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Forgetting the Past In a City of the Future

‘Every city develops a kind of imagined sense of itself alongside the actual structure of the city,” said Barbara Mann, professor of literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “But Tel Aviv is an extreme case.”

In her new book, “A Place in History: Modernism, Tel Aviv, and the Creation of Jewish Urban Space,” Mann documents Tel Aviv’s cultural identity, from the first years of settlement to the burgeoning metropolis after statehood. That identity turns out to be complex, and often conflicted — oppositions like old and new, religious and secular, Israel and Diaspora, Jewish and Arab define the city’s sense of self.

“The establishment of Tel Aviv in 1909 was part of a fundamental revolution in modern Jewish culture regarding notions of space and place,” she writes. European Jewish thought had understood Jews as a “people of time”; a Diaspora people without a physical homeland, Jews were said to have made themselves at home in a temporal landscape. As Abraham Joshua Heschel has written, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals,” and “Jewish ritual is an architecture of time.” But with 19th-century political emancipation and the emergence of Jewish nationalism, with its call for Jewish territorial autonomy, Jewish life began to take form in space. Zionism’s call for Jewish statehood implied the embodiment of Jewish ideas in space, and the Jewish settlement of Palestine called for the building of Jewish cities. The building of Tel Aviv, a modern city in a Jewish idiom, was a kind of a test case for this shift in the nature of Jewishness.

The art produced by early residents of Tel Aviv seems to reflect this instinct to make physical the city’s inner life. “Tel Aviv’s growth as an urban center is inseparable from the creation of a vernacular Hebrew literature,” Mann writes. One of the principal objectives of this early Hebrew literature, she continues, was “the depiction of space, often before it existed in physical, concrete form.” In her book, Mann takes this early literature as source material, studying early Zionist novels and poetry alongside a broad range of other sources. Hebrew poems and novels, journalistic accounts by foreigners, and letters of ordinary citizens recorded in the municipal archives all animate her study.

Visual imagery informs her work, too. In the 1920s and early ’30s, Mann writes, a “torrent of visual records” came out of Tel Aviv. Where previously Jewish culture had some aversion to visual representation, rooted in historical arguments about the biblical prohibition of making graven images, she continues, at this point Tel Aviv became “the site where normative notions of Jewish antipathy to image making” came “to an end.” So visual materials — paintings, photographs, images of public art and architecture — become essential to her study of early Tel Aviv. Using the tools of her own field, literature, and borrowing from the methodology of cultural studies, she reads images as texts, teasing ideas of the nature of identity in the city out of diverse source material.

But at the core of Mann’s study is an analysis of the Old Cemetery, on Trumpeldor Street in central Tel Aviv. This public space seems to embody a conflict that is fundamental to the city’s identity: the opposition between history and innovation, between memory and forgetting. Mann notes that many of her sources emphasize the city’s newness, praising its electricity and transportation infrastructure, and calling attention to its role as a kind of laboratory for modern architecture. But, she writes, “This future-oriented drive toward newness was continually thwarted by the rhetoric of place and homeland, of a return to privileged space, the ‘Land of Israel.’”

The Old Cemetery embodies these conflicting impulses. Founded during the 1902 cholera epidemic in Jaffa, when officials prohibited the burying of the dead within city walls, the cemetery was built on 12 dunams of sandy land north of Jaffa. Five years after the cholera epidemic, when officials announced plans to build a Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa, the city of Tel Aviv began to grow up around the Old Cemetery. “In essence,” Mann writes, “the city began with its dead.”

Citing the emphasis on burial in the land of Israel in the Jewish tradition, Mann finds that for the builders of Tel Aviv, the Old Cemetery served as a kind of symbol of homecoming. But some aspects of the cemetery undermine that symbolism. The fact that the cemetery predated the city, Mann writes, “rendered it a constant reminder of not being at home.” And its exposed location underscored a sense of instability, “at odds with the longevity of the diasporic Jewish cemeteries with which it was implicitly compared.”

Abdel Nabi, the Muslim cemetery in Tel Aviv, serves as a counterpoint that proves Mann’s point about the city’s troubled relationship with history. Also built during the 1902 cholera epidemic, Abdel Nabi was located in the dunes north of Jaffa on a stretch of beachfront property, now buried underneath the Tel Aviv Hilton. Abdel Nabi played a major role in the city’s civic life and urban plan in the first part of the 20th century, but its physical structures began to degrade after the growth of Tel Aviv cut it off from Jaffa’s Arab community. By the 1940s, that prominent role diminished, as Zionist culture deemphasized the Arab communities that predated Jewish settlement. Abdel Nabi came to be regarded as “ruins,” following what Mann calls “a general tendency in Hebrew sources to depict Arab places as ruins (churva), a ‘necessary’ but obsolete element of the natural landscape.”

By the 1960s, when Conrad N. Hilton began searching for a site for a new hotel in Tel Aviv, the prominence of Abdel Nabi had totally faded. Hilton chose the beachfront cemetery as his site, and by 1965 he completed construction on the Tel Aviv branch of his hotel empire, which was rapidly expanding across the Middle East. How did Tel Aviv permit Hilton to build his hotel on top of a major cemetery? Where was the Muslim community, whose dead were buried there? How could the Jewish community, with its strong emphasis on respect for the dead, allow this to happen?

What would it take to for the Old Cemetery to become “a true site of memory, not one of forgetting?” Mann asks. That would mean remembering Abdel Nabi, too, she answers, and acknowledging the community that built it — both in retrospect, recognizing the Muslim community that predated Jewish settlement, and, in a more forward-looking way, acknowledging its implications for the sociopolitical landscape of Tel Aviv today.

Mann finds this lapse entirely in keeping with the city’s conflicted cultural identity. The Old Cemetery did serve as a site of memory in early Tel Aviv, a place where people gathered to remember their loved ones, and to remember the people and places left behind in Europe. But the Old Cemetery also seems to be a site of forgetting. Preserving the Jewish cemetery on Trumpeldor Street while building a Hilton over Abdel Nabi seems a symptom of what Mann calls deep amnesia — a case of forgetting so profound, it seems intentional.

Digging up artifacts from turn of the century Tel Aviv, Mann points out the inconsistencies in the city’s familiar historical narrative. “A Place in History” makes any straightforward account of the city’s genesis ring false, reminding us of the complexity of Jewish history and memory.

Adina Lopatin writes about architecture and urbanism.

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