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Love Stories in the Promised Land - part II

Israel is alive with beautiful tales of romance, from the days of the Bible to modern times.

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Old city Jerusalem

A Tel Aviv tale

You’ll find the setting of this story in the charming old Rokach house at number 36 on the eponymous street in the heart of the newly restored Neve Tzedek quarter of south Tel Aviv. Shimon Rokach, the founder of the quarter, built the house in 1887, and it was palatial, indeed, right down to the burnished copper dome designed by his Austrian architect.

 

Born in Jerusalem, Rokach was the scion of a famed old family from Safed. He moved to Jaffa to collect taxes from Jaffa-Jerusalem travelers for the Turks, but soon branched out into real estate, becoming an important public figure, of whom contemporary writer Moshe Smilansky said, “He who has not seen Shimon Rokach, in his white tie and white silk headdress, has never seen a Jewish prince in his life.” Devoting his spare time to philanthropy, the “prince” established a library, clinic, charity society, and the local B’nai B’rith lodge.

 


Rokach and his wife Rachel had five children – and this story revolves around one of them, Hannah.

 

It all started when Dr. Leon Majarovitz – whom his Arab patients in Lod called “Dr. Majaro,” for short –wanted to find a bride. When Majaro came to Lod in 1919, from Odessa, he acquired an Arab business manager who advised him that he needed a wife. As the only Jew in town at the time, pickings were slim for Jewish brides. But in the big city, Tel Aviv, it was said, the most beautiful girl in town was Rokach’s daughter, Hannah. And so, off he went. But, too shy to turn up unannounced at the Rokach residence, Majaro headed for the home of Meir Dizengoff, a fellow Odessan. While Majaro was at Dizengoff’s home, who should show up but Hannah Rokach, selling tickets to a charity ball. She and Majaro struck up a conversation. Hannah, in her pretty pink dress and matching hat, chatted with him about the piano she had mastered in the Lusanne Conservatory; he told her he played the violin. The two decided they would get together soon to make beautiful music.

 

Sure enough, one Sabbath day, Hannah was standing on the balcony when she spied Majaro walking up the street, violin tucked under his arm. That would not sit well with her observant Jewish father, Hannah realized. But, luckily, the artist Leah Majaro-Mintz, Hannah’s granddaughter, told Discover Israel, Dad never found out, and the two continued to meet with his blessing.

 

T

hen, Majaro’s new position with the Mandate government took him away from Hannah, to el-Arish, Egypt, where his job was to weed out and stop sick travelers at the border. He and Hannah kept the relationship going through letters. At one point, however, Hannah’s letters stopped inexplicably, and Majaro was beside himself. Without a word to anyone, he hopped the train to Tel Aviv. That very day, there was an explosion in the border camp. When the good doctor was nowhere to be found, it was assumed he had died in the blast. Everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief when they found out romance had taken him out of harm’s way!

 

The Rokach family saw the young doctor’s escape from death thanks to his romantic feelings for Hannah as a miracle, and a sign that the young couple should tie the knot, which they did in 1921.

 

They eventually moved to Jerusalem’s Old City, where Leah Majaro-Mintz was born. (By the way, after the 1967 War reunited Jerusalem, Majaro-Mintz moved back to the Jewish Quarter, where the sculptures studding her courtyard have been a landmark for some three decades)

 

During the years that followed, the Rokach house, like the rest of Neve Tzedek, fell into disrepair, and was even slated for demolition. Just in the nick of time, Majaro-Mintz won the legal battle to gain back title to the house, and she began to work toward its restoration, with her daughter-in-law Gili helping to perpetuate the family saga. For her efforts, Majaro-Mintz won a conservation prize from the Israel Council for Historic Sites and Building and the Henry Ford European Conservation Award.


 

The Rokach House is now open daily to the public, as a museum of the period and the family. Each room is filled with items that tell the story of the old days, and sculptures by Majaro-Mintz that focus on women and their role in society. It also presents a weekly play about the family. It is a not-to-be missed gem of old Tel Aviv.    

 

 


The Hills are Alive


People come to this hilltop, overlooking the Jezreel Valley, to hear the story of the bravery of Alexander Zaid, who came to Israel in 1904 and founded Hashomer, “the watchman,” the first Jewish defense organization in the land of Israel. He and his compatriots made their living guarding the fields and orchards of the Jews of Palestine, and with their bandoliers and their steeds, they became the stuff of legends.

 

In 1926, Alexander Zaid moved to the hills above the ancient site of Beit She’arim. There, he lived under the most primitive conditions, keeping a watchful eye over the valley, as his larger-than-life bronze statue still does. Some say the hill, known in Arabic as Sheikh Abreik, is the site of the tomb of Barak, chief-of-staff to Deborah the prophetess. But that’s another story. So is the love story of Zaid and his wife, Zippora. Her mother supposedly never believed Zippora could be happy living in a vineyard with only a lean-to for shelter. But Zippora, who was said to have been the first to bring the scandalous new fashion of trousers for women to the Galilee, never complained.

 

Our story is about another love. It that started in the concert halls of Germany in the early days after World War I, where a dusky young beauty of Yemenite-Jewish parentage, Bracha Zefira was appearing.  Zefira had left the privations of war-torn Jerusalem for boarding school, where the talent was discovered that led her abroad to make her name.  Unbeknownst to her, one Nachum Nardi, also a musician, was attending every performance. Nardi offered to accompany Zefira on the piano, and eventually the two married. The rise to power of the Nazis brought an end to their successful career, and they returned to Palestine, making their home among the group who had taken to the hills of Sheikh Abreikh, to live the 1920s version of an “alternative lifestyle.”

 

When this bohemian bunch weren’t trying to figure out how to make a go of it in the fields with their flocks by imitating their Arab neighbours, they were singing their way through life. Sometimes, people said, they would stop in the middle of the streets when the muse struck them to serenade passersby. Here Zefira and Nardi wrote some of their most famous songs, and Zefira’s “oriental style” laid the groundwork for Israeli Mediterranean music.

 

When the Palestine Broadcasting Service, the forerunner of Israel Radio, launched on March 30, 1936, Zefira sang Yemenite songs, accompanied by Nardi. But tensions between Arabs and Jews were on the rise, and on July 10, 1938, disaster struck the little group, when Arab marauders murdered Alexander Zaid. In the ensuing political climate, the public rejected the Middle Eastern style of music in which Zefira shone. She began to sing classical music, but it wasn’t the same. She and Nardi finally drifted apart and divorced.

 


Eventually, Zefira married another musician, Ben-Ami Zilber. But her voice gave out, and seeking other avenues of expression, she began to paint in abstract style. Here, too, she found success – an anonymous art lover purchased her paintings, much to her surprise and delight. When Zilber died, and a shed in their yard was unlocked, Zefira discovered it had been her own beloved Ben-Ami who had purchased all of her paintings!

 


Not only did Bracha Zefira’s style come back – in the music of local greats like Shoshanna Damari and Ofra Haza – but well-known singer Ariel Zilber also keeps his grandparents’ musical tradition part of Israel’s musical scene. Like all our other stories, this is the postscript that keeps love alive.

 

Inspiration for this article and some content comes with thanks and permission from Ofer Regev, author of a new book, “Lehitahev B’Eretz Yisrael” (“Falling in Love with the Land of Israel”), Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir Publishing House, Ltd., Tel Aviv. 2005 (Hebrew).

 

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