Day Away 2: From Pre-State to Post-Modernism in Tel Aviv

by Brian on August 31, 2007

in Only in Israel

After a successful day trip to Rehovot last week, we thought we’d try to recreate some of the family magic one more time. School starts next week and family days will soon be replaced by parent-teacher meetings. Our destination this week: Tel Aviv where we found another three gems somewhat off the beaten track but definitely worthwhile.

We started at the Palmach Museum in Ramat Aviv, a state-of-the-art facility with lots of whiz-bang technology that tells the story of the pre-IDF Haganah army’s regular fighting force during its 7 years of operation from 1941-1948. The history of Palmach  nicely parallels what we learned during our previous visit to Rehovot’s Ayalon Institute, the underground munitions factory. Former leaders of the Palmach include luminaries such as Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Alon.

The museum, which is completely booked weeks in advance (so call early for a place), is like a cross between Disneyland and a history book. There are no displays or documents. Rather, visitors don a headset which translates the presentation into any number of languages, then walk through 12 different rooms to learn the Palmach story.

In each room, there are three dimensional dioramas, mannequins and lots of video to keep even the youngest visitors intrigued. The headsets are radio controlled to play automatically as you continue through the rooms, which depict different stations along the Palmach members’ journey (one is decked out like a Galilee forest, another with the stark rocks of the Negev desert). There’s even a simulated interactive kumsitz – an Israeli campfire complete with songs of the pioneers.

The museum mixes documentary footage with recreated scenes by modern Israeli actors playing Palmachim. As we followed the lives of the fictional Amnon, Hilik, Shaike, and Ofra, we learned how the Palmach members were recruited, how they trained and what operations they were involved in once the War of Independence broke out in 1948. There were explosions, a falling bridge, and even a revolving room.

The museum is extremely well done and is similar to the experiential museum in Jerusalem depicting the life of Theodore Herzl. At times my wife Jody and I were brought to tears as members of the Palmach group we had grown to love over the course of the museum’s hour and a half duration fell in battle. For a staunch Zionist like myself, the museum effectively reinforces why we are here and why we have made the sacrifices required of us over the years to ensure Israel’s place in history.

The Palmach Museum costs NIS 25 per adults, NIS 15 for children (must be 6 years old or older). To get there, get off the Rokach West exit of the Ayalon Freeway, make a right on Namir St. and another right on Levanon and follow the signs to number 10 (it’s not far past the Eretz Israel Museum). If you get to the Diaspora Museum, you’ve gone too far.

The tour at the Palmach Museum ends with the counting of the U.N. votes in favor of the partition plan and the subsequent declaration of the state of Israel by David Ben Gurion in 1948. So it was fitting that we continued the historical bent of the day by visiting the former home of Meir Dizengoff, a pioneering figure in Israeli history himself and the first mayor of Tel Aviv. The home is notable as the location where the Ben Gurion made his famous speech.

You’ve probably seen the striking photos of David Ben Gurion at a long table, surrounded by pre-state luminaries under a huge portrait of Herzl and flanked by two Israeli flags. Well, we got to see that room and the very table and chairs where Ben Gurion spoke.

Independence Hall doesn’t take long to go through – 30-45 minutes will do it – but it’s fascinating nonetheless. The wall exhibits contain various documents from the time including typewritten notes from Ben Gurion’s speech and the original declaration parchment with its signatures. We learned that there was a great debate about what to call the newly formed state – Palestine, Eretz Yisrael or just plain Israel – as well as when to announce the formation of the state: prior to or after the end of the British presence in Palestine (the vote to go forward on Friday afternoon 8 hours before the British Mandate was due to end, was close – only 6-4 in favor).

The museum will set you back NIS 17 for adults, NIS 14 for kids and is located at 16 Rothschild Boulevard not far from Yehuda HaLevi Street near the Shalom Tower in south Tel Aviv. Come early: the museum is open Sunday – Thursday but closes at 2:00 PM.

A visit to Independence Hall starts with a short video featuring footage of both Tel Aviv in the 20s and the modern metropolis. For our final attraction of the day, we wanted to get a better feel for today’s Tel Aviv. We did that from the top of the Azrieli Tower with a view from the observation deck. A 360-degree panorama awaits visitors who on a clear day can see from the Mediterranean Ocean all the way to Ben Gurion Airport through the observatory’s 86 large windows.

We contrasted Tel Aviv’s origins as a city of modest one story bungalows to today with its stretch of skyscrapers, not quite Manhattanite in stature but impressive nonetheless. The Azrieli tower observatory is in the city’s tallest building, situated on the 49th floor 186 meters up above the Azrieli Mall (which includes two excellent ice cream parlors – Dr. Lek and Aldo – which our kids, miraculously bored with the stunning views all about us, plummeted back down the high-speed elevator for a cone).

The price of NIS 22 for adults and NIS 17 for kids includes a headset that narrates what you’re seeing – a nice touch. The tower and mall are located at the corner of Derech Petah Tikva (renamed Menachem Begin Blvd.) and Kaplan Streets. Take the Shalom exit from the Ayalon freeway and you’re there. The entrances to the observatory is through the third floor in the shopping center.

Now, regular readers know that I’m no apologist when it comes to Jerusalem, especially when Tel Avivis chide us for being lower on the hipness scale. But it’s good to get out of the holy city every once in a while, especially if you can mix a little history with the hedonism for which Tel Aviv is famous.

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