Michael Hoffman

Saba Yehuda Brought Water to Jerusalem

Saba Yehuda had large dreams, but little personal ambition. For him, it was enough to play a small role in the great drama of an Israel reborn. As a Socialist to the core, Saba particularly longed to see his ancient homeland become the stage for a society where all were equal. For him, the dream of Jewish socialism was no more than a modern translation of the rabbinic call “to love the other as oneself”. And Saba was lucky enough to see his Zionist vision come to pass in his lifetime. The socialist dream, as we shall see, was somewhat more elusive.

When Saba first landed in Palestine in the early Twenties, he immediately put his aspirations into motion. He joined the Labor Division, or Gedud Avoda, a commune of like-minded souls who worked in the Galil establishing farm settlements or Kibbutzim. Saba was not one of the movers and shakers of the Gedud. Rather, he served as a lowly field hand. Still and all, he was overjoyed to be turning the Gedud’s mix of Zionism and Socialism into a reality on the all too rocky slopes of Northern Israel.

After a time, Saba moved South with his fellow commune members, answering a call to work as journeymen and masons in building Jerusalem’s budding new neighborhoods – first in Rehavia, and later in Talpiot. While working there, Saba and his fellow Gedud members were captivated by a hillside on the city’s southernmost limits. It overlooked the town of Beth Lechem in the distance. They decided to try their hand at setting up a new farming settlement there – Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.

Anyone looking at the thriving Kibbutz today would find it hard to believe how difficult it was for the early settlers to make a go of the enterprise. Crops died, bandits constantly plundered crops and farm animals, and wells dried up. It soon became clear that the Kibbutz members were going to have to supplement their meager circumstance by taking part-time jobs in the city. And with time, the “temporary” sidelines turned into their permanent and primary form of employment.

When Saba first himself out tor the Municipal Water department, he did not really look at this as a first step in a lifelong career path. Working for his Majesty and the colonial administration was simply a stopgap which made it possible for Saba and his friends to keep their real dreams alive on the rocky slopes of Ramat Rachel Yet work he did, and well. He moved step by step from being an itinerant bill collector to an actual, full time plumber, laying pipes.

Unfortunately, the work fed his belly, but not his dreams. And then…Israel gained its independence.

Suddenly, the way Saba related to his job flipped head over heels. Now, Saba was no longer working for a colonial master in a sleepy provincial town. Now, Saba was part of a team turning Jerusalem into the vibrant, growing capital of Zion reborn. . Each meter of pipe that Saba laid, every storage bank he helped build – these were all milestones in a team effort on the path to making Saba’s dreams a reality. .

Just about everybody around Saba were coming to redefine their labors in terms of the overarching goal of nationbuilding. Iron workers were no longer making beams, they were casting steel to house the Zionist nation. Farmers in their fields were not just growing tomatoes , they were feeding the Zionist nation. Seamstresses and tailors’  who had been making pants, were  now clothing the nation’s workers. Seltzer makers making soda water were quenching a nation’s thirst. All were part of the grand national team.

Of course, Saba had a particularly socialist slant in this outburst of local patriotism. He felt himself to be surrounded by teammates and comrades, united in a common cause.  At long last, Saba the plumber was weaving the twin dreams of Zionism and Socialism. Zionism was the pipe, Socialism the water.

Clearly, not everyone shared Saba’s views on equality and fraternity. Saba would never forget the day he was working on a thorny problem of municipal waterworks in one of Jerusalem’s more upscale neighborhoods. The day was hot, the shade was sparse, and the air was filled with dust from a recent Hamsin. So it was quite understandable that Saba would find himself knocking on a door to ask for a glass of water.

Saba was pleased by the alacrity with which the young smartly dressed matron opened her front door. With equal speed, she replied to his request for some liquid refreshment. “Water? Of course you can have a glass of water. Why, you’re bringing water to the entire neighborhood ” For a second, Saba thought he had met up with a teammate in the common cause! Yet his joy was short lived, cut down by her next few words: “ If you’ll only give me your cup or glass, I’ll fill it in a jiffy.”

It appeared to Saba that the young matron’s act of kindness did not include sharing glassware. Saba was the help, and the help had to bring their own. Clearly, Saba’s socialist dream of a classless society was still very much a work in progress.

Perhaps the pain of this encounter was why Saba took such pleasure when recounting the events of a second hot and dusty day at that very same spot decades later. By this time, Saba and most of his friends had left the kibbutz altogether and their city jobs had become their only jobs. Even so, Saba still saw himself playing a small but satisfying role as a Zionist plumber for the Jerusalem municipality. Each day he trudged the city streets to insure that the growing city would have its water.

As Saba recalls the incident: “There I was, dressed in my work overalls, and carrying my satchel of plumbing tools. I had just finished standing hip deep in a ditch, sorting out some some water lines. I was covered with mud from head to toe, walking home in the baking sun. All I could think about was whether there would be enough water in the water heater to take a shower.”

“Suddenly, a big black car stopped next to me. The driver leaned out and said to me to that I should get in the back seat. It seems his passenger has seen me dragging along, and insists that they give me a ride. I look at the driver, and tell him there’s no way that I’m going to climb in and mess up their fancy car. “

At this point, Saba says he heard the passenger call out from the back seat: “ Tell him to get in before the sun turns him into a damn raisin. And if he doesn’t, I’m going to have to get out and drag him in.” Stunned by these words, Saba was even more adamant in his refusal. He tipped his cap, and kept walking along. The car matched him him step by step.

As Saba recalls: “All at once, the car stopped and the back door popped open. The guy in the back stepped out, grabbed my satchel off my shoulder, and threw it into the back seat of the car. Then he turned to me and said that at least the tools could have a ride. He suggested that maybe the two of us could walk along, and I could tell him about my day! And that’s just what we did.”

At this juncture, it was often Savta Sara who picked up the retelling of the events that enfolded that day. “ I looked out the window, and I saw Yehuda coming down the street, all covered with mud. But walking next to him was some gentleman dressed in a suit. And there was this big car following behind them. The two of them were laughing and talking, and having a grand old time. It was all so strange.

And then it all got stranger. As they drew closer, I finally realized who that gentleman was. It was none other than the President – Yitzhak Ben Tzvi! When they neared the house, Yitzhak ducked into the car, handed Saba his satchel, jumped into the back seat and the car drove off.”

Saba recalls that Savta was pretty much speechless at the time. Nonetheless, she did have the presence of mind to ask him what the two had been talking and laughing about. Saba told her they had been swapping stories about their jobs, and just how tough they were. The President has said that, when all was said and done,  both of them were working in the mud together.

“So why the laughter?” Savta asked.

At this point in the story Saba would generally pause, sit back in his chair, and chuckle. “I told him, yeah we each have our part, we’re each working in the mud, but at least your mud comes with a car.”

Sadly, to the end of his life, Saba never had a car. Yet he never stopped dreaming of the day when everyone in Israel would.



About the Author
Psychologist and builder in Jerusalem for last 55 years with family roots going way back.
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