Israel travels

Motza, first agricultural colony in modern Israel

Named after one of the cities that Joshua allotted to the tribe of Benjamin, Motza — with its rustic atmosphere and lovely homes — has evolved into one of the most sought-after communities

Yellin cowshed, Motza (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Yellin cowshed, Motza (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Many an eyebrow was raised inside the Old City walls when a revered Iraqi rabbi gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to the son of Polish immigrants. After all, weddings between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews were highly uncommon in 19th-century Jerusalem — and these nuptials took place in 1854. But Jerusalemites were shocked for another reason as well: groom Yehoshua Yellin was 13 years old at the time. And his child bride, Sarah Yehuda, was only 12.

The Yellin and Yehuda families were to make history again, only a few years later. Indeed, while Sir Moses Montefiore was building apartments outside the city walls in 1860, the Yellins and Yehudas were busy establishing the first agricultural colony in modern Israel (yes, long before Petah Tikva and Rishon LeZion.)

Both families were well-versed in the Holy Books, and felt passionately about settling the Land of Israel. For this pioneer agricultural venture, they chose the fertile fields of Colonia, an area that the Romans had set up as a community for retired soldiers. The Arabs living in Colonia nearly 2,000 years later had fallen on hard times, and were delighted to sell what the Yellin-Yehuda families called Motza — named for one of the cities that Joshua allotted to the tribe of Benjamin.

Sarah’s brother Shaul and her husband Yehoshua hoped they would be joined by others, and that Motza would become a thriving settlement. Unfortunately, in 1864 Shaul caught a fatal case of pneumonia after walking home to Jerusalem in the pouring rain.

But Yehoshua continued the endeavor. He grew vegetables, olives, and all kinds of fruit — including the rare wild plum that is endemic to the area. And he used the basement of the house he built in 1890 as a cowshed for his dairy. Finally, in 1894, four new pioneers appeared. While two left pretty quickly, the other two remained. Motza began to expand and flourish and today, with its rustic atmosphere and lovely homes, it is one of the most sought-after communities in the area.

In 1994, I wrote an article about Motza. At the time the Yellin House was in shambles, just a sad skeletal reminder of the first modern Jewish house in the Jerusalem hills. For over a decade I watched as it continued to crumble.

A few years ago, however, Eliezer Yisraeli — grandson to one of Yehoshua Yellin’s grandsons — decided to preserve the family heritage. The Society for Preservation of Israel’s Historic Sites stepped in to assist, along with a generous donation obtained from Leonard Kahn through the Jewish National Fund. Yellin’s home and interior have been faithfully restored, along with the enormous cowshed discovered in the basement during renovations. Someday, if plans come to fruition, the historic Yellin house will be transformed into a first class Visitors’ Center, with lecture hall, convention center, and exciting exhibits about Motza.

Just in front of the Yellin house stands the Motza synagogue, whose ground floor features stone arches first built during the Byzantine period. In the early 1860’s, Shaul and Yehoshua utilized these arches and began construction of a way-station. Yellin wrote later that 30-40 carriages a day stopped at the inn, which opened in 1871 and serviced Arab merchants from Jaffa who wanted to appear early in the Jerusalem markets.

While the upper story housed a European-style restaurant and hotel, traders and animals slept together down below. It is said that when Motza children get lice in their hair, their parents blame it on the lice-infested fur that inhabited the khan a century earlier.

People standing on the balcony of the Yellin house gaze into the backyard view of newly replanted fruit trees, Yellin’s olive grove, and picnic tables. Also visible are remains from the summer home of arch-terrorist Haj Amin-el Husseini, and the slopes behind it that once housed the Arabs of Colonia.

The Arabs of Colonia enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Jews of Motza… In fact, some of the settlers refused protection from the Haganah

Haj Amin-el Husseini was the uncle of Abdel Kader el-Husseini, a commander of Arab forces in the Jerusalem area during the War of Independence, and was also the grandfather of late Palestinian activist Faisal Husseini. One of the parties responsible for the bloody anti-Jewish riots of 1921, Haj Amin was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to prison. Soon afterwards, he was pardoned by British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel who, in his zeal to appease the Arabs, appointed him Mufti, or religious leader, of Jerusalem.

Free and powerful, the Mufti helped organize another set of massacres in 1929.  On August 23, 1929, a harangue at the Temple Mount sent a mob of Arabs into Jerusalem’s northern and southern neighborhoods on a path of torture and murder.

The Arabs of Colonia enjoyed an excellent relationship with the Jews and Motza residents didn’t expect them to participate in any bloodbaths. In fact, some of the settlers, like the Machlefs, refused protection from the Haganah — a pre-state Jewish self-defense organization. After all, Haya Machlef was a nurse who had been looking after Colonia’s Arabs for years and was well-loved by the locals.

Yet on that fateful day in August, a group of Arabs swarmed down the hill from Colonia. Led by the Machlef family shepherd, they joined other rioters and moved towards the Machlef home. Two Machlef daughters were raped and murdered by the Arabs; the father, along with two visiting Jerusalem rabbis, was massacred as well. Haya Machlef was tortured and hung on a fence. Saved from immediate death by the British, she later died in hospital. Only three of the children escaped, among them nine-year-old Mordecai who would one day become Israel’s second Chief of Staff.

There is a bittersweet story about the beautiful new Yvel building on the other side of the highway. In 1963, an idealistic Moshe Levy immigrated from Argentina, having been offered a partnership in a hot dog factory located not far from the former Machlef home. Levy sank all of his money into the business — and three months later his Israeli partner absconded with the company funds. The disaster took a huge emotional and financial toll on Levy. As son Isaac grew older, the boy vowed that someday he would find a way to ease the path for new immigrants.

About two-and-a-half years ago, that opportunity appeared. Isaac Levy’s flourishing Yvel jewelry business (Levy spelled backwards) moved to an attractive new structure in Motza, next to the deserted red restaurant — on (or very near) the very plot that once housed the ill-fated hot dog factory.

Inside, new immigrants design jewelry for Yvel, which exports to Neiman Marcus and 650 other retail stores on five continents. Together with the factory, Yvel operates a school for Ethiopians who receive a stipend while acquiring basic academic skills and becoming expert in jewelry design. With the official Ministry of Trade and Industry certificates that students receive when they graduate, they can continue at Yvel or get a job on the outside.

Visitors to Yvel stroll through a beautiful entrance sprinkled with precious gems, watch two excellent short films, and take a tour of the premises. These include three lovely showrooms where, along with the expensive items on display, are less pricey designs. Also on display (and for sale) are unique items inspired by Ethiopian tradition by the students. An adjacent showroom and wine shop are located in a stunningly restored 19th century building that originally served as an inn for Jewish pilgrims.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private, customized tours of Israel.

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