An urbanist discourse is alive and well in Israel, as evidenced by the cultural critic Tamar Berger, who studies Israeli — especially Tel Aviv — space in her acclaimed book “Dionysus at Dizengoff Center” (1998), newly translated into French as “Place Dizengoff” by Actes Sud Publishers by the remarkable Turkish-born writer Rosie Pinhas-Delpuech and long overdue for English translation.
Fully aware of the precedents of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire as evocative observers of modern city life, Berger, who teaches at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, opened a landmark arts bookstore, “Twentieth Century” decades ago, giving a lift to the trendy, artsy Tel Aviv neighborhood of Sheinkin Street.
She analyzes historical documents relating to a parcel of land containing vineyards and orange groves, belonging to Adib Mahmad Hinawi, an Arab who was mysteriously assassinated in 1939, possibly for being too friendly with Jewish settlers. In 1948 the land was confiscated after Israel’s statehood was proclaimed, becoming the Nordia Quarter, a center for Polish émigrés, as evoked in Yaakov Shabtai’s “Past Continuous” (Zikhron Devarim) and poems by Avoth Yeshurun, the pen name of Ukrainian-born Yehiel Perlmutter.
Addressing the construction of the Dizengoff Center, Berger does not shy away from the heart-wrenching subject of the 1996 suicide bombing there, displaying a stout-heartedness one might expect, since she is married to Israeli documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi a doughty analyst of local violence and its effects on the population.
“Dionysus at Dizengoff Center” is a key text complementing more formal academic studies like “A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv, and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space” (Stanford University Press, 2006) by Barbara E. Mann, Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In what the translator Pinhas-Delpuech aptly terms a “fascinating psychoanalysis of a highly sensitive terrain,” Berger blends philosophy and political observations and has since produced a second book, equally ripe for English translation, “In the Space Between World and Playing: The Model in Israeli Culture” (2007).
Watch a moment of consumer ecstasy at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center at the opening of a new Apple computer store.
For a more sedate, but charming, pause for coffee at the Dizengoff Center, watch below.