I am reading the streets of Tel Aviv for their genre affiliations.
There are streets named after rabbis and streets named after politicians. Streets of royalty and streets of revolutionaries. There’s Shalom Shabazi Street, named for a poet who wrote in three languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic) and who dreamed of Israel from 17th century Yemen. Just a quick walk away—look closely or you’ll miss it—is one small block named after George Eliot, who challenged both gender and genre and somehow wound up here, holding a convenience store and a shoe repair on her tiny lap.
There are relationships in the map grid, if you look closely enough. Dizengoff, named after the mayor, runs parallel to, but does not intersect with, Ben-Yehuda, the linguist—except that if there were no Ben-Yehuda, all the street signs, including Dizengoff, would be in a different language. Weizmann, the chemist-president, leads to David, the poet-king. Ben-Gurion runs east-west, while his great political rival, Menachem Begin, runs north-south. (They do not meet.) One of the shortest streets of all is Ha-Nevei’im—the street of the prophets. Genre-defying folks, for sure, though their stories all end the same way.
No matter how many times I’m here, the street signs are never just designations to me. They bend and they open, revealing all their connections and contradictions. My apartment looks out on Basel Street, the city in Switzerland, sure, but really marking an event and an idea—the first Zionist congress, held there in 1897. One way or another, we’re all here in this city, Tel Aviv, because of Basel. But my children don’t know that, nor, perhaps, do they need to, when they walk down Basel Street every morning for their daily pastry.
What happens to street names when you encounter them every day? How do they fade, shift in their purpose? Israelis are as aware of history as anyone I’ve ever met, but it’s human nature to skew to habit and complacency. Here, Ben-Gurion takes you to the beach, and Basel takes you to the bakery.
Ask one of my Israeli neighbors how to get from point A to point B, and you won’t get a history lecture, or a discussion of changing literary conventions. (A long cab ride might be a different story.) In fact, they’re likely to dispense with complicated instructions and street names altogether, especially when dealing with tourists. Instead, it’s just an energetic wave of the hand in the general direction of wherever it is you want to go. You’ll probably also get, unsolicited, the standard Israeli advice for finding your way. Yeshar, yeshar, yeshar—ad ha-sof. Straight ahead, until the end.
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Coming to Israel after living in a galut, where most of the streets were named before my bobbe and zayde stepped off the boat, I am always taken with the Hebrew street signs. There is nothing that says “home” more than streets named after one’s own sages and history. But the nature of home is also imperfect, at least as long as women are written out of history and their names absent from the sh’latim.