I probably should be embarrassed to say it, but I have rarely been to Tel Aviv. When I was here for the summer in 1962, Tel Aviv was Israel’s largest city; now it is the second largest. Before my aliyah, I had visited Israel dozens of times, and in all my visits I probably spent less than 48 hours total in this city on the Mediterranean coast. When I did visit, or drove past it on my way somewhere else, it always impressed me as a a large modern city full of tall buildings.
But to spend time there, sightseeing? What was there to see?
I owe Tel Aviv an apology.
A recent day trip showed me there is much more to the city than I had known. The tour was sponsored by Pardes, where I had spent the winter studying Kings I; the guide was Shulie Mishkin. If Pardes and Shulie thought Tel Aviv was worth a full day, who was I to argue?
Allen and I had been to Jaffa, once an independent city, now incorporated into Tel Aviv, several times. Jaffa is ancient. Its first mention by name occurred when Egypt conquered the city about 3500 years ago. Jaffa was a well-known port when Jonah sailed from there, running away from the mission that G-d had imposed on him. The Romans, Crusaders, generations of Christian pilgrims, and early Jewish pioneers all entered the Holy Land here.
By the end of the 19th century, Jaffa was poor, rundown, filthy, and crowded. Travelers left the city as quickly as they could. Some would-be pioneers were so discouraged by their first sight of the land of their aspirations, they took the next ship back to Europe.
In the early 20th century, people started building outside Jaffa. When Aaron Chelouche, a rich Jew from North Africa, bought land north of the city, his wife refused to move out of the city. She would not go anywhere unless she had neighbors. So Chelouche joined with the Rokach brothers to sell plots of his land. Then Meir Dizengoff and Arye Weiss bought an area of sand dunes north of Jaffa. Sixty-six other people joined in, and in April 1909 the area was dedicated as the new Jewish city of Ahuzat Bayit. “Home Ownership” did not appeal to many as the name of a new modern city. The next year it was renamed “Tel Aviv,” the Hill of Spring, from a sentence in Ezekiel.
But even before the city was established, a cemetery had been dedicated here. Like most overcrowded cities with no water treatment or sewage disposal, Jaffa was periodically swept by epidemics. In 1902, it was cholera. Many people died, but they could not be buried in the city—it was against the law. However, the Turks did give the Jewish residents of Jaffa permission to by land further away, in the sand dunes north of the city. The Rokachs bought the land and the cemetery was dedicated.
There is an old tradition that a wedding between orphans conducted in a cemetery will stop an epidemic. It is called a Black Wedding because the bride a groom stand under a black huppah (wedding canopy). As cholera victims were being buried in the new cemetery, two orphans married each other there, standing under a black huppah. The Rabbis also established a genizah, a depository for worn out Torah scrolls and other holy items, in the cemetery.
The night the rain started and the epidemic ended.
Located in sand dunes, the cemetery had a big problem. The sand blew in and covered the graves So a few years later, a wall was built around it. Later the cemetery was named Trumpeldor. Joseph Trumpeldor was an early Zionist activist and military leader. He was killed in 1920 while defending of the Jewish settlement at Tel Hai in the Galil from an Arab attack.
The cemetery was officially in use until 1932, although a few very expensive grave sites remain available. A little over a year and a half ago, Arik Einstein, one of the country’s most popular singer/composers is buried here. A veritable who’s who of Israel’s history lies among its more than 3000 graves.
Just inside the cemetery gate is a large memorial over the graves of 47 people killed in the Arab riots of 1921. The “official” explanation was that the looting and killing were a reaction to the May Day
parade. Later it was learned that the rioting had been planned in advance.
The tall white stone reads:
Memorial of Brothers
to the holy and pure souls
who were murdered in Jaffa and its surroundings
in the blood riots of May 1921
on the 23rd and 24th days of Nissan
(the Hebrew letters at the bottom of the inscription mean “May their souls be bound in eternal life”)
Despite the wording of the memorial, this is not a true “grave of brothers,” a mass grave in which the dead lie unidentified next to each to each other in a single crypt. Shiny white individual tombstones sit at the base of the standing memorial, as if sections of a huge mosaic table. As our group listened to the explanation of the riots, several people leaned against or sat on the stone. When reminded that these were actual graves, they immediately stood back up.
One of the famous political leaders buried here is Meir Dizengoff,
who was the first mayor of Tel Aviv, serving from 1911 to 1936. Moshe Sharett, the second Prime minister of Israel is also here. He left instructions that only his name be inscribed on his stone. But it is the living, not the dead, who decide what goes on gravestones. His stone holds his biography, in enough detail to satisfy any history teacher.
Besides Arik Einstein, other artists and poets lie here. Shoshana Damari, a popular singer who was born in Yemen, is also interred here. In 1924, a year after her birth her family made aliyah to British Palestine after walking 186 miles to the port in Aden. She was a talented actress and singer, and was awarded the Israel Prize for Hebrew Song in 1988. When she died at age 82, the entire country mourned her passing. Kalaniot, bright red anemones, decorate her tombstone in tribute to her most popular song, Kalaniot.
The essayist Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, is buried here under his pen name Ahad Ha-Am. The name means One of the People. He is credited with founding cultural Zionism, in his words, “a Jewish state, not just a state for Jews.” This was the counterpart of Herzl’s political Zionism.
Shaul Tchernikovsky, despite living and working as a doctor in Russian, is better known for his Hebrew poetry. Despite his desire to live in the holy land, he could not gain approval from the Ottomans to practice medicine. He made aliyah in 1931, when he started editing The Book of Medical and Scientific Terms, which gave definitions in Latin, Hebrew and English.
The most visited grave in the cemetery, if judged by the number of small stones placed on the grave marker, is that of Chaim Nachman Bialik. Bialik’s poetry is so well known, he is called the National Poet of Israel. His work is a required part of the curriculum from elementary school through high school. When he made aliyah at the age of 51, he was already well known as a poet and publisher. Both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem vied to become his home. He chose Tel Aviv, where he lived and worked for the last ten years of his life.
As a teenager in the US, I sang the first stanza of his song welcoming the Sabbath:
The sun has already disappeared beyond the treetops,
Come let us go and welcome the Sabbath Queen,
She is already descending among us, holy and blessed,
And with her are angels, a host of peace and rest,
Come, O Queen,
Come, O Queen,
Peace be unto you, O Angels of Peace.