A Third Incarnation

month after the article was published in Koteret Roshit, Nahum Barnea discovered a death notice for "Hannah Levine, the first lady of Tel Aviv" in the daily papers. "Nu, you've killed another one," he shouted at me.

Hannah Levine lived and died again at least twice. First I saw her on television. It was in a film about Abba Ahimeir that was screened on the only channel that existed in those days. Levine, then 96, was speaking as one of his friends. Nahum Barnea, the editor of the political weekly Koteret Rashit at the time, guessed that she was what was called "a character," and sent me to interview her.

I arrived at her small house on Hashomer Street in Tel Aviv. She lived in a room that reminded me in its simplicity of the room of the Hebrew poet Rachel. On the wall there was a painting by artist and writer Nahum Gutman, also a friend of hers. On the white night table next to the iron, single bed, which was covered with a piqu? blanket, was a bowl containing a few oranges. On the gas burner she was cooking a pot of the fragrant apple compote that she described as her "specialty." She immediately offered me some cold compote which she had in the refrigerator.

On the other side of the wall, she whispered, lived her younger sister; we should speak quietly so that she wouldn't come to nose around and see what was going on. At the time, at the age of 96, she was still working "as a private nurse, part time." Why part time? "Because all my life I worked part time, because all my life I was sickly," she explained.

Her sickly condition enabled Levine to leave her house near the Carmel Market every morning and walk briskly all the way to Gan Ha'ir to give her old friend Mrs. Zarkovsky an injection in the buttocks. She gave such injections to some of the leading figures in the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), she told me, and once, when she hit a nerve by mistake, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi's left buttock was paralyzed for almost a week.

That same Mrs. Zarkovsky, who was the grandmother of my neighbor in Jerusalem, once confided to me that as far as she knew, Hannah Levine was still a virgin. And nevertheless, she had many suitors and hinted at a great love affair with a married man, a doctor named Erich. And there were others who flirted with her. Once, late in the evening, a famous doctor came to her house. She said that at the time she was wearing a negligee. He approached her and she shouted "Jamais, jamais!" ("Never!").

A few days after my visit to her apartment, Levine unexpectedly called me from a pay phone in the center of Jerusalem. She informed me that she had decided to come and spend some time with me and the children. I quickly traveled to the center of town. She was standing there, next to Cafe Atara, a tiny woman with a large and ancient suitcase. I invited her to drink something inside and she shouted at me: "How can a girl wearing nail polish and large earrings in her ears even understand a refined woman like me?"

A month after the article was published in Koteret Roshit, Nahum Barnea discovered a death notice for "Hannah Levine, the first lady of Tel Aviv" in the daily papers. "Nu, you've killed another one," he shouted at me. But two months later I met her by chance on a Tel Aviv street. It turned out that there were two elderly Hannah Levines. I was happy that she had died and was living again in Tel Aviv. This week I found out that she is living for a third time.

It happened while I was reading the excellent book by Yosef Bar Yosef, "Lo babayit hazeh" ("Not in this house," published in Hebrew by Hasifria Hahadasha). The author is about 70 years old and is known as an outstanding playwright. Four characters, not glamorous and not stereotypical, are moved through the plot thanks to the talent of a wonderful playwright - backward and forward in time and awareness. One of the characters is named Hannah Levine. She is a private nurse, 96 years old, who is called "the virgin nurse" although she is not a virgin, and even underwent four abortions during the heyday of Tel Aviv, in the 1920s and the 1930s. All that was a result of a forbidden romance with the man who was the father and grandfather of the two imaginary heroes of the story, and her only love. And yes, a painting by Nahum Gutman hung in her room, and yes, her lover the doctor was called Erich.

I was very moved by the book, which has a marvelous structure, beautifully lyrical language, and metaphors full of humor. I derived additional pleasure from the fact that my dear Levine had been raised from the dead. I phoned Yosef Bar Yosef in order to thank him for the two days of happiness he had brought me, and at the same time to ask about the connection between him and Levine. It turned out that during the period when my article was published in Koteret Rashit, he was writing for the Israel Defense Forces magazine Bamahane. My article aroused his curiosity and several months later, after he had already moved to Tel Aviv, he also went to interview her. They became very good friends. Once a week, when he went to the market, a habit that he still enjoys, he would drop in to see Levine and eat some of her famous apple compote, until she died at the age of almost 100.

"I really hope that the fact that she's in my book won't insult the family," said Bar Yosef. I replied that in my opinion, there is no more exalted way to commemorate someone than to turn her into a character in a book, and particularly such an outstanding book. Now Hannah Levine lives again, this time forever.