A street that’s sheer poetry

Rehov Bialik, named for Israel’s national poet, was once the hub of Tel Aviv. Today, the street is fast being returned to its former glory.

By
July 9, 2010 16:46
Layla Lavan

311_white night. (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)

The year 1925 was just drawing to a close when Chaim Nachman Bialik shut the door of his home behind him, crossed the plaza, and entered the magnificent edifice that was Tel Aviv’s City Hall. Ignoring the fact that the council was in session, or perhaps using that fact to his advantage, Bialik knocked on the door where the meeting was being held.

Mayor Dizengoff graciously bade him enter, and Bialik – dramatically waving a bill for city taxes – began a little speech.

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“I am a tax-paying resident of this Hebrew city,” he declared. “And the municipality keeps sending me letters asking me to pay more bills. But the Hebrew in them is all wrong!! It seems to me that the city should hire a Hebrew author to go over the letters you write, and to correct them in a way befitting the first Hebrew municipality in the first Hebrew city!”

Bialik, Israel’s national poet, was a celebrated figure long before he moved to the Holy Land in 1924. In fact, he was so famous that as soon as he decided to immigrate and purchased a plot in Tel Aviv, the name of the tiny road next to his unbuilt house was changed from Bezalel Hill to Rehov Bialik!

This week’s street stroll can take from half an hour to an entire day. Begin at the northern end of Rehov Bialik, with No. 27 – Beit Ha’ir (in English, the City Museum of Tel Aviv-Jaffa). Before you enter, climb the steps and stand on the veranda so that you can look out over the entire street.

Beautiful, isn’t it? And no wonder: The houses were mainly constructed by wealthy people from Europe accustomed to gardens and gracious living, the architecture ranges wildly from eclectic to Bauhaus, a number of buildings have been lovingly restored, and – most importantly – at some point in the 1980s the Tel Aviv Municipality decided to freeze new construction on the street, so that nothing can be arbitrarily changed on the current buildings.

At the time the street was built up, it was located on the highest hill in tiny Tel Aviv and named for the highly regarded Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem. Below you, the serene little plaza – Kikar Bialik – was once a venue for parades, concerts, dancing and loud demonstrations against the British.

Enjoy the view, then enter Beit Ha’ir.

Covering the walls are wonderful photographs of Tel Aviv from its founding in 1909 and through following decades of the city’s development. These are pictures from family albums, culled from tens of thousands sent in by people who live, or lived, in the city.

When you finish browsing, stand at the top of the steps and look down: You see before you a fabulous collection of colorful tiles taken from floors in Tel Aviv’s earliest houses. Then take the elevator or the original winding staircase up to the Dizengoff Room, restored exactly as it was when it was used as the official office of Tel Aviv's first mayor.

Around the time Bialik was making his home on the street named in his honor, Mayor Meir Dizengoff was looking around for a municipal building that would hold all the new clerks appointed to work for the developing city. Dizengoff was shown sketches for all kinds of grandiose municipal buildings, but they were way beyond the city’s budget.

Fortunately, an American Jewish family had just finished building this large white masterpiece next to the home of Dizengoff’s very good friend from the olden days in Russia – Ch.N. Bialik. Originally intended as a hotel, the building was rented out to the city, which set up shop here in 1924 and remained for over 40 years. (In 1965, city hall moved to Kikar Rabin.) In the Dizengoff Room, where the floor was partially preserved by virtue of the rugs and furniture on top, the walls have been scraped down to their original color. Examine the items on display, and then walk out onto the roof for a 360-degree view of the city.

While your visit to Beit Ha’ir is limited to specific hours and includes an entrance fee, there is one venue that is free to all comers: an enchanting garden with mulberry and palm trees – and complete with public bathrooms! Entrance is from within the building, or off the street.

Return to the plaza, and look to your right. The fortress-like blue edifice at No. 23, whose crenellated rooftop echoes the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, was built in 1925 by another of Bialik’s friends, Shmuel Balder.

Balder (who later changed his name to Lander) was a German speaker who wrote plays with German Jewish themes that were performed on the roof. Every day he and his wife would put on their finest clothes and walk proudly up and down Rehov Bialik as if they were strolling along a Vienna boulevard.

Featuring the clean, functional lines typical of International (Bauhaus) architecture, the four-story house at No. 21 Rehov Bialik belongs to art collector and philanthropist Ronald Lauder. Fully renovated in 1996, it includes an intriguing Bauhaus Museum displaying interior furnishings created in the Bauhaus style of design.

The classic house next door was built in 1922 as a family home for a doctor and his wife, but was soon turned into a hospital. Less than a decade later, after the hospital closed, it was sold to wealthy Iranian Jews who built a large goldfish pond in the back garden – still standing today.

In 1936, the house was rented out to 80-year-old Rabbi Yisrael Friedman, who had fled growing anti-Semitism in Europe with many of his hassidic followers. It is said that this fervent Zionist lived in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem in order to avoid hearing church bells!

In 1930, the owners of the house at No. 15 hung a large sign on the front of their villa. Engraved with a Star of David supported by two lions, waving flags, and the name of the woman who built the house (Dina Shoshana Goldberg), the sign disappeared suddenly in 2009 – stolen in broad daylight!

Six months later, tour guide Shulamit Widrich heard that a sign answering to its description was being offered for sale in the flea market for $10,000! With the help of the authorities, she was able to return the sign to its rightful owners, and it was proudly rehung a few months ago.

In the early days of Tel Aviv, coffee shops were vibrant places where people met to exchange ideas, argue politics, play chess, sing, write poetry, and maybe also have a drink or something to eat. During this era, there were two coffee shops across the road from each other on the corner of tiny Rehov Bialik.

Pass the lovely house at No. 9, an eclectic 1928 construction, then continue on to the corner. For many years the first floor of this house, also eclectic and with some prominently classic features, housed a well-known Bohemian coffee shop frequented by all kinds of prominent people. Among them were poets Shaul Tchernichovsky, Natan Alterman and Bialik, public figures like David Ben-Gurion and Dizengoff, artist Reuven Rubin, actress Hanna Rovina, and even Albert Einstein!

The coffee house on the opposite corner, at No. 2, is still going strong. Built in the 1930s and strongly Bauhaus, called Gan Raveh, this was an elegant eatery whose owners regularly offered an ultra-elegant Englishstyle five o’clock tea. In good weather, the restaurant moved onto the roof, which boasted a lush garden. Walk inside for refreshment, or at least to view a a blown-up photo of the ship-shaped roof garden restaurant.

Years went by and the building changed hands. However, in 2001 it went back to being a restaurant, this time called My Coffee Shop. If the name sounds familiar, that may be because eight years ago it was the scene of a deadly suicide bombing. The current restaurant is called Café Bialik.

Continue back up the street. Architecture buffs – already having a field day examining the houses on this street – will especially enjoy the classic Bauhaus design at Nos. 6 and 8 Bialik, both dating back to 1931. I love the look of No. 10, an eclectic 1924 creation full of surprises.

Today a museum dedicated to the works of Reuven Rubin, the building at No. 14 is another Bauhaus classic. Rubin was a brilliant artist whose marvelous paintings did an outstanding job of documenting the early years of Tel Aviv.

In 1946, Rubin rented one floor in what was originally a two-story house; eight years later he bought the building and added another story. Guests were welcomed on the first floor, the Rubin family lived on the second, and the artist’s studio was on the third.

As he grew older, Rubin often rested in the yard with his wife. One day, as he watched schoolchildren on a field trip skipping along the sidewalk to Bialik House, he decided that his home should also one day be open to visitors. Thus he willed his house, and a wonderful collection of paintings, to the city of Tel Aviv, which opened up the Rubin Museum (Beit Reuven) in 1983.

The bright-colored art-deco building next door (No. 16) played a part in Israeli history, for when Etzel (the Irgun) declared war on the British in 1944, it set up headquarters in the basement. Boxes of toys were stored there, and members of the Jewish underground came and went as they pleased – disguised as toy merchants!

Bialik was a very public personage, and everyone who was anyone crowded into his home and garden at No. 22: intellectuals, would-be poets, the highest members of society – and people who needed him to intervene with his good buddy Dizengoff.

The house was intended to create a new “Hebrew” style of architecture by combining eastern charm with western design. After years of loving restoration and renovations, it reopened to the public in 2009.

Examine the exterior, whose Islamic elements include an Oriel window (that protruding balcony) which provides tons of natural light from the comfort of the interior. Then enter – to become one more visitor exclaiming “Wow!” as you view the dining room (green), the reception hall (royal blue), the stairway and entrance (fuchsia), stunning floors, and dozens of gorgeous ceramic tiles created by Bezalel Academy artist Zeev Raban. Head up the stairs for more.

The last building on your little walking tour, the Felicia Blumental Music Center and Library at No. 26 Rehov Bialik, is also the newest. As a condition for permission to construct the center over a dwelling dating back to 1931, the architect was required to incorporate part of the original façade. The result was this extremely striking edifice offering workshops, concerts and a vast music library.

Rehov Bialik was once the hub of the city, filled with people who walked in and out of City Hall, visited Bialik and Rubin, or danced in the plaza. Today, the entire area is known as the Bialik Compound, and Ayelet Bitan-Shlonsky, its chief curator and director, has vowed to return the street to its former glory.

Amazingly, with five of its buildings already open to the public and many more lively gatherings planned for the future – like the recent, wildly successful “White Night” and this week’s Bialik Memorial Event – that day is rapidly approaching.

Special thanks to tour guide Yona Wiseman, and to Shulamit Widrich, author of the excellent Hebrew Bialik Harehov, on sale at Beit Bialik and the Rubin Museum.

Opening Hours: Beit Ha’ir: Mon-Thurs 9:00-17:00 Fri-Sat 10:00-14:00 NIS 20/10. Wheelchair accessible. Bauhaus Museum: Wed 11:00- 17:00; Fri 10:00-14:00. Free. Rubin Museum: Mon, Wed-Fri 10:00-15:00 Tues 10:00-20:00. Sat 11:00-14:00. Adults NIS 20, children free. Wheelchair accessible. Bialik House/Museum: Mon-Thurs 11:00-17:00; Fri-Sat 10:00- 14:00. NIS 20/10 Music Center: Sun; Tues 9:00-13:45 Mon- Wed,Thurs 12:00-18:45. Wheelchair accessible.


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