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Book explores Tel Aviv’s status as national symbol

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Tel Aviv’s seashore in the 1950s, with Jaffa at the top of the photograph.

Far from being just another teeming city in the Middle East, Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew metropolis established in almost two millennia, is a vibrant national symbol, the fulfilment of the modern Zionist dream.

Despite its historic, economic and cultural importance, Tel Aviv – Israel’s global city and a redoubt of its liberal and enlightened values – has been a rather neglected topic in scholarship on Israel.

The reasons are clear. Jerusalem’s claim on the Israeli and Jewish imagination remains indisputable and even irresistible. The kibbutz, until very recently at least, served as a compelling metaphor for Israeli statehood.

Maoz Azaryahu and S. Ilan Troen, the editors of Tel-Aviv, The First Century: Visions, Designs, Actualities (Indiana University Press), believe that Tel Aviv deserves much more recognition than it has garnered. And in this volume of thoughtful essays by Israeli scholars, Tel Aviv takes its rightful place in the pantheon of Israeli studies.

The editors know their stuff.

Azaryahu, a professor of cultural geography at Haifa University, is the author of Tel Aviv: Mythography of a City. Troen is the director of the Schusterman Center for Israeli Studies at Brandeis University.

Described by essayist Yaacov Shavit as the first Jewish city since Caesarea, Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 as a garden suburb of Jaffa, a predominantly Arab town. Originally known as Ahuzat Bayit, Tel Aviv took shape from the 1920s onward, growing in accordance with a master plan devised by Scottish city designer Patrick Geddes (1854-1932).

Geddes, the planner of the Hebrew University, envisaged Tel Aviv as a city of the future. It was a concept eagerly embraced by Zionist pioneers.

One of the founders of Tel Aviv, Akiva Arieh Weiss, foresaw the day when it would have streets, sidewalks, electric lights and sewerage pipes.

Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, declared, “We are conducting the most important experiment in the entire period of our exile.” Striking something of a messianic note, he said that its residents were fulfilling a “daring dream to build on sands of wilderness, on desolate seashore, an eternal edifice, a shelter for the spirit and vigor of the Jew… in the time of our new revival and redemption.”

The founders of Tel Aviv were driven by overlapping motivations, says Troen in his essay. Severe overcrowding in Jaffa, as well as a desire by some of its Jewish inhabitants to improve their living conditions, prompted them to invest in the construction of a brand new city facing the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

But as Deborah Bernstein points out, Jews from Jaffa had already moved to spanking new all-Jewish suburbs – Neve Tzedek, Neve Shalom and Kerem Hatemanim – long before Ahuzat Bayit became a reality.

Nahum Karlinsky suggests that Tel Aviv developed its own identity thanks to the British Mandate. “While the Ottomans had adamantly insisted that Tel Aviv be subordinated to Jaffa, the British… quickly helped Tel Aviv to become legally and administratively separate from Jaffa.”

Granted city status in 1934, Tel Aviv experienced a building boom during the rest of the decade as German Jewish refugees poured in. Azaryahu writes that this influx had a profound impact. “New streets, buildings, coffee shops, factories and cars lent the city the appearance of a bustling metropolis.” The presence of German Jews underscored Tel Aviv’s status as a heterogeneous city, Bernstein observes. As she puts it, “Its Jewish inhabitants differed among themselves in their origin, class, language and culture, family structure [and] accommodation.”

In spite of their differences, the Jews of Tel Aviv shared the common goal of making Hebrew the lingua franca of the city. Only 43 per cent of its residents spoke Hebrew in 1914, says Zohar Shavit. But by 1928, the figure had risen to 60 per cent.

Like all cities, Tel Aviv was tarnished by blemishes. Its hot and humid summer climate was an ideal breeding ground for the anopheles mosquito, the carrier of malaria. And as Tel Aviv grew, still more problems, from high population density to heavily polluted air, came to the fore, as Yoram Bar-Gal states.

But these irritants paled in comparison to the hardships endured by the dwellers of Tel Aviv, who were expelled by the Ottomans during World War I. Anat Helman, in her essay, deals with a problem that foreign tourists invariably encountered when interacting with locals. As she writes, “Visitors from Western countries sometimes viewed the common behavior of Tel Aviv residents as extremely impolite, even downright rude.”

Buttressing her argument, Helman quotes the impressions of a Canadian who visited Tel Aviv in 1933. He complained about “the lack of common courtesy displayed by the general public” and about the “sharp business practices” he had the misfortune to witness.

Yet in the eyes of its literary class in the 1920s, Tel Aviv was regarded with a sense of amazement and pride, says Bar-Gal.

And its beaches, now and then, were alluring. Writing in 1938, an observer claimed that the seashore was central to the lives of Tel Aviv residents. It was an urban experience where “bathing in the sea is a special delight” and “suntanned children, impulsive and lively, dart through the gold-tinted blue waves, showering sprays of water.”

Although Tel Aviv was essentially a satellite city of Jaffa, surprisingly few of its Jewish residents ever ran into Palestinian Arabs. According to Bernstein, such encounters usually occurred in passing, in cafes and brothels in some “border areas” and in the Carmel Market.

In an essay on Tel Aviv’s urban heritage, Nurit Alfasi and Roy Fabian focus on its Bauhaus school of architecture, which diverged from the Oriental style of Old Jaffa.

The Bauhaus structures, popularized by German Jewish architects, aged rapidly due to poor building materials, resulting in the emergence of an ugly and dull city centre. Preservation efforts, however, have reversed this development and have had a gentrifying effect on the city. Many of these graceful Bauhaus buildings can be found on and around Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv’s central thoroughfare and Israel’s “main street” in the 1950s, says Azaryahu.

Dizengoff, having lost much of its cachet since then, has been supplanted by Sheinkin Street, Tel Aviv’s version of Greenwich Village or Soho.

Whatever its hub may be today, Tel Aviv has blossomed into a world-class city, brimming with elan, excitement and sophistication.

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