Avshalom Feinberg’s name is known primarily for his heroic involvement with Nili, a spy ring which helped British forces conquer the Land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. One of the organization’s founders, he was the male counterpart in a famous love triangle with Rivka Aaronsohn (who claimed they were engaged to be married) and her sister Sarah (with whom he had a special relationship). Aaron Aaronsohn described him as “a knight without fear and without reproach,” but as you are about to find out, he was much more than that.
Indeed, if fate had taken a different trajectory, and Feinberg, who was quite an impressive man, had never met Aaron Aaronsohn and not become part of Nili, chances are his career would have gone down a different path. He could perhaps even have become President of the State of Israel, or at the very least, a major figure in its cultural milieu.
Feinberg was born in Gedera in 1889, a descendent of a distinguished line of intellectuals from the early-Zionist Bilu movement, a first-generation native of the Land of Israel. He possessed a gift for languages, a sharp mind, a poetic soul, and a rebellious spirit. Avshalom’s father, who had great expectations for his young offspring and intended for him to study law in Constantinople one day, had him learn Arabic and the Quran under a sheikh in Jaffa. The Arab neighbors knew Avshalom by his Arabic name, Salim. Both in these studies and at school, the young man excelled. In 1904, he graduated with distinction from the Alliance School and was granted a scholarship to the Alliance Teachers’ Seminary in Paris.
The years spent in France had a profound impact on Avshalom: enamored with the language and culture, he drank in the ideas of liberty. He joined the intellectual circles of Paris and forged a close friendship with the French philosopher Jacques Maritain and the poet Charles Péguy, who both predicted a great future for him in the realms of French literature and poetry. In addition, their friendship had further-reaching consequences as it sparked new admiration for Jews in France more generally.
Following his time in France, Feinberg went to Switzerland to be treated for a neurological disease from which he was suffering and stayed in the renowned sanatorium of Professor Constantin von Monakow in Zurich. It was there that he met a scientist who would become a central figure in Zionist history. In a letter to his aunt Sonia (from the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), found in the collections of the National Library of Israel), Avshalom describes a conversation he had with the biochemist Chaim Weizmann, who would later become Israel’s first President. It appears that Weizmann asked Feinberg to become his research assistant:
“And you, listen to me!” – he told me
“Forget America, come to England with me. Have you means?”
“I do not, but I could get some from my father, or elsewhere.”
“It’s nothing, take them; forget vain arguments, you’ll repay it someday. Property, simple and compound interest, this is what I do myself these days. Do come to England… The choice is yours: Oxford, Cambridge, London, or Manchester. You will be given every possible consideration and opportunity. One year to prepare and four years of study, this is more than you need. Once you are properly equipped, you will be able to go to America or wherever you like, but you must prepare first, you must outfit yourself. Now, do! Promise me. I have been preoccupied with you for a while now. I have taken an interest in you. Now, a stone has fallen off my heart.”
I promised I would give the issue some thought.
The next day, as I was walking him to the station, he asked me in parting to come see him again.
All this took place on the night of the thirtieth of December 1907.
– From the book Avshalom: Writings and Letters (Hebrew), by Avshalom Feinberg (Hebrew), ed. Aaron Amir, published by Haifa Shikmona, 1971, p. 20)
We do not know what happened beyond this meeting; perhaps it was Weizmann that ended up recommending young Avshalom to Aaron Aaronsohn? And what would have happened had he gone to read natural sciences at Oxford? One thing is certain, Avshalom captured the hearts not only of women, but also of cultural figures and scholars.
Once he had returned home, Feinberg took up civic activism and was unafraid to speak his mind publicly. For example, Feinberg was involved in debates between religious and secular groups within the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. In this article in Herut on 5 August, 1910, he is quoted speaking at a conference protesting the Jewish religious ban on farmers working the land during the seventh shmita year. Feinberg hoped the masses would take to the streets, in support of the Jewish farming colonies against the religious authorities:
Avshalom Feinberg of Hadera cries out: “I would not call for war on the rabbis like the previous speakers, but rouse the entire nation[…] They would split Israel into their faction against the faction of youths who wish wholeheartedly to work at reviving the nation. Instead, this assembly ought to decide to call for a greater gathering, of fifty thousand, in Jerusalem…”
Avshalom was not at all religious; he even refused to put on tefillin at his Bar Mitzvah. However, he was well-versed in scripture thanks to his grandfather, who had taught him as a child, and one could argue that Judaism was dear to his heart.
At the age of 22, Avshalom met the agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, his elder by a mere 13 years. This meeting marked the beginning of the best-known period of Avshalom’s life. Aaronsohn ran a facility for agricultural experiments in Atlit and had another branch in Hadera. Highly impressed by young Feinberg, he first placed the young man in charge of the Hadera branch, and then made him into his own secretary and right-hand man, despite his lack of agronomical knowledge.
During their six years of friendship, until Feinberg’s highly mysterious and bewildering death in the desert in 1917, Avshalom was a member of the Aaronsohn household, and this period is well-attested. Aaronsohn expressed his love and appreciation of Feinberg in the best way available to an agronomist—by naming a new species of onion after him, which he discovered on the foothills of Mt. Hermon: Allium feinbergii. Eventually, Avshalom became one of the founding members of the Land of Israel’s first Jewish underground group. The Nili organization dedicated itself, under Aaronsohn’s leadership, to collecting information on Ottoman forces in the Land of Israel, in the hopes of helping the British Army conquer the region during the First World War. This would indeed come to pass.
Thanks to the wealth of written material young Feinberg left behind, readers have been able to discover surprising little-known facets of his exceptional personality. In a 1911 travel journal he kept while working at the agricultural research station in Atlit, he expressed his connection to nature and spirituality:
“I stood stunned, speechless at the beauty of the plants. All I could think was that I could well understand this way of honoring God.”
Feinberg’s love of nature was evident even at the end of his life. He was killed in the desert when he was merely 27 years old. He disappeared in the sand dunes around Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula—then the Turkish-British frontline—on 20 January 1917. All initial attempts at finding his body met with failure. It was only after the Six-Day War, once the IDF captured the area where he was killed, that his remains were identified thanks to a palm tree that had grown there, apparently from seeds that were in Feinberg’s pocket when he fell.
Long before Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain were even born, Avshalom Feinberg could have been considered the first member of the notorious “27 Club”. Feinberg was an artist: a virtuoso of the written word, talented, clever, courageous, and creative. The poetic soul of this secular man who worked tirelessly for the revival of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel can be observed in many of his writings. We are left to wonder what he could have become and what he could have written and created, had his life not come to such a cruel end, somewhere far off in the desert.