Streetwise: Rehov Dr. Berkman

Quite wide, with palm trees along its length, the many elderly people living in the area can rest while going from one thoroughfare to another.

Street Berkman 88 224 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Street Berkman 88 224
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
To cut through Netanya's Rehov Dizengoff onto Shmuel Hanatziv, many residents take a short, tree-lined road, Rehov Dr. Bekman. Quite wide, with benches, grassy knolls and palm trees along its length, the many elderly people living in the area can rest while going from one thoroughfare to another. Not far from the sea and only a short walk from the pedestrian center and the main drag, Rehov Herzl, it's an area of four- and five-story buildings with that weathered look which a combination of age and sea air can sometimes induce. The Netanya Municipality maintains a very up-to-date Web site on the town, its history and present services, and it was here that I was able to discover who exactly Dr. Binyamin Bekman was and why he was considered worthy of having a lane named after him. Netanya was founded in 1929 as a farming community of the B'nei Binyamin Association led by Oved Ben-Ami, who was to become the city's first mayor, and was named after Nathan Straus, an American philanthropist from a prominent family. Dr. Bekman, who was born in Russia in 1895, arrived in Palestine in 1925 on the ship Ruslan - the same craft that brought the poet Rahel - together with his wife, Zehava, a dentist, and began his life here in Gaza, where he became a popular family practitioner. It was only after some more years spent in Metulla that he arrived in Netanya and became doctor to the families of the first settlers. Ben-Ami obviously knew him well and describes the situation in those far-off days in a memorial book to Bekman in the city archives. "Doctors would come, stay for a short while and then abandon the settlement," writes Ben-Ami. "In those days it was a huge sacrifice to come and live in what was a nest of illness. It was a place that hovered between hope and despair when one day a new doctor made his appearance. He was young, bespectacled and his soft, gentle face would often break into a smile. He rode an Arab horse and struggled to traverse the deep sands of the region which would become the streets of Netanya. "He would knock on the doors of the first residents, visiting his patients, always with a laugh, the laughter of carefree youth and a good heart. In his doctor's bag he carried not just the tools of his trade (syringes and pills to bring down temperatures) but a whole battery of warmth and humanity." Bekman set up the medical services of the town and declared war on the malaria that was a constant threat to the settlers. Moshe Shaked, describes his never-ending battle with the illness. "In those days and at that time it was a country that devoured its inhabitants," he writes in the same memorial book. Bekman was tireless in his battle against the disease, going from house to house on his horse to treat his patients and demanding that something be done to drain the swamps. Later, when the settlement developed into a town, he became a member of the city council and represented his party, Herut, of which he was chairman for many years. He was one of the founders of the IZL and played a central role in the battle to liberate the country from British rule. While no details are given about what he actually did in his other persona as a freedom fighter, the biographical details do include the fact that he was arrested many times and saw the inside of several detention camps, including Latrun. He was also deported to Eritrea and Kenya before independence. He continued to work after the state was declared and died in 1961. When I returned to photograph the street I had to ask directions and the kiosk owner I spoke to laughed and said, "Rehov Dr. Bekman? I lived there all my life. He used to live in a small house on the corner which was knocked down soon after he died and an apartment block was built there." Talk about serendipity! Of all the thousands of people who live in Netanya, she was able to tell me why that particular road was chosen. I also spoke to Yoel Elroi, who was mayor of Netanya from 1983 to 1993. "Did I know him?" he said, laughing heartily. "He was my doctor. He was one of the old school, not a specialist like today, but a family doctor who was on call day and night. Everybody loved him." Elroi was also able to fill in what happened to the family. The only son, Yeshayahu, was killed in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, 30 years after he had been born there, in Gaza. How did the doctor take his son's loss? "Remember that Dr. Bekman was a great nationalist, a great Zionist, and although he was obviously sad, he was not a broken man, he knew that sacrifices had to be made." The daughter, Esther Barzilay, became a nurse and worked for years at the agricultural school in Pardess Hanna. There are grandchildren and the curator of the city archives, Mira Assaf, has been trying to locate them. Today, the street is busy, with many citizens traversing its length as they go about their daily business. Plenty of Russian is heard, some French, some English and even Hebrew. How many, one wonders, even have a clue who Dr. Bekman actually was.