The Baron's backyard

From its gritty pioneer beginnings, the pastoral village of Mazkeret Batya has turned into a wonderful change of pace from neighboring Tel Aviv.

Mazkeret Batya 88 248 (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Mazkeret Batya 88 248
(photo credit: Ann Goldberg)
Who would have believed that just a mere 28 kilometers from the heart of throbbing, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, you could find the delightful old-world village of Mazkeret Batya? The perfect antidote to our head-spinning metropolis, this little village looks as if time stopped many decades ago. Nevertheless, a lot of work has gone into this beautiful, colorful moshava, with its reconstructed buildings and early 20th-century ambiance. Mazkeret Batya's beginnings were not so different from those of many of the early agricultural settlements financed by Baron Edmund Rothschild. But unlike many of those settlements, this one was successful. This was probably because the 10 men who were chosen to leave their homes in Pavlovka, Russia (now Belarus) and try their fortune in the Holy Land were experienced, successful farmers. Their specialty was wheat cultivation and the land in the area chosen for them to settle was highly suitable for that crop. These men were encouraged to travel to Palestine by Rabbi Mohilever, Chief Rabbi of Bialystok, who was one of the founders of the Religious Zionist movement Hovevei Zion. Mohilever met with Rothschild and persuaded him to finance many early settlements, and he was instrumental in helping early pioneers settle in Israel. Mazkeret Batya was originally named Ekron, after an ancient Philistine city located not far away, but after the Baron's mother died, he asked the farmers to rename the moshava in her memory. But life wasn't easy for pioneers in 1883. They had all left their families behind for two years, during which time Rothschild financed both the Mazkeret Batya venture and provided for their families back home. The Mazkeret Batya Museum, located in one of the community's four original extant buildings, which used to serve as the baron's agents' headquarters, tells the story of the first 10 pioneers. Original artifacts from the community's school, including toys and musical instruments, are on display. Within a few years, the pioneers were approaching self-sufficiency and were close to being able to cut financial ties with Rothschild. But the pioneers were deeply religious and wanted to observe the first shmita year, a plan that did not meet with great enthusiasm on the part of the baron or his agents. The farmers were told, "no farming - no money." When the argument over shmita started, Mohilever tried to protect the pioneers from the Baron's wrath, going so far as to intercept a particularly angry and hurtful letter that the Baron wrote to the settlers, in order not to upset and discourage them. At Mohilever's request, the missive was buried with him. According to an educational film screened at the museum (in Hebrew with English subtitles), the Mazkeret Batya farmers were determined to honor the shmita laws, with all their stringencies. The baron's agents became increasingly angry, and withheld aid from their families - including medical treatment and schooling for their children - as well as financial assistance. But the farmers held out, even as the year in fact proved to be one of extreme suffering. Just opposite the museum is the building which housed the moshava's first synagogue, which was used until it began to collapse due to faulty building materials. The building now houses part of the local council and here you can see films about the early settlers. In 1928, the Baron built a large, attractive synagogue in its place, which is still the community's main functioning shul. A pleasant few minutes' walk brings visitors to the reconstructed water-wheel well, one of a few of that type in Israel. The wheel was turned by oxen and the water was drawn up in a series of buckets and then poured into pipes, which conducted it into the nearby reservoir. The original well was destroyed in time and its exact location was unknown until 1994, when the community decided to recreate the water-wheel well. When excavations began next to the reservoir, the original well was discovered. It's a pleasure to just stroll along the small lanes of the village, enjoying the picturesque homes, or to sit on one of the many benches situated in small hidden courtyards, parks and gardens. Should visitors want to spend longer in this idyllic spot, many bed and breakfast accommodations are available. Mazkeret Batya Village Museum - (08) 934-9525. Call ahead to request explanations in English and arrange a showing of the film.