Elhanan Leib Lewinsky was tossed about on a sputtering steam train on his way to another business transaction involving grain 463 kilometers from his home, not knowing whether the deal would actually go through. We’re in the late 19th century, and the grain merchant who dreamed of being a successful Hebrew-language writer passed the time on the train composing “In the Wagon and in the Winter Wagon,” the first of his articles that would be printed in Hamelitz, a Hebrew-language weekly published in the Russian empire. In the article Lewinsky offered portraits of his fellow travelers on the rattling train: coal, lumber and grain merchants, peddlers and shopkeepers. Full-time wandering Jews. Always hurrying somewhere. Buying goods, haggling over the price, exacting a return on the merchandise, cutting corners, taking a slap from a goy, hoping to make a kopek and return home somehow, sometime.
“There is no nation in the world that constantly travels like the Jews – ‘back and forth,’ that is the gist of our chronicles,” Lewinsky wrote. “With immense toil the Jews will accumulate their bit of money and will set out again and thus in an endless round, for slaves are the Jews in the southern districts to the factory owners in Moscow.”
Lewinsky didn’t like writing gloomy texts – he considered himself an optimist – but such was the state of things. Heavy snow blanketed Zaporizhzhia county, rendering the monotonous landscape faded, barren, displaced. The train suddenly braked to a halt, fomenting neurosis among the passengers. Some bemoaned the time that was lost, some demanded compensation from the ticket collector, a few volunteered to remove the snow from the rail line with their bare hands – anything to get to their destination on time.
For six days the train stood still. On the second day, Lewinsky completed his article for Hamelitz. On the third day he was already so despairing of the here and now that he began to write a utopian novel about the Land of Israel in the year 2040.
As a native son of Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood who lived in his mother’s house two years too many, and for the past three years has been renting a place on Lewinsky Street (five minutes from my mom, whom I encounter in a grocery store as I put items on her tab), I found occasion to ponder: Who exactly is the person behind the street sign? “Elhanan Leib Lewinsky – Writer and functionary, among the founders of Moriah Publishing House, Tel Aviv college of education named for him.”
There’s something suspicious about the combination of words “writer and functionary.” Like oil and water, celiac and pita bread, Nicol Raidman and music – try as you will, they simply don’t harmonize.
A quick Google search reveals that in 1892, the year in which Herzl contemplated founding a mass Jewish movement of conversion to Christianity, and a decade before he would write “Altneuland,” in German, Elhanan Leib Lewinsky, of my street, published “Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800 in the Sixth Millennium” (5800 in the Hebrew calendar corresponds to the year 2040). Wikipedia enshrines this work as the first science-fiction novel written in Hebrew, which is also probably why the book doesn’t have its own Wikipedia entry. To write a book in Hebrew in the 19th century, in a language for which there’s no audience, is akin to performing in an empty auditorium and waiting for applause.
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I found the book, together with Lewinsky’s collected writings, on the Project Ben-Yehuda website. (Despite their mutual fondness for Hebrew, the two – Lewinsky and Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the reviver of modern Hebrew – couldn’t bear each other.) I read it and fell in love with it.
Along the way this guy invented the New Journalism, made his way from the yeshiva to teaching, from there to the grain business, then managed the Carmel Wines branch in Odessa, became friendly with essayist and Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am and poet Haim Nahman Bialik, establishing a publishing house and literary journals with them, was booted out of macho Palestine because of eye problems – and wrote the first Hebrew work of sci-fi while his train was stuck in the snow. And what remains of all that? “Writer and functionary, among the founders of Moriah Publishing House, Tel Aviv college of education named for him.”
True, a teachers college and a major street in Tel Aviv constitute a privilege that is reserved for straight Ashkenazi Jewish men from early Zionism. True, women, Mizrahim, Arabs and every other minority are subjected to far more discrimination, but for heaven’s sake, as of 2018, the country has 124 Olive Streets, 55 Jabotinsky, 52 Herzl and 35 Moshe Sharett streets. Never mind street names – remember how there used to be bags of sugar bearing pictures of 33 different historical Zionist personalities on them? Did Lewinsky get a bag? You guessed right. That’s why I decided to trace his forgotten journey and to check out whether anything of his utopian vision materialized. Of course there are still another 20 years before the year 5800 in the sixth millennium, but in the spirit of our dystopian era, who knows what and if and where we’ll be in 2040.
For six days the train stood still. By the third day, Lewinsky was already so despairing of the here and now that he began to write a utopian novel about the Land of Israel in the year 2040.
First, however, the exposition. Elhanan Lewinsky (henceforth Elhanan), the book’s protagonist, travels with his young wife, Yehudit, to spend their honeymoon in Eretz Israel, a highly popular tourist destination in 5800 (“the voyage to the Land of Israel is a mode among the other modes”). He’s a Hebrew teacher, an in-demand profession since the holy tongue became an international language. She is his former student, something that in that period the author Lewinsky didn’t find objectionable, although one would hope that as a son of the 21st century he would have seen the problem in power-based relationships.
Elhanan wasn’t traveling just for the pleasure (“Nonetheless, I wished also to derive concrete benefit from my journey, because as a teacher of the Hebrew language, it was necessary for me to be in the land of the language’s birthplace, in order to enhance my knowledge somewhat”). For her part, she had actually wanted to honeymoon in Paris (“Yehudit, with all her patriotism and her love of the Hebrew language and of everything elevated and sublime, is, after all, only a woman, and in her heart of hearts leaned toward Paris”). And from (and including) that moment, the book attaches no importance to the relationship between them, especially not to Yehudit’s character.
Well, Yehudit and Elhanan sail aboard the cruise ship Yehuda Hamaccabi, which belongs to the Jaffa Electric Ships Company. On its deck you won’t find fleshy, red-cheeked American retirees seeking to burn through their children’s inheritance in the Holy Land. You will find, though, young couples, yeshiva students, artists and rich Jews from the Israeli colonies abroad who have come to hunt sabra grooms for their Jewish-princess daughters.
The couple piled high their plates in a buffet, and Elhanan was thrilled by the local ingredients. “The table was completely Hebrew! And there isn’t one bit that was bought from foreigners: the milk and the butter – from their sheep and cattle… the meat, too, from their sheep and cattle. The vegetables and fruits – from their gardens planted with their hands. The bread is certainly theirs.” The ship, too, was built of local materials only, from the hull and the engine to the wooden and glass utensils. Indeed, according to Lewinsky, Israel 2040 is a socialist state whose economy rests entirely on local products.
The ship approached the “port of Ashdot,” which is described as “a large and very praiseworthy landing for ships that competes in terms of its merchandise with Marseille and Hamburg… And every day ships depart and arrive… bearing all the finest items from the lands of the east and the lands of the north.” During the voyage Elhanan could allow himself to gorge on the buffet without fear of sea sickness, because the ship had installed a brand-new invention: “an electric machine [with which] the sea can be calmed.”
In contrast, during my own journey, I arrived at the port of Ashdod on the motorcycle of Tomer, the Haaretz photographer, which zigzagged so much between the trucks that I almost ended up vomiting.
The vision realized
Upon arriving, we met the port’s CEO, Shiko Zana, who confirmed for us that Lewinsky’s vision had indeed been realized: The port of Ashdod is Israel’s largest port. As we toured the container-laden docks, Zana proudly talked about its strategic importance.
“Some 98 percent of the goods reach Israel via the sea. Maritime imports are critical,” Zana explained. “Take grains, for example. We have a certain reserve stock, but as soon as we stop receiving the millions of tons of grains from abroad, we’re in trouble. Take the egg crisis this past Passover. There was a shortage, and in one day we imported eight million eggs to help out.”
It’s sad that we import so much.
Zana: “I agree. Our ability to sustain ourselves isn’t high. Even animals are imported. Israel doesn’t raise its own meat.”
What do you see being exported?
“Unfortunately, not enough. Mainly phosphate and potassium. If only Israel would export more.”
You know, Lewinsky’s vision was that we would rely solely on local production.
“A fine vision. It got lost along the way, but it’s a really fine vision. One thing, though: Our safety vests are Made in Israel.”
Lewinsky didn’t only envision the port of Ashdod as Israel’s largest, but also that Ashdod itself would be the country’s largest and leading city in 2040. “The city is very large indeed, with streets that are about two or more parsas [eight kilometers] long… All the buildings are amazingly beautiful and some are made of white marble. The number of residents of the city… exceeds a million.”
We embarked on a tour of the city with Ofer Dery, an Ashdod patriot and director of the municipal tourism company. Indeed, many of Ashdod’s buildings are marble coated (not so much to my taste, but it is what Lewinsky wanted). The streets are broad, the beach is wide, and when it comes to expansion Ashdod has potential. But still, size isn’t everything. With all due respect, Ashdod doesn’t pose a threat to Tel Aviv.
Dery talked about graffiti tours, but I had begun wondering whether Lewinsky thought that Herzl would steal all the glory from him. Dery stuck to his spiel. “Do you get it? Every street has two regular traffic lanes and a bus lane,” the ardent urban promoter said proudly, returning me to the asphalt.
“Ashdod is divided by huge streets that crisscross the city lengthwise and widthwise – for example, Herzl Road, on which we’re now standing.” “Again that Herzl,” I mumbled to myself. “What did you say?” Ofer asked. I wondered whether there’s a Lewinsky Street in Ashdod and shot the question back at him. “There isn’t,” Dery said after checking and emitted an embarrassed laugh.
The tour ended at the Ashdod Yam fortress, an early Arab-era structure from the seventh century. At the fortress we were waylaid by one of the city’s deputy mayors, Shimon Katznelson, a nice guy who had been sent to pump us with PR. Katznelson told us about the city’s future building plans, which include Ashdod Eye, slated to be a local version of the huge Ferris wheel in London. I asked whether one of the construction projects might be named for Lewinsky. Katznelson said he would first read the book “and if there’s correlation, we might do a square or something in his honor.”
Powerhouse of local papers
“If you come to a new city and you desire to get to know and become familiar with the nature of the place, you should read the city’s journals and some of the advertisements in them. From the local journals you will learn about the nature of the city’s residents… what they love and what they hate, also all the gossip and malicious talk, and everything that people say about one another.”
In addition to the fortress, Ashdod has another important and equally rare archaeological treasure. His name is Menahem Galili, and he is the founder, publisher and chief editor of Hashavua B’Ashdod (This Week in Ashdod). Without knowing it, Galili is preserving part of Lewinsky’s legacy, though the latter erred in thinking that the local newspaper scene would be flourishing in 2040.
Lewinsky filled his book with quotations from ads from the local papers, which gives the reader the feeling that his work is itself some sort of local publication. “Latest fashion in Jerusalem!” one of the ads declares. “At the evening banquet in the President’s House the president’s daughter was wearing an azure dress held in place by mud-brown and scarlet straps. Clothing of that style, according to physique and fit, can be had in Sarah Bat Tovim’s women’s apparel shop, 24 Hatzfoni Street.”
On the day we met Galili he had just printed a new edition (6,000 copies at 5 shekels – about $1.50 – each; no freebies here). Besides him there was no one at the weekly’s offices. A pungent odor of cigarettes emanated from the adjacent office. We sat ourselves down in Galili’s office at a round table covered with binders, notes and calling cards from small businesses, but nary a computer in sight.
Lewinsky’s 2040 Israel is a peace-loving country, and as befits the vision of a 19th-century utopian Zionist, there are no Arabs in it. There is still an army, but the length of service in it has been significantly shortened.
How did you get into the business of local journalism?
Galili: “In 1969, [then Knesset Member Menachem] Begin made a speech in Ashdod, and they were looking for someone to write up an item about the gathering for the [Herut] party paper. I did it for them and became their reporter in the south. That year I began publishing Olam Hamahar (Tomorrow’s World) – a one pager that came out once a month and exposed corruption in city hall. On May 1, 1975, I founded Ashdod Hayom.”
I heard that you are referred to as “the Uri Avnery of Ashdod.”
“That’s true. My model is [Avnery’s muckraking weekly] Haolam Hazeh – corruption and scandals. Mainly scandals. Everyone in the city knows that Hashavua B’Ashdod is only scandals, nothing else. I do the writing. I don’t stop to think, I don’t spare anyone. We have been sued for libel more times than any other local paper in the world. Long before this whole matter of libel suits developed, I was already sued in the paper’s fifth edition.”
How many times have you been sued?
“In my opinion, I’ve had 80 suits at least. There’s no lawyer who hasn’t sued me.”
How much money have you lost in the courts?
“Including the money I paid lawyers before my son became a lawyer?”
Yes, including the money for lawyers.
“In today’s terms, I have lost something like 15 million shekels, but 90 percent of the people bringing lawsuits against me lost.”
How have you managed to hold on?
“Until the era of the internet we did fantastically. We put out 160 pages a week.”
Is there a future for local papers?
“Unfortunately, the future is dark. Local papers will cease to exist. This week we published the smallest paper ever, just 48 pages. When I started out, there were 48 local papers in Ashdod, now there are nine, one of them belongs to [businessman and soccer club owner] Jacky Ben-Zaken, who started a paper in order to shut me down, but in the meantime he’s in jail.”
Does the corruption at the national level also concern you?
“I can’t sleep at night if I see corruption. My daughter goes to demonstrate [against Prime Minister Netanyahu] with black flags three times a week. She observes Shabbat, so she goes to Jerusalem to sleep over on the weekend in order to demonstrate there on Shabbat.”
I notice you don’t have a computer in the office.
“I don’t work on a computer, I write everything by hand and I give it to Aliza, my secretary.”
Buildings of salt
Ben-Gurion saw the future of the nation in the Negev. Lewinsky saw it in the Dead Sea. From the economic potential (“and the Dead Sea rift is completely a treasure… and a source of great wealth for the land”) to far-reaching technological ideas such as artificial rain to make the wilderness blossom and a large city called the City of Salt: “The city is extremely beautiful and has a population of 100,000. The exterior is tiled with local material and there are many buildings constructed of salt stones… There is no end to the beauty of those structures.”
A city of salt sounded to me like a lovely but far-fetched concept, until I met Prof. Daniel Mandler from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Chemistry. He’s found a way to make bricks from salt. It all started when the state asked the public to help find a purpose for vast quantities of superfluous salt. As a result of the production of potash, there are some 20 million tons of salt for which there is no use every year. That, in turn, causes the level of the Dead Sea to rise in its southern section, threatening the hotels there with flooding.
Mandler thought that this salt could be of use in construction and would in turn reduce dependence on the polluting cement industry. After two years of experiments he emerged from the laboratory with an innovative means to produce salt bricks.
“The process is very simple,” Mandler relates. “You grind the salt, add anti-dissolvents, compress it and that’s the story.”
Can you construct whole buildings from salt?
“At the moment it’s impossible to build exterior walls from these bricks – for that, you need to coat them – but already they can reduce the use of cement. People have a psychological block against it, but salt is a very strong material, an excellent insulator, environmentally friendly, easy to recycle – and there are huge surpluses of it.”
But despite all the virtues of salt bricks, the project encountered a serious bureaucratic wall.
Mandler: “I was at the Finance Ministry, the Housing Ministry, the Energy Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry. All of them were enthusiastic, but nothing came of it.”
Instead of investing in developing the salt bricks idea, a salt-harvesting project was inaugurated recently. Fully 7 billion shekels (more than $2 billion), 20 percent of it taxpayers’ money, was invested in an immense excavator and conveyor to transport the surplus salt from the southern to the northern section of the Dead Sea. To rub salt into the wounds (in a good way! The guy is crazy about salt), I read Prof. Mandler another passage that Lewinsky wrote about the City of Salt: “A wise man invented a means to harden this stone, so that fire and water could not overcome it.”
It’s as if Lewinsky had been writing about you, no?
“I have to admit I didn’t know much about him. He wasn’t immortalized as someone who made a great change. In many ways he was wronged; maybe he was one of the greats and we don’t even know it.”
Greenwich and Jerusalem time
Jerusalem treats Elhanan and Yehudit well; they even stay in the President’s House (in 2040 his term of office is just one year). There is no Temple and no Western Wall in Lewinsky’s utopian Jerusalem (“because the Temple was as yet unbuilt, and the Western Wall lay in ruins… for our Day of Redemption had not yet arrived”). There is, however, an astronomy center: “The Mount of Olives is no longer a place of graves but… atop it is the acclaimed stellar observatory, for all the wise men of the world accepted Jerusalem as the prime meridian and founded there a universal observatory.”
I didn’t understand Lewinsky’s urge to place an observatory atop a cemetery, so I turned to Dr. David Polishook, an astrophysicist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot (another institution not named for Lewinsky).
“In the 19th century,” noted Polishook, “every self-respecting city built an observatory, but in the 20th century it was understood that the background lights of cities does not permit high-quality stellar observation, so observatories were built outside the cities.”
Is if significant that Lewinsky set the prime meridian in Jerusalem?
Polishook: “In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held and determined that the zero line of longitude would be at Greenwich [England], which goes to show that at the time the British were the world’s most technologically advanced empire. Essentially, Lewinsky is saying that Jerusalem will be such an important place that all the nations will recognize its scientific and technological supremacy. Moreover, Israel will determine the time for everyone in the world. The international clock would move from GMT – Greenwich Mean Time – to JMT, Jerusalem Mean Time.”
We could have been the reference for time, a clock-hand for the gentiles.
“Perhaps the units of measurement would have changed from centimeters and meters to the amah and the zeret” – a reference to ancient/biblical types of measurement.
Can you hypothesize why Lewinsky located an observatory on the Mount of Olives, of all places?
If Lewinsky prophesied something and the exact opposite – but exactly the exact opposite – happened, is that still considered a prophecy?
“The resurrection of the dead [in messianic times] is supposed to take place on the Mount of Olives. Building an observatory there means that you abandon the religious vision and move to a scientific vision.”
As a scientist who studies asteroids, have you ever discovered one? If so, do you get to name it?
“I’ve discovered quite a few, and yes, I’m allowed to name them. I named one of them for my wife. We met during a meteor shower, and that’s how I proposed to her, with an asteroid.”
That’s a really lovely story. Tell me, if you’ve discovered a few asteroids, maybe you’ll favor Lewinsky by naming one for him?
“There are still a few asteroids that I discovered and haven’t named yet, and I’m holding on to them tightly and not letting go.”
Buying the country
Lewinsky’s 2040 Israel is a peace-loving country (“peace for Israel on all sides, peace from outside and peace within the country”), and as befits the vision of a 19th-century utopian Zionist, there are no Arabs in it (“What was in the country before the Jews arrived? – As good as nothing”). There is still an army, but the length of service in it has been significantly shortened (“Every young man of 20 and up will work in the army… for a year”).
The perfect state created by Lewinsky extends across Greater Israel (“And I did cross the land… in its length but not in its breadth, for I did not go across the Jordan”). And as a Jewish merchant from the Old Country, Lewinsky knows that perfection and wholeness demand payment (“Not by the sword and not by the wisdom of diplomats did Israel conquer the land… Fields were bought only with money, and the Jews are the singular nation in the world that has a ‘bill of sale’ on its land”).
In the absence of Arabs to tangle with, Elhanan feels free to vacation with Yehudit in Nablus (the biblical Shekhem), a garden city with a distinctly Jewish majority: “Gardens and orchards on both sides of the street… The outdoors and the streets are like parks for walking… Nablus is the district city, its population is more than 50,000, most of them Hebrews, but there are also foreigners.”
Leaving downtown Nablus, Elhanan and Yehudit visit the city’s governor, who looks down on the city from his estate, rife with vineyards, atop Mount Gerizim. If Lewinsky prophesied something and the exact opposite – but exactly the exact opposite – happened, is that still considered a prophecy? In my view, yes. What stands on the top of Mount Gerizim today is the Al-Masri estate, also known as the House of Palestine, which we hoped to visit. It’s a replica of the 16th-century Villa Capra La Rotonda, designed by Palladio and built in Renaissance Italy. The wall that surrounds the villa is a replica of the barriera de la separato, a 21st-century Israeli structure. The estate of 280 dunams (70 acres) of vineyards and fruit groves belongs to Munib al-Masri, a Palestinian billionaire.
If you try to coordinate a journalist’s visit to the 86-year-old tycoon from Nablus on a day’s notice, while not far away your compatriots are uprooting olive trees that belong to his compatriots, and there’s a pandemic, and he’s in a high-risk group, and you don’t have a press card or a vehicle – you’ll likely end up dropping the whole idea. Or, as in my case, you’ll find yourself having another panic attack while riding on Tomer’s motorcycle.
As we drove along the busy Highway 60, I thought about how it must have been very difficult to write a utopian novel about this mixed-up, fragmented, fractured, zigzagging, ingathering homeland. At Tapuah Junction the hitchhikers include all sorts of people; at a garage in Hawara Palestinians change tires for settlers. Two identical billboards for the same bad-news Chinese Xiaomi phone are on both banks of the same road, in two close Semitic languages, one opposite the other, and it’s alien, and remote.
During the ascent of Mount Gerizim, al-Masri’s estate was revealed to us in its full glory. But the closer we got to the summit, the harder it became to see the building. In any event, we ended up in the Samaritan neighborhood. At first I wasn’t sure whether we were in a hostile Palestinian village, a sympathetic Druze town, or maybe Holon (where there are lots of Samaritans).
We entered the grocery store of some good Samaritan. On the shelf with the canned goods, I found “The Wonders of the Samaritan Kitchen,” by Batia Tsedaka and Zippora Sassoni-Tsedaka, edited by Benyamin Tsedaka. I riffled through the book and came across a recipe for cabbage soup and a chapter titled “Shakshukas and Miscellanous.” Before we left, I told the good Samaritan that I was writing about a book that imagined that in 2040 peace would prevail in Nablus. The good Samaritan laughed and said, “If anyone wrote something about peace in Nablus, he would always have been wrong.”
So, we didn’t get into the al-Masri estate, and we didn’t even try to enter (Palestinian) Nablus. All we could do was observe it from afar. We stood at the peak of Mount Gerizim. From an elevation of 881 meters (2,890 feet) you don’t see the people of Nablus, all you see is a valley of dense concrete.
I thought about Lewinsky’s Nabulsi garden city and I raged at the forgotten prophet of the state: “Really, Lewinsky, did you really not know there were Arabs here? Of course you knew. [Writer Yosef Haim] Brenner talked about it, your pal Ahad Ha’am talked about it, you visited here! How could you not know? You deceived the Arabs, and yourselves, and us, and 2040. It’s really scary to imagine what will happen here. You know, there’s something my late grandmother used to say: ‘Just because you don’t see the boil on your lower back, doesn’t mean you don’t have a lower back.’” (Just kidding, I made that up; you’re not the only one who’s allowed to make up things.)
We continued to the archaeological site on Mount Gerizim. People in brown shirts were weeding the sides of the access road. They looked like forced-labor prisoners from some unreleased movie by the Coen Brothers. Turns out that they were jobless people who were recruited by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority for so-called nature and heritage tasks. The group included Inbal Mashraki, a discharged soldier from Jerusalem’s disadvantaged Katamonim neighborhood; Ahmed (Jamaica) Malaki, a deejay from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem; and Idan Geva, a tour guide and tourism agent from Moshav Mesilat Zion, near Beit Shemesh.
“In this tough year, of all times, I’ve actually found hope here,” Geva said. “I am working with all the different communities in this country and we are actually doing something together that I find beautiful and positive. You see, Deejay Ahmad is getting Inbal to dance, and that’s nice.”
• • •
The honeymoon ended. Yehudit and Elhanan boarded the ship and sailed north without making aliyah. A very un-Zionist ending for the first Hebrew work of sci-fi. Maybe because in the end there’s utopia and there’s reality. And in reality, Elhanan Lewinsky was a grain merchant in the Diaspora, sitting on a train that got stuck in the snow. How much deeper will we have to sink before we go back to writing utopias?