Entering the promised land with herring and candles

Stories still persist about how Barnett Silverman devoted his life to his passion to enter the Promised Land.

April 18, 2011 16:52
2 minute read.
The Silverman family, London 1922. Back: Sarah, Ra

family photo 311. (photo credit: courtesy of Len Goodman, Ruth Cohen, Hillel Kuttle)


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Barnett Silverman is a colorful figure in our family’s faded folklore.

Very few details of his life have survived the mists of time, but stories still persist about how he devoted his life to his passion to enter the Promised Land.

Born Dov Zlotnikovich, Barnett was the pioneer of our family – the first of our clan to leave Lithuania and settle in London in the early 20th century.

A relative of my paternal grandfather, Lewis Silver, it was he who encouraged our family to come over to England.

Barnett and his wife Rachel bought and worked in a grocery shop on Mare Street, in the London borough of Hackney.

He was a respected figure in Hackney’s immigrant Jewish community – the founder and first president of a local synagogue, St. Thomas’s – which, not coincidentaly, was in a street with the same name.

But Barnett had a dream that kept him from being satisfied with his life and achievements – an incurable Zionist, he longed to live in the Holy Land.

So, he scrimped and saved, and, when he had enough money – with his wife staying behind to manage the shop and look after their many children – he set off on the arduous journey to a God-forsaken Middle Eastern backwater to set up a business there, and then send for his family to join him.

At least, that was the plan.

What actually happened was that life was tough in that backwater. Despite the grocery shop owner’s stubborn drive, every business venture he attempted failed; forcing him to return to England determined to once again save up money and try again.

The cycle repeated itself every few years.

On one occasion, he set up a herring import business.

It failed – and back to Hackney he came, probably already planning his next venture.

During another of his trips, a local Arab offered to sell him some land. In keeping with Middle Eastern tradition, they first agreed on a price, and Barnett then threw a rock as far as he could to establish the borders of his purchase.

Nothing is known about Barnett’s rock-throwing prowess, but he later built a small candle factory, probably on that same piece of land.

The candle factory failed and closed down.

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Then along came the British Mandate authorities, who were running the area. They confiscated Barnett’s land, and gave him an alternative plot in the middle of nowhere.

Barnett, weary, disheartened and once again out of hard-earned funds – after many failed ventures and struggles against the odds, and after striving and sacrificing for so many years – gave up.

He returned to Hackney, to his family, the grocery shop, and St. Thomas’s, where he faded into obscurity and family myth.

Many years later, after Barnett passed away, his children gained title to the land the British Mandate authorities had given their father, and sold it.

According to family legend, that piece of land eventually became the old Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.

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