The man who turned Tel Aviv into Israel’s culture and commerce capital

Shlomo ‘Cheech’ Lahat, who died last week, built a city that never stops from a provincial town.

Shlomo Lahat last-minute campaigning in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Shlomo Lahat last-minute campaigning in Tel Aviv.
No final resting place could be more suitable for Shlomo Lahat, Tel Aviv’s legendary long-serving mayor, than the Trumpeldor Cemetery, in which the founders, authors, poets, troubadours, musicians, and leaders of the city’s economic development are buried.
The Trumpeldor Cemetery lies in the very heart of the city that Lahat ran for 19 years, from 1974 to 1993, and is Tel Aviv’s oldest Jewish cemetery.
It is a hop, a skip and a jump from the former homes of iconic personalities such as Meir Dizengoff, Haim Nahman Bialik and Reuven Rubin, who are all buried in the cemetery as well. A number of famous people who represent the history of both Tel Aviv and the Zionist Movement lie in Trumpeldor, among them Max Nordau, Shaul Tchernichovsky, Haim Brenner, Haim Arlosoroff, Nahum Gutman, Shimon Aharon Chelouche, Ahad Ha’am, Moshe Sharett and Dov Hoz. In recent years, they have been joined by singer Shoshana Damari, author Ephraim Kishon, music legend Arik Einstein – and now “Cheech,” as Lahat was fondly known.
It was also fitting that prior to the funeral last Friday, his body lay in state in the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center, which symbolized the values he had brought to the city. It also enabled those who never would have made it inside the gates of Trumpeldor to pay their last respects.
Part of the measure of the man could be seen in condolence notices in the Hebrew press, where individuals and organizations not only expressed regret at Lahat’s death and offered sympathy to his family, but praised him as a man of vision, a man of integrity, a man who was passionate about Tel Aviv, a man who had turned the city around and made it a center of culture, education and commerce.
A retired brigadier-general in the IDF and a former head of the Manpower Directorate, the Berlin-born Lahat was elected as the eighth mayor of Tel Aviv in 1974, only months after leaving the army. Having joined the Hagana at age 17, Lahat – whose family had left Germany in 1933, the year the Nazi Party rose to power – progressed to the IDF following the establishment of the state. He fought in the War of Independence, the Sinai Campaign, the Six Day War and the War of Attrition, serving as a tank commander in the latter two.
As mayor, he supported the establishment and growth of cultural institutions in Tel Aviv. He almost religiously attended premiere performances at the city’s theaters and concert halls, as well as openings of exhibitions at museums and art galleries.
He also coined the phrase “the city that never stops,” which has remained integral to the city’s image.
A lawyer by training, he was a witty raconteur with an endless fund of jokes and anecdotes, which he could tell in Hebrew, English, German and Yiddish. He was the backbone of support for the establishment of the Yiddishpiel theater, and continued to attend performances long after he was out of office. Among the other cultural ventures he backed were the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, the Suzanne Dellal Center and the construction of the Opera Tower.
Politically affiliated with the Likud and for many years a hard-line right-winger, he eventually switched allegiance to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Following Lahat’s death, Rabin’s daughter Dalia lauded the former mayor as one of the initiators and founders of the Rabin Center – a particularly poignant tribute, because Lahat had persuaded Rabin to attend the peace rally in what is now Rabin Square on the night the former prime minister was assassinated. Rabin, who had come under harsh criticism from the Right, had been hesitant about whether a peace rally would serve its purpose and was pleasantly surprised when he saw the mass turnout.
But the rally was his last, and while Rabin’s family and friends attributed no blame to Lahat for what transpired there, he could never forgive himself for having pressured Rabin to attend.
ZIVA LAHAT, the woman who was at Cheech’s side for well over half a century, recalled in interviews with the media that when her husband had entered politics immediately after leaving the army and run for mayor of Tel Aviv, she had asked him why he wanted to head such a provincial city. After he won the election, of course, he set out to turn that provincial city into a pulsating metropolis. If Jerusalem was the country’s spiritual capital, Tel Aviv under his leadership became the cultural and commercial capital.
Lahat really cared about the city and its people. When Menachem Begin in 1977 introduced Project Renewal, a program for upgrading economically distressed neighborhoods, the mayor moved heaven and earth to ensure that the plan included Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, which had initially been omitted. Hatikva subsequently became a model for other neighborhoods, and Lahat’s overall social welfare system served as a model for other cities and towns.
His elder son, Dan, who is a member of the Tel Aviv City Council, stated that Tel Aviv was Lahat and Lahat was Tel Aviv. His father, he told the media, had been an optimist who believed in the state, in the nation and in his city.
Though the former mayor was famous for having cleaned up and developed the beachside promenade that now bears his name, people have forgotten, said his wife, that the water was previously polluted and off-limits to bathers. Lahat cleaned that up as well.
As a cultural patron, he was always pleased to learn that the city was getting yet another museum or concert hall, she added.
And although he believed in live and let live, he faced the ire of the city’s Orthodox communities when he defied the status quo to enable the screening of films on Friday nights and the opening of supermarkets on Saturdays.
According to his son, he gave his life and soul to Tel Aviv.
This remained so even after the mayor left office. Some politicians, when no longer in office, turn their backs on the projects they once considered important. Not Lahat. He continued to support the city’s cultural and educational endeavors, though he made a point of staying out of city politics from that point on.
Marti Pazner, who worked with Lahat when the mayor served as chairman of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s board of directors, tells Metro that with his love for the Jewish people, Lahat was an example of Zionism in action. He also spoke straight to the point, she says: “There was nothing fake about him, and he always told interesting stories and jokes.”
Remembering when she was part of a museum delegation to Paris that Lahat led, she says he left everyone charmed.
“Shlomo and Ziva Lahat were a wonderful couple, a real team,” Pazner asserts.
AMONG THE multitudes of people who attended Lahat’s funeral – just a few hours before Yom Kippur – were Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, President Reuven Rivlin, former president Shimon Peres, former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert (who is a former Jerusalem mayor), Finance Minister Yair Lapid, opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and Hatnua MK Amram Mitzna, who is a former mayor of Haifa and Yeroham.
After expressing condolences to Lahat’s widow, Rivlin turned to Lahat’s granddaughter Yasmin and said, “Your grandfather was a great man.”
Peres eulogized Lahat as the symbol of Tel Aviv, saying that the city had flourished unceasingly without growing old.
Lapid, professing to have known Lahat his entire life, voiced his great affection for the man. Building a city that never stops, he said, requires a man who never stops.
Herzog, who had also known Lahat since his own infancy, declared him one of the best public figures Israel had known, and said that no one could have foretold that after leaving the army Lahat would transform the sleepy town of Tel Aviv into a vibrant city.
Lau said that over a period of 41 years, he and Lahat had built a wall of friendship that would never crumble.
He was sorry, he said, to lose someone who was so irreplaceable.
Looking out at the crowd, Dan Lahat, speaking to his father, recalled: “You once asked who would weep over you when you died. This is the answer.”
Perhaps more aware than others of the totality of his father’s achievements, but admitting that he kept learning new things about him, the younger Lahat affirmed: “You were the pillar of fire before the camp.”