One of my favorite families in the history of the land of Israel in the early 1900s is the Bentwich family. Herbert and Susanna, their 11 children and descendants made their mark on the land and on the emerging state and it’s institutions.
I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what I find to be so interesting. There are lots of crazy stories within the family – some of them are actually crazy. I think what impresses me the most, though, is that the Bentwich’s are a family driven by ideals.
Herbert and Susanna, who are part of the English Jewish aristocracy in the second half of the 19th century, raise their children on 3 central tenets: music, education and Zionism. I used to think that the scariest part of being a parent was that, even after all my efforts, my kids wouldn’t listen to me. As I mature, I find that the most terrifying part of parenthood is that your kids actually listen to you. These Bentwich kids did just that, each in his own way.
Susanna Bentwich was a concert pianist. She conveyed her love of music by assigning her children, in a predetermined order, a musical instrument. The first learned piano; the second, the violin; the third, the cello. This pattern – piano, violin, cello – repeated for the remaining 8 children. Nita and her husband, Michael Lange, made their home a haven for musicians and hosted many concerts. Another sibling, Thelma founded a music school in Israel which exists until today. Grandson Daniel studied piano at Julliard. Margery is a professional violinist. Most of the siblings end up having a significant connection to music.
Education is also an important pillar of the family. Besides Thelma and her music school, Norman Bentwich, the oldest son, after a stint in the British army as a major of a camel division, becomes a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The youngest Bentwich, Joseph, becomes a teacher in two of the most prestigious high schools in Israel – Gymnasia Hertzelia in Tel Aviv and HaReali Haifa. He then goes on to become deputy Secretary of Education in the young state of Israel. Joseph’s son, Michael, was also a professor of Engineering at Hebrew University.
Another pillar of this illustrious family is their commitment to Zionism. When Susanna dies young in 1915, Herbert arranges to buy land on the Mount of Olives in which to bury her and to establish an estate. He succeeds in bringing her body to Israel in 1921 to establish the family cemetery. His plans for an estate on the same piece of land fail when the Ottomans refuse to give him a permit. Instead, he donates the land to establish the Hebrew University, on the condition that they maintain for perpetuity the cemetery. Many Bentwich family members were buried on the Mount of Olives in the family cemetery. When Herbert finally moves to Palestine, as it is called under the British, in 1929, he already has 8 of his children living (or buried) here.
Norman is employed by the British to update the laws in Palestine, incorporating Ottoman laws into the British framework; the political system he devises is the basis for Israeli law until today.
The town of Zichron Yaacov is interwoven with the Bentwich family. Many Bentwich children and grandchildren lived at Chatzer Carmel, the estate established by Michael and Nita Bentwich Lange.
Also, Jerusalem owes a debt to the Bentwich’s. Besides Hebrew University, the neighborhood of Rechavia benefited from the family. The first house in the new neighborhood built in 1924 was of Eliezer and Thelma Bentwich Yellin.
They may not be actually an ideal family, but they are definitely a family with ideals.