Jerusalem’s roaring 20s

Rabbi Louis Witt, a reform rabbi serving a congregation in St. Louis, never became a Zionist, but he did have a sense of building the land anew.

Waitresses of Jerusalem’s famous Café Atara in the 1930s (photo credit: COURTESY URI GREENSPAN)
Waitresses of Jerusalem’s famous Café Atara in the 1930s
The early 1920s witnessed an increase in Jewish tourism to Palestine. The costs of traveling were reduced, and the fact that the country was under the British Mandate made it much more desirable to visit. In the United States, strenuous efforts by the various Zionist organizations prodded the American Jewish population into considering a trip to the ancient homeland.
Even though the trip was a lengthy one, and even though there were really no first-class hotels, King David being built in the 30s, it was argued by many Jews in the US that a trip to Palestine was essential. Plus the country was not far from the great tourist centers of Europe.
A 1922 letter from Jerusalem, sent by Dr. J.J. Wissotsky, who had made aliyah with his wife from Los Angeles, described the attraction of the land. “There is no more wonderful summer climate than in Jerusalem (he could not predict 2017). It is much better than Los Angeles.” He was a native of that western American city so he could make that comparison.
Then he continued: “Still all say that Zfat (Safed) is much better. The fall and winter is first class in Tiberias. The spring here is a dream everywhere.”
He offered a classic piece of advice which holds true even today. “You can stop rushing from Florida to Los Angeles hunting for a good place, you have it all here.”
The years following World War I, the Roaring Twenties, were a time when world traveling was expanding rapidly and Palestine was added to many itineraries. The perspective provided by the tour guides in Palestine was a problem for many Jewish tourists. For the most part, the guides were Arabs, who presented a slanted view of Eretz Yisrael.
In his letter to a committed Zionist friend, Wissotsky refers to this problem. “The pilgrimage last Pesach did not benefit Jews here at all. Cook (Cook’s Travel Agency) and others were directing them (American Jews) here and there and were intentionally boycotting Jewish places, Jewish drivers of autos.” Guides were not mentioned because the first Jewish guides were only licensed in December 1922.
Cook’s, in particular, was noted for its anti-Jewish policy in the Holy Land’s tourist industry. The agency assigned Arab guides to Jewish tourists and deliberately bypassed Jewish guides when they were allowed to work.
The situation began to change at the end of 1922 when the local Zionist Commission was given permission by High Commissioner Herbert Samuels to set up a school for Jewish guides. The course of study was intensive. The students had to travel from one end of the country to the other, sometime in cars, sometime by horseback. First four guides were certified in December 1922, and I had the great honor of meeting Harry Hannaux of Jerusalem, guide No. 1, in 1976 a few years before he died.
In the summer of 1923, Rabbi Louis Witt, a reform rabbi serving a congregation in St. Louis, then 45, was vacationing in Europe when he decided to come to Eretz Yisrael and “evaluate” what was transpiring in the homeland. Interestingly, an avowed anti-Zionist, he reacted both positively and negatively to what he saw. Witt’s diary, which I had before I donated it to an archives, was most informative. Then on his return he wrote a review of his trip in a San Francisco Anglo-Jewish newspaper.
“I noticed with mingled feelings that at every train station the name as well as the directions were in Hebrew as well as in English and Arabic,” he observed. “It was evident that I was to that extent at least in a Jewish land.”
Let us follow along with him. Reaching the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, he emphasized, “I saw a crowd of people trading noisily over a heap of watermelons that numbered in the thousands. I turned and rode through the opening in the Jaffa Gate that had been made for the German Emperor. Less than a hundred yards from the gate was my hotel – the New Grand.”
In his inimitable fashion he continued: “It was neither new nor grand and I thought that I had made a mistake, but I came to the conclusion that Jerusalem afforded no better hotel. I was given a room with a balcony from which I could see the throng of people that passed through the Jaffa Gate.”
 Like a real American, Witt immediately engaged, a non-Jewish guide because he wanted to see “the things of Christian interest that day in order to be free the rest of the time.” He was taken through the Old City to the various Christian holy places and as he went he was appalled by the “stores that are miniature stalls in which most of the time there is unspeakable filth and where the merchants squat and gossip.”
After seeing more Christian sites, he was off to Bethlehem, the Manger and then the Mount of Olives. His guide dropped him off in town and he walked to the American Information Bureau on Jaffa Road established earlier that year by William Topkis, a visitor from Wilmington, Delaware and a national Zionist leader. There Witt engaged a Jewish guide “to take me to the colonies.”
Witt’s guide was Harry Hannaux; his driver was Jewish; his touring automobile was an American Dodge. “The Dodge,” he wrote, “took the hills and the rocks as though it enjoyed nothing better. It was with me on the four-day tour of Palestine and did not give even the slightest trouble, although it traveled the whole day through sandy and rocky hills with scarcely the sign of a road.”
This American tourist was surprised that an American car could handle the rough terrain with such ease. The tour proceeded from Jerusalem down to Jericho and the Dead Sea area. Witt responded favorably to this area.
“The mountains,” he wrote, “were not so steep and high and ragged as in Switzerland. In comparison, the Palestine mountains look like hills. They are more round and soft and rolling, although I did not see them at their best as the harvest season is over. They are beautifully rich in their coloring. At any one time I could see soft brown, a chalky white, a sandy yellow, a red tinge, and jet black caused by passing clouds. I never saw a land that was so sensitive and responsive to the colorings in the sky.”
Before returning to Jerusalem, they stopped at the Jordan River. “I was stirred at the sight of it for in some respects it ranks as the most famous river in the world.” he emphasized. Then, calling on his American background to draw a comparison, he added, “It was a bit low at this season and muddy-looking like the Ohio or Mississippi, surprisingly narrow at this point, being no wider than a wide street in a large city.”
After a brief stop in Jerusalem to gather his belongings, Witt and his guide, driver and another Palestinian Jew whom he had befriended, all started off for Tel Aviv. Their initial stop was Rishon Lezion. “It was,” he pointed out, “the first time in my life I visited a Jewish colony. I walked in a large orange and lemon garden there and picked a small lemon for a souvenir. The big industry of this colony is wine-making, and I visited the factory, which is regarded as one of the largest in the world. A stalwart young man who was born in this colony took me through the factory and showed me how wine is made.”
Witt’s real enthusiasm, however, was reserved for Tel Aviv. “The only city of its kind in the world. It is composed of 10,000 to 15,000 people – everyone a Jew. It was founded by Jews, has a Jewish mayor, keeps the Jewish Sabbath, speaks the Hebrew language.”
Now we can read this tribute to the budding metropolis. “There is scarcely a summer resort in America, including Atlantic City, that can equal it. It has broad, paved streets and sidewalks, electric lights, pure water and new comfortable houses. It feels itself to be just the beginning. It has plans for a city 10 times as big as itself.”
When Witt arrived in Tel Aviv, it was Shabbat, everything was closed. “I could not get my shoes shined,” he moaned, “as no Jew would shine them on the Sabbath, and there was no one in town but the Jews!”
Leaving Tel Aviv, they traveled north and lunched at Zichron Ya’akov. He was taken to Haifa where he visited Elijah’s Cave and saw the halutzim (pioneers) who were tented out around the city. The trip continued through the Jezreel Valley, Nahalal, Ein Harod, Deganya Aleph and Bet, and Tiberias. Witt was impressed by the spirit of the people he met, and recorded their answers to his questions.
In Deganya, one of the colonists was showing his relatives around, when he was stopped by Rabbi Witt. According to the rabbi, the man said: “Had I remained in New York, I too could be riding in a Rolls-Royce like these relatives of mine. Yet here I am living in an unsanitary makeshift of an Arab house, with my one child nearly having died from typhoid fever. But I am helping to build the land and I am happy.”
At another settlement, Witt asked a young woman working in the fields whether she would not like to come to America. “What has America to offer me?” she retorted, “Only money!”
Witt never became a Zionist, but he did have a sense of building the land anew. A few years after his trip he wrote. “The most stirring thing in Palestine is the spirit of the Jews who are settling there. The task is indeed prodigious, for everywhere in the land, one can see arid mountains, bleak wilderness and desert. But the spirit of the Jew is equal to the magnitude of the task. He brings to it a passionate love and an indomitable will.”
In 1923, this American tourist characterized the challenge of rebuilding the land, a challenge, in another way, which still remains today.