Where the streets have one name
It’s hard to find a city in Israel without a road named after the Zionist visionary, but Herzl streets across the country share little more than a common name.
Herzl Street here starts at Number 71. Obviously, it once started at Number 1, but a few years ago it was divided into two parts, after fierce public debate.
Its southern section, on the other side of Jabotinsky Street, is now called Rabbi Schach Street, while a far smaller section retains the original name of the Zionist leader.
Apparently even this shrunken remnant is enough to make the prophet of the state a penitent. Most of the children in the well-kept public park at the corner of Nordau Street are religious, hinting at the future of the country as a whole.
In rapid succession: a synagogue, a religious school, ugly balconies, large signs with black letters on a white background:
“I am the Lord
Thou shalt have no
Thou shalt not take
Another sign following the same theme: “There are many devices in a man’s heart; but the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.”
And for anyone who does not understand the sophisticated language, graffiti has been scrawled on a filthy wall: “Speak to me, your father am I.”
I ask two children of about 11, who attend a religious school in nearby Ramat Gan: Who was Herzl?
The opinionated one answers unhesitatingly: “A guy with a beard who built a lot of houses and streets.” Maybe he’s confusing Herzl with the Holyland affair.
Herzl is the main street in Ramle. Anyone who stops at the first traffic light at the entrance to the city from the direction of Tel Aviv notices a large square on the left side of the road. It is surrounded by a wide concrete belt on which a diligent Bratslav Hasid has written in large red letters: “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman.”
In the center of the square are three gigantic metal sculptures. Mythological creatures. They have the heads of horses and the bodies of cows and they stand on spindly sheep’s legs.
A hardscrabble passerby (which I later discovered to be a typical representative of Herzl Street), with a large black skullcap on his head and sporting a short and bristly white beard, explains his artistic philosophy to me: “These animals should be placed where the Arabs live. It resembles them.”
Herzl Street is a depressing street. It is engulfed by a fog of hostility thicker than the Icelandic ash cloud, maybe because today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
At 11:00 A.M. the siren rings out and everyone stops. Russians, Ethiopians, elderly Romanians, Indians and ordinary native-born Israelis. Two religious Muslim women, covered from head to foot like our religious women, also stop.
Only Abu Hassan, an elderly resident of Ramle, wearing a knit white lace skullcap, a white galabiya, white socks and black sandals, sits and smokes on the sidewalk at the entrance to his house, which is surrounded by a high concrete wall.
With the proprietary and relaxed attitude of a landlord, he explains that until 1948 the street was called Jaffa Street.
In Bruriah’s gift shop there are stylized clocks on the wall with verses from the Koran in Arabic. Alongside them are decorative tiles with blessings in Hebrew.
“People say to me, aren’t you ashamed? What is there to be ashamed about?” She explains to me that this is a mixed city and that we have to live in peace with everyone. “And I’ll tell you something else, the Arabs have greater purchasing power than the Jews.”
The government office building sits at the street’s end. It looks out of place, isolated and condescending, with its height and its arrogant and alien design towering over more modest structures.
Armed security guards pace back and forth on the square in front of it. Diagonally across the road is Gan Habanim. This is a public park with trees that look like the concrete benches, on which all those whose world has fallen apart sit.
Herzl Street starts promisingly here. A large colorful painting of a rural landscape with red roofs, covering the whole length of a wall of an Amidar building, and above it the words “Welcome to Yeruham.” At the other end, the street fades away into desert silence, with three Bedouin children herding their goats on the slopes of the road.
But let’s go back to the beginning. “The Negev will test the Israeli people,” declare large blue letters on the white wall of a bomb shelter. On the western side of the street is the Or Hayim Synagogue, named after “Baba Dudu and in memory of those who died in Israel’s wars.”
A little further on is another Amidar tenement with a whitewashed, well-kept facade. But in the backyard opposite the building’s entrances the sewage has overflowed and left a stinking gray puddle above which, on the grass, a woman who speaks only Russian is hanging clean laundry from which wafts a lilac scent.
Across the way are two stores. A dusty shuttered grocery store which hasn’t been open for a long time, and the Rosh Hodesh hair salon, where two women are sitting with their heads crowned with glittering silver foil.
After the shabby commercial center comes a well-cultivated public park boasting lawns, trees and colorful workout devices.
An elderly woman reading a small Book of Psalms is waiting for a bus. Seeing me, she stops reading for a moment and whispers to me, “Don’t buy a house here. The earth is swelling! There are cracks in the walls. But you didn’t hear it from me.”
Herzl Street in the Old City of Be’er Sheva has its terminus in the neighborhood of other prophets of more ancient vintage: Malakhi, Elisha, Hosea, Habakkuk, Nahum.
But most of the names of the businesses on the street are modern, with cosmopolitan airs: Cafe Shakespeare, Odessa Restaurant, and later on, OS, a salon that offers eyebrow shaping and manicures. Opposite is Amusement Village, a store that sells toys and general goods. It’s followed by Terminal Bar, a billiard club called Chance, and Downtown Tattoos.
If its spirituality you’re looking for, cross the street and enter Kabalah for the People.
Years ago, when there was hope, an artist painted a young couple sitting at a table on one of the building walls lining the street. In the background is an oasis, palm trees and a waterfall spilling into a lake that dried out and fell off with the peeling plaster, dragging with it the bottom half of the happy couple.
Myths override reality. A Be’er Sheva resident I sat next to in a sidewalk cafe told me a long story about a sculpture of General Allenby, which stood in Allenby Park further down the street, and was uprooted when the city was captured in 1948. I glanced past his shoulder − the bust is still there, rising high, next to the public bathrooms.
No one in Beit She’an knows where Herzl Street is, but everyone tries to help: “Tell me who you’re looking for and we’ll tell you how to get there.”
Two policemen in a patrol car say “Follow us” and lead me confidently to King Saul Street and try to persuade me that it’s Herzl Street. I have a problem.
It was only in the city hall that a likable woman told me the street names had recently been changed. She then pointed out Herzl Street.
It’s a small, empty street, maybe because of the boiling sun. As I look around for shade, Rachel Fahima, a smiling elderly woman, seemingly reads my thoughts and invites me into her place at the end of the street.
It’s an old Turkish building made of basalt. “Come in, come in,” she says. “Even the terrorists who murdered people here a few years ago came in through my open door. But they didn’t sit down. They went straight through the house and out the back door, walked into the campaign headquarters of Likud and killed six people. But if an Arab should come now, I will give him a glass of water and arrack.”
Fahima lives with two parrots and two dogs. She offers me coffee and cake. “If your wife asks, tell her you were in the home of a very young girl who doesn’t have teeth yet,” she laughs heartily, exposing empty gums.
What was Herzl Street called before, I ask her. She tries to remember. “Maybe it was called Rabbi Kook. But here you don’t need streets − you say next to the bank, next to the police, next to Hemo’s kiosk, everyone knows.”
Herzl Boulevard in Dimona may be the closest thing to Herzl’s urban vision (which in fact refers to Jerusalem). He saw new suburbs cropping up, into which electric trains made their way; broad tree-lined streets, a maze of buildings interrupted only by verdant orchards, parks for walking, educational institutions, commercial buildings, luxury homes and entertainment venues.
While Herzl Boulevard in Jerusalem sports the not-yet-opened light rail, the street in Dimona is broad, clean, tree-lined, with a maze of buildings alongside it, commercial buildings, traffic circles decorated with sculptures channeling the flow of vehicles, an arts center, a community center, a police station, Beit Yad Lebanim (a memorial house for fallen soldiers) and public parks: Yoseftal Park, Johnson Park, which may be named after the late U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, who confirmed that the nuclear reactor in Dimona really is for peaceful purposes.
On the southwest side of the street is the Ya’ar Hayeled children’s forest, which faces the open desert. It may not be a forest of the kind that Herzl imagined, but it has walking paths and outdoor gyms people can use to work out.
Perhaps the Black Hebrews living at the eastern end of the street (still in trailers) give the boulevard its cosmopolitan character. As one of the residents said when a group wearing African garb passed him by: “There’s such a mixed population here − it’s really something.”