Twilight Zone / My own private Tel Aviv

By Gideon Levy , 5/5/2009

A "For Sale" sign hung on the balcony of the second-floor apartment at Number 8 this week. The apartment was once my home. A balcony at Number 9, across the street, held a laundry rack and an old Tadiran air conditioner, the same exact one my parents put in around 40 years ago. We were only allowed to use it for an hour a day, and maybe that's why it's still there. That apartment, too, was once my home. Way up, in the attic, my plastic window blind remained shut. This, too, was once my home. Three apartments on Stand Street, a typical central Tel Aviv street, the place where everything began for me. First steps, first scolding, first kisses, first dreams. Childhood and adolescence. I spent 20 formative years here.

This week, on the occasion of Tel Aviv's centenary, I returned to the scene of the crime. We, my one and only brother, Rafi, and I, began this belated tour on Zamenhoff Street, in front of the home of Eli Shauli, my first friend. I tried to reproduce "our" whistle, but in this era of cell phones and intercoms my lips no longer know how to pucker up and blow. Back then everyone had their own distinctive whistle. Even when I managed to produce a kind of squeak, Eli didn't reply. Eli doesn't live here anymore; I think he moved to Canada.

We entered the rundown building and tried to grope our way in the dark to the bomb shelter that housed our secret ping-pong table. The dank smell immediately catapulted me back in time, but the table was gone. Eli's well-off family - his dad from the bank, his mom from the perfume shop - had the first television set, on which we spent hours watching Greek programs from Cyprus, terrible, snowy reception and all. Despite not understanding a word and being unable to see anything, we stared and stared. (This was long before the advent of Israeli television.) Avraham's old, black, DeSoto taxi, into which Benny Bilker stuffed dozens of children for his day camp on the Bat Yam beach - "Strength, joy and fun at the day camp of Benny and Egon" - was no longer parked at the corner.

When a "traffic" approached, a white-sleeved traffic cop, Avraham made us lie on the floor to avoid being caught with so many "illegals" in the cab. Mr. Schneidman no longer stands in front of his clothing shop on King George Street. The space is now, of course, an AM:PM convenience store. Also nowhere to be seen is Mr. Yitzhak, the greengrocer, with his colorful Bukharan skullcap, who also made a habit of standing in the doorway of his shop; and likewise Mr. Hammer, from the grocery, a pencil perched permanently behind his ear; and the fat barber, who placed a board on his big leather chair and plunked me, cringing with fear, down on it. Our neighbor Aviva's brassiere shop is Cafe Georgia now. There is no Tnuva dairy store, the old shoemaker is gone, as is Savyon Perfumeria. All gone.

Ignorant youth

We entered Stand Street. Twenty-seven buildings, each rife with memories. A red A. Services and Moving truck was parked near the corner. Beefy Russians were unloading the possessions of young people renting yet another apartment whose history meant nothing to them. Do they have any idea who lived here before them? Do they know that the site of Numero Holdings' office was once Meir's grocery? And do they know where the grocery of Shaul the Egyptian once stood? Or where the Bukharans lived? Where Arik, who could imitate animals, used to live, or Wolfgang Falk from the Philharmonic, or where "Y. Uri, Impresario," as the sign said, had his office? Or where the Bronsteins lived, and the Habasses and the Lebels and Mrs. Tzahubi the manicurist and the Friedenson family with all their daughters, and where Kleinman's Dental Clinic was? They know nothing, these young people. The truck could barely inch its way down the narrow street, on which cars park on both sides. I recalled how we played on the sidewalks, and Rafi recalled how Mr. Sarna, our landlord and member of the Dan Bus Cooperative, sometimes drove his bus home and thrilled us by skillfully parking on the empty street. Sometimes another bus entered the street, to take people to a neighbor's funeral. It all seems fantastic now, on this street that is bursting at the seams and where a municipal inspector is busy writing parking tickets. For years now there's been a building on the empty lot at the end of the street. For years I stood on the balcony, leaning on the "mosaic" fence - which was anything but mosaic and which is still there today - watching dolefully as cars made a right turn next to the lot. They were headed toward the far north of the city, and I was deeply envious of those whose parents could afford that luxury.

I was sent to Meir's to buy half a loaf of bread "on credit"; at Shaul's I bought cartridges for our soda syphon. Both places had barrels of herring - I can smell them now. There are no more smells in the street, nor any voices other than those of the Filipina caregiver emanating from the kitchen of Shoshana Sarna, one of the last of the original tenants.

The Alters, too, are still here, behind closed blinds. Mr. Alter surely no longer manufactures plastic bags on the machine in their living room. An elderly couple from back then recognizes me - but from television, not their memories. The chinaberry tree has been cut down, the same tree on which the Romanian tenant was said to have poured kerosene. There were more Romanians here than any other ethnic group, the Schwartzes, Zizi and Bruno, where we went to watch television or to use their phone with the lock on the dial, the cashbox next to it, and the Segals with Lady, their dog that never stopped barking. Miriam Flanner, from the apartment next to ours, was actually Hungarian, a solitary Holocaust survivor who would stand for hours outside her studio apartment, pounding the door over and over to make sure it was locked tight. The door was scratched and battered from her blows. I would watch the unbelievable scene through the peephole of our door, uncomprehending.

Johanna's curves

Another view I got through the peephole was of the curves of the semi-clad Johanna, the wife of the poet Yonatan Ratosh, as the thrilling couple lurched up the stairs, drunk from some late-night party, to their studio apartment, in which I also lived at a later stage. Ratosh tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit me to the scouts of the Canaanite movement. A fashionable awning now shades the balcony of Michal Glozer. It was there that I ate my first Shalva, the puffed wheat that antedated today's glut of breakfast cereals. Remember? On the ruins of Larich's blacksmith's place stands the "new house," as it was called back then, though now it is anything but new, peeling like its neighbors. "Yaakov, Yaakov," Mrs. Larich would call her husband to lunch, in the apartment at No. 9 that we eventually bought. I can hear her voice now. In the lime pit dug at the blacksmith's place when the new house was being built I played hide-and-seek with Ronnie Margolin, the real-life Margo in the film "Late Summer Blues" ("Blues Lahofesh Hagadol"). Now I remember the thunder of the fireworks, too. They scared me out of my wits every Independence Day and I hid under a blanket pulled up to my ears, as Nitzhiya, or maybe Atida, the girls from the neighboring Friedenson family, tried to reassure me through the window.

Not long ago, a young woman came up to me and introduced herself as the daughter of one of the Friedenson girls, who were so young and attractive then. I also recently met Aryeh, the son of "the Bukharan," as we called the disturbing and anomalous Mizrahi Jew on the street. He is an Egged busdriver, like his father before him. In fact, he is now the same age as his father was then.

Malek, the plumber - a Romanian, definitely a Romanian - is also no longer with us, nor is his ICM scooter, from Kibbutz Tzora, the first on the street. Madame Zaroni no longer sits on her balcony - in fact, the balcony is gone, too. The story then was that Mrs. Zaroni had lost a leg some years before, in the "Ma'agan disaster" - when a plane crashed into a crowd at Kibbutz Ma'agan - and had been sitting on the balcony ever since waiting for her son, Chacky, to visit. On the balcony next to hers sat the Bulgarian neighbor woman, also waiting for her only son. Balcony to balcony: Balconies were a hive of activity and strategic observation points in those days.

We enter our backyard. Surprise, surprise: The milkman's wagon is no longer parked under the lean-to. Every morning, that short, pudgy man loaded the thick glass bottles onto his tricycle and left them outside the door: one full bottle of milk for every empty left outside the night before. Once a week we also left money in the neck of an empty bottle. How I loved to stick a finger into the bottle and lick off the cream floating on the top. I can taste it now, and with it come the memories of peeling off the foil cap, and of the bottles clanking on the stairs in the early morning.

The street's visitors left an impression as indelible as the tenants. "Bo'ls, bo'ls," the tiny, hunchbacked bottle peddler shouted hoarsely as he walked by, lugging a sack of empty bottles on his back. "Hallo, scheren schleifen," the Haredi knife-sharpener bellowed in a German accent. "Razor blades, floor rags," the one-armed traveling salesman offered from his brown suitcase as he made the rounds from door to door. And, of course, there were the wagons laden with watermelon, sabra fruit and sugarcane.


We knew the watermelon peddlers by the nicknames we gave them. "Greenshirt" always sat behind his horse wearing a string vest of that color. "Hoarse guy" mangled the cries announcing his wares. The "contractor" finished adding another floor. Over the years he just kept building, with his own hands, and now there was a "penthouse." On the narrow entrance to the shabby building, District Court Judge Haim Dvorin picked up scraps of paper, obsessively, throwing them into the street. In our hearts we called him "Your honor." Now a young Haredi man emerges and walks along the narrow path, but these days there is no one to remove the refuse that lines it. The wall that was built as protection against bombing raids still conceals the entrance. Don't laugh: the only shell that landed in Tel Aviv in the Six-Day War hit a balcony on adjacent Leon Reich Street. It was the home of Yoav Segalovich, who later became the head of the Israel Police Investigations Branch. His name is still there, on the building.

We celebrated the Passover seder every year in the house across the way, with the Halperins. Lazer Halperin, who delivered kerosene with a horse-cart, read the Haggadah and pinched my neck until he drew blood. Now I do the same thing to my little nephew and tell him I learned it from Lazer. My grandparents sublet at the Halperins' when they arrived in Palestine in 1942. They were the first Ostjuden we met, and it was from them that Grandma Trude learned about gefilte fish. After that, we celebrated every Seder with them. Occasionally their son, Aryeh ("Pashosh"), disappeared in the middle of the Four Questions. It was said that he worked in the Prime Minister's Office. Afterward I would hear that just then something had happened involving Adolf Eichmann or Yossele Schumacher, the boy who was abducted by his grandfather. "Pashosh" became the head of the investigations unit of the Shin Bet security service, whose very name was semisecret at the time. He always called me and my brother "ein kleiner yekke" - a little yekke, or German Jew - and in fact still does.

Every evening another unforgettable scene unfolded at the corner of Leon Reich Street. The old taxi driver covered the engine of his car with wool blankets, layer after layer, as one would a child, so the engine would not get cold, heaven forbid, during the freezing Tel Aviv nights. I used to watch him for hours. Before that, this cabbie had a motorized kerosene cart, another device that fired children's imaginations, and before that he sold kerosene from a horse-drawn cart. Mr. Vogel, who owned the ice cream factory, a Romanian - definitely a Romanian - drove my brother and me to school every morning in his Willys car, together with Afiko, his son. My photo album shows two rugrats in their winter coats on the way to school. "Puk-puk, puk-puk," was my brother's imitation of the sound made by the windshield wipers of the Willis, when he came home, thrilled by the exciting ride. Puk-puk, we said as we overturned a tricycle in our room and pretended it was a bus, playing "driver and ticket collector." "Sheinkin Street - anyone getting off?" I would call out, practicing to realize my life's dream of being a bus driver.

Car from Germany

Sometimes we played a different fancy game. We would order a "special taxi" by phone - something only Grandpa Victor allowed himself to do during that period of austerity and modesty - and then I would sit Rafi on our little tricycle for a "special" trip to the kitchen. There were few cars in the street in those days, just Mr. Sarna's Sussita and two or three other lap-of-luxury models, including one belonging to "plastic man," as we called him, because his car was always filled with empty plastic bottles.

In 1966, when dad bought our first car, an NSU Prinz 1000, we debated for hours over the color of its floormats. Finally we decided on "champagne," as the glossy brochure termed it. The arrival of the reparations and the car from Germany transformed our lives beyond recognition. We had a hard time deciding between the Prinz, the VW Beetle, the Hino Contessa and the Fiat 850. Each cost between 12,000 and 13,000 Israeli lirot - I remember the exact prices. Dad ruled out the Contessa immediately: it was said at once: people said the body panels of Japanese cars was "like paper" and that it rusted, too. The VW was too expensive, the Fiat too Italian. We discussed everything in the family for days, and our excitement knew no bounds. One day, when I came home from a bar mitzvah lesson with Bochkeh, a typesetter and relative, my right hand in a cast from a heroic but failed broad jump at school, I was struck by the full splendor of a wondrous sight: Dad stood proudly next to the Prinz with the champagne mats. I think he was never so happy in his life, not even when my brother was born and he carried him out of Dajani Hospital in Jaffa to the first and last taxi ride my parents ever took.

Every evening until my brother was born, I used to open the wooden shutter in my room before going to sleep and pray to God (without the barrier of the shutter between us) for a brother, please, a brother, like my friends have. Every Friday, Dad washed the car and beat it dry with the chamois. I got to wipe the taillights, which I thought were the acme of technology and design, to make sure nothing stuck to them. Before the rain, or the sun - whichever came first - he would also do a special wax job, with a damp cloth, of course. Afterward we would drive to the corner of King George and Allenby streets, stopping next to Altman's Pharmacy, so that dad could practice a quick uphill start. When he had to stop on the way, he gave the gear stick a good shaking from side to side, to make sure the gear was in neutral. You can sometimes see me doing the same, in secret, just like Dad.
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