Young Tel Aviv: A Tale of Two Cities

Anat Hel­man; Haim Watz­man, trans.

  • Review
By – August 30, 2011

In the twen­ty years after World War I, Tel Aviv grew from a gar­den sub­urb of Jaf­fa with 2,000 res­i­dents into an urban cen­ter of 160,000. Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty schol­ar Anat Hel­man con­veys the look and feel of the new city with a wealth of details about what it was like to live there: the archi­tec­ture, trans­porta­tion, pub­lic events, leisure pur­suits, the buy­ing and sell­ing. She sets out to bal­ance per­ceived images of the city with its empir­i­cal­ly observed char­ac­ter — the two cities” of her subtitle.

Renowned as the White City” for its Bauhaus archi­tec­ture, Tel Aviv’s image of sleek moder­ni­ty clashed with the real­i­ty of its filth and noise and het­ero­gene­ity. The city’s café soci­ety and the promi­nence of fash­ion, Hel­man points out, chal­lenged the Zion­ist ide­al of the pio­neer who labors in the fields and lives a sim­ple life. Her best chap­ter cap­tures the exu­ber­ance of the Tel Aviv beach­es and the city’s ubiq­ui­tous night life of cin­e­mas, restau­rants, dance halls, and sim­ple strolls through the streets. 

Betray­ing its ori­gins as a dis­ser­ta­tion, this work often paus­es to state the obvi­ous: Toprom­e­nade,” it explains, is to take a walk with the pur­pose of pre­sent­ing one­self to the world and of observ­ing oth­er peo­ple.” Helman’s bias­es sur­face when she argues that pop­u­lar cul­ture was more open to out­side influ­ences than the offi­cial cul­ture, which was con­scious­ly and selec­tive­ly enlist­ed to pro­duce a new and unique nation­al Hebrew cul­ture.” She becomes overt­ly ide­o­log­i­cal when, fol­low­ing the neo-Marx­ist Eric Hob­s­bawm, she resists ideas imposed from above,” whether by the cul­tur­al elite,” the gov­ern­ment, or the Ashke­nazi major­i­ty. She also char­ac­ter­izes adver­tis­ing in Marx­ist terms: as an alter­na­tive to class con­scious­ness asso­ci­at­ed with one’s work,” she declares, mod­ern adver­tis­ing pro­claimed that a per­son could acquire an indi­vid­ual con­scious­ness through pos­ses­sions.” For many read­ers these obser­va­tions will be gratuitous.

Over­all, Helman’s research brings to light a fas­ci­nat­ing panoply of the par­tic­u­lars of dai­ly life — rid­ing a bus, evad­ing the dog­catch­er, cel­e­brat­ing Jew­ish hol­i­days in sec­u­lar form — and the 23 won­der­ful illus­tra­tions are indis­pens­able. Haim Watzman’s Eng­lish ren­der­ing is a mod­el of clar­i­ty and direct­ness. Young Tel Aviv brings a van­ished cityscape vivid­ly back to life. 

Discussion Questions