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Billy Sunday and Benny Saturday


My grandfather and my uncle, whose name was Ben-Zion, but who was known by his pen-name Itamar Ben-Avi, were very involved with the early work to create a Jewish state in Israel’s ancient homeland. The following is an excerpt from a book, "Fulfillment of Prophecy," which I wrote about the life and times of my grandfather. It tells of how my uncle almost ‘won’ a state for the Jews at the end of the First World War. Some of the words are not ‘historically documented,’ but the incident is actually true.


It all began with a phone conversation between Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and justice Louis Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court. Eliezer asked the Supreme Court Judge and president of the American Zionist Organization to use all his influence to convince President Wilson to recognize the legitimate right of the Jews to a national life in their ancient homeland.

"Are you sure we can do it?" Asked Brandeis, "Can we establish a government, secure the land, and manage the infrastructure of a sovereign state?"

"Absolutely!" Responded Ben-Yehuda. "We can do it as well as the Poles, the Albanians, or the Bulgarians. We have such a wonderful young generation that was raised in the land, speaking the language of the land, and ready to take charge of their own lives in their own land. Speak to Ben-Zion, and he will tell you more about it. You have seen him in action. You have heard him speak at Zionist rallies. You know him. There are many like him — think of Aaron Aaronson, whom you met before the war..." Brandeis cut him off.

"Very well, I will do it. I’ll speak to Wilson."

A few days later the judge was at the White House. President Wilson was speaking excitedly of the coming "Conference of Small Nations" that was going to meet in Philadelphia to plan their representation at the eventual peace conference.

"Whom are you going to send as the representative of the small nation of the Jews?" Asked Brandeis.

"What? Louis, surely you are not serious!"

"I am very serious, Mr. President."

"Do you really believe that the Jews are ready to rule themselves in the Holy Land ?"

"Absolutely! There are men who are capable. In fact, there is one right here in the U.S. — he is active with the Zionist Organization, and he is quite a persuasive speaker. His name is Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda. He was born in Jerusalem, and his native tongue is Hebrew." The daily paper was on the coffee table by the two sitting friends, Brandeis and President Wilson. The president glanced at the paper, and saw a report with the headline, "Billy Sunday Comes to Washington next week."

In those days, the greatest evangelist in the United States was Billy Sunday. William Ashley Sunday was an American evangelist whose revivals and sermons reflected the emotional upheavals caused by transition from rural to industrial society in the United States. Sunday grew up as an orphan and worked as an undertaker’s assistant before entering professional baseball in 1883. In 1891 he gave up baseball to become a YMCA worker. In 1896, he turned to conducting religious revivals in major American cities. Ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1903, Sunday was theologically a Fundamentalist. Following the lead of the American evangelist Dwight L. Moody, he conducted more than 300 revivals with an estimated attendance of some one hundred million worshipers. He is said to have reached the peak of his fame in his New York City revival of 1917, when, as he claimed, a million worshipers "hit the sawdust trail" to come forward and profess their conversion to Christ as a result of his preaching. Though some conservative Christians considered him a sensationalist, he nevertheless gained the enthusiastic support of evangelical churches and influential laymen, including the President of the United States.

"Tell you what," the president said to the judge, "if you can get this man from Jerusalem on the stage with Billy Sunday, I will make him a delegate to the Conference of Small Nations."

Ben Zion came to Washington a few days later, at the request of the Zionist leadership, to meet with some successful Jewish men to raise funds for the cause of the inhabitants of the Land of Israel. He was a house guest at the home of a Mr. Cohen, who owned a clothing store on the corner of I and J streets. Cohen was a Lithuanian Jew who loved everything Jewish. His wife was a second generation American Jewish belle who was born and educated in the deep South. She fancied the social life in Washington, and with a successful husband created a "salon" — a home that was frequented by many of the connected people in the Capital. She furnished her livingroom with expensive antique furniture and Chinese and Japanese artifacts of ivory, jade, silver and gold. Mrs. Cohen was totally captivated by the young Jerusalemite, and treated him as the son she never had. Ben Zion met with Louis Brandeis who informed him that he had to make contact with Billy Sunday and speak at his revival meeting to qualify for the job of representative to the Small Nations Conference. Ben Zion spent a good part of the day trying unsuccessfully to connect with someone who knew someone who could put in a good word with the great evangelist. Toward evening he returned to the Cohen home, where, over a highball of whisky and Canada Dry he was telling his hostess of his frustrating and fruitless activity. To his amazement, Mrs. Cohen picked up the phone and dialed a number that she obviously did not have to look up.

"Hello, Reverend," she said to the man on the other end of the line, "it is so nice to have you back in Washington." She listened attentively to the other party for a long minute, and then she said,

"... I suppose not! But I have a wonderful idea. It just came to me suddenly, listening to you... Yes, it is about the Holy Land ... I have a young man sitting with me, right here in my living room. He is a Hebrew, can you believe it? Yes, and he is one of the men that will make the Balfour Declaration into a reality." Again she listened to the other party, and then she said,

"... Oh, no! He speaks a fluent English, as well as French and German. He is a journalist, and an orator..." Another pause, and then she said,

"Very well, I’ll be over in twenty minutes." She replaced the mouthpiece in its cradle and said to Ben Zion,

"I must go to the Shorham hotel. I will be back in about an hour." When she returned she was glowing with excitement and satisfaction.

"It is all arranged, you will speak tomorrow, at four in the afternoon, in the meeting tent of Billy Sunday..."

"What? I can’t believe it!" Ben Zion was incredulous. "I have a fund-raising meeting scheduled for tomorrow afternoon..."

"Cancel it!" Said the woman. "You will never have another chance like this. Billy Sunday will introduce you, as a son of Jerusalem, and you will have ten minutes, twelve at the most, to tell about the rebirth of Zion, about your childhood, about your father and Hebrew, about your firm belief that the British will win the war..."

"All this in ten or twelve minutes?" Asked Ben Zion.

"Yes. And you had better be good. Billy is doing it in honor of Eternal Jerusalem — but also because I asked him to do it..."

The next day, shortly after noon, Ben Zion and Mrs. Cohen took a cab to the meeting tent of Billy Sunday. The famous evangelist was standing of a large table, in the middle of the tent, surrounded by twenty-one thousand followers. He was preaching the gospel, quoting from the New Testament and commenting on the text, chiding and praising the crowd at the same time, questioning and reinforcing their faith in God and His Son. The crowd was responding with "amens" and "hallelujahs." Ben Zion stood in a corner of the tent with his mentor, Mrs. Cohen. After a while Billy finished speaking and came off the table, through the throng, to embrace Mrs. Cohen and shake hands with her young charge. Ben Zion looked at the evangelist, more than six feet tall, broad shouldered and with a ruddy appearance. His face and hair were wet with perspiration.

"Nice to meet you, Ben!" He said, and before anyone could correct him concerning Ben Zion’s full name, he was back in the center of the tent, on the table, speaking to the crowd.

"My fellow Americans," He called out to them, using a "speaking cone" to augment his voice, "I have spoken to you of the fulfillment of prophecy as an American and a Christian, and you were satisfied with my words. But now I will call on a friend and a brother, a Jew, born and raised in the Holy City of Jerusalem, speaking the tongue of the prophets and walking in their paths. He is right there," pointing to the corner of the tent, "won’t you welcome — Benny Saturday!" A sea of humanity turned their attention to Ben Zion, not quite thirty-five years old, and they lifted him and carried him to the center, to the table on which Billy Sunday was standing. The evangelist shook his hand and pulled Itamar toward himself, to hug him close to his warm chest. He patted his back vigorously and said,

"Tell them, brother Ben. Tell them the truth!" And suddenly Billy Sunday was gone, and Ben Zion was alone on that table, in the midst of twenty-one thousand believers, eagerly awaiting his message. Itamar began his speech in Hebrew, reciting from memory the words of Ezekiel 37, "The hand of the Lord was upon me, and carried me out in the wind of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, and he led me around among them; and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know. And he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O you dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live; and I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord." Ben Zion was thankful to his second mother, Hemda, for his total recall of the text. He went on to speak of the rebirth of the ‘dry bones’ of Jewish life in the homeland. The struggle his father had to bring Hebrew back to life, the reclaiming of the land by the young pioneers in Rishon Le'Tzion and the other villages. He roared his message, and he whispered his comments, he sang the praise of the land and spit out venom when recounting the misdeeds and opposition of the Turkish government to the Jewish enterprise of return and reclamation. He decried evil and blessed the pioneers and the pathfinders of the road to nationhood. In eleven minutes and thirty seconds he was done, finishing with a prayer from the 137th Psalm, repeating the words of the exiles in the days of the destruction of the first temple,

"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember you, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy." The crowd roared its approval, Billy Sunday returned to his side, held Ben Zion’s hand in his and raised his hand high. The assembled were overjoyed. Some had tears in their eyes. They were shouting his "name,"

"Benny Saturday ... Benny Saturday... Amen, Amen... hallelujah!"

And that is how it came to be that the President of the United States appointed Ben Zion, who had changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi, as a representative of the reborn Jewish nation in the Holy Land to the Conference of Small Nations. The conference first met in Philadelphia, and then traveled to France, to the peace conference. There, representatives of displaced and dispossessed small nations of the world in the lands of the defeated enemies of France, Britain, Italy and the U.S. demanded their independence.

This is a true story.  Here is a picture taken by a news photographer of the opening session of the Conference of Small Nations.  Thomas Masaryk, the first Czech president is seated in the middle, Ben-Avi is standing by   the flag of Israel on the right.

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P.S.  I received a letter by email that relates to this story:

Dear Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,

I am young Czech historian I am going to finish my first book concerning Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians during World War I. In czech diplomatic papers of president Thomas Masaryk from the year 1918, I met name of your father, Itamar Ben Avi. During two weeks in October 1918 he colaborated with Czech, Poles, Romanians, Croats, Italians etc. emigrees in USA and made with them an important political manifestation in Philadelphia (The common will of opressed nations - it was prepared by an organization named Mid-European Demokratic Union with the help of president Wilsons's administration).
I find your home page today and I would like to ask if in your father's papers exists anything about this event - and I am so very glad that I have this occasion to say hallo to you, son of one of heroes of my first book.

With greetings from Prague

Tomas Zahradnicek 

I answered Tomas and sent him the picture above. Eventually I got a reply:

thank you for your kind letter. I red story on your homepage and I find there some informations which I never heard. But I am also sure, that idea of small nations congress and cooperation dead only few days after great meeting in Philadelpia: November 1st 1918 was started polono-ukrainien war for Galicia in Lemberg and two days later wrote Ignacy Paderewski, vicepresident of Mid-European Democratic Union (Mid-EU, that was official name of the small nations organization), open letter in NY Times that Poland is going out. (I thing that second reason was that Paderewski was in trouble, because he friendly colaborated with Louis Brandeis, Itamar Ben Avi etc., but officialy he was representant of Polish National Comitee in Paris, where played dominant role Roman Dmowski with his nacionalist, antisemitic, and also anti-ukrainian, anti-german etc. views.)
The demission of Poland was in fact the end of Mid-EU. Masaryk, president of the organization, before his return to Europe only said, that he will create office in Paris, but finally didn´t.

There is in Czech, Polish and Serbs archives some documents of this events, also exists very good book in English (J. P. O´GRADY: The immigrant´s influence on Wilsons Peace Policies, University of Kentucky Press 1967), with special studies on Louis Brandeis and Jews - and also on Mid-EU from A. J. MAY.
I have this week full time job for a newspaper, but in few days I will be able to send you propably all names of persons in your photo - there are Czechs, Poles, Croats, Serbs, Ukrainians, Greeks, Italians (from south Austria), Finlandians, Estonians and also some people from Caucas region in south Russian - Armenians and Georgians.

Warm greetings

Tomas Zahradnicek

Sometime later I got one more message from him:

Dear Rabbi Eliezer,

people on your photography are (from left to right):

Herbert Adolphus Miller, U. S. expert and director of Mid-European Democratic Union, profesor of sociology on Oberlin College (Ohio)

Tomas Narucevicius, from Lithuania, promiment leader of lithuanian exile from Russia

Christo Anastalos Dako, from Albania, author of book about albanian question published in Boston 1919

Carlo Tomazolli, italian journalist from Austria, representant of “italian irredetists”

Mykola Cehlynskyj (or Ceglinski) Ukrainian journalist from Galicia, representant of Federation of Ukrainians
in USA

Christos Vassilekakis, greek irredentist from Turkey

Hinko Hinkovic, croatian representant of Yougoslave National Comittee in London

Tadeusz Helinski, president of polish organizations in USA, representant of Polish National Comittee in Paris

Tomas Garrique Masaryk, (seated in middle) president of Czechoslovak National Comittee in Paris and Mid-European Democratic Union in USA, member of austrian parliament in Vienna

Garo Pasdermadjian, one of leaders of armenian exile from Turkey, member of parliament in Istambul (his brother – one of directors of Ottoman central bank – was killed during armenian genocide in 1915)

Basile Stoica (in captain uniform of French army), representant of Romanians from south Hungary, after war was minister of romanian goverment

Gregogy Zatkovic (or Zhatkovich), leader of ethnic organizations of Ruthenians (from north Hungary) in USA

Itamar Ben-Avi


Tomas Zahradnicek


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