The High Commissioner
by Haim Be’er
in a small room grandma
makes the bed
and talks about you, our own Sir Herbert,
and about Lady Samuel lighting sabbath candles
in the mansion on the Mount of Olives,
a wonder to behold.
A first in Judea,
on Shabbat Nahamu in 1920
she cried like a girl
when you descended from Augusta Victoria on foot
to make Zion rejoice in her sons:
the soldiers of the Jewish Legion
to your right and your left,
a tribe of rulers.
In the Hurba all as one resounded in song
greeting you with great rejoicing
(even Ben Yehudah stood wrapped in his talit and wept)
and at the Amdursky Hotel
the tables were already set
and the wine uncorked,
awaiting the king at his reception.
–(translated from the Hebrew by David Cooper)
Sir Herbert Samuel: British Jewish politician who served as the first High Commissioner in mandate Palestine.
Shabbat Nahamu: The first sabbath after Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem and the first and second Temples by the Babylonians and the Romans respectively).
August Victoria: a mansion on the Mount of Olives (opposite Jerusalem’s Old City) first built by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II for his wife Augusta Victoria, which in the early years of the British mandate served as the High Commissioner’s residence and is now a hospital.
Jewish Legion: Jewish battalions in the British army that fought the Turks in World War I, at first in the Gallipoli campaign and later in Palestine.
Hurba: The largest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City prior to its destruction by the Jordanians in 1948.
Ben Yehuda: Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew and author of its first dictionary.
Talit: a Jewish prayer shawl.
Haim Be’er grew up in Jerusalem in an Orthodox family that was part of The Old Yeshuv, the Jewish community that had been in the Land of Israel for centuries when the first Zionist settlers arrived. “The High Commissioner” and other poems in his first collection are based on his grandmother’s recollections of Jerusalem in the early decades of the 20th century which she told him when he was a little boy and which he remembered decades later as a young man.