A stroll down memory boulevard

On a rainy January day, horns honk, brakes squeal and buses belch along Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv. Water pours through the tattered awnings of the kiosks selling cigarettes and lottery tickets on the wide green median strip, washes garbage along the curbs and chases pedestrians into the cafes. The snarled traffic and looming modern towers make a sharp contrast to the elegance still clinging to this early Tel Aviv street.

No single thoroughfare better personifies the development of Tel Aviv than spacious Sderot Rothschild, which starts near Rehov Herzl in the west and arches east and north toward Kikar Hatizmoret, a huge plaza containing the Mann Auditorium and Habimah National Theater. Between those two points, it cuts through a history of Tel Aviv in miniature.

Its very name harks back to the foundations of the Zionist movement. The thoroughfare’s namesake, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, bankrolled much of the wave of 19th-century Jewish immigration known as the First Aliya. Streets in the immediate vicinity — Herzl, Allenby, Ahad Ha’am, Sheinkin, and others - all reflect the growth of Zionism in the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Israel), and Tel Aviv specifically.

It was here on a sand dune that a group of Jewish immigrants chose lots for what they thought would be a new ’Hebrew’ neighborhood north of Jaffa called Ahuzat 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 setbacks during World War I, bloomed and boomed. Business districts, water supply, public sanitation and road layout were carefully planned, in deliberate contrast to the narrow, dirty alleys of Old Jaffa. Early photos of Sderot Rothschild show a wide, sun-drenched street along European lines, with a green 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, though stylistically elaborate, are neglected and deteriorating. With their peeling plaster, exposed bricks, eroded balustrades, and collapsed tile roofs, they resemble partially washed-out sandcastles.

At Sderot Rothschild 2, for example, stands an old house typical of the buildings that lined the street from around 1910 to 1920. But only the old fluted columns, the decorative tiles on the front stoop and the iron filigree on the porches suggest the European grandeur that was imported during those first days.

On that dune where the first group of future Tel Avivians gathered, Meyer Dizengoff (who later became the city’s first mayor) built his home. In the 1930s, after the death of his wife, Dizengoff donated the lower portions of the house to the municipality as the Tel Aviv Art Museum. But though it received many visitors over the ensuing years, nothing could compare to a particular day in May 1948.

For on May 14, in the place where Tel Aviv was born, David Ben-Gurion opened the meeting during which the State of Israel was declared. Though the location of the ceremony was supposed to be a secret, the crowds outside the building (now known as Independence Hall) filled Sderot Rothschild with dancing in celebration of one of the most powerful moments in Jewish history.

Independence Hall now serves as a museum displaying the history of the building, early Tel Aviv, and the events leading up to the birth of the state. The chamber in which the ceremony took place is preserved as it was at the time, and old film footage presents the richness and bustle of early Tel Aviv (for details, call (03) 510-6426 or 517-3942).

The Hagana, the largest pre-state defense organization, had its headquarters at Sderot Rothschild 23. Known as the Golomb House, this was the home of Eliahu Golomb, commander of the Hagana.

Here, important operations were planned. Today, the house and its annex serve as the Hagana Museum. Its movies, exhibits and dioramas trace the Hagana from its inception to its transformation into the core of the modern Israeli army (for details, call (03) 560-8624).

From the Hagana Museum to Allenby Street, several buildings preserve the old, stylish sense of Sderot Rothschild. At the corner of Allenby Street, the Lederberg House (No. 29), which belonged to a prosperous housewares dealer, is decorated by tiles from the Bezalel Art School, in pastoral style. Portraying village scenes, the tiles illustrate the famous phrase from Psalms: ’They that sow in tears will reap in joy.’ (Psalm 126:5)

Interestingly, this building also features, in the heart of this growing secular city, a tile of Jerusalem. Likewise, some of the older sculptures and 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 the Middle East. Designed by architect Yehuda Megidovich, who served as the municipal 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 on the ground floor.

On the other side of Allenby Street, the buildings along Rothschild are a little more eclectic, with more examples of a later art-deco style appearing. But the massive, genteel building at No. 49 dates back to 1924. Originally built as the home for a wealthy family, the building in 1948 became the embassy of the Soviet Union. In 1953, amidst local protest against the framing and persecution of Jewish doctors in the Soviet Union, a bomb exploded in the embassy, wounding three people, including the ambassador’s wife. The Soviet Union cut off diplomatic relations with Israel for several months, and afterwards moved its embassy to Ramat Gan. In the Nineties, after years of abandonment, the building was restored.

The median promenade along this section makes for delightful walking, with a tunnel of shade and coolness formed by parallel lines of towering trees. And ahead, as you stroll or ride your bike on the marked bike path, stands a little espresso bar right on the path. Several interestingly designed art-deco buildings line the boulevard on this stretch. At No. 96, the sculpture of singers on the second floor is part of the renovation.

Toward the northeast, Sderot Rothschild ends at Kikar Hatizmoret. Here Habimah National Theater, which was begun in 1935 but not completed until 1945, has been the major center for Israeli theater for well over 50 years. The adjacent Mann Auditorium houses the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and was dedicated in 1957 with a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The Helena Rubinstein Pavilion of the Tel Aviv Art Museum is also located here.

Though Sderot Rothschild might not be a destination in itself, strolling there 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 western end, along Nahalat Binyamin and Rehov Herzl, some smaller, cheaper eateries are located.