The Legacy Of Yitzhak Yehezkel

Courtesy of Ori Yehezkel, Tel Aviv, Israel.

On October 19th 1951, 35 swimmers raced across the Sea of Galilee from Ein-Gev to Tiberias in the presence of numerous politicians including the the Speaker of the Knesset. The fourth edition of the 9.5 km international event attracted swimmers from Sweden as well as 33 Israeli swimmers from Hapo’el.

While the race was won by Lars Bertil Warle of Sweden in 3 hours 9 minutes with Israeli brothers second and third (Shmuel Hadash in 3 hours 16 minutes and Avinoa’am in 3 hours 21 minutes), a 30-year-old Israeli hero Yitzhak Yehezkel finished 5th.

At that time, Yehezkel was the only person to have swum lengthwise across the Sea of Galilee – and he continued to touch the hearts and minds of all who he came in contact with, from blind swimmers who he coached to fellow swimmers who he raced against.

Yehezkel (born 1921 in Georgia, died 2010) was not only a multi-dimensional athlete, but he also was influential across generations of swimmers in Israel throughout his life.

In the 1930’s, Yehezkel’s family escaped from Georgia (then part of the USSR) during the horrors of Stalin and crossed the border to Istanbul into Turkey. A few years later, they were deported to Beirut, Lebanon. In 1936, Yehezkel and his older brother illegally crossed the border into K’efar Giladi in the Upper Galilee in Israel. After a few days, they were smuggled by truck to Tel Aviv as they hid under a stack of hay because they were afraid of being caught by British who ruled the country at that time.

A few months later, their parents and sister joined them. To eke out a living, the young boys sold small items on the streets and later joined a youth movement, Ha’Noar Ha’Ove’d (The Working Youth), where he was taught to be a locksmith) and the Hebrew language. He also joined in sports club, Hapo’el, in Tel Aviv, where he became a gymnast, runner and swimmer. With training, he became a member of Hapo’el Tel Aviv swim team specializing in breaststroke.

In 1943, he competed in the 9.5 km international competition across the Sea of Galilee and then returned nine more times until 1968. A year later on October 28th 1944, Yehezkel stunned the Jewish and Arab populations in Israel when he pioneered a 22 km swim across the length of the Sea of Galilee from Zemach in the south to Tabcha in the north in 9 hours 39 minutes 44 seconds.

He twice returned to repeat his unprecedented swim across the Sea of Galilee. In 1953, he swam from Capernaum to Degania in 10 hours 18 minutes 20 seconds, and in 1955 he swim from Zemach to Capernaum in 8 hours 33 minutes 25 seconds.

During his naval service in the Israeli Defense Forces, he served as a sports instructor and a face-to-face combat trainer. In the reserves, he was the head coach of the Israeli Defense Forces Navy swim team that won the Army championships for a few years. When a new Navy commander did not approve of his coaching ways, he resigned. In the 1950’s, he became the head coach of another unit – NAHAL – a team that beat the Navy team throughout his tenure as its head coach.

After his swim in 1944, Yehezkel became a gymnastic instructor and swim coach in Hapo’el Tel Aviv, posts that he concurrently held for 20 years, teaching thousands of individuals from children to the elderly.

For over 30 years, he also taught swimming to many blind people in Tel Aviv.

Between the early 1960’s and the mid-1980’s, Yehezkel became the head swim coach for Israel’s Bank Leumi. During this time, he participated in shorter Sea of Galilee popular swims 20 times and the Eilat Bay swim, Naharia to Shave’e-Zion swim. He also established a swim named after the prophet Jonah between Jaffa and Tel Aviv in 1965.

In 1994, he suffered his first stroke, but then had 5 additional strokes and a hemorrhage that left half his body paralyzed. Despite this condition and his paralysis, he still continued to bath in the sea with his caregiver while using a floating device. Occasionally, he also swam again until the age of 85.

Teaching and Coaching Career Highlights:
* 1945-1965: gymnastics instructor for kids and youth in Hapo’el Tel Aviv
* 1945-1965: swimming and water polo coach for youth in Hapo’el Tel Aviv
* 1960-1968: swimming trainer at Em’ek Bet Sh’an, Em’ek Izra’el, Galilee, Zahala

Swimming Career Highlights:
* 1943-1968: competed in 10 successive 9.5 km races across the Sea of Galilee from Ei’n-Gev to Tiberias
* 1954-1993: competed in forty 4-5 km Sea of Galilee swims from Ha’On to Beit Yerah
* 1944: pioneered a 22 km lengthwise crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Zemach in the south to Tabcha in the north
* 1953: completed a 23 km lengthwise crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum to Degania
* 1955: completed a 22 km lengthwise crossing of the Sea of Galilee from Zemach to Capernaum
* 1965: established the 4 km Jonah’s Swim from the port of Jaffa to the port of Tel Aviv
* 1966-1970: he participated in all the 4 km Jonah’s Swims

Sporting Career Highlights:
* 1940-1960: competed in numerous running events
* 1985-1994: participated in numerous popular walks (Sd’e-Boker, Rehovot, Gilboa’a, Arad-Masada, etc.)

Volunteer Highlights:
* 1960-1992: served as swim instructor for blind children and adults ages 10 to 70+
* 1955-1975: managed the swim and water polo teams in Hapo’el Tel Aviv including the recruitment of players from Hungary and Romania
* 1980-1994: volunteered as a night shift ambulance driver for Magen David Adom

At this funeral, his friend Eli Porat eulogized him, “Yitzhak was a dedicated and special dear friend, a man of work and vision, a man of toil and defense, a companion for life. You devoted yourself to dedicating your time to the the swim team at Hapo’el. On October 28th 1944, you fulfilled your great dream, all of it courage, courage and pride, and you succeeded in crossing the Sea of Galilee, setting a world record. You became the pride of Hapo’el and the Jewish settlement in those days.

Yitzhak was a devoted and loyal friend, who knew to assist, give, and support those in need and friends, that was your life designation, always helping
.”

The Sea of Galilee or Kinneret in Hebrew, is located in Israel and is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth, about 200 meters below sea level. It is surrounded by mountains – the Golan Heights and the Galilee Mountains – and located in the Jordan Rift Valley, that was caused by the separation of the African and Arabian Plates. It is also the place where many of Jesus’ miracles occurred, including his walking on water.

While open water swim events have been taking place in the Sea of Galilee since the early 1940’s, General Giora Shenan was the first to swim widthwise across the Sea of Galilee in 1929. The annual 1.5 km and 3.5 km open water swim event, the Kinneret Crossing, has annually drawn thousands of participants for over 65 years.

The following article was translated by Guy Cohen and Eyal Schachner from the archives of the local daily newspaper Davar, published in 1948. It tells Yehezkel’s story across the length of the Sea of Galilee.

How I Crossed the Sea of Galilee
Published in the Davar daily newspaper on June 4th 1948

The military campaign in the Jordan Valley [note: in 1948, Israel was still fighting its War of Independence against its neighbors], which is endowed with courage and self-sacrifice, has not yet ended. The Sea of Galilee is one of the centers of interest in these days. The Jordan and the Sea of Galilee are engraved in the hearts of the people, and not because of their ancient splendor. Many chapters of the glamor in the history of the nation’s revival in the homeland were written to their shores.

While the name Kinneret rejoiced in the heart of the youth in particular, in the Hebrew sport, the small and mischievous sea took its place with the success of the Crossings of Sea of Galilee – the national enterprise of Hapoel [note: Hapoel is a sports association that was established in the 1920’s as a union of the General Federation of Labor in Israel and its goal is to nurture the body, health and sport culture among the workers].

It is not a sports enterprise for its own sake, but a test of the ability of the Hebrew swimmer in open water. Swimming far away and prolonged width crossings of the Sea of Galilee symbolized the immigration of many of us to the coast of the homeland from the heart of the sea, and our assistance to them.

[Note: Jews, refugees of the Holocaust in Europe, were not allowed to immigrate to Palestine by the British Mandate government that ruled the country in those years. In the absence of a solution, Jewish rescue organizations were working to raise the refugees to Israel by illegal immigration from ships that brought them near the beach in the dark of night. From the ships, they were brought on shore by boats and by swimming to land to then assimilate within the local community.]

In addition to the widthwise crossings of the Sea of Galilee, which the local residents of the Jordan Valley villages were mainly its victors, they also initiated the small group 6 km tandem crossings, which mainly deals with rescue effort swims.

Here we present the experience of a single and first successor, a member of Hapoel Tel-Aviv, who crossed the full length of the Sea of Galilee.

The First Trial

When the Hapoel Center announced for the first time the crossing of the Sea of Galilee on the Ein-Gev – Tiberias line, there was great enthusiasm within the swimmers and youth circles. Tel-Aviv sent four male swimmers and one female swimmer. The pool we had was small (16 x 16 meters), and in order to prepare for the 9 km crossing, we had to swim about 700 laps. My finish time for the first crossing was 3 hours 38 minutes.

My Second Trial

By the second attempt, I had more confidence. This time, I insisted that I have a boat escort, and that my companion would be Haim Rosenberg, the head gymnastic instructor at Hapoel. My goal was to improve my time of the first year, since the technical arrangements were much better.

At dawn, the swimmers arranged themselves on the jetty in Ein-Gev and boarded the boats, leaving the shore 30 meters away and standing at the bow of their boats. To the signal from one of the boats – all jumped into the water.

My good spirits were preserved throughout my swim thanks to my escort – Haim Rosenberg. While we were exchanging some jokes, Haim suggested to me, “What do you think Yehezkel, about crossing the full length of the Kinneret?” To which I replied, “I have already made up my mind to make this attempt, but I do not know who will support this madness.”

I finished the distance and reached the finish line at 2 hours 54 minutes 50 seconds.

Preliminary Thoughts

Soon thereafter, I coincidently saw a Russian pamphlet telling the story of a submarine sailor that had swam 54 km over 24 hours without an escort boat or food. I made a simple calculation: if a person can swim across 54 km on the front line, why cannot I pass 24 km not on a front line and under favorable conditions with food and escort boat?

The second example was the participation of Dr. Wirtz, a 55-year-old woman who swam 9 km of the widthwise crossing in about 6 hours. Why would not I be able to hold out in the water for 9 hours? So I spoke to Haim Rosenberg about the plan. We determined the date of success for October 28th 1944. We had just one week left for technical arrangements. We wrote a letter to the Ginosar Kibbutz and asked them to charter a boat for us.

A week later, we received an answer that the sea was very stormy and not safe to sail by regular boat, only by motorboat. And since their motorboat is in repair, they cannot help us. The answer was received the day before the trip to Tiberias. The tickets were ready and all my gear was packed and the food was also ready for the crossing. It was as if everything turned against us. Nevertheless, we decided to go to Tiberias and carry out our planned mission, no matter what.

The Last Battle

We did not have much time to talk. After the boat had been arranged, and the permit to sail out to sea was approved by the sergeant in charge, I drove to Degania B. It was late and I had little time to rest. Haim had stayed alone in Tiberias to look for a neutral observer, he was helped by Bechor Sasson, a member of Hapoel in Tiberias.

The next morning at 5 am, we reached Kibbutz Gesher. The boat was a little late, but soon it arrived. We climbed and sailed to Zemach. On the way, I began to undress gradually. Haim began to apply Vaseline on my body to protect me from the cold. After I was properly covered, we came to Zemach. There, I jumped into the water. It was 6:34 in the morning. From that moment, my companions began to write the diary:

The Swim Diary
6:34 am – The start. The swimmer is swimming in front crawl style. A strong warrior against the waves. A strong easterly wind. At altitude lies the Sea of Galilee. The boat is rocking. Very strong waves.

6:41 am – A fish began scratching the finger. At the 41st minute we are aligned at Samra – Kinneret location.

6:43 am – Easterly wind. Fighting against strong waves. A very strong wind.

7:44 am – A slight weakness. The waves picked up, replaced the swim style for a short-time with Backstroke, all the time he swam in breaststroke. The waves rock the boat. Wind of Sharkia [note: Sharkia is a dry east wind originating in the desert, hot during the transitional seasons and in summer, and cold in the winter.]

8:00 am – His condition is fresh, he is swimming aligned between Poria and Ein-Gev. All the while waves are strong, increasing from time to time. The wave passes over the side of the boat.

8:18 am – Aligned between Poria – Ein Gev. The swimmer’s condition is fresh and good, the east wind continues, strong waves.

8:36 am – The police boat appeared and warned us that if the wind will not calm down, we will have to stop swimming at Tiberias. Yehezkel’s condition is very good and he wants to continue to Tabcha.

10:02 am – we arrived at the line of Ein-Gev – Tiberias Hot Springs.

10:42 am – Still at the line of Ein-Gev – Tiberias Hot Springs. The swimmer did not advance forward for nearly 40 minutes.

11:00 am – A visit from our friend Haim El-Hadif. He promised to be at 2 pm in Tabcha with the provincial doctor. The weather changed in favor of the swimmer. Northeast wind. Lesser waves are southeastern.

11:15 am – Strong Northeast wind is starting again.

11:50 am – Struggling with the waves which are swinging him back and forth, barely advancing.

12:05 pm – Fighting strongly, but swimming in the same spot. There is a crisis, feeling weak – not advanced for 25 minutes.

12:30 pm – The appetite for chocolate is increasing. He gains strength and progresses nicely. We are aligned between Ein-Gev – the Secret Garden. The swimmer allows himself to tell jokes.

1:15 pm – His condition is good. Swimming leisurely.

1:50 pm – switched over from breaststroke to front crawl.

1:55 pm – Complaining of shoulder pains from the cold.

2:00 pm – We are in-line with Migdal.

2:15 pm – Pale, wrinkles on forehead, red eyes. Swimming leisurely.

2:43 pm – Complaining about being cold. He is disgusted with chocolate. Sucking a clementine willingly.

3:00 pm – Joking and proposing to return to Degania and stock up with the Clementines and then start over.

3:15 pm – Requires candies. Eats two.

3:30 pm – He is feeling colder. From 3:15, the waves rise.

5:13.44 pm – We arrive at Tabcha after swimming for 9 hours 39 minutes 44 seconds.

Signed – Shlomo Hess, writer of the diary.

Yitzhak Yehezkel’s Final Notes:

By the time we were very close to the shore, Joseph Luxenburg had jumped to help me out of the water, but I managed to do it on my own. As I finished my swim, the sea was stormy. When I came out of the water, I crawled on the ground, a wave whipped my face and sand entered my eyes. I went over to one of the nearby rocks and sat down. Then the doctor who had been waiting for me on the beach and his wife approached me.

She asked her husband, ‘Why don’t you check him?’ The doctor answered, ‘Do not you see what his condition is? In my opinion there is no need to examine him. He feels very good.’

He gave me a few drops of medicinal herbs for my eyes and that was the whole treatment after crossing the Kinneret. Other documents were prepared. One from the doctor, one from the observers, and even from the Arab fisherman. After all the arrangements were completed, we returned to Tiberias. It was late and we reached Degania B at 7 pm where they prepared a special dinner for us. Soon the news spread at the Kibbutz that the member of Hapoel Tel Aviv had crossed the full length of the Sea of Galilee and was dining with them. After the meal, I enjoyed listening to the news on the radio announcing about the crossing of the Kinneret. I felt that I had accomplished the task and that I had proved the strong character of a Hebrew athlete.


Additional Notes from Guy Cohen and Eyal Schachner:

Yitzhak Yehezkel successfully completed two more lengthwise crossings of the Kinneret in the years following his first crossing:
• On August 23rd 1953 from Capernaum to Zemach in the north-to-south direction in 10 hours 18 minutes 20 seconds
• On October 9th 1955 from Zemach to Capernaum in the south-to-north direction in 8 hours 33 minutes 25 seconds

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