Cultural Exchange: Israeli city reviving itself as an arts attraction

Large sculptures in one of Holon's "Story Gardens," which are public parks that have oversized sculptures that depict famous Israeli fairy tales and children's storie. This one deals with a girl learning to tie her hair in braids.
(Edmund Sanders / Los Angeles Times)

Even residents of this sand-blown suburb — once known for crime and middle-class flight — used to joke that the best part of town was the road to neighboring Tel Aviv.

Lately, however, traffic is moving in the opposite direction. With a dozen new museums, libraries, theaters and other cultural centers — all focused on the city’s unique rebranding around kids culture and digital arts — Holon has become an international model for urban renewal, drawing 400,000 tourists last year.

“It’s a very ambitious little town,” said Ron Arad, an Israeli architect who designed Holon’s new landmark Design Museum. “Every cultured person in Israel now finds themselves in Holon, which is amazing.”


The city has become a magnet for youth culture. Schools are rainbow-colored, street benches are child-sized and electricity poles are painted blue, just for the fun of it.

Public parks have been reinvented as story gardens, with giant, colorful sculptures by local artists based on characters and plots of Israel’s best-loved children’s fables.

There’s the Cartoon Museum, the International Puppet Theater, the School for Street Theater — teaching juggling, face-painting and hand-walking — and Israel’s only Children’s Museum, taking kids through interactive worlds, where aliens teach tolerance, caterpillars offer lessons about life’s changes and sight-impaired tour guides help them experience what it’s like to be blind by making their way through pitch-black re-creations of a rain forest, a street corner and a shopping market.

“In Holon, the education doesn’t stop when you come home from school,’’ said Moti Sasson, the city’s mayor since 1993. “It continues in the parks, on the streets, in the library.”

Meanwhile, the city’s cultural attractions are beginning to mature, as evidenced by Arad’s museum building, opened in March, consisting of sinewy, gravity-defying ribbons of Italian-made Corten steel in escalating shades of red-orange.

The Design Museum isn’t targeted at kids, but it charges the imagination just the same. This month’s exhibition of “Mechanical Couture” includes clothing made from recycled audiocassette tape, camera-embedded T-shirts and computers that give users personality tests to design individualized shoes.


For the “Project Runway” set, the nearby iMatter Materials Library — part of Holon’s Mediateque center — offers would-be designers the chance to see and feel the latest cutting-edge goods, from aluminum foam to salmon skin fabric.

The urban reinvention around kids and digital arts is all the more impressive considering the city’s mayor is a bachelor with no children and a self-avowed Luddite who doesn’t use a computer or e-mail.

A short, unassuming former budget manager for Israel’s social security fund, Sasson, 63, admitted he’s not exactly a big fan of the futuristic digital art now showcased in Holon. He’s not the kind of guy who enjoys pontificating about what experts call Holon’s emerging “trandisciplinary culture complex.”

Instead, Sasson seems happiest when crunching numbers and explaining how he slashed costs and improved efficiency to turn Holon’s municipal deficits into a surplus.

The vision to focus on kids came from his city manager, who says she was inspired by her mother, a kindergarten teacher. Sasson was immediately sold on the concept.

“I understand the importance of enriching the soul,’’ said Sasson, who estimated the city has spent about $100 million on cultural projects over the last decade. “Without the soul, there is no life. You can teach children many things, but to enrich their soul makes them happy.”


Next on the agenda are a concert hall, a sports center, a new city hall and a sand-dune preservation park. Artists and developers praise Sasson as the ideal hands-off client. Arad said his mandate was simply to construct something that Holon could “put on a postage stamp,” comparable to what the Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao, Spain.

“He doesn’t pretend he knows everything, but he understands that culture is a bridge to many other things, such as education and tolerance,” said Alon Sapan, director general of the Design Museum.

Sasson is not even on the design selection committee for the new concert hall because he thinks others are more qualified.

It’s no surprise that parents are flocking to Holon, which over the last two years has opened half a dozen new kindergartens and two new elementary schools, the first in 20 years.

Tel Aviv resident and single mother Tali Shemer, 37, is among those considering a move to Holon, where she brings her 3-year-old daughter weekly to take advantage of the public spaces. “I can see a difference between her and other kids,’’ Shemer said. “She’s more open to new things and uses her imagination more.”

Most of Holon’s residents are thrilled with the changes, though a few have had trouble adjusting to what one developer called the city’s “artsy” image. In the poorer part of town, with its grayish apartment buildings and rooftop clotheslines, blue-collar families scratch their heads at the tony new boutiques selling amorphous silver vases or beautifully packaged boxes of dirt — “holy sand” that goes for $55.


“I don’t feel the makeover myself, but it’s nice that the city is getting international recognition,’’ said Rita Haimor, 33, a mother of three and due to deliver her fourth any day. The hair stylist said her kids love the museums when they go with their school, but she noted that a family outing on the weekend can cost $75, since residents don’t get discounts.

“I’d like to see more of the beautification in the weaker, less central parts of town like this,’’ she said.

Sasson said he’s making sure that low-income neighborhoods are getting their share of new schools and infrastructure. But to him, the cultural development is not a matter of splurging on extras.

“I don’t see this is as a luxury,’’ he said. “It’s as necessary as food.”