Street names #
We don’t give much thought collectively to street names, but they have an outsized impact on pop culture. Think of the iconic Manhattan grid of Avenues and Streets, of which I am sure most people can name a few just from their appearance in films, TV shows or the news (Wall St, 44th Street, 5th Avenue). And everyone can name a whole list of fictional street names: Evergreen Terrace, Elm Street, Sesame Street, Privet Drive. Street names give colour and realism to an invented world, they anchor it to some seemingly banal detail of the real world to give the illusion that the entire imagined world is as fleshed out, as infinitely detailed as our own. Except maybe Tolkien, whose worldbuilding depth was so unprecedented and peerless as to redefine the entire concept, no author really exhaustively names all the streets, or all of anything in their world. They merely paint beautiful, purposeful droplets of detail onto the page, giving the illusion of reality to their invention.
Israeli street names #
One of the most unique and clever books I’ve read in recent years has to be The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. I won’t spoil the book beyond mentioning its setting, which is also detailed on the back cover: that during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the inchoate State of Israel was destroyed, and the predominant Jewish community in the world became a refugee camp in Sitka, Alaska. In the modern day, this settlement has a population of millions of Jews, and the novel is set in this alternate universe.
I’ve always loved the idea of worldbuilding, of creating an entire parallel universe and populating it with your characters and your stories. And I was particularly interested in one small detail from Chabon’s book: the street names he uses to create the neo-noir detective story.
In Israel, a handful of street names are reused in almost all Jewish cities. In all large cities you will find a Wiezman Street, named after the first President of Israel. You will find a Ben Gurion Street (or maybe Boulevard), named after its first Prime Minister. You will find a Nordau Street, named after the co-founder (with Herzl, who will also definitely have his own street) of the World Zionist Congress, which set the wheels in motion for the founding of the modern State of Israel. Chabon also has a Max Nordau Street in his novel.
I find this repetition suggestive of precisely the opposite phenomenon to worldbuilding. In Israel, a whole country was built so fast - possibly the fastest ever in history - that there was not enough history, not enough backstory, to provide street names, which usually draw from such sources. Rather than hinting at detail, Israeli street names hint at the paucity of detail in the early state, which forced the unimaginative duplication, a copy-paste operation in cities all across the country.
It’s particularly odd when one thinks of the depth of Jewish mythology, scripture and rabbinical literature which could have been drawn from. There are small areas of Tel Aviv, like the one I live in, where one can see this sort of Tolkienesque imagination. Grids of streets named after characters from the Hannukah myth. Streets named after famous rabbis and biblical scholars. But one gets the distinct feeling that the secular masterminds of the modern state wanted to create their own, new mythology, to do some worldbuilding of their own, and the street names are all the poorer for it.