Tel Avivs history told through new Stanford acquisition

Israel, home of the Old City, has a difficult measure of what constitutes an old city. But by any standard, Tel Aviv, at a sprightly 97, does not qualify.

In fact, for many archaeologists, tourists and religious pilgrims, Israel’s second city serves as little more than a disembarkation point on the way to Jerusalem and, perhaps, the spot to spend your last remaining shekels on a bottle of arak at the duty-free to impress the friends and neighbors.

Other than aficionados of its stunning array of Bauhaus architecture, in general startlingly little attention is paid to Tel Aviv and its outlying cities for an area housing nearly half of Israel’s population.

But future scholars wishing to study the first century of the world’s first modern Hebrew city will not necessarily have to hop a plane bound for Ben Gurion.

Instead, they can just drive to Palo Alto, as Stanford University this month announced the acquisition of the Eliasaf Robinson Collection on Tel Aviv, a veritable time capsule of the hidden past of Israel’s first capital.

The collection, currently resting in 18 moving boxes and various sheafs containing the 200 large posters and maps within Stanford’s library, is the fruit borne from a lifetime of collecting by Robinson, 52, an antiquarian bookseller and native of Tel Aviv. When other kids were playing with marbles, the teenage Robinson was collecting documents from the Tel Aviv municipality — and it shows.

“I have seen in his business printed books and pamphlets you just can’t get anywhere else,” said Zachary Baker, Stanford Library’s Reinhard family curator of Judaica and Hebraica. “I think he just knows how to find things.”

For scholars of Hebrew and Mideast history, sifting through the collection is like cracking open a time capsule documenting Tel Aviv’s birth, adolescence and thriving adulthood. Contained within the mass of moving boxes are the signed deeds marking the property acquisitions of the city’s first inhabitants, population censuses listing city residents block by block, hundreds of large movie and theater posters printed in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and even 90-year-old bus tickets and playbills.

“Though it wasn’t a very large city, Tel Aviv was on the international circuit. There was a very famous French pianist named Alfred Cortot, and I noticed [promotional materials for] a concert he gave in the early 1930s,” said Baker.

“Twenty years before, there were only sand dunes, vineyards and orchards. But by the ’30s, world-famous pianists were visiting.”

The collection also contains a number of aging maps, including multiple volumes tracing the paths of the city’s complex early sewer system (information about population density, relations with nearby Arab communities and early city planners’ prognostications of how much Tel Aviv might grow can all be illuminated via a glance down the sewer).

“From the sewers you get a completely different perspective [of Tel Aviv] than from literature. In general, we hope the collection will help us understand a little bit better the history of Tel Aviv, the development of the first modern Jewish city,” said Vered Shemtov, the coordinator of Stanford’s Hebrew program.

“The posters and photos give you an understanding of what they thought it was interesting to take pictures of and how they wanted to present Tel Aviv.”

Fascinatingly, the collection also contains a map displaying troop deployments in Tel Aviv at the outset of the War of Independence, and the route they took in subduing nearby Jaffa.

Baker said Robinson told him he decided to sell his lifelong collection after growing concerned that the salty air in his seaside apartment was hastening the papers’ deterioration.

The curator added that Stanford outbid an East Coast university, paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $200,000 for the collection, aided by gifts from the Koret Foundation and S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund of $70,000 and $10,000, respectively.

In the coming years, after completely cataloguing the collection, Baker hopes to scan the documents and create a virtual archive that can be accessed by scholars and lay persons alike from the comfort of their own homes.

By Tel Aviv’s centennial in 2009, he hopes to assemble a major exhibition of the collection, which will be aided by further pieces from Robinson, who will now serve as a “scout” for the university.

“My hope and our intention is that a few years from now, people in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will be able to visit this collection [online] and, in that way, the world will truly be a smaller place,” said Baker.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.