The Rishon LeZion Museum and other firsts of the first
The name of the city Rishon LeZion comes from a verse in Isaiah “First to Zion are they, and I shall give herald to Jerusalem.” Rishon LeZion was indeed the first settlement to be established in Ottoman Palestine by Zionist immigrants and it will continue to make additional firsts over the years. This museum is probably the best museum on the period of the First Aliya in Israel. It focuses on themes and not just history and contains realistic life-size models set with appropriate backgrounds. A visit to the museum can be nicely combined with a short walk to Kikar HaMeyusdim and Rothschild St to see additional buildings and especially the Village Well. In this building one can see the original well dug successfully and view an engaging 15-minute movie about it. Be aware, though, that there is a spray of water from the ceiling when water is finally located!
The land for Rishon LeZion was purchased by Hayyim Amzalk, the British vice consul in Jaffa. The settlement was established in 1882 on a barren hill by 17 pioneers, originally from the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, who were members of the Zionist movement Hovevei Zion. By the end of their first year, the settlement had grown to 100 members. This included members of the Bilu movement, who initially worked in Rishon LeZion and then formed their own settlement of Gedera (see the webpage: “How the Bilu pioneers built the beginnings of Gedera”.
The story is very similar for these first settlements. Conditions were extremely difficult and the pioneers had no experience in agriculture. A critical problem in Rishon LeZion was lack of water. The settlers almost immediately began digging a well but this did not reach the water level and drinking water had to be either brought in from Mikveh Yisrael in a camel-drawn carriage or bought at an exorbitant price from Arab villages, a jug of water for the price of a day’s work. Without a ready source of water, the settlement was sunk. But the pioneers had insufficient funds to deepen the well. They needed help.
One of the settlers, Yosef Feinberg, was sent to Europe as an emissary to raise funds and in France he met up with Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The Baron was impressed by the project and donated 25,000 franks. Feinberg could not know this, but he had created another first. Rishon LeZion became the first of many settlement projects that Baron Edmond de Rothschild underwrote and which led to his eventually taking almost the entire struggling settlement project under his wings.
The Baron was not interested in supporting charity cases. He wanted results from his investment. He bought the homes of the settlers and they were paid monthly stipends to work the land. The intention was that everything would be bought back when the settlers became financially independent. He sent agronomists and administrators. His administrators wanted results. This and their loss of complete independence did disturb some of the settlers and created tensions.
Under the direction of the administrators, vines and fruit trees were planted instead of grains. These vines were at first unsuccessful for making wine, but the situation turned round when the Baron established the Carmel Oriental Wine Cellars. He built a synagogue for the community. It was the largest and most impressive building in the village. Besides being used for prayer services (as it is to this day), this was also where all public functions took place, including the visits of important visitors. The school and kindergarten were initially in its lower level.
And the other firsts? The settlement school was the first to use Hebrew. The settlers organized the first Hebrew kindergarten and elementary school in the country in the 1880s. Rishon LeZion had the first orchestra. The Israeli national anthem the Hatikvah was composed here by the Hebrew poet Naphtali Imber. The Jewish National Fund was formed in this village in 1889. The first iron plow in Israel was made here. More about some of these firsts as we go through the museum.
Directions and parking: Enter “Rishon Lezion Museum“ into Waze. The closest parking lot is at Ha-Rav Yanovski St 4. It is advisable to use this as street parking is difficult.
Admission: There is a small admission charge. There is no extra charge for a guided tour. The museum is open Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 9.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m., Monday 9.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. and the first Saturday of each month 10.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. Their telephone number is 03 959 8890. This is their website.
An exhibit from the "Artisans at work"
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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's salon
The reconstructed stable in the farmyard of the Schalit home.
Visiting the museum:
You may wish to join a tour that is offered. Alternatively, go your own tour at your own pace.
First go to the exhibits in the building adjacent to Ahad Ha’am St. This building was formerly a public clinic. The first exhibit is called “People, Land, Dream.” Unlike the rest of the museum, everything is in Hebrew. It is about the initial founders, the Bilu members who temporarily joined them and the Israeli flag.
A flag was first hoisted in Rishon LeZion in 1885, on Rishon LeZion’s 3rd anniversary. A tallit (prayer shawl) was taken with its blue stripes and on it was sewed a Magen David. Some claim, however, that the final design of the Israeli flag had nothing to do with Rishon LeZion and those involved in its design knew nothing about this flag despite the fact that their designs are almost identical.
The idea of a national flag was first raised by Theodor Herzl and its first design was by the Zionist leader David Wolfson in 1897. This design was adopted by the First Zionist Congress. The final design was by Richard Ar’el, the graphical advisor to the government, and his design was accepted in 1948, a half a year after independence. Its stripes are from the stripes in a tallit and it includes a central Magen David. The Magen David symbol was first used by the Jews of Prague in the 17th century but it did not become a Jewish symbol until the 19th century.
The exhibits in the adjoining room are “Artisans at work.” These are illustrated by very realistic 3D models with appropriate backgrounds.
Go up to second floor in the adjacent building, also facing Ahad Ha’am St., for an exhibit on Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his relationship with Rishon LeZion. This includes a short movie that can be viewed with English subtitles. The salon shown is Ben-Yehuda’s original salon from his home in Jerusalem and this is where he and his wife would have entertained like-minded people.
Ben-Yehuda was the first to come up with the idea that the renewal of the Jewish people in Israel required a common language and that this should be Hebrew and he worked tirelessly to bring his idea to fruition. The settlers of Rishon LeZion liked his ideas and were prepared to bring them to reality in a new Hebrew-language school that they established in 1887/8. This school thus became the testing ground for his ideas and a very strong relationship developed between him and the people of Rishon LeZion. They visited his modest home in Jerusalem and he loved visiting Rishon LeZion.
You are now in the farmyard of Eliezer Schalit whose home is adjacent. As the sign points out, in its time there would have been livestock here, and vegetables and fruit trees. This was where laundry was washed, bread was baked and olive oil pressed.
It is worthwhile going into the reconstructed stable. There are models inside and other displays.
Naftali Imber wrote the words for Hatikva and lived briefly in the basement of the Heisman House in 1884.
From the exhibit "Clothing of the firsts" in the Schalit House
Go into Eliezer’s home for the exhibit “Clothing of the firsts” and Hall of the Founding Fathers in honor of 17 founding families.
Eliezer Schalit was one of the original founders of this settlement and this house was built in 1883. Eliezer became an expert in agriculture and was the first to grow olives here. This home of Eliezer and Sarah Schalit was restored to its original appearance in 1999. Despite being predominantly agricultural workers, the people here were not peasants and they attempted to maintain their class. The women especially, although nowhere near Paris, copied the best of its fashion, including tight women’s corsets. The clothing is based on photographs and similar clothing obtained by various means. Some of the displays of the museum are only in Hebrew, but much is in Hebrew and English.
Next is the basement of the Heisman House where Naftali Heiz Imber stayed briefly in the spring of 1884. He composed the words for Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah. There is also a bit more in this building on “The Flag – firsthand story”.
The Heisman home was built by Shraya Feival and Feige Heisman in 1883 and was one of the first buildings in the village. Naftali Imber is regarded as the pioneer poet of the First Aliya. He published this poem, which he called Tikvatenu (Our Hope), in 1886. A year later Shmuel Cohen composed a melody for it in Rishon LeZion based on a Rumanian folksong. It caught on and was sung in the 4th Zionist Congress and at the end of every subsequent Zionist congress. At the 18th Zionist Congress it was formally recognized as its anthem although there had been some changes on the way and it was now known as Hatikvah. 117 years after it was first composed and 56 years after the formation of the State was it recognized by the Knesset as Israel’s national anthem.
The water tower
The Water Well building
To Kikar HaMeyasdim, Rechov Rothschild and the Village Well
There are some 17 sites and buildings in the old area of Rishon LeZion that can be toured. However, this webpage will confine itself to just a few buildings on Kikar HaMeyasim and Rothschild St, and will also visit the Village Well.
Turn to the left as you leave the museum and you will notice the Great Synagogue on the opposite side of the road. The first homes were built on this desolate hill and the synagogue was built at its very top.
The Great Synagogue can be visited with a tour, but is otherwise closed except at the time of prayer services. It was completed in 1889 with the assistance of the Baron. The 12 apertures at the front of the building represent the 12 tribes. On the roof is a menorah. Some of the corners could represent the corners of the altar in the Sanctuary The inside of the building has undergone changes over the years. This was the hub of community life and where public meetings and receptions for important guests were held. The boys’ school and kindergarten were initially held in its basement
Turn to the left down Kikar MaMeyasim. As you walk along you will notice the village bell and the road aspect of the homes you saw in the museum, namely the Schalit and Heisman homes. Soon after Rothschild St becomes a pedestrian walkway turn left onto Zadel St. Ahead of you is the water tower and on your right the Water Well building.
The water tower was constructed in 1898 and was one of the first modern water towers to be built in Israel. It stored a considerable amount of water and was designed to provide a steady supply to the inhabitants. There was formerly an adjacent pool that functioned as a reservoir and a water station for livestock. Water was also channeled into the nearby garden. It has been preserved and restored as a heritage site and stands today as a testament to the determination of the early pioneers to build a flourishing community.
Do visit the Water Well building. A very well-done and actually exciting 15-minute movie is shown inside over the actual well. There is a small admission charge. It is open from 9.00 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday.
The development of its water system is an integral part of the history of Rishon LeZion. The phrase “We have found water” is on the emblem of the city.
Down the steps is the pretty garden Gan HaMoshava, the oldest and most central park in Rishon LeZion. It also has WCs, shaded picnic benches and a kid’s play equipment area.
A short movie is shown in the Water Well over the original well.
Gan HaMoshava in Rosh LeZion is the oldest and most central park in Rishon LeZion.
Nearby places of interest:
The Yaacov Agam Museum of Art. Yaacov Agam is known world over as part of the kinetic art movement. His works offer different perspectives, depending on the angle of viewing. The museum is home to six decades of his art, including sculptures, paintings, digital art, installations and more. Visitors can enjoy a guided tour of the museum, which allows a greater level of interaction with his works.
Superland amusement park has a number of roller coasters. There is also the Hai Kef Zoo.
Palmachim Beach National Park is worth visiting. See the webpage “The gorgeous beach at Palmachim Beach National Park.” In addition to stunning views, there is history to see, as the National Park houses the remains of the Yavne-Yum, an ancient port city dating from the Middle Bronze Age.