It happened one night in 2006. The actor and singer Mendy Cahan, accompanied by two bitter and exhausted movers, parked a large van with a container in the parking lot of Tel Aviv’s New Central Bus Station. Cahan quietly opened the container, and the trio began to pull out large boxes sealed with duct tape. Shortly after, they had carried the boxes to the station’s fifth floor.
Construction of the Central Bus Station, which was supposed to be the world’s biggest shopping mall, began in 1967, but the plans for developing it as a shopping center collapsed. The station opened in 1993, in a grand, fanciful ceremony attended by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Its architects promised a five-star-level shopping and transportation center, but its levels, corridors and wings confused shoppers, so they stopped coming. Levels 1 and 2, which included stores, bus stations and a passenger hall, were found to suffer from severe air pollution shortly after the opening, and were closed off. Now, some areas teem with life, while others are almost abandoned. Levels 4 (the street level), 6, and 7 are currently active. The fifth floor has come to be known as “The Artists’ Compound.” When businesses began abandoning the station in the mid-1990s, the city of Tel Aviv decided to offer spaces as cheap studios for artists. Most of those artists have since departed.
Cahan opened the door to a former studio on the fifth floor, revealing a large, empty space. Over the course of more than 24 hours, he filled this space with boxes containing more than four tons of books in Yiddish. Thirteen years after the original Yung Yidish library opened in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv branch was born. Its non-circulating collection is perhaps the largest array of Yiddish books and newspapers in Israel, yet the institution survives on a lean diet of donations.
When he opens the door today, more than a decade after that night, Cahan is surrounded by a wide, low-ceilinged space containing tens of thousands of books. Between the mounds of books there is a mish-mash of sofas and couches. Yiddish works from the late 19th century bloom between late 20th-century concrete walls and air vents. A bus departs from the floor above once every 30 seconds, and its roar sends a vibration through the ceiling and the Yiddish books. Below the library, on the fourth and third floors, there are stalls selling clothing, food, and porn, alongside synagogues and churches. A wide hallway overlooking the third floor is called Manila Street, and holds shops operated by Filipino migrant workers.
We sit around a low coffee table at Yung Yidish that holds a bottle of Slivovitz brandy. Next to us there is a messy pile of cardboard boxes holding 4,000 books and newspapers in Yiddish. “The Yiddish library owners are dying,” says Cahan. “These boxes came from a huge Yiddish library in central Tel Aviv which is about to be closed down. They asked us to save what we can.
Read more: Atlas Obscura