Streetwise: Rehov Herbert Ben-Adi, Beersheba

Former 'Jerusalem Post' columnist Herbert Ben-Adi once ranked as the Israeli equivalent of Mark Twain.

Rehov Ben-Adi 88 248 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Rehov Ben-Adi 88 248
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
'Most people in Beersheba don't know about this street," says Yisrael Ashkenazi, who lives in the first house on the narrow, cobblestone pedestrian pathway in Beersheba's Old City. The street honors the late Jerusalem Post columnist Herbert Ben-Adi. "The old name for the street was Rehov Negba. When the name changed many years ago, a big new sign was put up, but still, people don't recognize it." It's not just people, either - mail addressed to Rehov Ben-Adi is returned marked "address unknown." Utility companies list only Rehov Negba. Even taxi drivers shrug when asked about Rehov Ben-Adi. Too bad, because in the early days of modern Beersheba - 1948 through the mid-1970s - Herbert Ben-Adi played a major role in the South. Not only was he the official Beersheba correspondent for the Post, but he also wrote regularly for Ma'ariv. His 1968 book Israel's War for Peace still ranks as one of the most valuable historical texts on everyday life during the Six Day War. As a rakishly witty observer of day-to-day events, Ben-Adi ranks as the Israeli equivalent of Mark Twain, Studs Terkel or Samuel Pepys. The street's anonymity may stem from its diminutive length. Only six houses front on the pedestrian walkway, most of them protected by solid front walls sheltering homes and sizable gardens behind. Who lives there? An almost perfect blend of Beersheba's ethnic mix: an Arab family, sabras and veteran immigrants like Ashkenazi, plus a couple of newer immigrants. Even the exact date of the name change remains a mystery. Calls to city officials resulted in no information, other than a brief recitation of Ben-Adi's birthplace and life span. Fortunately, Herbert and Ora Ben-Adi's only child, Yigal, remembers what happened. "During his lifetime, my father was honored by the city of Beersheba," says Yigal Ben-Adi, who now lives with his wife, Sarah, and their family in one of Beersheba's newer neighborhoods. "After he passed away in 1977, my mother worked very hard to have the street that was to be named after him located in the same neighborhood where we'd lived. We still own the tiny apartment - just one room, plus a kitchen - where my father moved when he first came to Beersheba. It's on Rehov Smilansky, directly across from the street that now bears his name. We never knew when the name change officially took place. One day we drove by and saw the new sign. There was no ceremony - we weren't even notified." Interestingly enough, Ashkenazi, who's lived on the street since 1995, remembers Ben-Adi personally and easily recites his list of accomplishments. "In addition to being a newspaper reporter and columnist, Ben-Adi was also Beersheba's first Jewish photographer," Ashkenazi notes. "He wasn't necessarily the world's greatest photographer, but he was in the right place at the right time. He'd go out to various sites to report the story and he'd bring his camera. For many of those things - like the construction of the huge water project that brought water from the North to the Negev - Ben-Adi's photos are all that exist." Inadvertently, Ben-Adi left behind another important historical resource: invitations to local events. The Tuviahu Archives at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev received Ben-Adi's collected papers. "It's a fascinating collection," says Yehoshua Bar-On, the Tuviahu archivist, who also personally remembers both Herbert and Ora Ben-Adi. "What's especially valuable are the many invitations he received to events that took place in the early days of the city. He saved them all. Now we find that those invitations are the only documents we have to prove certain events took place - like the opening of Hadassah Hospital in 1950. We don't have anything else that documents that event, other than the invitation Ben-Adi received and kept. He's a great source of information in many ways." The Tuviahu Archives created a short biographical pamphlet on Ben-Adi. "He was born in 1904 in a small village on [what later became] the Yugoslav-Hungarian border," Bar-On says. "Before World War I, he moved with his parents to Vienna. In 1929 he was expelled from then-fascist Yugoslavia because of anti-fascist activity. He first went to Czechoslovakia and then to England, where he served in the British army. He came to Israel in 1948." "My father suffered from asthma as a result of the years he spent working in the mines in Europe," Yigal recalls. "In fact, he and my mother met when he was hospitalized in Tel Aviv. She was a nurse. They married and moved to Beersheba, where he began to write. Until then, he'd worked in construction, house building, but because of his health, he had to find something else. He spoke several languages - Hungarian, a Yugoslavian dialect, Hebrew, Italian and English, which he first learned through reading, because he read a lot. He became fluent when he was in the British army." Bar-On notes that although English was not Ben-Adi's mother tongue, his writing was elegant. "His syntax is European, but his English vocabulary was excellent," Bar-On says. "He worked very hard on his writing, sometimes writing and rewriting several times." Ben-Adi had a way with words. Comparing Israel to a beehive, he wrote, "Israel is a besieged fortress, surrounded by enemies on the outside, plagued by difficulties and troubles on the inside. Living here is like living on the rim of a volcano." "We got the Bible, they got the oil," he lamented in another column. "We're funny," he mused. "When things are good, our morale stinks. When things are bad, it's as high as it can be." Daily events, the little things in life, fascinated Ben-Adi. In a column dated May 28, 1967, he recounted a friend's dream. The dream was so vivid, the man ran around, waking up all his neighbors, convincing them they should run for the shelter. So everyone crowded into the shelter and spent the whole night there. Then in the morning, the man realized it had only been a dream. He was so embarrassed he didn't dare show his face on the street. The shortage of telephones in Beersheba during the war produced another story. Everyone wanted to call someone, but there were very few phones in the entire city. Officials solved the problem by outfitting an old Egged bus with several telephones inside, then parked it permanently outside the bus terminal. People would stand in line to go into the bus to make their phone calls. When active fighting ended on June 10, 1967, Ben-Adi commented on how quickly life returned to normal. On June 12, he wrote, "Leaving home this morning I heard an unusual sound - concrete mixers! Already a building has started to come up in a nearby lot." Herbert Ben-Adi loved Beersheba and was proud of his city. "In 1948, Beersheba was a small Beduin village," he wrote. "Nineteen years later, it has a population of 75,000 and is the administrative and business center for the whole Negev. How did we do it? Three little words: by hard work."