Finally, the day came for us to depart from Trieste and begin our voyage to Israel. We were leaving Europe behind forever and embarking on what I hoped would be the last leg of our journey. Israel would be my home, the place where I expected to spend the remainder of my life in peace.
As soon as we boarded the ship, I was recognized and received a great deal of attention from the other passengers, Jew and gentile alike. One group of Christian passengers presented me with a gift, and the ship’s doctor, who had asked for permission to come to my cabin for a visit, showed me my picture which he had clipped out of a magazine.
When we passed through the port of Alexandria, mobs of people who wanted to see me had gathered on the docks. As the ship was entering the port, a number of dignitaries came out in small boats to meet the ship and bid me welcome. I was greeted by a band and representatives from the various Jewish organizations. No sooner had we reached land than I was invited to attend a bris being conducted by one of the local Sephardic families. I was really too tired, but excuses were of no avail. At the celebration, I was honored with all sorts of testimonials.
The closer we got to our destination the better I felt. We finally reached Haifa on February 16, 1914. We were home.
A boat was dispatched to carry us ashore. Once we landed, I was met by a great gathering of Jews, including many rabbis.A delegation of Israeli school children carried flags and flowers. The children sang, and a band played.
Arabs were also there in full force, proclaiming, “Long live Beilis!” One of the Arab chiefs, who owned the finest coach and pair of horses in the whole district, honored me by placing his personal coach at my disposal for the drive to Tel Aviv. In the past, this honor had only been extended to such exalted a guest as Mr. Rothschild when he had come to Palestine for a visit. Not satisfied with this munificent gesture, the chieftain himself, accompanied by his attendants, rode at the head of the procession as a sign of respect. All along the route to Tel Aviv, the road was lined with a great many Jews who had come from the colonies especially for this occasion.
Arriving in Tel Aviv, I was taken to the Herzl Hotel, where I was again greeted by representatives of the various local organizations and colonies.
The Land of Israel had an invigorating effect on me, instilling my life with hope. The surroundings, nature, the people, each in its way inspired me with a renewed vigor and the desire to live. When we had left Kiev, it had been cold, and the fields were covered with snow. Here everything was green, and the sun was warm. It was the most beautiful season of the year in Palestine. The hills and the fields were covered with vegetation, and everything was in bloom.
I couldn’t get enough of the fresh air. For quite some time, I would wander around the country, inhaling long, deep breaths of the pristine air. At first, I couldn’t sleep. Why waste such a fragrant, exhilarating moonlit night on sleep?
A week after my arrival, a deputation of citizens from Jerusalem came to inquire if I planned to settle permanently in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem. They said it would offend the honor of Jerusalem for me to reside anywhere else.
“Aren’t Jaffa and Tel Aviv also a part of Palestine?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” they replied, “but it was the Jews of Jerusalem who prayed for your welfare at the Wailing Wall.”
I informed them that I intended to go there in a couple of weeks. I knew they wanted to prepare a reception for me, but I preferred to keep my itinerary private. The many appearances had caused my already weakened condition to deteriorate further. I also feared that the public attention would prevent me from experiencing Jerusalem the way I wanted to.
The truth is, after only two weeks, I was completely drained. My schedule had been even more demanding than immediately following the trial. It was almost the season of the Passover holiday, and this was a time when tourists flocked to Palestine by the thousands. Every ship brought a load of perhaps seven or eight hundred people, all of whom, it seemed, included a visit to me on their itinerary. Thus, in addition to the numerous residents of Palestine, I had to also contend with all these additional people who wanted to see me or shake my hand or in some way express their support and sympathy.
At last, we made our way to Jerusalem. Some of the gentlemen in my party wanted to go along with me. Upon our arrival, we checked into the Amdursky Hotel. My name, however, was not disclosed.
A few hours after our arrival, one man recognized me. The proprietor of the hotel was very much insulted, insisting he should have been let in on the secret, especially since he had set aside a special suite of rooms for me. Within no time, the news spread throughout the town, and the relentless receptions began. In the three days I spent in Jerusalem, I had to visit the synagogues, inspect the hospitals and charity institutions and inscribe my name in countless albums.
For me, the highlight was my visit to the Wailing Wall and the site of the ancient Temple. Approaching the Wailing Wall, I was reminded of the words of the Jerusalem Jews: “We prayed for you at the Wailing Wall.”
Jews throughout the world had prayed for me, from the time of my imprisonment until the day of my release. They realized that my tribulations were as much a communal concern as they were a private ordeal. I was being tried not as Mendel Beilis but as a Jew, and as such, every Jew shared my fate.
Standing at the Wailing Wall, I could envision my fellow Jews beseeching God on my behalf just as they had wept and prayed for almost two thousand years bemoaning one tragedy after another, starting with the most devastating tragedy of all, the loss of our Temple. Thus had begun our bitter exile, of which my trial was but one episode. The history of our life in the Diaspora served as a record of our national sorrows. How appropriate it was that prayers for me were offered at this holy, historic site.
With mixed feelings, I caressed the old wall that stood so stoically as a silent witness both to our ancient glories and our modern ignominies. I relived the whole Jewish exile and also re-experienced my own sorrows.
Standing there, absorbed in my own thoughts, I heard a sudden cry. I saw Mr. H. Berlin, one of the members of my party, crying. This surprised me, because he was a man so far removed from his religion that he bore no signs of Jewishness whatsoever. His daughter, who was a doctor and couldn’t even speak Yiddish, was also sobbing emotionally.
Mr. Berlin later explained to me that he had cried both from sadness and joy.
“I reminded myself of our exile,” he explained. “But I also saw that there is new hope in a Jewish homeland.”
From Jerusalem, I returned to Tel Aviv and gradually began the process of becoming a resident. For a month, we remained in the hotel, until we moved in with the Chacham Bashi, the chief Sephardic rabbi.
The welcoming receptions continued until well after Passover, because the steady stream of tourists continued unabated and the local population did not let any opportunity pass without coming up with some way to include me in their various activities. For example, at Purim time, hundreds of Jews came to my house to dance and sing. This went on all through the night until the wee hours of the next morning.
As time went on, I became more attached to Palestine. The climate was very good for me and healed my wounds, both physical and spiritual. Within a short time, I felt as though I was a native who had been born in Palestine and lived there all my life. I genuinely enjoyed the country and everything in it, from the people to the inanimate things. It was in Tel Aviv that I learned to appreciate what it meant to be Jewish and live a Jewish way of life. I saw for the first time a race of proud, uncringing Jews, who lived life openly and unafraid.
When people would plead with me to go to America, it was easy to answer them.
“Before, when I was in Russia,” I explained, “the word Palestine conjured up a waste and barren land, yet I still chose to come here in preference to any other country. Now that I have come to love the land, I am even more resolved to stay!”
The Jewish education that my children could receive was in and of itself enough of a reason to stay in Palestine. I came with five children, three sons and two daughters. In Russia, I had always lived among Christians, one Jew among four thousand non-Jews, thus it was extremely difficult to raise my children in a Jewish way. They didn’t even know Yiddish; to dream of learning Hebrew was ludicrous. It was impossible even to conceive of giving them a full Jewish education.
In Palestine, however, my children had the opportunity of living in an unadulterated Jewish environment and receiving the best Jewish education imaginable.
At last, I thought, I am settled. At last, I can get on with building a new, peaceful life for myself and my family.
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