Rabbi Sacks on a Family Story

JInsider (March 2010)

My great grandfather, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Frumkin, was a Litvak, a Rabbi in Kovno. But he was an unusual Rabbi, and like many Rabbis in the 19th century, he thought about the Jewish return to Israel, and he made aliyah in 1871.

He wrote, while he was there, a book called Toledot Chachmei Yerushalayim, 'A History of the Sages of Jerusalem,' a history of Rabbis in Jerusalem since the days of Nachmanides in 1265. (Nachmanides was the one who reconstructed Jerusalem after the massacres of the Crusades.)

So he went there as a scholar, as a kind of personal pilgrimage. What fascinates me is the change that happened to his life. In 1881, pogroms broke out in more than a hundred towns and villages in Russia, and it sent between three and five million Jews in flight to the West, to America, to Europe. And all of a sudden, my great-grandfather realised that aliyah was no longer a pilgrimage for the few, but a pressing necessity for the many.

And in 1882, he went around Europe conducting what must have been one of the first aliyah campaigns in history. And he returned to Israel a changed man, and he decided to leave Jerusalem and go out to a new yishuv, a new settlement, which was just one of the expressions of the new Jewish presence in the land. And he went to a little town, which had been started by settlers in 1878. It was the first settlement in Israel. Often, there is a settlement called Rishon LeTziyon which takes that credit, but this particular settlement was earlier than that. The trouble was that all the early settlers caught malaria and left. My great-grandfather led the return of those settlers in 1882, and built the first house in that reconstructed settlement.

What fascinates me is what those early settlers called the town. It was a tiny village, and as I say he built the first house. Today it is the sixth-largest city in Israel. Those early settlers, some were religious like my great-grandfather, most were secular, but all of them loved the Bible. And so they found here, in this malarial swamp by the Yarkon River, they looked at it and they said, "This is a valley of trouble." And then they remembered the verse in the prophet Hosea. Hosea chapter two, where God says, "I will turn the valley of trouble, Emek Achor, into a gate of hope, Petach Tikva."

And that is what they called the village, Petach Tikva, today the sixth-largest city in Israel. My great-grandfather built the first house. So, what really makes me excited, is the way this rabbinical scholar recognised that life had changed for Jews, and he went out there and helped build the land and state of Israel.