Wandering through fascinating Florentin

The core of this neighborhood, located just west of Neveh Tzedek and south of the original center of Tel Aviv, is a sharp, jarring, tantalizing contrast.

Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: ALLAN RABINOWITZ)
Florentin neighborhood in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: ALLAN RABINOWITZ)
In south Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, a small synagogue stands near a Mexican food stand selling shrimp, upholsterers and used-furniture showcases border trendy cafes with hanging plants, preserved Bauhaus buildings from the 1930s are trimmed with graffiti-covered slabs of corrugated metal, and huge bubbles from a toy store’s bubble machine float above the snarled traffic of a central artery.
The core of this neighborhood, located just west of Neveh Tzedek and south of the original center of Tel Aviv, is a sharp, jarring, tantalizing contrast. Experience it by meandering, poking into shops, eating, talking to locals and gazing from a cafe at the aspiring artists, foreign workers, nose-ringed hipsters, hassidim and Arabs passing by – and then eat again.
Bordered roughly by Jaffa Road to the north, Ha’aliya Street to the east, Salma Way to the south and Abarbanel to the west, Florentin is fully a product of the post-World War I, British Mandate period, when the new beachside city was bursting at the seams.
Greek Jews from Salonika bought a tract of orchards in 1924, just east of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway line. Settlement began several years later, with the arrival of Zionist leader David Florentin, for whom the neighborhood is named (though there were also claims that the neighborhood was named after his brother Meir).
Sadly and ironically, while Florentin and his wife helped build a new community in a new land, their children remained in Salonika. The old, thriving Jewish community from which Florentin’s founders came was obliterated by the Nazis, with almost 90 percent of Greek Jews, between 60,000 and 70,000, killed at Auschwitz.
Contrary to the earlier neighborhoods, this one was zoned to permit workshops and light industry on the ground floor, with residences above. Workers came seeking employment, and the neighborhood developed the bustling, commercial, proletarian character that still lingers.
Immigrants from Greece, the Balkans and later Iran brought with them the tastes and products still seen in the shops and stalls in the neighborhood’s famous Levinsky Market. Bins of spices and nuts, sacks of grain, piles of fat olives, bakeries and scruffy little food joints create the feel of an early urban market.
One after another, the stalls line the street with beautiful products – dried fruit rolls, stacks of bread, pans of Balkan burekas. As you walk, the smell of roasted coffee beans shifts to that of boutique cheeses. The handwritten signs thrust into bins of herbs and spices tell not only the price but also what each is good for: rumbling stomach, fighting infection, cleansing the blood, fighting depression. And the seller might add to the advice on the spot.
He might also tell you about the old days, because some shops date to the 1940s, run by the original families. The neighborhood has seen the influx of foreign workers, aspiring and accomplished artists, new immigrants and new owners who have renovated some of the old Bauhaus buildings from the 1930s, when Tel Aviv witnessed a flowering of that modernist architectural movement that accompanied émigré Jewish architects from Germany. Levinsky Street boasts some beautiful examples.
The large synagogue on the market’s south side still has a minyan every weekday morning for the market and factory workers. Yet according to the old, diminutive gabbai (sexton), it is empty on Shabbat for lack of local participants. The gabbai will happily tell tales of the early communities of workers who once filled it; and if you probe a little, he’ll add that some claimed they prayed with Elijah the Prophet.
Coffee and freshly made carbonated fruit juices will propel your wandering along the five-block market and beyond. Walking south along Herzl Street (where there is a public parking lot), you’ll realize that you are in a commercial furniture and garment district.
Wandering through fascinatingFlorentin Neighborhood synagogue.
Florentin’s graffiti is bright, big, garish, wild street art.
Washington Boulevard, broad, shady and lined with benches, parallels Herzl Street to the west. It is named not for the first American president but, rather, for the genus of palms that line it, along with beautiful thick ficus trees. Here you’ll find a concentration of the graffiti that covers the neighborhood – but these are not run-of-the-mill curses or declarations of love. This graffiti is bright, big, garish, wild street art, sometimes tremendously skillful and creative (and sometimes not).
Where Florentin Street crosses Washington, you’ll find some upscale cafes and eateries, where a sushi bar might have replaced an old Balkan bakery. The neighborhood has been struggling and lurching toward renewal. Run-down by the 1990s, it received some municipal aid for restoration as well as a shot in the arm from the filming of the popular television series Florentin, about a group of area 20-somethings. In the first decade of the new century, rents rose by 65 percent, more than in other neighborhoods.
Just across Florentin Street from Washington Boulevard sits Stern Street, named after Avraham (Yair) Stern, the founder and driving force behind the anti-British underground organization Lehi (the name is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase meaning “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”), also known as the Stern Group.
The Lehi Museum, run by the Defense Ministry’s museums unit, is located in the building where Stern hid for the last three weeks of his life in 1942. In the perfectly preserved upstairs room where Stern was discovered, bound and then shot by British intelligence agents, a short movie portrays his life. The rest of the museum tells the story of both the Stern Group and the general struggle of the undergrounds leading up to the War of Independence. Some of the photos also give a sense of bustling Tel Aviv during World War II. The Lehi Museum is located at 8 Stern Street, (03) 682-0288.
Along Florentin Street, as on others, contemporary galleries and boutique shops are interspersed with small stores and repair shops. Toward Abarbanel Street, we see high-rise apartment buildings, draped with immense “For rent” signs, looming over the neighborhood and symbolizing the development pressures bearing down on it.
Yet Abarbanel Street itself is lined with old, run-down, rubble-filled rows of workshops – long shacks, almost – largely carpentry shops. And the alley walls explode with street art, perhaps summed up by the small sign reading “The street is our gallery.”
Along Abarbanel, heading north toward Buchman Square, are several actual galleries, one of which promotes art from any Israeli artist, famous or obscure, if it is judged as high quality. At the end of this shabby, bright street sits the tiny, block-like Ahavat Hessed synagogue, which for years was the anchor for Rabbi Yitzhak Yedidia Frenkel.
Having received rabbinic ordination at age 18, at 21 Frenkel moved from Poland to British Palestine. He immediately moved into the Florentin district and in short order became the neighborhood’s rabbi, based in this humble synagogue. He was known for walking around the neighborhood greeting people, even as Tel Aviv’s chief rabbi. Later he headed Israel’s rabbinical court.
Frenkel Street heads east from Buchman Square (the adjacent home of Yitzhak and Sarah Buchman became known as a charity and meal center for the neighborhood’s needy) and intersects with Vital Street. This area was featured in the Florentin TV series, and the street is lined with upscale restaurants, dance clubs and bars.
All of these streets are worth wandering through: the quiet, the hip, the industrial. Find your own favorite hummus joint and old cafe with wood-framed chairs on scuffed floors.
The different parts of Florentin are a jumble of jigsaw puzzle pieces which have been bent and worn and don’t quite fit, like the juxtaposition of signs seen on Frenkel Street. Below the street sign with the esteemed rabbi’s name stands another, huge sign: TATTOOS.
The writer is a licensed tour guide and the author of the historical e-novel The Disciple Scroll, available at Amazon; goatpath@gmail.com