The first Holy Land hotelier

Nine generations after Menachem Mendel Kaminitz’s arrival in Israel, his descendants have the opportunity to meet one another.

kaminitz 311 (photo credit: .)
kaminitz 311
(photo credit: .)
Hospitality is embedded in the Jewish DNA. After all, if Abraham, the Patriarch of the Jewish people, had not invited the three angels into his tent, washed their feet and given them food and lodging, there might not be a Jewish people. The reward for his hospitality was the birth a year later of his son Isaac – and after Isaac, of all the generations that followed.
A similar sense of hospitality was imbued in Menachem Mendel Kaminitz, who in 1842 opened a guest house – generally referred to as a hotel – in Jerusalem’s Old City. As far as anyone knows, it was the first kosher establishment of its kind.
But if you ask anyone in Israel, aside from his descendants, where, when and by whom the country’s hotel industry was started, you’ll likely get a shrug of the shoulders. And if anyone should hazard a guess, it’s improbable that they’ll think as far back as 1842. After all, the waves of immigration to the Holy Land began only in 1881, though smaller groups and individual Jews had for centuries before that been returning to their spiritual and ancestral homeland.
Related:Herzl's one-night stay at the Kaminitz Hotel
However, with the recent inauguration of Rehov Kaminitz – formerly part of Jerusalem’s Rehov Revivim, at the Kfar Etzion intersection – this lacuna of knowledge has been partly remedied.
IN FEBRUARY 2006, Ruth Levkowitz of Petah Tikva and her cousin Haim Kaminitz of Savyon wrote to the Jerusalem Municipality suggesting that a street be named after their great-great-grandfather. It took exactly two years before the request was approved. But it was not until the second week of March 2010 that members of the Kaminitz clan came from far and wide to Jerusalem for the unveiling of the street sign.
Many of them had not previously known of the others’ existence. Some had been in telephone contact but had never met face-to-face and wandered around asking each other their identities and trying to figure out the lines of descent. It wasn’t easy as Menachem Mendel and his wife Tsipa had 14 children. Some died young, but most survived, and between themselves produced a very large tribe, whose youngest children constitute the family’s ninth generation in Israel.
Moreover, no one present had a complete family tree, and confusion reigned even among those who did have a partial tree because in some haredi circles of the family, female offspring were listed under the surname of their husbands, as part of a couple, but no proper names were included.
Many of those who came were astonished by the turnout, with some 150 seats set out to accomodate the gathering. While very few members from the haredi side of the family showed up, several streams of Judaism were represented among those present.
As far as he knows, said Haim, no one in the family is in the hotel business today.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post why Rehov Kaminitz is located so far from where Menachem Mendel and his son Eliezer Lippmann Kaminitz conducted their hospitality operations, Haim replied that the family had no say in the location. They were just happy that the municipality had found a place in a good neighborhood. Actually, Rehov Kaminitz is a hop, skip and a jump from the home of Israel’s first Nobel Prize laureate, Shai Agnon, and both Haim and Ruth are cognizant of this fact.
USUALLY, WHEN the municipality dedicates a street in someone’s name, most of those attending the ceremony are people who knew the deceased. But in this case, so many generations down the line, no one knew Menachem Mendel, his son or his grandson.
Nonetheless, most of them have carried out the promise of their great-great-great-great-grandfather to live in the land of Israel.
Haim, a fifth-generation Israeli, proudly announced that the descendants of Menachem Mendel had all remained in the country, but this is not quite so. Naomi Leibler, who is on the same generational line as Haim and Ruth, was born in England, spent most of her life in Australia and followed three of her four children who made aliya. Her late father, Rabbi Israel Porush, who was Av Beit Din of the New South Wales Rabbinate, was born in Jerusalem, went to Germany for rabbinical and university studies, moved to England after Hitler’s rise to power, and later moved to Australia when offered an appointment at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, the mother congregation of Australian Jewry.
Leibler, who lives in Jerusalem and is today the President of World Emunah, attended the street naming with her son Jonathan Leibler, a lawyer who lives in Ra’anana. Through one of her other children, Leibler is a great grandmother of twins who are among the representatives of the ninth generation of Menachem Mendel’s family in Israel.
Presumably, there are other relatives who also lived or are living abroad, but because the family is so scattered, there are still many gaps in the family tree that have yet to be filled in.
THE STREET naming ceremony, when it finally came to fruition, was attended by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Deputy Director General of the Israel Hotels Association Romi Goretzky and Director of the Jerusalem District branch of the Council for the Restoration and Preservation of historic sites Itzik Shweky.
Goretzky noted that from the modest beginnings of the Kaminitz family’s hospitality business, Israel’s hotel industry has grown to 47,000 hotel rooms from Metulla to Eilat, and employs 32,000 people. She suggested to Barkat that he open a hotel museum at the site of the former Kaminitz Hotel.
Her proposal was endorsed by Shweky, who listed off some of the famous people who had stayed there or at least eaten there, including the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl (see box). When Baron Edmond de Rothschild and his friends visited Jerusalem in 1887, they ate at the Kaminitz Hotel. Among the other historical figures who stayed at the hotel or ate there were Rabbi Samuel Mohliver, Menachem Ussishkin, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and even Kamal Ataturk, the founding president of the Republic of Turkey.
BUT WHO was Menachem Mendel, the man behind the hotel?
For all his generosity and rubbing of shoulders with some of the great people of his time, he was a simple, naïve man, though not devoid of scholarly pursuits.
He was born in Kaminitz, Lithuania, though the date of his birth is uncertain. His original surname was Baum. To guarantee that his progeny would have an ongoing reminder of their origins, he decided to drop Baum and take on the name of his town instead.
As a boy, he was severely ill and made a pledge that if he recovered, he would settle in the Holy Land.
He attributed such great importance to this promise that when a marriage was arranged for him while he was still a teenager, he refused to undergo the wedding ceremony unless the bride, his parents and the parents of the bride agreed that very soon after the wedding the young couple would set off for the Holy Land. Realizing how determined he was on this particular point, everyone yielded to his request.
On the first day of the month of Nissan, just two weeks before Pessah in the Gregorian calendar year of 1833, he obtained a passport for himself and his bride Tsipa. After traveling for four weeks, they reached the port of Odessa, but had to wait until they found a passenger ship. There were 80 other Jews on board, who carried with them two Torah scrolls.
The boat sailed via Istanbul where it anchored for several days. At that stage Menachem Mendel had no idea what he would do in the Holy Land to earn an income, but his concern for the well-being of others had already begun to manifest itself.
While in Istanbul, he went to the Jewish Burial Society to investigate the identities of Jews who drowned on a ship that had sunk the previous year. Someone from his home town had been on the ship and the man’s wife had remained an aguna, anchored in marriage for as long as there was no proof that her husband was dead. Menachem Mendel had hoped to secure such proof in order to free her to marry someone else and move on with her life.
As for his own life, things were far from easy. He and his wife arrived in Haifa on the first day of Elul and continued on to Safed, where they joined a community of devout disciples of the Gaon of Vilna. This community was founded in 1810, two centuries ago this year, and 138 years before the creation of the state of Israel.
In early 1834, only a few months after their arrival, a plague broke out. Although it did not claim Menachem Mendel and Tsipa, it did claim their infant son. Menachem Mendel wrote that as sad as he was over the loss of his son, he thanked the Almighty for sparing him and his wife and for giving them the privilege to bury their child in the holy soil of Eretz Yisrael.
That same year there was a peasant rebellion against the rule of Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad Ali, the great reformer of Egypt. The peasants took out their frustrations on the Jews, beating, killing and looting them. Menachem Mendel escaped with his life, but lost the few possessions that he had.
As if he had not suffered enough already, there was also the earthquake of 1837 which left him homeless.
With the approval of Rabbi Yisrael Miskalov, who was the head of the community, Menachem Mendel went abroad on a fundraising mission aimed at bettering his economic status and improving conditions for his community.
At the beginning of 1838 he reached Odessa, where he received some financial aid. He visited many communities in Poland and Russia, requesting support for the Prushim community in the Holy Land. The Prushim were the most strictly observant of the followers of the Gaon of Vilna.
While in Europe he published what may have been the first guide book for immigrants and tourists to the Holy Land. Titled Korot Ha’Itim (Happenings of the Times), the book documents the hardships incurred by Jews living in the Holy Land, particularly during the Safed riots and the earthquake. But it also contains useful advice and many positive remarks about the country despite the hazards and the difficulties that Menachem Mendel endured. The book was published in Vilna in 1839. A Yiddish translation was published in Warsaw in 1841, for those people not sufficiently fluent in Hebrew.
In his absence, his family moved from Safed to Jerusalem, where he joined them in 1842. Within a short time, he embarked on what was then a new business venture for Jews in the Holy Land – a private guest house, referred to as a hotel.
At first it was next to the Tower of David. The building was subsequently occupied by the Austrian Postal Service and then the Banco di Roma. Menachem Mendel then relocated the guest house to the northern section of the Old City near the Torat Hayim yeshiva and opened a restaurant and hostel next to the hotel. Later, he added a bakery. Both the restaurant and the bakery were looked after by his wife so that he would still have time for Torah study.
Immigrants and tourists alike came to stay at the hotel, happy to find kosher food and lodgings. Among them was Moses Montefiore.
Even though the hotel was a thriving business, Menachem Mendel never forgot that Jews are enjoined to feed the poor and the hungry. He and his wife hosted and fed poor people and students at the hostel at a symbolic fee and often at no cost.
Menachem Mendel died in 1873, but Tsipa, aided by her son Eliezer Lippmann, continued to run the business for the next decade, after which she too passed away.
Eliezer Lippmann and his son Avraham Bezalel opened two other branches of the Kaminitz hotel in Jaffa and Hebron. These continued to operate until the outbreak of the First World War.
The Jerusalem branch continued to operate and was relocated to JaffaRoad, to a building that belonged to banker Haim Aharon Valero. Thebuilding was later taken over by the Alliance Vocational School, andafter that by a men’s religious learning center. Today, the Clalbuilding stands in its place.
The Kaminitz Hotel’s final move was to 70 Jaffa Road, where the streetveers off into Rehov Haneviim (street of the prophets). EliezerLippmann invested a great deal of money in the renovations.
The building still stands, its glory somewhat diminished but retrievable.