By Adina Laufer
Ceramic pots, beaded jewelry, boiled wool slippers, stuffed animals, tree-trunk platters, handmade paper notebooks, silver rings, gold earrings, leather bracelets, papier mâché animals, fimo figurines, textured textiles, clever trinkets, blown glass, street performers, outdoor cafés, reams of fabric -- it’s all at the Nachlat Binyamin street fair in Tel Aviv, every Tuesday and Friday.
Since 1987, first dozens, and now more than 200 artists gather each week to show and sell their wares to the myriad of customers who stroll the aisles of the three-pronged pedestrian streets of the Nachlat Binyamin neighborhood. Depending on the time of year, many of the shoppers can be tourists and the surrounding conversations are a cacophony of languages and accents. The artists, by and large, are native Israelis from all over the country. For many, the fair serves as their primary storefront.
Nachlat Binyamin is “half a store for me, but not a whole store, which is what I had in mind,” says Amnon Lipkin of Pashut Tofer (Simply Sewer), a studio for hand-sewn crafts. “I have my studio where I sit and sew quietly, and Nachlat Binyamin is just a short walk away, making this my neighborhood for work and life. I like that it all happens right here.”
A history of craftsmanship
The Nachlat Binyamin neighborhood, “the estate of Benjamin,” was named after the father of modern Zionism, Benjamin Ze’ev (Theodor) Herzl. This is one of Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhoods, created by an association of upper-class tradesmen, clerks and shopkeepers who wanted to create a zone similar in character and adjacent to the city’s very first district, Ahuzat Bayit.
In the early days of Tel Aviv, its central Nachlat Binyamin Street was the longest road in the city and has always housed small shops.
Like the artists selling their wares in today’s Nachlat Binyamin arts-and-crafts fair, many of the first dwellers were craftsmen working in metals, alongside shopkeepers and booksellers. They were all seeking comfortable, affordable homes, and managed to purchase five acres, or 20 dunams, which was divided into 35 plots.
Starting in 1911, they built mostly one-story Arab-style homes, with two rooms, a kitchen and balcony. By 1912 there were 23 houses, and at that point the neighborhood consolidated with the city of Tel Aviv in order to pay for the necessary infrastructure to develop Nachlat Binyamin.
Just a decade later, Nachlat Binyamin Street became the growing city’s main commercial thoroughfare as Jews left Jaffa and migrated to Tel Aviv. Additional stories were added to the houses, with storefronts located on the bottom floor. Given the street’s length, it was also the perfect spot for city ceremonies and events.
Thanks to its proximity to the busy but more rundown Allenby Street, as well as Kerem HaTeimanim (Vineyard of the Yemenites), a poor Yemenite neighborhood with architecture based on the Jewish ghettos of Yemen, Nachlat Binyamin eventually became fully commercial.
When the city made Nachlat Binyamin into a pedestrian mall in 1987, closing off the street and two adjacent ones to vehicles, it also established the arts-and-crafts fair -- the first of its kind in Israel, and the largest.
Original, handmade wares only
Each of the artists has a regular stall and can pay to store their wares from week to week. A public committee approves the artists as well as the items exhibited and sold. According to fair guidelines, all work must be original and handmade, although it can be a replica of another artist’s work. Each artist must be present at the stall, and can’t send a representative to sell his or her work.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, the street bustles with artists and customers, as well as those sitting in the many cafés and making their way to local fabric stores, since the neighborhood has become Tel Aviv’s garment district.
“It’s always a fruitful two days,” says Michal Ben Yosef, a ceramicist whose salt-and-pepper shakers, trays, hamsas and pomegranates are always in great demand at the fair and at local galleries. “I love getting to talk to my customers, and hearing what they’re looking for,” she says. “Then I go back to my studio, brainstorm a little and come up with new designs.”
Neomi Zelman, an artist who designs items from gourds, has been participating in the fair for 19 years. She was a graphic designer when she began working with a bag of gourds brought to her by her brother, and for many years grew her own gourds as well, storing them in a former chicken coop. Now she uses a supply from nearby farmers, and she sells her wares primarily at Nachlat Binyamin, where she loves her community of customers and fellow artists.
“We’re like our own, small neighborhood,” she says of her fellow artists. “We treat each other very well, we inspire one another, we share techniques and materials. And the exposure to the great audience has been wonderful.”
As Nachlat Binyamin has grown, the neighborhood has slowly shifted as well, with a number of young Israeli clothing and accessories designers setting up their shops and studios near the textile stores they frequent, and benefiting from the arts-and-crafts fair traffic two days a week.
When the Nachlat Binyamin fair closes down, the street returns to normal -- nowhere near as busy as on the days of the fair. It’s easier then to get a sense of the buildings’ Eclectic architectural style, so-called for the mix of the Arabesque, Turkish and British influences evident in the early 1900s-era structures.
The neighborhood also offers easy access to other famous Tel Aviv areas, from the Carmel food and vegetable market next door, to Kerem HaTeimanim with its plethora of hole-in-the-wall and more established restaurants and on into Neve Tzedek, the city’s first Jewish neighborhood outside of Jaffa.