Shabbos, March 7, 2020 (11 Adar) marks the 100th yahrzeit of Yosef Trumpeldor, an early pioneer hero who died defending Tel Chai in the Galilee against Arab marauders.
Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk, Russia, in 1880. Trained as a dentist, he volunteered for the Russian Army and participated in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese war, where he lost his left arm. In 1911, he gathered a group of young Zionists and emigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, working at Kibbutz Degania. When World War I broke out, he went to Egypt and, with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he formed the Jewish Legion in 1915, to fight as a unit in the British Army. (This all-Jewish group, referred to as “the Zion Mule Corps,” became the inspiration for the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces). The Jewish Legion fought in the battle of Gallipoli, where Trumpeldor was wounded. After the war, he went back to Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) in 1918, and organized the youth movement Hehalutz, which prepared immigrants for aliyah. He returned to Palestine, by then a British mandate.
On March 1, 1920 (11 Adar 5680), while defending the settlement Tel Chai in the Galilee from Arab marauders, Trumpeldor was mortally wounded. It was said that his last words were “Ein davar, tov lamut b’ad artzeinu (Never mind, it is good to die for our country).”
The first time I learned about Trumpeldor was as a young boy in the 1950s, in Beirut, Lebanon. My parents had left Aleppo, Syria, in 1946, just as the French army was withdrawing, and Syria was officially gaining its independence (17 April 1946). The family moved to Beirut, then considered safer for the Jews. I attended the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a Rothschild-supported school for Jewish children (at one time, there were 85 such schools in the Middle East). We studied primarily French, with a smattering of Arabic and Hebrew. The Hebrew consisted of reading and writing; we studied Torah at the Magen Abraham synagogue and by private lessons. We were taught nothing about Zionism.
One day, Moreh (Moshe) Kamhine (1912-1993), an educator and a community leader, assembled our class for a special session to teach us songs. He proceeded to tell us about Zionism, Herzl, and the struggle for the creation of Israel – about which we hardly knew anything – and also about Yosef Trumpeldor. He then taught us this song:
“BaGalil B’Tel Chai, Trumpeldor nafal. B’ad ameinu, b’ad artzeinu, gibor Yosef nafal (In the Galilee, at Tel Chai, Trumpeldor fell. For our nation, for our land, the hero Yosef fell).”
Moreh Kamhine stated that, next time, he will teach us more songs.
We never met again with him! Evidently, fearing for the community’s safety, parents were alarmed that their children were being taught about Zionism. An Arab capital that, since Israeli independence in 1948, had absorbed a large influx of Palestinian refugees was no place for public chanting of Zionist songs. In those days, my father would listen to the Israeli radio broadcast in Arabic, but only at night and with dampened volume. In twisting the dials, we knew we had reached an Israeli station by the strains of Camille Saint Saëns’ Bacchanale (from his Samson et Delila opera). I recall also that when skirmishes at Israel’s borders were many, open truckloads of Palestinians refugees would ride through the Wadi Abu Jameel, the main Jewish quarter, chanting “Falisteen blad’na; wal-Yahood klabna (Palestine is our land; the Jews are our dogs).” My mother would close the windows’ shutters and we stayed behind bolted doors for the duration.
I soon forgot all about Trumpeldor and his song. We immigrated to the United States in 1955-56 and settled in Brooklyn. On one of my trips to Israel, however, I visited the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv. One of the songs I heard was a 1998 release of an Ofra Haza rendition of “BaGalil B’Tel Chai…”! It flooded me with memories of childhood in Beirut and of the birth of Zionist ideals that Moreh Kamhine successfully instilled in our young hearts.
The yahrzeit of Yosef ben Wolf is 11 Adar – this year on March 7 (Shabbos Zachor).