What to see on Herzl Street, birthplace of the first modern Jewish city
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What to see on Herzl Street, birthplace of the first modern Jewish city

The Zionist pioneers got a lot done in the space of 24 hours, like planning what would become Tel Aviv a little over a century ago

  • Akiva Arie Weiss's gem of a house on Herzl Street (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Akiva Arie Weiss's gem of a house on Herzl Street (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Nahum Gutman was 12 when his family moved to Tel Aviv (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Nahum Gutman was 12 when his family moved to Tel Aviv (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The house that Mordecai Ben Hillel HaCohen built (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The house that Mordecai Ben Hillel HaCohen built (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Tel Aviv's first elevator in the Pensak Passage (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Tel Aviv's first elevator in the Pensak Passage (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Herzlilienblum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Herzlilienblum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The Shalom Tower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The Shalom Tower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Polish jeweler Akiva Arie Weiss, an avid Zionist who contributed to the cause, resolved to put his money where his mouth was and traveled to the Land of Israel in 1904. In the middle of his journey, he heard news that stunned him to the core: his idol, Theodor Herzl, had died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Weiss continued on to the Holy Land, where he was so entranced that he returned home, closed up his thriving business, and two years later brought his wife and six children (the youngest named “Herzl”) to Palestine. He had barely stepped off the boat when he heard of a meeting to be held that evening — a gathering of Jaffa Jews who would talk about the burning issues of the day. He already knew that their biggest problem was land, for Jaffa’s mixed Jewish-Arab population was bursting at the seams.

Leaving his family to unpack, he hurried to the rendezvous. To his dismay, the only subjects that came up were, to his mind, petty and inconsequential. Impatiently he finally stood up and delivered an impassioned Zionistic speech, ending with an idea that may seem self-evident today but which was a bombshell at the time: He suggested they build an all-Jewish city.

When they got over the shock, a vote was taken and this wildly original idea was accepted. A committee of five, including Weiss, was immediately charged with preparing a plan. Incredibly, within 24 hours the committee came up with a grandiose scheme for a wholly Jewish city, fully autonomous, with gardens, paved streets, sanitation and running water almost unknown in this backwater of the Turkish empire.

It took three years to acquire the land that would become Ahuzat Bayit, whose name was changed a year later to Tel Aviv. But eventually, on April 11, 1909, the 66 founding families were invited to a picnic on the sand. Here, using grey and white shells with plot numbers and family names etched inside, the lottery was held that gave birth to the tiny new neighborhood that grew into today’s delightful Tel Aviv metropolis.

Weiss’s house was located on the edge of Herzl Street. Like the others in the colony, it started out as a one-story dwelling with a large frontal garden; he added a second floor in the mid 1920’s. It was a gem of a place, for Weiss had planned on a career as an architect before his dad passed away and left him in charge of the family business.

Years later, as commerce developed in the area and the functional, no-nonsense International (Bauhaus) style became popular, many of the unique features of the house were destroyed. Luckily, in 2000 it was renovated and the first floor regained much of its early 20th-century charm.

Herzl Street is jam-packed with buildings with prestigious residents and historic buildings. For instance, across from Weiss’s house, a large edifice was put up by religious Zionist pioneer Michael Pollack. He died three years later, but not before founding the first yeshiva in Tel Aviv.

Nahum Gutman was 12 when his family moved to Tel Aviv (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Nahum Gutman was 12 when his family moved to Tel Aviv (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two well-known figures lived in the house with rounded balconies only a few meters away from the Weiss home. Owner Shimon Ben-Zion was a renowned writer and educator who taught at the liberal, secular Girls’ School in nearby Neve Tzedek; while son Nahum Gutman, who was 12 when his family moved to Tel Aviv, would one day became a world-famous author and artist, particularly well-known for his original style and as a foremost illustrator of children’s books.

A strange looking house that juts out from two wings on top of a row of shops was built by Mordecai Ben Hillel HaCohen. Both journalist and businessman, he had the honor of attending the First Zionist Congress chaired by Theodor Herzl in 1897.

The house that Mordecai Ben Hillel HaCohen built (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The house that Mordecai Ben Hillel HaCohen built (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The enormous structure opposite is Pensak Passage, constructed in 1925 as the first shopping center in Tel Aviv. Inside, a faded sign on the wall points to the “ma’aliya” (an early form of the modern Hebrew word, ma’aleet), the city’s very first elevator. The stairs near the elevator were built with sand from the seashore and are studded with shells.

Tel Aviv's first elevator in the Pensak Passage (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Tel Aviv’s first elevator in the Pensak Passage (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A 30-story modern tower on Herzl Street, the main branch of Discount Bank, stands next to a dwelling built in 1910 by a family of musicians named Frank. They sold their house two years later and moved to Geneva. In 1924 two stories were added, with the bottom two floors commercial enterprises (a hotel, a beauty shop and even a sausage factory!) and the top floor a living area.

When Discount Bank applied for permission to build a tower as its main branch, municipal approval was conditional upon the bank preserving the Frank House. The Bank took things one step further, not only carefully restoring it inside and out, but also transforming it into the exciting Museum of Banking and Tel Aviv Nostalgia. Located as it is on the corner of Lilianblum Street, historically a center for money changers and black marketers, it is called Herzlilienblum.

Herzlilienblum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Herzlilienblum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

History was made in 1910, when the imposing Herzliah Gymnasium (Herzliah High School) opened on Herzl Street as the first mixed boys/girls school in the world to offer all of its subjects in Hebrew. Purposely erected on a hill at the edge of the colony, its splendid design was meant to be reminiscent of the Jerusalem Temple.

Herzliah Gymnasium has gone the way of all flesh. . . replaced by the far less lovely Shalom Tower. Most people believe that construction of the tower was responsible for the school’s demise, but I heard that already in 1925 there was talk of razing the school because it was thought to be blocking the town’s expansion.

The Shalom Tower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The Shalom Tower (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

By the mid-50’s the structure had deteriorated badly. Since in those days few realized the value of historical preservation, it was easier to take it down than to fix it up. (Yet the Gymnasium lives on – as the logo for the Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites.)

While nothing can take the place of the grand old school, there is a consolation prize inside the entrance to the Shalom Tower: two magnificent mosaics. Both took two years to complete and were produced in Ravenna, Italy, of Moreno glass by men who grew up in Tel Aviv. Both brilliantly depict the city’s development – but they could hardly be less alike.

Nahum Gutman’s work of art, hung in the mid 1960’s, was prepared in four separate pieces that ooze with his love for Tel Aviv. Featuring warm and vibrant colors, far different from the dark European style fashionable at the time, the mosaic is 100 square meters in size and made up of over a million pieces in more than 700 different colors (including 70 shades of green).

Created in 1996 by Tel-Aviv born artist David Sharir, the second mosaic is really a wave, with no beginning and no end and strangely Babylonian-looking figures. In some ways almost a personal saga, the details are familiar and nostalgic. Scaffolds are scattered here and there, in a city that is constantly developing. Old Jaffa, on one side, with its camel convoy; on the other a modern city in which someone sleeps on a park bench, and the oft-seen sight of a bride and groom having their picture taken before their wedding. The heart of the mural is, of course, Ahuzat Bayit and its striking Gymnasium – whose destruction may have been the impetus for the preservation fever so apparent in Israel today.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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