Yeshayahu Leibowitz Is Not a Street Name

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at the Daily Beast:

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, by Bracha L. Ettinger, via Creative Commons

Yeshayahu Leibowitz
(Bracha L. Ettinger)


Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz lived on Ussishkin Street in Jerusalem. The street was named by Menachem Ussishkin himself. An early Zionist leader, prideful, pugnacious, Ussishkin headed the Jewish National Fund for nearly 20 years. In 1931 he built an imposing house on what was then Yehudah Halevi Street, named for the 12th century philosopher-bard. All the streets in the new neighborhood of Rehaviah were named for poets and philosophers of the Spanish Golden Age. For his 70th birthday, Ussishkin decided to honor himself. He ordered JNF workers to remove all the signs saying “Yehudah Halevi” and replace them with ones that bore his own name. And so the name of the street is Ussishkin unto this day.

You can’t imagine Yeshayahu Leibowitz doing this. If Leibowitz knew that city council members would one day propose naming a street after him and that the proposal would cause so much loud opposition that the mayor would have to drop it from the agenda, as happened last week, he would have felt honored by the controversy: The Yeshayahu Leibowitz Memorial Upheaval.

The last time I visited Leibowitz was 19 years ago, on Israeli Memorial Day, 1994. I came to his home to pick up a handwritten article on the weekly Torah portion that he wrote for my magazine. Picking up Leibowitz’s articles was the very best part of my job, because he would invite me in and talk, which is to say rage, for an hour or so. There was in fact enough space between the books to sit down in his living room. Between the top of each row of books and the bottom of the shelf above, more books in sundry languages were squeezed in on their sides. I don’t know how many languages he spoke, but English was not among the first four he’d learned. Each time he’d hand me an article, he’d say, “You know English is not my mother tongue. You will have to edit it.” The second part of this statement was false: All I had to do was read his shaky handwriting and type the article. His English was polished. His thoughts were precise, as if cut with a diamond-cutter’s tools. A beautiful fury shone from within them. I believed back then with a perfect faith that Leibowitz had lived into his nineties because the Angel of Death refused to obey the order to take him, insisting that a black flag of illegality flew over it. …

Read the rest here.

1 thought on “Yeshayahu Leibowitz Is Not a Street Name”

Comments are closed.