Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

19 Adar 5761 - March 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Roots of Settlement:
Religious Conflict in Tel Aviv- Yaffo

by D. Rachelson

Part I

Russian was heard everywhere. There was a feeling that one was in a large city in inner Russia. The Russian newcomers also didn't remove their clothing, and dared not change their dress, as was the custom of the native land.

The hat remained on their heads as in the wilds of Siberia, lest it be said that they came from the nations of the land. The hat was as sacred to them as the shtreimel was to the chareidim of Jerusalem, and demonstrated to all that they came from Russia. They were proud that their children were called by non-Jewish names, such as Moscow, Edric, and not by Jewish names.

Sound familiar? History repeats itself. "What was, is what will be," says Koheles. Then things appeared in the Chavatzelet edition of 11 Tammuz, 5651 (1891) almost a hundred and ten years ago -- criticisms against the members of the First Aliya who had come to live in Tel Aviv- Yaffo, an aliya which had begun to create rifts among the residents of the city, and sharp conflicts between the chareidi and religious residents of the city on one side, and the members of the new aliya on the other.

Following is an account of a conflict which began then and which brought the city to its current situation in which it is far removed from religion reserving, perhaps, a place of honor for religion in a remote corner, like an exotic nature reserve or a pleasant spot, too closed and sealed to influence its surroundings. All this is the direct result of more than a century of undermining religion.

@Big Let Body=From a letter written by HaRav Naftali Hertz HaLevi, the rav of Yaffo and the surrounding settlements (and author of the Gra Siddur), we learn about how he coped with those who had cast off religion. In a letter to the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, the Netziv, he writes: "We must do all that is possible. The main thing is that these clerks return from their bad ways, or be replaced by better ones."

HaRav HaLevi was referring to the trend of mixed dancing and the like, which had begun to take root in the city and which had the passive backing -- in their studied ignoring of all the new trends -- of the government officials.

Things degenerated from day to day. What had once been taboo and red-line became, in a very brief time, the lesser of two evils. The new immigrants and the secular maskilim began to desecrate Shabbos in public. They refused to listen to the warnings of the rav, until a meeting of the Vaad Hakehilla, which had acquired its ethical and economic power from the old yishuv in Jerusalem, asked him: "Speak to the people, because soft words will have a good effect."

The maskilim, and mainly the teachers, joined together in the Bnei Moshe association and tried, in every possible manner, to gain full control of the city's institutions and organizations. They demanded representation in the Vaad Hakehilla claiming that the existing Vaad does not loyally represent the worker and lay cross section of Yaffo's residents. In time, due to their stubborn persistence, the maskilim brought about new elections.

On a Sunday in Kislev 5653 (1893), Vaad members were chosen for the first time from the (non-religious) immigrant sector, but the remaining members of the old Vaad did not cooperate with them, and the Vaad Hakehilla, which was antagonistic to the immigrants, barely met until, as the historians say, "neglect abounded in the city and disorder and divisiveness got out of hand." In light of the ugly situation, the rav of the city fervently called on the members of his community to make peace. All this took place in old Yaffo; Tel Aviv was not founded until 1909.

"You know that it wasn't with force that I was made your head, but that you, out of your own good will, took me as your rav. I barely acquiesced to the request of the gedolim of Yerushalayim who sent me to you. You know of my great and even extreme patience. I have dedicated myself to the city to the utmost of my ability, and alone bore your troubles and arguments. Even though my meager daily fare does not come from you, I am prepared to convene a large meeting of all of the parties and to negotiate peace. But those who want to continue will do what they please, and will even take another rav . . . Please, though, may they stop causing strife in the city."

A short while after the emotion-filled letter of the rav, the Vaad began to function in its previous format, but continued to be called by its new name, Havaad Hameuchad (The United Committee). The magical word "Meuchad" was part of its name on the outside, but without any inner content, and without resulting in any substantial unity with the secular maskilim.

The wars and the religious controversies during the years 5654-5656 (1894-1896) centered around the schools, mixed social events and the opening of theaters. The chairman of the executive board of Yaffo, Dr. Hillel Yaffeh, did not curb his feelings of disgust for the members of Jews of the old yishuv and its way of education. Out of national and secular aspirations, they began to cast off the values of pure Jewish education in the schools in every way possible.

A researcher of the history of Tel Aviv and its development, Dr. Channa Kam, describes interesting events which centered around the changes made in the schools. The rabbonim of Jerusalem placed a cheirem on the schools in Yaffo, and many parents took their children out of them. HaRav Naftali Hertz HaLevi came out very sharply against the school, and one of the teachers, Lewin-Epstein, told him: "How can you condemn the school, when you've never even visited it. I told him how they daven three times a day there, study dinim according the Talmud and the Shulchan Oruch, and asked him to come and to see that I was right."

To this he replied: "I can't visit it, because there's a cheirem on it, and it is forbidden to even enter it."

Chavatzelet (15 Cheshvan 5655-1895) mentions a public controversy which took place between the rabbonim of Jerusalem and the rav of Yaffo, HaRav Naftoli Tzvi Hertz HaLevi. The rabbonim of Jerusalem sharply decried the fact that he wasn't doing enough in order to prevent the spreading of secularism in his city, and didn't come out strongly against those who derided the words of Chazal in the school.

From his city, and out of his struggles for existence, he replies that he examines everything before he responds, and that it is not his way to argue with the residents of the city, not even on ideology. In the end, HaRav HaLevi threw the ball back to the rabbonim of Jerusalem, and said, "You must make it publicly known that everyone who is familiar with Achad Ha'Am is like a traitor."

At times things regressed to the point of actual violence, and to the summoning of the Turkish police. Thus at a performance of the play Zerubovel in Rechovot, after it was forbidden to be shown in Yaffo, the rav sent his messengers to demand that the play be stopped immediately. When the arguments reached the point of violence, the Turkish police, who arrived on the site, scattered the audience, and the play was canceled. The maskilim blamed the rav for informing against them to the Turks, and claimed: "It's a mitzvah to disrupt so base a deed to the greatest extent possible."

The maskilim, who sought to antagonize and to alienate the members of the old yishuv, used many other ways of fighting. They founded a glee club, against the will of the old yishuv, who claimed that there was no place in Eretz Yisroel for dances around the Eigel Hazohov, and no place in Eretz Yisroel for Greek culture and its idols. As opposed to them, Ben Yehuda and his friends wanted to found a Hebrew state which would espouse nationalism and open secularism.

The Jewish settlement expanded with the First Aliya, and its view and totally different lifestyles, led to many conflicts between the residents of the city. But to their dismay, they were sometimes forced to work together in order to stand up to the enemies from without-- the Arabs and the Turkish regime, with its police and soldiers, who cruelly attacked them, and on more than one occasion inner strife was forgotten due to the sword which was brandished from outside.

Two Levels

It seems as if the lives of the members of the yishuv proceeded on two planes. In all that pertained to external issues, they were united. Various organizations arose in order to help Jews who made aliya, and among the members of the committees were chareidim and religious Jews, secular Jews and maskilim, Ashkenazim and Sephardim.

Urgent collections were made, part of which reached the poor immigrants, and part of which were paid as bribery to the tax officials and the like. Efforts were made to ease the prohibition against entering the country, and maximal efforts were made in order to improve the attitude of the officials at the coast toward those who had been expelled from the country.

Only in the complex interpersonal relations and unique relationships in Yaffo, Chana Kam concludes, in which the entire structure of the institutions was based on the merging of old and new, with a conspicuous affinity toward the people of Yerushalayim, could the trustee of the Shaarei Torah Talmud Torah receive material help in the Shaar Tzion office of Bnei Brith, while everywhere else in the country a raging storm would have erupted from such institutional merging.

Tel Aviv

Originally founded as just another expansion of Yaffo, though it was deliberately located at a distance in order to preserve its quiet, Tel Aviv was settled in 1910. It in turn expanded rapidly as further new neighborhoods were built on all sides. By 1914 its population had grown to 2,026 souls in 182 houses. In 1921 it became an independent political entity. In 1922 its population was up to 15,000 and only three years later it had jumped to 34,000. By 1931 its population had gradually increased to 45,500, but then it almost tripled to 120,000 by 1935 in the so-called Fifth Aliya consisting mostly of refugees from Germany after the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1934 it became a city, and in 1939 it numbered 160,000 residents who were more than a third of the entire Jewish community of Eretz Yisroel at the time.

Controversial Purim Celebrations

The conflicts between the members of the old yishuv and the secular aliya in Tel Aviv reached a peak in the years 5689-90 (1929-30). Raucous ideological debates and controversies accompanied and overcast the Purim celebrations in Tel Aviv that year. Fundamental deliberations were held in the papers about whether to let the new Hebrew city put on plays on sections of the Megilla. This was against the backdrop of Arab disturbances that had caused much pain to the Jewish community.

In the city's streets, huge announcements were posted decrying the "villainy in Israel," and which said: "Eretz Hakodesh is covered with disgrace upon hearing that this year too the secular in Tel Aviv plan to hold their indecent gathering. At a time when the blood of our victims is still wet and the tears still haven't been wiped from the eyes of tens of thousands of Jews, at a time when unfortunate widows and orphans bemoan their losses and the bitterness of their lives, the wanton among us organize unruly, and rowdy gatherings of terrible indecency.

"The wanton, younger generation has in that manner shown how far they have strayed from their Jewish roots," the announcement further said. "They show that they disdain the devastation of Eretz Yisroel, its destruction, and the pain of an entire nation doesn't mean anything to them. In order to stress their detachment from klal Yisroel, they convene gatherings of derision, and make fun of that nation from which they emerged, and on whom they turn their backs.

"For this purpose, rabbonim will speak in the Yeshiva Gedolah -- Meah Shearim, on Monday, 27 Teves at 11 (4 European time) and will explain to those in attendance the serious prohibition , and the grave outcomes which are expected chas vesholom to result from such corruption. All those for whom dvar Hashem is dear, and in whose hearts burn love and feelings of respect for Eretz hakodesh, must not be absent from the drosho."

The events of Tarpat (5689) (including the massacre of the Hebron Jewish community and the yeshiva there) and the agitation of the blood of the kedoshim, stirred up the blood of the living, who published strong letters pleading and begging that such gatherings not be held at an eis tsoro leYaakov.

HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer and HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein, the latter the rosh yeshiva of the Hebrew yeshiva that suffered devastating losses, and the chief rabbis as well even intervened in the issue. In a letter dated 2 Shevat 5690, the Chief Rabbi of that time, HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, wrote the mayor of Tel Aviv, Mr. Dizengoff, saying: "With all due respect, I remind your honor that I am waiting for his response regarding the monster of the choosing of a Purim Queen. When I wrote to your honor, I attached also the signatures of the rabbonim hageonim, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Epstein and HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer, shlita. Respectfully yours."

One of the chief opponents from the secular sector writes about the Purim shows: "Two opposites met at the same time on Purim 5689 (1929) in Tel Aviv. On the one side a mass of loafers fill the streets, and two disguised Queen Esthers pass through, bedecked with gaudy decorations and accompanied by a large and raucous band, while tens of thousands of people stand in the street doing nothing and don't know what to think about its baseness. What is suitable in Europe with others, is not always befitting to us."

Another Tel Aviv writer expresses his resolute opinion in favor of the Purim celebrations: "Laughter suits the entire world and mischievous and youthful capers are delightful. We're the only ones who aren't allowed to enjoy ourselves. All of the countries of the world who bear the burdens of wars and peace, of economy, culture and civilizations, also sanction having fun at boxing matches and ball games. We're the only ones for whom all that is forbidden."

At first the mayor tried to avoid the issue, saying: "We can't enforce the cancellation of the celebrations, because the council is not authorized to interfere in the matter."

But the continued pressure of the religious in the city and the council led Mr. Dizengoff to issue the following announcement in the newspapers: "Without entering into arguments about the question of the celebrations and without my having changed my mind about the suitability of the Purim plays, I have decided to cancel the celebrations and the party, and to desist from the matter in the future too."

In Ha'aretz of the 11th of Shevat 5790, a Tel Aviv writer who signed his name Tarfon, bemoans the canceling of the Purim plays in a bitter and sarcastic poem: "We have been told bad news/ That on the merits of activists and righteous Jews/ Queen Esther will not be elected/ This year, as in the past, she will not be selected/ Half of her kingdom will be taken away/ Efforts to crown her will go astray/ She won't be brought to City Hall/ Her advisors, and confidants, and the mayor won't deliver a speech in honor of her crowning at all/ We don't know from where she has come, and we don't know where she will roll/ She's an orphan and a bas Yisroel/ What is her sin? /Wherein did she stumble, wherein?/ The enemies of Israel please send home/ and the Queen please leave alone."

The newspaper Patshegen HaKsav written by "Mr. Agadati" on Purim of 1930, describes at length the development of the entire affair, and within the article, we find a number of interesting anecdotes. The paper is found in the archives of the Hebrew University and National Library in Jerusalem.

"Days are coming for which I have longed. The edict of the Second Koresh was given to the Jewish People, and the members of my nation have made aliya to the land as pioneers. They worked, built, paved, planted and established a large city in which they revived the holidays of Israel in their ancient form, and also began to celebrate Purim with much elegance, a symbolic holiday, which they celebrated with horns, cheers of glee and happiness, at home and outside.

"And lo, opponents who saw these celebrations as offenses to religion, chas vecholiloh, arose. Have a happy holiday, rejoice, be merry and may your spirits not fall. All of the wicked I shall cut down. The remembrance of Haman and his sons in all of the generations and all of the times will be lost. Am Yisroel lives and Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker. Build and found the land of Israel, celebrate our holidays, and Esther, Charvona and Mordechai remember for the good."

Spry publicity agents pounced upon the affair, and the name of Queen Esther was inserted into commercials in order to promote sales: "Purim without Queen Esther! As her replacement, the yishuv has unanimously elected Galil cigarettes which have been packaged in a special luxury carton for mishloach manos."

A sewing machine was also advertised in the same vein: "Having no choice, there is no Queen Esther in Tel Aviv this year. However, the Singer machine is the queen of the sewing machines forever after."

Attacking the Rabbonim

In order to uproot the foundations of Yiddishkeit, the members of the aliya and the Haskalah movement didn't balk at any method. In their war against the people of the dor hayashan, they resorted to ugly, unfit and repulsive means. Wherever Jews confronted them like a firm rock, the maskilim did not succeed in their corrupt deeds. However those who tried to meet them halfway and were considerate and "understanding" of them, broke like weak reeds and could not withstand the power of the storm the maskilim brought with them.

One of the most abhorrent methods they used was to offend the rabbonim of Yerushalayim indirectly. Frontal attacks on the leaders of the flock, which were done in a sophisticated and wily manner -- and as is known a word of jest is far more effective than thousands of words of rebuke -- also found attentive ears. At first they didn't dare to attack the rabbonim directly, but rather in a roundabout way, believing that if they offended the rebbetzin, then the value of the rav would decrease without their having to fight with him directly and without their being the objects of his bans.

Following is an excerpt from the book of Mr. Kasan, the president of Bnei Brith (written in memory of David Yellin). These acidic, thorny words reek with poison and wickedness. An in-depth, between-the-lines examination teaches us of what those heretics were jealous, what bothered them, and at what they were angry.

"Fanaticism in Jerusalem during those days blossomed like a palm tree. The staunch bearers of its banner had only recently come to Eretz Yisroel, and their strength was still fresh. The rebbetzin of Brisk reigned supreme. Those who fought in the battle of the times under the name of `talmidei HaRav miBrisk' and who had been drafted into the holy army one by one, terrorize Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh and all of its residents, and all tremble in fear of the thrust of their hard hand, and their soaring spirits which were at that time like a raging sea waiting to flood with its full force every new creation which stands up against it."

Chareidim? What Chareidim?

Today we speak about "the right to exist" of the chareidim. The representatives of the chareidim incessantly sound our outcry, saying that we have the right to receive what others receive, the right to exist in an honorable manner, on our merit and not out of chesed.

In the past, we were compelled to speak in a different style. Our representatives came, explained and apologized and proved that we indeed existed. The central and sophisticated claim, which was so poisonously directed at the chareidim was: You nothings do not exist. Prove first of all that you speak the truth and that you are here in this world of falsehood. How do we know that you live and exist? Ask the living to prove that he lives altogether.

A case in point: On the 28th of Tammuz 5657 (1897), a few years after the Maharil Diskin founded an orphanage with his very own hands, the rav of Yerushalayim, HaRav Shmuel Salant came to his defense in a long letter to philanthropists, asking them to deny the well-known claim that no such orphanage had been founded in Jerusalem by the Maharil.

We quote: "To our honorable yedid Hashem: My friend, HaRav Maharil Diskin told me that he has learned by means of letters from certain places in America, that there are base people who say that it is untrue that there is an orphanage in Yerushalayim founded by the Maharil. Even though it is difficult to believe this, is it possible that there are people who are willing to deny something which is well known to all? However due to our many sins, there are many deceitful people who are not even ashamed to deny the sun in midday, and to fabricate lies day in day out. As a result, I have found it fitting to arouse you to try and stop the men of deceit and falsehood who spread lies. Shmuel Salant."

When Baron Rothschild , who was considered one of the outstanding friends of the orphanage for many years received a gift -- a handicraft made by one of the orphans -- he refused to accept it. "What happened?" the bemused meshulach asked him. But like one who had been offended by a breach of his unreserved confidence which he thought he had given in vain for many years, he shouted, "The orphanage doesn't exist."

"What doesn't exist?" the offended and frightened meshulach asked.

"You," the Baron shouted at the offended meshulach. "Your institution never existed, and you bought this gift in the Arab market. It wasn't made by any orphan."

The meshulach quickly left the Baron's home, so as not to be chased out by the servants of the angry Baron. That was yet another aspect of the form of the war those maskilim raged against what they despised, because the sole purpose of the Maharil in founding the institution was to curb the influence the maskilim tried to impose on the Jews of Jerusalem by means of their money.

Seeing that the chareidim once more stood up to them, and had founded a chareidi and Torah framework for poor orphan boys, whose souls they had previously bought with a slice of bread and clothing, the maskilim decided to cut down the financial branch on which the institution leaned at all costs, even at the cost of base lies.

The newspaper, Lebanon sarcastically wrote: "We ourselves nearly believed the news from Jerusalem that an orphanage for fifty unfortunate and abandoned youngsters had been founded." With acerbic cynicism, the emissaries of the Haskalah spread their lies and the poison which penetrated gullible souls in the Diaspora.

Without an ounce of shame, they denigrated and slandered the Diskin orphanage, saying that there was no orphanage, there were no orphans and there was no building at all. What they wanted to occur they imagined had Rachmono litzlan occurred. It seemed as if whoever reads the newspapers, then like now, is not surprised by such things, and against his will is witness to such base behavior. There is nothing new under the sun. What was, is what will be.

End of Part I


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.