On and Off the Beaten Track in . . . Tel Aviv

by | in Israel

At 100, A City of Vision and Fulfillment

imageOn April 11, 1909, sixty families held a historic lottery on the sand dunes along the Mediterranean Sea, just a few hundred yards north of the walls that surrounded the crowded alleyways and substandard living conditions of Old Jaffa (Yaffo). Sixty plots of land in this first neighborhood outside Jaffa were assigned via the lottery to the sixty families of Ahuzat Bayit, an organization (whose name means “homestead”) that had been founded three years earlier by Jewish residents of Jaffa. The leader of the organization, Akiva Aryeh Weiss, had arrived in Jaffa as a new oleh, immigrant, in 1906 and had dreamed of building a small suburb with spacious homes, gardens and wide boulevards.

The area of barren sand dunes where Weiss hoped to build was purchased from the Turks, and the decision was made to allocate the land to the members of Ahuzat Bayit by lottery. The people assembled.

The names of the families were written on sixty white seashells. The numbers of the sixty plots were written on sixty gray sea shells. A young boy and girl were picked to draw the lots, a pair at a time, one white and one gray, to determine which family would build where. Among the participants on the beach that day was a young couple—Meir and Zina Dizengoff. The lottery took place on the exact spot of their future home, a spot that was destined to play a key role in the dramatic events that led to Israel’s independence thirty-nine years later.

The name of the new neighborhood, Tel Aviv, was inspired by the title of Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland (written in German in 1902) and was determined by vote, winning out over both Neve Yaffo and Herzliya. In the book, Herzl described his utopian vision for a Jewish homeland, a dream that he had earlier articulated in his work Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), published in 1896. The name “Tel Aviv” had been used by Nachum Sokolov as the title of his translation of Altneuland.

As Tel Aviv grew, it reflected culture, modernity and architectural diversity.

Altneuland literally means “Old New Land.” “Tel,” the Hebrew word for “mound,” represents the old. The term usually refers to an archaeological mound that has been formed by layer upon layer of civilization, each one building on the remains of the former. The word tel connotes history. Many of Israel’s archaeological tels take us back thousands of years with as many as twenty to twenty-five layers of history, dating back to the period of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and even earlier. “Aviv” means “spring.” The word connotes rebirth, the new. And thus, in tribute to Herzl, considered the founder of modern Zionism, the city was named Tel Aviv, “historical mound of rebirth.” In truth, the expression even has Biblical roots (“Then I came to the exiles, to Tel Aviv. . .” [Ezekiel 3:15]). I like to speculate that many of the founders, although themselves secular Jews, were aware of this Biblical connection.

Tel Aviv has grown dramatically in its first 100 years. Its first houses were built on both sides of a wide street—Rothschild Boulevard, named in honor of the great benefactor of the nineteenth century. The western end of the neighborhood was bounded by Herzl Street and at the end of the street the Gymnasium Herzliya (Herzliya Hebrew High School) was built—Israel’s first Hebrew high school. This landmark was removed in 1962 to make room for Migdal Shalom Meir (Shalom Meir Tower), which opened in 1965. Measuring 120 meters and thirty-four stories high, the building was then the tallest structure in the Middle East. (Today there are eight taller buildings in the Tel Aviv/Ramat Gan area alone.) The lobby of the tower has a beautiful mosaic depicting the early history of Tel Aviv, and is well worth a visit if you are touring Independence Hall, three blocks away, or strolling in the nearby Nachalat Binyamin outdoor vendors market.

By 1914, the city had grown from its original twelve acres to 257 acres, and new neighborhoods began to spring up. The growth was temporarily halted in 1917 when the Ottomans expelled the Jewish residents of Tel Aviv. Jews returned to the city after World War I, and in 1920 the population reached 2,000. Electricity was added in 1924, and by 1925 the population had grown to 34,000. That year, with the official designation of Tel Aviv as a city, Meir Dizengoff became the first mayor of Tel Aviv; except for a three-year hiatus, he held that position until his death in 1936.

As the city grew, it reflected culture, modernity and architectural diversity. The masses of German Jews who arrived in Tel Aviv in the 1930s brought with them the Bauhaus style of architecture, which is today reflected in more than 5,000 of Tel Aviv’s structures—more than 60 percent of which were built between 1933 and 1939. By this time, Tel Aviv’s population had soared to more than 150,000. The Bauhaus neighborhood was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, and is a popular destination of visitors to Tel Aviv today.

During World War II, the British decided to enlist and train Jews in Palestine to assist in preventing a Nazi invasion in Palestine. In 1941, the first volunteers were recruited in Tel Aviv. When German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was defeated in North Africa, the British attempted to disband the Palestine unit. But the Jews continued to train secretly and eventually emerged as the Palmach, the striking force of the Haganah that was the backbone of the struggle for independence only seven years later. The story of the Palmach and the young men and women who served in it—many of whom, like Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Yadin, became future leaders of Israel—is dramatically told in the interactive, multi-media Palmach Museum in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Visitors “join” a fictitious unit of the Palmach in 1941 on a set made to resemble a street in Tel Aviv and follow the unit in a series of twelve rooms through the tumultuous period of clandestine aliyah after the Holocaust and the War of Independence until the unit is disbanded and incorporated into the new Israel Defense Forces (IDF). A visit to the Palmach Museum is a must, but because of its popularity, visitors should make reservations in advance (www.palmach.org.il). The presentation is in Hebrew and earphones are provided for English speakers.

My favorite place to visit in Tel Aviv is Independence Hall, located in the original Dizengoff House on Rothschild Boulevard. Upon his death in 1936, Dizengoff bequeathed his home to the city of Tel Aviv as an art museum. But the real destiny of the house built on the dunes was to occur twelve years in the future. In this home, on Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948 (Hey Iyar), David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the leaders of the provisional government, and standing in front of a portrait of Theodor Herzl, read the words for which our people had been waiting for 1,878 years, since the Destruction of the Second Temple:

Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.

As you enter the Dizengoff house, now Independence Hall, notice the two large pictures in the lobby. One depicts the original gathering for the lottery that took place 100 years ago on the very spot on which you are standing. The other is a photo of Theodor Herzl addressing the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. The presentation at the site begins with a brief film about the history of Tel Aviv. You will then be escorted into the main room, where, on that fateful day in May 1948, 400 people assembled for the dramatic moment. Relive that moment with a tape of the actual words, recited by Ben-Gurion; the quavering voice of Rabbi Judah Leib Fishman-Maimon reciting the “Shehecheyanu” and a recording of the original “Hatikvah” as it was played by the orchestra. For me and for those in my tour groups it is always very moving to visit the place where modern Jewish history unfolded. It is a spot not to be missed.

Independence Hall is located at 16 Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. Call 972.3.510.6426 or 972.3.517.3942. More information can be found on the web site, www.eretzmuseum.org.il. Tours in various languages can also be booked by e-mailing atzmaut@netvision.net.il.

Peter Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011.972.2.671.3518 or at peter@keshetisrael.co.il.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2009.

Leave a Comment