50 of Tel Aviv’s Most Intriguing Streets. The Lives Behind the Names.
Text by Miryam Sivan, Photographs by Ziv Koren. Curated by Ellin Yassky.
Published by Gefen, Jerusalem & New York.
Maror by Lavie Tidhar
Published by Head Zeus.
My first night in Tel Aviv, as a 14-year-old, on holiday with my parents, was in an Allenby Street hotel. I had no idea who Allenby was or why English names were celebrated on Israeli streets. Certainly, I knew that the Jewish state was founded after the British left but why was one street named after King George, another devoted to Lord Balfour? I longed for a book that would give me the backstory. Here it is and it is brilliant. It is fresh, beautifully written and presented. I want to give it to relatives and friends.
The name ‘Tel Aviv’ is quoted in Ezekiel 3:15. It is also referenced in Theodore Herzl’s 1920 seminal novel Alt Neuland/Old Newland. ‘Tel’ is an archeological word for ‘hill’. ‘Aviv’ means ‘spring’. In this way, Tel Aviv, one of the youngest cities in the world, is both historical and modern. A sharply written and dense introduction explains the founding of the city. Avraham Saskin’s 1909 landscape photograph shows families waiting on the beach to buy plots by auction. The book gives a clear understanding of how Tel Aviv was grown organically from the port of Yafo and how this beautiful Bauhaus city became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tel Aviv and Yafo/Jaffa were conjoined in 1950. Despite the 1960s commercial development of Yafo’s historic port area into kitsch art galleries, Yafo has mainly kept its original Arab character whereas Tel Aviv has developed a contemporary, irreligious, metropolitan vibe. This conurbation works and parties hard. It may be fiercely young and evolving but its history remains a constant reminder of the struggle for a Jewish state.
Miryam Sivan, an American-Israeli novelist and professor at Haifa University, writes ‘Tel Aviv’s street names are a walking guide to the historical and ideological agenda which is in synch with the national story of return.’ Israel is patriarchal and street-naming certainly reflects the over-representation of men as well as the absence of Arab history. However the prominent street names do evoke the war between opposing different Zionist ideologues.
David Ben Gurion Boulevard is not far from Menachem Begin Street. Both were Polish-born but political opponents. Also in central Tel Aviv is Ze’ev Jabotinsky Street. Jabotinsky, who died in 1940, is sometimes critiqued as a hardline militant. But Jabotinsky was not just a man of political action, he was also a Cassandra. He wrote ‘Eliminate the diaspora before the diaspora will eliminate you’ and ‘Better to have a gun and not need it than need it and not have it’. Both have a post-Shoah pathos.
Hannah Semer Street informs us about the many achievements of the renowned Slovakian-Israeli journalist who had been imprisoned in a forced labour camp and in Ravensbruck. Hardly known outside Israel, her inclusion redresses the balance. Of the Brits, Lady Rebecca (Rivka) Sieff is given her street to acknowledge her achievement of creating WIZO with Vera Weismann. Henrietta Szold, Hadassah’s founder, also gets her own street which is home to one of Israel’s most important hospitals.
There are so many exciting histories within the 50 chosen streets that I can only give a small taste of how engaging this book is. The idea of naming a street after a mainstream Zionist is certainly unlikely in modern-day Britain but I note that in Kyiv there is a movement to de-Russify street names as Ukrainian born Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, is soon to have her very own street.
Within the wide geographical span of Tel Aviv, this book does not focus on the underbelly of Tel Aviv’s urban crime area near the central bus station. This is the territory of thieves and criminals in Lavie Tidhar’s Maror.
The novel has a neat conceit. It is a series of interconnected crime stories, set in Israel over forty years. Narratives are lightly glued together with the character of the corrupt cop Cohen.
Where Tidhar really delivers is on the atmosphere of downtown Tel Aviv, Yafo, the West Bank and Haifa. He evokes the political swerve from Ben Gurion’s socialist Ashkenazi state to Menachem Begin’s Mizrachi power base. I found Tidhar’s mixture of real and fictional characters to be interesting but his problem with the book is that all the characters’ voices sound the same.
There is an exhausting slick, American detective-style where the language jolts, unaccountably from Anglicised English to American. Every major character smokes non-stop, drinks non-stop and is about to burn out. The endless violence becomes boring. The women, who are mostly described as ‘girls’, talk like the men; the men monologue and dialogue in a monotonous, machismo tone.
Lurching from one gruesome plot point to another this relentless novel ultimately disappoints. Sadly, Tidhar’s clever structural conceit is never fully realised. Even the fascinating geography of Tel Aviv cannot save it.
Julia Pascal © 2022.