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Mordecai Naor
(from “Herzliya Tales”, Yehuda Dekel Publications, 2013)

One of the most famous stories of author Isaac Leib Peretz is titled “Gilgulo shel Nigun” (“Metamorphosis of a Melody”), and it describes the changes and variations of a Hebrew melody. In this vein, we could tell of the events that transpired in Givat Ha’sofer in west Herzliya, as a similar tale of variations on a theme.

It begins by first taking us back to the faraway 1930s. At the time, Herzliya C was a small settlement that may or may not have been part of the budding municipality of Herzliya, to which arrived a group of authors headed by Shaul Tchernichovsky. The Tel Avivian intellectuals heard that the Herzliya C committee was willing to provide the authors of Israel a large compound, so that they may build a literary colony there, to write, relax, and even live there for a while.

The Herzliya C committee indeed made the offer, and a memorandum of understanding was signed between both parties. The initiative was even given a name: “Givat Ha’sofer” (“Writers’ Hill”). For the time, it was a considerable plot of land, roughly two acres, situated on a hill just a mile from the beach.

Quite a few years went by. Tchernichovsky passed on, and authors returned to Herzliya only in 1947. The Herzliya C committee, along with the Herzliya local council renewed their interested in the project, reaffirming their commitment to it. A diehard “fan” of the project also popped up, declaring his willingness to find contributors so that construction of Givat Ha’sofer would be completed without delay. His name was Binyamin Gichko, an American who owned assets in the city, and was connected to local authors here in Israel, and also those abroad in the US.

The newspapers of the day published that very soon the authors of the country would enjoy a campus dedicated to literature, with a large hall, work rooms, and the other necessities to expand the human mind, particularly those of writers.

In March of 1948, in the midst of the War of Independence, the hill was given over to the Hebrew Writers Association in Israel, and its first trees were planted. The writer Asher Barash said at the ceremony: “During days of bloodshed, animosity and betrayal [just weeks earlier news broke out that English soldiers had been involved in terror attacks against the Jewish population of Jerusalem], we came to Yaffe-Noff to establish an enterprise of culture, creativity and peace. The Hebrew author aspired to demonstrate what Hebrew independence on homeland soil was about”. Mr. Barash promised that the house to be erected was not only for local authors, but also open to all authors of the Jewish people.

A year went by. The unfolding war delayed the beginning of construction, and it took until April of 1949 before all involved parties could lay the cornerstone for the two initial cabins on Givat Ha’sofer. One cabin was to be paid for by the Jewry of Argentina, and to be named for Shaul Tchernichovsky. The funding for the second cabin would be found in the burgeoning country of Israel.

Gichko strutted around the opening ceremony like a groom on his wedding day. Shortly after that, he traveled to the US to find donors. Although he found some, there were not enough of them, and the raised sums far too small. At that stage, the objective of Givat Ha’sofer was expanded, and the new plan was to establish a writers’ colony, including a place of residence for new immigrant Jewish authors. The other functions were not forgotten: a permanent home for Hebrew Writers Association headquarters, a central library, a hall for performances and debates, and residential units for writers.

Construction continued slowly, and it was now the mid-1950s. An article in Davar newspaper in early 1956 announced: “Work of the Writers’ House in Herzliya has been renewed”. Also mentioned was the fact that insufficient funding delayed construction for a long time. Monies from Argentina financed the building of the first cabin, and the second was sponsored by the Writers Association, the local council, and the Herzliya municipal council. Estimates stated that by September 1956 the new Givat Ha’sofer compound would be inaugurated.

In the spring of ’57 the two completed buildings were still empty of people or activity. The Herzliya Council wanted them filled, but the Writers Association dragged their feet. Binyamin Gichko was going back and forth from Israel to the US and happened to be overseas at the time. Anyone entering the open yard found newly built buildings and a lot of neglect.

In early 1959 the Herzliya Council had had enough, and finally decided to publish a tender for the sale of “…two buildings suitable for public institutions”. The advertisement of sale was released, specifying it included about 20 rooms and two halls. But no one was interested, and the local council could not sell it, a kind of municipal “white elephant”. The Hebrew Writers Association that handled the details necessary to establish “Beit Ha’sofer” (“Writers’ House”), named for Shaul Tchernichovsky in Tel Aviv, now washed their hands of the project entirely.

In 1962 the Herzliya Municipality decided the time had come to find some use for the site, but it took another year before a partial solution was found. In 1963, the nearby town of Kfar Shmaryahu established an international school for diplomats’ children and foreign residents, a place later called the “American School”. As the new school had no appropriate lodgings for its young tenants, its management leased some of the buildings in Givat Ha’sofer. Thus, the writers and poets of Israel were replaced by foreign children, and a growing number of Israeli natives as well, children of parents who could afford to pay the expensive tuition.

The Americans used some of the land only briefly, then returned to Kfar Shmaryahu. After several years, the “International Youth Center” took up residence in two of the buildings, a center operated by a private company partnering with the Ministry of Tourism. The goal was to bring 15,000-20,000 teenagers each year to Israel, with the buildings providing 70 beds for accommodations. The Herzliya Municipality were paid 18,000 Israeli lira annually for the lease, and it was agreed that all culture and entertainment materials presented to the young tourists would be approved by the municipal culture department.

 

On August 16 1966, Maariv newspaper published a critical review of the then-neglected buildings: “Operating the vacation center will require the snake and scorpion nests be cleared, and after years of standing empty, these attractive buildings will add an element of grace to the beautifully rustic landscape of the area”.

This initiative of tourism also failed, and the site was soon empty again. In 1972 a savior was found – the “Beit Midrash Lemorei Tziyur” (“House of Learning for Painting Teachers”), an early version of the Hamidrasha Art College Ramat Hasharon, currently called Beit Berl College. In a ceremony attended by Mayor Joseph Nevo, a neighbor of Givat Ha’sofer, and Dr. Elad Peled, the director-general of the Education and Culture Ministry, the buildings were reopened, providing classrooms for 130 high school graduates who studied painting, sculpture, art history and other classes.

After several years, this chapter in history also ended, and the buildings were again vacant. Some of the land was used for a municipal pool, while the rest waited for better days to come. Those days arrived in the mid-’90s, when the municipality decided to repurpose the last building (as one had already been turned into a sports center adjacent to the pool) and make it an “Artists’ Residence”.

 

Varda Ginosar, then chairwoman of the Writers’ Association, is the person that decided to take action and make this project a success. She initiated an artist residence program in various locations in Israel. When Ginosar first moved to Herzliya and heard about Givat Ha’sofer, she approached the city mayor at the time, Eli Landau, proposing to renew the original concept for the site – a place built by, and built for authors. “Thankfully, my suggestion was accepted enthusiastically,” said Ginosar, “and renovations began to divide the building into three apartments, with one amendment – that the residency be open not only to writers, but artists of all mediums.”

For 19 years Ginosar ran Givat Ha’sofer. The place hosted many writers and poets from Israel and the world, held poetry readings, symposiums, book launches, literary workshops, seminars, poetry festivals, and regular book club meetings. And so, the years have come full circle, and the dream of Givat Ha’sofer founders has been realized.