Tel Aviv Memories: Window shopping on Dizengoff

After the buses stopped running and the shops closed on Friday afternoons, Esther and I turned the city into our own little fantasy land.

Old Dizengoff Center 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Old Dizengoff Center 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The best time to go shopping in Little Tel Aviv was on a Friday afternoon. Buses were off the road, parked in their allotted spaces until the end of Shabbat. Cars were few. And people were at home, occupied with their preparations for the day of rest. And the shops were all closed. So what better time could there be for two nine-year-old girls to go window shopping on Rehov Dizengoff? The starting point of our excursion was the corner of Sderot Keren Kayemet (now Ben-Gurion), not far from Esther's home and mine. Perhaps the most intriguing shop, and one we spent much time looking at, was the nearby Galanteria. It was a kind of haberdashery; a shtetl or village shop, imported to Tel Aviv from the small towns of Eastern Europe. There are hardly any like this left today, because no sane shop owner would think of stocking such a vast range of items: from baby clothes to undergarments; from suits to socks, from bedding to needles and thread; from bathmats to tablecloths, and also curtains. All of it was piled up in a small space and visible through the window. We were ready to purchase almost everything. The wine shop next door gave out a sweetish scent. It came from the barrels inside, from which the wine was poured into bottles, sometimes brought by the customers. It made us feel a bit giddy. So we moved on to the hat shop, where we made believe we were trying on some of the many varieties of headgear in the window. They reflected the many cultures in our city: tropical helmets and tarbushes, Panama hats and borselinos; berets and casquettes. For the ladies, the hats on display ranged from flowery concoctions to straw, velvet and lace, as well as silk scarves. (My mother never went outside without a pastel-colored chiffon scarf covering her face, much like the black veils worn by Arab women.) We skipped the men's clothing stores, but it's worth mentioning that the male population of Tel Aviv dressed in two styles: the early immigrants saw themselves as an ideological working class, a new kind of Jew living by the products of his labor and easily recognizable by his khaki shorts, rough shirts and sandals. Whereas the newcomers from Central Europe were mostly middle-class merchants and professionals who clung to more formal attire. Both styles were on display in the store windows. While I don't recall all the shops that then did business on Dizengoff, I vividly remember the smell and taste of freshly baked bread, spices, shmaltz herring, oranges and cucumbers that emanated from the specialty food stores all week long. No modern supermarket can compare with it. By this time, Esther and I would feel thirsty and stop at a kiosk for a glass of gazoz (soda and raspberry syrup) which cost a grush (penny). Another popular drink, tzuf, came in a bottle. I don't know what the ingredients were, but it tasted of honey. The kiosk was as much a part of the Tel Aviv scenery as the beach. It was not just a place that sold soft drinks, cigarettes, candy and newspapers, but also a meeting place for gossiping and talking politics. Probably the best known kiosk at the time was the one at the corner of Rehov Dizengoff and Sderot Nordau, because its owner was the brother of David Ben-Gurion. He had retained the family name of Green. Our next stop was the stationery store, with its display of notebooks, pencils and fountain pens. How we loved those leaky pens, with which we filled endless pages in our secret diaries. And books. With no other distractions, reading was our favorite pastime. The worst punishments, I still remember with some pain, were connected with books. Once my mother hid one I was reading, because she couldn't bear seeing my head buried in its pages all day long. The second time, in school, I was slyly glancing at a book under my desk (The Disenchanted, by Pierre Loti.) Suddenly, the teacher snatched it away, and I never saw it again. For years, I tried in vain to find another copy, and still don't know the ending. Old Mr. Katz, the owner of the frame shop and picture gallery, was greatly respected by us schoolchildren, as the teacher took us there for our first encounter with art. (There was no other museum in Tel Aviv.) Next on our itinerary was the one and only department store in the city, located on Dizengoff Circle. Eckman's occupied the ground floor of one of the white Bauhaus buildings that formed the roundabout, whose inner space was made up of fresh grass and shrubbery, with a lively fountain in the middle. Add to that clean, inviting benches, and you had a favorite destination for Shabbat family outings. Now it's all gone: instead of grass, there is concrete, plastic benches are covered by graffiti and occupied by homeless, and a long-defunct fountain is a sad reminder of better days. All for the sake of easier traffic flow. May the world's famous department stores, next to which ours was more like a five-and-ten, forgive me. But for the two of us Eckman's, with the variety and quality of items displayed in its grand vitrine, symbolized the good life. Eckman's has disappeared, and in its place there is now a bank. Next to it, where the Esther movie theater once stood, there is now the Cinema Hotel, its lobby featuring the antique film projector. The two little window shoppers would now get tired and set out for home. When we'd reach Sderot Keren Kayemet, the scene would change. All along the tree-shaded avenue, dozens of horse-drawn delivery carts were lined up, minus their horses, which had been led to their stables for the day of rest. We climbed onto the driver's seat of the nearest cart, took off our sandals, and proceeded to fantasize about palaces filled with the items we had just "bought." Esther and I continued this routine, but as we grew older, our interests changed. We moved on to Ben Yehuda and Allenby streets, where we visited women's clothing stores. We had actually never bought clothes up until then. I possessed two skirts, one for Shabbat and another for weekdays, which I cleaned with benzene every night before going to bed. Covered with talc powder, it was hung up for the night and brushed off in the morning. The skirts (and summer dresses) were sewn by a seamstress who came to the house every so often to work on my mother's sewing machine. At the corner of Allenby and Hayarkon streets (where the opera performed in a hall that was to become the first Knesset) a large furniture store was located then; its specialty: bedrooms. We stared at it wistfully; neither of us had ever had a room of her own. Peering into shop windows was a game we continued playing most of our lives. Until one day, after I hadn't seen Esther for quite a while, I got a phone call from her. We chatted for some time, when all of a sudden she said: "Do you live in Tel Aviv? My best friend Bracha lives on Lord Byron Street. Do you know her?" I felt a sharp pain. My childhood friend had Alzheimer's. The game was over.