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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In Haifa with Hedvig

Haifa was the last stop of my Israeli tour, before returning to Umm el Fahem for my final week. I had been there once before, but only for a couple of hours, to see Saids’ brother Farid’s performance piece at the Haifa Art Museum. I had only gotten a small taste of the city. Haifa is known as the most mixed Jewish/Arab and most liberal thinking city in Israel. That in itself made it appealing to visit. But, in fact, what had brought me there was something different.

I am a member of an email list, the Czernowitz list, comprised of people with a connection to the Jewish history of the city. located in Ukraine. I have mentioned it here before. My own connection is double, one, that I volunteered in 2008 to work on restoring the neglected Jewish cemetery there, and two, that my own great grandparents are buried in that very cemetery, a fact I wasn’t aware of until after I’d signed up for the cemetery project. For anyone interested, that whole trip is documented further back on this blog.

Most of the people on the Cz list, as it is referred to, either lived in the city as children, before, and in some cases, during the war, or, like me, they have an ancestral connection to Czernowitz.

The list members are dispersed throughout the world, with a significant number living in Israel. Because I knew that my plan to live in Umm el Fahem might not be comfortable to some, I hesitated to approach people directly, not wanting anyone to feel any obligation to invite me to visit. But a member I know personally suggested a woman named Hedvig Brenner, known as the “grande dame” of the Czernowitz list. I sent her an email saying I’d love to meet her.

Hedvig, who just turned 93, promptly responded and invited me to spend a weekend with her. Although, for reasons of time, that got whittled down to just one night, it was one of the most delightful events of my travels here. Not only did Hedvig host me, and cook for me (delicious mushroom and barley the first day, wonderful chicken noodle soup plus wiener schnitzel, salad, and mashed potatoes the next) she invited the rest of the Haifa Czernowitzer crowd to meet me. It was quite a gathering. I “knew” a couple of the folks already, because they are frequent posters to the list, and knew of the others. When I asked Hedvig how many people she expected, she said, oh, about seven. I think I counted ten, and one person was sick and had to decline. It was really quite a delight to meet them all, and particularly a man named Hardy Breier who posts almost daily and whose posts are usually sardonic and witty, and always interesting. (Hardy, hope you’re reading this!)

Hedvig had recently returned from Germany, where she’d made a presentation at a seminar. Back about 10 or 12 years ago, after having retired from her career as a physiotherapist, she began a second career as a writer. She has written a personal memoir, and also four volumes of an ongoing lexicon of Jewish women artists, and is working on the fifth. (in German, she has hopes of getting them translated into English.)

She’s quite an inspiration, Hedvig, with her energy, interests, and enthusiasm, at 93 years old. Later, she showed me some of her treasured books, one was a children’s book in German, from the late 19th century, that had been published in Japan, with exquisite illustrations printed on rice paper. I can’t remember if it was that one, or another, that she and her husband had smuggled past the Romanian authorities when they left that country.

The walls of Hedvig’s small apartment are covered with art, mostly paintings by her son, who joined us and all the other Czernowitzers. A few were by her husband. Hedvig had painted a few herself, which she showed me. There were more paintings than wall space, and some were stacked on furniture, which she moved to make room for the guests.

Hedvig is tiny, and feisty. She is probably a couple of inches under five feet. She wears an enormous smile almost all the time and never seems to run out of energy. She let me (made me, really) sleep on her bed, and she slept on the living room couch. No matter how much I insisted, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’m stubborn,” she said, with a smile.

Aside from hanging out with Hedvig, I spent part of my day cruising Haifa. Hedvig was clear that the number one place to visit was the Bahai gardens. Despite her own art background, she said, museums are nice, but you can see a museum anywhere. And she was right. (well, I’d already seen the Art Museum.) The Bahai gardens are spectacular.In addition to the traditional three Abrahamic religions, Israel is home to the International Bahai center. If you are Bahai you can visit when you like, if you are not, you can go on a guided tour. I was lucky to come upon the right gate at nearly the right time for the one English language tour each day. Although, frankly, it would have been okay to go on the Hebrew tour. You’d miss something, obviously, but the gardens speak for themselves.

. At one point, I asked our tour guide if he was Bahai. He answered that he wasn’t religious. He was, nevertheless, very respectful and sincere about describing the gardens, their symmetry, the use of water throughout, and the special feeling one got from being there. I told him I wasn’t religious either. At the end of the tour, I mentioned that I was living and working in an art gallery in Umm el Fahem, which I have been trying to mention wherever I go. His response – “Oh, I’d be afraid to go there.” So much for openmindedness. It is upsetting how many people seem to have that attitude. I wonder if I made even a small dent in his thinking.

Haifa is on a hill, Mt. Carmel, I believe. It seems to me that most of Israel’s cities are on hills. Jerusalem, I guess, is the original city on a hill,after which Boston is called the same. I walked downhill to the Bahai gardens from the bus, the gardens themselves descend steeply, in terraces,, and the city continues descending to the sea. I walked through the Arab market and just about to the Mediterranean, close enough to see the cruise ships. Luckily, there is a six stop metro, or perhaps better described as a funiculaire. The whole thing is on a slant, including the platforms, in stages like terraces. It’s pretty neat looking. I took it all six stops, which brought me right back to where I caught the bus back to Hedvigs.


The man who brought me from Hedvig’s in Haifa back to the Gallery was named Rohanna. He is a Christian Arab who Hedvig told me she had used as a driver many times. When he came, and I was still packing up, he sat down with Hedvig in the living room. I could hear parts of the conversation, discussing families, Hedvig’s recent trip to deliver a lecture in Germany. In the cab, we began discussing politics. To my surprise, Rohanna became more and more vehement as the drive progressed, angrier than anyone I had spoken with along my journey, including in Umm el Fahem He was angry at government policies that repressed Arabs, kept them from decent jobs, housing, etc. I asked him how long he’d been driving a cab. Twelve years, he said. And, what had he done before that? He was a chemical engineer, but hadn’t been able to advance in his career. I didn’t doubt much of what he said, and wondered why it was he who was so honest with me, or angry, anyway, not with me, but with the government. I would expect, although I don’t know, that Muslim Arabs are even more discriminated against. Yet no one in Umm el Fahem has expressed this degree of frustration to me. It was certainly an interesting, though unsettling, drive.

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