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Memories, Reflections, and Regrets from A Political Life
By Meron Benvenisti
University of California PressCopyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
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Chapter OneA Founding Father
I had long been grappling with the question of where to begin my story. Before even thinking of the story itself, I had pondered where the opening scene should be set. This initial staking out of the narrative territory was important to me, because it would ground events and thoughts in concrete reality. I could begin at a beginning, at my beginning or at my parents' beginnings: in Jerusalem, or in Salonika and Suwalk; in Eretz Israel (Hebrew for "the Land of Israel"), or in the Balkans and the "Pale of Settlement"-but for some reason I was especially drawn to Zichron Ya'akov, where, a few years after his arrival in Palestine, my father had been sent as a teacher, a calling he followed throughout his long life. He was twenty-four when he came to Zichron at the time, an impecunious teacher living "in a room outside the village, whose windows faced the sea and Mount Carmel on one side and the eucalyptuses of the village on the other."
AN IMPECUNIOUS TEACHER
My father was discharged from the British Army late in June 1920, his commander providing him with discharge papers that indicated his "appropriate profession" as "teacher." After a few months substituting at a Sephardic school in Jerusalem, he was sent by the Yishuv's (Jewishcommunity's) education committee to teach at the school in Zichron Ya'akov. He thus began a career that would span more than sixty years. We shall never know if the decision to send my father to Zichron, "a large, established community boasting a school complete with all grades, wonderful scenery, and a diverse population," was a result of the enthusiastic letter he had written to the education committee: "Send me to some corner of Eretz Israel," he wrote, "give me children, and I shall dedicate myself to them with all my heart. I feel I have sufficient energies to dedicate to the education of children." Writing to a friend a year after his arrival in Zichron, he enthuses: "All my time is spent immersed heart and soul in the world of the children. All my leisure hours ... are given over to the pupils. I take part in all their games and outings, and in their most trivial interests, etc. Now it is harvest season, and every evening I roll with them from haystack to haystack, as if I had returned to the days of my childhood-as if I wished to collect a debt from my childhood, which passed without harvest and without the fragrance of God's broad fields. My heart is full of love for the pupils."
Years later when I was an adult, it seemed to me that the love he had lavished upon generation after generation of pupils was stolen from his own sons, toward whom he remained remote and detached.
My father had indeed completed his studies at a teachers' seminary in Jerusalem and was a qualified teacher, but his work nonetheless presented numerous difficulties: "It is an unforgivable sin that the Department of Education did not take into account our lack of teaching experience and sent us off to remote areas, without [first providing us with] an opportunity to obtain experience." "The information," he continued, "I draw from French books and unorganized notes that I have acquired in the village." He lacked not only information but also the Hebrew terms for various objects, not to mention concepts in mathematics and the sciences. Only six or seven years had gone by since the "battle of the languages" that had culminated in the gradual replacement of German by Hebrew as the language of instruction at the teachers' seminary and the Technion. "Even today," he wrote, "I am groping in the fog and must "row" and "row" until I reach the shore I seek." For instance, the fourth grade nature studies curriculum included the following subjects: "Lime (chalk, marble, [production of] sulfuric acid), clay, sand (manufacture of glass), shale, salt (crystalline). Onions, bulbs, fava beans, lupine, clover, the rose, the pepper tree, peas, bananas, codfish, the nightingale, the starling, the ant, the fly, the jackal, domestic cattle, ducks and geese, the grapevine, the oleander, the wolf, the scarab beetle, the spider, the gecko, the sprout (dicotyledonous), the structure and function of the root. Zoology: the metamorphosis of insects.... I excel in calisthenics as well as in singing. This Sunday I shall begin teaching musical notation, and I have already prepared several lessons. We shall see how I manage."
No wonder he complained, "When shall I tend to my soul, when shall I get the full measure of mental relaxation I require?" And inevitably there arose feelings of homesickness for the city of his birth, Salonika: "The question of travel to Salonika has been reawakened in me.... I know that this is only [self-]deception.... It would require crossing the sea, purifying myself, and leaving the limited world I have given myself over to."
The day in the fall of 1913 that my father left Salonika on a Greek vessel, accompanied on the voyage to Palestine by his father, he received a letter in Hebrew, written in the ancient Rashi script used for the Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) language. His close friend Nathan Shalem wrote: "My dear beloved one-My purpose in writing this letter is not to write you a letter on the occasion of your journey, but to bitterly bewail from the depths of my heart your parting from me.... I shall find comfort in this, however-that you are walking about in the land of our forefathers, the land we have yearned for, body and soul. I thought I must give you a memento so that you would not forget me; after searching and searching, I could not find a worthy keepsake for you except for a letter bordered with flowers."
My father answered this letter from Jerusalem five weeks later-also in Rashi script-with a fall flower that he had picked and dried affixed to the top: "I read your letter, which, at first sight and without digging too deeply, gladdened my sad soul, without my even endeavoring to see the signature of the writer of those lines, the flowers fastened round about it tell me ... it is the hand of Nathan Shalem.... Your bitter cry at my parting from you and your joy that I journey to Eretz Israel are only two sentences, but I prize them greatly. You are sad that I have parted from you, and my answer is that I, too, am sad. But who is the more bereft? You have been separated from one friend and I from all of them at once. Today I feel the word 'parting' everywhere I go, in everything I do, and all thoughts of childhood go straight-straight to this city that I have left ... to that home, to that Nathan Shalem like unto whom there is no other, and then my tears flow from my eyes and I weep."
Not many months passed before the two friends met again, with the arrival of a group of young Salonikans who had come to study at the Herzliyya Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, but ended up settling in Jerusalem.
Salonika. Perhaps, after all, the story should have begun there.
More than eight years after my father had left his home and "gone up to Jerusalem" (he defined his goal thus, and not as "Eretz Israel"), his longing for his family (who had remained in Salonika) and his city-"which embodies for me the best memories of the happy days of my youth"-was powerful and persistent. On his first visit to Tel Aviv in September 1916, three years after his aliya (immigration to the Holy Land), he muses: "It is pleasant with its handsome, tall buildings and with the Jewish atmosphere palpable everywhere. I swam in the waters of the sea, and the sight of the sea awakened many memories of Salonika in me, and I greatly wished to cross this sea. Who knows when this desire of mine will be fulfilled?"
My father's motivations for "going up" to Jerusalem to study there were similar to those impelling Jewish young people in Poland or Russia in those days: a blend of nationalist longings, personal motives, and reaction to external political events such as wars, revolutions, and persecutions. But their experience of the transition from Occident to Orient differed greatly in depth. The oleh (immigrant) from eastern Europe was thrown, unprepared, into the colorful, dusty tumult of the port of Jaffa: the physical surroundings-so different from the landscape of his northern homeland-and the unfamiliar human landscape. For my father and grandfather, by contrast, arriving in the land was like returning home: "We were surrounded by tarboosh-wearing Turkish customs officers and clerks.... With the aid of the pure Turkish that we spoke and our familiarity with Turkish etiquette, we speedily negotiated the various official procedures as full-fledged Ottoman citizens." One must remember that Jewish Salonika was not a marginal element in the Ottoman city; it was its heart.
The customary Zionist distinction between "exile" and "homeland" was less acute, to my father's way of seeing things. After all, he came from a city the majority of whose residents were Jews, who dominated the realms of finance, commerce, the port and fishing, culture, and education. My father proudly states: "The city of Salonika acquired a worldwide reputation for its Jewish 'color' and for its autonomy in all branches of the economy-a kind of 'state within a state.' During that era, a person did not experience the reality of exile."
His picturesque descriptions of public and private life in Salonika, of his education and Zionist activism, and particularly of his family's lineage, are full of pride in belonging to the Sephardic Jewish tribe that settled in the ancient Macedonian-Byzantine-Ottoman city founded in the fourth century b.c.e. The city was named after a half sister of Alexander the Great, Thessaloníki, whose name commemorated the victory (niki) of their father, Philip of Macedon, in Thessaly.
In 1913, the year my father left his hometown, a census showed that the Jewish community of Salonika was the predominant ethnic group. Out of 157,000 residents, the Jewish community numbered 62,000, the Greek, 40,000, and the Muslim (Ottomans), 46,000 souls. My father's renowned teacher, Dr. Yitzhak Epstein, who had come in 1908 from Palestine to minister to the Salonika Jewish community's educational institutions, wrote:
It is as if this community has given the lie to reality, to exile, to the dominant environment-different from it in religion, language, and way of life- ... not only in the synagogue, Talmud Torah [Jewish religious elementary school], on the Sabbath and holidays, but on every workday and in the essence of everyday life. In the marketplace and the port, in the artisanship and in manufacturing, Salonika had become a small island where a sort of Jewish autonomy prevailed, spiritual and economic at one and the same time, ... effacing in great measure, the imprint of exile. Here Jews of stature arose, imposing in appearance and endowed with grandeur, whose faces displayed courage, self-assurance, and self-knowledge.
Father left Salonika in the autumn of 1913. Exactly one year prior to that, in October 1912, the city had been occupied by the Greek army. Thus had commenced an inexorable decline in the fortunes of the Jewish community, which suffered from the measures employed by the Greek government in its efforts to bolster the position of Salonika's Greek inhabitants and to decrease the economic influence of the Jews. My father and those of his friends who immigrated at about the same time to Jerusalem worriedly followed from afar the misfortunes that plagued their birthplace during World War I, especially the great fire of 1917, which destroyed most of the Jewish homes in Salonika (and all our family's ancient archives). But the fate of Jewish autonomy in Salonika was sealed in the aftermath of the war, when hundreds of thousands of Greek refugees expelled from Asia Minor settled there and in the surrounding area. My father's friend Yosef Uziel wrote in 1929: "The hallucination of a Jewish city in the diaspora has evaporated.... But even should this nightmare be fully realized, and Salonika sees the back of the last of its Jews, hundreds of years of history will not be erased."
SMOLDERING HEAPS OF ASH
Only fourteen years later, the nightmare had become reality. The entire Jewish community of Salonika, including my father's sister Sara and three brothers: Benvenisti (first name), Abraham, and Jacob, and scores of family members, perished in the Holocaust. Returning to the city of his birth in 1956, after more than forty years, he writes: "You turn this way and that and the streets shun you. Where are the dwellings of your brothers? Where the synagogues of olden days, which preserved the names of glorious communities in magnificent Sepharad? Where is my father's serene and tranquil home? All of this went up in flames in 5677 [the great fire of 1917]." He continues, referring to the more recent catastrophe:
On the smoldering heaps of ash an alien city was built.... But before I could begin to comprehend the Holocaust that befell a city that had been "a mother in Israel," ... I said to myself that I would go and stretch myself out on my ancestors' graves and bitterly lament what the Nazi foe did to the nation it exterminated.... Let your eyes glance here or there, all has been wiped from the face of the earth. "The house of the living" [the cemetery] is a plowed field, and beyond are new houses just recently built, and beyond them a grove of trees in bloom, and in the distance-the halls of higher learning of the youthful inhabitants of Salonika [the University of Salonika].... From amongst the foliage sometimes sprout fragments of gravestones ... upon which sacred [i.e., Hebrew] letters stand out. And it is as if they are crying out for retribution from us all. As for the dead, so for the living, one fate for both together.
Only a fraction of the gravestones in Salonika's Jewish cemetery (2,500) have been studied and their inscriptions recorded and published. From the data on these gravestones, my father was able to reconstruct his family history, and this constituted his final piece of research in the year of his death, 1993. The records of these inscriptions in old and new books, along with stories handed down from his ancestors, enabled him to trace his family's genealogy for almost five hundred years, from 1500 to the present. According to his findings, the family had its beginnings in three branches, two of which originated in southern Italy, whereas the third arose in Spain. With undisguised pride my father quotes the chronicles and the lives of his distant forebears: rabbis, judges (in religious courts), and community leaders.
Take, for example, Rabbi Chaim Shabtai (1551-1647):
Foremost of the sages and teachers of teaching, who by virtue of his wisdom enhanced the reputation of the rabbis of Salonika in the world.... A distinguished and greatly respected rabbi, who inspired many disciples. ... He permitted forty prosperous conversos [Sephardic Jews coerced into converting to Christianity] who had returned to Judaism to settle in Salonika.... He suffered greatly from ailments of the stomach and kidneys.
Rabbi Shabtai died at the age of ninety-two.
And here is Rabbi Yosef David (1660-1736), who was called Tsemach David (Branch of David) after his most famous book:
He inspired many disciples, and they too were great Torah scholars. He lived to a ripe old age, leaving his mark on the lives of two generations of Salonika's Jews.... His posthumously published book of responsa on the four sections of the Shulhan Aruch [Beit David (Salonika, 1740-46)] is among the most famous such works.... Rabbi Yosef David's piety and holiness were celebrated even beyond the borders of his country. He revered Nathan of Gaza, the prophet of the false messiah Shabtai Zvi. Most of his writings were published after his death. On his gravestone is inscribed: "Called to the heavens above: a light in Israel, the right-hand pillar, the glory of his generation, his magnificence, the great rabbi, fortress and bastion, our teacher and rabbi, Yosef David. Blessed be his memory."
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