‘A Learned Man Will Learn’

Geza and Phoebe's house (left side) in Nachlaot, Jerusalem, 1920.
Geza and Phoebe's house (left side) in Nachlaot, Jerusalem, 1920.

(Disclaimer: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)

About five months ago I was in a frenzy to seek new surroundings. The depressive lockdown funk that had descended over me had seeped into my apartment and the space had taken on the connotation of a pandemic prison. I began scanning the horizons of Facebook for apartments day and night and stumbled upon an ad for a studio just two minutes from Machane Yehuda, drenched in sunlight, furniture included, no agent fee, and within price range. This apartment was the stuff of renting legend and good real estate never waits. The next week I found myself invited to sign a contract at my new landlord, Geza’s, home.

I had never before seen such a house in Jerusalem. It looked like something out of a Jacqueline Kahanoff novel with high vaulted ceilings, large oriental area rugs, humongous wall sized framed French posters, the glass-ceiling dining room, the antique mirrors, and the perfumed air. I was mesmerized and it sparked my curiosity about this man, how he built his life, his unflinching humble nature, and the appreciation he had for the world around him. This is his story.

Both of Geza’s parents are Holocaust survivors. His father is from Poland but survived the war by fleeing to Romania. His mother was not so lucky and was deported to Dachau from Hungary. They survived the war and afterwards met and settled in Vienna where Geza was born in 1950. Geza’s father had a scrap metal business and this afforded the family a very comfortable lifestyle as iron was essential for rebuilding Europe after the war. Geza remembers his governess, the chauffeur, the cook, and even his little brother’s wet nurse. He remembers his childhood as being affluent but rather unhappy and suffocating. “Austria wasn’t a nice place at that time if I remember, I always knew I was different as a Jew. I don’t have good memories of Vienna.”

After the first five years of Geza’s education his parents decided that they did not want their children to grow up in Austria. Geza’s parents did not trust that anyone above the age of twenty-five may or may not have been a part of the Nazi regime or a bystander. His father did business in Switzerland and so the family left Vienna for a happier life when Geza was eleven. During his high school years in Switzerland Geza showed an aptitude for math and attended The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich for his Masters degree in mathematics, but in his humble words, “wasn’t made out to be a research mathematician. You have to be really brilliant to do new things in math.” So from there he decided that he would enter the world of business and attended Stanford University where he earned his MBA and worked as a management consultant for McKinsey and Co.

Geza soon grew tired of the business world and “always in the back of my mind was I want to go to Israel.”  Geza’s parents were great Zionists and Israel was front and centre during his childhood. “We were brought up on the Israeli ideal, we loved it, and that’s why since then I always wanted to immigrate to Israel.”  So in 1975 with his newly minted MBA in hand Geza arrived in Israel, but his reception was not as he expected. An MBA from Stanford wouldn’t afford Geza any sort of success without proficiency in Hebrew. “I mean it was like you don’t speak Hebrew, forget about MBA and math. I learned Hebrew and when I knew Hebrew it was still nothing.” Geza admits that there is a long road towards making Israel his permanent home and country as an immigrant. Jews and people of all religions, colours, and creeds trickle in from the four corners of the globe so “wherever you move to in Israel you’ll find compatriots from your home so you won’t feel all alone. But one shouldn’t stick just to them. You should try to reach out to have Israeli friends.”

In 1978 while earning his PhD at The Hebrew University Geza met his wonderful wife Phoebe. He likes to say that, he met her well before she met him, because he would see her on campus and admire her from afar. Their “meet-cute” was orchestrated by a mutual friend on Geza’s request and a year later in 1979 they married in Zurich. After the completion of his PhD Geza decided to go for his post doc at the University of Pennsylvania at the Wharton School. After which the family returned to Jerusalem and settled in their house in the city centre that Geza had purchased two years prior in anticipation for their return to Israel.

After he began work on the house Israel was hit with the first intifada, and aside from that Jerusalem had its own special challenges for Geza. “I thought it was very romantic to live in that neighbourhood (Nachloat) but it wasn’t always easy. I wasn’t accepted as this European person who comes here. Jerusalem has a lot on its shoulders. I mean the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the religious and non-religious, the well to do and the many poor. And in Nachlaot you see all of that.” Later in the 90s Geza continued to build up on his home and added additions that would later become my neighbours’ apartment and mine. Despite the obstacles Geza says he would never consider selling the house, it is where he raised his three children and the epicentre of his career as a journalist.

During his years teaching at The Hebrew University Geza took on a second job and began to write for the Swiss Daily Newspaper as the Israel correspondent. In 1987 the newspaper offered Geza a fulltime job and he jumped at the opportunity and stayed with the paper for the next thirty years reporting on every aspect of Israeli society, culture, and politics including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Geza recounts, “it was a career I had not sought out but was exposed too. Looking back I think it was a great profession. I loved Israel so I wrote about what was really important to me.” Geza does not consider himself to be what he calls a “blind Zionist” and freely critiqued Israel when necessary, however he notes that the perspective of Israelis must not be forgotten.  “From outside it seems that Israel has no need to fear but that’s not true.  Israel is not accepted by its neighbours and many Israelis still have an existential fear of the state surviving.”

In addition to reporting for the newspaper Geza began writing books in the early 2000s for the general readership about various histories behind some of the world’s most famous mathematical paradoxes. Very few people think on or even consider mathematics as a topic of human interest, but that is Geza’s speciality. “One thing is always to put the human interest, the person who did let’s say a proof mathematicians have been trying to do for many years, I also write about the person who did the proof, the background, the story of how other people had tried, the frustrations. So I usually write the history of a story and try to explain the problem in a way that can be understood by non-mathematicians.”

Geza has had the distinct opportunity to work, live, and teach in multiple countries around the world, but no matter how far he has travelled he has always considered Israel his home, a place where neighbours become family and there is a shared sense of survival.  Many Jews who immigrate to Israel do so out of ideology.  Israel is the one place in the world where Jews are not required to occupy any liminal place or made to feel like anomalies.  Yet being an immigrant in any new country, especially Israel, has a host of challenges to overcome. Geza as a white well-educated European man encountered boundaries of language and discrimination, and others no doubt have worse challenges. However the immigrants that come and stay here do so because to call any other place home would be a lie and they’ve committed to contribute to the prosperity of their homeland, just like Geza. Jerusalem is where this diversity of immigrants comes home to roost, where the extraordinary and the ordinary are conflated, and behind ever door and encounter there is a unique odyssey waiting to unfold.

About the Author
Born and raised in Richmond Virginia Leigh Pennington currently attends The Hebrew University of Jerusalem pursuing a Masters degree in Jewish Studies at the Rothberg International School. Prior to moving to Israel Leigh studied Anthropology, Art History, and Religion at Concordia University in Montreal. She has been involved in several cultural preservation and historical institutions and currently interns for The Ethiopian National Project as an oral history consultant for Project Ti'ud.
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