There is a house in Netanya that I pass on my way to work. It is modestly hidden behind several orange trees in the shadow of a senior home called Home for the Golden Years. Its address is juxtaposed between streets named for the leaders of modern Zionism, Sokolow and Weizmann and for Mishnaic scholars, Akiva and Tarfon. While the gates are often locked, I feel that the house welcomes me each time I arrive. As I walk the few short blocks to the sea, it seems to silently observe my coming and goings as if it has seen this journey before.
You may know the story of this house, it is called the House of the Well. It contains in it a museum of the history of Netanya. But I am a curious newcomer to this city, so as I prepared to teach Psalm 126, “The Song of Ascents When G-d Brought Back the Exiles of Zion,” I researched this house for the story it had to tell.
I learned that it stands on a parcel of land gifted by the British Mandate in the late 1920s to five men in return for their service in the Jewish Legion. Before the house was built, came the well, the first source of water in the then nascent village of Netanya. A house was then built and an orange grove planted. The trees I pass each day are remnants of that story.
Within a few short years, in the late 1930s a new chapter was written. The shores of Netanya became the landing spot for thousands of illegal immigrants, Ma’apilim, escaping the impending Holocaust. In the dark of the night as they stumbled ashore, they would be met by locals who would escort them under the cover of the orange grove, to the House of the Well and other havens.
It was there these new immigrants had a brief respite; their first in the Promised Land. In the House of the Well and other havens, they would be fed, change their clothes of refuge to the clothes of Zion and be sent on their way to the unchartered territory of their new lives.
But there were more stories to be found from a bit of research. There was the testimony recounting the individual stories of rescue that transpired more than eighty years ago on the beach near the House of the Well. They were stories that took place in the footsteps of my daily walks – stories of brother meeting brother, of resilience and of tears. And there was the story that has stayed with me because it so powerfully tied into Psalm 126, the “Psalm of Return,” that I was teaching. These are the words of an unnamed rescuer of a boat of Ma’apilim whose story I have translated.
“It was cold and stormy when we helped bring the immigrants to shore. Among them was a religious Jew who caught my attention… As we began to wade through the water in the darkness, he implored me to tell us where we were… But, I could not reveal the location for it would jeopardize future missions.
‘It might mean nothing to you’ the religious man said to me, ‘but for me, I have just stepped on holy land and I must know where I am.’ I tried to evade a response but he persisted. All of a sudden a thought popped into my head – a name which would give him something to hold onto. I told him, ‘the name of the place we are at is called Sha’ar Tzion, the Gate of Zion.’ Satisfied, the religious Jew marched forward and then disappeared with the rest of the immigrants to be dispersed throughout the land.
Years later, I was on the same beach when I encountered an old man with a hat who seemed to be lost. ‘Where,’ he asked, ‘is the place called Sha’ar Tzion, the Gates of Zion. No one here seems to have heard of it.’ I told him he had actually arrived and retold the story of how we had once met…here at the Gates of Zion.” מתוך: נחמה גוטסגנדה, “מספורי הראשונים על העפלה באזור אביחיל פרדס הגדוד” הוצאת בי”ס אביחיל, עמ’ (6)
For me, this story transformed the House of the Well in the shadow of the Home for the Golden Years into one of the Gates of Zion. Had I not looked, I would not know this story existed. I would not know the hallowed steps I walked in; nor understand why this house on the corner was interested in my journeys to the sea. I am humbled now to retell its story and pass it on to you.
It is in this week’s Parsha, Bo, that we are tasked to become, in the words of Rabbi Sacks, a Nation of Storytellers. G-d said to Moses in the final days preceding our redemption from Egypt,
“for I had placed my signs in his [Pharaoh’s] midst that you may relate its story in the ears of your son and your son’s son that which I have wrought…” (Exodus 10:2)
G-d commands us to tell the story of our nation’s past to our children and grandchildren. But implicit in these words is the reverse charge to us, to seek out the stories that need to be told.
How many stories are sealed in the written testimonies of a golden generation whom we can no longer loudly hear? How many stories have been lost, because in their modest valor, their heroes never told them? It is our job now, while we are blessed to have these generations with us still, to ask them for their stories and become their guardians.
We will all be richer for them.