New CIA Director Has Hawkish History on Israel and Iran

Family Affair Birgitta Yavari-Ilan

Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem

  • The cast: Birgitta Yavari-Ilan (63.5). Her maiden name is Anderson, but she added the names of her two (ex-) husbands.

  • The home: Multi-leveled. A renovated, complicated, immeasurable (in terms of square meters) structure that overlooks the wall of the Old City. It is part of a row of stone residences in this old Jerusalem neighborhood, which was once rundown, but in the wake of the Six-Day War became a real-estate gold mine with the potential for discovery or discombobulation or craziness - or all three (Birgitta: "I don't know whether I am in heaven or on earth"). If you bought in time, you were lucky.

  • In time: 1977. She paid $50,000 (to the Jerusalem Development Company) for a building in ruins. Until then she had lived in Al-Azariya ("Bethany"), adjacent to Jerusalem, where she was the director (from 1973) of an orphanage for Palestinian children ("In Sweden they thought I was Mother Teresa").

  • Entering: Beyond a blue door and a short entranceway is a dim space, tiled with Jerusalem stone, full of furniture, pictures, sacred books and Judaica, which begins with the kitchen. To the left, surprisingly, is a heavy piece of wooden furniture that functions as a two-story place for sleeping: The bottom level is a closed bed that can be crawled into on winter nights, the top is an open bed for summer nights (the work is by a Swedish carpenter). Next is a living room whose walls are partly exposed stone and partly plastered. The space is laden with furniture that is not from here, including a reddish leather sofa, a sofa of striped velvet with a carved wood frame, and a huge trunk, 300 years old, that was once the repository for a dowry. Proceeding, we come to a small balcony from a corner of which the Tower of David (the real one) is visible. A spiral staircase leads from the living room to the second floor.

  • The second floor: This is actually where Birgitta sleeps (usually). In her room, the likes of which can be seen only in historical dramas, is a heavy wooden bed. Adjacent is a study with a desk on which a Bible is open to Isaiah. On this floor there are three small rooms that she rents to occasional guests, who pay whatever they like. (By chance a guest, a full-bodied Polish woman wearing a wide-brimmed hat, emerges from one room.) We go down two floors to the bottom level, which is divided into two sections. In one of them Birgitta's son, Yishai, lives (sometimes); in the other is a bed in which Birgitta prefers to sleep lately. The garden is also accessible from here. Returning to the living room, we partake of instant coffee in blue cups and listen to early 19th-century Swedish music.

  • Livelihoods and occupations: Birgitta is the "messenger of an idea," the essence of which is union between love of God, love of humanity and love of Zion. Last year ("at Purim") she traveled to Iran ("I was in Shushan, the capital") to discover what underlies the searing hatred of Israel. She took the opportunity to send a letter of rebuke to President Ahmadinejad. By profession she is an illustrator; the walls of her home are covered with her work. For years she worked for European magazines such as Elle and Femina. She has also written 12 books that combine illustrations and thoughts. In the early 1970s, when she was director of the Al-Azariya orphanage, she saved up money which she used to buy her home ("Many people donated to me"). The bulk of her income these days comes from renting out rooms.

  • Family status: She had two husbands ("and they left me"). Currently there is one man, whom she is expecting to see. His name is Eliot and he is a psychologist from South Africa; she met him near Johannesburg. Eliot will soon be coming to Jerusalem. Until the wedding, she says, they will live in separate rooms ("Don't laugh at me").

  • Bio: Born 1944 in Vetlanda, a small Swedish city close to large forests ("That is also where IKEA was born"). Her family was Protestant ("completely secular") and middle class; her father had a tire business, her mother was a housewife. As a girl she excelled in playing musical instruments and in sports, but her thoughts were always with God. She had a happy childhood, she says, despite her father's liking for Akvavit (a Swedish liquor). At the age of 14 she decided to go to America "in order find God and a husband," and realized her dream within four years. She was 18 when she left home for good and traveled by ship from Goteborg to New York. The parting, she says, was not particularly sad ("Mother was not exactly your Yiddishe mama"). After a year in Los Angeles she enrolled in Parsons, a school for design in New York, met a young Iranian man, Suhareb Yavari, in Central Park, married him and bore him a daughter, Fatima, who later became Pnina, and is today a journalist in Sweden. The marriage lasted three and a half years. Suhareb, who already then supported the shah's ouster, was ill-disposed, to put it mildly, toward his wife's love of the Jews. They divorced in 1969. Two years later, she paid a first visit (of three weeks) to the Holy Land, and in 1973 decided to move here permanently. She put her blue VW Beetle on a ferry, and together with Fatima, her friend Lilian ("an 18-year-old alcoholic whom I took pity on") and her Tibetan dog, set sail for the Promised Land.

  • Israel: She arrived not long before the Yom Kippur War. Because she was not Jewish and (therefore) not an "olah hadasha" (new immigrant) she settled in Al-Azariya, a village in East Jerusalem, where she rented a small apartment from a Swedish UN man. She says she was liked by her neighbors, and later moved into a large house that she rented from a man named Abu Ali, in which she opened an orphanage. As a solitary woman it was convenient ("and also safe") for her to be considered a nun ("self-proclaimed"). At this stage, her deeds became known in Sweden and many volunteers came to help her and also donated funds to her humanitarian enterprise. She lived in Al-Azariya for three and a half years. Never, she says, did she hide her sympathy for the Jews and the Zionist project, "but they liked me and called me 'sister.'" In 1977, she took 10 orphans (out of the 30 in the institution) and moved to Yemin Moshe in the Jewish section of Jerusalem.

  • Yemin Moshe: With the aid of Jews who recommended her, she was granted permanent-residency status. She bought the house and with the help of volunteers started to renovate it. The orphans stayed with her for two years, until the arrival of Lior, who would become her second husband.

  • Lior: In 1979, she met an Israeli teenager who had left his Be'er Sheva home for a life of freedom and love in the Sinai resort of Nuweiba. She was 34 ("in my prime"), he was not yet 20. He fell in love with her at first sight; it took her three weeks. Once her love was kindled, she says, she was ready to follow him to the ends of the earth. His parents were suspicious of her, but afterward, she says, came to love her. She and Lior were married for 15 years and had three children together. The eldest, Eliel, who was autistic, died at the age of 12 ("a terrible tragedy"); the second, Yishai (26), is a soundman for Channel 2; and the third, a daughter named Shiriel (24), lives in Sweden. The marriage ended ("with much heartbreak") in 1994, and now she is waiting for Eliot. The wedding will take place in October; the ceremony will be conducted by a local rabbi who is a Messianic Jew, "and all my soul mates will be invited."

  • Judaism: Over the years Birgitta went through a number of conversions (in Jerusalem and Stockholm), which were not recognized in Israel, even though they were performed by Orthodox rabbis. This, though, has not stopped her from feeling she is Jewish ("I am a homemade Jew"). She attends synagogue every Shabbat ("Everyone there loves me") and has a regular seat in the women's section, lights Shabbat candles, and also loves Jesus.

  • Daily routine: Birgitta gets up at 6 ("I am an early bird"), has a cup of instant coffee and goes for a swim at the nearby Inbal (formerly Laromme) Hotel. She is back home at 7:30 to take out Charlie (the dog) for a 10-minute walk. She then has breakfast (crackers, cheese, honey, fruit, yogurt) and replies to e-mails. The rest of the morning is devoted to cleaning up and seeing to food for her guests (black bread, goat cheese).

  • Lunch: About 12:30, consisting of a lettuce salad, almonds, wheat and onions fried in olive oil. Sometimes she adds fish (tuna or salmon). She does not nap after lunch ("There are no siestas in Sweden"). In the evening she is back at the computer. Occasionally she hosts friends over sliced melon, yogurt soup and mint leaves ("They bring apple pies"). Bedtime is 9 P.M. On Thursdays she opens her home to guests ("people I meet in the neighborhood").

  • Television: Very little ("sometimes CNN"). She loves to read the Bible and also likes Astrid Lindgren. "I was a girl like Pippi Longstocking," she says. She also admires Selma Lagerlof (the Swedish writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, mainly for her 1902 novel "Jerusalem").

  • Dream: "To be Eliot's wife."

  • What she misses: "Glistening white snow, a sled on Christmas morning, a green forest, blue skies, mother, sister, Jaffa oranges." And also "to swim naked (alone) in the summer in a lake with water lilies."

  • Israelis: "The nation I like most. I saw many Arabs in Hadassah Hospital. Only the Israelis would treat their enemies in this way."

  • Hardest of all: "My Hebrew is like a dunce's."

  • The future: "When the minister of peace, the messiah son of David, walks on Mount of Olives, peace will come."

  • Preferred leader: "Shaul Mofaz."

  • Happiness quotient (scale of 1-10): 10.