Short In Distance, Bialik Street Is Long In History
By David E. Kaplan
There was sound reason why the organizers of Israel’s 2019 Eurovision Song Competition in Tel Aviv chose to hold the Semi-final Allocation Draw at the city’s former City Hall in Bialik Street.
While Bialik Street does not project the grandeur of Paris’ ‘Avenue des Champs-Elysees’, or the allure of New York’s 5th Avenue, it personifies the cultural journey of Tel Aviv – a journey where visitors require not tough shoes but adventurous minds.
Bialik street can take five minutes to casually stroll or five hours for a true experience – it all depends on your pace, for each pause is poetry. A side road off the pulsating Allenby with its cafés, pubs and restaurants, one exits the traffic and tumult of one world, to enter another of tranquility and charm. With its fine examples of Bauhaus architecture, Bialik Street is a UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Starting at the T-junction of Allenby and Bialik, we began its tour. The writer strolled down the little brick road, admiring the diverse architectural styles of the buildings, until arriving at the former home of one of Israel’s most celebrated artists, Reuven Rubin (1893-1974). Today it is the Rubin Museum and the writer met with its curator, Carmela Rubin, the daughter-in-law of the late artist.
Established in 1909 on desolate sand dunes, Tel Aviv in the 1920s drew like a magnet, many of the leading writers, artists, musicians, actors and journalists. Carmela attributed this to the arrival in 1924 of one man – Chaim Nachman Bialik, who would emerge in his lifetime as Israel’s National Poet and the celebrated resident of the street that would take his name.
“That he chose to settle in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem influenced others to follow him. People today are hardly aware of the monumental impact Bialik had on his generation.”
“Firstly, he arrived with such stature, a towering intellectual whose poetry and prose, calling for a reawakening of the Jewish people, resonated with a new breed of emerging Jew in Eastern Europe,” explained Carmela.
In this quest, language was the key and “Bialik was in the forefront in the renewal of the Hebrew language. Jews in Eastern Europe at that time spoke Yiddish; Hebrew was the language of the prayer book, reserved for the Sabbath. The Zionist movement had its central platform, the revival of Hebrew as the conversational language of Jews and Bialik was the spearhead in this mission.”
The generation of Hebrew poets who followed in Bialik’s footsteps, notably Jacob Steinberg and Jacob Fichman, would be referred to as ‘the Bialik generation’.
“Bialik was so much more than a renowned poet – he was a leader, and by choosing to settle in Tel Aviv in the 1920s, he transformed a small parochial city in Palestine into the center of contemporary cultural activity.”
Acknowledged as a leader of his city’s renaissance – as the Medici were to Florence – it was little wonder that his good friend, Meir Dizengoff, the mayor of Tel Aviv, not only assisted him to acquire a mortgage to build his house but also to rename the street in his honor before even the first brick had been laid. To so honor a person while still alive is rare in Jewish tradition – only for exceptional human beings.”
Bialik was one such person.
It was through the likes of Bialik that a fledging city transformed from sand dunes to cultural oasis.
Portrait of an Artist
It was into this milieu that the artist Reuven Rubin arrived in Palestine in 1923, this time to settle. At an exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1927, Bialik wrote in the catalogue: “Blessed is Rubin who has had the privilege of bonding with Eretz-Israel while his talent is in bloom. Eretz-Israel, presented as Rubin sees it – with its mountains and cities, its gardens and valleys, its old people and women, its Jews and Arabs, its donkeys and goats, its stones and plants, joined in unexpected combinations on one small square of canvas – looks like the legend of Eretz-Israel.”
But it’s Rubin’s art of Tel Aviv that provides “a visual documentation” of a strip of land transformed from sand dunes to city,” explains Carmela. “When I show groups around the museum, I talk less about the theories of art and more on that thin line where art meets and reflects life so that when visitors leave the museum, they will feel they have touched the soul of Tel Aviv. After all,” asserts Carmela, “art is long, human life short; Rubin is dead, but his art is alive and tells a story for future generations.”
The narrative of a city emerging out of sand dunes is poignantly portrayed in the two paintings Carmela shows this writer. In Self Portrait with a Flower, painted in 1922, the young artist with black curly hair stands proudly in front of the barren yellow sand dunes from which the city of Tel Aviv is still to arise. There are three small homes and the Mediterranean coast is seen in the background. Rubin is holding in his left hand a vase with a white lily symbolizing fertility and in his right, his paint brushes. “The painting is a commitment to the future; both hands visually express the promise of the artist to impact upon the barren landscape of Tel Aviv – through his personal life and through his art.”
He succeeds in both.
In Les Fiancées, painted seven years later in 1929, the artist appears – still with his paint brushes in his left hand – but now, seated on his right is no longer a vase of with a lily but his beautiful bride-to-be. They appear regal in dress and demeanor on a balcony overlooking an established city; conspicuously absent are the barren sand dunes. A small plane is seen flying over the Mediterranean, symbolizing modernity and civilization. Clearly, the personal life of the artist and the development of Tel Aviv have merged and matured – the fruition of the idealism that embodied the earlier 1922 painting.
These paintings reflect Rubin fulfilling the Zionist dream and when the artist’s work was exhibited in New York and bought by Jews in the 1920s, “It was bringing a visual image of Jewish enterprise in Palestine to a Diaspora who had little idea of what was happening here,” asserts Carmela. “Rubin’s work was performing a pivotal role. If the content of his paintings portrayed Jews physically planting seeds and cultivating the land, the ideological impact of his work was achieving precisely the same result in the mindset and perceptions of Jews abroad.”
What Bialik had achieved in literature, Ruben set out to enhance and enrich through art.
The Rubin Museum is on three floors, where apart from the works of the artist and his splendidly preserved studio on the top floor, the second floor presents a pictorial lifeline in photos of the artist. There are also rooms allocated to temporary exhibitions unrelated to Rubin. On the day of this writers visit, on exhibit were photographs of the different architectural styles prevalent in Israel.
I leave the Rubin Museum and walk to Kikar Bialik (Bialik Square) which is encircled by architectural diversity – the former Tel Aviv City Hall, the Felicja Blumental Music Centre and Library, the Bauhaus Museum, (sponsored by Ron Lauder, displaying Bauhaus-designed furniture, graphics, lamps, and glass and ceramic-ware by Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Christian Bell, Willhelm Wagenfeld and others) and the Jewel in the Crown, the Bialik House Museum.
Ayelet Bitan Shlonsky is the curator of the Bialik House Museum and manager of the Bialik Center, which includes running eight major “happenings” a year, notably in mid-summer, the annual White Night celebrations that attracted thousands to the square, as it does each year when local Tel Aviv musicians entertain till the early hours of the morning. “The concerts in the square are free and we celebrate Tel Aviv’s birthday each year with a different theme or genre of music from all over the world. Not only are we establishing Bialik Street as the city’s center for culture and history but also as a place for music and fun.”
Standing in the middle of the square, Ayelet points out the buildings in Bialik Street and explains the variety of architectural styles, notably Neo-classic, eclectic and Bauhaus. “In one short road,” she says, “we have it all – the phases and faces of Tel Aviv architecture. It’s all staring at us!”
Entering Bialik’s house is like opening a treasure trove. The eye feasts on a kaleidoscope of diverse designs and colors. The architect, Yosef Minor, a disciple of the Eretz-Israel school, integrated European and Arab architecture, and Bialik’s house is an outstanding example of a merger of contrasting styles. “This pleased Bialik,” explains Ayelet, “who preferred not to simply transplant western culture as the Bauhaus architects would do a decade later but rather integrate western concepts with the east.”
Despite the influence of the Orient with its arches and columns that beautify every corner of the house, the architect does not allow one to ever doubt that the house was built for one who was revered as one of the main spokesmen of the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine). The hearth and pillars on the reception floor are covered in tiles decorated with Jewish themes, the products of the Bezalel workshop in Jerusalem. The hearth depicts the journey of the Ark of the Covenant and the story of the spies Moses sent to scout the land, while the pillars are illustrated with the twelve tribes and the months of the Hebrew calendar. And if this was not enough, a further element underlines the connection between Jewish history and Zionist belief: On one side of the pillar appears a replica of the Roman coin Judea Capta and on the other, a coin of captured Judea freed from chains with a caption reading: “Judea liberated”. This theme of Jewish courage and revival are at the core of Bialik’s philosophy.
In 1903 Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg) sent a firsthand report to Bialik on the Kishinev pogrom where Jews were massacred. Based on Ahad Ha’am’s detailed account of the bloodbath, “A year later,” says Ayelet, “Bialik published his epic masterwork, ‘The City of Slaughter’, a searing condemnation of Jewish passivity.”
… the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering—the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
The Kishinev pogrom was instrumental in convincing tens of thousands of Russian Jews to leave for Palestine and became a rallying point for early Zionists.
“It is said that Bialik’s onslaught on Jewish passivity in the face of anti-Semitic violence,” says Ayellet, “inspired the idea of founding Jewish self-defense groups in Russia and later the Haganah in Palestine. You can see why Bialik was so important on so many levels.”
In 1922, Ahad Ha’am, now himself an established philosopher and writer and resident of Tel Aviv, attended the foundation stone-laying ceremony for Bialik’s house.”
Bialik’s original ‘The City of Slaughter’ is housed in the museum.
Across the square from the Bialik Museum is Beit Hair – Hebrew for ‘Town Hall’. The writer’s guide is Ruthie Amoma an instructor at the Bialik Center. Beit Ha’ir is both a museum and a cultural center. Here visitors will find a permanent exhibition focusing on the life and work of Meir Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s first mayor, alongside a photo exhibition that sets out to reflect and debate different aspects of the city’s history. Entitled ‘Revealing the Hidden City’, Ruthie explains that “the idea was to tell the story of Tel Aviv not from the writings and studies of historians but from the pictures and interviews of the residents of Tel Aviv. We set out to not only record what is known but to explore that which was unknown, hence the title of the exhibition.”
Who better to tell the story than the people themselves?
“An appeal went out to Tel Avivians,” continues Ruthie, “to submit photographs and to be interviewed. We anticipated receiving from some 3000 residents, which would have been sufficient to open the museum. But we were not banking on the enthusiasm of the residents of Tel Aviv. We received a staggering 28,000 photographs leading to new insights on the history of Tel Aviv!”
It is this enthusiasm that so characterizes the personality of Tel Aviv today.
The magnitude of the transition from the sand dunes of 1909 to the city of the 1930s is brought home when Ruthie guides me to Mayor Dizengoff’s majestic office that overlooks Bialik Square. Hung upon the wall behind the solid desk of Tel Aviv’s first mayor is a giant size original 1930s plan of the city, depicting in detail the spread and sizes of land ownership. Some of these lots would have been owned by those very founding families that participated in the beach lottery on the sand dunes in 1909 and seen in the iconic photograph, also in his office.
Clearly, if Tel Aviv of the 1930s was a ‘City on the Move’, it is even more so today, testifying to the best definition I have heard of Israel’s cultural capital:
“A city that wakes up every morning deciding what’s it’s going to be.”
Continuously evolving and redefining itself, Tel Aviv is a smorgasbord of ideas and it’s all captured in one short street called Bialik.
It’s well worth a visit.
* Title photo: Bialik Street viewed from the plaza with Bialik’s house on the left. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)