'Street of the Germans'

Stroll down Tel Aviv’s Rehov Ben-Yehuda and step back into a pre-state era whose colorful features are still imprinted on its buildings.

Ben Yehuda street 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ben Yehuda street 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
After Hitler rose to power, Jews fled Europe en masse. Several hundred thousand of them immigrated to the Holy Land, including about 60,000 well-to-do Germans, most of them professionals. Although German immigrants made up only 20 percent of the newcomers, the German impact on Jewish life in Palestine was to be so enormous that this fifth wave of immigration has become known as the German Aliya.
Among other institutions, they established the first new baby clinics (Tipot Halav), the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi), the Cameri Theater, Kupat Holim Maccabi and Assuta Hospital. They also brought kafe hafuch (cappuccino), apple pie with whipped cream, hot dogs and beer.
Pedantic about dress, with an abhorrence of dirt, always on their best behavior and scrupulous followers of any and all rules, the new German immigrants were the perfect butt for old-timers’ jokes. It was especially easy to laugh at them because they seemed to lack any sense of humor whatsoever.
Even today, we call anybody who does things strictly by the book a yekke, the name bestowed upon the new immigrants by the locals.
A number of the arrivals – including Jews from Palestine – had been studying at Germany’s Bauhaus School of Design until it was closed by the Nazis.
These German-trained architects brought Bauhaus/International Design to Palestine and were incredibly prolific – especially in Tel Aviv, where the new city tripled in size, from 46,000 residents in 1929 to 120,000 in 1935. As a result, Tel Aviv today boasts the largest concentration in the world of International architecture and was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003.
Quite a few Fifth Aliya yekkes built houses along the dirt road called Rehov Ben-Yehuda, and for decades German was the most dominant language spoken on its sidewalks. So it is no surprise that locals called the road “Street of the Germans.”
At least that’s what we were told by Ayelet Eilon, our guide on a delightful tour of the area. And she should know: Eilon, who guides for the Tel Aviv Discovery Center, not only grew up on one of the side streets, but is partyekke herself.
The first scattered houses appeared on the as-yet empty street (named, of course, for Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) seven years before the German Aliya. That’s when a group of immigrants who had left their native Poland because of tax issues and arrived with their wealth intact bought land on Rehov Ben-Yehuda and the adjoining roads for a neighborhood.
After the plots were sold, the planners realized they had forgotten to leave room for a synagogue. So each house owner was asked to contribute 2 percent of his lot to make room, and all acquiesced but one. That one house owner who refused got a shock years later, when he added a second story to his house – and the building collapsed.
A STROLL along much of Rehov Ben-Yehuda begins where the road intersects with Allenby Street and ends at a very old coffee shop.
Begin at Kikar Mograbi (officially Kaf Tet b’November), in the parking lot where No. 1 Rehov Ben-Yehuda used to be. Until the 1980s, this spot held the impressive Mograbi Cinema.
Construction began on the cinema in 1927, and it opened three years later. For several years there wasn’t enough money for a roof, so the Mograbi showed movies only in summer. The entrance featured a massive outdoor staircase, the classic meeting place for budding romance.
Here stood German immigrants – including former opera stars who couldn’t find a job – dressed in white hats and white aprons and selling hot dogs! During the 1930s, there was a little coffee shop at No. 4 – now there’s a building currently under construction – that served as a meeting place for the city’s architects. No. 6 is a 1930s creation in the distinctive International Style. Not a centimeter of space is wasted on frills, the idea being to create a product whose interior is comfortable and exterior functional.
The distinctive orange house at No. 8 dates back to the mid-1920s. Owners of the plot began construction just as Rehov Ben-Yehuda was about to be paved. Asked to give up part of their front yard, they were permitted to build three stories instead of the usual two.
The ground floor belongs to a music store, founded in the 1930s by a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, that is still going strong nearly 90 years later.
Jugend Brothers (No. 5, in the alley) was established in the 1930s by two brothers: one, a barber, the other a tailor.
Although they didn’t have much luck with their chosen professions, they did own a Leica camera. Using it to take pictures of the British, they soon earned enough to open the most up-to-date camera shop of the times.
The Arrarat (“Ani rotze rak tay – I only want tea”) Cafe stood at No. 7. In its heyday, it was the place where all the bohemians hung out: writers, poets, philosophers and dreamers.
Ralph Helinger, a member of the Etzel underground, ran a sound studio at No. 12. It was Helinger who taped Israel’s historic Declaration of Independence (at the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Boulevard).
You should be standing on the corner of Nes Ziona, Idelson and Ben- Yehuda, where the “March That Didn’t March” was supposed to take place.
Planned for May 6, 1949, as a salute to the military, it was to be the march to end all marches. The grocer a No. 10 Ben-Yehuda sold standing-room tickets, and the new country’s leaders had wonderful seats on a platform facing the street.
In the end, however, thousands of wildly enthusiastic spectators blocked the street so solidly that the event had to be cancelled! Take a look at the corner building where Idelson meets Nes Ziona to view a splendid example of the architecture that has made Tel Aviv famous. Then turn right and stop at No. 12 Idelson. Refugees from Germany during the early 1930s were often able to bring all kinds of items out of the country. This family brought an intercom, and what you see here is the original.
Built by famous architect Ze’ev Heller, the house at No. 14 Idelson dates back to 1936. See how it takes advantage of the plot on which it stands, and note how openings in the balconies let in the Mediterranean breeze.
No. 15 Idelson is the house that tumbled down when an additional story was added. Today it stands on thick pillars over an area that once boasted marble benches, a fish pond, and a marvelous garden. Women of “easy virtue” hung out here in the 60s and 70s.
BACK ON Ben-Yehuda, stand on its corner with Trumpeldor. Look all the way down to the sea (west) – where there used to be a zoo.
It began with a German rabbi from the Reform Movement, who arrived with bird cages during the Fifth Aliya. He opened a pet store on Rehov Shenkin, but the neighbors complained. When he added more and more pets, the municipality let him move here, where he opened an actual zoo – complete with lions. Neighborhood children would bring pieces of dry bread to feed the animals.
According to our guide, most of the staff were yekkes who had worked in circuses or with animals, and the lions were taken for walks on a leash! The fun lasted until 1940, when the zoo moved to a different part of the city.
You might expect an English pub to have a British name. But the (now) Internet café at No. 21, six stories tall, that housed this wonder was called “Hamozeg” – the Pourer. Instead of pretzels, bartenders served chickpeas with black pepper.
Although the El Al building at No. 32 sticks out like a sore thumb, it is actually a fascinating architectural study from the right angle. For many years, the site hosted a community center called Beit Ha’am.
Movies were shown here, and cinema-goers were kept in constant suspense, for the stories would end with “to be continued...” This was the birthplace of the satirical theaters “The Hakumkum” (The Kettle) and “Hamatatei” (The Broom).
Turn the corner west on Rehov Bograshov and stop at No. 5, the building in which the poetess Rachel wrote the majority of her touching and timeless poetry. She was forced to leave her home on Kibbutz Kinneret when the tuberculosis she contracted in Europe after World War I became severe, and moved to this house near the sea. Her landlord planted palm trees in the back yard for her pleasure.
Return to Ben-Yehuda and continue on to No. 67, the original German synagogue frequented by the new immigrants. Then note the supermarket at No.
79 which, when built in 1959, was the first of its kind in the country.
Stop at the intersection with Rehov Mapu. When houses appeared along Ben Yehuda, this street was named Hagalil. It was a logical choice as it was the northernmost road in Tel Aviv.
The Galil Homeopathic Pharmacy on the corner dates back to 1935, when it was founded by German immigrant Dr. Jacobson. Trained in naturopathy and homeopathy, Jacobson was one of the first of his profession to open a pharmacy in Palestine.
Cross over to No. 85. It dates back to 1934, and for decades was one of the most striking edifices in Tel Aviv. On the other side of the street, the immense modern neighborhood synagogue, Ichud Shivat Tzion, replaced the quaint little house of worship we saw earlier.
End your walk, if you like, by backtracking just a little to Rehov Frishman.
There on the corner, at No. 70, you will find the original German Coffee Shop, Mersand. Smart merchants, they were the first in the country to offer a little card that granted you a 10th cup of coffee free after you had bought nine cups, plus a roll.
Right after the War of Independence, when people were desperately looking for work, the neighborhood’s women baked cakes for sale in the cafe. Our guide’s mom was one of the lucky bakers.
The coffee was a German blend, and a sign announced: “No Elite Coffee Sold Here.” The cafe is open seven days a week; you can walk in and see that much of the dark German ambience remains. According to the sign, homemade cakes are still sold there today.
To take a group tour with the Tel Aviv Discovery Center, call 03-5100337 (the cost is NIS 40).