Stories of the Old and Good Israel

A new book filled with great love for the people, Land, and State of Israel, in particular, those who dedicated their lives to the rebirth of Israel * One hundred stories written in the good old spirit of classic, religious Zionism * The story of the “Children of Tehran”, who fled Poland during the war, wandered between countries for over three years, and suffered greatly until arriving in Israel * Despite the remaining scars, the “Children of Tehran” blended well into the fabric of Israeli life * Specifically Rabbi Kook’s speech at the inauguration of the Hebrew University, attacked by the secular press, was quoted by the Rector at a ceremony fifty years later

One Hundred Eretz Yisrael Stories

My uncle from my mother’s side of the family, Ze’ev Valk, recently published an important and pleasant book, filled with great love for the people and the Land of Israel, aliyah (immigration), settlement and the State, and particularly about the virtuous people who dedicated their lives to the rebirth of Israel.

He tells the story of the settlers and dreamers, and sheds light on characters and extraordinary events, opening a window into the life of the community and the nascent state. Among other stories, he tells about the first Zionist photographer, about the premature joy of finding oil, about the Jezreel Valley railroad and the establishment of the neighborhood of Rehavia, about the battalion of Hebrew language defenders, about Ben Gurion, who forced I.D.F. officers to Hebraize their family names, and about the admission of foreign workers into a Jewish village, and the problem of milking cows on Shabbat.

The stories are depicted with emotion, and while reading them, tears often swell-up spontaneously. Some of the stories are about the painful sacrifice of the ma’apalim (‘illegal’ immigrants) and fighters, but they too are enveloped with a thread of grace and comfort. The stories of sacrifice intensify in stages – from Rabbi Yehuda Halevi and Rabbi Haim Ben Attar who immigrated in order to cherish the soil of our Land, to Natan Elbaz, the soldier who sacrificed his life to save his friends from a hand-grenade. This is the same Natan Elbaz who, on a street named after him in S’derot, when a there was a missile attack fifty years later, a young woman named Ella Abuksis, may God revenge her blood, shielded her younger brother with her body and saved him from death. My uncle tells about the ma’apalim who sailed in rickety boats, and about the kedoshim (holy ones) who drowned in the depths on their way to the loved and desired Land of Israel. He tells about the last battle of the religious military unit, the heroism of the people of Kfar Darom, the fall of Gush Etzion, and its present-day resurrection.

The stories were written in the good spirit of classic religious Zionism, which underscores the best of all ethnic groups and whose criticism is hinted at gently, is partner with the public in its grief and joy, and with self-sacrifice, contributes to the building of the nation and the country. The book is particularly readable, interesting, enlightening and meaningful. It is published by Carmel Publishers, and is now in stores.

In honor of Israel Independence Day which we celebrated not long ago, I chose to share the story of the “Children of Teheran” from the book.

The “Children of Tehran”

The “Children of Tehran” is the nickname for about a thousand orphans from Poland, who fled with their families eastward from the threat of World War II (starting in 1939), traveled in many countries, and arrived in Tehran after more than three years. During the arduous journey they suffered hunger, Siberian cold, desert heat, anti-Semitic persecution, and disease. Many parents died on the way, and thus, these orphans arrived in Tehran. And although these children did not undergo the notorious horrors of the Holocaust, such as ghettos and death camps, they experienced similar sufferings on their own flesh and blood.

In Tehran, all the orphans were assembled in a tent camp called “the Jewish child home”, and prepared for aliyah with the help of young counselors from Poland sent from Israel. From Persia the refugees traveled to the port city of Karachi in Pakistan, from where they sailed to Egypt and continued by train to Israel.

This is what Sarah, a young girl, wrote in her diary: “It’s hard to believe that in one week we’ll be in Eretz Yisrael. Am I not dreaming? And how, how will my feet, which trampled on dead bodies, froze on the Siberian wilderness, burned on the hot Afghanistan soil – how will they stand on the soil of our homeland?”

When the train arrived in Israel, she said: “And here, the special sign ‘Palestine’ appeared. We jumped to our feet, clapped our hands, and cries of joy burst from our throats. And suddenly, a new landscape before our eyes: Green! Green! How green! Fences, trees, sown fields. My land is so beautiful! … I cannot stop myself, and jump from window to window. And in the window – my land! My land – roads, my land – villages, my land – orchards … my land – earth… and blue skies … I did not know you were so beautiful, my land. ”

On the thirteenth of Adar 1, 5703 (1943), the largest group of “Children of Tehran” arrived in Israel. It was the first meeting of the Jewish community in Israel with Holocaust survivors, and the excitement was enormous. The train passed the Rechovot and Hadera stations, and ended its journey in Atlit. In every place, crowds waited and cheered for the survivors. Many members of the community flocked to the orphanage camp hoping to find family members, but only a few were fortunate enough.

While in Karachi, they were given large, wide-brimmed hats to protect them from the sun, and upon their arrival to Israel, they all wore these helmets like little soldiers. The children found an effective use for those hats: upon reaching the piles of oranges prepared for them, they filled the deep hats with abundant fruit…

Davidi related: “One of my first, most vivid childhood memories is the reception held for the “Children of Tehran” who were welcomed into my childhood moshav, S’de Yaakov. Our humble school was decorated. In honor of their arrival, we sang over and over again, with all our might and enthusiasm, ‘heiveinu shalom aleichem‘. Although we were very young, we felt the enormity of the occasion.”

Yitzchak and Edna, “Children Tehran”, told about their first meeting with Israeli life: “Our eyes were spinning in their sockets looking at the vast amount of food on the table; we couldn’t believe our eyes – mountains of fresh bread, and everything in abundance. We stood and stared … ‘No, this is impossible, it cannot be…’ the table was covered with knives, forks, and salt shakers, the beds were covered in white sheets … toothbrush’s … For four years, we never believed we would have a warm home once again.”

But after the celebrations ended, everything returned to its regular routine. That’s when the real challenge of absorbing the ‘survivors of the fires’ began. Most of the young refugees were indeed disciplined, polite and grateful, but the years of agony and wandering took its toll. Many of them suffered from nightmares in which all the horrors re-surfaced. Some of them lost trust in others – even in their counselors – for they had learned firsthand that ‘man’s heart is evil from his youth’. Some of them found it difficult to adapt to a binding framework, in which there were tasks and a schedule. The indigenous, Israeli-born “pure sabra’s”, initially had a hard time absorbing the Yiddish-speaking children. But in the end, the children were acclimatized well, and participated in building the new state.

Benzion Tomer summed-up things well: “The “Children of Tehran” were superbly woven into the fabric of this country. Many of them were martyred defending it. Many held senior positions in the IDF, the sciences and medicine, in the fields of management, economics, and agriculture… It seems that missing a few school years was not an obstacle for them at all… How did they achieve this, and thanks to who? First and foremost, thanks to their own strength, but no less then this, thanks to the love that accompanied their first encounter with the country and its people.”

Rabbi Kook’s Speech at the Opening Ceremony of Hebrew University

Quite naturally, I have special affection for the description devoted to the speech of Rabbi Kook at the opening of the Hebrew University in the month of Nissan 5685 (1925), because the main points presented there are the words of the author’s father, my grandfather, Professor Joseph Valk z”l, who wrote an article about it entitled: “An Untimely Speech, or a Speech before its Time.”

Rabbi Kook explained in his speech that there are two historical intellectual trends in Judaism: one trend is insular and entirely sacred, designed to deepen its spirit; this is what is studied in yeshiva’s, which are designed to raise the banner of Torah and glorify it. Then there is the second trend which serves not only to delve deeper into the sacred, but also to draw concepts and values ​​from Judaism into the global world, to be a light unto the nations, to integrate general sciences into mankind, and adapt and purify its finest and most excellent aspects into the treasures of Jewish life. The insular-yeshiva trend poses little risk; however, the second trend that faces outwards, from our ‘reshut ha’yachid‘ (private domain) into the ‘reshut ha’rabim‘ (public domain) of the world at large, carries a great risk, because past experience has taught us that it could lead to assimilation – both spiritual and physical – among the nations. And as the spiritual emissary of observant Judaism, Rabbi Kook turned to those present, and said: “In this, my beloved friends, lies the danger.” In order to explain, he elaborated on the need to establish yeshiva’s based in all aspects of the Torah, and the need for the college (university) – both its’ teachers and students – to sanctify the name of God, Israel, and Eretz Yisrael, and in no way to desecrate them. As a result, we will merit the fulfillment of the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of Torah “going forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”

The Ceremony and the Condemnations of the Speech

As well-known, some Haredim vehemently attacked and slandered Rabbi Kook for his participation in the ceremony, claiming he had said in his speech that the university alone would bring redemption to Am Yisrael, the Torah, and the world. But as it turned out, even the “enlightened” public was not pleased with his appearance and speech.

The plan was that Rabbi Kook would open the ceremony with a welcoming speech, followed by the speeches of the honored guests – first, Lord Balfour, then the High Commissioner, and lastly, the poet Bialik was honored with the closing statements. In truth, the longest speech was delivered by Lord Balfour, but many people complained about the length of Rabbi Kook’s speech, claiming that because of him, the entire ceremony was thrown off schedule. Some also complained about his long, black coat and his big, archaic shtreimel which blocked the view of Lord Allenby sitting next to him. On the other hand, they praised the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, the scholar, Dr. Hertz, who auspiciously recited a short and exceedingly esteemed prayer, appropriate for the academic atmosphere. And then, there were those who even hinted that Rabbi Kook intentionally came to ruin the ceremony, so as to appease the Haredim, who were fasting and mourning on that same day because of the opening of the University.

In the newspaper ‘Do’ar Ha’Yom‘, journalist Avraham Elmaliach wrote: “On the one hand, what elation and endless excitement at hearing the speeches and prophetic vision of the High Commissioner and Lord Balfour; on the other hand, what bitter disappointment and how cursed is the day upon hearing the sermons and longwinded lectures of Rabbi Kook and Bialik. The ‘head rabbi’ stuffed his listeners with verses of Tehillim (Psalms), and the ‘head poet’ with fairy tales… The head of Israel’s rabbis gave the first blow in the celebration’s opening, and the head of the Hebrew poets gave the final blow … What’s the point of all of these drawn-out speeches, which forced even level-headed people among the crowd to erupt with cries of: ‘Enough! Enough!’ … All the same, I respect Rabbi Kook very much.”

Another journalist, Hannah Tone, wrote that out of the crowd of thousands that had gathered, “Ninety percent of the audience showed no real understanding of the rabbis undoubtedly true, religious enthusiasm…” but, in her words, there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between a religious ceremony and a national one, and combining them together creates an “extraordinarily bad taste, and as a result – a sense of shame among the serious participants, and a yawn, or a wink, among the cynics.” The purpose, in her estimation, was political – to appease and include the religious community’s representative to recite a blessing – which must be done in a hurry. But when it became evident that the rabbi intended to give a major speech upsetting the order of the ceremony, the crowd became resentful.”


Interestingly enough, as my grandfather pointed out, on the fiftieth anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Hebrew University, the secular rector of the University, Nathan Rottenstreich, saw fit to conclude his address by quoting from Rabbi Kook’s speech at the opening ceremony. Apparently, only his words remained for generations.

Maybe in another ten years, at the centennial celebration of its founding, we will be able to say that the Hebrew University has begun to realize the great vision that Rabbi Kook set for it.

This article appeared in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.