In the days before Corona, I went on an overcast winter’s day on a tour with other guides and the education department of the Tower of David Museum to a small house outside of Jerusalem – Beit Yellin. Once just a stone’s throw from the main Jerusalem – Tel Aviv highway, recent construction on that roadway has bypassed this small house, leaving it on the fringe of Jerusalem once again. There is quite a lot of history in this place and many trailblazing events which are centered on this house.
The parcel of land on which this house sits was purchased in 1860 by 2 Jewish parents – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi – for their children. The Ashkenazi parent was David Yellin of Poland. David, his wife and his daughter moved to Israel from Poland in 1834 in the hopes that the phrase “change your place and change your luck” would bring a son into their family. After moving to Jerusalem, a son was indeed born into his family – Yehoshua Yellin – in 1843.
David believed that redemption would come to the Jewish people through unity and working the land. To further the cause of the former, he arranged for Yehoshua to marry the daughter of a recent immigrant from Baghdad, a wealthy rabbi from Iraq connected to the Sasson family, Rabbi Shlomo Yechezkel Yehuda. Both fathers-in-law were in the world of finance and well-respected, but a marriage of a European Jew to a Arabic speaking Jew was not widely accepted at the time. Even Rabbi Yehuda had to be convinced of the idea and placed several conditions on the marriage. The first condition was that his daughter, Serach, would not shave her head after marriage, as was the custom in Europe. The second was that Yehoshua must come and live in the Yehuda household for 3 years to become acquainted with the Sephardic customs. The groom was 13 years old and the bride was 12 years old, so a few years of free rent and a place to grow up was maybe not so terrible.
Soon after the marriage in 1860, the 2 fathers-in-law purchased a plot of land outside of Jerusalem on the main road to Jaffa to establish the first Jewish farm. The local Arabs of the village of Qaluniya, outside of Abu Ghosh, were more than happy to put a few coins in their pockets and sell part of the olive orchard to these crazy Jews. What became known as Motza, after the town in the tribal allotment of Benjamin mentioned in the book of Joshua, was the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel in hundreds of years. It was also the first parcel of land in the modern era bought by Jews with private funds. Initially, David Yellin thought to establish a farm where Jews from Jerusalem would come during the day to work and then return to their homes in Jerusalem in the evenings, as being outside of the Old City walls after dark was dangerous. Because of the situation on the roads, he also came up with the idea of building an inn for travelers. These two ventures were fraught with problems over security and lack of agricultural knowledge and were eventually abandoned, leaving both fathers-in-law almost penniless. The land, however, stayed within the family.
Meanwhile, Yehoshua proved himself adept at finance, like his father and father-in-law, and went on to found neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Another agricultural settlement backed by Yehoshua Yellin was Petach Tikva, planned for the outskirts of Jericho but ultimately blocked by the Ottoman opposition.
Yehoshua wanted his children to be educated and have jobs. To this end, he sent his son, David, to the French Alliance School in Jerusalem in 1882, much to the consternation of other religious Jews in Jerusalem who opposed secular studies and life outside of the system of haluka, dependence on charity from outside of the Land of Israel. David’s commitment to education would continue throughout his life and the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem is a lasting testimony to him and the Yellin family.
Yehoshua Yellin himself, finally, moved outside of Jerusalem in 1890 at the age of 47, settling on the farm land bought decades before by his father and father-in-law. Yehoshua and Serach Yellin’s family was the only Jewish family living between Jerusalem and Jaffa. They built a synagogue on the premises, which continues to be used until today by the people of Motza.
We tend to think of the kibbutz movement as the quintessential expression of working the land. Looking deeper, one finds the farming movements in the early settlements of the first aliyah in 1882. But decades before, 2 unlikely fathers-in-law sought to bring about the redemption of the land and the people with their own resources, through their own families.