Spring in the air

A visit to the modern state’s first agricultural colony features a restored 19th-century home, an old synagogue and two walks.

Spring in the Air 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Spring in the Air 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Many an eyebrow was raised inside the Old City walls when a revered Iraqi rabbi gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to the son of Polish immigrants. After all, weddings between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews were highly uncommon in 19th-century Jerusalem – and these nuptials took place in 1854. But Jerusalemites were shocked for another reason as well: groom Yehoshua Yellin was 13 years old at the time. And his child bride, Sarah Yehuda, was only 12.
The Yellin and Yehuda families were to make history again, only a few years later. Indeed, while Sir Moses Montefiore was building apartments outside the city walls in 1860, the Yellin-Yehuda family was busy establishing the first agricultural colony in modern Israel (yes, long before Petah Tikva and Rishon Lezion).
Both families were well-versed in the Holy Books, and felt passionately about settling the Land of Israel. For this pioneer agricultural venture they chose the fertile fields of Kolonia, an area that the Romans set up as a colony for retired soldiers. The Arabs living in Kolonia had fallen on hard times, and were delighted to sell what the Yellin-Yehuda families named Motza – one of the cities allotted to the tribe of Benjamin by Joshua.
Sarah’s brother Shaul and her husband Yehoshua hoped they would be joined by others, and that Motza would become a thriving settlement. A few year later, however, Shaul caught pneumonia after walking home to Jerusalem in the pouring rain, and died very young.
But Yehoshua continued the endeavor. He grew vegetables, olives and all kinds of fruit – including the rare wild plum that is endemic to the area. And he used the basement of the house he built in 1890 as a cowshed for his dairy. Finally, in 1894, four new pioneers appeared. While two left pretty quickly, the other two remained. And Motza began to expand and flourish.
This week’s column sends you on an outing in Motza. It includes a factory/showroom (weekdays only), an old synagogue and newly restored historic house, an easy walk, and a more challenging hike.
Begin on Highway 1. From the Tel Aviv area: turn right when you reach Motza, turn right and park on the lot next to a deserted red building (once Pundak Motza and later a steak house). From Jerusalem: follow signs to Beit Zayit and Ramat Motza, and take the service road to the parking lot.
Directly across from the lot, next to a bus stop on the other side of the road (be careful crossing!) a path descends to stairs and a metal walkway under the highway. When you climb up again to the highway, turn left at the blue sign which reads (in Hebrew) “Beit Yellin” and follow the well-protected sidewalk in the direction of Tel Aviv.
As you walk, you will pass a few hewn cornerstones that somewhat resemble decorative stones at the Western Wall. In Arabic the structure is called malk el yehud (King of the Jews) for locals assumed it was connected to the Herodian era. However stones from the period during which King Herod ruled Judea had a much smaller frame and the inner portion was far more attractive. Modern archeologists consider these to be the base of a Crusader structure.
Soon you reach Motza’s synagogue, whose ground floor features stone arches first built during the Byzantine period. In the early 1860s Shaul and Yehoshua utilized these arches and began construction of a way station. Yellin wrote later that 30 to 40 carriages a day stopped at the inn, which opened in 1871 and serviced Arab merchants from Jaffa who wanted to appear early in the Jerusalem markets.
While the upper story housed a European-style restaurant and hotel, traders and animals slept together down below. It is said that when Motza children get lice in their hair their parents blame it on the lice-infested fur that inhabited the khan a century earlier!
IN 1994 I wrote an article about Motza. At the time the Yellin home – located just behind the synagogue – was in shambles, just a sad skeletal reminder of the first modern Jewish house in the Jerusalem hills. For over a decade I watched as it continued to crumble.
But a few years ago Eliezer Yisraeli, grandson of one of Yehoshua Yellin’s grandsons, decided to preserve the family heritage. The Society for Preservation of Israel’s Historic Sites stepped in to assist, along with a generous donation obtained from Leonard Kahn through the Jewish National Fund. Yellin’s home and interior have been faithfully restored, along with the enormous cowshed discovered in the basement during renovations.
Stand on the balcony of the Yellin house and gaze into the backyard for a view of newly planted fruit trees, Yellin’s olive grove and picnic tables. You will also see remains from the summer home of arch-terrorist Haj Amin el-Husseini, and the slopes behind it that once housed the Arabs of Kolonia.
Haj Amin el-Husseini was the uncle of Abdel Kader el- Husseini, a commander of Arab forces in the Jerusalem area during the War of Independence, and was also the grandfather of late Palestinian activist Faisal Husseini. One of the parties responsible for the bloody anti-Jewish riots of 1921, Haj Amin was tried, found guilty and sentenced to prison. Soon afterwards he was pardoned by British high commissioner Herbert Samuel who, in his zeal to appease the Arabs, appointed him mufti, or religious leader, of Jerusalem.
Free and powerful, the mufti helped organize another set of massacres in 1929. On August 23, 1929, a harangue at the Temple Mount sent a mob of Arabs into Jerusalem’s northern and southern neighborhoods on a path of torture and murder.
The Arabs of Kolonia enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Jews, and Motza residents didn’t expect them to participate in any bloodbaths. In fact, some of the settlers, like the Machlefs, refused Hagana protection. After all, Haya Machlef was a nurse who had been looking after Kolonia’s Arabs for years and was well loved by the locals.
Yet on that fateful day in August, a group of Arabs swarmed down the hill from Kolonia. Led by the Machlef family shepherd, they joined other rioters and moved towards the Machlef home. Two Machlef daughters were raped and murdered by the Arabs; the father, along with two visiting Jerusalem rabbis, was massacred as well. Haya Machlef was tortured and hanged on a fence. Saved from immediate death by the British, she later died in hospital. Only three of the children escaped, among them nine-year-old Mordechai, who would one day become Israel’s second chief of staff.
Plans are afoot to turn the historic Yellin house into a first-class visitors’ center, with lecture hall, convention center and exciting exhibits about Motza. At the moment, however, it is best to call in advance if you want to view the interiors of the house and synagogue, or to take a tour of the site and surrounding areas with director Ruthie Arbel-Pessah (052-425-7345, mornings).
Next on this outing is a short walk in the woods, to view a scene that has become common in Israel and is the bane of nature lovers all over the country. Sometime in the 1960s, an ultra-Orthodox North American family purchased a house in Motza. Jewish sources relate that during the Second Temple period Jews gathered willows from Motza to use for Hoshana Raba on the last day of Succot, so they planted willows around a very lovely nearby spring.
One day the guard, a newly religious Jew, plugged up the spring’s large and sparkling pool and created three tiny pools for the “Living Well House of Jewish Study.” Unfortunately, says Arbel-Pessah, none of the authorities will take responsibility for this travesty of nature: not the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature Reserves Authority or the Jewish National Fund.
TO GET there from the Yellin house, walk next to the highway in the direction of Tel Aviv. When you reach signs pointing to the historic sites in Motza, turn onto a dirt road and follow it a few short minutes to the end. Boys and men come here frequently to dip, naked, in the water; hopefully the site will be empty and no one will shoo you away.
A second, longer hike leads to a still sparkling spring that has not yet been overtaken by private religious ventures. This is a bit more difficult, and you may have to cross a flowing creek or scramble up a few rocks – but it is worth the effort.
Backtrack in the direction of Jerusalem. Pass the synagogue and the hewn stones, and continue until you reach a driveway. Descend, then immediately take the dirt path on the right.
Continue straight ahead, cross the tiny stream and walk straight up the hill to where a blue trail marker (blue stripe between two white stripes) has been tacked onto an electric pole.
It points left – take the far left, next to the water. Follow a stony path and trail markers until they point across the water and up a small ridge. At the top there is another trail marker leading to the right and to a path that will eventually return you to the highway.
Ignore it for now, and you will find the spring directly in front of you. Look left to see a tunnel that begins at the wellspring and was dug out long ago to keep the water clean.
Enjoy a picnic, or just rest in the shade before you return to the parking lot. Then follow the blue marked trail until it splits. There, take the right, lower fork and you will again see the marker. Just before the bridge, climb a steep, cement path up to the highway. You will be at a junction where signs point to Ramat Motza and Beit Zayit – and from here you walk back to your car.