Shaul Yitzchak and Riva on roof top of Batei Varsha.

Batei Varsha: The Story of a Pioneering Tel Aviv Family

BY RABBANIT SHANI TARAGIN

This edition of HaMizrachi – in which we both celebrate Chanukah, the holiday of education and the establishment and strengthening of our homes, and revisit the religious history of Tel Aviv-Yaffo – is personally significant for me. My family’s history is bound up together with the history of Tel Aviv; our personal story of darkness and light, of exile and redemption, is representative of the history of the city, and of our nation as a whole.

My grandmother, Adina Deutsch-Russak was born in Yaffo on 7 Nissan 5684 (April 11, 1924) to her parents Eliezer (“Layzer”) Deutsch and Breindel Fenigstein. Breindel was born in Warsaw, the fifth of twelve children born to Shaul Yitzchak and Riva Fenigstein. Shaul Yitzchak’s father was killed in the pogrom of 1871, a popular protest against Jewish ‘exploitation’ of the native population. Following his father’s death, Shaul Yitzchak went to live with Rebbe Shmuel Eliyahu Taub of Zvolin from age 9 to 13 and was then forced to serve in the Czar’s army until he was 19. After marrying Riva Endstein, the niece of the Sfat Emet, in 1883, Shaul Yitzchak resettled in Warsaw and became a successful spice merchant. Although he initially did not subscribe to the Chovevei Tzion movement, his sister’s Aliyah to Yerushalayim and raids against the Jews in Warsaw in 1905 – during which his own factory workers tried to kill him – led him to move his family to Israel. 

They traveled through Odessa and sailed on the “Sesorovich”, reaching the Jaffa Port on December 26, 1905. After a brief stay in Yerushalayim, Shaul Yitzchak purchased three large buildings and a courtyard on the border of Tel Aviv-Yaffo (today’s Rechov Selma and Kibbutz Galuyot) from the German Templar of the “American Colony”, Johann Georg Kappus senior, for 15,000 golden francs. He named this neighborhood Batei Varsha (Houses of Warsaw) and it became one of the first Jewish neighborhoods which helped create a continuous Jewish presence in Jaffa.

Batei Varsha provided housing for the large Fenigstein family as well as many Jewish refugees of the Second Aliyah, including Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, the future president of Israel, who founded the Bar Giora Association there in 1907. Shaul Yitzchak would personally go down to the Jaffa port to welcome olim to his home, encouraging them to open small businesses on his farm and participate in his courtyard synagogue of Gerrer Chassidim, a hub for the growing Jewish communities of Neve Tzedek and Neve Shalom. 

One of the original Batei Varsha buildings.

The family survived by manufacturing margarine, candles and ground coffee. After being relocated by the Ottomans to Petach Tikvah during World War I, the Fenigsteins returned to Batei Varsha in 1917 under the British Mandate. On arriving, they found their farms destroyed and the complex occupied by British soldiers. Undeterred, they resettled their homes and established a sewing-textile business in place of their destroyed businesses.

In 1920, my great-grandmother Breindel married Layzer Deutsch, who had made Aliyah from Hungary in 1914. Before making Aliyah, Layzer studied at Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffman and Rabbi Solomon Breur’s yeshivot in Frankfurt. He escaped recruitment to the German army – and near certain death in the trenches of World War I – by purchasing Turkish citizenship. On his ‘return’ to Turkey, an ally of Germany, he ran off the ship as it stopped at the Jaffa port. Now a citizen of Turkey, he resided with fellow Hungarian Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the “Rabbi of Jerusalem”, through the end of the war. After the war, Rav Avraham Chaim Na’eh, who had married Breindel’s older sister Devorah and was serving as secretary for Rav Sonnenfeld’s beit din, suggested that Layzer marry Breindel Fenigstein. The wedding ceremony took place as most family celebrations did, in Batei Varsha, where the young couple soon established their home.

On May 1, 1921, after Winston Churchill refused to cancel the Balfour Declaration, Arab riots broke out in Yaffo, the second largest Jewish-Arab city in the British Mandate, with 16,000 Jews and 26,000 Arabs. The Arabs murdered thirteen Jews in the Jaffa streets as they rampaged their way from the Jewish communities of Neve Shalom and Neve Tzedek to Beit HaOlim and Batei Varsha. Members of the Haganah managed to move the Fenigstein family and Batei Varsha residents to Tel Aviv while Shaul Yitzchak, together with his sons and son-in-law Layzer Deutsch, stayed behind to protect the complex alongside the Haganah fighters. Armed with only one gun and a few bullets, they chased away the attackers and succeeded in saving Batei Varsha.

Though my great-grandfather Layzer worked for his father-in-law distributing margarine, he chose to pursue a livelihood in the United States, making his way to Los Angeles where he worked as a shochet and opened a kosher meat business. In 1924, he left his pregnant wife Breindel and three-year old son Yehoshua Shmuel in Batei Varsha, intending to bring them as soon as he was settled. My grandmother, Adina z”l was born a few months after her father left and only met him five years later, when Layzer sent boat tickets for his family to join him. 

In 1929, Breindel left with her two children to the Jaffa Port, accompanied by armed British soldiers to protect them against Arab rioters. It was a tearful parting, as Breindel didn’t know if she would ever see her family or her home in Jaffa again. After a thirty-day boat trip to New York followed by a four-and-a-half-day train ride to the west coast, Breindel and her two children were reunited with Layzer in Los Angeles. 

Meanwhile, the Arab riots of 1929 forced the Fenigstein family to once again abandon their home and move in with Rabbi Nechemia Berman on Kalisher Street in Tel Aviv. Though they later returned home, they were forced to flee once again during riots of April 1936, when Arabs looted and burned down the Batei Varsha complex. Though some residents returned to rebuild the three courtyards, Shaul Yitzchak’s family remained in Tel Aviv. Longing for his home, Shaul Yitzchak continued to visit his beloved home every Friday, until it was completely destroyed once again on August 15, 1947, on the eve of the War of Independence. In 1956, under the State of Israel’s Development Authority, Batei Varsha became the grounds for the Tel Aviv police offices, and it remains so today.

A plaque commemorating Batei Varsha.

Yosef Moshe Russak, my “Saba Joe”, grew up in Seattle, and met my grandmother Adina at the family’s “kosher eatery” in Los Angeles. They married and moved to Seattle, where they helped build the Jewish community and raised my mother and her siblings. In 1946, Layzer and Breindel returned to Israel to live near their Fenigstein family relatives in Tel Aviv, across the street from the shul of the Gerrer Chassidim. My mother recalls visiting her grandparents when she came to Israel for the year soon after her marriage, and would later bring our own family on annual Sukkot trips to visit our family in Tel Aviv.

I grew up with my Savta’s Hebrew melodies and lullabies, and merited to host her in Alon Shvut after our Aliyah. I recall driving my grandparents from Gush Etzion to their hotel in Yerushalayim and seeing my grandmother cry as we drove by the Israeli soldiers in Beit Lechem. Remembering her childhood and the foreign British soldiers who ruled Israel at that time, she was overcome with emotion and appreciation for the miracle of a Jewish state protected by a Jewish army.

In 1994, while expecting our second child, I was invited to attend a Fenigstein Chanukah family reunion in Tel Aviv. The first descendant of Breindel Fenigstein-Deutsch to make Aliyah, I was introduced to my “long-lost” second and third cousins. I learned about our Batei Varsha legacy and the role my mother’s family played in establishing Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Inspired by Shaul Yitzchak’s pioneering spirit, we named our son, born a few days after the reunion, Yehuda Shaul, to perpetuate the legacy of his commitment to Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael. Today, my son lives around the block from Sderot Nordau and a few minutes walk away from his great-great-great grandfather’s estate of Batei Varsha. An active participant in Yakar Tel Aviv and Torah learning for students and young professionals in Tel Aviv, Yehuda Shaul, together with many other descendants of his namesake, is Baruch Hashem continuing the legacy and message of Chanukah – the chinuch of the home, and the reestablishment of sovereignty in our Land.

 

Rabbanit Shani Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and the Director of Mizrachi-TVA Lapidot Educator’s Program. 

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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