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April 22, 2009

Stanford exhibition, symposium spotlights 'The First Hebrew City'

Tel Aviv, the first modern Jewish city, forms a formidable counterweight to nearby Jerusalem: Where everything in Jerusalem conspires to the past, Tel Aviv has always had its gaze toward the future. Jerusalem is ancient, going back four millennia; Tel Aviv, only 45 minutes away, is a city created almost in the blink of the eye of God.

But now even Tel Aviv is at last looking to its own past as it celebrates the centennial of its founding. Stanford is uniquely poised to join the fête: The First Hebrew City: Early Tel Aviv Through the Eyes of the Eliasaf Robinson Collection, on display through Aug. 31 in the Peterson Gallery and the Munger Rotunda of Green Library, features a range of historic documents, photographs, advertisements, programs, posters and tchotchkes. The university's Eliasaf Robinson Collection has become one of the most sought-after resources in Stanford's libraries since it was acquired in 2005.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies will host a symposium at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 23, in the Peter Wallenberg Learning Theater. The Shoshana and Martin Gerstel Conference Fund Symposium will spotlight guests from the University of Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and New York's Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Tel Aviv's story began 100 years ago this spring, when 66 Jewish families purchased lots in the sand dunes along the Mediterranean coast.

The 66 families (about 250 people) envisioned vineyards and orchards to create a garden suburb of Jaffa. The man who would become its first mayor projected an eventual population of 25,000.

Now it's a city of 3 million inhabitants, and growing. The cosmopolitan burg is about as far from an English-style garden suburb as can be imagined: The infant city quickly established itself as a commercial center. The architectural style is eclectic, melding Art Nouveau, Arab, modern and other influences—it's sometimes described as having an "international" style.

The city's brief, mesmerizing history fascinated Eliasaf Robinson, the fourth generation in a family of rare and antiquarian book dealers. As a teenager, he remembers when the Herzliah Gymnasium—the first Hebrew secondary school—was demolished to make way for the Shalom Meir Tower in 1962.

The demolition proved a watershed for Robinson by triggering an obsession that became a historian's windfall: "Other kids played with marbles and trading cards; I collected documents from the Tel Aviv municipality," he told Globes, an Israeli business daily, in 2006. During the 1960s and 1970s, before the advent of the ubiquitous shredder, Robinson loitered around demolition sites so that he could rescue the detritus.

He gathered books, pamphlets, posters, pictures, pennants and handbills. Land deed documents from Ottoman times, maps of paved streets in the 1930s, movie posters and photographs—all were retrieved from oblivion by Robinson's tireless squirreling. "Ask me about one day in a particular year and I'll describe to you what took place," he told Globes.

Robinson called the collection "my private time machine."

"The collection is my own private historical creation at the expense of a history that I did not make," he said.

The entire collection comprises approximately 500 printed books and periodicals and 20 linear feet of archival materials. Much of it has been digitized and will be online in time for the symposium at The exhibition displays 150 images from the collection.

The title of the exhibition, The First Hebrew City, is pretty much a cliché in Israel, but it has some justification—a thought that returns to the erstwhile Herzliah Gymnasium, with its "odd-looking, architecturally heterogeneous structure," according to Zachary Baker, the Reinhard Family Curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections.

"It was an important institution in terms of being a laboratory for the revival of the Hebrew language," Baker said. The first secondary school to educate students entirely in Hebrew helped create the first generation of native Hebrew speakers, after centuries of the ancient tongue being a liturgical or scholarly language. Tel Aviv was the first city where public life—in its theaters and publications and education—took place in the Hebrew language.

The future of the language was secured when Hebrew, whose spoken language was virtually "dead" only a few decades before, was made the state language of Israel. But Baker said at that point, thanks to places like the gymnasium and a century of scholarship, the decision for Hebrew was a done deal.

It was an outcome perhaps not anticipated by the Central and Eastern Europeans who huddled in the sand dunes to organize property in the future Tel Aviv. One of the most arresting images in the exhibition is an iconic 1909 photograph that shows the eclectic crowd of founders clustered hopefully among the sand dunes—long before the traffic and the wars and the crowds and noise and the eclectic "international" buildings in what would eventually become the state of Israel.

The symposium and exhibition are both free and open to the public. Exhibit cases are illuminated Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. The Peterson Gallery is accessible whenever Green Library is open. For library hours, call (650) 723-0931 or visit



Cynthia Haven, News Service: (650) 724-6184,


Zachary Baker, Stanford University Libraries: (650) 725-1054,

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