Seattle to Hebron

Insights from the book 'To Rise Above: A Journey to Greatness Against All Odds.'

The Knesses Yisrael Yeshiva in Hebron in 1911 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
The Knesses Yisrael Yeshiva in Hebron in 1911
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Dov Cohen was a wholly American boy whose European mother was so desperate to keep him connected to a life of Torah that she brought him to pre-state Palestine in 1925 and left him there alone. His job was to imbibe the holiness available in Hebron and to grow into a Torah scholar.
On one level, To Rise Above: A Journey to Greatness Against All Odds is a documentary history of the yeshiva world of the 1920s, written by Cohen and his family.
Cohen’s mother is the driving force of the story. She sacrificed her relationship with her son so that he could learn Torah in Palestine beginning as a young teenager.
The rest of the main characters in this 750-page tome are pretty much all men – leaders of various yeshivot in Europe and Palestine, yeshiva students and the male Arab neighbors and British police with whom they interacted.
The story begins in Lithuania, where Cohen’s father broke his own finger in order to evade mandatory conscription in the Czar’s army. Along with a massive group of immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe, Cohen’s family made their way to Ellis Island and, ultimately, to Seattle. It might surprise most readers to learn that Seattle in the early 20th century “had, at that time, one of the most religious Jewish communities in the western United States.”
Cohen describes his mother as “an energetic activist on behalf of any Torah- related matter” in the Seattle Jewish community and his father as a wealthy businessman. Cohen led a privileged childhood, even learning to drive at age nine, in the days before driver’s licenses were required. Then suddenly, that life came to a close and a new life in Palestine began.
Cohen was the youngest child in the family. His brothers had already been seduced away from yeshiva life by the potent pull of secular American culture.
Fearing that her youngest child would finally break the family’s connection to generations of Torah scholars, she physically delivered him to Palestine, in order to save him and the family legacy.
Cohen ended up enrolling in Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael in Hebron at the age of 15, five years younger than the youngest student at the time. Readers interested in the history of yeshivot in pre-state Palestine will be treated to hundreds of documents, photos and remembrances of that time.
Yeshiva students from all over Europe wanted to relocate to the Land of Israel, so the yeshiva had no trouble filling its ranks with top students.
Cohen is particularly adept at capturing everyday life in Hebron at the beginning of the 20th century. When the yeshiva relocated from Lithuania to Hebron in 1924-25, it was warmly received.
“Hebron’s Arabs greatly honored the yeshiva, as it provided a financial boost for the city,” he wrote. “The British officials, too, emphasized the yeshiva’s establishment in their various advertisements.”
Capturing daily life, Cohen wrote about the goat’s milk and bread that was sold by local Arabs to the yeshiva students.
“One Arab would come around with his goat and milk it straight into his Jewish neighbors’ pitcher. The milk was hot and fatty. After so many years, it’s hard for me to remember what color that goat was, although I do remember what the Arab looked like.”
Despite living in the same city and having good relations with their Arab neighbors in those years, the Jews were not allowed to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial site of many of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs.
They were only allowed to climb up to the seventh step on an external staircase and pray from there.
After painting a rich portrait, with much detail about daily life in Hebron, the book transitions to what is arguably its most important section – the tragic 1929 Hebron riots, during which dozens of Jews were killed. In clear language translated from the original Hebrew, Cohen explains the historical origins of the riots, which will sound remarkably familiar to any modern reader familiar with the current political tensions at the Kotel and the Temple Mount.
Cohen survived the Hebron pogroms of August 1929 by hiding in a pit under an Arab home with four or five friends.
Despite the fact that they occurred almost 90 years ago, the book’s narrative describes the progression of the riots, the survivors and the victims, in a comprehensive and methodical manner. Particularly painful to read is the dithering of the British police superintendent, who took no action to quell the mob until his own life was in danger.
To Rise Above’s documentary history continues with the relocation of the Jews of Hebron to Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the yeshiva there. The final chapters of the book cover the rest of Cohen’s professional life, working for Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry and the family he and his wife raised in Jerusalem.
■ An intensive history of Rabbi Dov Cohen, who arrived in Palestine in 1925 to study Torah