Naomi Ben-Gur and Gan-Ya Ben-Gur Axelrod

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

Naomi was born in 1948, Gan-Ya (the name means God's garden) in 1987 both in Tel Aviv.

Naomi lives in the upscale Ramat Aviv neighborhood of Tel Aviv; Gan-Ya in a rented apartment in New York’s West Village.

Naomi Ben-Gur and Gan-Ya Ben-Gur AxelrodCredit: Ilya Melnikov

Extended family:
Naomi’s mother, Rivka, is 87. Her brother, Kobi, is an accountant and businessman, and her sister, Smadar, is a clinical psychologist. Her husband, Oded Axelrod, 65, is an economist. In addition to Gan-Ya, the couple have a daughter, Bambi Zucker, 30, who is an oboist with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, and a son, Iron, 27, a business administration graduate. Naomi and Oded have a 2-month-old grandson, Eitan.

House of reporters:
Naomi grew up in Yad Eliahu, a neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, in an apartment building that housed journalists. The tenants included Shmuel Schnitzer, Shalom Rosenfeld, Habib Canaan and other well-know journalists of the time. Her father, Meir Ben-Gur, was a founder of Al Hamishmar and Lamerhav (both organs of political parties), worked as a night editor at Haaretz and served as secretary of the Journalists’ Association and director of Beit Sokolov Journalists’ House in Tel Aviv. He immigrated to Palestine from Lithuania as part of a settlement group organized by the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Naomi’s mother is from Poland. “My parents met in the youth movement,” Naomi says. The family moved to the center of Tel Aviv when she was 10.

Naomi was a military correspondent for the Gadna (Youth Battalions) magazine; Gan-Ya served in intelligence.

New dress:
While still in the army, Naomi became a student in the literature department of Tel Aviv University and published a book of poems. “Poetry for young people, light rhymes,” she says. The well-known poet Natan Zach read the manuscript and offered to help her choose the best of the poems for publication. “I bought a new dress at the Shekem [a store for soldiers] for the festive occasion. He was very nice and said the poems were refreshing. The book went through nine editions and I was considered a wunderkind. I was interviewed by every possible media outlet, but it was all too much for me, and too soon. I was shy and still immature. I was afraid I would be thrown out of the literature department, because my writing wasn’t the kind of thing they taught there. I decided not to write anymore.”

Male preserve:
Inevitably, Naomi looked for a job in journalism. “All the senior journalists were friends of my parents. We used to go on holidays and outings with Noah Mozes and his family,” Naomi says, referring to the long-time managing editor of the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “However, in that period men who had served in army journals were hired by the newspapers, but not women, because journalism was a male profession. I remember [the well-known journalist] Levy Yitzhak Hayerushalmi telling me, ‘Why are you looking for a job look for a husband.’”

Flight path:
As a compromise, she took a job as the spokesperson for the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency. In 1975, she was hired by the Zionist Federation of Montreal, but after a trip to New York she fell in love with the city and moved there. The Big Apple was a refuge from her symbiotic relationship with her mother. “She is an ultimate mother, very protective,” Naomi says, “with infinite love and deep devotion to the children. In New York I discovered new strength to stand on my own feet and see myself against a different background, without everyone bugging me and asking about a husband and about having children. When I went alone to a movie, my mother asked, ‘What will people say?’ She sent me to WIZO to learn cooking, so I would be a good wife. The upbringing was in the spirit of the submissive wife who stays home and raises the children. When I got a job after the children were born because I needed to be with people she said, ‘Isn’t it enough for you to see mothers in the park?’ When I told her I couldn’t find anyone to connect with, she said: ‘What do you think women talk about with their husbands after they get married? About the children.'"

Calculated errors:
In New York Naomi worked at odd jobs and obtained a master’s degree in film from New York University. One of her jobs as director of the Jewish students’ organization of North America took her on occasion to the New York branch of Bank Leumi. On one such visit she met a new bank official: a handsome bachelor, posted to the branch from Israel. “I was 33, ancient in terms of getting married, and I wanted a family. We dealt with the accounts of the students’ organization, and sometimes I made mistakes deliberately. After a time we started living together and got married. We returned to Israel after 10 years with two children.”

Single with three children:
When she came to the Interior Ministry to register her marriage, the clerk volunteered to change her name to that of her husband. Naomi objected vehemently. The ministry insisted. “I was told that afterward I could apply to change my name back to my maiden name,” she says. “I told them I would not change my name or submit an application, so to this day I am registered as a single woman with three children. My husband is registered as a bachelor with three children. I was always being offered discounts by day-care centers and preschool groups as a supposed single parent. When I told them I was married, they would say, ‘You don’t have to be ashamed.’”

Gan-Ya’s birth:
“The delivery took place in Assouta [Medical Center]. The contractions started on a Sunday, when ‘Dynasty’ was on, and I said I would watch the episode and then go to the hospital. I wanted to go home on the day after the birth, because there was no privacy there every minute someone opened the door. I announced I was going home. The nurses said that was impossible. I replied that it wasn’t a prison, and I left.”

Place of illumination:
Naomi had started to write children’s books in New York, and also published a guide to the city’s decadent locales. “I was pregnant and went with my big tummy to sex and S&M clubs.” She continued to write for children after returning to Israel and now has some 40 books to her credit. “People asked me why I don’t write for adults,” she says. “I thought I lacked the forbearance for that, but also because children’s books end happily, whereas adult books contain too much darkness, and I have enough darkness in my life. Maybe this is my place of illumination.” She worked for Davar, the newspaper of the Histadrut labor federation, was an editor of children’s books and obtained a Ph.D. (her dissertation was on children’s poetry) from the comparative literature department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She currently teaches at the Seminar Hakibbutzim and Levinsky Teachers Colleges. She is also an editor of children’s books in the Hakibbutz Hameuchad-Sifriat Poalim Publishing Group.

The right note:
Like her older sister, Gan-Ya started to take an interest in music from an early age. At the age of six she was taking cello lessons (Suzuki method), and playing the piano and the clarinet. However, she felt this was not what she really wanted. At 16 she realized that she wanted to sing. “When I started to sing in the Bat Kol choir, and afterward in the Moran Choir under the conductor Naomi Faran, I knew that was the most natural place for me.” Gan-Ya attended the Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University, graduating cum laude. She performed operatic roles during her studies and appeared as a soloist in the Abu Ghosh music festival and at the Church of the Dormition and the Mormon University in Jerusalem, among others.

Gan-Ya in school:
“She was outstanding,” Naomi says. “In high school they were very accommodating, and allowed her to miss classes because of rehearsals and performances. She majored in chemistry and had fantastic grades in the matriculation exams.”

Rebel with a cause:
Gan-Ya’s adolescent rebellion was very harsh, very long and very painful. Mother and daughter went through a deep crisis while Gan-Ya was doing her army service. “I am a protective and suffocating mother,” Naomi says. “I invaded every area of her life, just the way my mother did to me. I didn’t give her the space she needed. There was a total break between us. She excluded me from her life completely, and I suffered terribly from that. She was named an outstanding soldier and I didn’t even know.” Gan-Ya: “I need a lot of space and privacy, and it was hard for her to cut loose.” Time and therapy did their work; the two found the right balance. “Apparently we had to separate in order to connect in a different way.”

New York, Act II:
Two years ago, after her graduation, Gan-Ya went to New York to pursue her studies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Since then, she has appeared in “Carmen” and “The Czar’s Bride,” given a recital in Scotland, and performed in Carnegie Hall, at the music festival in Aix en Provence and at the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium International Music Competition under the direction of the acclaimed baritone Jose Van Dam. A soprano, she has recently received an offer to sing with the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Naomi’s overprotective “Polishness” bugs Gan-Ya. “She comes to my graduation performance and I want to give her my room, but she starts in, ‘No way, I won’t hear of it.’ Or the way she has to know everything here, now and fast. And the ‘highlight’ is that she tells me what to eat; she wants me to eat only healthful food.” Naomi agrees completely: “She finishes eating and then starts looking for snacks in the cupboards, saying, ‘A diet is for the body, but my soul isn’t into diets, so now I am eating for the soul.’” Naomi, too, has had a bellyful. “She is impatient,” she says of her daughter. “In an argument she is not ready to talk things out, but says, ‘Let’s end the conversation.’ During the period when we weren’t speaking she sent her complaints in writing. One day I went to China and she handed me a long letter. I read it on the plane and it ruined the whole trip.”

Gan-Ya doesn’t believe in regrets. “Whatever has to happen, happens.” Nevertheless, she says, “If I could go back, I would do it all without hurting her.” Naomi: “Maybe I should have been more sensitive and understanding.”

I will never be like my mother:
“I will not try to control or be overly involved in the lives of my children,” Gan-Ya says.

Reflections in the mirror:
They are both industrious and love to cook and do good deeds.

When Gan-Ya was little, she wanted to buy her mother a bookcase that would hold all her books. In high school she was disappointed in the education system and dreamed of founding a school in which the children would be exposed to culture and art. “But my major fantasy is to succeed,” she says. “If you succeed, you have the power to influence things.” When Naomi was young her fantasy was to save the world and find a cure for cancer. Nowadays her wishes are more modest: happiness and health.