Mattan-Am -- Gift of The People
The following is an excerpt from thea book "Fulfillment of Prophecy," which I wrote about my grandfather, which tells the saga of the man and his labor to create a Jewish state -- at the turn of the twentieth century! Some of the words are not historically recorded, but the incident actually did take place.
In 1918, Eliezer celebrated his sixtieth birthday. He did not wish to make much of it, but his many American admirers thought differently. They organized a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall to wish him many happy returns of the day, and to celebrate the success of his dream of a Jewish renaissance at the same time. Eliezer did not wish to go, and Hemda had to use cunning and subterfuge to get him there. When they arrived they found that the hall was filled to capacity, and the police would not allow any more of the crowd that gathered outside to enter. Hemda pushed through the crowd, pulling Eliezer behind her, and finally she came to the door. She asked the policeman at the door to let her through.
"No one can go in, madame," he stated flatly, "it is a fire regulation, lady." Hemda looked at the man,
"Do you know who this man is?" She asked, pointing to her husband, "This is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda!"
"I dont care if he is President Wilson, Billy Sunday, or Jesus Christ, lady we cant allow anyone in. The place is full. Full! Do you understand." Eliezer tugged at his wife and said,
"Come, biti, let's go home, we cant get in anyway." Hemda would not give up, though. She demanded that the officer to send someone in to see if they could find one of the organizers of the meeting. Finally someone appeared, instructing the policeman at the gate to let the couple in -- but the officer refused.
"Laws are laws!" He claimed, "Only if two people will go out can I let these two in." So back went the man, and soon returned with two people who reluctantly left the hall to allow the guest of honor and his wife to enter. Inside, Eliezer was welcomed with a tumultuous standing ovation. Inside, Eliezer was welcomed with a tumultuous standing ovation. One speaker after another praised his work as a journalist, a statesman, and a philologist. One speaker likened him to the prophets of ancient Israel, who were often unpopular but always true to their calling. Ben-Yehuda was a fanatic, he said, but a faithful fanatic -- one whose every breath of life was dedicated to improving the lot of his people. Men such as he make a nation immortal! After the speeches were over Eliezer was called up to the podium, and presented with a blue and white flag by the Zionist organization, "to fly from the yard mast of his home in Jerusalem." Then another man came up and presented Eliezer with a check for ten thousand dollars, "to build a home in Jerusalem with a yard mast from which the flag can be flown." The crowd applauded and roared their approval. David Ben-Gurion, the labor leader who together with Ben-Tzvi came to America to gather volunteers shook Ben-Yehuda's hand and said,
"You are no longer alone in your battle, master. We are all with you! We shall support you, and you will never have to worry any more." Eliezer stood in the middle of the stage, dwarfed by its size, dwarfed even more by the size of the hall and the great multitude that filled it. Behind him a banner proclaimed, "Yisrael artzenu veha'ivrit s'fatenu Israel is our land and Hebrew is our tongue." The blue and white flag, with the star of David in the middle, was displayed next to the Stars and Stripes. A hush fell over the audience.
"My dear friends, wonderful, generous brothers," he began in a voice that was barely above a whisper. The crowd strained to listen to his words, "I would like to thank you!"
Soon after their return to Jerusalem, Eliezer and Hemda started touring all around the city, looking for just the right sight for the home they were planning to build, 'Mattan-Am' (the Peoples Gift). Eliezer would have liked to build his home on the Mount of Olives -- but he knew that the mountain was the most sacred burial place of orthodox Jews, and that he could never build his home there. His second choice was Mount Scopus, but again he could not expect to find a plot of ground there since the entire mountain had been reserved as the future site of the proposed Hebrew University. Every Shabbat Eliezer and Hemda would walk around Jerusalem, looking for a suitable spot for their dream home. One day they had walked on the road to Biet-Lekhem, south of Jerusalem. Hemda tired and asked Eliezer to sit and rest a while. They sat under an old olive tree that offered a little shade from the warm sun by the side of the road. Eliezer looked round about him. On the left about a hundred yards away from the olive tree there was a small hill, and while Hemda remained seated, Eliezer climbed up the hill. A few minutes later he was back, breathing heavily after his quick pace down the hill. "I have found the place, biti! This is where our home shall stand!" He pointed to the top of the hill. They climbed the hill together, stood at the peak looking around, to the west was the budding new city; to the north was the walled city and Mount Zion. They could see the entire old city, with the Temple Mount in the foreground on the right. In the other direction they had a perfect view of the Judean desert. In spite of the heat of summer, a cool wind was blowing on that hilltop. It was the perfect site for their home!
"Yes," said Hemda, "this would be a perfect place for our home. We must have an extra large balcony, one that is the size of a large room, facing the old city. Then, on warm days I could entertain my guests on the balcony, relieved by the cool breeze." Hand in hand, like young lovers, Eliezer and Hemda returned home to announce to the family that they had found the right place for their permanent home.
A day came when the cornerstone for the Ben-Yehuda home on the lovely hilltop, Talpiot, which means hill of beauty, overlooking the road to Biet Lekhem, was finally laid. The house was to be big and specious, built of pink Jerusalem stone. Eliezers whole heart was in this new home. In anticipation of moving there, he planted two dozen trees in pots in his home in the city -- expecting to transplant them when they finally moved. But it was not to be -- Eliezer was never to live in this home that the Jews of America gave him as homage! Ehud, his son, planted the trees, and eventually they gave fine shade to the home that Eliezer's widow, Hemda, inhabited for more than thirty years.
Itamar Ben-Avi was in his office at the Daily Post when Eliezer came in the next morning. His step was lively and his eyes shone with a light of satisfaction and even excitement. He carried in his hand a roll of blueprints, which he was waving as he greeted his son,
"It is done, my son. My prayer of forty years was fulfilled yesterday. What a shame that your journalistic work required you to be out of town on this day of days, when the corner stone to the home your mother and I hoped for was laid on the hilltop overlooking the entire city, both the old and the new. Believe me that there is not a more precious stone in all creation, for me, than the one that was chosen, that was cut and prepared, and that we used yesterday for the dedication." Ben-Avi hugged his father and kissed him to participate in his relish and the fulfillment of his dream. He was as sorry as his father to have had to be out of town the day before on newspaper business.
"There is no one as happy as I am today, my son! I feel so fortunate, so privileged! I have received much more than our great leader, Herzl. He deserved much better from his Creator. He brought together all the dreamers of renaissance and renewal and gave them direction and purpose and he died dejected and melancholy, alone and without closure. He did not see the fulfillment of his dream but I have! Hebrew is the official language of the land Balfour and his government promised to us. At the post-office I purchased some stamps, my son, to send a report to the American Hebrew Alignment, to let them know of the progress of the building and there was Hebrew on the stamp. Can you understand my joy, my satisfaction?"
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda returned his soul to his Maker during the night of the second Light of the Festival of Rededication (see Grandpa Eliezer...), Khanukkah, in 1922. He had left no instructions concerning the disposition of his remains. Soon after his death, that same night, the word got around. In spite of the holiness of the Shabbat, thousands came to the house, to the street outside his home, to stand silent, in a vigil, in a last, silent tribute to the man whose very life symbolized the revival of the Jewish people in the Promised Land, speaking the ancient tongue of Patriarchs and Prophets the Hebrew language! Since it was the eve of the Sabbath, his body was left in the home until the following night, when the Khevra Kadisha came to prepare him for burial. Hemda was stunned by his death, and allowed others to take care of the details of the disposition of the body. She insisted on only two things: she wanted his body covered by the flag given to him by the American Zionists, and she wanted to pick the sight of his grave. The funeral was conducted according to strict Jewish orthodox tradition, which forbids the immediate members of the family to follow the dead. It was a huge funeral, though -- one might say that it was the first state funeral of the Jewish nation. Some thirty thousand men, women, and children followed the coffin Jews mostly, to be sure, but Arabs and Christians as well. Simple folk mostly, but also the leaders of the community. The family was not allowed to visit the grave for a period of thirty days, the traditional period of mourning -- but a group of his admirers made all the arrangement to have a monument erected. According to his manner in life, so also was his grave marked: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of the Hebrew tongue and composer of the great dictionary. Died in Jerusalem on the 26th day of Kislev in the sixth year of the Balfour Declaration.
The Ben-Yehuda family went to see the grave on the thirtieth day of his death and on the eve Hanukkah every year thereafter. Eventually his admirers built a small fence around his grave -- just a stone fence, three rows high -- and later they crowned this stone fence with a large wrought-iron fence with a large gate facing Temple Mount, above which they inscribed in ancient Hebrew letters "Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of our tongue."
Hemda survived and went on to live in the Ben-Yehuda home, Mattan-Am, in Talpiot, for close to thirty years. About ten years after her death, her son Ehud transferred the title of the house to the municipality of Jerusalem to create a museum, a memorial and study center of the Hebrew tongue and other activities of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in this historic site. The house was allowed to sit unoccupied for years. It was neglected, its content was wasted, pillaged and squandered away. Eventually the building was leased to a church group from Germany who established a youth center there for Germans youths who came to volunteer their time to work with needy Jews, to atone for the "sins of their fathers."
"International Youth Meeting Centre Beit Ben Yehuda"
Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste – Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) has been organizing exchange programs in Israel for more than 40 years. The new International Youth Meeting Centre and Guest House Beit Ben Yehuda (BBY) organises seminars and meetings between Israelis, Europeans and people from other countries.
The establishment of the new centre could be realized thanks to the support of the city of Jerusalem and the many donations from Germany.
Beit Ben Yehuda offers a variety of seminars, programs where youth, teachers and young professionals deal with topics such as Shoah, National Socialism, minorities, human rights and inter-religious dialogue.
In an interesting mutual process participants of international exchange programs can learn something about their own personal and collective history and about the history of their counterparts.
Through such encounters BBY aims to strengthen relations between the young generations of Israel and Europe.
In July of 2008, in conjunction with the launching of the Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Foundation, Inc., Rabbi Eliezer Ben-Yehuda affixed a mezuzah on the door of the beautifully refurbished Ben-Yehuda house:
What happened to the "Ben-Yehuda Memorial?" Why, that could be "Israel's Best Kept Secret!"