Tel Aviv at 100: from a shell lottery to a modern city

Tel Aviv at 100: from a shell lottery to a modern city

The folks of Jerusalem say:

Tel Aviv is nothing special

Professors are few and far between there

And there are no prophets at all.

She doesn’t have even a pinch of history.

No gravity. No weight.

It’s quite true, Sir and Madame,

No, she has nothing … nothing … yet still…

These are the words of Nathan Alterman, an Israeli poet, playwright and translator, about his native Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew city, is celebrating its centennial this year, and yet, as the poem – “Nevertheless She Has a Certain Something” – says, “No, she has nothing … nothing… yet still….”

Yet still, every year many people visit Tel Aviv because it is the cultural and economic hub and tourist center of Israel. Many enjoy its cross-section of cultures and sights, its abundant tapestry of colors and sounds, all this without delving deeper into the city’s rich history and its phenomenal growth.

Tel Aviv is at first glance a city similar to many other metropolitan cities. It is a center for finance and business, a focus of fashion and youth. It has urban poverty in its south and affluent neighborhoods in the north. Yet it has neither the ancient, historical roots of neighboring Yafo/Jaffa or the holiness and mystique of Yerushalayim / Jerusalem. And yet still it has a certain something….

Tel Aviv can trace its roots to April 11, 1909. A housing association, Achuzat Bayit, had been formed in 1906 in order to realize the idea of building a “Jewish garden city” outside the noisy and crowded city of Yafo. Akiva Arieh Weiss was elected chairman of the association and he arranged a lottery with white and grey seashells in order to fairly allocate lots in the new city. The 60 original families met during Pesach 5669 for the shell lottery and the first houses were completed by the end of the year.

The Israel Programs Center poster series celebrating 100 years of Tel Aviv is on display in the lobby of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Tel Aviv has always been searching for an identity. For the early Zionists, Tel Aviv was an attempt to develop a Hebrew city similar to its European and North American counterparts. Even the name Tel Aviv implies a search for meaning, a search for gravity and identity. “Tel Aviv” is taken from Theodor Herzl’s book “Altneuland” (“Old New Land,” 1902), whose Hebrew title, in Nachum Sokolow’s translation, is “Tel Aviv,” which literally means “Hill of Spring.” The new hyped-up Hebrew city is sometimes thought to be in opposition to Jerusalem, the Jewish historical center, with its spiritual authority.

From the beginning the city’s development into a modern city has been extremely rapid. It grew one hundredfold between 1920 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 (from 2,000 to 200,000 inhabitants). The city’s third official name – initially Achuzat Bayit and then from 1910 Tel Aviv and since 1950, Tel Aviv”“Yafo. Today the city, with its 380,000 residents, is only about 20 square miles including 8 1/2 miles of beautiful seashore and 2,000 streets. Tel Aviv is also known as the White City, and is like a giant living museum in the 1930s architectural style known as Bauhaus or International Style. Thanks to the thousands of houses and apartment blocks build in this modern style, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Tel Aviv a World Heritage site in 2003.

Unlike Jerusalem, which constantly needs to reflect on its obligations of memory, Tel Aviv is grounded in the aspiration of fostering a Jewishness that rejected the Jews “as a nation apart” and sought to promote a Hebrew identity “like all the nations” – an identity of connection to a place, to a language, that could celebrate sun and beach unfettered by self-consciousness and unease of the Jew as the permanent outsider. This is the image of today’s modern Tel Aviv, which many Israelis can relate to, feel at ease in, and call home.

In the same breath, the visitor to Israel talks about the holiness of Jerusalem and the urban hastiness of Tel Aviv. A walk to the Kotel could not be further from the reality of a walk down the Tel Aviv beach tayalet (boardwalk). Yet these two centers of Jewish and Israeli life are but 40 miles apart, connected by the No. 1 highway. Tel Aviv is even thought to be in conflict with the rest of Israel because of its “bubble” attitude. Many Israelis living outside the city call Tel Aviv, “HaBu’ah” (“The Bubble”) or “Medinat Tel Aviv” (“The State of Tel Aviv”) because the city seems to have a different reality from the rest of the country. Six months ago, when bombs were falling in southern Israel and reservists were entrenched in a war in Gaza, Tel Avivians followed the news from Internet cafes on the beach or in the Dizengoff mall.

A dream that began with a shell lottery among its founding families in 1909 has developed into a modern, advanced city 100 years later.

In order to celebrate Tel Aviv’s centennial, the Israel Programs Center of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has created a poster series depicting scenes from the city, then and now. If organizations are interested in hosting this exhibit, they are invited to call Galeet at (201) 820-3908 or e-mail

Stuart Levy is UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s community shaliach and director of its Israel Programs Office.

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