Elusive Pioneer


On July 6, 1882, 14 Bilu members arrived in Palestine on the ship Circe. It seems that two of the 16 members that had assembled in Istanbul remained there to continue the efforts to raise funds and acquire land. The others set out for Jaffa. The exact number of members is not clear – the Hamaggid newspaper reported that there were 15, other sources mention 14, and Shulamit Laskov writes of 16 in her book on Bilu. Whatever the exact number may be, all accounts agree that there was one woman in the group. Her name was Daria Sirot. Romantic or family ties would later lead three additional women to join them. However, Sirot was not there to follow in the footsteps of another member; she herself was a key player in the story of Bilu. Despite that, very little is known about her.

The Bilu members rented an apartment from a Christian Arab landowner named Anton Ayoub on the upper floor of a two-story well-house in one of the orange groves  located near the Jaffa=Jerusalem road. The apartment consisted of two rooms and a large balcony. Sirot slept in one room and the 14 men slept in the other (Shertok, the emissary, also lived with the group). Since their room was so crowded and the summer weather permitted it, many of the men actually slept outside on the balcony.

Sirot turned the rented apartment into a home. Orange crates topped with planks served as a kitchen table and orange crates topped with mats served as beds. The little other furniture in the apartment was also crafted from orange crates or the heavy travelling trunks, which were arranged along the walls and used for storage. Makeshift wooden shelves were built to store cooking equipment and food.

Eventually the group moved to Rishon Lezion, but  the idea of living as a group of laborers on a settlement created by others clashed with their worldview. After many long discussions in the apartment in the orchard, the group split up. Some went to Rishon Lezion and six others went to Jerusalem to join the programs of Yehiel Pines and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to teach a profession to the children of the existing Jewish community. Sirot was one of the key figures in the group that left. She looked for work teaching at a school, whether it was supported by Rothschild or Alliance.

The Bilu members did not remain in Jerusalem for long. Meanwhile, Rishon Lezion continued to deteriorate, despite Rothschild’s support. Rothschild sent his most senior assistant, Michael Erlanger, to save the settlement.

Erlanger paid off the Rishon Lezion residents’ debts, ordered that construction work on homes be completed, and acquired additional land for the settlement. From then onward, the residents would receive a monthly stipend, but in exchange had relinquished all independence in operating their farms. The objections and disgust of the residents notwithstanding, this model saved the early settlements in Palestine.

The Bilu members too met with Erlanger. He was willing to count each four members as one family and provide them with the same property that a family receives: a plot of 25 acres, a pair of horses, and a house. The Bilu members requested additional land instead of houses so that they would have sufficient work for all the members. Erlanger refused and the group split again. Some remained in Rishon Lezion and the others returned to the apartment in the orange grove in Jaffa. Sirot was among those who returned. Back in Jaffa, the group drafted a new constitution for itself that emphasized communal life and prohibited marriage or starting families. Rothschild did not look kindly upon these ideas or their idea of establishing an independent settlement without supervision. At Erlanger’s recommendation, Rothschild withdrew his support from the group.

In early 1884, when the group in Jaffa and Rishon Lezion decided to adopt a religious lifestyle, Sirot left as well. At this point, she may already have been engaged to Ya’akov Barliavsky. Hirsh, who had long wished that the group of rebels in Jaffa would leave Palestine, agreed to pay for their travel expenses to the United States. Sirot, Barliavsky, and another member named Moshe Mintz were willing to leave, but only for Paris. Hirsh suspected that they were planning to try to raise funds, perhaps from Rothschild or Alliance, to establish their own independent settlement. In the end, some of the dissidents agreed, at least in theory, to immigrate to the US.

On March 21, 1884, the dissidents left for Paris. In late June, Mintz and three others immigrated to the US and severed their contact with Bilu. Sirot and Barliavsky, who had gotten married meanwhile, remained in Paris. He studied veterinary medicine and aspired to be the first veterinarian in the Land of Israel. She supported him by working as a seamstress. Meanwhile, they tried to raise funds to establish a settlement, with no success. After he completed his studies, they moved to Tetouan, Morocco, which was home to a wealthy Jewish community and known as the Jerusalem of Morocco. They apparently intended to raise funds there both by working and collecting donations from the Jewish community.

The Bilu members described Sirot as the dark, graceful angel that held the group together. Though she had lived alone with a group of single men, even the religious Jews of the established Jewish community in the Land of Israel that had not approved of the freethinking group had not cast aspersions on her righteousness. She was a central figure in the Bilu movement, even though little has been written about her. It is not clear what happened to her. Amnon Horowitz of Gedera wrote that she died in Algeria in 1886. However, his father Tzvi, who had been one of the Bilu members to settle in Gedera, wrote in his diary on June 8, 1887, that someone named Sirot had arrived in Jaffa from Russia, though it is not clear if he was referring to her. Perhaps she really had succeeded to raise the funds to establish an independent community and returned to the Land of Israel to an unknown fate.

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