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.

Nazi flag on German consulate in Jaffa 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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 withthe creation of the Templer Society, a splinter group of the LutheranChurch. The Templers believed that by colonizing the Holy Land, theywould expedite the second coming of Christ. After a botched attempt tosettle the Jezreel Valley, they established their first successfulcolony in Haifa, in 1868. They arrived at Jaffa a year later, wherethey founded more settlements, including one at the former AmericanColony and another on the Jaffa Road. This colony was named Valhalla.
“Valhalla stood outside the gates of Jaffa, surrounded by the finery ofolive groves,” writes German Templer author Rudolf de Haas in his 1930adventure story, The Orange Grower of Sarona. It wasamid this rural splendor that Templer Frank Lorenz purchased a plot ofland in 1868, says Shay Farkash, a conservator in charge of the CafeLorenz 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,” saysFarkash. “He modernized it using local materials, including concretefrom a Templer factory in Jerusalem.”
Right on the edge of the sand dunes that, just a year later, wouldbecome Neveh Tzedek, Lorenz’s house boasted all mod cons – includingelectricity.
In 1905, Lorenz opened a cafe. Well-situated on the busy Jaffa Roadnext to the growing Jewish neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek, Cafe Lorenzfast became a popular watering hole.
In 1909, the Lorenz family began screening movies in the cafe, and in1925 the Kessem Cinema was housed there for a short time. Both CafeLorenz and Neveh Tzedek’s Eden Cinema (opened in 1913) have laid claimto the title of Israel’s first movie theater.
“Actually, no one can say for sure which came first, the Eden or CafeLorenz,” says Farkash. “When a new movie came to Israel, it was shownat both cinemas.”
Not a great deal is known about Cafe Lorenz during Ottoman times, butthere are more records from the British Mandate era. At one pointbefore 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 boastedsuch delights as cabaret shows with artistes like “acrobatic dancer”Zipporah Zabari. Famous patrons included S.Y. Agnon, who immortalizedthe cafe in his 1930s novel The Day Before Yesterday (TmolShilshom), in which one character complains about the tea.
In the 1930s, tensions had started to grow between the country’s Germanresidents and the local Jewish population. Despite living in EretzIsrael, the Templers remained proud German citizens and nationalists.As the Nazis rose to power in Germany, their ideologies found areceptive home among some of Eretz Israel’s German colonies.
In 1934, a Palestine branch of the National Socialist Party was foundedin Haifa’s German colony. Later that same year, a swastika flag wasraised over the German Consulate in Jaffa – right next door to CafeLorenz and just meters away from Neveh Tzedek.
The Templers’ days in Israel were soon to come to an end. When warbroke out a few years later, they were designated enemy nationals bythe British Mandate authorities. In 1941, they were expelled and sentto internment camps in Australia.
Although its German owners were gone, Cafe Lorenz remained open. Thistime it was in Jewish hands, specifically those of Max Rappoport, anexperienced restaurateur with an establishment on Dizengoff Street.Rappoport completely revamped the cafe, but partially retained thename. Lorenz’s Palm Garden, as it was now called, boasted a fancy newGrill Room, but continued the popular nightclub – dubbed “the only spotfor dancing” in newspaper advertisements.
According to a 1943 Palestine Post report, Rappoportwas sued – unsuccessfully – by a couple of British constables whocomplained of being overcharged for the ginger beer in their Horse’sNeck cocktails. “The British were pedantic,” remarks Farkash.
By all accounts, Rappoport’s tenure at Cafe Lorenz was successful aswell as colorful. It came to an end in 1948, when the newly establishedJewish state nationalized Templer colonies, including Valhalla.
In 1949, the Israel Defense Forces took over Cafe Lorenz, andtransformed it into the Soldiers Welfare Association with a mess hall,bakery, wedding hall and theater. When the association moved todifferent premises in the 1970s, Cafe Lorenz was abandoned.
After standing empty and forgotten for over two decades, the cafe wasrediscovered by Masorti Rabbi Roberto Arbib, a resident of NevehTzedek. For years, Arbib had dreamed of creating a Jewish culturalcenter, and was searching for suitable premises. Cafe Lorenz seemedperfect, and the Tel Aviv municipality granted the Schechter Institutepermission to undertake the restoration work.
As Cafe Lorenz is a historic building, all renovations must preservethe building’s architectural features as closely as possible, down tothe precise color of the original wall paintings.
As well as housing the Masorti movement’s Kehilat Sinai and MidreshetIyun, the new Schechter Center for Jewish Culture will house a theater,a cafe, an art gallery, a Judaica shop and a kindergarten. Schechterwill offer lectures and workshops on Jewish topics, says Arbib, whichwill give the overwhelmingly secular population of Neveh Tzedek and itsenvirons 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 thepopulations of Neveh Tzedek and beyond, to bring pluralistic Jewishstudies to as many people as possible in the Tel Aviv area,” heexplains.
In the closing pages of Haas’s Templer adventure story, the modernJewish city of Tel Aviv has risen from the sands, overshadowing theGerman colonies. The Jews, writes Hass, have built “on the desolateforsaken dunes near the sea splendid homes for a new generation drivenby a huge and happy dream, a completely modern city: Tel Aviv, the cityof the new Hebrews.”
In bringing Cafe Lorenz back to life, the Schechter Institute hastransformed an important relic of Tel Aviv’s past in the service of avibrant Jewish future.