My Father’s Family — Part 4

Abarbanel was a very vigorous man. The members of the committee were clever men who wanted to develop their town and were yearning for culture and amusement. They held a closed meeting and decided to give Abarbanel a concession to build a movie-house. He was asked again to a Committee session during which, in short time, they agreed upon the terms for the concession.

Two months after his arrival, in January 1914, Abarbanel signed the contract containing the concession to build a large hall able to contain 600 seats and used as a cinematograph, theatre, concerts, ballet, dancing-balls, receptions and speeches. The concession was given for a period of 13 years and included a restriction forbidding the erection of any other movie-house within the municipal limits of Tel-Aviv. Abarbanel will pay the Committee of Tel-Aviv 1000 Gold Francs per annum for this concession and will withdraw all his belongings from the building unless the Committee will agree to renew the concession. In 1927 the concession was renewed for another 13 years but by 1935 the municipality of Tel-Aviv sold the large plot of land which by this time contained two large movie houses, the second one being a roofless open-air movie house, to Abarbanel, thus ending the concession and the contract.

Abarbanel engaged a German engineer who specialized in building movie-houses and arrived from Germany in February 1914. He also engaged Akiva Weiss to act as contractor of the building. As early as January 1914, while he was dealing with the TelAviv Committee he concluded that this project will cost between 20,000 to 25,000 Gold Francs. He had the money but knew that it would be physically impossible for himself to manage this project. Besides that he also knew that this business could and would provide nicely for two families. He therefore looked for a partner and found Mordechai Weisser who came to Jaffa from Russia in 1905. He was also a man of means and during the 8 years which he had already spent here he became very proficient in the peculiar customs and practices of bribery and baksish of the Ottoman rulers and administration.

Abarbanel and Weisser signed a contract which stated that they were equal partners. Each one invested 11,000 Gold Francs in the business and 22 Gold Francs went to the Jewish National Fund. The contract was to expire 13 years after the first movie show but actually remained valid for 61 long years until Cinema “Eden” was finally closed. Meanwhile Abarbanel decided that it would not be wise for him to invest all of the 11,000 Gold Francs from his own cash reserve and so he asked and received a loan of 10,000 Gold Francs from the Anglo-Palestine Co. Bank (the interest in those days was very low and set in promills). The loan he received was returned in full as agreed.

Work on the building started in February 1914 and by April the walls were erect and the roof was started. The hall contained 800 seats and not 600 as requested by the Committee. There was a gallery which contained the extra 200 seats. There was next to the hall a buffet which sold hot and cold drinks, sweets and sandwiches. There was a double box-office. The address was 2-4 Lilienblum Street. In July the building was mostly finished. Abarbanel asked the author S. Ben-Zion for a suitable name and the author called it “Eden”. When all was right and ready the First World War broke out on August 3, 1914.

Abarbanel was lucky for already in mid July he traveled to Alexandria, Egypt and there he purchased a French made movie- projector and a German made generator and contracted a film-agency who would supply the films. The projector and generator arrived at the end of July and with them arrived the first pictures. Early in 1915 contact between Egypt and Palestine was discontinued and Abarbanel contacted a film-agency in Beirut, Lebanon, which supplied the pictures to “Eden” until the cinema was temporarily closed due to the Ottoman Turkish expulsion of the inhabitants of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv further north.

But the breakout of the War did not prevent Abarbanel to complete the erection of “Eden” and to project the Premiere on August 22, 1914. The first movies (which were silent movies) were Italian. The first movie which was shown was: “The First Days of Pompey” and the second one was “Spartacus”. Grandpa told me that despite the relative large size of the house in relation to the size of the population of Jaffa, Tel-Aviv and the other Arab and Jewish suburbs the house was full to about half of its capacity, namely 400 people at every show.

The screening of the film was accompanied by suitable music played by two musicians: A pianist and a violinist who played “background music”. They finally grew to 5 musicians. The youngest of Abarbanel’s three daughters, Esther who used to play the cello was part of this ensemble for several years.Towards the last years of the silent-movie my grandpa bought an electrical “cinema-organ” and when his son Haim (who was my uncle) came back from his studies in Paris he used to play this organ (his salary as a Doctor of Medicine at the “Hadassa” Hospital was quite poor). In the early twenties my grandpa added a singer to this musical ensemble whom he used to pick from Golinkin’s Opera troupe.

The war changed the order of the Capitulations. The people who were citizens of countries which were part of the “Allied-Powers” were considered by the Turks as enemies. The Allied Consuls left the country and their citizens who stayed on came under the Ottoman law and rule. And it was not agreeable at all. Abarbanel’s main problem was with the Turkish Governor of Jaffa Hassan Beck who used to appear at every first performance of a new film, received free complimentary tickets for himself and his large company and once the performance was over he used to send his adjutant to the cash-box and take the entire contents. When Abarbanel was bold enough to ask him for the reason to this robbery he was told that this money was intended as a contribution for the building of the Mosque at the Jaffa suburb of Manshie (it is today at the southern end of Tel-Aviv’s promenade). To make sure that the Jewish cashier will not hide part of the income Hassan-Beck placed an armed Turkish soldier next to him. So let it be known that the Mosque of Hassan-beck was built by Abarbanel and Weisser.

Hassan-Beck’s robbery was not the only misfortune. A French destroyer used to arrive close to Jaffa harbor and bombard the Wagner factory which stood on the Tel-Aviv-Jaffa road. Wagner was a gentile German mechanical -engineer who built his factory towards the end of the 19th century for the production of agricultural machinery and various other steel utensils. Once the War broke out and German and Austrian troops arrived in Palestine to reinforce the Turks (the Commander-in Chief of this front was a German General) Wagner started producing arms and ammunition. Shortly a British destroyer with heavier guns took over the bombardment of Wagner’s factory. Hassan-Beck decided that this quite successful bombing could only be directed by the projector of Cinema “Eden” so he sent some soldiers to move the projector from the projection-room in the movie house to his military headquarters.

This totally put an end to Abarbanel’s and Weisser’s income. Abarbanel turned to Moshe Shertok (Sharet) who was a graduate of Gymnasia Herzelia and could write Turkish as it was spellt in 1915 (with the Arabic alphabet) and asked him to write a letter to Hassan-Beck for him, begging him to return the projector to “Eden”. Hassan-Beck agreed and returned the projector to its place but locked it up and sealed it as well. He used to send a soldier to break the seal and unlock the projection-room only on Saturday nights and on Holiday nights. Even though the two shows of Saturday night and the two shows of Holiday night should have filled the movie-house completely this did not happen since a large number of inhabitants of Jaffa, Tel-Aviv and the suburbs had left the area. To add insult to injury, Hassan-Beck continued robbing the till, and Abarbanel-Weisser’s financial woes grew acute.


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