A night stroll down Rothschild Boulevard last Thursday night was an impossible task. Hundreds of people were walking along the street, the lines outside the restaurants stretched well beyond the entrances and the sounds of music filled the air. All of these people had come for the French music festival that has been held in Tel Aviv over the last few years, thanks to the French embassy in Israel.
Tomorrow Tel Aviv will mark another French tradition - White Night - when the city's cultural institutions open their doors till the wee hours of the night.
This is the third year that Tel Aviv has held a White Night festival. The first time was in honor of the recognition of Tel Aviv's White City as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Since then the city decided to hold the event every year on the last Thursday of June. Surprisingly, Tel Aviv City Hall claims the celebrations are not a tribute to Parisian festival traditions.
"Only after the fact, when the idea had already been fleshed out, did I discover, to my embarrassment, that there is such an event in Paris," says Hillel Partok, the initiator and director of the events. "It began here with UNESCO's declaration, and the following year we started thinking about how to continue commemorating the declaration."
Original or not, this idea suits Tel Aviv perfectly, thanks to two of the city's main characteristics: The unique architecture that won world recognition and vibrant night life. Even so, getting the festival off the ground was not easy. Among the obstacles are the city bylaws that dictate opening and closing hours for businesses, and only an amendment to the municipal laws, to include the White Night in the same category as Independence Day and Purim made the festival possible.
Not only Tel Aviv, but also Brussels, Riga, Madrid and Rome have adopted the Parisian model of this festival. Last year they even coordinated their efforts and declared a European White Night, facilitating unique cultural exchanges between the countries on that night. This cooperation enabled residents of Madrid, for example, to enjoy French cultural works.
Compared to them, Tel Aviv's celebrations are quite modest. The reason, of course, is budgetary. The city invests only about NIS 350,000 in the White Night events, and a similar sum in advertising. What makes most of the activities special is their reduced entrance fees and late opening hours. Thus, for example, one can visit institutions such as Ben Gurion's House until midnight, or the Great Synagogue on Allenby until 2:00 A.M. Apart from these late hours, nothing else is extraordinary.
Nevertheless, there will be some special attractions. One major event is a night run, sponsored by Nike, that will cost participants NIS 70 for the privilege of running one of two routes - of 5 or 10 kilometers (3 1/8 or 6 1/4 miles). The run starts at 9 P.M. from Rabin Square and will go along Ibn Gvirol Street, toward the finish line at Hayarkon Park.
Cameri Theater actors will also leave their stage and perform "Another Place and a Strange City" free of charge in the plaza outside their building. Club Med is planning a free party for Tel Avivians at Manta Ray Beach. Aside from the Club Med programming people, who will get the crowd dancing when the party begins, at 11 P.M., French deejay Raphael Becker and the organizers hope that everyone will dress, as befits this night, only in white.
There will also be a party at Tsuk Beach, north of the city, and there will be dancing for everyone on Gordon beach.
In Paris' White Night, held in October, thousands of bicycles are loaned to the revelers, free of charge, so that participants can tour the length and breadth of the city and enjoy the whole range of cultural events. The metro trains also run later than usual. In Tel Aviv, on the other hand, the trains and buses were not included in the plans. Instead, for the first time this year, the city will offer free shuttle service between 9 P.M. and 2 A.M., every hour on the hour, along the following routes: the northern route will depart from the Tel Aviv Museum to Tsuk Beach and back, and the southern route will operate between the Arlosoroff train station and Jaffa port.
Michael Levin, who heads the history studies department at the Shenkar School of Engineering and Design and lectures in architecture at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology is very happy about the festival.
"My mother, who comes from St. Petersburg, always told me about the cultural events on White Nights, and I never got to see them," he relates. "There is something charming about these festivities, and since year they happen to be taking place on my birthday, I have only good things to say."
His co-author in "The Israeli City: The Last Hebrew City" (in Hebrew), published by Resling, is more critical. Oded Heilbronner, a senior lecturer in the history of culture at Shenkar and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that although this is a joyous event, it is an imitation.
"A good imitation, but an imitation nonetheless," says Heilbronner. "It is a gimmick that I do not understand. How many people would go to the museum at night? It's spin by a city trying to be New York."
Indeed, a look at all the events taking place in Tel Aviv tomorrow night raises the question why the city needs the festival at all. Unlike European capitals, particularly Paris, which sleep at night and have hardly any pubs or clubs open at 2 A.M., in Tel Aviv that is the time young people usually leave the house. What's more, why would anyone really interested in the art displayed at one of the galleries, or in Ben Gurion House, wait for such an event, in the middle of the night yet, to go there?
It's true that Tel Aviv is a city that never stops," says Partok, "but that refers to the entertainment spots, the pubs and the clubs. The added value of this night is that we are opening the cultural institutions, such as the Cameri Theater and the Israeli Opera, whose performances will begin only at midnight. Apart from that, everyone knows that a museum experience, like swimming after dark, is different at night than during the day, so we are giving visitors the opportunity to enjoy a visit to Beit Reuven and then walk to Bialik Square and take in a jazz concert."
A look at the map of all the night's events also reveals that unlike Paris, where the Music Festival and White Night events are held throughout the city and even beyond, in Tel Aviv a few important sections have been forgotten. Thus, for example, the vibrant Florentine neighborhood will be devoid of events, as will the northern, upscale neighborhoods and the Montefiore Quarter, to the east. Jaffa will be bustling as ever with its authentic flea market (which has been open late every Thursday night for the past month anyway), but there will also be tours of the port and shows at the Arabic-Hebrew Theater, both inside and out. The new central bus station, most of whose surrounding population is migrant workers, will feature musical events at the Young Yiddish Center.
"The original idea," explains Partok, "was to revive and celebrate the White City section of Tel Aviv. As time passed, people approached us and asked to share in the festivities, without we expanded outward. Necessity creates reality, and I suppose that as the festival's success grows, the events will become more widespread throughout the city."
In its publications, however, the city actually does not highlight the White City events that are the basis for the celebration. Fifty of the city's unique Bauhaus buildings on Rothschild Boulevard and Allenby Street will be lit throughout the night to showcase their architectural features. Spotlights will focus on specific elements in the buildings, such as staircases and balconies. In addition, there will be guided tours among the buildings and other parts of the city, such as Bialik Street and the Trumpeldor Cemetery. This focus is particularly pleasing to Levin, as it is a continuation of his work for over 20 years. In 1984, on Tel Aviv's 75th anniversary, Levin coined the name White City, and for years was one of the small group of diehard advocates who can be largely credited with UNESCO's recognition of Tel Aviv and her treasures.
"All this work, for all those years, was aimed at making Tel Avivians proud," says Levin. "In all sorts of ways, whether with a film festival at the Cinematheque or a series of stamps, we tried to tell the locals that they have a reason to be proud of their city. Now Tel Aviv has found a new way to be proud. Awareness is an essential condition for preservation. Without awareness and pride, this does not happen."
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