New Life for Tabitha

The name of the ancient righteous woman is not being given to a nameless area: For the past 150 years it has been called Abu Kabir.

In the seventh decade of the 1st century, C.E., there lived in Jaffa a woman named Tabitha, which means "doe" in Aramaic. The authors of the New Testament who mentioned her (Acts 9:36-42) wrote that she was a "disciple," in other words, apparently, a member of one of the first Christian congregations. She was "full of good works and almsdeeds." It seems she was a widow and a seamstress. One day she died. The members of her community heard that Peter, one of Jesus' apostles who went on to become the first pope and a saint, was staying in Lod. "And forasmuch as Lydda was nigh to Joppa," as is written in the Book of Acts, two messengers were sent to Peter "desiring him that he would not delay" to come to Jaffa, and he agreed and came with them. He ordered all those huddled around Tabitha's body to leave the room, and then kneeled down and said: "Tabitha, arise." And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, "she sat up." He helped her to get up, called all the people waiting outside, and presented Tabitha to them alive. "And it was known throughout all Joppa; and many believed in the Lord."

Next to all the major miracles described in the New Testament, the revival of the charitable Tabitha shrank to fairly trivial dimensions, but now the Tel Aviv municipality has decided that the presumed area where the good seamstress was brought back to life is to bear her name. In view of the wave of racism washing over the country, there is ostensibly cause to be grateful to the city fathers for this gesture, which is a show of respect for Christian tradition. However, the name of the ancient righteous woman is not being given to a nameless area: For the past 150 years it has been called Abu Kabir.

Tel el-Kebir was a village in Egypt. When the Egyptians conquered the Land of Israel from the Ottomans, in 1831, they did what foreign conquerors sometimes do in the territories they have occupied: They built settlements. The Egyptian village of Tel el-Kebir was transplanted wholesale to the Jaffa vicinity, along with all its inhabitants. Bloomfield Stadium would one day be built there.

The efforts not only to erase from the landscape the remnants of the Arab villages but also to Hebraize their names began as soon as the State of Israel was established. The decision to get rid of Abu Kabir, even at the price of replacing its name with that of some Christian do-gooder, reflects this same trend. Most of the streets in Jaffa today are named for important rabbis and Zionist functionaries; a minority commemorate non-Jewish European figures. Few are the streets that bear Arab names; not a few are still designated only by number. In Jerusalem the Arab tradition is stronger. Musrara, Katamon, Baka, and Talbieh - all formerly Arab neighborhoods, in the Israeli part of the city, likewise were given Hebrew names, but not many know them.