How often does one have the privilege of talking to the grandson of one of the country's founding fathers, and one who remembers his grandfather well? The man whose name is commemorated by a street in Tel Aviv, Zalman David Levontin, died in 1940, but his grandson, Daniel Jacobson, born in 1924, has vivid memories of his illustrious zeide.
Jacobson himself is a fascinating character - a lawyer, philanthropist and fervent Anglophile who lived in England as a young man, studied law there and was called to the bar in 1950. He is also a dear old friend of mine and my husband, and his glittering parties in the early '70s served as our introduction to Tel Aviv high society. Who can ever forget those evenings in his Rehov Ahad Ha'am apartment, with temperatures around 30ÂºC, no air-conditioning and an English butler going around with trays of canapes? Ambassadors rubbed shoulders with television personalities, and the company was so interesting one didn't even notice the heat and humidity.
Later he moved to Rehov Huberman and put in air-conditioning. It was there that he told me the story of his grandfather, the founder of today's bustling city of Rishon Lezion in 1882. Much of the story is also to be found in The Goodly Heritage by Avraham Ya'ari, published in 1958.
Levontin, a member of Hovevei Zion, had begun advocating for resettling Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of 1880, and soon after the first pogrom in Russia, he began to take active steps to implement his idea by establishing groups of families who were willing to make the move. He set up a committee whose aim was to buy land, and he traveled the length and breadth of the country on horseback, armed with a gun, until he found what he considered a suitable place.
As he was unfamiliar with the intricacies of buying land from the Arabs, he secured the help of Yosef Navon, a Sephardi Jew from Jerusalem, and Haim Amzalag, who was the British vice-consul in Jaffa and a man of considerable local influence. After several abortive attempts they settled on an area of 3,340 dunams (835 acres) called Ein Kara (identified with the biblical Ein Hakore) and Levontin chose the name of the new settlement.
Most of the settlers then went back to Europe to tie up their affairs and bring back their families, while Levontin and a few others began the job of digging wells, making paths and laying out vineyards. Later, in his book about the enterprise, he writes that no one "can imagine the difficulty with which such work was beset in Palestine for a Jew as yet unacquainted with the ways of the inhabitants and ignorant of their language; what it meant for a man unaccustomed to such a life to have to dwell in a tent day and night, to wait for a pitcher of water to be brought from a place half an hour's distance away, to eat unwashed vegetables, to work all day and keep watch at night... only we, the members of our group, appreciate how hard it was."
ONCE THE settlement, which from the beginning was run on collective lines, became viable, Levontin left agriculture and helped establish the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which later became Bank Leumi. He was its first manager and moved to Tel Aviv where he built a house on Rehov Yehuda Halevi.
It was to this house that his grandson, the child of Levontin's daughter Shoshana, used to come every Friday night after the Shabbat meal to spend time with his grandparents.
"My grandfather was a kind man with a great sense of humor," recalls Jacobson. "I still have the bar mitzva present he gave me, a 10-volume History of the Jewish People by Dubnow.
"He wasn't a rich man - he received a salary from the bank like any employee - but I honestly don't know of anyone else in those days who had such a splendid seven-room house. You didn't need much money to build and the land was cheap. Visitors often used to stay as there were no hotels in Tel Aviv in the early days. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and David Wolffsohn both stayed there - but before I was born.
"They had a Russian maid called Klavdia. She had been one of the Russian Christian pilgrims who used to come to Palestine before the revolution and she'd stayed. My grandfather called her 'Klavta' (witch) but never to her face. She used to come and do ironing and every Friday night she was there presiding over the samovar and making lemon teas.
"My grandparents were very hospitable and I remember Seder nights with 30 or 40 people around the table. Hebrew was spoken, but also Yiddish, English, French, German and Russian."
Jacobson also told me that his grandfather and father were instrumental in building the Great Synagogue on Allenby Road in Tel Aviv and that when his uncle Nehemia died, the Holy Ark was donated in his name.
Today the house on Yehuda Halevi no longer stands, and the street named for Levontin, off the southern end of Allenby, is run-down and graffiti-ridden. The only traces of its former glory are the few eclectic-style crumbling houses at one end that are still standing.
At the age of 80, Levontin was made an honorary citizen of Rishon Lezion, and later of Tel Aviv, where the street, which was originally Rehov Hasharon, was renamed Rehov Levontin the year after his death. When he died in 1940, he was buried in the old cemetery of the town which he founded.
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