Sam Finkel is a good storyteller. In the book Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya – An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel, he introduces us to several main characters: Yechiel Brill, the journalist who brought the initial eleven; Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever who believed, after viewing a pogrom in Brody, that God was signaling his people to leave Europe for the Holy Land; Baron Edmond de Rothschild who provided huge amounts of funding, and many of the original settlers of Ekron (later renamed Mazkeret Batya). Brill brings the eleven men who were originally from Pavlovka, White Russia to what was then Ottoman, Palestine. Will they get in? How do they get in? After a few years of farming in Ekron, the main controversy of the book arises. Will the farmers observe Shmittah (the seventh year of the agricultural farm cycle of the Torah in which land is left fallow) and not farm for one year? Or will they be convinced to follow the Heter Mechirah (selling one’s possessions to avoid transgressing a prohibition) as the supervisors hired by Baron Rothschild wish and Rabbi Mohilever suggests is OK?
We learn a lot about the difficulties of those early years. Indeed, though it was the Holy Land, it was challenging for these religious farmers to raise their children as observant Jews. The benefactors who ran the local schools had other ideas, and the children received strong secular educations. The cheder did not have teachers that motivated the students.
Regarding Shmittah (or is it shmita), I wonder if keeping that year at that time in those circumstances should really be considered pikuach nefesh (a person’s life is in danger so commandment should not be obeyed). The book does have a section on the many ailments suffered by the new settlers. Malaria is mild compared to some of the others, such as epidemic flu. Today many farmers observe Shmittah; however, to do so now in 2013 is not a danger to one’s life.
The author clearly sides with the farmers in the shmittah controversy. He does not paint a kind picture of the administrators hired by Rothschild. One does learn about Rothschild, his mother and wife in the book – their characters give clues to why this man dedicated so much money and energy to early Jewish (and in this case religious) farmers. Batya (as in Mazkeret Batya) is the name of Rothschild’s mother.
At the end of the book, there is an interesting juxtaposition of two histories of Arab Aqir (a village next to Mazkeret Batya). Which is closer to the truth? “Even with the best of intentions, details and emphases are tailored to create a particular impression, and the reader would do well to regard all histories — including this one of Mazkeret Batya — as a blend of fact, legend, conjecture, and the author’s perspective.”
On Good Reads, you can rate books from 1 to 5 stars. I often rate great books with a four – it takes me a while to decide if a book rates five stars. I might just go back and give this one 5 stars.