When Jews From the Land of Israel Vacationed in Lebanon

There was a time when Lebanon's coastal cities and snowy peaks were leading tourist destinations for the Jewish residents of Mandatory Palestine

From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

As a result of the famous Sykes-Picot agreement, a line was drawn in the Middle East, separating Israel, Transjordan and Iraq, which were given to the British, and Syria and Lebanon, which were given to the French. This border wasn’t as inflexible as the modern boundaries we know today. Though tensions certainly existed, these were mainly felt between the various ethnic and religious groups of the region, Arabs and Jews among them. When it came to relations between the respective governments that ruled Mandatory Palestine and Lebanon (and Syria), ties were in fact quite cordial: merchandise was sent from one place to the other, the railways laid down by the Ottomans connected distant lands, and most importantly – people traveled freely across the region.

As a result, just as Jewish merchants moved between Jerusalem, Damascus, Halab, and Beirut during the days of the Ottoman Empire, citizens of Mandatory Palestine – both Jews and Arabs – continued to visit their northern neighbors while living under British rule. The local tourist industry in particular, flourished during this period. Lebanon was considered a fascinating and attractive destination: its southern shores, the vibrant metropolis of Beirut and the beautiful snow-capped mountains – a rare sight in the Middle East. The Hebrew press and bulletin boards were filled with advertisements appealing to the Jewish readers to come and relax in Lebanon.

 

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From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Hundreds of enticing illustrations and advertisements were frequently published in the papers. Ads promoting the country’s many hotels emphasized the cool, almost European weather and the cedar trees viewable from one’s window. These tourist establishments were often given French names to increase their prestige in the eyes of the holiday goers. Just like ads common to this day, they emphasized the short distance from the hub of Beirut, and promised lavish accommodations at affordable prices.

 

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“Gather strength and health in Lebanon – Gaiety and comfort at low cost”, from Do’ar Hayom, June 14th, 1935

 

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An ad promoting the Grand Hotel Casino at Ain Sofar, promising the latest modern appliances – an elevator, central heating, kosher European cuisine, 5 o’ clock tea – all supervised by “Viennese management”, for just 55 francs per day. From Do’ar Hayom, July 29th, 1934

What else attracted potential Hebrew tourists? Ski! In the arid Land of Israel, there weren’t many snowy places to engage in this popular European hobby, but in Lebanon, winter sports flourished, even in springtime. Ski instructors were brought in from Europe, and the promise of enjoying snow so close to home attracted many.

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An ad promoting ski trips to Sofar, Lebanon, with two Swiss ski instructors, from Do’ar Hayom, March 5th, 1935

 

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The snowy peak of Jabal Al Barouk in the Chouf Mountains, Lebanon, 1929. From the archives of the Hebrew Reali School of Haifa, the Bitmuna Collection

So let’s say you decided to spend your summer vacation in Lebanon. How would you get there? You could take the train of course, but why settle for that? Tourists were invited to board one of the ships departing from the port of Haifa and stopping at various ports en route to Beirut, and beyond. You could also choose to travel by bus – these departed from the central bus station in Tel Aviv. The Egged Museum still holds travel tickets to these exotic destinations. And for several hundred Palestine pounds (liras), you could even take a taxi from Haifa.

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From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

 

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On the way to Baalbek, 1929. Photo: Jenka Ratner, the Bitmuna Collection

Of course, you could choose to spend your vacation on an organized trip. The travel company would take care of everything. That way, you could be sure not to miss any significant destination or attraction. Where did these tourists visit? It was unheard of to complete a trip to Lebanon without a tour of the coastal cities, driving up to the Lebanese mountains, and last but not least, visiting the ancient ruins of Baalbek.

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An ad promoting a 10-day organized trip to “Lebanon, the Alawite State and Syria”, including stops in Beirut, Tripoli, Aleppo and Damascus. From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Without doubt, Lebanon was considered an attractive, intriguing destination for many. In the 1930s, competition was so fierce, that hotels even enticed Jewish holidaymakers with the promise of kosher food. Hebrew newspapers published advertisements for acquisitions or partnerships in these hotels, and lectures on the geography of Syria and Lebanon were often given by senior lecturers, educators, and geographers of the Hebrew community in Mandatory Palestine.

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An ad listing Lebanese hotels offering kosher meals, from Ha’aretz, July 1st, 1935

 

Apparently, the practice was so widespread, that summer trips to Lebanon were still being promoted during the early days of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt.  However, it seems as though during this period, some of the hotels went bankrupt. A hotel in Metula at the northern tip of the Land of Israel named itself “The Snows of Lebanon” (Sheleg-HaLevanon) and invited the local holiday-goers to its premises, instead of spending money abroad, in such times of hardship.

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The Snows of Lebanon Hotel in Metula, the Bitmuna Collection

Adverts about trips to Lebanon were advertised even during World War II, although after the Germans conquered France, enemy soldiers were stationed in Syria and Lebanon. However, after Lebanon gained independence in 1943, travel resumed, although to a lesser extent, due to the escalation of the Jewish-Arab conflict in what was still Mandatory Palestine.

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An ad from 1945 advertising an organized week-long trip to Syria and Lebanon. From the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

Of course, the War of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel brought an end to this popular practice. And until we can resume skiing down the slopes of the Chouf Mountains, or sunbathing on Beirut’s beaches, we invite those of you who may recall a family trip to Lebanon, to tell us about it here in the comments, on Facebook, or Twitter.

How the Western Wall Became One of Judaism’s Holiest Sites

When and how did Jews begin praying at the Western Wall?

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View of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

When reading the headline above, those familiar with Jewish sources may be quick to respond by quoting the Midrash: “The Divine Presence has never departed from the Western Wall.” Yet those very knowledgeable people surely know that the Western Wall mentioned by our sages of blessed memory is not the same enormous wall we today call the Western Wall. How then, did the western retaining wall of the Herodian Temple Mount come to be the most prominent national-religious site for Jews around the world?

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Jewish women wearing shawls pray in front of the Western Wall. From the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Let’s start at the beginning. As mentioned, the Western Wall next to which people pray today is one of the four retaining walls built by King Herod as part of the expansion and renovation of the Temple Mount compound and the Temple that stood in the center of it. Yet another quote from the sages concerning the Herodian Temple states the claim: “He who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building” (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 4a). And while most sages probably never got a chance to glimpse the Taj Mahal or the Palace of Versailles, it does seem accurate to say that Herod’s Temple must not have been too shabby. This Temple came to its end in the infamous year 70 CE, when the Roman legions burned it down during the conquest of Jerusalem and suppression of the Great Revolt.

When the sages wrote of “the Western Wall” (HaKotel HaMa’aravi in Hebrew), they probably were still able to see the remains of the western wall of the actual Temple building itself, in addition to the retaining walls of the Temple Mount plaza. This was an impressive relic that apparently remained standing after the Roman fire. This was the wall closest to the Holy of Holies, and its miraculous survival probably added to the sense of awe and sanctity of the place. According to historical estimates, its final destruction occurred by the end of the seventh century at the latest, when the recently arrived Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on the same site. We will return to this lost Western Wall later.

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The Western Wall and Jerusalem from a map of holy places in the Land of Israel. Click here to view the this full map from the National Library’s Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

At some point, the Temple building’s western wall was destroyed, and what remained was the western wall of the Temple Mount – the retaining wall of Herod’s plaza. However, anyone who has ever looked over the Old City must have noticed that this is not the only wall of the Temple Mount left standing. The southern and eastern walls of Herod’s mighty building project also remain, and still support the Temple Mount plaza. Only the northern wall is no longer visible today. The southern and eastern walls were actually incorporated into the walls of the Old City itself. The famous Gate of Mercy, also known as the Golden Gate, through which the Messiah is traditionally supposed to enter Jerusalem, was carved into the eastern Wall.

Indeed, testimonies of travelers who visited the Land of Israel as early as the Byzantine period do not mention prayers taking place on the western side of the Temple Mount necessarily. The account of the “Pilgrim of Bordeaux”, who visited in 333 testifies that Jews still ascended the Temple Mount once a year (probably on the 9th of Av), “and wept and mourned over one stone that remained from their Temple and anointed it with oil.” Could this have been the Foundation Stone which sits today inside the Dome of the Rock? In any case, whether for halakhic reasons or due to the objections of various rulers, Jews stopped ascending the mount itself and contented themselves with frequenting adjacent areas.

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Prayer at the Western Wall. From the Postcard Collection at the National Library of Israel

Later testimonies mention the Western Wall, but not necessarily the place of worship known to us today. A text from the Cairo Genizah written in the 11th century records prayers near the Western Wall, but further north, at a site directly facing the destroyed Holy of Holies. The famous 12th-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela cites the Western Wall by name, stating that Jews prayed there. However, he also placed the Gate of Mercy in the same wall, though, as mentioned, this gate is actually found in the eastern wall. To this must be added the fact that Jews were generally barred from entering the city during this period, and therefore it is unlikely that he personally witnessed Jews praying near today’s Western Wall.

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The Western Wall adorns a map of Jerusalem from the 19th century. Only a few maps of the city prominently display the important site, as most portrayed the city from the east. Click here to view the full map from the National Library Eran Laor Cartographic Collection

Other contemporary travelers mention the Western Wall, but not the custom of praying next to it. Some even point out how the Western Wall stands alone, with none coming to pray or view its massive stone blocks. In the 14th century, Ishtori Haparchi, another famous geographer of the region, wrote of Jews praying at any of the Temple Mount walls which they managed to access, without any particular preference for the one to the west. This description is reinforced by inscriptions engraved by the pilgrims on the various walls (including on the Western Wall) – a common practice in the past among visitors to holy sites.

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Men and women praying at the Western Wall, mid-19th century. Photo: Felix Bonfils, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Only in the 17th century did clear evidence of Jewish prayer in the specific location begin to appear. Initially, it was individuals praying, and slowly, over the years, we see increasing reports of public prayers held at the site. At first, these were special prayers on the Ninth of Av, and later a general prayer site formed that became ingrained in the hearts of all Jews. What strengthened the position of the Western Wall over the other retaining walls of the Temple Mount? There seem to be two main reasons: one is that it is the same Western Wall is mentioned by the Jewish sages. Even if there is confusion in identifying the western wall in question, the current Western Wall is indeed still the closest to the Holy of Holies, the ascent to which, at some point, was forbidden. The second reason is perhaps more prosaic: in the middle of the 15th century, the Jews left their neighborhood on Mount Zion and settled instead in the location of today’s Jewish Quarter. The proximity of this new quarter to the Western Wall helped to turn it into the preferred prayer site for Jerusalem’s Jews. An earthquake in the 16th century apparently uncovered more parts of the Western Wall, enabling the creation of the place of worship familiar to us today. It seems the exclusive sanctification of the Western Wall can be traced to this century.

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Prayer at the Western Wall, early 20th century. It is possible to see the inscriptions engraved on the wall. Photo: Zadok Basan, from the Moshe David Gaon Archive

This, then, is the story of the most important national-religious site in Judaism today. This is how the wall became the symbol of the Jewish people’s longing for Zion. And, this was the story told by the representatives of the Jewish community in the Land Israel to the British Commission of Inquiry set up following the riots of 1929, which erupted following a dispute over prayer at the Western Wall. And what of the notes crammed into the spaces between the stones? This seems to be a “recent” custom introduced only in the 19th century. It took a firmer hold following the British ban on engraving names on the Western Wall, a practice that is no longer accepted today. Other prayer customs at the Western Wall have also changed over the years: today, for example mixed prayer, with both men and women present, is not permitted by the site’s Orthodox rabbis, though this was the practice during the Ottoman period. It turns out that customs, which may seem timeless to us, are in fact based on traditions which have a habit of changing and developing over time.

 

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New Digital Platform Celebrates Else Lasker-Schüler

Lasker-Schüler, one of Germany's greatest poets, fled to Jerusalem in the 1930s. "Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform" offers digital access to a large portion of her literary and artistic legacy.

Else Lasker-Schüler in 1919, the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) is considered to be one of the greats of German poetry, a bohemian artist who corresponded with many of the most prominent cultural figures of her time including Albert Einstein, Martin Buber and Thomas Mann. She fled Nazi Germany to British Mandatory Palestine, ultimately settling in Jerusalem, where she lived a life of obscurity and poverty.

Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform” is a collaboration between Jerusalem’s National Library of Israel (NLI), home to Lasker-Schüler’s personal archive, and the German Literature Archive (DLA), home to a significant collection of her works. The platform, available in English, provides a window into the life and work of Lasker-Schüler, offering digital access for the first time to a large portion of her physically scattered literary and artistic legacy, accompanied by explanatory and illuminating texts provided by leading experts.

Der zielende Blitz übt sich im Pfeil und Bogen vor, by Else Lasker-Schüler, 1940, the Else Lasker-Schüler Archive at the National Library of Israel

The materials on display reveal the deliberately hybrid forms of Lasker-Schuler’s work: manuscripts, letters, telegrams, fragments, collages and drawings, which reveal the dissolution of boundaries between life and art, writing and drawing, staged self and imaginary figures, even between German and Hebrew in tone, writing and illustration. The platform has been made possible with the generous support of Karl Albrecht.

An online event celebrating the launch of “Poetic Textures” will be held on Tuesday, July 14 at 19:00 Israel time / 18:00 German time.  The event is presented as a DLA – NLI collaboration, and as part of the “Gesher L’Europe” initiative to connect NLI with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

“Poetic Textures: Else Lasker-Schüler Archives. An Online Platform” is available at: www.laskerschuelerarchives.org.

 

 

The Else Lasker-Schüler Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

 

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Tel Aviv’s First Firefighters

The story of Israel's first fire department

A Tel Aviv firefighter, the Photohouse Collection

Growing up, we all wanted to be firefighters. It’s what we saw on television. We dressed up as firefighters for Purim or Halloween, played with red firetrucks and put out fires with an imaginary hose. We wanted to fight fires and rescue cats stranded in treetops. To be honest, it wasn’t the heroic aspect that was appealing so much as it was the simple fact that firefighters take a great photo. The Tel Aviv firefighters were well-aware of this and gladly went along with the tradition – to no one’s surprise, they were unbelievably photogenic.

Tel Aviv firefighters, 1938, the Photohouse Collection

The city’s merchants were the first to recognize the need and also the first to act: Two large manual fire pumps, two small ones, 200 meters worth of hoses, 50 pails, axes and shovels were donated for the establishment of the first fire department in Israel – the Tel Aviv Fire Brigade.

In its early years, the brigade relied primarily on volunteers. They operated throughout the 1920s – the decade of the brigade’s establishment – improvising as they went along, with no guidance from the authorities. Once they were set up, the volunteers requested that the city council provide them with equipment and funding.

It wasn’t until 1929, when the number of fires in the city rose, that the city council began to allocate funds for the fire brigade. In 1935, a year after the volunteers struggled to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Petah Tikva “Ha’argaz” factory, a special committee was appointed to investigate the state of the city’s firefighting infrasctructure, concluding that a staff of volunteers would no longer suffice; instead, a large-scale fire department was to be built, fully equipped with high-end extinguishing equipment and paid firefighters.

In her book, Surrounded by Light and Sea (Hebrew), Anat Helman notes that “Some of the committee’s conclusions were gradually implemented, and a few years later fires were handled in most part by paid firefighters, while volunteers were left with a secondary role.”

A booklet titled “The Volunteer Firefighter: The Tel Aviv Fire Brigade celebrates its ‘Bar Mitzvah’ anniversary“, (Hebrew) January, 1938. The illustrated graph in thebottom image displays the number of fires in Tel Aviv during the years 1931-1937.

The Tel Aviv fire department was not only busy extinguishing fires and rescuing cats. After the Tel Aviv Police Orchestra shut down, the fire Department Orchestra and the Maccabi Tel Aviv orchestra competed for the public’s affections. In the mid-1930s, the fire brigade won first place in the Tel Aviv orchestra competition.

The volunteer firefighters would also be tasked with providing security for public events. On more than one occasion, they used their fire hoses to disperse protests that had gotten out of hand, a practice that received some harsh criticism from sections of the public.

The Tel Aviv fire department by the water tower on Rothschild Boulevard, the 1920s, the Bitmuna Collection

Tel Aviv’s firefighters, 1938, the PhotoHouse Collection

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