Where it all began

Take a leisurely stroll down Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard and inspect the spots where Israel came into being - exactly 100 years ago.

rothschild boulevard 248.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
rothschild boulevard 248.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ahuzat Bayit - later to be known as Tel Aviv - was founded on April 11, 1909. That's when 66 families standing on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea participated in a lottery that would determine where they would build their homes. That lottery, in which they each chose a gray and white shell with plot numbers etched inside, is believed to have taken place along today's Sderot Rothschild - specifically, at No. 16, where you should start your walk. And, as if that wasn't historic enough, it was right here at No. 16 that prime minister David Ben-Gurion declared Israel's independence on May 15, 1948. At the time that the plots were allotted, the whole area was nothing but a wadi, completely surrounded by sand. Engineers called in to level the sand were dismayed and told Tel Aviv founder Arie Weiss that it would cost more to clear the land than they had paid for the plots! Weiss dismissed them all, designed special wheelbarrows and hired 20 young men to push them. Most of the sand they removed was dumped into the wadi, and since no one wanted to construct houses there, it became the site of the little city's first public edifices: the water tower, town hall and fire station. Named after the famous philanthropist Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, a tree-lined boulevard stretched from the public complex all the way to Rehov Herzl and contained both the city's first kiosk and its first streetlight. Admittedly, today's Sderot Rothschild is a far cry from the elegant tree-filled garden of those early times. However, much of it was restored in 1998 and it still features palm trees and benches, with a pedestrian walk and a bike lane. Both sides of the historic boulevard - obviously the first in Tel Aviv - boast splendiferous homes and a wide variety of coffee shops and restaurants. A stroll up (or down) Sderot Rothschild makes for a wonderfully pleasant outing. Although I describe only the portion stretching from Rehov Herzl (where it begins) to Allenby Road, you can follow the boulevard all the way up to the Habimah Theater. Just off Rehov Herzl, you will find people of all ages gathered around the kiosk or coffee bar in the middle of the boulevard. You would have found the same sights (without the coffee) a century ago, when the first kiosk in Tel Aviv appeared right here. However, the original kiosk, which initially offered soft drinks and later added alcohol, was mainly made of wood. The wood rotted and was replaced a decade or so with this attractive new version. The large white building to your left, on the corner of Rothschild and Herzl streets, was stunningly renovated a few years ago. It once belonged to Yosef Eliahu Chelouche, a Jaffa-born merchant, contractor and important public figure who constructed about half of the original houses on the boulevard. Head up the pedestrian walk. The pillars, little balconies and windows at No. 12 were all ordered by catalog. This is one of the few original houses left in Ahuzat Bayit. The owner, Avraham Fogel, was slain here under mysterious circumstances in 1939 - a murder that remains unsolved to this very day. History was made at Beit Dizengoff, No. 16. Built just a year after the founding of Ahuzat Bayit, it was once home to Meir Dizengoff, one of the city's most important residents. The chemical engineer first came to this country in the early 1890s, sent here by Baron Rothschild. Rothschild had opened wineries in a few of the early settlements and he asked Dizengoff to open a factory that would produce glass for his bottles. The sand on our Mediterranean beaches was unsuitable, so Dizengoff returned to his native Russia. There, bitten by the Zionist bug, he moved back here and settled in Jaffa. After buying up land in Ahuzat Bayit, Dizengoff became the town's civic head and was elected its first mayor in 1922. He remained in office until his death in 1936, apart from a three-year hiatus from 1925 to 1928. In 1930, Dizengoff turned the house into an art museum and donated it to the city. It is believed that this is the site where the famous lottery was carried out. And it was here, on May 14, 1948, that independence was declared. Deciding on a venue for the declaration wasn't easy. There was fighting going on in Jerusalem, but the possibilities in Tel Aviv weren't universally acceptable. One - the Habimah Theater - had huge, vulnerable glass windows. But at Beit Dizengoff, the walls were thick, the windows high and the main hall was on the bottom floor. While many of us have seen movies of the declaration, there is something about being in the actual setting, seeing Herzl's portrait behind the table, and viewing the old-fashioned microphones into which Ben-Gurion spoke that makes a visit to Independence Hall a special experience. It's open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Cost is NIS 20 per adult; NIS 16 for children.) Directly across from Beit Dizengoff is Beit Benin, a very large and singularly unattractive yellow building that housed the American Embassy for many years. And now you have reached the Founders' Monument, set up in 1949 and depicting stages in Tel Aviv's development. At the bottom is the motto "I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt" from the Book of Jeremiah. Higher up, note the sand dunes, the wheelbarrows and the workers' tents from those first difficult years. On the next level you see pre-World War I Tel Aviv and a picture of Beit Dizengoff as it looked at the time. Higher still, you find Tel Aviv during the '40s, with Habimah, Dizengoff Center and a third version of Beit Dizengoff. The symbol of Tel Aviv - a lighthouse and seven stars - is located on the side of the monument. When he wrote his book about a future State of Israel, Theodor Herzl envisioned a seven-hour workday and suggested that the new country's flag have seven stars. The parking lot on the corner just past No. 20 once held the offices of the Zim Shipping Company. Founded in 1945, Zim's first mission was the transportation of illegal immigrants to the Land of Israel. On February 4, 1966, the offices burned down in one of the biggest fires in Israeli history. Cross Rehov Nahalat Binyamin and continue up the boulevard for a view of some fabulous houses. The dwelling at No. 23 is a beautifully refinished cream-colored house constructed in the 1920s. It belonged to Eliahu Golomb - one of the founding members of the Hagana. Today, this splendid edifice houses the innovative, exciting and wheelchair-accessible Hagana Museum; it includes some perfectly preserved rooms from Golomb's home. It's open Sunday to Thursday, including Hol Hamoed, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Cost is NIS 15 for adults and NIS 10 for children.) The interesting beige-and-white structure next door was once a hotel, while the stunningly eclectic dwelling beside it, at No. 27, is considered art nouveau. It belonged to the large Moyal "tribe," whose forefathers immigrated from Morocco way back in the early 1800s. On the other side of the street, and built in 1921, the edifice at No. 32 was once the hotel of the city. It was called Ben-Nahum. Beside the arches and a mosque-like dome it had, at one time, pictures of a rabbi and his students topped by an eagle and sporting a dolphin below. A very special house hugs the corner of Sderot Rothschild and Allenby Road - the heart of Tel Aviv in the early days. Walk around the 85-year-old cream-colored Beit Lederberg building to view original ceramic plaques by Ya'acov Eisenberg. Eisenberg was studying with Boris Shatz, the founder of Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art. Above the entrance: Jerusalem's walled Old City with the words (in Hebrew) for "Again I will build you, and you shall be built, virgin daughter of Zion." Keep going to view dozens more of this boulevard's lovely structures, and grab a bite along the way.