Alice, Her Husband, Her Lover and 'Hatikva'

Naphtali Herz Imber, author of Israel’s national anthem, was for a time the personal secretary of Laurence Oliphant, a British MP who was an ardent advocate of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. Enter Oliphant’s wife, Alice, with whom Naphtali fell passionately in love. Their story inspired a book by Ram Oren, who here describes how he uncovered the long-forgotten affair

Ram Oren
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Ram Oren

They seemed to have nothing in common. He was a Jew, she was a Christian. He was poor, she was rich. He was not a handsome man, she was a beauty. He was single, she a married woman. Appalled by his ignorance of good manners, she tried to teach him the basic rules of behavior that guided her. He seized every opportunity to be in her company, held a parasol over her head on hot summer days, served her cold drinks to slake her thirst and wrote love poems for her. She kept her distance, and he did not dare to reveal his feelings for her. Nevertheless, despite the differences that divided them and the vast disparities of personality and status, fate bound them in a thicket of secret love, and both suffered greatly for it. Few knew about the turbulent affair as it unfolded, and over the years the story was buried.

The love affair between the British aristocrat and the Jewish poet took place 140 years ago and has been of little interest to historians. The 19th century supplied chroniclers with greater dramas, and even if the riveting affair was mentioned by chance, doubts were voiced about its authenticity. Some biographers of the Oliphant family and of the poet Naphtali Herz Imber maintained that Alice Oliphant treated Herz Imber, author of “Hatikva,” as a mother treats a son. They noted that she was older than he and had no children; he filled the vacuum. In contrast, the writer Hannah Pearsall Smith portrayed Alice as a treacherous sinner who slept with Druze from the Galilee village of Daliat al-Carmel and undoubtedly seduced Imber.

Illustration by Ruth Gvili.

Those who spread theories about Alice and Naphtali were nourished largely by rumors and guesswork. None of them got close to the truth, because none of them bothered to investigate thoroughly. However, the facts confirm without a shadow of doubt that they shared a genuine love. Alice Oliphant was the first woman Naphtali Herz Imber ever loved, and he was the first man who turned her heart from her husband. Imber courted her gently, hesitantly, for fear she would reject him. She did not requite his love quickly, but when she did, she gave him all of herself.

I had not planned to write this book, “Nefesh Homiya” ‏(“Yearning Soul,” words from Imber’s poem “Hatikva”‏). Like the subjects of most of the historical works I have written, this one too was engendered completely by chance. In the summer of 2008, I visited Daliat al-Carmel with friends. A member of the local council guided us through the village lanes. One of the sites he showed us was Yad Labanim, the memorial to the fallen Druze soldiers of the Israeli army. The two-story stone building was clearly an old structure. It had vaulted rooms, picture windows with a view of Mount Carmel, and a refreshing chill throughout. Our guide said the building was intended as a summer house for the Oliphant family. “Alice Oliphant visited here many times with her lover,” he said, smiling. The village elders, he added, had heard stories about the beautiful woman who came to the construction site almost every day to monitor its progress. Her husband was an infrequent visitor, but her lover always accompanied her, they said. “His name was Imber,” the guide told us, “the poet who wrote your national anthem.”

Alice Oliphant.Credit: Haaretz

Here was an excellent subject for a book. I ran a check to see if anyone had ever written about it. The answer was negative, and I decided to mount an extensive investigation to uncover the truth. The first obstacle was the passage of so much time since the affair. The protagonists had left no descendants for me to interview. Everyone involved had long since died. Still, the subject looked too interesting to forgo. I hired an assistant, Karma Ben-Yohanan, a doctoral student in history at Tel Aviv University, and together we embarked on the quest. Neither of us imagined that it would take no less than three years of intense research before it would be possible to start writing.
We began by looking for information about Laurence Oliphant, Alice’s husband. The Tel Aviv University library has a few biographies about the British MP, who was a well-known writer and an ardent advocate of Jewish settlement in Palestine. We read books he had written, diary excerpts and letters. It soon became apparent that we had opened a Pandora’s box of stunning revelations.

Laurence Oliphant, the son of a successful lawyer, was born in South Africa and spent part of his youth in Ceylon ‏(Sri Lanka‏). His father, Anthony, was a weak man and a pious Christian, whose marriage gave him few moments of pleasure. Anthony’s wife, Maria, who had married him under pressure of her parents, displayed no affection for him. A fervent evangelical, she devoted most of her time to the Scriptures and to her young son, Laurence. When the boy grew older she discovered, to her horror, that her feelings toward him were not those of a mother for her son but of a woman for a man:

Naphtali Herz Imber.Credit: Haaretz

“At first she was determined to suppress these feelings for her son. She tried to keep the time she spent with him short but found this difficult. Whenever she found herself by his side she longed for him and forgot that this was forbidden. Her mind ordered her to keep away from him, but her heart commanded the opposite. She repressed all the warning signs, lavished embraces and kisses on her son; and he, innocent and believing that these were no more than expressions of mother-love, responded in kind. They hiked in the woods and read books together, her head resting on his shoulder. They boated on the lake, rowing in unison, hand on hand. Every evening she dressed him in his nightgown, her fingers flitting pleasurably across his smooth skin. They prayed together, and then she kissed him and bade him good night.” ‏(From “Nefesh Homiya”‏)

Laurence Oliphant was an adventurer who was fed up with Christianity. He became friends with the King of Nepal, traveled to his country and there sought a religious faith that would suit him. At the end of his stay in Nepal, he wrote a best-seller about his life in that exotic land, moved to London and successfully contested a parliamentary seat. He lived alone. A night’s tryst with a prostitute left him with syphilis. His physician predicted dire consequences from the incurable disease. Oliphant was devastated. Not even his mother, who moved to London and tried to revive his spirits, was able to put his mind at ease.

Baron de Rothschild. Credit: Courtesy

Alice Le Strange wrote no books or diaries. Descendants of her family in London knew nothing about her, other than that she was beautiful and alluring. Oliphant’s writings and his correspondence with Alice indicate that she came from a wealthy, propertied noble family. When she met Laurence she was impressed by the fact that he was an admired writer and a member of parliament. She accepted his marriage proposal even after he told her about his disease, and over her family’s objections.

Like her husband, Alice too abhorred Christianity and sought a religion that would suit her. My research assistant, Karma Ben-Yohanan, whose expertise lies in Christian theology, helped me navigate the dozens of Christian sects, large and small, which operated in the 19th century and were active proselytizers.
The blossoming of religious movements occurred at a time of tremendous transformations in science and technology, and as a civil war was raging in the United States. Millions of people, succumbing to a sense of uncertainty and insecurity, displayed growing nostalgia for a lost, benign world of values. They recoiled from science, which denied religion, but also from the principles of conservative Christianity, which promised paradise only to God’s elect.

The spiritualists offered speedier communication with the spirits of the dead, and through them, to the afterlife. The Mormons believed in angels and held that everyone baptized in the Church was a saint. They prophesied the coming of a messiah who would put an end to wars, and preached passionately that all those who fulfilled the precepts would share the Kingdom of God with Jesus. The Shakers lived in large communes ruled by a prophetess, abstained from sex, adopted orphan children and developed a tradition of “shaker dance.” The Adventists predicted the coming of the messiah on a specific date; thousands waited all that day and through the night that followed in their homes and on hilltops, in anticipation of an epiphany that never came.

Similar movements began to take root in Britain. One of them was the sect of Thomas Lake Harris, a bizarre preacher who styled himself “Messiah.” His community, the Brotherhood of the New Life, spoke to the hearts of Alice and Laurence more than any other sect. I found Harris an unsolved riddle. To this day it is not clear how he persuaded the Oliphants, an educated, intelligent couple, to join him. Accessible documentary material about Harris was almost nonexistent. I needed books and letters he had written, which, I assumed, would shed light on his enigmatic character.

Not one book or letter related to Harris was to be found in Israel. Correspondence with academic institutions abroad revealed that only the libraries of Oxford University in England and of Columbia in New York had material about “Messiah.” I visited both without delay. And in both I was told by the librarians that to the best of their knowledge, no one had ever expressed an interest in these books.

With much effort, yellowing books and letters attributed to Thomas Lake Harris, which were in danger of crumbling into dust, were located on remote shelves. Harris’s ponderous style, compounded by his ornately curled handwriting, rendered his hallucinatory poems, articles on mysticism, administrative correspondence about disputes with the authorities and letters to his followers barely decipherable. The image that arose from them was of a hallucinator who claimed to have close relations with dead souls and who had developed a weird theory about the desirable relationship between spouses. Harris hated children, was an inveterate womanizer and persuaded his dozens of believers to transfer all their property to him. With the money he bought a large estate in North America and moved there with his followers.

The charismatic Harris enchanted Alice, Laurence and Laurence’s mother. They gave him all their money and joined his sect in America. Sometime later, Harris sent Alice and Laurence on a speaking tour of Europe in an effort to attract new believers. At the height of the mission, Laurence gave a talk in Vienna. In the audience was a young poet, Naphtali Herz Imber, who lived in the city and chanced to be at the place where the talk was given.
Contrary to what I had expected, researching the life of Naphtali Herz Imber proved extremely difficult. There are several books about him, but none creates a full-bodied figure. So great were the disparities in his life story that only by flights of the imagination could I bridge them. Many of his poems, both published and unpublished, are housed in different libraries.

Naphtali Herz Imber was born in Zloczow, in Galicia ‏(now Zolochiv, Ukraine‏). He started to write poems while still a boy and was awarded a cash prize and a certificate of appreciation for one of his works by Emperor Franz Joseph at a festive ceremony in the imperial palace in Vienna. Imber settled in the city, hoping success would shine its light on him. But in vain. He lived in a moldy apartment, drank himself drunk and wasted the money from the prize he had received. Finally he was able to eke out a living from tiny royalties from Jewish newspapers that published some of his poems.

While wandering in the city Imber happened upon Laurence Oliphant’s talk and was deeply moved by the beauty of Alice, who was present:

“Imber seated himself next to Alice. The scent of her perfume made his head spin. He heard only bits and pieces of the talk, his mind afire with thoughts about the beautiful woman sitting next to him. He wanted to know more about her, find a breach he could penetrate and conquer her. Never had he been in love, and he was ripe for a relationship. He yearned for this woman with all his might, desired to hold her, feel the touch of her body, whisper words of love into her ear.” ‏(From “Nefesh Homiya”‏)

Harris behaved like an omnipotent despot on his estate. He tyrannized his followers ruthlessly, isolated them from one another, housed them in squalid rooms, woke them several times a night, worked them hard and abused their children. He bedded the believers’ wives, who did not dare resist; the husbands, too, were silent in the face of his cruelty. “Messiah” could do as he wished.

“Harris was smitten by Alice from the first glance. He courted her ardently, declared her marriage annulled and separated her from her husband. Her beauty, he thought, might interfere with the way she carried out her tasks in the sect. He came up with a mad idea:
“Harris went into the courtyard with her and ordered her to get into a pit that had been dug some time before. Alice slid in; the rim of the pit was parallel with her shoulders. Harris summoned the excavators, who scattered earth around her body. Within a few minutes only her head protruded from the living grave. Harris approached, picked up some dirt, wet it and smeared the mud on her face. ‘Don’t move until I get you out of here,’ he told her. Alice remained in the pit, helpless, for a few hours. The broiling sun dried the mud on her face and made her dizzy. She was thirsty, but Harris, who came out occasionally to have a look at her, ignored her appeals for water. ‘Patience,’ he mumbled, ‘we will soon succeed: soon your beauty will be gone.’ It was only when she lost consciousness that he ordered her to be removed from the pit and moved to the shade of a tree.” ‏(From “Nefesh Homiya‏”)

Naphtali Herz Imber wanted to join Harris’ community in order to be close to Alice, but “Messiah” turned down his request − he had no money to contribute. Naphtali was distraught at the thought that he would never again see the woman he loved, but fate came to his aid. Alice escaped from the estate and found shelter in a nearby village. Laurence, too, left the community and cultivated the idea that if he were to bring all the Jews in the diaspora to the Land of Israel, the messiah would come. He decided to settle in the Holy Land and invest all his money to realize his plan. By chance he encountered Naphtali Herz at the home of friends, and offered him a job as his secretary. That was far more than Naphtali Herz could have expected. He accepted without hesitation.

Before moving to Palestine, Alice, Laurence and Laurence’s new secretary visited Jewish communities in Europe. Naphtali Herz felt this was the opportunity for which he had been waiting. His amorous relationship with Alice grew more intense during rushed meetings in train cars at night and in intimate conversations − all under the nose of her unsuspecting husband.

The Oliphants concluded their journey in Haifa, where they settled in the Templers’ colony. Laurence rented a spacious house, one room of which was allotted to his secretary. The present-day address of the house is 16 Ben-Gurion Street, which is the city’s main thoroughfare. A vivid imagination is needed to picture it nestled in the vibrant and colorful colony of German Templers in the mid-19th century. The nearby port has also undergone a metamorphosis since then. In the 19th century there was no real dock. Ships dropped anchor in the middle of the bay, and passengers were brought ashore in boats.

The Templers managed their affairs exactly as in Germany. They spoke German, the children’s schooling followed a German curriculum and the dress code was identical to that in the fatherland. The Templers believed that an influx of Christians to the Holy Land would hasten the day of redemption. They worked the land using advanced machinery and progressive working methods. Alice Oliphant, who began to paint at the time, immortalized the colony’s way of life in dozens of paintings, some of which still survive.

The Oliphants’ home quickly became a social beehive. The Templer colony was happy to adopt the threesome that had settled in their midst. Residents brought the guests cakes and cooked food and invited them to visit and attend concerts in the community hall. The Oliphants, for their part, hosted the who’s who of Palestine at the time: consuls, archaeologists, religious leaders and Turkish officials. Some stayed the night.

However, Palestine was not accommodating to Oliphant for very long. He helped the inhabitants of Zamarin ‏(Zichron Yaakov‏) buy their land, gave them money to purchase farm equipment and built homes for the residents of Rosh Pina. But his money ran out quickly, his mood soured and envy overcame him when he discovered that Baron Edmond de Rothschild was investing a fortune to further Jewish settlement. Oliphant went to Europe in order to raise money and dislodge Rothschild. Naphtali and Alice were left on their own, and their love blossomed behind the closed blinds of the house in Haifa and on their frequent visits to the Oliphants’ fine summer home in Daliat al-Carmel.

It was during this period that Naphtali Herz Imber wrote most of his love poems for Alice. Finding them was not easy; the hunt took several months. A survey of libraries and antiquarian bookstores across Israel turned up dozens of Imber’s poems, but not the ones he wrote to his paramour. In the end, I went to the National Library in Jerusalem, where a few of the passionate love poems are stored on microfilm. These include one titled “Song of Songs,” in which he expressed his love for Alice using the images of the biblical poem and conjured up the memory of her kisses.

Laurence Oliphant’s disease worsened and he became deeply depressed as Rothschild extended his activity in the country. At the same time, Alice’s love for her husband’s secretary deepened. Secretly, the two planned her divorce from Oliphant and her marriage to Naphtali. With Oliphant having wasted all his money on supporting Jewish settlement, she and Naphtali knew they would have to live modestly, if not penuriously. Neither of them was averse to this.

The forbidden love of Alice Oliphant and Naphtali Herz Imber was played out against the backdrop of dramatic events in the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Bloody conflicts, corrupt practices and manifestations of dubious morality were everyday affairs. The Jewish settlements were managed by the baron’s officials, chief among them Eliahu Scheid, whom Rothschild brought in from Paris. Scheid, too, made a play for Alice and wanted her to go with him to Paris, to the displeasure of both her husband and his secretary.

I devoted a great deal of time to a search for Scheid’s memoirs, in the hope of finding information about his relations with Alice, her husband and her lover. I found one copy of the book in French and one copy in Hebrew translation. The relatively small book proved a great disappointment. Scheid writes mainly about his accomplishments in developing Zichron Yaakov and heaps praise on Baron Rothschild, but says not a word about the Oliphants or Naphtali Herz Imber. He is equally silent about his amorous adventures in the Holy Land.

Throughout the years in which Alice and Naphtali’s mutual love raged, and more especially afterward, Imber made great efforts to promote his poem “Hatikva” ‏(“The Hope”‏) to the status of a national anthem. According to Eliahu Hacohen, an expert on Hebrew song, the melody to which the lyrics were set is based on a Romanian folksong. The poem itself went through no fewer than 77 versions before achieving its present format.

“In the winter of 1903, as the Sixth Zionist Congress was underway in Basel, Imber traveled there with the last of his money. The doorman at the casino building, in which the delegates were gathered, refused to let him in, because of his shabby appearance. ‘I am the author of “Hatikva,’ Imber shot back. But the doorman would not budge. He threatened to call the police if Imber did not leave. Imber moved aside and with despair in his eyes watched as the carriages bearing the delegates pulled up in front of the building. He did not know any of the arrivals and did not dare ask them to help him enter. Echoes of the stormy debate could be heard through the open windows. Herzl put forward his idea to settle Jews in Uganda as a temporary solution until they could return to the Land of Israel. Many delegates objected, and some of them cried and sat on the floor as a sign of mourning. Suddenly the sound of singing rang out from the hall. The delegates were expressing their desire to settle in the Land of Israel by singing ‘Hatikva.’ Deeply moved, Imber knew that the turning point he had dreamed about was now realized. His poem had become the national anthem. But he was still not allowed into the building.”
From “Nefesh Homiya‏”)

I spent a year writing “Nefesh Homiya” on the basis of the wealth of material I compiled. During the research I learned a great deal about extraordinary people who were bound together by fate, I became acquainted with the fascinating history of the First Aliya − the first wave of Jewish immigration to this country, 1882-1903 − and I grieved for the inevitable end of the protagonists. The writing process was difficult and complex. Many experts read the manuscript, offered advice and made corrections. This is an opportunity to express my thanks to them all.

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