Ninety-three years ago, brothers Chaim Leyb Weidman and Mordechai Weidman of Winnipeg, took a long journey through Europe and to “Eretz Israel,” as Mandatory Palestine was known in Yiddish and Hebrew. They kept a journal of their travels – in Yiddish with partial translation into English. Mordechai’s grandson, Alan Rackow of Ottawa, has a copy of the journal and recently asked Murray Citron to translate the full document. Murray offers a summary for Ottawa Jewish Bulletin readers.
In making the journey, the Weidman brothers were keeping a promise to their parents, Berl and Rokhl Weidman, who made aliyah after another son, Shimshon, died. One of their reasons for going was to donate a parcel of land and a building in Jerusalem, left by their father, for a “worthy public purpose.”
In those days, a traveller to Eretz Israel did not just get on an airplane. The brothers went by train to New York, a city they found to be “without interest” and then boarded the Berengaria, a “regular palace on the sea” for the journey across the Atlantic.
The Weidmans were travelling with a number of other Jews. One of them, Harry Fischel, “a very pious Lithuanian man,” a New York developer, brought a Sefer Torah along. He obtained the first-class chapel to use as a synagogue during the trip. There was kosher food, with kosher implements.
The ship docked at Cherbourg on April 30, and the brothers reached Paris that day. They were impressed with the beauty of Paris and Versailles, and how hard the women worked, but described the Jewish district as “not great.”
In Vienna, they found the Jewish district to be large and pious, but poor. Synagogues were set back from the road, behind trees or high walls, “a reminder of the old time, deep Catholic Jew-hatred.”
The brothers travelled on to Lodz and Warsaw. This was about five years after the re-establishment of the Polish state, and they commented that Poland “smells of anti-Semitism.”
They visited a number of Polish towns, including Bilski Podlovsk, Bialystok and Orli, where they were born and grew up, and where they met many friends from before they immigrated to Canada.
The Weidmans were supporters of the Winnipeg Talmud Torah and, in every town, they found the local Jewish school and happily made a donation. In Lodz, the same books were being used as in Winnipeg, and Hebrew was being taught by the Ivrit b’Ivrit method.
From Poland, they made their way to Trieste, Italy, and sailed to Alexandria and Cairo. It was “a great pleasure to travel on the Adriatic Sea,” they wrote.
In Egypt, they saw the pyramids and the Sphinx: “They are great and ancient but idle and silent because they were built with compulsion, with the sweat and blood of slaves.”
After crossing the Suez Canal by ferry and the Sinai Desert by rail, they caught sight of the Judaean Hills. “It was a delight for our souls,” they wrote.
In Jerusalem, the brothers visited the graves of their parents on the Mount of Olives and gathered a minyan to sing Tehilim and say Kaddish.
On Shabbat, they went to the Western Wall.
“We saw here many men and women of all shades and hues, men in shtreimels and satin cloaks with large beards and long ear-locks; others clean-shaven and dressed in European fashion; Persian Jews and Yemenites and Jews with red fezzes; young children and old people, all praying and saying Tehilim mixed together. It’s a beautiful sight which fills the heart with wonderful feelings.”
In Jerusalem, the brothers visited their father’s property and met with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi.
They decided to donate the property for use as a maternity hospital, and gave a cash donation for its renovation. They were honoured with a dinner attended by Rebbetzin Kook, Lady Samuel, wife of the British high commissioner, and other notable Jerusalemites. The Weidmans were pleased that the legal documents for their gift were all in Hebrew.
From Jerusalem, they toured through much of present-day Israel by car. They admired chalutzim working in Emek Jezreel and shared a simple lunch with them. Some of them are “not sufficiently pious,” they wrote, but it is their business. They are working for “our ideal.”
Although Yiddish was the Weidmans’ first language, they wrote that, in Eretz Israel, “Above all it was pleasing to hear Hebrew all around us.”
Their description of Shabbat in Tel Aviv in 1923 seems very different from the Tel Aviv of today:
“Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos, Shabbos. Repose. Tel Aviv on Shabbos! Because it is a Jewish city, because only Jews live there, it feels like everything is wrapped in holiness. Pious and not pious, young and old, all rest. Nature itself is peaceful. Friday night and Shabbos afternoon all stroll in the beautiful streets. Pioneers sing beautiful Hebrew songs. The air is full of repose.”
From the Holy Land, the brothers crossed the Mediterranean and Western Europe to England, and then sailed home to Canada. Back in Winnipeg, they reflected, “We saw … and understood why Eretz Israel was able in the past to do so much for humanity, and why she must in the near future play a great role in world history … We saw the simple unknowing Arabs and the lively intelligent industrious pioneers.”
In one sentence, they stated the promise and the dangers ahead for what would become the modern State of Israel.