Florentin compote

The history of Tel Aviv’s most iconic district as seen from my balcony.

A metalworker in Florentin’s workshop district. (photo credit: ANNA LOSHKIN)
A metalworker in Florentin’s workshop district.
(photo credit: ANNA LOSHKIN)
 The faucets were leaking again. After Amos, our landlord, industriously took them apart, he told us the whole piping system had to be changed. Being a handyman, he proceeded to strip down the walls himself.
Our flatmates were out and my girlfriend, Sivan, and I were working from home that day. After a few hours, Amos burst triumphantly into our room brandishing a corroded lead pipe. He pointed at a seal engraved on the curved surface: PROPERTY OF THE BRITISH MANDATE.
Amos is thick-skinned, bald as a coot and a genuinely good person. He lived in New York for 10 years and consequently speaks very eloquent English, rich in American idioms, although he has never shaken his Israeli accent. You often see him in a biker jacket cruising the streets of Florentin on his Harley Davidson as he waves to the locals and oversees his properties. He is the type of character that makes this southern Tel Aviv district such a rich patchwork of personalities. And as the lead plumbing in our apartment shows, it is an area with more stories under the surface than may seem apparent at first glance.
I lived in Florentin between the autumn of 2012 and spring 2015. After I moved out, I felt the need to preserve all the stories and information I had gathered about the neighborhood over the years, to create a memento of the Florentin that once was, the Florentin I know and the advent of the new Florentin that is in the making.
“This is history!” Amos said, cradling the pipe like an infant. “This is pure lead, here, hold it.” As my knees buckled under the weight, he went on: “They don’t make them like this anymore, since they discovered it pollutes the water. Now they are all made of plastic, which is also cheaper.” Handing back the relic, I asked him about the “British Mandate” part. He smiled: “My grandfather Reuven built this apartment in the ’20s.”
The Avneri family
Reuven Gul Avneri was a 19th-century merchant from Afghanistan. He used to travel along the Silk Route to sell his wares, which he would often purchase from India. On one of his business journeys he met a woman named Yael in Bukhara. (Although this city is now in Uzbekistan, it was then part of the Russian Empire.) They fell in love and got married.
When the Russian Revolution erupted in 1917, certain sectors of the population feared what the future might hold. Many Bukharan Jews fled to Palestine – including the newlyweds Reuven and Yael – and became part of what was known as the Third Aliya.
Instead of joining the larger Bukharan community in Jerusalem, they settled south of the neonate city of Tel Aviv, an area under Jaffa jurisdiction at the time.
Here Reuven erected the dun round-edged building that takes up the corner between the current Vital and Florentin streets. He settled in one of the apartments with his family and rented the rest. After he died, the property was distributed between his children. Despite also having two daughters, Bukharan tradition had the bulk of the inheritance go to his three sons – among them, Amos’s father, who would later fight in Sicily and North Africa for the Jewish Brigade of the British Army during WWII.
Florentin today
Amos told me about his family history a year after the plumbing incident. We were sitting in the stylish Florentin 10 café, which in his grandparents’ days was a cow barn.
The vantage point from the café captures the horror vacui of today’s Florentin: renovated Bauhaus buildings from the ’80s lean against century-old concrete skeletons; the streets – with their distinctive smell of dog urine due to the lack of parks in the environs – are lined with an eclectic mix of trendy bars, trinket shops, hairdressers, welders, corner stores, carpenters and tattoo parlors; blue-collar workers stoop over their hummus in one joint while young graphic designers stoop over their MacBooks in another; and provocative posters for raves and alternative theater hang limply on graffiti-coated walls next to derelict synagogues.
On the corner opposite the café stands the curved concrete building Reuven Gul Avneri erected in the Twenties – and, within it, my former apartment – stoically withstanding the passage of time. While looking at it, Amos reminisced about his childhood. My apartment’s first inhabitants were the Garty family – Amos’ childhood neighbors – whom he remembered for being involved in some dodgy money-lending business.
When he grew up, he bought the property from his uncle and has rented it out ever since. He wants to make it his retirement home.
The origins: Bukharans and Thessalonians
Florentin per se was founded upon a series of citrus orchards and vineyards that were rendered useless during the British invasion of Jaffa in World War I. The Ottoman military was in desperate need of wood to fight the forces of General Allenby, so it requisitioned the area’s citrus trees to this end. After the war, the fellahin (Arab farmers) realized it would take years until the plantations were profitable again.
However, some years later Palestine was flooded by tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the Russian Revolution (a phenomenon known as the Third Aliya).
This created a serious housing crisis and the real-estate market inflated. The fellahin, spotting a chance to regain their losses, sold their wrecked lands to the newcomers; a win-win situation at the time. Thus were born many southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods, such as Naveh Sha’anan, Shapira and Hatikva.
Florentin, as mentioned, originally housed a small Bukharan settlement, but it became the neighborhood we know today thanks to a different demographic.
Many Greek Jews immigrated to British Palestine from Thessaloniki after that city’s Jewish quarter was put to the torch in an anti-Semitic outburst in 1917 – incidentally, the same year Bukharan Jews fled en masse from the Russian Revolution.
This plot of land just south of the fledgling Tel Aviv was purchased in 1924 by David Florentin, an envoy of the Salonika-Palestine Investment Company, but lingering Ottoman land laws established that construction could not commence until 1933. After that year, the Thessalonian Jews who survived the anti-Semitism of the interbellum slowly moved to the would-be State of Israel and found a home in this district, alongside the existing Bukharan community. Here they lived in proto-Israeli Bauhaus apartments and prayed in a smattering of Orthodox synagogues, some of them unused and dilapidated these days.
Bukharans and Thessalonians turned out to be a good match. The Greeks were the stronger group and mostly took on physical jobs, whereas the Uzbeks tended to be artisans.
Guy Sharett, a local language expert who offers graffiti tours of the area, told me about one of Florentin’s most remembered craftsmen: Nissim Kriev, a shoemaker and the neighborhood psychiatrist. His shoe shop was in a tiny broom cupboard under the stairs of an apartment block on Florentin Street, and locals used to turn to him to talk about their life problems.
“I always saw people stopping by, even without shoes,” Guy said. “He wasn’t like a confession priest; just a smiley face always willing to listen.” Nissim died unexpectedly in 2012; one day people found his shop closed with a couple of papers on the door: an obituary and a note that read “You can pick up your shoes at Violetta’s beauty salon next door.” His figure was so beloved that the yellowing obituary is still taped to the entrance of the building.
The Eighties: Palestinians join the ’hood
Although Florentin had been sketched in Tel Aviv maps since the ’30s – perhaps fruit of wishful thinking – it wasn’t until 1950 that it became a Tel Aviv neighborhood proper, when the white city and Jaffa merged their municipalities.
In the ’80s a third demographic group became very common in the Florentin compote: illegal Palestinian workers from the West Bank and Gaza. These men used to smuggle themselves into Israel to find work, mostly in construction, and would sleep over for the whole workweek before returning to their families for the weekend. This was because Israeli salaries were notably better than in the Palestinian territories – especially in the Gaza Strip, where the economy had taken a hard blow since General Ariel Sharon decided in 1971 to bulldoze entire districts in an attempt to bring insurgents out of hiding.
At the time Florentin was one of the cheapest parts of Tel Aviv, and many Palestinian workers found rooms here. However, when the second intifada broke out two decades later, many south Tel Aviv citizens informed the police about neighbors who hid illegal workers in their homes. The government instigated a crackdown and most Palestinians were deported. They became even less numerous after the erection of the security fence between Israel and the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The country was left tarnished with mistrust, and ever since Israelis prefer to hire foreign workers, mostly Filipinos.
It is still possible, though, to find the odd West Bank worker in Florentin, as well as a few Palestinians who cooperated with the IDF in the past by providing them intelligence. Because of their actions, these collaborators can’t go home, where they are now considered pariahs, so they have been resettled by the IDF throughout Israel.
Thus, for many decades, Florentin was proletarian territory, and Ladino, Bukharan and Arabic were the dominant languages. Most of its inhabitants worked in the nearby carpentry workshops, which still stand and operate today in small garages with corrugated iron roofs. As you walk between them, the smell of varnish and sawdust hangs heavy in the air. One of the workers, Ilan Berrebi, carves the wooden cases in which Sephardi synagogues store their Torah scrolls – a throwback from the Diaspora days, when Sephardi Jews had to protect their Scriptures from the inclemencies of North African weather.
The Nineties: Florentin jumps to fame
In recent decades, the part of Florentin occupied by these ramshackle workshops has been taken over by aspiring graffiti artists, who hide in its narrow alleys to perfect their techniques. Today it has become so accepted – and the workshops so coated in razzle-dazzle imagery – that the police turn a blind eye to the urban artists, as long as they stick to that quarter. It’s now easy to spot the signatures of many prominent graffiti virtuosos, such as Dede, Wonky Monky and the precocious 12-year-old TRA.
This is because the neighborhood started to attract swarms of youngsters after it went through a renaissance in the ’90s, when a drama series called Florentin was broadcast on local TV. In the words of Guy Sharett: “The TV show coined the term ‘Florentin’ as ‘coolness on Earth.’” Since then, Florentin became the place to be for young liberal Israelis – among other things because it features the first gay kiss in the history of Israeli TV – turning it into a hipster paradise, chock-ablock with trendy clubs, cafeterias and art studios.
By making Florentin his objet d’étude with his graffiti tours, Guy has become a streetwise eminence on its history: “People needed cheaper rents and this place wasn’t nice or clean, there were drugs… It wasn’t a sight for sore eyes. But there was something groovy about carpenters, upholstery… This grunginess was reflected on the TV show and it attracted artists, gays and musicians.”
The view from my balcony
The apartment in which I lived on Vital Street between 2012 and 2015 has two balconies: one facing east, with views of the many clubs and bars that make Vital Street the go-to place for locals looking to drink, chill or flirt, as well as for young American Jews on their Birthright trips looking to get drunk or hook up with a soldier; and another balcony in the back, facing west. The views from this balcony contain about five centuries of compacted history.
As you look out, relatively new apartment buildings rise on the left and the right. These buildings are separated by about 30 meters. Between them stretches an uninterrupted view, over the low aluminum roofs of the carpentry workshops, all the way to the Old City of Jaffa.
On the horizon, the minaret of the Ottoman al-Mahmoudiya Mosque prods at the sky. I heard the muezzin’s call to prayer five times a day, carried by the wind and the lack of buildings between us.
The call of al-Mahmoudiya
For a long time I was under the impression that the minaret I saw and heard was that of the mosque of al- Bahr – a quaint little building of calcareous sandstone facing the sea. I once walked over to Jaffa to crosscheck, and al-Bahr turned out to be too small. It also sits in a nook behind the bulk of the Old City, which blocks it from my view.
As I wandered the streets looking for the right minaret, the muezzins began to summon the faithful to the Asr prayer, which takes place when an object’s shadow is roughly twice the length of the object itself. By following the bellow, I found al-Mahmoudiya and was surprised I had never noticed it before.
The largest mosque in Jaffa, it contains three spacious leafy courtyards, and it sits right in the city center, next to the flea market. The reason it is unnoticed by most is because it’s so large that it practically takes up a whole city block, and its outer walls are camouflaged with souvenir shops.
One has to be a Muslim, a scholar or very curious to notice the small fairytale-like door to the minaret next to the kosher shwarma restaurant, or to realize that the hexagonal sabil – or drinking fountain – on the seaward side of the block marks the entrance to the courtyards.
It should have been an obvious clue that, during the prayers, the sabil is always surrounded by a gaggle of gossiping women waiting for their men to come out.
The resurrected synagogue
Below my balcony I see a series of storage rooms used by the venues that line the ground floor of Vital Street, namely Hummus Bethlehem and the grunge bars Jackson’s and Mate. The storage rooms are coated with thick Technicolor layers of graffiti, and the roofless space between them and the bars is open to smoking party-goers at night.
Immediately behind the storage rooms sits the Heichal Menahem Synagogue, a small Orthodox prayer house with a funky electric menorah that they placed on the roof last Hanukka and never bothered to remove. Every night its red, blue and yellow LED bulbs emblazon its silhouette against the dark, like a cyberpunk beacon.
The synagogue stands between a smallish apartment block that housed the former chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Yitzhak Yedidya Frenkel, until his death in 1986, and a 24/7 corner store with a back room where customers can pay to use the computers.
On one occasion, I was printing some documents there when a gargantuan ultra-Orthodox man with ginger sidelocks walked in and sat at the computer next to me. Completely oblivious to my presence, he put on some headphones and started watching a pornographic film. As I shuttled back and forth between the computer and the printer, he continued to watch the film with his hands on the armrests, imperturbable and as still as a sphinx.
The Heichal Menahem Synagogue was erected in 1943 by Menahem Kosayov, who came to Palestine from Bukhara in 1917. It was mostly frequented by the Bukharan community that had fled the red storm shaking up the Russian empire at the time. I once met the great-grandson of Kosayov, an amicable stock exchange worker called Elad. He was standing outside the synagogue waiting for the evening ma’ariv prayer to begin. I asked about how Florentin had changed over time. “People here used to be married,” he said poignantly.
The prayer house closed in 2000. The rejuvenating of the neighborhood in the ’90s had dried up the flow of faithful that used to keep it afloat. (This happened roughly at the same time that the local mikve became a squatter house.) But four years ago, Elad took on the Sisyphean task of bringing the little Orthodox synagogue back to life in what now is the most liberal part of Tel Aviv. Although in the days of Menahem Kosayov the synagogue was so full that people allegedly had to sit on the sidewalk to pray, it now makes do with a steady trickle of 10 to 15 people. Guy Sharett once pointed out that their posters announcing the prayer times are in English, Hebrew and French, unlike in old times when they were in Russian: “It looks like they are venturing to new pastures.”
A colony miscarried
If, from my balcony, I look beyond the synagogue, I see the spire of Immanuel Church, erected by German Templers in 1904. It towers over a quaint wooden condo. This blatantly un-Middle Eastern house is the only remaining structure of the first Christian American colony in Ottoman Palestine, established in 1866 by the Wentworth family.
The houses were shipped over from Jonesport, Maine, in prefabricated segments and put together upon arrival – even today it has that tatty ersatz look of IKEA furniture.
It must have been a hell of a sight for the local Arabs to see a ship unload a small DIY American neighborhood onto the outskirts of Ottoman Jaffa.
The colonial enterprise, however, was a fiasco; many settlers died of cholera and the rest went back to the States. All but one of the houses were demolished in the early 2000s. The last one standing was saved and restored in 2002 by Jean and Dr. Reed Holmes. As it turned out, only after the restoration program began, Dr Holmes realized that he was unwittingly renovating the home of his ancestors.
When my girlfriend, Sivan, and I went inside the Wentworth House to see the exhibition, the wife, Jean, gave us an enthusiastic tour of the rooms, filled with 19th-century memorabilia. We were the only visitors.
At one point, the frail Dr. Holmes showed up. After acknowledging us with a weak smile, he sat quietly on a chair in a corner of the living room. Jean handed him a photograph of his pioneer ancestors and encouraged him to tell us about them. He started reminiscing in an excruciatingly slow whisper that was very hard to hear. As he pointed with a shaky finger at the blackand- white characters in the photo, his eyes started to well up. He eventually stopped and broke into tears.
A new ominous figure
Over time, a new shape has slowly become more ubiquitous in the view from my balcony: the angular silhouettes of construction cranes. Not only are the youngsters who moved to Florentin – a.k.a. coolness on Earth – in the late ‘90s reaching the age to settle down, but the neighborhood’s popularity has started to pique real-estate interest.
From my balcony, I often see the spire of Immanuel Church framed by the long arm of a crane that hovers over the frame of a new elementary school. The neighborhood’s younger inhabitants, who arrived in recent years to relish the mythical Florentin experience, see the construction of the school as the beginning of the end. The cranes are the embodiment of the latest chapter in the history of Florentin: gentrification.
Another reason the police don’t really care about what illegal graffiti activity goes on in the carpentry workshops district is because the whole thing is scheduled for demolition.
The dates aren’t clear, but real estate agents are closing deals to gradually tear down the aging buildings as the old property rights expire and replace them with new spacious apartments to cater to the neighborhood’s hatching middle class, as well as to the many Israelis and French Jews who crave a property in this iconic district.
Just south of the workshops four deluxe kidney-shaped towers called the Florentin Cuatro have already risen.
The groovy plaza between them has quickly filled with big-ticket food and clothes chains. In a cheap attempt to exploit the neighborhood’s personality, the stores’ facades have been decorated with pseudo-street-art featuring glaringly un-street messages such as “Smile. Buy.” A real-estate shop nestled in the ground floor of one of the towers displays property ads written in French.
Florentin and war
Back on the balcony, if I turn my head and look over my shoulder I see the steel shutters that fold over my bedroom window. Next to them is the steel door that leads into the apartment. In all the years I lived here, I never bothered to ask myself why this balcony has steel doors and shutters.
Amos had the answer. One time he came to collect the rent, we pointed out the fact that from our balcony we had a view of the three Abrahamic religions: the Heichal Menahem Synagogue from Judaism, the Immanuel Church from Christianity and al-Mahmoudiya Mosque from Islam. We told him it’s like a photograph of the history of Israel. Amos agreed and pointed out something we hadn’t noticed. There is a circular dent on the upper left corner of the window’s steel shutter. He smiled and lifted his eyebrows, encouraging us to take a wild guess.
“It’s a bullet hole. It was fired by the Arabs from Jaffa in 1948, during the War of Independence,” he said. “Tel Aviv and Jaffa used to be different cities back then, and when the war started, they would shoot at each other, to make the others leave. We were on the front line.
That’s why the doors and shutters are made of steel.”
The murder of Avraham Stern and 1948
Even before the War of Independence, Tel Aviv was already abuzz with underground movements looking to sabotage the British Mandate and “liberate” the Land of Israel. It was in Florentin, on the third floor of a building a block away from my apartment, where Avraham Stern, leader of the Zionist underground Lehi (the Stern Group), used to hide from the British authorities.
However, the Jewish insurgent was found, handcuffed and shot by a British policeman in that same room for his terrorist activities against the Mandate in 1942. Today a museum commemorates the life of Stern, also known by his nom de guerre “Yair,” in the apartment where he was executed. But nobody really notices it. When I walked in, Alisa, the blonde soldier working at reception, thought I was lost: “We normally only get visits from school or army groups,” she said. “I don’t think the locals even know we’re here.”
By the time 1948 arrived, the small cluster of simple apartments and cow barns that used to be Florentin didn’t even have five guns between them – not nearly enough to guarantee victory in direct combat. Amos told me how his grandparents used to fill barrels with stones and purposefully roll them down the streets to give the impression they were moving large arms caches and discourage the Arabs from attacking.
Operation Protective Edge
It’s funny to think how last year I sat on the same balcony that 67 years ago was fired at from Jaffa and watched the Iron Dome intercept Kassam rockets fired in this same direction from Gaza.
Our building is so old that, throughout the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, it shook every time a rocket was intercepted over our area. When the explosion was near enough, we honestly feared that the whole thing might come down. The building doesn’t have a safe room either, given that Israel only made it compulsory to include fortified spaces in apartments in the early ’90s, when Saddam Hussein’s regime used to fire Scud missiles at Tel Aviv in the context of the Gulf War.
Thus, most Israelis who live in old apartments head to the stairwell when the siren wails. In our case, a friend who works in intelligence once inspected the width and length of the building and recommended we shut ourselves in the entrance hall, a gloomy windowless space with a funky pink refrigerator.
Shrapnel in the morning
On July 10, only three days into the war, the remains of an intercepted M-75 rocket from Gaza rained down on Florentin. I was woken up that day by the air-raid siren – something that would become quite common; early rocket salvoes are a way of making the morning news. Sivan had already gone to work and my roommates were in bed – I had been asked to not wake them if a rocket came while they were asleep.
After dutifully waiting to hear the boom as the rocket was intercepted, I checked on social media to see if there was any damage. On Twitter, I came across a photo of what looked like a rocket’s engine mount, its fins dented and askew, lying on the hood of a beige car.
The vehicle’s roof and windshield had caved in upon impact. I then recognized the street the car was parked on as Florentin, so I headed out to see it.
By the time I got there, the car had already been towed and the shrapnel had disappeared. A gaggle of journalists surrounded the owner of a gas station that stood near where the car had been parked in the photo.
Apparently, the M-75’s tube – minus the engine mount and the payload – had been found on the gas station’s tarmac, a couple of meters from the fuel dispensers. I saw later in a photo that it was painted with military camouflage greens and browns, a crude imitation of the Woodland pattern. Although there was much talk about how it had miraculously landed right beside the dispensers, surveillance footage showed the hollow tube skittering across the road and into the station, much like a dropped pen, and rolling to a stop next to the dispensers, after clunking lightly against one of them.
The press corps seemed a lot more worked up about it than the gas station owner, Menahem, who was trying to shoo the journos away with increasing impatience: “Nothing happened, nobody got hurt! There is nothing to see here!” I asked what would have happened if the shrapnel had landed on the fuel dispensers. He answered laconically: “It didn’t. Now go away, it’s late and I want to open my business.”
That was the only time the war caused any damage in Florentin. Otherwise, the party-going life went on as normal, albeit a little less affluent and punctuated by the occasional siren.
One night I was awakened by an urgent knocking on the front door. I seemed to be the only one who heard it, so I dragged myself out of bed and opened the door. It was a couple of policemen: “Are there any Arabs in this building?” they asked urgently. I knew there weren’t, but the way they phrased the question made me angry, so I asked for names. After rummaging in his pockets for a notebook and consulting it, one of them read a couple of names aloud. I said I didn’t know them and bid them goodnight.
I can’t say I understood what was going on there, but something about it felt awful. It carried echoes of the witch-hunt against illegal workers during the second intifada, and I felt shaken to the bone. Overwhelmed by the experience, I sought refuge in the view from my balcony. Sivan was asleep and it didn’t seem worth waking her. I walked passed her, closed the steel door behind me and lit a cigarette.
It was a cloudless night and the constellations were unusually clear. Every night during the war, directly in front of the balcony and hovering above Jaffa, I could see Procyon twinkling enchantingly. It is the brightest star of the Canis Minor constellation, and the eighth brightest of our firmament. The bright white pinprick scintillated with the faintest hints of blue. It was beautiful and I could look at it for minutes.
Today Israel is a Jewish state, built by Jews and for Jews. But the view from my balcony always reminded me that this land owes so much to more than just Judaism, that even though the modern State of Israel is indeed a Jewish state, it cannot ignore the rich multicultural compote that accumulated here over 2,000 years of Diaspora. The fellahin, the naïve colonists from Maine, the German Templers, the British soldiers, the local Arabs that fired at Jewish neighborhoods to retain control over the land, and those that fire missiles to recover a land they feel they lost. All these past and present ingredients coexist with the plethora of Jewishness that has become Israel on the surface, with its Torah case builders and Orthodox synagogues alongside secular graffiti art and liberal TV shows.
All of this, for me, is Israel, and it would be wrong to overlook any detail of the big picture.