The Tanach tells us that wisdom shouts in the streets (Mishlei 1:20). But only time Tanach actually identifies an urban area is when Ezra read the Torah to the people before the square (rechov) that was before the water gate (Nechemyah 8:3, see Sotah 41a). As in the verse, streets and squares of olden times were generally identified by their adjacency to identifying features such a water sources or marketplaces. During the 18th century an astute Frenchman realized that street names could be utilized for political means and since then the world never looked back.
FRUIT TREES TROUNCE POLITICIANS
Visit Eretz Yisroel and its easy to get the impression that Herzl, Weitzman, and Jabotinsky are the commonest street names. That’s because they’re used for major thoroughfares. After scrutinizing maps containing 30,000 Israeli streets, Mapa Ltd., the owner of Israeli largest geographical database, discovered that Israel’s street names are mostly from the plant kingdom.
Pride of place goes to the olive, chosen by 124 towns and municipalities. Next are the grape vine (105), the fig (95), the pomegranate (89), and the date (70), the terebinth tree (63), the almond (62), and the cypress (62). 59 streets are named after Yerushalayim. Then come politicians. Decades of rightist rule given top raNking to rightist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky with 55 hits. He is followed by Herzl with 52, Ben Gurion with 48, and Weizmann with 47. Historical figures do worse. King Dovid appears 28 times on Israel’s street signs, King Shlomo 28, and King Shaul 25.
Overall, the Tanach wins when it comes to street names. Thousands of Israeli street names come from the Tanach. Even the anonymous ploni almoni (I Shmuel 21:3, Rus 4:1, cf. Doniel 8:13) bears witness to a duel of egos that raged between the Tel Aviv’s first mayor and a citizen’s quest for immortality.
The story began when Meir Shapiro brought land in 1922, built his home between two unnamed alleyways, and put up a street sign bearing his name in one of them. Mayor Meir Dizengoff didn’t take kindly to this. After a heated exchange with Shapiro in his office, he issued instructions that henceforth, the two alleys would have the blandest names of all time – Plonit and Almonit.
Eretz Yisroel is no stranger to the trend of naming streets after historical events and facts. In older, simpler times, Tel Aviv residents of the Nachalat Yitzchok neighborhood kept cows in their back yards and supplied the city with milk. Then came a law proscribing the raising of cows in urban areas and the cowsheds moved out of town. In memory of the lost moos, one artery of the neighborhood was dubbed Shevil Hachalav (Milky Way) Street. Mechalkei Hamayim (Water Distributors) Street in Yerushalayim records a more traumatic event. A note on the street sign tells the curious that the name is “in memory of those who distributed water to Yerushalayim’s residents in the days of siege during the 1948 War of Independence.”
Governments come, governments go, and street names change to suit the shifting sands. At the end of the British Mandate, streets named after non-Jewish heroes got Jewish names. Under the British rule, a street leading from Yerushalayim’s Yaffo Street down to the walls of the Old City was named after Melisende, Queen of Yerushalayim, who ruled Crusader Yerushalayim from 1131 to 1153. The Jews renamed it Queen Helene Street after Helena of Adiabene, wife of Monbaz I, who converted to Judaism in about 30 C.E. Princess Mary Street was renamed in honor of Queen Shlomtzion, wife of Aristobolus 1 and (afterwards) Alexander Yannai. With the exception of Queen Ataliah (King Ach’av’s daughter), Shlomtzion was the only ruling queen in Jewish history.
About a year ago, Bnei Brak’s street naming committee suggested altering the names of many streets due to the passing of many gedolim “who had left their stamp on the Torah world for generations.” Changing Herzl Street to Rav Shach Street raised a public storm that led to a new regulations: henceforth, removing the names of national heavyweights would be verboten except by authorization of the government or a ministerial committee.
Another controversy flared when the square at the Churva Shul was dubbed Vadim Rabinovich z”l Square in “memory” of a Ukrainian oligarch who not only helped rebuild the Churva Shul, but also donated the $3 million menorah you’ve no doubt noticed while struggling up the stairs leading from the Kosel to the Old City. Weighing in at half a ton, the menorah is slathered with 45 kilograms of 24-carat gold. Despite the z”l appellation to his name, Rabinovich was still very much alive and personally attended the naming ceremony.
There were protests. Councilman Rachel Azaria petitioned the High Court, claiming that the new name contravened city regulations; A person must be dead three years before a street or square is named after him. The court accepted her arguments.
Many street names are obscure. Tel Aviv’s Tzihatli Street sets people to scratching their heads unless someone’s there to tell them that the name’s an acronym of Rav Yehuda Halevi’s immortal kinah, Tzion halo tish’ali l’shlome asirayich. Who would know that Beit Hagoral Alley in Yerushalayim is a remembrance to the Botei Hagoral neighborhood founded here when Yemenite Jews arriving in an immigration wave of 1882 were apportioned living quarters by lottery (goral)? Would you guess that Yehuda Hayamit Street in Yafo is one of Israel’s few streets commemorating a battle the Jews lost? Yehuda Hayamit is Hebrew for Judea Navalis, the name Romans stamped on coins celebrating their defeat and destruction of Yaffo in 67 C.E.
Clothes make the man and names raise streets from obscurity. In the 1980s, the residents of the Even Yehuda settlement near Tel Aviv added on a new street and granted Harry Arton, owner of the street’s one house, the privilege of naming the street with any name from the world of animals or plants. Arton hit on the name Sumsum (Sesame). Ever since, Sesame Street signs are purloined as fast as the settlement can nail them up. Tel Aviv suffers a similar problem. Blank patches on the buildings’ walls testify that street signs from the 50s and 60s sell for as much as 400 shekels apiece in the Yafo flea market.
Sometimes naming streets requires a stroke of ingenuity. Have you ever attended a shiur and found it impossible to detect whether the speaker is speaking of the Rambam or the Ramban? To solve the impasse, Tel Aviv has a Rambam Street and a Nachmani Street. Yerushalayim bypasses the problem by having a Ramban Street and a Rambam Ben Maimon Boulevard.
Jews had such a huge influence on European street names that to make Germany Judenrein, the Nazis had to rename 303 streets and place-names that included the world Juden. The denazification program after the war quickly restored most of the Jewish names with at least one exception.
In 2002, After a 17 years political row, Berlin Germans were still protesting when the city council agreed to restore Kinkel Street, named after Nazi favored German revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel (1815- 1882), to its original Judenstrasse. Efforts to restore the old name were resisted by the Save Kinkel Street group. Protesters even disrupted the renaming ceremony with yells of Juden raus ( Jews out). One local cynically remarked he could understand why people were angry at changing the name because “Look at all the costs for new stationary and business cards.” The city council retained both names mounted one over the other with the old street name struck through in red.
Inspired by the street’s restored name, Jewish photographer Susan Hiller spent three years from 2002 to 2005 exploring Germany and photographing 303 restored German street names with the prefix Juden in streets, lanes, roads, avenues and alleys. Many of them are Judenpfads – paths meandering around towns for the use of Jews barred from using main thoroughfares. This resulted in a book, The J. Street Project, a 303 photo exhibition, and a 67 minute video. Some streets go back as early as the 11th century.
“The Jews are gone,” she says, “but the street names remain as ghosts of the past, haunting the present.” The fight against anti-Semitic street names goes on. Last Year, the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities protested the decision of the mayor of Kunhegyes, a small east Hungarian town, to rename a street after Miklos Horthy. Horthy passed anti-Semitic laws, brought Hungary into the Nazi axis, and was ruling Hungary when Jews began being deported to death camps. He had direct responsibility for the killing and destruction of several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews.
In February this year, the Federation of Jewish Communities rose up in outrage when Budapest’s city council voted to name a street after Cecile Tormay, a pre-World War II novelist know for her anti- Semitic political opinions.
“The Federation of Hungary’s Jewish Communities is shocked to learn that a street in Budapest will be named after Cecile Tormay who was openly anti- Semitic. Her ideas and thoughts were taken as guidelines by leading anti-Semitic figures in Hungarian politics,” the federation complained. “She was Miklos Horthy’s favorite. We call on you not to name public places in the city after persons whose life and works raise doubts about the government’s commitment to fight anti-Semitism.”
Although the proposal was dropped in October, a statue of Cecile still stands proud in the heart of Pest, the section of Budapest lying east of the Danube River. It’s easier to change a street name than to change people’s hearts.