Life in Israel in 1900



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An Old Family Story

By Matania Ginosar

A hundred years ago, in the middle of a dark, starless sky, my 5 years old mother, Rachel, and her 7 years old sister, slept in two wooden boxes tied to the back of a small, poorly nourished donkey. The sisters were not a heavy load for this slow, melancholy donkey, as both sisters were thin; they were undernourished. They and the rest of the Barzel (which means Iron in Hebrew) family rarely had enough to eat. Their empty stomachs and the constant fear of a worse future drove them into action: to go to a new land. For more than a hundred years the Barzels lived, or rather subsisted, in the Galilee area of the Holy Land, and it was a difficult step to leave the land of their ancestors.

Eight people were in that slowly travelling party, the tall thin father, a small, once very beautiful mother, the little sisters, three teenagers, a sister and two older brothers, and a hired guide. The guide was not in a hurry, neither the donkey; what could the guide do to it? Beat it more? It was used to it, and the donkey kept its easy, slow pace.

They walked on narrow dirt footpaths for two days to reach the city of Haifa, which is just an hour drive today. No one could dream then, that twenty five years later, mother would be a middle class lady with her own home on the beautiful Mount Carmel in Haifa.

I don't know her dreams while she sat in that box but being a bright, energetic girl I believe her mind was very active. It was amazing enough that she did not jump out of the box aftzeluches, (just for the hell of it in Yiddish). She was, probably, pondering her strange uprooting from the familiar friends she grew up with. She probably wondered about the very narrow cobble streets she used to played in, the small, flat roofed, stone house they all occupied, two or three kids to a bed.

Her mother had spent most of her days in the miniature kitchen, which had one small window, a wood stove, and like every one else they carried in their water twice daily from the communal well.

No one talked while they walked slowly up and down the hills towards Haifa, first for security reasons; voices carry far in the utterly silent night. Second they were quiet people; emotions and feelings were not recognized, nor shared. Negative thoughts were not expressed, life was difficult enough without talking about it. And if you talked about probable bad things, Aeen Raah, the "Evil Eye," could make them come true.

On those lonely paths every one was occupied with their own sadness of the lost past and their uncertain dream of the future. All they wanted was a safe place to rest and enough food to eat. Their final destination was far, far away.

No hope was left for them in the almost empty Palestine, a miserable, mostly barren dusty land, but the future was beckoning to them in the land of the mighty Nile. In their home in Tzefat, like many other Jews in the Holy Land, they survived doing small jobs often paid from meager donations from Jewish communities in the Gola, (the Diaspora) outside the Holy Land. And that minor support was diminishing, not enough to sustain a family of young children.

Others lost hope and remained in their misery, but the Barzels decided to leave all their relatives behind, (all poor like them) leave the familiar grounds, the quiet community they all knew so well. It took my grandfather a long time to decide, but he had to leave despite the hardship and the fear of Arab attacks along the desolated way.

The prospect of additional uncertain years of this kind of agony finally drove my maternal grandfather to leave the familiar small utterly poor community of Tzefat in the Galil, northern Israel, close the Syrian border today. Back then there were no borders anywhere, nearly all the middle East was under the rule of the brutal and primitive Ottoman Empire, which is today Turkey.

The hope for a secure life with a full stomach was the main reason why the Barzels were leaving for Egypt. Under the cruel Turkish administration survival was all that one could aspire to. On the other hand, Egypt was under a civilized British domination. Theoretically the British were just advisers to the corrupt, self indulgent Egyptian monarchy. However, the British need to control the Suez Canal - the main artery to "The Jewel of the Crown of the British Empire" - India. This encouraged them to pressure the Egyptians whenever British interests were challenged.

The British High Commissioner had a powerful and often benign influence then. British cultural influence instilled a modicum of order and the rule of some kind of law, the laws of money and influence of the powerful. But that was enough to allow capable, eager people to make some kind of a reasonable living. They were sufficiently safe, could eat plenty, their children could be educated. And they could even enjoy the opera in Alexandria, the capital.

Their guide led the Barzels to a cheap shelter in Haifa, were they stayed for two weeks, until grandfather arranged the long train trip to Egypt. Very few trains operated, their schedules erratic and infrequent, and you had to give Bakshish, (bribe) to a Turkish officer to allow you to buy the expensive tickets to Egypt.

They stayed in one room in an Arab "hostel", a two story U shaped stone building, with small barred widows, secured at night by heavy, corroded steel shutters. Mother and the older sister, Ziporah, cooked simple meals clandestinely inside, and all slept on thin mats at night; the same type of thin mat I slept on in a British prison decades later. You roll it and put it in the corner during the day, and you feel the hard, cold floor through it as you lay on it at night.

In Tzefat their home, although small and poorly furnished was meticulously clean. Therefore, the dirt and bugs in this small room bothered them the most. They hung their mats in the sun on the balcony iron railing during the day hoping to kill the bugs inside it. It did not work too well unfortunately.

All day-time activities in the Arab inn were conducted in the large central open courtyard, which had only one gate to the outside. This two-door swinging gate was made of heavy lumber and was locked from evening to dawn with a solid iron bar across the gate. Safety was the key commodity the inn sold. The country was lawless and the Turkish police were few and uninterested. The yard was a noisy place, camels and donkeys were tied to wooden posts on the shady side of the yard.

The Barzels collapsed in a dreamless sleep for a full day; the barking of the stray dogs, the shouts of the drinks sellers, and the donkeys braying did not bother them. They were dead tired. They needed the rest both because of the drain of the journey but also to say their goodbye to Eretz Hakodesh, (the Holy Land).

Every aspect of their lives was tied to the fact that they were religious Jews living in a Jewish community in the Holy Land - their deeply shared culture, the holidays, their traditional clothes, the three daily prayers facing Jerusalem, trusted long time friends. The home and the synagogue were the centers of their lives. And Shabbat was Shabbat.

In Egypt they would be isolated among a multitude of strangers from many cultures. They did not know how long they would be away, and what the result of this daring move would turn out to be.

My mother was not able to stay in one place for long and she being the favorite little one, easily convinced her brothers to take her and her sister to tour the city, while father was arranging their departure to Cairo. The kids were awed by the size and activities in that "huge" city. The older brother tried to show his knowledge by saying that Haifa was hundreds of times bigger than their Tzefat.

They noticed immediately the difference between their cold, dry Tzefat, and the warm, humid air surrounding them. This little Arab town of Haifa, with a small but increasing number of Jews, was stretched out on three levels. The Arabs lived on the flat land near the sea, where their inn was; the Jews that could afford it preferred to live on the higher hilly grounds about two miles from the sea. The Carmel Mountain (actually hills) which dominated the scenery was covered by small Tznobar (pine) trees with rarely a building or a soul in site.

They fell in love at once with the sunny and mellow Mediterranean Sea. The salty sea smell was so fresh, enticing them to take lots of deep breaths to savor that unfamiliar aroma. They had never seen anything so big, so blue, but they did not dare put even their toes in the water. Mother and her siblings sat gingerly down on the hot sand and quietly observed the slow activities of the small fishing fleet in the marvelous natural harbor.

Grandmother was amazed that they were not fully cooked by the blazing sun. The next day, with wide open eyes they walked through a big, noisy, smelly, unsanitary Shuk, (the open market). They moved slowly among the covered stalls containing all the colorful utterly fresh fruits and vegetables any one could desire. And many more things too - from hats to used cooking pots.

Live chickens were a bargain, they killed and plucked them to order right in front of you. A terrible sight to a 5 year old. When I was 12 mother sent me to get a live chicken killed to order and I nearly vomited. I refused to do it again. The raw reality of the Shuk was not so pretty elsewhere too, as they saw freshly slaughtered goats and sheep hanging on hooks, feeding big clouds of large swarming flies.

My family dressed differently from the Arab kids, more heavily, and modestly, but they were ignored. Every seller in the Shuk was so busy attracting customers with shouts and yells. What a noisy place. Just like in Tzefat only seasonal produce was available, nothing was brought in from further than a few hours donkey ride away.

A few days later, as they walked back to their inn they saw very few enclosed stored, but many little open cafes, with few tables under flimsy white tarps. The cafes were populated by lazy older Arab men sucking their Nargillas, a floor mounted glass utensil which filtered their smoldering Hashish through water. Haifa was very active during the day, with nearly completely empty streets at night.

The Barzel family destination was Cairo, the largest city in Egypt, with the largest Jewish community. The generosity of the Jewish community in Cairo to Jewish newcomers was famous and widely known. In fact, my father's family, Goldfarb, (later changed to Ginosar) also emigrated to Cairo because of that generosity. Both the Barzels and the Goldfarbs knew that they would be supported by the Jewish community until they could stand on their own feet.

The Goldfarbs also relied on interest free loans to start a small grocery store there. In 1900 the Goldfarbs escaped the difficult life of a farm community in the Ukraine, not far from Odessa, as poor and deprived as the life shown in "Fiddler On The Roof". They were nearly penniless, were tired of the frequent murderous Russian pogroms and they wanted to start a new life in Israel. But when they found how difficult and hopeless was the life in the Holy Land then under the Turks, they came as close as they could, hoping to move there when possible. So both the Barzels and Goldfarbs settled in Cairo a century ago and that is where my mother and father met and courted.

My father did go finally to live in his beloved Israel, when he turned 22, in 1922. He and mother started a family and built their first home on the sand dunes of the new city of Tel Aviv, and he felt every event of the growing country in his soul. He loved Israel immensely, and this love motivated my older brother Pinchas, and later me, to join the Lechi underground to try to liberate Israel from the duplicitous British occupation. This twisted relationship with Britain which started as a League of Nations' Mandate to create a free state of Israel, and turned out to be an oppressive occupation to achieve the British Empire goals. Eventually we Israelis kicked the British out, and they have not forgiven us yet. Not to this day.

A quarter of a century later, when I was 5 years old, I repeated mother's journey. I also traveled from Haifa to Cairo by train, with mother, my 3 years old sister Sara, and Pinchas, whom I loved and looked up to. We went to visit all the members of the Barzel family who had traveled a quarter century earlier to Cairo, in much more primitive conditions on a similar train.

It was an eye opening reunion for me, and of mammoth proportion. I will never forgot it, and we never saw my mother's brothers, sister, father and mother again. Just one sister escaped during Nassar's expulsion of Jews in 1956 and she returned to Israel.

Matania can be reached for comment at




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