Feel the heartbeat of Old Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's Rehov Herzl is where the city that never sleeps started out.

rehov herzl espresso bar 311 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
rehov herzl espresso bar 311
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Polish jeweler Akiva Arie Weiss, an avid Zionist who contributed to the cause, resolved to put his money where his mouth was and travel to the Land of Israel. In 1904, in the middle of his journey, he heard news that stunned him to the core: His idol, Theodor Herzl, had died of a heart attack at the age of 44.
This is the first in a series of Tel Aviv Street Strolls, walks along the city’s most exciting, historic and colorful byways. It begins with Rehov Herzl – the heart of Old Tel Aviv.
Naming the street for Herzl was no accident, for not only is he considered the father of contemporary Zionism, but his book Altneuland (Old New Land) was the inspiration behind Akiva Weiss’s decision to create the first modern Jewish town in the Holy Land.
I recommend taking this circular walk during the week, when the street’s stores, bistros and coffee shops are busy with customers. This is also the time to take advantage of two wonderful (and free!) attractions: the unique mosaic walls inside the entrance to Shalom Mayer Tower, and a spectacular new Visitors’ Center called Herzlilienblum.
Begin at the corner of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am streets. Behind you is the Shalom Tower – your last stop. In front of you stand the homes of Michael Polack (No. 1) and Weiss (No. 2).
Weiss was so entranced with the Holy Land that he returned home, closed up his thriving business, and two years later brought his wife and six children (the youngest named Herzl) to Palestine.
He had barely stepped off the boat when he heard of a meeting to be held that evening; a gathering of Jaffa Jews who would talk about the burning issues of the day. He already knew that their biggest problem was land, for Jaffa’s mixed Jewish-Arab population was bursting at the seams. Leaving his family to unpack, he hurried to the rendezvous.
To his dismay, the only subjects that came up were, to his mind, petty and inconsequential.
Impatient, he finally stood up and delivered an impassioned Zionistic speech, ending with an idea that may seem self-evident today but which was a bombshell at the time: He suggested they build an all-Jewish city!
When they got over the shock a vote was taken, and this wildly original idea was accepted. A committee of five, including Weiss, was immediately charged with preparing a plan. Incredibly, within 24 hours the committee came up with a grandiose scheme for a wholly Jewish city, fully autonomous, with gardens, paved streets, sanitation and running water – almost unknown in this backwater of the Turkish empire.
It took three years to acquire the land that would become Ahuzat Bayit, whose name was changed a year later to Tel Aviv. But eventually, on April 11, 1909, the 66 founding families were invited to a picnic on the sand. Here, using grey and white shells with plot numbers and family names etched inside, the lottery was held that gave birth to the tiny new neighborhood that grew into today’s metropolis.
Weiss’s house, like others in the original colony, began as a one-story dwelling with a large front garden; he added a second floor in the mid 1920s. It was a gem of a place, for Weiss had planned on a career as an architect before his father died and left him in charge of the family business.
Years later, as commerce developed in the area and the functional, no-nonsense International (Bauhaus) style became popular, many of the unique features of the house were destroyed. Luckily, in 2000 it was renovated, the first floor regaining much of its early 20th-century charm.
On the other side of Rehov Herzl, the large edifice at No. 1 was built by religious Zionist pioneer Michael Polack. He died three years later, but not before founding the first yeshiva in Tel Aviv.
Two well-known figures lived in the house with rounded balconies at No. 3: owner Shimon Ben-Zion was a renowned writer and educator who taught at the liberal, secular girls’ school in nearby Neveh Tzedek; while son Nahum Gutman, who was 12 when his family moved to Tel Aviv, was an author and artist particularly famous for his original style and as a foremost illustrator of children’s books.
The large white building on the corner of Sderot Rothschild and Rehov Herzl was renovated a few years ago. It once belonged to Yosef Eliahu Chelouche, a Jaffa-born merchant, contractor and important public figure.
On the corner of Rothschild, people of all ages are gathered around the kiosk/coffee bar
located smack in the middle of the boulevard. You would have found the same sight (albeit with soft drinks instead of coffee) a century ago, when the first kiosk in Tel Aviv appeared right here. However, the original wooden kiosk rotted over time; it was replaced a decade or so with this attractive new version.
Continue south on Rehov Herzl until you are facing No. 9, a winged house with blue-grey shutters. It belonged to Yehiel Yehieli, who helped found the girls’ school in Neveh Tzedek and served as its principal until his death.
Next door, the strange-looking house at No. 11 was built by Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen. Both journalist and businessman, he had the honor of attending the First Zionist Congress chaired by Theodor Herzl in 1897.
The enormous structure at No. 16 is Pensak Passage, best seen from across the street and constructed in 1925 as the first shopping center in Tel Aviv. Inside, look for a faded sign on the wall that points to the “ma’aliya” (an early form of the modern Hebrew word ma’alit), the city’s very first elevator. Take a look at the elevator, then examine the stairs near the entrance which utilized sand from the area and are studded with seashells.
Walk a dozen meters or so past Rehov Yehuda Halevi. Not long ago you could still see tracks of the railway that once ran from Jerusalem to Jaffa and, according to the large sign, will be part of the route for Tel Aviv’s Light Rail (good luck Tel Avivians – I am from Jerusalem, and am still waiting for ours to be completed!)
Then turn around and gaze straight ahead at Shalom Tower. Train passengers who crossed Rehov Herzl would have seen, instead, the imposing Herzliya Gymnasia (Herzliya High School). The gymnasia opened in 1910 as the first mixed school in the world to offer all of its subjects in Hebrew, and for many years was the only such school of higher learning. Purposely erected on a hill at the edge of the colony so that it could easily be seen from the train, its splendid design was meant to be reminiscent of the Jerusalem Temple.
Now return, pass the tower that houses the main branch of Discount Bank, and stop at Schiff House next door, at No. 13. The musical Frank family that erected the dwelling in 1910 left in 1912 for Geneva and the house was sold to the Schiff Family. In 1924 two stories were added, with the bottom two floors commercial enterprises (a hotel, a beauty shop and even a sausage factory!) and the top floor a living area.
When Discount Bank applied for permission to build a tower of 30 stories, municipal approval was conditional upon the bank preserving Schiff House. The bank took things one step further – not only carefully restoring it inside and out, but also transforming it into the fabulous new Museum of Banking and Tel Aviv Nostalgia. Located as it is on the corner of Lilienblum Street, historically a center for money changers and black marketers, it is also called Herzlilienblum.
You don’t have to be particularly interested in banking to find the museum absolutely riveting, for it provides you with a delightful combination of hi-tech surprises, interactive exhibits and wonderful old movie clips that reek of nostalgia. While you are enjoying yourself, you will also be exploring the history of commerce, contemporary banking, and possible scenarios for the future.
Afterwards, move on to Shalom Mayer Tower – the first skyscraper in Israel. Although most people believe that construction of the tower is responsible for the school’s demise, that may not be the whole story. According to Ayelet Eilon, tour guide coordinator for the Discover Tel Aviv Center inside the tower, already in 1925 there was talk of razing the school because it was thought to be blocking the town’s expansion. By the mid-’50s the structure had deteriorated badly. Since in those days few realized the value of historical preservation, it was easier to take it down than to fix it up. (Yet the Gymnasia lives on – as the logo for the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites).
While nothing can take the place of the grand old school, there is a consolation prize inside the entrance where the walls hold two magnificent mosaics. Both took two years to complete and were produced in Ravenna, Italy, of Murano glass by men who grew up in Tel Aviv. Both brilliantly depict the city’s development – but they could hardly be less alike!
Begin with Nahum Gutman’s work of art, hung in the mid-1960s.
At the time, it wasn’t clear how many walls it would cover, so Gutmanprepared it in four separate pieces that ooze with his love for TelAviv: I call them Old Jaffa, Ahuzat Bayit, Life in Tel Aviv, and ModernTimes (the ’60s, which of course are now history). Featuring warm andvibrant colors, far different from the dark European style fashionableat the time, the mosaic is 100 square meters in size and made up ofover a million pieces in more than 700 different colors (including 70shades of green!).
Do allow yourself time to examine the mosaic for details, like the palmtree which branches out on top like a peacock’s tail, and the orangegroves that cover the eastern part of Old Jaffa. Note ships drawingnear the port, and the little boats that take their passengers ashore.
Yellow in the second portion represents the sand on which Ahuzat Bayitwas built. Can you find Dr. Hissin? An early pioneer who settled herein 1882 but left to study medicine, he helped found Ahuzat Bayit on hisreturn. Old-timers remember him making house calls while wearing awhite suit, funny English hat, and always with a sunshade.
Part 3 includes the city’s first street light (the original is on viewnearby). Onlookers are so astounded that their heads have left theirbodies! Examine the fourth mosaic for elements of the city’s rapiddevelopment in the 1960s – both upwards and outwards.
Created in 1996 by Tel Aviv-born artist David Sharir, the second mosaicis really a wave, with no beginning and no end, and strangelyBabylonian-looking figures. In some ways almost a personal saga, thedetails are familiar and nostalgic. Scaffolding is scattered here andthere in a city that is constantly developing.
Old Jaffa is on one side, with its camel convoy; on the other is amodern city in which someone sleeps on a park bench, and the oft-seensight of a bride and groom having their picture taken before theirwedding. The heart of the mural is, of course, Ahuzat Bayit with itsstriking Gymnasia.
End your visit to the tower with a fascinating photo exhibit of TelAviv in the 1920s and ’30s. The photographer who took the photos wasShimon Kordman – who died poor and alone and whose photos were onlydiscovered after his passing.
Finally, if it is open, stop in at the Discover Tel Aviv Center to pickup material on the city and on a multitude of low-cost guided toursheld throughout the year.
Reserve your tour of Herzlilienblum in advance by calling 1-700-55-8000.
Shalom Tower is open weekdays during office hours.
The Discover Tel Aviv Center is open from 10-5 Sun-Thurs; 10-12 on Fridays. Phone: (03) 517-0991.