On the Street Where I Live

In the heart of Tel Aviv, residents awake each morning to the singing of birds, the grocery still gives credit, and one of the city's last genuine artists, though nearly 90, still paints everyday

Next to the Cremieux Cafe, on the corner of Bilu Street, where I usually have breakfast, a young man comes over and asks who this Bilu is, and I reply in jest: a famous rabbi. The cafe actually started out as a shop with a sign proclaiming "Barber Shop for Men and Women." When I arrived on the street, both the barber and I were alive. After I sat myself down on the chair in front of his ancient mirror and saw the trembling of the hand holding the late 19th-century scissors I fled, before I ended up with my ear cut off.

Opposite the barber shop was a small butcher shop without meat but with an old woman who for years waged a battle against the barber for reasons even she couldn't remember; beyond the quarrel, say the street elders, there was true love between them. The old people disappeared or moved to homes for golden-agers where there is not much gold but where everyone dances, is happy and dies.

Further up the street are three small, brown, attached houses, which differ from all the other houses on the street. In one of them lives the great Yosl Bergner, one of the last genuine artists in Tel Aviv. He is almost 90 years old, but he paints every day and is the greatest storyteller in Israel. He and the barber once bought a lottery ticket together. They won. They shared. Yosl bought the house where he lives to this day and the barber bought the barber shop, which is now my cafe and where there is a table marked in my honor with a small copper sign.

The neighborhood is divided by Hasmonean Street, whose Hasmoneans still fight against anyone who is not yet dead. Nothing much is left of these old-timers, but there are lots of angry race-car drivers. The pedestrian crossing is more dangerous than any of the wars I experienced, even the one I fought in. Establishing a Jewish state in the wilderness was less dangerous than using this walkway. The taxis, the cars and the motorcyclists come from the direction of Rothschild Boulevard and as soon as they enter the street, they can easily see the traffic light at Yehuda Halevi toward which they are racing. The idea going through the minds of the drivers there - if they are thinking at all - is how to kill without causing the death of the victim, which would bring the police. They don't know that the last time a policeman came to this crossing was when establishment of the state was still under discussion.

The moment the drivers enter the street they become color-blind to the shade of the traffic light. I stand at the crossing every morning in broad daylight (I don't dare do so at night), holding a cane. The traffic light toward which the drivers are racing is red, but the cars pass me on both sides and if I panic, they give me the finger for having the chutzpah to cross at a pedestrian crossing.

Yosl Bergner lives in one of the three small houses. The little hill is named "Shpak" after the builder, and it is said that the man who was hanged in Egypt in the most unfortunate chapter of the "Unfortunate Affair" (the Lavon espionage affair) once lived here. The numbers of these three residences are not consecutive with those of the other houses because the street developed to the right and left, but didn't include them.

The part of Bilu Street I'm talking about is situated on the highest dune in Tel Aviv - except perhaps for the water tower on Mazeh Street. You always have to ascend when you come to us. That does something to a person, though I don't know exactly what that is, because I'm too short to be a tower, and ascending to me is difficult for objective reasons as well.

Next to Yosl's house, an entirely different structure was built, which is populated by many ultra-Orthodox people who keep on giving birth to more little ultra-Orthodox people. They have no time or money to buy cars, and therefore the land beneath the building has become a paid parking lot for all the other residents of the street, who do have cars. Next to it stood a pretty house with a palm tree in front. Moshe Sneh lived there. The British searched for him there. His son was born there, but along with his childhood friends he sold the pretty old house, probably in order to live in some alienated neighborhood. In the middle of demolishing the house the contractors ran out of money. And for months everything came to a standstill.

So in front of my window they hung hundreds of toilet bowls and bathtubs as in a contemporary exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum, which used to be a museum of art. The sparrows used to arrive on our street in huge flocks and take over the toilet bowls. At sunset the toilet bowls looked as though they were flying together with the sparrows. The new building that is constructed to look like a pretty house apparently contains small but expensive apartments, and every once in a while trucks arrive to empty them out or return to fill them up.

And on 10 Bilu Street there is a legendary kindergarten. Apparently it's some sort of Temple. Once or twice a day grown-ups come in order to reserve places for their grandchildren, who are as yet unborn. They say that there are women who give birth at the foot of the kindergarten's stairs just to register their offspring.

Opposite the kindergarten is the home of the artist Schlesinger. His bold, beautiful and unique paintings are still there. His wife guards them with a terrible love, and in her free time she rides an antique bicycle every day wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and she has a sweet smile that lights up the street even in the evening. The legendary Miriam Bernstein-Cohen, who was one of the best and most influential actresses in the country, used to live there with her husband, actor Michael Gur.

Next to this house stands a long, strange building, with dozens of apartments, and occasionally a mysterious noise arises from it, as though human beings were living there. Nobody as yet has seen who actually lives in its dozens of apartments, but the house is protected by lovely trees, as is the entire street, which in addition to having ordinary magnificent trees, is also an eye-opening example of what giant cypresses can be. I knew a South American guy who lived for a while in front of the building in some anonymous hut, and who may or may not have guarded the house.

A few years ago a young Russian woman lived there, who painted all day on wood, on fragments of planks, and sat on a bench on the corner selling her paintings. I bought several from her. She was strange and talented, and one day she disappeared. Nobody on the street knows where. Nobody knows who her relatives were.

Opposite the mysterious house that wakes the dead with its music, which seems to be played without human beings, stands house No. 2. This wonderful house was restored to become a perfect example of Bauhaus. During the years that I have been living here, I once saw a young woman, who apparently lives in this house, slipping out with a dog and a baby.

And right at the corner, at Sheinkin, is the real estate office of an attractive and enthusiastic newly religious woman, whose husband stands there on Fridays trying to teach the uncircumcised how to lay tefillin. This woman is funny, full of energy, an energetic real estate agent, but what she does most of the time is attempt to prove to everyone that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah and that he has returned to life and this is what he wrote after his death. The late Lithuanian spiritual leader Rabbi Eliezer Schach once said that Chabad is the religion theologically closest to Judaism.

For years there has been an empty lot between the kindergarten and the beautiful Bauhaus building. The lot is somewhat elevated and perhaps the entire street was once elevated and was cut down or maybe the lot was elevated for some other reason. Anyone who has shown an interest in the lot has not lived to tell the tale. The elders of the street, when they were still alive, claimed that the lot - which is worth a fortune and is full of brambles and thorns - remains empty because it is the object of an inheritance battle that has no chance of ever ending. I have no idea if this is correct, but someone who has lived here for many years said that the lot belongs to one family, and despite its considerable value there are so many heirs who are not enamored of one another that it will probably stand empty for many years to come.

Next to it stands a pretty old building that has not been restored but is a kind of Bauhaus structure with rounded balconies - also higher than the other houses and quite beautiful.

The street is handsome in its oldness. Not many cars pass by on it because it is not built as a passageway to anywhere and virtually only the cars of the residents of the street enter it. Behind the houses hide small gardens. We all wake up in the morning to the sound of the birds - and this within walking distance of cultural centers - and there you are on a quiet street, in the middle of the city. There is no need for a car, everything is open to the outside and locked inside and there are two lawyers who work discreetly and very nearby.

On Sheinkin, the small mini-market belonging to Morris and his son Kobi is still open, and this small place has everything that's available in the bigger food stores, and you can buy on credit because this grocery is a vestige of more pleasant days, before the giant supermarkets.

I have already described several journeys in America, the West, Guatemala, France and Italy, but this journey on Rabbi Bilu Street is the biggest and the smallest that I've taken. And if the Messiah has really arrived, but we don't see him, it's probably because he is getting dressed and preparing to reveal himself in the empty lot or behind the facades of the nice modest houses on the street. Maybe some day I'll wake up and see him plucking leaves behind the house and climbing up one of the cypresses with a shofar to announce his arrival, in order to end the moans of those who yearn.

Yoram Kaniuk won the France-Israel Foundation award this month for his book "The Last Jew," which was recently published in French.