismay, and indignation. To goad the TAM into action, writers might either plead, or, more frequently, use direct or indirect threats, for instance a threat to publish the issue of complaint in the local press, or even to address the complaint to the higher British authorities.

 

7 South of Tel-Aviv and North of Jaffa—The Frontier Zone of “In Between”

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Strange is the geography of Tel-Aviv—at a distance of 200 meters from the heart of the city, from Magen David Square, lies one of the city’s main suburbs. Your eyes hardly rest for a moment from the glitter of neon and the car lights of Allenby St. and already you have dropped into the oppressive darkness of the alleys of Kerem Hatemanim.

Tel-Aviv has been portrayed as the new Hebrew city, which “rose from the sands” at the empty stretch of land north of Jaffa. Tel-Aviv was perceived and presented as a new social entity, distinct from all that preceded it: from dirty and “unhygienic” Oriental Jaffa with its narrow alleys, chaotic urban order, from the Jewish ghettoes and districts in the urban centers of central and eastern Europe, and from the early Jewish neighborhoods that branched out of Jaffa, establishing separate though adjoining neighborhoods to its north and northeast.

Tel-Aviv was seen as a new creation in many respects. It was “a European oasis in the desert of Asia,”1 it was populated exclusively by Jews, or rather “Hebrews”—the new nationalist Jewish men and women who were no longer a minority but the totality, who founded a city with no gentiles, no deprecating eye. Tel-Aviv was the center of the nationalist project where its leaders, institutions, cultural elites, and financial centers were located. All these attributes, noted by its municipal leadership, by visitors from other parts of the Yishuv, and no less strikingly by non-Jewish visitors from abroad,2 represented the essence of the emerging city both in terms of physical space and of social composition.

 

8 Jaffa and Tel-Aviv before 1948: The Underground Story

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Polarized cities are not simply mirrors of larger nationalistic ethnic conflicts, but instead can be catalysts through which conflict is exacerbated or ameliorated.
—Scott A. Bollens, On Narrow Ground: Urban Policy and Ethnic Conflict in Jerusalem and Belfast (Albany, NY, 2000), 326.

The study of the urban history of pre-1948 Palestine has gained welcome momentum in recent years. Traditionally, mainstream Zionist and Palestinian historiographies concentrated mainly on the rural sector, which for both national communities symbolized a mythical attachment to the land. Along with the heroic figures of the Arab fellah and the Zionist “new Jew,” this particular area of focus reveals central elements of the core identities of the two rival communities. The deconstruction of the old Zionist and Israeli meta-narrative on the one hand, and the effort to show the diversity as well as the modernization processes of pre-nakba Arab society on the other, have given new impetus to the study of the country’s pre-1948 urban histories.1

 

9 Austerity Tel-Aviv: Everyday Life, Supervision, Compliance, and Respectability

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On 27 March 1950, the police stormed into Tiferet (glory), a popular Tel-Aviv café on fashionable Rothschild Boulevard, and inspected the patrons. Male and female officers surrounded the café at 10:30 AM on a Monday, ordering patrons to enable the search. They were supervised by the police department’s economic division, called the “economic police.” Women were inspected in a closed room; men remained in the general common area, and were asked to remove their jackets and shoes. The retrieved loot included twelve “black market” diamonds, fifty pence Sterling, a box of firestones for lighters, a few custom-made Chinese bracelets, and a gold bracelet (all not declared through customs), as well as two notebooks bearing “suspicious lists.” All in all, 124 people and their belongings were inspected. Five suspects were held for further investigation.1

This event was well documented in the press. Ha’aretz described the reaction of the patrons. They seemed bewildered, claimed the reporter, who then stated, “It is simply frightening to enter a café for a cup of coffee, one is afraid of a sudden raid.”2 Yet the facts suggest that there were many Tel-Avivians who were not intimidated. They continued to trade on the black market, while efforts to eradicate black market activities intensified over the next few months.

 

10 Tel-Aviv Language Police

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Tel-Aviv . . . Herzl St. boys and girls were pouring out of Gymnasia Herzliya at the end of the school day. Just then, two famous Yiddishists who were traveling around the country found themselves in front of the school. The greater of the two said to his companion: “The Zionists boast that Hebrew has become second nature to the children of Eretz-Israel. Now you’ll see that their boast is nothing but lies. I’ll tweak a child’s ear and I’m sure he won’t yell ‘Imma!’ [Mother!] in Hebrew, but rather ‘Mamme!’ in Yiddish.” He did as he said he would: he walked up behind a child and tweaked his ear, and the child immediately turned and yelled at him in Hebrew, “Hamor!” [What an ass!]. The famous Yiddishist turned to his companion and said, “I’m afraid they’re right . . .”

This anecdote, adduced by Alter Druyanov,1 reflects the great pride of the Jewish Yishuv in Tel-Aviv’s children, whose Hebrew was natural and native. Speaking Hebrew became one of the symbols of the city of Tel-Aviv and was a point of pride for its leaders. The creation of Tel-Aviv as a Hebrew city symbolized its uniqueness and the great promise it held. The city’s leaders, teachers, and writers, as well as other public figures, joined in the constant struggle to maintain the city’s Hebrew character.

 

11 Der Eko Fun Goles: “The Spirit of Tel-Aviv” and the Remapping of Jewish Literary History

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Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place;
also the noise of the wings of the living creatures. . . . 
Then I came to the exiles at Tel-Aviv.
—Ezekiel 3:12–15

Tel-Aviv . . . is not Eretzyisroel . . . Tel-Aviv is goles.
—Eretzyisroel in 1937, Sh. Fraylach

I am the very spirit of Tel-Aviv,
Good morning to you! . . .
White houses under me.
Long, beautiful wide-spread streets . . .
What a difference from Jaffa.
From the narrow, stinking “streets.”
Culture, culture!—
Called out from all sides.
—Reuben Joffe, “I fly over Tel-Aviv,”
Tel-Aviv: Poema (Buenos Aires, 1937), 25

In Mayne Zibn Yor in Tel-Aviv [My Seven Years in Tel-Aviv], a Yiddish memoir published in Buenos Aires in 1949, we find the following conversation between two new immigrants in Haifa; one of the men, newly arrived from Warsaw, is considering moving to Tel-Aviv:

I’m going to Tel-Aviv.

Why Tel-Aviv?

 

12 A Poet and a City in Search of a Myth: On Shlomo Skulsky’s Tel-Aviv Poems

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Poems about cities are among the oldest known to us. We have lines about the city of Erekh in the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic; and, what is the Iliad if not (among other things) the story of the fall of a city? One need not mention the poetic passages about Jerusalem in the book of Psalms. Different city-myths are delicately woven into the odes of Pindar, and Ovid has left us a most vivid and dramatic poetic version of the founding of Rome.1 Major cities, such as Paris or Moscow, have large bodies of poetry incorporated into their literary history.2 Poems about cities are not limited to cities with a long history. In the vast corpus of city-poems in various languages there are poems that deal with young or newly founded cities. An example is Vladimir Mayakovsky’s hymn to the city and workers of Kuznetsk, written for the expansion and renaming of that Siberian coal-mining center in 1929:

[ . . . ] In four

 

 

years

a garden-city

 

13 Decay and Death: Urban Topoi in Literary Depictions of Tel-Aviv

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“This city doesn’t deserve to exist. This is just a misunderstanding.”

The founding and growth of Tel-Aviv reverberated with the ideology of Jewish national revival and the quest to build a modern Jewish city different than both the Jewish shtetl in East Europe and the cities of the Levant. The Tel-Aviv creation narrative focused positively on the constructive energies of urban pioneers engaged in building the first Hebrew city.1

Although criticism of Tel-Aviv, mainly from the Labor Zionist establishment (which preferred an agricultural ideal), existed from the very beginning of the city’s construction, forbidding descriptions of the urban landscape were rarer in fiction and poetry. It was not until the 1970s—late in comparison to portrayals of the city evident in Europe—that writers adopted negative universal urban topoi, widespread in European and American literature, to depict Tel-Aviv. Imagery representing the urban environment as a place of alienation, decay, disillusionment, and failure, with its attendant sexual, financial, and moral corruption, has been adopted and adapted in Israeli fiction. Writers increasingly depict Tel-Aviv society as decadent and corrupt; the city is portrayed as a monster; while the flâneur protagonist is shown to be isolated and alone. The city is depicted frequently with dark, forbidding streets, and a seedy underworld dense with corruption and prostitution.2

 

14 Art and the City: The Case of Tel-Aviv

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It has been suggested that the date now commonly accepted for the founding of Tel-Aviv was selected primarily thanks to the photograph by Avraham Soskin (1881–1963) that documented the moment.1 This “moment of birth,” usually identified as the land lottery held by the members of Ahuzat Bayit Society on 11 April 1909, was no more historic than any other possible event: the founding of the Society itself in 1906, naming the new neighborhood Tel-Aviv in 1910, the recognition of its township status in 1921, not to mention the founding of earlier Jewish neighborhoods outside Jaffa in the 1880s. Moreover, serious doubts have been raised as to the link between this photograph and the actual land lottery ceremony. As Haim Feirberg has convincingly argued, the picture probably depicts a different gathering altogether that took place a couple of months earlier.2 Soskin, who first published the photograph around 1926 in a small album of his Tel-Aviv photographs, gave it a somewhat vague title, “The meeting founding Tel-Aviv 1908.”3

 

15 The 1925 Master Plan for Tel-Aviv by Patrick Geddes

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Politics and History are interwoven, but are not commensurate.
—Lord Acton

Reflections on the city of Tel-Aviv are often framed by discussions of modernity, especially the Jewish experience of modernity.1 The origin of the city was the Jewish suburb of Ahuzat Bayit that was founded outside Jaffa in 1909, and changed its name to Tel-Aviv a year later. The city’s many buildings of the 1930s and 1940s in the styles of Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, and other versions of European modernist architecture suggest that Tel-Aviv is the realization of architectural modernism’s dream of an ideal city erected on a clean slate. The stories of Tel-Aviv’s origin on sand dunes, vineyards, and orange groves seem to support this characterization. Superficially, Tel-Aviv’s urban fabric indeed indicates a modern city with few, if any, historical roots. Yet from its inception, the city was part of the Zionist project of resettling the land of the forefathers, an endeavor that sought to re-establish roots in the ancient homeland.

 

16 Preserving Urban Heritage: From Old Jaffa to Modern Tel-Aviv

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The city of Tel-Aviv–Jaffa is Israel’s metropolitan core and a dominant cultural center. Tel-Aviv–Jaffa is extraordinary in that it is among the few Israeli cities that incorporate preservation of the built environment as a principle in city planning and, in doing so, promote and institute successful preservation initiatives of large urban areas. In effect, Tel-Aviv is at the forefront of local governments regarding the preservation activities it promotes. The city was the first in Israel to institute a local preservation policy regarding the conservation of Old Jaffa during the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1990s, Tel-Aviv garnered local and international acknowledgement of the value of its modern architecture, culminating in UNESCO’s nomination of the “White City” in 2003 as a World Heritage Site. Old Jaffa and the White City are exceptional sites in the Israeli urban landscape, as their preservation is managed by the local government as part of the local development policy. Although many other Israeli cities have archeological and historic sites, few operate comprehensive preservation programs and even fewer succeed in integrating the historic districts into the living city. Moreover, it seems that Tel-Aviv is extending its preservation policy to new sites, as indicated by the recent conservation of the German colony of Sarona and the Ottoman train station in Jaffa.

 

17 Balconies of Tel-Aviv: Cultural History and Urban Politics

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If we compare the house to the human body, we could say that the windows are the eyes of the house, the bases are the legs of the buildings, the balcony is its smile, and the façade is the spirit, the soul of this human creation.
—Meir Dizengoff, 1934

 

 

Tel-Aviv for many years had been dubbed “a city of balconies.” In its urban fantasy balconies are smiles, an expression of the beauty and openness of the city, but in day-to-day reality they are almost considered an eyesore. The balconies of Tel-Aviv have an important role in the social life of the city and they are a crucial part of its history and culture. Located between private and public, balconies simultaneously belong to both arenas. Accordingly, they invite conflict and struggle over their look and functions, and they constantly redefine, as well as express, the relationships between residents and the urban public sphere.

This essay explores different aspects of urban politics and the cultural history of balconies. In particular, it sheds light on façade balconies in Tel-Aviv as sites of dispute between residents and authorities. Through a socio-cultural and architectural perspective, I present the historical changes of style and use of balconies as sites of contention in the city. The conclusions deal with the crucial role of balconies in Tel-Aviv in creating connections between private and public spheres, and establishing values of leisure, privacy, identity, boundary, and place. Until now, there has been no academic research on balconies as cultural and political artifacts, especially in Tel-Aviv.

 

18 The Architecture of the Hyphen: The Urban Unification of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv as National Metaphor

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In June 1967, Major General Motta Gur ecstatically declared, “The Temple Mount is in our hands”; a surge of messianic emotions swept Israeli Jews. Following the sudden victory over Jordan, the equally sudden possession of Jerusalem’s holy sites symbolized for Israeli Jews a larger historical moment: the reunification of “the people of Israel” with their cherished biblical past. Moreover, they saw in recapturing the Old City a tangible affirmation of the unity between their newly founded state and their ancient Jewish nation, a union necessary to validate Israel’s vision of itself as a stable nation-state. The decades that followed witnessed a monumental and laborious task to manifest the desired “reunification” in concrete and stone—to entwine an Oriental city with a modernist town into one urban entity. The success of the Zionist project seemed to be contingent on the ability to create one unified capital city whose built landscapes embodied both the depth of the past and the utopias of the future.

 

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