On July 31, 1882 ten men from Kharkov in Russia, all members of the pre-Herzlian Zionist movement group known as Hovevei Tziyon (Lovers of Zion), purchased 835 acres of land from the Ottoman Turkish government to establish a Jewish settlement in Palestine near the Arab village of Eyoun Kara.
The settlement, like Petach Tikva, was established by the Jewish settlers of the First Aliyah and became the first Zionist settlements in Turkish Palestine.
Their leader, Zalman David Levontin, gave the settlement its name taken from the book of the ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah, chapter 41 “Rishon Lezion hinai hinam….” First of Zion.
Shortly after its founding in 1882, the population grew from 10 to 266 by 1890 due to the arrival of the early members of the Bilu movement..
Today the population of Rishon numbers more than 235,000 and it is the fourth largest city in Israel after Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
But with the exception of Jerusalem’s ancient history dating from the time of King David in 1000 BCE, my city of Rishon Lezion is the most historic city in modern Palestine/Israel.
The very first all-Hebrew-speaking school, Haviv, was built near my home in 1886 and one of its leading teachers was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, father of the modern Hebrew language.
It was also in Rishon Lezion that the Zionist banner, the blue and white flag with the Shield of David in its center was first made, later to become the official national flag of the State of Israel.
Naftali Herz Imber, a resident of Rishon Lezion in the late 19th century composed the words to what was to become Israel’s National Anthem, Hatikva (the Hope) set to the melody of the Czech Moldau (Vltava).
The city was made popular in its earliest days due to the 1886 establishment of the Carmel winery. Many years later, one of the winery’s workers, David Ben-Gurion, was to become the first Prime Minister and founding father of the State of Israel.
In the closing years of the 19th century, the father of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, met with the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, at the entrance to the Avenue of Palms which became and remains Rishon’s central park. It is often referred to in Hebrew as Gan HaNadiv, the Baron’s Park, in honor of the city’s main benefactor and philanthropist, the French Jew, Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
From a sandy desert with almost no water when the ten men from Kharkov bought it from the Turks, the miracle of Rishon Lezion continued to grow. It has the first symphony orchestra in Palestine/Israel and its magnificent Heichal HaTarbut (Cultural Center) provides opera, lectures, films, symphonic music and recreation areas for the entire population of Rishon and adjoining cities of Nes Tziona and Rechovot.
Of the two major shopping malls, I prefer Kanyon haZahav, for the large variety of fine clothing (expensive) and its multitudes of countless restaurants, cafes and coffee-houses (not expensive).
My home is located in the center of the city, walking distance to the major streets and thoroughfares of Herzl and Jabotinsky. Rishon’s magnificent beach and promenade on the Mediterranean is about a 20 minute drive.
In pleasant weather when I can sit on the mirpeset, my large balcony, facing the main street, I can enjoy my coffee (black, no sugar) while watching the cars, buses, and pedestrians down below and wondering what Levontin and his comrades from Kharkov would think of the tiny settlement they built in 1882.
From a little seed grew a mighty city.