'Jaffa Dates Back to the Bronze Age. But It's Also a Living, Vibrant City'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A couple taking break from a life without routine, and the people tasked with preserving Jaffa's ancient heritage in the face of development

Vardi Benesh-Raviv and Yaron Dutsch.
Tomer Appelbaum

Vardi Benesh-Raviv, 43, and Yaron Dutsch, 40; live in Kiryat Tivon; arriving from Dublin

Tomer (the photographer): Hello to you.

Vardi: Hi. Do you remember us?

Tomer always remembers. But this time, I do, too. Yaron is a classical guitarist and you practice Chinese medicine.

Vardi: Right.

So, where are you coming from this time?

Yaron: I’ve been on tour in Europe since the end of April, in Vienna, Cologne and Dresden. Vardi called to say we need a vacation and should meet in Dublin, because she came up with cool things in Ireland.

What’s cool in Ireland?

Yaron: You get the feeling there that the world is flat and that you’ve reached its edge, because you travel for hours along a narrow road, the road ends at the water and Waze says: “Atlantic Ocean.” It’s breathtaking.

Sounds great.

Yaron: Vardi’s a genius about these things. In the middle of life, with both of us overloaded with work, she created this window.

Vardi: By now, we do it automatically. Yaron travels a lot, both of us have tons of work and we don’t have a real routine that ticks off the hours. Days flow into nights – and then there’s a stop.

Yaron: And you don’t always see that you need it, so it’s nice that in our relationship someone notices that we need to stop. I perform and know that in another second, vacation will start and I won’t have to be precise and restrained.

Are you happy to get home?

Yaron: Yes, even after getting away. Because there you go, tomorrow morning it’s sandwiches for school, and work, and it’s actually cool and lots of fun. I like seeing how many flowers there are on our lemon tree and how the olives are doing.

Vardi: Before we met, Yaron could name one tree, but today he can even identify the Judas tree.

Yaron: It’s still hard for me to tell the difference between a eucalyptus and a sycamore. My parents came from Romania and the Hebrew course for immigrants didn’t include tree names. Then suddenly, to live in Tivon with a huge oak tree in the yard – there’s something lovely about that. By the way, Vardi has a project going with that oak.

Just you and the tree?

Vardi: And Facebook. I opened a page called “40 Trees,” because a person during their lifetime wastes the energy of 40 trees, and I want to create a project that will make it possible for people to replant them. The oak tree in our yard is spectacular, and all kinds of acorns that could grow fall from it. Last week I planted a few of them and documented what I did. I don’t know if it will work.

Good luck.

Yaron: Vardi is the most daring person I know, and she allows me to share her attempts to be daring every day, to live every day. That may sound dumb and terribly New Age, but there was a moment in my life when the penny dropped. I was making pasta and I said, “Why don’t I actually make it with the same care that I use when preparing for a concert? Why don’t I treat the smallest moment of life like that?”

Because it’s such drudgery?

Yaron: Yes, sometimes it’s hard to be surprising and not fall into old patterns. It’s like when we were driving nine hours in Ireland, and it’s very hard not to fall asleep, and the easiest thing would be to stop at some inn, but you want to meet the goal you set yourself. I’m addicted to that challenge. It keeps me alive.

Vardi: When I’m in the clinic and put my fingers on a person’s pulse, I have to be present. The experience of wakefulness and avoiding psychological habits is an active exercise – non-activity means being an automaton. Even the coffee we make every day comes out different. Wakefulness leaves the senses sharp. It’s true that you don’t always feel you want to be alert; the trick is to succeed in staying awake not when you’ve had coffee, but at the moment that friction arises. And it’s bound to arise, because we always develop through conflict. If you aren’t supposed to stay, try one time not to leave, even though you want to. Being on the brink is crunch time, and we don’t always manage to stop in time. But that’s the place where development happens. It’s a gift. I call it self-cultivation.

Yaron: And it’s all right to say, “Walla, it was a rotten day and I’m not going to smile at you all the time.” When you have a fight with a girlfriend at the age of 16, you think it’s the end, but at 40 you can say, “We’ll get through it.”

Naor Mimar and Michal Halevi Bar.
Tomer Appelbaum

Naor Mimar, 48, lives in Givatayim, and Michal Halevi Bar, 52, lives in Jaffa; flying to Lisbon

Hello, why are you wearing tags?

Naor: Because we’re part of a delegation of the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel. I’m a conservation architect and Michal is in charge of conservation in Old Jaffa, on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

What does a conservation architect do?

Naor: There’s a structure, like Shalem Farm in Ariel Sharon Park, and we plan its rehabilitation: historical research; engineering tests; repairing the construction; plastering; reconstruction of wooden doors and windows, or wall paintings; and also preparing signs to explain the site. Restoration of a structure requires specific training and experience and a background in history, but also an acquaintance with engineering processes and other technologies.

Michal: I’m on the other side of the fence. I’m from the authority that has to approve the plan. My job is defined according to the Antiquities Law, which states that everything built prior to 1700 is classified as an antiquity. It must not be touched and its conservation is obligatory.

It must be really chaotic in Jaffa.

Michal: Jaffa is a complex city, because it’s actually a tel – an archaeological term that refers to stratigraphy.

Sorry?

Michal: The formation of strata as a result of the destruction and construction of an ancient city. In the case of Jaffa, this dates back to the Bronze Age. But Jaffa is also a living, vibrant city, with plenty of pressure to develop. And my job is also to give expression to the modern city.

Naor: I was actually born in Jaffa, and at the moment I am working as an architect in a luxurious residential building located opposite the sea. The structure was built in the 18th century and is now the home of a new immigrant from France. There’s a difference between the condition of the house and what it should be. Some of the obstacles are due to the fact that the system is not built to contend with conservation. It’s a recent phenomenon in Israel, and the public isn’t yet ready for all of its implications.

Meaning the cost?

Michal: Conservation triples and quadruples costs. Anyone who wants to buy a structure in Jaffa has to understand that he’s living in a domain of conservation.

Naor: I don’t know one Israeli who accepts the proper procedures. The great difficulty is in accepting that someone else is basically telling you what you can do with your house. The Antiquities Law doesn’t offer local authorities a clear solution; every city has to solve matters for itself.

Michal: In Jaffa, structures built after 1700 fall between the cracks.

Noar: In Eilat, at the moment, I have to explain to a local developer why a structure should be conserved instead of simply demolishing it and building something new. At least in Tel Aviv-Jaffa you don’t need to explain.

What is usually so hard to explain?

Naor: For example, in Old Jaffa there are beautiful wooden balconies that were quite common in the Ottoman period. They’re made of wood and glass, using 17th-century technology. Today it’s very expensive to build something like that. In fact, building with wood is very expensive altogether, and the whole burden falls on the owner.

Michal: In the past, in Jaffa, the veranda or balcony served to separate between inside and outside, and it allowed the owner to look out at the unsafe street and see what was going on without getting hurt. Because the streets are narrow and small, if a developer takes the porch and expands it into a regular balcony that will enlarge the apartment, he is annulling its essence.

You have respect for balconies.

Michal: I have great respect for ancient work and skills. At one time carpentry workshops made entire windows. Today they’re made from MDF [medium-density fiberboard], which is not a material that breathes or preserves the traces of time. Our culture has in part become inured, but those who are sensitive to the subject see the difference.

Naor: The artisans we work with are part of the story. We need to protect them so they can go on being creative as blacksmiths, carpenters and in handicrafts. For me it’s conservation or nothing. But sometimes, to restore the balcony means closing off the view to the sea, and it’s very hard to explain to the buyer why he has to do that. Someone in Be’er Sheva recently said to me, “Just because it was like that in history, why does that mean it has to be like that now, too?”