Most of these immigrants had very particular lives growing up in Tel Aviv; their youth wasn’t all about being carefree, their adulthood was punctuated by continuous wars and they were constantly adapting to new cultural environments. They speak the common language – Hebrew – with different accents, but although they identify as Israelis, the strains of German, Yemeni, Slovak and Hungarian heritage are still hugely important to them.
The “Tel Aviv Grannies” photo serial shows this elderly segment of the Israeli society. During a six-month stay in Israel, I decided to seek them out and follow them as they went about their everyday lives. I walked the streets, visited the beaches and joined them in their play and sports activities, in order to capture them on film.
According to Globes, “EasyJet began the Luton-Tel Aviv route in 2009 and the flights proved popular so that the seven weekly flights were increased to nine last November. The carrier also operates four weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Geneva and four weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Basel, while Tel Aviv-Manchester flights began last November.”
EasyJet’s UK and Israel commercial manager Hugh Aitken said, “EasyJet is a strategic committed partner of the Israeli tourism industry and we are pleased to bring more visitors to Israel. We aspire to expand our service from Tel Aviv with more European destinations, once the Open Sky agreement is implemented.”
“All I wanted was to be in Tel Aviv − such a great city, so alive, buzzing with energy, always something going on, every hour of every day and far into the night. But it was impossible: I couldn’t find anywhere to live.” Sound familiar? It is, except that Diana Lerner was describing the situation when she first came from New York to settle in Tel Aviv almost six decades ago.
Apparently, some things never change − at least, not when it comes to Israel’s longtime hub of commerce, culture and cool. Although it had not yet achieved its iconic global status of recent years, Tel Aviv in the 1950s and ‘60s was already a magnet for young people from abroad who wanted a more open-minded, cosmopolitan atmosphere than could be found in holy Jerusalem, says Lerner, a veteran freelance journalist.
The housing situation in the seaside city was extremely tough, recalls Lerner, who commuted for months from Jerusalem to her job in the Jerusalem Post’s Tel Aviv office. She then found a space in a hostel for young female immigrants in suburban
Ramat Aviv (“It took ages to get into central Tel Aviv − the bus came only once every couple of hours”), before landing a half a room in the apartment of a couple on Reines Street. Finally, in 1957, her father came to the rescue and helped Lerner buy the airy third-floor walk-up on Ben-Yehuda Street where she still lives today at the age of 91.
Born in Hungary in 1922, Lerner grew up in Manhattan and says that Tel Aviv irresistibly attracted her with its blend of urban energy, informality, charm and “sense of doing-ness.”
“The city was pretty rough around the edges in those days, and very dirty. And it was a bit provincial, like a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone else, from their job to their wives to their mistresses. But Tel Aviv was also like New York in many ways − there was always something going on and it was always a mecca for the avant-garde,” she recalls.
The center of the action was without a doubt Dizengoff Street − Israel’s Fifth Avenue, Champs Elysees and Oxford Street all rolled into one. The glittering thoroughfare was lined with shops showcasing the country’s top designers and hairdressers, and liberally dotted with popular cafes that were packed with all of Israel’s “who’s who” around the clock.
Each cafe had its own distinct character, specialty foods and most of all, its particular band of dedicated regulars, Lerner remembers. The bohemian hangout par excellence was the Kassit, at 117 Dizengoff, which served as a warm home to three generations of actors, artists, entertainers and literary luminaries from the moment of its establishment in the mid-1940s.
“Like a good Tel Avivian, I spent a lot of time at Kassit. Many of us were journalists, and we all used to go there after work, late at night, and share the day’s news − and of course, lots of gossip. Almost no one had a telephone in those days, but who needed it when we had Kassit,” she laughs.
“Having a phone was one thing I missed from New York − that and having a constant supply of electricity,” Lerner says wryly, describing the frequent power failures and the equally frequent shortage of batteries. Like everyone else, she waited four or five years before a phone line was installed in her apartment.
On Friday afternoons, Dizengoff turned into a never-ending parade of fashion, shameless flirtation and serious schmoozing as people thronged its cafes − Rowal (Kassit’s more bourgeois rival), Pinati, Frack and others − or strolled up and down the tree-lined street. On any day of the week, it was the national epicenter of girl-watching, Lerner notes. In any case, in those days before air-conditioning, sweltering Tel Aviv was “a place where people lived their lives outdoors, on the streets, in the sidewalk cafes, on the beach or their own balconies,” she points out. As a result, Tel Avivians always seemed to be tanned, toned and very sexy.
In matters of fashion, there were two ways to go − either super-stylish and elegantly coiffed, or bohemian and laid-back, says Lerner: “The Yekkes [Jews of German origin] were sticklers for hats and gloves; the creative people wore everything. In my crowd, nobody seemed to care how you dressed.”
This laissez-faire attitude prevailed in many areas of life, and there was also apparently lot of freedom in terms of sexual behavior. “There was a lot of what was called free love, and everyone knew who was sleeping with whom. Also, at a time when homosexuality was totally taboo in mainstream Israel, there was a thriving gay and lesbian culture in Tel Aviv, where these things were open and accepted. Hayarkon Street was known as a place for gay ‘hook-ups,’” Lerner says.
While much of this sounds surprisingly contemporary, Lerner notes that some things have changed: Tel Aviv is “less intimate and less innocent. Nowadays, there’s a money culture, and it’s more snobby and phony than it used to be.
“On the other hand,” she grins, “Tel Aviv is still the place you want to be. There’s just no other city like it.”
The 90-year-old paintings under layers of plaster and paint on the walls of a Tel Aviv building have amazed conservationists. But they are concerned about the murals’ future: the building’s owners are only required to preserve the paintings on the stairwell.
“We were very happy with the richness of the find, but we regret what we lost due to the owners’ lack of awareness and interest,” says Tamar Tochler of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.
The murals, discovered during renovations of a 1921 building on 5 Nahalat Binyamin St., include landscapes and depictions of plants, flowers, fruits and trees.
“This is the first time wall paintings have been found in Tel Aviv that include landscapes,” says Shai Farkash, the owner of a studio that conserves such works.
Last week Farkash’s team was working overtime to uncover the murals, assisted by foreign students from the International Conservation Center in Old Acre. A conservation artist, Ben Buchenbacher, whom the building’s owners have commissioned to work on the paintings, calls it “a rescue mission.”
According to Noga Di Segni of the preservation society, landscape paintings have been found in other Israeli cities. “There probably were others like it elsewhere in the city that didn’t survive,” she says.
The building, designed by the architect Yehoshua Zvi Tabachnik (Tavori), is known for the Balcony Pub that has occupied the second floor for years. “When we were having a good time at Balcony, we never imagined what was hiding behind these walls,” one conservation worker says.
Tabachnik came to Palestine from Odessa in 1919 with the wave of immigration known as the Third Aliyah. He arrived on the SS Ruslan, the ship that brought the poetess Rachel and the journalist Moshe Glickson, who became Haaretz’s editor. Tabachnik left the country six years later and continued his architectural career in Brooklyn.
Tabachnik also planned the building across the street, known as the Palm House because of the magnificent palm tree covering the windows of two stories. His buildings were part of an original Land of Israel style that mixed Eastern and Western motifs.
Other buildings in this style, which can be seen on Nahalat Binyamin and nearby Allenby Street, feature seven-branched candelabra, Stars of David, palm-tree glass windows and wrought-iron railings depicting the raised corners of the biblical altar.
According to Shula Vidrich, a historian of Tel Aviv, the house was built for one Yehuda Skopasky, and five years later it was sold to an eye doctor. It changed hands in 1933 when brothers Chaim and Israel Brecht bought it, using the first floor for their velvet import business.
“We have to remember that there were wealthy bourgeois people who built fine houses with a great deal of charm,” Tochler says, referring to the pioneers here.
According to conservation artist Buchenbacher, “There’s something very satisfying about being able to reveal these paintings, which belong to a mood we can’t really understand: a combination of European tradition with living in the Middle East.”
Now the new owners are renovating the building. To do so, conservation architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk uses original sketches of the house, which are preserved in the municipal archives.
“We wouldn’t know what the original facade looked like without them,” she says. “The descendants of the building’s previous owners also have photographs.”
Metzger-Szmuk has run into a familiar problem – her desire to preserve all the spectacular murals and the new owners’ needs and demands. According to the conservation plan, she can’t force the owners to preserve the paintings, only those in the stairwell — a public space.
Metzger-Szmuk is trying to get the city to offer incentives to the new owners so they preserve all the murals. “We need cultural persuasion here,” she says.