Monday 2 April 2012

A postcard from Haifa

Haifa is really three cities - the Carmel with its modern housing, shopping centres and the world famous University; the Hadar - still a very busy shopping area despite its long period of decline and then Downtown the old Ottoman part of the city which also includes Wadi Nisnas and the German Colony.

Haifa is a faded beauty. There are many once magnificent buildings here but too many have fallen into disrepair. The once vibrant Hadar area is a shadow of what it was in accounts from the 1960's and earlier and the Downtown area is crumbling. But despite all this, Haifa is still a great city to visit and to spend time in. I have a soft spot for Haifa. It feels more homely than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. And like Tel Aviv, Haifa is full of stories and memories.

I like visiting parts of the city I am not familiar with and yesterday, for the first time, I walked the full length of the "Nordau pedestrian mall". This is not an American style indoor mall, but a long pedestrianised shopping street full of some of what were once (and could be again), some of Haifa's finest modernist or Bauhaus buildings. It was late afternoon when I took my walk and most of the shops were closed, but honestly speaking, its hard to see how many of them make a living. The street has a number of hairdressers, travel agencies, jewellers, a few cafes, a few old style tailoring shops, some very old fashioned ladies outfitters and a number of businesses of no obvious function from the outside.

The street is planted with trees along each side and I am told the city fathers wanted to replicate the success of Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem, another pedestrianised city centre street. I have to say I am not a big fan Ben Yehuda. It lacks character and is full of low quality tourist stores, so I am not sure why Haifa would wish to emulate that.

Nordau does have a few delights tough. There are some wonderful shops fronts dating from the 1950's and earlier. I especially like Buchsbaum ladies outfitters at number 7, Rosenblatt jewellers and Gloria, another ladies outfitters with somewhat risqué underwear in the window at number 3. These and a few other shops have retained the original fascias and the elegance, even if dated,  that the rest of street must once have had.

It is difficult to see some of the more interesting buildings clearly from the street, as many of the trees have overgrown, blocking views of the upper levels. However, there are several Bauhaus buildings and many retain their original balconies and rounded features that I find so attractive. It is not difficult to imagine that this street must have once been full of shoppers looking at and buying high quality goods, ordering new clothes from tailors, selecting jewellery for special occasions and enjoying coffee and cake in a stylish cafe. Its not too late...many of these buildings could still be saved but someone needs to act soon if this important part of the city's built heritage is not to be lost forever.

At the Binyamin Gardens end of Nordau there is a public square with a cement "amphitheatre" and a small park full of children playing and of old people sitting and chatting. Yesterday there was a group of older Russian speaking men playing dominoes at great speed, with great excitement and at great volume.

Rina Frank's book, "Every house needs a balcony", a fictionalised account of her upbringing as the child of Romanian immigrants during the 1960's gives some idea of what the city was like then. It might also explain why I have so many photographs of buildings with balconies! If you look for it on Amazon, ignore the couple of spiteful reviews it received. It's definitely worth a read. My advice.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I have some favourite cafes in Haifa. My very favourite is an old fashioned bakery that doubles as a cafe - Spiro in Jaffa Street. They make their patisserie on the premises and I especially like their individual cherry pies and their version of baklava. The coffee is nice and strong and its easy to find a seat, relax, read and take a few quiet moments. Spiro has very helpful and friendly staff including Shoshi who went beyond the call of duty to help me with my Hebrew studies, corrected my grammar and told me some interesting stories about Haifa. She also allowed me to sample one of the flour-less biscuits being prepared for Pesach. Thanks Shoshi!

I also like a small cafe called "Goodies" on Hanassi Boulevard on the Carmel. It is located in one half of a very well preserved Bauhaus building and offers a great range of cakes and pastries with coffee just the way I like it - nice and strong. The cafe has recently been taken over by Ronen, who is also very friendly and told me how difficult it is in Haifa these days to make money from a small business. Like Dudi in my post card from Tel Aviv, Ronen also had a successful business until the first intifada in 2000. From that time he explained that business is very tough and that many Israelis think of leaving the country at least for a few years to be able to make some good money and to re-establish themselves.

Whilst on the subject of food, no visit to Haifa is ever complete for me without at least one meal at Fattoush. Located in an old Templar building on Ben-Gurion Boulevard in the German Colony, Fattoush has excellent humous, great salads (big and tasty - my favourite is the halloumi) and a good choice of other dishes. I like to sit outside in the evening and if you sit by the garden wall facing Mount Carmel you can see the Baha'i Shrine in all its evening splendour, lit up against the night sky. Incidentally, whoever chooses the music has great taste - they normally play a selection of lounge type jazz, some chansons and a range of traditional and more modern Arabic music. Keep up the good work.

But Haifa isn't just historical buildings and restaurants. The city has a number of good museums. I especially like the City of Haifa Museum on Ben-Gurion Boulevard, (you could combine a visit with lunch at Fattouche!) located in another refurbished Templar building. The current exhibition is called "Magical Theatres" and it looks at the history of cinema in Haifa. Cinema became extremely popular in Haifa and in Israel generally during the 1930's, when some stunning cinemas were built, many in modernist or art deco style.

Many of these cinemas have now gone - victims of falling attendances and of eventual demolition. Most Haifa cinemas are now in out of town shopping malls. Of course, its great to have the choice of seeing several different films in one cinema, but I can't help but think I'd much rather see a movie at the now gone Armon Theatre, designed by architect Shmuel Rozov and opened in 1935 seating 1,800 people.  The Armon had a sliding roof that would be opened on warm summer evenings allowing the audience to watch the movie under the stars. It also boasted silver coloured walls and windows that the ushers would close with a long stick before the beginning of each show, apparently provoking cheers of excitement among the children in the audience.

Sadly, the Armon is now gone, but this excellent exhibition allows the chance of a glimpse into that wonderful world through photographs, movie posters, architects drawings, cinema tickets and a re-created cinema showing newsreel, old trailers, adverts for local shops and film clips.

The exhibition also includes detailed reference to the Ovitz family from Romania, small people who survived Mengele and Auschwitz. Before the second world war they had achieved fame in Romania as accomplished musicians. Coming to Eretz Israel after the war, they ran two cinemas and a cafe. They were immortalised in the recent Iraeli film "Pa'am Hayiti" (shown as "The Matchmaker" in the UK)

The catalogue is excellent and includes a reasonable amount of text in English if you don't read Hebrew, but its worth it for the pictures alone.

The Mane-Katz Museum on the Carmel is another favourite. The current exhibition "Sanctity - art - aesthetics" traces the attempts of early modern Jewish artists to use folk motifs from their original context as religious elements, integrating them into secular items. As well as being a great artist, Mane-Katz also collected Judaica and the exhibition includes many items from his collection.

I found the room featuring books and prints particularly interesting. It features examples of the works of Ryback, Altman, Chagall, El Lissitsky and others, including examples of short lived art magazines from the 1920's and 1930's. A couple of items by Nathan Altman and Joseph Tchaikov also show how Jewish artists contributed to the creative explosion that accompanied the early years of the Soviet Union, before the great purges and suppression that was to follow, resulting in many of them going into exile or worse.

 The exhibition features a number of quotes to illustrate the different issues it covers. The Yerachmiel Radison quote from 1920 still rings true and not just for Jews but for all people "It is important to collect beautiful and useful art for the Jewish masses, for the new Jewish folk-culture". Art for the masses, now there's a thing.


  1. shalom adrian
    thank you for you lovely kind words
    next time you you visit haifa i'll tell you where rina mitraney's house is and it's not far from the cafe spiro
    have a great passover

  2. Lovely city! I am trying to locate a bit of history for Shmuel Rozov. Did he train at Bauhaus, for example? And what other architectural jobs did he accept in Israel?