Do you know what it’s like to be a young boy and discover what the bottom of a big wooden barrel looks like from the inside when it’s filled with really cold water? I do. From personal experience. This was a few minutes before I took yet another rushed trip to the local hospital where the doctors and nurses knew me by name. But that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about.

Do you know what it’s like to be a young girl growing up alongside the creation of the state of Israel. I do. Not from personal experience in this case, you understand, but because I just read A Tourist from Petach Tikva: Growing Up Alongside the Creation of the State of Israel by Shulamit Kagan and Aubrey Kagan.

A Tourist from Petach Tikva (Click image to see a larger version — Source: Aubrey Kagan)

In many respects, this book was a real eye-opener to me. The term “diaspora” refers to a population that is scattered across regions which are separate from that population’s geographic place of origin. Prior to reading this book, I was aware that the Jewish diaspora commenced several centuries before the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE, after which the Jewish people truly were scattered to the four corners of the Earth.

I was also aware that the establishment of the State of Israel was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion in 1948. In my naivety, however, I’d never really given much thought to what was happening in this area before that time.

I vaguely knew that the land we now know as being a mix of Israel and Palestine was previously known as Palestine. Before that, if we go back far enough—long before the Jewish diaspora—this same area was composed of the Kingdom of Israel in the north, the Kingdom of Judah in the middle to the west of the dead sea, the Kingdom of Moab in the middle to the east of the dead sea, the Kingdom of Edom to the south of the dead sea, and… then it gets complicated. If you want to learn more, a good article is The Dueling Histories in the Debate Over ‘Historic Palestine’ by Glenn Kessler.

Based purely on my lack of thought, lurking at the back of my mind, I sort of assumed that the Jewish people started to return to the newly formed State of Israel in 1948. It never struck me that a significant number of Jews had been living there long before that time.

The term “aliyah” refers to the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to, historically, the geographical Land of Israel or the Palestine region, which is today chiefly represented by the State of Israel. This is traditionally described as “the act of going up” (towards the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem).

After reading this book, I now know that the First Aliyah involved an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Jews immigrating to Palestine from Russia and Yemen to escape the Russian pogroms circa 1882 to 1903. This was followed by the Second Aliyah (1904 to 1914), the Third Aliyah (1919 to 1923), and… so it goes. As a result, there were already a lot of Jews living in the area that was to become the new State of Israel.

A Tourist from Petach Tikva is the autobiography of Shulamit Kagan, a Jewish girl who was born in Jerusalem in 1927. In fact, Shulamit didn’t exactly write the book herself. Instead, over many years, she wrote a vast collection of articles, notes, and memoirs. When she passed in 2018, her son, Aubrey Kagan, gathered and collated Shulamit’s writings into a coherent whole, including useful descriptions of Hebrew and Yiddish words, along with Jewish holidays, useful background information, and suchlike. I really can’t do much better than sharing the words from the book’s back cover as follows:

Shulamit Frankel grew up in the tumultuous years during the creation of the State of Israel. In this book, she shares candid reflections of her young life as her family navigates the upheavals of this political landscape. She delves into the world of her youth, capturing details that have long been forgotten in many history books, such as German colonies in Palestine before WWII and Italy’s bombing of Tel Aviv and Haifa during this time.

Shulamit’s stories cover a wide gamut of what life was like growing up in a young Tel Aviv, from understanding the significance of the religious festivals to discovering the joys of chewing gum. At the time, the Jewish population was small, and she describes interactions with the families of well-known Israelis. These include the brother and sister-in-law of David Ben-Gurion, the son of Shai Agnon (later Nobel laureate), and her uncle Reuven, who rose through the political ranks to become Speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Both Shulamit and her brother fought for the creation of a Jewish state but, in an unusual manifestation of sibling rivalry, Shulamit trained in the Haganah while her brother joined the Irgun. Shulamit engages us in her family’s deep connections of love and loyalty in these difficult years. Against the background of historical events, Shulamit recalls the daily trials and tribulations of growing up in a deeply religious family in a modernizing world, capturing the tragedies, triumphs, pathos, and humour of the times.

What? Germany had colonies in Palestine before WWII? What? Italy bombed Tel Aviv and Haifa during this time? I tell you, I learned so much from this book that I’d never even dreamt of before. More importantly, this is a cracking good autobiography.

After reading I, Claudius from the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 by Robert Graves, I felt I knew what it was like to grow up as a member of the Ancient Roman aristocracy. Similarly, after reading A Tourist from Petach Tikva, I feel I know what it was like to be a young Jewish girl growing up alongside the creation of the state of Israel (and that’s not something you expect to hear yourself say every day).