The year 1925 was just drawing to a close when Haim Nahman Bialik shut the door of his home behind him, crossed the plaza, and entered the magnificent edifice that was Tel Aviv’s City Hall. Ignoring the fact that the Council was in session, or perhaps using that fact to his advantage, Bialik knocked on the door where the meeting was being held.
Mayor Meir Dizengoff graciously bade him enter, and Bialik – dramatically waving a bill for city taxes – began a little speech. “I am a tax paying resident of this Hebrew city,” he declared. “And the Municipality keeps sending me letters asking me to pay more bills. But the Hebrew in them is all wrong. It seems to me that the Municipality should hire a Hebrew author to go over the letters you write and to correct them in a way befitting the first Hebrew municipality in the first Hebrew city.”
Bialik, Israel’s National Poet, was a celebrated figure long before he moved to the Holy Land in 1924. In fact, he was so famous that as soon as decided to immigrate and purchased a plot in Tel Aviv, the tiny road next to his un-built house was changed from Bezalel Hill to Bialik Street.
From Beit Ha’ir – the former Municipality located at the northern end of the street – there is a wonderful view of Bialik Street. And what a glorious street it is. Not surprising, since the houses were mainly constructed by wealthy people from Europe accustomed to gardens and gracious living, with architecture that ranges wildly from eclectic to Bauhaus.
At the time the street was built up, it was located on the tallest hill in tiny Tel Aviv and named for the highly regarded Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem. A serene little plaza – Kikar Bialik – was once venue for parades, concerts, dancing and loud demonstrations against the British.
Around the time that Bialik was making his home on the street later named in his honor, Dizengoff was looking around for a municipal building that would hold all the new clerks appointed to work for the developing city.
Dizengoff was shown sketches for all kinds of grandiose municipal buildings, but they were way beyond the city’s budget.
Fortunately, an American Jewish family had just finished building this large white masterpiece next to the home of Dizengoff’s very good friend from the olden days in Russia – Bialik.
Originally intended as a hotel, the building was rented out to the City, which set up shop here in 1924 and remained for over 40 years. (In 1965 City Hall moved to Rabin Square; the former municipality is now Beit Ha’Ir City Museum.)
Covering the walls are wonderful photographs of Tel Aviv from its founding in 1909 and through following decades of the city’s development.
These are pictures from family albums, culled from tens of thousands sent in by people who live, or lived, in the city.
Also on display is a fabulous collection of colorful tiles taken from floors in Tel Aviv’s earliest houses.
And an elevator – or winding stairs – lead up to the Dizengoff Room, restored exactly as it was when used as the official office of Tel Aviv’s first mayor.
Further down the street, a fortress-like blue edifice is topped with a crenellated roof that echoes the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. It was built in 1925 by Bialik’s friend, Shmuel Balder. Balder (who later changed his name to Lander) was a German-speaker who wrote plays with German-Jewish themes that were performed on the roof. Every day he and his wife would put on their finest clothes and walk proudly up and down Bialik Street as if they were strolling along a Vienna boulevard.
Featuring the clean, functional lines typical of International (Bauhaus) architecture, a four-story house nearby belongs to art collector and philanthropist Ronald Lauder. Fully renovated in 1996, it includes a Bauhaus Museum displaying interior furnishings created in the Bauhaus style of design.
The classic house next door was built in 1922 as a family home for a doctor and his wife, but was soon turned into a hospital. Less than a decade later, after the hospital closed, it was sold to wealthy Iranian Jews who built a large goldfish pond in the back garden – still standing today.
In 1936 the house was rented out to 80 year-old Rabbi Yisrael Friedman who fled growing anti-Semitism in Europe with many of his Hassidic followers. It is said that this fervent Zionist lived in Tel Aviv and not in Jerusalem in order to avoid hearing church bells.
Today a museum dedicated to the works of Reuven Rubin, a building in the middle of the street is another Bauhaus classic. Rubin was a brilliant artist whose marvelous paintings did an outstanding job of documenting the early years of Tel Aviv.
In 1946 Rubin rented one floor in what was originally a two-story house; eight years later he bought the building and added another story. Guests were welcomed on the first floor, the Rubin family lived on the second, and the artist’s studio was on the third.
As he grew older, Rubin often rested in the yard with his wife. One day, as he watched schoolchildren on a field trip skipping along the sidewalk to Bialik House, he decided that his home should also be one day open to visitors. Thus he willed his house and a wonderful collection of paintings to the city of Tel Aviv, which opened up the Rubin Museum (Beit Reuven) in 1983.
Bialik was a very public personage, and everyone who was anyone crowded in to his home and garden: intellectuals, would-be poets, the highest members of society – and people who needed him to intervene with his good buddy Dizengoff. The house was intended to create a new “Hebrew” style of architecture by combining eastern charm with western design. After years of loving restoration and renovations, it opened to the public in 2009.
The exterior features Islamic elements like an Oriel window (protruding balcony) which provided tons of natural light from the comfort of the interior. Inside, the dining room is green, the reception hall royal blue, and the stairway and entrance a brilliant fuchsia.
The floors are stunning, and the whole interior is decorated with gorgeous ceramic tiles created by Bezalel Academy artist Zeev Raban.
In the early days of Tel Aviv, coffee shops were vibrant places where people met to exchange ideas, argue politics, play chess, sing, write poetry, and maybe also have a drink or something to eat. During this era, there were two coffee shops on the corner of tiny Bialik Street, one of them still going strong. Built in the 1930’s, strongly Bauhaus, and called Gan Raveh, this was an elegant eatery whose owners regularly offered an ultra-elegant English-style 5 0’Clock Tea. In good weather the restaurant moved onto the roof, which boasted a lush garden.
Years went by and the building changed hands. However in 2001, it went back to being a restaurant, this time called My Coffee Shop. If the name sounds familiar, that may be because 13 years ago this was the scene of a deadly suicide bombing. The current restaurant is called Café Bialik and, like its predecessors, is popular with both locals and tourists.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is an experienced private tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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