Sentimental Journey

In the 1950s and '60s, when Jerusalem was still "a distant rumor wrapped in a sweater," as Doron Rosenblum once put it, there was nothing more thrilling to local residents than taking a trip to Tel Aviv. Actually, the yearning for the big city and the amazement at it had been well entrenched for years, as evidenced by a piece in the newspaper Havatzelet, by someone who went by the pen name "A.C. Jerusalem Man." It ran on June 22, 1894.

"I am a native of Jerusalem," he wrote, "and many years have gone by since I last saw Jaffa, and my flesh and my heart longs to visit that ancient city. Word of it has come to my ear - that it has disrobed its ancient form and put on a new form, at the feet of the new hovevim [literally, "enthusiasts," but a reference here to members of the Hovevei Zion movement], who came there and brought with them also a new era in the history of this city ...

Israel train

"In particular my soul yearns to see the chariots of fire and steel horses that carry the passengers from Jerusalem to Jaffa in a few hours at very wonderful speed, in place of that which our souls became accustomed to suffer in days of yore - a wagon hitched to horses, for 15 hours and more.

"When the day arrived on which I had made up my mind to make my way to Jaffa, I rose early in the morning, took bread in my satchel and walked to the railway station. The bell clanged, the steam machine sounded a very powerful grunt until all ears were ringing and heavy plumes of smoke billowed from the chimney and scattered through the heights, the wheels rattled and made noise, and we were carried on the wings of the wind.

"It was as if I were daydreaming ... and now the machine made a grunting sound and whistled a second time and our feet were standing at Jaffa's gates. The great pleasure this little trip gave me can only be felt by a man who spent many days sitting in the dark and who suddenly emerged to see the sweet sunlight ...

"And upon coming to Jaffa I saw and realized that I had not been told even the half of all the wonderful things that I witnessed there, and my eyes did not tire of seeing the majesty flowing over this city.

"All of these things delighted my heart and I was visited by the spirit of literature which I had not experienced for many years. I sat down to describe with an author's pen the material state of Jaffa, its new buildings magnificently constructed, which display themselves to the one who passes by treading on his whole foot, the new streets that are being paved there and also the moral state of the city, which has as many factions and parties as it has people ... total Judaists, intellectuals of all sorts, including the hat intellectuals, the jacket-and-shirt intellectuals, the pardon and s'il vous plait intellectuals, simple hovevim or pleasant hovevim. Also the good and moral enterprises that there are in Jaffa, such as the united committee for the Ashkenazi and Sephardic sects, and the executive committee for nationalists and hovevim in which Mr. Bienstock is now serving gloriously, and with him his adjutant and right-hand man, Rabbi Eisenstart, who, as I was told in Jaffa - by the man who watches over the books in the Shaarei Zion library, to protect them from mice - has turned out to be the living spirit in the wheels of the executive committee, and all of its matters are now determined according to his say ...

"One more thing that I witnessed in Jaffa I will share with the readers: On my visit to the house of the executive committee I saw to my amazement that on one of the walls in Mr. Bienstock's chamber hangs the graven image of a woman. At first I thought that the picture before my eyes is the picture of some great hovevet Zion, who excelled in her great and mighty acts for the good of the Yishuv [the pre-state Jewish community], and therefore her picture was mounted there in commemoration. But knowing that, in our great sins, our people has not yet reached such a high level as that, wherein such great and excellent women may be found among them, I asked one man of my acquaintance to tell me the meaning of this, and the man replied that the graven image my eyes witnessed is that of Mr. Bienstock's wife.

"That answer surprised me more forcefully still, because as a Jerusalemite I simply cannot understand what a picture of Mr. Bienstock's wife is doing in a room where the affairs of the Yishuv are being decided. I should be greatly surprised, and if you are a daring person, you too shall be surprised along with me, my dear reader!"

Judah Leib Bienstock, incidentally, was head of the Hovevei Zion committee in Jaffa, a rabbi, teacher, scholar and the founder of Hovevei Zion's first boys' school in Jaffa.