Driving south from Tel-Aviv for 12 kilometers, one enters the city of Rishon Lezion. Founded on July 31, 1882 by 10 families from the Hovevei Zion pioneer movement from Russia and by 14 university students from Kharkov, known as the BILU pioneers, Rishon Lezion became the second Jewish settlement in Palestine after Petach Tikva. It is the most historic city in modern Israel, only after Jerusalem. In 1882, the first Zionist flag was made. It was in the form of a large white tallit bordered with blue stripes and shield of David in its center. It later became the national flag of Israel.
In this city, the Hebrew poet Naftali Herz Imber wrote the words to Hatikvah (The Hope), the Zionist hymn which became the Israeli national anthem.
In 1886, the first winery, Carmel Mizrachi, was founded. It was the city’s first industry promoted by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France, the philanthropist who advocated vinoculture in Palestine.
And in 1889, the first all-Hebrew speaking school in the world, Haviv, was opened under the tutelage of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of the modern Hebrew language.
When I arrived in Rishon in 1951, the population was 26,000. In 2012 it grew to 300,000, making it Israel’s fourth largest city after Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa. And in land area, it is the largest in all of Israel.
When the summer sun is not blistering, I amble slowly along Ahad Haam street, passing the Great Synagogue in which I pray. It was the very first building set up in 1882 in the settlement of Rishon. There were no paved streets. In summer one walked in sand and in winter one walked in thick mud. The Great Synagogue sits at the top of the hill known as Founders’ Way and leads to the pedestrian shopping area, the midrachov. At its center are spraying water fountains and umbrella-topped sidewalk cafes where one can sit and dream away the hours over a café hafuch, the Israel version of an Italian latte.
Cross the street to Rothschild Boulevard, the commercial center of the city. It is lined on both sides by many dozens of shops, cafes, banks, jewelry stores, falafel stands and a large shopping mall. The beautiful palm trees which once grew on both sides of the street have been uprooted to make way for wider streets. Only the luxurious City Park (Gan Ha Ir) on the corner of Rothschild and Herzl boasts its majestic avenue of stately palm trees, planted in Ottoman Turkish times when Theodor Herzl came to the city to greet the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm.
Every morning I take the daily Hebrew newspaper and find a quiet bench to sit and read in the park. The quiet is not so quiet anymore. Hundreds of Russian-speaking grandparents sit in the park with the baby carriages of their grandchildren, and one hears the guttural Slavic sounds which have replaced the gentle melodic sounds of Hebrew. On the swings and sand-boxes in the park’s playground white Russian children play together with black Ethiopian children. The Ingathering of Exiles is all too evident in Rishon today.
When I lived there in 1951 no one had locks on their doors or windows. Theft was unknown. Regrettably today it is all too common. Teen-aged males and older men lie on the grass surrounded by too many empty beer and vodka bottles. Youth, once so humble and silent, have become too evident in the drug culture.
Today I am walking to the home where my oldest friend, Yitzchak, lived.
His widow still lives there, a four-story walk-up apartment building. But when I came there in 1951 as a young man, it was a charming white stucco cottage with a red-tiled roof, like so many other cottages which lined the sandy dirt street. Flowers and cactus plants were growing on its terrace.
On a small green plot of land fruit trees bore luscious grapes, cherries, and succulent pears. Next door, our neighbor, old Avrom and his wrinkled wife Feige Liebe, raised chickens and goats. The old woman milked a cow in the back yard and old Avrom traveled the lanes and paths from the house to the town in a horse-drawn wagon. In 1951 one could count the number of cars on the streets, so few they were.
Few people had telephones. The waiting period was up to seven years in order to have a phone installed. Calls were made from the nearby post-office.
Yitzchak and I had a mutual friend, Reuven, the teacher. He was the oldest of eight children and lived with his parents in a spacious one-family dwelling on a large parcel of land. Reuven’s mother was from an old Jerusalem family and his father had come to Palestine as a young boy from the Russian Caucasus.
Trees and vegetables of all kinds grew in their garden and the family ate from an abundance of fruits, pecans, dates, grapes and greens picked daily from the garden. I remember the donkey who hauled the cart when the father went to work. I remember the goats from whom came the foul-tasting milk Reuven’s mother offered me. I remember the hens who laid the eggs used for baking luscious cakes and cookies. I remember the home-made preserves of dates and figs. I remember Reuven’s parents who adopted me and the mother who insisted that I call her Ima. She died in 2011 at the ripe age of 101 years.
Yitzchak, Reuven and I were known as the three musketeers of Rishon Lezion. Everyone knew us. All my life I have lived by a Talmudic proverb… “o chevruta o mituta”… give me friendship or give me death. A life without loving friends is in fact no life. Yitzchak and Reuven have passed away and I alone remain the last musketeer.
It was a rural and pastoral environment in 1951 when I was young. Closing my eyes I could picture David the king pasturing his flocks on the lush grass which grew everywhere, separating Rishon Lezion from the brown sand and dunes which surrounded the town.
Today, more than sixty-three years later, I still sit on the wooden benches in the City Park and I recall the happiest of memories of that which once was and which it has today become. The drive to Jerusalem which in 1951 took three hours has been reduced today to 55 minutes on super three-lane highways.
Reuven’s sisters and brothers, still living in Rishon, have remained my loving family to this day. Reuven’s colleague Zecharia, who served as vice-principal of the school in which Reuven was principal, and his lovely wife Rachel, their five married children, fourteen grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren have become our most beloved family.
On that wooden bench in the city park of Rishon, I fold my newspaper and close my eyes. There I have found the garden of my soul. There I dream my dreams. There my past becomes my present. Past joys and sorrows mingle in memories. So it has always been. And so it will continue to be.