Saturday, 11 April 2009

Happy birthday Tel Aviv

It's my birthday—and Tel Aviv is 100. I’m younger and I don’t have any boulevards.

A lot of my family went there from Iraq. Mostly to Ramat Gan, nicknamed Pajama Town, because the men who would sit out on their balconies of an evening, in their pajamas. (For every joke about this there's one about the Ashkenazis keeping carp in their baths to make gefilte fish; such is the melting pot.)

So, 100 years ago today, 60 families met on the sand dunes and drew lots, with black and white pebbles, for the land. From there the city grew messily north, until Patrick Geddes gave it shape.

When I was little I wondered why the buildings in Tel Aviv were so pale and boxy—I didn’t know I was looking at the White City, built by Jewish refugees who'd studied at the Bauhaus and named by poet Nathan Alterman who imagined clothing the city in a concrete dress. Those dreamers making that experiment in modern(ist) living now feel impossibly romantic. A play I saw matched nostalgia (the dastardly poet Alexander Penn carries his lover, actress Hanna Rovina, in his arms along Rothschild to the hospital to have their child) with irony (the white curves of the buildings were projected on the laundry line of Penn’s outraged wife). You can still get chicken soup with kneidlach at Penn and Rovina's old haunt, Keton on Dizengoff...or you can eat soup and hilbe at a Yemenite café where an old couple cook on primus stoves and call everyone ayouni ("my eyes" in Arabic).

Last words to Arthur Koestler who called Tel Aviv "an old dream unexpectedly come true; and like all dreams it was disorderly, irrational, difficult to define."


  1. Marina Benjamin14 April 2009 at 21:23

    Now it makes sense. I'd always wondered why my great uncle lived in a concrete box - a house so unappealing and dark, it seemed to belong to a Berlin alley, not a beach city in the Middle East. Now I know it was Bauhaus mania. I wonder what Tel-Aviv would have looked like if the Baghdadis had designed it?

    BTW this is a very enjoyable blog.

  2. I wonder. Maybe there'd be those houses built around courtyards...thank you for reading.