Lord Byron Street

Recollections of a sabra childhood in the first Hebrew city.

jewish children 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jewish children 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The poet Lord Byron was famous, known for his looks, loves and limp, but is that reason enough for having a Tel Aviv street named after him? But Byron is not the only Gentile whose name graces a street in the Jewish city. The cluster of streets in which Lord Byron sits also includes streets named after Emile Zola, Lessing and Jean-Jaurès. What they all had in common was great sympathy for the Jewish people. Lord Byron was a small street hidden away between the city's two main north-south thoroughfares. Most of the buildings on it were one-story homes with gardens. It was unpaved, and the soft sand made it difficult for vehicles to enter. This left the street to the occasional horse-drawn cart conveying fruit and vegetables or blocks of ice for the kitchen ice box. In the quiet that reigned, the songs of birds in the eucalyptus and lemon trees could be heard all day long. Behind the door opposite ours lived the Harari family. Mr. Harari was a good-natured, fun-loving man; his wife was blonde, warm-hearted and statuesque. The older of the two daughters lent a serious tone to the household, as did the son who silently prepared himself for a future academic career. The youngest was Latzale - no one knew the meaning or origin of the nickname. The last member of the family, which lived crowded into their two-room apartment, was the beautiful and elegant, quiet and soft-spoken Tehilla, Mrs. Harari's unmarried sister. Where did the members of this exuberant clan get a good night's sleep in a space of a mere 40 meters square? On mattresses and makeshift beds, scattered all over the floors every night, which disappeared miraculously early in the morning, leaving the apartment spotless and neat. The beds vanished, and a dining room appeared on the large ground-floor balcony which faced north and was the most-used space in the tiny apartment. It was in use almost throughout the year, except for a few rainy days in the mild Tel Aviv winter. PASSERS-BY were often witnesses to the Hararis' open-air life. Since the northern exposure offered protection from the sun, the balcony became the living room, dining room, and study for the Hararis and their friends. There was one peculiar Friday afternoon tradition. After the usual preparations for Shabbat, the space took on a holiday air. The smell of food mingled with that of freshly washed hair (shampooed with egg and rinsed with lemon juice and water). At exactly five o'clock, the Harari family settled down on the northern balcony for their weekly "parliament" session. No one ever missed it, and a few times I was privileged to witness this unique gathering. The subject up for discussion never changed: Our Dream House in the Country. For years, for more than hour each week, the Hararis would dream aloud collectively, adding their private visions. They would go into lengthy descriptions of the fabulous house and garden they would acquire in the very near future (which actually took many years). Everyone's wishes were considered and adopted. The most extravagant feature, agreed on by everyone, was that white swans would grace the garden. Many years later, the dream became a reality. The swans roamed in the garden, trumpeting and dirtying, then destroying the flower beds. But they were part of the dream, and they stayed. Mother Harari was a gentle, sweet woman. One morning, when she met me on the landing, after my boyfriend had brought me home well past midnight, she reproached me: "You kissed too long last night." Most of the people on the street knew one another. WE ALL knew the 17-year-old Russian immigrant boy, who had left Moscow without his parents and without his piano. But he found one in the back room of his cousins' house, charming the street with the magical sound of Chopin's nocturnes, which he practiced all day, preparing himself for a concert career. More sounds, less uplifting, of radio news and popular music were heard throughout the week, but on Shabbat, different tunes floated through the Freyhains' open windows. The Orthodox German-Jewish family was singing zmirot, their voices expressing faith and joy, which touched everyone - including those who were not themselves Shabbat observers. In fact, no one turned on a radio, so as not to disturb these religious neighbors. Their ways were respected by all, and they felt no need to move to a separate neighborhood, as is customary today. On erev Shabbat, I myself skipped my loud singing in the shower. Tolerance for and empathy with one's neighbors was then the rule. One day, a baby was born in the house on the corner. He lived only a week because of a defective heart. The entire street supported the mother in her pain. Then there was Mrs. R., the polite, elegant and somewhat remote neighbor who once a month climbed into bed with another miscarriage, after years of infertility. The neighbors took turns staying with her to help out. On a floor above her lived another German immigrant, a former opera singer who now wore a white chef's hat and carried a brass box containing the warm frankfurters he sold on street corners. When he came home late at night, he was never too tired to present us with a free concert. I still remember his favorite, the aria from Verdi's Rigoletto: "O wie so tr'gerisch sind Weiber Herzen, mogen sie Klagen, mogen sie scherzen" (La Donna e mobile…) IN THE street, we were likely to meet the teacher who never refrained from correcting our Hebrew. Or the businessman, who wore the only tie in the neighborhood (and probably the only one in his closet.) And I won't forget the housewives, forever exchanging recipes, like eggplant when meat was scarce, of which there were said to be a hundred. Living on Lord Byron Street meant sharing sounds, smells, family events and the changing moods of the holidays. Rosh Hashana held a special thrill in store for us children. In quite a few households the bathtub would be filled with water, and in it swam the carp intended for gefilte fish. For about a week we had an aquarium at home, where we could watch and play with the fish. At Pessah, the bathtub was used for another ritual: our year-round dishes and cooking utensils were immersed for a whole week in the water, which was changed once a day, to make them kosher. Few families had a separate set of dishes, as prescribed. (Many secular families also followed this tradition and kept kosher homes, so as to be able to invite Orthodox family and friends). An alternative, for those who preferred their daily showers without utensils in the tub, was to bring the pots and pans out to the street, where a fire was lit under a big tar barrel filled with boiling water in which the utensils were immersed. We really had a fun childhood on Lord Byron Street. And as adolescents, we weren't much different from others around the world, except in one respect: we were the first generation of sabras.