For a moment, I am stepping out from mercurial daily news and from projections for the future to bring a personal story. The video imbedded here is autobiographical. In 7:47 minutes you’ll get some idea of seventy years of our life in Argentina, Romania, Israel, Italy and the United States. The story pivots mainly around architecture and hints at dilemmas, successes and failures along the way, but it does not explicitly say why Israel played – and continues to play – such a central role in my life. I try to do that in the following lines.
The first image of Israel’s map I can remember was on the blue and white Keren Kayemet “pischke” (collection box for the Jewish National Fund) which stood in our family dining room. The word “Israel” was still an abstraction. It was present during Jewish holidays, it was embedded in some of my father’s comments about stories from the Forward Yiddish newspaper he read aloud at the table, and it was part of my mother’s rehearsals of speeches she gave at WIZO, but it was not “a place” I could imagine.
Everything changed in 1956. Following my mother’s election as president of Argentina’s WIZO’s affluent Belgrano Branch, she was invited to visit Israel. My parents decided to take me along with them.
We were not regular tourists. We were “VIP guests,” driven on a large black sherut to some places that few tourists visited: Kibbutz Beth Alfa, the Weitzman Institute, Beer Sheva (which was not more than a few blocks town) and Sodom, by the Dead Sea. During Israel’s 8th Independence Day, we were driven to the military parade in Haifa. We sat at an official tribune. Prime Minister Ben Gurion arrived standing on a Jeep and walked up to his place, about thirty feet away from where I sat. Yet it was not the Old Man presence what caught my attention. It was the parading female soldiers. I could not imagine then that one day our daughter would become one of them.
In May of 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured in Buenos Aires. Following that event, there was a wave of antisemitism thorough the city. I started to question my life in Argentina. “Am I not Argentinean enough? Am I less Argentinean than a first-generation son of Italian or Spanish immigrants?” I never felt “a Jewish problem” until then. I felt as Argentinean as American Jews feel American or German Jews felt German before Hitler. I needed to understand. I started to read about the Holocaust, about Zionism. I read “House of Dolls” by Ka-Tzetnik 135633, Leon Uris’ “Exodus, ”Stefan Zweig’s “The World of Yesterday,” Hertzl’s “Der Judenstat.” I joined a self-defense training group at the Hebraica Club.
Soon after my seventeenth’s birthday, I decided to emigrate to Israel. My parents opposed it. I was their only son and Israel was a poor country at war. My friends thought that I went nuts. After months of daily intense arguments, I prevailed. I left Buenos Aires on November 24, 1962. On December 21, I celebrated my eighteenth birthday at the bar of the Israeli boat Moledeth. On December 27, at dawn, Haifa became visible from the deck of the vessel.
I was not a refugee, nor was I coming as a member of a youth group raised on Zionist ideology. I arrived to Zionism out of my own conclusions. My thinking was that I was cutting the umbilical cord that linked me to the Diaspora. I was breaking away from “the Jewish complex,” from the ambiguities of double loyalty. I felt that I was joining something much larger than myself.
My English was basic and my Hebrew was limited to a few hundred words. I started to read in English regularly, but learning Hebrew became an ambition, mainly to be able to communicate with the opposite sex. I explored the country throughout. For a couple of months, I worked at Kibbutz Sdeh Nehemia, at a time when the Syrians were still in control of the Golan Heights. The sound of machine guns was a nightly event. I also became a regular of Akko, which hit a deep cord in me. It had historic thickness; it had human scale and social mix; it was by the sea. It was a place where I could be in touch with myself.
I met my wife Ruth at the Technion. Our love affair started in Nazareth, we married in Jerusalem, and a few days after our wedding, we moved to Rome to continue our studies of architecture. We loved Italy, and Italian soon became our common language, but I still felt attached to Israel. Paradoxically, my Hebrew became fluent in Rome by reading Ma’ariv, which I bought every week at Via Veneto.
During the Six Day War, we had tickets in our hands on the second day of the war but couldn’t fly because EL AL was busy carrying medicines, combat soldiers and nurses. It was over before we landed, but we still managed to be at Jaffa Gate when they opened for the first time in nineteen years to Israelis. Counseled by a friend archeologist, we made a study on Jerusalem’s thirteenth century Tankiziyya Madrasa, adjacent to the Temple Mount. After “touring” the West Bank with a friend, a Mayor in IDF, who drove us around with a Kalashnikov laying on his lap, we returned to Rome.
When the time came to choose the subjects of our theses, Ruth chose to design an “Integrated Center for the Visual Arts in Jerusalem.” My subject was “The University of Eilat.” Eilat was one of my preferred places in Israel. It was “the end of the world,” an edge, a crossroad, a symbol of “conquering the desert,” of “stepping into the ocean.”
Between graduation and our permanent return to Israel, we spent eight months in Tel Aviv, working for architect Ram Karmi. Then we drove for four months throughout the United States, and returned to Rome for another two years of practice at the studio of architect Luigi Pellegrin. When we finally moved back to Israel, I became a citizen and changed my name from Ricardo Aron Maghidovich to Reuven Meghiddo.
Our first four years of practice as architects were challenging. We were young, ambitious and unknown. We started our private practice one month before the beginning of the Yom Kippur War. When the war was over, we built our home in Tel Aviv. Our apartment was widely published and became “our business card.” We entered many competitions and won a major conceptual one that brought us more work, but success didn’t last for too long. In 1977, the economy was down, Begin raised to power and architecture within the 1967 borderlines stopped. We decided to take “an intelligent vacation” at an American university. We could not imagine that our planned two years would become fifteen in Los Angeles.
To tell about our “life in LA” goes beyond the scope of these lines. Its highlights were the birth and upbringing of our daughter, the building of our home-studio in Westwood as a message of sustainability (it included a vegetable garden and solar collectors imported from Israel,) the building of some high-end residences, several unbuilt large-scale urban design projects, the publication of six collections of poetry, and Ruth’s productivity in painting and sculptural pottery.
The financial crisis of the 1990s brought us back to Israel. The ten years that followed were the most productive of our life. We built a successful Housing for the Elderly building in Jaffa and designed many other projects. In 2000 the Ministry of Housing commissioned us to prepare a master plan for a new 3,000 dwelling-unit neighborhood in Beer Sheva. I also taught urban design at the Technion. Our daughter transformed from being “an all American girl” and became “an all Israeli adolescent.” We met weekly with our closest friends. We felt “at home.”
Our return to Southern California in 2001 was unplanned. On one of our visits to LA to be with our daughter, who was a student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, I was offered a job that “I couldn’t refuse.” In retrospective, it was a mistake that put in motion a chain of events hard to rectify.
Being adaptive to changing circumstances, our last fourteen years have been positive. We settled in Long Beach and continued our work as architects. In 2003, the city’s mayor chose me as board member of the Redevelopment Agency, in charge of major capital works throughout the city. During four years, it gave me a taste of “life in politics.”
The downturn of 2008 brought our practice to a complete stop. I entered another world by starting to produce architecture documentaries. Although I was a follower of good cinema since my teens and practiced photography as an amateur, filmmaking opened for me new horizons that I continue to develop. To “subsidize” my new passion, I re-entered the world of real estate.
The video proceeds through “Nine Lives,” which function as chapters. Is there a “Tenth Life” ahead of us? I hope so. I hope that it will occur productively in the place I belong to: Israel.