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The Jerusalem School That Turned Superstitious Jews Into Proper Brits

A new exhibit and book recall the Evelina de Rothschild School, which taught Jewish girls punctuality, self-reliance—and English

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Students at the Evelina de Rothschild School, c. 1930. (Courtesy Rachel Badad-Pirani)
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I would have recognized the 93-year-old woman anywhere. Seated on a mint-green velvet chair in her apartment in Jerusalem, dressed in a black sequined top and black slacks, Rachel Badad-Pirani, née Harris, still looks just like the photograph of herself at age 7 or 8. In the black-and-white photo, she is wearing a school uniform and is surrounded by 12 other girls in the same uniform drinking milk from small white cups. Although the girls are in Palestine in the 1930s, they could easily pass for prewar British schoolgirls, and that is exactly the point.

The photograph is part of an exhibition commemorating the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem and its British principal, Annie Landau, who ran the school from 1900 to her death in 1945. The exhibition—which includes photographs of the students, a uniform of the “Girl Guides,” prefect pins, library books, stamps, Annie Landau’s passport, her Kiddush cup, a book of staff meetings, and other treasures from the archives and personal collections of students of the school—was curated by Nirit Shalev-Khalifa and runs along a corridor at Yad Itzhak Ben Zvi, a Zionist research institute and publishing house in Jerusalem; it will run through the summer. It coincides with and celebrates the publication of The Best School in Jerusalem: Annie Landau’s School for Girls 1900-1960, a book about the school and its leader, written by Hunter College history professor Laura Schor.

Schor’s book reveals how during the first half of the century, Landau transformed a starving, amulet-wearing, rag-tag group of girls into British-Jewish schoolchildren who would feel at home anywhere in the world. By insisting on things like punctuality and cleanliness—and the English language—Annie Landau brought modernity to the girls of Palestine.

Rachel Badad-Pirani, left, with Laura Schor (photo by the author)

Badad-Pirani attended Evelina from 1927-1938. Like other alumnae I met, she preferred Hebrew, her native language, but when she spoke English, she spoke it with a British accent. Speaking to me and Schor in her Jerusalem apartment, Badad-Pirani remembered her time at the school vividly, and one day in particular, when “Miss Landau,” the stern and elegant headmistress, called her out of the line of girls entering the school. Landau signaled and said, in a tone that terrified Badad-Pirani, “Rachel Harris, get out of the line!” Badad-Pirani complied. “Rachel Harris, get up on the stage!” was the next command. Badad-Pirani stepped up onto the stage, shaking in terror. Landau addressed the rest of the school: “I want you all to look at her. That’s how you should come to Evelina school.” As a schoolgirl, Badad-Pirani would sleep with her uniform under her mattress at night, so it would be pressed for school the next day.

“People don’t know enough about what women have done in our country,” Schor told me when we met earlier in the week at Yad Ben Zvi to tour the exhibition. But rather than a revisionist, feminist history of the usual topics—war, peace, political struggle—Schor chose another focus: “I wanted to look at the history of the city through the lens of this girls’ school that was attempting to teach new values.” About Landau, Schor said, “She succeeded in teaching these downtrodden girls to become masters of their own fates.”

***

Annie Landau was born to an Orthodox family in London’s East End in 1873. Her father had 18 children between his first wife and Annie’s mother; one of Annie’s sisters is the mother of Oliver Sacks, the doctor and author. All of Landau’s children received fine educations, and Annie had already had two positions as a teacher when she was offered the job at Evelina in 1898. Only 25, Annie Landau boarded a ship for Palestine, then under Ottoman rule.

According to Schor, Landau was shocked when she first arrived in Palestine: shocked at the extreme poverty in which people lived, but also at the sense of hopelessness. “She came from the East End of London,” Schor said, “where immigrants were striving, and here no one was striving.” Landau arrived in a Jerusalem ravaged by disease, poverty, and overcrowding. Her school routinely lost students to hunger and epidemics. The school was religious, but superstition abounded, too. As she wrote to the Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.’s oldest and most widely read Jewish newspaper, “I remorselessly cut blue beads, silver tokens, camphor bags, and pieces of dried garlic from the hair of wide-eyed little girls with which the mothers had sedulously endeavored to keep off the evil eye from their offspring. It was hard work trying to convince parents that our medical inspection, newly arrived nurse, our eye treatment and dental clinic were more efficacious than amulets.”

Many in Palestine still relied on the haluka—charity from the Diaspora—in order to survive, a practice Landau disdained. She wanted her students to become self-reliant citizens of the world, and to this end she taught them English. She was thus alienated from Orthodox rabbis, who put her school in herem for teaching secular studies, and from Zionists, who abhorred her insistence on English. She was also criticized for her reverence for the British administrators and officers who entered the city after the Great War (she sat along with them at the playing of “Hatikva,” the Zionist anthem).

But Landau would not be deterred by the Zionists or the Orthodox authorities. “She had a very clear vision of what she wanted to achieve,” said Schor. “She was like a general. She had an idea and she marshaled all her forces.”

***

“I remember her as a woman who was very stylish,” said Adaya Hochberg Barkay, who attended Evelina from 1939-1948. I met with Hochberg Barkay, a spry 82-year-old with short white hair, in her Tel Aviv apartment. She was wearing a blue cotton sleeveless dress and had plans to go to a concert later in the evening. She remembered Landau as “very elegant, a bit mysterious. She was like this spirit looking over us.”

“We were outsiders,” Hochberg Barkay remembered. “It was a different school from what we had around us. Both religious, and Jewish, but in its demeanor, like all the missionary schools—we speak English, there’s a uniform, there’s an order to the day, there’s discipline. It was different. And everyone who studied there knew she was a little different.”

The school weathered two world wars and the interwar riots between Arabs and Jews that ravaged the city. Rachel Badad-Pirani remembered one afternoon in the 1930s, when a bomb flew into the courtyard where over a thousand girls were playing. When the caretaker, an Arab, saw the bomb, he shouted at the girls to run and threw his body over the bomb to mitigate the blast. The bomb never did blow up, but “Miss Landau made of him a king,” Badad-Pirani told me in her apartment in Jerusalem. “She built him a small house on the grounds, and he was the most important person.”

Hochberg Barkay, a doctor whose career ascended all the way to district medical officer of the northern region of Israel, now volunteers running a clinic for Physicians for Human Rights in Jaffa. She says that the school instilled in her the value of pluralism. She came from a secular family, but her mother, the vice president of a bank, chose Evelina for Adaya out of a desire that she learn English. Adaya remembers coming home from school, where prayers were recited, and asking her mother why they didn’t do such things at home. “I asked her, ‘Ima, Shabbat candles, and this and that,’ and I remember how she said to me, ‘You see, there are people who do this and people who do that.’ They gave me the tools to be exposed to such things.” On Yom Kippur, Adaya’s mother would go to the synagogue to say Yizkor, and her father would play cards with friends. “This pluralism, I lived it, I experienced it, and my school really strengthened it. There were others from non-religious schools, but we also had girls from Haredi”—ultra-Orthodox—“families. This I give real credit to the school. Its population wasn’t in any way homogenous.”

At a time when there were no museums in Palestine, Evelina students would see the world’s classics of art on slides. The modern value of punctuality was paramount. “In the context of Jerusalem of then, in the Middle East, to come on time?” Hochberg Barkey said. “I think that’s why we knew how to arrive on time to work. Who comes on time in the Middle East?”

The Best School in Jerusalem is an academic work. But it does contain a number of saucy anecdotes, such as the unfortunate time after the First World War that the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva was overrun by Jewish girls who were engaging in prostitution, and the struggle between the Orthodox, who wanted to deny the problem, and the Zionists, who wanted to address it.

Landau in the London Jewish Chronicle, June 7, 1907.

Landau died in 1945 after a period of ill health. She never married, and never seems to have thought much about it. What emerges from Schor’s portrait of Landau is a woman with extremely modern, cosmopolitan values and a stubborn desire to have her way. “She saw herself on a big playing field,” said Schor. She made sure to be interviewed yearly by the London Jewish Chronicle; she appeared in a photo alongside the interview, each year in a new hat. She hosted excellent parties and costume balls, which served as a meeting place for Jerusalem’s leaders of all religions and nationalities. Invitations to these parties would be printed in English. “When Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin received one,” writes Schor, “he wrote back provocatively, ‘I don’t understand English, write it in Hebrew.’ ” To which Landau responded with aplomb, “If you don’t understand English, you are not invited.”

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The Jerusalem School That Turned Superstitious Jews Into Proper Brits

A new exhibit and book recall the Evelina de Rothschild School, which taught Jewish girls punctuality, self-reliance—and English

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