Grandfather Zvi-Moshe Lapidot was born in 1862 in the predominantly Jewish village of Liskave in the district of Grodno in White Russia. Grodno had been part of the Great Principality of Lithuania until 1569, when Lithuania and Poland were amalgamated into one great kingdom. In 1793 the whole region was conquered by the Tsar and became an integral part of the Russian Empire.
Under the Tsar conscription was compulsory (except for only children and the sick), of indefinite duration and conscripts were occasionally known to disappear without a trace. The Jews used every method known to them to escape service and exploited every legal loophole they could find. Some went as far as to mutilate themselves (amputating a toe would do the trick), but the most commonly employed subterfuge was to exploit the clause exempting only children.
Grandfather Zvi-Moshe had two brothers, Avraham-Gedalia and Zeev, but each had a different surname to enable him to pose as an only son. Grandfather was called Lapidot, after his parents Hashe and Aryeh-Leib Lapidot. Avraham Gedalia was a Zelikovitch and Zeev a Kaplan.
Zvi-Moshe grew up in Liskave and was given a religious education, first in a heder and then at a talmud torah. Jewish children did not attend state schools and spoke Yiddish at home. Reaching adulthood, Zvi-Moshe turned to business, having at an early age arrived at the conclusion that 'Torah should be combined with the way of the world.' After establishing himself in the timber business, Zvi-Moshe decided that he should find a wife and settle down. In his search for a suitable match, he traveled by coach to the nearby village of Kosovo to court Rivka-Rachel Goldin. Zvi-Moshe was greeted cordially by her family and conversation focused on the Torah and questions of livelihood. Seized with a strong urge to see his intended bride, Zvi-Moshe broke with convention and asked that she be brought into the room. After due deliberation Rivka was summoned and it was love at first sight. Grandfather immediately turned to her father and asked if they could marry without delay.
After their wedding they settled in Kosovo, where Zvi-Moshe worked as a timber merchant by day and studied gemara at night. Kosovo, in Grodno District (known also as Kosov or Kosov-Polsky to distinguish it from the village of Kosov in the Carpathian mountains in Galicia) was a village of three thousand inhabitants, some two-thirds of them Jews. The Jews had settled there at the end of the sixteenth century and were artisans and small merchants; some had small farms to augment their income. From the 1880s there were two rabbis in the village: Rabbi Menahem-Mendel Shereshevsky, who emigrated to Palestine in 1922 and Rabbi Shmarya-Yosef Karlich. The latter's son was Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karlich, known as the Hazon Ish after his famous book of that name, and one of the greatest religious legislators of his generation. Hazon Ish, who was a neighbor of the Lapidot family, immigrated to Palestine in 1935 and settled in Bnei Brak. His brother, R. Yitzhak Karlich,was appointed rabbi of Kosovo after his father's death, and perished in the Holocaust with his flock.
Zvi-Moshe prospered in commerce and his wife Rivka-Rachel managed the household and raised the children, three girls and three boys, all of them Lapidots. My father, Yaakov-Shaul, the fifth child, was born in 1900. Talented but precocious, at the age of ten he felt that he had nothing left to learn at heder, and asked to be sent to a more advanced school. Since there was no yeshiva in Kosovo, he was sent to the famed yeshiva at Slonim, where his maternal uncle was a teacher. Slonim, near Kosovo, was a well-known town. Of the 15,800 inhabitants, 11,500 were Jews (according to the population register of 1897). The large yeshiva there had more than five hundred students in the second half of the nineteenth century. Father did not have an easy time in Slonim, but found solace in studying the Torah. He rose early and studied till late at night. During the cold winter days, when darkness cloaked the village, the yeshiva janitor would rouse the students by singing
"Awake, o sleepers, rise up, slumberers, rise up to God's work.
It was customary at that time for the more prosperous families in the village to invite the yeshiva students to eat in their homes. This arrangement was known as 'teg' (days), since the boys would eat in a different home each day of the week. Thus, my father moved from family to family, eating potatoes day in day out. Only on Saturday, when he ate at his uncle's table, was he served meat in addition to the standard potato fare. Years later, when he had a family of his own and was living in Palestine, he abstained from eating potatoes, claiming that in Slonim he had eaten enough to last him all his life.
Sluggard, till when will you sleep, when will you rise from your slumbers?"
The Zionist renaissance in Russia during the Second Aliyah left its mark on Grodno District. Young people recounted stories of the new settlement in Palestine and tried to win support for Zionism. At the beginning of the 20th century, Zionist associations were set up in Slonim and its environs, the first of which was the 'Se'u Ness Ziona Association' (Bear the Standard to Zion). Its leaders took an active part in the early Zionist Congresses. In Kosovo and nearby villages, groups of prosperous people established associations for the joint purchase of land in Palestine. Grandmother was seized with the desire to emigrate to Palestine and desperately tried to persuade my grandfather to move to the Holy City. A practical man, grandfather feared the unknown, preferring the familiarity and security of life and work in Kosovo. As grandmother grew more insistent, he nevertheless decided to assess for himself the opportunities of work there.
Grandfather journeyed to Palestine in a ship, which sailed from Odessa and anchored at Jaffa, the only port in the country at that time. After disembarking he toured Jaffa and set out for Jerusalem, where he visited the Western Wall and other holy places. Returning to Kosovo, he summed up his impressions in a word - "midbar", namely, a desert. The country was then undeveloped, even in comparison with the Jewish villages of White Russia. Grandmother was not convinced and continued her efforts to persuade him. The religious urge to live in the Holy City was so strong that it overshadowed any anticipated economic difficulties.
At that time the 'Manishevitz Association' had been set up in the town of Bialystok) near Kosovo) for the joint purchase of land in Palestine; grandfather paid his dues and became a paid-up member. When the association's emissary bought a plot of land in Kfar Uria, on the road to Jerusalem, my grandfather had no excuse to remain in Kosovo. My father was summoned from Slonim and after his bar mitzvah, preparations for the great trip began.
Emotion had triumphed over reason; grandfather packed his belongings, took his wife and five children (one stayed behind) and set out on the long journey to the Promised Land. After a stormy journey, the ship reached Egypt and from there they made their way to Palestine by train. When they arrived they tried to set up home in Kfar Uria, but the local Arabs harassed them, forcing the group to disband. With their dream shattered, grandfather set out for Jerusalem. He bought an old house in Mea Shearim, renovated it and brought his family to live there. It was a large apartment house with several stores at the front. The apartments and stores were rented out, with the exception of one, which the family set up as a grocery store. The income from rent enabled the family to live in comfort and grandmother felt that her dream had now come true.
When the First World War broke out the Turks, who then ruled the country, joined the Germans against England and France. Although Palestine was far removed from the frontline, the inhabitants suffered greatly. Young men were forced to join the Turkish army and the authorities confiscated anything, which had possible military use. Everything was in short supply, and as the war dragged on, the situation worsened. Jerusalem in particular, distant from the farming regions, was afflicted by famine. Finding it increasingly hard to feed the family, grandfather sent the children to various agricultural settlements on the coastal plain. My father, Yaakov-Shaul, was sent to work at the Ben Shemen Agricultural School, where he received food and lodging in return for his labor. He soon became accustomed to farm work and found that he liked village life. In order not to compromise his principles and eat non-kosher food, he adopted a vegetarian diet. With the money he received for his work he bought food, which he would then take by horse-drawn carriage to his mother and younger brother in Jerusalem.
Communication between Jerusalem and the coastal plain was very difficult. The post was not operating, and there was no telephone. Transportation was irregular, and it was not always possible to find horses for the carriages. Before Passover, 1916, grandfather decided to visit his children on the coastal plain. Since no carriage was available, he made the journey on foot from Jerusalem. First he stopped off at Ben Shemen to visit my father and from there he made his way to Rishon le-Zion to visit his older children. Passover was approaching and he had no time for a long stay. He bought a bottle of kosher wine from the Rishon cellars where his two daughters were working and headed back to Jerusalem. The route was difficult and the heavy load slowed him down. With Jerusalem still a long way off at nightfall, grandfather spent the night in the monastery in the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, where he slept soundly beside his large bottle of Passover wine.
As the War continued, the situation in Jerusalem deteriorated. There was famine and disease in the city. Grandmother, who ate less in order to feed her family, became weaker, contracted dysentery and died on Rosh Hashanah. She was buried on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount. Grandmother's death was a heavy blow to the family: her five children in Palestine were still unmarried, and grandfather too, despite his forceful character, had been very dependent on her.
When the British conquered the country and the War ended, life gradually returned to normal. Those Jews banished from the country by the Turks began to return home. The Balfour Declaration, marking the decision to establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine, instilled hope in the hearts of the Yishuv and the British were warmly welcomed. The 1920s were the beginning of a period of immigration and prosperity, and grandfather decided that the time had come to try his luck in the building industry.
The German Schneller orphanage was located not far from Mea Shearim. Built on a large lot, surrounded by a wall, the orphanage also owned many plots of land in the area between Schneller and Mea Shearim. This area was rocky and unsuitable for agricultural cultivation. The Jews of Mea Shearim, not on neighborly terms with the Christian inhabitants of the area, generally kept well away. Grandfather, however, made friends with the Director of the orphanage, a German Christian named Bauer, and he agreed to sell grandfather a plot of land outside the orphanage. Grandfather prepared the ground and in 1923 built a two-story house. It was the first Jewish house built in this area outside Mea Shearim. When construction was completed, grandfather tried to rent out the apartments, but no one dared live in such close proximity to the Schneller camp, for fear of the Arab bandits who frequented the area. Having no choice, grandfather moved his own family into the new building, and thus Zvi-Moshe Lapidot's family took up residence in an isolated house between Mea Shearim and Schneller.
Grandfather was on friendly terms with the residents of Schneller and his family lived there unharmed. Before long, several other Jewish families agreed to rent apartments in the building. Before the year was up, the whole building had been bought. Immediately after completing the deal, grandfather bought the adjacent plot and started on a second building. A year later there were twin buildings in the empty area between Mea Shearim and Schneller. As soon as the second building was completed, the Lapidot family moved in. Gradually more Jews started building in the area and when it was sufficiently developed, the inhabitants assembled and proclaimed the establishment of a new quarter. Grandfather, one of the chief spokesmen, proposed calling it 'Geula' (redemption), since he had redeemed the land from the Germans. His proposal was accepted, and the quarter has borne the name ever since.
After the First World War my father returned to Jerusalem and was sent to study at Rabbi Kook's yeshiva, where he was an outstanding student. Not drawn to the rabbinate, he left the yeshiva after several years and joined his father and younger brother Mordechai in the construction business.
Grandfather continued to develop land in isolated areas. From Geula he moved on to Rehavia, where he built a house at 19 Ibn Ezra Street, and then at 21 Keren Kayemet Street (opposite the current Hebrew Gymnasium), where the internal staircase was a groundbreaking innovation in building design. After completing the houses in Rehavia, grandfather turned his attention to Kiryat Shmuel, then a new and undeveloped neighborhood. There he and his younger son built two more houses (one at 9 Metudella Street; the other at 16). At this stage my father was beginning to feel that Jerusalem was too small for him and decided to move to Tel Aviv.
In the same year that Zvi-Moshe Lapidot started building in Jerusalem, the Hirshberg family immigrated to Palestine from the town of Libau (Liepaja) in Latvia. The head of the family, Zvi-Hirsh, was born into a rabbinical family, which had been living in Libau for generations. His father, Shmuel, bestowed on his son a large house to enable him to dedicate his life to studying the Torah. When he reached maturity, Zvi-Hirsh married Pessia Blumenthal, who came from a Russia. She managed the household, looked after the tenants and ran the grocery store in the front of the building while her husband devoted his time and energy to Torah study. They had three daughters and three sons. My mother, Golda, was born in 1903.
During the First World War Latvia was caught between Germany and Russia. At times Libau was under German rule and at other times under the Russians. Three official languages were in use: Latvian, German and Russian. From being a wealthy family before the War, the Hirshbergs became impoverished: the tenants lagged behind with rent (some stopped paying altogether), and customers of the grocery store bought on credit. My mother was forced to leave school to help my grandmother run the household and look after her younger brothers and sisters.
After the War the economic situation in Latvia worsened and, to make matters worse, the government introduced compulsory conscription. To prevent the conscription of her eldest son, Avraham-Abba, my grandmother sent him away. The main destination of European Jews at that time was the United States, but she feared her son would learn bad habits there, and sent him to Palestine instead. There he engaged in a variety of occupations, from road building to construction, always hoping to set up in business. With the arrival of his family, he began importing medicines from abroad. He eventually took his younger brother Yaakov into partnership, and the business he set up is known to this day as "Hirshberg Brothers".
The Hirshberg family lived in Gruzenburg Street, Tel Aviv, and their neighbors were a young couple, Shifra and David Komarovsky, who were friends of the Lapidot family from Jerusalem. During the Passover festival, shortly after their arrival in Palestine, my mother set out with her younger sister, Hanna, and older brother, Avraham, on an organised trip to Hebron and Jerusalem, guided by Zeev Vilnai. The Komarovskys also took part and suggested paying a visit to the Lapidot family. This was the first meeting between my father and the Hirshberg girls. He later related that he was attracted to the younger daughter, Hanna, but in accordance with the custom of the time, began to court the older sister. In 1925 Yaakov-Shaul Lapidot married Golda Hirshberg. After their wedding, the young couple moved to the second house built by grandfather Lapidot in the Geula quarter.
My mother knew nobody in Jerusalem, and it was not easy for her to adapt to her new situation. But the communal atmosphere in the Lapidot household eased her integration. Two years later, when about to give birth, she traveled to Tel Aviv to be near her mother. Thus my older sister, Rivka-Rachel, was born in Tel Aviv although she was a true Jerusalemite. A year later the story was repeated, and I was born in Tel Aviv. The story goes that I did not stop crying until I was taken to Jerusalem. The next in line was my brother Aryeh, to whom fate was kinder - he was born in Jerusalem.
We lived in a two-room apartment next to the Sukenik family. The father, Dr. Eliezer Sukenik, who had come to Palestine from Bialystok, was an archaeologist (in 1947, as Professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he came into possession of part of the Qumran scrolls and was the first to realize their value and to begin to decipher them). The mother, Hassia, ran a kindergarten in the Zikhron Moshe neighborhood. They had three mischievous little boys: the oldest, Yigael Yadin, later Chief of Staff of the Israel Defence Forces, followed in his father's footsteps and became a world-famous archaeologist; the second, Yossi Yadin, became a renowned actor, and the youngest, Matti, was a pilot killed in the War of Independence.