Can Sheinkin Street Survive a Spiff-Up?

Tel Aviv's Bohemian Redoubt Fears Urban Renewal

Bohemian Haunt: Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street has long been a home to colorful hole-in-the-wall spots. The municipal authorities want to spruce it up, but old-timers smell a rat.
gil shefler
Bohemian Haunt: Tel Aviv’s Sheinkin Street has long been a home to colorful hole-in-the-wall spots. The municipal authorities want to spruce it up, but old-timers smell a rat.

By Gil Shefler

Published April 15, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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“I’ve been here for a long time,” he said, “and in my opinion, things will stay exactly the same as they were.”

But few things stay the same for long in a restless place like Tel Aviv. From modest beginnings, when it was founded as a suburb of the nearby port of Jaffa in 1909, the city grew at breakneck speed — especially after waves of Jewish immigrants arrived following the creation of Israel, in 1948. The Gush Dan metropolitan area, with Tel Aviv at its center, is now home to more than 3 million people.

Sheinkin Street received its name in the mid 1920s, when Menahem Sheinkin, an early Zionist leader, died in a traffic accident in Chicago. There is a Sheinkin Street in almost every large city in Israel, but nobody confuses those with the one in Tel Aviv.

One of the street’s unusual features is the presence of a small but robust ultra-Orthodox community living in the center of predominantly secular Tel Aviv.

“When Rabbi Aharon Rokeach came to the country, in 1944, he decided to make his home here in Tel Aviv rather than the city of conflicts, as he called Jerusalem,” explained Yakir Lenes, a 30-year-old unofficial spokesperson for the community.

Despite drastically different lifestyles, and in stark contradiction to other parts of the country, relations between the secular and religious in the neighborhood remain relatively good.

“When Rokeach heard cars driving on Shabbat,” a violation of Orthodox Judaism, “he would dismiss it, saying, ‘That must be a mother in labor being taken to hospital,’” Lenes said.

Sheinkin became synonymous with cool in the 1980s, when artists, journalists and the gay and lesbian community made it their own.

Gal Uchovsky, an Israeli journalist and gay rights activist, helped popularize the street in his articles and in his screenplay for the 2006 movie “The Bubble,” which offered a romantic take on life on Sheinkin. But unlike others interviewed for this article, Uchovsky was surprisingly less nostalgic for its past and less gloomy about its future.

“Nothing is the way it was 15 years ago,” he said. But he stressed that “now, after the renovations, it’s better.”

He said the spirit of the street remained robust, and called Stern’s fear about the imminent closure of Cafe Tamar “preposterous.”

Back at Cafe Tamar, Stern doted over her youngest customer — the great-grandson of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — offering him a piece of candy. The boy’s mother, author Noa Ben-Artzi, one of the cafe’s regulars, looked on from afar, approvingly.

“Who knows what will happen in the future?” one of the waitresses said. “But when [Stern] goes, it will probably be the end of this place.”

For all the bellicose rhetoric, it is doubtful that Stern, who served in the British army during World War II, and her loyal brigade of Cafe Tamar troops will put up a fight when construction workers show up to renovate the rest of the street after Passover ends. But whether Rabin’s great-grandson will get to nosh on soft rugelach and sip bitter coffee at the 71-year-old institution when he grows up remains to be seen.

Contact Gil Shefler at feedback@forward.com


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