Bunking with Ben-Gurion

A Litvak oleh who toiled in the fields with the first prime minister recalls a poignant Pessah in Kfar Saba over 100 years ago.

David Ben-Gurion 311 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
David Ben-Gurion 311
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Aryeh (Aharon) Levitas would always remember that Seder night in 1907, when at the age of 17 he was left all alone by his friends, one of whom was David Gruen, to keep watch on Kfar Saba, as the rest of the gang headed out to celebrate the holiday.
His family, too, knows the story of that particular Pessah well, because he later wrote a memoir in beautiful Hebrew script, which they have thumbed through many times.
Levitas, who was born in Lithuania in 1890, traveled to Palestine to join his grandfather at the age of 16 but left six years later for South Africa.
An unassuming but cultured man, he succeeded in passing on his love for Israel and Judaism to his three South African-born daughters.
He gave them all Hebrew names, spoke fluent Hebrew and was a devoted biblical scholar.
“He knew his Bible backwards,” recalls his only living daughter, Julie Kalderon – now in her eighties – who lives in Ra’anana. “He loved Pessah and we always had a Seder in our house.”
Although Levitas died in 1960, exactly half a century ago, Kalderon remembers him well: He was very shy about his accomplishments, she says, but his claim to fame was that Ben-Gurion (formerly Gruen) had been his roommate in 1907, 41 years before he became Israel’s first prime minister.
Gruen, who arrived in Palestine in 1906, was four years older than Levitas, and they worked side by side as farm hands in the orchards of Kfar Saba.
“My dad told us that he shared a room with Ben-Gurion in Kfar Saba, and they even shared a bed,” relays Kalderon. “That is to say, when my dad worked in the fields in the day time, Ben-Gurion would go to sleep, and when my dad went to sleep, Ben-Gurion would go to work.”
According to Ben-Gurion’s biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, he spent the spring of 1907 in Kfar Saba before going on to work in the orange groves of Petah Tikva.
Ben-Gurion later wrote that he had been “full of intoxication” working as a Jewish day laborer, but like many of his friends, he came down with malaria, which debilitated him throughout his life. His doctor advised him to leave the country, but he would not hear of it.
Levitas, too, contracted the illness.
“He was in Kfar Saba for six years when he got malaria, so he decided to take up an offer from his uncles in South Africa, who were quite well off, to go there by boat. It was before the World War, in 1912,” says Kalderon.
“He lived in Jo’burg, married my mom, and had three daughters: Eileen, Myrtle and myself.” She laughs as she remembers that “he never called us by our Christian names. He called Eileen ‘Haya,’ Myrtle ‘Malka’ and me ‘Yehudit.’”
In South Africa, Levitas taught Hebrew and gave bar mitzva lessons but this was not very lucrative, according to Kalderon, and so he became a traveling salesman as well.
Kalderon traveled to Israel with her father in 1955. “He came to visit his family, whom he hadn’t seen in 49 years and stayed four months,” she says. “I married Menachem [Kalderon] in 1956 and stayed here.”
Last year, Kalderon gave a copy of her father’s Pessah memoir to the Kfar Saba Municipality for display in a future museum. It is an authentic account by an astute observer and participant in the Zionist enterprise a century ago. It is also a fine piece of pioneer journalism.
“The story means a lot,” says Netanya resident Gidon Levitas, Aryeh Levitas’s nephew. “It means that the Levitas family link to Eretz Yisrael is very strong.”
“Aryeh was the eldest of five children born to our grandparents. My paternal great grandfather, Yisrael Yona Shagam, came here in 1900 from Lithuania and settled in Mea She’arim. He lived until 1907 and was buried on the Mount of Olives.
“The eldest grandson was summoned in 1906 by his grandfather to Eretz Yisrael. One of the reasons was that he quite likely might have otherwise been conscripted into the Russian army. Aryeh left his parents and siblings and came here, going first to Petah Tikva and then finding work in the orchards of Kfar Saba.
“And that’s where the story happened."
The recollections of an old-time worker By Aryeh (Aharon) Levitas
On the eve of Pessah 1907, I was left alone in Kfar Saba to guard the community’s property. If I don’t count the two Beduin watchmen, Hamdan and Ayoub, who required watching themselves, I was the only Jew remaining in the area.
But before telling the tale, I must clarify a few things for those not well-versed in the story of the settlement’s beginnings, when Israel was just a youth.
The community experienced many ups and downs and adventure. In 1903, a Jewish company purchased a tract of land from Arab-owned Kfar Saba – some 7,000 dunams in the area between Petah Tikva and Hadera – in what was then called the Tulkarm district. The nearby city of Nablus was considered a region of bandits and rioters, and the village of Kalkilya was thought to be a den of thieves.
The land was bought by the well-known philanthropist Baron de Rothschild, and handed over to the Jewish Colonial Association. It was subdivided among the sons of Petah Tikva’s founding fathers for the princely sum of eight francs per dunam (in payments of six shillings).
They, in turn, sold their property rights to newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Russia after the 1905/6 pogroms, and to settlers who came in the Second Aliya.
The land passed from hand to hand until sons and builders began to settle down, working and guarding the property. Houses had yet to be built. It was difficult to obtain a license to build homes from the Turkish government authorities.
Initially, the new settlers lived in Petah Tikva. They would come to work in Kfar Saba on Sunday, and return to Petah Tikva on Friday evenings, a distance of 10 kilometers.
After hard work and great effort, they managed to establish a temporary hostel for Hebrew workers and a horse stable.
Our Arab neighbors jokingly called it “Yahur et Yahur” – meaning, the Jewish stable – and couldn’t wait for the day that they could tear down the hostel that the hated “Muscovites” had built.
“May your house be destroyed!” our hateful neighbors wished.
There were 50 Jewish laborers, with the number varying depending on the work season. They began to plant vines, almond and eucalyptus trees. Under difficult conditions and lacking sufficient food, with hostile neighbors who disturbed their rest at night, the pioneers bore a well and found water in small quantities.
They steadfastly persisted in their labor of love, hoping to build homes on a solid foundation and to make Kfar Saba flourish and prosper.
The hostel they built was divided into one large room for men, a dining hall, a separate sleeping room and a stable. There was also a room for storing utensils purchased at a reasonable price from the va’ad.
There was a long table with simple benches in the dining hall, and lining the walls were sleeping racks for resting.
During the height of the work season, or on rainy days when nobody went to the fields, the room was crowded with people. Towards evening, at the end of a work day, it was like a veritable beehive, with no extra space.
Some were eating and drinking, while others were singing or playing with dice. Some were arguing about everyday matters pertaining to the fields and crops, while others discussed Zionism and politics.
In the passion of the moment, the people arguing sometimes came to blows.
After all, we were the young children of the Russian revolution. For many, the Zionist spirit was dubious initially; they had come to Palestinian for lack of choice, forced to flee Russia with the port of Odessa close to the Land of Israel. There was a minority who at the earliest opportunity returned to where they had come from, or wandered off to America and Australia.
Those who stayed persevered, working all day in various jobs and enduring sleepless nights due to overcrowding or surprise raids from our Arab neighbors. These often entailed an exchange of gunfire from both sides to scare the other side with a display of firepower.
We came to regard this lifestyle as normal, and it was for anyone establishing a new settlement in those days.
THUS IT was evening and morning, on the eve of Pessah 1907. Here I shall relate what happened to me on that holiday.
The work season was over in Kfar Saba and most of our members and Jewish workers had left to seek work elsewhere, some in nearby Petah Tikva, others in other communities. The hostel manager and his family went to Jaffa for Pessah. Seven people stayed, including little me – I was 17 years old at the time – to celebrate the holiday there.
We prepared everything as required – matzot, wine, meat and fish. Nothing was lacking. We cleaned the house, scrubbed the utensils and the table, and towards evening, we were all set to hold a proper Seder.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a special messenger arrived from Rehovot, bringing an invitation from the people there to a party and celebration the following day, which would include a public procession.
This upset all our plans. We didn’t have to think for long, though, and quickly decided to accept the invitation. However, we couldn’t leave everything unattended. One of us would have to stay and guard the property.
After casting lots, it fell upon me to remain alone in Jewish Kfar Saba on Seder night.
Silently, uncomplaining, I accepted my fate and enviously watched my friends leave. Although the place itself and the surrounding Arabs did not frighten me at the time, loneliness weighed heavily on me, and I felt a strong sense of longing for my home and family far away in the Diaspora. I was cut up inside.
To cry would have been inappropriate, not fitting a halutz, while artificial joy was impossible.
Something welled up inside me, all alone, on this Seder night. A memory of my father’s home, so pleasant and warm, among brothers and sisters surfaced.
Wonder of wonders, I heard a voice, the voice of my soul, singing: “Aryehle, my dear, habibi, be strong, utter no complaints, shake off the sadness from your heart, rejoice in your festival, as it is written in the scriptures.” Well, there is no rejoicing without wine. “Wine shall make a man’s heart joyful.”
“So come forward,” I heard the voice say, “and perform this mitzva as the law prescribes. Discover your soul and revive your strength!”
Unthinkingly, I hurried to lock the door. I loaded bullets into my Mauser pistol and laid it on the table, ready for use. I then filled a glass of wine, hastily said a blessing over it and drank it voraciously. I thrust aside the Haggada and, without ceremony or manners, made for the kneidlach.
Between one kneidel and another, one glass of wine and another, my body became heavy and my head dizzy, and my world became topsy turvy, all mixed up.
Finally, I collapsed, like a wooden block onto the floor near the table and fell asleep. I lay in this position all night until the following noon, feeling nothing.
Eventually I opened my eyes and attempted to rise, but didn’t have the strength. All my bones ached. I was completely worn out and exhausted.
I closed my eyes again and napped a while longer, until I heard knocking on the door.
“Who’s there?” I called out in Arabic.
“Hamdan, the guard,” a voice replied from behind the door. “What has happened to you, Hawaja Aharon? Are you still alive, or are you sick? I pray it not be so! Open the door!”
“Impossible, dear Hamdan. I am sick, about to die. I cannot move. You, Hamdan, break down the door and come in. Help me in this hour of need!”
Dear Hamdan did not think for long. He broke the lock and entered like an angel of mercy, helped me climb onto the bench, brought me water and sat with me till nightfall.
He told me all about his heroic exploits and adventures, none of which had actually occurred, until my friends returned, tired and satisfied, happy but hungry, from their celebration.
They soon became angry at me for not having prepared food. Myexplanations did not help, nor did my account of how hard it had beenfor me – that without Hamdan, who knows what would have become of me.
“Possiblya fool like you doesn’t deserve to be called a pioneer,” they said. “Doyou really think this should be the heroic end of someone who comes tothe Land of Israel to fight his people’s wars?”
The next day, I set out for work.
The memoir of Aryeh Levitas has been translated from the Hebrew by Gidon Levitas and reprinted with his permission.