Being a somewhat fatigable female myself, I stand in awe of indefatigable women – and there could surely be few women as indefatigable as the remarkable Annie Landau, daughter of an Orthodox British Jewish family.

In The Best School in Jerusalem: Annie Landau’s School for Girls 1900-1960, Laura S. Schor tells the story of an extraordinary woman and of a remarkable institution – which survives to this day – amid the turbulent backdrop of Jerusalem as it passed from Ottoman rule through the British Mandate and beyond.

She paints a vivid, often sobering portrait of life in the city little more than a century ago.

A professor of history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate School, Schor has written a book that, with its copious notes, index and extensive bibliography, will please academics; at the same time, her literate, yet easy and almost intimate style will delight the lay reader. Her use of contemporary letters, collections, reports, reminiscences and newspaper articles adds a feeling of immediacy to shocking events, such as the Arab riots of 1929, that disrupt life in Jerusalem.

Landau arrived in Jerusalem in 1899 to join the teaching staff of the Evelina de Rothschild School and soon became its principal.

She found a city steeped in squalor, with most of the Jewish residents living on welfare. Disease and malnutrition were rampant.

Jerusalem’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities were sharply divided. In both, the girls were mostly illiterate and married off at age 12 or 13. In the absence of hygiene in the home, superstition ruled. Many little girls arrived at school with blue beads, silver tokens, camphor bags and pieces of dried garlic wound into their hair by mothers anxious to ward off the evil eye.

Landau wasted no time in improving the lot of “her girls,” nourishing their bodies as well as their minds. She replaced the amulets with eye treatments and the garlic with modern medical care.

She saw the education of women as Jerusalem’s greatest need, and its girls as a rich, untapped source, potential future leaders in the Jewish homeland. Armed with values imbibed from her parents, she instituted a framework in which girls from every type of Jerusalem family – veteran and newcomer, religious and secular, poor and affluent and, later, refugees from Hitler’s Europe – studied Jewish and modern texts together. The curriculum widened to include music, ballet, drawing and art appreciation, chemistry, cookery and horticulture. Discipline was paramount, but so were care, concern and, always, a push for excellence. The school took pupils from age six; those parents who could afford it paid.

“Miss Landau’s girls,” Schor writes, “grew to womanhood in Jerusalem during years of struggle, strikes, riots and war... these girls found a garden oasis in [their] School… [which] afforded them time and space to develop mature adult identities and roles appropriate for building families, communities, and a nation.”

The Evelina school, which opened in 1854, already had considerable cachet by the time Landau arrived. It stood apart from other small girls’ schools founded by European Jewish philanthropists or Christian missionaries by virtue of its longevity and outreach to both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Pupils received free academic supplies, and clothing and shoes for the festivals.

The school was first funded by the French Rothschilds, and later by the British branch of the family. Administrative responsibility then passed to the Anglo-Jewish Association, and it was to the association that Landau turned repeatedly and passionately, during her trips back to London, for desperately needed financial help in realizing her vision.

Initially mistrusted by both the Orthodox Jews and the Zionists – the former because of her modern curriculum, the latter because she insisted on bilingual education – Landau won over the girls’ parents by remaining strict about Jewish observance while promoting secular studies. The girls were encouraged to address their headmistress in both English and Hebrew.

Financial and moral support came from London; other problems Landau solved alone – such as the camel that expired at the school’s entrance soon after Landau’s arrival in Jerusalem. She sent a request to the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem asking for the decaying carcass to be removed. Receiving no reply, she wrote again, informing “Your Excellency that if the carcass is not removed before 5 o’clock this evening, I shall be compelled to have it removed at my own expense and placed outside Your Excellency’s door, as I do not know how to dispose of dead animals.”

This letter, Schor notes, brought quick results, proving the mettle of the woman who became “a force to be reckoned with in Jerusalem.” Indeed, she eventually became a celebrated social figure with a salon where she entertained British and consular figures, as well as Jewish, Christian and occasionally even Muslim leaders.

That Landau was a role model and inspiration for her charges is evident throughout the book; several pages of personal reminiscences from “old girls” attest to the enormous esteem in which their headmistress was held. The broad-based English education at the school – students took the London University matriculation exam and mostly excelled – meant that many graduates subsequently found skilled jobs with the British Mandatory authorities, which were grateful for such high-level employees.

Landau died in 1945, but her longtime associate Ethel Levy ably continued her work. Many Evelina graduates became medical professionals, teachers, and important figures in government and business. Most served in the Hagana, and later in the IDF.

A strong tradition of service, which began in the early years of the school, continued in the 1950s. The school was one of the first to offer help to new immigrants in the ma’abarot tent encampments. Every girl in the school donated toys for a collection at Hanukka; Schor records that “eleven Evelina girls, in school uniform, carried the gifts to the offices of The Jerusalem Post (the renamed Palestine Post), which organized the collection.” (When this writer began working at the Post in the 1980s, the Toy Fund was still going strong.)

My own daughter attended the Evelina school in the 1990s – but that was a different epoch, and a different story. For those interested in the school’s earlier incarnation – and in life in a very different Jerusalem from today’s – Schor’s richly detailed and meticulously researched book is an engaging read, and not only for historians.

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