Rescuing Ben-Zvi's Shack

When the character in a play, Pnina Dromi, began the monologue about her wedding day, which became a day of mourning for her bridegroom, the members of Kibbutz Beit Keshet wiped away a tear. She related how after the funeral, they ate the delicacies that had been prepared for the wedding. Not far from the Radio Bar hall at the kibbutz, where the play was performed, Pnina's bridegroom, Eli Ben-Zvi, and six of his comrades were killed in battle in March, 1948.

Eli was one of the founders of the kibbutz, but young members and counselors from the Bnei Hamoshavim movement who were in the audience know the story by heart. Alongside them sat Pnina Gary, formerly Dromi, who wrote and directed the monodrama, "A Land of Israel Love Story," parts of which were performed at the recent dedication ceremony for the restored Ben-Zvi shack, the hut where the young man introduced his beloved from Moshav Nahalal to his parents, Yitzhak and Rachel (Yanait) Ben-Zvi.

The small shack, which had served as a hive of activity for the Jewish community in Jerusalem prior to the founding of the state, was not accorded the attention it deserved from the state. No one at any ministry saw any importance in restoring the shack. "It stood in disgrace," says Omri Shalmon, the deputy director of the Council for the Preservation of Buildings and Sites. He says the shack was "eaten away over the years - gnawed by the teeth of time."

Just two years ago the picture changed. A concerned citizen, Elisha Kalay, wanted to help in restoring the historic shack and agreed to donate a considerable sum to this goal. "His help led to the completion of the restoration and reconstruction of the interior," said Shalmon. "And now the shack of the country's second president is standing again. The blush in its cheeks has come back and now it is open to the Israeli public to return to one of the most special periods and stories of this land."

The shack came into being around 1917 in Jerusalem. It was used by the British army. In 1924, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, then demobilized from the British army, asked to receive or purchase the remains of the shack, which had been bombarded in World War I, and his request was granted. He set the shack up anew on land that he purchased from the Israel Land Development Company on Ibn Gvirol Street in Jerusalem. An article by Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, a lecturer in the history of the Land of Israel at Hebrew University, states, "Members of the Work Brigade built on the lot a shack covered in whitewashed tar paper, and in it were six rooms." The shack housed Yitzhak and Rachel Ben-Zvi; their children, Eli and Amram; and Rachel's parents.

The small dwelling saw meetings for Haganah (the pre-Independence army of Palestine's Jews) and for the Histadrut labor federation of Ahdut Ha'avoda and Mapai (the precursors of today's Labor Party) as well as meetings of the National Council. After Eli fell in battle in the fields of Kibbutz Beit Keshet, his bereaved mother phoned Moshe Kalfon, one of the founders of the kibbutz, and said, "We are getting a large shack and we still have an old shack - take it," Kalfon once related. She wanted the shack to become a memorial corner for her son. In another version of the story, the shack was donated to Beit Keshet only after Ben-Zvi became president in 1952; it was erected anew and divided into three rooms. In the smallest room there was a memorial corner for Eli and the other rooms served as classrooms for new immigrants studying Hebrew.

However, eventually the shack lost attention and was used for storage. Over the years it began to disintegrate, and it was feared it might collapse. There was a decade of discussing whether or not to restore it and turn it into a visitors' center but apart from urgent preservation measures, nothing was done.

Shalmon says the guiding principle was that the shack represents the modesty and simplicity of a dramatic period in the life of the Yishuv, the Jews of prestate Palestine, and was connected to a personality from the central leadership of the Yishuv. "The connection with the personality who had lived in the shack and the spirit of those times is, in my opinion and in the opinion of many other people, something noteworthy, and in our day certainly a role model," says Shalmon. "Great frustration derived from the fact that we were not accorded any cooperation from sources that are supposed to instill this value orientation and realize its potential."