When Spring arrives, I set out the table, 4 chairs and a reclining armchair on the terrace of our apartment in Rishon Lezion. Then comes a plate of hummus, vegetables, toasted pita and a carafe of Elite coffee.
With the breakfast, and overlooking the street and sidewalks of one of the city’s major streets, memories of many bygone years re-appear before my eyes.
I arrived in Rishon in 1951. It was then a sleepy agricultural town of some 26,000 residents. Today it is something miraculous. Rishon is Israel’s 4th largest city after Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and Haifa with a population of 235,000. In land area, it is Israel’s largest city, a dynamic industrial and cultural center.
Thousands of shops, malls, cinemas, concert and theatre halls, schools, a college, hundreds of cafes and restaurants, and an abundance of green parks combined with one of the largest and most beautiful beaches in all of Israel, Rishon Lezion, First in Zion, is a miracle of pioneering efforts and outstanding municipal government.
I remember the Rishon of 1951. Cows and goats fed on pasture-land. Many streets were dirt which became mud with the winter rains. There were very few private cars. Bicycles and motorcycles were popular means of transportation. Our neighbor rode his horse and wagon to the local markets.
To make a phone call internally or overseas, one had to go to the central post-office. To apply for installation of a telephone into a private home the name was added to a seven year waiting list.
To place a call overseas from the central post-office often took up to two hours of waiting for the connection.
A bus from Rishon’s Central Bus Station to Dizengoff street in Tel-Aviv, 12 miles away, could take more than an hour.
There was only one cinema, situated on the roof-top of a building on Herzl street.
Our neighbors never locked their doors. Hot water was always on the primus for coffee or tea. Not every home had an oven and a washing machine was a dreamed-of luxury. Washing was done by hand.
The main park, Gan ha-Ironi, was beautiful. Green everywhere and a wide avenue of tall and gracious palm trees which had been planted in honor of the 1894 arrival of Theodor Herzl and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. There was a cage of chattering monkeys who grabbed up the peanuts thrown to them by children.
Being the First in Zion since 1882, it was renowned for other firsts: the first flag was made in Rishon, the national anthem, Hatikvah, was written in Rishon, the world’s first all-Hebrew speaking school, Haviv, was in Rishon and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, father of the modern Hebrew language, taught there. The first symphony orchestra in the country was in Rishon. And some of Israel’s most celebrated citizens made their home in Rishon.
Looking back and then looking to the present, I am in dream-land. Rishon continues to grow and has expanded west with magnificent apartment buildings and private villas and a second train station. It remains a cultural center for the entire country. The Israel Railways has a train to Tel-Aviv every half-hour for the 20 minute ride.
No more dirt roads. All paved streets and broad highways leading to north and south of the country.
Of the several malls, Kanyon haZahav is the largest and my favorite. Cafes, restaurants, clothing and jewelry shops are on every floor. Adjacent to the mall is another, located in Cinema City, which also features dozens of cafes and restaurants, hundreds of shops and 26 options for good films in its spacious theatres.
When I “awake” from my reverie, I clear off the breakfast dishes and walk to the central park. It has grown since 1951 with large playground areas for children. The monkeys are no longer there, replaced by spraying fountains and man-made ponds. At night they are illuminated giving the park a magical glow.
Rishon is a glorious place to live. We have been happy citizens there for many years. It is both an honor and a delight to be residents and citizens in the city of the First in Zion.