- Casting Lots to Nonstop City:Current Discourse on the Cultural History, Identity and Construction of Tel Aviv
“Tel Aviv’s uniqueness stems from the complex set of historical factors that occasioned its founding and development – from a utopian garden city suburb in 1909 to a sprawling, cosmopolitan metropolis.”(Mann, xi)
Tel Aviv, the city that grew from the sands, is approaching its centenary. Established as a suburb of Jaffa in 1909 by sixty members of the Ahuzat Bayit (Housing Association) it rapidly grew into a sprawling metropolis. From its inception, Tel Aviv served an important physical role. It absorbed large numbers of immigrants and became a commercial center for Israel. Simultaneously, Tel Aviv also served an important ideological role as a symbolic emblem of the Zionist dream to create a modern Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael (the biblical land of Israel). Presented as the paradigmatic “Jewish city” with all the incumbent cultural, intellectual, and technological amenities, it allowed twentieth century European urban life to flourish in the Middle East. Tel Aviv came to represent the cosmopolitan, mercantile and cultural pinnacle of Israel and embodied the coalescence of the urban Zionist movement. Conversely, Tel Aviv also stands accused of corrupting Zionist ideals and betraying its role as the quintessential Jewish city through Americanisation, secularisation and commercialism. [End Page 89]
Four new works, written in the past decade, explore these contrasting identities. Although these studies often draw upon the same materials––photographs, newspapers, city archives and literary texts––they read them through different disciplinary lenses. Each work thus makes a unique contribution and deepens scholars’ understanding of the multiple factors involved in constructing the city and its character. As a cultural historian, Joachim Schlör reads the city’s plurality of immigrant identities through letters, memoirs, family histories and photographs. Barbara Mann, working in cultural studies and Jewish literature, reads iconic city images, such as the old cemetery on Trumpeldor Street and the landscape of Rothschild Boulevard, through paintings, photographs and literary texts. Her theoretical framework applies ideas of space and place to comprehend the city’s identity. Geographer Maoz Azaryahu traces the historical construction of Tel Aviv’s myths from old newspapers and municipal archives. His detailed portraits of urban life and changing social fashions give a history of popular and public culture. S. Ilan Troen approaches the city through the history of urban planning. He considers the city’s construction narrative and examines competing plans for public monuments, institutions, and private dwellings. He contrasts Tel Aviv with Zionist villages and later building initiatives such as development towns. Although each scholar focuses on a different combination of elements, all four works take an interdisciplinary approach, leading to the strange bedfellows of literature and urban planning, café life and political protest, photography and municipal rhetoric.
Collectively, these texts provide information on the historical origins of Tel Aviv and the events that have since led to its symbolic and material identity. Additionally, they detail the ways Tel Aviv has influenced Israeli urban planning, popular culture and economic development. These works study urban Zionism and posit questions about the cost of ideological decisions made in constructing Tel Aviv. They also deepen the scholarly literature on ideological cities in general. Moreover, by considering a variety of texts and their writers, these books also enrich the study of Hebrew literature.
Allusions to and by writers as diverse in style, historical period and content as Ahad Ha’am, Dvora Baron, Natan Alterman, Avigdor Hameiri, Meir Weiselteir, Asher Barash and Ya’acov Shabtai fill these works. The range of lit. The range of literature exposes both popular and literary conceptions of the city and...