The Real Sherlock Holmes of Tel Aviv

Israel’s first conference devoted to Hebrew-language detective fiction proved a stark reminder that few fictional private eyes have left a mark on Israeli literature — although one has come close.

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
David Tidhar with the 'Encyclopedia of the Founders and Builders of Israel.'
David Tidhar with the 'Encyclopedia of the Founders and Builders of Israel.'Credit: Reproduction by Moti Milrod

Known as the “Sherlock Holmes of the Yishuv” (the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine), David Tidhar was an athlete, sports official, police officer, private detective, author and biographer who also edited the vast “Encyclopedia of the Founders and Builders of Israel” (in Hebrew). According to tidhar.tourolib.org, where the entire 19-volume work is available, Tidhar worked on it from 1947 until his death 23 years later. In some ways, Tidhar was like both Holmes and his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle: A fictitious hero modeled on him appeared in 28 short detective novels (written by Shlomo Ben-Israel) that created quite a stir in the local community in the 1930s.

Last month, the legendary Tidhar was memorialized in the form of a new prize for detective fiction named after him. The award was initiated by Eli Eshed, editor of an online Hebrew culture magazine (Yekum Tarbut) and the Ramat Hasharon Municipality.

Eshed sees himself as a “culture detective.” In addition to working on a PhD about creators of comics for the Hebrew-language children’s press, his interests extend to popular literature, science fiction and fantasy, animation, the Bible, and detective and mystery literature. For him, the first local conference devoted to Hebrew-language mystery and detective writing — held on September 12 in Ramat Hasharon and attended by leading writers and researchers of the genre — was the fulfillment of a long-standing dream.

The inaugural Tidhar Prize was awarded in the presence of Tidhar’s son, Bezalel Tidhar, to Haaretz Editor Aluf Benn, in recognition of the contribution of Benn’s late father, the poet Aryeh Sivan, to the detective genre.

According to Eshed, detective fiction was first given legitimacy in pre-state Israel by Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who admired Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of mystery and Conan Doyle’s detective stories. He translated works by both into Hebrew. A lesser-known figure in this regard, Eshed says, is Rabbi Yehudah Yudel Rosenberg, who was born in Poland in 1859 and immigrated to Canada in 1913. Intertwining detective plots with Jewish tales, Rosenberg published “The Wonders of the Maharal of Prague.” The Hebrew-language book offers a literary version of how the Jews of Prague were saved by the golem, a creature made from clay and endowed with life.

“There are also stories about how the Maharal [the acronym for the real-life, 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew] carries out various detective investigations,” Eshed says. “It turns out that Rosenberg read Sherlock Holmes stories in Russian translation and plagiarized one of them for his Maharal accounts. It’s a little-known fact, but these are probably the first detective stories written in Hebrew. We’re talking about the beginning of the 20th century.”

David Tidhar in Jerusalem.
David Tidhar in Jerusalem.Credit: Yitzhak Ben-Dor / Reproduction by Moti Milrod

Tidhar, dubbed the “first Hebrew private eye,” was born in Jaffa in 1897, his parents’ seventh child but the first to survive. He attended a religious school in Jaffa’s Neveh Shalom district that was founded by his father, Moshe Bezalel Todrosovitz. Tidhar would later recall his childhood in Jaffa’s pre-Tel Aviv era in his memoirs. Toward the end of World War I, he enlisted in the Jewish Legion and took part in the defense of Jaffa’s Jewish community in the 1921 Arab riots. Around this time he joined the Mandatory government’s Palestine Police, serving initially in Jaffa and then as commander of the force in West Jerusalem.

In 1925, following four years’ service, he left the force and opened what he called a Private Bureau for Investigations and Information in Tel Aviv. The firm specialized in commercial investigations for local banks and companies. In December 1926, he published an article in a Tel Aviv weekly criticizing the commander-in-chief of the Mandatory police force. Realizing that he was liable to be tried and possibly imprisoned for it, he moved to Cairo with his wife and their infant daughter. He returned to Tel Aviv in 1931 and reopened his bureau.

Tidhar wrote a lot, and it came easy to him. In his 1924 book “Crime and Criminals in Eretz Yisrael,” he noted that he had been remarkably successful in apprehending violators of the law as an officer in the Mandatory police force. That book, Eli Eshed notes in a study of Israeli popular fiction that he published in 2002 (in Hebrew), was “the first of its kind in this country to depict the underworld in its various forms. He [Tidhar] also ‘ranked’ the different ethnic groups according to their general propensity for crime, which today would certainly be considered politically incorrect.” Eshed adds that “Crime and Criminals” sold very well and was translated into Arabic and English.

Whether Tidhar possessed the instincts of a journalist or was merely a fantasist with an inflated ego, he definitely preserved, documented and cataloged everything. His personal papers, an immense trove, are now in the Central Zionist Archives. His son Bezalel also has numerous items, including large albums in which his father cataloged every note, telegram and congratulatory card on the occasions of Bezalel’s bar mitzvah and wedding.

David Tidhar’s 'In Service of the Homeland.'
David Tidhar’s 'In Service of the Homeland.' Credit: Reproduction photo

New type of literary hero

Tidhar mythologized himself, Eshed says. In his writings, he cultivated the image of himself as a man of courage — both as a police officer and detective in the service of the British, and as a private investigator; nor was he averse to free advertising. Consequently, he was perfect for the needs of a young writer and journalist, Shlomo Ben-Israel (the pen name of Shlomo Gelfer), who set out to create a new type of literary hero in Hebrew fiction.

According to Bezalel Tidhar, in 1930 Ben-Israel “decided that he wanted to write detective stories in Hebrew. He consulted with [the poet Haim Nahman] Bialik, Jabotinsky and [the writer] Avigdor Hameiri about a suitable real-life individual to base himself on. All three recommended David Tidhar as the detective character in the series that would become the pioneer work of Hebrew detective fiction. Dad agreed.”

Tidhar, the son adds, “was involved up to his neck in most of the events and scandals that rocked the Yishuv in the 1920s and ’30s, and also in most of the Yishuv’s clandestine operations as a kind of first Jewish secret agent.”

According to Bezalel Tidhar, in 1924 his father — in his capacity as a police officer — helped hide the perpetrators of the first political assassination in Palestine’s Jewish community. The victim was Dr. Jacob Israel de Haan, a Netherlands-born jurist, poet and writer who became ultra-Orthodox in Palestine and worked against the Zionist movement. Tidhar not only supported the murder, but also declared that if the mission had been assigned to him, he would have carried it out without hesitation.

Bezalel Tidhar, son of David Tidhar, who established his 'private eye' bureau in Tel Aviv in 1925.
Bezalel Tidhar, son of David Tidhar, who established his 'private eye' bureau in Tel Aviv in 1925. Credit: Moti Milrod

“Afterward, Tidhar was involved in other causes célèbre, such as the assassination of [Labor-Zionist leader] Haim Arlosoroff, in 1933,” Eshed says. “The Revisionist movement, which was accused of being behind the murder, asked Tidhar to investigate the incident for them. However, he said he had received a ‘hint’ from the British police to keep his distance from the case.”

Another headline-making event Tidhar wrote about was the 1937 murder of engineer Yaakov Zwanger by a land broker, Reuben Schenzvit. It was a complicated case in which the secret services of Nazi Germany might have been involved, given the fact that a sophisticated network of microphones was found hidden within the walls of Schenzvit’s house. He claimed he had only listened to his clients. Tidhar took credit for locating Zwanger’s body, in a pit amid sand dunes. However, Eshed is no longer certain that’s true, following a 2014 book by historian Shaul Avishai, which tells the story of a German spy network that operated in Palestine. Zwanger apparently had something to do with the uncovering of the network and was murdered for his efforts. Eighty years later, the affair remains shrouded in mystery.

Shlomo Ben-Israel wrote 28 booklets (each 32 pages long) about Detective Tidhar, whose name and photograph featured on the covers as the hero of the series (called “Sifriyat Habalash” — “The Detective Series”). The books were phenomenally successful for their time. The first title, “The Mysterious Murder,” sold 400 copies; the second, “In the Clutches of the Human Monsters,” had 1,000 buyers; and 4,000 copies were sold of the fourth, “The Maharaja’s Revenge.”

Tidhar was depicted as an all-knowing detective who solves cases — with his assistants, Yirmiahu and Saadia the Yemenite — that have baffled the Mandatory police, Eshed writes in his book. “Everything took place in Mandatory Palestine on streets with which readers were familiar, such as Ibn Gabirol Street in Tel Aviv, as well as in more exotic locales, such as remote hills in the Nablus area or in caves by the Dead Sea.”

Shlomo Ben-Israel's 'The Corfu Slayer.'
Shlomo Ben-Israel's 'The Corfu Slayer.' Credit: Reproduction photo

The fictional Tidhar’s greatest enemy was the crafty villain known as the “Corfu slayer,” a Jew-turned-Christian who came to Palestine and embarked on a series of robberies and murders. Two booklets were required for Tidhar to get the better of him and turn him over to the British authorities. The plots were generally borrowed from American fiction.

Not by chance

Eshed’s Yekum Tarbut website, which was established six years ago, is a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in Israeli detective fiction. Last month’s conference was attended by leading lights in the field, including novelist D.A. Mishani, whose three novels featuring Inspector Avraham Avraham have been translated into English (the third, “The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything,” is scheduled for publication next month).

Eshed, 51, shares his life with Dina Markun, a well-known translator from Russian to Hebrew. He’s quite capable of sending emails at 4 A.M. (“I am always reading and working”) and doesn’t seem worried by the economic aspect of his cultural project. “Culture never brings budgets,” he says. Financial support comes from Mifal Hapayis (the national lottery) and the Israeli Center for Libraries. According to Eshed, the site gets about 450,000 hits a week, but he has no plans to charge for use of it.

He describes himself as Mizrahi, a term that generally refers to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin. “My family has been here in the Middle East since the beginning of the 19th century,” he says, adding, “They came from Lithuania. I am a descendant of the aliyah [Jewish immigration to Israel] of students of the Vilna Gaon — and, incidentally, a direct descendant of his.” (Rabbi Elijah Ben Shlomo Zalman, known as the Vilna Gaon, or “genius,” was a prominent 18th-century anti-Hasidic rabbi.) Eshed clarifies that he considers himself “a Middle Eastern Hebrew — and I detest the terms ‘Mizrahi’ and ‘Ashkenazi.’”

Aryeh Sivan wrote only one work of fiction, the thriller “Adonis” (1992), but it happened to feature the exploits of David Tidhar. The novel’s narrator, visiting Tel Aviv during the Gulf War in 1991, finds an abandoned suitcase that contains a yellowing notebook. After reading the handwritten text, he realizes it’s an unpublished detective novel, which he types up. At its center of the story-within-the-story is a professional detective named Avner Ben-Horin; the narrator decides to find out who he is. In the novel, he asks Bezalel Tidhar whether Ben-Horin appears in the writings of his father.

Eshed maintains that “Adonis” is “one of the best detective stories written in Israel, even though it doesn’t obey the genre’s conventions. The mystery remains unsolved to the end.”

Aluf Benn notes that the protagonist is named after his father’s brother, who died of typhoid fever at age 2; Sivan was 4 at the time of the tragedy. “It was a secret in the family,” Benn says. “The baby seemingly contracted the disease from the mother, and she blamed herself for his death. After she passed away, my father and his aunt went to look for the grave.” The communist element in the book derives from Sivan’s aunt’s partner, who was a communist, Benn notes.

The Sivan family lived in Ramat Hasharon, not far from Bezalel Tidhar. According to Benn, “There is no doubt that the choice of the Jewish detective in ‘Adonis’ comes from Tidhar. There was no other Hebrew detective. That figures hovers in the background.”

The mystery-laden golden age in David Tidhar’s life ended in the late 1930s, when he tired of the by-products of fame. Fans flocked to his office to see the legendary detective. He didn’t like being stared at and pointed at in the street. Shlomo Ben-Israel moved to the United States in 1937, where he was a journalist on the Yiddish-language newspaper Farverts (the Jewish Daily Forward), in which he continued to publish fictionalized accounts of Tidhar’s adventures.

After Tidhar embarked on the publication of the “Encyclopedia of the Founders and Builders of Israel,” journalist Uri Kesari wrote that “the new mantle of historian didn’t suit a detective’s activity — visiting U.S. tourists still came looking for the Sherlock Holmes of Tel Aviv.”

Tidhar invested all his money and time in editing the encyclopedia, publishing 19 volumes over nearly a quarter of a century. He wrote entries, did proofreading and handled mail-order sales. On the day of his death, he had gone to the printer with new material. He suffered a heart attack and died at 73.

Lenin, the perfect detective

After two decades in Israel, this writer is still producing works in his native tongue.

Author Daniel Kluger.
Author Daniel Kluger.Credit: Boris Krishtul

Daniel Kluger first encountered the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson at age 5, when his mother read him Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band.” Sixty years later, in Israel — where he’s lived since 1994 — Kluger writes fantasy and science fiction in Russian, along with detective books and research-based historical novels. He also has a show in which he sings his own ballads deriving from themes and events in Jewish history.

“My first encounter with the detective novel made me want to invent new stories about the heroes I liked,” he recalls. Like many others, his initial steps in the world of detective fiction were those of a devoted reader. “I read endlessly. At some point, I began to research the genre as a cultural phenomenon and wrote a few articles about the character of the detective and what it represents. A collection of articles, titled ‘The Baskerville Mystery,’ was published in Moscow in 2005. In the end, I started to write detective stories myself.”

Two of his novels, both published in Moscow, were coauthored with his friend Vitali Babenko: “Liszt’s Twentieth Rhapsody” (2006) and “Lilac’s Fourth Victim” (2007). Their protagonist, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin’s real name), investigates complicated murder cases and solves mysteries in czarist Russia. As Kluger once told Eli Eshed, “Lenin is the ultimate Russian of the 20th century, the person who left the deepest imprint on that period. He is a very suitable character to play the role of a detective because of his espousal of a rational-intellectual worldview, which is the foundation of every good detective.”

The Lenin detective stories have been translated into Chinese, though not English. The production rights to them were recently sold for a Russian television series.

What does Detective Lenin represent?

Kluger: “We chose that figure because the protagonist in detective fiction is ambivalent: He operates against crime but also lusts for victories. He perceives life as being a chess game in which people are the pawns. From that perspective, he resembles the heroes of fairy tales — and in my opinion detective fiction is a modern fairy tale.”

What’s distinctive about Russian detective fiction?

“Briefly, it’s the ability to raise in a way that’s not serious the complex problems of modern society, to evoke fears and hopes of the mass consciousness. It’s like taking society’s temperature. The detective genre is closer to poetry than other prose genres. For example, versifying can be seen in the evidence that the investigator in detective fiction collects, and the plot of the story is like poetic rhyme. The fact that there’s a mystery or secret at the heart of the detective story also makes it highly poetic.”

The Taoist Haredi

This ultra-Orthodox thriller writer, whose influences include Michael Crichton, is working on 11 books simultaneously. 

Nachman Gershonovitz wrote his first novel when he was 16 and self-published it in 1999. It became a cult classic but is hard to find today. The protagonist is a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) detective from an organization called The Lions, who uncovers a kidnapping-for-ransom case and doesn’t hesitate to use violence. “A thriller for young people, packed with action and dizzying events, spiced with Jewish heroism,” the blurb gushes. Less than a year later, the second book in the series was serialized in a Haredi weekly.

Gershonovitz notes that he’s been publishing novels in serial form for a decade, and terms himself the leading writer of thrillers and detective fiction in Haredi society. He has also compiled collections of jokes. “It’s forbidden to publish literature of that kind, and I was warned,” he says. “But the series succeeded so well that humor books are now flourishing in the Haredi community.”

Aged 34 and a father of four, Gershonovitz terms himself a Hasidic Jew who does not belong to a particular sect. Pressed to categorize himself, he styles himself a Haredi-Taoist (“I live according to the Chinese medicine-philosophy of the Tao”) who practices aikido (a Japanese martial art) and meditates. His books, he says, are suitable for anyone of any religion, anywhere. At my request, he lists his literary efforts: “Twenty-three novels, most of them thrillers; three humor books; three kijiku booklets [referring to a popular game in Japan]; and ‘Graphic Thriller,’ a book with a plot in 3-D illustrations.”  

The heroes of Gershonovitz’s books — which are not available in general bookstores — tend to be Haredi secret agents with advanced intellectual and technological abilities. His latest novel, which was published on the occasion of the detective fiction conference, has three private eyes searching for a mysterious ancient copy of the Book of Esther, which is said to possess extraordinary powers.

He is currently working on 11 books simultaneously, he says. “Four are the height of my creative work and are suitable for the wider public. One is a two-volume novel about a yeshiva student who’s found hanged in the school’s washroom, and the investigation that is launched. The second is a regular thriller, also two volumes, that’s set in France. I write fast. In 2007, I wrote ‘Balance of Terror’ in 48 hours. I’m thinking about doing a filmed challenge in which I enter a closed room for 24 hours and write a book in a race against time.” 

Gershonovitz is the eldest of nine children of parents who became religiously observant. In his childhood in Jerusalem, and afterward in Ashdod, the adults in his milieu didn’t encourage his hobby or his reading habits. At 15 he dove into the extensive world of thrillers. “Thanks to the science in Michael Crichton’s sci-fi works, I became a researcher — because I realized that his books are anchored in scientific and historical study,” he says. “I have a highly proficient memory: I can remember a number 100 digits long after one reading. I’m an autodidact and have studied whole syllabi. Nowadays, I study and research fields such as psychology, criminal identification, martial arts and survival.” His mother reads his novels, he says, but his father “makes do with reading the humor books and views them as a type of mission — to make people happy.”

In recent years, according to Gershonovitz, there has been a growing demand in Haredi society for high-quality, credible thrillers. “As culture consumers,” he notes, “I and others demand dramatic literature. But most Haredi literature consists of dramatic stories by female writers about matchmaking, unrequited love or divorce. There are no female characters in Haredi literature written by men, but my books contain women in a wide range of roles.”

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