The balcony

German immigrants' 'Schlafstunde' (siesta) between 2 and 4 was soon observed by many others.

Rehov Yehuda Halevi 88 248 (photo credit: Digitally enhanced photo; Jerusalem Post Archives)
Rehov Yehuda Halevi 88 248
(photo credit: Digitally enhanced photo; Jerusalem Post Archives)
Tel Aviv is a natural place for a balcony: mild winters, warm summer nights, and the proximity to the sea - with its balmy winds and beautiful sunsets - caused an earlier generation of its residents to add that appendage to their apartments. The balcony became an institution - an essential extra living space that often turned into the most lived-in space in a home. Now, it's mostly a memory. The balconies, which were once at the heart of Tel Aviv life, have almost completely disappeared. But before I explain why the balconies vanished, let me indulge in a bit of nostalgia. What do I remember about the balcony? It is an evening in July. Our balcony is lit up. My mother and father sit on somewhat uncomfortable wooden chairs, a small table between them, on which sit glasses of tea with honey cake and a basket of fruit. My mother reads aloud from the paper. On most balconies on our street the lights are turned on. I can see the men dressed just like my father: an undershirt over shorts. The women, in cotton summer frocks, are serving the favorite evening snack: wedges of watermelon topped with Bulgarian cheese. Or else a chilled fruit soup, followed by homemade cake (no one bought baked goods). Soft chatter fills the air. Did we really talk more softly then? Once in a while, a melodic whistle is heard. A friend calls from the street, and from the balcony a whistle answers back. Silence, then two silhouettes disappear in the dark. Music is hardly ever heard on the balconies. The transistor radio has not been invented. Later on that July evening, from our balcony, I see our neighbors playing cards. The game has been going on for some time and will continue until past midnight. Still later, after the lights are dimmed, Romeos and Juliets take over balconies here and there. During the day, the balconies had many functions: laundry was hung there to dry and to absorb the fresh smell of potted flowers and herbs. The afternoon found children busy with their homework. Since there were very few telephones, we youngsters improvised lines of our own. A long string, attached at either end to a yogurt carton, connected two balconies on opposite sides of the back yard. My friend Esther and I conducted long conversations over the string telephone without anyone listening in. THE GERMAN immigrants introduced the Schlafstunde (siesta) between two and four in the afternoon, and it was soon observed by many others. Once it was over, housewives might exchange recipes or neighborhood gossip over the railing. However, it was not always quiet on the balcony front: sometimes there were neighborly spats and loud exchanges. But in retrospect, the balcony was a kind of glue that joined neighbors together, for better or worse. After my mother grew old and no longer left the house, she would spend what she called "movie hours" on the balcony, sitting on her reclining chair and observing the movement in the street below. She knew everyone, and almost nothing that happened on our street's balconies escaped her attention. She was the first to become aware of approaching events, such as marriages or divorces. Had she lived, my mother would have been disappointed to see Tel Aviv's balconies slowly vanishing. Why, then, did they disappear when they were so useful and practical? The balcony represented valuable space; it could be enclosed and used to enlarge the living room, or as an extra room to the apartment. So people closed off their balconies with glass or plastic shutters. This was often done without coordinating with the other tenants, which made the building fronts look uneven and unaesthetic. Also, the lifestyle of the city dwellers changed. Traffic increased, as did noise and pollution. Then came television and the Internet, which keep people inside. The years passed. Tel Aviv is now a large metropolis, with high rises going up all over. Many of them have balconies, though I can't quite imagine interaction between neighbors on balconies on the 20th floor.