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Street People

by Helga Dudman

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Despite the many historic and biblical connections with the geographical Holy Land, the State of Israel is of course still a young country. An independent republic since 1948, it's three biggest cities: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, are full of streets, boulevards, squares and alleyways named after some historic figure or other. Tel Aviv itself was only founded in 1909 (developed initially on uninhabited sand dunes as an overspill neighbourhood of the ancient port town of Jaffa) and the residential expansion beyond Jerusalem's medieval city walls only began in earnest with the rise of applied Zionism in the latter half of the 19th century. Helga Dudman - an American-born journalist residing in Israel for some 20+ years at the time of publication - has compiled a book which explores the backgrounds and biographical histories of some of those individuals behind the names - the familiar as well as the not-so-familiar.

Some names, almost ubiquitous in the Jewish state, such as Rothschild, Nordau (an early Zionist leader) or King George V, are honoured in all three of the featured cities, but to be honest the locations in Haifa barely get a mention, and Jerusalem only figures in a minority of chapters (one chapter in particular covering the history of the so-called 'American Colony'). Principally though, this is a book about those 'Street People' of what is arguably Zionism's greatest achievement: the city of Tel Aviv.

A fair few of the individuals covered in this informative book are either in Soskin's iconic photo of the first Tel Aviv plot-holders on the empty dunes in 1909, or related to people who are:

'...A natty-looking figure, wearing what appear to be white flannel trousers, a dark blazer and a white hat, stands apart from the crowd and seems to be addressing them...They were middle-class merchants, teachers and professionals. There was not one open shirt in the crowd.

I long assumed that the natty figure was Dizengoff, [Tel Aviv's charismatic first mayor] in charge of this memorable occasion. But I was wrong. The man with all the trappings of leadership was merely a Jew from Jaffa named Feingold, whose parents had converted to Christianity, and who had come to mock the group of demented dreamers and their mad project.

"What are you crazy people trying to do here? There's no water, nothing but sand, sand, sand! You are all mad!" Feingold shouted at the group.'

Ensuing chapters cover such diverse figures as Moshe Lillienblum, Moses Montefiore, the aforementioned Meir Dizengoff, George Eliot, Bronislaw Huberman (founding musical director of the Israel Philharmonic) and Arturo Toscanini (it's inaugural guest conductor when it was the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1936). A chapter behind the history of the busy King George Street (Tel Aviv's. Nearly every Israeli town large and small honours the British Mandate & Balfour Declaration era monarch) includes a grisly murder mystery from the late 1940s.

I learnt about important people in Israel's history. Not just Zionists, but also Jewish classicists and philosophers - the medieval poets Ibn Gabirol and Judah HaLevi; philanthropists like Baron de Hirsch, and the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature: Selma Lagerlöf from Sweden. The book is an interesting assortment of artists, writers, politicians and even the odd religious sage or two. I even learnt about the man whose name is given to my favourite beach in Tel Aviv. There are many great quotes scattered throughout. While not necessarily agreeing with every word - this passage from the discussion on the poet Saul Tchernichowsky caught my eye:

'When a house is built by and for the man who will live in it, it will have beauty, Tchernichowsky wrote nearly 40 years ago; but when contractors build blocks for profit, the dream is gone.

In that forgotten essay on premature nostalgia, Tchernichowsky also wrote that, in spite of the ravages of progress, "it is nevertheless impossible not to love crowded Tel Aviv, because this is after all the only spot on earth where a Jew can be simply a human being called a Jew...without any feeling that he is a Jew, and without even being aware of it."'

My favourite chapter though was entitled 'The Chelouche Saga'. Dudman tells the fantastic tale of how a young boy, with his family en route from war-torn Algiers to the Holy Land, is one of the few survivors of an horrendous shipwreck off the Palestine coast in 1838. Eventually, what remained of the boy's family settled in Jaffa, where his father opened a small shop in an alleyway behind the famous little clocktower. The Chelouche family go on to become extremely successful merchants before the waves of later Zionist immigration.

There is a lovely legend (told to the author by an elderly grand-daughter of that little boy) of a by-then elderly Aharon Chelouche helping a distressed Arab boy, far from his home village, whose camel and money had been stolen. Some years and events pass and during the First World War the Turkish authorities evicted non-Turkish citizens from Tel Aviv, and the Chelouche family become refugees - soon finding themselves quite destitute. [non-fictional spoiler ahead!] Eventually, in a small Arab village where they took shelter, a sheikh arrived with a small caravan asking -

'"Is there a man called Chelouche?" Old Aharon, now a venerable 89, presented himself, and the stranger said, "You don't remember me. My name is Hadj Ibrahim Samara, and I am the boy to whom you once gave a mejida {very valuable coin} in Jaffa. I will never forget that kindness as long as I live. Now I have heard that you are refugees here..."'

The sheikh proceeds to bring Aharon's son Yosef Eliahu to his home, and after retrieving a hidden stash, presents him with 500 gold sovereigns -

'...insisting that he himself had no need for them at the moment. When, Allah willing, the war ended, the family could repay him.

The details, as Yosef Eliahu recalled them, are marvellous. "But what if we should die before the war ends?" he asked the Arab. The man replied, "Well, then neither of us will need the money."'

Dudman goes on to tell of several further uplifting encounters between the two families from one generation to the next. It really is wonderful material and perhaps worthy of a book in its own right.

This is a concise and original approach for a book which should be of interest to both tourists in Israel and students of Zionism and Jewish history alike. Recommended. ( )
8 vote Polaris- | Apr 6, 2014 |
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