The Invisible Women of the Settlement of Hadera in Eretz Israel 1891 – 1914

Nina Rodin
Director & Curator of The “Khan” Museum, Hadera Israel.

Dr Hillel Yaffe1893

“The settlers of Hadera dug graves with their own hands, for their next of kin, for their friends and neighbors, but they did not desert their settlement. [It was] courage on the verge of insanity!”
(Dr. Hilel Yaffe , 1894)

The new council building of the Hadera settlement ( moshava) was inaugurated on January 1928 in a grand ceremony. The guest of honor was the prominent poet Haim Nahman Bialik, whose presence and warm words were much appreciated by the audience.

The event marked the end of a dark chapter in the history of Hadera.

Hadera's council building 1930

In the course of the first three decades of its existence, forty percent of the town’s inhabitants perished from the lethal malaria prevalent in the area during that time.
The survivors paid tribute to the pioneers by adorning the assembly hall of the new building with their portraits. They nominated Dr. Max Shapiro , a chemical engineer, land surveyor and an amateur artist, to paint sixty two oil portraits (of which only eleven survive today). Apart from his artistic skills, Dr. Shapiro was considered a member of the founders' ‘clan’ – he married the daughter of D.B. Berman, the head of the settlers in 1891. Like so many settlers,he, too, lost a baby who contracted malaria.
Strange as it may seem, the impressive panorama of portraits did not contain a single woman.
This astonishing fact persuaded us to look into the issue of the relationships between men and women in the early days of Hadera.
We know the names and origins of each of these ‘invisible’ women. Since the death of young husbands from malaria was quite common, a number of wives who remarried had up to three surnames, as it was customary for them to also keep the surnames of their deceased husbands.

However, whereas shocking facts about Hadera were occasionally published in the Zionist periodicals in Palestine and abroad, it was the faith of the men which usually grabbed the headlines. Take for example the story of Reuven Goldenberg and Shlomo Butkovsky, who came to Hadera in 1893 and shared a tiny room in the K’han building. In August 1898, both contracted malaria. The moshava physician, Dr. Hillel Yaffe, transferred them to the hospital in Jaffa, where, within one week, they died and were buried. The couple was referred to in the papers as “The Lovely and the Pleasant”. The tragic event did not prevent their mothers from ‘Making Aliyah’ shortly afterwards, bringing with them the younger members of their families.

On the other hand, the press ignored the story of the young girl Esther Glossgal, a sole survivor of an entire family of founders, which took place practically at the same time.

What are our sources of information concerning the women of Hadera?
Direct written and/or photographed materials is extremely scarce. Unlike the women of Rishon le Zion, Petah Tikva or Jerusalem, Hadera had no female authors, who could write about life from their own perspective. In our historical archives no diary, memoir note, or even a simple notebook written by pioneer women is kept. We do, however, have documents of similar character written by male members of the colony, from which conclusions about their views of life can be drawn.
Who were those men and women? Where did they come from? And what was their cultural and spiritual world?
Two decades before the turn of the 19th century, anti-Semitic pogroms took place in southeastern Europe. Millions fled to the West, mainly to America. Just a trickle of the great immigration wave, went to Zion. This wave is known as “The First Aliyah”.

Around 1890, four groups of Hovevey Zion (Lovers of Zion) from Czarist Russia associated in order to fulfill the ideology of their movement and establish an agricultural settlement in Eretz Israel. To begin with, they have authorized eight delegates, who were instructed to purchase a tract of 7000 acres of fertile land south of Caesarea.
Impressed by the abundance of water and the greenery of the land, the inexperienced men overlooked the malarial swamps that were prevalent in the area and confirmed the transaction.
The price paid to the Arab landowner was far in excess of the land’s worth. It must be strongly emphasized here that the purchase did not result in the displacement of Arab population. Arabs familiar with the nature of the area avoided it. Moreover, when hearing upon it being purchased, people considered the buyers mad or stupid to do so.
A few months later, the first pioneer families arrived. They landed in a backward oriental country, situated at the southern edge of the vast Ottoman Empire. The area suffered from 400 years of corrupt Turkish regime that entirely neglected its inhabitants. It did not take long for the early Haderans to realize how difficult their life would be at their new home.

The women pioneers – wives, mothers, daughters and grandmothers, were bound to pay the heaviest price for the venture. It is hard to imagine the hardships that these women suffered. They came from well-off families. They were educated and well read. However, they were ill prepared for life in their new home. In 1891, as they landed in the teeming oriental port of Jaffa, they were abruptly thrown into a crude Middle Eastern environment. Upon arriving in Hadera, they had to take up temporary residence in an abandoned and dilapidated Arab farmstead (the so-called K’han ), in anticipation of obtaining building permits for their private homes. They had very little time to adapt to these surroundings: families had to be fed, laundry washed, children bathed and the miserable looking rooms cleared. In addition, they started to cope with illnesses and frequent deaths.
The first thirty years of Hadera were critical. Quite often, the settlement reached the verge of extinction. Only towards its fourth decade, after 210 casualties out of 514 inhabitants, was its position secure.
But it would be wrong to portray Hadera as a male dominated society, compelling women to act against their will. We have evidence that women made their own choices, acting with deep ideological motivation.

Haya Rachel with two of her children

The outstanding story of Haya-Rachel Kotler Nahumovsky Millner is worth telling. Born in Russia at the town of Slobodka near Kovna, in 1872 and grew up in a well-off family. Sometime during the 1880s, she became a member of Hovevey Zion club, where she met her future husband – Menahem Mendel Nahumovsky. As soon as they got married, they were determined to ‘make Aliyah’ and fulfill their ideals. Mendel was nominated by his society as their official representative in Palestine. In 1891 they bought a tract of land in Hadera and enthusiastically started to experiment with farming. Together with their comrade-settlers, they started draining the neighboring swamps. Mendel became a “muchtar” , the settlers’ representative and negotiator with the greedy Turkish officials. Haya Rachel helped with the family livestock and plantations. The family grew: they had four girls and a boy. The tragic saga started with the death of baby Luba. A short while afterwards, Mendel contracted a severe infection, which he ignored, and died in 1902, at the age of 36.

The young and pregnant widow had to cope with the economic and agricultural matters of a big household and a large farm. Moreover, death remained a frequent visitor in her home; her newly born baby girl did not survive for very long. Another girl, Batya, died of malaria in 1913 at the age of 17. In the course of a quarrel with a Turkish soldier, her only son Matityahu injured a knee. Haya Rachel had to take him for a medical consultation in Vienna. In those days, such a trip was considered an extremely difficult, expensive and unusual act. While abroad, they were informed of the death of the teenager Tova back in Hadera.
Haya-Rachel refused to listen to friends advising her to sell the property and leave Hadera. She was determined to continue the family enterprise. A few years later, she married Noah Millner, a widower from Jaffa. Noah had five young children, whom she raised together with her surviving son. To her astonished friends she said, “ These children need a mother. Having lost my children, I am capable of giving warmth to these poor victims of a cruel fate”.
An assertive woman, she encouraged her second husband to become involved in Hadera’s public life while she continued to manage the family farm. In 1917, during W.W.I, the Turkish army imposed a night curfew, whilst conducting a search of the moshava, the aim of which was to apprehend members of the N.I.L.I. group (Who assisted the British army during the war). Risking her life, Haya Rachel managed to warn them and save them from being caught.
Haya Rachel is unique, but we know of at least three more widows who successfully managed big households and farms, even though they had no a prior experience or training in such matters.

Fani Feinberg with her grandchildren 1920

Fani Feinberg, whose husband, Israel-Lulik died in 1912, at the age of 46, lost her son Absalom five years later, when he was 28 years old. He was a member of the NILI organization. In 1917, whilst crossing the Gaza strip on his way to meet the British officials in Egypt, he was assassinated by Bedouins near Rafah. Fani stayed in Hadera, managing her big farm on her own, although her wealthy family in Rishon le Zion would rather have her stay with them.

Rachel Samsonov, pictured here in her wedding dress, lost her husband, Ya’akov, at the age of 48. He had been a busy muchtar, tending to Hadera’s official matters more than his own. Rachel undertook the burden of the family farm and large dairy.

Rachel Samsonov 1908

These three women are indeed exceptional. While their husbands were alive, they supported them and backed their community activities, at the same time taking care of their mixed-agriculture farms’ obligations. They left us no written document, but their homes were, in fact, unofficial “institutions”. They were open to the needs of the local community, be it banquets for the settlement’s official guests, school festivities, weddings, or public meetings. Distinguished guests stayed in their big family houses for days on end.

On top of everything, the Hadera women had to create an extra income for their households. Times of depression were quite prevalent under the Ottoman rule. Pests and locusts attacked crops, taxation was rapacious and robberies of crops and property were common.
The women opened domestic restaurants in their homes, let accommodations to laborers and passing guests, and took care of small auxiliary farms at the back of their houses.
All this cannot be reflected from the minutes of the moshava council discussions. Just once does one witness the women’s presence at the assembly meeting where they had no voting right. They stood at the back of the assembly hall and raised their voices, demanding that Hadera should hire a professional midwife. The protocols indicate that male members of the council represented the women when issues concerning property ownership were raised. Sometimes, however, this extended to personal and intimate matters as well.
In 1961, on Hadera’s 70th anniversary, the poet and documenter Y.L.Shneorson, published the book “Talking with Pioneers”. It was based on long interview sessions with women-pioneers who came to Hadera in 1891. Neither of them expressed bitterness or frustration about being taken to the place where they lost parents, husbands, and children. But the simple, matter-of-fact way they narrate the shocking things they went through, indicates their central role in the early phase of Hadera.
It should be noted that the above characterizes the situation of the farmer-women in the rural areas of Eretz Israel at the time. Other women, living in mixed (Arab-Jewish) cities, or in the moshavot supported by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, conducted an altogether different way of life. We know of women teachers, pharmacists, nurses, physicians and midwives who were hired by Hadera. Their course of life was different from the one taken by Hadera’s women pioneers.

In 1912, two decades after Hadera’s founding, another group of olim (immigrants) joined the settlement. It consisted of 40 families of Yemenite Jews. Having dwelled for hundreds of years among hostile Moslem neighbors, in the southernmost area of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, they were remote from the new trends of western Zionism. They considered their Aliyah as a religious act of obeying the commandments of the Torah. On coming to Eretz Israel, they settled in small neighborhoods adjacent to the established First Aliyah moshavot. .
Due to their oriental features and their unique habits, as well as their peculiar Hebrew dialect, they were – initially - looked upon with suspicion by some.
Being short of additional working hands, Hadera’s farmers approved of their arrival, but they neglected to prepare housing for them. So, on their first summer in the moshava, they dwelled either under eucalyptus trees, wooden sheds, in storehouses or even chicken coops…In winter, they took up shelter in the remains of the old K’han building. Two years later, with the J.N.F.’s assistance, they managed to build their tiny private concrete houses, in the northern end of the settlement and called their neighborhood Nahaliel (God’s land).

Three Yemenite comrades 1933

The Yemenite men’s life were harsh. They had to compete with the skilled Arab laborers for work in Hadera’s fields and plantations ; no allowance was made for the fact they were Jewish. Adjustment to the new life required a lot of energy and perseverance. But as in any other immigration saga, the Yemenite women undertook the heavier burden.
As members of an ultra religious society, they had limited rights. Unlike the women of the earlier immigration wave, they were illiterate. Joining Hadera meant an ongoing inward and outward struggle for these women.

The economic distress of their families compelled them to look for extra income. They worked in the founders’ households, learning new skills as they went along. They developed auxiliary farms in their back yards. As was the case for their men, they also had to compete with more experienced Arab women laborers for poorly paid jobs. They sold their hand made basketworks and traditional embroideries. Some helped their husbands with the new enterprise of beekeeping.
They, too, paid the Hadera death toll when members of their families contracted malaria and other illnesses caused by malnutrition.
In Eretz Israel, the Yemenite woman was torn between two opposing poles: on the one hand, her traditional position in the family as an obedient wife and mother and on the other, her new ambition to improve her family’s lot according to western standards. As a result of her extended role as an economic supporter of the family, she started to question her husband’s dominance and claim her independence Our knowledge of the Yemenite woman is late and indirect. The Yemenite women, whose memories we have recorded, were born around 1910. Their mothers’ life stories are remote and the agony their daughters have heard of, is softened by nostalgia.
The Israeli society is composed of diverse communities and the history of Hadera’s early phase, represents the challenges facing current and future waves of olim. The processes are much quicker of course, the terms are entirely different, but the principles are very much the same.