Tel Aviv at 100: Forever Young

Article excerpt

Project Tel Aviv was launched in April 1909 as Ahuzat Bayit, a humble homestead society. Who could have dreamed that a century later it would have developed into the dynamic hub of the Jewish State's economy, the nation's vital zone for all forms of individuality, and an incubator for political dissent and, especially in the performance arts, cutting edge creativity? An iconic photograph depicts some 70 persons, nearly all men, clustered on terrain that, judging from appearances, could have been the heart of the Sahara. Today it is the site of chic Rothschild Boulevard. Incongruously, most of the Jewish homesteaders are formally attired in jackets and a variety of period headgear.

The occasion? The auctioning of residential lots for a new "Hebrew neighborhood" to be erected on those very dunes, a short distance from the ancient, predominantly Arab port of Jaffa. Nine months later, by a vote of 35 to 20, the infant city was renamed Tel Aviv, literally "Hill of Spring," the title Nahum Sokolow had chosen for his translation of Herzl's Altneuland from German into Hebrew. Sokolow's source was Ezekiel (3:15) which begins with exile and ends with a vision of Jewish redemption: "Then I came to them at Tel Aviv, that lived by the River Chebar, to where they lived; and I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days." That is to say that after the time of mourning (i.e., the seven days) is fulfilled, a new spring or rebirth of Jewish life will eventually come to fruition in the historic Jewish homeland. For the majority of these founding fathers, their suburb-to-be represented an actualization of the new Zionist homeland. It's worth noting, however, that had the minority of 20 somehow prevailed, 2009 would have been the centennial of Neve Yafo (New Jaffa), thereby occluding the symbolism of restoration.

S. Y. Agnon fleshed out the tentative vision of these Jewish defectors from teeming Jaffa:

   This place that once was desolate and barren will be filled
   with large and good houses and pleasant trees and in the
   center of the quarter we will build a synagogue and a
   library, a town hall and schools, and the streets will be full
   of boys and girls. The Herzliya Gymnasium [high school]
   has already begun to build its home in our suburb and
   anyone wanting to give his sons and daughters a Jewish
   and general education will send them to us; with them he
   will send their mother and after them even he will come.

The shaping idea behind the city's Great Synagogue on Allenby Street--proposed in 1918, completed in 1926--was for its time innovative: it should serve all Jews irrespective of religious observance or communal identification. That it adopted the standard Orthodox service as a matter of course would, naturally, undermine its fondest expectations, but that is less significant for a grasp of the Tel Aviv spirit or gestalt than their having been expressed. Indeed, in the first decades of the city, it did seem natural for perhaps most residents to attend at least the Friday evening service either on Allenby or at one of scores of neighborhood synagogues (today Tel Aviv counts upwards of 500). Thereafter, when many young, growing families deserted the city for its suburbs, in their wake they left behind numerous elderly, congregations that had to struggle for a minyan, and, unless (not for the first time) I am deceived by Agnon's subtlety, increasing numbers of residents were at increasing odds with our Nobel laureate's seeming endorsement of middle-class conventionality. By the late 40s and early 50s, the city's bourgeois origins had been decisively surpassed.

Having recast itself as Manhattan-on-the-Med, an urban hive abuzz with intellectuality, enterprise, innovation, and beach paddle-ball (matkot) by day; awash with play, performance, and sensuality after dark descended. Not for nothing do devout Telavivians relish residing in "The City that Never Sleeps" and enthusiastically embrace the bustle, the hustle, the materialism and the in-your-face hedonism associated with living at the vortex of where, whatever it was, was happening. …