Binyamina to Rosh Hanikra: "Mishpocha"


June 21, 2007

Erev tov,

"It's coffee time," Moshe announces with a smile. I know what's coming. I smile too.

Every afternoon at exactly 5:00 pm, Moshe and I sit at the kitchen table. Miryam serves a tall glass of iced coffee. The dark coffee is topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.

"Coffee time" is our time to relax and chat and to reminisce and compare notes about our family.


Sometimes Miryam serves a strudel, but usually the coffee has a companion of sweet juicy peach compote, also topped with . . . .

The peaches are grown on Moshe's farm or as he explains, his "plantation." There are peach trees and avocado trees and nectarines, plums and grapes. Many of the original citrus trees were replaced when prices dropped too low. Now peaches are profitable and the family benefits year round from Miryam's chilled dessert.

Yes, Moshe, 79 and Miryam, 75 are farmers, or rather retired farmers. Their son Ofer now runs the farm. Moshe is on hand to provide advice and to repair equipment.

Miryam's grandfather, Emanuel Polatschek, and my grandfather, Herman Polatschek, were brothers. Emanuel's daughter, Miryam's late mother Ida, and my late father, Otto were first cousins. Miryam is my second cousin.

When she was two years old, Miryam emigrated with her parents from Dortmund, Germany. Moshe came with his family from Berlin when he was five. His father was a medical doctor but the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 outlawed Jewish professionals from working in their fields. So, Physician Lauer left Germany, came to Palestine, and became Farmer Lauer where there were few farms or paved roads. He bought land and began a new life for himself and his wife and their two sons, Moshe and Yahuda. Moshe met my cousin Miryam more than fifty years ago. Moshe and Miryam have three children and eight grandchildren.

I am the most welcome guest of Miryam and Moshe Lauer and we are excited to meet each other for the first time. The Lauers treat me as they treat each other, with respect, warmth and generosity. I am their long lost cousin. Perhaps they are thinking of me as their younger brother or maybe even as their son. Regardless, I am mishpocha and I am welcome in their spacious home for as long as I like. I stayed one week.

Israel makes number fifty. I have visited fifty countries on five continents. I have seen a lot of history. But in Israel, for the first time, I feel that I am surrounded by history that is current and thriving. I am in the middle of a living history, especially here in Binyamina, a town named for Baron Rothschild (his Hebrew name) who helped found this farming community half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Moshe and Miryam take me on several tours. First we visit a bit of their personal history. We are invited to the birthday party of one of Miryam's friends who lives in Haifa. Actually there are several women at the party and they have been friends for more than seventy years! After lunch the host of the party, the historian of Haifa, takes me on a short tour. He is particularly enthusiastic about the elegant Baha'i Temple and Gardens that we view from the hilltop of this picturesque city. Cruise ships are anchored in the harbor below.

Moshe and I visit Jabotinsky Park and the Shuni Fortress where there is a memorial to the Irgun freedom fighters who battled the British in the 1940's. A reconstructed 2nd Century Roman theater sits nearby. We visit an Inn where a German King once stopped on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We tour the Roman ruins along the beaches of Caesarea. We visit a the small Ramhal Synagogue and stroll the narrow streets, mosques, markets and vaulted Crusader ruins of the ancient port city Akko (Acre). We explore the striking white cliffs and huge ocean-filled grottos of Rosh Hanikra on the border with Lebanon.

Zichron Ya'akov is the most charming town. The shaded cobblestone streets are lined with cafes and upscale restaurants and smart, offbeat shops. This is a lovely spot to relax. And, to learn some modern history.

The original settlers named Zichron Ya'akov in honor of Rothschild's father James. Binyamin Pool, built in 1891, is actually the town's original water tower. Zichron was the first village in Israel to have water piped to its houses. Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv even came to town to see how it was done.

The old synagogue Ohel Ya'akov was built by Rothschild in 1886.

The First Aliya Museum is dedicated to the lives of immigrants who came to Israel with the First Aliya (a period of settlement from 1882 until 1904).

"Bet Aaronson (Aaronson's House) combines Art Nouveau and Middle Eastern traditions. This museum was once the home of the agronomist Aaron Aaronson (1876 -- 1919), who gained international fame for his discovery of an ancestor of modern wheat. The house remains as it looked after World War I, with family photographs and French and Turkish furniture, as well as Aaronson's library, diaries and letters."

In this storied land of triumph and tragedy, and tragedy and triumph, here is the Aaronson story:

"Aaronson and his sisters became local heroes as leaders of the spy ring called NILI (an acronym for a quotation from the Book of Samuel: "The Eternal One of Israel will not prove false") -- a militant group dedicated to ousting the Turks from Palestine by collaborating with the British during World War I.

Both sisters, Sarah and Rebecca, were in love with Aaron's assistant, Absolom Feinberg. A double agent was disrupting NILI's communications with the British, so Feinberg set off to cross the Sinai desert to make contact. He was killed in an ambush in the Gaza Strip. His remains were recovered some fifty years later from a grave marked simply by a palm tree, the tree having sprouted from some dates in Feinberg's pockets. (After the Six-Day War, Feinberg's body was reburied in Jerusalem.)

Sarah Aaronson was captured by the Turks and committed suicide in her brother's house (now part of the museum) after being tortured. Other NILI leaders were executed by the Turks upon discovery.

Aaron returned to Zichron Ya'akov with the victorious British in 1918, but the following year his plane mysteriously vanished en route from London to the Paris Peace Conference." *

For me, the most impressive living history is the view from the passenger seat of Moshe's car. As we drive here in Binyamina and through the nearby towns and countryside, the hills are green and fertile and lush with all manner of agricultural plants and trees. This is wine country and the tall steel Mt Carmel wine tanks are on our route.

Here as elsewhere in Israel, within my own lifetime, history has been made as Israelis have transformed this land from a wilderness to a strong and sophisticated society. And I am a privileged guest in the home and on the farm of one of the families who created this new land. The Lauers made history.

For many years Moshe was the leader of the agricultural organization of Binyamina. For ten years he was the Mayor of Binyamina. Moshe took me to the City Hall. Talk about history! In one of the display cases sits a group of pre-historic tools. (Am I on location of "The Source"?) On the walls are photos of all the men and women who built this community. Moshe is a "celebrity" here and I am welcomed by the current Mayor of Binyamina. He presented me with a silver key ring. The two-sided emblem of this town of 11,000 has farmland and an orchard on one side and the Carmel Mountain scenery on the reverse.

One day, Moshe invited me to join a tour group. The large bus stops at the Druze village, Daliyat el Carmel, and to a memorial of fallen Druze-Israeli soldiers. The Druze are a one thousand year-old offshoot of Islam. They make up about 2% of the Israeli citizenry and as loyal citizens they serve in the Army. As Moshe likes to comment happily, "The Jews and the Druze."

Next we visit the Carmelite Monastery at Mukhraka. The monastery is on or near the site where the struggle between Elijah and the priests of Ba'al is believed to have taken place. With fire and offerings, pagan cults, King Ahab's wife Jezebel, priests and executions, and a fearless Elijah brandishing a knife, this is a colorful and dramatic Biblical story. Elijah and his knife stand guard at the monastery.

Our last stop is the Hazorea Kibbutz where, in dozens of enormous concrete tanks, the kibutzniks raise goldfish for export. They call it "ornamental fish and water lilies." It's a multi-million dollar business.

I guess I have this quaint notion of a kibbutz as a small community of farmers living cooperatively with their families. It is astonishing to see a kibbutz as a huge corporation with hundreds of members involved in industrial enterprises.

And of course we stop for a bite at every location. It's all you can eat at the cavernous kibbutz dining hall.

The outward appearance of the tour group itself is two dozen enthusiastic senior citizens who are out together for the day to see some new sights. But what a group! Almost everyone belongs to the association of former mayors. They are from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and several other smaller cities and towns. They are among the leaders who helped to build this small yet productive land. Today I am in the company of men and women who made history.

My friend Jeffrey in Bangkok is a Professor of Business Management. When we speak of Israel he mentions Geert Hofstede, an influential Dutch writer on the interactions between national cultures and organization cultures. Hofstede demonstrated that there are national and regional cultural groupings that affect the behavior of societies and organizations, and that are very persistent across time.

Hofstede's research involves Small vs. Large Power Distance -- the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Small power distance societies (e.g. Austria, Denmark, and Israel) expect and accept power relations that are more consultative or democratic. People relate to each other more as equals regardless of formal positions. Subordinates are more comfortable with and demand the right to contribute to and critique the decision making of those in power.

Large power distance societies (e.g. China) accept power relations that are more autocratic and paternalistic. Subordinates acknowledge the power of others simply based on where they are situated in certain formal, hierarchical positions. **

In plain English, the ordinary person here in Israel doesn't consider the elected person to be anyone very special. True, Israelis accept the power of their leaders. Yet, the leaders are judged and criticized solely on their performance. Their status is irrelevant.

My tour group epitomizes the concept of Small Power Distance. No one seems particularly impressed with anyone else. They respect each other and are good friends. I never got the feeling that they think of each other as special people. It is I who think of them as special people.

The most special people are Miryam and Moshe. Until last week I was a total stranger. Now I am welcomed to their home and to the home of their daughter Dalia who lives nearby.

At dinner at Dalia's home I met her dog and her twenty cats and her three children -- Ofir, the map reader, Amir and Alon, high school ping-pong champions. I met Dalia's boyfriend Harel, the jet fighter pilot and his two daughters -- Shir, a dancer and Topaz, 16. I met the children of Miryam's son Ofer -- Adi, the Hummer instructor, Omar, a soldier and Amit, 15. And other relatives, friends and neighbors. All are welcome here.

At the beginning of the springtime Passover Seder festival and meal, we say from our prayer book, "All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who are needy, let them come and celebrate...." All are welcome. It's "tradition."

At the end of the Passover Seder, the tradition is to say, "Next year in Jerusalem."

So, next year, G-d willing, I will fulfill that that hope and my promise to the Lauers. I will travel to Tel Aviv to spar again with my host Amichai Neeman; I will explore the hills and markets of Jerusalem; and I will sing at the Seder of my new family and my new friends in Binyamina, a very special place, indeed.

Harel asked me, "Jan, why do you live in Thailand? Why don't you live in Israel?"

How can I respond?

In Thailand, there are two popular expressions:

"No day but today." And, "I cannot know the future."

Actually my favorite quotation is attached to a Lottery poster in Boston:

"Hey, you never know."

Be well,


I have saved the best for last -- the Passover dessert -- the aficomen:

Moshe gave me the most extraordinary gift I have received in many years. When he learned that my father had died, Moshe called me in Bangkok. At the end of our conversation Moshe said to me, "Jan, I will be your new father."

So, I am a son again. I am adopted by a new father and a new family, my new mishpocha in Israel. "Next year" in Binyamina. Next year with Abba Moshe.

* Israel Fodor's Travel Publications. 2006

** Power Distance.

Add new comment