On April 11, 1909, a group of 66 Jewish families gathered in sand dunes a mile north of the ancient port of Jaffa to divide the patch of barren land that had been purchased on their behalf. Their leader, Akiva Aryeh Weiss, collected 132 seashells on the beach — half of them white and half of them gray. Names were written on the white shells and plot numbers on the gray shells. A boy drew names from one box; a girl drew plot numbers from a second. Later, the name Tel Aviv, “Hill of Spring,” was adopted.
Today, 105 years later, Tel Aviv is a high-rise city, whose greater metropolitan area, Gush Dan, has nearly 3.5 million inhabitants, or 42 percent of Israel’s population. The city continues to expand, its economy driven by the exponential growth of the high-tech industries that flourish in the suburbs and satellite towns. For the foreign visitor, however, the areas of original settlement remain of the greatest interest. In 2003, UNESCO designated the so-called “White City” a World Heritage site to preserve its thousands of 1930s Bauhaus buildings. The subsequent decade has seen concerted attempts to restore other historic districts. Both The Norman hotel and the Hotel Montefiore are housed within 1920s buildings constructed in the Eclectic style — a fusion of European and Oriental elements — that preceded the Bauhaus period.
Despite its relative proximity to Middle Eastern flashpoints, Tel Aviv feels very safe, and street crime is unusually rare for a city of its size. During our recent stay, we strolled along main arteries such as Rothschild Boulevard, as well the tree-lined side streets, without the slightest concern for our security.
Eager to learn more about the city’s origins, we engaged the services of a guide, Shmuel, in whose company we set out one morning for a four-hour walking tour. Having shown us a number of Bauhaus residential buildings, Shmuel led us west along Montefiore Street and then south to Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard. An austere concrete structure, this was originally the home of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, and it stands on Plot 43, which Dizengoff acquired in the original seashell lottery. In 1930, Dizengoff donated the house to the city of Tel Aviv, with the result that on May 14, 1948, it was where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. The Declaration Hall remains just as it was that day.
From Rothschild Boulevard, we headed north up Nachlat Binyamin Street, the scene of a lively Tuesday and Friday craft market, into the Yemenite Quarter. Once run-down, the neighborhood now has numerous restored Eclectic buildings, which display an exotic and colorful mix of classical, Moorish and art deco architectural styles. The area has an agreeably bohemian atmosphere, which is enhanced by the wonderful open-air food market — a favorite of the city’s leading chefs — on Carmel Street. At times, the displays of Mediterranean produce seem almost like an abstract work of art. Feeling peckish, we paused at a bourekas stand for a snack. Bourekas are an Israeli version of the Turkish börek, which arrived with immigrant Sephardic Jews. Made with puff pastry, they are generally filled with cheese, potato or spinach. We ate ours accompanied by a hard-boiled egg, pickles and a spicy tomato paste.
Leaving the market, Shmuel led us southwest into the picturesque Neve Tzedek quarter. In 1887, this was the first Jewish settlement to be established beyond the walls of Jaffa. Low-rise buildings were constructed along narrow streets, many incorporating design elements from the contemporary Jugendstil movement. Within 20 years, the neighborhood had become popular with artists and writers, notably Shmuel Yosef Agnon (winner of the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature) and the painter Nachum Gutman. Eventually, the area fell into neglect. In the 1980s, however, efforts began to preserve Neve Tzedek’s century-old structures and to revive its artistic heritage. Today, the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre overlooks a plaza at the center of the district, and Nachum Gutman’s home is a charming museum. Far from being derelict, Neve Tzedek has become fashionable and extremely expensive.
Emerging from the web of narrow streets, we found ourselves on a broad seafront promenade overlooking a wide expanse of sand and the Mediterranean. Old Jaffa stands on a small hill at the southern edge of Tel Aviv — with which it was officially merged in 1950 – and its buildings of golden stone form a striking contrast to the modern city’s concrete towers. Jaffa is mentioned in letters from an Egyptian pharaoh that date from 1470 B.C. and appears in the Bible as the port from which Jonah set out prior to his fateful encounter with the whale. During the 19th century, the city grew rich from the export of oranges.
On the United Nations outline for the partition of Palestine, drawn up in 1948, Jaffa was to remain an Arab city. But during the fighting prior to Israel’s declaration of independent statehood, the Arab population was displaced. Today, Jaffa is primarily a district of galleries, shops and restaurants. Having strolled along the promenade, we climbed a steep flight of steps to the HaPisga garden and open-air amphitheater. This is overlooked by the Ottoman clock tower built to commemorate the silver jubilee of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Below, spread out along the shore, lay modern downtown Tel Aviv. We sat in the sunshine for a while, pondering the complexities of history.