It is a leisurely five-minute walk from where I lived to the Gymnasia on Tel Aviv’s Jabotinsky street, and many long years since I dropped out in disgrace at the age of fifteen and a half.
The first Hebrew high school in Palestine was founded in Jaffa in 1905 by Dr. Matmon Cohen. Some time later, the school was renamed “Herzliya” after Dr. Herzl, the visionary who conceived the idea of the Jewish state.
There is a Matmon Cohen street which runs into Remez street, the Gymnasia Herzliya car park and sports grounds. I doubt very much that any of the inhabitants of that peaceful sidestreet have any idea who Matmon Cohen was. As it happens, I do. I remember him as the pale, tall, distinguished gentleman who taught Bible – the Tanach – to the two senior grades. A rather reserved figure. A wide, bustling street would not have been right for Matmon Cohen.
Some of the first graduates of the elitist Gymnasia Herzliya became prominent and distinguished members of the Yishuv and played a leading role in the establishment of the state of Israel and its institutions. My classmates included Renana, David Ben Gurion’s daughter. We played marbles under the watchful eye of Pola, her domineering mother. She was a good looking, lively, uninhibited girl, with a head of curly light brown hair. She never changed even when her father became a national icon. We met in London where she was a student and much later in Tel Aviv. She was the same cheerful Renana I played marbles with so long ago.
Ben Gurion may well have come to the school for a visit, but so did many others. The school was Pola Ben Gurion’s concern. I do recall Pola, for that was the way she was known, storming into the school office one day, presumably to have a word with Hanna, the stern school secretary. As for Pola’s relations with her husband, David Ben Gurion, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “Mrs. Ben Gurion watches over her husband very well, but she makes me think of a rather distracted hen at times….”
Teddy, whose sister Aviva was in the same class, was none other than Ted Arison whose name is brandished across the façade of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov hospital and many other establishments which owe their existence to his charitable contributions. The story goes, that he left Palestine for the United States as a young newly married man with only a hundred US dollars in his pocket. In 1972, he started Carnival Cruise Line with one ship that ran aground. According to The Miami Times, Ted Arison “made his fortune feeding America’s appetite for leisure.” In 1999, the paper reported the death, at his home in Tel Aviv, of a heart attack, of “the world’s wealthiest Jew.”
My recollection of Teddy Arison was of a somewhat withdrawn, well-mannered boy. When I met him decades later at my cousin Elie’s home and reminded him that we had been at school together, he offered to shake my hand, but his face remained expressionless. I found no trace of the schoolboy I had known so many years ago.
Gymnasia Herzliya stood on Ahad Ha’am, facing Herzl street. In 1957, Tel Aviv town planners knocked down this celebrated historical landmark and moved the school to Jabotinsky street. As a young adolescent, it would have been the fulfillment of my cherished dreams to see the Gymnasia in ashes. Now all of this is forgotten, and I keep the memory of my years at the gymnasia as a child, adolescent and teenager with gratitude, affection, even some pride. There really was no need to set fire to the building.