The city elders

People who grew up in and with Tel Aviv share their memories.

Meir Dizengoff 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Meir Dizengoff 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Yoram Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv in 1930, it was a small place with just 20,000 people and a handful of paved roads. But for Kaniuk and his friends, it was the world. "We thought it was a big city," Kaniuk said, sitting by the window of his apartment's snug living room on Rehov Bilu, today a narrow, tree-lined street he remembers as having the highest sand dunes in the city. The eastern side of the city, including Rehov Ibn Gvirol, was open fields and orange groves. In the old days, the northern edge of the city was Rehov Mapu, now considered central Tel Aviv. "We called it the Galilee, as we couldn't imagine any point further north," Kaniuk said. He grew up in something of Tel Aviv nobility. His godfather, a friend of his grandfather's from Odessa, was Chaim Nachman Bialik, the national poet. His father, Moshe Kaniuk, was an aide to the city's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and was the founder and curator of Tel Aviv's first art museum. Kaniuk, who went on to become one of the country's best-known novelists - his book Adam Resurrected was recently made into a film - recalls playing in Bialik's garden, kicking around a soccer ball and riding his bicycle everywhere without fear of cars because only a few drove by on any given day. In Tel Aviv's early days, everyone got around either by bicycle or on one of the city's red buses. Culture was abundant - a philharmonic, opera, theaters and rows of cafes. The museum Kaniuk's father oversaw was in Dizengoff's house, which eventually would become part of history when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence from its ground floor in 1948. For Kaniuk, it was where he spent many days of his childhood listening to the classical music concerts held there, overhearing the conversations of refugees from Germany who came to get their fill of Beethoven and Bach. "Tel Aviv felt like the center of everything," he said. "It was the Zionist city, the first Hebrew city. All of the organizations were based here, all of the newspapers - it was the cultural capital of the Land of Israel." Decades later, Kaniuk says he still loves its energy. "Everything you could ever want is only a walk away," he says. "It's not like New York, where you have to hop on a subway. The city is constantly reinventing itself anew." THE MORNING Rafaella Dizengoff Rivlin was born in 1921, her great-uncle, Meir Dizengoff, still dressed in his pajamas, rushed over to see her. Her favorite memories of her great-uncle, who helped plan and then run "the first Hebrew city," are of the Purim parades he would lead riding his shiny, white mare. "One of the sheikhs in the Negev gave him the horse," says Rivlin, 87, sitting in her one-room studio apartment in an old-age home in the Tel Aviv sister city of Givatayim. "She was quite nice, they called her Mahera," she says - Hebrew for "fast." Purim was a highlight of the year in the city in those days, she recalls, with sumptuous floats decorated in silks and greenery, bands and much singing and dancing down the streets. "Those processions were beautiful," she says. "One time, the Tribes of Israel were represented - people cloaked in white robes, the Levites holding small harps. "We didn't have any history here, so we had to look far back into the past to find something to show off," she says with a chuckle. When Rivlin was growing up, Tel Aviv felt more like a village than a town, a place where everyone seemed to know each other. It also had a rural feel. Rivlin can still recall the sweet smell of the orange and lemon groves on the outskirts of town, and the sound of howling jackals at night. Many afternoons were spent on the beach, playing volleyball and lying in the sand. For fun, Rivlin and her friends would go to the kiosks on Sderot Rothschild, one of the city's original streets, which had soda fountains. Many of the streets were unpaved when she was a girl. When it rained, store owners would put down wooden planks in front of their shops so customers wouldn't drag in mud. Even in its early days, Tel Aviv was never short of culture. Rivlin remembers the movie theaters - some screened films outside under the stars during the summer - and the classical music concerts that would draw overflow crowds. She recalls her mother holding onto her at a standing-room-only performance of violinist Jascha Heifetz. It was a hot night and the windows of the auditorium where he was performing were open. Rivlin remembers bats flying in during the performance, swooping by the virtuoso. Rivlin was amused when one of Tel Aviv's main shopping streets was named after her uncle. "I used to joke to my husband every time we walked down it that we were walking on my street," she says. ESTHER RUBIN was still Esther Davis, an 18-year-old girl from the Bronx, when she first laid eyes on Tel Aviv in 1929. "I had been prepared for Tel Aviv to be small and provincial, but seeing a donkey or camel in the street next to an automobile charmed me and I liked the idea," she says. "I felt very much bound to Tel Aviv, as I am still today." Still elegant at 98, Rubin's hair is swept up in a perfect coif, her lips covered in dark pink lipstick. She talks to JTA in her sprawling, sunny Tel Aviv apartment, its walls full of her favorite oil paintings. The artist: her husband, Reuven Rubin. Rubin's aqua blue eyes twinkle brightly as she speaks, the same enchanting eyes her late husband painted in his portraits of her decades ago. She met her husband on the steamship from New York to Palestine in late 1928. She had won a free three-month trip to Palestine for winning a Young Judaea essay contest about the youth of Palestine. Her mother had warned her to stay away from strange men, but after he approached her on deck one morning, they started talking. They were engaged soon afterward. When the couple landed in Haifa and made their way to Tel Aviv by taxi, Rubin remembers feeling instantly comfortable in her new, though very foreign, surroundings. "The intimacy of people, the kindness - everyone was so nice," she says. "I felt very much at home from the beginning. I did not feel I was in a strange city or a strange country." When Rubin arrived, the buildings of Tel Aviv were a mix of styles - eclectic architecture mixing Turkish, classical and modern elements. Later, the refugees from Europe would arrive, bringing with them the international Bauhaus style that became a hallmark of the city. Some of the better-known glimpses of early Tel Aviv life can be seen in her husband's paintings. In 1923, when he arrived here from Romania, Reuven Rubin would paint on the seashore, putting into color the dazzling sun and blue of the Mediterranean. He painted the new city of Tel Aviv and the ancient walkways of nearby Jaffa with its red-tiled roofs, minarets and bobbing rowboats. In a self-portrait sitting with Esther on a Tel Aviv balcony overlooking the sea, called The Engaged Couple, the sea is visible. The young couple used to run down to the beach for their daily swim from one of their first homes, an apartment on Rehov Hess. Later, they moved to a house on Rehov Bialik, just a few doors down from their friend, Bialik. Today, the house is a museum. Rubin recalls the open houses they used to have every Saturday morning when dozens of people would gather - a mix of friends, musicians and fellow artists often staying for impromptu lunches. "I don't know how I managed it, but I did," says Rubin, who in addition to her hostess duties was her husband's chief cataloguer and archivist, keeping meticulous records for nearly 50 years. Rubin says she doesn't mind that Tel Aviv, just two years older than she is, is growing up. "I don't look for the old Tel Aviv," she says. "I grow with the new Tel Aviv and am delighted to see the changes."