Israel travels

When Rothschild Boulevard put down roots and declared independence

Zionist pioneers planned a Tel Aviv thoroughfare to match the boulevards of Paris. They wound up with something uniquely Israeli, and still evolving

Today's Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Today's Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1921, Winston Churchill decided to visit Tel Aviv. The city was still young, and its newly planted trees were not yet full grown. Anxious to impress, the mayor borrowed mature trees from neighboring areas and stuck them into the middle of Rothschild Boulevard – just beginning to take shape.

At first, they say, Churchill was amazed at the sight of such lush development having taken place in such a very short time. But he burst into laughter after local children climbed the trees for a look at the respected visitor – and the trees collapsed. Patting the embarrassed mayor on his shoulder, Churchill made a kindly remark about the importance of having roots.

Tel Aviv was founded on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea on April 11, 1909. Determining where their houses would stand required the 66 founding families to participate in a lottery where each chose a grey and white shell with plot numbers etched inside.

Hard to imagine, but at the time there was nothing everywhere but sand; even the lottery took place along a dry gully surrounded on all sides by sand. Afterwards, engineers were called in to level the sand so that houses could be built on top. Dismayed, they told the founding fathers that it would cost more to clear the land than they had paid for the plots.

One of them – Akiva Arie Weiss – dismissed the engineers, designed special wheelbarrows, and hired 20 young men to push them. Most of the sand they removed was dumped into the gully. And since no one wanted to construct houses there, it was left empty.

Music on Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Music on Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A year later, trees were planted in the sand with the idea of creating a thoroughfare to match the boulevards of Paris! Called Street of the People (Rehav HaAm), it was later renamed in honor of philanthropist Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. The splendid tree-lined byway boasted both the city’s first kiosk and its first street light.

Admittedly, today’s Rothschild Boulevard is a far cry from the elegant tree-filled garden of those early times. However, much of it was restored in 1998 and it still features palm trees and benches, with a pedestrian walk, a bike lane and mini-playgrounds. Both sides of the boulevard are lined with magnificent homes and a wide variety of coffee shops and restaurants. Best of all, strollers often run into young people dancing to live music.

The kiosk, Rothschild Boulevard (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The kiosk, Rothschild Boulevard (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Just off Herzl Street, where the boulevard begins, people of all ages gather around the kiosk /coffee bar. You would have found the same sight here (without the coffee) a century ago. However, the original kiosk, which offered soft drinks first, and later added alcohol, was mainly made of wood. The wood rotted, and was replaced at the end of the last millennium with this attractive new version.

A large white building on the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Herzl Street was stunningly renovated a decade or so ago. It once belonged to Yoseph Eliahu Chelouche, a Jaffa-born merchant, contractor and important public figure who constructed about half of the original houses on the boulevard.

The pillars, little balconies and windows at #12 Rothschild Boulevard were all ordered by catalog. The building belonged to one Avraham Fogel – slain here under mysterious circumstances in 1939 in a murder that remains unsolved to this very day.

Ahuzat Bayit (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Ahuzat Bayit (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

History was made at Beit Dizengoff, #16 Rothschild Boulevard. Built just a year after the foundation of Ahuzat Bayit, it was once home to Meir (later also Mayor) Dizengoff, one of the city’s most important residents.

Dizengoff was a chemical engineer who was sent here in the early 1890’s by Baron Rothschild. Rothschild had opened wineries in a few of the early settlements, and he asked Dizenzgoff to open a factory that would produce glass for his bottles.

The sand on our Mediterranean beaches was unsuitable, so Dizengoff returned to his native Russia. But bitten by the Zionist bug, he moved back to Israel and settled in Jaffa. After buying up land in Ahuzat Bayit, Dizengoff became the town’s civic head and was elected its first mayor in 1921. He remained in office until his death in 1936, apart from a three-year hiatus in 1925-1928.

In 1930 Dizengoff turned the house into an art museum and donated it to the city. It is believed that this is the site on the sand where the famous lottery was carried out. And it was here, on May 14, 1948, that Independence was declared.

Deciding on a venue for the declaration wasn’t easy. There was fighting going on in Jerusalem, but the possibilities in Tel Aviv weren’t universally acceptable. One — the Habima Theater — had huge, vulnerable glass windows. But here at Beit Dizengoff, the walls were thick, the windows high and the main hall was on the bottom floor.

While most of us have seen movies of the Declaration, there is something about being in the actual setting, seeing Herzl’s portrait behind the table, and viewing the old-fashioned microphones into which Ben-Gurion spoke that makes a visit to Independence Hall a special experience.

Founders' Monument, Rothschild Boulevard (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Founders’ Monument, Rothschild Boulevard (Photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The Founders’ Monument, nearby on the boulevard, was erected in 1949 and depicts stages in Tel Aviv’s development. At the bottom is the motto “I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt” from the book of Jeremiah.

A lighthouse and seven stars, symbolizing Tel Aviv, are located on the side of the monument. When he wrote his book about a future State of Israel, Theodore Herzl envisioned a seven-hour workday and suggested that the new country’s flag have seven stars.

Just past #20 Rothschild Boulevard, a parking lot on the corner once held the offices of the Zim Shipping Company. Founded in 1945, Zim’s first mission was the transportation of illegal immigrants to the Land of Israel. On February 4, 1966, the offices burned down in one of the biggest fires in Israeli history.

The beautiful buildings of Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The beautiful buildings of Rothschild Boulevard (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Further up the boulevard are some unusually splendiferous homes. The dwelling at #23 is a beautifully refinished cream colored house constructed in the 1920’s. It belonged to Eliahu Golumb – one of the founding members of the Haganah. Today this magnificent edifice houses the innovative, exciting and wheelchair accessible Haganah Museum, and includes some perfectly preserved rooms from Golumb’s home.

On the other side of the street, and built in 1921, the edifice at #32 was once the hotel of the city. It was called Ben Nahum. Besides arches and a mosque-like dome it had, at one time, pictures of a rabbi and his students, topped by an eagle and sporting a dolphin below.

A very special house hugs the corner of Rothschild Boulevard and Allenby Street, the heart of Tel Aviv life in the early days. Visitors must walk around the 89-year-old cream-colored Beit Lederberg building to view original ceramic plaques by Yaakov Eisenberg. Eisenberg was studying, at the time, with Boris Shatz, the founder of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art. Above the entrance: a depiction of Jerusalem’s walled Old City, with the words (in Hebrew) for “Again I will build you, and you shall be built, virgin daughter of Zion.”

Rothschild Boulevard's Beit Lederberg building, with original ceramic plaques by Yaakov Eisenberg (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Rothschild Boulevard’s Beit Lederberg building, with original ceramic plaques by Yaakov Eisenberg (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)


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

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who providesprivate, customized tours in Israelfor individuals, families and small groups.

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