Then and now in Rishon – at Gordon London House

The Great Synagogue was the first spiritual-religious center of the evolving moshava – agricultural colony – while Haviv School was the first Hebrew-language-based institution of its kind in pre-stat

Gordon London House (photo credit: ILAN SPIRA)
Gordon London House
(photo credit: ILAN SPIRA)
Rishon Lezion, as its name suggests, played a definitive role in the emergence of the State of Israel and the cultivation of the Jewish Yishuv in pre-independence times.
Some of that early history still has highly visible corporeal form. Built between 1885 and 1889, the Great Synagogue was the first spiritual-religious center of the evolving moshava – agricultural colony – while Haviv School was the first Hebrew-language-based institution of its kind in pre-state Palestine.
The school’s tastefully restored building still stands proudly, and fetchingly, on Ahad Ha’am Street, not much more than a stone’s throw from the compound of the Rishon Lezion Museum.
The latter was opened in 1882, to mark the city’s centenary, and incorporates a group of structures from the moshava’s earliest days, including the house of founder Eliezer Elhanan Schalit, the Clinic, stables and Medicine House.
A couple of months or so ago the museum’s portfolio was significantly extended with the opening of Gordon London House. The building originates from 1891, and the current sparkling condition of the impressive two-story edifice is the result of four years of restoration and renovation work.
Although the dimensions of the structure would make for a generously proportioned domicile, in contemporary terms, size-wise, the building per se is not much to write home about. But, in 1891, when Avraham Ze’ev Gordon, who had recently relocated to the Middle East from Lithuania, completed work on the two-story structure, it was one of the most impressive buildings in the area.
The upper floor of Gordon London House now serves as an art gallery, but it has quite a checkered past.
When Gordon first set out his stall here, he started out as a vineyardist and – in between cultivating grapes for the production of alcohol, and making sure local Jews had something to bless on Friday nights – he took care of a multitude of pioneering projects, including ensuring local inhabitants had the luxury of running water in their homes, and building roads, as well as serving as a member of the colony’s committee. Gordon was also instrumental in keeping Rishon Lezion going during the tough years of World War I, when nutrition was hard to come by, by building up reserves of food.
Back then the Gordon family occupied the upper floor of the building – the current gallery space – while the rooms on the ground floor were rented out to local teachers, members of the Hashomer civilian defense group, and other pioneers of the day.
There were also plenty of colorful characters around, and entrepreneurial spirit abounded in the young Yishuv. Gordon’s son-in-law Shmuel Tzvi Holzman certainly showed some initiative when, in 1907, he imported ostrich chicks (Photos: Ilan Spira) from Sudan, with the idea of breeding them and offering ostrich feathers to well-heeled ladies. As incongruous as that may sound, considering the poor socioeconomic state of the vast majority of residents of the Yishuv, apparently Holzman was a canny chappie, and actually made a pretty penny in the export market, focusing most of his business interests on the European market. Sadly, the good times came to an abrupt end toward the end of 1914, with the outbreak of World War I.
The next intriguing phase in the temporal backdrop of the current arts repository took place between 1922 and 1934, when Aaron and Rosa London opened the London Hotel. Like Holzman, The Londons were clearly benevolently minded folk, too, and their hosting establishment offered a bed for the night and cooked sustenance to all manner of guests, including laborers who couldn’t always stump up the necessary cash.
A few years later another Rosa – Rosa Noah – took up the philanthropic theme and, when her family moved into the premises in 1939, she joined her namesake in ensuring that the local single men got at least one warm meal a day.
For a while, the main room on the upper story of Gordon London House served as the venue for parties, dances and other social events, and it is said that many a romance was sparked at the gatherings.
The Ezer Am social club also enjoyed a temporary berth there, and one of the rooms even served as a synagogue for olim from Germany.
In the 1940s the Gordons sold the building to Mordechai Orischvitz and Yitzhak Tzuzamer. The latter ran a watchmaker’s store on the ground floor, and also used his expertise to ensure guns used by the Hagana were in good working order.
Yona Shapira, curator of the present- day arts facility, says the building enjoys pride of place in the annals of local Zionist endeavor, as does the city itself.
“Rishon Lezion played a central role in the formation of the national character of this country,” notes Shapira proudly.
“It was here, in Rishon, that our national flag and national anthem came into being, and the first Hebrew-language school opened here.”
For some, the city conjures up images of a more liquid and intoxicating nature.
“We didn’t have the first winery here,” says Shapira, “but this is the place where the modern wine industry started in Eretz Israel.”
Shapira is not only happy to open the doors of Gordon London House to the public, she stresses the centrality of Rishon Lezion to the eventual emergence of the State of Israel, and also the fine work the municipality has carried out, together with the state authorities, to ensure that visitors of all ages can get a tangible idea of what life was like here a century or so ago.
“Here, at the museum, you have a cluster of buildings from yesteryear, which give you an idea of what used to be here, of the moshava.”
The museum, says Shapira, is an unparalleled national heritage treasure.
“This is a unique phenomenon among the moshavot of the First Aliya [1882- 1904] which became cities. If you go to Petah Tikva or Hadera or Rehovot, there’s almost nothing [original] to find there. They destroyed everything. Here, in Rishon, there is a square of streets, where you find the nucleus of the historic city. There are around 30 preserved buildings and, altogether, there are around 100 buildings with preservation orders.”
Gordon London House is certainly a wonder to behold, and the restoration and preservation professionals have done an excellent job with making sure the public has plenty to marvel at, by restoring some original features to their original glory and seamlessly complementing them with modern elements.
Shapira and her colleagues are also keen to stay abreast of current developments, and the opening exhibition, Through the Layers, featured 39 fashion works inspired by the building and created by students of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.
“The idea behind the exhibition was to create something contemporary that relates to the historic past,” explains Shapira.
Sounds like the story of Rishon Lezion in a nutshell.
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