Photos and Text by Lydia Aisenberg
Getting to know Tel Aviv through others’ eyes was the objective of a recent visit by the Intensive Arabic Semester students to the city commonly known as the city that never stops and most people say lives up to that reputation.
A magnet for Israeli youth and overseas visitors, Tel Aviv never disappoints and there is always something left for the next time. On a very warm sunny February day, the MASA‐Givat Haviva Intensive Arabic Semester students – joined by 3 students on a MASA dance program at neighboring Kibbutz Ein Shemer – headed for Tel Aviv with staff member Lydia Aisenberg.
Alighting from the bus in Sderot Rothschild – a first lesson, looking up as much of Tel Aviv’s most interesting creative tiles, stonework and figurines are on second or third floor level. The point of disembarkation 96, Rothschild Boulevard, the capital ventures building of Evergreen House with 3 silent singers and their music books up on a second floor balcony serenaded the visitors of the day down below.
A short walk to Shenkin and the home of Zeev and Diana Rubanenko where the Israeli born Zeev and British born Diana shared the fascinating histories of their families with the students. Tel Aviv born and educated Zeev took the students on a trip to the past (whilst sitting in the comfort of his lounge) to the days when his Rubanenko forefathers produced vodka in Dvinsk, Latvia and after immigration to Palestine switching to selling soda and other soft drinks, first of all from a handcart and when more successful, from a horse drawn wagon.
Zeev showed photographs of the Rubanenko’s with their wagons on the streets of Tel Aviv of yore and also of the first kiosk of its kind where the Rubanenko brothers Yosef and Yitzhak sold soda drinks in Rothschild Boulevard. In modern times such ‘kiosks’ still exist in the center of the Boulevard but are now trendy coffee stations whose main customers are yuppie office workers from the high rise blocks of business premises interspersed between attractive buildings that have been renovated and radiate the culture and style of yesteryear.
It was in the mid‐19th century that the Rubanenko family produced vodka in Latvia. Zeev explained that according to family legend the vodka produced by his grandfather and family was very popular with the Russian czar. “He didn’t care too much for the family name on the label though, sounded too Jewish apparently,” said Zeev. “It would seem this was the reason why we ended up with the name Rubanenko which is not Jewish but Ukrainian!”
His grandfather and great uncle arrived in Palestine in the early 1920s and immediately began to make and sell soft drinks. “They sold drinks not only in Tel Aviv but also in Jaffa and when they upgraded to the horse drawn wagon the wagon was decorated with a sign proclaiming: “We have sworn from this day forward to drink only the fine beverages of Rubanenko Brothers and Co.” Showing grainy photographs of the family business on wheels, Zeev also points out a letter that was missing and later added, squashed in between others “as they obviously didn’t want to have to make a totally new sign.” Once established in Rothschild the Rubanenko’s became popular merchants on the Boulevard block selling their soft drinks and soda’s, known as ‘gzoz’ and in the Sixties and Seventies and found on almost every Tel Avivian street corner.
“The Rubanenko brothers closed the kiosk in the fifties branching out in manufacturing soda and siphons,” explains Zeev whilst pointing to a silver colored siphon sitting on top of a cupboard in the nearby kitchen area. Such siphons were found in most Israeli households in the Sixties (when this writer made aliya). “I found that one in the Jaffa flea market,” laughs Zeev. “My grandfather and his brother were not successful businessmen unfortunately,” says Zeev with a smile and points out that many big enterprises in Israel today such as Strauss dairy products started as small family businesses around the same time.
“There are so many family tales but one of them is particularly interesting although I have to admit in the past I equated it with a fairly tale until I found this letter,” and up pops a letter from the management of Coca Cola on his computer screen.“We were told that the brothers were offered the franchise for Coco‐Cola in Palestine and turned it down because they said the drink tasted bad,” laughs Zeev of his grandfather and great‐uncles bad business judgment. “Their business operations were closed in the 1960s and that tale stayed just that until I recently discovered this letter – and they apparently approached Coca Cola offering to be their agents in Palestine and this letter states that the company would look in to it – but nothing came of it.”
Zeev’s wife Diana, who hails from England, explained about her family roots and as with Zeev, students poured over family photograph albums as she explained about her paternal family in Britain and maternal in British Mandate Palestine. Diana’s father, Conan Allingham was an officer in the British Army during the Second World War. He helped train Haviva Reik, Hanna Senesh and other Jewish volunteers from Palestine serving in the British Army Jewish Brigade. He is buried in the kibbutz cemetery just meters from a large cave that was headquarters to the Palmach ‐ the strike force of the Haganah and predominantly made up of soldiers from kibbutzim.
The kibbutz is Mishmar HaEmek and the Intensive Arabic Semester students had paid a visit to that kibbutz – and cemetery – the previous week with kibbutz member and Intensive Arabic Semester staffer Lydia. It was at this kibbutz both she and Diana volunteered during the 1967 war and remained friends since. Diana’s father, an officer in the Tank Corps ‐ fought with the seventh armored division of Desert Rats fame and was seriously wounded in the Battle of Knightsbridge in the Western Desert.
Following 6 months of hospitalization in Egypt the young officer was transferred to Palestine for further recuperation and met his future wife Yael Weizman on an outing to the beach explained Diana. The father of Yael and brother Ezer Weizman (a former commander of the Israel Air Force and President of the State of Israel) was Yechiel ‐ an agronomist and one of the 11 siblings of the first president of the State of Israel Chaim Weizman.
Conan Allingham helped train Haganah fighters for their ill‐fated mission behind enemy lines in Europe in the mid-l940's. Some of that training took place in the forest behind Mishmar HaEmek where both he and his wife Yael are buried. “My parents left Palestine for Britain in 1944. They first travelled to Egypt where they joined a naval convoy sailing to Britain and it was many years before they told us of that harrowing experience as the convoy tried to avoid depth‐charges and enemy submarines,” Diana told the IAS students.
Conan Allingham only told his family of his involvement with the Haganah and Palmach fighters when one of Diana's Israeli born children began to write a roots project for school. Having a grandma who was a Weizman meant he didn't have to go far to find out about the family roots with scores of books chronicling the family on the maternal side and it was only when he asked his British grandfather about his family history – by which time the Allingham’s were living in Israel – did Conan tell the family of his contribution to the training of the Jewish fighters.
Looking through the photo albums of the Rubanenko, Weizman and Allingham families with Diana and Zeev was an experience the students said they found extremely interesting, highly educational and a history lesson of a totally different kind and were very appreciative of the opportunity offered by the Rubanenko’s.
The couple then joined the students for the few minute walk to the day’s next port of call MUSEUM HA’IR in Rehov Bialik.
The recently opened museum is based on exhibitions of photographs taken from family albums of Tel Aviv folk – such as those viewed in the Rubanenko home. Zeev had mentioned remembering the first – and up to present times only – snowfall of 1953 in Tel Aviv. One of the first photographs viewed was the snow covered streets of Tel Aviv!
The three storey museum also contains the renovated office of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff and exhibition of modern art as well as a stunning floor made up of decorative tiles rescued from demolished Tel Aviv buildings.
Walking around the museum some of the students listened to more explanations of life as a child in Tel Aviv from Zeev as he progressed from one display to another, the photographs jogging the corners of his memory box of the fifties and sixties in the city that never stops! Zeev shares memories with Mary Kay Liotta at a display board – the saved tiles of Tel Aviv and tiled sign on the outside of the building, constructed by architect M. Czerner in 1925.
CARMEL MARKET & NAHLAT BINYAMIN
Strolling in the sunshine along Allenby Street to Carmel Market and Nahlat Binyamin students commented on the creative graffiti of Tel Aviv and the pulse of the city. At the entrance to the Carmel Market and Nahlat Binyamin, as she does every Tuesday and Friday, Israeli singer Miri Aloni was entertaining passersby. When Miri saw the students she asked if they were a Birthright group.
Told they were on a 5‐month MASA Givat‐Haviva Arabic language study program, Miri had the students stand alongside and sing with her for those gathered around. The musician singer, who stood alongside assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the night he was murdered by Yigal Amir – just a short time after singing with her ‘Shir HaShalom’ on the balcony of the Tel Aviv municipality building – bade the IAS students farewell and wished them well in their studies.
“Be good ambassadors for Israel,” she called out as they began to mix with the crowds entering the street market of Nahlat Binyamin and the Carmel Market to meet up with the bus by the Hasan Bek mosque and memorials to the Israeli teens murdered by a suicide bomber whilst standing outside the Dolphinarium complex on the other side of the street.
A quick photo by a Rami Meiri wall painting, on the bus and traffic jams all the way home. A stop to watch sunset on the beach at Beit Yanai and summation of a very special day spent with special people in special places and plenty more to explore in the future.
Diana Rubanenko emailed: “Thanks for brining such a lovely group to visit us and Tel Aviv. It was so refreshing to meet bright‐eyed, interested and interesting young people. A real shot in the arm.”
Mary Kay Liotta summed up the day with: “Thanks for another lovely day! I had a wonderful time and so enjoyed meeting Diana and Zeev – another tile to add to the mosaic of my experience of Israel through this program. So far it is a wonderful, complex beautiful mosaic indeed!"