Reviving Tel Aviv's Valhalla

A long-forgotten Templer house is being lovingly restored and will soon reopen its doors to the public as the Schechter Center for Jewish Culture.

June 5, 2010 02:01
Nazi flag flying over German consulate in Jaffa

Nazi flag on German consulate in Jaffa 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

For decades, the two-story Templer house at 57 Eilat Street stood empty and abandoned, dreaming of past glories. What was once the elegant Cafe Lorenz – a smart night-spot, dance hall, theater and cinema – was a gray shell, with bricked-up windows and graffiti-scarred walls.

Now, thanks to an initiative by the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, this long-forgotten building is being lovingly restored and will soon reopen its doors to the public as the Schechter Center for Jewish Culture.

The story of Cafe Lorenz begins in Ludwigsburg, Germany, in 1861 with the creation of the Templer Society, a splinter group of the Lutheran Church. The Templers believed that by colonizing the Holy Land, they would expedite the second coming of Christ. After a botched attempt to settle the Jezreel Valley, they established their first successful colony in Haifa, in 1868. They arrived at Jaffa a year later, where they founded more settlements, including one at the former American Colony and another on the Jaffa Road. This colony was named Valhalla.

“Valhalla stood outside the gates of Jaffa, surrounded by the finery of olive groves,” writes German Templer author Rudolf de Haas in his 1930 adventure story, The Orange Grower of Sarona. It was amid this rural splendor that Templer Frank Lorenz purchased a plot of land in 1868, says Shay Farkash, a conservator in charge of the Cafe Lorenz restoration. Farkash has spent years researching the building, in investigations that have spanned the globe.

“Lorenz purchased a single-story Arab building on the Jaffa road,” says Farkash. “He modernized it using local materials, including concrete from a Templer factory in Jerusalem.”

Right on the edge of the sand dunes that, just a year later, would become Neveh Tzedek, Lorenz’s house boasted all mod cons – including electricity.

In 1905, Lorenz opened a cafe. Well-situated on the busy Jaffa Road next to the growing Jewish neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek, Cafe Lorenz fast became a popular watering hole.

In 1909, the Lorenz family began screening movies in the cafe, and in 1925 the Kessem Cinema was housed there for a short time. Both Cafe Lorenz and Neveh Tzedek’s Eden Cinema (opened in 1913) have laid claim to the title of Israel’s first movie theater.

“Actually, no one can say for sure which came first, the Eden or Cafe Lorenz,” says Farkash. “When a new movie came to Israel, it was shown at both cinemas.”

Not a great deal is known about Cafe Lorenz during Ottoman times, but there are more records from the British Mandate era. At one point before 1939, the cafe was under the management of one Franz Nothbaum, who ran a German restaurant and nightclub on the premises.

A 1935 menu printed in The Palestine Post mentions “Russian Salad, Roast Veal and Filet of Pork”; the cafe also boasted such delights as cabaret shows with artistes like “acrobatic dancer” Zipporah Zabari. Famous patrons included S.Y. Agnon, who immortalized the cafe in his 1930s novel The Day Before Yesterday (Tmol Shilshom), in which one character complains about the tea.

In the 1930s, tensions had started to grow between the country’s German residents and the local Jewish population. Despite living in Eretz Israel, the Templers remained proud German citizens and nationalists. As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, their ideologies found a receptive home among some of Eretz Israel’s German colonies.

In 1934, a Palestine branch of the National Socialist Party was founded in Haifa’s German colony. Later that same year, a swastika flag was raised over the German Consulate in Jaffa – right next door to Cafe Lorenz and just meters away from Neveh Tzedek.

The Templers’ days in Israel were soon to come to an end. When war broke out a few years later, they were designated enemy nationals by the British Mandate authorities. In 1941, they were expelled and sent to internment camps in Australia.

Although its German owners were gone, Cafe Lorenz remained open. This time it was in Jewish hands, specifically those of Max Rappoport, an experienced restaurateur with an establishment on Dizengoff Street. Rappoport completely revamped the cafe, but partially retained the name. Lorenz’s Palm Garden, as it was now called, boasted a fancy new Grill Room, but continued the popular nightclub – dubbed “the only spot for dancing” in newspaper advertisements.

According to a 1943 Palestine Post report, Rappoport was sued – unsuccessfully – by a couple of British constables who complained of being overcharged for the ginger beer in their Horse’s Neck cocktails. “The British were pedantic,” remarks Farkash.

By all accounts, Rappoport’s tenure at Cafe Lorenz was successful as well as colorful. It came to an end in 1948, when the newly established Jewish state nationalized Templer colonies, including Valhalla.

In 1949, the Israel Defense Forces took over Cafe Lorenz, and transformed it into the Soldiers Welfare Association with a mess hall, bakery, wedding hall and theater. When the association moved to different premises in the 1970s, Cafe Lorenz was abandoned.

After standing empty and forgotten for over two decades, the cafe was rediscovered by Masorti Rabbi Roberto Arbib, a resident of Neveh Tzedek. For years, Arbib had dreamed of creating a Jewish cultural center, and was searching for suitable premises. Cafe Lorenz seemed perfect, and the Tel Aviv municipality granted the Schechter Institute permission to undertake the restoration work.

As Cafe Lorenz is a historic building, all renovations must preserve the building’s architectural features as closely as possible, down to the precise color of the original wall paintings.

As well as housing the Masorti movement’s Kehilat Sinai and Midreshet Iyun, the new Schechter Center for Jewish Culture will house a theater, a cafe, an art gallery, a Judaica shop and a kindergarten. Schechter will offer lectures and workshops on Jewish topics, says Arbib, which will give the overwhelmingly secular population of Neveh Tzedek and its environs the chance to experience Jewish culture.

Schechter Institute president Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin is equally enthusiastic.

“This new cultural center will enable us to reach out to the populations of Neveh Tzedek and beyond, to bring pluralistic Jewish studies to as many people as possible in the Tel Aviv area,” he explains.

In the closing pages of Haas’s Templer adventure story, the modern Jewish city of Tel Aviv has risen from the sands, overshadowing the German colonies. The Jews, writes Hass, have built “on the desolate forsaken dunes near the sea splendid homes for a new generation driven by a huge and happy dream, a completely modern city: Tel Aviv, the city of the new Hebrews.”

In bringing Cafe Lorenz back to life, the Schechter Institute has transformed an important relic of Tel Aviv’s past in the service of a vibrant Jewish future.

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