In 1881, Yisrael and Rebecca Lappin gathered their family and trekked by wagon, foot, and boat from Volkovisk, Poland to Eretz Yisrael. Part of the First Aliyah, they settled first in Petach Tikva. After a number of years, during which they tried to succeed in agriculture (and Yisrael lost a thumb, as a result of the lack of proper tools), they moved to Jerusalem where the Lappins opened a dry good store. In order to house his family (two sons and a daughter), he erected a grand house at 91 Me’ah She’arim Street, the (relatively) new, upscale neighborhood standing outside the walls of the Old City. The house contained four apartments and stood above three street level stores. It was, by all accounts, a very impressive edifice.
For me the house always had special significance. It had significance because I am a great-great-grandson of Yisrael and Rebecca Lappin. I am also (to the best of my knowledge) the only one of their descendants to return to live in Eretz Yisrael, together with my wife and children. I used to feel that this edifice of stones was the binding tie between them and me. Whenever I would pass by it, I would pause and just stare at it, trying to visualize what life was like for them. I used to feel very intensely a special sense of loss at not having known them. Having made the trip here, I would have liked to compare notes on what drove us to come to this most difficult and rivetting place.
I would also speculate about their reaction to the fate that befell their family. True, they left Europe before Hitler’s minions murdered their extended families. However, once they were forced to leave Palestine by the Ottoman authorities, assimilation and intermarriage exacted a bitter toll from among those children and grandchildren whose physical future their foresight guaranteed, but whose spiritual survival was nigh on obliterated. What would have happened, even historians ask, if they had stayed with their children? It’s a bitter-sweet act of speculation.
Recently, it became academic. The building, long ago donated to the Hevron Yeshiva by their pious daughter who had little faith in the capacity of the Torah to resettle in the hearts of her progeny, was torn down to make way for a large dormitory complex for the radical, anti-Zionist Reb Aryele Hassidim. Ironic that this homestead of one of the earliest Religious Zionist pioneers should be levelled by a group that despises all they stood for.
My first reaction was a mixture of loss and melancholy. My wife, who is much wiser than I, pointed out that (like the Bet ha-Miqdash, according to Hazal in Eika Rabba, parsha 4 s.v. va-yatzet ) the building was really nothing more than ‘sticks and stones.’ What made it special was the spirit it embodied and the vision it represented. The building may be demolished (right now it’s a big hole in the ground). The spirit it embodied has (hopefully) been transferred and dwells in our (more modest) home in the Hills of Hebron. That same spirit, that deeply rooted attraction to qedushah, moved Yisrael and Rebecca to defy reason and move to a place that did not approach the word civilized. The inner strength that they manifested is stunning to contemplate.
It is something to pray for, to cultivate, to hang on to dear life for; especially on days like today.