On the Right Track

Building the Burma Road to Jerusalem in 1948 for a united Israel

By David E. Kaplan

September 14, 2021.

We were about to the exit Mahane Yeduda or in common parlance “The Shuk” at its  southern end onto Jerusalem’s Agripas Street, when there was sudden pandemonium. It began with a policeman running into the market, immediately followed by armed reinforcements. “There is someone armed,” we hear a shout followed by shoppers screaming “Mehabel “(terrorist). This fueled panic leading to people scurrying towards the exits. Police cars and motorbikes blocked off the streets and medics too; entered the market. Carrying our parcels, we stopped at a nearby corner with many other Jerusalemites and watched the drama play out.

Mayhem at the Market. Agripas Street outside the Mahanei Yehuda market in Jerusalem following a terror alert on the 14 September 2021. (Photo D.E. kaplan)
 

While people stood, stared and shouted adding to an animated soundtrack punctuated by sirens, there was too a mood of familiarity as a woman raising her eyebrows lamented publicly:

 “Ma Chadash (what’s new)!”

It wasn’t a question; it was a statement.

Only the day before, two ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students were stabbed  nearby inside the  Central Bus Station.

The most resonant observation came from my wife Hilary, who remarked:

 “It may be easier getting to Jerusalem these days, but nothing has changed within!”

Maybe cryptic to a stranger, her meaning was perfectly clear to me!

Only the day before, as a surprise for my 70th birthday, Hilary had organised a visit to Israel’s “Burma Road”. 

Yes, I had lazily observed those rusty old convoy trucks on the side of Highway 1 on the assent to Jerusalem – relics of the 1948 War of Independence –  and yes, I had seen back in the sixties, the Hollywood blockbuster “Cast a Giant Shadow” with Kirk Douglas on breaking through the siege of Jerusalem, but had to wait until my 70th to really get intimately close to this riveting saga.

Birth of a Nation. A poster of the 1966 blockbuster about the Burma Road with (right-left) Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and Yul Brynner and which also stared Senta Berger and Chaim Topol.

It had been on my ‘bucket list’.

For those unfamiliar, Israel’s hurried Herculean road building up and through the high hills to Jerusalem was named after the Burma Road linking Burma with southwest China built to convey supplies to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Israel’s Burma Road proved no less existential – providing a lifeline that secured Jerusalem as part of the nascent Jewish state.  Approximately 100,000 Jews – around one-fifth of the Jewish population of the Yishuv at the time – lived in the besieged city of Jerusalem and its environs and they were all totally dependent on life-sustaining supplies being brought in from the coastal plain, as all other access roads to the city were under the control of Arab forces. Most significantly, the fort at Latrun which from mid-May 1948, was held by the British-trained Arab Legion from Transjordan, cutting off the main access route to Jerusalem. Unable to capture the fort – losing many soldiers in two major attempts – the only alternative to end the siege of Jerusalem was to bypass Latrun by a longer but safer detour route.

Despite advice from his military strategists to focus on the war elsewhere as the new state was attacked on multiple fronts by five Arab armies and forget besieged Jerusalem as “a lost cause”, David Ben Gurion was defiant, asserting:

Without Jerusalem, there is no Israel.”

Ben Gurion had the pulse of his people. Every year in the Diaspora, the final words at each year’s Passover is “Next year in Jerusalem” reinforcing the eternal connection of Jerusalem to the Jewish People. However, were it not for the Burma Road, “Jerusalem might have remained an allusive, unattainable dream,” says our good friend and licensed tour guide, Danny Gelley.

Saving Jerusalem. Tour guide Danny Gelley shows on the model the conveys taking the makeshift bypass road , known as the Burma Road, between kibbutz Hulda and Jerusalem  built in 1948 during the siege of Jerusalem. 

Reminding us of the cost in Israeli lives – many Holocaust survivors who only days before got off the ships  – in trying unsuccessfully to take Latrun which Israel only took back in 1967, Danny takes us  to a high point where we look down at Highway 1 with cars speeding in either direction between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “The road was impassable back then being too narrow and with Arabs on either side shooting at any attempts at convoys trying to take supplies to Jerusalem.” He points to Sha’ar Hagai, “then a bottleneck and the weak point on the road. They were like sitting ducks.” Danny reads from the French explorer Victor Guérin, who described Sha’ar Hagai in 1868:

“…the track winds between walls of rocks, overgrown with brush and thickets….the passage is too narrow that a determined band of men could stop an army in it with little difficulty.”

Monumental Museum. The new heritage center at Sha’ar Hagai reveals the legacy of the battles and the story of the Palmach fighters who with the participants on the convoys broke through to besieged Jerusalem during the War of Independence. (photo by D.E. Kaplan)

Eight decades later, these words proved prophetically true.

The future of Jerusalem as part of the new Jewish State was literally and figuratively hanging at the edge of a precipice. The entrance to this menacing gorge was called Bab el-Wad by the Arabs. By the Jews it was known by several names, all frighteningly intimidating:

The Gate of Terror”, “Hell, the Gate of Blood”, the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” and more.

How well I understood the significance of these disturbing  epithets when later in the day, I would see the final resting place of the warriors who fell in the battles of the roads to Jerusalem who are  buried in the cemetery at kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. Over an eleven month period, 138 fighters were buried here. Walking down the rows of orderly graves meticulously maintained, under the long shadow cast by a tall obelisk-shaped monument built in coloured limestone rising to the heavens, I was reminded again by the NAME of the memorable movie: “Cast a Giant Shadow”. What struck me most was the ages of the soldiers – so young.  I gasped when I read on the tombstones 18, 17, 16 and even 15! I stared mesmerised at the grave of Yaacov Levy, aged 15 and wondered what thoughts were going through this teenager’s mind as he willingly sacrificed his life to open the road to Jerusalem.

Honouring our Heroes. Dedicated to the fallen soldiers from the Harel Brigade that opened the road to Jerusalem, the monument at the cemetery at Kiryat Anavim was designed by Menachem Shemi Schmidt whose son is buried here with his comrades at arms

A little higher from young Levy’s grave,  we stop at the grave of Aharon Jimmy Schmidt, a 22 year-old Palmach company commander who died toward the end of the war on a hilly ridge, near modern day Beit Shemesh. Danny explains that when “his Russian born father, Menachem Shemi Schmidt, who was an artist and sculptor heard from a close friend and fellow soldier of his fallen son that, when they had been at the Kiryat Anavim cemetery that Jimmy had commented that after the war he would ask his father to design a memorial to the fallen comrades, he acted upon his son’s wishes.”

Could Jimmy have foreseen he too would soon be one of whom his father would honour?

When he died in 1951, Menachem Shemi Schmidt, was buried in the same cemetery as his beloved son Jimmy which we later passed and noted how father and son both rested beneath the “giant shadow” cast by the father’s memorial on the hill.

Action Stations

The most momentous ‘milestone’ for this writer along the Burma Road was visiting the new heritage center called Khan Sha’ar HaGai.  Opened earlier this year before Passover, the museum is proving popular with schoolkids, as evident on the day we were there. It is easy to understand why. It’s an experiential museum ideal for all ages, drawing the visitors in to participate in a way that you feel you are “part of the action”.

Rabin brings Relief. Two days after being established in April  1948 and placed under the command of twenty-four-year-old Yitzhak Rabin, the Harel Brigade organised a convoy of supplies to be brought to Jerusalem under fire from Arab irregulars. The relief convoy led by Rabin himself, came four days after an Arab ambush of a medical convoy on its way to Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus in which eighty Jews, mostly nurses and doctors, were ambushed and killed. 

Passing through five stations, the tour begins with recorded live testimonies by those who participated in those dangerous convoys describing how under fire they bulldozed and dug with spades and shovels in constructing the road; how bullets ripped through the lorries and fortified ambulances during the convoys and how at times in the mud and on steep assents, they had to get out the trucks under fire and PUSH. These were heroes – ordinary young people who were called upon to act quite extraordinary. One begins to understand how the country was built on the sheer WILL of its determined and defiant people. This struck home when one notices on some of their arms, the tattooed numbers – a reminder of their not too distant hellish residency at Nazi concentration camps. They needed little further motivation to fight – they knew the alternative.

Breakout Pass. Jubilation as a convoy with lifesaving supplies arrives in Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

At the next few stations, visitors participate with the use of a disc received on entry. From here on visitors face simulated life or death situations as a commander and have to make decisions by placing their disc at the small windows of their choice. So at a Road Station, your convoy comes under heavy fire and one of the trucks gets stuck. You have 30 seconds as a commander to decide – order the convoy to continue away from enemy fire or to delay and try save the troubled truck. These were real life situations and you then learn what decisions were actually made at the time and the consequences of those decisions.

At the Supply Station,  you are briefed of the dire situation in Jerusalem of Jews starving, dying from a lack of medicine and running low on ammunition. Faced with a reduced number of trucks having been destroyed by enemy fire, you, as a commander, have to make the decision to use the limited space left to pack in mostly  food, medical supplies or ammunition. What will you choose? Whatever you decide – it will result in life for some and death for others. Not knowing the “right” choice – I opted for ammunition!

At another station, you sit in an armoured truck being pierced by bullets as it struggles in a high gear up a long winding high hill, hearing the sound of gunfire, and looking out the  small windows seeing the raging battle outside.

Wayside Inn. The site of the museum today, the Khan ( a hostel for convoys of merchants traveling the roads to stop for the night without fear of bandits) at Sha’ar Hagai in 1910.

Determining Values

This is no ordinary museum for the passive observer. You see, feel and ask – what would I have done in such a situation?

As you exit, you are called upon to not simply return your disc but to hang your disc at a Value Board, where  you select the value that you consider to have been most important to those who endured this experience. Your choices range between camaraderie, just cause, unity, love of country, mutual responsibility, determination, faith, Jerusalem and more.

What to Do? On route from Hulda to Jerusalem when the convey faces a life-threatening crisis.

Still wondering if you made the most appropriate choice – it’s all very personal – you walk out the museum onto a stretch of the old Burma Road where you can climb aboard some of the original supply trucks and ambulances as they line up in a convoy. Cramped inside with all the supplies and only slits to see out and fire at the enemy, one’s mind travels faster than the speed these trucks ever travelled.

A Question of Values. School children at the Khan Sha’ar HaGai ,Bab el-Wad,  National Memorial Site placing their discs at the Value Board. (photo by D.E. Kaplan)
 

How did they do it?

Today, cars speed up and down between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in record time and in complete safety. In Jerusalem however, the danger remains with terror a constant menace.

Hence my wife’s observation outside a turbulent Mahanei Yehuda:

It may be easier getting to Jerusalem these days, but nothing has changed within!”




Israeli Private Tour Guide. Looking for an excellent Israeli tour guide schooled in history? Danny Gelley is certified in English, Hebrew and German. Contact danielgelley@gmail.com Cell: 054-4499227




While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Sweet Surrender

Israelis get their just desserts

By David E. Kaplan

Anguishing over the news on TV from Afghanistan to Covid,  this writer needed a trip to the kitchen on a quest for a sweet diversion.  It inspired this article.

It is a universally acknowledged truth that however full after the main course there is always room for a dessert. Of course, the more prudent might dispute this and feel the need to either eat less or dispense with one course altogether.

Admittedly these are tough choices!

Will one skip the hors d’oeuvre or soup to make room for a dessert?

Interestingly, the ‘last course’ or what should be cuisine’s curtain call, its place in history was little more of an ‘afterthought’.

Ask Le French  – the folk who first transformed sweets into an elaborate post-meal extravaganza and remain today’s undisputed world title holders of cuisine. The word “dessert” is derived from the French infinitive desservir, meaning “to clear away” as from a table.

Puddings from the Past

In Israel, desserts or “sweets” as some refer to it, have come a long way since Hannah Barnett-Trager, an English visitor to Palestine in the 19th century observed how families in Jerusalem would bring their pre-baked traditional cakes to a large communal oven usually not far from a synagogue. “Each family sends cakes in its own tins to be baked in it. Generally, about half a dozen tins are carried by each boy. Nothing I have seen before can be compared with the many kinds of delicious cakes and “stuffed monkeys” (English Jewish almond pastries) that are seen here. My mouth waters even when I think of the delicious strudels filled with sesames and plenty of raisins!”

Palestinian Palette. In writing ‘Pioneers in Palestine’ during the early 20th century,  Hannah Barnett-Trager had plenty of opportunity to ‘tuck in’ and get a ‘taste’ of local cuisine.

In writing her ‘Pioneers in Palestine’  – a memoir covering the foundation of the city of Petah Tikva, and other aspects of the period including a description of young women campaigning in 1886 for the right to vote, Barnett-Trager had plenty of opportunity to ‘tuck in’ and get a real ‘taste’ of the Palestinian palette.

Following independence in 1948, the situation in the new State of Israel was tough. In just three and a half years, the Jewish population had doubled, and Israel’s first government was compelled to introduce rationing. During this period known as the Tzena (Hebrew for austerity), Israelis – still without personal ovens, and compounded by the scarcity of ingredients – would exercise ingenuity in creating desserts. They would concoct sweets like aknacknick (salami) of cocoa, crushed vanilla wafers, wine, and nuts rolled together, refrigerated, and then cut into slices.

Another culinary trick was to substitute peanuts for the costlier walnuts and almonds in their tortes (multi-layered cakes), with powdered eggs replacing fresh eggs in delicacies like cream puffs.

Since those austere days, desserts have emerged as an Israeli meal’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’ – works of culinary art where pastry or dessert chefs are free to run wild and express themselves with an abundance of creativity tantalising the eye as much as satiating the tongue.

A Load of Waffle

When I emigrated to Israel well over three decades ago, one of the desserts I missed most was the – the waffle. Totally at variance with its other meaning of – “to talk or write a lot without saying anything important or interesting”, the waffle, on the contrary, for ‘sweet-toothers’ like myself, is most “important” and much more than simply “interesting”, so I welcomed with most Israelis its Aliyah (Hebrew: immigration to Israel) and its increased popularity.  One food critic described this trend as such:

 “It is a lesser known fact but the Belgian waffle has become a classic comfort food in Israel.”

All Tantalising. There is nothing typical about a waffle in Israel – there are so many variations with the one common thread – they are all delicious.

In Jerusalem alone there are several eateries that specialize in waffles, such as the Waffle Bar, Barbette and Waffle Factory.

Today, the toppings for waffles in Israel are vast and various. For me the waffle at ‘Shenkin Bar’ in Ra’anana is sheer magic. It is large – a very good start; it has an abundance of delicious soft serve and cream – totally on the right track; and topped with Israel’s best yummy fruit!

While Israelis enjoy most the traditional overseas desserts like waffles and another favorite import like Crème brûlée, the prevailing palette has evolved with variations reflecting the local culture.

Tel Aviv Temptations. An array of baklava at a market in Tel Aviv.

Bite into Baklava

There is a strong tradition of home baking in Israel arising from the years when there were very few bakeries to meet demand. Many professional bakers came to Israel from Central Europe and founded local pastry shops and bakeries, often called konditoria, thus shaping local tastes and preferences. There is now a local style with a wide selection of cakes and pastries that includes influences from other cuisines and combines traditional European ingredients with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients, such as halva, phyllo pastry, dates, and rose water.

Most popular is Baklava, a nut-filled phyllo pastry sweetened with syrup and served in Jewish communities who originated in the Middle East. It is often served in restaurants as dessert along with small cups of Turkish coffee.

Cuisine Consensus. Aboulafia bakery in Jaffa  is a Mecca for those with a sweet tooth.

Dozens of Israeli bakeries boast the best baklava, however Zalatimo’s Bakery in the Old City of Jerusalem, which opened in 1860 is believed to be the oldest operating baklava bakery in the world. According to freelance journalist Viva Sarah Press, it is hailed by everyone from the man-on-the-street to culinary cognoscenti as “the place to bite into a warm, hand-thrown wad of phyllo pastry soaked in sugar syrup.” The head baker, Abu Samir Zalatimo, relies on a secret family recipe to prepare the dish for which his place is famous, a deliciously sweet Palestinian phyllo pastry known as mutabak.

Marvelous Malabi. Enjoy the flavours of rose and pistachio in this light Israeli Malabi, common at many Israeli weddings as a dessert.

The Proof is in the Pudding

As with many Middle Eastern foods, Israelis have taken the dessert “muhalllabia” and made it their own, even changing the name to “malabi”. Probably hailing from Turkey, malabi is a milky pudding thickened with rice – or more commonly in Israel, cornstarch – flavoured with vanilla and rosewater and topped with sugary syrup – often containing more rosewater.

Most wedding receptions in Israel include Malibi amongst its desserts but it is also sold as a street food from stalls in disposable cups with thick sweet syrup and various crunchy toppings such as chopped pistachios or coconut.

Its popularity has resulted in supermarkets selling it in plastic packages and restaurants serving richer and more sophisticated versions using various toppings and garnishes such as berries and fruit. 

Love or hate it, every Israeli is familiar with malabi.

Heavenly Halva

For those in search of a unique dairy dessert, Halva parfait is an Israeli dessert of halva suspended in cream and egg yolk. So embedded today in the local cuisine culture, the recipe even appears on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. It is justifiably part of Israel’s global outreach.

Visitor’s Delight. A halva vendor in Tel Aviv’s Shuk HaNamal (The port). Made from tehina and sugar, halva is used to make original desserts like halva parfait (Photo by Chameleon’s Eye/Shutterstock.com)

The creation of Israeli chefs Tsachi and Linda Buchester, it has been widely copied both in Israel and abroad. It is like an ice scream, cold and creamy with a distinct flavour of sesame. If you enjoy halvah and tahini, you will enjoy this dessert. Even if you are not a halvah fan, you will more than likely delight in the cold creameries of this unusually-flavoured frozen confection. In the words of the Foreign Ministry:

Just call it ‘Israeli Frozen Parfait’ and serve it with a few bright-colored berries and some whipped cream and it will be a big hit.”

How’s this for sweet soothing Israeli diplomacy?

Cream of the Crop

A popular dessert in Israel as an alternative to ice cream is Krembo.

The Krembo has gained a cultural standing and has been referenced in literature, film, and popular music as a quintessential Israeli snack food.

Back in November 2015, Israel took a sweet approach to International Relations when its officials handed out Krembo marshmallow treats to passengers on a  Royal Jordanian  Dubai flight that made an emergency landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Soft Landing. Setting the scene for a future peace accord, seen here in November 2015, Israeli security officers holding boxes of Krembo ( chocolate-covered marshmallow candy) and striding towards a Royal Jordanian flight on the tarmac of the Ben-Gurion Airport that was forced to make an emergency landing in Israel.

Who knows, this might have sweetened the deal that was to follow – The Abraham Accords.

It has a biscuit base, marshmallow center and thin chocolate shell and comes in two flavours, each with its own wrapping: blue for vanilla-flavoured marshmallow and brown for mocha-flavoured marshmallow.

In Hebrew, the word krembo is a combination of krem (cream) and bo (in it). According to a study funded by Strauss, Israel’s leading krembo producer, 69% of Israelis prefer to eat krembos from the top down (starting with the cream), and only 10% start with the biscuit at the bottom; the rest had no preference. From whichever direction Israelis assault their krembos, the result is always the same – their hands reflexively reaching out for next one!

Sweetie Pies. For sweet lovers, Israel’s Beloved Chocolate-Coated krembo.

Sweet Dreams

No meal is complete at any Arab restaurant in Israel without Knafeh made from mild white cheese topped with a crispy layer of shredded wheat, and covered with sugar syrup. Though knafeh is widely regarded as an Arab dish, it is today also part of Israel’s culinary DNA and a popular dessert at Jewish as much as Arab weddings.  One of Israeli-songwriter Ehud Banai’s classic songs is called “Ha-knafeh metuka”, meaning “the knafeh is sweet.” The song waxes nostalgic about Jerusalem’s Old City, where you can easily stumble upon giant copper trays serving bright-orange knafeh, which is served warm with the cheese half-melted, accompanied by a tiny cup of strong Turkish coffee.

Craving for Knafeh. Originating from the Palestinian streets of Nablus in the early part of the last century, Knafeh today is a staple for all good occasions Jews and Arabs alike.
 

The Milky Way

There is not a child in Israel that is not familiar with the dairy pudding Milky. Produced by Strauss, Israel’s largest food and beverage company, Milky is claimed to be the most successful dairy product on the Israeli market since its debut in 1980 and is sold in small containers with chocolate pudding on the bottom and whipped cream on the top.

Its early TV commercials in the late 1980s, it featured a young kid, Bar Refaeli, who would emerge an international model, film star and more recently, host on The X Factor Israel. Both Bar and Milky made it to the top.

Creamy Combination. Despite its long history, Milky’s secret and magic have not diminished remaining the perfect combination of chocolate and whipped cream

Love at first Bite

For Israeli culinary guide Judith S. Goldstein, “A great meal doesn’t feel complete without dessert.” Poetically, she elaborates:

Skipping dessert after an amazing meal is like going on a perfect date and not getting a kiss at the end of the night to seal the deal.”

So, to our overseas visitors in a post Covid world, we have some “dates” lined up for you!

Israel is a passionate country and when it comes to desserts, resistance is futile!





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

On High Ground

The Hills of Yodfat are Alive with the Sound of Hebrew

By David E. Kaplan

It is a Kaplan family Bar Mitzvah in the quant intimate shul (synagogue) at Yodfat, a moshav in northern Israel in the picturesque high mountains of the Lower Galilee. The shul is packed – mostly with animated children of all ages. Following my brother Sidney  as both a Cohen and grandfather to the Barmitzvah boy Yoav being called up first for an Aliyah  – I followed.

The Children are our Future. The children of Yodfat singing a song to the Bar Mitzvah boy – Yoav Kaplan. His grandsfather, Sidney Kaplan (right) was a founding member of the nearby South African moshav – Manof.

I made my way, maneuvering the short joyful journey between children sitting on bunk benches in the isle, I ascend the Bimah and before reciting the blessing for the reading of the Torah, I look up and to the right of the ark out a wide window and saw the green valley leading to the mountain-top fortresses of Yodfat.

It is no ordinary vista that this shul looks out on!

Embedded into the physical landscape of modern Israel, it is in the psychological landscape that this ancient Jewish fortress  stands as a stark and dark reminder of those enemies that may come to try erase Jewish life from this land. It happened 2000 years ago and began the process of exile until 1948, but the same battle persists. “Rome” has other names today.

I recite the prayer; the Barmitzvah boy reads from the Torah and I smile as I look at all the children who are armed to their teeth with sweets to later throw at Yoav when he has completed his Haftarah, to wish him a “sweet” life as he makes the transition to adulthood. I then momentarily reflect on who was armed to the teeth at this very same spot 2000 years earlier – ROMANS – and not with sweets!

War and Peace. Looking out from where the Roman legions were positioned 2000 years ago to modern day moshav Yodfat in the background where the synagogue is perched on the crest of the hill.

What bloodily played out on these ochre hilltops created a narrative that continues to caution and inspire ensuing generations of Israelis.

Walking to the shul earlier, I breathed in the fresh country air and feasted my eyes on the valley with its vineyards and orchards, olive trees, and goats roaming in the distance tended by a young shepherd. The scene was pastoral and peaceful – a far cry from the cataclysmic clash of arms that occurred at this exact spot in 67 CE when heroic Jewish fighters took on the might of the Roman Empire.

Time to Rejoice. Grandfather Sydney Kaplan speaking in Hebrew to his grandson Yoav at the Bar Mizvah reception in a garden overlooking the site of the tragic Roman siege 2000 years earlier.

In early June of that year, a force of 1,000 Roman cavalrymen arrived at Yodfat to seal off the town, defended by Jewish forces commanded by Yosef Ben Matityahu (the future Flavius Josephus). Prior to the Roman assault, Ben Matityahu had fortified nineteen of the most important towns of the region, including Yodfat.After a failed attempt to confront the Roman army at Tzipori, he retired to Tiberias, but soon thereafter established himself at Yodfat, drawing the Roman legions to the town. A day later at the foothills not far from the shul where we were proudly celebrating Yoav’s Barmitzvah, stood the amassed Roman legions of the Fifth, Tenth and Fifteenth as well as auxiliaries consisting of Arabian archers and Syrian slingers led by General Vespasian and supported by his son Titus, who would both emerge as future emperors of Rome.

These Roman “occupiers” meant business. Literally ‘Dressed to kill’, they aspired to crush an uprising that would become known in history as “The Great Jewish revolt” or “The Jewish War”. This was 2000 years ago and long before anyone ever heard of Palestinians!

Hill of Hereos. The ancient town of Yodfat was positioned on this isolated hill hidden between high peaks, surrounded on three sides by steep ravines.  During the “Great Revolt” in year 67 CE – Yodfat, the last stronghold of Jewish resistance after the fall of Zippori – was besieged by three Roman legions and resisted for 47 days before the city fell.  

I return from the Bimah to take my seat next to my brother. We exchange comments about the lively atmosphere with loving parents battling to keep some decorum amongst their animated kids – mostly friends of the Barmitzvah boy. It’s a sheer Shabbos delight. And then I contrast this image of an imagined one of Jewish kids 2000 years earlier looking down at the Roman legions with their frightening coloured attire and menacing siege machines. It was laughter today; it was fear then. It should never again be the other way around – ever!

Romans came Prepared. A typical Roman siege machine that the defenders at Yodfat would have faced.

Vespasian had pitched his own camp north of the town, facing  the only accessible side, while his forces surrounded the city. An assault against the wall on the second day of the siege failed, and after several days in which the Jewish defenders made a number of successful sorties against his forces, Vespasian changed tactics.  He instructed for the building of a siege ramp against the city walls, and when these works were disrupted by the Jews, Vespasian set 160 engines, catapults and ballistas  – backed by lightly armed troops, slingers and archers – to dislodge the defiant defenders from the walls. These were in turn met with repeated sallies by the besieged, but work on the ramp continued, raising it to the height of the battlements and forcing Ben Matityahu to have the walls themselves raised.  Roman measure was met with Jewish countermeasure and the battle ebbed and flowed…..

Peace and Tranquility. The only connection today of Yodfat to the times of conquering Rome is that its pastoral beauty is often described as “Shades of Tuscany”.

As always with such sieges, water was an issue for the defenders on top of a high hill so Ben Matityahu had Yodfat’s limited supply of water rationed before the siege began. The Romans had heard of this and began to use their artillery to target any efforts to draw water, hoping to exacerbate an already difficult situation and bring a swift end to the siege. The defenders, in a far-in-the-future future Mossad type of maneuver, cunningly confounded the Romans by wringing out their clothes over the battlements until the walls were running with water, leading the Romans to believe the Jews had some hidden supply of water.

According to Ben Matityahu, later writing as Josephus, this taunting had a twin effect – one negative and one positive. It strengthened Roman resolve but it also steeled the mettle of the defenders to fight, preferring to die by the sword than from thirst or starvation.

Man with Menace. A statue of Emperor Vespasian who in 66 AD was appointed to suppress the Jewish revolt underway in Judea.

There was of course an atmosphere of inevitability where this was ultimately heading. “Proportionality” was never a consideration in Vespasian’s battle plans to expunge a Jewish presence at Yodfat.

With the completion of the assault ramp, Vespasian ordered a battering ram  brought up against the wall. The defenders responded with ingenuity.  They lowered sacks filled with chaff to absorb the blows, they set fire to the ram and as chronicled by Josephus, one of the defenders, renowned for his strength, cast a huge stone on the ram from above, breaking off its head.

This infuriated the Romans. A physical act but it was also symbolic – decapitating the “head” of a war machine. This shortly took on a new meaning when the “head” – the future Emperor Vespasian himself was wounded by a defender’s dart. The Romans were so incensed driving their assault to a fever pitch but still were beaten back.

Eventually, on July 20, 67, a band of Romans reportedly led by Titus himself, stealthily scaled the walls, cut the throats of the watch and opened the gates, letting in the entire Roman army.

What followed was a slaughter. While the descendants today of some of Rome’s conquered like in modern day Britton may cherish the famed Roman baths, Yodfat records only a Roman blood bath!

According to Josephus, 40,000 were slain or committed suicide and 1,200 women and infants were taken into slavery. Vespasian ordered the town demolished and its walls torn down and prohibited burial of the fallen. It was only a year or more later when Jews were allowed to return to bury the remains in caves and cisterns.

Yodfat Today.  Enjoy the fun of Yodfat today by visiting “Boacha Yodfat” (literally, “As you approach Yodfat”) – a recreation and shopping center, located in a grove of oaks, providing stunning views. Here you will find stores, a gallery, a jewelry studio, a delicatessen, a dairy café, a bakery and a nearby “Monkey Forest”.

So even on this day 2000 years later, the sound of innocent chatter and laughter soliciting reprimands from the rabbi, were to me like music to the ears.

If the few surviving children of ancient Yodfat were cruelly sold off into slavery never to return, Jews did RETURN and today’s young children in the shul of modern Yodfat on this Shabbat were sending a strong message – this was our home 2000 years ago and is our home today.

Nothing more audibly conveys this message than that Latin  – the language of Rome –  is today a dead language while the hills of Yodfat are alive with the sound of Hebrew!


L’Chaim – “to Life”. Two thousand years later, there is much to toast about at Yodfaf as seen by these visitors enjoying the good life at “Boacha Yodfat”






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

Jerusalem!

By  Gill Katz

Jerusalem!

The news will depict the old city as a place of war. Conflict. Bloodshed.

A place where cultures clash, and old and new don’t tolerate one another.

A place of political turmoil. Of suicide bombers. Of death.

But there is another Jerusalem.

A city old and rich in culture, steeped in the golden light of God’s eye as He watches with a fierce love, and I know that His city will for all times be a very special place.

From Hillel Street and it’s quaint coffee bars to the Holy sites where Jew, Christian and Moslem seek and find their roots, to the Mount of Olives where one can stand and look out over the peach coloured Jerusalem stone buildings, the city is incomparable.

A trip to the Old City, and a delightful barter with Arab stall sellers, and the joy of walking back to ones residence carrying a basket of fragrant smelling fruit and succulent vegetables from the shuk.. ahh.

What can compare?

I bump shoulders with Haredi Jews, bearded Greek Orthodox Priests and bare bellied tattooed American teenage girls. There are old and young, firm and infirm – all on their own private mission.

The presence of soldiers is but a comfort to me.

I contemplate their absense.

I know in time they will be, but for now I see them as warriors of Biblical times, fierce in their desire to protect God’s chosen city.

It’s all good…

God chose well.

Jerusalem – City of Gold.








About the writer:

Gill Katz. Former children’s book author, journalist, member of Media Team (South Africa and International) and television scriptwriter, now retired in Florida USA.







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Tea in Tel Aviv

Israel’s tea pots are filling up again

By David E. kaplan

It was not written in the tea leaves that indicated the future was changing, it was in the people drinking it – or more precisely, the number of people!

Where for the past year it has been “Tea for Two” my wife and I   recently sat down with a group of friends that until recently could have been described as an “illegal gathering”, a connotation repugnant to this former South African.

Tea for Two. The satisfied look of these two tea drinkers by Israeli artist Itzchak Tarkay’s “Nothing Left to Say” (2006).

So what could be read into this tea – proverbial as some referred coffee –  with friends was that all had been vaccinated against Covid and we were at last enjoying a taste of the “old normal”.

Instead of over the cell or ZOOM, we met face-to-face, shifted conversational gears opening with “So when did we ACTUALLY see you last?” to discussions on Israel’s unpredictable futurepolitical landscape following the predictable past election result to issues around Corona.

There were divergent views, voices were raised for this was again – real, animated social engagement – Israeli style.

It was REAL and a long time coming…..

Had the life we have been living this past year been the plot of an earlier book or movie , we would have scoffed at it being farfetched – the literary imaginings a of a Ray Bradbury, George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. This sudden ‘Brave New World’ was a reality and still is for most the world as it awaits a speedier rollout of the vaccines.

And here is the rub as the goal of “herd immunity” has to be global not parochial. Confronting a pandemic, we are all in this together. These thoughts were on our minds as we enjoyed our tea, thankful that our country of Israel is the world leader in getting shots in arms at a pace that is far ahead of any other nation. If in January only 10% of Israel’s population had been vaccinated,  by mid-March it was over 50%! Now in April, we look to the economy picking up as more and more businesses open up  as we recommence our lives of engagement.

Systematic Rollout. Israelis receive a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from medical professionals at a coronavirus vaccination center set up on a shopping mall parking lot in Givataim, Israel.

Since none of the vaccines were developed in Israel, an intriguing question is how did the country manage in record time to acquire so many vaccinations? It lies in the county’s DNA – its ingenuity, foresight, quick bold action – not without risk – by our political leadership, and our unique medical system that provides superlative cover to all its citizens. While some ignorant critics abroad might stupidly scream ‘”socialism”, Israel’s unique medical aid Kupat Holim –  is  our pride and saviour as has proved during this Corona crisis. I recall when interviewing the previous Coronavirus Tzar, Professor Ronnie Gamsu for Hilton Israel Magazine  in 2016,  he described Israel’s medical system as in keeping with the “fundamental egalitarian philosophy of our founding fathers.”

Arm Down, Thumb Up. Seen here as Israel kicks off mass coronavirus vaccine drive to stamp out COVID-19 pandemic, Ronni Gamzu, CEO of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and former virus czar receiving the Pfizer vaccine at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

To my question of what he meant by this, Prof. Gamsu replied:

 “Well, Israel can be truly proud of not only its superlative cutting edge medical services but of how we provide this quality service to all our citizens at affordable costs to the recipient. For this, we need to thank the founding fathers of the modern State of Israel. The Zionist Movement in pre-state Israel, which combined the traditional Jewish concern for all people with an emphasis on societal needs that regarded Public Health as a top social, political and economic priority.”

Emphasizing these priorities, Gamsu pointed out that by the time Israel declared its independence in 1948, “we already had a national health infrastructure in place. There was Tipat Halav (Mother-and-child care centers) administering vaccinations to new-born babies and counseling parents on proper care for their infants, and Kupot Holim (Health insurance funds) offering day-to-day consultations with doctors and specialists, and insured members for hospitalization.”

Israel’s Vaccine Rollout is Record-breaking, but is it a Surprise? This historic photograph captures Israelis in the early days of the state getting vaccinated.

Even as Israel transformed in the twilight decades of the twentieth century from a socialist to capitalist economy, Gamsu explained, “some of our most cherished values of concern for the collective remained entrenched – they are part of our ethos and are ingrained in our culture.”

As future needs arise, he cautioned, “we need to be on guard and adhere to our founding principles.”

Clearly, this philosophy has carried Israel through with aplomb through the global Corona crisis.

As a country used to living on the edge with little room for error or miscalculation, the Israeli mindset – although totally inept at  dealing with elections –  is more than adept at situations when lives are at stake and ready to confront monumental challenges.

Southern Comfort. Covid-19 rapidly on the decline in Israel as vaccinations kick-in. A testing place in the middle of Israel’s arid desert south of the Dead Sea..

Compare Israel’s situation with other countries or regions.

Never mind my native South Africa, where Corona is spreading at unclear but feared alarming rates and with little certainty as to when it will receive a vaccine, ‘mighty’ Europe is faring not much better.

As there are currently dire warnings by health experts of a “fourth wave”, one looks with bewilderment at Continental Europe and wonder, “What went wrong?” as France and Italy enter  ‘another’ full lockdown with a vaccine rollout in total chaos. Their systems, bureaucracy and political leadership has failed and people are suffering.

While Israel’s enemies are quick to point out its imperfections – Israelis do it far better themselves –  there is a growing shift of more and more countries and its people to look to Israel as to “how they do it?”

Opening Up. Young Tel Avivians at Cafe Zurik in Tel Aviv on the first day that restaurants were allowed to open after the coronavirus, May 27, 2020. (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

Living up to its reputation as the ‘Start-Up Nation’, its handling of the most monumental health challenge in a century, Israel is showing a way forward.

It’s why I can enjoy a cup of tea in Tel Aviv with a group of friends. And now its back to the old concerns as my wife raises an eyebrow noticing me salivating over an inviting creamy chocolate eclair in inviting proximity and saying:

 “You don’t need it!” 

Stopped in my tracks from committing a gross culinary felony, Covid took a back seat to  the old health and more ‘weighty’ issues!



While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

Message from Megiddo – A Wrong Righted

Celebrating the centenary of Isaac Ochberg’s 1921 daring rescue of orphan children from war-torn Eastern Europe

By David E. Kaplan

Chairman of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee (Israel)

Motorists in the Megiddo region could once have been excused when driving past signs marked “EVEN YITZCHAK”, designating a picturesque plateau of rolling green hills in Israel’s Lower Galilee,  and wondering:

 “Which Yitzchak?”  

Is it the Isaac from the Bible or the late Prime Minister, war hero and pursuer of peace – Yitzchak Rabin? Apart from local residents, few would have known it honoured the South Africa businessman, philanthropist, saviour of Jewish children and Zionist visionary – Isaac Ochberg.

No more …..

Man with a Mission. Isaac Ochberg (1878-1937) Ukrainian-born South African businessman, Jewish community leader, saviour of Jewish orphans in Eastern Europe and passionate supporter of  a Jewish State in Palestine.

Finally, one of South Africa’s greatest Jews, Isaac Ochberg (1878-1937), received the recognition he deserves when an estimated 13,000 people across the world linked on through Zoom and YouTube on the 14 March 2021 to participate in  the South African Jewish Report webinar marking the centenary of his heroic rescue of Jewish orphan children from Eastern Europe in 1921.  

“Daddy Ochberg”. Isaac Ochberg  (centre) wearing a hat with the selected orphans before leaving Eastern Europe for the UK on route to Cape Town, South Africa in 1921.

It did not matter that it was 4.00am in Sydney, 2.00am in Perth, 5.00pm in the UK, 7.00 pm in South Africa and Israel or 12.00 pm noon in New York City, the descendants of those rescued children joined a global viewership, enthralled by the wonders of a man that to this day, impacts the lives of so many thus embodying the dictum from the Talmud:

He who has saved one life is as if he has saved the entire world

Ochberg Centenary. Ochberg orphan descendants and members of the South African community  in Israel join representatives from JNF-KKL, Knesset, Telfed, the Megiddo Regional Council and members of the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee at an Ochberg  centenary ceremony at the Ochberg Park, Megiddo on the March 2021.  Covered by the national Hebrew daily, Yedioth Ahranot, the writer together with Hertzel Katz  (front left) hold up a portrait of Isaac Ochberg. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)
 

With the Covid pandemic preventing a planned centenary celebration at the Ochberg Park – inaugurated at the 90th anniversary in 2011 with visitors attending from all over the world – the Centenary instead was brought into the homes of thousands across the world. Initiated and organized by the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee, the Megiddo Regional Council and supported by the JNF-KKL that had originally sponsored the creation of the Ochberg Park, the Centenary webinar was hosted by the SA Jewish Report with Howard Sackstein moderating a panel of speakers ranging from historians, members of the Ochberg family to descendants of the Ochberg orphans. This was followed by a ceremony from the Ochberg Park filmed by Dr. Les Glassman in Megiddo with addresses from the State President in Israel, Reuven Rivlin, the Chairman of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, Chairman of KKL, Avraham Duvdevani, the Mayor of the Megiddo Regional Council, Itzik Kholawsky, Megiddo Planning & Development, Ayal Rom, Member of the Knesset, Ruth Wasserman Lande, the Chair of Telfed, Batya Shmukler and the Chairman of the Isaac Ochberg Committee, David Kaplan. These  addresses were interspersed with singing from youth choirs from Megiddo and the event concluded with the national anthems of Israel and South Africa, signifying the bridge built by Ochberg between his two pursuits – helping South Africa and helping the creation and development of a future State of Israel.

Member of Knesset, Ruth Wasserman Lande addresses the gathering in front of the memorial to Isaac Ochberg  Megiddo at the centenary event. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

Apart from the daring rescue of 187 Jewish orphans and bringing them safely to South Africa, and whose names are embedded on plaques on the ‘Hill of Names’ at Megiddo’s Ochberg Park,  what was largely forgotten was his substantial support for a Jewish state, in the days when it was still a farfetched dream. The bequest he left in 1937 through Keren Hayesod to KKL- JNF  – the largest to date ever made by an individual – was used to acquire the land that became two large kibbutzim in this area, Dalia and Gal’ed, both established before Israel’s independence and by Jewish youth movements, and both absorbed survivors from the Holocaust – precisely fulfilling Ochberg’s legacy of Jewish salvation.  If Ochberg personally saved lives of children in 1921, his legacy ensured that next generations of Jews were saved in the turbulent  years that followed. Is it little wonder as Megiddo Mayor Kholawsky  reminds us  why huge swathes of this region was called ‘Even Yitzchak’ – Hebrew for the ‘Stone of Isaac”. How appropriate that the Ochberg saga is solidly  embedded in the topography of Megiddo.

Past Preserved. Erin Kumin, points to the plaque of her great-grandmother, Janie Odes, one of the orphans saved by Isaac Ochberg in 1921 at centenary event at the Ochberg Park on the 12 March 2021. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

The Megiddo Regional Council and the Ochberg Committee are planning an expansion of the park  with a promenade and facilities to perpetuate the Ochberg legacy and attract tourism – a message that Ochberg himself conveyed way back in 1926. In an interview with South Africa’s The Zionist Record following his visit to Palestine with his beloved wife Polly that year, Ochberg urged all South Africans to spend their holidays in Eretz Yisrael, saying:

Even outside of political and national reasons it is well worth while. The glorious scenery, the fine climate, and its many historic places make a visit to this land a most enjoyable and certainly an unforgettable experience.”

Field of Dreams. Ochberg dreamt of a green fertile Israel such as this field with youngsters cycling at the Ochberg Park, Megiddo.(Courtesy Megiddo Regional Council)

What is quite fascinating is the entrepreneur and visionary characteristics of Ochberg’s personality being revealed in this same 1926 interview when he says:

I came away with a feeling of confidence that the Jewish problem can and will be solved ultimately in Eretz Yisrael and in Eretz Yisrael only.”

Alive Because of One Man. Descendants of Ochberg orphans from all over the world attend the inauguration of the Ochberg Park, Megiddo in 2011 are seen here at nearby Kibbutz Gal’ed, founded in 1945 by members of Habonim from Germany. The kibbutz was built on land purchased by the JNF-KKL from the Isaac Ochberg bequest.  (Photo D.E. Kaplan)
 

He then continues:

As a commercial man, I could not help but be genuinely impressed by the fine progress of industrial development in so young a country. There is every prospect of most important industrial development in Palestine as the country grows.”

For 1926, prophetic words indeed!

Always a man of action, Ochberg puts his words into action following his visit to Palestine, where he was deeply moved  by the new Hebrew University taking shape on Mount Scopus,  and set about financially supporting practical education in Palestine by sponsoring Chairs of Agriculture – which he felt was essential for an emerging Jewish state – at the new Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute.

Educating about Ochberg. Award winners of a 2019 Ochberg Essay Competition at Alon Shool, Ramat Hasharon Israel organized by Hertzel Katz and the Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee and judged by Steve Linde, editor of the Jerusalem Report. The Ochberg Saga was the cover story of the Jerusalem Report, copies of which the winners are holding up. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

Still on education, it was most revealing to note that in his will, the £10,000 bequest he left to the University of Cape Town for a trust in which the income was  to provide scholarships, there was a condition that “there be no differentiation between the students by reason of colour, creed or race”. Clearly reflecting his  character and his values, Ochberg specified that “should this policy ever be changed, the £10,000 would then devolve upon the Isaac Ochberg Palestine Fund.”

Forgotten Man Remembered

If my first article 20 years ago on Ochberg which was titled  ‘Righting a Wrong’, today I can safely title an article on the same subject – ‘A Wrong Righted’.

Set Out To Save. Poster to the 2005 documentary about Isaac Ochberg’s rescue of Jewish orphans by Oscar award-winning director, Jon Blair.

Books, articles, a documentary “Ochberg’s Orphans” submitted for an Oscar, essay competitions, addressing conferences, lecturing students at schools in South Africa and Israel and the opening of an Isaac Ochberg Park in Megiddo that emblazons in plaques along its ‘Hill of Names’ the names of all the children Ochberg saved, have all contributed to ensure that “The man from Africa” as he was called before he arrived to save them and “Daddy Ochberg” ever after, is known to future generations.

All in the Family.  Three generations of Ochberg Orphans at the Ochberg Park, Megiddo – Leon Segal, Benny Penzik , (both parents were Ochberg orphans), descendants of Archie Ruch and Cecil Migdal on the 12 March 2021. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)
 

The Isaac Ochberg Heritage Committee apart from the writer of Bennie Penzik, Hertzel Katz, Ian Rogow, Peter Bailey and Joel Klotnik (both on the advisory board to the Megiddo Regional Council), Leon Segal, Rob Hyde and Lauren Snitcher (Cape Town) and Lyanne Kopenhager (Johannesburg) are committed to preserving the legacy with the take away message that:

One good deed today can impact on the lives of many tomorrow

Celebrating Ochberg. Members of the Ochberg Committee, (l-r) Hertzel Katz, Ian Rogow and Bennie Penzik (whose both parents were Ochberg orphans)  together with family  descendants of Isaac Ochberg, Tessa Webber and Cynthia Zukas at the 90th reunion in 2011 at Kibbutz Dalia, which was build on land purchased by the JNF-KKL through funding from Isaac Ochberg.(Photo D.E.Kaplan)

You have only to ask the over 4000 descendants of the orphans Ochberg rescued in 1921 or heard what some of them said on the SA Jewish Report webinar. Many with tears in their eyes, like Lauren Snitcher, Paula Slier and Andi Saitowitz said:

If it weren’t for this one man, I would not be here today.”

Honouring Ochberg. Granddaughter of an Ochberg orphan, Lauren Snitcher (right) and daughter, Machala at the Ochberg memorial, Ochberg Park, Megiddo in 2011. (Photo D.E. Kaplan)

With his ‘family’ having expanded into the thousands,  with Palestine being a Jewish State of Israel absorbing Jews from all over the world, its universities in the vanguard for superlative education, and thriving kibbutzim in Megiddo due to his vision and generosity, Isaac Ochberg can look down from his celestial perch and smile.

His legacy will always be identified with:

He who has saved one life is as if he has saved the entire world







While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO)

Tel Aviv is Alive, Well and Pedaling

By Stephen Schulman

These times are troubled and turbulent with the Covid-19 Virus taking its toll, reaping illnesses and deaths and like the rest of the planet, Israel has not been immune. There have been and still are lockdowns with businesses closed, people losing their livelihoods, being confined to homes, and much attendant suffering.

Nevertheless, in spite of restrictions on movement and being limited to a certain radius from their homes, Israeli citizens have been allowed a respite; to leave their domiciles for sporting activities and exercise provided that it is not done in groups. Throughout the length and breadth of the country many people have taken advantage of this proviso and with gusto, have filled the paths and trails from Kiryat Shmona in the north down to southerly Eilat.

North to South. The writer participating in the Israel Road Cycling Challenge that crosses the Golan, connecting over 850 miles (1400km) of single track and dirt tracks from the snowy peak of Mt. Hermon in the north to the sun-soaked Red Sea city of Eilat.

Alongside their pedestrian paths, many cities and local councils with a growing awareness and appreciation of this sport have also paved parallel cycle lanes and Tel Aviv and its metropolis is no exception to the rule. Moreover, possessing a cosmopolitan ambience with a round the clock activity, with its flat topography, large parks, seaside promenade, multitude of cycling lanes and many hire bike stations, the city has become a Mecca for cyclists. In this difficult period, there has been a two wheeled renaissance as many Israelis have discovered and rediscovered the joys of cycling. Bicycle shops are bustling, the demand is great and many disappointed customers have found that cycles are in short supply.

Two-Wheel Fun in the Sun. Ideal weather for most the year, Israelis  have taken to cycling in a huge way. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Tel Aviv boasts a great cycling path that runs alongside the sea. It starts from the Old City of Jaffa, continues along the Herbert Samuel beach promenade to the Old Port of Tel Aviv, then turning north via Reading power station stretches until the Tel Baruch beach and then goes even further, ending at the marina in Herzlia. This picturesque route is daily thronged with cyclists of all ages and all sizes riding a wide variety of bikes ranging from folding models with small 20 inch wheels and laid back balloon tired boulevard cruisers to expensive top range mountain and road bikes. It has become so popular that on Friday and Saturday mornings there is something akin to a traffic jam!

Coasting Along. Taking in the breeze off the Mediterranean, cycling on Tel Aviv beach promenade.

Tel Aviv off-road pedallers wishing to be closer to nature and get away ‘far from the madding crowd‘ do not lack for choice. The Yarkon River that runs through Tel Aviv with its effluence at the Old Port has single tracks aplenty. In many places, the path winds through bamboo growing along its banks and it is an inimitable experience speeding down tunnels created by their leaves and stems growing together over your head.

Cycling Comrades. The writer Stephen Schulman (right) with his cycling companion Adrian Wolff.

To their credit, the mayor and the city council identify with and encourage sport. In addition to the annual marathon, there is the Tel Aviv Rondo – the largest cycling event in the country. Every September, (except for lockdown 2020!) on an early Friday morning, well over 10,000 pre-registered cyclists assemble at the Exhibition Grounds to complete a well organized, closed off 20 km loop in the city. Experienced riders are permitted 3 circuits and even the young are well catered for with an 8km route. Nothing can compare to the experience of riding down the freeway with the wind at your back and before you, a colorful phalanx of thousands of joyful pedallers stretching far into the distance!

Sea Breeze. A group cycling tour of the coast seen here at Herzliya marina.

There are many other organized cycling events throughout the country ranging from off-road charity rides to pelotons for serious ‘roadies’. Even hilly Jerusalem has its devoted riders and hosts both off and on road events. Possibly the biggest and most traditional is the annual Ride around the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) where, on a November Saturday morning, with the sea on their right, thousands of cyclists, both young and old, from all over the country congregate to complete the more demanding 65 km circuit to then relax and picnic with family and friends on the large lawns beside the lake.

Peddling Pleasure. Seen here some years ago at the One-to-One Charity Ride Round the Sea of Galilee in aid of children who were victims of terror attacks, is the writer (left) together with former South Africans living in Israel.

Israel offers a great choice of well mapped and marked cycling routes, many of which have been planned and executed by the local and regional authorities together with a growing number of volunteer enthusiasts. A Trans-Israel cycling path is also under development.

 In the Holy Land, the range and variety of landscape is unparalleled. My cycling buddy and I have been on challenging descents on the Golan Heights, climbed single tracks in the verdant and wooded Galilee and bounced over rocks in the arid and dusty Negev Desert. But what gives us even greater pleasure is watching the growing number of keen cyclists. In our well over two decades of pedaling, we have been witnesses to how once limited to a relatively small number of groupies; the sport has mushroomed into a national pastime.

Tough at the Top. The writer participating in a grueling assent of the majestic Golan Heights.

Cycling has also become firmly ensconced within the national consciousness.  We now proudly possess a national cycling team – Israel Start-Up Nation – that has successfully competed in many prestigious international events including the Giro d’Italia  and the legendary and grueling Tour de France. About two years ago, the team, dressed in their blue and white jerseys – the color of the Israeli flag – rode in a peloton across Israel and was greeted by enthusiastic and cheering crowds along the way. How do I know? I was among them!

From Jerusalem to Rome. Elia Viviani of Italy wins the 2nd stage of the Giro d’Italia, in Tel Aviv on May 5, 2018. ( Roy Alima/FLASH90)

With the aid of mass vaccinations and some public cooperation, Israel is now slowly emerging from the lockdown and attempting to return to a normalcy.

Hopefully, the road to full recovery will not only lead upward but also be full of fellow cyclists!  

Hello from Israel. There has been a “cycling revolution” in Israel in recent years with Israel Start-Up Nation / Israel Cycling Academy competing in both the Giro d ’Italia and the Tour de France.
 



About the writer:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Stephen-Schulman1.png

Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

A Brush with the Past

The brushstrokes of Nachum Gutman reflect and reveal Tel Aviv’s rich and colourful journey from sleepy city to the ‘city that never sleeps’.

By David E. Kaplan

The art of Nachum Gutman is a colourful and vibrant roadmap into the past. It offers a visual narrative of days gone; but also an understanding of where we are today. If we marvel at the creativity and unpredictability of Tel Aviv today, explore the art of this great artist to best understand this great city.

Window into the Past. A visual tapestry of early life in Tel Aviv at the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art in Neve Tzedek.

Located in Neve Tzedek – the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the walls of the ancient port of Jaffa – the location and setting of the Nachum Gutman Museum could not be more idyllic. Perched on the east end of the narrow cobbled Rokah Street, with its quaint old, restored homes and lined with trees, the area exudes the ambiance of an artist colony.

Blue and White. The colours of Israel emblaze the walls exhibiting life in the “First Modern Hebrew City” – Tel Aviv.

In this aesthetic locale, the Nachum Gutman Museum is at home. Comprised of two buildings, the main one houses Gutman’s permanent collection called Beit Hasofrim (Writer’s House). Built in 1887, “It was one of the first buildings in Neve Tzedek and is the oldest in the neighborhood,” says Monica Lavi, the Director and Chief Curator of the Nachum Gutman Museum, whom I met in the foyer of the site.

Bright and Beautiful. Interior of the Nahum Gutman Museum, Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv.

In the early years, Tel Aviv’s intellectuals favoured this new neighborhood,” says Lavi, “and Writers House acquired its name due to the impressive number of famous writers who lived here and gathered for literary meetings and discussions.” Such literary luminaries included the famed Jewish poet Hayim Bialik, S. Y. Agnon, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Joesph Aharonovitz, Dvora Baron, and Nachum Gutman’s father, a renowned Hebrew writer and educator who wrote under the pen name S. Ben Zion. The Gutmans too lived in this neighbourhood, “so Nachum grew up here, absorbing as a child the local lifestyle and intellectual culture of a young city on the move.”

Street Scene. Colourful life in Neve Tzedek where the artist grew up.

Between the years 1907 and 1914, the museum was home to the weekly newspaper, Hapoel Hatzair (The Young Worker), founded by A.D. GordonYosef Ahronowitz, and Yosef Sprinzak, that followed a Zionist socialist agenda and sought to establish a Jewish foothold in Palestine through personal labour in agriculture. “These pioneering idealists,” says Lavi, “were active from 1905 until 1930. So, as you can see, this building was an intellectual powerhouse, a natural home for the art and writings of Nachum Gutman whose art captured all the trends that were shaping the emerging nation.”

Visually Vibrant. A watercolor of ‘Figures in Neve Tzedek’ with the Mediterranean in the background.

We learn how intimate Gutman was to the historical sources from his contribution to the ‘Book of Tel Aviv’, which the Tel Aviv municipality commissioned his father, S. Ben-Zion, to write in honor of the city’s 25th anniversary. “Sometime after he began to work, S. Ben-Zion died,” says Lavi, “and the editing work was completed in 1936 by editor and translator A. Druyanov. Gutman produced eleven illustrations for the book, one of which was his father sitting and writing at night.”

As I reflect on Gutman’s father “sitting and writing at night”, I think of the lights of Tel Aviv’s commercial skyscrapers  – separated by a century – indicating the young and the ambitious, working well into the night.

After all, Tel Aviv is now known as the “City that never sleeps.”

‘Good Morning, Tel Aviv’. The artist capturing in this oil on canvas a new dawn in a young city.

Streetwise

The first work that greets the viewer is a large colourful painting of Tel Aviv. A juxtaposition of images, it captures its iconic architecture, its outdoors way of life and that it’s a coastal city. With the sea in the background and ships coming in to dock – this was still the age when the docks at Tel Aviv still operated – one can identify Allenby Street as it reaches the seashore. We see outdoor cafés with people sitting around tables on the sidewalks, chatting, reading and watching the passing show. This is quintessential Tel Aviv – a vibrant city with people on the move. In this sense, little has changed. Gutman captured the essence and spirit of a city that stands the test of time.

Tale about Transition. The pastoral and the urban mesh in an emerging Tel Aviv sprouting north of the ancient port of Jaffa  replete with ships at sea and ‘ships of the desert’ – camels.

I gravitated to a nearby computer screen where I waded through a most colourful compilation of Gutman’s paintings of Tel Aviv. All bright and expressive – the streets were bustling with honking cars, horse and donkey drawn carts, people standing around and talking in the middle of the streets ignoring the traffic. There were the residents of apartment blocks sitting sunbathing on rooftops reading newspapers, and in the distance in many of these paintings, one can see the port of Jaffa. The contrast from old and new Tel Aviv was startling. Relatively high-rise buildings in the foreground of a modern 1920s Tel Aviv with ancient minarets in old Jaffa in the far off background, convey the trajectory of a journey from the past to the future. Israel was changing and Gutman captured this transition in animation and vivid colours.

Family Man

Moving to a mock up of the artist’s studio with his original chair and upright easel, one’s eyes gravitate to a huge black and white photograph of the artist sitting on the same chair, hard at work painting on a large canvass on the same easel now on display. The alignment of props and photographs is such, that one ‘feel’s the artist’s physical presence as well as his close feelings towards his family: on the wall is a painting of his wife Dora, one of many on exhibit.

Room with a ‘Vision’. A recreation of the artist’s  studio  in the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art.

The writer then moved along a wall mostly taken up with oil paintings of Gutman’s only son Hemi sitting on his mother Dora’s lap. Preceding these is a self-portrait of the artist with Dora sitting on his lap as if a pleasing portend of what was to follow – son Hemi. In each painting, ‘baby Hemi’ is dressed in a different baby outfit as is his mother – the affection between mother and son is so emotively evident.

Cuddling Couple. Dora Gutman intimately seated on the lap of the artist.

Clearly, the artist was expressing himself as a loving family man. This sense was reinforced when curator Lavi explained some background to understating these paintings: “Nachum was twelve when his mother died and his father took another wife and left. Nachum was left with his grandparents who raised him so when he became a family man, he painted over and over again his wife and child, as if to show that he was the father that his own father was not.” The titles speak for themselves:

Dora, Hemi and a toy’, ‘Dora with Hemi on her lap’, ‘Sleeping baby (Hemi)’ and so on.

Mother and Child. The artist’s wife Dora and son Hemi.

He wanted to show through his art,” said Lavi that “he was a loving husband and father, and that the family was united.”

Looking Back

Ascending the stairwell between landings in the museum, I notice a large Gutman self-portrait standing before his easel but looking back over his shoulder, towards the viewer. It’s a powerful painting, all the more so when one understands that the artist was constantly in a retrospective mode. He was painting not so much what he was seeing in the present but what he remembered of the past.

‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. A relaxed Nahum Gutman reclining in a chair.

It is easy to forget that Gutman was only 11 years old when Tel Aviv was founded,” says Lavi. “Apart from one immature drawing, we have no childhood sketches by Gutman depicting the city. Even in that single sketch we see the houses in a built up street and not virgin sands. The Ahuzat Bayit and Tel Aviv that we know from his paintings and stories are all from memory, from his knowledge and historical materials. They were painted when he was in his thirties, decades after the city was established.” For this reason, explains Lavi, “when we tried to organize his body of work chronologically, we discovered that it was hard to arrange along a timeline. What we had believed to be an early work was actually a later one. His own adventures, together with historical events were written many years later and were based on written sources, and what seems as if it might have been painted as an observer at the time of an event, was actually painted from memory.”

Dreaming on the Dunes. A city founded on sand dunes north of Jaffa in 1909, Nahum Gutman’s idealistic impression of a sun soaked Tel Aviv depicting icons of the Zionist enterprise.

Out of Africa

There were once few children in Israel unfamiliar with Nachum Gutman’s illustrated book ‘Lobengulu, King of the Zulu’. It was written during his visit to South Africa in 1934 when he was sent by the Municipality of Tel Aviv to paint a portrait of General Jan Smuts, who would later emerge as that country’s Prime Minister and a great supporter for a Jewish national homeland. The book in Hebrew was serialised in 1935-6 and became a children’s bestseller. Apart from the many prizes Gutman won for both art and literature – for over 30 years he was also the illustrator for the ‘Davar for Children’ newspaper – he was awarded in 1978 the country’s most prestigious civilian award, the Israel Prize for children’s literature.

Out of the Wild. The front cover of ‘In the Land of Lobengulu, King of Zulu’, Nahum Gutman’s popular book about his adventures in Africa (Courtesy Nahum Gutman).

In the museum there is a room dedicated to Lobengulu King of the Zulu, which is an adventure story, written in the first person, of the author and his friends searching for the treasure of the Zulu king. While they fail to discover treasure, the author does discover in his first of many books, something far more enriching – the ability to reach the minds and hearts of children; especially at a time when they needed an infusion of faraway fantasy.

Explains Lavi:

 “It was during the turbulent thirties. The Arab Revolt in British Mandate Palestine was in full swing, and Gutman provided with pen and brush a valuable service by taking the minds of young children away from disturbing events in their daily lives to a land far removed, where they could indulge their imagination in adventure and fantasy.”

The room is replete with colourful paintings of tribal and wild life in Africa, set in forests, mountains, open veld and rivers, crocodiles, elephants, monkeys and hippos engage the viewer. “The kids love this room,” says Lavi who is most proud of the museum’s commitment to children’s education in art.

Adventure in Africa. Artist, writer and illustrator, Nachum Gutman brings the mystique of Africa to the Jewish children of Palestine with his popular ‘In the Land of Lobengulu, King of Zulu’. (Courtesy)

The wondrous warm character of the artist is revealed here not by his brush but by his pen:

“Have you ever paid attention to how much the word tzayar (painter) is similar to the word tzayad (hunter)?
When I was a boy, I wanted to be a hunter,
And even now I’m a kind of hunter. I have the character of a hunter.
Not to kill the animal,
But to capture its soul on the canvas.”

Hello Hemi

Noting my interest in the many paintings of the artist’s wife and their child Hemi – all painted in the 1930s – Lavi asked: “Would you like to interview Hemi, he is a professor emeritus biophysics at Tel Aviv University?” I jumped at the opportunity, and Hemi was no less excited: “visitors are a museum’s oxygen,” he expressed at the beginning of the interview.

What was it like growing up in the Gutman household?” I asked the retired professor, who until then I only knew as a toddler on his mother’s lap.

It was like living with a legend. While on the one hand he was a normal father, I was constantly fascinated by what he was doing.” Smiling he adds, “I think I was a little jealous at times. I remember thinking that he was so busy writing, painting, and meeting important people that he was spending too little time with me.” He agreed that in a way he is destined to spend all eternity with his illustrious father being immortalized in so many of his paintings.

Age of Reflection. The artist in later life.

While Gutman immigrated with his parents to Eretz-Israel in 1905 at the age of seven, he was truly a product of his new environment “and as a student, he soon rebelled against the European style of painting at the Bezalel Art Academy,” said Hemi. “When my father attended Bezalel, all the teachers there were of European descent, and their entire treatment of subject matter was based on European landscapes and even on European lighting. Dad’s group rebelled; believing that the different landscapes in Israel, one in which summer days are often gray and filled with blinding light from dust, required a new and different treatment.”

In this way, Gutman was the leading ‘light’ – the operative word – in creating a uniquely Israeli style of art.

Before Gutman, “there was no such thing as Israeli art,” says curator Lavi. “Yes, you could say there was Jewish art and Judaica would fall into this category, but no Israeli art as such.  This would be left to Nachum Gutman – one of the first children to live in Tel Aviv and one of the first students at Bezalel. His contribution to Israel’s culture is immeasurable.”

1912 Overture

I concluded the visit by staring at a huge photograph taken of an art class of aspiring students at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. The year was 1912 and the students in the class, all fourteen of them, are painting while their teacher, Abel Pann appears in the front right corner, sketching. The large photograph appeared to me like an orchestra practicing with the teacher at the head looking like a conductor.

Artist on his Way. While many in this 1912 art class at Bezalel Academy of Art turn to face the photographer, Gutman, seated at the back, remains transfixed on his canvass.

Seated in the back of this ‘composition’ was the emerging ‘maestro’ Nachum Gutman immersed in his work. While many in the class turn to face the photographer, Gutman’s eyes remained transfixed on the canvass in front of him, too busy capturing others to be concerned with others capturing him.

With each brushstroke, the young student was on his way to become the founding figure of Israeli art.





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (O&EO).

Beauty and the Beach

An architectural masterpiece  on Tel Aviv’s coastline canvas will enhance the city among the leading cultural capitals of the world

By David E. Kaplan

It is said that the 21st century is destined to be the century of cities rather than countries. This forecast is evident in the vocabulary of today’s tourists –  at least before Corona –  of visiting Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg or Shanghai rather than mentioning the countries in which they are situated – France, Spain, Russia or China!

Down by the Riverside. On the banks of the Yarkon River and a few steps from the sea, Tel Aviv’s future World’s Jewish Museum.

More than half the world’s population has already moved to cities and this is expected to rise to 80% by the middle of this century. With so many cities vying for center stage, Tel Aviv is now going beyond its branding of being the “Bauhaus Capital of the World” – reflecting early 20th century clean, utilitarian architecture – to an uncertain and exciting future of flirtations and fluctuations. This has given rise to one of the most poignant descriptions of Tel Aviv as a city “waking up each morning and deciding what it’s going to be.” The  new spectacular sculptures ascending to the heavens across the Tel Aviv landscape,  attest to this branding and in a few short years’ time, there will be a major addition that encapsulates the city’s essence and affirms its rising global status. That addition will be the new  World’s Jewish Museum designed by the legendary award-winning Canadian-born American architect – Frank Gehry, whose masterpieces have disrupted the very meaning of design within architecture. These “disruptions”  are powerfully projected in such monumental works as the La Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

It was hoped before the Corona pandemic that this world-scale museum, cultural and entertainment center would have been completed before May 2023, in time for the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. However, when completed, the World’s Jewish Museum on the 22-dunam (5.5-acre) site overlooking the Mediterranean along the bank of the Yarkon River at the northwestern edge of Hayarkon Park and steps from the Namal ( Port of Tel Aviv), will be the hub of cultural and recreational activity and the heart of the city’s vibrant waterfront.

Marvel on the Med. Adjacent to the Medetrrnean and the Hayarkon Park that attracts over 15 million visitors a year,  a model of Tel Aviv’s  World’s Jewish Museum.

While engendering great excitement, there are however, those that remind us that society cries out with so many pressing needs from education and health to socio-economic inequalities and criticize the need for such expansive and expensive adventures.

There is however a strong counter argument.

Look to Bilbao in Spain and what Gehry achieved for the status of that city and just as important – the benefit for Bilbao’s citizens!  

From Bilbao to Tel Aviv

Architects and city developers talk about the “Bilbao Effect” referring to the “WOW factor” that followed the opening in 1997 of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in northern Spain. From being a lack-luster industrial city totally off the tourist’s map, Bilbao emerged virtually overnight as one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Frank Gehry’s stunning monumental structure hailed as “one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture” and which the late esteemed architect, Philip Johnson, called “the greatest building of our time”, rapidly reversed the city’s fortunes which had fallen victim to an industrialization that had either aged or moved elsewhere. Within the first year, the museum with its distinctive titanium curves and soaring glass atrium attracted over 1,300,000 visitors exceeding all expectations and infusing $160 million into the local economy. In its first five years, the Museum generated more than a billion US dollars for the Basque country, more than ten times the museum’s cost. Whatever the staggering costs of financing alluring cultural magnets, the returns far exceeded the outlay. Widely credited in putting Bilbao on the map, Gehry’s masterpiece has subsequently inspired other iconic structures around the world, which will soon be joined by the World’s Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv.

Maestra and Masterpiece. Famed architect Frank Gehry with a model of the future World’s Jewish Museum in his office.

Back to the Roots

It may at first seem strange that Gehry, who doesn’t identify as Jewish, took on a uniquely Jewish project in the Jewish homeland?

His explanation is a long journey – nearly as complex as his architectural designs, but it includes this admission:

 “There’s a curiosity built into the Jewish culture. I grew up under that. My grandfather read Talmud to me. That’s one of the Jewish things I hang on to probably— that philosophy from that religion. Which is separate from God. It’s more ephemeral. I was brought up with that curiosity. I call it a healthy curiosity. Maybe it is something that the religion has produced. I don’t know. It’s certainly a positive thing.”

What intrigues the architect  – who was born Frank Goldberg – is that “The Talmud starts with the word ‘WHY’.”

So little surprise that on the model of the museum sitting in Gehry’s offices, the word Lamah (“why” in Hebrew) is carved into one of the buildings, although the architect remains usure whether it will be included in the final construction.  

 Reframing the Jewish Narrative and Showcasing Achievement. Gail Asper holding a World’s Jewish Museum folder in the Frank Gehry-designed Galleria Italia at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in March, 2018. (Photo by Etye Sarner).

Fellow Canadian Gail Asper of the Asper Foundation – the visionary behind the museum – explains that “The site will have the greatest story that’s never been told about the Jewish people. It will celebrate the joys not the oys. The museum is more about how Jewish values have transformed and improved the world.” 

For Asper, having Gehry bring her vision to fruition “is like hearing angels sing,” she says. “Frank immediately loved the vision. I know that beautiful architecture inspires the soul and Frank designs incredibly breathtaking, inspiring buildings. I love Bilbao. I love the Disney Concert Hall. I love what he does. And for all the countries in the world to not have some extraordinary breathtaking Frank Gehry building, Israel absolutely deserves that. And Israelis deserve that. They put up with an awful lot living in Israel. They pay high taxes. They’re dodging rockets, even in Tel Aviv.” 

Inside Story. An artist’s impression of the inside of the World’s Jewish Museum Tel Aviv.

The Museum will provide a cutting-edge, educational and inspirational experience that explores the contributions that Judaism, the Jewish people and Israel have made to civilization in numerous fields over the past 3,500 years, from the Bible to enterprise, science, education, culture and social justice. Says Gehry:

Most of the buildings until this point to represent Jewish causes and issues have included the Holocaust  because that was such a searing, burning, terrible issue in our lives. This museum will really be about celebrating the achievements of this culture over time, and some of it is extraordinary, and a lot of it has not been told as it will be in this museum.”

Shape of things to Come

Gehry is passionate about restoring art back into architecture. He laments that “a lot of the world no longer considers architects as artists. So I think what’s needed is architects who are artists.” Historically, he asserts, “architecture was considered an art”, but that changed following WWII when “it got mixed up with other issues like commercial developers.” In the aftermath, a debate has persisted over whether architecture is an art or just the creation of a solid structure for the benefit of society.  For Gehry it is both as we will one day see and be bedazzled by the allure of his first building in Israel, Tel Aviv’s World’s Jewish Museum. Israelis and tourists from abroad will visit the museum to see the building  as much as its exhibits within. The packaging will be no less fascinating than its contents. This was the case of Bilbao.

Taste of Tel Aviv to Be. Gail Asper with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, center, and Moe Levy, executive director of the Asper Foundation in Winnipeg. (Courtesy)

Alluring Architecture

Since the Bilbao success –  a deliberate choice in using contemporary high-profile architecture as a tourist draw card – the term, ‘Architourism’ has gained currency. There is no doubting the seductive value of these highly photogenic and iconic buildings  to lure visitors. Apart from Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, one has only to think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Danish architect, Jørn Utzon’s Opera House in Sydney, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and Cesar Pelli’s Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur that has featured in movies and TV productions, most notably the film Entrapment, where the building ‘starred’ alongside the late Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones.

The building was no less the star of the show!

There is no denying the power of man-made marvels capturing people’s imagination. From ionic structures in ancient times such as the Acropolis and Colosseum to the more  modern examples such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Empire State Building, all achieved celebrity status as powerful visual metaphors of their cities. Imaginative architecture brands a city to lure visitors and commerce.

Success of Structure. Hardly any other city has benefited from a museum as much as Bilbao. The Guggenheim Museum has made Bilbao so alluring that it attracts millions of tourists annually  from all over the world.

In a few years, adding to this illustrious list of iconic global edifices, will be Frank Gehry’s World’s Jewish Museum that will further lift Tel Aviv to new prominence in the world of contemporary design.

I marveled at this thought when last Friday morning, I stared at the vacant sight where construction has yet to begin and with the model of the museum in my mind, thought  of Tel Aviv’s exciting tomorrows.


World’s Jewish Museum architect and visionary Frank Gehry discusses his vision for the design of the building.






While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs

Tel Aviv on Track

Tracking history, City launches new railway park

By David E. Kaplan

While the city of Tel Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa) is never boring – known as “the city that never sleeps” – boring is exactly what is happening in Tel Aviv these days as the city works on constructing its underground railway.  They even roped in the spirit of Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir, for the formidable task by officially naming one of the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM) – “GOLDA”. While the endearing characteristics of  the “strong-willed, straight-talking grey-bunned grandmother of the Jewish people” takes on all that stands in her subterranean way, on the surface, the city’s landscape is being enriched with a special park memorialising  its colourful railway legacy.

Railtrack to Footpath. Park Hamesila (“Train Track Park”) meanders through downtown Tel Aviv with Jaffa in the background.

Located in the southwestern part of the city between the trendy Neve Tzedek quarter and Eilat Street in the vicinity of the historic German Templer neighbourhood of Valhalla, stands the new Park Hamesila. In Hebrew, the “Train Track Park”, it is named for the first railway between Jaffa and Jerusalem, which was inaugurated in 1892.

Past and Present. A train powered by a steam locomotive on the railroad tracks in Tel Aviv in 1945 (left). Park Hamesila (the tracks park) in Tel Aviv, seen from the air in 2020.(Zoltan Kluger and Tomer Applebaum)

Due to the current Corona virus lockdown, the first stretch of the park has not been formally dedicated, although many members of the public have flocked there in recent weeks.

Taking a walk in this park is a stroll down memory lane as one recalls its fascinating history.

Off the Beaten track

Buried by urbanisation and long forgotten by modern day Tel Avivians, the past has now come alive on a revived track that once steam locomotives, transported merchants, tourists, pilgrims and visiting dignitaries and statesmen from the ancient port of Jaffa to the ancient city of Jerusalem. Today, this same stretch is abuzz with joggers, cyclists, parents pushing prams and the most common site of Tel Aviv, the dog and its beloved owner.

Early Days. Constructing the original railway line in Jaffa in the late nineteenth century.

In 1913, some 180,000 passengers passed on this stretch of track on route to Jerusalem. An illuminating thought is that of inflation. A beer or ice-cream today would cost more than a first-class ticket back then – that is, 50 grush (cents) for a special cabin and 30 grush for a second-class ticket.

Not all however, were impressed with the service!

Hemda Ben-Yehuda writing in the ‘HaZvi’ newspaper in 1907 was one unhappy traveler accusing the developers of “scrimping”:

The really terrible thing, is that the railway is lacking a number of truly necessary things. Where, for example, is the drinking water in the railcars… ashtrays for cigarette ash? And last but not least, where, I respectfully inquire, is the lavatory?”

A far more intellectually elevated assessment of the railway was that of another Ben-Yehuda – the esteemed  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) – the celebrated reviver of Hebrew as a modern language.

During its initial construction, Ben-Yehuda, who saw the laying of the track as a symbol of the victory of enlightenment, and who coined the Hebrew word for train, “rakevet’, wrote in his newspaper Ha’or the following:

The roar of the engine is the roar of the victory of education over ignorance, work over sloth, wisdom over vanity, progress over backwardness, the mind over foolishness, a victory of the pure and health-giving spirit over the spirit of polarization and bitterness, a victory of the educated over the foolish. Let those who are enlightened rejoice, the educated of Jerusalem!”

Not too far from this new park, is HaTachana, the city’s first train station. Hidden from the public eye for well over half a century, HaTachana, was reopened in 2010 to the public. Situated between the fashionable Neve Tzedek neighbourhood and the alluring Mediterranean Sea, the historic train station complex is again bustling – a main junction no more for travelers but for revelers, out for a good time at HaTachana’s pubs, restaurants and boutique shops.

Trip Down Memory Lane. Nineteenth century Jaffa railway station and tracks restored.

The idea to lay railway tracks in Palestine was initially proposed by the Jewish British financier, banker and philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore back in 1839, after the first public railway was constructed in England. In order to develop modern industry, Montefiore was well aware that a major hurdle was the lack of suitable transport for machinery and raw materials – hence a modern railway was the obvious solution. However, negotiating with the Ottoman Turks for a license proved a bureaucratic nightmare and took a further 51 years for the first track to be laid on the 82-km long route from Jaffa to Jerusalem. Montefiore, for whom Israel is so indebted for his contribution to much of its development in the 19th century, would not live to see the fruits of his vision. The license to build was finally awarded in 1888 by the Turkish Sultan, Abel el-Hamid to Yossef Navon who was able to raise the necessary capital from Europe in order to lay the tracks and build the stations. It was close to a four-hour ride and when that first train rolled into Jerusalem to the welcoming applause of local residents, it heralded a new age of modern transportation.

Staying on Track. The path for pedestrians follows  the nineteenth century tracks  that  connected the ancient port of Jaffa with the ancient city of Jerusalem.

It operated continuously until 1948, and then started up again in 1952 under the ownership of Israel Railways, which inaugurated its first ride with a sack of cement, a bag of flour and a Torah scroll, symbolizing physical and spiritual sustenance as well as industry.

A Walk in the Park

An Appeal that Fell on Deaf Ears. Theodore Herzl meets Kaiser Willem II in Jerusalem.

Well, on the day I visited the new park, I felt that my fellow strollers, needed very much that “physical and spiritual sustenance” feeling the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown. It was invigorating being out and stretching the limbs.  It was no less invigorating letting the mind too “wander” and I wandered back to the late 19th century, reflecting on two particular passengers on the train on the very track I was now walking – the visionary of the State of the State of Israel, Theodor Hertzl and the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II. Within days of each they both travelled on the train in 1898 from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

Each had their own reasons to visit Jerusalem.

In the autumn of 1898, the Kaiser announced his intention to journey to the Holy Land. The declared reason for this grand state visit was to dedicate Jerusalem’s Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, scheduled to open on October 31, the German holiday of Reformation Day. Undeclared however, was the Kaiser’s desire to strengthen the German presence in the Holy Land, and forge closer ties with the Ottoman Empire against England, France and Russia.

Serene Setting. Ottoman-era railway becomes Tel Aviv’s newest park.

Political manoeuvering was no less the intention of Herzl!

The father of modern political Zionism secretly left Vienna to travel to the Holy Land to meet with one man –  the Kaiser, who had taken the earlier train with his wife and entourage from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

The reason Herzl wanted to meet the German Kaiser was to request  if he would ask the sultan – with whom he was in good terms with –  to consider granting to the Jews a chartered company in Palestine under German protection. Herzl had a persuasive argument that would be of interests to all parties. Most important – it would have laid the ‘TRACK’ towards a future Jewish state.

History records the Kaiser made no such promises to Herzl!

A Golda Moment. The Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM), “Golda”, getting ready to go to work. (Photo: Motti Kimchi)

Maybe it would have been better for Germany if he had. Instead of  supporting Jewish statehood, the Kaiser tied his country’s destiny with that of the Ottoman empire that would lead to both their defeat in the Great War (1914 –1918) and the path to the British Mandate and eventual state of Israel in 1948.

History has interesting twists and turns as I followed the park’s no less twisting and turning track.

With no thoughts of the distant past, some very animated kids passed me on scooters careering happily into the future.

Under the Surface. At the ceremony marking the start of work on Tel Aviv’s Metro Red Line (Photo: Motti Kimchi)





While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs