Freedom Under Siege: The Last Seder in Kfar Etzion

How can one celebrate the festival of freedom, with the clear knowledge that your life or liberty will be taken from you in just a few days? The Seder night of 1948 was one of the last nights of freedom for those in besieged Gush Etzion, but this fact did not prevent the isolated group of men from creating the most celebratory atmosphere possible under the circumstances.

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The Nebi Daniel convoy, the last convoy to leave the besieged Gush Eztion, and the agenda for the last Seder. Image courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

On the 14th of Nissan (April 23), the eve of Passover 1948, the defenders of Gush Etzion knew that their fate was sealed – and that if they stayed where they were, they would die. They were surrounded by Arab villages which served as bases for the Arab Legion, a Jordanian military force that outmatched them by orders of magnitude. Efforts to reinforce the settlement bloc had failed, and a plane meant to land there on Passover eve was forced to turn back due to thick fog.

Most of the women and children had been sent just to Jerusalem, just north of Gush Etzion, several months earlier. The last few women had left more recently. The men remaining there had all the reasons in the world to become mired in despair: their personal situation was hopeless, they missed their wives and children (some of whom, having been born in Jerusalem, they had yet to meet) and were worried about them. After all, Jerusalem was also under blockade and anything but a safe place.

Family in Kfar Etzion, part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. Photo courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

Shlomo Garnak ob”m shared the mixed feelings they felt with his wife:

“We’re planning here for the Passover holiday. But I lack the sense of a holiday eve. When they put together a plan for guard shifts on the Seder night, I said I don’t care if I guard from 6 in the evening or 8 or 10. If you and the children are not here – celebrations are far from my mind. And still we must overcome and not let despair and bitterness control us. We especially must not arouse grief and sadness during the holiday.”

They were a wonderful mixture of the diversity of Jews present in the Land of Israel at that time – Holocaust survivors who’d just arrived to the Promised Land, Israeli sabras who consciously chose to take part in establishing new communities in one of the most dangerous locations in the country, and volunteers who came to support their efforts.

The quiet before the storm: the trees planted in Kfar Etzion, before the war began. Picture courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

This home, which they’d just started building but a few years before, turned into a military camp before their very eyes: holes formed by shells adorned the walls of the white houses, cow dairies were turned into weapons storage facilities, and playgrounds became fortified positions.

Endless debates accompanied the decision to stay in the bloc, which lay outside the territory assigned to the Jewish State in the UN partition plan. They fought not to save themselves, as the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc (Kfar Etzion, Revadim, Masu’ot Yitzhak, and Ein Tzurim) were at this point clearly beyond rescue, but rather to give hope to besieged Jerusalem, by keeping the Arab Legion busy to the south, and preventing if from invading the Jewish neighborhoods of the Holy City.

It was in this atmosphere that the holiday arrived.

Agenda for the last Seder night. Courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

Between standing guard and caring for the wounded, the men found the time to decorate the collective dining room in Kfar Etzion. Spring-themed landscape pictures were hung and flower pots spread out throughout the room, adorned by verses from the Song of Songs – “the vineyard has flowered, the nascent fruit has opened,” “the buds have been seen in the land.” The courtyard, neglected since the beginning of the siege, was cleaned up and organized. The customs of Passover eve were adhered to in full, despite the void left behind by the children who had left.

“This morning we held a siyum masechet [celebratory ceremony for completing the learning of a Talmudic tractate], in which the “first born” took part [the ceremony allowing them to eat rather than adhere to the traditional fast for first born on Passover eve]. I also participated, in the name of our eldest son. There were cakes and drinks. The happy news encouraged us and excited us until we went out to dance. And now everyone is rushing to finish the last meal of chametz [leavened bread and grain food, forbidden on Passover].”

(Letter from Akiva Galdenauer ob”m to his wife in Jerusalem)

“I just finished bedikat chametz [ceremonial check for chametz to ensure none is present for the holiday]. Yair my son was not with me, and there was no-one to hold the candle. In these days, I miss you most. But the encouraging news of our victory in Haifa [most of the city of Haifa fell to Jewish forces a few days before] sweetens the suffering of detachment. Perhaps we are close to victory. True, we have no illusions that the war will end quickly. But the recognition that our strength is with us to acquire our state with God’s help, immunizes us in these grim and dark days.”

(Letter of Shmuel Arazi ob”m)

As evening came, a holiday prayer was conducted at Neveh Ovadyah – an impressive stone house, less than two years old, which served as the central beit midrash or house of religious learning in Gush Etzion, after which everyone gathered for the Passover Seder – the religious kibbutz members together with the Nebi Daniel Convoy drivers and members who remained there.

Neveh Ovadyah, the building serving as the religious and communal center of Kfar Etzion, where holiday prayers took place. Picture courtesy of the Dov Knohl Gush Etzion Historical Archive

The traditional Haggadah, which now took on a new and contemporary significance, was peppered with newly written Zionist texts.

“Every so often, a [Kfar Etzion] member got up and read from the works of our time, things related to the project we are defending. The whole group joyously sang passages which have become popular during Eztion Passovers.”

From the diary of Yaakov Edelstein, Kfar Etzion member

Between the song Vehi She’amda [a song about how enemies seek to eliminate the Jews in every generation] and the tune Betzeit Yisra’el Mimitzrayim, [“When Israel Left Egypt”] passages from the poems by Yitzhak Lamdan (Mitzpeh Beyehudah) and Uri Tzvi Grinberg (Hayakar Mikol Yakar) were read aloud. When they came to the verse “And I pass over by you, and I see you trodden down in your blood, and I say to you in your blood, Live!” they read passages from Shalom Karniel’s article – “In Your Blood, Live.”

Tzvi Lifshitz, one of the participants in the Seder, described the scene:

“there was some excitement when the door opened and everyone got up and excitedly called out ‘Pour Your fury on the nations who have not known You’– all the humanistic hesitations which accompanied the reading of these verses in previous years were now rejected. The blood of our dear friends, who fell in defense of the Gush and in the War of Liberation throughout the country, demanded revenge.”

Later, when they reached the song “Next Year in Rebuilt Jerusalem,” most of the members got up in a wild dance. But some remained to sit with a bowed head round the table – they could not dance as they remembered their friends and the members of the convoys who had come to save them, who did not get to sit with them now around the Seder table.

The relative quiet which enabled this Passover celebration did not last. The attacks on Gush Etzion renewed already during the holiday, with one of the fiercest battles taking place ten days after the Seder was held. On the 4th of the month of Iyyar, the day before Israeli independence was declared, the last of the defenders surrendered. Some were massacred by Arab forces, and the others were taken into captivity in Jordan.

The Knesset would later mark the day Gush Etzion fell as the Memorial Day for all the fallen of Israel’s various wars and conflicts.

“…I do not know of a more glorious, tragic and heroic struggle in all the valiant battles of the Israel Defense Forces than that of Gush Etzion…Their sacrifice, more than any other war effort, saved Jerusalem… The Gush Etzion campaign is the great and terrible epic of the Jewish war… If a Hebrew Jerusalem exists… the gratitude of Jewish history goes first and foremost to the fighters of Gush Etzion.”

 From a speech by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, 1949

Who Is the Empty Chair at the Passover Seder Intended for?

Along with the ancient tradition of leaving an empty chair on the Seder Night for Elijah the Prophet, a modern Zionist tradition has developed in which we leave an empty chair for our loved ones who have not yet returned from captivity. In the 1970s-80s, these were the “Prisoners of Zion”. Today these are the hostages of October 7. "Let my people go," Moses commanded Pharaoh in the name of God, and thousands of years later the same call is carried in Passover celebrations around the world, and with it we leave an empty chair and a glass of wine waiting for every single one of them to return

“And you shall tell your son, next to the Passover Seder table, across from the empty chair…” - A Hebrew poster on behalf of the Ma'oz Association, which worked to open the gates of the Soviet Union to Aliyah (from the Ephemera Collection of the National Library of Israel), and in the background a Passover Seder held by refuseniks in Moscow. Courtesy of the Enid Lynne Wurtman Archive, the CAHJP at the National Library of Israel

While we all sit, as we do every year, at the Seder table, while we sing, ask questions, read the Haggadah and enjoy the holiday meal, hundreds of families among us will not be able to do this. Their holiday spirit, their joy, their loved ones were taken from them.  Their loved ones were kidnapped; they are still being held captive by Hamas. In fact, for the majority of Jews in Israel and שרםומג the world, it seems that the Hebrew month of Nissan, which in Judaism usually symbolizes the renewal of spring, the blossoming and the departure of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to freedom, stands in complete contradiction to the current public atmosphere. But history shows us that since the beginning of time, the joy of the people of Israel during the festival of Passover has never been complete, due to the heavy price they have had to pay for their very existence.

One of the characters that comes to visit us on the Seder Night is Elijah the Prophet. Every Jew is familiar with the amiable custom of opening the door in his honor during the “pour out thy wrath” section of the Haggadah, after the meal. We usually pour Elijah the fifth glass of wine and leave it full for him, as well as prepare a chair for him at the table in case he drops by for a visit. Elijah the Prophet symbolizes the hope to return to Israel. According to the prophecies, he will come to announce a new redemption. Therefore, opening the door on Seder Night also symbolizes the readiness to receive Elijah the Prophet and go with him to the Land of Israel. It turns out that this ancient tradition is accompanied by another long-standing tradition, designed to mark and remember those who cannot be with us.

ציור של כיסא אליהו המרכז לאמנות יהודית באוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים Center For Jewish Art At The Hebrew University Of Jerusalem
Painting of Eliyahu’s chair, the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

In the 1950s and 1960s, many Jews in Israel and the Diaspora used to commemorate their loved ones who perished in the Holocaust by leaving an empty chair for them at the Seder table.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a custom began in the Soviet Union of leaving a chair empty on the Seder Night for the “Prisoners of Zion”. The idea behind the custom was to not forget the Jewish prisoners languishing in Soviet prisons and to express the pain of Jews throughout the Western world who fought for the freedom of their brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe. At the time they were called “The Jews of Silence”, as in Elie Wiesel’s famous book, because they were forbidden to practice their Judaism and observe the mitzvot of the Jewish religion. Jews all over the world left an empty chair at the table, in order to express their pain and desire to tear down the Iron Curtain and allow Soviet Jewry to return to their Judaism and immigrate to Israel.

The Prisoners of Zion were activists – Zionist men and women in various countries around the world. Many of them were arrested and imprisoned in their homelands because of their Zionist activities, others were deported because of their Jewishness or because of their country’s hostile relations with Israel.

כרזה של אסירי ציון, תחילת שנות ה 70 בהוצאת Jewish Chronicle בלונדון, 23 בנובמבר 1973.
Prisoners of [for] Zion poster, early 1970s, published by the Jewish Chronicle in London, November 23, 1973

After the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews from all over the world worked to free their brothers and sisters, who were banned and imprisoned because of their Zionist activities, and bring them to Israel. Prisoners of Zion suffered arrests, imprisonments and some also suffered torture and other violations of their freedom. They are part of a long-standing heritage of Jewish heroism. Prisoners of Zion were held against their will across the globe, in Romania, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Ethiopia, Egypt and of course the countries of the communist bloc in the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet authorities refused to recognize Judaism and the national aspirations of Jews, and in response to this some Jews became active in various Zionist undergrounds. If they were caught, they were imprisoned and tortured by the regime. Some were exiled to remote places in the Soviet Union, some were sent to forced labor camps, some died in prison, often under false accusations, and some were forcibly placed in psychiatric hospitals, even though their mental health was not in question.

A demonstration in Jerusalem for the Prisoners of Zion. Courtesy of Enid Lynne Wurtman whose archive is deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

From Rabbi Nachman of Breslav to American Jewry

“The Empty Chair” is also the name of a book that contains the writings and philosophy of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. It includes advice for living a spiritual life and various pearls of wisdom. The empty chair which appears on the book’s cover is in fact Rabbi Nachman’s chair, which was brought to Israel by his followers and is kept in the Breslov Synagogue in Mea She’arim in Jerusalem. For the Breslov Hasidim, the Rabbi’s chair symbolizes both presence and absence.

תפילת סדר פסח למען יהודי ברית המועצות, 1969
Passover Seder prayer for the Jews of the Soviet Union, 1969

Eventually, the idea of the “empty chair” at the Passover Seder was given new meaning. Dr. Chaim Neria, curator of the Judaica Collection at the National Library of Israel, recalled an early childhood memory of the custom of leaving a chair empty at the Seder table for the Prisoners of Zion: “The custom was created when the Jews of the Soviet Union were behind the Iron Curtain. There was always one empty seat at the table. When I asked about it, I was told that it was for the Jews in the Soviet Union who were forbidden to celebrate Passover, so we saved a seat at our table, to remember that they could not be with us, and in honor of their actions. Next to the chair, we would put a sign on the table with the phrase ‘let my people go’.”

עפרה חזה שרה בהופעת אומנים בהיכל הספורט למען יהודי ברית המועצות. צילום מוטי פתאל ארכיון דן הדני הספרייה הלאומית
Ofra Haza singing at the Sports Hall for the Jews of the Soviet Union. Photo by: Moti Fattal, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This old custom is described in the children’s book, An Extra Seat, by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. The book was written in 2016 and contains the following passage:

Far away, in the Soviet Union, a group of Jews had tried to leave to find a better life in Israel. They were not allowed to. In fact they were punished for trying to leave – as if a giant iron door was closed in their faces.

One of those courageous Jews was called Anatoly Sharansky. He had just been arrested. 

The book tells the story of the release of a number of Prisoners of Zion, among them the human rights activist Natan Sharansky, who would go on to a career in politics and who became a close friend of the author. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld was a student of Rabbi Avi Weiss, who told him about his volunteer work promoting the cause of the Prisoners of Zion, including Natan Sharansky. Sharansky – who was convicted in 1978 of treason, spying for the United States, incitement and anti-Soviet propaganda – was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He was released in 1986 after nine years behind bars, and was finally allowed to immigrate to Israel.

הפגנה למען יהדות ברית המועצות בניו יורק.
Demonstration for Soviet Jewry in New York ~ Aliyah refuseniks and Prisoners of Zion. Avital Sharansky (center) holds a poster of her husband, Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky. Posters published by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry

Rabbi Herzfeld decided that it was important to tell the story of the Prisoners of Zion to children as well, and that’s how the idea for the book came about. An Extra Seat describes how two kids from New York, Sarah and Joseph, hear of Sharansky’s story and decide to join the demonstrations for his release. The book relates how, during the years of Sharansky’s imprisonment, the children made sure to keep an empty chair for him at every Shabbat and holiday meal, with their friends following them and also adopting the habit in their homes.

משמאל לימין יולי קושרובסקי, טניה אדלשטיין, הבת של טניה ואסיר ציון יולי אדלשטיין, מוסקבה
Left to right: Yuli Koshrovsky, Tanya Edelstein, Tanya’s daughter and the Prisoner of Zion Yuli Edelstein, Moscow

Let My People Go

Enid Lynne Wurtman also remembers the old custom and kept it herself in her home with her family.

Enid grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in Israel since 1977. She is among the most prominent activists in the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion and their immigration to Israel. Enid, a social worker by profession, and her husband, Stewart, who was a lawyer at the time, visited the Soviet Union in their early thirties, an eight-day trip to Moscow and Leningrad: “In 1973, my husband and I went to the Soviet Union to visit besieged Jews who were desperate to immigrate to Israel,” Wurtman says. The Jews they met experienced many difficulties: they lost their jobs, their children were expelled from the universities they studied in, and their telephones were disconnected – all because they were Zionists and longed to immigrate to Israel. Enid was heartbroken when she heard their stories. She felt that she was watching a different version of her own life, an alternate reality in which her grandparents had never left Russia for the United States. She felt she had to help them.

הבן של אניד, אלי וורטמן, בהפגנה למען אסירי ציון בפילדלפיה. ארכיונהשל...
Enid’s son, Elie Wurtman, at a demonstration for the Prisoners of Zion in Philadelphia. The Enid Lynne Wurtman Archive, deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

The inspiration for the slogan which became a symbol of the movement came from the story of the Exodus. “Let my people go” is the first part of God’s command to Pharaoh, repeated throughout Moses and Aaron’s exchanges with the ruler of Egypt. The biblical verse became the slogan for the inspirational campaign to exert pressure on the Soviet authorities to grant exit permits to Jews who wished to leave for Israel. The expression appeared in many posters promoting the cause of various Prisoners of Zion, in particular the struggle for the Jews of the Soviet Union. The phrase “Prisoner of Zion” is taken from a line in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s poem “Zion, shall you not beseech the welfare of your prisoners.”

כרזה מעצרת שלח את עמי, 1969, מתוך אוסף אפמרה של הספרייה לאומית
“‘Let My People Go” – a Hebrew poster promoting a rally featuring Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and Yosef Burg, January 1968, from the Ephemera Collection at the National LIbrary of Israel

“Our meeting with these Soviet Jews, who were ready to sacrifice everything for their dream, and some of whom lived in very difficult conditions, ignited our Jewish consciousness,” Enid says. “We lived in Philadelphia at the time and began to be active in the fight for them.”

Shortly afterwards, Stewart became president of the Union of Soviet Jewry in 1975-77. Enid became involved in local organizations for Soviet Jewry and in the 1970s returned to the Soviet Union twice more to visit Prisoners of Zion. In 1977, Enid herself immigrated to Israel with her family. In Israel as well, she did not stop volunteering for the Jews of the Soviet Union. She always knew what was happening with each of the Zionist activists – who was arrested, who was sick, who needed financial help. “I worked on advertising, fundraising and political activism. At first from my home in Philadelphia and then from my home in Jerusalem,” she describes. “In all those years, we left an empty chair for the Prisoners of Zion at the Seder Night table, it was a custom we always maintained.” Enid continued to volunteer for the Jews of the Soviet Union and does so to this day, alongside various social activities, even in her eighties.

, ​כרזה מטעם אגודת מעוז, שפעלה למען פתיחת שערי ברית המועצות לעלייה, מתוך אוסף אפמרה של הספרייה הלאומית
And you shall tell your son, next to the Passover Seder table, across from the empty chair…” –A poster on behalf of the Ma’oz Association, which worked to open the gates of the Soviet Union to immigration, from the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

The New Empty Chairs

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the restrictions on the Jews of the Soviet Union were lifted and they were finally allowed to immigrate to Israel in the 1990s. However, instead of removing the empty chair from the Seder table, Jews began looking for new Zionist and Jewish symbols for which they would reserve a seat. Thus, empty chairs were left for captured soldiers – including Ron Arad, Udi Goldwasser, Eldad Regev, Gilad Shalit, and Jonathan Pollard – all of them chosen to be remembered with an empty chair at the Seder table by many Jewish families in Israel and around the world.

Meanwhile, the struggle for the Prisoners of Zion did not stop after the Jews of the Soviet Union began arriving in Israel in the early 1990s.

פוסטר משנת 87 פורסם על ידי המועצה הישראלית ליהדות ברית המועצות
Poster from 1987, published by the Israeli Public Council for Soviet Jewry

“Many activists decided that the story ended when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. But hundreds of thousands of Jews still needed help when they arrived in Israel. The refuseniks who were the heroes of the movement often needed help the most. After years of struggle, they lost their professions and many found themselves destitute, they could not survive on the allowances provided by the state,” Wurtman describes. She established an emergency aid fund and worked tirelessly for them, on a completely voluntary basis.

אניד וורטמן ומשפחתה
Enid Lynne Wurtman and her family. Taken from a private album

Enid has been living in Israel for 46 years. She has eight grandchildren and continues to be involved in social causes: “I really think that I had a great privilege, to help the Prisoners of Zion and to live in the State of Israel. The happiest moments of my life were when my children were born and when I had the privilege of seeing the Prisoners of Zion arrive in Israel and becoming their friend.” Even during these difficult times, she does not regret her choice. Today her daughter continues the tradition of volunteering, engaged in a campaign for the release of the hostages of October 7. She suggests that we maintain the tradition of the empty chair for them: “Now, we have to do it again.” Enid tells me. “This will not be the festival of freedom for the families of the abductees. We need to reserve a seat for them at our Seder table, in solidarity with them and their families.”

מוסקבה, סדר פסח של מסורבי עליה
Moscow, refuseniks holding a Passover Seder. In the picture are Leah Chernobylsky, Boris Chernobylsky, Yuri Stern, Lena Stern, Galia Kerman, Mikhail Kerman, Yaakov Rachlenko, Gennady Hassin. Courtesy of Enid Lynne Wurtman whose archive is deposited at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

This request does not only come from Wurtman. There is also a touching request from Shelly Shem Tov, the mother of Omer Shem Tov who is still held by Hamas. “My suggestion, as Omer’s mom – is to immediately after drinking the fourth cup and just before the great blessing, with the pouring of the fifth cup, say the blessing ‘I shall bring’ [veheveti]  for the hostages… I believe in the power of a great prayer, I invite you all to share and help, to spread the word, so the message will reach as many people as possible.” 

This request is joined by a civil initiative – a request that all the Jews in Israel and around the world leave an empty chair for the hostages who have not yet returned home. After everything we’ve been through lately, and with some of us still experiencing these ordeals, celebrating the Exodus and freedom can seem absurd. In order to have faith in a future redemption, or a glimmer of hope, the least we can do is fulfill the request of Shelly Shem Tov, and reserve a seat for the hostages at the Seder table, as well as keep a permanent place in our hearts for them. We should not forget, even for a moment- they are still there.

The blessing as suggested by Shelly Shem Tov, Omer Shem Tov’s mother:

May it be Your will that every expression of redemption is realized in each and every captive.

And I shall deliver-and I shall rescue-and I shall redeem-and I shall take-and I shall bring

May they all return to their families in good health

May we all receive them with unsurpassed joy

Soon, in our own days, amen

Where Did Ben-Gurion’s Piano Disappear To?

When David and Paula Ben-Gurion moved to the Hapoalim (workers) neighborhood on the outskirts of the young city of Tel Aviv, it was clear that there would be a piano in the living room of their new home, even though they didn’t have the money to buy one. Documents in archives show how the family obtained the expensive piano, who played it, where it went after the house was donated to the state, and the story of how it was returned after many years. A story befitting a mystery novel…

David Ben-Gurion (Nadav Man, Bitmuna Collection. From the Degani Collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel) and the piano (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

“I am very sorry for the three unpaid bills. At the moment we are not being paid a salary and the money has not reached me. According to the contract, you have absolute permission to come at any time and get the piano back without any hindrance. With great respect, D. Ben-Gurion”

Piano4
“…you have absolute permission to come at any time and get the piano back ” Ben-Gurion apologizes for the returned checks (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

It is December 1931 in Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel. The young Ben-Gurion family, father David, mother Paula, and the children: thirteen-year-old Geula, eleven-year-old Amos, and six-year-old Renana, have recently moved to their new home in the Hapoalim neighborhood, not far from the “Education House – The School for the Children of Workers” in the developing western section of the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv.

The chairman of Mapai (“The Workers Party of the Land of Israel”) which had just gained a great many seats in the Zionist Congress, the most important political institution of the Jewish People at the time, made sure to carefully add up his expenses in his journal. These included the expenses for the construction of his home, number 17 on KKL Boulevard, which later became Ben-Gurion Boulevard. The house is now a museum which recreates the home and daily routine of the first Israeli Prime Minister’s family.

Ben-Gurion summarized the expenses: payment for the architect 11.9 Israeli lira, purchase of cabinets for 20 lira, and a buffet for 5 lira. Transporting and transferring the objects 8 lira, table 1.5 lira, 4 bar stools and 6 low chairs 2.80 lira, and also a piano bench – only 1 lira.

Piano1
“Piano bench, one Israeli lira.” Ben-Gurion totals the expenses of building his house in Tel Aviv (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

So Paula and David bought the piano bench themselves, but they rented the piano itself, an expensive musical instrument, from Mr. Hofenko of Tel Aviv, for a monthly usage fee. They gave him future promissory notes (checks), which, due to some difficulty, were regretfully not honored.

“Ben-Gurion had no special affection or sensitivity for music,” says Michael Bar-Zohar, author of the comprehensive biography on Ben-Gurion. “He wasn’t interested in or appreciative of works and he didn’t have a musical ear. Once, after the Six Day-War, they played ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ for him. Ben-Gurion was moved by the words and tried to join in with his voice but it didn’t work out so well…” laughs Bar-Zohar. He explains that Ben-Gurion’s documented visits to concerts were intended for political purposes. “He hosted famous musicians and conductors because it was good for publicity. When the opera in Tel Aviv had its premiere, it was very important for Ben-Gurion to attend and sit in the seats reserved for dignitaries between the American ambassador James McDonald and the Soviet ambassador [Pavel] Yershov. It wasn’t the opera that intrigued him but rather his public appearance alongside the two ambassadors of the bickering superpowers – a gesture of recognition of the young State of Israel by the two important countries. That was more urgent and interesting for Ben-Gurion than all the scenes and singing on stage.”

Ray Charles plays “Hava Nagila” during his visit to Israel. David Ben-Gurion joins in the applause

Despite this, and even though they fell short of paying the monthly rental fees in the early 1930s, the family finally eventually got a piano and it was placed in their house. The eldest child Geula received a score of “excellent” on her certificate of completion for compulsory piano lessons in the second grade, but it seems she didn’t continue to play afterwards.

Piano7
Geula Ben-Gurion, the eldest daughter, completes her compulsory piano lessons with excellent grades (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

On the other hand, Renana, the youngest, at the age of 9, wrote to her father abroad: “I will play in a concert soon, in a few days, and for an exam that will take place soon.” As a side note, the little one promised not to desecrate the upcoming workers’ holiday: “My [piano] lesson was supposed to be on May 1st, so I changed it to May 3rd…”

Piano6
”My lesson was supposed to be on May 1st, so I changed it to May 3rd.” Renana reports to her father (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

Renana persevered in practicing and studying her music lessons. By the time she was twelve years old, her father, visiting Zurich at the time, bought her a book of Beethoven’s sheet music, a book on the History of Music, and a dress. In his journal, he noted the prices and totaled up the expenses: “Renana, DBG money, gifts.”

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“Beethoven, the History of Music, a dress for Renana”. Father Ben-Gurion concludes shopping in Zurich (courtesy: Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

A year passed. In September 1938, her parents were once again abroad for a long trip, and thirteen-year-old Renana sent them a letter: “Hello Mom and Dad… I visited the house. The gardener cut the grass and uprooted all the weeds in honor of Rosh Hashanah… On Wednesday, I’ll start studying at the gymnasium. Since I had to get sheet music, I went to Sara’s and took the house key. The closets are closed, so I ask that you write and tell me where the keys are because I need a raincoat and dresses. It rained in Tel Aviv! And in Haifa, the first rains have already come down.”

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Renana went by the house to collect sheet music and reported to her father and mother: “The gardener cut the grass in honor of Rosh Hashanah.” (Courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

How does a piano disappear?

The Ben-Gurion Museum in Tel Aviv recreates how the house looked back when the Prime Minister lived there with his family. The museum staff was enlisted about three years ago to take care of the photo and album collections. While arranging and organizing, an undated envelope was found, and inside it were several photos documenting the interior of the house. One of the pictures showed the living room: the armchairs, the carpet, the coffee table, the pictures on the walls, sculptures, and decorations – all the furnishings and objects that can be found there today. But much to everyone’s surprise, the old photo also showed a grand piano standing in all its glory in the corner of the living room.

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The piano was discovered in an old photo (courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and Ben-Gurion Archive)

And here a mystery plot unfolded: on the one hand, the photograph indicated that there was a piano, and based on the other objects in the photo, it appears to have been taken in later years.  On the other hand, the piano was nowhere to be found. How can a piano disappear?

All the documents were rummaged through. In the will that Ben-Gurion wrote about six months before his death, he specifically stated: “I bequeath to the State of Israel my house in Tel Aviv, [the] library and the property inside it with the exception of personal objects and tools, so that they can serve as an institution for reading, study, and research.”

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“”I bequeath and leave to my daughter Renana Ben-Gurion my grand piano as well as my mink cape.” Paula’s will (Courtesy of the Ben-Gurion House and the Ben-Gurion Archive)

If there had been a piano in the house, it was supposed to still be there. Another review of the papers led to Paula’s will. It turns out that Mrs. Ben-Gurion had other plans for the family’s assets: “I bequeath and leave to my daughter Renana Ben-Gurion my grand piano as well as my mink cape,” she instructed in a will written in the spring of 1956. Paula died five years before David, when the couple lived in two homes simultaneously: a house in Tel Aviv and a cabin in Kibbutz Sde Boker.

By the time the museum staff discovered the piano in the photograph, Renana had been dead for over a decade. Her only son, Uri, who never started a family of his own, was living by himself in Tel Aviv and was also no longer a young man. The director of the Ben-Gurion Museum, Nelly Markman, called Uri and asked to visit him. She held out hope that the lost instrument could still be found. After all, Uri lived in the apartment where his mother Renana lived before him, so maybe the piano would be found there. Indeed, her hope was realized, and she recognized the piano in Uri’s living room as the very same one from the photo.

Uri didn’t play piano. He had never played any musical instrument. Aware that when his time would come, the piano could end up in any number of strange places, he agreed and even expressed his desire to return the piano to his grandparents’ house, as a souvenir and a legacy for future generations. Moreover, the grand piano was taking up a lot of room and if it was returned, it would free up some space in the small living room.

That’s when a new problem arose, one that no one could have foreseen: when Renana took the piano as her mother had wished, it was impossible to get it through the stairwell of the shared apartment building, so it was brought into her apartment via the balcony. At some point, the balcony was closed in by a built wall and thus the exit for the piano was now blocked. So what did they do? They knocked on the next-door neighbor’s door and carefully asked: Would you agree to let us move a piano and get it out of the building using your balcony? A little taken aback by the strange request, the neighbors heard the story of this unique piano and its illustrious history and agreed to do their part.

אז אחרי כמעט 50 שנים, הפסנתר של רננה, בתו של דוד בן-גוריון, חזר להאיר את סלון הבית. מוזמנים לראות את תהליך ההרכבה המקוצר, ולקפוץ לבקר כמובן 🙂

פורסם על ידי ‏בית בן-גוריון בתל אביב‏ ב- יום רביעי, 21 ביולי 2021

And so, more or less towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an operation that required a Tel Aviv street to be closed down, the cooperation of neighbors in two separate apartments, and one large crane, Renana Ben-Gurion’s piano was brought back to her parents’ house, placed there once again for the complete restoration of the living room of Israel’s first Prime Minister.

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The piano is back where it belongs in the restored Ben-Gurion House (photo credit: Sivan Faivel)

A Woman as She Is: The Story of Rachel Katznelson-Shazar

She was a different sort of feminist Zionist leader, establishing an alternative female ideal in the pioneering era of the Zionist Second Aliyah. Alongside widespread social activity, she raised her special child, without shame or concealment, in an era when such a thing was highly unusual. She also found time to edit one of the first Hebrew-language women’s monthlies and win the Israel Prize. Despite this, she is still remembered and commemorated mostly as the “President’s wife.” The time has come to get to know this incredible woman in her own right.

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Rachel Katznelson-Shazar. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office

Sixty-six years of a relationship that knew its ups and downs, a daughter with Down’s syndrome, decades of Zionist public activity before and after the founding of the state, ten years in the President’s Residence. Despite this impressive record, the name Rachel Katznelson-Shazar doesn’t mean much to most people, even Israelis, unless she is mentioned alongside her husband – Israel’s third President Zalman Shazar.

But Rachel Katznelson-Shazar was not just “the President’s wife.” She was a woman of many accomplishments and a Zionist leader brave enough to knowingly and deliberately focus on an issue which was then in its infancy and even treated with criticism and contempt: the role of the woman and her importance within the Zionist movement.

Rachel Katznelson was born in 1885 in the city of Bobruisk in Belorussia. This was a city with a clearly Jewish majority, with a rich and varied Jewish life. She herself was born into an established, well-off family that allowed her to acquire a western-style education. But despite a comfortable living, surrounded by a loving family, Rachel was always drawn towards that which was different.

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The synagogue in Bobruisk, Rachel’s hometown. The Institute of Jewish Studies St. Petersburg, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection]

In those days, Zionism was a new, revolutionary movement growing in Europe, attracting younger members of Jewish families. After the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, many Jews were drawn towards the Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish state in the distant Land of Israel, even if the practical realization of that dream remained distant.

Rachel, for whom a long, obstacle-ridden path only served as an incentive, became an enthusiastic Zionist activist, inspiring her relatives to join the cause as well. By the end of the 1930s, all of her close family members had made Aliyah, with the exception of her brother who died before he could leave (his widow and children made Aliyah after his death).

How irregular was this? Rachel said it best: “Of all my 70 cousins, only the children of my father and mother came to the country, another one or two had a peek and left; others did not bother with a peek.”

As befitting the pioneer that she was, Rachel came first, reaching the port of Jaffa in 1912. The country, then under Ottoman rule, was far from a comfortable or easy place to live. The neglected, dusty, and poverty-stricken land was utterly different from any reality she had experienced or known from the wealthy European home she left. But Rachel faced another, no less formidable obstacle in coming to be a Zionist pioneer: she was a woman.

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The spirit of the Hebrew woman – serves as a guarantee for the people as a whole” – A feminist Zionist doctrine? From Dvar Hapo’elet, 1948

On the one hand, it could have been much worse. The pioneers of the Second Aliyah – people like David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharet, and Berl Katznelson – were influenced by socialist ideals that developed almost in parallel to Zionism, and as a result Zionism would become a truly pioneering movement (pun intended) when it came to the status of women.

On the other hand, like any historic change, the struggle of the pioneering Hebrew women for status and recognition was not a smooth one. The female pioneers, most of whom were single and childless, were expected to be completely devoted. Family life and the life of a Zionist pioneer did not go hand in hand. Alongside the Zionist men who believed in women and their ability to become an integral part of the pioneering project, there were many who dismissed them and closed the door in their face. Besides, the men did not want to take an active role in the life of the family and the household, forcing women to face a cruel choice – avoid family life entirely, or leave the rearing of children to nannies or the kibbutz children’s home and entirely disavow the motherly role.

In some places, things were so bad that women took their own lives, unable to cope with the gap between their duties and their desires.

These were Rachel’s first few years in the country, and she experienced every aspect of the pioneering lifestyle: She worked on the farm at Kinneret and other kibbutzim, was a partner in establishing another farm with Berl Katznelson in Jerusalem, and even taught Hebrew at the “Maiden’s Farm” (Havat Ha’Almot) where she was sent shortly after making Aliyah.

This farm was founded by Hana Meisel, an agronomist and pioneer who bought farmland on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, where she trained women in farm labor alongside “normal” household duties.

When Rachel was sent there to serve as a Hebrew teacher, she felt inferior compared to the male immigrants who had also just arrived and who were also teaching Hebrew. She wrote to her close friend Berl Katznelson, who had encouraged her to apply for a teaching position at the farm: “Berl, it’s a hard thing for me to write a letter like the one I wrote to Hana Meisel. I wished her to know that I should not be compared to a real teacher who taught in heder [a traditional Jewish school] and so on. Do it for me. Tell her all this. I’m especially pained at not having gotten around to going over the whole Bible.”

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With kibbutz members at the spa at Ma’ale HaHamisha. This picture is part of the Archive Network Israel project, made available thanks to collaboration between the Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the National Library of Israel

It was in that atmosphere that she started to form her feminist outlook, which differed from those of other women of her generation.

While other Zionist activists like Manya Shochat and Golda Meir believed the ultimate goal was to emulate the successful men around them, Katznelson believed in equal opportunity while also seeing benefit in fundamental differences between men and women, with the idea that it was these differences which would allow female pioneers to contribute even more to Zionist society.

She was especially sad to see how women were pushed aside when they formed families and became mothers: “Is it not absurd that such a young woman, when she enters into a family life, thinks with complete seriousness that she will organize her life as her mother and grandmother did and be happy – serving the children and the husband? Why does her husband organize his life openly and she in concealment? Why is it that he simply lives his life, while she lives only during the breaks – after satisfying the needs of the home, the needs of the child, and his needs? Why is the stream of her life but a side stream?”

Based on that same sense of missed opportunity and public marginalization, the female pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyahs founded the Va’ad Hapo’alot or Female Workers’ Council in 1921, one year after the establishment of the Histadrut or General Organization of Workers in Israel. The council operated under the Histadrut, but with openly feminist goals – with a special emphasis on the image of the Hebrew, Zionist female pioneer.

Meanwhile, alongside her work, Rachel turned to building up her personal life, marrying Zalman Rubashov, the man she loved, in 1920. Her life with Zalman had its ups and downs: Rachel was already in the country as Zalman, who spent much of his life working for the Zionist cause, toured Europe as a Zionist activist and diplomat.

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Rachel with her husband, Zalman. Photo courtesy of Government Press Office

A year after their marriage, Rachel joined her husband in Vienna, where he was appointed a member of the offices of the Poele Zion movement (“Workers of Zion”). It was in Vienna that she gave birth to their only daughter – Roda.

Already from the start, Rachel felt that Roda was not like all the other infants. The “ordinary” difficulties of motherhood combined with Roda’s uniqueness led to a real crisis- for Rachel. “I cannot hide from you,” she wrote Zalman, who was far away on a mission in Berlin. “I live in a nightmare world. Day and also night, there is no rest. My heart is not silent, different thoughts pass and I cannot even let them leave my mouth. I am not afraid of evil, but rather of the hardening of the heart.”

When Roda was three, she was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. The concern and duties of caring for her accompanied the Shazars for the rest of their life. Unlike many others during that period in time, they did not turn their back on their daughter. They did not send her off to be taken care of by someone else, or feel ashamed of her.

Throughout her life, Roda Shazar was treated with love and devotion, but there is no doubt that the difficulties and the sense of missed opportunities left their mark on her mother, Rachel. Although she believed, contrary to most female pioneers of her time, that motherhood was not a handicap but rather a privilege and even a virtue, she was disappointed at the failure of women in getting men to share more of the family burden: “I have long since ceased to see the idyll of the worker’s family life. I see the suffering … the young mother is entirely mired in her private life and she is blind and deaf to the affairs of our lives. This blindness does not mean that she takes excellent care of the child. Every woman feels she is sinning: [not fulfilling her duties] to the child, the home, the floors. She works a great deal and always lists her sins. The woman is an echo of the life of the male comrade.”

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The “First Mother”. Rachel Katznelson visiting IDF wounded at Hadassah Hospital. From: the Dan Hadani Archive, the National Library of Israel

In 1924, the Shazars returned home, and Rachel was selected for a position on the cultural committee of the Female Workers’ Council. This was further proof of her uniqueness in the pioneering milieu – she believed culture was an inseparable part of the shaping of Zionist society, just as important as farming and security.

She also consciously chose to remain with the Female Workers’ Council. While other female activists like Golda Meir and Manya Shochat viewed it as nothing but a springboard to the main political arena, Rachel believed that the cause of the female worker was just as important.

After a few years at the Histadrut, she began editing the first edition of Kovetz Divrei Ha’Poalot [“The Collected Words of the Female Workers”]. After its publication, she was even elected to the secretariat of the Female Workers’ Council in 1930. She did all this while she and her husband continued their shared Zionist work in Europe and America.

But in 1934, she left to found a new paper – Dvar Hapo’elet [“The Word of the Female Worker”], and a new era began for Rachel Katznelson-Shazar.

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Already in 1926, Rachel strove to found a paper which would give voice to the women of the Zionist movement, speak in their name and bring more women closer to the Zionist idea and existing institutions in the country.

Journalism and writing were not foreign to the Shazars. Both worked in writing, translating and editing journals or newspapers over the course of their lives. Zalman Shazar wrote the first draft of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, while Rachel edited and collected articles, books, and works of Zionist thought.

In those years, members of the Female Workers’ Council founded Ha’Isha or “The Woman”, an independent publication addressing current events from a female perspective. “The monthly Ha’Isha aims to create a new type of Hebrew woman, who does not see her home and work as an end in itself but rather as part of the public and national building enterprise in general,” read the editorial in the publication’s sixth monthly issue. But the paper did not last long and ultimately closed down.

Now it was replaced by Rachel Shazar’s life’s work – Dvar Hapo’elet. The paper started as a supplement of the leftwing workers’ paper Davar, with the aim of helping it reach new audiences. Only in the early 1950s did it become an independent paper in its own right.

Aside from Rachel, who was the editor-in-chief who brought all the other writers on board, women like Devorah Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s mother, Rivka Aaronsohn, a relation of the founders of the Nili underground, Manya Shochat and more were part of its roster.

All, aside from Rachel who earned a pittance, wrote for free. Rachel considered the paper to be a means for educating women and delivering messages, knowledge, and information to female workers in Israel: “(The female worker) must stress her independence and originality and add to the intellectual culture of the whole movement.”

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Rachel speaks at the President’s Residence. Photo: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Finally, Rachel had found a real home where she felt she could act and express herself freely. After years of public and political activity during which she never felt like she fit in, being forced to adopt male airs or ignoring her feminine traits, she now found her place in the pages of a newspaper, which she would edit for twenty-seven years.

Years passed, and more crises befell the Jewish People at home and abroad. During WWII and the Holocaust, Rachel supported the idea of women enlisting in the British Army, in the hope that their practical participation in the defense of the country and the Jewish community would make its own contribution to advancing their social status.

Once the state was founded, her husband joined the provisional government and served as its Education Minister. He also served in a variety of positions in the Jewish Agency and other Zionist institutions.

Rachel continued to edit the paper while engaging in activism to advance the cause of women. On Israel’s tenth Independence Day in 1958, she received the recognition she so richly deserved when she was awarded the Israel Prize.

Among the reasons for her selection were “…her work among society and its systems, for her work close to fifty years in the field of the educational and cultural absorption of the working woman in the country. She should be seen as the soundboard and the collector of the literary expression of the pioneering woman.”

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Rachel Yana’it Ben Zvi (right) speaks to Rachel Katznelson-Shazar at the seventh Workers’ Convention. This photo is part of the Archive Network Israel project and has been made accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

In 1963, Zalman Shazar was elected President of Israel, a role he filled for a decade. Rachel continued her public activity alongside him, this time as the President’s wife.

Naturally enough, this role left its mark on how the two were remembered. Rachel Katznelson-Shazar is known today primarily as the wife of the fourth President. But before that, she was an enthusiastic pioneer and Zionist, a journalist and an author, and a staunch feminist in the days when the feminist struggle was still in its infancy. Even if it seems that true equality is still far off, her ideas and writings were the solid foundation from which generations of women set out to pave the path of the Israeli woman for recognition and equality.