The Hut of a Visionary Socialist Is Rebuilt in Bourgeois Rehavia

The second president's wife had ecological dreams ahead of her time.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, one of the leaders of the Yishuv, the prestate Jewish community, and the wife of Israel's second president, immigrated to Palestine in 1908 - a devout socialist who spoke "from the moment she arrived" about urban agriculture, say Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, who initiated the rebuilding of the pioneer's "flower hut."

"As far as she was concerned, the city should be productive and creative," says Shalev-Khalifa. The hut functioned as the country's first municipal plant nursery built and was run by women. The nonprofit Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi is having the wood and tin structure rebuilt to go on its original plot in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, as part of a new campus.

The 90-year-old flower hut is being refurbished in the Caesarea national park.Credit: Yad Yitzhak Ben-Zvi

Yanait-Ben-Zvi's socialist version merged with an ecological vision that was before its time. Rivka Alper's book "Banot Ba'ir" (Girls in the City) quotes her: "The forests of the Judean Hills were cut down, how much I wanted to see Jerusalem green and productive again, to plant a tree in you, to restore your plantings to you, the song of your life."

Yanait-Ben-Zvi studied agronomy in France and in the early 1920s started a nursery in Jerusalem's Bukharan quarter, which moved to Habashim Street and then to an area next to the Ratisbonne Monastery in 1923. The Jewish National Fund bought the plot. The first group of agricultural laborers she formed was dubbed "the tomato group."

She turned to Jewish women from the United States - she spoke to them in Yiddish - "about the young saplings dying of thirst." Some $500 was raised and a Zionist women's league was formed that paid for activities throughout the country.

In the mid-1920s, the "tower and stockade" method was used to build a hut for the women workers to live in and next to it a small hut, only six square meters, which was dubbed the "flower hut." We can assume it was built by women only. Antiquities Authority employees say the hut was built without using nails, with wooden pins connecting the beams. The hut was used as a showcase for the nursery, where one could buy bouquets for Shabbat.

The nursery operated as a work and study institute for newly arrived pioneer women. They planted gardens in the city's new neighborhoods, including Rehavia, Beit Hakerem and Talpiot, but also in the homes of the Arab families in Talbieh, and even in Jerusalem's monasteries. At its peak, the British Mandate government began to purchase saplings from it for the forestation of Sha'ar Hagai.

"In the small space, about three dunams, they grew tens of thousands of forest saplings, decorative and house plants, thousands of bushes and flowers in an endless cycle of garden saplings," was how a journalist for the daily Davar described the nursery in 1931. "The nicest corner of the nursery is the hothouse on the pool that is hidden among the rocks and contains dozens of house plants and decorative plants of various species."

The nursery became a kind of training farm whose female workers eventually became the directors of nurseries on kibbutzim and other farms. Another eight farms for female workers on a similar model were established in Palestine. "She didn't want to build a city like London, but to build a properly run, green and ecological city in Jerusalem," says Shalev-Khalifa. "The story of the compound is the story of women who worked for women. But they didn't describe themselves as feminists."

In 1928, the nursery expanded to another area in Talpiot and toward the late 1930s the agricultural work in Rehavia ended. The sale of flowers from the hut apparently continued even after the establishment of the state but that stopped, following ultra-Orthodox protests about alleged sales after the onset of Shabbat.

In 1940, a home for pioneer women was built, which was to serve as a dormitory for new immigrants until the 1970s. The flower hut was used to store gardening tools. A climbing plant covered it, until it wasn't clear whether the hut was supporting the plant or vice versa. The Antiquities Authority was asked to dismantle and restore it.

The flower hut belongs to a splendid family of huts that stood on the lot of the Ben Zvi family. The most famous one served as the residence of Ben-Zvi and his wife before the establishment of the state. It was renovated five years ago, and is now on Kibbutz Beit Keshet in the Lower Galilee. Another famous hut, built after Ben Zvi was appointed president, served as the ceremonial hall of the President's Residence and became a symbol of the modesty of the early leaders.

The lot is in the very heart of Jerusalem, between Yad Ben-Zvi and the Jewish Agency building, near the Hebrew Gymnasia and the Great Synagogue.

The 90-year-old flower hut is being refurbished in the Caesarea national park by Daniel Seeboni and Aharon Tsordecker. They hope to reassemble it in about two weeks.

"When we're finished, it will stand nicely, and if no one hits it hard, it will still be standing 200 years from now," says Seeboni.



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