An exhibition and a reunion

In many ways, the story of the Salomon family, on display at the Old Yishuv Court Museum, is that of the development and accomplishments of the Yishuv prior to 1948.

Salomon family 521 (photo credit: Yael Ikan)
Salomon family 521
(photo credit: Yael Ikan)
Sometime after 1862, the first lithograph ever printed in the Holy Land rolled off the press at a small workshop in Jerusalem. It was designed as a sort of snowflake children might make from paper to be unfolded and reveal a larger pattern. This style, called a “shoshanta,” looked like a beautiful red flower when folded up. When unfolded it showed scenes of the Old City, including its numerous gates, and the Western Wall.The shoshanta is only one of the many items on display at an exhibition entitled “Inspiration and Implementation: the Story of the Salomon Family,” currently showing at the Isaac Kaplan Old Yishuv Court Museum in the Old City. Curator Ora Pikel Tzabari takes great pride in the fact that the museum was able to bring together such a diverse collection.
“It took us 10 months to locate all the artifacts,” she says. “We received things from the Salomon family, from the Jerusalem City Archives, the Israel Museum and archives and museums as far away as Kfar Saba and Petah Tikva.”
The project was inspired by the 200th anniversary of the immigration of the Salomon family to the Land of Israel. Sometime in the autumn of 1811, Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Zoref, his wife Hasia and their three sons disembarked at Acre. Zoref, who was a follower of the Vilna Gaon, joined a small group of 500 of the famous Lithuanian rabbi’s followers, setting off for the Holy Land shortly after his death and arriving between 1808 and 1813. Much of this story is told in Arie Morgenstern’s well-received 2006 book, Hastening Redemption: Messianism and the Resettlement of the Land of Israel.
The first three generations of the Salomon family in the Holy Land, which are profiled in the exhibition, were involved in many of the most important and influential Jewish events of their day. They established an Ashkenazi foothold in a city that was dominated by Sephardim. Shlomo Zalman Zoref, the patriarch of the family, obtained permission from the Turkish sultan to build the Hurva Synagogue. Zoref’s son, Mordechai, negotiated with Sir Moses Montefiore and the Turkish authorities not only on behalf of the Jewish community but also to buy land for Jews. Mordechai’s son, Yoel Moshe, was particularly ambitious.
He founded a newspaper and pioneered Jewish agricultural settlement in Petah Tikva. Yoel Moshe also constructed a house in Nahalat Shiva, creating one of the first Jewish areas outside the Old City walls.
Today the family has 20,000 descendants, many of whom continue to play a role in government and non-profit institutions. In many ways the story of the Salomon family is the story of the development and accomplishments of the Yishuv in the period prior to 1948 and for that reason the museum’s display contains artifacts with meaning for the country’s history as a whole.
Tzabari explains that the idea for an exhibition had first been broached in 2008, which marked 200 years since the first followers of the Vilna Gaon arrived in Jerusalem. “It was the idea of Galia Gavish, our director. Many years ago she wanted to do something in 2008 about the students of the Vilna Gaon. But that project didn’t pan out. So last year around Hanukka we got in touch with the Salomon family, descendants of Zoref, and we decided that we would do it this year. Because we are a museum, we were able to go to other museums and receive many special items, like the model of the Hurva Synagogue obtained from the Israel Museum.”
The start of the museum’s exhibition dovetailed with a family reunion of the Salomon family in Jerusalem in late October attended by more than 900 people. Orna Bird, who lives in London, recalls how the idea for having a family reunion came about. “I was born in Haifa in the 1940s, a member of the sixth generation of the Zoref/Salomon family,”she says. “I started spending more and more time in Israel in recent years, mainly because my mother is 101 years old. I felt the need to connect to my roots so I started researching the family history and discovered the date, Hoshana Raba 1811, as the date of the arrival of our first ancestor, Zalman Zoref, in the Holy Land. I also discovered what an amazing man he was, and how tragic his death was: he was murdered by an Arab assassin [in 1851] and the State of Israel recognized him as its first victim of a terrorist attack.”
The revelation of the date immediately led to the realization that the 200th anniversary was fast approaching. “During a meal with my sister Daniella Shamir and her family, I brought up the idea of commemorating this event and we thought of organizing a small event in Acre [where Zalman Zoref arrived] on the actual 200th anniversary of that arrival. We then organized a committee of about 15 family members. Soon the idea of Acre was changed to Jerusalem,” she continues. “My cousin, Ruth Cheshin at the Jerusalem Foundation, advocated doing the exhibition at the Old Yishuv Court Museum.”
The anniversary event included tours of the Old City, an exhibition and a day of lectures.
“I started coming to Israel more often and became obsessed with our family history,” Bird says. “I spent the last two years doing nothing but creating the website, preparing the big event and spreading the news about it, making the film and preparing the exhibitions.”
She recalls one activity that particularly stands out: “The moment when [poet] Yoram Taharlev sat on the stage in my own grandmother’s chair was very striking. The story of how she [my grandmother] had sat and cried in that very chair when for the first time she heard on the radio ‘The Ballad of Yoel Moshe Salomon’ performed by Arik Einstein.”
BIRD SAYS the family is not only large, numbering about 20,000 members, but also very diverse.
“A very large part of the family is ultra- Orthodox,” she says. “They tend to marry young and have lots of children.” She herself attended Haifa’s Reali School, served in the Israel Air Force and received an MA from the Sorbonne in Paris. She worries that Israelis are beginning to forget about the accomplishments of the 19th century Yishuv.
“I am afraid to say that young Israelis are losing a sense of history because the subject is taught less and less at school and the younger generations have very little knowledge of the past,” she says. I must say that this is a problem in England as well, where my daughters were brought up. But in particular, the achievements and deeds of the builders of the Old Yishuv in the Holy Land are quite forgotten and do not receive enough recognition by the State of Israel.” She argues that the aliya beginning in 1808 is the “forgotten aliya,” which does not receive much attention.
Yael Ikan, another member of the Salomon family who worked at the World Zionist Organization for many years, recalls that she was contacted by the museum to supply some of the artifacts.
“Ora heard that I could furnish her with some items for the exhibition – some items which usually are hanging on the walls of our apartment, different documents and printing blocks which we treasure, most of them from the Salomon Printing Press,” Ikan says. “The museum borrowed them from us and of course at the end of January 2012, when the exhibition closes, they will return to their permanent places in our home. Some of them are over 100 years old.”
Ikan is also a student of her family’s history. “Even though the printing press which was established by Yoel Moshe Salomon in 1862 closed, 130 years later it is still alive in our family and serves others in different aspects,” she says. “Yoel Moshe Salomon and his friend Michal Cohen learned the printing art in Germany. They bought a machine and all the equipment necessary to establish a working shop in Jerusalem. Later they added a third partner, Yehiel Bril, and in 1863 they published the first Hebrew newspaper, Halevanon…” “He [Salomon] called for expanding Jewish settlement beyond the walls of the Old City,” adds Ikan.
On display at the museum are many artifacts connected to Salomon’s efforts to establish Jewish agricultural settlement. He wrote letters to Sir Moses Montefiore and also acquired land in Kfar Saba and Yehud. In addition, he was one of the founders of Petah Tikva. The museum managed to acquire the original printing press and the Ottoman firman giving the Jews permission to build the Hurva Synagogue.
Although the exhibition is quite small, just one room in the museum, it is rich in history and details. Tzabari explains that the museum receives upwards of 34,000 visitors a year, including most recently a delegation of Arab children from east Jerusalem. It is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays. There is a nominal entrance fee. •