Where is the first “White House” of Israel?

This  house — at 46 Ben Maimon in Rehavia, Jerusalem — was  the first official residence of the prime ministers of the State of  Israel. (Photo  by Benny Powers). Image

David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Golda Meir  lived in this  house between the  years 1949  to 1974.  They lived  here during all the major ups and downs of the  first quarter of a century of the State of Israel. Perhaps one would expect  something more grand like  the  official residence  of the leader of Denmark  in  Copenhagen, Imageor any of the official  residences of world leaders, all of which are more impressive  than this house.

Well, the  Israeli house is understated, which says something about the modesty of our founding fathers and mothers, and Israeli society in general.

The kitchen of this house became famous during Golda Meir’s time. ImageShe would invite the inner circle of Cabinet members  over for strategy meetings. She  would bake a cake, serve  tea and coffee, and they would all plan how they would  relate  to the larger  cabinet the  next day. Because they met in the kitchen, it became known as the  “Kitchen Cabinet” (or  in Hebrew, the Mitbachon) a term used in Israeli politics  since  then and including Netanyahu’s  government today.

When we look  more closely at the  architecture of this house, we can see  there’s something  unusual  about it. On the one hand, it has the plain white plaster and lack of ornamentation of the  Bauhaus style that was brought  to Israel by German  Jewish  architects  fleeing the rise of the Nazis to power in the 1930s. On  the other hand, it  has classical Roman or  Byzantine style arches.  It  seems that the architect, Benjamin Chaiken who designed this house, and Richard Kaufman, who  designed the  neighborhood  of Rehavia, were trying  to develop a new style for Jerusalem when they built this house,  blending the ancient with the modern.  ImageYou’ll notice that the wall and guard  house were not part of the original design.  (Photo  by Benny Powers).  The house was first owned  by Julius and Nechama  Jacobs. Julius  was a  clerk in the British Mandate  government and was killed in 1947 in the ongoing  skirmishes between Jews, Arabs and the British. On December 5th,1949, Ben Gurion declared that Jerusalem was the Eternal Capital of the Jewish  people, and as such  the government would move immediately to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv where  it  had been during the War of Independence. This house  was  the most logical choice  for the Prime Minister’s residence. Why? It was already in the hands of  the Jewish  Agency (it had been leased  from the Jacobs family), it was  in the  neighborhood  of the Jewish Agency and many Zionist  leaders, and it was on the corner. So, it  was easy to  just build a security wall and booth for a guard  in  order  to secure  the house for  the Prime Minister.

Paula Ben Gurion was known for being more concerned  that  the guard had a good meal than was actually guarding, so she often invited him in to eat with them. In 1974, when Yitzchak  Rabin was  elected Prime Minister, Leah Rabin  came to  see the  house. She felt  it was  in poor condition, so the Rabins  requested a different residence. The official  Prime Minister’s residence was then moved  to  a house  down the  street where Bibi  Netanyahu lives today. While this original house is not a spectacular piece of  architecture, it  is certainly an important part of the  history of the State of Israel.

P.S. So, what is happening with the house today? A few  weeks  ago, some  protestors broke  in  to the house to  continue  the summer protests regarding lack of affordable housing in Israel…but  that’s another story. There  were ideas about 10  years  ago to turn it into a museum for Levy Eshkol, but  the funds weren’t  raised.  The current plan  is  turn it  into a  beautiful apartment building which will retain some aspects of the  original house as a memorial.

© 2011, Lisa (Leah) Bowman. All Rights Reserved.

Walking tours in Jerusalem: http://www.jerusalemwalkingtour.com



Think about Eilat this Passover

Purim  is  here, and it’s almost Springtime.  What a wonderful time for a “virtual visit” to Eilat at the Southern tip of Israel. The weather in Eilat in Spring is perfect, the sea is glittering, and the mountains such as Mt. Shlomo (named after King Solomon) are standing royally around the

coastal city of Eilat.In March 1949, a remarkable event took place right here in  Eilat. 

Today, this a courtyard on the sea in a busy, modern Eilat with a statue of a group of Israeli soldiers.  Back then, it was the location of a  British Mandate outpost. But the British had left Israel on May 15, 1948. So when the Israelis arrived in March 49, it had been abandoned. There was no one, and nothing around as far as the eye could see; just sand, mountains, and the deep blue, Red Sea.

The soldiers  were sent to mark a Jewish  presence  to ensure that  the land promised to  the Jews in the  United Nations partition plan (back on November  29, 1947), would in fact  be in Israeli hands when the armistice agreements were signed with Israel’s  neighbors.

The desert  terrain had been difficult. There were no clear maps of the area (except some arial photos taken by the British), and no modern roads. A plane  flew over the soldiers jeeps, and on one occasion had  to throw down a stone with a note attached telling them they were going  the wrong way!

When the soldiers finally arrived at the Red Sea, they were exhilarated to have arrived. This was the final movement of troops in the War of Independence. They had reached their destination. The State of Israel had been born less than a year before, and this was the final stage of establishing the borders.

What should one do at such a moment?

Well, they wanted to fly  the Israeli flag, but being a new country in the middle of a war, they didn’t have one with them, so they took some white cloth, a blue marker  and the star of David from their first aid bag,  and they made their own  flag (Israel  can be so modest). The flagpole was a bit rusty, so a group of soldiers  held the pole  while one climbed  up  to fly the flag.  He said it  was hard to climb up that pole, but 2000  years of Jewish hopes to  return to the Land of Israel lifted him up to the top.

After raising the flag, the soldiers all jumped in the Red Sea to enjoy a  swim. And they wrote a telegram: We are the first Jews since Moses to jump in the Red Sea.

© 2011, Lisa (Leah) Bowman. All Rights Reserved.

Walking tours in Jerusalem: http://www.jerusalemwalkingtour.com


The Great Jews of Tzfat Welcoming us Back Home

The Tzfat Cemetery…

In Hebrew, Tzfat  means to “look  out.” What does Tzfat  look out  at? Tzfat looks out over the present, at  the grand mountains of  the Galilee which look like  waves  (galim  in Hebrew).  It looks out to the  future, according to Jewish tradition,  asking each  visitor and the Jewish people as a whole to think about where we are going. And, Tzfat looks out over the  past, to some great  people of our heritage in the ancient cemetery of Tzfat.

On our last trip to Tzfat, our ten-year-old son became  so fascinated  by the cemetery that he walked down there several times on his own. His excitement inspired me to think about it more deeply. I asked him why he was so attracted to the place, and he  said that he said couldn’t explain it. Something just drew him there. Perhaps he was fascinated by the blue paint on some of the tombstones.  Blue is a very inviting color, even for a cemetery. Blue is the color of the sea and the color  of the  sky;  it’s a  spiritual color, the color of eternity.  Or maybe, he was amazed to see names of famous 16th century Rabbis he  had  learned about in school and tours of Tzfat  such as The Ari, the well-known kabbalist; Rabbi Yosef Karo, the great writer of works of  Jewish  law; and Rabbi  Alkabetz, known for writing Lecha Dodi which just about every  Jewish  congregation in the world now sings  on Friday nights to welcome Shabbat. Our son was definitely intrigued by the famous mikvah (ritual bath) of the Ari where many have braved the freezing waters for a Tzfat experience they will always remember.

Throughout the Land of Israel, we have many of these blue-painted monuments. One  will usually see some religious-looking people stationed nearby them looking intently into their  books, whispering something, and rocking back and forth.  When  the people aren’t there, piles of used tea-light candles inform us that they have been there, and that more of  them  will be arriving soon to look in their books,  whisper something, and rock back and forth.

But visiting these places wasn’t always just for those inclined towards candle-lighting, praying and the like. In fact, visiting graves of our ancestors was one of the main ways in which travelers throughout the last  number of centuries would connect  to the history and land.  Remember that many places that visitors see as essential to their trip  to Israel only came into  existence since the State of  Israel  was  born. Some have only become accessible in the last 20 years. Who  could ever  have  conceived  of an underwater aquarium in  Eilat, the Israel Musuem, or Independence  Hall  in Tel Aviv before  the State  of Israel  was established? The  Western Wall tunnels, the  City of David,  Masada, and many ancient  synagogues  in the Galilee were covered in dirt, rubble, and weeds  until recent times. The Western Wall  plaza was only a narrow passageway until 1967 and for many of the last 2,000 years was inaccessible  to  Jews. When Jews  would want to see  meaningful sites in the Land of  Israel, they would  go  to  ancient graves.

The  poem  Tikvatanu — which  was  written in 1878 at the  time of the establishment of Petach Tikvah and which  later became the basis for the national anthem HaTikvah  –describes how “throngs of country men still pay homage at  the  graves of our fathers.”

I think that these visitors, and perhaps also our son, were just drawn to be  near their ancestors much in the same way that one would visit the cemetery of one’s  great-grandparents  when going back to one’s family’s home town…just needing to connect to the past, and needing the  past to welcome them home.

© 2012, Lisa (Leah) Bowman. All Rights Reserved.

Walking tours in Jerusalem: http://www.jerusalemwalkingtour.com