Tel Aviv municipality wanted to commemorate important artists by putting up building plaques where they once lived and worked. Amazingly, some house owners refused

Alexander Penn

All we have left

PUBLISHED IN |  Aug 10, 05

If walls could talk, they might be able to tell Aryeh Ben-Yisrael a thing or two. If the floor upon which he walks today in the office building he owns in the heart of Tel Aviv could open its mouth, it might be able to remind him of the huge debt that he, the city of the Tel Aviv and Hebrew culture owe the man who once lived in the apartment below him.

Sometime in the first half of the 20th century, the poet and physician Shaul Tchernichovsky lived in the building. Today, accountant Ben-Yisrael runs Naavat Rivka, a company that deals in commerce and investments, on the floor above.

The metal shelving in the office is filled with ledgers and court rulings, in stark contrast with the books of ancient Greek that helped Tchernichovsky – the mustachioed doctor in whose apartment some of the most famous children in Tel Aviv were born – translate Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.

But this heritage apparently means little to Ben-Yisrael. When the city turned to him with a request to attach a plaque to the building on Ahad Haam Street, stating: “Shaul Tchernichovsky lived and worked here,” he refused.

The reason? A long-running dispute with the city over putting an office in the building, which went as far as the Supreme Court and ended with Ben-Yisrael’s victory in 1990. Since then, says Ben-Yisrael, who purchased the building in 1981, “I have little patience for the city. If the city wants something, I’m against it. The city has proved that it doesn’t give a damn about its residents, and any initiative on its part ultimately falls on them. Let’s say they put up the plaque. Tomorrow, they’ll come and expect me to pay. Maybe they’ll make me clean it.”

When asked if he didn’t think that honoring Tchernichovsky’s memory should be above this private dispute, his son, Erez Ben-Yisrael, stepped in and responded, “Of course, there is a willingness to show appreciation for Tchernichovsky’s memory,” saying that “the city never approached us officially.”

The city says that repeated appeals to the building owner have been met with refusal.

Apparently the dispute is an open secret in the building. One of the residents, who asked to remain nameless, says that Ben-Yisrael refuses to allow the plaque to be hung “simply because he has no feelings.”

Tchernichovsky’s former home is one of a long list of buildings in which artists lived and worked in Tel Aviv, playing a major role in shaping its culture and history. In the past five years, Bracha Ne’eman, the director of the municipal department in charge of commemorating artists and writers, has been involved in putting up building plaques. These stone plaques are uniform, 40×50 cm in size and one centimeter thick, and are to be hung on the front of the buildings. The decisions regarding where to put one up are based on research and made in consultation with any living relatives of the subject.

‘Not a cemetery’

Leah Goldberg

Leah Goldberg

Ne’eman says the project has met with considerable success with more than 60 artists and writers commemorated in this way, including Leah Goldberg, Yaakov Shabtai, Natan Alterman and Avot Yeshurun. There is no law here that regulates this form of commemoration, and consequently the municipality is dependent on the building owner’s goodwill. In most cases, they agree, says Ne’eman, but the dispute in the case of Tchernichovsky is not the only one. Other public figures, including Alexander Penn, Avraham Halfi, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Yosef Milo and Marcel Janko are all waiting for the owners of “their buildings” to agree. Avraham Shlonsky received a plaque just recently, following a drawn-out dispute.

The reason for the owners’ opposition, says Ne’eman, varies from one building to the next. One such owner maintains, “Our building is not a cemetery,” and consequently opposes the hanging of a plaque. Another is afraid that the building will become the property of the city of the Tel Aviv, even though Ne’eman issues an official document declaring that the hanging of the plaque in no way affects ownership.

The owner of the building where Yosef Milo, the founder of the Cameri Theater, lived, says, “I don’t care about art.” and the owner of the building where Mark Janko lived, casts doubt on whether the Dadaist was an artist at all. “I have an argument with you over who an artist is,” he told Ne’eman. The owner of Uri Zvi Greenberg’s former residence, Zecharia Admoni, told Haaretz that “the municipality is only trying to glorify itself” by putting up the plaque.

One of Tel Aviv cultural heroes, Alexander Penn, lived in the northern section of Dizengoff Street, not far from the police station, from 1940 until his death in 1972. His daughter Sinilga still recalls the day he and her mother moved into the tiny flat. “It was on May 1,” she says, “and father had just appeared in Gan Rina in honor of International Workers’ Day. Mother took a horse and wagon and moved everything we had down Dizengoff Street.”

In that apartment, and in a few cafes throughout Tel Aviv, Alexander Penn wrote some of the most beautiful lines ever written in the Hebrew language.

Penn was a charismatic personality, adored by both men and women, one who walked the streets of Tel Aviv with long sideburns and black boots when other men were wearing shorts and sandals. He was a strikingly handsome man with a penetrating gaze and a thundering voice. “When you saw Penn, you saw Miakovsky” says actor Shlomo Bar-Shavit, referring to the Russian composer. “You saw a poet, someone observing the world.”

Bar-Shavit met Penn when he was a young actor and Penn was the theater critic for Kol Haam. One evening after a theater premier, the two men met at cafe Kassit and from there, they continued to Penn’s small Dizengoff apartment. There they had a few glasses of tea, or perhaps some other warming liquid, in the kitchen; Bar-Shavit has trouble remembering exactly, because after a few glasses, his senses dulled and his intestines rebelled. Penn was forced to call him a taxi and he specifically instructed the driver to take his guest straight home.

Other kinds of plaques, such as those that say “This building was built by contractor so-and-so,” are very common in Tel Aviv, and no one ever says a word about them. Nevertheless, when Ne’eman approached Hannah Luz, the owner of the building where Penn had lived, she met with refusal. Yedioth Ahronoth reported in January 2004 that the reason Luz gave for her refusal was that Alexander Penn had had an extramarital affair. Luz apparently denies this. She reportedly objects in general to the hanging of a plaque. She has refused to speak to the press, including to comment for this article.

A city remembers

Haim Guri

Haim Guri

Author Haim Guri, who knew many of the artists and writers in question, responded to this matter with amazement. “If you hadn’t told me about this,” says Guri, “I would never have believed it. I find it hard to believe that a person would not be proud that a certain artist lived in his or her building. It adds to the building and it honors the city, which commemorates the artists who lived and worked in it. After all, this is the practice throughout the world. In Paris, there are restaurants that have signs – `Hemingway sat at this table.” The same is true for London and other cities. Paris could live without it, but they decided to commemorate artists in this way just the same. That is all we have left – commemoration. That is how a cultured city behaves.”

Bar-Shavit agrees: “You sit in a restaurant and you say to yourself: I am Hemingway. Perhaps something of him will stick to me. The chair is probably not the same chair anymore, it probably broke a long time ago, but it is so nice.”

“A city remembers,” adds Guri. “People exist without signs, and no one will erase them. But these plaques are part of the culture of memory and honor for Hebrew writing. The arguments for not putting up the plaques sound petty and offensive, even contemptible – an insult to the intelligence.”

Guri is convinced that this kind of commemoration is especially important in Israel. “This is a country in a frenzy, with constant waves of immigration and people changing apartments.”

Bar-Shavit sees the dispute as a symptom of something more generalized. “The Jewish People have always been rootless, ready to leave at any moment. The Jews always kept all their belongings in a bag. It is the heritage of the Expulsion from the Land of Israel and from Spain. A plaque is binding, and that is apparently difficult for this nation to take. We still have the mentality of the wandering Jew. We got out of the Diaspora, we haven’t gotten the Diaspora out of us.”

Impossible situation

Rovina (photo: Yael Rosen)

Rovina (photo: Yael Rosen)

Bar-Shavit, an actor with Habima since 1946, has compliments for the commemoration program but is pained by the fact that the early theater greats, such as Hannah Rovina, Aharon Meskin and Yehoshua Bartonov, have not yet been commemorated with plaques on the buildings where they once lived.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if one day they decided to dismantle Habima altogether,” says Bar-Shavit. “After all, what is left of those great artists? There was no television then, they were not filmed, there is hardly any documentation of them. For writers, we have their books, but for actors, we have nothing. Some did not even have children. So what is left of them? In any case, creative people should be judged by their great moments. It may well be that in their private lives, some of them were not very pleasant. Was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda the best father in the world? But we need to judge by what they created.”

There have been numerous turnabouts in attitudes on this subject, and some relatives of former famous names refused to be interviewed, lest building owners become even more adamant and harden their hearts. It may be better to maintain a low profile.

Bar-Shavit says the city should pass a bylaw requiring building owners to cooperate. “One should consult with the building owner,” he says, “but only at that level – consult.”

Author Aharon Megged, a member of Guri’s generation, concurs: “There ought to be a law, otherwise we are leaving the entire matter to the arbitrariness of a few ignoramuses who have no idea who these artists were. That is an impossible situation. It is a matter for the city and the nation.”

A family of immigrants from Russia lives in the apartment where Penn once lived. Perhaps they resemble Penn, who came from Russia in the late 1920s. The father of the family knows that a poet once lived in the apartment, but, he says, he has not given the matter much thought. “So Alexander Penn lived here. What am I supposed to do about it?”

In the tiny apartment next door, on the same floor, lives a young man, also an immigrant from Russia. “Alexander Penn?” he asks. “There is no one in this building by that name.”