Remembering the ‘Roaring Lion’ on Tel Hai Day

Fateful choices still inspire generations

‘THE ROARING LION’ at Tel Hai. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tel Hai Day, on the 11th of Adar, commemorates a legendary chapter in the story of Israel.
Beseeching the heavens with his wide jaws stretched apart, the Roaring Lion crowns a large monument with the names of eight people buried underneath. They were murdered in March 1920, by Arabs at the Tel Hai farming courtyard. The impressive monument, created by artist Avraham Melnikov in 1932, is in the Kfar Giladi cemetery. Nearby Kiryat Shmona (Hebrew for City of Eight) commemorates them.
I first visited the lion statue on a class trip in the 1970s. My parents had informed me that the person at the top of the monument’s list, Dvora Drachler, was a cousin of my paternal grandmother, Sadie Drachman Hashkes.
Returning 30 years later, en route to kayaking on the Jordan River with my husband and children, the director of the Tel Hai Museum was excited to learn that I’m related to Drachler. She told me that Drachler came to the Land of Israel in 1913 at age 17, joining her sister and brother-in-law, Haya and Eliezer Karol in Tel Adash. Eliezer Karol was a member of Hashomer, a Jewish defense organization. Together with other women, Drachler participated in housekeeping chores in Tel Adash. The women wanted to take more responsibility, demanding equality and eventually participated in meetings on security. Drachler went to Tel Hai only two weeks before the attack to help her comrades.
The Zionist leaders had wanted the Galilee Panhandle region to be a part of the Land of Israel for geographical, economical and historical reasons. Tel Hai was settled in 1918 by Hashomer members.
The two major powers of the day – Britain and France – disputed the area. The British tried raising anti-French sentiments among the local Arabs. Four Jewish settlements in the Galilee Panhandle were endangered: Metulla, Hamra, Kfar Giladi and Tel Hai.
GRAY CLOUDS swept over Tel Hai in the winter of 1919-1920 after two members were murdered by Arabs. Arriving at Tel Hai in December 1919 with volunteers to defend the area was Joseph Trumpeldor, who had lost an arm in combat as a Russian Army officer. Together with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he was a founder of the Zion Mule Corps, a Jewish brigade in the British Army.
On March 1, 1920, about 300 Arabs surrounded the courtyard. A few entered to search for French soldiers. A fight broke out and a battle ensued. Six members of Tel Hai – among them Dvora Drachler – were murdered. During the battle, Trumpeldor was injured and subsequently died. What were probably his final words, “It is good to die for our country,” became a mantra for generations of Israelis.
In the past 100 years, as Israel’s saga of heroism and sacrifice continues, academic studies and books are published on this event, where Trumpeldor’s final words are scrutinized – somewhat tarnishing Tel Hai’s legacy. Yet, the pioneers of Tel Hai and Trumpeldor’s statement are still a symbol of heroism.
In addition to ensuring that the Galilean Panhandle became part of Israel, the legacy of the Tel Hai heroes is that generations of young people in Israel and the Diaspora follow their courageous footsteps. Tel Hai proves that in their own land, Jews cannot rely on foreign rule for defense and need their own army.
Tel Hai connects to my reflections on my aliyah as a child in 1969. Actually, my parents’ aliyah, as the choice was – fortunately – made for me. I started thinking about Drachler only after 30 years in Israel. I had my share of difficulties adjusting to life in Israel. I never gave thought to my parents’ challenges.
MY PERCEPTION changed sharply when I reached their age when making aliyah, coinciding with my youngest child being my age when I made aliyah. I wondered how they did it, leaving behind a secure livelihood, family and community support. Was moving to Israel so important or was it like moving elsewhere? Would I cross the ocean with my young son to fulfill my dream? This lead to another hypothetical question. If I had remained in the United States, would I ever choose to immigrate to Israel with a family of my own?
Dvora Drachler fits into part of the answer as to whether I or my descendants would have one day made aliyah.
Both she and my grandmother Hashkes were cousins. Both women were courageous in their differing paths. If Drachler hadn’t fallen at Tel Hai, her grandchildren would have been my distant cousins. The irony isn’t lost on me. While Drachler had no descendants, nearly all of my grandmother’s descendants live in Israel. While Drachler came to the Land of Israel out of idealism, leaving the United States was not on the radar screen of my Brooklyn-based grandmother nor of her parents who were part of the mass emigration at the end of the 19th century.
A branch of my family left Eastern Europe for the US, a family member went to the Land of Israel, and maybe distant relatives remained in Europe, perishing in the Holocaust. In 1969, my parents made aliyah with their children, tying together the strands of the family in the place where we all originated and where we are all anchored and meant to be.
American Jews are entrenched in their society, often forgetting that a mere one to four generations ago, they were not Americans, but Europeans, or from Middle Eastern countries. If they look back further they may discover their Spanish roots.
That’s the nature of the Jewish people – going from exile to exile – contributing to society and learning its local customs. But, eventually – somewhere along the line – Jews are stirred, shoved, or jolted, as individuals or as groups, to come back to where their origins began, to the Land of Israel.
If I hadn’t come on aliyah and remained in the US, I imagine that some of my descendants would one day come home to Israel.
One-hundred years later, as a twist on Trumpeldor’s dying words, I believe, as my children have heard from me: “It’s good to live for our country.” All generations are pioneers in their own way. Once it was the First Aliyah pioneers salvaging swamp land; later pioneers built up Israel’s defense; a generation later the challenge was conquering illiteracy and disease. Pioneers with vision founded the infrastructure for industry, and rebuilt the world of Torah scholarship. In recent years, Israel is the trailblazer of IT, AI, and application software revolutionizing the world.
During our family outing, after leaving Tel Hai with a list of relatives, I had much to contemplate under a leafy tree, as the Jordan River roared not far from the Roaring Lion.