In 1909, 66 wealthy Jewish families founded Ahuzat Bayit, the original core of today’s thriving Tel Aviv metropolis. Watching from afar as their landsmen moved out of the crowded, filthy Old City were several dozen small craftsmen, laborers, shopkeepers, a baker and a laundress. And they wondered: why they shouldn’t have a nice little neighborhood of their own.
But there was a problem: Not only did they lack the money necessary to build themselves houses, they also didn’t have what it took to purchase the property on which they would put them.
Obviously the group, called the Nahalat Binyamin Association, would need some help. But the Jewish National Fund, which had acquired the land for Ahuzat Bayit, refused to assist. And the bank turned down repeated requests for money – until 1911, when a journalist who went by the pen name of “Rabbi Binyamin” wrote a scathing article accusing both bank and JNF of favoring the rich over hard working common folk.
Soon afterwards, they were able to get their hands on a long north-to-south strip of sand dune. The first very modest, one-story houses began going up in 1914, along a dirt road they called Nahalat Binyamin. Laborers – mostly women – paved the street a decade or so later.
Nahalat Binyamin Street is a unique combination of simple structures, wild art-deco, eclectic buildings and 1930’s Bauhaus houses. It begins at Magen David Square, where six streets intersect: Sheinkin, King George, HaCarmel, Allenby (in two directions) and Nahalat Binyamin. The square gets its name from the Magen David Adom ambulances that once raced noisily along on their way to nearby Hadassah Hospital.
In 1939, demonstrations against the British White Paper limiting Jewish immigration took place at the square; less than a decade later, thousands here danced for joy when the State of Israel was proclaimed in May. This was also the site of the first escalator in Israel. It was called a dragnoa, a combination of the words for “moving” and “steps.”
There was no coherent plan for the streets in Tel Aviv’s ever-growing new neighborhoods, and the result was a plethora of Tel Aviv traffic jams with this one of the worst and noisiest streets in the city. Indeed, before Nahalat Binyamin was transformed into a pedestrian mall in the mid 1980’s, as many as 60,000 vehicles passed through daily.
Built in 1934, Beit Polishuk on the corner was so different from other houses in Tel Aviv of the thirties that it was considered a monstrosity. The style may have been influenced by the ships on which architects sailed to this country for here and in other similar buildings there are circular windows which look suspiciously like portholes.
From the first, Yehuda Polishuk planned to fill the building with offices and shops. Israelis who grew up in Tel Aviv in the 1950s fondly remember Naalei Pil, or “Elephant Shoes”, for it was the first enterprise in the city to bestow balloons and yoyos on its delighted young customers. Along with its 15 shops and 50 offices, Beit Polishuk housed a clandestine Etzel printing press.
One of the most extravagant structures on Nahalat Binyamin was built in 1922 (at #8). Known as the Palm Tree House (Beit Hadekel) it is a terrific example of fancy Art Nouveau design. Architect Y.Z. Tabachnik was intent on creating a unique Jewish type of architecture for buildings in the Land of Israel, and even asked for his style to be copyrighted.
Indeed, when he sent his plan in for approval, he wrote: All rights reserved, Original Jewish Style.
Tabachnik received permission for almost everything he wanted. There was one exception: the municipality wouldn’t let him erect tablets on the roof bearing the Ten Commandments, insisting that these could be used only on public and religious buildings. So Tabachnik had to be satisfied with the horns of the altar, menorahs woven into the railings, and two Stars of David. There was a palm tree as well, but it was stolen some years ago and only replaced during the house’s recent restoration.
Across the street (at #5) another stunning Tabachnik creation has finally been restored after decades of desolation.
The simple house sitting weirdly on top of a second story (#11) is a good example of one of the neighborhood’s older homes.
Adjacent to this dwelling, the wildly eclectic Shmuel Levy house from 1926 is famous for its ceramic tiles with biblical themes. They were produced by a graduate of Jerusalem’s Bezalel School of the Arts, and are an expression of a passionate desire to integrate Jewish themes into new construction.
Directly across the street (at #12) stands a startling edifice composed only of angles and rounded balconies. Even more unusual is the entrance, which would look perfect as the door to a synagogue.
As soon as the House of Jugs appeared on the corner of Rambam Street in 1927, people worried that the amphorae sitting on its edges would fall off and kill someone, someday. Almost a century later, they still remain stuck to the immense dome-topped edifice.
Kiddy-corner from the House of Jugs is an odd building that Joseph Berlin and constructed out of un-plastered silicate bricks. Not only does the pattern resemble half-zipped-up zippers, but the windows have little “eyebrows” to shade them. Berlin was convinced the bricks would hold up better than the sandstone often used in Tel Aviv construction, and he was right: the top stories, dating back to 1931, have remained in excellent condition.
Rami Meiri, the Tel Aviv artist whose paintings on kiosks and exterior walls have seriously brightened up the city, outdid himself at # 18. The beautiful painting on the rounded corner is so lifelike, that you have to look twice at the man searching for something on the sidewalk before you realize he isn’t real. For decades, it was this was also the corner where you got the best hot dogs in the city.
Originally known as the Spector Hotel, this stunning lightcolored building at one time took over for Tel Aviv’s Hadassah Hospital. The cornerstone for the hospital had been laid in Balfour Street, in 1914. But construction was halted with the onset of the first World War, after the ruling Turks confiscated the building materials for use as barricades.
Thus when a horrendous Arab riot broke out in Jaffa in 1921, there was no suitable venue in which to care for the many Jewish casualties. The Spector Hotel, built during the war but as yet unoccupied, functioned as a hospital until Hadassah Tel Aviv was completed in 1925. Later on, a portion of the former hotel served as a base for Tel Aviv’s gay community; today it is a small eatery.
The Nordau Hotel on the corner of Rehov Gruzenberg is a wholly eclectic Megidovitz creation, sporting the silver dome that eventually became Megidovitz’s trademark. Completed in 1927, this is the oldest continuously running hotel in Tel Aviv, and the façade has been restored but not significantly altered. Beneath the balconies are little wrought-iron triangles that once held lights at night.
Anyone planning to visit Tel Aviv should do so on Tuesdays and Fridays. That’s when the entire street becomes an unusually high-quality art fair in which craftspeople display their own works.
Thank you to Tel Aviv tour guides Yona Wiseman and Helen Berman for their contributions to this article.
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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