How a Persian Jewish family pioneered the Negev

To hear Yuval Yerushalmi tell his family’s story of coming to Israel to help build up the nation, it sounds a lot like the journey of the patriarch Abraham.

Old City521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Old City521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To hear Yuval Yerushalmi tell his family’s story of coming to Israel to help build up the nation, it sounds a lot like the journey of the patriarch Abraham.
“My grandfather had a dream one night in Tehran,” Yuval Yerushalmi, an Israeli attorney, recently told The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition. “He heard the Lord order him; ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” So he did, leading his Persian Jewish family on a long trek by foot from Tehran to Jerusalem back in 1885.
“They arrived in the Old City of Jerusalem after months of walking, after being robbed of all their money and losing their baby son to the desert heat. They settled down near the Western Wall, which was the center of my grandfather’s life,” recounted Yuval.
Once here, the family took on the Hebrew name of Yerushalmi – meaning “the Jerusalemite.” They settled in a modest place near the Western Wall and enjoyed many good years in the city. Among their children born and raised there was Yuval’s father, Meir Yerushalmi.
But that quiet period eventually came to a violent end as the family was driven by gunpoint from the Old City when the residents of the Jewish Quarter were evicted in the War of Independence.
“The fall of the Old City to the Jordanian Army in 1948 was a devastating blow to my grandfather,” Yuval explained. Yet his attachment to the Old City never waned.
“My grandfather died at the age of 105 in June 1967, just three days after the liberation of the Old City by the IDF,” Yuval recalled. “He had lived to see this moment but it simply overwhelmed him.”
Yuval himself served in the Paratroopers Brigade, which fought to liberate the Old City in the Six Day War.
Meanwhile, Yuval’s mother, Miriam, had come to Israel from a European Jewish family which was split up just before the outbreak of World War II.
Some managed to emigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine while most perished in the Holocaust.
Yuval’s parents met in 1939, and in 1941 the Jewish community’s leader, David Ben-Gurion, sent Meir and two young, sturdy companions south to take control of an about 2,830-hectare (7,000-acre) plot of land some 40 km.
south of Beersheba, which the Jewish Agency had purchased earlier. They arrived with little more than their dreams and the clothes on their backs.
“The prevailing land law at the time was Ottoman Law, which said if an individual plows the land he acquires ownership of it,” Yuval explained. “My father and two of his friends lived in a cave in the desert and plowed the land with a small tractor.”
Before long, the place was suitable for their families to come settle and enjoy better housing. The small community took on the name of Revivim, Hebrew for “rain showers,” and was officially established as a kibbutz in the summer of 1943.
That same year, while Meir was fighting in the British Army against the Axis forces, Miriam gave birth to a baby girl and named her Nitza. She was the first baby born at Kibbutz Revivim. Yuval was born on the kibbutz in 1946.
From its humble beginning of three brave pioneers sleeping in a cave by night and working all day to grow crops in the forbidding desert sands, Revivim grew into a thriving community which eventually sent out comrades to start other kibbutzim in the Negev. This served to ensure a Jewish presence in the area and contributed towards the inclusion of the Negev within the Jewish state envisioned in the UN Partition Plan of November 29, 1947.
But during the War of Independence, the kibbutz was cut off from other Jewish territory and had to be resupplied by air.
As Egyptian forces invaded the newborn Jewish state from the South, Revivim became a frontline position.
According to some reports, it was in the skies over Revivim that the Israel Air Force engaged in its first dog fights with enemy aircraft. Kibbutz members also fought off one of the Egyptian invasion columns, suffering several casualties.
Today, the IDF graveyard at Revivim contains the headstones for those early casualties of the Arab-Israeli conflict, along with several more kibbutz members who were killed in subsequent wars and acts of terrorism.
After the war, the pioneers of Revivim repaired their buildings and took in new members, continuing to be the southernmost Negev community until 1952.
In was not until 1955 that pipes began bringing water to the kibbutz, vastly increasing the quality of life for residents and making the community more attractive to new members.
One of those newcomers was Sarah Meir, the daughter of Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister.
Golda became a frequent visitor and supporter of the kibbutz after her daughter moved there, and in 1976 a cultural center named after her was opened which had more modern facilities that were used by residents from the entire Negev region.
Today, Revivim is a thriving Israeli community preparing to celebrate its 70th anniversary. The kibbutz is now home to more than 800 residents, including kibbutz members and their children, foreign volunteers, renters, and IDF soldiers doing part of their military service by working there.
There is also a museum, a zoo, kindergartens for children, several businesses and a Hebrew-language ulpan class for new immigrants.
Revivim also houses a factory which employs hundreds of workers from the surrounding communities.
Guests at Revivim can visit the museum, which features the restored buildings of the original kibbutz, mementos from the Mandate era and the War of Independence, and aircraft used to supply the isolated communities of the Negev in the early days of the state. The Hai Negev Zoo on the kibbutz houses animals unique to the Negev. Tourists who want to stay longer can sign up for an ulpan course, or volunteer and work in one of the kibbutz businesses – the olive tree grove, the dairy, the 17 million eggsper- year chicken nursery, the community kitchen or the laundry. •