On a rainy January day, horns honk, brakes squeal and buses belch along
Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv. Water pours through the tattered awnings of
the kiosks selling cigarettes and lottery tickets on the wide green median
strip, washes garbage along the curbs and chases pedestrians into the cafes.
The snarled traffic and looming modern towers make a sharp contrast to the
elegance still clinging to this early Tel Aviv street.
No single thoroughfare better personifies the development of Tel Aviv than
spacious Sderot Rothschild, which starts near Rehov Herzl in the west and
arches east and north toward Kikar Hatizmoret, a huge plaza containing the
Mann Auditorium and Habimah National Theater. Between those two points, it
cuts through a history of Tel Aviv in miniature.
Its very name harks back to the foundations of the Zionist movement. The
thoroughfare’s namesake, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, bankrolled much of the
wave of 19th-century Jewish immigration known as the First Aliya. Streets in
the immediate vicinity — Herzl, Allenby, Ahad Ha’am, Sheinkin, and others -
all reflect the growth of Zionism in the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in
Israel), and Tel Aviv specifically.
It was here on a sand dune that a group of Jewish immigrants chose lots for
what they thought would be a new ’Hebrew’ neighborhood north of Jaffa called
Ahuzat Bayit. A famous photo shows the group gathered in their dresses,
suits, and boater hats, bidding for lots in the sand.
Along this wide trunk of Sderot Rothschild, Tel Aviv, with some setbacks
during World War I, bloomed and boomed. Business districts, water supply,
public sanitation and road layout were carefully planned, in deliberate
contrast to the narrow, dirty alleys of Old Jaffa. Early photos of Sderot
Rothschild show a wide, sun-drenched street along European lines, with a
green corridor lined with benches and saplings dividing it. Parades,
festivals, and fairs were held on this central axis of the burgeoning city.
But while some buildings have been preserved and renewed, others, though
stylistically elaborate, are neglected and deteriorating. With their peeling
plaster, exposed bricks, eroded balustrades, and collapsed tile roofs, they
resemble partially washed-out sandcastles.
At Sderot Rothschild 2, for example, stands an old house typical of the
buildings that lined the street from around 1910 to 1920. But only the old
fluted columns, the decorative tiles on the front stoop and the iron
filigree on the porches suggest the European grandeur that was imported
during those first days.
On that dune where the first group of future Tel Avivians gathered, Meyer
Dizengoff (who later became the city’s first mayor) built his home. In the
1930s, after the death of his wife, Dizengoff donated the lower portions of
the house to the municipality as the Tel Aviv Art Museum. But though it
received many visitors over the ensuing years, nothing could compare to a
particular day in May 1948.
For on May 14, in the place where Tel Aviv was born, David Ben-Gurion opened
the meeting during which the State of Israel was declared. Though the
location of the ceremony was supposed to be a secret, the crowds outside the
building (now known as Independence Hall) filled Sderot Rothschild with
dancing in celebration of one of the most powerful moments in Jewish
Independence Hall now serves as a museum displaying the history of the
building, early Tel Aviv, and the events leading up to the birth of the
state. The chamber in which the ceremony took place is preserved as it was
at the time, and old film footage presents the richness and bustle of early
Tel Aviv (for details, call (03) 510-6426 or 517-3942).
The Hagana, the largest pre-state defense organization, had its headquarters
at Sderot Rothschild 23. Known as the Golomb House, this was the home of
Eliahu Golomb, commander of the Hagana.
Here, important operations were planned. Today, the house and its annex
serve as the Hagana Museum. Its movies, exhibits and dioramas trace the
Hagana from its inception to its transformation into the core of the modern
Israeli army (for details, call (03) 560-8624).
From the Hagana Museum to Allenby Street, several buildings preserve the
old, stylish sense of Sderot Rothschild. At the corner of Allenby Street,
the Lederberg House (No. 29), which belonged to a prosperous housewares
dealer, is decorated by tiles from the Bezalel Art School, in pastoral
style. Portraying village scenes, the tiles illustrate the famous phrase
from Psalms: ’They that sow in tears will reap in joy.’ (Psalm 126:5)
Interestingly, this building also features, in the heart of this growing
secular city, a tile of Jerusalem. Likewise, some of the older sculptures
and plaques that punctuate the median promenade also employ biblical quotes.
On the opposite corner of Rothschild and Allenby, the old Ben-Nahum Hotel
(No. 32), one of the earliest hotels in Tel Aviv, absorbed the motifs of the
Middle East. Designed by architect Yehuda Megidovich, who served as the
municipal architect, it’s got row upon row of arched portico windows.
Topping a full-height turret is a dome hinting at a mosque or sheikh’s tomb.
Today, reflecting another pervasive culture, a Starbucks coffee shop sits on
the ground floor.
On the other side of Allenby Street, the buildings along Rothschild are a
little more eclectic, with more examples of a later art-deco style
appearing. But the massive, genteel building at No. 49 dates back to 1924.
Originally built as the home for a wealthy family, the building in 1948
became the embassy of the Soviet Union. In 1953, amidst local protest
against the framing and persecution of Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union, a
bomb exploded in the embassy, wounding three people, including the
ambassador’s wife. The Soviet Union cut off diplomatic relations with Israel
for several months, and afterwards moved its embassy to Ramat Gan. In the
Nineties, after years of abandonment, the building was restored.
The median promenade along this section makes for delightful walking, with a
tunnel of shade and coolness formed by parallel lines of towering trees. And
ahead, as you stroll or ride your bike on the marked bike path, stands a
little espresso bar right on the path. Several interestingly designed
art-deco buildings line the boulevard on this stretch. At No. 96, the
sculpture of singers on the second floor is part of the renovation.
Toward the northeast, Sderot Rothschild ends at Kikar Hatizmoret. Here
Habimah National Theater, which was begun in 1935 but not completed until
1945, has been the major center for Israeli theater for well over 50 years.
The adjacent Mann Auditorium houses the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and
was dedicated in 1957 with a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The
Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Art Museum is also located here.
Though Sderot Rothschild might not be a destination in itself, strolling
there makes for an enjoyable and unusual way to feel the pulse of Tel Aviv.
Stylish cafes and restaurants are spread along its length. Near the western
end, along Nahalat Binyamin and Rehov Herzl, some smaller, cheaper eateries
Sderot Rothschild has seen has seen some of the greatest moments in
modern Jewish history. Allan Rabinowitz is a licensed tour guide. He can be
contacted at [email protected]