Does Tel Aviv have its own “Little Odesa” and other Ukrainian neighborhoods?


Ze'ev Volkov (Copyright: Hromadske Radio)

Ze’ev Volkov, a tour guide and employee of the Tel Avi-Yafo Municipal Museum and the Bialik Museum, talks about Tel Aviv and its history, and discusses the contribution of émigrés from Ukraine and other countries to the development of the city.

Iryna Slavinska:  What kind of city is Tel Aviv?

Ze’ev Volkov:  One day a thought occurred to me: Tel Aviv is forever young. Tel Aviv is a city that is a little over a hundred years old. That is its advantage. So, Tel Aviv can be whatever it wants, and that, too, is an asset.

Iryna Slavinska:  But a hundred years is a very solid age, in fact.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Kyiv is 1,300-plus years old. I was born in Odesa—it’s 200 years old. But to talk about Tel Aviv…

It is a city-utopia, and that is Tel Aviv’s uniqueness. Imagine a city that was created as the first real Jewish city. For example, if we talk about Jerusalem, that is the greatest city, and it is connected, for us of course, in our great myth, with the history of the Jews. It is the city of the Essenes, if we read the Bible, whom King David captures, and his son Solomon builds a temple there. And if we talk about various cities, they are all cities where Jews entered.

But imagine: A city that may be called the first Jewish city appears only in the twentieth century.

Iryna Slavinska:  What does this mean? You say that this is a city-utopia. Every utopia has its own set of characteristics. And it is as if the city-utopia illustrates them with some kinds of features of its structure, perhaps its promenades, the sea, the way the streets are laid out.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Let’s start at the very beginning. Let’s imagine that generally Jews as a nation emerged in the nineteenth century. In general, the word “nation” appeared in the nineteenth century. That is why the word “Jew,” in the modern sense, appears in the nineteenth century. And a man appears among the Jewish people who is called Binyamin Ze'ev, or Theodor Herzl, and he is our Martin Luther King. He says: “I have a dream.” He tells us that it is time to go to Palestine and build our state. And he writes two books. His second book is entitled The Old New Land, and it was written in 1902. It is possible to translate it into Hebrew, but it was translated horribly the first time. And a man appears who says: “I know a great translation: Tel Aviv.” “Tel” is an ancient city, an ancient hill. And “Aviv” means spring. Spring came to the ancient hill: Tel Aviv. And the city that is born in 1909 takes the name of a book that was published seven years earlier.

Iryna Slavinska:  So, Tel Aviv is a metaphorical name. We are returning to our conversation about utopia.

Ze’ev Volkov:  First of all, we acquired a city that is unique, a mononational one. This is a rare thing. Today people would consider this fascism because we know the last series, we know Hitler, we know everything that took place. But in 1909 people don’t know this; that is why they believe that every nation should live separately.

This is a mononational city, a unique thing, and a whole architecture is designed for it—not even architecture but a separate understanding. In the 1920s [the Scottish town planner Sir Patrick] Geddes arrives. He is one of the greatest people engaged in urbanism, and he creates the idea of the city. And that is why today you see before you such a completely postmodernist city. It has three centers—cultural, trade, and technological. This is a city that was planned as a city. In general, if we think about the State of Israel, its uniqueness lies in the fact that this is a twentieth-century state that was created by totally progressive people who thought: “How will we build a state?” This is a country made by people. This is very interesting.

Iryna Slavinska:  What things can a glance at Tel Aviv’s architecture and structure tell us about Israel as a young country and this utopian project and its realization in practice? You have already said that this is a postmodernist project. Let’s describe it a bit. What is it? Long, broad boulevards, the fantastic promenade where you can walk?

Ze’ev Volkov:  No, to one and the other. You have to look a different way.

The promenade—no. Forget about the promenade. It is elegant, if you walk around Tel Aviv. But originally it did not exist in the city, because in the 1920s Mr. Geddes did not include it; he did not reflect on how the sea meets the city, his idea, the idea of Zionism. But today there is a promenade; it’s all very good.

Iryna Slavinska:  When did it appear?

Ze’ev Volkov:  There are two cities that I love. They are the mirror cities Odesa and Tel Aviv. If you walk around Odesa, you realize that the sea cannot be seen from the city at all. The same in Tel Aviv: It is a bit closer to the sea, but still the architecture itself does not flirt with the sea at all. After the First World War, when Jews were returning here, we see that a huge number of people are coming to the sea, and a rumor even circulates that, whereas earlier a Jew dreamed of a place in the future world, now he dreams of a place at the sea in Tel Aviv.

Let’s deal with the sea. People go to the sea, there is a whole culture of the sea. Again, if you are at the sea today, you will see that the promenade is dead. Well, not completely dead. There are a lot of people, and everything is fine. But one can remark that it was dying because in the 1960s and 1970s all the debris from the sewer poured into the water. The city was not designed to accommodate so many people. Geddes calculated his plan for thirty thousand people, but today we have half a million, and we are growing; we have satellite towns.

Iryna Slavinska:  But if the sea is not part of the city’s design, then what is?

Ze’ev Volkov:  Recently an elegant exhibition of all kinds of articles connected with the 1930s took place in Jerusalem. There is “Monopoly,” it has cheap companies, there are more expensive companies; there are also more or less expensive cities. The most expensive city in “Monopoly” in 1920 is Tel Aviv. This is a city-utopia; Jews go there in the twentieth century. If we look at the general history of the twentieth century, we see that in the history of world Zionism emphasis is placed on kibbutzim and on their antithesis—the bourgeois city of Tel Aviv. Jerusalem exists alongside. Everything is there, everything is fine there; it is all about God there.

Tel Aviv is an existential city. This city is not about God but about man. This is a city that is made by people for people; it creates what is called Jewish culture. The fact is that in the twentieth century the idea emerges that the Jews have their own culture and it can be non-religious. And when the Habima Theater comes to Tel Aviv, when Hayim Nahman Bialik arrives there, we get a city of Jewish culture. To this day, if we are talking about non-religious culture, this is the flagship of Israel. Do people love us for this?

Iryna Slavinska: “Us”—the residents of Tel Aviv?

Ze’ev Volkov:  Yes. We are like New Yorkers, who understand that there is America, and there is New York. In the same way there is Tel Aviv, and there is Israel. These are all jokes, but there is a bit of truth in this, there is a bit of untruth in this, but…. That’s the way it looks.

Iryna Slavinska:  If you describe a concise portrait of a New Yorker, or rather a resident of Tel Aviv, who is it? A hipster, a student, an artist, a Bohemian?

Ze’ev Volkov:  It is a liberal-minded person, it is a person who loves his/her freedom, loves the freedom of others. This is precisely why today we can talk about the pride parades that take place in Tel Aviv and attract two hundred thousand people. And I am proud of the fact that this exists in our city. We can speak of lectures that the finest physicists, the finest economists, give in bars.

This is a young city. If there are young hipsters today, then this will be a city of hipsters. Tomorrow, when the hipsters grow old, there will be something else—and this will be their city. This is a city of young people; that is its great attraction.

Iryna Slavinska:  Right now we could do a brief survey of the main places and the main hubs of this culture. What creates it? Is it theater? Is it literature? Who and what is it?

Ze’ev Volkov:  There is a vector of the city’s development. And since the city is a hundred years old, we see its evolution clearly. It goes from south to north, that’s Jaffa. By the way, here’s an interesting thing. People thought that the city would develop eastward. The east is Jerusalem, of course. Then again, of course, man proposes, but God disposes…. And historically the city began developing northward because of the sea. It is interesting that Odesa is exactly the same. People thought that it would develop in the continent, for salt, but it began to develop in terms of the sea. The same thing happened with Tel Aviv.

You also have to remember that the development of Tel Aviv was determined by the arrival in Israel of Jews from various countries. If, at the outset it is established by Jews from Ukraine, that is, from the Pale of Settlement, from countries that are located on the territory of the former Soviet Union, then later Poles, Jews from Poland, arrive here, and the city changes. Beautiful, eclectic houses appear. And in the 1930s Jews from Germany arrive here.

We can simply look at this as though it’s a cake. It moves northward in layers, later it reaches the very north, when the State of Israel is founded. And the district of Ramat Aviv appears in the north. This is Rublevka [the unofficial name of a prestigious residential area in the western suburbs of Moscow—Trans.], and Kyiv’s Pechersk [neighborhood].

Iryna Slavinska:  Lypky, that’s a very posh district.

Ze’ev Volkov:  Yes, but Lypky was formed historically, and this one—at the end. It appears at the end.

Iryna Slavinska:  In other words, someone simply decided that there would be a posh neighborhood here. 

Ze’ev Volkov:  It was decided that it would be fine here, and that was that. And they create an autonomous neighborhood. When Tel Aviv is wiped off the face of the earth, this neighborhood will not even notice. It is autonomous, and a university is already being built next to it. They want to transfer the center there; they are digging next to the Yarkon River. They are digging, and all of a sudden, they find remains of ancient houses, and suddenly they realize, or they write, or they figure out that these are Jewish homes dating back to the eighth century A.D. And something interesting comes out of this. We are not colonists, not occupiers—we are returning to our home.

In other words, we built the city on sand; the entire city was a beach. But if you kick this beach, before you open up ancient Jewish settlements. This idea is slightly romantic.

Tel Aviv (Copyright: Hromadske Radio, Iryna Slavinska)

If we are talking about what’s next, then everything is being built to the north, and in the late 1970s something interesting happens. The new city mayor says: “Let’s go back, guys.” And once again we begin to build to the south, which was neglected, and it begins…. It’s working very well today; among the vintage that we so love, the nostalgia that we so love. Today it is in a pure form in the south, we are getting it in the south.

Iryna Slavinska:  What is Tel Aviv nostalgia?

Ze’ev Volkov:  You have a city that is a hundred years old, you have articles of the original fashion that existed in 1948, there are original little houses that house galleries today; it is cool there. And there is also gentrification taking place in Tel Aviv. As soon as you have old neighborhoods, artists flock in. Artists come there, they live there, they build up the neighborhood, they create a certain atmosphere, Bohemians arrive into that atmosphere; after a while Bohemian flair appears in the neighborhood, and after a time glamor arrives there, and prices for everything rise. Tel Aviv is developing in such sectors. That is why gentrification is what is creating the current look of Tel Aviv and its atmosphere today.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s continue talking about the traces and the changes of neighborhoods and about how the city is evolving dynamically. You already mentioned the contribution of Jews who had lived in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, in particular, the countries of the former Soviet Union. Is there a noticeable impact of Jews from Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania on the city of Tel Aviv?

Ze’ev Volkov:  Among those who immigrate, the relationship with their culture which they bring out is quite specific, and in Tel Aviv this is wonderfully evident. Until 1959 a culture of the people who come from the countries of the former Soviet Union develops in Tel Aviv. There is no Soviet Union there because everyone left before 1917. But later, from 1959 onwards the Americanization of Tel Aviv begins. In general, the Americanization of Tel Aviv is an important vector of the state. You have the construction of the first skyscraper, and generally it is clearly visible where we stopped eating gefilte fish and began eating burgers; where we stopped drinking vodka and began drinking whisky. In other words, we see unmistakably that the city is utterly changing.

Iryna Slavinska:  But can one see traces of other cities in Tel Aviv on the construction level? Perhaps buildings, perhaps décor?

Ze’ev Volkov:  Of course.

Iryna Slavinska:  How, where? Is there a Little Odesa, a Little Kyiv? A Little Warsaw?

Ze’ev Volkov:  There is a Little Warsaw. Look, we have the chief architect of the city in the 1920s, Yehuda Magidovitch, a man who studied in Odesa and constructed more than four hundred buildings in Tel Aviv. He simply made a copy of Odesa, but there are courtyards only in Odesa, we don’t have courtyards. There are a couple of buildings that were built by Lviv architects—and this is Lviv. But it is necessary to look for it exactly.

Later the construction that we call Bauhaus is brought in. It is not very Bauhaus, of course, it is an international architecture. There are more than three hundred such buildings in Tel Aviv. It’s fun, it is a completely different city.

But look, today we have already had four architectural trends in a hundred years: eclectic; what we call Bauhaus; what is known as brutalism; as well as contemporary architecture. And they are all standing next to each other. So, if you want to look at the architecture of the twentieth century, the twenty-first century, and the transitions between them, you must come to Tel Aviv.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian and Russian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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