Jewish Journal

Tel Aviv Then and Now

Old-Timers Recall the Early Days in Tel Aviv

by Dina Kraft

Posted on Apr. 9, 2009 at 2:12 am

(Top) Rafaella Dizengoff Rivlin stands next to a framed photo of her famous great-uncle, Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. (Bottom) Esther Rubin, who has lived in Tel Aviv for 70 years, poses beneath a painting by her late husband, the artist Reuven Rubin. Photos by Dina Kraft

(Top) Rafaella Dizengoff Rivlin stands next to a framed photo of her famous great-uncle, Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. (Bottom) Esther Rubin, who has lived in Tel Aviv for 70 years, poses beneath a painting by her late husband, the artist Reuven Rubin. Photos by Dina Kraft

When Yoram Kaniuk was born in Tel Aviv in 1930, it was a small place with just 20,000 people and a handful of paved roads.

But for Kaniuk and his friends, it was the world.

“We thought it was a big city,” Kaniuk said, sitting by the window of his apartment’s snug living room on Bilu Street, today a narrow, tree-lined road he remembers as having the highest sand dunes in the city.

The eastern side of the city, including Ibn Gvirol Street, today Tel Aviv’s main thoroughfare, was open fields and orange orchards. In the old days, the northern edge of the city was Mapu Street, now considered central Tel Aviv.

“We called it the Galilee, as we could not imagine any point further north,” Kaniuk said.

He grew up in something of Tel Aviv nobility. His godfather, a friend of his grandfather’s from Odessa, was Chaim Nachman Bialik, the national poet. His father, Moshe Kaniuk, was an aide to the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and was the founder and curator of Tel Aviv’s first art museum.

Kaniuk, who went on to become one of Israel’s best-known novelists — his book “Adam Resurrected” recently was made into a film starring Jeff Goldblum — recalls playing in Bialik’s garden, kicking around a soccer ball and riding his bicycle everywhere without fear of cars because only a few drove by on any given day.

In Tel Aviv’s early days, everyone got around either by bicycle or on one of the city’s red buses. Culture was abundant — a philharmonic, opera, theaters and rows of cafes.

The museum Kaniuk’s father oversaw was in Dizengoff’s house, which eventually would become part of history when David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence from its ground floor in 1948. For Kaniuk it was where he spent many days of his childhood listening to the classical music concerts held there, overhearing the conversations of refugees from Germany who came to get their fill of Beethoven and Bach.

“Tel Aviv felt like the center of everything,” he said. “It was the Zionist city, the first Hebrew city. All of the organizations were based here, all of the newspapers — it was the cultural capital of the land of Israel.”

Decades later, Kaniuk says he still loves its energy.

“Everything you could ever want is only a walk away,” he said. “It’s not like New York, where you have to hop on a subway. The city is constantly reinventing itself anew.”

A Painter’s Wife
Esther Rubin was still Esther Davis, just an 18-year-old girl from the Bronx, when she first laid eyes on Tel Aviv in 1929.

“I had been prepared for Tel Aviv to be small and provincial, but seeing a donkey or camel in the street next to an automobile charmed me, and I liked the idea,” she said in an interview at her sprawling, sunny Tel Aviv apartment. “I felt very much bound to Tel Aviv, as I am still today.”

Still elegant at 98, Rubin’s hair is swept up in a perfect coif, her lips covered in dark pink lipstick. Her apartment’s walls are full of her favorite oil paintings. The artist: her husband, Reuven Rubin.

Rubin’s aqua blue eyes twinkle brightly as she speaks, the same enchanting eyes her late husband painted in his portraits of her decades ago.

She met her husband on the steamship from New York to Palestine in late 1928. She received a free, three-month trip to Palestine from Young Judaea for winning an essay contest about the youth of Palestine.

Her mother had warned her to stay away from strange men, but after he approached her on deck one morning they started talking. They were engaged soon afterward.

When the couple landed in Haifa and made their way to Tel Aviv by taxi, Rubin remembers feeling instantly comfortable in her new, though very foreign, surroundings.

“The intimacy of people, the kindness — everyone was so nice,” she said. “I felt very much at home from the beginning. I did not feel I was in a strange city or a strange country.”

When Rubin arrived, the buildings of Tel Aviv were a mix of styles — eclectic architecture mixing Turkish, classical and modern elements. Later the refugees from Europe would arrive, bringing with them the international Bauhaus style that became a hallmark of Tel Aviv.

Some of the better-known glimpses of early Tel Aviv life can be seen in her husband’s paintings. In 1923, when he arrived here from Romania, Reuven Rubin would paint on the seashore, putting into color the dazzling sun and blue of the Mediterranean. He painted the new city of Tel Aviv and the ancient walkways of nearby Jaffa with its red-tiled roofs, minarets and bobbing rowboats.

In a self-portrait sitting with Esther on a Tel Aviv balcony overlooking the sea, called “The Engaged Couple,” the sea is visible. The young couple used to run down to the beach for their daily swim from one of their first homes, an apartment on Hess Street.

Later they moved to a house on Bialik Street, just a few doors down from their friend, the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. Today the house is a museum.

Rubin recalls the open houses they used to have every Saturday morning when dozens of people would gather — a mix of friends, musicians and fellow artists often staying for impromptu lunches.

“I don’t know how I managed it, but I did,” said Rubin, who in addition to her hostess duties was also her husband’s chief cataloger and archivist, keeping meticulous records for nearly 50 years.

Rubin says she doesn’t mind that Tel Aviv, just two years older than she is, is growing up.

“I don’t look for the old Tel Aviv,” she said. “I grow with the new Tel Aviv and am delighted to see the changes.”

Tel Aviv Royalty
The morning Rafaella Dizengoff Rivlin was born in 1921, her great-uncle, Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv, rushed over still dressed in his pajamas to see her.

Her favorite memories of her uncle, who helped plan and then run “the first Hebrew city,” are of the Purim parades he would lead riding his shiny, white mare.

“One of the sheiks in the Negev gave him the horse,” said Rivlin, 87, sitting in her one-room studio apartment in an old-age home in the Tel Aviv sister city of Givatayim.

“She was quite nice; they called her ‘Mahera,’” she said — Hebrew for “fast.”

Purim was a highlight of the year in the city in those days, she recalled, with sumptuous floats decorated in silks and greenery, bands, and much singing and dancing down the streets.

“Those processions were beautiful,” she said. “One time the Tribes of Israel were represented — people cloaked in white robes, the Levites holding small harps.

“We did not have any history here so we had to look far back into the past to find something to show off,” she said with a chuckle.

When Rivlin was growing up, Tel Aviv felt more like a village than a town, a place where everyone seemed to know each other. It also had a rural feel. Rivlin can still recall the sweet smell of the orange and lemon groves on the outskirts of town and the sound of howling jackals at night.

Many afternoons were spent on the beach, playing volleyball and lying in the sand. For fun, Rivlin and her friends would go to the kiosks on Rothschild Boulevard, one of the city’s original streets, which had soda fountains.

Many of the streets were unpaved when she was a girl. When it rained, storeowners would put down wooden planks in front of their shops so customers would not track in mud.

Even in its early days, Tel Aviv was never short of culture. Rivlin remembers the movie theaters — some screened films outside under the stars during the summertime — and the classical music concerts that would draw overflow crowds.

She recalls her mother holding onto her at a standing-room-only performance of the famed violinist Jascha Heifetz. It was a hot night and the windows of the auditorium where he was performing were open. Rivlin remembers bats flying in during the performance, swooping by the virtuoso.

Rivlin was amused when one of Tel Aviv’s main shopping streets was named after her uncle. Dizengoff Street is now one of Tel Aviv’s signature roads.

“I used to joke to my husband every time we walked down it that we were walking on my street,” she said.

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