Lessons in Manliness – Professor Avraham Biran

My grandfather, Professor Avraham Biran, was born in Ottoman ruled Palestine in 1909. He moved early on in his life to Egypt with his parents, sister and brother, where his father died. After his father died, the family returned to Palestine where his mother died a short while later. The children were raised to a certain degree by his grandmother, until they were sent to school in the Reali boarding school in Haifa (which is considered until today the best school in Haifa).

The first lesson – keep your familial obligations and take care of those who are dependent on you:

At the Reali School, tuition was high and neither Prof. Biran, nor his brother and sister, as orphans, could afford it, so it came to be that Prof. Biran washed the floors of the school and thus covered the tuition for himself, his sister and his brother.

After “making his mark” on the school, he decided to study and become a teacher himself. Subsequently he returned to the Reali and taught there in the years 1928-1930. Later on, he discovered an opportunity to further his education and obtain a masters degree in his field of interest. So in 1930, at the age of 21 he began his studies at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1931 he enrolled into Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he studied under the renowned Professor Albright. He received his Phd. in 1935.

Second Lesson – Learn as many traits as you can, you never know when they’ll serve you

As a student of near eastern studies (and later on, as an archeologist himself) Prof. Biran had to attend archeological excavations. I recall a story he told me once, that he wanted to join a dig (as a volunteer), but all the volunteer slots were taken. The expedition was in need of a photographer (this was the 1930’s). Recalling that he worked with his uncle one summer as a photographer, and had learned the trade, he applied for the job and not only gained his coveted excavation experience, but also received pay as a photographer.

In 1937, following a recommendation given by the man who was his principle at the Reali school and an appeal by the British government (who was then in control of Palestine), he became the district officer to Afula and the Jezreel valley, his disposition and character caused the inhabitants of the valley (both Jewish and Arab alike) to bestow on him the title of “governor of the valley”.

(Prof. Biran and wife, Mrs. Ruth Biran, with local delegates, in the valley)

The third lesson – Don’t toot your own horn.

In 1946, while district officer to the valley, Prof. Biran took a jeep with some compatriots and a British officer, and together they planned to visit a kibbutz. On the way to the kibbutz their jeep was ambushed by Arabs, it ran over a landmine and the shots fired afterwards killed all but Prof. Biran and the British officer accompanying him. After the British auxiliary force arrived and the ambush was thwarted, Prof. Biran reached the phone and called his wife, the first thing he told her was to go to his deceased compatriots' wives and be with them.

Now my father, my brother and I first learned of this when I was about 14 (my dad was 54), when my brother was on a class trip to the kibbutz in question and he saw a picture of what appeared to be my grandfather next to the exploded jeep. He asked my grandfather if he had any connections to the kibbutz, and we all heard the story.

Prof. Biran continued on and became the district officer of Jerusalem on behalf of the British government. After the State of Israel was "born", he was appointed as an assistant cabinet secretary and also served as the assistant military governor of Jerusalem.

Fourth Lesson – do not betray confidence and do not acquire or use friends for their assets.

In 1955 Prof. Biran was appointed consul-general of Israel to all of the western states of the U.S. and resided in Los Angeles, California. During his term as consul he worked tirelessly to raise funds for the fledgling country and to create relationships between prominent Jewish American businessmen and the state of Israel. He was party to many a secret and befriended many important industry captains. He never spoke an ill word about his acquaintances and friends. Indeed, we (his family) don’t know of all his friends even today. We do know that he never asked any of them for favors and that all his friends we know about cherished their friendship with him.

After this, he returned to Israel and to archeology, and was appointed the head of the department of antiquities and museums. A post in which he strived to collect, maintain and display knowledge so that all could benefit.

(on site during the building of the Israel Museum)

Fifth lesson – never shy away from hard work

At the age of 65 he retired as the head of the department of antiquities. At that age, he turned to head the Nelson Gluek School of Biblical Archaeology at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. As the head of this school he headed more than one archeological excavation, but the most famous of his excavations was the one at Tel Dan in the north of Israel, it was there he made his most important discoveries (indeed that discovery reached the New York Times front page, twice) and he physically, actively, dug there until he was ninety.

He retired at the age of ninety two, but kept on working part time (and for no pay). I remember when he retired; we figured out that he was entitled to two years of paid vacation according to law, which he accumulated over his 27 years of working at the Hebrew union college, since he hadn’t ever taken a day off (needless to say, he never pushed that point).

(excavating at Tel Dan)

Sixth Lesson - Know how to receive an honor

He was awarded many an honor in his day (including the prestigious “Israel Prize”) and he always knew how to receive them gallantly. He was always soft spoken and always had a kind word to those bestowing the honor upon him.

(photo taken from the Israel prize winners website)

Seventh lesson – humility

In almost every aspect of his life he was humble, never one to embellish or bring attention to himself. I know that if he read these lines. I would probably receive a slight “fatherly” scolding and he would dismiss them with a wave of his hands as unimportant, actions spoke louder than words. Such was his way.

He died on the 16th of September 2008, at the age of 98, and is missed to this day.

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Comment by O.B. on March 14, 2010 at 3:46am
This was a very short handed version, as there are many more stories about the man.
Comment by John Clanton on March 11, 2010 at 5:32pm
Wow... a great story!
Comment by Herb Munson on March 11, 2010 at 4:22pm
Thanks for sharing about your grandfather. He is an inspiration indeed.

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