Feature: Standing Against Time
At the corner of Rambam Street and Nahalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv stands an edifice designed by one of the city’s seminal architects. This building and its sole occupant have aged together, watching the city change around them.
My father, Kalman Gutmann, 95, is almost as old as Tel Aviv. He lives next to the Carmel Market, on the third floor of a once elegant three-story apartment building. The house lies at the intersection of Rambam Street and Nahalat Binyamin, across from the tiny watchmaker’s shop where, until last year, my father had worked full-time since he was 20 years old. We had to close the shop, even though Kalman could still repair watches perfectly well—his eyesight sharp, his hands steady as ever. But he started forgetting where he put the watches he had fixed. He gave up the shop, but “Gutmann, the watchmaker” is still famous in these parts. Now, on his morning strolls, he is king of Rambam, and the locals rush to shake his hand. In the past few years, three filmmakers have made documentaries about some of the venerable merchants working near the shuk, like the two nattily dressed Czech ladies who have been in the button business since 1938 or the old egg merchant who can tell if eggs are fresh by rolling some in one hand and listening. My father’s appearance in these films always manifests itself in the same way—Kalman, stage right, holds court at his workstation. He tinkers with a balance wheel, his eyepiece almost part of his face, and hears people’s problems. Once in a while, he proffers advice: “Show her who’s boss,” that sort of thing. Not particularly sage, but the folks who spill their troubles seem to think they have just had an audience with Rashi himself.
Every day the watch shop closed like clockwork from 1:00 to 2:30, and my father would climb up the 44 stairs to the apartment for cottage cheese and his nap. In his prime, Kalman bounded up the steps, three at a time. Now he prefers to go “le’at le’at” (“slowly, slowly”). There is no rush. No one is waiting for him any longer. He is the sole occupant of apartment No. 5, and now, in fact, the sole tenant in the entire building, Beit Ha-kadim, “House of Urns.” Kad means urn, and the house is named for the six vases that adorn its façade. The vases still stand, more or less intact, but the rest of the building is a ruin.
My father, however, refuses to leave it. So what if the back stairs have collapsed? “It keeps out thieves.” So what if pigeons occupy the Greenfelds’ old place? “Less noise.” So what if chunks of concrete crashed into the kitchen counter two years ago? “No problem. All you need is a little cleverness, sekhel. Look…. [He points up.] You just lower the ceiling, use tongue and groove. It catches the rocks, keeps the roof from falling on my head.”
The city of Tel Aviv considers Beit Ha-kadim uninhabitable. My father thinks otherwise. He has a fixed-rent contract from 1934 and no one can pry him loose.
Beit Ha-kadim was once the pride of early Tel Aviv, one of its largest and grandest structures. It was designed in 1925 by the young Ze’ev Rechter, who would become one of the seminal Modernist architects of the White City. Our house was Rechter’s maiden voyage as an independent architect. His stated goal: to provide a distinguished structure for the center for the new town, a noble house for the upper-middle class to inhabit with pride. Designed in the Eclectic style, the rage abroad in the 1920s, the building is an amalgam of Europe and the Levant. Classical Greek lekythos vases lent the house an ancient pedigree. The East European cupola, the linchpin of the design, reminded many of home. And all these stately European features were wed gracefully with the soft Arabic-style balconies that rounded the corners of the house. Athens and Odessa meet Nablus, a perfect metaphor for the hodge-podge population settling into the town.
Soon after completing Beit Ha-kadim, Rechter left for Rome and Paris to continue his studies. There he converted to the avant-garde designs of Gropius and Le Corbusier—the Bauhaus, pure geometry, nothing ongepachked. When Rechter came back in the 1930s, he joined like-minded architects determined to create a modish new Tel Aviv, all of one look, one piece, one people.
Rechter’s grandson, himself an architect, tells me that Rechter, after returning home, was so embarrassed by Beit Ha-kadim that he went blocks out of his way to avoid seeing it. Skirting Nahalat Binyamin and Rambam was no easy task. The central market was right there, and main bus lines ran past the house. Some might liken Rechter’s distaste for Beit Ha-kadim to the horror of the outmoded that led Le Corbusier himself to destroy early drawings. But I believe the embarrassment had another source. My family had moved in.
Urban hillbillies from the wrong side of the Kovno tracks, the Gutmanns didn’t take long to turn apartment No. 5 into a hovel. They immediately chopped up Rechter’s elegant openness and slapped up walls, willy-nilly, to make four rooms out of one. The family needed a space where the children could eventually raise their own families. Practicality reigned. Like so many in early Tel Aviv, they lacked money. But the Gutmanns also lacked taste. Doorjambs served as bottle openers. Broken hinges were left hanging. Every Passover they would paint the apartment walls—one year it became neon gray, another time they managed to come across a particular shade of blue without any color at all. In 1940, during the summer when the Italians bombed the British in Tel Aviv, they secured all the windows with adhesive tape to keep them from shattering. The tape is still there, inextricably fused to the glass.
In the 1950s, in my childhood, the apartment was miserably overcrowded—with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncle, cousins, brothers. Thirteen people lived in that place—one kitchen, one toilet, one bathroom. And even that one bathroom wasn’t available every day. Before holidays, carp swam laps in our tub and we were not allowed to open the bathroom door because the chicken might escape. No wonder Rechter cringed. These rubes were hardly the bourgeois nobles he had envisioned.
Other apartments in the Rechter building were more respectful of its original purpose. Even though the Greenfelds had to put up with the shopkeeper downstairs using their toilet, their apartment was clean; the Stadlers’ apartment was clean; the Hasons’ apartment was not only clean, it also had a gramophone. Back then, everyone’s doors were always open, welcoming. We were more like family than neighbors. Rechter designed a back staircase that connected us. At 13, I liked my neighbors more than my own family. I was already a musician then, but my parents wouldn’t allow me to listen to music at home. I could always go to the Hasons, though, and they would let me listen to the Toscanini records I had stolen for as long and as loud as I liked.
In fact, not only the neighbors, but the whole community helped raise us. The first generation born after World War II, we were pampered in ways little children today could never imagine. No mishpoche treated me as well as strangers did. A music instructor, hearing from my first-grade teacher that I wanted to play an instrument, not only gave me free lessons, not only gave me a violin, not only took me to Philharmonic concerts, she also introduced me to conductors and musicians. They, in turn, bought music and composition books for me and paid my way to music camp.
In those days, it mattered little if your immediate family was unrefined and gruff; grown-ups you did not even know would swaddle you. They competed for our attention at Gan Ziporah, our kindergarten. The men who visited, often dressed nicely in black or blue jackets, and the women, who always smiled and spoke softly, brought kuchen or oranges or cabbage soup. People read to us. Joachim Stutschewsky played his cello for the children, seriously, throwing himself into it. It changed my life. At every major holiday, Golda Meir came to play and sing with us. And others came daily to prepare us for Ziporah Wolfsohn’s legendary Hanukka pageant. There were sashes and crowns and swords to put together and never enough glue to go around. Five-year-olds needed supervision if they were ever to finish two-dozen hanukkiyot on time. And we needed grown-ups to direct our performance. Ziporah dedicated some portion of every kindergarten day to rehearsals. By December, we were experts on how the Maccabees’ minds worked, and so well-rehearsed that a 5-year-old shamash boy could be entrusted to carry an enormous lit candle that set the little ones on our hats burning. Such a spectacle. Adults had to be turned away from our show, though I think Golda always got in.
Most of the grown-ups in my Tel Aviv childhood fussed over their children. The Gutmanns less so. Too busy making a living, too tired to fuss, my father never found time for Hanukka pageants. In fact, he went almost nowhere, other than to the synagogue and watch store. Except for lunch, he worked from 8:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night. He liked work. You could tell because his whistling changed. My father had the habit of whistling when he moved from room to room—from the kitchen to the balcony, perhaps a Shabbos song—from the bathroom to the bedroom, something Yiddish, like “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen.” But when he left for work, Kalman became Jascha Heifetz, and you could hear Mendelsohn’s “Violin Concerto in E-minor” reverberating through the staircase at Beit Ha-kadim.
Although my father worked hard and long, we were always poor. My mother dreamed of moving into a house with an elevator. “There’s no money for that,” he said. For any wish I ever had—a tape recorder, for instance—he would have the same answer: “What do you think I am, a cow?” If I asked for a radio, did I think he was a cow, and the same if I asked for spending money. Until recently, I believed my father’s pleas of poverty, but then I went through those hundreds of boxes from the store. The boxes Kalman Gutmann kept warehoused in the back room were particularly repellent. All of them looked similar—on the top layer, crumbling newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s sprinkled with oily granules.
Luckily I wore gloves, but they did not help when you hit the stratum of the broken glass. At the bottom, beneath dozens of receipt books and 1949 documents of loans the Gutmanns repaid, buried under layers of gritty dust, were hundreds of escape pinions, center wheels, watch faces, Speidel bands and thousands of teeny winding columns. And tossed among all this, in the most ratty boxes, were filthy little plastic bags that might once have been white. Inside each, another plastic bag, knotted. And inside each of those bags, thick rolls of money bundled with rubber bands, all squirreled away where no one would think to look.
It’s all play money now—useless wads of shekalim: hundreds of 5,000-shekel bills with Weizmann’s face; thousands of Einstein 5s; and I was too heartsick to count the number of Golda Meir 10,000-shekel notes. Clearly, to Kalman, money was here to be hidden, not spent. I suppose the hoarding and hiding had its own logic. Not only could thieves not find them, but you could also grab the bags and run when you heard the hoofbeats of the Cossacks charging down Nahalat Binyamin.
Kalman Gutmann now stands guard over the junk in Beit Ha-kadim, content among the wreckage of both the store and the house. He may not be the tenant Ze’ev Rechter envisioned for Beit Ha-kadim, but, I suspect, Rechter could also never have imagined his building in such a state of collapse. My father and the house have grown old together, a unit bonded in their tenacity and obstinate character. They have been wedded over the decades, for better or for worse, a couple of Tel Aviv’s more vivid assets. H
Yossi Gutmann, an Israeli violist who lives in Vienna, is a founding member of the Melos Quartet and the Stradivari Sextet. Eva Grudin is an art historian at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The two are working on a book about the social history of Beit Ha-kadim.