Streetwise: An Englishman in Petah Tikva

Surviving locusts, malaria, floods and other acts of God, Zerah Barnett helped found a city.

rehov zerah barnett 88 224 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
rehov zerah barnett 88 224
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Rehov Zerah Barnett In 1878 a group of Orthodox Jews ventured outside the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem to establish the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel since the destruction of the Temple. After much deliberation, they chose a village near the upper reaches of the Yarkon River called Mulabbes, and called it Petah Tikva - the door of hope (Hosea 2:15). The group included Yoel Moshe Salomon, a printer; David Guttman, a ritual circumciser; Yehoshua Stampfer, a scholar who had walked from Hungary to Jerusalem at 17; and Zerah Barnett, a fur trader, who had been born in Lithuania but settled in England before making aliya in 1871 with his English-born wife and children. None of the four founders had much idea about farming. The story of how these four innocents took their giant leap into the unknown territory of agricultural settlement is told in a wonderful song written by Yoram Tahar-Lev to music by Shalom Hanoch, called "Yoel Moshe Salomon." What transpired that summer morning in 1878 sounds fanciful, but it is documented history. The four spent a day inspecting the land and were impressed with the rich soil and abundance of water. But when they went into the village and saw the unhealthy pallor and emaciated look of the fellahin, they were unsure about buying it. They decided to get a second opinion and consulted a Greek doctor on whether to purchase the land or not. After half an hour of gazing into the sky, the doctor pronounced the place unfit for human habitation because he had seen no birds in the area in all the time he had watched. Tuvia Salomon, Yoel's son, writes in his memoirs that the doctor pronounced the place unacceptable in these words: "The air here must be evil indeed if even the birds, obedient to their ever-watchful instincts, fear to approach. This is a deadly place." Bitterly disappointed, the settlers decided to ignore the doctor's warning and bought the land from its Armenian Christian owner. Petah Tikva was born. In the song, using a little poetic license, Salomon finally hears the birds twittering away and even today, go the lyrics, "along the Yarkon River, the birds sing to Yoel Moshe Salomon." Barnett, in his memoirs, relates how the settlers were ignorant of farming and wanted to hire an Arab to teach them. The sheikh of a nearby village offered to sell them a slave, but the idea appalled them and they refused. In the end they found an Arab who would only agree to work for them on the condition that they tattooed the name of their village on his arm. To humor him, Barnett wrote his name on the man's arm in ink. After many trials and tribulations the settlers began to cultivate the land, sunk a well and found water which was a joyful event. That winter also saw abundant rainfall and their crops flourished. The country was afflicted with locusts that year but luckily the fields of Petah Tikva were spared. Relations with the neighboring Arabs were good at first, although they occasionally got involved in feuds between rival tribes. Another episode is recorded by Avraham Ya'ari in his Zichronot Eretz Yisrael which was abridged and published in England as The Goodly Heritage in 1958. "Tayan, the owner of the land adjoining Petah Tikva, bore a grudge against the Jews for not buying his property and sent some of his men to graze their animals in the fields of the settlement and damage the growing crops. The Jews replied by falling upon the trespassers and locking up their animals until the damage was made good. Angry at his discomfiture, Tayan sent a force of fellahin armed with staves to recover the impounded animals. But the Jews met them resolutely and beat them off." The first harvest was successful and the settlers joyfully carried out the biblical injunctions connected to the land, such as leaving gleanings and a corner unharvested. Tithes were taken from the harvested grain and brought to Jerusalem where a fine house in Mea She'arim was cleared for their reception. "A large crowd gathered to behold the arrival in Jerusalem of the produce of Jewish tillage for the first time since the destruction of the Temple. The procession consisted of a train of camels headed by several settlers, their faces tanned by the sun, riding on donkeys. The opponents of agricultural settlement were silenced for the men of Petah Tikva had given practical proof of their ability," Ya'ari says. If things were going well for the settlers, Barnett on a personal level was having a spot of bother. His wife, Rahel-Leah, refused to join him in the new settlement and demanded a divorce, but the rabbi told her she must go with her husband, which eventually she did. Before houses could be built, a huge tent was put up and 10 families lodged temporarily in it. Then they all set to work to build houses before the rains came, making bricks out of sand and earth. Barnett became sick with malaria and his wife went to bring a doctor from Jaffa. In the meantime an Arab soothsayer nearly killed him by trying to smoke out the demon that had supposedly entered his body. In the first winter Barnett and his family moved into their new house, but when the rains came his neighbor's house, which had been built out of mud without mortar, crumbled in the first storm and Barnett had to take them in until a new house could be built. In the second winter, his own roof, made of a mixture of sand and straw, leaked. For three nights the family had to stand in the doorway, which was the only dry spot, with Barnett holding his small daughter asleep in his arms. As several other houses disintegrated, the settlers decided to build stone houses. But conditions were becoming impossible for the handful of settlers. Several children died of malaria, the Yarkon settlements were flooded so doctors could not visit, nor could food and medicine be brought in. By 1881 almost everyone had left. Barnett returned to London to make some money so he could reestablish himself as a farmer in Petah Tikva. "He wept as he went on board the ship that was to take him away from his beloved country and remained on deck until the shore was out of sight. The he shut himself in his cabin for two whole days," Ya'ari says. In his memoirs, Barnett writes: "We thought we could overcome all ordinary difficulties... but we did not have the strength to fight the nature of the place... I was firmly convinced that God would observe our straits and eventually prosper us... but all my money was gone and without substantial investment there was no hope of succeeding and obtaining a good yield from the soil." The house he built on a second attempt in 1885 still stands on the corner of Rehov Stampfer and Rehov Bar-Kochba. His own street is a memorial to him, and the song, with his name in it, lingers on.