Boulevard by the book

Many of the street names honor those who helped build the neighborhood and the state Tel Aviv's Sderot Rothschild is lined with buildings that emanate both dreams and reality.

rothschild blvd. 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rothschild blvd. 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When tour guide Shula Widreich takes folks on walking tours of Tel Aviv's Sderot Rothschild, she literally goes by the book - the one that she and fellow guide/historian Ofer Regev edited in l999, simply entitled Boulevard. With book in hand, Widreich leads a fascinating tour dealing with the history of the attractive buildings that line the leafy boulevard and vividly describes the who-was-who residing therein and the relationships forged - and sometimes torn - between them. Starting near the Habimah theater, the tour ends at No. 16 Sderot Rothschild, the former home of Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, which now houses the Independence Museum. As Widreich walked us through the famous and not-so-famous families and individual personalities who strolled the boulevard a few generations ago, we realized that many of the street names in the city belonged to those politicians, community leaders, educators, writers, artists, scientific researchers, businessmen and others who participated in building both the neighborhood and the State of Israel. Strolling down Rothschild, one finds much of the past reflected in the enormous glass windows of multistory office blocks built between or behind the eclectic century-old structures. The visual effect of the extraordinary stonework, wooden shutters and artistic wrought-iron balcony rails of yesteryear reflecting in the modern gleaming black or grey glass fronts has an attractiveness of its own and somehow does not clash at all. Actually, it rather appeals - the past being imprinted on the present in a way that blends well together. There is little that one would find on Sderot Rothschild in the evening hours that would reflect the Zionist dream machine of yesteryear, the dream that propelled Tel Aviv's pioneers to draw lots in the sand and establish the city that never sleeps. In comparison to the design of the rest of the period buildings, Number 16 is not an attractive building, but it was here that David Ben-Gurion announced the foundation of the State of Israel. The boxy two-story concrete, slit-windowed building was willed to the state by Dizengoff. At the time of his death, the building was only a single story; the second floor was added to meet the gentleman's request that his home become a museum for art - which it did before it became the Independence Museum. As uninviting as the face of the building is, the interior emanates some of the excitement and awe that must have reverberated in the main hall on May 14, 1948, as Ben-Gurion made the proclamation of independence. And through crackled radio recordings and powerful black-and-white photographs, one gets a quick taste of the high emotional wave that affected the Jewish people gathered around their wireless sets throughout the country almost 60 years ago. "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people …." Ben-Gurion states from all corners of the hall, after someone flicked a switch and the distinctive voice booms forth. A group of Israeli visitors stands transfixed as the great statesman addresses his fellow countrymen of then, and now. A large portrait of Theodor Herzl is the backdrop to the podium area in the hall where those events took place. In front of the imposing image of the father of Zionism, there is a long table with 12 nameplates neatly arranged, and a trio of bulky antiquated microphones in the center. Nameplates are affixed to the back of the dark wooden chairs lined up along the sides of the podium. One of them reads "Golda Meir." Here sat a future prime minister of the state Ben-Gurion was proclaiming as the recording took us on a fast track back to the past. The Declaration of Independence scroll signed that day was in fact blank - the wording only agreed upon and added after the ink had dried on the 25 signatures placed there that day, and six others added later on. Arranging the venue for the proclamation of the state was a rather rush job, we are told. First of all, a list of whom should be invited was drawn up, and obviously they had to have something to sit on. With the clock ticking and little funds at their disposal, the aides proved to be highly innovative. They did the rounds of Tel Aviv's coffee houses and "borrowed" some chairs. Seating taken care of, what about some sort of covering for the bare boards of the podium area? No problem - a few persuasive aides approached a Persian carpet dealer and convinced him to loan them a few of the carpets hanging on the walls of his premises - not taking into consideration that in Israel, there is often nothing as permanent as temporary! Chairs and carpets all in place, what about microphones and speakers? The sole electronics shop in Tel Aviv agreed to supply the necessary equipment on condition that a sign with the name of the business be attached to the main microphone. That bulky metal mike of the l940s still has "Tzlilim" attached to it in Hebrew letters - essentially the first advertisement in the more than fledgling state. Widreich and Regev's 170-page book (in Hebrew) contains historic black-and-white images of some of the buildings and people of the boulevard and their fascinating stories. Even though I spent a few hours wandering through the birth and development of the boulevard, there are many more chapters to discover in the history of the rather special Sderot Rothschild.