Little over a century ago, Tel Aviv appeared like a dimple next to the crooked smile of the Mediterranean. The year was 1909 and the State of Israel would not be founded for another 39 years. Due to its relative youth, the first modern Jewish city does not boast many urban legends. But those that do haunt its corners mostly refer to the mythical years before the State’s founding, when Tel Aviv was nothing more than a small cluster of buildings sitting on the sand dunes north of Jaffa.
Strolling through the anarchy of King George Street, you might spot two stubby obelisks out of the corner of your eye. These structures mark the entrance to a couple of parallel cul-de-sacs called Anonymous Alley and Unknown Alley. Though these may sound like terrible places to meet a date, behind the opaqueness of their names lies one of Tel Aviv’s most notorious legends of unrelenting love: that of the American contractor Meir Getzel Shapira and his wife Sonya.
Meir Shapira’s story is well documented, but after decades of travelling by word of mouth it has taken on a life of its own. Further, it has been heavily romanticized by Israeli lore. As a businessman who erected Jewish districts in Palestine years before the birth of Israel, he is usually depicted as the mythical pioneer who migrated out of a burning love for the homeland. However, while there may be some truth to this, the reality is more complex.
His back-story, which is usually glossed over, helps shed some light on his character. Shapira was born in Lithuania in 1881, and, at 14, he left his parents and nine siblings and boarded a ship to America.
He spent his first years in the Land of Opportunity working as a tailor, eventually climbing the social ladder and making his fortune in real estate. Once he owned various luxury hotels and clothing stores, he brought his family over from the Old Continent to live with him in Detroit, where they promptly started squabbling among themselves over his money.
In 1922, when he was 41 years old, his family’s wrangles pushed him over the edge. He handed them a hefty cut of his assets, liquidated the rest, packed his bags and moved to Palestine.
If anything, this episode casts doubt upon the romantic Zionist angle on his story. It seems like Shapira came to Palestine not so much because he wanted to be here, but because he wanted to put an ocean between himself and his family. And while it may be significant that he chose to come here of all places, one cannot ignore that Palestine in the 1920s was a real estate paradise. The novelty of Zionism had caused an influx of Jews, many of them fleeing anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution. Housing prices were bursting at the seams; Palestine was practically begging for real estate developers.
Shapira purchased plots all over the land, and in time opened local branches of General Electric and Morris. Among his more notable legacies, however, are the two nameless alleys that branch off King George Street. These he didn’t build for profit – he built them for love.
It was in Palestine that Meir met Sonya Moselbuts, the 18-year-old daughter of an upper class family who had just emigrated from Riga. The surviving sepia photographs show a girl with dark eyes, a moonlike face, and a considerable nose. Meir, on the other hand, looked rather like Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister.
A wedding soon followed and Meir built a three-storey, eclectic-style home in Tel Aviv. There they had three children: Naomi, Aybey and Nathan. By all accounts, Meir was desperately in love with his wife. What Sonya made of her husband – 23 years her senior – is another matter.
Legend depicts Sonya as a delicate European lady, born with a silver spoon – nay, a whole set of silver cutlery in her mouth. She often complained about the Middle East’s torrid weather, hated that she couldn’t go anywhere without getting sand in her shoes, feared plundering marauders, and was basically miserable all the time. Meir, for his part, tried to cheer her up by throwing money at the problem.
One day Sonya came home to find a roaring lion standing in front of her house. It was a statue Meir had commissioned from American sculptor Y. D. Gordon to make Sonya feel safer at home. The beast had lights in its eyes that glowed red at night. That would take care of the plundering marauders.
But he didn’t stop there: he also paved the two roads that lead up to the house, so that Sonya wouldn’t have to worry about sand touching her snow-white skin. He then erected two concrete obelisks at the head of the street and hinged a wrought iron gate between them. Finally, he plopped a Yemenite guard in front of the gate and armed him with a stick (this, I admit, might be a mistranslation).
But Sonya still wasn’t happy. Desperate, Meir made her one last gift: he named the roads leading up to the house Meir Street and Sonya Street.
Little did Meir Shapira know, this gallant gesture would make him a powerful enemy. Word of it reached the mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, who would have none of it. Dizengoff ordered the streets signs taken down immediately.
To hear Meir Shapira fans tell it, you would think Meir Dizengoff didn’t like the idea that any rich yank could come here and name a street without asking for permission. The more likely explanation, however, is that Dizengoff deemed the street names confusing, since he was planning to name a nearby street after another famous Shapira – Zvi Hermann Shapira, a Russian mathematician.
Nevertheless, when he found the road signs missing, Meir Shapira swiftly replaced them. The next day, they were gone again. He then found out who was behind the confiscation and allegedly went to visit Dizengoff’s office in person, where they had a heated discussion. Some say Shapira shattered the mayor’s glass table in anger, and others say it ended in a fistfight. But Dizengoff was unmovable, and Shapira gave up.
Urban legend says that city hall named the streets Anonymous Alley and Nameless Alley as temporary placeholders, but time went by and nobody bothered to change them.
What really happened, as journalist Tikvah Weinstock attests in a 1963 article for the Hebrew newspaper Maariv, is that the alleys remained completely nameless until the early Sixties, when local merchants who had set up shop in them demanded proper addresses.
Tour guides and myth blogs usually end the tale at this point, leaving you to wonder whether Meir and Sonya Shapira ever reconciled, and whether homesickness or her husband caused Sonya’s grief. The legend, as told from Meir’s perspective, certainly makes for a good love story. But if we try to step into Sonya’s shoes, her husband’s actions could be seen as anything from clingy to tyrannical.
If it was immortality that Meir was seeking, he attained it through another project. He erected a whole Jewish district a few kilometers to the south. He named it Shapira, and because, at the time, it fell under the jurisdiction of Jaffa, the ancient Arab city south of Tel Aviv, there wasn’t much Dizengoff could do about it.
Meir Shapira’s business dealings suffered a blow from the outbreak of World War II. In 1942, his son Nathan left home to work on a kibbutz, the same age Meir had been when he left his own parents. His departure shocked the family, and, soon after, Sonya asked for a divorce. She left for Boston, where she married a distant cousin.
Shapira’s life spiraled out of control. Some of the lands he had purchased in what is today the West Bank came under Jordanian control after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. He sold the rest of his plots in a desperate attempt to balance his accounts, but the numbers didn’t play out in his favor. Time went by and Shapira grew old and indifferent. He died in Tel Aviv in 1970, alone and bankrupt. He never regained his losses or his family.
Sonya only returned to Tel Aviv after the death of her second husband, and she lived the rest of her days in the house on the alley that had briefly carried her name. When she too passed away, the house was divided into apartments and rented to young Telavivians. The building stands to this day at the end of Anonymous Alley with the lion roaring before it.
The journalist and historian Shabtai Teveth remembers his childhood encounter with the lion in his biographical work Yesterday’s Journals (1975). His piano teacher, Miss Miniosa, lived in an apartment on Anonymous Alley. He was on his way to his first lesson when he saw the lion at the end of the street and was paralyzed by fear. “I didn’t run away from fear that it would chase me.” At that moment, a group of children holding large slices of cake came out of Miss Miniosa’s building and ran over to the beast. They clambered onto its sinewy back and, seeing Teveth’s dumbstruck expression, told him it wasn’t real. He approached the lion gingerly and climbed on. “Even as I felt the cold stone between my knees, fear still fluttered inside me like the wings of a caged bird.”
Years went by and the lion was neglected. Its color faded and the plunderers it was built to scare away ended up taking the lights from its eyes. In 1962, the now bygone periodical Davar published an article on Anonymous Alley as part of a series called “City Corners.” Describing Shapira’s house, the author seems to be high on the building’s romantic history: “Hush! Perhaps soon a knight will appear with a mandolin in hand ready to serenade his beautiful beloved, who will lean on her terrace and blow a kiss to her lover on a red rose.”
He goes on to project his own disenchantment with the decrepit look of the place onto the old stone beast: “The proud lion looks with grief upon the jeans and nightgowns that hang (unromantically!) from the clotheslines. The lion looks upon the surviving houses on the side of the alley, and from the holes of his gouged-out eyes tears of dust trickle into its open mouth.”
During my visit to Anonymous Alley, a young unshaven man washes his old Honda next to the lion, placing his cleaning tools on the pedestal. The lion was recently renovated by the city hall. The parts of its mouth and torso that had been knocked off over the years were replaced with cement, but they didn’t bother to paint its mouth red like it was in Shapira’s days, nor did they replace the lights in his eyes, which still cry “tears of dust.”
On Unknown Alley, there is now a quaint coffeeshop called Café Sonya, in memory of Shapira’s unhappy wife. I sit at a table in their back garden, next to a graffiti of Super Mario jumping over a Piranha Plant. I think of Princess Peach and how Mario runs to her rescue. No matter how many times he fights his way to a castle only to find Peach missing, he just ticks it off his list and heads off towards the next one, confident that Peach is counting on him.
That, I tell myself, is a love worthy of legends. Not Sonya. Local lore has exalted Shapira’s romantic gestures while overlooking Sonya’s sorrow. I think about how reality is nuanced and often disappointing, until my coffee arrives. It tastes meh.