'Here Lived' Signs in Tel Aviv Give a Peek Into Literary History

Haaretz looks behind the memorial plaques affixed on or near the homes of the city’s late, great cultural figures.

This week a marble plaque was affixed to the exterior of 18 Rosh Pina St. in Tel Aviv, in the area of the old central bus station, denoting it as the childhood home of the late playwright, director and poet Hanoch Levin.

The sign had the immediate effect of transforming the structure from just another apartment building in a dubious neighborhood into a historic site.

The building in which Levin lived as an adult, 5 George Eliot St., has a similar plaque. His widow, actress Lilian Barreto, says that before he became too ill — Levin died of cancer in 1999, at 56 —  he often walked passed his old home.

Barreto says she has fielded, and rejected, several requests to allow a school or a street to be named after Levin, because she feels it would not be in keeping with her late husband’s modest and simple character.

The plaque on 18 Rosh Pina St. Childhood home of playwright Hanoch Levin.
Moshe Gilad

“But when it was proposed to put up a plaque on the building we had lived in, I agreed. I saw that as something different, as part of the cultural history of the city, not as a gesture to Hanoch.”

Barreto says she enjoys seeing the various plaques on the homes of writers and other creative figures in Tel Aviv. “It brings to life and humanizes the dead who walked among us. The reminder that the person lived in that house lets me imagine him going out and walking in the neighborhood,” she says.

The plaque at 18 Rosh Pina St. was the 232nd such shingle to be hung since the city began the project, 15 years ago. Bracha Neeman, director of artist commemoration and special projects for the city, tells me as we stand in front of the building that “Here Lived” is a way for Tel Aviv to honor the artists who lived and worked there. Shosh Avigal, who died in 2003, founded the project when she was the director of the municipality’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Each year 12 plaques are put up. The honoree’s family, as well as the building’s current owner or residents, must agree to its installation. The proposals are generally welcomed by the families, with resistance more likely to come from residents who are apprehensive about the potential for unwanted attention. In the cases of the homes of poet Alexander Penn (211 Dizengoff St.) and of actress Hanna Rovina (36 Gordon St.), the plaque was put up on the sidewalk in front of the buildings.

The list of criteria for inclusion in “Here Lived” is a work in progress. Iris Mor, a successor to Avigal as head of the culture department (and a former Haaretz Gallery chief editor), explains that because the project takes a very broad view of culture, honorees have included writers, translators, painters, actors, filmmakers, musicians, composers and radio personalities. Two years must elapse after death before a person is considered for a plaque.

Mor says a diverse array of experts is consulted during the process.

Sign outside home of actress Hanna Robina
Moshe Gilad

“The city has a commemoration committee that names streets and institutions, but the people included in 'Here Lived' are different. Many will have no other form of commemoration, which is why we decided to include all the original actors of Habima Theater. No one would remember them if we didn’t put up plaques on their houses.”

Mor believes the project is much more than the plaques themselves. “Many people who see a plaque don’t know who the person was and when they subsequently look him up they will discover an entire world.”

Mor recently saw the revised and expanded edition of the book that is part of the project.  In “Po Gar” (“Here Lived,” Hebrew only), Ruth Ben-Shaul and Dalia Magnat devised 16 walking tours, each in a different area of the city. The book includes maps of each tour and a brief biography of every honoree.

Book in hand, one can walk through the city and see the places — apartment buildings, in most cases — where Natan Alterman, Yossi Banai, Avraham Halfi, Haim Hefer, Dalia Ravikovich, Yaakov Shabtai and Dan Tsalka —  as well as somewhat forgotten figures such as the actor Zalman Levioush and the ballet pioneer Maya Arbatova — lived.

At 99 Nordau Blvd., Neeman and her team affix a plaque to the home of poet Yonathan Ratosh, who died in 1981. A resident emerges from an apartment. He introduces himself as Benny Unger and explains that for many years he and Ratosh were neighbors.

“We shared the ground floor,” Unger says with a smile. He has lived in the building for over 50 years. He thinks “Here Lived” is an admirable project.

30 Nordau St. Home of Natan Alterman, actress Rachel Marcus and their daughter, the poet Tirza Atar.
Moshe Gilad

“Otherwise, no one will remember who or what was here. Older people, like me, live in half of the apartments in the building, but the other half are younger people who don’t know who Ratosh was. Perhaps the plaque will spark their curiosity into looking up some of his poems,” says Unger.

Google search leads to Hasamba

From there I walked to 18 Alexander Yannai St., the erstwhile home of Rafael Saporta used to live. At first I couldn’t remember who he was but a quick Google search on my cellphone showed that he had written children’s songs, including an old favorite for Independence Day.

I then saw the house of Igal Mossinsohn, the author of the wildly popular Hasamba series of children’s adventure stories in the 1950s, as well as the homes of poet Natan Alterman, actress Rachel Marcus and their daughter, the poet Tirza Atar.

In all of these one can’t visit the house itself and only the plaque indicates that the person lived there, with no mention of the floor or the apartment number. One is curious to actually peek into these apartments.

Tzafrir Korsia guides tours that take visitors from one such location to another. “The plaques are important — I read out the relevant poetry and tell stories about the poet who resided in the building. The plaques link them to the city and its streets. In some tours, actors enact scenes from Hanoch Levin plays” he says. “The plaques indicate the city’s agenda, choosing to commemorate artists rather than city founders or politicians. I think that’s important,” Korsia says.

The philosopher and publisher Yehuda Meltzer, whose father was the poet Shimshon Meltzer, likes the project but doesn’t believe it preserves his father’s poetic legacy.

“For that you have to read the poems. If they are not digitized they’ll be lost. The question of what will remain from the great Hebrew culture is broader than the city’s project, although it’s nice that the city tries to commemorate its culture. We can’t be as optimistic as the people being commemorated were then,” Meltzer says.