A Strange Death
by Hillel Halkin
Public Affairs. 400 pp. $26.00
In 1970, Hillel and Marcia Halkin moved to Israel from New York. They had intended to settle on a piece of land overlooking Jerusalem, Halkin relates in his delicious new book, but that turned out to be too expensive. Then one day, moseying along the shoreline route from Tel Aviv to Haifa, they reached the Carmel foothills and happened on the old and, at that time, ramshackle village of Zichron Ya'akov. They stopped for a look around, met a couple of the residents, and, as he tells it, by the next morning had struck a bargain for three dunams of land (about two-thirds of an acre).
Anyone familiar with Halkin's sharply attuned sensibilities—on regular display in the pages of COMMENTARY—would find it hard to believe this account of how he and Marcia more or less blindly happened on their future home. She, he assures us, was in full accord with this impulsive move, and, though a city girl, surprised him by being the first to suggest it. But then, near the end of the book, as the Halkins are packing up to leave for a stay in Jerusalem, he quotes her as denying this version of events, asserting that they came to Zichron Ya'akov intentionally and took a few days deciding.
In any case, if ever a place was created to capture and burnish the abiding literary-historical fancies of Hillel Halkin, Zichron Ya'akov was it. For as it turns out, along with being a critic, one of the major translators of modern Hebrew literature, and a brilliant (if occasionally quirky) commentator on the current Israeli scene, he is an insatiable lover of old mysteries and secrets, of things passed down from lip to ear, and of the detritus, physical as well as cultural, that such things leave behind.
Zichron Ya'akov was one of the first modern Jewish towns in Palestine, settled by a group of Romanian Jews in 1882. The earth on which the immigrants chose to plant themselves was, to put it mildly, unfriendly. However difficult life had been in Romania, it had failed to prepare these adventurers for the kind of hardship they now put themselves in the way of. In all likelihood, the community would soon have been abandoned had not the Baron Edmond de Rothschild taken it, and certain other nearby settlements, under his grand but rather dictatorial wing—or, as Hallin so unforgivingly puts it, had not “a generation after the freeing of the Russian serf and the emancipation of the American slave, Jewish settlers in Palestine indentured themselves to the youngest son of a parvenu family of French nobility.”
Under the supervision of the Baron's minions, a certain order was successfully imposed in Zichron Ya'akov; agriculture, primarily viniculture, got established, and following the vines a winery. Moreover, if those early settlers cannot be said to have made a brilliant success on their own, they did play an essential role as embodiments of the romance of Zionism—the romance that was, indeed, essential to keeping alive an as yet barely breathing ambition to create a Jewish state in Palestine. However willing they may have been to knuckle under to some parvenu nobleman, these same people also participated in the great and difficult feat of turning the Hebrew language into the everyday vernacular of the modern Jewish population of Palestine. Without Zionism there would have been no Israel; but without Hebrew—as who knows better than Halkin, a Hebraist and the descendant of Hebraists—Zionism would have remained unanchored and adrift.
When the Halkins set up house in Zichron Ya'akov in the early 1970's, a few of the children of the first Romanian settlers were still around, now old, needy, and for the most part engaged in nursing their memories while a busy new world passed them by. Little could they have imagined that they and their memories were about to be set upon by a young American immigrant hungry to become acquainted with both. Nor did the town suffer from a shortage of detritus to be pried into. The dead of early Zichron Ya'akov seem to have gone to their eternal rest leaving behind in careless array many of their earthly goods, such as they were. Even after the passage of a half-century or more, there was to be found in its byways a variety of rotting barns, boarded-up houses, abandoned and broken-down farm equipment, even a deserted hotel that had once served as a resting place for intrepid early tourists from abroad.
In short, Zichron Ya'akov was a snoop's paradise, and among his many other accomplishments Hillel Halkin is clearly one of the great snoops of the age. Even if it were true that he happened on the place by accident, this would clearly have been a case of deep calling unto deep.
He quickly began to wander around the town, not scrupling to push in rotted doors or climb through dust-covered windows, sometimes taking possession of long-deserted objects that caught his fancy: papers, old soda bottles, a wagon wheel, a discarded wine barrel, photographs, books, even the carved wooden frame of a fireplace that he managed to pry from its base and cart home. He also spent time gossiping—or rather making himself the cause that brought long-forgotten gossip to the lips of others—chatting up anyone who promised to produce something: an old lady sunning herself on the front steps here, an old man riding a donkey there. And he read gravestones.
One day in his wanderings, Halkin came upon a careworn little book about a woman named Sarah Aaronsohn. The book was titled Sarah, Flame of the Nili. Its authorship was ascribed to “A Simple Soldier” (who turned out to have been Sarah's brother Alexander). If the early-Zionist romance of Zichron Ya'akov seems to have left Halkin a little cold, he was easily overtaken by the romance of a great crisis that gripped the town in the second decade of the 20th century.
This was the saga of a conspirator named Aaron Aaronsohn, his band of fellow conspirators, and his project to help drive the Ottoman Turks out of the Holy Land. Aaronsohn was an agronomist who had become world-famous for discovering a new strain of wheat. He also happened to believe (both correctly and incorrectly) that the only hope for the establishment of a Jewish state lay in a victory of the Allies over the Ottoman empire in World War I. To that end, he organized a network consisting mainly of his sister Sarah, regarded locally as a very glamorous figure, his brothers Tsvi and Alexander, certain neighbors, and two close friends from nearby villages named Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky. Their mission was to spy for the British, who were then in Egypt preparing to invade Palestine through the Sinai desert.
Aaronsohn himself went to Cairo, and there set up a system for receiving information from his associates back in Palestine. The group called itself Nili,1 and there are serious differences of opinion about the value of the information it was actually able to provide the British—though the fact that, after the war, Aaronsohn was invited to Versailles to witness the treaty negotiations would suggest that the British had found it useful indeed.
The British aside, however, the members of Nili found only spotty support within the surrounding Jewish population at home. In some cases the impediment was a politically motivated disagreement with their activities; in others it was simple fear of Turkish vengeance. Somehow, whether the Nili agents were betrayed by neighbors or whether the Turks themselves uncovered the conspiracy, the group was found out.
One day in October 1917, as some of the spies emerged from their hiding place to celebrate the festival of Sukkot with their families, the town was surrounded by Turkish soldiers and they were seized. A couple were sent off to Damascus for trial. Sarah, however, was held in Zichron Ya'akov and tortured day and night, her screams echoing without letup through the streets of the town. On the fourth day, her jailers granted her permission to return home for a change of clothes, and once there she took a pistol that had been hidden away and killed herself. Aaron Aaronsohn himself died a few years later in a plane crash over the British Channel.
The story of Nili, of the fate of Nili, and especially of the opposition to Nili on the part of some Palestinian Jewish leaders was to remain alive for years to come. In certain political circles, it is alive down to the present day. How could Hillel Halkin, the seeker of old objects and tales, not have fallen in some way under its spell, encapsulated in the mystery of the group's possible betrayal?
Sarah Aaronsohn's life had been touched by at least some of the romantic glamor that the town's gossips ascribed to it. She had been married to a merchant in Turkey; when the call to join Nili came, she abandoned him and returned to Palestine to volunteer. Espionage is in itself a romantic occupation, and once Nili got under way there were rumors of amorous goings-on. Sometimes the rumors connected Sarah with Avshalom Feinberg, sometimes with Yosef Lishansky. And then there were the horror and heroism of her death, aspects that with the passage of time ungovernably turn to romance.
The little volume Halkin found about Sarah Aaronsohn was to give a focus—and a kind of end point—to his seemingly tireless poking-around. But the object of his newly ordered curiosity was neither Sarah Aaronsohn nor her suicide but another death that was—or was it?—connected with the events of those same terrible days. For without naming names, the author of Sarah, Flame of the Nili had suggested a tale of guilt and betrayal and retribution whose further pursuit Halkin found it impossible to resist—and it is that pursuit which more or less forms the plot of this book.
Meanwhile, of course, the Halkins had a life of their own, built a house, made friends, had two daughters—the elder of whom is portrayed accompanying him on some of his explorations—and must have occupied themselves with everyday things. Moreover, there was writing to do, and translating, and making a living. Although one gets the impression from this book that Hillel Halkin's quest to own the past of Zichron Ya'akov, and particularly the story of that “strange death,” held sway throughout, this could not have been quite true.
After all, at least some of the people on whose memories he had to depend must have grown feeble, or perhaps even died. And the town itself as he first knew it was rapidly slipping away, morphing into a condominium-dotted bedroom community for people working in Haifa, with all that implies of shops and coffee houses and theaters and so on—in other words, no longer a place so amenable to the high art of snooping. Indeed, one of the problems resulting from the story's having stewed in Halkin's mind for so long is that both the story itself and his cast of characters tend at times to become rather confusing. There are so many of the latter, both dead and alive, and they do so much meandering in and out of the former, that the reader sometimes forgets what to ascribe to whom.
Not that this does much to interfere with the enormous pleasure to be derived from this book. For one thing, the characters who fill its pages, with or without a connection to the story, are fascinating and amusing (and sometimes moving) in and of themselves. Some of them were indeed long dead by the time Halkin happened along: Yosef Davidesco, for example, who was later shot by the Stern Gang and who once disguised himself as an Arab and sneaked into Jordan to avenge an attack on a Jewish colony, was found out and had to escape, and two years later returned with policemen to round up the attackers. Many others were still on hand, like old Tishbi the vintner, who continued to roam the town by donkey, or Carmeli the druggist, Asheri the greengrocer, or the Baer brothers, known locally after their two shops as Gift Bear and Wine Bear, or Zvi Zuckerman, a retired bus driver who had managed to sustain over many decades a passionate feud with Zvi Rosenzweig that had begun in the early days of the British Mandate.
And most of all there was Yanko Epstein the teller of tales. Epstein was the keeper of the flame of the Zichron Ya'akov museum, a basically one-room establishment consisting almost entirely of old photographs taken of the town's founders on various occasions. He it was who promised to provide the final key to the past that Halkin was seeking. In this book he is also a creation—or, granting Halkin's reportorial pretense, a subject—worthy of the best of comic Jewish literature.
Epstein was reputed among the Zichronites to be the best source of information about what happened in town after Sarah Aaronsohn killed herself. He tantalizes Halkin with the possibility that he might at any moment supply this information, all the while exploiting him and his car for trips to visit old friends in various outlying communities. In the car and out, he talks and talks, mainly bragging in an outrageously entertaining style about his past exploits: as a sometime friend and defender of a neighboring Arab chieftain and a sometime plotter against him, as an adventurer, a horseman, a wily negotiator among thieving enemies, and as the daring and practiced lover of certain wives in the area. Sometimes Halkin claims to be irritated with Epstein for being so dilatory about getting to his, Halkin's, point. But if the portrait is anywhere near accurate, Epstein was surely the happiest of authorial discoveries; and if it is in any important sense an invention, he is just as surely an occasion for justified authorial pride.
In any case, whether real or romantically embellished, Epstein and the others, and the town of Zichron Ya'akov they inhabit, will provide any reader with the pleasure of high entertainment played out against a background of unending historical interest. For this reader in particular, it is the (probably unintended) portrait of Halkin himself, peerless observer, unswervable and indefatigable nudnik, that in the end provides the book's greatest and most surprising source of delight.
1 A Hebrew acronym for the biblical phrase, “the Glory of Israel does not deceive.”