If these streets could talk...

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg

How the woman "obsessed with street names" exposes the history of an entire state.

We pass them on our walks to work. Type them into our GPS apps. Write them on envelopes, subscriptions and business cards. Whether a noun, verb or proper name, the addresses pasted in big bold letters on each street sign around Tel Aviv hold years of stories; her story, his story, history.
"Some name their dog Bialik or Begin, while others create a club called Dizzy Frishdon. While arranging meeting points, Jabo is shortened for Jabotinsky and Levi for Levi Eshkol. Sheinkining describes the activities of sitting on the pavements, among the cafés and in the famous Sheinkin garden," explains creative mind, Sharonna Karni Cohen. Without even realizing, Israel's most influential historical figures have become a part of our everyday vernacular. Sharonna dove deeper into the significance behind the street names of Tel Aviv, with an ambitious project in mind: to expose the rich Jewish history that follows us around town, down every alley, one-way street and boulevard.
Her spark was lit in a quaint University lecture room in Bristol, England, during a presentation on physical Zionism. Sharonna was studying politics and sociology at the time, and the concept of 'physical' Zionism made her laugh because she had always associated Zionism with books and intellectual endeavors.
"When we learned that Nordau was the co-founder of physical Zionism," Sharonna shares, "I laughed even harder because I realized that at the end of Nordau Street [in Tel Aviv] sits one of those public gyms." Sharonna thought of how proud Nordau would be to see this fitting metaphor attached to his legacy.
It was at this point that she decided to compile the stories attached to the streets of Tel Aviv and the people they were named after into a cohesive book, an anthology of sorts. She pitched her idea to the late Martin Gilbert, well-known author and Israeli historian, who encouraged Sharonna to conduct her research in her city of study. "That's partly the reason I moved to Israel," Sharonna admits, "my dad is Scottish and I grew up in London, but my mom is Israeli  and we visited about twice a year...I think I was subconsciously looking for a reason to move there permanently."
street sign

© Shutterstock

When Sharonna relocated to the White City, she set out on her 'historical hacking' mission, tracking down as many of the major street names' descendants as possible for interviews.
"Not everyone was as easy to find as the other." Take Shapira's grandson, for instance. When Sharonna finally found him after much online searching, she discovered that he lived in the United States. "We've been speaking via e-mail ever since."
Shapira's connection to street names opens up a deeper historical portal; that of two streets off King George known today as Simta Almonit ('No one's alley') and Simta Plonit ('John Doe's Alley'). Shapira was a very influential figure in the state's early existence and his American wife, Sonia, was not too keen on living in Palestine at the time. He paved an entire street and named it in her honor as an act of chivalry. Mayor Dizengoff called Shapira out on his exploitation of power and forced him to rename the street; hence the 'non-names' of these two streets. Sharonna chimes in, "the only surviving legacy was café Sonia [a local favorite], which has unfortunately shut down this year."
Another interesting character was Arlozorov's son. Sharonna met Shaul with one of Streets’ Pioneers Omer Zerahia at Shaul’s Tel Aviv apartment, where she learned more about his father, Haim Arlozorov. Before they could ask Shaul about his father's role as former secretary of state and his assassination, Shaul sat them down and asked, "would you like a drink?" To which Sharonna responded, "No thank you, we just ate breakfast." The 86-year-old continued, "'obviously, but what about a 'small drink''. So we sipped cognac at 10 a.m. with the man who lost his father at the age of three."
After describing everyone else's family histories with such verve, Sharonna pauses to share glimpses into her own. "My brother is a writer, and my sister writes very beautifully as well. I always felt like they were the storytellers in the family, while I struggled to find my voice."
Sharonna found her voice where she least expected – in the streets of Tel Aviv; unleashing a passion to empower the storyteller within each of us, whether writing material for a book, creating a piece of artwork or developing an oral piece.
Sharonna's friends joined the project and today, Streets is a whole collective of different multidisciplinary entrepreneurs. It went from a collection of stories to a real publishable project.
As a non-profit, Sharonna aimed to crowdsource everything – from illustrations to photographs to written material. There will be no single author, rather a collection of narratives from the people, for the people. Sharonna explains, "there’s a joke that every Jew wants to write or publish a book at some point in their life. Streets is going to be the first crowdsourced book (by an entire city) since the Bible."
A bold statement indeed, but Sharonna is a woman who dreams big (and that's not just a reference to her other art-based start-up, Dreame)...and delivers; four years, one hackathon, co-organized by pioneers Gilad Gome and Omer Zerahia, countless interviews, and many roundtable discussions since a seed was planted, and Streets has come to fruition as a website, plus it's well on its way to being published in print.
While our generation is hung up on selfies and the internet, it's refreshing to find a group that is actually interested in history and people. "Everyone knows me as the girl who is obsessed with street names," Sharonna shares. "It may be my thing now, but I like it. It's a great conversation starter anyways."
The Streets team is starting a conversation in multiple ways, one that she hopes will generate a snowball effect of dialogue tying the past to the present and hopefully the future.
Check out the website: www.streets.city. Or share your story: e-mail info@streets.city to become a part of the Streets team today.
Streets team
The team: Sharonna Karni Cohen, Gilad Gome, Omer Zerahia, Ori Goshen, Limor Lahiani, Eyal Dror, Hillel Raz, Naomi Setton, Dori Adar, Omri Baumer, Alex Zak, Gal Hochberg, Yael Benjamin, Andrea Rosen, Itay Golan, Michal Bloch, Saul Sadka, Alana Shultz

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