Herzl vs. the Swedes

Veteran Tel Aviv furniture dealer Yitzhak Amar feels badly about Ikea's fire, but not too badly.

He felt really badly, Yitzhak Amar, when he saw the fire at Ikea on television a few weeks ago. Amar has 15 square meters of a key-money place, full of chairs and tables, on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv - and he was really upset, he says. Over what? "Over everything, the merchandise, the workers ..."

After he makes sure I've written that down, he adds that there is also another side to the story. "The other side is that they, those Swedes, hate Israel and have destroyed Herzl Street. Not just them, but also the recession. That's how it's been for six months now. Look, we've been sitting here for an hour now and no one has come in. The situation stinks."

Yitzhak Amar
Moshe Shai

Amar is a big man. His handshake is strong and his voice is thunderous. He was born 75 years ago, just a few feet away from here, on Hakishon Street. He asks that we call him "Hajinji" (the Redhead ), even though he no longer has any proof of that past on his pate. His family came from Thessaloniki in 1929 and worked as stevedores at the Haifa port; ultimately his father found himself working as a printer at Haaretz.

He has been tending shop here for more than 50 years, taking only a short break for traveling abroad. He is the most veteran furniture dealer on the street. Chairs hang on the wall and await customers on the sidewalk. In a little while, because of the latter, a fine of NIS 460 will be slapped on him by a municipal inspector who does the rounds of the street.

"Those guys aren't letting us live," Amar says.

The gloomy young inspector, who has no sense of humor, asks him to move the chairs inside. Amar grabs hold of the guy and tells him about the furniture street in London. "What a pleasure," he says, "what joie de vivre, furniture everywhere, on the street, on the sidewalk."

And what about here? I ask.

"They want us to be jewelry, and not furniture."

Herzl Street is just a street like any other, says the inspector dryly, trying to wriggle free from Amar's grasp.

Now Amar sinks in nostalgia. He recalls the days when Herzl Street was Herzl Street and people came there from Rehovot and Rishon Letzion. Today the street looks like someone who underwent a face-lift but the surgeon fled in the middle. Buildings that were once glamorous are now decrepit; others are decorated like a gaudy wedding cake. The municipality, for its part, has scattered benches among them, situated too far apart from each other to foster intimacy between two people, and yet too close for a person to enjoy some privacy.

Herzl had good days, and so did Yitzhak Amar. Those were the good old days of the open Maccabi field near the Orion Cinema. Amar played basketball for Maccabi Tel Aviv. The names then were Ofri and Schneor, and not Schortsanitis and Hendrix. The team's website says Amar had "a great jump and skill." In 1963 he shot the winning basket in the game against Olympija Ljubljana. But all this does not interest the municipal inspector.

On Herzl there is no parking and there are inspectors. At Ikea there was parking, modern design and low prices. Amar had never been there and has an explanation for that: "They took away my living." But his colleagues sniffed around and were, in fact, impressed.

He himself has some harsh words to say about the quality of the wood in Ikea furniture, but he has heard from his neighbors that the display is good. He feels badly about Ikea, but isn't going to miss it. He does, however, miss the days when everyone bought furniture on Herzl Street.

Poet Aharon Almog also waxes nostalgic in his poem "Herzl Street," but not for the furniture. "I grew up on Herzl, I remember camels ..." he writes. "We heard camels when we came there to live / In the evening Father would open a window to breathe the Land of Israel's air / If he could, he would have brought me down handfuls of stars / But he did not bring down stars / Today he breathes furniture dust on Herzl."