Deborah Hotel - Lee Nof - 19.4.12
The hotel's exterior. Photo by Lee Nof
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Lee Nof
The hotel's lobby. Photo by Lee Nof
Lee Nof
The view from one of the hotel's rooms. Photo by Lee Nof
Lee Nof
The hotel's exterior today. Photo by Lee Nof

One of the most arrogant political blunders of all time was made at the Deborah Hotel in Tel Aviv on the night of the election on June 29, 1981. The Alignment Party, led by Shimon Peres, had rented a hall for its election night headquarters, and party members waited tensely for the television announcement of the winner.

Toward the end of the night, the television polls pointed to a slight margin in favor of the Alignment, and Peres, against the advice of his colleagues, hurried to celebrate the apparent victory. He postured in front of the media that his party had received a "moral mandate to lead the nation." The size of the farce was revealed a few hours later when the real results were announced: The Likud had defeated the Alignment by one mandate, and Menachem Begin was returned as prime minister.

The Alignment's electoral failure was only one in a long chain of political, public and cultural events hosted by the Deborah Hotel since it opened in the summer of 1964. It was built by the Knoll brothers, Jewish businessmen from Venezuela who sought to create a hotel for the religious public. The design was by architect Yitzhak Toledano, who also planned the Ohel Yehuda Synagogue in Tel Aviv, known as the shell, the Pan American Hotel in Bat Yam and the San Tropez in Eilat. The distinct character of the hotel was expressed in its large event halls, elegant synagogue and private mikveh (ritual bath ). A large mosaic of a seven-candled menorah and illustrations of the 12 tribes of Israel by artist Alex Segal adorned the front of the building on Ben Yehuda Street.

But the hotel's pleasant modernist architecture - clean lines, a play on the three dimensionality of mass and the cosmopolitan, luxurious and modern freedom it symbolized - has been lost over time. The open terraces with a view were closed, the mosaic cracked, and it seems that the entire building, overlooking a main road on the Tel Aviv shore, desperately needs renovation.

But back in the 1960s, Deborah was a landmark. The decade proved a turning point in Tel Aviv tourism. The city grew quickly, accompanied by a large stream of visitors from abroad who came to witness the achievements of the young country up close. At that time there was only one deluxe hotel in the city. Brothers Emanuel, Shraga and Feivel Knoll wanted to build an especially elaborate hotel providing services to the religious and ultra-Orthodox public. They acquired a plot of land on the corner of Ben Yehuda and Gordon streets, and invested more than $1 million in construction.

The first kosher hotel in Israel was awarded broad media coverage from the domestic and foreign press, including a long article in Time magazine: "Every Friday at sundown," the Time correspondent wrote, "the telephone operators at Tel Aviv's sleekly modern Hotel Deborah close down the switchboard. Guests at writing desks in the lobby put away pens and snuff out cigarettes. Desk clerks lock up the cash register. For the Orthodox Jew, all servile work is forbidden on the Sabbath - and the rule is strictly observed at the Deborah, the world's largest strictly kosher hotel." The article also mentioned that the hotel was named for the mother of its owners, who was shocked by the desecration of the Sabbath in other Tel Aviv hotels and insisted on staying in a first-class place where Jews could sleep with a clear conscience, her sons told the writer.

The article cites a rival hotelier who criticized the strict adherence to religious law at the Deborah and called it "a synagogue with bedrooms," which wasn't far from the truth. Along with separate kitchens for milk and meat dishes, the hotel contained a ritual bath, a large synagogue where services were held three times a day, a Sabbath elevator (that stopped on each floor automatically ), and a hair salon specializing in wigs. Sarah Berman, the mythological manager of the hotel, was, according to one Israeli journalist, a personality with "great charm and dignity." She trained her staff in all the aspects of a hotel catering to religious people, based on her experience at the kosher Edelweiss Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

The religious nature of the hotel was not evident in its design, which the Time correspondent compared to hotels in Miami Beach. The architect dealt with the modest size of the lot in an original manner. He placed the halls, synagogue and mikveh on four underground floors, leaving 11 floors above ground: three main ones, and another eight that housed the 63 guest rooms. The main dining room was especially large and could hold up to 800 guests. Part of the basement became the 500-seat Gordon Cinema. A journalist writing about the opening of the movie house for the Davar newspaper noted that the films on view were "free of eroticism" in keeping with the nature of the hotel.

From the outside, the Deborah recalls the iconic SAS Hotel in Copenhagen, designed by the noted Danish architect Arne Jacobsen during the years 1956-1960. Like that hotel, the Deborah is composed of a low horizontal mass including the service areas and surrounded with a ribbon of windows, and a tower containing the guest rooms. The front of the Deborah presents a different image; architect Toledano chose to place the building's supporting columns inside in order to create an unobstructed frontal view. This decision granted the hotel an airiness and lightness well suited to the modernist spirit of 1960s Tel Aviv.

The SAS Hotel was known for being totally designed by Jacobsen, who planned every element in the building from the window frames down to the silverware and the famous egg-shaped chairs in the lobby. The internal spaces of the Deborah reveal a similar design effort, if not quite as obsessive. The construction budget was about 20 percent higher than that of other hotels in the city at the time.

Serving as headquarters for the Alignment on election night in 1981 was somewhat exceptional. More often, the hotel hosted events connected to the right side of the political map: meetings of the Movement for a Greater Israel, the Cathedra culture club, a sort of religious counterpart to the secular Tzavta hall; as well as Passover dinners accompanied by famous cantors ("A traditional Passover seder with the participation of the cantor M.M. Herstik, a choir and a boy wonder," read a 1965 notice ).

The hotel lost its glamour over the years. Competition grew, some of the hotel's special facilities such as the mikveh were closed, and at the end of the 1970s, vacancies increased until it was necessary to rent the hotel out for various activities. On January 23, 1977, it was badly damaged by a fire that broke out in the machine room in the basement. According to the fire fighters, three of whom were injured fighting the blaze, the hotel was not up to the required fire code standards.

Today the Deborah operates as an ordinary, secular hotel. It is still in the hands of the Knoll family, but is run by a hotel management chain.

Issachar Knoll, son of one of the original owners, attributes the poor condition of the hotel facade to its proximity to the sea. The hotel is now undergoing renovations, planned by the architect Moshe Vered, that are to add two more stories. Knoll told Haaretz that the hotel is "flooded with requests" by prospective buyers, but that he will continue to hold onto it for its financial as well as sentimental value.

Hotels must frequently renew themselves to suit the changing tastes of their clientele, and this trend is evident in recent years in the hotels along the Tel Aviv sea front. The Carlton (designed by Yaakov Rechter ) has a new entrance and will soon add two stories. The interior of Herod's (formerly the Leonardo Plaza ) has been given a kitschy facelift, and is expected to have its exterior upgraded with horizontal stripes of faux wood-grain aluminum. It remains to be seen whether veteran Tel Aviv hotels of the 1960s and 1970s will lose the original modernist spirit in this marathon of renewal.