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Aura Herzog: An inspiration

I fell in love with Israel, but couldn't pay my way, until this great lady offered me a job that would keep me and my family here long enough to settle in
President Chaim Herzog and his wife Aura during a visit to Toledo, Spain, in 1992. (Sa'ar Ya'acov, via The Times of Israel)
President Chaim Herzog and his wife Aura during a visit to Toledo, Spain, in 1992. (Sa'ar Ya'acov, via The Times of Israel)

It was Aura Herzog, the former first lady of Israel, who was married to Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of the country, as well as mother to Isaac Herzog, the current president of Israel, who gave me my very first job in Israel. She was the first and decisive factor to make me remain in the country.

I had come from New York to spend a month’s vacation in Israel. The plan included visits to old friends and a few relatives, travel with my two young sons to the country’s historic showplaces, and, in mid-August, our return to New York. To my parents, friends and co-workers. To my job as associate editor of the Hadassah magazine.

I had not counted on Jerusalem and the turmoil its physical proximity would generate in my emotional system. As our taxi approached the city, I felt a rush of tears suddenly welling up. Jerusalem! It was all so palpable. The real actual living Jerusalem. The same that our ancestors…. The same the Jewish people dreamed of returning to… I was too excited to think further. I just looked out of the taxi window and could not believe I was really, physically there.

After a few days at the home of welcoming friends in the then-quiet German Colony, a minor panic began to take shape. How can I possibly leave this city I have so suddenly and so deeply begun to love?!

A determination was beginning  to form in my mind: If I find a job (I knew almost no Hebrew) and if I find a decent place to live for my boys and myself, I shall forfeit my return tickets and try to live in Israel. For a year’s trial. And then decide like Scarlett O’Hara: “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

If, after a year, it did not work out, I had a place, unlike immigrants from certain parts of Europe, to which I could always return.

In those days, I did not yet think what I know today: all of life is a sum total of one risk after another. In those heady days of putting responsibility off for “tomorrow,” all I thought about was how to stay in Jerusalem. What did it matter to me that I had neither money nor language tools?

So one foot on the ground, the other in the air, my head filled with undaunted idealistic motivation, I approached some of the local Hadassah ladies, and inquired about a possible job (they knew my name from my New York writing).

Yes, one woman recalled. Aura Herzog is looking for someone for her projected commemoration of Henrietta Szold. I noted the telephone number and lost no time in calling. Aura and her lawyer-politician husband Chaim (later Israel’s sixth president) were living in the seaside town of Herzliya. I had to get to see her urgently so I could decide about staying or leaving.

Could I see her tomorrow concerning that coordinator job, I asked timidly. “Oh, sorry, tomorrow, I go to the beach,” she said. Well, how about meeting at the beach? We set an hour and place, I got into my swimsuit and slipped a dress over it and traveled by bus to Herzliya. The deal for work was made on the sands of Herzliya, both of us in swimsuits, simultaneously profiting from sun and sea in one of Israel’s vacation havens.

I was to have the imposing title of Coordinator of the Commemoration of the Centenary of Henrietta Szold 1860-1960, work from an office in the center of Jerusalem, and have a bilingual secretary at my side. It was a job for 18 months – one and a half years, in which we would prepare all sorts of celebrations, name streets, institutions, and initiate musical and literary works in the name of Henrietta Szold — the American-born pioneer who dedicated her life to the creation of health, social, and educational services in this country.

My fate was sealed. I would stay in Jerusalem. Because Aura Herzog had faith in me and gave me a chance.

Aura would come up to Jerusalem from Herzliya once a week. She was brimming with ideas, all imaginative, well thought-out, doable. Her mind was in perpetual motion. It was sheer pleasure working with her. She brought me to the offices of the Ministries of Social Work and of Education, as well as to Hadassah, and I proceeded to translate our plans into action.  The ministries and Hadassah devoted one entire special edition of their regular publications to the life and deeds of the American pioneer. We named streets for her, cutting ribbons in many towns all over the country; a musical composition was commissioned to the biblical words, “bat ami” (daughter of my country.) We planned and executed. It was an exciting, creative time…

With this work I was plunged immediately into media res, into the maelstrom of Israeli life, all without undue preliminaries. I sat at meetings, met ministers and  top officials, the ones who were making Israel’s wheels turn. I learned about the country. And a few other, useful things. Like when I wanted to register my boys for school and was told “too late”- registration had taken place in May. Our aliyah had been in July. Was there not a compulsory education law? Were new olim not wanted?

The questions became redundant when I related the refusal to the director of the Ministry of Education with whom I was having a working meeting. He simply picked up the phone, asked my boys’ names and both Raanan and David became instantaneous pupils of Israel’s elementary school system. I had just received  a useful lesson about that indispensable Vitamin P.

My aliyah proceeded smoothly, although I came on my own, without Nefesh b’Nefesh or any other organization to aid new immigrants. My son Raanan had some difficulty as the only immigrant in his class: he knew the material being taught, but did not know the expressions used to do so. The inexperienced teacher, who seemed to have some undisguised personal problems, showed little, if any, understanding. The result was that Raanan spent most of his time outside the classroom. I finally transferred him to a more sympathetic school.

Meanwhile, on the home front, I placed an ad in the paper proposing to exchange my home in Queens for an apartment in Jerusalem. From the many offers, I chose an apartment in Talbieh, close to the boys’ school and to my place of work. For my semi-separate house on Utopia Parkway — three floors and a large garden — I received a three-room walk up containing three beds, a table, four chairs, a sofa. Oh, and a telephone with an unpaid bill (discovered later), which I could not use for weeks until fiscal matters were finally straightened out.

We lived in two other temporary apartments until I was able to buy the house in Nayot, where I live now.

From Hadassah New York, I received letters. How could I do this? (How could I leave a Zionist organization to live in the Land of Zion?) My parents bombarded me with letters. Come home! But I explained in both cases that I had fallen in love. In love with a city which I could not bear to abandon.

The one year test of Jerusalem living passed successfully. I asked my parents to send me my books, records and a refrigerator. Five years later I met the man destiny had meant for me. We married. Everybody was happy: my parents because their daughter was no longer without a partner. My husband and I because it was love and mutual respect that united us; the boys — by now teenagers — had a father-figure to look up to, and Efraim had a family — children he had never had.

We were a family living together for exactly two years.

Immediately after the Six Day War, Efraim was called to go on post to Bucharest, Romania, the one Communist country that had not broken off diplomatic relations with Israel. He was to watch over the economic interests of the Jewish state.

Romania — the Communist reality — was an entire book of experience. It was followed by another, totally different slice of reality: exposure to rudimentary civilization in central Africa. A tragic home leave to bury and begin mourning David who did not survive his soldiering. A longish stay away from diplomatic life, isolated among close friends. And then Belgium and five years in Bonn, Germany.

Toward the end of our stay there came a call from the President’s House in Jerusalem. By then, Aura was first lady, spouse of President Chaim Herzog. She wanted to know whether, on my return, I would work with her on her newest project, Beautify Israel. Yes, I would be happy to do so.

And so, a few months later, I was back again working once more with Aura Herzog, that inspired and inspiring lady.

About the Author
Lili Eylon is Czech by birth, American by education, Israeli by choice. She has been a journalist since the days of Methuselah, having studied English Literature and journalism at Brooklyn College and the University of Wisconsin. She traveled widely as the spouse of Israeli diplomat Ephraim Eylon, and is mother to Raanan Yisrael and David Baruch z"l, who fell in the service of the IDF.
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