Meet Me at the Mugrabi

by Brian on July 8, 2010

in Just For Fun,Only in Israel,Travel

Mugrabi Cinema in its Heyday

When I was hired to record a series of conversations to accompany a course on teaching Hebrew to English speakers, I didn’t know I’d be getting a lesson in Tel Aviv nostalgia.

The project was to edit a 500-page curriculum originally developed to prepare U.S. diplomats posted to Israel. Along with the written text, there were about 200 short snippets of dialogue – ranging from “how are you today?” to “the fish was delicious, may I please have the recipe.”

I brought in nine Israeli men and women to record the voices. That alone was a big part of the overall experience. In my line of work, I don’t meet a lot of native-born young people. Indeed, all of my current clients are Anglos and when I write an article for a publication like Israel 21c, I usually conduct the interview over the phone. So, it was refreshing to get to know the world outside our insular Jerusalem Anglo bubble.

My main voice talent was a genial twenty-something named Dov, recently out of university and unfortunately out of a job, having been downsized when the economy went south. With a deep, rich baritone and superb diction, he was considering a career change to radio.

Our team also included Hallel, a playwriting student with a mostly shaved head whose father once served as the security guard at our son’s kindergarten; a musician named Daniel who heads up a band called Moshe and the Refugees that sounds a little like a mashup between the Doors and Leonard Cohen; Maya, who’s pursuing an M.A. in criminology at Bar Ilan University; Rachel, a professional translator, Hebrew/English editor and hazanit (a female cantor); and Avital who is active in the Gush Etzion “Raise Your Spirits” musical theater ensemble that performs exclusively for women.

Even more fun: the curriculum took us on a trip down memory lane (or perhaps a stroll on our parent’s alleyway of antiquities).

At a key point in the course, Mr. Williams, a U.S. diplomat, is looking for the government tourist office. He is told to head in the direction of the Mugrabi Cinema. None of us had ever heard of the Mugrabi and, despite our all being Jerusalemites, we were pretty sure there was no such theater with that name in Tel Aviv today.

Thank goodness for Google. A quick search and we discovered that the Mugrabi was in fact a key cultural icon. Built in the 1920s, the building served as the home for the Palestine Folk Opera in the 1940s and later became the cinema for which it was most famed. It was designed in a classic Bauhaus style. If you wanted to locate yourself in Tel Aviv, it was always in relation to the Mugrabi.

The theater was, sadly, bulldozed to put up a parking lot in the 1980s (Israeli shades of the Joni Mitchell classic).

There was another reference in the dialogues that was less well known. Adjacent to the Mugrabi was a restaurant called the “Brooklyn Bar” which, according to the text, served banana splits “just like in America.”

I’m sure that – if the course saw fit to put what sounded like a glorified ice cream parlor in the same conversation as its more famous street-mate – it must have been popular with the locals at some point in the recent past. We found one short mention of the Brooklyn Bar online but, unfortunately, no pictures.

Banana splits have been replaced these days by immigrants from Brooklyn as Israel’s main import. But for a few minutes, it was a trip to indulge in this nostalgic blast from the past.

Let’s just hope our Mr. Williams arrived at his destination safely. And that the ice cream lived up to its cross-culturally elevated reputation.

A version of this story originally appeared earlier this year on the Israelity blog.

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