A stroll down memory boulevard

On a rainy January day, horns honk, brakes squeal and buses belch alongSderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv. Water pours through the tattered awnings ofthe kiosks selling cigarettes and lottery tickets on the wide green medianstrip, washes garbage along the curbs and chases pedestrians into the cafes.The snarled traffic and looming modern towers make a sharp contrast to theelegance still clinging to this early Tel Aviv street.
No single thoroughfare better personifies the development of Tel Aviv thanspacious Sderot Rothschild, which starts near Rehov Herzl in the west andarches east and north toward Kikar Hatizmoret, a huge plaza containing theMann Auditorium and Habimah National Theater. Between those two points, itcuts through a history of Tel Aviv in miniature.
Its very name harks back to the foundations of the Zionist movement. Thethoroughfare’s namesake, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, bankrolled much of thewave of 19th-century Jewish immigration known as the First Aliya. Streets inthe immediate vicinity — Herzl, Allenby, Ahad Ha’am, Sheinkin, and others -all reflect the growth of Zionism in the Yishuv (Jewish settlement inIsrael), and Tel Aviv specifically.
It was here on a sand dune that a group of Jewish immigrants chose lots forwhat they thought would be a new ’Hebrew’ neighborhood north of Jaffa calledAhuzat 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 setbacksduring World War I, bloomed and boomed. Business districts, water supply,public sanitation and road layout were carefully planned, in deliberatecontrast to the narrow, dirty alleys of Old Jaffa. Early photos of SderotRothschild show a wide, sun-drenched street along European lines, with agreen 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, thoughstylistically elaborate, are neglected and deteriorating. With their peelingplaster, exposed bricks, eroded balustrades, and collapsed tile roofs, theyresemble partially washed-out sandcastles.
At Sderot Rothschild 2, for example, stands an old house typical of thebuildings that lined the street from around 1910 to 1920. But only the oldfluted columns, the decorative tiles on the front stoop and the ironfiligree on the porches suggest the European grandeur that was importedduring those first days.
On that dune where the first group of future Tel Avivians gathered, MeyerDizengoff (who later became the city’s first mayor) built his home. In the1930s, after the death of his wife, Dizengoff donated the lower portions ofthe house to the municipality as the Tel Aviv Art Museum. But though itreceived many visitors over the ensuing years, nothing could compare to aparticular day in May 1948.
For on May 14, in the place where Tel Aviv was born, David Ben-Gurion openedthe meeting during which the State of Israel was declared. Though thelocation of the ceremony was supposed to be a secret, the crowds outside thebuilding (now known as Independence Hall) filled Sderot Rothschild withdancing in celebration of one of the most powerful moments in Jewishhistory.
Independence Hall now serves as a museum displaying the history of thebuilding, early Tel Aviv, and the events leading up to the birth of thestate. The chamber in which the ceremony took place is preserved as it wasat the time, and old film footage presents the richness and bustle of earlyTel Aviv (for details, call (03) 510-6426 or 517-3942).
The Hagana, the largest pre-state defense organization, had its headquartersat Sderot Rothschild 23. Known as the Golomb House, this was the home ofEliahu Golomb, commander of the Hagana.
Here, important operations were planned. Today, the house and its annexserve as the Hagana Museum. Its movies, exhibits and dioramas trace theHagana from its inception to its transformation into the core of the modernIsraeli army (for details, call (03) 560-8624).
From the Hagana Museum to Allenby Street, several buildings preserve theold, stylish sense of Sderot Rothschild. At the corner of Allenby Street,the Lederberg House (No. 29), which belonged to a prosperous housewaresdealer, is decorated by tiles from the Bezalel Art School, in pastoralstyle. Portraying village scenes, the tiles illustrate the famous phrasefrom Psalms: ’They that sow in tears will reap in joy.’ (Psalm 126:5)
Interestingly, this building also features, in the heart of this growingsecular city, a tile of Jerusalem. Likewise, some of the older sculpturesand 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 theMiddle East. Designed by architect Yehuda Megidovich, who served as themunicipal 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 onthe ground floor.
On the other side of Allenby Street, the buildings along Rothschild are alittle more eclectic, with more examples of a later art-deco styleappearing. But the massive, genteel building at No. 49 dates back to 1924.Originally built as the home for a wealthy family, the building in 1948became the embassy of the Soviet Union. In 1953, amidst local protestagainst the framing and persecution of Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union, abomb exploded in the embassy, wounding three people, including theambassador’s wife. The Soviet Union cut off diplomatic relations with Israelfor several months, and afterwards moved its embassy to Ramat Gan. In theNineties, after years of abandonment, the building was restored.
The median promenade along this section makes for delightful walking, with atunnel of shade and coolness formed by parallel lines of towering trees. Andahead, as you stroll or ride your bike on the marked bike path, stands alittle espresso bar right on the path. Several interestingly designedart-deco buildings line the boulevard on this stretch. At No. 96, thesculpture of singers on the second floor is part of the renovation.
Toward the northeast, Sderot Rothschild ends at Kikar Hatizmoret. HereHabimah National Theater, which was begun in 1935 but not completed until1945, has been the major center for Israeli theater for well over 50 years.The adjacent Mann Auditorium houses the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, andwas dedicated in 1957 with a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. TheHelena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Art Museum is also located here.
Though Sderot Rothschild might not be a destination in itself, strollingthere 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 westernend, along Nahalat Binyamin and Rehov Herzl, some smaller, cheaper eateriesare located.
Sderot Rothschild has seen has seen some of the greatest moments inmodern Jewish history. Allan Rabinowitz is a licensed tour guide. He can becontacted at allan@jpost.co.il