With Tu Bishvat around the corner, a new immigrant from England is planning a tribute to her great-great-grandfather, who started the tradition of planting trees on Jewish Arbor Day.
By Judy Maltz | Jan.24, 2013

The tradition of planting trees on Tu Bishvat, the Jewish equivalent of Arbor Day, was started back in 1890 by Ze’ev Yavetz, a school principal in Zichron Yaakov. But anyone searching online for information in English about the man who went on to become a noted Jewish historian and founding father of the religious Zionist movement would be hard-pressed to find much.

With Tu Bishvat just around the corner, Jane Krivine, a retired new immigrant from England, has taken it upon herself to right that wrong. As a special tribute to her great-great-grandfather, she plans to upload an English-language entry about him on Wikipedia to coincide with the holiday that falls on Saturday, in the hope of sharing his legacy with wider audiences.

The project has been in the making for quite a while now, says Krivine, who moved to Binyamina nine years ago from London, where she ran and organized classical music festivals.

“A few of the cousins and I have been trying to think about how we could celebrate his life, and when we started doing research on him, we found there was nothing out there in English,” she says. “Even the Wikipedia entry is in Hebrew, so we decided it was time to remedy that.”

Culling online sources in Hebrew and other material from the Encyclopedia Judaica, Krivine has compiled an entry which is now pending review by Wikipedia, after having been passed around in recent days among her Israeli-born cousins for fact-checking purposes. Altogether, estimates 79-year-old Ruth Blumenthal-Jawitz [same name, different spelling], who is considered to be the family authority on Yavetz, there are dozens of his descendants living in Israel today, along with a smattering in England, the United States and Australia.

Yavetz, who came from an affluent family, was born in Poland in 1847. In 1887, at the age of 40, he moved with his family to Palestine, where he initially worked in the agricultural settlement of Yehud, before being recruited by the Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the founder and patron of Zichron Yaakov, to serve as principal of the settlement school (which today bears his name). In his first year as principal, Yavetz took his students on an excursion into town to plant trees on Tu Bishvat, and the practice eventually caught on, later to be adopted by the Jewish Teachers Union and the Jewish National Fund. To this day, the JNF holds huge tree-planting ceremonies around the country on Tu Bishvat.

While living in Zichron Yaakov, Yavetz was asked to join the Hebrew Language Council, established in 1890 by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and he is credited with several contributions to modern Hebrew vocabulary, among them tarbut (culture) and kvish (road). He eventually left the settlement, though, after a fallout with the baron, and moved back to Europe, first to Vilna and from there to London, where he died. In 1902, while in Vilna, Yavetz became one of the founding members of the religious Zionist Mizrahi movement.

As a historian, he is best known for his 14-volume Hebrew-language history of the Jews called “Toldot Yisrael,” which he started writing while living in Zichron Yaakov and completed in London.

Yavetz died in his sleep in the same home where Krivine’s father was living as a young boy. “My father was four years old at the time and had very vivid memories of what he’d describe as lots of weeping and wailing in the household at the time,” recalls Krivine, who serves today as head of the Caesarea-Zichron Yaakov branch of the English Speaking Residents Association.

Blumenthal-Jawitz, a retired event organizer based in Tel Aviv, says her mother, who died not long ago at the age of 106 also had very sharp recollections of growing up in the same home with Yavetz, who was her grandfather. This granddaughter, Blumenthal-Jawitz’s mother, eventually moved back to Palestine, as did many other of his descendants, where she married a second cousin, who spelled the same last name somewhat differently in English (hence the spelling discrepancies).

Ironically, notes Blumenthal-Jawitz, all the descendants of the religious Zionist leader living in Israel today are secular Jews. “My grandmother was religious, but my mother much less so, and she felt very bad about that. As for me, beyond not eating pig and fasting on Yom Kippur, I’m completely secular.”

What do you think your great-grandfather would have to say, were he alive today, about what’s happened to the religious Zionist movement?

“He would be very disappointed,” she said. “In fact, he’d be in shock. He was an intellectual in the broad sense of the word, a man of the world. He was very progressive and very tolerant. Probably the person most similar to him today in the religious Zionist world is Rabbi [Chaim] Amsellem.”

Not Naftali Bennett?

“God forbid. And definitely not Harav Ovadia.”