The Winds of the Arts

An ode to the Tel Aviv of yesteryear.

The colorful characters who walked the streets that I grew up in were actors and playwrights, poets and singers, set and costume designers, puppet makers, painters, directors, orchestra musicians, composers, and arrangers. Many of them are now names etched on plaques, affixed to the buildings that they once lived in; visual memories of the cultural history of Tel Aviv, mounted by City Hall at the beginning of the twenty-first century. You can see these names as you walk along the streets of Tel Aviv.

These were people that I knew well. I sat on their laps and listened to their stories, watched them on stage, took lessons in painting from them, learned from them how to deliver a good joke and the importance of enunciating each and every syllable. “You are not pronouncing the words clearly when you speak,” one older actor used to criticize me each time I bumped into him in the street. “Every word needs to be understood when you are on stage.” I was about seven years old at the time.

The streets were narrow and the pavements were low, the buildings no higher than four or five stories. The warm air, climbing up from the Mediterranean Sea into Gordon and Frishman streets, filled the small White City in the heart of Tel Aviv with the fresh creative inspiration that we all breathed in…

These people were not just people, they were all household names. Yet, they were artists that everyone felt close to, everyone felt drawn to. They were well known, but they were also the next-door neighbors who one could joke with and carry a conversation. They sat in coffee shops, smoking, drinking, telling stories—and above all, carrying their passion for the arts.

This was all part of the spirit of Tel Aviv in the late sixties and the early seventies.

As a little girl, I was almost always back stage: watching rehearsals through a hole in the black curtain, listening to adults memorizing their lines, trying my best not to make a sound in the recording studio when an original song was played back for the very first time, attending orchestra rehearsals; walking through the carpentry basement as scenery was put together for a new play, smelling the glue, touching the wood; going through the wig room into the costume sewing area, terrified by the mannequins dressed in the new suit designed for a ruthless king, or the dress for a betrayed queen; trying my best not to get lost on the movie set that I had been permitted to hang out in on my own.

This was my childhood.

For as long as I can remember, the arts have been part of my existence. They are part of my heritage, they are my DNA. My grandparents were among the founders of Habima, the National Theatre of Israel. My grandmother was an actress, and across the years used to recite to me lines from her parts. It was a valuable part of our time together. It was also her way, I think, of reminding herself that she was an actress. I got to see her dance, as a chorus girl in the 1976 production of the French farce The Italian Straw Hat, when she was 75 years old. “The nice new nurse at the doctor’s office recognized me today…” That would make her day, even when she was in her late 80s. My grandfather, a director and an actor, was the founder of the Habima actors’ studio and a well-regarded teacher. My mother, an actress in the National Theatre, was a prolific recording artist for children. She was always performing and recording: children’s festivals, radio shows, movies, television shows. There was always a new script to read, a new story to be recorded, a new song to learn. Everything that was created was new. When I was a little girl, people were thirsty for the arts.

The conversations that carried in the air usually ran thus:

How was your show last night? When is the premiere? Who is playing this part or that? Who will be directing? When is the exhibition’s opening day? Who is the conductor? Why isn’t there more time for rehearsals? Who is the translator?

Now, these questions were not innocent. More often than not, they came with a strong opinion about who or what was really the right choice. Usually, the conclusion was that whatever it was, their choice would have been better. The actor could have been more convincing, the text of the play could have been richer, the intonation should have been stronger, the singer sang in the wrong key.

There was never “Good Enough”; there was always, though, “How could we make what we are doing better?” “How can we make a difference with what we are saying?” “How can we shake the audience to its core?” This was the way that everyone was thinking then.

The morning after a premiere was usually a very different morning, once the regarded critics had passed their judgment in the daily papers. If the reviews were good, it would be cheerful morning with everyone, especially those connected to the play in question, walking with their heads held up high. However, if the reviews were bad, the atmosphere would be grim, and the unspoken question in the air would be: “Who’s real fault was it, anyway?” The director’s, he should be responsible; the leading actress, for not being up to the task; the lead actor, who just didn’t make enough of an effort…

The Tel Aviv of the sixties and seventies hustled and bustled with the arts. Most of the actresses, who had come from Russia as a group of founders to start a Hebrew-speaking theatre in the nascent State of Israel, would walk the streets with big straw hats to protect their fair skin, paired with high-heeled shoes and short little dresses, I remember one actress in particular. She had a very narrow face, her nose pointing downwards toward her mouth like a beak. Her relatively darker skin always seemed to glow, as if covered with oil. Most days, she would wear a green hat with a wide brim, held in place by a thin transparent scarf, also green. It was clear she was extremely worried about the unforgiving sun damaging her delicate features. She had no children, I recall. One could tell, even when she was walking the narrow streets on her high heels—chin up, neck long, posture erect—that she was accustomed to walking the stage. She was willing to receive applause at any given moment—even on the corner of Dov Hoz and Gordon.

There were the special coffee shops on Dizengoff, just like today only not quite as many, a different coffee shop for a different type of art. Frak Cafe was the coffee shop where my grandmother used to sit with Shmuel Rudenski, who played Tevye, the Fiddler on the Roof, all over the world, and his wife the actress Nura Shine. Then there was the Kasit, the coffee shop where all the poets sat and drank; these coffee shops were filled with everyday people.

In the mid-seventies, the buildings around Gordon and Frug and Ben Yehuda began to fill with art galleries. Works by the greatest painters of the era, like Marcel Janko and Zaretski, would cover the small white walls of the small galleries popping up in every entrance to every little house. Big iron signs, in Hebrew and in English, were erected to catch the attention of the tourists visiting the hotels on the shoreline along HaYarkon Street.

The very first gallery was Hadasa Klatchkin’s gallery. Her husband was an actor; if your art made it on to the walls of her gallery, you could then say that you were a real artist. I would enter these galleries clutching my mother’s hand. She would just walk in to ask a question, or to meet someone who she knew had stopped at the gallery next door to us, while I would raise my head and see some great new works of art. I never thought much of it. Sometimes, a painting or sculpture might make me anxious, but no one paid any attention to my fears. This was art, after all. It was all around, and I became accustomed to these strong expressions of emotions around me. This was my playground, these were my slides and sea-saws, creative forces subtly carving my way in life.

Aside from the familiar faces of artists in the streets of Tel Aviv, there were also private people. Bankers and lawyers, nurses and doctors, teachers and kindergarten nurses, bus drivers and little shop owners, just like in any other small town elsewhere in the world. They all knew these artists; they walked and lived among them, breathed the same air they were breathing, drank the same energy and creative juices that they were drinking, walked among them after seeing them at the theatre the night before. They visited the same galleries and had tickets to the Philharmonic; they all listened to the same records, many recorded in the recording studios around these same streets.

Many years have passed. The streets today are filled with random passers-by who don’t always look up to read the names that made it to the walls of their buildings.

New kids walk the pavements, looking no further that the phones in their hands. Grownups are running to the gym, buying the new gourmet bread, searching for wedding dresses on Dizengoff.  I try to recall all the people I once knew. If they could come out of the stones: Rovina on Gordon Street, Finkel on Dov Hoz, Genia Berger on the corner of Dov Hoz and Smilanski and Fanni Lubitch on Frug. If they could walk among us for just an hour, that hour when the sun is setting, when it’s almost time for them to rush for the No 5 bus to the theatre or to the music hall, when they go into the buildings and into the dressing rooms. I imagine climbing, for the very last time, up the big old oak tree in Jacob’s Municipal Garden, across from Habima’s dressing rooms windows, to peek into the hallways and see who I might recognize this time in the wig or with a long beard glued to his face; who is now playing the emperor, who is now playing the whore.

To see, one last time, all these who inspired me to become the artist that I am today.

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