It was 1887 when a group of immigrants of Yemenite origin and Sephardic Jews moved here to escape the poverty and over-crowding that was Jaffa under Ottoman rule, creating the first district in Tel Aviv, Neve Tzedek. At the turn of the twentieth century it became home to artists, like the painter Nachum Gutman, to whom the house-museum of the same is dedicated today, and the 1966 Nobel Prize for literature, Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Born in Galicia in 1888 and dying almost a century later in Rehovot, near Gaza, Agnon was an Ashkenazi, or ‘Germanic’, Jew, a descendant of Yiddish language and culture of the Hebrew communities who settled in the Rhine valley during the Middle Ages. He spent much of his life in Palestine and his works are characterized by mysticism and typical Yiddish humor. His books include A Simple Story, in Hebrew Sipur Pashut. Sipur Pashut is today the name of a small indie bookshop in downtown Neve Tzedek, in Shabazi Street, the main shopping road. A cultural center of reference on a national level, it opened in 2003, while everyone else in Tel Aviv was opening hi-tech companies.
Sipur Pashut hosts alternating presentations of books, informal literary encounters and writing workshops. Packed from floor to ceiling with new and second-hand books in Hebrew, Arabic and English, the furniture is basically invisible: the bookshelves are made from wood and a colored wrought-iron staircase leads up to a gallery where a sofa especially for reading sits in a corner. Despite its small size, you still get lost. Close to the window are several Arabian cookery books and the Artisans of Israel. Next to them, a monography on Dior. Palestinian Art by Kamal Boullata (with preface by John Berger) rubs shoulders with Israel Early Photographs by Rudi Weissenstein. Still near the window, Love wins – Palestinian perseverance behind walls, with a photo of the wall on its cover. Books on politics and art. The latter, especially in Israel, a way of doing politics. Sipur Pashut, a Bohemian meeting place for the intellectual community, prints the Hebrew version of the literary magazine Granta and manages the blog Zerecha Ezera—a virtual exchange of conversations and cultural projects.
While in Tel Aviv buildings are going up amid increasing hustle and bustle, in Neve Tzedek you can smell the breeze off the Mediterranean and lives are peaceful. The homes, small one-story affairs, are in Ottoman style, embellished by Art Nouveau and Bauhaus details. The more bourgeois have private gardens and inside toilets. In the fifties, the development of Tel Aviv pushed the center of the city further and further away from Jaffa. The wealthy moved northwards, where, by the early forties, modern buildings were being constructed along tree-lined avenues in Central European style. Neve Tzedek started to degenerate, becoming a poor district—today’s refined sea breeze corroded concrete and plasterwork on the houses. In 1960, there were plans to knock the district down, incompatible as it was with the modernist avant-garde of Tel Aviv. Gentrification intervened as the migratory wave from France adored the “small town” feel of the area and its basically recent artistic past. The district was saved and the price of real estate and rents immediately leapt. Part of the original population in Neve Tzedek was forced to leave. The adjacent Kerem HaTeimanim (literally Vineyard of the Yemenites) still resists, today in the guise of a dilapidated version of Neve Tzedek, with two-story frescoed houses alternating with wooden aluminum-roofed shacks.
People go to Neve Tzedek to visit art galleries and see contemporary dance at the Suzanne Dallal Center. They sip mid-afternoon coffee at outside tables and buy bread on Friday (the sort that lasts right through the Shabbat) from the Dallal Bakery. They eat Italian at Beccafico and drink cocktails at Susanna. Tel Aviv is not a fashionable city. It is hot for most of the year, the idea of wearing anything more than a sundress is unbearable. The non religious go about in shorts and flip-flops, while the religious sport a different wardrobe. The more orthodox men wear hats and black coats, the women hidden under wigs and ankle-skimming skirts. There are other interpretations of the dress code imposed by Judaism, which vary according to how orthodox a person is and their country of origin. Kippahs can be black and cover almost all the head, or small and colored. Young American Jews often hide theirs under a baseball cap and wear a tallit (a prayer shawl with fringes called tzitzit tied to each of the four corners, front and back, -Ed.) under their sweater. They leave only the fringes sticking out, which, when worn over baggy rapper pants, look more like a street detail than a religious garment. While in Jaffa, the fez is making a comeback, often teamed with a white safari jacket.
The ladies mix dogma with personal style. Married women should never show their hair to anyone apart from their husband. The less orthodox don’t wear wigs and find alternative ways to symbolically cover their head—a Grace Kelly style veil, or a headscarf knotted among their hair à la Cindy Lauper. Women from the north and south of Africa draw on Arabian culture and create style variations of the hijab or turban. As they can neither show their legs or wear trousers, young misses opt for miniskirts with leggings. Clothing must be modest, accessories are used to personalize style. In Tel Aviv, vintage jewels can be bought in the second-hand shops in the center or in the boutiques in refined districts. One out of two of the shops on Shabazi Street sells jewelry. Here you can find 18-carat gold creations by Orit and Giora Ivshin and the contemporary style of Agas & Tamar.
At number thirteen Shabazi Street is a shop called Numéro 13, where that numéro in French is not there by chance: this is a Parisian-style concept store, the first in Israel, opened in 2014 thanks to the flair of Elise Schnaiderman. Inside there is also a hairdresser’s. Despite strong overtones of Marais and Canal Saint-Martin, the original architecture of the two-centuries-old Ottoman building that houses the boutique has been maintained. Exposed walls and Doric columns team with the pale parquet and eclectic colorful style of the interior designer Revital Indik. The style, dominated by color and flowing shapes, is mixed and informal: from Essentiel Antwerp animal-print coats to Forte Forte caftans, Bellerose bon ton to gypsy skirts by Laurence Bras. Shoes are ballerina pumps by Repetto and short boots by Vanessa Bruno, while men have a more orderly selection of Scandinavian brands. Jewels go from absolute minimalism to ethnic, with improbable eye-catching seahorses and scarabs. There is a Tel Aviv Fashion Week; there have always been Israeli fashion brands, like Maksit in the fifties, founded by Moshe Dayan’s wife, Ruth. Elbar Elbaz graduated from Shenkar College in Ramat Gan, then left Israel for France. The by now Milanese Nir Lagziel is a textile institution in the Isola district. Today the kids at Adish are bringing streetwear to the Middle East, working with the embroiderers in the Palestine refugee camps. Holyland Civilians are turning elements from local culture into clothing thanks to their ‘Peace Maker dress’, ‘Nomad dress’ and ‘Bedouin dress’. The few fashionable Israelis generally prefer European or American brands.